The Cults of Voynich City

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The Cults of Voynich City

Chapter I: The Cult of Lost Souls


Stewart Cinn rolled the stamp on the pad of red ink, lifted it into the air, and slammed it down on the request form with a heavy thud. “Denied.”

“Denied?” The old man, face covered in symbolic tattoos, looked up in shock. “How? I filled everything out perfectly.”

“I apologize, Minister, but it is the view of Human Resources that your need for sacrifices at this time is superfluous at best.”

“Superfluous? You can’t mean—!” The minister’s shock gave way to an anger that burned in his eyes. Not literally. Given the man’s patron deity of choice, Stewart wasn’t concerned about any flames.

“Terribly sorry,” Stewart said, sliding the stamped form across his desk. He made a slight adjustment to its positioning, making sure the stack of papers aligned perfectly with the edge of his desk. “Human Resources recommends that the Ministry of Winter check that their calendars are up to date. Offering sacrifices in the middle of summer is a waste of time, effort, and valuable personnel.”

“Sitakalam is expected to sit and watch as His brother receives offerings day-in and day-out?”

“Yes, actually.” Stewart sighed, lightly pressing his glasses up the bridge of his nose. “I understand you are new to this, Minister, and I am trying to be understanding, but the Ministry of Summer has preferential treatment during this time of year. Your god agreed to the stipulation in 1082.”

Standing from his desk as he spoke, Stewart moved to the filing cabinets at the side of his office. He took but a moment to rummage through and find a copy of the aged document he needed.

“It is all in the Treaty of the Seasons, signed by Sitakalam of Winter, Venalkkalm of Summer, Vasantakalam of Spring, and Saratkalam of Autumn, witnessed by the heas of the Ministry of Agriculture, Ministry of Weather, and the four ministries dedicated to the named gods. That includes the Ministry of Winter.”

The Minister of Winter stared down at the desk as Stewart slid the treaty into place next to his denied request form. The old man reached a hand forward and slowly started turning one page after another. As his eyes started roaming over the document, he muttered a slur under his breath. “Those cults.”

Stewart sat back in his seat, clasping his hands together as he watched the old man search through the text. Likely trying to find some loophole that wasn’t there. With the animosity between the ministries of the seasons, such things had been searched for aplenty in the 936 years since the treaty had been signed.

It was quite irritating, in Stewart’s opinion. There was a reason why no gods had ever been worshiped within the Offices of Human Resources. HR would never agree to service the random whims the various sanctioned deities would require of their followers or the fevered dreams and delusions those followers felt compelled to follow irreverent of their deity’s actual commands. Any request to had to be written down, forms filled perfectly and completely in triplicate, and then had to be approved by precise Actuators such as Stewart.

Frankly, the other ministries were lucky HR existed. Were it not for them, Voynich City would have become another Necropolis long ago. Naturally, the ministries didn’t often see it that way. To them, Human Resources was obstructionist in the extreme. And yet, who was it who kept the city running? Not the Ministry of Order.

And certainly not the Ministry of Winter.

Smiling at the thought of that dark joke, Stewart waited patiently until the deep chime of the Grand Old Church’s belfry reverberated throughout the city. As soon as the fifth chime finished, he leaned forward.

“I apologize, but the Office of Human Resources is closed for the day,” he said, reaching out to retrieve the treaty. “I am sure the Ministry of Winter has a copy of the treaty within its archives for perusal at your leisure. If you require a replacement, you may submit LP form 3018 to our lovely receptionist on the first floor.”

Stewart stood, moving to the filing cabinet to return the document to its proper drawer.

“We had two sacrifices last summer. We’ve had none and summer is almost out—”

“There wasn’t a plague ravaging the city last summer, nor were storms ravaging our crops and threatening famine. Again, I am sorry, but there simply aren’t the resources to go around at this point in time.”

“Sitakalam won’t stand for this!” the minister said, tone dangerous. He stood abruptly and, from the folds of his deep blue and white robes, drew a jagged dagger. The shiny blade gleamed with a thin layer of frost. “Give me my sacrifice!”

Stewart stopped halfway to the cabinets and grabbed his cane from its place leaning against the side of his desk. He whirled on the minister, using the top half of the walking stick to swat aside the man’s hand as he lunged with the knife. Stewart landed an easy strike to the man’s wrist, knocking it upward.

A flash of silver flew through the air from the frosty blade, striking the ceiling over their heads. The lights in the room flickered as a layer of frost grew over the ceiling.

Stewart ignored both the lights and the sudden cold as his analytical eyes snapped from point to point around the minister. An old man. Not a combatant. Not used to fighting or pain—self-mutilation was not a common practice at the Ministry of Winter. The fight was effectively over as it was, but the danger of that dagger meant he was still a threat until it was removed.

A quick swipe of the cane against the man’s bald head knocked him off balance. Just a light tap, but it sent a shower of snow across the office. A follow-up thrust shoved him back into the chair. A final strike to the dagger sent it clattering to the floor from his loosened grip.

“I would recommend you reconsider that action,” Stewart said, keeping his tone calm and level as he used his cane to fling the dagger off into the corner of the room behind his desk. “If Sitakalam takes issue with the treaty He signed, it is up for review and reinterpretation in 841 years. Until then, unless the Ministry of Winter wishes to find themselves labeled a hostile cult, I expect you to abide by our decisions.”

While watching the old man clutch at his forehead with his eyes squeezed shut, Stewart half-turned to his desk. There was a small wooden box covered in glowing green runes. On the front side, a series of grated slats sat above a small array of runes with needles jutting from their centers. Stewart pressed down on one of the runes. Once he felt the small prick in the tip of his finger draw blood, he said, “Miss Peel, would you be so kind as to send in security to escort the Minister of Winter from the building?”

“Another altercation?” Miss Peel’s flat tone carried well over the aetheric airwaves. “Shall I prepare incident form 810B as well?”

“Thank you.” Taking his finger off the rune, Stewart sucked at the small drop of blood, making sure he didn’t drip anywhere on his desk or clothes. With the prick being so tiny, it stopped bleeding in seconds.

The minister, having managed to open his eyes through the mild pain he was experiencing, leaned forward. Stewart placed the end of his cane on the minister’s chest and pressed him back into the seat.

“You don’t understand, the world is doomed!”

“Ah. More cult talk.”

“It is!” The man looked desperate and lost. The layer of frost over his bald head had started melting, leaving a long drip of liquid running down the center of his tattooed face. “There are signs! The plague! The storms!”

“Cults have been claiming the end is neigh since the dawn of time,” Stewart said, tone turning terse. This line of talk hit a bit of a sore spot for him. “And yet, the world continues turning. The periodic nature of the storms is unnatural, but a sign of the end times? The only signs that matter to me are arithmetics and statistics. And let me tell you, Minister of Winter, the statistics paint a grim picture of the city’s immediate future, but nothing apocalyptic.”

The door to Stewart’s office opened. A pair of security personnel entered. They wore the standard security uniform of a tight-fitting black vest, held closed by a series of straps and silver buttons running horizontally down the front, with a long tail around the sides and back, but open in the front. Each wore a featureless white mask, obscuring their identities.

“Get up,” one said, voice crisp and about as frosty as the minister’s weapon.

Removing his cane from the minister’s chest, Stewart took a step back to let HR Security do their job.

The minister struggled to his feet, wincing as he did so. A small bit of blood dripped from a gash on his forehead, staining his robes but thankfully leaving the room untarnished. The man ignored it, making to move toward the corner of the room where his knife had ended up. Before he could complete his first step, one of the guards moved to block his path.

“No,” she said, putting out her hand. Her voice was deep and rough. While the mask hid her face, Stewart knew that dark hair and olive skin. Kimberlee Kind, a fairly new member of HR. Though new did not mean incapable. With the muscles she had pressing against the uniform, she could snap the old minister like a twig.

“The Ais Blade,” the minister said, reaching out a hand.

Stewart, putting on his most polite customer-facing smile, put as much false cheer into his tone as possible. “If you misplaced one of your possessions during your visit here, you may collect it from the HR department for Lost and Found items. Unfortunately, as already mentioned, HR public business hours are over. You may visit Lost and Found on Monday when business hours begin.”


Kind gripped his shoulder. Security had given him a chance to walk out with some dignity. Now he was being forced out. With the other security guard holding open the door, she marched him out.

The door shut lightly behind them.

Stewart, taking his seat, leaned back and steepled his fingers against his chin. He stared up at the ceiling with a steadily growing frown on his face.

A splash of water dripped on his nose.

The frost on the ceiling was starting to melt.

“Lovely,” he said. Making a mental note to foist the Ministry of Winter off onto Lockwood next time they came knocking, he pressed a button on the intercom and called for a custodian.


Stewart stood, looking out the window of his office with a glass of amber brandy loosely gripped in one hand. The sun had fallen below the horizon a short time ago, leaving only the faintest hint of its glow against the bottom of thick black clouds that sat above the city. The bank of clouds obscured any sign of the moon.

A storm was coming. A heavy one, again, according to the reports that had been pouring through the offices this morning. The Ministry of Weather had been sending out their clerics and votaries, running checks, giving prayers… And yet, the storms had come again. Tonight’s, from behind the glass panel window, looked particularly vicious.

The first few had come out of nowhere, dark clouds bringing raging rainstorms that took the city by surprise.

Now, however, Stewart had data. The Office of Human Resources collected as much information as possible from the Ministry of Weather, the Grand Old Church, the Ministry of Agriculture, and a dozen other minor sources. Anything that threatened the ongoing operation of Voynich City drew HR’s attention. And with that attention, and his prestigious position of an Actuator, he had managed to compile a wall of information.

Given their sphere of operations, Stewart had thought that turning the information over to the constabulary would see things put right. But that had been two weeks ago and the storms were still coming.

“Still here, Mister Cinn?”

Stewart turned to find Dorothy Peel standing with an impeccably straight spine at the open door to his office. One hand clasped the wrist of her other hand, both covered in white gloves. She wore a tan-colored long coat. One heavy enough to wear through the coming storm. It didn’t quite fit her; the shoulders were too broad and the sleeves had been rolled up. Stewart could not recall having seen his secretary with such a coat.

It wasn’t her coat.

Donning a wan smile, Stewart flicked his eyes to the clock on the wall. “I should be asking you that. Your shift ended two hours ago, did it not?”

“You produce far too much paperwork, sir.” Her tone remained just as flat as the gaze she leveled at him. “When next assaulted, it would take quite the burden off my back if you would drop dead.”

“I’ll try to keep that in mind,” Stewart said, smile not flinching in the slightest. Despite her words and cool demeanor, she wasn’t actually upset. He had known her long enough to tell. Half-turning, looking back out the window while keeping Peel in his peripheral vision, he changed the subject. “Had a meeting with management this evening regarding the state of the city. They’re going to be shutting down the building early on storm days going forward.”

“Well, that’s something.”

“It’s deterioration. Shutting down, giving in… All agree something is amiss and yet none wish to do anything about it.”

“Is that really your job, sir?”

Stewart turned fully away, swirling his brandy in the short glass before taking a small drink. “Bad storm tonight. Might be the worst one yet. And the nights are dangerous these days. Care for someone to walk you home?”

A flicker of a smile crossed her face, reflected in the window pane, before being replaced with her statuesque flat gaze in short order. Stewart caught the thumb of her hand clasped to her wrist lightly brushing over one of the cuff buttons peeking out from the rolled sleeve. “That will not be necessary, sir. An HR Security personnel offered to escort me home.”

Nodding slowly, Stewart turned back to her and set his glass atop his desk. The movement bought time for his mind to hop from one guard to the next until he matched the general builds of the guards with that of the long coat Peel wore. “Understood,” he said. “I am certain Miss Kind will see you home safely.”

The air pressure in the room shifted as Peel adopted a murderous glare. “Good day, sir,” she said, spinning on one foot.

“Remember,” Stewart said, stifling a small laugh, “we are on observation duty tomorrow morning, Miss Peel.”

The door slammed shut, returning the office to relative silence save for the clicks of Peel’s heels fading as she moved down the hall.

As soon as the footsteps vanished into the distance, Stewart moved to the coat rack in the corner and removed his own long coat. It was an old favorite and served well enough to ward off the cold winds of these unnatural storms. The outer layer was made of heavy black wool. Tailored to fit snugly to his shoulders and hips, it was just what he would need tonight.

He put on his hat as well. A black felt bowler. He never went anywhere without it now. Finally, he took his cane from where it leaned against his desk. A simple piece of metal with no visible runes or decorations beyond its sleek silver handle.

Stewart could move about without his cane easily enough so long as the distances were short, such as around his office. Once the distances got too great, the wound he received from the incident that took his wife grew worse. As for stairs…

Taking a deep breath, Stewart started the trek downward. The Office of Human Resources sat off-center in Voynich City and was one of the taller buildings. Not as tall as the Grand Church’s belfry, but still several stories. Some of the newer buildings had elevators, but HR was an old structure. Almost as old as the Grand Old Church.

Ten flights of stairs downward, with one small rest part way, Stewart reached the ground floor.

There was no sign of Peel or Kind in the lobby. Not that he expected either to be around. Stewart made good time getting down the stairs, but not as good as someone without his limp. Composing himself after that hike, Stewart adjusted into his professional demeanor and approached the front desk where the receptionist’s quick fingers flew across the black keys of her typewriter.

She really shouldn’t be at the office this hour, but everyone had been working late in recent weeks. There was just too much to be done. All the more reason why Stewart didn’t agree with management’s decisions.

“Missus Bo. Terribly sorry to bother you,” Stewart said, placing a cloth-wrapped dagger onto her desk. “The Minister of Winter misplaced this while in my office earlier.”

Bo did not take her eyes off the typewriter. Her fingers didn’t slow in the slightest. Even still, she said, “I will see it delivered to Lost and Found.”

“Sorry to give you more work.”

“Not at all.” The typewriter dinged. She paused, glancing up even as she reached over to reset the carriage. “I’m planning on staying the night until the storm blows over. Home is a bit far for some of us, so we’ll be sleeping in the break room.”

“Ah. I had been about to ask… That’s certainly a wiser decision than I am about to make, I’m sure,” he said, more to himself. He took a single step toward the doors, planting his cane with a click against the marble floor. Pausing, he looked back to Bo. “I don’t suppose you saw Miss Peel pass through here?”

Bo, having already gone back to her work, did not look up from the typewriter to answer. “She passed through a few minutes ago in the company of one of the guards.”

“I see. Good. Good. She left something behind as well,” Stewart lied, “but rather than subject her to the bureaucratic horrors of Lost and Found, I’ll deliver it personally tomorrow. Thank you, Missus Bo. Have a safe evening.”

Aside from a vacant note of acknowledgment, Bo did not respond.

Cane tapping on the floor in a steady rhythm, Stewart pushed open the heavy doors to the Office of Human Resources and stepped out onto the moist street. The rain had yet to start in full, but the flagstone streets still gleamed with an unnatural wetness. A heavy wind forced him to better secure his hat.

The streets of Voynich City didn’t look like they usually did. With no pedestrians walking around this late on a Friday night and most businesses shuttered up tight due to the storm clouds overhead, it looked as if the city had been deserted. A single trolly that normally took Stewart home sat on the rails near the faint green glow of a streetlantern, idle and temporarily abandoned because of the storm.

True to Bo’s words, it looked as if Peel had just barely left. He caught sight of her bright red bob cut in the light of a streetlamp just as she turned down another street a block away. Rather than take his road home, Stewart hurried after her. He kept up a hasty pace in spite of his leg, only slowing as he reached the edge of the building on the corner of the street Peel had just turned down.

Peeking around the building, he spotted both Dorothy Peel and Kimberlee Kind walking together down the streets. Miss Kind, having loaned her overcoat to Peel, was not dressed in a state fit for the weather at hand. She had taken off her security uniform, holding it draped over her arm, which left her looking like she was ready to head into intensive weight training.

She was certainly showing off why she had been so quickly hired as security despite her newcomer status to Voynich City. However, Stewart couldn’t help but curl his lips into a small frown. She was also showing off a truly staggering number of tattoos running down her arms and back.

Tattoos in Voynich City carried connotations. A sign of obsessive devotion. To whom, he didn’t know. It might be blasphemous to admit, but Stewart did not believe any god was worthy of such slavish worship.

Tailing them was not an easy task. With the streets deserted as they were, Stewart couldn’t openly walk about. He would be far too conspicuous. Instead, Stewart stayed where he was, leaning against the side of the building while occasionally glancing around it. As soon as the two women turned down another street, he hobbled after them only to wait just behind a small wall, using the time it took them to make it to the next street as a rest for his leg.

Three such turns later and Peel finally reached her apartment building. A three-story brick structure with narrow windows and double wooden doors leading to a foyer that was half as opulent as the architectural aesthetic might otherwise imply. The sign hanging above the entrance read, The Little House.

Stewart approached closer, peering in through the window beside the front door. Peel and Kind were just inside, but rather than head into Peel’s ground floor apartment, the two women stood just outside, speaking to each other. He couldn’t hear what they were saying through the glass, but Peel removed the overcoat after a few moments of talk and handed it over to its owner.

Realizing that Kind was, in fact, not about to spend the evening with Peel, Stewart quickly ducked to the side of the building’s entryway.

Miss Kind emerged in short order, donning her long coat as she moved, filling it out far more than Peel had managed. A flick of the edges pulled the collar up and around her dark hair, offering some shield from the increasing wind. In contrast to her languid pace while walking with Peel, her steps turned hasty and quick. She walked right past Stewart, who lurked in the shadows of an alcove around the entrance, without apparent notice.

Stewart frowned, eyes following after the woman while his legs remained still.

Peel made it home safely. His primary objective was complete. But now, Kind was walking on her own on the night of a storm. There was a strong pressure within him, accompanied by ghosts of a woman crying for help, to follow Kind and ensure she reached her destination safely as well. However, he clamped down on the feeling, using a force of will to keep where he was.

He did not know where Kind lived or how far she would have to walk. It could be around the corner. It could be on the other side of the city. He didn’t know her well. Or at all, really. She was new to HR and the city as a whole. One of the last confirmed visitors before the storms started rolling in.

There had been no visitors to the city since.

With the sun having already fallen and the smell of impending rain growing stronger with every passing moment, he did not have time to shadow her.

Closing his eyes, Stewart pulled up a mental map of the city, marked with all the data he had collected on the storms thus far. All the data he had sent to the constables, which they had done nothing with. He wouldn’t sit about and do nothing.

He had the data. These storms came like clockwork. There was pattern and, where there was pattern, there were answers to be found.

Adjusting his bowler, Stewart stepped back out onto the street. He turned his back to Kimberlee Kind and started walking toward his next objective of the evening.

There was something going on tonight that the constables simply couldn’t ignore.

Stewart would find it.


Voynich City sprawled across both sides of the Tepkaloch River, which let out into the Crescent Ocean to the south. At the city center on the eastern side of the river, buildings stretched tall, made from dark bricks and large windows. Arcane streetlamps bathed the roads in a green hue, providing light even in the darkest hours of the nights.

The western side of the city lacked a great number of the amenities the eastern side possessed. It wasn’t stricken with poverty—through sacrificial rites and ancient rituals, the various ministries of Voynich City created more than enough food and housing to go around—but it was a great deal older. Or rather, the western side of Voynich City hadn’t suffered a great fire and subsequent rebuilding.

The buildings in Old Town were smaller and often made from wood. Only the Grand Old Church’s belfry stood high over the land, looming with an eerie blue glow that highlighted the edges of the buildings and illuminated the underside of the dark clouds.

Crossing over one of the seven bridges of the Tepkaloch River, Stewart entered into the narrower streets of Old Town. Risk assessment reports reached his desk every morning; Human Resources had to know the status of the city in every aspect to make sound judgments. While there had been a few disappearances on the eastern side of the river, people had gone missing in Old Town after ten of the twelve most recent storms. The constabulary was supposedly looking into it, but…

The storms were still coming and there had yet to be any arrests made.

He headed further into Old Town, moving past the vacant market square until he reached a modest little shop. One of the Ministry of Agriculture’s automats. With the tall buildings on the eastern side of the river blocking much of the wind and the smaller buildings keeping the funneled air a bit calmer, this side of the river hadn’t quite shuttered their windows and locked their doors for the night. It would be soon, but for the moment, the automat was still open.

Stewart stepped inside. A cozy little place with large glass windows. One of a few buildings on this side of the river to have been built with more modern specifications. Chairs and tables dotted the floor, leaving just a small path to the back wall with dozens of little glass-covered cubbyholes. Each had a small slot for a coin to the side, which would open the glass covering and allow access to a variety of foods. Baked bread and pastires, sandwiches, a peat pie kept warm through the use of heat staves carved into the cubbyhole’s walls, and more besides.

The prices were a bit higher than normal. A consequence of the potential upcoming famine. The Ministry of Agriculture had raised prices, not in an attempt to starve people or gouge them of their funds, but to encourage a more frugal living style for the time being in the hopes that there would be more in the storehouses for later on.

After purchasing a breaded chicken sandwich and filling a cup with fresh tea from a dispenser, Stewart took a seat. There was only one other patron. A man who, judging by his brown Ministry of Agriculture robes, might have been the chef at this automat. Aside from a slight glance, the man didn’t pay much attention to Stewart, choosing to focus on a newspaper spread out on his table.

That suited Stewart just fine. He had an inkling. A notion. A thought and idea fueled by the data and reports that had crossed his desk. He wasn’t positive of his assumptions, merely educated guesses, but after the constables failed to act on his data, he had started taking matters into his own hands.

Stewart pulled out his pocket watch, unlatching it from his suit before setting it down on the table. He made sure it was fully wound before he started eating his meal. All the while, he stared at the steadily ticking second hand, watching it go round and round.

Thirteen minutes, fifty-seven seconds passed before he saw what he was looking for.

A bright flash outside the automat’s windows. He immediately noted the position of the second hand in preparation to count.

The immediate rattling of the windows with the deep bellows of thunder startled him. He jumped up, graspin ghis cane in a tight grip.

“Damn!” the chef shouted, jumping to his feet as well. He rushed to the windows and peered out at the sheet of rain now falling on Old Town. “Blasted, baleful weather. Told the wife I’d dust out early tonight and here I am sitting around like an oaf.”

Stewart stared out the windows as well. That had been… close. Closer than expected. The storms always started with a lightning strike. According to his analysis, the strikes were in or near the same spots for several storms in a row before moving to a different location in the city. He had been out and about during the storms before, triangulating the lightning strikes at the start of the storms. Now…

“I apologize,” Stewart said, calming down from his own start as he quickly gathered up his pocket watch and bowler hat. “I thought you were open deliberately. I would have warned you if I knew.”

“Naw,” he said in that distinctive Old Town drawl. “Was keen on some numbers taking the last of my food. Didn’t right want it all to go to waste. Spared me some of that, fella. Suppose I’ll shutter up here for the night.”

“I imagine that would be wise unless you live close by.”

The chef shook his head. “Not so much, no. You? I’ll agree to you staying through the worst of it, least I can do.”

“That’s mighty kind of you,” Stewart said, tapping his cane across the floor as he moved toward the door. He pulled his overcoat around him tight. It did not look pleasant out. “I don’t have far to go.”

“Heading out in that?” the chef said, shaking his head. “I wish you luck, fella, but I don’t envy you. I’ll be locking the doors behind you. Strange nights, these are.”

“That they are,” Stewart said, pulling open the store’s front door.

The wind hit him immediately, forcing him to hold his hat with his cane hanging onto his arm. It took the chef coming up behind him to close the door as the wind was a bit too much for him on his own. That left him standing out on the street, rapidly feeling the rainwater soak right through his heavy coat as he wondered if this was really as good of an idea as he had first thought.

Another bolt of lightning and rumble of thunder, striking somewhere far more distant, taunted his thoughts.

He didn’t look back to the automat. Some might call it pride. He would probably call it pride as well. Seeing the pitying look on that chef’s face would strike a blow far worse than soaked clothing.

Though if he stood out in the downpour too much longer, he might just have some second thoughts about that.

Shuddering, Stewart planted his cane on the ground and moved, turning left at the first street. He hadn’t seen the actual bolt of lightning scorching the backs of his eyes. Thus, the lightning bolt had been out of view. But it was somewhere close. Stewart had an inkling of what he might find if he hurried to the striking point fast enought.

It didn’t take long to find at all.

Up a small hill stood one of Old Town’s larger manors. This side of the river was lousy with them. Old Town was, as the name implied, old. That meant old money. The building, a large box-like shape with pillars holding up an extended roof around its front and side walls, had no lights on in any of its dozen windows.

Out front, a tree was smoking and steaming despite the rain. Split in two, the glowing and burning insides could easily be seen even with the dark, moonless sky removing all external illumination. Normally, a lightning strike would cause normal red flames.

This tree smoldered in a sickly violet light.

There were two other husks on the property. Trees that had been hit by lightning in the past. A few scorch marks and burned flagstones marred the property as well. The unkempt yard was otherwise overgrown.

