The moon hung full and bright above the small park on the edge of a quiet town on the very southern edge of Idaho, barely a couple miles from the Utah border. It was a town of only ten thousand people. Within a stone’s throw of this small park, the town’s only elementary school stood. After classes, the children would often run to this park to play, far enough from the school to feel better about getting away from the place, while still technically within sight of adult supervision as various teachers and other faculty went about their end-of-day duties.
And yet, this late at night, there were no children anywhere near the park. They were all at home, safely tucked into their beds. Instead, a single figure sat on the swing set, gently rocking back and forth as the chains creaked quietly. She was a young woman, or appeared to be young, in any case. Slender, with long brownish-blonde hair fashioned into a pair of tight braids. The tips of the braids were bright pink. Seemingly at odds with her casual, almost carefree swinging, she wore form-fitting armor that was black along the legs, boots, arms, and gauntlets (with a bit of blue running along the sides as an accent), while the armor covering her torso was dark blue, with a white emblem of a griffin in flight stretching across the front, from the waist to the right shoulder.
After several more seconds of letting the swing gently creak back and forth, the sound of it filling the otherwise silent night air, Gwen spoke. “You should probably come out and talk. I don’t think he’s going to show up until we have it out.”
Her words were met with another moment of silence before a smaller figure emerged from a tree on the edge of the playground. Chayyiel, dark hair cut short as she wore her standard military-like fatigues and body armor, came into view while speaking flatly. “He does seem to be the type to want us to talk things through without his direct intervention, doesn’t he?”
Rather than answer immediately, Gwen watched the Seosten in silence for a few seconds. An assortment of conflicting thoughts ran through her head before she stopped the swing and stood. She did not move any closer, standing right where she was, arms folded tightly against her stomach as she stared that way. Her voice, when it came, was quiet. “He’s probably right. Better that we talk without his help.”
With a nod of agreement, Chayyiel simply replied, “We probably should have already. But I… ahh… was not exactly allowed to come back to Earth for quite awhile.”
Gwen, in turn, raised an eyebrow. “I guess I was unaware that anyone could tell you where you were allowed to go. What are they going to do, ground you? Imprison one of their most effective weapons against the Fomorians because you went out-of-bounds?”
A slight chuckle escaped the visibly younger (yet actually much older) girl, as Chayyiel gave a short nod of acknowledgement. “It would be more about losing long-term political power, something I’ve come to find is quite important when it comes to making lasting changes. It doesn’t matter how easily I can beat someone in a fight, if I don’t have the power to make societal changes.”
Tilting her head slightly, Gwen considered that before a very small smirk touched her face despite herself. “That sounds pretty similar to the conversation I had with Arthur before he became king. No matter how strong he was, he also needed to be a leader. He needed to inspire people, needed to… give them a banner of authority to act under.”
Chayyiel hesitated, clearly unsure at that moment if she should say what came to mind. In the end, she straightened visibly before meeting the other woman’s gaze. “Yes, it was… it was our last moments together, feeling his skills of leadership and… inspiration, which convinced me of what my next path must be. Well, technically it was the moments after…” She trailed off. They both knew the words she wasn’t actually speaking. After Arthur had been taken away from both of them.
“I blamed you for a very long time, you know.” Gwen’s voice was matter-of-fact. Not accusing, exactly. Simply stating the truth of the matter. Better to just get things right out in the open from the start. “He was only out there because of you. Whether you intended it or not, he was vulnerable because you asked him to meet you. And to be honest, there was a time when I was almost certain you did intend it, that your whole thing with him was an act. Because your people couldn’t be trusted. They were all manipulators, liars, monsters who puppet anyone they want. So why would you be any different?” She paused, offering a slight shrug. “I suppose I saw Nimue as the sole exception to that rule. Or maybe I was just looking for a reason to hate you.”
“That is fair,” Chayyiel murmured. Continuing to remain where she stood, she added, “You are right. Whatever my intentions, Arthur was put in a position of vulnerability because of me. Because I trusted the wrong person. For whatever it may be worth, I will tell you now as I would have told you then, I never wanted that to happen. I was trying…” She trailed off, giving a low sigh. “I was trying to make things better for all of our people.”
Both went silent for a few seconds, considering their next words carefully. Each knew just how easily they could say the wrong thing, and how important it was that they not do so. For Gwen, as emotional as she was about the loss of her husband, his potential future depended on her not caving to those emotions and going for the momentary satisfaction. And for Chayyiel, as much as she wanted to make that situation right, pushing too hard, too quickly would do the opposite.
