As Danielle and I seemed physically fine, Mark pushed to get us released from the hospital the next day. Dr. Kirov kept trying to make excuses for us both to stay longer. Apparently Danielle’s blood would simply dissipate after a few minutes once collected, and my own blood was described as ‘exceptionally and unusually clean’ - without any proper explanation of what they meant by that.
His argument had mostly to do with the potential risks of burnout after manifestations, but neither of us exhibited any symptoms so the doctor had a hard time making it sound persuasive. Especially seeing how they weren’t finding any mutation markers in my DNA which meant I was a meta-human of some kind, and Danielle had originally manifested her mutation ten years ago.
Still, he did force us each into an ‘enhanced’ MRI scanner which not only was loud and uncomfortable, but had these weird multi-colored ‘magical energy’ crystals adorning that were supposed to do some kind of resonance scan. The damn thing made me nauseous - I was told that was normal after I got out. Whatever the results of it all had been, they weren’t anything medical that would prevent us from traveling to a different facility. Mark even tried to reassure Dr. Kirov that the DPA facility had a full medical staff and emergency equipment in case anything happened.
It wasn’t until the afternoon that I’d finally had enough and carried through on my threat to call a lawyer. They may have thought I was bluffing earlier when I had mentioned it but Isaiah, my best friend of many years, was an attorney and I had planned on calling him soon anyway.
As my own phone had disappeared along with everything else that was on me when I charged into that storage unit, I made Mark use his government issued one to dial my friend’s number and leave the message when Isaiah (as usual) didn’t answer. The staff nurse who was assisting Dr. Kirov (and most likely was trying to make sure we had no grounds for any lawsuits against the hospital) visibly paled listening to Mark’s ‘official capacity’ voicemail. The papers appeared rather quickly at that point. Who needs powers testing or training to know how to perform magic? One government official, one attorney, one phone and… voila! Of course, the papers were marked ‘released against doctor’s orders’ so the hospital could continue covering their posteriors legally.
After our release was settled, Mark and I then got into an argument that lasted all the way out into the parking lot. He wanted to get both us ‘ladies’ to his ‘secure site’ for testing and safety. With all the chaos in the greater city area, he only had one other agent assigned to watch over us - a fact that clearly made him nervous. After getting out of him that we would likely be staying at this site of his for at least a week if not more, I demanded we first stop by my house. One - Danielle needed whatever of her own clothes which might still fit her, two - we needed to get my cat and supplies for him because I was not leaving him there alone, and three - I needed copies of my legal papers so I could try and deal with the incoming bureaucratic storm of providing official documentation of who I was that was certain to follow.
Mark argued we should just send the other assigned agent to collect the clothes and the papers, and have him just feed Khan for now. Yeah, no. My cat was going with me before he too was swept up and away in some kind of magical tornado. And as my legal papers were in my fireproof safe, I stubbornly refused to give up the combination. Mark tried to claim Khan wouldn’t be allowed inside the facility and other such nonsense objections, but he eventually relented against my firm intransigence.
Granted, my voice may have started to quiver while a few tears built up in my eyes as part of my negotiating technique. Danielle had used that devastating maneuver successfully against me on more than a few occasions and I was curious if I could now pull it off too. Worked like a charm! Mark absolutely deserved it, especially after a cheap-shot comment muttered under his breath that I was ‘behaving like a child’. Not cool.
When he eventually admitted defeat I felt guilty, wondering if I was taking my frustrations out on him. Nah. Well, okay, maybe I was. A little. But too many bad memories of previous hospital rooms prevented me from getting much sleep the night before. I stayed with my wife night after night in room after same room while we slowly watched her disease destroy her body piece by piece. And there I had been, in yet another hospital bed, except now I was alone and she was gone.
The short dreams whenever I managed to drift off had all been of Danielle being stuck in that damn storage unit, but this time she screamed in agony as that energy maelstrom dissolved her into nothingness before I could get her out.
So yeah, I hadn’t gotten much sleep and after giving the doctor grief, I admit I may have also been slightly unreasonable with Mark. Eh, he’ll get over it.
He did, however, insist on sending Danielle directly to their facility in a separate car with the other agent, a man named Jeffrey. Jeffrey had wisely and patiently stayed quiet as we both made idiots of ourselves with our heated debate.
I grudgingly agreed to this which prompted Danielle to rattle off a huge list of things she wanted from the house. After the twentieth item I stopped her, reminding her it was only for maybe a week, and if she could just text me the list of real necessities I might have a better chance of remembering it all - let alone finding them amongst her things. Her room had been a total disaster even before Soren’s tornado hit, and that was after she had only been there for less than a month!
What was weird was that when I tried to think about it, I could remember each item she had rapidly listed with unusual clarity. I decided not to mention that, she might add more.
Thing is, I really didn’t like the idea of leaving Danielle even if was just for a few hours, so as we were about to climb into the two parked SUVs I paused and prepared to start arguing again. Before I could say anything, she gave me a loud sigh and roll of her eyes. “I’ll be fine! Sheesh!” She quickly hopped into the second car and slammed the door shut. Jeffrey gave me a smile and a shrug. He was taller than Mark, and obviously hit the gym a lot more than casually - his suit jacket strained against his arms and chest. I noticed Danielle was also intently studying his physique from her front passenger seat as he walked around to the driver’s side.
Ah, ok. Right.
“He’ll take good care of her, don’t worry,” Mark said quietly to me.
“He better,” I growled as I got into Mark’s vehicle. My new voice admittedly didn’t sound as intimidating as it should so the desired effect fell kinda flat. I sank into my seat, kept my arms crossed under the new fluffy protrusions that lay below my sweatshirt, and sulked for most of the ride through traffic towards Santa Monica.
After what seemed an eternity of bumper-to-bumper cars impeding our progress, I finally broke the silence we had maintained since pulling out of the hospital parking lot.
“Alright, Mark. We’re no longer going to be overheard by anyone and traffic is going to take awhile. So tell me: just who the hell is Callas Soren? And for that matter who is Nick Wright? Considering how they’ve both managed to turn my life upside-down, I think I deserve to know.”
He frowned and his knuckles went white on the steering wheel. “I’m not sure how much I’m allowed to tell you, to be honest. Plus there is a lot that I don’t know myself.”
I sighed, reaching up to push another stray reddish-gold strand out of my face again. Unlike my old hair which behaved itself when in a ponytail, the new silkiness was proving to be an adept escape artist from hair scrunchies. It may be pretty and all, but it was annoying.
“Then let’s keep to generalities,” I said. “I just need an overview of the larger picture so I can wrap my head around things. Like maybe what to expect at this site you’re taking us to. I know powers testing only takes a day; Danielle told me about the procedure when she went through it the first time and again when she was thirteen and her, uh, ‘monthly visitor’ began so they wanted to retest.” I groaned loudly at that thought. “Oh god, I guess I will have to deal with those myself now, too. Great.”
He winced in sympathy, casting a sideways gaze in my direction as if debating with himself. He was having a hard time reacting to me as he would have my old self with the way I looked and sounded now, that much was obvious. My cheating fake crying drama-scene in the parking lot probably hadn’t helped either.
So I had to remind him again.
“Dammit, man, it’s me in here. I may look like a young innocent goddess, but under this skin is a cranky forty-year-old guy who has to figure out how best to take care of everything due to this mess. Give me some damn data to work with. And keep your eyes on the road and off my boobs while you’re at it!”
Holy cow, he totally blushed and spluttered at that. Had he actually just been checking me out? I had said it intending to be funny, but now I turned my face to my window in embarrassment.
It took awhile for our mutual awkwardness to fade, but he eventually cleared his throat.
“Uh, right then. Your questions. Callas Soren is a major figure in the mystic underworld. We don’t have enough details on him, other than suspicion that he is much, much older than he looks and has used various names throughout the ages.”
“He some kind of vampire, then?” I asked incredulously.
Mark shook his head. “No, not that we know of. Something magical sustains his life, but nothing like that. From what I’m told he’s probably the world’s foremost expert on Demonology, spiritual dimensional planes, and other lore that is best left buried.”
“So what’s he after? What has he done with his knowledge and powers, other than to extend his life?”
“He makes deals, one of his aliases is the ‘Dealmaker’.”
That certainly didn’t sound nebulously nefarious, nope not at all. “With who, and for what?”
“According to sources it’s random. A major practitioner will be researching a topic, and Soren will just show up with a tome specific to their need - usually an item long thought lost, or that no one even knew existed. And he’ll offer a deal to give the person access to the it for a limited time, or an arrangement like that.”
“An information dealer, then?”
“Mostly. He’s also been an intermediary, putting someone in need in contact with those who could accomplish their desired goal. Not usually nice things, mind you. His clientele includes some very nasty supervillains along with heavy political and business insiders world-wide.”
“What does he demand in exchange?”
“Maybe a family heirloom, maybe information he otherwise didn’t have, but that’s supposition. Part of his price has always been that the buyer never reveal the price. Later it might be determined due to other evidence, but they never admit it. And ones that do…”
“Let me guess, they just keel over dead?” I asked skeptically.
“Not immediately. But somehow, somewhere, they are taken out. Soren may even make a Deal with someone totally unrelated, and they do the job. His contacts are extraordinary, as are his information sources.”
“I’m surprised no superhero group has banded together to take him down.”
“They’ve tried. Those he has left alive refuse to talk about it.”
I paused as that sank in. “He’s that powerful?”
“Active DPA supposition is at least ‘Wizard Six’. At least. Either that or he has some other kind of ace up his sleeve.”
“There’s something higher than Six?”
“It’s a grey area beyond that, and I hope to never witness it. Suffice it to say your buddy Nick, who was last rated as a Wizard Five, is rightly scared of him. And Nick isn’t someone to underestimate either.”
“Jesus, not if he’s a Five. And who is Nick, anyway? He mentioned having been Soren’s student. Also claimed to work with ‘various agencies’. Does that include yours?”
“Again, I can’t give details. But Nick is an operator, yes. And yes, it is true that he studied under Soren directly for a few years. Nick managed to get kicked out of an elite wizarding college of sorts in England awhile back, and Soren showed up with an offer to teach him. The mystical underworld was a bit in a tizzy about that - Soren’s had never taken an apprentice before. And the memories of those folks is long - very long.”
“What happened? Nick isn’t his student anymore, right?”
“No, he’s not. You’d have to ask Mr. Wright about that yourself to learn anything more. I’m not cleared for those details - if the DPA even has them.”
The SUV slowly pulled into a driveway and stopped. It took me a moment to realize we had arrived at my home. I hadn’t been paying attention and the traffic must have eased up without me realizing it.
Mark turned off the engine and turned to look directly at me, his face serious if not outright haunted.
“Justin, these are extremely dangerous and powerful individuals who have intruded on your life. And Nicolas Wright - he’s not exactly stable. You need to be careful, even with him, okay? I know it sounds paranoid, but there are good reasons for extreme caution. Please trust me on this.”
He was earnestly serious - there was a loss there underneath that he kept hidden. What, though, I had no idea. I was about to nod to him and agree when the left passenger door was suddenly hit with enough force to crush it inward. With a tremendous grinding of steel and aluminum our SUV flipped over onto its side. My side.
I hit the window hard enough to shatter the safety glass into a million shiny pieces.
I didn’t black out entirely; there was a ringing in my ears and everything was just so very far away.
Mark shouted my name. I could make out that much. There was another horrible crunching metallic sound and Mark got pulled from his seat right out of the vehicle. Late afternoon sunlight blinded my face from where his door used to be.
I heard Mark’s gun go off. Twice. And I heard him shout in pain. A girl was whimpering, “no,no, no…”.
The girl was me.
With a protesting groan of broken frame and twisted springs, the SUV lifted back onto what was left of its wheels and a large shadow moved around to my side. I tried to turn my head to look, but before I could get my eyes to refocus, huge black ivory claws punctured my door and ripped it off its hinges as if it all were made of cardboard.
If I hadn’t already been in shock, what I saw would have put me there anyway.
A griffon, possibly larger than the SUV itself, stood on my lawn and casually backhanded the remains of my car door straight through the front wall of my house.
I remember thinking that he was strangely beautiful. Head and wings of a tremendous raven, feathers as dark as a hazy overcast night as seen from a distant mountain safe from all city light. The feathers blended smoothly into black fur covering the rest of his panther-like body. He (even a casual glance showed it was clearly a ‘he’) was huge yet streamlined in his power - muscles rippling under feathers and fur.
“Ah, another. Wrong taste with the first. Perchance you are the answer to the Master’s riddle.” His voice was high pitched and raspy, yet underneath it carried a low thrumming rumble.
I wanted to say something but couldn’t manage anything coherent.
A huge paw reached out again, and I shrieked with fear as my arms instinctively came up to try and protect my face and chest.
The gleaming claw delicately sliced me free of my seatbelt, and before I could react and maybe try to scoot into what was left of the back seat, it reached behind my neck and shoulders and grabbed the back of my sweatshirt. I was pulled wholesale out of the wreckage like nothing more than a limp kitten.
He dangled me in front of his beak, while his two black eyes bore down at me. That beak leaned in closer and sniffed. I wondered if he was going to eat me, or just bite my head clean off.
“Ahh,” he murmured. “Fresh; Good. ‘Kill the one that tastes of what was lost.’ So the Master says.”
A large purple tongue extended and licked at the blood currently leaking from my scalp over my face.
We both screamed together: me in incoherent terror, and him in some other kind of pain.
He let go, and I dropped to the ground. I managed to scamper backwards until a tire hit my back.
The griffon howled anguish towards the sky. “Lost. Lost! Oh cruel Master! A taste of the forgotten, and now remembered as purest of torture!”
He closed his eyes to emit another horrendous roar. Whatever glass remained in the SUV shattered into smithereens above me from the shockwave it generated.
Falling forward, my arms landed on the shards as I tried to scramble away, but a paw simply pushed against my back and pinned me with down with such force that I went instantly flat against the ground, my cheek pressing into the gravel and glass.
He spoke. “Pleasure in this, I take none. Orders given, and Master must be obeyed. A painful gift you have given, little one, one I must repay with an unkindness. Yet cautious shall I be: your crossing will gain notice, and such attention I seek not. Weak you still are, and thus simple the solution is.”
I felt a claw reach around to the front of my throat; with a razor flick he severed an artery. I didn’t even feel pain from the cut.
“Goodbye, little sparrow. Sorrow I have for such a harvest before the bloom. But choice I have none.” So saying and with a flap of those tremendous wings he took to the air.
I managed to roll onto my back, reaching with my hands to vainly try and stop the red flood pouring free from the now painful gash in my neck.
His wings were magnificent as he climbed higher into the sky, leaving me behind to die on the ground. I closed my eyes to the bright sun above and my thoughts flashed on my wife Caroline and my sister Helena. I hoped that when I saw them soon they could forgive me for abandoning Danielle. I had promised, but I failed. Tears joined the bloody wave that kept slipping past my fingers.
It wasn’t my wife or my sister’s spirit that showed up.
A shadow was kneeling over me, blocking the sun that had been sneaking past my eyelids. A voice, somehow familiar but I couldn’t place it, spoke instead. It was a powerful yet gentle voice.
“You have less than a minute before full loss of consciousness. You can survive this, but you will need to stay focused. Nod if you hear me, but you should keep your eyes closed.”
I think I managed to move my head, while my wetly slick hands tried to stay as tight as possible against my throat.
“Good. You could heal this easily, but your energy reservoir is too new and mostly empty. You need to focus on your higher source, pull its energy into your body, and let it flow to your neck and head.”
I had no idea how to do anything like that.
Sensing no reaction from me, he went on. “Picture a beam of light. One that rises beyond the sky. One that shines with all the brilliance that is echoed from within your own heart.”
Light? In the hospital, the dream I had before waking up the first time, the column I had been trying to touch… but wouldn’t that kill me? Isn’t that the light you see when you die?
I pictured it anyway, suddenly feeling overwhelmed with the desire to reach it. My wife and my sister, they’d be there, right? In the dream the light had held the answers and the peace and the cleansing solace I so needed…
“No!” The voice yanked me back in my vision. “Do not go into that light, you must pull it into you!”
Pull it? I tried to extend my hands towards the light. But the hands in my imagination, they matched my new feminine ones.
I paused in sheer surprise and tried to look at them more clearly. What the hell…?
He interrupted. “You’re running out of time. I do not have the skills to heal such an injury without proper preparation, and I did not think anyone would move this quickly. I am a fool and caught by it.” There was a hint of desperation in that otherwise strong voice echoing a far deeper and hidden sadness.
“But you can,” he continued. “You can heal yourself. Find your purpose: embrace your center and the power will flow. Think of your niece. Think of Danielle.”
Always and forever.
I wanted so badly to go up into that light and let it all go, but I couldn’t. I just couldn’t.
My vision of the shining brilliance that rose up before my inner sight refocused. And this time I reached out not just with the image of my hands, but with my will and truest need. I thought of Danielle being forced to face her new powers alone, of being forced to attend yet another funeral, of being abandoned by family for a third time.
No. That was not going to happen. I would not let it.
A thick strand of light spiraled outward from the column and towards me. And as it hit to dive right into me, it was as if a key had found its matching lock. Deep inside a door was thrown open.
The light flooded within.
Have you ever experienced a moment of pure joy and love? Maybe while lying next to your partner, their arms around you and your arms around them, when the walls between the two of you have fallen and you know, you just know that they love you and that you love them with all that you are. Or maybe, if you’ve had children of your own, that first time you held your newborn - that miracle of life for whom you’d give everything you have and more to care for, promising right then and there a lifetime of devotion. Or perhaps when you were a child, and your parent picked you up after you had harmed yourself, and in their arms you felt like everything was going to be okay - not because the pain had stopped, but because you had total faith that somehow they would make it all better.
That’s what the Light felt like. As best as I can put it into words.
I gasped as my eyes flew open, my vision of the Light blending with the sun in the sky above. My mysterious stranger had taken a step back.
“Channel it to your neck,” he commanded. “Also to your head. Good.”
