True to Cecelia’s prediction, I managed to get to Nanna without any trouble. She was alone in the room, without even an officer keeping an eye on her.
“Domenic?” She struggled to climb out of one of the desks. “Your sister is…” Nanna looked so old, now. She’d always been old, as far back as I could remember at least, but today was perhaps the first time she’d ever seemed frail, that I understood on an emotional level she was going to live forever.
I stepped forward and wrapped my arms around her. “The cops told me everything.” I am such a liar. “I’m sure everything will be fine.” And I’m not even any good at it.
“What are we going to do?” Another first in my life; never before had Nanna asked me to make any decision more important than my class schedule. She may have let me take on the role of the man of the house as I got older, but she’d always been the matriarch. That she was asking said a great deal about how rattled she was.
She went through that illusionist’s attacks as the rest of us, and she’s in worse health than the rest of us. If the Killing Field can live up to its name like that nutjob claimed, then she would be the most vulnerable.
“We’ll sit here and wait,” I said. I had long ago realized I didn’t have much talent for comforting people, and this was just one more example. I planned to be a specialist rather than GP. “The government heroes are getting involved, and they have the experts and resources to do the job right.” Worst liar. Ever. Of all time.
“I’m glad to hear you say that,” Eldritch said from near the door. “We wanted to ask you a few questions, while you waited. Such as, if Beatrice had any enemies, or was involved in anything-”
“No!” Nanna shouted, though there wasn’t much strength behind it. “She is a good girl, she ain’t done anything wrong.”
God bless Nanna, even if her faith in my sister borders on the delusional. “Understand, it’s just speculation, but…” that’s enough to dodge the Truthsayers, right? “A few months ago, right around the end of the school year, she got into a fight with some Heritage goons. They were convicted of some stuff.”
Eldritch waited a moment. “I sense a ‘but’ at the end of that sentence.”
Bet any amount of money Seraph’s listening in with a lie detecting device. Too much intellect will be suspicious and invite even more questions. I did my best to force myself to get angry, thinking about how these people enabled Starfall and through her Quash. “…But I can’t see them attacking a school, not one full of kids with rich parents, anyway. That’s the kind of shit which brings in the feds.” I managed to surprise myself with my anger. “Why do that, when you can use one bullet and make it look like some thug missed another thug an’ hit her, instead. Happens all the time, and cops don’t do shit about it.”
I stared Eldritch down, considering how I’d find a way to blame the cops for failures which were more the fault of the community than the police without tripping Truthsayers. Fortunately, I didn’t have to, as she took another approach. “I can’t speak for other departments, but I assure you the Imbued divisions take all crimes seriously, especially ones involving children.”
I took a breath and forced myself to look at the floor. “Sorry,” this I trusted to be true, even if I wasn’t apologizing for the reason they’d think. “It’s been rough day.”
This time I pulled up to within a stone’s throw of the fences which marked the divide between America and a centuries-old Imbued who saw my sister as a piece of property to be bought and sold. Everything which needed saying was said on the trip, so I just stepped out of the vehicle and put my hand in the back, where the maximum amount of metal my power could control snaked its way around me.
I looked at Chloe and Cecelia. This isn’t their fight. AnnoyedRejection. “If you try to get us to back out again, we’re going to leave you behind,” Chloe put such conviction into her emotions that I almost believed her. “If you think you can walk to the witch, be my guest.”
AmusementSmug. “He’d run out of air, unless he turns his whole costume into a boat which won’t fit through the trees.” Cecelia started to reshape her own share of the metal, adding hooked barbs and blades to her outfit. Any other time, Chloe or I would have objected to her running with such a lethal design. “Think there’s gators in that swamp? I bet there’s gators in that swamp.”
Given we were on the border with Virginia, I felt confident that there were no alligators this far north. Then, just because they didn’t live this far north, didn’t mean the Greenwitch couldn’t have pets. “Okay, you’ve made your point.” I started the process of folding my armor into bubble mode, made easier by the huge amounts of power Cecelia had infused it with during the hour long trip. “Guess we’re as ready as we ever could be.”
The girls stepped into the forming sphere, and we were off. I found myself trying to focus on my fear of heights rather than my usual efforts of ignoring it. As it turns out, the best treatment for a phobia is the immanent death of everyone you care about. That wasn’t hyperbole; if we failed, the witch might kill us, then Bea would die, and Nanna… if Nanna took our deaths half as hard as she did Grandpa and Mom, I didn’t have much hopes for her wellbeing. To say nothing of funeral expenses, not that I expected my body to be recovered.
I adjusted the metal after we were well into Granny’s territory, so that the girls had windows to see out from. The crop circle patterns of her farms generated a green glow; it was dim, nowhere near the brightness of a lightbulb, but it was so pervasive that every inch of her home was illuminated. It would have been gorgeous, if it wasn’t so terrifying.
