The Tribunal: The Smallest Schuster

 

Peter Schuster

 

Peter Schuster 2022

 

Peter Schuster San Francisco

 

Peter Schuster New York City

 

Petey Schuster

 

Pete Schuster

 

  1. Schuster

 

Drusilla and Petey had never been close. One was the bad seed, the rogue child, the boy unwilling or incapable of doing the right thing — or that’s what everyone told her. Drusilla, by contrast, was the golden child, the sweet girl. That virtue, the lack of sin in her heart, needed to be virtuously guarded after Peter had left.

 

And then Benjamin. Bartholomew went with him.

 

And Susanna.

 

So now all she could do was search for her lost siblings on the web. There was a grainy photo of Benny in some social media profile for a coffee shop social that had taken her hours of dedicated searching to find. Susanna was on the staff page for some restaurant. That was it.

 

There used to be traces of Petey, too. Nothing recent, nothing that showed where he was, but a birth certificate. Childhood records.

 

One day, those all vanished, and Drusilla couldn’t tell why.

 

It wasn’t like she didn’t have family. There was still Paul, who had taken up the trial of watching over her. There were still a few Schusters left, even if the rest were sinners who had been scattered to the wind.


Drusilla’s name was meant to be a reminder of that sin. Drusilla was a tempestuous woman in the Bible who had lied and cheated. It was in her nature, and that why she had seduced men and brought ruin wherever she went.


It was in Drew’s nature too.

 

Paul was watching the TV downstairs, and so Drew took the risk of poring over that grainy photo, that restaurant staff page, and her Google searches.


It was all she had left of something that had once meant the world to her.

 

There was a crash. Drew jumped to her feet, wondering if she should explore or stay put. If it was Paul, she didn’t want to be anywhere near him. Not when he was like this.

 

“Drusilla!” Paul’s voice rang with that note of command, the one he’d inherited from their father.

 

She closed out of the browser, opened a text file about schoolwork, and slammed the laptop lid shut. “Coming!” she shouted back, scrambling to her feet and down the stairs.

 

“Good,” Paul’s voice had a dangerous edge to it. He was angry. Not at Drew, but he was angry.

 

She turned the corner into the living room, trying to smile and look pleasant. And then she saw the TV. It was hewn in half, as cleanly as if a laser had cut through it. “Oh my God -” Drew clasped both hands to her mouth, eyes wide.

 

Paul lifted one hand and stared at it, not turning to face her. “Speak not the Lord’s name in vain, Drusilla.”

 

“Yes, Paul. Sorry, Paul.” She squeaked. Something was definitely wrong. “Did you… E-emerge? Should I call… 911? The Legion?”

“No,” he growled. “The Legion has betrayed us. The Oathkeeper embraces sin, endorses it. She’s my enemy now. Our enemy.”

 

“I… I don’t understand, what happened?” Drew’s hands were shaking. “I… you always liked her, liked the Legion, I –”

“The ‘Oathkeeper’,” Paul spat the name, “is a homosexual and bigamist. Admitted this on national television, with no apology. Said it wasn’t sin.”

 

“Oh.” Drew said, standing there with no idea of what to do, or say. First there was Petey, then Benjamin and Barthlomew, and Noah, and then Susanna… And now the Oathkeeper was out, as fringe as she was to Drew’s life. “And she’s wrong, right?”

“She is so wrong,” Paul clenched his hand into a fist. “Drusilla, for a moment I was filled with righteous anger, and the Lord gave unto me power and symbols of faith, a sure sign. Moments later, these symbols, the strength– they were gone. But my path is clear, my enemy has revealed itself. I need only find the Lord’s strength again.”

 

“…Let me see it.” Drew said, turning towards the stairs. “Let me see the conference. I’ll load it. Maybe you just need to watch it again? Maybe that’s your um, Emergence thing? You just have to watch that video?”

“No, that is not the way,” Paul muttered. “The power came from inside me and outside me, in response as it happened. But you should watch the video, Drusilla. See how false righteousness parades itself all over the highest echelons of our society. And see how far our prodigal brother has fallen. Peter was there.”

 

“Peter?!” Drew turned, unable to hide her excitement. “You saw Peter? He was there? Oh my God, Peter, thank God, I thought he was dead!”

Paul turned to face her, his eyes blazing with rage.

 

“Paul, this is a miracle.” Drew pleaded. “I’ve been looking for him for years, I just… isn’t this good? We’ve found him? Maybe if we… if we talk to him…”

“Watch the video, Drusilla. You will understand.” There was a hidden threat in that statement. You will understand… or else.

 

“…Okay. Okay.” Drew turned and scurried back up to her room. She pulled her laptop under her pink and white duvet and typed Oathkeeper controversy and then hit News.


There was a press conference. The crowd was silent as Oathkeeper stood on stage, talking.

 

“My name is Alice McGowan, and I’ve been married for twenty years, but I’m queer, and I’m in a polyamorous relationship with another woman.”

 

Drew’s heart skipped so violently and her world lurched from the shock. By the time she recovered, Oathkeeper was still talking. “There is no sin in being queer. There is no Hell, and if there was, being queer wouldn’t send you there. I encourage everyone to be open and honest with themselves, and I can’t do that unless I lead the charge.”

This was…

 

This was a sin. Right?

But she was the Oathkeeper, and she… she looked happy.

 

And then a small figure flew onto the stage.

 

The creature wrapping skinny arms around the Oathkeeper’s neck, hugging her like a family member, pride in their eyes. Looking at her like she’d seen other children look at their parents, with unreserved love and vicarious joy.

 

He’d grown up, certainly. He didn’t look quite the same as that spindly pre-teen that Drusilla remembered, but… it was him.

 

That was Petey. Hugging the Oathkeeper like he never once hugged his own mother.

 

She looked happy. Petey looked happy. This didn’t make sense. Drew began to type.

 

Peter Schuster Oathkeeper

 

Petey Schuster Infinity Legion

 

Nothing. She paused, typed again.

 

Oathkeeper kids


Oathkeeper stage companions

 

Oathkeeper friends

 

Oathkeeper sidekick

There! His face, attached to an interview. But the name was all wrong. ‘Nat Zygoptera’? There was a Legion codename, too. ‘Damselfly’. This was all wrong, but there was Petey’s face. Grinning, charming, covered in elaborate makeup. “I never would have expected to make friends with the Oathkeeper,” said the excerpt text.

 

Her heart was slamming against her rib cage. There were… weird typos on the text page. “Ey said”. It didn’t matter. She was so close.

 

Nat Zygoptera contact


Nat Zygoptera phone number

 

Damselfly email

 

Damselfly contact

 

There. On his public Legion Profile page, just below a video of him contact juggling a clear plastic ball.

 

damselfly@legion.gov

 

Drew swallowed hard. Paul would expect her to come down any second now and start talking about how terrible this all was.

 

She typed a subject line: DO YOU REMEMBER YOUR LITTLE SISTER?, addressed it to the Damselfly, and took a deep breath.

 

I miss you.

 

What else was there to write? She wanted to spill a novel of secrets.

 

“Drusilla!” Paul’s voice was closer. At the bottom of the stairs. “Did you watch the video!”

 

Oh no.

 

I want to talk to you, even if its just once. I don’t have a phone. But you can email me. I love you.

 

She hit send and shut the browser down. “Yeah!” she calls, moving to the stairs and trying to look angry. “It’s terrible.”

 

The reply arrived within the hour, but Drew didn’t see it until she’d made dinner for Paul and cleaned up.

 

Her heart leapt as she opened her e-mail and saw ‘Re: DO YOU REMEMBER YOUR LIT…’ waiting in her inbox. She opened it to find a curt reply:

 

I remember you.

Please don’t tell the others about me, especially mom & dad.

Love you too. Hope you get out soon.

 

~Nat

 

P.S. – Especially don’t tell Paul.

 

She wasn’t allowed to be on the computer this late. Tears sprung into her eyes. Was that a rejection?

She typed back, trying to make the click of key pressing against finger as quiet as possible.

 

Paul saw you on the TV. He cut the TV in half. He said God helped him do it.


I don’t think you’re horrible. I miss you so much. I’m sorry I messaged you if you don’t want to talk to me.

I don’t know if I’ll ever get out.

 

She pressed send and listened for any movements in the house.

 

What she heard wasn’t movement, it was muttering. Paul was… chanting? Reciting bible verses. Old Testament ones, mean ones. He didn’t used to do that. Maybe he thought they’d give him the power he had before. Whatever the case, he was awake but it didn’t seem like he had noticed that Drusilla was up.

 

By the time she returned her attention to the computer, there was a reply.

 

Do you need me to rescue you

 

What? Sure, heroes rescued people when they were in distress, but she was fine.

 

I don’t think so, she typed. I just want to talk.

 

The reply came quickly.

 

I can’t. I’m sorry.

I can’t go back to Glenwood Springs and I can’t risk Paul or your parents finding out that we’re talking.

I love you and miss you, Drew. If you get out or need help getting out, please let me know.

 

P.S. I’ll get the Oathkeeper’s autograph for you.

 

This hurt, but it was better than the alternative – thinking that her brother was dead. She paused, sniffed, and then typed.

 

I’ll be 18 in four years. Can we talk then?

In less than a minute, the reply:

 

I’ll mark it on my calendar and circle it four times.

 

Petey had said that when mom and dad forgot Drew’s birthday. He promised to make a cake the next year no matter what. He did. It was an awful cake, but he did it.

 

She sniffled and the tears fell freely now.

 

Okay. I’ll see you then. Love you.

 

And for the first time since Petey left, she didn’t dream.

 

TWO MONTHS LATER:

 

Drew’s frantic search for her laptop was cut short by a command from downstairs.

 

“Drusilla Marie Schuster! Come downstairs. Now.”

 

Her heart froze. She couldn’t breathe. She had wiped everything, right? Her brain racked through everything that was on there. She couldn’t move. Maybe she could just run out, through the window

 

“Five,” Paul began. “Four.”

 

She sprinted down the stairs, skipping them three at a time, and skidded to a stop in front of Paul. “I was just doing homework.” she lied. “I was doing homework, why, what’s wrong?”

Drew saw her laptop, then, open on the table. In front of Paul. He was glaring down at her. He knew something. He’d seen something.

 

“Do you have something you need to tell me, Drusilla?” He asked.

 

“That’s mine.” the words burst out of her mouth, defiant and completely unexpected. “That’s my laptop, mom got it for me, you can’t look at it.”

Paul stood up, shoving his chair backwards, and seemed to get taller, and bigger, and for a moment he was clad in shiny greyish armor, and there was a bright white halo around his head–

 

But then he was just Paul again, still scary but no taller or more armored than usual.

 

“Sit down,” he commanded.

 

She sat in a chair, eyes wide. “You… you… you had… armor –”

“This is your last chance to be honest in front of me and God, Drusilla,” Paul said. “Do you have something you need to confess?”

 

“I talked to Petey.” she whispered, staring at the grey tile floors.

 

“You did. Why did you do this?”

 

Her lip quivered, and then it all came rushing out. “BECAUSE I LOVE HIM! Because he’s nice to me. I don’t care if he thinks he’s a girl, or if he’s with ten million people, or if he doesn’t go to church! I don’t care I don’t care I don’t care! I don’t care because he’s nice to me and he isn’t a rancid dick like you!”

She knew it was a mistake as soon as the words left her lips.

 

She felt it before she saw it, something strong and forceful bunching the front of her shirt, lifting her up bodily so her feet dangled and her head swam. Then she looked down at the huge platinum gauntlet, her brother’s armored form, the shining white disc behind his head, the way his eyes glowed. He looked just like The Oathkeeper, but… but scary. But angry.

 

When he spoke, Paul’s voice was like an intoning, ominous bell that rattled the windows and vibrated in her ribcage. “The sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light; the stars will fall from the sky, and the heavenly bodies will be shaken.”

 

“Paul,” she whispered. “Paul, please, please, I’m sorry, I’ll never talk to anyone again, I’ll just stay here, I’m sorry –”

“Yes,” Paul smiled, and the light in his eyes flared…

 

…and then he set her down and it was just Paul again. But there was something different about him, a kind of frightening energy, like his eyes were still glowing without really glowing. “Good. You will seek, little seeker, but you will do so for your family. For me. You can atone for your sins and mistakes, Drusilla. As you found salvation with the Lord in Jesus Christ, so too will you find your salvation with me by helping me lead the lambs of our town, our country, our world… back into righteousness.”

 

She sat on the floor, staring up at him in a mixture of awe and sheer terror. “I… okay. I’ll help. I’ll help. Of course I’ll help. I just… I don’t understand, I don’t understand what you’re doing, what you want me to do? I don’t…” She swallowed hard. “I need my laptop if you w-want me to research…”

“Fine,” Paul pushed the laptop to the other side of the table. “But I had better not find out that you’re hiding anything from me. Ever. Again. Do you understand?”

