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The Road of Courage - Chapter 6Chapter 6: Operation: Healing LightIn the centre of Ponyville, everyone was gathered. Every mare, stallion, filly, colt and even foals were here, looking confused as of why they were gathered."Why are we here? Why did they tell us to go there?" Those are the questions, that they asked to themselves."Hey! Listen up!!"They heard a voice and looked at the centre, only to see Rarity, Rainbow Dash and Pinkie Pie stood there on pedestals. Rarity was also holding some copies of Johnny's diary entries. Then the snow white unicorn gave them a speech:"You maybe be asking as of why we gathered you here. And we're sorry for interrupting your schedule. But the reason why we did it is because of a very tragic story of a new pony arriving in Equestria. He has been suffering his entire life back in his former world, because of the horrible, horrible monsters abusing him! So much so, that his spirit has been broken!!""And who is the pony in question? The great and powerful Trixie wants the answer!" The blue unicorn, known as Trixie Lulamoon, felt impatient."Well his name is Radiant Thunder! But we call him Johnny." Pinkie Pie answered."Do you have the evidence?" A mare, who is also the mayor of Ponyville, asked to the three ponies."We have. Rarity has the copies of his diary entries, which she will read it for you. Those will make you understand, how crushed he has become." Rainbow Dash answered.The white unicorn started to read the first entry, which was written on Monday and contained his troubled life in school. At first the ponies were confused, but when she read the entry written on Tuesday, which contained his life on home being hellish, they start to feel a bit worried. And it wasn't until the entry on Wednesday, which raised an alarm:Wednesday,It keeps hurting... During school, I was I involved in a fight between Bumper and his goons. Why? Because they love making trouble. After a long time of bullying and with no weapons whatsoever, I fought back and punched at his face with my anger. Obviously, we were sent to the principal's office. Normally, the principal is quite a nice dude and very caring. Unfortunately, he was sick on that day and someone has to fill in. And fucking hell, it's that damn teacher... Idk why they chose him over others, then again, ALL of the teachers are mean. And to my shock, he suspended ME, instead of Bumper! He got away scottfree? How unfair is this!??!? They seriously don't care about my suffering! And on home, I didn't even bother to go inside from the door, so I have to climb to the window of my room. However, my sisters were already here with a coupon. And I have to test something again. This time, I had to drink a portion to have a beautiful look. Why? They want to make Gil notice them, even though it will NEVER work. And Dukey warned me, but at the same time, I felt pressured so I did it. Needless to say, something went wrong and even after I got cured, my body felt weak. After that, my best friend carried me to the bed, so I can rest. However my dad heard from my suspension and was obviously pissed, even though it was wrongfully done! But he doesn't care. He just doesn't. I was caught in his shouting when he entered my room. Because of my weak body, I didn't have the power to explain. As if that wasn't enough, I was later tied up on a pole by my dad, just because I refused to brush my teeth! Why do they only care for their expectations and not my well-being!?!?This caused outrage from the community. Especially parents. They know, that kids don't want to brush their teeth, even though it's good for them. However, tie them to a pole?? That is too far."How dare they?!?!?!" One angry mare responded."It's only the tip of the iceberg." Said the prismatic pegasus.As she continued to read the remaining copies, the outrage grew. They can't deny it. Everyone was so mean to him. They also feel sorry for him, for dealing through the pain and anguish."How could they to the poor thing? This is sick and twisted!!!" A stallion was really angry."Hey! I know, you're as outraged as we are. But we have to do it, because we can help him! It crushed him so hard, that he attempted suicide! We have to work together to get him out of his sorrow! Are you ready??" The pegasus mare asked."Yeah!" The crowd agreed. They want to help him."Let's go!" She confidently replied.And thus, they worked together on a plan to save Johnny.Everything was black for a while, until the eyes opened a bit and a voice can be heard:"Twilight, Celestia, Luna!! He's waking up!!"As the sight became sharper and the eyes opened further, we see the four princesses, Celestia, Luna, Cadence and Twilight looking worried."Dukey, are you okay??" Twilight asked.It turns out that it was Dukey, who is waking up and it took place in his perspective."Ugh....w..where am I?" He asked with a weakened voice."You're now in the Canterlot