#12 – A Royal Kidnapping

“No, this is too…” Amar couldn’t find the word.

“Intense?” Dr. Phan replied as he looked around a bloody battlefield with a professional mild interest. The corpse of a man who couldn’t have been much older than a teenager was at his feet. “This was your first memory to surface.”

“I know, I just…” The battlefield abruptly faded into black like a show on TV. Amar was back on a steep hill that inclined down into a lush forest. The hillside was an old and happy place he knew in his childhood and was what Dr. Phan termed his “neutral place”. “Sorry if that was too…forceful,” Amar said. “I know I’ve been your patient for a while, but I’m still not used to sharing my head with another telepath.”

The body of Dr. Phan was gone. Instead he heard his voice, sounding a bit like a voice coming the other end of a landline telephone. “Just think of it as like talking, only more…visceral.”

Without consciously willing it, the grass under his feet gave way to a carpeted floor and the other side of a room was his own body, bleeding from his wrists and slumped against a wall. “Oh, Ishtar,” Amar whimpered.

“I could sense the thought of your suicide at the fringe of the consciousness when we began our session, and you said you wanted to talk about your sense of guilt and responsibility,” Dr. Phan explained. Somewhat poetically, as he talked Dr. Phan was standing on the other side of the transparent barrier of Amar’s cell. Amar wondered if it was deliberate.

“No, it isn’t,” Dr. Phan said with a smile. Now he was standing in the cell with Amar.

“Sorry,” Amar said. He was about to mutter out another line about how he was unused to dealing with another telepath again when Dr. Phan interrupted him.

“Clearly there’s some sort of connection that might be worth investigating here. Do you remember what you were thinking just before you decided to take your life?”

Amar was shocked by how little he really thought about it and how much he tried not to think about it since his little adventure with Jon. “I’m not sure. I just know, when I decided to do it, I really did feel like I had no future, that I might as well have been a corpse.”

“I don’t doubt you were thinking about the future, but it seems the past was on your mind as well.”

Unbidden, their surroundings began to shift at the speed of thought: a ritual Amar participated in to bring back an undead serial killer, giant arachnid robots marching on the streets of Miami as he grinned from a penthouse window above, a teenager screaming at Amar in rage, and Amar’s only sibling sobbing, pleading with him not to take her memories away…

“Stop,” Dr. Phan said, gently but firmly reaching further into Amar’s mind and pulling his psyche back to that lovely green hillside. A nice breeze blew under the flawlessly clear sky. Now where Amar was standing there was now a red couch and a red cushioned chair.

“Maybe for the rest of our time together it’s best to slow down and just talk the old-fashioned way in this lovely memory,” Dr. Phan said helpfully.

***

Amar lingered in a small café over a mediocre vanilla latte. He wasn’t there for the coffee, but for the view of the wide green spaces of a nearby college campus (the fit, shirtless guys who played touch football or frisbee were not his only motive for frequenting that cafe, but they were an added perk). Also the shop never had a solid clientele, so it was easier not to have to shut out other people’s noisy thoughts.

Amar liked Dr. Phan, but he couldn’t honestly say he liked their sessions. It had been too long since Amar lived in a place where running into and dealing with other telepaths was a routine occurrence. And where he came from, telepaths were the ones who worked as the closest thing his society had to psychologists, but then he never experienced what his people called “the treatment of the inward gaze”. He could only imagine what it would be like for people who didn’t have telepathic gifts and couldn’t even go inside themselves to construct their own mindscapes.

It was especially disconcerting because Dr. Phan wanted to talk about Amar trying to take his life far more than his past as a supercriminal. Amar hadn’t even really thought about his suicide attempt. It felt as if it had happened to someone else, after all, and he had only attempted it because Yori came to hate him and he had the new life he built ripped away. Or was that the only reason?

His thoughts were still burdensome as he realized he might as well brood at home than waste more money on not-too-good coffee. On the way home, he cut a shortcut through a narrow street, as he usually did when he didn’t feel like lingering. Halfway down the street, he sensed someone behind him who was deliberately masking his thoughts. Amar looked behind him only to see an object that looked like a spearhead, attached to an electric wire and flying right towards him. With only microseconds to spare, Amar fell backwards and caught himself against the pavement with his right arm. It wasn’t exactly graceful, but the pain from the fall was negligible at least. He shouted out, but no one answered. No doubt his assailant made sure to attack him in a place where there wasn’t a single pedestrian anywhere nearby.

The taser or whatever it was fell harmlessly near Amar as he rolled toward the closest thing to cover, a jeep parked on the curb. From there, he darted into an nearby alleyway as quickly as he could.  Amar glanced over and saw a man in a silver costume that had the emblem of a scorpion on the chest and a mask with an insectile look, not far behind but just far enough.

Amar rushed over behind another row of parked vehicles, reaching out again to find any pedestrians. There. He located the mind of a group of teenagers coming back from the movies and slowly making their way down a nearby avenue. Amar was prepared to make another dart in their direction, but under a truck, he could see the silver boots of his stalker on the other side of the street.

