Archive for the ‘Book 1’ Category

Bel’kethel was having the time of his life. Up until now, Earth had rarely been spoken of above hushed tones, a mere step away from Forbidden knowledge. It had not been written out of the annals of Elven history only because it would have been ignorance indeed to ignore the Earthborn population of about three million on Myrathelle. Ignorance was the only thing more uncomfortable than the knowledge that they had once had contact with the ancient people of Earth many centuries ago.

The existence of Earth, of course, was empirical. As a child, it had fascinated the young Elf; he’d even imagined a version of his name that the average Earthborn tongue would be able to pronounce. It had caused his father great consternation when he’d gone through a brief period of only answering to ‘Keth’. It had been a disappointing time indeed after Keth was told repeatedly under no uncertain terms that Elves did not concern themselves with Earthborn. Atlantis held itself aloof from the affairs of the rest of Myrathelle.

But now at last his fixation on Earth would bear fruit. Sadly, his knowledge of the Common language of Myrathelle’s Earthborn was useless. It was a dialect of a dead language that few on Earth actually spoke. He’d have been better off learning English, but those that spoke it on Myrathelle numbered in the hundreds. Nonetheless, Keth expended great effort making up for lost time. He was a savant, even by Elven standards, having mastered four out of the six schools of elemental magic, where most struggled to master two. A charmingly idiosyncratic language like English was a refreshing change from the rigid specificity of spellcasting.

The Elven leaders were reluctant to work with the Earthborn. It was a hotly debated issue discussed at great length within the senate; a conclusion had yet to be reached. Even with all the knowledge of the Elves, few had yet found the courage to state the obvious: the Elves must find peace with the Earthborn because Earth would be their home for the foreseeable future. Not one of them could state with certainty that they would ever again be home.

Keth was one of three Elves sent to explore the chilly tundra that was the new resting place of their fair city. They weren’t all spellcasters. Magic was not the only form of knowledge the pursuit of which brought glory to the All. Ken’hir was a warrior. His knowledge of combat was surpassed only by his mentor, the woman in charge of the Elven army. Myran had not mastered any forms of magic, but observed and recorded its effects and the functions of the natural world. Keth frequently felt the woman’s increased frustration with him. Myran believed in the practical over the theoretical, and delighted in pointing out the importance of her work, implying that it was greater than Keth’s academics. For his part, Keth found their discussions stimulating.

The group skimmed over the snow and ice in an air bubble, insulated against the biting cold with a combination of Air and Fire spells. Myran wasn’t speaking to him, and Ken’hir maintained his stoic affect, so that left Keth to carry the conversation all by himself. It was dreadfully one-sided and only exacerbated Myran’s aggravation. “Will you cease your endless prattle, Bel’kethel!” she commanded about halfway through a lengthy description of a particular television show the Earthborn called a “sit-com” that he’d been watching in his effort to learn English.

But something had already caused Keth’s monologue to come to a screeching halt. “What is that?” He pointed at half a dozen prone figures frozen so fast they were nearly part of the landscape. Snow had blown up around the bumps in the ice, but Keth could still make out four limbs and a face for each. “They look like humans!”

“Dead,” commented the taciturn Ken’hir.

“The best kind,” Myran muttered.

Keth cast her a dark look. With a word, he directed the air bubble over to the frigid corpses. “The Earthborn send expeditions to explore this area,” he supplied, though the others didn’t ask. “Though they tend to be better prepared than this. These men are scarcely dressed for temperate weather, let alone an environment such as this.”

“It is not our concern,” Myran said, but Keth ignored her.

“There’s a mystery here,” he stated. “Six men dead in the middle of the Antarctic for no apparent reason.”

“The only mystery is why you care, Bel’kethel.”

“We must go back! Inform the Earthborn that men of their kind have perished here.” He touched his thumb and forefinger to his forehead in a gesture of mourning. Myran rolled her eyes.

Let her be disinterested. An Earthborn mystery! What could be better?

Sadly, it was resolved too quickly for Keth’s taste. The thrill of discovery came to an end when the appropriate authorities arrived to remove the bodies. Keth never did find out who they were.

* * * *

Lyndria was pleasantly buzzed. The night had barely begun, and she was looking forward to the wildly intoxicated stage. She grinned in anticipation. Good thing she had a bodyguard capable of lifting her bodily into bed. Idly the thought wandered across her mind to bring Lindsay into the bed with her. The petite paragon was well on the path to corruption, and that would make a most pleasant point in progression. Lyndria had a preference for cock, and the bigger the better, but that was a bit like picking a favorite food. One might say they preferred pizza, but tacos were equally as satisfying. She would quite enjoy eating out Lindsay.

Through somewhat foggy vision she saw two men in business suits approaching, bearing the exact definition of dull and uninteresting. Her lovely brow furrowed for a brief moment before her face cleared. She didn’t want her skin getting any ridiculous ideas about frown lines. Where have I seen them before?

Lindsay started turning them away before they could get to Lyndria and destroy her buzz, but that exact second Lyndria remembered where she’d seen them. “Hey,” she slurred and waved them forward. “You’re Daddy’s lawyers, right? You find a way I can get my money?”

They exchanged a look that she was sure meant something, but she was far too inebriated to interpret. “Miss Wilson, we have a private business matter to discuss. Is there a place we can talk?”

“Here’s fine. Anything you can tell me you can tell Lindsay too.” She was just drunk enough that her suggestion seemed like a good idea.  Besides, she wasn’t positive she’d make it across the room right this second.

She nodded through the series of “Are you sure” until they got to the point. “Miss Wilson…your father and brothers have been found. I’m afraid…I’m afraid all six of them are dead.”

Lyndria had never sobered so quickly in her life. She sat up so quickly the room spun. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw Lindsay move closer, heard her soft, sympathetic gasp. It annoyed Lyndria. “I see.”

“An Elf uncovered their bodies in Antarctica. As you can imagine, authorities are looking into the unusual set of circumstances.”

She nodded as if that made sense. Elves were always finding things, right?

“There’s a number of legal hoops you’ll have to jump through in order to take control of the estate,” the one man continued. Lyndria couldn’t remember his name, and couldn’t be bothered to dig it out of her memory at this moment.

“Of course,” she said with curious calm. She was calmly curious about how serene she was being. “I believe that can be taken care of in the morning.”

“Of course, Miss Wilson. Uh—on behalf of—”

“Sir. This is a business transaction. Sympathy is misplaced, and false empathy is distasteful. I’d appreciate a display of neither.”

“Of course, miss.”

“Tomorrow, then.”

They nodded and scuttled off.

Lyndria must have been more intoxicated than she estimated, because she was across the threshold of her bedroom before she realized how she got there.

Lindsay followed her. “Lyndria, I…look, if there’s anything I can—”

“There’s an object behind you called a door, Lindsay. I’m sure you understand its function. See to it you’re on the other side.”

Lindsay opened her mouth and closed it several times like a gaping fish. “All right,” she said finally with a nod. “Call if you need anything.”

The door clicked shut.

It’s customary to cry right now, Lyndria told herself. She evidently didn’t listen. Her eyes remained dry.

It’s all mine now. The words meant nothing. Her brain tried and failed to attach some sort of reason to care about them.

All his money, all his business. Hey! I’m in charge! Something about that made her laugh out loud. The idea that she was in charge of anything was amusing. She could barely keep gerbils alive.

The thought was exciting, though. The most exciting thing that had ever happened to her. She had actual real live responsibility. People actually thought she was responsible. It was hilarious. She laughed again. “Oh my god,” she told the empty room. “That’s a laugh. I’ve gotta tell—”

Alex. The youngest of her six older brothers, they were closest in age and almost passed for actual friends. He’s dead.

“Oh my god,” she whispered. Her voice echoed loudly, like it bounced off the walls of the empty house.

That was when she began to cry.

Advertisements

While Liam polled his network of informants for information on Lyndria, Allen found himself curled up on an easy chair in the high school teacher’s condo. The small living space wasn’t meant for entertaining—Liam avoided people. With the three of them gathered there, the space was well beyond occupied. Donald was theoretically crashing on the couch, though Allen had yet to see the man sleep, which left Allen the floor space. He was more than happy with that, and would probably end up falling asleep on the chair anyway. If he slept at all. The day’s events kept racing through his mind. He tried to focus on the plans Liam and Donald were discussing, but every time he blinked he could feel the soul-crushing darkness of Freakazoid’s mental attacks.

He felt suffocated. The room was too small, there were too many people in an apartment meant for one, and why did his shirt collar suddenly seem so tight? He pulled at the cotton, but that just made it worse. Iron claws couldn’t scratch his skin, but somehow the simple material felt like the roughest sandpaper.

He couldn’t breathe here. It was too hot. He pushed himself off the chair, floating because he trusted his flight to bear him better than his legs. “I need to get some air,” he muttered. If the two men tried to stop him, he didn’t notice.

The door clicked softly behind him as he stepped out onto the blue-carpeted hallway that smelled of cleaner and middle-aged living. He didn’t remember making his way to the rooftops, and he could not honestly say if he’d climbed the stairs or opened a window and flew. One way or the other, he found himself pacing the gravel by an ancient air conditioner in its death throes, phone in hand.

“Hello?”

His heart thudded faster at the sound of Tracy’s voice, though it was somehow a more comforting, natural rhythm. “Hey.” He wondered if he could fully communicate the scope of his relief into the single syllable.

“Hey yourself. How are things in Montreal?”

“Oh. You know.” I almost died today.

I almost died. How in the world am I supposed to tell her that?

“Well not really, silly, that’s why I asked.” He could hear her smile. “How’s the hunt? Find anything yet?”

“Not yet. Been kind of an interesting experience, meeting all kinds of different people and stuff.”

“Man, you must be hating your life right now.” She laughed.

“Well, there are worst things.” Like having a freaky psionic metacriminal making scrambled eggs out of your brains.

“I suppose. Well, it’s good to know my little hero boy is surviving his first solo mission.”

“Yeah, about that. I think I accidentally teamed up with Mitch’s dad. Him and this weird old guy who were apparently looking out for Lindsay too.”

“Wow, small world.”

Allen nodded in agreement. “Yeah,” he blurted, after realizing that she couldn’t see his head movement. The silence fell. Allen felt like he could hear the stars screaming at him from the night sky.

“Allen? Are you okay?”

“Huh?” No. “Why?”

“I dunno, I just…I’d say you seem quiet, but that’s normal behavior for you. I just have this feeling that something’s up.”

Allen breathed into the phone. “I, ah…” No secrets, Allen. You promised. “I almost died today.” He put his hand to his forehead and his back to the dying air conditioner. “Oh God…” He slid to the ground, neither his flight nor his strength enough to hold him up anymore. “I almost died today.”

More silence.

“I’d ask you how you’re feeling about that, but I think the answer’s self-evident. Allen, do you need to come home?”

Allen took a breath and looked up at the sky. The moon was waning; it had been full a week ago. He closed his eyes and imagined Tracy’s arms around him, the scent of her hair embracing him. “No.” His hands shook, and he felt a tear itch down the side of his face. He took a deep, determined breath. “Tracy, if I come home now, I’m not going to be able to come back out here again. I have to find Lindsay. I have to. I made a promise to Marcus, and I’m going to keep it.”

“Allen…you know I’m proud of you?”

Tears pooled in his eyes now, cooled by the breeze that stirred. Despite himself, he smiled.

“You’ve taken on this task that’s so completely out of your element in ways I only know of because I’ve been your best friend for forever. And despite the difficulty, despite all the dangers and the fear you’re feeling right now, you’re not giving up. I can’t even tell you how enormously proud of you that makes me. Now, I can’t actually be there, so you’re going to have to imagine me hugging you. Will that be enough?”

He nodded again.

“Did you just nod?” she asked.

He laughed, his voice shaking a little. “How’d you know?”

“Knowing you is my super power. I’m sending you hugs in my mind, so hopefully that’ll be enough to tide you over for now. I’ll give you, like, a million when you get home. Deal?”

“Deal.”

“So…do you want to talk about it? You don’t have to if you don’t want to.”

“To be honest, not really. I want to hear your voice right now. How are things back home?”

“Oh! I had an interview yesterday with the people from Mapleview Long Term Care Facility. I think I might be able to get a job there this summer.”

“Tracy, that’s amazing!”

“I know! I mean, it’s not my preferred demographic. I’ve always wanted to work with teenagers. But this is going to look great on a resume, and I talked to some of the residents there, and they seem like really nice people.” She laughed. “This one old guy asked my name, so I gave it and asked him his, and he took my hand and said, ‘I’m your knight in shining armor. You can hate me, break me, shake me, but baby, you cannot forsake me.’ And then he kissed me hand. It was adorable.”

Allen laughed. “Do I have a challenger for your affections?”

“Oh, I think you can take him. He’s a frail man. Blink too hard in his direction and he’ll fall over.”

“I’ll be really careful with my eyelids if I ever meet him then.”

“Your eyelids are very powerful, sweetheart.”

Allen laughed out loud at that one. By the time he stopped laughing, his heart felt lighter. Pushing off into the sky, he sat cross-legged, leaning his elbows on his knees. He smiled.

“You’re smiling now, aren’t you?”

That made him grin wider. “You know I love you, Tracy?”

“Yeah. I love you too.”

“I kinda want to kiss you right now.”

“Me too. Guess I’ll have to pack a few of those in with the hugs, huh?”

“Guess so. Oh God, what time is it? Man, I totally called you in the middle of the night, didn’t I?”

“Allen, relax, it’s okay. I was up with a good book anyway.”

“Aw man, now I feel really bad for interrupting you.”

“Don’t be silly.” She yawned. “I should sleep anyway. You sure you’re feeling better, though? Because I will literally stay up all night if you need me to.”

“No, it’s fine.” He smiled. “I am feeling better. Much better. Hey, Tracy?”

“Yeah?”

“Thanks.”

“Anytime, sweetheart. I mean that. I don’t care if it’s the middle of the night.”

“Not just that. For saying yes.”

“I’m glad I did, Allen. I love you. So very much.”

“And I love you. Now get some sleep.”

