Recovery: Sin on the Run

 

SOMEWHERE IN MONTREAL

 

The first thing that had scared Sin was the fact that being blasted out of the old broad’s home had nearly killed him. He took out a wall with him, and he was lucky enough to land in some shrubs. Otherwise, there was a very real chance that he would have broken his neck. He was still aching and limping, having cleared the Prestwich’s estates high gates and finding a nice alley to rest in, when the first APB went out: The Legion were after him.


Okay, well, that wasn’t a surprise, or so he was able to reason. He could avoid the Legion, the half blind idiots who barely were around these days.


And then the Freelancers put out their APB.

 

It was becoming increasingly clear that Sin was the most wanted man in the world.


“Shit, shit, shit, shit shit shit…” he muttered over and over again, as he stood up. He’d managed to react quickly enough to not die, and shrubbery, goddamned shrubbery, might have saved him from being dead or a fuckin’ quadriplegic. Oh, and there was his damned arm… hanging at an odd angle. Fuck. He’d called the chain back, and formed the metamorphic slime into a improvised sling to hold his arm while it healed, and booked it to said alley. His head HURT. It was like the mental equivalent of pulling a muscle, and any time he tried to use his TK, his headache got worse and worse.

 

And then the APB’s came in, hearing from the TV store close to his alley. There weren’t enough four letter words to world to describe how fucked he was. Okay. Deep breaths. First things first. Change of clothes. Haircut. Sunglasses and a hat. Bus tickets to one of his sa- which was in Detroit. Fuck. Hokay. Clothes and disguise first… but just going to … rest here a moment. He tried to get his head on straight, but it was pounding. Not… really not good.

 

He tried to stand again, and his vision swam. Just a moment to sit, just a moment to rest. That’s all he needed.

 

His head drooped, and then there was a hand wrenching it up so that he would make eye contact. It took him a moment to process the sudden assault, that it had even happened. His vision blurred, settled, and then… the face of his new acquaintance became clear.

 

There was both good news and bad news:

The good news is that the person who had found him in the alley way was neither Legion, nor was she Freelancer.

 

She was Anathema.

 

Anathema, once known as Hyacinth Mills, was one of the most powerful psychics in the world, and she had been presumed dead decades ago. She had killed Robert and Sandra Fishby – the Oathkeeper’s parents – and nearly killed Alice as well. The Legion had locked down Twin Falls, and took her into custody. She escaped, and then… vanished. People thought she was dead, a few conspiracy theorists insisted she had reformed and was now running a bakery, or something…

 

And yet, here she was.

 

In front of Sin.


And the scariest part of this entire situation, worse than the APBs, worse than the injuries?

Is that she was smiling.

 

Sin knew who she was, of course. The damned woman was a legend among criminals. She’d been the closest of anyone that Sin knew to truly icing Oathkeeper, and had kept ahead of the law for longer than he’d probably been alive. His eyes, unfocused slightly as they were, turned a brilliant green for a moment, before dulling. “Well. Fuck me. Either I got hit a lot harder than I thought, or you’re THE Anathema.” There was a bit of hero worship, maybe just a little. And respect. And a healthy dose of fear.

 

Anathema’s smile widened, and she ran her tongue along her teeth. “Sssssssinner.” Was the first word she hissed out. “You’re a terrible little sinner, aren’t you? Lost and alone in the world? Oh dear, dear, dear.”

He laughed, weakly. He couldn’t help it. Here was the gal that made people quake in their boots, made a rep for herself by murdering the family of the most famous hero of his generation, and kept. ON. GOING. How do you react when you’re talking to a legend? His pride swelled. At least before he bought it, he got to KNOW that she was alive.  His eyes darkened to a deep, deep purple.

 

“Yeah. Picked a fight, wasn’t prepared for. Got cheated, by a fuckin’ hero, of all people.” He laughs again. After trying to murder Estelle, he wouldn’t hold it against her. He got played, she did damn good. Oh, he still try to kill her if he ever saw her again, that’s just principle. But she won that round.  He shrugged, weakly. “Ain’t goin’ back without a fight, though. No, ma’am.” Of course, he could just be hallucinating. He didn’t take mushrooms before the fight, did he? He didn’t think so.

 

“You think I’ll turn you into the Legion or the Freelancers? You think I’m here as your enemy?” Anathema laughed; a hoarse, bitter sound that was creaky from disuse. “I could give you to the mercenary pig dogs, and they’d get your hooks in you in their false social rehabilitation, as if their values mean anything. Or I could give you to the Legion, and they’d parade you in front of a sham of a trial, pretend like their justice means anything. No, no, no. None of that would do. God spoke to me, and His justice is what matters. Now, let me ask you. Why are you such a bitter little sinner?”

Sin looked at her, head tilting just a little. “Why?” He laughs again, taking a deep breath afterwards. “‘cause they’re all fucks. Saying this, doing that. People, that is. Get down to it, everyone’s would be just as bad, as evil as they say I am. I’m just…. enlightened. No reason not to party, to drink, to fuck, to kill, to live it up. I just want… everything, everything that people just deny themselves.”

 

He leaned his head back, laughing weakly. “M’ mom, fuck her rotten corpse, thought that if she lived in denial of everything, prayed to God and followed the fuckin’ Oathkeeper’s example, she’d get to go to heaven. Fuckin’ bitch screamed you’ve got the darkness in you, Blake, but deny the world! DENY IT.” He rolled his eyes. “Tried to carve whatever darkness I had out with a crowbar, said it was the only way. Mom wasn’t all that intelligent, really. So after she came after me, I bashed her skull in.” He shrugs, and then grins, evilly. One of his first good memories. “After that…. realized, whatever. Whatever the fuck was wrong with her, I wasn’t gonna be. Denyin’ sin was bad, so Hell, I’ll embrace it. Heh.”

 

Anathema’s amethyst eyes scan’s Sin’s face as if hunting for truth, and then her smile disappears. She nods grimly. “You are so close to being a man of God, an honest man. You understand that… Fishby is a heretic, a false example sent to test us. You understand that we must take what we want, stomp out opposition. Your language needs work. I do not care for your profanity. And you will be respectful. And in exchange for these small currencies, I will save you from the grasping hands of both Legion and Freelancer. Do you understand?”

Sin blinked, rubbed his ears with his good hand, as if not believing what he was hearing. He took a deep breath. In for a penny, in for a pound. She might be crazy, but she was the only help he was going to get. When she emphasized respectful, he may or may not have let out a little scared meep. Maybe. But then he realized what she was offering, really realizing, and green and purple warred for supremacy in his eyes. “Y-yes. Yes, ma’am. I understand.”

 

“Good.” The word hissed out of her mouth like steam escaping from a valve. She clapped her hands four times. “Attend to me!”

Out of the shadows came four men, each one built like a truck. Their jaws were slack, their eyes glazed over with a dull purple sheen. Anathama smiled, coiling herself around one of them and patting him on the jaw. “Good boys. Don’t worry, sinner. These are my loyal servants, who have fully consented to allowing me to wear them. I think you… will work best independently. Have you ever been to the Underground?”

“The portal group? Yes, ma’am. Though, they’re a bit… unreliable at times. Use ‘em only when I have to.” He nodded nervously, but a little more confidently when he realized that she wasn’t going to brain drain him like her meat puppets. “Expensive, too.”

 

“If you have to pay, you’re not using them right. I will teach you. Boys, carry him.”

And then Anathema, the most dangerous woman in the world, a woman with the Oathkeepers’ sights on her, a woman who was escorting a man who was on every television screen and comm unit, turned and glided into the street as though she had not a care in the world.


And no one did approach. The streets were empty. Why? Had she… Perhaps it was better not to wonder.

 

She eventually turned and tried the door of a local electronics repair shop that advertised FULL REPAIRS ON NOVA, MCGOWAN, AND INFINITI PRODUCTS. She tried the knob, twisting it. The door was locked.

 

“Boys, open it. The Underground cannot hide from us.”

Sin was carried. He was a big dude, but the dudes carrying him were built. He knew guys like this in prison, more muscle than brain usually, but with Anathema riding in their skulls…. scary. And then the streets were empty. His jaw dropped a little, and he looked around. It was a ghost town. The place had been busy as hell not ten minutes ago. What…. oh damn. Just…. damn. He’d hooked up with some real power here. It scared him… and his eyes changed to green. He wanted that kind of power.

 

And now was a chance to help, even a little. His mind was calming, the headache less. “Please, allow me, ma’am.” He reached out with his free hand, and made a twisting motion with his wrist. The lock snapped inside the door, and the door gently came open with a creak. The rest had helped, yeah. Definitely. Only a little headache, now

 

“Ma’am. I like that. Respectful.” Anathema turned to him, balanced between the two goons, and ran a finger under his chin, making eye contact. She smiled. “You can be taught. This way.”


The store was empty, tablets and phones, cords and gadgets, comms and Legion and Freelancer merchants lining the walls. Anathema moves to the register. “Boys… which one of you used to work here? Was it you, ah… you.” She beckoned. “Open this.”

The man obediently moved to the register and punched in the code. The back wall of merchandise spun, revealing a hidden pathway and a staircase heading down, down into the darkness.

 

Sin shook his head, lightly, making sure the TK use doesn’t make his vision swim again. Well, so far, he was healing… ish. “Underground do know their stuff. Ah, I think… I might be good enough to walk, now.” It wouldn’t do to show the Underground, or anyone else, weakness right now.

 

“Let him stand, but if he runs, knock him down and take both of his legs off by force.” Anathema says, stepping into the darkness. A light radiates from her left hand – a silvery glow that shifts into deep purples and blacks, illuminating the halls around her. The staircase loops around, leading downwards, downwards, downwards…

 

And then, there was the Underground. This waystation was built into an old basement.

 

Sin didn’t run. He knew when that would be a bad idea. He followed Anathema, and with her henchmen following him, down, down into the darkness. There were chills up his spine, and mentally, his mind was racing. Okay, a legendary bad lady just saved his weak ass. They’re heading into the Underground. Somehow, she’s keeping both the Legion and Freelancers off of your sorry, TK’d out ass. Check. He didn’t know HOW good a psychic Anathema was, or if she could read his mind. Maybe not, or maybe she was just hiding that power to use as backup. Either way, he couldn’t afford to not be useful to her, not right now. He wouldn’t survive another fight right now. Survival, even Pride bows before it. But Sloth could be useful right now too. His eyes changed to a light brown, and he looked around in the darkness.

 

“Guys, it is one thing to keep me waiting and in the dark. It is a whole different ball game to keep HER waiting. Do you really want to do that?” He shrugged at the people hiding, and watching.

 

“Please,” a female voice said. “We’ll – We’re afraid, the Freelancers -”

“Are not here.” Anathema hissed, stepping forward. The harsh angles and slopes of her face were illuminated by her glowing light. “And I am.”

And then the Paranormal charged Anathema – a man with short cropped dark hair and char marks on his face, an aura of smoke around him.

 

Sin moved as soon as the he recognized the man was charging, tapping the sling, which writhed and launched itself at the smoking man, changing into the heavy spiked chain that managed to do so much damage to Nat earlier. It whipped towards the man’s torso and neck with violent force, intending to wrap and bind and possibly clothesline him.

 

Sin’s chain pulls the Paranormal away from Anathema, and hurls him into the corner of the room – where he explodes. The blast shakes the foundations of the basement.


“Oh, well done.” Anathema breathes. “I believe you just saved my life. And I will reward that appropriately, but first…”

She raises her hands. “Lord, help me -”

And then she begins to drink in the darkness in the room.

 

“Of course… ma’am….” Sin kind of trails off as she starts EATING the darkness, somehow. Ow, his head. Ow, his arm. He tried to hold it close to his torso, ignoring the pain in his head and arm.

 

Anathema holds the darkness in the palm of her hand, and she smiles. “Underground staff, you will perform your jobs, and you will open a portal for three to my destination, or… well, it’ll be clear what happens next.”

The staff immediately scrambled to their posts, the portal began to churn, and Anathema beckoned. “Boys, stay here. Sin, bring the Paranormal now that he’s burned out. Come. Quickly.”

The chain squeezed tight to make sure that the Blast Boy was bound well enough, and lifted into the air. Upside down. Just for that extra cruelty. Blast Boy bobbed behind Sin, as the portal opened. His left eye twitched, but he bites down on the pain. No pain, no gain.

 

Travelling through the Underground was always disorienting. There was a moment of limbo, of floating in nothing.

 

But this time, Sin heard a voice:

 

You know this is wrong. There’s time to turn back…

 

The voice of Estelle Prestwich?

