When most people think of Los Angeles they think of traffic. Lots of traffic, with cars jammed onto the numerous freeways all creeping along like ants stuck in molasses trying to get every which way at speeds that cause everyone’s gas mileage to suffer horrible degradations. When just one of the main routes from the ‘westside’ to ‘the valley’ underwent construction that required its closing, the news media dubbed those weekends of closures ‘Carmageddon’.
Tonight’s traffic was infinitely more deserving of that name.
Normally my commute home moved at a decent pace as it was generally against the worst of the usual flow. My house was close to where everyone in the morning wanted to go and where I worked was where they reluctantly returned to at the end of the day. But according to the radio, today the greater city area was having a nervous-breakdown inspiring number of calamities and crises.
A mana-bomb had been discovered in a parking garage downtown - with a reported amount of energy sufficient to level ten city blocks worth of high-rises. LAX was reporting that they were inundated with powerful illusions of hundreds of non-existent planes trying to land or take-off from their runways - with the illusions actually generating realistic and interactive radio traffic with the tower personnel. Somewhere in Van Nuys a villain group led by ‘Darktower Dave’ had taken multiple hostages at a credit union. He was demanding that when (and if) the city disarmed the mana-bomb that they turn over to him the bomb, a helicopter, and a luxury yacht. Otherwise he was going to use his telekinetic powers to lob hostages one at a time across the Valley in a blind arc targeting the Griffith Park Observatory. Meanwhile in Hollywood the ghosts of many famous actors and actresses were now wandering the streets and being mobbed by tourists for spectral autographs.
Oh - and apparently the Dodgers were playing at their stadium, but every pitch was resulting in a home run for the Mets. Score was reportedly thirty-seven to zero in the first half of the first inning yet the magical monitoring umpires couldn’t detect any interferences from the crowd or players. The Dodgers’ manager was insisting the game be canceled, but the Mets manager was claiming his boys were ‘just having a great day’.
There were so many different things going crazy in the city that even the news radio stations were unable to summarize them all between the extended traffic and weather reports. And speaking of weather, it was hailing on the beaches, fogging over in the passes, and all the while summer-dry winds were blowing down signs in Van Nuys plus a few other spots. Heroes and law enforcement agencies were rushing everywhere, but if they couldn’t fly they were stuck in the same pile of cars along with everyone else. Let’s just say my vocabulary for curse-words was rather exhausted by the time I finally pulled into my driveway, parked, stretched the kinks out of my left leg from abusing the clutch, and walked towards my front yard and the entrance to my house.
The little courtyard gate that had happily closed behind me when I left in the morning was blown inward off its hinges. As was my front door.
All thoughts of the lousy traffic were gone as I rushed inside calling out for my niece. She should have been home from summer-school already before all the city’s mayhem struck in the late afternoon.
I tore through the foyer and down the hall, noting that it looked like a tornado had blasted its way inside leaving a mess in its wake: wall hangings of art and photographs, small desk that had been set into a wall in the hallway smashed into fragments, even random strips of carpet were shredded.
The trail of debris led to her bedroom. Its door had been sucked outward in a white shower of plywood and favorite metal band poster bits. Her backpack was on her bed, and worst of all - so was her phone.
She never went anywhere without her phone.
“Danielle?” I cried again, scrambling back over the wreckage and searching the rest of the house. The rest was untouched. My cat, Khan, normally a bold and brave companion, was hiding under the bed in my room. He meeped at me (being a Maine Coone his meow was rather high-pitched) but he looked otherwise fine. Just scared.
As was I. Danielle was gone.
Fumbling with my phone, I dialed 911.
“911, what’s your… emergency?” The operator sounded extremely frazzled.
“A tornado has hit my house. My niece is missing.”
“A tornado? What’s your name and address?”
I told him.
“Okay, sir, there have been numerous reports of anomalous meteorological activity throughout the city. Is anyone injured?”
“I don’t know. But my niece isn’t here. She should be here.”
“Could she be buried in rubble?”
“No, the house is still standing.”
“Then if she was there when this ‘tornado’ struck, perhaps she fled to a friend’s house? Or the neighbor’s?”
“She hasn’t made any friends here yet - all her friends are out of state. And she left her phone behind. She wouldn’t do that. She’s fifteen, she’s attached to the damn thing!”
I could almost hear him face-palming at me. “Sir, we have numerous issues all over right now, and many folks are hurt. Unless you have actual injuries or something obviously life-threatening, I don’t have anyone I can send for many hours. I’ll enter it into the system - but, honestly? I doubt you’ll have a deputy show up before morning, heck probably not until late afternoon if you’re lucky. Unless you get some indication beyond a forgotten phone that she’s in actual danger, in which case call back, alright?”
“She’s a mutant. Not a very noticeable one, true, but maybe she was kidnapped!”
“Sir, really, I’m sorry - but that’s the best I can do.”
“Yeah. Great. Thanks.” I hung up before I said rude things to the poor guy.
I stood in the hallway, looking down at the pictures now strewn about the floor in broken frames. I picked one of my wife from our honeymoon - her smiling and holding up a margarita while the sun dipped towards the ocean, framing her with scattered illuminated clouds of glorious pinks and reds. The sunset was gorgeous, but it was nothing compared to the sheer light and joy shining in her eyes. My Caroline. God, she had been so beautiful.
Shaking my head, I set the picture aside and tried to figure out what to do about Danielle.
After a few too many minutes of drawing a blank in rising frustration, my doorbell rang. Could the police have actually shown up?
“Hello? Anyone here? Everyone okay?” A male voice, echoing from the foyer.
“Yes and no,” I answered. I walked carefully down the hall, trying not to step on anything important.
The guy standing just inside my new lack of a front door was slightly shorter than I was, and wearing a brown leather trenchcoat. He even was wearing a tie - one of those Jerry Garcia colorfully patterned ones of purple and gold swirls. He was holding a softball sized green crystal up to an eye and peering around at the damage.
He obviously was not a cop.
“Who the fuck are you?” I asked directly, not being in my most polite frame of mind.
“This your house?” He didn’t even pause his examinations to look at me.
“Yeah it is. So let me ask again: who the fuck are you?”
“Nick. Nick Wright. I, uh, I consult with the agencies on… things.” He gestured vaguely with a hand that had been tattooed with a solid black sigil of some kind on the palm - a six pointed star maybe, with weird writing around it.
“That is entirely non-descriptive.”
“Yeah, well, it’s rather complicated. Was anyone else here when this,” he again waved the marked hand about, “all happened?”
“Possibly my niece.”
He winced. “She gone?”
“Left her phone behind. She’s fifteen.”
“Crud. She a mutant?”
I stepped closer to the guy as my hands clenched into fists. “So what if she is?”
The green crystal thing lowered from his eye and he looked at me properly for the first time. “Oh damn, no sorry, you’ve got me all wrong. Look - I’m classified as a meta too, okay?”
“Really? What kind?” I think a muscle in my face twitched.
“Magic. I do magic. And if I’m not mistaken, your niece was taken by magic as well. It’s why I’m here.”
I blinked. “What?”
“I told you, I work with agencies. Federal usually. We got a tip on something, and I’m trying to follow it.”
“Either talk sense and hopefully say something useful, or get the hell out of my house.”
“Uh, right.” He took a cautious step backwards away from me. “There’s a practitioner. A very skilled practitioner, his name is Callas Soren. We know he showed up in this city a few weeks ago. Information led us to believe he was looking for something - or more specifically someone. Someone young and female.”
“And you think that’s my niece?”
“Anyone else live here?”
“No. Just me and her. She only moved in a few weeks ago after her mom’s funeral.”
“Huh. Sorry to hear that. What about you? Any mutations or meta-stuff?”
“Right. So if she’s missing, and as this scan is showing traces of Soren’s magic then… yeah. Likely he’s got her.”
“My niece may be a mutant, but she’s just a low-level regenerator with a mild magic sensitivity. Why would anyone be interested in her?”
He waved me off. “Why isn’t important right now. What is important is us finding her, and fast.”
“So she’s in danger? This guy might hurt her?”
“Possibly, yes. Look - give me a minute here, alright?” He stuck his hands into various pockets, obviously searching for something, then pulled out a small box. “Ah, here we go.”
“Modified compass. Get her phone, it’s probably awash with her energy - I can likely use that to track where she is.”
“And then call the cops?”
He gave me a look of deadly seriousness. “The special tasks groups are so busy at the moment, I doubt they’d even take my call. Regular cops wouldn’t have a clue about what they’d be dealing with. Nor would most superheroes.”
“But you do.” I said skeptically.
“Yeah, I do. I’m here because I do. I’ve spent the past few weeks placing detecting wards all over this damnable sprawling city to hone in on any magical fluxes tuned to Soren’s specific resonances. And despite today’s other crazy ruckuses all over town mucking up the works - they led me to your house. Needle in a haystack the size of the Greater Metropolitan Area - one which I think was also set on fire in multiple places.”
I stared at him for a moment. He was either actually here to help, or was in on it somehow. Either way, it was all I had to go on. I couldn’t very well chase a tornado - real or magical.
“I’ll get her phone.” I did so and handed it over to him.
He took it while looked stonily at what I was carrying in my other hand. “And what is that..?”
With both hands now free I raised it up and pumped the slide action.
“It’s called a shotgun. I’m going with you.”
He wisely didn’t argue. He did insist, however, on taking his rented Ford Focus - saying that he’d paid for the extra insurance coverage in case something happened. Considering the damage my house had already experienced, he had a rather good point. I liked my car.
