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: Flat White Knight

THE BEAN SIDHE COFFEE HOUSE
SOUBRIDGE ROUTE 1, ROCK CITY

 

Benny was on closing shift and the store was nearly empty. As a result, he was engaged in his favorite task, particularly in these complicated times: cleaning. Restocking. All of the busy work that made the morning crew happy was what Benny loved to do.

 

And of course, it made the time fly by.

 

He was so focused on lifting the sacks of coffee beans and adjusting them on the shelf that he didn’t notice the pool of light in the stockroom blossom next to the schedule sheet. It was only when he heard a voice that he was stirred from his fugue.

 

“Benjamin?”

His heart jerked at that voice. It was familiar. And no one called him that any more. He straightened and turned, eyes wide.

 

His little sister, Esther, was there in the Bean Sidhe back room, cloaked in white armour that stood out starkly against the green walls and brown mugs. The armour, and the pool of light beneath her, faded away, leaving just the girl.

 

“You look so… you look exactly the same. Wow.”

“E… esther?” Benny stammered. “I… how did…”

 

“It’s wonderful.” Esther smiled, radiant. “I’ve Emerged, Benny. I’ve joined the rest of the family. Father is furious, and…” she looks away. “So is Paul.”

“Oh my God,” Benny blinked rapidly, shaking his head. “Are… are you okay? Do you have somewhere to stay? Your power, it… it looks just like…”

 

“Like what?” She paused. “No, we have more important things to discuss. Paul’s Emerged as well, Benjamin.”

“But he’s mad at you?” Benny sounded confused.

 

“He thinks he’s the new Oathkeeper, he’s God’s voice on Earth. He plans to…” Esther’s lower lip trembled for just a moment. “Benjamin, he thinks that I’m his servant, and so is Drew, and he’s a new God on Earth.”

The bag of coffee fell from Benny’s hands. “Oh no,” he murmured, “oh no.”

 

“He sent me to… pass on a message.” Esther’s voice was now a pained whisper.

 

“Message?” Benny seemed almost too afraid to ask.

 

“He… he said that you, and all the other siblings… need to stay away. He’ll leave you alone if you leave him alone. And I can take care of myself, but…”

The name hung unspoken in the air: Drew.

 

“Wh– but–” Benny stammered. “Nat works for the Legion! How is ey supposed to–“

 

“Nat?” Esther asked, suddenly confused.

 

“I– I mean Petey.”

 

“I don’t know. You all might need to lie low for a while. I wish I had a better solution, but… Benjamin, he looks like the Oathkeeper, except in platinum.”

Benny set his hand against the shelf to steady himself, paling. “He’s… another Oathkeeper?”

 

“Different colors, and a sword instead of a warhammer… But otherwise? Yeah.”

“Esther, my own brother is trying to replace the Oathkeeper and we’re not supposed to move against him, and in a vacuum I’d understand, I wouldn’t risk it, but what happens when Alice finds out? Are we supposed to lie to her? Make excuses? She’s the Oathkeeper!”

 

Something — uncertainty? Fear? Anger? — flickered across Esther’s face. “You talk to her?”

“Nat– Petey –is practically her adopted kid. I haven’t talked to her lately, but yeah. I’ve been to dinner at her house. Smoked a cigar with Scott McGowan. My life has been very weird, Esther, but I guess I’m not really alone in that.”

 

“No. You’re not.” She turned away for a moment. “I… should get back. Paul expects this to be a short visit. I… wish things had turned out differently.”

“Wait!” Benny reached out. “Esther, I– isn’t there anything we can do for you? Nat’s really strong. Ey knows powerful people. Maybe–“

 

“I… I wish I could ask for more, I do, but Drew… she doesn’t have armour or a sword. She’s defenseless, and Paul…” Esther turned away. “Goodbye, Benjamin.”

That pool of light opened up again, and she stepped through it.

 

“Wait! Why do your powers look like–“

 

“…my boyfriend’s…” he said to the empty stockroom.

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: Breaking Kayfabe

DAMSELFLY’S QUARTERS
THE FLYING FORTRESS

 

It was rare for the Damselfly to have a moment of free time. Usually ey filled every hour of every day, from work to sleeping to work to eating to clubbing to work to training. Today was a rare exception; a date had been canceled last-minute, much to Nat’s relief, and instead of filling up the time with something else, ey rested in midair, playing a game on eir 3DS.

 

It was a great way to spend a lazy morning until the phone rang.

 

Nat tried to curb eir annoyance as ey tapped the button on eir jaw, answering the call with the comm implant.

 

“Damselfly.”

 

“It’s Esther.” was an odd way for two long lost siblings to reunite, but it was concise at least.

 

Nat blinked, surprised, and it took several moments before ey responded. “What do you want.”

 

“This isn’t about what I want, for once. I don’t expect you to trust me without some proof. You never have, and I know you’ve been sniffing around. So here, have some proof that you can trust me and you should listen to me: I know about your mole, and I haven’t told Paul.”

Ey frowned. “I’m listening.”

 

Esther sighed. “I’m not Hitler, dude. I fucked up when we were kids, I get it. Do we have to treat this like we’re on opposite sides of a war? I do kinda miss you and the others. I do.”

“I said I’m listening, Esther,” Nat fought to keep the hostility out of eir voice, “and I am. If you have something important enough to call me for, I want to hear it. We can… sort out our differences another time.”