 

???



And then they were at their destination:  Anathema’s home.

 

Sin didn’t know what he expected, but it wasn’t this:  A two story home with an attic and a basement in the suburbs of America.

 

“Final stop, ma’am?” He looked to Anathema, ignoring the equivalent of a burning, stretched and exhausted muscle in his head. The other paranormal floated like a small bobber in a bond behind Sin, the chains grasping him.

 

“You will see where I do my good work eventually. But this is my home. Please, wipe your feet at the door and take off your shoes. I will show you to your bedroom.”

“Yes, ma’am. Is there a spot I can store the, ah, baggage?” He gestured to the floating paranormal behind him, as he removed his shoes carefully, with one hand.

 

“I will see to that. You are injured, and you need to heal. You may use the bedroom upstairs, on the left.”

He nodded, and the man dropped like a sack of potatoes. He padded up to the upstairs bedroom, on the left, adjusting his sling as he went up. He looked out the window before settling on the bed, trying to find where or what city he might be in. Everything hurt. Things might not be looking up, not yet. But at least he had a chance…

 

Maybe a snowball’s chance in hell. Ah well. Better than no chance at all. He sat on the bed, then kicked his feet up, lying down. He was a light sleeper, usually, but dreamland took him quickly then and there, with Sloth changing his eyes to a deep, deep brown.…. and he had nightmares of amethyst eyes, dominating the demons.

 

When he awaoke, it was dark. Sin heard the noises of pots and pans, running water and knife against cutting board. He wasn’t in pain, and his arm was almost healed – still tender, but another day, and he’d be able to use it again. He walked downstairs, cautiously.

 

A woman stood at the counter.

 

The thing is about Nova and McGowan medical tech in every hospital, and Paranormals helping the healing process along, and the (as the Infinity Report once famously called it) Utopia of Tomorrow, is that people aged, but it was with grace. Extended lifespans, staying healthier longer.

 

This woman was old. Old World old. Her cheeks were sunken in, her face lined, her hair stark white. Her eyes had that same purple glaze.

 

“Daughter, your guest is awake.”

“Thank you, mother.” Anathema stood from the chair she was curled up in. “Did you sleep well?”

Sin nodded, hesitantly. “Recharged and almost a ‘undred percent. Arm is still a little tender, another day and I’ll be right as rain. Nothing like a decent amount of sleep to help things along.” He looked at Anathema’s mother, then at Anathema herself.. “Thank… you. For getting me out of there.” With Anathema’s almost insane need for politeness, he figured it couldn’t hurt… and keep him one step away from being hijacked.

 

“You’re welcome.” She glanced at her mother. “Does Mathilda alarm you?”

“No, just… Very domestic. I don’t know what I was expecting, but it wasn’t this. Ma’am.” Remember the titles. Still not a hundred percent yet.

 

She throws her head back and laughs. “I’m not a monster. I enjoy food and rest and home as much as anyone. While you stay here, you will need a name.”

Sin was flabbergasted. “I assume my rap sheet is out there, so, I can’t use my real name. Codenames are no good either, I assume? Jacob… Marcone, I suppose? If that will work?”

 

“Jacob, then. We are in Twin Falls, Idaho. The city belongs to me. Shop, explore, browse at your leisure. For now? I must plan, and talk to our… Paranormal friend downstairs. I’m sure you understand.”

He nodded, as he does understand. Poor guy. Better him than Sin, though. And… the whole city belonged to her? Christ on a cracker. Did people not notice this kind… of thing…. Yeah, he was in over his head. Nothing he could do, now, though. “Yes ma’am.” He knew a dismissal when he hears one, he’d worked with and against those asshats in the Family for long enough. He exited the house. Time to explore the city.

 

Where There’s Smoke: The Peace of Twin Falls

The odd thing about Twin Falls, Sin realized, is that the city wasn’t really a city at all. It behaved more like an organic being. If he wanted a drink, the people lining the streets would point him towards a bar. If he wanted to fight, someone would oblige and smash a glass. If he wanted to be left alone, he was left alone.


Except these weren’t pod people, or robots, or aliens. They looked like, well, normal people. Time had worn their faces, they bled (Sin had tested that little hypothesis extensively), and the farther you got away from Anathema’s modest house, the more… people-like they acted.

 

The longer you stayed in Twin Falls, the more you realized just how much control Anathema had over the city. It wasn’t a city – it was just an extension of the woman.


And so, you couldn’t help but be a little nervous when she called you to her home for a chat.

 

Sin involuntarily shivered when one of the people just up and told him that Anathema wanted to talk to him. They maybe acted like people. They might have looked like people. But whatever she’d done to them, they weren’t people anymore. Just…. meat suits. The first fight he’d gotten in was fun enough, and won, handily. But then after two, or three,  he realized that they were letting him win. And then they were letting him drink, and eat, and do whatever he wanted. When a cute girl or guy walked across his way, and his thoughts naturally turned towards that darker way, he saw their eyes, and the thoughts fled in the fear of those amethyst eyes. He really, really didn’t want to know Anathema in that way, and knowing that these people didn’t have any choice in the matter…. took all of the fun out of the idea.  And so he didn’t.

 

Half the fun of what he did was knowing that it offended, or made angry, or was just crazy enough that he enjoyed it, and usually other folks enjoyed it with him. This… he was the only one in the city. Him, and all of Anathema. Still. It was power. Just… maybe not the kind he wanted.

 

Sin, however, HAD taken advantage of the city’s moderate wealth. New shoes, new suit, new wallet, new sunglasses, new haircut. He looked the very definition of a man of wealth and taste. Black suit, red tie, very snazzy. Sunglasses that were just the latest fashion. The iPhone 12. Black hair cleaned, styled, and spiked in a crazy way. He’d been healed up, and everything felt better, and his confidence was back. His TK was back. Yeah, he was nervous… but it was a much more even playing field. Oh, and the metamorphic slime, his current ace in the hole, wrapped around his chest underneath the suit. Anyone tackled him like Nat did, they’d be in for a spikey surprise.

 

He knocked gently, twice, on Anathema’s door, polite as can be, deep purple eyes shining and a confident smirk, belying the deep nervousness inside.

 

Mathilda opens the door – that same old woman with the sunken eyes who had been eaten by Anathema from the inside out. You’re beckoned into the living room, and given some ice cold lemonade and cheese tea biscuits. “Thanks, Mathilda, you’re a sweetheart.”

 

It would be pleasant, if not for… well. The entire Twin Falls and Anathema situation.

 

There’s a young man in room. He wasn’t noticeable at first, but he’s in the corner hidden by the door as Sin walked in. He affects a bored attitude, casually caressing the hilt of his sword in a gloved hand. His attention is on Anathema, looking at her through lashes heavy with mascara and with eyes lined with a well practiced dark pencil. The young man is both handsome and fit. Dressed in a silky red shirt that matched scarlet hair that was too bright and too vibrant to be anything dye, he lounged with loose, long limbs in an armchair.

 

Then his eyes flick up to look at Sin. There’s resentment there, under the cosmetics and bored furrow. And a distinct lack of purple in his red eyes.

 

“This is my son.” Anathema says by way of introduction. Her lips are thinned into a sharp line of irritation. “Callister, stop being rude. I taught you manners, didn’t I? Introduce yourself. And straighten your back.”

 

Callister slouches upwards in a strangely graceful movement that reveals his shirt is buttoned only halfway up. His hair is in that specific arrangement that looked like it casually falls that way naturally but was probably the result of hours in front of the mirror. “Apologies, Mother.” He bowed in her direction, then at Sin, a more shallow bow. “Callister Rayne, The Red Knight.”

 

Sin opens his mouth, pauses a second, takes a moment to register that Callister is Anathema’s son. He bites back all the goth snark and the question if he needed to go blog about his emotions soon. He’s never going to like this pretty boy, but, he’s Anathema’s kid. Shit. Well, guess shoving that sword up his ass and bending him until his sword breaks inside his ass isn’t going to happen. Oh well. The little bow of pretentiousness causes another attack of snark to hit, but he swallows it down. It is a struggle, not to start talking in Ye Olde Englishe. “Right. Sin, or Jacob, as my current alias is.” He just… nods at Callister, instead of putting him through the wall.

 

Anathema’s eyes bore into Sin. “I can see your thoughts,” she says simply. “My son may be simple, and not the man of faith I need him to be yet. But if you lay a single finger on him, I will turn you inside out and twist you around until you scream apologies to the sky.”

He was that easy to read? Was it on his face or could she really read his thoughts that well? Shit. He shrugged, and took a sip of that honestly awesome lemonade. Evil lemonade tasted better, who knew? “Of course, ma’am. You are, after all, the boss.” Pride grumbled, wrath spat curses in his head, but greed and envy nodded wisely. Gluttony wanted the cheese tea biscuits. “Did y’ need me for something, ma’am?”

 

“How do you like my city thus far?”

“I’m impressed.” And he was. “You’ve made it yours, in body and soul, ma’am. I wouldn’t have thought it possible, but, my eyes are opening every day that I spend here. Though, to be honest, it is a bit… midwestern for me. I’m used to the big cities. No offense meant, ma’am.”

 

“There had better not be any offence meant.” Callister glowered, a dog at the ready.

 

“Down, Callister. He is a worldly man. See what the outside will do to you?” She turns her attention back onto Sin. “The initial flurry of attempting to apprehend you has died down. And the Midnight always needs new converts, new flesh and blood and minds and souls. I send emissaries out to find such troubled people, bring them home unto the flock. You might serve well as such a messenger.”

“Glad to hear it. Tried to change my look up slightly so that I could be of some use on the outside.” New converts. Meaning more people for her to enslave, perhaps. Or spread the word of the Midnight, her source of power, what she worshiped, he guessed. He nodded, thoughtfully. “There’s always folks looking for a new way. Been offended, persecuted, looking for the ‘way’, you know? People are hungry for that kind of thing. To be a part of something bigger. Though, I have to ask. Are you looking for quantity, because we can find that. Or are we looking for quality, like that Paranormal we grabbed on our way here?”

 

“Paranormals are difficult to crack, dangerous. The man in the cellar still insists his Legion is coming to save him. He will not let me in. Not yet. If you bring me Paranormals, make them ones who are short on will and insecure. Bring me Paranormals with cracks that I can exploit. That is the problem, the flaw with my power I have yet to solve. I need their damnable permission.”

Sin nods, thinking. This could work. She needed people short on will, insecure. He remained focus, pride in the forefront. Pride was the best thinker, out of all his sins. “Two ways I think we can go about this, then, ma’am. People nobody will miss, giving them a better life kind of thing. Runaways, orphans, drug addicts, the lowest of low. I know it doesn’t sound appealin’, but they do hear things, the underground of the underworld, as it were. They’ll be the information. Nobody’ll really miss them, and if we do it right, they’ll appear to be better functioning members of society, who’ll also spread th’ word. With them, we can find others. Paranormals who’ve slipped through th’ cracks.

 

Paranormals with no homes, no real place. People ripe for you, ma’am. Because they’ll be part of the Midnight. Part of somethin’…. bigger.” He pauses, thinking.

 

“Either plan will work. But you will need to discuss that with Callister, won’t you? He’ll be accompanying you.”

The kid in the red shirt sneers, flipping his long hair aside. “By God’s grace, it will be a pleasure to work with you.” There were layers in that sentence, some words he meant, some he definitely did not.

 

“You both will need to check in. You’ve been given full access to the Underground. It should be easy for you two to travel, and return home when need be.”

“Of course, mother. I will prove myself to God and to you.”

 

“You got it, ma’am.” He rises, and finishes off his lemonade, and polishes off those damned delicious biscuits. He cracks his neck, and looks at Callister. “You know, you’re lucky. The first place I’d like to visit, you’ll fit right in.” Sin makes a window with his hands, viewing Callister as if a movie producer. “The girls will love you, and the guys will too.”

 

Sin grins evilly, as he puts his hands in his jacket pockets. “If we want to see how each plan might be, we need to go to the lowest place on earth. I practically named myself for it.”

 

Anathema says nothing, but her amethyst eyes shift onto Callister, heavy with expectations.


Callister sniffs disdainfully. “Worldy expectations are beneath me. God has shown me my path.”

 

Sin’s eyes flash gold for a second, and he chuckles. “That, that last line right there.” He looks to Anathema. “That’s the kind of certainty we’re going to need in Vegas.”

 

Bonding Agents: Homecoming

The Underground don’t even look at either Sin and Callister anymore. They keep their heads down and get the teleportation working.

 

And before long, they were outside Anathema’s childhood home.