Allen’s vision cleared in time to see the whole alleyway bathed in fire. Two men emerged. One was untouched like a messianic figure in an ancient story. The other was wreathed in the flames as if he was born of them. In his hand was a charred lump, and he tossed it against the pavement. It shattered. A piece of the object looked up at him with half an eye socket, empty and starring, and Allen jumped, scrambling onto his ass. The world tilted and he threw up.

Raptor charged. He took two long steps before his animalistic body was thrown back by an unseen force much like a child would toss a cheap plastic action figure. He dug his claws in and came skidding to a stop just before his thick tail came in contact with the wall of fire that surrounded them.

“You son of a bitch!” Corrosion looked beyond terrified. The words were probably supposed to sound threatening and angry, but his voice shook. “Freakazoid! Waste these guys! Freak!”

There was no answer, and it dawned on Allen with increasing horror that the shattered, burnt skull on the ground belonged to the guy who’d been trying to turn his brain inside out. His mind refused to connect that knowledge with any form of reality.

Raptor let out a low whimper of fear, cowering where his great body had landed. Corrosion was equally frozen in place. “You’re not supposed to be here,” he said, as if declaring it would bend reality to his will. “You’re not supposed to be here!” The frantic tone in his voice increased with every word. “Y-you’re retired. Everyone said Inferno was retired!”

Inferno? It nagged in the back of his head, trying to make him remember where he’d heard it before, but Allen’s entire world had become focused on the blackened skull fragment. Why is it so familiar?

An appropriate name for a fire controller, to be sure. It sufficiently described the intense heat that licked at Allen’s hands and danced across the side of his face. He moved instinctively away. The fire wouldn’t burn him—Corrosion’s touch was the first time he’d felt anything of the sort since he was thirteen—but he didn’t want his jacket to burn. For some reason his custom-made leather jacket became of the utmost importance. It defined him as a hero. With the Delta Division symbol emblazoned in its full-colored glory across his back, it broadcasted him as one of the good guys. One of those people that believed in justice and the good of all mankind. This encounter—he didn’t even know what that was. This was not how heroes were supposed to act.

“Why are you here?” Corrosion’s tone had become pitiful now. He was so paralyzed his knees wouldn’t even bend to drop him to the ground in fear.

“I have a better question.” Inferno stepped forward and grasped Corrosion about the wrist. Corrosion screamed and his flesh began to blush around a prominent tattoo of a red dragon with black eyes. “Why’s the Scarlet Dragon gang beating up on a kid? A meta, too. Not your style.”

Now Corroision’s knees buckled. He screamed. “He-he was asking around after the Wilson bitch’s new bodyguard!” His eyes went wide. “Fuck! I shouldn’t—I shouldn’t have said that!”

Bodyguard?

“Maybe not. But keep talking anyway. If you’re lucky, you’ll end up in prison for the rest of your life. If not…well, how do you feel about cremation?”

Another scream came out of Corrosion’s mouth. “S-stop!” Allen heard himself say. “Y-you can’t do this!” This is so wrong! “Please just stop!”

Inferno glanced his way. Was it his imagination, or did the fire controller’s eyes grow soft? He released the thug. “Let’s make one thing clear. You and your gang are going to stop terrorizing this neighborhood. Retired life is boring. Never know when I’m going to show up again, and if I see your face again, I will turn it into a flesh mask of pustulating blisters. Got it?”

Corrosion nodded. The fire vanished. “Go.” Inferno pointed a single finger down the alley and away from them. Both Corrosion and Raptor took off like a shot.

“The skull was a nice touch,” the other man commented. Allen regarded him with a stunned expression. What kind psychopaths were they?

“I thought so. Though I’m going to have a terrible time explaining to the rest of the science department where the hell their prop went.”

What? “W-wait, th-that wasn’t—”

“Really the mind freak gangbanger that was about to explode your brain?” The other man smirked. “Naw, Liam only burns people to a crisp on accident. Your friendly neighborhood mind murderer is quite unconscious at the moment.”

“Oh.”

“Allen Gray, if I’m not mistaken,” the man said. “I’m Donald Kazuki. This is Liam Roberts.”

“Oh!” Relief, reason, and realization struck Allen all at once. Inferno was the name Mitch used. This man was Mitch’s father. He was a scary son of a bitch with a wicked temper, but he wasn’t a murderer. The apple didn’t fall very far from the tree, apparently. “Oh.”

Liam chuckled. “I think we need to work on your vocabulary, kid.”

Allen shot him an unimpressed look. Like he hadn’t heard that one his entire life.

“So, you were looking for Lindsay White?” Donald asked.

Allen nodded.

Liam frowned. “Who is apparently working as a bodyguard for a mafia princess. Fantastic.”

Allen blinked at him. “Wait, what?”

Liam smirked. “Well, there’s a couple more words.” Allen’s nonplussed look returned. “The Wilson family is the unofficially and intrinsically involved in a disturbing amount of crime in this city. They’re in a bit of an upheaval right now. The patriarch of the family and every single one of his older boys has inexplicably vanished, leaving Lyndria as heir apparent. Makes sense that she’d want somebody like Spryte working for her.”

Allen shook his head. “Lindsay’s a hero. She might be a little…” He trailed off. ‘Unstable’ was the word that immediately came to mind. “She’s a hero,” he repeated. “She was trained by Stryker, just like I was.”

Donald raised his eyebrow. “Right. Because two people training side by side under the same mentor never end up at odds or anything.”

Allen had nothing to say to that.

Liam frowned. “I’m concerned that Delta would send a kid to look for one of their lost sheep. Especially someone who’s not exactly trained in the art of a manhunt. Not very surprised, mind you. The way Delta forces kids into fighting their battles makes me throw up in my mouth a little.”

Allen shook his head. “No! It’s not like that. And they don’t. I’m not.”

“Those shit disturbers came close to killing you, kid.” Liam’s eyes darkened. “Delta’s like every other branch of the government. They strip the people they should be protecting of basic human rights, using fear-mongering tactics to justify it.”

A million arguments against that welled in Allen’s mind, but they refused to congeal into words. He stammered for a moment until he shut his mouth and forced himself to calm down. “Lindsay’s important, okay? Or at least she is to my friend. I don’t know what she’s doing here, or why she’s gotten involved with the mob, but I know that my friend is hurting and he needs her. I promised I’d bring her back. I’m not going to give that up.”

“And what if she doesn’t want to come back?”

“Well, I won’t know until I try.”

“No, no, by all means,” Donald interjected. “Let’s keep arguing about whether or not Allen should pack Lindsay in his bags on the way back to America. I mean, it’ll be hell in customs, sure.”

Allen blinked at him. “I-I…what? We can both fly, I don’t—”

“That’s the joke, kid. Try to keep up.”

Liam flashed him an annoyed look. “You have a point buried under there, I can tell. Why don’t you just get to it instead of telling jokes that only make sense inside your own head?”

“Two points, actually. Much like two prongs on a fork. Actually, that would be a terrible fork. Unless it’s for pickles, then it’s fine.”

Liam slapped his large palm against his forehead. “For the love of crap, will you just—”

“Isn’t anyone going to ask the obvious? What the bloody hell happened to the don and his family? And why are both students of a martyred hero here in Montreal, getting involved one way or another with crime syndicate drama?” His face took on a distant look as his mind appeared to wander off once again. “Ooh, that’d be a hell of a show. Your typical family drama, but they’re the mafia in a big city. But you still end up loving the characters, because even if they’re all criminals, they’re still human.”

Allen was beginning to consider that this man has long since lost his marbles. “Well, I don’t really know why Lindsay left. She just told Marcus…” He trailed off and frowned. She’d told him she couldn’t be a hero anymore. But would she really go against everything that Stryker had taught her and start working for the mob? “But I’m here looking for her. So it kinda makes sense that we’re both in the same place. I doubt it’s some kind of big conspiracy.”

Donald leaned over and hissed in his ear. “That’s what they want you to think.”

Liam cast him a scathing look. “Well, that was about as helpful as an Internet forum. You gonna start spouting out cat GIFs as well, or are you just gonna stick to nonsensical and overworked arguments?”

Allen thought that was a bit like the pot calling the kettle black, but he said nothing.

“See, the thing about nonsensical and overworked arguments is that they’re used so many times that just by sheer probability they’re going to be right at some point. Only problem is that, by the time they get around to being right, nobody believes them anymore. But someday the sky will fall and Chicken Little will be vindicated.”

Liam pressed his lips together. “Okay, you know what? While you’re getting around to making sense, let’s actually do something productive. Lyndria’s been making headlines since she was born, so she’s going to be dead easy to track. I’ve still got some contacts left over from my vigilante days. I’ll see if I can get some eyes around the city to find out which club she’s hitting up tonight. We’ll be able to find Lindsay by proxy. C’mon. Let’s head over to my place in the mean time.” He turned and began walking away.

Finally. A plan. A smile spread over Allen’s face. It felt good to be making progress after endless days of asking random people and getting nowhere except in deep shit. “Oh!” he exclaimed before he could stop himself from using the same interjection that Liam had teased him about. “I wanted to say. I think I know your son. Mitch. Mitch Roberts. He controls fire too.”

Liam stopped, but he didn’t turn around. There was something about the set of his shoulders that made Allen regret saying anything.

“Yeah, we don’t say anything about his kid,” Donald said.

“Oh.”

Donald continued as if the uncomfortable incident hadn’t happened. “Let’s not forget ask Lyndria where she put her family,” Donald interjected. “I remember the last time I couldn’t find something, I’d accidentally put it in the cupboard.”

By Liam’s face, Allen could tell that he was so done. “We’re not going to find them in the cupboard. They’re not a set of dishes, Donald, will you please shut the fuck up.”

“The freezer, then. People accidentally put things in the freezer all the time. Though that raises the question, would they hypothetically be dead before or after?”

“Well, that got dark quickly.”

“Says the guy who chucked a severed head that looked like a giant lump of charcoal.”

Lindsay stared at the small, clear blue, crystal-shaped pill, still encased in the plastic baggy. Her heart pounded and she licked her lips. Your body is the temple of the Holy Ghost, her mom would always say. That was one of her many rules. No drugs, no alcohol, and no sex until you got married, and even then only to breed a litter. Like arrows in the hand of a warrior, she’d quote, So are the children of one’s youth. How blessed is the man whose quiver is full of them. That was her entire reason for adopting so many kids, or at least the excuse she’d give when asked. No one could argue with a Bible verse.

Lindsay hated it. You’re chosen! You’re special, dear. It was hard to believe that when she was one of three ‘chosen’. You just want to tell everyone you have lots of kids. You don’t actually care. If you did, you wouldn’t ignore me all the time. Her fist clenched around the small bag. It doesn’t matter. None of it matters. Not your stupid rules or your stupid God.

Her fist opened. She’d accidentally halfway crushed the crystal pill into powder that shredded the bag. It was now chunks of dust in the palm of her hand. I’m not a hero anymore. And I don’t want to be. She shook the bag loose and tossed it. If she was going to do drugs and watch her new friend having sex on the couch, might as well add littering to her list of wrongdoings. Bless me, Father, for I have sinned. With her thumb, she crushed the rest of the pill into powder and licked it off her hand.

It tasted sweet, like strawberries, dissolving instantly in her saliva. She let it swish around her mouth a little before swallowing, and it coated her tongue, teeth, and the back of her throat with a slick, waxy substance that lingered. Nothing happened. She wasn’t quite sure what to expect—a switch to flip that turned her into a wild and crazy party-goer or something? Or at the very least for God to strike her dead.

Lyndria plopped back on the couch beside her. She smelled funny. The air was thick with the cloying scent of something thick and salty. “Well? How do you feel?” Her voice was so loud.

Lindsay shrugged. “I dunno. No different, really.” The heavy bass of the music pumped in her veins and made her heart feel funny. “Why did you do that?”

“Do what?”

“Fuck that guy because of me?” Wait, what did I just say?

“Sweetie, first thing you gotta learn about me. I fuck someone cause I want to. It just happens to be mutually beneficial a lot of the time. Believe me, there’s no better way to control someone than to give ‘em a good go of it and make them beg for more.”

“Does it hurt? To have sex. Mom always told me it would hurt.” Somebody had turned up the lights. It made her head ache.

“The first time, maybe. That turns some guys on, though. Some of ‘em like doing virgins. My brother was super in debt to a rival family, because he’s an idiot, so I went and slept with the boss’ number two, and he bankrolled the whole thing. Problem solved. Look, sweetie. Anyone, men or women, will pay for good sex, and I’m not just talking money. And there’s no better way to use someone. Nine times out of ten they don’t even realize it because they’re too busy to pay attention to what’s down here—” She pointed between her legs. “—To notice what’s going on in here.” She tapped her temple.

Lindsay nodded, as if that made sense. Wait, did she just say she lost her virginity to a mob boss? Isn’t that fucked up? “The lights,” she mumbled. “They’re all…” She searched for an appropriate word. “Flashy…ee.” That didn’t sound right. “What’s wrong with my mouth?”

“Oh, that’s just the drug. Don’t worry, this is perfectly normal. Just relax a little and enjoy the high. Lean back, sweetie. You’ll feel like you’re flying in no time.”

“I can already fly. See? Look.” She stumbled to her feet. “I can fly.” She jumped, and the floor came crashing back at her with sudden and unexpected force. Her hand went out to catch herself, and she knocked over Lyndria’s martini glass. It shattered and pain shot up her arm. She pulled her hand away and looked at it, confused. “It’s red. Why’s my hand red?”

Lyndria said something, but her words were unclear. All Lindsay could hear was the thrumming of the bass. Lyndria took her hand, so Lindsay left it with her and wandered away because she thought she saw someone she knew. Something gold flashed in the undulating lights. Golden hair and eyes with a modern day flak jacket that looked like it was designed by the ancient Romans. “What are you doing?” The golden eyes asked. They looked so sad and disappointed. “I taught you better than this.”

“Well, you didn’t teach me the most important thing,” Lindsay said, but then realized that she was high, so she should be yelling things louder. “You didn’t teach me what to do after you were dead!

Yeah, that’ll teach him. Teach him to die on me.

“Sweetie, you’d better go to bed,” Lyndria said.

Lindsay looked at her hand. It wasn’t red anymore. It was white. “Why does my hand keep changing colors?” Something soft and feathery wrapped her body. “Mmm. Never mind. That feels nice. Hey, the music stopped.”