We spent the next few hours trying to maneuver around the city through gridlock so he could triangulate where Danielle might be. I didn’t feel like being chatty, so any actual conversation was strained and existed in several short bursts.
“You married?” He obviously had noticed my wedding band.
“Lost her to cancer a few years ago.”
“You got a name?”
“Nice house. What do you do?”
“I write medical database software. Try surface streets. This is getting us nowhere.”
“Yeah, uh… I don’t know this city that well.”
“I’ll guide you. Get off at the next exit and hang a left.”
“Just who is Soren? And what exactly would he hope to gain by kidnapping my niece?”
“He’s a potent practitioner, and was my former mentor in the Arts. Knowing him, he’d say he was trying to save the world.”
“He has some kind of theory. That heavenly forces are up to something. He would never tell me any more than that.”
“And my niece fits into this?”
“I’m operating on supposition, but I think he believes she’s the key to it all.”
“He’s going to sacrifice her?” That came out strangled.
“No, or at least not directly. If he’s wrong - then yes, she’ll probably die.”
“So is he fucking insane?”
“He’d claim otherwise. But basically, yeah. Maybe.”
“Shit. He behind all this other chaos in the city too?”
“My opinion? Yes. He’s got the resources for it.”
I didn’t say much more after that, and neither did he.
We eventually arrived at a rental storage facility in West Los Angeles. Throughout the trip the radio kept reporting more crazy happenings. Cars starting up and driving off without drivers - and not the ones with autodrive capability. A flock of crows had swooped into a mall attacking everyone at the food court. Nick drove around the storage place a few times while checking on his magical compass thing. After parking he pulled out a laptop computer from the backseat and with some typing and clicking I saw him log into a FBI website - where he somehow managed to retrieve a blueprint of the storage building. His story about working for ‘agencies’ began to seem more solid but instead of being comforted it only made me even more worried for Danielle.
He imported the blueprint into some other kind of software, and much to my surprise he popped off the bottom piece of his magic compass to reveal a wire that ended in a usb plug. He inserted the plug into his laptop while muttering to himself in some language other than English. I didn’t recognize it.
After a minute though, he said clearly, “Unit three-oh-five. Ten feet by fifteen.”
“What can we expect? Goons? Explosives? Magic traps?”
Frowning, Nick looked around outside the car and again at the building. It was now closer to midnight, and the streets were empty. People were obviously trying to be smart and hide in their homes. In the distance a lonely emergency siren could be heard.
“He’s probably not expecting to be found. All the noise and effort everywhere else should have everyone tied up. So most likely just a magic trap of some kind. Leave that to me, and don’t be trigger happy.” He paused and ran a hand over his buzz-cut hair. “Well, unless you have to. Or you could stay in the car.”
“Right, then. Let’s go.”
We got the keys to access the elevator from the guy who had been manning the front desk. He didn’t object much, as he had fallen instantly asleep after Nick waved a hand at him. “He’ll be fine later,” was all Nick would say about it.
My heart pounded as we rode the elevator up. If Nick heard it, he didn’t say anything. He just rummaged in his front pockets, frowned a bit more, then fumbled about in other ones inside his coat. I noticed that the inner lining had similar markings as his palms.
I asked myself what the hell I was doing. But then I thought of Danielle, and my grip on the gun tightened.
We approached three-oh-five. Its tall orange garage-style door was closed.
Nick held up a hand and I stopped walking. We were still one door short. He took one more step, then rolled a blue marble towards it down the hallway.
The marble almost made it to the door, then melted. And became steam. Nick nodded and gestured us forward.
I let him go first.
He stopped in front of it to stare at the padlock. He frowned and started to reach into pockets again.
I don’t know why, but I quickly just yanked him behind me and stepped to the side. Then I blew the padlock (and the part of the door it was resting against) right off. The gunshot was so much louder than I expected - I had forgotten to bring hearing protection. Crap. Also, ow.
“Jesus Christ!” Nick exclaimed. He wasted no time, however, in throwing the orange door upwards. I pumped another shell into the chamber as he did, so I could cover whatever was revealed.
I’m not sure what I expected to see in there, but I will admit I wasn’t disappointed.
The entire inside of the storage unit - floor, walls, and ceiling had been covered in blue and black runes, circles, and writings in many languages. Some I could guess at (Latin, Greek, Hebrew, Sanskrit), but others looked like nothing I had ever seen. There was no light in the unit, but enough spilled in from the hallway to make them out.
The script and symbols were slowly shifting and moving even while we watched. As I tried to track them my senses were assaulted - it was like all of Niagara Falls was flooding through that room in bursts of waves sending purely weird vertigo sensations right through me. As if reality itself was pulsating within - and yet at the same time it was quiet and only painted with the weird shifting marks. I couldn’t resolve the conflicting visions looking into the room was ramming into my brain.
I doubled over and threw up onto the clean floor in the hallway.
Nick though, he seemed unaffected. He merely whistled as if in appreciation.
“Wow, Callas. I’m impressed.”
A voice at the back end of the unit answered. The tone was calm, measured, and professional: a voice accustomed to command, but one that never needed to belabor that position.
“Why thank you, Nicolas. It is always nice to have one’s work appreciated. I’d suggest you stay outside, however. The consequences of entry would be rather dire to ones such as ourselves.”
I wiped off my chin with the back of my hand and straightened, trying to get a coherent vision of the storage unit without my stomach rebelling on me again.
Danielle was in there, right in the center. Bound to a wooden chair, dark hair falling forward to frame her face. A face that looked somehow different than it had this morning when she went to school, even counting for the strange lines of green energies swirling across her skin.
Forcing my innards to behave I tried to focus only on her and what had happened to her. Her features were more slender, more angular. She had been skinnier after being released from the hospital after the car accident that claimed my sister Helena’s life, but this was more pronounced. She still was recognizable, just… altered. Her eyes were closed and she sat there limply in the midst of the reality maelstrom she sat within.
“Danielle!” She didn’t so much as twitch. “Is she dead?” I shouted in panic at the guy who was supposed to understand all this magical insanity.
Nick, who had been examining the scene with eyes darting to the corners, refocused on Danielle. He shook his head.
“No, not yet. But something is wrong. Callas! What did you do? What is this?”
The voice tsked. I could barely make out a man standing in shadow behind the distorted weirdness within an empty circle at the very back of the room. The room then swirled into a multi-hued fragmented kaleidescope, as if my mind’s single image of the scene shredded itself into infinite holographic shards. Problem was that each shard was like its own musical wind-chime, and my tongue could taste the exact temperatures of the individual notes. My stomach rose in rebellion again while my inner ear issued its own complaints. I had to look away, trying to focus on Nick instead.
“Come now, Nicolas. You should recognize the patterns. I am releasing her inherent divinity. But I will admit that she is resisting more than expected.”
Nick extended a hand inside the room before crying out in agony. The mark on his hand burst into blue flame, and a twin mark on his other hand did the same. Dropping to his knees, he used his coat to smother the flames on both. The smell of cooked skin assaulted my nose, but considering how messed up my senses were at the moment, the smell just kind of blended in to the overall chaotic tapestry.
The shadow figure spoke again wryly, “I told you it would be bad to enter. We’ve forged ourselves to be channels for such energies in our practices - and there simply is too much in there for either of us to handle.”
Nick, gritting his teeth in pain, looked up at me. “I can’t go in there. Neither can he. You said she was a low level regenerator, right?”
I nodded. “So she’ll live?”
He shook his head again and my hopes sank. “No. It’s keeping her alive but barely. But he fucked up.” Nick shouted angrily at the shadowy figure. “You hear that, Soren? You fucked up!”
“Hmm? How so?”
“Look at the patterns on her skin! Those are not the patterns of Heaven!”
“Impossible. She’d have died by now if she wasn’t…”
“She’s a regenerator, you idiot! And those markings, I’ve seen them before. They’re Fae marks, you bastard!”
“Why’d you take her? Just because she was a mutant?”
“Of course not. Don’t be stupid. The ley lines around her home, as I’m sure you noticed, are warped. All elements were converging, albeit slowly. A nexus was forming there. Her spirit - her non-human spirit - was calling them. I’m only speeding up a process that had already begun.”
Nick gasped, peering around the room again. My vision couldn’t keep up with his - lines of all the colors of the rainbow and beyond were swirling through it now as if in a whirlpool, evoking smells, sounds, and tastes from random childhood memories. Yet, even weirder still, another part of my brain’s perceptions seemed to show it clearly as just a room with odd scribblings covering everything.
“A ley core. You’ve… directly tapped a higher source!”
“Of course. Primal energy at its purest and most potent.”
“It’s killing her, you asshole!” I shouted. If he hadn’t been directly behind Danielle, I would have shot at him. But a shotgun is not a very precise weapon, nor would I have been accurate enough with a rifle even if I’d had one. As I looked back at my niece, the odd unaffected mental window in my perceptional chaos watched as her dark hair shimmered and slowly faded into a soft white: a shade as pure as undisturbed snow.
Nick cursed under his breath, then gave me a haunted look. “I can’t stop this. I can’t go in there - if I did I’d go up like a matchstick. The channels must be tied to her; the only way to shut it down is to get her out.” He sank further down upon his knees in defeat.
I grabbed him by his coat lapel, as if trying to lift him off the floor with one hand. “What if I went in there? I’m not a wizard like you.”
