Posts Tagged ‘Aliens’

Eric’s eyes opened slowly. He felt the olive-colored silk sheets beneath his fingers, replacing the death grip his nightmare had on him. He grabbed for the comforter, which he’d kicked off some time in the night, and instead touched the arm of the woman sleeping beside him. He relaxed instantly. Desperate to shake off the fear of his memories colliding with his dreams, he rolled over and wrapped Charity in his arms. Her soft skin and perfect form didn’t still his pounding heart; but it beat at a fast pace for a different reason. With a deep breath, he took in the scent of her hair.

She reached around, and her delicate fingers brushed across the stubble on his cheeks. “It goes away eventually, love. I promise. Never completely, but enough.”

Eric closed his eyes and held her close. At this point, he was just glad to be able to move. When the Fae had surrounded him, broken him, he had truly thought he’d never again see Charity’s face staring at him so full of love. With so many bones broken, consciousness had been excruciating. He’d woken once or twice while they were healing him, and he remembered feeling all the more terrified. Aliens were hovering over him, every nerve ending flared with pain so intense he could no longer tell that the creatures he saw were only trying to help. He clung to his girlfriend and shuddered. Hot tears burned his eyes.

By the time he’d woken again in the Delta Division infirmary, the battle was over. Sam was defeated, and Drake was back in his own lab fixing Eric’s suit. Eric had taken the long way down to the lab. Medically, there was nothing wrong with his body, but his mind still remembered the agony of shattered bones. The walk helped to catch his mind up to the reality that the Elves’ magic had knitted his flesh back together. Being with the woman he loved helped too.

Charity rolled over and slipped her arms around his waist and looked into his eyes, letting silence ride for a moment. “So the execution is today.”

“I heard.” He wrapped his arms around Charity and pulled her closer to him, wrapping her in the down comforter. He’d felt smothered deep in his dreams. Now he just felt cold. “I feel like I should be sorry, but I’m not.”

Charity was quiet for a moment. “She killed my best friend’s brother. She made me relive the worst moment of my life. She jeopardized so many people, all for the sake of her need to control.” She rested her hand on his cheek. “She hurt you. You know, capital punishment is never something I’d made my mind up one way or the other, but…dammit, if I’m not glad she can’t ever hurt anyone else again.”

Eric nodded. “I feel the same way.” He stroked her hair. “I’m so glad to have you back.” His mouth twitched. “Because this would be super awkward if you still thought you were twelve.”

Charity laughed and punched him in the side.

“Ow, hey! The doctor told me to take it easy, just to make sure the magic actually healed everything properly.”

“Aw, you’re fine.”

“Is that so? Well, I’m going to have to test that.” He gave a loud grunt as he sat up in bed as if it was a heroic effort, then swiftly grabbed one of Charity’s feet. “Also, I’ll need to get you back, of course.” He tickled her on her archway, and Charity gave a little squeal. She twisted her lithe form and grappled him around the waist, and they both tumbled in a mess of bedclothes to the floor. Eric chuckled as he rolled Charity onto her back and planted a kiss on her lips. He lingered.

Then he sighed. “So, are we going?”

There was no response for a moment, but then Charity nodded. “Yeah. Because if I don’t see it happen, I will be forever looking over my shoulder to see if she’s watching me behind designer sunglasses.”

Eric agreed.

* * * *

For the first time since their second arrival, and the last time in a very long while, Atlantis opened their doors to all-comers. Political leaders from all over the world attended, and the hall filled with United Nations representatives. It had been the UN’s decision to turn Samantha Clive over to the Elves for trial. The powers that be had no illusions that the proceedings would end any differently; though some feigned ignorance, they were aware that their decision effectively sentenced Sam to death. Still, the decision had been made in hopes that it would garner some goodwill between the people of Earth and the trapped visitors from another world.

For the time being, it seemed as if Sam’s dream of world peace might indeed be a reality. Quarrels were set aside at the marble passageway into the Atlantian amphitheater; men and women from feuding countries forgot their differences in the presence of the bastion of knowledge and its people. It seemed fitting that it was her death that brought about even a temporary truce.

Many Delta Heroes were there. Drake sat apart. He’d abandoned his Hawaiian shirt for a black business suit; it fit well with his somber brooding. Meryl was silent as Charity greeted them with a hug, then also embraced an equally stone-faced Jayson. Mitch Roberts made an appearance, wearing a disturbingly gleeful expression. “This is not something to be happy about,” Liam scolded him, but that just started an argument about how he didn’t get to vanish for over a decade then decide to be a father.

Charity moved on, and Meryl tuned out, not wanting to get involved in their family matter. She watched Charity make her way to Geoff Davis and put a hand on his shoulder. Guilt lined his face, and Charity knew that guilt was not something that went away. Meryl took a deep breath. The therapist in her wanted to help, to heal their souls from the lancing wounds Sam had left on them both, but she stayed rooted to the ground until Jayson made her sit. She could not muster the will. After everything, Meryl was so, so tired.

At that moment, the Elven Chancellor took the podium at the center of the arena. A hush fell over the crowd. It occurred to Meryl that she could mimic an Elf’s language and thereby understand everything, but she hadn’t the energy. Through magic Meryl didn’t quite understand, Rio’kir’s words were broadcasted, translated by the pearl-shaped ear plugs the Elves had provided so that each person in the crowd understood in his or her native tongue. “Bring in the prisoner.”

Great doors opened, elaborate runes etched in gold catching the light that effused from the marble surface of the grand stage. Sam was brought in. She looked bedraggled and tired, her hair falling out of its usual pristine condition. Her hands were bound behind her back. Six Elvin guards guided her down the long, carpeted aisle and fastened her to a tall pole of onyx. The six guards stood before her in a linear formation.

“Samantha Clive.” Rio’kir spoke her name without emotion. “Through the knowledge of the All, the Judge of Truth, you have been found guilty of consorting with those who would seek corruption of our people. Worse, you perverted knowledge, the sacred pursuit of perfection that each of us are called to emulate.” He looked up, and his gaze rested on the area where Meryl and the rest of Delta’s heroes sat. “Those are just the crimes against the Elven people. Against yours, they are worse.”

There was a murmur from the Elven population. Meryl got the impression that Rio’kir’s decision to acknowledge Sam’s crimes against humanity was an unpopular one.

“Your actions have ended the lives of at least two good men and great heroes.” Meryl gave a barely audible gasp at the reminder of her brother’s assassination. A wave of nausea washed over her, though it wasn’t just due to the words that Rio’kir spoke. With all of her drained willpower, she fought down the bile in her throat. The air grew just a little heavier; despite his stoic expression, Drake was not unaffected by his father’s death.