“We’re home now,” Marcus said. He took Lindsay’s hand.

“No, not that one,” she muttered. “It hurts. Hold my other hand.” She rolled over and it turned out she was wrong about which side of the bed he was on. At least now he could hold her hand that didn’t feel like it was on fire. She curled her fingers into his. His touch felt like pink satin sheets. “Your hands are expensive,” she said.

Tears rolled down her cheeks. “I don’t know why you love me.” Her voice quivered and a sob caught in her throat. “I need you too much.  You’re sweet and kind and charming, and your sister’s really powerful, and people like me better when I’m with you. And I’m going to break your heart. I need you, Marcus. But I don’t love you.”

* * * *

Lyndria let the door swing shut behind her, leaving Lindsay to mumble at the wall in the empty room. Some foreign mothering instinct made her smile. She was a sweet kid. It would almost make her feel sad when Lindsay’s naivete was no longer a part of her. Sad, but not devastated. A paragon on their side was going to be useful.

After leaving her new baby bodyguard in a drug-induced sleep, Lyndria made a point of going to her own room, then proceeded to turn around and duck all the cameras on the way out the back door. Her own, untampered security would give her an alibi should she need one; though the night would have to turn out badly indeed to make that a possibility.

The downtown train terminal caught a mousy, forgettable brunette in a plain green sweatshirt catching the 4:37 AM train into the downtown core. It was possible the surveillance would catch her face, but Lyndria had adjusted her features enough to fool any facial recognition software. A few minutes later, and she walked into an all-night fast-food restaurant and took a seat with a number of men, all of them dwarfed by Tom Carter.

“You’re late,” he grumbled. “We were five minutes away from doing the job without you.” He scowled at her, though it didn’t change his face much.

“Aren’t you a lucky boy,” she cooed. “I showed up just five minutes before you ended up on somebody’s hit list.”

“I don’t appreciate threats, Princess.”

“Look, can we cut the arguments and get to the job?” Reece Smith grumbled.

Lyndria didn’t believe that was his real name for a second. She didn’t begrudge him his alias, though. He appeared to be the kind of person who blended into the background on purpose. He was five-foot-eight with an exceedingly average body type and facial features. Everything about him was instantly forgettable. It had actually taken Lyndria their first five jobs to remember his damn name, alias or not.

The fourth member of their team nodded. Tony Mendez was a small boy, hardly more than seventeen. His nervous demeanor would have given them away if he didn’t just look like the kind of kid who was constantly expecting some bully to sneak up behind him, throw him in a locker, and steal his lunch money. His red-rimmed eyes and glazed expression might have irked someone more professional, but Lindsay knew better than to throw stones, considering she was just getting off one hell of a buzz herself. Besides, the kid could hack faster when he was high than when he was stone cold sober.

Tom sighed and grumbled something about self-entitled…something she didn’t quite catch, but she was sure it was vulgar and insulting. She ignored the comment and he launched into a brief explanation. “With the meta community in our territory growing, the demand for Null’s getting higher, and the Salt Creek Gang is supplying.”

“They’re not on our payroll,” Lyndria interjected.

“No shit. They’re on Piroux’s. Which means they’re cutting into our business. The plan’s to cut them off at the knees, find out where they’re getting the shipments. It’s all coming through McClaine Imports/Exports, so their offices would be a good place to check out. That’s where we’re headed tonight. The opening manager’s in on it, and he grabs breakfast and a coffee here every morning, so we’ll follow him out.” He jutted his chin over to a man dressed in black, pressed pants and a blazer.

Lyndria glanced over. Her eyes met with the man’s. She suppressed a reaction and instead turned to Tom. “You mean to tell me,” she said evenly, “that you’re explaining our entire plan not ten feet away from our mark?” She smiled sweetly and put her hand on his large mitt. “You’re an idiot.” She leaned in. “Okay, guys, give me about half an hour and I’ll have us in. Track my phone, and don’t blow it.

She got up from there and headed to the bathroom where she hung up her sweatshirt, leaving a sleeveless dusty rose top with a lacy trip on its scoop neck. A bit of focus grew her breasts and altered her features into almost elf-like sharpness. Her hair turned a pretty burnt orange, and her eyes startlingly blue. A glance down showed her ass filling out her jeans just enough that her pink thong peeked out from the waist.

She left the sweatshirt in the bathroom. Some homeless kid was going to get a nice surprise. From there, she walked out and slid into the chair just across from their man. A charming smile played on her delicate lips. “Okay, so I know this is going to sound really forward, but I’ve been watching you come in every day. I work drive-through, so you probably don’t see me much, but I’ve always thought you were kinda cute.” She bit her lip and made a sweet blush appear on her cheeks. “You think we could hang out sometime?”

In about five minutes, she had him eating out of the palm of her hand, willing to take her anywhere. She subtly planted the idea that he wanted to show off his work…and maybe put his hitherto boring desk to good use.

It was shockingly easy keeping him there until the rest of her crew could get to the office. His sense of betrayal was palatable when she gagged him and tied him up on his computer chair. Her lips graced his neck and her hand slid down the inside of his thigh. “Oh, you know you like it.” She didn’t hear him argue.

It took Tony all of five minutes to hack into the files and grab the information they were looking for, while Tom and Reece stood guard. Together they cleaned the place when they were done.

“What do we do with him now?” Tony asked nervously, glancing over at the poor clerk. “He’s seen our faces.”

“Mind wipe him,” Reece suggested. “I know a guy in the city who’ll do it for a fee.”

“That’s unreliable,” Tom interjected. “Look, his service is useful, and I’ll bet we can pay more than the assclowns that think they own him.”

“Bought loyalty is about as useful as tits on an AK-47,” Reece grumbled.

“You want to say that to my face?” Tony took offense at that.

“Guys, chill,” Lyndria broke in, annoyed at their squabbles, and more so that they missed the obvious. She gave them a sly smile and slid up beside Reece. “Relax, boys. I got this.”

In a single swift motion, she yanked Reece’s sidearm out and put a bullet through the clerk’s head.

“Sorry, sweetie. Nothing personal. Just business. Tony, get the drawers open and take the cash. For all anyone knows, this was a simple robbery, and who’ll know the difference?” She smiled. “You know what they say: dead men tell no tales.”

Lyndria Wilson watched the body language of her newly-acquired bodyguard. The poor girl looked like a fish out of water. She was probably wondering what the hell she had gotten herself into. Lindsay White was refreshingly adorable, short of stature and slight of figure. The thought of corrupting her innocence brought a smile to Lyndria’s face.

So stinkin’ cute. She’s got go goddamn idea.

Lyndria was spending a few hours at the bar she’d been given as an eighteenth birthday present—and by ‘few hours’ she meant ‘all-night affair’. Erotic entertainment played on the stage to music as thick with bass as the air was with cigarette smoke and the scent of marijuana. The dancers sparkled in the flashing lights, exposing Lindsay to more glistening flesh exposed than the poor girl had ever seen in her entire lifetime. She stared open-mouthed at the gyrating muscles, having quite lost sight of Lyndria some time ago.

“Far be it from me to question your methods, ‘Princess’, but why the effing bloody hell did you bring a hero into this?” Tom Carter towered above her, even from his perch on a nearby stool at the bar. He was a massive man, with arms the size of tree trunks and shoulders that nearly swallowed his thick neck. His face wasn’t handsome to look at. His jaw was square and his chin was too big, and his forehead seemed determined to leap off its face and become sentient. To call him a friend was stretching it, but Tom was one of the very few people that Lyndria trusted, and they worked together—which was the sole reason she hadn’t fucked him yet. Everything about his physique was what her body constantly craved, but it was a bad idea to shit where you ate.

Lyndria ignored the sarcasm dripping off the title the man gave her. Daddy’s money bought a lot, and some people resented that. She didn’t care. They could resent it all the fuck they wanted, so long as they responded in a predictable manner. Tom liked money, and he knew what side his bread was buttered on. He wouldn’t screw her over. Which was more than she could say for most of the people she interacted with on a daily basis.

“You can always tell what a hero’s gonna do. They’re predictable. Almost more so than wise-ass, safe-cracking trolls that Daddy pays a lot of money to. She’ll be useful. She just needs a little corrupting.”

He glowered at her. “Your dad’s not around, now is he?”

“His money is, and that’s the important part, now isn’t it?” She put her hand on his arm. “Now, why don’t you be a good little troll and go get your gear. We got a job to do tonight. I’ll meet you in an hour.”

She wandered away, drink in hand, preferring to distract him with her swaying ass so he’d stop asking stupid questions. Questions that cut a little to close to the truth.

Daddy had been gone for months. Lyndria had a litany of older brothers that were supposed to pick up the slack on the family business should her father be incapacitated, but they’d vanished too. It left Lyndria holding the proverbial bag, but even she had to admit she was ill-equipped. She had no interest in the business—only the lifestyle it provided. Daddy had always indulged her.

Except for the last time they’d talked.

The conversation took place in the patriarch’s ostentatious study that she’d been dutifully sent to just days after a particularly interesting outing that involved the family estate of a local rising star politician. Somebody (Lyndria was way too high at the time to remember who) had set fire to the family’s heirlooms. The cops were called, and Lyndria barely escaped being busted for possession. She still had no idea where her clothes had vanished that night.

Lyndria chewed her lip in what she hoped was a contrite gesture, doing her best to fake an inability to look her father in the eye. In reality, she was barely holding back the laughter.

“Exactly what part of this do you find humorous, Lyndria?” Jacob Wilson wasn’t fooled. He spoke in a cool voice, his hands folded casually on his desk, the subtle tones in his rumbling baritone and ice in his eyes the only indication of his anger.

“Nothing, Daddy.” She glanced over to her brother, Glen, standing arms crossed over his barrel chest. With his jaw set and his piercing eyes staring at her, he looked the spitting image of their father.

No help from there, then. She was on her own. She shrugged innocently. “It wasn’t that bad.”

Jacob raised an eyebrow. “Several valuable tapestries in the Taylor estate library were burnt down.”

She couldn’t hold the grin anymore. “What can I say? Sexually repressed socialites know how to party once they really get going.”

Jacob sighed and put a hand to his forehead. “Lyndria, we’ve talked about this. You need to concern yourself with the family business. My stockholders need to know I can hold together the business, and you and your…indiscretions are putting doubts in their minds. The tabloids love a story like this, and the more they run with it, the more our stock goes down. After all, how can I be trusted with a company when I can’t even control my own daughter?”

Lyndria shrugged. “I fail to see how it is of their concern.”

“You should concern yourself with the paparazzi that photographed the entire event.”

“Oh, photos were taken? I hope they got my good side.” She snickered. “Who am I kidding? I don’t have a bad side. Besides, no one takes the tabloids seriously.”

“Seriously enough. Watch yourself, Lyndria. Blowing the story of a drunk little girl is their stock and trade.”

This lecture was getting boring. Lyndria crossed her arms and rolled her eyes. “Whatever.” The old man would get everything out of his system in a few hours and then they would move on.

“Lyndria, I’m serious.”

“What are you going to do? Ground me?  I think I’m a little old for that.”

“It wouldn’t work anyway. You’d just sneak out of the house.”

Lyndria grinned. “Damn right I would.”

“I’ve done something much more effective. I’ve called my bank and canceled your credit cards. I’ve had my lawyers draw up paperwork barring my entire financial network from allowing you access.”

Her smile disappeared. “You what?”

“I’m cutting you off, young lady. You want to make an ass of yourself, you do it on your own dime.”

“But, Daddy, I—”

“No buts. Get out there and make your own money. You’re a capable person if put your mind to it. Put aside your hedonistic tenancies for a while. Learn the real world.”

“But Sara Smith’s birthday party is next week, and I gotta have money for that. Everybody who’s anybody is going to be there. What are people going to think if I don’t show up?”

“Then you’d better earn fast. And if you want any goodwill with the Taylor’s, you’d better figure out how to pay for those tapestries.”

“You mean you’re not—”

“No, I’m not paying for them. From here on out, you rise and fall on your own merit.” He tapped the desk with his index finger for emphasis.

“But I—”

“Dismissed.”

“But—”

“Dismissed, young lady!”

Lyndria narrowed her eyes, allowing tears to pool up. “I hate you.” She turned on her heel and stormed out of the room.

One of her other brothers, Alex, stood outside the door. He smiled a bit and leaned down conspiratorially to her as they walked down the hallway. “The classic ‘I hate you’ line. Think it’ll work?”

She smiled at him. “I give it two days.”

“You go, girl.” He held up his hand and she slapped it in a high five.

She woke up the next morning to an empty house. She couldn’t really say how she knew it was empty, it just felt that way. She shook off the feeling and began to prepare for her Breakfast Manipulation Plan. It took her the better part of an hour and a half to get dressed, decide what face she was going to wear that day, then apply makeup to it. The best part about being a metamorph was that she could change her hair and eye color easier than most people changed their clothes. She waffled for a while between a conservative mousy brown hair approach, and the wild, blue hair rebellious method. Did she want to appear sorry for what she’d done, or reinforce how much she hated him?

In the end, she stuck with her original plan and added some green streaks to the blue. She applied a deep black lipstick and thick eyelashes to go along with a tight, lacy bodice barely appropriate outside of the bedroom, and a plaid short skirt that only pretended to cover her ass.

Her efforts were wasted. Jacob Wilson didn’t show up for breakfast. Or lunch. The staff all assumed he’d gone out for the day, but when Lyndria made her way to the office, he wasn’t there either. By the time dinner rolled around, Lyndria was worried. She’d never get her money back if he didn’t show soon.

The day ended and then stretched into weeks. Her father didn’t return. Worse, her brothers, who should have been running the estate in his absence, had also vanished. Every day drove her deeper and deeper into debt, borrowing money on her father’s good name, promising to repay it when she got a hold of her father’s estate. They were going to come back. They had to. Lyndria refused to be worried, because that was a waste of brainspace.

She grabbed another drink on her way back to her brand new, adorably cute bodyguard, grinning a little at the other girl’s enthralled look. Lyndria didn’t blame her. There were some fine specimens of humanity on-stage.

The loud music covered her approach as she snuck up behind Lindsay and spoke in her ear. “Oh, that’s a cute face.” Lindsay jumped.