 

Sin arrives, and rubbed his chin. He might have gone too far with this one. Lost his temper. He stood  outside the house, wondering what Anathema was going to do. He hadn’t even really begun the cult, only about a hundred people were now enslaved to Anathema through the Midnight Gathering. Pretentious name, but it got people to show up.

 

Now, he’d stirred things up again. He wasn’t sure if he was ready to go toe to toe with Anathema, especially with Callister here backing her up. Well. If it was time…. He’d go All In.

 

Beside him, Callister shrugged and settled his shoulders. He didn’t seem bothered, and sometime along the way, Callister had lost his sneer around Sin. The boy simmered, however, still stinging from Alice’s words.

 

“She wasn’t right, was she?” Then he bit his tongue. He was never to show that much weakness in front of Sin.

 

Sin looked at Callister. The kid was… well, a kid. Bit of sympathy wouldn’t hurt, but neither would lying to the kid.

 

“I dunno, Cal. Could be your mom never even realized it. It could be that she really is that obsessed with Alice.” He took a breath.

 

“But, just want t’ tell you. That doesn’t matter. You choose who you are, now. You’re old enough to make that kinda decision.” Sin shrugged, and walked up to the door, knocked twice.

 

Mathilda opened the door. Callister paused to kiss his grandmother on the cheek. She silently led them to the parlor, before serving them lemonade and ginger snaps, bowing, and leaving.

 

Anathema swept in shortly afterwards. Her eyes fell on Callister, and she smiled.

 

“My son.” She said, voice warm. “I saw the feed. You were magnificent. You are truly my son.”

Recent doubt fled, surprise almost causing him to smile. “Mother.”


Her amethyst eyes shifted to Sin. “Is she dead?”

“She’ll live. I don’t kill steal. She’s your kill, not mine.” He waited for either the explosion of rage, and the fight of his life, a derisive comment, or praise. He’s not sure which, but he’ll be ready for either. He’s calm, and proud of what he’s done, dark purple eyes matching Anathema’s own amethyst gaze equally and calmly.

 

She smiled. “Good. Good. You both played your part well. It could not have gone any better. Things have… accelerated. We could not predict that. But we will overcome. Good.”

Sin nodded, though inside he was a bit concerned. “The Midnight Gathering group is growing, faster than I’d hoped, but still more slowly than what we’d need, I think. I know Callister did one hell of a job grabbing that Paranormal, Smokescreen, but we’re going to need a lot more muscle if we’re going to war.”

 

“The first boy who attacked me… Paul, I think. A good name. He is converted. He has let me in. He will return home to the Legion. This Smokescreen… She will let me in soon. She is ripe with self hatred. And she will go to the Freelancers.”

“Interesting. With, ah, Paul, in the right place, we could bring down the flying fortress. Or recruit less known folks. Same with Smokescreen…” Sin rubbed his chin, thoughtfully.

 

Callister nodded. A two prong attack. “We need one more, for PHALANX. Surely they will come when they see the Legion in danger.”

 

“That will take time. PHALANX are hard to find, reclusive.” She smiled. “You will find one for me, I am sure of it.”

 

Sin nodded again, thinking. “Extraterrestrials. They deal with…. The machine aliens, usually. Make a ruckus with them, perhaps, and they’ll send some of their boys down to earth. Another question. Can you possess one of those Machine Aliens?” Sin’s mind worked overtime. This was going to be one hell of a war.

 

“Other than that, I’m not sure.”

 

“Machines have nothing for me. I deal with flesh and blood and souls.” Anathema admitted, in a way that suggested that she was not a fan of it. “Callister. My son. I am so proud of you. I have something to ask of you.”

Callister snapped his head up. “Mother, anything.”

 

“You put cracks in the Oathkeeper’s mind. Cracks I can use to enter her. We will continue that. Deliver this card to her bedside.” Anathema produces one, slipping into her son’s hand.

 

Callister took the card and slipped it into his inner jacket pocket. “I will do this.” He looked stunned at the continued praise.

 

“I would speak to Sin alone, please.”

Sin raised an eyebrow. Oh shit.

 

“Of course, Mother.” He leaned in to kiss her cheek goodbye then he turned and left, presumably to join Mathilda in the kitchen.

 

Anathema swept towards Sin. “You are a man of the world.” She said. “Have you considered… settling down?”

Both eyebrows shot way up. This was not going to where he thought it was…. Uhhh… “Settling down, ma’am? Never. That ain’t the life I want t’ live. I’ve seen people with that kind of thing, and I know it isn’t for me. I couldn’t ever do that.”

 

She looks… hurt? “Ah. I meant – I didn’t mean offense, I simply meant – perhaps as – political move – you said this was a war, and…”

Was she hitting on him?

Sin blinks. Wait, she’s wait. Wait, what? All seven demons in Sin’s head just kinda freeze, and Sin’s mind comes to a screeching halt. Pride starts screaming, Lust is in the corner crying, Sloth rolls over, Wrath bangs his head against the wall, Greed and Envy go back to fighting over things, and Gluttony whines about more food and drugs.

 

Pride finally starts making coherent sense. Don’t piss off your boss don’t piss off your boss don’t piss off your boss.

 

“Ah, I’m sorry, ma’am, I…. don’t mean offense to you, either. I just…  Uh.” SPIN SOME BULLSHIT DAMMIT.

 

“I don’t think I could do that kind of thing, that kind of relationship. It ain’t in me. When we win this thing, ma’am, I’ll probably be off stirring up trouble somewhere else. Kinda addicted to it.”


There was a pause, and then she nodded. “It is an open offer. Leave me, now. I need to plan.”

“Yes, ma’am”. Sin nods, and walks out. He doesn’t stop at the door, he doesn’t stop to say later to Callister, he doesn’t stop until he’s far into the plains of Idaho, checks to make sure no one is around, puts his head against the ground, and starts screaming into the dirt.

 

Distant Thunder: Keep the Receipts

A PARK BENCH

ROCK CITY

 

The most famous woman on Earth sat on a bench, wearing a heavy hat to hide her short hair – but the scowl was evidence that this was Alice McGowan in the flesh. Her arms were crossed in annoyance, and she tapped the toes of one boot against the concrete.

 

Callister ambled by. Hands in jean pockets, he wore a dark red shirt with the words “Fuck your Unicorns”, a couple of leather bracelets, and just one decorative belt looped loosely over his hips. He came to a stop several feet away from the bench, and slouched indolently. A lollipop stuck out from the corner of his mouth.

 

Alice assessed him from the bench, and then lifted the wide brimmed hat to glare at Callister.


Callister shrugged back. “Chuppachup?” His hand came out from his pocket with a handful of candy.

 

“Are you seriously offering me candy?”

Geeze you don’t have to take it.” He crunched the one in his mouth between his teeth, and unwrapped another to replace it.

 

There was a long pause. “If Tabitha knew I had actually followed up on this, she would be furious. So, for her sake, I am going to try diplomacy. …Are you the son of Anathema?”

“That’s what it says on my birth certificate.” A lazy shrug followed that.

 

“Do you know what she’s done?”

Callister shifted the chuppachup around his mouth with his tongue. “Do you know what you have done?”

 

That surprised her. “If you think I’ve committed crimes, present me with the evidence. I’m not ashamed of anything I’ve done.”

“You made her, you know. You pushed her to this.” His tone was almost bored.

 

“By doing what? Saving the world? Being the Oathkeeper? Healing the sick?”

“By milking every bit of sympathy from your sister’s death. Can you even sing? Mother says dying crows sound better than you.”

 

Alice’s face twists in hurt. “What does Mary have to do with this? I… Singing? I was in choir, at church? I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“Yeah, you wouldn’t have heard about it. Poor little Alice, her sister died. Can’t tweet two notes, but let’s kick Hyacinth out and let’s put put pretty Alice in the choir.” He played with his bit of candy with his teeth, hands seemingly sewn into his pockets, they hadn’t moved.

 

“Hyacinth?” Alice was staring at Callister, mouth slightly open. “I… She was in the choir? I didn’t make that decision, they just told me there was room for me, I never even brought Katie up, I would never have -”

“So, can you sing? Are you really worse than dying crows? Makes you wonder why they invited you to the choir, huh?”

 

“I don’t know, I – I think I’m alright at it? I never thought -”

Callister gave her a bored look. “Like, I don’t care. Whatever. Here’s the receipts.” He pulled out an envelope from the back of his jeans and tossed neatly to the seat beside Alice. There were two movie stubs and a receipt from a burger bar in Rock City, and a strip of photobooth snaps of Callister and a young man several years older than him. They both held up the receipts, Callister smirking, the young man with a bemused smile.

 

Alice looked at the receipts and the photos, and her face turned from hurt to confusion. “You’re… dating him? Does he know who you are?”

Callister shrugged broad shoulders. “Will probably tell him eventually.”

 

She continued to stare at the photos. “What’s your end game with this?”

Callister just stared at Alice. In another person, it might be construed as confusion. “What fucking endgame?”

 

She shoved the receipts and photos back into the envelope and tossed it at Callister. “You threatened to kill me. You’re evil. You don’t date people and have fun with neat people like a – normal person.”

“Whatever. That’s Mother’s fight with you. Anyway, I’m late for mass.” He turned on his heel.

 

“Wait!” There was something desperate in her voice, but not threatening; she didn’t give chase or sound angry. “Wait, please. Just two more minutes.”

He half turned, waiting.

 

“I… I’m sorry. For what I just said. And I’m sorry for what I said in the cafe. I… know I’m… not perfect. I… Nat’s like another kid to me, and… When I find your mother, there will be a reckoning. But until then, can we call a truce? I can’t keep living with this hate in my heart every time I see you say something or be with one of my friends.”

Callister gave her a long and even stare with his ruby red eyes. Eventually he said, “She wanted me to deliver you a card to leave on your hospital room bedside. I never did it. You and mother fight it out. You win and she dies, we may be enemies. But for now, truce.”

 

“Okay. Truce.” Alice extended a hand.

 

Callister took it. His grip was just firm and measured.


“Okay.” she said. “Truce.” She took a long pause. “And if you want to….. Bring Nat over…. For dinner some time. To our place.”

The words were physically hurting her to say.

Callister looked amused. He let her hand go. “Nah. Nat and I aren’t like that.” He turned again, slouching his way back the way he came.

 

“H-Happy Easter!” Alice calls at his back, and then stares at her own hands.


“Callister,” Tabitha nodded politely as she approached him, wearing a fine fitted trenchcoat and approaching from—where??

 

“Ma’am,” he replied like he wasn’t dressed like he was part of a goth-punk rock band.

 

Alice looked up from the bench, saw Tabitha approaching, and her eyes widened. She pulled the brim of her hat down and hunched in on herself in an attempt at hiding.


“How’d things go with Alice,” Tabitha asked casually.

 

“Oh well, you know.” Callister shrugged like it meant something.

 

“Of course. You’ll treat young Benny Schuster all right, yes? His sister drives the most dangerous personal tank in human manufacture.”

 

Something like a challenge appeared in Callister’s eye. He gave the moonless sky a speculative glance and the corner of his mouth lifted to a hint of a wolfish grin. “I’ll keep that in mind.” He made it sound like sounds like a good fight. “Yeah, Benny’s sweet. I don’t hurt people who don’t want it.”

 

“Thank you. Tell your mother I said ‘see you soon’.” She nodded to him, then walked past, toward the flawlessly-disguised park goer. Callister shrugs and slouches his way away.

 

The park goer remains still on the bench, hat pulled down low. There’s a long, awkward silence.

 

“How’d it go,” Tabitha asked.

 

Alice lifted the brim of her hat. “We called a truce.” She admits.


Tabitha nodded for a few moments, making a kind of ‘not bad’ frown. “Good. Glad to hear it.”

 

“I apologized.” She adds. “For… some things. And I have to talk to Dr. Meda about… other things.”

“Understood,” Tabitha nodded, then took a deep breath and let it out slowly. “I’m very glad that it went alright. I wasn’t looking forward to intervening.”

 

“…I think I can return to the field. I… I’m doing better, Tabitha.” She gestures in the direction Callister left. “I’m doing better.”

Tabitha looked at her for a while, then nodded. “I’ll bring it up with the other Generals, okay? Maybe we can get you back on the field soon.”

 

“Okay.” Alice said, and then, after a long pause. “I wanted to hit him a little.”

The Cult of Midnight: Breakthrough

THE MILLS HOUSE

TWIN FALLS, IDAHO

 

“Callister?” Anathema’s voice called. “Callister, my son?”