“Time to stop playing defensive,” Amar thought. His attacker had some rudimentary psychic shields up, making it difficult for him to find a foothold. But before too long, he could feel a tingle of fear, a stray thought of worry that he had lost sight of Amar.

That was all he needed. Amar blasted his attacker’s mind with gibberish-filled, incoherent thoughts that no doubt severely disoriented him, enough to buy Amar enough time to find those teenagers or some other pedestrian. Just as Amar was emerging from cover and preparing to take a photo of his attacker with his cellphone, he heard a fire escape somewhere nearby rattle and the sound of a heavy weight dropping to the cement. Just as he was turning around to look, he felt the prick of a needle on his neck and the feeling of his muscles melting into liquid.

***

“You are a hard man to reach these days, you know,” Heracles said, grinning.

“Yeah, I know,” Jon said. “They haven’t quite worked out the kinks of communication between the universe and outside the space-time continuum. But I really do appreciate you letting me know.”

Heracles shrugged. “Of course! I know you…ah, care for Amar.”

Jon chose not to pursue that implications of that “ah”. “Well, yeah. I’m just surprised that you…”

Heracles gave Jon a confused look. “Do you think I shouldn’t care about his well-being?”

“No, I’m just – well, uh, are you two dating?”

Heracles’ face darkened. “Do we need to be in some sort of courtship for me to be concerned that the prince may be in danger or, may the Fates not will it, worse?”

Jon gulped. Earning the ire of someone who could break his neck with a twitch of his fingers was not on his calendar. “No, what I mean is – I’m just wondering how close you two have gotten since I went away.”

Heracles seemed to ponder that for a moment before the storm clouds apparently lifted and he laughed again. “Ah, friend Jon, I understand now. No, the two of us have only shared a bed and good conversations. And even then, our talks would too often end in him asking me to swing him around and…”

“Shh!” Jon said, noticing amused glances from the bar’s other patrons.

From what little Jon knew of Heracles, he was no doubt proud of his “lovemaking” with a rogue royal from a kingdom in another dimension. This was probably far from the only time he let certain details slip. Now this time it was Jon’s turn to feel his mood darken.

Before Jon could mull over Heracles and Amar’s relationship for too long, their food was delivered by a group of cheerful yet menacing-looking robots with sleek red metallic skin and a somewhat devilish look. When the Final Guard first established their own official café for members and associates in 1968, Club Limbo, they had used the appropriated robots of an old regular of theirs at the time, Dr. Daedelus, as staff. Since the robots had mostly kept themselves in good working order over the decades and, more importantly, lacked free will according to multiple psychological and engineering tests and actually seemed happier as servers than as a madman’s soldiers, there was no reason to replace them. It took only one robot to deliver Jon’s meal of a Reuben and fries and iced tea. It took three to deliver Heracles’ one-man feast, which includes roast lamb, figs, fried lampreys, grape leaves stuffed with rice, an entire jug of wine, and half a chocolate cake.

“Besides,” Heracles said with a smile, “you should know I take care of all my friends. In the old days, I sailed around Greece to try to save a woman I did not know that well and had only laid with once.”

“How did that turn out?”

“Oh, I not only saved her, but I went to war against the entire clan that took her and then…” Heracles stopped himself awkwardly. “But that was a very different time.

As he ripped into his banquet, Heracles happily changed the subject. “So who do you think is responsible for Amar’s disappearance? Some former ally or rival of his from his former nefarious career?”

That was Jon’s own first suspicion, but after thinking it over, he had changed his mind. “I doubt it. God knows the supercriminal community has plenty of backstabbers, but they’re generally pretty good at regulating themselves when it comes to their own just going berserk against each other. Any act of hostility without a really bad act of provocation is a sure way to get oneself quietly disappeared one day, even if the victim had gone legit. And it should have been old news long before his disappearance that Amar got his pardon because he helped me stop the reality warp, not because he ratted anybody out.”

Heracles signaled his agreement by grunting with a mouth full of lamb. “Some rogue superhero or law enforcement agency then?”

Jon sighed. “That’s my fear. Josephine Manners swears she investigated her own turf over it and I believe her, but she’s not omniscient.”

“Close to it, though,” Heracles said with no small bit of awe.

“There was a big crackdown on vigilantes sometime in the ‘90s and there hasn’t been a resurgence since, if I remember one of Liz’s impromptu lectures right,” Jon said.

“Hmm. But it wouldn’t be the first time a hero snapped or had a grudge against one of their regulars that drove them to break the law and their own supposed code of honor.”

“Yeah, exactly,” Jon said. There was a strong third possibility, though. Human trafficking of the superpowered and paranormally empowered was a lucrative international black market that sometimes involved rogue governments. And the rarity of telepaths made them particularly valuable. But Jon suspected that Heracles didn’t want to consider that hypothesis anymore than he did, at least not until they exhausted the more likely and less frightening possibilities.

“I read everything I could about Amar’s past as the Exile and there were…a few candidates,” Heracles said. He paused, clearly weighing his words, and continued. “But that said…well, the last time you saw Amar was at the anniversary party, yes?”

Jon nodded.

“Did you see your friend and former teammate, who goes by the name ‘Tell’?”