 

“Okay.” she whimpered. “I’m sorry. I won’t.”

And she wouldn’t. How could she? He was a demiGod, in their kitchen, holding her up like she was made of paper.

He had never hit her before, and he hadn’t then, but if he did

 

There would be little Drew left, she was sure of that.

 

“Good,” Paul took his seat again. “Now. Find me more information about this… Damselfly.”

The Tribunal: The Smallest Promise

THE SCHUSTER HOUSEHOLD
GLENWOOD SPRINGS, COLORADO

 

When Drusilla’s name was called in the house, it was typically a forceful and commanding affair. It was very unusual for anyone but Paul or Gideon to call her, so it was surprising and strange to hear the voice of her mother, Lily, calling from the bottom of the stairs.

 

“Drusilla?”

 

Drew closed the browser window full of information on the Faerie Glen and came to the stairs. “Yes, mama?”

“I would speak with you privately.”

 

Drew’s eyes widened. Lots of her siblings got that line, but never Drew. Things were… weird around here, these days. Head down, the smallest Schuster followed her mother into the sewing room.

 

Lily turned sad eyes onto the smallest Schuster. Her emerald-green eyes always seemed sad, so much so that Drew tried to avoid looking into them when she could.

 

“Drusilla,” Lily’s voice was quiet, measured, thoughtful. “Paul spoke to me about your behavior yesterday. About how you raised your voice to him. Talked back.”

 

“Yes.” Drew admitted. “I’m sorry, mama, I lost my temper.”

“Little one, you must never do that again,” Lily sounded more mournful than chiding, “you must always do as Paul says. Your father can no longer lead this household, so Paul must.”

 

“Yes, mama. I’m sorry.” Drew pauses, rubbing her toe into the carpet. “Did he tell you about…” Her voice trailed off, wondering how to capture the surreal situation.

 

“About what, child?”

 

“His… new mission. His… hatred of the Oathkeeper.” She refused to say ‘He Emerged’. It would kill her mother.

 

Lily shook her head. “It is not hatred that drives your brother. It is righteousness. God has made him special, but there is always a balance. Drusilla, you and I… we need men like Paul, for the Devil resides inside of us. Without guidance, the Devil would get out.”

 

“I’m sorry.” A Devil inside Drusilla? Maybe that explained it: the guilt, the shame, the fear, the anger. “I don’t… I’m sorry I yelled. I won’t yell again. I won’t… talk to… anyone you don’t want me to again. I promise.”

“No, Drusilla, you must understand. I will show you. I must atone for it later, but you need to see.”

 

Lily held out one hand, palm up. For a moment, nothing happened, though a look of intense concentration was on her face. After several seconds, her hand began to change. The fingers elongated, nails turning into wicked talons, her skin becoming taut, glossy, cherry red. A Devil’s claw.

 

Drew screamed in panic and scrambled back. Her eyes were transfixed on that claw. Then she took a few, shallow breaths.


She had seen so many Emergences at this point that…

 

“Mama, you’re a… Paranormal?”

“The Devil takes many forms, Drusilla,” Lily said, allowing the claw to turn back into a human hand. “Learned words only excuse his presence. The Devil resides in me and I must fight him every day through principle, virtue, and obedience. Do you understand?”

 

“Do I have a Devil inside me? A devil like… like that?”

“Satan can take many forms. In your brother Peter, his face was deviance and sexual perversion. He resides in you, but he may not appear the same as he does in me.”

 

“You think Paranormal abilities – that’s our Devil? I…” Her head was spinning. “Does that make everyone who’s a Paranormal a sinner, I…?”

“Jesus gave his life precisely because we are all sinners, Drusilla,” Lily noted. “But as we find salvation in Christ, so too can we atone for the Devil in us by deferring to the righteous. Your brother was granted a gift from God, manifested as the Oathkeeper revealed her base nature. You see? These powers are a seed planted by Satan, but if the righteous tend to the sapling, the tree that grows will be righteous rather than sinful.”

 

“Oh.” All of the air escaped from Drew. Her mom knew. There would be no last intervention to get her out from Paul’s plans. Not that it was a surprise — mama always backed Paul when it came to Drew. But the fact that her mother was a Paranormal, and… how many siblings, now?

And it seemed that she would Emerge too, some terrible curse that wrested her away from her family.

“I’ve barely seen Dad since… Petey left. Is… is he a P-para…?”

“No,” Lily sighed. “He keeps to himself. As each of his children stole away, a part of him went with them. He is consumed with drink and despair, little one, as he is abandoned by his own flesh and blood. That’s why we need Paul.”

 

“And it’s why I can never leave.” Drew said, still sitting on the heavy shag carpet next to the door.

 

“Yes. Your place is here, with your family. You are a good girl, Drusilla, when you do not allow Satan to speak through your mouth. You can help Paul. Help this town and the world.”

 

“Okay.” Drew said, trying not to sound upset. “I understand. I’ll… go back upstairs. I was helping him.”

“Yes, go do that,” she nodded, “and attend to your older brother. Succeed where I failed, and he will go on to do great things. It is a shame that Peter led so many of our children away from the light.”

 

“Yes, mama.”

Do you need me to rescue you?

 

“…I won’t follow him.”

The Tribunal: The Smallest Task

THE SCHUSTER HOUSE
GLENWOOD SPRINGS, COLORADO

 

“Drusilla! Come downstairs at once!” Paul’s bark didn’t have an edge to it, so he probably wasn’t in a bad mood.

 

She sighed, irritated. Every time she hit some sort of stride in researching the Damselfly, Paul would interrupt with some demand — cook, clean, listen. She closed her laptop and slouched downstairs, wondering what he wanted this time.

 

Once Paul’s face came into view, he scowled. “Do not glare at me, Drusilla. Have some respect.”

 

“I wasn’t –” She put on her best smile. “I’m sorry, Paul. What do you need?”

“You’ve spent all day upstairs, staring at that screen,” Paul said, “you need to spend some time with your family.”

 

“You asked me to research the Damselfly. That’s what I’m doing, I’m trying to help.”

“Don’t talk back!” Paul snapped. “And yes, that was what I asked of you, but not to the exclusion of your family. Go spend time with your father. He is lonely.”

 

Drew managed to hide her grimace. “Yes, Paul. Sorry, Paul.” She trudged off to basement stairs that led to her father’s den. As she passed Paul, he shouted again, but not in her direction:

 

“Esther! You too.”

 

On one hand, Drew felt some small measure of satisfaction that the Golden Sister was finally getting yelled at as well. On the other hand, it was… worrying. Paul always let Esther do as she pleased. The fact that he was bossing her around meant something, and Drew wasn’t sure what, but she knew it  wasn’t good.


Esther, the tall girl with white blonde hair and dark eyes, popped up from the kitchen table, smoothing her skirts. “Of course, big brother, I’d be happy to.”

 

And so, the smallest and most gilded of the Schuster sisters descended the stairs into Gideon Schuster’s basement lair. Once upon a time, Drew knew this as a rec room, where the kids of the family played, watched television, and socialized. After Noah’s wordless nighttime departure, however, the room belonged only to Gideon’s broken soul. It stank of cheap whiskey and occasionally of urine, dust and moth-eaten couch covers. The only light came from a damaged Tiffany lamp in the corner and the glow of the television, where Father Schuster spent his time alternately watching evangelical television and reruns of Andy Griffith and My Three Sons on an ancient tube television with a McGowan Network Converter perched atop it.

 

Today, it was an episode of Father Knows Best. There was no indication anyone was even in the room, except for the top of Gideon’s balding head, barely visible over the back of his easy chair.

 

Esther moved forward first, giving Gideon a kiss on the cheek that the man barely acknowledged. “Hi, Daddy. You shouldn’t use that gadget. If Paul sees it, he’ll break it. He already got rid of the blender and the microwave for being McGowan.”

Drew hung back, silent.

 

“If Paul doesn’t like—” Gideon coughed violently for a few seconds, then continued. “—doesn’t like it, he can buy me something else that’ll let me watch my shows. If he don’t do that first, he ain’t too old for me to take him over my knee. Never done it before, but it’s a good reason to start.”

 

He paused.

 

“Why are you bothering me, Esther?”

 

Esther opened her mouth, a pretty lie prepared, but Drew cut in first: “Paul told us to come down here.”

Gideon scoffed. “I don’t need Paul’s pity. Leave me alone.”

 

But before they could leave, he spoke up again. “No, wait. I changed my mind. Come here. Sit.” He indicated the floor near him, and muted the television.

 

Both girls sat, Esther primly with her knees together and Drew sprawled out.

 

“I listen, you know.” Gideon’s voice was once like Paul’s: low, commanding, evocative. These days, a combination of disuse, misuse, and alcohol abuse had made it into the aural equivalent of bare feet on a gravel driveway. “None of you ungrateful children think I listen, but I do. I listen. I have heard Paul saying names he ain’t said in years. I hear him saying ‘Peter’, and I know he don’t mean the saint. I listen.”

 

Drew glanced at Esther. Esther’s lips curled into a smile for just a second, and then she turned to Gideon, her face the picture of concern.


“Drusilla tried to talk to him. He pretends to be a superhero these days.” Pause. “I’m surprised Paul didn’t tell you.”


Gideon turned a gimlet eye to Drew. “You’re doing research for him, on the internet,” he spat the word the way one might say ‘pustules’. “Tell me what you’ve found.”

 

“He thinks that he’s a girl, or both a boy and a girl, I guess.” Drew said, quietly. “Um, he likes… ey. Ey and eir and em. Instead of, um, he and him and her. And ey – he dances. At a club. And he calls Alice McGowan his mom. General Mom. In interviews, I mean. And he can fly.”

“Obscene,” Gideon sneered, “there always was something wrong with that boy. What about the others? Bartholomew and Benjamin. Noah.” He didn’t bother asking about Susanna. Susanna was married.

 

“Benny works at a coffee shop. Um, I don’t k-know what happened to Bartholomew. There are pictures of N-Nat – I mean, Peter, with a girl named Buster, but I can’t… find Bartholomew.”

“Then why tell me that,” Gideon leaned back in the chair. “That’s all you know?”

 

“I – I – I think Buster might be Bartholomew.”

Gideon squinted at her for a few seconds, then turned to Esther. “What in heaven’s name is your sister talking about.”

 

“It’s a thing sinners do.” Esther said, confidently. “They think they can switch around, live as something else. I’m not surprised Bart did that.”

“Disgusting. What went wrong? I raised you kids by God’s word and a firm hand. I kept an eye on your mother. You all went to church, in rain and snow. How did your mother birth children that would go so astray?”

 

“I don’t know,” Esther said, picture the face of pained innocence. “Maybe a more direct hand is necessary. I’m glad Paul is helping with that.”

Drew stared at her sister. What was she doing?

Gideon scowled. “Why. What is he planning.”

 

“I don’t know, daddy, he won’t tell me or Drew. He just tells us what to do. Drew researches, and I keep going to school and practicing my fencing. But he’s planning on announcing something at Church this Sunday. Will you come with us, daddy? I want to have you there.”

“No!” Gideon barked, then shook his head and said more quietly, “no. No.”

 

Noah’s departure marked the day that Gideon stopped going to church. He still vehemently insisted that the rest of the family go, but something about that day marked a milestone in his life, and now no amount of wheedling would get him through the church doors, and he only left the house at all a scarce handful of times a year.

 

“Okay.” Esther said, quietly. “I understand, it’s fine.”

Drew curled in on herself. She hated it when her father yelled.

 

“Would you like to watch a show?” Esther finally asked after a long, awkward pause.

 

“Go to Church on Sunday, Esther,” Gideon commanded, voice low. “Come back to me and tell me what Paul said and did. Drusilla, if you find anything about your brothers, you come to me first. Not Paul. Understand?”

 

“Yes, daddy.” Esther said.


“I understand.” Drew said, head down.

 

“Good girls,” Gideon leaned back in his chair. “Now let me watch my show.”

 

The girls left the room, but Drew tugged on her sister’s sleeve on the stairs. “What were you doing?” she hissed. “You’re going to start a fight.”

Esther smiled over her shoulder at the smaller Schuster. “We all have a Devil inside us, Drew.”

The Tribunal: The Smallest Schism

ROARING FORK CATHOLIC CHURCH

GLENWOOD SPRINGS, COLORADO

 

Drew remembered a time when the Schuster clan took up an entire pew, lined up from youngest to oldest siblings with mother at one end and father on the other. Now there were only four: Paul, Esther, Drew, and Lily. And… things were different than they had been a few months ago. Ever since the Oathkeeper.

 

Church wasn’t reassuring any more. Paul’s face seemed smug, now, like he was above the preacher. Above the sermon.