DoubtRecognitionDismay. “Fuck…” Cecelia said, then she stuck her head through the hole I’d made for her. Moments later, she pulled back into the bubble. “She’s a Gadgeteer. The entire swamp’s one big supertech device.”
DreadUncertainty. “She can’t be, she’s…” Chloe trailed off. “That should be impossible.”
If I had a dollar for every time I heard one of us say that, filling up the gas tank wouldn’t make me cringe. “At this point, we should just stop using that word, I don’t think it mean what we think it means.” The lack of recognition from either girl moved a certain movie to the top of the to-watch list, if we survived through night. “Besides, we’re about to confront a centuries-old monster that most people would say it’s impossible to beat. So, all the intel we can get is a good thing. Let’s start with how you know the swamp is a Gadget?”
“I’ve seen the pattern before, on Seraph.” Cecelia stayed crouched above the hole, peering down at the swamp. My metal became cool to the touch as she drew on her power. “The potential for power, an object rewritten so its Fate obeys its maker’s will, rather than the rules of nature. Things which no longer belong in this world.”
It occurred to me that Cecelia’s sensory powers were by far the most impressive weapon in her arsenal. If the world at large caught on to how easy it was for her to identify powers and weaknesses, we’d be in a lot of trouble. “Sounds kinda how Gifters work, but targeting objects instead of people.” Uncertainty from my partners made me hesitate. “Sorry, I’m getting over-analytical again.” I was aware of the habit, and took a breath to calm myself. “Listen, if this gets ugly, like we’re going to die type ugly, I want you two to get out of here.”
FrustrationDismissal. “This again?” Chloe said. “Jesus Christ, Dom, am I going to have to beat it into your skull that costume aside, you are not our knight in shining armor? In fact, you’re the least powerful of the three of us.”
“If it gets bad enough, I can change that.”
UncertainDread. Cecelia moved up, looking straight into my eyes. “You’re planning to Surge.”
FearLossRejection. The ball shook as Chloe forgot she was the only thing holding it up for a moment. “You can’t! You don’t know what will happen if you do!”
I closed my eyes. “I get more power, perhaps enough to beat her alone. Then something bad happens. My body turns to metal, or…” I swallowed, then forced myself to speak. “Or my powers change enough that I’m no longer compatible with our Pairbond.”
HurtLossRejected. “You… you can’t mean that…”
“If that’s what it takes to save my sister’s life from my fuckups. We should land now, before you run out of juice.”
GuiltSpiteHurt. “So be it.”
The ball fell to the ground, slower than gravity, but fast enough that the fluid of the metal saved us from some bruises, except those on my ego from squealing like a little girl during the drop. Moments after landing, I began to sort through the metal and draw the stuff which had the most charge to me. The rest had served as a spare battery for the trip, much like the booster engines on a rocket, and now served as a platform so we didn’t have to stand in the mud.
“Granny expected you would bring the Orphan with you, Thrice-Blessed. Are you here to betray your covenent with the Greenwitch?”
ShockDefensive. We all twisted, to look for the voice of the ancient woman, but there was nothing to be found. Either she had hidden herself so well that even Cecelia couldn’t find her, or she wasn’t here at all and was using some remote-communication method.
“I can’t betray any covenant, remember?” I stepped away from the girls, if only so we could keep an eye on each others’ flanks. “When we made the deal, you said I could recant when the time came. Well, here I am, recanting in person. Now undo whatever it is you did to my sister.”
“Oh, Thrice-Blessed, how precious little you understand the ebs and flows of fate.” AlertThreat! The girls both trained their eyes behind me, and so I spun to see the old woman standing inches away from me. “You were told you would bring the Orphan to the Greenwitch, of your own will. As it was decided by Fate, so it shall be.”
Damn crazy old bat. I reshaped my metal, drawing on my outrage. “This Fate that we’ve got three different ways to fight.” I gestured backward at Cecelia. “She sees the same Fate crap you do, and she told me they don’t work on me. Plus we have two Pairbonds on our side muddying up the future. Even you can’t see through that. So know this: I am not a tool or a puppet, and I will not bring my sister to you. Now undo whatever you did to her.”
The witch seemed to ignore my rant, instead hobbling past me to stare down Cecelia. “Is that so, Bound-Viper? Were you so Gifted that you can see the tapestry the Loa weave for us fleshbound creatures? Do you know your role?”
DoubtRealizationConfidence. Cecelia’s lightning danced across her armor. “I know enough to know you’re a fraud. You don’t have the ability to see or manipulate the future. Everything you claim about Fate is bullshit!” SurpriseHope.
