2.2. Intermission (Scenes 1-2)

Scene 1 – Two Years Ago
Interior MLED Compound, Early Evening
Miriam Wright

It was a fairly normal night. I was, as I often did when otherwise unoccupied, reading a book in the common room of the MLED Compound, making myself available in case any crises called for my assistance, if the other heroes were injured, or simply if any of the Journeymen needed me. I had just finished a chapter of Going Postal when Susan entered the room, followed by a nervous-looking young man with short red hair.

“Deputy Director Shepard,” I said to her with a smile, closing the book. “And who’s this young man?” The younger redhead flinched as I said that, and I wondered why.

“This young lady,” Susan said, emphasizing the word, “is the newest member of the Journeymen. The MLED will also be in loco parentis for her.” She caught my eye meaningfully, and I nodded to assure her that I understood the hidden meaning. A clearly transgender young woman that the MLED was taking parental responsibility for? I could read between the lines.

“I’m terribly sorry, young lady,” I told the poor girl. “Must have been a trick of the light to make me mistake you like that. What’s your name?”

“I, um, I haven’t chosen one yet,” she whispered. “I guess… just M, for now? That’s my first initial.”

“Well it’s nice to meet you, M,” I said, smiling at her. “If you ever need advice about anything, feel free to ask me, okay?”

“…kay.”

“I’m going to leave you here with Anima for the moment, if that’s all right with you,” Susan told M. “There’s paperwork related to your case that you don’t need to be directly involved with and, I suspect, would rather not be. I’ll be back in a few hours with papers for you to sign – until then, just wait here.”

“…okay.” M sat in one corner of the couch, curling her knees up to her chin and staring at me worriedly.

Susan left, but not before giving me another warning look from behind the couch, where M couldn’t see. The woman pretended to be stern, but I knew she cared more for her charges – agents, heroes, and especially the Journeymen – than she let on.

I returned to my book, but more slowly, keeping an eye on M. She was obviously shy – and, more than that, nervous. It seemed as though she was afraid of me, which, if I had parsed her previous home life correctly, I couldn’t quite blame her for.

As I read, I tried to think of some way to set her at ease. A few minutes later, I had it, and glanced up with a smile. “M, dear, my hair has been getting kind of long,” I told her, pulling a strand of it out straight to show her – it hung down well past my shoulders right now. “I think I want to braid it back – would you like to help me?”

M blinked in surprise and hesitated before quietly answering, “I don’t know how. I… don’t know a lot of things…”

“That’s fine,” I promised her. “I’ll show you. It’s never too late to learn – never too late to start being better.”

After a moment, she said, “…I’d like that,” with a shy smile.

Scene 2 – One Year Ago
Interior Townhouse, Early Afternoon
Miriam Wright

I fluttered around my apartment, cleaning up as quickly as I could – momentary infusions of vitality bringing things to life just long enough for them to fling themselves to where they should go, tiny statues holding dustclothes and rags to wipe things down afterward. I should have cleaned up long ago, but it wasn’t as though I had company all that often – my home wasn’t very large, so when my friends gathered we typically went out, or Essa and Maria’s home, not mine. And since I didn’t spend much time here anyway, always feeling a little depressed by the place’s emptiness… well, the clutter built up.

I wasn’t quite done clearing up the dishes when the knock came at my door. “One moment!” I called. A spark of power flowed into the dishes, and they spun into the air, flying into my room and landing on my bed. As I walked to the front door, I bumped the door to my room with my hip to close it. It clicked shut, and I opened the front door.

“Hi Miriam,” said M, grinning up at me, and I smiled back. Since the MLED had taken her in – and since going on hormone therapy about a month later – the girl had slowly been perking up, becoming more cheerful and happy, although she was still shy around new people. “Thanks for inviting me over!”

“But of course!” I assured her. “I’m happy to have you here, and very glad to help.” I led her over to a table where I had set out makeup supplies. “I’m glad you felt that you could come to me for help.”

“I asked Holly and Simone first,” M confessed, “but Simone obviously doesn’t have any makeup that would fit my complexion, and apparently Holly never wears any – it’s all her powers.”

“Her magic is useful that way,” I agreed. “Did you ask Emilia?”

She shrugged. “She doesn’t wear makeup much either and her skin is too much darker than mine. I didn’t even bother.”

“Well, I’m very happy to be teaching you.” We sat at the table, and I took a bottle of foundation. “We’ll start with foundation…”

I took it slowly, one by one explaining to M how to use each of the tools in my makeup kit. For today, I had decided that the best way to teach would be to demonstrate putting them on myself, then for me to put them on her, so that she could feel what it was like. Next time, she could try putting it on herself.

M was a good student, paying close attention and asking questions when she needed to. Of course, she had always been a fast learner – she was well on her way to becoming the best martial artist in New Venice’s MLED, already beating out me, Holly, Canaveral, and even Nic. She was even well on her way to matching Ben – so it was no surprise that she would pick makeup up quickly as well, now that she finally felt comfortable enough to try it.

Somewhere in the back of my head, I had to wonder if Zacharias Cobalt – the Blue Phoenix, an elderly man whose powers activated and rejuvenated him on his death bed – was the reason that she had been holding back from many aspects of transitioning over the last year. He had signed onto the Journeymen for training a few months after she did, and had recently graduated and been transferred to Boston’s team. While he had been here, though… well, Zach was an old man, set in his ways despite his new, amorphous body, and he had repeatedly misgendered both M and Holly, no matter how many times he was corrected or disciplined for it. And though I had complained on M’s behalf to Susan – who had replaced Henry as the local director of the MLED following the loss of his legs to a robotic army created by Motael – the the policies set out by Chief Director Redding didn’t let misgendering alone serve as cause to fire the man, at least not without a complaint from the affected person. She, Henry, and Abe had all watched Zach like hawks, hoping to find another reason to get rid of him, but he had toed the line on everything else. And with M not willing to file an official complaint…

Well, at least he was gone now. And M was beginning to experiment, finally – she had gone shopping with Simone the previous weekend and come back with several dresses, and commented to me on a patrol that she was thinking of adding a skirt to her costume. And now, I thought with an internal smile, she was letting me teach her how to use makeup!

“Alright,” I said, putting the finishing touches on her makeup. “All that’s left is a setting spray, assuming you want to keep this on. But first…” I turned the mirror I had used to put my own makeup on towards her. “Take a look!”

M smiled widely as she gazed rapturously into the mirror, her eyes flicking from the subtle lipstick to the light blush to the sharp eyeliner. Her eyes began to water after a moment, and she brought a hand up to wipe away a tear before realizing that it would probably ruin her makeup. “Oh… oh-!”

I handed her a tissue. “Here you are, dear.”

“Thank you.” She carefully dabbed the tear away, then turned that dazzling smile on me. “Thank you, Miriam. This…” She sighed happily. “I look wonderful. I feel wonderful. Thank you.”

“It was my pleasure,” I told her sincerely. “Any time – although I’m sure you won’t need my help to achieve this look before long.”

“I might come to you anyway,” M said, turning back to the mirror. “You’re… really good at this.”

“I try.” I stood and peered over her shoulder at our reflections in the mirror. I had given us approximately the same look, and with both of our hair in similar bobs, we looked quite similar.

M couldn’t seem to stop smiling, but a moment later, still looking at herself, she said, “So I’ve been thinking more about names.”

“And?” I asked. M had tried out a few names – Claire, Emily, Elizabeth – but none had stuck.

“I realized I might be thinking about it wrong,” she told me. “I’ve been trying to find something that had meaning to me, but… most people’s names don’t have any inherent meaning. They’re just names that they were given, and they grew into. Or for nicknames, they’re names that they just make people think of. So…” She met my eyes through the mirror, her happy smile turning a little nervous. “What would you name me?”

I blinked in surprise. “Are you asking me to pick your name?”

“To suggest some, at least.”

I tilted my head, thinking. “Hmm… Do you want to keep the M as your initial? You didn’t with names you’ve tried so far.”

“I think so. I don’t want to change my last name – I may hate my parents, but I’m proud of my Irish heritage – and the one thing I liked about my deadname was the alliteration.”

“Understandable,” I said with a nod. “Alright, M names. Let’s see. ‘Maureen’ or ‘Mabel’ would both be pretty old-fashioned, and so would Matilda – not for you, since you’re a modern, forward-thinking girl,” I winked at her. “I think ‘Mackenzie’ is a cute name… but the obvious nickname for that would be ‘Mac’, which might be…”

“Edging to masculine with the nickname there, yeah,” M agreed.

“’Madeline’ is quite pretty, but again, ‘Maddy’ is pretty close to ‘Mat’ – and might also be too similar to your last name. How about ‘Megan’?”

She considered it. “Megan… Megan Maddigan… maybe,” she decided, then chuckled at how many ‘M’s were being thrown around. “Let’s put that on the table and keep going.”

“I believe ‘Maeve’ is an Irish name. Maggie – well, Margaret, but you’d probably be called Maggie. Margaret could also be short for Molly-”

M’s eyes lit up. “Ooh, yes! That!”

“Molly?”

She nodded eagerly. “Yes. That’s my name!”

“You seemed to settle on that rather quickly,” I teased.

“It’s like…” M – no, Molly – bit her lip, trying to think of the words. “Like, the names I tried before, they were nice names. But something about them didn’t quite fit, you know? But here… it just kind of clicked. Like, yes, that’s it, that’s what my name is supposed to be. It was the same way when I realized that I was really a girl, like that’s why I’ve felt wrong my whole life. This is why my name never felt right.”

I wrapped my arms around the girl’s shoulders, hugging her from behind. “Well, I’m very glad to have been the one to find your new name, Molly.”

Her grin, already wide, spread further at hearing her name. “I’m glad it was you too, mom.” A moment later, she tensed and blushed heavily – enough that I could see it through the makeup. “I mean-!”

“It’s okay,” I chuckled. “You’re not the only Journeyman who calls me that. I don’t mind.”

“But, but… they call you that as I joke, and I just… I accidentally…”

“I understand, dear,” I said, my heart warming even further, and pressed a soft kiss into her hair. “You can call me ‘mom’ if you want to. I would be very proud to have you as my daughter.”

Slowly, Molly relaxed, and reached behind herself to hug me back as best as she could. “I love you, mom,” she whispered.

“I love you too, Molly.”

Previous Chapter | Act 3 | Next Chapter

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2.2. Scenes 41-42

Scene 41 – December 23rd
Interior Mansion, Early Evening
Morgan Könberg

“Hey mom?” I heard Tristan’s drift through the halls. “Mom?”

“Yes, dear?” Jenny called back to him from somewhere else in the mansion.

I nodded to myself – Jenny would handle whatever it was – and leaned back over Excalibur. The blade had an immense power and energy, and as a mage, it fascinated me. I couldn’t help but wonder if perhaps…

“No, other mom! Mom?” Tristan shouted.

I sighed and, instead of taking hold of the sword for the first time, I lowered a protective plastic case – inscribed and enchanted to block all magical emanations – over it. “One moment!” I called back to him, putting a little bit of magic into my voice so he would hear me.

“There’s someone at the door!”

I paused in my redoubling of the protective charms. Who on earth could come to our door? It might, I supposed, be one or both of the Kovals – having dragged them from the depths of their research not too long ago, they might be aware enough over the world to come over for a visit – but I didn’t think it was likely. And no one else should even be able to notice that our mansion existed.

Perhaps it was the Kovals’ daughter, who might still be keyed into the wards as well. She had been a friend of Dom and Viv’s when they were younger, although I didn’t think they had spent much if any time with each other in years. But the urge to reconnect with an old friend could come at any time.

With that in mind, I left Excalibur in my lab and went to go see who it was. And, for that matter, why Tristan had called for me specifically –

“Oh,” I said, flatly. “It’s you.”

Arthur Peregrine inclined his head in greeting. “It’s me. Hello again, Morgan.”

I crossed my arms, leaning against the doorframe, and pointedly didn’t invite him in. “Tristan, you can go.”

“But mom, that’s Arthur Peregrine.”

“I know, dear. I’ll deal with him.”

Tristan glanced between us, confused – while he, like the rest of my family, knew that I had once been Peregrine’s apprentice, I didn’t talk about that time much. My youngest son especially had no reason to know the details. After a moment, he left.

Peregrine’s eyes tracked Tristan as he left for a moment, and I was certain that he was putting his remarkable senses for people’s health and wellbeing to use. “I see you haven’t forgotten the medical spells we developed together,” he said to me. “He’s shaping up into a fine young man, it seems.”

“I can’t fall you for those spells, I suppose – no one else was creating them.” I sighed, and turned away, walking towards the nearest sitting room. “I suppose you had better come in.”

He followed in silence as I led him to the sitting room, where I found my husband sitting and struggling with a crossword puzzle.

“Morgan!” he said happily, glancing up at me with a sunny smile, and I couldn’t help but return it. “I see you have a guest?”

“Yes. Arthur, this is Arthur Peregrine,” I said to him. “Peregrine, this is…” I paused briefly, wondering whether or not I should reveal that we were polyamorous. Peregrine wasn’t a judgmental man, I could give him that, but the memory of my parents and siblings disowning me when they found out was hard to get past. It only took me an instant to remember, though, that Tristan had called to ‘other mom’, and that was likely all the clue that Peregrine had needed to figure out our situation, so I continued, “one of my partners, also named Arthur.”

“I recall,” Peregrine said, shaking Arthur’s offered hand. “A pleasure.”

“The pleasure is all mine,” Arthur told him. “I’ve heard a great deal about you from Morgan. And other places, of course,” he joked. “Not sure we’ve ever met though.”

“Once or twice, I think,” Peregrine responded. “Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to make it to the commitment ceremony.”

“We’re sorry to have interrupted you,” I said, nodding to the now discarded puzzle. “I’ll take him to a different room.”

“No, no!” Arthur insisted, taking the puzzle and his pencil and rising. “I’ll leave. It’s quite alright.”

“Dear-”

“I’ll just go find Jenny!” he assured me – probably for the best. Today had been a good day for him, but any disruption to his normal routine could be an issue, and Jenny would help him stay on track if necessary. A moment later, he was gone.

Peregrine turned his gaze on me, “You know that-”

“Yes, we know that he has Alzheimer’s,” I snapped, falling into the vacated seat.

“Why didn’t you-”

“Call you for help?” I sneered. “Why didn’t you come visit at any point in the last, oh, 22 years? Couldn’t make it to the commitment ceremony,’” I scoffed, “you can teleport anywhere in the world at a moment’s notice. You just couldn’t be bothered to show up. Besides,” I added, “it resists magical healing. I’ve tried, and so have the doctors at NVG.”

“I was quite busy that afternoon, I’ll have you know,” he protested, “interviewing someone to replace you after you left your apprenticeship.”

“Ah yes, your oh-so-rigid schedule,” I mocked. “I remember that schedule. Every moment of every day regimented and pre-planned, not a moment for ourselves. And you wonder why I left?”

“You didn’t mind so much back then,” he reminded me, “and I was far stricter with my own time than I ever was with yours.”

I huffed, crossing my arms in irritation. “You were never a hypocrite, no. But what’s right for you isn’t right for me.”

He sighed. “That’s true, I suppose.”

We sat in silence for a moment before I asked, “Why are you here?”

“I’m sure you noticed the events involving the so-called ‘Magnificent Maxwell’ and Anima-”

“No, why are you here,” I repeated. “In my home.”

“…because you invited me in.” I narrowed my eyes at the man, and he chuckled. “I’m here because I hoped that we could set our argument aside. Forgive each other for the things we said. There aren’t many mages at our level, and… I suppose I’d like to have my friend and colleague back.”

“…it’s true, there aren’t many at our level,” I admitted. Even the Kovals weren’t really a match for Arthur and I – while they were certainly more expert in the arts of the mind and trickery, they were extraordinarily specialized. In all other aspects of magic, Arthur and I were far more skilled.

“So here is what I propose,” Peregrine said. “It’s been a little while-”

My brows rose. “22 years, to be precise.”

“A little while, as I said. Don’t look at me like that, you’d be as ageless as I am if you cared to be,” he said, defensively. “We’ve had time to cool off. We can each explain our side of matters without the big…” he waved his hands, somehow conveying the essence of the tense, highly-charged argument we had had towards the ends of my apprenticeship. “Then, after that, we can lay it to rest.”

