New Guard

Past
Schism and Reggie have a talk

(This is 100% Marisol. She just asked me to read over it and post it for her while she sleeps all day like a vampire lady. I can’t take any credit for this greatness.)

“Hey, Jerkface. We should talk.”

Dragging the beanbag chairs out into the middle of the floor, Reggie and Simone sank down across from each other, both drained and energized in their own way. Simone felt like she had a little more of a grip on where Reggie was coming from, and Reggie was eager to close the rift in their friendship this last argument had caused. The gray elf girl hesitated, knowing that what she was about to bring up wasn’t going to be much fun for him. There wasn’t any way around it, though, not if the trust between them is going to be based on honesty and unflinching support.

“Hey…I want to ask you about something I found out. When I left here last time, I was really hurt. Like maybe the worst since I’ve come to Claremont, except for losing Adnan. There are a lot of personal reasons for that, but what matters right this second is that it means I wasn’t paying as close attention to what was going on with you; I was just reacting to my own shit. When I had a chance to cool down, I started thinking about the fight and some things you’d said, and I realized that there was a good chance something had happened to you, maybe a long time ago, that was getting triggered now. I’m not saying you didn’t kind of have good points on your own, but I couldn’t shake the feeling that you weren’t talking to me so much as reliving a different situation. So, I went searching through your past.”

Simone paused for a moment, watching to see how he was reacting to her words. For once, Reggie seemed to go completely still, his face a nearly-unreadable mask. That was to be expected, though. His eyes closed, and he seemed almost to brace for a hit.

“I found an article about a boy. His name was Jack Simmons. You were a witness in his death by a drunk driver. You weren’t named, but there were enough clues to piece it together. You had to have been, what, only ten years old?”

Silence stretched on for a minute, which is an eternity to wait for a response from a guy who burns through time and space like the sun inside him. Finally, he let out a breath.

“Yeah, I was ten.”

“Christ, Reggie.”

“Yeah.”

“Have you talked about it much?”

“I haven’t talked about it at all.”

“Talk to me. Please.”

Reggie shifted his weight forward, leaning his elbows on his knees and resting his hands against his forehead. Simone watched and waited, hoping she wasn’t making things worse but trusting in her insight and his resilience. When he began talking, it was in a monotone with short sentences, like he was a younger version of himself, reporting.

“Jack…he was a powered kid too. Had the ability to control plant life. He was always listening to the trees. He was coming over to my house for a sleep over one night. He lived one street over. I was going to meet him half way. His mom always made me do that to make sure he didn’t stop to talk to too many trees on the way. I yelled his name and he looked up from a really old oak near the intersection by my house. He waved and started running and…”

Reggie stopped, digging his palms into his eyes. There was a faint tremor running through him, and when Simone reached out to put a hand on his shoulder, she could feel the vibration and knew he was locking down both himself and the fire inside. She was reminded that his human side didn’t have the luxury of a breakdown, not with that constant inferno waiting to burst loose, but she also knew that he was still a human and a human needs to be able to express their glorious, dangerous, messy feelings in order to be human. Reggie had made himself into a paragon, and she was pretty sure this denial of weakness was tied to the moment he was reliving. His shoulder tensed up at first at the touch, then some – a very tiny bit – of the tension started to ease.

“Hey. You’re here. What happened, as terrible as it was, is over. You’re here now, and you’re bringing this out because it needs to come out.”

Reggie removed his hands from his yes. “Couldn’t I just make sure nothing like this will ever happen again to anyone?”

He wasn’t looking for an answer to that, and she didn’t try to give one, partially because she was worried that anything else she said would be the wrong thing and what the hell would the right one be? What do you say to someone who logically knows all the factors involved but none of that matters because this isn’t a pop psych article. This is the rawness that marks your childhood and the rest of your life. Simone felt for a second like she was choking, feeling her own childhood traumas rise up and banishing them just as quickly. But they weren’t going to be gone for long, not if she wanted to balance Reggie’s confession with her own.

His next words came out calmly paced – again almost reporter-like – then began picking up velocity.

“The rest is simple. A high school kid coming back from a party ran the red light at the intersection. Never saw Jack. He was over twice the legal limit. Jack died right there. That oak he was talking to never dropped another acorn after that…but yeah. I was just ten, but I was a damn speedster. And I couldn’t get to him in time. If I hadn’t yelled, if I’d seen the car before it…if I’d just figured out what could’ve happened, I could’ve stopped it. So that’s why I do what I do now. Why I always need to know what’s happening before it happens, so I can rush all the scenarios in my head a hundred times in a second and figure out what is most likely going to happen. Maybe next time something like that happens, I will be in the right place at the right time to stop it.”

He finally took a deep breath and, for the first time since he began speaking, looked directly back at Simone, wiping his eyes with one hand and spreading the other out as if to say, “here, this is me, this has always been me.” Simone grabbed that hand and, standing up, tried to pull him out of his chair. Smiling slightly at her frustration, he pushed himself out the bean bag chair and looked down at her. She gave him a ferocious hug, holding it long enough to feel more of the tension easing from her friend, then stepped back.

“You know this but I’m going to say it anyway. You don’t need to be perfect. You can’t control the world, and you can’t protect all of us from danger all of the time. You couldn’t then, either. It wasn’t your fault.iI’m so sorry, Reggie. Jack sounds like he was just the best.”

“He was, really. Everything was always more alive when he was around, you know? And even if he got ticked off at you, an acorn bopping you on the head was the worst thing he would do to you. He was…yeah. I don’t know if I can talk about him that much right now. Maybe later?”

“Hey, if you ever want to tell me Jack stories, whenever you want, I am super down for it. There’s no way you guys didn’t have a blast together.”

Reggie half smiled again as other old memories came to mind. “Yeah, maybe in a little while. But I wanted to talk to you about our fight. So you know why I was freaking out over teenage drinking now, but that doesn’t excuse how I talked to you. Simone, I trust you. I know you’re smart, and you’re careful, and you don’t do stupid things to put other people at risk. It wasn’t fair for me to put the weight of that drunk kid from seven years ago on you. But…like you just said, no matter how careful you are, things can still blow up in your face.”

“I know. And maybe I shouldn’t trust the other students to make the right call as much as I do, but I do. I have to trust them, believe in them. Because here’s the thing: my world isn’t a dystopian hell-scape. If you saw it, you’d swear it was a pleasant, predictable, safe place, where people should raise their kids. Like the suburbs in this world. But it looks like that because nobody is trusted to make their own decisions, not about anything beyond the rules. It isn’t just life and death. It isn’t as clear as trampling on peoples’ freedoms. It’s more like a slow smothering. It’s that there’s always a sense that someone else knows better than you and if you don’t want to make problems, you should be a good citizen and trust them, not yourself or anyone else. Always. With your hobbies, your job, your family life, your tastes in music. With everything. They have people believing that the rule-makers have done what you’re trying to do: go through all the possibilities and pick the best one for everyone involved. But the problem was that I could see people weren’t really happy. That whoever they could’ve been never had a chance to fight its way out. It’s like a dream, but it’s a false dream. And I loved them all so much I couldn’t stand to see that fear and hesitation destroying it in them. So, I fought everything, all the time. I grew up like a thorn in that dream garden. I caused schisms.”

Simone paused, unconsciously rubbing her neck, and Reggie got very quiet, his eyes rapidly assessing his friend’s posture. He knew that look, but he never expected to see it on the rebellious firebrand in front of him; it was the look of someone who’d been nearly broken by long imprisonment and punishment.

“I put everyone near me at risk of government intervention just by being myself. When I did manage to find others who wanted to know who they really were, we became enemies of the state. We were children, Reg. How the hell do children become enemies of the state? All I had to do was be a good daughter, a good friend, a good student. And I wasn’t. I was a bad influence on everyone around me because I believed in them over the government. So, I had to be contained, and if my parents couldn’t do it, well, then the state would. The first time I was put in solitary confinement, I was five years old by your earth standards. I don’t remember much other than screaming for two days before I could manage to break through their teleport blocks. Then came everything after: power restraints, nullifying bracers, shock collars, injections, the works. The reason I’m so stubborn and so good at picking up on what’s going on around me is because I’ve been trying to outsmart and out-stubborn everything thrown at me for the last nine years.”

“Christ, Simone. And your parents…they allowed this?”

“They didn’t like it. I can say that now, but when I was little I thought they hated me. But they loved me. I think they love me. I remember my mother holding me on her lap, hugging me, begging me to just be a good girl and they wouldn’t take me away. That’s when I realized it wasn’t just disappointment; it was fear. Because beneath all those good influences and examples and comfort, there was always fear. And if they didn’t allow those restraints, the state would take me away, and nobody knew what would happen after that. By the time I turned fourteen, I wanted them to. I wanted them to take me to their fucking compounds on the hill and show me how ugly they could get under all that softness. And then I’d know exactly what I needed to do to destroy them.”

