Spoilers of Price: Nothing Given’s ending and more.

This is where all my Price novels’ general plots will be posted, just to give readers some closure as to what would have happened in future books. Maybe it’ll inspire fanfic writers or something to do what I will not.

Don’t hold your breath, though… my novels are so popular that the wiki hasn’t been updated by anyone since 2016.

It sucks to feel like you’re speaking to an empty room, not gonna lie.

And just a reminder, I am already writing Midara. It is here:

https://www.digitalwildwest.org/threads/midara-requiem-aka-necrololi-quest-playthread.330/

And it’s a Quest, which means you can sign up and vote for what actions the character takes, controlling her destiny through this strange fantasy world I’ve constructed. But enough of that- here’s your spoilers for the following novels that may never be written: Nothing Given, Triad (In Triplicate sequel), Born Guilty (Nothing Given *and* Triad sequel), and Blue Glass (Blue Wall sequel).

============ Nothing Given ============

At some point, like right after the last published chapter, Alex will end up taking control of Laura’s body. Glen figures it out right away (he’s perceptive like that). Alex, having access to all Laura’s knowledge, figures out that Glen knows not long after that.

A series of events eventually leads to a confrontation between Alex and Zach. The game starts psychological- Zach can’t fight Alex without hurting Laura, and regardless of Alex’s power, Zach is still more or less unkillable. Makes for a wonderfully personal stalemate.

Sapphire and Sympathy get there at some point, along with Com and a handful of others- Infiltrators of Alex’s grade are serious business.

Eventually- by saying some really unkind things about Ferne, Zach convinces Alex to possess his body instead. Which results in an interesting power interaction in which Zach’s power splits him into two bodies. Alex gets control of one of them. Classic evil double scenario, but with twists on the trope… notably, Alex has complete access to Zach’s memories, which makes sorting them out impossible.

One of them tells Anima to cage them both with her power. The other agrees. They then proceed to argue with each other about how the whole point of that ploy was for the “evil” one to refuse, thus proving who the “good” one is. Then more argument about how that trick wouldn’t work in this situation anyway.

Eventually Beth is talked into following through on the request and caging them both. Alex finds it kind of hilarious that Zach is now trapped for all eternity by his own girlfriend’s power.

Then Glen is so kind to point out that that Beth’s power is impressive, but it’s not absolute- there are people who can shut her down. Dispel, the man who saved him, as just one example.

Alex… not pleased… hits the “fuck the world” button and surges. Taking fragments off of Zach, Anima, and of course Ferne’s power that he inherited, he goes proper energy vampire, and starts to strip Anima’s energy through her construct.

Now Anima’s in trouble, so Zach dives in the deep end and does a surge of his own. Cue him actually getting a pairbond synergy with Anima, using his energy well to bolster her own, and gaining access to some control of her constructs. He proceeds to stab the crap out of Alex, leaving him wounded and bleeding on the ground.

That’s when Sympathy intervenes to save Alex’s life.

Zach: You think any of you can stop me?

Sympathy: No, we can’t. You’re now one of the four strongest Imbued on the continent. You have my condolences.

Zach: Then get out of my way. I’m not your biggest fan, either.

Sympathy: Then what? Did you know he has two sisters.

Zach: Fuck you, they’d never see him again if I let him live, either.

Sympathy: No, but one of them might Manifest. Would you put one of them, an innocent little girl, through what you’ve been through? This is your chance to break the cycle. Take it, if not for your sake, then for the sake of everyone else.

Zach backs down. That’s when they have time for Beth to realize the new pairbond interaction, and all it implies. Naturally, she freaks out- now her power stole a natural relationship from her, and turned it into the mind-controlling perversion of love that she’d spent the last decade of her life hating.

Beth runs off.

The rest of the story is “how they cope”. April does her best to try to help Beth, but things aren’t looking up for her any time soon.

Zach ends up quitting his job at the Playhouse and lost his power synergy with Muwth when he surged. He’s not exactly happy, either. Cassie… well, a cynical person could accuse her of taking advantage of him. A cynical person could accuse him of taking advantage of her, too.

Laura’s pissed at everybody. She deals with it by directing copious amounts of profanity at people whose lives would be so much better if they’d just fucking listen to her.

Alex gets locked in a deep, deep hole in the ground. He gets to live the rest of his life with the face of the man he hates most looking back at him in the mirror.

The End.

 

============ Triad ============

Returning to the story of Cecelia, Chloe, and Domenic… yeah, we get to see Beatrice’s power. She’s a Gifter- notably, she can grant roughly Tier 3 powers to people via allowing them to kiss her if it’s enthusiastic enough. Or, really, anything that involves bodily fluid would work, but that’s the way Bea chooses to do it. They follow the usual rules of “the power you get is a reflection of who and what you are at the deepest level of your soul”, and are temporary unless recharged by Bea, but it’s very much a Greenwitch-tier powerset.

She first talks the trio into having Cecelia pretend to be her… because, y’know, her skin is turning green. If they wanna keep any of their secrets, they don’t have much choice.

Now that Beatrice has a “get out of school and run away free” card, she decides to start a gang, recruiting her “friends” that she introduced Chloe to way back in the day, and recruiting  a couple of Dom’s D&D buddies. What, did you think I put all that effort into those characters just for two or three scenes? Hell no… uh, well, it turns out that yes I did, but let’s ignore that for now.

Domenic is not happy about this. Any of it. Especially the parts where Cecelia flirts with them while wearing his sister’s appearance. Then again, Bea’s pretty fucking pissed at Dom, now that she has some access to Granny’s memories.

The story now focuses on a game between Heritage, Bea’s gang (calling itself “The Greenskins”), Adam being cray cray, and a couple outside groups looking to take territory in the destabilized region.

In the midst of this, Adam manages to kidnap Chloe and drag her into what he calls the Killing Fields. There, he reveals who he is to her.

Now that the story’s setup, it mainly follows those three storylines (Triad- hah- seewutahdidthar?). Chloe arguing with Adam. Domenic and Cecelia getting increasingly sociopathic from a combination of stress, and what their pairbond looks like without Chloe to balance it out. And Bea’s gang taking the underworld by storm.

Things get messy, people die, Chloe escapes (turns out- not hard to return from that hellscape- it’s an unnatural state for humans to be there in the first place, and we know how entropy feels about unnatural states… but with exception to Adam and Chloe, the monsters which reside there killed everyone else too soon for them to naturally revert).

The trio is reunited, and go back to stopping this gang war with their families fighting on various sides. It ends with a confrontation with Adam, who is vastly superior to everyone else there in a fight. Beatrice ends up saving the day… by claiming to be Adam’s sister.

He doesn’t buy it at first, but she “unmasks” herself to him, tells him to go ahead and look into her mother’s history, and even offers a blood sample to prove their genetic relationship.

… It’s enough to make him back away to get confirmation, first. At which point Cecelia says “No, you are definitely not half sibling to Chloe and Adam. I’d be able to smell it if you were.”

Bea: “First, that’s creepy as fuck. Second, I know. He was kicking all our asses, so I went for his weak spot and fucked with his head.”

Chloe: “He’s going to test the sample, you know that, right? He’ll come back when he confirms that there’s no match.”

Bea: “That’s why I gave him your blood.”

That book ends on a happy-ish note, but with lots of loose ends to untangle in the next book!

 

============ Born Guilty ============

Ah, this nightmare, one of the first I dreamt up… it starts with Zach, now calling himself Ronin, having his rematch with Revenant in one of his underground brawling matches. We get to see the full extent of Zach’s new powerset- which is to strip matter from the environment, converting it into weapons (or replacing lost body mass from injuries), and enhancing his physical abilities. Revenant gets his ass kicked- even his regeneration can’t keep up with the power to strip the atoms from his body a pound or two at a time.

After the fight, the two sit down to have a chat and get Zach his million bucks. Zach observes that their code names are probably better suited for each other than themselves.

That’s when Flux calls Zach up. He’s a bit annoyed at first, but is stopped with the words “Kitten’s back.”

He looks at Revenant. “I got a better way for you to pay me back.”

Jumps to The Trio, back on the boat hunting for sunken ships again. Well, just returning to port after finishing a hunt- we’ve had a treasure hunt episode, time to give NEW information. They discuss a possible deal Paul worked out with Mexico, fishing up old Spanish treasure ships for fun and profit. Mostly profit.

Some questions about the legality of that, but Paul explains “We’re legal to find the ships, no questions. I’m not certain how the salvaging will play out, but that’s a problem for Mexico’s diplomats and lawyers to deal with. We’ll have our pay and be long gone by then.”

Chloe not thrilled about being reduced to scavenger status, but, well, they do need the money. And this one has the potential for making them tens of millions.

It’s also a great way to show that Jaz and Wiki are quite happy, incurable mental issues notwithstanding. Sea living appears good for their health, and Wiki is far superior to any normal personal assistant/GPS machine.

After the Trio leaves, Kitten pops in for a visit. Rips Jaz’s throat open in a manner fit for a slasher movie, then tortures Paul for information about her sister, while Wiki is in the background, begging his sister to get up.

That chapter ends with Kitten revealing her obviously pregnant stomach.

Why, yes, I am a monster… thank you for noticing.

Story goes back to seeing how all the major players in the Triad series are doing, all blissfully unawares of an even greater threat on the horizon. A fair amount of focus on our lovely Beatrice and her Greenskins. (I had vague plans for a book focusing on her as the main character in the future, this would be a test run).

We get to the first confrontation between Cecelia and Cora… which goes poorly for Cecelia, since she doesn’t have her pairbonds for backup, and there’s an entire surge between their respective power levels. But, Kitten doesn’t want to kill her sister, she wants to get her family back. After all, she has her child to think about, now.

A frustrated Cora leaves Cecelia critically wounded to be found by her friends. Some angst here as Cecelia deals with the revelation that her sister’s at the “about to drop” end of pregnancy.

Kitten, psychotic little death machine that she is, picks off a few people for information gathering… manages to track down Adam and offer to team up with him to fuck over her errant sibling. Both want to “rescue” their respective siblings, after all, so it’s an obvious alliance if there ever was one.

I’d probably cliffhang that offer, but let’s be real… Adam is not going to help his mother’s (other) killer do anything except scream and die. So, yeah, now these two Freudian train wrecks run face first into each other… and Adam gets destroyed. He lives only  because his power reflexively pulls him out of the Killing Fields, leaving Kitten alone to fight her way out the way Chloe did.

