“Sorry, I wasn’t in there, I can’t tell you what actually happened.” I spoke into the phone. I never could figure out why so many people hated phones; I was more comfortable using them than talking in person.
“I understand,” Muwth said. I still wasn’t entirely used to how bizarre it was to hear such a young voice sound so old. “I got the basic idea through my power and the news. Genius Loci can fill in the gaps later. You’re certain Respawn will fully recover?”
“Sympathy says it’s just depletion,” I answered. I didn’t know if Muwth had that problem, but it was a surprise that Zach did. “According to her, he’ll recover in about an hour and a half.”
“You trust her?”
“About as far as I can throw her.” Through a brick wall, for example. “But, she knows what she’s talking about.” That was all I was willing to say; Sympathy’s power was classified at the ‘Homeland Security’ level, and I wasn’t interested in getting charged with espionage. Besides, if Muwth was really that curious, she undoubtedly had ways to find out.
“Understood. Tell him it will be some time before I make contact. You may want to avoid contact as well,” she continued. “He has drawn a lot of attention to himself today. For the time being, Genius Loci will be responsible for delivering messages.” She hung up, not waiting for my reply.
Muwth’s ever famous paranoia at work. She came from an uglier time, and lived in the world of spies and international politics where secrecy was coveted above all else. In most ways, the polar opposite of the superhero culture and its weird sort of celebrity and respect for privacy.
“So, did you catch any of that?” I asked the air around me.
“Every word,” the air rumbled back. “I’ve got very good hearing.”
Speaking of paranoia. If Genius Loci said nothing, it would be impossible to know he was even there. “So, how do the two of you know each other?”
The air sighed around me. “I owe her a favor or two. She strikes me as the type who loves collecting them for the fun of it. Respawn’s sister is almost back.”
He was right, moments later the door opened to Laura’s room and she walked out where we waited in the living room. “He seems to be resting fine,” she told us. “But my bedroom’s going to smell like charcoal forever. You’re absolutely certain we don’t need to go to the hospital?”
“The hospital wouldn’t be able to do anything you’re not already doing, Laura.” I used her name in part to be friendly, and in part to drop the name to GL. “They might even accidentally make it worse by trying to test his blood or something.”
Not really true; there were plenty of specialists trained to work with abnormal physiology or power depletion. It felt rude to think, but Zach and his family didn’t strike me as being able to afford that kind of care.
“Don’t worry, he’ll be fine. Your brother’s one hell of a fighter,” GL’s deep bass voice echoed in our ears. “A lot of men who fancy themselves badasses would have caved in there. He’ll be up and mouthing off to authority figures in no time.”
Laura’s smile seemed genuine. “So he told you about his favorite hobby. I just don’t get why…” she trailed off and looked back at the room she had him in. “He says he does max reps for an hour in gym and doesn’t get tired. Why’s it different now?”
“I don’t know how his power works,” GL continued, sonorous despite trying to speak softly. “I’m guessing he doesn’t normally bring back the dead.”
“What.” Laura’s voice was barely a whisper.
I was trying to wrap my head around that statement myself. To date, all claims of resurrecting others had been debunked. Most were frauds using combinations of illusions, mind-reading or shapeshifting. Some were simple ignorance of medicine; few healers were licensed doctors.
And there were some powers that turned bodies into walking automatons, like that ‘cursed’ place in Maine that caused so much trouble in the mid-eighties; but those were only ‘alive’ in the same sense as my summons. Nothing more than puppets with some controlling will.
“I know, impossible,” GL acknowledged. “But it’s true, the last guy he saved was already dead, and then he was alive again. I think Com realized it as well, that’s why he was so surprised.”
Gifter four at the very least, perhaps as high as six. If this information gets out, it will make Zach one of the most sought after Imbued on the continent. They’ll have him guarding presidents.
I spoke up, changing the subject. “Maybe we should check the news.” Then I dropped my voice to a barely audible whisper. “You have to tell Muwth, immediately.” If anything could be done, she’d be the one to do it. If nothing else, she’d at least have a plan.
There was a slow rumble, reminiscent of a sigh. “I wish I could stay, but I’ve got to go let my friends know what happened. Tell your brother I’ll catch up with him this weekend, if possible.”
“Okay,” Laura stepped toward the exit and opened the door, holding it open. She looked back to where I was standing, but not quite at me. “Sorry about the mess, I wasn’t expecting visitors.”