“Well, yeah,” Jon felt his heart sink. His involvement honestly did not even occur to him until now. “What are you thinking?”

“I was with Amar most of the night, and a few times I saw Tell staring at Amar from a distance. Indeed, I thought about confronting him, but he left long before the festivities were over.”

Jon shook his head. “He definitely has a grudge against Amar. But that doesn’t –“

Suddenly, Jon’s cellphone rang with its usual disappointingly generic jingle. “Um, sorry. I better answer in case it’s about Amar.”

“Of course,” Heracles said, his full attention already dedicated to his meal.

“Hello?” Jon said, rising from his seat and ducking into a quiet, empty corner of the café.

“Um, hey. Is this Jon?” A nervous teenager’s voice said.

“This is he. Who is this?”

“Hey. I’m Juan Romano. So I was walking home from the movies with my friends and, uh, I got this…message.”

“Message?”

“It was crazy! Like I just blanked out for five seconds and your name and number was in my head and I just knew the whole thing was from some guy named Amar.”

Jon, who was confused and increasingly convinced this was some bizarre hoax, audibly gasped. “Wait. Amar? Is he okay?”

“I don’t know, man! I just got this message and your phone number in my brain and this feeling that I better call you. And I’m crap at remembering numbers, you know? But I don’t think I can forget your phone number now even if I try.” Suddenly his voice raised with a real note of panic. “Is – is something going to be wrong with me?”

Jon choked down his impatience. “No, Juan. You’re safe.” You might remember my phone number for the rest of your life, though, Jon thought, but did not dare add. “Just tell me what the message was, please.”

“It was weird, but I swear it was all of it,” Juan said, talking as if he was sharing state secrets. “It just said, ‘It was the silver scorpions.’”

#11 – The 430th Anniversary

It had been six months since Amar had been arrested by the Final Guard, and it was actually a relief that the most evil thing he had done since was forcing his seven students to master the Sumerian language’s sexagesimal numeral system in one class period.

Here he was, about to step inside his townhouse with something called a “pizza Margherita” hot on his arm. He was even able to go by his real name or rather a version of it that fit with his new manufactured life story as a scholar from the Middle East. Luckily, he was never nearly as famous a supercriminal as someone like The Roman or Mr. Punch. Even in an age of everyone carrying around digital cameras on their phones, plausible deniability would be his friend, or at least that’s what Josephine Manners assured him on three separate occasions.

As Amar awkwardly managed his keys and his pizza, he turned his head and called out, “You want any?”

Out in the darkness beyond his porch, a gruff voice replied flatly, “You knew I was there?”

“Don’t worry,” he said, opening the door and leaving it open for his guest. “You’re really good at silencing your thoughts for a mindblind, but you also give off some of the strongest psychic radiation I’ve ever experienced.”

Abu Oginyae silently followed. As much as he tried to convey the sense that he could shut down his entire nervous system in a minute, it did unnerve Amar how Abu Oginyae managed to move without even making the floor creak slightly.

“Would you like any pizza?”

Adu Oginyae was silent for a few seconds. “No, thank you.”

“Well, the offer’s open. I guess you’re here to spy on me, making sure I’m not hanging out with the wrong crowd again?”

“Something like that,” he answered.

Amar set down on the table two plates with a slice of pizza on each.

“Why you, though? Is the c-team off fighting a demonic invasion of Manhattan or something?”

“Let’s just say I’m personally curious,” Abu Oginyae said. “You likely know that I have seen very few people reform in my time, especially not among my own regulars. I do hope you will be different.”

Amar quietly ate, wondering if Jon’s preemptive break-up did make the Final Guard nervous that Amar would revert back to his old career. Just as Amar was starting to wonder if Abu Oginyae would simply stand there and watch him eat, he spoke again.

“You will be receiving an invitation in the mail, but I might as well tell you. You’re invited to the 430th anniversary of the Final Guard’s founding.”

“Oh. Well, thanks.” In spite of himself, Amar asked, “Will Jon be there?”

“Most likely.”

Amar got up and made his way to the fridge to get some iced tea. “Can I at least get you a drink?” When he next turned around toward the front door, Abu Oginyae was gone along with the second slice of pizza.

***

The boat pulled up to Citadel Island, an artificially built island lying roughly six miles east of Cobb Island, Virginia. Since the 1970s, it had been the main base for the Final Guard. Once upon a time, the Final Guard had been located in Manhattan. It took a surprisingly long time for people to realize that collecting Earth’s most powerful humans and miscellaneous beings, who were also routinely targeted by deadly superhuman, paranormal, and extraterrestrial forces, in a densely populated urban area was a terrible idea or at the very least outweighed the benefits of having them conveniently at hand.

Liz had been silently watching the water since they departed from the village of Oyster. As they got off on the dock, Jon asked her teasingly, “Thinking back to the time when you were a cape?”

Liz chuckled. “A little, actually. I still can’t believe I thought I was being all feminist by taking the name ‘White Witch.’”

I thought it was clever.”