Lindsay stammered and nearly tripped over the arm of the nearby couch. Only her flight ability saved her, and she ended up seated stiffly on the edge of the red plush piece of furniture. “I, uh, I…I—”

Lyndria slid in beside her. “Your mouth’s hanging open so wide it’s like it wants to devour the man-flesh on stage.” She grinned. “Want one?”

Lindsay shook her head, eyes wide. “I-I, uh…I have a boyfriend. Back home. I-I have a boyfriend.”

She chuckled. “That don’t mean anything. He’s there. You’re here. And it’s been how long? Seriously. How long’s it been since you had a guy hard inside you?”

Shock dropped Lindsay’s jaw and set her cheeks aflame. She clamped her mouth together so hard her teeth rattled. At a loss for words, she shook her head vigorously in the negative.

“Oh aren’t you adorable. Sweetie, it’s okay, I know a virgin when I see one. I won’t push.” The sigh of relief had barely exited out of Lindsay’s mouth before Lyndria continued, “Of course, the one in the blue thong is looking right at you.”

Lindsay shook her head. “No. No, I-I…I’m not…” She trailed off before she could say something that could potentially offend her libidinous employer.

“A slut?” Lyndria smirked.

“I didn’t say that.” It was written on her face, though.

“Relax, you’re hardly the first to say it. Whatever, I take it as a compliment. Sex is the most basic biological urge beyond eating, drinking, and breathing, and is equally as essential. Trust me when I say this, you got the ability to provide sex? You got something everybody wants.”

Lindsay crossed her legs and hugged her arms to her body. “I’m not sure I want boys looking at me that way.”

“Oh, it’s not about ‘boys’.” She raised her fingers in air quotes. “It’s about human experience. And what’s more human than sex?” She jerked her head toward the stage where two of the men locked lips while a third traced his mouth down the back of one of them.

“I guess…” She shrugged. “I dunno. My boyfriend and I are pretty close. Or…we were. I sort of left things hanging when I came here.”

It could have been a trick of the flashing lights, but it looked to Lyndria like the other girl was close to tears. “You think he might have found someone else?” she asked softly.

Lindsay shook her head vigorously. “No! Nothing like that. Believe me, he’s the last person who would ever do something like that. It’s just…I don’t know when I’m going home. Or even…even if I am.”

“Well, don’t think about it.” It seemed an obvious solution to Lyndria. “Look, if it’s meant to happen, it’ll happen. In the meantime…there’s booze.”

“I can’t get drunk.”

“Oh, come on. I’m your boss. You can get drunk if I say you can get drunk.”

“No, I mean I physically can’t. My metabolism processes the alcohol too fast.”

Lyndria shrugged. She tipped her head backward over the couch and bellowed, “Hey, Crystal!”

A mousy looking guy in a gray hoodie and baggy pants shambled over. “You still dealing?” Lyndria asked.

Crystal raised his eyebrow. “Since when do you do Null?”

“Since never. Don’t need to shit on my powers to get high. My friend here, however…”

“Yeah, yeah, fine. You got money?”

“You want money, or you want me to ride your cock for a bit?”

Lindsay made a sound of protest, but Lyndria waved her off. Crystal jumped over the back of the couch and fished a small package out of his pocket containing a single pill shaped like his namesake. Lyndria took it from him with one hand, while the other worked at his jeans. She handed the pill to Lindsay. “Here. Take it. Get high. Forget your life for a while.” She grinned. “Seriously? It’s not that fucking bad.”

Chapter 15: Lost

Posted: June 9, 2015 in Book 1
Tags: , , , ,

Charity felt like she was falling. The small motorboat wasn’t supposed to tip that way, but it was. And then she was flying. She lost the fiberglass floor of the boat somewhere in the air, and then she was falling. The water was a shock to her system. It was cold and wet. For a moment, she forgot how to breathe, and then she wished she’d kept forgetting because she couldn’t breathe in the water. She coughed and spluttered, which just made it worse. Panic set in, and her lungs screamed. Her mouth opened to join them, and more water flowed in. Her arms thrashed around and she grabbed for something—anything. Her fingers tingled. Heat burned in her body, and it felt like every cell was vibrating. She’d just learned about cells this year at school. Briefly she imagined them doing what they were supposed to be doing, growing and dividing, making more, except that they were trying to make so much energy. More energy than she could control.

Something in the water lit up and it got really warm in spots. She clawed her way in the direction she desperately hoped was the surface, except that she was positive all she was doing was going farther down. Down so far, that Daddy would never find her. She would die at the bottom of the lake, her body resting on the mud and weeds, and they would never find her.

Then she broke the surface, and gasped the life-giving air. The second breath brought more water into her lungs, and she nearly gave up then. The water wanted her to die. The second she thought of that, she got angry. Well, if that’s what it wanted, it was going to be disappointed. She knew where the surface was now, so she scrambled for it again.

Another wave smashed into her, and she swallowed half of it. She coughed. Her whole body shook. Her stomach rolled, and all of the sudden she wasn’t just coughing up water, but everything else that was in her stomach too.

The water was really fast, and by now, it had taken the boat so far away, she’d never get to it. “Daddy!” she screamed, but there was no answer. She was alone. The terror set in again. “Daddy!”

The current was so strong that it threatened to pull her under. That scared her even more. It whipped her past a small island. She began to claw at the water, fighting and struggling with everything she had to get back to it. She had to get to land. It seemed so far away. After what seemed like hours—though it was probably only minutes—she was almost ready to give up. Exhaustion set in. Her arms ached and her chest burned. She wanted so badly to give up.

By the time she got there, her fingers were so numb she couldn’t feel the rock she clung to. She’d lost a sneaker; funny that she hadn’t noticed that till now. Her feet were heavy, and the other shoe came off as she willed her legs to climb onto the bank. Her head hurt, and everything spun at a crazy angle. The ground hugged her, which was a little insane, but at least it wasn’t going to try to kill her.

She was going to sleep now. She could breathe, that was the important thing. Sleep. Daddy would find her.

Charity’s eyes opened as she woke to a slow, steady beep, beep, beep. She was in the hospital. The flannel sheets of the hospital bed were warm under her fingertips. And not water. That was the important thing. She never wanted to go near water again. But now it was over, and she was safe. She smiled a little. She knew Daddy would find her.

Her head moved a little and she saw someone sleeping awkwardly in the chair beside her bed. She noticed his sneakers first, for some reason. I’m going to need new sneakers. Hers were lying at the bottom of the lake. Even if someone found them, she didn’t want them back. They would be too wet.

The man seemed familiar. He wasn’t very old; Charity guessed maybe twenty. He was kind of cute, too, with dark hair and long eyelashes resting against his cheek. His lips were full. She imagined he might be a good kisser. She wondered who he was—and better question, what was he doing here? Watching her? That was kind of creepy.

He stirred a little and shifted in his seat. His brow furrowed. A second later, he started rubbing his neck, massaging out what must be a super bad cramp. His eyes blinked open. They were a really nice hazel color, just like Marcus’. Come to think of it, he looked an awful lot like Marcus would if he was all grown up. But that couldn’t be him. He was only five.

The man all of the sudden looked at her. He blinked, a little stunned. Then, for some reason, relieved. “Charity,” he gasped, and she wondered how he knew her name. He slid over to the bed and plunked beside her as he hit the intercom button. “Dr. Franks! She’s awake.” Then he grabbed her hand. “Oh, thank God, you’re awake.”

Charity frowned. Was he crying? “Who…” Her throat was so dry. That seemed weird to her, considering she’d nearly drowned, she almost thought her body would never want water again. Maybe she’d drank so much her body needed so much more water to feel normal, like building up a tolerance to drugs. They’d just learned about that in school too. She cleared her throat and tried again. “Who are you?”

The man looked confused. “It’s me, Marcus.”

Charity almost giggled a little, except she felt too tired to go through the motions. “Heh. That’s my brother’s name.”

He gripped her hand. “Charity. It’s me. Marcus.”

Well, he was rather persistent. “Yeah, you said that. Where’s my mom and dad?”

He didn’t answer right away, which made Charity get an awful feeling in the pit of her stomach. “Charity, what’s the last thing you remember?”

“I-I remember falling into the water. The boat turned over and then…” She hesitated. Her sparks had gone a little crazy, she was sure of that. But no one would believe her if she said she could make electricity come out of her hands. “…And then I got to shore, and I guess I blacked out.” Her bottom lip quivered and tears pooled in her eyes. The feeling that something terrible happened grew. “I want my mom and dad….where are my mom and dad?”

The doctor came in and started making notes on her data pad from the machines all around.

“Charity, how old are you?” Marcus asked.

“Twelve. Where’s my mom and dad?” She was feeling a little panicked right now, like she was drowning all over again.

“Charity…” Marcus looked like he didn’t know what to say. He looked to the doctor for some kind of cue. She didn’t say anything. Marcus finally just continued. “Charity, that accident happened twelve years ago.”

Charity’s eyes went wide, and she pulled away from him. “I-if this is some kind of joke, it isn’t funny. That…that can’t be true.” She hugged her arms to herself and sat up. Then she looked down. Her body wasn’t the body of a twelve-year-old. She put her hands to her face and felt her hair. It was stringy, like it hadn’t been washed properly, which tracked with a boating accident, but more to the point, it was short.

“My hair’s short. Why is my hair short?” Suddenly, trying to figure that out seemed very important. Her mind grappled with that question, focused entirely on it. There was so much going on, but if she just asked one question at a time, starting with the simple ones with simple answers she could piece everything together. And because if she asked that question, then she didn’t have to ask about Mom and Dad again. Because if she asked about them, she had a feeling she wouldn’t like the answer. “Why is my hair short?” She nearly screamed it this time, trying to drown out the other questions.

“I-I don’t know!” Marcus didn’t sound any calmer than she felt. “I think you just wanted to be different. Ask Meryl. She’s your best friend. She was there with you when you cut it.”

So much for a simpler question with a simpler answer.

“Besides, I think Eric liked it better that way anyway.”

“Who?”

“Your boyfriend.”

“I have a boyfriend?” Her voice sounded so small and far away, even to her own ears.

“Yeah. Pretty serious too. You almost broke up forever when you couldn’t tell him about your powers, but he ended up figuring out what was going on, so you’ve been doing all right since then.”

“Oh. Wait, you know about my…electricity thing?”

In answer, Marcus held up his hand. Electricity arced between his fingers.

“Oh. So…you’re actually my brother then, aren’t you?“

Marcus nodded.

“Marcus…”

“Yeah?”

“What happened to Mom and Dad?”

Marcus’ eyes filled with tears again, and Charity wanted to cover her ears before he answered the question. She didn’t want to know. He took her hand. “Charity…they didn’t survive that accident.”

She was expecting that answer, but somehow it still didn’t feel real. Her breath escaped in a strangled sob. She hadn’t realized she’d been holding it. Marcus put his arms around her, her little brother, now all grown up. All that was left.

“It’s just been you and me for a while,” he said. “But you’ve been the best big sister ever. I guess it’s my turn now to take care of you. I’m just glad you’re okay. I’m so glad you’re okay.”

Well, that was fine, but she still wanted her Daddy. She was terrified and confused, and she wanted his big strong arms around her so bad it hurt. Yet she clung to this man like it was her last lifeline, because maybe it was. He was all she had left.

A man came in a little bit later and talked to the doctor, then said he was Eric. That was her boyfriend? He was so old. Of course, she reflected, she was old too. That bothered her more than she thought it should.

She learned a lot of things that night. She learned that her best friend was an alien. That was kind of cool. She was a super hero, even if she was really old, and she belonged to a team of super heroes. That team was under attack right now by some kind of fairy. And somehow that had something to do with the fact that she’d lost twelve years of her life. She hated that word, ‘lost’, like they were just misplaced behind the couch somewhere. One of her team mates was suspected for having caused this fairy attack, and even killing another team mate, but no one actually believed he did it. The guy who died was her best friend’s brother, which made her heart ache with empathy. It wasn’t fair. Why did all these people who were family have to die?

* * * *

Eric tried not to stare at her. He could see it made her uncomfortable, a little girl receiving undue attention from a much older guy. It took all his willpower not to wrap his arms around her, to kiss her, hold her like the first time they’d made love. “It’d have to be an inside job,” she told Eric.

He laughed, startling himself. He’d begun to think he’d never laugh again. “You’ve been watching too many political thrillers. It’s always an inside job. Life’s not made of tropes—we’ve had this discussion.” Not that she’d remember it. He resisted the urge to ruffle her hair in a patronizing motion.

“But it makes sense! No one else could get that close to you guys—to us. Nobody else would know how to hurt you as bad as they did.”

He was quiet after that, thinking.

Eric hated to admit it, but twelve-year-old Charity did have a point. These attacks were vicious and personal. It was more than just knowing intimate details of their lives. It was understanding them on a level deeper than they understood themselves. Sure, a Fae could read his mind, but were they capable of grasping the depth of his love for Charity? Did they get that, having lost her once, he would drive straight through hell and back before losing her again? Did they feel his growing insanity as she looked at him with those big, brown eyes and didn’t remember him in the slightest?
He considered Drake again, though he felt a little like he was committing some kind of betrayal by just thinking about it. “I need you to take point on this investigation.” The words replayed themselves in Eric’s mind. I’m too close. When we catch this bastard, I want to nail the son of a bitch to the wall. I don’t want to see him get off scot-free because of some bullshit implication of conflict of interest.”

Those were not the words of a man in control. They were not the words of a man pretending to lose control. If Drake was playing this game, and playing to win, that was not a move he’d make.

Which begged the question, who were the other players?

The door to Charity’s hospital room opened and closed with a click. Marcus didn’t look up until a paper bag waved in his face. “What’s this?”

“Vegetable soup.” Allen gave him a lopsided smile. “Tracy’s mom always makes it whenever she knows people are upset, so I thought maybe it would help if I got the chefs here to make it for you.”

In spite of himself, Marcus smiled. “Thanks. For everything. I mean it, Allen.” He sighed and ran his hands over his face. “Fuck, I hate this. It’s just so…” He trailed off, trying to find the right word.

“Hard?”