As she spoke, Schism’s eyes turned a dark red with pure, untempered hatred and her mouth twisted as she spat out those last words. Taking a moment to shake her head, as if to clear it, and take a calming breath, she continued.

“My grandmother Vira was the only adult I knew who didn’t fear them like the others. I know there was a resistance movement…somewhere…and that she’s somehow tied to it, but I think maybe I was too young to be trusted to know more. She’s the one who found out about Claremont, I have no idea how. She convinced my parents that sending me away was better than me being taken away. And my brother and sister, they were trying to just get on, but they looked up to me, you know? Yeah, I have siblings. I don’t talk about them much. Twins, five years younger than me. I miss them. It was like I had to choose to either put them in danger as a bad example or watch every true, real part of them die off while I did nothing. So, I left. I came here to learn what I could never learn in my own world, so I can go back and free them, somehow. And yeah, I get it, there are rules that have good reasons behind them. I’m not as crazy as I was when I first got here, ok? But when I was in that detention center in Greece, they put a…they put a power restraint collar on me after I took the fall for Adnan and Aramat, and I swear I could taste the same damn air from my home world in my mouth every time I tried to take a breath.”

Reggie reached out a hand to offer some comfort, holding it still on her shoulder as she flinched and recovered.

“Hey, Simone. Look at me. If I ever, ever say some pretentious crap about you needing to be a good example again, you have permission to teleport me up to the Lighthouse, ok?”

She gave him a shaky laugh, “You’ll just jump down from it and start running around the earth in circles like in that cheesy Centurion biopic from the 80’s you showed us last Tuesday.”

They both leaned back against Reggie’s desk, knowing there was a lot more to talk about but feeling the relief of getting the worst out in the light, shared with a trusted companion.

“So, since compromise is some exotic novelty you have in this world, and I’m all about new experiences, how about I ease off on introducing other Claremont kids to the joys of brain-altering substances and you…”

“Stop being a judgmental jerkface?”

“Hey, you said it, not me. This time.”

“It’s a deal. So, in honor of this agreement, how about we go, uh, liberate some ice cream from the kitchen freezers? I noticed a new shipment of Pralines and Cream came in this morning.”

“Damn, Checkmate, we’ll make a rebel out of you yet. Hell yeah, I’ll race you there.”

“You’re on, chicky.”

“Suck it, Patriarchy!”

View
In the Eye of the Hurricane is Clarity...
...and Then Comes the Storm Wall

The Claremont Academy is naturally full of overachievers. The students are known to run their own projects outside of the school curriculum, whether in their own rooms, specialized labs, or in this case, a seldom-reserved smaller lab on the second floor of the Dr. Charles Claremont building. Four such students stood around a lab table, looking intently at the strips of fortune cookie paper and the cookie bits that had escaped being eaten. One opened cookie wrapper rocked back and forth, blown by nearly imperceptible air ducts in the ceiling, or perhaps the excited breath of the students. One of them was speaking to the others.

“We know there’s something special about these cookies and fortunes. Let’s check them out with whatever senses we have.” Schism nodded, and the other three students nodded in agreement.

Four hands shot into the pile of samples, pulling back paper and crispy dough. Schism held the delicate paper in between her fingers. Tiny strips of it blinked in an out of existence as she tested its composition. Brian ran a quick chemical analysis on the paper, tested it for background radiation, and then carbon dated it, finding… nothing out of the ordinary. Regular fortune cookie paper. Cybersoul held the paper carefully in their palm. There was something there, but they couldn’t place it. They turned to watch Aaron as they dug deeper into their archives, and then, finding nothing, the web. Aaron took his fortune, read it again, and turned to a different nearby table. His fortune cautioned him to listen only to it and not pay attention to any other predictions. He sprinkled salt on the tabletop, then brushed it over into a pile out of the way while mumbling something arcane under his breath. “OK fortune, let’s see what you’ve got.”

Cybersoul was looking over his shoulder, having done their visual inspection and multitasking a Web search while trying to see what magic looked like. “I have no idea what this will look like to your visual sensors, but it’ll probably be wild. I’ll try to go slow and explain things as best I can.” The slip of paper fell like a fall leaf into the middle of the cleared off space while he muttered again and made a quick gesture with both hands. The Sight would show any trace of a willworking done to, on, or around the fortune…but there wasn’t any. The hastily purified tabletop was clean enough to eat from, magically speaking. There was something though; an aura? A resonance? He could hear distant thunder. Why was the Sight letting him hear things? “Hey,” he said, drawn out in the moment of discovery, “I think I have something here.” He turned his head toward Cybersoul, not enough to see them but enough to make it clear he was talking to them. “So check this out, I just; oh, you’re in the middle of something. I’ll catch up in a minute.”

Schism’s analysis had turned up nothing of note, but whatever Aaron was doing got her attention. She moved around to the end of the lab table, pulling up a stool. Brian glanced in their direction, but seemed to be continuing his own work. A moment passed while their collective wheels turned. Finally, Cybersoul piped up. “Adnan,” they said quietly. “A- a match. I have his fingerprints.”

Aaron turned to Schism, “"Do you have Adnan’s bracelet handy? I can compare the resonances to see if they could be the same person." As he cleaned off another spot on the table, she reached into her jacket and retrieved a small piece of cloth, shaking the bracelet free from it and holding it up. Aaron backed away visibly and could smell ozone. “Put it in the spot I just cleared off, I don’t want to touch it. He and your auras are the important bit here, not mine.” To Aaron’s senses, lightning began crackling between the fortune and the bracelet. Schism placed the item into the circle and then drew her legs close, wrapping her arms around them, her nails making scratching sounds as they dug into her jeans. “Please, be careful.”

“Don’t worry, this is look, not touch.”

Something caught Cybersoul’s attention. It took them a moment before they realized it was the window—they had no reflection. Cycling through infravision and ultravision confirmed their visual sensors were functioning normally.

Aaron began chanting over the items, forming a sacred triangle. He felt heat rising and he wasn’t sure from where. It was a pounding heat that seemed to match the rhythm of his heartbeat. A bed of sweat formed on his brow, and fell, as it did, his body hit the floor, convulsing, as lightning seems to course through him, again, and again. Even as his body lays there, another ghostly version of himself stays sitting, eyes affixed in a rictus state on some distant point, hair tossed about in an unseen storm.

Schism lunged at Aaron’s body, the lightning coursed through him and into her. All at once, her body disappeared, becoming a silhouetted portal to some other realm caught in the moment of touching his writhing form. She heard two distant voices. Aaron was one of them, but the other one was Adnan. Her head whipped around to find the voice, and they were in Wong’s, walking inside from a tempest of a storm.

Brian and Cybersoul watched in shock, unsure of what to do as Aaron writhed on the ground under a rip in reality that looked like Schism. A new voice spoke up behind them, dripping of Brooklyn: “Oh, that’s bad! That’s what you get, messin’ with the boys downstairs. Then, to go walkin’ where the Working isn’t as strong? So dumb. If I’m here, it’s not long until some of the bigger boys come.” The pair presumably in the real world slowly turned to the source of the voice: a derpy-looking dog floating in midair with his tongue lolling out. A single bat wing unfurled from his back. He sniffed it for a second, then continued, “I don’t suppose either of you would be willing to sell a soul, huh?”

Brian’s face was obscured as the Dark Victory armor formed around him. He raised a gauntlet-covered hand toward the creature, aiming a laser. “Best leave now, demon-thing.”

The dog looked panicked and hit behind Cybersoul. “Oh shit, you look scary!” Some dog drool hit the ground as he moved and it sizzled where it landed. “But, uh, don’t you think you should help your friend?”

Cybersoul was slow to process the very new input, but asked “What are you?” It didn’t come out as audio, but somehow closed captioning in front of them.

The dog looked almost embarrassed. “OH, Hi! I’m Shankerton Fleabottom. I’m a big boy imp!"

Back inside Wong’s, Simone and Aaron walked into the warmth of the restaurant from the storm outside. The windows rattled against the storm, barely holding fast in their frames. A pale, partially-starved Syrian teenager sat alone in a booth, a half-eaten egg roll in front of him, his eyes clamped shut in concentration. The lights went out.

The room lit up as Aaron spoke, fire leaping from his mouth at every word. “Adnan, buddy, good to see you. Listen, we don’t have much time. Tell us how we can find you.”

Adnan opened one eye, “Praise Allah, you’re here. You see me! I’ve been trying for so long. I could see you but you couldn’t see me, hear me.”

Simone said nothing but rushed toward him, stopping just short of contact. “I don’t know where I am,” Adnan went on. “But there’s a storm. A terrible storm. It’s trying to destroy everything. I’m holding it back, but I don’t know how long. I saw a child for a moment. I tried to help. I think I did, but the winds swept me away. I found Wong’s. I think he saw me for a second. Wong that is. I’m not sure”

Back in the real world, Cybersoul found joy in not having to speak to communicate. “How did you get here?” they asked. “What have you done to Aaron?”

