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Hard Being Pure - Part 4

 by GrimGrendel

27: Empty

Friday afternoon, June 24th
MCO office

Judith stepped into the MCO building for the nth time since Noa's incarceration two weeks ago. She had fought to see her daughter, to get her out of here despite her near rampage at school, but every time Judith had been refused. Every time, until today that is.

Lucky she had a good lawyer.

Dr. Evans was perched on her shoulder, dressed in doll-like pants and shirt as was appropriate of him outside of the hospital. His mere presence drew the stares of many in the lobby, with just as many scowls and frowns. Let them stare. Let them understand the rage of a mother denied the sight of her child for so long.

The secretary averted her eyes and visibly ignored Judith. Without any patience for this sort of play, she ordered the sitting woman back to attention. “Get Mr. Chandler down now.”

The secretary ignored her for several seconds longer in stubborn denial. “Name?”

“Oh, he knows who I am. He's expecting me.”

A few more minutes of wait and the man of the day stepped out from a corridor leading deep within the building. Not a smile, not a greeting. “Follow me,” was all he said.

The two of them walked through the open office in silence and went down several floors once they reached the staircase.

The basement was completely different from the first floor. It felt like a prison, the clean straight walls bordered with rooms blocked by thick metal doors. As he led the way toward the security room, Judith spoke her mind.

“If I learn you've been mistreating my daughter...”

Chandler just shook his head, ignoring the implied threat. “Before you jump to conclusion, have you considered that maybe there was a very good reason we kept her locked down here without allowing visitors?”

“Because you hate mutants,” snarled back Judith.

“No, I don't hate mutants. I hate the jerk reactions they cause in the rest of us.”

“Same thing.”

“Not really. Jealousy, envy, fear, hatred, those emotions can be dealt with among fellow baselines. I firmly believe that social exposure to mutants is a good thing, as it forces the rest of society to deal with their own issues and to accept a part of itself that will not go away.” They reached the door and with a turn of a key and a push, Chandler opened it for Judith and Evans. “Exposure to healthy mutants that is. Mutants who can't control their powers are another story.”

In the room was a security guard overlooking several monitors which flipped every couple of seconds between cameras posted at various points of the building. Chandler walked next to the guard.

“I'm sorry, but could we have a little bit of privacy here? Say half an hour?”

The guard gave the two an odd look as he left, and as Chandler flicked a few buttons and typed a command on the keyboard, two monitors changed to show a room that was completely empty except for a lone girl sitting against the wall, her arms wrapped around her knees and her head slouched down. The two views came from two opposite walls, one view showing the door while the other captured Noa isolated in the middle of her own wall.

Noa was completely naked in a completely empty room. That fact made Judith see red as she turned to Chandler. “What the fuck is wrong with you?!”

Chandler frowned. “We didn't have a choice in the matter.”

“You're telling me you had no choice but to strip her naked and put her into an empty white room?! That's torture. Psychological torture.”

“Not of our doing, I assure you. When we placed Magnolia in that room, she had a bed, sheets, cushions, and several sets of clothes.” Laying against the wall with his arms crossed, he gave a single nod to the scene on display. “Three days later and she'd disintegrated everything she had.”

Dr. Evans jumped from Judith's shoulder onto the table. “That can't be right,” he said, staring at the empty cell as if the answer laid there. “You kept her in a cell over the weekend before, and this didn't happen.”

“Oh, but it did. Last time she corroded the walls, ceiling, and concrete floor along with the bed and the metal bars. This time we put her in a containment chamber with force field protected walls, to avoid the same damage as the first time.”

“And since the only things she could eat were the bed and clothes, those vanished quickly,” completed Evans, getting a nod from Chandler.

“We tried to interact with her, to get her to talk or move, but she's completely unresponsive. She doesn't react to sounds, light, touch, gas, or the presence of people around her.”

Part of his explanation brought a look of absolute disgust to Judith. “You gassed her?!”

“Necessary, even though it didn't do anything. We were starting to come short on ideas. The only reaction we had in the past few days was one time we fed her.”

Chandler opened another sequence on the two monitors. Noa hadn't moved from her position, even though the video was labeled for last Tuesday. A little trapdoor opened at the bottom of the metal door and a tray of food quickly slid through, only to be catapulted back at the door by an unseen hand.

'STOP FEEDING ME!' Minimal movement, only enough to see Magnolia scream at the top of her lungs before curling back onto herself once again. Mute weeping could be heard after that.

“That's the only reaction we got from her,” explained Chandler as the video cut. “Even when we tried to get someone in her room with a personal force field, they weren't able to do anything.”

Another video started to play, showing an agent stepping into the room. There was a light shimmering bubble surrounding him, a hint that Judith would have missed had she not been told the force field was there. The man seemed to do fine until he grabbed Noa's arm. He immediately let go and started screaming in panic and abject terror, running to the door and out the cell.

“What happened?” asked Evans, noticing that despite the grab, the screaming and the man running away, Magnolia had not moved an inch.

Chandler sighed. “The personal force fields are not perfect. When our agent touched Magnolia for more than a second, the force field adapted to what it perceived as a held item like it was supposed to. This meant that a part of Magnolia was within the force field, while the rest of her was outside. It was enough that she was able to push her disintegration power through her arm and into the force field.”

Evans considered what he knew of her powers. “Her power is usually constantly active. If she was lacking anything to process, it's natural that her aura would jump on the first opportunity to resume its normal behavior. It might not have been deliberate.”

“Whether it was deliberate or not, the result remains the same. If it was, she's dangerously aggressive. If not, she's dangerously lacking control.”

“Noa is not dangerous,” argued Judith. “We managed perfectly fine while she was at home. It's this whole thing about being treated like a murderer that causes her to react like that. No wonder she's aggressive against her jailers, especially since you have no right to hold her.”

“Fortunately, we do. We have no less than thirty charges of assault against her from her little scene at school, and more than enough witnesses to go to court with it.”

Evans turned around, intimidating despite his short stature. “And naturally you've evaluated the possibility that she might have post-traumatic stress disorder after being cut down to pieces by schoolmates at school, that the next incident took place also at school, a place that could have been triggering. That she was emotionally frail and hitting her limit and that she was provoked. Am I right?” Chandler remained silent, an answer in its own right. Evans turned his back on the man, having made his point. “When you do get around and evaluate Magnolia's mental condition, I want in on your psychiatrist team.”

“Then how would you qualify that she also attacked her father just like she did in the last video? What logic is there behind that?”

Judith blinked in surprise. “You got her dad to come check on her? And you didn't contact me?!!”

“He came only yesterday,” explained Chandler impassible. “You're here now. Stop complaining.”

She was fuming, earning a worried glance from Evans. He brought her back on track. “And she didn't react knowing that it was her dad and not another agent?”

“Nope. No reaction.”

“Was she even aware that it was her dad?”

He shrugged. “Isn't it obvious? We warned her hours in advance, and then he got in the room and started talking to her. And even failing that, she should have been able to recognize him when she started attacking him.”

“Only if the attack was deliberate. I assume your force fields all have the same shape, isn't that the case? So since she perceives shapes around her, and if she was unresponsive to sounds, there are strong chances that she simply couldn't recognize her dad under the force field compared to some random agent under one.”

“Could be. It's still a problem to which we don't have any answer currently.” Chandler looked at the two in turn, his expression grave. “I’m letting you see her today for one last try. Unless her condition improves and we get hints that she can be rehabilitated and trained,” Judith scowled at his choice of word, not that he stopped for so little, “she will be moved to another more secure facility over the weekend.”

“Where?” asked Judith worriedly.

“I don't know. The decision doesn't come from me, and I have no say in the matter.”

“Bullshit you don't! You're just trying to distract me as you'll disappear my daughter!”

He stared her straight in the eyes and replied calmly. “I'm not your enemy. I'm just a field agent doing my job. And my job includes considering all the options and finding the best solution. Moving her to a better facility is one solution, but there might still be another better one out there. So if you want to leave with your daughter today, Ms. Flores, I suggest you help me find a way to get a reaction and communicate with Magnolia.”

“Can we see her?” asked Evans as he gestured to Judith to grab him again and to place him on her shoulders.

Chandler nodded, walking to the other wall to pick up a thick belt with some gadgets on it. “Put this on, and click here to activate the force field. Don't turn it off while inside, and I don't recommend touching Magnolia directly.”


The world was black and empty. Noa could feel the shape of the room, but that was the only thing she allowed herself to feel, as she could not stop that one sensation. She had tried, mind you. She had tried to pull her aura back into her, but it was an effort she could not maintain as it kept reverting back to its base state after a few hours.

Everything else, she had shut down. Blocked her ears, blocked her nose, shut her eyes. The passage of time was only marked by stuff passing through the trapdoor, designated food for her, until she tried to shut down even that. To no avail.

Blobs of undefined features she didn't care about came once or twice in her chamber. She didn't notice them for the people they were, only for the featureless field they blocked from her view. She did not care. All she wanted was to be left alone and disappear from the world.

Another blob stepped inside. Always the same. It should have learned the first time she attacked it to just leave her be, but it kept coming back. Meaninglessly.

Noa felt her emotions stir from the gaping hole she was feeling constantly. At first she just ignored it, but a soothing feeling kept easing into her, something that was not hers to begin with. It was peaceful, comfortable, overlaying her own pain in a warm blanket she remembered feeling once before.

Dr. Evans.

He was here. He could help her. Only him could make her feel like she used to be now.

Slowly she let her barricades fall, opening herself slightly to sounds and smells.

“...toxic for her. We need to move her someplace else.” Yes, that was him alright. A squeaky aged voice that was as gentle as she remembered.

“... Evans...”

Everything was a daze, everything shifted out of focus. The blob moved, edging closer before being stopped by Evans's voice.

“Don't touch her. She doesn't control it.” Judith pulled back her extended hand, fighting against her motherly instincts which begged to hug and comfort Noa.

“... Dr. Evans, you're here to help me?”

“Honey, how do you feel?”

“Mommy...” Noa reached a weak hand forward, only for the blob to take a step back. She let her hand drop dejectedly.

“Sweetheart, we're here to help. We'll get you out of here.”

Noa shook her head. “I... can't. Here or... nowhere. There's nowhere I can be.”

Dr. Evans felt Noa's emotions fall back into the hole he was trying to pull them from. He focused harder on projecting positive thoughts and energy, trying to keep Noa stable enough to start healing. “Magnolia, please tell me what's wrong. We can help.” No response.

Judith tried to probe a little more. “Is it about what they did to you at school? It’s over now. You don’t have to go back. Think about the summer holidays.”

“It’s not that…”

“Is it about Carol and your friends? They’re being treated just fine by the mage Dr. Evans got them.”

“No!”

“What about the coin-catching event?”

“No, no, NO! It's nothing. It's everything. I... just.” She hid her face back between her knees, whispering her last breath. “I just want to sleep once, and never wake up.”

Judith was about to ask more questions when Evans drew her attention and shook his head. He released his influence on Noa as he gestured towards the door.

The fall back into the hole after the glint of hope Evans had given her was plain torture. “Don't go,” she pleaded, feeling the blob make a step away. “Doctor, can you make me feel happy? Like you did before?”

Evans shook his head. “I won't hypnotize you again.”

Noa's lips started to shake, her one exit out shutting down on her. “Why not? It worked, right? I was happy for a while last time, right?”

“Magnolia—”

“I went out with friends to parties and stuff, and school was fun. Everything was fun!” Her voice was rising with each word, each more desperate than the last.

“Magn—”

“You did this to me! I was happy because you made me. So why can't you... again?” She could not fight the sobs that took her then.

From Judith's shoulder, Evans felt powerless. “What you felt at those times was not due to hypnosis,” he explained to the crying girl. “Hypnosis is not that strong. It can't make you become someone you're not. And even before we can consider that it might be that strong, your whole body went through radical changes. Your entire neural network got completely rewritten, meaning there is no way a superficial hypnosis set before your mutation would persist afterwards.” He sighed, his eyes riveted on the sobbing girl. “It was you who were happy, not the hypnosis. And right now, hypnosis is not the solution. Magnolia,” she jerked at the mention of her own name, “I promise I'll do everything I can to help you. You have to trust me.”

Seeing no response would come from her, Evans asked Judith to step outside the room to talk. She glanced one last time over her shoulder, wishing for all the world to be able to hold Noa in her arms, but she could not. Not now.

She left, leaving Noa with nothing to look forward to anymore. Noa cried for several more minutes until even that felt meaningless. She did not want to live like this, with nothing holding her up anymore, nothing driving her to step out of that room, and yet the event with the bullies at school made it clear that she would not die so easily.

Noa thought of various things, but all were quickly dismissed as potential failures. A knife, a gun, jumping from a rooftop, drowning, pill overdose, none would do the job. Her own body was conspiring against her to keep her alive. It needed to be something absolute, something she would not be able to recover from.

Something like cutting away all the flesh from her bones in pieces small enough they would not even be able to think anymore.

The idea stuck in her head, terrifying, calling back memories of those bits in the plastic bags and of the wrongness of it all. She shivered in fear at the prospect of what it would imply to go all the way, unable to stop her trembling even as she tightened her hold on her arms. Could she do it?

Fighting against the fear, she pushed herself to try, to seek an end to all this. While Chandler, Evans and her mom were talking in the security room, Noa ate away at the juncture of her wrist until her hand completely detached from her arm. It hurt! It hurt so much and kept hurting even after it got cut, even as her flesh tried to register this new form and adapt around it.

She held her disjointed hand in her other one, feeling the presence flow from her into her hand and back into her, crossing that small barrier of skin contact with a slight but noticeable effort. Even disjoint, it was still a part of her, so long as she touched it.

The fear crept up again, and before she could change her mind she threw her hand across the room at the door. The sudden lack of missing pieces hit her, the absolute knowledge that she was not complete, that a part of her soul that she could not identify had been lost by throwing her hand away.

And then the hand started to jerk. Noa only waited as she felt an aura that was not hers surround the hand, it's movements and twitching being guided by Noa's own aura, densest the closer it was to her. The hand eventually managed to jerk enough to move, and using its fingers in odd ways, it slowly crawled back toward the densest part of the aura that was not its own.

Noa was too stunned to step away, not that the small empty room offered any hiding spot. Within minutes, the hand had come back to her, and the missing link in her was filled by the contact with the hand, along with a deeply rooted fear of loneliness, of being small and weak and blind and utterly incomplete.

The fear of a part of herself not understanding why it had been abandoned.

She could not do it. She reattached her hand to her arm as the tears flowed down, unable to stop, unable to act and have the guts to confront so many fears.

Too pathetic to end it, all she could do was wait and suffer in silence.


Back into the security room, Chandler was sitting in a chair as he watched Judith and Evans cross the door. “Still think she can get out of that room?” As much as he would have liked to be able to pull a 'I told you so' on this one, he was simply not in the mood for that, instead coming across as dead serious.

“She needs to get out,” said Judith. “Staying locked up inside that damned place is sickening. There's barely any ventilation in that room. You want her to choke?”

“For one, she doesn't need to breathe,” explained Chandler. “And her room needs to be completely airtight for security reasons.”

“You might not think she needs it,” countered Evans, “but lacking air will make her feel that much more inhuman over time. And since we are dealing with a serious case of depression, this is one thing that will need to be fixed.”

“Like a little bit of air ever fixed a depression.” He sat back deeper in his chair. “What are you suggesting? We can hardly move her out of that room without exposing ourselves or the building to collateral damage.”

“We can. We just need to be meticulous about it.” Evans jumped from Judith's shoulder onto the table, a more stable surface to pace around. “You'll have to prepare room rotations. If we can get Magnolia on a moving bed, we could roll her to different rooms whenever one would reach a too-clean state and edge into property damage.”

“And how often should we do that?”

“As it is, with her aura not having anything to do for days, I would start with only a couple of hours per room, keeping an eye on her, and progressively increase the duration as her powers calm down.”

Chandler frowned. “We'll run out of cells in no time doing that. It's not maintainable.”

“Then get her back to the hospital. We can move our patients around.”

A shake of the head. “She stays here until she is deemed non-threatening.”

Judith crossed her arms in affront. “So you're going to refuse her treatment because of stupid policies?”

“Can't take the risk. It's either she gets treated here, or not treated at all and get packed up to the next facility.”

Judith was about to add a snide comment when Evans proposed something else. “Then don't limit yourself to cells. This is the weekend, surely there are some desk offices she could stay in for a couple of hours at a time.”

“It's not secure. She could try to flee.”

“There's no chance of that.” Evans put his hands behind his back and straightened up to stare at the MCO agent. “She doesn't even have the willpower to stand up and step out of her current cell, much less to escape and deal with pursuit.”

“And how can you be so sure of that?”

“I'm an empath. I feel what she feels. I know.”

Chandler seemed to consider the proposition for a while before giving the rat a nod. “Assuming we go with that, what's next? Come Monday we won't be able to cycle her around like that, and I doubt she'll be safe enough to let outside by that point.”

“Probably not. She will need counseling for a while, and she will need a more familiar environment to even hope she gets better.”

Chandler was about to argue when he thought better of it, seeing it as an opportunity. “We are on good terms with her dad, and we keep in touch. I would allow her out under his supervision if, and only if, this is the only way for her to get better and to control herself.”

“You can't entrust her to Randall,” said Judith, disliking the direction this discussion was taking. “I'm her legal guardian.”

“And so is he,” he said smugly. “We dug out some papers about him. Seems like your separation never really got any closure, leaving him with the same rights to your kids as you do.”

“That will do for a start,” said Evans, cutting once again a fuming Judith. He gave her a look to calm her down, transmitting that everything was okay. “We'll still have to consider proper treatment. Moving her out is one step, but she won't get better with only that, and medication won't do anything for her.”

“She talked about hypnosis,” recalled Judith, looking alternatively at Evans and Chandler.

“Bad idea,” said the first, at the same time as the latter said “That's something I won't allow.”

Staring down Evans, Chandler explained the point of view of the MCO. “We won't risk any dangerous mutant to receive post-hypnotic suggestions that might lead them directly or indirectly to a rampage. We can never be sure what exactly happens when a psychic fiddles with the mind of someone, and there are too many risks and to many ethical issues for us to permit it.”

Evans nodded, turning to Judith to explain his own position. “I'm only an empath, not a full blown professional psychic. I did once calm down Magnolia with hypnosis, but even now I'm not sure whether that was the right thing to do or if it was a mistake. One wrong suggestion could have completely adverse effects, and Magnolia is much more frail than she was back at the hospital. Even in the off-chance it did work, the suggestion would be weak and temporary at best, which might cause her to develop a dependence on hypnosis. In the long term, simply changing the psychic doing the treatment could cause completely volatile results.

“Then we need to consider how she is coping with her new body and the events that occurred at school. It is very likely that she is feeling inhuman right now, or less than human. If she is having an existential crisis, messing with her mind would just be adding gasoline to the fire.”

Judith looked at the two in turn, finding no way around their arguments. “Okay, so that's not an option. We'll figure out something. She just needs to be surrounded by her family, to see her friends and to get back some measure of normal life and she'll get better.”

“I'm afraid it's not so easy,” said Evans heavily.

“Of course it’s not. Not with the MCO pressing down on her from every side.” She eyed Chandler critically who just shrugged in response. “If things can settle down for a while, she'll see that things are getting fixed up and she'll lighten up after some time.”

“Have you ever been clinically depressed, Ms. Flores?”

It took her a few moments to think back over her life now that she was put on the spot like that. “I had my moment after the separation with Randall.”

“Medication?”

“No.”

“Counseling?”

“No.”

“Did it cause you problems at work or at home?”

“No, I made sure my problems remained my own. Wouldn't want to inflict that on the kids or my coworkers.”

He shifted his weight from one leg to the other debating how blunt he should be to make her understand. “Depression as an illness is quite different from feeling emotionally down. At its worst, it is not physically possible to think about the future or to motivate yourself to act, and suicide can seem like the only way out. It is not something you can just snap out of.”

She crossed her arms, refusing to think the situation was that bad. “She just needs to be with her family and not in a cell. How do you know it's not just caused by being held up against her will?”

“Any empath who would walk into that room would never mistake the black hole that plagues Magnolia for anything else.” Seeing that Judith was at a loss for words and was considering what he just said, he continued on a friendlier tone. “I suggest you do some research to understand what your daughter might be going through. I will need to talk to her regularly to teach her some methods to deal with depression, but you must understand that even if you love her, even if you push her to see friends and have fun, even if you get her to follow a routine and get her to act on small tasks, what she feels right now might take months or years to heal.”

“It won't take that long. I'll make sure of it.” She tried to compare the mental image she had of Noa the first few days after she had left the hospital with the girl sobbing in that isolation chamber. From Judith's point of view, the MCO and the isolation were the cause, there could be no other explanation. All she had to do was to get her daughter away from them for her to go back to her cheerful self again.

Dr. Evans knew better however. “So long as you are ready to admit that no matter how hard you or I try that Magnolia might be stuck like this for a long while, especially since no medication exist for her unique metabolism. I know what I felt the moment we stepped in that room. I wouldn't wish anyone to go through this, but sadly she does. We can only do our best, and pray she eventually gets better.”


Monday morning, June 27th
MCO office

For the next few days, Noa was moved from one room to the next every four hours at first, then every eight hours once Evans felt pretty sure her powers were regulating themselves back to their regular levels of activity. It took them a while to put her on a wheeled bed, considering that no one wanted to touch her and that she did not have the energy to stand up. It was Chandler who first said 'To hell with it', grabbed her despite the pain coursing his entire body, and raised her up on the bed before fleeing the room to escape her overaggressive aura.

Her attention flickered on and off, uncaring of what happened around her unless Evans was physically present, if only for the glint of hope she still had that he could pull her out of this mess. Even her mom, once Noa was safe enough to not require everyone around her to wear personal force fields all the time, did not get so much as a glance or meaningful reaction out of her without the rat around. It was like talking to a ghost, the few words that did escape Noa just too painful to listen to.

On Saturday night, Noa was safe enough for someone to dress her up. On Sunday, Dr. Evans tried to get her to put one sock herself, and he let her crash down and cry for several hours afterwards, completely drained by the efforts it took her to do such a meager action. The efforts, no matter how small, only served to remind her how useless she was, the shame of being unable to do more provoking more tears to flow. Evans was patient however, and one word at a time he got her to put the next sock, then a shoe, then another shoe. Hours went by, yet he knew he was only afforded until Monday, an impossible task if he was ever given one.

When Randall showed up on Monday morning, Noa was relearning how to sit without having a breakdown. One step at a time, so many steps yet remaining, so much so that she could not see the end of it.

She left the office in the arms of her dad, and accompanied by Dr. Evans he drove back to his apartment, leaving behind Chandler who was on edge regarding this whole deal.

The MCO office filling up, he walked to Schwartz's booth, formulating a plan now that Noa had moved out from their care.

“Can we get an agent to watch over Randall's apartment?” he asked his colleague.

“I can get someone. Twenty-four-seven?”

Chandler shook his head. “Do we have Randall's schedule?”

“Yes, from an earlier observation.”

“Then have someone cover an hour before and after the times he usually leaves for work, and the time he comes back. That should be enough for now.”

“You trust the guy?”

“Barely. But we can't afford to stretch too thin if it's not needed, and from what I've seen this weekend, Magnolia is in no state to cause trouble for a while.”

Schwartz wrote down a quote of what Chandler just said on a post-it and stuck it on his whiteboard, among many other papers. “When shit hits the fan, I'm holding you up to what you just said.”

That got a chuckle from the older agent. “Quite.” His air got serious again, another topic that was splitting his attention lately coming to mind. “Did we make any progress about what Randall told us two weeks ago?”

“You mean Blue Moon?” Schwartz opened his briefcase and pulled out a file containing many documents that he handed to Chandler to skim through. “My private investigator found old servers that seem to be abandoned for a while now. Nothing recent sadly, but we do know that the organization exists, and that it is old.”

“How old?”

“Fifteen-so years, or at least from what we can track from online forums. Maybe more, I don't know. It's a big organization of individuals, selfish peoples, each looking for their personal gain. They do share resources and work together, but from a couple of threads and messages we were able to unearth, they also have a lot of infighting and battles for dominance.”

“A snake pit. Nasty.” He flicked through a few more pages without finding the rest of the requested investigation. “What about the people who kidnapped him? Sugar, Lucky and Rust? Anything on them?”

Schwartz took the folder and flipped to a certain page. “No. Nothing from their codename. The cross-check results from their appearance could match several mutants we know of, but none jumps out as a clear match. They're either unregistered mutants, or using those codenames to confuse us. I tend towards the latter since there is another mutant with the codename Rust who's quite different and quite active elsewhere in the world at the moment.”

“Heroes? Villains?” Schwartz just shook his head. “We really have nothing on them? They spent two days locked in a hotel with Randall and we weren't able to figure out who they were?”

Schwartz shrugged. “Well, the stolen car and fake bank account would hint at villains, but then the fact that they apparently saved the guy and gave precious info to us... I can't tell.”

“Fuck.”

Chandler walked outside the booth a few steps to gather his thoughts before coming back in, contemplating Schwartz's whiteboard full of papers. He pulled out one, a copy of a message passed to them through Randall from that team of mysterious mutants. 'The MCO is bugged. Blue Moon has access to all electronic reports.'

Help he appreciated, even though it came from a mutant he knew nothing about.

“I never liked having to run a disinformation campaign. I guess we're stuck doing paper reports for a while longer.”

“Welcome back to the stone age,” agreed Schwartz.


28: Daddy's Girl

Wednesday evening, June 29th
Randall's apartment

The doorbell of the apartment rang, Randall only giving a quick glance in the peephole before opening to Nathan. The latter was holding a box of clothes, books, letters, plushies and other random stuff, all belonging to Magnolia.

“I brought some of her things.”

“Just put them on the table. I'll deal with it.”

Nathan stopped as he saw his sister sitting on the couch in the open living room, staring out the window as if she had not noticed his presence. Putting down the box, he whispered to his dad.

“How is she doing?”

“Better than yesterday, worse than tomorrow I hope,” he whispered back, giving a sad look at Noa's back. “She's still dazed, but at least she's able to walk, and she follows my instructions when I tell her to change rooms, to get dressed, or to eat. I've never... it's hard seeing her like that.”

Nathan pat his dad's shoulder, understanding the feeling. “She'll get better eventually.”

His dad however still had cause to worry. “What about her school? Isn't the term over by now?”

“Mom talked the principal into postponing her exams for two more months. She'll get to finish her grade, just a bit late.”

“If she can get well enough by then.”

“She'll be. That's what we're here for right?”

At his father's nod of agreement, Nathan bent down to grab a pile of envelopes from the box and made his way to the couch while Randall got back to the kitchen to prepare the meal.

“Hey Mags.” He sat down next to her and hugged her in an embrace she didn't return. The hug pulled her out of her reverie, as she noticed Nathan's presence for the first time.

“... huh?”

“I brought you stuff from home, along with a little something you might enjoy.”

That last word was like a stab of pain. Enjoy. Could she even enjoy again? No, she could not. She did not give more than a second to simply reject his words as a blatant lie.

“... Uh-huh...”

“Just a bunch of letters from your fans.” He smirked, trying to cheer her up. “You have quite a lot you know?”

He put the pile of letters held together by a string between her arms, even though she made no movement to grab them. The letters were all opened, meaning he or her mom went through them and read them all.

“Later”

She floated the letters to the small table in front of them and resumed her sightless staring. After a while, Nathan gently pulled her head down on his knees and started tenderly stroking her hair.

Silent tears streaked down, coming more and more naturally with practice.


Sunday evening, July 10th
Randall's apartment

Dr. Evans's visits were slowly working. Noa put the dishes and silverware on the table, setting up everything for another dinner alone with her dad. She had more energy as of late, but mostly she was running on automatic from a list of simple actions she remembered. Do this here, put that there. Simple tasks, simple goals that had been just slightly out of reach one day, only to be achieved the next or the one after.

She had spent a few days at the MCO’s safe house with Nathan and her mom, long enough to give Randall time to dirty up the apartment for her to come back. As a temporary substitute to their cursed house, the accomodation the MCO provided them was not that pleasant. Nathan and Judith were barely sleeping there, the rest of their time being spent at school, at work, or at a park eating some cheap food they could afford. There was no real place for Noa to hang around, except sitting in the park and letting her aura do its thing.

Her dad kept her just busy enough to help, exactly what she needed and what Dr. Evans prescribed.

The task of the day was chewing.

“Come on, another bite. You can do it.”

Meek encouragement. Obviously, he did not know how it felt like to put some disgusting stuff into his mouth the way Noa was putting her lasagna in hers. Small bites, long minutes of careful chewing to not rip the TK sheet in her mouth blocking the taste— the garbage can next to her was for those inevitable attempts in which it did break— and after a while it got completely absorbed.

Her dad looked at her with pride at her achievement. “That's four successful ones today. You're improving.”

“Thanks.”

“Ready to try something else?”

She shrugged. “I guess.” Prescription of the doctor, there was no avoiding it.

Randall stood up and fetched something from a bag he left in his room. When he came back, he held in his hand a little box Noa identified as a contact lens kit.

“I want you to put these on. It'll look more natural than glasses while indoors.”

He put the container with the pair of contacts in front of her as she let her telekinesis flow inside, considering her options.

“I can't really open my eyes long enough to put them on though.”

He stroked his shin at the problem before going to his room again, fetching a pair of swimming goggles and wrapping many layers of duct tape on them to make them completely opaque.