Infirmary. The guards brought you here after you collapsed to the ground." Princess Celestia explained."We want to know, why you collapsed." Luna was curious and so are the other princesses as well as Spike, who has just arrived.Then something flashed in his eyes and remembered about something. He looked extremely worried and asked the princesses with: ",Johnny!! Is he okay??"At the same time, one of the guards arrived with a report, who gives it to Celestia. She read the whole report and was horrified."They said, that he felt dizzy and nauseous. Like something is damaging inside of his body. He even threw up on the floor and later passed out." Celesita responded with a sigh."Oh fuck! Fuck, it's getting worse!!!" The hybrid became panicked."Calm down! We are still doing the plan. We will assure you, that everyone will help him. It's gonna be okay." Luna assured him."I do have a question. Why are you so worried about your friend?" Cadence asked."Because I am his best friend. We've been through together through hard times, no matter what. He saved me from the animal shelter on his 11th birthday and he chose me over the other dogs. I never felt so grateful for a second chance of life until that the cage opened and being welcomed by him. Since he saved my life, I vowed myself to do everything to make him happy and save his life from dangerous situations. " he explained to the princesses, while telling about his story on their first encounter. They were moved by the beginning of a beautiful friendship. Even Spike was moved to tears."What he did was so noble." Luna replied."Indeed. He does have a good heart." Celestia agreed."Which was unfortunately shattered by those bastards...And that hurts. Speaking of which, I need to confess something." he told them to the royals."What is it?" Twilight asked.His expression turned a bit sorrowful, when he began to explain:"You see, I've been thinking about a stronger connection between me and Johnny since all the way back in the apple orchards, in which I witnessed him breaking down for the "first" time. Actually, I've seen it for the first time, but the painful ache in me wasn't. It was after I was sent back to the animal shelter, where I first felt it. It stung to my heart hard. I didn't realize that Johnny was in a mental breakdown until after I've seen it happen. As more breakdowns happened, the ache got worse. Then I remembered something: Every time where he was mentally tortured, I was there. And during which, I always had a twisting feeling in my stomach. So I tried to comfort him, like I always do. And god knows, if it worked. Not to mention, while I saw Johnny being in a panicked state in the skies, a memory flashed in front of me. A memory about those monsters blaming ME. That's right, they also blamed me as well, calling me a devil's accessory. That memory came up again, this time they had Johnny being badly hurt. I tried to charge at them, but I was paralyzed! Paralyzed by....fear. And as I was thinking about it and the connection during the visit at the Sweet Apple Acres, the Everfree Forest and even in the hospital, I came to a conclusion...""That you are a witness?" Cadence asked.But Dukey rebutted the question with: "No, Cadence....In fact.....I'm as much as a victim as he is..."The princesses gasped. They didn't know, that the hybrid was also a victim as well."How so?!" Spike asked."I've been also tortured by them, both mentally and physically. Why I endured all of it and still kept calm, is beyond me." he answered."It must take a willpower made of iron, to endure all of it.." said the princess of the sun."And as for your friendship with you and Johnny. Based on what you said, it seems like, you have a stronger connection to him than anypony else. Almost like brothers. Not to mention, I have a feeling, that the connection is also telepathically and psychically. Like if Johnny has a mental breakdown, you feel that painful ache. And if Johnny became sick from the trauma and passed out, that means..." Twilight assumed.Dukey finished the sentence with: "....then that means my body also felt weak at the same time.""Interesting..." Twilight was curious about that psychic connection."This would explain, why you passed out. Your friendship with him is much stronger and unbreakable than any friendships with other ponies, I've seen." Celestia wondered."We never witnessed a connection like this until now." Luna was also curious."I can't believe, he was also tortured much like his friend...How tragic..." Cadence was in tears, but Twilight hugged her sister-in-law."I feel the same thing, Cadence." Twilight responded."We all do. However, if we stick together with our plan and get his friend out of the darkness and into the light, then he would get the closure, he deserved." Princess Celestia assured the others, that things will be okay."You're right, sister. We need to be strong!" The princess of the night agreed.At the same time, Applejack, Rainbow