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Into The Light
I thought tonight’s traffic was infinitely more deserving of that name.
Normally my commute home moved at a decent pace as it was generally against the worst of the usual flow. My house was close to where everyone in the morning wanted to go and where I worked was where they reluctantly returned to at the end of the day. But according to the radio, today the greater city area was having a nervous-breakdown inspiring number of calamities and crises.
A mana-bomb had been discovered in a parking garage downtown - with a reported amount of energy sufficient to level ten city blocks worth of high-rises. LAX was reporting that they were inundated with powerful illusions of hundreds of non-existent planes trying to land or take-off from their runways - with the illusions actually generating realistic and interactive radio traffic with the tower personnel. Somewhere in Van Nuys a villain group led by ‘Darktower Dave’ had taken multiple hostages at a credit union. He was demanding that when (and if) the city disarmed the mana-bomb that they turn over to him the bomb, a helicopter, and a luxury yacht. Otherwise he was going to use his telekinetic powers to lob hostages one at a time across the Valley in a blind arc targeting the Griffith Park Observatory. Meanwhile in Hollywood the ghosts of many famous actors and actresses were now apparently wandering the streets and being mobbed by tourists for spectral autographs.
Oh - and apparently the Dodgers were playing at their stadium, but every pitch was resulting in a home run for the Mets. Score was reportedly 37 to 0 in the first half of the first inning yet the magical monitoring umpires couldn’t detect any interferences from the crowd or players. The Dodgers’ manager was insisting the game be canceled, but the Mets manager was claiming his boys were ‘just having a great day’.
There were so many different things going crazy in the city that even the radio news stations were unable to summarize them all between the extended traffic and weather reports. Oh, and speaking of weather, it was hailing on the beaches, fogging over in the passes, and all the while summer-dry winds were blowing down signs in Van Nuys plus a few other spots. Heroes and law enforcement agencies were rushing everywhere, but if they couldn’t fly they were stuck in the same pile of cars along with everyone else. Let’s just say my vocabulary for curse-words was rather exhausted by the time I finally pulled into my driveway, parked, and walked towards my front yard and the entrance to my house.
My house where the little courtyard gate had been blown inward off its hinges. As had my front door.
All thoughts of the lousy traffic were gone as I rushed inside while calling out for my niece. She should have been home from summer-school already before all the city’s mayhem struck in the late afternoon.
I tore through the foyer and down the hall, noting that it looked like a tornado had blasted its way inside leaving a mess in its wake: wall hangings of art and photographs, small desk that had been set into a wall in the hallway destroyed into dark-stained wooden fragments, even random strips of carpet had gotten shredded.
The trail of debris led to her bedroom. Its door had been sucked outward in an shattering white shower of plywood and teenage girl rebellious decorations of some favorite metal band. Her backpack was on her bed, and worst of all - so was her phone.
She never went anywhere without her phone.
“Danielle?” I cried again, scrambling back over the wreckage and searching the rest of the house. The rest was untouched. My cat, Khan, normally a bold and brave companion, was hiding under the bed in my room. He meeped at me (being a Maine Coone his meow was rather high-pitched) but he looked otherwise fine. Just quite scared.
As was I. Danielle was gone.
Fumbling with my phone, I dialed 911.
“911, what’s your… emergency?” The operator sounded extremely frazzled and tired.
“A tornado has hit my house. My niece is missing.”
“A tornado? What’s your name and address?”
I told him.
“Okay, sir, there have been numerous reports of anomalous meteorological activity throughout the city. Is anyone injured?”
“I don’t know. But my niece isn’t here. She should be here.”
“Could she be buried in rubble?"
“No, the house is still standing.”
“Then if she was there when this ‘tornado’ struck, perhaps she fled to a friend’s house? Or the neighbor’s?”
“She hasn’t made any friends here yet - all her friends are out of state. And she left her phone behind. She wouldn’t do that. She’s fifteen, she’s practically attached to the damn thing!”
I could practically hear the guy face-palming at me. “Sir, we have numerous issues all over right now, and many folks are hurt. Unless you have actual injuries or something obviously life-threatening, I don’t have anyone I can send for probably many hours. I’ll enter this into the system - but, honestly? I doubt you’ll have a deputy show up before morning, heck probably not until late afternoon if you’re lucky. Unless you get some indication beyond a forgotten phone that she’s in actual danger, in which case call back, alright?”
“She’s a mutant. Not a very noticeable one, true, but maybe she was kidnapped!”
“Sir, really, I’m sorry - but that’s the best I can do.”
“Yeah. Great. Thanks.” I hung up before I said rude things to the poor guy.
I stood in the hallway, looking down at the pictures now strewn about the floor in their broken frames. I picked up the one of my wife from our honeymoon - her smiling and holding up a margarita while the sun set behind her, framing her with scattered illuminated clouds of glorious pinks and reds. Her hair played with the brilliant reflections, but it was nothing compared to the sheer light and joy shining in her eyes. My Caroline. God, she had been so beautiful.
Shaking my head, I set the picture gently aside and tried to figure out what to do about Danielle.
After a few too many minutes of me frustrated and drawing a blank, my doorbell rang.
“Hello? Anyone here? Everyone okay?” A male voice, echoing from the foyer.
“Yes and no,” I answered. I walked carefully down the hall, trying not to step on anything important.
The guy standing just inside my new lack of a front door was slightly shorter than I was, and wearing a brown leather trenchcoat over some black dress slacks and a white shirt. He even had on a tie - one of those Jerry Garcia colorfully patterned ones of purple and gold swirls. Unlike my own long hair (usually kept in a disheveled ponytail), his dark hair was shortly cropped - almost military style. His age was somewhat indeterminate: maybe a decade (or two?) younger than my own, but the way he carried himself spoke of experience most young men just don’t have. He was holding a softball sized green crystal of some kind up to an eye and peering around at the damage.
“Who the fuck are you?” I asked directly, not being in my most polite frame of mind.
“This your house?” He didn’t even pause his examinations to look at me.
“Yeah it is. So let me ask again: who the fuck are you?”
“Nick. Nick Wright. I, uh, I consult with the agencies on… things.” He gestured vaguely, and I noticed the palm of his hands was tattooed with a solid black sigil of some kind - a six pointed star maybe, with weird writing around it.
“That is entirely non-descriptive.”
“Yeah, well, it’s rather complicated. Was anyone else here when this,” he again waved the marked hand about, “all happened?”
“Possibly my niece.”
He winced. “She gone?”
“Left her phone behind. She’s fifteen.”
“Crud. She a mutant?”
I stepped closer to the guy, hands clenched into fists. “So what if she is?”
The green crystal thing lowered from his eye and he looked at me properly for the first time. “Oh damn, no sorry, you’ve got me all wrong. Look - I’m also classified as one too, okay?”
“Really? What kind?” I think a muscle in my face twitched.
“Magic. I do magic. And if I’m not mistaken, your niece was taken by magic as well. It’s why I’m here.”
I blinked. “What?”
“I told you, I work with… agencies. We got a tip on something, and I’m trying to follow it.”
“Either talk sense and hopefully say something useful, or get the hell out of my house.”
“Uh, right.” He took a cautious step backwards away from me. “There’s a practitioner. A very skilled practitioner, his name is Callas Soren. We know he showed up in this city a few weeks ago. Information led us to believe he was looking for something - or more specifically someone. Someone young and female.”
“And you think that’s my niece?”
“Anyone else live here?”
“No. Just me and her. She only moved in a few weeks ago after her mom’s funeral.”
“Shit. Sorry to hear that. What about you? Any mutations or meta-stuff?”
“Right. So if she’s missing, and as this scan is showing traces of Soren’s resonance signature then… yeah. Likely he’s got her.”
“My niece may be a mutant, but she’s just a low-level regenerator with a mild magic sensitivity. Why would anyone be interested in her?”
He waved me off. “Why isn’t important right now. What is important is us finding her, and fast.”
“So she’s in danger? This guy might hurt her?”
“Possibly, yes. Look - give me a minute here, alright?” He stuck his hands into various pockets, obviously searching for something, then pulled out a small box. “Ah, here we go.”
“Modified compass. Get her phone, it’s probably awash with her energy - I can use that to track where she is.”
“And then call the cops?”
He gave me a look of deadly seriousness. “The special tasks groups are so busy at the moment, I doubt they’d even take my call. Regular cops wouldn’t have a clue about what they’d be dealing with. Nor would most superheroes.”
“But you do.” I said skeptically.
“Yeah, I do. I’m here because I do. I’ve spent the past few weeks placing detecting wards all over this damnable sprawling city to hone in on any magical fluxes tuned to Soren’s specific resonance. And despite today’s other crazy ruckuses all over town - they led me to your house. Needle in a haystack the size of the Greater Metropolitan Area - one which I think was also set on fire in multiple places.”
I stared at him for a moment, but something in his tone and gaze got to me. He was either actually here to help, or was in on it somehow. Either way, it was all I had to go on. I couldn’t very well chase a tornado - real or magical.
“I’ll get her phone.” I did so and handed it over to him.
He took it while looked stonily at what I was carrying in my other hand. “And what is that..?”
With both hands now free I raised them up and pumped the slide action.
“It’s called a shotgun. I’m going with you.”
He wisely didn’t argue. He did insist, however, on taking his rented Ford Focus - saying that he’d paid for the extra insurance coverage in case something happened. Considering the damage my house had already experienced, he had a rather good point.
We spent the next few hours trying to maneuver around the city through the gridlock so he could triangulate where Danielle might be. I didn’t feel like being too chatty, so any actual conversation was rather strained and existed in several short bursts.
“You married?” He obviously had noticed my wedding band.
“Lost her to cancer a few years ago.”
“You got a name?”
“Nice house. What do you do?”
“I write medical database software. Try surface streets. This is getting us nowhere.”
“Yeah, uh… I don’t know this city that well.”
“I’ll guide you. Get off at the next exit and hang a left.”
“Just who is Soren? And what exactly would he hope to gain by kidnapping my niece?”
“He’s a potent practitioner, and also my former mentor in the Arts. And knowing him, he’d claim he was trying to save the world.”
“He has some kind of theory. That heavenly forces are up to something. He would never tell me any more than that.”
“And my niece fits into this how?”
“I’m operating on supposition, but I think he believes she’s the key to it all.”
“He’s going to sacrifice her?” That came out a bit strangled.
“No, or at least not directly. If he’s wrong - then yes, she’ll probably die.”
“So is he fucking insane?”
“He’d claim otherwise. But basically, yeah. Maybe.”
“Shit. He behind all this other chaos in the city too?”
“My opinion? Yes. He’s got the resources for it.”
I didn’t say much more after that, and neither did he.
We eventually arrived at a rental storage facility in West Los Angeles. Throughout the trip the radio kept reporting more crazy happenings. Cars were starting up and driving off without drivers - and not the ones with autodrive capability. A flock of crows had swooped into a mall and attacked everyone at the food court. More random mayhem. Nick drove around the storage place a few times while checking his magical compass thing. After parking he pulled out a laptop computer from the backseat and with some typing and clicking I saw him log into an FBI website where he somehow managed to retrieve a blueprint of the storage building. His story about working for ‘agencies’ began to seem a bit more solid, which actually made me even more worried for Danielle.
He imported the blueprint into some other kind of software, and much to my surprise he popped off the bottom piece of his magic compass to reveal a wire that ended in a usb plug. He inserted the plug into his laptop while muttering to himself in some language other than English. I didn’t recognize it.
After a minute though, he said clearly, “Unit 305. Ten feet by fifteen.”
“What can we expect? Goons? Explosives? Magic traps?”
Frowning, Nick looked around outside the car and again at the building. It was now closer to midnight, and the streets were empty. People were obviously trying to be smart and hide in their homes. In the distance a lonely emergency siren could be heard.
“He’s probably not expecting to be found. All the noise and effort everywhere else should have everyone tied up. So most likely just a magic trap of some kind. Leave that to me, and don’t be trigger happy.” He paused. “Well, unless you have to. Or you could stay in the car.”
“Right, then. Let’s go.”
We got keys to access the elevator from the guy who had been manning the front desk. He didn’t object much, as he had fallen instantly asleep after Nick waved a hand at him. “He’ll be fine later” was all Nick would say about it.
My heart was pounding as we rode the elevator up. If Nick heard it, he didn’t say anything. He was just rummaging in his pockets, frowning a bit more, then rummaging in other ones. I noticed that the inside lining of his coat had similar markings as his palms.
I asked myself what the hell I was doing. But then I thought of Danielle, and my grip on the gun tightened.
We approached 305. Its tall orange garage-style door was closed.
Nick held up a hand. I stopped walking. We were one door short of 305. He took one more step, then rolled a blue marble towards the door down the hallway.
The marble almost made it to the door, then melted. And turned to steam.
Nick nodded and gestured us forward. I let him go first.
We stopped in front of the door. It was padlocked. He frowned and started to reach for his pockets again.
I don’t know why, but I quickly just yanked him behind me as I stepped to the side. Then I blew the padlock (and the part of the door it was resting against) off. The gunshot was much louder than I expected - I had forgotten to bring hearing protection. Crap. Also, ow.
“Jesus Christ,” Nick exclaimed. He wasted no time, however, in throwing the orange door upwards. I pumped another shell into the chamber as he did, so I could cover whatever was revealed.
I’m not sure what I expected to see in there, but I will admit I wasn’t disappointed.
The entire inside of the storage unit - floor, walls, and ceiling had been covered in blue and black runes, circles, and writings in many languages. Some I could guess at (Latin, Greek, Hebrew, Sanskrit), but others looked like nothing I had seen before. There was no light in the unit, but enough spilled in from the hallway to make some of them out.
All of them were slowly shifting and moving even while I watched. As I tried to track them my senses were suddenly assaulted with what could only be called overload, as (to me anyway), it was like all of Niagara Falls was somehow flooding through that room in bursts of waves sending purely weird vertigo sensations through me. It was if reality itself was pulsating within - and yet at the same time was seemingly quiet and only painted with the weird shifting marks.
I doubled over and threw up onto the clean floor in the hallway.
Nick though, he seemed unaffected. He merely whistled as if in appreciation.
“Wow, Callas. I’m impressed.”
A voice at the opposite end of the space answered. The tone was calm, measured, and professional: a voice accustomed to command, but one that never needed to belabor that position.
“Why thank you, Nicolas. It is always nice to have one’s work appreciated. I’d suggest you stay outside, however. The consequences of entry would be rather dire to ones such as you or me.”
I wiped my chin with the back of my left hand and straightened, trying to get a coherent vision of the storage unit without my stomach rebelling on me again.