“Can you open your eyes while wearing this?”

She put them on and cringed as she opened her eyes. “Yeah, uh. Give me a minute.” She quickly patched all the little holes her eyes could see in the tape until it fits her own standards. That done, she blinked a few times under the glasses, feeling for the first time in a while muscles she had forgotten about.

“Kay. Try sliding the lens in the goggles while you keep your eyes shut, close the goggles and then put the lens on. It might take a few tries.”

She did as instructed, using her telekinesis for all the sensitivity it had to slip the lens in place in front of her irises. She tilted the goggles slightly to let a ray of light come in as she tested the lens themselves. They were opaque too. Not as much as she would like but that could easily be fixed.

She removed the goggles and opened her eyes fully. Her dad came on her side of the table and hugged her tightly.

“They fit you perfectly.”

He pulled away slightly, admiring her face for some long seconds. “Remember to blink from time to time. Turn your head where you focus your attention, and don't forget to turn the lights on when you're in a room. That's your challenge for the next few days.”

“I'll try. No promises though. I'm still blind after all.”

“Maybe, but now you look much more natural.” He walked around the table and cleaned up his seat, putting his dishes into the washing machine. “Next time we'll try makeup to get some color on your face, and maybe deal with the glow of your skin.”

She rose an eyebrow. “I didn't think you, of all people, would suggest makeup.”

“A few months ago, I wouldn't have believed it either. But we all need to adapt don't we.”

He cleaned up the rest of the table, setting himself up for doing the dishes. It was not a task Noa had yet reached on their slow and gradual program. It would come, in time.


Monday evening, July 11th
Randall's apartment

Noa answered the knock at the door, opening it on Mr. Schwartz.

“Is your father around?”

“In his room. Come in.”

It was the second time Schwartz came to the apartment, checking that everything was alright with Magnolia and getting the last weekly updates from her dad. She did not really know how to feel about it. On one hand, it was a reminder that they were watching her, one more reminder added to the bracelet still stuck to her wrist and the car she noticed outside when she sometimes needed to get away from the house for a few hours. On the other, they were much less intrusive than they had been back at her school. Maybe she should think of it as a respite?

The two adults sat at the kitchen table, Schwartz pulling out forms and Randall casually talking about the progress Magnolia made over the week, the counseling sessions with Dr. Evans, her little tasks and objectives and so forth. Adult talk. Nothing of interest to her.

Noa walked to her room and closed the door for a semblance of privacy. She remembered to flick the lights on even if there was no point to it, and she let herself drop on her bed. She had so little around here. Her room was nearly empty but for some sets of clothes and supplies Nathan was bringing back from time to time. Retrieving anything from Judith's house was slow going, needing to pass by Evans or the mage he employed for any trace of cursed magic. Their house was still getting cleaned up every couple of days, and Evans was hopeful that it would be livable within a couple of weeks without going mad.

Joy.

The only thing that stood out in her bland room was the pile of letters that had remained untouched in the two weeks she got here. She had not found the strength and motivation to read them before, and yet here she was today, thinking it might kill her boredom while her dad was busy with the agent.

It was through little thoughts like that she knew she was getting better. That, and she was thinking less often of pushing her insulated skin-layer TK away from her and setting herself on fire.

Amend that to 'slightly less often'.

She floated the letters to her while at the same time she unwrapped the string keeping them together. The first letter she opened was from a kid. Simple words of encouragement were framed by messy drawing that would probably have looked cute and innocent had she been able to better distinguish the colors by their chemical components. Some house, a family, maybe a dog?

She opened another to find wishes of admiration, telling her how strong she was to appear on the television. The next one was someone wanting to be her friend and offering a listening ear should she ever need one.

And on and on. Letter after letter, words of encouragement filled the pages, sometimes short and simple, sometimes lengthy, sometimes with drawings or little gifts like a kid's noodle necklace. Many supportive. All positive.

One in particular retained her attention. One of the few lengthy ones from a mutant named Mary.

Dear Magnolia,

I saw you appear on the news a few days back. Quite the attention you grabbed there. I hope you know what you are doing, because that much attention tends to degenerate extremely easily. I know it did for me.

Just like you, I drew that kind of attention back when I manifested. It didn't go well. The medias discovered I was a rager before I did, which gives you an idea of how quickly the powder keg exploded in my case.

It was hectic. At first I tried not to care about what the medias said of me. I thought I was tough, and my mutation did nothing to dispel that idea. I could take it, I'd say myself. It's only the bump after mutating, it'll pass.

It didn't. My family and friends tried to help but I only ended up hurting them. Directly sometimes, often indirectly simply by the attention I was drawing to myself. I took things too far, and after one mistake too many, I ran away.

I won't say it was the best solution, but it was the only one I could think of at a time where I felt pressure from all sides. There are things I could have done better that I simply learned too late to put into practice. I learned to be patient with time, and to remain discrete, something you might want to try should the pressure become too intense.

Most people don't like all the waves mutants can cause when we move around freely. It's disturbing. It's threatening. It's a sense of wonder they aren't ready to admit into their everyday lives just yet. And it took me several years to understand their point of view and bring myself to be invisible, reigning in the energy and the power I felt inside simply so I could live among others.

I saw you on the news channel. You were adorable. Then I saw the videos of you circulating on the web. And I saw myself. The rage, the fear, the lack of control over your own life, the unwanted attention. It might be too late to fix some of my mistakes, but if there is a single thing I can do to repent it's to help someone else avoid the same path I did.

If you ever get the feeling everything is too much, that the only way out is to run away, do it. There's no shame in running away. But don't run away from your family, or friends, or those people that helped you be you, whoever they are. Run away with them. And I mean that figuratively mostly (although if they are in danger you really should just run away with them).

What I mean is: keep in touch. Move away from all the attention for a time, but stay connected to everyone you care about and everyone that cares about you. Don't hesitate to ask for help, no matter the distance separating you from them, be it a few meters or thousands of kilometers. That's the one mistake I regret the most, to leave everything behind, to cut every tie in such a way that I can’t come back. Don't be like me. Support is too precious to throw away in a fit of fear and anger.

— Mary

 

Laying on her bed, she held the letter in her hand for a long time, long after Schwartz had left the apartment and her dad came to check on her.

Idiot. It’s too late to run away now.


29: Urges

Tuesday morning, July 12th
Randall's apartment

Her dad left for work, leaving the house in a silence Noa had grown accustomed to lately. She did not need to do anything while he was away, except to try not to damage the paint on the wall with her powers.

The house was hers, yet it did not feel like her own. Things were missing, not the least of which was Judith and Nathan's presence. Nathan came from time to time when it fit with his summer job, but her mom would probably never enter this place at all. Maybe that was why things felt so unfamiliar, despite having spent a year here on and off a few years back. Despite having spent two weeks here already. She was living here now, since her other house had been desecrated and since the MCO’s safe house made her so uncomfortable, yet she never took the time to make this place hers.

Noa walked around the house, letting her aura seep into every corner, every nook and cranny until she felt it as a part of her, making it her own. She fixed cracks in the walls and dents in the ceramic plates. She made her bed and her dad's, and she put the dirty laundry in her room for her to clean later. The fridge got emptied of anything past or close to its expiry date, along with everything Nathan and her mom were not able to eat. That last part came as an afterthought, but it felt right. It felt like home. So she threw away milk and yogurt, eggs and nuts, fish and seafood, sparing none even in the freezer.

A bit better.

She changed the overflowing garbage can and brought the full bag into her room, as a snack for later.

Her room felt empty. She noticed it before, but now it gnawed at her, annoyed her, unsettled her as if it was plain wrong, a deformity of nature that should not be.

She picked her backpack and counted her cash in her purse. Barely any. She would have to manage with what little change she had.

She left the apartment aiming for the supermarket that was within a thirty-minute walk from her dad's place. As she walked she mentally listed what she wanted for her room. Wall decorations, cushions, summer clothes, a new lamp, soft mats, a poster of something...

Reaching the mall with her list, she was undecided as to what she should buy, if anything at all. The feeling of kittens playing together in a cage on display as she passed by stopped her, rising immediately at the top of her priorities. She wanted a cat. If only she had more money on her. Maybe she could talk her dad into buying one for her on her birthday. The little kittens were plain adorable, with one of them chasing another’s tail, and that one nibbling on this one’s ear.

Reluctantly, she walked away from the display, her heart torn to have to bide the cute little kittens goodbye. One day, for sure she would have a cat. One day.

Her first stop was a clothing store. All around her she found dresses after shirts after pants that just begged for her to wear them. Everything seemed to fit her, all she had to do was to pluck this here and that there and she would end up with a great outfit. She went into the fitting room times and again, changing to a new outfit each time, her handheld basket quickly filling up with stuff she could not resist buying.

Sadly, she only had so little money. And that one dress with the fluff and lace was just out of this world. How could she ever pass that? But that price tag though...

A plan formed in her mind. She picked up more stuff to try in the changing room, and once there she slipped the laced dress into her backpack. The other clothes were an excuse to take the time to eat around the magnetic band and remove it, after which she would be able to recreate the fabric taking her leisurely time back at home. It was flawless.

Spending another hour in the store trying stuff and distracting the employees with mundane talk while she sneakily removed more tags, she managed to get a complete set: skirt, top, dress, pants and underwear, all laced and perfect. When she proceeded through the checkout, her backpack slightly heavier for it, she bought a single cheap t-shirt to make it appear legit.

She never looked back as she crossed the threshold of the store. In her mind, it was not even conceivable that she could be caught stealing stuff. The whole thing had come with a natural conviction and unbridled assurance, for better or worse.

With the set she would need new shoes, and with new shoes she would need a new purse. And earrings. And necklace. And...

Her already empty wallet and heavy backpack forced her to make a trip back home, emptying her stuff in her room and organizing everything very neatly where it should be. She recalled finding a stack of cash her dad kept at the back of a drawer full of underwear. He was always so prompt to buy her gifts when they went out together, surely he would not mind now that she found things she truly desired if she helped herself a little.

Taking half the stash, which amounted to a few hundred dollars, she resumed her shopping spree.


Tuesday evening, July 12th
Randall's apartment

Sitting at the dining table, the only sound beside Randall's chewing of a delicious meal was the drumming of fingers on wood from Noa. She had completely revamped her room, but she kept thinking back on it, back on so many things she could use to make it even better. Change this here, put that there. Constantly disturbed by the fact that she was missing something, something essential, and it was grating at her.

Fingers drumming in distracted frustration.

“Not gonna try to chew tonight?” asked her dad, slightly enervated by the glassy stare he got from her now that she was wearing the brown contact lens.

“Try?” she asked with a scoff, her train of thought interrupted. Why did he interrupt? Could he not see how irked she was? “What's next, you'll ask me to do the dishes too?”

He stopped his chewing at the edge in her voice. Taking a few seconds longer, he delayed his reply with a sip from his glass of water. “You don't have to if you're feeling a bit down tonight.”

Every word spoken, every glance he gave her and every little gesture he made were like needle stabs, as if she was handling a porcupine, for no other reason that she felt so unbelievably prickly that she could not help but snap at him, as if attacked. “You don't have to be such a stick in the mud about it.” Very deliberately and with more force than was necessary, she stuck her fork into the last few pieces of potato and beef that remained in her almost clean plate and she chewed on them for a long minute for emphasis. “Satisfied?”

“You didn't have—”

“Oh, shut up. I know what reverse psychology is, okay?” More needles. Stop the needles. Make the needles go away.

The screeching noise of the chair raking the ground as she stood up was followed by the clink-clank of the dishes and silverware as she grabbed what she could, heading to the sink. She turned the water to scorching hot— not that she noticed— and started cleaning the dishes before the soap even started to bubble up.

“Let me do the dishes, Mags,” said Randall as he came behind her, gently grabbing her arms to pull her away. “Just go rest for a bit.”

She shook her shoulder free as she scrubbed even harder on the plate she was holding. “Plu—ease. You've been talking about the dishes for days now. I'm playing the maid role, just like you wanted, and you say no? Make up your freaking mind already!” Go away!

He tried to grab her hand to keep her still, only to burn himself on the scalding running water. “Dear, what's wrong?” He flipped the water closed and tried to turn her toward him.

GO AWAY! With more strength than he knew her to have, she broke away from his grip and poked him square in the chest. “Nothing's WRONG, except being stuck with your pathetic excuse of a bag of shit!”

Noa stormed off to her room slamming the door shut as hard as she could to punctuate the unbelievable irritation she felt at being treated like that. Her dad stared at the door she disappeared into, confusion and mid-disbelief freezing him in place. What the hell was that about?


Tuesday middle of the night, July 12th
Randall's apartment

Noa was pacing in her room, restless. She had tried to distract herself for as long as she could, fixing things here and there, doubting the way she folded her clothes, unfolding them to fold them again with an excessive attention to detail, only to realize that barely anytime has passed.

What was time? A measure of seconds, minutes, hours and days? The sense of one's perception of how fast things around them moved? Because at the moment, for Noa, time seemed to come to a crawl. Amid a mix of days and nights only differentiated by the presence or absence of her dad, a day with him at work felt very much the same as a night with him sleeping in his bed.

Absent. A silent home with only her moving about inside. Days and night blurred until time stopped making sense, causing Noa to forget and stop caring about it.

She wanted more. Something was missing, but she could not put the finger on what.

What did she want? To live. To feel safe.

In a flash she relived her battle against the spirit at school, the disorientation hitting her hard enough that she needed to steady herself against the wall the time it passed.

It could happen again. Any number of spirits could be against her at any moment.

Fear.

She wasted no time producing mithril dust and keeping it dispersed all around. First safety measure. She would feel anything spiritual close enough to cause her harm.

Not enough.

Phobia had mentioned alchemy. Must learn alchemy. Is alchemy magic? Must learn magic.

Books. Needed books.

Dad's library was pathetic, nothing useful. Library?

Money. Needed money.

No money. Nothing but the second half of dad's stack. Could she falsify money?

Noa tiptoed to her dad's door, using her aura to find and float the stash of cash back to her, only opening the door to his room enough to pass the money through, always careful not to wake him.

Sitting at the table, she turned all her concentration toward copying a twenty-dollar bill. She absorbed it very gradually, recreating it as best she could right next to it as she analyzed the patterns and the molecular composition of it tiny bit by tiny bit. A failure. It looked gross, deformed, something a kid would have drawn quickly on a piece of cardboard, or so it seemed to her.

Discarding her first attempt, she tried again with another bill, trying to fix the mistakes caused in the first one, only to realize that new mistakes were made.

Failure.

With growing frustration, she tried again and again to create a bill that would resemble the original one, yet every single try resulted in failure, the amount of detail held in each bill staggering.

When she extended her hand to fetch another fresh bill and found none, she realized she had burnt through hundreds of dollars stubbornly without making a single step forward. Her nails scratched deep into the table, anger and frustration begging to be expressed.

She resumed her pacing, trying to distract herself further from the impossible need to keep trying, to not abandon her quest. Every time, she was convinced she was only this close to success, yet whenever she looked back at her creation she felt disgust and disappointment at the poor result. It was maddening. If only...

Think about something else. Try something else. Do something else.

What to do? What did she do when she was supposedly happy? Run, dance, music.

Music. That would distract her from her failures. But her traverse flute was at her mom's place.

She left Teddy there too. Maybe Teddy could print money?

Taking her keys and backpack, she left the apartment, making doubly sure that her mithril awareness was constantly up now that she was outside and exposed.

She ran and ran and ran. At this late hour, buses were unreliable, so she ran, even though a small part of her evaluated that it would be just as fast overall to wait an hour for the midnight bus for a quicker trip. She could not wait. Her skin crawled with unbridled energy, overflowing so much there was no way she could spend herself enough to get rid of the relentless need of it.

No matter how hard she pushed herself, it was not enough. She could not shake the edge, the discomfort, the electricity of it all.

A dog barked at her as she ran past, triggering more barks from other dogs elsewhere in the neighborhood. The noise was infuriating!

Annoying, annoying, ANNOYING!

She just wanted to strangle the damned mutts, although shutting them down would be too much trouble and would only slow her down. Instead, she shut away the noise, closing the TK sheet around her ears to not let any air or vibration inside.

Better.

Reaching her doorstep, Noa stopped her hand an inch from the handle. Her mom and brother were probably sleeping inside. The noise of the door opening and of the alarm system going off for the few seconds it would take her to disarm it would wake them up.

Unacceptable.

Circling around the house, she found the window near the ground that led to her room in the basement. A few fiddles with her telekinesis and the window opened from the inside, inviting her.

Discrete. Sneaky. Perfect.

She slipped inside her room, careful not to hit her bedside lamp nor to make any noise. Sneaky, sneaky, that's me. Simply being in her room, she could feel the thickness of the cursed walls pressing down on her, threatening to choke her. Hopefully, she was only here for a second. She quickly grabbed her flute box and Teddy and stuffed both into her backpack.

Noa climbed back out the window, closing it back exactly as it had been. The perfect crime!

She ran back toward her dad's apartment, completely forgetting that neither Nathan nor Judith were sleeping here anymore, but were instead staying at the safe house.

She also never heard the alarm go off as soon as she opened the window from outside and disturbed the sensor in the basement, her telekinesis around her ears blocking that noise just as effectively as it had been at blocking the dogs’ barks.

Neighbors were disturbed, phone calls were made, and it was in a panic that Judith and Nathan were woken by a police call at two in the morning, the overall confusion leaving everyone on edge with no answer in sight.


Wednesday morning, July 13th
Randall's apartment

School day. Noa had spent far too long staying at home lately. It was time to put an end to the vacations and get some studying done. It's Monday after all, better get ready.

She left with her backpack and some school supplies. What classes would she have today? She had not a single clue, so she just packed the general stuff, thinking that she would borrow what she needed from her classmates.

Storming out of her room, she walked straight past a warm breakfast prepared for her on the table, slamming the door under the confused stare of Randall who never got the chance to put in a single word.

She was the first in the bus, and the first to leave once it stopped near the school. Early bird gets the worm, right? Or in this case the best seating spots, even as she failed to realize that the bus was not nearly as crowded as usual.

It was only when she briskly walked to the front doors of the school and failed to open the locked door that she realized something was wrong.

The school year is over.

There is no school today.

These two facts floated in her mind, crispy clear and known, yet she had a hard time linking the one to the other.

It's Monday, isn't it?

Realization seeping in, she kicked the door as hard as she could, frustrated that the damned school's schedule did not match her own internal one. Disinterested by the school, or lack thereof, she made her way back to the bus stop, the nagging uneasiness of something being not quite right lost under the relentless need to be somewhere, to do something, anything.

Plans started to form as to which bus she should take. This one went to her house. And so she crossed the road to wait at the opposite bus stop, having firmly decided to go to Judith's house on a whim.

But no, this bus would lead her to the shopping mall. There was always something to see at the mall.

Cross the road. Wait some more.

Yet, if she took this one, she could go at the library.

And cross again, deftly avoiding a honking car passing by at the same time.

It was as if all the option were mapped in her mind, each pulling at her with equal unyielding urgency without any sense of priority or exclusivity. She could do them all. She could be everywhere at once. She was everywhere at once.

She jumped in the first bus that came, regardless of where it was going or how. Only moving mattered at all. And just as quickly as she entered the bus she exited it at the first of her potential destinations it traveled to.

Impatience. Nervousness.

She entered the library looking for nothing and everything at once. Spirits, safety, magic, orichalcum. All topics that required her immediate attention, and after asking (read: ordering and throwing a fit at) the librarian to do a search for those terms, Noa found herself with a stack of printed paper listing the three hundred or so titles that may be relevant.

She found a quiet corner table, dumped thirty of the most interesting titles of the list after a quick skimming, and she started to read.

And read.

And read some more.

Fiction, novel, documentary, legends, myths. Vampires, witches, spellcasting, dragons, alchemy.

It was a kitchen sink of random stuff, barely anything pertinent for a casual reader, ranging from urban fantasy to horror to drawing books on fairies and audio recordings.

For Noa, it was enlightenment.

The whole world just seemed to come into focus with a clarity that transcended mortality and human concepts. It was God-like. Her perceptions shifted, and instead of feeling the world shape the flow of the particles in her aura, she was subconsciously shaping her aura to create the rest of the world that extended beyond. She was the creator, not an observer, and that simple fact threw her worldview upside down.

She had perfect understanding of every mystical term she had read, as if she had written them herself. It was pure, it was hers, it was her. All she had to do was to claim her place where she belonged, up high in the heavens.

Only, to reach the heavens she needed a plane ticket, but she was a mutant now. Her mom told her that mutants could not fly without a MID.

The solution was all too clear.

After the library closed and the librarian had to force Noa's nose out of her books and throw her out, she made a beeline to the MCO branch office.

When she passed the doors of the office, she walked straight to the reception desk under the stare of the two women behind, obviously recognizing the girl that caused so much trouble some time before.

“I need to get an MID,” said Noa without preamble. “Get someone here. I'm ready to take the tests now.” All she got back were disdainful looks, both condescending and hateful, and some long seconds of waiting as the two secretaries purposefully ignored her. Noa did not have the patience to deal with this. “NOW!”

The woman in front of her rolled her eyes. “We're not conducting any testing after four PM, due to how long regular tests can take.” Like, even 20 IQ muties would know that. “Come back tomorrow.”

Noa put both hands on the counter and leaned forward menacingly. “You don't understand. I need it NOW.”

The secretary edged back with both disgust and fear, her finger tantalizingly close to the button under her desk that would call security. “Waiting a day won't kill you. What's the urgency?”

“I need to take an airplane as soon as possible.”

A mutant wishing to flee the country? Was she trying to disappear after committing a crime? “Where to?” the secretary asked, hoping she might get a raise if she stopped this mutant before she escaped the MCO's grasp.

“To the heavens,” replied Noa in all seriousness.

The security button got pushed. A few seconds later, Noa felt a security agent, dressed and armed, move within her reach as he opened the door leading to the main hall.

Noa was already fleeing, out the main doors before the security guard crossed his, and she ran all the way back to her dad's apartment as if the police were on her trail.

“What's going on here?” asked the guard as he took in the otherwise empty hall.

The secretary looked between the guard and the front door through which Noa disappeared through. “Magnolia Flores just stormed in, threw a fit and ran away right before you came. Something about jumping on the next flight to who knows where.”

Perplexed, the guard asked back “A flight? Why did she come here instead of going straight to the airport then?”

“She wanted a MID...”

The guard shook his head, not sure whether the girl was a lawful airhead villain or just plain stupid. “Let Chandler know what happened. He's the one in charge of her.”

He left as the secretary wrote a quick email detailing the encounter. Clicking 'send', she quickly went back to her previous task, no longer thinking about the crazy mutant.

She also forgot that the MCO's systems were currently on lockdown due to a piracy threat.

Somewhere within the confines of the MCO's internal mailing system, a bot found the email and redirected a copy to an anonymous account.


Wednesday evening, July 13th
Blue Moon's forum

bandersnatch | 7:11 PM
News from the MCO
In their words, Magnolia 'stormed into the office' just now
Which doesn't make any sense from what the other reports are saying.

H43T4N | 7:13 PM
A few days ago, you said she was still comatose and held in a bunker under the MCO.
So she recovered in the past day or two without forewarning?
I somehow doubt that.

SideStep721 | 7:14 PM
Sketchy...

bandersnatch | 7:14 PM
Yeah...
It doesn't fit.

J.T. Astrex | 7:15 PM
Could they have spotted us and given us false intel?

bandersnatch | 7:15 PM
...
Fuck!

ichorDrip | 7:15 PM
You don't say.

H43T4N | 7:16 PM
Snatch, are you telling me that we've been waiting a whole month for nothing, and that our target is already out and about and healthy enough to 'storm into the office'?

bandersnatch | 7:16 PM
uh... yeah...
sorry?

H43T4N | 7:16 PM
You think 'sorry' will cut it?
They fed you crap for who knows how long now.

bandersnatch | 7:16 PM
Hey, it was good crap. It made sense at least, and it was consistent. They obviously know how to distribute disinformation. I bet they probably have a team whose task is to do just that.
Hindsight is 20/20 though.

SideStep721 | 7:16 PM
I hear excuses.

ichorDrip | 7:17 PM
Incompetency is a sin.

J.T. Astrex | 7:17 PM
Everyone, just knock it off, okay?
Snatch at least found the leak and put an end to our waiting. That a plus in my book.

H43T4N | 7:17 PM
Just shut up Astrex, I'm in charge here.

J.T. Astrex | 7:18 PM
I say we get in, cover both of her houses and grab her as soon as we see her.

H43T4N | 7:18 PM
I SAID SHUT THE FUCK UP!!
...
Ok, here's the plan. We get in, camp at both houses and the first one to spot her kidnaps the girl.

J.T. Astrex | 7:18 PM
I call plagiarism on my plan. It's not because you changed a few words that it makes it yours.

H43T4N | 7:19 PM
You have something to say about my plan?!

J.T. Astrex | 7:19 PM
Not anymore.

H43T4N | 7:19 PM
Good
Astrex, you're a wizard, right? Throwing sparkles around and dressing like a clown?

J.T. Astrex | 7:19 PM
Sure. We're the life of the party, as always.
*rolls eyes*

H43T4N | 7:19 PM
Can you use your witchy powers to get us the best time to stand watch at the houses?

J.T. Astrex | 7:19 PM
I could, given some preparation.

H43T4N | 7:19 PM
I don't care how you do it, by having sex with a virgin, opening the liver of a cat or howling with the wolves, just do it.

J.T. Astrex | 7:20 PM
Jeez, Haeten.
You really should open a magic tome at some point. Your level of ignorance hurt my eyes.

H43T4N | 7:21 PM
Good.


J.T. Astrex | 9:43 PM
So, huh, I got something, but I do not guarantee the reliability of the info.
Anyone's up for the 3 o'clock night shift, tonight?
I'm in Sudbury right now, and considering the five-hour drive to get there, it'd be really tight for me.

ichorDrip | 9:55 PM
I can drive. Anyone near Hamilton needs a lift?

SideStep721 | 9:55 PM
Not me. I guess I'll just wait for everyone back at the lab.

bandersnatch | 9:56 PM
Ichor, you can come pick me up. I'll send you my address.

H43T4N | 10:01 PM
I have my car. I'll cover the apartment, Ichor and Snatch you two cover her house. Astrex, I'm holding you responsible if anything goes wrong.

J.T. Astrex | 10:03 PM
Wow.
Thanks Haeten. I always knew that you'll eventually admit I'm the one in charge around here :)

H43T4N | 10:03 PM
I'll pretend I didn't hear anything.


30: In a cage

Thursday very early morning, July 14th
Carol's house

Carol's dream was disturbed by her phone buzzing on the wooden table next to her bed. In her drowsy state of mind, she ignored the buzz until it came to a stop a few seconds later.

The phone started buzzing again, pulling her more and more awake from the disturbing noise it was making, until the vibrations on the phone made it drop from the table with a loud thud, jolting her awake.

And she was having such a nice dream to boot, one of the rare ones she got lately. They came more and more frequently now that she was following magical treatment for her curse, but she was still annoyed at missing what would have otherwise been a good night's rest.

She picked up her phone from the floor, the buzzing having stopped already. Check the time.

2:47am.

Who's the dumbass who was calling her at this late hour?!

As she was about to shut down her phone, it rang again. This time she was determined to give the unknown number a piece of her mind.

“Look you stupid faggot, it's two A.M., I got your number, and I'll call the police if you don't stop spamming me.”

“Carol! It's me. You won't believe what I just found. Are you free on the evening of the twenty-eighth?”

"Wha...? Noa?” Still slightly slow from having just woken up, it took Carol a few long seconds to recover from her surprise. “What a—”

“Make sure to book that evening for me. They say there's a meteor shower that night, and I know how much you love gazing at stars sometimes, so wouldn't it be great if we could watch the meteors from Gordon’s Park together?”

“Hey, slow down. That's still weeks from now. Why are you calling in—”

“Oh, and it'll be the full moon in just a few days too. So pretty, like a glimpse of heaven. You're up for that too, right?”

“— the middle of the night? Slow d—”

“Kay, coming to see you. Let's make plans for everything. This way we won't miss anything. See you in a while!”

“Noa, you're not really—” The line cut. “— coming... What the hell?!”

Carol dialed the number Noa just used to call her, but nobody picked up. She tried again only for a man's voice to scream in the receiver “IT'S TWO IN THE FUCKING MORNING. GET LOST,” and shutting the line on her.

Utterly confused and unable to reach Noa, Carol paced in front of her window waiting to see if Noa would indeed show up, if this was a prank, or if she was still dreaming a very convincing dream. She did not close an eye for the rest of the night.

Noa never came.


Thursday very early morning, July 14th
Street in front of Randall's apartment

Haeten drummed her fingers on the wheel, waiting patiently in her car. She half wanted Astrex to be wrong so that she would have good reasons to dump her from the team, and she half wished this to go according to plan for once and get this over with.

Five to three, under the darkness of the night, the door to the apartment opened to let out a shadow. Well fuck, Astrex was right.

Haeten quickly stepped out from her car as the girl walked away, and coming from behind she put a hand over the girl's mouth and picked her up with her other arm as if Noa waited no more than a bag of potatoes.

Noa struggled and tried to break free, but the woman's grip was as solid as steel. She tried to attack her with her telekinesis, but the woman was covered by a protective layer that reminded Noa of Phobia's demonstration last time they met.