 

Still, Drew tried to be a good sister and a good daughter and followed along with what she had been taught. She knelt for prayer, stood for hymns, put her allowance into the basket when it was passed around, and did her best to listen to the sermon. It was about respecting your elders. She listened, ashamed of her own behaviour. She was just making everyone so angry lately.

 

And she was dreading the end of service, when people could stand and make announcements, when her fellow worshippers were going to hear about a lot more than bake sales and wedding dates.

 

Evidently, however, Paul felt no need to wait that long. He stood before the sermon was even over, stepping out into the aisle, and Father Jarnes’s voice faltered.

 

“Do… you need something, Paul?” He asked.

 

“Father, I do not disagree that one’s elders must be heard and obeyed. Family is the cornerstone of community, our bulwark of righteousness. But what of elders in our community who lead us astray? In the book of Matthew, did Jesus not overturn the tables of the moneychangers and usurers? Were not some of them elders?”

 

Father Jarnes frowned, unsure what to make of this. The decline of the Schuster family was no secret, and Gideon’s decline was much-whispered-about in the parish. “What are you suggesting, Paul?”

 

“So many of us have looked up to icons like the Oathkeeper for so long. But are these icons true elders of our community, of our society? Or are they graven images that we worship?”

 

The crowd murmured.

Esther stood, moving to just behind Paul, not daring to stand by his side. “You all saw that press conference, right?” She said, voice ringing high and clear. She had been in the choir, back before Gideon forced her to stop. “Where she said Hell isn’t real?”

“Now, Paul—Esther—” Father Jarnes stammered.

 

Paul’s voice got louder. “Are we to accept as our global representative, accept as a so-called agent of God a woman who casts aside the words of the Bible, the words of our forefathers, to live in sin? As a hedonist? Are we to accept the word and leadership of an elder too cowardly to speak out, to stand against this abomination?”

 

As the implications of Paul’s words dawned on Father Jarnes, he scowled deeply. “Wait just a moment.”

 

“Wait for what?” Esther took another step forward. “Another wishy washy sermon with no action behind it?”

“Esther –” Drew squeaked from the pew. “Paul –”

“Why wait when we have a new leader, a new direction?” Esther barrelled on.

 

“Or perhaps I judge our elders too harshly?” Paul lowered his voice slightly. “Will you denounce the Oathkeeper, Father Jarnes? Will you pledge to stand firm against the encroaching sin?”

 

“I—the Oathkeeper has done much for our country, for the world—”

 

“I think,” Esther said, her voice suddenly low and very dangerous. “I think it’s time to show our community just what you’ve become, Paul.”

Paul smiled back at Esther, then took one step up the altar, then another. For the first two steps, it was his fine leather dress shoes that trod on the red carpeting. On the third, a huge platinum saboton made the step instead.

 

Next to Father Jarnes’s podium, looming eight feet tall over both, Paul said in a quiet voice that was nonetheless audible to the entire room:

 

“Step aside, Father.”

 

Father Jarnes stepped aside.

 

Drew hunched in on herself, refusing to move from the pew. This was a nightmare. This was going to be on the news. Paul wasn’t going to heal people and stop gas station robberies like the Oathkeeper did when she started. He was going to enforce his personal laws.

Oh God, it was going to be on the news. People would find out. The Legion would come.

This was bad, this was bad, this was —


“Wait!” Drew sprang to her feet, and the entire room turned to face her as one.

 

Anger flared in Paul’s eyes for a moment, and they almost seemed to glow white—but then he calmed. “Little sister. Is there something you need?”

 

Her mouth worked for a second, every eye on her, and then she came up with something that would deflect Paul’s anger. “There are… many ways to… look powerful, but true power comes from a-action. If you could demonstrate the g-gifts that God has bestowed upon you, y-you would silence every d-doubter before they could s-speak heresy against His choices.”

Paul’s expression was hard to read, but it didn’t look good. “Did you have something in mind, Drusilla?”

 

“T-The O-Oathkeeper may be a f-filthy sinner, but w-when she stood up she… healed people. It made people listen, it was proof. And s-since you’re her replacement, it… you could do something good like that. Help people.”

“Drusilla,” Paul’s voice intoned like a bell, “I do not stand here to emulate the Oathkeeper. I stand here to bury her legacy and usher a new one in. I do not go forth to ape her methods, I go forth to pave new roads with a firmer hand.

 

He raised his gauntleted hand and a shining white greatsword appeared in it, catching the sunlight streaming in from the stained glass window. “This Parish will be the hallowed ground on which a new Tribunal is built, and I its first Inquisitor.”

 

He then pointed the sword out between the crowd, down the center aisle and at the church door. “If you believe in me, stay. If you do not… leave. And never come back.”

 

The crowd murmured around her, growing more agitated. Most of them seemed inspired by Paul’s words. They were… they were really going to do it.

 

“Now—now hold on, Paul,” one voice spoke up: Deputy Howe, a gradually and gracefully aging man who got along with nearly everyone. He was standing and slowly moving down the far side aisle. “what you’re suggesting is, it’s not lawful. Now it’s not that I don’t… believe in what you’re saying, Paul, but I’m a lawman, and—um—”

 

“Drusilla means well.” Esther said, voice low but carrying through the entire church. “She’s young, and naive, and still looks up to the false prophet a little… but she’s not entirely wrong. A demonstration of strength would silence any critic, like silly Deputy Howe here.” The white-blonde girl smiled at Howe.

 

Paul frowned, and for a moment Drusilla could read it: he didn’t know what he could do. Paul didn’t know how strong he was, or how fast, or whether he could heal or fly. He’d moved too quickly. He wasn’t ready.

 

But he stepped forward nonetheless, down the pew, toward Deputy Howe. “You don’t want to do this, lawman.”

 

Alarmed, Howe reached to his side, putting a hand on his service revolver. “Now—now Paul, you can’t say those things and approach me with a weapon. I don’t want to arrest you, and I don’t have to, yet, but—”

 

“Arrest him?” Esther crowed from behind Paul. “Would you arrest Jesus Christ, if he were among us, Howe? Would you try to ascend to the heavens to arrest God?”

Drew looked at Howe. She had to stop this, this was her fault. She couldn’t figure out what to do that wouldn’t make Paul angrier.

 

“Confound it, Paul, don’t make me do this!” Howe drew his pistol, his forehead glistening with sweat, and pointed it at Paul.

 

Paul hesitated.

 

The gun fired.

 

Esther moved, faster than anyone should be able to move, directly into the path of the bullet. White armour, so bright it hurt to look at, bloomed. The armour absorbed the bullet, sending it plinking harmlessly down the aisle. She was like a knight, wearing that bright white armour, a narrow fencing sword in one hand. The other hand reached out for Howe, grabbing him by the front of his shirt and lifting him effortlessly.


“What did we tell you, Howe?” Esther’s lower face was exposed under the visor that hid her eyes, and she wore a terrible smile.

 

“God have mercy,” Howe stammered, his pistol tumbling from suddenly nerveless fingers.

 

“It is not God’s mercy you need most right now, ‘lawman’,” Paul spoke down his nose. “It is ours. And you shall have it, this once, for you knew not what you did. I will not be so merciful a second time.”

 

“Yes, of course. I’m sorry, Paul.”

 

Paul smiled.

 

“Come up here, Drusilla. Join your family.” Esther commanded.


Drew obeyed.


The three Schusters stood in front of the church, and all knew that their word was law.

The Tribunal: The Smallest Honor

THE SCHUSTER HOME

 

As soon as the Schusters got home, they went their own ways. Paul stormed up to his room, all intensity and thunder. By contrast, Esther almost floated off, so smug and self satisfied that it rolled off her in waves.

 

Drew tore open the door to the basement and sprinted down the stairs.


She had been given an order by her father to keep him in the loop, and so that was her plan.


“Dad. Dad!”

“What!” Gideon barked, startled at the interruption. He fumbled for the remote control and muted the TV. “This had better be good.”

 

“C-Church! Esther Emerged at Church and Paul’s Emerged and he thinks he’s a God and I swear it sounds like I’m making this up but they just got the entire Church to listen to them and follow them and Esther’s a sociopath she picked Deputy Howe up and she had this armour and this sword and I think they’re going to hurt someone, Dad, I –”

“Drusilla, slow down,” Gideon said through his teeth, “get those emotions under control and explain in plain english.

 

Out of breath, she finally managed: “Did Paul tell you he Emerged?”

Gideon squinted. “No. He did not. He’s got the Devil in him, does he?”

 

“He thinks it’s a God, he looks like the Oathkeeper, but all grey instead. And Esther Emerged too, right at Church. They think that they rule the Church now, that they’re the leaders!”

“I might’ve known it was too good to be true that they both stayed,” Gideon growled. “I thought they were virtuous, but they’re just like the others. Too big for their britches. This ain’t how I raised them. This ain’t how I raised any of you little ingrates.”

 

Drew was openly sobbing now. “I’m the only Schuster without powers, I’m the only normal one, and I can’t stop any of this from happening, and –”

“Stop your whining!” Her father scolded. Just like old times, but with higher stakes and a more broken man. “I’ll fix this. By God, I am still the head of this household and if I have to whip those children into shape I will do it.”

 

She hiccuped and sniffed, wiping her face.


There was a voice from the top of the stairs. “Drew? Where have you gotten to?” Esther’s voice.

 

“Esther!” Gideon barked, not turning around. “Come down here.”

 

Esther traipsed down the stairs, unbothered and unafraid. “Yes, daddy?”

“What’s this I hear about you Emerging.”

 

Esther gave Drew a look that promised retribution, then smiled sweetly at her father. “You heard the good news? We’ve been blessed, with the –”

“The Devil inside you!” Gideon interrupted. “If your abilities were God-given, you’d use them in His service only, not to seize power. I expect you and your brother to behave, d’you understand? Expel Satan from your heart, deny his offerings.”

 

The gilded Schuster smiled again, all sweetness and light. “I think we should see what the real head of the household thinks about this. Paul! Paul, there’s an issue down here!”

Paul’s arrival was heralded by heavy, thudding footsteps and the clank of magical armor. His haloed head nearly brushed the ceiling as he walked over to Papa Schuster’s chair, looked down on him with cold eyes, then said: “What’s the matter, Esther.”

 

“Poor Drew.” Esther said. “Our father asked her to report to him, so she did. She can’t be blamed, she was just trying to help. But father’s throwing a bit of a fit about our new blessings, I’m afraid.”

Gideon was very still, clutching the arms of his chair white-knuckled, but there was a determined set to his jaw and his eyes showed more anger than fear. “I’m told that you bullied your parish into appointing you leader. With your… powers. The Devil is in you, boy. Those ain’t Godly actions, and as the head of the Schuster household, I won’t allow it.”

 

Paul stared at Gideon for a few seconds, then spoke with a particular finality. “You sit down here, guzzling whiskey, watching television, withering to a husk, and yet you have the gall to call yourself head of this household? No.”

 

“How dare—”

 

“Gideon. Father. I tolerate your existence solely out of respect that you sired me and raised me. Your value to this family now is nil. Watch your shows. Drink your whiskey. But do not play at a role that you no longer deserve. I am the head of the Schuster household. Do not challenge me again.”

 

Paul Schuster’s armor disappeared, then, and he gave Gideon one last baleful look before turning and walking away.

 

Esther followed after Paul, stopping only to pluck the McGowan product off the top of the TV. “Come along, Drew.” she commanded as she left.


Drew trudged behind the two, head down.

The Tribunal: The Smallest Spy

TOWN COMMUNITY CENTER

GLENWOOD SPRINGS, COLORADO

 

It seemed modest enough, innocuous enough. A sign reading ‘South Glenwood Town Hall’ outside of a multipurpose room. Less than a hundred people gathered inside. A tall man with a strong jaw and dirty blond hair standing at a podium, speaking, a platinum blonde woman standing beside him.

 

It wasn’t until you started listening that something seemed… off.

 

“And as God has spoken through me,” the man boomed, “so do I pass his word on to you. You are here today because you heeded that call and you feel stirred to action, feel stirred to set right that which is wrong in this world. You wish to bring Glenwood Springs, and America, and this world and the reaches beyond back to God’s Dominion. For this… you are great.”

 

Vera took a moment to check her reflection in a mirror and go over her cover story. She was Amber Carlsen, a sorority girl who was checking out the nearby tourist trap and got lured in by the religious rhetoric. Amber had summery looks, bags under her eyes carefully hid by concealer, and a nose that was just slightly too large.


Vera always took pride in her new faces.

 

With everything in order, she opened the Town Hall’s door and stood there, listening. She knew Paul would notice. Egomaniacs always loved new guests.


Paul’s expansive introduction continued for a while, and it first it seemed that he hadn’t noticed the newcomer. But then there was a hissing noise behind her, and she whirled and that platinum blonde was there, smiling.