Shankerton floated away from Dark Victory, looking like a scared puppy. “Hey, I didn’t do anything. He did it all on his own, several years ago, and now. He’s messing with big time forces. LIKE BIG TIME!” He unfurled his tongue and held out a paw to emphasize how big. “BIG!”

Dark Victory tried to press his perceived advantage. “Who? Who did it on his own? And what forces, Hell?”

Shankerton cocked his head at Dark Victory. “The silly wizard boy did it to himself…DUUUUHHH.” To Cybersoul, he said, “The armored knight there is pretty slow, huh? Anyway, the big stuff, I’m on that beat,” Shankerton answered. “Hell wants them. End of the world stuff. I’m supposed to be their best friend, but someone’s keeping me away. It’s really rude.”

Dark Victory looked down to Aaron. His nose was bleeding…and he wasn’t breathing.

“OK, great, I think we gotta g…” Aaron suddenly couldn’t speak. His lips moved soundlessly, but Schism was focused solely on Adnan.

“Adnan, listen to me. We’re finding out more about the children and the experiments you were trying to help, but you’ve been wiped from our world except for your bracelet and the fortune cookie strips here. We’re trying to help, but you need to tell me everything you can so we can do this right. Please.” As she spoke, the tiles under Aaron’s feet cracked and splintered, opening into a thin chasm. A skeletal hand began to rise from it, and evil laughter filled the air. Skeletor’s theme song began playing from the crack in the ground. The windows stopped rattling for a moment, the passage to Hell equalizing the pressure.

The sudden environmental change grabbed Schism’s attention. “Aaron, how do we get out? Aaron?!” Aaron’s face looked like it was screaming, but still he had no voice. He panicked and gestured his arms wildly, pointing in a panic towards the direction they had entered from. Schism tore at the skeletal hand with her powers, but it was replaced by four more reaching, clawing hands.

Dark Victory dropped to his knees, administering CPR to Aaron. “Breathe, dammit. Don’t you quit on me!” he shouted, as if the cheesy phrases could pull Aaron back.

Cybersoul hadn’t moved, fixated on Shankerton. Closed captioning appeared below them again: “Why are you here? What did he do?” Internally, they added “Imps” to the archive Things That Are Real, What.

Dark Victory interrupted the potential answer. “Cybersoul, can you reach through that rift and try to drag them out? Or anchor them? Whatever you do, don’t step through!” Cybersoul tore their attention away from the imp, braced themself, and reached into the rift.

In Wong’s, a grinning skeletal face and bony scorpion tail joined the grasping hands. Adnan spoke with urgency at the sight of it. "The kid (kids?). I promised I’d help. They don’t trust Claremont. The bad guys have a lab. The Fens, I think. Or, was it Midtown? Was it both? Something’s wrong with my mind. It doesn’t matter. I saw Miss Marionette of Elysian. They’re doing experiments. They have people. You have to get out!”

Schism looked back as she rushed toward Aaron, already knowing the answer to her question. “Adnan, can you come with us?” As she reached Aaron she could feel Earth-Prime, pulling them home almost against their will. Whatever balance she and Aaron had found in Wong’s was undone, like a child standing on an unsteady collection of knick-knacks that have now collapsed. As they collapsed through the portal that was Schism, the windows in the restaurant shattered. Adnan fell to the ground, using his arms to shield himself from the glass shards.

Behind Brian, Shankerton looked disappointed. “Oh no,” he said as he began to fade away. “it’s already over. I didn’t even get to try any peanut butter.”

The next few moments passed in a blur. Aaron felt Cybersoul’s hand, and suddenly his eyes opened wide as he took a breath. Cybersoul reached out to grab Shankerton, but found air…and that their reflection was back in the window. Schism tried desperately to teleport back to grab Adnan, but there was nowhere to teleport to.

There were fresh scorch marks on the lab table, and two little piles of ash where the fortune paper and bracelet used to be. Schism’s eyes went wide when she saw the remains of Adnan’s bracelet. She gathered the ashes into the cloth where the bracelet had been stored, and held it in a closed fist as she took a heavy breath.

“Simone, he’s alive," Aaron squeaked out as he tried to sit up. “Ooowwww… He’s not gone. We. Are. Going. To. Get. Him. Back.”

Energy crackled as the students appeared in the medical ward. “We just left him being attacked by hell,” Schism answered, her voice hoarse with emotion.

A new voice answered back. “What was that?” Nurse Joy was there, her eyes betraying a thought of “not again”. Schism looked around to find herself alone with the nurse. And then, suddenly, Aaron appears. He can feel that time has passed. It might have been hours or weeks. He doesn’t know what he experienced. It wasn’t nothing, and it wasn’t something. That alone makes his head hurt. He did see a nightmare given flesh, and then the shadows. The shadows were hungry.

Dark Victory was in the medical lab with them, however, when he tried to speak, he heard nothing. Looking down, he couldn’t see his hands. His body seemed to move in slow motion. Did he even have a body to move? He could see Schism, Aaron, and Nurse Joy, but they couldn’t see him. He didn’t exist anymore. His mind reeled, then retreated to something familiar, constructing the death-yacht he’d seen before. He was inside of it. The yacht feels so real. However, it’s not safe. It’s being blasted by a nor’easter and being driven toward unsafe shoals. The storm is powerful. It’s trying to break in.

Cybersoul was also in the medical lab, they couldn’t feel their chassis. It was possible it was gone. They could see Schism looking right through them. They tried desperately to send a message, to reach Aaron. Folders that should be on their filesystem were missing. There was only the Chain. It had bitten deep, and begged to be pulled. The AI sent out a command line to it and reached out.

Cybersoul and Brian appeared in the office as if from nowhere.

Nurse Joy fell into her all-too-familiar routine, ushering the teens to beds and checking vitals. At some point, she pressed a button on the wall. The intercom buzzed, and Mr. Summers’ gravelly voice filled the room, “Yes?”

Nurse Joy responded without looking away or losing her count taking Brian’s pulse. “I need you and Ms. Harcourt to come down here. Four of our students have had an ordeal.”

Aaron pulled the side of his pillow over his face, muffling an exasperated groan- then immediately passed out, overcome by the softness of the pillow. Nurse Joy’s penlight didn’t even wake him as she checked him for a concussion.

“No concussion, just exhaustion, but, he has first and second degree burn marks consistent with the Lichtenberg figures of lightning.”

“He’ll be safe here," came another voice, as Angel wandered in on unsteady legs. “I felt my light surge with warning for a moment, but the wind tells me that you’re safe.” She looked down for a second. “No,” she corrected, “not safe, but not in immediate danger.”

It was Schism’s turn to be examined next, but she resisted, perhaps looking for an escape. Nurse Joy only nodded at her. “It’s up to you,” she said, “but I’ve always found that a moment among friends, even in silence, can fix deeper illnesses.”

Cybersoul started several routine scans on their chassis, then turned to look at Brian. His eyes were closed, with a calm face that belied what he wanted to do. His face looked like he was working on a tough math problem; the tension in the rest of him said that he wanted to scream some sense into everyone around. But before he could calm down or speak out, he was interrupted by the tap of Mr. Summers’ cane approaching. As he and Stephanie Harcourt made their way through the door, Schism looked Nurse Joy square in the eyes.

“l left him there.”

Mrs. Harcourt surveyed the room, her alarmed gaze landing on Cybersoul. “Do you mind if I check you out?” Cybersoul nodded, their speech processors not up to the task of a verbal answer, only a status report of “Scans in progress.”

Mr. Summers looked at Schism. “Are you okay? Were you smart about it?” he asked.

“I thought I was. But here we are.”

Mr. Summers’ look was long and appraising. Schism’s emotional state was difficult to pin down, but her distress was clear. Schism stood up straight and respectfully, as if she were on trial, as she recounted the earlier events. “There was no attempt at a ritual. It was just observing the fortune cookies, and then Adnan’s bracelet.” The cloth holding Adnan’s bracelet, or what was left of it, was in her hands. She wasn’t sure when it got there. “Aaron was observing them with his third eye and fell over. I checked to see if I could touch him and help him, and I was pulled into that world I described."

Summers took a long moment to think. “Bad things happen,” he said at last. “Even when you’re on top of everything. As long as you kept your head I’m proud of you, of all of you. The fact that you found Adnan is huge. I’ve been researching, talking with the Atoms and I reached out to one of my former students, Serena Vervain…,” he paused for a second, and something almost like regret crossed his features before his face went back to iron control. “There are three real possibilities for where he is: x-isle, the living city; the Astral Plane; and the Dreamlands. We’ll get him back.”

Schism nodded slowly. “He said he’s trying to hold back a storm that’s trying to destroy everything, that he thought he might’ve helped a child before being swept away. And that he’s not sure how long he can hold on.” Her voice caught, then continued. “He said he could see us, but we couldn’t see or hear him.”