They’re both out of commission for a while.

Kitten eventually gets out to add a few more bodies to the pile, killing some servants in Quash’s manor as well as Jay (Chloe and Adam’s younger brother for those who’ve forgotten a minor character introduced back during In Triplicate). I’d feel sorry for Quash, but… no, actually, I feel sorry for Quash. At this point, he has lost literally his entire family. Even he doesn’t deserve that.

Then Kitten goes after Beatrice, takes out most of her gang, and does kill Bea. Fortunately for our nascent Greenwitch, she still has Wata, and he manages to regenerate her enough to restart her heart and save her life.

Now we get our own little micro-alliance, not unlike the one in the Hunter-Killer battle of ye olden days. The Trio, Bea, and Adam all agree to work together for their own reasons.

Did I mention that Kitten is a Freudian train wreck? Because she is. But she’s a train wreck with a plan. Her next move is to reveal who Cecelia is, and air all the dirty laundry of the characters of the story in the most public way possible- by murdering more than a few cops and telling the whole lurid tale to the survivors, while forcing them to take notes.

It… doesn’t go as well as the other plots. Kitten didn’t stop to think that six months of violent gang wars that included a deadly attack on a school might attract Federal attention. And as we saw in Blue Wall, the FBI has some of the highest tier Imbued.

This is the first fight where Kitten’s the one driven off. And not only that, but everyone survives. Huzzah!

Unfortunately, she survives. Part of me kinda wants to have her whole game end right here, in the most anticlimactic way imaginable. I could do it, too… if someone like Warren was there, well, Kitten’s not “AI enhanced supercyborg” level. Also, tickles me pink to imagine Synthia and Wiki becoming internet besties.

Poor Wiki. Poor Jaz. I’m sad now.

In any case, the situation screws with Kitten’s plans, since she doesn’t get to reveal her sister’s secrets to the world.

Zach finally returns to the story, joining the growing manhunt. He has Flux, Cassandra, and Revenant with him. Because what’s a sweet story about a girl trying to reconnect with her sister, without a trio of revenge-seeking vigilantes, right? Plus a dude who’s just there because a fight with one of the most powerful serial killers on the planet sounds like a fun afternoon.

It takes all sorts, right?

Lamenting the fact that Zach’s power synergy with Muwth is gone, the group have to hunt for her the old fashioned way.

Kitten thrashes the Trio in a rather drawn out battle that includes being distracted by the still-wounded Adam and what few people Beatrice could cobble together as backup. It doesn’t work out great for any of them.

Cora gets her second, the main, confrontation with Cecelia. In which she tortures the Trio, intent on pushing Cecelia to surge as a means of saving her friends… and in doing so, breaking their pairbonds.

Told you that Cora had a plan. I’d be watching the comments to see if anyone figured it out before that chapter.

Cecelia refuses, but keeps throwing herself into hopeless attacks… in no uncertain terms, she’s planning to die on her feet to protect them.

Then the cavalry arrives. And by “cavalry” I mean “Zach”. The only other person on that team who could so much as slow her down is Revenant, and, well, he gets that this is a family issue. See, they have been listening in on the fight, so they know the deal between Kitten and Cecelia, as well as Kitten’s new daughter.

And, yeah, now it’s Kitten who doesn’t stand a chance. Zach’s powers were built to kill Kitten, refined, and now unleashed. She coats him in ice, he uses his power to consume the ice and repair himself with it… her combat sense still works on him, but if she gets within a few feet, she’ll be destroyed by his power.

And he can throw his weapons as well, which still bypass her precog.

Zach’s not terribly happy to learn she’s a mother, as you might imagine. And… in the end, Kitten dies with a smile and the words “I’m glad it was you.”

In the aftermath, it’s up to Beatrice to provide what healing she can with her power… she’s just glad her power works with any fluid. Because having her brother drink her blood is by far the least weird of all possible situations.

Zach’s in a fucked headspace, and Cecelia’s not much better off, but they’re strong enough to go look for Cora’s daughter. They share a very uncomfortable moment between two people who aren’t in the mood to talk to anyone, least of all each other.

The book ends in what might be the darkest moment I’ve ever cooked up.

Zach hesitated in front of the crib, enough for Cecelia to reach in and lift the tiny infant from her bed. Cecelia brought the little girl who smelled like her sister up to her chest. She was strong, alert, and hungry enough to search for a nipple right away.

“Is she…” Zach stopped, swallowed. He couldn’t ask the question.

“Yours?” Cecelia finished. “No. She’s not Cora’s, either.” The lie burned like drinking acid. She tried her best to think in a way that could beat a Truthsayer; she couldn’t let her sister’s killer take her daughter. He didn’t deserve her.

The weight fell away from Zach’s chest, but some buried paternal instinct refused to let it go at just that. “Then who is she?

“A baby stolen from her family.” Cecelia was confident that would beat any Truthsayer, confession that it was. “Cora is… was very good at planning ahead.”

“Don’t I know it.” Zach gave up on the argument. Relief warred with suspicion, and suspicion lost.

“If she has any family left, I promise I’ll get her to them.”

… And, yes, this is the kind of stuff I have thought out that far ahead. I mean, some of these events were suspected by people all the way back in Death of a Hero.

 

============ Blue Glass ============

Warren and Co get a third book as well. The story of this one involves Warren investigating an Infiltrator, and thinking to use himself as bait.

Turns out, said Infiltrator doesn’t control minds- that’s something they were prepared for and could counter a dozen different ways thanks to Synthia and Phoebe. Nope… this one edits memories… and inserts himself into the memories of his victims to make them believe he’s their best and most trustworthy friend.

Because that’s the sort of fucked up shit you should have come to expect from powers in Price by now.

Warren’s been (partially) compromised, Synthia acts quickly enough to override his mechanisms and lock him down for a while.

But, in the most awesome of all twists, this novel was to be a Surprise Phoebe Story, With Best AI Sidekick!!!

When she starts to pull apart the monitor system, Abernathy objects. That’s when Phoebe pulls the mother of all nuclear options- she invokes medical and quarantine protocols, with possible Infiltrator threat, on the base.

Synthia: “Initiating protocols.” This of course involves preventing Abernathy from getting near Phoebe.

Abernathy: “But you know it’s not true!”

Synthia: “Sorry, I’m not the superhuman expert on human biology, I must follow proper protocol, which dictates I cannot disregard such a warning. Not when it comes from the world’s greatest biotech engineer.”

Abernathy: “Remember when I called your creator a genius for making an AI that could lie to itself? Well, I take it back.”

Synthia: “Okay, Red, you’ve got your lockdown. What now?”

Phoebe: (In the middle of yanking wires out of the wall panel) “We get to know each other a lot better.”

This is where she cuts open her own thigh, and surgically splices herself with the tech in the room. Because Magical Powers Bullshit, this lets her more or less plug her mind into Warren’s, with Synthia to help create a visual environment for them to interact with.

The entire story is them working their way through Warren’s fractured subconscious, tracking down the Infiltrator in his mind while dealing with the damage, and witnessing such lovely things as Warren’s abusive father, and the day in high school he stood up for himself.

And by “stood up” I mean “literally beat his own father into a coma.”

Then after his father was gone, his mother started hitting him as well, and then abandoned him with his grandfather to hook up with some asshole even worse than his dad.

It’s all going to be a jumbled mess, going from childhood (with said Infiltrator playing a childhood friend role), to them in the military together, to back in high school… I mean, the whole story is technically a dream sequence, I don’t have to follow logic here.

Meanwhile, to add urgency, Patil and Abernathy are working their way around the barriers thrown up by Synthia. Oh, yeah, and Phoebe is bleeding out on the floor, that’s a race against the clock too.

The story ends with Warren back at the base, visiting a Phoebe who’s in the medical wing, on bedrest, and anything resembling authority over anyone on the base officially stripped from her.

It’s during their conversation there that Warren admits that, aside the parts with the Infiltrator, what they saw was more or less how things actually played out. The abuse wasn’t some fiction cooked up by the mind control.

They share a nice moment together. Phoebe remains Best Girl Forever.

 

=====================

So, yeah, that about covers it. I had other ideas- Silent Song and Unspoken, as examples, but I only have vague outlines of their stories and no real ending to speak of for either. Until I know what the ending looks like, I can’t start writing the story, let alone provide a synopsis for you. I do know Unspoken would have an Infiltrator working as the main villain, and take place mostly in a college, but that’s about it.

 

 

Giving Up on Price, Starting Midara

Oh, fuck, what a year 2018 has been… I’ve had deaths in the family, chaos galore, and a nice, fat, tasty load of what it feels like to experience depression.

And it took me a god damn year to drag my ass out of the quagmire. In that time, I’ve found a new job, replaced two computers, spent nine months telling myself to get back to finishing Nothing Given, failed to do so, got mad and myself for failing, got upset with myself, and… well, the cycle repeats itself ad nauseam.

Part of it was me trying to get into Beth’s head… I will never ever write another depressed character again. It does terrible things to my headspace. I eventually forgot her voice, and then I came out of the fog. And I am not going back in. Fuck that shit, I am out and I am staying out.

A little over a year after my last Price chapter post, I have finally allowed myself to just give up. The book will never be finished- not by my hand, at any rate. Perhaps some day some fanfic writer will put together the “what may have been”, that might be some nice closure. But I am done

For the first time in my life I’ve truly given up on a story. Not tossed it because it just wasn’t a good idea, not tabled it until I have time to come back to it, not set it on the pedestal of “finished”. Straight given up.

It was, perhaps, the most liberating experience I’ve had in my life. I am free, and it feels good.

So now I start Midara. In many ways, the first fictional setting I ever created… originally cobbled together out of various inspirations I had in middle-school, starting with a little idea created from one of the Nintendo era Final Fantasy games. Specifically, the idea of “Dark Warriors” as a necessary counterpoint to that setting’s “Light Warriors”. My barely-teen brain really got hung up on the idea, asking myself what sort of universe would need to exist for it to be necessary for Evil to protect the world from Good.

… I was a weird child. Now I am a weird adult.

Toss in too many D&D games, a setting named after moths, philosophy courses, and my childhood dream (and temporary young adult job) of writing stories for video games, and you have yourself my Midara setting.