 

“Oh!” Vera’s surprise wasn’t feigned. “How did you…”

 

“Why wait by the door?” The blonde girl said, the smile not reaching her eyes. “Everyone, we have a guest! Come in, hear the good word.”

Vera-as-Amber walked in, not needing to act to come across as nervous and unsure.

 

“Do we have a tourist? Or perhaps a new member of the flock? Come in, sister. What is your name?” The man at the podium smiled more genuinely than the woman leading her in, but it was an arrogant, smug smile.

 

“A – a tourist.” Vera-as-Amber said. “I was looking for um, knick knacks and post cards, and I heard your voice. I just… I just thought it was nice. Hearing about a God. That’s all.”

“There is but one God, little sister,” Paul corrected, “and if my words resonate with you, it is Him holding out a hand to you. Making an offer: salvation for devotion. Will you sit, and hear more of God’s plan?”

 

Vera made a mental note to bill the Damselfly for every time she got called “little sister” by this scummy creep. “Of course, it all just sounds wonderful.” Amber said, breathless. “I’ve never had much to… look forward to. But this…” She sat down, and looked at Paul with rapt eyes. Yeah, eat it up. I bet this is exactly what you’ve been hoping for with your little cult.

 

A few seats away, a little girl with voluminous brown hair stared at her with sad eyes, shaking her head just slightly enough to see.

 

“Good,” Paul nodded. “Attend well. I see in your eyes that you understand the rot that creeps through modern society. I know you long for simpler times. So do we. Virtue and sin are two sides of a coin, but contemporary rhetoric would have us believe that everything rests in a shade of grey. We know otherwise. The word of God is law and the way of God is peace.”

 

And with that, he launched back into what Vera assumed was his planned speech, which didn’t have a lot of content but was certainly emotionally gripping.

 

Vera made a note to let the Damselfly know that this psychotic nutjob of a religious tyrant Villain wasn’t psychic. Otherwise, he would have picked up loud and clear on her thoughts.


The white-blonde girl appeared next to her, all smiles. “We need your phone.”

What?

“I’m sure you understand. You’ll get it back, of course.”

Vera was a little impressed with this kid — she must be Esther — and her smarts. Social pressure to not interrupt the sermon would make most people quietly hand over the phones. So she produced her decoy phone and handed it over.

 

The Sermon was far from boring, and veered slightly into scary. Paul kept the revolutionary rhetoric relatively subtle, but it was there, and he’d no doubt be ramping it up over time, who knows how far. When it was over, everyone milled about. There was coffee and donuts. It was chillingly like a normal after-church social. Paul made his way through the crowd, offering charming smiles and handshakes and good words and blessings.

 

After a minute or two, though, Vera felt eyes on her. The little brown-haired girl was standing against the wall, staring silently.

 

Drew. Vera sipped her warm, instant coffee and moved over to the wall, looking out at the crowd. “Hi.” she said.

 

“Hi.” Drew said, quietly. “There’s still time for you to run. Go out the back doors. Say that you want a smoke break. And then never come back.”

“Nah.” Amber glanced around, making sure no one was listening. “I’m here on behalf of your sibling.”

That was the wrong thing to say — Drew’s face brightened as hope blossomed across her features. “Which one?” she asked, too loudly. The white-blonde girl noticed over by the donuts.

 

“Matthew.” she said. “I like the book of Matthew best. Which one do you like?”

The girl seemed to get the message. “…Exodus.”

“Interesting.” Vera figured that the white-blonde girl was looking to snitch; they didn’t have much time. “The Damselfly. We have a plan. Just don’t do anything dumb.” Then she raised her voice to a normal speaking volume. “I never, like, studied the Bible too much? Gosh, this is all just so new to me.”

“Drusilla,” Paul was looming over both of them suddenly, a dangerous-looking smile on his face. “And our new guest. I do hope my youngest sister is showing you an appropriate welcome to the flock.”

 

“Of course.” Amber was all smiles and warmth. “She was telling me about her struggles, and how you’ve led her. She looks up to you. It’s really nice to see. I don’t have a good relationship with my brother like that.”

“We would gladly be your new family if you’ll have us… what was your name again, little sister?”

 

Drusilla stared at the floor.

 

“Amber Carlsen. I’m a junior at the nearby university, studying Political Science.”

“How did you find your first ‘congregation’, as it were?”

 

“Gosh, it was fascinating. I mean, this is just such a crazy world… you think you can rely on something, and then it just gets pulled out from under you. Like the Oathkeeper, who could have seen that coming? I guess I’m just looking for something stable.”

“We seek to upset the foundations of society only so that the ones built anew will be stronger,” Paul assured. “Rest assured that we will make the world a simpler, stabler place. Might we see you at our church on Sunday?”

 

“Of course. I think you’re doing great work.” Amber said, all smiles. “Such a nice family.”

FOUR DAYS LATER

 

“Amber!” Paul barked. “Come here, please.”

 

Vera leaned back from helping Drew with her homework, sighing. She was starting to become used to the way he commanded everyone in the house around, but it never became less obnoxious.

 

Of course, she couldn’t show any of that frustration. She followed Paul’s voice, smiling. “Yes?” she asked, pleasant and calm on the surface.

 

Paul was poring over a hand-written list of names and addresses with a frown. “Our Parish is now nearly all of South Glenwood, but we seem to be unable to gain a foothold by the university. You’re a student there, yes?”

 

“Yes, a junior.” she said. “University kids can be so secular.”

“What should we do, then? You know their minds. If I can just get them to hear me, God’s word will reach their hearts.” He wasn’t wrong. There was something distinctly compelling about Paul’s sermons, not mind control exactly but a sort of inspiration that drew the disaffected and weak-willed about him, pushed them toward a tight devotion. Knowing the truth about Paul made Vera able to shrug it off easily, but she knew it was there.

 

“Hmm.” Vera rubbed her chin in thought. She was worried. Every day, the group of people following Paul around grew. His voice was louder, his stance more confident. When he summoned his armour, it was brighter. He was growing. But she couldn’t show any concern — not yet, anyways. “They like to listen to young people.” she said. “They might look at you as an older authority figure, and rebel due to their youth.” A thought sparked into her mind. “I would be happy to go and talk to people on campus. I’d even bring one of your sisters, and teach them how to spread the word.”

Paul nodded thoughtfully. “Very well,” he said. “Esther will go with you. I have pulled her out of her classes, so as long as your plans do not interfere with her fencing classes, you may use her whenever you wish.”

 

Shit. Wrong sister. Vera nodded, trying to think about how to salvage that. “Thank you. You’re so kind. May I make just one suggestion?”

Paul didn’t reply verbally, he just raised one eyebrow and looked at her. It really wasn’t clear whether that was a yes or a no.

 

Well, it was worth a shot anyways. “To be honest with you, university students — especially women — can be catty and jealous. Esther is a beautiful young woman who walks the path of Christ. I worry she might not be able to connect with the students. Drusilla would be very helpful, and I would only take her when she didn’t have commitments.”

Paul frowned, bemused. “Isn’t Drusilla… too young to present at a University?”

 

“High school students come all the time to see if they want to attend there. She looks young, and vulnerable, and so she won’t intimidate the secular people. They’ll think she’s like… a sweet kid. And that’ll get them in the doors to hear your speeches, and then they’ll truly find the light.”

“Mmm. I’m not sure. I don’t care to have Drusilla leave my supervision.” Then, after a pause, he continued: “But. You are an obedient and virtuous woman, Amber, so I will consent to this. Do not allow Drusilla out of your sight, as she is a clever and willful child.” He said these things as if they were obviously personal failings.

 

“Of course, I understand. I can only hope this experience helps her realize the glory of her family and life.” Vera inclined her head, cheering on the inside.

 

“Good. You may go.”

 

Vera, wearing her actual face now, ordered two burgers with all the toppings and fries.


“We’re gonna get you out of there, but we’re playing his game for now. Getting all the pieces in place, y’dig?”

“Oh.” Drew said. “What if he finds out that we didn’t go to the university?”

“Kiddo, I’m Freelancer black ops.” Vera took a long slurp on her straw. “I think I can fool one guy for one afternoon, even if he is Anathema Two Point Oh.”

“He finds a lot of things out.” Drew kept her head down.

 

“Sure! Does he have Scanner, the AI in the sky on his side?”

“…No.” Drew admitted.

 

“Well, don’tcha know it, Vera (the actual adult with life experience and a job and an education) is right again.” Vera leaned back in the red leather booth and examined the kid in front of her. Drew had it rough – I mean, her name was Drusilla, and that was just the beginning of it. She wasn’t good with kids, but Mariah would want her to make an honest effort.

 

“I mean, hell, he’ll probably be dead soon, kid. No worries.”

Drew looked horrified.

 

Shit.

 

“Or captured! We take lots of people alive. For more money. It’s not a big deal. It’ll be okay.”

The waitress arrived with their burgers to save Vera from her nightmare.

 

When they were back in the car, Vera noticed Drew beginning to well up. Oh no. Oh no. She scrambled and pulled out her burner phone.


“How’d’you want to talk to your sibling, huh?”

Drew sniffed. “Petey?”

“Ey goes by Nat.” Vera winced. “I think ey’d like it you called em that.”

“I don’t really get it, but… yeah. Okay.” Drew rubbed her eyes and Vera breathed a sigh of relief, punching in the number.

 

After a few rings, Nat’s face appeared on the burner screen. “Damselfly.” The voice was a little bit lower than Drew remembered, and there was something different about the quality to it—a little emotionally scarred, a little tired in ways that Petey hadn’t been when she knew him last.

 

She could relate.

 

“N-Nat?” Drew managed around the lump in her throat. “Hi. Vera found me. She’s…”

A long pause.


“Nice.”

Vera snorted and angled the phone towards Drew. “Thanks to McGowan’s designs, even a shitty burner can facilitate a reunion like this one. Thank God we live in 2022, eh?”

“Oh~” Nat covered eir mouth. “Drew, hi, I… I’m really happy to see you safe.”

 

Drew gave a high, nervous laugh. “For now.”

“Drama queeeeen.” Vera said, very quietly.


“Is Vera treating you okay, for real?” Nat asked. “You don’t have to be polite. If she’s bein’ a jerk I’ll dock her bonus.”

 

“She’s okay.” Drew repeated. “Are you guys gonna kill Paul?”

“We’re gonna do everything we can to make that not necessary, Drew. It depends on how scary he gets and what he plans to do. We can’t let him hurt you, we can’t let him hurt Alice—The Oathkeeper.”

 

“Do I have to go back? Can’t I just come back with you and Vera?”

Vera shifts uncomfortably, but holds the phone steady.


“Drew, I’m…” Nat sighed. “I really want you to. I’m just worried that trying to get you out wouldn’t be safe for you yet. Esther found Benny so easily. I’m worried that letting Paul know what we’re doing this early might put you in worse danger.”

 

“I’d wear the kid’s face, but that could foul things up even worse.”

“Okay.” Drew said. “I miss you, Pe- Nat.”

“Peanut, huh?” Nat giggled. “I miss you too, Peanut. For real. We’re gonna get you out of there, we’re gonna make sure Paul can’t hurt anybody, and we’re gonna get you into a better home. I promise. Swear on all my dolls.”

 

Drew laughed for the first time. “But you have so many of them!”

“That’s why it’s a big deal to swear on them!” Nat said in a very ‘no doy’ kind of voice. “You just hang in there and play it safe and we’ll do what we gotta do to rescue you like big dang heroes. Okay, peanut?”

 

“Okay. Alright. Thank you, Nat. I’ll stay safe, I promise. I’ll just keep my head down and stay quiet.”

“Can you get us some black ops to help infiltrate? Someone who can pass as a college student. The more, the better.” Vera added.

 

“I… just might, yes,” Nat said, nodding thoughtfully. “My girlfriend and boyfriend both look the part. Vin might be out of place in South Glenwood, but Alex wouldn’t.”

 

“Get as many college plants as you can, and get them in position ASAP. We gotta head back.”

“On it,” Nat nodded. “Take good care of my peanut. See you soon.”

 

“Sooner rather than later, yeah?”

“Yes. I can clue more Legionnaires now that I have more info, which means more support. Hoping we can move real soon.”

 

“Alright. Cheers, Damselfly. See you soon.” Vera hung up and started the car. “Let’s roll, kiddo.”

As the car pulled out of the diner parking lot, a white-blonde girl lowered a newspaper and smiled.

The Tribunal: The Smallest Cracks

Drew had barely gotten in the door and gotten to work on her increasingly overdue homework when Esther appeared in the doorframe behind her. Drew kept her head down and focused on writing columns of orderly numbers.

 

“The dishes aren’t done.” Esther said, leaning against the frame.