“I’m more worried about whatever this thing is that seems to poke its head in and foul up every time our magic users are trying something,” Brian chimed in, opening his eyes. “ Because I saw a demon and then almost was erased from existence, and I wasn’t even the one using magic.”

Schism looked at Angel and Aaron. “Does any of that sound familiar to your experience? And Brian, what’s this about a demon?”

Brian nodded. “I saw an imp. Looked like a dog with bat wings.“ he paused, looking at Aaron. “It wanted souls or peanut butter.” Aaron turned very slowly toward Brian.

“Wait. You know its name?” Schism questioned everyone and no one. Then, “Peanut butter? Is that a code word for something?”

“He said it was Shankerton Fleabottom, probably not real. I don’t know if actually wanted peanut butter, but, it looked like a dog. And it seemed kind of… derpy."

Aaron squinted, like his brain was just catching up to what was said earlier, then turned to Summers again “And did you say that Lady…. Vervain was one of your students? And that you’d reached out to her?”

“Yes, I wasn’t able to find out much. She’s said that she’s noticed things becoming more active recently. A lot of movement in the divine worlds. Many beings are looking for something or someone. I think it might be whatever it is that hurt Adnan.”

“When ever you go knock down doors to find him, I want in on it. I’ve got a date with a demon.” Aaron swung his legs down to try to leave his bed, but Nurse Joy appeared out of nowhere and gently discouraged him. “But for now,” he went on, obediently climbing back into bed, “I’m going to do minimal Work on campus. I’m not entirely sure it’s… no, scratch that, I’m entirely sure it’s not safe.”

Schism spoke up in a quiet, solemn tone. “Aaron, if this thing is also gunning for you, you’re putting yourself more at risk. You almost died just now. Let the rest of us do some of the heavy lifting.”

Aaron sighed and adjusted his pillow, sitting up elbows-on-knees. “That’s the plan, Simone.” He hung head a bit, then looked back up to her. “And I am genuinely sorry about the bracelet. When we get Adnan back, you two will just have to go get a new matching pair.” She was still holding the cloth-wrapped ashes tightly in her hand. “We’ve already lost one friend. I’ll sacrifice everything I have to make sure he’s back safe and you don’t get taken, too.” Aaron’s face and tone of voice took a serious turn. “No, we didn’t lose anyone. He was taken, and by my Power, we are going to take him back.”

Mr. Summers gave Aaron a long hard look. “There’s a bitter lesson that I had to learn, sometimes you need to take the time to heal. I’m proud of how the four of you worked together, but your spirit was affected, and, apparently, you can be tracked. Until you heal your body, and then, heal your soul, you need to slow down. Do you want to pull something more powerful? According to that imp, something’s looking for you. I’m also guessing that imp wasn’t here for you, it was looking for the source of what’s going on. It said it was blocked. Blocked by what? That’s an avenue of research for you, but later.”

Aaron flattened out, accepting his accomodations for the next 12 hours. “No Mr. Summers, I get it. You’ve called in the biggest guns I know of. As I said, I’m laying low and not inviting any otherworldy entities to my or our doorstep. You have my Word on that.” He took his phone out of his pocket and set it on the bedside table.

Cybersoul whirred briefly as Ms. Harcourt finished working. “I will stay with Aaron,” they said, their voice slow and quiet. “If he is hunted, I will keep him safe.” They sat back on their own bed, unblinking eyes trained on Aaron.

Long after the adults have left, Cybersoul held watch over Brian and Aaron. They had continued examining the ashed bracelet and fortune cookie pieces while Aaron slept, finding out very little new information. Simone was off to herself, carving a lightning bolt and the initials “AH” into her bracelet, right next to her own initials and the anarchy symbol that marked it as hers. Slipping it back on, she is struck by a thought. Schism snaps out of existence, then returns a moment later, triumphantly setting a huge can of peanut butter from the dining hall kitchen on her bedside table.

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Chiaroscuro Duality Vol 2 - A Shadowed Night, A Broken Knight
A Fool Once More

Huge thanks are owed to Justin for helping assemble this!

Hey, 3Journal. Sorry. I know I said I’d write more about what went down with the attack on the city. Trust me, I’ve been trying to. But last night is gonna have to come first. Oh jeeze, last night. Okay, that’s actually going to take some working up to. So let me give you excuses, first. Besides, the longer I write in you, the longer I can keep ignoring everyone looking at me all freaked out and worried here in the infirmary.

Between theater try-outs, creepy magical fortune cookies, ultimate frisbee, those centering yoga mornings I’m doing in the chapel, running around with Schism and Shadow almost every night, and, you know, actual SCHOOL, life is just nuts right now. And now with Next Gen Plus they want us to be real heroes, too. You’d think being on the team would at least let me skip a class or something.

And then there’s. . . the thing with Cybersoul. I really don’t even KNOW with that. Twilight Darkness let us link our brains when I was trying to land that jet downtown, so they could control the Chains of Perdition through the cabin glass and steer the plane. Which was, okay, not gonna lie, 3Journal, like, the 2nd or 3rd coolest freaking thing that’s ever happened ever.

But after that, we started, like, accidentally popping into each other’s heads. Occasionally at some really embarrassing times. Accidentally! Actually, I think they saw me fighting with Shadow the other day. . .

Oh jeeze, Shadow. At least things are pretty leveled out there, after last night. I hope.

Anyway, now I guess Cybersoul and I can link brains sort of at will? Which is exactly as crazy as it sounds, I know—and we definitely don’t have full control of it yet. Apparently my chains showed up and dragged them out of some Hell dimension the other night without my even knowing they were in danger. But it’s cool, too. Their brain is just, like, whoa. And they have given me some really, really good advice about a TON of stuff; they always have a great perspective on things. I am just really afraid that Twilight Darkness is angling for something there. He doesn’t have ANY business screwing with my friends. If he tried to lay some kind of claim on them, because of me screwing up, I’d just. . .

Ugh. Crap. Almost blew out the light overhead with that one. Now Aaron’s looking at me again. Write write write.

Okay, okay. Last night.

Look, I know it was stupid. Stop judging me, okay? I haven’t even TOLD you anything yet.

So, thing is, EVERYONE else is out there doing insane, crazy, death-defying stuff. Schism is so intense right now; I’ve never seen her like this. She’s chasing down every single lead, doing everything she can to find Adnan, leading folks on side missions and everything. Hence the blowing off steam with Shadow, I guess. But it’s not just her. MC went on some crazy dream trek spell with Telemachus. Aaron, White Witch, and Deaglan tried scrying on some coin and wound up touching HELL. It damn near melted Deaglan’s face off, and Aaron is STILL skeeved out about using his magic. Cybersoul went digging into the Otakubot’s consciousness for clues and nearly got virus’ed to death, if it weren’t for Brian and Schism. And then that big mission the other night, where Schism had folks looking into those freaky fortune cookies I talked about. They somehow wind up in some alternate dimension version of Wong’s. They even SAW Adnan. And barely made it out with their lives. Hence all my company in here today.

Point is, everyone else is out there, digging up clues, figuring stuff out, putting pieces together. And what am I doing? Yoga?! Pathetic. That isn’t what being a hero is all about!

And then Shadow says all that stuff about how maybe I just can’t handle her nights out with Schism. Look, I’m not proud of it, but that got under my skin, okay? I get it now. She’s using that to blow off the mental steam so she doesn’t totally lose control like she has before. But it hurt. And that made me miss that she was hurting, which is even worse.

So I went out. I figured I’d find some stuff out, too. Figured I was ready to be a big bad hero all by myself now. Could just fly out to the Fens, all spooky and dark, and rough up some criminals, and make them tell me other criminals’ names, and figure out where that warehouse they’re supposed to be locking up kidnapped kids in the Fens is.

Psh. I’m not that kind of hero. Maybe I’m not ANY kind of hero. I just walked around, getting cold and lost, for an HOUR. I finally get some kid to try to sell me some weed. I try to be all clever, ask him if he knows a bigger fish I can buy more weed from to start selling. Didn’t wanna screw with that kid; he seemed nice, just, you know, doing what he had to do. Man, I thought I was being so smooth. I’d even Googled what a dimebag was ahead of time.

Yeah, well it turns out that dude was hooked in with a local big bad dude called Rattlesnake who was looking for powered people for some kinda big job. I thought I’d hit it big. Get this Rattlesnake alone, wrap ’em up in the Chains, and make ’em squeal with the deets.

Nope. My new weed dealer buddy, Anvil, turns out to be powered himself. Along with everyone else that Rattlesnake—who, BY THE WAY, is a freaking animated slinky toy that’s creepier than ALLLLL get out—has gathered together to SPRING HIS BROTHER SNAKESKIN OUT OF SUPERHERO JAIL.

