#9: Mystic Engine

The plans that were confiscated from the girl were an utterly indecipherable mess. There were letters from a language he could not understand and images that appeared to be completely random—a cityscape here, a flower there. And something about the entire thing was…off, enough so that he felt tremendous relief when he looked away. How on earth were these things supposed to add up to the design schema for any kind of machine?

Suppressing the impulse to simply crumple up the plans and throw them in a fire, Grand Duke Ovladt turned to his prisoner, this “Madeline Finch”, again. She looked like she was on the verge of passing out, and indeed would have by now, were she not firmly in the grip of a guard.

He moved the plans to the edge of the table and reached for his quill and a notebook that was already a quarter-filled with the details of the girl’s capture and initial interrogation by the city guard. Ovladt leaned back in the tall leather chair.

“Let us begin. How did you get these?”

“I don’t remember.”

Ovladt did not scoff or become angry. As always in these situations, he was indecipherable. He never believed in being either the determined persecutor or the compassionate inquisitor. Instead he found it best to leave his prisoners teetering on the edges of hope and despair.

“Yet these are the plans for the mystic engine? Not some kind of hoax?”

“Yes.”

“How do you know?”

Here she paused and frowned. “I…don’t know. I just do.”

Somehow, though, Ovladt knew that they were indeed the plans to the mystic engine or else some other artifact of similar occult proportion. Nothing had ever made him feel so uneasy just by looking at it.

“Where are you from?” Ovladt resumed, ponderously scribbling down her words and his thoughts.

“Cornwall.”

“Where is that?”

“The United Kingdom.”

Ovladt glanced at the only other person in the room, the apothecary Lacmyr. Cornwall? The United Kingdom? No such places existed anywhere on the island, he knew that much, nor did Cornwall sound like a likely place name from any of the five languages he knew. He hoped to see some recognition from her, since she was more well-traveled than most diplomats and captains he met, but she appeared as confused as he was.

He turned around to Lacmyr. “The herbs you gave her, they’re not compromising her sanity?”

The apothecary Lacmyr was one of the few people he trusted (and that was in no small part because Ovladt’s continued existence was the only thing between her and a judicial execution for some or all of the uncounted murders by poison she was an accomplice to), so he believed her when she replied, “She’ll only be unable to lie or say nothing. There should be no side effects apart from physical exhaustion.”

The name she gave the city guard, “Madeline Finch”, did indeed sound foreign. He had assumed it was Darusean, but perhaps she was from far to the east, from one of the lands of which even scholars knew little more than a name. Whatever the mystery of the mystic engine, she was far more than simply a courier tasked with carrying the plans for the legendary mystic engine to his enemies. Somehow she was inexorably tied to its mysteries as well.

While closing the notebook, he called for the guard. After giving the girl a contemptuous look, he casually asked, “Shall we kill her now, Your Excellency?”

“Hm? Oh, no. On the contrary, take her to a comfortable but windowless room somewhere, and she’s to be allowed to rest and given whatever provisions she needs. Make sure there’s three guards at her door at all times until I say otherwise. Also have they found my court sorcerer yet?”

“No, Your Excellency. But we have sent an airship patrol to the borderlands to try to intercept his kidnappers.”

“It would be just like him to get himself abducted by that little pack of worthless vagabonds just when he can finally be useful for a change. But no matter, the important thing for now is that we have all the pieces of the puzzle in our keeping. We can uncover how to decipher it at our leisure. Now go.”

“Your Excellency,” the guard said with an extravagant bow before departing.

Lacmyr looked at her master curiously. “So you sense it too, then? There is something…off about both those plans and the girl.”

“Yes,” Grand Duke Ovladt said, feeling an involuntary shudder. “As if we are on the cusp of the secrets of Creation itself.”

***

“This was probably not a good idea,” Amar muttered, more to himself than to Jon as they lay in bed.

“Maybe,” Jon replied, but kissed Amar’s hand regardless. “On the bright side, though, since we’re in a place that doesn’t really exist, maybe it never happened.”

“If we get out of here,” Amar answered. After a few more seconds of resting his head against Jon’s arm, he rose and started to dress. Jon, with a bit of reluctance, followed suit.

Expanding an amount of courage equal to the amount he needed to get through a few life-threatening situations, he asked, “What did you mean, a moment ago?”

“Hm?”

“‘This wasn’t a good idea'”.

“‘Probably’, I said.”

“Why is that?”

Amar waved his arms around. “The circumstances, obviously.”

“So, what happens if and when the circumstances change?” Jon couldn’t help but be a bit surprised that he was being more direct than usual with his romantic and sexual partners.

Amar only answered with a quick but sincere kiss.

“Well, speaking of what’s going on, what should we do next?”

“You’re this count or whatever’s court magician, right?”

“Grand Duke and court sorcerer, but yeah.”

Amar sat down in a meditative position. “Well, then, they’re probably looking for you. Let me reach out with my mind and get us caught by the villains.”

***

It took a few hours, but Amar planted a “spontaneous thought” in the mind of the commander of the guard at the nearest village, who rapidly sent word up the command chain. By that evening, Jon and Amar were being hailed for their harrowing escape from the Grand Duke’s enemies and being sent back to the capital in a luxurious airship that Jon compared to a floating yacht.

It was a windy but warm night when they finally arrived back in the city. They were brought into a palace seemingly large enough to encompass a major city’s entire downtown area. Past the museum-like atriums and the shining banquet halls, Amar and Jon were escorted by two guards to an office lit by a few sparse candles.

Sitting behind a ridiculously spacious desk was a tall man with long, curled hair, draped in purple and black robes and jewels. Amar knew nothing about Legend of the Steam Cities apart from what Jon mentioned, but even so, he knew he was face to face with the series’ grand antagonist, the Grand Duke Ovladt. Behind him, almost hidden and sitting against the wall with her face between her arms in a jeans and an Amanda Palmer t-shirt was Madeline Finch.

“There you are,” Ovladt said without even looking Jon in the face. “I was concerned that you would have gotten yourself killed just when you were in a position to provide me with a service other than quasi-accurate prophecies and occasionally effective sigils.”

Saying nothing, Jon bowed. Ovladt made a gesture to one of the guards, who brought a map etched out on dark red parchment. “Decipher this, even if it takes you all night.”

“Your Highness,” Jon muttered as insincerely as he dared. Still, he stared at the map for about five minutes and all he saw was a messy plethora of words and drawings that added together to nothing and everything and that seemed to literally shift before his eyes. Without thinking, he turned to Amar. “I think this might be what we’re after.”

At that, Madeline stirred from her reverie. “What do you…”

The Grand Duke angrily interrupted. “What on earth are you doing, consulting with some servant? And I thought you of all…”

Amar stepped forward. “We don’t have time for this cosplay nonsense.” He snapped his fingers and the guards in the room stepped forward. They looked uncertain, but they still moved like professionals on a job. At that, Ovladt’s face blossomed purple with rage. “Who the hell are you to speak to me like that, you puffed-up little worm? I will have you and your master impaled before the city gates. I will…”

“Guards, this man has been impersonating the Grand Duke for months now,” Amar announced matter-of-factly. “Don’t listen to anything he has to say even when you are far from this room and make sure you give him the worst, dankest accommodations these premises have to offer until we decide what to do with him.”

Without a single word or even a change in their demeanor, the two guards dragged the Grand Duke out of the room, who was ranting about the witchcraft being used against him.

“You know, in the books, it took about 600 pages before he got his ass beat like that,” Jon said, genuinely impressed.

“Well, no offense, but I’m really starting to miss the real world. And besides, I think the real threat is over there.”

Madeline was standing as far away from the two men as possible. She was hungry, exhausted, and nearly broken from being berated by these people that shouldn’t even be real. “Threat? You just put some hoodoo on those guards and I’m the threat?”

“Amar, wait. It’s this…thing.” He showed Amar the parchment. “I don’t know what it is, but I think it’s what’s generating the reality warp.”

Amar shook his head. “It’s just part of it. You were right. Consciously or not, her powers are why this is happening.”

“That can’t be true,” Madeline would have shouted if she had the energy. “I’ve been through hell the past few days. If I was responsible for any of this, why would I put myself through all that?”

“That’s a good point,” Jon answered.

“I couldn’t sense it before, but now that I’m close…in psychic energy terms, she’s like an atomic bomb,” Amar explained. “And there’s something else here, too…”

Amar could sense Madeline’s exhaustion and, during his brief conversation with her and Jon, he had been mentally testing out her psychic defenses, looking for vulnerabilities that would let him overload her consciousness. It was too much of a risk to try to force her to reverse the reality warp, at least if she was fully aware of her powers by this point. A small part of him worried about what Jon would make of such tactics. However, since she had the ability to completely liquefy both of their insides with just a thought and a little concentration, subtlety and kindness were surely liabilities.

However, Amar underestimated Madeline’s instincts. He found himself almost completely locked out of her mind just when he was about to bring his own power to bear. Worse, the walls of the castle were suddenly gone and Amar felt a cold wind at his face. Suddenly, it was no longer nighttime in a capital city. It was a bright afternoon on a snowy mountain.

Jon, who was still holding the plans for the mystic engine, shouted. Literally appearing out of nowhere and bearing down on them with his sword drawn was a furious Astavis.

Without thinking and completely abandoning his efforts to subdue Madeline, Amar leapt and knocked Jon out of the way of Astavas’s rampage. Amar felt the sting of his sword grazing his back. The freezing snow cushioned their fall, but within seconds, they were actually lying against a cobblestone street on a rainy day. The people around them began shouting and running. A couple of guards in uniform and carrying rifles ran toward them. Astavis, however, was still there.

“What are you doing to cause this madness, sorcerer?” he screamed at Jon.

“Believe it or not, I’m a huge fan,” Jon shouted back. “But I can’t believe you think we’re causing this, you moron!”

Amar tried to make his way back inside Madeline’s mind, but by this point, it was like trying to tunnel through a mountain with a tablespoon. Instead he became dimly aware that the terrain had shifted to the most gorgeous and well-manicured garden he had ever seen in his life. Madeline fully stood up and pointed down at Amar like a vengeful god.

#8: Over the Moors

“If I’m dead, how am I still feeling pain?” Amar muttered as he more stumbled than ran.

“Just got to keep moving until we literally can’t anymore,” Jon panted out. “They can’t land the airship anywhere around here, but still the further the better.”

“If the ground is so soft, why does my body feel like one giant bruise?” Amar whined.

“You’ve been in much nastier situations. I’ve heard stories.”

Amar grunted. “Those were then. This is now.”