And the first project of what I hope to be many. Midara: Requiem… you’ll find it here for now, in the format of a “Quest” game. Which seems appropriate for the script of a story that was originally designed to be an Open World RPG.

https://www.digitalwildwest.org/threads/midara-requiem-aka-necrololi-quest-playthread.330/

I’ll get around to setting up a proper blogsite for the story… sooner or later, right now I’ve got a lot of crap to sort out and will be busy for a minute. But my muse is back, and even though she abandoned me for so long, I’ve accepted her apology and taken her back. … That analogy got awkward fast…

Soon (probably tomorrow) I’ll have a second post up, giving a list of all future Price books I had imagined, and the plotlines that would have revolved around them. As well as the conclusion to Nothing Given. It won’t be the completed novel(s), but I hope it’s better than nothing.

For now, thank all five of you who’ve waited this long for your patience. I don’t deserve you. You’re the best.

 

Price Nothing Given, Chapter 39- Daniel

“Sleep thou, and I will wind thee in my arms. Fairies, be gone, and be all ways away.” April did her lines just right, while Terry lay on her lap playing Bottom. I couldn’t help but note that I never got to do that scene with her. Or, at least, not the part I really wanted. “So doth the woodbine the sweet honeysuckle Gently entwist. The female ivy so. Enrings the barky fingers of the elm. Oh, how I love thee! How I dote on thee!”

Say what you will about Shakespeare, he knew how to write romantic imagery. Though this particular piece of work was about a false, transient love brought on by a magic potion. Maybe if I was a better as an actor, I’d be up there with her. But, no, that was never much of an option; my acting skills were lackluster at best.

“So, you ever gonna make your move?”

“Gah!” I jumped, glancing over to to the voice. While I was distracted, Zach managed to walk up, lean against the wall, and cross his arms. He was smiling, as always. “How long were you hiding there?” I tried to stay quiet; the Playhouse had excellent acoustics, and we were far from the stage, but that didn’t mean I risk causing a ruckus.

“Long enough to watch part of the show.” He nodded toward April. “Oh, and I might have noticed you were watching her, too. She is a babe. I’m pretty sure there’s a rule in the boyfriend handbook that I’m supposed to say ‘what complete babe over there do you mean’, but fuck that, she’s a babe. So, when are you gonna make a move?”

“I… I’m not…” I stammered. “How’d… why’d you think I was going to ask her out?”

His smile shifted into a lopsided smirk. “I don’t think you’re going to, but I know you want to. Everyone knows you want to. I’m trying to talk you into doing it. That way I win the office betting pool.”

What. I glanced around to see who might be watching, then leaned in. “They’re betting on me!?” I tried to both whisper and shout, it came out more like a choked hiss. “Why is it anyone else’s business.”

“Hey, I know it comes as a surprise us loner types.” He dropped both the smirk and the smile. “But this is what having friends is like. It means you’re never alone because there’s always some asshole willing to help you perv on chicks and try to get laid.”

Loner type? Zach acted like anything but a loner. He got along with everyone, and not just because he was dating the reason this theater hadn’t gone bankrupt, nor because he volunteered to do the hardest and most dangerous jobs, though those were factors. The fact that he was always ready to laugh and go along with the joke, oftentimes by killing himself for laughs, made him a hit with most of the crew. “I’m not trying to get laid.”

“Yeah, and the first step in the process is helping you change that. Seriously, just go ask her, what’s the worst that could happen? Because I already know the worst thing that’ll happen if you do nothing. And it’s the worst thing ever.”

I was skeptical, but I knew better than to ignore an Imbued bearing warnings. Especially one that somehow had the ability to be in the right place at the right time across half the D.C. region. If he knew something might happen to me or April, then I needed to know what it was. “So, what’s this worst thing?”

Zach looked me in the eyes. “Nothing. Absolutely nothing will happen.”

So much for giving him the benefit of the doubt. “You can stop making fun of me now.” I turned away from him; there was no point in continuing this conversation.

“You’ll go on living your life. She’ll go on living hers. You’ll both find real jobs, leave this place behind, maybe tell stories about it to your grandkids some day. Or maybe not… the only thing that’s certain is that some day, maybe tomorrow, maybe seventy years from now, you’ll die. And on that day, and every day from now ’til then, you’ll ask yourself what could have been if you weren’t a coward. You’d wish you could give up everything, just to go back and fix your mistake.”

I stopped to listen to his soliloquy. “Yeah, or I could ask her out, she calls me a freak, and turns everyone in the theater against me.” Now instead of just facing away, I began to walk.

“So you’re saying she’s a complete bitch?”

I stopped in my tracks. “What?”

“Hey, I get it, I’ve been there. I was with a girl for a while even though I knew she was a shallow, selfish, gold-digging whore.”

I turned around. Zach had stopped leaning on the wall, but still stood in the same spot.

“Of course, my mistake was being dumb enough to think that since I knew the score, I couldn’t get burned.” He shrugged his shoulders. “Turns out, betrayal sucks even if you see it coming. So, yeah, if she’s that type, then drop her like hot garbage.”

“Shut up!” I stepped forward. “Don’t talk about her like that!” I had the presence of mind to keep my voice down, but he had no right to say those things about April.

He looked down at my hands, which I only then realized were clenched into fists. “Go ahead, hit me, I don’t mind.” He opened his arms as if to offer a hug. “Good way to work off a little frustration. Plus there’s that whole ‘biggest badass’ thing, and punching the superpowered immortal really impresses the normies.”

I forced my fingers to relax. “I… I wasn’t… I wouldn’t.” I can’t believe I almost.

“Look, there are laws about vigilantism. I am not allowed to go after crooks unless they get violent first. So I’ve built my entire career around talking complete strangers into feeding me their fists.” He stopped for a second. “Huh, that actually sounded worse in my head. Point is: do you really think she’s the type of person who’d throw your feelings back in your face? Because if you think that poorly about her, yet are still willing to hit one of the toughest Imbued in the city over her honor, then you’re even more fucked up than I am.”

I looked back toward the stage. They’d moved on to other characters, and April wouldn’t be back on stage until near the end of the play. “So, she doesn’t have to be a bitch about it… she’ll say she’s flattered and wants to be friends, but.” I choked; it wasn’t the first time I’d been turned down in my life. “It’s the same thing, isn’t it?”

“Or she says ‘yes’, and the two of you piss off all your coworkers by making kissy faces on the job.”

“Easy for you to say, you hang out with three hot girls all the time.” Pun not intended for the one made of ice. “The one with the tattoos is, like, porn star material.”

“That’s my sister.”

I cringed. “Sorry!” Open mouth, insert entire leg. “I didn’t mean-”

Zach sighed. “Yeah, you did mean it. Don’t worry, I got used to it people drooling over her years ago. And she thinks it’s an insult when men aren’t checking her out. Now, enough about my fucked up life, let’s go back yours.”

“Can’t you just leave me alone?” Dammit. “Why do you even care?”

“For real?” he asked.

“If it gets you to stop bothering me? Yes, for real.”

He tilted my head back and sighed. “Fuck it. This stays between us. Not a lot of people know what I’m about to tell you, and I don’t want them to know. You blab, and I will find creative ways to make your life miserable.”

He didn’t sound like he was threatening me, but everything pop culture said about Imbued agreed that when they wanted to hurt someone, they could and would. “Fine, whatever you say.” I didn’t know anyone I’d want to tell, anyway.

“Her name was Erica,” he started. “A few years older than me… beautiful, smart, friendly, nice to everyone… my sister’s best friend, cliché as that sounds. And know how all the hottest girls always hang out with each other? Well, I may be biased, but Erica had Laura beat hands down. Kinda looks a little like April. I don’t remember a time before I knew her. I loved her before I even understood what love was.”

“Oh.” Just by the tremble in his voice, I knew this story ended in tragedy.

“Don’t get me wrong, I know I’m looking at her through rose colored glasses.” He stopped gazing at the ceiling, then turned his attention to the floor. “She had her faults. Namely, men. She always had the worst imaginable luck with men. Starting with her sack of shit father, and that set the tone for everyone she ever dated.”

He brushed his fingers over his eyes, wiped away tears while trying to look like he was just rubbing his eyes. “The fuck nineteen and twenty year old men thought they were doing dating a twelve year old, I don’t even want to imagine.”

Oh. That. I’d seen stuff like that a few times, the cycle of abuse never seemed hard to find in any city if you brushed away a little of the glitter. “So her father?” I couldn’t finish the question.

“You mean, did he touch her?” He gagged the word. “I don’t know. I do know he hit her, lots of times. I used to fantasize about walking into her house and stopping him. Saving her. Running away with her. Stupid kid stuff, I know. These days the fantasy’s a little different.” The tone in his voice grew colder with every word. “You’ve seen how I can use my power on props? Well, it works on other people. Long as I touched him first, I could take him apart and put him back together again as many times as I wanted.”

I took a step back; I’d heard about him saving people from a burning building using his power to teleport things, but the idea that it could be used as a torture device hadn’t crossed my mind.

He shook his head. “But I don’t. Maybe I’d feel better for, like, half a second, but then everything would go to shit worse than it before. It wouldn’t bring her back. There’s no power on the planet that can undo the past. If anyone did get that power, well, knowing the way powers work… he’d use it make sure his parents never met or something.”

I didn’t get why he was rambling about powers, maybe it was supposed to be a joke, but it was too dark to be funny. “What happened to Erica?”

He took a breath, stood up straight, and put on an entirely different stance. With some practice, he might have made a good actor; he was a natural with body language, at least. “Remember that serial killer a few months back? The one that killed thirty seven people in the D.C. area alone until she vanished right before Christmas?”

What serial killer? Nobody ever said anything about a serial killer in the city. “Uh… I… don’t watch a lot of news?”

“Wasn’t on the news.” He chuckled, tired and bitter though it was. “Psychopath calling herself ‘Kitten’. Mostly went after prostitutes, druggies, and gang members, and people that could vanish without raising too much attention. So the cops kept it quiet. No sense in alerting the press and starting a panic about Imbued  serial killers. You think I’m making this up? Sounds like a conspiracy theory when it’s said out loud, but they care a whole lot more about protecting their image than they care about the life of girls like Erica.”

Conspiracy theory, or I’m dealing with a crazy person. Zach didn’t seem crazy, but before a few minutes ago, he didn’t seem like he thought about torturing someone with his powers. “Hey, I’ve seen enough cell phone vids showing cops attacking unarmed people and then lying about it. This is like that, but bigger, right?”