He had been called home an hour or so earlier. Something about this felt wrong.

 

“Mother?” He came down the stairs, buttoning up his shirt. His hair was still wet, dragging against his shoulders and sticking in damp strands.

 

“I received a report from our friend in the Infinity Legion.” Anathema stood, her back to him, at the bay windows. “About the Oathkeeper.”

“Yes, how is she?” Callister smiled, pulling his hair up into a bun. He looked idly for the inevitable tray of biscuits but frowned when there was none around.

 

Anathema stayed by the window. Mathilda was usually there to dote on Callister, but she was strangely absent. “She is broken. You and your friend Sin went too far. Her armour faltered, her warhammer vanished. She is no longer the unstoppable, unshakable avatar of Faith.”

‘Yes? She is now and forever an easier target. She’ll falter easily to your plans.” He remained standing, but stuck his hands in his pockets and defiantly slouched.

 

“She was mine to break.” Anathema finally spins around, eyes blazing. “She would falter before me, knowing that I was the cause of all of it.”

“She does! She already blames you more than Sin or me. I don’t see what difference it makes.” Callister grew sulky as the interview went on. They did a good job. An excellent job.

 

“She nearly died. You nearly killed her. Did you know that? She was in surgery for ten hours. Touch and go. How dare you.”

“You were happy then! And she’s now much more ready to give in to you.”

 

“How dare you speak back to me, defy me. You are lucky, you insolent little child, that I’m willing to forgive you.”

“What do you want me to do? It’s done! You should be grateful that we did all your hard work for you!”

 

“I want you to find Sin.” Anathema approached, looking up at her son. “I pulled all of my support. Took everything away. He’s back on the run again, miserable creature that he is. Find him.”

“What? But Sin did good. Sin’s pulled me out of a lot of cra- trouble!”

 

Her approach changed, her features softening. “Callister,” she said, gently. “Do you trust me?”

“Yeah. Of course I do. You’re my mother.” He relaxed at her change of tone.

 

And then, for the first time, she said the words Callister had been yearning to hear his entire life. “I love you. Do you love me?”

“I do, Mother. I do.” He lost his impudent slouch, his hands dropped to his side.

 

She reached up, gently, placing her hand on his cheek. “Will you…”

Her eyes blazed suddenly, amethyst and cruel.

 

Let me in.”

Callister blinked at her. “Mother?” He felt it, the force of her power. He felt the strength behind her suggestion, felt the power coil behind it…and felt it slide over him like oil over water.

 

“M-mother?”

 

No, she couldn’t have . She didn’t mean to…

 

Her eyes examined his face, shocked and curious. Then she moved away, face a mask. “Good boy. Go to your room.”

“You tried to-” The words choked in his throat. “You tried to- to to take me!” Callister stumbled back.

 

She paused for a moment, as if she was considering whether to deny it or not. Then she sneered. “You wouldn’t let me in. I don’t know why, I don’t know how, but… you may be useful yet. So you may stay in my home.”

“You tried to take me!” And the rage broke free from the shackles of shock. “Me! I am your son! I have done your bidding all my life! I already was your slave!”

 

“Were you?!” She snaps back. “You talk back to me, you swear, I know you’ve been taking up with women outside my home, have you been attending Mass all this time? You are my son in blood only, but your character is weak. Taking you would have been the only way to save you, Callister.”

“I have done nothing but your work! I’ve done everything you wanted, stole Smokescreen for you, made roads on that other one….I’ve lied, killed and stolen for you!”

 

“And none of it was enough, was it?” She hissed.

 

Callister recoiled, the hurt naked on his face.

 

“What have you ever accomplished, hm? You’re a pawn, Callister, you’re a weapon. You’re good for nothing but going where I point you to.”

Callister started trembling. He swallowed, after some effort. “T-hank you for your critique, Anathema. I will endeavour to forge my own path now.” He turned on his heel, his deliberate thread going up the stairs. He could be heard moving around the rooms, then there was silence as he stilled.

 

Later, he came down, but went only to the kitchen, and soon after his car could be heard leaving.

 

There was no note.

 

There was no Mathilda.

 

There were no clothes left in either of Callister or Mathilda’s rooms.

 

Anathema stood in his room for a moment, staring. She had expected a short rebellion, a temper tantrum, and then he would return. She had groomed him to return. She had sunk two decades into this investment. And then he walked away?

She closed her eyes and moved to one of her children, a young woman on a city street. The woman turned, walked to a phone, dialed.

“Hello, 911? I’m reporting a stolen vehicle leaving Twin Falls. I saw the driver on a wanted poster – Callister Rayne, the Red Knight? I think he had a hostage. I’m scared. Can you send a hero to stop him?”

 

The Cult of Midnight: Release

A SAFEHOUSE

SOMEWHERE IN AMERICA

Callister had called, and warned Sin about an ‘incoming package’, but he didn’t expect this. His grandmother, Mathilda was ​old​, and old in a weird way. In this future, people aged well, aged with tight skin and bright eyes and good health. Even people who were sick – actually sick – looked better than Mathilda.  She looked old, and worn out, and tired. She couldn’t be more than seventy, but she looked two hundred and ten. She looks at you with dull amethyst eyes as Callister loads her out of his car.

 

“We’ve left her,” said Callister without preamble. “She tried to take me.” There was suppressed rage in the boy, rage, shock, betrayal. “How safe are we here?”

 

“Shit.” said Sin. “Well, your grandma is under her control. Shit, wasn’t sure I was ready to try this. Shit. Okay, we’ve got maybe a day before she figures out we’re here, I pretty much told everyone that was controlled by her or was about to that I was staying somewhere else, but it wouldn’t be real hard to figure out this is where I am, not after grandma tips her off. Shit.” He looks almost sympathetic towards Callister. “Sorry, man. Didn’t think she’d do that to you.”

 

“Okay. Where to from here?” The idea that Sin wouldn’t help him hadn’t crossed his mind. “We didn’t bring much. Clothes, some weapons, and all the money I had on hand.”

 

“We’ll move outta Vegas. Shit. I think we can scare the Underground into helping us for a bit longer, I’ll try to think of some places. Though, you probably need to rest, mate. You look ragged, and so does your grandma.” He sighs, thinking. “Weapons I’ve got. Money I’ve got, no worries there.” He takes a deep breath. “Yeah. Okay, let’s try this.” He looks at Callister, straight on. “Callister, I know I ain’t the most trustworthy guy, hell, if you did trust me, I’m gonna tell you right here and now, you shouldn’t. But…”

 

“You’ve been straight with me an’ I appreciate it. So I’m gonna ask you t’ trust me. I think I can get your mom out of your grandmother’s’ head. D’you want me to try and do that?”

 

Mathilda smiled blankly throughout the conversation.

 

Callister paused. The kid never looked worried, he was always nineteen and filled to the brim with confidence. But now he glanced at his grandmother. “Would it hurt her?”

 

Sin takes a deep breath. “Honestly, I dunno, kid. It might hurt. It might hurt a lot. But I think I can do it.” He takes a deep breath, trying to calm down. “But I guess you’ve gotta ask the question. D’ya really want your grandma to be under her control any longer? Think about how pissed off you were when she tried to take you. And what, your gran’s been under her control for years, now, I bet.”

 

Callister looked at Mathilda. “I…f-” He caught the swear. Not gonna swear in front of his grandmother. “I don’t remember having anything other than purple eyes. But I don’t know if she’s strong enough if it hurts.”

 

Mathilda gripped Callister’s hand with one of her own, and she smiled. “I’m strong enough for you.” she said, voice quiet. “I love you so much, Callister. I always have. I know you’ll only do the right thing.”

 

Sin blinked. “Huh. Well, that’s good enough for me, man.” Sin grimaced for a second. “And I’m going to be real brutal here, Cal. I’d rather be dead than in your mom’s control. Pretty sure your Mom was gonna try to pull the rug out from under me, hence why she didn’t know about this house, and a few other things.  But letting this one be up to you, since your gran – no offense, miss- might not be the one talkin’ right now.”

 

Callister looked at Mathilda’s old hand in his. He knew it might not be his grandmother talking…but Anathema never spoke to him like that. He swallowed the lump in his throat. “This might kill her. Can you stop before it gets too much?”

 

Mathilda just gave a vacant smile at both of them.

 

Sin shrugged. “This is new ground I’m breakin’. I’ll do my best. Can’t promise anything, though.” Sin was grim, and being as honest as he could. Kinda hurt. Kinda felt nice.

 

Callister tightened his grip on Mathilda’s hand. “Alright,” he breathed out. “Let’s try this.”

 

“My dear boy.” she murmured. “My good Callister.”

 

Right. Sin ushered her and Callister into the main living room, seating Mathilda onto a chair. Sin sat across from her, and rubbed his temples. He had ideas for this kind of thing, had told Nat that he could (Which was just BS to try and lead them along), but now … here was the real deal. And he actually kind of didn’t want to murder the old woman, or Cal. Fucking connections and their bullshitness.

 

Sin took a deep breath, and another, and focused. He focused on Mathilda’s mind, and went… in. He never really tried developing the telepathy but…. well, lets look around, as his mind’s senses delved into Mathilda’s.

 

It was like drowning in confusion, thick and foggy. Pathways had been burned out, lights have been dimmed. It was like being chest deep in water while trying to navigate a labyrinth. Then a voice called through the chaos: “Over here!”

 

Sin gathered himself in. These mind games were making sure you had a sense of self, and no one had a better sense of his own goddamn selfishness than Sin. He waded, then charged over, Pride guiding him. He was going to do this, because why? Because he kicked ass, and no one would beat him. Burning purple flames for eyes kept him through the fog, and moving forward to the Over here.

 

There was a woman struggling, waves roiling over her and threatening to drown her. Auburn hair was soaked through, blue eyes wide and wild. “Please, she’s drowning me! –“

 

In a mind, there was power, you had to make it real. Sin moved, wary, but he moved, to reach a hand out to the woman struggling. His mental TK, if that what it was, here, shoves across the waves, plowing a path, if he’s strong enough. But he might not be….

 

The waves shudder, separate, and the woman falls to her hands and knees gasping for air.  Your lungs ache, limbs go numb.

 

“Gnnghg…” Sin takes a deep breath, blinking. “Shit. I mean. Well. That -sucked-.” He rests on his hands and knees, trying to get a breath.

Callister hovered worriedly.

 

As Sin fell to his knees, struggling to breathe, Mathilda looked up. Her eyes were blue. “C-Callister?”

 

“Grandmother?” He bent beside her. “How do you feel?”

 

“Nah, friend of his.” Outside, in reality, Sin keeps talking, but his eyes are blank. “Trying to get you out, miss, from your daughter. Gonna help you focus, much as I can. Get you outta here.”

 

“She’s still in my head, Callister. She’s still, I can hear her -” Mathilda gripped her grandson’s hands. “She’s coming back for me, I only have a minute – I ​love​ you, Callister, don’t you ever listen to her –“

 

And then that purple glaze came back.

 

Inside the mindscape, Sin attempted to grab onto Mathilda, swearing profusely and creatively as he did so. Pride wasn’t enough, but now he was pissed. He was SO GODDAMNED CLOSE. Wrath joined in, swirling crimson flames around his eyes, adding to his strength, and driving some of the weakness out of his body. “No, no no lady, don’t give up yet. You’re you, and your grandson needs you, goddammit. I’m not letting her take you back.”

 

As he grasped her hand, the deep waters of confusion swirled, twisted. For a second, everything went black.

 

Then you awoke.

 

Sin was in a church. A girl sits in the front pew. She was alone.

 

In the real world, Callister gripped Mathilda’s hand with, his face full of naked emotion.

 

“What the- ” Sin walks through the church, carefully. He moves slowly, carefully, the mix of scarlet and purple flames in his eyes fading to just a mix of the iris. “Oh, dammit. Who’re you?” Though Sin had a sneaking suspicion who she might be.

 

Anathema looked up, amethyst eyes burning through a curtain of black hair. “You can never have her, and you can never have my son. I ​will​ bring them home, and I ​will​ teach Callister his place.”

 

Mathilda, clutching Callister’s hand, cries out.

 

“Grandmother!” This was going south. He gave Sin a desperate look.

 

Inside, Sin just looked at the little girl. “So this is what the mighty Anathema is. A little girl, alone in the church. She reaches out, and hollows people out, because she’s alone.” Sin laughs, loud and mockingly. “That’s all you are. You’re afraid of people leaving you. So you dominate them. Make them yours, am I right?” He laughs again. “You’re still acting out a fantasy of a kid, because you can’t let people go. You can’t let anyone go, because… oh, oh this is it, I did some research, here.”