Jon looked around. It was dusk and a chorus of insects rose up to welcome the night. All he could smell was his own sweat. He wished he was in his suit. At least the Technocrat designed them to absorb and negate the smell of sweat.

As they kept moving, Jon noticed the storm clouds were starting to gather. Just when the need for shelter was about to get real urgent, Amar tugged on his arm and his voice whispered in his head. Over there.

Growing out of the side of a gently sloping hill was a cabin.

“There,” Jon said. They moved toward the cabin at a snail’s pace. Jon knocked and called out, but there wasn’t even the sound of footsteps. They waited for what seemed like an hour with Amar resting on the ground.

Jon muttered to himself and started searching the pockets sewn into the interior of his robes. As Amar watched him in total confusion, Jon pulled out a lockpick and began work on the cabin door.

“Superheroes typically pick locks?” Amar asked, amused.

“No joke. It’s required for all Final Guard members on the field. I guess it was too low-tech to get changed by the reality warp.”

It took some tries, but eventually the door creaked open. Amar looked reluctant to cross the threshold.

“Are you sure about this? People who live out in the middle of nowhere tend not to react well to trespassers.”

Looking around, Jon noted that the somewhat spacious cabin had walls were decorated with stuffed birds and a couple of deer heads.

“It’s not a home, it’s a hunting lodge…I hope.”

Amar could smell the rain on the wind and see the sky getting darker, so he did not argue the point.

There was no other furniture in the entire cabin except a wooden table and some chairs, so Amar kicked off his mud-caked shoes and made a beeline for the bed. He would have probably fallen asleep right there if Jon hadn’t shouted triumphantly, “Amar, I found food!”

“Where?”

“In the back, there’s a….whatever you call it, a really old-timey pit to keep food in storage. And some wine too.”

“I guess they don’t have toilets too?”

Jon groaned, then laughed. “No. Why? You got to go?”

“Actually, not right now, but I’m already dreading when I have to.”

Jon came back within view with fruit, cheese, and a peach wine. For the first time, Amar noticed how easy smiles came to Jon’s pale, red-bearded face, much like how the experiences from the past day had curiously made him aware how Jon pulled at his own long hair when he was nervous or afraid. “There’s not much, which I guess is a good sign they won’t be coming back anytime soon. It still looks safe to eat, though.”

Amar sighed. His exhaustion outweighed both hunger and thirst. “Good.”

Jon waited a moment before he asked, “Don’t they use earth closets or something where you’re from?”

“Yes, but I didn’t realize until now that your vastly superior civilization has spoiled me.”

***

After they ate and took care of their bodily functions (to a reasonable degree of satisfaction), Amar and Jon sat down on the bed and talked through the pouring rain outside. Not once did either bring up the mission they were on. Their discussions ranged from that time when Jon and the Rooks stopped Amar from copying his consciousness into a organic supercomputer (which turned out to be a scam being run by a cabal of mad scientists they all had to fight against, anyway) to the ridiculous cost of rent in Chicago.

“But do you like it here?” Jon, who was reclining on the bed and resting his against the wall, wanted to know. “I mean, not here, but my world, I guess.”

“I mean, I don’t know if I’ve just been there so long or I’m trying to cope with the fact I’ll probably never see home again, but…yeah, I do like it here for the most part. Still, though, I think of Kadingir every day.”

There was an awkward yet pleasant pause. Jon broke it by gently asking, “Do you mind telling me about it?”

Seeing Amar’s surprise, Jon stammered out, “If you want to. I don’t…”

“No, it’s fine ! I just…I’d like to. I forgot you’ve never actually been there like most of the Final Guard has. I guess the place on Earth that I’ve been to I’d compare Kadingir to is eastern Europe. Gorgeous blue mountains, deep forests, ancient villages tucked away in valleys…” Amar didn’t look sad as he talked, but the atmosphere around him certainly took a bittersweet tinge.

“How did your people get there?”

“Oh, that’s a whole epic right there, but I guess we’ve got time.”

“I know I do.”

“Well, okay, like anything, there’s variations, but the basic story most of the temples still teach is that our ancestors were created by the gods over the sea. That’s literally their name in my language. The gods over the sea were proud and wanted to be worshiped by all beings in the world, but they were opposed by the gods of the land who were basically the gods your people know as the Babylonian pantheon: Ishtar, Marduk, Sin, and the rest.

There was a terrible war between the gods of the land and the gods over the sea that nearly split all creation asunder. The  gods over the sea forced our ancestors to fight against the gods of the land, but the gods of the land convinced them of the wickedness of the gods of the sea and allowed our ancestors to settle among their people after the gods over the sea were finally defeated for good.”

“That’s kind of a weird creation myth, though.”

“Oh?”

“Yeah. Like, claiming that these evil gods made your people to fight for them.”

Amar laughed. “Yeah, this scholar actually wrote a book about that where I’m from. She argued that it was an allegory for original sin or something like that. Maybe she’s right.

Anyway, there really isn’t much about our early history when we still lived on the First World. But the legends do agree that there were never very many of us and we kept to ourselves from the normal humans. ‘The Strangers’ is what the old accounts call them. I mean, there are stories that we helped them against invaders or we were complete jerks to them and made them worship us as gods or whatever, and there’s this entire genre of legends about the Strangers tricking us or stealing from us, but the bottom line is that in the really old days our tribes kept away from their tribes.

But then while our ancestors stayed semi-nomads, just building temples and shelters we’d return to every now and then, the Strangers started building cities, and out of them came city-states and next kingdoms and finally empires. And the more organized they got, the more they feared and outright hated us for our powers.”

“Didn’t your people have an advantage, though?”

“At first, sure, but even 20 of us can’t hold out against a trained army of hundreds that knew how to make and use weapons of metal. And it got so bad that they literally did send armies to hunt us down, even when we fled into the most inhospitable deserts and mountain ranges. Then one day a woman named Kutalu traveled to all the surviving tribes and promised them that she could take them all to a new world like the one they knew, but where there would be no other humans who would track them down with their horses and bronze weapons.

A few refused, but most did listen because Kutalu was apparently already famous. See, through our entire recorded history, most of us just get one of a few powers, what you call telepathy, telekinesis, pyrokinesis, and clairvoyance. A few of us each generation have two of those powers. But Kutalu…she could manipulate the very fabric of the universe itself.

In fact, we’re…I mean, my family are descended from Kutalu or so they say. Kadingir was founded right at the point where my people crossed over into the new world. Kutalu’s descendants were tasked with protecting the gateway between worlds, hence my family ended up ruling Kadingir.”

Amar paused, as if considering something. “Hey, do you mind if I share something telepathically with you for a bit? It’s going to disorienting, but I think you’ll find it worth it.”

Jon was confused, but nodded without hesitation. Suddenly, as if a switch was thrown, his view of the room around him went away. Instead he was standing in the midst of a rocky desert. He could feel the dry heat weighing down on his skin. All around him was a crowd of hundreds of people in simple tunics and robes, whispering to each other in a language he could not understand. A few were crying. He could taste his own fear.

Stay calm,  Jon. I’m just broadcasting a memory to you. A very, very old memory that telepaths have been preserving and passing down across many generations.

Wait, Jon thought, finding it somewhat difficult to distinguish his thoughts from the long-dead person whose memory this was. You mean this is…

Yeah. This is the memory of a man named Ipqu, who watched Kutalu perform a miracle.

Jon could not control Ipqu’s eyes, but eventually Ipqu turned his attention away from the people around him to a woman near the center of the crowd, whom none had dared stand near. She was a young woman in her twenties with olive skin and raven-black hair whose clothing was distinguished from the crowd only by a silver necklace bearing the image of a star. She bent her torso, as if deep in meditation and prayer. Then, slowly, she lifted her arms to the cloudless sky. There was a flash of light that Jon at first thought was a trick of the sun, but he quickly realized it was actually coming out of thin air. The bright, cloudless sky started overlapping with a night sky full of unfamiliar stars, the desert sands impossibly giving way to lush grass. As the transition unfolded, many of the people either started excitedly talking between themselves or fell to the ground, praying. Suddenly, she collapsed, and several people rushed forward and helped her up. A voice Jon did not recognize, certainly her voice, could be heard inside his, actually Ipqu’s, head. Jon didn’t understand the words, but they were soothing, triumphant.

When she finished speaking, the memory ended as soon as it began. Once again, he was in a hunting lodge in a moor in a country that shouldn’t actually exist. Already Ipqu’s memory felt like an odd daydream.

Amar, who had been sitting with his feet to the floor, flung his legs onto the bed and rested his head on his knees.

“Sorry if that was—”

“No, it’s okay.”

Amar didn’t look convinced. “Are you sure?

“Of course. It was beautiful. I’m just surprised you shared it with me.”

“Yeah, well…” Amar abruptly stopped. Even though he had nothing to say, Jon saw that Amar’s dark eyes remained fixed on him. It was ridiculous, but he did have the sensation that he was actually seeing Amar for the first time, from the small, u-shaped scar on his left cheek to the flicks of gray in his black beard to the occasional dark brown freckles on his skin. He noticed he bore more than a slight resemblance to Kutalu herself.

Finally Amar broke away and shattered the silence. “I guess I was just trying to show I trusted you too in my own way.”

“Really? But you don’t—”

“It’s just that before you tried helping me, I thought I lost everything and that I didn’t even have hope for any kind of a future.” It was there that Amar’s voice cracked. “It’s just odd. I blamed you for taking away my chance at a new life, but if we get out of this alive it’s going to turn out that you gave me a real one. How can I not trust you now?”

Jon gave what was meant to be a brief pat on Amar’s hand, but his hand lingered. Their eyes locked again. Amar’s fingers lightly touched his hair. And then he was pulling Amar close for a deep kiss.

Mea Culpa

I’m going to be a bit late with this week’s post, but it should be up by Saturday. Thank you for your support!

#7: Kill Your Heroes

At least they didn’t rough us up, I guess, Amar broadcast to Jon, although he was certainly not enjoying the bumpy ride on the horse-drawn car through brick and cobblestone streets.

They’re heroes, Jon responded. His thought carried more annoyance and doubt than he intended. If he was going to be communicating with Amar in this fashion, he would have to get in the habit of better holding back his kneejerk emotions.

Oh, yeah, because heroes never needlessly rough up the so-called villains. Nope. I certainly never had any personal experiences that contradict their claim.

