New Guard

The Next Step

“He’ll be here, right?” Reggie’s voice had more worry to it than usual. So many parts that had to go right for this to work. This was important.

“He promised me he’d come, Reg. He’s 100% on board.” Lady Liberty put her arm around his shoulders and gave him a quick hug. “Don’t worry. It’ll be fine.”

Reggie opened his duffel bag slightly to make sure the gift wrapped box was still in there and stood eagerly waiting on the steps of Freedom Hall. He could tell it was cold, which meant it was down right frigid out. The sun was trying to peek through the clouds, but kept getting swallowed back up. A few tourists started to show up and asked Lady Liberty for her autograph and a selfie, but there wasn’t much normal city traffic this early on a Sunday.

Which meant he didn’t have to wait long, as Principal Summers’s car pulled up moments later. Summers climbed out of the driver’s side front door and opened the back so Flora and Charlene could exit.

Charlene looked up and saw Reggie and Lady Liberty and smiled through her containment suit. She then put her fists on her hips and asked with mock annoyance “For the last time ya’ll, what is goin’ on here?”

Flora nervously laughed, jogged to the top of the stairs, and leaned over putting her hand to her mouth. She whispered, “Well, I got them here…it was a bit tricky, but I’m excited”

Reggie cracked a smile. He and Flora fist bumped.

Summers held out his arm and Charlene took it as they climbed the stairs to join the other three. She maintained her accusatory but curious stare on Reggie and Flora the whole way up.

“Mr. Weeks, I assume, given Ms. Madison’s uncharacteristically blunt insistence, that there’s a good reason you’ve brought all of us out here on such a lovely north eastern morning in the middle of December.” Charlene nodded as she patted Summers’s arm in agreement.

Reggie glanced at Lady Liberty and she nodded as he reached into his bag and pulled out the box wrapped in holiday gift wrapping with a large red bow on top. He held it out to Charlene and said “An early Christmas present.”

Charlene let go of Summers’s arm and took the box. She looked at it and then back at Reggie and Flora. “What on Earth is this?”

“Funny choice of words,” Reggie laughed as she began unwrapping the gift.

“So Jeff and Brian brought back some schematics from the alternate earth they went to…”

She opened the box and pulled out a pair of well made silver gauntlets. They were large. They looked like something that would fit Chump and not Charlene.. But they were seamless and each one had a curved touch screen display that form-fit the back of the wrist.

“Flora helped me with the design, so they would be functional but fashionable. The material is lightweight but durable and the circuitry, wires, and conduits run through the silver and carbon fiber mesh. They’re bulky but only as much as they need to be.”

“Yes they’re very impressive, thank you. But what are they?”

“Oh. Sorry, right. Well the schematics they brought back were for the Charlene on that world. They shunted her power into…blah. You know what, that’s not important. What is important is that given the research I’ve been working on the past couple years, and with the help of Brian and the Atom’s, I figured out how to modify them. Look, it’s easier to just show you. Put em on already!”

Charlene loaded one gauntlet at a time into the exchange port on her suit. They barely fit. She pulled her arms out of the sleeves and fumbled with them for a brief moment before slipping them on. “Oh wow they fit perfectly.”

Flora quickly pumped her gloved fist before nervously putting her arms back at her side and stifling a grin.

The displays came to life as soon as Charlene put the gloves on. The fog created by her toxins inside the suit immediately began to dissipate. The look of shock on both her and Principal Summers’s face was priceless.

“Reggie what did you do?” She said nervously, tears beginning to well up in her eyes.

“Now hold on. Don’t get too excited. This isn’t a fix.”

“It certainly feels like one!”

“Go ahead and drop the suit.”

“What?!”

“Mr. Weeks, I trust your skills, but are you sure?” Summers said coolly.

“Tesla Atom checked behind him and helped test them, Duncan. They’re good” Lady Liberty answered.

Summers briefly looked like he was going to say something else but instead nodded and turned to Charlene expectantly.
Charlene took a deep breath and depressurized the suit. She slowly undid the clasps and seals and stepped out into the crisp cold air.

Nobody flinched.

The tears began flowing. Charlene ran up and grabbed Reggie and Flora and squeezed as hard as she could in a long emotional hug.

She stepped back sniffing. Flora handed her a tissue to wipe her eyes.

“Now like I said. This isn’t a fix. The way the gauntlets work is they allow you to control how you emit your powers. But the toxin will still build up over time. You’ll need to discharge them when they get full or…well don’t let them get over full. We’ll just say that for now.”

“Wait where do I discharge them? I can’t let this stuff out!”

Lady Liberty stepped forward and put a calming hand on one of the gauntlets. “There is a storage unit inside Freedom Hall. The Freedom League has agreed to house the toxin and keep it safe for now.”

“Which brings me to the next part.” Reggie said as he looked briefly at the sky. He smiled as the sun finally broke through the clouds and he saw a figure speeding toward them. “This isn’t a sustainable solution obviously. But me and Flora listened that day at the river. You felt alone. Like nobody could help or relate. Well there’s someone who wants to help you find a more permanent solution. Someone who’s been where you are right now. Someone who can help give you that choice of what you want to do with your life.”

Thunderbolt landed in the traditional superhero landing pose with a crack of thunder. He stood up and walked over to the three students, nodding to Lady Liberty. Still looking at the three students he extended his hand out to the side and shook hands with Summers. He looked at the gauntlets and then at Charlene.

“You must be Ms. Hart. I’m Thunderbolt and I’d like to help you.”


Charlene gave Flora and Reggie another big hug, wiping away tears.

“Thanks, ya’ll. Truly.” She looked Reggie in the eye. “You don’t know when to quit do you?”

Reggie smiled. “I don’t like letting my friends down. You’re important. Not just to me, but to a lot of people. And now you get to freakin’ study under Thunderbolt!”

“Yeah I don’t think that’s going to be all laughs and sunshine though, Reg.” She said looking over at Thunderbolt chatting with Summers and Lady Liberty.

“You’ll handle it. You’re strong.”

Thunderbolt broke away from the other two heroes after shaking their hands, and started walking toward Freedom Hall. “You coming, Ms. Hart? No time like the present to start.”

“Comin’!” She yelled to him after mouthing another thank you to Flora and Reggie. She ran to catch up with him giving one last wave as they entered the Hall.

Flora and Reggie fist bumped again and she went to join Summers for the ride back to Claremont. Lady Liberty walked over to Reggie, putting her hand on his arm. “You did goo…”

“Will you go to the Winter Formal with me?” he interrupted.

“What?”

“Yeah I…we did good today. I feel good. I feel like that’s going to be a more and more rare thing in the future. And I know I’m a bit young but I don’t really care. I feel good with you. I like feeling good and I like you. So I’d like to go to the Winter Formal with you and keep feeling good.”

A smirk crossed Lady Liberty’s face. She was about to rag on Reggie but then she saw the look in his eye. The smirk faltered, and a blush took its spot. She looked down for a second, and steeled herself. “People don’t…I’m a target for a lot of hate. You don’t want to be part of all of that.”

Reggie put one hand on her shoulder and looked her square in the eye. “I know. I’ve been online. I’m asking you after I’ve already seen it. Will you go to the Winter Formal with me?”

“Yes, Reggie. Yes.”

View
Dashing Through the Danger Room

Time folds on itself, bending. It’s the 24th as Thad walks into the infirmary of Claremont. Perfume mixes with antiseptic in an unpleasant way to his supercharged senses. From a distance, he can hear Amelia Cero, otherwise known as Miss Kitty, arguing with the nurse.

“I’m fine! Look! No bags under my eyes or anything. Just needed a quick catnap.”

Rounding the corner, he can see the wiry dark-skinned girl trying to escape the Miss Joy’s withering look. Slowly but surely as she speaks, she slides away from her hospital bed toward freedom. Amelia’s cat notices Thad first, and arcs its back in warning, unsure of the greater threat, the werewolf, or the red-headed nurse.

“Thad puts his hands up, woah there brah what’s with all the hostility? I know people think we can’t get along, but do you think you could overlook the being a dog?”

Amelia looks up and scratches Mau’s head. “It’s because you chased him. Cats really know how to keep a temper.” Amelia slinks toward him. “Here, let me show you an old trick to getting on their good side again. All you have to do is…” and with that she leaps out the third-floor window to flea the room. Miss Joy runs up, but Amelia is gone. “Oh, that girl. You students are going to be the death of me.”

Thad looks at the nurse with total innocence and says “what students” and walks out of the room. Thad sniffs the air looking for where Amelia might have gotten to. He had a cat to make peace with. That was totally it, the cat

Following the scent through steel and soil, Thad makes his way to the Next Gen training facilities. A few button presses and he’s descended the many sub-basements. Brightly lit halls branch through the student areas until Thad hits the training room. Opening the door, he sees Miss Kitty ripping off the head of a jingle-bot. Its body chimes a few notes before hitting the floor.

“Hey! You made it! Thanks for the distraction back there.” She rubs her shoulder for a second before noticing he was still there. “OH! Did you want to train, too?”

Thad goes through several new and embarrassing feelings. “Absolutely, we met before with the robot dinosaur incident but hi I’m Thad.”
“Yeah, we fought the dinosaurs together!” Amelia’s happiness gives way to mock indignation. “But then, you chased my cat. A death-defying cat only does so much in the face of being rude!” The sly grin comes back. “How about this, let’s spar. If you can take me down, I’ll forgive you. If I take you down, you have to buy me ice cream, and Mau some regular cream. Do we have a deal?”

Thad shoots his best “let’s play” grin “Seems fair, with powers or without?” In the back of Thad’s mind the gears start turning: wait, do I actually want to win this fight…..of course I want to win… right?

Amelia spins, and as she does so, she takes on a composite human/cat hybridization, with the main outlier being that her hair turned pink. “With powers, of course! What’s the fun of being dull?” Backing up and turning around, Amelia yells out “Computer, play Kitty 3.” At once, the lights begin dimming, rods, walls, and barbed wire begin criss-crossing the large space, and robots can begin stirring as their Krampus protocols activate. Just before the lights go black, Miss Kitty slinks behind a wall saying “Good luck!”

As the lights go out, Thad shifts to dog form, opting for speed and stealth over raw power and begins tracking Amelia. Sinew and bone crack under the change as humanity is replaced with wolf. Computer monitors pick up the sudden surge in heat as organs are filled with fire and power to any other students who may be watching. Nearby, a brassy robot voice goes “Oh ho, no!” In the dark, for a moment, you can see sparks from two sources as razor sharp metallic switches scrape across the floor. Farther away, there are a few sources of light that spring to life, ruining night vision as robotic cats with candles on their head begin prowling.

Ok, got to make a good showing. Thad thinks to himself. I wonder if she speaks dog…. lets see if I can get her to come to me. Thad dodges and weaves around candle wielding cat bots and barks “candle cats are a nice touch, any reindeer?” Thad focuses on Amelia’s scent, and Mau. Quickly, his nose susses out details impossible for the regular human. he can smell that she’s about 40 feet and to the right. She’s on her tail, studying him with her own mystic senses.