 

Sin grins, full of malice and wickedness. “You can’t let them go because you think they’ll go to her. To Oathkeeper. To Alice Fuckin’ McGowan. Because she’s better than you.”

 

Anathema stood, a grown woman now, towering over Sin. “How ​dare​ you. Howdare you​. She’s nothing. She is NOTHING, and Callister would never, ever, ever give up the war against her, not even for a second.”

 

“Oh please.” He grinned up at her. “You know that half the time Callister and I were working? He was on the phone with his boyfriend. Which was cool, kid needs to get out there.” Sin says nonchalantly.

 

Outside, Sin’s eyes twitch, and he mouths to Callister, “Trying. Fighting… your mom.”

 

But in the mind scape, Sin laughs again. “Oh, and she’s nothing, huh, Hyacinth? She’s the one you’re so obsessed with. If she was nothing you would have said good job on breaking someone who was in your way. But no, no, You – and this is funny, considering I’m hosting Pride itself- had to have SO much pride, to be the one that broke her.” He makes a decent showing of a ‘oh wait, thinking pose’.

 

“But that was ME, wasn’t it?”

 

“Oops.” He snickers.

 

She snarls, hands turning black and purple with flame. In Mathilda’s mind, the flames do not burn. She pushes you against the church wall. “SHUT UP! SHUT UP! SHUT UP!”

 

Outside, Mathilda’s eyes flicker blue.

 

“C’mon, Grandmother. You can fight her.” Unnoticed, Callister’s hands started glowing red around Mathilda’s hand.

 

“Oh, c’mon girl, that all you got?” He chuckles, though the hit REALLY did hurt. Poker face, poker face. The flames weren’t hurting though, and then…. “So, I break the Oathkeeper, I’ve been setting up this little cult for you, and I know more about your son than you do? Hmm.” Something… demonic, seems to power him. More than usual. His eyes burn with Pride, smolder with Lust, rage with Wrath and Envy, hunger with Gluttony and Greed, and freeze with despairing Sloth. “You might have thought me a puppet, but who’s really pulling the strings now, Hyacinth? All this, and I’ve gained so much. I’ve gotten stronger. And what have you gained? Pawns? The plan that I gave you? The access that I found for you? The people that Callister delivered to you?” He sneered, and one hand tried to pry open Hyacinth’s arms, He might be growing. It might just be an illusion. “You’ve done nothing but sit on your fat ass, and grow old, you worthless cow.”

 

“You’re a ​demon​!” she screeched. “You are a demon, and I will purify you from the face of this Earth, I’ll -“

 

The church disappears.

 

Hyacinth disappears.

 

Sin woke up.

 

Mathilda has thrown her arms around Callister, sobbing into his shoulder. Callister gathered her up, holding her tightly.

 

“I always loved you,” she was sobbing. “I was always trying to do right for you. I’m sorry I let her do that to you. I’m sorry I couldn’t save you. I’m sorry. I love you, I love you -“

 

Sin smiles, tiredly. He’s worn out, exhausted. But this, he could do for a friend…. Shit. Yeah. Callister was a friend. Well, fuck. That was new. And in Sin’s eyes, there’s warmth in them.

 

Callister only held his grandmother, murmuring comforting things to her. His eyes when they looked at Sin gleamed with unshed tears.

 

Sin flashed his usual cocksure smile at Callister, and nodded to him.”We’ll move in the morning. Get some rest, mate, and spend some time with your gran. I’m gonna go crash.” He chuckled, got up, and went to go collapse on a bed.

 

“Thank you.”

The Cult of Midnight: Crowd Control

TWIN FALLS, IDAHO

THE OUTSKIRTS OF THE CITY

“I’m not going to lie to either of you. This isn’t going to be a walk in the park. Anathema’s mind control is complete, total, and they will attack to protect her.” General DeGeurr looked up from map of the city. “Our job is to keep them off of the Legion. And annoyingly, we can’t resort to lethal means. Not after some of the… public relations incidents we’ve incurred lately.”

Wasteland nodded to DeGeurr. “Understandable, sir. Uhm. Sorry.” Wasteland seemed embarrassed, as he checked and rechecked his suit. “Been working with some of the scientists, have some non lethal equipment additions.”

 

Rooster scanned the map. “Do we know what kind of opposition we’re facing? Any serious paras? Are they armed? Or is she just sending waves of cannon fodder?”

 

“Anathema had two Paranormal agents that we know about. Both of them are in protective custody. This is purely civilian forces, being used to delay until she can wipe out the Legion. But they’ll likely be armed with whatever’s at hand.”

“Who’re the Legionnaires we’ll be coordinating with?”

 

“Civvy guns, not too bad.” Wasteland said, then looked to Rooster, nodding. Good question.

 

“Oathkeeper, the AI unit they call Scanner, and their black ops unit. Oathkeeper’s just the muscle. She’ll be on the scene, but our main point of contact will be Emi Surikabe.”

CODEX UNLOCKED: Emi Surikabe. A shadow warrior hailing from Japan, Emi served with the Legion for over a decade before retiring with a knee injury. Those in the know suspect she never retired at all, merely repositioned to the Legion’s black ops unit. Only a few people are aware that she is still an active assassin and spy, working around the world to carry out whatever must be done for the Legion.


“She’s good. Good to know.” Wasteland said, quietly, looking at the map. “Anything snags or surprises from our intel? And numbers, if we know?”

 

“We’re dealing with tens of thousands of people. As for the nature of this mission… The city, and it’s population, move like an organic being. They are not individuals, not until Anathema is down. They are part of her will, and act accordingly.”

“Christ.” Says wasteland, softly. “That’s a lot of people.”

 

Rooster sucks her teeth. “So. We keep the whole city off the Legion’s back … until what? Do we know their mission success parameters?”

 

“This isn’t the first time something like this has happened. Anathema had the city under her control back in the early 2000’s. Once she’s down and out, her subjects are released. We’re playing the stalling game. And then once the Legion acquire her, we’ll be escorting her into a Freelancer prison, as per the terms of our agreement.”

“Roger that. There could be a couple of good choke points, here, here… and one fall back one here, I think. Help prevent most of the numbers from getting to her, and overwhelming us.” Wasteland points on the map, thinking.

 

HALF AN HOUR LATER –

 

They had battled their way through Twin Falls to reach Wasteland’s chokepoint of choice. Each building had been perfectly arranged to look normal at a glance, but there were no signs of use. It was like moving through a perfectly arranged dollhouse.

At first, no one had noticed the massive suit of armour and Rooster moving through the city. That had been unusual at once. People had just kept their head down to sweep, or mindlessly opened and closed the cash register.

 

And then, all at once, there had been a shriek, a scrambling for weapons…

 

Now, one civilian had leapt on Rooster’s back, winding an arm around her neck in an attempt to choke her. Each side of the alley was filled with innocent people, eyes glowing a bright amethyst.

 

Rooster grunted and slammed her back into a wall to knock her assailant off. “Damn, I was hoping she wouldn’t notice us the whole time.” More people surged towards her and she flung them away from her.

 

Wasteland moved to cover her, his gauntlets snap cracking with electricity. Not full power, but enough to stun a normal human for a good amount of time…. At least, he hoped. It was Bowman’s stuff, and he was really good, but you never knew with people sometimes. The mind control might make them tougher.

 

So as another one attempted to jump on Rooster, he reached out, poking him. There was a loud ZAP and the mind controlled man fell back against the wall. Zap, zap, zap. But they just kept coming. “Would have been nice, right? You’re just too famous, Rooster.”

“Hey, I’m happy to give autographs,” she laughed, dealing someone a gut punch. As she did, a crowbar swung for her skull, but she blocked it with a thick forearm. “Wish they wouldn’t bring their own pens, though!”

 

BUZZAP! Go the gauntlets, and a baseball bat cracks off Wasteland’s armor. He probably didn’t even notice, but the gauntlet goes BUZZAP again on that guy, as well. “Well, you know, they are Anathema’s minions. Classy ain’t a thing. Handgun to your right.” Wasteland zaps another guy coming in, as a pile of them try to grab onto his arms and legs, attempting to restrict his movement.

 

The mind controlled man looks up at Wasteland, eyes gleaming violet once his body stops convulsing from the shake.


“You’re a monster in a suit,” hisses a woman’s voice. “You think you’re a hero?”

Spotting the gun, Rooster vaults forward to grapple the woman holding it. “Be careful with that thing,” she says, grabbing the woman’s gun hand and trying to disarm her.

 

“Nope,” says Wasteland, casually. “Just a mercenary, doin’ a job. Shit.” That last part was as a guy tried to wrap his arms around Wasteland’s helmet, before getting tagged by the taser Gauntlets. “You good, Rooster?”

 

She pulls the handgun away. “Yeah, no worries! Let me just …” She starts emptying its clip one-handed, doing her best to shove people off of her with the other. “Don’t want this thing going off in this crowd …”

 

“Totally. Oh, hey, look, I’m getting a group Anathema hug. Gonna need to wash the suit after this, bleh.” He manages to shock a few more people on him, tossing them away. A knife clinks off his armor, then a crowbar…. And a mop? “… I just got mopped. Double U Tee Eff.”

 

From above, there’s the hiss of heated oil and the stench of what smells like gasoline. A few drops hit the concrete at your feet, and there’s the sound of struggle from up on the roof.

 

“… that can’t be good.” Rooster discards the unloaded gun, pockets the bullets, and cranes her neck up.

 

A group of mind controlled civilians are attempting to scorch both of you – and their fellow civilians – with boiling oil from above.

 

If nothing else, Anathema is creative.

 

“Damn. Wastey, can I get a boost? I gotta get on that roof.”

 

“Sure thing. On three, alley oop!” Wasteland counted quickly, as more mind controlled Civilians rushed them. He got his arms free, and Rooster ran up towards him, as he pivoted so that his back was towards the oil group, holding his hands down to boost. Rooster jumped up, a little hop, landed one foot in his hands, and Wasteland heaved Rooster up as she jumped. She should have more than enough air to hop onto the building with the Hot Oil Civvies. “Rooster Hop is a go.” He laughed, from down below, as he dealt with another wave. BUZZAP!

 

Her landing shook the roof. She winced, seeing the hot oil splash onto the people maneuvering it. “Fuck mind control.”

 

The civilians move from the oil – which is clearly something that requires time and concerted effort – and move to Rooster. There are about thirty of them, all moving as one cohesive unit. Some of them throw themselves at her legs, others try to circle around to jump on her back.

 

“Your mother was right.” one of them hisses at her side.

 

She becomes a blur of limbs, hitting people in the guts and groin as they near her. “What the fuck do you care, Anathema?”

 

“Oooh, a polearm! That’s original!” Comes a shout from below, along with more Buzz Zaps from the gauntlets. “Well, you duct taped a knife to a broom handle. Somewhat original.”

 

“I’m just trying to help,” the female voice coos. “I know that you’re lonely. I know you miss having a family. Let me help you. Let me in.”

Rooster makes a retching noise as she grabs a man off her back and tosses him aside. She makes her way to the oil. “Wastey, what the fuck do you think we can do with a literal vat of boiling oil? Got any huge grease traps?”

 

“Been meaning to try this new recipe I read about online a few weeks ago!” He calls up to her. “But other than that, not sure. Did DeGuerr say we weren’t allowed to destroy property? Can’t remember.” ZAP!

 

“Maybe dump it on the building and hop back down? It’ll make it tough for anyone to get on top there for a while. Wait, we’re in Idaho, maybe find some potatoes. Fries for everyone after the mind control- ZAP ZAP- wears off.” The zaps are coming a bit quicker.

 

Rooster wraps her arms around the pot of oil. “Here goes nothing …” She takes a running leap for the edge of the roof, jumping to a roof hopefully not occupied by mind-controlled mooks. Some oil undoubtedly spills out on her way, hitting the people on the roof or in the alley, but she’s able to pour most of it out onto the empty roof once she arrives.

 

The oil bubbles and hisses on the empty rooftop. The cultists on the other roof amble to the edge, and it looks for a moment as if they might jump

 

Then they hesitate.


DeGeurr sounds off in your ears. “Callister Rayne is on the scene. I… don’t know how this variable will affect the civilians. Mission parameters have not changed.”

“Christ. Roger that. Is he helping us or her?” ZAP. “Goddammit, they’re just not stopping, down here.” ZAP.

 

“We… don’t know, yet.” DeGeurr says.