The Greenwitch started to cackle. “No, no, the Loa had not saw fit to offer that to Granny, there was no need. Granny cannot see their strings, but she has watched the puppets dance so often she does not need to.” The woman started to walk toward Cecelia. “But you didn’t answer my question. Can you see your own Fate, the ties which hold you to the others, Bound-Viper? Your purpose to service the Dawnchild and Thrice-Blessed?”
HateRevulsion. “I am nobody’s slave, if that’s what you mean.”
“We are all slaves, Bound-Viper.” Granny turned away and pointed to me. “Slaves to our duties.” She turned again, this time to face Chloe. “Slaves to our history.” Then she faced Cecelia again. “Slaves to our passions.” She gestured to her hands toward herself. “Slaves to the Loa.”
ContemptDetermination. “I know, I see the threads of Fate. Difference is, I know they can be cut.” Cecelia stopped for a moment, and I felt my metal slow as she drank deep of our shared power, expending most of two hours of storage in a matter of seconds. “I know tha-”
Cecelia’s voice was cut off as a root shot out of the ground and caught her in the chest. ConfusionPainRage. She slammed into a tree hard, only kept from screaming by the plant holding her head.
I acted without thinking, bringing as much of my metal into a blade as possible, forming a sword that would have been at home in an anime to slice through the plant. Somehow, the hundred pounds of metal only cut about halfway into the root.
Chloe slammed into the plant, pulling and twisting where I’d sliced. With a cracking sound, the damaged root broke in half.
Cecelia dropped to her knees, still in one piece. AlertKill. “She’s-” This time Cecelia dived away from the attacking vines, jumping and weaving her way through a thousand spears of plantlife. If they struck her at all, it was only the most protected parts of her armor.
Chloe, meanwhile, was still stuck grappling the broken tree root. It had begun to shapeshift into something very much like living glue, which was gumming up around her face. FearThreatSuffocation!
I have to stop her. I slimmed down my blade, then took a swing at the witch, only for my arm to be paralyzed moments before striking. She looked at me in a way reminiscent of a teacher chiding a young child. “Thrice-Blessed, what sort of king defies his word and slays his allies for demanding their rightful payment?”
“You can’t have my sister!” Despite my full body paralysis, I could still speak. “Take me if you want, but leave her alone!”
I started drawing on my power, pulling my metal to reshape into a weapon of some sort that I could use while frozen. I started to draw deeper, where the source of my power came from. The opportunity to Surge was there, and I began reaching for it.
SuccessStrike! A jolt of electricity hit my arm, causing me to cry out in pain as my blade lashed toward the Greenwitch. Seems whatever paralysis she used didn’t work on reflexive movement, and Cecelia had more control of my metal than I’d realized.
Granny ducked under the swing with a speed I wouldn’t have expected for an old woman. Do her powers include physical enhancements, or is it some weird Gadget thing? Freed from my paralysis, I changed from one sword to duel-wielding thin blades, and slashed at her using the same scissors method which worked on Salamander. The witch had no place to escape to.
Another pair of electrical jolts hit my arms, and one hit my leg. I went tumbling to the ground, but in doing so the blades swung wildly off course and, quite contrary to what I’d expected, carved huge gashes through the witch’s stomach and neck. She stumbled back, still standing as green ichor poured out of her wounds.
ResistFightSuccess! RealizationHorror. Chloe dropped down next to me amidst chunks of burning wreckage. “Is she dead?”
She’s dead. I… I only wanted to do minor damage, not… I looked toward Cecelia, ready to yell at her for making me kill the woman.
DenialAlert. Cecelia caught up as well. “She’s still alive. Her power is connected to the swamp. It’s like how we make a battery, only the whole swamp, and she can’t die as long as it has power. I tried to say before, but it’s the same power supply as whatever she’s done to Beatrice.”
SurpriseUnderstanding. I reshaped my metal again, this time more streamlined for combat rather than intimidation. “So what you’re saying is Bea will live if we kill Granny?” HesitationProbable.
The uncertainty in Cecelia’s emotions seemed to be put to rest when the witch’s body began to mend itself before our eyes. Plantlife wrapped around her and stitched itself into her flesh. Instead of a hideous old woman, she reformed into something young, perhaps close to our age. She might have been beautiful, if not for the vines and plant growth sticking out of her. Around us, the trees groaned and the Earth growled as they came to life.
“The Bound-Viper has the right of it. When you fight the Greenwitch, you face not only Granny, but the land itself. Know the weight of your crimes, Thrice-Blessed!”
The ground shifted beneath my feat, and I fell. Not backward, but downward, as solid ground became quicksand. I sealed my armor fast enough that only a little water got in, but I was now buried alive in the mud.