He shook his head. “The spell with that kind of energy - it’s built to strip away mortality. The shell of humanity. She’s holding on because her spirit is actually of the Fae and her talent includes self-healing. You wouldn’t ignite like me, but your soul would either get slowly ripped from your body and sent on its way… or be utterly obliviated.”
“Slowly. You said ‘slowly’. How long?”
“How much time before I’d die? Figure it out!”
Nick stared blankly at me. It was Soren who answered in a calm and clear voice.
“Approximately fifteen seconds. Perhaps slightly longer. My former apprentice is indeed correct in his assessment. Her pattern is not properly in tune with the channel. And neither of us would likely last more than a second if we crossed the boundary. To both Nicolas and myself the channel would prove instantly hostile.”
I swallowed and looked back towards Danielle. Her hair had grown longer while her skin had become more pale and luminescent.
Nick grabbed at my arm, ignoring the pain of the blisters forming on his palm. “You can’t go in there. Her soul will survive and go on - yours most likely won’t.”
I closed my eyes and my mind flashed to my sister Helena’s funeral. Danielle’s hand had held tightly to mine during the entire service. Her father abandoned her and her mother when they discovered Danielle was a mutant back when she was only five. The prejudicial asshole had fled, after calling my niece a monster to her face. Standing over my sister’s grave I had silently promised that I would take care of her daughter as if she were my very own.
I wasn’t going to go back on my word.
The shotgun clattered as I let it drop to the floor. “Let go of me, Nick. Or I’ll drag your ass in there with me.”
His grip fell away. “Justin, the chair isn’t bolted down. Just get the whole thing out with her in it.”
I inhaled deeply, and nodded.
Then I charged into the maelstrom of shifting crazy perceptions, all while shouting an incoherent scream. In my heart I sent a prayer for her survival to the gods I had stopped believing in a long time ago.
I expected a lot of pain - and it didn’t disappoint. Every nerve fiber in my body instantly lit up like a Christmas tree being connected to the raw output of a nuclear power station. It was as if my entire body was busily being ironed by the fresh magma from an exuberantly active volcano. Yet at the same time it also felt like I had been plunged deeply within liquid nitrogen formed into a lake on the coldest part of Pluto. My willpower to move tried to collapse against the brunt of that sudden excruciating, conflicting, incomprehensible agony.
But at the same time I also somehow heard and felt the distant sound and sensation of singing. The sounds and passions of the most glorious song I had ever beheld - as if a million perfectly harmonic voices were echoing the symphonic wonder and glory of the last movement of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, of Handel’s Messiah Chorus, Mozart’s Requiem, and John Williams’ Throne Room and Finale from Star Wars simultaneously. No description I could give would do the experience of that music justice - it was beautiful beyond all rational comprehension.
That singing swirled into me, spurring me onward, even as the totality of sanity-destroying pain spread from under my skin into my muscles and into the very marrow of my teeth and bones.
I flailed and pushed through the room as if it were tangible and made of jello, ignoring how my skin was now lighting up like a brilliant white neon sign. My senses screaming incoherently, I grabbed Danielle in a bear hug and lifted. Somehow I managed to turn and stumble back towards Nick. He was staring at me with an expression of shock, horror, and something else I couldn’t quite identify. Maybe awe. Or maybe he was just astounded at my suicidal stupidity.
All the while that glorious singing echoed throughout my soul, keeping my will and focus clear through each agonizing step even though it felt like my foot would collapse into powder with each roaring impact against the sigil-marked floor and take the rest of me with it.
Reaching near the edge of the unit I could feel my consciousness eagerly trying to fade out. My vision, as discombobulated as it was, shrank sharply inward. Right before the darkness reached the center of my sight, I heaved with all I had left to toss Danielle and her chair those final few feet before me. As I started to fall forward the last thing I saw was her bare toes clearing the dividing line between madness and the hallway beyond.
A final triumphant resultant note of the Song resonated within me as I hit the floor. From behind I thought I heard Soren say something.
Sounded awfully like “Amen”.
That’s when sweet nothingness enveloped me and pulled me irresistibly under.
I was okay with that.
A tower of blinding light rose endlessly above, shining the fulfillment and answer to every yearning ever imagined. More than anything I desired to stand within that light, let it cleanse me, and in so doing wash away all the aching pains and sorrows even unto the consumption of everything I was and ever had been. Without hesitation I instinctively reached upwards, straining to connect to that glory, but a voice of sublime tenderness whispered: ‘Not yet’.
I was then falling away from the promise of absolute peace as a chime sounded three times mixing with the echoes of that loss…
I awoke in a hospital bed.
My eyes remained closed, but I didn’t need to see to know where I was. The quiet whoosh of the oxygen tube leading to the plastic prongs stuck in my nostrils joined the low-level hum of a heart monitor. The scent of antiseptic permeated my sinuses despite the Oxygen being pumped up my nose. In a room nearby I could hear the bleating of an IV pump’s alarm trying to get the attention of someone to refill whatever contents it had been dispensing. People were talking outside the room, too muffled to make out actual conversation but the urgently serious tones were clear.
I recognized the ambiance all too well. I had practically lived in the damn hospital watching Caroline slip away from me piece by piece. The Oxygen sensor clamped to an index finger also gave it away. But something else was also just, well, wrong.
I honestly felt too good.
Yes, I was tired, but it was a good tired. I mean, I may not have been ancient or over the hill at forty-three, but I had the aches which had become the accepted background noise of day-to-day life. A soreness in my lower right back, pains in my wrists from abusing many computer keyboards, not to mention the standard chest tightness of an asthma condition that journeyed hand-in-hand with collecting sinuses infections much like Internet trolls garnered down-votes.
All of these were just gone. I wondered if I had actually died and moved on, but the nurse’s sneakers as she came into my room sounded far too mundane. I just didn’t think angels (or demons for that matter), would wear shoes that squeaked that badly as a mechanism for announcing their presence. Trumpets, sure, or maybe howling screams if I’d gone to the other place, but not sticking rubber like this.
Opening my eyes I rolled them sideways at the nurse. She startled as our eyes met and blurted out, “Oh! You’re awake! Let me… let me get the doctor.”
She fled the room in a rush before I even had the chance to say ‘hello’.
I frowned; she was obviously scared by something. Not a good sign when you wake up in a hospital, and I felt a rise of panic. What if my lack of the usual pains was due to being totally paralyzed? Not a happy thought.
My heart monitor began to beep more rapidly as I internally tried to take stock.
The bed. I could feel the mattress below me and the blanket that had me covered. Tentatively I wiggled my feet, and sure enough they moved causing the thin blanket to tug on the toes.
So far so good.
Going slowly I turned my head first to the left, and then to the right. No neck brace was in place to prevent movement, but I could feel my hair pull a bit with each direction. Obviously someone had undone my usual ponytail. No pain from the movement, also good.
I was about to try and extend a hand upwards when a man wearing a white doctor’s coat strode in, closing the door behind him. He was a shorter man, stout but not plump, with a short trimmed salt-and-pepper goatee and frenetically bushy eyebrows sticking up above dark rimmed glasses.
“Ah, yes. Please don’t move much yet. Mister Thorne, isn’t it?” He had an eastern European accent, but it wasn’t overly thick.
I glared at him, which seemed to cause him a moment’s discomfort as he looked quickly away to studiously examine the screen on his tablet. “Yes. It is,” I answered.
My general irritation with all doctors was rudely interrupted by the experience of my voice being wrong, way wrong. Not only was it young, but it sounded softly feminine. My usual voice wasn’t the deepest of manly voices, but it did alright in that department. This wasn’t it at all - this was the voice of a pre-adult girl.
Wait. Teenage girl… memories of recent events flashed through my head. Danielle!
“My niece!” I exclaimed while bolting fully upright in the bed, surprising the doctor who lost his grip on his device. “Is she alive?”
As the tablet was falling to the floor causing a loud clatter and bounce, it dawned on me that I had felt something else fall from my sudden movement upwards.
My chest. And the off-white blanket which had kept me covered.
Looking down my mind blanked in shock and disbelief. Two perky, round, and prominent breasts dangled free above the bed. The pale pink nipples immediately tried to retreat from the sudden exposure to the rather cooler air of the room.
My mouth spoke to cover my brain’s lost coherency. “Boobs.”
The startled doctor flushed beet red and quickly spun around to face a wall. “Uhm, yes. Mister Thorne. A, uh, a nurse should have dressed you in a gown, apologies. As you can see, there is much to discuss.”
My hands instinctively reached up to cup the new pectoral attachments to confirm their reality. Yup, they were real. They were also fairly bouncy.
He continued talking, albeit towards the far wall. “To answer your question, your niece, Danielle, is recovering on a different floor. She woke once, reported that she was not in any pain, confirmed her identity, gave a brief description of her kidnapping, and then fell right back asleep. Other than being thoroughly exhausted and drained, she appears to be unharmed. We have been monitoring her vitals, as we’ve been monitoring yours.”
Looking down at these mounds of femininity within my hands caused my mind to jump to disturbing new tracks. “Did that bastard do anything to her? You know… untoward things…?” I felt anger rising at the thought of her having been defenseless and at Soren’s despicable mercy. What if he had forced himself on her? I felt sick at the image.
“Fortunately, no,” he answered. “She said that she lost consciousness after being, and I quote, ‘yoinked right out and up over all the houses’. In addition, her body shows no sign of any such physical trauma.” He coughed. “Her virtue, so to speak, was determined to still be intact - something which most regenerators don’t replace after experiencing their initial coitus. Though it can happen.”