“Ah, I see,” I said in understanding. “You have to have the last word, even 22 years later.”

“You can go second, if you prefer,” he offered.

“Fine. You start, then.”

Peregrine steepled his fingers, and began, “It all goes back to Martin Abelard, I suppose. Metahumans – and more than metahumans, all unusually gifted people – should use their talents to serve society and humanity. I am lucky enough to have remarkable faculty with magic, particularly that which relates to healing – how could I not use my magic to help the world?”

“…that’s it?” I asked after he had been silent for a moment.

“That’s it.”

“Huh. Seems a lot simpler without all the…” I waved my hands.

“Yes,” he agreed. “My magic lets me do things others cannot – I should use it to help. And your view?”

“My counterpoint,” I said, “is that that only reaches to a point, and that point is as far as a normal man can think to reach. A mage like… like… the Magnificent Maxwell, say, or Anima, their skills are within the reach of society. Beyond that – in the far reaches of theoretical magic, where we reside – I think our involvement does more harm than good.”

“How so?”

“How many advances in medical magic have there been in the last century that you weren’t involved in?” I asked.

“…very few,” he admitted. “I think I see where you’re going with this…”

“You’re without a doubt the greatest healer in the world, Peregrine,” I said, “and you have an excellent claim to the title of greatest mage in general. But even you have only so much time – presuming that the magic of time still escapes you.” He nodded. “Few, now, are willing to make their own researches into medical magic without your guidance or assistance. Of those few, very few have succeeded. But were you not available, I would hazard a guess that many who now wait for their chance to work for you would instead forge ahead, and in doing so, make their own discoveries.”

“And for yourself?”

“My field has been untouched by my influence,” I pointed out, “and look how quickly artificing techniques are advancing. Why, in a few years, researches will likely catch up to where I was at ten years ago.”

“But if you shared your research -” he tried.

“If I shared my research, it would leap the community forward,” I agreed. “But only to the point that I had reached. And as my dominance over the field became established, I would only stall its advances for as long as I worked – and since, as you pointed out, I could be immortal if I wished to, that might be forever. Instead, I allow them to make their own advances, and eventually – perhaps in twenty years, perhaps fifty, but eventually – the world at large will match and surpass me. And they will have done so,” I added, “on their own.”

He sighed. “I see your point,” Peregrine admitted, “but I fear that I cannot agree with it. I feel that a man who can turn aside another’s death and chooses not to has killed as surely as if he had committed the murder himself. I cannot possibly choose not to heal, and if I make an advance that could help in the hands of others, how could I choose not to share it?”

“…I see your point as well,” I admitted. “My specialty of magic has, perhaps, less of an ethical imperative to action than yours does.”

“Perhaps so.”

We sat in silence for a moment, but it was no longer tense and angry. We understood each other, finally.

Scene 42 – December 23rd
Interior Mansion, Continuous
Morgan Könberg

“So…” I finally said.

“So?”

“Will you?”

“Will I what?”

I sighed. “You always have to do this.”

“I have no children of my own, allow me some few pleasures of fatherhood with one of the only people I can be so informal with,” Peregrine said with a faint smile.

“You could find a partner easily, if you tried.”

He shook his head. “I have no time. And yes,” he held up a hand to forestall protests, “I know, I could rework my schedule, but I’m not going to. Besides, not only am I a very public figure – with no secret identity – who therefore must always ask about the motivations of anyone who seeks to become closer to me, I am also as close to immortal as anyone outside of Aegis gets.”

“Aren’t you older than Aegis? And La Borda here in New Venice is probably just as immortal.”

“And is in a committed relationship, on top of being much younger than me.” He shrugged. “The point is, where would I find a woman who could relate to a man two centuries old?”

“Fair point. So?”

He smiled. “Yes, I will help your husband with his Alzheimer’s. I’m certain that its magical resistance will not be able to stop me – particularly if, as I suspect, Mr. Könberg is the patient of a young doctor called Durandel who messaged me some time ago about a man with magic-resistant Alzheimer’s.”

“Thank you,” I said gratefully. “And yes, that would be us.”

He held up a hand. “I’m sure that you remember my limits with such genetic diseases, but I feel the need to warn you in any case. I can clear the buildup of proteins that causes Alzheimer’s, but I cannot cure the underlying cause of the condition – he will, if he lives long enough, face its specter once more. Neither can I ensure that your children do not inherit its risk. In addition, if any of his memories have been permanently lost at this point, I will not be able to restore them.”

“I know,” I assured him, “but the help you can give will still be greatly appreciated. And if Arthur receives another 50-to-60 years of good health before the proteins have built up enough to be a risk, well… that will have been a great blessing.”

Peregrine nodded. “The other warning I must give is that, should Mr. Könberg wear his helm, it will speed the onset of the disease.”

My blood ran cold. “What do you-”

“The helm of his armor, the Mountain King’s armor, the helm that you gave to a young woman that I presume was your daughter when they broke into the local MLED Compound last week,” he calmly said, as though he wasn’t revealing knowledge that could tear my family’s peaceful life apart. “The one that enhances the senses and intellect of its wearer. Oh, do sit down,” he ordered.

I realized that I had leapt to my feet, magical energy filling my lips and tongue unbidden, ready for me to speak curses into existence and smite the man who might threaten my family. I sat, slowly, but didn’t banish the magic that had come to my unconscious call. “You…”

“Don’t act surprised that I knew your husband’s identity, Morgan,” Peregrine said. “I did mention that we had met, and when else would I have bumped into the man? It’s not as though I made it to your commitment ceremony.”

“Don’t joke,” I hissed at him. “If you knew – have known – why did you never say anything?”

“He’s retired, is he not?”

“Yes,” I confirmed. “Since he met me and Jenny. His resolve to stay out of that life only redoubled when we began having children.”

“Why, then, would I care who he once was?” Peregrine asked. “I cannot change the past – and if I could, it wouldn’t be worth changing the Mountain King. Of all the villains I’ve faced, he was by far the best of a bad lot.”

I couldn’t help but chuckle. “Arthur used to say that about himself as well. I think he took pride in being the least bad option – he once said that if the heroes really wanted to remove him from New Venice, they could have, but they were afraid of who would replace him.”

“The city hasn’t done too badly,” he observed.

I shrugged. “With him having just vanished rather than being captured or killed, we think people assumed he was still around, ready to step in if anyone broke his rules. That culture of keeping things safe for civilians, and not all that bad for heroes, either, seems to have stuck around to this day – for the most part, at least.” I scowled. “The Buff Boys don’t hold to it, and neither do out-of-towners like…” I trailed off, realizing that I didn’t know what Peregrine thought of the Ambrosia Company. I was certain that he knew of them, but… his Abelish views lead him to think that they did more good than bad.

“Like Legion?”

“Yes.”

“Then what were you thinking,” he asked, “sending your family – your children – out into that?”

“What was I thinking? I was thinking that I was making the best of a bad situation,” I snapped. “I was thinking that Legion isn’t in the city anymore, and that no one would know who we were. I was thinking that we would be safe under our wards, and that you wouldn’t waltz right in and pull the rug out from under me! I was thinking that there are people after us, Peregrine, and I don’t know how deep their tendrils go, and I can’t ask for help because I can’t trust anyone!”

By this point I was on my feet again, magic swirling around me in the heat of my anger, and Peregrine was standing as well – his magic arrayed defensively around him, but still ready for combat. He seemed surprised, and began, “Morgan-”

“You don’t know what kind of shit we’re fighting against,” I hissed at the other magician. “You don’t know what we’re risking. So don’t you dare judge me.”

“Morgan, please -”

I turned away from him, stalking out of the room. “You should go.”

“I… please, let me -”

Go.

He went.

Previous Chapter | Intermission

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2.2. Scenes 38-40

Scene 38 – December 23rd
Interior Cell Block, Late Morning
Maxwell Copperfield

I felt empty.

When I had taken up the sword – Excalibur, according to Abe – I had been filled with power, filled with understanding. The world had seemed so simple, magic had seemed so simple. My thoughts had raced, I had built great towers of logic with perfect clarity. Spells far beyond my reach had been simple. It seemed as though I had no limits. And now…

In only a few moments, Anima had claimed it for herself, and those towers of thought had come crashing down. I had collapsed as well, drained of both my energy and my mind, or so it had felt. I could barely remember those heights, now – even the events themselves were dim and hard to recollect, so colored had they been by my lofty thoughts.

I wasn’t sure how long it had been, since then. A few days, perhaps, since I had been deposited in the magic-suppressing cells beneath the MLED Compound. No doubt I would eventually be transferred to Steel Island, where I would remain until I escaped. If I escaped.

I couldn’t help but wonder what it would be like, to be in prison. I had never been caught before. Unpleasant, no doubt, but they probably couldn’t hold me. Steel Island couldn’t hold villains as weak as Voltage, Motael, or Ridealong – how could they possibly hold me, even without Excalibur?

“Max.”

I was jostled into full awareness by the sound of my name from a familiar voice. My head rose and swiveled and I saw the most beautiful sight I had ever seen – Abraham Armstrong and Emilia Alvarez, the couple that I had loved and lost and regretted losing. I was overcome by an intense feeling of relief – thank god, I thought, because Abe and Emilia were here.

Just as quickly, I was set upon by an equally intense guilt. I had hurt them, I knew it. I had neglected them both until I lost them, obsessed with finding a book that might, it seemed, have been lost forever – had then attacked them, while in possession of a sword that, according to Abe, at least, had been affecting my mind.

And here they were, looking at me with pity and rage and tenderness and love in such quantities that I could hardly bear it. Looking at me like that now, while I was a failure and locked into an appearance that I hated and dressed in rags and…

“Don’t-” I said, my voice rough with disuse – I hadn’t spoken since the moment Excalibur left my hand. “…don’t look at me.”

“Max,” Emilia said, sitting in the chair on the other side of the glass from me, resting her hands on the table that crossed it. “Why don’t you want us to look at you?”

That was a complicated question. I tried to marshal my thoughts to explain that I had done something horrible by even pretending to take over the city – especially since my thoughts had been leaning farther towards truly attempting to do so that than I had let on to Abe and Emilia when they had confronted me. I tried to figure out how to explain that my natural face was disgusting to me, and that wearing the glamour of my true face allowed me to feel comfortable with the world and myself. I tried to think of how to explain that the sight of them was painful to me, and shouldn’t my own face be equally painful to them?

All I could say was, “I’m hideous.”

She exchanged a look with Abe, one which I, with my mind still staggered by the loss of Excalibur, was unable to decipher. He squeezed her shoulders from where he stood behind her, then said, “Max. Are you feeling okay?”

“…no,” I admitted. “I feel like… like a puzzle with half its pieces scattered. And I… I’ve always felt like that, a little bit, but…” I sighed. “I had a glimpse of the box, just for a moment. I saw where I was going and how to get there. And now even that’s gone. Now I’m just broken, and I barely remember what being complete would look like.”

Another one of those looks. “Are these withdrawal symptoms, do you think?” Emilia asked. “Miriam is struggling with them as well.”

I waved a hand dismissively. “No, that’s not it. There’s no lingering magic, I would notice that,” I said. “It’s just the effect of having had power and then lost it. I was so much more, and now…”

“Max, I said it before and I’ll say it again,” Emilia told me. “You don’t need Excalibur to be amazing. You’re incredible just as yourself – as you are now.”

“And…” Abe added, “we do mean as you are now. You don’t need magic or a glamour or a suit or a sword. You, Maxwell Copperfield, can be enough.”

I turned away from them, unable to handle their pity and pride and concern any longer. “Nothing will ever be enough, for some people,” I muttered. “I have to be more. I can’t – I don’t -” I buried my face in my hands, unable to express it any better.

“…Max, it seems likely that you’re going to be sent to a mental care hospital,” Abe said from behind me.

“Not Steel Island?” I asked, speaking up a little to be heard through my hands.

“Not Steel Island,” Emilia confirmed. “You’re not in your right mind, we can tell, and we’ll testify to that. And Arthur Peregrine-” I felt a flash of rage. “-is likely to testify that the sword was affecting you mentally as well. You’ll be there until the doctors clear you.”

I said nothing. I wasn’t sure what they wanted me to say.

“If you go to care,” Abe said, begged, “please, Max, please do your best. Put in an effort. For us. If you can recover, if you can get past what this sword did to you, then…” He paused, sounding uncertain. “If you can get better,” he finished after a moment, “It will make me – us – very happy.”

“…I’ll try,” I promised. “For you.” I turned to face them again and saw that Abe was blinking back tears – Emilia wasn’t even trying to prevent them. I blinked, feeling wetness on my face, and realized that I was crying as well. “This… this shouldn’t be so hard,” I whispered.

“Healing is never easy,” Emilia said. “But it’s worth it.” I nodded.

“One more thing,” Abe warned me. “Arthur Peregrine will also be visiting you, after lunch.” I tensed. “He’s here to clear you of any lingering influence from Excalibur-”

“I told you, I would have noticed that,” I hissed, whirling back to face them again. “I don’t need help from Arthur Peregrine!

“Then he’ll confirm that,” Abe said in a calming voice. “And you need to let him.”

I growled. “I don’t need to let Peregrine do anything! I raged. “He’s the whole reason for this mess! It’s all his fault!”

Another incomprehensible look between them. “Max,” Emilia said. “You don’t need to forgive him. All you need to do is not fight against his medical expertise.”

“…Arthur Peregrine is the antithesis of everything a magician should be,” I informed her. “He hoards information and spends his time giving nothing back, doing little but expanding his own powers, never using them on behalf of the world – the man is a mockery of every value I hold dear!”

Another look.

“Stop looking like that!” I shouted.

Abe sighed. “We can’t help you, Max, as much as we want to – we don’t have the necessary skills.” he admitted. “All we can do is ask you to let those who do have those help you. And if you don’t, you’ll never get better.”

“…I don’t need help,” I hissed. “Least of all from Arthur Peregrine.”

One more look, and then they stood to go. “…goodbye, Max,” Abe said.

Emilia put a hand to the glass, clearly hoping for me to do the same, but I didn’t. A moment later, she bowed her head and left, Abe following behind.

I sank into the chair and rested my head in my arms, struggling not to cry.

Scene 39 – December 23rd
Interior Cell Block, Early Afternoon
Maxwell Copperfield

That afternoon, as I had been warned, he came. Arthur Peregrine. Wearing a smug look and a jacket, with that fucking bird logo as a golden pin, standing outside my cell.

“Mr. Copperfield,” he said with a nod. “How are you feeling this afternoon?”

“Peregrine,” I spat. “Come to gloat?”

He tilted his head as though he didn’t know exactly what I was talking about. “Come again?”

“This all turned out exactly as you planned, didn’t it,” I hissed. “You completely ruined me. Leaving that sword in there…”

“Mr. Copperfield, I’m afraid that I don’t-”

“Don’t pretend you don’t remember,” I growled. “I applied for an apprenticeship with you. You interviewed me, and turned me down.”

“Yes, I recall.”

“All I wanted was to learn!” I yelled at him. “That’s all I wanted! I just wanted that book, all I wanted was to learn magic! That’s all I ever wanted! But you – you!”

“Excalibur really did a number on you, didn’t it,” Peregrine murmured.

“Excalibur hasn’t affected me for shit,” I denied. “I’m as sane as I’ve ever been. All it did was open my eyes.”

“If this is as sane as you’ve ever been,” Peregrine observed sarcastically, “then I fear what you were like before. No, Mr. Copperfield, I’m afraid that you are in fact still touched by the lingering effects of that blade.” He stepped forward, passing through the glass that had separated us as thought it were nothing but a mirage. “If you’ll allow me to briefly touch your mind, I can restore your rationality.”

I pressed myself back against the wall, trying to stay as far away from him as I could. “Get back,” I hissed.

“Mr. Copperfield, I’m trying to help you,” he said, the irritation and anger that I was certain always lurked beneath those faux-tired eyes finally beginning to show.

“I don’t want help – not from you,” I spat.

He sighed. “Very well then. I cannot help you if you are not willing to be helped.” The man turned and strode out of my cell again.

I collapsed onto the bed, staring up at the blank ceiling and retreating into my thoughts once more.