 

“Okay.” Drew said. “I don’t know what you want me to do about it.”

“Wash them, dry them, put them away. This shouldn’t be difficult.”

Drew finally looked away from her paper. “That’s your job. It’s on the chore wheel.”

Esther held up the coloured piece of paper that clearly marked which female Schuster was assigned to do which task and smiled. “This chore wheel?”

Drew spun around in her chair, angry. “Yes! Esther, what are you -”

Esther carefully tore the chore wheel in half, and then tore the halves into quarters. “How was your burger?”

The smallest Schuster froze, and Esther smiled widely. The two girls stared at each other, and Esther very carefully continued to shred the piece of paper that had sat above the kitchen sink for years. She walked over and dropped it in Drew’s trash bin.

 

“I’m on your side, Drew.” Esther said, when it became clear that Drew was too afraid or too stubborn to come up with a lie. “I’m not going to tell Paul.”

“You’re not?”

“No. Why would I? But you’re going to thank me by doing my chores. That’s a good trade, don’t you think? I’ll even keep letting you go out with Amber and talking to Petey, but you have to keep me up to date on everything they tell you.” Esther patted Drew on one pale cheek, still smiling. “See? I’m on your side. If I wasn’t on your side, I’d go straight to Paul with the video footage.”

Drew sat there and pressed her chin against her chest, and finally murmured in assent. “Okay.” she said, feeling as though there was something fundamentally wrong here but having neither argument nor ammunition in return.


Esther laughed her musical laugh and ruffled one pale hand through Drew’s mane of thick hair. “Good little sister,” she said in a tone that was warm yet mocking. “We’ll get through this. Someone’ll win, and we’ll be on the winning side. It’s not a bad way to go through life.”

“Sure.” Drew said. “Can I – I have to get this homework done.”

“Oh,” Esther moved away a few steps, as graceful as a dance, eyes twinkling. “I wouldn’t worry about that.”

“What? I –”

And then she was gone, leaving the smallest Schuster alone.

 

Minutes later, Paul barked from the living room. “Drusilla!”

 

Drew’s heart slammed against her rib cage, her mouth dry. With legs like wood, she managed to get down the stairs. She didn’t even bother to say her usual, ‘Yes, Paul?’. She just stood there in the living room, staring at him. For the first time, she had nothing in her heart left but hatred for him. No fear, no love, no shame.

 

Paul raised an eyebrow at the lack of address, but evidently decided to let it go for now. He reached over for a stack of textbooks, then set them down on the end table. The one on the top read, Learning with the Lord: HISTORY. There was a picture of smiling cartoon farmers on the top. The book below it wasn’t very visible, but she caught the word Texas near the bottom.

 

Drew remained silent, staring at the book. “What is this?” she finally whispered.

 

“Your new curriculum,” Paul said. “Your mother will be guiding you through it and grading you.”

 

“Homeschool.” she said, less quietly. “You’re taking me out of school?”

“As I did with Esther,” he nodded, “but unlike Esther, you still need to learn. And you still need discipline. Mother will be giving me reports on your performance, and I expect you to work as hard on it as you did at school.”

 

Drew closed her eyes and took a few deep breaths. Her hands were shaking. All of the chores, homeschooling… Nat would be coming soon. Nat would want her to stay calm. She just had to do what Paul said for… a few more days? Weeks?

She hadn’t said anything. She couldn’t think. Everything was red and bright and blinding with anger.

 

“That school was a bad influence,” Paul said off-handedly, standing. “These books tell a more honest history, teach you the things you need to know. Put God first. I had to order them from Texas, so you’d better learn them well.”

 

With trembling hands and bright spots of anger blooming in her cheeks, she picked up the textbooks. Tears stung the corners of her eyes; she couldn’t hide them, and she couldn’t muster the bother to try. I hate you. I hate you. I hate you. I hope Alice McGowan smashes you into paste.

Red spots were blooming on her elbows, the back of her hands.

She was so blind she didn’t notice.

 

“If you have any trouble that mother cannot fix, Esther can—” Paul halted mid-sentence as he noticed the change his youngest sister was undergoing. “—the devil!” he hissed, and suddenly his armor manifested, that greatsword almost too large to swing in this room appearing in his hand.

 

Drew’s head snapped up from the textbook to look at him. Everything was hot. She was so angry. She held the textbook firmly in one hand, tears burning hot rivulets down her face. “I hate you.” she finally hissed. “You want to kill me? Do it. I’d rather be dead than look at you one more second of one more day.”

Sorry, Nat. Sorry, everyone else.

 

It would be worth it.

 

“Look at yourself!” Paul gave a short, mirthless laugh and lifted his sword, though he didn’t seem like he was about to strike her. “You look like a thing out of hell. Are you embracing the evil in yourself? Our siblings all succumbed to intemperance, but you seem poised to overtake them all.”

 

“You want to know why?” The words slithered out of a mouth that didn’t quite fit right anymore, through teeth to long. “You. You’re the shepherd who led us to this. You call yourself head of the family? You can’t lead. You just bully and intimidate.”

“Why, you—” now rage twisted Paul’s face, and he took a step toward her.


“Paul,” there was another voice, and it took Drew a moment to recognize it. It was Esther.


She was afraid. Her voice was shaking.


“Paul, don’t hurt her. It’s not worth it, she’s – she’s not worth anything to- to us or the parish dead. Please, you can’t –”

“Look at her, Esther!” Paul’s voice started to sound like a hollow bell again, and his eyes glowed white. “She insults me with the face of a demon! She is the face of that which we have sworn to cleanse from the earth!”

 

“Paul!” Lily appeared in the doorway, too. “Please, I can—I can discipline her, she’s… she has the same taint that I do. She must learn to push the Devil down. Drusilla, please… please do not challenge your brother. It is satan speaking through your mouth. Look at your hands.”

 

Drew looked down at her hands. It took her a moment to realize that they were her hands. They were long, ending with curved claws, the skin hard and cracked around them.

 

She could fight back.

 

Before she could continue on that line of thought, Esther broke back into the conversation. “Paul, the other sinners are holding back because we have her. If we kill her, they will bring the entire might of the Legion down before you’re ready. W-We need her to hold the other Schusters at bay, just long enough –”

“Disgusting.”

 

The voice was quiet, but it cut through the conversation, memories of long-relinquished authority sending chills through the bodies of all present. The stooped form of Gideon Schuster stood in the doorway up from his room, directing a sneer at the entire family.

 

“I’m ashamed of all of you. Every one. Especially you, Paul.”

 

“What—”

 

“Drusilla is a filthy little imp, but she’s right about you,” Gideon pointed one gnarled finger at Paul. “You expect to be a messiah? You cannot even inspire your own sister. And yes, I know all about your plans, boy. You think you’re God? Vile.”

 

Gideon glared at Drusilla, then Paul. “You change back. Both of you.”

 

Maybe it was the burst of uncontrollable anger fading away, maybe it was the thought that navigating this situation required, maybe it was the shock of seeing Gideon Schuster take the role of the patriarch again. Drusilla’s claws retracted, her skin faded back to white. She felt her body shift, and ache for the changing.

 

“Good,” Gideon didn’t smile, but he… frowned less. He looked up to Paul. “Now you.”

 

“Why should I?” Paul’s eyes still glowed brightly.

 

“Because I said so, boy. I may be old and frail, but I am still your father. I am still the patriarch of the Schuster clan! You give up this… this cult nonsense and act right.”

 

Paul took several steps toward Gideon and directed a chilling smile at him. “And what if I don’t?”

 

“Paul!” Drew screamed, throwing her frail frame at him. “Stop, stop, stop –”

“I don’t need your protection, Drusilla,” Gideon pushed her aside and stepped up to Paul.

 

Drew was a hundred pounds on a good day, and she was easily brushed aside, even by the shadow of her father.

 

“The Oathkeeper may be a false prophet,” he hissed up at his son’s face, “but you’re worse. Way I see it, you may as well be the Beast itself.”

 

“Am I?” Paul asked, voice low and dangerous. “Or am I Isaac?”

 

Gideon frowned. “What?”

 

“God is calling me,” he said, raising one hand to the sky. “If I am unjust, let him stay my hand now—”

 

“Gideon!” Lily screamed.

 

Drew dove at the fray again, this time aiming for Paul. Esther stayed back, and watched, with eyes wide with a mix of interest and horror.

 

Paul caught Drew with one huge, gauntleted hand, holding her aloft. Even with her strength surging unnaturally, she couldn’t break free. With his other hand, he dealt a blow to Gideon’s face, sending the old man sprawling onto the ground. He raised that same hand over his father, and the greatsword appeared in it, point aimed down at Gideon’s chest.

 

“…and nothing of value was lost—”

 

Esther inhaled, eyes bright. For a moment, she looked rapt. Then she moved to her mother. “Mother, I’m sorry. Please, let me take you back to your sewing room, away from this. I… You shouldn’t be around this, this is…”

 

Lily just stared in horror.

Drew continued to scream and kick, shoving at Paul’s unnaturally large gauntlet and throwing every swear she could think of at the broken paladin.

 

The point of that huge sword descended like a guillotine blade, impaling Gideon without so much as slowing down, piercing down into the floor several feet before Paul stopped it and let go of the hilt. Eyes wide, the patriarch gasped, and then gurgled, and then fell still as a red stain blossomed on the carpet below.

 

Tears stood in Lily’s eyes, both hands pressed over her mouth.

 

“Please, you – you shouldn’t be here, Mother. I’m sorry, I just…” Esther continued to gently try and guide Lily away.


Drew, on the other hand, was trying to draw back on that power. She would gladly ally with the Devil if it meant she could stop Paul. Spots of colour bloomed, faded, re blossomed on her elbows. Her fingers curled. She kicked and screamed, and even spat on that platinum armour. It seemed to do nothing.

 

Paul turned, swinging Drew around so that her flailing body faced their shocked mother. “Lily, take this thing out of my sight before I put it down.”

 

“Y-yes Paul,” Lily rushed forward and tried to gently take Drew away. “Shh, Drew, it’s all right, please calm down, please—”

 

Drew’s anger and screaming dissolved into broken, wracking sobs. She had ruined everything.

The Tribunal: Disco Infiltrators

BRIEFING ROOM
THE FLYING FORTRESS

 

“Fuck,” Nat paced the room in a silent figure eight. “Fuck.”

 

“Calm down, Bug,” Emi tapped on her tablet, arranging the briefing documents as the two of them waited for the others to arrive.

 

“I can’t calm down!”

 

“You can and you have to.”

 

The Damselfly clenched eir jaw.

 

<Current Song: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=r7Ve8ExE8YY

Black Coast (Feat. M. Maggie) – TRNDSTTR (Lucian Remix)>

 

Eyes a flaming red as she walked casually into the room, Vin “Pandora” Peters bobbed her head and occasionally wiggled her hips in time to the beat which was echoing through the bulky LED headphones on her ears. There was a deep confidence to her steps, her training earlier that day having gone very well as she had shattered her previous record on the course she’d been struggling with for weeks. She had not changed since then, however, and her bra-top, elbow-length gloves, and torn jeans showed the wear and tear of her earlier workout.

 

[Hey Emi~! Hey Nat~!] She signed cheerfully as she fell back into a chair and draped her legs over one of the armrests. [How’s it going? Everyone having a good day so far?]

 

“Not… really, no,” Nat said.

 

“We’ll say more once Alex gets here,” Emi nodded to Vin. “Hang tight, Miss Vin.”

 

Vin frowned a touch with worry at Nat’s response and then noticed that, stranger still, ey were walking instead of floating. Two feet on the ground instead of hanging in the air. That was not normal at all for Nat. She looked to em with an expression which seemed to ask far too many questions at once. Are you okay? How about your family? Oh no, did Benny get hurt or rejected? Is there something I can do to help?

 

Alex walked in not long after her, looking physically exhausted from training. Lots of bruises, cuts, scrapes, you name it. Still he gave the room a small wave, a salute, and took his seat. “Things sounded pretty urgent.” His gaze traveled over Emi, Nat, and Vin. “Does this have to do with Nat’s sister?”

 

Emi nodded. “Yes it does. Paul Schuster made a video effectively declaring war with the Oathkeeper and it’s gone viral. People are flocking to Glenwood Springs in droves, and we’re seeing a spike in violence across the country. He’s calling it ‘The Tribunal’, and our timeline just shortened by a lot.”

 

“The two of you are here because we have to get Drew out of there immediately. Paul’s not safe any more. He apparently murdered his father in cold blood, which… if I know the two of them, means that he considers himself the new patriarch.”

 

[Holy… Fuck…] Pandora looked between Emi and Nat with an expression of worry before shaking herself out of her stupor and nodding. [Okay. Yeah. When do we depart to kick this douchebag in his shiny, metal nads? I’ve got a couple choice words for him.]