Haeten did not even notice Noa's feeble attempts. She threw the girl unceremoniously in the trunk and locked it on her before stepping back in the driver's seat and taking off.

Noa kicked and screamed and tried to rip through the metal containing her. This was kidnapping. They wanted to prevent her from soaring high in the sky where she belonged. They wanted to soil her, to steal her name and purity from her.

As if she would allow that to happen.

Fiddling through the lock mechanism holding the trunk shut, she got it to unlock after a few minutes. Even so, it didn't mean she could just jump out at the speed the car was going after it engaged the highway.

Haeten heard the whistling noise of the air currents entering the open trunk at extreme speed. One look in the mirror and she decided to accelerate, the jerk she gave the car forcing closed the trunk on Noa. She did not know how the trunk got open, but she hoped the girl still had enough self-preservation instincts to not jump out of a car speeding at 140 kilometers per hour. Just thirty minutes until we reach the lab. Just stay put, girl.

Noa did not want to jump out. It went by too fast for her aura to be able to pick up anything, which translated to an apparent complete void behind the car in her mind, with no hint of where the ground was or if other cars were trailing behind. Way too scary for a jump.

Instead, she reached her aura forward, seeking the pedal that would slow down or even stop the car so she could jump out. Noa felt three pedals, one on the left and two on the right. Taking a guess, she pushed telekinetically on one at random.

Haeten's heart almost jumped out of her throat when the pedal under her feet got pushed all the way down, rapidly accelerating the car to speeds past 180 kilometers per hour. All her attention was focused on keeping the car straight, fighting the wind that threatened to swerve her and make her lose control, and avoid colliding any of the few cars in front of her that were stupid enough to be on the roads at three in the morning. She resisted the urge to press the brakes as that would certainly make her lose control.

“Stop that you stupid bitch! You're going to kill us both!”

Just more proof for Noa that she was doing the right thing. She just pushed down harder on the pedal.

Taking a glance at the speedometer that just kept increasing, Haeten put the car on neutral and turned off the contact, letting the car roll at its current velocity. At least it was no longer accelerating, and it was even slowing down gradually. She just had to focus on avoiding the other cars and maintaining control. Easier said than done though.

Feeling the acceleration die down from behind, Noa tried all the pedals, but none of them gave any result. The woman behind the wheel seemed confident once more, a sure sign that things were moving in the latter's favor. Noa tried to open the trunk again, but the heightened air resistance told her immediately that they were still going too fast.

There was only one option left. Noa jerked the parking brake all the way up.

The rear wheels locked and started skidding on the pavement with an awful noise and the smell of burnt tires. Haeten jumped in her seat, her eyes moving immediately to her central mirror to check for incoming cars as her speed dropped below 70 in the blink of an eye. She changed lane just in time to avoid a car zooming by that could not have expected her sudden drop in speed. Her eyes switching from each mirror to the front of the road, she blindly grabbed the parking brake, forced it down and kept it there, her own strength beating Noa's weak telekinesis. That was quite enough. The girl in the back gave her more fright in the last ten minutes than Haeten was ready to admit. Pulling the car into the shoulder, she let it lose more and more speed, this time in full control of the parking brake.

As soon as she felt the speed was slow enough for her, Noa jumped out of the trunk, rolling and scrapping herself more than she expected in doing so. Still, she could not afford a little pain to slow her down, and after she got her bearings back, she sprinted into the woods, away from the highway. She did not turn back when she heard a door slamming shut behind her as the car came to a complete stop, Haeten screaming at her to get back there. Noa just ran.

Haeten gave chase, running at speeds that eclipsed top human speeds. Through the limited range of her telekinesis, Noa could not feel the woman catch up to her, nor could she hear her over the noise of the wind rushing past her ears and branches she pushed away from her path. From the moment Haeten entered her aura to the moment Noa was tackled to the ground, she was not given any time to react.

“You girl are in for a world of hurt,” said Haeten, slamming a hand on Noa's mouth once more. The woman's stature and muscle tone were imposing to Noa's senses, too well defined as if they were sculpted.

Haeten burst up into flame, engulfing Noa with her. It only lasted a few seconds, yet when it vanished Haeten was surprised to see Noa intact, albeit with now damaged clothes. Her own were protected by her PK shell, not that she gave a thought to that then.

Fire did not work, so Haeten resorted to the good old punch in the guts.

In pain, understanding that she could neither escape nor fight back and that the longer she would struggle the more she would be hit, Noa let herself fall limp despite the fear gripping her.

Picking the girl up without ever removing her hand from Noa's mouth, Haeten started walking away, abandoning the stolen car behind. Might as well, since all the speeding they did got them close to their destination in barely any time at all.

That, and Haeten did not trust the girl to play fair should she be put in a car again.


Thursday morning, July 14th
Randall's apartment

Randall ate his eggs and bacon while looking at the daily newspaper, unconcerned about the warm plate cooling off in front of the empty seat across from him. Magnolia had a schedule of her own, half of her time spent outside the house in some form or the other even if it was only to sit in the grass for hours on ends. Just yesterday she had run off as it the devil himself was after her.

Finishing up his breakfast, he went to knock at her door, just to make sure everything was fine.

“Mags, I'm going to work. Breakfast is on the table if you want some.”

No answer. He turned the doorknob and took a glance into her room, feeling like he was intruding on her privacy. “Mags? Is everything okay?”

The room was empty.

After noticing Magnolia's absence, Randall started noticing all the changes brought to the room since he had last seen it. A rack of new clothes, many of which looked quite expensive, several pairs of new shoes he never saw Mags wear before, posters on the walls, decoration mirrors, a cushion corner with plushies...

Where and when did she get all of that?

He left for work with more questions than answers, planning to call Judith to see if she dropped more stuff while he was not looking, and planning to call home at noon to see if Mags was back by then.


Thursday at noon, July 14th
Blue Moon's lab

Astrex parked her car as close as she could to the building. Her trunk was loaded of magical components and tools for the eventual analysis, but she did not unpack anything just yet.

Following the directions Haeten had sent her privately, Astrex made her way to the basement until she saw the other woman sitting on a chair by a door, playing with fire while waiting.

She looked up as Astrex crossed the hall. “Took you long enough.”

“I had to gather some last-minute components. Everyone's here already?”

“Yeah. Sidestep teleported in a few hours before you. Ichor and Snatch were covering bases with me tonight. I think one of them is taking a nap.”

Astrex looked at the door Haeten was guarding. “She's in there?” Nod. “Had any trouble catching her?”

“None.” Nothing Haeten would admit anyhow.

“And she won't try to escape with just a door between her and you?” It was but a simple door with an automatic lock, nothing that would pose a problem to most mutants.

Haeten snickered. “Let her try. Ichor brought some pedestrian blood-slaves to keep her in check, and Snatch got armed robots keeping the doors from the inside. Sidestep opened a portal between the two door frames of the room, looping the two exits one into the other. And I'm here if she ever deals with all of that. She's not getting out of that one.”

Astrex smiled. “Overkill. I want in on the fun. Is there an empty room I can use to draw a containment circle?”

Haeten shrugged. “Any room's fine.”

“Okay, thanks.” Someplace just next to a lab would be best, so that she had access to the source anytime her experiments required some more components. Astrex could just see the power unfold before her, the thought of holding mithril and *gasp* orichalcum in her hands threatening to overwhelm her with excitement.


Thursday evening, July 14th
Randall's apartment

Randall had called home many times throughout the day, and nobody had picked up. He was starting to feel anxious about Magnolia's absence, and after calling Judith to ask if she had seen her lately, his concern only grew at her negative answer.

He checked his answering machine for any message Mags might have left him had she decided to go out for a while. After a few worried messages of his own, which he had left hoping Mags would get them when she would be back, he heard one he was not expecting.

“Noa, it's Carol. Is everything okay? You were talking super fast last night, and you said you were coming, and... I'm just really confused. Call me back when you can, okay?”

A friend Randall did not know about. Something was wrong.

He called Judith to get the phone number of that Carol and called the latter to understand what went on last night. The two exchanged broken and confused explanations, only growing more worried the longer it went.

Magnolia was missing, and they had nothing else to go on.

Randall immediately called both the police and the MCO, and the report he got from the latter only made his head swim even more.

What the hell was going on?!


Thursday evening, July 14th
Blue Moon's lab

Noa had stopped trying to talk the people stuck in the room with her into trying an escape. They did not react unless she came too close to the doors. They were just like puppets kept here for her entertainment.

The world was full of puppets and they were no fun. Noa felt as if she was the only sane person on earth, surrounded as she was with what amounted to mind controlled zombies.

She did make escape plans. Most of which started by eating the dangerous looking robots at each end of the room. Just focusing on the wires and cables and chips and breaking the more delicate components apart, nothing too difficult.

Then she tried to outrun the puppets, which considering their numbers was easier said than done. They did not react to pain, so nibbling on them was useless. And when she eventually brute forced her way through, she never reached the doorknob. Her extended hand instead looped all the way to the other door a way back. That threw her off her game, as her spacial perception had a hard time grasping the infinite looping of the room. Confused, she let the dumb people push her back into a corner and took her time to think of another plan.

A few hours later, the portals vanished and another one appeared in one of the doorways, Haeten crossing through. With Sidestep in the security room filled with cameras, he could easily switch his portals around and link different rooms together. Right now, Noa's room was linked to the room Astrex had prepared over the last couple of hours.

Coming up to the girl, Haeten grabbed both of Noa's wrists in one of her hands and she dragged her prisoner into the next room. She pushed the girl over Astrex's magic circle and kept her there for the few minutes it took Astrex to finish her chant.

The powder that had been spread carefully in a beautiful three-meters wide mandala combusted all at once, digging a few millimeters into the concrete as blue light leaked from every line, Noa stuck in the center of it. She did not see the blue light, but she could feel a burning sensation whenever she moved over a line. After all this time having felt neither warm nor cold, the uncanny burning sensation came with a wave of terror at the realization that the burning was not physical. After the first few burns, Noa did not dare to move.

When the blue light faded, Haeten looked around, seeing no real changes other than the markings burnt into the stone. She waved her hand over the edge of the circle, trying to feel if there was now a containment field or something. “Did it work?” she asked, as Astrex stood back up, satisfied at her work.

Seeing the woman move over the lines without being burnt, Noa too tried to cross one, carefully at first then with more confidence after not feeling any burn like before.

Trying her luck, Noa bolted toward the open door, hoping she could escape the two kidnappers after their failed ritual. Haeten was about to give chase when Astrex stopped her by putting a hand over her shoulder, a wide grin stretching her features.

“She won't go far. Trust me.”

Five seconds after leaving the circle, Noa started to slow down, then she stopped. Something within her grew more and more with each passing second. A growing desire that was not her own, an impossible restless need to go back and sit in the middle of that magic circle. She tried to fight it, she tried to calm that irrational desire but could not.

Despite herself, she started to walk back. She wanted to go back, and as Haeten looked in mid-disbelief Noa came running back to the circle, sighing in relief as the need disappeared once inside.

Haeten looked at Astrex with some amount of concern, which only stretched the witch's grin further.

“She won't want to leave anymore. With this, all the other protections are redundant and pointless.”

“Uh-huh.”

“Pin her down, will you?” Astrex moved to a table of the small lab, wrapping a necklace around her neck and picking up a sharp kitchen knife from it. The necklace was to prevent the girl from attacking her with needles and small stuff like she did at their last encounter at school. Astrex still had marks from that time. The knife was obvious. “I need to collect a sample for testing. An arm will do.”

Noa tried to edge away from the girl with the knife, but the few steps she took outside of her circle made that fear pale under the distracting desire. Noa growing dazed, Haeten had no problem pushing her down into the floor, sitting over her back and holding her head down and her right arm extended straight.

Her mind filled entirely with the thought of the circle, Noa extended her free hand forward, touching a few centimeters inside the burnt lines. Relief washed through her once more, clearing her mind from one thought only for panic to take her at the other.

Astrex was sawing her shoulder with the knife.

Noa tried to struggle, to attack the girl with her aura, but nothing did it. Astrex's necklace protected her as she kept sawing at the joint.

No. Nonononono! Noa could not be cut into pieces again. She could not bear the thought, the fear of being less, of losing a part of herself, body and mind. With each movement of the blade, Noa's dread became sharper, its hold tighter, overwhelming. The memories of that time at school came back to mind. The terror of hundreds of hers, too small to understand the severity of what was going on at the time, echoed primordial fear through her whole body until there was nothing else.

Noa pulled and pushed with everything she had, screaming in abject terror until her arm slipped into her just a moment before Astrex cut the last bit away.

The sensation surprised her, even though she was relieved. She was still whole. No feeling of loss. Thank God they did not get her!

Haeten released her and it was only after Noa scampered back into her circle that she noticed the triumphant and ecstatic look of the girl she now recognized as the school's spirit. That, and the limb she was holding in her hands, which looked for all intents and purposes like an arm.

Trying to make sense of what she perceived, Noa reached with her left hand to her right shoulder. The edge sent stabs of pain at her touch, and beyond a rugged edge she could feel nothing but an empty cavity.

It did not make sense. She still had the sensation of her arm. She was still in one piece. And yet...

The arm Astrex held as she left the small lab did not move. There was no TK particle coming out of it. Not a hint that a part of Noa's consciousness was within.

It was dead, a piece of herself she no longer recognized as her own. The realization sent a shiver of horror down her spine.

“Do try to regenerate,” said Astrex as both her and Haeten left the room. “We do hope for a steady supply after all.”

Her smug smile was the last thing Noa felt as the door closed and they walked out of her reach.


31: To Hang a Thief

Stepping outside of the small lab with her prize in one hand, Astrex went to find Snatch. Finding him in a storage room where he had stored his many robots, all about human-sized except for one hunchback giant that barely fit through the doorframe, she drew his attention by knocking on the wall and dangling the arm in front of him once he turned her way.

“Stop that, it creeps me out,” he said, diverting his eyes from the lifeless limb.

“Can you do something about this?” she asked as she flicked the MCO bracelet still attached to the wrist of Magnolia's arm. The monitor screen was flicking red and a few lights in the metal ring were flashing in activity.

“I worked on it before you got here.” Disinterested, he returned his attention to the giant mecha he had been working on, the pieces of which he had taken from Healbot’s lab when they first raided it for Magnolia’s samples. He continued his explanation only distractedly. “I heterodyned the tracker's signal with my own fake signal, and I copied over the data the MCO accumulated of the girl's bio-readings over the past month that I gathered by hacking their database. I scrambled the data a bit and added some noise, and then I fed it to the MCO starting just after Haeten got here.”

“In English please?”

“The MCO's computers are fooled into thinking Magnolia is still around her house with her usual readings, following her usual paths with nothing out of the ordinary.”

Astrex sighed in relief. “So does that mean this bracelet is useless now?”

“No, I need to keep it around to pick up and override the signal. But I can just put it in my toolkit, it doesn't need to stay attached to her wrist if that's what you're asking.”

“Kay. Give me a few minutes to just—”

“I don't want to know.” Shifting his entire focus to his mecha, Snatch ignored Astrex as she walked out and toward her lab. He did not want to think too hard about what she would do with that arm.


Thursday night, July 14th
Blue Moon's lab

Late at night, Snatch was alone in the security room, playing games on his laptop while only occasionally glancing at the camera monitors. On one of the screens, he noticed Astrex wrapping up for the day in the main lab, putting away her tools and alchemy books aside to join Haeten, Sidestep and Ichor in a comfortable camping room.

He checked another camera, the one for the small lab where their prisoner remained. The camera was down, gray noise the only thing showing up on his screen. It had gone offline without warning about an hour ago, and Snatch was waiting for Astrex to come back and temporarily take the surveillance shift before he went down to have a look and fix the problem.

A few minutes later, after Snatch killed a few more orcs in Good and Evil Online, Astrex showed up in the door frame, drawing his attention with a polite knock.

“Here, a gift,” she said as she lobbed the MCO bracelet at him, which he caught with one hand without problem. “I'm going to bed. Who's taking the next watch?”

“Sidestep in about two hours.” He put the bracelet in his lap and tapped a few keys to kill his last orc and to reach a safe spot on the map before looking up, seeing Astrex rubbing her tired eyes. “Any progress?”

“Some. I went over that Healbot's papers over the past month, but seeing it for real changes things a little. I think I might be able to separate some orichalcum tomorrow. Understanding what exactly she's made of will take longer.”

Snatch nodded. “And the arm you peeled and ground and...” he started in morbid curiosity. “Why do I even ask. Just so long as I have my share of mithril at the end of this.”

Astrex hid a long yawn with her hand. “Kay. Going to sleep now. Enjoy the rest of your shift.”

“Wait.” She stopped to poke her head back inside the door frame. “Can you check the cameras while I go down and fix this one?” he asked, pointing to the small lab's camera that only showed noise.

“How long do you need?”

“Depends on the problem. Half an hour to an hour maybe.”

She shook her head tiredly. “Just go down and fix it. You don't need me to check up on you on the cameras, and beside you won't appear on any until you fix that one. Kind of useless, no?”

“Maybe.”

“Look, you have nothing to worry about. The girl won't leave her circle, and even if she does she's meek as hell. If you're too scared of doing it at night, wait until tomorrow. I'm off. Good night.”

The boy stayed alone in silence a little while longer before he closed his laptop and grabbed his toolkit. Taking his remote control, he went down the hall to another room that held a few of his robots. He activated one that he put on automatic guard mode, and he made his way to the room requiring his touch, the robot following behind.

When he opened the door, he heard the girl inside sing a nursery tune.

Who killed Cock Robin? 'I,' said the Sparrow,
With my bow and arrow, I killed Cock Robin.
Who saw him die? 'I,' said the Fly,
With my little eye, I saw him die.

His robot behind him, Snatch opened the lights and looked at what the girl was doing in her corner. She was facing away from him, playing with various tools left in the lab's drawers. He could spot a short protuberance where her right arm had been cut off, a sign that she was slowly regrowing it.

Ignoring the girl, Snatch pulled out a stool and climbed to check on the faulty camera. It was obvious what was wrong. All the wires were ripped out and eaten through. Opening his toolkit, Snatch pulled out some spare wires and repaired the connections one by one.

Who caught his blood? 'I,' said the Fish,
With my little dish, I caught his blood.
Who'll dig his grave? 'I,' said the Owl,
With my pick and shovel, I'll dig his grave.

There! Good as new.

Snatch put his stuff back into the toolkit and tested the controls of the camera with a little implant he added to it. Left, right, up, down, zoom in and out. Yep. Simple work.

As he extended a leg to climb down from his stool, the light switch flicked off, throwing the windowless room into darkness. Surprised, Snatch missed his step and fell on his ass, the stool knocked away from him.

“Oww!” That hit the bone. He rubbed his butt until the pain went away. Standing back up, he shook the numbness away and turned to the only possible culprit in the room with him, even as she never interrupted her singing.

Who'll be the clerk? 'I,' said the Lark,
If it's not in the dark, I'll be the clerk.
Who'll be chief mourner? 'I,' said the Dove,
I mourn for my love, I'll be chief mourner.

“You! You did that on purpose.”

Snatch walked to the light switch and flicked it on just for it to be flipped right back off as soon as his finger left the switch. He flipped it back on, fetching some duct tape from his kit and taping the switch on the 'on' position with several layers of tape.

“Duct tape for the win!”

The room now basking in light, Snatch decided to put the taunting girl back into her place with a little bruising. He pulled out his remote and changed his robot from auto-pilot to manual as he urged the robot forward at the girl.

Nothing happened.

He pressed all the buttons on his remote but the robot remained unresponsive. Snatch opened his robot's command center to check if the receiver worked properly and was astounded to instead find all the wiring having been ripped out just like for the camera, along with all the chips having been snapped to pieces.

Who'll carry the coffin? 'I,' said the Kite,
If it's not through the night, I'll carry the coffin.
Who'll toll the bell? 'I,' said the bull,
Because I can pull, I'll toll the bell.

Without him moving an inch, the duct tape on the wall got ripped off, the lights flicked off and the door left opened until now slammed shut.

Snatch nearly jumped off his skin at the sudden noise, which was soon accompanied by a prickling sensation throughout his body, inside and out. It was as if thousands of tiny needles pieced him from the inside, anywhere and everywhere.

He rushed to the door, turning the doorknob as hard as he could without success. The door remained locked.

In his agitated painful state, Snatch opened his kit once more, digging for the lock picks he always kept on him. The needling pain numbed his fingers, and as he grabbed the kit of five tools and bent down to unlock the door, Noa snatched the picks from his delicate hold, floating them up and past a tile of the suspended ceiling.

“Hey! No fair, I needed those.”

The tools disappeared in the crack Noa opened before the ceiling tile dropped back in place.

Snatch's vision started to blur, drops of blood leaking from his nose and the corners of his eyes, and his breathing became strained and heavy. The pain was getting more intense with every passing second, the feeling reaching to his bones and overwhelming his senses.

He took a few steps toward the girl in the magic circle determined to punch her until she stopped doing whatever she was doing when his legs flinched under his weight, sending him panting down on the floor, each breath refusing to quench his burning lungs. Losing consciousness, the ending rhymes of the nursery were the last thing he heard.

All the birds of the air fell a-sighing and a-sobbing,
When they heard the bell toll for poor Cock Robin.
While the cruel Cock Sparrow, the cause of their grief
Was hung on a gibbet next day, like a thief.


Friday morning, July 15th
Blue Moon's lab

Sidestep woke up early, having gone to bed just as early in anticipation of his night shift. The kid sat up in his sleeping bag and stretched a good night's sleep away. Sun was coming in from the window, another nice day in the making.

Looking around, he saw Haeten sleeping soundly on her inflatable bed, Astrex rolled up nicely on her folding bed, and Ichor sleeping on the concrete with him, a thin foam pad the only thing between his back and the floor.

Sidestep rubbed his eyes, still not a 100% awake. He put on a white knitted sweater he cherished as a gift from his aunt, and still slightly groggy he created a portal in the doorway leading to the one in the security room. He normally needed to see both ends of the portals he made, but 'seeing' also worked through cameras and pictures, and he took a couple of pictures of the rooms and doors around yesterday with his phone.

When the boy noticed the security room was empty, he recalled yesterday's arrangement. Snatch had been supposed to wake him up in the middle of the night to switch watch, but he had not. Where was the devisor boy?

A quick glance at the cameras confirmed his worries. One of them was dead, only showing noise. And that one was the one supposed to check on the girl.

Looking at his phone once more, Sidestep changed the portal in the doorway to lead to the small lab. As soon as he did, he saw Snatch lying on the floor and felt a prickling sensation dig under his skin. Without missing a beat, he ran into the room, grabbed Snatch, and left just as quickly, closing the portal behind him. The pricking immediately stopped when he did.

Sidestep turned the other boy over, noticing the overall bruising nearly everywhere over the latter's skin. “Snatch. Come on, wake up.” He tried to feel a pulse like they did in the movies, but he was not sure he was doing it correctly. Snatch was breathing faintly, which was definitely a good thing.

Feeling like this was a bigger problem than he could manage, Sidestep teleported back to the room and woke up the other three.


“So, what's the problem?” asked Haeten, as impatient as ever, although her impatience was now tinged with concern.

Ichor winced, digging another needle into his arm to pull out some blood and inject it into the unconscious boy. The three others waited for his diagnosis with various level of patience.

“He's alive at least,” Ichor started, as he focused to move his blood through Snatch's veins. “Most of his capillaries broke, and he has some internal bleeding. I think some of his nerves were hit too.”

“Can you heal him?” asked Sidestep, not really following the man's diagnosis.

“Probably,” the man said as he pulled out some more blood and injected it at another spot on Snatch's body, focusing on repairing and replacing the dead cells with his own. “It'll take a lot from me though. I might regenerate a little, but not enough to keep up the blood supply Snatch might need if he suddenly gets worse.” Ichor looked up at the mage of their little group, hoping for alternatives. “Astrex?”

She shook her head. “Minor healing spells are wasted on wounds like that. I might be able to fix some bruising, but it won't help with the nerves.” Thinking through her options quickly, she came up with an alternative. “I can link his astral presence with someone else though. Two people sharing the same astral space leak into each other slightly, and wounds one sustains are lessened and shared among the two.”

“Pretty useless if you ask me.”

Astrex glared at Haeten. “Healing is also shared among them. If one sustain a wound, both bodies provide the healing. At the very least it will prevent Snatch's condition from worsening.”

“I'm willing to be the guinea pig,” said Ichor as he shifted his focus from his healing to the witch. “Maybe he'll pick up some of my regen. How long does it last?”

“A few hours if I'm binding an unwilling party. Longer if you don't resist, like maybe a day or two.”

“That's fine. Get on with it.”

As Astrex bent down to her knees and started the soul-link ritual between Ichor and Snatch, Haeten turned to Sidestep.

“What happened in there?”

The boy stammered under her intimidating stare. “Um, uh, I don't really know. There was this pain everywhere in my body when I went in and got Snatch out. I—I think the girl was doing it.”

“What's her powers anyway?” Haeten asked the room.

Astrex interrupted her mumbling chant to answer. “Snatch said she was a disintegrator of some sort, along with weak manifestation powers.”

“The only thing I noticed from our car ride was some telekinesis.” With the three others looking at her with interest at a yet untold story, Haeten explained further. “She pushed on the mushroom and pulled the brakes from the trunk.”

“Package deal psychic?”

“Never heard her in my head.”

“Maybe a PK shell. She wasn't burnt by my flames.”

Everyone went silent trying to parse through the miscellaneous details. After Astrex finished her chant and Ichor felt something snap into place linking him to Snatch, Astrex spoke up.

“Let's assume she's a psychic for now. This means no one should stay in that room for long, to avoid psychic manipulation of some sort. And to avoid what she did to Snatch, whatever that was. She didn't attack Haeten during her car ride,” Astrex ignored the fiery girl's humph as she said that, “and she didn't attack us when we put her in the circle. So only Haeten and I will be allowed in that room, and only when we need to retrieve a sample.”

“Speaking of which,” started Sidestep as he recalled what he saw in the few seconds inside the room. “Last I saw, she regenerated the bone halfway down to her elbow, but there's not yet a lot of flesh on it.”

“Sounds about right for my level,” said Ichor with a sigh, “not that I'd want to lose an arm myself though. And let's not forget that regenerators need a lot of energy and food to recover. We wouldn't want to starve our little gold mine, right?”

Astrex and Haeten exchanged a glance, mutual understanding coming across.

“I'll be in the labs,” said the first as the second said “Buying burgers and pizza. Any preferences?”


Thursday or Friday, who cares about time, July 14-15ish???
Blue Moon's lab, Magnolia's circle

At first there had been panic. Getting kidnapped, locked up, magically confined and then amputated would do that to you.

Then there had been the fear that they would come back and cut her other arm.

But after a couple of hours the fear made place for exhilaration and elation. It was only a natural reaction for people to oppose heroes and force them to face trials and challenges. Hercules had to complete his twelve labors, Luke had to face the Dark Side Cave in Star Wars, and Happy Pie had to bake chocolate cakes for her whole family in Cutie Cutie Plushie.

Hmmmmm, chocolate!

So this whole situation was to her what chocolate was to Happy Pie. It validated Noa in her belief of being the purest being on earth. This ordeal was hers in her amazing ascension to her throne in heaven.

After she calmed down a little, plans sprang to her mind one after the other. She took stock of her environment, the small room having sinks and gas valves and balloons and chemical samples and a lot of different tools hidden in one drawer or the other. She grabbed some tools and brought them to her in her circle. Pipette, syringe, magnet, Petri dish, test tubes, burners, small knifes (she flung them away. No knife was allowed near her), flint lighter, there was plenty of stuff to keep her busy for a while.

Later. First, she needed to create a new arm for herself. Slowly, slowly...

But wait, they might come back and cut her arm again as soon as she got everything back together. That would not do. Those thieving bastards. Who were they anyway? The spirit girl, the angry Amazon, the tech boy, zombie-man and sweater mama-kid? Damned thieves were stealing her arm!

She had to hide her arm somewhere. There were drawers and doors all around, but they were too obvious. No, she needed something out of reach, something they would never think to search.

The suspended ceiling would do nicely.

Just as she started regrowing her arm bit by bit, she also did the same above the ceiling's tiles, hidden from view. It would make her recovery twice as slow, but at least that way if they ever stole her arm again she would have a spare to fall back on.

The camera moved. They were watching her. The five thieves were looking at her from the other side of that camera. Don't they know about that thing called privacy? Jeez, barbaric much? Ripping a few cables here and there and there. The camera stopped moving around.

Peepers.

It did not take too long for the tech guy to come and fix his camera. As opposed to the two mean women, this one she could feel his insides. Breathe in, and out. You're within my cloud now, she thought, as she felt her particles move naturally and unopposed through his lungs and blood vessels.

Happy, happy, let's be friends, shall we?

Sing, song, play along.

Knock, knock, the door is locked.

Bit, bite, good sleep, good night.

Hm, wonder how long it'll take them to notice he's missing.

The circle was annoying. It did not prevent her from stepping out of it, but if she did she wanted so badly to go back that she could not leave the room or do much of anything outside the circle. It was as if her position in the universe was not right unless she stood somewhere in it, and nothing else made any sense until she right that wrong first. She wished she could nibble on the lines and disrupt the drawing in the concrete, but as much as the circle made her want to be in it, it also made Noa unwilling to break it directly. She would bend down on the ground and try to scratch with her left hand at one of the lines, but she could not resign herself to put any strength behind it.