They reminisced all the way into the tower and through the multiple body scans (making sure they had no weapons or explosives, ensuring they were not shapeshifters or androids, etc.). They stepped into a ballroom that were a rainbow of superhero costumes, here and there broken by much more mundane tuxedos and dresses. Jon himself was in his Mantra costume, even though he had been working with Dr. Bilatz for months now doing random tasks and using the Mantra gem to help him monitor and manage mystical energies. Liz was in a red dress that was at least an unconscious homage to Lydia Deetz.

“What are you doing in that…interdimensional nexus or whatever anyway?” Liz asked.

“He’s calling it The Outside now.”

“Really? Nice and simple. It’s better than the White Witch.”

They separated and mingled, Liz eventually chatting with a rapper who was also rumored in the cape press to have lycanthropy, Jon making the rounds of his various former teammates in the Rooks. Standing alone, apart from the crowd and nursing a Shirley Temple, was Tell in his full classic Robin Hood-esque get-up.

They exchanged awkward and token greetings, but it wasn’t long before Will got to the chase.

“Amar is supposedly coming tonight,” he said, clearly scanning Jon’s face for a reaction.

“Really? That was nice of them to include him.”

Tell didn’t even try to suppress a groan. “Hm. I bet it was Sans Pareil’s idea.”

Jon couldn’t help but chuckle at that. “Probably, but you never know.”

“Look, I didn’t – I’m glad you’re not dating Amar. Seriously.”

Jon was surprised at the slight chill in his own voice. “I didn’t do it for you.”

“I know. Liz told me. Well, she didn’t tell me everything, but she implied you had other reasons. Still, though, I should…” Whatever Tell was about to say, he trailed off.

“What?”

“It’s nothing. I really need to go find my plus one. She’s some journalist I met on a mission and I better make sure she’s not trying to score an interview off somebody. See you.”

Before Jon could engage another of his colleagues, the band that had been alternating between soft rock and something not unlike jazz surrendered to Athena, who took to the stage to give the requisite speech in her full breastplate and tunic.

After speaking eloquently but briefly on all the triumphs and the tragedies that had been experienced in the past year, Athena turned to the organization’s history. “Contrary to popular belief, I actually wasn’t on this plane of reality at the time, but I have heard this story told to me so many times in so many ways I may as well have been. 430 years ago, frustrated at the failure of his grand armada to conquer England, King Philip II of Spain, in a grotesque act of hypocrisy, had one of the kings of Hell, Viné, summoned and sent him against the English people. In response, Queen Elizabeth I gathered together the strongest but also the most unusual champions in her dominions – the Boggart, Sir Bedwyr, the Brass Head, Madam Pigot, and Jack-in-Irons. Only by using their gifts in tandem were they able to prevent tremendous loss of life and completely defeat what we would today call a class-A1 paranormal threat. It was a grateful Elizabeth herself who gave this menagerie of misfits the name the ‘Final Guard’, deeming them the last protection of her country when all other defenses failed.

This group continued to ultimately through tumultuous shifts in membership and even periods of total disbandment such as when Oliver Cromwell furiously condemned them as demonic and drove them underground or out of England, but the Final Guard would always return in one form or another when the need was great. We have evidence that such gatherings of – let’s say – unique and exceptional individuals existed even as far back as ancient Rome and Nara Japan, but – and Liz, feel free to correct even the goddess of wisdom on this one [sincere laughter came from the audience] – but none lasted for longer than a generation. The Final Guard did, however, even after all of its original members had passed on or faded into legend.

However, its service still strictly belonged to the English monarchy until the horror of the Seven Years War provoked the Masked Dragoon and Jill Holland to reach out to France’s premier champion, the Vicomte de Calbec, and set out to establish a new Final Guard that would no longer serve as the arm of any one government and would instead fight for the entire human race against exceptional threats. This mission has rarely been a simple one and many times the Final Guard has had to take sides in spite of our own ideals, most famously when we agreed to work in conjunction with the United States Army during the Second World War. But even in these tumultuous times we have kept true—“

Jon was listening with rapt attention until he thought he heard heavy footsteps coming in his general direction followed by a familiar laughter. He casually looked behind him and for reasons that were a mystery to him his heart stopped at the sight: a tall, very muscular, shirtless man, dressed only in leather boots and what could only be described as some kind of ancient man-skirt, along with perfectly combed and trimmed facial hair, long hair crowning his shoulders, and a forest of curly chest hair. It was Athena’s half-brother, Heracles, and walking with him with a hand against the chest that was far broader than Jon’s own was Amar.

Amar waved at Jon in such a way that it was almost theatrical. Jon fired back with about half a nod.

He was shocked out of his reverie by the room’s applause. Jon half-heartedly joined in and tried to go back to mingling, but his eyes kept turning back to the site of Amar fawning over the giant trash heap of hair and muscle.

Unable to do anything else, Jon walked casually up to Heracles and Amar. “Hi, Amar. I didn’t think you’d come.”

“Jon! I’m glad to see you again. It’s been a while.”

“Well, well, Mantra,” Heracles said with a grin. “I haven’t seen you since…”

“The Nero Imperative. Particularly that escape from the New Millennium Faction’s base.”