“Close enough, I guess.” He forced a smile, but it didn’t seem like he was angry at me, and that was a relief.

We stood in awkward silence, while the play went by. They were nearing the final scene, but I was more concerned with a different story. “So, what happened?”

“To make a long, painful story short? Psycho killed Erica, I got powers, and then I killed her.” Now Zach’s smile seemed genuine, if cruel and hateful. “Well, I kept her held with my power while someone else did the killing. Using fire. If you ask me, it didn’t last near as long as she deserved.”

Christ. “But she’s gone, you kept her from hurting more people?”

“It’s okay, you can say I got revenge. I did, but it didn’t make the bad any better. It didn’t make the world right. But I don’t think I was ever truly in it for revenge. “What really eats at me, the part that I can’t forgive myself for? I never even told her how I felt. Maybe it wouldn’t have made a difference. Maybe she’d have shot me down, maybe she would have still kept seeing her god damn ‘boyfriends’.”

He lashed his head backward, slamming the back of it against the concrete wall. A second version of himself appeared right before the first exploded into a storm of green dust motes. “Maybe I could have saved her, maybe not. I could go on with maybe after maybe for days, I’ve done it before. But it all comes back to the one thing I know for a fact: I was a fucking coward who couldn’t even tell the woman I loved how I felt about her. And that because I was so weak, I’ll be carrying these maybes with me for a very long time.”

“I’m sorry.” Sorry? How lame can I be?

“Don’t be, it’s my fault it happened in the first place. Sorry won’t change a damn thing. It won’t make me feel better, it won’t bring her back, it won’t give me answers.” He seemed calmer than before his self-inflicted concussion, but still his voice trembled. “You want to prove this story means a damn thing to you? Then don’t do what I did. You go up there, make your move, and then even if she turns you down you thank your lucky stars you at least got to do that much. Because you never know when something will happen that takes the chance away forever. Then all you’ll have left are maybes.”

I looked up on the stage, where they were just starting the epilogue scene. Midsummer Night’s Dream was known for the last couple acts being short and simple compared to the bedlam which defined the rest of the story. April would be back on stage soon to do her part, and then it would be over. Until they had to do it all over again tomorrow.

“Know what? You’re right.” My heart slammed in my chest. Maybe I never would have had the guts to do it myself, but after Zach’s story, I knew I had to. “Even if she doesn’t like me, at least it’ll be out in the open.”

“Exactly.” Zach turned and started to walk away. “You kids have fun.”

Wait a second. “You’re not going to stay?”

“Should I?” He turned back. “I mean, I can, but I thought it’d be easier for you to do it on your own.”

He had a point. It was going to be hard enough to talk to her without an audience watching in. Even one that knew what I was trying to do. “No, you’re right. And, uh, thank you.”

“Don’t thank me yet, you’ve still gotta do the hard part. Meanwhile, my castle is in another princess.” He paused for a second. “Speaking of princesses? Don’t tell Anima I said April was a babe. I’m not saying she would have one of her summons treat me like a chew toy, but if she wanted to, there ain’t much I can do to stop her other than beg for mercy.”

I laughed, quietly so as to avoid disrupting the play. “She won’t hear a thing from me.” As Zach not-so-eloquently put it: he had his princess, I had to worry about getting mine.

Next

Price Nothing Given, Final Thoughts

I know, it seems a little early for “final thoughts” mode, which is why I’ll be making this announcement first: I am going to rush the ending. I know, I’m a sack of shit, and I’m sorry.

The fact of the matter is that this story has become an increasing drain on my emotional resources with each new chapter. Writing Beth’s perspective has been hell, and I swear I’ll never do another character who is depressed again in my life. But, well, I’ll go into why further down the announcement. For now, I’ll focus on the what.

The next two or three chapters were intended to be a way to get to know the regulars at The Playhouse, just as the last two chapters have been, as well as a couple of the early chapters were. I was going to do this whilst creating parallels and/or contradictions between the characters of A Midsummer Night’s Dream and my own characters.

… If you’ve been with me this long, you’ve already seen me do this. I have a certain love of touching on other works of fiction when writing my own. I’ve done everything from Glass Menagerie to Tristan and Isolde to Starcraft at this point. I even referenced Midara (the first setting I ever created, actually) a couple times.

I also have a love of what is essentially running parallel stories- where the characters straddle the line between one life and another, and I wanted to show more of Beth’s.

But, as I’ve said a hundred times by now… writing Beth is exhausting, and at this point I don’t have the energy to do the five more chapters required. I will be skipping the next two chapters, which would have shown more of Ben, Tina, Clyde, and Eric. I think we’ve seen enough of April and Mrs. Battle to know who they are, but they’d obviously be involved as well.

Then there’s one or two chapters I will show. Then two or three more that I’ll skip as well (no, I’m not sharing details- because spoilers- but I’ll do my best to make sure the event scenes remain- it’s the ‘building’ scenes that are going to be removed), and then it’s on to the climactic scenes of the story and aftermath of said scenes.

And then, I’ll probably be taking a break from Price, entirely. Well… after adding Chapter 3 to the Triad and doing a short (re: 4,000 ish words) story to flesh out a certain other part of the setting I want people to see. Specifically: Echo Chamber, the most powerful Precog of the setting.

If, after all of that, I feel my motivation coming back, maybe I’ll shelve Midara a little longer, but I sincerely doubt it.

Now that ‘What’ is covered, on to the “Why”.

As I said, this book has been exhausting. I like dark, but Anima’s mentality just drains the ‘color’ out of every scenario. My other main perspective characters, whatever else may be wrong with them, had ambition, drive, and the will to do things. Anima… just… exists, and getting into her head makes me tired, makes me not want to write.

I’ll never write another main character like her again, that’s for damn sure. Which means Unspoken and Paid in Blood will probably never be written.

In addition, not long ago I got a surprising surge of fan posts from a few people- mostly via Reddit- I’d give a shoutout, but I don’t know if they’d be comfortable with me listing their names. Talking about my story, one guy asked me for a PDF so he could read on a plane. I don’t have PDFs, but he was willing to accept the first draft text documents I use for my stories.

It felt good, restored quite a bit of that flagging motivation.

It also made me question why I write.

I always thought I was a writer because I love writing. I always believed I’d write stories even if there was nobody to read them.

Now? I’m not so sure. Every one of my novels has been losing readers, and more than that there’s been less speculation than ever before. I’ve still got a small handful of regular posters, but the longest conversation threads are only three or four deep and… well, I guess the best way to describe this feeling is “lonely”.

I’d be lying to myself to say it doesn’t bother me. I’d probably ignore it normally, but writing Beth makes it very hard to keep a positive attitude. I’d also be lying if I said it doesn’t bother me that it does bother me. Feels like, well, like I said, I always thought I was one of the ones who did it for fun alone, and I don’t like learning I was wrong this part of myself.

… Well, enough of me acting like a whiny douche, I’m starting to piss me off. And if anyone says I’m being too hard on myself? Well, too bad, this is how I get motivated when the nicer methods don’t work. Anger, properly harnessed, is a powerful tool.

Besides, the most difficult times are the ones that teach us the most, and if I’ve gotta deal with the shit either way, may as well get that vaunted character growth, right?

I can safely say that this book has taught me more than any others I’ve written, and for that I’m grateful, but if I don’t get it done soon, it might never actually get done. Some day in the future I’ll come back and add the five or so missing chapters, but for now… I just want it to be over…

For those still reading this rambling mess: Thank you. It really is nice to have fans that stick by you.

Price Nothing Given, Chapter 38

After some time, Mrs. Battle stopped holding me. “Are you feeling better?”

I let her back away. “Yes.” So much better, but… “There’s still the matter of expenses.” As wonderful as the gesture was, it didn’t obviate the theater’s need for funding.

Mrs. Battle smiled at me, then sat back down. “Oh, dear, you don’t have to worry about that.”

Why do people have to be so stubborn when other people try to help them? “Actually, now I kinda do have to worry,” I said. Only after saying it did I puzzle together the excuse I needed. “I mean, if I’m going to inherit the business, that means I’ll inherit all the debts that come with it, right? The sooner that’s taken care of, the less problems in the long term.” It made sense enough to me, though I wasn’t an expert on finances.

The smile vanished from Mrs. Battle’s face. “Where did you… find… this money?”

“It’s a long story.” Dammit, Beth, don’t avoid the question, not with the woman who’s basically the grandmother you never had. “The short version is that I was attacked by some weirdo from New York, and after he lost, he gave me a bunch of money.”

I didn’t blame her for the silence while she absorbed my statement. “Why? Is that… legal? Is he trying to pay you off so you don’t go to the cops?”

“No, he’s not buying silence.” Our fight wouldn’t cause the threat assessors to add anything new to his profile, though it might cause them to increase my numbers. “And it’s not illegal, just weird.” Is there any law against paying someone for beating you to death if you get better? “He wanted to fight me for… well, the thrill of it, I guess. Something about me being the ultimate challenge. It’s easier just to accept that Imbued are messed up in the head, and leave it at that.”

Or, as Zach put it when he thought I wasn’t listening: ‘more power, more crazy.’ I couldn’t think of an exception to the rule.

“I’ve known a few people like that,” Mrs. Battle says. “Mom always said nothing worth doing is easy. Though I don’t think she meant getting into fights with superheroes. So, out of curiosity, how much did he give you?”

Ah, yes, the dreaded conversation about numbers. “A million dollars.”

Mrs. Battle stayed quiet for a moment, but she moved her hands over the paperwork on her desk as it were a half-read book that she wanted to get back to. “That… is a lot of money for ‘the thrill of it’. Are you certain there isn’t some ulterior motive?”

“He could have won, but he went out of his way not to attack me directly.” Not physically, at any rate. I didn’t like talking about my big weakness, no Imbued did, but everyone who was a possible threat already knew how to stop a Summoner: the person is much easier to kill than the power. “He wanted the challenge, maybe he just wanted to find someone stronger than him. Besides, with a power like his, money isn’t hard to make.”

Now that I’d had time to think, it wasn’t much money in the grand scheme of things. I could make more, even doing plays, if I left my comfortable little place in the world and signed up with one of the big production companies. To say nothing of what the government was willing to pay high tier summoners like myself.