“Cliche. I feel like I’m stuck in the middle of some goddamned soap opera. There’s nothing going on here that’s not an archetype of the difficulty a character goes through on television.”

“Are you telling me you’re pregnant?” Allen quipped.

Marcus smirked. “Funny. That would almost be par for the course, though. A month ago, I would have said that me birthing a child would be more likely than the Lost City of Atlantis reappearing.”

He opened the bag and took out the Styrofoam container. Opening the lid revealed a cornucopia of excellent smells and reminded him that he was actually hungry. He had half of it wolfed down before he realized what he was doing. “My God. That’s really good.”

“I know, right? Who could have guessed that something so healthy would be so amazing?”

“This is your girlfriend’s mom’s recipe?”

Allen laughed. “I don’t know if she would call it a recipe. She more or less throws whatever veggies she can find into to it. Also, bacon.”

“Bacon is a vegetable.”

“It totally is.”

Allen sat, then shifted in his chair. “Speaking of girlfriends, where’s Lindsay been?”

Marcus’ grin faded. “I don’t know. She, um… She quit.”

Allen blinked. “She what? Can you even do that?”

“Not really. Delta’s a little…totalitarian like that. I mean, people leave, but it’s usually with a kind of understanding that Delta’s always going to be watching them and they have to come in if duty calls. But like three weeks ago, she sent me a text saying she couldn’t be a hero anymore and took off to Quebec. Delta’s got no jurisdiction there.”

Allen was quiet for a moment. “Are you okay?”

“Honestly? Not really. I get that she’s having a rough time of it, I really do. She took Stryker’s death really hard, but… Dammit, Allen, I need her right now. I need my girl.”

The chair scraped and Allen stood up. “Well then, I’m just going to have to find her.”

Marcus blinked at him. “Wait, what? Dude, I appreciate it, but aren’t you kind of needed here?”

“Not really, no. I mean, think about it, I’m just sitting around on my ass waiting for something to hit. This way I’m actually doing something. Besides, I hear Montreal is nice this time of year.” He grinned and headed for the door. He turned. “Marcus, I promise. I’ll bring her back.”

* * * *

Eric was having a staring contest with his whiskey bottle. It didn’t blink. A small voice told him to give it up, that he had a mystery to solve. A much louder voice told him to drink and forget it. There was no way he could figure out what was going on.

He was still debating it when he realized he’d taken not one, but three more whiskey shots. Ah, well, I tried. He gave up on the glass, then, and soon passed out.

“Get in the car, Eric!” Charity screamed at him.

Eric did so, reflecting that it was a very weird time to go on a road trip when Charity was in the hospital in a deep coma, but if that’s what she wanted, then okay. They took off just as the first bomb hit. “You know, if we leave now, we’’ll never see the city like this again.”

“I know.” Charity gave him a sympathetic look. “I’m sorry.”

“It’s not your fault.” Then whose was it? Eric felt like he knew the answer to that question, but he couldn’t quite pin it.

“Big Brother’s watching,” Drake said from the back seat. He pointed up. Sure enough, through the car roof, Eric could see a huge eye in the sky, open almost like a portal to another dimension. Through that portal came thousands of black objects, swirling and swimming around like a swarm of insects.

“A bomb’s coming,” Charity told him, much like she’d say that it was going to snow.

“Yeah,” Eric agreed. It was just the two of them, now. “Better get driving.”

She did what she was told and pushed the pedal as close to the floor as it would go. The car rocked with the world around him as the ground was struck with a nuclear missile. In the distance, Eric could see the mushroom cloud of dust. “Go, go, we have to go, and pray to God we can outrun it.”

“Okay.”

“Here! Here! The underpass. We’ll hide there until the storm passes.”

Charity drove right by that underpass and stuck to the road for some distance, the dust cloud on her tail, but then she careened off the highway through a guardrail. Eric watched as they plummeted past one layer of the intersecting overpass, and then another. Finally, after falling for what seemed like thousands of feet, they landed on the road. With a screech of the tires, Charity brought the car underneath the bridge.

The two of them tumbled out of the car and ducked under the low bridge. Eric buried his face in his knees. He could feel the roof closing in.

And then the blast hit. He could feel the wind rushing through the concrete thousands of feet above him. The air grew hot and heavy. He couldn’t breathe. His lungs gasped for air, burning with the heat of the nuclear ash and lack of oxygen.
Then it was over. Eric heard footsteps on the grated stairs from the upper level. They echoed through the deserted stairwell that had become his and Charity’s shelter.

An old Asian man popped his head and stared at them upside down through the stairs. “Oh. You need help? I help you, yes?” He had the voice of an old mentor from a badly done foreign film.

Eric just nodded. “I have to find the one who threw the bomb, though.”

“Okay, I help.”

The old Asian man pointed at the bomb casing. The dust wafted across the open field where Eric stood alone. “Move that so you can see who’s behind it.”

That seemed legit. Eric grasped it with both arms and lifted. His suit wrapped around his body to assist. He would know who was behind it all, and that knowledge would get him killed. He did a half turn and set down the bomb. His eyes opened wide with shock and recognition.

Eric woke to a painful neck cramp from sleeping on the table, the evidence of last night’s binge drinking on the table in front of him. For a second he considered trying to force himself back into slumber. He’d figured it out, he was sure. In his dream, he’’d seen the mastermind. All the pieces had fallen into place, and everything made sense. If only he could get that back!

He’d come back to his apartment for a change of scenery, but that was absolutely no help, so he made his way back to Delta’s Island. The moment he set foot in the high-rise, he could feel Charity’s presence in an inexplicable way. Just knowing she was here made his heart twist. Yet, he couldn’t bear to go to the infirmary. Charity was out cold and out of reach. For a second he thought that at this rate, she might as well be dead. He quickly put a lid on it. So long as she was breathing, there was hope. But he still couldn’t bring himself to go see her.

Instead, he sat in the common room at the Delta Division headquarters with his tablet and a latte. For the hundredth time, he went over the evidence and everything else he knew. Point one: the Fae were back in town. Mischievous and disorganized, they operated with fear, rallying only when a powerful person gave them direction. They seemed to have infiltrated the entire planet. Ferreting them out would likely require an alliance with the Elves of Atlantis. Point two: Stryker was assassinated with a method that nullified his powers. Usually the first suspect would be Solstice in this instance, but they were equally confused and desperate to find out how it was done so they could duplicate it.

That list threatened to get long as each point branched off into interconnecting sub points. He’d have to ask Sam for a war room where he could spread everything out evenly. While he was making mental lists, he decided instead to focus on a list of the attacks.

First, there was Stryker. No, that wasn’t right. Technically, Charity had been attacked first, it just hadn’t become evident until much later. So, in a reaction to what seemed like a global infiltration of Shadow Fae, they’d gone to investigate the only other god-like being they’d heard of on this planet. That had more or less been a bust, especially since they’d been pulled early.

Eric thought a minute. They’d been pulled just as Stryker was assassinated. He flipped his tablet to his records to see exactly the time that the shot was fired, then checked the time that Charity got bit. He allowed himself to theorize for a second. What if the assassin was waiting for the attack on Charity? What if Charity was the target and Stryker was just a distraction to make sure no one noticed she had been infected?

Then there was Sam. Still alive, but was it coincidence that she’d been poisoned on the same night as Stryker’s assassination? For that matter, why poison? It was such an archaic, unreliable method of killing, especially with someone like Dr. Franks in the building. Why would anyone even attempt such a thing? Unless it was meant to fail.

“Hello, Mr. Harrington. How are you holding up?” Sam slid into the chair across from him, the picture of dignity.

Eric looked up from his tablet. “Evening, Director. As well as can be expected, I guess. I keep hoping I’ll drink myself into a lucid dream that’ll reveal it all.”” He smiled, and Sam chuckled.

“We can only hope, I suppose. But until they discover a reliable method for substance-induced dreamscape fortunetelling, perhaps it would be better for you to remain sober. Especially when on the job.” Her smile scolded him gently, and without judgment.

Eric nodded to his latte beside him. “Just coffee and milk. Not even a hint of cream liqueur.”

“Pity.” She smiled.

“Right?” He drawled it the way the kids did. His smile faded. “If you’re looking for a report, I’m afraid I haven’t got much beyond what we already know. I keep asking myself why? Why would anyone want to do this?”

Sam just looked at him for a moment. “You know Mr. Hacherobei wouldn’t need a reason beyond ‘because I can’.”

“Oh, that’s right. You still like Drake for the mastermind.” He shook his head. “I have to say something just doesn’t fit. Sure, there are some points that are so perfectly timed and executed that only someone with his level of skill could pull it off; yet there are others that are downright sloppy.”

“For instance?”

“For instance, why would the most paranoid man on the face of the planet walk into a trap, especially where mindreading was involved?”

“If you’ll remember, he balked like a stubborn mule against that. He threatened to walk away before they pinned him down.”
“Yeah, why go at all? If he was that worried about getting caught—and if he was guilty, he would be—why take the chance an Elf is going to poke around in his brain? He’s clever. I’m quite certain he could have gotten out of going if he wanted to.”

“You make a fair point,” she conceded.

“I think it far more likely his issue is just one more attack. Think about it. This has been all about spreading fear. Stryker and Thundra are prominent public figures. Stryker was publicly executed. Charity…” His voice caught. “Thousands of people saw her fall, and then millions more on social media. Alliance City is on edge. The rather loud arrival of Atlantis just exacerbated that fear. People have always feared Mister X, so how will they react when they find out he’s done what they’ve always expected him to do? Their fears will be confirmed.”

“Why would someone want to spread so much unnecessary fear, though?”

“A means to an end. What end, I haven’t the faintest idea.” Eric sighed and rubbed his bloodshot eyes. “We don’t have a damn thing to counter the Fae. We don’t know how to fight them.” He paused. “But the Elves do.”

Sam just smiled. “And that’s where I come in.”

Eric shrugged. “You’re the best damn political negotiator I’ve ever seen. If anyone can do it, you can.”

“Well, it seems I have a speech to prepare,” Sam said as she stood. “You have a good evening, Mr. Harrington. Get some sleep. Come at the case with a fresh mind in the morning.”

“Sure.” He rose as well, out of respect and they exchanged a respectful nod as she left the common room for her office.
It wasn’t until an hour later that Eric got the distinct feeling he’d missed something in that conversation. Like déjà vu, but different, a thought that teetered on the edge of his metaphorical tongue that refused to solidify itself. As he curled into bed that night, he realized it was the same feeling he’d gotten the night of his strange dream where he’d seen the face of the mastermind, but had forgotten it by the time he woke.

It’s your imagination, he told himself. You’re overthinking it. Sam’s right. You need to get some sleep.

He found, to his surprise, that sleep wasn’t far off. Then the phone rang. Briefly, he considered ignoring it, but then decided it might be important, so he rolled over and checked the call display. It was Marcus. His heart gave one loud thump before he felt like it stopped completely. He answered.

“Hey.”

“She’s awake.”

Lindsay was starving. She had the constitution of a paragon, but she wasn’t immune to hunger. In fact, with an exceedingly high metabolism, she burned through calories faster than most. Right now, she regretted that.

She was currently halfway through her third truck stop breakfast special at a greasy diner between Alliance City and Montreal. After speeding across the border faster than most equipment could record, she’d stopped at a bus station. Swallowing the intense guilt, she’d pilfered a heavy gray sweatshirt with a deep hood, large sunglasses, and a watch to keep time. Pickpocketing was easy, though she made sure only to steal from people who looked like they could afford it. Then she bought a bus ticket. It would be faster if she flew—her speed topped out somewhere beyond the sound barrier, after all—but if she did that, Delta would be on her ass so fast.

She felt bad for what she’d done. Marcus was hurting, and she knew it, but she had to get out of there. She just couldn’t be around other heroes right now. Tears in her eyes blurred the eggs and bacon in front of her. What was she going to do now? She had no direction, no reason to keep being the hero. I’m not a hero. Not anymore.

What was she thinking? When she joined Delta, it was all she wanted to be. She wanted to be loved, she wanted people to pay attention to her. Where had that gotten her? For that matter, what difference did it make? Stryker always taught her to fight for something, to have a reason for every battle.

One time before Stryker’s assassination, she’d gotten bored and donned a disguise similar to what she wore now so she could wander through the group of anti-metahuman protesters that gathered around the lake on the mainland shore overlooking the Delta HQ. It was a memory that was hard to forget. The air was thick with cannabis and body odor as a throng of people pressed together singing tunelessly to a street rat with a guitar playing along with a group that gave a decent rendition of songs that were decades old. Some raised their hands, passionate in their passivity, taken in by the rush of euphoria provided either by being part of a crowd or heavy substance abuse. Probably both. After that, it became a common place for her to go when she wanted to get her hate on. They pissed her off so much. But the last time she was there, she’d realized that these people had something she didn’t.

A reason.

It was a stupid thing to envy them for. They were small, impotent people, screaming obscenities at anyone who was different. It was distilled stupidity, like reading the comments on an Internet forum.

And yet.

They had passion, a cause, a purpose for their voice. Granted, it was without credibility or anything that made them actually worth listening to, but in the end, did that matter? Stryker would have fought for them. He would have died for them, if someone hadn’t gotten the jump on him.

Delta was spinning its tires trying to find someone to blame, someone to hurt. Lindsay didn’t care anymore.

“Anything else, hon?” the waitress’ voice startled her. She didn’t look up at the woman, shielding her face behind the voluminous hood.

“No. No, that’s fine. Just the check, please.” It was kind of silly asking for it because she had no intention of paying. She could zip out faster than the security cameras could see, and certainly faster than anyone could catch.

What are you doing? From hero to common thief in a matter of days.

She shook away the voice. She’d saved the world a time or two, right? Taking a little food wouldn’t hurt.

“You know, sweetcheeks, you’d do a lot better job of being invisible if you hung out at fast food places where tiny teenage girls actually hung out, instead of a restaurant mostly populated by trucker caps and flannel.”

Lindsay nearly hit the roof at the sudden presence of a strange man. Ignoring her discomfort, he slid into the booth across from her. “Oh, hi, by the way.”

Lindsay blinked. What the hell was she supposed to say to that? Who was this guy? If he was going to hurt her, he’d find his man parts crushed so fast he’d never come down from the girlish scream. “Who are you?”