I could feel the gash in my neck close itself, an odd sensation. My growing headache also diminished as the throbbing faded.
“Quickly now, your work is not done.”
A shadowy hand reached down and I took it. It easily lifted me back onto my feet, and I got a proper look at its owner.
He was powerfully built, yet not overly so. The dark African skin of his head was cleanly shaved, and his face narrow and sharp. Somehow he managed to appear both in his late twenties and his mid-fifties simultaneously. He had on an immaculately tailored navy blue jacket with matching slacks, and underneath lay a black silk shirt mirroring the shade of his skin.
His eyes, they caught my attention. His irises were almost the same shade as the pupils, and yet I swear I saw stars flickering within.
He pointed towards the lone surviving pine tree in my yard. A body lay crumpled against its base. I gasped.
“My god, Mark!”
I rushed to the tree. Mark lay with his back propped against the bark and I could see two puncture wounds bleeding from his midsection. His eyes were shut and his breathing was clearly labored.
Fighting back tears of panic as I knelt besides him, I blinked up at my sharply dressed savior. “How do I help him?”
He smoothly bent down to put a hand on Mark’s forehead. “The punctures have not mortally damaged any internal organs; he is fortunate in this. However his internal bleeding is problematic.”
“Can I heal him, like I healed myself?” I desperately hoped for a ‘yes’ answer.
“No. You are spirit in the semblance of flesh; his body will not heal itself as yours did.”
“I don’t understand.”
Reaching into an inner jacket pocket, he pulled out a smart phone. “He will need the assistance of physicians, but he must survive long enough for them to aid him. His life-force is draining away with his blood: you cannot heal him - but you should be able to sustain him until help arrives.”
I swallowed. “What do I do?”
“Pull more essence from your source, and as you love him - share that love and light with him. Hold him here so that he does not cross the boundary between life and death. I will call for an ambulance and inform them that an agent of their authorities requires urgent assistance.”
I looked down at Mark, his face was more ashen and colorless than I had ever wanted to see on someone I cared about again. Sitting myself on the grass next to him, I gently pulled him off the tree and into my own arms before closing my eyes once more.
That channel from the tower of light was still there, and I could feel it slowly trying to fill me. But this felt like a household spigot trying to fill the Grand Canyon. I had moved the light to my neck and head, but my body seemed to be just a very small part of a much larger expanse.
I needed a channel from the spigot to go out and into Mark.
Mark and I had never been all that close; he visited Caroline in the hospital only a small number of times when his work allowed. He had never told us exactly what he did at the DPA after he was accepted and made it through their training program to become an agent - but after the past few days I had a new respect for the kinds of crazy things he must have been dealing with all these years.
He never mentioned any of it to Caroline; I could understand now that he never wanted to burden her with any weights of his own.
And I knew too well the pain of losing one’s sister.
Keying off our shared losses, I felt my compassion for him burst outward. The little spigot widened to a hydrant, the light bursting up from my chest and into his.
He groaned, and his hands moved towards the earth wanting to try and push himself up.
“Don’t move, Mark. I’ve got you. You’ve got to let me hold you until an ambulance gets here.”
“Justine?” He said groggily. “What… are you doing?”
His hands found the top of mine as I held him close, and I saw that my skin was glowing brightly again - the more I focused on the channel, the more brilliant it got - like a white neon sign on a dimmer switch controlled by my will.
“Keeping you alive. Please, just let me keep you here.” I couldn’t fight back tears any longer and they dripped into the blood and grime upon my face.
My dark savior approached, putting away his phone even while the operator on the other end was trying to keep him on the line. “Aid will arrive shortly.”
“You!” Mark gasped and struggled to rise up again, my shining arms had to use strength to keep him down. “Where’s my gun?”
Standing over the two of us, with my own glow reflecting off the shimmering darkness of his eyes, the man laughed - but not cruelly. “You have no need of a weapon against me, Agent Boone. I have no intentions of harm towards either of you.”
Mark squirmed in my arms, causing them to dim as I lost some of my focus. “Dammit Mark, he saved me after that beast sliced my throat wide open, and now he’s helping me to save you.”
Swallowing, Mark calmed though I could still feel his body’s tension. Breathing in deeply, I tried to concentrate. The glow returned, but not as brightly as it had been before. I hoped it would be enough.
The man watched as my skin flared again, and with a bowed head he spoke solemnly to himself.
“Barukh ata Adonai Eloheinu, Melekh ha'olam, asher kid'shanu b'mitzvotav v'tzivanu l'hadlik ner shel Shabbat.” He met my uncomprehending gaze. “For you are my Sabbath candle; after all these ages of darkness you are a light placed upon the altar of the Most High: my own Aradia.”
I blinked up at him in confusion. “Who are you?”
He made an odd hand gesture towards the empty air by his side. A curtain forged of night unfolded above the grass as if extending from a far distant midnight sky. As its shadowy cloak slowly swallowed him, he simply gazed at me until those eyes merged into the swirling stars that wrapped around him.
Without a word the bridge to twilight vanished back into the bright afternoon sunlight.
That’s when I recognized him - I had seen that outline of a man in shadow before. It was Mark who spoke the name aloud.
“Soren. That was Soren.”
We both fell silent. In the distance I could hear sirens approaching.
Mark, reacting to the sound of the incoming emergency vehicles, fiercely grabbed at my wrist which broke my concentration.
“Mark, I need to focus…”
He coughed again, wincing through the pain it caused, but didn’t let go. “Listen, not much time before they get here. You’re covered in blood, are you hurt?”
“No. No, it healed…”
“Thank goodness. Then I need you to go back over by the vehicle and lie down, pretend to be dead.”
“What? I won’t be able to do, uh… what I’m doing from way over there.”
“They’re almost here. I’ll be fine; I’m sure I’ll make it thanks to what you’ve already done. Please, trust me.”
“The medics will notice that I’m alive.”
“I’ll take care of it. Just don’t move, okay? This will keep you safer, keep Danielle safer. Please.”
It was that additional ‘please’ that got me. I relented, carefully propping him back up against the tree. He moaned, but stayed conscious. “Go,” he pleaded anxiously.
Hesitating one last time while biting my lip, I hurried over across the driveway to lie down on the ground by the wreckage of the SUV - right on top of where my blood had left a glistening pool of red. A scarily large pool. I closed my eyes and tried not to move.
As I heard the ambulance and police cars come roaring down my street I remembered that my skin might still be glowing. Reluctantly I tried to close off that channel from the column of light still blazing in glory within my mind’s eye.
Utter exhaustion slammed me hard when it darkened away. Fortunately for Mark’s plan I didn’t have to try to act dead.
I passed out instead.
A cliff overlooked a choppy white-crested ocean that beat its rhythm against rocks below. A sea-scented and cooling breeze rustled the long strands of my hair as they reflected the matching reddish gold hues of the setting sun and clouds above. It was not the clouds themselves that enthralled my attention, but what lay above them. A city of shimmering silver walls clad with sporadically brilliant prismatic jewels all merging into countless immaculate marble towers stretching upwards into that glorious sky. My feet, bare, slender, and delicate, were covered by the thick brackish mud of the earth which held me fast, its inescapable gravity offering only denial to my heart’s desire of soaring to those towers and beyond. Anger and frustration bled into tears which were carried away by the gusts of salty wind...
For a peaceful moment I thought I was back home. The familiar paws of my kitty were kneading at my collarbones, joining his low rumbling vibrations that hovered atop my stomach. Automatically my hand reached up to stroke the fur over his fuzzy head. In his contentment he pulled a bit of my blanket into his mouth to suckle on the cloth, even while his happy paws continued their massage.
“Hey buddy,” I said quietly. For a quick confusing moment I thought Caroline had said it at the same time, as the voice I heard sounded more like hers - she had often referred to him the same way.
Recent events crashed back in painfully along with the report from my body’s senses which confirmed it as real. It was all too much to handle.
Keeping my eyes closed, I tried to just take comfort in the obviousness that my kitty still loved me - despite the tremendous changes. Honestly, that meant a great deal. Khan had been with me through so much, the thought of losing his affection on top of everything else brought a fearful lump to my throat.
He definitely deserved more scritches. Wherever I was and whatever else had happened could surely wait a few more minutes, couldn’t it?
A man cleared his throat, sounding like it came from the other side of a small room.
I sighed. Reluctantly I opened an eye to search out the owner of the interrupting noise. My expression was probably not all that friendly.
He was sitting in a deep and brown leather armchair which had been pulled away from a wall to face the bed I was lying upon. A simple pressed white dress shirt and black slacks comprised his attire; whatever tie he might have worn had been removed and the collar loosened one button. Grey hair adorned his head in a shorter style, though the matching grey mustache shouted ‘law officer’ instead of military. An open laptop perched on a leg and a good-sized stack of paperwork rested on the other. He clearly had been in here for awhile.
The rest of the room contained a small working desk with keyboard and monitor, a rolling desk chair which was pulled out and away - revealing a kitty litter pan placed under the desk - and a wheeled tray not unlike one from a hospital holding a covered plastic food tray. If it wasn’t for the lack of adjustment controls on the bed with the requisite railing, along with other missing things like oxygen ports on the walls, I might have thought I was indeed back in the hospital. I will admit relief that such was not the case.
“I apologize for intruding on your rest, Miss Thorne, but unfortunately circumstances are such that it was in everyone’s interest that we talk as soon as you came to. I had them bring breakfast up, in the event you woke hungry.”
Sniffing the air I smelled pancakes. My stomach agreed they were a great idea, and the little metallic teapot sitting next to a selection of tea all wrapped in their foil packets showed someone had been paying attention to my caffeine acquisition preferences. Food along with an apology, dang that meant I should try to be nice.
I moved as if to sit up (requiring some adjustments to kitty’s position, but he didn’t object much), pausing first to glance under my blanket. You know, just in case they had stripped me down and just covered me up again like the last time I woke up in a strange room after passing out.
This time I had on new sweatpants and a new DPA emblazoned t-shirt that was obviously cut for women. I could tell with how it tightened around my middle that it would emphasize the new assets. Sigh.
I wondered if they were going to start charging me for all the clothes I was going through.
The man sat respectfully while I sat up, poured myself some hot water, and dunked a chosen teabag (English Breakfast for anyone interested) into the cup. I swooshed the bag around a few times before finally taking a sip. The water obviously hadn’t been sitting there too long as it was still quite hot.
“Okay. I’m awake.” I realized as I said it that the statement was indeed very true. In fact, whether I wanted to admit it or not, I felt quite refreshed and alert - even before the caffeine had been given any chance to hit my system. Huh.
He tilted his head politely to me. My cat ignored him. “I’m Director Elliot Goodman. I was put in charge of West Coast operations for the DPA. It has come to my attention that my wounded agent, Mr. Boone, may have overstepped his bounds with his actions yesterday evening. It is this we should discuss.”
I stiffened with memory of Mark bleeding against my pine tree. “Mark? Is he okay?” Overstepped his bounds? What?
The director nodded again. “Agent Boone underwent surgery last night - thankfully it was successful. His report indicated that you may have played a key part in his survival during the incident.”
“I… I suppose I did.” I slumped with relief in hearing Mark was going to make it.
“I’m quite interested in hearing about that, but first things first.” He managed to look embarrassed before continuing. “You see, Mr. Boone had you, Justin Henry Thorne, declared legally dead at the scene. And from what little he communicated to me before going in for surgery, it was clear he may not have exactly had your permission or support in doing so.”
“Wait a minute.” My eyes must have flashed in anger. As in literally because the room flickered brighter and Mr. Goodman’s own eyes widened and he tensed up. Oh shit.
“Uh, sorry,” I gulped. I tried to breathe slowly, which seemed to work. The room returned to being lit only by his desk light. “But… dead? I mean, he asked me to pretend to be dead at the scene - I thought he was afraid our attacker, the huge griffon raven-panther guy, would come back to finish the job, maybe even attack the hospital or something otherwise. But I also thought he meant it as a temporary ruse.”
“The ‘raven-panther guy’ as you call him uses the name Tsáyid, which is Hebrew for ‘hunter’. He is wanted in the Middle East for many thefts of artifacts… and many homicides. He is likely in the employ of a third party; in fact, Soren was once considered as a possible employer. Recent information, however, makes that quite unlikely. Whoever he works for, they are well hidden and extremely dangerous. Between Soren’s involvement in your case and now Tsáyid’s, Agent Boone’s instincts on how best to protect you and your niece are quite valid. But this plan of action truly does need your agreement and support.”
I shook my head while my thoughts spun at the implications, and popped off the top of the tray to reveal the food beneath. Pancakes AND bacon! Glory! Without saying anything more I began to eat, all while trying to internally list the ramifications of what he was telling me.
Mid-bite I paused to look down at Khan. He was at my side nudging my elbow to clue me in that hey, he liked bacon too. And maybe even pancakes. I broke off a small piece of tasty fattening meat which he happily devoured in a single swallow. Which reminded me.
“You guys feed my boy?”
Goodman pointed to the floor at the foot of my bed. Craning to look over the edge, I saw one of Khan’s ‘Fat Cat’ food bowls where mostly munched kitty food lay lurking within.
I kept munching. “Thank you.”
“You are welcome.”
We sat in silence while I continued to eat and consider. The man was clearly a paragon of patience and willing to wait for me to complete my meal, but unanswered questions were piling up in my thoughts.
“Hrm, did Danielle get here okay?” I figured that since he hadn’t mentioned her yet, she was probably fine, but I needed to be sure.
“Without incident. She has, however, spent the night quite worried about you. Her room is right next door and is one built to withstand, shall we say, unusual climate conditions. Its choice has proven prudent.”
“Oh.” I sighed. Poor Danielle. “Do you want her to abandon who she is too?”
“That remains unclear. Your recount of yesterday’s events may help.”
“I thought you wanted to talk about me being dead first. But fine; I’ll tell.” I took another sip of tea before beginning, trying to summarize things in between bites of pancake. They may have been from a box mix, but they were still pretty good. Probably a mix requiring milk and eggs instead of just water, if I had to guess.
“This Tsáyid guy hit our SUV like a Mack truck right after we pulled into my driveway. We flipped sideways. I hit my head; griffon-boy pulled Mark out and must have speared him with those claws.” I saw again Mark’s bloody chest, and the feeling of him in my arms as his life tried to seep away. I shivered.
“And then?” he prompted.
“The griffon lifted the car back upright, peeled my door off like someone casually taking a tissue from its box, then yanked me out as well. He dropped me, and pinned me to the ground with a paw on my back; he was incredibly strong, he could have squished me like a grape.”
“Why did he drop you?”
“Oh. Yeah, he said some things. And he licked some blood off my face.”
“He tasted your blood? Interesting. He indicate why?”
“Urm, someone he only referred to as the ‘Master’ had given him orders him to, wait how was it phrased exactly? ‘Kill the one who tastes of what was lost’.”
I made a mental note to never play poker against the director - he was deliberately keeping his face blank and non-reactive, and doing a damn fine job of it. “Please go on,” was all he said.
“He, uh, he didn’t like the taste and let go of me while he howled - which, by the way, blew out the rest of the car’s windows. Once he had me pinned again, he said something about how he didn’t want to be there when I actually died - so he slit my throat instead and flew off, leaving me to bleed out on my own.”
Goodman rubbed a hand on his chin; he really needed a goatee to go with that gesture. Though he’d then look more like a villain instead of a cop.
“Agent Boone reported that Soren was there.”
“Yes. He showed up while I lay there dying. I didn’t see him arrive, I was somewhat distracted, you see.”
He ignored my sarcasm. “What did he do?”
“Do? He told me how to heal myself.”
One grey eyebrow rose upwards. “How?”
I paused. How much did I want to share here, anyway? I wasn’t sure. As it was I found it hard to believe what I had been able to do. It was crazy.
He guessed at my hesitation and spoke immediately. “Miss Thorne, please believe me that we want to help you. I want to help you. And the best way for us to do that is to try and figure out the what and why regarding the events of the past few days. Which includes trying to understand what abilities you have gained. That may provide tremendous insight into what Soren was trying to do with the ritual that ensnared you and your niece.”
Each time he called me ‘Miss’ I cringed. It kept reminding me of how much was still on my plate to deal with - even now after the pancakes and bacon had disappeared.
“This is going to be hard to put into words, okay? He had me mentally reach into the light, and pull it into me, specifically into my neck and head.”
He blinked. “Did he give you an incantation, or sigils to focus on, or anything of that sort?”
“Uh, no. Just picture the light, and well, do it. I almost wasn’t able to.”
“Did something trigger your success?” he prompted.
I thought about it, then nodded. “Yes. He reminded me that Danielle still needed me. She was the reason I had to live.” I looked at him sharply. “She still is.”
His poker face stayed in place, but he was silent while staring at me. He was clearly thinking hard.
I looked over at Khan. He had curled up on the bed next to me. Damn, I forgot to give him another piece of the bacon before I ate it all. I started stroking his fur again in apology as I kept on with the story.
“After I healed up, Soren pointed me to Mark. He was in bad shape. Soren told me Mark was dying, and that help wouldn’t get there in time unless I did something. He said he couldn’t heal him; something about needing ‘preparation’. I asked him if I could heal Mark like I had healed myself. He answered no, but that I could do something similar which would somehow, uh, keep his life force going in the interim. Like I couldn’t stop his bleeding, but the bleeding was a manifestation of his life flowing away - and if I shoved the light into him, it would keep him alive. Long enough for the paramedics and doctors to stabilize him anyway. It seemed to work.”
The image and feel of Mark, held so close in my own glowing arms, was still vividly fresh. My heart-rate increased, and a strange fluttery feeling went through me. What the hell?
“Did Soren say anything else?” Goodman interrupted the sensation, and I refocused to replay more of what happened in my mind.
“Yeah. Before he stepped through this dark portal he conjured up, he said a phrase that sounded Jewish - I mean, Hebrew. He then called me his ‘Sabbath candle’, and a ‘light on the altar’.”
“That’s… quite interesting. We will consult our experts; perhaps it has a deeper meaning. Can you remember exactly what he said?”