All I had to do was walk away from the family I’d cobbled together. If I were willing to sacrifice my integrity and pride. If I became a slave to the same systems that took my parents away and ruined my life. Were I to do all of that, then I could have all the money I’d ever want. Needless to say, I made a different choice with my life.

Mrs. Battle sighed, still looking at her paperwork. “There goes what’s left of my excuses, and my pride with it.” She slid some sheets over to me.

Which was right around the time I remembered my comprehension of economics, and math in general, was less than stellar. I recognized the words and numbers, but together they may as well have been cuneiform.

Mrs. Battle chuckled. “If it makes you feel any better, Clyde does most of the work for me. I’m sure he’ll be happy to know he has job security.”

The papers were heavy in my hands. The money, the idea of buying the Playhouse, Mrs. Battle’s age, all were things I knew, but until now I hadn’t understood what it meant. The responsibility, the knowledge that others would suffer if I made a mistake. Why does this bother me? By now, I should be used to the idea that a single mistake on my part could ruin other people’s lives.

“Yeah, job security.” I slid the papers back over to Mrs. Battle, regretting that I started this conversation to begin with. “Speaking of, I should get back to rehearsals.” There wasn’t much I could do until after I got the money.

“Of course.” Mrs. Battle smiled. “Wouldn’t want to disappoint April. Between you and me, I think Titania’s why she stays around.”

I chuckled. “Maybe we’ll have to do a second showing this year, when it’s actually summer.” I left, still thinking my thoughts.

Now I had April to consider as well. She and I were similar, in that we were… well, an uncharitable person would accuse us of slumming it. I had my power, while April had looks and talent and a passion for the art which could make her famous. I knew my reasons, but nothing about hers.

“You’re here!” April found me the moment I came out of the back hall. “I’ve been looking for you! Let’s do Act Three!” Behind her, Ben waited with his script. He looked like an animal caught in the headlights, staring at the paper.

I knew the scene she meant; it had reached the point of Pavlovian some years ago. “Sure, give me a second to prepare.” I concentrated on my power, not because I had to draw power, but because I needed it to be a slow trickle. I had fuel to spare, but little finesse.

“Sure, we’ll just start a bit off the top.” She twirled to face Ben, the hem of her skirt flaired out to show off her athletic legs. It was a long skirt, down to her knees when in a resting position, but not my first choice of clothing when the high temperatures were still below freezing. Not that I wore skirts in the summer, either. “Okay, your turn.”

A blush began to creep up Ben’s neck. “Uh, well, I’m a terrible singer.”

“Then your career as a pop singer is all but guaranteed.” April wasn’t put off in the slightest. “You’re a good actor, but you’ll never be a star unless you learn to cut loose.”

“I-I’m not a good actor.”

It wasn’t nice, but I had to agree with Ben. He wasn’t terrible, but he was nowhere near ‘good’, and there was no hope of him becoming a star. Sure, there were plenty of actors who weren’t all that good looking, and some didn’t have a lot of technical skill, but they could get by with humor and charisma that Ben also lacked.

“You’ll never know if you don’t try.” April leaned inward so she was looking upward at Ben. I would bet money she gave him the full puppy-dog-eye treatment. “Please, for me?”

“Uh… okay.” He looked down at the script, reading the lines one more time. Then he started from his top. “I see their knavery! This is to make an ass of me, to fright me if they could. But I will not stir from this place, do what they can. I will walk up and down here and I will sing, that they shall hear I am not afraid.” He took a breath, then started to sing, or rather read the lines in a lyrical manner. “The ouzel cock, so black of hue with orange-tawny bill, the throstle with his note so true, the wren with little quill.”

April sat down on the floor while Ben began his lines, her smile wide in anticipation of what was to come next. “What angel wakes me from my flowery bed?” She provided her line; in the play proper, she’d be half-hidden at this point, preparing for our variation on the classic scene. Here, however, she was looking up at Ben, still smiling.

Poor guy never stood a chance. I reflected on Laura’s spiel on the ways strippers, and I suppose all women, manipulated men. I wondered what her opinion of April would be in that career. My money was on ‘overqualified’.

“The finch, the sparrow, and the lark. The plainsong cuckoo gray, whose note full many a man doth mark and dares not answer ‘Nay’, for indeed, who would set his wit to so foolish a bird? Who would give a bird the lie, though he cry ‘cuckoo’ never so?” Ben’s singing was hesitant, but it was better than I’d expected. I wasn’t an expert, but being in theater was a good way to hear singers of all levels of talent. He was good enough for an amateur production like ours.

Now it was my turn to contribute. I whispered my line. “Gold Regalia, Eufron. Bequeath.” Running two sets of armor at once was taxing, but I could maintain it for a few hours without much risk. The hard part was to guide the armor as it formed. I tended not to wear much under my armor, and what I did wear was as form fitting as possible, to avoid the armor destroying my clothes. In addition to the constant control to keep it from hurting others. Making sure the forming armor didn’t rip April’s outfit or skeleton apart took concentration.

April, ignorant of the danger literally wrapping itself around her like a serpent, treated it like a game. She used the force of the armor manifesting itself to lift her off the ground, drifting in mid air like she was floating in water. The golden armor locked itself around her, and I couldn’t help but think that she used it better than I could. If she knew the truth, she would run and never look back.

She touched down on her toes like a ballerina, inches from Ben. “I pray thee, gentle mortal, sing again. Mine ear is much enamored of thy note. So is mine eye enthrallèd to thy shape. And thy fair virtue’s force perforce doth move me on the first view to say, to swear, I love thee.”

“Uh.” Overwhelmed by the combination of my power’s display, April’s presence, and the declarations of love called for by the script, Ben was overwhelmed. He took several seconds to look at the script he clutched with white knuckles. “Methinks, mistress, you should have little reason for that. And yet, to say the truth, reason and love keep little company together nowadays. The more the pity that some honest neighbors will not make them friends. Nay, I can gleek upon occasion.”

The rest of the impromptu rehearsal went much the same, with April all but dancing around reciting lines long memorized, while waiting for Ben to read the script. It didn’t matter to her; she was having the time of her life moving around in my armor. After reaching the part where other characters got involved, April skipped to another scene where Titania got a major part.

Meanwhile I did my best to facilitate the scenes and get into the habit of working my power’s less intuitive features. To apply a combat oriented power like mine to theater took a lot of creative effort, but it was better than brooding. The theater was always about escapism, allowing me to forget my own troubles for a while, which I did.

It was safe to say Ben enjoyed himself as well, if for a different reason. But, like all good things, it had to come to an end.

“Okay, I think that’s enough for tonight.” I started shutting down the little visual effects I spawned by half-summoning lesser creations like wisps and the white fog that came from the Wild Hunt. Using so many things at once was tiring me out.

“There’s always tomorrow, I guess.” April sighed, then stretched her arms out. Eufron melted, starting at the top and working its way down. It was a beautiful display in its own right, until the last vestiges of the boots vanished into the Nowhere. April took the time to straighten her clothes and adjust her bra. “Thanks for the help, Ben. You up to do it again tomorrow?”

Ben tried not to gawk, but failed. “Uh, yeah, I’d be happy to.”

“Glad to hear it.” Now April stretched her arms over her head. “Ooh. The armor’s awesome, but man does it gets cramped.”

“Sorry, can’t help it.” Because it’s sized for me. I tried to ignore my jealousy that she managed to be both slimmer and curvier than I was everywhere it counted. “Hey, uh, want to stick around a little bit? Maybe talk?” And now it sounds like I’m hitting on her. Good thing I never showed my face before, so I’m used to it.

“Sure.” Her smile returned with a vengeance. “What’s up?”

I started to walk toward the stairs to my apartment while she followed. The whole time we rehearsed, I tried to find a way to ask, but in the end I had nothing. “I was just wondering why you stayed here. You could easily get a job with a better troupe, or on Broadway. Who knows, maybe even Hollywood?”

“Well, if you must know.” She giggled nervously for a moment. It was the first time I’d ever seen her less than a hundred percent certain of herself. “It’s because of you.”

Oh. There are so many possible interpretations to that statement, all of them terrible. “You know I have a boyfriend, right?” I picked the safest possibility to speculate upon.

“Yeah, I know,” she said. “And his power’s almost as cool as yours is. Like, he can shrug off death and teleport stuff around. It’s just so incredible. And you get to hang around with the rest of your team, like that girl made of ice, and I don’t even know what that one guy or the girl with the tattoos can do. It’s amazing, I wish I could join you…”

Oh. She’s a groupie. Damn. I’d dealt with enough of them in my life. Almost all the stronger Imbued got saddled with the kind of fans who weren’t content with the basic speculation about abilities, the ones who felt a need to drift into stalker territory. The idea that someone with as much going for her as April being one of them felt like a personal insult, somehow.

“Uh, I mean, I don’t want powers!” She must have picked up on my hesitation. “I read about how it works, what it takes to get them. It’s horrible, especially the strong ones like… well… I should just stop talking, before I drag up bad memories.”

Far too late. “It’s not your fault.” I looked at my stairs. I wanted to run for the stairs, then hide for the rest of the week, but doing so might drive April into leaving the theater. We might never find another actress of her caliber to work here. I turned my attention back to the girl who held her breath waiting for me to go on. I have to mend this bridge before it burns. “And I have to admit, having powers is fun, even if getting them sucks.”

She relaxed, even forced a smile. “Sorry again. And thanks for everything.” She inched a little closer. “So, uh, what does the tats girl do?”

Good question. What does Laura do? “The group consensus is she’s the most frustrating person on the planet. But, she keeps us humble and I guess she’s the leader.” In situations not involving Muwth’s direct influence, at any rate. “Sorry to cut this short, but I’ve got some things I have to do.” Like my pills, and lots of thinking.

“I understand. Don’t let me keep you from going out to save people.” At least she was more relaxed, though the smile still felt a little forced. “It was nice to talk to you for real. Maybe we can hang out tomorrow if I come in a little early?”

Have I really known April for this long, and never had a conversation with her that wasn’t about work? Thinking back, I didn’t have a memory of anything more in depth. Maybe she tried but I didn’t notice, or maybe she was afraid to approach me. I never made any effort to talk to her at all. Anima was intimidating, and Beth was a recluse, so I had little human interaction which wasn’t work or Imbued related. It was nice to break that pattern, even if it was with a groupie. “Sure, I’ll look forward to it.”

