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Khell doodle.

So, sometimes when I’m not writing, I’m doodling. I don’t consider myself great at it, though I also don’t consider myself to be that bad at it either. I find though, so long as I’m creating something one way or another, I’m pretty happy.

I drew Khell a few days back, just to get my brain back on her story. I figured it turned out ok, so I’m willing to share.

This is her on my Deviant Page

That’s all. I’ll have another chapter up in a few days.

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Khell 08

Khell had stood adamantly until Fenway had answered her, and had immediately felt foolish about how little the answer meant to her. A Principal, it turned out, worked directly for the King, and answered only to him. Principal Valen was the Principal of this area.

Principal Valen was one of several Principals, though Fenway had only heard of a few others. In other words, Principal Valen was a very important man that Khell had never heard of before. Dejected, Khell accepted the description with a slight nod, and let Fenway and the crew lead her to the small café.

Fenway sat Khell and Sprogs together at a table near the back of the café. He ordered Khell a drink that he called Juiji berry, which smelt like bananas, and tasted like passion fruit. Fenway reminded Khell to keep her hood up, and left the girls together.

Khell stared at her drink, not wanting to look up. Sprogs sat across from her, smirking at Khell. If Sprogs did have anything to say, she hadn’t said it yet. She hadn’t said anything since they’d sat down. She hadn’t touched her drink (which was a white milky substance served in a shallow bowl). Sprogs had just stared and smirked and made Khell very uncomfortable.

Urrah and Fenway sat at a booth closer to the front door. Khell snuck a glance at the two from beneath her hood. Urrah took the entirety of the booth’s cushioned bench, while Fenway was perched on a tall stool. Both of them looked to be relaxed and casual, but there was a tension underlying their relaxed poses and whispered conversation.

“Don’t you want to know what we do?” Sprogs asked suddenly. She ran her fingers in a slow circle through her drink, and sucked the milky fluid from her thick black claws. “You question everything, but you don’t seem to care who we are, or what we do.”

“I don’t…”

Sprogs leant over the table, and stopped Khell mid sentence. “I’d ask,” she whispered. “I think it’d be the first question I’d have.” Sprogs cleared her throat, and spoke in a perfect mimicry of Khell’s voice. “Who are you people? Where are you taking me? What are the stakes?”

Sprogs switched back to her own voice. “You heard us talk about selling you,” she accused. “You know we work for Principal Valen, and yet you don’t ask what we do, or what we intend to do with you.” Sprogs leant back across the table, and resumed staring at Khell.

Khell wasn’t sure what she was being accused of, but Sprogs suspicion was thick in the air. She did have a point. Khell had been quick to trust Fenway, and had never questioned the intentions of the Copper Cicada’s crew. It occurred to Khell that she was, in short, being kidnapped. She felt a sudden cold dread in her gut; a feeling that didn’t go away as she looked into Sprogs black eyes.

Khell took a deep breath. “You talked about selling me,” she accused Sprogs. “No one else: just you. Fenway said that he wouldn’t sell me.”

“And that was good enough for you?”

“Yes,” Khell replied. She tried to hide the doubt in her voice. “I trust…”

“An absolute stranger with your life,” Sprogs interrupted. “You trust someone that you have no reason to trust, simply because he smiled and told you everything is going to be fine.”

Khell bit her lip and looked about frantically. The panic leapt to her throat. Sprogs grabbed Khell by the wrist before she could rabbit out of the café. Khell pulled against Sprogs iron grasp futilely.

“I did ask who you all were.” Khell muttered feebly.

“And we gave you our names.” Sprogs replied; venom hidden just beneath her calm tone. “That was enough for you?”

Khell tugged at her arm again, and looked up at Sprogs. “I…” she swallowed hard, and tried to calm down. “What do you do?” Khell asked in a small voice.

Sprogs smiled coldly, and let go of Khell’s wrist. She ran a finger through her drink again, and let the question float in the air for a moment. “We’re Jacks,” Sprogs answered finally.

Khell rubbed her wrist. “I don’t know what a Jack is,” she admitted.

Sprogs’ smirk twitched, momentarily exposing her oversized canines. A low growl formed in her throat before she composed herself. “Of course you don’t,” she replied in a calm even tone. “Because you don’t know things.”

“I don’t,” Khell mumbled, mostly to herself. Sprogs ignored her, and went on.

“A Jack takes jobs for money,” Sprogs explained. “Any job,” she verified before Khell could ask, “so long as it pays well. No questions asked.”

Sprogs dipped and licked her fingers again; her claws made a scraping noise against her course tongue. “If a client is willing to pay us to break into The Library, and find an item of interest there, than we’d go find the item, and bring it to the client.” Sprogs sneered at Khell. “We would bring the client whatever that item turned out to be. That’s what Jacks do. We do the job we’re being paid for. No. Questions. Asked.”

“But,” Khell replied desperately. “But Fenway said he wouldn’t.”

Sprogs let out a bitter chuckle. “He won’t,” she stated accusingly. “Fenway has a clear set of jobs he won’t do, and kidnapping is right there with killing on the list of don’ts.” Sprogs thought a moment. “Normally, with any other client, you would simply be a deal breaker.”

“But not with Principal Valen,” Khell acknowledged. “Who is he, really? Fenway said one of the Principals, and that they only answer to the King, but there’s more than that, isn’t there?”

“Oh you’d like that wouldn’t you?” Sprogs barked sharply at Khell. She lowered her voice as Fenway and Urrah stared over from their booth. “You’d love to hear me badmouth the Principal, wouldn’t you? Catch me talking treason?”

Khell stared confusion at Sprogs. She got that Sprogs didn’t believe her, but Khell wasn’t sure what Sprogs was actually accusing her of. “I don’t understand,” Khell managed. She considered adding more, but really, I don’t understand summed up Khell’s entire day.

Sprogs growled again, not bothering to try and control her anger. She opened her mouth to respond to Khell, but whatever she had to say was lost when the doors exploded off their hinges, and flew through the café. Two Cogstables stormed in through the destroyed portal, and scanned the room.

Where the Cogstables in the library had looked like they’d been built out of woodstoves; these two Cogstables looked to be made from old trucks. They were a similar mess of metal and cogs as the other Cogstables, but much bigger. Their bodies were dark green, but the paint was cracked, and peeled in places as if it was trying to escape the fire that burned white behind the double grills on the Cogstables’ chests.

The café shook as the Cogstables marched through. Everyone hustled to get out of the way of the two metal behemoths, and several patrons made straight for the door.

Fenway watched with calm disinterest as the two Cogstables stomped towards his table. Fenway pulled out a new cigar as they towered over him, and lit it with the heat from one of their chests. “So, I take it your boss was too busy to come in person,” Fenway observed.

The Cogstables both tooted sharply; an ominous sound similar to a fog horn. They stepped away from each other, and opened their hands. Thick cables sprouted from their palms and grew together. Cogs and metal sheathing blossomed from the cords as they intertwined to create a large hoop between the Cogstables.

Khell watched in amazement as the center of the circle rippled like a soap bubble. It flickered slightly, with old television static, and the image of a man formed in the middle. He was thin and tall, with sharp facial features and long pointed ears that swept back behind flowing white hair. His body was a spring of tight muscles under robes draped and cut to show off his bare chest. There was a symbol painted on his torso; a series of smaller circles orbiting inside four larger ones. Khell gasped as she stared at the paint on the Principal’s chest.

Sprogs grabbed the front of Khell’s hood and yanked, nearly smacking her head on the table. “You don’t ever look directly at a Principal,” Sprogs told Khell in a whisper. Her normal snide was missing, and Sprogs stared wide eyed at the table.

“I didn’t know,” Khell mumbled. She dared another peak from beneath her hood at Principal Valen. There was no mistaking it; the symbol painted on his chest was the same one that had been on the front of the book!

Underrated 01 – The Diesel King (rewrite)

**So, it’s very rare that I do any sort of editing of the work that goes up here, but it happens. After a few comments, and a personal reread of The Diesel King, I decided to completely rewrite it. Less talk, more action. Enjoy.**

Sam hit the ground hard enough to bounce twice. She skipped along the asphalt of the road, and smacked face first into a compact car. Sam lay on the road in an undignified slump for a moment, before punching a small crater into the road, and swearing loudly.

She brushed down her skirt as she stood, and glared at the crowd in the streets. Civilians too brave and stupid to leave the area of a super villain fight snapped pictures of Sam with their phones. She’d added bike shorts to her Kidvincible costume years ago, but that didn’t mean that the internet wasn’t about to be flooded with up-skirt shots of her crumpled against a badly parked Hyundai.

An air horn blasted as The Diesel King charged down the road on truck shaped roller-skates. Sam ducked under his wide swing, and straight armed her attacker hard in the side. Sam’s fist left a sizable dent in The Diesel King’s big-rig themed armor, but didn’t slow him down.

The Diesel King spun on his wheels. “It’s going to take more than a slap and tickle to slow down the ole Diesel King, Lottie,” he announced as he sped towards Sam again.

Sam reached back, and closed her fist on the front of the car behind her. “I know exactly how to slow you down,” she stated. She’d considered going with something about cars and traffic, but she just couldn’t force the words out of her mouth. Sam hated witty banter.

The front of the Hyundai cracked in Sam’s grasp; a feeling she mistook for a firm grasp of the vehicle. She’d meant to hit The Diesel King with the entire car, and winced when she felt the bumper cover pop off. Already committed to the swing, Sam shattered the plastic cover harmlessly over the truck grill on The Diesel King’s chest.

The Diesel King looked at Sam, and the broken stub of plastic in her hand. He laughed a good strong belly laugh at her. Sam just exhaled slow, and sunk at the shoulders. “Fuck,” she said.

“Yup,” The Diesel King agreed, still chuckling. “That’s why you should always buy American” He tooted his horn proudly, just before he backhanded Sam off her feet.

Sam recovered quickly from the attack. She spun in the air, ready to fly fists first at The Diesel King. Instead, she turned around just in time for The Diesel King to show her how to properly hit a person with a car. He swung the vehicle straight down like he was killing a spider, and slammed Sam into the road. He hit her a second time just to be sure, before shifting his grip to the middle of the car.

The Diesel King held the car high above his head, ready to pestle it into Sam bumper first. “You’ll be signing off now Lottie,” he stated. “I can’t say it hasn’t been…”

Sam didn’t get to hear what it hadn’t been. Knockabout rushed up the road, and shoulder checked The Diesel King. The villain lost his grip on the car as he was punted up the street, and had it crash on top of him. The silver plugs that jutted from Knockabout’s triceps spun as he rolled his broad shoulders, and dusted off his hands as though that would be it.

Sam looked Knockabout over as she stood up. His favorite Sisters of Mercy tee hung from him in tatters. His skin was laced with a series of visibly healing gashes; some deep enough to expose the Kevlar knit underneath. He adjusted his thick black goggles, and shrugged casually as he caught Sam’s eye.

“He threw me through the window of a wine store,” Knockabout offered, pointing back up the road. He held up a bottle of wine as proof, before stashing it under a nearby Volvo. “So, what’s the plan?”

Sam looked about at the crowd. Actual news crews had arrived at some time, and were mingling in amongst the amateur photographers. She unconsciously tugged her suit straight by the hem of her skirt. “We need to end this now,” Sam told Knockabout. “I’m figuring a standard High/low.”

Knockabout nodded. The hydraulic jacks in his feet cracked the pavement as he loped at high speed towards the recovering villain. He buried a fist in The Diesel King’s stomach, knocking the air out of the mecha-trucker. Sam flew close behind, and caught The Diesel King with a beautiful flying uppercut as he folded over Knockabout’s fist. The Diesel King was rocketed into the air, and crashed on the streets nearly a block away.

“Yeah!” Knockabout exclaimed. He looked to Sam for a fist bump, figuring this was one of the few times it was warranted.

Sam left him hanging. “Follow through,” she commanded, flying after The Diesel King.

The Diesel King staggered to his feet. He wiped the blood from his mouth, and grinned stupidly at the oncoming attack. “You think you got The Diesel King on the ropes huh? Well, I got something for you Dirty Dans.”

The Diesel King thrust his hips forward. There was a wet noise from deep inside the suit, and a sudden geyser of used motor oil sprayed from his groin. The Diesel King laughed and gyrated his hips as he hosed Sam and Knockabout down with viscous black truck fluids.

Knockabout managed to give Sam a full ‘what the fuck’ look before he lost his footing on the oil soaked road. He kissed the ground with a teeth rattling thud, and slid to a stop at The Diesel King’s feet.