Relief flooded through me, and I forced myself to focus. Priorities. I pulled the blanket back up, holding it in place with arms crossed under my new and still rather shocking anatomical acquisitions.
“Sorry. You can turn around now.”
He risked a glance over his shoulder to check that I was indeed covered, then coughed again before picking up his tablet. He fuddled with it and its screen finally came back on. The reappearance of medical facts and lab results on his display seemed to reassure him for he straighted up with recovered doctoral poise.
“Right then. I am Doctor Kirov, and I have been put in charge of your case. Ordinarily in such a situation I’d also include a psychologist to talk to you first after discussing the relevant medical scenarios and, well, be more gentle about such… personal revelations. Unfortunately the MCO are downstairs, thus I’m afraid our first visit must by necessity be short and to the point. I will have to be blunt: you’ve transformed into what appears to be a young and healthy girl of perhaps fifteen to sixteen years of age. All tests indicate the change to be complete… and thorough.”
I just stared at him, not wanting to register all the implications. Worse still was the MCO, the Mutant Commission Office, was here. Internationally tasked with overseeing mutants worldwide, their reputation for attitudes towards new mutants was, shall we say, less than stellar. Including some very nasty rumors and reports from what I’d dug up over the years.
He continued. “In addition to the MCO demanding to see you immediately, there is a message for you from the Department of Paranormal Affairs.”
The DPA? If I was lucky… “Is the message from an Agent Mark Boone?”
He blinked. “Yes, yes it is. He instructs you and Danielle to, and I quote, ‘sit tight’ and that he is on his way with an ‘E.T.A. of five hours’.”
Relief turned to thinking fast. “Okay. Regardless of what has happened to me, I am still Danielle’s legal guardian. The MCO is not to interrogate or even talk to her without me present.”
“I can note that, but with everything else that happened in the city last night, the MCO agents are rather anxious. The gentleman who arrived with you in the ambulance departed against doctor’s advice after being bandaged for some rather nasty burns on his hands. We only have his word for it that you are, or were, a ‘Mister Justin Thorne’ and thus related to Danielle. His story was, as you can imagine now, rather unique. And currently a State of Emergency has been declared in Los Angeles.”
“Are there FBI agents also waiting?”
“Yes ma’am.” He then added lamely, “…sir.”
“Good. Alright doctor, I’ll talk to the MCO as long as some FBI guys are in here too. But first?”
“How the hell did this happen to me? Am I a mutant? I thought such things could take time, or did it happen while I was out? What time is it?”
“You’ve been here in the hospital for just over sixteen hours, it’s now five in the afternoon. And no, you arrived as you find yourself now.”
I’d heard of mutants undergoing dangerous effects after their mutations first triggered, including transformations into all kinds of things. Also that some will run such an extreme fever that they cook their own brains and die. The media, with the medical establishment following the crowd, labeled it ‘burnout’, and the effects had claimed the lives of countless new mutants.
“Any signs of burnout?” I asked.
Thank God. He continued, “Your blood-work, respiratory, and heartbeat patterns have all been normal. Extremely normal, which in itself is intriguing. However, being a fully equipped hospital we do have some new scanners that can detect magical residue - and quite frankly, on this alone you are pinging off the chart. If it weren’t for this fact, your burned friend’s story regarding your identity would likely have not been given much weight.”
“So am I under an effect of a spell? Is this going to wear off?” Skyward jumps the hope!
He shook his head in the negative. Hope floundered mid-leap to fall flat on its face.
“I’m sorry, Mister Thorne. Our resident practitioners have examined you as thoroughly as possible, and while it’s clear you have been exposed to a major, if not cataclysmic, level of magical energies - they could detect no spell or even any lingering spell effect which could have caused your sudden change. They are all rather baffled. So am I - for the blood testing also has not detected any signs of mutation. In fact, it shows no sign of anything one would expect to see as residue from your previous form, like lingering testosterone levels, or free-floating unused stem-cells from the transformation.”
Doctor Kirov paced besides my bed as he got going with the medical analysis. His gestures with his tablet grew wider and more exuberant in his rising excitement and scientific fascination. “If you do indeed have a variant of BIT - a Body Image Template, you do know what that is, yes? Excellent. If it has not manifested due to a mutation, but perhaps instead from whatever exposed you to such extraordinary levels of magic, then this is quite unheard of. In fact, we really should consider running a deeper scan plus there are quite a few more tissue tests we’d like to do. Our medical wizarding staff will need to interview you in detail. Perhaps bone marrow extraction, or even brain fluid sampling would be useful…”
A nurse swung open the door, thankfully interrupting him. “Doctor? The MCO is threatening to search this floor room by room for ‘their witness’. I don’t think we can stall them any longer.”
The doctor cursed under his breath in what sounded like Russian. “Alright, alright.” When he looked back over at me I couldn’t help feeling not like a patient but rather a lab specimen containing secrets just waiting for him to peel out of my skin. “We’ll have to continue our discussion later, Miss Thorne. You may want to don a gown before they get here.” He nodded quickly in my general direction before walking out. He didn’t even give me a chance to respond.
Wait a second, did he just call me ‘Miss’? Yes, yes he did. I looked down at the slender gentle-looking female hands holding the blanket and gulped. The initial shock was starting to wear off, but a deeper inner emotional storm had just started to gather.
And now I had to go deal with the MCO - a group known for first assuming any mutant or meta was a horrible and dangerous threat to the world before any examination of real facts, and worse sometimes they would act on those assumptions in unpleasant and occasionally violent ways. Or so I had read on various mutant forums when trying to research things to help my niece. A lot of the stories were truly terrifying.
Couldn’t I have just stayed asleep?
The authorities were apparently not giving the doctors any leeway. According to the nurse that kindly had interrupted Kirov’s impression of Doctor Moreau, I only had a few minutes to get into a hospital gown before agents would arrive at my room. I deliberately didn’t go into the bathroom and risk looking into a mirror, as honestly I wasn’t ready to see the full deal. I was still locked in ‘crisis management’ mode and trying desperately to stay in some semblance of focus.
The nurse helped me get dressed while mentioning that the governor had declared a State of Emergency. Her name was Irene, and she tried to be gentle. She commented apologetically that some of the staff had a fear of ‘emergent mutants’, due to other cases which historically had not gone so well for the patients - or the staff. That probably explained my total lack of a gown when I awoke, which honestly was a more reassuring thought than the idea of some pervy orderly taking explicit photos of my unconscious body - one I hadn’t even seen for myself yet. She even whispered ‘good luck’ in my ear before escaping past the four agents who marched into my room.
The four didn’t even try to play it friendly. Without prologue they immediately demanded information on who I was, what had happened, and was I now or ever had been a member of the Communist Party of America. Okay, the last bit wasn’t true, but the actual discussion really wasn’t that far off.
I proceeded with a detailed recounting of events starting with my arrival at my house. The FBI guys corroborated the details of my 911 call - even noting that I was relaying that phone conversation practically verbatim. The two agents from the MCO were completely fixated on details about Nick, as if he was the real criminal of the evening. Then again, maybe he was one somehow. While they kept implying heavily that they had bad history with the guy, he did find Danielle and he did get us safely to the hospital after I passed out. He earned serious points for that by my tally. The FBI agents focused their attention on Soren, especially after I remembered Nick indicating he could have coordinated all the disasters across the city. They grilled me on what specific evening happenings I knew of, so I tried to recall all the ones mentioned on the radio. I had a suspicion that there were a few more incidents that had not been reported on, which if I mentioned would probably have implicated me as being involved. Ignorance was indeed bliss, in this case.
My attempts to find out what happened after I had lost consciousness didn’t go far. They didn’t know anything - Nick had skipped out before they arrived.
The female of the two MCO agents refused to believe I was who I said I was, claiming that I must be involved with Soren and kept demanding I reveal the location of the ‘real’ Justin Thorne. While her partner was a tall and likely ex-football player, she was a short and slender woman in her early thirties - and for whatever reason had obviously taken an instant dislike to me. Or perhaps that attitude was towards all mutants or just guys who woke up as girls. Maybe both. Her partner actually seemed embarrassed by her attitude as the interview went on, but never said anything to reign her in.
Finally she flat out said I was nothing but Soren’s cheap and underage floozy.
That did it. My temper flared, and I prepared to describe in gory detail that if she thought I was a floozy then it was clear it was only because her own career had been singularly advanced by such tactics, and therefore she saw it everywhere she looked whether it actually existed or not.
I was just about to deliver my mighty counter-rant when one of the FBI guys said quietly, “her eyes are glowing”. All four of them took a large cautious step back as the female MCO started to pull her gun from the holster under her arm.
Before the situation could go all movie western on us, the door popped open startling all of us. When I saw who was standing there, though, my own tension fell away with relief.
“Mark! Thank God.”
Department of Paranormal Affairs Agent Mark Boone, looking more rumpled in his suit than usual yet still quite tall and imposing, strode past the doorway. His hair was cut military short, but I could see some grey moving in on his temples.
Ignoring the other agents, his gaze fixated on me. “Justin? Is that really you?” His eyes narrowed suspiciously, but honestly I can’t blame him for that. Or at least I couldn’t once I later had gotten a chance to spend some time with a mirror.
“Dammit, not you too,” I grumbled. “Fine. Just ask me something only I would know. You at least can corroborate things.”
Mark finally noticed the other agents in the room. “This investigation has been turned over to the DPA. We will share our findings with your offices. But I will need to question this witness alone, potentially on matters of confidential national security.”