“Danielle!” She was in there, right in the center. Bound to a wooden chair, dark hair falling forward to frame her face. A face that looked slightly different than it had this morning when she went to school, even ignoring the strange lines of green energies that swirled across her skin.
Forcing my innards to behave I tried to focus only on her and what had happened to her. Her features were more slender, more angular. She had been skinnier after being released from the hospital after the car accident that claimed my sister Helena’s life, but this was more pronounced. She still was recognizable, just… altered. Her eyes were closed and she sat there limply in the midst of the reality maelstrom she sat within.
“Oh God, is she dead?” I asked, or more likely shouted, my own voice neither calm nor professional but instead rather panicked.
Nick, who had been examining it all with eyes darting to the corners in growing desperation, refocused on Danielle. He shook his head.
“No, not yet. But something is wrong. Callas! What did you do? What is this?”
The voice at the back tsked. I could barely make out a shadowy figure of a man standing behind the distorted weirdness in his own empty circle at the very back of the room. My sight then swirled into a multi-hued fragmented kaleidescope, as if my mind’s single image of the scene had shredded into infinite holographic shards. Problem was that each shard was like its own musical wind-chime, and my tongue could taste the exact temperatures of the individual notes. My stomach tried to rebel again, and my inner ear started issuing its own complaints. I had to look away, focusing on Nick instead.
“Come now, Nicolas. You should recognize the patterns. I am releasing her inherent divinity. But I will admit that she is resisting more than expected.”
Nick raised a hand and extended it inside the room before crying out in agony. I saw the mark on his hand suddenly burst into blue flame, and a mirrored mark on his other hand did the same. Yanking his hand back out while dropping to his knees, he used his coat to smother the flames on both. The smell of cooked skin assaulted my nose, but considering how messed up my senses were at the moment, the smell just kind of blended in to the overall chaotic tapestry.
The shadow figure spoke again wryly, “I told you it would be bad to enter, Nicolas. We’ve forged ourselves to be channels for such energies in our practices - and there simply is too much in there for either of us to handle.”
Nick, gritting his teeth in pain, looked up at me. “I can’t go in there. Neither can he. You said she was a low level regenerator, right?”
I nodded. “So she’ll live?”
He shook his head again and my hopes sank. “No. It’s keeping her alive but barely. But he fucked up.” Nick shouted angrily at the shadowy figure. “You hear that, Soren? You fucked up!”
“Hmm? How so?”
“Look at the patterns on her skin! Those are not the patterns of Heaven!”
“Impossible. She’d have died by now if she wasn’t…”
“She’s a regenerator, you idiot! And those markings, I’ve seen them before. They’re Fae Marks, you bastard!”
“Why’d you take her? Just because she was a mutant?”
“Of course not. Don’t be stupid. The ley lines around her home, as I’m sure you noticed, are warped. All elements were converging, albeit slowly. A nexus was forming there. Her spirit - her non-human spirit - was calling them. I’m only speeding up a process that was already begun.”
Nick gasped, and then looked around the room again. My vision couldn’t keep up with his - lines of all the colors of the rainbow and beyond were swirling through it now as if in a whirlpool, evoking smells, sounds, and tastes from random childhood memories. Yet, even weirder still, another part of my brain’s perceptions seemed to show it clearly as just a room with odd scribblings covering everything.
“A ley core. You’ve… directly tapped a higher source!”
“Of course. Primal energy at its purest and most potent.”
“It’s Killing Her, You Asshole!” I interrupted. If he hadn’t been directly behind Danielle, I would have shot at him. But a shotgun is not a very precise weapon, nor would I have been accurate enough with a rifle even if I’d had one. As I stared towards my niece, the odd unaffected mental window in my perceptional chaos saw her dark hair begin to shimmer and slowly fade into a soft white: a shade as pure as undisturbed snow.
Nick cursed under his breath, then looked to me, his eyes haunted. “I can’t stop this. I can’t go in there - if I did I’d go up like a matchstick. The channels must be tied to her; the only way to shut it down is to get her out.” He sank further down on his knees.
I grabbed him by his coat lapel, as if trying to left him off the floor with my one hand. “What if I went in there? I’m not a wizard like you.”
He shook his head. “The spell with that kind of energy - it’s built to strip away mortality. The shell of humanity. She’s holding on because her spirit is actually of the Fae and her talent includes self-healing. You wouldn’t ignite like me, but your soul would either get slowly ripped from your body and sent on its way… or be utterly obliviated.”
“Slowly. You said ‘slowly’. How long?”
“How much time before I’d die? Figure it out!”
Nick stared blankly at me. It was Soren who answered in a calm and clear voice.
“Approximately fifteen seconds. Perhaps slightly longer. My former apprentice is indeed correct in his assessment. Her pattern is not properly in tune with the channel. And neither of us would likely last more than a second if we crossed the boundary. To both Nicolas and myself the channel would prove instantly hostile.”
I swallowed and looked back towards Danielle. Her hair had grown longer still, while her skin had gone more pale and luminescent.
Nick grabbed at my arm, ignoring the pain of squishing the blisters forming on his palm. “You can’t go in there. Her soul will survive and go on - yours most likely won’t.”
I closed my eyes as my mind flashed to my sister Helena’s funeral. Danielle’s hand had held tightly to mine during the entire service. Her father had abandoned her and her mother when they discovered Danielle was a mutant back when she was only five. The prejudicial asshole had fled, after calling my niece a monster. Standing over my sister’s grave I had silently promised her spirit that I would take care of her daughter, as if she were my very own.
I wasn’t going to go back on my word.
The shotgun clattered as I let it drop to the floor. “Let go of me, Nick. Or I’ll drag your ass in there with me.”
His grip fell away. “Justin, the chair isn’t bolted down. Just get the whole thing out with her in it.”
I inhaled deeply, and nodded.
Then I charged into the maelstrom of shifting crazy perceptions, all while shouting an incoherent scream. In my heart I sent a prayer for her survival to the gods I had stopped believing in a long time ago.
I expected a lot of pain - and it didn’t disappoint. Every nerve fiber in my body instantly lit up like a Christmas tree being connected to the raw output of a nuclear power station. It was as if my entire body was busily being ironed by the fresh magma from an exuberantly active volcano. Yet at the same time it also felt like I had been plunged deeply within liquid nitrogen formed into a lake on the coldest part of Pluto. My willpower to move tried to collapse against the brunt of that sudden excruciating, conflicting, incomprehensible agony.
But at the same time I also somehow heard and felt the distant sound and sensation of singing. The sounds and passions of the most glorious song I had ever beheld - as if a million perfectly harmonic voices were echoing the symphonic wonder and glory of the last movement of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, of Handel’s Messiah Chorus, Mozart’s Requiem, and John Williams’ Throne Room and Finale from Star Wars simultaneously. No description I could give would do the experience of that music justice - it was beautiful beyond all rational comprehension.
That singing swirled into me, spurring me onward, even as the totality of sanity-destroying pain spread from under my skin into my muscles and into the very marrow of my teeth and bones.
I flailed and pushed through the room as if it were tangible and made of jello, ignoring how my skin was apparently now lighting up from the inside like a brilliant white neon sign. My senses screaming incoherently, I grabbed Danielle in a bear hug and lifted. Somehow I managed to turn and stumble back towards Nick. He was staring at me with an expression of shock, horror, and something else I couldn’t quite identify. Maybe awe. Or maybe he was just astounded at my stupidity.
All the while that glorious singing echoed throughout my soul, keeping my will and focus clear through each painful step even though it felt like my foot would collapse into powder with each roaring impact against the sigil-marked floor.
Reaching near the edge of the unit I could feel my consciousness eagerly trying to fade out. My vision, as discombobulated as it was, shrank sharply inward. Right before the darkness reached the center of my sight, I heaved with whatever I had left to toss Danielle and her chair those final few feet before me. As I started to fall forward the last thing I saw was her bare toes clearing the dividing line between madness and the hallway beyond.
A final triumphant resultant note of the Song resonated within me as I hit the floor. From behind I thought I heard Soren say something.
Sounded awfully like “Amen”.
That’s when sweet nothingness enveloped me and pulled me irresistibly under.
I was okay with that.
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I woke in a hospital bed.
My eyes were closed, but I didn’t need to see to know where I was. The quiet whoosh of the oxygen tube leading to the plastic prongs stuck in my nostrils mixed with the low-level hum of a heart monitor. The scent of the antiseptic used to clean the floors had already permeated into my sinuses despite the O2 line. In a room nearby I could hear the bleating of an IV pump’s alarm trying to get the attention of someone to refill whatever it had been dispensing. Voices echoed from a hallway outside, too far or hushed to make out actual conversation, but the tone of an urgent yet restrained message was clear.
I recognized the sounds and ambiance all too well; I spent too much time in the damn hospital watching Caroline slip away from me piece by piece. The Oxygen sensor clamped to an index finger was also a bit of a giveaway.
But something else was also just, well, wrong. I honestly felt too good.
Yes, I felt tired, but it was a good tired. I mean, I may not have been ancient or over the hill at forty-three, but I had aches which had become the constant and accepted background day-to-day noise of life. A slight soreness to my lower right back, an ache in my wrists from abusing too many computer keyboards, tension along my jaw leading to my temples from the year-to-year stresses buildup, not to mention the standard chest tightness of slight asthma that went hand-in-hand with collecting sinuses infections like internet trolls garnered down-votes on social media.
All of these were just gone. For a moment I wondered if I had actually died, but the squeak of a nurse’s sneakers as she came into my room was simply too mundane a sound. I just didn’t think angels, or demons for that matter, would wear shoes that squeaked as a mechanism to announce their presence.
I opened my eyes to look sideways at the nurse. She startled as our eyes met and blurted, “Oh! You’re awake! Let me… let me get the doctor.”
She hurriedly and rather frantically fled the room before I even had the chance to say ‘hello’.
I frowned; she was rather obviously scared by something. Not a good sign when you wake up in a hospital, and I felt panic start to rise. What if my lack of the usual pains was due to being totally paralyzed? Uh oh, not a happy thought.
My heart monitor began to beep more rapidly as I internally tried to take stock.
The bed. I could feel the bed below me, and the blanket that had me covered. Tentatively I wiggled my feet, and sure enough they moved and I could feel the thinness of the blanket tug towards the toes.
So far so good.
Carefully I turned my head first to the left, and then to the right. No neck brace was in place to prevent movement, though I could feel my hair pull a bit with each direction. Obviously someone had undone my ponytail. No pain from doing that either, also good.
I was about to try and extend a hand upwards when a man clad in a white doctor’s coat walked in, closing the door behind him. He was a shorter man, stout but not plump, with a short trimmed salt-and-pepper goatee and some rather frenetically bushy eyebrows that poked up above the thick rims of his glasses.
“Ah, yes. Please don’t move much yet. Mister Thorne, isn’t it?” He had a slight eastern European accent, but it wasn’t overly thick.
I glared at him, which seemed to cause him a moment’s discomfort for he looked away and studiously examined the screen on his tablet. Finally I answered, “Yes. It is.”
My general irritation with all doctors was interrupted by the realization that my voice sounded wrong, way wrong. It sounded not only young, but softly feminine. My usual voice wasn’t the deepest of manly voices, but it did alright in that department. This wasn’t it at all. It was the voice of a pre-adult girl.
Oh shit. Teenage girl… memories of recent events returned in a flash. Danielle!
“My niece!” I blurted, bolting fully upright in the bed, surprising the doctor who’s hands fumbled mightily with his device. “Is she alive?”
As the tablet fell to the floor with a clatter and bounced, it dawned on me that I had felt something else fall from my sudden movement upwards.
My chest. And the off-white blanket which had kept me covered.
Looking down, my mind blanked in shock and disbelief. Two rather perfectly perky, round, and decently generous breasts dangled free above the bed. The pale pink nipples immediately pulled themselves tighter in their circles from the sudden exposure to the rather cooler air of the room.
My mouth spoke to cover my brain’s lost coherency: “Boobs.”
The startled doctor turned beet red, gaped at me with wide eyes, and then quickly spun around to face a wall. “Uhm, yes. Mister Thorne. A, uh, a nurse should have dressed you in a gown, apologies. As you can see, there is much to discuss."
My hands instinctively and of their own accord reached up to cup the new pectoral attachments as if to confirm their reality. They were indeed real. They were also fairly bouncy.
He kept talking, albeit towards the far wall. “To answer your question, your niece, Danielle, is recovering on a different floor. She woke once, reported that she was not in any pain, confirmed her identity, gave a brief description of her kidnapping, and then fell right back asleep. Other than being thoroughly exhausted and drained, she appears to be unharmed. We have been monitoring her vitals, as we’ve been monitoring yours.”
Looking down at the new mounds of femininity in my hands caused my mind to jump to disturbing new tracks. “Did that bastard do anything to her? You know… untoward things…?” I felt anger start to rise at the thought of her having been defenseless and at Soren’s despicable mercy. What if he had forced himself on her? I started to feel sick at the image.
“Fortunately, no,” he answered. “She has said that she lost consciousness after being, and I quote, ‘yoinked right out and up over all the houses’. In addition, her body shows no sign of any such physical trauma.” His face flushed, and he coughed. “Her virtue, so to speak, was determined to still be intact - something which most regenerators don’t replace after experiencing their initial coitus.”
Relief flooded through me, and I forced myself to focus. Priorities. I pulled the blanket back up to wrap it more around me, holding it in place with arms crossed under my new and still rather shocking anatomical acquisitions.
“Sorry, doctor. You can turn around now.”
He risked a glance over his shoulder to double check that I was indeed covered, then coughed again before picking up his tablet. He fuddled with it and its screen finally came back on. The reappearance of medical facts and lab results on his display seemed to reassure him and he straighted up with recovered doctoral poise.
“Right then. I am Doctor Kirov, and I have been put in charge of your case. Ordinarily in such a situation I’d also include a psychologist to talk to you first after discussing the relevant medical scenarios and, well, be more gentle about such… personal revelations. But the MCO are downstairs, and someone from the DPA has already left messages for you and your niece. Thus I’m afraid our first visit must due to necessity be brief.”
The MCO, the Mutant Commission Office, was not the best of news. Internationally tasks with overseeing mutants worldwide, their reputation for attitudes towards new mutants was, shall we say, less than stellar. Including some very nasty rumors and reports.
As for the DPA…
“Was the message from the DPA from an Agent Mark Boone?”
He blinked. “Yes, yes it is. He instructs you and Danielle to, and I quote, ‘sit tight’ and that he is on his way with an ‘E.T.A. of five hours’. The hospital was given this notice three hours ago.”