Sam choked on a face full of black oil, and tried to fly through. She barely dodged as The Diesel King kicked Knockabout at her, and only spared a quick glance at her partner sliding down the streets behind her. Sam tried for a wide haymaker as she closed on her opponent, but blinded by the continual spray of oil, she missed horribly. Sam’s clumsy swing left her wide open for The Diesel King’s retaliation. He snapped a punch straight into her chest, and sent her spiraling away.

Sam slammed into the wall of a nearby bank, and slid to the sidewalk. She gagged on the stench of spent motor oil, and spat out a gob of black goo. Oil dripped from her as she stood up. Sam looked back at the thick black spatter left when she’d hit the wall. Around her, people braved up close to get shots of her dripping with thick dark oil.

Don’t swear an inner voice tried to warn Sam. Don’t swear; people are filming. Sam floated into the air, feeling heavy from the oil and nauseous from the fumes. She sloughed a layer of oil from the front of her suit, and flicked it carelessly at the surrounding crowd. Don’t swear the inner voice pleaded again.

“You. Absolute. FUCK!” she screamed, shooting back towards the laughing Diesel King.

Sam tore a stop sign free from its mooring, and bashed The Diesel King hard up the side of the head. He staggered back, and put his hands up to block Sam’s attack. Sam screamed strings of obscenities as she smacked The Diesel King about the head and arms.

The Diesel King stopped laughing, and swore as well with equal creativity as Sam. He finally got hold of the sign, and ripped it from Sam’s hands. “Cut it out!” he insisted.

“What a wasted opportunity,” a girl’s voice chirped from the sidelines. “You totally should have said stop.”

The confused Diesel King was still looking for the source of the voice when he was hit in the chest by a bolt of lightning, and knocked clean off his skates. The Diesel King had barely hit the ground before an oil soaked Knockabout landed hard on his chest. Knockabout crouched over The Diesel King, and pounded on him relentlessly.

The girl that had thrown the lightning bolt waved a frantic hello as Sam stormed towards her. She pulled back the hood of her cloak, and smiled in a way that suggested she was blissfully unaware of Sam’s current mood.

“See, he should have said stop, because you were hitting him with a stop sign?” the girl explained without being asked. “And then he had the stop sign? But he still didn’t say it? It just feels like he missed out on a great opening there, y’know?”

Sam put her hand up; a clear signal for the girl to shut it. “Where the hell have you been, Lect?” The girl’s superhero name was Electromicon, but Lect was as close as anyone bothered to get. Lect was just happy no one called her by her real name, because that was Florida.

Lect’s frowned at Sam’s question. “I figured you guys had this under control?” she replied. She tugged nervously at a pocket of her cargo pants, and avoided eye contact with Sam. “I mean, The Diesel King, right?”

Sam stared at Lect, and cursed under her breath. The girl wasn’t wrong. “He’s having a particularly good day,” Sam explained though clenched teeth. “And he’s managed to make us look like fucking clowns doing it.” Sam rubbed her temples as Knockabout bounced past them. “My God. He’s a middle-aged Optimus-Prime cosplayer, and he is kicking our asses.”

“Plus he covered you with oil?” Lect offered in a helpful tone. “Like, he totally hosed you down in front of the press. I mean, that really couldn’t have helped your day, right?”

Lect’s voice trailed off as Sam slapped an oil-stained hand in the middle of her chest, and dragged it down the front of the younger girl’s light blue body suit.

Lect blinked horror at the thick black stain down the front of her only super-suit. “Ok,” she accepted in a small voice. “Now we’re all dirty. Total team building exercise.” Her smile had returned by the time she looked up at Sam. “So what’s the plan?”

Knockabout popped his shoulder back into joint with a metallic snap as he came to join the girls. “Our original plan was to punch Diesel Dick until we felt big about ourselves,” he explained. “But that’s fallen through.”

Sam nodded an agreement. “The new plan’s simple,” she concluded. “Lect, you shut The Diesel King down. After that, maybe we’ll go back to plan A for a bit.”

“Shut him down,” Lect repeated feebly. She gave Sam a sheepish smile.

“Shut. Him. Down,” Sam ran her hands through her oil drenched hair in frustration. “He’s wearing power armor. Shut it down with your magical-electrical-mojo-whatever crap.”

“Oh. Ok. Only; is there a plan C? Because I can’t shut him down,” Lect rolled her eyes at Sam’s incredulous look. “His suit is, like, mostly running on diesel?”

“You’re joking right?” Sam held up a hand before Lect could answer. “Yes, I get that he’s The Diesel King, but an actual diesel powered suit? That’s beyond stupid.”

“Well, like, there’s some electric components? Like, the headlights, and some of his joint articulators, and the radio, and some little inside stuff?” Lect chewed on her lip as she thought about it. “I mean, maybe I could turn his radio up real loud? Like, distract him so you guys can rush him and…”

Sam stared hard at Lect till the girl shut up. She looked over at The Diesel King. Currently he was flexing for the cameras like the winner of a rasslin’ match. She could hear him telling the crowd his life story. He was just at the part where his wife took the dog and the truck.

“You know what? Screw this,” Sam announced loudly. “We’re done here.”

The Diesel King stopped mid monologue, and blinked confusion at Sam. He took off his armored John Deere cap, and scratched his balding head. “What?”

“You heard me,” Sam replied. “We’re done. I’m going to go take a shower, and then find a bar and drink till I’ve forgotten this afternoon.” She gave Knockabout and Lect a glance. “You guys in?”

“Like, for the shower?” Lect asked sarcastically.

“Whichever,” Sam replied as she walked away. “I couldn’t give two tugs right now.”

The Diesel King sputtered like an angry fish. “You can’t just walk away from me,” he insisted uncertainly.

“Yeah we can,” Sam assured him. She waved a casual middle finger over her shoulder. Knockabout joined her, both in the walking and the finger waving. Despite being covered in oil, he lit a smoke, and took a deep drag before passing it to Sam. Lect hovered close behind the other two, but didn’t flip off The Diesel King. She was new to the superhero game, and wasn’t comfortable working blue just yet.

“But you can’t just,” The Diesel King called after them. “We’re in the middle of…” He looked about at the cameras, and cursed under his breath. “You think you can just walk away from me after you get in my face? After you stop my revenge against the company that…”

“We don’t care,” Sam called over her shoulder. “No one cares why you dressed up like a truck this morning.” She didn’t even bother turning around.

The Diesel King tossed his hat to the ground in a dagnabbit level of frustration. “That’s it!” he yelled. “I was going to go easy on you bubblegummers, but you’ve gone and A&Aed the ole Diesel King! Now I’m going to have to put the hammer down!” The Diesel King screamed, and charged down the road towards Sam, Knockabout, and Lect.

“A&Aed?” Knockabout questioned.

“I don’t know,” Sam admitted. “I don’t speak hillbilly.”

Lect chewed her knuckles nervously, but tried to stay as casual as the other two. “He’s coming up behind us awfully fast,” she whispered.

Sam grunted an agreement. She tilted her head, and listened as The Diesel King closed on them. “Alright,” she stated without looking back. “Lect, hit him.”

“I told you,” Lect whined. “I can’t shut him down.”

“Shut up.” Sam flicked the cigarette aside. “We have a fat man dressed like a truck roller-skating angrily towards us. You shut down what you can, and the rest will happen naturally; got it?”

Lect nodded, and flew high above the road. She did as she was told because she trusted that Sam knew what she was doing. She flew up high out of reach because she didn’t trust it would work. Lect muttered a quick incantation, and thrust her hands forward. A thick bolt of lightning shot from her palms, and slammed into The Diesel King’s chest.

The Diesel King had a momentary look of triumph as he skated seemingly unharmed through the blast. The look faded fast as everything suddenly went wrong. His knees locked as the articulation failed. His nipple head lights flickered on and off. A mariachi band blared from his radio, just loud enough to drown out The Diesel King’s screaming as he fumbled down the street on unstopping roller skates.

Sam smiled as The Diesel king flailed helplessly towards her and Knockabout. Both of them winded up, and waited for him. It had been a crap day, but Sam was pretty sure that this was going to make up for it. Besides; the media really only cared about who got the last hit in. A synchronized double uppercut was just the thing to make everyone forget exactly how much of a fiasco this whole fight had been. “This is going to be so sweet,” Sam insisted.

There was a sudden flash of bright light, and a beam of pure energy hit The Diesel King in the back, and sped his trajectory towards Sam and Knockabout. It wasn’t Electronomicon’s lighting. Instead, a man in a white business suit hovered over the battle, a nimbus of white energy circling his hands. Conduit, Sam recognized. He was a member of The Brigade of Heroes. If he was here, then so were the others.

“No,” Sam muttered, already recognizing how it was all going to fall apart. “Fuck no.” She broke into a run, hoping to hit The Diesel King before The Brigade muscled in.

“Look out!” A gruff voice warned from behind. Flagg Patriot, leader of the Brigade, shoved Sam and Knockabout aside as he leapt past them in the streets. Sam landed hard on her ass.

The warning, and the shove, made it look like Flagg Patriot had just saved Sam’s life, which was exactly how he’d planned it. Sam was left literally sitting on the sidelines as Flagg Patriot took her perfect upper cut away from her. The Diesel King was spun backwards by Flagg’s attack, right into the waiting fists of Pont, the Brigade’s ogre of a strongman.

Sam watched them all back pat each other for the whole three seconds she could stand it. Fists clenched, she stormed towards Flagg Patriot. “We had this,” she insisted in a whispered hiss.

Flagg adjusted his General Patton helmet, and looked down his nose at Sam. “Did you have this Kidvincible?” he asked snidely. “It didn’t look like you did, but we could have misunderstood what was going on.” His smile flickered, and his voice dropped low enough that only Sam’s super hearing could catch it. “Is that what we have here? Do we have a misunderstanding?” Behind Flagg Patriot, Pont cracked his knuckles. Conduit hovered nearby. All three smiled calmly at her.

Sam looked at The Brigade. Her day had been bad enough; adding a super hero misunderstanding to the mess wasn’t going to improve it. “Thank you for the assistance,” she managed through clenched teeth.

Flagg Patriot gave Sam a Flagg Patronizing smile. “I’ve told you before Kidvincible,” he offered in a calm tone, loud enough for the press, “if you need help, just call us.”

Sam choked down a few creative words. “Sure,” she replied bitterly. Even that was wasted, as Flagg Patriot had already turned to the crowd to answer a few questions and take full credit for the capture of The Diesel King.

Sam shook her head, and joined Knockabout and Lect along the sidelines. They stood in silence for a few minutes, watching as The Brigade chatted with civilians, press, and police. No one even looked in their direction.

“It’s not so bad,” Lect tried, breaking the silence. “I mean, like, at least…”

Sam pressed an oil stained finger against Lect’s lips. “Shhh,” she insisted before the younger girl could get started. “Just, shhh.”

“I think we’re done here,” Knockabout commented, patting Sam on the back. He held up the bottle of wine, and gave it a tempting little shake. “Back to base?”

Sam took one more look at The Brigade of Heroes, and pictured a creatively gory death for each of them. “Back to base,” she agreed finally.

Underrated 01 – The Diesel King

Sam had done the superhero gig since she was a child. She still wore the same costume as she had when she was twelve; a one piece white t-shirt/skirt, with a thick black line down each side, and a large black circle on her chest. She’d made a few changes to the suit over the years: She’d replaced her heels with combat boots, and ditched the elbow length gloves. She’d added textured cloth and seam piping when that became the style, but mostly the design had stayed the same. There was no reason to mess with a classic after all. After a decade in the biz; Sam felt it fair to call her costume a classic.

In uniform, Sam was supposed to answer to Kidvincible. It was, after all, her hero name. She didn’t really stick to it as much as she should, and most people, hero and villain alike, knew her as Sam. Her real name was Samantha, but Sam was fine.

Sam felt she was literally born to be a super hero. This was understandable, as she was literally born with her powers. It made for a boring origin story, but Sam didn’t consider that much of a loss. She was impossibly strong, incredibly fast, and she could fly. It took a pretty bad day to make Sam consider if she could have done anything else with her life.

Today was proving to be a bad day: A fully honest ‘consider taking up accountancy’ type of bad day.

Sam hit the ground hard enough to bounce twice. She slid along the asphalt of the road, and set off a car alarm face first. She lay on the road in an undignified slump for a moment before swearing loudly.

Being pretty much invincible; Sam wasn’t physically hurt from being smacked to the ground, or from being slammed into the side of a badly parked Volvo. In fact she’d become quite used to this sort of thing. But just because her body was immune to harm didn’t mean her pride was invulnerable.

Sam brushed down her skirt as she stood, and glared at the crowd in the streets. Civilians both too brave and too stupid to leave the area of a super villain fight snapped photos of Sam with their phones. She’d added bike shorts to her Kidvincible costume years ago, but that didn’t mean that the internet wasn’t about to be flooded with up-skirt shots of her crumpled against a car.