“Your worst nightmare?” He voiced the statement as a question and winked, which made his words either a joke or the truest thing ever. “I’m Donald Kazuki. You might know me as ‘that rat bastard’ or ‘the old man’ or more likely by just plain nothing because my kid doesn’t ever talk to anyone about me. Unless he likes you, then he probably won’t ever shut up about the angst in his life. Have you heard the story about how he was a Fae host for a year?”

Well, that was something at least. “You’re Drake’s dad.”

“The one and only. At least I would presume so. Last I checked, he wasn’t conceived in a bizarre mating ritual that involved multiple men donating their genetic material.”

Lindsay made a face. “That’s…really gross.”

Donald grinned again. “Sweetie, flattery will get you everywhere.”

Lindsay didn’t say anything for a moment. “I’m not going back with you.”

Donald shook his head. “Lindsay, Lindsay, Lindsay, didn’t your mother every teach you not to make assumptions?”

“Well, I never knew my real mother, so I’m gonna go with no.”

“Condolences.” He didn’t sound very sympathetic. “Well, did your mother ever reach through time, space, and reality and teach you not to make assumptions?” Lindsay made a face and confused noises. “Don’t be surprised, that happens more than you might think.”

“You…don’t plan on taking me back, do you?”

“That depends.” His voice softened, and Lindsay could swear he lost the crazy eye. “Why did you run away?”

Lindsay gaped at him for a moment, then glanced away. “I…I don’t know. I just…there wasn’t anything left for me. I mean, when I started with Delta, I just wanted to be a hero, I wanted people to notice me. And they did, and they loved me, but he still died, and the only thing that’s left is this stupid little girl who—“ She started crying. Tears spilled over onto her cheeks. Then she glared at Donald. “And why am I telling you this anyway, it’s none of your damn business.”

He was playing the quiet old man now, so he didn’t say anything to that. He seemed entirely unperturbed by her tears. She continued babbling in spite of herself. “Stryker always had a reason to fight, something that always kept him going. He said that’s what made him strong. But I don’t think he ever knew that he was mine. I wanted to prove myself to him, wanted to show him I could be worthy of all the attention I got. But it doesn’t matter anymore. He’s dead.”

She sniffed and wiped her runny nose against her sleeve. “Maybe that’s why I ran away. To find something to fight for.”

“And finding the mastermind behind the assassination? That’s not it?”

“You know, I thought about it? I spent a whole night dreaming of tearing whoever it was apart. But the thing is, even if I could figure it out, even if I tracked down the evil son of a bitch and murdered him, it won’t bring him back. And in that hunt, more people are going to die, and more and more, and I’m just tired of it. I don’t want to kill people. I just want it all to stop.” She shrugged. “I dunno. Maybe that’s what I’m supposed to be fighting for. To make the fighting stop.”

“And how are you going to do that?”

“I don’t know, I don’t even know if that’s what I’m supposed to be doing.”

Donald gave her an exasperated sigh. “Listen, dumpling, do you think your boy saved the world because of some freaky alien powers?” He put on a thinking face for a moment. “Actually, that’s exactly how he did it. But let me tell you something. You know that fight with Kronos that everyone’s so impressed about? I was there. You know what he did in that fight? Not a damn thing. Now don’t look so outraged,” he said, because that’s exactly what she looked like. “He didn’t need to do anything. He and his sister, and I daresay puppy dog Jayson willed Kronos to be beaten. Now, I don’t know if it was God, or metaphysical connection that the wonder twins had to mister high-and-mighty titan of time, but I do know this. Kronos is buried because they believed it to be so.

“You want the fighting to stop? Believe it. Will it. Because that will is all you’ll have left when your world starts crumbling before your eyes. It’s that will that your enemy is trying to break, to manipulate, to bend. So if you have to walk away for now, then so be it. Find your center, or Zen, or whatever you hippy kids are calling it these days.”

He rolled his eyes. “Look, you seem like a nice kid and all. A little, you know, teenage girl, but aren’t we all. When you’re in Montreal, look up a pal of mine. Name’s Liam. He got a little tired of Delta’s whole ‘work for us or else’ shtick. Think you can handle that?”

Lindsay nodded. She really wasn’t sure about this guy, but it wouldn’t hurt to look the man up, right?

The old man insisted on paying the bill, though the credit card he used had an obvious alias, so Lindsay wasn’t quite sure how that was different from outright stealing the food, but whatever.

The rest of the trip was uneventful. She took Donald’s advice and started getting her stolen food in places where no one would look at her twice. She never did look up Liam once her bus stopped in Montreal, determined to fend for herself. She didn’t need another adult telling her what to do.

Malls were her comfort zone anyway. She got good at finding cameras so she could avoid any direct visual contact, occasionally super-speed stealing a different set of clothing so she’d never be identified by her hoodie. Always from big corporations though, and she’d donate her discarded clothing to some charity for homeless people. She rotated food courts on a non-regular basis, moving all over the city. No one ever bothered her, and she got really good at people-watching.

She had her favorites, though. The one she stopped in an afternoon weeks after her arrival was one she frequented. It was huge, with three food courts, hundreds of clothing and novelty stores, and a shoe selection enough to make her dreams come true. She was sitting in the middle of the crowd at a lone table when the machine gun fire started. Glass shattered overhead and people screamed.

Her training kicked in. Identify the villain, disarm him. She darted toward the first gunman and grabbed his gun, making sure it was smashed. She felt bullets pelt her back, but ignored them in the split second it took to take that gun away too. Then engage to discover the nature of the threat.

“Boys, boys, boys, can’t we all just get along?”

They were the strong, silent type, and didn’t respond. But one of them glanced quickly up to the roof. What would he be looking there for? Lindsay followed his gaze. Positioned by the skylight was another armed gunman. He pulled the trigger, but not before Lindsay shot into the sky, leaving crumbled tile in her wake, and then got her hand on the end of the barrel. The gun backfired, exploding in his face.

Lindsay sighed. “Here, I thought I was doing so well staying under the radar.”

The boys below took advantage of Lindsay’s divided attention and made a running dash for a young redheaded girl. Lindsay wasn’t as distracted as she seemed to be, though. Before the man could reach his target, Lindsay dashed in front of him and grabbed his weapon from his hand, a long combat knife.

Security was starting to crowd the place. It was time to book. Lindsay took off into the sky. Damn, and I really liked that mall. She couldn’t go back, that was for sure.

Stupid, stupid, stupid. So much for laying low, and not fighting until she found something to fight for. What were you going to do? Let people die?

She landed on the roof of the abandoned building she was using as a shelter for the moment. In a fit of anger, she wound up and gave a soccer kick to an archaic stovepipe. It sailed into the sky, probably to startle some poor, unsuspecting sunbather in the next county. Lindsay didn’t care. How could she be so stupid?

Well, she was just going to have to really lay low now. No more of this hanging around people, not if she was going to get into the nasty habit of saving them. She’d have to work on grabbing food and running before she ate.

Calm down, she told herself. You’re overreacting. She took a breath. Her inner voice was probably right. She needed to relax. She ran through a few calisthenics to mend her shattered nerves. She was sitting in a calm, meditative position, when she heard a voice behind her.

“Hell of a view, huh? Nice rooftop, if you’re into the whole brooding thing.”

Well, there went her relaxed feeling.

Lindsay jumped to her feet to see someone standing behind her. She was a blonde girl, perhaps a few years older than Lindsay. She was petite and well-proportioned, and drop dead sexy. Lindsay had no interest in girls, but she suddenly understood why some chicks went through a collage experimental phase. She took a defensive posture. “Who the hell are you?”

She spoke with a thick accent which somehow made her hotter and didn’t impede understanding at all. “My name’s Lyndria. And I think I owe you a thank you.”

Lindsay blinked. “At the mall. Those people were after you. Wait, didn’t you have red hair?”

Lyndria shrugged. “There’s people that want me dead. And my bodyguards are clearly doing a stellar job of making sure that doesn’t happen.” She rolled her eyes. “Anyway. It would be kinda nice to have someone on the payroll who can take a bullet without flinching.”

It took a second for that to sink in. “Wait. You want to hire me? You don’t even know who I am, and you want to give me a position where I have to protect you?”

Lyndria looked at her. “Your name is Lindsay White. You’re one of three adopted children in your family, along with three other natural born to your parents. Of all your siblings, you’re the only one with powers. Three years ago, you signed up with the Delta Division under the name Spryte, and you’ve been making waves as a hero ever since.” She smiled. “I think it would be rather cool to have a hero at my back, actually.”

Lindsay was stunned. “H-how did you—“

“I have my sources. Why don’t you come down to my daddy’s place of business, and we’ll talk? I’m sure you’re going to want to know a thing or two about me if you’re going to be working for me, right?”

Lindsay nodded mutely. Then it occurred to her what she was agreeing to. “I, uh…I don’t know if that’s a good idea.”

“Oh, come now. Is there anything we could do that could seriously hurt you? Tell you what, I’ll answer your other question that you seem to have forgotten you had.” Before Lindsay’s eyes, the other girl shifted. Her hair went from blond to the red color she’d seen earlier. Her body changed too, went from buxom and sexy to a hot, girl-next-door appeal.

“See, I’m a meta too. There are a few of us in Quebec. It’s where we can go to make sure Delta can’t tell us what to do. No one in America can tell us what to do.”

“Yeah, Delta’s got partners in a few different countries around the world, but Quebec wasn’t one of them. I figured I wouldn’t have been the only one smart enough to figure that I had a certain amount of autonomy here.”

“Yeah, my mom left there a long time ago. My brothers have some shapeshifting abilities too.”

Lindsay nodded. She was silent for a moment, and then she said, “Fine. I’ll come. But that’s not a yes, you still have to convince me.”

Lyndria smiled. “I wouldn’t have it any other way.”

The drive was beautiful. The long, black limousine went to parts of Montreal that Lindsay never knew existed. She tended to avoid the places with big corporate offices anyway. They were of no use to her. Finally, they pulled up to a large office building. Huge buildings didn’t normally impress Lindsay, considering the Delta Division HQ was bigger and more impressive than most other buildings. Still, this was something else.

Lyndria got out of the car and Lindsay slid out after her. She watched the other girl stride into the building as if she owned it. Which, in a way, she did.

“My father’s in the import and export business,” Lyndria said as she nodded to the security guards. She stopped short by one of them and slipped a card in his pocket before caressing his forearm. She gave him a smile. “Call me, hm? It’ll be a night you won’t forget.”

The guard looked flustered. “Is…is that an order, miss?”

“I can make it one if that’s your thing. I just want to see that ass of yours put to good use.” She winked. “Barring that, you can do me a favor and let Santoro and Braden know I’m here.” They continued into the elevator and up to the top floor.

“I’ve been slipping my guards since I could walk,” she told Lindsay, “so you’ll have to watch for that. Though, you I like. You seem like you might actually be some fun.”

“Wait, I’m confused,” Lindsay said. “You have people that want to kill you, but you give you bodyguards the slip? That makes no sense.”

“Well, if I can get past them, then a killer’s going to be able to as well, right?”

Lindsay couldn’t argue with that logic. “You never said why people want to kill you.”

“Well, see, it’s like this. A few weeks ago, I woke up and my father and brothers were gone. Dunno why, and police and private investigators are absolutely useless in finding anything out. Now, in the event of my father’s death, everything was supposed to fall into my big brother’s lap, so I was cool being the one that never took responsibility for nothin’. Except that my brothers disappeared too, and so everything’s gonna go to me—if they’re found dead. Until then everything’s basically in some sort of limbo. I can’t make my claim, and there’s people who want to keep it that way.”

She made her statement as if family suddenly disappearing was the most natural thing in the world. Lindsay gaped at her, overcome with sympathy.

“If you say you’re sorry for my loss, you’re fired.”

Lindsay shut her mouth.

“I’ll pay you plenty. Room and board, plus a good salary. You in?”

There was something she should be asking, Lindsay was pretty sure. There was something going on here that she didn’t see, but this actually sounded like something decent. Maybe she just shouldn’t look a gift horse in the mouth.

Against her better judgment, she nodded.

It’s so…broken. That was the only thing Lindsay could think of when she touched down on the devastated shores of what was left of New Brunswick. There hadn’t been a shore there yesterday. Now the earth was cracked, washed away by a tidal wave, origin unknown. Lindsay was no scientist, but she was pretty sure a city as developed and cultured as Fredericton shouldn’t—couldn’t—be washed away like it was nothing for no reason. There has to be a reason. Tears welled in her eyes, and she almost screamed, why is this happening?

Shattered rooftops and felled trees thickened the water as it spread out at her feet. The smell was awful. Sewage floated in the gaps between shingles, siding, and two-by-fours. The water was a murky brown not just from the dirt uprooted in the flood. Among the neutral whites, grays, and browns of the refuse, something blue floated, like a bit of the sky had broken too, and had fallen into the shit-stained river. Lindsay hovered into the air and floated closer, examining it.

It was a body of a little girl, her blue dress twisted around her, halfway covering her face, leaving blank eyes staring into death.

Lindsay shrieked.

“Spryte!” The mission supervisor picked his way toward her. Lindsay could not remember his name if she tried, only that he was cute with his wavy dark hair and adorkable hipster glasses. She couldn’t even look at that right now as she screamed indecipherable words with her finger pointing at the body of the girl. She must have flown away, because the world blanked out for a minute, and suddenly she was up against a broken church building with her lunch sprayed on the red brick. Half a statue of the Divine Mother stared up at her, eyes as cold as the dead. She screamed again.

I can’t do this. I can’t do this.

She must have run much farther than she’d intended, because her super speed had carried her farther inland than she’d anticipated. Far in the distance, she stared at the border crossing between New Brunswick and Quebec. Decades ago, Canada and the United States of American had merged to become the North American Amalgamated States—at least most of it. Quebec’s separatists had become loud and influential during that time, and as the majority of the country embraced the new union, the former Canadian province took steps to become its own dominion. Now under its own governance, the small French-speaking country was determined to separate itself from its parent country in any way possible. When they had been approached by the Delta Division with the offer of cooperation with the agency, Quebec had refused to have anything to do with it. They would take care of their own ‘super heroes’.