Scene 40 – December 23rd
Interior MLED Compound, Continuous
Arthur Peregrine

It was disappointing but not, on the whole, surprising. The lingering effects of the sword magnified Copperfield’s preexisting paranoia and narcissism, making him fear some sort of conspiracy on my part to humiliate him and destroy him. I wished I could help, I really did, but the arts of mental healing required cooperation from the afflicted, just as non-magical therapy did.

There were, of course, more unethical magics of the mind, which had no need of consent to function. They could tear apart Copperfield’s psyche and rebuild it into a better, more rational person. But those dark magics were far beyond what I was willing to use.

After all, I was a healer at heart. I wanted to help people become the best versions of themselves, not to turn them into different people entirely.

After leaving the cell blocks where Copperfield was contained, I had made my way up to the common room of the New Champions, where Wright was waiting for me. She, I hoped, would be more willing to be helped – the message I had received from Armstrong certainly implied so.

When I arrived, I saw Wright sitting in an armchair, reading a book titled Nemesis. She glanced up at me and slid a bookmark into its pages setting the book aside. The room was otherwise empty.

“Arthur,” she said, giving me a faint smile. “Nice to see you again – it’s been a few years.”

I nodded to her. She was a fellow healer and worthy of respect for that alone, even if she hadn’t been a skilled hero as well – and she was. “Miriam. A pleasure as always.” I took a seat on the couch beside her chair and added, “and it’s nice to actually be welcomed. Mr. Copperfield wasn’t nearly so pleased to see me.”

“I imagine not, from how he’s talked about you,” Wright said. “He speaks of you as a miser of knowledge, like a magical hoarder, who never bothers to actually use it. But I’ve never gotten that impression from you.”

I shrugged. “He’s not entirely wrong, I suppose. I do tend to keep the most dangerous – and powerful – texts and artifacts locked away from the world at large. And certainly, there is a tendency for mages to grow more reclusive and take less action as they grow more powerful – those who truly focus on the study of magic, that is. Those such as yourself or Mr. Armstrong, who focus on the application, seem somewhat exempt from such. But it may surprise you to know that I am, relatively speaking, an interventionist.”

She sighed. “Why is that, anyway?”

“Why is what? The tendency towards reclusion?”

“Yes.”

“I believe it is simply a natural consequence of the personality type required to succeed at the deepest reaches of magic,” I told her. “A certain level of obsession and tunnel vision, the ability to shut out distractions and focus on your studies. Perhaps those who would not grow as reclusive are simply not able to succeed at the higher levels, either.”

“Perhaps.” She glanced at one wall – the Journeymen’s quarters and common room lay in that direction, if I remembered the standard layout for MLED compounds right. “Do you have the time to meet people? I know that Loki is here at present, and probably our newest member as well -”

“Newton, yes?”

“Yes. I think they’d enjoy meeting you.”

I shook my head. “I’m afraid not. I have some free time today – I allocated several hours for both your session and Mr. Copperfield’s. As he was unwilling to cooperate, that time is open, thus my ability to chat instead of getting right to the healing – but I hope to use that time to reconnect with an old friend who lives in New Venice. It’s been far too long since I spoke with her.”

“I see. Well,” Wright said, “don’t let me keep you. What do I need to do?”

A smile tugged at my lips. “All you need do is close your eyes and relax,” I promised my fellow healer, setting a hand on her forehead as she did so and extending my senses into her mind and soul, “and I will do the rest.”

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2.2. Scene 37

Scene 37 – December 22nd
Interior MLED Compound, Afternoon
Quinn Kaufman

A few days after the incident, I stumbled into the common room with a groan of pain, collapsing onto the couch where my head landed neatly in Holly’s lap. “I want to die,” I declared.

“Don’t be so dramatic!” Abe laughed, following behind me and leaning over the back of the couch. “They’re just sore because I kicked their ass in training today,” he informed Holly.

“You kick my ass in training every day,” I shot back. “I’m sore today because you kicked my ass in a new and exciting way, which,” I told Holly, “was that he made me fight him while defending a crash test dummy.”

“Oh, wow,” she said, sounding impressed. She began absently running her fingers through my hair, and I let out a pleased sigh as she played with my curls. “It took me way longer to get to defending others when I was doing my initial combat training.”

“Quinn’s got a real talent,” Abe said.

“Lies. I haven’t won once.”

“You’re not expected to win, you’re expected to improve. And that you’re doing, and very quickly indeed.” He turned to Miriam, who was sitting in the other armchair, her knees curled underneath her and a book on her lap. “Don’t you agree, Miriam?”

The healer nodded. “Quinn’s been picking up first aid just as fast.”

“That’s no great achievement,” I denied. “I’m a premed student, I should hope that I could learn basic first aid.”

“You’re a little past basic, you know, and showing no signs of stopping.”

“Anyway…” Abe tilted his head towards Anima. “We haven’t really gotten a chance to talk. How are you doing?”

She sighed. “Stressed as hell, mostly. Dealing with the bureaucracy and media out for my head is bad enough, but the withdrawal symptoms on top of that…” She shivered. “Thank god that Arthur Peregrine is coming to check on me soon. I don’t know how much longer I can deal with this.”

I sat up, shifting to lean against Holly instead of lying in her lap so that I could see Miriam better. “I didn’t realize you were dealing with withdrawal. What’s it like? If you don’t mind me asking.”

“It’s like…” She paused, thinking. “When I was low on energy, before, my body temperature would drop and I would get shivers, as well as being exhausted, and I’d get these urges… to drain whatever I could, to get up to full again. It’s one reason I tried not to use too much of my own energy. But now, after having had so much power stored up… even though my tank is full, I’m getting… echoes of that feeling, I guess.” She held up a hand, and I realized it was trembling a little. “I hope Peregrine can fix it.”

“I’m certain he can,” Holly assured her. “It sounds like you recalibrated what full was while using Excalibur, so now you feel almost empty. I bet he can just…” She twiddled her fingers. “…reset that. He’s an incredible healer, for the mind as well as the body.”

“I wonder if we’ll get to meet him?” I mused. “I know there’s no way he’ll be impressed by my meager magical talent – one spell does not a mage make – but I’d still love to meet the guy.”

Canaveral shrugged. “He likes to meet other heroes, usually briefly, but he’s a very busy man. It depends on if he has time to spare.”

“Have you ever met him?” I asked Holly.

“Twice,” she answered. “Once when I was fifteen – he was passing through New Venice because – what was it?”

“When you were fifteen? Five or six years ago… I think that was when Motael made his first foray into magic, and accidentally created Overshadow and Underlight,” Miriam said.

“Thank god he he’s stuck to tech since then,” Abe muttered. “He’s enough trouble without breaking the laws of physics.”

“Anyway, once then,” Holly continued. “He asked me to show him my best spell, which was invisibility at the time, and then gave me some advice on how to improve it. The next time was when I had just turned 18, and he asked me to come interview for an apprenticeship with him.”

“Whoa!” I cried, shocked. “That’s super cool!”

She nodded. “It was pretty cool, yeah, even if I later found out that he interviews a lot of magic-using heroes for it. I didn’t get the gig, so…”

“Why not? Surely he couldn’t have missed how brilliant you are.”

Holly laughed. “No, he didn’t miss it! But our casting styles weren’t compatible enough for him to teach me properly, he said. I used hand signs, and he uses…” She tilted her head, trying to remember. “Actually, I’m not sure what he uses.”

“Magic just kind of… happens around him,” Miriam said. “I’ve never seen him actually take any action to cause it.”

“I’ve heard him say that his style is very rare,” Abe added.

Holly shrugged. “In any case, I haven’t met him since, even though he came through New Venice again last year.”

“That was when Blue Phoenix manifested,” Abe remembered. “His fires were magically interesting for some reason or another.”

“He wanted to look at their regenerative properties,” Miriam reminded the other hero. “Peregrine hoped to make eternal braziers of them that people could step into to be healed. It didn’t work, unfortunately, but…”

“Anyway,” Abe said, “circling back to checking in on Miriam. How are you two doing?” he asked me and Holly.

“I’m… managing,” Holly said. “I had a chat with Dr. Wagner, and that helped a little bit.”

“Whoa, why’d you need to see the shrink?” Abe said, surprised and worried.

She took a deep breath. “It’s kind of personal, but…”

“You don’t have to share if you don’t want to,” I reminded her, remembering that she had alluded to this shortly before we confronted Anima. I wrapped a protective arm around her shoulders.

She leaned her head against mine for a moment before saying, “it’s alright, Quinn. I talked to Wagner about it, like I said, and he thinks sharing will help me.”

“Then don’t let me stop you. Just…”

“I know.” She took another deep breath before saying, “It’s my parents. I don’t know if you’ve noticed how often I end up sleeping here at the compound…”

“More often than anyone else, by a pretty wide margin,” Miriam said. “Not counting Molly and Quinn, who both live here. I always assumed you lived too far away…” she seemed a little distressed at what Holly was implying. “I can’t believe I missed…”

“It’s fine,” Holly promised. “I never told anyone, after all.”

“Go on,” Abe said encouragingly, although there was still a note of worry in his voice.

“My parents are this weird combination of emotionally-absent and neglectful, and overprotective control freaks,” Holly explained. “They hide away in their research for months at a time, a year or more sometimes, and never think twice about me or anything else outside their labs. Then they emerge and suddenly everything needs to be perfect and just as they envision it, exactly as they desire, or else…” She shuddered.

“It’s never physical,” she assured us as we all bristled, imagining what her parents had done to her, “never anything more than words. But, well… it’s easier to stay out of their way and hope they don’t notice me, sometimes.”

Miriam’s eyes were watering as she said, “And when I had the sword, I… oh, Holly, I’m so sorry!

“It’s fine, I promise!” she said, trying to reassure the emotional heroine. “You weren’t in your right mind. And if anyone is going to be overprotective of me, I’d rather it be someone actually who cares about me as more than a thing. I mean, honestly, you’ve been more of a parent to me than either of them have, since I-” She was interrupted by Miriam flying across the room to enfold her in a crushing hug. I shifted over a little so as not to intrude.

“We had no idea,” Abe said apologetically. “I’m sorry we never realized.”

“Like I said, I never told you guys,” Holly said, her voice muffled by Miriam’s shoulder. “Um. Could you let go, Mom? I can’t breathe.” The heroine gave one more squeeze before releasing her and retreating back to her armchair. Holly took a theatrically deep breath before continuing, “Honestly, I’m going to be fine. Wagner says I need to confront them, and it might take me a little to work up to that, but that’s all a personal problem – let me worry about it. We should be more concerned about Excalibur, honestly.”

Miriam sighed. “You’re probably right. The thought of what it did to me – of what I could do with it…”

“It’s scary to imagine it in the hands of bad guys,” Holly agreed. “And we have no idea what they’re going to do with it!”

“Hold on,” I protested, “the Round Table didn’t seem all that bad, as bad guys go. They seemed to be trying to keep casualties low, and they were just as worried about Excalibur being misused as we were.”

“And then they stole it,” Abe pointed out. “If they were worried about the sword being misused, why not leave it to the MLED? We would have kept it pretty far under lock and key, no one would have been able to get it.”

“I got the impression that they’re very suspicious of the MLED,” I told him. “I couldn’t tell why for sure, but… I think maybe they think we collaborate with villains, somehow?”

“Like when we worked with them to get Excalibur?” Holly pointed out, crossing her arms. “They’re pretty hypocritical, if that’s their problem.”

“I don’t know,” I shrugged, “that’s just the impression I got from Amethyst.”

“I think,” Abe put in, “that they were worried about the thing being out of their control in general, not about the MLED having it. The timing of their attempted infiltration of the Compound was exactly when we left to go after Max – they were obviously using him as a distraction. They only flipped when Excalibur left his control – I bet they pointed him at it somehow, and intended to reclaim it from him.”

“How did they know exactly when to strike, then?” I asked. “Do they have a source in the MLED?”

“No reason to jump to that conclusion,” Miriam said ruefully. “We left in the roc – it’s not exactly subtle transport.”

“Point.”

“Still, they seemed to be expecting the Journeymen alone, and knew that all available Champions would be busy,” she admitted. “Based on what I saw, at least, they had a strategy prepared to counter you guys, although it didn’t seem to cover Referee.”

“The PR page’s site on Referee includes her tournament schedule,” Abe pointed out. “Still publicly available information. It implies preexisting familiarity with MLED policies, maybe, but I don’t think there’s any reason it has to be a spy.”

“Familiarity and experience is probably all it is,” Holly agreed. “You must have noticed the similarity in powerset to the Mountain King, right?” Abe and Miriam nodded. “He vanished over 20 years ago, sure, but what if he didn’t die like some people think? What if he just retired?”

“And… what, these are his kids?” I asked. “Seems a little far-fetched. I mean, why does one of the most successful supervillains of all time just retire, anyway?”

“How old were the Round Table members?” Holly pointed out. “Having kids could easily convince someone to retire, especially since he almost certainly had more money than anyone would ever need.”

“There’s always been a theory that that’s why the Maestri retired, around the same time,” said Miriam. “They were a pair of supervillains that worked with the Mountain King a lot,” she told me. “Mages who specialized in trickery, illusions and mind control and the like. I fought them a few times and they were definitely a couple – Maestro would call Maestra ‘beloved’ and she always called him ‘dear’.”

Holly seemed a little uncomfortable for some reason, shifting a little beneath her illusory form. “Yeah, that… seems pretty plausible. Especially since Dame Adamant – the oldest – seemed to be about the right age to be his wife, I think.”

“I suppose it’s possible,” I admitted. “But if he retired for his family, why would the family then come out 20 years later?”

Abe shrugged. “Maybe there’s something they need, or are afraid of, that the Mountain King himself can’t go after. What did they seem to be going for, when they broke in?”

“I asked Sir Amethyst that,” I said. “His response, and I quote, was, ‘not important – we couldn’t get into the storage anyway’.”

“Hmm. Maybe the secure storage that we keep confiscated relics and technology in?” Miriam speculated. “Thank god they couldn’t get in.”

“I’m not so sure,” Holly said with a sigh. “That could easily have been misdirection – especially since Acumen had the run of the place for who-knows-how-long, under that stealth spell. I mean, they were far from incompetent – why would they mention what they were after?”

“You think that them setting off the alarms was a distraction from Acumen going farther into the Compound for something?” Abe asked.

“We’re already suggesting that they were using Max as a distraction,” she pointed out. “It fits their modus operandi, if so.”

“I suppose.”

“What confused me,” I remarked, “was that he also said that I was ‘the most dangerous one to them’ – not the most dangerous Journeyman in general, specifically the most dangerous to them. What about me would have been dangerous for the Round Table in a way that no one else would have been?” I rubbed my chin thoughtfully. “Especially since he seemed to change his mind about me to a degree when I told him that I fought Legion. Or tried to fight her, rather.”

Holly tilted her head thoughtfully. “Acumen did the same thing. Like, they assumed you would have worked with Legion, for some reason.”

“I don’t know what idea they have about me,” I said, crossing my arms in annoyance, “but I don’t like it.”

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2.2. Scenes 34-36

Scene 34 – December 19th
Interior MLED Compound, Early Evening
Susan Shepard

 

I sighed heavily, leaning my forehead against the door of the briefing room for a moment. It had been a long day, but the crisis was over and the end was in sight. All I had to get through were these debriefs, then I could hand things over to Henry.

Of course, there would no doubt be more to do the next day, and I couldn’t help smiling at the thought. I might complain, but I didn’t know what I would do with myself if I wasn’t busy.

I straightened up, opened the door, and entered. “Good evening, Mr. Koval,” I said, sitting across from Loki.

“Good -” the young man yawned. “Sorry, director. Good evening.”

“Still feeling drained?” I asked, and he nodded. “Well, this shouldn’t take all that long.”

“I know, just… not usually this tired.”

“We’ll be brief, I promise. So.” I opened my laptop, tabbing over to the the word processor I favored so I could take notes. “What was the first sign you had of something happening, today?”

“It was maybe 11:30. I was having coffee with Quinn and Simone, in celebration of us all having finished our college finals. We had left the coffee shop and gone to April Park to have a snowball fight, when our pagers went off, to call all available heroes back to the compound.”

“Why did you make the decision to return?”

“We… weren’t going to, at first,” Loki admitted. “Simone’s girlfriend – ex-girlfriend, I guess – cheated on her and dumped her before exams started, so she was stressed out and feeling pretty down, and Quinn and I were trying to cheer her up. I assumed that Canaveral would be back at the Compound quickly, and Anima probably would be too, not to mention that Zookeeper was on console and should be able to handle it. But…”

“But?”