Pleased to have found her so quickly, Thad shifts again, Muscle and sinew crack again as Alpha grows in stature and leaps upward, thinking “time for some thrilling heroics, just don’t be moon-moon.” In the darkness, he grabs onto one bot and leaps. He can smell her about 10 feet above him. However, the jingle-bots haven’t finished their tyrannical tidings. Alpha hears the missiles before he sees them. “Dang it Moon-moon”

Rangling Wreaths wrap around our rugged rover hindering his heroics. “Before he has a chance to response, two of the Yule Cats pounce on him. Their artificial feline faces are only more ferocious in the freakish phantasmal candle light. Alpha, feels their razor claws find purchase, treating him as the couch their owner said to avoid. Thad’s armored hide means nothing to these menacing miscreants and you feel the bruise form. Above him, Miss Kitty spins on one of the poles, narrowly avoiding her own problems. “Too slow, puppy! They’re only one Queen of the Jungle, here.”

Alpha burns with humiliation and reaches out for a cat bot. The cat is fast but not fast enough as his claws find purchase. He strains and hurls the cat towards her ledge. “MRWOWR!” Through the shadows Miss Kitty yelps as her ground disappears. For a moment, you see her in the flickering candle flames. There is a bong sound and sudden scratching as she finds purchase on…nothing. Thad hears movement, and then something hits the ground, hard.
But Thad had no time to worry about that, still heaving from the effort, the other cat, wreathed in flame, was still on him, and headbutted him off the ledge. Trapped in the wreaths and facing a giant cat robot, Thad finds himself plummeting, plunging into the dark. The cat’s face starting from the heights.

Thad crashes headfirst into the floor, reeling, and dazed, worse, two jingle-bots are above him. Their bells chime as one reaches down to dash though his face and grams him easily, while the other stuffs him in a sack. What terrible tortures will our hero be tormented with?

Undaunted by his holiday themed humiliation, Thad brings hellfire claws to bear on the sack. Claws ripping through, the wreaths catch the tiny totalitarian toys and they switch from tormentor to tool. Thad not only frees himself from the sack, he also smashes through the jingle-bot. He can barely make out the bouncing Santa robo-head as it sputters down

Panting, you hear Miss Kitty’s adrenaline filled voice in the darkness before you. “Let’s finish this. I’ve worked up an appetite!” Thad roars at her and charges, bounding over the crashed bots with animal glee and preparing to deck some halls. But cats have nine lives, his guttural roar shakes the room. The bots rumble beneath you. As the roar subsides, you suddenly feel her on you as the drop kick comes down and the world goes a little blurry.
Thad awakes a moment later to find himself meshed in barbed wire. Miss Kitty holds up a Yule Cat head and candle between you. “You owe me some ice cream.” Mao lordly crawls out on Miss Kitty’s shoulder and mews in agreement.

Thad shoots her a bruised smile, trying to salvage his dignity, “looking forward to it”

(many thanks to the incomparable Justin)

View
Mau's Closest

Thad walks into his Dorm room and slips off the shower shoes. And notices a scroll on the bed, smelling it before he sees it. Woven reeds and glue, a real world version of the SCROLL he’d found with Magic Mike when they rescued Amelia. He picks it up and unrolls it. Decorated with hieroglyphics and a single question written: “do you chase cats?.” Thad stared at the scroll in confusion. “Yes” he says to no one in particular and feels reality bending around him.

All things considered, it had been a quiet night in Freedom City. The cooler air and delayed sunrises reminded him of home, a home he was beginning to accept he may never see again. After changing into his Claremont uniform, he put on the Apothecary headset to run the sleep compensation routine. There was a blinding headache inducing flash. When Kirby’s eyes refocused the language had shifted to Egyptian hieroglyphics. Kirby felt the air dry and heat up around him, reminiscent of a greenhouse. Without the aid of translation of software it was hard to make out the language but the symbol of a dire cat swatting minute humans with grooming implements was prominent. After a bit of trial and error, he ejected the headset as reality wrapped around him.

Thad and Kirby appear inside a massive vaulted chamber with a ceiling shifting between painted sky and real sky; the floor inlaid with gold in the sacred geometries of the nile. The room flanked by a procession of massive cat statutes. Lions at the entrance to the hall, with each iteration more like a housecat until the last pair, flanking a massive throne. With a very small cushion where Mau sits with regal splendor.

Each of you seeks the affection of the great warrior Amelia, my sacred charge. First you must prove your worth to me. This challenge will require skill and power, only one of you shall emerge the victor. Do you accept?

Thad feels the competition flow through him, the opportunity to win. “Challenge Accepted,” he barks.

Kirby had seen Thad in action a couple of times. He smiled at the situation. “You’ve got the potential to make a great hero” <dramatic> “one day. This will be a great opportunity to show you what can be accomplished with a bit of training and DISCIPLINE. Game on Mau”, immaturity adding “winner gets to ask Ameila to Winter Formal first” Kirby reached out to Thad fists extended in a friendly boxers handshake”

Mau laughed while speaking to no one in particular “All too easy”. With the a shake of his whiskers three anchorless doors materialized. The one on the left door bearing the Lotus sigil of Hapi, the God of the Nile. The center door contained the Eyes of Ra and the Re. The door on the right contained the ivory dagger sigil of Taweret. A golden key with Bastet’s head appeared in both heroes hands.
….

“To win Amelia you must return to me three sacred objects, the keys will grant you passage to the challenges. I deserve the finest of cream; bring me the milk of Hathor’s sacred cows. Through her door you will find her pastures, but beware, not everything there is as it seems. I deserve the finest sleep; bring me the pillow of Tarawat. Through his door you will find his resting place, and those who guard him. I deserve the finest of prey; bring me the laser pointer of RA, the eternal prey that is never captured.”

Thad and Kirby share a confused glance at each other before blurting out “laser pointer of RA?”

“Do not question the glory of the divine objects” thundered Mau, momentarily embarrassed. “The first to return to me with them shall be victorious”

Thad and Kirby bolt towards the doors, Thad towards the Ivory dagger and Kirby to the Lotus.

As they passed through the door, the pattern in the floor changed to show a scale, with an object on each side. Mau stood triumphantly, “but are their hearts lighter than a feather?”

……..

Thad stepped through the door onto a massive reed boat floating on a river. A four poster bed sat on the other side, with stone pillars decorated as date palms. The scent of the Nile in summer filled the air, but he didn’t remember it smelling like this; pristine. A shimmering golden pillow laying at the head of the bed. Thad paused for a moment, “it can’t be this easy” he thought, remembering the adventures he’d had with his friends.” As he prepared to charge across the deck, there loud splashes from all ound the boat and a dozen figures lept from the water onto the boat.

Massive creatures, with human bodies and the heads of hippos landed heavily on the boat. Water glistening off of armor and weapons.

Thad smiled to himself “if it was easy, anyone could do it.” He roared at them, with rage a hellfire sprang from his fingers and burned across his body, leaving a wolf man standing where thad had been.

……

Kirby raced through the door, finding himself on the banks of the Nile River. Waiting on the shore is a clay pot. Carvings of Mau’s head were carved on the jar with a cheshire grin. Sitting by the water is a blue hermaphroditic giant with a false beard. Their tears were filling the river. To Kirby’s visior, no one was there, but an oxen, giving off tremendous heat.

In their hands, they were stroking the ox too bloated to stand. “Please help, my Nefy. She’s in an awful state”.

Kirby realized he was going to have to relieve the calf’s stomach manually. Putting on long rubber gloves he winced and muttered why can’t all our adventures be as easy as robot dinosaurs.
…….

Thad walked up to the bed, shifting back into a human shape. He had extra swagger in his step, the deck behind him littered with the slumped forms of the hippo guards. He gently picked up the pillow and felt the soft linen embroidered with golden thread and gave it a light squeeze, “better than memory foam.”

Another door materialized next to him, the Eye of Ra carved into what appeared to be stone. But it smelled like something else. No time to worry about that, he stepped through the door.

….

The blue giant places a crown of laurels on Kirby’s head. The pain in his head subsides and the hud in his helmet converts back to English. The Ox nuzzled against him, and Kirby pats it on the head.

The Nile’s water shifts from a clear azure to milky white. Kirby fills the jar. The liquid vanishes, and the jar seems to belch. After filling it a second time, Mau’s vigil is replaced with a white a stone cow. A door bearing the sigil of Ra appears horizontal to the ground.

Kirby salutes his host, and then jumps into the door.

….

Thad and Kirby stepped into the chamber on opposite sides. It was massive, easily the size of a stadium with a small temple carved into one end with an obelisk at its center. Thad smelled it before he saw it, a simple gas station laser pointer set into the obelisk. It smelled like Amelia, and that gas station near Wongs.

Thad looked over at kirby and saw a canopic jar in his hand topped with a white stone cow. Thad knew he was resourceful, really resourceful. He wasn’t sure what tricks Kirby might have up his sleeve, but he had to win.

Thad charged towards the laser pointer.

As he did the room shook and a crack seemed to appear in the room between thad and his goal, like the air in front of him had been shattered. It smelled wrong, like it didn’t belong here. A tide of horse sized rat creatures poured through the opening in reality knocking Thad to the side. He skidded across the floor, merely mortal without the wolf, and looked over to where Kirby was. Something seemed wrong, and those ROUSs smelled like someplace else entirely.

…….
Kirby had been crawling the walls of the temple, being careful to avoid setting off any traps. He was inches away from the laser pointer when the crack opened. The rat creatures claws and fangs were covered in iron. Kirby was trying to take stock of their number, missing the ones burrowing through the temple ceiling. One of the rats landed on Kirby knocking him several feet onto the floor.

Several of the Rats surrounded Kirby. He dodged their strikes. As they got closer Kirby noticed their armor bore a graven image. A quick reference revealed that they bore Arimanius mark from Greek Mythology.

This reminded Kirby of Circe and Odysseus. He grabbed the Lotus crown and began soaking it with his remaining sleep darts. Now he just needed something flammable.

Kirby’s defenses began to drop slightly with his hands full.

Kirby landed a kick across one of the ROUS’S heads. It collapsed to the ground. He was hopping to use its body as a barricade, but the vermin swarmed over the fallen creature. Kirby would be consumed by their mass in a matter of moments.

………..

Thad tried to get up and was headbutted by the ROUS standing next to him. He was pretty sure that cracked a rib. Even if he changed he wasn’t sure it would be enough to take them all, Kirby was in trouble too. His semester at Claremont flashed before his eyes. Saving the world, saving his friends, having friends, having friends who didn’t care that he turned into a demon werewolf, having friends who thought that turning into a demon werewolf was cool.

Kirby was his friend.

His friend was more important than winning.

Thad felt something deep inside, a kind of fury he did not know he had. The scream thundered from his throat and hellfire blasted out from him, rendering the rodents around him to ash and smoke.

Thad went to help his friend.

Thad pushed his way through the mass of the swarm, seemingly oblivious to bites and scratches tearing through his fur and flesh alike. The smarter rats broke away from their attack giving him passage. Many of them were to caught up in their frenzy. Thad reached in and clasped Kirby’s arm. “I’ve got you brahh”.