“In addition to the suffering you have inflicted on your own kind, you have deprived your world of the knowledge and legacy that those men could have brought to your people.” Tears pricked Meryl’s eyes. Most Elves wouldn’t care; Rio’kir’s words were kind.

“That is a crime unforgivable by both Elf and Earthborn,” he continued. Therefore, as our judgment is insufficient to fully castigate your lack of respect for knowledge, I decree that your soul will be given over to the All for his chastisement.” He turned to the guards. “Execute her.”

At the sharp command, they notched an arrow and drew their bows. Sam looked up, eyes glazed over, and smiled. The Elves fired. Six arrows hit her chest, and her head slumped over.

Meryl clutched Jayson’s hand. This part, at least, was over.

* * * *

After the solemn execution, those that attended gathered in the common room at Delta. They were met by those who had chosen to stay away. Allen perched stiffly on one of the brown leather couches, clinging to Tracy’s hand. He knew very well where the others had been, and he wasn’t happy about it. He hated Sam. Hated her with every fiber of his being, but he could not condone the taking of another life.

Marcus and Lindsay sat opposite them. Marcus had his arm around Lindsay, and her head rested on his shoulder. She looked defeated. Allen had heard Marcus ask her if she wanted to go, but all she said was, “I don’t care,” so they remained at the headquarters. None of them had been much for conversation.

“You’re already here,” Mitch groused at his dad as Jayson teleported them in. “You might as well stay for the afterparty.”

Lindsay made a face at him. “That’s morbid.”

None of the others seemed to want to talk either. An awkward silence stretched, the atmosphere very much like a wake, instead of there being a funeral, it had been preceded by an execution. Allen swallowed. How did one celebrate someone’s life when it had ended like that? Or when it had been filled with such evil?

“She truly thought she was saving the world,” Geoff finally said to break the silence.

“She’s a control freak,” snapped Charity.

“Was,” Eric reminded her firmly. “It’s over.”

Charity nodded in agreement.

“So the Fae…” Mitch began.

“Will scatter. They’ll stop hounding anyone to the extent they have.”

Mitch breathed a sigh of relief.

“Russia’s going to war with China,” Charity said. “A pre-emptive strike. I think they’re hoping Trevor’s designs will give them a weapon. They’ve even withdrawn their request to be part of Delta. The Elves have retreated back into Atlantis. They’re not going to have anything to do with Earthborn wars—though what the UN is going to do with that statement, I don’t even want to guess.””

“And us?” Lindsay asked.

“Us as in Americans? Probably wait to see which side will win and launch a decisive strike to win the war, if history serves. Us, as in Delta? Well, if we’re not careful, we’re going to be that decisive strike.” She sighed and ran her hands through her hair. “I wish Jones were here.”

Jayson just looked at her. “You know what he’d say if he were?”

Charity just looked at him and shook her head. A small smile appeared on her face. “The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree, Jayson. You tell me.”

Jay cleared his throat and attempted his best British accent. “He’d say ‘this is your world now. What are you going to do about it, Miss London?’”

That was when they all, at last, smiled. Because it was a spot-on impression. Because he was right.

“At the end of the day, we all have to make the world our better place,” Jayson continued. “That’s what you always said, right Charity? For us…and for our kids.” And then he gave a knowing grin and wrapped his arm around Meryl’s waist.

Charity nodded. Then stopped. She looked at the two of them, wide-eyed. “You’re not…”

Meryl grinned too.

“We’re going to have a baby,” Jayson said, positively bursting.

Charity squealed. Excited congratulations and hugging and back-slapping ensued. “I didn’t even know you could have kids, with the whole…you know.” That Meryl was technically not of this world.

“Neither did we,” Meryl responded. “But it seems that is true. How many is the question.”

“Well, are you having a whole damn litter at once, like a puppy or something?” Lindsay asked.

Meryl laughed. “No, no. Arlethaen have two children—twins, a boy and a girl. I understand that is not a pattern for humans, so I am uncertain how it will work when there is a bond between human and Arlethaen.”

Jayson wrapped his arms around his wife. “But anyway, my point still stands. It’s what Jones would say, but that’s because it’s true. This is our world. What are we going to do about it?”

* * * *

Hours later, Mitch returned to his empty house alone.  Some adolescent part of him had almost asked Liam to come back with him, but then a surge of seething anger had bubbled within him for some unfathomable reason, and it was all he could do not to tell the fucker to get out of his life forever. Halfway through a bag of chips, he realized that he had no idea where that anger came from—in fact, he wasn’t even inclined to wonder where it had come from. It was curious, but the concept wandered out of his head in favor of the gruesome documentary on the television.

He glanced at the clock. It was nearly time for the local elementary school to be out. He was halfway out the door before he began to wonder why that was at all his concern. With an annoyed grimace he stalked back in, slamming the door behind him so hard it rattled the house.

Guilt leaped into his heart. That was loud enough to wake somebody if they happened to be sleeping in the middle of the day after coming off the night shift. Though why anybody would be doing that, Mitch had no idea. Driven by impulse, he made his way to the upper level of the small house he’d lived in since working at the Delta Division. He counted three bedrooms. He wandered into his, and suddenly tired, flopped onto the bed.

He stared at the ceiling plastered in metal band posters with a frown so deep that a nagging, motherly voice told him that it would stay that way. That thought wandered out of his head as well. It was replaced with another, much more insistent thought.

Why did he have the distinct feeling that he’d forgotten something important?

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Charity’s heart pounded so hard that it hurt. Marcus reached for her hand, and she jerked away, all too aware of the static electricity that built up in her fingers. He may not have been the brother she remembered, but he was her brother nonetheless, and they’d grown so close. With him around, she felt much less like she was going to fall apart. The last thing she wanted was him to fall over from a heart attack caused by a surge of electricity, especially now when they were about to head into the most terrifying encounter of her young life.

That’s not true, a voice in her head whispered. That’s right. She was a hero, and an adult. She must have had worse experiences, even if she couldn’t remember them. Bile rose in her throat. If those experiences were worse than waking up in a hospital bed after a nightmare-inducing, near-death experience, then she didn’t want to remember. If they were worse than knowing that the only family you had left was a halfway grown-up teenage brother that was only five the last time you saw him, she’d rather they stay buried in the past.