Hurrying past it, relieved to be out of direct rain under the roof over the door, Stewart lived one of the large knockers and slammed it back down. Resounding thuds reverberated across the wooden front of the home.

No one answered. Testing the handle, Stewart found it wouldn’t budge.

Hefting his cane, he slammed it against the glass of the door. If he was wrong, he had the money to make an apology go a long way. If he was right…

Unlatching the door, he stepped into a dark foyer. As soon as he was fully inside, he smelled it.


The stench of decaying yet still-living flesh. Someone in this house had caught the plague. Perhaps all of the residents. The smell was strong enough to make even him gag. He didn’t know whose house this was or how many members made up their household. It could be an entire family plus servants.

Had they died? It would have been recent. Stewart knew the smell of the dead and this wasn’t quite it. Death would explain the lack of lights, but so would being bedridden.

Stewart ran his thumb along the handle of his cane until he felt the sharp spur sticking off one side. After twisting the handle three clicks, he pricked his finger on the spur. As the blood filled the runic stave, a faint green light provided Stewart with the ability to see his surroundings.

The manor looked abandoned. A thick layer of dust coated a decorative table and the plant atop it had wilted. Thin strands of green light reflected off cobwebs clinging to the corners of the windows and doorways. The banister had broken near the top of the stairs leading up to the second floor while debris littered the foyer.

“Hello?” Stewart called out in a soft voice, just in case someone was around. “I apologize for the door. I’ve come to seek shelter from the rain.”

He didn’t hear the slightest peep of a response. Of course, with the storm raging outside the cracked window, his sense of hearing was somewhat impaired, but he felt like words would have made it through.

As he crossed room to room, Stewart found some traces of life. Through a dining room off the main foyer and into the nearby kitchen, he came across a trail in the dust leading from what was likely an exterior door to another door in the kitchen. Opening the interior door, he found another set of stairs, this time leading downward. While the stairs themselves were unlit, a faint violet light leaked from a crack beneath the door at the bottom.

A nausea gripped him as the stench of rot wafted up from below.

Stewart broke the stave in his cane with a twist of its handle, extinguishing the green light. The violet light at the bottom of the stairs grew all the more apparent. Keeping a hand on the railing, he carefully descended.


A wine cellar.

Stewart peered through a crack in the door at the bottom of the stairs, waiting, watching, and listening. For all his analysis of the storms, Stewart didn’t actually know what he would find. Something unsanctioned, certainly, but no specifics.

Approaching without caution could be dangerous.

So he spied from the door, observing the kegs lining one wall of a long corridor while angled shelves held bottles on the other. Brick pillars dotted the middleway, supporting the roof overhead. At one point in time, it might have been the pinnacle of the homeowner’s possessions, wealth and taste in spades to show off to any and all visitors. But now, with more bottles broken than not, stains marring the floor, and that pungent rank rot filling the air, Stewart had to clamp his damp handkerchief to his face in an attempt to keep himself steady on his feet.

Although he saw no people, the faint trail that had led him to this door became obvious down here. There were obvious footsteps leading through the spilled mess. Right past a toppled shelf, the violet light poured through an open doorway halfway to the far end of the corridor. Most ominous of all, however, was what Stewart heard.

Rhythmic sound of deep chanting.

Approaching without tapping his cane on the ground, Stewart put his back to the wall just next to the doorway. Adjusting his glasses, he slowly peered around the opening.

A fanciful tasting room, circular in shape, had a number of people standing around a long table. A small fireplace to the side of the table emanated that violet light. Elegant carved chairs with floral-patterned red fabric lay toppled and forgotten around the room. Their cushions soaked up…

Well, it probably wasn’t wine given what was on the long table.

Three people were strapped to the table. With the table longer than it was wide, they were laid side-by-side with their hands and feet dangling over the edges, tied together underneath. Two, a man and a little girl, were obviously dead already. Their bodies were still and the table shined with fresh blood spilling over the edges. The final individual strapped to the table at the far end of the room, near another door that might lead to more storage or even other areas of the manor above, struggled and thrashed with enough vigor that he was tearing skin against the ropes binding his arms. He might even be struggling hard enough to break bone.

Quite understandably, in Stewart’s opinion.

There were other people in the room. Six stood chanting, wearing clearly homemade robes fashioned from whatever the tailor had in reach—bedsheets, curtains, upholstery, and the like. A seventh man stood near the surviving victim, his back to the closed door. He had his hood down, showing off the living rot of his plague-stricken face. In one hand, he grasped an open tome. In his other, raised high above the final victim on the table, he held a blade etched with glowing violet runes.

Stewart sucked in a breath, tightening his grip on his cane’s handle. For a moment, he saw that man’s crying face flash into the form of his late wife as she cried and screamed in anguish.

The vision faded and his hand relaxed as the analytical part of Stewart’s mind took over. Seven against one was excessively poor odds. Even with them plague-stricken. They were certainly not standing stooped over, hacking and coughing, or otherwise displaying symptoms typical of the plague victims he had seen in the sanatoriums. The knife, much like the Ais Blade the Minister of Winter had used, could have unnatural properties. He didn’t know to which deity they offered their victims or what boons they could have been granted.

Not enough information. Too dangerous. He knew where they were until they moved. Even after, he should be able to track them down much faster now that he knew what to look for. If he fell here and now, he couldn’t say when the constables would take the information he had given them and actually make use of it. If he left, he could return next time with greater numbers.

Just before Stewart turned away, the door behind the head cultist swung fully open.

Stewart stalled as a featureless white mask appeared from the darkness. The figure beyond didn’t wear robes, but the long coat of HR Security.

The lead cultist spun around with about as much surprise as Stewart felt, but at least Stewart didn’t catch a baton to the face. The entire room stopped their chanting, but were shocked enough that the HR Security Agent struck him a second time before anyone could respond, sending the already reeling cultist to the floor with a cry.

The others didn’t remain stunned for much longer. They started moving; a few cultists pulled weapons from their homemade robes in the forms of knives or fashioned makeshift clubs pulled from bits of the broken furniture. One at the rear, closest to Stewart, drew a revolving handgun.

Although Stewart couldn’t see her face—and it was a her; his mind already matched height, build, and the way she carried herself—the HR security agent clearly hadn’t been expecting a firearm. The uniform she wore was inlaid with protective staves, but nothing that would stand up to a bullet.

Her surprise didn’t still her for long. She quickly put another cultist between the gun and herself, beating him down with a baton in each hand as she moved.

Stewart grit his teeth. When he first saw her come out from the door, he expected more to follow. None came. She was alone. One against six, thanks to her surprise attack having knocked out the lead cultist. Still not good odds. The two closest to her were quickly surrounding her to attack as a group and the others were moving around the table. If the one with the gun got a shot off…

Stewart moved around the corner, shifting his grip on his cane as he moved.

Two versus six was still poor odds, but all eyes were on the agent. That left Stewart completely free to act.

This was no time to hold back. Gripping his cane in two hands, he swung for the man’s head as hard as he was able.

The cultist crumpled to the floor, but not before the gun discharged toward the ceiling. Attention in the room shifted to Stewart, save for the agent and the cultist with whom she was currently engaged.

Stewart watched as body postures shifted and muscles tensed. Eyes flicked around as it dawned on the cultists that they were being ambushed. Stewart gripped his cane and twisted the handle into the third position.

He was already turning when a cultist let out an angry shout. He raised his cane just in time to catch the wooden leg of a chair. Shifting his weight and throwing his shoulder, Stewart sent the man reeling as his own club hit him in the face.

Movement in the corner of his eye had him raising his cane and taking three quick steps to the side, biting down on the ache rapidly spreading down his leg. A cultist brandishing a knife charged, altering her path along with Stewart’s movements.

A scrape of Stewart’s thumb against the spur of his cane handle filled another stave with blood. A flash of green light burst forth from the bottom end of his extended cane.

Ripped from her feet, the rot-faced cultist flew backward through the air and landed in the violet fire within the fireplace. The bedsheets she wore offered no protection against the profane flames.

As screams and the smell of burning flesh filled the air, Stewart struck again, snapping the wrist of the club-wielding cultist. A quick follow-up strike to the side of the man’s head cut his pained cry short as he crumpled.

Stewart immediately turned, analysis of the situation determining that one of the cultists from the other side of the table would have approached.

Instead, he found only one person standing upright, a thick metal truncheon in either hand. The cultists were writing on the ground save for one who was slumped over a toppled chair.

Pressing his lips together, Stewart took a quick look around the room. One plagued cultist was rolling on the floor, trying to extinguish the flames. One was moving a little, but not much. The other…

Stewart stepped over the cultist and used his cane to knock the gun from limp fingers. Another swipe sent it skidding across the floor to the far side of the circular room, well out of reach of anyone. Satisfied that he wasn’t about to be attacked in the immediate future, he planted his cane on the floor and leaned heavily against it, once again covering his mouth with his handkerchief.

“Mister Cinn?” she said, breathing heavily and not quite dropping her guard. Good instincts, though some of her caution was directed toward him. “What are you doing here?”

Taking a deep breath of air through the damp cloth, Stewart looked directly toward the woman. “Employee handbook, title sixteen, section seventy-two.”


“Uniforms and insignia of the Office for Human Resources are not to be worn off HR premises save for when acting on official HR business.” Stewart cranked the handle of his cane to the second position, just in case. “You, Miss Kind, are not here on official business.”

Though her face was hidden, the rest of her visibly flinched. “I…”

“But as long as you are here, would you mind tying up everyone in this room?” Stewart grimaced as he shifted his weight. Moving about the room without favoring his bad leg had taken its toll. “I’m afraid I’ve overexerted myself.”

That actually got her to lower her guard toward him somewhat. She looked around herself and quickly nodded an agreement. Naturally, her first stop was the surviving sacrifice victim. She quickly undid his bindings, murmuring reassurances to try to calm him. However, she didn’t stick with him, quickly moving to tie up the most active of the downed cultists.

Stewart, exhausted though he was, did not sit idle. He moved about the room, ridding the cultists of their weapons. Most he knocked away with his cane, flinging them across the room to rest with the revolver. A few, he actually had to reach down and extract from under their bodies.

Which made him realize that everyone present was plagued. Every single one of the cultists had bodies covered in boils and rot. Not just a little either, these people, as far as he could tell, should have been dead weeks if not months ago. The sanitariums buried people half as dessicated as these wretched souls were.

The near-sacrifice huddled in the doorway, apparently unable to find strength in his legs. He sat crouched with his hands drawn tight around his knees. Upon seeing Stewart approach, he just flinched back even further. It looked like he was also a victim of the plague, though in a far reduced severity. The skin around his eyes had reddened and looked unnaturally wrinkly and his ears had sriveled, but his face wasn’t that of a walking corpse like the cultists in the room.

Eyes drifting away from the man on the floor to the two actual corpses still on the long table, Stewart eyed the sigils carved into the wood around them. Blood soaked all but the fresh ones where the living sacrifice would have died. Yet there were flecks of dried blood in the rough carvings. The table had been used before.

Stewart didn’t recognize the script. He considered himself an individual knowledgeable on the subject of cults and unsanctioned deity worship, but none of the lettering carved into the table triggered any of his memories.

Just as he was about to look away, Stewart caught Kind’s mask facing directly toward him as she tied up the limp arms of the man who had wielded the pistol. She stared for one moment before motioning behind him.

Tensing, hand tigtening around his cane, Stewart ignored the protest in his leg and spun around. But there were no threats behind him. Just the open doorway. He looked back to see Kind directly pointing a finger.

Following it, Stewart found himself staring at the survivor.

He grimaced behind his handkerchief, realizing what she wanted. This sort of thing… he hadn’t done it in a long time. Ten years, roughly. Even then, it would have been his wife’s job.

Letting out a small sigh of regret, Stewart tried to channel his most comforting tone of voice. “Hello, good sir. Are you… quite alright?”

The man, without lifting his head from his knees, mumbled something that Stewart couldn’t quite hear.


“He said we just had to believe… They had a way to live until the healers found a cure. I… I was so scared. I…”

Stewart narrowed his eyes. The survivor lifted his head, but not to look at him. Instead, the man looked at the lead cultist on the ground. His head lifted more, but stopped at the table.

“Marc. Tracy… They’re dead and I—”

“This man tricked you into coming down here?” Stewart asked. The book the head cultist had been holding was still on the ground. “This is quite important,” he said, bending to pick the book up. “What did this man say—”

The survivor moved, planting his hands on Stewart’s back and shoving him. A spike of pain shot through Stewart’s bad leg as he fell, thrown under the table.

The survivor rushed around the table, picking up the dagger that glowed with violet runes from where Stewart had knocked it.

“I’ll be there soon, Tracy, Marc. I’ll be—”

Stewart, struggling to get back to his feet, couldn’t do much beyond watch as the man slammed the knife into his own chest. He wobbled; Kind rushed toward him, but he fell forward, hitting the table and driving the knife further into his own chest.

Kind gripped his shirt and flung him from the table without any care for his new injuries. The correct decision, in Stewart’s opinion, but it was too late.

The heart-blood from the former survivor poured out across the table, pulled from his chest as it touched the first sigils etched into the wood. The violet flames in the fireplace roared, filling the air with wretched whispers of vile origin. The fire lurched forth, stretching out thin malformed tendrils that reached across the room. The first of which wrapped around the woman Stewart had knocked into the flames earlier.

Her cries of pain broke Stewart and Kind from their shock.

“Run!” Kind shouted.

“Easy for you to say,” Stewart grumbled, planting his cane on the ground. Just before hauling himself up, however, he scooped up the head cultist’s book. Clutching it to his chest, he hobbled after Kind, who had not bothered to wait up for him.

The doorway on this side of the room opened up into a short hallway connected to far nicer stairs than those he had taken to get down to the cellar. Clearly the path the owner of the manor would have used with guests to reach the wine tasting room. The opulence of these stairs did nothing to help him climb them. With the heat of those flames licking at his heels, he grit his teeth and told himself that he would rest for a week if he made it out of this.

Thankfully, Kind lived up to her name as she noticed his struggles. Turning from the top of the stairs, she jumped back down, hooked his arm around her shoulders, then practically carried him the rest of the way up.

The stairs brought them to a small reading lounge filled with a great many books. As much as he wished otherwise, there wasn’t time to rescue any. The flames—now yellow and red—were swiftly following behind. Kimberlee Kind, knowing the path she took to reach this point, continued helping him through the manor and out the front door.

It was still pouring rain when they reached the open air. The wind wasn’t as heavy, but that was little comfort. Taking a moment to breathe, Stewart tucked away the cultist’s book into his overcoat in the hopes of keeping its text as legible as possible.

The flames continued to consume the house, now looking entirely normal save for the small fact that the rain wasn’t stopping it. Luckily, the manor grounds provided a firebreak, keeping the fire from spreading beyond the property.

With the normal-looking flames, the interrupted ritual, and the fact that no maddening creatures were crawling out of the swiftly burning wreckage, Stewart let out a small sigh of relief that the cult had not called forth some terrible entity from beyond the stars. All that they had managed was to burn down the building.

Still, Stewart stayed where he was, watching the fire burn. Both to be certain… and because the prospect of walking home with his leg still aching was simply not appealing.


“What did you say to him that made him decide he would rather die?”

Stewart lowered the cultist’s tome, leaning away from the light of his lantern. A woman stood in the doorway, clothes cleaning to her toned body. Mask gone and uniform missing, Kimberlee Kind had dripping black hair, tied tight on one side of her head, pinned with little brass clamps, while hanging loose on the other side of her head.

Stewart leaned forward against his desk, looking her muscled form over from head to foot.

His scowl deepened.

“You’re dripping water all over my wooden floors,” he said, leaning back in his chair and turning his eyes to the book. “I thought you went to the constable.”

“I did. They won’t move until morning when the storm ends.”

Stewart glanced to the side. The rain still ran down his windows, but the intensity had diminished significantly. It was little more than a light drizzle now. Quite a departure from the previous storm nights when the wind and rain would rage until daybreak. At the moment, Stewart was taking that as another good sign that some obscene entity hadn’t been drawn into this world.

Though he had to admit that the book’s writings were also reassuring.

“I am quite sure I locked my door,” Stewart said, flipping to the next page.

Kind strode across the room, thick boots thumping against his nice floor. She held up a number of thin metal rods, then plopped down into the chair opposite from him with a wet squelch against the leather. “Going to need something a little stronger to keep me out.”

“Did I do something to upset you, Miss Kind?”

“Yeah, why were you follow—” She cut herself off, blinking at the book in Stewart’s hands. After a moment, she recoiled, pressing herself back in the chair. “Is that the book the cultist had? Oh gods, you’re crazier than I thought.”

“The state of my sanity is not for you to worry about,” Stewart said, slowly closing the book. “It is quite the enlightening read. Those cultists were making offerings to a being they called the Nameless Void. The first quarter of the tome is more of a journal. Quite clear to read with tidy handwriting. It describes flashes of visions a man named Elias received after assembling an u ndedicated shrine and casting out an offering to any who might answer. He had been afflicted by the plague and, as his condition worsened, he grew frightened and desperate.”

“Yeah,” Kind said with a half-hearted scoff, relaxing somewhat now that the book was closed and on the table. “So are a lot of people these days. They don’t go calling… Nameless Void? What kind of name is that?”

“It being not a name is fairly self-evident.”

Kind rolled her brown eyes and shook her head. “Well, normal people don’t go calling Outer Gods down on the city.”

“They were frightened,” Stewart said, brushing his fingers over the tome. “The text starts descending into less and less readable script, inundated with sigils and scrawls much like what covered the table. But I believe I was able to discern the purpose of the ritual they were conducting.”

“Kill people to extend their own lives, obviously. I saw their rot-covered faces. They should have been dead.” She scowled at the book. “You should toss that into the fire.”

“It still has its uses. For example, telling me that you are incorrect. The Nameless Void did not ask for lives in exchange for its power, but additional followers. Worshipers.”

“They were killing themselves.”

“According to the book, they would have been brought back.”

Kind took on a dark look. Speaking in a low tone, she growled, “People don’t come back from the dead. Things come back from the dead wearing people’s skin.”

“No disagreement here. I’ve no intention to conduct the rituals. I’m just repeating what I read.”

“Well don’t. Repeating cult words is how you wind up in asylums. Or worse.” She slammed her hand down on Stewart’s desk. “Now why were you following me?”

“I was doing nothing of the sort. I found that manor entirely through my own analysis. I was rather wondering how you—”

“Earlier than that, Mister Cinn. I saw you. Don’t deny it. You followed me and Dorothy from HR.”

Stewart started somewhat, blinking. “You saw me?”

“Thought you were being sneaky, slinking around the buildings like that? You’re stiff as a board, lanky as a ghoul, and twice as tall to boot.” She glared. “You think you’re a smart guy, but I was a step away from bashing your head in. And when following you led me to those cultists…” A series of pops filled the air as Kind cracked her knuckles.

You followed me?”

“Damn right I did, you creep. You’re lucky you helped me beat them down.”

That certainly explained a few things. Mostly how she found that cult. He was a bit surprised that he hadn’t noticed her presence, but he supposed he hadn’t really been looking for people following him. And once that storm started, noticing someone even on the same street would have been difficult. But… “Did Miss Peel notice?”

Kind, arms crossed over her chest, glowered for a long moment, clearly mulling over the question. It took her a minute to answer. When she did, she slowly shook her head. “Don’t know for sure, but I doubt it. Serious woman. Educated as well. Observant? Not…” Kind’s eyes narrowed then she nodded to herself. “Oh, I get it. You weren’t following me… After that business with the cult, I thought you were suspicious of me because I’m new in town. But you have eyes for Dorothy.”

“You’re reading too much into it,” Stewart said, tapping a finger on the worn leather of the book. “These nights are dangerous and I would rather not have to train a new secretary. Keep an eye on her, will you? You’re a bit more qualified for your position than I originally thought.”

“Don’t need you telling me. Not like she’s in danger. Dorothy isn’t sick. Even if she was, we wiped out that cult. Things’ll be going back to normal now.”

Stewart didn’t say anything. He would have liked to have gotten more information. He couldn’t fault Kind for rushing in—he nearly had, after all, and actually had upon seeing her start fighting—but a cult that dealt with resurrection was a dangerous opponent to have. How could they be sure that the cultists wouldn’t return?

Even if those caught in the fire at that manor had perished, there were likely to be others out there. Judging by what Stewart had read in the book, they had conducted a similar ritual at every storm. How many storms had there been in the past several weeks? How many supposed worshipers had been converted through voluntary sacrifice?

The one bright spot was the book itself. Books like these didn’t grow on trees. The type of people able to both receive visions sent from beyond and transliterate them into something readable were few and far between. Given the tome being more of a journal than a ritual treatise, Stewart doubted they had a copy. That alone could shut down their rituals.

Time would tell, he supposed. And in the meantime, he would have to perform some additional investigations of his own. It was a shame that everything had gone up in flames. He didn’t exactly have many starting places. The book’s author was smart enough to have scratched out names and locations from when it had been a journal and hadn’t written down any names in the latter pages.

The only thing he had to go on now was the one commonality all the cultists and sacrificial victims shared.

The plague.

“If you will see yourself out, Miss Kind…”

“Really? After the night we had, just go home?”

“If we wish to keep our jobs, then we had no night, Miss Kind. Nothing happened. I hope your visit to the constables was nothing more than a report of suspicious activity from a concerned citizen.”

“Yeah, yeah. I followed your instructions,” she grumbled. “Not very hospitable of you.”

“Ignoring your uninvited presence, it is late. I unfortunately have an early morning tomorrow. The Ministry of Agriculture has requested an Actuator to measure the efficacy of their restoration rituals.”

Pursing her lips, Kind nodded twice. Once to herself, then once again while making eye contact with Stewart. “Agriculture, huh? Dorothy will be there?”

“She will.”

Kind took a deep breath, clapped her hands to her thighs, and stood up. “Whelp. Guess that is as good a reason as any to get home.”

“Do you want someone to walk you home?” Stewart asked. He couldn’t resist. The words came out of his mouth before he could stop himself.

“Someone like you? No thanks.” She stopped at the door and glanced back. “Still think you’re a creep.”

Duality 001.006

<– Back | Index | Next –>


High Wind

“Welcome to Super Burger, home of the Super Burger, can I take your order?”

Four thousand three hundred thirty-eight dollars was a lot. A few months worth of pay. It helped ease the pressure of a week without pay, revitalized our emergency money, and got Thoth a few goodies. After I got off work today, I was going to take a trip down to the mall to find some goodies for the rest of the family.

However, it was not enough money to quit my job over, unfortunately. Even if it had an extra zero on the end, I probably wouldn’t have quit my job. Two zeros? Maybe. But even that wasn’t enough to last forever. The more money we had available to us, the more we would inevitably spend as well. Already, Thoth was on the internet nearly every day, searching for new electronics to add to her wish list.

She wasn’t getting it all, of course. I told her five hundred. It was more than I had budgeted for any one of the rest of us, but she had been the one to put forth the idea of finding the money in the first place. She had done all the work. I had just bumbled about. And I almost missed my chance to get the money at all because I had decided to be honest with a super villain.

Still, as excited as I was to have the sudden influx of cash, I was glad things were going back to normal. That had been enough excitement for me. Now I could just sit at home without worrying too much, keeping the girls from getting into too much trouble, while I took mundane orders from hungry customers.

Though I wasn’t sure that the next group of customers looked all that hungry.

Super Burger was a popular fast food eatery. The most popular one in the United States. I doubted that everyone in the world had eaten Super Burger food—Thoth and Ares hadn’t ever eaten any, for example, though I sometimes brought some home for Dice and Toxx—but I imagined that a significant portion of the world’s population had been inside a Super Burger location.

Because of its popularity, people from all walks of life had passed through my counter. Rich and poor, large groups and solitary individuals. As such, today was not the first day I had seen uniformed men and women step up to the counter. Police, soldiers, and even hero company personnel all got hungry the same as anyone else. We even had heroes pop in on occasion, like Snow Queen.

Today was, however, the first day I had seen a group of four police walk in, look directly at each employee, look down at a little tablet, then move on to the next visible employee. They even had a hero with them. I recognized most heroes in the city on sight—a side effect of working at a hero-themed restaurant—and High Wind was no exception. Her green and white wingsuit-like outfit with a helmet and goggles stood out for how… unflashy it was.

One of the officers, O’Hara by the name on her uniform, nudged her parter in the side and nodded toward me.

If I hadn’t already had a bad feeling, that would have tipped me off that something was going on.

The two officers stepped forward. Their two partners spread out, moving to the sides. High Wind just stayed in the back. It was hard to see her expression with her helmet and large green goggles, but her posture as she leaned against the dividing wall screamed boredom.

“Sir,” O’Hara said, clearly speaking to me. “Would you mind stepping around to this side of the counter?”