That was not to say she gave up for so much. The lines were encrusted about two millimeters in the stone. Noa could not damage those, but nothing prevented her from eating away at the concrete underneath, creating a thin gap to weaken the circle’s integral structure.

Leaving the unconscious boy to his much-needed sleep, Noa focused most of her aura on the task of opening a gap in the concrete below the circle. It would take time though, and she needed something to stall the power rangers for a couple of days maybe.

What about those chemicals lying around? Noa tasted a few of them through her power, but none rang any bells and all were liquid. She did try to pour some of one in a Petri dish and light it up with the flint lighter. It did not work. She tried again this time using the flint to light up the burner and then using her TK to float some of that stuff over the flame.

It merely boiled. Boring. Sciency stuff was supposed to go BOOM!

Those gas valves would be more entertaining. She could leave them all open and cause a huge explosion with a spark or two.

That would be neat. Could she survive that? Probably not.

But the gas had more potential than the liquids. If she gassed up the room, the Jackson 5 would not be able to step in. To gas, or not to gas?

If she could make obvious the threat of there being gas without it being flammable...

The gas valve smelt of rotten eggs. Didn't some teacher said that they mixed different gases with methane to get that smell?

Noa captured a small pocket of gas and brought it to her nose, bypassing her usual protections there.

Whoooo! That's... Yuck! So smelly, uhhhhhr! *shiver*

But if she could just grab the smell out of her nose now, surely the only thing that would remain in her TK would be the rotten-like gas, right? And it was the methane that made things go boom, not that smelly stuff.

She was such a genius.

She tried to create a couple of times the gas she had captured, until she was confident she had it as smelly as it could get. Then, she pulled out the little stub of her spare arm hidden in the ceiling. No one was looking? Good.

The spare stub in front of her, she touched it to see what would happen. She had lost bits along with pieces of her consciousness before, but it was the first time she gained something that had never been in contact with her initially. Under her touch, the translucent flesh felt like an empty container she could just push into and fill. And that was exactly what she did.

Immediately the stub registered as being a part of her, even if it was only joined by mere skin contact. If she pulled her finger away, Noa felt the same lacking sensation as that time she detached her hand and threw it at the wall. If this was a container, could she pull herself back from it, just like she did with her arm?

It took her a couple of hours of trial and error to get the feeling down, but by the end she could pour as much or as little of herself as that amount of flesh could contain. Which was admittedly not much now, but it was growing in sync with the limb's mass.

A few more tests and she discovered that she could plant just the ability to create that gas into the stub. Left to its own devices, the stub would keep producing gas as instructed, and Noa did not feel too lessened by the loss.

She levitated the gas-making stub back up into the ceiling, letting it do its thing and make everything smelly while she focused on regenerating and eating the concrete under her. Maybe she could make more of the fleshy fart-balls? She would go down in history as the girl that turned the rotten egg smell into a weapon! How... unheroic.

A portal opened in the door, cutting that line of thought short. Oh, another one of the Scooby Gang. Noa immediately attacked the boy across the portal, only stopping after he ran in, saved his love interest and ran out with sleeping beauty in his arms. Even villains could fall in love.

Sigh...

Back to work. More fleshy balls, coming up.

Absorbed as she was in her own little world, Noa never realized that what she was producing was the same sulfuric mixture as the one from the gas valves and not ‘just a smell’. It was just as toxic, and just as explosive as industrial methane.


Friday evening, July 15th
Randall's apartment

Randall was sitting on the couch of his living room, inching forward, his leg jumping up and down impatiently. The colorful sunset of this late hour went completely unnoticed as he stared at the disposable cellphone on the table in front of him, a cellphone Rust had given him a month ago.

The cellphone was rigged to call only one number, and Rust had warned Randall that there were many sensors added to it so that they would know if Randall gave the phone to the MCO.

“It's in case ya're in an emergency,” had said the African man as he was about to part with Randall on the latter's doorstep. “If we find it's gone in the wrong hands, we'll just cut the line, no biggie.” Rust shrugged, completely unconcerned that someone could potentially trace back his group's whereabouts from the disposable phone. “But if ya do need it, well, there ya have it.”

And now he did need that phone. It had been two days now that Magnolia was nowhere to be seen. The MCO were saying that there was a bug with her tracer and that it was looping past data for who knows how long, and so they were unable to find her. No lead. Dead end.

Randall took the phone and pressed the green call button, not bothering composing a number. After a few rings, someone picked up.

“Rust speaking. It's been a while, Randall. How're ya going?”

“Magnolia disappeared,” he said in a mix of anger and concern. He inched forward even more, resting his elbows on his knees as he took a menacing tone. “You wouldn't have anything to do with this, would you?”

“Sorry pal, no culprit here.”

“And that Blue Moon forum you kept rambling about?”

“Haven't checked in a while. Give me a moment.” Randall heard some typing at a computer for a minute or two before Rust picked up the phone once more. “Good call. They found out about the MCO's disinformation campaign and started to get active again.”

“Where are they? Where's my daughter?”

“Nothing explicit. Some laboratory they either all know about or were given the whereabouts through another medium than the forum. But don't ya worry about a thing,” he said, stretching a smile that could be heard through the phone. “Our mage is pro at locating people. We'll get ya girl back in no time.”


32: Auguries

Saturday morning, July 16th
Blue Moon's lab

Haeten walked into the small lab where Magnolia was pacing in her circle. When the woman got closer, Magnolia stopped warily, her little arm stub twitching nervously.

Haeten dropped a bag containing a ton of burgers, fries, pizzas and chicken wings at the girl's feet. The rest of their little group had already eaten, although with the quantity of food Haeten had bought (and eaten) they would have fast food for the next couple of days.

“Eat up.”

There was a smell in the room, of chemicals and rotten eggs, but Haeten did not pay too much attention to it. She turned around ready to leave when a burger full of ketchup and mustard got thrown at her, the meat sticking to the back of her shirt as the rest fell to the ground.

With slow and restrained movements, Haeten reached behind her and pulled the patty with a slick and uncomfortable stickiness, throwing it at the ground in disgust. She turned around just as slowly, anger threatening to burst out and explode. Cracking her knuckles, she burst up in flames, reaching forward to pummel the girl who dared stained her shirt.

The smell of rotten eggs made a lot more sense when the gas spread all around the room combusted all at once in a wave of fire that knocked Noa off her feet and against the wall.

“OWW! Ow-ow-ow-ow-ow!” On the floor, Noa grabbed the back of her head with her one good hand, stroking it to make the pain go away.

The explosion had not done jack to Haeten, protected as she was under her psychokinetic shell. She only looked down at the pathetic girl holding her head in pain, the bag of food melting in front of her. Haeten turned her flames off, her anger satisfied with the pain and the inedible food. That would be punishment enough.

She quickly glanced at the various gas valves trying to spot one that had been open for the leak. Finding none, she left, anger boiling back up for completely different reasons and aimed at a completely different target.

“That Astrex, why the hell does she have to make everything more complicated. Just kill the girl and take the loot, but NO! Miss know-it-all wants to milk it for all it's worth.”

She walked into the camping room, empty from everyone except Snatch who recovered enough to rub his eyes sleepily in his sleeping bag.

“I swear, if it wasn't for her we'd have already finished this damned job and moved on. It was a mistake to let her in. She's only causing trouble for the rest of us.”

Snatch looked around the empty room, and then at the pacing woman who looked ready to strangle someone. “Hey Haeten. Are you talking about Astrex?”

“SHE'S A FREAKING PAIN IN THE NECK. WHAT THE HELL WERE YOU THINKING GETTING HER TO JOIN THE TEAM LIKE THAT?!”

Snatch jumped out of his sleeping bag as the burning girl's anger got directed at him. He raised both hands apologetically. “Jeez, calm down Haeten. I don't know what I did, but I'm sorry okay?”

“LIKE HELL YOU ARE! YOU'RE JUST IN LEAGUE WITH HER AGAINST THE REST OF US! GET OUT OF MY SIGHT!”

Snatch did not have to be told twice. He bolted out of the room, running away from the sound of broken glass. The girl needed to blow some steam, and he did not want to be anywhere near when she did.

His steps led him to the main lab where Astrex busied herself with alchemical contraptions that even his technical devisor mind could not make heads or tails of.

“Hey Astrex,” he greeted as he looked at the various vials of liquid boiling here and there and the bottles of chemicals labeled in arcane terms.

She took a few seconds to finish some minute task, her concentration a hundred percent focused on the boiler and the timer in front of her. At the precise moment Healbot's papers said to turn off the heat, she pulled the boiler away from the plate and let it rest, only then turning her attention to her friend.

“Hey Snatch. You're awake! How do you feel?”

“Bruised, but not too bad.”

She detailed him from head to toe, noticing that his skin still had a slight purple coloration in places where his capillaries broke. “Ichor told me the damage was widespread, but minimal and targeted. I'm glad the treatment worked. What happened back there?”

He scratched his head. “The girl played spook on me, and I fell for it. Turning off the lights and ripping the wiring of my robot with her telekinesis, and then thousands of needle-like pain stabs, and then a blank.”

“Yeah, she did that to me once too. I made this charm in case she tried that again.” She reached for the necklace decorating her neck. “I should make one for you too. Think of it, I should make one for everyone but Haeten.”

“What, you've got something against her?” he asked, leery after Haeten's recent outburst.

“It's nothing against her, she just doesn't need it. PK shell and all that.”

He narrowed his eyes at her. “Are you sure there's nothing going on between you two?”

“No. Why you ask?” Now it was her turn to be on her guard.

“Because she just stormed into the bedroom and lashed insults at you as if you were some kind of unholy demon. And then she screamed at me for getting you in the team. I'd just barely woke up and not a single 'How are you today Snatch?', or 'Does it still hurt somewhere?'. Nope. Only screaming and blaming.” He raised his arms up in frustration and let them drop tiredly.

Astrex did not seem impressed. That was a classic Haeten behavior if you asked her. "Haeten's angry all the time against everyone."

"But she has it especially bad against you."

"That's what I get for taunting her and challenging her authority. You and Sidestep are docile little sheep, not threatening at all, so of course she turns to me and frames me as the rival. Don't think too much of it." She also kind of enjoyed the thrill and danger of taunting the fiery brick around, not that she would admit that to anyone. Changing the subject, she asked “Are you hungry? Haeten bought enough fast food to feed an army.”

“I might just go out and buy something,” he said as he left Astrex to her experiments. He doubted Haeten was calm just yet. If he could avoid her for a while, then all the better.

Astrex waited until he closed the door before she got back to her alchemy. The process that Healbot guy had noted was quite complex, but she was nearing the end.

Taking the beaker that had just cooled down from its recent boiling, she placed it on a rune she had drawn on the table. Healbot had used pure science to achieve the extraction, but she was a mage, and as such she could take a few shortcuts.

Focusing on the rune, she spoke in an ancient language words of power, picturing the result in her mind as clearly as possible. A bright light erupted from the glyph over which the beaker was placed, and the solution that was inside seemed to implode upon itself, collapsing and compressing like paper folding into a tiny square. Except here the solution collapsed into a tiny ball of metal the size of a grain of sand.

Carefully she grabbed the single grain of pure metal with forceps and she put it in a tiny plastic container attached to a chain bracelet.

It was the moment of truth. Raising her hand with the bracelet, she invoked a complex spell to create an illusion she pictured in her mind. The moment the picture formed, she felt her power flow through the grain hanging from her wrist and taking shape exactly as she intended without the slightest flaw. Astrex tried a few other spells that she knew she would fail due to lack of mastery, and each time the spell succeeded, the process of its construction and visualization taken care of by the grain of orichalcum. The spells were weak though, weaker than they should reliably be when cast by a mage that mastered them. But that was the beauty of it. She did not need to master the spells to be able to cast them. And although the spells were weak, that was because she only had a tiny amount of orichalcum at the moment.

She needed another set of mithril bones to keep working with. She had extracted everything she could from the first arm.

Giddy with her first success of many, Astrex grabbed a knife and left the room. Even if the girl's arm had not regrown, she could not wait to keep going at it.

Every little bit counted.


Saturday morning, July 16th
Outside Phobia's lair

Phobia took stock of her little rescue group.

Dominating the other mutants by its size, an enormous beast as black as the night cast its shadow over the three humanoid forms down below. The beast was supported by six legs. On its back, two praying mantis talons matching the beast's bulk were retracted, awaiting the right moment and the right opponent to strike at blinding speed.

The name of this monster? Snowball. Because where's the fun in calling things with names that match their appearance?

Phobia broke a smile as she saw Snowball bent his foremost leg up in a step to help Sugar get on his back. Compared to him, the lizard girl looked almost cute, if it was not for the claws, teeth, the intimidating frills around her neck and the rattling sound coming from what appeared to be her hair, which was in fact a bundle of rattlesnake tail tips.

Sugar had some difficulty getting on, what with the heavy backpack containing Rust's drone weighting her down. Rust was staying behind, more effective from his computer moving the drone around that he would be with the rest of them.

Beside Phobia and Sugar, the third humanoid being on the team was barely humanoid at all. He was a swarm of insects bundled into the shape of a man. Each insect was quite alive and buzzing about in a constant squirming mess.

“Skitter, give me a hand, will you?” asked Sugar as she failed to get a good grip to climb on Snowball. Her claws were in the way, and she did not want to hurt the big bulky adorable monster.

“Sure, Mary.”

“Skitter, codenames please,” warned Phobia, taking notice even though nobody was around to hear his lapse.

The swarm man, Skitter, shrugged at Phobia's interjection. He got behind Sugar, avoiding her swooshing tail, and he pushed her up on Snowball's back.

Once she was a few meters high from the ground, Sugar got comfortable and straddled Snowball like a horse, being held in place between the two talons on his back. She could feel the empathic eagerness her mount projected all around him, which brought a smile to her lips as it mixed with her own anticipation of the fight to come.

On her side, Phobia was dressed as aggressively as she could, the many piercings covering her face and ears the least of the insults she sported. Her T-shirt displayed a heart surrounded by the message ‘It's not rape. It's a snuggle with a struggle.’ Carefully chosen to put as many people on edge as possible. Her pink tight fitting pants matched the heart of her t-shirt, redirecting stray eyes up to attention. Leather dominatrix boots completed the package.

In her shadow was hidden Cuddle, her pet spirit dog with a terror aura. The aura irradiated from her shadow, giving off a feeling of dread to anyone within about a hundred meters of her and irrational panic to any that would lay eyes on her. It was a security measure against her own aura, which was definitely worse to anyone who was not afraid of her. Her companions did not seem to mind the radiating terror though. Living along with Phobia and Cuddle, they got used to it and did not let the aura interfere with their actions too much.

Rust was busy typing away at his computer inside the house, talking to them through their earpieces. For those few that had ears.

“Everyone's ready?” Rust asked, making sure one last time communication was up with the important parties.

“We're all set,” replied Phobia as she cast a few strengthening buffs on herself. “Teleporting in 3... 2... 1...”

The space around Snowball flickered and ripped as the group of five got transported several hundreds of kilometers away toward their target. Unfortunately, Snowball's teleports, although long, were a bit inaccurate.

“Where are we?” asked Phobia as soon as she noticed the new area unfolding in front of them.

“Four point five kilometers south east of your target,” replied Rust with a quick check on his monitor. “If you run you'll get there in thirty minutes.”

“How's the intimidation package coming along?”

Rust smiled, starting a program he had prepared for just such an occasion. Within a ten-mile radius of their target, Blue Moon's lab, the city fell into an electricity shortage, street lights all shutting off at the same time, causing more than a few accidents.

“Electricity's down.”

Phobia turned toward Sugar, casting a sound amplifying spell on the girl. “Your turn dear.”

From up high on Snowball, Sugar started to shake her rattles quicker and quicker until the vibrations shook at frequencies outside the human's hearing range. Immediately after, barking could be heard from all around the neighborhood, every dog complaining about the hurtful sound.

“Good. Snowball, invisibility up.” The enormous bulk of Snowball along with the lizard girl on top of it disappeared, leaving only Phobia and Skitter at the center of attention.

“Skitter...”

“Yeah, got it.” The bug man exploded into a true swarm of bugs and nasties that flowed and expanded in the street to create a large cloud around Phobia.

To further advertise her presence, the mage cast a minor illusion spell that mimicked crows rushing above her head and circling rounds and rounds ominously.

“Let's get the party rolling,” said Phobia, now the last visible member of their little group.

When she started running, all hell broke loose, the cloud of bugs flying ahead of her to scare the pedestrians away from her path, while behind her the heavy thump of monstrous footsteps resounded, crashing empty cars and breaking windows when the invisible mass hit the walls.

To anyone that dared look at the spectacle in the street, they would see fear incarnated in the shape of a crazy girl, loved by bugs and crows and hated by dogs, shutting down electricity by her mere presence, leaving only waste in her wake.

A legend was heading straight toward Astrex and co.


Saturday morning, July 16th
Blue Moon's lab

Noa heard Astrex's steps before she felt the girl enter her range. She tensed as she noticed the knife the woman held in her hand as the door opened. Pushing aside the rising fear as the razor-sharp edge came ever so closer to her, she focused entirely on the plan that would get her out of here. Testing the waters, she detected the presence of a thin shield all around Astrex just like she wore the last time she came.

The time she stole Noa's arm.

The bud that she was growing back had not even reached her elbow. There was little for the picking, but she felt like that would not stop Astrex from claiming it.

Noa stepped further away in her circle, careful where she put her feet, mindful of the exact shape and distance it afforded her.

“Don't be scared,” said Astrex as she tightened her hold on the knife. “Be a good girl and lay down on the floor. It'll take just a minute.”

She was still outside Noa's circle. She needed to come in. Appearing to comply, Noa sat down, turning her face up in an expressionless mask. She anchored her feet solidly on the ground so she could bolt as soon as she had the opportunity to do so.

Astrex smiled at the obedient little thing. She took a step forward, raising her knife slightly...

... and lost her balance as the concrete cracked under her feet, dropping an inch down and breaking the magic circle.

Noa jumped on her, pushing Astrex to fall heavily on her back with a gasp. She ripped the blade away from the stunned woman and threw it in the farthest corner, wanting nothing to do with all the unpleasant memories it brought to her. She gathered a good amount of her aura inside her mouth, and before Astrex got her senses back together, Noa kissed her full on the lips.

What??? Did she really just... oh... mmh...

Noa parted Astrex's lips open, holding the woman's arms down with her one good arm and her opposite knee. She forced herself on Astrex, moving her tongue this way and that in the latter's mouth, trying to find a way to break her thin force field. Her efforts were rewarded when she felt a little hole poke through as she pushed her tongue against Astrex's sharpest tooth as hard as she could. A hole was enough for the rest of her aura in her mouth to invade the woman's lungs.

Now all she had to do was to wait and keep the sadist busy.

Astrex tried to break free from the crazy girl who jumped her, but Magnolia was restless, kissing her this way and that as if her life depended on it.

“I love you,” she heard Magnolia said as she moved to kissing Astrex's neck with teasing tickles. “I want to be with you forever.”

What the fuck???

Astrex wriggled and squirmed under Noa as the latter took hold once more of the woman's lips. She was heavier than Astrex thought, yet her one missing arm made it difficult for Noa to restrain Astrex's arm.

Finally pulling out from under the girl's knee, Astrex put her one free arm between her and Noa, pushing the girl away from her. Changing tactics, Noa let go of the other arm to snake hers under the woman's shirt. “I know you want me, stop denying it.”

That attempt was quickly stopped as Astrex grasped Noa's wrist and pulled it away from her. Her two hands free, she succeeded in keeping the mad girl away from her even as Noa kept pushing forward.

“Jesus Christ, what is wrong with you?!”

Astrex's breath was short. She noticed the broken bit of the magic circle and she started to draw her own conclusions to explain the girl's odd behavior. The circle was one that made whoever was bound to it want to stay inside, like a driving need they could not ignore. If that magic got released, could it be that now the target of that need was shifted to the caster? That Magnolia felt the need... inside...

Her breath became short, her thoughts getting more blurry with each passing second until the only thing that occupied her mind was the burning sensation in her chest. She breathed harder and harder, trying desperately to relieve her blazing lungs, but it was all in vain.

She could not breathe.

In her mixed state of panic, she barely noticed Noa standing beside her, waiting for Astrex's grip on consciousness to slip further and further away from the woman's reach.

As she waited, Noa pulled out her spare arm stud from the ceiling, it being more bone than flesh just like the one she sported. If she had the time to attach the two together, maybe she could have three quarters of her arm back, but that would take time she did not have right now.

When she was reliably sure Astrex would not wake up before long, Noa left, a cold efficiency guiding her actions. This was a test, her ordeal, to break free from whoever awaited her on the other side of the door. She would do whatever she needed to achieve what she must, play whatever role was most fit for every challenge.

With a feeling of dread and urgency leading her step, Noa stepped out in the field of vision of the first camera of many.


Saturday morning, July 16th
A small cafe near Blue Moon's lab

When the television attached to the wall of the little cafe shut down and the emergency alarms rang all at once, Snatch knew something was wrong. When he heard the dogs barking and saw the crows in the sky through his window, he ran outside as if the devil was after him.

Not her. It can't be her. Oh god, she's coming for us.

He ran as fast as he could to the lab, recognizing the signs for what they were.

Phobia.

She was after the mithril girl. There was no doubt about it.

Some news he remembered had said that she advertised her presence so that her target, whoever they were, felt doom looming on them. He had laughed then at the stupidity of such an approach, wondering how anyone would know who she was after and fall for it.

He knew. There was no logic to it other than a deep gripping fear at the looming threat.

The crows were getting closer. He ran harder.

In minutes, he entered the lab and made a beeline to the security room where he knew for sure he would find someone. Sure enough, Sidestep, Haeten and Ichor were there, trying to figure out why all the cameras went out all at once.

Crossing the door, Snatch blurted out “Phobia is coming for us!” with all the panic he could muster.

“Who's Phobia?” asked Haeten, arms crossed and eyebrow raised. Her complete lack of panic made Snatch's anxiety ramp up even more. “Hey, now that you're here can you check why the cameras all went down?”

“It's because of Phobia! Everyone knows that there's a power shortage wherever she goes. The girl's just that powerful.”

Haeten's blasé look remained blasé. “Can you fix it?”

“Fuck the cameras! We need to leave NOW!”

“Now, calm down Snatch,” said Ichor as he put a comforting hand on the boy's shoulder. “We can't really move just like that. Astrex needs a lab and the mithril girl is locked inside a magic circle and will go mad if we drag her out of it.”

“Then get Astrex to break the circle and pack up. THERE'S NO TIME.”

“We're staying,” ordered Haeten with a commanding voice that left no place for arguing. “If that Phobia comes for us, we hold the fort and push her back. Understood?”

“But—“

“UNDERSTOOD?”

Being stared down by those burning eyes, Snatch looked away, acquiescing with a silent nod.

“Good,” she said. “In that case get the cameras going.”

“Kay. Let me get my generator and my robots.” With that, the devisor boy left at a hurried pace.

Turning toward Sidestep as he was the one checking the cameras when the outage stroke, Haeten asked him “Where's Astrex?”

“Last I checked she was still in her lab.”

“Ichor, go find her and explain the situation.”

“Why me?” contested the man. He wanted in on some action, his hand twitching at the grip of his modified handgun.

“Because,” she said, irritated, “I want Sidestep in front of the cameras flipping portals as soon as Snatch can get the thing working. He's our mover, slowing down the opponent and letting us move easily through the complex. As for me,” she walked toward the door, wisps of flames erupting randomly around her. “I'm the welcoming party.”


Saturday morning, July 16th
A few miles from Blue Moon's lab

Phobia ran an odd parkour, sometimes jumping up on cars or diving through the traffic without slowing her speed. Snowball was right behind her, making noise and causing deliberate yet restrained collateral damage. She crossed an intersection blocked by a collision of cars, and this time Snowball was quite careful not to crush any car, but rather only shake them up a little in passing.

They only wanted to give the impression of an unstoppable and dangerous foe, never going so far as killing people for the show.

As she entered the last mile to her destination, Phobia spotted a hot-dog stand abandoned by its vendor. Skitter probably made him flee, which was all good.

“Huh, Phobia?” asked Rust in her earpiece, noticing from the camera within that she was spreading mustard and fillings on the warm sausage. “I don't think it's the best time to eat a hot-dog.”

“Why not?” She turned around and laid against the stand, taking a bite of her carefully prepared hot-dog as she scanned the street. A man parked in his car was staring at her with his mouth gaping wide open.

“I thought you were on a schedule.”

“It's not a few minutes that will make a difference here.” Waving at the man seducingly, she walked toward him, causing the man snap out of it and try to start his car in barely restrained hysteria. “And besides, I always have a few seconds to greet the fans.”

“Hope you're having fun.”

“Quite.”

She knocked twice on the passenger's window, the noise making the man jump in his seat and drop the keys his shaking hands were unable to hold onto. Casting a simple spell at the door, she unlocked it and opened it on the terrified man inside.

“Here,” she said, extending her half-eaten hot-dog at the man. “A gift.”

His brain shutting off like a deer caught in the headlights, the man reluctantly grabbed the hot-dog. Phobia closed the passenger's door and left, giving the man one last seductive wave before she started running again.

“You are an evil woman,” said Rust in her hear with an amused laugh.

“Part of the business.”

As the man in his car saw the incarnation of all fears walk away, he slumped back in his seat, completely drained by the intensity of the encounter. His brain was still trying to reboot, and the only sensible thing to do that he could think of was to take a bite of his hot-dog.


33: Scry and Die

The first one to reach the designated lab was Skitter. He spotted a woman standing in front of the main entrance of the building, planted there as if she was waiting for them.

As a swarm of bugs, Skitter rushed past the lone woman and into the cracks of the door without her making any move to stop the odd phenomenon. Her eyes were fixed on Phobia who was turning the corner, slowing down the last hundred meters until impact.

Reforming his human shape inside the building, Skitter spoke into his ear piece, which he had carried in the pincer of a large beetle. “I'm in. What's the priority?”

“I need a few strands of hair from their astral walker,” replied Phobia. “We need to stop her from pulling a Scry-and-Die maneuver on me or Sugar. Don't get into fights if it’ll slow down your search. Second priority: find Magnolia.”

“On it.”

Skitter broke down into a swarm and split into the different corridors, searching for the closest one of his two quarries.


Outside, Haeten braced herself against the crawling feeling of dread as a girl that could be none other than Phobia came at her, sprinting back up. Haeten threw a few fireballs, but they were blocked by something invisible in front of Phobia.

Something heavy and just as invisible hit her from the side, sending her tumbling several meters farther and freeing the entrance for Phobia to run into without so much as giving Haeten a single glance.

Raging, Haeten came after her only for the invisible monster that hit her to appear and block her way in all its dark majesty. Not one to let herself get intimidated so easily, Haeten turned up her PK shell to super heavy and bashed and kicked at Snowball with all the force of a freight train.

Wounds appeared on its black hide, the shock of each punch enough to bend car frames as if they were nothing. Snowball kicked and trampled Haeten as best he could, but it was only when Sugar jumped down from his back and they started both ripping at her with reptile claws and mantis talons that Haeten got pushed back into a corner.

Deciding that those two were too much for her to take on at once, Haeten retreated inside the building. She could take the lizard girl, and failing that, she would aim for Phobia herself.

Sugar took a few seconds to drop her load that was Rust's drone and to speak into her earpiece. “I'll keep her busy at this exit. Rust, you go in through some ventilation or something else.”

“You don't have to tell me twice.”

Sugar walked forward after Haeten, ignoring the drone backpack which unfolded into a robot spider remote-controlled by Rust back at his lab.

“Nothing beats GEO,” he commented to himself, enjoying this first outing with his brand-new toy, “but this comes pretty damned close.”


Inside the control room, Snatch worked as fast as he could on getting the cameras back online with his generator. The loud thumps outside only confirmed the urgency he felt weighting him down. With one last connection and a flick of a switch, the screens lit up, a little more blurry and noisy than usual, but it would do for now.

“Astrex's not in the lab,” noted Sidestep as he saw Ichor searching the adjacent rooms in vain. “She's not on any screen.”

Snatch for his part had his eyes riveted on a woman he recognized from appearing so often on the news. “Shit, she's already in. Sic Ichor on her; he's going nowhere searching the rooms. I'm going out to help.”

He grabbed his universal remote control and accompanied by no less than three heavily armed robots, Snatch left the room, hunting the intruder down.

Left alone, Sidestep noticed more movement going on elsewhere in the complex. He did a double take as the girl moved from one camera to the other, seeking a way out. Magnolia was out and about. If she was free from her circle, that could only mean that Astrex had tampered with it somehow.

Waiting until Magnolia was in a room with only two exits, Sidestep looped the two door frames together with one portal. Holding it open, he created another portal to lead into the small lab room where he expected to find Astrex and some explanation as to what happened to the circle supposed to contain Magnolia.

The camera inside the small lab being out of order, he had to abandon his post and step in the room himself to ascertain the status. There he noticed Astrex laying on the ground, unconscious but still breathing.

“Hey, wake up. We're under attack.” He shook her at first gently, then with more and more vigor. It took her a minute to open her eyes weakly, and another few to gather her bearings on what just happened after the circle broke.