While I really enjoyed the looks on the MCO agents’ faces, he seemed awfully serious with his statement. He wasn’t just making an excuse to get them to leave. He meant it.
That was scary.
They all shuffled out reluctantly. The woman MCO agent (one ‘Gloria Fairbanks’, a name I filed away for later) was truly pissed and glared daggers at me as she left. Good riddance.
When the door closed Mark just kept looking me over in complete disbelief.
I rolled my eyes. “Oh for… just ask me something already!”
He grimaced. “Sorry. It’s just… uh, rather shocking. How about we start with you telling me how you knew who I am.”
“Because you’re Caroline’s brother, and if you hadn’t witnessed the prejudice Danielle faced from her own father ten years ago, you probably would currently be wearing a jacket that says ‘FBI’ and not ‘DPA’.”
He nodded cautiously. “That’s true enough. But I need something that only Justin would know.”
I frowned, leaned back, and tried to think. “I’d try to say something hinting about how only I know what you did at my bachelor’s party, but lets be honest - we all went out to a movie and then went to a bar before taking separate cabs home. Nothing secret there, only just showing how boring and straight-laced we and our friends are.”
A slight smile poked at one side of his serious expression.
“And how about this?” I said with a grin. “Eight years ago, as a newly minted DPA agent, you once showed up to my office with your shiny new DPA laptop and were freaking out. You’d accidentally clicked on some spam in your personal email which promptly corrupted your browser with malware, including making the machine part of a pedophile porn serving bot-net. You were desperate for me to clean it all off so you wouldn’t be embarrassed in front of your agency’s IT department. It took me four solid days to force a reset that wasn’t still corrupted.”
He had the grace to look embarrassed about that, but didn’t say anything.
“I also know about how that cop in Nevada, once he realized you were in the DPA, wanted to let you off the hook for speeding when the three of us were coming back from Vegas - and how you insisted he give you the ticket anyway, because your conscience is so stuck as a paladin it’s ridiculous.”
He chuckled. “That’s a good one. Though that cop probably told the story to others to get laughs.”
I dropped my grin to stare at him in all seriousness. “Then finally, how about the fact that I loved your sister with all my heart and would do anything to have her back here to hold in my arms again, even if I had to look like this for the rest of my days? Because there’s not a day that goes by that I don’t wish…”
My sentence died away on my lips, because tears were already spilling out. I thought I had healed or at least scabbed over the wound of her loss, but my emotions were as raw there in that hospital room as they had been in another such room three years ago.
I buried my face in my hands, unable to get it to stop. Poor Mark didn’t quite know what to do - I was seriously breaking our established ‘guy code’ where we had each mourned Caroline in our own ways… and alone.
“Ah hell. Justin, I’m sorry man…”
“Fuck.” I sniffed, trying to pull myself together. “No, I’m the one who’s sorry, Mark. You’ll have to forgive me, but I’m just not myself today…”
He had moved closer to the bed, obviously struggling with whether he should try to offer me (me!) a hug or something. But my line caught him off guard and he couldn’t help but go, “Ha!”
That triggered me to snort, and then we were then laughing together. Although I was still sniffling until he finally got me some kleenex.
“Alright, alright. I accept you’re Justin. Though maybe ‘Justine’ would be better now, eh?”
I groaned and blew my nose one more time. “Dude, too soon.”
“Yeah, maybe. But I think you’ll have to get used to it. Give me the run down, bro… err, sis? Damn.”
Shaking my head, I gave him yet another full recount of my previous evening, trying not to leave out any details. I even remembered details I hadn’t consciously noticed at the time which was a bit odd. At the end, I asked him, “So who is Nick Wright, anyway? He one of yours?”
“He’s a consultant. I wish I could tell you more, but I don’t know all the details. A lot is classified above my level.”
“He mentioned he had been Soren’s student. The elephant in the room we keep not mentioning is why that storage unit spell that Soren was doing to Danielle caused, well, this to me.” I gestured at my current state. “And why it didn’t kill me, or as Nick put it, ‘obliviate’ my soul. It sure hurt enough for that, though.”
“You’re most likely going to end up as a bit of a lab rat at the DPA while our own experts try to figure all that out. Honestly, Justin, you might just be a mutant who manifested as a result of what Soren was doing in that room. The quick briefing I got on the way in says the results of your tests all show normal, but that there were also anomalies in the data that the hospital equipment couldn’t explain. All your samples and results are currently being confiscated and moved to our labs in any case.”
“Procedure. Like I said: classified.”
“Great. Just great. Think this can be, you know, undone? Fixed? The doctor seemed more interested in examination than cure.”
He winced. “From what I’ve read about such transformations, if it’s something that wasn’t imposed from the outside then recovery isn’t usually likely. And there’s no sign of a curse or anything similar.”
I sighed, sitting quietly for a moment while I let that sink in.
He broke the silence. “I was told Danielle woke up once already and then drifted off again. Have you seen her yet?”
“No, haven’t had the chance yet.” While I wanted to rush through the hospital to wherever her room was, my imagination realized that might not go so well and I grimaced. “They may not have told her about what happened to me yet, in fact they probably didn’t. Charging in there looking like an utterly deranged psych-ward escapee to wrap her in my arms may not be such a good idea. Especially not a crazy girl her own age that is trying to claim to be her uncle that’s been magically visited by the gender-swapping fairy godmother.”
Mark winced in sympathy. “You think she’ll take it badly?”
I shook my head. “I don’t know. She has to deal with her own changes too.”
“Oh? Like what?”
“Your briefing must have sucked. By the time I tossed her out of that damn storage unit, her hair had gone snow-white, grown from her shoulders to her butt, and her face looked less, well, human. I wouldn’t be surprised if she’s got a pair of vulcan-like ears now.”
“Think she’s a Sidhe?” He frowned.
“No idea. The doctors haven’t told me a damn thing yet, what with being shoved aside by anxious government types.” I gave him a look. “I bet they’d know if she gained the sensitivities I’ve heard about. She didn’t before, as you well know - but that damn spell had an effect on her. A large one. She’s going to be very scared.”
“You seem to be handling things alright, all things considered.”
“Me?” I shook my head. “I haven’t had time to freak out yet. Or even see what I look like.” A thought occurred to me. “Wait a minute, how come you were only five hours away? Weren’t you in London as a liaison for something?”
“Got reassigned, and was on my way back when I got the call about Los Angeles.” I could tell there was more he wasn’t saying, but I wasn’t going to push - at least not for now. “Hey I have an idea,” he said quickly. “How ‘bout I go see her first? You know, try and ease her into all of what’s happened? Think that’ll help?”
“That… that’s a fantastic idea.” I smiled warmly up at him, feeling relief from at least some of my inner tension. “That’d mean a lot to me, Mark. I’m really glad you’re here.” I actually was quite happy he had made it, in fact both Danielle and I were quite lucky that he had. And not just because of him being a potential buffer against the MCO and other agencies, but because he really was a solid stand-up kind of guy. Caroline would often tease him about it, but right now I was thankful.
Instead of smiling back at me though, he just looked flustered and sharply stood up. “I uhh, I’ll just go check on her then. I’ll be back later to let you know how it goes.”
And with that, he rapidly walked on out. What the hell was up with all the people retreating so quickly from my room? First the nurse, then the doctor, and now Mark. Did I really need to shower that badly? Sheesh!
I sat there alone for a good ten minutes wondering if I should take offense, before realizing all I was doing was mentally postponing the inevitable. I needed to march to the restroom and face my new self properly, along with all the new plumbing it apparently had acquired. Forcing myself up I headed to the restroom, closing the door behind me. I muttered a curse that there wasn’t a lock on it. I really didn’t want to be interrupted for this.
Deciding that the best way to do it would be to just go for the full reveal, I pulled the string on the back of the flimsy paper-like gown and let it fall to the floor. I then turned to the mirror.
I don’t know what I expected, all I can say is this wasn’t it. But no, my jaw didn’t fall to the floor - if it tried my new cleavage likely would have caught it.
Yes, I was, in a word, built. Or stacked. Or hawt. Or… look, you get the idea. Also young, definitely in the fourteen to sixteen years of age range, but clearly a girl who had an early growth spurt of both height and, well, other dimensions. Curvy ones.
I’ll try to start with the face. Prominent cheekbones oversaw a triangular chin while framing a slender and elegant nose. But unlike pictures of fae women that I had seen, the features weren’t overly angular - instead they were soft in all the right places. Hair fell to the middle of the back as a wave of deep crimson, longer than my old hair had ever attained. The red had golden metallic highlights swimming through it. I reached up and touched a few strands, expecting a wiry texture. I was surprised at how light and silky it felt instead.
I tossed my head to the side just to watch that hair flow and bounce with an almost supernatural grace. Said motion also caused other prominent assets to jiggle as well.
Whoa. That felt weird.
The figure wasn’t an exaggerated hourglass, it was more slender yet still curved proportionately. I figured the height to be about the same as I was before so somewhere around five-foot-ten, and the legs definitely stretched down lengthwise to provide that height. The chest’s additions could be described as a ‘nice handful’ with some extra to spare. The whole body was well conditioned - movement revealed taut muscle under the softer skin. The stomach was smooth yet nicely toned.
As for the nether regions, I’ll just say that they contained a perfectly good example of female anatomy, along with a small patch of reddish-gold hair. I saw that other than that patch below, the arms and legs only had a very light layer of pale hair which wouldn’t even be noticeable unless one looked rather closely.