Yes, 3Journal. It would be appropriate to say that I was now completely in over my head. Apparently Rattlesnake is gonna pay off whoever brings his brother back safely without the cops on their tail, and, uh, KILL everybody else who fails? Jeeze. Now I am trying to figure out what the hell to do and before I know it we’re all running down the street toward some local precinct, ready to blow it wide open or whatever. I get above them. I want to maybe pick ‘em off one by one, you know? That’s what grimdark vigilantes do, right?

Yeah, well, I didn’t do ANYTHING useful except hide in the shadows on the rooftops till they got to the jail. And that’s when the STAR cops show up with super reinforcements; the whole thing is a freaking setup. One of the bad guys breaks out a freaking shotgun out of their arm and starts trying to murder the cops, who start shooting back.

I try to put the bad guys down with Harrowing, but too many of them resist it, and worse yet, the cops saw me and started shooting at ME! And my new buddy, Anvil, is out there, probably five seconds away from being the latest victim of murder-by-cop. Great.

So I go into Quicksilver form. Charge down the side of the building on Twilit Sparkler. Blind half the bad guys. But people are still shooting. And now Anvil freaks out at me for blowing HIS good name in front of the OTHER bad guys and clocks me with some flaming freak-out fist that knocks me halfway across the Fens. I managed to grab him on the way, so at least he doesn’t get shot up, but he was PISSED. Said that I’d put his whole family at risk with Rattlesnake and his gang.

So sure, he spits out that he got experimented on by old Mayor Grant, with a bunch of other kids at that. Woo. Information. Except I get back to school, and the news people say a BUNCH of people are wounded or dead, and Rattlesnake somehow got his supervillain buddies outta jail anyway, and this kid’s on the run for his freaking life, and ALL I’ve gotten is a name that everyone else had already gotten before. Totally useless. Worse than useless. Literally a threat to socie—

The passage breaks off with a sharp, heavy, jagged scratch of graphite, as though the pencil had been jammed against the page until it broke. There is nothing further.

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Dream Journey

(Thanks to Justin for writing the dream sequence)

MC is laying on a mostly comfortable couch, out in an abandoned nightclub, upper floors. As long as she doesn’t roll too far to her left, she can’t feel the one out of place spring. The air is crisp, as a broken window lets in natural breezes. Outside, a streetlamp fitfully tries to stay on. Prince Telemachus is nearby, his hair looks like the sea under the full moon, with splashes of color across a dark blue. He’s laid out his materials. He’s going to try and perform an Atlantean ritual. His fingers quickly touch the gems and plants it requires before his head shoots up to look MC in the eyes.

“Etiam! I think I’m good! Kate?”

A girl slinks out from behind the couch. Gently she puts one hand on MC’s head and gives a soft, expectant smile. “Are you ready for this?”

MC nods. Nearby, Tel begins chanting. Lightning courses from stone to stone, the pattern rises up and down in a pattern without beginning or end. MC feels Kate slip her into slumber. MC’s last thought: I didn’t even feel her get past my defenses.


On the mountains of the Rim, the warrior women stood guard. There was a dragon and it threatened to bring about the end of days. And so, it was decided to send out one of their own on a quest to find out the dragon’s name, for, how do you kill something when you don’t know its name? Lots were cast and a decision was reached. The brave girl who would go out was the little mage girl. They had found the mage girl in a lost castle and sheltered her for these many years.

The wise woman went to the girl and said “Do you remember your mother and father, do you remember their faces?” The girl shook her head because she did not remember them, nor did she honor their faces. “Oh, this is a bad omen.” The wise woman shook her head, sadly. “However, the earth and the wind have spoken. You must travel South into the dark forest, and meet the devil that lives there.

And so, the girl went South. She made her way into the dark forest. Water and shadow were friends here, and the girl stole her way through the terrible roots of the mighty trees. Thorns like knives sliced and cut her, and still she continued. At last, bleeding, she came to a stream, and rested. She called out to the stream and asked if it knew where the devil was. At once, there was a mighty roar, and something moved in the shadows around her.

“Who are you to come into my woods uninvited and speak to my river? Speak quickly, or I will snatch you up.”

The girl lifted her head from the river bravely, and said “I am sent by the warrior women of the Rim. I was sent to find the devil of the forest so that he may tell me the name of the dragon who threatens to destroy the world.”

Out of the shadows stepped a fearsome tiger whose stripes spelled his name in a thousand languages. “How can you be so foolish as to ask me the name of the dragon? Do you not know that the dragon has no name, but its titles are legion?” At this, the girl hung her head in shame. Seeing this, the tiger was moved, and forced to continue. “Girl of no castle that lives on the Rim, I will tell you that this young dragon that threatens us so, is like the scapegoat of the world, and so I will name it Kid. However, a name given is not enough, you must know what it wants. Go East, to the morning sun in the horizon, and find the firebird. Surely the firebird knows, for it, too, was born of the flames and wind.”

And so, the girl went East. For days she traveled, searching for the firebird, but, the horizon never got any closer. She kept going, forest and plains changed to blasted desert. The heat of it was overwhelming. Eventually, she had no water or food. She feared that she might die before she reached the world’s end, and so, she sat down and called out to the sun for help. Surprisingly, someone answered. There, before her, stepping out of the mirages, was a beautiful woman, whose hair was the rainbow.

“Stop, traveller, who are you to call out so pitifully and beg for mercy of the sun?”

The little girl tried to sound strong, but without food or water, her voice was merely a whisper. “I am sent by the warrior women of the Rim. For many days I travelled to find the devil of the forest. The devil, though, sent me toward the horizon to find the firebird. And so, I’ve travelled for many more days, but the horizon is no closer. Can you tell me how to find the firebird?”

The woman looked at the girl and laughed, raucously. As she did so, a thousand feathers launched from her and exploded from an overabundance of joy. “Rejoice girl, for you have found the firebird. I am she who sets this world ablaze. What do the warrior women of the Rim seek so desperately of me that they would send you to your doom?”

The girl said, “The dragon that threatens to destroy the world. I must know what it wants and sate that or surely we will perish.”

The woman looked at the girl and feathers floated around her pensively. “The dragon has no wants but freedom and destruction, for it was starved. You can only give it one of these, but, to know which one to give it, you must know its substance. On this I can not help you, for I live in the light, and it is trapped in the darkness. Go forth, and seek the old man of the mountains.

And so, the girl without food or water had to make her way back to the rugged mountains from where she came. Long did she travel, until the sky was only night and stars. And then, at last, she was returned to the mountains. Emaciated, she climbed. Many times she slid down, and so, did she begin her ascent again, until, at last, she reached the top of the tallest mountain. However, there was nothing there. In frustration, she struck the mountain and screamed.

The mountain turned and something carried her to its face. Instead of a mountain, she saw a monstrous bear who said unto her, “I have waited here for eons, sheltering this world from the sky, and protecting the communities that grow. Why would you strike me?”

The girl, who dangled between the bear’s giant claws, said “If you have watched the communities, then you know of the warrior woman of the Rim. I must learn the substance of the dragon, if I am to help save this world. Please, you have seen so much, what is the dragon?”

Slowly, the bear pointed her face upward toward the night sky, but rather than stars, she saw a thousand faces, they talked, laughed, cried. Far away though, a trail of storms gathered and came closer. Lightning flashed, and where it went, it blotted the sky, leaving nothing but itself. He then turned her in a different direction, and again there was the storm. As he kept turning her, the girl saw that the storm came from every direction. “The dragon is wind and fury to scour away the world. Even now, contained, it moves, seeking freedom, seeking death. The storm tamer seeks to end it. It calls to itself, and so, the storm tamer calls to himself.”

“But that doesn’t tell me anything. What am I to do?”

The tiger prowled out from behind the bear and roared “A gang of thieves stole from the dragon that which is most precious. You must take it back!”

The girl looked confused, “The thieves? Who are the thieves?”

The firebird flew past the girl and cried out, “Thieves offer paradise and drape it about themselves. But paradise is a mirage. You must seek out what is real.”

The bear spoke to her, but his words were washed away. The storm was here. The dragon was reaching out. In the sky, there were no stars. It was an endless storm and in its depths, a thousand eyes opened up. The girl felt herself pulled by the wind toward that terrible sky. Down poured an endless rain. There was no escape, she was drowning. Then, from nowhere, a mighty whale swam through the rain. Desperately, the girl grabbed at the whale to escape.


MC woke up, sputtering, clinging to Hype Whale. Kate was looking at her strangely, MC couldn’t really tell if it was because of the human sized orca whale or something else, but she could deal with that later.

MC put up her hand. “Don’t. I need a minute.” She went outside, cold wind hitting her face. She took a few deep breaths, and replayed the dream back in her head, committing every detail to memory. When she reached the part about the thieves, something about it didn’t sit right. Was she the thief? But what had she stolen? Maybe she was pursuing something that she had no right messing with. She had felt so out of control lately, with her powers, with her personal life, with her dreams. Maybe it was time to share what she knew, instead of plowing ahead on her own.