“Yes!” Heracles playfully slapped Jon on the shoulder, very nearly knocking him down. “I remember that well! Your friend here has quite the knack for running away from explosions,” he told Amar.

“Oh, I’ve seen him in danger, too,” Amar replied.

“Oh? We should arrange some kind of deadly, absurd adventure so you can say the same about me.”

“Well, you have taken every possible chance to show off,” Amar said before turning to Jon, almost as if he had forgotten he was there. “Did you know he’s so strong he can bench press a ten-wheeler? He did it as part of a workout routine while I was visiting him. Barely broke a sweat.”

“That is impressive, although I can name four or five people off the top of my head who can do the exact same thing,” Jon replied, trying to make it sound like just friendly teasing and failing.

As the war of barbs continued, Athena stood back in the crowd of talking people. She was making a beeline for her brother to confront him about yet again coming to an event uninvited when he hadn’t been a regular member of the Final Guard since the 1950s, but instead she stopped to observe Jon’s interactions with Amar and Heracles.

Sans Pareil saddled up next to her. “It’s a shame that Amar ended up with Heracles. I really was rooting for him and Jon.”

Athena was about to explain to Sans Pareil what was going on in the same tone one would talk to a too-old child about the non-existence of Santa Claus, but thankfully Adu Oginyae, who appeared out of nowhere as was his custom, did it for her. “You’re joking, right? You do realize that he’s trying to make Jon jealous, don’t you?”

Sans Pareil twisted his face in disgust. “You’d think someone who can read minds would just communicate his feelings honestly.”

“He’s still a human being,” Athena countered.

“And it’s still wrong,” Adu Oginyae added.

“So says the man who dates gorgeous yet loved-starved celebrities and heads of affluent non-profits just to keep up his secret identity.”

Suddenly Heracles grabbed Amar, lifted him four feet in the air, and kissed him briefly yet deeply. Laughing, Amar then made his way to a door leading to an outdoor balcony. Jon said his farewells to Heracles – his words were terse, Heracles’ boisterously sincere. Seeing her moment, Athena walked up to her brother.

Forgoing the greeting, she simply said, “I trust you actually know what this is about, right?”

“You mean make some boy jealous?” Heracles said, chuckling. “I haven’t spent as much time with the mortals as you have in the recent centuries, sister, but I’ve never been that naïve. We’ve just been having a good time the past few months. And besides, I haven’t been with a woman or a man of royal blood since that one glorious night in Edinburgh.”

“Please consider breaking it off gently,” Athena said, even though she suspected Heracles would ignore her advice as he always did in matters that did not involve storming enemy strongholds. “You shouldn’t even be involved.”

Heracles shrugged his massive shoulders. “He seems fine to me.”

“You’re worse than Father,” Athena growled. “At least he has the decency to delude himself that he’s in love.”

Amar pretended to be making the rounds, but only ran into former adversaries who had either played a role in foiling some plan he at least was involved in or knew him by reputation. The most Amar could be grateful for was that the shallow greetings outnumbered the icy glares. The only one who struck up a conversation with him was the Sentinel, who stood out even from the blindingly colorful crowd in his costume and its red, white, and blue motif.

At first, they chatted and joked about a little incident where Amar tricked the Sentinel and some British superhero, the Ebony Knight, into gathering together the scattered pieces of some superweapon or another. It soon turned into an argument about the merits of monarchy versus American democracy.

“I respect your people and their long history, but after living in this world for so many years, how can you still defend a system where power passes from one person to another just because of what family they were born into?” the Sentinel asked, gesturing so passionately that he nearly spilled his drink.

Amar rolled his eyes. “Yes, exactly. Why do you think I still believe in my people’s government, even after getting overthrown and exiled? I absolutely think hat some societies could use at least a nominal leader who’s trained from birth for the roll and isn’t some corrupt, unqualified lunatic who managed to game the system…”

Neither man was aware that their argument was being observed at a distance by Tell. Retreating further back, Tell whispered into his cell phone, “No, of course, you shouldn’t even think about taking him. He’s dating a veteran cape apparently, Heracles. So you’ll have to be more careful. Sure, we’ll keep watching until we finally get the opening we need.”

 

#10 – Two Steps Forward, One Step Back

On the tram, Jon swiped through a litany of bleak news articles and largely animal-focused social media posts on his phone, without stopping to truly digest any of the information. No matter how often people like the Final Guard saved the world, it still seemed like it was determined to go off the rails on its own good time. He only stirred when a pleasant ding alerted him that the tram had silently drifted to a stop.

Making his way impatiently through a crowd of costumed heroes and uniformed military officials who would have awed and intimidated him not that long ago, Jon made a beeline for the terminal W-42. Outside a glass portal looking out onto a vast hospital-white hanger was a sleek futuristic jet that resembled a giant gray plastic piece from some board game.

His only other companion at the terminal was a young man in an ill-fitting and old-fashioned suit, reading a beat-up paperback. It was some horror novel from the ‘70s whose title Jon didn’t recognize. Noticing that he caught Jon’s attention, the young man looked up with confusion, looked down again, and then, suddenly, as if some switch went off inside his head, he got up and grinned at Jon in greeting.