“Is this about the attempted robbery two weeks ago? Because I already gave the police my statement.”

“Sir, please.”

It sounded like a request. Nothing more. But it clearly wasn’t. They were tense. Even High Wind, despite her air of calm boredom. I could see it in her gloves. They way her fingers were clenched. The way she was trying to act nonchalant and avoid looking in my direction, but wasn’t quite succeeding. It all just added to the atmosphere of something being amiss.

That something was probably me, given their focus on me. They knew something, or thought they knew something, and it was making them nervous. Nervous enough to have hired a hero.

“I’m sorry, I can’t leave the counter unattended.” Delay. Delay, delay, delay. “My shift ends in an hour. Can I take your order while you wait?”

While trying to avoid acting too nervous in front of the police officers, I shouted out to Thoth at home, asking her to get online and find out why they might be interested in me. It couldn’t be something to do with the money. King of Spades had only seen me as some random guy. It hadn’t been any face that I normally wore. Thoth had the tracker situation well in hand. That would have led them to our home anyway, not my work. My name on Super Burger’s file wasn’t even my real name.

O’Hara and her partner, McGregor, shared a look. It was not the look of two people deciding on what they should order.

My thumb brushed against the knife in my pocket. The optimal outcome would be that nothing happened at all. The police might ask a few questions then be on their way. But if they did just have a few questions, they wouldn’t be acting like they were. High Wind wouldn’t be here. Their tense muscles… The way O’Hara had asked me to move to their side of the counter…

They were here to detain or arrest me.

“Take one of your coworkers hostage!”

At home, I turned and just stared at the television screen.

“What?” Thoth shrugged. “You don’t have to actually hurt them. Just use them long enough to get away from the police, find a hiding spot, and kill yourself. If you hide yourself well enough, your power will remain hidden. Hostage gets to go back to whatever they have for a life and the police get stumped if they ever run across your dirt remains.”

I didn’t bother dignifying her comment with a response. Instead, I focused on the police.

“If you don’t have anything to order, please wait to the side. There are other customers in line.” One other customer. This was supposed to be the lunch rush, but the police were apparently scaring away customers. Since they had arrived, only one other person had entered and actually stuck around. A mother who looked utterly bewildered at the officers being around, here with her young son. The latter was trying to squirm out of her grip to rush up to High Wind. I really didn’t care if they were going to order. I really just wanted a mild distraction. Something to relieve the pressure on me long enough to give me a chance to think.

I let out a small sigh of relief as O’Hara turned to the two officers standing behind her. With a slight motion from her hand, she split off, heading to stand near one door while her two partners moved to the other door. Both entrances to the customer side of the store were not blocked, but guarded. I couldn’t help but wonder if they had people watching the back door too.

“They sure capitulated quick, didn’t they?”

“Yeah. She seemed pretty insistent when she first came in, but… I don’t know. It’s weird.”

“Maybe they think you took that mother and son hostage.”

“I haven’t moved from behind the counter.”

“They were tense right? They probably think your power is a lot flashier than it actually is. Like laser eyes or something.”

At home, I leaned back on the couch and sighed. It… might have been like that. But I figured that they would have tried to tackle me over the counter if they actually thought I had taken hostages. It was more likely that they were just trying to keep from escalating. Still, I was thankful. Their decision to not escalate bought me… at most an hour.

Thoth fell silent, turning away from the rest of the room to look at some gauges and dials. Every once in a while, she would twist valves or pull levers. Her idle animation indicating that she was doing something. Probably using that internet line we had piped down to the basement through the elevator shaft. Prior to a few days ago, the upper floors had an internet connection, but the basement did not. It had been completely isolated from the rest of the world. Now, Thoth could directly access the internet without having to ask one of the rest of us to navigate the mouse and keyboard.

Dice and Toxx were both in the room as well. They had been before this whole debacle started. The picture book they had been reading together was forgotten on the floor, discarded without a second thought. Dice was kneeling on the carpet, face far more serious than I could ever remember having seen before. At least she looked calm.

Toxx seethed. She stood just a step behind Dice, staring at me. Her fists clenched and unclenched over and over again. Her stance, wide at the feet with her elbows bent, looked like she was about ready to pick up the coffee table and throw it out the window. Underneath her stringy black hair, I could see her eyes. They had been clear earlier today, but now the whites were stained red. Her subconjunctival hemorrhaging was acting up.

“Breathe, Toxx. Calm down.”

“They hurt you.”

“Nobody has hurt me, Toxx. I’m fine. I’m right here.”

“They’re attacking you.”

“Nobody has attacked me either, Toxx.” Not yet, anyway. “My manager is talking to them, trying to get them to leave, I think.”

They were scaring off customers. That wasn’t good for business. But I doubted she would be all that convincing. And, as she talked to O’Hara, the officer pointed back toward me. My manager turned back, surprise laden on her face.

“I have a feeling I’m not going to be keeping my job after this.”

“There are a few people standing outside with their phones. One is streaming,” Thoth said, sliding to the side as an exterior shot of the Super Burger building popped up. “So I have eyes on you. Don’t know why they’re after you or what tipped them off yet. Maybe they ran your name and address after you were involved in two separate thieving incidents and were surprised to find that you and your stated address don’t exist.”

“If it’s just that, then fine. At least I’m not leading them back here.” Leaning forward, I stared at the screen. Thoth, without even being asked, moved completely out of the way so that I could see the image in its entirety. “I don’t suppose you could get a better shot of over here,” I said, pointing my finger toward the thinning drive-thru line.

“It’s some guy streaming,” Thoth said, popping back up on screen. “Not a robot that I can control.”

Looking out the side window of the Super Burger, I did see a handful of people with phones up. I couldn’t tell which one was up on the monitor, but I supposed it didn’t matter. “Right.” Turning back to Super Burger’s lobby, I just about jumped out of my skin.

High Wind stood right at the counter. The police were silent, watching like they expected something to go wrong. Behind her, the mother and the little boy were still in the shop. It looked like he was clutching a notebook to his chest. I hadn’t been paying much attention to the hero after the police backed off, but she had probably given him an autograph.

Which gave me an idea. “Thoth! Pull up full images of children. Ten to twelve years old.”

The view of the Super Burger shrunk to one corner of the screen as a dozen pictures popped up. People clearly sourced from a quick image search.

“I hope you’re not going to do something foolish,” she said as the last image filled the screen.

“Probably, just give me a minute…”

At the same time, High Wind leaned on the counter. “You’re making this harder than it needs to be, you know. You can’t run from me.”

I plastered on my best ‘customer’ smile. “Can I get you anything?”

Groaning, High Wind slumped forward. After a quick glance back at O’Hara, she leaned in a little closer. “Do you think I could get a High Wind kid’s meal?”

“We’re really not supposed to give out kid’s meals to teenagers, but… since it is your name on the meal, I suppose I can make an exception.”

As I punched in the order to the Super Burger register, I pulled out my knife at home. “Sorry about the mess,” I told my siblings.

“What do you think you’re—” was as far as Thoth got before I couldn’t concentrate on those surroundings anymore. A minute later and the body died.

A little girl from far beyond where the cameras were recording, maybe ten to twelve years old, ran up to the door. She heaved it open just as I handed High Wind her High Wind kid’s meal. An ear-splitting squeal of delight pierced through the tense air. Everyone in the lobby, officer, manager, hero, and customer, turned toward the noise. Everyone except for me.

I backed away from the counter as quickly as I dared. Everyone’s eyes were on the little girl, watching as she just avoided O’Hara’s hand grabbing at her shoulder. In the video stream that Thoth had pulled up, I hadn’t seen any officers standing around near the drive-thru. The angle wasn’t perfect, so I could be walking into a trap, but I was hoping that I wasn’t.

Luckily, my little girl impression was doing a perfect job of distracting everyone in the lobby. I was playing up the over-excited girl starstruck at meeting an idol. Except I didn’t have a mother to stop me from rushing up and hugging High Wind around the waist.

There weren’t any officers outside the building. At least not out the back door I used. I ran as fast as I could between the cars, rushing behind the condominium complex that was directly adjacent to Super Burger. I made it fully into the alley by the time McGregor noticed that I wasn’t behind the counter anymore. He shouted out a warning, alerting the rest.

I tried to keep my arms around High Wind just a little longer, but, in a surprising disregard for an innocent child’s well-being, she peeled herself out of my grip, knocking me to the floor in the process. A gust of wind just about tore the door off its hinges as she blew out of there. The four officers were hot on her heels.

Before anyone could question a parent-less child in the middle of the Super Burger lobby, I walked out, leaving through the opposite door and heading in almost the exact opposite direction from the condominium complex.

Both of me moved in opposite directions. The little girl was heading back home, or roughly in that direction. I wouldn’t head straight there until I was sure that I wasn’t being followed. Meanwhile, I would lead High Wind and the police on a goose chase if I could. Loosing them long enough to find a good hiding spot would be the best outcome.

So I kept running. The condominium’s dumpsters were locked behind a chain link fence. Climbing it was possible. Easy, even. But I didn’t think I could get inside and hidden before High Wind noticed where I was.

She flew high above the Super Burger. I could see her from my position as the little girl. She looked back and forth, trying to decide where I might have gone from the back exit. As the little girl, I almost got knocked off my feet when High Wind finally took off. The blast of wind left behind in her wake set off a car alarm in the Super Burger parking lot.

Thanks to my forewarning of her departure and her direction, I knew I had precious few seconds before she flew overhead and spotted me. Those few seconds bought me a moment to dive to the ground and roll underneath a minivan. I skinned my elbows on my way down, but bit past the stinging. This body wasn’t long for the world anyway.

Even underneath the van, I could feel the gust of wind tugging at my work uniform as High Wind flew past.

That was another problem with running. Not the wind, but my uniform. Super Burger employees wore a fairly distinctive outfit. The shirt was black, but covered in logos and emblems in a variety of colors. It was all a tourism thing. Even now, as the little girl, I could see a crowd gathering to watch High Wind zoom about.

As soon as the heavy wind settled, I squirmed out from under the van. High Wind was out of sight—all my sights. Hopefully she wouldn’t be back quite so soon. Maybe she would do a quick loop around the entire Super Burger lot. I considered running back to the dumpster, but that would have taken me closer to the Super Burger. Even if High Wind was on the opposite side of the city, the police officers were undoubtedly searching as well. At least one was probably headed this way. A single word from them over their radios and High Wind would rocket back.

I started running again in the same direction I had been before hiding. While moving, I considered tearing off my shirt, but a shirtless man running around was just as noticeable as one wearing every heroes’ logos from the past fifty years for all different reasons.

On second thought, polka dots stuck out a lot more.

With Ares’ body, I wasn’t strong enough to just grip both sides of my shirt and tear it off. I had to fumble with the buttons while I ran.

A rush of wind was my only warning that heroic company was returning. I ducked into the garage of the automated car wash and waited, holding my breath as if that would help.

Puddles of water rippled as she flew overhead. But I couldn’t see her. That meant that she couldn’t see me either.

The brief rest as I waited for High Wind to leave wasn’t doing me an favors. I wasn’t even a full city block away from the Super Burger, but my heart hammered in my chest the way it always did when I tried rushing. This body just wasn’t built for a marathon. I wouldn’t be able to run much further. And High Wind would catch up sooner rather than later.

But I didn’t need to run far. Just far enough to find a large dumpster. Or even an alley with sufficient cover. Something that would keep me and the nature of my power hidden for an hour until my body decomposed to dirt.

Biting my lip, I finished tearing off my shirt. It went right into the small garbage bin outside the car wash as I ran past. I could do this. Not much farther. Despite working around here, I didn’t know the area near the harbor all that well. But the city was the city. The entire thing was laid out in a grid. Even if the signs on stores changed, the buildings hardly did. There would be a spot to hide soon enough.

At least my form as a little girl was being left alone. I had been a little worried that one of the officers might try to stop me from leaving. But nobody, onlooker or officer, cared. It seemed like they were far too worried about the other me to care much.

I made it to the end of the block and across the street before I heard the shout.

“Stop!” An officer, not O’Hara, ordered me with a pistol drawn and aimed in my direction.

She was still in the alley I had just left.

Naturally, I didn’t stop. If anything, she spurned me on to run faster. The officer would call in my location. High Wind would be on me in only minutes. Instead of rushing through the nearest alley as I had intended, I rushed to the door of a high-rise apartment complex. The officer saw me, of course, but the apartment building was a better location even if they knew where I was. Especially if they knew where I was.

High Wind couldn’t use her power to their full effect inside.

That was the theory anyway.

I had never been inside an apartment building before. I knew what they were, of course. The machine had given me general information and apartments were universal enough that I knew what they were. In a general sense. There were lots of miniature houses without yards or front porches where people lived.

My hope, my new hope, was that there would be enough rooms and enough hallways that my pursuers wouldn’t be able to easily find me.

For that, I had to get off the ground floor.

The elevator was probably too slow, but Ares’ body couldn’t possibly climb more than one flight of stairs. Especially not after my dash from the Super Burger. By some small grace of luck, the elevator was at the ground floor. There was only the one. No second elevator for pursuers to take.

I rushed inside and hit a random button in the upper-middle section of the building. Floor nineteen. I couldn’t go all the way to the top. High Wind would probably be coming from that direction while the police guarded the elevator and stairs. There was a fire escape on one end of the building. Presumably, it opened to the hallways. But that would probably be watched as well.

By entering the building, I had effectively ensured that it would be my tomb. At least, this body’s tomb. My other body was already halfway home.

Around floor fifteen, the elevator lurched to a stop. It was not the smooth graceful stops of an elevator pausing to pick up passengers on a floor. It felt more like the time a bus had to slam on its breaks to stop itself from crushing a cyclist.


Would my body decompose before they could find it if I stabbed myself now? Could I pry open the doors and maybe delay them finding me by long enough? Or the hatch above the elevator? It was a bit high, but Ares wasn’t a small person. I well knew that he would have to duck to enter any room at our house.

Jumping, I slammed my hand against the hatch. It rattled, loose. Planting my foot against the hand railing, I got my fingers between the hatch as I hoisted myself up. If I would have had to jump and do a pull up, it would have been impossible. With the foothold, getting up there was just extremely difficult. It took a few hits with my fist, but the hatch came off completely. Climbing out on top, I quickly found out why.

The entire top of the elevator was covered in rust. A padlock had secured the hatch shut, but the padlock hadn’t given way. The hinges had. Every rainstorm probably resulted in leakage and corrosion.

Maybe me climbing out on top would get some inspectors out to make it safer. But that was someone else’s job.

The elevator was stopped dead between two floors. A series of pulleys and wires were connected to the doors, but I doubted I could open them even if I could reach them. Bars and crossbeams lined the walls, but there was actually quite a bit of space around the elevator. Rungs for a ladder ran up next to the doors, though I wasn’t sure if there would be a way out if I kept climbing. Leaning over the edge, I stared.

It was a long way down.

As I stood, half my weight over the edge, the elevator lurched again, moving back down toward the bottom.

I tumbled right over the side.

One of the cross beams flew up toward me, but I didn’t hit.

A gust of wind blew me back up, sending me even higher up the shaft.

“What are you doing?” High Wind shouted from the very top of the shaft. The highest doors were open with her leaning out, glaring. “Don’t you know that hundreds of people get decapitated—or worse—trying to self-rescue from stalled elevators? What if I hadn’t been here, huh? You would have fallen!”

Her words were a bit difficult to make out. She kept shouting while lifting me up, but the roar of the wind blasting around me made it like trying to understand Thoth when she was pulling some odd antic in her workshop.

Although the wind was keeping me from falling, it didn’t keep me from moving. I pulled out my knife. There were no more options. The police were down. High Wind was getting closer even with her still just leaning over the edge of the open doors. I wouldn’t be able to escape from either. Gripping the knife, I pointed the tip at her.

“Really?” High Wind put her hands on her hips. I couldn’t see much of her face with her large goggles and helmet in the way, but it was clear she was disappointed. “You’re going to fight me? You realize that if I lose my concentration, you’ll plummet.”

“That’s my hope.”

“You’re insane.”

Although the wind kept blowing around me, I came to a stop. I was well out of reach of the top floor. She wasn’t going to bring me closer. Maybe she would wait for someone else to give her backup, or maybe she was just trying to get me to cool off.

Regardless, this was the end of the line.

Spinning the knife in my hand, I plunged it deep into my neck.

High Wind screamed a cry of true horror and the gust of wind holding me aloft vanished.

The last thing that body felt was tumbling against one of the crossbeams in the elevator shaft.

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Duality 001.005

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The Basement

Staying out all night was irritating. Even though I had one whole body that was asleep, my other body yearned for rest and relaxation. While I did take a few breathers at various locations around the city—a bench in Central Park, an open-late diner, and a few bus stops—I never slept and I never let the bag out of my sight. I tried to act normal, like I wasn’t worried about a scary shadow lady following me around. Unfortunately, walking around the city for a full night wasn’t normal.

The clock on the front of the public library building struck noon with twelve resounding gongs of its bell. I finally started to relax. The sun was directly overhead, the brightest it would be all day. My shadow was tiny. I didn’t know the exact limitations of Shade’s ability, but her full body wouldn’t fit into my shadow at all. There were no obvious shadows around me either. I even opened the bag, discretely, and shuffled through the money inside, making sure to expose as much as possible to direct sunlight.

Even with my hands buried in money, I could hardly believe that I actually had it in my possession. It was the largest single lump of cash I had held in my entire short life.

Over the course of my nightly walk, I had paid careful attention to the shadows around me, trying to spot them shifting and moving as they had when Shade had been moving about. I hadn’t seen a thing. Still, Thoth insisted I stay out until at least noon to be sure.

Well it was noon now.

And I still wasn’t heading directly back.

Wishing that I could have more than two bodies at once, I reluctantly killed my well-rested self in a barrel behind our house.

My gait staggered as I did so. Not because of pain of driving the knife through my throat. Simply because of the sudden exhaustion. Without a second body to offload most of myself onto, I was fully aware of just how little sleep my only remaining body had received over the past twenty hours since it had been created.

Walking past an alley that I had scouted earlier for cameras and blind spots, a new me appeared instantly. The creation was far down the alley, only in my peripheral, practically behind a dumpster. That body had a face of a random bystander I had passed by a few minutes prior. Just a random woman I had picked off the street.

I kept walking without breaking stride.

Ten minutes after, I left the alley.

High heels were always a pain to walk in. But I didn’t need to walk for long. I quickly caught up to myself through a combination of walking fast and walking slow.

I set the bag down, stretched my arms up high, yawned, and closed my eyes.

I picked up the bag, turned, and walked away from my stretching self.

My panic upon noticing the bag was missing might have been a little exaggerated. I ran back and forth, searching underneath benches, inside trashcans, and even asked a few passersby whether or not they had seen a black gym sack. If I really did have someone following me, they would probably have been following the bag. Unless it was me that they were interested in and not the money. If King of Spades had been telling the truth when he said he didn’t care about the money, that was what I was hoping for.

So I really hoped I threw off any potential tails when I went into that same alley, climbed into the dumpster, and slit my own throat.

At the very least, I hoped my potentially imaginary follower would be confused.

To add to that confusion, I repeated the trick a dozen times. Different people. Different faces. Killing myself was the most annoying part. The things that came with my duplicates weren’t real. Clothes, wristwatches, glasses, and other such things would break down as soon as I let go of them. That first dumpster I had used wound up with three more corpses in it simply because I wanted the knife back—my flashlight was in the money bag.

I actually wondered what someone would say if they happened across the bin full of corpses before they started to decay.

I even changed up how I swapped hands. One old man tripped and fell, dropping the bag of money off the side of a foot bridge, right into the waiting hands of some punk kid. For one swap, I left it alone underneath a table for ten minutes. I never let it out of my sight, of course. If someone else had gone up to it, I would have had two of myself to chase after them. But nobody did. At the end of the ten minutes, I ran up in a new body and acted like I was relieved that nobody had taken my forgotten belongings.

Five hours after noon, five hours after I had started my stunt, I finally decided that I had swapped around enough. If I hadn’t shaken someone by now, I probably wouldn’t lose them after another dozen swaps. And, if I hadn’t shaken the possibly imaginary figure that was chasing me, they probably had a lot of questions at this point.

I hardly even knew what faces I was wearing at the point where I decided enough was enough. One of me picked up the knife for one final time, though I didn’t use it. Then we went home. Separately. I was a bit reluctant to leave the carrier alone, but if someone had been following my knife, I didn’t want to bring them too close to the bag.

Realistically, I was probably being overly paranoid. There had been no sign of shadows shifting around. Not once had I actually spotted a single sign that I was being followed—either through shadowy powers or more mundane methods.

The body with the knife arrived home first. I didn’t even go inside. Slipping through the gate in the fence, I went straight for the barrel in the back. I waited on killing myself, however. There was always the possibility that the bus might crash or another thief would show up. So I waited until the bus dropped me off and I was standing outside my front porch.

I slit my throat, walked inside, and immediately created a far more familiar body. That of Ares. I handed the bag to myself and immediately began disposing of that body as well. Outside of course. I had to keep things tidy.

Finally, things felt like they were back to normal. Well, normal plus four thousand dollars. I couldn’t help but feel a bit giddy. Thoth had been quite vocal about her desire for more parts and equipment. But Toxx, Dice, and Ares? Two of them didn’t even know what I had brought home. Most of the money would have to go to bills and groceries. Refilling the emergency funds would be a good idea as well. But I should at least find a nice present for each of them. Something they wouldn’t expect but would find fun or interesting.

First, I needed to know exactly how much money was in the bag. I would have to get the finances out and start figuring out exactly how much I needed. Then I could start window shopping for small gifts.

But before I could get to the table, Thoth’s television lit up. There were no antics in her workshop today. No fumbles with a wrench to accidentally burst a pipe. She just stood, arms crossed under her chest. Her mildly jittery eyes flicked to the bag as if confirming its existence. Slowly, she nodded. “Bring it to me.”

“To you? But—”

“If they weren’t following you, they might be tracking it through some other method.”

“I…” I sighed. “Right. I should have thought of that.”

The screen turned dark again without another word. I turned away, headed through the family room, past Ares’ bedroom, and to the elevator. Normal houses didn’t have elevators, as far as I knew. I didn’t particularly like it, but it wasn’t like I could just lift it up and throw it out on the next garbage day. There were only two buttons in the elevator. And up and a down. But, I paused before hitting the down button.

A thunder crashed down the stairs directly over the elevator. The pitter-patter of feat against the hardwood floors grew louder and louder until two girls popped around the side of the elevator door.

“You’re home!” Dice squeaked. She barely got the words out before Toxx barreled into her. Both tumbled to the ground in a tangle of limbs.

Putting on my best ‘stern’ face, I stared them down as they picked themselves up. “What have I said about sprinting around the house?”

“But we haven’t seen you all day!”

“Are you visiting Thoth?” Toxx asked in her usual whispery voice. “Can we come?”

“I’m only going to be down there for a minute. And you know how she gets about people in her room.”

“We won’t touch anything!”

“We promise!”

“Like you didn’t touch anything last time?”



I stared at them, meeting Toxx’s bloody eyes through her stringy black hair before moving onto Dice. Her shorter red hair was tied back into a mess of a ponytail today, giving a clear view of her pleading green eyes. Puppy-dog eyes was the term that came to mind.

Sighing, I stepped aside, allowing the two now cheering girls to enter the elevator alongside me. It was a bit cramped. The elevator wasn’t like those they had down at the mall. It fit into a small closet beneath the stairs, barely big enough to fit the three of us. But, fit we did. With them inside, I hit the down button.

The doors slid shut with a ding.

A moment later, after a bit of motion and vibrating, they opened.

The two girls sprinted out of the elevator the moment they could fit, leaving me to call after them. “No running in the basement!”

Of course, they ignored my words.

I couldn’t help but frown as I stepped out into the control room. One of the fluorescent lights overhead was flickering. That probably meant that it would die soon. Yet another expense. Even with our added money, I didn’t want to spend all of it on home repairs.

Though really, one light out would hardly be the worst thing that had happened to the control room. Once upon a time, it had held several monitors, computers, control panels, buttons, knobs, dials, and all sorts of other things that I preferred to not mess with. But its walls today looked like Amazing had dashed through it on his way to arrest some criminals. Most of the monitors had been set up around the house for Thoth’s sake while she had cannibalized the more computery components for herself. There was only one machine set up with a pair of monitors. Various numbers and readouts were listed, monitoring the experimentation chamber.

Since our parents had died, none of us had gone inside that particular room. A security feed and the graphs were all the information we really had about it. Not even Thoth knew how to properly operate or interact with the machinery and equipment inside.

I followed after Toxx and Dice, moving at a more sedate pace. I didn’t often come down here. It just wasn’t normal for people to have a basement like this.

Down a short hallway, there were four rooms. My old room, Toxx’s old room, Dice’s old room, and Thoth’s current room. The two girls were standing outside the very last room, glaring up at the small monitor next to the door. Thoth had her arms crossed on the monitor, anger obvious even without the literal steam coming from her ears.