Emboldened by this decision, she texted Aaron. Can I talk to you? I found out something about Adnan, I think? In a dream. I need help sorting it out.

She got a response a few minutes later. Sure, I should be out of the infirmary just in time to spend my morning in class. Lunch?

MC sits at a table, her leg shaking nervously. She sees Aaron walk over and holy crap, he looks like hell warmed over. She had heard a little bit about what happened with Brian, Aaron, Schism, and Cybersoul, but whatever it was he looked worse for wear.

He sat down across from her and said, “What did you want to talk to me about?”

MC dropped a veil over the area, so they could talk privately. She had worked out what she was going to say in her head, but it all came out in a rush. “So Tel and I talked to Night Terror to see if she had heard of anyone else disappearing, like Adnan did. They got this idea that doing a dream journey might provide some useful information. I came to you first, because you will probably know what’s important and what isn’t. Some of it is really personal, and I trust you with that. Also…err…I’m not sure if people will approve of how I had this dream in the first place. Flora knows but…”

Aaron shot her a look that said, get to the point.

“It might be easier for me if I showed you.” She pulled out her laptop, and although it was turned off, images appeared on the screen. It was a black and white film started, with a girl walking into a dark forest.

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Crashing
Cybersoul goes home, and contemplates going home

Cybersoul thought they understood why humans sometimes referred to going to bed as “crashing.” It felt like a systems failure as they stumbled into their room after linking with the Otakubot, though in reality their systems remained intact. Their chassis felt heavy and awkward, too strange and too close, the way it had when they had first been uploaded to it. They had kept their memory of where the controls were, which was at least enough to take the stilted walk to their dorm, but delicate work like turning a door handle was nearly impossible. Closing the door behind them was out of the question. They managed to veer away from The Riddler’s pool – they would need to ask someone else to feed him until they got better control of their hands – and lay down on their bed. Cybersoul didn’t use their bed often, but it was just what they needed now. It didn’t have a comforter or sheets, but it was soft and flat, and more comfortable than Cybersoul had expected. Satisfied, Cybersoul began a complete systems diagnostic. This would take nearly an hour, and would involve shutting down each one of their functional processes. It left them vulnerable, and Dr. Wutherfield had said only to do it when he was there to watch them. But Cybersoul needed the diagnostics now. And… it seemed unlikely that any students would bother them while it was going on. Cybersoul trusted the students of Claremont to be good to each other – to be good to them. As conscious thought powered down, Cybersoul’s last thought was that they really were safe here, more than they had ever been before.

Cybersoul came to 43:08.41 minutes later, feeling better after restarting but still wary about their bodily control. They lay still as they examined the diagnostic reports. Linking with the Otakubot had been more dangerous than they had realized – his defense systems were full of viruses and kill codes that Cybersoul hadn’t noticed, even being as careful as they had been. It was only thanks to Simone and Brian that they were functional at all now. Cybersoul felt a surge of fear at how close they’d come to destruction, a rush of victory at coming out of it alright. The diagnostics confirmed what they had known already: logical processing and emotional cores remained sound, but the majority of their bodily control was lost. Their agility may improve faster the second time around, as they could reenact past commands, but it was still months of work lost to oblivion.

Dismayed at the loss but satisfied with their diagnostics, Cybersoul turned their thoughts back to the Otakubot. Now that they knew what to look for, they might be able to link up again more safely… but it was inadvisable to try again so soon. They wanted to, though, and not just for the thrill of it. The Otakubot was badly damaged, traumatized and barely able to control his body. Cybersoul knew how that felt. They couldn’t fix him the way Brian could, but perhaps the Otakubot would take comfort in shared experience. It certainly provoked an emotional response in Cybersoul. They had never met another AI before, though they knew some must exist. It was… strange, to think that they knew someone so similar to themself. Cybersoul did their best to parse out the individual emotions: excitement, pity, anxiety, hope. And… something else they couldn’t name. It was similar to the feeling of exploring Twilight’s mindscape.

Incoming message // From: Dr. Wutherfield // To: Lyra Polluck // Subject: Are You Alright?

In order to better pass as human, Cybersoul’s body was programmed to make several types of involuntary movements. Their chest rose and fell as if they were breathing; their skin changed color if they stayed out in the sunlight; their face made expressions in response to emotional stimuli. The groan they let out at receiving the message was one such reaction.

My dearest Lyra,

I have received some strange notifications about you. I’m reading that your motor systems went down a few hours ago, and you had to purge some serious viruses. What happened to you? Were you attacked? Do you need to come home?

Please respond quickly. I’m worried about you.

Dr. Wutherfield

Cybersoul spent the effort to turn their head to the side so they could watch the wax in their lava lamp. Maybe they ought to go back to Wutherfield’s lab for a while. Getting to six classes a day would be a nightmare with their body in its present state. But Cybersoul had never been one to do what they ought. There was work to be done at school. The Riddler needed to be taken care of; Adnan needed to be found; Cybersoul had a super-science test next week. They wouldn’t just leave in the middle of everything.

Wutherfield was likely waiting on an answer. How much to tell him? Cybersoul couldn’t lie, and didn’t want to. But they didn’t know why Wutherfield had been in the Otakubot’s memories, and they weren’t sure how much it was safe to tell him.

Outgoing message // From: Lyra Polluck // To: Dr. Wutherfield // Subject: re: Are You Alright?

Dr. Wutherfield,

You need not be alarmed. I came into contact with some aggressive firewalls as part of a student activity. I was forced to reboot some systems, but I believe I will progress quickly in re-learning the controls. I don’t wish to leave school.

They read the message several times. “Student activity” was a good label; it was vague enough that they could use it for almost anything. Still, they felt like something was missing. Hesitantly, they added,

Despite the setback, I hope you will be proud of my work here.

Lyra

They sent the message before they could rethink it, then focused once more on the lava lamp.

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Walking Past
Schism takes a late night stroll to clear her head

Simone teleported out of the Reggie’s dorm, out of the school, and into one of the bleaker areas of Freedom City. She wanted to follow up on some of the contacts that may know more about Adnan, but needed some time to calm down first. Her human image inducer kicked on, and an ethnically ambiguous woman in a dark coat slipped through shadows and away from curious eyes. She walked past split bags of trash, their thick, pungent odor ripening in the dead air, and past the puddles of vomit decorating the back doors of dive bars and clubs lining the alley. She walked past crude tags and jaggedly beautiful graffiti that memorialized a recent drive-by victim with a portrait and an epitaph: “SHE GOT THE ONLY FREEDOM YOU GET IN THIS CITY.” She remembered watching for the cops as the artist – the victim’s cousin – laid down the layers of spray paint like flowers blooming. It’s been a week, but nobody tries to tag over it. Out of respect. Because there are some things you don’t goddamn do, and one of them is turn on your own, not when they’re hurting. Is that a code they don’t teach in golden boy schools?

Something wasn’t right about this. Even in the fog of rage and betrayal, her mind went impatiently back over those last few minutes of the fight with Reggie, over and over again. He was one of her best friends, and he was comparing her to a villain, calling her a bad example to others, telling her that she wasn’t thinking about what she was doing or how she could be hurting others. Condemning her with one broad sweep that put all her intentions and strategies into a box labeled “BAD INFLUENCE.” It was like he had never known anything about her, how she always, always made sure that her friends wouldn’t regret experiencing the world on their own terms, that she’d never callously risk others. It was like their friendship had been nothing but a mirror, like he’d never seen her…

“Like he wasn’t even seeing me.”

She stopped suddenly, her voice startling an alley cat that had been rooting around some grime-encrusted dumpsters for a meal. She bent down to scratch its tattered ears and a gravely purr filled the quiet night.

That’s it. He wasn’t. The increasing velocity in his voice, the cracking, the sheen that betrayed tears that boys aren’t supposed to shed in this imperfect world (but still so much better than home, so much, nobody would be crying at home because nobody would believe they have any reason to, ever, this place is so much messier and so much better).

“He wasn’t seeing me. He was in pain and it looks like an old wound. One that he’s used to hiding. This wasn’t about condemning me. He’s never done that before, so why start now? This is about something else.”

“Mrow?”

Simone smiled at the cat and glanced around again. There was a burger, half-eaten and relatively fresh, dropped by a man who’d scrambled at the sight of police lights approaching a few minutes earlier. She teleported it to her hand and separated the beef from the bread and congealed mass of sauces, crouching down to offer up the morsel while she thought over the unfinished sentences of their argument once again, but this time with an analytical focus. High school kid, drinking and getting into a car. He wasn’t able to prevent something, to keep someone safe. Ok, that’s enough to go on.

Right then. Schism gave the cat one last bite of food and a pat before standing back up, phasing her hands briefly to clean them off. She teleported a short message to her contact about meeting later that night and prepared herself for the jump to her room and laptop. Time to do some digging and see what was hiding beneath that golden surface.