Jon turned his attention from Amar to the steely-eyed man in front of them who eyed them cautiously, ready at a few microseconds’ notice to grab the musket strapped to his back or the rapier in his scabbard. He almost looked like he could read their minds himself. Amar must have had similar paranoia since he was trying his hardest to pretend to be watching the passerby on the streets instead of telepathically chatting with Jon.

So does telepathy exist in Legend of the Steam Cities?, Amar asked while looking as if he was admiring a particularly ugly alleyway.

Not really. There’s the rare magic user, but no natural powers.

Well, at least we’ll know your gem will work once you can do something without worrying about getting a musket shot in your face.

What about you?

Amar coughed and glanced in the direction of the reptilian humanoid named Jakinu, who was driving the horse alongside the woman, Saigh. He’s not a human, so the best I can do is just sense where he is. My mind has a…I guess you’d call it a “compatibility issue” with his brain. Amar began to notice that the cityscape was beginning to give way to more sparsely populated neighborhoods and even glimpses of unspoiled countryside. And even then, it takes time and effort to shut down a mind I can actually touch, much less two of them at once. 

That’s just great.

I’m not all-powerful, you know! Amar hissed in his mind.

Jon flinched in spite of himself and knew their captor must have noticed. Sorry, sorry. Really. I’m just not used to, you know…

Apology accepted. I’ve learned how disconcerting it can be since I got to the First World. But, anyway, we really should start planning

“You two have been strangely quiet since we restrained you,” their captor, Astavis, remarked.

“Well, you know, we didn’t want to, um, get in trouble,” Jon said off the top of his head. “Like, have you have to go through the whole hassle of bellowing ‘Silence!’ and punching one of us in the stomach.”

For the first time since their fight, Astavis’ stoic expression gave way to what could only be described as concern for Jon’s sanity.

Excellent work not arousing any suspicions, Amar thought at Jon.

Hold on, I have an idea, Jon responded.

Aloud, he asked, “You’re Astavis, right?”

“We’ve crossed paths once before, sorcerer.”

“Um, right. I remember. But I have a question for you.”

“For me? Oh, but we’ll have many questions for you once we cross into the lands of the King of Meneathan-Tirsel.”

“I’m sure. But it’s just something I’m curious about.”

Astavis looked genuinely puzzled, but dispelled it with a derisive laugh. “Fine. What do you want?”

“Okay, you remember that incident where you and the con-artist Binamuna recovered the Lost Book of the Prophetess Ada from those airship pirates in M’pulu.”

Astavis’ expression darkened. “What are you getting at? That was years ago.”

You could at least try to sound like some kind of weird Industrial Age wizard instead of, well, yourself! Amar thought.

I can’t! Even in the video game adaptation, Upesh doesn’t really have a personality!

Ignoring Amar, Jon spoke firmly. And confidently. “You defeated the airship pirates’ captain in a duel and won the loyalty of the rest. So they flew you back to Tenedam with the Lost Book and the evidence that the Grand Duke’s ambassador had been collaborating with the airship pirates before Princess Crios married Count Puntal, but the borderlands were swarming with the Grand Duke’s soldiers.”

“So?”

“If you really had the airship pirates’ loyalty, why did they just drop you off at Actoria and not at least across the Meneathan-Tirsel border?”

Astavis stammered out, “I—”

I think that actually worked! Jon thought triumphantly at Amar, who could only watch the scene with confusion.

Then, however, Astavis looked thoughtfully up in the sky. “No, I remember. The Grand Duke had made an alliance with the Republic of Belvurie and had some of their combat airships at his disposal.  I would have played right into their hands if I had attempted an aerial approach.” Astavis glared at Jon coldly. “I don’t know what kind of misbegotten mind game you were playing at, making me doubt my own memories, but it won’t matter once we drag you whimpering to Meneathan-Tirsel.”

What was the point of that? Amar asked.

I just thought if I pointed out a plot hole big enough this whole…whatever-this-is would just collapse. I mean, the Republic of Belvurie wasn’t even introduced until two books later!

Okay, I admit, that was pretty good, but I think we’re past that point. This may have started out as fiction, but this universe we’re dealing with has become complex enough it can cope with its own inconsistencies.

Amar and Jon fell silent, even in their own heads, until they noticed the cart was now being driven deep into a forest over a fading, rocky trail.

So should I be completely terrified of this Meneathan-Tirsel place? Jon heard Amar ask in his head.

Probably. Yes. It’s the Grand Duke’s main political rival in Tenedam and kind of the refuge for a lot of the protagonists in the book, especially Astavis.

Amar exhaled slowly and loudly. So if we’re going to escape, it will have to be before they take us there.

Pretty much.

“We’re here,” Saigh said as they stopped the horse before a decrepit barn that appeared to have been abandoned for decades. It was only when Amar and Jon were dragged, their hands still tied, to a clearing half a mile behind the barn that they saw a small wooden ship harnessed to a zeppelin-like balloon.

***

While Saigh, Astavis, and Jakinu discussed where to put their “guests” while leading them on-board, Amar heard Jon mutter “Ul dinea” under his breath as they were talking, activating the gem.

Okay, just wait until one of them goes away. You kick their ass or whatever when you have a chance, I’ll mess up the other one’s nervous system.

Not yet, Jon thought back. Not until they’ve taken off.

Don’t tell me this experience of being beaten and held prisoner in one of your own favorite novels has already driven you insane.

Look, I know these books and the whole geography. They can’t just fly right out in the open to Meneathan-Tirsel or else they’d be discovered and shot down by the Grand Duke’s army or the naval patrols. They always have to fly really low through the Great Moors to stand any chance of making it to the border. It will be our best chance to escape.

Okay. But has anyone escaped that way in any of the books?

Jon’s mind went silent after that question, but a minute later Amar heard Jon’s voice in the back of his head. Would it make you feel better if I said “Yes”?

Eventually they were locked in a small storage room below deck since even a small airship could barely be safely steered with three people on deck. However, Astavis, who locked them in with a look of smug satisfaction, very absent mindedly dropped the key and “accidentally” kicked it under the door without the slightest notion that he had done so.

“Well, I did my part,” Amar said. “How about you?”

Jon was already halfway done shedding the ropes that had been tied around his hands. “It’s been a long time since I took one of Adu Oginyae’s escape artist workshops, but luckily Astavis apparently wasn’t written to be a great knot tier.”

As Jon busied himself untying Amar’s restraints, Amar reached out to the deck. “They’re all on deck for now. And their memories of the ship showed that there’s a big enough porthole for us to fit through in the kitchen. Unfortunately, the kitchen’s just next to the stairs leading up to the deck. Just our luck.”

Amar cautiously led Jon down the corridor, avoiding the creaking floorboard he also learned about from their enemies’ memories. As soon as they reached the threshold of the kitchen, Amar just caught the thoughts of Astavis and could barely shout out a warning before Astavis was coming at them with his rapier drawn.

“I knew you were up to something, some sort of dark arts trickery,” Astavis growled as Amar and Jon backed up into the kitchen.

Astavis swung his rapier at Jon’s legs, but in a flash, Jon deflected the blow with the nearest weapon he could grab: a chair. With both rage and grace, Astavis rained blows against Jon and the helpless chair. Even with his heightened senses, Jon found himself trapped on the defensive and slowly and literally being backed into a corner by Astavis’ swordsmanship.

“Hey, what’s that on your arm?” Amar shouted in panic.

Feeling an odd crawling sensation, Astavis lowered his guard and looked down to see a fat, furry, and bright-purple spider slowly yet ambitiously making its way from his forearm to his hand. Astavis struck the beast with his fist, only to sense more of the things on his left leg, his stomach, and even in his hair. Paralyzed by more terror than he felt ever since he was a child, Astavis lost all sense of where he was and, screaming, fell to the floor, thrashing and rolling about.

Jon glared at Amar. “Couldn’t you have done something that would involve less shouting?!”

“I don’t innovate well under stress!” Amar protested.

Jon could hear Saigh and Jakinu thundering across the deck toward the stairs. He flew at the porthole with the hacked-up chair in hand and with several frantic strikes still managed to smash the glass. Amar looked outside. Even through the dark night, he could see the pale green marshland below. It was only a matter of relatively few feet, but the ground was moving beneath them almost in a blur.

“Are you sure this Is our only option?” he asked.

Jon nodded. “Look, we’re really close to the ground and it’s too soft for them to safely land. It’s your turn to trust me. Please.”

Amar looked back to see Saigh with Jakinu right behind her, both with daggers drawn. Only concern for their comrade slowed them.

Amar smiled and nodded. “Alright,” he said as he grabbed Jon’s hand.

With that, they jumped through the porthole and into the night, screaming.

#6: Fantasy Vs. Reality

“You know, I’ve seen a lot of weird stuff in my life.”

“Oh?”

“This is still the weirdest,” Jon answered.

Jon and Amar stood on the A30 road in the middle of southwest Cornwell, surrounded by a chaotic sprawl of abandoned cars, barricades, and police officers and costumed superheroes standing around looking confident and officious. Only someone “in the know” like Jon would have noticed how helpless and desperate every single one of them really were.

“Its rate of expansion is exponentially growing,” Josephine Manners said, even her usually perfectly sedate voice tainted by awe. “Boys, you got six or seven days until this thing consumes all of England and Wales, the eastern Irish coast, and southern Scotland. No pressure, of course.”

“Just a day in the life,” Jon murmured.

Before them, there was the confusing, almost impossible projection of a city of stone and steel that looked like the child of a medieval city and an industrial town. A quick glance might have led one to think it was a film being projected onto the sky through some kind of holographic technology. A closer inspection would, however, sooner or later reveal that the image rippled like a pool of water. It was as if the “waves”  were somehow written on the very fabric of reality itself. By that point, the normal human brain would struggle to communicate exactly what it was perceiving and find itself failing much like a cat trying to comprehend a television set that’s been turned on.

Josephine struggled to tear herself away and looked at Amar. “Any initial impressions?”

Amar shook his head. “Even from outside, I can only barely touch on the minds of the people…inside, if that concept even applies here. I can see, though, that their original personalities are still intact, if buried, but they all really do absolutely believe they’re characters from that book…”

“Books”, Jon corrected.

“Right,” Amar replied, instinctively rolling his eyes.

“Any clues about what’s happening?” Josephine said, her eyes once again fixed on the cosmic abomination before them.

“I can’t sense any kind of intelligence, human or otherwise, driving the warp itself, if that’s what you mean,” Amar said.

“Figures it wouldn’t be anything we can just shoot.”

Amar took a few steps toward the shimmering cityscape. He looked at Jon with a grin. “Let’s go meet your favorite characters.”