“Great, thanks.”

I watched her head toward the break room, before I went upstairs. I did need to take my medication, do the email to find out about my money, and wait for Zach to show up.

Next

Price Nothing Given, Chapter 37- Trevor

I froze the moment I saw the two men step out of the alleyway. They didn’t look like much, not at first. They were hunched over and wrapped in thick coats that anyone would think was for the cold, but it was also to hide their features. Once they stood to full height, stepped out of their shelter from wind and prying eyes, it was clear who they were to anyone who knew how to look. They weren’t here to scare me or they’d only have one guy deliver a message, not two flexing muscle; they were going to hurt me.

Two on one? Fuck. They were enforcers, not soldiers, and it wasn’t a grudge. I didn’t think they were ready to kill; too much heat for a small fish like me. If I got a couple early surprise hits in, might have stood a chance. But I’ was not alone. I glanced back at Jake. Double fuck.

The one on the left moved his arm, allowing his coat to slip open just enough to show the glint of metal that could only be a gun, before closing it up again. His partner moved around my side, keeping his hands hidden in his coat pockets. This put Jake between him and me, which meant my son was in the crossfire if I caused trouble.

“We’d like a word with you.” The man in front spoke deeper than natural in order to hide his voice. Which meant they were hiding their identities from me, which meant I still had a way out that wasn’t a body bag. “Just a minute of your time.”

“Sure, I can spare a minute.” As long as we’re being polite, my son doesn’t get hurt. I put my hand on Jake’s hat, patting him to reassure both of us. “Jake, you go on upstairs, Daddy’s gonna talk to these guys. It won’t take long.” I put the keys in his hand.

He looked up at me, his six year old face too small, too innocent, to hide his uncertainty. “Okay, Daddy.”

I watched him run for the apartment complex, going out of his way to not get close to the big guy. He has good instincts. Better than his old man’s were at three times his age. If he was a few years older, maybe he would have called the cops to pull my ass out of the fire. Speaking of, the enforcers were more than happy to let the little boy go. What was going down here was business, and hurting children was not good for business.

“Good, I prefer doin’ this the easy way.” If I had to guess, the man was smirking behind his mask. He gestured at the alley with a tilt of his head. “How ’bout we talk about this where it’s quiet? Better that way.”

“Nah, it’s quiet enough right here.” I stayed crouched down, doing my best to look smaller than I was. I sent Jake away because I didn’t want my son to pay for my mistakes, not because I wanted to make these fuckers’ job any easier than I had to. “So, to what do I owe this visit from you fine gentlemen?”

I didn’t know if I was gonna make a break for it or not, but if I did I only had one chance, and that alley wasn’t it. In the open, where there was a chance they’d be seen and I had places to run, was better for me. I turned sideways, so I could track both him and his partner. I was gambling that they wanted to keep quiet more than they wanted to hurt me. Maybe, just maybe, I could get out of this without a beating or a bullet.

“Don’t play dumb,” the man in front said. “You know why.” He stepped closer while he spoke, as did his friend behind me. They didn’t look like they were gonna take the chance of coming at me one at a time.

I’m going to die out here. The certainty, the fear, grew by the minute. Yeah, I was a big guy who knew how to fight, but nobody was big enough to take on a gun. That sorta shit was only for action movies and Imbued. Even most Imbued didn’t fuck with guns. I probably wouldn’t even be lucky enough to take one of the fuckers with me when I go. I’ll never see my son again.

If forced to pick the worst part of knowing I was going to die, it was that I had no idea why, outside that I must have done something to piss somebody off. Which didn’t narrow it down near as much as I’d like. “Well, consider your job done then. Lesson learned, ain’t ever gonna do that again in my life.” Whatever ‘that’ is. I tried to smile, tried to laugh, while fear choked at my throat.

“Ain’t that simple, buddy.” He stopped back far enough out of my reach that I would end in hot lead before I even got to him. “We know you’ve been feeding info to your skank girlfriend. Guess if you’re gonna sell out, may as well be for tats and tits, right?”

What? “Hey, no, I ain’t told her shit.” Nothing important, anyway. “She don’t even like her brother. An’ he don’t need me for shit. He’s unkillible, has fuckin’ Anima on his crew, and some precog that’s even scarier than they are. Everyone knows that.”

In a way I was glad they were White-Hat. Sure, it made business harder, but this city didn’t stand a chance if their team went villain. I’d have to get out of state and take Jake with me.

“And you know that ain’t my problem,” he said. True enough; enforcers were hired to get results, not make decisions. I should know, I’d seen this in action enough. I’d just never been on the receiving end before. “But I promise not to do anything too- huh?”

I turned my head to look where he started looking. Some older black man in a tattered coat half-stumbled toward me. A whino, nothing unusual on this street, but the skin color was a bit of a surprise. This neighborhood wasn’t quite in Lightbringer territory, but it was too close for comfort, and it never took much of an excuse for some thug to target the homeless. That was always the problem when you had nobody who’d miss you or try to help you.

It wasn’t much longer before I noticed he smelled like shit. Now, when I say something smells like shit, I usually just mean it smells bad, but not this time. This guy reeked of cheap booze, rotting teeth, and the used diaper bin at an old folk’s home. I could smell him even before he got to arm’s length of me.

“Heh, buhy, spare some change?” he slurred right before stumbling face-first into my coat. If I lived through the night, I’d have to buy a new coat tomorrow. He looked up at me, his eyes glowing blacker than the darkest night. Don’t ask me how black glows, it just did. “Run the moment you get the chance.” All sign of slur and inebriation had left him, but the stench remained.

What? I stepped away from him, fear and revulsion making me forget for a moment that there was a man with a gun who might use it on me. Only then did I notice the crumpled up paper in my hand. “Uh, sure, lemme get my wallet.”

“God bwess ya.” The Imbued who pretended to be homeless stumbled away from me while I was reaching for my pocket. He headed straight for the gunman. “Hwabut you?”

“Get the fuck out of here!” The enforcer had less tolerance for the annoyance and stink, but then he wasn’t the one who needed a distraction.

“Fu you, too, buddy!” Faster than I’d have thought possible, the homeless man rushed forward, slamming his fist up into the the gut of the gunman. He drew his fist back and slammed up again, teaching me three things: this Imbued did not have super strength, but he did have a knife, and he knew how to use it.

“Kuh!” The gunman choked on what would have been a scream; if I had to guess, the first stab got him right in the lung. He struggled to fight the attacker off, but it’s hard enough to take someone who knows how to fight even when you don’t have two bleeding holes in your gut.

A muffled gunshot went off, blowing a shower of red from the back of the homeless man. He didn’t stop fighting, however, and the next knife strike was into the neck. I heard shouting and boots hitting the slush behind me. Time for me to get the fuck out of here.

I bolted for my door, praying the entire time they wouldn’t shoot me in the back. Now, there was supposed to be a keycard to punch in to open the front door, but it was vandalized whenever they tried to fix it. All the residents knew they had to rely on their door locks, and to be careful in the stair hall. I hadn’t wanted to send Jake in on his own, but he had a better chance in the hall than in the street.

A second and third gunshot rang out behind me, but I didn’t dare look back. I’d know if I got shot, and nothing else mattered.

I was halfway up the third flight of stairs when I stopped running and started laughing uncontrollably. Why? How? What is this?

“Sorry,” my own voice said without my control. “Still not entirely used to dying. Really fucks with your head, y’know?” My head and shoulders rolled, cracking my neck. “Damn, been a while since I’ve had a body this nice.” I felt every sensation, but couldn’t control any part of my body. “Don’t worry, they’re all dead and there’s no way to connect any of them to either of us.”

I began walking again, watching from my own eyes as I approached my door. I- It knocked on my door. “It’s safe, Jake, you can let me in.”

No! No it’s not safe! Stay away from my son! If you hurt him I will kill you! I struggled to get control of my body back, tried to will something, anything, to happen. Nothing I did made any difference, I wasn’t even given the satisfaction of a scream or to feel my muscles clench in rage.

“Daddy!” Jake reached his arms out to me, toward It.

This impostor, hijacker, stepped around my son into my house like he owned it, like he owned me.

“I need to go to the bathroom,” It said with my voice. “Don’t worry, Daddy’s fine.” No! I’m damn well not fine, you sack of shit! “You go watch cartoons for a while. I’ve gotta make a phone call, too.”

Jake was suspicious; he’d been expecting a hug, some sort of comfort, and then to be sent to bed because he knew I wouldn’t let him stay up late. His mother didn’t know how to teach him discipline, so it all came down to me. Still, he was just a child, and this Thing in control of me sounded and moved just like I did.

“Okay, Daddy.” My son went for the living room, while the monster turned and went for my bathroom like It knew everything I did.

Once the door to the bathroom was closed, I got to see my face in the mirror. It was mine, looked just like me, and then It spoke in my voice. “You know, I did save your life, and I did my best not to touch your son, or even lie to him. You could try to show some respect. I’m a ‘he’, by the way. Not an ‘it’.”

Oh shit, he can hear me?

“Every thought, every failed attempt to take control back. I even have access to your memories. Including all the things you think you’ve forgotten. It won’t work, by the way.”

What won’t work? This is so fucked up.

“Taking control back. Everyone tries, nobody’s so much as slowed me down, even while I was killing them with their own hands. Same deal with memories; harder you want to hide something, easier it is for me to know what you’re hiding. And it’s a one way street, you can’t read my mind, that’s why I’m talking to you in front of a mirror. That, and a bit of psychological warfare. I can’t actually control your mind, and I have a need for your cooperation. I can even reward you for your help.”

Reward is good. Better than being discarded like that poor homeless guy. This psycho killed three people right outside my home. He can do it again. What are you? What do you want? I’ll do anything you want. Don’t think about moving to Europe the moment… fuck!

My own voice chuckled in a way I never have. “Don’t worry, I won’t hold that little slip against you. Because we have something in common which means more than money ever could.” He reached my hand up to touch the still-tender skin of my fresh tattoo. Then he started to push his finger against it, sending pain through me while my face didn’t show any reaction at all. “Your little whore of an ex betrayed you to help her brother. I want him. You get her.”

Laura wouldn’t-

My other hand came up, slamming the crumpled piece of paper against the wall of my bathroom. “This! This is a list of URLs with my notes. The ones I want you to know about, at any rate. I’ve got pictures of them working together, some video. You know how to use the internet, right?”