 

“You don’t.” Vin looked as if she were about to argue the matter but Emi cut her off, voice steely. “Paul Schuster is not to be engaged under any circumstances. If he has even a fraction of the Oathkeeper’s power, he’ll wipe the floor with both of you without breaking a sweat. Your mission is to extract Drusilla Schuster and any of the other family members who are willing to go, and to do so quietly if possible. You’ll be working together with the Freelancer codenamed Everyperson, who is undercover as a college student named Amber.”

 

Alex listened closely, his fist clenched a little as Nat told eir tale. “Sounds like we need to act fast then. If what I have read about Oathkeeper is true then….well. I doubt that we have much time before the two of them start fighting. After Drusilla and other willing family members are extracted, are we allowed to go back for any other innocents who may want escape?” He asked Emi hopefully, and dutifully.

 

[Yeah,] Vin signed her agreement with Alex’s question. [Upon the successful completion of this mission, would it at all be possible for us to stay behind to assist in whatever ways we can? I do not wish to leave anyone behind who could be at risk if they do not want to be there.]

 

Emi nodded. “After successful extraction of whichever Schusters are willing to leave, the two of you and Everyperson will begin extracting anyone who is afraid to leave or being held. But again: do not fight Paul. If he comes after you, you run. Do we understand?”

 

Alex gave a solid nod of understanding. “Save who we can, don’t die trying. Understood.”

 

Pandora once again looked as if she were about to argue. She did not like running away. Not even a little bit. It was one of the things Emi constantly was on her case about whenever she was set up against a training scenario that was above her current power level. [But… What if… I mean… This guy is dangerous, right? We cannot just let him—]

“I don’t think I stuttered, Vin!” Emi barked.

 

Pandora retreated further back into her chair at the shouting, flinching as she got the response from Emi that she knew would be coming. Alex squeezed her hand reassuringly, letting her know he was there. That he understood. And he waited his turn to speak.

 

“Look, I know,” Nat cut in. “I know, so intimately. I want to beat the shit out of my brother just as much as you do. But he’s the Avatar of Dominance, and there’s only one force we know of that can face an Avatar down.”

 

“I’m sorry to be so harsh,” Emi shook her head, “I don’t want to be. But I have to be uncompromising, because losing either of you would be unacceptable. And if you fought Paul, we would lose you.”

 

“More importantly, fighting him would come into conflict with the mission objective.” Alex said a little quietly. “If he is as strong as the Oathkeeper, the last thing we want to do is fight him somewhere filled with the civilians we are trying to save.” He turned to Emi a bit expectantly. “I assume that, should we run, there will be some sort of contingency after we get far enough out? Neither I or Vin can fly after all. Otherwise it seems running would just delay our inevitable capture.”

 

<Current Song: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EPD8VbQh-oI

Jenaux (Feat. Pia Toscano) – Renegades>

 

[Also!] Vin interjected before either Nat or Emi could respond. [We have to consider the possibility that Paul will get in our way over the course of our extraction of Drew. There may even be the chance that… well… It comes down to us running or Drew getting hurt.] This was not exactly the kind of hypothetical that Pandora enjoyed bringing up, but she felt it had to be done. [Who are we to save in that kind of situation? Ourselves… Or Drew?]

 

Emi sighed. “Yourselves first.”

 

Nat frowned and nodded reluctantly.

 

Pandora closed her eyes. She neither nodded or shook her head. Instead, she looked to be deep in thought.

 

“Retreat, regroup, and report. In most situations where Paul is in the way, you can likely choose a better time to act.” Alex nodded in understanding. “If not, call me. As for evacuations, we’ll have teleport markers for you. Try to get as far out of the area as you can before you use them, but they’re not location-specific.”

 

“So we have teleporter access for means of escape. Will try to refrain from using them in front of the enemy. Understood.”

 

[I don’t… I don’t know if I could leave a child behind to get hurt.] Pandora replied after a few moments of silence. [Even if the child was not Nat’s little sister, I don’t think I could leave her behind in the arms of a monster. Please… I ask permission to engage and provide escape for Alex and the girl if necessary. I promise that, upon their successful escape, I shall then flee as well. I know I would not be able to beat someone on Oathkeeper’s level, but I might be able to outmaneuver and outthink him enough to buy us a minute or two and get out.]

 

“That’s not going to happen.” Alex’s voice was solid despite his exhausted state. “Because we are all getting out together. You. Me. Druscilla. Anyone else. No splitting up.” He squeezed Vins hand tight. He didn’t show it, but she could feel the faintest shake in them. Fear. “We are all going to do our jobs, and we are all coming home. That is the plan.” He looked to Emi for some backup.

 

Emi nodded. “It should be possible for you to get Drusilla a marker or spirit her from the house without having to face the Inquisitor. Plan so that the contingency just doesn’t occur. Be careful. Be black ops. But to answer your question, Pandora…

 

… permission denied.”

 

Pandora closed her eyes once more and gave Alex’s hand a squeeze. There was a shake to it as well, but it was not from fear. It was from anger. Not at Emi, of course, but at this whole situation that Nat’s family had been put into.

 

Emi only let one beat pass before she continued. “I’m gonna outfit the two of you with bugout teleport markers, easily hidden under clothing. You’re not to remove them, no matter what. If things get too bad, we will ‘port you out. If you fail to adhere to the mission directives, we will ‘port you out. Scanner is going to be watching. If you want to avoid having to choose between yourself and Drew, and forcing us to choose you for you… don’t mess up.”

 

[We won’t…] She signed back with one hand as her crimson eyes met Emi’s with determination filling them. [No one is going to get hurt on my watch. Promise.]

 

“Good,” Emi nodded. “We’ll send you down first thing tomorrow morning. Eat well and get some rest tonight. Okay?”

 

“Please be careful, you two,” Nat pleaded. “I want my little sister back, but… I need the two of you back.”

 

Pandora looked to Alex and gave him a nod and a smile, squeezing his hand tightly within her own as she worked to instill him with the same confidence she had. They would do this.

Alex looked  Nat deep in the eyes with conviction. “I made my promise. Nobody gets left behind. They won’t have to be.” He squeezed Vin back, his thoughts mirroring her own.  I’ll be sure we get plenty of rest tonight Emi. Have our gear prepped.” He stood up, gently helping Vin with him. “Is there anything else we need to know?”

 

“My sister, Esther,” Nat added, “the White Knight. You’ll find her in the briefing docs. She’s a potential ally, but be please be careful; she’s not trustworthy. Love you two. Good luck out there.”

 

GLENWOOD SPRINGS

LEGION SAFEHOUSE

THE NEXT DAY

 

“This is bullshit.” Vera was staring into a mirror, wearing the face of ‘Amber’. The days of wearing someone else’s face was wearing her down; it required effort to keep the facade up. She rubbed her cheeks as if stretching the muscles. “Damselfly better pay me double. God damn fuckin’ religious cult piece of -”

There was a knock on the door, and the Freelancer moved to the door hesitantly to peer through the peephole. Hopefully this was Nat’s people.


It probably was. Paul didn’t knock.

 

Standing on the opposite side of the peephole was a tall woman wearing the ragged attire of a rather poor college student. She had a pair of headphones slung across her slender neck and an MP3 player strapped to her hip that looked to be the only thing of value that she owned. Other than that, she was wearing a loose t-shirt that showed off the strap of a bright-blue sports bra and the colorful tattoo of a songbird made out of music notes on her collarbone. Her denim pants were also too big for her, seeming to cling to even this curvaceous woman’s hips through sheer willpower alone. Slung across her back was a worn hiker’s backpack with a bedroll on it. According to her cover, she was supposed to be a poor college girl named ‘Chastity Stevens’ – God… What an ironic name for Pandora – from the city who had hitchhiked to this “holy place” as pilgrimage.

 

She waved at the peephole and made a sign with her hands that was supposed to be her and Alex’s keyphrase to say they were friends.

 

Next to her was a dark haired boy in sweats and a rosary, hands in pockets, slouched the way a lot of college students did. “Hey Amber, it’s us. Ya know. From the camping trip. It’s been a while, mind if we come in?”

 

“Oh, that camping trip. Yeah, come in.” Vera let them both enter, then closed the door. “You mind if I let my face down? Seriously, it aches.”

Alex glanced at Vin and shrugged. “Go ahead. You would know better than us if it’s safe.” He leaned over one of the chairs, letting his eyes get a good look of the place. “How long have they been making you wear that?”

 

Pandora glanced around the room they had walked into as well, setting her heavy pack down against a wall as she took a seat and let out a tired breath. That thing was far heavier than it appeared to be.

 

Amber shifted into a green haired, long faced girl and sighed in relief, rubbing her cheeks and forehead. “Just part of deep recon, bud. Alright, what do you know about the situation?”

“Paul is turning the town into his army and his hostage.” Alex says frankly. “And Drusilla is the main thing keeping us from sending in Oathkeeper and Nat and other legionnaires. Apparently Esther is also a bit of a…problem. But not as much of one. Trust issues.” He looked to Vin, willing to translate incase he missed something.

 

Vin nodded and gave Alex a thumbs-up to indicate that that seemed like everything. She then turned to rifle through her backpack until she pulled out a leather notebook. After she had fished out a pen as well, she began to scribble some notes down hurriedly.

From what I recall, Drew is also a paranormal and Paul seems to think her some kind of demon which he can keep locked up. That is not only fucked up, but makes getting her out something of a problem. I cannot imagine that Paul is the type of person who likes people going to see his “demonic sibling.”

 

“You’d be surprised. He likes to trot her out as proof of what happens if you reject him and his path.” Vera scoffed. “The good news is, Esther and I are the ones watching over Drew. I think we can bust her out, especially since Scott McGowan is going to be lending us an assist.”

You already have a plan? Wonderful! Care to clue us in on it?

Pandora wrote the words with a wide grin.

 

“Yeah.” Vera said, and sighed. “I’m going to be the distraction duty, and you guys watch over Esther and Drew. Make sure that you get both kids out of there, but Drew’s the priority. I don’t trust Esther as far as I can throw her.”

Alex nodded in understanding. “Keep an eye on Esther, get Drew out. Mr. McGowan will be helping us?” He added curiously.

 

Yeah… How is that supposed to work? Also… I thought we weren’t supposed to trust Esther…

She quirked an eyebrow as if she were not sure whether that last bit was especially wise.

 

“Just ‘cause we don’t trust her doesn’t mean we leave her to die.” Vera said, pulling on her chin and raising her eyebrows to stretch the muscles. “My orders from the Damselfly are to try and get her out if we can.”

Alex nods. “Do the best we can, be aware of complications. Where is Drew usually held? And is Esther locked with her?”

 

“No, Esther’s free. She’s either with Paul or Drew. If she’s not there, then just get Drew out, okay? Drew’s held in a reinforced shed in the middle of town. You can’t miss it, it’s the one with three layers of metal grafted on.”

How tough do you think that shit would be to crack? Any obvious weaknesses to the building that we could exploit in order to break her out right-quick?

 

“Oh yeah.” Alex grimaced. “That piece of work. Wonder if I could dig under it…” He raised his hands to his lips, deep in thought.

 

“You guys are lucky that as “Amber”, Paul’s trusted college convert, I have a key to the front door. Breaking Drew out though… that’s on you guys.” Vera produced the key and gave her cheeks a few more circular rubs. “Any more questions? I want to get moving, ‘cause the more I think about this, the more I get worried, and the more worried I get the worse I do in the field.”

Pandora took in a deep breath and placed the headphones around her neck over her ears before flicking it on.

 

<Current Song: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bJbdMqspODQ

Zedd (Feat. Foxes) – Clarity (Vicetone Remix)>

 

Music began to pump through the bulky speakers and Vin’s pale-white eyes shifted to a light shade of emerald. She then looked to Alex and gave him a thumbs-up to signal that she was ready when he was, feet and head bouncing in time to the music.

 

“Let’s do this shit.” Alex said with a confident grin. Hoping to lift their spirits a little.

 

Vera nodded and shifted back into “Amber”. “Alright, let’s go.”

Glenwood Springs was packed, but people parted ways for Amber and her college friends. The crowds were generally streaming away from the center of town — Paul was having one of his many services in the Church again. The national broadcast and flood of converts had only emboldened him.

 

Amber slipped Pandora the key to the shed that lay ahead. Sure enough, it was an eyesore of a building covered in metal and barriers. Someone had painted SINNER on the sheet metal in red paint.


“Better get moving,” Amber said. “Time to be a distraction.”

The plump college student strode away, shifting into an older man as she went.


Vin’s eyes flicked around to watch those moving around them. Strangely, her eyes were not looking directly at where people currently, but instead seemed to watch where people would be in a couple seconds. In her mind, she saw the possible actions of those around her and predicted their movements in ways the human mind should not have been capable of.