Since the day he got to Claremont , Kirby knew in the back of his mind his destiny had changed. He was abandoned, he would die alone. Never quite meshing with another team. He would help who he could but at the end of the day, damaged goods. Maybe the Gaslighters attack this summer was a mercy, his last chance to get out, a life believing superheroes weren’t real might be better than being eaten by a swarm of ROUSes. Suddenly Kirby started laughing, remembering that he had had at least made some pudding pals. There was probably an Apothecary II or maybe an Apothecary III back home but his pudding was still in deep freeze and Alpha had promised until the last pudding was finished, he would always have pudding pals. That’s when he felt the arm pulling him out of the horde.

Kirby thanked Thad then added “Fancy meeting you here, don’t suppose you have a light”, holding out the soaked Lotus. Thad grasped the flower lighting it on fire.

Kirby passed Thad a gas mask. It was a loose fit, but clean air filled his lungs. The fumes from the Lotus quickly diffused through the room. The ROUSes slumbered immediately. Thad put his claw on Kirby’s shoulder. He repeated “I’ve got you Brahh” and then collapsed.

Kirby looked at the Obelisk, it was slowly sinking. The laser pointer rolled precariously on the altar. Kirby took a step forward smiling thinking about how excited Amelia was when she told him about Chicago. Her favorite patrol routes, and the hidden treasures that proved it is a living city. Maybe she would show him around after the semester break. Doing the mental math he could just make it.

Thad let out an unconscious moan. Kirby turned back to his fallen friend. “I’ve got you too bro”. Kirby checked Thad’s vitals as the Obelisk sank into the ground and the laser pointer rolled into the Abyss. He pumped a large cocktail of healing gel and anti-inflammatory drugs into Thad’s body before waking him up.

“c’mon Alpha, let’s figure out how to get you home”.

Thad looked around at the sleeping ROUSes . “Great job, did you get the laser pointer? Are you okay?“

Kirby let out a sigh, “a couple of brushes, but I am better shape then I would have been if you hadn’t been here”. “take the cream, I lost the red dot”.

“no man, you’re the last man standing, take the pillow”, Thad tried to hand Kirby the pillow.

Kirby laughed,”paper, rock, scissors? “

Before Thad could reply both objects vanished.

Sitting between the two heroes resting on the cushion and lapping up the cream was Mau. “Well done, two out of three is pretty good and you left supper too. One day red dot, I will find a champion that will best you. It always gets away anyways”. Mau smelled both heroes. “Your both more unstable than I thought. You’re anchored to other places. We were almost found by Arimanius. If he gets through, Ameila will have to call in some unpleasant favors for help.” Mau takes another sip of cream, then rolls onto his back, swatting the air. A door appears, matching the door from the chapel. “By the way, you both one the challenge so, unless Ameila asks directly I’ll try not to kill you in your sleep.”

Kirby helps Thad to his feet. “but who gets to take her to the dance? “

Thad added “does she want to go to the winter formal? “

Mau “If Ameila wants to go out with anyone, its not going to be with anybody that would ask out a simple cat to play with strings of love. However, think about her fan fiction, all those friends having Romance and adventure but no Miss Kitty in any of the stories, that seems pretty lonely for someone that qualified to be a member of Nextgen before either one of you had heard of Nextgen. Maybe before she gets asked out, some people who know what it’s like to need a friend should bring her some pudding and remind her she’s coo and not just a mascotl”.

Kirby and Thad continued to ask Mau questions. Most of the time he ignored them, adding the occasional meow if they addressed the door.

Thad and Kirby stepped through the door and into the chapel. The door was gone.

Kirby looked at his and Thad’s brushes. “we’re late for class, let’s see if the infirmary can give us a note. “.

…. To be continued

View
A Walk Down Memory Fragment Lane, Part I
Why can't I hold all these fragments?

Thanks to Eric for assisting with several memories and playing the role of Boomer and Alea.


The shimmering fragments of reality go unnoticed by Deaglan as a door formed before him. It was the door to Coach Boomer’s office, and he was waiting for a response to his knock. A familiar face greeted him when the door opened. “What’s up son? Shouldn’t you be enjoying your time off for the holiday? Spending time with family and friends?”

Deaglan kicked the floor, unsure of how to answer. “Well, they’re all here, so I am? I wanted to thank you though, for helping with my permit!”

“You did all the work, and earned it,” He says with a smile. “I’m just glad I could help.” Boomer reached out, giving Deaglan a pat on the shoulder.

“I suppose. The rules and stop lights are strange, but I guess it makes sense the more I think about it.” Deaglan was holding the permit, fidgeting. “I- uh- who do I need to let know I’m leaving campus for a while? Can’t I just tell you?”

“Depends on where you are going, and for how long, but it’s always a good idea to let the faculty know. Primarily Principal Summers or Vice Principal Dugan would be who you need to ask.” The coach paused briefly, adding “If you’d like, I can go with you, so they seem a bit more approachable, but that’s your call.”

“I would like that. I already upset Principal Summers recently, I’m sure…” Deaglan paused, clearly being secretive about… something. “I was intending on visiting my mother, in Amherst.”

“It’s nice that you want to visit your mother… Amherst, eh? I’m afraid Summers will require that someone go with you after all a two-hour drive is quite the undertaking for a new driver.” Boomer lofted a brow quizzically. “Also, why would Summers be angry at you?”

“Uh, well. I-“ Deaglan’s face scrunched up. Did he play himself? “Some Next Gen Plus and I went on an unsanctioned mission. And, uh…” Deaglan was starting to understand the metaphor for putting one’s foot in one’s mouth.

“Unsanctioned mission? This have anything to do with when Angel got hurt?”

“No!” Deaglan blurted out. “I mean, I’m not supposed to do ritual magics without Kuzkin, but I wasn’t conducting it? So I technically didn’t break that rule? But this wasn’t related to Angel! Though, I told Professor Kuzkin before we left. And Simone told Principal Summers.” Deaglan panicked as Boomer gave him a deadpan expression. “Someone tricked a former student into almost doing something that could have done, uh, ‘bad things’ to our reality, and our homeland.” Dealgan used air quotes unironically.

“I see, and you went to help them, or stop them?”

“To help them.” Deaglan scrunched his brow together, adding more to clarify. “-to not marry a dead king. They trapped her, caught trying to do a heroic thing. Whatever was happening, it was going to start a war with The Fomorians. And I guess the Unseelie Court. Which, my Parent-Teacher Conference substitute tried killing her too… Which-“ Deaglan held back the urge to speak on and on about how awful the Fomorians were, and his training to fight them, and so much more! Alas, he curtailed his tongue and exhaled, reaching an important fact.

“Also, she’s like, eighteen, and he’s ridiculously old. And that’s weird.”

“Easy son, I didn’t mean to pry too much, just trying to get a gauge on just how upset Principal Summers might be is all.” Coach Boomer looks around while he tries to help Deaglan calm down a bit. “I didn’t mean for you to get worked up. With that said, it sounds like you were doing what Next Gen Plus is supposed to do…help people. Summers can’t be too angry about that…”

Deaglan nodded with a sigh. “Alright… Thank you for going to talk to him with me.”

“I’m here to help.”

Coach Boomer smiled, offering him a pat on the back. Reality distorted, and a scowling face replaced the smiling one: His father’s.

Deaglan was smaller. Younger. He had just fallen at the hands of his sparring partner. The training grounds of Magh Meall Garrison were full; various younglings trained under the guidance of the experienced warriors serving the Unseelie Court and its nobles. The fields and garrison architecture bore a grotesque beauty that seemed to match its dark inhabitants, contrasted only by the shining spires that lie Joyward in the City of Silver.

“Get up, Child!” A whip audibly snapped, encouraging the boy to leap to his feet. “You want to serve the Court and fulfill your duty, then you’ll need to do better than letting a Lubber Fiend knock you around!”

Deaglan gritted his teeth as he snapped forward towards his opponent. Step left, strike higher. The fae was close in age to himself, but much, much bigger. Tripping him should do the trick, though. He would impress his father!

Deaglan’s own whip curled about the fiend’s wrist as he rolled behind him. With that little bit of leverage, and a foot planted behind the knee, he should tumble and Deaglan would be fine… Or so he thought.

His opponent did indeed come crashing down, right on top of the smaller boy. Knocked to the ground, he head tumbled away. He was looking straight up at his father. Deaglan swallowed his panic, and the figure knelt down, picking him up.

“Your form is sloppy, and you aren’t thinking. Get up!” Deaglan felt the weight of his opponent lift from him, though he could not see where he went; his father’s disappointed look held his shamed gaze.

The older Dullahan’s expression softened slightly, as he cradled the boy’s head. He spoke quietly, resting a hand on Deaglan’s cheek. “You may think I am hard on you, my Child, but it is only because I love you. I want you to succeed; You will serve a great purpose!” His father’s smile widened eerily. “You mother would certainly be proud of you… Now, will you get up, and show me what you’ve learned?”

Deaglan furrowed his little brow, uncertain of the defiance that was welling within him. He was going to say “Yes, Father,” but he did not.

“No,” he whispered, watching his father’s expression turn to shock. Where once a smile was, a grimace formed, and Deaglan winced as the world spun. He was being carried over to his body.

“You can’t change this, boy. Don’t disappoint me.”

Reality morphed yet again as Deaglan’s head tumbled through white-space, unaware.

Angel adjusted his head onto his neck, and reached up, wiping away a tear. “Deaglan, what’s wrong? Surely this mission doesn’t have you that scared?” He was in Angel’s room, and he needed to be in Kuzkin’s office in about twenty minutes. He had just told Angel that something postponed their date night and that he was Next-Gen Plus. He was unsure why his eyes watered, but it didn’t matter right now. He had fifteen minutes to spend with Angel before he found out what secretive mission Summer’s had planned; he already had a bad feeling about it.

The boy laughed, shrugging. “Ah, I only got two hours of sleep. It’s a little bit less than normal.”

Angel smirked. “Uh-huh.”

The two sat, speaking of plans for the winter formal, and Deaglan giving assurances he would make sure nothing would interfere with their first dance. He learned that she loved Chicago-style pizza, though she lamented it prevented her from going vegan. She learned he loved to race Ciara along the outskirts of the City of Silver where he grew up. They both learned they liked performances and didn’t quite have the singing voice they wanted. Despite that, she was happy with life, though Deaglan expressed interest in finding a voice coach.

Before they knew it, it was time for Deaglan to go. Noah was already knocking on the door, ready to whisk Deaglan away to the theater building as agreed upon. As he stood up, Angel grabbed his hand.

“Hey, don’t forget our deal. Dinner and a movie whenever I choose?”

Deaglan grinned happily. “Yeah! As often and whenever you’d like! I promise!”

His smile faded as reality assimilated a new form, and he was now standing before Alea. They had just finished talking with Twilight and Cybersoul, and he had questions. She was busy packing some of her things from the ritual they had just prepared. She seemed distracted and in a hurry.

“Alea, do you have a moment?”

The distracted half-elf took a moment to respond, at first, not comprehending the question directed at her. “Wha, Oh yeah, certainly. Sorry, I was just thinking about everything that just happened.”

“You mentioned you were going home, to Avalon… I was hoping I could ask a favor of you while you were there.” Deaglan tapped a foot nervously. He was uncertain if he should ask more favors of a Seelie noble.