“Magnolia. She... attacked me.” She was about to say something else but the mere thought of it was humiliating enough that she would rather lie about what transpired between the two. It did not stop her from blushing down to her chest though.

“I guessed as much,” he said, helping her back to her feet. “I got her locked in a room for now. Haeten is fighting something outside, while a girl named Phobia is roaming about. Snatch thinks she's after Magnolia, same as us.”

“Phobia? Wait, hold on.”

Reaching for her necklace of bone and hair, Astrex projected her mind quickly to take stock of where everyone was. Haeten was waiting for a black lizard girl, the two preparing for a fight. Snatch was patrolling with his robots, no enemy in sight. And Ichor was lost somewhere around her lab.

“Why is Ichor down below when there're intruders upstairs?”

“Ah, crap. I forgot to relocate him.” Sidestep ran back toward the door still linked to the control room, only stopped by one more interjection from Astrex.

“You do that. Give me another couple of minutes and then bring me to Magnolia.”

The portal in the doorstep vanished. Alone again, she took a few long deep breaths and cleared the fog from her mind. They were under attack. It took her a couple of seconds for that to sink in.

She searched for the knife she knew had been thrown somewhere around here when she wrestled with Magnolia. As she went to retrieve it however, a swarm of bugs entered her room and attacked her, biting and stinging and pinching and cutting. She flailed under the unexpected assault, but all too soon it stopped and the swarm retreated back out the door, their loot of hair and blood claimed.

That was odd.

And she expected it would get odder unless she dealt with the intruders herself.

Picking up the knife, she dived toward Haeten, the lizard girl being the only enemy she could reach through her astral powers at the moment.

Focusing her presence on the blade, Astrex, invisible and intangible but for that razor-sharp edge, walked into the fray, aiming at the throat of the scaly invader.


“Cuddle, remember Magnolia? Go find her boy!”

Having broken past the woman guarding the entrance, Phobia quickly gave Cuddle his order as she started to work on a much-needed ritual. Cuddle jumped from one shadow to the next, and Phobia felt the grasp of his fear aura lessen as he moved away.

The biggest threat around here was that astral girl, able to appear behind anyone and stab them through the heart without them being able to resist. That's why it was vital that she acquired some of that girl's DNA, to lock her out from stabbing people left and right without warning.

Phobia prepared the ritual in a small room to the side of the corridor. She drew the circle behind a big wooden desk. Hopefully it would be away enough from the fray to stay in a single piece long enough to last the fight.

“Rust, where are you now?”

“In the vents. Closest way in now that the fire brick and Sugar are fighting it out in the main entrance.”

“Can you locate the different exits we can use? Not a high priority until we retrieve Magnolia, but keep on the lookout. I'd rather avoid a fight on the way out.”

“Roger that.”

Her circle of runes completed, Phobia had to wait some excruciatingly long seconds for Skitter to come back with the last ingredient.

Hearing Sugar having a rough time on her end, Phobia tensed up, resisting her growing impatience. “The astral girl is after me! Phobia, now would be a good time to finish that ritual.”

When a bunch of bugs dropped the hair into her opened hand, she wasted no time doing just that.

“Skitter just got here. Hang on a sec,” she spoke in the comm.

Phobia chanted a few words, and as she spoke the last the hair went up in flames in the middle of the circle, lighting up the glyphs properly.

“Phobia!” Sugar's voice was urgent with need and fear.

“Got it. She should be locked out now.” Hoping Sugar could handle herself from now on, Phobia let her finger drop from her earpiece, turning to Skitter. “Did you find Magnolia?” she asked him as they both filed out the door.

“Maybe. Not sure. There was a room in a warping field I wasn't able to access.”

“I sent Cuddle to look for her. Try to find him and guide him to that room. He'll probably be able to get in.”

“Will do—”

Just then a portal opened in front of them in which stood a tall man with a handgun. He seemed just as surprised to step through the portal mid-step as Phobia and Skitter were to see him appear out of the blue.

Skitter reacted first, not so much to the presence of a threat but to the fact that someone was looking at Phobia without the blanket of security of Cuddle's fear aura. Worried about the man's life despite the gun he held, Skitter rushed him as a swarm, biting and stinging with everything he had to amp the man's danger sense and fear.

Reacting a half-second later, Phobia fled by taking another hallway, avoiding the risk of anyone dying on her due to a simple lapse of attention.

When she was far enough away, Skitter decided it safe to switch back to his human form. “You should leave this place while you still can,” warned Skitter. “Dying won't do anyone any favors.”

Ichor pointed his gun at the wriggling mass's head and shot. The dart merely passed through the swarm without damaging Skitter in the least.

“You can't hurt me.”

“Just checking whether there was a shifter or warper hidden underneath.” Ichor put his gun away back in its holster. “As for hurting you...”

He reached with his mind to all the little drops of blood and all the pieces of his flesh the various insects had ingested in the last attack. His blood could modify another's host anatomy slightly depending on the amount of blood, along with controlling the host for a short time. However, when the amount of blood proportional to the host's body is as high as with these insects, Ichor had free reign of doing whatever the hell he wanted with them.

A chunk of Skitter's body mutated under Ichor's control, the bugs slipping free from Skitter's shell with a painful and unnatural ripping sensation. The various bugs he lost grew bigger, nastier, and worst of all rebelled against him.

Skitter turned into a swarm and ran away, feeling the nasties bite and kill various of the slower bugs that made up his body.

“So rushed,” said Ichor with a smile. “I don't want to deal with you either.”

He gave one order to his mutant flies with expanded mandibles and claws: Kill every insect you find in the building. For his part, he ignored the swarm man and instead went after Phobia, the weight of his handgun filled with blood darts reassuring in his hands.


Back at the entrance, Sugar and Haeten were dancing around, the first one avoiding the strikes and blasts while the later kept the sneaky lizard at a fair distance. The walls were starting to crisp under the rising heat, the air shimmering as if the whole room was cooking inside an oven.

Both fighters were panting, although Sugar was breathing harder, the constant running and ambient heat not helping in that matter. She would not win a battle of endurance at this rate.

Taking the plunge, she waited for Haeten to send another blast her way, and this time instead of avoiding it sideways Sugar skipped on the very edge of the cone of superheated plasma, her three long strides bringing her inside Haeten's guard, catching the woman flat-footed. Making the best of her advantage, Sugar clawed, punch and bit into Haeten's force field, her sharp claws and teeth piercing through the protection and drawing blood.

Without warning, a long cut line appears on Sugar's jaw, the invisible blade missing her neck by only a short margin. Confused as from where the attack had come from, Sugar got brushed aside by a swat from Haeten as the latter draped herself into a cone of protective flames

Sugar gathered her bearings. There were two opponents in the room with her. Dodging another blast, a deep cut appeared on the side of her left thigh, slowing down her escape. She had not seen the attack coming. In fact, there was no way she even could see it coming.

“The astral girl is after me!” she said in her earpiece. “Phobia, now would be a good time to finish that ritual.”

“Skitter just got here. Hang on a sec.”

Another cut opened diagonally on her back at the same moment Haeten caught up with Sugar's movements, wrapping her in fire. Her scales melted and twisted in the inferno, kicking in her regeneration.

“Phobia!”

“Got it.”

From her end there was no perceptible change, but for Astrex in the astral plane the ritual's effect could be felt plainly. An extremely strong force pushed her off her feet and through the walls at such speed that she barely saw anything of the rooms she passed, until she got pushed completely outside the building.

“Fuck!”

Guarding the entrance, Snowball felt a rush of anger coming from an empty spot close by. Intrigued by the phantom presence that was the twirl of nasty emotions, he came closer.

Standing back up, Astrex noticed a shadow looming tall over her. She glanced behind her shoulder only to notice a six-limbed black monster which seemed to take a particular interest at her, even though she was in the astral plane. The monster lifted both of its front paws, and Astrex did not wait to see if they would crush her or not in this plane.

Waking up in her body in the small lab, Astrex dived once more toward Haeten, but immediately as she appeared she got jerked outside the building to the nearest empty patch of grass. She dived again and again, catching glimpse of Ichor, Sidestep and Snatch, but never more than a glimpse, that invisible bubble around the building forcing her out each time.

She could feel it. It was directed at her spirit shadow specifically. How did they link it to her in the first place?

Astrex cursed under her breath. Exiting the small lab, she saw a portal appear in front of her. She looked at the lone camera in the small hallway and nodded at Sidestep who she knew was overseeing everything. At least she could count on the boy to pair the matchups in their favor.


Meanwhile, doing his round elsewhere on this floor, Snatch's attention was split between the raging brawl he could hear going on from the entrance and the clicking noise of something making its way through the vents. Letting whoever was caught in the brawl finish their fight, Snatch turned his attention to the little spy trying to sneak his way through.

Pulling on his controller, he directed one of his robot with a rotating saw for a hand and another with a jackhammer to attack the vent once the noise got close enough.

The vent got crushed and mangled all at once, the skittering becoming more frenetic as Snatch doubled the hits.

A laser beam pierced the vents from the inside, cutting a clean escape for Rust's spider to jump through. As soon as his location had been found, staying in the vents had become only a liability, threatening Rust to get crushed.

“Well, well, well. What do we have here?” Snatch brought his three robots in front of him, smiling at the prospect of adding another toy to his belt. “A remote-controlled drone. Hey, is that a coaxial self-stabilizing balance sensor? Sweet! Just what I needed for my mecha.” He was almost drooling at the tech displayed in front of him.

From his control room in the safety of his house, Rust sighed. “Mecha's don't work. It's not by implementing a better balance system that it'll move in a human-like fashion.”

“The only ones that say things like that are those that haven't tried enough.” Snatch pressed his robot on the offense, the two with the jackhammer and the saw at the front while his last bot with a nail gun for hand took shots from the back.

Rust's spider evaded the nails and jumped back from the rotating saw. In his chair, Rust shook his head at the foolishness of the young devisor. Inexperience transpired everywhere in his lousy constructions. “Are those supposed to be threatening? Sorry, but I don't feel like playing with ya toys.”

“Hey! They're state-of-the-art builds. You just wish you could have half as much talent.”

The spider dodged between the legs of the jackhammer bot, and the saw bot came amusingly close to ripping the first one's leg before Snatch called it back.

“Ya need a lesson I see. Let's start with the obvious.”

Clicking a few buttons, Rust got his spider to climb up the wall and get a clean laser shot cutting away the live jackhammer from the rest of the robot's body.

“A jackhammer’s heavy and clumsy and doesn't do anything without an accurately prepared shot and more counterweight than you have. Anyone can avoid that.”

Several nail shots connected with the retreating spider from Snatch's sniper bot, although none of the nails stuck in the eighth-legged drone's thick shell.

“Next, ya should never leave home without at least three force fields on ya stuff. If it can't resist lasers, electromagnetic overdrive and brute force, ya're doing it wrong.”

Two antennas flipped up from the spider's back and an electric spark ran between them. The spark blew outward, disabling the rotating saw bot that was nearest to the spider. The nail gun robot was a non-threat as even though it kept shooting, it was not able to pierce the spider's force fields.

“Lastly, even though weapons like a chainsaw, a jackhammer or a nail gun are cute, ya should stick to the proven methods. Laser.” Rust shot a beam at the last robot, cutting it in half to make his point. “Electromagnetic discharge.” Another spark erupted from the spider's two antennas, frying Snatch's controller in his hands. “And the most important one, Mister Sticky's brick glue, spray format.”

From between the spider's mandibles, a spray of white stuff splashed Snatch from head to toe, sticking him in place as every movement he made only served to glue his limbs closer and closer to his body.

Snatch only had enough movement to reach into his pocket and click a button to free his latest masterpiece. The only problem with that one was that he did not have the time to implement the remote controls, only the autopilot mode.

Rust directed his spider closer to the trapped boy. “Ya should go back to school boy. It might help ya case. Maybe.”

Snatch grumped at the spider-drone. “Lasers are cheap and boring.”

“What's efficient usually is,” replied Rust, clueless as to the towering machine that was moving to their position. “Now, ya're going to tell me where the exits are and where to find Mag—”

A huge hand came crashing over the medium-sized spider, pulverizing it on the spot. Rust jerked back from his monitor and ripped his headphone off, the noise of his many force fields and systems failing all at once sending shrills to his ears.

“FUCK! What was that?!”

“Is everything okay down here?”

Rust turned to the new arrival in the lab, a tall Caucasian exemplar young man sipping his morning cup of coffee. He was the last member of their little family, codename Lucky.

“Yeah, it's fine. I just got taken out somehow, that's all.” Rust bent forward into his mike and relayed that info to the rest of the team. “Rust speaking. I got crushed. Over and out.”

“Roger that,” was Phobia's reply over the comm.

Lucky took another sip of his coffee. “Do you need my help in there? I know Phobia was a bit iffy that I join in.”

“Well, ya know, yar probability stuff doesn't mash too well with her divination stuff. And she was fairly confident in her readings last night.”

“But?” Lucky took a seat, glancing at each camera on the screen. Each of them were in first person, the camera located on their teammates' earpieces or on Snowball's head. Only Cuddle did not have a camera with his name labeled.

“But... we're running blind here. It's been over fifteen minutes and Skitter didn't spot the girl, and we haven't heard back from Cuddle either. It's taking too long to just locate her.”

Reclining in his chair, Lucky paid no more attention to the action on the monitors, not wanting to influence anything unwillingly. “So, should I help?”

Rust looked back with a grin. “Let's ask the boss.”


34: Confluence

Phobia followed Cuddle's presence. Even if the spirit dog was dozens of meters away from her, she was used enough to his presence that she could detect his approximate position despite the distance. He was not that easy to follow though, as he could slip from shadow to shadow in a straight line while she had to navigate the complex of corridors and rooms, but she was making her way forward, hopefully to where she would find Magnolia.

“Rust in. Lucky asks if he should cheer ya guys up or not.”

She clicked her comm for her reply. “Sure. Could always use more fans.”

“No worries of tampering with destinies or something?”

“I was able to get the ritual up properly as predicted,” she said. “For the rest, we have a fairly good idea in which room to find our girl. I say blast at it and wish us some luck.”

The voice that came back was Lucky's unaccented one. “Your word is my command.”

“Har, har.” She felt a sudden shift in Cuddle's presence, as if he was forcefully pulled from where he was and thrown outside the building in a split second. That did not bode anything good. “Something's happening in front. Phobia out.”

She quickened the pace to the room Cuddle had been in a moment before. Opening the door, she got the surprise to see another door that once opened linked impossibly out to the corridor again. Poking her head through the portal, she could see her own butt sticking out of a door frame a few meters further along the wall.

“That's a neat trick.” She spoke into her earpiece one last time before she dealt with the portal. “Skitter, if you aren't too busy, there's a warper around that makes annoying portals. Probably in a room away from the action somewhere. I'd like the portals disabled. Over.”

“On it,” was his only buzzing answer.

Phobia looked back at the sealed doorway, thinking of the best method to disable it. She looked through it once more (such a nice ass) and noticed something on the wall she had not noticed before. It was a hole slightly smaller than her palm, dug from within the room. Bending down, she peeked at what was going on inside.


Several minutes earlier, Noa tried to figure the way out in this maze. She held her bony stub in her left hand, having nothing else that was hers around here. She tried taking shortcuts through rooms, but that approach backfired when she noticed that she was looping through the same room again and again.

It was already oh so damned confusing without having reality bent onto itself on top of everything else!

She noticed the camera and ripped it off like the one in her first room. Doing so did little to reduce her irritation.

Pacing around the room, she checked the drawers for anything useful for this new challenge. Even if she did think of it as a challenge, it did not change the fact that it was a cheap trick that put her nerves on edge.

Noa stopped pacing. If the doors were no longer viable exits, then she just had to make one.

She grabbed a chair and threw it as violently at the wall as she could, with only a small dent as the result. She tried a few more times before admitting that the chair was too unwieldy for what she wanted to do. Instead, she grabbed back her disjointed stub, pointing the mithril bone forward, and she started to strike repeatedly at the wall with her one good arm. Chips of wood dropped at each strike, and when a big enough hole appeared on her side, she ripped the edges away until the hole was big enough to reach the second layer of the wall, the one that faced the corridor.

It took her long enough to poke a small hole through the second layer that Cuddle found her and slipped into the room with her.

The feeling of urgency and dread she had felt since she choked Astrex became a full blown irrational terror at the feeling of the spirit dog displacing her ever-present mithril dust in her aura.

He was not there, and yet he was, his mere presence confusing her senses and blocking rational thoughts from running their course.

When Cuddle stepped forward and melted into her shadow, shifting the source of the fear from something outside her to somewhere within, it was all she could do but roll in a ball and hug her knees, unable to move at the grip that knew no bound.

Time passed without her being aware of it. The trembling and shivering along with the deeply rooted terror were her only world until the portal changed long enough for Astrex to step in the room with her. The look the woman gave her was nowhere near as confused and terrified as she herself felt, but it was still a start.

Noticing the intruder, Cuddle stepped out of Noa's shadow and growled at Astrex with a black head without teeth or shape. Him leaving her was enough for Noa to regain enough sense and run to the nearest corner of the room, Cuddle between her and Astrex, guarding his loot.

Astrex fought the fear down, gaining confidence in the presence of her bracelet of power containing a single grain of pure distilled orichalcum. This is what's on the line, she reminded herself. The shadow in front of her was a mere obstacle in her way.

She started chanting a well-known spell, channeling her power through her bracelet, but Cuddle attacked her before she got the chance to finish, biting and clawing with a toothless mouth and clawless paws that ripped at her shoulder just the same as the real deal. Astrex forced out the last few words of her chant despite the ferocious beast shredding her arm on the spiritual level.

Cuddle was not ferocious enough to stop her. The spell casted, both Astrex and Cuddle felt their soul intertwine, mixing together and exchanging both pain and salvation. It was the same spell she used between Ichor and Snatch to heal the latter. Although in the present case, it had another effect.

Cuddle's soul now containing enough of Astrex's to be mistaken for hers, Phobia's ritual, which was supposed to keep any spiritual entity of a similar essence to the hair burnt out of the building, affected Cuddle at once, sending the spirit dog forcefully outside in the grass. He barked and tried to run back in but was pushed back by the unyielding force. Unable to do anything else, Cuddle stalked around the building, joining Snowball in his patient surveillance.

Astrex took a second to catch her breath and stand back up, only for a flying chair to knock her back down again. Now free of the fear, Noa threw everything she could put her hand on at the woman, hoping she would just stay down for once.

“Will you just stop attacking me!” Astrex's words were spoken with intent and a magical push that, amplified by both her bracelet and Noa's own anatomy, stopped the girl dead in her next throw.

It did not stop her however from charging forward at Astrex. Kissing had worked once, and it was not aggressive enough to count as an attack, did it?

Astrex thought she was free of the irrational fear from before, but seeing the girl that put her down twice already charge like Noa did brought that fear back to the forefront. “Stay there!”

Noa stopped once more, stuck in her place as if the soles of her shoes were glued to the floor. Astrex sighed in relief and flopped back down on the floor, catching her breath and evaluating the extent of the damage Cuddle had inflicted on her.

As they say, no rest for the wicked.

Having seen enough through her peephole, Phobia blasted the wall to shreds. The wood explosion jolted Astrex to her feet despite the pain in her arm. She kept at the ready, knife in one hand, bracelet at the other, eyeing the newcomer with some measure of apprehension.

Her wariness was not returned.

“Hey Magnolia!” said Phobia, staying constantly aware of the other witch despite her relaxed demeanor. “It's been a while. Your dad called. He wants you home by supper, or else no dessert for you.”

Between the witch that cut out her arm and bound her will, and the witch that healed her from certain death and taught her to perceive spirits, Noa's choice was ready-made.

“You're my ride back?” said Noa with a smile. “Or do I need to borrow money for a taxi?”

“If you don't mind a few bumps in the road,” said Phobia, turning deliberately to stare at Astrex, “then you can jump right in with the rest of us.”

“Are you two done chatting?” Astrex circled to have Noa between her and Phobia and she casted her minor fireball through both of her foci at Phobia, blasting her against the opposite wall of the hallway.

“Two can play this game,” said Phobia, rising right back up practically unharmed thank to the few protective buffs she gave herself before leaving her house.

“You might want to undo my bindings,” said Noa as she pointed at her feet. “I'm not going far with them.”

“I'll deal with that in a sec.” Phobia projected a wave of force through Noa, throwing Astrex into the counter behind her. “Right after I deal with an annoying pest.”

“Might want to pull out the big guns then. Tried rat poison twice, and it’s still going.”

“You’re just not using the right method. Leave it to the pros.” Keeping an eye on her opponent, Phobia quickly glanced at Noa’s bindings. The magic around them was strong and intricate.

Astrex got back to her feet, wiping a drop of blood coming from the corner of her mouth with her hand, throwing a lighting spell in the same movement, forcing Phobia’s attention back on her. “You two are being impossible.”

Phobia and Astrex kept throwing and dodging spells left and right, making full use of Noa's static position by circling around the girl and keeping her in between them. Wind and ice and storms and lights of various colors flashed across the room, freezing this, breaking that, ripping a gash in space or bending the soul of the air itself. Spells started to get canceled when the two mages figured that they could do so by timing the canceling magic to pass through Noa before the other's spell. Timing was everything, as each of their magic was stronger on the other side and weaker on theirs.

“Um, do I have any say at being used as a magical wand?”

“No!” replied the two witches at once.

Noa sighed. “Guess not.”

Phobia changed her pattern and opened her hand, sending a bright white light over Noa that Astrex attempted to dodge by reflex, noticing only after the fact that it was mere scanning magic, and not even directed at her.

“Ah! Got you!”

Astrex got back into a fighting stance, throwing more spells that Phobia dodged. “Wipe that smug grin off your face.” She prepared her next two spells together, planning on hitting Phobia from both sides at once. If she canceled one, the other would hit, and there was no way she would dodge both.

Phobia broke her expectations by slipping past Noa and ending on Astrex's side, the space she occupied just a second ago being pierced by metal spires before the space itself crumbled and sheared.

“Phew, that was a close one,” said Phobia as she shot a point blank confusion spell that Astrex had no way of parrying.

Astrex stumbled backward, the room spinning around her and her thought process slow and foggy. Phobia made the best use of the few seconds she had gained herself by canceling the two bindings on Noa that she was aware of thanks to her previous scan.

“Wait for me out the door,” she said to the girl as soon as she was free.

Noa did not have to be told twice. She took off through the hole in the wall, staying far away from the witch she was sure would bind her again at the first occasion. For good measure, she checked that her mithril aura was still up, just in case Astrex decided to project at her once more.

Finishing what she had started, Phobia stepped forward and ripped Astrex's bracelet right when the latter was starting to recover from her dizziness.

“You won't be needing this anytime soon.”

Phobia reached for a chair and brought it up to Astrex's height, dispelling the nebulous spell the other woman threw at her, significantly weakened now that she lacked any catalyst. With the help of the bracelet, Phobia spoke a few words and the chair's legs bent and twisted around Astrex's arms and torso, binding her in physical restraints.

“You can't take her from me! She's mine!”

Phobia brought another chair to bind Astrex's legs down. “I called dibs first.” She flicked the girl's nose, staring her down from her dominant position. “And from what I saw of your use of this,” she brought the orichalcum bracelet in full view, “you're too pathetically weak to be worthy of even a fraction of its power.”

Astrex's enraged scream did nothing to stop Phobia from leaving the room and rejoining with Noa.


From the security of the control room, Sidestep watched the battle between Sugar and Haeten rage on. Sugar had taken refuge outside where the black monstrosity that was Snowball protected her from Haeten the time Sugar needed to regenerate her wounds. Both she and Haeten were staring at each other, Haeten unwilling to come forward against such a two-against-one disadvantage and yet refusing to back up. Every time she did, Sugar sprinted forward, threatening to invade the complex further.

In Haeten's mind, only Phobia had walked past her. If the other four could not deal with a single invader while she restrained the bulk of their force, it would only mean her partners were too dumb to live.

Sidestep checked another camera, this one grizzled with noise. It had gone offline soon after he had trapped Magnolia inside. He had had to use his phone's pictures to open a portal for Astrex.

He had spotted Phobia going down a large hallway and had tried to stop her by moving Ichor to her, but the man was having none of it, either not noticing the portals Sidestep opened for him or ignoring them in favor of a hunt his own damned way.

When Phobia had blasted the wall and the two mages started to fight it out, all the cameras in that area of the complex flickered and bugged. Whatever the hell was going on in there, it was NOT pretty.

And that left Snatch's wandering monster, the huge mecha he had built out of various pieces and machinery stolen during their hit strike on Healbot's lab. Snatch kept rambling about the guy's genius, and even though the stuff he had stolen were mostly medical testing tools and various high-tech prosthetics, Snatch somehow found a way to put all this stuff together and to enlarge the telekinesis field holding the pieces in place, resulting in a monster he was proud of.

With a flick and a spare thought, Sidestep redirected the robot from the doorstep it passed through directly behind that lizard girl, cutting her escape and forcing her in a fight with Haeten. That should even things out.

Sidestep did not notice the lone mosquito that dropped on the back of his shirt. The swarm of bugs and beetles that soon followed was hard to miss however.

Screaming and flailing, he tried as best he could to cover himself as wasps and spiders bit and stung him. Flies, fleas and earwigs tried to enter his nostrils and ear canals, while things with way too many legs— or way too many things with legs— ran over his face, trying to squirm under his eyelids.

Blinded, panicked and still screaming, Sidestep stumbled out of the room, the swarm after him. Skitter remained methodical in the pain he inflicted. He kept the black widows and the brown recluse back for when it was truly necessary to go for the kill, leaving simpler venoms do their work at numbing the boy's senses. And usually a good strike at the face and eyes was as debilitating as it goes, even without venom.

Skitter let the poor boy go, knowing he would not go far in his current state. A prickling of pain though distracted him from the torture he just inflicted, and his attention turned to three mutant bugs that were ripping through his legs.

Don't you bastards ever give up?!

He had managed to kill most of the bugs Ichor had mutated and sent against him, at the cost of losing about half of his own bugs in the merciless fight. He brought a couple of beetles with razor-sharp mandibles to the three abominations and cut the head of one, yet it still would not throw the towel and the disembodied head kept on chewing at his leg some more. Skitter discarded his control over the bugs in that general area. At least this way that mutant head fell to the ground where it would be less of an annoyance.

“Skitter here,” he said in his comm as he fought the remaining two miniature beasts. He noticed more mutant bugs coming down the hallway, just more justifications to make the decision he was about to make. “Secured the control room, but I'm seriously down on resources. Retreating to Snowball. Skitter out.”


“Well received Skitter. I got Magnolia here. Everyone retreat.”

Phobia traced her steps backward followed by Noa. A right turn later however, they came face to face with Ichor, his gun charged, a look of confused surprise fixing his features in place. Phobia immediately pushed the gun's arm aside, the movement triggering the shot randomly.

“Run!” She bull-rushed him, careful to not let him grab and restrained her and she urged Noa forward, following the younger girl and quickly running past her. “Rust,” she spoke in her earpiece, “gunning for the exit right now. Help would be appreciated.”

Ichor took aim and shot four consecutive rounds, two of the darts needling Noa in the back painfully.

“Take to your right,” directed Rust, in part helped by Lucky's guess. “The main entrance is blocked off by Sugar's fight right now. She's gone rager on us when that robot ported in.”

“Crap,” said Phobia, two more shots being fired and missing followed by a short respite as Ichor had to reload. “Can you get her to snap out of it?”

It was Lucky's voice that answered her. “I'm working on it. Keep to the escape plan.”


When the huge mecha appeared behind her, its limbs an artistic set of delicately curved metal pieces held together at constant distances from each other by a telekinesis field in a form that hinted at a thick arm, Sugar froze. Not in fear, but in recognition of this type of handiwork.

“Dad's—?”

She did not have time to finish that thought. The deformity that was made of Healbot's work crashed into her with all the force of a tank's shell. She crashed into the wall opposite the entrance, flying past Haeten so fast the woman did not have time to react either.

Stunned at the sudden turn of events, Haeten turned to look at the bloody mess that had been her opponent up until now. The noise of metal bending and concrete cracking brought her attention forward however. The mecha itself moved silently, but the disruption it caused around it was anything but. It noticed Haeten and moved toward her, uncaring of the door frame in his way or part of the wall in the path of its swinging arm. Every movement it made was applied with tons of pressure, that skin-level telekinesis field going to work.

Snatch, you've had bad ideas before but this one tops it all.

She readied herself for the fight to come, not sure if she could take the beast head on. Between the mecha and the black six-legged monster outside, Haeten would rather take her chance with the living thing. At least she knew that one could die.

The first hit however came from behind, Haeten's face pushed into the ground by a lizard girl seeing nothing but red.

“WHAT HAVE YOU DONE WITH MY FATHER'S WORK?!!!”

Shit! Haeten's protective PK field held on, the concrete breaking before her nose as Sugar pushed harder.

Sugar twisted her hold to grab Haeten's neck and threw the woman at the advancing robot with all the rage she could muster, running after her throw with a dash that was decidedly faster than before, her wounds and fractures ignored under the intense rush of adrenaline.

Haeten braced for impact, getting swatted by the robot like one would swat a fly. She hit the side wall hard enough to dig into the concrete and hard enough to break too many bones to count through her shield, quite a feat in and of itself.