“Oh, hey. Jon, right?”

“Sorry I’m so late. I got held up at security.”

“Oh, don’t worry about it. I was told to expect that. The test to make sure you’re not a clone or whatever by itself is a pain in the butt, I know.” Jon was prepared for a handshake, but instead he got an enthusiastic nod. “I’m, ah, Morgan, by the way.”

“Hi, Morgan. Nice to finally meet you.”

After quickly putting his book away in his bag, Morgan led Jon toward the terminal gates. Suddenly, though, he abruptly stopped. “Um, you know, Dr. Bilatz—all of us, actually, are glad you agreed to join us, but the doctor wanted me to ask you—I mean, he now thinks the whole project could take as long as five months instead of just three. It kind of depends on what our backer is going to decide sometime in the next week. Is that still okay?”

Without hesitation, Jon replied, “Oh, definitely.”

***

One month and two days ago

The landscape had shifted again to a beach with black sand with a shipwreck in the distance, lodged between three foreboding jagged rocks. Astavis was holding out his sword, standing guard over Madeline. The young British woman stood still as a statue, her accusatory finger cocked like a loaded gun at Amar. However, in the back of Amar’s head was an assuring voice, Madeline’s voice.

Jon looked at Amar with concern.

“Are you alright?”

Amar nodded and patted Jon’s hand.

Astavis glared at the two men and waved his sword at their necks.

“Take one step toward her, you die.”

Amar sighed. “I really, really don’t like you, but I’m still sorry for what I’m about to do.”

Astavis sneered, but in just a quiet moment the sneer gave way to a look of unfiltered horror. He too dropped to his knees and began to sob.

“Oh, my God. I don’t—I’m some kind of character in a book? I’m not even real.”

“Look, all I did was hook your brain up to mine,” Amar said, helping Astavis to his feet. “Trust me, you’re real enough now.”

The landscape shifted again, this time to a lonely mountain valley where they were surrounded by ruined buildings still bearing the blackened scars of some long-ago fire. Jon looked around in fear.  “The shifts are happening faster. It’s becoming unstable.”

Amar led Jon, who was still clutching the plans, to Madeline, who was now standing still with her hands pressed against both sides of her face. At Amar’s prompting, Jon gave the plans to her.

“I don’t understand these!”

“It’s alright,” Amar said, afraid that trying to broadcast into her mind would only frighten her and make the situation worse. “You—well, part of you—spoke to me. It’s you. It’s all you. The engine is just a symbol, part of your brain’s way of coping with all the energy and information it’s channeling by compartmentalizing itself.”

Madeline read the plans again. Instead of gibberish and random images, she could see in a way she could never describe even if she had a thousand years to write all the possibilities in this universe blossoming in complex crystalline patterns. It was no longer just a representation of some books and all the extra tales and frustrated longing and joyous desire that they inspired in her since her aunt got her a copy at a bookstore to keep her distracted while Madeline was spending the weekend with her. It was now a universe—organic and chaotic and orderly and cruel and gorgeous and infinite and wonderful and hideous. At least, it could be, at this juncture.

“I didn’t want to live in a world where no one’s doing a thing about ecological catastrophe and crazy people who can build flying tanks keep trying to take over the world and crap like that,” Madeline said. She didn’t know how she knew everything she was saying. She simply knew it. “I wanted to live here instead so badly.”

She frowned as she continued to remember. “Something happened, though. It should have happened peacefully, naturally. There was some kind of corruption at the very root of it all. ‘And so, there appeared in paradise a flaw.’”

“Corruption?” Amar asked.

Madeline did not raise her head and instead kept staring at the plans. “It left now, just a few minutes ago. But it doesn’t matter. I know how it should all be now.”

She held out her hands and the plans lifted into the air. In a matter of seconds, the paper crumped away into nothing. It was no longer necessary, now that the mind of Madeline Finch of Cornwall finally realized that it was, in fact, the mystic engine.

“First things first…” She walked over to Astavis and gently kissed him on the lips. “Man, I used to fantasize about this so much. Don’t worry. You won’t remember any of this, but we will meet again.” In an instant, he was gone as if he was never there.

“God, I’ve caused so much damage and pain. I’m so sorry. But not a bit of it has to last. I think I can do that much.” Lifting her hand, suddenly, the world around them suddenly felt less tangible, real somehow. Amar thought he saw a flash of the Cornish highway they were standing on.

Madeline stood still, as if she was having a debate in her mind. “Thank you two for giving me that push. By the time I finally woke up to what I could do, it might have been too late for the world. Now at least I have a choice…”

Madeline began to visibly concentrate intensely. Suddenly she screamed and began to fall. Jon rushed over to support her, but by the time he got near her, suddenly, they were back to reality. Instead of where they were when they entered, they were now all standing on a small patch of Cornish countryside in the middle Cops and capes standing around them began shouting. There was no trace of any hole of reality.

Although she still looked as if she was suffering from the worst of all possible migraines, Madeline smiled at Amar. He could hear her in his mind. I think I might have burned out most of my powers, but Tenedam lives.