“But we noticed Anima, Canaveral, and Zookeeper flying away from the Compound on the roc that Starling built for Anima,” he said. “Simone insisted that we head back, even going in against four unknown metahumans.”

“Four?” I asked. I tabbed over to my notes on the event – there had been five recorded members of the so-called ‘Round Table.’ The prevailing theory was that they had someone stolen or inherited whatever had granted the Mountain King his vast powers – the armor seemed to be the most likely theory, as each of them had produced obviously-magical mist from a different piece, while the Mountain King had produced it from his entire set – had fallen into their hands.

Loki nodded. “That’s what the pager said.”

“Hm. Continue.”

“Simone teleported us back to the console room, where we met Sequoia and Hypnos,” he said. “I sent Quinn and Simone to get changed and got a briefing on the situation from Hypnos. I then received a text message from Molly saying that her flight had been moved up, she had just landed, and was I or Simone available to pick her up, so I sent Journey to get her.”

“This was the point at which…” I sighed. “Journey teleported through security at the airport without being cleared, resulting in a complaint from the airport board.”

“Is that why it took her so long to get back?”

“It was,” I confirmed. “Please keep in mind that Journey is impulsive and forgetful. Next time you send her into a secure location, make sure she goes through security. It’s faster than being detained even briefly, and results in fewer complaints from other authorities.”

Loki shook his head. “I’ll have to talk with her about that. I love her like a sister, but she’s got to keep that stuff in mind.”

“I’ve already scheduled her to speak to Deputy Director Blackmire about it tomorrow evening,” I said, pleased that he wanted to take the responsibility himself. “But regardless. What happened next?”

“I planned to divide and conquer,” he said. “Since the villains seemed to be new, I was confident that we could handle them, and it worked – at first.”

“But?”

“But then the fifth member of their crew showed up.” Loki clenched his fist and, I imagined, was probably gritting his teeth behind his mask. “Dame Acumen.”

“So how many of them were there?” I asked, casting my eyes up to his previous statement of four metahumans.

“Still five.”

“Hmm. Continue.”

“She… was able to see through my constructs, somehow,” Loki said, almost sounding as though it was painful to admit, “and was… incredibly annoying. She was focused on me, or seemed to be, and…” He sighed. “And without me coordinating and watching, they somehow put together a plan that turned the tables.”

“We may need to put together some training exercises without you leading the Journeymen,” I mused, making a note of it, “if you being distracted for a few moments left them falling apart so badly.”

“They weren’t falling apart, exactly, but… yeah, it was heading in that direction,” he admitted. “Fortunately, Journey and Referee got back just in time. I had them bounce around and we started winning again. That’s when it happened.”

“Anima’s aura covered the city.”

“Yes. It was… scary,” he confessed. “Especially when she manifested a golem and started talking about… locking us up, basically, to ‘keep us safe.’” The young man shivered. “Kind of… hit close to home, I guess.”

I tilted my head. “How so?”

“Haven’t you read about it in the transcripts of my sessions with Dr. Wagner?”

“Those sessions are entirely confidential,” I reminded him. “There are no transcripts of them, and I don’t look at his notes. Unless you share, or he has reason to believe you’re an imminent danger to yourself or others, I have no idea what you discuss with Dr. Wagner – only whether or not you schedule sessions, and attend them after you do. Do you have reason to think he’s been sharing your information without your consent?”

He paused for a moment, thinking, before sighing. “No, I guess not,” Loki said. “Just… well, just another facet of the same issue, I guess. I’ll make sure to talk with him about it.”

“Continue, then.”

“Do I need to mention my issue?”

“Not if you don’t want to,” I promised. Policy would have me push, but I considered my heroes’ mental health to be as important as their physical. Just like I wouldn’t force someone with a broken leg to stand during a debrief, I wasn’t going to force Loki to talk about his issues when he wasn’t ready to.

“Okay. Okay.” The young man took a deep breath before continuing, “Journey evacuated us from the Compound, and I set up a stealth bubble so Anima wouldn’t spot us. Hypnos told us that the thing which had called the Champions away was that the Magnificent Maxwell had somehow gotten hold of Excalibur, which apparently magnifies people’s powers, and might mess with their heads as well. We figured that Anima had probably taken it from him, and that’s why she was… acting strange.”

“This is when you called me,” I noted.

“Yeah. You know how that went, of course.”

“Mhm. Continue.”

“Since Omnipresence and Aegis were both busy with… was it really a parallel dimension invading?”

I switched tabs to the latest report on that situation. “The invaders certainly claim to be. As with the supposed incursion in California two months ago, however, it’s unclear if it’s true or not. The situation is still unclear.”

Loki tilted his head, sounded quite interested as he asked, “Are the two incursions linked?”

“Again, unclear. The invaders don’t seem to be from the same parallel, if in fact they really are from alternate dimensions. One could be real and the other fake, or both real, or both fake – which is what I personally think. But that’s beside the point,” I said. “Continue from the phone call.”

“Since we had Referee with us, we were the best option to get the sword away from Anima,” he said. “We had just gotten some preliminary intel from Hypnos when the Round Table showed up again.”

“How did they see through your shield bubble?” I asked.

“The same way Acumen saw through my previous spells, I assume.”

“And how did they get out of the Compound?”

Loki opened his mouth, then frowned. “I’m… not sure, actually.”

I nodded. “We think Dame Acumen has some sort of stealth capabilities, tentatively ranked Area Buff 2 since she was able to share it with the rest of the Table. That’s why the initial report said four, even though there were five of them, and why you all forgot they were there when they escaped.”

“That… how did I miss that? I was there, I saw her, and I knew there were only four reported…”

“It seems to have less effect second-hand.” I gestured to dismiss that. “But keep going. The Round Table reappeared?”

“Yes. They offered to help us get to Anima and keep golems from flanking us while we confronted her.” He sighed. “And… they did a decent job, I suppose. They helped get Referee in range of her, which massively boosted the range of her aura to include all of us.”

“And then you went in?”

“Yes. I…” he took a deep breath, fortifying himself, and I made a mental note to check that he attended an appointment with Wagner to talk about whatever issue this had jostled. “I tried to convince her to give Excalibur up peacefully, but she just drained me unconscious. I didn’t wake up until it was all over – I don’t know that I was properly awake even when the Round Table stole the thing.”

“Alright then. That’s the events… do you have any observations about how the sword affected Anima’s mental state?”

He hesitated. “Can I beg off this question?”

“Mental health?” I asked, raised an eyebrow.

“Yes.”

I nodded, and saved my notes. “Alright. That’s all I need from you, then. Go get some sleep, Loki.”

He yawned again before standing. “Yeah… I’m looking forward to that.”

 

Scene 35 – December 19th
Interior MLED Compound, Evening
Susan Shepard

 

“…we tried to make an escape once, tried to get the sword away from her, but she just drained our energy,” Abe said, sounding every bit as tired as Loki did. “After that it was all we could do to stay awake, even when Molly’s aura hit us. I saw the kids come – Loki got drained, Quinn managed to hold her off, then Molly managed to convince her to back down.”

I nodded. “Last question. How would you say the blade affected Maxwell and Anima’s mental states? Were there similarities?”

“Shouldn’t that be a question for Anima?”

“I already debriefed her,” I told him. “She doesn’t remember her time holding the sword very clearly. All she could say was that holding it felt good in a way which, no longer under its effects, was ‘creepy’ and ‘too easy’.”

“Alright. Well…” The hero took a deep breath. “It was definitely affecting them – I could see that Max’s emotions were all over the place, and Anima seemed about the same. They were… off-kilter, I guess. But, if I’m being honest… I don’t think it introduced any new thoughts.”

“What do you mean?”

“Arthur Peregrine said that it was a power-enhancing artifact, right?” He said. “It affects the mind in the same way it affects your power, it enhances you to the point that it considers you worthy of ‘kingship’. That doesn’t mean giving you new ideas, forcing you to want something you’ve never considered – but it might mean magnifying thoughts you would never have actually acted on into overriding impulses.” Canaveral sighed. “Max wanted to prove his worth to Peregrine, as though he had failed somehow by not getting that apprenticeship. That’s just the kind of thing you tell yourself when you fail like that, ‘if I could just show him how good I am now, he’d change his mind,’ even though you know that’s not how it works. And Anima… I’m sure every parent has had the thought that if they could just wrap their children in cotton and keep them from the world, they would be safe. And while she may not literally be a mother to any of the Journeymen, she certainly views the Journeymen as her kids – Molly especially.”

I nodded. “That seems like a reasonable explanation of their behaviors. Do you think their exposure will have any lasting effects?”

“No clue,” he said with a shrug. “I’m no mage and certainly no psychiatrist. Ask Arthur Peregrine.”

“Oh, I will.” I saved the file. “Do you think we need to put Anima on temporary leave?”

“Probably for the best. Get her a clean bill of mental health from Peregrine – Wagner, too – before she goes back on duty.”

“Agreed.” I let out a heavy sigh. “Today was a real mess, Canaveral. Have you see what the media is saying about Anima?”

He shook his head. “I haven’t had the time to check yet, but I can only imagine it’s bad.”

“Whatever you’re imagining, it’s worse. There’s a strong possibility that she’ll have to retire because of this.”

“That… would be bad,” Canaveral said. “She’s one of the best healers the MLED has.”

“I know. I’m going to be fighting for her, but…” I growled. “I already have an angry message from Chief Director Redding. We might be lucky if we can keep her as an on-staff healer.”

Canaveral struggled the hold back a yawn as he asked, “Is there anything I can do to help?”

“Argue in her favor when Internal Affairs comes to interview you about the incident,” I said. “Other than that… Just go get some sleep.”

 

Scene 36 – December 19th
Interior Mansion, Late Evening
Dominic Könberg

 

When we had gotten home, taking shelter under the Kovals’ wards on the family mansion, Morgan had immediately whisked the sword – Excalibur, the Journeymen had said it was called – away from Tristan, and vanished into her wing. Mom, meanwhile, had swept off to check on dad, and make sure that he had gotten to bed alright on his own.

The rest of us, meanwhile had essentially collapsed in a puddle. After we stripped off our armor, left in the padded underclothing that had come with the stuff, I and my siblings were simply dozing, waiting for our mothers to shoo us to bed or to talk about the events of the day.

When Morgan reappeared, Viv was curled up against my side, Percy was lying with his head in her lap, and Tristan was sound asleep across Percy and my legs. I myself had folded up dad’s cape – which had changed color from deep purple to a metallic gray when I doffed it, as always – and was using it as a pillow between my head and the wall.

Morgan smiled a little at the sight, and I tried not to stir too much so as to avoid waking Tristan. Viv yawned and rubbed at her eyes, and Percy propped himself up on an elbow. “Hey Morgan,” I whispered.

“Hey kids,” she quietly responded, crouching. “First of all, I want to tell you how proud I am of all of you.” A sleepy smile spread across my face involuntarily, and Viv blushed a little. Percy just nodded, but I could tell how pleased he was to get such praise as well. “You successfully recovered the data we were hoping to get, you went toe-to-toe with the Journeymen and very nearly won, and you managed to adapt when plans had to change, and keep Excalibur out of the MLED’s hands – which means out of Ambrosia’s hands.”

“What did you do with it, by the way?” Viv asked. “It didn’t seem like something to be careless with.”

“I have it locked under a number of protective enchantments at the moment,” Morgan said. “In a few days I’ll begin investigating it for possible use – see if my specialty in artifice and enchantment can let me avoid the mental effects of it, or if they might be worth it for a few moments at a time. For now, however, we’ll just keep it locked up.”

“Probably for the best,” Percy murmured. “The idea of it being misused again…”

“A scary thought,” I agreed.

“Right. But that’s the first thing – you all did well.” Then Morgan sighed. “The second thing, unfortunately, is that even though you did well, today was a bit of a fiasco. The MLED will be on the lookout for any groups matching our description, has definitely connected your powers to Arthur’s, and Arthur Peregrine himself will doubtless be in the city by the end of the week. The Ambrosia Company will almost certainly have active agents here soon, both for Arthur’s armor and for the sword, if they can get their hands on it. Not to mention that Anima, one of the few heroes in this city that’s definitely not connected with Ambrosia – and a long-standing pillar of the entire East Coast for almost 20 years – might be forced into retirement as the result of this.” She shook her head sadly. “I wish it hadn’t turned out this way.”

“What’s our next move?” Viv asked.

“Nothing – yet. You and I will need to look through the data you recovered from the MLED’s servers, and from there, most likely a lot of scrying to check on hunches and inferences. What we’ll be doing next depends greatly on what we find. The deeper Ambrosia’s hooks go into the MLED, the more drastic the actions we’ll have to take in order to keep Arthur safe from them.” She leaned over Tristan’s snoozing form to press a kiss to my, Viv, and Percy’s foreheads. “For the moment, you should all get some rest. Maybe check in on your father, if Jenny hasn’t coaxed him to bed yet – it’s been a good day for him mentally, but that just means that he was worried about you all.”

“We will,” I promised, Viv and Percy echoing me a moment after.

Morgan whispered a few words, and Tristan rose into the air, still sleeping peacefully. “I’ll put Tristan in his room. Good night, kids.”

“Good night, Morgan.”

“Night,” Percy said, grunting as he stood.

“G’night mom.” Viv yawned, and cuddled back into my side. I decided not to disturb her, and instead just closed my eyes and did my best to follow my sister to sleep.

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2.2. Scenes 30-33

Scene 30 – December 19th
Interior “Higgins Museum”, Continuous
Quinn Kaufman

 

“Children!” Anima said cheerfully as she spotted us. “You’re finally here – once I’ve dealt with those villains outside, you’ll be safe! Forever!”

Loki grit his teeth and said nothing, so I decided to reply, hoping to stall her while we sized up the area. “Who do you mean, the Round Table? They’re not so bad, really. We’re thinking of setting up a weekly poker night with them.”

The massive room we had entered, sitting atop the golems immense shoulders, reminded me somewhat of a theater – we had stepped out from a wide entranceway under a broad stairwell, which slopped upward behind us into a second, higher level, which was blocked off by thick bars which felt to my presence like marble, somehow spun and woven into a spiderweb of bars. Behind the bars was what Hypnos had described as being like a playpen – a sand-covered floor beneath scattered chairs and tables and miniature castles. Canaveral, Zookeeper, the Magnificent Maxwell, and two security guards were contained within the playpen, in varying levels of passed out – Max seemed to be peacefully dozing on a bed of sand, while Canaveral and Zookeeper were sitting near him and struggling to stay away – they were propped up on each other’s shoulders, and I suspected that Anima was draining energy from them. The only reason their eyes were still open was likely the strengthening effects of Referee’s aura.

On the lower level, the one we entered into, sat a large but plain chair. Not quite a throne, but more than a simple seat. And in that chair… was Anima.

She didn’t look all that different, at first glance. She wore the formfitting, kevlar-lined coat that was part of her cold-weather costume, her hair was as red as ever, and her face was – or had been when we entered – split into her usual warm, motherly smile. But the aura that burned around her was stronger than I had ever seen it, and cast a frighteningly stark white light across the room.

Excalibur, a long rapier with a golden hilt, rested loosely, almost casually, in her hand.

The heroine’s smile twisted into a stern frown at my joke. “You shouldn’t spend time with villains,” she scolded me. “They can’t be trusted. You can only trust family.”

Loki shivered at that, and almost seemed to shrink. I still wasn’t sure what issue Anima was raising, but I decided that he didn’t need to to trigger himself. I stepped in front of him and used my presence to pull him backwards a little, trying to to it subtly so as not to draw Anima’s attention his way.

“What about Max?” I asked, gesturing to the playpen. “I notice he’s up in there along with Canaveral and Zookeeper – a villain alongside your family.”

“Max isn’t a villain,” Anima corrected me. “He’s just lost his way a little. His intentions are good, just like Essa’s.”

“Essa?”

“Hertz, to you. She’ll be coming in soon too…” the heroine sighed. “Once her wife tires, at any rate.” The slight aura that lined every inch of the floor bulged in between us, rising into the shapes of a multitude of generic golems surrounding two more personalized ones – one that resembled a short, curvy woman sitting in a chair and watching as the other, a tall, slim woman, shattered the generic ones at high speed. “La Borda cannot last forever… I assume.” She was trying to outlast La Borda? That didn’t sound like a smart bet.