 

She took the key, nodded to the disguised Vera, and then began to lead Alex through the crowds in a way that would keep the pair of them relatively out of sight and mind.

 

Alex followed Vin closely, gazing around lazily like a college student might, seeing if anyone noticed. Was keeping tabs. Anything like that. When they finally got to the shed, he stood watch while Pandora opened it. “Not sure how long this distraction is supposed to last. Let’s get this done quick so we can start saving others too.”

 

The shed door swung open, surprisingly heavy. The girl inside squinted as light hit her face. Drusilla Schuster was chained to the wall, left with a bowl of water and nothing else. She stared at the heroes as they entered, silent and wide eyed.

Pandora smiled at the small child and walked inside. Her stance was completely non-threatening as she made her way over to Drew, leaned down, and extended a hand to her. Once more, the music-based heroine wished that she were able to speak. Able to explain who she was. Able to explain why she was there. She instead relied upon Alex for that.

 

Alex walked up next to Pan, his friendly smile ever present. “Hey. We’re friends with your sibling.” He extended a hand, letting a small white flower grow from it so Drew could see he was a para. “Pandora can’t speak, but we came to get you out of here. Is it ok for us to try and get you out of those chains?”

“…I don’t think it’s safe for you.” Drew finally squeaked. “You’ll get in trouble.”

Vin chuckled silently and shook her head as she pulled a notebook from her back pocket.

We’re heroes. It’s our job to get into trouble for the sake of getting others out of trouble. Drew, we are here to get you out of here. To get you out of the trouble you’ve been forced into. To bring you somewhere safer. We won’t let anything bad happen, promise.

 

Alex nodded. “You’re right. It’s not safe, but if we hurry, and do this quickly….we are all going to get out of here just fine.” He gave them a confident wink. “I’m going to start getting your chains undone, and then I am going to give you this.” He showed them the legion teleporter. “If we get held up, make a run for the most open space you can and then use it. It will take you to Nat, somewhere Paul can’t hurt you. Do you understand?” He spoke quickly and clearly as he made his way to where the chain connected to the shed.

 

“Okay.” Drew said, quietly. The chain was encased in a block of concrete. There was no key or point that seemed breakable.

 

Alex, you take care of the chains. I’ll watch the door and look for a way out. This song is about to end and I think that getting a route planned ahead of time with it would be useful.

Pandora gave Alex and Drew a thumbs up as she moved to stand guard by the door, keeping out of sight as she examined the area for a route out of the town.

 

Alex looked the concrete block over with a bit of a frown. “Punching it won’t do much good. Hmmm.” He hopped over to inspect Drews wrists or legs, where the chain cuffed them.

 

“Hurry!” Drew whispered. Her hands were both changed, cuffs around her wrist. A third chain was around her neck.

 

Alex shook his head. Should have came more prepared. “Here goes nothing.” His fists both became huge tangles of wooden branches, thick bark coating them. Larger than the ones he usually used in combat, heavier. He raised them both up over his head, and smashed them into the concrete with all his force. His entire body, every ounce of muscle he could muster. And then he did it again. And again. And again.

 

The concrete chipped first, then cracked, and finally crumbled  Drew sprang free, the chains rattling behind her. “We have to go, we have to go.”

Alex gave her the teleporter marker and ripped out her chains with bloodied hands. He nodded to Vin. “Let’s go!”

 

<Current Song: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PGk-dVHKj1o

Singularity – Alone>

 

Pandora shot Alex and Drew another thumbs-up as she crouched low and began to lead them along the path she had drawn out in her mind moments earlier. Her eyes were a deep purple with swirls of orange in them now as she set a quick pace for those following behind her. She did not want to give anyone the opportunity to parse what they were seeing.

 

Lucky enough, the crowd didn’t seem to be paying much in the way of attention to anything but the Roaring Fork Church, where Paul delivered most of his sermons. There was quite a crowd around it, folks murmuring to each other. It seemed like there’d been some kind of disturbance.

 

Alex shoved his bloody hands into his sweat pockets as he moved, not trying to make a scene. Keeping an eye out for anyone who might recognize Drew and cause a disturbance. “Keep following Pandora.” He told them in a hushed tone. “She knows where she’s going.” He also tried to spot their distraction in case they needed help. So far he couldn’t see much though.

 

Looking behind her, Vin took the small child’s hand gently in her own. She gave Drew a confident smile and a nod as they cut their way through the compound as quickly as they could without drawing much attention to themselves.

 

Drew kept her head down, stumbling after Pandora. Her shoulders were hunched down, and even with the chains rattling behind her, her total lack of confidence rendered her nearly invisible.

 

Alex took up a position near the back, so Drew was in between them. Remaining ever vigilant. “Any chance you know where Esther is?” He murmured.

 

Suddenly, someone was up in their face; an out-of-towner with short dark hair, come to join the cult, or just for the spectacle, but no one Drew recognized.

 

“Did you hear what just happened?” The man asked.

 

Standing upright and making certain to keep Drew out of sight behind her, Pandora shook her head slowly from side to side. If she could, she would have pushed past this man and hurried them along as quickly as could be, but that would likely be something of a spectacle and so she simply stood there for the time being to listen.

 

“Don’t think so. What happened?” Alex said, walking up and squeezing Vins shoulder, a look of concern donned on his face.

 

“The Inquisitor’s father appeared in the middle of a sermon,” the man’s eyes were wild, “in a flash of light! And then he accused the Inquisitor of murdering him—the father, I mean—and then he ascended into heaven! Right there!”

 

Drew immediately burst into noisy tears.

 

Vin gives Drew’s hand a small squeeze, running her thumb over the back of it soothingly since she could not simply hug the girl right then and there.

 

“Quite the omen.” Alex said, rather grimly. “The devil’s work no doubt. Best we get on with our business…leaving this place before angel fights demon. The Inquisitor will be within our prayers.” Man, reading the bible before coming here was really paying off.

 

“Wait! If—” the man’s attention was suddenly drawn away by a brawl breaking out between Inquisitor loyalists and freshly-minted doubters nearby, allowing the small party to break away and creep out of range.

 

Before long, they were out of sight and safe for the moment, as far as they could tell.

 

When they were most certainly out of sight, Pandora would crouch and turn to face Drew before drawing out a remote teleporter. She began to enter in coordinates for the device and then handed it to the child, pointing to the button she had to press in order to activate it. The woman then pulled the girl into a comforting hug and looked up to Alex to explain.

 

“It will take you to the flying fortress. You will be safe there. I know it’s going to be hard…but we need to go now. Before anyone else comes up to us ok? We will be right behind you.”

 

“Okay.” Drew whispered, clutching the teleporter. “Thank you.”

Drew pressed something on the teleporter, and she shimmered for a moment, and then the girl disappeared.

 

Alex called in on the radio. “Drew should be arriving any moment. We are going to go and try to find Esther now. Wish us luck.”

 

[That… That went a heck of a lot better than I thought it was going to.] Vin signed to Alex with a chuckle as she turned back towards the compound. [Any ideas on where me might find Nat’s other sister around here?]

 

“Not out of the frying pan yet.” Alex said, turning his gaze towards the church. “My guess is with Paul.”

 

[Well… That fucking sucks.] Vin sighed as she turned towards the commotion near the center of the compound. [Think Paul is somewhere in the middle of that?]

 

“Probably….probably trying to figure out what the deal was with his dead dad. Hopefully Scott and Everyday got out alright. Anyway, it’s worth checking out at the very least. Our covers not blown yet after all.” He squeezed Vins hand and gave them a smile. “Come on.”

 

Pandora nodded, giving Alex’s hand a light squeeze in response as they began to walk into the center of town where all the commotion was.

The Tribunal: The Distraction

ROARING FORK CATHOLIC CHURCH
GLENWOOD SPRINGS, COLORADO

 

The Voice of the Inquisitor rang like a bell, and the people listened.

 

When the Inquisitor decreed, it was with the authority of a man blessed by God, and the people acknowledged.

 

What the Inquisitor spoke against, the people knew to be their enemy.

 

The pews of the Roaring Fork Church had never been so full, the parishioners never so intent. Paul drank in their adulation, feeling stronger every minute of it. He knew his path to be righteous, and everything that transpired here proved it.

 

He wasn’t surprised when the front doors opened and a new person entered. They did so often these days that it was often a stream of new converts, as opposed to the lone curious admirer. He didn’t even think twice about the stooped old man who entered.


Not until that old man spoke with Gideon’s voice.


“Fraud!”

Paul was so startled, at first, that he didn’t retort back at the old man. His eyes couldn’t believe what he was seeing. Gideon… alive? Standing in the center of the church aisle, pointing an accusatory, crooked finger at him just like he had only minutes before being impaled.

 

Impossible.

 

“This boy is a fraud and a coward. His powers come from a deal with the devil, believe you me!” Gideon thundered on, standing near the back of the church.

 

“Lies!”  Paul found his voice again in righteous indignation. “Lies borne of Envy!”

 

“That,” Gideon said, a smug smile spreading across his face, “is exactly what I would expect a man in the devil’s pocket to say.”

The crowd murmured, and Paul could feel a bit of his strength ebbing. No. Unacceptable.

 

“Good people of the Parish, I have told you of those who would see my rise more as an opportunity for fame and attention than to hear God’s word. Behold, the fallen patriarch of my clan. Having driven my brothers and sisters away to sin and himself to the bottle—as so many of you already know—now he seeks to tear me down as I channel the word of God when he could not. Behold, and have pity… but do not tolerate it.”

 

“That’s who I was, yes. But my son killed me, drove that great platinum blade into my chest. Ask Paul to show you the basement of my home, where he hid my body. I’ll still be there. God brought me back to share the truth, one last time. There’s nothing else to say. If you think he’s a leader that you can follow, ask him to show you some trust… and have him show you the basement. If he’s true in spirit and heart, the body of his father won’t be there, will it?”

Clenching his jaw, Paul stepped down from the podium, advancing on the walking corpse. “You dare stand before me and accuse me of your own murder?”  The massive platinum blade appeared in his hand as he strode forward. “If this is not chicanery, not a work of the devil, then the blade of my sword cannot harm you, can it? Come forward and prove that you are Godsent.”

 

“He threatens me with more violence!” Gideon laughed. “I’ve said enough, boy. Lay bare your home for inspection, if you think yourself so Godly.”

And then the old man bowed, danced back a few steps, and slammed the front doors of the church.

 

Paul wheeled, eyes glowing, and faced Esther, who sat near the altar, watching with wide eyes. He jerked his head in a clear command: follow him. Bring him here.

 

Esther immediately sprinted off, the white armour and rapier forming around her.

 

He strode back to the altar, back straight, and addressed the churchgoers with fire in his voice. “I love each and every one of you as Jesus loves you. But I will not tolerate the questioning of my authority, nor accusations, from anyone! Even my flesh and blood. I have heard the word of God. Those who seek to tear me down are unrighteous, and will fall with the Sky Fortress. Either you are with the Tribunal… or you are against it.”

 

The audience murmured, but no one stood up or shouted.

 

Outside, Vera pressed herself against an alley wall and exhaled, heart pounding. “C’mon, Paul.” she muttered. “Come chase me. Don’t think about Drew…”

Nearly a minute passed. Vera could hear Paul’s voice tolling inside the church, loud enough to resonate through the doors. It seemed as though he was more concerned about regaining control of his flock than chasing down the revenant.

 

“God damnit.” Vera said, turning back towards the church. Someone behind her tapped her on the shoulder. Esther Schuster.

 

“Hi.” Esther said. “Throwaway, right? The Freelancer? We’ve met before, although you were Amber then.”

Vera went white and took a step away, considering the merits of running.


“Look,” Esther said. “I can help you here — but you have to do me a favour in return.”

“Yeah? What’s that?” Vera asked, suspicious.


“You gotta tell Nat that I did you a solid.”

“…That’s it?”

“That’s it.”

Vera nodded. “Alright, so what now?”

Esther grinned. “This.”

The golden Schuster ran back to the Church, making sure she remained in Vera’s sights, and threw the doors open. “PAUL!” she shouted. “Father vanished in midair!”

 


 

When the stomach-turning lurch of teleportation ended, Drusilla found herself so disoriented that she couldn’t even feel the ground underneath her feet.

 

Then she realized that the ground wasn’t underneath her feet, and someone was holding her, and there was a strange, sweet, vaguely familiar good smell all around her.

 

“Thank goodness,” the person holding her said in her ear, hugging her tightly. “Thank goodness you’re safe, Drew.”

 

Drew didn’t remember the last time she had gotten a hug. She gave an experimental squirm in this person’s arms. They were bigger than her too, and that voice.

“Nat?” she asked, voice very small.

 

Her sibling held her out a bit, not seeming to mind the full weight of her body at all. That freckled face was older but so familiar, green eyes brimming with tears.