Jon noticed that standing around were also hundreds of people, including the guards and the Grand Duke himself, all wearing business suits and dresses and casual clothes. From the confused chatter, he noticed that they must have had no memories of where they were, what had happened, and their former personalities.

Josephine Manners, flanked by three menacing looking officials, made a beeline toward them from the edge of the crowd.

“Now will someone tell me what the hell that was all about?”

Amar started, “You were right that Madeline was—”

Jon discreetly interrupted. “She was the locus of the reality warp, but it was caused by some massive energy that seems to have exploited her love of Legend of the Steam Cities. We weren’t able to find the source of it, but we were able to break her connection to it.”

After looking Jon sternly in his eyes, she nodded in Madeline’s direction. “Good. We’ll make sure to give her a full medical and telepathic examination.”

Once the authorities with their help had scuttled away most of the victims of the reality warp to their true lives, Jon and Amar were generously provided a picnic lunch of fish and chips as their reward for saving the world from turning into an eternal, perfect cosplay.

“Why didn’t you tell Josephine the truth about Madeline?” Amar asked.

Jon shrugged. “There’s an…informal international agreement that an alpha-level paranormal has to be humanely contained if possible, which means they get to spend the rest of their life in a room so sedated they never even know what day it is.  I doubt even her losing most of her power would have saved her from that fate.”

“Gods…so you were willing to lie about that?”

“With a job like mine, you have to have rules but you also have to be willing to stretch them a bit. Even a guy with the reputation of an eagle scout like Sans Pareil understands that,” Jon replied.

Amar chuckled. “So we really did save the world with no casualties, then?”

Jon reached out for his hand almost instinctively. “Our first time.”

***

On the deck of an airship called The White Sands, Elizabeth, Jon, Madeline, and Kyle, better known by his cape alias as Tell, sat at a table drinking green tea. They were all dressed in the Victorian costume appropriate to the land, which Madeline generously provided. She was understandably sensitive to the inhabitants of the world ever finding out the true origins of their existence.

It had been a couple of weeks and it turned out Madeline had indeed used up most of her power. Luckily, it was not a sacrifice in vain. She still had an affinity with the Steam Cities world that enabled her to transport herself and others there whenever she pleased and gave her some low-level influence over it and its inhabitants. She decided to spend every other weekend and holiday having adventures there or at least spending time with Astavis. With a level of maturity appropriate to someone who created an entire world from the void, she decided to wait until she graduated from college before she would choose to live full-time in Steam Cities world or stay in her home world save for the occasional jaunt.

The small party had been largely silent, gazing at the dark blues and lush greens and hillside villages of the mountainous landscape of Meneathan-Tirsel below them.

“A whole new world,” Liz remarked to no one in particular. “It’s fantastic.”

Madeline smiled. “I know. I just wish I didn’t come so close to destroying our world for its sake.”

Liz reached out and gave her a friendly pat on her hand. “You know, you’re new to what I like to call the madness. Just try to enjoy yourself and don’t get too far into it.”

They were all fans of Legends of the Steam Cities, but that was just an extremely convenient coincidence Jon was happily exploiting. Even Madeline’s presence, which might possibly help avert a disaster, was something Jon had planned on with the meticulousness of a supercriminal. In the two weeks since the reality warp was closed, Jon had kept in close contact with Amar, even though he was busy setting up a new life in Pittsburgh with the help of Josephine Manner’s agents and the local Paranormal and Superhuman Agency. So far neither of them had the guts to ask the other out, but Jon was eager to break the stalemate. However, as much as he wanted to, he could not do it without asking the only two people in the world who could ever get a say: his best friend and the one victim of Amar’s he knew well.

Jon had rehearsed how he would break the ice that morning. “So, I think I might ask Amar out. Like, on a proper date.” That was not what he had rehearsed.

“Are you asking us for permission?” Kyle said, his voice unnervingly restrained.

Jon didn’t have an answer to that. Leave it to Kyle to fire right into the core of the problem.

Kyle shrugged, but it did not belie the fact that his expression was furious. “You can do whatever you want. You’re a grown guy and you’re not even really in the community anymore, so what does it matter what you do, right?”

As Jon tried to decide in the moment if he should just let the matter drop or press further, Madeline reluctantly jumped in. “What’s the problem with him dating Amar? He seemed okay all the times I met him.”

Kyle’s tone was flat. “The problem is that he used to be a supercriminal, and not just any supercriminal. I used to be a drug addict a lifetime ago, and just because he was angry that I fired a couple of arrows that destroyed the super computer he was going to use to raise an android army to take over his homeland, he reached into my brain and made my addiction flare up all over again, just to make me pay. It took him a second to put me all the way back to square one.”

Madeline stammered an “I’m sorry” and looked away.

Jon caught himself before he could say “That was a long time ago.” Instead he just weakly muttered, “I know.”

“I know you know. Which is why…” Kyle shook his head and got up. “You know what? I’m going below deck for a while.”

“Kyle…” Jon started, but Liz put her hand on his arm to stop him.