“Au contraire,” GL’s voice came from everywhere at once. “You have been an excellent hostess under the circumstances.”
The door closed without Laura’s involvement. She looked at the door, then walked back over to me. “So, that probably looked stupid. I mean, he’s not just invisible, right? He can walk through walls and stuff?”
If he couldn’t, he would never have caught Zach falling from the building. In leiu of saying that, I just shrugged a shoulder. “I don’t really know how his powers work, but there is nothing stupid about being polite.”
“Thanks.” She smiled and laughed a little. “So, if being polite is smart, what does that make Zach?”
Chuckling, we settled down to watch the news.
Through the magic of editing technology, watching the fire on television was both more dramatic and less chaotic than actually being there in person. My hope that they’d somehow not noticed us was dashed quickly as they showed Zach falling and followed all of us to the ambulance and then to Laura’s car. At least they were kind enough to blur her face and plates.
“Don’t worry too much; the paparazzi don’t usually bother Imbued or their families,” I tried to offer comfort while being honest. “But you should expect calls for interviews and stuff. Is there anything in your background to be worried about?
Laura didn’t look away from the screen. “Well, I spent four years working as a stripper to pay for classes. Grandma and Grandpa are going to flip their shit when they hear about that.”
“Oh.” I suddenly felt awkward, and then mad at myself for feeling awkward. Laura was a perfectly nice girl, and it wasn’t right to judge her like that. “I meant things like drugs, gangs, or certain politics.”
“Well, then Dad’s probably f- screwed.” Laura chuckled a bit. “Maybe Mom, too. I won’t be losing any sleep for them. As long as it doesn’t hurt Zach.”
“I can’t imagine that would be a problem.” It wasn’t my place to offer opinions on her parents, so I just kept my mouth shut. The sad fact was that almost two thirds of us Imbued either had broken families, or no family at all. It was close to the same stats as convicts, and the media long ago made it the default assumption for both demographics.
We settled for watching the news, as a means of covering the uncomfortable silence. It turns out, Sympathy was wrong about how long Zach would take to recover. It took him a bit over half an hour.
We jumped up at a thud sound, and Laura rushed for the door to her bedroom. By the time I could see, she was hugging her brother, and I squashed the jealousy one more time. He stood there, looking more confused than anything, surrounded by the shimmer of his power at work.
“Laura? What happened? When did we get back to your place? I remember the fire and… did that guy make it?”
“The news says he’s in critical but stable condition,” I answered for Laura.
“They’re calling you a hero,” Laura added. “Like, for real, not just the whole ‘costume and powers’ thing.”
Zach blushed a bit. I imagine he felt pretty awkward, with his sister hugging him and calling him a hero in front of what amounted to a stranger. I pretended not to notice.
“After you rescued him you lost consciousness, and we brought you here to recover. It’s called Depletion Sickness, and happens to a lot of us. Oh, and Genius Loci said he’d visit later, but he has to talk to a friend.” Hopefully he’d pick up on the subtext.
“Yeah, my head still hurts.” He brought his hand up and put it on Laura’s shoulder. “Hey, sis, mind giving me a minute alone to talk with White Lady?”
She looked up at him, then turned to look at me before looking back. “Just don’t do anything too strenuous, okay?”
I stepped aside to let her out the door before closing it behind me. “Spirit Raven. Walk Unseen,” I whispered softly. The bird manifested and flitted to the door, landing on the handle and sticking its head through. It would make sure we had privacy. “Muwth wants to go dark for a while, she’s kinda freaked about-”
“What the fuck happened out there!” he hissed at me.
That wasn’t what I expected. “Are you having blackout issues?” It wasn’t a common problem, but some-
“Not that, I meant you bailing on me during the fire!”
Oh. That. “I don’t want to talk about it.”
“Well, too bad! I’m sick of tiptoeing around you like you’re some kind of spoiled princess.” I flinched inwardly. He couldn’t know how deep that cut. “Yes, I know you’re like a hundred times more powerful than I am and I begged you to be a part of this team, but after the bank and today, I’m beginning to wonder if it’s worth it. I can’t work with someone someone who…” He dropped onto the bed and cupped his head in his hands.
I said nothing, simply standing there.