I thought fast. “Okay, good. Regardless of what has happened to me, I am still Danielle’s legal guardian. The MCO is not to interrogate or even talk to her without me present.”
“I can note that, but with what else happened in the city last night, the MCO agents are rather anxious. The gentleman who came along with the ambulances you both arrived in, after being bandaged for some rather nasty burns on his hands, has since departed against doctor’s advice. We only have his word for it that you are, or were, a ‘Mister Justin Thorne’ and thus related to Danielle. His story was, as you can imagine now, rather unique. And currently a State of Emergency has been declared in Los Angeles.”
“Are there FBI agents also waiting?”
“Yes ma’am.” He paused, then added lamely, “…sir.”
“Good. Alright doctor, I’ll talk to the MCO as long as some FBI guys are in here too. But first, doc?”
“What happened to me? Am I really all female now?” My new voice, melodic as it was, was strained.
“Our tests indicate that yes, as you were reportedly fully male yesterday, you must have indeed experienced a dramatic and complete transformation entirely to the opposite gender.”
“How the hell did that happen? Am I a mutant? I thought such things could take time, or did it happen while I was out? What time is it?”
“You’ve been here in the hospital for just over sixteen hours, it’s now five in the afternoon. And no, you arrived as you find yourself now.”
I’d heard about mutants undergoing dangerous effects after their mutations first triggered, including transformations into all kinds of things. Also that some will run such an extreme fever that they cook their own brains and die. The media, with the medical establishment following the crowd, call it ‘burnout’, and it had claimed the lives of countless new mutants.
“Any signs of burnout?”
Thank God. He continued, “Your blood-work, respiratory, and heartbeat patterns have all been normal. Extremely normal, which in itself is intriguing. However, being a fully equipped hospital we do have some new scanners that can detect magical residue - and quite frankly, on this alone you are pinging off the chart.”
“So am I under an effect of a spell? Is this going to wear off?” Hope springs eternal…
He shook his head in the negative. Hope floundered mid-leap and fell flat on its face.
“I’m sorry, Mister Thorne. Our resident practitioners have examined you as thoroughly as possible, and while it’s clear you have been exposed to a major, if not cataclysmic, level of magical energies - they could detect no spell or even any lingering spell effect which could have caused your sudden change. They are all rather baffled, as am I - for the blood testing also is not detecting any signs of mutation. In fact, it shows no sign of anything one would expect to see as residue from your previous form, like lingering testosterone levels, or free-floating unused stem-cells from the transformation…”
Doctor Kirov was pacing besides my bed while he got going with his medical analysis. His gestures with his tablet grew wider and more exuberant in his rising excitement of scientific fascination. “If you do indeed have a variant of BIT - a Body Image Template, you do know what that is, yes? Good - if it has not manifested due to a mutation, but perhaps instead from whatever exposed you to such epic levels of magic, then this is quite remarkably unheard of and new to us. In fact, we really should consider running a deeper scan and there are quite a few more tests we’d like to run, and our medical wizarding staff will need to also interview you in detail. Perhaps bone marrow extraction, or even brain tissue sampling would be useful…”
A nurse swung open the door, abruptly interrupting him. “Doctor? The MCO is threatening to search this floor room by room for ‘their witness’, if they aren’t given access soon. I don’t think we can stall them any longer.”
The doctor stopped and actually cursed, possibly in Russian, under his breath. “Alright, alright.” He finally looked back over at me, but this time I felt not like a patient but rather a lab specimen with secrets waiting for him to peel out of my skin. “We’ll have to continue our discussion later, Miss Thorne. You may want to don a gown before they get here.”
He nodded quickly in my general direction and walked out, not even waiting for me to respond.
Wait a second, did he just call me ‘Miss’? Yes, yes he did. I looked down at the backs of my new slender and much more gentle-looking female hands and gulped. The initial shock was starting to wear off, but a deeper inner emotional storm was just starting to gather.
And now I had to go deal with the MCO - a group known for first assuming any mutant or meta was a horrible and dangerous threat to the world before any examination of real facts, and worse sometimes they would act on those assumptions in unpleasant and occasionally violent ways. Or so I had read on various mutant forums when trying to research things to help my niece. A lot of the stories were truly terrifying.
I wished I had just stayed asleep.
The authorities were apparently not giving the doctors any leeway. According to the nurse that kindly had interrupted Kirov’s impression of Doctor Moreau, I only had a few minutes to get into a hospital gown before the agents would arrive at my room. I deliberately didn’t go into the bathroom and risk looking into a mirror, as honestly I didn’t think I was ready to see the full deal. I was still in ‘crisis management’ mode and trying desperately to stay in some semblance of focus.
The nurse helped me get dressed, and mentioned that the governor had declared a State of Emergency in the middle of the night. Her name was Irene, and she actually was rather gentle. She also commented apologetically that some of the staff had a fear of ‘emergent mutants’, due to other cases which historically had not gone so well. For the patients or the staff. That probably explained my total lack of a gown when I awoke, which honestly was more reassuring than the thought of some pervy orderly taking explicit photos of my unconscious body - one I hadn’t even seen for myself yet. She even whispered ‘good luck’ in my ear before escaping past the four agents who marched into my room.
They didn’t even try to play it friendly, and just immediately demanded information on who I was, what had happened, and was I now or ever had been a member of the Communist Party of America. Okay, the last bit wasn’t true, but the actual discussion really wasn’t that far off. So I proceeded with a detailed recounting of events starting with my arrival to my house. The FBI guys at least corroborated the details of my 911 call - even noting that I was relaying that phone conversation practically verbatim. The two agents from the MCO though were fixated on details about Nick, as if he was the real criminal of the evening. Then again, maybe he was one somehow. They were heavily implying that they had bad history with the guy, but he did find Danielle and he did get us to the hospital after. So I gave him mental points for that. The FBI agents focused on Soren, especially after I remembered Nick implying all the disasters across the city could have been coordinated by him. They grilled me on what disasters I knew of, so I tried to recall all the ones mentioned on the radio. I got a suspicion that there were a few more incidents that had not been reported on, which if I had mentioned would probably have implicated me as being involved. Ignorance was indeed bliss, in this case.
My attempts to find out what happened after I had lost consciousness didn’t go too far. One of the FBI guys admitted that they only had notes of Nick reporting that after the spell stopped, Soren must have magically transported himself elsewhere. That was rather unsatisfying - part of me had hoped Nick and Soren had then commenced with some kind of epic magic duel, culminating with Nick cleaning the bastard’s clock. Damn. Though considering how much Nick had been trying to pretend to not be utterly intimidated by the guy, that’s probably not how it would have gone down.
The female of the two MCO agents kept refusing to believe I was who I said I was, claiming that I was involved somehow with Soren all the while demanding I reveal the location of the ‘real’ Justin Thorne. While her partner was a tall and likely ex-football player, she was a short and slender woman in her early thirties - and for whatever reason had obviously taken an instant dislike to me. Or perhaps that attitude was towards all mutants or just guys who woke up as girls. Maybe both. Her partner actually seemed embarrassed by her attitude as the interview went on, but never said anything to reign her in.
Finally she even implied I was nothing but Soren’s cheap and underage floozy.
That did it. My temper flared, and I was on the edge of opening my mouth and truly shouting at her. I prepared to describe in gory detail that if she thought I was a floozy then it was clear it was only because her own career had been singularly advanced by such tactics, and therefore she saw it everywhere she looked whether it actually was there or not.
As I was just about to cut her off and deliver this counter-rant, one of the FBI guys said quiet, “her eyes are glowing”. All four of them then took a large cautious step back away from me. The female MCO actually started to pull her gun from its holster under her arm.
Before the situation could go all movie western on us, the door popped opened which started all of us. When I saw who was standing there, though, my own tension fell away with relief.
“Mark! Thank God.”
Department of Paranormal Affairs Agent Mark Boone, looking more rumpled in his suit than usual yet still quite tall and imposing, strode into my room. His hair was cut military short, but I could see some grey moving in on his temples. But who was I to give him grief for that? I had… damn, I used to have my own.
Ignoring the other agents, he stared straight only at me. “Justin? Is that really you?” His eyes had narrowed suspiciously, but honestly I can’t blame him for that. Or at least I couldn’t once I later had finally gotten a chance to spend some time with a mirror.
“Dammit, not you too. Fine, just ask me something only I would know. You at least can corroborate it.”
Mark blinked, finally noticing the other agents in the room. “This investigation has been turned over to the DPA. We will share our findings with your offices. But I will need to question this witness alone, potentially on matters of confidential national security.”
On the one hand I really enjoyed the looks on the MCO agents’ faces, but on the other he seemed awfully serious with his statement. He wasn’t making an excuse to get them to leave. That was scary.
They all shuffled reluctantly out, the woman MCO agent (one ‘Maria Fairbanks’, a name I filed away for later) looking truly pissed and she glared daggers at me as she exited. Good riddance.
When the door closed I sat there while Mark just kept looking me over, in disbelief.
“Oh for… just ask me something already!”
He grimaced. “Sorry. This is rather shocking. Let’s start with you telling me how you knew who I am.”
“Because you’re Caroline’s brother, and if you hadn’t witnessed the prejudice Danielle faced from her own father ten years ago, you probably would currently be in the FBI and not the DPA.”
He acknowledged the statement. “That’s true enough. But I need something that only Justin would know.”
I frowned, leaned back, and tried to think. “I’d try to say something hinting about how only I know what you did at my bachelor’s party, but lets be honest - we all went out to a movie and then went to a bar before taking separate cabs home. Nothing secret there, only just showing how boring and straight-laced we and our friends are.”
A slight smile tried to poke at one side of his serious expression.
“And how about this?” I grinned. “Eight years ago, as a newly minted DPA agent, you once showed up to my office with your shiny new DPA laptop freaking out. You’d accidentally clicked on some spam in your personal email which promptly corrupted your browser with malware, including making the machine part of a pedophile porn serving bot-net. And you were desperate for me to clean it all off so you wouldn’t be embarrassed in front of your agency’s IT department. It took me four solid days to force a reset that wasn’t still corrupted.”
He had the grace to still look embarrassed about that, but didn’t say anything.
“I also know about how the cop in Nevada, once he realized you were in the DPA, wanted to let you off the hook for speeding when the three of us were coming back from Vegas - and how you insisted he give you the ticket anyway, because your conscience is so stuck as a paladin it’s ridiculous.”
He nodded. “That’s a good one. Though that cop probably told the story to others to get laughs.”
I dropped my grin and looked at him in all seriousness. “Then finally, how about the fact that I loved your sister with all my heart and would do anything to have her back here to hold in my arms again, even if I had to look like this for the rest of my days? Because there’s not a day that goes by that I don’t wish…”
My sentence died away on my lips, because tears were already falling down my cheek. I thought I had healed or at least scabbed over the wound of her loss, but my emotions were as raw there in that hospital room as they had been in another such room three years ago.
I buried my face in my hands, finding myself crying silently. Poor Mark didn’t quite know what to do - I was seriously breaking our ‘guy code’ established all this time where we had each mourned Caroline in our own ways… and alone.
“Ah hell. Justin, I’m sorry man…”
“Fuck.” I sniffed, trying to pull myself together. “No, I’m the one who’s sorry, Mark. You’ll have to forgive me, but I’m just not myself today…”
He had moved closer to the bed, as if struggling with whether he should try to offer me (me!) a hug or something. But my line caught him off guard and he couldn’t help but go, “Ha!”
That got me to laugh, and then we were then laughing together. Although I was still sniffling through them until he finally got me some kleenex.
“Alright, alright. I accept you’re Justin. Though maybe ‘Justine’ would be better now, eh?”
I groaned and blew my nose one more time. “Dude, too soon.”
“Yeah, maybe. But I think you’ll have to get used to it. Give me the run down, bro… err, sis? Damn.”
Shaking my head, I gave him yet another full recount of my previous evening, trying not to leave out any details. I even remembered details I hadn’t even consciously noticed at the time which was a bit odd. At the end, I asked him, “So who is Nick Wright, anyway? He one of yours?”
“He’s a consultant. I wish I could tell you more, but I don’t know all the details. A lot is classified.”
“He mentioned he had been Soren’s student. The elephant in the room we keep not touching is why that storage unit spell that Soren was doing to Danielle did, well, this to me.” I gestured at my current state. “And why it didn’t kill me, or as Nick put it, ‘obliviate’ my soul.”
“You’re most likely going to end up as a bit of a lab rat at the DPA while our own experts try to figure all that out. Honestly, Justin, you might just be a mutant who manifested as a result of what Soren was doing in that room. The quick briefing I got on the way in says the results of your tests all show normal, but that there were also anomalies in the data that the hospital equipment couldn’t explain. All your samples and results are currently being confiscated and moved to our labs in any case.”
“Procedure. Like I said, classified.”
“Great. Just great. Think this can be, you know, undone? Fixed? The doctor seemed more interested in examination than cure.”
He winced. “From what I’ve read about such transformations, if it’s something that wasn’t imposed from the outside then recovery isn’t usually likely.”
I sighed and sat quietly for a moment, trying to let that sink in.
He broke the silence. “I was told Danielle woke up already and then drifted off again. Have you seen her yet?”
“No. I haven’t had the chance yet.” Part of me wanted to rush through the hospital to wherever her room was, but my imagination realized that might not go so well and I grimaced. “They may not have told her about what happened to me yet, in fact they probably didn’t. Charging in there looking like an utterly deranged psych-ward escapee to wrap her in my arms may not be such a good idea. Especially not a crazy girl her own age that is trying to claim to be her uncle that’s been magically visited by the gender-swapping fairy godmother.”
Mark winced in sympathy. “You think she’ll take it badly?”
I shook my head. “I don’t know. She has to deal with her own changes too.”
“Oh? Like what?”
“Your briefing must have sucked. By the time I tossed her out of that damn storage unit, her hair had gone snow-white, grown from her shoulders to her butt, and her face looked less, well, human. I wouldn’t be surprised if she’s got a pair of vulcan-like ears now.”
“Think she’s a Sidhe?” He frowned.
“No idea. The doctors haven’t told me a damn thing yet, what with being shoved aside by anxious government types.” I gave him a look. “I bet they’d know if she now has the sensitivities I’ve heard about. She didn’t before, as you well know - but that spell had an effect on her. A large one. She’s going to be very scared.”
“You seem to be handling things alright, all things considered.”
“Me?” I shook my head. “I haven’t even had time to properly freak out yet. Or even see what I look like.” A thought occurred to me. “Wait a minute, how come you were only five hours away? I thought you were in London as a liaison for something?”