Loki swallowed, took a deep breath, and stepped forward. “Anima” he said, his voice steady despite how nervous I knew he was.

“Loki:” I whispered, trusting to the magic earpieces he had created to keep my words private, “you don’t have to do this. I can handle it, you can-”

“Anima,” he said again, flashing a grateful expression to me under his illusion, where she couldn’t see, but still continuing, “you know that Essa wouldn’t want that. You know that Canaveral, and Zookeeper, and Max don’t want this. You know that we don’t want it. Please – don’t do this. There’s still time to stop. Please, put down the sword.”

Anima tilted her head to the side, seeming to consider it, then shook her head, her grip on Excalibur tightening. “No, Loki, this is the only way to keep you safe – the only way to keep everybody safe. No one has been hurt in the entire city since I took up this sword, and even now I’m healing those who were already injured – how could I give up this responsibility?”

“You’re hurting me! Loki snapped, moving his real body away from his illusory form and creeping forward. “How can you not see what you’re doing to me? This is so stifling, so-”

He was cut off by Anima blurring into motion, leaving a trail of blazing white power behind her as she rushed forward and grasped Loki’s shoulder- his real shoulder, not that of his illusion. Before I could react, her aura flared and Loki collapsed into near-unconsciousness.

“Of course I see you hurting,” Anima said softly, smiling paternalistically down at her. “That’s why I have to do this – so I can protect you from the harsh world.” With that same, all-too-caring look on her face, she turned towards me and Referee. “And you too – my newest child and my favorite daughter. Will you object as well?”

I swallowed my fear, and readied myself. “I do. You can’t make choices for people, Anima, even if you were really our parent. And while I respect you greatly, you’re not my mother.”

She flew towards me, and I pushed…

Scene 31 – December 19th
Interior “Higgins Museum”, Continuous
Quinn Kaufman

I pushed myself into the air while pulling Anima’s head and pushing her legs, causing her to topple and overbalance. I reached the high ceiling and pushed again, dodging the hands that began to grow from the surface to grab me.

Meanwhile, Anima somehow completed a full front flip and landed on her feet again. Before she could move properly, however, I pulled, bringing her off the ground to prevent her from getting any leverage and coming at her feet first.

She grabbed a hold of my leg and flared her aura, trying to drain me like she had Loki. The only result, however, was the belt of the PA4 letting out a long, pained-sounding beep, and the bright blue of its eyes, buckles, and the palms of the gloves and flats of the boots faded out.

I lashed out with my mind, grabbing a hold of the air just in front of Anima’s face and instantly generating a bright burst of light, causing her to flinch back and release me. Another push and we landed a good 20 feet away from each other.

I tore off the mask of my suit and pointed at the heroine. “You better not have damaged this thing,” I told her, “the warranty is way out of date.”

“Better your suit be damaged than you be hurt,” Anima said with that same, sickly-sweet smile as golems began to rise around me.

I began bouncing off of them in the style that Canaveral had taught me – pushing off each golem to overbalance them, allowing the backlash of pushing my presence to move me in midair rather than actually damage me, and slamming them into each other when I could. The goal was to break the golems – while they were made of solid stone and could take a lot more force than any living person, I could put out a lot more force than usual too, right now. Even the PA4 being broken – something I would have to freak out about later – didn’t seem to have slowed me, and it was only a minute or so later than Anima paused the horde.

Of course, she only paused her attack to rush at me herself, once again with her aura flared high. This time, however, she came at me rapier first.

I was surprised, but not enough that I couldn’t dodge her – this time I went low instead of high, rolling onto my back and pulling and pushing in just the right way to send Anima over my head.

She landed easily enough, and I asked, “What was that about not wanting to hurt me, Anima? That blade looks pretty sharp to me.”

Her eyes were hard and uncompromising even as her voice was sweet when she answered, “I can always heal you later.”

“Okay, enough,” said Referee, stepping in between us.

Scene 32 – December 19th
Interior “Higgins Museum”, Continuous
Quinn Kaufman

“Ah, Molly,” Anima said, quite casually. “Are you going to see reason? You know I only want what’s best for you, dear.”

“I know,” Referee quietly answered.

“Good. Then…” the heroine pointed Excalibur up at the playpen. “Go to your room. You’ll be safe there.”

“No, I… I can’t.”

“Oh?”

Referee reached up and removed her domino mask, revealing blue eyes reddened by held back tears. “Anima… Miriam. Please. You know this is wrong. We have to be able to make choices for ourselves. You know this.” She sounded like she was about to cry – I hadn’t realized it was hitting the young girl so hard, had been too focused on Loki to notice. “Please.”

Anima seemed to be hesitating. “I… Molly, I’ve gone too far. I can’t stop now.”

“You can still stop,” Molly insisted. “Loki was right about that, there’s always time to stop. It’s never too late to start being better, you told me that, remember?”

“I… I do, but…”

“Please, Miriam,” the young heroine begged. “Just put down the sword.”

“I…”

“Will you do it for me, mom? Please?”

The heroine took a deep breath. “Yes, I’ll set it down,” she swore, staring at the blade in her hand. “But first, there’s something I need to set right.”

It was eerily silent as Anima focused and began to change the Higgins Museum back into its original state. The floor moved under us like a snake, marble bars melting back into the walls, sand refusing into limestone tiles.

Within a minute, it was done, and we stood in the familiar lobby of the Higgins Museum.

Anima sighed. “There. Now…” She still hadn’t taken her eyes off of Excalibur. “Now…”

“…mom.”

“Yes. Right.” She released the sword.

Anima instantly swayed, presumably feeling the loss of power, but remained upright even as her aura winked out – Molly and I sagged in much the same way, the sudden loss of Excalibur’s power – or the reflection of it that Molly’s aura of fairness had provided – almost dropping us unconscious.

“Right, we need to keep anyone from touching that thing,” I said, pointing at the blade. “Referee, will you – here, take this.” I stripped off my plaid shirt and passed it to her. “Wrap this around the blade and hold it like that. Don’t touch the hilt, I don’t want to take any chances.”

I pulled my discarded mask back to my hand as I walked over to where Loki lay on the ground, and crouched next to him. I could feel him breathing through my presence, but I still laid a hand on his shoulder as gently as I could. “How are you doing?”

The only answer that came was a remarkably cute snore, and I couldn’t stop myself from laughing. “Yeah, you’ll be fine. Just…” I yawned. “…drained. Same as the rest of us. Hey, Anima,” I asked as I carefully lifted the dozing illusionist in a bridal carry, “how much juice do you have left?”

“A surprising amount, actually,” she said, sounding more awake than I felt, but confused and uncertain. “I suppose the sword was fueling me right up until the end…”

I nodded towards where Canaveral and Zookeeper had also succumbed to slumber, faint snores coming from where they lay in a pile on Max. “Think you could have some golems carry these lazy asses out of here? Or give them a magical espresso shot, maybe?”

Scene 33 – December 19th
Exterior Higgins Museum, Continuous
Quinn Kaufman

As it turned out, she could – Anima tapped each of the sleepers, as well as me and Referee, and pumped zoetic energy into us. When she was done, we were all drained, but on our feet and walking – although still leaning on each other for support. Canaveral, Zookeeper, and Max were moving in a group, arms around each others’ shoulders, while Loki and I paired up – so did Referee and Anima, as well as the two security guards.

As we exited the museum, we met Journey, Hypnos, and Sequoia – all just as tired as us – as well as the Round Table. A group of policemen were there as well, although they seemed wary of the Round Table and were hanging back.

“Everything clear?” Sir Amethyst asked, sounding genuinely concerned at seeing everyone so drained. He and the other knights seemed less affected, for some reason.

“Yeah, about as good as could be hoped,” Canaveral tiredly answered. “Who are you guys? New heroes?”

Amethyst brought a hand up to the back of his helm as though to scratch his head. “Well…”

“Sorry about this,” Sir Alacrity said, and then everything happened at once.

Acumen spoke a word, and Referee dropped Excalibur with a startled yelp, her hands twitching as though electrically shocked. There was a great plume of green smoke, and Alacrity – and the sword – vanished. Amethyst stomped a foot, and the concrete rose around us, trapping each of the Journeymen, the New Champions, and the Magnificent Maxwell into a tiny, personal cell.

By the time we had been broken out by Sequoia, Canaveral, and Anima, the Round Table was long gone.

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2.2. Scenes 26-29

Scene 26 – December 19th
Exterior City, Afternoon
Dominic Könberg

 

Loki narrowed his eyes at my sister. “What are you doing here,” he said, his voice flat and angry.

“Don’t worry,” Viv said cheerfully. “We’re here to help.”

“Really.”

“Yes, really!” she assured him. “We see this too,” she gestured at the aura that still covered the city, “and we also think it should stop.”

“And why is that?” Loki asked. “As far as I can tell it’s been nothing but a benefit to you – you escaped in the confusion-” His voice wavered uncertainly for a moment, probably because using the stealth cloak meant that he couldn’t actually remember how we had escaped. “-how could we trust that you won’t stab us in the back?”

“We don’t need to stab anyone in the back,” Viv assured him. “If we were going to stab you, we’d do it in the front.”

“Unlike you,” I heard Percy mutter.

“I’m sorry, what was that?” Newton asked, stepping forward to stand beside the illusionist. “We’re heroes, we’re not going to stab anyone.”

Percy scoffed. “Oh, very likely-”

“Sir Ardent,” I said in a calm but warning tone, and he fell silent.

“Thank you, Sir Amethyst,” Viv said to me, then turned back to the Journeymen. “I apologize for Sir Ardent here. While we certainly have our issues with the system you’ve all entered into, the rest of us are willing to set them aside for the moment. And he’ll follow our lead – won’t you, Ardent?”

He crossed his arms and looked away. “…yeah.”

“See?”

“That would be lovely, if I thought I could trust you as far as Sequoia could throw you,” Loki said. “But I see no reason to. We’d be much better off without having to worry about betrayal.”

“As I said, we’re not the type,” Viv repeated. “But even if you don’t trust my word, trust my rationality. This situation? Completely unworkable for us. Far too many eyes – both the ones Anima keeps creating in search of you all, and the ones from elsewhere that will surely be very interested in the artifact allowing Anima, and Maxwell before her, to pose such a threat. We don’t want that attention on this city, and we certainly don’t want an artifact like that floating around – even if we do have to work with fake heroes like Newton to accomplish it.”

“Hey!” Newton protested. “Just because I’m new-”

“Actually, Dame Acumen,” I put in, “I’m not sure Newton is what we thought they were.”

She glanced back over her shoulder at me. “What else would they be?”

“…I don’t know, but they fought Legion – or said they did, at least.”

Viv turned back to Newton. “Did you?”

“Yes! Canaveral made me run for my own safety, but I tried to fight her!”

“…interesting,” she said. “You’re telling the truth.”

“Why would I lie about this?” They threw up their hands in apparent confusion. “Seriously, where did you get whatever idea you have about me?”

“That’s confidential,” mom said, shutting the conversation down. “Regardless of your connection or lack thereof, the issue right now is Anima having that artifact, right? Can we help you?”

Loki narrowed his eyes, thinking. “…fine,” he said after a moment. “But no arguing amongst each other, alright?”

“Wouldn’t dream of it,” Viv promised.

 

Scene 27 – December 19th
Exterior City, Continuous
Dominic Könberg

 

“So what’s your plan?” I asked. “We didn’t hear anything until Acumen brought us into whatever stealth effect you’re using.” The enhanced senses and magical abilities Viv’s helmet granted her had let her spot the Journeymen despite whatever Loki had done to protect them, and even let her see and hear through it – the rest of us, however, had been out of luck.

“Anima is in the Higgins Museum, which she’s turned into a golem,” Loki said, “and appears to be keeping Canaveral, Zookeeper, and the Magnificent Maxwell captive. Max appears to be out of commission-”

“I’m guessing that losing Excalibur knocked him out,” Newton interjected.

“-which, as Newton said, suggests that simply taking the sword from Anima is likely to do the trick. Unfortunately Journey can’t simply grab it and teleport it out of Anima’s hand, so we’ll have to actually disarm her.”

“That won’t be easy, given how strong she can get,” Sequoia commented. “And the sword seems to be giving her an endless font of zoetic energy to fuel herself with, so we can’t wait her out.”

“Good thing Referee is here, then,” Viv said, nodding to the teenager – who, I noticed, Tristan seemed to be staring at. I nudged him, and he looked away immediately, his body language seeming a little embarrassed.

“My thoughts exactly,” Loki agreed. “Referee’s aura should spread the empowering effects of Excalibur, and then our numbers will carry the day.”

“What if the mind-affecting part of it spreads too?” Newton asked, a distinct note of worry in their voice.

Referee shook her head. “It shouldn’t,” she quietly volunteered. “If anything, the aura will be more likely to make her more rational… I think.” She shrunk away as we all looked at her.

“It is her,” I heard Tristan whisper, and I shushed him. I wasn’t sure what he was talking about, but it wasn’t the time.

“Good to know,” Viv said, thoughtfully. “How are we getting there? Is this bubble mobile?”

Loki shook his head. “No, it’s not. My plan was for Journey to teleport us again – not right into the museum-golem itself, since she can’t take more than one or two people a trip and it’s moving anyway, but to a little outside it. Do you have enough distance for all of us?” He said to the teleporter.

“I should, yes. But…” She pointed to me. “You, Purple!”

“…yes?”

“How much do you weigh in that armor?”

I raised an eyebrow, although I knew she wouldn’t be able to see it under my helmet. “Around two-sixty-five, I think? Two-seventy-five at most.”

“Oh, I thought armor was heavier than that.”

“Common misconception. I mean, yes, it’s almost forty pounds, but I’m wearing pretty heavy-duty stuff. Everyone else’s is lighter.”

“Well yeah, they’re not built like a brick shit house like you.” I shrugged. “Point is,” Journey continued, “I can teleport with you guys. My weight limit is up to 350 pounds or so these days, so it shouldn’t be a problem. I won’t have any distance left over after so many trips, though.

“Don’t give details of your powers away,” Loki scolded.

“Uh… we already knew that. Journey brags about how much weight she’s up to every time she does an interview,” Viv pointed out.

“It’s the principle of the thing.”

“The point is, we can get there easily enough,” Newton cut in. “No arguing, right?”

“Newton is right,” I agreed. “We have a rough plan – we’ll just have to try not to get in each other’s way.”

“What I’m concerned about,” Viv said, “is the possibility that we’ll be flanked by golems while trying to deal with Anima. I think that we – the Round Table, that is – should stay back to guard your rear while the Journeymen go in to deal with Anima.”

“That’s… reasonable,” Loki admitted, although it sounded like it pained him to agree with my sister. “Are we ready, then?”

“Ready.”

“Yup.”

“Sure.”

“Yeah.”

“Ready.”

“Let’s go.”

Loki extended his arm to Journey. “Alright. Me first, so I can set up another stealth bubble for the rest of you to land in.” A moment later, they vanished.

 

Scene 28 – December 19th
Exterior “Higgins Museum”, Afternoon
Quinn Kaufman

 

Reality warped and reformed around Journey, arriving with the last member of the expanded group – Referee. She slipped out of the bridal carry Journey had carried her in and blanched a little, looking up at the massive golem that Anima had turned the museum into as it gently swayed in the wind.

“Referee,” Loki said. “Can your aura reach up to the head?”

She frowned. “I… don’t think so. I’m sorry. I can only do about 50 feet at the most.”

“I bet if you could get inside that range for a moment, your maximum range would expand,” I pointed out.

“None of us can fly her up there, though,” Loki noted. “Unless one of you has powers we don’t know about,” he said to the knights – the Round Table, Acumen had called them.

Acumen waggled her hand. “Sort of. I do object manipulation – I can transmute or telekinetically control one object at a time, anything I can see. But only one, and I can’t do it to living beings, so unless she wants to get hoisted by her underwear…”

Sir Amethyst tilted his head. “I might able to help with my terrakinesis. But that’s a lot way up, too far for the telekinetic aspects of the power, and while I could build up a column underneath her, I’m not sure it would be stable at that height.”

I sighed. “Break off a platform for Referee to stand on, then have Acumen float it,” I told them.

