Price

Interlude 23C – Ministry (Summus Proelium)

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A/N – Just in case you don’t read Heretical Edge and thus both didn’t get the announcement in the previous chapter of that story and missed this over the weekend, there was a commissioned interlude for this story, focusing on a look at a group of Civ-Touched, posted a few days ago. It can be found attached to the previous chapter button above. we

As she strolled down the hall of one of their main office buildings in the middle of downtown Detroit, Elena Evans spoke on the Bluetooth device in her ear. Her voice was crisp and no-nonsense. “Tell me precisely how many of the Easy Eight switched sides. No, just the Touched.” She paused then to listen to the response before exhaling. “Three. Which ones?” Again, she paused to listen while standing directly outside the office door. It had opened at her approach thanks to the sensors above which scanned her identity, but she didn’t go through yet. “How did he manage that without anyone hearing about negotiations? Find out.” 

Finally walking into the office, she shook her head while heading for the desk. “No, there’s no need to sanction them. It’s not against the rules to switch sides, I just want to know how we were surprised. Somehow I doubt those three kept their intentions to themselves, or that it was spur of the moment. Are we certain that Grandstand leaving him wasn’t a ploy to allow her to operate in secret for this?” Reaching the desk, she checked through a few files that had been left on top. “Yes, I have the address for that theater right here. Are you ready? Ten Seventeen Wagontrail. Find out if they’re still living there or how long ago they left. Yes, now, there’s nothing you can contribute to this fight that someone else isn’t already doing. Take a small squad, just in case. Pearson’s people should be ready. Minister Gold will be… occupied for the time being, and Squire is following up on another–” 

She stopped at a knock on the door, turning to see Alcazar standing there. The expression on the utterly average-looking man’s face told Elena that whatever he had come for wouldn’t wait. So, she gave a couple more quick instructions over the phone, before disconnecting the call so she could turn her full attention that way. “What happened? More betrayals?” 

The man’s mouth opened before he paused. “Ah, well I was on my way to inform you that Braintrust’s move against the lab you wanted checked for any connection to Pittman has begun. Given the distractions through the rest of the city, it’s doubtful that anything unexpected will happen, but we’re keeping an eye on it. But just before I got here, one of our people informed me that we just received a phone call from the Banners girl.” 

That confused Elena, though more out of curiosity about why he would be bringing that up right now, or look so confused by it. There are other things happening which were far more important at this particular moment than some lone girl calling them, even if she was someone they had an agreement with to leave one another alone. “Don’t tell me she’s trapped somewhere downtown and needs–wait.” Amending herself, Elena asked, “Is this about her missing sister?” Flea, and Trivial with her, had both gone missing at one of the worst possible times. The Ministry had reached out to Paige to find out what she knew about it, but the girl claimed it had something to do with business enemies her father was paranoid about and that he had taken his wife and adopted daughter on an extended ‘vacation’ of sorts to avoid them. Apparently she had convinced him to finally let her come home to finish the school year, but had no idea where they were now, and hadn’t known that Irelyn had left Detroit already to go look for them. 

It was all quite the mess, but still didn’t quite explain why Alcazar would be bringing it up now, considering everything that was already happening. He knew better than that, so what–

“No,” came his flat response. “Actually, she was… ahh, calling on behalf of Paintball.” 

Well, that certainly got Elena’s attention. Of course they knew that the boy had some interaction with Paige, after he’d rescued her from Kent. Part of her deal with the Ministry in exchange for not doing anything with the information she had collected was that they would leave both her and Paintball alone. Granted, if Elena had wanted to push that issue she could have, but for now it was an arrangement that suited them well enough. Paintball was a potential asset to be recruited later, once he had more experience and more understanding of what the city was like. And as for Paige, the very fact that she had managed to collect that information in the first place made her an intriguing potential resource all on her own. She was clearly far more than a simple spoiled rich girl, and even as a non-Touched, her resourcefulness and quick wit already meant she would be more useful with the Ministry than against them. Adding in the fact that she had actually resisted Kent’s attempt to erase her memory, something very few were capable of, and it all added up to Elena being quite willing to accept a deal to leave the two of them alone for the time being. 

And yet, she had certainly not expected Paintball to reach out to them like this. Not so soon, anyway. “What was this message concerning?” 

Over the next few moments, Elena stood and listened while Alcazar gave her a quick rundown of the situation. Apparently Paintball and his new team had managed to track down the source of the fire-zombies that had been cropping up around the city. Which was good, except the person responsible was about to unleash an army of them on a stadium full of innocent people, on opening night, no less. 

“Paintball and his troupe are on their way into the stadium now,” Alcazar finished. “They have called for assistance from all avenues, but…” 

“Yes, the city is rather involved right now,” Elena agreed. Her mind was racing through possibilities. If Paintball was willing to call for their help, the situation must be quite bad indeed. Or he was an even better potential recruit than she had thought. Either way, stopping a massacre like that was absolutely one of the things the Ministry was meant for. 

“There is something else,” Alcazar added. “One of our VIPs is attending the game. Candid Panther.” Even now, just between the two of them, he used the secret code name for one of the Ministry’s most important clients rather than say the real name aloud. It was simply a good habit to be in. “I’ve attempted to reach him, but there’s no response. I believe he turned his phone off.” 

Repressing the urge to curse, Elena was already tapping the Bluetooth device as she spoke the name, “Ministers Gray.” The phone dialed, ringing through to the office several buildings down the street where they would be working. 

“I don’t have it yet,” Price, the raccoon, announced immediately by way of greeting. “I told you, Ms. Evans, we will call as soon as we’ve tracked down th–” 

“This isn’t about that,” she interrupted. “I have another job for you, of more immediate importance.” With that, she quickly gave him the information. “Use Yellowbrick and get to the stadium. Candid Panther is there, in Box…” She paused, then passed along the details as Alcazar provided them. “Get there and extract him right now. And while you’re there, provide any assistance you can to Paintball and his people. Quietly, of course. We may wish to have a discussion with the boy later, about this as well as the report that his group was robbed by the same people who hit us.” She considered her own words before nodding thoughtfully. “Yes, a discussion would be good. But until then, there’s no need to cause more of a scene. I’ll give you a mask. I would send others, but–”

“We’re stretched thin right now, yeah, yeah, got it,” Price confirmed. “On our way, but you might wanna light a fire under the actual authorities out there, or scrounge up someone who can do something more official.” 

With that, he disconnected. Elena didn’t mind. The situation was too important right now to waste time with niceties. Instead, she focused on giving the Grays each ‘a mask.’ In her case, the term didn’t mean a literal, physical mask. Instead, she focused on both Price and Fisher, using her power to cloak both of them in an illusion. Another thought added herself, Sterling, Simon, Alcazar, and several others to the ‘white-list’ for that illusion. Whenever anyone other than those people looked at the Ministers Gray, they would see a large, heavy-set man in Fisher’s case, and a dog in Price’s case. Having a bear and raccoon running around the stadium would have caused far too much of a problem, otherwise. 

Once she was satisfied, Elena immediately turned her attention back to Alcazar. “Call the local police precinct in that area. I believe the person you want to talk to is Captain Lemar Callan. He’s one of ours, and he will listen. Have them send everything they have to the stadium, right now.” 