 

“Things have gone from ‘sustainable’ to ‘not’ very quickly. Where do I start? Okay. Did you know mom’s a Paranormal?”

“I… no. I didn’t.”

 

“Okay. So is Drew. They both… They look like demons, Petey. I don’t know if you believe in God — I don’t know if I believe in God. But they look like demons from the Old Testament.”

“They’re just paranormals,” Nat said firmly. “Demons aren’t real. But I don’t imagine Paul believes that. I see what you’re saying.”

 

“Okay.” Esther said, after a brief pause. “Drew Emerged, and Paul is keeping her locked up with mom. I know you don’t like me, but I saved her life. He was going to kill her. He just kept pushing her, and pushing her, and pushing her…. And she snapped and turned into a Hell beast.”

“Damn,” Nat muttered. “We need to get the … three of you, I guess … out of there. We’ve got to hit Paul before he gets too much support, or this is gonna be messy. Especially if the Oathkeeper finds out, which I’ve worked pretty hard to keep from happening.”

 

“You don’t have much time. Days, at most. Paul has the family under control, the community under control… Listen, this is coming to a head sooner or later, and Drew being this weird prisoner of war isn’t helping. He knows that she’s the only reason that you haven’t taken him down. Look, I have to keep pretending to be his White Knight. If he thinks that everyone’s left him… Mom’s the only one who can look him in the eye.”

“Do… you have any intel at all that’ll help me extract Drew? Once she’s out, we can drop the hammer and immobilize the whole town. Once Alice hears about this she’ll go in swinging, and I need to get Drew out of there before that happens.”

 

“Paul’s keeping her as an example of what happens if you stop following his path. He had her locked in the sewing room until she took half the door off the hinges. Remember the old shed out back? He has it reinforced, and she’s chained up inside. The good news is, me and your Freelancer mole are keeping watch over her. The bad news is, she’s in the middle of the mess.”

“This explains why, uh, Amber’s been so quiet lately. She probably doesn’t have a free private moment. Ugh. Well, at least we still have relative quiet to—”

 

“EMERGENCY TRANSMISSION -” Esther’s call is suddenly muted, as the Damselfly’s implant channels through another call. “It’s Scanner,” the woman at the center of the Fortress says, and for the first time since ey had met her, she was breathless.

 

“Fuckin’,” Nat fumbled for eir phone, and thumbed over to Esther’s call. “Hang tight, Esther, I just got another emergency call.”

 

Switching back: “Scanner, what’s up? You sound spooked all to hell.”

 

“Fundamentalist Christian channels are on fire with a transmission from Glenwood Springs. I need permission from a Black Ops agent to override any existing loyalty protocols to the Board of Generals and begin immediate Emergency Protocol behaviour.”

“Ohh, fuck. Fuck,” Nat said. “Do it! I’ve got Esther on the line, patch into the call.”

 

Ey switched back to the other call, then thumbed over to a news feed, rapidly typing in search terms, heart sinking as ey read the results. “Esther, what is Paul doing, what is he doing? The Bigot Internet is blowing up, what the fuck is going on? Did he record a video a couple of days ago?”

 

“No, I don’t think so, I – I think this is live. He’s out of patience. I have to go, P- Nat. I have to go before he thinks he’s lost even more control. He’s barely holding on now. I love you. I’m sorry. If you see me in Glenwood Springs, remember, I’m your enemy.”

“I—all right. Stay safe. Keep the others safe. Be careful.

 

Click.

 

“God damn it,” Nat navigated to the video itself, set eir wallscreen to play it. “God damn it.”

 

Paul appeared on the screen in his full glory, armored and proud, standing in front of half a dozen microphones. Some were local news… some were national. When he spoke, there was a tolling quality to his voice, as if he were speaking inside a massive cathedral and a great church bell all at the same time. It woke a little terror in Nat’s heart.

 

“We in the Glenwood Springs Parish know we are not alone in the disappointment, betrayal, and abject abandonment we felt upon hearing the Oathkeeper renounce virtue and temperance on national television. We had believed her to be a hero, believed the Infinity Legion to be a force of order in this world.

 

“We were wrong, and in that moment we realized it. We realized it here in the Parish, but I mean also ‘we’ as a people. As right-thinking people of all faiths and creeds who value right thinking and right action—Christian, Jewish, Muslim. We agree on much, but we all knew the influence of Earthly Desire when we saw it. We said to ourselves, and now to each other: This Cannot Stand.

 

“I ask you now to recognize me by a name I will hold only until order is restored: Inquisitor. Join this, the Tribunal, a righteous crusade to bring the world back to God’s values. To prevent the perversion of God’s will. To stand up and say ‘no more.’ To crush the armies of sin, if need be. You will find us here in Glenwood Springs, Colorado… but you will also find us in your own hearts. God Bless.”

 

Nat felt a sickening tug in eir chest.

 

“The Lure,” ey whispered. “There’s a memetic pull. Ohh, fuck. Oh fuck.

 

With a tap of eir comm implant as ey threw on a jacket, Nat pinged back to Scanner. “Time to face the music. Call the Generals.

 

“The war is on.”