Janus… Why did you bring these two down here?”

“We wanted to see you!” Dice said, not sounding ashamed or embarrassed at all.

Toxx as a bit more bashful as she whispered, “We never get to see you.”

“We see each other all the time!”

“The real you,” Dice said, hands on her hips.

Thoth glared hard enough that the two girls jumped back. Her thumb slammed into her chest, pressing hard into her grease-stained tank top. “This is the real me.”

I stepped forward, hoping to defuse their argument. “Thoth, it wouldn’t hurt once in a while.”

“Dice tripped over my life support last time! I could have died!”

Dice grinned back. It was hard to tell if she was sheepish or just grinning because she was a child despite having a teenager’s body.

I gave both of the older girls a glare. “You two will stand at the doorway and touch nothing. Am I understood?”

“Yes, Janus,” Toxx said immediately. Her younger sister was a little slower on the agreement.

Dice crossed her arms, pout firmly in place.

“Dice… If you can’t agree, you’re going to go wait for me in the control room.”


“Good.” With one last firm glance at both of them, I looked up to my youngest sister. “Will you please open the door now, Thoth?”

She turned up her nose with a harrumph. A moment later, the screen went black. The red light next to the handle turned green as a loud buzz echoed from the lock. Toxx and Dice immediately perked up.

“Remember,” I said as I put my hand onto the handle. “Stand by the door. Toxx, you’re in charge of your sister.”

Getting one last affirmation from both, even if Dice’s agreement was punctuated with a pout, I pushed the door open.

There was a slight hiss from the change in air pressure. A thin mist rolled out from the dark room, hugging the floor and curling around my shoes before dissipating a short way down the hall. The lights in the room were off. Flicking the switch by the door did nothing. But the half-dozen monitors provided enough illumination to at least see the cables and wires that lay on the ground within the thin mist.

But the cables were hardly the only hazards in the room. More hung from the ceiling in long looping tendrils. Tubes pumped liquids from elsewhere in the basement facility. Carts containing a variety of machines were strewn about haphazardly, though all the organization—or lack thereof—meant something to my sister.

And my sister, my youngest sister, was right where she always was. In the center of the room, cradled by bundles of looping cables, she sat limp and lifeless. A helmet covered the upper half of her head, completely hiding her hair and eyes. A thick black mask held tubes down her throat and nasal passages. Plugs had been inserted into her spine, chest, arms, stomach, groin, legs, and even her feet. She didn’t move or otherwise react to our presence inside her bedroom.

Instead, one of the monitors flickered. Rhythm strips and numbers containing her vital signs vanished. In its place, a cartoon sprung up. A workshop, reorganized to look like Frankenstein’s laboratory, made up the background. On a slab in the center of the cartoon room, my sister, wild blond hair and grease stained clothing, sat with a glum expression on her face.

“I hope you’re all happy. As you can see, this lump of flesh is perfectly fine.”

“Thank you for inviting us inside, Thoth.” I turned to the two older sisters and gave them both pointed stares. I had said it before, but it was worth repeating again. “Stay here. Don’t touch anything.”

“Yeah, yeah,” Thoth said before either of the others could respond. “Hurry and bring that bag over here. The sooner I get a look at it, the sooner you all can leave.” As she stretched out a hand on the monitor to a table of levers and knobs, one of the cables descended from the ceiling. A little gripping claw on the end of it clenched and unclenched in time with her fingers squeezing a latch on one of the levers.

Stepping forward just to her feet, I handed the bag over to the waiting claw. Some machinery in the arm whined a bit under the weight, but Thoth made no indication that anything was wrong. The mechanical arm brought it over and gently set it on her bare stomach.

Thoth walked over to an array of gauges and dials on the wall of her workshop, humming a little tune while she inspected each. “I see. There is a device, but it isn’t active at the moment.”

Sucking in a nervous breath, I tensed. “Is… that a problem.”

“Let us find out,” Thoth said. She grabbed hold of some levers and knobs and started twisting an pulling. As she did, another mechanical arm lifted from somewhere in the mess of wires and cables. This one had far sharper implements on the head than the previous one. It sliced a small cut into the side of the bag, allowing the grabber arm to reach in and pull out a small circuit board topped with all sorts of… computery things.

Technology was really Thoth’s domain. Not mine.

Shoving the bag back into my arms, she held the circuit board over her body’s chest, roughly an arm’s length away.

A burst of blue lightning shot from Thoth’s body’s chest into the circuit board. The pungent sweet scent of ozone filled the air for a moment until I waved my hands a few times. With the circuit board under Thoth’s power, the gripper arm let it go. It didn’t drop. It just… hovered.

Then it started pulling itself apart. Little cylinders floated around the flat piece of green plastic. The square chips rotated gently in the air. A more rectangular piece floated just a little closer to Thoth’s body. Then, the show was over. With tiny sparks at each of the metal contact points, the device reassembled itself.

All the while, Thoth had been nodding her head on the monitor. “Good news. It recorded your path around the city all day today, but was not transmitting it live, instead, it is waiting for an external signal to activate it properly. If it had been sending information live, I had a plan to spoof a bunch of data to make it seem like your final stop was somewhere far from here. But that’s not necessary. I have instead rewrote the data to keep your path up until you decided to come home. According to it now, you’ll have stopped in the Grove Hotel.”

I let out a relief-filled breath. “Thank you, Thoth.”

Thoth just shrugged, looking back at the dials and gauges on her workshop wall. Her world being a cartoon meant that there really wasn’t much detail. Even had I tried to make out what she was looking at, I wouldn’t have gotten anything useful.

“I wonder if that King of Spades guy has a bunch of these just sitting around,” Thoth said with a hum. “Or maybe he had been planning on tracking anyone who answered our imprisoned robber’s call for help. It would be nice to get my hands on a few more of these. I can reuse this for all sorts of things.” Looking back over to me, she shrugged again. “Alright. That’s all that I could sense inside. Get out. And keep your hands to yourself, Dice!” she added a little louder.

I turned to find the sister in question quickly retracting her hand from Thoth’s bare foot. Her head dropped far enough that I couldn’t see her eyes. She was deliberately avoiding my gaze.

Toxx was standing back by the door as if she had nothing to do with anything.

Grabbing Dice’s shoulder, I could only sigh.

“Out! Out! Out!”

“Bye Thoth,” Dice said softly. “It was nice to see you again.”

“Idiot! You see me every single day.”

“Yeah, but—”

“Come on, Dice. You too, Toxx,” I said as I led them out of the room. “We will be having words about what it means to promise something.” I lightly squeezed Dice’s shoulder. “And what it means to watch your sister,” I added with a hopefully serious look at Toxx.

And after the lecture: Back to the finances.

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Duality 001.004

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Treasure Hunt

I couldn’t find anything at the first location. Same with the second and third. The fourth location was the most likely place to find a bag of money, according to Thoth. Still, I couldn’t help but feel like I was on some treasure hunt for the lost goods of an ancient pirate. Ares enjoyed pirate movies, so I had plenty of examples to go by.

In the movies, the protagonist always wound up with the treasure. The treasure was never a simple myth and if someone else had already gotten to it, the protagonist still managed to get at least some of it through trickery or guile.

Waving my flashlight around the condemned Miskatonoic University laboratory hall—they had replaced it with a new building a few years back—like I was looking for a lost puppy, I definitely did not feel like a protagonist. Maybe I was just worn down from crawling over the old shoe factory, the brickworks, and the wonderful insane asylum. Apart from a sense of wonder at just how many abandoned buildings existed in Ipswich, I hadn’t found a thing. Obviously. If I had, I wouldn’t have come here.

Well, I had found an old man at the insane asylum. I wasn’t sure if he had moved in since its closure or if he had simply never left. Thoth had suggested the latter option.

Unfortunately, this was looking like a bust as well.

“I haven’t found anything outside the building and the doors are locked,” I said back home in my normal voice. The me currently at the university building was wearing the face of a random man I had found while searching the internet for suitable people. It was stronger than Ares’ body, something I figured might have come in handy for the stamina and in the event that I had to move something heavy. “Shall I head on to spot five?”

“No. He had to have found a way inside.”

“Are you sure it was this building?” I asked with one body while I looked around with the other. The laboratory hall was an old brick building. Half the windows were shattered. Boards had been nailed up in all the windows on the ground floor, but some of the upper windows were just holes into the building. I hadn’t seen any ladders, but maybe that robber had an ability that let him scale buildings.

Apart from the laboratory hall, there was a library and commons building just across a small courtyard, a sports center for indoor sports just to the side of that, some large parking lots, and the main lecture building also attached to the courtyard. Plenty of other places around, but Thoth was shaking her head.

“The Farnsworth Laboratory Hall is the only abandoned building in that area. People would have seen and reported him walking around anywhere else—his name and face were all over the news for a good week after the robbery—but he might have gone unnoticed if he managed to slip inside. It is the perfect distance from where he disappeared from news cameras to where he reappeared a few blocks away. Check again, maybe one of the doors wasn’t locked or one of the windows is loose. If not, find a crowbar and get in there anyway.”

“A crowbar? Would he have had the time to break in like that?”

Thoth crossed her arms as I started circling the building. She looked smug. Her eyes were closed, her head was tilted upward, and her smile slowly grew across her face. It was that face she put on when she thought she knew something that nobody else knew. “There is actually a different location where he had slightly more time to hide the money. But, he worked for a contractor that did some work around the university. It is possible, though I think it is slightly less likely than breaking in, that he had in his possession a key to that building.”

It took another loop of the building before I found a side door that I hadn’t remembered checking the first time around. “The handle turns, but it won’t budge.”

“Put your shoulder into it! That’s got to be it!”

“You think I’m not trying?”

Having two bodies was an odd experience, or so I gathered based on my interactions with Toxx, Dice, Ares, and regular people around the Super Burger. One of me was panting and sweating. The door was moving a little, pushing in then immediately pushing back. I could see a little crack into the interior with every shove. Despite the effort I was putting into the door, my other body was calmly seated in the living room couch, talking with Thoth and Ares.

The two other girls were upstairs in bed already.

As far as I could tell, it was a wholly unique situation that no one else had ever experienced. Even with all the powers that existed out in the world, nobody duplicated themselves and maintained singular control over both bodies. Diplopia could clone himself, but the duplicate was a shadow that fell apart after a certain amount of time and had to order his shadow around verbally. Duplex also cloned himself, but the clones were essentially unique individuals. Or so said the Power List Wiki, anyway.

So, right now, I had the odd sensation of needing to breathe heavily for some extra oxygen while I simultaneously sipped calmly at a glass of water.

“There’s something leaning against the door,” I said, informing Thoth of my struggle as I continued pushing. “A bookcase or something.”

“You should have pulled up a video of Amazing and used his body. At least make him be good for something.”

“People would notice Amazing casually walking around.” As I spoke, I managed to shoulder the door a bit harder than before. Whatever had been holding me up fell away, landing with the crash of broken glass. “Got it.”

“Excellent!” Thoth clapped her hands together in obvious excitement. “Now, look for disturbed dust, footprints, or anything else that might indicate that someone has been around recently.”

“Yeah, I got it. Same as the other places.”

I threw a quick glance around before entering. The crash had been loud, but it didn’t look like anyone was around to have noticed. It was still possible that someone in one of the distant buildings had noticed my flashlight from when I walked around the place. It would be best to hurry.

Slipping inside—I still couldn’t open the door fully—I got my first look at what had been stopping me from entering. A large metal cabinet, half again my height, was flat against the ground. Shards of glass had exploded out from under it in a halo. It was awfully similar to the cabinets we had down in the basement. A similarity that made me a little nervous given that clear liquid leaked out from under it.

Toxx was the only one who knew what all the bottles and jars contained down in our basement. Not even Thoth knew. And Toxx didn’t really know. Her power just gave her innate knowledge of how best to utilize various chemicals. She couldn’t name them.

I wasn’t too worried for myself. If this body died, I would simply make another one. But if those mixed together to create some eternal fire or heavy toxin that would stick in the area for years, other people might get caught up in the trouble I was causing.

But, sniffing the air, I didn’t keel over dead. The smell was more like that of a kitchen after a day of cleaning it. It probably was harmless. They would have removed any dangerous chemicals before abandoning the laboratory hall. Though they clearly hadn’t removed all the equipment.

The room was some kind of laboratory. Fume cupboards lined the exterior wall, large glass-protected chambers connected to the overhead ducts. We had two of those down in the basement as well, so I knew what they were. Even what they were for. Toxx used them to keep any dangerous chemical fumes out of the living space. Tables filled much of the rest of the room, each with a sink placed right in the center.

I clearly wasn’t the first to have been in here since the building was abandoned. Spray paint decorated nearly every surface. Some were fairly innocuous. Jamie and Leiah Forever. Kilroy Was Here. Professor Dinkle is a DICK. Interspersing those messages were some more worrisome emblems. Gang symbols. A crowned spade over the glass of one of the fume cupboards. A bulldog inside a buzzsaw. A stylized OREOS, who were defunct as of two years ago… as far as I knew. Crossed flintlock pistols over a skull.

Luckily, a healthy layer of dust covered the tables. No one had been inside for a while at least.

Which meant that the robber hadn’t come through here or, as Thoth suggested, he had entered through another door.

I made my way out of the laboratory and into the hallway. More graffiti covered the walls. Windows looking into the classrooms and labs had been broken. Shards were all over the floor. But… most of the shards had been shoved aside, pushed up against the walls. At the far end of the hallway were the main double doors leading outside the building.

“Looks like you were right, though it doesn’t look like someone rushed through in a hurry. More like someone took a broom and swept the hallway clear.”

“Really? That’s… Huh.”

Thoth actually looked stumped for once. Her lack of anything to say gave Ares a chance to speak. “Be careful,” he said. “I’m surprised nobody was living in those other places. That may not be the case here.”

“Janus can’t die,” Thoth said with a casual shrug. “It won’t be a problem.”

“Maybe not, but we shouldn’t disturb people just trying to live. And anyone living in a place like that is probably having hard times. No need for us to make them any harder.”

Thoth scoffed, but didn’t say anything more on that topic. “Might as well check it out anyway. Just hope that the hobos didn’t find the money before you do.”

Ares sighed and, in his own way, looked like he wanted to argue the point further. Maybe he realized that Thoth wouldn’t be convinced by a few simple words. He simply closed his eyes, remaining silent while waiting for my next update.

I followed the swept path away from the building’s entrance. It avoided all the laboratories, storage rooms, and classrooms on the first floor of the building, stopping at a staircase toward the back. It was only a two story building, which I was thankful for. Less area to look around in. The second floor was not the same as the first. There was still a lot of graffiti around, but the rooms branching off from the hallway weren’t made for general student use. They were storage rooms and faculty offices. I imagined that the storage rooms were for more dangerous chemicals that they didn’t want students to have easy access to.

As for the offices, they were mostly empty. A desk here. A chair there. Some filing cabinets. I peeked inside one only to find it just as empty as the rest of the office. They must have gotten new furnishings for their new building and had decided to leave their old ones behind. A calendar on the wall of one office dated back to ‘82. That couldn’t have been right, though. Although I hadn’t been alive at the time the building shut down, it had been a big enough event for the machine to pick up information about it. It should have only closed down a decade ago, at most.

Perhaps the office’s former owner had simply enjoyed the scantily clad woman posting for the June month. Though, if he had enjoyed it enough to keep it around for thirty years, it begged the question of why he hadn’t taken it with him.

The swept path continued around a corner, passing more offices and supply rooms. But as soon as I turned the corner, I froze.

“There is a light on at the end of the hall. One of the rooms.”

“A light?” Thoth looked puzzled again. “That building shouldn’t have any electricity.”

“A flashlight,” Ares suggested. “Could someone else be looking for the same thing we are?”

“Maybe if this were the day after, but that was weeks ago. The more time that has passed since the robbery, the less likely two people would be looking for it at the same time.”

“Coincidences can still happen.”

“I guess I’ll find out,” I said, already walking toward it. I could smell smoke in the air. Cigarette smoke, not an open flame about to burn down the building. It smelled exactly the same as outside the back door of Super Burger. And the closer I got, the stronger the smell.

There was a window in the door. I could see most of it without even entering. It was a meeting room. A large table occupied most of the floor space. But only two chairs sat around it as far as I could see. There were far too many empty spots for that to have been all it originally held. Glancing into one of the adjacent rooms revealed the rest of the low-backed swivel chairs.

The motion of a sheet of paper joining a stack pulled my attention back to the room. There was definitely someone in there, but, even leaning at an angle, I couldn’t see inside far enough to spot more than a gloved hand holding a pen. They were clearly at the head of the table.

“Don’t just stand there,” a smooth voice called from inside. “Come in.”

I hesitated. I had been considering just leaving. If this was some university staff member going over some files that had been left behind, I didn’t particularly care to disturb them. I was just a treasure hunter. But since he had called out to me…

I pushed open the door and took a step inside.

“The man is obese,” I immediately began describing to Thoth. He was clearly not just a regular guy, but not someone I recognized. “He probably squats three hundred pounds every time he stands up. Charcoal pinstripe suit that somehow fits over his girth, bowler hat, black domino mask, pistol pointed at me, and a thick mustache. No beard.”

Thoth’s eyes started twitching as she tried to pull information from the machine.

At the same time, the rotund man looked up to me with a frown. “You the one making all that racket downstairs?” He waved his pistol, gesturing toward one of the two seats in the room that weren’t his.

Thoth answered before I could move. “King of Spades. Leader of the Spades. Powers unknown. He has never been seen using them in public, as far as I can tell. I wonder what he is doing in a run-down old building. Maybe he found the money.”

A pistol wouldn’t do much to intimidate me. I could have just left. I might have, if not for Thoth continuing.

“See if you can find out what he is doing there. And steal the money if you can.”

Both of me sighed. One shared a look with Ares before pulling over the laptop to double-check Thoth’s information on the man. The other slowly followed the barrel of the pistol.

The eyes behind that domino mask followed every movement I made as I crossed the room and sank into one of the chairs. “You alone?”


“Hmph.” Setting his pen in a holder next to a smoking ashtray, King of Spades raised his hand.

The shadows in the room, cast by an electronic lantern hanging from the ceiling behind King of Spades, shifted. The dark hues in King of Spades’ shadow lightened as a thin trail of darkness swept across the room and out the door. King picked up his pen again and, with the pistol still trained on me, started writing.

Neither of us spoke. He simply wrote down notes in a notebook, compared whatever he had written with a loose sheet of paper, and started writing again.

Shadows rushed into the room. Instead of rejoining with King of Spades’ shadow, they coalesced just behind him, forming into the silhouette of a woman. The shadow disappeared completely as a woman stepped out of the wall. She was tall—too tall and a little too lithe, like a shadow stretched out to awkward proportions by the evening light. Her skin was an unnatural black. An absolute darkness that reflected no light. Even her eyes had no whites. Despite being black, the slim suit she wore was not a perfect absorber of light. Even while standing there, clearly three dimensional, she would have looked flat if not for her suit’s definition.

“No one else inside the building,” she said, moving just a little closer to him with her hands tucked behind her back. As she got closer to the electric lantern, the entire room seemed to dim. “I only searched outside immediately around the building. I hope that was alright.”

“Perfect, Shade. Thank you.”

“He got in through the door with the broken lock.”

“Figures. Not that it matters. We’ll have a more permanent location set up soon enough.”

While they were talking, I described the woman to Thoth. Neither she nor the wiki had any information about her. I considered adding her to it. Her name was clearly Shade and she had some shadow-based power. However, if she suddenly popped up over night, it would probably be obvious who had put her there. This face might be disposable to me, but I didn’t care to bring trouble to the actual owner, even if he was some random person from who knew where.

Besides that, the moderators would probably delete it. I had never tried posting an article, but I looked up every powered person I came across and frequently found removed posts. If someone wasn’t publicly known, they needed a picture. I didn’t have one of her.

Nodding to King, she stepped back. Any normal person would have bumped into the wall, but she just… fell into it. In the blink of an eye, all that was left was her shadow. Even that disappeared after a moment.

King of Spades’ shadow darkened a moment later.

Lowering the pistol, King clasped his hands together, staring at me over the top of them. “You aren’t police,” he said, matter-of-factly.

I shook my head.

“And you aren’t a hero.”

Again, I shook my head.

“I don’t recognize you as being a rival of mine.”

“No, sir.”

“You could be a random unpowered soldier that I would never recognize, but no gang makes powered people start at such a low rung of the ladder. And you have a power.”

I was already been shaking my head as he talked, but that made me still. “H-How…”

“You’re far too calm. I had a pistol pointed at you. You saw Shade. But you aren’t even sweating. In fact, you look almost bored. So you’ve either got a power that you think lets you shrug off attacks, lets you escape, or some other method of avoiding death. Or you simply have a lot of confidence in your ability. Perhaps overconfidence, but that still leaves you with an ability. I am correct, am I not? And don’t lie to me now. I’ll know.”

Clearly, I needed to act more nervous when threatened. Even though lying to him could only get me killed at worst, I nodded my head. If he asked for anything more, I had a knife in my pocket. It was always a pain to lose a knife when disposing of a body—they were just another cost I had to tally up at the end of the month—but I would pick that any day over the possibility of leading someone to the rest of my family.

Thankfully, he didn’t press further. He simply nodded his head, content in his analysis.

“If you are not a hero, vigilante, rival, or aspirant to any of those positions, I must confess my curiosity as to your presence here. Was it a dare? Some frat house foolery to retrieve an item from the old haunted building? Petty thievery?”

“That one. Mostly. I thought there might have been a bag of money around here, but I was clearly mistaken.”

“Ah. Mister Williams contacted you as well? He claimed to me that he didn’t know how much he had stolen, but insisted that it was substantial.” He shook his head, flabs of meat around his neck constricting the motion. “Four thousand is hardly worth bending over to pick up, let alone organizing a prison extradition.”

Both of me blinked, confused as it took a moment for my mind to catch up.

“Williams,” Thoth said to the me that had been repeating everything for her and Ares. “That was the name of the robber.”

But even that hardly registered.

“F-Four thousand? Dollars?”

“Pathetic, isn’t it? Trying to hire me for pennies.” Derision leaked from his voice.

I could barely believe what I was hearing. Four thousand dollars was three months of pay. More, even. And King of Spades wouldn’t even pick it up? Then again, looking at him… His suit fit him well. It clearly had been tailored for his bulk. It might have even hid some of it.

He probably wouldn’t bend over to pick up a million dollars.

“Mister Williams is lucky that I found something far more valuable in this place. After finding his ill-gotten gains, I had been considering involving myself in his trial. To ensure his sentence was long and harsh as payment for sending me all the way out here for nothing. Instead, I’ve decided to leave things as they are.”

I couldn’t help feeling a spark of hope at that. Despite mostly agreeing with Ares about not bothering with the money, hearing how much it was… I got excited. Three months of pay would help so much. We could afford food and bills. We might even be able to afford that internet line to the basement that Thoth had been wanting for a while. But it all hinged on one thing. “Does that mean that the money is still here?” Two things, actually. “And… you don’t want it?”

King didn’t respond right away. His index and middle fingers drummed against the table. Each rhythmic thump carried with it a certain air that made my heart beat faster. I hadn’t really thought about it, but King’s power was a complete unknown. I rarely worried over my personal safety thanks to my power. If I got injured or killed, I would simply use my second body to create a new me. But, until now, until I was facing a villain whose ability I couldn’t guess at, I had never considered that I might be vulnerable in some other way.

He had said it best. I wasn’t worried about a gun. A gun couldn’t do anything to me that I hadn’t already suffered through with a knife… or worse. The shadow girl might be able to do something more. Her hands had looked rather like claws. But her power looked pretty straightforward, even if it also looked fairly versatile.

King of Spades wasn’t nervous at all despite sitting across from someone who he knew had powers but didn’t know what they did. He certainly didn’t have a physical power. Maybe he could shoot laser beams from his eyes or some other ranged attack. But that seemed far too flashy. King of Spades was not an unknown villain. People would have noticed something like that. His power had to be far more subtle.

If he had the ability to control my mind in any way, shape, or form, would he control me? Would it just affect one body? Could he possibly control both my bodies from here?

The thought was unnerving to say the least. I could feel sweat forming with every tap of his fingers against the table. So far, our conversation had been pleasant, aside from the gun at the start. But, without knowing what his power was, I could very well be putting Ares and Thoth in danger. Toxx and Dice as well. My whole family.

I opened my mouth, about to tell King that I really didn’t want the money after all. Four thousand was a lot. It would help a lot. Risking my family over it? I couldn’t even imagine what could possibly be that valuable.

But the tapping stopped before I could get a word out. That ominous silence felt even more oppressive than the drumming. While he had been drumming his fingers, he had probably been thinking. Now, he had likely reached a decision.

That decision started with a smile.