That done, she turned and walked around to sit at the desk, finger tapping the keyboard there to bring the computer to life. Part of Elena wanted to call her husband and tell him what was happening, but he was entirely too busy at the moment. A quick glance at the computer screen told her that much. The secret video camera he wore hidden within his helmet as Silversmith was broadcasting to one of several windows she had open, revealing a rather intense fight against Cuélebre happening right at that moment. For just a moment, she watched the screen, before reminding herself that watching things like that only made her more anxious. Much better to distract herself with other things, and there were plenty of distractions to be had. 

So, pushing those thoughts out of her mind, Elena simply sent a non-emergency message to let her husband know she had something of importance to talk about. Then she switched windows to bring up another live video feed. This one showed Glitch and several of her people, broadcast from the Braintrust leader’s own costume, as they carried out their raid on the lab. It was one of the best possibilities of where Pittman could have been getting assistance to create his little automatons. Of course, as far as most of the Braintrust people (Touched and Prev alike) knew, they were there to steal equipment. Only Glitch was aware of the Ministry’s request. While her people were busy looting supplies, she would be taking the records Elena had asked her to procure. 

Soon, she was as satisfied as she could be in that moment that the raid was going off as well as it could. Unsurprisingly, the security guards on-site were no match for a full-scale Fell-Touched invasion, and the police and Star-Touched response would be… a long time coming. 

Looking up, she focused on Alcazar, having tuned out his own murmured conversation while she was assessing these situations. She said nothing, simply meeting his gaze with one eyebrow raised questioningly. 

“The authorities are on their way,” he informed her. “Or will be shortly. And–” Holding up one hand to ask for a moment, he turned his head and clearly listened to something on his own Bluetooth, before nodding. “Good to know.” That said, he turned back to Elena. “Candid Panther has been extracted. Or, well, he’s in Gray’s pocket dimension, in any case. They’re still working on the rest of it. But it seems Fisher would like to give Paintball a brief glimpse of himself, to begin to prepare him for any future encounters. If you wouldn’t mind removing the boy from the illusion for a moment?”

Pausing briefly, Elena considered before nodding. It wasn’t a bad thought. Potentially allowing Paintball to meet with Fisher and Price had its benefits. They could test the boy’s ability to keep a secret, for one. Any attempt to tell anyone about a bear and raccoon Touched in the city, or any whisper about their existence at all, would tell the Ministry a lot. And preparing by giving him a glimpse or two ahead of time so that it might not be a complete shock… yes. “Have him tell you when.” For a moment, she waited, until Alcazar gave her the go-ahead nod. With that, Elena added Paintball to the exceptions list, allowing him to see Fisher for what he was for several seconds, until Alcazar nodded again. Then she removed the boy and murmured, “What interesting lives we lead.” 

“That is an understatement,” Alcazar informed her. With a sigh, he shook his head. “And what a time for Z to be out of town, right?” 

Elena gave a very soft snort at that. “Yes, well, that does seem to be how these things go, doesn’t it? But her mission is still important. We need to know where Flea and Trivial went after they were last seen in Florida. There is a trail, and she will find it.” After a brief pause then, she sighed. “That said, yes, it would be nice if she were here right now. As she is not, we will simply have to make do.” 

The two of them considered that for another moment, before Elena again turned her attention back to Paintball. For some reason, the fact that the boy had reached out to them still gave her pause. It made her reconsider a few things. For a time after the situation at the motel with the escaped witness, who turned out to have Touched, she had thought the boy would become a problem. But as he made it clear that he had no intention of going to the local authorities, she had assumed he simply knew that such a thing would be pointless, and might even have been searching for a higher authority to go to. 

But this? His willingness to request their aid when the situation called for it… yes, that bore further thought. Perhaps a direct conversation would not be a bad idea. Fisher had already made–well, not first contact exactly, but a first look, anyway. If the boy–

Her musings were interrupted, however, as Alcazar abruptly turned away, hand rising to touch his earpiece. “What? Are you sure? Yes.” Without another word, he focused on Elena. “Would you allow the Alloy girl to see Price for a moment?” 

Given his tone of voice, Elena didn’t question it. She simply did as requested, focusing on the girl in question until Alcazar nodded to show it was enough. Then she turned the illusion back on for her before asking, “And what was that about?” 

She then listened while Alcazar informed her that the boy Paintball’s people were after wasn’t the actual villain after all. Price had located the girl in question, too late to stop her. But at that moment, they had needed to draw Paintball and his partner to the room where the girl had secured people who could tell the pair what was happening. The quickest way to do that had been to catch Alloy’s attention with a glimpse of a raccoon so they would investigate. Which was a bit of a crude method, but seemed to have worked, at least. 

“Do you want the Grays to take more direct action?” Alcazar asked then, clearly passing that question along from the two themselves. “Given the situation.” 

Elena considered that for a moment with a thoughtful frown. Before she could answer, a ping from her computer drew her attention that way. It was a response from Sterling. The situation with Cuélebre had been contained, and he was ready to hear what was happening. 

So, she called him. Hearing his voice as he answered, she immediately started with, “I do hope you and your people weren’t too exhausted by that little exercise. 

“There is a situation which requires your attention.” 

*******

“So, the boy contacted us of his own volition.” Sterling noted that some time later, after the situation had been thoroughly resolved. Well, as resolved as it could be with the Jennica girl escaping. She would certainly be a problem later, as would these others who were supposedly competing for a spot on the Scions. 

Elena nodded once. She and her husband were standing on the patio outside their own bedroom back at home. Both were exhausted from the long, complicated day. It had been far past time to rest. Everything else, including the fallout from the explosion of gang violence, would wait until the next day. But this was a conversation they needed to have. “Through the Banners girl, no less. Which means both of them are willing to ask for our help if the situation warrants.” 

Sterling considered that while taking a sip of his drink. Setting the glass down on the railing, he looked out over the grounds while murmuring, “That is quite interesting. Maybe you’re right, they’ll both be assets in the future.” 

“I do hope so,” Elena noted as she glanced up toward the sky and put an arm around her husband. “They are both quite talented in their own ways. And you know how I hate to waste talent.” 

Giving an audible snort, Sterling smiled fondly. “Yes, you are quite opposed to the concept. Does that mean you’re giving the Grays the go-ahead on their request?” 

Elena thought about that for a moment. Doing something like this would be a big step. And yet, Paintball had taken the first of those when he asked for their help. Drumming her fingers along the railing, she watched the sky briefly before coming to a decision. “Yes. I think we should tell them to go ahead. And you?” 

Sterling’s mouth pursed as he considered before agreeing, “Yeah. I’ll tell them to make contact. If Paintball does anything with that he’s not supposed to, we’ll find out. And if he doesn’t… well, we can go from there.” 

Once he had sent that message along, the man returned to his spot next to his wife, hand finding its way to her back to rub there tenderly. “I suppose we’ll see how that goes. But in the meantime, I think I’ve had just about enough of Ministry and Conservator time for the day. 

“And not nearly enough of beautiful, brilliant wife time.” 