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: The Prodigal

GLENWOOD SPRINGS, COLORADO

 

The Inquisitor stood tall and proud in shining armor of platinum, eyes aglow, luminous greatsword resting on his pauldrons. Glorious violence in the name of the Lord stretched to the horizon, and it all served to make him stronger. He could feel the conviction of his flock flowing into him from near and far, for as the doubters fell away, the faithful grew emboldened. What would be setbacks for a softer shepherd— excommunication, condemnation, vendettas and global outrage—all served only to raise his power.

 

Paul Schuster watched blood stain the soil of his lifelong hometown, and he smiled.

 

“Paul,” his White Knight said from behind him. “This is too much, too… out there, too fast, too…” She shook her head. Her blade was unstained; she had stood back and watched the carnage.

 

“Suddenly hesitant, faithful sister?” Paul’s voice seemed calm enough. “Squeamish? It is too late to reverse our course, surely you understand that.”

 

“For you, maybe.” Esther’s voice was low. “I’m getting out. There’s no way you can win this. And you know what? The piles of bodies and endless carnage is… boring. No, I’m done.”

Esther turned away and took a few steps, then raised her voice — nice and loud, so it’d carry to the onlookers. “Just stay away from me, Paul!”

Paul’s glowing eyes narrowed, thin slits of light cutting across Esther’s shiny plate armor. The clumps of cultists nearby turned to stare.

 

“Betraying me will not absolve you, Esther. You have supported the Tribunal. It is too late to wash your hands clean of the blood already on them.”

 

Esther laughed softly, shaking her head. “You don’t get it, do you, Inquisitor? It’s not about clean hands, not really. You know what? Have fun with your little freak show. I’m going to bounce.”

She turned and took a few steps, a pool of solid light appearing next to her.

 

“Inquisitor! Inquisitor!” A bloodied woman in a sundress limped toward them, a triumphant grin on her face. “We found the Prodigal! It took twenty of us and several hostages, but we caught him!”

 

The cheering crowd parted as several cultists dragged a beaten and bleeding form, bound in heavy chains, before the Inquisitor and his Knight. The figure’s orange hair was matted and filthy, clothes torn and stained with blood.

 

But when the Damselfly raised eir head, those emerald eyes were clear and filled with rage.

 

“Well,” Paul said softly, “an opportunity for your redemption appears, sister.”

 

“It does.” Esther agreed, turning and drawing that long blade. There was a pause in which the only sound was the soft scuff of her white armour against the ground, and then she turned with grace and arced the blade towards Paul’s eye, stabbing through the lightly armoured helm.

 

That unnaturally sharp blade hit its mark immediately, piercing through Paul’s eye and deep into his head. The Tribunal cultists lapsed into a shocked silence.

 

The seconds stretched on like ages, the silence finally broken by the Inquisitor’s clarion-bell chuckle. “I see.”

 

In a flash, that platinum gauntlet rose and clamped like a vise over Esther’s gauntlet and the sword it held, crumpling the sword’s basket hilt and her hand.

 

Esther screamed – half from pain, and half from surprise. She clearly thought her armour unbreakable and herself invulnerable.  She wrenched away to the best of her ability, unable to quite escape from Paul’s grasp. The blade broke, snapped, the white blade vanishing before it hit the ground. “Paul, stop!”

“Just like you, little Judas,” Paul laughed, lifting his platinum greatsword in one hand, “to strike first and then ask for clemency.”

 

Paul released her just as he struck with the flat of his sword, swatting her away like a beetle. Before she could even fall, he appeared behind her and struck with the sword’s flat again, sending her sprawling the other way.

 

Esther was a masterful actress, but she couldn’t fake the impact of those blows. She lay sprawled against the floor, and her white armour flickered and then died. Her hands grasped in the dirt briefly, and then she groaned in pain and curled up, lying still.

 

“Esther!” Nat yelled, struggling to fly toward her in spite of injury and restraint.

 

Lily broke from the crowd and rushed to Esther’s side, cradling her body. Only then did she seem to notice the restrained Damselfly.

 

“Oh Peter,” she sobbed. “Oh no. I thought—I  thought at least you—”

 

“On this day,” Paul took slow strides toward Nat, reversing the greatsword in his hand. He reached down and grabbed Nat by the head, lifting em effortlessly. “My first and last betrayers fall together.”

 

<Current Song: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=G15btlaZR_k

Ryos (Feat. Allisa Rose) – Eclipse>

 

At that moment, Pandora burst from the crowd with a look of absolute rage burning within her eyes as she blew three sharp whistles upon her fingers to get Paul’s attention. How dare he! How dare this asshole even think to raise a weapon with the intent to harm Nat. Pandora knew she was probably going to lose… But she did not care. She did not care that she was outmatched in terms of power. She did not care that she was exhausted. She did not care that he had armor and she did not. No… She cared too much for Nat to care about any of that.

 

She stared the Inquisitor straight in the eyes as she bounced back and forth on the balls of her feet in time to the beat echoing through her ears. There were bruises all over her exposed abdomen as she raised up arms that were covered in scrapes where the elbow-length gloves had not protected her skin. Her expression was one of pure defiance.

 

Alex walked up next to her, his face grim. Serious. Sad. “What’s the point of all of this Paul?” His voice was not defiant, though it did demand an answer. “I read the bible yesterday, before I came here. I knew nothing about christianity before then. If this is what that is? People murdering each other in the streets for a man who killed his own father…well. I have to be honest. You make your religion look like a sham.” His fists grew wooden, branches tangling about them as he took a defensive stance. “I’ve killed no-one on my path here today. And now that I am here, I’m not going to let you murder anyone else. No more deaths Paul Schuster. You can still put your sword down.” There was conviction in his eyes that a man like Paul should recognize. Heroics were Alex’s religion. His belief. Too bad Paul was more of a tyrant than a man of faith.