Alea didn’t seem to notice his nervousness. “Of course, unless it’s to meet with your ’substitute parent’” She barely contained The venom in her voice. “Does she still want to kill me?”

Deaglan turned bright red and looked away. “She already left, apparently with information for my Father… And… Not her, but someone in the Unseelie Court…” His tone was a little indignant, but mostly ashamed.

He exhaled, and he turned back to her before continuing. “I saw parts of my history- past, and future- that I know were true… Like you did before you got caught by Bres. I saw my mother. I saw the deal she made, and how I became what I am. I saw a seam form around her neck, like mine. But it stopped there. I’ve got a million questions, but after asking Kathryn about her, if she was really dead, she was cagey about it.”

Alea just stood there as Deaglan unleashed a torrent of information and emotion. A few moments after, Deaglan composed himself as Alea questioned him. “_’If she was really dead’_ was the biggest part of that statement, wasn’t it?”.

Deaglan jammed his hands into pockets and nodded. “Ah, basically… Yeah. You’ve already done us a favor, and you’ve got your own problems to deal with, but if you ever find anything out about ‘Emily Dickinson’ in Avalon, I would be… extremely grateful.”

“Wait…THE Emily Dickinson? Of whom I had to read in English class?” Alea cocked her head in thought, trying to recall what she knew of Emily Dickinson. “Wouldn’t she be like, 200 now?”

Deaglan rubbed the back of his neck. “Yeah. Closer to 180, but yeah. Father told me much about her, and that he took me to Avalon as soon as he could after Mother died. I only ever saw pictures of her until recently…”

“In your vision of the past, present, and future…” Alea smiled. “That means you might get to see your mother again! That’s awesome. Of course, I’ll look for any signs of her in Avalon!”

“Well, I didn’t see the other vision. Not completely. Just the one of my past.”

“Hopefully this mother won’t want to kill me,” she jokingly quipped.

He shuffled nervously after her joke. “The other vision looked… unpleasant.” His sullen look faded as an idea struck him. He fished around his pocket, producing a few gold coins in his palm. He held them out to her with a barely concealed grimace as smoke sizzled and seeped from his palm where the coins made contact.

“For any Dullahan’s, on your travels.”

She took the coins, giving him a reassuring smile that there would be good news. At least she hoped. “You have my word, if your mother or any information on your mother is in Avalon, I will find it.”

“Is there something I could help you with? Here?” Deaglan offered hopefully.

The implication of his question brought forth a steely expression. “I would appreciate all the help I can get on finding my father, but I don’t know where to begin.”

“Perhaps you can find something I haven’t even thought of, but be careful. You and the rest of Claremont’s still in danger. You need to keep your focus on that. Promise that you won’t lose sight of your current predicament to focus on finding my father. Your help is appreciated, but not at the expense of your life!”

“Certainly, but every day at Claremont isn’t fraught with peril. I will have time to look, but certainly not at the expense of others. You have my word, for what it’s worth.”

“Thank you Deaglan. Truly, thank you.” Her features soften a little after realizing that she would not be alone in her quest. Somehow it seems a little less insurmountable.

The boy smiled. “I should be thanking you. It should be easier to focus on what’s ahead.”

Alea crumbled away with the rest of reality, and the stale scent of the theater yielded to fresh air. The West Cemetery in Amherst was quiet, however, the occasional tourist walking through disturbed the silence. Coach Boomer had let Deaglan wonder into the graveyard alone, mentioning that he had someone near he meant to visit. He wasn’t sure if he believed the coach, but he was grateful nonetheless.

He stared at the gravestone, wrought iron bars creating a barrier between him and it. He supposed it was to protect the site, but it made viewing an inconvenience. He wanted to reach out and touch it, sit against it, hope for some insight, another vision, but that was wishful thinking. Besides, clamoring over the bars would draw attention; right now, he just wanted to be alone.

Being here was surreal for the boy. Only a couple weeks ago, he had seen his mother- what she really looked like!- for the first time. And now, he was standing at the place of her burial. It was proof of her absence or her death, but it didn’t feel right. Not after what he saw. Not after what Kathryn the Red told him.

Deaglan recalled bits of the memory he could remember. It was 1885. He was naught but a babe, feverish from typhoid and unable to breathe. The shadow. The fly. The deal. She had made a deal for his own wellbeing. He was unsure of what exactly the deal was, but he knew it cured him… and changed him. Was he only human at the time? Was his Father even his true father? He touched his neck, recalling the shadowy line that formed along his mother’s neck when she took the deal.

There were more questions than answers, and he wanted to be held. He wanted to forget the warmest memory he didn’t know he had.

Reality surged around Deaglan, leaving the lost boy standing in a hall of mirrors. It was a couple weeks ago, and Deaglan’s friends and himself were on a mission to save Alea from the worst possible wedding ever. To his left was the reflection of his mother, holding her sick child and preparing to bargain; To his right was his future, a dark reflection of what he would become. Deaglan felt himself reach out to the left, but he resisted. It would be different this time; he would look at what he was expected to transform into, and deny it. He couldn’t change the past, but he could decide his own future.

Deaglan swerved right, seizing the dark reflection.

View
Trust, Always
MC avoids making a terrible mistake

MC sat with Jeff on the bleachers, watching Aaron and Beat Hazard running around the track. It was a beautiful fall day, and she felt content, with the sun on her face. She pulled her phone out of her bag and sent Zoe a text.

MC: How were your classes this morning?

Zoe: What do you mean? We just had class together.

MC looked at her phone in confusion, panic flooding her body.

Zoe: I can’t wait to see you later

The vision of Zoe ignoring her calls and texts, Zoe kissing someone else replayed in her mind and her confusion morphed into hurt, and then anger. She stormed off the bleachers, DJ Kodiak following her, growling as well. She didn’t even care who saw him at this point.

Suddenly Sophia materialized in her path, holding up her hands. “I get that you’re hurt, but you need to stop.”

“Why should I?” MC shrieked, obviously irrational. “Of course this was going to happen! I was so stupid to think this was going to work!”

Sophia rolled her eyes. “MC think about it, you know she wouldn’t do this to you, she is crazy about you. This is probably not what it looks like.”

“But…”

“It can’t hurt to see what she says right? Don’t you owe her that?” MC paused, feeling guilty. Sophia was probably right, she just needed a minute to cool down, and think about what she was going to say. She jumped as her phone buzzed, indicating an incoming call from Zoe.

“What do I say?” She looked around wildly.

“You invite her to come over this weekend. This is not something you do over the phone.” said Sophia gently.

With a trembling hand she put the phone to her ear. “Hey. So, how would you feel about coming to visit this weekend?”

Once the call is over MC notices a new tattoo on Sophia’s arm, that says Trust Always in flowing script. How long had that been there? “Okay, so now what?”

“Go back and join your friends. Do whatever crazy mission Summers has for you. It’ll keep your mind off things. Oh, and if Kate texts you about the dream journey, let her know you’re in.”

“Why? Is it important? Will it help us figure out what’s going on with Adnan?” MC asked.

“Yeah, something like that.” Sophia says casually.

“Okay, sure, anything I can do to help. And…hey thanks for helping me get my head on straight. That could have gone really badly.”

She thinks she hears Sophia say “You have no idea”, before she disappears.


It’s Friday evening, and MC has her headphones on, working on a new song to try to distract herself from being nervous. That’s why she saw Zoe before she heard her, as she ran over and wrapped MC in a hug.

“I’ve missed you!” Zoe says happily. “I’m so glad that you invited me.”

I missed you too MC started to reply, but instead she asked, “How was your trip?”

“It was okay, but I’m really hungry.” Zoe says, dropping her duffel bag.

MC turned turned away to grab her jacket. “Yeah, okay, do you want to go off campus or…”

Zoe put her hand on her shoulder. “Hey, why won’t you look at me? Is everything okay?

MC took a deep breath. Might as well get it over with. “I wanted to talk to you about something. I’m not accusing you of anything, I just…need to know what this is. I’m not saying it’s true, deep down I know it’s not true. Just tell me it’s not and I’ll believe you.” Saying this out loud released some of the anxiety she had been feeling.

She pulled up the texts and handed Zoe her phone. “Please don’t get mad.”

Zoe scanned the screen, trying hard not to be visibly upset. “I didn’t send these. You know I would never cheat on you. I don’t understand, what’s going on?” At this point, MC noticed the dark circles under her eyes, and just how exhausted she looked.

MC took the phone back and make a point of showing her that the texts had been deleted. “It’s nothing. Well, it might be something. I think someone might be messing with me, messing with us. I’ll deal with it. As long as we trust each other they can’t win.” MC took her hands and looked her in the eyes. “I trust you Zoe, always.”

They stood that way for a moment, until Zoe started to relax. “Okay so what do you want to eat?”

“Can we order takeout?”

MC smiled. “Yeah of course we can.”

View
No Such Thing as a Bad Doughnut
Except that red one...

A grand thank you to Marisol for this collaboration! Note that this occurs sometime soon after Session 2 of Season 3


Deaglan’s phone beeped incessantly, drawing his attention from his homework. Reading over the first few lines of a debate, his interest was piqued by something he’s yet to discuss, but has heard plenty of in passing.

CASPER CHAT
Reggie “Dunkin! We do coffee not quite as good as starbucks and donuts nowhere near as good as anyone else!”
Reggie “#hardtruths”
Daniel “Last time I went to Starbucks I ordered large ice chai latte and the kid behind the counter gave me a Grande hot chai.”
Daniel “Don’t even get me started on their stupid trendy naming system. And I heard they’re coming out with a a trendy sounding extra large That’s “unironically” called Trenta…”
Jeff “Trenta and short have been around forever. just most people order tall, grande, or venti.”
Jeff “I have ran into locations that didn’t have (or were out of) short cups, so that might have gotten phased out? it’s rare I want that little coffee these days”
Deaglan “Coffee?”
Twilight “It’s the most useful liquid on earth, Deaglan”
Reggie “Please name me something Dunken does that someone else doesn’t do better. :) :) :)”
Simone “Strawberry frosted donuts, you jerk!”
Reggie “No. False. Objectively.”
Deaglan “Rebel-Friend, can we teleport around and we buy these doughnuts and coffee from each location?”
Reggie “Yes. Do that. Then you and I can run to the good places. xD”

Deaglan watched the indicator that another student was typing a reply. Suddenly, a dark gray elf-looking girl appeared by his elbow, shrugging into a leather jacket and fiddling with a small device in her hand. The next second, an ethnically ambiguous teenager stood in her place.

“I’m down; Golden boy over there is being a di-I mean, being a jerkface, and doughnuts are amazing. Let’s get out of this lame school for a while. Ready?”

Deaglan jumped a little. He still wasn’t used to that. He grinned, and put his head on straight. “Yeah, sure. What did golden boy do?” He held out a hand, waiting for the spontaneous jump.

“Ugh. He got all high and mighty about trying out alcoholic drinks, even when I can siphon it from people after they’ve drunk it. Like we’re all going to turn into drunk drivers and aren’t being “good examples” to the public. It’s like he’s a 37-year-old dad yelling at his kid.”