“I’m sorry. Today’s been a rough day and I’m just…” He looked up, and I could see the tear tracks through the soot on his face. “People died in there. Actual human beings that were alive this morning and now are gone forever. Tonight my mother’s gonna disown me. And… and… I tell myself it’s worth it because thirteen people are alive because of me. And I… there were so many more I couldn’t save.”
Oh. I stepped forward, trying to find the right words to comfort him.
“And…” he continued. “How many more would be alive right now if you helped?”
I stopped and closed my eyes. Through the raven, I could see Laura had sat down in the living room, letting us have our privacy. “Zero.” The word burned in my throat. “The answer to your question is zero more people would be alive.”
“Does your power have some special weakness to fire?” The remaining anger dropped from his voice, the sadness stayed.
I shook my head. Fire was one of those things that most Imbued had trouble dealing with. I was an exception, and it took everything I had not to lie to him. “If anything, the opposite.”
“Then how do you know?” accusation returned to his voice. “How can you be okay with not even trying to find out?”
He’s going to force me to either say it or quit the team. I didn’t really care about the team itself, but I was starting to think of Zach and Laura as friends, and I didn’t have many of those. “Because,” I took a breath. “Because I’m a monster.”
You could hear us aging in the silence that followed. Eventually I forced myself to speak. “The powers we get are reflections of who we are, what we desire on the deepest, most primal level.” I could tell he didn’t make the connection, so I continued. “Mine only exists to kill.”
Zach went to speak, but I interrupted. If I didn’t get all of it out right now, I’d lose my nerve. “Each of my summons has a name, and part of my power is knowing those names and every ability they come with. The one you saw me call against Kitten is known as the Wild Hunt. Those creatures, the Huntsmen and the Hellhounds… nothing deserves to die the way they kill, but I don’t have anything else strong enough to fight her that won’t kill bystanders.”
“But… what about the bank?” Zach asked. “I mean, aside the ‘force lightning’. And your faeries seem safe enough.”
If there was ever a summon I didn’t want to talk about, it was that one. “That’s me using my power wrong. It… it’s like using a broadsword as a screwdriver. I have so many summons…” I went through the mental list. I wouldn’t name the true horrors like Basilisk, or what Wild Hunt actually did.
“Ymir could have put out the fire, at the cost of freezing everyone inside to death,” I chose some that seemed relevant to today. “Siren has water spells, if you don’t mind her ripping the blood out of everyone’s bodies. Wendigo’s another ice summon that could have done something, after it was done eating people. Using the Salamanders or Phoenix…” I laughed at my own expense. “That’s like burning down the forest in order to find the trees.”
I took another breath, embracing the pain in my throat. “The elves and knights are easiest to control, relatively safe to use around people, and smart enough to do simple tasks.” They also spoke like characters in a Victorian era story written by a thirteen year old. “But those aren’t fireproof. And even they…”
I swallowed, I wanted so badly for this to be over. “Their purpose is still to be an army, soldiers to live and die and kill at my command. The faeries are no different.” Please don’t make me describe how swarms of pixies kill with attacks barely powerful enough to break skin.
Zach was silent for a minute. “I still don’t get how the statues are a weapon.”
“They’re called Centerpieces.” I closed my eyes to keep from crying. “I can see through their eyes, hear through their ears, and their only power is to create a barrier that rebounds attacks against it, and can take more punishment than a steel vault.”
“I didn’t think Shadow Boxer was that strong.” Zach’s voice had changed position, and I opened my eyes to see he was standing.
“She’s not. That’s not how their spell works…” I paused, hoping he’d ask about the ‘spell’ thing so I didn’t have to go on. “They’re the cruelest weapon I have” except the Hunt. “The summon’s name is Wake. The spell it casts isn’t meant to be a wall… that’s just what happens if it’s cast on an inappropriate target.”
I watched his face, the slowly dawning horror as he figured out what I was leading to.
“It’s meant to be a cage. It’s called Sarcophagus, and once cast it can’t be ended except in death. Either the target, or my own.” I looked down, I couldn’t keep eye contact. “All while I watch through the Centerpiece. What kind of freak has that as their deepest inner desires? I’ll understand if you hate m-”
His arms were around me before I realized he’d even moved. Part of me wanted to recoil; I wasn’t a fan of being touched, and the stench of burnt garbage on his costume didn’t make it more appealing. Part of me, the part that won the battle, was just happy that he didn’t run screaming from the room.