Loki narrowed his eyes – I suspected he was uncertain about trusting the baby of our team to supervillains. Underneath the illusion, he turned his head towards me, and I felt his shoulders relax – trusting that I could catch her if she fell, I assumed. “As Newton says,” he confirmed.

As the two of them got to work, violet mist swirling around Amethyst’s feet and Dame Acumen quietly chanting to make the platform slowly rise, Referee carefully perched atop it, I leaned in to Loki. “Why didn’t you just have me lift her?” I whispered. “Referee is well within my weight limit with the suit on, and my presence can reach that far, no trouble.”

“I’d rather have them distracted than one of us,” he murmured in response. “You’ll catch her if she falls, right?”

“I’m offended you even had to ask.”

Loki nodded, then whispered, “Newton, I… I don’t know if I can do this.”

“What – take down Anima? You’re doing great.”

“Just…” He sighed, and tilted his head until it rested against my temple. “This is kind of bumping into some of my personal issues. The overprotectiveness, the way she’s practically laying claim to us, as though we’re things for her to play with…” My friend shook his head. “This isn’t the time to get into it, I know. Just… I might be a little fragile, when it’s all over.”

I had to take a moment to let that sink in before I responded, “Of course, Loki. Like I’ve said, I’ll be there to support you if you need me. Anything you need.”

Only a moment later, I felt a tingle run down my spine and involuntarily straightened up. Every sense I had sharpened and expanded over the full range of my presence, and that range itself had grown. My ability to handle the input grew too – the faint headache from overstimulation that I had learned to live with every time I went outside was gone, even as I realized that my presence was reaching around corners and through walls.

It was incredible. It was dizzying. It was indescribable.

All around me, everyone was having a similar awakening. Loki’s eyes widened, Sequoia grew two inches taller, Hypnos seemed fully awake for the first time. Journey shifted in place and I thought for a moment that the world around her was bending and twisting to follow – even the Round Table seemed affected, the faint colored mists that poured from their armor seeming thicker and more substantial.

“This feels…” Sequoia said, sounding awed.

“I know,” Hypnos responded, looking around like he had never truly seen until now.

High above us, I felt Referee backflip off the edge of the platform that Acumen had levitated. “No!” I shouted, reaching for her with my mind, but the force of my presence skidded off of her as though I was trying to grasp greased ice, and she continued to plummet.

She twisted in midair as she fell, and landed in a picture-perfect three-point pose, then glanced up at the rest of us with a grin, completely unharmed. “No need to worry,” she promised. “We’ve got this.”

 

Scene 29 – December 19th
Exterior “Higgins Museum”, Continuous
Quinn Kaufman

 

With our powers vastly increased by Referee’s aura, reaching the top of the golem was simple – Sequoia had simply stretched roots into the ground and began growing an immense tree beneath us. We left the confines of the stealth bubble that Loki had created before long, golems beginning to emerge to climb the side of the tree or bursting forth as birds from the museum to come towards us, but the Round Table defended us.

Between Acumen melting the golems with phrases of power, Amethyst using his earthbending to shatter them and direct the pieces at others, and Alacrity dashing around to break them almost before they could form, Dame Adamant and Sir Ardent had seemed unnecessary at first. But they proved their worth when the crackling aura crawled up the tree as Sequoia grew it, and more golems began to emerge right around us. The two knights seemed to be masters of close combat, Adamant striking with a long-handled warhammer while Ardent didn’t even bother with a weapon, simply crushing golems with his fists and boots.

When we reached the golem’s mouth, they had continued to fight off the golems – even the giant bird that I had seen bringing the Champions to the museum, what felt like hours ago – as Sequoia stepped forward and, with a mighty heave, forced it open, his muscles trembling as he held his position. Hypnos had cast a suspicious glance over his shoulder at the knights, then declared that he would stay back to watch his boyfriend’s back – Journey stayed back too, begging off for lack of built-up distance that would help her in combat. Loki nodded, and he, Referee, and I all entered.

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2.2. Scenes 23-25

Scene 23 – December 19th
Interior MLED Compound, Continuous
Quinn Kaufman

A familiar, indescribable white light began to shine from everything as an unmistakable effect that could only be Anima’s aura swiftly spread through the building. It crackled like fire around the edges of the rubble, which leapt into the air and began reforming back into the walls and ceiling that had been torn up by the battle – even the sword and shield Amethyst had just made from himself tearing themselves free of his grasp, white lightning bouncing between their shards as they split apart and joined the repair effort.

All eyes stopped and stared at the phenomenal display of power, but, I thought, for different reasons. The knights seemed to be shocked and frightened, if I was reading their body language right – I and the other Journeymen, however, were shocked and horrified.

Anima kept a large store of zoetic energy, but there was a limit – and this was surely beyond it.

She was going to kill herself.

“Loki!” I called, abandoning the paused battle and rushing over to him. “What’s happening? Why would Anima – I mean, she -”

“I know,” he said, scanning the screens and models that surrounded him. “She – my god.”

“What?”

“It’s not just the Compound,” Loki said grimly. “It’s the whole fucking city.”

“How the hell is she doing this?” asked Hypos, rubbing at his face – the rest of the Journeymen had gathered as well. “This is…”

“I know.”

“And why is she doing it?” Referee quietly asked, worried.

“I thought you weren’t going to get back for a few hours?” I commented to her, noticing that eyes were forming out of the walls and scanning the area.

She shrugged. “My connecting flight got moved up. I’m just glad Journey had enough distance to pick me up, because this… I mean, mom is…”

“We have to-” Loki began, but was interrupted by a voice coming from the wall behind us.

“Oh, thank god, I found you!”

It was Anima’s voice, coming from a remarkably realistic face that one of the wall tiles had warped and shifted into, the eyes fading back into the metal. This… was new. As far as I know, Anima couldn’t normally see or speak through her golems, and they tended to be somewhat crude.

“…Anima?” Loki asked. “What’s going on?”

“I saw that alert and I was so worried about you all!” she simpered. “I’m glad to see that you’re all safe.”

“It was nothing,” Journey said flippantly. “Literally, nothing – no one was here when we arrived.”

“Wait, that…” I frowned. “…no, that’s right. It must have been… a drill, I guess?”

We all exchanged confused looks, nodding to each other after a moment. Why else would all six of us have shown up ready for battle?

“Even so,” Anima said, “it’s a dangerous world out there.”

“Yeah, well,” Hypnos said, a little bitterly, “we did all volunteer for this, however dangerous it is.”

“Anima,” Loki said again, “what’s happening? Why are you-”

“I can’t risk any of you getting hurt,” the heroine interrupted. “You understand, don’t you? You’re like my children – all of you, not just Molly.” A pair of large, hulking figures muscled their way free of the walls, still covered in a gleaming white aura – each bore Anima’s face as well. “I need you all near me, where I can keep you safe,” all three said in unison.

I took a step back from the golems in alarm, a chill running down my spine. “Seems to me like you’ve got no issues with range right now,” I couldn’t stop myself from saying.

Anima’s golems frowned. “I need you safe.”

“Journey,” Loki whispered, his eyes wide and frightened, “Get us out of here.”

The teleporter scooped Referee up in one arm and wrapped the other around Loki, and a moment later they were gone. The golems began to rush at those of us remaining, but before the cracks in spacetime that were left behind by Journey’s passage could even fade, she was back and taking hold of me and Hypnos.

Scene 24 – December 19th
Exterior City, Early Afternoon
Quinn Kaufman

 

Journey deposited us in a side-street not far from the Compound, right next to Referee and Loki, then vanished. She reappeared an instant later and set Sequoia down beside us.

“Thanks for the evac,” the dryad said to her, and she nodded, breathing deeply – I wondered if teleporting so many people so quickly was hard on the young woman.

“Holly, you should make us all invisible,” I said, noticing that he was beginning to hyperventilate. “And quick, before…”

She was nodding and brushing her fingers together before I could finish, putting a bubble of normality around the six of us. Only a moment later, eyes were opening and closing on walls all around us, moving like a wave across the city out from the Compound, just as I had feared.

Fortunately, Loki’s illusion had gone up in time – the searching eyes passed over us without recognition, and Anima’s attention seemed to turn elsewhere. The two of us each let out our own sigh of relief, but Loki still seemed incredibly nervous. I kept an eye on him.

“…hey, Holly?” Hypnos said after a moment.

“…yeah?”

“What the fuck?

“I’d like to know that too,” Journey agreed. “I trust you with my life, Loki, but why are we running away from Anima?”

I tilted my head, confused. “You guys didn’t notice?”

“She was way stronger than usually somehow,” Referee said, “And… I don’t think that was all.”

“It wasn’t,” I said. “She was… off, somehow. She wasn’t behaving normally. I know I haven’t known her as long as most of you, but… I’ve never felt threatened by her before now. Back there? I felt in danger.”

Loki nodded. “Quinn’s right. Anima was acting really weird. I… I think she’s being mind controlled or influenced somehow – maybe by whatever is letting her do this,” he gestured to the aura that still encompassed the entire city.

“Letting her see and talk through the golems, too,” I added. “I don’t think she can usually do that.”

“She can if she’s fueling them directly from her own life force, instead of using built up stores that came from others,” Loki told me. “That means that we can be pretty confident this is some kind of massive boost to her personally, not… I don’t know… the result of stealing a few thousand peoples’ life force. She wouldn’t do that. I don’t think.” Under his illusory form, my presence felt him produce a phone and begin dialing – Loki’s shape, however, remained leaning against the wall where he had planted himself after Journey dropped us off.

“Morbid,” Journey commented.

“But I don’t know what the power-boost could be.”

“Could it have something to do with whatever called her, Zookeeper, and Canaveral away this morning?” I asked.

“Seems likely, and it’s all we have to go on right now.”

“Wait, time out,” Sequoia interjected. “Are we contemplating what I think we are?”

“With how Anima is acting, and the scale of the threat, we can’t not do something,” I pointed out.

“We could call in other MLED heroes,” he suggested. “Link up with some agents and get some extra manpower on our side, maybe – we’ll need it, against her.”

“I’m making that call already,” Loki said, the illusion of his form tapping the earpiece that was part of his costume, even as his real body spoke into the phone – that answered my question of who he was calling. “But Omnipresence isn’t available right now and neither is Aegis-”

“As usual,” Hypnos muttered.

“They’re busy people,” Sequoia scolded him.

“-which means it’ll be a while before anyone can make it here, at least an hour,” Loki continued, and I felt him hang up. “And the only team within a wide radius with a decent chance of winning is us anyway.”

“…really?”

“Yes, really,” he confirmed.

“Why us?” I asked.

“Because I’m here to even the scales,” Referee reminded us with a shy smile, although I was pretty sure she was trying to cover up her worry. “When I’m around, no opponent is out of reach.”

I grinned at her under my mask and offered a fist bump, which she returned after a moment. “You’re right. We’ve got this.” That was the most confident thing I had heard the normally shy girl say, at least around me. We hadn’t spent much time together, between the age gap and how often she was out traveling, so I was glad that she was finally warming up to me.

“Before we go, however, we need more intel,” Loki said, glancing at the walls with obvious distase as another wave of eyes washed over the city – Anima apparently still searching for her ‘children’. “Hypnos, you were on console – what can you tell us?”

He sighed. “The Magnificent Maxwell was stirring up trouble. They called Arthur Peregrine about it, and apparently he’s gotten his hands on Excalibur.”

“…what, really?” I said.

“The real Excalibur?” asked Loki, sounding surprised.

“Apparently, yeah. Peregrine said that the sword was a generic empowerment thing, and the boost it gives applies to everything, including psychological defects. He thought Max had gone full-blown narcissist from taking it. Maybe Anima grabbed the sword and can’t control her helicopter mom?”

We considered this. “It seems as good a theory as any,” Loki decided. “Can you check?”

Hypnos leaned against Sequoia, who wrapped one arm around his shoulders to support his boyfriend, and closed his eyes. “One sec… yeah,” he confirmed. “I’m looking in on the Higgins Museum now.”

“Is that where things went down?” I asked.

“Yup. I see… Zookeeper, Canaveral, and Max are all in what kind of looks like a playpen, being watched over by some golems – would be funny if this situation weren’t so shitty. I think Keeper and Navi are planning something, although I can’t tell what since I left my hearing with you guys – Max seems to be out cold. And Anima is definitely holding a sword, looks like a rapier. Not what I’d have guessed Excalibur to look like, but whatever.”

He paused for a moment, then continued. “We may have a slight problem, though – I just pulled out a little to check for guards outside, and Anima turned the whole damn museum into a giant golem. It’s… pretty tall, and looks mobile enough that Journey won’t be able to teleport into it. You’re still having trouble with teleporting onto or off of moving things, right?”

“Wow,” a voice said, and we all turned in surprise to see that five knights were standing just inside the normalcy bubble. “You guys are doing great with the planning!”

Scene 25 – December 19th
Exterior City, Early Afternoon
Dominic Könberg

We halted in our flight a few streets away from the compound, ducking into an alley after the eyes that had sprouted from every surface in the city had faded. Viv whipped off her stealth cloak, massively expanded from a hasty spell she had cast on it to allow us all to gain its benefit, and threw it to the ground – it was smoldering already, and as we watched it began rapidly shriveling. A moment later, it had shrunk to nothingness, releasing a burst of blazing white light as it did. Fortunately, the light went unnoticed by passers by, swallowed up by the greater light of a crackling aura that seemed to have consumed the entire city.

“What the hell is going on?” Percy snapped at Viv. “This is Anima’s aura – how is she affecting this much?” He cast a quick suspicious look at the wall, eyeless once more. “Shouldn’t spending this much energy kill her?”

“I don’t know,” Viv admitted, pulling off her helmet and rubbing at her temples. She ran a hand through her hair before taking a deep breath and pulling the helmet back on. “But I have a guess. The thing that Max was after was n artifact that increased his power, right? What if Anima got her hands on it?”

I glanced at the street. “That… would be bad,” I said. “I know Morgan said a city-level threat, but… this is beyond what I was expecting.”

“We can’t let something that powerful stay in the hands of the MLED,” Percy said. “Not when the Ambrosia Company has a death grip on the DMO.”

“But… can we even face up to power on this level?” Tristan asked, sounding worried. “I mean, we’re badass and all, but… I mean, we were trying to steer clear of professional heroes for a reason. None of us anywhere near Dad’s level, even together.”

We found ourselves all looking to Viv for guidance, even mom. She was, after all, the tactical leader of our group – the one who had whispered advice in our ears and helped us turn the tide against the Journeymen, at least until Journey and Referee had shown up.

Viv sighed. “I don’t know what to do, guys. This isn’t a situation we expected – when mother and I were planning, we assumed that the MLED would just toss the artifact over to Peregrine, not use it themselves.” She patted her hips, then butt, then groaned. “Fuck, no pockets in this armor! I don’t have my phone!”

“Where’d you leave it?” Tristan asked.

“It should be on the table next to my bed,” she said, “but don’t -”

“One sec.”

“-go into my – damn it, Alacrity!” Viv swore. She turned to mom as the green mist left in his wake began to fade. “I didn’t give him permission to go into my room!”

“I’ll scold him when this is over,” Mom said, making a calming motion. “Right now I’m afraid we have bigger things to worry about.”

“I guess so, but honestly, if he was going to run home he might as well have -”

“Here you go!” Tristan said, skidding to a halt next to my sister and holding her phone out to her. He wobbled for a moment before Percy put out a hand to stabilize him – the kid was still getting used to super-speed.

Viv glared as she plucked the phone from his hand. “Don’t go into my room without asking, brat.”

“It seemed important!”

“If you were going to rush home and leave a massive pointer right to where we live,” she growled, pointing at the trail of mist he had left behind him, “then why didn’t you grab a bullhorn too, and shout ‘this way to the Round Table’s hideout! Right this way, Champions!’

“Vivian,” Mom said sternly.

“It’s Dame Acumen,” Viv hissed. “We have codenames for a reason!”’

“Dame Acumen,” I said, putting a hand on my twin’s shoulder. “Calm down. Our home is under protective wards, remember? No one is going to be able to follow Alacrity’s trail back.”

I could practically feel the tension draining from Vivian’s posture, and a moment later she turned away from the rest of the family to lead her head against my chest. Then she started gently knocking her head into the breastplate of my armor. “Stupid, stupid, stupid,” she muttered. “Enhanced senses, super-intelligence, and an eidetic memory, and I can still overlook things. I’m an idiot.”