“God dammit!” Sam punched the car in frustration, crushing its hood under her fist. The car alarm died with a satisfying wheeze. “We totally suck!”

Sam’s sentence was punctuated by a grinding of metal and an explosion of glass as Knockabout smashed into the car she’d just punched. Knockabout was part of Sam’s team, and like her, he wasn’t having the best day.

Knockabout sat in the wreckage for a moment before he sighed dramatically, and adjusted his thick black goggles. “This is not our finest hour,” he agreed.

Knockabout sat up, and pulled off the shredded remains of his shirt. His costume was normally a pair of leather pants, and a black tee shirt cut to fit around the metallic cylinders that jutted from his shoulder-blades, spine and triceps. The shirt was often the first casualty of any fight they were in, leaving him bare-chested. Today was no exception.

The remains of the Volvo gave the whining sound of metal straining as Knockabout pulled loose from the wreckage. With his augmented muscles, and sub-dermal Kevlar knit, and metal laced bones, and other internal cyborg crap, Knockabout weighed in at nearly 230 kilos. It was more than the average car liked to have splayed across its roof to say the least.

Like Sam; Knockabout was super strong. He was also bulletproof, though not entirely invulnerable. His blood was riddled with nanites that, given time, could fix most damage to his body. Knockabout couldn’t fly; though the hydraulic jacks in his legs let him leap tall buildings; so long as the buildings weren’t actually that tall.

Knockabout didn’t know his real name. He had no memory from before he was made into what he was now. All they knew about him was that he’d been built by, and for, some terrorist organization, and that he was supposed to be the perfect superman. Knockabout was discarded as a failure, because some drunk scientist had screwed up trying to give him super-vision. Knockabout’s eyes were a horror to see; matte black, with swollen red around them, like a shark that needed sleep. Worse; without his special goggles, Knockabout’s eyesight ranked right up there with Velma Dinkley’s.

Sam or Knockabout getting punted down the street was often something to laugh about over drinks later. Sam and Knockabout getting punted was downright embarrassing. It was bad enough against a credible villain, but today they were fighting The Diesel King; a man with a big rig themed power suit. Diesel King thought his truck motif was intimidating, but really it made him look like a cheap Optimus Prime cosplayer. Point was; The Diesel King was a third rate villain at best.

Right now, third rate or not, The Diesel King was kicking their asses. “I came prepared for some serious smokies,” The Diesel King bragged with a laugh. “You cub-scouts think you can beat me?”

Sam swore under her breath. “We got ourselves a talker,” she noted.

Talker was the agreed on term for anyone that just had to tell their origin story, or blame society for their crimes, or just spew trash talk. Often, a talker felt the best time for this was mid-combat. Talkers were annoying in that they needed to fill the gaps of a fight with monologues. However, they didn’t always follow through when they had a hero on the ropes, because that was the best time to story-tell.

“Cub-scouts?” Knockabout questioned.

“I don’t know,” Sam admitted. “I don’t speak hillbilly.”

Knockabout and Sam leant on the crushed Volvo. Knockabout lit a cigarette, and they shared it as The Diesel King ranted on. It was super hero etiquette to just let a talker talk. Annoying or not, you didn’t want to beat the practice of monologuing out of a talker. Sometimes a good monologue was the only breather offered during a fight.

Sam listened as The Diesel King went on about bears, and bubble-gummers, and something about a Dirty Dan. She didn’t understand most of what The Diesel King was saying, but she caught the gist of it. He’d been laid off unfairly. His wife left. She took the dog. Hospital bills left him broke. An unfair world forced left him with no choice but to dress like a truck and try to rob a bank. It wasn’t his fault. For talkers, Sam had recognized long ago, it never was.

“Seriously; screw this guy right up the exhaust pipe.” The truck reference was forced, and Knockabout mouthed an apology the moment he’d said it. “What’s the plan?”

Sam flicked the cigarette at The Diesel King. She gave Knockabout a casual shrug. “Let’s go with a standard high/low,” she decided

Knockabout nodded, and the two dashed at The Diesel King; Knockabout on the ground, and Sam in the air. High/lowing someone meant that Sam and Knockabout would both hit a person at the same time; Sam flying in and hitting high, while Knockabout ran, and hit low. It wasn’t brilliant strategy 101, but then there were only so many euphemisms for ‘let’s go punch that guy’.

The Diesel King laughed a proper Mwua-ha-ha as he watched Knockabout and Sam charge at him. He spewed some cliché line that included both a 10-4 and a good buddy, but Sam missed it. She was too distracted by the other thing The Diesel King was spewing. The Diesel King thrust his hips vulgarly towards her and Knockabout, and hosed them with a groinal geyser of used motor oil.

The attack, though itself harmless, took both heroes by surprise. Knockabout lost his footing on the now slick road, and kissed the road with a teeth rattling thud. He slid to a stop at The Diesel King’s big-rig shaped boots.

Sam swore as she continued towards The Diesel King. She’d hoped to finish this cluster-fuck of a fight quickly. Now, blinded, soaked down with viscous used motor oil, and more than a bit humiliated, her timing was thrown. She swung a devastating haymaker, but it didn’t even come close to landing.

The Diesel King laughed as he sidestepped Sam’s fist. “You got a lot of fight in ya, don’tcha Lottie? Well don’t you worry none; papa’s got something for that.”

Left wide open from her clumsy attack, Sam took the full of The Diesel King’s double fisted upper cut to the chin. She flew backwards, only somewhat of her own power, and bounced again down the street. The Diesel King was still laughing when he booted Knockabout down the road after Sam.

Knockabout tried to roll to his feet, only to slip again from the oil on his boots. Sam stayed where she’d landed in the middle of the road, not terribly hurt, but not wanting to get up either. Around them, people videoed the whole thing. At some point, an actual news truck had shown up, though Sam only noticed it now. Sam groaned, and closed her eyes. She’d been in worse fights, but not often ones this humiliating.

A shadow fell over Sam, and a sing-song voice called down with concern. “You doing ok down there?”

Sam grudgingly opened her eyes. Lect loomed over her; one hand out to help Sam up. Lect’s full hero name was Electronomicon; though no one ever used it. She insisted that the name was a nod to the mystical origins of her powers; which evidently were a magical control over electricity and technology. She could fly and throw lightning; which was impressive. But Lect could also take control of most machines, and even use her powers to hack computers. It was useful, and the media never accused Lect of having generic powers.

Sam assumed Lect’s chosen name had less to do with magic, and more to do with all the good electricity based names being taken. Lect seemed happy enough with it though, and preferred Electronomicon over her real name. This was partially because Lect believed in the whole secret identity thing. It was more because her real name was Florida.

Electronomicon’s costume was a standard bodysuit of bright blue and a pair of low slung cargo pants. She also had a deep hooded cloak; because mystic electric technomancer. She kept her short unkempt hair neon blue, and wore lipstick to match. A few years younger than Sam or Knockabout, Lect was often seen as the cute member of the team by the press. It didn’t get her that much slack in the papers. After all; cute or not, she was still a member of The Wannabes.

Sam shuffled back to her feet; ignoring Lect’s outstretched hand. “Where the hell have you been?” Sam accused.

Lect crossed her arms over her slight chest and rolled her eyes. “I figured you two had this under control,” she commented. “I mean; it’s The Diesel King.”

“Yeah, well; he’s having a particularly good day.”

“I’ll say,” Lect agreed. “I mean, I figured I’d be getting here just in time for drinks.” She shrugged. “So, what’s the plan?”

“The original plan was to punch him until we’d made ourselves feel big,” Sam replied. “That plan has already failed. Plan B was to wait for you to show up, and have you shut down his power suit.” Sam grinned wickedly. “Then maybe we’ll go back to plan A.”

“What’s plan C?” Lect asked. She rolled her eyes at the look Sam gave her. “I totally can’t shut his suit down,” Lect declared. “It’s actually mostly diesel powered?”

“You’re joking right?” Sam held up a hand before Lect could answer. “Yes,” she verified. “I get that he’s The Diesel King. But a suit that runs entirely on diesel? That’s beyond stupid.”

Lect bit her lower lip. “Well, I mean like, some of his suit is electrical?” she corrected. “Like; some articulators, and his headlights? Stuff like that. But I can’t turn off his whole suit, you know?”

“Yeah, I get it.” Sam looked at The Diesel King, and at the people taking pictures around them. She looked at Knockabout and Electronomicon, and then back at The Diesel King waiting for their next move. Sam considered a moment, and then shook her head.

“No,” Sam announced loudly. “Screw this guy. I’m already covered in oil and crap. I’m not going over there to see what else he’s got to spray on me.” Sam sneered at the somewhat surprised Diesel King. “I mean look at the fat fuck. He’s just standing there waiting for us, ‘cause he’d have to actually walk to get over here.” Sam ran a hand through her hair, and flicked a thick gob of motor oil out of her bangs. “Naw. Fuck this,” she muttered. “I’m going to go and take a shower; then I’m going to find a bar, and drink till I’ve forgotten this afternoon. You guys in?”

“For the shower?” Lect asked sarcastically.

“Whichever,” Sam replied, already walking away. “I honestly don’t care at this point.”

The Diesel King stared as Sam turned from the fight. “You can’t just walk away from me,” he insisted uncertainly.

“Yeah we can,” Sam assured him. She waved a casual middle finger over her shoulder to punctuate her sentence.

Knockabout joined Sam’s departure. He was covered with just as much oil as her, but somehow looked like he’d just left a photo shoot for sexy mechanics monthly. Looking fine even covered in crap seemed to be part of Knockabout’s power set. He waved a finger at The Diesel King as well, and lit a smoke despite being covered in oil.

Lect walked with the same calm confidence as the other two, but she didn’t join in on the whole flipping off the villain part. Lect was relatively new to the super hero game, and wasn’t comfortable working blue quite yet.

“But; you can’t” The Diesel King insisted. He looked at the cameras around them, and at the press. He growled at The Wannabes as they walked away from him.

“That’s it!” The Diesel King yelled, tossing his armored John Deere hat to the ground in frustration. “I was going to let you rubberneckers slide, but you’ve really made me mad now!” The Diesel King dropped his shoulder into a footballers tackle stance. “I’m going to have to bring the hammer down!” he declared.

Small rubber tired wheels popped down from The Diesel King’s boots; finishing the big rig look of them. He kicked off hard, and plowed down the street towards Sam, Knockabout, and Electronomicon. A loud truck horn played from The Diesel King’s suit as he charged at The Wannabes.

Sam and her crew kept walking. The road rumbled as The Diesel King bore down on them; horn blaring. Sam stole a drag of Knockabout’s cigarette, waited a moment, and then nodded back towards the raging Diesel King.

“Now,” Sam declared in a calm voice. The team turned on a dime, and snapped immediately into ass kicking position.

Lect flew up and away from the charging Diesel King. She templed her fingers in front of her chest, and muttered a few incantations. The air around Lect ionized, and her already spiked hair stood on end as she thrust her hands forward. A bolt of lightning fired from her outstretched palms and slammed into The Diesel King’s chest.

The Diesel King skated straight through the blast with little more than some scorching on his suit. He laughed triumphantly for the whole three seconds it took him to figure out what Lect had done. It was true that most of his suit was diesel powered, but there were some electrical components; including the articulation in his joints. Turning someone’s knees off was always going to annoy them. Doing it while they were power skating towards a pack of super heroes though? That’s pure gold.

Sam balled a fist as The Diesel King stumbled down the road. She nodded at Knockabout, as they both ducked down and prepared. They didn’t have a fancy name for synchronized uppercut, but that didn’t make it any less awesome. The Diesel King flailed his arms, and stared wide eyed at the two powerhouses. He knew what was coming, and there wasn’t a thing he could do about it.

It had been a crap day, but Sam was pretty sure that this was going to make up for it. Besides; the media really only cared about who got the last hit in. A synchronized double uppercut was just the thing to make everyone forget exactly how much of a fiasco this whole fight had been. “This is going to be so sweet,” Sam insisted.

There was a sudden flash of blue light, and a beam of pure energy hit The Diesel King in the back; speeding his trajectory towards Sam and Knockabout. It wasn’t Electronomicon’s lighting. Instead; a man in a pure white business suit hovered over the battle, a nimbus of blue energy circling his hands. Conduit, Sam recognized. He was a member of The Brigade of Heroes. If he was here, then so were the others.

“No,” Sam muttered, “nonono.” She rushed forward, hoping to hit The Diesel King before The Brigade muscled in. She didn’t even get close.

“Look out!” A gruff voice warned from behind. Flagg Patriot; leader of the Brigade, shoved Sam aside as he passed her in the streets. She landed hard on her ass.