Jon chuckled in spite of himself. He honestly couldn’t think of the experience as some kind of warped vacation, albeit one in which millions of lives hung in the balance, but he supposed that point of view was better than fear.

Ul dinea,” Jon said loudly. He could feel the power of the gem course through him.

“Don’t know if this might help if your minds get washed, but remember the briefing! Find the Finch family of Nunsplan! And good luck!” Josephine called out. Both Jon and Amar nodded back to her as they stepped into the image of a city that shouldn’t exist.

***

Flashes from his life (but was it his life) and some life that wasn’t at all his (no these are memories) cluttered up all his senses, even his sense of smell. He knew the gem was protecting him in its own way, as it did from any telepathic assault, but even it was faltering like a flimsy dam crumbling before a raging river.

“I think I might be losing me,” Jon shouted or only thought. He wasn’t sure. He tried thinking of his mother – her reddish-blonde hair swaying in the sun as she danced to Soundgarden and he sang along with the lyrics one lazy Saturday afternoon – and his first boyfriend Darnell sneaking cigarettes down in the alley a few blocks from their high school before they had their first wonderfully, beautifully clumsy kiss – and his dog Pepper who, when he hid from her by covering his head with a blanket, would dig through to excitedly lick his face.

 Jon you got to trust me

But he remembered some advice he got from a Final Guard training seminar. “The best defense against most kinds of psychic assault sadly aren’t clinging to positive emotions like love and joy, but to trauma, to grief, the more vivid the better.” Right away, Jon went to thoughts of seeing his only sibling Drew in a coffin, in a suit he would have never ever been caught (dead how ironic) in, all while Jon felt the weight of the Mantra gem in his pocket. And following that memory was the look on poor, poor Ambrose’s face, his best and oldest friend, the man who proudly called himself his brother from another mother, when he saw what Jon had done, when he was just hours away from being eaten whole by his horrible madness without a single friend to help him.

But even that felt less substantial, less real. Had he imagined all that? Had Ambrose really shown up that awful night in the old, abandoned apartment complex? No, that couldn’t have happened. He would never and anyway he wasn’t Jon Cantlon at all, but Upesh Domat, a young but well-established sorcerer

Turn off the gem

I am in the service of the Grand Duke

Please trust me I’m not your enemy anymore just listen if you can hear me at all please turn off the gem

“Amar?” Jon asked no one in particular. Then, “Ul dinea.

Jon screamed as he felt the memories of the life of this Upesh Domat flood into his mind, but something slowed it to a trickle, assuring him in a firm voice that he was Jon Cantlon from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania who once upon a time was the superhero codenamed Mantra. The voice continued talking as Jon felt consciousness fail him utterly.

***

Jon awoke in the most comfortable bed he ever slept in his entire life. His first instinct was to wonder if he was going to be late for whatever he had to do that day, but where his alarm clock should have been was a cherub-like figure made out of what appeared to be green glass. He looked down and was wearing green and blue robes that, without consulting a mirror, he suspected made him look like a cross between a clown and a tent.

His confusion dispersing and giving way to a dull fear, Jon followed the smell of eggs out of the bedroom and down an ugly spiral staircase through a foyer and gallery decorated with grim paintings and busts and into a kitchen that in atmosphere better resembled a torture chamber.

“Hey. I sensed you were starting to wake up, so I started breakfast,” Amar said cheerfully over a frying pan he was heating on a cast iron stove. “There wasn’t much food I could find here, so, hm, I hope you don’t have allergies or are vegan or something. And I literally have no idea how to make the coffee here.”

“No, it’s fine,” Jon said, noticing that on a small table a plate had already been made with biscuits and sliced apples doused in cinnamon alongside a cup of water. As he started to eat, he noticed that Amar was himself no longer in the jeans and button-down shirt he was given while in the “custody” of the Final Guard, but in very old-fashioned trousers and a frock coat.

“What exactly happened to us?” Jon asked, his own remaining memories of their trip into the warp fading fast.

“Well, the silver lining to this whole ‘reality warp’ thing is that it only tries to rewrite your mind when you’re first passing through the outer edges, but it still drops you off right where it thinks you need to be no matter what. All I had to do was lead you while you were half-conscious to bed,” Amar said as he plated the eggs and sprinkled pepper over them. “But the pressure of the warp was really intense, even worse than I anticipated. I could barely defend you and keep my…um, I guess ‘Steampunk World’ persona from taking over.”

“But you still saved me.”

Amar paused and flashed an awkward smile. “Yeah, well, I mean, anyone would have done it. But, yeah, it started to get past the mental barriers your Mantra gem provided.”

“How did you…”

“If you think of your gem’s psychic protection, it’s like a concrete wall. It’s extremely powerful but it’s not exactly responsive. Things can get around it or keep chiseling away at the weak points. At the very least, if you dropped the gem’s protection, letting me join my mind to yours, I could actually maneuver, adapt for both of us. But it was one of the hardest things I ever had to do. Like you I had to sleep for I think twelve hours.”

Twelve hours?!”

Amar brought over the plates and started eating greedily. “Hm-mmm.”

“So what is this place anyway?”

“It’s all yours.”

Jon looked around. He tended to be austere at best and neglectful at worst when it came to his personal sense of décor, but this place was desolate, approaching Lovecraftian.

“I guess you mean…” He stopped to recollect the awful name that echoed in his brain as he transitioned into Steampunk World. “…Upesh Domat.”

“Yeah. I skimmed a few of his memories, or rather the impressions this thing conjured up to be his memories. Apparently he’s…”

“…the court sorcerer to the Grand Duke.” Jon blurted out.

“So he’s a character from your books?”

Jon shook his head. “Barely. He’s mentioned quite a few times, but only shows up briefly in The Last King of Ethmark and is the villain in one of the video games, which, by the way, some people argue isn’t canon, so…”

“I guess the important question is, do you know any spells?”

Jon concentrated on the frying pan that Amar had finished using. He tried willing a fireball to strike it or a lightning bolt or shards of ice to manifest from nowhere and strike it off the stove. But nothing happened. He turned to Amar and threw up his hands.

“Well, that’s helpful,” Amar said, sighing.

“What about you? Do you know who you’re supposed to be?”

Amar concentrated rather intensely on his remaining food. “It doesn’t matter.”

“Come on,” Jon said. “I know the whole franchise back to front. You could be some minor character who would be involved in something that could help us.”

Amar exhaled and mumbled something under his breath. “Apparently I’m Suzter, Upesh’s most trusted footman.”

Jon’s inevitable laugh was punctuated with unconvincing apologies.

Amar looked positively unamused. “And I suppose he isn’t privy to anything that might help us with this mess?”

“No, he really isn’t.” Jon said, grateful for the distraction from the real perils of their situation.

“Figures.”

“Well…would it help if I told you he’s an important NPC in the video game?”

“…It’s a start.”

***

The library was cavernous. From the chair he placed in front of the shelves that comprised the history and geography section of the library, Jon scanned over the history books, seeing full titles on the spines referring to places that at least sounded familiar based on his knowledge of the Legends of the Steam series. He picked out one book which claimed to be a history of the Fortunese Empire, an ancient and extinct island dominion that, as far as he remembered, was barely mentioned in any of the books. To his shock, as he skimmed through the book, it was as full of names and dates and other details as any well-written history book in reality.

“What are you looking for, exactly?” Amar said, as he took a break from telepathically scanning for the family Josephine Manners tasked them to find.

“Proof that this isn’t another reality, I guess,” Jon said and described how he hoped that the thick tomes he cracked open would be full of nonsense or indecipherable scribblings. Instead they were full of English or, as it was known in Steampunk World, the Common Language of the islands.

Amar sighed and stretched out his legs and arms. “Well, we really need to talk. I need a break anyway. I’ve been trying to scan the whole city, and you have no idea how much pushing your telepathy to the limits just exhausts the entire body.”

“What do you have in mind?”

Amar plopped himself down on an ornate study, using a cushion from a nearby chair as a makeshift pillow. “We really ought to theorize about what we’re up against.”

Jon closed the book shut and returned it. “Okay. You go first.”

“I think it’s a…um, well, in my language it’s called a zikiku mum, which literally means a ‘born ghost.’ An entity that’s created by a normal human mind through pure thought and concentration. I can’t remember what your people might call—”

“A tulpa?” Jon had taken enough classes on the paranormal in college and had been around Liz enough to pick up a lot of vocabulary.

“Yes! Exactly! Except instead of it being a single, individual entity, it’s somehow spawned an entire world that’s slowly replacing your world.”

“But how could that happen? The psychic energy required would be tremendous.”

“Yeah, that’s the question.”

Jon looked back at the books. “And that’s what’s really troubling me. You still haven’t been able to pick up on any kind of intelligence behind this, right?”

Amar shook his head.

“But this thing is still…well, it’s like a video game where the world inside the game is randomly generated by some kind of program, right? Like it’s taking all the constants from the Legend of the Steam Cities, but it’s filling in the rest on its own. People couldn’t have written all of this even if the series went on for another hundred years,” Jon said, gesturing at all the books in the library. “But this thing is, as if it’s somehow taking on the complexity of reality and making it its own.”

“So this isn’t some kind of illusion. This is something that’s genuinely reprogramming reality, that’s what you’re saying.”

“Yeah,” Jon said, the implications of what he was theorizing crashing down on him in that minute.

They were quiet for a minute until Amar hopped off the desk. “Which probably means, even if I can’t detect it, we’re still dealing with a cosmic or god-level entity, which pretty much means we’re screwed.”

“Maybe not, if I’m right, anyway.”

“Please give me a reason not to be your footman for the rest of your life.”

“Yeah, well, I’m not thrilled about being some *(^$%*#’s pet sorcerer either. But, anyway, the other possibility as far as I can tell is that a member of the Finch family was not only ground zero, but is what’s driving it. I read somewhere this theory that, like how people are once in a while just born with random powers, it’s theoretically possible someone could just be born with god-level gifts.”

“That’s absolutely horrifying, but please go on.”

“Yeah, that’s what it sounds like at first, but they go on to say that it’s not something to automatically worry about. It’s pretty easy to imagine the circumstances where someone figures out they have superstrength or invisibility or whatever. The ability to fundamentally alter time and space and energy and matter just by concentrating, though? Maybe that person can go through their whole ives and never realize it because the power is so huge and transcendent they just wouldn’t ever tap into it, especially if they just lead a quiet, boring life.”

“The greater the power, the more the likelihood a person might never have it provoked in their everyday life. I guess that makes sense.”