He’s got the electricity power too, she reminded herself. With relief, she held onto his hand. “Sorry, I forgot—I didn’t want to hurt you.”

“It’s all right.” Marcus smiled at her, but she could see his attention was on Jayson Allison, who was trying to contact Atlantis via his phone. A communication relay had been set up between Delta and the ancient magical city when the Elves had first arrived, but that did little to dispel the political red tape and language barrier.

Charity clutched Marcus’ hand even harder. Maybe it would be better if I could remember going through something worse. Then I’d at least know I got through it.

“Just find me someone who speaks English!” Jayson yelled into the phone. Jay had more patience than anyone Charity had ever seen, but even he was at the end of it. She was reminded of her mother every time Anna London had to deal with an overseas customer service representative.

Don’t cry, don’t cry, don’t cry. Charity knew that if she started, the tears would never stop. She couldn’t afford to break down and cry right now, not when she was supposed to be saving the world.

Why am I the one who’s supposed to be a hero? I’m just a kid!

Except that wasn’t entirely true. She was an adult, and people depended on her. She looked herself up on the Internet one time, and nearly lost a whole day researching Thundra. The woman was an icon. The work she did, the people that she saved, the little girls who wanted to grow up and be heroes just like her—was she really that person? Charity couldn’t reconcile the helplessness she felt with the hero that the blogs and social media referred to as “the heart of Delta”. Yet, there was that face, sans mask, looking back at her every time she glanced in a mirror.

“Finally! Thank God, Rio’kir, I was worried that all of man and elf-kind would be lost to the power of stonewalling. Look, long story short, Samantha Clive’s behind all this. You want proof, then I’ve got it, but you need to let your anti-teleportation fields down so I can port my party in. I’ve got a handful of people that I trust, and you know you can trust me. We’ll put our heads together and figure this out.”

Charity’s heart sank, and then she instantly felt guilty. Part of her had been hoping that Jay wouldn’t make contact, that this horrible  battle ahead wouldn’t happen, that she wouldn’t have to fight. No, Sam needs to be fought. She’s evil.

But you don’t have to fight her. You can walk away. You’re just a kid, you don’t have to fight. Just say ‘no’. Let go of Marcus’ hand, say you’re staying. No one would blame you.

I would blame me.

She clenched her fist that was unoccupied with holding onto her brother, her lifeline. Images of this strong, powerful woman flashed in her mind, short, wavy hair and a silver cape tossed in the breeze. I am an icon. An inspiration. I make girls around the world believe in their own strength, make them want to stand up and fight for what’s right. People believe in heroes—believe in me. I have to believe in me too.

“The shields will be powered as soon as the Elves’ Dark Mages temporarily dispel them,” Jayson said. “About ten minutes.”

“Good,” Charity said. Everyone turned to look at her. “That gives me enough time.”

Charity had never changed so fast in her life, but at the end, the face of Thundra stared back at her. It was hidden behind a sky-blue masquerade mask with gold and silver filigree edging. Her black leather gloves edged in the same blue protected her hands, while the metal rivets conducted her electricity. Black pants were tucked into black, lace-up, heeled leather boots; her waist was encircled by a black leather belt with the symbol of the Delta Division functioning as a buckle. Her silver cape was fastened to the inch-wide straps of her electric blue, sleeveless shirt.

Her breath caught as she saw the hero in the mirror and realized it was her—but she didn’t have time to gaze. She dashed back out to meet with everyone.

She wasn’t the only one who’d taken the time to suit up. Allen was already dressed—he rarely took off his leather jacket with Delta’s symbol emblazoned on the back—and the rest of his costume consisted of a pair of blue jeans and a red t-shirt. Eric’s chitinous suit hugged him, leaving his face exposed for the moment. Meryl had donned her brother’s golden flak jacket. It didn’t suit her—the shoulders didn’t quite fit her narrow frame, and the way the bulky jacket sat around her petite shoulders made her head look much smaller than it was. Nothing could hide the fierce anger in her eyes. The assassinated hero’s jacket may not have fit her, but she bore it well and with pride as they left to face her brother’s killer.

Jayson put a hand on her shoulder, and Charity almost jumped until she saw the smile and the tears in his eyes. “You know, there’s something John told me before…before he was…you know. You’d gone to fight PSO, and I was worried about you.”

Charity swallowed. “Not entirely unfounded, as it turns out.”

Jay chuckled. “Well, no, but he was right too. He said that when we see horrible, terrible things, we have two choices.” He looked up to include the group. “One is to buckle under the weight of the horror we have witnessed, to take a knee to evil. The other is to stand and fight.” He looked back at her. “He also said that when it came time for you to make that choice, you would stand. Again and again. That you were a hero.”

Tears itched under Charity’s mask.

Jay turned to the rest of them. “That goes for all of you too. We’ve lost a mentor. A brother. A friend. We’ve been toyed with and manipulated and broken, but we will stand.

“We walk into this battle, and our head is going to be filled with so many lies. I know what that’s like, to face an enemy so incomprehensively powerful—”

“Incomprehensibly,” Charity interrupted, then quailed at the look of astonishment that Jay gave her. “I-I’m sorry, I—”

Jayson grinned. Marcus laughed, under his breath at first, then when Eric snickered, it seemed he couldn’t help himself anymore. His low chuckle turned into a belly laugh, and he wrapped his arms around Charity. “God, sis. I’m so glad you’re still in there somewhere.”

Jay laughed. “Aw, to hell with the inspirational speech. Just remember this. We’re heroes. Don’t forget that, and we’ll win for sure.”

Tracy piped up with a smile. “Well, if anyone can do it, I know it’s my hero boy.” She kissed Allen on the cheek, and he blushed.

“Actually, I have a job for you,” Jayson responded. “You and Geoff.” He handed the girl the tablet with Donald’s video. “I’ve already sent a copy to the Elf leader so he can watch it while we waited. Make sure this one stays safe. With or without powers, you’re one of us. Combat capabilities or no, you can still protect the world.” He glanced at Geoff. “Stick together. Hold onto this and get as far away from here until the dust settles. You’re our backup plan in case anything happens. It’s up to you two to safeguard the truth. Understood?”

Geoff nodded. “Yes, Sir.”

Tracy also moved her head up and down, blue eyes wide. Then she turned to embrace Allen. “Promise you’ll come back to me,” Charity heard her say in a quiet voice that made her heart break. She stole a glance at Eric. Was it true that he loved her just as much? She had no memory of him beyond the last few weeks, but something inside her stirred every time she looked at him. Was that love? Eric was looking at her, and for the first time since she woke up, she didn’t shy away from his gaze.