As she grumbled, she reached out and grabbed Deaglan’s hand, ready to make the jump. As they felt reality fade to nothing, then charge back in as they materialized in the afternoon shadows of the alley next to a packed Dunkin’ Donuts, she shook herself off and grinned.

“Enough of that. What do you want to try first?”

Deaglan shuddered from the sudden warp, and his eyes widened a bit, forgetting they were going into public. He touched his ears, and they rounded out under his glamour, and after he was confident the seam at his neck was hidden, he shrugged in Simone’s direction. “I’ve had doughnuts once? This is a fact finding mission! So… a little bit of everything, I suppose?”

Deaglan was not prepared for the options that would be presented to him. “What would you suggest?”

Simone made a chagrined face, “Sorry, Deegs, I should’ve made sure you were ready to be off-campus. I got distracted complaining. Let’s see…the strawberry frosted one are delicious, but so are the simple glazed. Maple frosted is tasty, and so is the chocolate cake one. Oh, by the way, none of these taste like the fruits they’re named for, so uh, don’t expect strawberry to be strawberry. It’s more strawberry-esque. I’m pretty sure the jelly filled ones are just called red flavor.”

“No worries. I should have figured that out when you popped up!” Deaglan tilted his head. “Sooooo, strawberry… -esque? Can we just ask for an assortment then and maybe avoid the, uh, red one?” They walked around the corner, making their way into the doughnut shop. Deaglan inhaled, his nostrils filling with sugary scent.

“You’ve got to embrace the confusion in this world. Let’s get a variety, plus the red one. Maybe you can figure out what flavor it’s supposed to be.” Simone headed into the shop, getting in line behind a gaggle of children in baseball uniforms, chaperoned by their exasperated parents trying to figure out who wanted which doughnuts. One mother, hair escaping in bedraggled curls from a knit cap as it slid further off her head every time she bent down to tie a shoelace or separate scuffling teammates, glanced back at the two teenagers. Gesturing them ahead of the group, she whispered, “Go, kids…you’ll never get a bite if you wait for this pack of hyenas to get theirs first! Get some while they’re still fresh!”

Deaglan quickly glanced from the woman to Simone, before offering her a thank you and a grin. The two approached the counter, returning the cashier’s greeting. His tag read ‘Geoff’, and his face read ‘bored’.

“What can I help you two with today? Would you like to try the Triple Chocolate Pumpkin Swirl Donut?”

“Sure!” Deaglan responded enthusiastically. “And could we get an assortment of doughnuts too, including a re- uh, jelly-filled one, please?”

“Plus a medium coffee, double cream double sugar,” Simone added, a look of assessment on her face as she studied the knit cap lady, who was now mopping up a bloody nose of a kid who just ran face first into the refrigerated drinks door. “With the lid on.”

“Oh, yeah! I’d like one of those too, please!”

Deaglan fished in his pocket for some bills, producing several Canadian dollars, British pounds, and a silver coin, before finally producing a few American twenties. He laughed nervously, muttering something about “travelling lately” before handing the cashier the money. After receiving his receipt, he dumped the change in the tip jar before hurriedly turning away, giving Simone a small grimace. “The pocket acts up, sometimes… I learned what a Yen was a few days ago!”

Smothering a smile, she nodded back at him. “I can imagine that’d be…educational, at least.” Taking one of the cups of coffee, she focused back on the knit cap lady, now waving her hands in frustration as the kids start doing a dance called “The Floss,” which rapidly devolved into them kicking and punching each other through the dance moves. As two other parents finally stepped in to break up the mess, the coffee disappeared from Simone’s hand and reappeared in knit cap lady’s, who glanced at it in distracted astonishment before frantically drinking it down.

“She looked like she needed that,” Simone murmured as they managed to maneuver their way out of the doughnut shop.

Once out the door, Deaglan turned his head back a bit further than it should, eyeing the gaggle of children. He gives Simone a concerned look. “Is that, like, a normal human family size or some odd training regiment?”

“Kind of both, in a way. It’s a sports team with a bunch of parents volunteering to teach the kids and keep them from killing each other. It’s supposed to train the children in teamwork, reflexes, agility, sportsmanship, strategizing. All the things they were just failing at.”

“. . . Do we have a doughnut eating team? Is that a sport?” Confusion slowly begins to set in on his face.

“I mean, there are competitive eating contests, but it mostly seems to involve shoving food into their mouths to eat as much as possible in a period of time. It looks kind of terrible. Those kids are supposed to be playing baseball, from the look of their uniforms. It’s like when we play ultimate frisbee, only almost totally different. Pretty sure the parents left the baseball bats in the cars to avoid even more chaos.”

“Huh… I always thought baseball bats were just common weapons… That explains the ‘baseball’ part of baseball bat…” He shrugged, sipping his coffee. “Though, I think I do remember Reggie mentioning baseball once, last year.”

He held the doughnut box to her, offering first pick. “Speaking of which, I guess that argument of alcohol was what caused the doughnut disagreement this morning?”

Simone glances in at a strange, dull-brown looking one. “That’s a new flavor.” She tore it in half, offering the other piece to Deaglan. “It’s…pumpkin? Pumpkin spice?” She chewed the doughy mess for a while, then looked back at the shop. A second later a bottle of water appeared in her hand. “I left the money on the counter, don’t worry. It’s too chaotic for them to notice anything right now. This is not one of their better offerings.”

Deaglan shrugged in response, implicitly trusting the statement.

As she washed down the dry bits of vaguely cinnamon-flavored doughnut, she nodded glumly.

“Yeah, he’s really pissed off about this and said some pretty weird stuff. It was like he thought I was this totally different person, someone who would put people in danger just for fun, you know? So I lost my temper at him and stormed off. We really haven’t talked since then, besides sniping about doughnuts.”

“Well, the quickling is pretty fast in general. Maybe he’s quick at jumping to conclusions as well?” He plucked half of a chocolate frosted cake doughnut, savoring the sweetness. He made mental note of how it looked, already planning a trip back.

“But,” He continued, “Maybe he’s been dealing with something lately? These last few weeks have been pretty eventful, and I’m still pretty rattled from, uh-” He paused momentarily with a frown.

“Training day,” he lied. “We all had those visions. Maybe he saw something that spooked him?”

Simone paused as she looked up from the doughnut box, holding the coveted strawberry frosted one aloft. Something in his tone…then she saw his face.

“Deaglan, what were you really about to say just now?” A nearby stone wall, holding a bit of warmth left from the afternoon sun, offered a handy place to sit and talk. “Something’s bothering you, and it’s not the visions.”

He plucked the strange, round, doughnut from the box, eyeing Simone. “I mean, the vision did bother me, but…” He bought himself time by taking a large bite of the doughnut. Red jelly hung out from the doughnut, and his eyes widened by betrayal. He scrunched up his face, looking for a near trashcan to spit out the villainous pastry. “Bluh! It does taste like red! Ack!” That’s what one gets for avoiding a question, apparently.

Deaglan downed his remaining coffee, composing himself. He was no more ready to answer the question now than he was before the treasonous taste of Red-flavored doughnut filled his mouth. He stammered.

“I made a mistake, a couple weeks ago. I thought I had made a token to track down whatever- whoever- it was that was giving us visions, and I got a few of us hurt in the process. Mostly Angel… Which is why she is in the infirmary right now.” Deaglan’s glamour did little to hide how pale his expression was.

Simone looked at him steadily, noting the deep sadness and shame. “This is a dangerous situation we’re in, Deaglan. I’m not sure there’s really a way to prepare for it that will keep us safe, not all the time. Adnan…Adnan is proof of that. He was…is…headstrong, but not stupid, and he got ripped out of our reality. I don’t think the normal rules are going to apply. Did you guys take the precautions you thought were necessary?”

“Yes? No? Something as simple as scrying shouldn’t have done… whatever it was that happened. Not to mention that my magic has been strange ever since.”

“How so?”

“It was…” He mulled over his next choice of words, unsure of how to describe it. “Infected? Wounded? Angel had bit her tongue and I tried healing that, but it made it worse… So much worse. We talked about it, and she assured me that it wasn’t my fault, but… Sometimes it doesn’t feel that way. I’m surprised I haven’t gotten a tongue-lashing from Tel or Aaron like you did from Reggie.”

“Tel is usually pretty chill about things, and I’m guessing he knows you probably feel like shi-like crap. Wait, we’re not on campus. That you feel like shit. From what I heard, Aaron was involved, too. Maybe he’s feeling like he screwed up, also.”

“Well, yeah, Aaron was there with Angel and I when we tried scrying. We were going to use Adnan’s bracelet, but I’m kinda glad we didn’t.”

“It might’ve worked better, to be honest. If you were trying to scry something that didn’t have anything to scry, maybe that’s what caused things to break down. I feel a little responsible now, too, then. I was the one who asked for the scrying on the bracelet. I’m not sure how that got turned into this, but we’ll figure out a different way to get any useful info from it later.”

Simone paused again, carefully sorting through emotions and putting the unhelpful ones aside. She took a big bite of the maple frosted doughnut.

“Was there a way to tell if the token was valid before you all did the scrying? If there was, then yeah, y’all could’ve taken the time to double check everything before getting into it. If not, unless the teachers had a way of making things safer, I don’t know what you could’ve done to prevent this. And trying to heal someone…yeah…I can imagine how terrible it must’ve been for both of you having that go bad. Like if I tried to teleport someone out of danger and left a part of them behind somehow.” Simone shuddered at the thought.

“So what do you think can make this better?”

Deaglan’s expression sunk a little. “I don’t think I could make it better. I could take more precautions though, for next time. If there is a next time. I already spoke with Professor Kuzkin.” Deaglan seemed to perk up a bit, as if remembering something important. “He has a space set up for us to perform magic under watch now, at least until we understand what is affecting the three of us.”

Deaglan furrowed his brow, cutting a glance in Simone’s direction. “You know, you’ve done a good job deflecting this away from Reggie.”

“Well, it seems like you really needed to talk. And honestly, I think I need to cool down a bit before I think about that fight with Reggie. Something about it doesn’t make sense, but I’m not in the mood to deal with that bullshit right now. If he wants to believe I’m a crappy, irresponsible friend, he can go ahead and shove…” Simone stopped and took a deep breath, clearing her mind. “He can wait.”

“Fair.” Deaglan offered Simone a smile, stopping alongside her. “I do appreciate you listening. I just want to make sure that I’m also the ear for others, sometimes.”

She grinned back at her friend the dullahan. “Actually, this helped a lot. Just getting out and exploring, talking, eating strange human food. I felt like I was going a little crazy back at the school, just kind of trapped, you know. It reminded me a little too much of home.” She offered him the other half of the last chocolate frosted, sprinkle-topped, cream-filled doughnut. “Try this one, it’s one of my favorites. Thing is, failures are going to be inevitable here. The shit we can do, the situations we get into, all the freaking villains trying to mess with us and the world…there’s no way we’re going to not screw things up sometimes. Sometimes you just get the red flavored doughnut even when you know better. So, if that’s a truth we have to accept, then the important thing is how we prepare for it and what we do to handle the consequences, right?”

“Hmm. I don’t feel any less worse about it, but you make a good point…” The freckled boy slowly nodded in agreement, taking in the words. He chewed on the offered doughnut thoughtfully.