“Sugar, ya have to calm down,” said Rust but the girl was too far gone to listen, the only purpose in her mind being to destroy this walking desecration of her father's name. “Sugar, can ya hear me? We're retreating. There’s no need to fight anymore. Step outside, and Snowball will help ya calm down.”

The robot took a swing at her, followed by a stomp and a quick grapple, all of which she evaded. The swinging arm dug into the floor as if it was not even there, its stomp breaking the tiles and sending a destabilizing shock wave all around.

Sugar would have none of it. Using her claws to pierce into it, she dug her hand into the extremely strong force field enveloping the thing's leg. She reached for a very specific piece, wrapped her hand slowly and almost delicately around it, and ripped it out with all the brutality of a pissed-off dragon.

“LIKE HELL YOU'D KNOW WHAT A SUSPENSION CONTROL MICROPROCESSOR IS. DID YOUR GUY EVEN KNOW HIS STUFF?!!”

The mecha's lower leg detached itself from the rest of the mass, leading the rest of it to stumble forward. The default reflexes were good enough for it to stabilize itself by putting its hand down. Registering Sugar as a threat, several pieces in the arm lit up and blasted lasers and sonic blast at the spot she was standing in just a second ago.

Old tricks. All things she had seen her dad demonstrate times and again to potential buyers.

The robot swatted at her and she used the opportunity to roll with the momentum and climb on the huge swinging arm. Digging her arm once more, this time in the mecha's shoulder, Sugar ripped out another piece carefully chosen among many.

“OF COURSE THE STRUCTURAL INTERFACE COMPONENT IS IN THE JOINT. IT'S ALWAYS IN THE JOINT!”

Haeten looked on from her pile of rubble as the arm lost integrity, the hundreds of pieces floating away and expanding, no longer connected one to another. That lizard was actually taking on that monster thing.

Maybe, just maybe, she could sit this one out.

Sugar used her claws to grip onto the robot's back, dodging or enduring the flying blades and the electric pulses that would be the bot's final assault.

She reached inside the thing's neck, pulling out a spider-like contraption that had nothing to do with the rest of those pieces she knew like the back of her hand. Her voice as cold as ice, she said “You, you do not belong there.” As soon as she crushed the contraption, the various prosthetics dropped loose on the floor, regaining a size and form that was decidedly more human and less alive.

“Good job Sugar,” said Rust, trying to regain control of his teammate. “Ya won. No more enemies around. Ya can go out now and regroup with Snowball. The others will be there shortly.”

“Is it working?” asked Lucky from beside him, checking Sugar's first-person camera move wildly up and down in what he guessed was irregular breathing. The camera stopped moving when it spotted Haeten in a pile of rubble, the extreme focus of the shot leaving little doubt as to Sugar's intentions.

“Sadly not,” replied Rust as he passed a hand in his hair, unsure what to do.

Sugar walked toward the downed Haeten, who tried to move back into the wall in growing fear as she realized she was trapped against a rager.

“Let me try,” asked Lucky, grabbing the mike with haste. “Mary,” he called in, noticing a slight reaction from her at the sound of her real name. “Mary, your dad wouldn't want to see you like that.”

The image on the screen reached Haeten, and both Rust and Lucky watch as Sugar grasped the woman's collar. Haeten fought back, managing to hit strong enough to shake Sugar's hold and bruise her skin, but with one broken arm, it was not enough. She punched Haeten in the face once, the PK field absorbing most of the impact, and then she did it again.

“Mary, think how you dad would feel if he knew you hurt a defenseless woman. What would he say? What would be the look in his eyes?”

Sugar hesitated, just one moment. But a single moment of clarity was all she needed.

“It's not worth it. There's no fight anymore. Let her go, and come back.”

Her grip loosened and the two men saw hope appear on Haeten's face.

Hope met by one last punch in the face, for good measure.

Lucky cringed at the scene, giving the microphone back to Rust. “At least she's no longer raging.”


Astrex struggled in her restraints, fuming.

No way she's gonna steal her. Not after all the work I did. She doesn't deserve it. She won't have it. I won't let her.

Reaching out with her mind, she felt the various samples of DNA attached to her necklace. She focused on the shard of Magnolia's bone stolen from Healbot, the one she'd used countless times to haunt the girl back at school.

Her mind left her body, appearing next to the alchemical girl, and Astrex braced herself for the forceful magic that pushed her outside. She still gleaned Magnolia's position in that split second of awareness. She would soon reach the door, Phobia in front of her and Ichor running after them, shooting darts here and there.

Looking down, Astrex noticed that she projected along with the two chairs that bound her. Closing her eyes, she dropped the two chairs from her astral form, letting them vanish and regaining full use of her movements.

Tightening her grasp on the knife in her hand, she focused on its edge, waiting patiently in front of the exit for the running steps and the gun shots to come closer. From the corner of her eyes, Astrex spotted Snowball and Cuddle, the first cradling the badly beaten lizard girl in its mantis limbs while the spirit dog gunned for her, running the few hundred meters that separated the two. Astrex tried to ignore it, readying her blade and focusing her attention at the door.

Come on, you damned thief. Hurry the hell up.


“Hurry up, Magnolia! We're almost there.”

Magnolia trailed a bit behind, unbalanced as she was with one less arm. The distance between her and Phobia increased further as the woman was unnaturally fast, magic easing her every step. It was a good thing though, since it meant Phobia was farther away from the gunshots while Noa seemed unaffected by the toxic blood the darts contained.

Ichor was losing ground yet refused to give up. He reloaded another set of darts. This was the last straight, and instead of running he stopped, steadied his breath and took a careful aim.

Noa felt Phobia reappear in her range, the woman holding the door open and waiting for her, prompting her forward.

As she came closer, Noa also felt Astrex's presence right behind the door, walking toward a clueless Phobia, her blade pointed at the woman's throat.

Three gun shots echoed in the hallway as Noa lunged forward at Phobia, putting her one good arm in the way of the knife just inches before it stroked Phobia's exposed neck. Having crossed the distance separating them, Cuddle jumped at Astrex in the astral world, sending the witch rolling to the ground. She canceled her projection a split second before shadow claws attempted to rip her face apart, and she regained consciousness back in her restrained body with a gasp.

She had failed.

Ichor had not.

Noa having moved out of the way, two of the three darts connected with Phobia's back, pushing Ichor's blood into her.

During the chase, Ichor had debated between making her his slave or killing her outright. The slave effect being temporary and him being sick of running around, he went for the kill. He rose his free hand and clasped it into a fist, as if crushing something inside.

Stepping outside the door after Noa, Phobia stumbled as a stab of pain coursed through her lower back, only for her legs to give in under her, the pain rising and spreading as the noxious blood rampaged through her veins.

“Crap!” A quick scan told her that the necrosis was quickly expanding from the area where she had been shot, reaching gradually further in toward her internal organs.

With a start, Noa stopped in her step, backtracking to grab and drag Phobia away much as the later tried to heal herself. Noa could not perceive Snowball and the others father away, but she knew she just had to get away from that door since Ichor could appear at any moment.

“Phobia's down,” noticed Skitter, now reduced to a third of his mass after dealing with the mutant bugs. “Let's go Snowball. I don't think they'll make it all the way here.”

And indeed, he saw Ichor exit the door right behind them. The man took aim, but Cuddle attacked him from behind, distracting him enough for Snowball, Sugar and Skitter to regroup with Noa and Phobia.

Having spent a lot of power in her previous magical fight, Phobia had little left to fight off the poison. She used everything she had to wrap her whole mid-section in dark clouds of shadow, desperately searching the alternate reality for something to replace this wound with. With a startled gasp, she felt the numbness of dead flesh be replaced by the vividly sharp pain of two regular gunshots. At least it wasn’t spreading anymore, although both holes were bleeding like hell.

Helped by Noa, Phobia got up to her feet and with one hand pressed against the holes to stop the blood from leaking, she limped to meet with the rest of the group running to them.

“CUDDLE!” called Sugar from within Snowball's cradle. “COME HERE BOY!”

The spirit dog broke from its fight with Ichor, and as soon as he was close enough to the rest of their group, Snowball teleported away, the last several darts of Ichor's magazine merely passing through the empty space they just occupied.

Silence was all that remained at the lab.


35: Diagnostic

Saturday late morning, July 16th
Forest near Chatham-Kent

Three hundred kilometers southwest of Toronto, Phobia's little group reappeared in the middle of a forest, out of sight from any onlooker.

Helped by Noa to sit against a tree, Phobia tugged on the girl’s sleeve, keeping her close. She had difficulty breathing and was paling by the minute. Not wasting any time with explanations, she slipped the orichalcum bracelet on her wrist and pulled an expensive-looking pouch of rainbow-colored dust which shone where it caught the sunlight filtering through the branches. She poured the dust in an intricate glyph next to her, placing the bag in the middle of it, the lines on it completing the whole diagram.

Before activating the glyph, Phobia weekly grabbed Noa’s hand and placed it on the precious bag, her own hand on top. With a single word of power, the dust combusted in heatless blue flames, emptying the essence stored in the reliquary and restoring some of Phobia’s.

Feeling the warmth dripping into her from the magical pouch, Phobia moved her and Noa’s hands to her wounds, making use of her two foci to seek deeper through the dark clouds of alternate futures. Exhaling in relief, Phobia took a few more breath, the pain fading to manageable levels with at least this level of healing.

“Everyone's alright? How are we doing?”

“Bloody hell,” replied Sugar, held like a limp baby by Snowball. “Can't really move now that the adrenaline vanished.”

Phobia nodded. “You'll live?”

“I'm not kicking the bucket even if it kills me.”

“That's good.” She tried to move her legs, evaluating the extent of her remaining damage. Her wound was closed and stable, but not all that pretty. Turning to Skitter, “Thomas? What about you? Still with us?”

The swarm of bugs was barely holding the shape of a man, flickering and expanding as if holding himself together required too much effort. “I'm barely hanging on. If you don't mind, I need to absorb more insects and fast. I'll see you guys later at home.”

The two girls waved at him as he broke his human shape and flew deeper into the wood, hunting for sustenance. “Take care.” Pressing a finger to her headpiece, she called in. “Rust, can you reboot the power in the city and call the cops on the lab?”

“On it,” he replied through the comm. “Nasty little surprise waiting for them. Most of them won't even be able to flee.”

“One less problem to deal with,” replied Phobia, taking a few long breaths to recover from the recent rush.

“Where are we?” asked Noa, taking stock of her environment. After the teleport, she had no landmark she could use to find the north, nor did she recognized the trees from one another. Without being able to see farther away, Noa was completely lost and disoriented.

“Relax.” Phobia stood up, feeling the pain in her back spread and stretch uncomfortably. “You're safe here with us. I'll explain everything once we get to the house.” She limped forward, gradually adjusting her balance to the pain and weakness in her legs. “By the way, Rust, where exactly are we?”

“Ya're three point five kilometers straight north. Turn around... more... more... There!... No, a bit less. Yes. Just keep walking in that direction.”

“Thanks. Well then, shall we go?”

“Are you okay?” asked Sugar. “Can you even walk like that?”

“I'm fine. You just worry about you. I'll take care of myself.”

Phobia hobbled forward through the woods, followed by Snowball holding Sugar on one side and Cuddle on the other. The dog had toned down its fear aura significantly now that there were no longer any threats around, and as she fell in step after them, Noa found herself relaxing for the first time since she got kidnapped...

Only for waves after waves of trepidation, exhilaration and anticipation to wash over her. Each step she took cranked her excitement up a notch, threatening to spill over like a boiling volcano on the edge of erupting. Eagerness, thrill, Noa could barely contain it all and keep walking, her hand trembling, her body quivering in glee, her smile stretching to her ears.

She had made it.

During the whole time she had been captured, she had not known how to deal with the stress, and now that it was over, the lack thereof was just as overwhelming and confusing, making her feel as if she had enough energy to singlehandedly power every light in Las Vegas.

It was... too much.

Snowball glanced her way, noticing the outflow of emotions roiling out from Noa. He moved his mass slightly away, trying to stop his empathic senses from picking up enervating feelings from the new girl.

When they reached the house— a huge beast of a thing with three visible floors, four cars in the garage and an entrance that was bigger than Randall's apartment— two young men, one black and one white, came to meet them.

“Hey Mary,” said Lucky as he gently took her in his arms away from Snowball. “Still in one piece?”

“One piece that got splattered over a wall.” She choked a little under the pain of being moved. “But one piece nonetheless.” The lizard girl burrowed further in his arms, enjoying the comforting safety of his hold. “Thanks for bringing me back, Luke.”

“That's what I'm here for. Let's get you cleaned up and patched up.” He stepped out of sight into a huge bathroom and started treating her many wounds, burns and cuts.

Rust tried to do the same for Phobia, with less success.

“But ya're hurt.” He tried to lead her downstairs into his lab where he would be able to do some checkups and treatments but she would have none of it.

“I'm fine. It's only a bruise. It'll heal in a day or two.”

“Ya got shot twice in the back with who knows what.” The black African met her stubbornness with a pressing stare. “Rose, I'll use force to get ya on the scanners if I have to.”

“I can scan and heal myself just fine.” She turned her head toward their new guest, Noa standing still in the middle of the place as she took stock of the rooms she felt. “I don't want to leave her alone just yet. The new setting. Getting overwhelmed. Just give me a few hours to get her settled.”

He considered that for a few moments. “Fine. Couple of hours. But I want ya scanned and healing by this afternoon.” He walked away to go check on Cuddle and Snowball, leaving Phobia to care for their guest.

She followed the little girl who was running across the first floor and checking out everything she could. “Hey, doing okay?”

“You have a library,” replied Noa with deep fascination. “Huge library. Mage. You're a witch? Is it full of magic grimoires, tomes, codex, volumes...?”

Phobia smile at the girl's energy, glad to see that she was not panicking after the recent events. “Yes, there are a few. Felix also—”

“Rituals? Scrolls? Alchemy? The secrets of the universe? Forty-two? I got to see.”

Phobia blinked in surprise. “Uh, how about you rest a little? Unwind?” She looked on as Noa completely ignored her, leading the way to the stairs. “... Lie down maybe?”

Having figured out the layout of the house in the last few minutes, Noa climbed the stairs two by two, reaching the second floor while Phobia limped slowly behind.

“Hey wait! The door's locked. Let me just—” Phobia heard the sound of the ancient wooden door of the library creak open. “So much for the lock.”

Halfway through the stairs, she had to stop as Cuddle jumped in front of her, blocking her way. “Be nice,” she asked. “I need to check up on her. Move aside.” Cuddle shook its head firmly, laying down to take the whole length of the step and looking at her, daring Phobia to pass him. “Fine, have it your way.”

Grasping the railings with one hand and pressing the other against the opposite wall, she pulled herself up to 'jump' over Cuddle without putting too much weight on her weak legs, much to the dog's protests.

“Go play elsewhere. I'm busy with our guest.”

Reaching the second level, she noticed the huge shape of Snowball outside through the windows, following her. Phobia felt her mind being assaulted by his empathic demands, and she started to wonder what was wrong with those two.

“Snowball, stop that. It's really unpleasant.”

An image of Magnolia got projected in her mind, associated with and intense feeling of euphoria and relentlessness. The emotions were strong enough to make her legs buckle and she had to catch herself from falling on the ground.

“What was that? Snowball, I won't understand unless you make it clearer.”

Another image overlaid that of Noa, one of a book, and with it came a surge of something else. Irrepressible need, pushing aside all other thoughts but for the images and the primordial desire that was unreal. All too quickly it faded, Snowball having transmitted his message as best he could.

Confused by the message, Phobia felt dread creep up on her, and Cuddle passing by was not the cause. She stood back up and walked as quickly as her weak legs afforded her toward the door leading to the library.

There she found Magnolia sitting on the ground between the two nearest bookcases, four books opened around her, aggressively flipping through a fifth. Here and then, pages of one of the first four books would flip, letting on that the girl was reading all five at once somehow.

Was it even reading at this point? Was she scanning for something specific?

“Magnolia.” Phobia entered the library, brushing aside Cuddle who tried once more to block her way. “Is something wrong?”

She had to strain to hear the faint mumble the girl spoke. “No talking in the library.”

“Can I help you with anything?”

“NO TALKING IN THE LIBRARY!”

The sudden flare of pure, distilled anger scared Phobia into taking a step back. Cuddle stepped in front of her once more, standing between Phobia and the mad girl who went back to her furious reading. The dog shook its head, trying to make Phobia understand that there was nothing she could do or should do around here.

Rust came behind her in the doorstep, having followed Cuddle and Snowball all the way here. “What's going on here.”

“SHHHHHHHHHHH!!” Noa tried to telepathically close the door on him, but Rust had no trouble keeping the closing door open with a single hand. It served more to stress her point than anything else.

Taking a cue, Phobia retreated outside, Cuddle behind her, and she closed the door, leaving Noa to her frantic study.

Rust looked at her with eyes that begged for answers. “What is she doing in there?”

“I'm... not sure.”

Once more she got a mental flash of a book with a desperation to read that was not her own. Snapping out of it a second later, Phobia noticed she had turned around, pressed against the wooden door, her hand gripping the handle as if she was about to jump inside and dig into something to read herself.

“I think Snowball is telling me she somehow needs to be in there.” She felt agreement pour from the beast outside the window. “Is that... how she feels?” More agreement. Phobia brought a hand to her mouth. “Oh god, how does she live with that?”

“Care to explain?” asked Rust, looking more and more concerned from the silent discussion Phobia was having with Snowball.

“I only felt it for like a second, and she's feeling that constantly?”

“Rose!”

“It's like...” She tried to explain but the words failed her. “It's like nothing else in the world matters for her right now.”

“What does that even mean?”

“I don't know. I’ve never felt anything like that.” She calmed down slightly, starting to form a plan now that the rush of all-consuming emotions had passed. “I think we can leave her inside for now. I'll make a few tarot readings to see if, when and how she'll snap out of it, but for now it's safer to have her where she feels she needs to be.” She sighed, looking around at Cuddle and out the window at Snowball’s giant eyeball. “Felix, help me move the whole magic section to my room. There's knowledge in there that could be dangerous to her.”

“Just tell me which bookshelf it is and I'll take care of it. Ya get some rest.”

She nodded and stepped aside. “Ok, I will. But try not to disturb her and not to make too much noise. I don't want her to turn violent.”

“Rager? Diedrick's?”

Phobia shook her head. “I have no idea. I need to make a few calls.”


Saturday afternoon, July 16th
MCO's office, security room

Schwartz walked back from the cell section of the building toward the control room where Chandler was monitoring their four new inmates. He had escorted a boy calling himself Sidestep back to his cell after his medical checkup. Lots of bug bites and stings, but nothing life threatening. It would still take him some time for his swollen eyes and face to heal though.

Stopping a little behind Chandler, Schwartz gave a glance to the screens on display.

“Have we found the fifth member yet?” he asked Chandler.

"We're still scanning the perimeter for that one."

Their job had gone a lot smoother than expected. When Chandler had received a call from the police station saying there had been a fight between a group of supervillains and Phobia just a little north of town, he had prepared for the worse.

He had not expected to find two of said villains requiring medical attention, one devisor glued in place, and a mage low on resources bound in chairs. That last one had been odd, not that he was going to complain since it had made his job easy.

Schwartz pointed to one screen covering an interrogation room in which a kid was cuffed to the table, visibly nervous. "Still grilling that one?"

"He's less cooperative than the other kid, although he has no experience with cops. He'll crack soon enough."

"You mean the one with all the bug bites? What did we get from him?"

Chandler made himself at ease by taking a seat. "We got most of their powers. We'll need a force field generator rated PK-4 in one of our rooms for the pyrokinetic as soon as she's able to leave that hospital bed, and I ordered some special cuffs to detect the astral and magical escapades of our little friend. Linked to a shocking collar, she won't try that stunt again."

Taking the other seat, Schwartz gave a chuckle. "You'd think she'd be smarter than just stealing the guard's key and making a run for it."

"Well, she's in her own force field room now, so even if she does her astral walk trick and unlocks the door again she's not going anywhere."

"When can we move them to the other facility?"

"Couple more days. Before the PK girl becomes too dangerous, but after we fill the holes in this whole thing."

Schwartz nodded, catching the reference. "The girl they kidnapped."

"Magnolia," Chandler agreed. "They didn't say her name, but it can't be anyone else with this kind of timing."

A grin stretched on Schwartz's features. "Told you so. I still got that post-it on my desk."

"Quit rubbing it in, will you? We both knew she was trouble from the very start."

"Yet, you agreed to help her."

Chandler sighed heavily, not pleased at the way things turned out in the end. "She's probably a lost cause by now. She vanished with Phobia. I doubt we'll hear about her ever again."

"Is that a good thing or a bad thing?"

"Look, it's not because she's a handful to manage that we can afford to have a supervillain use her! She's dangerous enough as it is, I don't even want to think about the damage she'd cause if she took the wrong side."

Schwartz let Chandler vent his anger before continuing on a calm tone. "We'll see. We don't know enough right now."

"No, we don't." They didn’t know Phobia's motive, which was essential to understand what that monster intended to do with that girl. Resigned, Chandler breathed out, the tension releasing from his shoulders. "All in due time. For now, let's just make sure none of these four idiots escape."


Sometime in the year
Phobia's library

Noa. Could. Not. Rest.

There was only one thing on her mind right now, and that was knowledge. She absorbed everything she could like a sponge, opening and closing books one after another in a dance without end.

It was not enough. She was not reading fast enough to satisfy herself. Over the course of hours, she half-mindedly considered the problem of her reading speed while she flipped pages, eventually reaching a conclusion.

What if she had a thousand eyes to read a thousand books?

Spending more hours on that setup, she created a first lobe of her flesh, flowing through it like she did for her arm stub which she had since attached to her right elbow. She activated the lobe, being able to see from it by the simple reasoning that she should be able to. She had to cover the eye in layers of blurry glass to dampen its eyesight enough that she could read characters on a page, but not enough that she could see microbes and acarids in the room.

That first eye made reading much easier than through her aura, and soon she created a second, then a third. Facing now the problem of having too many eyes and not enough hands to support them, Noa had to rethink her whole infrastructure.

Slow. Still too slow. Still not enough.

Levitating the eyes away from her contact meant that she was no longer receiving their signals. After fiddling a bit, she figured that the eyes could check a few pages away from her, store the data, then come back to her and merge back with the whole before leaving again.

Better. Not good enough.

Was it hours or days that she spent, she could not care less, but eventually she came up with a whole setup to reach the upper limits of her reading and processing potential. Large meaty squares were arrayed on the floor, producing a TK field that kept the dozen eyes floating a foot above the ground. Each eye moved by itself, moving this direction and that with a small push from their own much weaker telekinesis. Each one looked at a different book, making passes to and from their reading spot to contact back with Noa, sitting in a meditative pose in the center of it all, her only task being to process the huge influx of info she siphoned into her.

It. Was. Never. Enough.

The faster she read and processed, the more on edge she got, and the greater the need she felt for more, always more.

It was not fun. It was unpleasant. Terrifying. The constant weight of anxiety only getting heavier with each passing day.

Not all her thoughts were occupied by the reading. She thought back to her home, her mom, dad, Nathan, Carol, the coin-catching fair, her final exams, the MCO. Memories of shopping and stolen money, lashing out, insults, breaking in, assaulting, destroying. She wanted to apologize, to move on, to talk with everyone she loved and to hug and be hugged and be reassured that all this was just a dream. She wanted so bad to call her mom, to let her dad know she was okay, to inquire about her flute and play some music or to talk and pet Dr. Evans like she used to back in the hospital.

Sometimes she would act on these thoughts. She would step outside the library, determined to make a call, to cook something, to step away from her obsession, but invariably she would step back in and sit again in the middle of her little network, fearful at the irrational thought that she was missing something, that things would go wrong the moment she was no longer there to supervise the books.

She felt guilt. Guilt at pushing aside so much of her life for this one task today, yesterday and tomorrow for who knows how long. Numbing guilt at the knowledge of how irrational this all was, and that she was not strong enough to fight it or do anything about it.

She was driven to go faster and faster when the thought of it made her sick, like nausea that could never be relieved. It was all she could do to try in vain to satisfy a bottomless compulsion...

And read...

... And read...

... and read...


Sunday afternoon, July 24th
Phobia's house

After several days of non-stop 120% dedication, Noa eventually crashed.

The words she could process so clearly before now came as a meaningless jumble. From her sitting position, she flopped down on her back, unable to keep up anymore. One of the many wandering eyes floated to her and dumped the content of another book into her memory, but it was too much to deal with at the moment. She resisted the info dump, pushing it back into the eye and ordering it to stop.

More eyes floated lazily to her, merely acting as they had been instructed, each touch causing her to jerk back as if zapped by an electrical discharge.

Stop, stop, STOP!

Not a movement. Alone for once, her mind struggling to think of anything. It was like a hard reboot, everything sluggish compared to before, the past who-knows-how-long being but a blur that she was not ready to address just yet.

Breathe in, breathe out.

Right. That was a thing. Had she even breathed at all during that time? It was too foggy to remember.

She stumbled outside the library, gathering her bearings and counting the seconds until she was reliably sure she would stay out and not rush right back in the next instant.

She felt sick. How could she be sick?

Noa heard noises coming from downstairs, and the reality of her situation hit her, having been delayed up until now.

Oh, my god. I'm in the lair of a supervillain with monsters roaming about and I just ransacked her library!

She bit her lip and paced, not feeling ready to confront whoever was downstairs.

The kidnapping, the knife cutting away, the magic battle, her escape.

Noa shuddered. This could have gone so bad on so many levels and she was only now realizing it. A quick check told her that her arm was back. At least that was a relief.

Breathe in, breathe out.

She would have to face the music eventually. Arming herself with courage, she walked to the stairs, stepping them down one by one slowly until she felt a few people moving within her range.

A lizard girl with claws and teeth as sharp as razors. Noa stopped and squeezed herself against the wall, fighting the rising fear. She had met these people before, yet she had not seen.

What was I thinking?!

The lizard girl sitting on a couch was chatting with others in the open space, one of which was Phobia who stepped close enough for Noa to feel her. No piercings, casual attire, her breathing was relaxed. And she was apparently cooking.

“Everyone's fine with a hot pot for dinner tonight?”

“I could eat a whole cow right now.”

“I got the turkey in the oven just for you, Mary. Luke, Felix?”

“Hot pot's fine.” replied a male voice with an accent.

Another male voice tried to argue. “Mary, can I get a leg of your turkey?”

“No! Mine! Cook your own if you want some.”

Phobia smiled. “There's some chicken legs in the freezer, Luke. Cook yourself some if you want.”

Their discussion seemed awfully... normal. For supervillains. Weren't they supposed to feast on the corpses of the dead and fight for every bone like vultures?

Okay, that sounded silly even to her.

Noa took two more steps down, extending her perceptions a bit further into the room.

The creak of a step and the movement at the edge of her vision drew Sugar's attention. “Well, well, well. Look who's decided to show up?”

Noa took a step back, wishing with everything she had that she could just disappear right there and then.

Phobia walked to the bottom of the staircase, wiping her fingers with a towel. “Magnolia! Come, come. I'm only starting to make dinner. Do you have any preferred meal you'd like to have?” She walked back to the counter, leaving the fearful girl the time she needed to join the rest of them.

It was not at all what Noa was expecting. “Um, I don't eat.”

“Of course you do,” was Phobia's reply. “Word from your doctor, if you don't eat meals your aura will go into overdrive to supply the energy you need. And if I pay attention, I can already feel its prickling, so you got it bad, girl.”

The mention of her doctor caught her attention. “You talked with Dr. Evans?”

“And indirectly with your dad, and your mom, and the MCO. You wouldn't believe how busy I've been dealing with your stuff.” Phobia turned around, looking at Noa who was almost completely hidden by the wall of the staircase. She could only make out the edge of Noa's arm slightly beyond her hiding place.

Sugar however had the girl in full view. She moved to cross her arms over the armrest and smiled a toothy smile at Noa while the swaying of her tail betrayed excited curiosity.

“So, what exactly were you reading upstairs that kept your attention for so long?”

The reminder made Noa cringe. “I'm not too sure. Just about anything really.”

An African young man stepped closer and Noa tensed as she felt him breathe in her aura. She was usually able to ignore the sensory details she got from inside people as her particles circled through their lungs and veins, but this guy was too odd not to notice. His whole insides were replaced by mechanical contraptions, the heart, lungs and stomach missing. In their place were bags and metal rings and pumps and more things Noa knew nothing about that gave her the chills as she thought about what kind of incident would require so much intrusive mechanical care.

Was he even human? Was he even alive?

Between Rust and Sugar, Noa was not sure who scared her the most.

“I saw ya peeked at The Impossible Collection Of Cars,” he said, coming to stand by the couch. “So, what da-ya think of the 1909 Blitzen Benz?”

“Grand Prix racer. Broke land speed records in 1910. An antique.” The words came before she fully realized what she was saying. “Oh.”

Sugar piped up, wanting to test Noa's new knowledge herself. “Wasn't there the Guinness World Records somewhere in there? I remember that woman with the long nails...”

“Eight point six meters in total,” Noa provided, as curious as the others as to where that knowledge came from.

Sugar looked at her claws longingly, imagining what she'd look like with swords at her fingertips. “One day.”

“Secret ingredient to succeed a molten lava cake?” asked Phobia. The challenging smile was contagious.

“Black beans, if you want to cut on sugar.” Did she read a cookbook? Really?