“Got reassigned, and was on my way back when I got the call about Los Angeles.” I could tell there was more he wasn’t saying, but I wasn’t going to push - at least not for now.
“Hey I have an idea,” he said quickly. “How ‘bout I go see her first? You know, try and ease her into all of what’s happened? Think that’ll help?”
“That… that’s a fantastic idea.” I smiled warmly up at him, feeling some relief from at least some of my inner tension. “That’d mean a lot to me, Mark. I’m really glad you’re here.” I actually was quite happy he had made it, in fact both Danielle and I were quite lucky that he had. And not just because of him being a potential buffer against the MCO and other agencies, but because he really was a solid stand-up kind of guy. Caroline would often tease him about it, but right now I was really thankful.
Instead of smiling back at me though, he instead suddenly looked flustered and stood up rather sharply. “I uh, I’ll just go check on her then. I’ll be back later to let you know how it goes.”
And with that, he actually rapidly walked right on out! What the hell was up with all the people retreating so quickly from my room? First the nurse, then the doctor, and now Mark. Did I really need to shower that badly? Sheesh!
I sat there on my bed for a good ten minutes wondering if I should actually be offended, before realizing I was just mentally postponing the inevitable. I needed to march to the restroom and face my new self properly, along with all the new plumbing it apparently had acquired. Forcing myself, I got up and went in, closing the bathroom door behind me. I muttered a curse that there wasn’t a lock on it. I really didn’t want to be interrupted for this.
Deciding that the best way to do it would be to just go for the full reveal, I pulled the string on the back of my flimsy paper-like gown, and let it fall to the floor. I finally then turned to the mirror.
I don’t know what I expected, but, well, this wasn’t it. But no, my jaw didn’t drop to the floor - even if it had fallen off, my new cleavage likely would have caught it.
Yes, I was, in a word, built. Or stacked. Or hawt. Or… well, you get the idea. Also young, like in the fourteen to sixteen years of age range young, but a young woman who had an early growth spurt of both height and, well, other dimensions. Curvy ones.
I’ll try to start with my face. Prominent cheekbones oversaw a triangular jaw while framing a slender elegant nose. But unlike the pictures of some fae women, my features weren’t overly angular - instead they were soft in all the right places. My hair was a deep crimson falling to the middle of my back, about as long as my old hair had ever gotten. Its red also had metallic-like golden highlights swimming through it. I reached up to touch a few strands, expecting a more wiry texture, but instead was surprised at how light and silken it felt as they lay in my hand.
I tossed my head to the side just to watch my hair flow and bounce with a rather supernatural grace. Said motion also caused other prominent assets on my chest to jiggle as well.
Whoa. That felt weird.
My figure wasn’t an exaggerated hourglass, rather I was more slender yet still curved quite nicely. I figured I was about as tall as I had been so somewhere around five-foot-ten, and the legs definitely stretched down lengthwise to provide that height. My chest’s additions could be described as a ‘nice handful’ with some extra to spare. The whole body was well conditioned; movement revealed taut muscle under the softer skin. My stomach was smooth and yet toned at the same time depending on if I tightened it or not.
As for my nether regions, I’ll just say that they contained a perfectly good example of female anatomy, along with a small patch of reddish-gold hair. I saw that other than that patch below, my arms and legs only had a very light layer of pale hair which wouldn’t even be noticeable unless one looked rather closely.
Yet what struck me the most, causing me to lean in closer to the mirror for closer examination, were my eyes.
Gone was my old hazel tint in their entirety. Instead my irises were rings of shining gold, with flecks and patterns of silver scattered throughout. They were quite striking.
Not to mention utterly not standard human.
I think that’s what caught me. I had seen my niece have to deal with the pain of people’s prejudices - classmates teasing her, teachers treating her badly, and of course her own father abandoning her. She actually hadn’t had any obvious marks on her, only the ability to heal rather quickly. It didn’t matter though, she had that damnable MID card and all the stigma that went with it.
Now, undoubtedly, I’d need to get one too - and deal with all those consequences myself.
Like losing my job.
I worked on software that affected medical databases country-wide. Several states had passed laws forbidding mutants (or metas) from having access to such databases. This was in response to some villains having misused such systems in rather unpleasant and deadly ways. Even if California hadn’t gone that route with its own laws, my contract had a strict ‘no mutant/meta’ clause. I had needed to jump through ridiculous bureaucratic hoops to keep my position just having Danielle move in with me.
It wasn’t fair. It wasn’t right. But my job was toast. Automatically and with no possible appeal.
I felt my anger build as my thoughts spun back to the previous night. Fixating on Soren and whatever nefarious plan he had, his fuckup in kidnapping my niece, her brush with death, MY brush with death, and now this: unemployment for me, and Danielle now also having to suffer more torment in school and life due to her sudden acquisition of an even more obvious mutant manifestation.
Frustration and rebellion rose mightily within me, gaining strength as all my other inner pains fueled its powerful tempest, until it finally flashed on the cursed cancer that took Caroline from the world. From all her dreams. From me.
My hands became fists and I noticed my golden wedding band was missing. My memory conjured an image of the metal of my ring wrapped around a finger of white light while the gold evaporated upwards into the maelstrom of Soren’s spell, lost forever.
Emitting a mindless shout of fury and loss I punched into the mirror - putting a hole not just into my perversion of a reflection but through the wall beyond. On impact I felt the rage drain into overwhelming sorrow as I collapsed to the floor sobbing with uncontrollable tears.
Irene found me still on the bathroom floor crying, and led me gently back to my bed after carefully getting me back into the gown.
My room was dark as she must have turned the lights off, and I lay there for a bit without sleeping or even thinking. My mind had retreated leaving behind a quiet wasteland of emptiness.
I did finally wonder if someone in another room or another floor was playing music. I could just make out the impression of a distant melody. Wherever it was, it was actually rather soothing and I slowly let it carry me away.
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Some trends just kept right on happening. Although I supposed I too would have been nervous around a new mutant or meta who puts holes in walls when upset. Crap.
The tray he left behind didn’t smell all that great, but it did give off an aroma that was at least similar to food. Removal of its lid revealed some kind of overcooked beef smothered in brown sauce over instant goopy potatoes, a few cooked carrots, and oh joy - green jello. Party on a plate.
Appetizing or not, I realized I was starving and ate it anyway. Yes, even the jello.
After I was done, a new male night nurse came in and told me that they needed me to move to a new room. So, you know, they could repair the damage I had inflicted on the bathroom wall and clean up the shards of glass. I wondered if my health insurance would cover ‘traumatic outbursts’. Probably not.
I didn’t protest having to move, though I did wrap myself in the blanket before going down the hall with him. The damn hospital gown was far too revealing by itself, especially in the backside. So until someone brought me some real clothes, me and that blanket were going to be great friends. He ushered me down the hall somewhat quickly, which suited me fine. I did notice that a couple of the overhead fluorescents were burned out with a few more being rather flickery, which resulted in the hallway being a bit dimmer than usual for a hospital ward.
That suited me fine too - I really wasn’t ready to be gawked at by too many people.
Mark arrived again right after I got resettled and was about to turn on the tv. He said he still needed to talk to my doctor in more detail and that he had a lot of paperwork to deal with, so he didn’t stay long. He didn’t mention my attempt to escape into the hallway without using the door, so I decided not to either. I might have been the source of the extra paperwork. Oops.
In the meantime, however, he had managed to see Danielle and fill her in on what happened: her kidnapping, Soren’s magic, and her uncle trying to foolishly play hero and as a result becoming her aunt instead - one who now would most likely get carded trying to see an ‘R’-rated movie.
The conversation apparently hadn’t gone all that well, which is what I had been afraid of. She had fallen into tears (seems to be yet another trend today), and then refused to talk to him any further. She told him to ‘just go away’. The hospital was going to send in a counselor to try and help.
They also were going to get one to talk to me after Mark and I were done. Likely prompted by my old room’s new bathroom-to-hallway ventilation feature. Not to mention the small bandages on my hand gained thanks to the cuts the mirror kindly donated in its last will and testament to its destroyer. Mark said they wanted me to talk to a counselor before trying to see Danielle. I think he was afraid I would be stubborn on principle, but after my outburst I wasn’t too confident that I was managing things well either. So I nodded in acceptance, and in so doing I think judging by his expression I caused Mark to worry about me even more. I just couldn’t win. He did bring me a pair of sweatpants and matching DPA sweatshirt to change into, thank God. I could have given him a hug for that, but when I had the thought to do so he got really awkward and muttered about needing to get to those reports.
At least he let me say ‘see ya later!’ before he left this time. Small victories, I needed them! I wasted no time in getting into the sweats and fluffy sweatshirt.
The counselor came in a few minutes later, shut the door, and sat in the chair by my bed. I tried to be good, and I didn’t say anything snarky to her. I just sat up on the bed while hugging my knees into my chest. Which didn’t totally feel weird and remind me of changed things, nope, not at all.
She sat quietly and just watched me for a few minutes. Her hair was a dark brown and pulled into a functional ponytail, and she was wearing lightweight transparent-framed glasses that perched on her nose. A simple white blouse tucked into a beige skirt was also the highlight of her wardrobe choices. No wedding band on her finger, and something in how she had moved over to sit down made me think she’d had some kind of training: either ballet or a martial arts.
Her manner and steady gaze was actually intimidating and was starting to creep me out. I felt like I was a specimen she was studying and assessing. And then I realized that, yep, I probably was. Great.
I had to break the uncomfortable silence. “So uhh, isn’t this where you ask me how I’m doing?” I wanted it to seem more jovial, but it came out sounding awfully nervous.
She smiled when she replied which I wasn’t expecting. It was actually a pretty smile, reaching up to touch her eyes. “I think we both know the answer to that. As does maintenance.”
I winced. “Right.”
“I’ve seen worse reactions though.”
She nodded. “Mmmhmm. One little bathroom wall is nothing really. Guy I met once found himself manifesting as a seven-foot tall stone golem when his abilities activated. He somehow woke up - like you, in a hospital - and decided he was stuck in the middle of a nightmare.” She paused.
“So what did he do?” I prompted.
“He left, hoping it would wake him up. By plowing through the wall of his room, through the nurse’s station across the hallway, through another room on the other side, and right through the building’s outer wall - falling six stories as a result.”
“Holy heck. He survive?”
“He was made of stone,” she said flatly. “He hit the ground and kept running right on out of the impact crater. A team followed the debris trail for five miles before they caught up to him. Exemplar four, if I recall correctly.”
“Dang. Okay, I’ll admit, you’ve got me there. One wall really doesn’t seem so bad in comparison.”
“He also had formerly been a six year old girl named Kelly.” She watched my face closely as she said that.
I sighed, and rested my cheek on the top of a covered knee. “Ouch.”
“Speaking of names, mine is Natalie. Natalie Usher.”
“Hi. I am, or was, Justin Thorne. But you know that already.”
“Mmm, yes.” She nodded, smiling at me again. “I must say, considering other transformation cases I’ve seen, you really didn’t turn out that badly. If I wasn’t doing my best professional impression, I’d be jealous. You’re gorgeous. And you have a chance for a fresh start.”
I frowned slightly, even as I felt my face flush. “You’re laying the ‘it could be worse’ shpiel on a bit thick, don’t you think?”
“From what I’ve heard about you from Agent Boone and others, you’re an engineer - one who prizes facts above bullcrap, right? So I thought I’d start there, because honestly it really could have been worse. A lot worse. You could be dead. And from most reports, you not just could be dead but by all rights should be.”
“Dying is easy,” I growled - or rather tried to growl, my new voice just sounded sulky and maybe petulant. Dammit.
“Tell me, Justin - how are your emotions doing? But try not to just react to the question. Think it over first.”
I had been about to give a rude reply along the lines of ‘how do you think, lady?’, but my brain kicked in at the last second.
In truth, how was I really doing? I looked up at her, her ice-blue eyes examining me from behind her glasses - cool, calm, and rational.
I thought through the evening so far, and how I’d been feeling since I woke up facing having to use restrooms designed for the other half of the species for probably the rest of my life.
“Honest assessment? I think I’m a mess.”
Closing my eyes, I replayed the scenes.
“I let myself start to get overly frustrated with the agents - especially the one who was trying to provoke such reactions so she could justify her own prejudices. If Mark hadn’t arrived in time, I might have really said - or done - something truly stupid. That’s not like me.”
“Okay, go on.”
“Old griefs feel fresh and raw, and there’s a low-level of panic hiding under the surface. Also buried in there is rage. A lot of it.”
She spoke carefully yet softly. “Your body appears to have regenerated to a state of youth, this may be having an impact on your brain’s thinking process. Mix that with the dramatically new hormones it now has to contend with, and I’d have to assess that such things are not just likely but to be absolutely expected. Mind you that the hormone effect works both ways - male to female effects, and female to male effects. They’re just different and every gender-shifter has to deal with that - and you’ve been plunged into the deep end overnight.”
I pondered, then shook my head. “Yeah, I get that - but the emotional extremes so far seem a bit, well… more extreme. Hard to quantify, though, on only a few hours worth of experience.”
“Emotions generally are difficult to measure. But I need you to remember this and if possible, exert more control over them. In your case this may be especially necessary.”
“Uh, how so?”
“Because, Justin, we still have no idea what you are capable of. And neither do you.”
“Putting a hole in one wall isn’t all that special.”
“True. But blowing out a good number of the lights in the hallway, along with frying the computers at the nurses’ station is something that I would classify as a ‘cause for concern’, wouldn’t you?”
Oh shit. The lights in the hall and my old room being out, that was me? “Jesus, they sent you in here to see if I’m dangerous, didn’t they? You’re not really with the hospital.” I tried to see if I could spot a gun on her, but if she had one, it was well hidden.
“No, I’m not with the hospital. I’m a psychotherapist with the DPA, specializing in mutant or super-human cases. Including dramatic transformations.”
“What about Danielle? Mark said she’s having maybe even worse issues than I am.”
“I’d like you to try, if you can, to not worry about Danielle right at this moment,” she said gently. “I will be visiting with her next, though obviously with a very different approach. Our first priority is to make sure both you and her are up to being moved to our own facilities, where we can do our best to assist you both.”
“That sounds expensive,” I muttered. Of course, for Danielle, I’d pay anything needed. But still, without my job all the bills that we had to be racking up were going to destroy my savings. I could feel an emptiness of despair opening up in the bottom of my stomach, and I winced as my eyes began to fill with tears yet again.