What struck me the most, causing me to lean in closer to the mirror for closer examination, were the eyes.
Gone were my old hazels in their entirety. Instead these irises were rings of shining gold, flecked with a scattering of silver throughout. They were immediately striking.
Not to mention inhuman.
I think that’s what caught me. I had seen my niece have to deal with the pain of people’s prejudices - classmates teasing her, teachers treating her badly, and of course her own father abandoning her. She actually hadn’t had any obvious marks on her, only the ability to heal rather quickly. It didn’t matter though, she had that damnable MID card and all the stigma that went with it.
Now, undoubtedly, I’d need to get one too - and deal with all those consequences myself.
Like losing my job.
I worked on software for medical databases country-wide. Several states had passed laws forbidding mutants (or metas) from having access to such information. This was in response to some villains having misused medical systems in rather unpleasant and deadly ways. Even if California hadn’t gone that route with its own laws, my contract had a strict ‘no mutant/meta’ clause. I had needed to jump through ridiculous bureaucratic hoops to keep my position just with having Danielle move in with me.
It wasn’t fair. It wasn’t right. But my job was toast. Automatically and with no possible appeal.
I felt my anger build as my thoughts spun back to the previous night. Fixating on Soren and his nefarious plan, his fuckup in kidnapping my niece, her brush with death, MY brush with death, and now this: unemployment for me with Danielle now having to suffer more torment in school and life due to her even more obvious mutant manifestation.
Frustration and rebellion rose mightily within, gaining strength as all my other inner pains fueled the powerful tempest, until it finally flashed upon the cursed cancer that took Caroline from the world. From all her dreams. From me.
A girl’s hands became fists and I saw my golden wedding band was missing. Memory conjured an image of the precious ring wrapping around a finger made of light while the gold boiled upwards into the maelstrom of Soren’s spell, lost forever.
With a shout of fury and loss I punched the mirror - putting a hole not just into the my perverted reflection but through the wall beyond. On impact I felt the rage drain into overwhelming sorrow leaving me collapsed on the floor sobbing with uncontrollable tears.
Irene found me still on the bathroom floor crying, and after carefully getting me back into the gown led me quietly back to my bed.
My room was dark as she must have turned the lights off, and I lay there for a bit without sleeping or even thinking. My mind had retreated leaving behind only an empty wasteland.
I did eventually wonder if someone in another room or another floor was playing music. I could just make out the impression of a distant melody. Wherever it was, it was actually rather soothing so I slowly let it carry me away.
My quiet reverie was broken by an orderly dropping off dinner. He plonked the plastic tray on the rolling bedside table before scurrying on out of my room. He didn’t even give me a chance to say thanks, just hustled right out. Nor did he turn the lights back on.
Seemed like a trend. Although I might have been nervous too around a mutant that puts holes through walls when upset. Crap.
The tray he left behind didn’t smell all that great but it did give off an aroma that was at least food-like. Removal of the lid revealed some overcooked beef smothered in some sort of brown sauce all ladelled upon instant goopy potatoes. To complement this fine culinary centerpiece were mushy cooked carrots and, oh joy, green jello. Party on a plate.
Appetizing or not, I found I was starving and ate it anyway. Yes, even the jello.
Once I was done, a male night nurse came in and told me that they needed to move me into a new room. So, you know, they could repair the damage I had inflicted on the bathroom wall and clean up the shards of glass properly. I wondered if my health insurance would cover ‘traumatic outbursts’ damages. Probably not.
I didn’t protest having to move, though I did wrap myself with the blanket before going down the hall with the guy. The damn hospital gown was far too revealing, especially in the backside. Therefore I decided that until someone brought me some real clothes, me and that blanket were going to be great friends. He ushered me down the hall quickly, which suited me fine. On the way I noticed a couple of the overhead fluorescents had burned out and a few more were being rather flickery, all of which resulted in the hallway being a bit dimmer than usual for a hospital ward.
That was fine too - I really wasn’t ready to be gawked at by other people.
Mark arrived again not too long after I got resettled. He said wanted to talk to my doctor in more detail and also that he still had a lot of paperwork to deal with so he didn’t stay long. As he didn’t mention my attempt to escape into the hallway without using the door I decided not to either. That might have been the source of the extra paperwork, though. Oops.
In the time since we last spoke, however, he had managed to see Danielle and fill her in on what happened: her kidnapping, Soren’s magic, and her uncle trying to foolishly play hero and as a result becoming her aunt instead - one who now would most likely get carded trying to see an ‘R’-rated movie.
The conversation apparently hadn’t gone all that well, which is what I had been afraid of. She had fallen into tears (seems to be yet another trend of the day), and then refused to talk to him any further, telling him to ‘just go away’. The hospital was going to send in a counselor to try and help.
They also were going to get one to talk to me after Mark and I were done with our own little chat -likely prompted by my previous room’s new bathroom-to-hallway ventilation feature. Not to mention the small bandages Irene had placed on my hand thanks to the mirror’s kindly donated cuts it had bequeathed in its last will and testament to be rendered unto its destroyer. Mark said they wanted me to talk to a counselor before trying to see Danielle - with a strong hint that unless the counselor decided I was stable enough, they’d deny me visitation. I think he was afraid I would be stubborn on principle in hearing this, but after my outburst I wasn’t exactly confident that I was managing things well either. So I nodded in quiet acceptance, and in so doing I may have caused Mark to worry about me even more. I just couldn’t win. He did bring me a pair of sweatpants and matching DPA sweatshirt to change into, thank God. I could have given him a hug for that, but when I had the thought to do so he got really awkward and muttered about needing to get to those reports.
He even let me say ‘see ya later!’ before he took off this time. Small victories, I’ll take ‘em! I wasted no time in getting into the sweats and oversized sweatshirt.
The counselor lady came in only after a few minutes. She shut the door and took a seat in the chair by my bed without saying even so much as a greeting. Forcing myself to try and be good, I didn’t say anything snarky to her - just sat up on the bed and hugged my knees into my chest. Which didn’t totally feel weird and remind me of changed things, nope, not at all.
She sat quietly while just watching me for what seemed like several minutes, giving me plenty of time to study her appearance in return. Her hair was a dark brown and pulled into a functional ponytail, and she had lightweight transparent-framed glasses perching a little too low on her nose. A simple white blouse tucking itself into a beige skirt was the highlight of her wardrobe choices. No wedding band on her finger, and but how she had crossed the room to sit down near me with purposeful grace did make me think she’d had some kind of training: either ballet or a martial arts.
Her manner and steady gaze was slowly growing more intimidating which started to creep me out. I felt like I was a specimen she was examining in detail. And then I realized that, yep, to her I probably was. Great.
I had to break that uncomfortable silence. “So uhh, isn’t this where you ask me how I’m doing?” I wanted it to seem more jovial, but nope, I just sounded awfully nervous.
She smiled as she replied - something I wasn’t expecting. It was a pretty smile, reaching up to touch her eyes. “I think we both know the answer to that. As does maintenance.”
I winced. “Right.”
“Though I’ve seen worse reactions.”
She nodded. “Mmmhmm. One little bathroom wall is nothing really. Guy I met once found himself manifesting as a seven-foot tall stone golem when his abilities activated. He somehow woke up - like you, in a hospital - and decided he was stuck in the middle of a nightmare.” She paused.
“So what did he do?” I prompted, as she clearly was expecting me to.
“He left, hoping it would wake him from the bad dream. By virtue of plowing through the wall of his room, through the nurse’s station across the hallway, through another room on the other side, and right through the building’s outer wall - falling six stories as a result.”
“Holy heck. He survive?”
“He was made of stone,” she said flatly. “He hit the ground and kept running right on out of the impact crater. A team followed the debris trail for five miles before they caught up to him. Exemplar four, if I recall correctly.”
“Dang. Okay, I’ll admit, you’ve got me there. One wall really doesn’t seem so bad in comparison.”
“He also had formerly been a six year old girl named Kelly.” She watched my face closely as she said that.
I sighed, resting my cheek on a covered knee. “Ouch.”
“Speaking of names, mine is Natalie. Natalie Usher.”
“Hi. I am, or was, Justin Thorne. But you know that already.”
“Mmm, yes.” She nodded, smiling at me again. “I must say, considering other transformation cases I’ve seen, you didn’t turn out that badly. If I wasn’t doing my best professional impression, I’d be jealous. You’re gorgeous. And you have a chance for a fresh start.”
I frowned, even as I felt my face flush. “You’re laying the ‘it could be worse’ shpiel on a bit thick, don’t you think?”
“From what I’ve heard about you from Agent Boone and others, you’re an engineer - one who prizes facts above ‘bullcrap’, right? So I thought I’d start there, because honestly it could have been worse. A lot worse. You could be dead. And from the reports, you not just could be dead but by all rights should be.”
“Dying is easy,” I growled - or rather tried to growl; this new voice sounded sulky and maybe petulant. Dammit.
“Tell me, Justin - how are your emotions doing? But try not to just react to the question. Think it over first.”
My mouth had opened to give a rude reply along the lines of ‘how do you think, lady?’, but my brain kicked in at the last second.
In truth, how was I really doing? I looked at her, her ice-blue eyes examining me from behind her glasses - cool, calm, and rational - and tried to focus on myself the same way.
I thought through the evening so far, and how I’d been feeling since I woke up having to use restrooms designed for the other half of the species for what was probably going to be the rest of my life.
“Honest assessment? I think I’m a mess,” I sighed.