“So, instead of mulling over past failures, let’s talk about preparing for future ones! Got anything coming up you need to plan for? I know I’m preparing for the driver’s test…”

“Weelll…there’s a civil rights demonstration planned for next Monday; there’s going to be a subversive ‘art installation” going up where the slave-owner statue used to be…”

As the sun sank lower in the late afternoon sky, their conversation faded into the wind as they continued down the sidewalk. Nearby, a team of children in jelly-smeared uniforms exploded out of the Dunkin’ Donuts and into the neighboring park, filling the October air with the sound of shrieks and laughter as the weary parents trudged behind them, gratefully sipping their coffee. Simone and Deaglan quietly began walking more rapidly into the distance.

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Letters to Adnan
Schism throws words into space

It’s Tuesday afternoon and Simone is back at Wong’s, back in her favorite corner booth, back with a bowl of wonton egg drop soup and a plate of crab rangoons, pausing to wipe her fingers off after every bite to make sure no grease gets on the keyboard of her laptop. Technically it was Claremont’s laptop, and technically she’s not supposed to bring it to Wong’s with her. Nobody ever calls her on it, though, even when one of the teachers bumps into her during their lunch breaks or after work hours. She’s pretty sure they know what she’s doing and aren’t going to push the issue. She’s also pretty sure they know that it wouldn’t make any difference if they did.

(Excerpts from Schism’s “Sent” Folder)

Sent: 12/11/18 6:30pm
Hey Tempest,
I’m still here because it started snowing and it’s making the neon signs glow like Christmas lights wrapped around B (long story), and I just didn’t want to go back yet. It’s really pretty here right now. The Winter Formal is coming up in a few weeks; it’s been fascinating watching all the people figuring out who/how/why/when/where they’re going to ask someone to it. Aa is still with C, but M and Z are trying to work through some stuff. B and Y of, course, are going together. You won’t believe it, but Ar asked Do out! At least to the dance. She was very direct, as you can imagine. :-) Seems funny to think about a dance in the middle of all this, but I think everyone’s trying to hold on to stuff like that to stay hopeful about the future. M and AA have been really trying to keep morale up, too. We even had a snowball fight that I think F and I might have won. :-) Don’t think that’ll happen when you’re around for the next one.

So, anyway.

The funny thing was that I realized I really liked you this summer, but I didn’t want to push it. I’m used to being a trouble magnet, and I was scared to risk your scholarship, reputation, all that stuff. Which is yeah, why I had that contingency plan in Greece. I should’ve told you about it first, though.

But one thing this semester has taught me is that you’re perfectly capable of getting yourself into absolutely bonkers crazy situations with or without me. So, I have a question. If out of all this messed up insanity, we both end up able to go to the Winter Formal, would you like to go with me?

Sent: 12/11/18 3:05pm
Hey Breeze,
I’ve got to tell you about my latest adventure. I’m sorry I wasn’t here last weekend; I went to New York (!) for the first time and did some investigating on a mystery here. I also got to meet a really cool full-fledged superhero and his friend from another place, like me. I can’t get into too many details in case someone’s monitoring this (funny how the stuff you learn to get around the censors in one world still comes into play in a world where you can find everything – I mean everything – online), so you’re just going to have to come back home soon so I can tell you in person. We – the whole school and other heroes – are putting things together on what you’re trying to do and figuring out the best ways to help you do it, so I’m really hopeful that we can find you soon. I know I’ve written how you got pulled out of reality, and it’s messed with almost everyone’s memories of you, but all our friends here remember you, and even the new kids are learning about you. Everyone wants to help. We all miss you. I hope you can read this.

Sent: 12/04/18 4:27pm
Hey Storm,
I wanted to let you know that I visited your parents, to check in on them. Maybe also for selfish reasons; it’s nice to see them. Your mom’s eyes are a lot like yours, and your dad cracks his knuckles like you. He was driving your mom crazy with it. All photos of you disappeared when you got pulled, you know. This is hard to write, but I’m guessing you’ve probably figured this out. When you got pulled from this world, it was like you disappeared from existence. I don’t know why, but a few of us were able to remember you. Mr. Wong is one of them, the only one outside of school that we’ve found. But I know your parents’ love for you is still there. I could see it in them, fighting against this new reality. Your mother said, she said that she’d always wanted to have a boy named Adnan.

They said your name. Please try to hold on to that.

PS – I hope this is ok. I stopped by the mosque, too. I didn’t try to do anything, but I asked the imam if there was anyone who could pray for someone of their faith who is lost and alone, trying to do the right thing. He said he would. He asked your name and I told him, but I asked him to not tell anyone else it. I didn’t want to confuse things with your family. Btw, that reminds me of something I really like about you. You have this faith and the rules you follow, but you’ve never judged me for not following them. I haven’t been drinking as much around the others – Reggie and I had a kind of big fight about it, but then we talked, and things are cool now – but it was cool that we could have different ways of being without thinking one had to be like the other, you know? But anyway. I still don’t really know this world’s religions, but I hope that knowing someone at your mosque is also saying your name helps.

Sent: 11/26/18 3:18pm
Hey Prince of Showers,
I wanted to let you know things are a little better here. One of the other students– you remember the one who is really good at healing people? – and I found someone who’d gotten badly hurt and managed to save him, plus a couple other people. Also got to knock around a couple of racist monsters. We couldn’t save one person, which is terrible, but I guess it’s something we have to learn how to deal with. You’re trying to save all of us, but if you can’t, please don’t think you’ve failed. You’ve given us our best chances.

I think we’ve figured out a way to make sure my family’s safe, and without it requiring me to return to that place. A bunch of people are helping. It was surprising to realize how much that meant to me.

Sent: 11/24/18 2:18am
Hey Adnan, I’m. I feel. I. I’m in kind of bad shape right now. I don’t know if you’re able to read this over my shoulder as I type, or you’re getting some weird email in the astral world, or you’re getting the printouts I’m leaving with Mr. Wong, but I can’t really…I can’t. Something bad happened in my home world. My family is in danger and I’m so angry and scared I can’t think I don’t know what to do my only thought is go and turn myself in in exchange for their safety but I don’t even know if that help or make things worse. I don’t know anything. I’m sorry. I’m trying to think of something good to write but right now its not and I just fucking wish I could talk to you and know youre ok at least before I go if I have to go.

I had to stop for a while, sorry. People were starting to notice and if someone came over to ask the crying girl what was wrong I’d have teleported a boulder on their head. Hah. B is blowing up the phone again. He’s a good friend. I think him and Y are doing a lot better, by the way. I think he realized that maybe he should ask her about her life and problems once in a while. They’re both worried. B doesn’t think Y knows, so he’s trying to protect my privacy, but I sent her a short text because she’s been a good friend. B, too, but he’s still texting. I hope you have someone to talk to over there. Maybe the one who asked for your help? I hope you’re not lonely, but I’m guessing you are. Whatever happens, I won’t give myself up until this is done and you’re back. They’ll accept that, as long as they get their way in the end. That’s all that matters to them.

Sent: 11/15/18 3:30pm
Hey Patriarchy of Storms,
I hope you can get the food from the back room of Wong’s kitchen. I asked them to make you something every day and leave it in the oldest part of the restaurant, farthest away from the windows. They try to mix up the vegetables and meats (no pork…see…I remember!), with the fun greasy foods. I’m not sure how much you can find over there, and I hope this isn’t just making you hungrier for food you can’t eat. I tried to figure out how to send supplies through interdimensional travel, or even how Aa and I managed to get to you last time, but haven’t had much luck. I guess it’s just as well I couldn’t get back. The more I learn, the more it seems like you’re holding back the apocalypse where you are. And to be honest, I’m feeling selfish enough to risk that if it means we could bring you home. So, I guess it’s good I don’t have the option, huh?

Sent: 11/12/18 3:00pm
Hey Storm King,
I hope you can read this. See this. Something. You’d said that sometimes you can hear and see us, and I’m really hoping you’re ok after the windows exploded. I don’t know if you’re still even at Wong’s, but this is the only way I could think of to reach you. Whatever got me to that other Wong’s, I can’t do it now. It also destroyed your bracelet. I’m sorry. I’m looking for a replacement, though. There’s a Mediterranean import place nearby that might have something good. Anyway, if you can read this, I’ll try to come by here as often as I can and write you stuff on my laptop. In case you can’t see the screen, Mr. Wong is letting me print the pages out so I can put them on the table. If you can’t see, I’ll read them out loud when I can – when I’m sure there’s nobody listening in. I can’t say some things, like intel that could put you or people here in danger, so some stuff is going to be vague, sorry. No matter what, though, I’ll always be here Tuesday afternoons, so you can count on that. Might also help if you don’t have a way to tell dates. I’ll make sure to write that stuff out. Also, I guess a derpy demon dog showed up while Aa and I were with you and wanted to make friends with someone – I think the kid(s) you’re trying to help? – said his name was Shankerton Fleabottom, but I’m not sure that’s a real name for anything. He likes souls and peanut butter. Anyway…here’s what’s been going on in Freedom City this Fall…

12/25/18
A jasmine flower appears on a table in Wong’s.

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Casting Some Elf-Light on the Twilight Darkness
A.K.A. Unseelie Squad vs. Twilight Dorkness

Though I’m posting it, this piece would literally not have been possible without the extraordinary efforts, roleplaying, and editing assistance of Jayna and Spencer, not to mention the GMing talents of Eric A. stepping in to help us delve into the mysteries of the Fae. . .

Author’s note: This journal takes place in the days immediately following the in-game activities of Session 4, circa November 26.

It was a break period on a frigid December afternoon on the Claremont campus. Students were milling around, a febrile tension in the air. The holidays were right around the corner—and the dorms had the bright-shining decor to prove it!—and the Winter Formal right before that, but no one seemed in a mood to relax. Between finals, finding dates, and fighting off the forces of evil intent on destroying reality itself, the young heroes-in-training had a busy schedule.

Deaglan stared intensely at his phone, sprawled out on the common room couch. The Blandriod 9 Update prompt was finally reaching its lengthy conclusion. “Ugh, I just wanted to make a caaaaaalllllll.” Deaglan’s last word droned dramatically as he fussed with the contacts menu.

Alea Arlisson. Elflight.

He tapped the entry to call, and listened to the ring tone, mildly exasperated. At last, she picked up. “I’m gonna start making sending stones for everyone, these phones are crazy!”

The voice on the other end responded quizzically. “Yeah? Deaglan? Did something happen?”

“Yeah, you troll! You popped out of that dreamscape without letting us know if you were okay! And Phoros! Bobby, Simone, and Sorrel, and literally everyone was worried!”

“Yeah, sorry about that, but given the situation- and other things- I wasn’t thinking about sticking around to catch up on old times. I’m sure you can understand. You can let them know I’ll be fine, just have a lot to think about, so I probably won’t be the best to talk to for a while”

She paused for a few moments after saying that, and continued. “Yeah, that really was a crap thing for me to do. I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to make anyone worry. You’ll let them know too, won’t you?”

“Yeah. Ugh, Sorry for calling you a troll… But this is kinda serious. Bobby really needs to talk with you. His patron is, well, doing bad things… I think.”