“Well it certainly meant something to him. And yeah, I think I could recite it. So if they can translate and make sense of it, I want to know. Once he was gone, though, Mark had me go play dead. When I lay down in my own blood there on the pavement I stopped trying to pull on the light so I wouldn’t be all glowy. That’s when I lost consciousness. How long have I been out?”
“Considering it’s now after seven a.m., I would judge it to be about fifteen hours.”
Fifteen hours? Holy hell. That was a long nap. Admittedly I really had been seriously lacking on sleep, and now felt a lot more refreshed. Guess I needed it.
“Agent Boone,” he was saying, “instructed the paramedics to have a coroner declare you dead at the scene. From the amount of blood on and around you, it sounds like they were quite surprised and didn’t want to believe you were still alive anyway. You were tagged, bagged, and delivered safely here to our facility by our people.”
“And where is ‘here’ exactly?” I hadn’t gotten a precise location out of Mark about where this place was located.
“In a research development facility, just north of Agoura Hills. We’re outside of Los Angeles proper.”
“Your accounts of Tsáyid’s statements and actions make it clear that you were his target and also his only target. He did not search the rear seat to see if Danielle was there. Her presence or lack thereof was not important to him.”
Maybe not to him, but I was damn glad she had gone in the other car and not with us. He could have killed her first before he got to me.
Goodman continued. “As such I do not believe it necessary for her to take on a new identity - she has suffered enough loss of late.”
While I was relieved to hear that for Danielle, I realized that somewhere in my brain I must have already agreed with Mark regarding my own future. I totally didn’t like the idea of abandoning who I was, but the thought of facing off against griffon-boy again absolutely and viscerally terrified me. Crap.
“Okay, look.” I rubbed my so-should-have-been-stubbly-but-was-soft-and-smooth-instead face. All my mental questions returned to the forefront. “My employment was toast the moment I became a Meta. I had independent life-insurance, but do they still have to pay if the government meddles like this? I’m declared dead, not in Witness Protection. My sister’s house is in escrow - her estate was going into a trust fund for Danielle to collect when she turned eighteen; I wasn’t in my sister’s will - Danielle gets everything. My own will was updated a few weeks ago; my lawyer has copies. Danielle is again the sole recipient thereof.”
I paused to swallow some more tea. “But most importantly, what happens to Danielle now? If I’m dead, how can I be her legal guardian? And if you guys set me up with new identification, would I lose all my accounts? So Danielle would get all my funds and my house?” I grimaced, the thought of losing everything I had earned wasn’t sitting well with me - even if my niece inherited it all, what was I going to do going forward?
“The best cover would be indeed if she inherits all your assets. She could become a ward of the state, which would mean foster-care, or…” He trailed off.
“Or we do what I believe would be truly best for the child, and impress on your brother-in-law to become her new guardian.”
I shook my head. “As much as I’d approve, it wouldn’t work; he travels too much for this job. And before you try to say that a desk position could be arranged that would keep him stable for a few years: just no. After what I’ve seen, you clearly need him field-worthy. He got pulled from his vehicle by a creature straight out of legend, and still managed to draw his gun and try to shoot it anyway. He didn’t panic, he kept a cool head.”
Yeah, he didn’t freak out. But I did. Sure I hit my head and all, but when I got dropped I tried to crawl away alongside the car, instead of under it. Stupid. May not have made any difference, but what did I actually try to do? Shriek and cower? Dammit.
“I had something else in mind for her, actually.” Goodman put his fingertips together in that pontification temple position. “It is obvious she has manifested new powers, which we hope to classify today. Equally obvious is that she will need to learn how to control them. There are a few rather select boarding schools that can offer both educational and protective environments for mutant and meta children. Their security arrangements are usually top-notch. Her trust funds, as I understand it, would be adequate to cover the costs of attending - even with the tuitions being as high as they are. With your estate, her future college would also still be covered. Agent Boone would only need his summers to be more ‘stable’, as you put it. He will be sitting a desk for the rest of this summer as it is, recuperating from his injuries.”
Huh. That actually sounded promising. And maybe they could set me up with a job or something nearby or at the school, so we wouldn’t be too far apart. No idea what new career I should try and pursue though. My degree and professional history in software were going up in smoke; I’d have to find something else entirely. But what?
“Which brings us to you, Miss Thorne. Considering your, shall we say ‘rejuvenation’ to a younger physical age, and when combined with the fact that you obviously also have new powers to learn and master, attendance at such a school would also be beneficial for you.”
I couldn’t help it. I laughed out loud. “Are you nuts?”
He didn’t laugh or even smile. “I am quite serious.”
I got annoyed. “Look, I know I look as young as Danielle and all, but I am not a child. I am in my forties, with all the experiences both good and bad that goes with it. I know you can get me some sort of ID that has my proper age on it for when challenged, and which would allow me to keep driving and pursue some new field of study and career.”
“The ones who seek your death also know your true age by now, Miss Thorne,” he countered. “If done cautiously, a girl registered as say, age fifteen or sixteen, at such a school would most likely fly completely under their radar, and thus keep you hidden. Not to mention it would keep your niece safer as well, for if they knew you were alive and that you still have contact with her in any way…”
He left it unsaid, so I said it for him. “She’d be at risk. Again. But look - I didn’t enjoy high school much the first time, do you have any idea how bad it’d be to be forced to go through that crap again? Especially when there’s no way I’d fit in socially? Kids can smell adults a mile off.”
“You may find that since physically you fit the profile - and I daresay attractively so - your experience may be quite different.”
I ignored the cheap attempt at flattery. “Yeah, it could actually be worse. It means the adults will treat me like a child again, even if I am older than they are. And don’t you think the curriculum won’t also reveal too much anyway? College degree here, taking high school classes again? Ha!”
“You underestimate the special curriculum such schools offer their students. Remember that many Exemplar, Devisor, and Gadgeteer children are beyond brilliant and often reach levels of genius we can barely understand let alone quantify. Quite a few of them put your own previous credentials to shame, to be honest. I’ve met some of those kids.”
“Either way, they’re still kids. And I’m not.”
“No, you are indeed not a child. You are, however, someone who is now faced with learning how to socialize and experience life as a woman, along with developing and learning to control whatever powers your change has granted you. What safer place could there be than an exclusive boarding school targeting directly your demographic? Radical changelings are something they deal with every year, some changes being much worse than what you have experienced. Much worse.”
“It’s academic anyway, pun intended,” I protested. “If I’m starting over clean, I couldn’t afford the tuition - not without some financial shenanigans that could be traced and potentially reveal who I am. And if the cost is as high as you’ve described, I’m not sure my estate could cover both me and Danielle for those years without leaving us destitute upon graduations.”
“That may possibly not be a problem. The DPA has an arrangement with one of the schools I’m thinking of, and I believe you could be entered there under a scholarship program. You might have to do some work-study but your expenses would be covered if approved.”
The bastard then totally cheated and added, “Miss Thorn, if you were to attend the same school as your niece, you would be right there with her - even if in a different capacity than you had intended after your sister’s unfortunate accident. She wouldn’t be going there alone.”
I didn’t openly cave, though. “Fine, I’ll think about it.”
He smiled then, an unexpectedly warm smile. Crap, he knew he had me. Eventually.
“Good. Then if you’re feeling up to it, lets head to our lab and see if we can determine what sorts of abilities your experience has granted. Our experts are quite anxious to find out, as I’m sure you are too. Your niece should be starting her own evaluation shortly. I could hear her being escorted to our cafeteria right before you woke up.”
I had a feeling his ‘experts’ were more excited about the prospect of these tests than I was. The whole idea of having powers unnerved me as it was. I sighed, kissed Khan on his forehead for which I was rewarded with a kitty head-bonk. I told my buddy I’d be back later as I slid out of the bed. Khan yawned widely, and curled back up in the blanket.
I think the fuzzball made the smarter choice.
As we went out into the hallway, I muttered something under my breath.
“What was that?” Goodman paused his step to look sideways at me.
“I said, ‘this school of yours damn well better allow cats.’”
The first stop the Director guided me to was just down the hallway: a closed door marked ‘Women’.
He gestured at the door. “While some of our female staff cleaned you up as best as possible last night when you arrived, I figured you’d like a shower first before anything else. Don’t worry - I’ll stay out here and make sure no one else goes in until you’re done. Take your time; I still have a number of high priority emails to deal with.” He raised the laptop he carried with him as if to emphasize the point.
I looked around and wondered where he’d sit in the otherwise empty hallway, but decided he was smart and could figure that out himself. I went on into the ladies’ room.
Honestly it was very much like a men’s restroom, except for the couch. And maybe the green potted plants that lurked in a few places. And the tampon dispenser. Oh and the fact that the counter in front of the mirror was long and brightly lit with only a few sink basins so it had more usable counter space.
Plus no standing urinals, just stalls.
Yeah, okay, it was different.
At the end of the line of toilet stalls there were three showers with flimsy thin plastic curtains. A towel rack hung on the wall opposite with a good supply of stacked fluffy white towels.
Sighing, I pulled off the sweatpants and t-shirt, putting them on the floor by one of the showers. I also removed the white hair scrunchy to let all the hair hang free so I could wash it. Turning to climb into the shower I caught sight of the reflection in one of the full-length mirrors that adorned the wall by the sinks.
I knew the image showing the long-limbed girl was my own, yet I still reacted and quickly averted my eyes as if it belonged to someone else who I had intruded upon. Dammit, I needed to get over this, needed to somehow accept this change and move on.
Moving directly in front of the mirror, I forced myself to face the image straight on.
“This is me,” I whispered while watching the lips of the girl in the mirror mouth my words.
Her face still had some smudges from my driveway, but I could see no scar or even any kind of mark from where that beast had slit my throat. The skin under the chin was completely unblemished, just like the rest of her.
Except there were still crufts of dried blood wedged under my fingernails testifying to the crimson flood my fingers had tried to stem.
I almost died yesterday.
Intellectually I knew that I should have croaked in Soren’s storage unit, but that whole scene was entirely too surreal, like it was mostly special effects from a blockbuster movie. Sure, I remembered the agony I experienced carrying Danielle out of there, but it was like the pain had been so extreme that my brain now refused to accept, process, or relate to it. It was over so quick, anyway.
Feeling warm blood pump past my fingers to cover the front of my sweatshirt yesterday had been real. All too horrifyingly real. As was feeling absolute helplessness while that creature dangled me in its claws and that huge beaked face made the decision to kill me.
The golden eyes of the girl in front of me looked haunted and scared.
I didn’t burst into tears - instead I sank to the floor, curled into a tight ball with arms around my knees, and trembled.
I stayed that way, shaking uncontrollably, for a few minutes.
I don’t know what the hell I had been thinking, grabbing my shotgun and charging off with Nick that first night. It’s not like I’d had any combat training or experience in dealing with such scenarios. Karate lessons don’t count. If it hadn’t been for the fact that the cops were too busy to send someone when I called, I never would have gone. Instead I would have waited for the trained authorities to arrive, let them take the lead, and I’d have followed their instructions.
But they didn’t, and weren’t going to. So I went with the random crazy mage who did show up. What other choice did I have?
I inhaled deeply, letting it out slow to try and calm the raw and twitching nerves. Danielle had survived. Whatever other consequences there were, such as repeating high school while looking like a poster-girl who should hold pom-poms while wearing short skirts, the important thing was that my niece was alive.
Yes, something really awful out there wanted me dead. But I had been willing to die that first night, so if my fate was simply delayed for a time - I had better make the most of it while I could.
Most of all I had to make damn well sure Danielle never for an instant feels guilty about any of it. She was headed into a new life filled with magic, mystery, and perhaps greater potential than she otherwise would ever have known. Sidhe and a room full of snow? Who knows what kind of future she could have. And if I wanted to be there for her and help her through it, I needed to get my shit together.
I forced myself up off the floor, deliberately looked myself over from head to toe in the mirror, then spoke clearly at my own reflection.
“This is me. Suck it up, princess.”
I climbed in the shower to wash my body and shampoo my hair.
I emerged from the ladies’ room with my hair still damp. The Director was sitting outside upon an office chair he had wheeled over from somewhere. He finished typing a sentence and looked up. “All set?”
“Good. Let’s go.”
Closing his laptop, he left the chair where it was and proceeded to lead us down a series of long corridors, passing rooms labeled only by numbers. There were a lot of rooms with cluttered desks, maps covering the walls, even some suction NERF darts stuck to monitors which caused my guide to frown in disapproval.
Seemed like the usual office spaces to me.
We reached a rather wide elevator, and after he waved his badge at the sensor it opened and we went down a few levels.
As we rode down he commented, “Powers testing is located deep within an excavated hill behind the complex. This provides more margins of safety in case of incidents.”
That sounded rather ominous. Echoes of Dr. Kirov wanting to get a sample from my cranium reverberated through my thoughts.
Reaching the bottom, the doors opened to reveal something more akin to a wide sub-divided cavern or warehouse, complete with stadium lighting placed at regular intervals along the concrete ceiling. The sub-divisions formed a massive cubical farm except that these cubes were the size of racquetball courts with ten feet high walls. They were filled with all kinds of busily wired contraptions which naturally didn’t look at all scary and mad-scientist crazy to my fragile nerves.
We wandered through the tight paths between the sections, finally arriving at one that was almost entirely packed solid with large computerized industrial equipment: banks of thick electrical cords all feeding what at first reminded me of a Stargate, but on closer inspection was really one of those airport full-body scanners wedged into the middle of a giant monstrous machine. A bank of embedded industrial fans were already spinning and provided a loud hum, but the speed was variable causing the pitch to rise and fall as if the machine was breathing, giving the whole scene a creepy aura.
Standing in front of the ventilated behemoth was another creature arms deep in some wiring. It turned to face us and shouted a greeting.
“Director! Is wonderful to see you down here, welcome! Welcome!”
The ‘smaller’ and shouting beast was actually a man well over six and a half feet in height, and almost as wide. A scraggly and convoluted silver-white beard hung from his face below a pair of green flying-ace goggles. All of this was over a large pair of blue mechanics overalls and some rather impressive looking thick rubberized boots. His accent sounded awfully familiar.
“Hello professor. This is Justin Thorne; I believe you’ve been briefed on her situation.”
A mighty hand moved the goggles up onto a balding forehead. “Ah, yes! Greetings young lady, welcome to our laboratory!”
I answered testily. “If you know my ‘situation’, professor, then you know that ‘young’ doesn’t apply.”
He laughed, a booming, open, and contagious laugh. I found myself smiling at the guy in spite of myself.
“I have decades beyond yours to count, therefore you is still young. As I am naturally polite, you must be lady, yes? Allow me great honor of introducing myself, as I am your tormentor this day.” His exaggerated wink took the edge off his spoken statement; my stomach, however, remained guarded.
Reaching out he took my much smaller hand in his, but instead of shaking as I expected he merely bowed his head over it. “My name, granted me by most blessed parents, is Gregor Kirov, chief scientist of modest operation here.”
Wait a minute. “Did you say Kirov? My doctor at the hospital had that name.” The accent clicked into place, and butterflies resumed their frenetic swarming.
His eyes widened as did his grin. “Anton! Yes! Younger brother. Ah Anton, he is good man. Most noble of the family.”
“Noble?” I spluttered, quickly taking back my hand. “He wanted to take a sample of my brain!”
The older brother thought about that for a moment, then shrugged. “He must have reasons. He is medical doctor, worries only for patients. But be concerned not; I have no intentions of drilling holes into such a lovely head as yours.”
He laughed, but before he could hopefully reassure me the Director demanded his attention.
“Professor, I need you to perform an assessment of her abilities personally. When that is complete, I need the report on the statistical analysis of the data from the Stadium Event on my desk within the following hour. And the cross-correlation team is still waiting for that algorithm you mentioned could be of assistance to their evaluation.”
“Yes, yes! Of course. Busy days, busy days!”
Director Goodman switched over to me, his eyes performing pure evaluation as if weighing and measuring me all over again. “We will talk again later, Miss Thorne. In the meantime you may want to start considering what new name we should provide you, along with a codename for your MID.” With that, he left me with Gregor.
Ah crap. I had momentarily forgotten that I was technically dead, and rapidly becoming permanently in that state. What the hell new name did I want, anyway? If anyone suggested ‘Leia Organa’ and offered me danishes, they were going to get decked. I mean, not only was my hair color completely wrong for that, I was way too tall.
A loud noise caused me to jump and suck in air; Gregor had clapped his hands in eagerness. “So, young lady, we shall begin, yes?”
I exhaled sharply. “What’s first, more blood samples? Exploratory surgery of my spleen?”
“No, no! None of that; I am man of Science! No need for such primitive poking. Step into parlor, let us see what secrets there are to see!”
He guided me over to the center of his device, shooing me in and telling me to stand in the center with hands raised up over my head. Like I said - it was just like being in one of those TSA scanning booths. It even had a moving bar that went up and down outside the booth as it performed the scan.
All in all, it took a handful of seconds.
“Come out, we look at results, yes?”
I stepped out. He was sitting on a tiny swivel office chair peering at a monitor wedged into a panel on his machine. His huge frame perched on such a small seat was fairly comical, but I didn’t say anything.
“Is that going to tell you if I packed a bomb for my visit, or what?” I asked.
“Pfft. If you had bomb, this tell you not only chemical composition, but also DNA of everyone who ever handled it. Do not underestimate my Big Betty here!” He put a fond hand against a panel.
Oh. I finally figured it out. “You’re a Devisor! And this scanner is a devise?”
“Yes! Though I also am Gadgeteer, someday shall bridge gap between! But this, this is Big Betty. She is built to analyze mutants and metas, based on the conjectured pattern of similar devises others have created. She is, naturally, much better than those. You see, she not only does resonance scan of subject, but does pattern probability projections to generate proper potential report! You will not find other devises capable of such advanced theori-temporal computations!”
Using a hunt-and-peck style he typed a few commands into his computer. “Theori-temporal. Causal projections into future based on all available theories regarding cross-temporal perception, plus others she extrapolates into her matrix. Hmm. Give me minute, she wishes to being temperamental today. Ha! Is funny! Temperamental theori-temporal devise, yes?”