Closing my eyes, I replayed the scenes.
“I let myself get overly frustrated with the agents - especially the one who was trying to provoke such a reaction so she could justify her own prejudices. If Mark hadn’t arrived right when he did, I might have said - or done - something truly stupid. It’s not like me to get so easily rattled.”
“Okay, go on.”
“Old griefs feel fresh and raw and there’s a low-level of panic lurking under the surface. Also buried in there is rage. A lot of it.”
She spoke softly yet clearly. “Your body appears to have regenerated to a state of youth, this may have an impact on your brain’s thinking process. Mix that with the dramatically new hormones it now has to contend with, and I’d have to assess that such things are not only likely but to be absolutely expected. Understand that the hormone effect works both ways - male to female effects, and female to male effects. They’re just different and every gender-shifter has to deal with it - and unlike most that have transitioned - or transformed - you’ve been plunged into the deep end overnight.”
I pondered, but shook my head. “Yeah, I get that - but these emotional extremes so far seem a bit, well… more extreme. Hard to quantify, though, on only a few hours worth of experience.”
“Emotions generally are difficult to measure. But I need you to remember this and if possible, exert more control over them. In your case this may be especially necessary.”
“Uh, how so?”
“Because, Justin, we still have no idea what you are capable of. And neither do you.”
“Putting a hole in one wall isn’t all that special. I’ve seen heroes on the news punch through reinforced steel.”
“True. But blowing out a good number of the lights in the hallway, along with frying the computers at the nurses’ station is something that I would classify as a ‘cause for concern’, wouldn’t you?”
Oh shit. The lights in the hall and in my old room being out, that was me? “Jesus, they sent you in here to see if I’m dangerous, didn’t they? You’re not really with the hospital.”
I tried to see if I could spot a gun on her, but if she had one it was well hidden.
“No, I’m not with the hospital. I’m a psychotherapist with the DPA, specializing in mutant or super-human cases. Including the effects of dramatic transformations.”
“What about Danielle? Mark said she’s having issues possibly worse than I am.”
“I’d like you to try, if you can, to not worry about Danielle right at this moment,” she said gently. “I will be visiting with her next, though with a very different approach, of course. Our first priority, however, is to make sure you and her are up to being moved to our facilities, where we can do our best to assist you both.”
“That sounds expensive,” I muttered. Of course, for Danielle, I’d pay anything needed. But still, without my job all the bills that we must be racking up were going to destroy my savings. I could feel an emptiness of despair opening up in the bottom of my stomach, and my eyes began to fill with tears yet again.
“The government is providing, Mister Thorne,” she said abruptly. The emphasis on ‘Mister’, a title that was now lost to me, was rude - caused me a flash of irritation. But while caught between the conflicting sides of anger versus despair, I realized she did it deliberately to try and forfend the deeper depressive shift which had started to build. She was playing one mood swing against the other, and trying to see if I’d manage to thread the needle and stay stable.
Wow, she was good at this. She even perceived the moment I figured it out - I could tell from how her eyes crinkled with approval when I got it.
“Focus on yourself for now, Justin,” she advised. “Your niece will need you as calm as possible when she feels ready to talk and finally sees for herself what’s happened to you. That may be tonight, or tomorrow, or even longer depending. My hopes are for you to see her sooner rather than later, to prevent her own fears - and yours - from having time to fester and grow. Make sense?”
“Okay.” I nodded. “I can try to do that. So are we in ‘protective custody’?”
“In more ways than one. Our agents are still trying to determine Callas Soren’s motives and agenda, so there is obvious concern he may try something with your niece or even you again.”
“That’s only one way. What else is there?”
“Until your powers are determined and measured, we need to be ready to potentially protect the public from you and the effects Soren’s spell has had on you. That also goes for Danielle.”
“I know she’s had a cosmetic transformation to how she looks, but has that affected her powers too?”
“I’ve been told to wear a coat before going in to see her. It’s been snowing in her room.”
The day just kept on giving.
Natalie really was quite adept at her job. After they had me spending an hour or two trying to work with a sketch artist to get on paper some of the symbols I had glimpsed while at the storage unit, I was surprised when Natalie returned and said I should go with her to see Danielle.
Danielle had, like me, also needed a new room. Her old one, it seems, was ‘snowed in’.
I tried to fight off all the butterflies constructing cathedral sized nests in my stomach while we approached her room. When we went in Danielle was sitting by a window and staring outside, one palm placed against the glass. Her darker hair was gone, as I had seen happen the previous night. In its place were these sheets of snow-white that cascaded down along her back in gentle waves. I had to blink and catch myself, because for a second I could have sworn it was all slowly drifting as if some ethereal wind was relaxing her tresses downward towards the earth. Her face, caught in profile, had lost any remnants of childhood softness. Her chin and cheeks had become angular and sharp - yet she was also quite stunningly beautiful in the midst of that severeness. Her eyes, once a bright sky-blue, now glistened with a translucency hinting at bluer waters buried underneath a frozen shell of ice.
But her lost and worried expression as she chewed at her lip, that was all Danielle’s. I had seen it at her mother’s funeral, and I saw it clearly again now. My heart began to shatter into pieces all over again, just as it had then.
Without a thought I spoke the same words to her I had given only a month ago when the services for her mother, my sister Helena, finally concluded. “Don’t worry, hon. We’ll face whatever comes together. Always and forever.”
She swung about abruptly to glare at this strange red-haired teenage girl who had just intruded on her private reverie, but my words sank in and her hand flew to cover her mouth in shock.
“Yeah, hon. It’s me.”
She was across the room and into my arms, squeezing me tight with arms much stronger than either of us were used to. I didn’t mind at all.
We both started the waterworks again. I didn’t mind that either.
“They told me the spell had changed you, but…” She was shaking, there within my arms.
“Only on the outside, kiddo. Inside here it’s still me.”
She choked a sob and her knees must have gone out as I found myself having to hold her upright.
“Ohmygod, ohmygod. It’s all my fault; I’m so sorry, so sorry, it’s because of me, because of me…”
“Whoa, whoa!” I leaned her back gently, noting that she also had gained a few inches in height. “Don’t you go blaming yourself for this, kiddo!”
“But he was after me, because I’m a mutant, and you came after me, and they said you pulled me out, and the spell hit you, and now you’re like this, and Mark said it’s likely permanent, and…” The temperature in the room fell rapidly, trying to freeze the tears on my cheeks. Small snowflakes appeared and began to twirl around the two of us. Uh oh.
“Danielle!” I said firmly, intending a ‘fatherly’ tone - but what came out sounded more like my sister when she had actually summoned the courage to be assertive. I think the similarity shocked us both.
I swallowed. “Right, none of that. You are not in any way to blame for this. None. You hear me?”
She hesitantly nodded.
“All the blame lies squarely on the man who did this,” I continued, watching as more ice crystals formed in the air. “He kidnapped you, he strapped you to that chair, he cast that spell that did all this to both of us. We are the victims of his schemes, alright? And he even got his machinations wrong. He thought you were something you aren’t, which is why everything went sideways.”
“But, but, I am a mutant. I caused this…”
“Hush! A mutant, yes. But not the flavor he was looking for. And no, I don’t know the details of what he was after - and the guy who might be able to figure that out dropped us off at the hospital, got some bandages, and then fled the scene. Men, huh? What are us girls going to do?” I forced a cheesy grin.
She gaped at me, and I mentally chanted ‘c’mon, c’mon, it’s funny, please…’. She started to giggle as she gazed at my appearance, finding the humor in the ridiculousness of it all. I chuckled and joined in myself. We stood there while our growing laughter washed away our mutual worries that we could have lost the other. I even emitted a rather girlish giggle-snort, which just got us both going even harder.
The air in the room started to warm up. Natalie, who had stayed quiet to monitor the entire thing, nodded at me with silent approval.
Danielle gave me another squeeze before whispering quietly into my shoulder, “Always and forever.”
I just held her tight, vowing to never let go.
It was passing midnight when Director Elliot Goodman arrived at the ‘We Hoard It 4 Less’ self-storage facility. The LAPD had blocked off the entire building, and two FBI crime-scene investigation vans sat in the middle of all the blue and red lights that swirled frenetically about the parking lot.
Climbing out of his standard-issue Ford Explorer, Goodman ran a hand across day-old stubble. His mustache needed a trim as well with the way it kept brushing his lower lip. As the Director of the Los Angeles division of the DPA, he had not managed to get more than two hours of sleep since the chaos of the previous night had swept over the city. DPA agents from San Diego, San Fransisco, even Las Vegas and Phoenix, had all flown or driven in to assist the tremendous number of investigations. The fear from headquarters in Washington D.C. was palpable: was this just a first wave of some kind of coordinated paranormal terrorist attack?
Unfortunately Director Goodman did not currently have a good answer to that question.
Waving his identification in front of the LAPD guarding the entrance, he moved quickly inside. The small front lobby had been turned into a command center of sorts. The furniture had all been shoved aside and folding tables and chairs were brought in so the various specialists could set up their equipment. Odd looking technological devices that looked like they had been pulled straight off Hollywood sci-fi movie sets were sitting side-by-side with bronze and gold artifacts that should have been safely ensconced in museum displays.
This was not a normal case by any organization’s standards.
Against one wall was a corkboard with various sheets of oddly sized paper pinned to it at random. Blue and black inked tabulated scribbles of diagrams, sigils, and ancient writings comprised most of them, but mixed in were photographs taken from different units within the building.