The warning, and the shove, was made to look like Flagg had just saved Sam’s life. She literally sat on the sidelines, and watched as Flagg Patriot ducked low, and took her perfect upper cut away from her. Diesel King spun backwards, right into the waiting fist of Pont; the Brigade’s ogre of a strongman.

Fists clenched, Sam stormed towards Flagg Patriot. “We had this,” she insisted.

Flagg adjusted his General Patton helmet, and looked down his nose at Sam. “Did you have this Kidvincible?” he asked snidely. “It didn’t look like you did, but we could have misunderstood what was going on.” His smile flickered. “Is that what we have here? Do we have a misunderstanding?” Behind Flagg Patriot, Pont cracked his knuckles. Conduit hovered nearby.

Sam looked at The Brigade. Her day had been bad enough; adding a super hero misunderstanding to the mess wasn’t going to improve it. “Thank you for the assistance,” she managed through clenched teeth.

Flagg Patriot gave Sam a Flagg Patronizing smile. “I’ve told you before Kidvincible,” he offered in a calm tone, just loud enough for the press, “if you need help, call us.”

Sam choked down a few creative words. “Sure,” she replied bitterly. Even that was wasted, as Flagg Patriot had already turned to the crowd to answer a few questions and take full credit for the capture of The Diesel King.

Sam shook her head, and joined Knockabout and Electronomicon along the sidelines. They stood in silence for a few minutes, watching as The Brigade chatted with civilians, press, and police. No one even looked in The Wannabes’ direction.

“It’s not so bad,” Lect tried, breaking the silence. “I mean, like, at least…”

Sam put an oil stained finger to Lect’s lips. “Shhh,” she insisted before the younger girl could get started. “Just, shhh.” Sam looked like an Exxon disaster, and smelt worse. She’d just been upstaged by The Brigade, and was likely about to be used for comedic side notes on the news. She doubted that any of Lect’s platitudes were going to make her feel better.

“I think we’re done here,” Knockabout commented, patting Sam on the back. “Back to base?”

Sam took one more look at The Brigade of Heroes, and pictured a creatively gory death for each of them. “Back to base,” she agreed finally.

Khell 07

Sprogs and Cogs piloted the Copper Cicada up to one of the long wooden walkways that jutted from the side of Fobiah. It looked like an ordinary dock to Khell at first, only there was no water holding up the wooden docks. Instead they seemed to float out in the open air.

Several other ships were docked at Fobiah as well. There was a huge steamer that Khell thought looked like a Mississippi riverboat; complete with a giant paddlewheel. There was a large black square of a ship that leaked orange light from its seams in a way that made the whole ship look hot to touch. There were a pair of ships that looked like clockwork swans, and another that looked like a lopsided house built onto its own small island. Compared to most of the other ships docked at Fobiah, the Copper Cicada was quite small.

Sprogs waved over the deck of the Cicada to a group of green men with long strong arms, short stout legs, and sharply pointed noses. They waved back to Sprogs, before they used gaff sticks to pull the Copper Cicada closer to the deck, and tying the ship down.

Khell watched the whole of the docking with unhidden awe. The floating docks were amazing, and should have been impossible. The same was true of the ships around them.  Fenway fluttered up behind Khell, and placed a paw on her shoulder.

“You’ve never been on a Beetle class ship during closing, have you kid?”

“No,” Khell admitted. “I don’t even know what that is.”

“Yeah, I thought that might be the case,” Fenway said. He motioned for Urrah to join them. “She’s never been part of a ship closing,” Fenway told the large bear-man.

Urrah gently picked up Khell by the shoulders and moved her to the center of the deck. “Do not move,” he told her. “Is safe if you stand still.”

Cogs pulled some final levers at the bow of the ship, and made a sharp steam whistle noise. The wood under Khell’s feet rumbled as machinery below deck came to life. The rigging went taut, and was reeled in by wheels hidden beneath them. The sails groaned, and pulled in towards the deck.

Khell stood rigid as spars and sails folded around her. She watched as the crew of the Copper Cicada preformed an intricate dance between the moving parts. They pushed, pulled, and lashed down the sails as they folded into the ship; all with practiced ease. Finally, the copper plates from the side of the ship latched overhead, and clicked down over the Copper Cicada’s body like a carapace.

Cogs whistled again, this time a series of short toots. The grinding machines in the bowels of the Copper Cicada stopped. Cogs dropped open a door that doubled as a gangplank, and gave an almost sarcastic salute as he stepped aside.

Khell was the last to get off of the ship. She stepped gingerly onto the dock, uncomfortable with how it bobbed under everyone’s weight. Behind her, Cogs pulled the gangplank closed from inside the Copper Cicada.

“Cogs has to stay on the ship,” Sprogs told Khell sharply.

“Oh,” Khell replied. She hadn’t thought to ask about Cogs really. She wasn’t thinking about much more than getting off the dock and on to solid land.

“C’mon kid,” Fenway offered, leading the way. “We’ll show you around.”

Fobiah was a farming town, Fenway explained. He pointed to the fields of wheat that grew along the edge of the floating island, and told Khell of the orchards of fruit that dominated the other side of town.  The first thing that Khell noticed was the tower in the center of town. It looked somewhat like a windmill, with a giant fan spinning slowly in Fobiah’s breeze, but with huge copper pipes jutting at random intervals from the body of the tower, and vanishing into the ground. The windmill was the tallest building on Fobiah, towering high over the timber and plaster houses that made up the town.

Even from the docks, Khell could already see life on Fobiah.  A bear in overalls shoved a plow in the field, while another, wearing a sundress, watched some cubs running nearby. Three flying pugs chatted with a raccoon boy as he did maintenance on some farm equipment. A pair of giant lizard men stalked past the crew, wings wrapped like cloaks around their shoulders. They spoke in their own hissing language, and laughed as they purposely shoved past Urrah.

Khell watched the lizard men pass, and waited till they’d made a good distance before she spoke. “What are they?” Khell asked.

“Slaadas,” Urrah replied, rubbing his shoulder with annoyance. “Is not always most friendly people.”

Fenway nodded his agreement. “It’s not nice to judge a whole people but, yeah; the Slaadas are a piece of work.”

“Slaadas,” Khell repeated. “What about the green guys that helped at the dock?”

“Those were Gooblyns,” Fenway said. “Good workers; really know their way around a dockyard, but you’ve got to watch your wallet around them.”

“Now who is judging whole people?” Urrah chided.

Khell just nodded. Slaadas. Gooblyns. The world may not have had a name, but the people did. Khell looked at her companions. “So, what is everyone else?”

Everyone shared a look as though Khell had asked them to eat a kitten. For a moment, Khell thought they might not answer her, and she considered apologizing for what might have been a rude question.

“I’m a Pupkin,” Fenway said with an awkward smile, starting everyone off.

“We were called Borras,” Urrah added, pointing to himself. “But we changed it after we lost our home.” Urrah raised his chin proudly. “We are Crueshians now. We will never forget.”

Fenway and Urrah both looked at Sprogs. Sprogs just stared daggers back at them. “Sprogs is an Arcune,” Fenway explained, never taking his eyes off her. “They’re not known for their manners.”

Sprogs gave an annoyed chitter. “Why are you humoring her Fenway?” she snapped.

“I’m not humoring anyone,” Fenway replied. “Khell asked a question, and I answered it.”

“Khell asked a stupid question,” Sprogs corrected.  “She’s asked hundreds of them, and you’re acting like it doesn’t faze you.” Sprogs sucked her teeth at Fenway. When she spoke again, it was with a perfect mimicry of Khell’s voice. “Where are we? Who’s the King? Where’s the ground? What is everyone?”

Khell’s anger at Sprogs’ comments was overwhelmed by her amazement of hearing her own voice come out of Sprogs’ mouth. “How are you doing that?”

Sprogs pointed both hands irritably at Khell as though she’d just proven Sprogs’ point.

“I’m not from here,” Khell snapped. “Why can’t you get that?”

Sprogs snarled and advanced on Khell. Khell hadn’t noticed Sprogs sharp canines before, but she sure noticed them now. “I can’t get what you’re playing at, that’s what I can’t get,” she growled.  “Where could you possibly be from that you don’t know what the Cogwork-Kingdom is?”

Khell tried to step back, but Sprogs just kept up, and kept face to face with Khell. “I’m from Canada,” she started, already sure this wouldn’t mean anything to Sprogs. “My dad and I just moved to Quarry Town a few days ago; so I guess I’m from there.”

Sprogs shook her head. For a moment, her anger was replaced with shock. “You’re not from Quarityn,” she accused uncertainly.

“Quarry Town,” Khell corrected, “and, yes I am.”

The fury returned to Sprogs’ features. “No you’re not!”

Fenway flew between the girls, and made Sprogs to take a step back. “Yes, she is,” he stated calmly.

Sprogs stared a mix of shock and surprise at Fenway. “So that’s what this is about?” She threw her hands in the air. “You think she’s actually…”

“You didn’t see what I saw,” Fenway interrupted with a growl. “You don’t even see what’s right in front of you.”  He pulled down Khell’s hood. “What is she Sprogs? You have all the answers.”

Sprogs stared hard at Khell. “I don’t know,” she admitted. “She looks a bit like an Alfyn I guess.  Ears are too short, and way too round but…”

“She’s not an Alfyn,” Fenway interrupted. He tugged Khell’s hood, causing her to stumble a step closer to Sprogs. “Look harder,” he ordered.

Khell tugged the hood from Fenway’s paws. “I don’t know what an Alfyn is,” she said. “I’m human, ok?”

It felt weird to say out loud. Khell couldn’t have imagined before being a place where she’d have to tell people she was human. Her declaration was met with a moment of silence; broken suddenly by Sprogs sharp bark of a laugh.

“You’re a Yuman?” Sprogs declared with disbelief. She looked incredulously at Fenway. “Is that what you believe?” Sprogs looked back at Khell. “You. A Yuman from Quarityn.” Sprogs stood on one paw, and shoved the other at Khell’s face. “Go on,” she said, still laughing. “Pull the other one; I’ve got two.”

“I am human,” Khell replied hotly. “Why would I lie about something like that?”

“Because there’s no such thing as Yumans!”  Sprogs snapped.  Her shout caught the attention of some passing Pupkins, but Sprogs shot them a look that caused them to quicken their pace. “There’s no such thing as Yumans,” she repeated with forced calm.

“And yet, here she is,” Fenway added. He lit a cigar and inhaled deeply. “The question is; what do we do now?”

“We get rid of her,” Sprogs answered quickly. She looked at her companions, surprised that it wasn’t as obvious to them as it was to her.

“Is not answer,” Urrah said. He shrugged his huge shoulders. “Maybe is Yuman, maybe is not. But we do not sell people, not to client, not to anyone.” He looked down at Sprogs. “And we do not turn back on people that need help.” Sprogs crossed her arms angrily, but muttered an agreement under her breath.

“I don’t get understand,” Khell admitted. “I don’t understand what’s going on.”

Fenway turned a smile to Khell, ready to answer. Sprogs cut him off with an angry chitter. “Fenway thinks you’re the Yuman from Quarityn that’s supposed to bring a vaguely explained big change to the world. Because of the prophecy.” Sprogs snickered like she was sharing some inside joke. No one else laughed. “He’s hoping that you will somehow stop the Cogwork-Kingdom.”

Khell looked from Sprogs to Fenway. She shook her head in disbelief. “Me?”

“You,” Sprogs agreed with a roll of her eyes. “Our great Yuman savior.”

“Me?” Khell repeated. She had about as much belief in this as Sprogs had.

Fenway shot Sprogs a dirty look. “What we do or don’t believe doesn’t change our afternoon does it?” He pointed to a small café. “We’re meeting our client there, and he’s going to be expecting us to have the merchandise.”

“You,” Urrah verified for Khell. “Is good sign that he believes the prophecy, no?”

“Or a good sign that you guys were wrong,” Sprogs offered, “and she’s not what you were supposed to retrieve.”

“Guess we’ll find out,” Fenway finished. He flew towards the café, expecting everyone to follow.

Khell stood still, and shook her head when Fenway looked back at her. “Who is he?” she demanded. “Who is the client?”

Sprogs made an amused noise. “Oh, go ahead and tell her Fenway,” Sprogs insisted. “It’ll be great.”

Fenway huffed. “Alright,” he relented, motioning for everyone to keep their voices down. “We were hired by Principal Valen to find something off in The Library; all very hush hush.”

Sprogs smiled and motioned to Khell. “Well, go on,” she urged.

Khell bit her lip. She knew what Sprogs wanted to hear, but she had to ask anyways. “Who’s Principal Valen?”