King of Spades rose from his chair. It creaked as the strain was taken off, but he didn’t pay that any mind. Instead, he walked around the table. I tensed at his approach until I realized that he was stopping at the window. A heavy board blocked it off, keeping the light inside, but someone had apparently installed hinges on the board. He swung it open, clasping his hands behind his back.

Shade reformed behind him, using her body and the strange way it interacted with light to keep the lantern from being seen outside. Apart from that, she didn’t move. She definitely didn’t look in my direction.

“I was drawn here with the promise of wealth. An easy jailbreak for a bag filled with money. I would not risk any of my subordinates for four thousand dollars. However, the visit to Miskatonic has not been fruitless. Two members of the women’s softball team are… interesting.”

“Miskatonic has a softball team?” I knew it had a fairly popular football team. The basketball team was less popular, but Super Burger still did promotions with them once a year. But the machine was the only reason I even knew what a softball was.

King turned from the window, flashing a grin of surprisingly white teeth. “By this time next year, they will be selling out more seats than the football games.” Turning back to the window, he pulled out a cigarette, though he didn’t light it right away. “Well, not literally. The football stadium has far more seats. It will sell more simply because of max capacity. But the softball team will be known.”

I… honestly didn’t know what to say about that. It sounded impressive, but… I guess I just wasn’t sure what his point was. Or what that had to do with the money.

“You see, I love humans. It’s the potential. Humans are a resource that should be cultivated and allowed to flourish to their utmost possible level.”

“So… you saw the softball team and decided to… train them? Aren’t you the leader of the second largest gang in the city?”

“Third largest,” he said with an odd sense of pride in his voice. “But that’s just a side project. Well, so is this. And, I suppose, I would pick The Spades over Miskatonic’s sports teams if I had to choose. For as much as an idealist as I am, there is only so much time available.”

“Oh.” Because what else could I have said to that. I still didn’t get his point.

Thoth apparently didn’t understand either. She chimed in, talking to my other body. “This guy is a whackjob.”

King turned away from the window, leaving it open as he pulled a lighter from his suit’s inner pocket. “Oh, he says.” He still didn’t light his cigarette. A flick of his thumb sparked a flame, but he closed the cap of the lighter with another flick of his wrist. He repeated the motion twice more before he pointed the lighter at me. “Perhaps you would understand better if I said that I was an investor. Those two girls I mentioned will be joining my organization. I won’t disclose details as to the why, but they are the true project here. The softball team is just a happy side effort that I am making.

“So,” he continued, though he paused long enough to finally bring the open flame to the end of the cigarette. “I was going to keep that four thousand, paltry a sum though it is. But I’ll give you a chance. What would I get out of investing in you? What would my organizations get?”

“You… want me to work for you?” He didn’t even know my power, but he still wanted me? Perhaps it didn’t matter to someone like him. Any special ability would benefit his organization in some manner or other.

“I want you to reach your potential. It doesn’t have to be through working for me, though I would not let you go to waste. Society. Humanity as a whole. I would accept an answer regarding both, I simply didn’t list them because—” He shook his head with a hearty chuckle. “Let’s face it. If a few thousand dollars could change humanity, someone would have already done it.”

King stared at me, clearly expecting some kind of an answer. He wasn’t even smoking the cigarette he had taken the trouble to light. He was just staring.

Ares and Thoth were arguing over my repetition of the conversation. Thoth wanted the money. Her plan was simple. Agree to whatever King wanted, get the money in hand, then just stash the money and kill my self. It was sensible and simple to carry out, but I had my reservations.

I still didn’t know what King’s power was. It could be something that required a trigger. Perhaps agreeing to do something for him activated a mind controlling effect that would force me to carry out that task. Not to mention, it seemed extremely foolish to make an enemy of someone so needlessly. The exact makeup of his gang was not public knowledge. Who knew what kind of people he had working for him that might possess a power that could find a betrayer.

Which bled into Ares’ argument against antagonizing anyone, accepting stolen money, and, most obviously, working for a known criminal.

Not wanting to let the silence between me and King drag on for too long while we argued, I took a deep breath and asked a question.

“What is the difference between a hero and a villain?”

King didn’t answer right away. He turned back to the window. The embers on his cigarette lit up as he breathed in. Wind whisked away the cloud of smoke as he breathed out. Shade stood behind him, still unmoving, still blocking the light with that strange body of hers.

“A complicated question,” he said, tapping the end of his cigarette on the broken windowsill. “I suppose that the answer depends entirely on your perspective. Different people will say different things. For me… there is no difference but one of labeling. Heroes and villains both use their power to enact their will, their view of reality on the world around them. It is that world that assigns the label.”

It… was refreshing. My question hadn’t been laughed off. I wasn’t sure that King’s answer was particularly outstanding or revolutionary—though Thoth was nodding her head as I repeated it—but he had considered and given a proper answer. That was more than Amazing could say. More than a few coworkers had offered.

Still… “I’m sorry, King of Spades. You answered me, but I don’t think I have an answer for your question. Working for you is… too much. I would have to know a lot more and I would need to discuss it with my family.” I couldn’t help but let out a sardonic sigh. “And I’m far too concerned with my family’s survival to have ever thought about what I might contribute to society.”

Thoth started yelling at me as King closed the window. She was indignant that I hadn’t even tried to make up some answer to get the money. But I couldn’t just lie to him after his honesty with me, despite his answer being… not quite as in depth as I might have hoped.

I honestly couldn’t tell if King was disappointed. He turned his back to me as he made his way back around to the head of the long table. He stopped just before his chair to snuff out the cigarette. It joined a dozen others in the glass ashtray. Only then did he rest his bulk in the seat.

Shade started to disappear into the wall behind King again, but a wave of his hand stopped the shadowy woman.

He reached into his suit once again. Instead of withdrawing a cigarette, he pulled out a slim sliver case. A single card popped out at an angle. Plucking it from the case by the edges, he placed it on the table and slid it forward.

Of course, the table was designed for meetings. It was far longer than I could have reached even had I stood and leaned as far over as I could. That was apparently exactly why he had stopped Shade from recessing into her shadow form. Without a single motion from him, Shade moved forward, placed a finger to the table, and slid the card right in front of me.

I couldn’t help but notice the way she slid it across. Her finger, sharp and claw-like, didn’t actually touch the card itself. Her nail dug into the tiny shadow it cast from the electric lantern. Moving its shadow moved the card.

“I have things to do. I’m far too busy for a proper conversation at this time. Perhaps we can discuss further at a later date,” King said, nodding toward the card. “Unfortunately, I will be consumed with getting things set up here for the foreseeable future. Perhaps I will find time in my schedule for you in… a week. Perhaps two? If you call that number sometime soon, my assistant will set up an appointment for you.”

The card was a simple business card. It looked rather average considering a super villain had just handed it over. It had his name, embossed in small capitals right in the center. The top left held a phone number. The top right was a symbol. A spade like that from a playing card with a royal crown wrapped around its pointed top. There was no other information. No physical address. Not even an email address. Picking it up, I found the other side blank save for a larger and more detailed version of the spade symbol.

Although I had already written down the number back home, I made a show of pocketing the card in front of him. No sense further aggravating him by throwing it in his face along with his question.

“I’ll see about it,” I said.

“Excellent.” He picked up his pen again, holding it over one of the many sheets of paper that littered the desk. “You’re free to go. I would ask that you keep my presence here… discrete. It would be irritating to pack everything up before I am ready.”

“You don’t have to worry about that from me,” I assured him. Completely honestly at that. If all he was doing was helping a softball team, then what did I care. None of my family would be impacted.

“Good. Good,” King said, looking down to his work.

Apparently, that was it. I was dismissed. The gun was still on the table, but King wasn’t even looking in my direction anymore. The same couldn’t be said for Shade. She stood in a somewhat eerie manner, hardly having moved from where she ended up after sliding the card across the table. I walked out. She didn’t follow.

Walking into a deserted hallway full of broken glass and empty offices was a shock. I had almost forgotten that our conversation had been in the middle of an abandoned building. For a man who considered a few thousand dollars to be so far beneath him, it was a bit surprising that he would willingly work out of such a dump. Or that he had come to collect the money in person. With Shade and who knew what other subordinates, I couldn’t believe that he ever left some comfy office in his main base.

Thoth suggested that it was something to do with his power. King needed to be physically present for it to work, or something similar.

I walked out in a fairly languid manner. There were still eight areas left to check on Thoth’s map, but I supposed that it didn’t matter much anymore. While I hadn’t actually seen it, the money was clearly with King of Spades.

“It’s a shame,” Thoth said, her cartoonish guise lying flat against a table with depression-filled rainclouds hanging overhead. “Couldn’t you have spun some tall tale to tell the fat man?”

Thoth,” Ares said with a voice full of admonishment. “We shouldn’t just agree to what he said. As… nice as that meeting seemed, villains are villains for a reason.”

“We didn’t have to follow through. Just get the money, wander off, and never call him up again. I am obviously not advocating for working underneath some human.”

I held up a hand, stalling any further argument between my two siblings. “Hold on. Something is happening.”

I was almost at the exit of the building, just inside the laboratory room with all the fume cupboards. The shadows from my flashlight were shifting in a way that was obviously unnatural. Turning, I just about jumped out of my socks.

The wellbeing of that body did not mean anything to me. But there were still ingrained reactions built into everyone. Turning around to find the shadowy form of Shade standing right behind me triggered one of those reactions.

“Apologies for startling you,” she said, tone pleasant. Even her mouth was like a black hole. If she had teeth in there, they were not pearly white. Or even off white. My attention on her face was drawn away as she held out a sack. It was a thin material scrunched together at one end by drawstrings. The kind of thing gym-goers often came to Super Burger with. “Upon further consideration, King of Spades wishes for you to keep this. As a… reminder of your meeting tonight.”

I stared at her. At the bag. A moment passed until Thoth screamed, “Take it!”

My hands brushed against Shade’s as I accepted the bag. They were surprisingly solid. And she had been actually holding the bag by the strings rather than the shadow of its strings. As soon as the bag was firmly in my grasp, she nodded her head and sank into the floor. With another shifting of the shadows, there was no sign of the woman anywhere around.

Dumbly, I peeked into the bag.

Money stared back.

Bundles of twenties. A few hundreds. Loose smaller bills filled out most of the space.

I walked out of the door, past the fallen cabinet, with a small smile on both my faces. I couldn’t help it. It was… probably nothing to King of Spades. To me, it was so much more. I could hardly imagine what we could do with four thousand dollars. I would have been happy with four hundred. I would have been happy with forty.

Thoth was grinning like a madwoman. I couldn’t tell exactly what Ares was feeling. His eyes widened as I told him that I had the bag in hand, but he hadn’t said anything, choosing to close his eyes and remain silent instead. Knowing him, he wasn’t too happy that we were acting so familiar with a villain, but he wouldn’t say anything either.

He knew how much the money meant to us. To the family as a whole.

Our good moods came to a sudden stop as Thoth’s workshop darkened. Thunder struck outside the window behind one of the large machines in the background. “You can’t bring that bag home,” she said in a rush.

I was barely off Miskatonic’s campus, nowhere near home, but the urgent tone of her voice made me stop anyway. “Why not?”

“Where is that shadow chick?”

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Duality 001.003

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Can’t Do The Sum

Work was out for the week. The Snow Queen had actually caused a fair bit of damage to more than just the coffee maker. A few pipes had burst in both the kitchen and the toilets. The freezer had turned into one large block of ice, ruining a decent amount of the food inside. It would be a couple of days before everything got fixed or replaced. Insurance was paying for all of it, apparently.

I would like to say that I was enjoying my vacation, but I wasn’t. I just couldn’t get my mind to calm down and relax. There was too much to do. Too much to worry about. Super Burger wasn’t paying me for the forced time off, meaning my next check would be half of the norm. The price of milk and eggs and bread was rising every day. Bills arrived every day for various utilities. All under my parents’ names, of course. Without them around, I had to keep paying lest the billing companies send someone to investigate, police or otherwise.

“That’s a scary look you have on my face, Janus.”

Looking up from the scattered spreadsheets and calculator, I met the eyes of my brother. Ares. He looked a lot like me. Skeletally thin with light brown hair and large glasses. In fact, to someone outside the family, they might have said that we were twins. The only difference was in the way we were seated. I was hunched over the table of finances while he was in his wheelchair, knees together and hands limp in his lap. His head sat against one of the headrest’s side cushions.

I smiled the way I might have done to one of the girls when telling them that nothing was wrong. But… Ares wasn’t one of the girls. He was older than me. One year older. The machine had taken a toll on his body that it hadn’t on me. Or rather, it had killed me several times while our parents worked to perfect it. But he was the older brother. I hadn’t even existed when he first started his sessions. I liked to think that my many deaths had saved his life, but it hadn’t kept him from being crippled. Still, he had completed all his sessions. He was a proper adult, even if he looked like a scrawny teenager with a neurodegenerative disease.

My smile slipped as I looked back down to the finances. “The math just doesn’t work out,” I said. “We’ll be eating string beans and flowers picked from the lawn. Even with that…” The tip of my pen tapped against the electricity bill with the rhythm of a clock. “Switching the basement to the backup generators might help, but that’ll mean we have to refuel later. Extra expense. And we can’t just put refilling them off. If there is another fight that knocks out the power like the one between Amazing and that bomber guy, we’ll need the generators full.”

Ares didn’t move. He couldn’t, really. I didn’t think he had ever moved his arms or legs under his own power. Sometimes, he managed to tilt his head. Talking even took a bit of a strain. His lips and jaw worked. Even his larynx wasn’t paralyzed. It was his tongue. He didn’t have full control over it.

But I heard his words clear as day. I had only met him—I had only found out that I had a brother a little over six months ago. And yet, he was my brother. Of course I listened to him every time he spoke.

“The emergency box still has a few hundred dollars hidden away.”

The tapping of my pen slowed to a stop. “I had considered that, but… is this an emergency?”

“You just said that we have to survive off nothing but string beans. The girls might just kill you over it.”

That was an exaggeration. Toxx might dissect Dice on the regular, but that was just because she knew that Dice could handle it. Hurting me, unless she knew that I had my second body around without a doubt, would likely be out of the question. I doubt she would ever consider such a thing anyway.

Dice, on the other hand… Well, maybe Ares had a point.

“Still,” I said, setting the pen on the table as I leaned back in the chair. “Still… We wasted so much of the emergency funds already. I would prefer to save as much as we can.”

“I’m sorry I can’t help more. I wish I could, believe me. Both in figuring out a solution and… earning money.”

“Don’t,” I said, sliding to the edge of my chair. Putting a hand on top of his, I stared him in the eyes. “You do everything you need to do. You support us all and…” I flashed a grin. “Someone’s got to keep an eye on our troublesome sisters.”

Ares drew in a breath and closed his eyes. Aside from that, he didn’t move at all. After a moment, during which I kept my hand firmly on his, he opened his eyes again. “Speaking of our sisters, have you considered asking Thoth for help? She is better with numbers than either of us.”

Looking away from my brother, I found myself staring at the television at the end of the dining room table. It was off at the moment, but the security camera secured to the wall above it was definitely locked on me. “I didn’t want to worry her.”

“Worry?” The sound came from the speakers before the screen turned on. When it did, she was already right in front of the screen, staring. Her wild hair was done up in a ponytail today, but strands stuck out at all angles. She crossed her arms over her chest, glaring. “Me? Now just why would you think I would worry? Surely not because you mentioned vegetables. Unlike those other two sisters of mine, I actually like healthy foods. Though I cannot accept the electricity being shut off.”

She turned away from me and Ares to face a wall covered in heavy toggle switches. One by one, she started throwing them. Sparks flew from some, electricity trying to keep the current going even as the bars of metal moved too far from the connectors. One by one, things around her workshop stopped moving. A whirligig stopped spinning. The tesla coil stopped funneling lightning into an iron cage. Her Jacob’s ladder fell silent, the beam of electricity no longer climbing the twin wires.

“I can shut off a few of my functions,” she said solemnly. “Maybe that will help with the electricity bill for this month.”

“Thoth… You don’t have to do that.”

She perked up. A wide, open mouth grin spread across her face. Because she was a cartoon, her teeth were perfectly smooth and almost perfectly straight. Four sharp points at her top and bottom canines were the only real oddities. “If you say so,” she said, turning back to the toggle switch panel. With a single sweep of her arm, she flipped all of them back into the on position.

I sighed, wondering if her antics had a point today. As much as I loved my sister—all my sisters—I really wanted to go back over our finances and see if I could find something nonessential that I could cut for the month.

Before, my tone had been conciliatory. Now, I injected a bit of warning into it. “Thoth. I am trying to get some work done.”

She hummed, leaning in a little closer, apparently looking down at the papers on the table. “And what if I told you that I knew of a way to help that didn’t involve inventing a new branch of arithmetic?”

Sighing, I placed my pen on the table, clasped my hands together, and gave Thoth my full attention. “Alright. I’m listening.”

“You remember that bank robbery a few weeks ago?”

Ares cut in before she could go any further. “I hope you aren’t suggesting that we do something illegal.”

“Of course not.” She paused and the jitter around her pupils increased for a moment. “I mean, I don’t think it is illegal.”

“How do you not know?”

“You would be surprised at how little the general populace knows of the laws under which they willingly submit themselves. But!” She held up a finger. “I can safely say that no one will be hurt from this. I mean, everything is all insured and there aren’t even any real victims.”

Thoth…” Ares’ warning tone sounded identical to mine with the exception of the heavy lisp.

“Look. There were three robbers, right? And one of them got away. Temporarily.”

“They caught him a few hours later,” I said, nodding. It had been all over the news. I normally didn’t get too invested in the goings on of people outside my family, but I had been involved in that incident. As such, I had found myself mildly interested. Mostly, I had been looking for a date when the bank would reopen. The place I ended up cashing my check at was annoyingly out of the way. “What’s your point?”

“My point is that he left the bank with a bag full of money. But he wasn’t arrested with a bag full of money. As far as I can tell, that’s still missing. So…” She trailed off in a leading tone, clearly wanting me or Ares to make the connection on our own.

Though there really wasn’t much point with as clearly as she had spelled it out. “So there’s a bag of money somewhere in the city.”

“Shouldn’t we return it to the bank? They would probably reward us.”

Thoth took off her goggles just to ensure that we could clearly see her roll her eyes at Ares’ comment. “Oh yeah. Reward us. They’ll probably give us a gift card to Super Burger. No, dummy, we take it for ourselves!”

Ares didn’t move. He couldn’t. Despite that, I could clearly read the disappointment and discomfort in his body language. I wasn’t entirely sure that I agreed. There would probably be a thousand dollars in the bag he had stolen. I saw it. It had been a small gym bag, but large enough to hold some money. Though, in my last memories of it, there had clearly been a decent amount of empty space. The bank would almost certainly not reward us with even half of what was in the bag, if they rewarded us at all.

At the same time, I had to frown. “There are six million humans in this city. Even if he didn’t have an accomplice, what’s to say that one of them hasn’t picked it up already.” She opened her mouth, but I wasn’t done. “And this city is large enough to hold those six million humans. The money might still be wherever he stashed it, but we would never find it.”

“Ah-ah!” Thoth tutted, crossing her arms and closing her eyes as she put on a smug face that said she knew something that no one else did. “News helicopters followed him from when he fled the bank until he got caught. Every moment of which wound up broadcast. There were a few periods of time where he disappeared before the cameras found him again, including one extended segment where he disappeared for almost twenty minutes. It’s hard to tell exactly when he ditched the money because of the large overcoat he wore, but I think I can pinpoint twelve relatively small areas where it could be.”

Thoth went scrambling off screen for a moment, tossing tools and papers and even a cat past the camera. Her distraction afforded me a moment to look to Ares, who wasn’t saying anything but still looked disapproving. When Thoth returned, she held a scroll. A map of the city. It looked like a pirate treasure map. She unrolled it and pressed it right up against the screen, completely obscuring her workshop from view. In a move only made possible through the physics of living inside a cartoon, Thoth walked in front of the map.

She no longer sported her grease stained workshop clothes. She walked out in a pencil skirt, holding a telescoping pointer like she was some kind of weather reporter.

The sepia tone of the map shifted, turning colors. The majority of the city lit up in a faint red, but a streak of yellows, greens, and blues cut right through the center. It didn’t take much examination to discover that the bank was at one end of the streak.

“The path the robber followed is the black line,” Thoth said, dragging her pointer through the green and blue area. “Everywhere the line cuts out indicates a point where the robber was off cameras. Some were such short lengths of time that it is almost impossible for him to have dropped the money, but I included them anyway just in case he chucked it underneath a porch or something. Still, the most likely areas are these twelve.”

Circled numbers counting one through twelve lit up. All but one of them were in blue areas, with the odd one out being in a green location. Another black line connected the twelve circled numbers one by one.

“If I were you, I would start here,” Thoth said, pointing at number four. “It isn’t the most likely location, but it is close to our house and still a fairly high chance. If we could afford smarter phones, you would have been able to stream video to me so that I could help you. Since you can’t, I guess descriptions will have to suffice.”

Thoth fell silent, looking between me and Ares. She actually bit her lip as she rubbed her thumb on the end of the pointer stick. Was she nervous? Clearly, she had put a lot of effort into this whole presentation. Like Ares, Thoth wasn’t able to move easily. In fact, even with him being paralyzed, Ares could still move better than Thoth could. So it was entirely understandable that she would try her own way to figure out how to help. In that light, disregarding what little help she could offer would be a slap in the face.

Still… “What happens if an accomplice or someone else has already gotten it?”

Smiling as if she had known that question was going to be brought up again, Thoth glanced down at the papers covering the table. “Then you’ll have had a nice refreshing walk around town and can come back to work on your perversion of mathematics with a clear head.”

I gave her a flat look. But, at the same time, I stood up. “Alright. You win. Let me grab my coat and… a flashlight would be a good idea too, wouldn’t it?”

“You’re going now?” Ares asked.

“Might as well. Probably a waste of time. It’s been how many weeks?”

“A few,” Thoth said, shifting uncomfortably.

“But it is a walk.”

“Just… stay safe out there.”

I nodded. “Don’t worry. I’m downstairs playing doctor with Toxx and Dice. Or rather, I’m playing janitor, trying to keep them from making too big of a mess.”

Ares frowned, but… well, he didn’t nod his head. I got his meaning anyway. It was an agreement. An approval. Maybe he didn’t approve of taking the money for ourselves, but he was at least willing to see what happened. If I could find anything at all.

As much as I also had misgivings about effectively stealing money from a bank, I was hoping Thoth was right about all this.

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Duality 001.002

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Super Burger

“Welcome to Super Burger, home of the Super Burger, can I take your order?”

“Uh. Yes. One Amazing Burger. No cheese. No bacon. To go. That’s it.”

With half lidded eyes, I punched her order into the computer. It was, truly, a mind numbing profession. There was an older man, a Dennis, who had been working between the front counter and the kitchens for over twenty years. I could not fathom how he came into work every day with a smile on his face. Six months of this job and I was ready to burn the place down. I hadn’t, obviously, but after a few irate customers, the idea was always tempting.

I would have left in an instant if I had thought I could find another job. That was the biggest problem. The real reason I hadn’t done anything rash. We needed money. Neither I, nor Ares, nor Toxx, Dice, or Thoth had identities. Real, regular, human identities. We had no social security numbers. No birth certificates. I knew of the concept of illegal aliens and I knew that there were large groups of such people who lived in the United States, but I hadn’t the slightest idea how they went about finding work or providing for their families.

Super Burger had let me work with the flimsiest of personal identification. A work visa Thoth had provided. Forged, of course. It limited the kind of work that I could do and was temporary, but would work until we figured out a more permanent method of acquiring money. For that, I was grateful to the Hero-themed fast food place.

“And, uh, can I add a-uh… High Wind kids meal to the order?”

She didn’t have any kids with her. It was technically against the rules to give out kids’ meals to adults, but who honestly cared? I hit the button to add it to her order. “One Amazing Burger without bacon or cheese and a High Wind kids’ meal.”

“No pickles on the Amazing Burger too.”

It took a force of will to keep from rolling my eyes. “Anything else?”

“I think that’s it.”

“Then your total will be—”

“Oh! Except can I get a large Snow Queen?”

“The ice cream machine is broken.”

The woman’s expression turned pained, like I had hopped over the counter and stomped on her foot. “It was broken last week!”

And it will still be broken next week. But I couldn’t say that. Company policy. “Super Burger would like to apologize for any inconvenience,” I said, trying to inject something of an apologetic note into my tone. I doubt it came out much different from my usual words. This job just sucked all inflection from my voice.

Her lip thinned out as she crossed her arms. “Fine. Cancel my order. I’ll go to the store on Second. They’ll get me a Snow Queen. Their machine always works.”

I doubt it, I thought, actually rolling my eyes. But she was already halfway out the door. “Thank you for coming. Next.”