He began to type more furiously, causing the screen to spew a multitude of histograms and charts that he rapidly flipped past while muttering to himself in Russian. At least unlike his brother, it wasn’t likely to be curse words. Or so I hoped.
After a couple minutes of watching I got impatient. “So professor, what’s she saying?”
“Hmm.” He tugged on his beard. “Is intriguing data. She is lacking correlations against which to run comparisons. I may need to improve efficiencies…”
“Which means?” I prompted.
His eyes moved sideways to peer at me, and I caught a glimpse underneath his jovial demeanor. Whatever he was thinking, it was serious. I recognized such calculating expressions; I’d seen them in myself when trying to develop new software architectures from scratch. “It means, young lady, Big Betty will not have conclusive results in time to satisfy Director’s report schedule.” He stood slowly while interlacing his fingers and extending his hands away from his chest causing them to crack each knotty knuckle in turn. “So! We proceed with direct testing!”
He reached an arm around my shoulders to lead me out into the narrow hallway. “Physical first. Strength and endurance, yes?”
I shrugged his arm off as casually as I could manage. “Uh sure. Sounds great.” Truth to tell, I was indeed curious about my strength. I didn’t feel all that strong, but I had managed to put my hand through a wall with a single punch. I’d seen many videos up on YouTube of female supers who looked skinny, yet lifted entire cars. So yes, I will admit being rather interested.
As we neared an intersection in this maze, a man in a sky-blue robe covered with intricate white runes crossed our path. He was rather wiry under that robe, with an immaculately short-trimmed beard flanked by his shoulder-length wavy brown hair. But standing with him was Danielle.
“Uncle! You’re okay!” She launched herself into my arms with happy exuberance.
I caught her escort mouthing ‘uncle?’ and looking at Gregor questioningly. Gregor just shook his head at the guy.
“Yeah I’m alright. How goes it with you, kiddo?” I managed to get her to release me enough so that I could look her over. She was wearing the same emblazoned sweatpants and t-shirt combination I was. Not too surprising since my clothes-retrieval mission for her had failed so miserably. What surprised me though was that she had a huge smile on her face, and her eyes were alight and happy.
I hadn’t seen her smile like that in a long time.
“They say I’m going to be a magician! Not just the make-it-snow thing either, but real spells and everything. That’s so awesome! I could only barely sense magic before, but now I can actually see it and they want me to try some spells today!”
Her sheer glee got me to smile too. I did catch Gregor raising one eyebrow at the robed man, who in turn held up all five fingers on one hand. Gregor raised his other eyebrow in surprise.
I didn’t say it, but I understood what the other guy meant. Wizard rank five. My own earlier research knew enough of what that meant. Danielle would be quite powerful once she learned how to use it. As in superhero levels of possible power.
Yikes. My mind flashed on the pitfalls of such abilities: the dangers involved with misfired spells, superhero or even supervillain organizations wanting to take advantage, all of that. Call me an overprotective parental type, but yeah. More to worry about.
“That’s great!” I hid my true reaction, as I really didn’t want to spoil her happiness.
“I know! And I’m definitely one of the Fae, I’ve got a minor allergy to synthetic clothing and iron and everything. Nothing horrid, but rashes suck. Good thing these are one-hundred percent cotton! I’ll tell you all about it later, but Diego is taking me to a magic room now.” She was bouncing up and down with excitement.
I smiled. “Alright, I look forward to a full report! Good luck!” With a grin and another bounce, she and Diego hurried along into a section up ahead, leaving me alone with Gregor again. Our eyes met and my smile vanished. “She’s going to be a handful with that kind of talent, isn’t she?”
He nodded. “Yes. She needs careful instruction and safe space for practice.”
That settled it, didn’t it? That special school Director Goodman had been talking about. Danielle needed it, no argument allowed. Which meant if I wanted to stick close to her I was also doomed. High school. Again. It was for the best, I knew that, it’s just… I really did not enjoy it the first time.
My shoulders fell. “Alright professor, let’s get on with it.”
He caught my mood change and kindly said nothing more until we reached an area just past where Danielle had gone, one that had a fancy treadmill, a massive weight set including an industrial-sized squat rack, plus other various cable machines all wired for computer readouts. It even had, I kid you not, an entire jeep sitting over a reinforced floor space.
The professor handed me a plastic shopping bag that had been sitting on the desk with the monitoring computers.
“You may wish to change into these, yes? For physical tests.” He pointed to a small door set into a wall. “In there, is private.”
I looked in the bag. Girl gym shorts, socks, workout t-shirt, running shoes that I hoped would fit, and what looked like a sports bra and dark panties.
“More comfortable for running and jumping. Lady agent recommend and provide.” He nodded encouragingly.
Oh. Right. Sucking it up and moving on. Tally-ho.
After being put through my paces on the hill-climbing treadmill, I had to admit the sports bra was absolutely worth it. The thought of trying to run at those speeds with the ‘girls’ bouncing free, oh god ouch, no thank you! I decided I owed whichever agent provided the clothes a large thank you.
Of course my gracious feeling may have been influenced by my absolute astonishment of what I could do. I had never been a stellar sports athlete, but back in the day I had been in pretty good shape - hitting the gym regularly with a fair amount of exercise. In high school I had taken up karate (did I mentioned getting bullied? Yeah, it happened) and even dabbled in some fencing. Lingering asthma issues mixed with the crappy air quality of Los Angeles in the mid-eighties meant that running, however, was never a forte.
Now it seemed I could run forever and never be short of breath. Even uphill!
I caught myself grinning and giggling at the sheer thrill of it when Gregor finally forced me off the treadmill.
“Enough, yes? Much more to be done.”
“But I’m not even tired! This is awesome!” Laughing, I took his offered bottle of sports water and drank deeply.
He chuckled. “You sound like niece. Is good! Now though is time for weights.”
Shaking my head in amazement, we went over to the cable machine. He had me lie down on the bench while he set the contraption up for a regular bench press. The cables disappeared into a central mechanism and were a lot thicker than the ones I was used to at a regular gym. He walked over to a little podium which had a tablet screen built into it and began tapping on it.
“Hey Gregor, where are the actual weights? How much are you starting me out with? I think my personal best was only about two hundred and twenty pounds, and that was in college. Always was stronger with my legs, truthfully.”
He waved a hand at me without looking up. “You focus on push, yes? Weights are down below, number not relevant.”
I shrugged and pushed up on the bar. He must have started me on something light, as I had to be careful not to slam it to the top.
“Apologies,” he said. “I make more heavy. Go again.”
Ignoring as best I could how odd it was to have these squishier things on my chest while performing the bench movements, I pushed again. It had more resistance this time, but nothing actually difficult.
“Think you can add more than that. Maybe double.”
He grunted and tapped some more. “Go.”
This time it took effort, pressing my spine into the bench supporting me. I adjusted my feet to get better stability and forced the bar up.
“Good,” he said more to himself than to me. “Again.”
Now it was really heavy. With some straining and some non-manly grunting, I finally managed it. I could feel my heart beating stronger, but the endorphins were flowing so I still felt great.
“Hmm.” Gregor was staring at his display and tapping commands.
“So… go again?” I asked.
“I have theory,” he said. “Report say you channeled energy to heal neck, yes? And sustain wounded Agent Boone?”
“Yeah. Soren sorta showed me how.”
“Is like Energizer. Some can increase physical capacity. Do again. Channel to body - to muscles.”
“It healed me, not anything else…”
“Try, yes?” His massive shoulders shrugged. “Worst scenario, you lift no more than already.”
Closing my eyes I tried to remember what I had done. Picture the light, Soren had said. It had appeared like a tower burning down through the sky, in fact its image was rather easy to recall. I tried to picture that light flowing into my body as it had before, and then pushed on the bar.
It didn’t seem any easier to move.
“I don’t think it’s working.”
“You is not doing it right. Focus, yes? Find same mental space you had when trying save agent.”
Right. I wanted to save Mark. The tree he lay against appeared in my mind, his body draped against it while slowly bleeding out. But in this image I was helpless, the energy just wasn’t flowing.
“It’s no good. I can’t!”
“Yes, can!” Gregor commanded intently. He was angry and shouting at me. “You wish protect niece? Raw strength not good enough, you is woman now, are weak! If she attacked, what you do? Cry over grave?”
My mental picture of the light warped and enveloped me, shifting to a new scene entirely. Danielle was standing in a lush grassy field by a lake with deep and calm waters. A thick dark green forest surrounded the field stretching off alongside the water. Danielle was wearing a white two-piece bikini that showed off her improved physique, and she was laughing as she ran towards the water. But behind her, swooping out of the forest on wide black wings was the massive griffon, Tsáyid, his razor-like front claws extended for a bloody kill…
Something inside twisted with my need, the tower of glorious brilliance was now within my reach. I grabbed for that blinding energy, throwing it into my arms and chest, and shoved my arms upwards to get out from under the bar. In my mind I was trying to will myself towards her, to stop that bastard from killing what I had sworn to protect.
The bar slammed to the top, bending right in the middle as glowing arms and hands forced it to go far past its limits. In that dominating vision I saw Danielle turn towards the attacking creature, screaming and throwing her hands up in terror.
There was an explosion in the next room followed by the sounds of Danielle shrieking in panic. Her cry and the vision merged into one.
I was up off the bench and running towards the wall that separated our rooms, all thoughts gone except to reach her regardless of what was in my way. Tsáyid was not taking her from me!
Gregor’s shout of “Wait!” didn't register.
I tried to grab even more power from that seemingly endless source, but it stuck against some kind of limit and the pipe refused to grow any larger. Ignoring that, I just threw all that I had at the wall between me and her cry of alarm. I even shouted some kind of word before releasing the energy.
The reinforced concrete wall disintegrated from the onslaught. A torpedo of light had lanced out from my hands, and at the point of impact the wall exploded outward in a shower of blinding sparks. The shrapnel flared through the air like bursting fireworks before dimming and disappearing.
I rushed through the open hole, desperate to find Danielle.
Inside she was trapped within a blue sphere forged by lines of glowing and linking runes. It looked like the guy she had been with, Diego, was caught in one too.
She was shouting something, but the barrier between us prevented me from hearing it. The runic-fueled barrier that she was stuck within was surging brighter and more solid with each step as I ran towards it.
Still acting purely on instinct, I threw a line of light at the orb surrounding her, and with another strange word I ripped the energy from those runes. It was like ripping through thin cardboard.
The sphere collapsed as Gregor tackled me to the ground from behind.
“SHE IS SAFE! Justin, she is safe! Was Diego’s shield!” Gregor was bear hugging me as tightly as he could, but I knew I could re-channel and break free.
His words clicked in my head before I might have broken his arms.
Shaking my head to try and clear the image of Tsáyid diving over the green field at Danielle, I looked at the room again.
The remains of a folding table lay against one of the walls. It was like a grenade had gone off on its surface, shattering its top which had caused it to collapse at its center. A mess of wax and half-melted candles was strewn about the floor and on the bits of the table that survived.
Diego and Danielle were staring at me with expressions of shock, Diego still within his wavering runic bubble.
The only light sources in the room were Diego’s magic bubble… and me.
My whole body was translucent, and from underneath the skin that pure white light was pouring forth. My hair was also aflame with luminescence, throwing reddish gold outward to mix with the shimmering magic wards adorning the parts of the walls I hadn’t obliterated.
My inner channeling faded away abruptly, as I realized I may have just screwed up.
I stammered, “What… what just happened?”
Gregor and Diego were arguing in Spanish, though Gregor occasionally injected a Russian word or two. Danielle and I sat together opposite them at a conference table lined with standard black wheeled office chairs. Someone had placed a blanket over my shoulders, and Danielle was keeping a hand on top of mine while looking at me with a blend of worry, fear, and if I were honest about it, awe.
The eastern European mountain of a scientist had guided us all here, while other agents with odd-looking detector things swarmed Danielle and Diego’s magic space and the now-connected workout area.
The two men finally stopped yelling at each other and turned to us.
Diego spoke first. “I know you both have questions,” he said without any trace of an accent. “And I will try to answer them as best I can. But first, we’d like to hear from each of you, starting with Danielle. Can you tell us, in your own words, what you experienced and felt?”
Danielle glanced at me, and I squeezed her hand while trying to manage a smile. She took in a deep breath before speaking.
“Okay, so Diego wanted me to try a couple simple spells. We went into that magic room where there were a lot of these colored candles set up on a table. He first showed me how to tune in to the available magical energy in the room, and get a feel for it kinda. He then drew different rune symbols in the air with his finger, and I had to try and mirror it with one of my own. That was sorta hard, but I think I got the hang of it.” She looked at Diego who nodded encouragingly for her to continue.
“After we had done that for awhile, we went over to the table with all the candles. He said each candle was different and would react to, uh, ‘individual resonances’. Like there are different magical paths, and we were trying to determine which would react to me? He wanted me to try and wrap energy from the air around each candle in turn, and we’d watch what would happen, see which ones worked and which didn’t, that kind of thing.”
She paused, her eyes rolling up towards the ceiling as she remembered. “First was a red one, and it didn’t do anything. Same with a black one and another one that was pure white.” She flushed slightly. “I was hoping that one would do something - you know, because of my hair going white and the whole snow thing I’ve been doing.”
Diego shook his head gently. “That one is white to represent Asiatic death-magic.”
“Oh,” she smiled. “Then I think I’m glad it didn’t react. Anyway, I got a brown one and a pale blue one to light up. So he told me to try this dark green one. That, uh, that didn’t go so well, or maybe too well.” She winced.
Gregor said gently, “Is alright, child. If am right, you did nothing wrong. Was me.”
She looked at him, confused. “But it was me. As I tried to wrap it in the feel of energies around it, there was suddenly just too much! I couldn’t hold onto it, it was like it was burning me. So I just released it… all at once on the candle. It exploded! It destroyed the table and all the other candles! I’m so sorry, I didn’t mean to!”
Diego quickly spoke. “Danielle, this was not your fault. Gregor is correct, he is responsible.”
Gregor grumbled something incoherent from behind his beard.
“But how?” she cried. “I did it! I mean, if we had been standing closer…” Her eyes widened in horror at the thought.
Diego interrupted. “My defense spells triggered automatically, as the room was designed for. We were perfectly safe, at least we should have been.” He then locked eyes with me, his expression fixed.
I swallowed, shrinking down in my chair. Diego then spoke at me.
“I have heard Gregor’s account, but I would still like to hear yours.”
I sighed and tried to give him all the details I could. Including the visions and how they looked and felt.
Diego scowled when I got to the part where Gregor had triggered my emotional state. He even muttered, “Reckless.”
Looking at it now made me realize how blatant Gregor had been about it. He had deliberately provoked my strong emotional reactions. Shit. I glared at him, and to my surprise he looked embarrassed.
Relaying the rest of how I damaged their weight machine, along with how I was responsible for a hole in yet another wall, I finished with how Gregor probably stopped me from doing something even more stupid.
Nodding some more, Diego paused to consider before asking, “Tell me, Justine… You were, in your vision of Danielle being in danger, trying to reach her. Is that correct?”
I simply said, “Yes” and tried to ignore that he had used the feminine form of my name.
“That could potentially explain quite a lot. The room for magic discovery is heavily warded from incidental energetic interference, but as you were already focused on Danielle, your energy surge could have bypassed them to get to her anyway.”
Gregor interjected. “Diego, those wards were created by Master Tissilius himself. How is possible?”
Shaking his head, Diego rubbed at a temple. “Honestly, Gregor, I’m not sure. The damage to the wall clearly shows she is an Energizer of some kind, however. And even I, in that room, could feel the energy spike dramatically right before she explosively charged in. I actively had to fight to keep my shield spells from overloading simply from her presence, especially the closer she got.”
“Is how Danielle’s shield failed? Overload?” Gregor asked.
“No. Somehow Justine nullified, or removed, the base mana which fueled the spell.” Diego looked at me again. “You shouted a word when you did so. From behind my shield I could not hear it clearly. What did you say?”
I couldn’t remember. “I’m sorry, every time I try to think of it… I get nothing. It’s a blank. Same with what I shouted at the wall.”
“Is odd,” Gregor said. “I also not be remembering. But all is recording, yes? Image and sound. I check.” He went to the computer in the conference room and after logging in, he pulled up the video of what happened, starting with the gym.
We all watched me lie on the bench press, saw and heard Gregor bark at me, and then over my image, all the pixels blurred into solid white. The video did catch the bending of the bar and its protesting metal groaning simultaneously with the explosion from next door. The whiteout smear where I had been launched towards the wall, more whiteness lancing in front to pulverize it.
It wasn’t until after Gregor had tackled me as shown on the other room’s recording that the saturated pixels dimmed to resolve back into my image. Weirdly whatever I had shouted, either time, simply hadn't been caught by the recordings.
Danielle was the first to break the silence in the room.
“That was so cool!”
Gregor and Diego said they needed to discuss with other experts about what had happened, but that it would have to wait. This was decided in another Spanish back-and-forth, and I think I heard them mention Nick Wright. That was good. I was hoping to have a chance to talk to him, as I had a mess of questions of my own to throw at the guy.
Since Gregor was under pressure to have results for the Director, our two groups separated again to get on with the testing.
I asked him how much I was able to bench, both before and during the ‘incident’. He replied ‘one-hundred ninety kilograms’ for the before amount. After I did the math, I boggled - that was over four-hundred pounds! I pushed him for how much I lifted when charged up - he told me the equipment had been damaged, any reading was unreliable. Even trying to smile sweetly at him didn’t cause him to fess up how much it was set to at the end there.
We crossed paths with Danielle a few more times as we went between the areas and swapped testing personnel. That left Diego tagging along with me more often than not. He would just stand off to the side and stare at me, but not in any sort of weird creeper vibe - he seemed to be deeply considering events. When asked why he kept staring, he said he was trying to analyze my ‘pattern’. I told him to knock himself out. He didn’t laugh.