Khell 06

Khell did not get the answers she wanted. Not right away at least. It wasn’t that the crew of the Copper Cicada didn’t try to answer her questions, but instead it seemed that the answers weren’t there in a way that Khell would like.

When she’d asked where they were, Fenway told her quite straightforward that they were on the deck of the Copper Cicada. He even mentioned that they’d just left The Library; in case Khell had somehow forgotten. When Khell pressed further, he told her that they were on their way to a small village called Fobiah, on a floating rock with the same name.

At first Khell was frustrated with Fenway’s vague answers to her question, thinking that he was purposely being aloof. She wanted to know where they were in general; and no one had a name for that. Each floating island had its own name, and the earth below them was simply called the ground. There was no name for the whole of the area, or for a country. No one knew what a continent was, much less what it would be called.

“Everything is owned by The King,” Fenway offered finally. “I suppose if it makes you feel better, you could say you’re in the Cogwork-Kingdom.”

Khell nodded. The Cogwork-Kingdom did feel more solid. Still, she couldn’t help notice that the whole crew of the Copper Cicada soured at the name. “What’s the Cogwork-Kingdom?” she asked. “Who’s The King?”

There was a solid moment of silence as the crew stared at Khell. “How can you not know who The King is,” Sprogs finally asked with a snort of disbelief. “Everyone knows who The King is.”

“I don’t,” Khell retorted. “I don’t know who The King is, and I don’t know what the Cogwork-Kingdom is!”

“Ok kid, settle down.” Fenway flew between Sprogs and Khell. He looked about as though someone might have overheard Khell, and spoke with a lowered voice. “The King is… Well he’s The King. I’ve never met him; doubt I know anyone who has.”

“The Cogwork-Kingdom though; it’s everywhere.” Fenway pointed up towards the clouds. “There’s a huge island up above the clouds. That’s where the Kingdom is technically; but really, they control everything. Absolutely everything” Fenway cursed under his breath.

“And you don’t like that,” Khell summed up. “Does anyone?”

“Well, I’m sure the Kingdom likes it fine,” Sprogs commented offhand. “Anyone else would be a short list. Real short like.”

“But then, why doesn’t anyone do anything about it?”

Khell’s question was met with looks of mixed horror. Fenway looked about again as though someone could have heard Khell. Sprogs actually took a few steps back to distance herself from Khell; and action mimicked by the silver Cogstable that stood with her. Urrah only shook his head, and sighed low.

“Cruesha,” Urrah said, as though the word was answer enough. “Cruesha was beautiful city. One of biggest cities ever.  It was my home.” Urrah looked off to the sky as he spoke. “When The King told us we must pay tax, we said no. When he sent his Cogstables, we threw them over the edge. And when he sent his clockwork army, we fought them.”

“Was glorious battle,” Urrah continued. “For days, they tried to take the city, and for days, we pushed them back. As word spread of our fight, of how we were stopping clockwork army, others joined. This will be where we make stand, they said. This is where we stop the Cogwork-Kingdom. A huge army; all the races, all opposed to the Kingdom. ” Urrah slammed his great fists down on the edge railing of the Copper Cicada. His shoulders slumped at the memories.

“What happened?” Khell finally asked.

Urrah looked at Khell, and smiled sadly. “Tragedy,” he told her. “We thought we had won. The Kingdom had drawn back; left Cruesha. We should have known better than to celebrate victory so soon.” He looked back to the sky. “Was over there; Cruesha,” he explained, pointing to a large gap between the floating islands.

Khell stared at the open sky. “The Cogwork-Kingdom destroyed an entire city?”

Sprogs chittered annoyance. “They didn’t just destroy the city,” she corrected. “They grounded it.” Sprogs waved over the side of the Copper Cicada. “One minute it was floating, the next minute it wasn’t.” She shook her head. “No one understands how it happened. The islands have floated where they are forever. If the Cogwork-Kingdom can make that stop, then there’s no telling what they can do.” Sprogs shot Khell a look. “That’s why no one does anything anymore,” she finished.

Khell looked down through a gap between ship and sails. “I don’t see it,” she admitted. Far below them was only green, that Khell had assumed was a field.

Sprogs followed Khell’s gaze over the side. “How would you see it?” she asked sardonically. “You can see through The Fog now?”

“That’s fog?” Khell questioned. Knowing what she was looking at, Khell could now make out the shifts and swirls in the green canopy below. It was like looking at a smooth green cloud. Being aware that it wasn’t solid land beneath them made Khell feel dizzy. “How far below that is the ground?”

“Real far,” Sprogs replied. She narrowed her eyes at Khell. “How can you not know that? How can you not know about the Cogwork-Kingdom?”

“This is a dangerous conversation,” Fenway interrupted. “It’s never a good idea to talk long about anything involving The Kingdom. You never know if, or how, they could be listening.” Fenway looked about again. “They have bugs everywhere,” he explained.

Khell at first thought Fenway meant bugging devices, like a spy would use on TV, but he motioned with his paws in a way that made Khell think of actual insects. She wondered how a bug could listen to conversation.

“Sometimes; it is bugs,” Urrah added to the conversation. “Sometimes, is Cogstables.”

“They’re everywhere too,” Fenway agreed. “The Kingdom parks Cogstables in all the cities and towns. It’s supposedly to keep the peace,” he explained for Khell. “But it’s really to keep folks in line. Those damn robots don’t do anything more than scare people.”

The silver Cogstable with the red stripes looked indignantly at Fenway.  It gave a sharp whistle noise, like steam from a kettle, and huffed off towards the bow of the ship.

“Oh, c’mon Cogs,” Sprogs called after it, “Fenway didn’t mean you.” Sprogs shot Fenway a dirty look. “You know how sensitive he is,” she snipped before following after the Cogstable.

Fenway chuckled as he watched Sprogs and Cogs storm off. “Well, that’s as good a conversation break as any,” he admitted. “We’ll be docking at Fobiah soon, and we need to find you something less conspicuous to wear before then.”

Finding clothes for Khell was easier said than done. Nothing of Fenway’s or Urrah’s was going to fit her, as Fenway was too small, and Urrah was much too big. Sprogs was the only person on the ship close to Khell’s size, and she didn’t like to share. This was likely fine, Khell decided, since Sprogs didn’t wear pants anyways. In the end, Urrah was able to turn a wool blanket into a passable cloak that hung long enough to hide Khell’s clothing.

Khell gave the cloak a twirl. It was a thick forest green, and Urrah had given it a deep yellow trim of intricately corded knot-work. The hood was so deep that Khell thought she could get lost in it. Khell wasn’t sure what was more amazing; that Urrah could make such a beautiful garment with giant bear paws, or that he’d done it in under twenty minutes.

“Is not best work,” Urrah commented, pulling a few final knots along the bottom hem, “but it will do,”

“It’s perfect,” Khell argued. “I love it!”

“Great,” Fenway commented. “Glad it’s to taste kid.” He tugged Khell’s hood over her eyes as he flew past. “Now, stay under it, and stay close, ok? We’re here.”

Khell 05

Fenway’s small bombs didn’t explode as Khell expected. Instead, they burst upwards as pillars of white fire between the Cogstables. Only a few of the Cogstables were caught in the waves of heat; they toppled backwards and clattered to the floor. The others backed away from the explosions, and from their falling comrades. Fenway grabbed Khell’s hand during the confusion, and pulled her back towards the center of The Library.

“This is where we came from,” Khell protested. She heard the yell from the distance again, this time in the form of a dull roar, followed by a grinding of metal. “Are we going to your friend?”

“Nah. He’s coming to us,” Fenway replied, still pulling at Khell’s hand. “But we couldn’t stay where we were.” Fenway looked over his shoulder; the Cogstables had recovered from his attack, and were close behind. “Never let ‘em pin you down,” he explained. “Never get cornered.”

It seemed like good advice, Khell thought, though she hoped to never need it after today. She couldn’t imagine a time when she’d need to worry about dozens, if not hundreds of people trying to surround her. Khell wondered what type of world this was that made Fenway need rules about multiple attackers. The same sort of world where you take advice from flying talking dogs with bombs in their pockets, Khell decided.

Khell was shaken from her thoughts as a Cogstable closed its metal fist on her shoulder. She gave a shriek, and waved back at the robot in an attempt to brush it off. The rings on her fingers glowed white, and her bracelet spun around her wrist. There was a loud bass drum thud, and a wave of blue energy fired from her outstretched hand. It knocked back not only the Cogstable that had grabbed Khell, but all the ones behind it in a domino mess. The concussion also threw Khell forward. She tumbled to the Library floor, taking Fenway with her.

Fenway stared wide eyed surprise at Khell, though he reined it in quickly. “That was something,” he commented in strained indifference.

“Yeah.” Khell stared at her hands in shock. “I don’t know what that was,” she replied.

Fenway fluttered back into the air, and brushed himself off quickly. The closest Cogstables had been battered beyond repair by whatever Khell had done, but the others were getting shakily back to their feet. The Cogstables didn’t advance on Khell and Fenway. The gauges in their eyes wavered uncertainly as they looked at Khell, and they seemed wary that she’d bash them again.

“They won’t hold back for long,” Fenway muttered. “Whatever it is you just did Kid, you may want to do it again.”

Khell didn’t know what she’d done. The light was fading from her rings, and she had no idea how to make them flash again. Still, surrounded by grabbing robots didn’t seem the time for doubt.  Khell thrust her hand purposely towards the Cogstables and gave a determined yell.

Nothing happened. Khell tried again; this time flaring her fingers out wide. Still nothing happened. The gauges in the Cogstables eyes pointed suddenly outward like angry eyebrows as the robots stormed forward. Fenway and Khell turned to run deeper into the library, but there were Cogstables there too; blocking their escape.

Khell jutted her hands out at the advancing Cogstables, and let out a cry somewhere between terror and frustration. Still there was no flash. Fenway tossed a few more of his bombs into the crowd, this time making alternating pillars of fire and ice, but still more Cogstables piled towards him and Khell. There seemed to be endless numbers of the robots.

“This doesn’t look good,” Fenway admitted while shoving a small bomb through the chest grate of a Cogstable nearby. Another grabbed him by the coat tails even as its comrade exploded.

Khell didn’t reply. A Cogstable had grabbed her by the arm, and she was trying to kick it away. She agreed though. This looked pretty bad. She didn’t know what the Cogstables would do to her or Fenway, and she couldn’t find her voice to ask.

Even over the clicking and grinding of the nearby Cogstables, Khell could hear the sound of tearing metal nearby, and the inhuman roar. The Cogstable that had her arm let go suddenly; as did the one that had Fenway by the coat. All of the Cogstables looked up with wavering gauges towards the noise.

Fenway flew close to Khell. “Look, kid,” he said. “You’re going to need to put your hands at your side, and go limp when I say, alright?”

Khell nodded, but only before she thought on it a moment. “Why?”

Fenway didn’t answer. He flew above Khell and the Cogstables, and pointed down. “She’s coming with us,” he yelled.

The grinding metal noise grew louder, and Khell could see Cogstables being tossed through the air. The robots in front of her parted in attempt to clear a path for whatever was rag dolling them. Khell understood why they wanted to be out of the way.

The thing charging through them looked something between a man and a grizzly bear. He was covered with thick brown fur, and wore a hardened leather breast plate. Long rope like braids hung over his shoulders like a mane, and Fenway hung tight to one of the braids.

Fenway waved at Khell, even as the big guy batted a few Cogstables aside. “Now!’ Fenway yelled. “Now!”

Khell stood stunned in the path of the oncoming monster. She watched as it tilted a shoulder towards her without losing speed. It reminded Khell of a football player going in for a tackle. The reason for this of course is that was exactly what was happening. Khell, in her bewilderment, almost forgot that Fenway had warned her to go limp. It took everything for Khell to will her arms to stay at her sides as the beast slammed his shoulder into her.

Even with precautions, the wind was knocked clean out of Khell. She gasped for a breath as she was shoved up to the giant beast’s shoulder. Despite his size, and the fact that he was still fighting Cogstables away from the trio, the big guy had a very gentle touch.

“My name is Urrah,” The bear-man introduced with a thick accent. “Is nice to meet you.”

“I’m Khell,” Khell gasped. “Thank you for saving us.”

“Don’t thank him till we’re actually safe,” Fenway stated. He tugged Urrah’s braids like reins, and pointed at ahead. “Quick exit,” he suggested.

With the way she was held, Khell could only see over Urrah’s shoulder to the mess of Cogstables he’d left in their wake. Bigger, meaner Cogstables were joining them now; and these ones were carrying large ornate looking rifles. She was quick to mention this to the others.

Fenway nodded. “We’re almost out,” he assured Khell. He smiled as he added: “Hey, you’re not afraid of heights are you kid?”