Finally, Gwen spoke in a slow, careful voice. “I trust Michael. I trust him more than I trust anyone in the world, even myself. He says that you are being truthful when you say you had no part in the planning of… that. He says you knew nothing about it and that you would have stopped it or warned Arthur not to come if you did.” She paused briefly before continuing. “I believe him. Which means I believe you. And yet, while this may not be your direct fault, the fact remains that, as I said, he was there because of you. If you truly wish to make it right, I… I will welcome your aid.” The words came quietly, the importance and difficulty of them readily apparent. Gwen knew that her best chance of getting her husband back was with the aid of the person who had, albeit unwillingly, led to his death. It was a hard thing to accept, even now. Perhaps even harder in this moment, as she stood face to face with the girl for the first time.
Still, she pushed all of those thoughts and emotions aside and focused on what was most important. “I… please… help me save Arthur.”
Chayyiel gave a single nod. Her voice was soft. “That has been my intention from the start of my return to this planet. Even before. I have–” She stopped herself. Explanations didn’t matter, not right then. Instead, she simply finished with, “Between the two of us, I believe we can bring him back.”
“It’s going to take more than the two of you.” Michael, striding into view from the far side of the playground where there had appeared to be no one up until that very second, announced. “Like I said to each of you before, if you’re going to wake Arthur up, you need very specific help.”
“You mean besides the Merlin Key?” Gwen pressed. Even now, out here in the middle of nowhere, confident as she was that they weren’t being eavesdropped on, she didn’t say Aylen’s name aloud. Call it paranoia, but she had no desire to risk something that important.
“Someone besides the Merlin Key, yes,” Michael confirmed. “Not that we have any idea how they’re supposed to help in this case, but even they will need something more. A Reaper.”
Chayyiel arched an eyebrow at that. “I was under the impression that the Fusion school had made contact with a half-Reaper, at least. Bastet?”
“Unfortunately, from the research I’ve done, you need a full Reaper for this,” Michael informed them, his gaze passing back and forth between the two. “One that is… shall we say, mobile.”
“So having a discussion with Crossroads’ imprisoned Reaper is out of the question,” Chayyiel noted, voice turning quiet. “Though that is a situation which also needs to be resolved. Eventually.”
“Eventually,” Gwen agreed, giving a quick, thoughtful glance that way before turning back to her adopted father. “I don’t know about you, but in my experience, Reapers aren’t exactly going around listing themselves on Google. And they don’t congregate anywhere. I’ve been alive over fifteen hundred years, and I think I’ve seen one of them… twice. Both times at a distance, and both times they left immediately. So unless you have one on speed dial…”
“Not exactly,” Michael admitted. “But I do know where to find one who might be willing to stick around and talk. We just have to provide a little… incentive. A bribe, of sorts.”
His words made both Chayyiel and Gwen blink almost in unison, the latter speaking first. “A bribe? What exactly are we supposed to bribe a Reaper with? You have a pile of fresh dead bodies in your–wait, don’t answer that.”
“I’m certain any full Reaper could provide all the fresh dead bodies they could ever want,” Chayyiel pointed out mildly, her eyes locked onto the older Seosten. “And yet, nor can I think of anything we could offer to a Reaper. I may have lived longer and been to more places, but my own experience is not much different than Guinevere’s. Reapers are quite self-sufficient, incredibly rare, and generally do not deign to speak with non-Reapers.” Pausing, she added, “Actually, I’m not entirely certain they even speak with one another. Even in the incredibly rare times I have seen more than one in the same place, they were not communicating.”
With a very slight smirk that betrayed his amusement for reasons the two didn’t yet understand, Michael simply replied, “Let’s just say this one is different. Now come, I asked you both to meet me here for a reason. We have to pick up that bribe I was talking about.”
While the other two glanced at one another again, even more confused now about what this small town could possibly have to offer that would convince a full Reaper to give them anything (or even speak with them, come to think of it), Michael turned and strode away. His lanky form faded quickly into the shadows, before Chayyiel and Gwen moved to catch up, striding along on either side of the man.
“Are you going to ask?” The faint amusement Michael’s voice betrayed how much he was enjoying this entire situation, as they reached the edge of the park and continued across the street, passing the elementary school on the left.
“Will you give a straight answer if we do?” Gwen retorted doubtfully.
He, in turn, smiled. “It’s more fun if I don’t.”
“Then no, I’m not going to ask.” With that, Gwen shot a glance past the man toward Chayyiel. “He has far too much fun keeping secrets.”
“It’s more about seeing your looks when the secrets come out,” Michael corrected. “And for that, they have to come at the right time.” He pivoted, watching the two while walking backward down the sidewalk. “Trust me, you two, this will be much better if you just experience it without any advance warning.” Belatedly, he added, “And when we’re done, who knows, maybe you’ll have a new friend.”