They also tested my regeneration, which really hurt. As long as I kept the light energy flowing to the body part they were injuring (ow!) it always healed up within a minute or two. No scars or marks left behind at all - just blood needing to be washed off. They were being cautious about trying to get me to channel again, but I found it was becoming easier the more I used it. I even felt like that spigot of light extending from the tower was always on at least a little now, even when I wasn’t focusing on it at all. My outburst earlier may have opened it up more.
The tech that beaned me in the back of the head with a tennis ball gun in the middle of having my palm sliced for the healing testing took off running when I spun around to glare angrily at him. They all knew what I had done to that wall, so most were tiptoeing on eggshells around me. The other techs quickly tried to explain the tennis ball was part of their testing, something for precognition.
I told them where they could shove their damn ball.
In the end we got our report cards, or at least as much of them as they could provide.
Danielle was being rated, as I already had seen, a rank five Wizard. She also was marked Exemplar two with a three in Regeneration. Her snow storm issues were being evaluated as a possible Manifestor ability, but they said it was more likely a byproduct of her magical specialization due to her fae essence - so they were covering it under the Wizard rating for now.
As for me, I was apparently more complicated. Big Betty still was refusing to conclude anything, which caused Gregor to curse at the devise and then immediately apologize to it for such language. What they did note was that I was an Exemplar three, Energizer four-plus with both external and internal usages. The ‘plus’ was due to some debate about my actual potential, and it went hand-in-hand with the Wizard rating which they labeled the same way, four-plus. Their experts had received some information about the ritual Soren had performed, commenting amongst themselves about ‘new lay lines’, and kept repeating how ‘she should not have survived’. Their reactions to me varied between astonishment to outright distrust - as if I was some sort of alien deliberately messing with them.
Since I was indeed still alive and sitting right before the lot of them, Diego and Gregor had yet another argument: Diego was insisting I should be listed as a potential Wizard six or even seven, just from surviving that ritual alone. But Big Betty was rejecting that evaluation, with a caveat that an ‘anomaly in the data exists’. They also debated whether my wall destruction was a fire-based Telekinetic manifestation, or a magic/energizer effect. Diego won that one after pointing out that the amount of wall debris left behind was a lot less than it should have been from any natural blast, and so it was rolled into my Wizard rating.
Frankly, listening to them argue would have given old me a headache if this new and admittedly amazing body wasn’t so darn healthy.
I even got rated with Projective and Receptive Empathy of one. The lady who helped figure that out blamed my frustrations over things for causing her to get a painful headache on my behalf. Okay, so I didn’t feel any guilt over that. I’m awful, deal.
My regeneration, when I was channeling for it, was given a four. I was told that they weren’t sure if it would work while I was unconscious and not actively trying to heal. I promised them that, recent events not withstanding, I hoped to avoid any and all such situations that might knock me out again.
Somewhere in the middle of all of this they brought us sandwiches, and Danielle and I got to eat together. We didn’t say much, but I could tell her mind was spinning full tilt about the possibilities her new powers had granted. The changes to her face and hair still caught me off-guard - she seemed older somehow, yet still was quite young at the same time. In her eyes I began to see deeper calculations than I had ever observed in her before. Underneath it all was also a growing determination and inner strength - whatever she became, she was going to be one formidable woman. My sister would have been quite proud of her.
As for Danielle’s reaction to me, she seemed to slip between reacting to me as her parental figure, then trying to treat me as a friend her own age, or just looking at me like I was something totally other.
I even asked her about it when she gave me one of those weirder looks.
“It’s your eyes,” she said. “They’re very pretty, but occasionally when I look into them it feels like you are, I dunno, gazing really deep into my soul or something. Seeing everything about me: both good and horrible. Sorry, it’s just disconcerting is all.”
I thought about it for a moment and then exclaimed with a burst of intuition.
“So THAT’S why everyone kept running out of my rooms without letting me say anything!”
She giggled and gave me a hug. The whole situation we found ourselves in was totally outrageous, true, but at least we were in it together.
“What do you mean I can’t go with you!” I exclaimed.
Danielle was standing outside my room, with agent Jeffrey lurking nearby. We had finished the powers evaluation, given our preliminary ratings, and released to get dinner. We had both been rather hungry.
After all that exertion testing a shower had been a requirement. Danielle was kind enough to let me go first while she guarded the bathroom door - I don’t think either of us wanted me to see her without clothes. I may be equipped physically the same, but it was still far too new a development for us to be comfortable.
I quickly had gotten myself clean, returning to my room to spend some time teasing Khan with a shoelace - one that was still attached to a sneaker. I’d have to find a way to get him some new toys, as they only brought him in his crate along with minimal kitty supplies, sadly his overflowing toy basket was still stuck at my house. He still chased the shoelace anyway with gusto - I think being cooped up in the room all day had left the poor little guy bored.
After Danielle’s shower was finished (which took a lot longer than mine did), she and Jeffrey showed up to say they were going to a mall that was located really close to the facility. Danielle wanted a new phone, and needed to pick up some clothes that would fit her new physique.
She was clearly excited about the prospect of needing a whole new wardrobe, and eager to get started.
Jeffrey spoke up from over her shoulder after my protest. “I’m sorry, but you aren’t cleared to leave the facility. Being seen in public in any way could destroy the cover of your demise. Also the Director has requested to see you after you’ve eaten - as certain things, such as your new name, still need to be decided.”
Dammit, he had a point. And I will admit I wasn’t quite ready to face the public yet with these changes either.
“Is it safe for her though?” I asked.
Jeffrey nodded. “All intelligence indicates she is not currently at risk - and the mall is directly across the street from here. In addition, our armored tactical division has been notified to be on heightened alert. I will be in radio contact with them should any need arise.”
Grudgingly I accepted his points.
Danielle spoke up. “Your new name, any ideas?”
I shook my head. “No, I haven’t the foggiest clue. As much as a few people have called me ‘Justine’, that won’t work - it’s too similar and could put the whole point of this stupid exercise in jeopardy.”
“Oh,” she pondered. “But shouldn’t it be something that you’d react to naturally?”
I was impressed. “Yeah, you’ve got a good point. Sharp thinking, kiddo.”
She grinned at the compliment. “So maybe something beginning with ‘J’, other than Justine?”
I shrugged. “Got any suggestions?” I knew it was an important choice to deal with as I’d be stuck with it from then on, but frankly I was having a hard time caring about what name got selected. On the scales of things I was really concerned about, it ranked pretty low.
Danielle put a hand over her chin and tapped at her nose while in thought.
“How about,” she said slowly, “…Jordan? I mean, it’s both a boy and girl’s name so that might help you. It was my best friend’s name back in elementary school - at least she was my best friend until her parents discovered I was a mutant and forbid her from playing with me anymore.” She made a face at the memory.
I winced. I really hoped they could get her accepted into this special school they had in mind - someplace where she could fit in. She deserved it, she really did.
“Jordan, eh? Well… that’s not too bad, actually.” I smiled at her. “Thanks, kiddo. If I have to do this, I’d rather take a name given by family. I’ll see if they’ll let me use it!”
“Cool!” She bounced over to give me a strong hug. I figured if she broke any ribs I could heal it fairly quick, so didn’t object. After a moment she released me before looking thoughtful again.
“I’ll look for some new clothes for you too while we’re there, ok? Maybe some jeans, shirts, and some sexy lingerie!” With a rather mischievous grin she hopped towards the door.
“Hey, how would you know my sizes?” I called out to her as she rounded the corner into the hallway.
Glancing over a shoulder, she snickered. “Jeffrey has ‘em all from your files. See ya later, Jordan! Bye Khan!” She let the door close behind her and giggled her way down the hall with Jeffrey in tow.
I shook my head, but really I was laughing too. This provided enough of a distraction for Khan’s leap to grab not just the shoelace from my hand, but the entire shoe.
“Gah! Come back here with that, I need it to go to the cafeteria!”
The little bugger led me on a merry chase around my room for a few minutes, dragging the sneaker behind him with obvious glee. I finally caught him before he could wriggle under the bed, pulling him up into my arms so we could head-butt each other.
Have I mentioned that my cat is awesome? Because he totally is.
Taking a bite of the burrito I had chosen I decided it indeed had been the right selection - the other option was a suspicious looking meatloaf. Whereas my burrito had chicken, onions, rice, peppers, and sour cream - yep, it would do.
The cafeteria was mostly empty - it probably was busier at lunchtime. There were only a handful of other people scattered about the open room’s tables, busily either discussing a case or typing frenetically on laptops all the while paying hardly any attention to the food they were rushing to scarf down.
They kept glancing at me, though. The looks were a mix of the men attempting to covertly ‘check out the redhead’ while others were frowning probably in speculative contemplation wondering what a young girl like me was doing there, especially one eating alone.
I tried to ignore them. Okay, I didn’t say I succeeded - only that I tried.
Meanwhile I worked my way through the surprisingly tasty burrito. Then it struck me - the guy behind the counter gave it extra ingredients. He had been too busy being distracted by my chest, hair, and yeah - me, while I was staring up at the menu contemplating if I also wanted a dessert. Exemplar memory apparently means being able to replay scenes you weren’t paying proper attention to the first time with great clarity. Useful, but also potentially disturbing. I’d been through enough to understand that for some people they can be happier with certain memories fading over time.
I didn’t want to think about that too much. It might risk discovering which of my now refreshed stored experiences would fit that bill. Instead I distracted myself with trying to come up with names to use for a new identity.
When my mind popped up with ‘Jordan Al Yankovic’, I knew I wasn’t getting anywhere. It was frustrating, how hard could it be to make up a name? And yet I kept feeling like there should be one, one more real than even my old name of Justin Andrew Thorne, yet every time I tried to grasp at it - I failed. That my subconscious wanted to be so serious about it annoyed me - names are just convenience labels others use as identifiers anyway, right?
Mentally I scanned through my perfect recall of various phone books I’d casually flipped through over the years when I was young. You know, back when such things existed and were important, unlike today where kids would just look at them funny because their phones had all that information available and much more. The clarity of the pages in my mind was incredible.
Engrossed as I was with this inner discovery, I failed to notice someone walk up to my table.
“Mind if I sit with you for a minute?”
I jumped, and in so doing the hand holding the last bite of my burrito reflexively clenched into a strength-enhanced fist.
Sour cream exploded onto my shirt. “Dammit!”
“Oh. Sorry, didn’t mean to startle you.” Natalie, the counselor we saw in the hospital, awkwardly grabbed some napkins from the dispenser, handing the wad over to me.
I tried to dab my boobs clean of the mess as best I could, ignoring the lecherous grin of a guy sitting a few tables away being clearly entertained by my distress. Sighing, I told Natalie, “Eh, well, other than costing me everything I own, this shirt was free.”
She took a seat and gave me a ‘mental condition appraisal look-over’.
“This is your cue to ask me how I feel about legally being dead,” I joked weakly.
She pushed her glasses up her nose from where they had slid down. “I would say you aren’t entirely happy about the situation, as would be completely normal and expected. Although it does sound as if you haven’t given much resistance to the notion of leaving your old identity behind, which worries me that you might be in denial about the consequences.”
I shrugged. “Hey, you’re the one who told me to try and be more rational about things.” I tossed the soiled crumpled napkins onto my plastic plate.
“I’m concerned about your emotional state. I heard there was an incident during powers testing?”
“C’mon, you’ve been fully briefed and would have watched the tapes by now.”
She gave the smallest hint of a smile. “Perhaps.”
“Truth, then? Of course I’m upset. The situation sucks. The future is pretty murky right now, but it’s clear I’ve lost what I had and what I was. The house I grew up in - which I inherited from my parents after my mom had her stroke - is likely going to get sold off to fund Danielle’s schooling. My career is toast until and unless I regain the necessary credentials to allow me to get back into it - if that’s even what I want to do.”
Natalie nodded, watching me closely but not interrupting while I rambled.
“There’s some evil mastermind out there who wants me dead and has super-powered minions. So rational planning is to let the bastard, whoever it is, think I’m already kaput. Hide out, figure out what powers and capacities I have, determine just what the hell has happened to me, and most important of all: keep Danielle safe.”
“Even if that means no longer being a parental figure for her?”
I stared at my plate, not doing a good a job of hiding how choked up that thought made me.
“What else can I do?” I said morosely. “Even if we both manage to get into this school, whatever its name is…”
“Whateley Academy,” she provided gently.
“Oh. Even if we both get into that place - we’d be students. And she wouldn’t be able to acknowledge me as family; my new identity cannot be related to my old one in any way or the whole deal is pointless. Me being there at all may be putting her at some risk as it is. But dammit, I…”
I didn’t finish the sentence. I had made a promise to be there for her. I had to go too.
Natalie probably had that figured out by now anyway but didn’t comment. “The security at the school will be better than the security of this DPA facility, at least from magic-based attacks and threats. Their faculty is quite accomplished and knowledgeable.”
“Yeah.” I sniffled. “That’s what I’ve been told.”
She reached into a pocket and handed me a travel-pack of kleenex. I took a tissue from and blew my nose, and no I totally didn’t need one to wipe my eyes. Didn’t happen.
I swallowed before taking a deep breath. “So no, I don’t think I’m in denial, Natalie. I think I did alright today for the most part, except for when Gregor deliberately shoved a pointed stick at my emotions to trigger a reaction. I agree with Diego - he was reckless. Danielle, though - she enjoyed her day and is excited about it all. I’m not going to ruin that. But I understand too well that our expectations of a future with me being a parent for her have been shot all to hell. Which reminds me - has anyone talked to Mark? Director Goodman wants to push him into being Danielle’s guardian, which considering this Whateley place is a boarding school, shouldn’t be too tough for him to handle on the day-to-day part of parenting. I really don’t know who else to ask other than Mark - my friend Isaiah would probably agree, but he’s a lawyer and is busily engaged in working himself to death. Not much time in there for taking care of a wayward teen, let alone a powerful magical one, even if just for the summers.”
She left the travel pack on the table between us. “I believe the Director has spoken with Mark, yes. However, you also need to speak with him. That’s actually why I came to find you.” She smiled reassuringly.
I snorted and shook my head. “Two birds, one stone. It wasn’t the only reason. But sure, you have a phone I can use? Mine got disintegrated, you see.”
Reaching into her blazer’s pocket, she produced a smart phone and unlocked it. “Just tap send, his number is cued up.”
I took it. “Is this connection going to be secure? If ever there was a time for me to be paranoid, this might be it.”
“It should be. And good thinking in asking.”
“Okay.” I hesitated, but tapped the screen anyway.
“Hello?” He sounded really groggy. They must have him on some serious pain meds.
“Mark! It’s, uh, it’s me… I’m kinda between names at the moment.”
“Oh! Are you okay? They won’t give me any details…”
“That’s because you’re in the hospital, dumbass. It’s probably not really secure there.”
“I’m fine, in any case. You alone?”
“For the moment, yes.”
“Good. How are you? They patch you up alright?”
“I’m stuck here for a couple more days of observation, then they’re going to send me home.”
“That’s great!” We both fell awkwardly silent, which he broke by suddenly blubbering over the phone.
“I’m so sorry! It’s my fault, and I’m so sorry, we should never have gone to the house, and now…”
“Mark? Dude, relax…” Good lord, was he crying?
“What happened - and what I ordered done - your whole life, I didn’t even give you the choice…”
Oh. “Jesus. Mark, you think if I had wanted to make a stink about things I couldn’t do so? One call to the L.A. Times and I’d have reporters up your ass if I wanted. Think of the headline! ‘Sexy redhead kidnapped and proclaimed dead by corrupt lecherous government agency - rumor of teenage mutant slave prostitution ring rattles Washington DC!’”
He choked on a laugh before groaning in pain. Oops. I apologized. “Shit, sorry. Forgot you were perforated, laughing may not be a good idea.”
“Not really. But you… you aren’t mad?” The fear in his tired voice was palpable.
I answered with a sigh. “People keep asking me that. Yes, of course I’m upset about things. But that doesn’t mean I blame you. You made a smart call to protect me and Danielle.”
He fell quiet, though I could hear his breathing was rough.
“Speaking of whom - Mark, I have a huge favor to ask.”
“Whatever you need, you know I’ll do it.”
“Look, uhm, we both know that my situation has totally changed, right?”
“I’d say that’s a total understatement.”
“I’ll come right out with it then. I need you to be there for Danielle.”
“Wait a minute, I thought you both were going to try to be at the same school…”
“We are, hopefully. But that doesn’t change the facts. I can’t be her parent anymore.”
God did it hurt to say that, but I didn’t let my voice show it. At least I was hoping I didn’t.
“… I’m so sorry.”
Damn, guess I didn’t succeed. “She needs someone who can be there for her - legally and properly. Someone who doesn’t look the same age, let alone is potentially a classmate.”
“Exactly. Thing is, other than her, you’re the only other family I’ve got. My parents are gone - mom’s stroke years ago and dad’s heart attack when I was little took care of that. So I have to ask…”
“Ask what? Name it.”
“Take Danielle in. Be her… be a father for her. She’s needed one and never… never really had one.” My voice broke again. Couldn’t help it.
“Yes she has. She has you.”
“Had. She had me.”
“No, she still has you. I know you; you’ll always watch over her. You almost died protecting her - if that’s not the act of a father, then I don’t know what is.”
I didn’t know what to say to that.
“But,” he continued. “Of course I’ll do it. The Director already hinted at it earlier. Legally you’re right, she’ll need it.”
“Yeah.” I swallowed. “She’s going to inherit my estate. Everything. You’ll have to manage that for her until she’s old enough. Give Isaiah a call - he has my will and is the executor.”
“Damn, dude,” he said quietly.
“Hey,” I said. “I have Danielle, Khan, and you’re still alive too. That’s what matters, okay? And think of it this way - you get to drive my Mustang until she gets a license.”
“Yep. The Beast.” Caroline had made me promise to splurge a little with her life insurance after, well, just after. “When I get my own affairs in order, maybe I’ll buy it off you - so don’t scratch it!”
“You buying it back could blow your cover,” he said, his agent practicality kicking in.