“Heights?” Khell questioned cautiously.

Urrah shifted Khell further up his shoulder, and held her tight. “Do not listen to Fenway; he is trying to scare you.”  Urrah grunted as he shoved a few more Cogstables aside. “We are professionals,” he continued. “We do this sort of thing all the time.”

Khell wanted to know what sort of thing they were doing, but she didn’t want to distract anyone with conversation at this point. Already, the big Cogstables were readying their weapons. She could feel Urrah twist his body, as he put his un-Khell-burdened shoulder forward. There was a loud crash as Urrah smashed through the window, and leapt into the sky outside.

Khell watched as The Library flew away from them, or more correctly, they fell away from The Library. Like she’d thought earlier, it was on a floating island of rock like the ones Khell had seen through the window earlier. Chains thick as houses hung off its side to the ground somewhere far below. With the way Urrah was holding her, Khell could only see up. She wasn’t upset not seeing the ground rushing up to greet them.

Fenway held one of Urrah’s braids in one hand, and his cigar in the other. He smoked casually; as if they weren’t falling out of a flying building. “You doing ok, kid?”

“Don’t worry,” Urrah yelled over the wind. “This thing; we do this quite often.”

“This is the second time!” Fenway corrected.

“Don’t worry,” Urrah repeated to Khell. “We’ll get it right this time, you’ll see.”

“How will this be right?” Khell yelled. “We’re falling!”

“Yeah, but not as far as you think,” Fenway replied. He rolled a paw, suggesting that Urrah spin to show Khell.

Khell didn’t want to look, but she forced her eyes to stay open. Beneath them was the kilometers of open sky that she’d expected, dotted with a few low floating islands. Her view was partially blocked by a small flying boat.

The ship’s deck looked somewhat like that of a sailboat, only with sails coming out from the sides instead of from the deck. The bow was covered by a large copper plate with rounded windows. Two rounded copper shields jutted from the sides of the deck as well, covering half of the sails. In all, the ship resembled a beetle in flight.

“That’s the Copper Cicada,” Fenway introduced. “If we’re lucky, we can land right on the deck.” He gave Urrah a knowing look. “But we can’t land like this,” he added.

“No,” Urrah agreed. “We need slight change for landing,” he told Khell.

“A slight change?” She repeated. “A slight change of what?”

“Position,” Urrah replied. He gently shoved Khell away from his shoulder, letting her to freefall alone.

Khell flapped her arms madly, uncertain of what to do. She screamed at the sky around her, but that did little to help. Fenway tried to yell something to her, but Khell couldn’t hear him over the rush of the wind. She watched as he let go of Urrah’s hair, and with the help of his wings, easily glided over to Khell.

Fenway gripped the back of Khell’s shirt, and flapped his wings frantically. He didn’t stop her freefall, but he did slow Khell enough for Urrah to reach her, and scoop her to his chest like a baby. Khell gripped madly to Urrah’s chest plate. She wanted to be mad at him, but couldn’t find the energy yet.

“Ok. Next bit is little tricky,” Urrah declared, as though the last bit had been easy. “Don’t worry though,” he added for Khell’s benefit.

Khell could feel the sudden jolt as Urrah touched down feet first on the deck of the Copper Cicada. He folded himself around Khell, and rolled along the deck. It was a rough landing, and though he kept her safe, Urrah lost his grip on Khell in his second roll.

She tumbled along the deck, coming to a stop at the feet of a silver Cogstable with red piping. It looked slimmer than the ones at The Library, and pretty beaten up.  Khell backed away from it quickly, and bumped into a girl that had been sitting in the captain’s chair till recently.

The girl didn’t look to be any older than Khell. She wore a vest made entirely out of tool filled pockets, but nothing much else. Though she looked the most human Khell had seen all day, the girl was different. Her ears were long, and ended in black tufts of fur. She had thick black paint around her eyes, and black leathery lips. From navel down the girl was covered in course grey and brown fur. Her legs bent weird behind her knees; like an animals hind quarters, and ended in black over sized paws. The girl had a bushy black striped tail that swayed lazily as she stood staring at Khell.

“Range is with us,” The raccoon girl stated with a thumb jerk towards the silver Cogstable. She gave Khell a scrutinizing look. “Who are YOU with?”

“Sprogs: this is Khell,” Fenway introduced. “We found her in The Library. She seemed very out of place.” Fenway put a very heavy emphasis on ‘out of place’.

“Wait,” Sprogs contemplated. “Are you saying she’s what we were paid to find?”

Fenway rubbed his temple in aggravation. “Yes Sprogs; that is exactly what I was saying. Only I was trying to say it a bit less conspicuously.”

Urrah looked at Fenway in shock. This was news to him as well. “Is supposed to be item. Like book or something,” he complained. “Is not supposed to be little girl.”

“You think I don’t know that?” Fenway snapped. He paced, or at least he flew in a tight circle. “It wasn’t supposed to be like this.” Fenway looked at the crew of the Copper Cicada. “What am I supposed to do here? You know what’ll happen if we don’t deliver!”

“I don’t understand,” Khell interrupted.

Sprogs smiled wide. “Fenway’s thinking about selling you,” she stated matter of fact.

“No I’m not,” Fenway barked at Sprogs. He turned an uncomfortable smile to Khell. “I’m not,” he repeated.

“Then what’s going on?” Khell demanded. “Who are you people? Where am I?”

Khell 03

By the next morning, Khell had convinced herself that Old Snapper had been a figment of her imagination.  A heck of a convincing figment, but a figment nonetheless.  She woke in the library again, and though the sleepwalking left her concerned, Khell refused to dwell on it. It was likely just part of the stress of a major move, she decided. By tonight, her room would be set up, she’d be sleeping in her own familiar bed, and that would be the end of waking up in the library.

Dad was in the living room, building forts out of the boxes in an attempt to sort them. He’d cleared enough space to hook up the television, because essentials are essential.  Khell poured herself a bowl of cereal, and had no trouble convincing her dad that a short cartoon break would make the rest of the work easier to bear.  It was Saturday after all.

After a couple hours of ponies and super heroes, Khell and her dad began the heavy lifting.  More, Khell’s dad heavy lifted, while Khell did some moderate lifting, and pointed out where all the heavy stuff should go. The movers had done a pretty good job of putting boxes in the rooms they belonged in, but there were always some mistakes.

Spread out, Khell and her father’s boxes and furniture were pretty sparse. This wasn’t that surprising, as they’d moved from a small two bedroom apartment to a huge two-story old house. Still, having their stuff in, even if most of it was still packed, made the house feel a little more like home. It smelt more like home, if nothing else.

By lunch, Khell and her dad had lost much of the little steam they’d had. They idly rifled through boxes, and sorted random knick knacks into random drawers. Dad finally went to set up his new office, while Khell went to sort her own stuff in her room.

Khell didn’t really have that much to unpack. Mostly, she owned clothes and books, with a few of her old toys scattered in as decoration. Instead, she spent much of the afternoon shoving furniture back and forth, trying to find the perfect set up. When she was interrupted by a soft knock on her door, she’d expected her dad to tell her it was dinner.  Instead, she was mildly surprised to see Ana standing in the doorway.

“Your dad let me in,” Ana explained, inviting herself into Khell’s room. “He said you’d be up here, unpacking and stuff.  You want some help?”

“I’m mostly just shoving things,” Khell admitted. “There’s not much to do really.”

“Are you going to paint in here?” Ana asked, looking around the room. “I could help.  I painted my room recently.”

“No,” Khell replied. Khell would have liked to paint her room, but she had doubts that her dad would let her just because. “It’s ok the way it is.”

“You sure? Now’s the time to do it; before you finish unpacking.” Ana smiled. “I’ve still got half of bucket of red; it might do one wall at least.”

“You did your room red?” Khell couldn’t hide her surprise. “Like dark red?” Dark colours were a pretty big on the not allowed list. They were not allowed in apartments at least.

“More of a fire engine red,” Ana corrected. “Red with a black trim.” She flicked her bangs. “I’ve got sort of a motif going on.”

“It must be nice,” Khell replied; a little bitterly. “I’m pretty sure my dad wouldn’t let me dye my hair.”

“Yeah well, my grandpa didn’t really let me,” Ana said. “I just did it, and he grew used to it. I mean, it’s just hair, right?” Ana sat down heavily on Khell’s bed.  She idly wiggled her big toe; sticking out of a hole in her striped socks. “I figure he was more worried ‘bout what folks would think,” she continued. “I figure folks can’t think worse, so why not have my hair the way I want, right?” Ana saw the confusion in Khell’s eyes, and answered before she could ask. “I’m trouble. Ask anyone in town.” She struck up a pretty good yokel accent, and snapped a pair of imaginary suspenders. “That Ana Hickory; she ain’t nutin’ but a bad egg.”

“But why?” Khell pressed. “What’d you do?”

Ana shrugged.  “Nothing.” She admitted. “Not yet at least.”

“But that’s not fair,” Khell insisted. “If you didn’t do anything wrong…”

Ana rolled her eyes. “Welcome to small town living Khell,” she declared. “Everybody knows everybody; and everybody knows everybody’s business.” Ana paused a moment. “If your parents messed up somehow, everyone would just expect you to do the same, right? Well my folks messed up bad; bad enough for me to live with my grandpa. People talk.”

“Oh,” Khell replied. She wasn’t really sure what else to say.

“It could be worse,” Ana assured Khell. “At least I’m not going to spend the next few years being called the new girl.”

Khell made a face.  “Is that what I’ve got to look forward to?” She frowned as Ana nodded.  “Great.”

“Hey, the offer’s still on the table,” Ana reminded her. “If you want to, you can come with me when I move to the city.”

Ana didn’t wait for an answer.  She stood up, and stretched cat like. Ana pointed at a stack of boxes in the corner near the door. “So, do you want some help with those,” she asked. “Or are they some sort of secret boxes?”

“Nothing secret,” Khell replied. She gently prodded the pile of boxes with her toe. “It’s just books,” she explained  “I can’t decide if I should set up my shelves, or if I should put them all in the library.”

Ana’s eyes lit up. “You have a library?” Her tone was almost too eager.

“You didn’t see it?” Khell replied slyly. “I mean, you must have passed it in the hall.”

Ana made a show of avoiding eye contact. “Yeah, I saw it,” she admitted finally. “I didn’t go in yet. I mean, I figured you’d want to show it off.” Ana tugged on the edge of her arm warmer. “I’d want to show off if I had a library to tell you the truth.”

Khell smiled. It was nice to find someone else excited about books. “I haven’t really looked over all the books,” she admitted. “I’ve just been obsessing with this one.  It’s got some intricate lock on the front, but it’s…”

Ana waved her hands. “Don’t tell me,” she insisted. Her face beamed with excitement. “Show me.”

Khell led Ana to the library, and straight to the strange book. Ana went right to playing with the rings on the cover.  She chewed on her lower lip as she shifted them about the page, and seemed only slightly surprised when they refused to leave the front of the book.

“It’s like one of those magician tricks,” Ana said after playing with the rings for awhile.  “Like; the rings are linked, and you think they can’t be pulled apart? And then someone waves a hand over them and voila!” Ana gave the rings a bit of a different tug, and opened her hands in a full ‘ta-da’.  The rings, however, stayed together.   Ana frowned.  “You just need to figure out the trick is all,” she insisted.

Khell watched as the rings slid back into place as soon as Ana let go of them. “They keep doing that,” Khell commented. “They keep going back to their starting position.  I wonder how they’re doing that?”

“Magnets Maybe?” Ana guessed. She shook her head almost immediately. “They don’t move right for magnets.  It’s more like they just know where they belong.”

“What, like magic?”

“Hey, we got attacked by a giant ghost turtle yesterday,” Ana reminded Khell.  “I’m not ruling out anything.”

“No; I guess not.” Khell watched Ana worked the rings. She hadn’t wanted to admit, but Khell had been mentally calling it a magic book since she’d found it. Khell was happy to find someone who evidently didn’t consider that to be crazy. “Do you think you can open it?”

“Maybe,” Ana replied.  “I got a thing for puzzles,” she added. “Bit of a weird obsession I picked up as a kid.  I figured it as a skill I’d need; in case I ever had to open or close a puzzle box super fast.” Ana looked expectantly at Khell, and was disappointed by the lack of response.  “You and me watch very different movies,” she muttered.

Ana pushed and pulled at the rings, finding that there were set ways that they were willing to move. She nodded towards the book in the end; not having opened it, but at least having catalogued the rings, and the movements they were willing to do.

“Ok,” Ana explained with a flourished wave. “There’s four major rings, and then twenty minor rings.  Five little rings in each bigger one. The little rings will move about, but only inside whichever major ring they’re in.  The major rings move about, but only until they’re blocked by a minor ring.  Everything goes back to their starting points if you let go of them.”