The idea of any Reaper being a friend, given how mysterious, standoffish, and… alien they tended to be was just confusing and intriguing enough to make Chayyiel and Gwen exchange glances once more. Neither were thinking about their differences and problems at that moment. Which, of course, both knew was at least a major reason behind Michael teasing them. But it still worked. Silently, they exchanged nods of agreement. Even knowing that he was playing them (and getting an awful lot of amusement out of it), they were still too curious about this entire situation not to go along with it.
Leading them through several dark streets, Michael eventually came to a stop in front of a small, one-story house with an attached garage. Unlike most of the houses on the street (and everywhere else they had passed on the way here), there were lights on inside. Michael gestured for the other two to follow him, then walked to the front door and pressed the buzzer once.
“It’s one in the morning,” Gwen pointed out in a soft voice. “Are you sure–”
Before she could get the rest of the question out, the door was opened a crack, as a woman they couldn’t see much of stood there, hissing, “You have it? Cash only, remember. And I’m counting it before you get anything.”
“Indeed,” Michael agreed cheerfully. From one pocket of his sports coat, he produced a thick wad of Bystander money and passed it over.
For her part, the mostly-hidden woman checked the cash, counting her way through it before appearing to be satisfied. “Boxes are right at the front. Don’t go digging in anything else or I’ll call the cops.” With that, she stuck her hand out through the crack, a remote grasped in it. As she thumbed its single button, the nearby garage door began to lift with a low rumble. And with no further words, the woman shut her own door, locking it immediately.
“She seems friendly,” Gwen noted brightly, before focusing on her father. “Boxes?”
Rather than explain anything (because what fun would that be), Michael casually strode back along the path to the garage. The other two followed, finding the space in question quite filled with various boxes. As promised, there were several at the front, clearly separate from the others. It looked as though they had been recently cut open and then resealed.
“Both of you grab one.” With that simple instruction, the Seosten man bent to pick up a box of his own, waved to the nearby security camera that was clearly focused on them, and turned to walk out once more.
Again, the two girls looked to one another. Gwen was the first to move, reaching down to pick up the next box. “You sure you don’t want to check inside these…” Pausing as she listened to whatever it was shifting around inside, she tilted her head and started to focus on one of her acquired vision gifts.
“Don’t you do it, young lady!” Michael called back without even looking. “This is a surprise.”
With the somewhat guiltily flushed look of a child caught trying to inspect Christmas presents early, the woman quickly moved to follow, with Chayyiel taking the last box and trotting along after.
“So, now where are we going?” Gwen asked, once they were away from the house.
“We’re going to the only place the person we’re taking these boxes to could possibly live,” came the mysterious reply.
“The New York City sewers.”
“I thought you were making a joke about the sewer thing.”
As Chayyiel spoke those words, the three of them were standing above a manhole in an alley deep in the heart of the Manhattan borough of New York. The manhole itself was at the end of an innocuous-looking dead end alley, surrounded on all sides by tall buildings. There seemed to be nothing of note in this relatively small space other than the manhole. There were no back doors into the buildings, no way out of the alley save for going right back out the way they had come in, and there were no trash cans or dumpster. It was, or appeared to be, entirely useless space.
“The best jokes, my dear,” Michael reminded her, “are the ones that are completely true.” With that, he set the box he was carrying down and leaned over to knock on the manhole cover itself.
For almost twenty seconds, there was no response or reaction at all. Yet Michael didn’t move other than to straighten and pick up the box once more.
“He’s enjoying this so much,” Gwen flatly informed the Seosten girl nearby, well-aware that a large part of Michael’s entire purpose behind this game had been to not-so-subtly put the two of them on one side together and himself on the other. Even if it was in something as simple as him knowing what was going on and them wanting to know, he had essentially paired them into a team with a single goal.
Chayyiel, who was equally aware of what was going on, gave a single nod as a very slight smirk touched her face. “He is.”
They knew he could hear them. That was part of the game too.
Abruptly and without warning, the manhole cover rose up on what appeared to be a mechanical arm, sliding out of the way to reveal a ladder leading downward. And without a moment of hesitation, Michael set his box next to the opening, climbed down, and called for them to drop the boxes through before they followed.
They did so, eventually descending into…a wide-open, circular underground chamber, about a hundred feet across. The floor was concrete, the walls brick. Posters of cartoon characters, movies, video games, and more lined those walls. Dozens of boxes were scattered everywhere, while a sleeping bag on an air mattress had been haphazardly shoved to one side, away from a folding table that was piled high with pizza boxes and soda bottles.
“Well,” Gwen announced as her gaze passed over the space. “This is not what I expected.”
“Sorry!” The sudden apology came as a figure appeared out of nowhere. Literally, as the space next to the table had appeared to be completely empty until that very moment. Which, to make these three specific people, with their assorted gifts and ongoing magic, believe that there was nothing in that space took some doing.