“I promise,” Allen said, and Charity smiled at Eric. She would find a way back to him too.

The world around them shifted and resolved into a marble city, the glory of which took Charity’s breath away. It was huge. They stood in the city square, around an oval metal framework. Its purpose was unclear. Elven art? It made Charity think of a gateway.

Every surface glowed with an iridescent light, making Charity’s eyes cross. It was almost like a world made of LED screens, except with the brightness and contrast turned down low. The light was comforting and warm, but Charity also noticed something beyond the convenience of having the world illuminated. Their shadows were non-existent.

Jayson shook the Elf leader’s hand, and Charity couldn’t stop staring. Oh. My god. An actual Elf. Her hands shook. Somewhere a science fiction and a fantasy story had intersected and sucked her in. I’m a super hero standing in an ancient futuristic city watching one of my friends shake hands with an Elf—an actual real-life alien from another dimension. Giddiness welled inside her. She had to bite the inside of her cheek from laughing out loud and hugging herself with excitement.

“I’m going to assume you watched the video,” Jayson stated flatly. Charity’s excitement dampened a little. She’d almost forgotten the terrible reason why they were here.

The Elf leader—what was his name again? Jayson had said it, but Charity couldn’t remember. Rio-something? The Elf gave a curt nod. “Enough to release your companion,” he intoned.

Across the way, two Elven guards half-dragged a man across the glowing cobblestones. “Drake,” Jayson breathed. He gave a small smile of relief. “Glad to see you’re all right.”

“Took ya long enough, ya rat bastard,” Drake slurred.

“Drake, we found out who the mastermind was. It’s—”

“Sam, I know.”

Jay made a face. “I thought the Elves’ prisons were supposed to make you slow.”

“They did. And I still figured it out before you did.”

Jayson rolled his eyes.

The shadowless place grew dim. Dark tendrils wisped across the floor, cutting off Jay’s cheeky reply, then resolved into small creatures about two feet tall. Hundreds—thousands—of them scrambled through the city and converged on the group. Charity bit back a strangled cry. What are those things! She wanted to scream the words, but they stuck in her throat. All she knew was that one look in their beady, soulless eyes, and she was afraid—no, terrified.

“I was hoping to do this without a show of force,” a woman’s voice said. Charity jerked around with the rest of them to see Samantha Clive. “I would much rather not leave a mess.” She smiled. “But I’m nothing if not adaptable.”

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?

If one more person asked Meryl how she was doing, she was going to bloody well punch them in the face. Her brother was dead, how did they think she was doing? He was the last remaining link she had to their life in Arlethae, the only blood she had left. How could someone just take him away from her?

I’m not going to cry, she told herself. They were, after all, going to come face to face with the creatures that her people revered as celestial beings. Besides, she’d cried enough. In her culture, it was understood that one would mourn a family member for a year; two if it was your twin. And she would. She would honor her brother’s memory. He deserved that much. But after she caught the chrztipaka beltahthtor, the defiled creature who had made the call to end her brother’s life.

Jayson squeezed her hand. Every time she looked at him, she almost forgot her vow not to cry. He was worn out and utterly beaten, and there wasn’t a single thing she could do for him. This hero business had already asked too much of him. Why would the Father ask more?

Instantly, she felt ashamed of her profane thoughts. The Father had a plan. He had to. She remembered when Jayson first came to Arlethae. He had faith, but it was conflicted and confused. He could not understand why God would strand him in a world so far away from home and make him a cripple. Even after he was manufactured a leg to stand on, and even after they fell in love, those were feelings he merely suppressed. He told himself God had a reason and a plan. But it wasn’t until they were standing face to face with Kronos that he’d truly been stripped of everything that gave him doubt. Then, he stood with them to bind the god of time with the power of faith alone. “It’s all I’ve got left,” he’d said, and it was true.

In that moment, the God of gods had won his soul forever. Why, in the name of all the heavens would he need to break it anymore?

She knew she’d probably be better off to will away the anger, but it kept her from bursting into tears and crumbling to the ground. So she let it nest away in her soul for the moment and gripped her husband’s hand so he could take them to Olympus.

When the First Created had broken ties with the Second Created, they found another world to inhabit. There they existed in relative fulfillment. Oh, there was still war among them, and factional disagreement, but they usually kept it confined to their own plane of existence. There were occasional border disputes between Olympus and the neighboring country of Asgard, who were currently in the middle of—rather ineffectual—diplomatic talks with the country of the Aztec gods. It was all very political and complicated, and Meryl didn’t much care so long as somebody could tell her if her brother’s killer was among them.

Mount Olympus was a sprawling city-state with stunning architecture set on a magnificent mountain range. From the peak on which they appeared, Meryl could see out over nearly the entire city. The First Created existed in a natural form that was pure, timeless energy; but it amused them to live out their lives in the manner of mortals. To glory in the fact that they were not bound by it, Meryl often thought. But whatever the reason, the going to and fro made the place feel alive and added only to its splendor. It was beautiful. There was no denying that; and for a second upon their arrival, Meryl was so taken in by its ineffable tranquility, she nearly forgot her inner turmoil. But only for a second.

Regardless, she now had a job to do. She approached one of the guards. She didn’t have complete familiarity with the local tongue, but fortunately her Gifted abilities allowed her to comprehend and mimic a being’s use of language. “Excuse me, my good sir, but I am looking for a woman named Miriam. She is not a First Created, but immortal nonetheless. She serves as a bodyguard for a man name Rai, known to some as Fate, the consort of Aphrodite, or Destiny as she is known to some.”

The guard looked startled. “How did you find your way to this place? You are Second, not First Created, and your companion…” He trailed off confused. “I don’t know what he is.”

“My husband is of Earth. He possesses abilities which allow him to travel between realms. He once knew the woman that I spoke of.”

The man gave a long suffering sigh. “Oh, very well. I know the woman of whom you speak. I will escort you there.” He led the way, muttering something about mortals who didn’t know their place popping in unexpectedly, and there goes the neighborhood. Meryl ignored him. She had no reason to be afraid of him. She wasn’t a fighter, but if push came to shove, she could mimic his abilities and defend herself. Also, the First Created may have existed beyond the boundaries of time and space in their natural forms, but they were bound to their current plane of existence. Jayson was not. He’d get them out fast.

The opulence of the city was astounding. The guard led them to a manse that had a portico the size of her and Jayson’s house, surrounded by twenty-foot marble pillars engraved with gold. The manse itself was three storeys high; small, by Olympus standards.