“Ok,” Khell said. She pulled five of the lower rings along the cover, finding it easier to do by hooking them one to each finger of her hand. They put up a bit of resistance, like she was pulling them across water. They made a small click as they met the edge of their major circle, and buzzed slightly. “It feels like they’re spinning,” Khell commented. “It’s sorta weird feeling.”

“Don’t let go of them,” Ana pleaded.  She tilted her head, and smirked at the book.  “I think you’ve got it.”

“I do?”

Ana didn’t answer right away.  She mimicked Khell’s hold of the minor circles, but in and upper corner.  This time, as Ana wrangled the smaller circles under her fingers, the click was more audible.  There was a quiet humming coming from the circles now, and the ones under Khell’s hand were vibrating.

Ana smiled triumphantly.  “See,” she explained. “We’ve got to move all the circles at once; that’s why I couldn’t get it.  No one person ever could; it’s a four hand job.” She put her fingers in the other circles on her side, and clicked them into place.  The book buzzed angrily. Ana looked expectantly at Khell.

Khell frowned at the book; her hand hovering over the last of the circles. She wanted to know what was in the book, and she wanted to solve the puzzle. Still, there was a very cautious voice in her head reminding her that books don’t have magic circle locks.  Books don’t vibrate like ignored cell phones. In the end, curiosity defeated caution.  Khell pulled the small circles under her finger tips, and clicked them into position.

Together, the girls slowly slid the four major rings apart.  Unlike before, they didn’t slide back into position along the front of the book.  Instead, the rings shot free of the book.  The small rings ran up the girl’s fingers like rings, and the larger rings flew up their arms; hula-hooping on their wrists like eighties bangles. The band that ran the width of the book sprang open, and slapped on the table with a heavy thud.

There was a moment of ominous silence before the book split open.  Its pages flipped madly, and light shone from the center of the book. It was so bright that it hurt Khell’s eyes, but she couldn’t look away.  The sound of the turning pages reminded Khell of bird’s wings, and deep beneath that, she swore she could hear chanting. Khell strained to hear the words, even as she strained to see the pages flipping past.

Even over the light, and the chanting, and the self turning pages, one thing stood out as particularly strange to Khell.  All the pages that fluttered past were empty.  There was no weird scribbles or strange pictures. There were no spells, and no arcane scripture.  In fact, the book had nothing at all.

“Blank?” Khell commented after the book was finished its light show. “Who’d go to that much trouble to seal up a blank book?”

Khell looked up to Ana, searching for an answer, but Ana wasn’t there.  The library wasn’t there either; at least, Khell’s library wasn’t there.  Instead, Khell was standing alone in a vast room of stone pillars and huge bookshelves.  The room seemed to go on forever in all directions. Khell looked back to the book in a panic, but both it and the table it had been on had vanished.

Everything was gone, and Khell was alone.

Lovely Angel-Pocalypse 15

Gashkoro roared its high pitched screech, and chased after Lance, Sarah and Kei.  The road cracked under Gashkoro’s feet, and buckled under its fists as it tried to smash the fleeing truck.

Sarah leant out the window, and hurled balls of water at Gashkoro.  She cursed a lot.  Kei preformed a complex series of staff spins, stopping occasionally to fire Steel Slashes over the roof of the cab.  Unlike before, Kei seemed much more sure of her footing.  She didn’t even stumble as Lance fought to keep the reversing truck on the road at full speed.

Lance tried not to pay attention to the girls, and focused primarily on driving.  Driving in reverse took a bit of concentration.  Driving in reverse while chased by a giant skeleton took even more.  Still, the whole of the situation was surreal.  It didn’t help having both girls yelling their attack names over and over.  At least Sarah had the decency to punctuate her announcements with creative swearing.  Kei yelled her Spinning Steel Slash with no real emotion.  It didn’t seem like she was slightly moved by the monster chasing them.

Gashkoro leapt at the truck again, and brought both fists down, barely missing the vehicle.  The road rose like a wave under the truck, and ramped it through the air.  Lance spun the wheel as the tires connected again with the road, and bootleg spun the truck around.

“Right,” Lance stated.  He didn’t have much to add to that, but he was glad to be driving forward, and figured ‘right’ was the right word for it.

“Not yet,” Sarah replied, misunderstanding Lance’s choice of word.  “Just keep straight for a few blocks.  There’s an alley up ahead, we can turn there.”

The back of the truck glowed bright orange, and Lance looked back just in time to watch Kei throw a large ball of fire at Gashkoro.  The monster screamed as the flames licked across its chest, but didn’t slow down.

“We can turn ahead,” Kei agreed, “then we can stop and face Gashkoro.”

Sarah leant out the window, and threw a geyser of water at Gashkoro.  She caught it at knee level; bowling the monster over.  Gashkoro toppled into the ruins of an outlet mall, and took a moment to regain its feet.  It was immediately after them again.

“No,” Sarah called to Kei.  “We turn ahead, and lose Gashkoro in the side streets.”  She smiled at Lance.  “I don’t think it can keep up in the alleys.  It’ll barely fit.”

“We have to face Gashkoro,” Kei insisted.

“No, we don’t.”  Sarah rolled her eyes.  “Damn it Kei, we barely beat Gashkoro last time; and that was all five of us!”

“We are all five of us now,” Kei replied coldly.  “I have all the power of the Guardians except for yours.”

“No,” Sarah stated finally.  “Just no Kei.”  Sarah pointed at the turn up ahead.  “Lance, up there.”

Kei reached in the back window, and placed a hand gently on Lance’s neck.  The cab filled with the smell of rosewater and cherry blossoms.  “Slow down,” Kei suggested quietly.  “You stop the truck and then we can stop Gashkoro.”

Lance nodded, and eased up on the gas.  It made sense.  If he slowed down, then maybe they could fight off the giant skeleton.  A small voice in the back of his mind screamed about how ridiculous that was, but it was a small voice, and Lance had no trouble ignoring it.

He had more trouble ignoring Sarah’s voice.  “What the hell are you doing?”

Lance shook the cobwebs out of his head, and went wide eyed.  “I don’t know!” he admitted.  Lance jammed his foot back down gas, but it was too late.  Gashkoro had cleared the small distance between them.

Gashkoro caught the back of the truck with a wide sweep of its hand, and spun the truck wildly out of control.  Lance gripped the steering wheel, and tried fruitlessly to get the vehicle to follow his commands.  The truck spun a few more times before tipping onto its driver side.  Sparks flew as the truck skidded along the road, and thudded to a stop against the side of a building.

Sarah grabbed the frame of the passenger side window, and vaulted out of the truck.  Lance followed close behind, and she spared him only a quick glance.  His left arm was torn up pretty bad, but didn’t look broken.  Sarah turned her angry gaze to Kei.

Kei stood on the side of the truck bed, and Sarah had the impression that she’d ridden out the crash there.  She had her staff holstered between her wings (her wing and a bit, really) and had her hands up in front of her.  Kei raised them like she was maestro-ing an orchestra.  Pale green light seeped like mist from her hands, and Gashkoro struggled against a small orchard of vines.  It wouldn’t hold the monster long.

“The hell Kei?”  Rampaging monster or not, Sarah was struggling against the urge to smack Kei.  “You Flower Talked Lance?  You crashed my truck?”

“You weren’t going to stop.”  Kei didn’t look over.  She just stared at Gashkoro with her regular indifference.  “But now we have.  I can’t hold it back for much longer; we’re going to need to take it down fast.”

Sarah growled, but recognized the situation Kei had created.  She flicked her hands out, and water formed into gauntlets around her fists.  “Fine,” she accepted.  “But after this, we are going to have a hell of a conversation.”

“After this,” Kei agreed.  “Get ready, Lovely Angel Water Guardian.”

Sarah frowned, unhappy with her full title.  “Get ready for what Kei?” she asked.

Kei didn’t respond.  She drew her staff, and twisted her body into dance.  Great chunks of asphalt rose like glaciers around Kei.  Branches tore from the broken road, and vines whipped about in a circle around her.  Nearby cars ripped like paper and spun violently in the air like jagged spears.  Fire burst from the sky, and joined the elements surrounding Kei.

Gashkoro tore free from the forest imprisonment, and howled at Kei.  It lurched forward a step, but didn’t charge.  Gashkoro swayed and roared at Kei’s display, evidently cautious of whatever she was doing.

Rock, vines, steel and fire combined above Kei in a vortex of power.  “Mother Earth’s Rightful Vengeance!” Kei announced with more emotion than usual.  She pointed at Gashkoro victoriously.

Nothing happened.

“Mother Earth’s Rightful Vengeance!” Kei yelled again.  The mass of power glowed bright white, and throbbed angrily over her head.  Kei looked down expectantly at Sarah.

Sarah just blinked up at Kei.  “I don’t know what you’re doing!” Sarah screamed.  “What am I supposed to do?”

Kei tilted her head, and stared at Sarah with a mix of confusion and disappointment.  The collected energy above her imploded with an ominous click, and then detonated with a sonic boom.  Lance and Sarah were knocked off of their feet.  Kei was thrown violently, bouncing between the two.  Gashkoro was pushed back a step or two, but beyond being a bit stunned, the monster seemed fine.

Lance was the first to stagger to his feet.  He offered a hand to Sarah, but she got up on her own.  Kei didn’t move at all.  Her Lovely Angel uniform flickered and evaporated from her, leaving Kei with her sweater and jeans.  Gashkoro was already recovering from the explosion.  It growled a high pitched whine at Lance and Sarah.

Lance looked from Gashkoro to Kei.  She wasn’t moving, and was certainly not turned back into a Lovely Angel.  “I’m thinking that’s not what was supposed to happen?” Lance suggested feebly.

“Oh, you think?”  Sarah sighed, and turned full attention to Gashkoro.  “Pick up Kei,” she commanded as she balled water in her hands.  “I’ll try to hold off Gashkoro.”

Sarah thrust her hands forward, and called for Neptune’s Trident.  Water geysered from her outstretched hands at Gashkoro.  The giant skeleton growled, and blocked with its arm.  It swatted the water spray away, and howled at Sarah and Lance.

“Or not,” Sarah said, barely keeping the panic from her voice.

Sarah continued to pour Neptune’s Trident at Gashkoro, but it was having little effect.  The monster put its hand down, and allowed the water blast to disperse along its ribcage.  It roared its nails-on-a-chalkboard roar as it walked slowly against the geyser towards Sarah, Lance, and Kei.

Lance didn’t pick up Kei.  He stood instead beside Sarah, and flicked his knife in his hand.  Lance remembered vaguely the rifle he’d left in the back of the truck, and wished he’d grabbed it.  Sarah gave his knife a sideways glance that made Lance sure that she was thinking the same thing.

The crack of a gunshot rang from the rooftops, and Gashkoro reeled backwards, clutching its eye.  A second shot hit the monster’s shoulder, spinning it back another step.  Lance looked up to the rooftops.

There, siloetted against the purple sky, was Barrowman.  His rifle looked twice the length of this body, and his tattered cloak was blowing like a cape.  If Lance didn’t know better, he’d swear that the old man was posing.  Lance didn’t care even if the man was showing off; his timing was impressive enough to earn him the right.

Sarah was less impressed, though at least thankful.  “Twice in the same day,” she muttered.  “We’re setting Barrowman records here.”

“Something something rhyming,” Barrowman called down from the roofs.  “Are you going to deal with this, Blue, or what?”

Sarah made a choking noise at Barrowman, but didn’t answer beyond that.  She put her arms out, and began a swift kata routine.  Water poured from her hands like ribbons, and twisted around her as she danced.  The water solidified as Sarah pointed her hands towards the flailing Gashkoro.

“Salachia’s Grip!” Sarah called.  The tendrils of ice flew from her hands, and circled Gashkoro.  They spread quickly, and sealed the giant skeletal monster in a glacier of ice.

Lance stared unhidden awe at the ice cocoon that held Gashkoro.  “Why didn’t you do that before,” he asked.  It was a fair question.

“Because most monsters don’t give you the time for a full dance routine,” she replied.  Sarah sighed.  “It was easier when there were five of us.  Four run distraction, while the fifth jazzes up some big guns.”

Sarah didn’t look over as John Barrowman leapt from the rooftops.  “Or we’d just wait for Kei to screw it royally,” she continued for Lance, “and our Deus Ex Distraction would come riding in.”

“Won’t be the first time one of you girls has accused me of being a distraction,” John commented as he walked over to the pair.

Sarah turned to John, and gave him a curt nod.  “Barrowman,”

“Lovely Angel Water Guardian,” John replied with a smirk.