 

Paul turned to face them. The eye that had taken a wound spilled a glowing ichor, luminous fluid running down his face that he didn’t even seem to notice. The other eye still glowed brightly all on its own, and it fixed on the two Legionnaires.

 

“Is this all?” He asked. “Are these profligate misfits the best that the Legion could send against me? I expected to snuff some candles before I put out the Oathkeeper’s flame, but this… is disappointing. Come. I will kill you both while holding my filthy brother in one hand.”

 

Alex turned to the mob of cultists. “You should be ashamed of yourselves.” He told them quietly, sternly. Without fear. And he walked right up to Paul, slowly and non-violently. Unphased by the threat. “Do your worst.” As he reached for the hand gripping Nat, his fingertips and body already beginning to grow out into as massive a tree as Alex could manage. He knew they didn’t stand a chance. The least he could do was buy Nat as much time as possible.

 

Pandora’s fists soon had a glowing aura of black and red flame swirling around them as she turned to look at Alex. A tiny smile formed on her lips as she gave him a thumbs-up. Fear was plain in her scarlet eyes but there was a fire burning there as well. If they were going to die, at least it would be alongside the man she loved. With a nod, she turned back to face Paul and began to think of how to hold him off for as long as possible.

 

“Guys… no…” Nat croaked between Paul’s fingers. “You can’t… beat him. Please run…”

 

“Silence.”  Paul squeezed the Damselfly’s head, eliciting a cry of pain from Nat as he stared Alex down. He hadn’t yet moved to strike or otherwise hurt him. “Do you recall chapter three of the book of Exodus, profligate?”

 

There was pain in Alex’s eyes as he saw Nat gasp for air, but his face remained stoic. He didn’t look at Paul when he answered. “When god appeared to Moses. To tell him of a paradise. A place free of problems. Milk and honey.” His fingers pressed against Paul’s gauntlet, little tendrils of vine seeping between the cracks. Pulling softly but to no avail. The bark had grown over his arms now, encroaching over his neck and down his chest as his feet began to root into the ground. “Did god tell you to do this?” He kept his voice unnervingly neutral, his eyes telling Nat everything they needed to know. He was there for em. Till the end.

 

Pandora was strafing along the outside of the crowd whilst Alex distracted their powerful opponent, looking for an opening through which to strike. She had no idea how fast or how powerful Paul really was and that was worrying to her. All she knew was what others had told her to do and what she was ignoring right now. All she knew was that she was supposed to run but there was no way that would happen now.

 

“Please…” Nat’s voice cracked. “Please…”

 

“Yes he did, little bush. And he has a message for me to pass along—”

 

A blinding light suddenly wreathed the inquisitor, white flames leaping up his body, down his arm. Nat screamed in pain and Alex felt an intense heat roar around his wood-wrapped hands. Paul turned and swung his greatsword in a long arc around his body, straight at Vin.

 

Alex gritted his teeth through the intense pain, but did not move. He stood his ground, bark growing around him more rapidly now. Vin felt vines growing and burning simultaneously, helping open the vice just enough to keep them from passing out from asphyxiation. His body was growing thicker, heavier as his coating spread over his chin. He almost looked like a statue now. He knew Vin knew how to handle herself. He believed in them. “If this is your god’s will, he’s no better than a common villain. No better than you Paul Schuster. An abusive, hateful, tyrant of a creature.” The bark began covering his face, but before it did. “You will be stopped.” Suddenly the vines, the bark, the branches. Everything began growing much quicker. The vines in his gauntlet hand expanded quickly, surprisingly, with great force. It was beginning to be hard to make out Alex’s form at all, as it grew and grew and grew, fighting against Paul’s grip. He would not let this monster have the satisfaction. If it was the last thing he did, he would free Nat. He had to.

 

Paul snarled, and the fire intensified. Alex could feel his arm weakening, becoming brittle, the char spreading outward. It wouldn’t be long before the damage was too much, and his arm would be gone. Paul burned so brightly that Vin could scarcely see him. But his hand did seem to be loosening its deathgrip on Nat’s face, and the fire wasn’t burning the Damselfly the way it burned Alex.

 

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

Lindsey Stirling – Master of Tides>

 

Pandora thanked God for watching over her as she raised her hand and fired a jet of water into the flame roaring towards her. She walked forwards slowly, straining her eyes and clenching her teeth against the heated steam around her as she made it close enough to raise her second hand and direct another stream towards Alex to cool him off a little. There was a part of her mind – a part which sounded a lot like Emi – which was yelling at her for disobeying orders. Once again, the dancer pushed it and the pain aside as she started to come up with a new plan.

 

The steam in the air was so thick, so intense that it wasn’t until the huge gauntlet was right in Vin’s face that she was able to see it. The massive fingers encircled her shoulder and gripped it—hard, painfully—and lifted her off the ground. The wind went out of her as Paul hurled her body against Alex’s wooden frame, smashing and splintering the wood, using her as a human club. She caught glimpses of his face, eyes glowing, teeth clenched in frustration as he did his level best to beat them both to death with one another.