Dash, Pinkie Pie, Rarity, Fluttershy and Starlight Glimmer came back from their mission to spread the news. They were confused as of why Dukey is in the infirmary."There is a simple explaination for that." Twilight explained to her friends.She explained about Dukey's strong and psychic connection to Johnny and his confession, all of these were the reasons as of why he passed out. The ponies were shocked. They didn't know, that Dukey was sharing the same pain as Johnny."Oh my goodness..." Rarity was speechless."You too!?" Rainbow Dash asked to the hybrid, in which he nodded."I can't believe it..." Fluttershy was worried."It's sadly true, Fluttershy..." Twilight sighed."How is the progress?" Celestia asked."We managed to convince everyone to helping us with the plan. Although it takes a lot of convincing for the dragons to get on our side." Starlight answered.Then the hybrid starts to tear up. The whole time, he was keeping himself together for Johnny's sake, despite the shared pain. Now, cracks were beginning to show, as tears streamed from his face. Cadence was the first one, noticing him like this and hugged him. As Twilight watched, she felt sorry for the earth pony hybrid."Girls...?" She pointed at Dukey being hugged by the princess of love. Soon, they all engaged in a big group hug. As he felt the warm embrace by everyone around him, he got more and more emotional. At this point, it has reached to a point, where he couldn't take it anymore. All of the same pain and abuse and all the time, that Johnny has to suffer all of it, caused the hybrid to burst into tears instantly."It's okay...We're all here." Fluttershy softly spoke to him.His cries echoed throughout the walls and the whole area. Loud and clear. The ponies suppressed their tears, since they already shed some thanks to Johnny and his confession. They need to be strong, because Johnny and Dukey need them. They need their care, love and guidance. And if they want to succeed, they have to work hard...together. They need to get them out of the sorrow, the monsters have caused and guide them to a better future full of light and genuine happiness.After what it felt like hours, the crying soon got quieter, until it became silent. Everyone looked at him wiping his tears away and looking at them."You're all very caring and nice..." he spoke."Hey, that's what friends are for. Ah swear to my honesty for that." Applejack smiled warmly."We're all here for you and your friend with all of our kindness, guiding you." Fluttershy nodded."We're making sure, you can smile with laughter!" Pinkie Pie smiled brightly."And giving you something special in the act of generosity." Rarity added."We'll always be there for you, guys. No matter what. This is true loyalty." Rainbow Dash smirked."And finally guiding you with the spark of magic. After all, as the guardians of harmony and friendship, we're making sure, we will help anyone from a shattered bond or even from a broken past. And I, Twilight Sparkle, the Princess of Friendship, will do our best to help you and your friend guiding to a new future!" Twilight finished the combined speech."And no matter how hard the situation is, we can do it, as long as we get together." Starlight smiled.The whole speech from the ponies, along with the warm smiles from the princesses, made the hybrid feel grateful for them. Soon, his body was filled with confidence and determination to help Johnny and be there for him until the end. Now, there was no time to spare."Okay. With that out of the way, let's get it started! Time for Operation: Healing Light!" He spoke to the ponies."Oooh! I like that name!" The joyful earth pony jumped in excitement with a smile."Okay, everypony. It's time to enact our plan now. Twilight, Cadence, Starlight, Spike, make sure, the crystal ponies follow our plan. Pinkie Pie, Fluttershy, Rainbow and Applejack, go to the other worlds and do the same thing. As for Dukey, Luna, Rarity and I, we will go to Ponyville to prepare for it. This is for Johnny's sake. We gather all of them to Ponyville in order to make it work. And when he arrives, we will give him the most care, he needed." Celestia spoke to everyone about the plan."Exactly. However, he has to be released from the hospital first, but the guards will keep an eye on him for his safety, both physically and mentally." Luna added."And if we managed to get him out of it, he can finally feel loved!" Dukey nodded."We'll see." Cadence answered."Let's get this party started!"With those words from Pinkie Pie, the ponies split up to make the final preparations of their plan. Operation: Healing Light is now in effect.In the Ponyville Hospital, the guards were still standing around Johnny, who is still depressed. His arms have now less bandages, now that the cuts were healed. However he still saw the scars. Soon, he heard a voice from a nurse:"Radiant Thunder. You can go now.""Whatever...." he quietly mumbled."Remember, we still