There was only one other customer in the store. A man in a hooded sweatshirt. It wasn’t cold inside the restaurant, but he still had it up. Being early enough in the morning that the sun hadn’t even risen, it was probably a little chilly outside, so maybe he was still warming up.

“Welcome to Super Burger, home—”

“J-Just what’s on this list, p-please.” He stuttered as he handed over a wrinkled scrap of paper.

I picked it up, read the single line, and sighed. Today was going to be a long day. I could tell already.

“Sir, we opened like forty-five minutes ago. There isn’t even forty dollars in the register.”

His eyes turned wide as saucers. Maybe it was shock at how little fear was in my voice. Maybe he was surprised that I had talked back at all. His note had said that he was armed. But really, if I could convince him to just leave, I was more than willing to pretend like nothing had happened. Dealing with a robbery was sure to be a pain.

Were I in his position, I would have run away right then and there. The plan already went to hell when I spoke aloud to him, calling him out on it. Apparently, common robbers weren’t the most intelligent of people.

He pulled out a pistol. A little snub-nosed revolver. His hand shook as he stared at me. “S-Shut up! Just do it!”

His shout must have drawn the attention of my coworker who had been working the drive-thru, guessing by her sudden scream. Her scrambled footsteps took her into the kitchens, leaving me alone to face the gunman.

Gee, thanks. If I had been anyone other than me, I probably would have been a lot more annoyed that she had just left me. But I was me. And I wasn’t too worried. I had never killed myself with a gun before, but I couldn’t imagine it would be more painful than tearing out my throat with a knife.

“What the h-hell are you waiting for, man? You wanna die?”

“Sometimes,” I mumbled, mostly to amuse myself. But I did comply. A button press had the cash drawer knocking against my stomach. With practiced motions, I pulled out the cash. “Twenty-three fifty-three. Would you like fries with that?”

He clearly didn’t appreciate my joke. Or maybe he didn’t hear it. His eyes were glued to the cash in my hand. “T-That’s it?”

“I told you, we just barely opened. Most people pay by card too. The majority of this money is what we keep on hand for change for the initial customers.”

“T-That one!” he said, snatching the money with one hand while waving his pistol to the second register.

“It hasn’t even been used today.” That didn’t mean it was empty. It should have fifty dollars divided up into various bills and change. Some people liked to buy a dollar item to break a twenty down into smaller bills.

But he slumped, panicked and clearly not thinking about that. “Wh-What am I going to do?” After a shrug from me, he perked up. Thoth often had a light bulb appear above her head when she got a good idea. Even though this guy wasn’t a cartoon, I could almost see the bulb above his head flick on. “The back room. There’s like a safe or something right? Go get everything from it,” he said waving his gun.

“There is, but only the general manager has the key. She isn’t going to be in until noon.”

That momentary spot of hope vanished. The robber looked like someone had spat on his mother’s grave. I almost felt bad for him. Not that he wasn’t having any success robbing the place, but rather that he had been born such an idiot. He had done so many things wrong. First, robbing this store. Second, robbing at this hour in the morning. Third, not realizing that the drive-thru window had its own register and had seen far more customers given that it had opened a full hour before the doors. And lastly, I wasn’t sure that pistol was even loaded.

With the angle he held it at, I could clearly see down two of its barrels. Neither had anything in them. It was irritating. If he lacked the conviction to shoot someone, he shouldn’t be waving a gun around in the first place.

While he was stunned at his unsurprising lack of success, I was tempted to throw a punch. But my body was skeletally thin. The muscles had atrophied to the point where moving normally was something of a chore. I could run a bit, but would tire in minutes. That would be endurance, however. A punch was all strength, of which I had none. Even if I did catch him off guard, there wouldn’t be enough power behind my fist to take him out in the first blow and, after that, he would easily be able to overpower me.

Besides that… is it me, or is it getting colder in here?

I could see my breath. It was far too cold for just the freezer door to have been left open or the air conditioning being turned up a notch.

And I hardly had the worst of it.

The robber was shaking. Trembling. Flecks of ice coated the skin around his hand, locking his fingers in place and keeping him from pulling the trigger. His sweat-soaked sweatshirt had frozen completely solid, making him look like he was wearing a shirt made from iron. The most movement he managed was the clatter of his teeth.

The door swung open, though it didn’t make the usual sound. The ice covered the bell.

A leotard that showed far too much skin around her chest. A short skirt that did little to hide her bare thighs. A spiked crown of ice atop her silver hair.

The Snow Queen’s blue eyes flashed with cold anger as she stared at the robber. “How many fools must I put away before you idiots take a hint?”

The robber couldn’t even turn to face her. Like his shirt, his pants were stiff and hard. I couldn’t see them, but I wouldn’t be surprised if his shoes had been frozen to the ground. All I could see were his eyes widening in obvious fear.

I was a bit surprised too. An actual hero had shown up. For one single armed robber. One of my coworkers had obviously called the emergency line, but I had been expecting police. This was hardly a bank robbery. Then again, who knew what my coworkers had reported. Whatever it was, it had probably been exaggerated.

The Snow Queen stepped across the lobby, high heels of her thigh boots not slipping on the ice in the slightest. Blue fingernails dug underneath the robber’s hand, prying the gun loose. His skin cracked and broke around the joins, but no blood dripped out. That didn’t stop him from making high pitched squeaks in the back of his throat. She ignored the pained noise. The gun went into a clear bag. An evidence bag. The Snow Queen’s outfit lacked pockets as far as I could see, so where it came from was a mystery. It probably came from the same place that she had pulled handcuffs from.

Dragging him back to the little divider wall between the counter and the seating area, she snapped one half of the cuffs around his wrist and the other to the decorative bars. They were just that: decorative. Any moderately fit man could probably break them without too much effort. But the robber didn’t look like he would be putting up any such effort anytime soon.

I had heard about the Snow Queen’s captures requiring treatment for frostbite. Seeing the effects in person for the first time, I had to wonder if that wasn’t a drastic understatement. I wasn’t even her target and my nose was running. My lungs burned from the cold. Even my fingers had gone numb.

“You think about what you’ve done,” she said, patting him on the head. His hood cracked like an eggshell. “The police will be here in fifteen minutes, if they aren’t being lazy. In the mean time…”

My heart rate spiked. She looked at me. Those eyes that could put ice on the sun looked at me. Her boots clicked against the ice as she stepped closer. I could feel the sweat forming on my palms instantly freezing over.

Ironically, I found myself far more comfortable with a robber waving a gun in my face than I did with a hero walking over, eying me like I was a meat popsicle. All the robber could have done was kill me. And I had taken Thoth’s advice. I was here at work, in a fairly surreal situation. But I was also home, running a plate under the faucet, trying to get a bit of grime off with a sponge. So even killing me wouldn’t actually kill me. It would destroy my job, of course. I couldn’t very well just walk in the next day after getting a bullet through my head and my body turning to dirt. Ultimately, that wouldn’t be that big of a deal. I would just have to find a new job. Perhaps with a new face.

A hero was another matter entirely. They were nosy. Investigative. The smarter ones were, anyway. I wasn’t so sure about Amazing, but he—they all seemed like they had a sixth sense for things going wrong. That was how they found crime. Crime that wasn’t reported by over exaggerating coworkers, anyway. Amazing had ignored anything strange about me the other week ago, but I had been perfectly normal at the time. There had been only one of me. And he was egotistical to the point where I doubted he would notice anything anyway.

The Snow Queen was his polar opposite. Cold and ruthless. Calculating.

She would know. She would find out.

At home, I set the plate down on the counter, mind racing. The Snow Queen was going to find out. About me. About my family. The girls were down in the basement, having their sessions. Ares was in his room. Thoth’s television was on. She had been working on something, but now she was looking at me. A word would alert her, but then what? What were they supposed to do?

“Janus. Your heart rate is dangerously high. What’s going on?”

I sucked in a breath. Both of me sucked in a breath. One was cold and stifling, the other warm and soothing. “The Snow Queen is staring at me.”

“The Snow Queen?” Thoth lifted up her goggles. The lines that made up her eyes jittered and trembled. “Hero. Part of The Amazing Company, but prefers to work alone. Powers: Control over temperature and moisture in the air. It is unknown if she raises humidity though matter creation or if she gathers the water from the surrounding area through a secondary telekinetic ability. The end result manifests as ice and snow.” Her eyes calmed slightly as she focused on me. “But what does she want with you?”

“I don’t know. I was being robbed.”

“Maybe ask?”

Ask? Right. Ask. Of course. Distract her with a conversation. I hadn’t done anything wrong. Unless she counted the forged documents I had, but surely she wouldn’t ask for those.

“C-Can I help you?” My breath formed ice crystals in the air as I spoke. Hopefully, my stutter would be ignored because of the cold air.

“Are you alright, uh—” her eyes flicked down to my name tag. “Harry?”

I blinked twice over. Not having expected that, I asked Thoth, “Am I alright?”

Her eyes changed art style to two half moons as she gave me a flat look. “I don’t know, are you?”

“Just a bit shocked,” I said through the cold air. I tried to smile, but I doubt it came across properly. “Not every day you meet a hero. Or get robbed, for that matter.”

“I suppose. If you’re alright, then…”

Then? Then what? She noticed something. Did I not look properly human to a trained and experienced hero?

“Do you mind getting me something? I haven’t had a chance to eat yet.”

“Get? Eat?” I blinked. It took a minute for my mind to catch up. When it did, my eyes widened. “Eat!”

Now she was looking at me like I was a bit slow in the head. After all my panic, maybe she wasn’t wrong.

“Sorry,” I said quickly. “Our ice cream machine is broken.”

The Snow Queen’s face flickered to a grimace before her cool mask fell back in place. “Just a muffin and a hot chocolate.”

Hot chocolate?” I couldn’t help but ask.

“The cold makes my teeth ache.”

“Ah.” I… wasn’t quite sure how to react to that, so I didn’t. Looking down at the register, I considered punching in her order. She probably wouldn’t appreciate being made to pay for it though. And I highly doubted that she had a wallet or card somewhere on her person. Her outfit did not have any pockets as far as I could see. Not wanting to be caught staring, I quickly turned away. “I’ll get started right away,” I said, glad that she was just hungry and not about to take my life apart.

But when I got to the hot drink machine and pulled the lever… nothing happened. There was some groaning within the machine, but no hot milk. No chocolate. Even the whipped cream dispenser was locked up. Fiddling with it, it didn’t take long to identify the problem.

I turned back to the Snow Queen with a shaky smile. “Sorry for the inconvenience, but it looks like our equipment has frozen over.”

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Duality 001.001

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Author’s Note:

For this, I’m actually looking for some direct feedback. This work is actually quite a bit different from my usual style. First of all, it is in first person. Secondly, the main character’s power makes some of the narration… uh, interesting? I don’t want to say more and unnecessarily shade your first experience with it. I’m a little worried that things are unclear at times. It seems alright to me, but I’m the one who wrote it, so I know what I meant.

Aside from whether or not the writing is literally comprehensible, I would like to know general opinions, thoughts on characters, and anything else about anything else you might consider.

I don’t know when or if this project will be continued yet, but I am quite excited about it at the moment. Even if I don’t continue it anytime soon, Vacant Throne started out as a side project that I wrote a few chapters of while writing Void Domain. So it could be a project for after VT, though VT isn’t ending anytime soon just yet.

Also, word of warning: There is a medical term that gets mentioned two or three times in relation to one of the sisters. If you are squeamish, you might want to avoid looking up pictures.


The Family

“What is the difference between a hero and a villain?”

The man stared at me as if I had two heads. In today’s society, having two heads would be an uncommon sight, but not one that anyone on the street would gawk at for too long. That was just how unique today’s world was. People were different now than they were before. So instead, it would be more accurate to say that he stared at me as if he couldn’t understand how someone old enough to be in high school could possibly ask such a question.

His confusion lasted only a few moments. Deciding to take my serious question as a joke, he threw his head back and laughed. A hearty, boisterous laugh. “When you’re as Amazing as me, everything you do is heroic!”

The most Amazing man in the world patted my shoulder as he pushed by, moving to meet the press outside the bank. Rubble of bank didn’t impede his dauntless march. His boot tapped a brick from the wall he had broken through, sending it flying. A spiderweb of cracks spread through the impact site—a previously undamaged section of the wall.

No one noticed. The other hostages, they stared at Amazing’s large back in awe. They watched as he waved his hands in front of the cameras, reenacting his dramatic rescue of the bank’s patrons from the villainous robbers. He drew a fist back and punched the air, blowing back the hair of the woman with the microphone. She laughed a girly giggle, affectionately touching him on the elbow before running her hand through her hair. He continued right along, now aiming a finger at the camera.

I watched Amazing as well, though I didn’t have a smile on my face. The sting in one eye from the blood running down my face was enough to keep me in a grimace. Though I doubted I would smile regardless. Movement on the other side of the broken glass pulled my attention off the world’s greatest hero.

Police officers rushed in, not even needing cuffs for the would-be thieves with how their arms and legs were bent out of shape. One had managed to get away with a small gym bag full of money, but he had left his companions behind to escape. Paramedics were hot on the officers’ heels. Four, with a pair of stretchers, rushed to the two thieves. The way they moved, so practiced and efficient, I could tell that it wasn’t their first time dealing with Amazing’s aftermath. Police escorted out those hostages who had managed to avoid being injured. Another pair of paramedics started checking the injuries of everyone else. Those who could move were quickly escorted out.

The others were treated inside, away from the cameras. One poor man had his shoulder crushed by a flying door frame. A little girl, crying and clutching her mother, had shards of glass in her arm. With as much blood as was cascading down my face, it didn’t take long to draw the attention of one of the medics.

I tried to wave him off. Cuts to the face and forehead bled a lot because of all the blood vessels there, but I doubted I was in half as much pain as the kid with a broken finger. Really, the blood in my eye hurt worse than the cut on my forehead. But it was far more noticeable than a broken finger. Far more attention grabbing.

When they finally let me go, I walked out of the bank to find Amazing long gone. The majority of the press had moved on as well, probably to chase after him. Amazing was not a hard man to find while on the job. His white and gold outfit, marred with the sponsorship of a hundred companies, stood out like a beacon. However, the trail of damaged public property left in his wake was the real tell of his presence.

There was such little fanfare about a downtown bank being destroyed, it was a little surprising. Even before Amazing had shown up a decade ago, buildings occasionally wound up as collateral damage when costumed heroes and villains decided they wanted to have a fight. More buildings got destroyed now-a-days, but the number of heroes and villains had increased as well. Besides, the buildings were all insured. As long as nobody died, nobody cared. In fact, with all the tourism brought in by the big name heroes, spectacles like today probably generated more income for the city than what was lost in damages.

Or so I had been taught. My actual experience with heroes and the world was limited.

Standing outside the bank, I stared down at the check in my hands. What was I supposed to do with it now? This bank wouldn’t be reopening soon. The next closest bank was a good fifteen minute trip by bus. It would be closed by then. That was assuming they even stayed open while another bank was under assault. There were apps to take a picture of the check and have it be deposited automatically, but my phone wasn’t smart enough for such apps. Not to mention my lack of an account. I needed it in cash.

I’d have to just come back some other time.

What a waste of a day.

There was still enough money at home to purchase groceries for the next week, at least. There was no real rush just yet. With mild irritation, I folded the check back up and slipped it into my jeans. Would the nearest bus stop even be operational? Some of the streets looked like they had been blocked off and hadn’t yet opened. Even more irritated, I started walking in the vague direction of the North End, my family’s home.

Only, I had to stop and frown. I could clearly see the gauze bandage above my eye in the reflection of a large pane of glass that had shattered on the ground. Although the cut wasn’t bleeding anymore, my eyebrow and eyelashes were caked in dried flakes of the stuff. The light blue of my collar wasn’t quite so bright and blue anymore either.

I couldn’t go home like this. My sisters would worry. I would already be late enough as it was between being stuck in the bank for over an hour and the bus situation.

Although I continued toward the North End, I took a brief detour before I made it out of the downtown area. Just a small alley with some fire escapes, air conditioning units, and a large dumpster. I double checked that there weren’t any security cameras before pulling out my wallet, phone, check, and pocket knife. I set all but the latter item on the ground in front of the trash bin.

Climbing into the dumpster, I closed my eyes. When I opened them again, a boy stood in front of me. Light brown hair. Large rimmed glasses. A skeletally thin frame. The boy wore an identical Super Burger uniform. This one, however, was not stained with blood. His face did not have a bandage above the eye. No blood marred his slightly sagging cheeks.

My sagging cheeks.

Kneeling, I started collecting the items I had left on the ground. At the same time, I took my pocket knife, flicked open the blade, and jammed it into the side of my neck. Blood pumped out in spurts. My grip was already weakening, but I dragged it forward, making sure to get the carotid artery so that I would have a quick death. I had barely enough presence of mind to wipe the blade on my opposite sleeve and drop the knife outside the garbage bin before I collapsed back.

It wasn’t a perfect job. Obviously. My hands had barely been able to hold the knife before I dropped it. Untucking my button up uniform, I properly cleaned the blade with the very edge of my shirt before tucking it back in. That would hide the blood well enough. Slipping it into my pockets with my other affects, I snapped my neck back and forth.

The irritating pain in my forehead was gone. Drawing in a breath, I felt clean and refreshed. My body was still twitching a bit, but I couldn’t feel anything from it anymore. In an hour, it would start disintegrating, turning to a dirt-like material. Blood, bones, clothes, and flesh. There would be nothing left in three hours. Hopefully nobody found it before then. I carefully closed the dumpster’s lid, adjust my shirt, and exited the alley.

This body really wasn’t the best for walking home. Too weak. The muscles were too atrophied. Had I used Amazing’s body, I would have made it home in ten minutes. Instead, it took me the better part of two hours, even maintaining as brisk of a pace as I could. I did push through it, but the refreshed cleanliness had vanished. Replaced with sweat and a shortness of breath.

I should have found a different bus stop.

My sisters would be worried for sure. A fleeting thought crossed my mind. I could slip around behind the small suburban house and kill myself again. It was just so messy. And the pain wasn’t all that pleasant either. While I could—and did—shove as much as myself as possible into my clone as I could, small prickles still made it through.

Deciding against it, I took a moment on the front porch to sit on the little wooden bench to cool off. The summer heat didn’t make it easy on me, but the small shade provided by the roof made it feel much cooler than it had while walking under the heavy sun. In short order, I felt better. Still sweaty, but at least I wasn’t panting like a dog.

The door opened to the living room. A small room with half of a hexagonal window to look out on the front lawn. It had two couches and a small television. A perfectly normal room for a perfectly normal family. The dining room and kitchen were hidden on the other side of the back wall. A staircase to the three bedrooms sat next to the door.

A smell permeated the air. A fairly unpleasant one that I was all too familiar with. But I didn’t have time to investigate the source.

The second I closed the door behind me, the television flicked on all of its own accord.

A cartoon started playing. Set in an engineer’s workshop, steam burst from small pipes, gauges and dials danced wildly, sparks jumped between the wires of a Jacob’s ladder. In the middle of it all, a girl with brilliant blond hair sat, tugging on a bolt with a monkey wrench over and over again.

She pretended not to notice me.

Smile on my face, I walked over, noting that the small lens on top of the television was indeed tracking me. The cartoon girl still didn’t turn around to face me.

“Hello, Thoth.”

Her grip through her fingerless gloves slipped and the wrench went flying. A pipe cracked with a resounding clank. Steam billowed into the workshop, quickly flooding in, obscuring everything with white clouds. A short burst of coughing followed several hammering clanks and a few squeak squeak squeaks of a valve twisting. The hiss of escaping steam stopped.

A cloth appeared on the opposite side of the television, swiping back and forth. The rest of the workshop was still obscured by white clouds, but Thoth’s grease-stained face was right up close. Her blue eyes were dancing wildly, irises jittery behind her goggles.

“You scared me,” she said with a definite pout.

“Sorry, sorry. You didn’t hurt yourself, did you?”

“Just some light scalding from the steam,” she said, holding up a hand. It cartoonishly flashed bright red. “It’ll go away when the scene changes.” Looking over her shoulder, she sighed. “Workshop is a mess though. Some of this stuff wasn’t supposed to get wet.”

“I’m sure you’ll get it all fixed up. You can fix anything!”

“Almost anything. More importantly…” Thoth put a hand to her goggles and lifted them to her forehead, looking right at me with the most serious expression a cartoon character could muster. “I saw what happened.”

Stiffening my back, I pulled away from the television to look directly at the camera mounted above the screen. Thoth didn’t like it when I did that, but it was far more her than the character on the screen. “You saw?”

“It was all over the news. Bank robberies don’t happen every month, so it got quite a bit of attention.”

Right. Of course. Thoth monitored the news constantly. Of course she would have seen what had happened. I didn’t think I had wound up on camera, but maybe some intrepid reporter had sneaked a little closer while the medics were still taking care of everyone. Or maybe Thoth simply put two and two together and decided my departure to the bank and long delay in returning were related to the robbery. Either way…

“The others, they didn’t see, did they?”

“Ares did. Toxx and Dice have been playing together since Toxx finished her session.” The girl on screen tilted her head as if to look at the rest of the house. She obviously couldn’t see as the camera was still aimed at me, but it wasn’t the only one around. “Speak of the devil.”

A few heavy slaps of bare feet against the hardwood floors signaled the approach of one of my younger sisters. A girl, no—A teen tore around the doorway, just about slipping as she sprinted toward me. Stringy black hair shadowed her face, but I could see her wide eyes clearly excited to see me. I tried to keep a smile on my face, but…

The whites of her eyes were bleeding again.

“Brother!” she whispered, just barely loud enough to be heard across the room. Despite the red-stained eyes, Toxx’s smile gave way for nothing. It was overly wide and her lips were a bit thin, but I liked her smiles much better than those I saw at work or on customers at the bank. It was more… genuine.

“Toxx—” was as far as I got before she plowed into me, wrapping her arms around my waist. She slammed into me with far more force than I expected. It was probably thanks to a new formula. My thin frame and weak legs didn’t let me stay standing.

We both crashed to the ground. Her on top of me. Despite the hard knock her knees had to have taken, her smile didn’t lessen in the slightest.

“You were gone for so long!” Despite her voice being so soft, I clearly heard her excitement. “I missed you so much.”

“It was only a few hours longer than I thought.”

“Any time at all is too long. Can’t you stay at home when you leave?”

“No. That’s not what other people do.”

To my surprise, Thoth responded before Toxx could, tapping her side of the television with the end of her wrench. The flat screen wasn’t glass, but it still clanked like it was. “You aren’t other people. You are Janus. And I agree with Toxx. It just isn’t safe. I know you say that it’s just work or just the bank, but people frequent those place. People aren’t safe. If something like today happens again—”

I shushed her, clamping my hands around Toxx’s ears.

Thoth didn’t look impressed. “She isn’t stupid. In fact, after today’s session, I think she should be on par with an above-average fourteen year old.”

“No matter how old she gets, she’ll always be my little sister. Just like you are. And Dice as well. Speaking of which…” It was a bit strange that the second oldest of my three younger sisters had yet to make an appearance. She usually came running right alongside Toxx when I walked in the door.

Yet there was no sign of her.

Gently sliding Toxx off me, I got to my feet. “Dice?” I called out.

From the corner of my eye, I watched the television screen go dark. Toxx took a step away from me, hands finding the hem of her black dress, wringing it like she did whenever she got nervous. Neither sisters’ reaction was a good sign.

Sighing, I walked over to the opening Toxx had recently skidded around. The dining room and kitchen.

I froze in my tracks at the sight of a charnel house. That explains the smell.

Blood poured off the dining room table. Long sticky drips resisted gravity before the thin strands snapped and the droplets splashed into pools on the floor. A hand, severed, rested on one of the placemats. A slit from the wrist to halfway up the hand had been expertly cleaned, exposing muscles and tendons and bones. To its side, a leg had been cut open in much the same manner. A torso, waist to neck only, was right in the middle of the table. A large Y-cut dominated the chest. Flaps of skin had been pulled back and the ribcage had been cut open. A beating heart had been propped up on an altar of forks while both lungs gently inflated and deflated.

“Wha—” I was speechless. Torn apart as it was, that could only be Dice. I recognized my sister’s body. “Dice?”

The hand still attached to the torso lifted up, offering me a wave.

At the same time, the television at the head of the table flicked on. Thoth’s workshop was back to normal and she looked none the worse for wear. “Now now, before you get too angry, there are extenuating circumstances.”

“Extenuating circumstances?” I shouted. “Dice is in pieces on the dinner table!”

“Toxx’s session today included an in-depth distillation of surgery and anatomy.”

“But the dinner table? Couldn’t she have used the bathtub?”

Toxx’s wringing of her hands increased in intensity as she refused to meet my eyes. “T-The bathtub isn’t an operating table.”

“Neither is the dinner table!” I couldn’t help but shake my head at the insanity of it all. “It’s so unsanitary. Normal people don’t cut open their sisters on the dinner table.”