“Yeah, but maybe this is a case where someone hated the world or wanted to be part of these books they loved so much, they actually did invoke that power without meaning to, consciously, anyway.”

Amar chewed over that for a minute. “And if that’s the case, this person might be reasoned with. That’s a big, ugly ‘might’, though.”

Jon shrugged. “I know, but I really do think it’s what we’re dealing with.”

Amar laughed bitterly. “Your theory is the one less likely to get us horribly killed, so I’ll take it.”

Before Amar could finish his sentence, the library window facing out onto the street and nearest to both of them exploded inward. The culprit was a dagger that flashed through the air as it landed squarely on a wall. Crouched on the frame was a tanned, weathered woman wrapped in rags and furs. She was still long enough for Jon and Amar to process her image, but before they could react she was on Jon, knocking him to the floor and holding another dagger to his throat.

However, two more figures had leaped from apparently nowhere through the window. One of them, a tall, well-muscled man in what seemed to be a soldier’s uniform, Amar struck with his telepathy, trying to disorient his senses. He bellowed with pain and confusion.

“Stop your sorcery!” the woman screamed at Jon.

Amar heard Jon choke out a protest until the third figure, a reptilian humanoid dressed not unlike a medieval nobleman, rushed to him. Amar tried to fight him telepathically, but the being’s alien mind was practically immune. Before Amar could dodge or fall back, the reptile had grabbed him by the legs, knocking him down. Its slick hands were at his throat in a second.

“Try something, break your neck,” the being hissed. Amar nodded his understanding.

Still recovering from Amar’s attack, the soldier steadied himself against a bookshelf.

“You alright?” the woman said, her knife still at Jon’s throat.

“Yeah. I don’t know what kind of sorcery that was, but it stopped now.”

He looked over at Amar and Jon mercilessly. “It makes sense that only someone as arrogant as you would be hiding out right at your home. You just made our job easier.”

He confidently walked over to Jon, pulling a rapier that had been holstered on his back and placing it just over Jon’s chest, as if the woman holding a knife to his throat was not enough.

“Now, Upesh, tell us where your master is keeping Madeline Finch.”

 

 

#5: A Shot at Redemption

Being late yet again was bad enough, but the fact he was late for a job he hated actually made his annoyance worse.

Well, hated might have been too strong a word. Data entry was way better in every way than retail or teaching, but Fahad had graduated first class from University College London. Even then, all he had to show for his Art History degree was a job that barely paid a wage he could live on and had him living in the middle of nowhere in Cornwall. The worst part of it all was that it vindicated his dad who almost disowned him for not studying to become an engineer or a lawyer.

“Do you even know what a green light is for?!”, he shouted in vain at the Range Rover in front of him.

As he quickly made the left turn that should have taken him toward his office, instead of getting on the side road that led to his office, he had the sensation of driving through a dark tunnel or a covered bridge. He no longer saw the terraced houses and office buildings that should have been on both sides of the road. Instead on one side was a dark forest and a palace that looked straight out of a Victorian period drama. And he was no longer driving his beat-up car, but riding in a stage coach being driven by a man he had never met before.

Wait. Never met before? No, no, that wasn’t right. His name was Dena Mezabir and he had been his driver for years.

The carriage pulled up to a wide, massive, oak doorway guarded by two men in ornate blue uniforms who held a rifle. It all felt…wrong, even though his daily routine had gone without a hitch today. The guards both gave a respectful bow before one of them barked out an order. The gate opened slowly and Fahad walked through reluctantly, unable to shake the feeling something was wrong.

The interior of the palace smelt of stale incense. Large portraits of aristocrats and city and landscapes greeted him from the walls. An elderly man in a gray coat twice his size and a meticulously decorated wig greeted him.

“Late as usual, I see,” the man said with a chuckle.

“Yeah, I’m sorry,” Fahad said, feeling as if in a dream.

The old man looked started. “Sorry? I never thought I’d hear that from you.”

“Why not?”

The man looked as confused as Fahad felt. “I mean, you’re the curator, after all, and I’m just a lowly gallery attendant, as you’ve seen fit to remind me on occasion.”

What on earth was this guy talking about? There had to have been some kind of error. He was Fahad Qazi, born and raised in the borough of Waltham Forest, working for…

Wait. How could be so silly? “Fahad Qazi” sounds like some character from a fairy tale or a penny dreadful. Where could he have picked it up from? His real name was Lev na Zalenlan. How could he forget it? Maybe he went on way too much of a bender last night or something.

“Right,” Lev said, feeling sure for the first time since the morning started. “I guess we better get started cataloging the Grand Duke’s newest acquisitions.”

***

Sans Pareil muttered out the words on the print out as the blue lights on the machine in front of him beeped to life. The device, which had no official name as far as Sans Pareil was aware, looked like the offspring of a desktop computer and an ancient relic dug up from a temple hidden in a desert or a jungle somewhere. The computer’s tower and a propped up black scrying mirror was intertwined by electric wires and metallic frames with four small stone tablets covered with elaborate geometric symbols. If set up properly, it could form a communications channel into almost any neighboring dimensions and alternate timelines, and supposedly it only took Dr. Bilatz an afternoon to whip this miraculous device up. Still, Sans Pareil had a distaste for magic, even if it was inexorably rigged up to technology.

An image of a dark-haired, almond-eyed woman gradually unraveled on the mirror. Except for an occasional crinkle in the image like on an old VHS tape, it was almost crystal clear despite crossing unfathomable cosmic voids. She was dressed in decorated, emerald-colored robes with silver tinges and wore a sort of cone-shaped crown on her head and sat on a throne with armrests in the form of lions. Even though Sans Pareil was not much good at talking with heads of state, Athena insisted that he be the one to speak to Amar’s sister, Sirtis. Apparently, the woman had a crush on him since the first time they met on the streets of San Francisco, a young college student whose knowledge of her true life had been stolen by her vengeful father. Whatever her feelings for him, the fact that she was in her full royal regalia did not bode well. Still, she gave a friendly smile once his face came into view.

“It is so good to see you again, Nasir.” She never forgot his invitation to call him by his civilian name even though it had been years since he and the Final Guard had saved her from her brother’s schemes.

“And to you, Ersu Sirtis. Thank you for agreeing to this meeting.”

“Well, when I received the message that it involved my brother, how could I refuse?” She paused. Sans Pareil had no idea how to interpret her expression, which almost looked pained. “Has he finally succeeded in a way to put me or my mother in danger again?”

“No, not in the slightest. In fact…” Sans Pareil stopped, cursing himself for forgetting the script he rehearsed in the morning. “I’ll just lay it out there. A week ago, we apprehended the Exi I mean, Amar. Our investigators concluded that he was just trying to live a normal life, a civilian life at the time of his arrest. But apparently the experience pushed him too far.”

The friendliness that radiated even across the inter-dimensional void now gave way to a coldness. “What do you mean?”

“Your brother tried to take his life while in our custody.”

Sans Pareil saw shock and concern on her face, but the emotions were banished almost as soon as he could interpret them. “You could have simply conveyed this information in a written letter.”

As he often did in battles with threats on a cosmic scale, Sans Pareil decided to launch himself like a torpedo straight into the heart of the matter. “I know it would not be easy to even consider. He treated you and your mother horrifically and caused a civil war among your people. But we are not as well-equipped to keep a person with telepathic gifts confined as your government is. And besides his mental state, I really do believe he was finally trying to reform. It’s been over half a decade. Surely the political situation has.

“As a matter of fact, many of the wounds he inflicted are still as fresh as if they were made yesterday,” she said, her voice unraised but definitely chilled.

Sans Pareil sighed. “I know.”

“Besides, my brother’s exile was affected through a sentence formally decided by the Grand Council. It is not within my legal power to offer amnesty, even for a member of the royal family.”

Even though he already knew the answer, Sans Pareil still asked, “Would you consider requesting that?”

“Maybe in another half a decade,” she said. “If that’s all, Nasir…”

“Yes. We will be in touch again about his condition. Physically, he’s healthy now, but mentally…”

She looked away for a brief second, and when she looked in his eyes again some of her former friendliness had returned. “Please do. He is stillwell, we are sorry for what we have burdened you with, especially after all you and the Final Guard have selflessly and without gain done for me and my people. I will be happy to send you telepathic advisors to assist with his confinement, should the need arise.”

“We appreciate that, Ersu. May the star of Ishtar guide you in all things.”

“Same to you. Farewell, Nasir.” With that, the image dispersed as if a reflection in a pond had been hit by a stone.

“That went about as well as I feared,” Jon said from the doorway.

“How much did you hear?”

“Just the definite no.”

“To be honest, I was expecting worse. How is Amar doing?” Sans Pareil found, by this point, he could safely assume that Jon would know about Amar’s condition before anyone else.

“He’s fine, although sometimes I worry it’s just a front,” Jon said. “The therapist you guys got for him, though, is pretty sure

“Wait, his therapist is giving you updates directly?”

“Yeah. Why?”

Sans Pareil tried and failed to hide his amusement. “It’s nothing.”

***

A few days later

As always, Jon was in costume (since, even in his state, the regulation that visitors to Amar have some kind of psychic defense in place was never lifted) when going to Amar in his cell. Halfway down the corridor, he started hearing Sans Pareil arguing. Sans Pareil never, as far as Jon could remember, yelled or shouted, but there was a certain stern tone that was a sure tell whenever he was annoyed.

As he neared the door, he made out the other voice. It belonged to Josephine Manners, the Director of the United Nations Commission on Paranormal, Extraterrestrial, and Superhuman Affairs. As Jon walked in, she was standing fearlessly before the most physically powerful human being on Earth. Despite being in her own right a person who arguably wielded more power than even the President of the United States, she was content just wearing a jean jacket and a low-cut black shirt. Her round gold earrings jangled as she argued.

“Stop making it sound like we have a choice here, ‘cause we don’t,” she growled. Before Jon could say anything, she whirled in his direction. “Why don’t you ask – Jon, Mantra, right? – about it since he seems to be the only one who actually seems to have Amar’s back.”

“That’s not fair,” Sans Pareil said, more to himself than Josephine. As for Amar, he was sitting at his table, watching the whole scene expressionlessly.

“What’s going on?” Jon asked.

“Basically? We have a reality warp of psychic nature that’s off all of our charts and Sans Pareil is trying to stop me from even asking the one person who might have a chance of stopping it to help.”

“You don’t know that.”

“Telepaths are rare, and the ones we do have are all basically glorified amateurs…except for your prisoner right here.” Jon caught Amar letting a little smile slip out at that.