keep an eye on you! Don't you even think of running away and end your life again, understood!??!" The guard scolded at the black pegasus.However, the stallion guard was met with silence from the young pony.When they exited the hospital, Johnny's mane still covered one of his eyes and he has a long, yellow scarf around his neck. He looked down, as he walked, with the ends of his scarf sliding on the ground. The guards were still close to him, making sure, he wouldn't make another suicide attempt again. But that hardly mattered to him anymore.He then lifted his head up, only to see the ponies looking at him. However, he ignored them, thinking that they're here to make his pain worse. Later, he saw Rainbow Dash, waiting for him, as the colors of the skies turn into the colors of the dusk."Hey, uhm...You okay?" the prismatic mare asked.However, he didn't say anything. Just pure silence. Rainbow looked at him and rubbed his head."Come on, where is the smile?" she asked, but she saw none. Just sadness."Excuse me, are you making trouble?" The guards asked."What? No! I am trying to hang out with him." she explained before getting Johnny's attention. "Hey, wanna fly?"No answer. However, he slowly went to her, as she prepared to fly. She looked back at the guards, who are pegasi."That's good. So they can keep an eye on him in the skies." she thought to herself.She flew up and performed some loops, while the guards and Johnny watched. Eventually, he flew up, albeit slowly. The guards were following him, as he flew up. As all the four ponies soar the skies together, they witnessed the beautiful sunset before the skies got covered by the stars and the moon . She started to hold Johnny's hoof, so at least he can feel something other being left alone. After some air time, they all land down near the entrance of Ponyville."Look, I know you are trying to help me, but don't you see? I'm already a lost cause, since everyone would probably ignore my help." he mumbled.The prismatic mare started to think of a way to get him to the centre of the village. Eventually, she had an idea and as she rubbed his head, she said: "Look, I've been in Twilight's castle and-""No no...Knock it off.." he looked away. Appearently, rubbing his head turned him off, so she stopped."As I was saying, I've been in Twilight's castle and brought to the centre of Ponyville." she explained."What is it?...." his voice became quieter, but Rainbow listened, since she was close to him."Come on, I'll show you!" she grabbed his hoof and dragged him. The guards followed them, as they didn't want to lose their sights at Johnny. However, even though he struggled, the pegasus mare tightened her grip and dragged him all the way to the centre of Ponyville."Why do you have to drag me?..." he asked."Because I want to show you something awesome, duh!" she answered."I don't want to see anything at all, It's just really depressing and-"Suddenly, before he can finish his sentence, he was surrounded by colorful lights and the sounds of popping confetti can be heard. He shielded his eyes a bit, until he realized, that the lights were not that bright and he looked in the front."Surprise!!"He saw everyone gathered infront of him. The ponies, the changelings, the dragons and so on. He also saw some packed gifts, delicious sweets, drinks, smiling ponies and non-ponies, wearing yellow party hats with his face on it. The princesses also stood there with necklaces with his cutie mark in a sapphire heart. Even Twilight and her friends wear wigs, which look just like his hair. Soon, Rainbow Dash put her wig on. Johnny didn't know, what to react. Should he be weirded out or flattered? He didn't know."We all heard your story and decided to help you." Mayor Mare spoke to him."I..I..I don't know what to say." he was speechless."Say wha? Excuse me? We all did this! For you!" Rainbow Dash snapped."Are you serious?" he asked.The six ponies and Spike drop their wigs and went to him.,"Yes, of course! Everyone heard your story and they were all concerned! Those bastards were all greedy, more concerned on your expectations than your life! But we're not like that! We're generous ponies and we value your life more than anything material!! Rarity spoke to him."They were so mean to you, it broke our hearts. But we will assure you, we'll be very kind." Fluttershy added."Everytime, you attempted to have fun, those party-poopers always ruin it! However, you will have so much fun with us, filled with laughter and joy!" Pinkie Pie looked at him."They were always lying to protect their reputation, even though it's already too late. They've poisoned you. But we are honest, that everything will be fine." Applejack resumed."They've betrayed you! Stabbed your back way too many times, then toss you to an abyss! We're not like that! We are loyal until the end!" Rainbow Dash continued."What they mean is, they tortured you so much, that you lost your spark. However, as the Princess