Rust crossed his arms, impressed. “Here's one Thomas would ask. What's the difference between the monarch butterfly and the viceroy?”

“The viceroy has a black line crossing its bottom wings.” This was starting to be fun!

“What's a daisy chain?” asked Sugar as innocently as possible while looking away.

Of course she flicked her eyes sideways. No way she was going to miss Noa's look of disgust at that realization. “What the fuck did I read?!”

Phobia's glare shot daggers at the lizard girl.

“What?” Guilty as charged. “Just checking if she found my innocent little section of purity and heaven.” She looked back at Noa. “The chain's always growing you know.”

Rust brought a hand to hide his chuckle, a vain attempt, as honorable as it was. “I think ya made your point.”

“That'll be enough. You're scaring our poor guest here.” Phobia walked back to the bottom of the stairs, checking to see that Magnolia had not run away. Nope. Only three steps back up. Well, that was to be expected. “Come down. I'll introduce everyone properly.”

“Oh, introductions!” Sugar jumped from her couch, heading toward the patio. “I'll get Luke and Thomas for you. Just wait a sec.”

Gesturing her down and reassuring her apprehensions along the way, Phobia got Magnolia to step down and stand out in the open, despite the feeling of being completely exposed and out of her league among all the gathering adults.

“First off we have Felix, our computer man. You've met Mary. Don't listen to everything she says. She's poking fun more often than not.”

Pointy teeth smiled back at Noa, accompanied by a small clawed wave completing the greeting. Creepy!

“Then coming from the garden we have Thomas,” she pointed at a swarm of bugs in the shape of a man that nodded back, “and Luke.”

Noa could not feel anything strange going on with the last guy. He was tall, sure, but he did not have any weird organs nor claws nor bugs or other crawlies.

Speaking of crawlies... CREEPY!

Noa hid behind Phobia, trying to make herself as small as possible. Why did this household had to be so spooky?

Phobia smirked, reaching back behind her to try to pull Noa away from her hiding spot. “We also have Cuddle, who you met last time I saw you, and Snowball.” Noa gripped the woman's shirt, refusing to budge. “Who I guess can be introduced later.” She turned gently, holding Noa's hands in hers. “And lastly I'm Rose. Welcome to the family. Everyone.” She managed to turn around and bring Noa in the spotlight once more. Traitor! “Meet Magnolia.”

“Yo.” “Hi!” “Welcome.” “I hope you have a pleasant time with us.”

“Uh, hi. Nice to meet you all.” Please, pretty please, can I go hide now?

Phobia rose an eyebrow. “That it? No more words for the people who saved you?”

Noa was trying to cope with things one at a time, and she had not yet retraced her steps all the way back to the incident. For now, scary threats were dominating her thoughts. “Uh... wa... S-Sorry. I didn't mean to cause trouble.”

“You better be,” said Sugar as she slumped back down on her couch. “I got maimed stalling for time so that the others could get your ass out of the frying pan. I'm still having neck-aches from all the hits I took.”

Her face fell guiltily. “Sorry.”

“It's not your fault,” reassured Phobia with a pat on Noa's shoulders. “We all went there willingly knowing we'd get hurt. Don't think too much of it.” Glancing back at the three standing men, Phobia shooed them away. “Kay, greetings are over. Stop hogging the kitchen. Food will be ready in an hour.”

Dismissed, the boys broke away, one going to the television to play games while the other two went up or down the stairs to some other room of the house. Noa kept track of Luke, the only seemingly normal person around other than Phobia. And could Phobia even be considered normal?

“Speaking of which, you haven't told me what you'd like to eat.” Phobia opened the fridge for Noa. “Anything in here that you'd like?”

Noa shrugged, noncommittal. “Anything organic and raw is fine. Mushroom, vegetable, raw meat, I'm not really picky.”

Phobia took out a whole cabbage with several fruits and vegetables and started preparing a salad. “Better feed you fast. Your little buzzing is starting to get annoying.”

“Sorry...”

“Don't apologize. We're among us.” In between chopping the cabbage and the mushrooms, Phobia took out a corded phone from a corner along with a paper with a number. “You might want to call Evans. He's been worried sick about you for the past week.”

“I've been out for a whole week?” She typed in the number, waiting for him to pick up.

“He'll answer your questions—”

At the same moment, Noa heard “Doctor Long Evans speaking. How may I help you?”

It felt good to hear this familiar voice in this unfamiliar environment. “Dr. Evans? It's me, Magnolia. Ph—Rose told me I should call you.”

Silence, as if the doctor was not expecting her. “Magnolia. It's good to know you're safe. Rosemary told me she got hold of you, but that you were... unable to take calls. Until now.”

Him beating around the bush made Noa wince. “Sort of. I'm not sure.”

He nodded, stepping away from his current patient in the hospital. “How are you doing?”

“I don't know. Okay I guess?”

“And how were you doing, let’s say, three days back? In your own words.”

His choice of a date could not have been random. “I was... reading. And I couldn’t... stop.”

That seemed to confirm something he wanted to check. “What about when you were still with your dad? He told me your room filled up rather quickly.”

“I went shopping.”

“You had the money?”

Her silence was answer enough and he crossed something out from his mental checklist.

“Can you tell me how—”

“Doctor, just tell me honestly. What is wrong with me?”

There was a long and agonizing silence where Dr. Evans considered the best way to break it out to her. “It's called a manic episode. Mania is usually described as an abnormally heightened state of energy and emotion, usually accompanied by euphoria, irritation, a lack of impulse control, and sometimes obsession and megalomania, to the point that it interferes with your ability to function in your day-to-day life.”

She took it in. Noa knew something had been wrong, but even now it was too abstract, too blurry, too distant. “I'm crazy.” That was clear enough for her to understand, plain and simple.

Dr. Evans sighed. “I hate the use of the term 'crazy' to describe a mental disorder.”

“But I am, no?”

“It's more complex than that.”

“Then I'm listening. What's there to be more complex than me being just plain crazy?!” She was not screaming. Not yet. But the emotion was awfully close in kind.

“Breathe in.” She did. It helped. A little. “I talked to many people,” started Dr. Evans, ready to tackle the touchy issue. “Your dad, your mom, Carol, your school, the MCO. I tried to trace your mood back to where it started. Can you give me your best guess?”

“Is this a quiz or something?”

“I'm not testing you. I just want your opinion. You, of all people, should be in a good position to spot your mood changes.”

She thought about it even though it was mostly a bunch of unpleasant memories. “When I got kidnapped? Sounds about right.”

“Calling Carol late at night?”

He asked that as a confirmation, but Noa took it as blame. “I was excited about going out together.” The excuse sounded weak even to her.

“What about before that? You went on a shopping spree?”

She mumbled in the phone her weak protests. “My room was uncomfortably empty...”

“Lashing out at your dad?” Noa no longer dared protest the growing list of misdeeds. “From what I gathered, your episode started about two weeks ago.”

“Perfect,” she grumbled back. What use was there to know the exact time she flew off the handle?

“And before that you spent about one month in therapy with me for depression. And before even that you had another two weeks of being hyperactive, am I right?”

“Wait, the happiness back then was me being crazy already?” No way! She had felt fine back then. Completely fine. Nothing compared to the ever-present anxiety and irritation she felt in the last week or two.

“It's called hypomania, meaning 'less than a mania', and yes, I believe it started when you completed your mutation.” He took a long breath, longer than he should have. “Magnolia, you have bipolar disorder.”

Her world stopped turning. He had said that as if it was some kind of terminal disease, something scary that would rule her life forever and beyond.

She gulped, the words blocking in her throat “I... I'm... not...”

Doctors doing what doctors do to break the tension, Evans started rambling. “At first I thought you were simply overly active since you didn't sleep, and your depression could be attributed to post traumatic stress from the bullying you sustained at school, but the presence of a full-blown mania makes the diagnostic rather unambiguous.”

“Why?” was all she could formulate on the spot.

“I don't know. For now, my and Rosemary's best theory regards the fact that your whole body is one big nervous system replacing your brain, and that parts of you are taking turns sleeping and recovering, throwing your mood out of balance. Three episodes are not a lot to go on, but they have all been between two weeks and a month, putting you firmly in the rapid-cycling category.”

He lost her at 'I don't know'. Nothing else he said after that mattered to her. “You can fix this right? You can treat me, or heal me? Make the crazy go away?”

How come silence could be so loud?

With an edge of desperation in her voice, she kept asking. “There's got to be some kind of treatment! What do you usually tell your other patients?!”

“To them I would suggest a mix of medication tailored to their needs, possibly Lithium at first, then adjusting gradually to minimize the undesired side effects.”

“Then why—”

“But.” Dr. Evans did not mean to cut her off, but he had not finished his talk. “Your body is different now. There is no medicine that will work on you. You should know that.”

She knew. She just tried to forget. Forgetting was easier than admitting the inevitable and giving up.

Crying silently without tears, Noa asked once more with a trembling voice. “So there's nothing you can do? I'm... stuck with this for my whole life?”

“There are still options. Magic could be your best bet from now on. Rosemary and I talked about this at length. She has a few ideas of her own, and she agreed to print out several papers I sent her explaining bipolar disorder that I would like you to read. Get yourself familiar with the terms, take the time you need to sort it out.”

“But... She's Phobia.” The huge scary city-destroyer that keeps making the news. Phobia looked back, guessing at the nature of the discussion. She appeared dead serious and... caring?

“You can trust her. She saved your life, more than once, and she wants to help. All you have to do is accept it.”

“I...” It was too much. “Sorry!” She snapped the phone shut and bolted out of the house, seeking a refuge, any refuge, to be alone, break down and scream.


36: The talk

Sunday evening, July 24th
Forest near Phobia's house

Noa first heard the cracking of branches under clawed steps before Sugar entered her range. The other girl carried with her a lunch box that she brought up in front of her as she sat near Noa by the small running channel.

“I brought you dinner. Everyone was wondering where'd you gone to. We were starting to worry you got lost.”

Noa said nothing, instead ripping grass and picking up dead leaves and disintegrating them slowly in front of her just like she had been doing since she stopped crying.

Sugar placed the lunch box away and contemplated with mild-fascination the process of breaking down the leaves. “Neat. Is that what you did to the walls in the library?”

Noa grimaced. “What did I do this time?”

“Oh, nothing.” Sugar turned to look away in faked guilt. “Just, you know, corrode the walls and ceiling enough that we had to do urgent repairs or else the house would crumble. We had to do that twice. Hope we didn't disturb you.”

Noa held her knees in shame. “The week is just a big blur that's hard to parse through. I might have noticed, but not cared at the time. I thought I had the aura thing under control.”

“What is it exactly that you do?”

“I don't know how to call it anymore.” Noa picked up a rock with her telekinesis and threw it in the running water. “I called it a cleaning aura once upon a time, but now I think the MCO is right. It really disintegrates stuff.”

“That matches what I saw.” Sugar picked up a rock of her own and threw it in the river next to Noa's. “For me, I regenerate fast, and I'm strong enough I'd say. Opinions vary.”

Silence fell between the two, the nightly sky getting darker with each passing minute.

“Are you okay?” asked Sugar with genuine concern.

Memories, anger. “Why do you care?!” she lashed out. “Why do any of you care?!”

But Sugar was unimpressed by the display, rage being a close acquaintance of hers. “We just do. At first it was just Rose getting all excited to meet someone else that could survive being around her, and then she got the rest of us pumped up, and before we know it we're all wrapped up in a rescue mission, and you're here, and you're hurting.”

“Thanks for reminding me.” Back to throwing stones. It was not the best stress relief.

Sugar sighed nostalgically. “I know how it feels.”

“Bullshit!” A couple of branches broke all around them, each deliberate to punctuate Noa's anger. “None of you guys got told you're going crazy and there's nothing to do about it.”

“I did.” Sugar looked on as Noa's anger receded to make place in turn to disbelief, then doubt, then curiosity. The somber unsmiling look on Sugar made Noa realize that the girl was not kidding around.

“You did?”

“I'm a rager. I figured it out fairly quickly though, so you got me beat on the whole revelation drama.”

“And the medication?”

“High level regen. Too adaptable. Medication usually works once, but then my body adapts and it never works again.” She shrugged, the difficult times long past yet still slightly painful to share. “Rose found me on the street after I ran away from home after the most violent rage I've had. I didn't want to keep hurting my family, so I left. Rose hunted down the news report and sought me out specifically, just like she did for you. She helped me get back on my feet and manage my temper.”

“And now you're all healed and happy and life is perfect.” The sarcasm was heavy and uncalled for, but Sugar did not take offense.

“Almost, although it hasn't been easy getting there. She found me some devisor-made pills that make my rage harder to trigger, and since I got the hang of meditation I'm much more lucid when I do lose my temper. It makes it easier to break out off too. It's not perfect, but I can cope with that.” Sugar glanced at the younger girl who was losing hope. “And she can do the same for you.”

Noa shook her head, refusing to accept that it was this simple. “I'll never understand why she wants to help me so much.”

“Because you need her. You need her now just as you needed her the very first day she came to help you.” She smirked, a mental image crossing her mind. “She told us all about how frightened you were then. Practically shit your pants. Or diaper in your case.”

Noa hid her head in her knees in shame. “That's it! My life is ruined!”

Sugar chuckled at her, much to Noa's annoyance. “More to the point, she needs you just as much as you need her. She needs your help to get rid of her curse.”

“So much for a curse that doesn't do anything as far as I know.”

“It causes—”

“I know!” she snapped back. “She told me what it does.”

Sugar blinked. “Then why are you saying it's not serious?”

Noa laughed bitterly. “It's hard to take it seriously when you're all parading around as if nothing's wrong.”

“Well, we wouldn't be here if we were bothered by her aura, would we?” Noticing Noa was not buying it, Sugar elaborated. “Cuddle and Thomas don't have physical bodies that can be affected, what with being a living shadow and a cloud of bugs. Felix avoids the whole heart attack thing since he's a cyborg.”

“Yeah, I noticed. Is he even alive with all that?!”

“Like you're one to talk about being alive or not.”

Noa shut up, knowing all too well that she was a lot less human than her appearance let on. There was even a tinge of jealousy that Rust still had organs of some sort and not her.

Sugar picked up where she left. “Snowball's a bit too complex to really tell. It might be the mix of him having too many hearts or not being human enough. Don't know, don't care. Luke's too lucky to trigger a heart attack. As for me, I regenerate fast. I do feel pain in my chest whenever I see Rose, but I heal fast enough that it's not lethal.”

“Are you sure it's not love?” Noa couldn’t resist teasing, the shadow of a smile on her lips.

Sugar grinned and edged forward on her hands, licking her lip suggestively. “What, want me to ramble again about Daisy chains? Or maybe tribbing's more your style?”

“Nope!” Noa clasped her hands to her ears, blocking the words which triggered images she'd rather forget. “I won't be corrupted by your snake tongue.”

Sugar sat back, delighting in Noa's uneasiness. “Pair of scissors.” She bit her lip and took the punch to the shoulder with a smile, enjoying this way too much.

Noa gave the other girl a furious look that only made Sugar laugh harder. “It's not funny,” she pouted.

“Oh yes it is.” Sugar brushed a tear at the corner of her eye. “Very much so.” Seeing that Noa was still gloomy, Sugar hugged the stiff girl close, eliciting some protests especially after the previous allusions. “You should laugh a bit. You'll see it's not the end of the world. You'll find ways to deal with things.”

Noa's protests died down. “Stuck with it for life you mean.” Without thinking about what she was doing, she snuggled closer, having missed the comfort of a hug for so long. It was reassuring, even if the one giving it had claws an inch long.

“You learn to cope with it, and it's not always all bad.” Noa's snort let her know she thought otherwise. “Like my dad for example. He's got Diedrick's. Sometimes he goes wild and maniacal and stuff starts blowing up. But just as often he gets one of those flashes of genius and focuses so much on finding a solution that he does amazing things. I think the genius is a part of the madness, and the madness part of his genius. Who knows, maybe you're full of genius and you haven't realized it yet.”

“I wish.” She shook her head in denial. “I'm not smart.”

Sugar rose an eyebrow. “Want me to quiz you some more on the stuff you read all week?”

Noa rolled her eyes under her eyelids. “That's just a pile of random crap that I'll soon forget and never use in my life.”

“Do you think you're able to change a tire?”

Noa was about to protest when the knowledge came to her mind. “I think so,” she said hesitantly, not yet used to the random flashes of insight.

“What about first aid?”

More flashes, but different this time. “I learned some first aid before, but some of it is new.”

“Did you learn how to nurse a baby?” The lack of answer betrayed Noa's realization at what was going on. Sugar held her tighter, shaking her up a little to get some life back in her gloomy husk. “Hey, you're smart already. Isn't this great?”

She pouted. “I don't feel like it's worth going through hell for.”

“Just give it a try. You're just at the starting line. Explore your options with Rose, and who knows, you might find down the road that it all balances out.”

Having found a new perspective on her issues, Noa relaxed in Sugar's hold. “Okay. I'll play along.”

“That's all I ask,” the older girl replied, rocking her gently and tenderly stroking the hair of a girl that reminded her so much of herself.


Sunday evening, July 24th
Magnolia’s house

Judith emptied one of the few boxes of stuff she had brought back from the safe house when she came back to her home with Nathan. A few sets of clothes, some kitchenware and some bathroom necessities, only the bare minimum to survive while the mage Evans had called some time before purged the house of its curses. It had taken longer than expected, but the house was livable once more, meaning there was no longer any reason for her and Nathan to stay in the MCO’s safe house anymore.

The only thing missing was Magnolia’s presence, a fact she kept thinking back over and over again for the past week, ever since Randall had let her know Noa went missing.

At the sound of the phone’s ringing, her heart jumped into her throat in equal mix of concern and hope, just like every time the phone had rung lately. Her hand trembling in fear of hearing news that went from bad to worse, she pulled the ringing phone to her ear. “Hello?”

She recognized Dr. Evans’s voice immediately. “Magnolia got out of her manic episode today.”

A wave of relief washed over Judith at the news. “Thank God. How is she?”

“Shocked. Can you blame her?”

Judith shook her head, her answer somehow transmitted through her silence. “I take it she didn’t take the news too well?”

“Better than I expected. She at least waited until I finished explaining before cutting the line on me.”

Judith sat down on a chair, her motherly instincts taking over. “When is she coming back?”

“Give her some time to come around.”

“This is something she should face with her family, not surrounded by strangers. She needs to be with the rest of us.”

Evans sighed. “She’s in good hands. Her group has connections and resources, and they’ll be able to help her more than even I can.”

“But you won’t tell me who they are.”

“No.”

“And you won’t tell me where she is either.”

“I need to preserve their anonymity.”

“So how can I even trust them?”

“Is my trust in them not enough for you?”

“After her being kidnapped, I’d rather have concrete proof that they won’t mess with Noa again.”

“I will organize a phone call so you can safely speak with Magnolia. Would that appease your worries?”

“Slightly,” Judith admitted, feeling that she would not be able to get more without the doctor’s permission. “I just want her to be safe.”

“And you can help in that regard. Did you fill up the registration forms for Whateley that I sent you?”

“I did...”

By the way her sentence trailed off, Dr. Evans knew something was up. “You didn’t submit them?”

“It’s just so… expensive.” She knew it was the best long term option for Noa, what with the protections the school offered and Evans’s proximity for counselling, but she simply did not have the financial means to send her to that boarding school. Not when there were other cheaper options closer to home.

“You are aware that Whateley has an extensive array of scholarships for students in Magnolia’s situation? A lot of the kids there receive some financial help, and Magnolia does fit the requirement for a few endowments. I’ll have to give it a look, but the final cost should be something you can afford.”

Somehow, knowing this did not appease Judith. “She would be better off with us around to support her. We can find a way to make it work. There are plenty of schools around home, and she’d be with her friends and with Nathan...”

“Judith. Sooner or later you will need to let go of her, for Magnolia’s own good. I know you want to help, but there is only so much you can do, and Magnolia now has some specific needs that are beyond your ability.”

“I can manage. I did before, and I’ll do it again.”

Seeing she would remain stubborn, Evans went with the shock value. “During her manic episode Magnolia locked herself in a single room for over a week.”

“The library. Yes, I know. You told me.”

“Her passive aura caused enough property damage to that one room to threaten the structural integrity of the whole house. The group she lives with had to do repairs during the week to avoid the walls from collapsing.” He waited patiently for Judith to process the information.

“Is everyone okay?” she asked, nervous about the consequences such damage would implied.

“Everyone’s fine. They are all tough mutants that can take care of themselves. Nobody got hurt. But do you think it would have gone quite as smoothly had she been in your care at the time?”

It wouldn’t have. Judith had been struggling to keep up with Noa when she had been merely hyperactive. The prospect of dealing with a true mania, as much as she would like to help, was too overwhelming. “I understand. I’ll submit the Whateley application properly.”


Monday morning, July 25th
Phobia's house

Ignoring the morning sun warming the cool air around her, Noa stepped into the house where the others were gradually waking up and making their way to the kitchen for the breakfast. Keeping her distance with the cyborg and the bug man, Noa walked around and placed her empty lunch box on the counter near Phobia.

The latter gave her a warm smile. “Good morning dear. How are you today?”

“Managing.”

She spotted Sugar riffling through the freezer for two large pieces of meat that the older girl put practically as-is in the oven, barely removing the plastic wraps. Sugar noticed her and waved at her, and Noa waved back, no longer scared of the girl's fangs or claws. The way the lizard girl parked herself in front of the oven and closed her eyes basking in the rising heat leaking out the door was oddly endearing.

Phobia took a bite of her peanut butter and jelly sandwich and she laid back against the counter. “You slept outside?”

“Didn't want to wreck the house any more than I did.”

“Don't worry so much about it. Property damage can be repaired with enough money. Your health and safety can’t, so let us know next time you stay out.” She placed Noa's lunch box in the washing machine. “How was the salad? I see it calmed your aura down a bit. I no longer feel a thing.”

Noa shrugged. “It was fine. I ate some more when I was out. There should be a circle near the channel that's empty of grass, branches and leaves by now. I think that's what did the trick.”

Phobia stood in front of her, awaiting something that Noa was not willing to be the one to breach first. “Ready to move forward?”

“Not really no.” She sighed, resolving herself to face the issue. “But I'll need to eventually, so better get this out of the way now.”

Phobia nodded and stepped away from the busy kitchen. “Follow me.”

She led Noa to a study and gathered some papers, documents and other things before sitting down at the table, gesturing for Noa to sit down in front of her.

When Phobia placed a needle and thread in front of her, Noa got confused.

“I thought we were going to deal with me being bipolar?”

“That's one of the things we'll cover,” replied Phobia confidently, “but after. First, thread the needle. If you can.”

If I can? Thinking this was some kind of trap, Noa hesitantly grabbed the needle with her left hand. Nothing strange was happening. It was a perfectly normal sewing needle. She gave a puzzled look to Phobia, but the woman prompted her to keep going.

When she reached for the thread however, her right hand could not seem to be able to grasp it. Her fingers were clumsy, jerky, and lacking the dexterity required to delicately pick up the thin thread. She grabbed it with her telekinesis instead, and once in the air it was easier for her to grab the thread with her fingers.

Then came the hard part of slipping the thread through the needle. Her left arm held perfectly stable, but her right arm moved oddly at each articulation. It was not something she would have noticed without having to do such a minute task, but now that it was brought to her attention it was excessively frustrating. Giving up, she pulled the thread through the needle with her power, letting the needle drop on the table as she tried moving her right arm this way and that, testing the articulations.

“Evans was right.” Phobia leaned forward and prodded with both hands at Noa's right arm, especially around the elbow. “You grossly recreated an arm with the wrong bones. You have two humeri instead of the usual arm bones, as if you stuck two upper arms together. The articulations of your hand and fingers are also misshapen. It must be hard to grab things, isn't it?”

“I just noticed now.” Feeling with her aura, Noa could clearly see the difference between the bone structure of her left and right arm. “Back in the lab, I manifested two arms from my shoulder, one attached and one as a backup in case they came back and cut the first.”

Phobia raised a curious eyebrow. “And you glued both pieces halfway through?”

“Looks like it.” She kept feeling around, preoccupied by the difficulty of copying simple motions her left arm could do without problem.

“I hate to break it to you, but that's not a functional arm you've got there. You'll eventually want to remove it and create another one. Properly this time around.”

“Great. More problems to add to the pile.” She was growing numb to most of it by now.

Phobia reached into the pile of documents she brought with her and pulled a few books out of it. “You'll want to check through these. Anatomy lessons, range of motion, muscle distribution.”

Noa pulled one book aside from the other. “100 lessons to draw and sculpt the human body?” It was her turn to raise a questioning eyebrow. “You want me to learn to draw?”

“As far as you're concerned, you're creating, not regenerating,” explained Phobia, leaning further forward. “You're doing art already, and you'll want to do it right, or you'll get more results like your arm every time you'll get hurt. The lessons transpose quite well, you'll see. For example, you should always start with the outline before filling in the details, which in your case means that you'll first want to create hollow bones with a thin outline, then put a little flesh around the articulations, then bones and so on until you have a very minimalist moving arm. At that point it's still easy to tweak everything to get a proper range of motion, and once you're sure it's comfortable and only then do you fill up the bones and put some meat on them.

“Forget about all the regenerator crap you saw on the TV, it won't work for you. You'll need to come up with your own way to heal yourself.”

Noa sighed. Why was there so much to learn about being a mutant? Gripping her right arm, she felt fear rise at the thought that she would have to cut it again and go through the same thing she went through in the lab. She did not want to lose her arm again. “But it's not so bad. I didn't even notice, and it's not like I'll be threading needles that often. Even if I did, I can just use my telekinesis to deal with small stuff.”

“What about your face?” asked Phobia, sitting back defiantly in her chair. “Imagine you get in a fight and get disfigured. You'll want to be able to recreate your face, or failing that a face. And to do that you need to know what makes your face yours, as opposed to mine or another fourteen-years-old girl.” Reaching over to grab Noa's trembling hands in hers, Phobia reassured her. “It's okay. You'll have plenty of time to get the hang of it.”

“Sorry,” she said, stifling a sob. “It's just kind of overwhelming.”

“I know. Take it slow. Today I'm just laying everything out. All you need to do is listen. You'll get to it only when you're ready.”

They waited a couple of minutes for Noa to cry it out and let the tears flow, Phobia sharing words of sympathy throughout. Gradually Noa calmed down. The fact that she did not have to commit to anything right now removed a weight off her shoulders. All she had to do was to roll with it, listen, and keep herself together.

“Can we move on to the bipolar stuff now?” asked Noa as she wiped the tears away.

Waiting to make sure Magnolia was solid enough to tackle the rest, Phobia nodded, patting her hand one last time. She pulled out a pile of printed paper and moved them in front of Noa.

“I did some research and printed out some things for you to read. Blog posts, forum discussions, doctor's insights, personal experience with medication, you've got enough to get a good general idea of what it is to be manic depressive and how other people deal with it.”

“I can't take medication though,” said Noa sadly, flipping through the pages quickly to read a few titles.

“Maybe not, but it does show you how the moods interacts with treatment, what state to aim for, what signs to look for, which mental states you should avoid, etc.”

Phobia let Noa flip through the pages some more. There was a lot in there, mostly written by people with bipolar for those same people. Some of it was addressed to parents and friends, how to understand the mood swings from the limited frame of reference of 'a calm lake' compared to the 'raging sea'. Metaphors, experiences, crazy stories that were only funny in hindsight.

Sympathy. Understanding.

Noa put the pile aside, promising herself to go through it later. There were many titles that already caught her attention, and from the quick skimming she gave it, she knew what a pile of gold this stack of paper was. It made the whole thing look manageable, more defined, as if putting a name, expectations and limits on what the disorder could or could not make you do helped take control of it.

Maybe it did.

“I got Evans to agree to find a devisor to check you up,” started Phobia once Noa was done her brief reading. “He told me you didn't have a full physical since you completed your mutation.”

“Is that like the devisor drug for Mary?”

Phobia nodded, having figured that Sugar would have told her about that. “You never know what those guys can come up with. You put an unsolvable problem in front of them, and they usually come up with some twisted solution that somehow works in the end.”

Noa chuckled nervously. “You make it sound so reassuring.”

“Hey, all we care about is that it works, right?” She gave Noa a complicit smile that the girl returned.

Noa's face dropped serious again once she remembered something her doctor mentioned yesterday. “Dr. Evans told me you would try some magic on me to fix me up.” Phobia shook her head, much to Noa's surprise. “No?”

“I won't risk casting any spell on you. The orichalcum in your body makes you too vulnerable to magic, and I have no idea how a regular spell would react with you.”

“I could do without to be honest.” Recalling the magic circle and the quick binding orders Astrex had given her, she shivered. “Mages just have to speak a word and there'll be nothing I can do but to obey.” She frowned at the thought, directing her wariness at Phobia. “You're not going to order me around and make me a slave, are you?”

Phobia seemed shocked at the idea. “Of course not! If I'd wanted to I'd have done so already.” Seeing Noa was reclining back in her chair away from her, she caught herself back. “Wait that came out wrong.”

“Yes. Yes it did.” Fighting down her anger, she could not help the edge from leaking in her voice. “What's telling me that you're not just after my bones like the other witch and that you won't cut my arms away?”