“I haven’t finished unpacking yet,” the figure continued to explain. She appeared to be a young woman in her late teens, with incredibly pale skin and bright pink hair with black highlights. Her clothes consisted of a pair of ratty old pink jeans with several holes through the legs, black combat boots with pink laces, and a long-sleeved black shirt with a large neon pink skull taking up most of the front. Beneath that were the words ‘One Of A Kind.’
“See,” she continued, “I had this apartment but there was this Heretic guy and I let him go so I just had to move and I decided it was time to go for my dream place, which is turning out just fantastic, but I haven’t really gotten everything set up yet.”
Chayyiel’s mouth opened, before she paused and let her head tilt slightly. “… Ahh, why did an encyclopedic knowledge of every episode and comic issue of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles suddenly jump into my head?”
“What?” Gwen asked with a blink. “You didn’t already have that?” No sooner had she said those words, than her eyes widened slightly. “Oh, crap! Wait, is that completely up-to-date? Don’t tell me what happened in the Battle Lines arc. I’ve only read up to issue eighty-six and I don’t want spoilers. Hope they finished off that xenophobic piece of shit Bishop though. That guy wants to wipe out everyone who isn’t human and–you know, I just figured out why I might dislike him so much.”
“Aww man!” the newcomer abruptly blurted, “if you haven’t read the–oh.” Quickly, she drew two fingers across her lips. “You can find out on your own.” That said, she focused on Michael. “You came back.”
Clearing her throat, Chayyiel spoke then. “You’ve spoken before, then? To this… ahh, apologies, you are a… Reaper?”
“Oh, I’m sorry, how rude of me.” Shaking her head, the woman looked toward Chayyiel and Gwen. “Allow me to introduce myself.”
And so she did, in the way of her own people. Within the span of less than a second, a full and complete knowledge of not only her chosen name of Jones, but also everything that had led to her separation from the rest of her people, filled their minds. Everything of note from the moment the feedback from the Heretic woman being yanked across the universe by the Seosten she was connected to while accessing that particular Reaper Archive had fundamentally changed something within Jones, through her foundation-laying interaction with the young Casey girl and how the other Reapers reacted afterward, was included within that burst of information.
Needless to say, Gwen staggered a bit from the overload. Even Chayyiel, accustomed as she was to absorbing large amounts of information quickly, was visibly affected as she had to shake her head several times to clear it.
Looking abashed, Jones apologized, “Sorry. I always forget other species don’t really deal with our downloads that well. You okay?”
“Just… just peachy,” Gwen managed, blinking rapidly to make her eyes focus. “Jones. You’re Jones.”
“That’s me,” the Reaper agreed, before gesturing toward Michael. “And to answer the question from before, we haven’t really spoken, or met. He came and knocked on my… front door up there, and told me he was going to bring a couple important people to meet me. I guess that’s you. And that he’d bring something to trade for a few minutes of my time. I guess that’s what’s in the boxes. May I see?”
“You don’t know what’s in them already?” Chayyiel asked curiously.
Jones, in turn, scoffed. “Of course not. They’re a surprise. You don’t ruin the surprise ahead of time. That’s the best part.”
“I like her,” Michael announced, setting his box down before gesturing for the other two to do the same. With a short gesture, the thick tape sealing all three boxes was cut by several four-inch-long energy blades, which briefly appeared and gave a series of quick slashes before disappearing. Then he gave the first box a push that way, with an air similar to a drug dealer sending his latest bulk shipment over to be inspected and purchased.
Opening the box the rest of the way, along with the two that the others sent over, Jones revealed… toys. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle toys, all of them still within their respective boxes and other packaging. There was a wide assortment, from every continuity of the animated series, movies, and comic books stretching all the way back to that first, groundbreaking cartoon in the late 80’s, to the most recent reimagining. All were represented.
“All of them in mint condition,” Michael noted. “Thousands of dollars worth. The man who owned the collection before… passed away. His wife is selling all of it. Some of those are pretty rare, only a few still unopened.”
“Radical,” Jones replied, before abruptly holding her hand out. A long, black scythe with a dark blue blade appeared there. At the same time, a dark hood that had been sewn to the collar of her shirt rose up to cover her head. Grasping the weapon, she gave a sharp gesture with it. As she did so, dozens of small glowing portals appeared along the walls. At the same time, several glowing hands made of energy manifested next to the boxes and immediately began to grab random toy packages before tossing them through the various portals.
“What–where are you sending them?” Gwen quickly asked, looking back and forth between the boxes of toys and the portals they were all being unceremoniously hurled through.
With a smile of satisfaction, Jones answered simply. “To a lot of kids who need them. Toys are meant to be played with, not sealed up in a box for money.” She stood there watching until all three boxes were entirely emptied and dismissed the portals with a gesture before turning to face the three. “Now then.
“What exactly can I do for two Seosten and King Arthur’s wife?”