“The government is providing, Mister Thorne,” she said abruptly. The emphasis on ‘Mister’, a title that was now utterly lost to me, was rude - causing me a flash of annoyance. But then while caught between the conflicting sides of the anger and the despair, I suddenly realized she did it deliberately to try and forfend the deeper depressive swing that had started to build. She was playing one mood swing against the other, and trying to see if I’d manage to thread the needle and stay stable.
Wow, she was good at this. She even perceived the moment I figured it out - I could tell from how the corners of her eyes crinkled with approval when I got it.
“Focus on yourself for now, Justin,” she advised. “Your niece will need you as calm as possible when she feels ready to talk and finally braves seeing what’s happened to you with her own eyes. That may be tonight, or tomorrow, or even longer depending. Although my hopes are for you to see her sooner rather than later, so her own fears - and yours - don’t have time to fester and grow. Make sense?”
“Okay.” I nodded. “I can try to do that. So are we in ‘protective custody’ then?”
“In more ways than one. Our agents are still trying to determine Callas Soren’s motives and agenda, so there is obvious concern he may try something with your niece or even you again.”
“That’s only one way. What else is there?”
“Until your powers are determined and measured, we also need to be ready to potentially protect the public from you and the effects Soren’s spell has had on you. That also goes for Danielle.”
“I know she’s had a cosmetic transformation to how she looks, but has that affected her powers too?”
“I’ve been told to wear a coat before going in to see her. It’s snowing in her room.”
The day just kept on giving.
Natalie really was quite good at her job. After an hour or two spent trying to work with a sketch artist to get on paper some of the symbols I had seen while in the storage unit, I was surprised when Natalie returned and said I should go with her to see Danielle.
Danielle had, of course, also needed a new room. Her old one, it seems, was ‘snowed in’.
I tried to fight off the butterflies that were constructing cathedrals within which to nest in my stomach as we approached her room. When we went in Danielle was sitting by a window staring outside, one palm placed against the glass. Her darker hair was gone, as I had seen happen the previous night. In its place were soft sheets of snow which cascaded down her back in gentle waves. I actually had to blink, because for a second I could have sworn it was all slowly drifting downward as if it had found a calm pause within some ethereal wind and was relaxing towards the earth. Her face was caught in profile: gone were any remnants of childhood softness. Instead her chin and cheeks had become angular and sharp - yet she was also quite stunningly beautiful in the midst of that severeness. Her eyes, once a bright sky-blue, now glistened with a translucency which hinted at bluer waters deeply buried underneath its frozen covering shell of ice.
But her lost and worried expression as she bit at her lip, that was all Danielle’s. I had seen it at her mother’s funeral, and I saw it clearly again now. My heart began to shatter all over again.
Without a thought I simply spoke the same words I said to her only a month or so ago while her hand clutched at mine when the services for her mother, my sister Helena, had finally concluded. “Don’t worry, hon. We’ll face whatever comes together. Always and forever.”
She swung about abruptly to glare at the strange red-haired teenage girl who had just intruded on her private reverie, but my words sank in as her hand flew to her mouth in shock.
“Yeah, hon. It’s me.”
She was instantly across the room and into my arms, squeezing me tight with arms much stronger than either of us were used to. I didn’t mind.
We both started the waterworks again. I didn’t mind that either.
“They told me the spell had changed you, but…” She was shaking within my arms.
“Only on the outside, kiddo. Inside here it’s still me.”
She choked a sob and her knees must have gone out as I found myself having to hold her upright.
“Ohmygod, ohmygod. It’s all my fault; I’m so sorry, so sorry, it’s because of me, because of me…”
“Whoa, whoa!” I leaned her back gently, idly noting that she also gained a few inches in height. “Don’t you go blaming yourself for this, kiddo!”
“But he was after me, because I’m a mutant, and you came after me, and they said you pulled me out, and the spell hit you, and now you’re like this, and Mark said it’s likely permanent, and…” The temperature in the room began to fall rapidly, trying to freeze the tears on my cheeks. I noticed small snowflakes started appearing to swirl around the two of us. Uh oh.
“Danielle!” I said firmly, intending a ‘fatherly’ tone - but what came out sounded more like my sister when she had actually been assertive. I think the similarity shocked us both.
I swallowed. “Right, none of that. You are not in any way to blame for this. None. You hear me?”
She nodded hesitantly.
“All the blame lies squarely on the man who did this,” I continued while trying to keep an eye on the ice crystals which were forming in the air. “He kidnapped you, he strapped you to that chair, he cast that spell that did all this to both of us. We are the victims of his schemes, alright? And he even got his machinations wrong. He thought you were something you aren’t, which is why everything went sideways for both of us.”
“But, but, I am a mutant. I caused this…”
“Hush! A mutant, yes. But not the flavor he was apparently looking for. And no, I don’t know the details of what he was after - and the guy who might be able to figure that out dropped us off at the hospital, got some bandages, and then fled the scene. Men, huh? What are us girls going to do?” I forced a grin.
She gaped at me, all the while I was mentally chanting ‘c’mon, c’mon, it’s funny, c’mon please…’. Then she startled with a laugh - loud and free - and it was pure music to my ears. I chuckled and joined in as we hugged each other closer. We stood there and laughed away our mutual worries we had of losing the other. I even emitted a rather girlish giggle-snort, which just got us both going even harder.
The air in the room started to warm up. Natalie, who had stayed quiet to monitor the entire thing, nodded at me with silent approval.
Danielle gave me another squeeze before whispering quietly into my shoulder, “Always and forever.”
I just held her tight, vowing to never let go.
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It was just passing midnight when Director Elliot Goodman finally arrived at the ‘We Hoard It 4 Less’ self-storage facility. The LAPD had blocked off the entire building, and the Director could make out two FBI crime-scene investigation vans amidst all the blue and red lights that swirled frenetically around the parking lot.
Getting out of his own standard-issue Ford Explorer, Goodman ran a hand across his cheeks’ day-old stubble. He realized his mustache probably needed a trim as well. As the Director of the Los Angeles division of the DPA, he had not managed to get more than perhaps two hours of sleep since the chaos the previous night had struck all over the city. DPA agents from San Diego, San Fransisco, even Las Vegas and Phoenix, had all flown or driven in to try and assist the tremendous number of investigations. The fear from headquarters in Washington D.C. was palpable: was this just a first wave of some kind of coordinated paranormal terrorist attack?
So far, Director Goodman did not have a good answer to that question.
He waved his identification in front of the LAPD guarding the entrance and moved quickly inside. The small front lobby had been turned into a command center of sorts. The furniture had all been moved aside while folding tables and chairs were place about so the various specialists could set up their equipment. Odd looking technological devices that looked like they had been pulled straight off Hollywood sci-fi movie sets were sitting side-by-side with bronze and gold artifacts that should have been safely ensconced in museum displays.
One wall had a tall and wide corkboard leaning against it, with various sheets of paper of odd sizes pinned to it at seeming random. The papers were covered in blue and black inked tabulated scribbles of diagrams, sigils, and ancient writings. Mixed in were photographs, clearly taken from different units within the building.
It was in front of this display that Goodman found the man he came to see, a shorter man in similar black dress slacks and white shirt, though the shirt’s sleeves were rolled up and the man’s hands were covered in white gauze bandages. He was staring at the wall’s layout with intense concentration, and didn’t even notice Goodman walk up next to him.
He had to clear his throat to get the man’s attention. “Nick Wright.”
It took a moment for Nick’s eyes to refocus. “Oh. Hey there Elliot.”
The Director’s jaw clenched. He had orders to work with the man, but that didn’t mean he had to like it. “I need your briefing on what you’ve figured out here. Washington expects a report on each individual incident that occurred within the hour. This site is the last one on my list.”
“Ah, right, sure. Gum?” Nick reached into a pocket and with just the tips of his second and third fingers managed to pull out a foil-wrapped stick.
“No, thank you.”
“Suit yourself.” Shrugging, Nick tried to unwrap it with just the fingertips between his two bandaged hands until Goodman finally got impatient and unwrapped it for him. Smiling in thanks, Nick popped his prize into his mouth before beginning to chew loudly. He motioned for them to sit on a couple of the uncomfortable metal folding chairs.
Nick, after a moment of consideration, spoke. “Have you ever been to the Western Wall in Jerusalem or the Temple Mount itself? No? How about the Temple of Apollo at Delphi? What about Machu Pichu? Stonehenge?”
Goodman nodded at the last one.
“Right,” Nick continued. “I don’t know if you’re a sensitive or not, but those places are just different. Vibrant. Holy. Special.”
“I’ve read the analyses of such sites and how they seem to be fonts of various mystical energies that effect their surrounding areas.”
“Oh. Good. Then I can summarize things easily: you’re standing on a new one.”
The Director stared at Nick. “You will need to expand on that a bit. As I understand things, that should be impossible.”
Nick laughed tiredly. “It’s taken all day, and probably sixty search warrants, to put it all together.”
“Sixty warrants?” Goodman blanched with surprise.
“The FBI took care of it. We had to open every unit on that floor, plus a cluster of ones on the floors below. Each was registered under a different name, and on different days over the past three years.”
“With what probable cause?” Inwardly the Director groaned, the last thing he needed were legal issues over such a blanket search.
“Our equipment linked them all to the ritual Soren did upstairs. The energy patterns outside indicated each of the units as being involved, and our suspicions were confirmed when we finally got them open. Your boys refused to go in without warrants, so I had the FBI help with the paperwork and find a judge with an enduring signing hand.”
Goodman looked back at the board. “You’re telling me that this ritual was being carefully set up for three years?” He felt his stomach sink at the implications.
Nick nodded. “Exactly. All those units have been painstakingly warded and well prepared for what Callas triggered last night. Look at the pictures - each unit was covered on the floor, walls, and ceiling with specifically cast circles and resonances, all linked to support something huge at the focus. The calculations and meticulousness required for it all really hurts my head. Especially as even with all we’ve seen, analyzed, and calculated, the energy level and after-affects are way beyond what they should have been. It doesn’t add up - our numbers are off by a couple orders of magnitude. Because you’re right, such a thing should be impossible. But our energy readings are clear: it was indeed possible because it happened.”
The Director thought furiously. “Can this spell be repeated, is there a continuing threat?”
“No. That’s just it, whatever Soren was after he likely had one shot at it. We think he may have used several ancient relics to help fuel his spell, and they were probably destroyed in the process. Residue found in a couple of the units show evidence of this. Those kinds of things are rather hard to find, let alone replace. It’s astounding: he managed to forge a brand new node of energy here somehow, one with Biblical resonance. This place is a new holy site, Elliot. And by the way, people are going to subconsciously or consciously start flocking to it. The LAPD has already had to turn away a small number of unstable sensitives throughout the day.”
Putting a hand to his forehead, Goodman asked, “If that was his goal, why did he kidnap Danielle Thorne ? And why do it here and not somewhere remote where he could keep the new node for his own purpose?”
Nick chomped on his gum for a moment. “That’s just it. It doesn’t make sense. None of it makes sense: not the setup here nor the taking of the young girl.” He stood up and began pacing in front of the pictures and diagrams. “According to your agents, she only arrived here a few weeks ago due to an accident claiming her mother’s life. But this was clearly all in the works for years.”
“Your initial report indicated he had made a mistake, that she was of the Fae and not, as you put it, ‘properly aligned for the spell’. That the ritual was killing her, and when you arrived it was rapidly doing so.”
Crossing his wounded hands over his chest, Nick growled. “Yeah, and then I finally got to thinking properly. I had sensors all over the city scanning for his signatures, but we spent hours trying to track down Danielle - something my little device succeeded at. It shouldn’t have.”
“Look!” Nick jutted his chin towards the board. “Wards were in place for all those units - but the one we found the two of them in didn’t have anything to block me from finding her. That son-of-a-bitch counted on me tracking them down!”
The Director had a sudden bad feeling. “You think he wanted you to find him?”
“Yes! And more than that, he wanted no other agents to interfere. I’d bet your annual salary that the entire reason for all the ruckus across the city was to keep each and every one of your boys so busy, that even if I had wanted backup there wouldn’t be any. And it gets worse still.”
“Justin Thorne. Callas set him up. Three years of planning, Elliot. They weren’t chosen at random. He knew Danielle was Fae - I’ve been studying the runes on the back of that chair she was sitting on, all of which last night were out of my line of sight from the unit’s entrance. They were actually protecting her from his spell in a way specifically attuned to her Fae essence. And protecting the chair itself, for that matter. It couldn’t protect her completely, but did enough. He also took her and not by simply holding her at gunpoint and forcing her into a warded van ala After-School-Special-Style. No instead he used magic - loud magic - to whisk her up and away from their home to here. He was laying out a sky trail for me to follow."
Nick paused to let that sink in before adding, "Callas knows I would charge in even without any help from your distracted agency because he understands me too well. He knows my history and how I react to things. I bet you he’s also been watching Justin Thorne for years and he knew with a certainty that Justin wouldn’t let me go alone to save his niece.”
The Director frowned. “Wait a minute, if he wanted Mr. Thorne to be there, and if his niece was simply the bait, then the whole ritual was… some kind of trap for Mr. Thorne? Your report said you yourself were unable to enter, and that Soren knew that.”
“The energy levels were too high. He opened a fount to, well to put it bluntly, he opened a portal to reach towards God. A purest source of the divine. The kind of energies that probably bathed the Ark of the Covenant, ones that required the priests to be cleansed, purified, and protected by their own constant rituals. Sticking my hand in a live channel like that was actually damn stupid. I’m lucky to still have my hands. For anyone going in there it would be similar to walking into the center of the sun.”
“You say the niece, Ms. Thorne, had protection due to the warded chair, but yet Mr. Thorne made it both in and out of there alive - albeit undergoing a significant transformation.”
“Yes. He just flared brightly, and morphed into a young woman.” Nick blinked. “Wait a minute, our information on Callas indicated he came to Los Angeles searching for just that - a ‘young woman’. Justin fits the bill - at least she certainly does now.”
“You’re saying he knew what would happen to Mr. Thorne?”
“Exactly! Justin’s survival is just crazy and his transformation is crazier. But while Callas knows me all too well, I also know him. He never leaves a single thing to chance if he can help it. I’d even lay good odds that our information on his activities here in town was deliberately leaked to us just so that I’d be here - because he knew your agency would require my expertise to deal with him.”
“So why not just kidnap the man directly, put him in the circle, and not involve you - or the rest of the city for that matter?”
Nick crossed his arms and leaned against the wall.