“First off, why would I cut your arms away when I can just ask you kindly to manifest some mithril in a box for me? I'm not that barbaric.” Noa's suspicion receded a little, but not completely. “Second, yes, I do hope you'll eventually give me some orichalcum. Selfishness is part of human nature. But I want it to come from you willingly, if and when you trust me enough.”

“So it'll be my payment for all you're doing for me right now?” asked Noa with a mix of suspicion and apprehension.

Phobia shrugged. “If you like to think of it like this, I guess so. The way I see it is that family members stick together and help each other whenever they can. It doesn't have to be a one-time transaction that ends once you give me what I want, and I hope it won’t.” She reached to pat Noa's hand, making herself less intimidating than the persona she was used to. “You're a part of this family now, and that means we'll be looking out for you, without any strings attached. If you let us help of course.”

Noa was not quite believing that. “So you mean that if I don't want to I don't have to give you anything?”

Phobia gave her a dejected smile. “I'll be sad, but I won't force you. After all, I've been living like this for years now. I can keep going for a while longer.”

“And you're still helping me even then?”

“Of course! Why wouldn't I?”

The sincerity in her voice resonated deeply within Noa, shaking her beliefs on the woman. She was not yet sold on giving her orichalcum, but Noa would check her out and make her mind as she goes. If after some time she accepted that Phobia was genuinely honest, well, it would be only right to repay her back, right?

Staring at her, Phobia seemed to contemplate something deeply, crossing her arms in her pondering. “You know, maybe I should teach you some magic.”

“What?!” The thought of her casting spells left and right had some appeal, although at the same time it seemed utterly ridiculous and impossible. “But magic is a completely different mutant power. I'm not a mage.”

“Everyone can learn to do magic, it's just that some mutants have an easier time at it than the norm.” She stared through Noa, seeing the countless possibilities that could come out of it, and Phobia grinned maniacally. “It would be a waste not to. I mean, you have orichalcum. In your bones. You already have a magical focus that every other mage only dream of. Imagine what you could do with a few spells under your belt?”

She could not think of it. The idea was simply too absurd and Noa lacked any context for it other than the magical battle that took place all around her between Astrex and Phobia. Even back then, she had no idea what was happening and it had been all she could do to stay still, breathe calmly, and try to ignore reality shattering apart all around her.

Phobia broke into laughter at Noa's dumbfounded expression. “Yep, I'm definitely gonna teach you a few tricks. I'm taking it as my personal challenge to have you dress up as a cute little witch for Halloween, with a pointy hat, robe, staff and the classic black cat familiar.” Calming down slightly, she studied Noa up and down, picturing the costume perfectly. “We could even start now if you want. I have some costumes back in my room.”

Noa shook her head with vigor. “No. No, nonononono! I have enough stuff to deal with as it is. You are not dressing me up.”

“No cat either?” Phobia shrugged, faking disinterest, although keeping an expectant eye checking for Noa's reaction. “I thought kids these days all wanted to get a cute pet, but if you're not interested in getting a cat, suit yourself.”

Had her eyes been opened, Noa would have stared daggers at the mage. She still tried, mind you. “You are evil.”

“Thanks sweetie. I do try.” Crossing her hands under her chin, Phobia blinked in a conspired innocence worthy of tempting devils and demons.

“You know, you make it really hard to stay upset at things when you make your distractions so damned appealing. I thought you were supposed to help me cope with being crazy?”

Phobia smirked. “Who said crazy can't be fun?”


37: D'rling Sugar

Saturday afternoon, July 30th
Pet shop

The next few days went by leisurely, getting to meet everyone in Phobia's group and managing more or less with the oddness of the spiders lurking around, Rust's bad sense of rap music, and Cuddle sometimes appearing as a puppy.

Yes, he was cute. Yes, he still had that terror aura going on. And yes, scratching his belly came with an extremely confusing set of emotions and sensations.

But he was just so adorable!

Phobia kept Noa busy. There were many things to learn and whenever Noa needed to take a break there were still new things to discover all around. Luke's art gallery, Thomas's garden (unsurprisingly full of bugs), Snowball's shed...

Today she was walking in town with Luke, looking for a pet shop. Luke being the only normal looking person of their group who could go outside the house safely— Rust also counted, but Noa preferred the company of the regular human to that of the cyborg— he had been the one designated to accompany Noa on her quest.

“HE'S SO CUUUUUUTE!”

Noa was enamored with the kitten she held in her arms which tried to chase her teasing finger with its front paws. After Phobia had hinted at a cat familiar, it was all she could think about.

It was also all she wanted to think about since it was one of the few thoughts that uplifted her mood, as opposed to healing her arm or reading blogs on depression.

Her aura seeped through the kitten, feeling its breathing, its bones, muscles, claws, tongue, tiny fangs, its cute fluffy fur. She was taking it all in, the most minute details, for a project of her own.

If she could recreate her arm, why could she not make her own cat? Her little furry mini-me? It would be like flowing her consciousness into an arm separated from her, except it was a cat. A part of her could be a kitten. Just the thought of it tickled her curiosity muscles like no other.

“Are you ready to go?” Luke carried a bag containing art books explaining how to draw cats, a book on the various species of cats, and a last one that went in depth on the cat's anatomy.

He must be thinking she was going cat crazy on them. She was not going to deny it though.

“Aww, it's time already?” Reluctantly, she gave the kitten back to the assistant who placed it back in the play area among the others. “I'll come back some other day,” she promised the cat, blowing a kiss at it. If she was to make a cat properly, coming back from time to time would help, just so she got the proper shape and so she could compare.

Nope! She definitely was not making excuses to pet cute little adorable furballs.

Walking back to the car, Noa made her mind on a very important issue. “When I get a cat, I'm naming it Piyu.”

“You're saying that as if it's already decided you'll get one.” Luke stepped behind the wheel and opened the passenger seat for Noa.

“I'll make one, you'll see.” She buckled her seat belt.

“You know, it's with odd little comments like that that I know you're fitting along nicely with the rest of us.”

“I'm getting the hang of it. More bugs around that I'm used to, but I'm starting to tune them out.”

Luke crossed the last intersection on the main street, branching out into the woods were a lot less vehicles were passing through.

“I'm giving Snowball a bath today. Want to help?” he asked.

After the first few times around the huge six-legged monster, Noa figured that he was tame as a puppy, and had since stopped being afraid. Between him and Cuddle it was Cuddle who kept giving her shivers, and with good reason. “Sure, although I'm expecting that devisor doctor to come today for my checkup. We'll see if a magical cure exists for me or not.”


Saturday afternoon, July 30th
On the road toward Phobia's house

Distractedly listening to the GPS directions to drive to his destination, Healbot thought back to the discussion he had had with Dr. Evans earlier this week. His ratty friend had asked him to do a complete scanning of Magnolia, the girl with the funny telekinesis he met last time. Evans had explained the girl's disorder appearing after her mutation and the overhaul of her anatomy. It was all Healbot needed to hear to come to meet her once more. The samples Evans got him had been most fascinating.

And then there was his payment. It had come as a surprise when one of Evans’s patients had given him a description matching Mary’s during one of their recent counseling sessions. Evans was arranging a future meeting between them. He would not tell him where she was yet, only that she was safe and happy and surrounded by good people. That was all that mattered. Healbot could wait if he knew that much.

He took the side road that lead into the forest and parked his car at the large house matching the address on his GPS.

Walking to the door, he rang the bell, pushing away distracting personal thoughts to focus on the task at hand.


“The doctor's here!” screamed Sugar through the house, turning around to see where everyone else was. “Anyone knows where Magnolia is?”

Rust appeared from the staircase leading to the basement. “She's outside with Luke and Snowball. I'll go get her.”

Sugar nodded at him and checked the door of Phobia's room, making sure it was closed and would remain closed for a while. When they had a guest like this, Phobia had to hide herself as a security precaution.

Walking to the entrance, Sugar opened the door. “Sorry, it'll take just a mom...”

She froze when she recognized the hairy and thick beard and mustache of the tall man in front of her.

“... Dad?”

Healbot was just as startled by their unexpected meeting, but once his mind caught up with his eyes, he dropped his briefcase and threw his arms around his daughter, pulling her into the embrace he had waited years to give.

Too surprised to move, Sugar stood stiff, not returning the crushing bear hug her dad was giving her. He was probably the last person she expected to see on her doorstep.

Gradually letting go of her, Healbot recalled the hint of a smirk on Dr. Evans's features. That wretched rat, he thought, a smile stretching his own lips. He played me like such a fool. “Hey sugar. How're ya doin'?”

Sugar stumbled backward awkwardly in shock. “B-But... How... Why are you here?”

“What, ya thought I wouldn’t be looking for ya?”

“… Wha… How?!” she repeated, her thought process refusing to admit that he was really here in front of her.

“Your description turned up from a patient of a friend doctor I’d asked to be on the lookout for. Speaking of, I believe she needs ma touch.” He looked around the house, checking if the girl he had met before was anywhere around. Gesturing to the entrance, he asked “Can I?”

Stunned and unresponsive, Sugar merely watched as he stepped inside and closed the door behind him.


Scrubbing Snowball's thick hide with brushes and sponges while Luke rinsed behind her with the hose, Noa was deep in thought, absorbed by her work.

That did not last, as a stream of water wet her feet and shoes, pulling her out of her reverie. “Luke!” With mock affront, she turned to him, her mouth gaping open. “You did that on purpose.”

The culprit was not the least guilty as he looked back provokingly. “I thought I saw a gloomy stain at your feet. Had to wash it off, right?”

“You know I have the bucket of water,” said Noa arming herself against her opponent, anticipating the inevitable water fight with delight.

“I have the better weapon,” said Luke, holding the running hose next to his hip like a cowboy ready to draw.

Noa laughed at the sight. “Lucky Luke, fastest sprinkler in the west.”

Luke replied with hilarious seriousness. “This stable's too small for the both of—”

He received a wet sponge to the face, first blood going to Noa. Spraying the hose at her with his thumb, he expressed his offense at the interruption. “You DARE break a perfectly valid monologue? En-garde!”

“Eeeep!”

She received the jet full on, soaking her from head to toe. Having nothing left to lose, she grabbed the bucket of water and threw it at Luke, who managed to evade enough that only his pants took the hit.

“Ha! Who's the champ now?”

Seeing the action going on next to him, Snowball joined the fray with a nice, slimy lick at Luke with a tongue nearly as tall as he, covering his entire left side with thick, juicy saliva.

Luke froze at the wet streak slowly rolling down his back, the disgust apparent on his face. “Okay, I give!”

Both Noa and Snowball broke into laughter, the latter's sound echoing through his huge belly in a low rumble to shake one's bones.

Rust came in to see the three of them having fun and being various degrees of wet. By the quick and proven evaluation of skin area still dry, Snowball was the clear winner. “Magnolia,” he said, drawing the attention of the group. “Yar doctor is there. Ya might want to get changed.”

“Coming!”


Several hours later, Healbot opened the door of the room he had been examining Noa in. Noa was just done putting her shirt back on, borrowed from Sugar. The two came down to meet with Rust and Luke taking seats at various places around the kitchen. Hidden by the door of her room, Sugar peeked through the crack in the door, listening in on their conversation.

“So? Any luck?” asked Luke, hoping for positive results.

“Some,” replied Noa with a knowing smile, figuring that Lucky had probably used his power on this one. The smile she got back confirmed it.

“Well,” started Healbot, detaching his mind from complex medical terms to share his findings with the others. “I confirmed there's no way meds can do anythin' for her. Alchemical gels, witch's ointments, mayb' a shaman's paint or powder, they'd all do more for her than meds, but I can't talk for them all. What Ah can tell though, is that she's got a certain electrical pattern for matchin' moods.”

“He made me look at pictures of people who were happy or sad,” provided Noa. “Real scientific,” she mocked, even though she was glad it had given results.

Healbot nodded. “I'll need to check on her re'ularly to make sure da patterns are constant, but even if they're not, Ah should be able to figure out a subdermal electrical field generator mapped over her body to force the patterns to stay aligned.”

“In other word, he can make me stable!” said Noa with glee.

“Sort off.” Healbot had explained the limitations many times in the last hour, but Noa would have none of it. “It'll need regular scans and checkups to keep in sync, and dependin' on how stable her electrical mood-readings are, it'll need more or less maintenance tweaks.”

“So how long until ya get the mapping?” asked Rust, who had followed the explanation without problem.

“One or two months mayb'. Late September at the very least.”

“And the regular maintenance?”

“Every day or two.”

That put a damper on the mood, but Noa did not care. She was floating, having found the inkling of a solution she was not about to let go. “I'm in! I want to try it, even if it might be troublesome. We'll deal with problems as they come.”

“Talk to your parents first,” said Healbot, patting her head to reign in her enthusiasm. “Let'em know you're safe, and ask their' opinion and permission. I'm sure they're worried 'bout you.”


Closing his toolbox now full of scans and enough data to keep him busy for a while, Healbot put his shoes back on when Sugar walked hesitantly to him, still unsure of what to say after years being apart. She noticed his two artificial arms as he laced his shoes, and she could not stop the guilt from rising over, overwhelming. She looked away, staring at the wall instead of the result of one of the worst times she had lost control.

Her dad gently turned her chin to meet his eyes. “I love you sugar. Take care.”

Confused, she startled when he half-opened the door. “You're not going to force me to come with you?”

“Why? Are you unhappy here?” She shook her head, not daring to take her eyes off him. “Did they hurt you? Or are they keeping you against your will?” She shook her head again. “Then why would I force you to do anything?”

“You're not... angry?” She motioned at his arms and he followed the motion with his eyes, sighing heavily.

“There’s just arms. Wasn’t your fault. You don't havta blame yourself for what happened.”

“You know better than anyone that I can't help but blame myself for losing control, dad.”

He did the same whenever he dricked out himself. “I know d'rling, I know.” Healbot took a long breath, pushing away dark memories and regrets. “I just wanted to know you're safe and happy. Once you're ready, I'll be waiting home for ya.”

Feeling the tears coming, Sugar stepped forward and wrapped her arms around her bulky dad, burrowing her face in his shirt as he stroked the back of her head gently, soothing her like he used to.


Thursday afternoon, August 11th
Phobia's house

Phobia was in Rust's laboratory in the basement, going over magical books and alchemy tomes when her cellphone rang. Putting aside her notes for optimal orichalcum extraction, she took a glance at the calling number before stretching a grin that almost reached her monotonous voice. "Evans. Nice of you calling today. What can I do for you?"

"I've been talking extensively with the MCO lately. It's about how they'll react once Magnolia comes back to Toronto."

"Figures they wouldn't too happy with her spending some time socializing with a known villain." She was not the least bit surprised that they knew Noa was with her. She had not been discrete on her raid after all. "Is it safe for her to come back?"

"They are ready to give her a chance on the condition that you talk face to face with their agent and give your version of the events, from the moment you first met Magnolia to what you did with her during the summer. They asked me to oversee the meeting."

Phobia sighed sadly. "You know I can't. It's too dangerous for me to meet with them face to face."

"Not if you bring Cuddle."

"Then they'll be scared shitless and won't believe a single word I say."

"I warned them about that. They believe they can take it. You know the MCO; they won't back down until they realize they have made a mistake, and even then."

Absentmindedly trailing her fingers over the hard leather texture of the grimoire closest to her, she debated whether she should go or not. "Fine," she conceded. "But on the condition that they issue Noa a student ID, not a villain ID. I do not want her to be stained by my reputation."

"I think I can get them to agree to that much."

“And do let them know I will do a few readings before coming. If I see they plan to spring a trap on me, I’ll either not show up or come prepared for war.”

“It wouldn’t be too bright of them to try to double-cross you.” He paused, and Phobia could hear the hesitation when he picked back up. "I'm sorry for your anonymity."

"It's my fault, not yours. I don't hide myself when I go out."

"I still feel like I failed you somewhere."

"Don't beat yourself up. I'd rather have a solid bad rep than having people not knowing who I am and dropping like flies." Remembering the tomes and her current alchemical research, she amended "At least for a little while longer."

"You might want to mention your efforts in getting rid of your curse. It might score you a few brownie points"

She smirked at the thought. "I doubt they'll be lenient on a villain trying to reform herself."

"You never know."


Wednesday morning, August 17th
In front of MCO office back in Toronto

Noa looked at the label above the main entrance of the MCO. The whole building did not seem as intimidating as it once had been. How long had it been since she last came here?

She crossed the doors and she went ahead to meet the secretary. The scowl she gave Noa did not faze her, not anymore.

“Magnolia Flores,” she said confidently. “I have two appointments, one to take my school exams, and the other to register for a MID.”

The wait wasn't long until Mr. Chandler showed up to greet her, flanked by two scientists. He looked around, frowning as he failed to see the other person he was expecting.

"Where’s Phobia?"

"Still outside. She wanted to wait until she was expected before coming in, to not cause a panic. I'll go get her."

Steeling himself, Chandler waited patiently as Noa walked outside for a few minutes, longer than it should have taken her if the woman had been waiting anywhere within the parking lot.

He felt the creeping terror long before Phobia appeared through the doorstep, every detail of her appearance carefully chosen for its intimidation factor. Chandler swallowed the lump forming in his throat, his mouth dry and his instincts on high alert. The secretaries and scientists were just as shaken as him, and he had to give everything he had to keep a confident façade and look in control.

"Magnolia," he said, never taking his eyes off Phobia. "Please follow these misters. They'll run you through the usual tests."

"Okay." She walked ahead, turning one last time to wave at Phobia. "I'll see you later. Dr. Evans, make sure she doesn't get in trouble."

"There won't be any problem," assured the rat riding on Phobia's shoulders. Chandler had missed him at first, too focused on the elephant in the room.

Walking closer, Phobia smiled at him, yet the warmth of the smile never reached her voice, which remained completely toneless. "Should we get going?"

He had to swallow again, the proximity and her disturbingly flat voice not helping matters any. "This way."

She followed after him. "I would appreciate if we could limit the number of people who see me to a minimum. To avoid accidents."

"Of course."

"This includes the five men in power armor you're keeping on standby." There was a noticeably nervous skip in Chandler's step at her casual comment of his ambush. "They can stay in their power suits if they want," she reassured him, "but they shouldn't get involved unless necessary. I assure you I have no intention of starting anything today."

Debating his options as he kept walking, Chandler took out his radio from his belt. "Schwartz, clear the path and move to B3 on standby." Not a pleasant decision to make, but let’s be honest here. They had very little chance of containing Phobia if she came prepared and did not want to be contained. Unless they had prepared reinforcements, but then that would have either ruined this meeting or turned the MCO's office into a battlefield. And Phobia had the reputation of a collateral monster. He had to trust he was doing the right thing here.

Stepping into a small meeting room, out of the way and with the blinds pulled down for their privacy, he gestured for Phobia to take a seat before he took one himself. Dr. Evans jumped from her shoulder onto the table, making himself unobtrusive yet available should either party need his neutrality to settle a dispute.

Chandler chuckled nervously. "I will admit I still had my doubts this morning that you would show up." He pulled out a recorder and placed it on the table between them. He looked up at her, his finger hovering over the 'on' button. "You don't mind?"

"Relax." The agent was so tense that the single word made him flinch. "It triggered the moment we met. You were scared then. You are safe, until you leave the room for some time and come again." She gestured to Cuddle hiding in her shadow and gradually the aura of terror receded until it was no more than a slight unease, just a reminder of what danger she represented. "I must insist, now more than ever, that we are not disturbed. You might be safe, but whoever would inadvertently cross this door will not have the protection I provided you when I stepped inside the building."

He nodded, feeling more like his usual self. "I warned my coworker to keep everyone out." Pressing the button on the recorder, he cleared his throat. "Phobia, I am Mitchell Chandler. This meeting is recorded, and will be overseen by a neutral party in the form of Dr. Evans here with us. You are here of your own free will as part of an agreement to share your version of the events culminating in your attack on an unregistered laboratory on July 16th, in exchange for your and Magnolia Flores's temporary and conditional safety until this case is resolved. Is that right?"

"Yes. Although I do hope my help in capturing members of a villain organization will alleviate the negative views the MCO seems to have about me."

Letting her persona of terror drop, she smiled at him with confidence.

"Those views come from a long string of assaults, but these are not our concern today." Chandler leaned forward on the desk, bringing his hands together. "Let's start at the beginning: please describe your very first contact with either Magnolia or Blue Moon, whichever comes first."


Wednesday evening, August 17th
Carol's house

At the sound of the bell, Carol rushed to the door, knowing who to expect behind.

“Hey,” greeted Noa with a small wave. “Sorry for the wait. The MCO kept me longer than expected— Whoa!”

The tight hug she found herself in was not completely unexpected, and was more than welcome. “I've been worried sick,” said Carol, gripping tighter, as if Noa was about to disappear again.

“I called you know?”

“It's just not the same.” Loosening her hold, she looked back at Noa's face, noticing that her eyes were opened. And brown. “Contacts?”

“My dad's idea.”

“I bet you have so much to tell me.” Carol practically dragged her inside, too eager to have her friend back after what, two months? How short it seems in retrospect. How long it had been, waiting anxiously day after day for some news.

She led Noa to her room. Taking seat on her desk chair facing Noa on the bed, Carol went right into the thick of it. “So, where have you been for the past month? Nobody could tell me anything. Neither your dad, nor your mom. Even Dr. Evans shut up. All I got was that you were safe and recovering, so spill!” Her knee jumped up and down, a display of her impatience.

“Calm down!” Noa giggled as her comment only made Carol's leg go faster. “I was with friends. They helped me learn about the whole bipolar thing, and a few other things like drawing and sculpting. Mary and Rose kept me busy, but nothing super interesting happened.”

“Why do I have a hard time believing that?” asked Carol, suspicious, her leg stopping in its track as she sat forward with an investigative look in her eyes.

“If you call counseling sessions every few days with Dr. Evans on the phone, reading blogs and articles and doing homework study interesting, then yes it was interesting. Sort of.” Her smile widened as she recalled the long discussions she had with Mary or the research Rose had done for her. “But really, they helped a lot. I wouldn't trust myself to be around you, or dad, or mom if I hadn't had the help they gave me.”

“You could have visited more often, I'm sure.”

“Sorry, I wasn't really in the mood at the time. But now I'm back and staying around with my mom for a few weeks. What about you? Had fun this summer?”

Carol reclined in her chair, spreading her legs long and straight in front of her. “I went with two friends to watch the meteor shower you rambled about on the phone in the middle of the night.” Carol looked up, smirking as Noa guiltily looked away.

“Yeah, one of my 'moods'.”

“Figures.” She stood straighter, happy that Noa was taking it well enough to talk about it. “There was another one just a couple of days ago. I was almost expecting your call again.”

“I said sorry!”

“Leaving my phone open at night...”

Noa giggled, quickly followed by Carol. “Moving on.”

Carol considered poking fun at her for a little longer, but she did not have the mind for it. She was just glad Noa was back and laughing like she used to. “Yeah, summer was fun. Mae invited me to watch her regionals for the coin-catching competition. They barely made it into the bracket, but they did, and once they switched to Teddy's vehicle they crushed the competition flat.”

“They won?”

“Nah, ninth place, but people suspect mutants slipped in and took the spotlight. Couple of gadgeteers and devisors, but nobody was able to prove anything.”

“Did Mae qualify for mutant?” asked Noa with some concern. “I mean, Teddy was not totally legit either.”

“Let's just say they didn't complain too much about their ninth place.” Winking at Noa, Carol got the message across loud and clear.

Miming zipping her mouth shut, Noa threw the phantom key away. “Not a word.”

They both relished in their little conspiracy for a few moments, eventually ending with Carol sighing and looking at the ground. “Wish you could come back when school starts again.”

Wishful thinking, yet painful for them both. “You know I can't. Not after what happened.”

“They dealt with the bullies,” protested Carol, trying desperately to find a way to keep her friend close. “A bunch of students had to follow anti-discrimination workshops during the summer. You have Mr. Chandler to thanks for that.”

Noa looked back in disbelief? “Really? But he's a prick!”

“I know! But he did something useful regardless. Things are getting better.”

Noa shook her head. “Even if he did, I bet the students will resent me because me existing forced them into the workshop.” She cut Carol's rising protests by lifting a finger, signaling her to wait. “And even if I did come back, people around here know me. I'd be branded and singled out just like before. It'd just be less in the open.”

“But you look normal now,” she said, looking Noa in the eyes. Her protests grew weaker, knowing the risks still existed. “People are there to help out.”

“Thanks.” Noa grabbed Carol's hands in hers, squeezing heartily. “But it's not like I'm going someplace bad. Dr. Evans works at that school, and he'll take care of me. He even registered me to a scholarship my mom missed before. They have wards in place to prevent people like Blue Moon from going after me, and being bullied for being a mutant will be the last of my concern since everyone there is one.”

“Your Xavier's School for gifted kids is still far away.” Carol pouted to make her displeasure known. “Make sure to send mail.”

Coming forward to close the distance between them, Noa hugged Carol tightly. “I will.” Then she thought to add “although it'll be good old paper letters until I figure out how to use a computer. The lenses are just for show you know.”

“I knew you had the traditional soul of a grandma.”

She poked Carol in the ribs, eliciting giggles coming from between their embrace. “I see Nathan rubbed off on you.”

“Had a few chats with him when I called home for you, yes. Should I start calling you Mags?”

“No.” Noa tried to break the hug, but Carol would not let go.

“How about your cooking?” Her fingers already on each side of Noa's ribs, it was hard to resist the tickling temptation.

“Will you knock it off already?” Feeling Carol's fingers run up her sides, Noa tried to squirm free. “Hehe, stop that! No fair!”

“Not letting go,” said Carol mischievously, pushing Noa to the bed to have more space for the tickle fight that ensued.


Friday afternoon, September 1rst
Magnolia’s house

In the basement of her house, Noa sat comfortably on her bed, positioning a blank notebook in front of her as she brought a pen flying into her opened hand. Around her, two suitcases laid open on the floor, both already partially filled up with clothes and necessities. It was still a few days before she left for Whateley, but the prospect of moving to a boarding school full of teenage mutants was too exciting to not leisurely prepare her luggage a few days early. She did not want to forget anything essential.

On the bed next to her was a box she was absentmindedly filling with mithril. It would be the last batch she would be able to give Phobia, and Noa hoped it would be enough. With the help of Rust, Phobia had already started processing the earlier samples, but even after she acquired a good amount of orichalcum it would still take time for her to figure out how to properly undo her curse. Noa could only wish her luck after this. Rose deserved it, after everything she did for her.

Starting to write down in her new diary, Noa let her mind roam, thinking back to her summer and forward on her new life.

Living with bipolar— or manic depression as Dr. Evans liked to call it— was not easy. Even recently, after leaving Carol, everything seemed to hit her all at once for no specific reason. The prospect of a boarding school, of being away and alone, had been just too overwhelming. Everything had been scary, as if her life was falling apart and she was losing everything she cared about. She was just now climbing back up the slope, exchanging concern for excitement without having any say on the matter.

Sometimes, it felt like waking up with a stranger that left the house ransacked and she needed to clean up after said stranger. The stranger was still her though. There ever only was just herself, even though she sometimes felt like she was lacking a part of her, while at other times she had too much of her.

Noa had plans to settle her moods, various things to try alone or in combination until she found something she could live with. Dr. Evans suggested she keep a diary, to gain more self-awareness and to keep tabs on the warning signs and subtle changes. It was a balancing act, limiting the triggers, keeping within a certain range of activity, never too much nor too little.

Then Healbot was making progress on his side. After having taken regular readings over a couple of weeks, he was confident he could get his first ‘stabilizer’ prototype sometime between late-September to mid-October. It would require frequent scans to maintain, but Dr. Evans had reassured her that the school had some of the best testing facilities around, so it would all work out. Maybe.

Finally, Noa was exploring things on her side in her own way. She was making her own cat, its skeleton outline coming along nicely. She had had some practice recreating her arm, and now she felt ready to tackle the more complex feline. If she could flow a part of herself into it, it could become her own personal testing environment, to see if it had bipolar or not, and to test various things to see what made or broke her manic depression. Noa kept the drawing books handy on her bedside table, progressing as she could during her boring nights. It would take some time to complete, but if there was even a remote chance that she could learn something useful from the experiment she had to go through with it.

Sometimes, the episodes were fun, like right now, or back with Carol, or way back when it all started. But most of the time it was scary, like a love-hate relationship that tended more toward the ‘hate’ side of the equation. She had her ups and down, her successes and mistakes, regrets and triumphs, but whatever she did, whatever she accomplished or however much she hurt, it was her at the core, not the disorder. Manic depression was a beast she needed to tame, and she was determined to fight that beast and regain control of her life one way or the other.

Here’s hoping the beast doesn’t win.

Comments   

0 # Horrid 2017-03-13 16:38
Dear GrimGrendel:

It was very difficult struggling thru the early potions of your Noa story. I did so because in spite of the obstacles placed before me I somehow knew the effort would be well worth it.

Phobia is a great character, as are a very great many of the supporting cast you created.

The story had some wonderful moments but it was not just a collection of beads of wonderfulness strung together. The story as a whole was awesome.

The best parts were the parts involving Blue Moon and Phobia's "family".

Kudos for the more complicated portrait of an MCO agent, Chandler.

And thank you for actually giving this Noa story a beginning, a middle and an ending. Ending a story often seems to be difficult for fan fiction authors.

And lastly, I hate to repeat myself but I think the Phobia character was a stupendous achievement on your part. It is rare to see a truly different and orginal character in fan fiction.
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