of Friendship, I will assure you, that we will guide you with magic, hope and embrace." Twilight finished."Trust us... We will never betray you." Spike looked at him.He looked at everyone with concerned faces, realizing that what they said, wasn't fake. The looks weren't fake, the gifts weren't fake, everything felt genuine. The Mane 6 and Spike put their wigs back on.Rainbow DashI know the world can get you down Things don't work out quite the way that you thought Feeling like all your best days are done Your fears and doubts are all you've gotBut there's a light shining deep inside Beneath those fears and doubts, so just squash 'em And let it shine for all the world to see That it is time, yeah, time to be awesomeEveryoneAh, ah, ah-ah, awesome! It's time to be so awesome!Ah, ah, ah-ah, awesome! It's time to be so awesome!Pinkie PieIt's true some days are dark and lonely And maybe you feel sad But we will be there to show you that it isn't that bad There's one thing that makes us happy and makes your whole life worthwhile And that's when we talk to everypony and get you to smileEveryoneAh, ah, ah-ah, awesome! It's time to be so awesome!Ah, ah, ah-ah, awesome! It's time to be so awesome!Pinkie PieCome on and smile!Then out from the giant cake, Dukey came out, wearing a white tuxedo and a white tophat with a gold band and holding a gold microphone.DukeyNo matter what obstacles stand in your way You can shine brighter than the stars Just crush the voices in your head And let the light guide you!Dukey with Starlight GlimmerEmbrace the warmth Fight the dark Fly high and reach the stars!Burn bright like a phoenix Rise from the ashes Show them your bright side!Starlight GlimmerBecause your friends are always there for you!EveryoneAh, ah, ah-ah, awesome! It's time to be so awesome! Ah, ah, ah-ah, awesome! It's time to be so awesome!The Mane 8, Dukey and the princessesA true, true friend helps a friend in need A friend will be there to help them see A true, true friend helps a friend in need To see the light! (To see the light!) That shines! (That shines!) From a true, true friend!So shine bright! Brighter than the stars!You are better than them!Because we are always there for you!EveryoneShine bright!It ended with Rainbow Dash performing her famous Sonic Rainboom in the night, this time creating a message that says:We love you, Johnny!followed by fireworks, thanks to a pony called Tempest Shadow.Those events of love and appreciation made Johnny feel moved with tears in his eyes. He never felt this before, back in his former home world, but now. He witnessed everyone caring for him. He lowered his head and sobbed. This made the main heroes worried, thinking that their plan didn't work."Oh no...Did it work?" Twilight was in disbelief.However, his next reaction was a surprise to everyone: He laughed!"Wait, what!?" Rainbow Dash was caught off guard."Didn't see that coming." Applejack agreed."Oh my..." Fluttershy was in surprise as well.Then as he lift his head back up and looked at them, he did something, that was impossible back then: He genuinely smiled!"I just want to say...I never felt the love and appreciation back then. Instead, they crushed me completely. So much in fact, that my faith has been lost....until now. That 'It's too late and I'm already a lost cause' quote? Whoever said that, must be a jackass, because you proved me wrong and gave the most love, warmth, care and hope, I desperately needed.So...Thank you! Thank you, everyone!"Tears were streaming down from his face, however those were tears of joy.Everyone celebrated, that their plan succeeded in a big way."He's finally back to normal!" Pinkie Pie jumped in joy."Not quite. He still has to deal with the other issues, in order to be completely free from the past. However, if we stick together and continue to help him, then it will be all over." Celestia added."Whatever, he is finally back!" Dukey was filled with happiness. "Although I also have to face my demons as well. But first!" He went to his best friend and fixed his hair back to his original state. However a bit of his hair popped out on the front."Must been from me screaming in the pillow." the black pegasus scratched his head.Rainbow looked at Johnny's scarf and said : "Eh, it needs to be 20% cooler." She took the scarf off from him and gave it to Rarity."I can fix this. Alongside making a bonus!" The white unicorn went to her boutique in order to do those tasks. After a while, she came back with two boxes."These are for you!" She used her magic to give those gifts to Johnny and Dukey. They opened them and for Johnny, he received his new and improved scarf. Torn to fit his style. And for Dukey, he received a red scarf with a diamond. They put them on their necks."Oh my god! This looks awesome!" Johnny was amazed by his new scarf."Indeed! We are cool scarf buddies!" Dukey hugged his best friend and soon, the Mane 8 joined in, all while everyone watched in awe."Thank you everyone..." Johnny smiled and shed a single tear in happiness.Meanwhile, in a different universe...In the night, where the moon shined, inside of a room of a house, a teenage boy with blond hair was punching a wall in sheer anger and sadness."Damn it!!" he shouted.It appeared, that he is missing a friend...he cared.To be continued...