“I don’t know. The setup here was obviously important somehow, but maybe I’m just too tired to see it. For all we can guess maybe it’s due to some crazy prophecy he read in one of his obscure and ancient tomes written by drug-addicted wackos. Who knows? If we could determine that though, if we understood the why of it, maybe it’d make sense of the rest and our numbers would add up properly. Justin has to be the key, of that I’m sure. But how? And Elliot…”
“Whatever Justin is, or was, to make it through the node like that? He, sorry, ‘she’ won’t be human anymore. Callas went through incredible trouble to unleash whatever she is - you all need to keep her safe, and monitor her carefully.”
“Why? What do you think she can do?”
“I really have no idea. Maybe someday she’ll start an entirely new religion. Test her and assign a squad to watch over her just in case.”
Goodman firmly shook his head in the negative. “I don’t have the agents. Even with the extra help from other divisions, there are too many paranormal strings to chase down. The priority straight from Washington is to concentrate focus on the perpetrators of that mana bomb downtown. If we hadn’t defused it, the damage and death toll would have been truly catastrophic. Your two victims have two of my agents assigned to watch over them. That will have to do.”
Nick scowled and looked down at the still-seated Director. “That bomb was likely designed specifically to get defused. That’s a sideshow, a distraction. Don’t let Callas succeed in knocking your attention away from what matters!”
“Tell that to a President who is worried about the thousands of potential lives lost! You want more agents to cover one teenager and one unfortunately forced transgender software nerd? Then bring me proof that Soren was behind all of it. And that proof better be undeniably ironclad.”
“You know he covers his tracks more thoroughly than even the damn Mossad, what with all the behind-the-scenes deal-makings he does. Finding that proof could take the next five years!”
The Director spoke sharply as he stood up. “Then you better get started.”
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His argument had mostly to do with potential risks of burnout after manifestations, but neither of us had experienced it so the doctor had a hard time making it sound persuasive. Especially seeing how they weren’t finding the mutation markers in my DNA which would leave me as a meta-human, and Danielle had actually manifested her mutation ten years ago.
Still, he did force us both into an ‘enhanced’ MRI scanner which was not only loud and uncomfortable, but with the weird multi-colored ‘magical energy’ crystals they had adorned it with doing some kind of resonance scan it also made me nauseas. I was told that was normal. Whatever the results from that were, 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’s facility had a full medical staff and emergency equipment in case anything happened.
It wasn’t until the afternoon that we finally were released ‘against doctor’s orders’ once I decided I’d had enough and made a scene, carrying through on my threat to call a lawyer. They may have thought I was bluffing earlier when I had mentioned it, but my best friend of many years, Isaiah, actually 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 once our release was settled, Mark and I then proceeded to have 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 was making him nervous. He was trying to hide it, but I could tell. 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 had 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 for when dealing with the entire mess my life had become and the incoming bureaucratic storm of providing official documentation of who I was.
Mark argued we should just send his one 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. After trying to claim Khan wouldn’t be allowed inside the facility and other such nonsense objections, he eventually relented against my firm intransigence.
My voice may also have started to quiver while I let a few tears build up in my eyes as part of my negotiating technique. Danielle had already used that devastating maneuver successfully against me on a few occasions and I was curious if I could pull it off now too. Worked like a charm! Mark totally 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 did feel somewhat guilty, and wondered 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 sleeping much. I stayed with my wife night after night in too many different yet same rooms as we slowly watched her disease destroy her body piece by piece. And there I was, in yet another hospital bed, except now I was alone and she was gone.
The short dreams I had whenever I managed to drift off were also all of Danielle being stuck in that damn storage unit, except this time she was screaming 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, may have also been slightly unreasonable with Mark. 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 during me and my brother-in-law making idiots of ourselves with our debate.
I grudgingly agreed and Danielle promptly rattled off a huge list of things she wanted from the house. After the twentieth item I had to stop her, remind 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!
Though weirdly 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 just for a few hours, so as we were about to climb into the two parked SUVs I paused and was about to start arguing again. Before I could say anything though, 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 shut the door. Jeffrey gave me a smile and a shrug when I crossed my arms in annoyance. He was taller than Mark, and obviously hit the gym a lot more than casually - his suit jacket strained against his arms and chest. Contemplating this, I noticed Danielle was also 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 used to so the desired effect kinda fell 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 that had settled on us as we had pulled out of the hospital parking lot.
“Alright. We’re now not going to be overheard by anyone, unlike in the hospital and traffic is going to take awhile. So tell me, Mark, just who the hell is Callas Soren really? And for that matter who is Nick Wright? Considering how they’ve both managed turned my life upside-down along with Danielle’s, I think I deserve to know.”
He frowned and his grip on the steering wheel tightened, making his knuckles go white. “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 have been pretty, but it was also 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 even 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 have to deal with those myself now, too. Great.”
He winced in sympathy, casting a sideways gaze at me as if debating something with himself. I could tell that he was having a hard time reacting to me as he would have my old self with the way I looked and sounded now. 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 said it intending to be funny. I turned my face to my window, trying to ignore the warmth spreading across that was probably matching shades with Mark’s own flushed cheeks.
It took awhile for our mutual embarrassment to fade, but he eventually cleared his throat.
“Uh, right then. 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. 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. His powers rating is either unknown or classified; rumors though of what they might be are so varied as to be useless.”
“So then 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 seemingly random. A major practitioner will be researching a topic, and Soren will just show up with a tome specific to their need - usually something long thought lost, or that no one even knew existed. And he’ll offer a deal to give the person access to the tome for a limited time, or something like that.”
“An information dealer, then?”
“Mostly. He also has acted as 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, somewhat 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. “Any rating or knowledge of what power level he’s at?”
“Supposition is at least ‘Wizard Seven’. At least. Either that or he has some other kind of ace up his sleeve.”
“There’s something higher than Seven??”
“We don’t know, and I hope to never find out. Suffice it to say your buddy Nick, who was last rated as a Wizard Six, is rightly scared of him. And Nick isn’t someone to underestimate either.”
“Jesus, not if he’s a Six. 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 it’s true, 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 and offered to teach him. The mystical underworld was a bit in a tizzy about that - Soren’s 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.”
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.
“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.”
His expression looked haunted. He was earnestly serious - there was a loss there underneath that he had kept hidden. What, though, I had no idea. I was about to nod to him and agree when something large hit the left passenger door with enough force to crush it inward. With the tremendous sound of protesting steel and aluminum our SUV flipped over onto its side. My side.
My head hit my 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 just seemed so very far away.
Mark shouted my name. I could make out that much. Then there was a horrible crunching metal sound, and Mark got pulled from his seat right out of the vehicle. Late afternoon sunlight streamed into 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 also whimpering, “no,no, no…”.
I realized that the girl was me.
With a protesting groan of damaged frame and twisted springs, the SUV was lifted back onto what was left of its wheels before 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 probably would have put me there anyway.
A griffon, possibly larger than the SUV itself, stood on my lawn and casually backhand (backpaw?) tossed 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 seen from a distant mountain away from all city light. The feathers blended smoothly into the 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 - graceful muscles rippling under feathers and fur.
“Good, another. Wrong taste with the first. Perhaps you are the answer to the Master’s riddle.” His voice was high pitched and raspy, but underneath was a low thrumming rumble.
I wanted to say something but managed nothing coherent.
A huge paw reached out again, and my arms instinctively came up to try and protect my face and chest as I emitted a shriek of fear.
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, the paw reached behind my neck and shoulders to grab the back of my sweatshirt - using it to lift me free of the wreck.
He then dangled me in front of his beak, his two black eyes boring 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 triangular purple tongue extended and licked blood that was leaking from my scalp down onto my face.
We both screamed together: me in incoherent terror, and him in some other kind of pain.
He dropped me to the ground; I managed to scamper backwards until my back hit a tire.
The griffon then howled anguish towards the sky. “Lost. Lost! Oh cruel Master! A taste of what was forgotten, but now remembered again in such purest torture!”
He closed his eyes and emitted another horrendous roaring shriek. Whatever glass remained in the SUV shattered into smithereens above me from the shockwave of his cry.
Falling forward onto my arms amidst the shards I tried to scramble away, but a paw simply pushed down on my back to pin me with such force that I went utterly flat against the ground, my cheek pressing into gravel and glass.
He spoke again. “Pleasure in this, I take none. Orders given, and Master must yet 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 be noticed, and notice 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, and with a razor flick he severed one of the arteries in my neck.
“Goodbye, little sparrow. Sorrow I have for such a harvest before the bloom. But choices I have none.” So saying and with a flap of tremendous wings he took to the air.
I managed to turn over onto my back, reaching with my hands to try and stop the red flood pouring free from my neck.
His wings were magnificent. 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 arrived.
Someone was kneeling over me, their shadow leaning in to block the sun that had shone 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 wet and 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 expounded. “Picture a flood of light. One that rises beyond the sky. One that shines with all the brilliance that is echoed from within your own heart.”
Light? The hospital, the dream I had before waking up there 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 didn’t know but I pictured it anyway, suddenly feeling myself 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.
My hands in my imagination, they matched my newly formed feminine ones. I paused in sheer surprise to try and 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 injuries without proper preparations, and I did not think they would move this quickly. I am a fool and caught by it.” There was a hint of desperation in that otherwise strong voice that echoed a far deeper and hidden sadness. “But you can. 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 truer 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 yet 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 when it hit and dove into me, it was as if a key had found its matching lock. Something deep inside threw open its doors.
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 utter 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 headache diminished greatly as well.
“Quickly now, your work is not done.”
A shadowy hand reached down and I took it. The strong grip easily lifted me back onto my feet, and I got a look at its owner.
He was a powerfully built man, yet not overly so. The dark African skin of his head was cleanly shaved, and his face was narrow and sharp. Somehow he managed to seem to be both in his late twenties and his mid-fifties simultaneously. His navy blue jacket and matching slacks were immaculately tailored, and underneath the unbuttoned blazer lay a black silk shirt that blended with his skin.
His eyes though, those caught my attention. His irises were almost the same shade as his pupils, and yet I thought I saw stars flickering within.
He then pointed towards the lone surviving pine tree in my yard. A body lay crumpled against its base. I gasped.
“My god, Mark!”
I hurried towards 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 next to me and put his 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 light from your source, and as you love him - share that love and light with him. Hold him here so that he does not cross that 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 on the grass next to him, I pulled him off the tree and into my own arms before closing my eyes once more.
The channel from the column of light was still there, and I could feel it slowly trying to fill me. To my inner eye, however, this was 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 realized that my skin was glowing brightly again - the more I focused on the channel, the more brilliant my skin - 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 fell upon the blood and grime on 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 tried 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 softly. “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’s struggles stilled though I could still feel his body’s tension. I breathed in deeply, and 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, then bowed his head speaking 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 Aradia.”
I blinked up at him in confusion. “Who are you?”
He made an odd hand gesture at the empty air by his side. A curtain forged of night protruded into the space above the grass as if extending from a far distant midnight sky. As its shadowy cloak slowly swallowed him where he stood, he simply gazed at me until those eyes merged with the swirling stars that wrapped around him.
Then without a word the bridge to twilight vanished back into the bright afternoon sunlight.
I recognized him then. 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…”
“Good. 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.
Hesitating one last time while biting my lip, I then 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 the channel from the column of light still blazing in glory within my mind’s eye.
Utter exhaustion immediately slammed me hard when it darkened. Fortunately for Mark’s plan I didn’t have to try to act dead.
I passed out instead.
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I awoke, and for a peaceful moment I thought I was home. The familiar paws of my kitty were kneading at my collarbones, joining his deep rumbling vibrations as they hovered atop my stomach. Automatically my hand reached up and gently started stroking the fur over his fuzzy head. In his contentment he pulled a bit of my blanket into his mouth to suckle upon it, even while his happy paws continued their massage.
“Hey buddy,” I said quietly. For a brief confusing moment I thought Caroline had said it at the same time, for the voice I heard sounded more like hers - as she had often referred to him the same way.
Recent events crashed back in a painful rush along with the report from my body’s senses of itself which confirmed it all as my new reality. It was all too much to handle.
I kept my eyes closed, trying to just take comfort in the obviousness that my kitty still loved me. Honestly, that meant a great deal to me. 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.
I decided he deserved more scritches. Where I was and whatever else had happened could surely wait a few more minutes, couldn’t it?
A man cleared his throat from what sounded like the other side of a small room.
I sighed. Reluctantly I opened one eye and searched for the owner of the noise. My expression was probably not all that friendly.
He was sitting in a deep and brown leather armchair that had been pulled away from a wall to face the twin-size bed I was lying upon. A simple pressed white dress shirt and black slacks comprised his attire; whatever tie he might have been wearing had been removed and the collar loosened one button. Grey hair adorned his head in a more short cut style, though the matching grey mustache shouted ‘law officer’. An open laptop was perched on one of his legs, a good-sized stack of paperwork rested on the other being illuminated by a tiny portable lamp sitting on the edge of the desk. He clearly had been in here for awhile.
I took a quick glance at the rest of the room as it didn’t feel like one in a hospital. There was a small working desk with keyboard and monitor, and the rolling desk chair had been pulled out and away revealing a kitty litter pan that had been put under the desk instead. A wheeled tray not unlike one from the hospital sat next to my bed, with an actual covered plastic food tray resting on it. 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 wall, 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 awoke. I had them bring breakfast up, in the event you woke hungry.”
Sniffing the air I smelled pancakes. My stomach agreed they would be a great idea, and the little metallic teapot sitting next to a selection of tea still 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 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 it emphasized the new assets. Sigh.
I wondered if they were going to start charging me for all these clothes I was going through.
The man sat respectfully quiet while I sat up, poured myself some hot water, dunked a chosen teabag (English Breakfast for anyone interested) into the cup, swooshing the bag around 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 when I said it that it 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.
He nodded politely to me. My cat ignored him. “I’m Director Elliot Goodman. I have been 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 about this that we should talk.”
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, which thankfully 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 he was going to make it.
“I’m quite interested in hearing about that, but first things first.” He actually managed to look slightly 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, literally. The room flickered brighter and Mr. Goodman’s own eyes widened while he tensed in his chair. Oh shit.
“Uh, sorry,” I gulped. I tried to breath slowly, which seemed to work. The room returned to being lit only by his desk light. “But… wait, dead? I mean, he asked me to fake death at the scene - I thought he was afraid our attacker, the huge griffon raven-panther guy, would come back or 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 Tsayid, which is Hebrew for ‘hunter’. He is wanted in the Middle East for many thefts of artifacts… and also many homicides. He is likely in the employ of a third party; in fact, Soren was once considered as his possible employer. Recent information, however, makes that quite unlikely. Whoever he works for, they are very well hidden and extremely dangerous. Between Soren’s involvement in your case and now Tsayid’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 the top of the tray to reveal the food beneath. Pancakes AND bacon! Glory! Without saying more, I began to eat, all while trying to internally list the possible ramifications of what he was telling me.