“You’re not an idiot,” I said, hugging her. “You’re the smartest of all of us even without that helmet.”

“Except for mother.”

“Except, maybe, for Morgan. Now, what were you going to do with your phone?”

She dialed a number and stepped away from us to make the call. “Hi mother,” I heard her softly say before I turned back to my mom and brothers.

“She feels a lot of pressure being in charge,” I quietly confided in them. “She was really hoping that Morgan would come in person.”

“Why didn’t she, again?” Percy asked mom.

“Morgan isn’t as anonymous as the rest of us can hopefully be,” Mom explained. “The MLED never learned that the Mountain King was Arthur Könberg, and so they have no reason to look at our family, even though they’ll almost certainly notice that we’re using his armor. But Morgan knows Arthur Peregrine, and he’ll be looking at this whole series of events when he has time. If she isn’t seen to be involved, he won’t connect it to us.”

“Right, right. The whole apprentice thing.”

“Yeah.”

Viv returned to the group, whispering a few words to her phone that caused it to wrap around her wrist like a bracelet. “Okay, so I talked to mother,” she announced. “She didn’t expect this either, and she says it’s bad news. We have to get the item away from Anima, and do whatever it takes to ensure it. Which means…” She sighed. “We’re going to have to work with the Journeymen.”

“We’d better get moving, then,” I said, sighing just as heavily. “Who even knows where they are now? I doubt they stayed where Anima could see them. And with Loki’s powers of stealth…”

“I’m pretty sure my helmet can let me see through those,” Viv said dismissively. “And I have a hunch about where they ended up…”

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2.2. Scenes 19-22

Scene 19 – December 19th
Interior MLED Compound, Noon
Holly Koval

 

The world cracked like glass and fell away, revealing the console room back at the Compound, where Mellas and Forester had apparently been spending time together – now, however, Sequoia was transformed into his wooden form, and an MLED agent had just sat in the console chamber. I snapped my fingers while Quinn was reorienting to give Hypnos a mask, since as far as I knew he had never revealed his identity to Quinn. “What’s the situation?” I asked.

“Heartbeat monitors said that two guards in the first subbasement went unconscious within about a second of each other,” Hypnos reported, “but nothing showed on the security cameras – they even showed the guards still standing. The guards didn’t respond to a check in, so agents went to investigate and found four intruders described as ‘medieval knights who make colored smoke’ by Agent Ramirez. One of them bent the tiles to create walls to protect themselves, leaving a hole through which one of the knights has been attacking. We’re trying to knock through their walls with a portable ram, but they have a good strategy – in the meantime, we’re evacuating tour groups and other civilians.”

“Powers?” I set up my command station, expanding the Compound’s subbasement and quickly finding the four attacking metahumans in their bunker. Quinn and Simone, meanwhile, ducked away to grab their costumes and get earpieces.

“The one with purple smoke seems to be the one controlling the walls,” the agent – his nametag read ‘Murphy’ – said. “Green has super-speed, and is the one coming out to attack. Blue and Red are defending the hole in their wall – Blue has taken attacks without flinching, so maybe some level of invulnerability, and Red looks to be superstrong.”

I frowned. “Controlling metal, super-speed, super-strength, invulnerability… and colored mist?”

“The possible connection to the Mountain King has been noticed,” the agent assured me. “His mist was gold, but it seems like all the same powers.”

I zoomed in even farther on the my map, even as I changed my appearance over to Loki’s, and saw that they were now fighting their way out of the fortified position that the metal controller had built and making their way up the corridor towards the stairs out. “That looks like the same style of armor, too,” I noted. “Obviously I’ve never met the man in person, but I’ve studied him…”

“What’s our strategy?” Hypnos asked me.

“Divide and conquer,” I told him. “If they each have only one of the Mountain King’s powers, they’ll be more limited. We should be able to take out all of them, if we do it carefully.” He nodded.

My phone buzzed in my pocket as Newton and Journey returned, the teleporter simultaneously producing her own to check the message, and I grinned when I glanced down to read it. “We’ve got a pleasant surprise, Journey,” I said to her. “After you drop us off a little closer, you’ve got another pickup to make.”

 

Scene 20 – December 19th
Interior MLED Compound, Noon
Quinn Kaufman

 

Journey ferried us all downstairs – first me, Loki, and Hypnos, then Sequoia in a second trip. A moment later, Journey was gone, and we were on our own.

“Alright, here’s the plan,” Loki quietly told us. “I’m going to use my constructs to split these guys up and have you each take one or two of them on. Newton, you’re going against the purple earthbender – our presence will keep him from putting you on the back foot with his battlefield control, and he doesn’t look to have enough fine control to flank you by himself like Anima could. Hypnos, you’re against green speed – your precognition should let you match him. Sequoia, you’re up with the other two – you’re strong and tough, but if I’m right that these guys each have only one of the Mountain King’s powers, they’ll only be strong or tough. Your toughness should negate strength, and your strength should help you get through their toughness. In the meantime, I’ll be helping out as needed.”

Hypnos frowned. “That sounds like mostly a holding action,” he protested. “Those are all decent match-ups, but how will we tip the scales?”

“It is mostly a holding action,” Loki admitted. “But we benefit from that, they don’t. They need to escape to win – we can win by dragging things out until more heroes show up. Journey will be back in just a few minutes, and if not her then some of the New Champions will be here eventually. Not to mention that there are enough agents here to turn the tide, if we’re negating the advantages of their powers.”

“Alright,” Hypnos said. “Shall we?”

“We shall.”

I rushed ahead of the others, my powers letting me move faster than anyone else other than Journey herself. I tried to pace myself though – while I had gotten a lot of experience with my powers over the last two months, the backlash still made drawn-out battles an exercise in pain. I understood that it was our best strategy, of course – I trusted Loki. I would just try to deal with the wanna-be-knights without bruising myself too badly.

When I emerged into the corridor where the running battle was taking place, the ground was rumbling and splitting apart, walls of fire shooting up along the cracks to split the knights – each of them instinctively stepping away from the nearest flames, even the invulnerable one whose breastplate spilled blue mist. A moment later, she made to walk through the wall towards the smallest knight, in green, but I vaulted over her and pushed her back into the center of her area on my way into Purple’s.

“Hi there!” I said cheerily as I landed in front of them. “I’ll be your designated opponent for today. And may I compliment you on your choice of theme colors? Royal purple, very classy.”

They inclined their helmet towards me in acknowledgment. “Thank you. And I appreciate your choice of plaid – I’m bi as well.”

I plucked at the kevlar-woven overshirt I had pulled over my costume, woven in shades of blue, pink, and purple. “This one is actually one of the ones I wear in support, not to represent myself. Something about identifying as ‘bi’ doesn’t feel right to me, as a nonbinary person attracted to all genders and the lack thereof,” I said, absently anchoring myself to the ground and leaning far to the side to avoid a metal plate that Purple had pulled from the wall and sent spinning at my head from behind, “so I usually just say ‘queer’.”

I stuck a hand out towards them, taking a quick moment to pay attention to my presence and check up on how the others were doing while Purple stared in confusion. Hypnos had just clotheslined Green, and Sequoia had Blue in a headlock. Just fine. “I”m Newton,” I said to Purple. “They/them pronouns. What’s your name?”

They paused, then took my hand. “Sir Amethyst. He/him,” he said.

“What about the others?” I asked, starting to focus in my other hand. The knife’s edge I was placing my mind in was a new one for me, but if I could keep him talking a little longer…

Amethyst hesitated before answering that one. “Sirs Alacrity and Ardent, and Dame Adamant,” he told me.”

“Alacrity in the green and Ardent in red?”

“Yes.” Then he pulled me towards him and grabbed me by the throat, a fresh wave of dark purple mist flowing from his cape as he lifted me into the air.

It came as a surprise – my presence being concentrated in the hand hidden behind my back – and I found myself instinctively scrabbling at his hand, but to no avail.

“Sorry about this, Newton,” he said as I struggled to redouble my focus, sounding genuinely contrite, “but you’re the most dangerous person here to us.”

1.19 moles of nitrogen and 0.28 moles of oxygen and

“Wrong,” I gasped. “But not entirely.” I thrust towards his helm with my hand and thrust towards it with my magic, directing the flash of light towards him as best as I could.

FUCK!” Amethyst swore, dropping me. He stumbled backward, clapping one steel-gauntleted hand over the eye-slit of his helmet.

I rubbed at my throat, chancing another check-up on the other Journeymen. Hypnos was continuing to dance rings around Alacrity, who seemed to be dodging around what I could only assume were Loki’s illusory constructs, as they didn’t show up in my sense of presence, while Sequoia had grown a pair of wooden handcuffs around Adamant’s wrists and was sparring with Ardent to keep him away from her. We seemed to be winning.

I felt a shift in the metal tile beneath me and leapt up in the air, pulling at the ceiling and remaining there as the ground below me swelled up in an attempt to grab hold of my legs, winding up crouched on the ceiling. “Fun fact – not the first time someone has tried that on me,” I informed him. “It didn’t get Legion anywhere either.” I decided not to mention that Legion had, in fact, trapped me with her own version of the move, and it had only been Canaveral’s intervention that had saved me.

Amethyst hesitated. “Wait… you fought Legion?”

Something seemed odd about his inflection there, but I wasn’t sure what. “What did you expect me to do with the dangerous supervillain? Invite her to a tea party?” Again, I didn’t mention that I had, in fact, ended up talking to Legion – twice.

“No, I…” He shook his head. “Nevermind.”

“No, seriously,” I said, standing upright and feeling grateful for the practice I had done walking on walls and ceilings – it was still a little disconcerting to have everything be upside-down to me, but not as much as it was for my opponents to deal with an upside-down foe. “I’m ‘the most dangerous one here to you’, and you seem surprised that I fought Legion? What are you thinking here?”

“I’m thinking…” He tilted his head down, thoughtfully, then back up. “I’m thinking that we may have made a mistake.”

“Yeah, breaking into the MLED Compound,” I agreed. “Why did you do that, anyway?”

He shook his head. “Not important – we couldn’t get into the storage anyway.”

I frowned, not sure I believed him, but shrugged and launched myself at him. I pulled at the villain’s knees, causing them to buckle and giving myself a little more velocity, and vaulted over his shoulders, pushing him down in the ground. Canaveral and the director could worry about what to do with the hints Amethyst was dropping.

 

Scene 21 – December 19th
Interior MLED Compound, Continuous
Holly Koval

 

I checked again, almost compulsively, on how Newton was doing against ‘Sir Amethyst’. I tried not to micromanage my team, but… in a real situation like this, it was hard not to worry, especially about the least experienced member of the team. Especially when that was my best friend.

They were doing fine, though. Other than a brief scare when Amethyst had gotten them by the throat, which they had resolved on their own before I could burn the man’s retinas out, they had kept him busy and kept him talking – even gotten some potentially useful intel out of the man, like their names and apparent goal of the secure storage units. I didn’t think anything too important was contained in New Venice’s units right now – all I could recall being in them was some hypertech recovered from Motael’s power armor the last time that the New Champions had clashed with the man, and Starling had already stripped anything useful from it. They could maybe have been hired by Motael to recover the tech, but it had been over a year – surely he would have made an attempt sooner, if he was going to. So my guess is that that had been an attempt to lay a false trail, and I would tell Director Shepard that.

Hypnos was doing pretty well too, I though, glancing at his portion of the battlefield. Sir Alacrity’s super-speed seemed to be less than precise, and Hypnos was able to dodge him without much difficulty – although he hadn’t managed to land a hit of his own yet, either.

Sequoia, on the other hand, had needed a little help. Some judicious illusions had-

“Loki, right?”

I glanced up at the sound of a cheerful voice laced with poison, and saw the fifth member of knightly crew, white smoke rising from her helmet. Dame…

I frowned. Something wasn’t right.

“That’s me,” I agreed, performing a tricky spell to both hide myself and the floating screens and models that showed me the surrounding area and replace them, so I could move from my apparent position without her knowing. “And you are?”

“Dame Acumen, at your service,” she said, sketching a bow – in the direction of the real me, not where she ought to be seeing my image. “I serve the same function to the Round Table as you do for the Journeymen.”

Tactical commander, I noted, dismissing the spell that had apparently not fooled her, and possibly some kind of battlefield control or coordination. How was she seeing through my constructs? What kind of enhanced senses did she have, and could I fool them? “You stand at the back and snipe?” I asked, snapping my fingers and generating a concussive wave in her direction.

She sidestepped it easily, casually, as though she knew it had been coming. Some kind of combat precognitive, like Hypnos? “That’s right,” Acumen agreed. “I snipe. Not in quite the same way as you, mind you, but not all of us get lucky enough to have a combat-relevant superpower. Or combat-relevant magic, in your case. Those without have to get by with just intelligence.” There was a distinct smirk in her voice now. “If only I didn’t need it either.”

I frowned beneath my mask. “You know, Acumen, veiled insults like that won’t make people like you. For that, you’ll need to have an actual personality.”

“Oh, was that a veiled insult?” Acumen asked. “Funny, I wasn’t veiling it at all. Perhaps it just seemed so because you had to think about it-”

I interrupted by sending a lance of fire at her, simultaneously creating lasers on either side so she couldn’t simply sidestep a gain.

…but not preventing her from doing a split in place, apparently. The split dropped her low to the ground beneath the flames, her legs spreading underneath the lasers. “Ah, violence,” she mused as she bounced back up. “The first and last resort of the weak-minded.”

“It is kind of my job, you know. Besides, I’ve got to stop your yammering somehow – you’re not going to shut up on your own.”

“Of course not – why would I?” She stepped closer to me, and I raised a hand, generating illusory flames to crackle around it. “Oh, enough of the fire!” she sighed, dramatically. “Honestly, it’s the first time you’ve used it and it’s already old.”

“Sorry to disappoint,” I said, beginning to swing my hand over my head. The flames trailed behind my hand and formed a loop, a blazing lariat of fire that I made to throw at her.

She watched with apparent curiosity, tilting her head to the side, then spoke a word. I thought she spoke a word, at any rate – my magical senses could feel the sound and even a surge of power, but my brain refused to recognize what she had said. The word was clearly a spell, as the flaming lasso I had created instantly froze over and shattered into a cloud of bluish white mist, which slowly sank to the ground.

“I wasn’t sure if your spells would count as ‘objects’ or not to my magic,” Acumen confessed, a wide grin clear in her voice. “It seems like they do!”

I sighed. “You think the fire is getting old? Trust me, your whole thing is getting old.”

“Then why don’t you stop me?”

“Maybe I will.”

“Violence doesn’t seem to be working, why not-”

I created a remote control and pointed it at her, pressing a button with my thumb, and her voice instantly fell silent.

It seemed to take her a moment to realize that I had literally muted her, but her body language seemed positively offended as she put her hands on her hips, cocking them to one side and shaking her head. Then she raised her hands and began miming something.

I shrugged. “Shouldn’t have shown me how you focus your magic. Who’s weak-minded, again?”

She made some kind of complex hand gesture.

“Sorry, I don’t speak sign. I have no idea what you’re saying.”

The armored woman held up one gauntleted finger, and I laughed. “That I understand.”

Then she pointed over my shoulder, miming laughter. Instead of looking away from her, I chanced a glance at my screens and growled at what I saw.

Sir Ardent and Sequoia were grappling with each other, while Hypnos seemed to have been pinned down and gagged by Dame Adamant, who seemed to have broken away from Sequoia while I had been distracted by Dame Acumen, fearlessly stepping through my walls of fire. Alacrity, meanwhile, was now working with Sir Amethyst against Newton – they were holding their own by using flashes of light to briefly stun their foes, but were clearly struggling, and yet hadn’t called for help.

I glared at Acumen, whose distraction had allowed this to happen. “You,” I began angrily, but was interrupted by the welcome reappearance of Journey.

The amazonian teleporter appeared not far from the edge of the room, with Referee – already in costume – sitting on one shoulder. “Hey guys!” She said cheerfully. “Sorry I’m late, had to pick up a friend who came back home early!”

Referee hunched over a little, nervous around new people even when they were villains, but gave a slight wave. “Where do you want us, Loki?”