Meryl thanked the guard for his time. The way he hesitated, she had the feeling he was asking for a small monetary compensation, but seeing as she didn’t have the realm’s currency, she ignored it. Besides, he’d been rude. There was no sense in encouraging that kind of behavior. After a moment, he turned on his heel with a huff and walked away.

Jay looked amused. “Why do I get the feeling we just annoyed the hotel bellhop?”

“Oh, he’s just annoyed we didn’t act the mortal among gods.”

“Ah, so we offended his delicate celestial feelings.”

“Yes. That’s exactly what happened.”

She hesitated on the threshold of the manse, uncertain where to go or what to do. She intended on letting Jayson lead the way, but he was being the gentleman and showing deference by letting her lead. How many years had they been together, and he hadn’t yet got how much she hated when he did that? She was a follower by nature; it was not by accident that her Gifts were mimicry of both powers and appearance, as well as invisibility. Sometimes she felt jealous of strong, confident women like Sam or Charity.

The thought of her best friend in a coma was another punch to her stomach. She was counting on Charity to help her through the loss of her brother. Without her, what was she going to do?

“Well, are you going to stand out there gawking like a couple of adolescent boys, or are you going to come in?” A gravelly, ethereal voice interrupted Meryl’s reverie. She jumped. “What are you waiting for, an engraved invitation?”

“Well, vampires usually have to wait to be invited into a place of residence, so we figured we’d return you the favor,” Jayson quipped.

“Hilarious. Is that any way to greet a soul-sucking immortal?” Miriam’s voice sounded like it was echoed through a large room, and then distorted into a low, raspy pitch. She wasn’t much more than a spirit herself, held to the mortal plane by the souls she consumed.

“Miriam! Buddy! Pal!” Jay returned, only slightly sarcastic. “It’s good to see you again.” That he meant sincerely.

“I’d say the same about you. Except, you know, I don’t actually care.”

Jay chuckled. “I missed you too.”

“Right. So, as lovely as this not-really-family reunion is, what brings you to the realm of the gods? Not exactly your usual stomping grounds.”

“There’s been a disturbingly active Fae incursion on Earth. If it’s one thing we’ve learned is that Fae like being told what to do. We pretty much castrated Kronos, so there goes their previous beloved leader. Now we’re just trying to find if any other First Created’s gone and taken up the torch.”

Miriam nodded. “I see. So, hey, where’s your other better half? You two were joined at the hip almost more than the actual twin.” She glanced at Meryl.

I’m not going to cry. I’m not going to cry. Meryl felt like she shouldn’t leave the burden of the question to Jay, but if she opened her mouth, that self-promise was going to dissipate so fast.

“John is… He’s gone.”

“As in…”

“Dead. Gone.”

Meryl felt guilty for making Jayson say it. She felt her eyes burning, and she knew tears were starting to show.

“Aw…geez… You’re not going to cry, are you?” Miriam didn’t sound mocking so much as she did sound very uncomfortable. She’s been human once, though Meryl hadn’t had the chance to meet her before she died and was raised to and undead existence by an alien necromancer. That said, to here Charity describe her, she hadn’t possessed much of a soul before her unfortunate demise either.

“It’s been rough on all of us,” Jay continued. “I know the whole ‘team’ concept was never something you were big on, but—”

“Hey. I get it.”

“Charity’s been affected too. She’s alive, more or less, but in a coma. Doc’s not entirely sure when she’s going to wake up.” He didn’t add the ‘if ever.’

“Wow. They really hit you hard didn’t they?”

Jay shrugged. “So if you know anything about any of the First Created who might be behind this, that would be helpful. You know. For old time’s sake.”

Miriam regarded them silently for a moment, her face a blank. Meryl found herself wishing the other woman would take a breath, something to make her more…human, anything to indicate she would be willing to help them.

“I have not heard anything. Most of the gods washed their hands of Kronos and his doings within Myrathelle, pretending he didn’t exist. Only Aphrodite really made much of an effort to stop him, and you saw where that got her. But you know I’ll keep my ears out. If I find anything out, I’ll let you know. And hey, look. About John…I’m sorry.”

Jay gave a half smile. “Thanks. So are we.” He took a deep breath. “Anyway. Wasn’t sure you had your old communication device, and besides we’ve upgraded our system. Because, you know, Drake doesn’t get the ‘if it ain’t broke, why fix it’ principle. So, here.” He fished in his pocket for a phone. “That should reach across the dimensions. So, if you need anything, call, all right?”

Miriam took it. “Sure. Whatever.”

“I mean it. Look…despite what happened, you’re still part of my team. Call any time if you need anything.” He gave a smile, and his warm hand gripped Meryl’s. “See ya around, Miriam. Don’t forget us, eh?”

And then Olympus faded from sight, its ostentatious surroundings replaced by the warm familiar feeling of a home she’d given up on ever seeing again.

They teleported into the realm just outside the city of Arlethae, a place that was generally deserted; a wise choice considering the Old Order would see any display of power as confirmation of one who was Gifted and immediately dispatch a team to capture or kill them. Putting that distance between them and the city also gave Meryl the widest view possible of her childhood home. It brought forth a rush of overwhelming emotions. She couldn’t fight them anymore.

“It’s okay to cry,” Jayson said in a gentle voice. He wrapped his warm, strong arms around her. His fingers scratched her back in a soothing motion. She burst into tears.

“It’s just…I never thought…”

“Never thought you’d be back again?”

“And without… How can… I shouldn’t be…” She wasn’t even making any sense anymore, even to herself.

“I know.”

Of course he did. Jayson always knew her heart. Her tears got the better of her, and she couldn’t even manage her incoherent babble. She lost herself for a moment, overcome with so many feelings, some of them identifiable, others ineffable. A small part of her, the survivor, found a singles solid thought to dwell on. Of all things, it regarded the practicality of their outfits. Before embarking on their transdimensional journey, they’d dressed in clothing designed by Delta’s tailor at Meryl’s guidance so they would fit in here. That single practical thought devoid of the conflicting emotions finally acted as a foundation for Meryl to rebuild herself into the moment. They were here. In a city that she knew and understood. And they had a job to do.

“Well, you’re the one who knows where she’s going, so you’d better lead the way.” Jayson somehow knew exactly when to try to speak to her again, when she was ready to be pulled back to reality.