“Well, fuck. Guess it’s yours until Danielle swipes the keys. Not a good choice for a first car, though. Make her get a beater to learn on.”
“I promise to take good care of it. You know, your house is still a crime scene. Is there anything there that’s smallish you want? Nothing suspicious if it’s missing, mind you…”
I thought it over. “Two things: take my computer as evidence and make a duplicate of the drive, would you? And get me the copy. It’s got pictures and videos on it I don’t want to lose.” My wedding, Khan’s kitten photos, Caroline’s last few days… dammit there went the watery eyes again.
“You’ve got it. Anything else?”
“My dad’s Spanish guitar. It’s under my bed.”
“You play? I didn’t know that.”
“My dad did. He was quite good, whereas I just fooled about on it in college.”
“I think that can be managed. I know you still have all of Caroline’s stuff - maybe some of her clothes would fit you now?”
The thought of me wearing Caroline’s wardrobe made me sick to my stomach. “Hell no. Just… No.”
“Oh. Sorry. I’ll make some calls, have them send someone over for the computer and guitar.”
“The rest just store somewhere for Danielle, I guess. Or sell whatever makes sense to sell. The TV setup is pretty good if you need one.”
“Okay.” He sounded like he was fading, so I figured I should wrap things up.
“I don’t know when we’ll speak again, bro. But thanks. Thanks for being there - for both of us.”
“Always. Hey, I think my pain meds may have just fully kicked in.”
“Then go sleep. Get better.”
“Okay,” he said again.
“Goodbye, Mark. Take care.” I hung up and handed the phone back to Natalie.
That was that. For an entire month I had been a father for Danielle, and now that was gone. Caroline and I had kept trying for a child of our own before she got sick, in fact that’s how we discovered the first of her tumors - the infertility doctor saw them on the ultrasound after our continued failure to conceive.
A month just wasn’t long enough.
Natalie came around the table to hold me while I cried.
We went up to the Director’s office once I managed to pull myself together. Diego was finishing giving a report when we got there; he decided to stick around. Director Goodman was behind a paper-cluttered desk, his exhaustion plain to see. He said that if I had any ideas for a new name, I had to give it to him now - or else he’d let the computer pick one at random.
Natalie, Diego, and I spent the next fifteen minutes debating possible names until the Director’s patience ran out. He barked at us to just pick one and get out of there so he could finish up for the night and maybe, just maybe, finally get some sleep.
Thus that night I officially became ‘Jordan Elin Emrys’. ‘Elin’ was my idea, a Swedish variant of my sister’s name Helena (but not obvious enough to break my new cover), and Diego came up with ‘Emrys’. He claimed it was Welsh for ‘immortal’, and therefore appropriate seeing as how I had against all odds survived twice in the last week things that should have put me six feet under.
I warned him that if I died with that name, I would come back as a ghost and haunt him for it being proven wrong. He shrugged, saying it was also a last name attributed to Merlin, or Myrddin as he pronounced it - which I had to admit was actually pretty cool.
The name having been chosen, we then hashed out the skeleton of a background. It was decided that ‘Jordan’ grew up in Santa Barbara - my grandmother had lived near there, so I was familiar with the area. Goodman told me to research it further online, especially the high school, and commit the details to memory. With the way my mind was capturing anything and everything, I promised him it wouldn’t be a problem.
We debated on my official age. Physically I looked like I could be fourteen to sixteen, but I pushed for sixteen so I could enter school as a junior. I also insisted on another important detail: I told them if I wasn’t fully and legally emancipated and if I smelled any whiff of foster care or social services, then I would instantly succumb to the sweet and lucrative siren call of super-villainy. Being emancipated would allow for me to have a proper California Driver’s License without the restrictions of being a minor.
Not that I’d have a car for awhile, but dammit I’d been driving since I started college. I wanted a license.
He grumbled and tried to argue about the extra paperwork, but Natalie backed me up. She stated that not only did her evaluations show I was still fully in possession of an adult mind, but that putting any such restrictions on me contrary to that understanding could actually be detrimental to my successful adjustment to the new lifestyle being forced upon me.
In short, she told him not to be a putz and take care of it properly. He exasperatedly agreed.
The Director then insisted I choose a codename for my MID, causing me to flounder. Natalie and Diego attempted to come up with some ideas, but each suggestion when checked on the computer had already been used. I could tell Goodman had had enough of us when I heard him mutter about just putting down ‘Depriver-Of-Sleep’, so I blurted out the one codename I had been internally wrestling with. It wasn’t my own idea and my feelings about the source were, to put it lightly, unpleasantly complicated.
After a moment’s silence in consideration, they all agreed it was appropriate given my powers so far - and surprisingly enough it hadn’t yet been claimed. Diego looked like he might have an objection, but then shrugged. Goodman typed it into his computer before throwing us all out of his office. He told me to go get some sleep, as we’d both likely need to be up early. He didn’t say why, and I could tell it was best to not question or argue with him any further. See? Adult mind, I have one, yep. Neener.
Diego decided that my re-christening required libation and, despite protestations that it wasn’t necessary, led Natalie and me to his own office. It was a smaller room than the Director’s, and made even smaller still due to the stacks and stacks of books on shelves, tabletops, and the floor. I was impressed - my home had its own overflowing shelves, but even that didn’t compare to the magnitude of his disorganized clutter. Sitting behind his desk, he reached into a hidden mini-fridge hidden and proceeded to open one of those miniature bottles of champagne he ‘just happened to have’. He had a real glass tucked away for himself - Natalie and I had to use a pair of red plastic cups. Guess he didn’t usually share his office stash.
They both toasted me, the new Jordan Elin Emrys. We clicked cups and glass, and sipped. It was actually pretty good stuff.
Diego followed up with another salutation to my new codename: I was also now officially the meta-human known as ‘Aradia’.
As I drank the fizzy wine, I wondered if Soren would laugh once he found out that I had adopted the name he had said to me, or whether he would just nod as if it all had been foretold and therefore inevitable.
I wanted the chance to deck him either way.
We didn’t linger once the short bottle was empty, and I returned to my room. After feeding my hungry little fluff-monster, I changed back into sweatpants and climbed into the bed. I wondered how Danielle’s shopping was going, the mall would probably close soon in any case. Physically I still felt fine, but mentally and emotionally I was exhausted. I decided not to wait up.
Khan crawled up to perch on my chest and do his sucker-kitty thing on the blanket. I scritched behind his ears and stroked their cute puffs of hair that he had from being a Maine Coone. That caused his ears to flick at me a few times, so I laughed and stopped teasing them - moving my hand to just pet softly along his back.
As I drifted off to the comforting sensations of his low rumbling purrs, I couldn’t shake the nagging feeling that all the names chosen weren’t truly right and therefore only temporary.
Whether it was just my subconscious rebelling against the loss of my old identity or something else, I decided I didn’t give a crap. The new names would just have to do.
I fell into a light sleep, stirring briefly when I heard Danielle get back with Jeffrey and go into her room.
Satisfied that she was okay, I then let deep slumber reach out and claim me.
The ocean lay flat with calm waves, and the sky held nothing but empty blue - no clouds, no birds, and no glimmering city high above. There was no sun yet horizon to horizon filled with a uniform light casting an odd circular shadow around my slender toes.
A boulder extruded upward from the edge of the cliff, perched upon it was a man. Picking my way carefully over small stones and thin grass I approached him, trying to make out what details I could.
He saw me and waved me closer. Taller than I and with a slim yet muscled build, he sat crosslegged upon beige stone in bluejeans and t-shirt. His hair, a wild collection of curly sandy-brown, twirled in the breeze, and his feet, like mine, were bare.
His eyes - they were as blue as the sky above, gleaming with the same hidden light, beckoning me with a wisdom and compassion that belied the youth of his features. Those eyes echoed a deep treasure of experience, and yet remained unsullied and pure in their view of the world before them.
“Where am I?” I asked, my words drifting into the wind.
He offered a hand to aid my ascension to his stony vista. His grip was strong and confident, without effort he pulled me up. I also wore jeans but had on a girl’s sleeveless purple shirt decorated with gold patterns dancing along the low-cut collar into the edges.
He replied in a voice filled with kindness and also a quiet authority. “You are in a place between.”
I moved to sit beside him, resting my chin on a pulled up knee and we faced the deeper blue of the ocean before us. “Somehow I think you mean that both literally and metaphorically.”
His laugh was genuine and full of joy. “Perhaps I do. Would I be wrong?”
“An awful lot has changed for me over the past few days, so metaphorically you’re definitely on target. But I had intended the literal question - where are we?”
“Some would say that we are at a boundary between dream and spirit, between the above and below.”
“What of you? Would you say the same?”
He smiled, placing a reassuring hand on my shoulder. “I would say that we are here.”
I returned his smile. “I’d ask who I am and what’s happened to me, but I have a feeling you won’t answer those directly either.”
He gently squeezed my shoulder. “Who you are is up to you to decide; your actions, your choices, they will lead you forward and no matter which way you travel, you will in the end discover only yourself.”
“I’ve been forcibly changed already, though I will grant that it was ultimately triggered by my own decisions.”
“Have you? Or have events simply exposed a deeper layer - one that has always been hidden below the surface?”
“Are you trying to tell me that I’ve always been trans - always wanted to be a girl?”
He shook his head. “That is not for me to tell. But ask yourself: as comfortable as you were before, are you truly uncomfortable now?”
“I… I don’t know.”
“Then perhaps you have something new to ponder until next time.”
“Next time? Wait, I have so many more questions…”
He laughed merrily again. “As do we all. At this moment, however, you are needed and should go back.”
So saying he pushed my shoulder forward, causing me to slide off the suddenly slick stone and fall towards the water below…
A phone was ringing.
Startled awake, I fumbled disoriented towards the sound, trying to figure out how my cel phone had acquired such a strange new ring-tone. Khan meeped in annoyance at me as I dislodged him from the cozy perch atop my head and pillow.
My senses unscrambled and pointed out the inner-facility phone on the desk by the computer setup as being the ringing source. Stumbling over to it, I picked up the receiver.
“Jus… I mean, Jordan, uhm don’t panic but I need some help in here.” It was Danielle.
“What’s wrong?” She got back safe… what had happened?
“Seriously, like I said, don’t panic, okay? I’m fine, the effects just stopped, other than I really need to pee.”
“The bathroom is down the hall,” I said, becoming more confused. “Aren’t you in your room?”
“Yeah, I am. I’m stuck in here. The door, uh, the door is kinda frozen over.”
I faced the wall between our rooms, reaching inward for that tower of light in case I needed to once more open an unplanned passage. My hands began to glow with that inner whiteness.
“Quit it!” She yelled it loudly enough that I also heard her through the wall. “Just stop, I can feel you powering up from here! I must have frozen the whole room while I was asleep, there’s a layer of frost on everything and it piled up the most over the door. Just get Diego, or someone, so they can, I dunno, defrost this mess, okay? Don’t go blasting anything, sheesh!”
I let go of the breath I was holding and in so doing let go of that inner source. My hands faded quickly to normal while I checked the clock on the phone. “It’s only six a.m., Diego is probably still at home. But I bet Gregor is in his lab already. If I can’t reach anyone, I’ll hunt someone down.”
“Yeah. Just don’t take too long, my bladder is going to burst soon.”
“Roger that. I’m on it.”
“Thanks.” She hung up on me.
Closing my eyes, I brought up the memory of Gregor’s lab and the phone wedged between the odd pieces of gizmotronics he had stacked on the desk in there. On a label taped to the phone was its extension number. I gave it a try.
He answered. “Da, is Gregor.”
“Gregor, it’s uh, it’s Jordan. You know, from testing yesterday.”
“Yes! Hallo! Up early? Is good, day waits for no one, yes?”
“Look, we’ve got a situation up here. Danielle’s ice has got her door frozen stuck. She can’t get out of her room.”
“Frozen? Ah ice, yes, young girl’s power. I come up. I have heat wand, very efficient. Should assist.”
I shouted through the wall. “Gregor is coming, think he may have a devise that will help.”
She shouted back. “Good!”
I went out to the hallway to wait for Gregor, and sure enough the door to Danielle’s room had a layer of ice that crept out from below to flow up over most of the door along with a good portion of the wall. I wondered if I could punch it out, but thought better of it.
Gregor was true to his word and arrived quickly, holding a square metal box by a wooden handle glued to its top. It had a corrugated metal tube running out to the bottom of a three foot metal stick he held tight in his other hand.
“Step back, please,” he said to me. I obliged.
Waving the wand-stick towards the door, his thumb flicked a switch on its side causing the metal box to hum ominously. The tip became red-hot as waves of heat radiated outward. He passed it back and forth over the door.
The ice melted rapidly in response to his devise, water pooling out over the hallway floor.
“Is inside, too, yes?” Gregor asked.
Danielle answered through the door. “Yeah! It’s totally covered in here.”
“Is special room. On floor in center, lift carpet square. Is drain.”
A moment later Daniell called out, “Found it!”
“Stay back from door. Three feet minimum. No wish burn you with wand!”
He adjusted a couple settings on the square box’s small dials, then aimed the glowing wand at the door again.
“It’s working!” Danielle called out.
“Yes, good. Wand send heat behind door. Quantum tunnel effect, door not be burned.”
I just stayed out of his way while he worked. He was humming to himself as he went, until he reached the floor again.
“Door should be free to open. Heat wand turned off, is safe now.”
The door flew instantly open with Danielle darting past us down the hallway wearing some new dark green silk pajamas. “Thanks, Gregor!” She rammed the door to the women’s restroom with her shoulder to open it as she went in. I could hear the door’s mounting screws creak in protest, but they held.
“She really had to go.” I said with a grin.
He chuckled. “Is good I arrive early. See? Day waits for no one, as I said!”
We both stepped inside her room to survey the damage. Gregor whistled. “Is like cold snap in motherland.”
I had to agree. Other than her bed, every surface was covered in a thick coating of ice. The floor itself was frozen towards the center where a large shower drain now lay exposed next to a grey carpet patch Danielle must have pulled loose.
“See? Room designed for wet. Is good, walls and floor no get mildew once surface dry. Indoor-outdoor carpet, yes?”
He busily set about applying his devise to the rest of the room. This time his humming became soft singing to himself as he worked.
Danielle returned showing clear relief. I gave her a hug. “You okay? Did you have a bad dream?”
She shrugged with exasperation. “No, that’s just it. I was sleeping fine… and then woke up to the ice, frost just creeping over everything. I could feel I was causing it too, but I couldn’t control it. So I called your phone when you didn’t wake up to me thumping on the wall. Thing is, that’s when it stopped. Whew, I really couldn’t hold it much longer.” She grinned.
Gregor paused his work to stare at us. “You say power stop - before or after phone ring in next room?”
Danielle thought about it, then answered, “After. That’s when I heard Jordan try to get to it.”
He turned his eyes to me. “And you… you were sleeping, yes? Any dreams?”
“Me?” I asked, but thought about it. “Yes, I did wake up from a dream. An interesting one, too.”
“Not scary? Share details, please.” Gregor turned off his heat wand to listen.
“Not much to say, really,” I said. “I was on a cliff and met a man there. He was friendly, and we talked.”
Danielle was curious. “What did he say?”
I shook my head. “Not much, he was being mystically vague to be honest, but what do you expect from a dream guy? When I asked him where we were, he said, and I quote, ‘Some would say that we are at a boundary between dream and spirit, between the above and below.’”.
Gregor’s bushy eyebrows raised together. “Most interesting. In fact, I have theory. Come.”
He carefully put down his devise and led us both back into my room. I made sure we closed the door behind us so Khan wouldn’t run out, though Danielle had immediately gone over to pick him up so I needn’t have worried.
Gregor went straight to the computer terminal on my desk, logging in to his own account. “I need permission from you both. Sensors in rooms, they record to secure disk. But we will not access unless you say is good.”
I wondered how true that was, but debating it right now wasn’t going to get us any answers. “Fine with me. Danielle?”
She nodded. “Yeah, okay. What are you looking for, Gregor?”
He waved a hand before two-finger typing on the keyboard again. “Will know when find.” On the screen, images of both our rooms appeared side by side along with matching timestamps under the frames. He skipped backwards in time until Danielle’s room was free of all ice, and then let it play forwards. We were both asleep in our beds; the lights were off but the camera had low-light capability.
It changed in my frame first.
My face and hair, the only parts of me visible from under the blanket, started glowing brightly while I was still asleep. The camera system had a hard time compensating for the brightness, so my image kept getting washed out. But we watched my whole head start to flicker, the light strobing the room without discernible pattern.
Gregor slowed down the replay, eventually going frame-by-frame. The ones where my light wasn’t shining, it looked like my pillow was empty - I wasn’t there in those frames at all. “What the hell?” I said in shock.
He zoomed in on the picture to examine closely. I wasn’t fully gone, but my whole head had gone ghostly translucent.
He let the video play forward normally again. Khan woke up from his spot curled into a ball at the end of my bed. He got up, stretched, and ignoring the crazy strobe light show I was emanating he walked up along the edge of the bed before reaching out his white-socked foreleg to put one paw gently on my forehead.
The strobing of the light stopped instantly. I just had a solid bright glow from my face and crimson gold streamers shining from my hair. My image proceeded to remain steady while the intensity of the light pulsed more slowly. Khan lay down on my pillow with his front paws and chin resting atop my iridescent head.
“How did he do that?” I asked, flabbergasted.
“Look!” Danielle pointed at the frame from her room where she had been sleeping peacefully. We watched snow start to swirl through her room - even more weird was that every time my light pulsed brighter, the mystic wind in hers would gust the ice about with more vigor.
The frost slowly covered her room, windows, and door. She rolled over in her bed and snowflakes landed on her face, irritating her nose as they melted upon her skin to drip into a nostril. Her pale blue eyes opened, blinking a few times before she sat up quickly to stare at the growing snowstorm swirling about her room.
Her frustration when it wouldn’t stop could be seen clearly. She hopped out of her bed, tried to open her frozen-locked door, and then she banged on the wall to my room.