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Reaching Out to Nothing
An Extrasensory Exploration

There was something about the hum of a sewing machine. The pulsing repetition soothed her as much as the sound of crunching leaves or smell of fresh kindling. Her hands, gloved, moved purely on instinct, while her mind was focused on the construction of the garment she was working on. Her eyes glanced at the clock as she realized it was 9:30 PM, and that she had been working the past three hours and that suddenly she felt tired. Locking her stitch, Flora finally paused, sitting back and examining her work carefully. Good progress so far, she still needed to work on the movement, but the structure was coming along together. She decided to stop for now, beginning to clear her desk and get ready for the next day.

She looked over at the bulletin board above her desk. Hal and her Dad had sent pictures of peak season in Vermont; her brother complaining about the peepers overflowing Burlington like a swarm and her dad just wanted to give her a reminder of home. The pictures were pinned alongside homework reminders, her class schedule, event flyers, and sketches for future designs. Claremont Academy didn’t feel like home, but she was slowly easing into a routine and finding small comforts. Flora glanced to her hands, the threads slithering across her fingertips underneath the gloves.
She took a breath, and took her gloves off.

The threads hung loose, just barely tracing the floor. She felt them extend throughout her bones, shifting and reaching. The threads sent back little notes, the impression of the relative quiet of a school night; kids shuffling across the hall, or the vibrations of someone playing their music a little too loud. A thread, on her left index, wrapped around her palm; the tackiness of the thread brushing against her skin and reminding her of her pulse.

They weren’t really thread or string, made from cotton, rayon or spider silk. It was just easier to call it that then what it actually was; an organic compound from inside her that ran through her body. They could extend across halls and walls, sending back information to her that vibrated back through her. She felt things that others couldn’t and honestly shouldn’t.

Feelings were hard, whether physical or emotional, and Flora felt so unequipped to deal with all of them. The weight felt as if it would crush her at any second. She sat down, focusing on all of them: the vibrations, the doubt, the pulsing, the desire, the movement, and the knowing. They ran across her bones, through her thoughts, and reverberated throughout her being. In a snap she pulled her threads back, digging her hands to the safety of hoodie pockets before lying back on her bed and staring at the ceiling.

The one thread was still wrapped around the wrist and reinforcing her heart beat; as she watched as nine others were slowly slipping from the safety of her pocket. As much as it seemed like they were on a mind of their own, Flora she was the one pulling the strings at all times. Even if she didn’t really think about it, it was always her. She lifted her left hand, the threads extending and searching for something, someone.

The only thing she wanted to do was to reach out, but who was going to reach back to a freak like her?

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A Walk in the Woods

It was almost time for the party, but Thad needed to clear his head. So, he disappeared off to the woods. The wilderness had always felt more like home. The prep schools his parents had sent him to before were always so urban. This Claremont place wasn’t much better. At least before the curse he could have fooled himself into thinking this was the real wilderness. Now he could smell the city, the people, all of it.

Once he was far enough away that he was sure no one could see him, he shifted. Being a wolf felt good. It was beginning to feel more normal than being a person. That had been going on for a while and it worried him a little. But his life was never going to be normal again. Not that he had appreciated it much when it was. He spent every moment he could trying to get away from the superficial world his parents had now exiled him from. The wilderness was dangerous but at least it was honest.

The curse wasn’t all bad. Being a dog was nice. There was a simplicity to it, He had friends out here. Granted they were spirits, but they were friends. He worried a little that having friends like these were making him even less human. But he didn’t need to pretend to be anything for them.

His world was pretty rocked by being turned into a demon wolf. Being sent to superhero school was even weirder. Before classes started, he got introduced to a pixie, a guy who summons invisible walls, and a woman with imaginary friends that aren’t imaginary. His wierd-ometer was pinned all the way to the red, nothing phased him at this point, or so he told himself.

Truth be told, dinosaur overlords from other dimensions, satellites falling out of orbit, and summoning spirits by making fun of baseball just could not compare in mind bending horror to getting a wish granted by a demon. He’d only talked about that first transformation with things that were not human.

He didn’t think he’d ever be ready to talk to humans about that first time. He might not ever be ready to talk about any of it with humans. It was important to talk about these kinds of things, so in a sense his curse had given him options.

A shimmering wolf stepped out of the side of a tree and looked at him, “you are uncertain about the Cassel girl?” it said with an inhuman voice. Thad sighed, “yes, I am. I did not expect you to be here.” The spirit smiled at him “that is good for you. Why are you uncertain about the Cassel girl?”

That was about to shrug but remembered that wolf shoulders didn’t quite move that way. “Because she’s my only human friend, because I really REALLY like her, but her parents hunt people like me. If I had had known her last name.” The spirit interrupted “it would have changed nothing.” Thad glared wryly at the spirit, “I should have known. She smelled familiar.” The spirit turned serious “you have doubts about her?”

Thad howled at the rising moon, out of frustration and not out of his growing sense of wildness, or so he told himself. “She didn’t seem like she was lying. She said she liked me. She said she wasn’t like her parents, that she hid her last name because she didn’t want people like me to be afraid of her, and I really want to believe her. She’s my only friend, well, my only human friend left.” Thad slumped to the ground. “None of the others could handle me after I was cursed, I hate being alone, I changed.”

“Yes” said the spirit, “but not as much as you think. Your kind was never meant to see what you saw. Humans over complicate things. If you like her, then like her, if you trust her, then trust her. However, be aware that she is ensorcelled, Choose.”

“Ensorcelled?” Thad said, worried about his friend as much as asking a question. “Always remember that you need to be careful about bargains. That will resolve itself soon enough. Do you trust her or not? Choose.” At that moment, that knew two things: he trusted MC, and everything he knew about magic was contained in that time he accidentally watched Harry Potter as the inflight movie instead of Creed. He would have to find a way to investigate further.

The spirit vanished. Or at least Thad hoped it was a spirit, otherwise he was seeing things in addition to turning into a dog. Thad shook himself and went back to the edge of the woods. His friend was hurting and wanted to throw a rave party to take her mind off loosing someone. He needed to find a costume.

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Tech Talk
Who needs a Counselor when there's a Tech Lab

It was late when an insistent knocking found its way to Reggie’s door. He yanked the headphones off of his head and paused, making sure he’d heard it right. His day was bad enough with the fight earlier. He just wanted to rage out to some speed metal at 10x speed and finish his homework.

Again, the knocking.

It was well after lights out, Reggie thought. Who would risk the trouble?

Opening the door, he found Jeff, battered and bruised. He didn’t seem too stable on his feet. Reggie helped him in and sat him down. “Man what happened to you?”

Jeff sighed and fell back on Reggie’s bed. His shirt rose up slightly and Reggie could see that the bruises covered most of the exposed skin. “A rough day.” Jeff began. “A rough day that led into an even worse night. I’m going to need your help with something…”


Later, in the same labs where Reena had accidentally turned Jeff’s hair purple freshman year, Jeff stood in his gleaming white armor, the blue shield emitters humming with power. Reggie sat behind a terminal with several readings monitoring Jeff’s barrier strength.

“See, when I push the barrier to help people around me,” Jeff began, while activating the subroutine that blew the blue barrier off of himself and coating several nearby targeting dummies in glowing blue pixelated shields, “the strength of the barrier drops dramatically. Now, there’s no reason that should happen. The suit’s psionic shield boosters aren’t even running at 50% before I push the barriers and then they’re running at an even lower strength after I push. I don’t know why there’s such a drop off. It’s an entirely different system that handles the projection.”

Reggie confirmed Jeff’s assessment on the terminals in front of him. “Yeah that’s… wow… a major drop off. Huh.”

“Yeah, that huh nearly got me and MC killed tonight.” he grumbled, letting the field retract before collapsing onto a stool.

Reggie threw his hands up “Sorry man, didn’t mean to make light of it, just it’s weird. Hey, why don’t I call Luke in to help, he’s got a good head for tech suits.”

“Don’t you fucking dare!” Jeff yelled, unintentionally blasting nearly all of the targeting dummies across the lab. Things got silent in the lab, minus the occasional bit of metal or glass falling from broken lights

After a few tense moments, Jeff got up and started pacing. “Sorry, that’s no way… you shouldn’t have to put up with me blowing up at you.”

Why not. Seems that’s what friends do today. Reggie thought to himself.

“Just… Luke and I aren’t really speaking at the moment. He’s hiding something from both me and Jason and it feels like something big. So for now, the last thing I want is him near my suit. Not until we’ve figured out who this “Daddy” person is.”

“Listen I’m not one to make the obvious joke but wow that name seems a bit on the nose.”

Jeff laughs “Yeah, it would be if Luke’s dad wasn’t a crazy super-villian that Luke would probably try to … yeah, Luke’s got a bunch of daddy issues. I guess we can add to them “sneaking off to meet some stranger in the middle of the Fens”. Because that’s a good idea.”