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Patreon Snippets 26B (Summus Proelium)

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The following is the 26th edition of Patreon Snippets (or at least the Summus Proelium-related ones). Each month, every Patreon supporter who donates at least ten dollars per month is able to request at least five hundred words toward any subject they would like to see written about (within reason), join their idea to others to make it longer, or hold it for future installments. Thanks go to them, as well as to all supporters, and to all readers. Remember, as little as 5 dollars per month gets you every single chapter one day early. In addition, donators get to vote on end-of-arc interludes, non-canon chapters, and have discounts for commissions. And hey, don’t forget that everyone, Patron or not, can join us in the Discord channel right here

Izzy and Amber

Standing on the edge of a large pond in the middle of a park, Izzy Amor held a bag of mixed chopped lettuce, cracked corn, and frozen peas. The nearby ducks chased after every handful she tossed out, and the small girl giggled to herself at the sight just how eager they were to get the food. She tried to spread out her tosses so the ducks would separate a bit and not run into each other so much. Some of it ended up out in the water, and they chased those bits just as frantically, speeding out with their motorboat-like legs before their heads dove down to get the food. Some became distracted by other things in the water. And through it all, loud, excited quacking filled the air. 

“Well they sure seem to be having fun,” Amber O’Connell noted as she stepped up beside Izzy and watched the ducks eagerly chasing the most recent tossed handful. “What about you?” 

Rather than answer that question directly, Izzy instead quietly noted, “It’s really simple like this, you know? The ducks are always here, they don’t keep the super elite ducks hidden behind some sort of pay wall. They don’t expect anything but this cheap food.” She shook the bag in her hand and then promptly threw out another batch to the grass and water as the ducks eagerly and loudly made their hunger known. “They just like being fed.”

Amber stood next to the younger girl and watched the ducks for a moment before quietly murmuring, “They don’t ask if you want to be adopted by a family of billionaires?”

Wincing visibly, Izzy gave a heavy sigh before nodding. “Yeah, they definitely don’t do that either.” Her foot kicked the ground before she added, “I’m being stupid about this, huh? I mean, anyone else would practically cut their own leg off to be adopted into the Evans family. Some literally. I mean with an axe and everything.”  

“Maybe,” Amber allowed with a mixture of a smirk and grimace at the imagery there, “but they don’t know what we do. Seriously, the family isn’t exactly normal, like, at all. Not that billionaire families are ever normal, but you know what I mean. There’s a lot more to that whole situation. It’s one thing to live there and know what you do, and another thing to actually be that connected to them. Like, totally connected. Legally connected. They’ve done bad things.” 

“But that’s what makes it even harder,” Izzy pointed out with a sigh as she threw another handful. “They’re really nice. It would be easier if they were mean and terrible, but they’re not. I know what it’s like to have a mom who treats you like a tool, like all you’re worth is what you can do for them. I know what that’s like, but they’re not like that. Mrs. Evans is nice. So is Mr. Evans.”

Her face twisted into a grimace as she let that thought run through her head. “I keep thinking I’ll realize that they’re just using me, but the more time I spend there, the more it feels like they really, actually care about me. Not just for what I can do for them, but because of me. It feels like they care… about what I want, about who I am. Not my power. Me.” 

She went silent for a moment, but Amber didn’t interrupt. The two of them simply stood there, watching the ducks. Not that it was actually quiet with all the quacking around him, but still. 

Finally, Izzy gave a new heavy sigh before continuing. “My mom, my real mom, she just wanted to use me. She sold me to the bad guys so I could be tortured into being their puppet. She did that just to get a little money for herself. Because she’s… she’s selfish. I know she is. But the Evans, who basically run all the supervillains, they’re really nice to me. Now they want to adopt me. So why…” She trailed off once more, closing her eyes as a single tear made its way down her face. “Why do I feel like I’m the one betraying her for even thinking about this at all? Why does it feel like I’m dirty and evil because part of me likes the idea of being adopted? And not by just anyone, by people who run all the supervillains in the city!”

Izzy threw the next handful of food farther than before, her other hand clenched tightly around the bag. “What’s wrong with me?”

Amber‘s hand found its way to her back and gently pressed there. “Listen to me, Izzy. Nothing is wrong with you,” she insisted. “I mean, okay, maybe there’s some stuff wrong with you. Terrible taste in cereal, you’re horrible at tying knots, can’t keep the list of state capitals straight…” She stopped as a little smile played at the other girl’s face, before squeezing her back. “But as far as this goes, nothing. You still love your mom, even if she did all those bad things. Part of you does, anyway. You love the mom you knew in between those times. You love the mom she could’ve been. And you know that accepting this adoption thing will be completely and officially cutting her off from ever being that person again. You’re not evil, Izzy. It’s not wrong to want to be around people who care about you. And yeah, the Evans being who they are makes it even more complicated than it already was. But it’s like you said, they treat you well. You’re not bad for liking that.

“Remember what Cassidy said. They’re not totally evil and monstrous. They really do care about her, and they care about you too. After what happened with your mom, of course you feel drawn to that. And it’s not a bad thing.” Her head shook firmly. “Look, I really don’t know what’s going to happen eventually with that whole thing. I don’t know how all of this is going to play out. But I know they really care about you. If someday they end up in prison or whatever, they can still care about you. Just like they’ll still love Cassidy.”

Both girls went quiet again, and Izzy handed the bag to Amber so she could throw some food for the ducks. Finally, after a minute of that, she spoke up. “I want them to…” She trailed off, clearly unsure of her words. When she spoke again, her voice was even more hesitant. “I like spending time with them. I think–no, I know I’d like it even if they didn’t have all that money. They’re nice. They’re fun. Mr. Evans makes me laugh. He’s really good with Cassidy, and I know he’s trying to include me. I just wish they weren’t… you know.” 

Amber’s hand gently rubbed her back. “Maybe the whole Ministry thing is over-complicating it, you know? You’ve already got enough to think about when it comes to this whole situation without adding that in. And yeah, someday, somehow, we’ll have to do something about that. Even Cassidy doesn’t know what, and she’s already their daughter. But whatever it is, that’ll come later. Maybe, just for now, you should think about how you’d feel about this whole thing if you didn’t know anything about that. Just try to set it aside for a minute and think about the rest of it.” 

Izzy gave a soft, yet audible laugh while shaking her head. “You say that like it makes it easier. But it’s still hard. Even if I didn’t know anything about the Ministry, I’d still be telling my mom I don’t want her to be my mom anymore.” Before Amber could say anything to that, she added, “Yeah, I know what she did. I know she started it. But if I do this, it means I’m finishing it.” Her body gave a full, visible shudder. “I know that’s stupid, okay? I know there’s no way she could ever be my mom again. It can never be the way it was before, and it shouldn’t be. She broke it. She broke it and it was her choice. She didn’t have to and she did. She made it so we can’t ever be what we were before. My mom can never be my mom again.”

Her hands clenched tightly as she fought to find the right words. “But this is still another door. It’s a door that I’m shutting. I’m telling my mom that I’m done with her. If she comes back, if they find her, I won’t be her daughter again. I’ll be one of the Evans. If I do this, it closes everything with her, forever. And that’s a choice I’m making that I can’t unmake.” 

Amber moved her hand away from the girl’s back to throw another bit of food before speaking softly. “Maybe you should think about what’s good for you. I know, I know it’s painful. I know it makes you feel dirty, believe me. It feels like being selfish is wrong, and sometimes it is. But when it comes to your life, to your future, to your… to who you are, you have to be selfish sometimes, Izzy. You can’t bend your entire life around trying to please the people who abuse you, just in case they might stop someday. You owe yourself better than that. It’s your life.” 