Of course, who doesn’t? Wait, if he can read my mind, why would he even need to ask-

“It’s called sarcasm.” He opened my medicine cabinet and put the paper inside. “Now, I won’t bore you with all the details, but I’ve been tracking that bastard for a while now. I know who his allies are, his friends, his enemies, and how his precog works. I even know Oracle’s blind spots. Or enough of them to do what I’m gonna do.”

W-what are you going to do? Is he lying to me? How can I tell? How can I keep him from- fuck me, I’m trapped, aren’t I?

“I’m not going to tell you the first part. Better if you don’t know.” He closed the medicine cabinet so I could see him speaking with my face again. “To the latter? I’ll let you go once you start listening to me. I bet you don’t know this, but Laura’s new boyfriend- if you can even call that thing human- is invisible. And another pal is a Gadgeteer. They put a bug in your cell phone while your little Delilah distracted you with your new tattoo.”

She wouldn’t-

“Do you really think your dick’s so good that you can get a stripper to give you a thousand dollar discount? Especially one who shoots you down every time you beg for another fuck? Learn to take a hint. And people accuse me of having an ego.”

Well, when he puts it that way-

“Good, you’re not as stupid as I feared. Then there were those goons waiting for you tonight. The ones which, I remind you, your ‘Little Pixie’ was responsible for coming after you in the first place. They had a pretty damn good reason to think you were a snitch.”

I’m not… and they still have their precog… I barely bought my own argument, now. I knew I wasn’t a snitch, and so did this guy controlling my body if he had my memories. Using my pet name for Laura convinced me he really could read memories.

“Their precog works by detecting crimes!” My voice hissed in anger. “As they’re about to happen! With limitations! It doesn’t give them the names and addresses of criminals so they can bust into their safehouses! They get those by hacking cell phones!”

We stayed in silence for a while, quiet enough that I could hear the sirens of the cops and ambulance coming. A reminder of what this guy could do to me, if I didn’t cooperate with him. Yet here he was, inside my head, knowing my every doubt and every fear.

How do you know Oracle can’t do more? Precogs are-

“If Oracle was that powerful, they wouldn’t waste their time on street crime! They’d walk right into the supervillains’ bedrooms and win the easy way. You don’t think Anima could beat the shit out of everyone who dared try to stop them? Or, fuck, don’t even use Anima. Call the cops and give them all of the secret identities.” He leaned forward until my forehead touched the mirror, so I could look right into my eyes. “Problem. Solved. The reason they don’t is because they can’t. They had to steal information from people who do know. Like you. Hell, you know she used you so she could go after Kitten.”

Laura did get me to find out who killed her friend Erica, right before her brother went after them, that was true. But it was different, personal, and I knew she was gonna use that info the moment she got it. Everyone wanted that psychotic slut dead; in the end Lightbringer and Los Fieles teamed up with Anima and Crucible to make it happen. A special case, if ever there was one.

That didn’t mean Laura would hack my phone to go after some basic drug shit.

“I’ve been tracking them for months, remember? I know how to beat their precog, I know how they operate, and I have evidence. Not on me… body jumping makes that impractical… but on those websites I gave you. You can find everything you need to know on that sheet.”

He seemed so confident, but even if true-

“What would have happened if I didn’t show up?” My voice killed the argument before it began. “You could be dead right now, instead of some useless bum. Trust me, I did him a favor by giving him a chance to die for something that mattered instead of hypothermia. If you don’t care about that, then what could have happened to Jake?”

Don’t bring my son into this!

“I didn’t. They did. They used you, put a target on your back, and then when you were almost murdered in the street, they didn’t even jump in with that all-powerful precog of theirs and save you. They almost killed you. They almost killed your son!”

I wanted to choke, or scream, or better yet punch something- the face in the mirror looked like a great target- but even those comforts were denied to me. He’s right. He’s right! That fucking bitch!

“Thank you for seeing reason.” I don’t think I ever sounded as smug as he sounded using my voice. “The only question now is what you’re going to do about it. Or, more to the point, what we’re going to do about it. Your ‘Pixie’ isn’t my problem… Zach isn’t yours. But with your help, I can have my revenge, and you can have her.”

Have ‘her’? Is he saying he’ll-

“I’ll walk her body wherever you want me to. Lock her in a cage for you, or anyone else you like, to deal with however you like. Slit her throat, sell her to some cartel, or keep her around and get creative. It’s your revenge, do whatever you like. I want her traitor of a brother. Do we have a deal?”

I can’t believe I’m about to do this. I wanted to squeeze my eyes shut so bad, but they kept staring at my face in the mirror. A face which showed no sign of the rage I felt. Wait, what about the enforcers, won’t they send-

“I wouldn’t worry about that.” I smiled, cruel and focused, in the mirror. “When I’m done with Zach, I’m going to turn my attention on the gangs. Whether as servants, puppets or examples, they will all serve me in the end. Congratulations, you’re the first person to meet the new ruler of this city and live.”

Oh, fuck. Well, if anyone could take control of a city, it’d be him. I wasn’t an expert on Imbued, but this guy was the strongest mind controller I hadn’t heard about in a history class.

“Precisely. Now, as my first… associate… I want you to go about like normal, give no hint that you’ve met me or anything is unusual. You never saw those thugs. When the time comes, I’ll let you know what to do. I don’t need much, and if you do it right, nobody will even know you were involved. Is that clear?”

Crystal. Wait, I don’t even know who this guy is.

“Me? I am everyone, and I am no one. I am the strangers you pass on the street. I am the fear that will gnaw at your heart until your last breath should you ever betray me, or the security of knowing you’re safe when you obey.” He ranted in my voice. “But, I suppose you need a simple name. I like the sound of Yuan Gui, how about you?”

What? “What does that m-” If I wasn’t pressed against the mirror, I would have smashed into it. He’s gone! I have control again! I touched my face, felt the wetness of the tears I could only now start to cry.

I did the first thing any man would do in this situation. I went straight to my son.

“Daddy? What’s wrong?”

He’s a good boy, he deserves everything I can do for him and so much more. I knelt down, hitting my knees on the floor harder than I wanted. “Nothing’s wrong, son.” I grabbed him, pulled him into my arms. “Nothing’s will ever be wrong as long as we have each other.” I won’t allow anyone the chance to take you from me again.

Next

Price Nothing Given, Chapter 36

“Our battle plan is go home and get some sleep,” Daryl said. “We’ve done more than enough. Too much, really.”

“So after all the gangs got kicked square in the nuts, our plan is to do nothing?” Zach looked like he was about to walk out to start his own fight. I’d have joined him if he did, after having promised to support him in the field, even being a little excited about it, only to have one of our own reject the whole idea outright.

“Sounds like my kinda plan!” Laura giggled. “I’m thinkin’ vacation somewhere not a frigid hellhole for a week, who’s with me?”

“I’m with Zach on this one,” Cassandra said. Zach flinched a little when she supported him, and if I noticed it then she must have. Her reaction was, as always, to show no reaction at all. “You don’t need to be Sun Tzu to know that the best time to hit an enemy is when they’re hurt.”

“And the worst time is when their only way out is through you!” Daryl stopped for a slow breath. “Look, it’d be different if we were cops, but we’re not. We don’t have cop funding or cop badges or cop backup. You don’t back a wounded animal into a corner and expect to get out without them fighting back. They’re desperate, they’re going to escalate, and they’ll be looking for blood. What better way to repair their rep than to beat the girl who kicked the ass of the guy who kicked their asses?”

What? My heart hammered in my chest, not out of concern for myself, but for Mrs. Battle and the whole of the Playhouse. Perhaps a little concern for anyone stupid enough to go after me, my power being what it was. “Are you saying they’ll try to kill me?”

Daryl looked at me for a moment. “Not unless we make them believe they have to. Killing celebrities, even minor ones, is too much heat. Then there’s the Hecatomb Protocols.”

“The what?” Zach asked. Sometimes I forgot how new he was to the supers subculture, including the stupid side of it.

I rolled my eyes. “Supposedly, it’s a-”

Zach’s phone started playing the Terminator theme as a ring tone. “Sorry. That’s our job for the night.” He pulled it out of his pocket and open in a single fluid motion. “Huh. So I got an hour to make it to Seventh and Northwest, low alert. I bet it’s some kid snatching a purse or something. And that’s it.” The phone returned to his pocket as easily as it came out. “Sorry, you were saying something about hexadomes?”

“Hecatomb. Some top-secret government black-ops group who sends out agents to hunt down people who kill powerful Imbued. Depending on who’s telling the story, they either assassinate them, capture and execute them legally, or hand them over to whomever inherits the victims’ powers. Human sacrifice as a peace offering or a bribe. But it’s just a conspiracy theory, like those stories about Russian moon bases. It’s not actually true.”

“Minor correction: it’s one of the FBI’s shadow-branches, not an agency,” Daryl said. “And there is no organization called ‘Hecatomb’, nor will ‘Hecatomb Protocol’ be spoken or written by any agent who wants to keep his job. Names have power, those in charge have known that since the dark ages. So when they want to keep something truly secret, they never, ever, name it. Safer that way. We call it the Hecatomb Protocol on the off chance the name sticks, and opens it up for Espers.”

Half of what Daryl said was absurd, while the other half was common knowledge, as I’d come to expect of conspiracy theories. Though if you were trying to reveal a conspiracy, tricking the conspirators into giving their project a name was as good a plan as any.

“Well, why are they waiting around with their thumbs up their asses instead of dangling Crucible off a bridge as neo-Kitten bait?” Laura said, creating what was easily the most awkward silence in the history of the universe. “What? Come on, you were all thinkin’ the same damn thing!”

Daryl cleared his throat. “Well, Laura’s lack of tact aside. They can’t be certain of who out of a dozen people gets ‘credit’ for the mark, and Cassandra isn’t acting like the type who needs a human sacrifice to be happy. I promise they’re watching us all like hawks, however. Which is just another reason to back off and allow the rest of this mess to play out without interference. It’ll be thugs killing thugs out there for the time being.”

I studied Zach’s face. He doesn’t like to be told he’s useless. I suppose I can relate, even if my problem is more akin to the opposite. “Don’t forget we still have a precog helping us.” A precog that’s half you. “Which means we’ll know if anything’s too dangerous before it happens.”