“Wait. There’s a full-blown reality warp out there? Why hasn’t there been a red alert yet?”

Sans Pareil sighed at that. “Because we don’t even know how to slow it down, and we don’t want anyone on the team or in the reserves to run in half-cocked until we know exactly what we’re up against.”

Josephine rolled her eyes. “He says that, but we’ve already sent in drones and have had scientific and psychic observers at the edges of the crisis zone. We’ve already learned as much as we can and the *($& thing has already eaten up most of Cornwall. At the rate it’s going, we’re going to have to evacuate all 14 million people in the London metro area by next week.”

Jon was a little stunned. “But Amar just“.

“I know. And I am sorry. You’ve got to understand that I don’t like having to do this, but from what we can tell, this thing basically just rewrites people’s entire memories, even their whole personalities. Even the machines we send into it just get…absorbed. A trained and experienced telepath is the only card we got to play.”

“But you don’t even know if he’d still be able to resist the effects of the reality warp!”

Josephine shrugged. “You got a better idea, I’d love to hear it.”

Amar finally spoke. “If I do this, I really do get amnesty.”

Josephine turned to him along with Sans Pareil. “Along with saving your own ass, yeah. The paperwork is already drawn up, provided, of course, you don’t exploit the crisis to stab us in the back.”

“Or die,” Amar added.

“You don’t…” Sans Pareil started, but trailed off.

“Actually, I think I do,” Jon wasn’t sure, but Amar seemed to look straight at him for a second as he said it. “What else have I got to lose?”

Jon felt a pang of worry. “I know you guys are going to brief him and everything, but…have you gotten any clue about the nature of the warp?”

“Well, that’s the thing that’s even weirder than a reality warp popping up in Cornwall itself. It’s bending the environment and all living beings who get caught in it to match up with that old steampunk fantasy series, Legend of the Steam Cities, out of all things. Personally, I would have preferred an Elric of Melniboné-themed reality warp, but hey, nobody asks me about these things.”

“Seriously?”

“Yeah? You know about it?”

“I’m a huge fan. I even played that adventure game based on it that Sierra made in 1996 that everyone seems to have forgotten about. And the two Sega Genesis RPGs.”

Part of him wanted to just leave it there or at least offer to coach Amar on trivia about the Legend of the Steam Cities world. Instead he blurted out, “Let me go with him.”

For a moment, Sans Pareil looked like he might actually shout at him. “Absolutely not.”

Josephine just looked at him curiously. “Why? Just because you’re some big R.E. Mann nerd?”

“Well, I mean, that could help. But also the gem might protect me from the warp’s effects.”

Sans Pareil looked thoughtful for a second. “What about your situation with the British government?”

Jon hadn’t thought about that, but Josephine without hesitation answered for him, “I can handle that.”

Josephine then turned to Sans Pareil, almost daringly. “I don’t know exactly how you capes do it, but when faced with unknown and potentially hostile territory, the Commission always sends in at least two agents.”

There was a hefty pause before Sans Pareil spoke again, clearly pained by his own words. “Alright. Go ahead and send them both in.”

(We’ll be back after the holidays! Thanks for reading!)

#4: Death in Valhalla Tower

“It’s beautiful!” Madeline squealed happily, despite the persona of a serious heroine she was trying to cultivate.

“Bless you, Lady”, Jakinu said while performing a gracious bow that involved most of his scrawny, reptilian body.

As they made their way down a wide, downward spiraling highway, the city of Luraz unfolded neatly below. The houses and shops and streets and bridges were all carved from the rock themselves. Despite being in a massive cavern miles below the earth, the entire city was bathed in orange and blue and yellow and green florescent lights that dangled from high poles like fruits from trees. It was even more impossibly gorgeous than she imagined, which was quite peculiar since she was dreaming.

“I still say we should have taken our chances in the Tranquil Mountains,” Astavis said quietly, his pale, handsome face radiating concern. Madeline could tell that Jakinu was pretending not to hear. “It’s not too late to turn back.”

However, Madeline knew for certain that Jakinu and most of his people, the Jendes, were trustworthy and not on the side of Grand Duke Ovladt despite their sinister gray and reptilian appearance. She read as much in The Secret of Castle Boeja, the second book in the Legend of the Steam Cities series when the Jende saved the Cavalier and Madame Makon from being hunted down by Inquisitor Kenesh.

However, how could she explain that she was dreaming her favorite book series to Astavis? That he and not of this likely really existed? “I believe Jakinu,” she said simply.

She could tell that Jakinu was answering Astavis against his better judgment. “In public the priest-chiefs have sworn fidelity to the Grand Duke. Many in private say not to obey him.”

Astavis scoffed. Madeline was quick to change the subject. “And if the priest-chief of Luraz opens the way to the Crimson Tunnel, the only peril we have left is crossing the Valley of Gales?”

“Yes, the Valley of Gales. Wide-open spaces and no villages, much less proper cities, for miles. All right next to the heart of the Grand Duke’s territory,” Saigh said after staying unusually quiet for many hours. She was gazing not at the city below, but the chaotic network of cliffs and openings on the steep underground wall above. Madeline could tell her small, wiry body was tense even under all the rags and furs she wore. “Don’t like our chances myself.”

Madeline felt a sting of fear and instinctively reached behind to touch the bookbag that still held the plans for the Mystic Engine. She had read everything Legend of the Steam Cities related at least three times; not just the main 11-book series written by R.E. Mann, but all the supplementary books he wrote like The Secret History of the Isles of Tenedam and Its Peoples. Hell, she had even read and reread the “spin-off” books written by G.D. Spalding over the course of the ‘90s and ‘00s (although she reluctantly agreed with the fans who said they weren’t very good) and a lot of the better fan fiction floating around the Internet. Nowhere did Astavis and Saigh and Jakinu ever travel together to Luraz in order to escape Grand Duke Ovladt’s army nor was anything about a Mystic Engine ever mentioned. And a real-life young girl from Cornwall named Madeline Finch certainly never appeared in the books.

These have to be dreams, she thought. But why did they feel so real? And why was she always so exhausted the mornings after she dreamed them?

Her contemplation was interrupted when Saigh shouted, “On guard!” Madeline drew the rapier Saigh had given her, Jakinu his dagger, and Astavis his musket. Saigh was holding her sword in the other and already firing with a pistol in the other, up toward a figure falling from a ledge above.

“A clockwork assassin!” Astavis growled. “It must have followed us from Karta.”

It landed with an anticlimactic thud. Dressed in the bright clothes of an acrobat, the thing’s head jerked from left to right in unnatural spasms, unperturbed by the handful of bullets that were already lodged in its stomach and chest. The mechanical creature’s head and its pink lips and blue eyes were formed with chipped, faded paint. On its right arm, it had a blade at the end of an iron pole where its forearm and hand would be.

Astavis stepped forward to protect Madeline, but it moved too quickly. Seeing the glint of the blade, Madeline dived to the side, but she felt a sting in her arm. She heard Astavis shouting for her as she lost consciousness.

Madeline bolted awake with a shout. It took a few seconds, but she soon realized that she was in her bedroom. To her right on a nightstand, the alarm clock read 5:47. Its authority was what assured her that she was indeed back home and her dream, however vivid, was just a dream. As she caught her breath and relaxed back into her bed, she became aware of a dull pain on her arm.

She turned a light on and saw that something had cut through her nightshirt and inflicted a cut on her arm.

***

One of the things that made so-called superheroes so damn tedious, Amar realized, was that they always prided themselves in being more humane than mundane law enforcement. The Final Guard was definitely no exception.

The cell Amar found himself in was well-furnished with a bed, a dining table, and even a couch and private bathroom. If not for the large plastic barrier with a hatch for food trays, it would have passed for a decent studio apartment. They even made sure he had reading material, although no Internet access. Amar imagined they had to learn not to provide that the hard way.

He wondered how long it would be until he was moved from the cushy dungeons the Final Guard had at their main base, Valhalla Tower, to St. Helena Prison. He suspected they were stuck negotiating with his half-sister, trying to pawn him off again. “Well, good luck with all that”, Amar murmured aloud. He no longer worried about his future. At least in that sense, the Final Guard had done him a favor.

He sat in the corner of his cell, closed his eyes, and meditated. Concentrating, he projected forward a memory until it encompassed his senses to such an extent the room he was physically in faded from view and his very consciousness. Instead he was once again having coffee in the student center’s coffee with a view of a busy Chicago street. In a couple of minutes, Yori would show up, and they would have an almost painfully inept conversation since Amar wasn’t even sure that Yori was interested in him romantically since he had already vowed not to read Yori’s mind.

He would replay the full memory of their first date over and over again for hours.

***

Jon was not able to concentrate through this week’s team meeting. He was always a little bit distracted by the discomfort that came from wearing his costume during meetings (a ridiculous rule that was literally older than television). Now, though, he couldn’t stop thinking about how last week he expected to catch the Exile halfway through some kind of cruel, self-serving scheme, but instead he played a role in completely destroying the life of a man who was genuinely trying to reform.

Of course, it didn’t help that the meeting minutes were stuffed full of the usual: a couple of escapees from St. Helena Prison and Oxrun Asylum, the budget for their equipment being cut by the United Nations, details about insurance coverage for property damage caused in the Final Guard’s last scuffle (in this case, it was, embarrassingly, because of a wrecking ball possessed by an alien entity that caused more damage to Toronto’s North York neighborhood than all of last year’s supercriminal fights combined).

Near the end, though, Athena said something that finally drew John’s full attention. “And before we go, we do need to decide what to do about our…guest.”

“We’ve had this conversation before,” Adu Oginyae said. Even in casual conversation, his metallic mask/helmet made his voice sound horrifying.

Sans Pareil nodded. “But Athena and I were told just before the meeting that the authorities at St. Helena are refusing to take him into custody.”

“And it’s not just because he’s not native to this world,” Athena added. “No one scientifically understands how telepathy works very well.”

“I invented a device that Sans Pareil used that can give a telepath a splitting headache, but it’s not really good for anything else unless you want to torture the poor guy,” the Technocrat joined in. “I can throw together something that will have a much milder effect, but it will still be far from foolproof.”

Adu Oginyae grunted with annoyance. “But what’s the problem? They locked him up before.”

“Well, after the Exile managed to circumvent just about every security protocol they threw at him with his powers, they decided to just give up,” Athena explained flatly. “Especially because having a well-trained telepath in the midst of the largest incarcerated supercriminal population on the planet may just be inviting catastrophe. Frankly I agree with their point of view.”

“Well, we can’t just keep him here,” the Technocrat said.