 

He failed. A large patch of leaves, that continued to regrow much faster than Alex could safely manage began forming wherever Paul attempted to hit him, cushioning Vin in as soft an embrace as Alex could manage. Wherever damage was done, the tree was regrowing around him as quickly as he harmed it. Defying him as long as he could manage. His arm was completely gone now, but that was fine. He could grow a new one. Had to. He had to keep trying as he sent wave after wave of his life force against the flames, forcing their way into his grip desperately. He could feel himself slipping, wrapped in a cocoon of his powers. He didn’t know how much more he could manage.

 

Finally realizing that this tactic was doing little, Paul’s grip tightened for a moment, and Vin felt something in her shoulder pop before he threw her to the ground, drawing that hand back. When his hand swung forward again, that platinum greatsword was in it. A single strike hewed enough wood for him to gain some distance, and then he tore the rest of the way back, dropping Nat on the ground. He lunged forward to cleave Alex in two—

 

And his sword bounced off of a great domed shield made of hexagonal panels of energy that now separated Nat and Vin from the tyrant.

 

“I can’t!” Tortoise cried. “I can’t let you! I’m sorry! Petey, I’m sorry! I’m so sorry!”

 

Nat looked up from the ground on the other side of the hex wall. “N… n-noah?”

 

“I’m so sorry, Petey. I wanted to get you in the shield but I fucked it up. I have to save my new friends. I’m sorry!”

 

“Aw,” Nat rasped. “You… look good in that mask, bro.”

 

Roaring, Paul swung his sword again. A crack appeared in the hex wall, but it held firm still.

 

Pandora screamed in primal pain as her shoulder was crushed, her right arm going completely limp as blood pooled from where the gauntlet had cut into her flesh. Despite this, however, Vin crawled forward using her remaining hand and her legs as she kneeled at the edge of the shield in front of her and placed her good hand upon it. She looked to Nat and her eyes were watering as she attempted to push her way through. [I… Won’t leave you behind. Tell him to let me out.] She headbutted the shield in an attempt to break through. [Please. Please tell him to let me out, Nat. He cannot understand me.] Nat weakly lifted one hand and tapped eir index finger, middle finger, and thumb together twice. [No.]

 

The lot cracked on both sides of Paul as two new bundles of branch and vine struggled their way towards him, gripping at his arms desperately, staving off the inevitable. The area behind the shield was slowly growing darker as the huge tree that was Alex slowly wrapped around them and the outside of the shield, making it more of a window. Reinforcing it, protecting Noah and Vin inside. Feebly attempting to cover Nat too, though Alex knew it wouldn’t be enough once Paul decided to redirect his rage. The branches felt weak upon eir skin, holding em as close as they could. Holding out for the inevitable.

 

“Noah!” An inhuman screech split the air. “Not you! My children—my children!!”

 

Lily Schuster was changing as she charged Paul. Her skin grew shiny and red, blackened wings bursting through the back of her dress and her hands turning to wicked chitinous claws. Her eyes burned with an orange fire as she screamed from her newly-fanged maw.

 

“You are no son of mine! Leave my children alone!!!”

 

She leapt upon Paul, rending and tearing with her claws as best she could. Paul snarled and struggled, hindered by the vines and branches gripping him, but finally tore both them and his mother off of his body, throwing her to the ground.

 

Lily tumbled and leapt again, wings wide, claws extended—

 

And Paul beheaded her with a single strike.

 

“Moooooooom!” Noah screamed, tears streaking his face, even as the hex shield glowed more fiercely, the cracks in it pulling away and in. “Mooooooom! Noooooo!”

 

[No…] Pandora watched as the woman’s body fell limply to the ground in front of her and her eyes were wide with a mix of rage and horror. [No… ] She looked up at Paul and her eyes were filled with pure disgust. [You are a monster. A heartless monster.] The dancer pushed herself shakily onto her feet as she made certain Paul’s eyes met hers. Even if he couldn’t understand sign language, that look said it all. There was no way Vin was going to let him hurt anyone else. There was no way she would stay inside while others got hurt. Not again. Never again.

 

The frail branches pulled at Nat futilely. Trying to drag them away from the death that was her brother. To do anything to give em a little more time. A minute. Half a minute. Even a few more seconds before the person he loved was snuffed out forever. This man killed his own mother. His own father. Two things Alex had never even had the choice to experience, and he erased them forever. The twigs snapped against Nat with the effort, little pieces falling to the asphalt as he tried. Ey had barely moved an inch. He had nothing left. Tears streaked down his face for nobody to see inside his wooden coffin, he curled up tightly. Feeling cold, and empty. “I’m sorry.”

 

Paul turned and met Vin’s eyes, then smiled a little. “So angry. You are not just a Legionnaire, are you? This is… personal, for you. One of my degenerate brother’s consorts, perhaps.”  He lifted the sword, point toward the ground, and positioned it directly above Nat’s prone form. “Well, watch what happens next—”

 

“Stop.” The voice was clear and familiar.

 

Paul turned and smiled broadly. “At last. It’s you.”

 

The Oathkeeper’s golden armor glinted in the sunlight, her jaw set, deep rage already dancing in her eyes as in Vin’s. She held that huge golden hammer aloft as she strode toward Paul, menacing.

 

“Are you sure you want to come closer?” Paul warned, glancing down at Nat.