She swallowed audibly, clearly pushing herself to say more. “It’s like my whole thing with my dad. Every time I think about how I can be happy and make jokes and stuff while he’s still dead and we have no idea who did it, there’s this pain in my stomach, and it feels like it’ll never go away. I don’t think it ever will, not completely. It’ll always be there, to some extent. But then I have to think about how my dad wouldn’t want me to be miserable all the time. He’s my dad. He loved me. He wouldn’t want me to spend every moment of my life being sad.”  

Izzy watched the ducks for a minute before quietly asking, “What am I supposed to think about, then?” 

Amber gave a hesitant shrug. “You keep focusing on the mom you had in between and before the bad times, the mom she was and could’ve been if all this didn’t happen. Think about her again. I don’t mean in a ‘make you feel guilty and dirty’ sort of way. I mean, think about the good version of your mom and what she would want for you. You said she used to read you stories and stuff, right? Think about that version of your mom for a minute. Think about being in bed listening to her telling you those stories, reading that book. Think about how she would want you to feel as you grow up. Would she want you to be sad? Would she want you to be miserable, just to be loyal to her after what she did? Or would she want you to be with people who treat you well and care about you? Think about that version of your mom for a minute. What would she want you to do? What choice would she want you to make?”

Izzy didn’t say anything to that at first. She was silent, staring at the lake without actually seeing the water or the ducks. Instead, her mind was focused on that imaginary scenario. She thought about laying in her bed, with her mom sitting on the side of it reading stories to her. She thought about the touch of her mother’s hand against her hair and how safe she had felt in those moments. It made another tear fall slowly before she spoke through the thick lump in her throat. “My mom would want me to be happy.” It was one of the hardest things she had ever said. And yet, it was the truth.

For another few minutes, the two girls stood by the water, throwing food for the ducks while remaining silent. Both were lost in their own thoughts. Finally, when the last of the food was gone and the sun began to set, Izzy turned to the other girl. Her mouth opened, but instead of speaking immediately, she simply wrapped her arms around Amber to embrace her tightly. When her voice came, it cracked a little. “Thank you.” 

“Hey, anytime,” Amber replied, returning the hug. 

“But you know, once you’re an official billionaire’s kid, I might have to start charging you.” `

*******

Ministry Meeting Some Time Before The Raid On The Ministry Base

Sterling Evans owned several buildings throughout the city of Detroit, and had offices in even more. At the moment, the top floor of one of those main buildings had been entirely shut down for both employees and clients. The elevators were locked and would not come to that floor, or the one under it, and the doors into the stairwells were sealed tight. Between that and several Touched-Tech security measures, the place was kept as private and secure as it could be. It had to be, when the official leadership and higher ranks of the Ministry was meeting there. 

Someone might’ve said that meeting in a building he owned was too dangerous, and would have suggested something like an abandoned warehouse somewhere. But this building was one that Sterling could put all of his security measures into. He knew for a fact exactly how safe it was. And if any tried to invade or eavesdrop, they would have a lot of surprises coming their way. Besides, if there had been any planned raid of any of his offices, their contacts within every law enforcement group in the state would have said something. If anyone in any position of authority even suspected them of wrongdoing and launched the smallest investigation, the Evans would be informed of it before the task force had even finished brewing their coffee. 

Even beyond that, they would have been safe. Here, in this room at the center of the building, they were cocooned away from any possible interruption or spying. No electronic device, Touched-Tech or otherwise, could get through the security measures. The room was meant to host large meetings of his normal board of direction directors. Which meant it was also plenty large enough for this situation. 

Sterling stood at the head of the table in the center of the room, his chair slightly behind him. His wife, Elena, sat at his right side. His son, Simon, was to the left. Exchanging looks with both of them, Sterling cleared his throat. “Well, I think it’s about time we start this discussion.” 

Down the table on the right, a pale man with dark-blond hair and incredibly dark green eyes shifted in his seat. Kent Jackson, better known among this particular group under the moniker of Rook, raised one hand. “I know this is only the first official one of these I’ve attended in person since coming back to Detroit, but I remember we used to have these incredible little cakes at the old ones, and I’ve got to say, I was looking forward to that.” 

With a soft, polite chuckle, Elena assured him, “We still have those, but we moved them to the end of the meeting. I find that it helps people pay more attention, and gives everyone some reason not to drone on longer than necessary.” 

Beside Kent, his wife, Mills, patted him on the shoulder. The tall, beautiful blonde woman, who looked like a fashion model or movie star but had actually spent more time in dive bars and dirty, smoke-filled clubs than on runways, spoke with clear amusement. “Well, you’ve made his day. You should’ve seen his puppy dog sad eyes when we came in and those cakes weren’t out here.” 

Across the table from them and slightly further down, the man known as Alcazar took a sip of the water glass in front of him. As usual, the man looked completely ordinary in as many ways as possible. He was thin, but not to the point of distraction, stood just under five foot eight when he wasn’t slouched in a chair as he was now, and his brown hair and hazel eyes would do nothing to draw attention. He held his wire frame glasses in one hand, absently cleaning them with his shirt as he spoke. “There is a lot to get into today, so maybe we should start with the easiest thing.” His head turned to look at Sterling while he added, “The new superheroes in town.” 

Beside him, a gray-haired woman wearing dark jeans and a red button-up shirt that was tucked in added, “The dears have an actual name now, don’t they?” 

“Yes, Relapse,” Elena confirmed with a nod to the woman. “They call themselves Avant-Guard. Guard with a u. I think it’s cute.” 

Opposite Relapse and a bit down from Mills and Kent, a dark-skinned man drummed on the table with one hand thoughtfully, his voice quiet. “I like this Paintball kid. He’s funny. The whole being Lucent’s son joke, that’s some good stuff.” Abruptly, he tapped twice more a bit more firmly, before turning toward Sterling. He wasn’t looking that way. His sightless eyes would have made that impossible. But Hakeem Harris, known throughout the Ministry as The Tapping Man for his tendency to always… well, tap things, knew that people were more comfortable if you were facing them as you spoke. Pointless as it might have been. “But like him or not, is he going to be a problem?” 

“Yeah,” the voice from the figure at the opposite end of the table from Sterling put in, speaking loud enough to be heard by everyone else given the space between them, “that’s what we wanna know too.” 

The voice came from a raccoon, dressed in a tiny, yet perfectly tailored suit. He stood on the table itself, with his polished shoes clicking against its surface as he took a few steps forward while sipping from the miniature cup of coffee he held in one paw, while a miniature cane tapped against the table lightly a couple times. “You said he knows something about us, so does that make him a threat? And by threat, I mean one we need to take care of.” 

“Ministers Gray,” Sterling began, “you have a point, the boy does know something about the Ministry. We’re not precisely certain how much, yet he is certainly aware of our organization to some extent. But no, we don’t think he’s a threat.” 

Rather than respond to that himself, the raccoon made a noise in the back of his throat before turning to step off the side of the table. As he did so, a cloud of smoke and light encompassed his form, with a pyramid-shape in the center of it. As the light and smoke faded, a much larger form had taken his place. An enormous brown bear, nearly nine feet in height, towered over the others as he stood by the table. Like the raccoon, the bear was fully dressed in a tailored, multi-thousand dollar three-piece suit. He even wore a fancy derby hat. “Ah, I believe my partner wanted to know if ahh… if you’re certain about that,” he began in a voice that was slightly more nervous and uncertain than the confident tone of the raccoon. “After all, the ahhh, the strongest building can collapse thanks to a small flaw.” 