For the first time in the entire meeting, Jon spoke up. “Why not?”

Jon decided to press his advantage before anyone can speak up. “I’m immune to his powers as long as my gem is activated. So is Athena and Sans Pareil. If the Technocrat can make something that can contain his telepathy, even better, but as it is it will be easier to keep him from hurting anyone else here until we can possibly send him home or someplace equipped to deal with his powers.”

That was all it took to get his teammates to vote unanimously to keep Amar in Valhalla Tower, at least until a feasible alternative presented itself.

***

Because of Amar’s powers, only someone completely immune to telepathic influence could deliver his food. Jon found himself volunteering each time he could for the past two days. If he was asked on the spot, he wouldn’t have been able to explain why.

Amar looked up from his book, a rather macabre-looking history of the Black Death titled The Great Mortality, with almost no interest. “What’s on the menu for today?”

“Grilled chicken, spinach salad with feta cheese, and, uh, to be honest, I don’t know what this is,” Jon said, eyeing something that looked like kidney beans in a red sludge.

His weak attempt at humor seemed to provoke something of a smile, so for the first time, Jon decided to try to press further. “How are you?”

Amar flinched and stretched his neck. “It just feels like my thoughts keep tripping over each other.”

“That’s…uh, I really don’t know. I think the Technocrat is calling it a ‘psionic field’ now.”

Something in Amar’s expression abruptly became colder. “I don’t have to read your thoughts to know why you’re doing this, you know. And I’m not going to make you feel like a damn saint just because you convinced them not to drop me off at some hellhole.”

Jon was taken aback. He was a little surprised that he didn’t feel angry, only a little hurt. “Look, you don’t have to believe me. I mean, I don’t think I would believe me if our positions were reversed. But I really am sorry for what happened.”

Amar was quiet for a few seconds, but then put the book down and looked Jon in the eyes. “I think the fact you’ve had to risk your life to foil more than a few plots I’ve been involved in absolves you of having to feel sorry for me.”

They laughed together. It was the first time Amar had laughed since he was taken prisoner.

“Look, a lot has happened between you, me, and my friends,” Jon said. “But…if I can help it, I won’t let them dump you off just anywhere, okay?”

“The hell, Jon?” A woman’s voice growled. Jon whirled around to see Annie Oakley, standing proudly in clothing that was more than a century out of date, her dark hair flowing out from beneath a cowboy hat.

“Annie?” Jon quietly said, genuinely startled.

“I just wanted to make sure he was here, for Kyle’s sake. Remember him?” Annie Oakley said as she watched Amar, who turned away from the two of them and began investigating his meal. “If it were up to me, he’d be in a real jail. Or, even better, stick his sorry ass in Oxrun Asylum.”

Jon moved to try to prod her out of the cell. “Annie, please. I know what—”

“Excuse me, please,” Amar interrupted, speaking casually as if they were both long-time acquaintances of his. “I don’t think I can cut this chicken with just a fork. Can one of you bring me a knife, too? Plastic, of course.”

“Um, I guess—” Jon started, but Annie interrupted.

“I’ll do it. Don’t want to interrupt your quality time with your new friend.”

Jon exhaled heavily as Annie stormed out.

“For what it’s worth, I am grateful to you,” Amar said quietly. “And I am sorry.”

Thinking that Amar was referring to the drama with Annie, Jon simply shrugged. “It’s okay.”

***

Something about the encounter and Amar’s odd apology weighed on Jon until, finally, he tracked down Athena, who had just gotten off monitor duty. It took very little prompting to get her to agree to walk with Jon down to Amar’s cell. If something was up, two superhumans who could completely resist telepathy were better than one.

“I admit, Annie might have just been pissed at me,” Jon said, trying to assure himself as much as Athena.

“But you did think something was off about her behavior as well as Amar’s,” Athena reminded him. “With someone like the Exile, you can’t be too cautious.”

As they walked briskly down the row of empty cells toward where Amar was being kept, they both heard Annie stammering and crying at the same time. Without waiting for the other’s reaction, they both rushed down the hallway as fast as they could. However, neither were truly prepared for what they saw.

Annie turned to them, her face red and stained with tears. She pleaded with them that she had no idea it was a razor, that it felt every bit like a plastic knife. In the corner Amar was slumped over, barely conscious and bleeding from both wrists.

Mea Culpa

I’m going to have to take an early (belated?) holiday break, but I will give next month’s updates on 12/7 and 12/14. Thank you for hanging in there!

#3: Silver Creek Massacre V

Three years ago

“Oh, God, give me a group of shotgun-wielding terrorists any day,” Jon thought, trying to ignore the pain in his bruised ribs and his own mounting terror. Lonnie, or at least the creature bearing his name, was still moving forward in his black motorcycle helmet and leather bodysuit, holding a fire ax in his left hand. He had the bulk of a competitive weightlifter, but he still moved with the liquidity of a cat.

Instead of letting Lonnie make the first move, Jon mentally pushed the power of the Mantra gem to its limits until the entire world felt like he was in The Matrix (or, at least, a Matrix rip-off). He dodged Lonnie’s feral strikes with the agility and precision of an Olympic athlete until he found the opportunity to strike back with his machete, lopping off the hand holding the axe. Without even pausing for a microsecond, Lonnie reached out for Jon’s neck with his remaining hand. Jon fell back, but Lonnie still caught the part of his costume holding the gem. The fabric ripped and the gem fell to the dirt trail beneath them with an anti-climactic thud.

Before Jon could recover, he felt himself falling back even further than he intended and the ground giving way under his feet. He was falling down a long, steep hillside, toward a dry creek bed behind him. “Please, not like this,” he thought (just before he lost his consciousness, he also realized how sad it was that this was not the first time he had that exact thought).

He did not know how long it was until he felt someone pulling him by his armpits. He managed to get out a shout for help, convinced Lonnie had actually climbed down the crevice to finish him off.

“Stop it!” a voice that was familiar but not his own barked inside his mind. “He’s still out there. Plus I have no idea if the undead have good hearing.”

He opened his eyes, looking up into a beautiful autumn night sky that he would enjoy under very different circumstances. After a while of hearing his own body making its way through dirt and dead leaves, he heard the sound of someone forcing open a decaying wooden door with a kick. By now, he could actually get his bearings. He was in an ancient, cluttered maintenance shed, illuminated by just one naked light bulb swinging in the air and smelling vividly of dust and decay.

“You can talk to me, if you want,” the voice said helpfully.

“Hello? Is this the Exile?”

“Yes. Let me help you up. There’s a chair here.”

Jon’s ribs, which had already been injured before he fell, screamed in protest, but he let the Exile prop him up on a metal folding chair.

“What’s happening? Are people…” His brain conjured up a grim scene of his teammates mangled and dead.

Exile’s voice sounded alarmed and almost embarrassed. “No! No, I swear, I’ve been keeping tabs on everyone telepathically since everything went bad. You’re the worst off, but luckily you wound up near my hiding place.”

“What happened?”

The Exile audibly sighed, exhausted in every sense of the word. As he barricaded the door with a push mower and a tool bench, he said in his mind, “Bill the Undying believed he knew a spell that could keep Lonnie under our control after we resurrected him. It didn’t work out that way, obviously. So, he and the White Witch are working together on something they think can reverse the resurrection ritual, but in the meantime everyone whose powers are of any use against an undead serial killer are guarding them as they figure out the counter-ritual. Everybody else is just hiding out, like us.”

Jon felt a flash of anger targeted against the Exile and the other Vandals. Even though it wasn’t expressed in words, the Exile quickly responded.

“For what its worth, we were just going to weaponize Lonnie and sell him to the Pentagon or, failing that, the Chinese or Russians or something.” A pause. “I voted against it.”

“That’s something, I guess. You do know that Lonnie’s murdered, like, what, 35 people since he originally died in the 1970s?”

“Yeah. And all teenagers and twentysomethings, for some reason.”

Jon realized that he could actually feel the Exile in his mind. He’d been a target of telepathic attacks from the Exile on more than a few occasions before, so he thought he should have felt disturbed by the whole experience. However, despite everything, it was comforting somehow, like a certain kind of familiarity, even intimacy.

“What about your telepathy?” Jon thought. “Isn’t it any good against Lonnie?”

The Exile, who remained positioned next to the door as if he was standing guard, absent-mindedly swept away some cobwebs with his foot.

“I wish. The way Bill the Undying put it, it’s like Lonnie’s been stuck right in the middle between being alive and being dead. So, it’s like there’s just this radio static where his consciousness should be. I can’t really do much with that except let us know he’s here a couple of minutes before he’s about to break the door down and kill us.”

After a few minutes that felt like hours, Jon heard Exile’s voice. “Can I ask you something?”

“What?”

“I know what you think of me, especially everything that happened…after what I did to Tell.  But I really don’t try to violate people’s privacy unless…unless I have to. Still, for me, it’s the same as how you see or hear stuff without meaning to. Well, once in a while, I can sense feelings and subconscious thoughts without actually looking for them, even if I’m just lightly touching a mind, sometimes if I’m not even inside a mind at all.”

“Okay.”

“Why are you so surprised that I helped you?”

Jon, who was already struggling to get in a position in the metal chair that didn’t accentuate his pain, felt even more uncomfortable. He knew the Exile was right, even though he didn’t even actually form the thought in his own mind. But the absurdity of having this conversation with someone he violently fought with on numerous occasions was not lost on him.

“I think that’s pretty obvious.”

There was another, much deeper pause. For a second, Jon thought the Exile had withdrawn from his mind. Then his voice came, carrying a clear sense of irritation. “For starters, the Vandals and I have had plenty of opportunities to seriously injure or even kill one of you Rooks, but we never took it.

That’s something you people never seem to realize about so-called ‘super-criminals’. Would you want to piss off a whole community of hundreds of vengeful people who can stop tanks by punching them or cause the ground to literally swallow you up just by concentrating a little?”

Jon was embarrassed that he never really thought about it that way. “I guess you’re right.”

“Honestly, at least where I’m from, practically everyone is on a level playing field, as far as powers go, anyway. Here, though…” The Exile paused awkwardly as if he was having to censor himself. Then he chuckled softly. “It doesn’t really matter, sorry.”

“No, you have a point,” Jon said, without meaning to at all. That was the problem with telepathic conversations, Jon realized. There’s no filter.

“Well, there kind of can be, if you get used to it,” the Exile said, truthfully but teasingly.

“I’ll remember that for next time,” Jon replied.