Reggie makes some calculations with his left hand while making adjustments to the barrier interface with his right. “Seems like self destructive coping is a running theme these days. Simone’s taking Adnan’s vanishing pretty hard. She’s turned the whole “screw the rules!” thing up to 11. I called her on it and…yeah that went about as well as you can imagine.”

“Guessing she was the source of the booze from the party I missed?”

“Got it in one.”

“Fun! I spend my pre-teens running around with someone who cracked drug dealers over the head with a tire iron for peddling to kids and now we’re doing it to ourselves. I haven’t heard any gossip, so guessing no one got hurt or completely wasted?”

“Na she was smart about it. Teleported people and siphoned the booze out. But that isn’t the point. I just…it’s a touchy subject for me. Wait…tire iron? You ran with Red Line?!”

“Uhhh, yeah. Probably shouldn’t share that around. I was his sidekick towards the end of his career. He never let me fight. Said it wasn’t good for a kid’s conscience or something like that. So I did a lot of protecting and making ramps for his car. Barriers for those chasing us. That’s how I got the name actually. He started calling me Barricade after I made a jersey barrier in front of a getaway car. Said I was like a police barricade, but with 100% less police. He thought that was really funny for some reason.”

“Wow,” was all reggie could manage as he looked up from the screen for the first time since they’d started.

“Any way,” Jeff continued, “The booze. It’s a dangerous precedent, right? If someone’s always there to sober you up, why not go full out? I don’t mean to dig though, we can drop it.”

“No you’re good. Sorry to gripe and steal the “woe is me” spotlight. But I guess what I’m saying is, other than I’m a total ass and probably owe Simone an apology, we’re all dealing with our own crap. On top of all this OTHER crap. Simone is ramping up the self destructiveness and instead of helping I went and made her feel judged. I’m sure Luke has something going on too.”

“You’re fine.” Jeff chuckles. “You didn’t just toss a half-dozen brand new targeting dummies across the lab… and through at least 3 overhead lights. Luke’s just being. I dunno. He’s pulling away. If he wants out, he should just say it. I don’t know why he’s keeping secrets from me and Jason. We literally have each other’s back. This is just wrong. We got into it a little bit in the field, which was really irresponsible of me. I need to talk to him later. When I’m not so… explody”

“Well…when you’ve got each others backs like that, saying you want out might not be as easy as not saying it? If you haven’t noticed, a lot of us aren’t exactly equipped to deal with complex emotional drama. Which is kinda hilarious considering the media we were raised on…wait.” Reggie’s head blurs briefly as he rapidly looks from the monitor to his notepad over and over again. “Did you say explody? Oh snap! Ok…ok…gimme a sec.”


A few minutes later Reggie and Jeff had removed several plates from the chestpiece of the suit. Reggie had pulled up a work lamp with a magnifying glass and was peering intently into some circuitry next to one of the suit’s shield emitters. Over and over Jeff extended and pulled back the shields.

“I see it!” Reggie yelled. “I see the diverter switch! Do it again!”

Jeff carefully extended and retracted the blue field. “That’s exactly it!” Reggie exclaimed. “See there’s a makeshift diverter someone installed after market that drops in and sends half the energy away from the power cells and over to the range extender everytime you extend’em out. Weird it’s like someone was purposefully limiting what you can do with the suit so you wouldn’t realize what you could really do with….oh man this was your mom wasn’t it?”

“Probably, she’s certainly got the skill to do that. And she knew I was using dad’s suit long before she told me what I’m sure you figured out while working with her.” Jeff replied, taking a seat. “But what do we do about it?”

Reggie scratched his head, ignoring Jeff’s correct assumption. “Well, we could replace the diverter relay with a simple gate relay. I think that is probably what was initially there. That would let energy flow fully into both systems. Could also overload everything and…kaboom!”

Jeff raised an eyebrow. “I don’t know about yanking that out and becoming a bomb, Reg. I’ve seen those videos online where they mess with the release valve on hot water heaters.”

“FAIR!” Reggie replied. “But in your case, it’s more like a speed-limiter on a school bus. Everything here is built to handle a lot more power than you’re tossing around. I don’t think you’re capable of overloading either system yet. I mean, one day we might have to come back and adjust, but that day isn’t today. However, there is another problem…”

“A brown-out,” Jeff replied. “There’s a chance that not enough power ends up in the right system and the whole thing shuts down.”

Reggie nodded. “Exactly that. But I’ve been thinking. If you carefully monitor the energy flow via the system’s built-in regulators, you should have no risk of that. But it will take a lot of your attention in a fight to manage. You’re going to be a sitting duck.”

Jeff thought about it for a few moments.

“Let’s do it.” he said. “I’m not going to be put in that situation again.”

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Duncan Summers Memo to Next Gen
Session 3 Info Dump

To: Next Gen
From: Principle Summers
Re: The Recent Attack Upon Freedom City

As you know, recently, we were confronted with a coordinated attack from several unaligned sources: The Crime League via Fearmaster and the attack on Lighthouse, Power Corp, and the dimension-traveling, world conqueror, Cerebrus Rex. The targets of these attacks were threefold: cripple and diminish the symbol of Freedom League by destroying their orbital base and taking out Centuria, sew chaos and destruction within the city, and to cause psychological harm amongst the students here.

The attack first began by altering the precognitory insights of Foreshadow, a hero in the city that’s been waging war on organized crime. Next, Cerebrus Rex, a conqueror and mad scientist Tyrannosaurus from an alternate timeline where there was no meteor impact, used organized crime to distribute laced candy that would instill a virus that would transform humans into were-dinosaur zombies. A treatment was found for this from our very own Apothecary.

The more dramatic action began after that, with members of the Crime League managing to bypass the defenses of the Lighthouse, the orbiting space station home of the Freedom League. The combined assault of several superpowered members of the syndicate, including Orion and Freebooter, managed to overwhelm Thunderbolt, a former student of ours, puncturing his armored containment suit. They hacked into the system and set the Lighthouse on a trajectory to crash into London. Thanks to the unexpected intervention of some of Next Gen, the destruction of Lighthouse was prevented and Orion was captured.

While this was happening, the Crime League sent out Fearmaster to harry the Next Gen students using psychological torture to cripple members of the team, and, a poor, brainwashed NGM, whom some of you might know as he just graduated last year. The team managed to disable NGM, who was being controlled by some upgraded armor, and, capture Fearmaster.

In downtown Freedom City, Power Corp, a group of armored mercenaries using high-tech weapons, challenged Centuria and Lady Liberty in the air, while shooting them with alien sniper rounds. Their purpose was to take out the one of the largest symbols of hope in the city in front of the eyes of the world. While this occurred, explosions rocked the city, and the rioting on the ground also occurred in the air, as a plane lost control and started crashing. To make matters worse, a giant shard started descending from space. Should it have landed, it would have brought devastation similar to a nuclear warhead. The shard exploded in space to become thousands of needles to increase the area of devastation and loss of life.

The students took care of the city problems, the plane, and the sniper nest. Then, they assisted the two Freedom League members in stopping the Power Corps members, capturing one, as well as preventing the shard swarm from landing. Together, they sent it into the bay.

Bowman, and the Next Gen students assisting him, sabotaged the engines of Cerebrus Rex’s flying fortress; causing him, the fortress, and his robo-dinosaurs to fall into another dimension. While there, they picked up the names Ms. Scarlet and Dr. Reeds.

FOLLOW-UP:
Siren went to gather up the needles and didn’t find anything other than a few pieces of explosives. She has consulted with mystical forces, and it seems that the entire shard was crystalized shadow pulled up from dark dimension, Shattenwelt.

The Power Corp member doesn’t know who hired them. They would receive full payment for defeating Centuria, and half for “showing that she’s mortal like her father.” So far, the Crime League members aren’t talking about who hired them.

Tracing the financial actions of this led to several companies including: Labrys Industries; Crosstech; Rice and Stillman Holdings; The Grant Corporation; LSAS, Inc; and Rex Steyer’s, better known to you as Apex, company. However, one company stood out: Delphic Industries. Constantine Urallos, it’s head, and the name Ms. Scarlet, have been heard in these contexts before. They are both connected with an Illuminati group of some kind. Ms. Scarlet has been popping in and out of view for over a century. From clues we’ve put together, and words they’ve let slip, we know that “The Center,” or innermost group, of this Illuminati group is an enclave of powerful people.

For this Dr. Reeds, there are too many possibilities for us to really narrow anything down. The most promising possibility was a doctoral graduate of HIT who died fifty years ago. However, this is Freedom City, so we’re not ruling that out.

Besides financial activity, we also noticed an uptick in disappearances, specifically, kids. We were specifically looking at this due to Adnan’s investigation into pharmaceuticals and our own prior investigations. The places that seemed to match up between the two were places where some kids were seemingly abducted. Of note to some of you due to mentoring kids last year, is that among them is Steven Harper and Paula Barry.

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