Some might have questioned why a shape-shifting bear/raccoon was part of the leadership of the Ministry. But, of course, it was more complicated than that. First, they were not a shapeshifter. Ministers Gray had been two separate animals when they both touched one another and the orb. Its power had bonded them together in a very particular way. Essentially, they possessed a private pocket dimension which one of them always had to be inside of, while the other remained in the outside world. They could swap back and forth at will. Beyond that, as well as the usual increase from animal intelligence to human-level, they had also gained the ability to speak properly (not always a given with TONIs) and the outside animal could create a small glowing pyramid. Any single living being who was touched by the pyramid would be sent into that pocket dimension with the inside animal. Only one being could be held like that, as any attempt to take a second one inside would eject the first.

And yet, their power was far more impressive than a simple ability to imprison a single living being indefinitely. Within the pocket dimension, the bear or raccoon could control the flow of time to equal that of the outside world, or cause it to pass much more quickly inside than it did outside. This allowed those inside to experience days and weeks within seconds or minutes for the outside world. Regardless of how time passed, those inside would never grow any older. And as long as another living being was inside the pocket dimension, the Ministers Gray could absorb any academic knowledge or physical skill that being possessed. They had taken a small army worth of brilliant academic scholars, elite soldiers, athletes, and more into the pocket dimension for what amounted to months at a time in order to absorb everything they knew and could do, before having those peoples’ memories of the event erased by Rook. 

More than that, Ministers Gray could also take others into their pocket dimension and teach those other skills much faster than they should have been able to learn them, given the time-dilation that was possible. 

In all, there was a reason why Sterling and Elena had chosen to accept them as one (well, two) of the main leaders of the Ministry, even giving them the title of Minister themselves.

“He’s a child,” Elena replied. “One who wants to do the right thing, but still a child. We think… we believe he knows there is a larger conspiracy of sorts, but is willing to… play nice. He has some experience with the Banners girl, saving her from…” She looked toward Rook. “Well, saving her. She made a deal to, ahh, leave our organization alone as long as we do the same for her and Paintball. We believe he is aware enough of that deal.” 

“In other words, let the boy be a superhero,” Sterling put in. “It’s good business. People like this Paintball kid, and his new partner, Alloy? They’re doing some great work out there. We keep an eye on them, just in case, but personally, I don’t think they’ll be that much of a problem. Relapse, you’ve had some interaction with him, what do you think?”

“Oh, he’s a sweetheart,” the woman agreed with a smile. “Came right into the Seraphs and did the work he was asked to without even grumbling about it. And he enjoyed my candy.” 

The words made Elena give the older woman a sharp look. “Tell us you didn’t–” 

“Pish posh, calm yourself,” Relapse tutted. “I am capable of simply giving people I like candy without using my–ahem, power.” The woman’s own gift, as somewhat implied by her name, allowed her to force any person she made physical contact with to be addicted to any edible or potable substance she chose. The addiction could last only a few minutes, or longer than a month, and a subject failing to feed that addiction would experience severe illness and hallucinations. They were also strongly encouraged to follow her instructions, given how easily she could magnify or lessen the effect. She would never be one to run around in tights and armor, considering she had Touched when she was fifty years old and that itself had been twenty years ago. But for a seventy-year-old, she still had her own tricks. 

And, as one of the Seraph’s most popular and beloved receptionists, Tricia had plenty of contacts who knew nothing of her loyalties or powers. It made her a valuable asset to the Ministry, as she had been from the very start. People tended to underestimate her.

“Of course you are,” Sterling interjected with an easy smile. “In any case, it’s good to hear the boy has his own real work ethic. And that he doesn’t seem to be a problem. So we’ll leave it there for now. We have the Banners girl’s reasoning for leaving them both alone for the time being, but even without that, I don’t believe he is an immediate concern. If he starts asking the wrong questions or pushing too much at the wrong thing, we’ll deal with it then. Besides, with everything going on in the city, I don’t think we can afford to be pushing more Star-Touched away at the moment.” 

“Speaking of what’s going on in the city,” Kent started, not wanting to spend any more time talking about how he’d let the Banners girl get away from him, “we need to inform the gang leaders to keep their business away from our shipment coming in on Tuesday.” 

“He’s right, the shipment can’t be delayed. Not a second time,” Hakeem noted while giving the table another soft tap. It would send out an echolocation-like pulse which gave the man a visual representation of the room and everyone in it. But more than that, the more times the ostensibly blind man ‘echolocated’ a person within the same general area and situation without an extended (roughly an hour) break, the better his minor precognition power worked to allow him to predict their physical movements in any altercation. Given enough taps, he could flawlessly know precisely how someone was going to move and how to counter them. Not that the man expected an altercation with his companions, of course. It was simply a deeply ingrained habit. 

Mills waved her fingers back and forth idly while speaking up. “Don’t worry so much. We’ll bring the shipment in and get it squared away. It won’t be a problem.” As she spoke, a glowing white feather flew back and forth across the table. Her own Touched gift allowed her to empower one pound worth of material every week. Anything that was empowered remained that way forever, allowing it to be telekinetically manipulated by Mills within her line of sight, as well as allowing her to teleport to anywhere one of those empowered objects was, or vice versa. Additionally, regardless of their actual size, empowered objects were incredibly durable and could be made to weigh almost nothing, their actual weight, or the sum total weight of every empowered object she possessed. With a thought, she could put something that weighed as much as a pencil on top of someone’s head and then make it weigh several hundred pounds.

Then there was the last part of her power. Which she idly demonstrated in an attempt to alleviate her own boredom by sending one of her feathers across the room to touch the three hundred pound desk in a corner of the room. As the feather brushed the side of it, the desk rose several feet in the air and spun in a slow circle. Any of her empowered objects were capable of extending her telekinetic abilities into any other object they touched, so long as that object, again, weighed less than the total weight of all of her empowered objects put together. And considering Mills, or Haven as she was called in these meetings, had had her power for most of the past two decades, her weight limit would have approached a thousand pounds even in a normal situation. 

And yet, her situation was far from normal. In the early days of the Ministry, her power and her skills had received a bit of a jumpstart as she spent week after week inside the Ministers Gray’s pocket dimension, while only hours and then days passed outside. It allowed the woman to go from only being able to control a single pound worth of material, to over twenty pounds, in what had been only a few days rather than half a year. These days, with additional time spent with her raccoon and bear friend whenever they could all spare it, she was up to almost three thousand pounds. 

She had a lot of random objects spread not only all over the city, but all over the world. 

“Very well,” Elena agreed. “Let’s discuss how precisely we will handle this shipment next. 

“And we should open the phone line so Yellowbrick may be included. I believe she should be finished with her last assignment by now.” 

*******

The Morning After The Raid On The Ministry Base

“Thank you, Yellowbrick,” Elena politely spoke while stepping through a door leading out of her subordinate’s void-dimension, and into the front lobby of a small, rundown doctor’s office. There were already several of the Ministry’s people poking around the corners, looking through the various observation rooms, and even breaking down a few of the walls in search of hidden safes. They paid no attention to her, as they were taught to. Not that they would have recognized the woman she was posing as under her illusion power anyway, but still. She preferred the people who worked for them be taught to ignore as much about them as possible. 