Khan looked over at the sound, meowed, but didn’t move off my head. I remained obliviously asleep.
Danielle picked up the phone on her own desk and punched my extension. It rang on my side, which is when my eyes opened.
Two things happened simultaneously: the white glow of my skin along with the reddish copper shine from my hair ceased entirely, and Danielle’s snowstorm fluttered out.
Gregor paused the playback. “Cause is clear. Is you.” He pointed at me.
“Ah shit.” I sank back down onto my bed.
Danielle asked worriedly, “Is this going to happen every time Jordan sleeps? And why was she fading in and out there at the start?”
“Will need Diego to watch,” Gregor said, one hand pulling on his beard. “For now, I clean room. You two get breakfast, yes? To Diego’s office after - usual arrival by time you finish meal. All meet there.”
Danielle looked down at her silk pajamas then whimpered. “Oh no… all my new clothes, they’re gonna be soaked by that ice. Same with the ones I got Jordan.”
With a snort, Gregor waved a hand. “Bah. I set heat wand to safe-dry. Better than dryer, yes? You see. No wrinkles.”
Looking dubious, Danielle went back to her room with Gregor in tow. I sat quietly, petting my buddy who had decided my lap was now appropriate to occupy. Looking down at his happy purring, I pondered what he had done. Was his touch just enough to pull me back from… well, back from wherever I was going?
Could I just disappear in the middle of my sleep? That was a scary notion. I thought of the guy in my dream and wondered if I had been shifting myself into the dream somehow, or that plane of dimensional existence or whatever the heck that ‘between’ place was.
Man, I really needed some lessons and guidance on this crazy stuff and fast. Before I really screwed something up more than just holes in walls or triggering another of Danielle’s indoor blizzards.
After a few minutes she knocked on my door, coming back in holding a pile of clothes. She had put on light blue jeans along with a t-shirt sporting a single yellow Despicable-Me Minion who was holding a red apple with a gleeful expression. The style was the same as her usual choice in clothing, but the changes to her figure were still stunning. Where before she had softer and yes, plumper, curves - she was now a lithe, fit, and sharply defined young woman.
“Jordan? I got you these - I hope you don’t mind. And that they fit okay…” She was biting her lower lip as she hesitantly offered me the pile.
Trying to reserve judgment, I took the clothes. “What did you get?”
“Uhm, a pair of jeans, some underwear, a shirt, and also got you a bra - based on the sizes Jeffrey gave me.”
“What sizes am I, anyway?”
She told me. Dang, nice measurements. And no, I’m not going to repeat them - a girl needs some mysteries, right?
“Want some help with the bra?” She asked, unsure how I would react.
I laughed. “Yeah, I might need it. I’ve only got practice taking them off, never on.”
She giggled but only relaxed a little; I could tell by the tautness across her shoulders.
After dislodging my kitty with the bribe of him getting his breakfast first, I stripped out of the sweatpants and sweatshirt. Danielle was standing there awkwardly as if she didn’t know if she should look away or not - I decided to ease her mind on that score.
“What’cha think? I come out alright?” I posed dramatically for her, standing like a Greek goddess statue on display.
She whistled appreciatively. “Wow. And I thought my changes were amazing. Dang, Jordan, you’re going to have to beat guys off with a baseball bat!” Realizing what she just said, she blushed a bright shade of red. “Oh, oh I’m sorry!”
Naked as I was, I pulled her into another hug while managing another laugh. “Don’t be, hon. Because you’re right and I’m going to have to learn to deal with it. Now hand me those panties, would you? Purple, eh? With lace?”
Still flushed, she handed them over. “I thought they were pretty,” she said with a hint of defensiveness.
I held them up as if admiring them. “And so they are! Thanks!”
Bending over to put them on still felt totally different - what with new orbs up top dangling free and not having anything dangling between the legs below. The dream stranger’s question crossed my mind again as I straightened up to take the offered jeans.
Was I uncomfortable? My body was so radically changed in its proportion and configuration - heck it even moved different. But was it wrong?
I struggled to get the jeans on - Danielle had purchased a pair which seemed rather tight. It took me a fair amount of hopping up and down, much to her amusement, to finally get them up and over my rear, even with said backside being the lovely toned shape it was. “Dammit,” I muttered.
“They’re skinny jeans,” she said with a grin. “They’re a pain to get on, but they look hawt!”
Finally managing to get them buttoned I commented, “Isn’t that the style that can cut off blood circulation and kill you?”
She shrugged. “Only if you’re crazy enough to buy ones that are truly too small. I think those fit you, actually.”
I tried moving around in them, kicking a leg up a lot higher than I ever would have imagined before. They pressed tightly, especially between the legs - but nothing was there to get in the way. “Huh, guess you’re right. Next up then - lets get my boobs strapped in.” I picked up the proffered bra, noting it too was purple with lace. “This looks expensive.”
She nodded. “Yeah, I didn’t want to get you cheap ones. I still had some cash from all the donated help I got when Mom died.” She paused then said, “And Jeffrey and I talked last night. About things.”
“Oh?” Remembering how Caroline put on her own bra, I pulled the stretchy back part around to the front of my stomach, hooked in the little hooks, then spun it back about before trying to put my arms through the straps.
“Here, let me adjust it for you.” Danielle moved behind me and worked on the sliding shoulder straps after I popped myself into the front supports.
“What things did you discuss?” I asked, while making sure the ‘girls’ were properly positioned behind the silky lace contraption.
She sighed as she plopped onto my bed. “What happens from here, mostly.” Her white hair swept across the side of her face. I resisted an urge to reach out and push it back over a slightly pointed ear.
“I think we try to get into this school for mutants: me as a junior, and you as a freshman.”
“Yeah, but I’ll probably have to spend the rest of the summer with Uncle Mark once he’s out of the hospital.”
‘Uncle’ Mark. Ouch, that stung, though I tried not to show it. “Afraid so, kiddo. Fall semester won’t start for about another month.”
“But what about you?”
I couldn’t resist any longer and gently brushed the hair away from her young and beautiful face. “Not sure. They’ll want to tuck me away somewhere else, I’d imagine. Maybe even send me to the school early to spend the rest of summer there if I get in.”
“If?” She frowned.
“Yes, if. I’ll need a scholarship of some kind. It’s possible the Director can get me a work-study thing for it, but we don’t know yet. Before he can apply on my behalf he has to get my new identity all set up. Should be done today, though - he said his team had programs to auto-generate a lot of that kind of thing.”
Khan, content with his repast, emitted a short meow and brushed against her legs as they dangled from the bed. She scooped him up into her lap. “I don’t like the idea of going there if you’re not there too.”
I smiled. “I feel the same way. But don’t worry, something will work out, okay?”
She nodded slowly, not really convinced. “Jeffrey also told me about all your money and stuff. I know I won’t have full access to it until I’m eighteen, but if you need anything…?”
Shaking my head, I joined in on the kitty scritching. “No good, hon. We don’t want folks to know our relationship. We’ll have to meet at the school as students, anything beyond that could generate suspicion.”
“It is what it is, kiddo. Think of it this way: in a few years we’ll graduate and look back on all this with a laugh.” I smiled. “Now let me get some shoes on, then hand over the shirt you kindly bought for me - I don’t think I want to go to breakfast in just jeans and a bra. Might cause some poor guy to have a stroke.”
I pulled on the socks and shoes I had been given yesterday for powers testing. The question from my dream still echoed up from the back of my mind.
As I laced up the sneakers I realized that in truth I wasn’t uncomfortable. I felt healthy and natural - and my breathing was amazingly free and easy. The sensations and movement were different, sure, but they were smooth and dare I say it, almost elegant and graceful - terms I’d never have used to describe myself before.
More still - it didn’t bother me. Socially I was extremely nervous about things, sure - but physically?
Physically I felt great.
Danielle handed me the shirt, and I held it up to look at it.
It was purple, sleeveless, and had a familiar golden stitched accent. It was what I had been wearing in my dream - an exact match.
After putting it on without a word, I took her hand in mine. We walked like that all the way down to breakfast.
Breakfast included a tasty mix of pancakes, bacon, sausage, and scrambled eggs. Having our exemplar natures explained during powers testing, neither of us were worried about our figures so we dug in with the same gusto Khan displayed whenever food was placed in front of him.
Yes, some of the ladies consuming only coffee and perhaps a piece of fruit gave us a few dirty looks. Danielle and I just grinned and made more obnoxious ‘yum’ comments as we poured on the syrup.
We even went back for extra bacon, just because.
There wasn’t much conversation between us, I think we were still trying to process what had just happened and knew neither of us had any real clues. Hopefully the experts like Diego would be able to explain.
When finished we went up to Diego’s office, hoping he’d be there. He was - and not alone either. Gregor and, to my surprise, Nick Wright were inside.
I stopped at the doorway to stare at Nick. He had on a different chaotic tie (reds and purples, which in a weird way made him match my hair and shirt) while his coat of many pockets was draped over the back of a chair in front of Diego’s desk. I suppressed the sudden urge to punch Nick right in the jaw, but what had happened truly wasn’t his fault - if he hadn’t shown up, I may never have found Danielle. Yet part of me still wanted to blame him. The bandages on his hands, though, left me guilty for feeling that way. Conflicting emotions much? Nah.
He did flinch under my glare when he noticed us, which was admittedly satisfying.
Diego, standing behind his desk, spoke. “Welcome ladies, please come in.” Gregor rose from his chair and offered it to Danielle; Nick kept staring at me so after a long moment Gregor kicked his chair which got Nick to rise and offer it to me as well.
I declined and stood by one of the towering piles of books.
Danielle went over to Gregor’s offered chair. “Anyone going to tell me who this is?” She pointed at Nick.
I answered. “That’s Nick, the guy who showed up and led me to where you were being held.”
“Oh!” Danielle, who hadn’t sat down yet, turned to wrap her arms around a very surprised Nick. “Thank you! I could have died if you hadn’t gotten my uncle to me.”
Yeah, now I felt really bad for glaring at Nick like that, so I just studied the wooden floor. He stiffened in her embrace, returning her hug awkwardly. “Just uh.. Just glad I could help…”
She beamed at him and sat down.
Diego cleared his throat. “Gregor was just filling in Mr. Wright and myself on what transpired during the night. Ah, and also what occurred when Jordan went back to her house with Agent Boone.”
Right. Business now, emotions later. I sighed and looked back at Nick who mouthed ‘Jordan?’ at me. I shrugged, then asked him, “Any ideas on what Soren did to me?”
“Maybe,” Nick said seriously. “I have some theories, at least.” He reached over to rummage in his coat. I began to wonder if there was a classic D&D bag of holding wedged somewhere in those pockets. He fished out the most ornate and gaudy golden ring I had ever seen - it was huge, with mystic engravings covering the surface surrounding an embedded crystal. At least, I hoped it was a crystal - a diamond that large would have been worth a fortune. His mummy-wrapped hands fumbled the ring and it hit the floor with a loud thunk before rolling over to rest against my shoe.
I bent over to pick it up. When I touched it I might as well have turned on a helicopter searchlight as the crystal immediately blinded anyone looking in my direction.
“Shit!” I snapped my other hand over the top of the ring, blocking out most of the glow but leaving my hand iridescently red as the light tried to shine through anyway.
Nick gaped at me. “It’s never reacted like that before.”
“What the hell is it?” I crossed over to Diego’s desk, and careful to not blind us all, managed to deposit the ring on the desk’s surface.
It went dark the moment I was no longer touching it. Nick picked it up after testing to make sure it hadn’t gotten hot. “It’s rumored to have been one of King Solomon’s rings - with the proper incantations it’s useful for mapping ley energy structures underground.”
Diego nodded. “I believe that confirms a few ideas.”
I crossed my arms as I stepped back against the books. “Feel free to share, guys.”
Nick put the weird ring back into a coat pocket - a different one from where he’d pulled it - then sat back in the empty chair he had tried to vacate for me. “It means, as best as we can determine, you’re more than a normal projective Energizer. You’re a living mystical energy well.”
Gregor coughed. “Such should not be possible. Wizard should be consumed by such a thing, yes?”
Nick shrugged. “Weird things happen. You’ve seen the reports on Tennyo, right?”
From behind his desk, Diego slowly sat as well. “Those are classified, Mr. Wright. And not all of us present have clearances.” He motioned towards me and Danielle.
“Whatever,” Nick waved him off. “What matters is that Jordan here is a mobile personification of a ley line. It explains Danielle’s hobgoblin issues.”
“Hobgobblins? What?” Danielle said, obviously confused. That made two of us.
Diego explained. “When a wizard has gathered more energy than they can use or control, the magic can leak - creating what is known as ‘hobgobblins’ due to how they may manifest. In your case, instead of small magical troublesome creatures, your magic generates a miniature blizzard around you.”
“Even when I’m asleep?” Danielle’s eyes were wide.
“Not normally,” Nick said reassuringly. “Only when you’re just one room away from an active energy node that is saturating the environment. For any wizard without a potential as large as yours seems to be, the effects of such saturation could be crippling if not fatal - their energy structure could overload and be very seriously damaged. Think of it this way, most folks would be like a rubber fork. Stick it into a live outlet and nothing happens. A wizard, though, is like a fork made of copper.” He looked over at me ruefully. “You’re very lucky your niece is one of the Sidhe and therefore has the capacities she does. Otherwise you could have killed her.”
“And otherwise Soren’s spell would have killed her too,” I said, comprehension scarily beginning to dawn.
“Exactly. I suspect he knew that, and after examining things in that storage unit…”
I finished his thought for him. “You think I was his true target all along. Otherwise this Tsáyid guy would not have tried to kill me. Soren’s spell was meant for me.”
Diego, Gregor, and Nick all nodded their heads in agreement.
Danielle asked, “The spell in the unit was designed to turn Jordan into this energy well thing? And also, you know, change him to her?”
Nick winced. “Hard to say. I am still having trouble understanding it. I’m like a second year calculus student trying to make sense out of a PhD candidate’s dissertation on abstract group theory.”
“Huh?” Danielle blinked at him uncomprehendingly. Math had never been one of Danielle’s strong points in school. Maybe that would change. I could hope.
I smiled at her. “It means he’s like a kindergartner trying to understand someone doing college math.”
Nick grumbled under his breath about that being too much of an exaggeration.
Gregor interjected. “This spell, architected for this specific effect? If so, much concern if repeated. Implications of mobile energy source of such apparent magnitude troubling, yes?”
Shaking his head, Nick said, “I don’t think we need to worry about Callas duplicating the spell. By itself it should have obliterated anyone who walked in there. Danielle’s chair was attuned to protect someone with fae essence, though admittedly it couldn’t block everything. Thus it stripped away part of her humanity and in the process looks to have supercharged her fae nature. I think the spell was designed to set up a standing wave of magic in that unit based on specific resonances, attuned to a number of artifacts. Anyone going in there should have been ripped apart - body and soul. Yet Justin - sorry, Jordan - survived. She’s unique, and Callas had to have known it.” He paused, staring at me in consideration.
“How? I can see you have an idea, Nick. You’re just not saying it.” I was getting angry. I needed to know, especially after discovering I was dangerous just by being asleep.
“I’m… I’m not one-hundred percent positive yet about the idea, to be honest. I’m not sure it should be said until then.” His expression was torn.
Gregor came to my defense. “Is, how you say, bullshit. You say lesser mage could have died last night being in next room. She, and we, need all information possible. Or else preventable disaster not avoided.”
Nick looked to Diego who stayed silent. Diego’s brows were narrowed with his own internal thoughts.
A voice from the doorway startled us.
Director Goodman stood at the office entrance, fixing Nick with a glare.
“I don’t think it’s a good idea,” Nick protested.
“Do it. That’s an order, Nicolas.”
Nick ran a hand over his buzzed scalp and sank deeper into his chair.
“I believe her spirit isn’t human.”
“What? What am I, then?” I growled.
“An angel. I believe you’re an angel.”
The room went silent until Danielle exclaimed with widening eyes, “Holy shit!”
I tried to speak, what came out was a strained whisper. “You’ve got to be fucking kidding me.”
Nick sighed. “I don’t know for certain, but it fits. It shouldn’t be possible, but it fits.”
Diego shifted in his chair. “An angel incarnate? Not an avatar talent channeling the powers of one?”
Nodding, Nick straightened up. “Yes.”
“How do you figure?” Diego probed.
“Because,” Nick said as he gestured abstractly. “Immediately after she managed to get Danielle out of that storage room, I checked. One spirit was present in her new body, and one only. And your own powers testing did not reveal any avatar traits or patterns, am I right?”
Gregor nodded slowly. “Yes. None from Big Betty’s report. Only… anomaly. This might explain.” He looked over at me, his bushy eyebrows hanging over eyes lost in amazement at the idea… and at me.
Diego reached under his desk and pulled out a bottle of bourbon, setting it on his desk. He then stared at it wordlessly.
The Director crossed into the office. “This conversation is now classified, you all understand?” He looked at us each in turn with his expression seriously intent, his gaze lingering on Danielle. “It’s not to be discussed outside a secure location. Ever.” Danielle nodded vigorously.
Turning to Nick, Goodman asked, “What do you need to confirm or deny your theory?”
Nick blinked. “Uh, short of asking Callas directly? I’m not sure. Maybe go to Jerusalem and talk to the priests and rabbis there.”
Diego gave in and poured himself a glass. He poured another for Gregor in a plastic cup while he said, “I know the notion of an incarnate angel has been debated before. But as I understand it they would live their lives as normal humans, not be living wellsprings of raw energy. They’d be very hard to detect in all actuality. Much like humans with fragments of fae spirits living within them are hard to find unless they manifest due to mutation or other circumstance.”
Nick nodded. “I know. Being an angel is not enough to make sense of her energetic ability. Unless its interaction with Callas’ spell specifically would lead to that result. Which is why I need a lot more research - there are many types of angels according to lore, after all.”
Diego took a deep drink from his glass before staring at Nick thoughtfully. “Could Soren’s spell be generically designed to awaken one?”