 

Another voice pipes in. A woman. Wasteland recognized her – Scanner. “I think she’s starting to waver. Try to talk to them. Maybe you can… stop the fighting. Please. Try talking to them.”

“Roger. Will attempt… uh… negotiating.” I really should have learned how to negotiate. He thought.

 

“Oh, hey… folks… calm down… uh… we’re just here to keep you from hurting yourselves. We don’t want any trouble, okay? Just…. Easy, all right? You’ve all suffered enough.”

 

One of the civilians in the front staggers to a stop, the left side of his face badly bruised. “Suffers?” He asks, questioningly.

 

Rooster makes her way to the edge of the building and starts climbing down the side.

 

“Uh, yeah. You’ve all been… working under Anathema for a while… but you don’t have to. You don’t have to listen to her, anymore, you know? We’re here to help you, if we can.” He keeps talking, and just… doesn’t fight the remaining civilians. It isn’t like they can really hurt him… but he doesn’t want to let any of them past to help Anathema…. Crap.

 

Rooster reaches the ground and joins back in with pushing the crowd back. “You’re not part of her and you don’t belong to her. You’re human beings and you don’t have to do this.”

 

More of the civilians begin to blink. The purple light in their eyes start to dim, and then fade.


“Where am I?”

“This isn’t anywhere near my work…”

“I remember… a church service?”

Rooster meets Wasteland’s “eyes”. Quietly, she says, “Do you think this is for real, or is it Anathema pulling back to trick us?”

 

“No idea,” he says quietly back. “But, they’re not all trying to get past us again.” Louder, he says. “Yeah, folks. Rest easy, all right? I’m Wasteland, this is Rooster. We’re here to help you. You were under mind control, okay?”

 

He raises his hands. “If you all could put the weapons down, and just… relax for a bit, we will get you all as much help as we can.”

 

Over the radio, he says. “Talking seems to be working. The influence seems to be fading.”

 

Most of them hardly seemed to realize they were holding weapons. Pipes and knives and a few guns clatter to the ground, and the civilians slowly sit.

“Rooster?” One woman asked, a teenager with a bloody lip. “Aren’t you… famous?”

Rooster smiles and gives a little wave. “Hi, yep. I’m the Rooster. The Freelancers and the Legion are working together to take Anathema down and save you.” She opens a pocket and pulls out a small first-aid kit. “Wastey probably has more supplies, more storage space in his suit, but – anyone need first aid?”

 

“You’re just jealous of my massive amount of pockets, Rooster,” Wasteland snarks at her. He does, actually, have a very large first aid kit that pops out of a thigh hatch. He raises his voice. “Also, folks, if we could do a quick check, make sure that no one has purple glowing eyes, all right? Everyone please stay calm, and we will get this sorted out.”

 

He goes to help those who need the most help, and begins relaying the situation over the radio. “Sir, ma’am, I can also take to the air and see if this is more widespread, or just our section, but it seems like everything has calmed down. No obvious Anathema influence anymore….”

 

She starts passing out band-aids and NSAIDs and generally checking in on people.

After tending to the civilians the best you can with the equipment you have on hand, DeGeurr’s voice pops up again.

 

“Anathema has been… neutralized. She is alive, on the roof of Baker’s Pharmacy, a few streets down. The Legion will help you bring her in from there.”

“Roger that.  Shall we, Rooster? Biggest super villain in pretty much history, right there.” Wasteland chuckles, as he finishes bandaging one nasty gash on a older lady. He stands, and checks the map in his suit. Oh, good, not too hard to get there.

 

Rooster stretches and cracks her knuckles. “Let’s go.”

 

Wasteland nods, and together, the two biggest badasses of the Freelancers head to Baker’s Pharmacy.

 

There’s a horrific sight on the roof. Oathkeeper is standing vigil over Emi Surikabe, whose knees have been nearly destroyed in the fight. Anathema is curled up at the paladin’s feet, sobbing racking, hideous sobs.

 

“Christ.” He looks to Oathkeeper. “We good here? Evac needed?” He’s used most of his first aid stuff, but looks at the very strange sight….

 

“First vessel took Nat and Callister away.” Alice says. “We’re waiting for a secure transport for… for… Hyacinth.”

All business, Rooster responds, “What about you and Ms. Surikabe? Do you have transport to the Legionnaire hospital ready?”

 

“Right.” Wasteland cautiously moves towards Alice and Hyacinth and Emi, taking out a pair of flex cuffs. “We can get ‘lancer medivac here quick if you guys are stretched thin.”

 

Alice looks at the Freelancers and pauses for a moment. “I’m staying with Emi.” she finally said. “Can I trust the two of you to get Anath- Hyacinth to the Freelancers?”

“Sure thing.” Rooster hits the comm button and relays the situation.

 

Wasteland pauses, and something very dark rears its head inside him. The worst goddamn person in the world, helpless. He shakes his head, slightly, dispelling the dark thoughts, before putting Hyacinth in the flex cuffs. “We got this. Get your people to help, ASAP.” Wasteland says, as he drags Anathema up with one hand.

 

Alice nods, slowly scooping Emi up in her arms. She takes a few steps, and there’s the soft hum of the Legion craft arriving.

 

Once the Legion is gone, Anathema looks up at Wasteland, face streaked with tears. Her eyes are… gray. Just gray.

 

Her lips quirk up into a smile for just a second.


“You could do it.” She whispers. “You can be the hero you want to be. The ends justify the means, don’t they?”

Rooster puts a hand on Wasteland’s shoulder. “Is she talking to you, man?”

 

Wasteland stares hard at Anathema. He can’t feel that hand on his shoulder, but he knows it’s there. Wrong and right. Good and Evil.

 

She was so evil. She had done so much to hurt so many people. She would do a lot more, a lot worse, if she ever got out again. She’d kill so many. She’d hurt so many already. And the Fire says to him, consume. Consume. Consume her life. Do it.

 

But Rooster’s voice cuts through the darkness. His voice is a little rough, at first, but it clears up quickly. “Just…. Stupid things.”

 

He looks up to the sky, awaiting the Freelancer transport. “Her eyes are grey. Does that mean she doesn’t have her powers anymore? Didn’t think that could happen to folks.” He says to Rooster.

 

“Maybe she’s burnt out? I know this may be news to you, Mr. Never-Ending Nuke, but getting beat half to death takes it out of some people.”

 

“Says the girl who makes Abram’s tanks look like slackers in taking a hit and dishing it out.” Wasteland laughs. “Well, here’s hoping it stays grey. Makes life easier on the rest of us. Oh, and you have the right to remain silent..” Says Wastey to Anathema, just in case. Reading the woman her rights.

 

“You still don’t know, do you?” Anathema’s voice has confidence now. “You don’t know what powers me. What powers her. You don’t know.” She throws her head back and laughs over her rights. “If you don’t stop me, I will keep going.”

“God, villain gloating. Why d’ya think they do it, Wastey? Like, do they really think that shit works on us?”

 

Wasteland shrugs. “Ego. Everyone’s got one, they just gotta keep feeding it. Like a never ending monster. And no, you won’t, silly. Besides, guess what. Everyone knows you’re a has been, now.” Great job, Wastey, taunt the mind controlling monster lady.

Anathema just smiled. “You need me. They’ll keep me alive until that’s not true anymore. And I’ll get out again. Unless…”

Her eyes searched Rooster’s face, and Wasteland’s posture, hoping for some sign of progress.

 

Rooster frowned. “Sorry, lady, we’re not buying what you’re selling.”

 

“You might not,” she admits. “But… what’s his name, again? Mister Cheney? He will.”

She scoffs. “You’re going into custody, and then you’re going to trial. You’re not getting a private meeting with the big brass.”

 

A last ditch effort: “We’ll see.”

The Freelancer transport nears, lifting up into sight from behind a building.

 

Wasteland stays quiet for the whole time. He waits. But when Anathema mentions Cheney, wasteland does look at Rooster. Wheels are turning in the suited man’s head.

 

“Let’s get going.”

 

The Cult of Midnight: Justice

TWIN FALLS

IDAHO

 

“This is one of the only chances I’m going to get to train you without your lure being in play.” Emi said. She was wearing her Shadow Mask uniform. The cloth was deep black and red, and your eye struggles not to skim over it as you look at her. She pulls a heavy red mask over her face, leaving her eyes uncovered and nothing else. Somehow, the cloth doesn’t muffle her voice. “We have Rooster and Wasteland on the ground, Alice in the sky… We’re taking the rooftops. Some good old fashioned recon.”

“How close do you want me to stay?” Nat subvocalized. Ey was exclusively using the comm implant to speak to Emi, mouth closed and voice inaudible but coming through loud and clear into Emi’s ear. The Damselfly’s outfit was the matte catsuit in which ey had been training, and a cowl and mask distinctly similar to a movie ninja’s. Only eir eyes peeked out, and there was no hint of that orange hair. “I can hug the walls and look in windows, but if you’re taking the roofs I might want to go a bit further afield.”

 

“Normally, yes. But… I don’t want to take any risks. Stay by my side.” Emi let only a brief hint of concern show in what Nat could see of her face. “I’d love to give you more freedom, but… Not here. Not now.”

Nat sighed. “All right,” ey muttered through the comm, “I’ll keep an eye on your path and stick to it.”

 

Emi nodded. “There’s one more thing you need to know. I’m… not just an athlete. And I’m not quite a Paranormal. What I’m about to show you must remain an absolute secret.”

 

“Mum’s the word, mum boss mom.”

 

Emi moves to the shadows of the alley nearby the spot Scanner teleported both of you to, and she… parts the shadows with her hands, moving through the darkness in a way that isn’t… normal, isn’t right. The shadows remain… fluid. What was once a brick wall is now a path.

 

Nat didn’t seem fazed at all, and immediately dove into a silent and quick path, following close but not too close, a dark streak weaving around buildings and keeping a sharp eye out for any clue that they might be getting close.

 

Twin Falls was… disturbingly normal. There were no signs of destruction or devastation. The shelves in all stores were fully stocked, homes were neat and there were signs that people had been living there. The only thing that was off was how orderly everything was. No one was shopping or making messes or forgetting to do the dishes. The entire city was like a Better Homes and Gardens catalogue or a showroom floor.

 

Emi didn’t seem worried by any of this. She kept her head low, leaping over buildings, pausing only to check on Nat.

 

“Still here, boss,” Nat said silently, zipping through the night air, eyes darting faster than eir flight. “This place gives me the creeps.”

 

“I’m sorry.” A hoarse voice said from behind the black ops agents. “I didn’t know to expect such pleasant company.”

Emi spun first, charging at the source of the voice – the woman on the pharmacy roof.

 

Anathema.

 

Nat whirled in midair. They’d been over this a million times. Don’t engage her, don’t let her get at you. But there wasn’t time to move or think, she’d seen them first, and now Emi was closing in and should Nat do the same? Fuck–

 

Anathema wasn’t a close quarter combatant, but she was a psychic. Her amethyst eyes, blazing with power, moved to Emi’s knee. Emi cried out in pain, stumbling forward, and Anathema sidestepped the blow.

 

“That old injury is still bothering you, isn’t it?” Anathema crouched, stroking Emi’s face gently with her index finger. “Ssh. Ssh, little tribad. You couldn’t stop me last time. Why do you think this time is any different? Don’t worry. I’ll make sure you match. You can remember me by it.”

There was the sound of crunching bone, and Emi screamed.

 

“Emi!” Nat cried aloud. Don’t engage, don’t engage… Nat hesitated, unable to will emself to fly away but knowing that diving forward would be suicide. Mind racing, thoughts jumbled and confused, ey hung in the air. If nothing else… I’ll die giving useful intel.

 

“This is the Damselfly,” if Nat had said the words with eir vocal cords rather than vibrations into a bone mic, they’d surely be quavering. “Anathema is here. Repeat, I am at Anathema’s position. Shadow Mask is injured.”

 

The first voice was Scanner’s. “We need coordinates, or land-”

The second was Alice’s. “I’m coming. God, no. Please. I’m coming for you, run. Nat, run.”

And the third was Anathema’s. “Ssh, ssh, little bug. Come here.” Some unknown energy tugged at Nat’s waist, pulling her towards Anathema. As the psychic moved away from Emi, wisps of shadow moved around her feet like the train of a dress. “What’s your name?”

“Don’t you recognize me, Hyacinth?” Nat grinned under the mask, straining to keep eir distance. “It’s me, Alice. I’ve lost some weight, can you tell?” Ey reached up and rapid-tapped eir implant, sending out a distress GPS signal that would let Scanner know exactly where ey was.