“I think you spoke four words too many, brother dearest,” Thoth said, flashing a grin filled with sharp teeth.

I ignored her. “And where is Dice’s head!” Dice’s legs were sitting on one of her chairs, but her head was nowhere to be seen.

“T-That’s the other reason I couldn’t use the bathtub. An experiment is already taking place there.”

“An experiment.” My voice was flat as I looked between Toxx, who had yet to come around into the dining room proper, and Thoth, who just shrugged on the screen.

“We know Dice can’t drown, so I was wondering if sicking her head underwater would make water come out of her lungs down here. If so, we could use her like a purse! Stick all kinds of things in her stomach and just pull them out of her head as we carry it around.”

Despite the mess, I had to raise my eyebrow. “And?” Some people had portals. They could do similar things like jumping in one and popping out of another some distance away. So it wouldn’t be entirely out of the question.

But Toxx was shaking her head. “Didn’t work. Otherwise water would be flooding the dining room at the moment.”

“Thank goodness for the small things,” I said with a sigh. There were no buckets around. Toxx had clearly not prepared for her experiment to be a success. And she hadn’t prepared for the blood either. “I want you to go upstairs and get your sister’s head. You will march straight back down here and start putting her back together. Then you both will clean up every drop of blood. Only then will I start dinner. And if it is too late, you will be going to bed with no food.”

Her bloody eyes nearly popped out of her head. “No food?”

“Not a crumb.”


“Better hurry. I’m going to bed by ten.”

Toxx sucked in a breath. She looked like she was about to cry, but I didn’t give in. As I pointed at the stairs, she took off, climbing the stairs with both her hands and feet.

Once she was out of sight, Thoth had the audacity to chuckle.

“And you should have stopped them. Dice is a child. Toxx a teenager. But you should have known better.”

“Aww, but I’m the youngest. Barely a year old.”

“And I’m four years old. Age means nothing in our family.” I looked from her to the table and shook my head. What a mess. “Is Ares awake?”

Thoth turned her head away from the television, facing back into her workshop. The spring in her step made her wild hair bounce as she moved over to one of the dials on the large wall of controls. “Looks like he has been asleep for an hour now. Would you like me to wake him?”

“I should tell him I’m home and safe, but… No. Let me know if he wakes before I go to bed, otherwise I’ll tell him in the morning.”

“Speaking of being safe, I was being serious earlier. I want you to leave one of yourselves home, Janus.”

“It’s not—”

We aren’t normal. And we shouldn’t have to hide who we are. The heroes don’t,” she said with a sneer. “And neither do the villains.”

“It will put us in too much danger. There are too many people who would kill us to get at Mother and Father’s devices. To get at us. In a few years, when Dice is at least an older teenager, we’ll discuss it again. We’ll have a proper meeting. I promise.”

“Will we be able to survive that long?”

I blinked, looking at Thoth’s unusually serious expression. “What?”

“I mean your job. It isn’t making much, is it? If I only had more parts, I’m sure I could help, but we’re spending everything on food and medical supplies for Ares.”

My surprised expression softened. Of course she just wanted to help. It was perfectly understandable. I was frustrated myself at how little I could do. None of us had identities or background. We were people who had sprung out of nothing. No social security number. No birth certificate. No parents. I was lucky to have found a place willing to hire me. I was pretty sure my pay was coming from somewhere less than legitimate. My coworkers all seemed to have filled out employment forms. I hadn’t.

“Don’t worry. My probation period is almost up. I get a raise when it ends. An extra thirty cents per hour.”

“Drops in the ocean.”

“And Toxx… she’s almost a proper teenager. Mentally speaking. Teens work, don’t they? We can surely find something she could do.”

“Another low paying job like yours?” Thoth’s blond hair shook back and forth on the screen. “There is no hope for us if we continue like we are. We’ll either be slaves to the lowest of jobs or we’ll be found out. The latter will happen eventually, but I would rather not have it happen while they’re still undergoing constant sessions. If something happens to the machine, and to you… to Ares…”

No matter what, moving Thoth wouldn’t be easy. It would never be easy. Ares as well. Neither of them were mobile. If someone did attack our home, I would have to fight them off tooth and nail or risk losing my siblings. Having both Toxx and Dice in a mentally adult state of mind would help a lot with any theoretical defense.

“All the more reason to increase our income. Get me more equipment. Get Ares some help, if Toxx can’t find a solution. It would—”

Thoth fell silent. Dropping the goggles from her forehead back to her eyes, she looked off screen. A moment later, two giggling women came rushing down the stairs.

Well, one giggling woman and one giggling freckled head.

“Hi Janus!” the disembodied head said, short red hair still dripping with water. Behind me, the body waved an arm.

Now that the subject had been brought up, Toxx had a really good point. How was Dice speaking when her larynx was across the room? Not to mention the lungs, which were on full display with the ribcage pried open. There had to be some connection.

But, ignoring all that in favor of greeting my adorable little sister, I smiled right back. “Hello Dice. Did you have fun today?”

“I got to sing underwater! It was all wavy when I looked up.”

“I’ll take that as a yes.” She said it with such enthusiasm, how could I not. “Now get yourself put back together so that I can get started on some food.”

“Hurry, Toxx!”

Dice had barely started speaking before Toxx rushed over to the table. Setting Dice’s head down started the process of her reattachment. Skin closed up like some ethereal hand was pulling a zipper closed. The blood that her body had been pumping out didn’t go anywhere. They would have to mop that up.

Smiling, I watched my sisters as they quickly took to getting everything tidied up. There was only a little complaining going on. Food was a wonderful motivator.

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Dead Language 001.007

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“Hi mom, dad. I… um… I don’t exactly know where to start. You probably have a lot of questions after my last video. I’m not sure I was all that articulate. Hah, a linguist not being articulate with her words.” Dorothy smiled, but it didn’t stick around for long. “Alice says that we’ll be in a location soon where I can make a live call to you, but until then, I wanted you to know that I’m alright and to not worry about me, so you get this video! Which will probably only make you more worried, but I’m getting off track.

“Oh! Alice is my new boss, by the way. I guess I could start there. I have a job! I am a translator for a company called, uh, Raven Defensive Systems Incorporated. Alice even opened me a Swiss bank account. I thought only rich people had those! And then she went and deposited ten thousand dollars for my first paycheck. I haven’t even done anything yet. It’s a company that travels all around the world and does odd jobs for people, so translation is kind of an important thing for them. I’m actually on a ship in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean right now, heading to—” She cut herself off as Alice started waving her hands in the background. “Oh. I guess I’m not supposed to say.”

Her shoulders slumped as she let out a clipped sigh. “I suppose you’re really wondering about that thing I mentioned last time about overhearing something about an assassination. I still can’t tell you anything about it. In fact, it might be even more dangerous. Something I overheard or something they think I overheard led to them chasing me halfway around the world. I was in Mexico when they tried to attack me again. Telling you what I heard might put you in danger, so don’t ask. It’s the same reason why I’m not coming home. I don’t want to put people into danger and this company has the resources to protect me. To be clear, they offered to drop me off at home. I chose to stay here with them after they explained the situation.

“Anyway, I just wanted to let you know that I’m safe. We’ll talk soon! Love you.” Dorothy managed to keep a smile for all of the five seconds it took to shut off the laptop’s recording. She remained frozen for another ten seconds before dropping her face into her hands. “That totally sounded like a ransom letter.”

Alister nodded from where he sat, empathizing. The difference between kidnapping and impromptu protection often came down to phrasing. Getting that phrasing on the protection side of things wasn’t the easiest job in the world. And that was all before bringing in people who weren’t the ones in need of protection.

“As long as you know. That’s the important thing.” Alice leaned over and started compressing the video down to a sendable file size. “You can talk to them and convince them in time. Besides, you’re nineteen! Moving out on your own! Time to throw your parents behind you and live your own life!”

“Is that what you did? How you got here?”

“No,” Alister said before Alice could fill her head with nonsense. “She still calls her mother after every mission. And she’s only eighteen.”

“Your mo- You’re younger than me?”

Alice narrowed her eyes, shooting Dorothy a dangerous glare. “Are you saying I look like an old lady? You better be careful with your answer. I’ll have Gideon throw you overboard.”

“She won’t.” Alice turned her glare on him, but he just ignored it. “In any case, I’ve taken the liberty of ordering you your own set of body armor so that you won’t have to use Holly’s in the case we’ll need it again.”

“We’ll supply anything you might need for a mission. More than that, including extra armor, weaponry, clothing, toiletries, makeup, so on and so forth, all that will be up to you to buy. When we’re in port, we can go shopping. If you need harder to get a hold of things or things in an emergency, let me or Alister know and we’ll have it delivered as soon as possible either to a port or flown in if the situation requires. In addition, there is a limit to how much I’ll allow aboard. The Lunar Dial has limited space, after all.”

Dorothy fell silent for a moment before looking over to Alice. “I can understand clothing and the like, but will I really be needing armor and weapons?”

Alice stood despite Doc’s orders, walked around the table, and closed the laptop so that she could look directly at Dorothy. “I’ll be honest with you. This isn’t a safe office job. I’d like for you to be able to just sit on the radio and translate whatever needs to be translated to the whole team, but sometimes that isn’t feasible. Sometimes I would prefer my translator to be out on the field. And then there are days like yesterday. I trust my instincts. I trust my instincts and I trust my men. I don’t know what would have happened if we had left you on the ship today. Maybe nothing at all. But I had a bad feeling about it, so I brought you along and things turned out like they did. No one seriously hurt. That is a good day for us.”

Dorothy fidgeted uncomfortably in her seat, not quite looking away from Alice, but not quite looking her in the eye either. For her part, Alice hadn’t blinked. She was leaning forward, watching Dorothy with an intense stare. Alister didn’t interrupt. It was a rare occasion when Alice got serious. She didn’t even have the slightest of smiles on her face at the moment. He didn’t want to do anything to jeopardize it.

His restraint was all for naught as a wide grin blossomed on her face. “You did lie to your parents though.”

“What? About what?”

“We’re not in the middle of the Atlantic. We’re headed for the Panama Canal. The Peruvian government has a mission for us. A top commander has been captured by the Shining Path—a guerrilla organization fighting for… well, whatever people fight for around those parts. The point is, the government intelligence reports that this commander is to be executed in fifteen days. They’ve asked us to get him back.”

“Oh. Is he a good guy?”

Alice shrugged. “That’s a question for the history books. We’re just here to make money. Since Peru is a mostly Spanish-speaking area, you can sit this one out and think about how exactly you want to work for me. Of course, you won’t get paid for missions you don’t participate in, but the ten thousand in your account should get you by for a time. Not a long time. Trust me, it will go by faster than you’d think. But relax a bit for this one. Maybe talk with some of the crew and see what they all do.”

Dorothy was silent for a long moment before she slowly nodded her head. “I’ll- I’ll try that.”

“Good! Now, I have some shiny new guns up on deck that I haven’t even gotten to look at with how busy we’ve been.” She pointed a finger up in the air. “Alister, carry me!” Alister promptly grabbed the crutch from where it was leaning against the wall and thrust it out to Alice, only to get an annoyed click of her tongue in return. “What good is having minions if they won’t even do what I say? You’ll carry me, won’t you Dorothy?”

“I uh…” She glanced from Alice to Alister, eyes seeking some sort of help. He just shook his head. “That wasn’t in my job description,” she eventually said.

“Nor mine.” It was a good answer. Somewhat witty. Just the kind of thing Alice liked: People to play into her nonsense without actually giving in.

“Fine.” Alice snatched the crutch from Alister’s hand. “Oh it hurts,” she said in a flat tone of voice as she hobbled to the door. “My poor leg hurts so much.”

“You don’t know the meaning of the word.”

Alice waved her hand dismissively. “Details.” Throwing open the door, she stepped out into the narrow hall. The meeting room was on the same level as the hangar and infirmary, but the new gun emplacements were actually a level up. Which meant that Alice had to try climbing steep and narrow stairs with her crutch. Despite her bemoaning, she was following Doc’s orders and keeping all weight off her leg. Because she was following Doc’s orders, it took almost a full minute just to get to the second step.

By the third step, Alister took pity on her and helped her the rest of the way up. He didn’t carry her, but he did let her sling an arm over his shoulders. With his help, they made it to the top in about the same time it had taken her to climb the first step. Carrying her would have been faster, but he wasn’t going to give her the satisfaction right after she made a big deal about it.

Up on the deck, two of the engineers were standing around the new gun emplacement. It was a tall thing. Maybe twice the size of a regular person. The first half was a gunmetal grey matching the rest of the ship. A huge drum sat beneath a long Gatling barrel. On top of it, there was a tall white tube with red stripes and it looked like a big Tylenol. Ewan, one of the engineers, had his hand inside the machine’s frame as the barrel spun just to his side. Loading ammunition into the drum.

“Any problems?” Alice called out as she hobbled up to it.

“No ma’am! Just getting her loaded up.” Dominique, who was never seen far from Ewan, answered with a suddenly straight back. She didn’t salute. Most people aboard the Lunar Dial were former military in some form or another, but not all. In some people, he could see a desire—or maybe more of an instinct—to salute those in charge. But Alice didn’t care for it. In the case that someone did salute her, she had never once returned it. “We’ve already finished with the one on the front of the ship. It is hooked up to the ship’s systems, loaded, and ready to go.”

“Excellent! Though I hope it isn’t actively searching for targets at the moment. I would hate to shoot down… much of anything, really. Especially with us heading to a high traffic area.”

“Not unless we push the button. It is monitoring for targets, but won’t open fire without authorization unless said targets are both on an intercept course and traveling at a speed or are close enough that it would not be fast enough to activate said button before the target hit. If you don’t like that, we can disable it entirely. I also recommend shutting the guns off entirely while in ports or at the canal.”

“I won’t tolerate any accidents. Disable it for now. I’ll speak to the captain about getting a few people trained up in operating the things. After that, we’ll reconsider. Get to it, Dom.”

“Yes, Ma’am.” Again, Dominique almost saluted. It was just a little twitch of her arm before she took off toward the front of the ship. She was still new, having only been recruited a few months ago. She would get over it with time.

Alice watched her leave before turning her attention back to the Phalanx. She watched the loading process with rapt attention, eyes following the spinning barrel before darting to the chain of bullets being fed into the machine. “These,” she said without turning her head, not really talking to anyone in particular, “should keep us safe from additional missile attacks. They cost a pretty penny, as the saying goes, but it should be worth it. Not to mention how much it costs to replace the ten or fifteen seconds of rounds fired by the two miniguns. If these can shoot down a missile using even three fourths the amount, they’ll have paid for themselves after only shooting down a hundred or so missiles.”

“I hope we don’t have to make them pay for themselves.”

“Me too,” she said, voice barely audible. After a moment with nothing more than the whirring of the bullets being loaded, she spun around on her heel and looked between Alister and Dorothy. “We’ll be arriving in Panama in a few hours. From there, ten hours through the locks. You’re free to… whatever it is you people do when I’m not around.” She stared for just a moment before hobbling across the deck, heading toward the stairs to the bridge.

Alister watched her go for just a moment, wondering if she would actually make it up the stairs without putting her foot down, before turning to Dorothy. He couldn’t help but notice how Alice had only started the compression on Dorothy’s video. While she might remember later and send it off, it would probably be for the best if he just took care of it. “As usual,” he said, starting off toward the meeting room, “come find me if you need anything.”

“Right. I’ll just… Where does Tatyana usually hang out?”

His footsteps faltered. Opening his mouth to say something wound up with him sucking in a bit of saliva, prompting a light coughing fit. “Why, uh, do you want to know?”

“I thought I would thank her. Her hum—I assume that was some secret code—warned Alice in time to save me from that first bullet. Alice did say to talk to the crew too.” Looking up at him with concerned eyes as he continued to fully clear his throat, she tilted her head to the side. A sudden look of shock crossed her features as she put a hand to her mouth. “Oh! I never thanked you. And after you jumped between me and him right before he—” She cut herself off with a light wince. “Right before the end. Thank you. I don’t know how to show my appreciation, but I do appreciate what you did. I guess call me if you need something translated, though I suppose that’s my job now so it wouldn’t really be a be much of a thanks.” She scrubbed her fingers through her curly blond hair, scrunching up her face in thought. “I’m really no good at this.”

“It’s fine. I was just doing my job too, so if you thank me by doing your job, we’ll be even.” He put on a reassuring smile, though it felt somewhat strained. “As for Tatyana, she usually maintains the weapons down in the armory in her spare time. Or exercises.” There were other times when she went missing, but Alister had never actually looked in on what she was doing during downtime. “But why don’t you talk to Gideon first?” he added as fast as he could. “He’s the one who trains everybody on the ship, whether they need it or not.”

“I’ll think about it, but I would still like to thank her first.” Dorothy skipped off toward the same stairwell they had come out of, but paused at the top of the stairs and turned back. “Thanks for telling me,” she said with a bright smile before heading down the stairs.

Alister tried to return the smile, but didn’t quite manage. Luckily, she didn’t stick around to see his frown.

“Hey, dae she know about that bitch?” Ewan asked, stepping down from the cannon.

“I told her that we weren’t exactly friends, but didn’t go into further detail. I didn’t want to frighten her as I thought she wouldn’t be aboard the ship for any length of time for it to matter.” Alister paused and glanced over his shoulder. “I should reprimand you for referring to a coworker in such a manner.”

“Come off it ya bawbag. You feel the same way.”

“Regardless of my personal feelings, Alice insists on at least a modicum of respect between the crew. There are others aboard who were once not exactly friendly with us.”

Ewan let out a loud guffaw. A fairly sarcastic one at that. “Aye, but how many of them have blown up our old ship? Look, all I’m sayin’ is don’t come cryin’ to me like a wee babe when ya got to scrape her body off the walls. Av no sympathy for you.”

It wouldn’t come to that. Would it? No. Tatyana had actually said something back to Dorothy when she said something in Russian. That was more than Gideon got out of her. That must mean that she liked her. Which might just be worse.

“Anyway. Gun’s all loaded. Got to do some calibrations. Ear pro or might want to run away a wee bit.”

“Go ahead,” Alister said, heading to the stairs. He needed to get down to the armory and… idly polish he gun or something.

If he just so happened to be present in the room while Dorothy was thanking Tatyana, all the better.


Author’s Note:

So that’s Dead Language arc 001. Hope you all enjoyed it. Sort of an ‘and the adventures continue’ type ending there, but it was always meant to have more to it. However, I’m not going to post any more of this particular project at this time.

Next week on Thursday will be an update post. It’s a bit earlier than the monthly schedule I’ve been keeping since new year’s, but it keeps the every Thursday schedule that I’ve had with Dead Language. In that update, I’ll talk a bit about what I’ll be posting next. I already mentioned it, Vacant Throne, in the previous update, but there will be a little more info coming up.

Anyway! See you all then!

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Dead Language 001.006

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“She’s sleeping,” Alister said, closing the door lightly. The heavy metal doors of the Lunar Dial weren’t exactly meant to close silently, but he still tried so as to not wake Dorothy. Gideon sat just outside, reading a book in a chair that he had dragged out to the hall. He was still fully armed from his own excursion out into the city. A precaution Alice had insisted upon. There really wasn’t so much space in the cramped vessel walkways for him to be fully geared out with a chair, but Alister didn’t complain. It might be necessary.

“I was convinced that she was an insomniac from how she wandered about the ship at all hours on the way over here.”

“Well, she’s had a rough day.”

“She’s not the one who got shot.”

“She isn’t a soldier. Bullets whiz past us every week and we barely blink an eye by the next evening. Alice is… Alice. Dorothy is just a young girl. A civilian barely out of high school.” He shook his head. “Try to keep that in mind. She is more of a guest aboard the ship. Someone to be escorted for her safety. That doesn’t mean that she’s a prisoner. However, Alice doesn’t want anyone seeing her. She doesn’t think we have any traitors aboard given that nothing happened between here and Gibraltar, but we’re still taking care. No one outside the Core is to be seeing her.”

“Yeah, I heard Alice’s orders same as you. No need to repeat it all to me,” Gideon said, looking back to his book. Another one of his regency romance novels. Alister had tried reading one once on recommendation. The thing was so dry and… relationship heavy. He had barely made it a paragraph in before wondering if the whole thing was some sort of practical joke. But they were one of the few things that Gideon actually seemed to enjoy, so he wasn’t about to rain on the old man’s parade. Though he almost commented when Gideon pulled out a small cigarette from somewhere on his person and hung it on the edge of his lip, where he just left it as he turned a page. The old man never made a move to light it. A wise decision given the temper tantrum Alice would throw if he actually started smoking aboard her ship.

Speaking of… “Where is Alice? Still in the infirmary?”

“Last I heard, Doc was tearing her a new one.”

“Of course.” Alice had been walking around, putting pressure on her leg, and otherwise agitating her injury. Precisely the things Doc hated to hear. “I’ll leave you to it then, though I might check up later.”

“Yeah, yeah. Even an old man can handle guard duty,” Gideon said, turning a page.

Alister left the curmudgeonous old man behind, heading up a few levels until he reached the closed infirmary door. He knocked twice and waited until he heard Alice shout out that it was alright to enter. He opened it to find Alice lying on an operation table on her stomach without a scrap of clothing on. Scars of varying shapes and sizes covered nearly her entire body from her shoulders down to her feet. Her forearms and hands were wrinkled and red with the remnants of ancient burns. Somehow she had managed to keep her face almost completely free of damage. There was just a little scar that ran from her eyebrow back toward her hairline that she normally kept covered either with sunglasses or her black hair.

Doc sat at the foot of the table, just finishing wrapping up her leg in some fresh bandages.

“A full inspection?” Alister said as he stepped into the room and closed the door behind him. Nothing in the room was anything he hadn’t seen before. Anytime she was even suspected of being injured, Doc had to give her a full rundown. Alice literally couldn’t tell if she was injured without seeing the wound. Her body didn’t register pain at all. Frankly, it was a wonder she had survived childhood. Most of her scars were from before she had even turned eight years old. “There was only the one bullet wound, right?”

“Better to be safe than sorry. Half the time, she doesn’t report an injury even when she knows she has one.”

“Half the time, I have more important things to do than get stripped down and looked over for ten hours.”

Nothing is more important than your body’s wellbeing,” Doc said with a firm tone. “I swear, we’ll pull your body out of a morgue locker one day and it will still manage to rise up and say ‘I’m fine.’ Now, I don’t want to see you walking until I say so. If I do catch you walking, or anyone else does,” she added with a pointed glance toward Alister, “I will sedate you for a full month if necessary.”

A throaty giggle from the corner of the room stole Alister’s attention away from the operating table. There were a few bunk beds pressed against the wall, one of which had someone in it. “Holly? What are you doing here?” She should have been healed enough to sleep in her own bunk in the crew quarters.

“What?” Her voice came out with a heavy rasp, like she had smoked for the last sixty years despite being only thirty-one. “These are more comfortable. And more private.”

“Don’t talk,” Doc snapped. “You’re agitating your throat. It isn’t fully healed yet.”

Holly stuck out her tongue at Doc’s back, but leaned back in the bunk bed and did a poor job of pretending like she wasn’t paying attention to them. Alister just shook his head. If Alice thought her presence was fine, he couldn’t really argue. Instead, he moved around Alice’s operation table to the adjacent one, the only other one in the room. It was occupied, but not by a person.

The sniper rifle Tatyana had liberated from its former user sat atop, propped up on its attached tripod. It was short, maybe around half the length of the KSVK, with its box magazine set behind the trigger. Though the actual magazine was detached. The chamber was open as well with a zip tie shoved through it, showing that the gun was empty as well as holding the chamber open. It wasn’t a model that Alister recognized. Upon noticing the rounds, he found himself more confused.

He picked up a cartridge and looked it over. The tip was copper coated, much like the one Alice had picked up at the warehouse. Fairly standard so far. But the casing was odd. Rather than the usual brass, it was painted a brown color. And the cartridge, slightly larger than a standard 5.56 NATO round, was lighter than it should be for its size. “Steel?”

“It’s a Chinese rifle,” Alice said. “QBU-88.”

“Chinese? What’s it doing in Mexico?” China did export weapons, both above and below the table, but most of those weapons stayed around the Middle-East and Asia. North Korea, Iraq, Syria. Turkey was really as far west as they got. His first thought was that the assassin needed a weapon on the cheap, but there had to be a number of American rifles around that not only would be cheaper because of their availability, but would fire rounds much more prevalent in the area.

“A decent question. It wouldn’t be too strange on its own, but there are several other things that make it even stranger.” Alice sat up on the table, pulling a thin teeshirt over her head. She almost hopped off right after, but Doc pressed a hand to Alice’s shoulder and gave her a death glare. It was the one thing that could make Alice look nervous. She edged away from the doctor ever so slightly, though made no move to try to hop off again. “I think we can both agree that the assassin was trying to kill Dorothy. The bullet came nowhere near Rafael and was clearly not going to do any real damage to me. Or anyone else around. It’s either that or he was an exceptionally poor assassin.”