“Bobby needs my help? Yeah, sure, I’m more than willing to help, is he with you?”

Deaglan lifted his head up in one hand, peering at his surroundings like some sort of amusingly macabre periscope. He spied Bobby, hands stuffed nervously under his arms, leaning against a wall just outside the common room, talking quietly with Cybersoul. They’d been talking out loud a lot more often ever since…oh, right. He promptly placed his head next to the phone, as his body stood up and began pacing.

“Uh, sorta? I’m not near him or Cybersoul because I don’t want Twilight Dorkness listening, and I have to prepare a space to block it out. Partly because we think it’s trying to get you, but also because if it hears us talking about it, not-good-things will happen to Bobby and Cybersoul, I would guess.”

“Wow, that is serious,” Elflight responded. “How long for you to set up a safe space? I can be there once I’m done here—probably best given how serious this sounds.”

Deaglan chewed his lip in thought, realizing he may not have enough help to get the space prepared. “Could you meet us at Kuzkin’s office?”

“Kuzkin? Sheesh, that guy is a bit too dramatic, but yeah, I can meet you there.”

“Yeaahhhh…I made an agreement not to practice or perform magic without being in a designated space…given…things. Not important! Anyhow, meet us after classes today? I could probably use the assistance getting it prepped?”

“If I’m there to help you, then we can get to the details quicker, I’ll be there! Though I do expect you to head straight to Kuzkin’s office immediately. I don’t want to hear him recite ALL of Shakespeare again…don’t ask.”

“Well, excuuuuse me, Princess.”

“Hey, easy with the Princess, I’m still getting use to the concept…”

“Uh huh. See ya soon!”

Deaglan collected his head and phone, and signaled the other two: plans over lunch, and rituals after classes!


Kuzkin’s old theater, a cluttered expanse of half-assembled sets and discarded costume-wear, was perhaps not the most…orderly place to conduct complicated magic, but the room had a certain natural flow to it that seemed to encourage the workings nonetheless.

The eerie silence that engulfed the four of them was one clue the ritual had started to work. Deaglan glanced over at Bobby and Elflight, fairly impressed with Bobby’s occult know-how, and gracious for his and Elflight’s assistance. He turned to Professor Kuzkin, giving him a thumbs up, signalling to him that the ritual was working fine, before completing the final steps for bringing a magical shroud over them quartet. Cybersoul seemed to be consumed with absorbing the visual and aural phenomena about them as the ritual completed.

Finally safe from prying eyes (and ears), Elflight broke the silence. “Ok, first off, good to see each of you again, and second, this sounds pretty serious. How can I help, Bobby?”

Twilight sat, cross legged in the ritual circle, his face tight and his jacket laid out beside him. Every few minutes, he reached toward the pocket with his cellphone in it with a nervous twitch before guiltily pulling back: best not to get distracted in the middle of a perilous ritual. “Yeah,” he said. “We’re really glad you’re okay, Elflight. Things got pretty insane in that dreamworld theme park. And thank you for coming to help us out…we owe you one.”

“What kind of friend would I be if I didn’t help you guys?” The words were genuine, but Elflight seemed…distracted, somehow, as if something was weighing on her mind. But she stood there still, clearly determined to help her friends however she could. “And you don’t owe me anything.”

Twilight and Deaglan glanced at each other. Elflight obviously had something she was worried about, but neither one of them could tell what it was. Cybersoul, still distracted by the scintillating sensory input of the three-person ritual working, hadn’t noticed anything amiss.

Given the situation, Deaglan decided to focus for now on why Cybersoul and Twilight had asked for this meeting. He looked at them expectantly, waiting for their explanation.

“So, if I understand things correctly,” Elflight said, “you are ‘concerned’, putting it lightly, about your patron, and that it’s after me?”

Twilight glanced at his jacket again, then looked up at Elflight and took a deep breath. “Alright, so. . . I don’t know if you remember, but Deaglan was all freaked out last year about my patron possibly being a Fomorian horror or something, but from what we could all tell, that wasn’t the case. A powerful Unseelie, maybe, but that was the worst of it. We thought.” Elflight listened intently, nodding occasionally as Bobby told the story. “I, uh…I don’t want you to be mad at us,” he went on, “but when we were trying to find you in Annwn/Avalon, we kinda, sorta, uh, talked to the fae god of hydras and deals in there, down by the docks.”

Cybersoul snapped to attention finally, turning their gaze toward Elflight. “Our patron seems to possess a skeleton army,” they piped up. Twilight winced at that, seeming to shrink in on himself. He rubbed at his elbow absentmindedly, his fingers probing bone through flesh as though searching for something.

“What.” Deaglan was lying on the couch to focus on the ritual, but he picked up his head to look at Cybersoul. He was…clearly missing some details.

“And I realize that, you know, those things probably lie a lot,” Twilight continued. “But it said that it helped broker a deal between you and what I think was my patron. I call it the Twilight Darkness. And…yeah. Cy’s right. When we fought our way to you, we encountered some, I dunno. Undead servitors? Reanimated mortals? We don’t really understand. But they were bound up in chains just like the ones I use, and…inside, on their skeletons, was burned a contract just like the one that I signed. Just like the one that…that Cybersoul agreed to.”

“No, those were Fomorians…unless you encountered something else outside the rides?” Deaglan scratched his head, trying to remember the terrifying carnival-creatures. Twilight nodded at him, shrugging: despite having signed a fae deal, the lanky boy was still painfully in the dark about even the most basic facts about them.

Elflight stared at the both of them. The emotions on her face were clear: shock, disbelief, and a stern You should know better than that, to boot. She looked at Deaglan in desperation. “Did you sign a contract as well?”

Twilight hadn’t noticed this exchange, too anxious to get the full story out in the open. “And,” he said, “between whatever deal you were trying to make down there seeming like it ended up with you getting trapped by some seriously bad fae dudes, and those creepy—okay, yeah, Fomorians—and some of the stuff that Twilight Darkness said to Cy when they brokered their deal, I am getting really worried about exactly what kind of power we signed on with.” He wrung his hands together, finally finished, waiting for Elflight’s judgement and utterly unable to look anyone in the eye.

Elflight paced back and forth, the gravity of the situation at hand becoming clearer every moment.

Twilight tried to let the silence sit, but he was too nervous. “It said,” he piped up, “that the more things we do in its name as its emissaries, the more…strength it gains. Not just in the fae realms. But here, too. On Earth.” He waved one hand feebly around, brushing against the shimmering borders of the magical shell encasing the group and making it ripple.

Deaglan was relieved to have at least some good news for Elflight. “Pfft. No, I didn’t make a deal,” he said. “But, my substitute for Parent Teacher Conference did try to assassinate you…she didn’t say who ordered it, or why though…” He tried to keep his voice matter-of-fact, but could only barely manage to hide his contempt for the action.

“Ok,” Elflight said, coming to a halt. “That is a lot to take in, but how can I help with this? What are you asking me to do? And Deaglan, you need a new substitute parent, or else we can’t be friends anymore…”

“Fair…that’s a talk for later…” Deaglan muttered. Kathryn the Red was not the best maternal stand in, though she might well be the most murderous.

Twilight tapped his fingers nervously against his leg. “Look, the terms of your deal are yours to keep, if you don’t want to tell us. But please: anything you can tell us about what we’re actually dealing with could literally save us… both.” As he finished, Twilight somehow seemed to draw into even himself more, sparing a haunted glance at Cybersoul, and went quiet.

Cybersoul had seemed pensive most of the time Twilight had been doing a lot of the talking, but they looked up now, and gave him a wry look. “I will not let it take you, Twilight,” they said, sounding as if they had all the confidence in the world. “Elflight, we wish to know of the deal you made, and why.”

Twilight blushed and hoarsely whispered, “Sorry, Cybersoul, I didn’t mean to talk for you. But I am worried about you being pulled into this.”

Elflight pondered for a moment, thinking about the situation. “I can’t…” She paused, before continuing, “I can’t tell you WHAT Twilight Darkness is because I don’t know…for certain. I can tell you what I think it is, I hope THAT at least can help.” She let out a slow sigh, then went on.

“From what I can tell, it’s a dragon: very old, and very powerful. The problem lies in how it keeps itself hidden. Entities like this are dangerous because they are able to obfuscate themselves, making it hard to find information on them, and what’s worse is that the information you do find tends to contradict itself.”

All three of the students seemed to freeze at the word “dragon.” Deaglan’s head teetered on its necky perch; he barely managed to steady it in time.

“I, uh. Huh,” Twilight managed to sputter before falling silent with the rest.

“No Deaglan, Twilight Darkness would be a terrible substitute parent,” said Elflight, trying to break the tension a little. She nudged Deaglan, trying to calm his nerves a bit with the bad joke. Deaglan huffed, grumbling his response. “I’d rather my own show up.” He focused his attention on the ritual once more, turning away slightly.

Twilight smirked at the humor, shaking his head in a cascade of black and silver hair that he then had to swipe away absentmindedly. “Yeah, Deegs. As fun as it might be to have you stuck as like, my…fae-half-brother-twice-removed? I don’t even know how that would work. But it’d be one screwed up family.” Deaglan snorted in response, adjusting some components of the ritual. Twilight pressed the point. “Don’t lose your head over it.”

Cybersoul tilted their head to the side, refocusing the conversation. “A dragon is a large, serpent-like legendary creature that appears in the folklore of many cultures around the world. Beliefs about dragons vary drastically by region, but dragons in western cultures since the High Middle Ages have often been depicted as winged, horned, four-legged, and capable of breathing fire. Dragons in eastern cultures are usually depicted as wingless, four-legged, serpentine creatures with above-average intelligence.” They look back at Elflight. “What agreement did you reach with it?”

“I’d rather not get into that at the moment, it’s…personal,” Elflight responded. Cybersoul looked unimpressed, but didn’t press the issue further.

Twilight winced visibly, interjecting. “No, it’s okay. I understand. Maybe you could tell us how you learned about it, or how you got into contact with it? Any little thing that might help us look into this on our own. Like, getting my powers was literally the best thing that had ever happened to me. And now I’m terrified of them, Elflight. I just want to understand.” Finally looking up at her, his eyes were wet; a faint trail of black mascara was beginning to run down his right cheek.

Elflight’s expression softened as Twilight made his plea. She relented. “I’m…looking for my father. I have so many questions, and so many things have changed. I needed answers, however…I still don’t have them.” She looked away from the students as she spoke.

“I’m sorry. I didn’t know,” Twilight responded, reaching out toward her, but then seeming to think better of it. “Look, we’ve all gotten rolled up in stuff bigger than any of us. But we are friends. And we can figure it out together.” He seemed to be picking up steam, his voice rising a little over its usual husky baritone. “How did your searching for your dad get you to Twilight Darkness? Or…why did you think it could help you?”

Elflight returned her gaze to the trio. “That’s the selfish answer, there’s more to the deal than that though. I was trying to find another way to stem the coming evil, and to…save you guys…” She seemed to be chastising herself more than answering by that point. “Stupid, making a deal with an evil being to stop evil…I know.”