“Yes. We will have to start by speaking to one of the Gifted. You remember our secret symbol, right?” Jayson nodded. It was much the same as the human’s abstract heart shape. Joleon had gotten it tattooed on the inside of his wrist. He covered it with bracers as Stryker, and even people who knew him outside Delta as just John wouldn’t understand him to be Gifted. To them it was just a heart.

Anyone who did know him as Stryker found the presence of his tattoos to be a bit baffling. After all, his skin couldn’t be broken by an ordinary needle. But Jayson had come up with a plan to get past that.

“Hey, buddy, we need to get tattoos,” Jay told Joleon one day. “It’s like a best friend ritual on Earth.”

Joleon raised an eyebrow with some amusement at Jayson. “The practice of marking one’s body isn’t strange to me, but I’m a little confused about how you plan to make that happen. I’m supposed to be hiding my powers even here, right? So how do we explain to them their needles breaking on my skin?”

“Well, heh…” Jayson gave a nervous laugh. “Actually, I’m the only one who’s going to be putting up with a thousand tiny needles viciously puncturing my tender dermis. But for you, my friend, I will put up with the pain even though you won’t be sharing it.” Joleon still looked confused. “Meryl can imitate my teleportation powers and just warp time and space so the ink appears in your skin. No needle involved. She’s a fantastic artist, after all. Clearly, she absorbed all your creative talent in the womb.” He grinned and punched John in the shoulder.

Meryl shook off the memory. Right now, it would only serve to cloud her judgment, and here, that was the last thing she needed. The two of them were silent on their short walk into the city. As the approached the outlying border of the city, they saw flying overhead one of the Old Order’s suited patrols, which served as a reminder of exactly how dangerous it was here.

Once inside the gates, the familiar smell of many people and animals bustled around her, and made it all feel like a dream. She could hear the hawkers cry their wares, and a group of women gossiping about the latest holographic show. The debate seemed to be gauging the attractiveness of the actors versus their actual talent and off-stage private lives. Meryl couldn’t help but smile. After spending so much time on Earth, she’d come to appreciate how very similar the two different cultures were.

Meryl led the way to a jewelry stall she hoped was still run by one of the Gifted. Sure enough, etched into the wood was the symbol, though she didn’t recognize the young girl at the booth. She approached the booth and traced the carved wood with her finger. She spoke in Arlethaen, “The Changer sends his love to us all, and to each of us.”

The girl smiled. “And from each of us we spread his love to us all, which glorifies the Changer.” It was the standard phrase, the concept behind the symbol. “Greetings, Sister.”

“And to you.” Meryl took another look at her. “Carelos? I did not recognize you. It has been years, and you’ve grown into a beautiful girl! Your mata and fater must be proud.”

Carelos smiled. “I thank you for your kind words. I don’t think I remember…” She stared at Meryl for a moment. “Meralese? By the Father, we all thought you were dead!”

“If not for my husband of a year, we would have been. But our departure from Arlethae was rather…abrupt indeed after the Old Order attacked and burned down our inn.”

“It is so comforting to know you are alive.” Carelos turned her head to the cloth covered doorway behind her. “Mata! Come quick! There is someone you must see!”

A woman quickly walked through the doorway with a swoosh of skirts and door cover. She was of an attractive middle age, vibrant with youthful features. “What is it, child—oh!” A smile broke out on her face as she saw Meryl. “My dear girl, it does my heart good to see you alive!” The woman reined in her excitement. It would not do to have Old Order authorities questioning their reunion too closely. “We must talk in more private quarters. Do come in, the both of you.” She encircled Meryl’s wrist with her thumb and forefinger and guided her around to the opposite side of the booth and in through the doorway. Jayson obediently followed.

“Tell me, my dear, where have you been these past few years? Did any others of your family escape the fire?”

“We were in another world, Felika. It’s utterly fantastic, but true. There are realities, planes of existence beyond ours. This is my husband Jayson.” It felt odd, referring to him in such a mature and grown-up manner. Here, she was a little girl, and far too young to consider such things. She half expected Mata to come and pick her up to take her home to help with dinner preparations.

“He is from a world they call Earth. In their world, people do not share the same connection to the Changer as we do, but some are born with something like Gifts, regardless of their faith. Jayson has the ability to move instantly through space. He can also move through dimensions. It is he that rescued me and my brother from the fire.”

Felika put a hand on Jayson’s. “Then we owe you a debt of gratitude. I remember you from the year before the fire; I admit, I wondered at your unusual coloring.” Arlethaens tended to be blond with fair skin and golden eyes. Jayson’s wildly curly, dark red-blond hair; green eyes; and freckles had confused them. Most Arlethaens didn’t travel out of their country, however. It was a convenient truth to say he was from far away, and let them believe he was simply from another continent.

“The debt is paid in full, good lady,” Jayson replied politely. “Joleon was like a brother to me, and Merelese is the woman of my heart. I would walk a thousand fires to hold her close to me.”

Even after knowing each other for a few years, Jay still made Meryl’s heart flutter when he waxed poetic. He had a talent for songwriting; that was how he’d wooed her in the first place.

The older woman was sharp. Jayson spoke the language well, so the past tense with regard to Joleon did not go unnoticed. She smiled at Jayson’s words, but that faded to a look of concern. “What do you mean, ‘was’?”

Tears threatened to flood Meryl’s eyes again. “On Earth they are far more accepting of different beliefs, tongues, and people. We can freely use our Gifts to benefit the people; and yet it still is not as safe as we believed. He is dead, shot by a projectile built on Earth in a design inspired by the technology of the Old Order. As of yet, we know not why or who.”

Felika eyes softened with sympathy and understanding. “That is a pain I know all too well.” She pulled up the hem of her sleeve so Meryl could see the band of intertwined pink and green threads around her forearm. “The Old Order captured my husband. I have little hope I will see him again.” She replaced her sleeve. “Carelos has not given up that hope, and so I hide my mourning from her. I do not see your colors of morning, though.”

“I have work I need to do. I will find the one who killed my brother, or put forth a valiant effort. Then will I begin my two years of mourning.”

Felika nodded. “I see. And so you have returned to see if your enemy lies within the Old Order.”

“Yes. To commit this murder, it is possible that one would have to travel or at least communicate across the dimensional boundaries. Is this something that people of the Old Order has developed?”

“Not to my knowledge. If the evidence was not so clear, I would not believe these other realms exist. This is something you were wise to keep secret. I am glad you trusted me with it.”

“For your kindness you deserve the truth. I would go further and invite you to come back to Earth with us, but given recent circumstances, I cannot see it to be any safer than here, even under the watchful eye of the Old Order.”