 

Alice hesitated.

 

“Ffffuck you,” Nat managed a hacking laugh. “She made a promise to me. If… this ever happened again. She’d let me die. I’m not your hostage.”

 

“And yet she hesitates,” Paul observed, eyes fixed on the Oathkeeper, sword point hovering inches above the Damselfly.

 

“Selfish…” The tree ached the words. “Coward.” Nats body reverberated with the sound.

 

“Vin, Alex…” Nat sighed quietly. “I’m sorry. Hey. Paul.”

 

Paul glanced down briefly.

 

“Remember when I was little… and I told you. That someday I was. Gonna be famous and everyone was gonna love me. And you’d… you’d just be. Remembered as a shitty bully.”

 

Ey smiled peacefully. “I was right.”

 

Paul’s face twisted into a snarl, and with a blurry-fast movement, he drove the point of the sword down. It pierced straight through Nat’s body and into the asphalt, and the Damselfly’s eyes went wide as ey felt the blade run em through.

 

There was a moment of stark silence as the blade sunk through. The eyes of a killer, looking into the eyes of a victim. Or rather, that’s what Paul expected. What he saw looking back up at him though, were very different. Alex’s leaves rustled softly as a lone summer wind made its way through Glenwood Springs.

 

Then, everything happened quickly.

 

A blur whirred by. It struck Paul, stuck something to him. There was a flash of blue light, and Paul was gone. With an anguished cry, Alice vanished too. Moments later, two flying figures clashed in silhouette against the moon, at the peak of the Colorado mountains. The battle had been joined, but it had been taken elsewhere.

 

Weeping bitterly, Noah finally dropped the shield and crawled toward the Damselfly, who lay still against the ground, the Inquisitor’s blade still pinning em there.

 

All the branches. The roots. The vines. The tree. They all lay still. Nothing new grew, nothing new moved. Alex wept silently inside that big willow tree. He had tried his hardest. He had tried everything. HIs body was so weak. Emaciated from his efforts. He felt a rib crack as he shuddered. It wasn’t enough. And now nothing he could do would be enough. His leaves withered and began falling in the cool Colorado breeze.

 

<Current Music: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3yv6Gn911uc

The Album Leaf: Twenty Two Fourteen>

 

Pandora fell to her knees and stared at Nat’s limp body as her eyes shifted color to a hazy shade of blue that was like that of a storm. No tears fell from her eyes as she watched the body in silent horror with her useless right arm swinging limply by her side. It had happened again. Just like when Mom died. She was still that weak little girl in the backseat of the car.

 

Looking up into the sky, Pandora’s eyes watched the battle up ahead but no longer felt any desire to fight. Her body hurt. Her head hurt. Her very soul hurt. Despite the beat in her ears, Pandora could have sworn the music died in that moment.

 

Noah crawled forward and put both hands on Nat’s shoulder. “Petey,” he sobbed. “Petey don’t go. Please. I love you. I missed you so much.”

 

Erin limped over, holding a minor wound on her arm. Her face showed helplessness, looking between Nat’s body with Noah over it, looking over to the tree encasing Alex, looking at Vin.

 

“You loved ’em too, didn’t you,” she asked, voice soft.

 

Pandora nodded, her eyes still wide and lost as her brain scrambled to protect itself from what it had just witnessed. It was not working. Vin knew that the pain wouldn’t ever really go away.

 

Something went thump in their chests, collectively, like a single bass beat at a crowded club. Once, at first, then again. Thump.

 

The strange feeling in her chest was what finally caused Vin to break down into tears as the tall woman curled up on the ground and sobbed loudly.

 

Alex curled tighter at the feeling. Wanting nothing more than to just hide there. Where he felt safe. He couldn’t bear the thought of seeing it. His eyes felt like they might split from how hard he shut them.

 

There it was again. Thump.

 

“Pull it out”

 

Pandora looked up, certain that her mind was playing tricks on her. Eyes wide and puffy with sorrow, she stared at her lover and rubbed her good arm across her nose as she sniffled.

 

“Pull… the sword out.” Thump thump.

 

“Did…” Noah blinked away his own tears. “Did you…”

 

[Yeah… I think ey did…] Vin shakily stood on her feet and walked over to lean against Alex’s trunk as she placed a hand on the hilt of the Inquisitor’s sword. She tugged but could not seem to muster up enough strength with one arm despite all of her efforts.

 

Alex was too far to hear, but something else did. The branches that clung to Nat tightened, constricting around the blade. Pushing. Pushing it out as Vin pulled. Wrapping tight with all its strength to save the Damselfly, Alex felt its need. The pulse in his heart. And with what strength he had left, he bit down on his teeth and focused all his might to push it.

 

Noah scrambled to his feet and assisted Vin, pushing upward on the hilt of the blade from below. Getting the picture, Erin and Achilles joined in. It was rough; the blade was buried several feet into the asphalt and the hard-packed earth below. But gradually, it was moving. Slowly, it budged. They were making progress, and the thump, thump, thump in their chests became more resonant, starting to feel less unpleasant or painful and more right.

 

Keeping her back against Alex’s trunk, Vin pulled harder and harder on the blade that was stuck within her lover. She grunted with effort before it slowly but surely became a yell as she used Alex’s roots as a means to help remove the vile blade.