“How many?” she asked the man who had just stepped up beside her. 

“Three, we believe,” Alcazar replied. “This is the last one where the security sensors were tripped. Either they got better at avoiding them after that, or…” 

“Or they found what they were looking for,” Elena finished for him. “And all three belonged to Benjamin Pittman?” 

“That’s correct, ma’am,” he confirmed, glancing up as a couple men walked past carrying some equipment that would allow them to see through walls. “We believe the entire point of the original intrusion was to search for that list of facilities owned by Pittman when he was active. Armed with that list, they began to search them.” 

“Until they found this place, and whatever they were looking for inside.” Elena frowned slightly, considering that as a wave of thoughts passed through her mind. “Either they weren’t working for Pittman directly, or he forgot where he put the thing they needed.” 

“My guess,” Sterling put in while stepping up on the other side of her, “is that whoever these people are, they’re working for his other partners or investors. People he told enough about his project that they wanted to find something involved in it, but not enough to know specifics. Something we missed.” 

“But why wait this long?” Alcazar asked with a frown. “It’s been, what, over five years since Pittman was arrested and put on Breakwater? What changed?” 

Before Sterling could pose any guesses for that, one of the men called out from a supply closet. When the three of them moved that way, he stepped aside so they could see how the carpet was ripped away to reveal a trapdoor. 

“Alcazar,” Elena began, “do our files indicate which of our employees was tasked with searching and clearing this space five years ago?” 

“They do,” he confirmed. 

Her voice was flat. “They’re fired.” 

“The ahh, gold package, silver package, or… bronze package, ma’am?” Alcazar carefully asked. 

Studying the trap door, Elena exchanged a brief glance with her husband before answering. “We certainly aren’t setting them up for a rich life. Not gold. But I don’t believe they deserve to be killed for a mistake, either.” 

“The silver package then,” Sterling agreed. “Get Rook to erase their memories and set them up with new lives.” Another glance passed between husband and wife before he added, “Somewhere out of the city. We don’t need them here.” 

“After,” Elena put in, “you ensure that missing this wasn’t intentional. I want a full investigation into their lives. If there’s any sign that they were involved in this… bring the information to us.” 

With that established, the three descended the ladder to reach the large room below. A brief investigation later revealed the contents of the various freezers along the walls, as well as the presence of yet another, smaller hidden room at the far end. A room with a different metal tube inside, which had clearly been holding something. Another body, perhaps. 

Sterling put his hand close to the tube, eyes narrowing. “This is it. This is what they did all that for. Whatever was in this tube. A prototype for one of his creations?”  

“A dangerous weapon of some sort, whatever it is,” Elena agreed. Her gaze remained fixed on the tube, imagining what might have been kept inside. One of Pittman’s artificial bodies, certainly. They had dealt with enough of them already. Yet something about this seemed different. This was a hidden room inside of a hidden room, one that had been receiving power this whole time. From what they could tell given a brief examination of the thing, it had been active until very recently. Actively keeping its contents… well, alive probably wasn’t the right word. Unless it was. Well, yes, in fact. Even if the, for lack of a better word, brain of these creatures came from the installed cybernetic orbs, the bodies themselves were biological. 

Either way, she shook off the thought. What mattered was why this one in particular had been so special. 

“Maybe it was his,” Sterling mused. “Maybe it took Pittman this long to set up something like this to get his own new body back and transferred himself into it. Or–I don’t know how his tech works. Could he have uploaded his brain and sent it into this body?” 

The thought was enough to make Elena grimace. “If he did, he will start making a nuisance of himself very soon. Whatever was in here, we need to find it. And the people who did his bidding. But yes, I believe it’s safe to say that Pittman is behind this, at some level. Whether it is in a current, active fashion, or this is the result of someone picking up the pieces of his old work…. we need to find out.” 

Turning from Elena to Alcazar, Sterling ordered, “Have our people find out what’s happening on Breakwater. Do they know where Pittman is? What’s been going on over there lately? Just… see if anything is out of the ordinary.” 

“We don’t have the strongest contacts in Breakwater, getting any information will take a little while,” the other man carefully replied. 

Elena gave a slight nod. “We know you’ll do your best, Alcazar, thank you.” With that, she turned to her husband, gaze passing over the other equipment throughout the room. “Pittman being the source of that raid explains quite a lot. At least we know we don’t have some brand new threat to keep track of. Just an old one with some new help.” 

Sterling, meanwhile, raised a hand to press against the machine. “Have our people look into exactly what was in this thing. Or… who. We need to know whether this was Pittman or someone else. 

“And what face they’re wearing now.” 

Previous Chapter / Next Chapter

A Strange Thanksgiving 13-07

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Honestly, I’d wanted to see Eden’s Garden for awhile by that point. I’d wanted to know more about the place since I’d first heard that Avalon had been a student there, and finding out that Miranda still was one had only increased that desire. It wasn’t that I thought they were the perfect solution to all of Crossroads’ problems, considering they let people like Trice and his groupies stick around. Plus, Miranda had made it clear that though they didn’t always kill Strangers on sight, they still weren’t exactly pals with them. They were willing to use Strangers, even work with them in some rare cases. But the non-humans were still always second class citizens at the very best, and more akin to slaves.

Still, I still wanted to know more about the ‘other Heretic school.’ The fact that they were willing to work with Strangers at all might mean that they could be reasoned with more easily than Crossroads.

And, to be completely honest, I kind of wanted to see some of the special creatures they kept around. I might have spent a not-inconsiderable amount of my free time during the nights drawing up incredibly elaborate Ocean’s 11 style plans about how to get into Eden’s Garden to see the unicorns and pegasi.

So yeah, I wanted to see Eden’s Garden. But not like this. Kneeling next to my niece while she kept frantically pumping her own mother’s, my sister’s, heart because some psychopath alien monster decided to play a little game? No. God, no. I just wanted this night to be over. I wanted to restart and have a chance to just come visit for the nice, calm Thanksgiving evening it was supposed to have been.

I wanted Koren to stop crying. I wanted her to be happy. I wanted her to proudly introduce me to her dad, alive and well. I wanted to see the man who had married my sister. I wanted them to maybe notice that there was something familiar about me. I wanted to see Koren’s life, her real, ordinary life that maybe wasn’t perfect (just like the girl herself), but was hers. I wanted… I wanted this to be a dream.

But it wasn’t. And I wouldn’t meet Koren’s dad. He was gone. The Fomorian had discarded him like so much trash. It was a waste, and the thought made me want to cry. My eyes burned with unshed tears while I fought to hold it together. I couldn’t fall apart. Not right now. Koren needed me to keep it together. She needed me to be there so she could keep pumping her own mother’s heart. Because if I lost it, if I let myself go, she wouldn’t last much longer. Even then, I saw the hysterics in her eyes.

Seller had already pulled a piece of wood from his pocket. It looked like a chunk out of a tree, including the bark. Before I could say anything, he broke off several smaller bits from it and pushed one into my hand, another into Wyatt’s hand, and the other two into Koren and Abigail’s pockets. “Okay, hold onto those and brace yourselves.” To Koren, he added, “You’re about to get really dizzy. I’m told it’s like going over the loop in a roller coaster. So stop pumping when I say three and pump again as soon as we land. Got it? Right. Remember, no one moves or says anything. One, two, three.”