“Don’t,” Sarah warned.  “Don’t call me that.”

“Been a while since you put the get up on,” John continued.  He lit a smoke, and inhaled deeply before continuing.  “You look ridiculous.  You know that, right?”

“Says the old man in a cape.”

“Says the old man in a cape,” John agreed.  He looked Sarah over critically.  “It’s a hell of an improvement over the jack boots,” he admitted.   “I’ll give you that at least.”

“Jeez.  Thanks,” Sarah muttered.  She waved at Gashkoro impatiently.  There was an ominous cracking noise as it struggled against the ice.  “That’s not going to hold for long,” Sarah stated.  “We need to get the truck back on its wheels, and we need to get out of here.”

John jabbed his thumb at the frozen Gashkoro.  “You just going to leave that thing?”

“You think you can finish it off?”  Sarah put a hand on her hip, but didn’t wait for an answer.  “Me neither.”  She pointed at Kei.  “How about you pick her up while Lance and I flip the truck back over?”

John scoffed.  “You sure you wouldn’t rather me help with the truck?”

“Wouldn’t want you to hurt yourself old man,” Sarah replied.  She gave Lance a light shove towards the truck.  “We got this,” she said.

Lance pushed himself between the roof of the cab, and the wall it had hit.  He reached under, looking for a good hand hold.  Sarah took the back end of the truck, and worked equally hard at keeping her skirt under control as she did finding a good grip.  Water flowed from her hands, and pushed up from beneath the truck.  Lance gave his all, but he suspected that Sarah and her powers did most of the work.

Lance brushed his hands off, and banged on the large dent in the roof of the truck.  “That’ll buff right out,” he said. Lance wasn’t sure what it meant; he’d just heard his grandpa say it in the past.

Sarah nodded at Lance, but she wasn’t really listening.  She watched as John stood over Kei.  He hadn’t picked her up yet.  Instead, he just seemed to be standing there, staring at her.  The ice around Gashkoro was cracking dangerously, and Lance was sure he could see the beast moving in its prison.

“Just pick her up Barrowman,” Sarah called over.  “We don’t have forever.”  She chuckled, mostly to herself.  “C’mon John.  It’s not like this is the first time you’ve had to carry her about.”

John nodded, and chuckled as well.  Still, his hands shook as he knelt to pick up Kei.  “My God,” he whispered.  “She hasn’t aged a day.”

Barrowman looked up at Sarah with wet eyes.  He forced a smile, but it wavered.  “You and the other girls at least had the decency to pretend to get older,” he said to Sarah, “but Kei…”

The steel in Sarah’s voice faded.  “Just get her in the truck John,” she offered softly.  “I’m sure she has a story behind it.”

John put Kei down gently in the bed of the truck.  He took his jacket off, and slipped it under her head.  “A hell of a story, I’m sure,” John agreed.  “Maybe I’ll get to hear it later.”

John looked at his hands, and then down at Kei.  “I’m not coming with you,” he said.  “I don’t want her to see me like this.”

Sarah shook her head.  “Don’t be an idiot Barrowman,” she began.  She was cut off as the ice on Gashkoro’s arm shattered.

“Go,” John insisted.  “I’m going to distract gruesome here; try and lead it away from the Night Posts.”  He hoisted his rifle, and waved off any complaints before Sarah could make them.  “I’ll be fine,” he stated.  “Just get yourselves to safety.”

Sarah considered arguing, but hopped into the truck.  She motioned for Lance to start driving, and only looked back as an afterthought.  “Don’t get yourself killed Barrowman.”

“You wish, Water Guardian,” John called back.  “I’ll be fine.  You’re going to need someone there for you when you screw up again, right?”

Lovely Angel-Pocalypse 01

Lance was a pretty good runner.  It wasn’t that rare a skill really.  In fact there were only two folks in the badlands.  Good runners, and dead folks.  Well, there were the Shadows too, though most wouldn’t consider them folks at all.

But Lance was pretty good at running even compared to others.  He was in fact one of the fastest folks he knew.  He’d go so far as saying he was genetically inclined to be fast, if not for the fact that he had no idea what that meant.  Lance was built slim and wiry, and it only had to do slightly with his lack of food.  Either way, with the wind in his long dark hair, and his long coat whipping behind him, Lance looked like he should be running.

He certainly looked like he should be running right now, but that had only some to do with the striking figure he looked while he ran.  It had much more to do with the pack of Shadows chasing close behind him.

The Shadows yipped and yelped as they nipped at Lance’s heels.  These Shadows were small; no bigger than children really.  They were made of pure darkness, had overtly long arms, and sharp fingers.  Their faces were nothing more than jagged mouths encompassing their bulb like heads.

In short, small Shadows were much more frightening than children; same size or not.  Plus, there were dozens of Shadows following him, and anything can be terrifying if there are enough of them.

So, Lance ran, and recognized that this was his own damn fault.  He’d been certain that there was a Night Post in this part of the city; but he couldn’t remember where.  The entirety of the ruins all looked alike when you were in a hurry, and when night was falling.  Night Posts were the only safe haven after dark; the bright lights kept all but the biggest of the Shadows at bay.  Most folks stayed near whichever Night Post they knew.  Some folks grew and died without ever traveling away.

Lance wasn’t most folk.  He had to see the ruins; Shadows or not.  Besides, someone had to run.  Supplies needed to be traded, food needed to be found, water sourced, and the mail had to go through, as it were.  Someone needed to run, and Lance needed the work.  It was fair trade really.

The world hadn’t always been this way; of that Lance was certain.  No one had any good recollection of what came before the Rule of Blight.  Most folks didn’t think beyond their block of safety, and the light of their Night Post.  Lance had even been called crazy more than once when he told people that the city ruins actually ended.

Some old gaffs talked about the sun being brighter, the sky bluer, the night safer.  Most folks didn’t listen to such rubbish.  Lance loved the stories, and would offer a tipple to any gaffer that had some, but even he was sceptical.  A time with blue skies and warm sun seemed unbelievable.  A time without Blight and his Shadows was downright crazy talk.

Lance shook his mind back to the real world as he ran.  Good runner or not, the Shadows were making ground fast.  Lance leapt across the rusted remains of an old car, getting a bit of a lead again as a handful of the closest Shadows scrambled up the heap instead of just going around.  Terrifying they may be, but most Shadows weren’t very bright.

Lance used the time he bought to reach for his boot, and pulled out the small butterfly knife he kept stored there.  He swiped at the nearest of the Shadows, slicing deep into it just above it’s razor filled mouth.  They may have looked like Shadow-stuff, but Shadows could still be cut and they could still be hurt.  Lance still winced in discomfort as he sliced the small monster though.  Shadows didn’t cut like flesh.  Instead, cutting one felt like slicing through old denim.  It was disconcerting to say the least.

Often Lance had found himself lucky, and Shadows had backed off when one of theirs had been hurt.  Maybe they had strength in numbers, or maybe they’d reached stampede level.  Lance wasn’t sure which it was; he’d never seen this many Shadows at once before.  What he was sure about was this wasn’t proving to be a lucky night.  Lance dashed around a corner, hoping against hope that the Night Post would be right there.

The Night Post wasn’t right there.  Lance couldn’t even see a hopeful light in the distance.  Instead, Lance nearly ran full speed into a new pack of Shadows.  He tried to lash out at one of the surprised Shadows, while trying to keep an eye on the pack already following him, while trying to turn and run.  What Lance managed to do instead was overextend himself, and topple backwards.

“Great,” Lance managed as he fell hard on his back.  He hit his head hard enough to see stars.  “Just great.”

As far as last words went, Lance was somewhat disappointed in his.  It turns out you think strange thoughts just before a pack of Shadows eats you.  Beyond the thoughts on crap last words, Lance thought about the absolute miracle it was going to take to get him out of this mess alive.

There was a flash of light from the one of the rooftops, bright enough to make Lance squint, and cause some of the encroaching Shadows to back off.  The flash was followed by a bolt of white fire that incinerated the few Shadows that still lurked near Lance.  The others held tight to the actual shadows of the ruins, and hissed at the interruption.

A slight girl leapt from the building, silhouetted by the moonlight.  She fell several stories, only to land with catlike grace over Lance.  She looked down at him with no real emotion.  “You alright?”

Lance nodded and shook his head at the same time, which was impressive.  The girl stood battle posed above him; her pleated skirt rippling in a non-existent wind.  One great swan wing sprouted from her right shoulder.  On her left was the stub of a second wing; covered by an ornate golden cap.  Her hair was impossibly white, and tied into a pair of long braids.  The girl held a staff of ivory, topped with a silver circlet that looked quite sharp.  She was spotlessly clean; which in itself was a miracle in the badlands.

The girl radiated an aura of calm light.  Lance thought that he’d be fine laying on the ground staring at her all night, but the girl’s slightly annoyed expression said otherwise.  Besides, being surrounded by Shadows certainly didn’t leave room for comfortable lounging.  “I’m alright,” Lance finally answered from the ground.

“Great,” the girl stated deadpan.  “Then stop staring at my panties, get up, and maybe run?”

Lance blinked at the accusation, noting that he was sprawled directly beneath the girl’s slim legs.  “I wasn’t,” he objected, though that was no longer true.  Now that the girl had mentioned them, her panties seemed to be the only thing he was looking at.

Lance scrambled quick to his feet, backing a few steps away from the strange girl.  He tried to look at anything that wasn’t the girl, but since there was only a hungry pack of Shadows surrounding them, staring away didn’t bring much comfort.

“Thanks,” Lance said.  It sounded awkward out loud, but then, it was an awkward situation.

The girl gave her staff a lazy twirl, which in turn kept the Shadows from advancing.  It seemed from their caution and their angry hissing that the Shadows knew this girl.  They shifted and swayed, but none of them were willing to rush her.  It seemed that the Shadows were actually afraid of her.  Lance had seen Shadows afraid of light, and afraid of larger Shadows sometimes, but never afraid of a person.  Lance stared at the girl with awe.  He’d seen some weird in the ruins, but this girl was really taking the cake.

She looked back at Lance, but with no discernable emotion.  “You’re supposed to be running now?” she reminded him.

“Yeah, about that…”  Lance looked in all directions, and in all directions, Shadows stared back.  They might not have been advancing, but they’d made a hell of a blockade.  Lance flicked his butterfly knife out, and whirled it with his best professional whirl.

The girl glanced at Lance’s tiny knife, and made a noise close to a snicker.  She pointed her staff at some of the encroaching Shadows.  They stopped immediately.  The ones behind her and Lance continued to close at a cautious pace.  The girl sighed, and irritably blew a wayward lock of hair from her eyes.

“I’ll cut you a path that way,” the girl explained with a nod down the road.  “You run.  Don’t look back.  There’s a Night Point only three blocks along.”

“I can’t just leave you here,” Lance insisted.  He felt ridiculous the moment he’d blurted it out.

The girl gave a half smile.  “That’s cute,” she said.  “Cute and stupid.”  Her eyes narrowed as she looked over Lance’s shoulder.  The Shadows were getting brave.  “Duck please,” she requested.

“What?”

The girl twirled her staff over her head.  “Duck,” she commanded again.  The girl swung the staff in a wide arc towards Lance.  It brushed just over his head as he hit the ground.

“Spinning Steel Slash,” the girl announced.  It felt as though she should have yelled the words, like a battle cry.  Instead, she spoke the phrase with a bored indifference.  The staff glowed as it scythed over Lance’s head.  A crescent of white energy bolted from the staff, slicing through several of the advancing Shadows. The monsters fell screaming before they flickered out of existence.  There were plenty more to take their place.

The girl didn’t lose speed.  She continued to spin the staff, bringing it to a sudden halt as she smacked it on the ground opposite her original attack.  “Mother Earth’s Fury,” she declared in the same indifferent drone.  The ground split in a fissure of exploding stone, smashing Shadows aside along the path.

She pointed down the road, as the Shadows that had leapt clear of the fissure regained their footing.  “Neptune’s Trident,” she said.  A torrent of water flooded from her outstretched hand, and washed the street clear.

The girl looked at Lance over her shoulder with a raised eyebrow.  “Run?” she suggested.  “Now.”

Lance considered arguing again, but something behind the girl’s emotionless façade told him that arguing wasn’t an option.  He bolted past the girl and splashed down the ruined road.  Huge thorned bushes of dead branches rose around Lance as he dashed down the street.  They folded over him, building a tunnel of brush.

Lance wasn’t sure if the girl was raising the foliage around him, or if this was just another weirdness to an already weird night.  He could hear the Shadows scratching at the branches, and he didn’t stop to look.  Lance continued to run even after he cleared the brush, and didn’t stop until he was under the bright lights of the Night Point.

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