This had the unintended effect of making the country act like a refuge to any meta who didn’t want to be part of the Delta Division. Lindsay had heard about such deserters. The Delta Division had a government mandate that allowed them to pressure any meta into joining—for the sake of safety, of course. It was a bit Big Brother, but Lindsay hadn’t considered it a problem until right this second. After all, who didn’t want to be a hero? If people with super powers couldn’t handle the idea of working in an organized group, well that just made them villains. If they aren’t for us, they’re against us.

Suddenly, it didn’t seem so simple. She’d read about people who ran away to Montreal where Delta couldn’t legally touch them—at least not overtly. There was some big political deal about it, and Lindsay didn’t fully understand exactly what was involved in the escape to Quebec, but at that moment, there was nothing she wanted more.

Her gaze traveled back East, where the rest of the cleanup crew were surely still dredging the water for more dead bodies. You’re supposed to be a hero. A hero wouldn’t run away. What would Stryker do?

“Stryker is dead!” she screamed. The words hung out over the deserted highway. “Stryker is dead!” It was almost therapeutic. She filled her lungs again and let out a long, primal scream. “Stryker’s dead.” It came out like a whisper. Her legs crumbled beneath her, and she collapsed onto the grassy lawn. Sobs shook her small shoulders. What’s the point in being a hero now?

She pulled out her phone. You do this, there’s no turning back. You can’t undo this. She scrolled through her messages to find the conversation that went on between her and Marcus. It was mostly cutesy pictures of kisses and cartoon figures with hearts. Her thumb pressed on the text box to send a message.

i can’t be a hero. im sorry.

She dropped her phone in the grass and shot into the sky.

* * * *

Marcus was exhausted as he stumbled back into the medical ward. It should have been an exhilarating experience of the conversation with the Elves. He should have been awed, thrilled even, but all he could think of was how much Charity would have wanted to be there.

And they’d lost someone else.

It made him sick to his stomach. Drake was a close friend of Charity’s, a mentor, someone Marcus had trusted. Could he really have done all those things they said? Was he the one to hurt Charity? The one to kill Stryker?

No, Jayson was right. Drake wouldn’t—couldn’t do this. Charity, John, Jay, Meryl—they were all his friends. Drake was bat fucking shit nuts, but he was loyal.

Wasn’t he? “A few deaths mean nothing.” The chilling words played over and over in Marcus’ head. He’s in love with Charity…which is why she is still alive.

His head spun, and he could feel the hairs on the back of his neck rising as the air charged around him.

Charity was still deep in her coma, her chest rising and falling with each breath. He supposed he should be grateful she could do that on her own. He sat by her bed, alone. Almost always alone. As the days had passed, Eric had stopped in every now and then, but he always smelled of whiskey and wasn’t much for conversation. He couldn’t comfort Marcus, though he’d occasionally attempted a sort of fatherly pat on the shoulder. At least Marcus assumed it was a fatherly gesture. Charity had been mother and father to him for so long.

“I’m sorry,” he whispered to the empty room with humming machines. It sounded strange, a harsh break in the rhythm of the mechanical beeps and clicks. His voice implied a life that didn’t really exist within the boundaries of those four walls.

He wasn’t sure what he was sorry for. For not protecting her in Ptah-Setker-Osiris? That was ridiculous, and she’d be the first to say it. For being her burden for so many years? He had been kind of a dick. He always resented her, rebelling at the place she had in his life. He never truly valued her care for him. Oh, sure, a bit of teenage rebellion was natural; but if he was going to be so anal about how she wasn’t his mom, why did he treat her like an overprotective mother? She was still just a kid herself when she was raising him. She was his sister, for God’s sake. Why couldn’t they have been closer?

That’s what he was sorry for. Here he had a sister that cared so much for him, would do anything, even give up her own life for him, and he’d taken that for granted. He’d resented her, believed her to be nothing more than a chain around his neck. Then she’d gotten stabbed.

He should have told her. He got now why Charity had never told him about her abilities; technically it was the same reason she’d not told Eric—it was considered treason. Besides, that would have been a super awkward ‘The Talk’. “Sit down, young man, let me tell you of the changes you’ll experience with your body. Your voice is going to drop, you’ll grow hair in strange places, feel weird urges, and start absorbing large quantities of electricity.”

Yeah, that would have gone well.

He missed her. He was already starting to forget what it sounded like when she laughed. She always had a nice laugh. Whenever she did that, he felt safe, like everything was going to be all right. Despite himself, he started crying.

“Hey, bro, how’s it going?” Allen poked his head into the room. He probably noticed the tears, but he politely ignored it.

Allen had been an awesome friend. Somehow beating the crap out of each other had been a bonding experience; and besides, he got the feeling that the other boy was lonely. The girl he was always hanging around with was his only friend.

“Oh, you know.” He shrugged, and left the sentence hanging.

“Yeah.”

“How about you?”

Allen shrugged. “Just got back from filling out the paperwork for the…heh…the Atlantis mission.”

Marcus quirked a smile. “You totally can’t even believe we went to the Lost City of Atlantis, can you?”

“Uh uh. You?”

Marcus shrugged.

“You…have other things on your mind.”

He nodded. “I’m having a little trouble embracing the whole ‘wonder’ thing right now.”

“Understandable.”

The silence stretched. Marcus finally broke it. “So…Drake. Do…do you think—”

“Not in a million years. Look, I get that I haven’t been around as much as some of the others, but I’ve talked with Drake. Gotten to know him a little.”

“No one ever gets to know Drake.”

“I know enough. I feel like he wouldn’t do this.”

A brick clip clop of fashionable heels sounded on the linoleum outside, a herald to the sharp rap on the hospital room door that interrupted their conversation. Samantha Clive opened the door. “Mr. London? Might I have a moment?”

Marcus stood, confused. “W-wha? Sure. I-I know I’m not done the paperwork yet, but—”

“There is an unrelated issue I wish to discuss with you. My office, please.”

Marcus glanced at Allen, then back at the doorway. It was empty now, the director having left for her office. Dread settled into Marcus’ chest to go along with all the other uncertain feelings that already resided there. “Guess it’s hard to say no to that tone.”

He followed the woman, feeling a little like he was walking into his own execution.

He didn’t catch sight of Sam again until he got to the office and Geoffry Davis ushered him into the stately room. He slumped his shoulders and stuck his hands into his pockets, but then thought better of it and stood up straight. Sam sat at her desk as if she had always been there. “Have a seat, Mr. London.”

“Yes, Ma’am.” He sat down in one of the plush chairs on the other side of her desk, a little harder than he intended. Again, he resisted the urge to slump. It occurred to ask what this was all about, but he sat there, tongue-tied.

“Mr. London, when was the last time you spoke to Lindsay White?”

“Huh? My girlfriend? Uh…this afternoon, I guess. Just before some of us got pulled to go to Atlantis. I assumed she’d been assigned to disaster relief.”

“She was. Her supervisor tells me she never reported back. Has Miss White talked to you at all since then?”

“Wha—uh…I don’t know. Let me check.” He pulled out his phone. He’d gotten used to being without the device, since his powers had been in the habit of frying them since he was fourteen. Even after he joined Delta and got access to surge protection technology, he forgot he had the damn thing half the time. He never checked it unless notified, and he’d been smart enough to turn off the ringer while they’d conversed with the Elves. A single message was waiting for him.

i can’t be a hero. im sorry.

He stared at the words as if his gaze would make the message make sense. “What?”

“We pinged her phone just outside the American and Quebec border. That location and your message leads me to believe Miss White no longer wishes to be part of us. Mr. London…Lindsay White has run away from the Delta Division.”

Allen hadn’t slept since Stryker was assassinated. He paced back and forth from his quarters to the infirmary and back again at least a dozen times an hour. Even the training room hadn’t given him any relief, now that Marcus was otherwise occupied.

He could feel Tracy’s eyes on him, full of sympathy. Her presence was the only thing that was keeping him from completely falling apart. He kept playing the raid on PSO over and over in his head, kicking himself for what happened to Charity. “I should have protected her,” he muttered into a plateful of mashed potatoes.

“From flies? What were you going to do, talk them to death?”

Allen rolled his eyes at her, but she had a point. They were sitting in the common room, pretending to eat something. Or rather, Tracy had eaten plenty, but Allen was still pushing food around on his plate from an hour ago. “I don’t know. Something.” Unable to sit still, he shoved away from the table and stood in front of the large bay windows overlooking the lake. This side of the building showed an expansive landscape of the city spread across the skyline. From here he could see the Skyway, a bridge that connected one part of Alliance City to another across a large canal. It was the perfect setting for an epic villain attack, if movies were any indication. In real life, that was a terrible idea. It was in full view of Delta’s headquarters. Evil couldn’t twitch its fingers on that bridge without someone noticing.

Of course, they’d been terrible at seeing every other threat coming.

“Allen, listen. You’re obviously up against someone who’s thought of everything. The whole point of what attacked Charity was that you wouldn’t know it happened. Hell, the timing was even on purpose. You all came back in a panicked rush to find the whole place turned upside down. Of course they’re going to forget to check for something as inconsequential as bug bites.”

He didn’t answer, and she made a face at him. “Allen, sit down.” He sat. He knew better than to argue with that tone of voice. She put a hand on his. “This is not your fault. Now stop beating yourself up, because if you wear yourself out with guilt, you’re not going to have anything left to kick the crap out of whoever’s behind this.” Tears filled his eyes despite himself. She was right, of course. She smiled at him. “You’ve always been stronger than even you ever knew.” Her hand stroked his cheek. “I love you, Allen.”

It thrilled him still to hear that. After so long of hiding his feelings, terrified of screwing up their friendship, it felt like a dream to hear it reciprocated. Somehow their chairs had gotten really close, and the way she leaned into him brought them closer still. Her blue eyes were so full of that ineffable emotion that Allen needed right now, and her lips were inches away from his. He leaned forward, entranced as she too closed the distance between them. “I love you too, Tracy,” he whispered just before their lips met.

That’s when the glass around them imploded into the building with an agonizing sonic scream.

* * * *

“Allen? Hey Allen, buddy, wake up.”

It was Jayson’s voice, Allen was pretty sure, but it sounded like he was underwater. He rolled over with a groan onto a bed made of shards of glass. Tracy. He sat up straight and his head jerked around as he tried to find his girl. She was with a medic, wincing as the woman pulled a shard of glass from her arm. She said something that Allen didn’t catch. “Sorry?” He scrambled over to her.

“I’m okay, Allen, really.” She didn’t look okay. She was bleeding from a myriad of cuts all over her body; however, the medic appeared to be a healer, so before Allen could get too worked up, the cuts disappeared.

Brusquely, the medic stood and touched Allen, and everything all of the sudden stopped sounding like it was so muffled. She was gone before Allen could thank her.

“The hell was that?” he asked Jay. “Also, weren’t you…somewhere else?” He wasn’t quite sure how to define that. ‘Out of the country’ didn’t seem to qualify. ‘Out of this world’ was accurate, but just sounded weird.

Jay shrugged. “Got me. I’m about to hit communications, maybe some satellite imagery will help. And my wife and I just got back an hour ago.”

Allen trotted along behind him. “Did you…did you find out anything?” He wasn’t really sure this was his business, but he would be damned if he was going to be shut out. Jay didn’t really seem to mind. Either that, or his mind was still in a fog. The man had lost his best friend. If he’’d ever lost Tracy…well, he was surprised Jay was still standing, truth be told.

Jayson stopped and looked at him. He looked so tired. “Nothing.”

Drake was in the communications room, which wasn’t a huge surprise, all things considered. Some of the others were there too, most notably Sam. “Are rescue efforts deployed over the city?” she asked Jayson.

He nodded. “What do we know?” Jayson asked Drake.

“It’s global, that’s for sure. Reports are coming in from all over the world.”

A technician called out, “We’re getting reports of combined earthquakes and floods from New Zealand, Chile, and Argentina.”

Sam nodded. “Let’s get coordinated with our headquarters in England, Australia, Japan…”

The list went on, and Allen tuned it out, instead watching with fascination as Drake flipped through the holographic satellite images. Jayson was going through the roster of Delta heroes, his hands flickering through the intangible billboards, putting together teams to deploy all over the world. Allen waited for his name to be called.

“What the…hell?” Drake stared at the display, puzzled. With all the uncertainty that was already plaguing them, that worried Allen. Drake was never puzzled about anything. “Jayson, look at this.”

Jay stopped mid-sentence and looked at the display. By the shape of the land mass displayed, it looked like Antarctica. His face echoed Drake’s puzzlement. “What the hell is Atlantis doing here?”

Allen blinked. Tracy asked the question before he could. “Wait, Atlantis? As in, Lost City of?”

Sam’s eyes flickered over to Tracy. “What’s she doing here? This is not a good time for a visit. We are in the middle of multiple deployments and it seems we will be initiating a highly classified mission. I do not have time to be lenient on this.”

Allen opened his mouth to protest, but Tracy just squeezed his hand. “Good luck, Hero Boy, she whispered, and then she was gone out the door. Allen felt a great emptiness at his side.

Drake looked at Jayson. “Atlantis appears in the middle of a widespread Fae attack? That’s not an coincidence.” Jay nodded.

“I agree,” Sam said. “I’ll be taking a delegation with me to speak to the Elves. Mr. Herrington, presuming you’re still taking point on the Stryker investigation, you may want to be there. Mr. Allison, please get a hold of your wife. We’ll need her language comprehension. Mr. Hachirobei, you too. Spark Plug, Inferno, Spirit, you’’ll form a bodyguard for the delegation. Suit up, everyone, we leave in ten.”

Allen lost no time in donning his custom-made leather jacket over a red t-shirt. He slipped on a pair of black fingerless gloves as an added touch. He had no mask. A secret identity was a little useless after a video of you throwing a lunchroom table gets a few hundred thousand hits. He met the others in the briefing room.

“I get why I’m going, cause I’m awesome,” Mitch was saying, ““But why did they want bring a geek like you?” He poked Marcus in the side.

“Lay off, dick.” Marcus shoved him back. He glanced at Drake. “But really, shouldn’t I stay here? I mean, what if Charity wakes up?”

