“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 none 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 bistro 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 frigthening.
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.