“Your concern is touching, my young friend, but I would wish to stay here. If there is ever confirmation of the death of my beloved, I want to be here to receive it.”

Meryl nodded. “I understand.”

“I will make your request for information known, however. I have contacts whose Gifts allow them to hear through the walls of the Old Order. Will you stay for a few days? We have a bed you are welcome to use. And given your recent tragedy, it will do you good to remember your childhood days.”

Meryl took a quick glance at Jayson, who nodded. She looked back at Felika. “We are not needed back on Earth for a few days. It would be gratifying to accept your offer. You are right, the chance to relive past memories will be most welcome. I wish only that the circumstances of my return were different.”

Felika squeezed Meryl’s hand with her own left hand, and Jaysons with her right. “We question not the path that the Father has built for us; only the way to walk it. There is a reason for our pain. Simply trust.”

Meryl nodded and forced a smile. Trusting was the last thing she wanted to do.

Two days later, and Charity was well into recovery. Drake could stop pretending he didn’t care, pretending he wasn’t white-knuckling it as he watched his friend recover from something that could have killed her.

He still loved her. No matter how many times he told himself to let it go, it just never worked. He knew damn well it was a weakness, but he couldn’t help it. When she broke up with Eric, a spark of hope lit in his heart, that just maybe… It was taking every ounce of willpower not to try to initiate a relationship now that she wasn’t dating Eric anymore. But he refused to be the rebound guy. If it was going to happen, it would happen.

Poor Marcus was entirely befuddled by his new situation. He’d signed the paperwork readily enough, and being a bit of a sullen loner was working for them. He didn’t have any close friends he’d have to keep this new secret from. The boy had apologized once and then deliberately avoided Drake after that, spending most of his time making sure his sister wasn’t going to die on him.

He didn’t really blame the kid. It wasn’t his fault that things had gone south so quickly. Well, it was, but it wasn’t. If Drake had actually managed to unscramble the communications, they could have found out who he was, and they would have been prepared. Because of his unstable powers, though, Marcus found snail mail to be a more reliable method of communication, and then later, paper notes dropped in a tree trunk. And that, even Drake couldn’t track electronically. He might as well have used a courier pigeon. It was very 1980s. Really, who did that anymore?

Well, now he was free to focus on the puzzle in front of him. Drew Herrington’s archeological dig had been more than a historical curiosity. It had been a battleground between an Ereakthc possessing a Dreydria, and an Ereurtc in a mechanical power suit. The implications of that was staggering. The Ereakthc were beings of pure energy from a world known as Arlethae, and were much like that reality’s ‘angels’. The Ereurtc were that dimension’s mortals. The power suit was also of Arlethaen origin and design. The Dreydria, on the other hand, was native to a dimension called Myrathelle. What the hell they were doing on Earth was anyone’s guess.

The suit was what interested Drake at the moment. At rest it didn’t look to be much more than a rectangular metal box, roughly four inches long, two inches wide, and an inch and a half or so in height. It was a little heavy for its size, weighing in at about five pounds. Its composition was unlike anything he’d seen on Earth. The material looked and felt like metal, but it didn’t behave like any metal he’d heard of. It had a magnetic field, like all matter, but it didn’t respond to his powers like a ferrous metal.

When activated, the box dissolved into countless microscopic particles that flowed like a liquid over the user’s body till it formed an almost chitinous armor plating. Drew had worn it in battle against the thing they’d fought. A lot of good it’d done him.

Drake’s observations were interrupted by a pounding on the door. The hell? He flicked at his computer display till it showed the image generated by the front door’s security camera. Eric? What the bloody hell is he doing here? Briefly, he considered testing out the security drones he’d programmed over his lunch break, but decided he’d let the man live for now. He could tell immediately by the way he swayed back and forth that Eric was drunk out of his mind. Against his better judgment, he made his way to the door.

The second he opened it, Eric grabbed Drake by his shirt collar and shoved him against the door. It was unsporting to take too much advantage of a man so incapacitated, so Drake let him.

“What the hell is going on?” Eric slurred his words. If Drake didn’t already know he was drunk, the other man’s breath would have been a strong indicator.

“Global Warming, the war in Asia, the presidential election? You’re going to have to be more specific.”

“Follow the money,” Eric said, letting go of Drake and wandering into the foyer. “That’s what my dad always said.”

“No no, by all means, come in.” Drake shut the door against the night air, since it seemed Eric wouldn’t be voluntarily going anywhere for a while. Besides, if he let him go in this condition, something was bound to happen to the man, and Drake wasn’t going to have that on his conscience. Worse, Charity would kill him.

“I knew something was up. We…we had a thing, you know? It was something special, more than you see in those movies. ‘N then bam, out of nowhere it was over. She loves me, I know she does, so why lie to me? So I checked her accounts.”

Drake thought about making a snarky comment on Eric’s choice to delve into the private finances of the woman he loved, but it would go right over Eric’s head at the moment. Better to keep that to himself if he ever needed to blackmail the billionaire.

“It took some digging. Layer after layer of shell companies are paying her something. And you know what I found?” He waved a finger in Drake’s direction. “You. You pay into those empty companies with meaningless names. There’s something going on. What is it, some kind of giant government conspiracy? What the hell is happening? Tell me!”

Drake looked at him for a moment. This was what broke Eric and Charity up. Charity’s secrets separated them. Eric was closer than he realized, and with a bit of encouragement, he’d unravel Delta’s secrets on his own. Not to mention the suit was technically his property anyway, given that it was discovered by his brother. It was the perfect excuse to bring him into the fold. But that would bring Eric and Charity back together. Drake would never have a chance with her after that.

After a moment’s contemplation, Drake made up his mind.

“No. Not till you’re sober. Take the couch, sleep it off. We’ll talk in the morning.” Eric looked like he was going to protest, so Drake continued. “Don’t make me knock you out.”

That seemed to convince him. He found the couch without being told again and passed out with the air of someone who was used to sleeping off a stupor in odd places.

* * * *

Eric rolled over and was nearly struck blind by the sun coming through the windows. He grabbed franticly for a pillow and nearly fell off the furniture before he realized it wasn’t his couch. The embarrassment of the night before came crashing down on him.

He pulled himself into a seated position, and heard the clunk of a mug of coffee set on the end table beside him. He peered through red, watery eyes at Drake. “Don’t suppose it’s going to do any good to apologize for last night.”

“Oh, hell no. I’m never going to let you live that down.”