 

“Got it in one, peanut.”

 

Drew stared at her sibling and smiled. That was new too, smiling.

 

“You look really different.”

“I am really different,” Nat gently set her down so she was standing on the floor, then hovered gently in front of her, “but it’s still me. I’m so glad we got you out, and… I’m so sorry it wasn’t sooner.”

 

“I told you not to come for me.” Drew said, unable to keep eye contact. She tugged self consciously at the chains around her. “It’s my fault. All my fault.”

“No. No.” Nat shook eir head firmly. “It’s not your fault. Absolutely not. Oh my god he had you chained. I thought Esther was exaggerating but he really upgraded that awful shed. I’m gonna—”

 

There was a weird glint in Nat’s eyes awakened by eir anger at what Paul had done. Ey took one of the manacles holding Drew’s chains on, dug in eir fingers, and pulled. After a moment, there was a creak and a snap and the manacle broke, falling on the ground. “He’s not going to get away with this,” Nat said, taking her next hand to free it.

 

“I – I think he might, Nat, he’s… he’s… really scary. He… He killed dad.”

“I know,” Nat whispered, and snapped the second manacle off with eir bare hands. “But you know what? I’m best friends with the Oathkeeper. And she and I are going to make Paul stop. Whatever it takes.”

 

“Are you… are you really best friends with the Oathkeeper?” Drew’s eyes widened. “Wow. That’s… you’re so cool.”

Nat smirked a little, prying fingers into one ankle manacle. “I am pretty cool. But yeah, we’re buddies. I made her promise that she wouldn’t fight Paul until you were safe. And now you’re safe. I’ll introduce the two of you. She’ll like you.”

 

Creeeeak snap. “Your life is gonna get better from now on, peanut. I promise.”

 

“Okay.” Drew said, rotating her red and anger wrists. “But… you shouldn’t be doing this for me. I’m a devil, Nat, I’m… It was for everyone’s protection that I was locked off.”

“Drew, there’s… there’s no such thing as devils. Just people and paras.” Nat wiped the blood from eir fingers and gripped the final manacle. “You’re good. You’ve always been good. Even if you turn red and have bat wings and claws, you’re still good.”

 

“You promise?” Drew asked, tears running through the filth on her face.

 

“I swear it,” Nat smiled, then held her close again. “On every single one of my dolls.”

The Tribunal: Family Meeting

THE MCGOWAN MANSION
TWO DAYS AFTER THE GLENWOOD SPRINGS BATTLE

 

The McGowan Mansion gates were open today, on account of all of the villagers. Alice was in the kitchen as Scot welcomed guests and got them settled in the living room. There were couches and bean bag chairs and knitted covers and all sorts of things to host the talk between the Schusters and the McGowans about the future. The smell of chili came from the kitchen, and a maid took coats and served drinks.


Susanna Gilford arrived, and wide-eyed, looked around at the living room, slightly awed. The invitation to the Oathkeeper’s home had left her slightly flustered and grateful that she had brought Isaac along. The little boy was currently napping in her arms, his little blond head on her shoulder.

 

The Damselfly was furiously assisting in the kitchen, but also flitting out to make sure that introductions were made and everyone was comfortable. Ey had been an Avatar for a few days now, and was starting to get used to it. Those taking a close look at eir body might note that ey was a bit curvier than usual, bearing a slightly feminine shape to eir face.

 

Those who had spent time with em would have noticed that yesterday, it had been precisely the opposite.

 

Buster, on Earth leave to help sort out the ‘family issue’, sipped a beer and watched the proceedings silently.

 

Callister was also there, his arm around Benny’s shoulder, a beer in his spare hand. He took a sip. The hell kinda family he married into?

 

Benny looked more than a bit overwhelmed, but remedied this by leaning into Callister and sipping from one of the craft doppelbocks that he had brought to share with the gathering.

 

Poor Noah was most out of his element. Wide-eyed, he clutched his coke from an easy chair and tried not to freak out about being in the presence of celebrities and long-lost family, some of whom were the same people.

 

Ruth and Timothy McGowan were ushered out of the house well before the meeting to a brightly coloured playroom on the other side of the grounds – far enough away that they had no chance of overhearing, and far enough away that Ruth’s Null powers wouldn’t affect them.

 

Alice finally began to hand out bowls of chili, quietly murmuring welcomes to her guests.


Scott wore a button down shirt that was undone over a dark blue t-shirt that read MCGOWAN INDUSTRIES, and was drinking a beer and talking animatedly to Callister and Benny about machines that had hidden compartments.


“Well,” Alice said, cutting off her husband. “Thank you all for making it. I’m sorry the place is kind of a mess. It’s been a rough few days.”

Sue set Isaac to sleep on the sofa. “No, it’s fine. You’ve done much for our family.”

 

“Speaking of… Drew and Esther are old enough that I think they should be part of this conversation. I’d like to bring them in.” Alice inclined her head to the Schusters. “That’s not my call, though. It’s yours, as a family.”

“They absolutely have the right to have a say in their own futures, at the very least,” Nat said, “and I haven’t seen either of them since… since I d-died.”

 

Noah looked at the floor. He, Buster, and Benny all made vague, affirmative noises. Sue added her voice to theirs. Callister was silent, not his call.

 

“Drew!” Alice called. It was a little unsettling how her ‘mom’ voice was different from her ‘General’ voice. “Esther! Could you two please come into the family room?”

The two girls had been staying with the McGowans. They had the space, after all.

 

Esther strode in like she owned the place, badly bruised but seemingly unruffled. Drew shuffled behind her, head down and masked by a curtain of hair. Nat immediately circled around the two and hugged Drew, making a happy noise. “Look at all the siblings, peanut.”

 

Sue made a subtle movement, shifting so she hid Isaac with her body while keeping an eye on Esther. “Drew, honey, want to sit next to me?”

 

Drew made a happy squeak, finally lifting up and peering at everyone from beneath the curtain of hair. “Oh wow, everyone’s here.” she said.


“Yes,” said Esther. “Even me.”

“Shut up, Esther.” Drew said, settling in next to Sue and beaming at her siblings. Sue slipped an arm around her youngest sister.

 

Scott glanced at Alice, who shrugged.

 

“I’m glad you’re here, Esther,” Nat said, sincerely, putting a hand on her shoulder as ey flew by. “I’m really glad that all of you are here. I honestly never thought we’d be together like this again.”

 

“And we want to help you guys stay together.” Scott said, looking at everyone. “From what we understand, you guys have… You’ve been leading your lives. Taking in two teenagers is really, genuinely hard, even for people with everything going for them.”

“We want to help.” Alice blurted out. “Educational, financial, giving them a place to stay. Anything we can do.”

Noah raised his eyebrows. From his perspective, this was as sudden as it was unexpected.

 

Even Nat was a bit thrown. “It… that kind of. Sounds like… you’re offering to adopt Esther and Drew.”

 

“…We’re not asking anyone to give up their parental rights.” Scott said, quickly. “We understand that you will always have the ultimate authority over them and we will never fight you on what you think is best for them. But we have… finances, connections, a pool, extra bedrooms… Everything they could need.”

Buster raised one eyebrow. “Yeah no offense Scott but the last thing most of us want is ‘ultimate authority’ over our sisters. Glad to have ’em back, but I feel like Sue’s the only one of us who might feel different.”

 

Nat, Benny, and Noah all murmured their agreement. Callister shrugged, not his place.


Sue looked at Esther and Drew. She was all too aware of sleeping Isaac at her back and the mound of bills at home. She squeezed Drew about the shoulders. “And…I cannot take either in.” She sounded heartbroken.

 

Scott shifted. “Sue, if you need a place to stay, you could help with the kids. We have a teleporter as well, so you can get to work or travel.”

“Scott! The teleporter is supposed to be for emergency use only.”

Scott scoffed. “Yeah, hon, that ship has sailed. Nat and I use that thing for everything.”
“In my defense, no one has stopped me.”

“I tried to! Four times!”

“In my defense, Scanner hasn’t stopped me.”


Sue bowed her head, frowning. “I…I need to finish my apprenticeship but I can do that at any restaurant, I think.”

Scott and Alice nodded, holding hands. “Anything we can do to help. We consider you family. All of you.”

Noah’s eyes went wide at this. Surely they didn’t mean him too.

 

Buster laughed. “Okay, I’ll go change my last name to McGowan I guess.”

 

Scott shrugged at the joke. “If you want to.”

There was a long pause.

 

“…you’re being serious. You’re being serious?” Benny blinked rapidly.

 

Alice blinked, tears in her eyes. “We’re sorry if this is presumptive, we don’t mean to make assumptions. Just… the Legion was quiet for so long. We thought it was dying in front of us. And then Nat walks into the recruitment room, “I mean I didn’t really walk and we… we’ve grown close, and we know that the relationship is young, but you guys are… the next generation. Even Benny, and Sue, and… It’s not about Powers, or serving in the Legion, it’s… you guys started out representing so much hope to us, and we… care for you, deeply. And I know we don’t know you, Noah, or Drew or Esther yet, but… We want to be family to you. We just…” she sniffed and wiped at the corners of her eyes.

 

“Wh—!” Noah blurted. “M-me? I’m just a cr—a nobody!”

 

“You seem like a nice young man, and Nat cares deeply for you. You’ve all spent too many years apart, or under the reign of a tyrant. We want to… be a stable presence in your lives. We want to, if you’re interested, well… show you a life of familial love. If you want that, of course, we don’t want to intrude -”

“I want to!” He shouted, then covered his mouth with both hands.

 

“T’be honest… me too,” Buster clearly had something in her eye. Jeez, get that shit out of there.

 

Sue wiped the corner of her eye with the heel of her hand.

 

Callister only sipped his beer and held Benny closer.

 

Benny looked up at him hesitantly. “Babe, would it… would you be okay with it? If I… changed my last name?”

 

Callister choked on his beer.

 

“Babe, I’m not gonna be okay with being Rayne-McGowan. Just so you know.”

 

Benny laughed. “Obviously I’d change my name again when—wait did you just imply—” “Nufink, just thinking long term.” “ohmigod”

 

“Well damn, I guess I’d better change my last name too,” Nat grinned and folded eir arms.

 

“McGowan-Rayne sounds lo-” Alice began, and Scott cut her off. “You guys are great. All of you.”

 

“I’ll change my name too.” Drew grinned, leaning into Sue.

 

“It’d be an honour if I could as well,” Esther said, eyes bright. “I’ve… never really had a mom.”

Callister looked at Esther. He frowned then bent to whisper in Benny’s ear. “Esther might be trouble, we should offer to take her in later.” In response, Benny gave him a Look, but said nothing.

 

“Aw,” Nat welled up. “I’m all verklempt. The McGowan siblings. A fresh start for a bunch of mostly-queer paras.”

 

“We’re mostly queer?” Noah wondered.

 

“Hey, somethin’s been bothering me, actually,” Buster frowned. “We all know that there are nine of us, right? Nine Schuster kids?”

 

Benny and Noah nodded. Nat thought, then frowned too.

 

“Yeah. Well, so like. All of us are here but Paul. Yeah? Drew, Esther, Benny, me, Nat, Noah, Sue… and then there’s Paul, that’s… that’s eight. Where’d we get nine? We all know it’s the number, but where’d that number come from?”

 

Sue bit her lip, worried again.

 

“I… I dunno,” Nat admitted, “but it is nine, it’s always been nine. That’s super weird.”

 

“Does it matter?” Esther asked. “They’ll find us on the news. It’s not like this whole adoption thing will stay a secret. People love Alice. They love Nat. This’ll be a big thing.”

“Them not being here isn’t the disturbing bit,” Benny shook his head, “it’s that we forgot. I never forgot a single one of you. Nat was gone the longest, ey remembered us all. How could we all, every single one of us, forget an entire sibling?”

 

“We’re all paras,” Noah ventured. “What if… the one who’s missing has a power that means forgetting them?”

“Photographs. School records. There must be some trace of them.”

 

“I thought… I dunno, I just…” Drew shook her head. “I can’t remember anything. I’m sorry. Please don’t be mad at me.”

“Oh,” Nat’s eyes flashed pale pink, and ey swooped over to snuggle Drew. “Peanut, nobody’s mad. We’re all just curious and a little confused. Sue’s right, this is worth looking into. I’ll have the Sthenographer do some research.”

 

Drew smiled inbetween Sue and Nat. “Okay. I um, I think this’ll be nice. Staying here. I like Ruth. She’s nice.”

There was a bit of quiet murmuring as everyone let the subject of the missing Schuster go for now. Small talk started again, and Buster started talking tech with Scott as Benny and Callister murmured to one another.

 

Nat checked in with Esther about her hand, then resumed eir task of cuddling the smallest Schuster… soon the not-smallest McGowan.