Frowning, Nick replied. “I don’t know. This one seemed awfully specific. Although maybe it could be adopted to do that?”
Putting his drink down forcefully on his desk to a loud clink, Diego looked up at the Director.
“Everyone involved with the examination of the storage facility needs to be cleared and their backgrounds re-checked. All data involved needs to be either destroyed or moved to our most secure locations. Priority one, Elliot. Lock it all down, and do it yesterday.”
Goodman studied the DPA’s local magic expert who was obviously greatly disturbed by something. “Explain, Miguel.”
“It’s simple,” Diego said as his fingers spun around his glass where it sat. “Not all angels are holy and full of light.” He raised the glass towards me with a slightly haunted smile. “Some are fallen. And some,” he shook his head, “some are waiting to wake up which could trigger an apocalyptic level event. If not the actual biblical Apocalypse.”
“Not good.” Gregor was pulling furiously on his beard.
The Director’s expression hardened further. “It will be done. What else should we be doing regarding Jordan specifically? Anything?”
Nick blinked. “She needs training and practice to control her abilities. But she will need someone cognizant of the appropriate resonances.”
Gregor spoke up again. “You intend send her to Whateley, yes? Is good. First brother is there.”
I couldn’t help it. “How many brothers do you have?”
Smiling shyly, Gregor answered. “Papa Kirov, he important man in Russia. Design space station, yes? Brilliant Gadgeteer. He have many marriages, many children - very virile! Most siblings still in old country - but one wife, she is Jewish. He adored her beauty, yet politically was troublesome. Mother brought us sons here to West. Eldest brother Immanuel, he recently moved to Whateley, invited to teach for year. Religious subjects. He is powerful Kaballist and wisest of my brothers. He can teach you, or I shave beard.” He tugged on it in emphasis.
Nick brightened. “Rabbi Kirov is there? Elliot,” he said looking back at the Director, “that’s perfect. I can’t think of anyone better.”
Goodman nodded at him. “Then we better get her accepted to Whateley. Mr. Wright, put yourself on the next flight to Jerusalem. Get that information.” After Nick agreed, Goodman turned to me and said, “Follow. We have a phone call to make.” He strode purposefully from the book-covered office.
I walked after him, my head still spinning. An angel? How the hell could I be an angel… my naive belief in God died years ago.
Did that make me one of the fallen too?
The Director led me to a conference room equipped with a large television screen taking up one entire wall. He asked me to bide a moment while he took care of something first and picked up the phone sitting in the center of the expensive looking table. He wasted no time in barking orders to whoever was on the other end of the line, ordering the consolidation of all materials regarding the ‘Nexus Site’, and that all involved personnel with details of the site be recalled, debriefed, and re-cleared. He further gave instruction that ‘all markings and sigils’ were to be sandblasted clean - and if that didn’t work, to demolish all the covered walls, floors, and ceilings and to pulverize the remains. Whoever he was talking to tried to argue in protest, but the Director then tossed out terms like ‘National Security’, ‘State of Emergency’, and ‘Eminent Domain’.
The person on the other end by that point had lapsed into ‘yes sir’ and ‘very well, sir’. I could hear that much.
They hung up.
Goodman let his eyes slide over to me. “You alright?” he asked, his tone shifting from unquestioned command to one of genuine concern. The sudden change was disconcerting.
I shook my head. “Honestly, I have no idea.”
“To be expected.” He inhaled and let it out slow, a gesture I well understood.
“Was that a tough phone call just now?” I asked.
He emitted a short chuckle. “Not at all. It’s the one we’re about to make.”
“Best to get it over with. It’ll be a video call, hence the conference room.”
I tried to smile encouragingly, albeit admittedly confused as I thought we were about to call a school. How hard could that be?
Using the cordless keyboard, he brought up a secure web-conferencing application. He even pulled out his key-chain, and entered the number from his RSA fob before plugging it into the keyboard’s usb port.
A window appeared on the wall-display before us, revealing a dark-haired man wearing what looked like some kind of military uniform.
“Whateley Academy Security, Lieutenant Colin Forsyth, acting officer on duty. Identification, please.”
“Elliot Goodman, West Coast Director, Department of Paranormal Affairs. Sending credentials now.”
The Director clicked a button with the mouse and waited.
“Credentials received and approved. Good morning, Director. How can we at Whateley be of assistance?”
“I have a priority alpha need to communicate with Headmistress Carson.”
“Uh sir, you realize she’s on her summer vacation and not presently at Whateley? I can transfer you to Dean of Students Mrs. Shugendo…”
“No.” Goodman shook his head. “This conversation requires Mrs. Carson. Get her on the phone, son.”
“She’s not going to like that, sir.”
“Of course she’s not, Lieutenant. But you will get her on this call even if I have to disturb the President himself and conference him in.”
“The President, sir?” His eyes bugged out to the size of saucers. “I’ll… I’ll see what I can do, sir. Please hold.”
“Holding.” The video-chat window went dark.
“The President?” I asked Goodman in astonishment equal to the Lieutenant’s.
He gave me a wolf-like grin. “Sounded good, didn’t it? And given the situation as we just came to understand it, his involvement if required might even be appropriate. Given the number of paranormal events across the city that started this all, I bet he’d take the call.”
We stood before the screen and waited. The Director folded his arms behind his back as if at parade rest. I just crossed my arms and realized I needed Danielle to adjust my left bra-strap a bit more as it was too tight and pinching. Ow.
The chat window flickered back to life, revealing a rather strikingly beautiful woman wearing a straw hat, sun-glasses, and holding a margarita. From the angle, she must have been using a laptop on her knees while slightly reclined, possibly in a lounge-chair.
“Hello Elliot. I should have expected this.” Her expression left no doubt as to how she felt about being disturbed.
“Hello Elizabeth. Why would you have expected me to ring? We haven’t spoken in years.”
“Tell me first why you’re calling, I may explain after.” If the tone of her words could freeze us, we’d have been more frozen than Danielle’s poor room.
“My agency needs a favor.” Goodman was ignoring her tone, remaining polite with his own.
“Your agency.” She raised a perfect eyebrow.
“Yes. I have a prospective student here who is in need of a scholarship to attend your academy.”
She remained stone-faced. “I was notified of an application submitted by your office on behalf of a new student yesterday. It indicated they would be able to afford the fees due to an inheritance. We were going to approve the application - has the situation changed?”
“For Danielle Thorne, no. She is not the student in question.”
“Then who is, Elliot?”
I took a step forward. “I am, ma’am.”
Even through the video conference I could palpably feel her attention shift to me, like a tremor running over my skin. “And you are?”
“Jordan Elin Emrys, ma’am. Or at least, that’s the name I have now.”
“Care to explain?”
I glanced at Goodman, who said quietly under his breath, “If this connection is not secure, then no connections anywhere are.” Okay, got it. Truth then.
“Well, ma’am, less than a week ago my name was Justin Thorne. Danielle is my niece.”
The frost in her eyes lightened ever so slightly. “I see.”
I swallowed, and then proceeded to tell her everything that happened. The Director interjected a few clarifications when I’d glossed over something without intending to.
Her harsh expression had softened by the time I finished my summary of events. “Your niece is inheriting your entire estate, leaving you with a fresh but penniless identity.”
“That’s about the sum of it, ma’am.”
She looked back at the Director. “I presume you were hoping for some kind of work-study scholarship? Where she would report to your local office in Berlin?”
“Something like that.”
“I’m afraid we must decline.”
What? Oh no. Internally I felt my hopes for me and Danielle slipping away. Even Goodman flinched with surprise and said quickly, “Given the situation, I’m sure I can get approval to subsidize a scholarship…”
“Money is not the issue, Elliot. I have to think of the security of my students.” She was studying my reaction rather carefully, and I had a sudden flash of insight. I decided to run with it.
“I understand perfectly, ma’am,” I said, much to Goodman’s surprise. “Their protection is paramount - whether myself or my niece attend. It was partly due to your reported excellent security that we were hoping to attend.”
I managed a smile to cover my nerves. “Yes. We, both Danielle and I, need training in how to manage these new abilities. Mine especially might be dangerous if left uncontrolled, so I can understand the caution you’d have in bringing me to your school. I wouldn’t want to risk anyone else in doing so.”
“You mentioned you already had a college degree as Justin Thorne. What sort of education were you hoping for beyond training your manifested abilities? Replace your credentials and return to your chosen field?”
I thought about it seriously. “To be honest, ma’am, I don’t know. Too much has changed for me - and if I lock myself down with any preconceptions of regaining my ‘old self’ and career, that might sell myself short. But I do have a major concern about my lack of funds. My niece is covered, thankfully, and I’m not going to let her try to give back any of what she receives from my estate. For one thing, that might blow my new cover. And for another, she needs it to get the best start on her new life as she can - with college covered after high school. I know the amounts available and they wouldn’t be enough for two - not for a good college, anyway. She deserves the best options possible. So I may have to focus on what I know I can do quickly to try and rebuild my finances.”
“And if money was not an issue for you? Would you still want to attend high school all over again if you no longer needed freshly stamped pieces of credentialed paper to make a living?”
“A normal high school?” I couldn’t help but laugh. “Hell no. But one where I could try to make sense of the crazy things I’m doing or causing accidentally with these powers? How could I be responsible or even sane and not want that?”
To Goodman’s surprise her frost melted away and she smiled warmly. “Well, Elliot. I believe I can tell you why I should have expected your call.” Aha!
He tilted his head. “I’m all ears.”
“This morning the Academy received a rather substantial financial gift from overseas - one that would immediately alleviate the outrageous costs required to maintain our substantial and ever-increasing physical and magical security for many years to come. It was, however, predicate on one condition - a condition that gave me great pause considering how blatant a bribe it represented. You know how hidden strings or threats may attach to such offers that seem too good to be true especially when they arrive out of the blue.”
“What was the condition?”
“It was simple: that we accept one student on a new anonymous scholarship. Included with that scholarship was a fund to mature and be distributed to the said student upon graduation, with one percent of that ultimate distribution to be given yearly to the student as a ‘living stipend’.”
“Did the offer specify the student?” Goodman asked suspiciously.
“In a manner of speaking. It requires the student to be selected by, and I quote, ‘The current West Coast Director of the Department of Paranormal Affairs.’ Congratulations on your recent promotion to running the entire West Coast operations, by the way.”
My mind raced. “Soren. Dammit, Soren must be behind that offer.” I looked at Mrs. Carson with a sinking feeling flooding my stomach. “We can’t take it. He could be setting us up again.”
Mrs. Carson looked at me, her eyes twinkling. I realized from that look she was much older than she seemed and probably had me beat by decades. “Think. As your own story shows, he wishes you to live. Not only that, he wishes you formidably defended. The size of the donation will ensure this, better than anything the government would be able to manage short of hiding you in a bunker deep in the mountains of Colorado. Which I do not recommend, by the way. The food is horrid.”
The Director asked, “Elizabeth, how large is this donation?”
Waving a finger at the camera she said, “No, Elliot. You do not need to be privy to the amount. That’s between the Academy and the IRS. I’ll just say that it greatly exceeds the distribution to be paid out to the successful student of your choice.”
“How… how much would that be?” I asked.
“Each year would provide a stipend of two-hundred thousand dollars to the student.”
Two-hundred thousand? That’s one percent of… “Twenty million?! That’s nuts!”
She laughed. “The bank through which this offer was extended is quite serious, the funds are indeed genuine. Elliot, I take it you would select Ms. Jordan Emrys as this scholarship’s recipient?”
He reached out to put a hand on my shoulder. I didn’t shake him off as my head was still filled with spinning green dollar signs. “I would be quite glad to select Ms. Emrys. We will send her official transcripts and information this afternoon.”
“Excellent. Then if there’s no other business, I have a well-earned vacation to return to. You really should call more often, Elliot.”
He sighed. “They keep me too busy; they have for years.”
Her expression saddened. “That was your excuse fifteen years ago. I see it hasn’t changed.”
“I am sorry, Elizabeth. You know that.” Wait, had these two dated?
“Yes,” she said. “Yes I do. Take care, Elliot. And Ms. Emrys?”
“Yes, ma’am?” I replied.
“Elliot should be able to arrange your transfer to our campus immediately. You can summer there and get a head start on learning some control over your abilities.”
“That sounds good. Thank you.” I meant it too. Then something important lept through my brain. “Wait! One question.”
“About my cat…”
“Pets are not permitted at Whateley Academy,” she said firmly. Uh oh.
Goodman cleared his throat. “There is, however, a policy regarding magical familiars, is there not?”
Her eyes narrowed suspiciously at him. “Has she soul-bonded with this feline?”
Without missing a beat the Director answered. “According to our team, it is possible that such a bond is in the process of formation. We have video evidence that the presence of her animal prevented her from accidental dimensional slippage this past night. To parts still unknown.”
“We would need to review.”
“I have the file available here, sending it now.” He accessed the computer and uploaded. While his back was to the camera he motioned me to let him handle it. I obediently kept my mouth shut. I knew what a familiar was according to most fantasy role-playing games, but Khan? Was he mine?
She watched the recording of my room, but didn’t seem impressed. “As extraordinary as this video is, it hardly provides proof of such a claim. Any animal contact - or human touch for that matter - could have re-anchored her somnambulist travels.”
“Perhaps. Yet it was not a solitary event.”
I looked at him in surprise. “What?”
Ignoring me, he continued addressing the headmistress. “The night Jordan was first brought here she was mostly comatose. I elected to sit watch in her room, in case she experienced an onset of burnout or some other difficulty. While it was not as exaggerated an instance as occurred early this morning, I believe I witnessed her presence flicker and fade. Before I could call in a team, her feline companion - who’s name is Khan - abandoned his early breakfast to quickly jump upon her chest, placing one paw on her chin momentarily. Her image, to eyes unsure of what they were witnessing, solidified immediately.
“As this seems to be a trend,” he continued, “it is the official recommendation of the DPA that Ms. Emrys not be separated from her cat while she sleeps. We feel there may be real risk of tragedy otherwise.”
I couldn’t tell if he was bluffing or being entirely serious. With how Mrs. Carson was staring at him, I’m not sure she could either.
“If… if that is indeed the official recommendation, then the Academy, of course, must accede on the side of safety and student health. The animal will be permitted for the Fall Semester, with the status as a bona-fide magical familiar to be re-evaluated at the conclusion thereof.” Addressing me she added frostily, “You will be fully responsible for the care and keep of your companion, is that clear Ms. Emrys?”
Goodman interrupted my vigorous nodding of agreement. “For heaven’s sake, Elizabeth - Jordan is not a child hoping her parents will grant her a kitten that she’ll then play with and forget to feed. You especially should understand not judging her by her physical age.”
Mrs. Carson’s eyes flashed. “Is that all then, Elliot?”
Realizing he may have stepped too hard on a nerve, he sighed. “I’ll coordinate with your Dean of Students regarding Ms. Emrys’ itinerary. Enjoy the rest of your vacation.”
“I intend to. And Ms. Emrys…”
“Welcome to Whateley. We look forward to your arrival.” She closed the conference before I could thank her again - the screen had gone blank.
Goodman’s shoulders relaxed as he turned to me with a tired smile. “This is why cat people should never date dog people.”
I blinked as comprehension struck, then grinned widely. “You have a cat?”
“I have two, named ‘Night’ and ‘Day’. They’re terribly cute. Here, I’ll show you.” He pulled out his phone and started to scroll through his picture gallery.
He was right, they were absolutely adorable.
Interlude - Hunter
Somewhere in the Jabal Abu Rujmayn Mountain Range, Syria.
Tsáyid swooped lower as he scanned the mountains until spotting the cave entrance. Landing before the opening on all four paws, he shook his feathered head in annoyance. The entrance was barely large enough for a man, let alone a griffon of his stature.
Reluctantly he shifted down into a lesser form - a shorter dark-eyed young man dressed in khaki shorts and a red flannel shirt. He still had to duck to go inside.
He made his way through the tight cave passage needing no light to see his way, his other senses provided all that he could require. He could feel his Master’s energy calling to him.
After many twists and branches he reached a small inner chamber somewhere in the depths of the mountain. Even without light his eyes could make out the energy trails of the Host’s script covering the walls of the chamber - indeed the writing flowed inside the rocks surrounding the mountain’s heart, wrapping around and binding firm to those stones the black boil of rage that was the one he called Master.
“You have called. I am here.” Tsáyid dropped to one knee and bowed his head. Human language was easier to use when he was in the shape of man, but he despised being so. He felt weak in this form.
The Master spoke directly into his mind, the words burning like lava through the temple of his inner thoughts.
You have failed. The Light still shines.
Tsáyid tensed, his fear of the consequences clashing with a deeper relief he could not dare let his Master sense in any way. “Her throat was slit, her powers dim and unable to compensate. She should have perished.”
You did not stay to guarantee victory.
“Doing so would have risked you, Master. Her crossing would have summoned the one who’s Domain is Death. He would have sensed it. I cannot hide our connection from the gaze of one such as him.” Tsáyid dared not say the Angel of Death’s name aloud, lest he hear and take notice.
This is true.
Tsáyid exhaled a breath he hadn’t known he had been holding.
This Light grows even now; it can be felt even here within this prison. It must be squelched or it may seek to interfere. Have you acquired the formula used by our enemy to awaken it? This could provide us the key to awaken our brother Shem’Hazai. With our brother restored, our restraints shall shatter like glass before his might.
“We have fragments, Master. Our operatives within their agencies shall ferret out the rest. It will take time, however, to adapt its use to your brother. Do we know his location?”
Finding him will be no issue. We will call, and he will come.
“What orders then, Master?”
The Light must fall. To defeat Light first destroy that for which it shines. Go forth, Hunter. Seek out the other child, destroy this Light’s beloved before its eyes. Weaken it with despair, and once weak - lead it to us. We will reveal the fallacy of the Light’s worthless promises and it shall fall as did the star of its predecessor.
Tsáyid bowed his head deeper. He felt the command’s dark energy bind itself upon his pattern, sealing him with its geas.
“I hear and obey, Lord Azazel.”