“Hey, if it’s any consolation,” Deaglan added quickly, “apparently I’m doomed to become something worse than that when I get older, because my mother made a deal?” There was no mirth in his voice, though the attempt to “cheer” her up seems genuine. “Like Twilight said, I’m sure we can work through all this together.”

“Exactly, Deaglan. We’re all looking for ways to stop whatever is coming down on us, too. And we’ve made some…mistakes along the way… " Twilight brushed a hand against his cheek absentmindedly; the fading mark of a fist-shaped burn still faintly spelled out “HATE” on his face.

Elflight eyed the wound on Bobby’s face, but didn’t press the matter. Everyone had their own scars. Silence once more descended over the group.

Cybersoul spoke up, breaking the second silence with a question. “If a dragon is a large flying lizard, why would it want our help with anything? It said it was not ‘real’ enough, what does that mean?” On an encrypted local storage drive, Cybersoul wordlessly added “Dragons, but not enough” to their ongoing “List of Things That Are Real.”

Elflight seemed to reach an internal decision of some sort. “Look, I hate this predetermined crap, but if you want the details, here’s what I know. Sometime in the future, and I don’t know when exactly, all the students at Claremont are trapped. I don’t know how, or why, but you all will be trapped somewhere…else.” She paused, looking at each of them. “The deal I made is to get you back.”

Deaglan tilted his head a bit further than it should, causing it to wobble noticeably. “Was the place we were trapped in occupied by some fiery hellbeast? Baleful and full of hate?”

Twilight nodded, closing his eyes as he began to remember all the strange occurrences from the year. “Yeah, some of us have been having some pretty scary visions of our own.”

Elflight shrugged slightly, her expression drawn. “What I saw was broken piece of what will happen, and it was hard to make out details that weren’t you guys, but it’s quite possible. A lot, and I do mean a LOT was going on.”

“Fair,” Deaglan replied, nodding—as much to steady his rapidly sliding head as in agreement. “It’s hard to focus when your vision is mostly being blinded by every endangered soul…” An idea seemed to strike him, and he continued, faster now, “So, you said kids earlier, not students…are you up to date with recent, uh, happenings?”

Sensing that might lead down a more significant path, Deaglan reconsidered that point, for the time being at least. “Wait, I’m getting side tracked…let’s focus on the details of this deal Twilight and Cybersoul have.” Deaglan nudged Cybersoul and Bobby, who had been following the back and forth between the two fae as best they could. “What can you tell us about the deal you made?”

Elflight seemed to have arrived at the same conclusions, as she nearly spoke over him, “So, what were the deals you guys made with Twilight Darkness?”

“It’s fine, Deegs. We’ve got a lot on our plates,” said Twilight quietly to the other boy.

Cybersoul’s fans kicked on, making a quiet whirring sound. “It said I had used its powers too many times. It offered further use of them as payment for my role as its emissary. It said it wanted to become more ‘real.’ It was after we saved your… dragon.” Cybersoul seemed to register something there, slowly tilting their head to the side. “If it is a dragon, is it similar to your own?”

Elflight smiled a little at that. “I would love to be able to answer that question, however your previous statement about Dragons is more true than you probably realize. Dragons can come in all shapes and sizes.”

Twilight had nodded along to Cybersoul’s story, his facial expression growing steadily more… complicated, to say the least, but Deagan could still make out the waves of guilt coursing through him. The faint rattle of chains emanated from nowhere at all, making Twilight wince, and the sound quickly went quiet. He sighed, audibly, and spoke. "And, uh…my deal was…well, me being young and upset and really desperate to be a real hero. I initially tried to work with a fae named Calistrato, but that arrangement…didn’t work out like I hoped.”

Deaglan started a little; he wasn’t sure he’d ever heard that before. Another time, he reminded himself.

Across the ritual circle from him, Twilight continued, “Twilight Darkness found me when I was…well, to be honest, really, really low. It said it could help make me a real hero. Make people look up to me, think I was cool and powerful and heroic. That all sounded…like exactly what I wanted to hear, now that I think about it. In return, all I had to do was—like Cybersoul said—be its Emissary in the mortal world. Bear its magic and its name while learning to become a superhero. I think there was some kind of actual contract involved, but honestly, that time in my life is weirdly…hazy. Visiting the fae realms is weird like that."

“So Twilight Darkness feeds on the suffering of others,” said Elflight, almost absentmindedly at first. She looked up at the others, fire in her eyes. “Big surprise there.”

Twilight flinched back, as if struck. “I’ve helped a lot of people, though,” he said meekly, almost uncertainly. “I mean. . . would something evil, like…even let me do good?”

“I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to dismiss what you’ve done.”

“No…it’s okay. Like you said: making a deal with evil to stop evil,” he replied, shifting his hands as if weighing invisible objects between them. “But…if I can keep finding ways to turn this power I have toward good, I will. But I’m scared of making things worse.” His voice shook a little, and he went quiet again.

At that, Elflight did reach out and put a hand on his shoulder. “You are stronger than you realize Bobby.” She smiled at him, though he did not look up to see it. “Alright, so: emissaries. It almost sounds like it’s wanting you to build up faith, branching out into this world.”

“It said it would become more real when we used its powers,” said Cybersoul.

“Huh. That’s…yeah, that’s a good point. And…” Twilight paused and glanced at both Deaglan and Elflight sheepishly, “No offense—but a lot of my experiences so far with entities like that make me think it might be a bad thing for Twilight Darkness to become anymore real than it is now.”

Cybersoul’s internal processes continued to hitch on that linguistic peculiarity. “How can something be more or less real? ‘_Real_’ is a boolean."

“A what now?” Deaglan asked.

“A boolean.” Cybersoul looked at Deaglan, pausing briefly to consider how to word their response. “A…a yes-or-no question. Something is #real or it is not.” Although no one actually heard them say the word “hashtag,” the others all definitely heard it somehow. “How can the Twilight Darkness be incompletely real? This seems impossible.”

Elflight paused for a moment before answering. "There are a lot of things in this world that seem impossible, yet aren’t. Several of the students at Claremont are perfect examples of the impossible being possible!” She turned to Deaglan, tilting her head comically to the side. “He can survive without his head, for example. And don’t get me started on magic…” They all unconsciously glanced at the gleaming magical barrier around them; visible just beyond it, Professor Kuzkin could be seen pacing the stage. His mouth was moving dramatically, but they couldn’t hear whatever it was that he was saying.

Deaglan started to speak, but then mimed a “Yeah!” at Elflight as she said what he was already thinking. He picked his head up bodily from his shoulders, a curious smoky essence billowing from his neck as he did so, to demonstrate.

Twilight grinned; that sight never got old. “Okay. Well, either way, for now, Twilight Darkness still needs something from us. And we want to look into this stuff more,” he said, frowning slightly at the prospect. “Maybe Twilight Darkness is an ancient evil dragon intent on world domination. Maybe it’s just an Unseelie princeling with really awesome taste in jackets. Either way, can it like…see through our eyes and peer into our hearts and stuff? Like, do you two need to wipe my brain before I leave this circle to keep it from knowing that we want to investigate things more about it, and its motives?”

Elflight shook her head, a thoughtful expression on her face. “Honestly, I think it would only be a boon for you and Cybersoul. Twilight Darkness has an ego the size of Freedom City; it’s going to be completely confident that you can’t find a way to break the contract, or defeat it.” Her mouth twisted into a wry smile, and she continued, “It’ll probably relish in your trying.”

Twilight looked down for a long while at that, his shoulders slumping a little. Seeming to realize it might be good to add more, she continued, “That’s not to say you won’t find a way to rectify this. But I am certain you will need others’ help, especially those who can work away from him to help keep some things secret.”

Twilight did perk up a little at that; having a fairy princess volunteer to help out on the quest seemed like a pretty great first step. “Well, if it’s the case that Twilight Darkness won’t even think we’re up to stopping it…” He poked his head out of the shimmering shield, which felt a little like lukewarm Jell-O on his skin. “Sorry we got all this candle-wax on your stage to try to hide from someone who we maybe didn’t even need to hide from, Mr. Kuzkin!” he shouted before pulling his head back in. He managed a smile, realizing his friends didn’t hear his joke.

“It is always best to be prepared, rather than to throw caution at the wind!” shouted Kuzkin to no one at all, once more cut off from the students. He pondered this for a moment, and then resumed his recitations.

Back inside the bubble, the quartet were quickly latching onto the idea of fighting back actively. “I will see what I can find out in Avalon: find a way to help you with this,” said Elflight, bravado tinging her words with steel.

Cybersoul grinned. “It will not be my first unlikely victory. Thank you for your help.”

Elflight grinned back and shouted “I love your confidence Cybersoul, please don’t change!” Her words bounced around inside the ritual shell for a few seconds.

“You’re right, Cybersoul,” said Twilight. “We can do this. We’ve been a great team so far. And we have some freaking awesome friends to back us up.” Twilight glanced down at the pocket with his phone again, a decisive look crossing his features. He looked back up. “Thank you, Elflight. Seriously."

“My pleasure, though I will probably ask for your help in the future…when everything has died down for you guys.” The other three nodded at that; it seemed like Claremont’s troubles would never cease, sometimes, and heroism was ever needed.

Wordlessly, the three magic-users brought the barrier down around them as one; the spell shattered with a faint, adorable Pop! like a cartoon bubble. Cybersoul and Twilight asked Elflight a few other quick questions about the mechanics of their ongoing partnership, while Deaglan busied himself with cleaning up the ritual, letting all present parties finish their various and sundry patron related questions.

Eventually, however, it was just him and Elflight there, standing on the cluttered stage. “If you are going home,” Deaglan looked to her, chewing on a series of complicated thoughts and long-simmering questions, “is there something else I can ask you?”

“Certainly.”

“Cool…I gotta clean up this space before I leave, but in the meantime, perhaps you can catch up with Angel, since you’re already here? I kinda want her to be in the know, given some, uh, recent concerns…”

“Yeah, it will be nice to see Angel again. I’ll fill her in.” Elflight bid him farewell for the time being and departed. In the background, Professor Kuzkin found himself suddenly performing the climactic moments of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar to an audience of one…but at least this one could hear his work!

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Texts that may or may not have been sent to Donny shortly following his conversation with Aramat
If time and space still exist and we're not all dying in a hell dimension without a cellular network

[+10 min after convo] I’m sorry if I came on inappropriately strong. I was told I should not do that, but it seemed like lying to try to engage you with an ulterior motive, and that did not seem like a good way to begin. So, I asked straightforwardly, and you expressed your need for getting to know each other, and now we are taking the appropriate preliminary steps before potentially going on a date.

[+11 min] It was a very awkward request, which I am told is normal for teenage dating rituals.

[+2h] Is it inappropriately forward to provide a list of tea places before we have gone for coffee? If we don’t get along, you would be able to use it for other purposes. Tea is supposed to be very healthful for humans.

[+2h 3min] I was thinking that you could also cross-reference our coffee and tea preferences with those of Yelp reviewers so that you could find reviewers whose tastes match your own. This could be useful for finding other types of food and drink to consume.

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Shooting Stars
Cass X Violet

My write up is at this link: CassXViolet

It is open to public comments, I would like some constructive criticism but be gentle. Positive reinforcement is also appreciated.

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