 

“You Legionnaires love your jokes.” Anathema mused. “You are exquisite. I… didn’t know why I left my home until I saw this. I…” Her fingers hesitate, as if she’s wondering why this is happening.


“I wore my nice perfume,” Nat quipped unsuccessfully struggling against the pull. “I’m really flattered that you noticed!”

 

Then, subvocalized, “Alice, do not come here, she’s not vulnerable–“

 

I don’t care.” Alice’s voice came through the comm. Anathema’s eyes flickered, as if she heard it. She couldn’t have. Could she?

“Who?” She demanded, pulling on the front of Nat’s suit. “Who are you talking to? I know you are. Don’t lie to me.”

“Arranging my next date,” Nat laughed. “Rude, I know. Sorry!”

 

Anathema slapped Nat, hard. “Insolent.” She hissed. “Insolent little child.”

Nat hung in the air for a moment, still, face turned away from the force of the slap. Then ey started chuckling. It started barely audible, then slowly, gradually increased in volume until it was a full-throated laugh.

 

“Let me guess.” Anathema’s voice was cold, even after Nat’s laugh. “You think that I’m going to kill you in a rage. No. I’m going to break you. I’m going to hollow you out and then fill you like a puppet. Then, I’ll come for your siblings, see if they’re as… interesting as you.” Those eyes searched Nat’s face. “I think Buster, first. Is that what you call him?”

“She’s not a boy,” Nat shook eir head and smiled, a webwork of blood over eir teeth. “But that’s not what I was laughing about. Just… you think I’m insolent already? Hope your slapping hand doesn’t tire quick, you know?”

 

“They always start defiant. I always break them.” Anathema says, quiet, confident. “After Buster, it’ll be Benny. He’s meek. Small. It’ll be so, so easy. And then I’ll take Callister, properly this time. One after the other.”

 

“Callister already took me and Benny one after the other,” Nat giggled with manic glee, eyes sparkling. “Did you get that bit out of my mind? That I fucked your son? Here, let me help!”

 

And suddenly Nat’s mind was full of explicit images, not fantasies, but memories of time in bed with Callister, sharing lurid details with eir brother about what they’d done, everything in full, crystal detail.

 

Chew on that, you arrogant brain-sucking shit.

 

For a moment, the tables were completely turned. Anathema’s face was a mask of horror, sadness, fear. Then it twisted into rage. Nails raked the side of Nat’s face, Anathema was shoving em down, and for a moment there was a struggle as Nat’s anti-gravity resisted Anathema’s weight and psychic bonds —


Then there was a sudden release, and a streak of gold and white.

 

Nat was up in a moment, reeling with sudden freedom, trying to find Emi.

 

Grab the boss, get out, ey repeated in eir own head, hoping against hope that Alice would keep Anathema occupied. Grab the boss. Get out.

 

Emi had dragged herself away a few paces. Her knees were broken, the suit torn and revealing wet flesh. “Nat,” she gasped. “Run. Get out. Please. I’m fine.”

“I can carry you!” Nat sailed to her, working eir arms around Emi’s form. “It’s– it’s gonna hurt but–“

 

“No, not now, run, please, not when she’s -”

And then those bonds wrapped back around Nat’s wrists and waist, pulling em back away from Emi.

 

“Fuck,” Nat strained and fought, to no avail. “Fuck! Emi!”

 

Emi tried to struggle up and fell forward. Alice had the psychic pinned down, one knee against her ribcage, the warhammer tossed aside in favour of wrestling with her.

 

“Get off of me, Fishby, or I kill your precious recruit.”

The psychic bonds roiled around Nat’s neck.

 

“Hhhk!” Nat shuddered, suddenly unable to breathe at all. Ey could still subvocalize enough to speak through the comm, though: “Alice, she’s got nothing left! Don’t let her use me! End it!”

 

“Get off of me, or I kill her.” Anathema breathed. “I’ll snap her neck before you can land the blow. You know it, Fishby. I know it.”

Alice slowly climbed off. The pressure on Nat’s neck loosened.

 

“Alice!” Nat gasped. “I’m not worth this!!

 

“Yes you are.” Alice said, quietly, head down as she stood over Anathema. The Villain smiled, lips curling up into a sneer.

 

“Kneel.”

Alice slowly, painfully knelt.

 

“If you do this,” Nat rasped, “we’re all dead. Don’t kill us all… for me…”

 

“It’ll be fine.” Alice said, voice hollow. “I – I can’t – I love you, Nat. I can’t…”

Anathema bent in front of Alice, taking her jaw in one hand and craning her head up. “Let me in.” she hissed.

 

The gold in Alice’s eyes faded slightly. She jerked her head away. Anathema pulled it back, maintaining eye contact.

 

“Let me in.”

It started from behind Anathema. The ground soundlessly started bubbling a thick dark red liquid. Flames licked upwards and higher as a figure began to rise and form out of the pool. It was highly armored, the dark red liquid spilled off the figure’s red armor. He stepped out, his metal shod foot heavy against the rooftop surface.

 

“That’s enough.”

 

“Callister, my son, my heir.” Anathema cried out, joyous. “Enough? We’re just beginning. Don’t you see? This is what you were born for. Let. Me. IN.” she kept her back to Callister, eyes locked on an increasingly weak Alice.

“Callister!” Nat croaked, struggling against the invisible bonds. “Please!”

 

The armored figure in his full plate maile stood massive and still, with only the ragged ends of his cape moving in the wind. Then he moved, each step deliberate and he reached out and took hold of Anathema by the shoulders and lifted her up to face away from Alice and Nat.

 

She was small compared to him, light and easily lifted. She might have fought back, but she was too surprised. Her face was shocked. “Callister, what are you doing?”

“Stopping you. Stopping this. I’m no longer your pawn.”

 

“This is bigger than you, Callister. This is why I had you. This is your life!”

“No, Hyacinth. It is not.”

 

“I’m – I’m your mother, how dare you disrespect me, I – I -”

The fight was gone from her.

 

Her eyes were no longer amethyst. They were grey.

 

Callister only held her, stiffly, silently, at arm’s length.

 

“Cal…” Nat whispered, then let eir eyes dart to Emi, Alice.

 

Nat drifted, no longer held by anything. Alice slowly stood. A tear rolled down Anathema’s face. “Callister, please.”

“No.” A single word with firm conviction.

 

“You have to take her place. I have to end her. You have to take her place. Please. The Avatar -”

“It won’t want me.”

 

She wasn’t Anathema. She was just a sad old woman. She bowed her head, crying openly now.

 

Alice slowly approached. “Truce still holds?” She asked, cautiously.

 

“Yes.”

 

It may occur to anyone who knows Callister that he’s more taciturn than normal, his voice muffled by the helmet.

 

“Alice, Emi–” Nat cast a stricken glance to Alice, cradling eir mentor and boss gently in both arms. “She’s hurt really bad.”

 

Alice moves to Emi’s side. “Oh, God. Oh, Emi. God, no…” Her hands move. “I can only do so much. Here…”

There’s a glow of golden light, and Emi grunts in pain, grinding her teeth.

 

Nat turned away, unable to watch, and eir eyes fell on Callister. Unable to read his gaze through the helmet, ey floated a bit closer.

 

“Cal…”

 

Callister doesn’t answer but continues to woodenly hold his mother in place.

 

Eventually, Alice moves back. “Callister.” She says, still unsure. “We need to read her her rights.”

“Cal,” Nat hesitated for a moment, but then set eir jaw and closed the distance, resting a hand on his shoulder. “Come back to us. Please.”

 

“I’m here. Just take her.” He lets go of his mother.

 

“Alice will take her. I’m– is there–” ey trailed off. “I should… probably just give you some space, huh.”

 

Hyacinth Mills curls up at their feet, sobbing hideously. Alice stands over her, eight feet tall.

 

“H-Hyacinth Mills. You have the right…”

Callister walked to the edge of the roof as his mother was read her rights. His cape whipped behind him. He continued to turn his back on the proceedings, as they stood and as the Legionnaires left.

 

There was a roar then, of rage, anger, and grief, as Callister wrest off his helmet and threw it far far away.

 

Outreach: The Burden

A TEMPORARY NULL ZONE

LOCATION CONFIDENTIAL

TIME CONFIDENTIAL

 

The staff here were Nulls, from the sanitation workers to the warden.


It bothered Alice.


She stood by a window. Everything here was metal and glass. It felt more like a laboratory than a prison.

 

A floor down, Hyacinth Mills was bound at wrist and ankle as she was being processed.

 

Alice couldn’t stop staring at the woman. She had seen Hyacinth in this position once before, in the Flying Fortress’s prison. She had gotten out. She had killed again. She had…

 

Wasteland entered the room, quietly. His suit was in quiet mode, the machinery as silent as a whisper. He watched Alice for a time, her body language. The way she stared at Hyacinth.

 

They were alone in the observation room. The nulls below were working to make sure Anathema was controlled. Monitored. But would it be enough?

 

Wasteland wasn’t sure, and he wasn’t sure what Alice would do.

 

The woman was eternally nineteen, though she was also over forty years old. He couldn’t begin to comprehend that kind of dichotomy.

 

Finally, he spoke, his tone somber. “She wanted us to kill her. Did you know that?”

 

“No.” Alice said. She glanced at Wasteland, and then shrugged. “I’m not surprised, though. She always has some plan. Some… scheme to tear people down and rip them apart. She probably had cameras set up, or she’s hoping that if you killed her, you’d be corrupted, or… I don’t know. I don’t like to think how she thinks.”

Wasteland nodded. “Makes sense.” He stared at the prisoner for a long moment, then said. “Are you going to kill her?”

 

“What? No! No, no, no, God, no!” The words were soaked with defensiveness. It didn’t take a social dynamo to tell she had been thinking about it. “Thou shall not kill. The Word of God is crystal clear on this.”

“Yeah. I know. But didn’t He also say, there is a time for everything? A time to kill, and a time to heal? I think it was in Ecclesiastes, or Numbers. Can’t remember.”

 

Wasteland looks at Alice, then back down to Anathema. “And if she gets her powers back. I’m worried about that, too. Yes, there are Nulls here. But there’s… something off about her. About her powers. They were different than I’ve ever seen. And I’m worried.” He puts his hands behind his back, as Anathema continues to talk with the Null guards.

 

“I’m worried too. This is why the Freelancers are taking her. We… the Legion tried to contain her. We failed. I…”

“And someone, some idiot… might say yes. And that’s why you’re here. To make sure. That she never gets out again,” Wasteland said, quietly. “To the best of your ability. But you’re unsure if anything can contain her.”

 

“That more people might get killed. More people dead, because of her ambition, her thirst for control.” Wasteland seems to be talking to himself, as well as to Alice.

 

“Yeah.” Alice said, voice hoarse. “Yeah, that… sounds about right. But I can’t… I… I can’t… That’s not my place. I can’t play God. That’s not my decision to make.”

Wasteland pauses, then looks at Alice. “Even if, when she gets out, she might go after your family, as before?”

 

Wasteland looked away, back to Anathema. He heard screams in the back of his mind, and shook his head slightly. “I’ve seen people kill. Good people, Oathkeeper. There’s… things that their body does. The way it tenses. The set of a jaw. The breathing. When you consciously make that decision, to do it, in cold blood. And you were close, I think.”

 

“And I don’t judge you for that. But I don’t want to see you destroyed by her.”

 

“I have kids.” Alice whispered, looking away. “I have kids. I would… sentence myself to anything for them. I just… It’s hard. I don’t know what to do. I’m a mother. I’m a Christian. I…”

“Have you ever killed anyone, Oathkeeper? In battle, I mean, in a fight?” He asks, quietly, his tone calm but accepting.

 

“No. Never.”

Wasteland nodded. “You wouldn’t sleep anymore, I don’t think. It isn’t something you’re cut out for. You’re a good person.”

 

He looks at Alice, and nods. “Yeah.” Then he looks back to Anathema. “I’ve seen that kind of stuff eat other people from the inside out. Knowing what they’ve done. Had to do. Even if you didn’t go to prison, or trial, it’d kill you. It’d destroy the Oathkeeper.”

 

“But it wouldn’t destroy me. I’m not…. Heh. I’m not a hero. So… I think you may need to take a walk. I can… handle this.”

 

“I can’t. I defend life. I can’t…” She shakes her head and sets her jaw. “Go home, Wasteland.”

Wasteland looks at Alice. “You defend life. Defend your kids. Defend other people. Defend civilization.”

 

He gestured towards the trapped woman. “She would have enslaved the world just for her own control. She wants to kill you, kill your family, for her own amusement.”

 

“The world would be better if she was gone. And you know it.”