Drake snapped shut a cover on his gear. “When Charity wakes up, she’ll want to know that you’re doing your job. Besides, she’ll kill you herself for missing a chance to see the Lost City of Atlantis.”

“Yeah, about that,” Mitch said, “I thought that was all bullcrap. I mean, isn’t Atlantis supposed to be a myth or something?”

“Allegory,” Marcus interjected. “Strictly speaking, any text referencing Atlantis was written as a sort of fable to illustrate the fallacy of mankind’s hubris—what?” Everyone was staring at him now.

“You really are missing your sister aren’t you?” Drake said with amusement.

“Shut up.”

Jay raised his eyebrow at Mitch. “You control fire. With your mind. And you draw the line at an advanced city?”

Mitch shrugged. “Valid point.”

“I’m pretty sure there’s an actual reason Sam chose you two,” Jay continued. “The Elves wield elemental magic based around Earth, Air, Fire, Water, Light, and Darkness. That makes Mitch an obvious choice. Fire magic basically controls energy, so Marcus’ abilities count too. Sam wants to come into this diplomatic meeting with a position of strength. Both sides will be doing all kinds of political posturing. Don’t make a move unless you’re ordered to, is that understood?

Allen chorused his “Yes, Sir,” along with the other boys.

* * * *

Drake didn’t like not knowing what was going on. First the Fae showed themselves to be more organized than they had any right to be. Then they become convincing suspects in arranging the assassination of a prominent Delta member—twice if one counted Sam’s poisoning attempt. And then, coincidentally, Charity gets infected with a…something that kept her in a coma. If they hadn’t caused either incident, they were doing a damn good job of making sure no one could find out who did. As far as Drake was concerned, that made them equally responsible.

He was next.

He couldn’t shake that feeling. Jayson made fun of him for being paranoid all the time, but hell, he was still alive, wasn’t he? He admitted to being a overly cautious, but in the time that he was infected by the Fae, he’d learned what people were truly capable of. If he hadn’t been paranoid before, that would have been enough to push him over the edge.

He was positive the Fae was behind everything. Biased? A little. Having one of the buggers so deep inside him he still saw it when he blinked would do that to a man. Racist? Maybe. But he understood their nature better than anyone else’s.

As usual, he used the application programmed into his phone to teleport with the group to Atlantis. Jay was there for transport, but he never teleported with Jay. It made him sick to his stomach every time. They had an unspoken gentleman’s agreement between the two of them: Jay didn’t teleport Drake, and Drake didn’t use his magnetic abilities to affect Jay’s metal prosthetic. Both knew damn well that the enemy wouldn’t go so easy on them, but in their sparring matches they followed that rule to the letter.

Atlantis was unquestionably beautiful. Even in his disgruntled state, Drake couldn’t suppress his inner engineer as his gaze traveled over the marble spires. The material that built the city was of a shifting mother-of-pear color, with pinks, greens, and blues intertwining among each other beneath the surface. Runic carvings covered every square inch of the place, written in every element. Their purpose was as intricate as they were diverse; everything from breathable air to irrigation to lighting. A soft glow lit every square inch of the place. Not a shadow was in sight.

A delegation of Elves approached them. They were tall, their average height at about six feet five inches. Their hair ranged in color from a deep raven black to ice white, and everything in between. In that matter, they were much like humans. But it was their eyes that were different. For one thing, they were spaced just far enough apart to appear alien and give anyone used to human proportions a double-take. The eyes themselves were often pastel colors, the same pink, purple, and green seen in their home’s architecture. Their clothing reflected that as well. They were dressed traditionally, in a manner that hadn’t changed in the last few centuries, let alone in the few years since they’d crossed paths. Their robes flowed over the shoulders, loosely covering their arms and falling nearly to the floor.

There was six of them, with jewelry and tattoos that marked them as mages with their respective elements. Drake recognized Chancellor Rio’kir, the Elvin political leader. He had black hair and slate gray eyes and nearly met seven feet tall. On each wrist he wore metal bracers, engraved with the image of a solemn dwarf with his arms crossed over his chest in salute. With those markings, Drake would have known him to be an Earth mage, if he didn’t know that already.

There were others, some who had risen to rank within the last few years. A woman with red hair in an elaborate updo wore earrings shaped like dragons. She was a Light mage. Elaborate designs on her clothing in six different colors marked her as the Archmage. To Elves, who worshiped a god of knowledge, that made her the spiritual leader as well as the most knowledgeable mage. It was likely that she knew more magic than the rest of them put together.

Wispy tendrils of blue crawled up the Water Mage’s exposed leg, resolving in an ethereal female figure—a Nymph. The Air Mage wore a pendant of a highly stylized Gryphon. The Fire Mage’s ears were adorned with ear cuffs that depicted a squid-like creature called a Fi’chiar.

It was the Darkness Mage that gave Drake the willies. His eyes were purple and his hair a nearly translucent white. He hardly showed signs of age, except maybe around the eyes and mouth. He wore wristbands made of a blackened metal with depictions of children laughing and playing. A closer look would show the ‘children’ to be Fae. Of the six of them, he was the only one that was smiling, which would have been creepy enough even if the smile didn’t seem to carry a hint of twisted malice. He didn’t take his eyes off Drake, or so it felt. Maybe he really was being paranoid.

They were surrounded by armed guards, shields brought to bear, and all manner of weapons pointed at the delegation from Delta. This neither disturbed nor shocked Drake. They had, after all, teleported into Atlantis without warning. He would have been surprised if they were met without suspicion. And now it was Sam’s job to make sure they got to the ‘ask questions’ part without being shot at. He didn’t envy her. No love was lost between him and the woman, but he had to admit, she was damn good at her job.

She spoke in Elvin. “Greetings to the keepers of the knowledge of the All. We come not to impart violence, but to exchange our knowledge with yours. I am Samantha Clive, Director of the Delta Division, and I speak on behalf of the Earthborn.”

Rio’kir approached. “Greetings to you in the name and the knowledge of the All, Samantha Clive. I am Rio’kir, Chancellor and keeper of the knowledge of all diplomacy. Your Delta Division is known to me. We fought side by side with your people against the forces of Kronos.”

“The Shadow Fae provided a formidable enemy in that time, Chancellor Rio’kir. We are grateful for your knowledge that drove them back.”

“And for your assistance.” His gaze traveled to Jay. “Jayson Allison. Maralise. Drake Hachirobei. It gratifies me to see you are well. The knowledge of you and your party was instrumental in binding Kronos.” His eyes flickered. “I note absence of others who stood against the god.”

Meryl translated quickly for Jayson. “Charity London is bound in a deep sleep. My brother…” She swallowed and wrestled for composure. “My brother is dead.””

The Elves were stiff and formal and had a large stick wedged up their collective ass, but they were not without sympathy. Rio’kir approached her and clasped the woman’s hands in his. “May he rest in the knowledge of a life well lived,”” he said gently.

Meryl’s eyes filled with tears, but they didn’t fall. “Thank you.” It was all she could manage. Rio’kir stepped back.

“We believe that the Shadow Fae are involved in his death, if not directly, than in the attempt to cover it up,” Sam said. “Nor do we believe it a coincidence that our Charity London lies in a deep sleep at this point in time. There have also been numerous other incidents that indicate the Fae are amassing an army. Someone is again controlling them, just as Kronos once did.”

Rio’kir’s face darkened. “I may lend knowledge to your hypothesis, Samantha Clive. For it is the Fae that are responsible for our sudden and destructive appearance here in your world.”

The Darkness Mage stepped forward. “I recommend caution to add you to your knowledge, Chancellor. Let us not forget, these are Earthborn. Their motives remain unknown to us.”

Rio’kir turned to him. “These Earthborn are known to me. Their motives align with ours.”

The Darkness Mage fixed them all with that eerie stare. “The motives of Earthborn are complex and capable of deception like that of the Fae. For the sake of expounding our knowledge, let me examine their minds.”

“Oh, hell no.” Drake spoke for the first time. “I have no interest in anyone poking around in my head anymore.” He could have said it quite emphatically in Elvin, but he chose English. The thought of someone reading his mind made him feel ornery, so the more he could piss off any of them who didn’t speak English, the better.

The Elf raised his eyebrow. “I should think, Drake Hachirobei, someone with as much knowledge as you posses would wish all to know if it.” Still with that creepy smile.

“I got my reasons, jackass. Most of them have to do with a Fae using my head as a campground for a year.”

He chuckled this time, and Drake found himself really wishing he’d stop that. “All the more reason to examine the knowledge you poses.” He scanned the rest of the group. ““Our negotiations cannot continue until I have examined the knowledge of each one in the delegation.”

“Then I’m out.” Drake gave a casual two-fingered salute to Sam before he started thumbing through his phone for his teleportation application.

He never got that far. A whispered spell from the Darkness Mage brought forth black tentacles of shadow that wrapped around Drake’s arms. They knocked the phone out of his hand and pinned him to the ground. Jayson shouted in protest, Allen came damn close to punching an Elf in the face, and Marcus and Mitch flared with their energy.

“That’s enough.” Sam’s quiet command called them off. ““Mr. Hachirobei, this tantrum of yours is unnecessary.” She nodded at the Darkness mage. “If it would make you feel more secure, then by all means.”

Jayson made some useless protest, the words of which were lost in the sheer agony of the mind probe. It didn’t need to hurt this much, and Drake knew it, but the mage wasn’t going to go gentle now, not when he had Drake at his mercy.

Drake bit down on the pain. He wasn’t going to scream and give this dick the satisfaction. He could feel the oily fingers of the spell in his head, dredging up memories he was perfectly satisfied to keep hidden. The Mage went deep, right to his childhood. He watched his mother slip away from him over and over again, consumed by cancer. The Mage was doing it on purpose now.

When he finally got done with that memory, Drake relived the abandonment he felt when his dad was never around. By the time Delta got to him, he was already a bitter old man at sixteen. That only got worse when he found out that Delta only wanted him to hunt down his father. Well, joke was on them, he had no goddamn clue where the bastard was. But that whole thing ended up in a showdown or ten between him and his old man. More particularly the one where Drake was playing host to a Fae. It seemed like he lived another lifetime in that fight.

But more importantly, he understood their untapped power. He could rule the world. Stand at the top unchallenged. Oh, the world didn’t need to know he was in charge; after all, he worked better from the shadows. He worked better with the shadows.

A few deaths mean nothing,” he heard himself say to the Fae as he stood before them, their minds linked with his. “You have seen what I can do. Follow me, and together we will see both Earth and Myrathelle at our feet. We will stand above Earthborn and Elf alike.

Reality closed in on him. He was on his hands and knees, panting heavily, blood running from his nose. He probably shouldn’t have fought the inevitable, but he wasn’t just going to give in. It was the principle of the thing.

He saw their faces, a picture of disbelief. Drake said nothing. He found himself entirely unsurprised by the memories he’d just seen. There was a certain inevitability in them. He was a prominent member in Delta, the one person who could actually figure it all out. Of course this was going to happen. So that’’s how they’re going to do it.

Jayson looked at him, face inscrutable, a mask of nothing but pain. “John was my partner,” he said, his voice quiet. “He was my best friend, my brother. You have no idea how much I want—I need someone to blame for this.”

He paused, and in that moment, Drake knew he was a dead man. Jay would never believe in him, so blinded by grief. He didn’t blame him, Drake realized. Jayson had lost nearly everyone he cared about. Under the same circumstances, Drake would also believe that those left would betray him.

Jayson’s eyes were clouded with tears. He lifted a finger, and for a second Drake saw it as the hand of justice. He may not have done this, but there was plenty else he’d done that deserved death.

“But it’s not you. You are not responsible for this.”

It cost Jay to say that, Drake could tell. It meant that the search wasn’t over; that for a bit longer, John would go unavenged.

Sam broke in gently. “Mr. Allison, I know this is difficult, but the evidence suggests that—”

“Screw the evidence!” Jay yelled. “The evidence is wrong!”

“He had the means, Mr. Allison. For the past four years we’ve built an identity that would certainly impress the Fae’s bid for power. He uses fear as his weapon, the very same instrument wielded and admired by the Fae.”

Jay was shaking his head. “No. He wouldn’t hurt Charity, not in a million years. He’s in love with her, for God’s sake!”

“Which is why she is still alive.”

Jay opened his mouth to counter that, and found he couldn’t. Clever, Drake thought. It was an effective way to remove him as a piece from the board. And damn straight, he wouldn’t hurt Charity. His opponent—for he now thought of the mastermind as nothing but—had deftly figured out how to use that weakness as a strength in the case against him. Well, now it was personal.

Jay looked askance at the Elves. “Fine. Take him. On one condition. Keep him alive. Because you can be damned sure I will find out who is really involved, and trust me when I say this, you do not want to be responsible for the death of an innocent man, especially when he is one of us.””

Rio’kir raised an eyebrow. “We do not do well with threats, Jayson Allison.”

“Oh, this isn’t a threat. Except maybe when I point out the part that you’re stuck here with us.”

“In every way that matters, it has been proven that blame for our forced translocation rests on this man. You saw the evidence in his memories yourself.”

“What I saw was a mind trick, easily accomplished with the power of the Fae. Let’s not forget our enemy here.”

Rio’kir actually seemed to consider that for a moment, then continued. “Even if you did not offer him to us, we would insist he be remanded into our custody. We will deal with him as our law dictates. The penalty for this crime is death.”

“Well then, remember one thing: you owe us. All the might, all the knowledge of the Elves could not stand against Kronos. Even from his cage he wielded power. Earthborn died on your behalf, sacrificed their lives so we could fix your problem. Keep him locked up and powerless as you see fit, but do not end his life. I ask you, not as a threat, but as a favor in return for saving your world.”

Rio’kir regarded Jayson with a blank face for a moment. Drake could count his heartbeats as he waited.

“Very well. He will be kept in Atlantis with complete seclusion. But do not take forever to find more knowledge of this case. We are not in the habit of retaining prisoners indefinitely. And besides, the measures we must take to ensure he lacks his power will leave him but a shell of himself if you take too long.”

He waved his hand dismissively, and the rest of the Elves began to walk away. “Leave this place, Earthborn. You now possess our same knowledge of this unfortunate happenstance. Keep us informed, and we shall do you the same courtesy.”