“No. If it was just the one shot, I might have believed it. But, at the very end, he was aiming for Dorothy, not for you.”

Alice nodded her head. “My thoughts exactly.”

“Couldn’t it have been mistaken identity?”

Doc whipped her head around. “Holly, I will sedate you as well.”

“It is a valid question,” Alice said, pulling attention back to herself. “I don’t think so. My evidence is that Dorothy was covered up like Alister and Flash while I had on a dark suit. I was obviously speaking with Rafael, not her. I have black straight hair and she has wavy blond. If he mixed us up, he is an even worse assassin than if he had simply missed me.”

Alister shook his head. “No. You weren’t the target. If it wasn’t obvious from afar, you getting in his face with a medical kit should have clued him in.”

“So the question is: Why is she being targeted?”

“Isn’t that related to how you two met in the first place?”

“She told me everything that she overheard and I don’t think she’s the type to lie. It sounded like nothing more than an assassination attempt on my brother. The details of which matched up with an attempt that he thwarted while we were sailing here. Now, maybe they were just holding on to a grudge.”

“Halfway around the world seems like a fairly long way to keep a grudge.”

“And the assassination on my brother was probably doomed to fail anyway, though the perpetrators might not think so. He’s dealt with things that make what Tatyana tried to do to me look like two school children having a mild disagreement. From the way he tells it, this was a simple bomb-instead-of-a-client switcheroo. Not even a backup sniper attempt for when the bomb inevitably failed.”

Deciding not to comment on anything she had just mentioned—for madness laid that way—Alister focused on the primary topic of Dorothy. “They must have thought she overheard more than she actually did.”

“There is another interesting, and strange, point in all this. The language the assassin spoke. Dorothy mentioned Nahuatl, which, annoyingly, is not spelled how it sounds. I looked it up. Nahuatl is spoken by nearly two million people, most of which are in the Mexico-Central America area.”

“So you were able to translate what he said?”

“No. I don’t think it was Nahuatl at all. I tried getting someone to translate it only to get back nonsense and confusion. My theory why ties back into Greece. The whole reason Dorothy listened in on that conversation that got her in trouble was because it was being spoken in an odd—an old dialect of Greek. Being a nascent omniglot, she got excited and wanted to go talk with them to learn it until she picked up on enough key words that she could translate to realize what they were talking about. At which point, she panicked. I think the assassin’s words were a similarly unknown or obscure language.”

“She was just going to go up and talk to random strangers in a foreign country?”

“It’s how she learns languages. She researches a bit to get some vocabulary down, then she seeks out people and talks to them. Usually people on the internet. This was her first trip outside North America, she was planning on staying in Greece for a few days then head over to Italy, then France, then Germany, and finally end her first European tour in the United Kingdom.”

Alister didn’t bother asking how she knew all that. If she said it, it was probably true. What a terrible way to start her vacation. It sounded like a bad case of worse luck, just stumbling across people talking about an assassination. Then she got shot at, sailed across an ocean, and got shot at some more.

The idea of some international assassin’s guild that exclusively used obscure dialects to talk in public spaces was laughable at best. There had to be something more to it than that. But regardless of how they operated, they were dangerous and had resources. The black and white ship that had attacked them when leaving Gibraltar was enough evidence of that. In retrospect, it had likely been targeting Dorothy rather than Alice or the Lunar Dial. But unless Alice’s information network turned up something soon, there wasn’t much good in throwing around every possibility that occurred to them. There were more immediate things to worry about.

“So, theories aside, what do we do with Dorothy now?”

“If this was a one-off thing and thought they were going to give up, I’d say that we should send her back home.” Alice paused, looking at Doc then Alister. “I had been mostly joking about her being a new member of the crew, though it would be nice to have a universal translator aboard. But they have invested a significant amount of resources in trying to take her out already. The assassin even tried to finish the job rather than opt for medical aid, which he desperately needed.”

“It is possible that he would have been killed if he failed anyway.”

“Which just means that these people are serious. Dropping her off in America might just be a death sentence.”


Author’s Note:

Character Page updated.

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Dead Language 001.005

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The destination warehouse was a half-hour drive outside Tampico. They had to cross through the entire city all the way from the port just to get to the city limits. The entire journey was taking a fair amount longer because of having to go in the opposite direction to pick up the cases from Francesca, though they were getting close now.

In the end, Flash and Tatyana were sitting in the back of the covered truck with the cases. Even had she not brought half the armory and even had Flash not brought an entire backpack of hopefully unnecessary explosives, the truck’s cab just wasn’t designed to hold five people. It really wasn’t even designed for three people, but both Alice and Dorothy were on the smaller side. Which was helped by Alice’s relative lack of gear.

Despite her orders to prepare for war, Alice looked the same as ever, wearing her black suit and leather gloves that matched her hair. Her suit hid an AR500 plate, but she insisted that it not be overly visible. She did have a set of shatter-resistant sunglasses on, but they were designed more for their slim, sleek style than any real protection. As the face of the company, in her words, it was important to meet clients face-to-face rather than hiding behind bulky gear.

Alister had often said that it would be hard to meet with clients when she had a bullet through her skull, but his words fell on deaf ears. Not even Gideon could convince her.

Dorothy was the exact opposite. Despite his best efforts, she still looked like a little kid going skiing for the first time with the bulkiest clothing possible. It was actually a bit worrying. The truck’s air conditioning was not the best and Mexican summers were not the kindest to people in heavy gear. He had to make sure that she stayed well hydrated as they drove out away from the city.

“How about Code Talker?”


“A term used to refer to Native Americans that served in the United States Marine Corps who used their native language as unbreakable encryption. At the time, absolutely no one outside of the Americas knew Navajo, and other location-specific languages. No books had been published. And even if the Axis Powers captured one of the Navajos, the language was switched around and coded in a way that wouldn’t make sense unless they had the right key.”

“I’ve heard about code talkers. I am a linguistics student and I have recently studied Navajo and Cherokee—”

“I know.”

“How do you—” Dorothy cut herself off, pinching her eyes shut and gritting her teeth. “What do code talkers have to do with anything?”

“A nickname for you.”

A beat of silence passed in the cab before Dorothy figuratively exploded—an important distinction when Flash was around. “Are you still on about that? I don’t want to be Code Talker!”

“You’re right. It is a bit of a mouthful. How about just Talker?”

Dorothy threw her arms up in the air. “I don’t want to be anything.”

Alister’s sigh of exasperation turned to one of relief as he turned down a long and lonesome road. A flick of his eyes toward the GPS mounted on the dashboard confirmed his thoughts. “We’re here.” Though that wasn’t quite accurate. They had to get to the end of the road first. As long as it stopped another argument before it could get noisy, he didn’t really care about such minor details.

The building at the end of the cracked pavement was an old warehouse. Brick, though heavily worn down from the erosion of time. It had a few large windows toward the top of its high walls, but most of them were no longer intact. Planks of plywood nailed from the inside kept the weather and prying eyes out. It clearly wasn’t going to be used to hold the cases for long. Not that it mattered much. Once they dropped them off and got paid, the owners could toss the merchandise into the ocean for all he cared.

He did note a few guards. “Two men outside the destination,” he said, activating his headset to alert both Flash and, if she understood, Tatyana. “No visible armor, but both are armed with what looks like M4s.” It was a bit hard to tell at this distance, but M4s and AK-47s made up most of Mexico’s illicit assault rifles, so it was an educated guess.

“Mayhem,” Alice said into her own ear piece. “Slip away. Find a roost. Keep watch for anything suspicious.”

Flash’s voice clicked over the speaker. “And there she goes.”

Alister frowned. He was going sixty kilometers per hour and hadn’t slowed down just yet. There was a limit to how reckless she could be. Though he wasn’t hearing cries of pain or Flash commenting on her broken body, so she must have made it out alright. It was a good thing that the truck was kicking up such a dust cloud on the poorly maintained road or she would have been spotted without a doubt.

“I hope these are friendlies,” Alister mumbled mostly to himself as he finally slowed down.

“They aren’t shooting yet. Since we called ahead, they should be expecting us.”

“Can they really just walk around with guns like that?” Dorothy said. Her voice was curious, but had a notable tremble to her words. “What if someone sees them? Won’t they call the police.”

“I don’t think there’s anyone around to call. Look at the buildings we’re passing. Every single one looks abandoned.” As Dorothy glanced around, Alister shot a look at Alice. “How do you want to handle this?”

“Nothing has changed. We knew we would be meeting people here. Just pull up and let me do the talking. They’ll probably have us pull inside the warehouse while we unload. That’s fine with me, though back in and keep our engine running. If we have to make a quick getaway, I don’t want to be bothered with one of your famous twenty-three point turns.”

“Fair enough,” Alister said. Resting a hand on Dorothy’s knee, he tried to give her a reassuring pat. “Don’t say anything, no sudden movements. Remember, if something happens, keep your head down and the rest of us will get you out of here.” He mentally groaned as soon as he finished speaking. It really did sound like they were kidnapping her.

Still, they had a job to do. He proceeded to follow Alice’s orders. Sure enough, after some words exchanged between her and the guards, which Alister didn’t understand, she directed him around the side of the building. A number of loading bays lined the wall, set up for delivery trucks. None looked like they had been used recently. He backed right up against the open bay so that they wouldn’t have to hop up and down while unloading.

“Stick by my side,” Alice said, taking Dorothy’s hand as she pulled the latter out of the passenger side of the truck.

As instructed, Alister left the engine running as he hopped out of the driver’s side door. One of the guards was eying him as he made his way to the rear, but the guy never readied his rifle. Alister never liked making deliveries like this in person. Dead drops were so much safer. Meeting with people always ran the risk of something going wrong. Whether that was betrayal at the last minute, a traitor in the organization, or just some fool with an itchy trigger finger—drug runners were not well known for their gun discipline. Thankfully, betrayal was unlikely. If word got out that this group was shooting the messengers, no one would deliver for them again. It happened now and again, but most groups like this relied on some measure of trustworthiness to remain in business.

Two unarmed people were already moving the crates, carrying them one at a time between the two of them. They didn’t take them far into the warehouse, just around the corner of the open bay door. Flash stood by, watching, probably glad that he didn’t have to help out. He had certainly complained enough while they were transferring them to the truck from Francesca’s lifeboat. Alister kept walking until he reached Alice and Dorothy. They were deep in a rapid-fire conversation in Spanish—or Alice was, Dorothy was trying very much to look like she wasn’t nervous and was failing miserably. The main speaker was Rafael Cervantes of the cartel of the same name, though he wasn’t the overall leader. He was the proper contact though, according to those Alister had spoken with on the way to Mexico. Alister only caught a word here and there, but things looked like they were going well. Both Alice and Rafael were smiling. They weren’t the ‘I’m going to kill as soon as we’re done’ smiles either.

Despite everything going well and the unloaders looking like they would finish not even five minutes after pulling up, Alister still kept tense. Maybe it was a bit of Flash’s paranoia. Maybe it was Alice’s feelings from earlier. Maybe it was just his own instincts. Something was wrong.

He scanned over everyone. The leader, happily chatting away, his guards, looking almost bored and hardly paying attention to anything as if this was nothing more than routine for them, the unarmed unloaders, scurrying back and forth without looking around much. Try as he might, he couldn’t find anything that stood out as being problematic.

Just as he was about to dismiss the feeling as a figment of his imagination, his ear piece buzzed to life with a clipped, single note hum from Tatyana.

Alice reacted a moment before he could, picking up a leg as she spun around. Her roundhouse kick caught Dorothy in the stomach, sending her slamming against the side of the truck. A sharp crack split the air in the very same instant, sending a splatter of red against the sandy ground behind Alice’s leg. With nothing more than an annoyed click of her tongue, she activated her headset.

Alister moved before she had a chance to say anything, not that it stopped her. He barreled into her, half tackling her to the ground. She had just been standing there with blood dripping down her leg, in the open, right where whoever had shot at her had demonstrated was within their sights. Once they hit the ground, he shoved her beneath the truck. On the way, she shouted out into her headset. “I want him alive, Mayhem. You hear me? AL-I-VE,” she sounded it out like she would to a toddler. As soon as she was under the truck, he threw open the door, hoping to use its armor as an extra barrier for him, Dorothy, and Alice.

Confusion was the most dangerous thing on the battlefield. Bullets could be mitigated with armor, cover, concealment, and counter-fire. Even if someone got hit, a single bullet was rarely deadly. Dangle a string from the forehead to the waist. If it a bullet hit anywhere along the string, instant death. Anywhere else and there was time. Maybe not much time, in certain places, but time nonetheless. No, confusion locked people in inaction. Confusion pointed people in the wrong way, putting them in line to get hit by enough bullets to put them down. Worst of all, confusion spread like a disease, infecting everyone nearby.

At the moment, that infection was spreading to the Mexicans. In the time it took to use the truck as makeshift cover for him, Dorothy, and Alice, Rafael and his bodyguards had barely moved. What little they had moved was mostly to aim their guns toward the only people in sight while Rafael dove to the ground. Namely, they pointed their weapons at Alister.

“¡No dispares!” Alister shouted. He might not be able to carry on a conversation in Spanish, but there were a few phrases that were good to know in as many languages as possible. ‘Don’t shoot’ ranked only slightly higher than ‘Where is the bathroom?’

Thankfully, Alice took over with a shout of her own. “Él no es uno de los míos, pinche tonto. No tendría mi propio francotirador disparándome.”

A second crack echoed through the street, punctuating Alice’s words. This one was much louder, more like thunder than the the previous one. It was a much more familiar noise. Tatyana’s KSVK. Unfortunately, despite knowing that it hadn’t been aimed in his direction, the familiar sound didn’t bring much relief. Too many bad memories.

The two guards who had their weapons pointed at Alister reacted by diving for cover with their boss. It was a slow reaction, again. If Tatyana had been aiming at them, she would have had plenty of time to hit both of them before they moved. But no bullet struck nearby. There was no puff of dirt, no thunk of it hitting the truck. At least they hadn’t fired on him in their panic. Alister counted himself as lucky for that alone.

There was a distant cry of pain coming from somewhere around the rooftops down the street.

“Ударь его,” Tatyana said. Simple, clipped, and Alister had a decent idea of what it meant.

Even still, better to err on the safe side. He pulled up his SA80 and aimed down toward the rooftops where the cry had come from. The roof looked clear. That didn’t necessarily mean that it was clear. He kept his eyes open, scanning along the tops of the abandoned buildings for any sign of movement. He wished he could move to a spot with a bit better cover, but with both Dorothy and Alice behind him, he needed to stay put.

Though the latter was trying to get out from under the truck. Alister moved to keep her under, but she just grabbed his hand and used it to pull herself out.

“It’s fine,” Alice said. “She got him.”

“There could be more.”

“If there were more, Tatyana would still be shooting.”

“Maybe they’re inside the buildings.” He could already tell the direction this argument was heading.

“Through the boarded up windows?” she asked, shaking her head as she rolled out from under the truck.

He hadn’t taken his eyes off the buildings, but a quick glance over every window in sight showed that she was correct. They all had pieces of half-rotted plywood nailed over each one. “They could have small peep holes we can’t see from here or…” Alister trailed off. She was shouting something in Spanish again, which got a response from one of the Mexicans around the back side of the truck. Rafael had lost every ounce of his earlier jovial attitude.

Alice, still talking, stood and planted her feet in a matching set of footprints. She started looking around the ground for something and found it only a moment later. She plucked a bit of crushed copper and steel from the ground next to the loading ramp and turned it over in her gloved fingers.

Gritting his teeth, Alister threw one final glance over the rooftops, ensuring that no one was likely to take a shot at Alice in the next few seconds. He threw open the passenger door and grabbed the first aid kit from under the seat. “You alright Dorothy?” he asked as he started pulling out antiseptics and bandages. “Dorothy?” He didn’t think she had been hit, but her lack of response… He paused what he was doing and knelt down next to where she sat behind the truck’s open door.

She was shaking. Violently. Alister was worried about a seizure, but her eyes were wide open and alert. “I’m sorry,” she mumbled, under her breath. It was barely a whisper. She hadn’t screamed or panicked aside from an initial yelp when Alice kicked her, but that was more from surprise than anything else. “Sorry.”

“What are- Oh,” he said as he noticed. Holly wasn’t going to be happy. “I should apologize. I shouldn’t have made you drink so much water. But you aren’t hurt, are you?”

“I-I don’t think so.”

“Good. Then everything else can be cleaned later. Don’t worry.” People who did get shot would often fail to notice right away unless they got shot in an easily visible spot. It was a shock thing. However, she had no blood anywhere on her that he could see and there had only been two shots, one of which had been Tatyana’s and the other had hit Alice’s leg.

The leg she was currently standing on. “What are you doing?” he said, turning away from Dorothy. Alice was balancing on her injured leg with her other up in the air like she was frozen in the middle of her kick. She kept staring between the bullet marks in the ground, her leg, and the distant rooftops. Her eyes flicked down to a second set of footprints directly in line with the three points. The footsteps dragged off toward where Dorothy was sitting against the truck. He opened his mouth, but a single look from Alice kept him from asking the question on his lips. “You need medical attention,” he said instead.

“It’s a flesh wound.”

“You have a hole in your leg.” Alister didn’t let her argue any more. She had silver tongue to win verbal arguments, or at least the stubborn tongue, but he had the upper body strength to pick Alice up and set her on the passenger seat of the truck. He immediately set to rolling up the leg of her suit pants. She had a meaty hole in her calf and the surrounding area was already turning a nasty shade of purple. Thankfully, it was a relatively shallow bite rather than a straight puncture, only taking out a small chunk of flesh and muscle. Unfortunately, it was bleeding. Blood ran down her leg, soaking into her sock and shoe. Her dark clothes were completely covered in the yellowish dirt. She hadn’t bothered trying to brush herself off, though it probably wouldn’t have helped.

“This was a new suit too,” Alice said with an clicking her tongue. “But I’ll survive.” She tried to hop off the seat, but Alister pinned her in place as he cleaned the wound. “We need to find the shooter. Mayhem had better not have killed him. I have some extremely pointed questions to ask him,” she said with a flick of her eyes toward Dorothy.

“Я привожу его к вам. Не знаю, как долго он будет жить.”

“What did she say?” Alister asked. “Dorothy?”

The girl jolted at being addressed. “I uh, she said she’s coming here and doesn’t know how long he’s going to last?” She shuddered and, if possible, paled even more than she already was.

“Oh. Good,” Alice said, ceasing her struggles. It was much easier to dress her wounds when he didn’t have to keep one hand pressing her into the seat.

“Sorry boss, I got captured.” Flash stepped around the back of the truck, up on the elevated loading platform. His hands were on his head and the barrel of a gun was peeking around the side of the canvased truck back.

Alice immediately set off in another slurry of Spanish, but at least she was remaining seated for him to try to stifle the bleeding properly. “They’re not exactly trusting at the moment,” she mumbled. “I hope Mayhem gets here quick. Even if the guy is dead, they’ll have someone else to be angry with.”

Alister kept his hands visible as he worked even though no one had actually stepped around the truck. Having someone with a gun to their head was bad enough. He didn’t need any misunderstandings making things worse. Pulling a roll of gauze tight around her leg, the self-adhesive kept it stuck in place. She still needed a proper visit with Doc, but at least she wouldn’t be bleeding out before then.

Tatyana marched up a moment later with an extra sniper rifle slung over her shoulder and a man dragging behind her as she pulled him along by the leg, leaving a long trail of blood in their wake. He was shouting out at the top of his lungs. Not anything articulate, just cries of pain. It didn’t take much to figure out what he was shouting about. His right foot was hanging to the rest of him by a thread. There was a hole large enough that Alister could clearly see the mangled bone where one of Tatyana’s anti-material round had hit in almost the same spot as where Alice had been hit. Flinging him around, Tatyana moved to step on one of his elbows. His other arm had one of Tatyana’s knives buried deep into the shoulder.

“Who are you?” Alice said as she hopped down from the truck. “Who are you working for?” When he didn’t respond, she tried again in Spanish. He had the right skin tone and general characteristics of a local, but he still didn’t respond. She tried again in German and French to the same end. Finally, she marched back to the truck and grabbed the first-aid kit. Dangling it from its strap, she let it swing back and forth in front of his face.

While she tried to get something out of him, Flash approached a little closer along with a few of the clients. Two of them were now pointing their guns at the downed man, but one still had his rifle at Flash’s back. The leader of the group actually stepped away, moving closer to Alice with a pistol drawn and aimed at the guy’s head.

“Tell me,” she said, kneeling down to practically shove the kit in his face. “And I’ll think about tying a tourniquet around your leg.”

That got a reaction out of him. He spat. Or tried to. It was more like a bloody dribble leaking out from the corner of his mouth along with a dislodged tooth. Sucking in a wet breath, he said something. A phrase. It sounded like Spanish to Alister, but Alice quirked her head to the side with an eyebrow raised. He said a few more things before letting his head fall back against the yellow dirt with a low laugh.

“It’s a child,” Dorothy said from behind everyone. She still hadn’t stood up, but she had slid along the ground a little closer. “A Uto-Aztecan derivative.”

“You understand him?”

Dorothy shook her head. “I think it is Nahuatl, but I’d need to hear—” She cut herself off with a shriek, flinching away as she raised her arms to cover her head.

In the one second that Alister had taken his eyes off the sniper to look at Dorothy, the would-be assassin had pulled a gun from somewhere and held it in the same arm that had a knife through the shoulder. Tatyana had apparently not disarmed him thoroughly enough and now that gun was pointed at Dorothy. Alister dove to the ground, putting himself between Dorothy and the gun.

A third crack rang through the air as soon as his shoulder hit the dirt.

He didn’t feel a thing. He hadn’t taken a bullet through the mouth. His arms were fine, aside from being a bit sore from throwing himself to the ground twice in the same day, he hadn’t even felt something hit his vest. Looking back, Dorothy was unscathed. No bullet holes. No blood. The shot had missed… Or…

A thin trail of smoke left the barrel of Rafael’s gun. Alice kicked away the sniper’s pistol, but it didn’t matter anymore. The failed assassin had a hole in his head the size of a two quid coin.

Alice didn’t look happy. She scowled down at the dead man before turning her scowl on Rafael. Alister could see an argument form on her lips, but she managed to hold back. She smiled and nodded before saying something in a conversational tone of voice. Rafael repeated it and the guard with a gun to Flash’s back aimed down toward the ground, though Flash kept his hands on his head for a few extra moments before finally dropping his guard.

“So, uh, what happened? I was being held hostage the whole time in the back.”

Alister shook his head, ignoring the man as he inspected Dorothy. “Let’s get you into the truck before anything else happens.” She nodded without a word and used his offered hand to pull herself off the ground. Her knees just about gave out, sending her clinging to Alister’s waist for support. He couldn’t help but notice just how much she was shaking. This life was not for everybody. Clearly, it wasn’t for her. And yet, that assassin had been aiming for her in his final moments and had almost certainly been aiming for her with his initial snipe.

Just what had she done to warrant that?

“There are four crates left to unload,” Alice said, addressing all of the Lunar Dial crew. “Then we are leaving. XO, get Dorothy in the truck. Flash, Mayhem, get in the back. I’ll be in momentarily.”

“Come on,” Alister said, helping Dorothy get into the passenger seat. She was a bit damp still, but that was just something they all would have to deal with. Being behind the bullet resistant glass was the safest place for her if people really were trying to kill her. Yet she clung to him, not letting go even after getting seated in place. “It’s alright,” he said. “This truck is armored. We’ll be safe inside.” It wasn’t a complete truth. The underside was better than nothing, but he would still be concerned about driving over any kind of mine or IED. Still, if the assassins had bombs, they probably would have used them on the route over here. They clearly knew where to set up, after all.

That the Rafael and his cartel goons hadn’t opened fire during the confusion meant that they almost certainly hadn’t known about the assassin beforehand and weren’t working with him. Unless, of course, Rafael had killed the assassin to keep him from talking. Possibilities that could be considered later when they weren’t right next to so many potentially unfriendly guns.

He pried off Dorothy’s vice grip and made his way to the driver’s seat. He didn’t have to wait long for Alice. Soon enough, they were on their way. Dorothy, still trembling and clinging to Alice’s offered hand. Alice, staring off out a window with a deep scowl on her face. Alister just tried to keep an eye out for any suspicious objects or mounds near the roads as he drove them back to the city proper.


Author’s Notes:

“¡No dispares!” — “Don’t Shoot!”

“Él no es uno de los míos, pinche tonto. No tendría mi propio francotirador disparándome.” — “He is not one of mine, stupid dick. I would not have my own sniper shooting at me.”

“Ударь его,” — “Got him.”

“Я привожу его к вам. Не знаю, как долго он будет жить.” — “I’m bringing him to you. Don’t know how long he’ll live.”

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