 

“I won’t let you.”

Alice stood there.


And stood there.


And then she realized that the nature of the facility affected more than just Anathema.


Wasteland turns to Alice, and looks at her. “You’d really defend her life, at the possible cost of your own? Even knowing, that should she get free, your husband, your children, might be murdered in front of you?”

 

“If we kill her, she wins. We become the same as her.” Alice said, face painted with naked desperation and fear and uncertainty.

 

Wasteland looks at Alice, then at Hyacinth. “I’ve always hated that argument.” He looks back at Alice. “I am not going to hurt you, Alice. I’m -not- her.”

 

“I wouldn’t become a mass murdering, manipulative, power hungry monster like her. I don’t use my powers to subjugate, or control.” He raises one armored hand. “This is, and always has been, used to help, and protect people.”

 

“Sometimes it means that you’ve got to remove the cancer. Amputate the diseased.”

 

“She knows something.” Alice blurts. “She keeps taunting us with it. She knows something, if we kill her, doesn’t that die with her?”

Wasteland pauses, thinking. “That’s why I asked you, why she wanted us to kill her. What do you mean, she knows something?”

 

“She keeps saying it. ‘You don’t know about it’? Something about her. Something about me.” Alice looks away, pain and anger on her face. “She’ll be in Freelancer custody after this. You may have… more shots… at… your plan. But… What does she know?”

Wastelands voice becomes hard, and unmerciful. “Then we’ll find out. By any means necessary.”

 

Alice opens her mouth, and then there’s a voice from behind her.


“Mrs. McGowan.” Adam Nova steps into the observation room, wearing his black peacoat and heavy frames. “Good to see you.”

“Adam.” Alice said, too surprised to be angry or cold.

 

“We’re getting ready to transport the prisoner. Due to Freelancer confidentiality laws, we need all Legionnaires off the premises. I’m sure you understand.”

Wasteland turns and… well. To DeGuerr he’d salute, or something. To Adam Nova, his tone goes to super respectful. “Mr. Nova, sir.”

 

Alice glances at Nova, and then at Wasteland.


“Now, Mrs. McGowan.” Adam says, voice cool. Alice opens her mouth as if to argue, shakes her head, and leaves.

 

Nova moves to the observation window. “I listened in.” he admits. “I hope you don’t mind.”

“It’s your facility, sir. I would figure that you’d know everything. Or most of everything. I don’t mind at all, sir.” He pauses, then asks, “Permission to speak freely, sir?”

 

“Granted.”

“I think we’re playing with an active bomb in a house that’s on fire with containing Anathema alive, sir.” He gestures to all the precautions, all the work that’s being done. “After her initial breakdown, she was confident again. Assured. She said that she’d want to speak to Mr. Cheney, or other of our top brass. She had a plan. I might just be paranoid. But I think there’s more going on than I know, at the very least. And I hate bad intel on any operation, sir, or being a mushroom.”

 

“I happen to agree with everything you said – up to and including keeping the Oathkeeper’s hands clean. This is why we exist. This is why we need Freelancers in the world. The Legion can’t be trusted with these sensitive situations.”

Nova turned to Wasteland and inclined his head up, looking away from Anathema. “You have six hours. Anathema has a fatal allergy to peanuts, and our staff was not informed. That’s the story. Call me when you’re done with whatever you plan to do.”

Wasteland paused, then looked at Adam Nova. “Yes, sir.” He turned to head down to the prison cell, the armor quiet, but the body language of the armored man was of a man doing his duty, however distasteful it might be.

 

ADAM NOVA’S OFFICE

ARCHAVEN

FOUR HOURS LATER

 

Nova is smoking as Wasteland enters, sitting at his great circular desk.

 

Wasteland doesn’t mince words. He just goes straight to the report, standing with his arms behind his back, looking down at Nova. “Sir. This is…. Something that’s above my paygrade. She was talking about something called Avatars. She possessed a scholar some years back, who had a working theory. Things that were… that empowered people. Like her. Like Mrs. McGowan, and that they are two different sides of the same coin.”

 

He paused for breath. “And that her plan… was to kill Oathkeeper, so that her son, Callister, could take Oathkeeper’s place. She didn’t know how it would happen. She just planned on it. That somehow, they’d become… these Avatars. I don’t know how much I believe, but I know that -she- believes it.”

 

Nova took a long draw on his cigar. “Well, shit.” He finally said. “You want a drink?”

“…. definitely, sir.” Wasteland says. He’s tense, a little worked up, and obviously concerned.

 

Adam produces a large bottle of high quality scotch and pours two glasses. He hands one of them to Wasteland, polishes off his own, and then pours himself another drink. “Too many variables.” He says. “Anathema is still alive?”

“Yes, sir. Given the fact that these Avatars are… I don’t know. Transferable? Or that she believes that they are passable to others, I thought it would be too high a risk to possibly give these powers to someone who could be much less focused on revenge and more focused on control, or worse. If she’s right. If she was just… any other paranormal, she’d be gone, but this is something I didn’t account for in my initial proposal. In hindsight, I’m glad I held off and talked first.” A straw extends from one of his gauntlets, and drains the glass quickly.

 

Nova pours again. “Havelock.” He says, after a pause.

 

Wasteland takes this glass slower, draining it and savoring it… as much as he can. “Sorry, sir, I’m not sure I follow.” He sounds a bit lost, this is definitely not his element.

 

“Helen Havelock. Golden armour. Sword of light. No wings, no healing, but does the rest sound familiar to you?”

Wasteland doesn’t move, trying to process this. After a few moments, the radioactive mouse running in his brain moves fast enough for him to make the connections. “Oh… shit. When the… Invader came in, broke her… the Avatar, I’m guessing? Moved to Mrs. McGowan.  It isn’t connected to the person. When… one vessel can’t keep going, it’ll move on to the next.”

 

“And Anathema is broken.” Adam says, quiet. He rubs his hands against each other and pours more scotch. “We keep Mills alive. We just had a lot of variables introduced. Handling the press and Legion is doable, but we need our focus elsewhere.”

Wasteland hadn’t thought of that, that Anathema might be broken enough to lose that power. “Shit.” Somehow he puts a lot of worry into that one word, but refocuses. Move on to the next objective. You can’t always win all the marbles.

 

“Understood, sir. Any particular orders you have for me, sir?”

 

“I understand the Red Knight helped save the day.”

“Yes, sir. From what I understand from Mills, he refused to even try and accept this Avatar from Mrs. McGowan.” Wasteland nodded, thinking. “He might provide confirmation. But legally, he’s technically not a wanted man, right now.” Wasteland put the drink down, carefully. “Do you want me to bring him in?”

 

“I think we should start convincing him as to the benefits of a career with the Freelancers.”

“Carrot first, then,” Wasteland nods. “I can make the offer, if you’d like, sir, or we can have Mr. Cheney or one of our other recruiters try and talk with him, I suppose.” He pauses, thinking back. “Sir, I’m… a little concerned that Anathema singled out Mr. Cheney, when we brought her in. Am I still being paranoid?”

 

“No. I don’t care for having an obvious weak link.” Nova rubs his chin in thought. “I’ll think on that. Oh. One more thing. I think you should talk to Mrs. McGowan. Tell her that her rhetoric swayed you. Thank her for adding her input.”

Wasteland nodded. “Yes, sir, I’ll do that. Thank you for your time, sir.”

“I always have time for a solid agent. Take care of yourself, Wasteland.”

Wasteland nodded, and about faced, walking out of the office. Things really did get interesting around here, sometimes. He just hoped he wasn’t in over his head.

 

As soon as the doors close behind Wasteland, Nova turns and picks up a phone.


He dials a number, then waits.


“Hello, Estelle?”

 

Outreach: Visiting Hours

Archaven High Security Detention Center

[CONFIDENTIAL]

[CONFIDENTIAL]

 

Callister had to go through multiple checks – retinal scan, fingerprint checks, security questions, and more. It took half an hour. It would have taken longer if not for the Nulls. Every faculty member, guard, and employee at the prison was a Null — including the janitors.

 

Eventually, he was cleared, and taken to see his mother.

 

Anathema’s cell was more comfortable than Callister expected it to be. A bare floor, a simple bed, a toilet, a few books on a single shelf. The woman sat, head bowed in thought. She didn’t look up as her son entered.

 

Her eyes were grey. Not purple, grey.

Callister paused before entering the cell. He stood, staring into the distance for a moment, hands in pockets. Was he gathering his thoughts? Steeling himself? Or was he just trying to recall his shopping list.

 

Whatever he was doing, he kept his expression carefully neutral. He knew he was entering enemy territory the moment he stepped into the facility.

 

Then he rapped his knuckles on the cell door, a polite, perfunctory gesture.

 

“Mother. It’s Callister. May I enter?”

 

She scoffed bitterly. “And if I say no?”

“Then we will talk through the door. I know you enjoy talking through doors.”

 

Hyacinth sat still for a moment, then nodded assent. “Enter.” And then when he was in her sight, she sneered. “Traitor. Bastard. Heretic.”

“You say things like that as if you think they have any effect on me.” Callister just spent a week with his grandmother. He knew he did the right thing.

 

“They should. I never should have let you leave my sight. You weak willed child, you just bend at the first influence you meet.” Her eyes blazed with hatred.

 

Callister smiled, but it was a hollow thing. “If I were that, I’d still be your little pawn, pushed around your stupid little board. Then again, perhaps you’re the weak one. You couldn’t take me.”

 

“No.” she said, quietly. “I couldn’t. But you need me, don’t you? Or you wouldn’t be here.”

Callister shrugged broad shoulders. “I asked Grandmother if she wanted to visit. She has yet to answer.” He leveled his red eyes at her. Before his Emergence, his own eyes were hazel. He wondered vaguely at the father he never met. “So you’ve been talking about that Avatar nonsense again.”

 

“Nonsense.” she chuckled. “Is that why you’re here? To insult the truth I have divined through fasting and prayer? You could have done that over the phone, Cally.”

That was a name he hadn’t heard in… a long time.

 

“You named me after your nemesis. Use the whole name or don’t call me anything at all.” He folded his arms, leant his back against the wall. “So what’s that truth you tried to press on me. Divine beings? Celestial spirits possessing people?”

 

“I tried to tell you, so many times. How many times did I try to clue you in on the plan? And then you stab me in the back, throw me in a pit, and expect me to tell you these sacred truths? Why should I?”

“Because who else will listen to you?”

 

That shook her. She paused, lowered her head. “…These are not truths that came easily to me, Callister. I fasted, I stayed away from pleasures of the flesh. I denied myself water and sleep. And I could… touch the fabric of the cosmos, part it to see the secrets beneath. I saw into the eyes of God.”

Callister’s relationship with faith had always been shaky. Unsure. He once thought that he could parrot his mother, be the son his mother wanted and faith would come to him. He went to mass, still, but believe? That was always too far way to grasp. In this, though, he believed that his mother believed.

 

“And what did you see?”

 

“Champions of… His will. His will must be fractured, and He demands war. I saw amethyst eyes in a warrior-king’s face, and his reign of a thousand years. I saw the golden zealot who rose to challenge him. A dance that has happened a hundred thousand times, across all of eternity.”

Callister frowned. “And you wanted me to take up the Avatar of Faith to be my enemy?”

 

“I wanted to end the war. Imagine how we could rule together. We could take out the Legion, the Freelancers, the unbelievers. It would be a glorious rule!”

“You said He wanted a war. You thought you could defy him by ruling together in peace?”

 

He was getting off target, but he needed to find out the depth of this insanity.

 

Anathema smiled. “There’s a new Avatar, isn’t there? Someone replaced me. I was arrogant for going against God, and He punished me. But you need me, Callister.”

“Do I? I helped defeat you. I can help defeat this one.”

 

“And the next one? And the next? The one after that? They’ll keep springing up, one after the other. Do you intend to die on the hunt to keep stamping them out?”

“And you have the key to stop this from happening?”

 

“You don’t expect me to just give it away if I do, do you?”

“And what do you want.” Callister tilted his head up.

 

“The company of my son and mother. To know that you’re taken care of. I’d like to meet this…” Her lips twisted for a moment. “Boy you’re seeing.”

Callister considered this. “Grandmother will speak for herself when she can. And I will ask Benjamin if he will visit. My access to this facility has already been guaranteed.”

 

“Good.” Hyacinth looked pleased. “Don’t tarry too long, Callister.”

Callister pushed himself from the wall. “If Grandmother will not come, I will not force her.”

 

“We all must make compromises.” Anathema scowled. “Especially during this trying time.”