Standing in front of this display was the man Goodman came to see. He was shorter but dressed in similar black slacks and buttoned white shirt, although his shirt’s sleeves were rolled up and the man’s hands were covered with gauze bandages. He was staring at the wall’s layout in intense concentration, not noticing as Goodman walked up.
The Director had to clear his throat to get the man’s attention. “Nick Wright.”
It took a moment for Nick’s eyes to refocus. “Oh. Hey there Elliot.”
Goodman’s jaw clenched. He had orders to work with the man, but that didn’t mean he had to like it. “I need your briefing on what you’ve figured out here. Washington expects a report on each individual incident that occurred within the hour. This site is the last one on my list.”
“Ah, right, sure. Gum?” Nick reached into a pocket and using the tips of his second and third fingers managed to pull out a foil-wrapped stick.
“No, thank you.”
“Suit yourself,” Nick said with a shrug. Trying to unwrap it with just the fingertips between his two bandaged hands was clearly not working; Goodman grabbed the gum impatiently, unwrapped it, and handed it back. Smiling in thanks, Nick popped the prize into his mouth and started to chew loudly. He motioned for them both to sit on a couple of the uncomfortable metal folding chairs.
The Director took a seat. He would have stood to tower over the other man, but exhaustion was catching up.
Nick, after a moment of careful consideration, spoke up. “Have you ever been to the Western Wall in Jerusalem or the Temple Mount itself? No? How about the Temple of Apollo at Delphi? What about Machu Pichu? Stonehenge?”
Goodman nodded at the last one.
“Right,” Nick continued. “I don’t know if you’re a sensitive or not, but those places are just different. Vibrant. Holy. Special.”
“I’ve read the analyses of such sites and how they seem to be founts or channels of various mystical energies that effect their surrounding areas.”
“Oh. Good. Then I can summarize things easily: you’re standing on a new one.”
The Director stared. “You will need to expand on that a bit. As I understand it, that should be impossible.”
Nick laughed tiredly. “It’s taken all day, and probably sixty search warrants, to put it all together.”
“Sixty warrants?” Goodman blanched with surprise.
“The FBI took care of it. We had to open every unit on that floor, plus a cluster of ones on the floors below. Each was registered under a different name, and on different days over the past three years.”
“With what probable cause?” Inwardly the Director was groaning, the last thing he needed were legal issues over such a blanket search.
“Our equipment linked them all to the ritual Soren did upstairs. The energy patterns outside indicated each of those units as being involved, and our suspicions were confirmed when we finally got them open. Your boys refused to go in without warrants, so I had the FBI help with the paperwork and find a judge with an enduring signing hand.”
Goodman looked back at the board. “You’re telling me that this ritual had been carefully set up over three years?” He felt his stomach sink at the implications.
Nick nodded. “Exactly. All those units have been painstakingly warded and well prepared for what Callas triggered last night. Look at the pictures - each unit was covered on the floor, walls, and ceiling with specifically cast circles and resonances, all linked to support something huge at the focus. The calculations and meticulousness required for it all really hurts my head. Especially as even with what we’ve been able to analyze, the energy level and after-affects are way beyond what they should have been. It doesn’t add up - our numbers are off by a two to three orders of magnitude. Because you’re right, such a thing should be impossible. But our energy readings are clear: it was indeed possible because it happened.”
The Director thought furiously. “Can this spell be repeated, is there a continuing threat?”
“No. That’s just it, whatever Soren was after he likely had one shot at it. We think he may have used several ancient relics to help fuel his spell, and they were likely destroyed in the process. Residue found in a couple of the units show evidence of this. Those kinds of things are extremely hard to find, let alone replace. It’s astounding - he managed to forge a brand new node of energy here somehow, one with Biblical resonance. This place is a new holy site, Elliot. And by the way, people are going to subconsciously or consciously start flocking to it. The LAPD has already had to turn away a small number of unstable sensitives throughout the day.”
Goodman put a hand to his forehead and asked, “If that was his goal, why did he kidnap Danielle Thorne? And why do it here and not somewhere remote where he could keep this new font or whatever for his own purposes?”
Nick chomped on his gum for a moment. “That’s just it. It doesn’t make sense. None of it makes sense: not the setup here nor the taking of the young girl.” He stood and began pacing in front of all the pictures and diagrams. “According to your agents, she only arrived here a few weeks ago due to an accident that claimed her mother’s life. But this was clearly all in the works for years.”
“Your initial report indicated he had made a mistake, that she was of the Fae and not, as you put it, ‘properly aligned for the spell’. That the ritual was killing her and when you arrived it was rapidly doing so.”
Crossing wounded hands over his chest, Nick growled. “Yeah, and then I finally got to thinking clearly. I had sensors all over the city scanning for his signatures, yet we spent hours trying to track down Danielle - something my little device succeeded at. It shouldn’t have.”
“Look!” Nick jutted his chin towards the board. “Wards were in place for all those units - but the one we found the two of them in didn’t have anything to block me from finding her. That son-of-a-bitch counted on me to track them down!”
The Director had a bad feeling. “He wanted you to find him?”
“Yes! And more than that, he wanted no other agents to interfere. I’d bet your annual salary that the entire reason for all the ruckus across the city was to keep each and every one of your boys so busy that even if I had wanted backup there wouldn’t be any available. And it gets worse still.”
“Justin Thorne. Callas set him up. Three years of planning, Elliot. They weren’t chosen at random. He knew Danielle was Fae - I’ve been studying the runes on the back of that chair she sat on, all of which were out of my line of sight from the unit’s entrance. They were protecting her from his spell in a way specifically attuned to Fae essence. And protecting the chair itself, for that matter. It couldn’t do it completely, but did enough. He also didn’t take her by simply holding a gun at her and forcing her into a warded van ala After-School-Special-Style. No, instead he used magic - loud magic - to whisk her up and away from their home to here. He was laying out a trail through the sky for me to follow if necessary. I didn’t need it, but it was there.”
Nick paused, letting that sink in before adding, “Callas knows I would charge in without any help from your distracted agency because he understands me too well. He knows my history and how I react to things. I bet you he’s also been watching Justin Thorne for ages and knew with a certainty that Justin wouldn’t let me go alone to save his niece.”
The Director frowned. “Wait a minute. If he wanted Mr. Thorne to be here, and if his niece was simply the bait, then the whole ritual was… some kind of trap for Mr. Thorne? Your report said you yourself were unable to enter, and that Soren knew that would be the case.”
“The energy levels were too high. He opened a fount to, well, to put it bluntly he opened a portal to reach towards God. A purest source of the divine. The kind of energies that could have bathed the Ark of the Covenant, ones that required the priests to be cleansed, purified, and protected by their own constant rituals. Sticking a part of myself into a live channel like that was actually damn stupid. I’m lucky to still have my hands. For anyone going in there it would be similar to walking into the center of the sun.”
“You say the niece had protection due to the warded chair, but yet Mr. Thorne made it both in and out of there alive - albeit undergoing a significant transformation.”
“Yes. He just flared brightly, and morphed into a young woman.” Nick blinked. “Wait a minute, our information on Callas indicated he came to Los Angeles searching for just that - a ‘young woman’. Justin fits the bill - at least she certainly does now.”
“I don’t follow. You’re saying he knew what would happen to Mr. Thorne?”
“Exactly! Justin’s survival is simply crazy and his transformation is crazier. But while Callas knows me all too well, I also know him. He never leaves a single thing to chance if he can help it. I’d lay good odds that our information on his activities here in town got deliberately leaked to us just so that I’d be here - he’d knoww your agency would require my expertise to deal with him.”
“So why not just kidnap the man directly, put him in the circle, and not involve you - or the rest of the city for that matter?”
Nick leaned against the wall.
“I don’t know. The setup here was obviously important somehow, but maybe I’m just too tired to see it. For all we can guess maybe it’s due to some crazy prophecy he read in one of his obscure and ancient tomes - the ones written by drug-addicted wackos. Who knows? If we could determine that, if we understood the why of it, maybe it’d make sense of the rest and our numbers would add up properly. Justin has to be the key, of this I’m sure. But how? And Elliot…”
“Whatever Justin is, or was, to make it through the energies like that? He, sorry, she won’t be human anymore. Callas went through incredible trouble to unleash whatever she is. You need to keep her safe as well as monitor her carefully.”
“Why? What do you think she can do?”
“I really have no idea. Maybe someday she’ll start an entirely new religion. Test her and assign a squad to watch over her just in case.”
Goodman firmly shook his head in the negative. “I don’t have the agents. Even with the extra help from other divisions, there are too many paranormal strings to chase down. The priority straight from Washington is to concentrate focus on the perpetrators of that mana bomb downtown. If we hadn’t defused it, the damage and death toll could have been truly catastrophic. Your two victims have two of my agents assigned to watch over them. That will have to do.”
Nick scowled at the still-seated Director. “That bomb likely was designed specifically to be defused. That’s a sideshow, a distraction. Don’t let Callas succeed in knocking your attention away from what matters!”
“Tell that to a President who is worried about the thousands of potential lives lost! You want more agents to cover one teenager and one unfortunately forced transgender software nerd? Then bring me proof that Soren was behind all of it. And that proof better be undeniably ironclad.”
“You know damn well he covers his tracks more thoroughly than even crazy Mossad agents, what with all the behind-the-scenes deal-makings he does. Finding that kind of proof could take the next five years!”
The Director spoke sharply as he stood up.
“Then you better get started.”