At the last number, Seller slapped the larger portion of the wood he was holding against the ground, and the world spun wildly around us. He was right, and the warning didn’t help. Unlike when I had been transported by Crossroads, the Eden’s Garden teleportation left me feeling briefly nauseous. My stomach flipped over on its end and I physically reeled backwards while a choked yelp escaped me.

Apparently Wyatt was either more accustomed to that sort of thing, or had some kind of power that helped deal with nausea, because he was on his feet much faster than I was. I sensed someone moving and dragged my attention up to see him standing up and turning toward a group of figures that still looked like blurry outlines for another few seconds. Finally, I blinked it away and focused on what turned out to be a handful of scary looking men in dark red armor. Half of them were carrying what looked like shotguns, while the other half had these pike-things with blades at one end and what looked like a tennis racket at the other, though rather than string, the grid part was made out of tiny lasers.

They also didn’t exactly look all that happy to see us. Seller was already standing in front of them. His voice was a low whisper as he murmured to the man who appeared to be in charge. That one’s armor had what looked like a large, jagged bear print across the chest in black marking. His eyes were just as hard as the the rest of them as he stood there staring at us while Seller continued to talk to him rapidly.

Now that my eyes were focused, I saw that we had ended up in a room about twenty feet across on all sides, with a ceiling that was about twice as high on one half of the room as it was on the other, going up at a slant. There was only one door out of the room, and it was being blocked by the armored men.

Meanwhile, Wyatt had positioned himself directly between the scary guys in their armor and Koren, Abigail, and me. The juxtaposition between those big red-armored men and scrawny little Wyatt with his too-big nose and overly-pronounced Adam’s apple was striking. And yet, after everything that had happened so far, I was pretty sure I’d rather be protected by Wyatt than any of those guys. The me from several months earlier when I first met the man would have been incredibly surprised, to say the least.

My attention finally made it to Koren herself, and Abigail. Neither looked like they were doing that well. Koren was breathing hard, tears staining her face as she pumped her mother’s heart. Abigail, meanwhile, looked like she was barely hanging on. She wasn’t focusing on anything. When I waved my hand in front of her eyes, it looked like she was trying to follow it, but gave up or forgot about it after a few seconds. She was clearly drifting, conscious but in some kind of heavy, possibly drugged, daze.

Now that I was looking at her up close, I could see the resemblance to Wyatt. It wasn’t completely obvious. Abigail was around the same height and had similar facial features in several respects. She looked kind of like a shorter, brown-haired Shelley Duvall from The Shining. God, I wanted to touch her. I wanted to talk to her. I wanted to tell her everything about her mother, our mother. I’d wanted a sister for so long, more than I had ever really consciously acknowledged after Mom disappeared. And now, now she was lying there so helpless and broken. It felt like if I touched her, she’d shatter entirely.

I tried to talk to Koren, tried to say anything that might help her focus or at least freak out a little less. But by the time I managed to get any actual words to come out, Seller was already done with his conversation. He was standing over us again, lowering his sunglasses with a finger to look over them at me. “Okay. I’m taking Abigail and Koren here up to show the Victors what’s going on. With any luck, they’ll approve the emergency apple. These guys,” he indicated the red-armored men, “are called the Unset. They’re not allied with any tribe, and hold no loyalty to any but the Victors themselves, who have agreed to allow you safe passage for the time being. So stay with these guys, do what they say, and don’t go wandering off. They’ll watch over you right here until we know what’s going on.”

Poor Wyatt looked completely torn, glancing between me and Abigail. I took pity on him, touching his arm gently while addressing Seller. “Take Wyatt with you. She’s his sister, even if they’ve never actually met. He deserves to be there, no matter what… ends up happening. I’ll be fine with these guys.”

Wyatt actually looked like he was about to object in spite of himself, but I shook my head at him firmly, repeating, “I’m fine. I’ll just stay with these upstanding slabs of muscular meat and be a good little guest. This isn’t about me, anyway. She’s your twin sister, Wyatt. You really do need to be there.”

“Right then, come on.” Seller crouched next to Koren and Abigail, gesturing for Wyatt to join him. “We’ve got special dispensation to transport directly into the medical lobby, and a couple of the Victors will meet us there to… discuss the situation. But I need you to scooch in close if you’re coming.”

Hurriedly, Wyatt stepped over to me. He pressed a glass ball into my hand. “Anything bad happens,” he instructed, “you break this, okay? You break it, and it’ll bring me. It’ll bring me right to you. You’ll be safe. I won’t let anything happen to you, little sister. You break it and I’ll be there. I promise. Promise.”

Smiling as much as I could, I took the ball and nodded. “Go. Go with them. I’ll be fine.”

The poor guy still looked torn, but he stepped over to join the others, crouching down close to them. Seller did something, and all four disappeared, apparently off to whatever the medical lobby was.

I watched the spot where they’d been briefly, then straightened while turning to face the Unset. “Hi, guys.” I waved. “I’m Flick. I know this is a weird situation, but I don’t suppose you can talk to me?”

The one that Seller had been talking to looked at me severely for a moment. He was an enormous guy, as big as Professor Katarin. He looked Native American, with arms that were as big around as tree trunks. When he spoke, it was in a serious, gravelly tone. “We aren’t mute. Or deaf.”

The one behind him added in a voice that sounded just as serious at first. “Or eunuchs. If you were wondering.” He paused for a three count then, before adding dryly. “The new ones always wonder.”

That set the rest of the group actually chuckling a little bit, before the first one gave me a quick bow of his head after his lips quirked in a very short, quickly muted smile. “You can call me Croc. The eunuch behind me there is Price. And those three are Kimmer, Isosceles, and Truant. ” Raising an eyebrow after introducing all of them, he added with a very slight smile, “You look a little surprised.”

Flushing, I shook my head a little. “I dunno. I guess… I guess you’re not exactly what I expected.”

Croc actually chuckled a little at that. “That’s fair. We’re not silent, mindless automatons, Flick. We take our jobs seriously, and we obey our Victors. But we’re also not heartless. From what Seller said, you’ve had an awful night. I’m sorry about that. We all are. And for what it’s worth, I hope the Victors agree to save the woman.”

Swallowing hard at that, I nodded while murmuring, “So do I.” Pausing then, I blinked away the tears that threatened to take over my eyes again, forcing myself to focus on the now rather than the ‘what-if.’ When I spoke, my voice shook a little in spite of my efforts otherwise. “Y-you saw her. Do you think they’ll… they’ll make it in time? The Victors, how long will it take them to make a decision? I mean, I mean… Koren’s literally pumping her heart for her. And she wasn’t responding, she’s drugged or, or… magically cursed or something, I don’t know. But if they wait too long, if the Victors can’t decided in time, she might… might…” I couldn’t get the words out past the thick knot that had settled in my throat.

A heavy hand settled gently on my shoulder, and I glanced up to find Croc giving me a smile that looked almost too gentle and soft for his face. “I don’t know what they teach you about us over at that school of yours, but most of us aren’t actually monsters. And that goes for the Victors too. They won’t wait too long. Besides, the doctors we have down there are top of the line. They’ll make sure she’s taken care of until the time comes. I know you’re worried about her, but believe me, she’s in good hands.”