“Thought not.” He picked up the mug and took a gulp of the hot, black liquid. “Thanks.”

“Don’t mention it. Do you remember anything?”

“I remember figuring out that something was up with Charity and you had something to do with it.” He looked Drake dead in the eyes. “I know something is going on. And I will figure out what it is, one way or another.”

“I know.”

“She knows something about Drew that I don’t.”

“You’re not wrong.” Drake set a silver metallic box on the end table. “This was discovered by your brother. So, technically the answers within are yours as well.” He barked a command in a language Eric didn’t understand, and the box morphed into a holographic projector. “I’ll give you a minute.” He walked away.

Eric was dumbfounded. Could it be that easy? Was he really about to find out, not only Charity’s secret, but what happened to his brother as well? For a second he wasn’t sure he wanted the answers. If it seems too good to be true, it probably is, his dad always said. Of course, he was usually talking about business deals, but it still applied. Eric sensed he was on the threshold of a monumental discovery. It felt a little melodramatic to think that his life was never going to be the same, but that’s exactly what was going on here. Is this what Drew felt on the precipice of a new discovery? No wonder he wanted to be an archeologist.

Regardless, he didn’t know how to stop the device from playing. Short of walking away, there was nothing he could do to remain ignorant. He remained glued to his seat.

At first, all he could see was dust and rock. A voice said something in a foreign language unlike he’d ever heard before. Then the scenery was moving. It was a first-person point of view of…something. He saw Drake. So the man had been involved.

“W-wait! Let me help you!” The voice didn’t come from Drake. With a start, Eric realized he knew the voice. Drew? Why was the recording from Drew’s perspective? He didn’t understand.

“Stay out of this, Sir. We’ll handle it.”

“Wait! Please. This is my fault. That…thing. I released it. Please let me help.”

Then Charity appeared in the screen. Eric’s heart skipped a beat. She and Drake were wearing matching black army jackets with a symbol he hadn’t seen before. It looked like a pattern of triangles, each one a different color. “Sam’s deployed backup, but they’re too far out to do any good. Jay and John are deep undercover, out of radio contact. We’re on our own.”

“Look, people are going to die!” Drew said. “Please, just let me help!”

A loud crash sounded, accompanied by a wave of dust and debris, which somehow never touched the three standing beneath the rock outcropping. It cleared in time for the camera to catch a glimpse of what was causing the destruction. It was monstrous. Towering at least twenty feet tall, the creature had a wing span that easily matched his height. Great horns encircled his head. Glowing eyes burned an iridescent white.

Drew gasped involuntarily. “Oh, my God.” The camera rocked like he took a startled step backward.

Drake looked at the camera. “You know how to use that suit?”

“Uh…no. But I think the suit does.”

Another loud crash. Drake looked frustrated. “Okay. I’m not letting you do anything. But I’ve got far better things to do than to spend the time and energy it would take to stop you. Just don’t—“

The rest of what he said was lost in the roar of Drew’s takeoff. The scenery blurred, then resolved itself to a dirt hole surrounded by a grassy field. A gigantic claw swiped through the air toward a group of interns. In a flash, the camera was beneath it, an image of the terrible instrument of destruction so clear, that Eric could see the palm lines and corded muscles. “Run!” Drew screamed. The kids didn’t have to be told twice. The camera picked up the sounds of their feet moving faster that one would have thought possible.

Then the view swiveled around. It spun crazily, and Eric could tell Drew wasn’t doing this on purpose. It stabilized for a second, long enough to see the creature’s face. Its mouth was feral, and it let out a bellow of pain as it was struck with an invisible blow. Drake floated impossibly beside the monstrous head. There was a creaking sound, and Drew let out a matching scream.

The camera shook. It turned to find Charity perched on the thing’s arm. “If you’ve got any electricity protection, now’s the time to turn it on!” she yelled. Blue lightning arched over her body and gathered in her fingertips. She slammed her hands down on the monster’s huge arm.

There was a loud crack of thunder. For a second, Drew was free. The camera turned end over end until Eric couldn’t tell the difference between earth and sky. Then he was caught again. The claw closed in over the view, and then everything went black.

Eric realized he was holding his breath. He let it out with a gasp, breathing heavily.

“For the record, I told him not to do anything that would get him killed.” Eric jumped. Drake was standing behind him.

“Those kids…”

“Safe, thanks to your brother.” He pointed at the device. “That thing can morph into a suit. He wore it into battle against the Dreydria.”

“Oh, is that what that was,” Eric said, as if it made it all clear. It didn’t.

“The site your brother was investigating was once a battleground. The original user of that device was an extradimensional alien called an Ereurtc. They call their world Arlethae. Actually, you’ve met a couple of them. Remember those twins we hung out with in high school?”

“Yeah. Charity’s best friend. Her brother always wore those dark glasses.”

“Yeah, a common trait of the Ereurtc is their gold colored eyes. Meryl could change the color of her eyes because she’s a shapeshifter.”

“Naturally.” Eric shook his head. This was all so bewildering. “Wait, does that mean Charity’s…”

“Oh, she’s very much human. She just happens to have super powers.”

“Oh.”

Drake chuckled. “Put on the suit, Herrington. I’m about to blow your mind.”

* * * *

Charity viciously yanked off the Virtual Reality helmet. Marcus laughed at her in spite of himself. “I’m sorry,” he said, trying not to smile. “I shouldn’t have pressed my advantage there.”

Charity swore under her breath. “No, no. I left myself open. You won fair and square. I just can’t believe I let myself be distracted.” She felt like she was going to cry. She was tired, and her side was beginning to throb. The stab wound was healing nicely, but weaning herself off the pain medications was proving to be difficult. Anger spiked in her head, frustrated that she let herself feel this. On impulse, she flung the helmet into the side of the room. She ran her hand through her hair. Maybe she should grow it out again. Eric always liked it short.

“Charity?”

It was as if thinking about him summoned his voice. She turned on her heel, and he was there. She blinked, positive she was imagining things. Tears clouded her eyes. She blinked them back, and he didn’t disappear. “It’s really you,” she whispered.

He chuckled. “Yeah.”

She was in his embrace before she really knew how she got there. In that place she never thought she’d be again. Now she really did burst into tears.

“You have some ‘splaning to do, young lady,” he teased. His voice was choked, as if he was trying not to cry himself.

“’Explaining.’ So that’s what you kids are calling it these days,” Drake said, unhelpful as always.

Marcus gave an exasperated sigh. “Too much information,” he complained.

Charity decided to roll with it. “So. My place or yours?”