“One more thing,” the Exile whispered aloud. “For Ishtar’s sake, please stop thinking of me as the Exile. We’ve been mortal enemies long enough you should think of me as Amar.”

Jon caught himself laughing aloud, and within seconds, Amar joined in.

***

Amar felt his rage simmer as he stared at the car that was conspiring with a concrete barrier to trap him in the drive-thru. The driver, a middle-aged man dressed in defiantly unfashionable flannel, had stopped to take trash out of the backseat of his car and throw it into a curbside trash can. What was especially galling was that he didn’t even bother with a pretense of hurrying. There wasn’t even an apology wave!

Amar blared the horn. The man promptly slowed his pace even more and gave him the finger.

“Don’t do it”, Amar mumbled under his breath. “Don’t do it. Don’t do it. Don’t do it. Please don’t do it.”

As the man triumphantly got back into the car, Amar, with a resigned sigh, reached out with his mind. Within just a couple of minutes, the man slammed his foot to the accelerator and rammed right into a light pole. Amar gave a friendly wave in his direction as he drove past the scene of a dazed, confused man staring at his damaged car as his wife got out of the passenger side to yell at him.

Amar tried to let the sickly enticing smell of the greasy food in the two bags sitting next to him put him in a Zen state. “Old habits”, he said aloud, as a way of apologizing to himself.

***

“I got the food!”, Amar bellowed as he stepped through the front door and slipped his shoes off. Even though it had been over six months since he moved in with Yori, he still felt a little sad when he saw how much white space was on their walls. True, there was only so much they could afford to do since they were both in grad school and living on the emaciated salaries of a teaching assistant and a research assistant. Hell, they were lucky to be able to afford a townhouse at all, especially in the suburbs of Chicago.

At least they were able to afford a full-on replica of a statue and inscription portraying the Sumerian god Enki. It had become a weird little emblem of the fact that they met and fell in love working for and studying at the University of Chicago’s Cuneiform Studies department. Amar also interpreted it as an emblem of his greatest triumph—leaving behind forever his desperate, unhappy life as the Exile and embarking on a new life as Farhad Zand, scholar of ancient literature and professional translator of Sumerian and Akkadian tablets.

It had certainly not been easy. Even though the documents on which Farhad Zand based his entire life were impeccable (and were received by calling in favors from not only members of the supercriminal community but one less than scrupulous official in the United States Department of State), there were many close calls, big and small, from the tense days spent waiting on an e-mail because some bureaucrat had “concerns” regarding his application for a passport to the time a visiting professor from the University of Tehran casually remarked in front of his boss and several other faculty members that “Farhad”’s accent sounded like no accent, Iranian or otherwise, he had ever heard before. But the years spent being a “criminal” in hiding were not wasted on Amar. He had navigated around such perils masterfully, if he could say so himself, taking very few steps he would come to regret. He was even cautious every single day at work, obfuscating the fact that he did not learn Sumerian and Akkadian in an Iranian university by making mistakes in his translations (clumsy to him, understandable to his colleagues) and always taking longer than he actually needed to. Still, though, he could not help but write and publish a paper resolving once and for all a decades-old controversy about Sumerian grammar. Even in hiding, he had a hard time resisting an opportunity to show off.

Nor could he resist Yori, even though he had resolved to avoid romantic entanglements, at least until his new civilian identity had been established for many years. He was slim and tall and handsome, with glasses that mismatched his face in a rather adorable way, a well-trimmed, slight moustache and goatee, and an awkward yet somehow confident manner. Their courtship had unfolded in fits and starts, so much so that Yori seemed as surprised by his asking Amar to come live with him as Amar was. It was risky, but it was more than worth it. For the first time ever because of Yori, Amar felt as if the First World could be a true home to him. Now, when Yori talked of what they would do after he finished his PhD in a semester, Amar felt none of the old fears of being found out. The Exile was dead. So was Amar Paragisi Kadingir. Long live Farhad Zand.

“Thanks, hon”, Yori smiled and said while Amar meticulously placed the food from one of the bags on a plate. As usual, even though Yori had a plate in front of him, he was already greedily pillaging fries from his bag.

“So, did you see Professor Wheen today?” Amar said.

“Almost forgot!” Yori said with a mouthful of fries and ketchup (forgetting that Amar hated his habit of speaking with his mouth full, but Amar was in a cheerful enough mood to let it pass…for now). “They unearthed some uncategorized tablets from an archive somewhere and they want you to look at them.”

Amar hoped it would be something juicy and not just an inventory of goats and beer like last time. “Whatever it is, believe it or not, it’s easier than having to edit his articles.”

Yori rolled his eyes. “I don’t believe you, and anyway…”

The doorbell rang. Yori and Amar glared at each other over their food.

“I’ve been running errands all day,” Amar growled.

“I’ve been teaching and grading all day,” Yori solemnly said.

Amar shrugged in surrender. “Alright, you eat. I’ll get rid of whoever it is.”

Standing on their front porch was a face Amar thought—actually, hoped—he would never see again. It was Cynthia Reed, a short, red-haired woman whose friendly, generous demeanor and meticulously prepared casual-professional attire belied the fact that she was on the wanted list of every law enforcement and paranormal and superhuman affairs agency in the world.

Thinking right away of Yori, Amar shouted back to the kitchen, “It’s just a friend of mine. Don’t worry. She can’t stay”, and closed the door.

Prodigal smiled wryly. “That’s rude for someone of your upbringing and rank, Exile.”

“Look, Cynthia…”

“You know our rules, even now.”

“Fine. Prodigy. Look, if you’re getting the Vandals back together again for another heist or something, I’m seriously done for good, and please let everybody in the community know I mean it.”

Amar couldn’t help but pick up that Prodigy, while seemingly glad to see him, was also extremely nervous. But he still cared for her enough he repressed the urge to dig deep into her thoughts. “Don’t be obscene,” she hissed under her breath. “You should know me well enough that when I said I would let you go until you tell me yourself you decided otherwise, I meant it. This is…a professional courtesy, I guess.”

Amar gently but firmly led Prodigy away from the house to the parking lot. “What the hell do you mean? Professional courtesy?”

Amar noticed a flash of anger in Prodigy’s usual poker face. “You know you not only screwed yourself over with that whole Ruthenia stunt, but all of us. Getting involved with General Vosla of all people—what the hell were you thinking?!!”

“I was thinking of how I’d been there for the Vandals every single time you reached out to me, no matter how deranged the latest scheme was, but when I was hiding out in drug dens and sleeping in alleys in Cape Verde, you and the others were nowhere in sight! But here you are, talking to me about ‘professional courtesies’!”

“That wasn’t—” Prodigy started, only to trail off. Amar didn’t need to be a telepath to see that she realized any excuse she came up with, no matter how valid, would sound weak. She resumed through clenched teeth. “Just because I founded the Vandals when I was just a bored supergenius teenager doesn’t mean that none of you matter to me.”

Amar suppressed an urge to smirk. Perhaps she even meant it. “Look, just tell me what this is about before…” Amar looked back in the direction of his front door. Thankfully, Prodigy was always as good at picking up hints as she was in designing killer robots.

“The Vandals haven’t been together in two years, three months, and two weeks,” Prodigy said, speaking as if she was reciting a speech. “But the Final Guard is going through one of their rare but annoying pro-active phases and have been tracking down and detaining supercriminals with outstanding warrants, even if they haven’t done anything lately.”

Amar’s stomach sank. “That’s what you meant. Ruthenia put me and every other member of the Vandals on their radar.”

“Kid Zero has been MIA for months, but we know they got Viper Girl and Bill the Undying.

I think I’m going to go surrender at the nearest military base.  They’re always in the market for a brain like mine.  But you…” Suddenly, she was interrupted by an insistent beeping. From her pocket, she pulled out something that looked like a smartphone, but no doubt it was something miles ahead of anything on the market. Amar saw her mouth the words “Oh, no” before a sudden burst of energy erupted behind her and knocked her over.

Behind her, standing like gods manifesting on Earth in the parking lot of a suburban townhouse complex, four members of the Final Guard were standing. There was Athena, wearing a shining bronze helmet and a blue garment that covered her body except for her arms and holding a shield and a spear; Sans Pareil, standing in his costume, long hair bending with the wind and in a suit in the green, white, and red colors of the Algerian flag; the Technocrat, a man in a fashionable business suit with the plastic skin of his face glistening in the sun; Adu Oginyae, masked head to toe in a black and silver catsuit; and, standing behind them, was Mantra. It was the first time they saw each other since that night at Silver Creek.

“Prodigy has been secured,” the Technocrat said in his usual flat approximation of a human voice.

Sans Pareil turned to Mantra. “When you were with the Rooks, the Exile was one of your team’s regulars, right? Given your experience against him and your defenses against telepathy, you should go first.”

Mantra nodded, but still seemed oddly reluctant to move forward.

A small crowd of people armed with cell phones were already out, keeping a reasonably safe distance, but Amar’s attention was fixed elsewhere, to the door of the house he shared with Yori which had been flung open.

“Oh, my God, Farhad. What the hell is going on out there?!”

“Get back inside! It…it will be okay!” Amar shouted, without thinking. No, in this situation, he was the threat, not them. Never them.

“Who’s Farhad?” he heard Mantra say from what felt like a thousand miles away.

“He is, apparently,” Athena replied. At least the Final Guard had the decency to either stand back awkwardly or tend to the arrest of the still unconscious Prodigy.

“I can’t say how sorry I am. All of this is my fault,” Amar said in a panic, his words tripping over each other. “But I swear, all I wanted to do was leave my past behind. I used to be a supercriminal, and I have these telepathic senses.  My name isn’t even Farhan. It’s Amar Paragisi Kadingir.”

Yori muttered, as if in a drunken daze. “Telepathy?”

“But I never did…” Farhad began, but Yori pushed him aside like he was nothing but a rude bystander and walked right up to Sans Pareil.

“Hey,” Yori said, looking right in Sans Pareil’s eyes. “To be honest, I don’t know much about how your group operates, but…I think I was the victim of this…this brainwasher for over a year now.”

Sans Pareil gently put an arm around Yori and led him away. “Monsieur, I’ll take you someplace safe. We do have a telepath on-call who will investigate to make sure no one was the victim of a psychic crime.”

As he watched Yori walk away without even a glance back, he kept talking, as if Yori was still never thought. “I did peek at your thoughts a few times, but that’s all. I would never…”

Yori didn’t even turn around. Amar took a deep breath, and walked over to Adu Oginvae, who was holding the Exile in place with hi-tech handcuffs.

“Let’s just get this over with,” Amar said.

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