 

There’s a shadow that suddenly appears above the group, winged and dark. A mournful roar as it descends, a dragon in pain, the first that anyone’s ever heard of that, as George, wings fully spread, lands near the group.

 

There were cultists, angry and weapons drawn, drawing closer to the group, until the Beast described in the Book descended upon them. The great horned beast, among them at last. Too much for their beliefs. Too much without their Inquisitor to save them. Before the mourning roar, they fled, as George bowed his head, letting a small, petite ginger woman off his back. The dragon’s tail and body curled around the group to protect them from any further harm, a sibilant hiss issuing from the dragon’s mouth as green gold eyes stared at any further possible people with anger and despair.

 

Scrambling down from George’s back was, as mentioned, a red-headed woman who didn’t appear to be able to decide if she was furious, or wanted to cry; both emotions flickered across her face rapidly. She eventually settled on livid, stuffed her hands in her hoodie and glanced around in turn. “Th’ hell happened,” she finally asked – no, demanded, in a way that was very much unlike her. She didn’t appear to be asking anyone in particular, but kept looking expectantly at those present.

 

Lightning flashed overhead in the clear sky. With an earth rattling boom, Jupiter Strike appeared. She sped down from the skies.

 

The retreating cultist screamed as there was a large armoured figure amongst them. They scrambled back, and away from the Red Knight, his two handed sword resting on his shoulder as he moved towards the group. He ignored them.

 

Only a tiny bit later than the rest, a jet of bright black appeared at the front of the fleeing scum, and dismounted, showing itself to be nothing more than a tiny blonde girl in a floral dress. With a gun. And a broomstick. She ignored the scum as well, and silently swore about something as she wandered to the gathering.

 

Th-thump. Th-thump. Th-thump. It was cresting, so strong that everyone moved with it.

 

“Oh…” Noah only just seemed to realize that more people had arrived. “Oh wow. This is—”

 

And then the sword came free and there was a blinding flash of light that had no color anyone could identify, that you couldn’t get away from even when you looked away, that didn’t hurt your eyes or hurt anything but what was this buzzing in your body and mind, oh my god is this really what I—I’m—

 

When the light cleared, Nat was up, and floating in the center of rings of eir friends. Eir body was the same kind of indistinct color not-light that had pierced the sky moments before, curled into the fetal position in midair.

 

And everyone… could feel everything… that everyone else … felt. The air was saturated with empathic resonance pulsing out from the center, delivering shared feeling and sensation in ripples. Pain from the injured, but combined with relief, and care, and healing light, all blended together into a bittersweet melange. With those feelings came one known fact:

 

The Avatar of Love had chosen a candidate.

 

As the feels rushed into him, Alex let out a soft smile between sniffles and teardrops, eyes closing into a dreamless sleep.

 

<Current Song: None>

 

The sword of the Inquisitor whipping backwards with the force of all those assisting her, Pandora finally fell backwards against the tree behind her that held her boyfriend and a sudden flash of pain ran through everyone’s right shoulder as the woman’s crushed shoulder struck the thick trunk. The dancer planted the massive broadsword in the ground beside her, breathing heavily as her headphones fell off, her eyes faded to pale-white, and she looked as if she were about to pass out as she lay broken, burned, bruised, and exhausted on the ground.

 

Fi’s fury had been interrupted by Nat’s. … Actually, she wasn’t real clear on how to define what just happened. She squinted, though, peering at Nat and trying to figure out what was going on. There’s not a good frame of reference she has for this, after all. Finally, after a few moments, she called out cautiously. “U-..uh. N…Nnnnnat?”

 

“For fuck’s sake.” Callister sounded disgusted. And relieved. He pulled out a phone and held it against his helmeted head. “Babe, Nat’s safe…and you’re not gonna believe this…”

“Believe it or not… I somehow already know??”

 

With feelings of relief pushed upon her, and the clear vision of Nat not having a gigantic fucking sword jammed through her, one might almost forget, or fail to mind, what they just saw. But there was something disconcerting about the whole thing, clear on Lili’s face. It certainly wasn’t an emergence, nor did it fit into any category she had recorded. She was calm, and relieved, but deeply uncomfortable with feeling that way.

 

Nat’s curled form managed to unclench slightly as if waking up from a deep sleep. Eir voice seemed to be coming from all around rather than eir body. “This is… wow… all of you…”

 

Vin looked up at her lover, her gaze not looking entirely relieved as the blood-loss, pain, and trauma of the night seemed to have done her in for the most part. She did, however, managed a tiny thumbs-up before leaning against the flat of the blade planted by her side and looking back down at her blood-covered shoulder, shuddered, and nearly passed out again.

 

“You know, I think I actually was having a heart attack. I feel way too nice to still be not-dead,” Fi mutters to herself. Also, that would probably make sense. She knew first-hand that Other Places were just full of weird shit, and this definitely qualified. …Wait. Where’s the tiny witch fit in? No, no, she’ll figure that out later. She probably has eternity after all. “Unlikely. This does not fit with my present records of death.” “you got a better explanation, Ms. Hogwarts?” “Shockingly not. I said death was unlikely. Not impossible. We’ll need further data.” “This is upsetting. I am upset.” ”Have you tried not being?” “Not very hard, no.”

 

“Babe! Babes!” Jess hovered, trying to stop herself from grabbing all her cuties in a huge hug.