Madeline awkwardly sprang up. “I think I’m going to go below too. I need to talk to the captain, anyway. There’s one more place I wanted to show you guys before we went home—an island with a shrine on it made of pure obsidian.”

Liz turned to Jon. “Well, at least we don’t have to have an audience.”

“That could have gone better,” Jon said.

“Maybe, but you know Kyle. He’s even more into the community than we ever were. Even if you go ahead and start dating Amar, he’ll probably remember some example of a cape dating a reformed supercriminal and talk himself into being okay with it. Just don’t expect him to be your best man.”

Jon sighed. Even if Liz was right, there probably was a long series of awkward conversations ahead of him until the two of them would finally argue it out. “Well, at least you support me dating Amar.”

Liz looked as if someone had stabbed her in the leg. “Jon, you know I love you, and even though I’m your sister from another mother I wouldn’t tell you who to date, like even when you dated that crazy fanboy who was secretly writing a blog about you…”

“But?”

But this might not be the right thing to do, at least not for right now.”

“So you agree with Kyle?”

“No. At least, not really. I mean, he has a right to be angry, but he doesn’t have a right to tell you who you should date, especially when that person’s proven he’s changed.”

“Then what do you mean?”

“What I mean is Amar’s been through hell. A guy he loved now despises him, he had a breakdown, he attempted suicide, and he got thrust into a dangerous situation just days later. Yeah, I know it was his choice, but I bet Josephine Manners did what she could to make it seem like he didn’t have much of one.”

“And it probably didn’t help that he felt like he owed me,” Jon said, showing no small hint of guilt.

“Exactly. You’ve been his rock right from the day when his life fell apart, but that’s kind of the problem, too, don’t you think? He’s building a brand-new life from scratch, and he’s got to build that life on his own.”

The thought had occurred to Jon, but he had dismissed it. With Liz saying it aloud, though, it could not be denied anymore.

“And if things really go south for us…” Jon wondered aloud.

Liz nodded. “I mean, never mind the really high recidivism rates for supercriminals. Just think of what might be best for him overall as a person, and not just a telepathic prince exiled from another dimension.”

Jon couldn’t admit aloud that he realized that Liz was right, but she knew him too well to think she didn’t say anything he was already considering.

***

“You know, I think this might be the best food I’ve had ever since I got to the First World…” Amar said, greedily but still somehow daintily slicing into a fat gyro. “It’s Greek, right?”

“Yes,” Jon replied.

“And they’re the people who took over, uh, the Mediterranean region?”

“Not really. I think you’re thinking of the Romans.”

Amar sighed. “I always get them mixed up for some reason. And that’s one of the things here I really shouldn’t ever get wrong, even around really stupid people?”

“Sorry, it kind of is.”

Amar groaned with mock annoyance. Already he spend a lot of time joyfully explaining how Josephine Manners had set him up working as a translator and teaching intro courses in Sumerian and Akkadian at University of Pittsburgh (which had no program in the study of ancient Mesopotomia until suddenly the university received a massive endowment from an anonymous donor and the program was established with a suddenness even by the sluggish standards of academia). Nor did he have to live in fear of being exposed and arrested like he did in the old days since, this time, everything was on the level.

Jon wanted to let Amar go on and leave it all unsaid. But something compelled him to say the words, “Amar, I know we talked about dating since the whole thing, but…I think it’s best if we’re just friends for now.”

Amar froze. Jon knew him well enough now that, from his expression, he was resisting the temptation to read his thoughts.

“Oh. I guess—I understand we did take things a little fast, huh?”

Jon chuckled mirthlessly. “Yeah, but I don’t regret it.”

Amar looked pained for a minute. “This isn’t because of…everything I used to do?”

This was exactly what Jon was afraid of. “No, it’s just…I think you need to take some time, that’s all. I promise.”

For the rest of their lunch, Amar talked listlessly about apartment hunting and hurried away from the restaurant as soon as the bill was paid, but not before Jon was able to give Amar some news of his own: he had decided to take up a job offer. Jon had made it sound like he had made the decision weeks ago, but in reality he decided the exact second he could sense how much he had hurt Amar.

***

“Um, Morgan?” Jon asked. There were no windows on the plane. Jon didn’t complain, though. Leaving one’s dimensional plane was probably not a sight meant for even the steeliest omniversal tourist.

Morgan was no longer sit rigidly and nervously at he had for most of the trip so far, but was slumped over in his seat and playing with the wire of a set of headphones. “Do I look like Morgan to you? I’m Rob Riley, remember? God, Morgan and I don’t even look anything alike.”

Oh, right, Jon remembered. He has some form of dissociative identity disorder.

“Sorry, Rob,” Jon said sincerely.

“Whatever.” The body that had introduced itself as Morgan looked around the plane. “Were the hell’s the booze?”

“I don’t think it’s that kind of flight,” Jon said, ignoring Rob’s subsequent string of curses. At least they would arrive shortly and he would get the answer to his question. They were outside their home universe, their native space-time continuum, so, needless to say, Wi-Fi service was very bad. But Jon needed to know if he could still somehow drop a line to Amar.

Jon knew he had to do that much. Never mind the fact that Amar had avoided him for almost a month now.

#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!)

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