 

Scene 22 – December 19th
Interior MLED Compound, Continuous
Simone Destrey

 

“Close to the knight in blue, with a normal aura,” Holly instructed me, and I thrust my mind in that direction, my body following a moment later with Molly in tow. We appeared standing next to the blue-clad knight, her gauntleted hand over Nic’s mouth as she sat on him.

A moment later, a bright light shone through the face of her helmet, created by the illusionist, and Blue jerked backwards in surprise. “What-” she started to say, but then Molly dove off my shoulder, twisting in midair to hit her with a vicious scissor kick.

Molly’s aura imposed fairness on the world around her, but it had a rather strict interpretation of ‘fair.’ If she was facing off other people in an empty room, with no one outside the aura who could shoot into it, with all combatants on their own side, then it would be perfectly fair. Everyone’s strengths and weaknesses would be magnified and reduced until they all had roughly the same specialties – the physically strong would still be strong, the fast would still be fast – but all had the same chance of winning.

That was not, however, how the world actually worked. One of the tactics that we had used to great effect in the paintball game of the previous year had been to have me teleport Molly around the field, bringing people into and out of her aura at Loki’s direction. Molly was an excellent martial artist, but I was a mediocre fighter at best, and neither of us were particularly strong, fast, or tough as metahuman went – that meant that the two of us tended to weigh down the strengths of anyone else in the aura, allowing Loki to strike at range against weakened foes. Even if our enemies were boosted by the aura, your capabilities shifting was a startling feeling, and one which Molly was far more used to than anyone else. By fluctuating its radius, she could tap into her opponents strengths when she needed them, and leave them reeling from a sudden change at any moment.

Molly’s aura insisted that the world be fair, but she herself didn’t fight fair.

I offered Nic a hand up, and he pulled himself to his feet. “You’ll get her next time, champ,” I teased.

He tilted his head to the side, listening to something. “Loki wants me up against number five – Dame Acumen, in white.” He nodded to where Molly had swiftly wrestled Blue back into cuffs. “Besides, Ref’s got it handled.”

“True.”

Holly spoke in my ear again as Molly finished up. “Hug the red knight with as tight of an aura as you can manage,” she ordered, and I put a hand on the younger girl’s shoulder.

“Ready for a drop?” I asked, and she nodded. I tore through reality to appear just above Red, vanishing back to the floor as Molly came down on him elbow first.

He managed to grab her before she could land her blow, but the redhead wrapped around him like a limpet and held on tight. A moment later, Jack stunned Red with an uppercut, then took custody of him, Molly clambering off as the tree-like man held Red in a full nelson.

“Purple and Green next,” Loki directed, “wide aura,” and Molly and I were off once more.

We landed a few feet from the purple-cloaked man and were immediately targeted, the one in green zooming towards us at high speed. Molly and I each put out a leg, one on either side, and the speedster went flying into the air.

“Nice,” Quinn said, dropping down from the ceiling to land next to us. I offered them a high five, which they returned without looking. “Amethyst here is a pain to deal with,” they continued, nodding towards Purple. “He makes good use of his metal bending – I think he’s using it to enhance his strength in that armor, too. Likes to talk though.”

I flexed. “Strength I’ve got,” I boasted, “It’s mobility he should be worrying about.”

“Yeah, well-” Quinn leapt into my arms, the ground cracking around their feet to try and nail them in one position. “Again, Amethyst?” They yelled. “That’s three times, and it hasn’t worked once! Come up with a new trick!”

“…yeah, I think we’ve got this covered,” I said. “Besides, the MLED is sending in another wave of agents in a moment.”

“Good,” Quinn sighed. “I’ve been pacing myself, but before long my bruises are gonna have bruises.”

I tilted my head to the side a little. “That’s right, your power has a backlash to it, right?”

They eyed Amethyst. “Yeah, something like that. Honestly, I don’t tend to get bruises these days, but aches and pains? Yeah. Also, six feet that way please.”

I teleported us in the direction they pointed and set us down as Amethyst tore up the ceiling tiles above where we had been, shards of metal flying towards him and reforming themselves into a sword and shield. He leveled them at us.

Then everything began to glow.

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2.2. Scenes 16-18

Scene 16 – December 19th
Exterior “Higgins Museum”, Late Morning
Abraham Armstrong

 

The castle Max had built appeared to have a relatively standard layout, from what I remembered of a special on castles we had watched at some point during the summer – he had probably remembered the same special when building it, in fact. It had a central keep within a wider stone wall, one which would no doubt be quite effective at keeping out mundane police.

The New Champions, however, had no such trouble, and Anima simply landed the roc golem on the outer walls. “Castles don’t work too well against flying enemies,” she commented. “I mean, walls are a good base for protective enchantments, but Max doesn’t seem to have any.”

“They certainly fail without archers,” I agreed, hopping out of my seat. Anima dismounted as well, and the golem shifted slightly as she retracted the white lightning that had let it move. “Now, if I know Max, he’ll be in the main hall. Probably sitting in some kind of throne.”

“A real drama queen,” Emilia croaked, then flew off my shoulder and down into the courtyard. Halfway down she transformed into a large snow leopard.

I hopped down myself, absorbing the weight of my landing with a slight twist of power, the only sound being the crunch of snow beneath my boots. “Broadcast: I’ll catch you,” I told Anima through my earpiece. We were using the magical versions that Holly had created – he had made a large stockpile of them over the last month or so, and while their range had turned out to be more limited than that of the electronic ones, they were more secure. Not to mention that Zookeeper could use them even through transformations. “No sense in wasting more of your energy.”

She leapt out without hesitation, and I held out my arms to catch her. Another twist negated the kinetic energy of me catching her, and we turned to the face the heavy doors that barred us from the interior of the keep. “How did Max expect the city to deliver tribute?” Anima asked. “I mean… the main portcullis is closed, the main door is closed…”

I sighed. “I was thinking about that on the flight, actually, and… however narcissistic Excalibur has made him, I don’t think there’s any way that Max would be dumb enough to think that he’d actually get any tribute from the city.”

Anima frowned. “Then why…?”

“He’s after something else,” I said grimly. “He must have known that this would draw a lot of attention to him and all available heroes would come to respond. That must have been his real goal with this stunt – I just can’t figure out what he intends to get out of it.”

“Do you think it’s a distraction?” she asked. “That he’s not here at all, he’s actually off doing something else entirely?”

I shook my head. “That doesn’t feel right. That’s certainly one of Max’s standard plays, but his usual method is to have one of his actor friends appear in his costume somewhere, like he did when he robbed the Bellini Archives. Something on this scale? What on earth could it be a distraction from?”

Emilia transformed back into a raven and fluttered up to my shoulder to say, “It doesn’t have to be a distraction from something else he’s trying to do, it could just be a distraction from his actual goal. What if he’s intending to capture and ransom us”

“For what?”

“For the magical knowledge Arthur Peregrine keeps,” I guessed. “It… makes sense. More than that he genuinely thinks he should be a king, at any rate.”

“He could have wanted Arthur to come in person, too,” Emilia said. “I mean, he did steal a powerful magical artifact, which would normally bring him running – just our bad luck that he’s busy the next few days.”

I nodded, then shook my head. “No, wait, this doesn’t add up. Originally he was after a book, not the sword…”

“Right…” Anima rubbed her temples. “Still, he’s a smart guy, right? Maybe he came up with this plan after getting the sword?”

“…I think I’ve got it,” Emilia said. “He comes looking for the book, and finds Excalibur instead. He realizes that Arthur must have the actual book, and decides to ransom the sword back to him in return for the book, or for similar books. To get Arthur’s attention, he needed to do something big and public with Excalibur – thus, this whole stunt.”

“I think you’re right,” I agreed. “Hopefully we can talk him down, with that in mind – the sword may have messed with his head, but if he sees that there’s a non-violent way to get what he wants –  instead of, say, kidnapping us and using us as leverage in a second attempt to get at Peregrine – I think he’ll take it.”

“We can give it a shot,” Anima said. “But first, the door?”

“Right. Dear, if you wouldn’t mind?”

“I’m not sure how a deer will help.”

I snorted at Emilia’s joke – her beak hung open in an approximation of a goofy grin as she glanced between me and Anima, who just rolled her eyes. She shrugged her wings and flapped off my shoulder.

A quick transformation, and an elephant shoulder-bashed the door, making the castle shake. A second slam, and there was a cracking sound that I assumed was the deadbolt cracking off the heavy wood of the antique doors – a third, and they were open.

“Honey, I’m home!” I called out as we stepped inside.

 

Scene 17 – December 19th
Interior “Higgins Museum”, Continuous
Abraham Armstrong

 

As I had suspected, Max was in the great hall, sitting in a throne and somehow looking more handsome than ever. He was leaning forward, hands propped up on what looked like a long, ornate wand but could only be Excalibur, and said, “Ah, you’ve finally…” Then he frowned, and his voice was angry as he asked, “Where’s Peregrine?”

I exchanged a quick glance with Anima. As we had guessed. “Peregrine couldn’t make it, sorry Max. I hope you’re not too disappointed.”

He stood and vanished in a swirl of flame, reappearing in another burst of fire a few feet in front of us. “I’m never disappointed to see you and Keeper, Navi,” he said, smiling at me and Emilia – suddenly calm again, even pleased. “And you too, Anima,” he added.

“Glad I’m an afterthought,” she said dryly, leaning against the wall. “Max, what exactly are you thinking? This plan is…”

He rolled his eyes and lifted the wand, resting it across his shoulders. “Obviously I’m not really declaring myself king, that’s a ridiculous notion. No one would accept it, no matter how good a ruler I’d be.” I… didn’t think he was being series, but… “I just needed to attract Arthur Peregrine’s attention.”

Emilia shifted into a parrot and landed on my shoulder. “To ransom Excalibur for the book you were looking for?” she asked. “Peregrine said it wasn’t useful anyway.”

“I must say, expected it to look more like a sword,” I commented.

“It changes shape to fit its bearer,” he casually explained. “And no, I have no intention of giving up this beauty. Excalibur, really?” He twirled it around his fingers. “A great many things became clear to me once I drew it from the stone, but that wasn’t one of them. It makes sense, though…”

I narrowed my eyes. “What sort of things became clear, Max?”

He smiled at me – the same loving but slightly-condescending smile he wore whenever he told me about magic. “Nothing you need to worry about – just magical puzzles that had been stumping me for years, now.”

“If you weren’t going to trade Excalibur to Peregrine,” Anima cut in, “why did you want him here?”

“To show him that I’m not as incompetent as he believes,” Max said, his voice going hard. Something seemed very off about him, and I couldn’t quite put my finger on what. Perhaps it was how fast he was bouncing from one emotion to the next. “He rejected me, did I ever tell you that? I was down on my knees, begging to learn magic from him, and he cast me aside.”

“He didn’t think you were incompetent, Max,” Emilia said, her tone almost pleading – she was seeing the same instability as I was, a mercurial shifting of moods that Max had never shown before, I could tell. “We talked to him, and he said that his style of casting wasn’t compatible with yours, and that’s why he didn’t take you on.”

He laughed, amused once more. “Is that what he said? No, he simply didn’t see my genius.” He leaned Excalibur against his shoulder again. “And you know, perhaps he was even right, then. Certainly I’m far greater now than I was before.”

“Max,” Anima said, her voice filled with pity and concern, “Excalibur is affecting your mind.”

He narrowed his eyes at her. “Is that what he told you?”

“He said that the blade is dangerous,” she summarized, “and that, yes, it’s probably messing with your head. Please, Max, give us the-”

Max casually flicked the wand, and a massive metal cage suddenly coalesced around Anima, trapping her – I sank into a combat-ready posture, and Anima flapped off my shoulder to become a leopard again. “Don’t,” he said, his voice low and dangerous, “even ask it.”

“Max, please,” I begged. “You don’t have to do this!”

He turned to face me, and flame began to flicker around him – a fiery aura casting a dangerous light on his features and making me squint to keep looking at him. “What would you do,” he demanded, his voice rising and becoming more and more frantic. “Comparing me without this blade to with it… it’s like night and day. I was nothing without it – like a regular person! What would you do, if someone proposed to take your powers from you!?!”

My voice caught – he couldn’t know, could he? How could he possibly know – there was no way! Max… he had worked with the Ambrosia Company at least once, I knew, had received magical tutelage from them – but he couldn’t know that my powers came from the same source, could he? Or that they could be taken away as easily as they had been given to me?

“Max…” Emilia said, and in my brief panic I hadn’t even realized that she had taken bird form and perched on my shoulder yet again. “The night may lack the sun, but there’s still the moon. There’s still the stars. Even if you’re less without this sword, you’re far from nothing. You were an amazing person without it – you can be again.”

Max stared at us, still with a wild, frantic light in his eyes, then down at Excalibur. He… fuck, he seemed to be considering it.

He looked down at the wand in his hand, then back at us. Then at Anima in the cage he had placed her in, then back to the wand, then us…

“…no.” He said, finally.

“…no?” I asked.

“No.” Then something was flying at my head and I was dodging, unsure of what had gone wrong.

 

Scene 18 – December 19th
Interior “Higgins Museum”, Continuous
Abraham Armstrong

 

The ax Max had flung, an ancient-looking thing that had probably been on display somewhere in the museum, slammed into the wooden doors behind us as I skidded to a halt and turned to keep an eye on him.

Or rather, on where he had been a moment ago – Emilia had leapt off my shoulder and flown at him in the shape of a tiger, and ended up passing through a ring of fire instead, Max having teleported elsewhere. I pulled pulled my metal chain out of my belt and began twirling it in one hand as a makeshift shield, hefting some ball bearings in the other.

“Don’t make us do this, Max!” I called.

“You were never able to beat me before, Navi,” he said from behind me, and I spun and launched the ball bearing towards his voice. It simply vanished out of mid-air, then came back at me just as fast – I only barely managed to absorb the kinetic energy in time when it struck my shoulder. “Why would you be able to now?” He flicked Excalibur in a casual motion, and there was a sudden explosion that tossed me backwards.

“Fuck,” I quietly grunted as I landed, my ears ringing – Max was definitely using magic he had never been capable of before. The flames, the explosion, being able to launch that ax and my ball bearing… not to mention, I thought with a wince, how many bruises I would have from the blast.

Max approached me, a vicious grin on his face as he looked down at where I lay on the floor – behind him, I saw Emilia stealthily padding towards him, and Anima quietly infusing his iron cage with zoetic energy. “I wonder if Peregrine would show up if I threatened your lives?” he asked, almost idly but with a wicked gleam in his eyes, and swished Excalibur through the air to point at my throat. “I wouldn’t really hurt you, of course, but I doubt he would spot that, the old fool.”

“Why do you have to prove yourself to him?” I asked, trying to distract Max from the heroines. “You’re better than him and you now it – who cares if he knows?”

“Peregrine holds so much knowledge, so much power,” he hissed, flashing back into anger. “So much that should belong to the world. To me. And yet, he keeps it all hidden away, not trusting me, anyone, to use it properly. If I show him my power he’ll have no choice but to grant me access!”

Emilia reared up behind Max and transformed into a gorilla, quietly reaching towards his head… “And what if he still says no?” I said.

“Then I’ll make him give me access,” Max growled. “I said ‘no choice’ and I meant it.” Then he smiled, that same easy grin as before, and fire flared up around him again, bright enough that I could barely see, bright enough that Emilia flinched away before she could try and grapple him.

When the flames died down, he was sitting on the throne again. “I’m so sorry, Keeper,” he said to Emilia, sounding genuinely regretful, “I’d love to catch up, but I’m afraid I’m talking to Navi right now.” He pointed Excalibur at her, then at the iron cage, and she – and a pair of dazed-looking security guards – joined Anima in the cage.

Or rather, in where the cage had been. Anima had wrapped its bars around herself and turned it into a suit of animated armor, brilliant white energy burning around her as she rushed forward with an indescribable sound – a mix of crackling flame and buzzing electricity and heavy, metallic footfalls until she slammed into the surprised Max like a train.

The aura shrunk a moment later as Max vanished her armor, but Anima was undeterred, still flaring up energy and clearly draining it from the struggling magician as I rose to my feet. “The sword!” I called. “Get the sword away from him!”

His efforts redoubled, flame licking around the two of them, but it seemed to have little effect – a moment later, Anima wrested Excalibur from him, and he collapsed.

She turned to face us, the sword changing shape into a long rapier, and the hairs on the back of my neck began to rise. Something wasn’t right.

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