Mid-bite I paused, and looked down at Khan. He was at my side trying to nudge 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 that he happily devoured with a single swallow. Which reminded me.
“You guys feed my boy?”
Goodman pointed to the floor at the foot of my bed. Craning upwards to look over the edge, I saw one of Khan’s ‘Fat Cat’ food bowls down there, with mostly munched kitty food remains lurking within.
I kept munching. “Thank you.”
“You are welcome.”
We sat in silence while I continued to eat. 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.
“Wait, did Danielle get here okay?” I had figured that since he hadn’t mentioned her yet, she was probably fine, but I had to ask.
“Without incident. She has, however, spent the night quite worried about you. Her room is right next door, and was 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 incident might help.”
“I thought you wanted to talk about me being dead first. But fine; I’ll tell.” I took another sip of tea, then began, trying to summarize events past bites of pancakes. They may have been from a box mix, but they were still pretty good.
“This Tsayid guy hit our SUV like a Mack truck soon as 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, before pulling me out. 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?”
“Someone he only referred to as the ‘Master’ had given him orders him to, wait how was it phrased? ‘Kill the one who tastes of what was lost’.”
I made a mental note to never play poker against the director - he was clearly deliberately keeping his face blank and non-reactive, and doing a damn fine job of it. “Please go on,” is all he said.
“He, uh, he didn’t like the taste and dropped me while he howled - which, by the way, blew out the rest of the 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 at the time.”
He ignored my sarcasm. “What did he do?”
“Do? He told me how to heal myself.”
One grey eyebrow raised upwards. “How?”
I paused. How much did I want to share here, anyway? I honestly 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 in his ritual which ensnared you and your niece.”
Each time he called me ‘Miss’ I twinged, and it also kept reminding me of how much was still on my plate to deal with - even now after all 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 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 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 ‘preparations’. I asked him if I could heal Mark like I had healed myself. He said 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 some kind of 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 actually can 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. Though 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 Tsayid’s statements and actions make it clear that you were his target, and 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, 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 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 quite 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 then 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, in fact, 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 that 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 complimenting my looks. “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. 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 it likely is given what 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 possibly won’t 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 for a scholarship.”
The bastard then totally cheated in our discussion.
“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 actually 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 labs 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 heard her being escorted to our cafeteria right before you woke up.”
Somehow 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.’”
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He gestured at the door. “While some of our female staff tried to clean 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 had 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 actually was very much like a man’s restroom, except for maybe the couch. And 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, brightly lit, and with only a few sink basins so it had more actual counter space.
Plus no standing urinals, just stalls.
Yeah, okay, it was different.
At the end of the line of toilet stalls I could see three showers with flimsy thin plastic curtains. A towel rack hung on the wall opposite with a good supply of folded fluffy white towels stacked upon it.
Sighing, I pulled off my sweatpants and t-shirt, putting them on the floor by one of the showers. I also pulled the white hair scrunchy off my ponytail to let all the hair hang free so I could wash it. As I turned to climb into the shower, though, 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 young beauty 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 just somehow accept this change and move on. I didn’t have much choice about it.
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 echo my words.
Her face still had some smudges from my driveway, but lifting my head I could see no scar or even any kind of mark from where that beast had slit open my throat. The skin under the chin was completely unblemished, just like the rest of her.
Except I still had crufts of dried blood wedged under my fingernails from trying to hold onto the crimson flood of my life as it slowly was washing away.
I almost died yesterday.
Intellectually I knew that I should have died in Soren’s storage unit, but that whole scene just seemed surreal in my memory, like it was mostly special effects from a movie somehow. Sure, I remembered the agony I experienced while carrying Danielle out of there, but it was like that pain was so extreme that my brain now refused to accept, process, or relate to it. It was over so quick, anyway.
Feeling my warm blood pump past my fingers to cover the front of my sweatshirt yesterday had been real. All too horrifying real. As was the feeling of absolute helplessness while that creature dangled me in its claws and the mind behind that huge beaked face made the decision to kill me.
The silver-flecked golden eyes of the girl in front of me were 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. If it hadn’t been for the fact that the cops were too busy to even bother sending someone when I called, I would never have gone. Instead I would have waited for the trained authorities to arrive, take the lead, and I’d have followed their instructions.
But they didn’t, and weren’t going to. So I went with the crazy mage who did show up to find her myself. What other choice did I have?
I inhaled deeply, letting it out slow to try and calm my raw and twitching nerves. Danielle had survived. Whatever other consequences there were, like repeating high school while looking like someone who should be a poster-girl for holding pom-poms and 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 just delayed for a time - I had better make the most of it while I could.
And also damn well make sure Danielle never for an instant felt guilty that she had lived and still had her whole life in front of her. A life now filled with magic, mystery, and perhaps a greater potential than she otherwise would ever have known.
I forced myself up off the floor, deliberately looked myself over from top to bottom, and this time spoke clearly to the room and to my own reflection.
“This is me. Suck it up, princess.”
I climbed in the shower, washed my new body, and shampooed my new hair.
When 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 looked up from his laptop after he finished typing a sentence. “All set?”
“Good. Let’s go.”
He closed his laptop, and leaving the chair where it was, proceeded to lead me down a series of long corridors, passing rooms that were only labeled by numbers without descriptions. I saw 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.
Felt like the usual office spaces to me.
We reached a rather wide elevator, and after waving his badge at the sensor, it opened and we went down a few levels.
As we rode down he commented, “Powers testing is actually located deep within an excavated hill behind the complex. It provides more margins of safety in case of incidents.”
I didn’t mention how ominous that sounded to me. Echoes of Dr. Kirov wanting to get a sample from my cranium lurked in my thoughts.
What the doors at the bottom revealed was something more akin to a wide sub-divided cavern, complete with stadium lighting placed at regular intervals along the concrete ceiling. The sub-divisions looked like a massive cubical farm except that the cubes were the size of racquetball courts with ten feet high walls. Some were filled with all kinds of busily wired contraptions which didn’t look at all scary and mad-scientist crazy to my fragile nerves. Yeah right.
We wandered through the tight paths between the sections, finally arriving at one that was mostly 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 actually was one of those airport full-body scanners wedged into the middle of a giant monstrous machine.
Standing in front of this beast was a smaller beastly figure arms deep in some wiring, who turned to face us as we walked in and shouted a greeting.
“Director! Is wonderful to see you down here, welcome! Welcome!”
The ‘smaller’ and shouting creature 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 looking goggles. All of this was over a large pair of blue mechanics overalls and some rather impressive looking 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 his 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 to me. 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 some of the edge off his statement; my stomach remained guarded, however.
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 and he grinned widely. “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!”
This Kirov 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 the assessment of her abilities personally. When that is complete, I need the report on the statistical analysis of the readings at 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 looked over at 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, 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. 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. “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 first 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 on out, and saw that he was now perched on a tiny swivel office chair peering at a monitor that was inset 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 the panel by the monitor.
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 that I read about in reports. 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!”
He hunt-and-peck style 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 which he rapidly flipped through while muttering to himself in Russian. At least unlike his brother, it wasn’t likely to be curse words. Or so I hoped.
I got impatient after a couple minutes of watching. “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 glance 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 to cause 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, strength was something I was curious about. I didn’t feel all that strong, but I had managed to put my hand through a wall after all. I’d seen many videos up on YouTube of female supers who looked skinny, yet lifted entire cars. So yes, I was rather interested.
As we neared an intersection in this maze, a man in a sky-blue robe covered with white runes of some kind crossed our paths. He was short with a wiry figure under that robe, and had an immaculately short-trimmed beard flanked by shoulder-length wavy brown hair. Standing with him was Danielle.
“Uncle! You’re okay!” She launched herself into my arms with happy exuberance.
I think I saw her escort mouth ‘uncle?’ and look 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, 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 with sheer joy.
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 was now possibly quite powerful once she learned how to use it. As in superhero levels of possible power.
Yikes. My mind immediately 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!” Somehow I managed to hide 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 in excitement.
I smiled. “Alright, I look forward to a full report!” With a grin and another bounce, she and Diego hurried along into a section up ahead, leaving me 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 much the first time.
My shoulders fell. “Alright professor, let’s get on with it.”
He caught my mood change and therefore said nothing more until we reached an area just past where Danielle had gone, one that had a fancy treadmill, a tremendous weight set and 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 he picked up off the desk that had the monitoring computers on it.
“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.
I went into the other little room to change.
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 new ‘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 this new body 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. While 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 that 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 if it was uphill!
I caught myself grinning and giggling to myself 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 and he had me lie down on the bench while he set the contraption up for a bench press. I noticed that the cables just disappeared into a central mechanism, and also that they were a lot thicker than the ones I was used to at a regular gym. He walked over to a little podium that 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, size not relevant.”
I shrugged and pushed up on the bar. He must have started me on something very light, as I actually 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 squishier things on my chest between my arms 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 actual effort, pressing my spine into the bench underneath 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 had gotten 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. But instead, 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 appeared like a tower burning down through the sky, in fact its image was rather easy to recall. I tried to then 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 friend.”
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 light just wasn’t flowing.
“It’s no good. I can’t!”
“Yes, can!” Gregor commanded intently. He was suddenly 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 waters that were deep and calm. A thicker dark green forest surrounded the field and stretched off alongside the water. Danielle was wearing a white two-piece bikini that definitely 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, Tsayid, his razored front claws extended for a bloody kill…
I felt something inside shatter with my need, and the tower of glorious brilliance was suddenly in 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 to protect.
The bar slammed to the top, bending right in the middle as my glowing arms and hands forced it to keep going past its limits. In the vision that dominated my sight I saw Danielle turn towards the attacking creature, throwing her hands up in terror.
There was an explosion in the next room followed by the sounds of Danielle shrieking in panic. Her scream and my vision of her danger 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 no matter what was in my way. Tsayid 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 I got stuck against some kind of limit that kept the pipe from growing any larger. Ignoring that, I just threw all that I had managed to gather at the wall I knew with a certainty was between me and her. I even shouted a single word before releasing the energy.
The rebar reinforced concrete wall simply disintegrated from the onslaught. A torpedo of light had lanced out from my hands, and at the point of impact the wall exploded outward into a shower of blinding sparks. The pieces flared randomly through the air like fireworks before dimming and finally disappearing, taking all the material with the faded sparks.
I rushed through the open hole, desperate to find Danielle.
Inside I found her caught 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 on sheer instinct, I threw a line of light at the sphere surrounding her, and with another word I ripped the energy from the runes that maintained it.
The sphere collapsed at the same time that 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 in all likely-hood I think I would have broken his arms.
Shaking my head to clear the image of Tsayid diving over the green field at Danielle, I looked at the room again.
By one of the walls was the remains of a folding table. It looked 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 both staring at me with wide eyes of shock, Diego still behind his bubble of runes that caused his image to waver as if he was under water.
That’s when I noticed the only light sources in the room were Diego’s magic bubble… and me.
My whole body had gone translucent, and underneath was only that pure white light shining forth. My crimson and gold-streaked hair was also aflame, throwing its colors outward to mix with the shimmering magic wards that adorned the parts of the walls that I hadn’t obliterated.
My inner channeling slowly faded away, as I started to realize I may have just screwed up.
I stammered, “What… what just happened?”
Gregor and Diego were arguing in Spanish, though Gregor would occasionally inject a Russian word. Danielle and I were sitting together opposite them at a conference table in standard black wheeled office chairs. Someone had put 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 to this conference room, while other agents with odd-looking detector devices swarmed both Danielle and Diego’s magic space and my now-connected workout area.
The two men finally stopped yelling at each other, and both 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 looked 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 causing.”
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 asked, his tone also gentle. “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.
I squeezed Danielle’s hand again as she cried, “But how? 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 that room was designed for. We were perfectly safe, at least we should have been.” He then looked at me with a fixed expression.
I swallowed and shrank down in my chair a little. Diego then spoke towards 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 afterwords made me realize how blatant Gregor had been about it. He had deliberately provoked my emotional reactions. Shit. I glared at him, and to my surprise he looked embarrassed and shrank away from my gaze.
Relaying the rest of how I damaged their weight machine, along with how I was responsible for yet another hole in a wall, I finished with how Gregor probably stopped me from doing something even more stupid.
Nodding some more, Diego paused to consider then asked, “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 entirely 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 came charging explosively in. I was actively fighting to keep my shield spells from overloading simply from her presence, especially as she got closer to us.”
“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 at it 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 just went solid white. The video did catch the bending of the bar and its protesting metal creaking, which happened simultaneously with the explosion from next door. The whiteout blur where I had been then launched towards the wall, more whiteness lancing forward to pulverize the barrier, and then it was through. The only sound was the wall’s demolition. Whatever I had shouted, either time, simply hadn't been recorded.
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.
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 would have to wait. This was decided in another back-and-forth in Spanish, and I think I heard them mention Nick Wright in the middle somewhere. 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 asap, we went our separate ways again to get on with the testing.
I asked him 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 at him - 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 different personnel performed some of the other tests. 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 that needed to be washed off. They were really cautious about trying to get me to channel again, but I found doing it internally to be 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 during my healing testing took off running when I spun around and glared 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 an 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 both 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 ‘survival should have been totally impossible’.
As I was indeed still alive and sitting right in front 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 ‘anomoly 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 me a headache if my new and admittedly amazing body wasn’t so darn healthy.
I even got rated as a Projective and Receptive Empath of one. The lady who helped figure that out blamed my frustrations with the day for causing her to get a 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 when I’d look at her - she seemed older somehow, yet still young at the same time. In her eyes I could 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 looking at 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 that for a moment and then exlaimed in sudden understanding.
“So THAT’S why everyone kept running out of my rooms without letting me say anything!”
She giggled at that, and we hugged. The whole situation we found ourselves in was totally outrageous, but at least we were in it together.
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Danielle was standing outside my room, with agent Jeffrey lurking nearby. We had finished the powers evaluation, been given our preliminary ratings, and finally released to get dinner. We were both rather hungry.
We decided that after all that exertion testing a shower first might be a rather good idea. Danielle was kind enough to let me go in 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 way now, but it was still far too new a development for us to be comfortable with her showering in front of me.