I nodded, and Croc paused before speaking again. “If you have any questions, I can try to answer them. Assuming, of course, that you don’t ask for any secret information. It might take your mind off everything for a few minutes.” He started to say something else then before pausing. Stepping past me, the big guy crouched down to pick up something from the wooden floor before holding it out. “Was this yours?”

Glancing that way, my eyes widened. “Herbie!” Hurriedly, I reached out to take the little rock. “Sorry, he must’ve fallen out of my pocket when we teleported here.” Holding my buddy in one hand, I checked on his sword. Columbus had fixed it so that the weapon could raise up or lower against the side of the stone so that it wouldn’t stick me when it was in my pocket. It didn’t seem to have gotten bent or damaged, so I quickly put him away again before looking up to find the Unset all watching me.

Their stares made me flush a little. “Sorry,” I murmured. “It’s—he’s… the rock I threw through the portal when I first found out about… magic and all this stuff. It’s probably dumb, but I just… it feels like… I mean…” I trailed off, unable to find the right words.

Croc shook his head. “The last thing you need to worry about now is justifying yourself to us, Flick.”

My mouth opened to say something else, but before I could find the words, there was a brief knock at the door. It was just two taps, and then the door opened. Another of the Unset, female this time, poked her head in. She focused on Croc before twitching two fingers at him. When he walked that way, the woman leaned close and whispered something too low for me to make out.

Croc murmured something back before turning to me. “This girl says she knows you.” Stepping back then, he moved his big arm just far enough out of the way to allow someone’s face to come into view.

“Miranda!” I blurted, surprised at the sight of the girl. I hadn’t expected her to be able to show herself, especially not this soon. “What are you–” Hurriedly, I nodded to the Unset. “Yes, I—we were friends before she was recruited here, and we met again awhile ago back in our home town. It’s okay.”

At least, I hoped it was okay that they knew about that. But then, Croc seemed pretty cool. And apparently the Unset didn’t pay attention to Tribe rivalries or politics, only to what the Victors said. Maybe that would help. But how had Miranda known I was here?

The Unset stepped out of the way then, allowing the other girl into the room. She came straight to me, and we hugged briefly. Part of me still wondered if we should be more subtle about the whole thing, but after everything that had happened, the rest of me didn’t really care that much. I hugged my friend tight before stepping back. “Randi, how did you—I mean… what… what did…?”

Croc cleared his throat from nearby. “The room’s been secured and if anyone else enters or leaves, we’ll know. Stay here and we’ll give you some privacy for a few minutes.” Looking back and forth between us, he waited until we both nodded before gesturing for his men to step out of the room with him.

As soon as they were gone, I blurted, “How did you know I was here? What’s going on?”

“Seller,” she answered softly. “He sent me a message, told me where to find you and what was going on. He thought you could use a friend.”

I blinked at that. “I didn’t… know he knew about you.”

Miranda flushed a little. “I—uh, yeah, he came to me awhile ago and gave me some advice about following Trice without being noticed. I guess he’s been watching over me a bit.”

Hugging her again, even tighter that time, I fought past the lump in my throat once more. “There’s… there’s so much to… I can’t even… he… he told you what happened?”

“His message did,” she confirmed quietly. “I’m so sorry, Flick. Your friend’s mother? Do… do you really think the Victors will let her join?”

I started to point out that Koren and Abigail were more than my sister and niece before remembering that Miranda wouldn’t remember it even if I told her. Sighing, I instead just said, “There’s more to the story, but there’s a magic curse thing stopping me from telling you.”

She blinked at me before taking that in stride. “Well, I’m really sorry. I hope, um, I hope she’ll be okay.”

Glancing around then as though making sure the room was empty, the other girl added, “But I really need to show you something. I was going to call you tonight anyway, after I heard it.”

“After you heard what?” I was grateful for a chance to think about anything but what was happening with Abigail.

“This,” Miranda answered while taking out a phone. “I noticed Trice and his group skulking away earlier, so I slipped this into his bag with the recorder app on.” Noticing the look I gave her, she added, “Hey, don’t worry. It’s not my phone, it’s a disposable one, and it won’t lead back to me. I wiped it clean. Anyway, listen. There’s more before all this about them talking to each other, but this is where it gets interesting.”

She hit the button, and I heard a voice that I recognized as Trice’s. “Fuck, there you are. How long were you planning on making us wa–” His voice choked off abruptly.

“Shut up,” another voice hissed in a whisper, too low for me to make out anything else about it through the recording. And yet, listening to it, I swore there was something familiar about the voice. “I don’t have time to listen to your complaints. She’s sleeping right now, but if I’m not there when she wakes up, you know what’ll happen.”

“Hey, hey, we get it.” That time I recognized Doxer’s voice. “We all get it. Right, Pacer?”

The response was a high giggle before the girl’s voice replied easily, “Keep choking him. He’s turning funny colors. I wanna see if he can go fuchsia. I like fuchsia. It’s a funny word.”

But the other person, the one with the familiar voice that I couldn’t place, must’ve stopped choking Trice because I heard a sudden, loud gasp of breath. That went on a couple times before the boy himself muttered, “Fuck, we got it. But we’re running risks here too. So why ain’t you sent that bitch over here yet?”

The voice shot back, “I told you, I’m working on it. First we have to find out where they’re hiding that stupid old man.”

“Pericles?” Doxer put in. “I thought he was six feet under already.”

“He should’ve been,” the voice snapped. “Especially considering everything I did to make sure of it. But the Headmistress’s little bitch still has whatever protection thing he put on her. Which means I can’t do anything to her without blowing my cover and ending up with half of Sinclaire’s lapdogs falling on top of me. Whatever he enchanted, it’s invisible and intangible. Even she probably doesn’t know it’s on her. But it’s there, and until it’s gone, I can’t fucking touch her. Which means there’s two fucking choices. Either strip her down and do a full on search–”

Doxer’s voice was lecherous. “I volunteer for that job.”

“Or,” the familiar-yet-distorted voice pressed on with obvious annoyance, “we make sure Pericles is dead so that his magic fades, then get dear, not-so-sweet Hannah before they have time to fix the problem. Like I said, I can get her through the shield, but not with whatever extra protection the old man stuck on her.”

“What if it wasn’t him?” Trice demanded. “I mean, you said you’re pretty sure you killed him.”

“It was him,” the voice snapped with obvious irritation. “Believe me, I may not have been able to do the entire identification spell, but I got the first name, and there’s only one person on that island named Zedekiah. It’s the old man. He’s alive, and they–”

My hand snapped out to stop the recording, my eyes wide. “No… he’s not…”

“What?” Miranda blinked up at me.

“Professor Pericles… they killed him to get at Avalon, because they thought he put some kind of protective artifact on her,” I spoke slowly. “Because, whoever that was heard the name Zedekiah connected with the spell. But Professor Pericles wasn’t the only person named Zedekiah. Or, not the only person that an identification spell would think of as Zedekiah.”

Wyatt, I thought, remembering what Deveron had told me just that evening about his son’s real name.

Professor Pericles was a mistake. The person they really wanted to kill to achieve their little goal… was Wyatt.

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