 

George hissed in quiet tones, “Get em to a hospital, now. This is still a combat zone. And there is revenge to be had. Teleporter markers, someone should have them, somewhere.” “Good. They put one of yours in the hospital, you put ten of theirs in the morgue.” George’s tail knocked an ultra brave cultist flying into the air, with a wilhelm scream. His wings stretched, newly formed but still wide and far too massive for anything on this earth to lift a creature like that, and flapped, lifting off slowly.

 

“HEY! Not without me!” Fi sounded mildly offended that the Dragon even considered such a course of action.

 

“I actually… feel perfectly fine,” Nat sounded understandably surprised as ey uncurled the rest of the way, an alpha-channel patch of light hovering over a pool of eir own blood. “But please. Alex and Vin need medical attention immediately. I need to … we. Need to go assist Alice and Faith. Dominance has gone too far.”

 

“Oh my gosh,” Noah whispered.

 

Pandora’s head swam with as she nodded, picked her headphones up, put them atop her head a touch loosely, and hit the play button on the MP3 player at her side.

 

<Current Song: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-HAy1U9cziY

Skrux – If You>

 

The heroine pushed herself up very shakily onto her feet and pulled the massive blade out of the ground beside her with a single arm. While this was certainly an impressive feat, the trauma-stricken Pandora took one step forward, stumbled backwards, and then collapsed backwards to hit her head with a sickening thunk on Alex’s trunk as her limp right arm crumpled beneath her while the Inquisitor’s blade remained clutched in her other hand.

 

Silently noting Nat’s… terminology, Lili made her way towards Vin as soon as she saw her trying to get up on her own. She wasn’t particularly strong, but she was probably at least stronger than her right now. She gripped the right wrist firmly, and offered her the other hand to see if she’d be able to take it.

 

The woman’s right hand is completely limp and covered in blood as the arm buckled and swings rather sickeningly as the bones in her shoulder seemed to have been turned to powder. Her left hand continues to clutch the hilt of the blade, however, and she does not seem willing to let it go for some reason. Her gaze is very distant.

 

Callister is half turned away from the group, his head pointed in the direction of the cultists. Even with a phone to his helmet, he’s an imposing and threatening figure. He hasn’t yet noticed what’s going on in the group.

 

Lili drops her weapon to the ground, and crouches down, trying to get an arm under Vin’s back – ultimately, she just isn’t strong enough to lift her for more than a few seconds, and yells out for assistance and a firm, extremely threatening tone.

 

“I need to go,” Nat said, floating upwards, the light clearing enough that eir body started to become visible again, still covered in glowing, mottled color all over eir torso. “Please take care of the people who are hurt, and get people to the teleporters. I’m going to… help end this.”

 

Ey streaked away, leaving a trail of pinkish light behind em.

 

“I AM BLOODY TRYING TO!”

 

[Alex…] The mute woman signed as tears rolled down her cheeks whilst her horrified thousand-yard-stare continued. [He’s in the tree… Nat… Ey died… We failed em… We didn’t even stand a chance…]

 

Lili continues attempting to pull her up and not doing a brilliant job of the whole thing. “I’m really sorry, I know I should’ve learned ASL by now, but I haven’t, so.”

 

[Ey died… I saw em die… Right in front of me…] Pandora did not seem to hear Lili as she continued to sign with her one good hand. [Alex… Oh God… Ey died in his arms…]

 

“Please stop with the hands this is hard enough already.”

 

Jess swooped low and gathered Vin in her arms. “Hey there, cutie. You’re gonna be alright, Nat’s fine, ey’s just’ flown off. We’re gonna get you to the med bay.” It was a little awkward, they were both tall women, but Vin was taller than she was. Jess managed, though.

 

Lili was not very tall. Both of them were bigger than her. She seemed like Vin might even be taller than her lying flat, actually.

 

[Alex!] Vin turned towards the tree she was being flown away from with an even greater look of horror as she continued to hold onto the sword she had pulled from Nat’s body with the help of her love and the Paradox crew. [No! I can’t leave him too! Please! Please! Someone get him!]

 

The withered tree stood silent.

 

Sighing, exhausted from even trying to lift Vin, Lili turned her attention to the tree, and drew her wand, swinging it whilst shouting in pig-latin.

 

Yes she has a dedicated lumberjacking spell.

 

Why would she not?

 

The tree cracked, then splintered, then exploded to reveal the hollowed out center. An infinitely skinny Alex was inside, eyes closed and curled up into a ball. He slooooowly tilted forward and fell to the ground, armless and burnt.

 

If Vin was not scarred already, seeing that image as she was flown away hurt even more as another pang of fear shot through her whole system. “Alex…” She mouthed wordlessly as her vision began to fade to black. “Please be okay, Hero… Please…“ With that, she passed out.

 

Callister turned at the sound of the tree cutting. “Hey, babe, I gotta call you back. There’s this burnt guy that fell from a tree or sumthin. Yeah, I’m sure he’s fine. Yeah, love you, babe.”

 

He put the phone away and wandered up to toe Alex. “So…yeah. Evac out?”

 

He is unconscious so one would assume that’s a yes. He is very light and easy to pick up.

 

Callister shrugged, bent and easily lifted Alex over his shoulder, carrying him to the medics.

 

…Once it seems everything is dealt with, Lili vanishes as quickly as she arrived. To do god knows what.

 

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.