My heart warmed when he smiled. “Yeah, we do! Who needs caution when you can see the future?” I envied how happy he was making a difference. Considering that his mother kicked him out of house yesterday, which neither of us seemed to want to bring up, I was sure he needed something to look forward to.

“I’d feel way more comfortable if I knew how Oracle’s power worked,” Daryl said. “But that’s beside the point. Did you know there’s a phrase people who use precogs too much always use? It’s called ‘We surrender’. Or did you forget how last night almost went?”

“Oh, don’t be such a stick in the mud.” Laura leaned back, draping herself over the less than comfortable arms of three separate seats. “I was the one who got squished like a chew toy, and I’m fine now. Hehe, squeak squeak.”

“Laura brings up a good point,” Zach said.

While I was busy processing what he just said, Cassandra interrupted him. “What? No, you can’t give up now!”

Zach tensed. “Who’s giving up?” He stepped toward her, while the rest of us caught on to what he meant. A nagging, soft pain in my chest bloomed when I realized that I didn’t realize until after his ex. “I did everything I set out to do, right? I already won, I can stop playing.”

Cassie stayed silent for a moment, then the temperature in the room started to drop. “That doesn’t make sense. What about all the people you can help?”

“Great, now you’ve got me agreeing with her,” Laura muttered. “Seriously, did you do all this just to upstage my teen rebellion phase?”

I didn’t get it either, but if this was what Zach wanted, then I’d support him. “Hey, we’re going to have downtime anyway, right?” I looked around at the others. “I still have a normal job, and we’re getting ready to do another play.” Midsummer Night’s Dream had been a yearly event for longer than I’d worked here. I kept forgetting to ask Mrs. Battle why they went with a play with ‘summer’ in the name as the first showing during spring.

“Well, I never said we wouldn’t keep using Oracle to save innocent people, but this gang bullshit?” Zach shrugged his shoulders. “I’m done trading punches with supervillains. Let them kill each other for all I care, I’m on vacation.”

What. Since when did Zach… I don’t even know what he’s doing. I stepped in to support Zach; regardless of his reasons, he was my boyfriend. More than that, he was my friend.

“I think all of us could use a break.” Especially Laura, she could have died out there if Revenant didn’t have his weird honor code… Oh.

I fumbled for the note I stored in my clothes beneath my armor. For other people, that might have been a problem, but my armor softened so that it offered up about as much resistance as a plastic grocery bag. The suction sensation around my wrist when I clasped the paper in my pocket was the extent of the difficulty.

“Hey, Daryl, can you read this?” I pulled my hand out of my pocket and armor, while walking over to him. “Revenant left this note, said you should help me with something. The spelling is terrible, maybe it’s some kind of code?”

“Sure, let’s see.” Daryl took the note from my hand, then unfolded it with greater care than the crumpled paper had been given by anyone before. “Ugh, this is why I’m a professional thief instead of a teacher. It’s not a code, just really bad spelling. If I had to guess, I’d say he’s dyslexic.”

Dislexia? I hadn’t considered that angle, but people with disabilities were the majority amongst Imbued. Powerlessness, isolation, and self-loathing were what drove people to embrace that Thing that granted us our abilities in the first place. If Revenant was dyslexic, it might explain why his power put so much emphasis on growing stronger and smarter as the conflict continued.

He might have gotten his power young, perhaps even younger than I was. The most powerful of us usually manifested early. Theories on why abounded, but my experience was that there were limits to how far an adult would allow themselves to go. Children, who couldn’t comprehend the gravity of the situation, were willing to sacrifice everything to It.

“Holy shit!” Laura’s shout snapped me out of my introspection. “That’s it, we’re goin’ to Vegas!”

What did I miss? I glanced around at the others, none of whom seemed to realize I had no idea what happened.

“I’m sure you’re planning to turn it down, but lemme just stop you for a minute,” Zach said. “The money’s already there. If you don’t take it, that means the criminals get to keep it. If you don’t want it, you can always give it to charity.”

What. “I’m sorry, I kinda spaced there. What’s this about money?”

“Fuck!” Laura slapped her hand off her thigh, then leaned back and laughed like a madwoman. I wondered what the crew who stayed late to get some extra practice in thought of the display.

“Uh, the ‘grand prize’ Revenant mentions in his note.” Daryl folded the paper up and offered it back to me. “He does these exhibition fights once or twice a month where he’ll take on everyone who enters, one at a time. It starts at one penny, and for every minute you stay in the ring, you add a zero to the end. If you can last the whole eight minutes or somehow beat Revenant before the match is over, you get the full million dollar prize.”

Holy shit! “What.”

“Spend some of it on a hearing aid!”

Thanks, Laura. I would have sighed, if my brain wasn’t preoccupied with other concerns. “I heard you the second time.” Forget everything else, how was I supposed to process this? “How can he throw away a million dollars at a time like that? Where’s the money come from?”

“For starters, he doesn’t throw it away.” Daryl fiddled with his phone for a few seconds. “His website says most tourneys end with him paying out less than a hundred bucks. I believe it. Zach or Cassie could are in the top ten percent, far as rankings go, and he beat both of them in under five minutes. Including the stalling.”

“And I bet he got, like, ten mil easy from all those safehouses he smashed,” Zach muttered. “What asshole said crime doesn’t pay? Because he’s a damn, dirty liar.”

“Nah, they’re in war mode right now,” Daryl said. “Money’s tied up in drugs, guns and paying soldiers and mercs. Doubt he found more than what he gave Laura. Revenant pays the prize money from illegal gambling and sadists who pay to watch the beatdowns that only underground matches can provide. Won’t take long for him to make his money back.”

That’s not so bad. Gambling and fights weren’t my idea of good company, but it wasn’t made from the suffering of innocent people. I could go to sleep with a good conscience. I only had one more question to ask. “How do I collect?”

The only person who didn’t look shocked was Cassie.

“Woo! Attagirl! Next time you’re takin’ me shopping!” Correction: Laura and Cassie did not look shocked. Glen as well. So less than half the people here looked shocked.

“What?” I looked around at them. “Zach’s right, I’ll be able to put it to better use than a criminal.” In fact, I already knew the first thing I was going to do.

Daryl poked at his on phone some more. “There’s no instructions. I guess they just hand over the money to the winners. But they list an email here. I’ll forward it to you, and you can send them a message. I recommend a burner account, done from a public library.”

“I’ll keep that in mind.” The paranoia was meaningless; I was far too dangerous for law enforcement to allow my identity to remain secret. Even if the caseworkers and Sapphire didn’t give my name and power description straight to the federal registry, a precog would have been pointed in my direction sooner or later. Perhaps Daryl was able to stay below the radar, but the best I do was staying hidden from the civilian world.

“Can we call the meeting here? I’ve got some things to take care of.” I tried to be polite, but I was in a daze from what I’d learned.

Laura giggled to herself. “Does that mean you’re buying us all gifts? Dibs on a new car!”

“Yeah, sure,” Zach said. “You guys may as well call it an early night. Even the crooks don’t wanna be out in the cold. Meet up again on Thursday, usual time?”

Two days from now? Bad choice. “We’ll have to meet late. There’s going to be a dress rehearsal that night. Which means you’ve gotta be here to do your job.”

“Superheroes working the special effects at a theater, that’s not somethin’ you see a lot of in the comics.” Zach stretched his arms over his head. “Aight, let’s take the week off, unless Oracle has something big.”

“Yeah, we’ll figure something out.” I went for the stairs right away, excited to have a chance to make my dream a reality.

Zach caught up to me moments after I started climbing down. “Hey, so, what’s with the rush? Is something wrong?”

I turned to face him, smiling behind my armor. Better than okay. “No, nothing’s wrong. I’ve just got something I’ve wanted to do for a long time, and I finally can. How about you? Care to explain why you’re okay with stopping our attacks on the gangs.” Right after I volunteered to give more support to the team, no less. I know Laura’s part of it, but I don’t think it’s the whole story.

Zach’s look of concern for me changed in that subtle way that suggested he had something else to worry about. “Uh, it’s a long story. How about if I come back tonight after I do my little rescue mission?” He moved in a little, close enough that I could imagine I felt him through the armor.

Oh. That’s what he means. I both tingled and hurt at the thought. “Sure, see you then. But only to talk, I’m still tired from before.”

“Sure, that’s fine.” As hard as Zach was to figure out, he had no talent for hiding disappointment. He leaned in and gave my helmet a kiss. “See you soon.” He ran down the steps three at a time, while I walked behind.

I went straight to Mrs. Battle’s office, where she was working on her paperwork for the play. By now, she was done with making sure the advertisement was out in the local papers, and now it was a matter of juggling costs until the ticket sales let her recover the costs, with perhaps a small amount of profit on top. She looked up the moment I opened the door.

“Can I talk to you for a minute?”

“Of course!” She set aside her pen and papers, then took off her reading glasses. “What’s wrong? Did you and Zach have a fight?”

Why does everyone jump to the conclusion that something’s wrong? I dunno, Beth, maybe because nothing good ever happens to you, so people are conditioned to assume the worst?

“No. Zach and I are fine. But I was… well…” I pulled up a seat so at least I wouldn’t have to stumble over my feet while I stumbling over my words. “I came into a bit of money recently, and I was thinking that I could buy the Playhouse from you.”

Convincing Mrs. Battle to accept charity was beyond my power, but buying it from her might be more pallatable.

She smiled at me. “Oh, dear, you don’t have to do that.”

“No, but I want to.” I had expected resistance, but how to overcome said resistance was part of the plan I was still working on. “It doesn’t have to be right away, but I’d like the option open, in case you change your mind later.”

She chuckled, then reached over and touched the back of my hand. “I appreciate the sentiment, but you do not have to buy the Playhouse. I already have you listed in my will to inherit the business after I’m gone. There’s not much saved up, but it should be enough that it won’t cost anything out of your pocket. Or are you so impatient that you can’t wait a few years?”

I’d never known my chest could hurt and feel good at the same time before. “I…” I choked back the tears. “I don’t know what to say.”

“You don’t have to say anything, I know you love this place almost as much as I do. Knowing that you’ll take care of it after I’m gone is all the thanks I need.” She waited for a moment. “You look like you need a hug.”

A hug would be nice. “Mmmhmm.” I nodded then stood.

“Okay.” She pressed a hand to the desk and used it to stand, while extending her other arm to me. “Come here, you.”

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