I quickly got myself clean, and returned to my room to spend some time teasing Khan with a shoelace - one that was still attached to my new 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 I believe the Director has requested to see you after you’ve eaten - as certain things, such as your new name, still need to be decided upon.”
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 been calling me ‘Justine’, that shouldn’t be it - that’s too similar and could put the whole point of this 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 widely 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 out. 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 in sympathy. I really hoped they could get her accepted into this special school they had in mind - someplace where she could finally 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 smiled and bounced over to me to give me a strong hug. I figured if she broke any ribs I could heal it pretty quick, so didn’t object. After a moment she released me, then looked 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 as she giggled her way down the hall with Jeffrey in tow.
I shook my head, but really I was laughing too. Which 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 lovingly head-butt each other’s foreheads.
Have I mentioned that my cat is awesome? Because he totally is.
I took a bite of the burrito I had chosen and decided that was indeed the right move - 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 large room’s tables, busily either discussing a case or typing frenetically on laptops while barely paying any attention to the food they were rushing to scarf down.
I still kept getting glances, 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, probably, but also potentially disturbing. I’d been through enough to understand that for some people they can be happier to have certain memories fade with 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 randomly 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 convience labels others use as identifiers anyway, right?
Mentally I started scanning 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, though, was incredible. On a whim I tried to recall one of my favorite books, Ender’s Game, and sure enough I could recall each page exactly as it had been when I read it at age twelve.
Engrossed as I was with this inner discovery, I failed to notice someone had walked 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 who was 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 slowly gave me a ‘mental condition appraisal look-over’.
“This is your cue to ask me how I feel about dying,” 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 really resisted 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 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 probably 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 as I rambled on.
“There’s some evil mastermind out there who wants me dead and has superpowered 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. One I had to keep.
Natalie probably had that figured out by now anyway but didn’t comment. “The security at the school is likely 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 it to blow 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 at my emotions to trigger a reaction. I agree with Diego - he was reckless. Danielle, though - she enjoyed her day and is excited about her new abilities. 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 I don’t know how his wife would feel. Besides, 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 her 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’s been 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 put him on some serious pain meds.
“Mark! It’s, well, it’s me… I’m kinda in 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, whieh 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 got 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 somewhat labored breathing.
“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?”
“Yeah. That’s a total understatement.”
“I’ll come right out and say 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 it, but I didn’t let my voice show it. At least I was hoping I didn’t.
“… I’m so sorry.”
Damn, I so did not 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. 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 immediately 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…”
“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 both went up to see the Director in his office once I managed to pull myself together yet again. Diego was finishing giving a report when we got there; he decided to stick around. Director Goodman was behind his paper-cluttered desk and obviously rather tired. He told me 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.
Therefore Natalie, Diego, and I spent the next thirty 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 managed to survive twice in the last week from things that should have put me six feet under.
I told him if I died with that name, I would come back as a ghost and haunt him about it having been proven wrong. He shrugged and said it was also a last name used for Merlin, or Myrddin as he pronounced it - which I had to admit was actually pretty cool.
The name having been chosen, Goodman then hashed out the skeleton of a background with me. We decided on ‘Jordan’ having grown up in Santa Barbara - my grandmother had lived near there, so I was familiar with the area. He told me to research it online, especially the high school, and commit the details to my now seemingly perfect memory.
We debated on my official age. Physically I looked like I could be fourteen to sixteen, but I insisted on sixteen and therefore would enter school as at least a sophomore. I also insisted on another important detail: I told him 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 lucretive siren call of supervillainy. Being emancipated would mean that I could 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 further 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 that I choose a codename for my MID, causing me to flounder at the thought. Natalie and Diego attempted to come up with some ideas, but each suggestion when looked up on their 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 original 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. 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 had, and made even smaller still due to the stacks and stacks of books on shelves, tabletops, even on 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 mini-fridge hidden behind it and then 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 couple red plastic cups. Guess he didn’t usually share his office stash.
They both then 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 when finding 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 my sweatpants and sweatshirt 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 the cute puffs of hair sticking up on the their ends that he had from being a Maine Coone. That caused his ears to flick at me a few times, until 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. It could have just been my mind rejecting the loss of my old identity, though.
Whatever it was or indicated, 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 its hand to claim me.
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A tall boulder extruded from the edge of the cliff, and sitting perched upon it was a man. I picked my way carefully over small stones and thin grass to approach him, trying to make out what details of him I could.
He saw me coming, and encouragingly waved me closer. Taller than I and with a slender yet muscled build, he sat crosslegged upon the beige stone in bluejeans and an all-white t-shirt. His hair was a wild collection of curly sandy-brown that twirled in the breeze, and his feet, like mine, were bare.
His eyes made me pause - they were as blue as the sky above, gleaming somehow 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 how they viewed the world before them.
“Where am I?” I asked, my words drifting into the wind.
He reached a hand down to aid my ascension to his stoney vista. His grip was strong and confident, and without effort he pulled me up next to him. I also was attired in jeans but had on a girl’s sleeveless purple shirt decorated with swirling gold patterns that danced along the low-cut collar into the edges where my arms appeared.
He smiled as he answered in a voice filled with kindness and also a quiet authority. “You are in a place between.”
I moved to sit next to him, resting my chin on a pulled up knee while 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, putting a reassuring hand on my shoulder. “I would simply 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 cresting waves below…
A phone was ringing.
Startled awake, I was disoriented and fumbled towards the sound, trying to figure out how my cel phone had acquired such a strange new ringtone. Khan meeped in annoyance at me, I had dislodged from his cozy perch atop my head and pillow.
My senses focused, and I realized that what was ringing was the inner-facility phone on the desk by the computer setup. Stumbling over to it, I picked up the receiver.
“Jus… I mean, Jordan? 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 turned to face 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 realized I was holding and in so doing let go of my inner source. My hands faded quickly to normal. I glanced at 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 stuck to the phone was its extension number, which I dialed.
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 decent 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 onto its top. It had a corrigated metal tube running out and into 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 began to glow red-hot as waves of heat radiated outward. He began to pass 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 set alongside the crude handle, 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 did so, 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 top open it as she went in. I could hear its 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 an inch thick coating of ice. The floor itself had been freezing 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, relief clear on her face. I gave her a hug. “You okay? Did you have a bad dream?”
She shrugged with exhasperation. “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 both. “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 realized he was right. “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 both raised. “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 over to the computer terminal on my desk, logging in to his own account. “I need permission from you both. Sensors in both rooms, they record to secure disk. But we will not access unless you say is good.”
I wondered how true that was, but debating him on it 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 typed 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.
Then we all saw it change on my frame first.
My face and hair, the only parts of me visible from under the blanket, began to glow 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 in no discernable 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 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 to look back at me. He got up, stretched, and ignoring the crazy strobe light show I was eminating 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 reddish gold streamers shining from my hair. My image proceeded to remain steady while the intensity of my light pulsed slowly. Khan lay down mostly on my pillow but with his front paws and chin resting atop my irridescant 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 saw snow start to swirl through her room - even more weird was that every time my light pulsed brighter on my side of the screen, the mystic wind in hers would gust the ice about with more vigor.
We watched as the frost slowly covered her room, windows, and door. She rolled over in her bed and snowflakes began to land on her face, irritating her nose as they melted upon her skin to drip into a nostril. Her pale blue eyes opened and blinked a few times before she sat up quickly and stared 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, punching my extension. It rang on my side, and my golden eyes opened.
Two things happened simultaneously: the white glow of my skin along with the crimson 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 into a sitting position on 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, idly petting my buddy who had decided my lap was now available and appropriate to occupy. Looking down at his happy purring, I pondered what he had done. Or was his touch just enough to pull me back from… well, back from wherever it was I 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.
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 more of Danielle’s indoor blizzards.
A number of minutes later she knocked on my door, coming back in holding a pile of clothes. She had already put on light blue jeans along with a t-shirt that had a single yellow Despicable-Me Minion who was holding a red apple with a gleefull expression. The style was the same as her usual choice in clothing, but the changes in her figure were still stunning. Where before she had softer and yes, plumper, curves - she was now lithe, fit, and sharply defined.
“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 in her shoulders.
After dislodging my kitty by bribing him with getting 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.
“Whatcha think? I come out alright?” I posed dramatically for her, standing as if I were 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 different in proportion, configuration, and even how it moved. But was it wrong?
I struggled to get the jeans on - Danielle had gotten 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 it 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 been able to 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 usually would 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 long white hair swept across one side of her face. I resisted an urge to reach out and push it back over her slightly pointed ear.
“I think we try to get into this school for mutants: me as a sophomore, 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 another month.”
“But what about you?”
I couldn’t resist any longer and gently brushed her 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 even 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 his short meep of a 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 - that 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 all the way down to breakfast still holding the other’s hand.
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Yes some of the other ladies who were consuming breakfasts consisting only of coffee and perhaps a piece of fruit may have given us a few dirty looks. Danielle and I just grinned and made more obnoxious ‘yum’ comments while pouring on more syrup.
We even went back for extra bacon, just because.
We didn't say much, I think both of us 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 headed up to Diego’s office, hoping he’d be there. He was, and not alone either. Both Gregor and, to my surprise, Nick Wright were inside.
I stopped at the doorway and stared at Nick. He had on a different swirling patterned tie (reds and purples, which in a weird way made him a match for me with my hair and shirt) and his coat of many pockets was draped over the back of one of the extra chairs in front of Diego’s desk. I felt the urge to punch Nick right in the jaw, but I checked myself. 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, made me feel guilty for feeling that way. Conflicting emotions much? Nah.
He flinched under my glare when he looked up, which was admittedly somewhat satisfying.
Diego, who was 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 and after a long moment Gregor kicked his chair causing Nick to rise and offer it to me as well.
I declined and stood by one of the towering piles of books.
Danielle moved in front of 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.”
Now I felt really bad for glaring at Nick, so I just studied the wooden floor. He had 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 when he mouthed ‘Jordan?’ at me. I shrugged and asked him, “Any ideas on what Soren did to me?”
“Maybe,” Nick said seriously. “I have some theories, at least.” He reached behind himself to rummage in his coat. I began to wonder if he had a classic D&D bag of holding wedged somewhere in its pockets. He fished out the most ornate and gaudy golden ring I had ever seen - it was huge, with mystic engravings covering the surface that surrounded an embedded crystal. At least, I hoped it was a crystal - a diamond that size would have been worth a fortune, being the size of a large grape. His mummified 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’s searchlight as the crystal immediately blinded anyone looking in my direction.
“Shit!” I quickly 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 my skin 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 his ring back into a coat pocket - a different one from where he’d pulled it - and 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 here 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.”
“Hobgobblin? 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 sleep and wasn’t doing any magic?” 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. The wizard’s 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 pure 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 Tsayid 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, from 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 not 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, designed 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 replied. “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 started to get 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, bullcrap. 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 while his brows narrowed with internal mental debate.
A voice from the doorway startled us all.
Director Goodman stood at the office entrance, fixing Nick in his glare.
“I don’t think it’s a good idea,” Nick said in protest.
“Do it. That’s an order, Nicolas.”
Nick put a hand on his face 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 was stunned into silence. Danielle exclaimed with widening eyes, “Holy shit!”
I tried to speak, but what came out was more like 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 know?” Diego probed further.
“Because,” Nick said while gesturing abstractly again. 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 awe at the idea… and at me.
Diego reached under his desk to pull 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, do you all understand?” He looked at us all 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 as 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 actually. 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 isn’t 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 to research a lot more - there are many types of angels according to lore, after all.”
Diego took a deep drink from his glass before staring at Nick. “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?”
Diego put his drink down forcefully on his desk with a loud clunk and quickly looked 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 had just switched uncharacteristically to using first names and was obviously greatly disturbed by something. “Explain, Miguel.”
“It’s simple,” Diego said as his knuckles turned white around his glass. “Not all angels are holy and full of light.” He raised the glass towards me with a slight haunted smile, but it didn’t last as he continued. “Some are fallen. And some,” he shook his head, “some are waiting to be woken up which might trigger an apocalyptic level event. If not the actual Apocalypse. Imagine someone awakening the Four Horsemen early; they are also angels according to Revelations. Who knows whether they’re actually just sleeping as incarnate humans in the meantime?”
“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. 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 her sons here to West. Eldest brother Immanuel, he recently moved to Whateley, invited to teach for year. Religious subjects. He is powerful Kaballist. Also 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 that was 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, then 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 speaking 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 having strikingly shifted from pure 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, Acting 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 Ms. 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 our 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 slightly too tight was pinching. Ow.
The chat window flickered back to life, revealing a rather strikingly beautiful woman wearing a straw sun 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 cross my thoughts. 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, 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 new 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 furthur 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! I may have been right, she had been testing my reaction!
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 well 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 quite 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 Acting 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 Ms. Carson with a sinking feeling flooding my stomach. “We can’t take it. He could be setting us up again.”
Ms. 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 wish to 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.”
“Yes,” she said. “Yes I do. Take care, Elliot. And Ms. Emrys?”
“Yes, ma’am?” I replied. Wait, had these two dated?
“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. Khan, though? 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 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 a real risk of tragedy otherwise.”
I couldn’t tell if he was bluffing or being entirely serious. With how Ms. 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.”
Ms. Carson’s eyes flashed with irritation. “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 we scrolled through his picture gallery.
He was right, they were absolutely adorable.
Somewhere in the Jabal Abu Rujmayn Mountain Range, amidst the war-torn wastes of Syria.
Tsayid swooped lower as he scanned through the mountains until he spotted 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 black-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 passages 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 and guiding his path.
Finally he reached a small inner chamber in the depths of the mountains. Even without light his eyes could make out the energy trails of the script of the Host as it covered the walls of the chamber - indeed the script flowed within the insides of the very rock surrounding the mountain’s heart, wrapping around and binding firm to the stones the black boil of rage which was the one he called Master.
“You have called. I am here.” Tsayid 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 doing so. He felt weak in this form.
The Master spoke directly into his mind, the words burning like lava through the temple of his own thoughts.
You have failed. The Light still shines.
Tsayid swallowed, his sudden fear at 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 guarentee 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.” Tsayid dared not say the Angel of Death’s name aloud, lest he hear and take notice.
This is true.
Tsayid exhaled the breath he hadn’t known he had been holding.
Her 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 this cursed Light? It will provide us the key to awaken my brother Shem’Hazai. With my brother restored, my restraints will shatter like glass before his might.
“We have fragments, Master. Our operative 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. I 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 her eyes. Weaken her with despair, and once weak - lead her to me. I will show her the full falacy of the Light’s worthless promises and she will fall as did the star of her predecessor.
Tsaid 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.”
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