A few extra skitsA few extra skitsby Yurix-------------------- ???: Just out of curiosity. Why did you choose to live here with a Surrogate body? I thought Planars were all-knowing, almighty beings.- Scyens (points at Raemu): The same reason why he keeps participating in battles. Out of sheer boredom.- ???: What?- Raemu: Do you know what it feels like when people worship or plead you for this or that day-in, day-out? I'm sure you do. Imagine that, but with you not needing to eat, sleep or having to do your daily duties.- ???: I guess... after a while, you would get bored.- Scyens: That's an understatement. You start losing contact with what makes you human. You start doing your job without really caring about it, delivering blessings or judgment without effort or restraint. That could end up disastrous.- ???: Has it always been like that?- Raemu: Not that I remember... For the longest time, we Planars were satisfied with our roles in the balance of existence.- ???: Then why now?(Confused silence)-----------------------Volkram: Who... what are you supposed to be?Merit: My name is Merit.Volkram: What are you? Some Planar's envoy sent to punish me?Merit: Far from it. I am... hmm... You could say that I am what Planars fear. I am the reason why the Nightwatcher was given that very name.Volkram: What are you saying?Merit: Ugh. Why is it so hard for you mortals to understand? (to himself) But then again, being reduced to this state is probably a suitable punishment. Volkram: Then why are you here?Merit: I'm here to tell you that your role in this thespian nightmare is coming to an end. I no longer have any need for you.Volkram: "Need?" How did you ever "need" anything from me when I don't know you?Merit: Of, you do know me. You just forgot. Or perhaps, someone else made sure you did not remember. Although... I may have some use for you yet.Volkram: If it means getting me out of this cell, I'll-Merit: Keep pleading like that and your next reincarnation will be in the body of a cockroach.Volkram: Then what do you want from me?Merit: Two things. First, I want you to deliver a message to this so-called All-Chosen. And second... (grabs Volkram's head through the cell's bars) Let's see what happens when the "Exarch" remembers.-------------------------???: So it was a Black Egg that caused this?Xelnos: Hey. Don't look at me! It wasn't my doing...???: But didn't you do something similar at Dyurth Pass?Xelnos: That was just because Kadlak was barking orders at me... Just because you're a Planar, it doesn't give everyone the right to get everything you want from them.???: And I suppose that the crags outside Ravenhold wasn't your fault either?Xelnos: For your information, I may have showed up outside of the Underdeep, but it was the other Planars who attacked me! Hell, one of their bird-winged messengers tossed a Black Egg at me! It took me almost a century to recreate my body...???: Wait, what did you say?Xelnos: Which part: me having to recreate my body or the Black Egg????: Both. First, who was that 'bird-winged messenger'? Second, where did that Black Egg come from? I thought you were supposed to be the 'Planar of Destruction'?Xelnos: Don't know. Don't care. And... about that last one...--------Alex: Uhm... Rhea?Monica: Don't move so much. That cut won't heal if you touch it.Alex: Have you... ever... killed someone?Rhea: (sigh) I wish I could say I never did, but I would be lying to you. There are... a lot of things that I had to do that I'm not proud of. That's just... one of those things.Alex: Why?Rhea: Well... sometimes, it's to defend yourself. Sometimes, it's to defend others. A lot of times, it's to keep others from killing.Alex: Did you try talking with them? Maybe that-Resham: Not everyone can be reasoned with, kid. Some people only understand one language: violence. And there's a lot of people out there who'll jump you for any reason, good or bad.Alex: But why?Resham: Some do it because you have something they want. Some just don't like a person's race, skin color... hell, that brand on my face was a good-enough reason for some...Rhea: And some... just do it because they can.(awkward silence)--------------------Karyana: All of this... it's just so maddening!Demyan: Kary, I-Karyana: After all this, I thought that I had a chance at a normal life! And now I know that every single aspect of my life was pushed so that everything that happened... just... happens!Demyan: Please, I-Karyana: Did any of this mean anything? Or was I just some stupid toy boat tugged around?Demyan: Kary!Karyana: I don't even know if my feelings are my own! Did you ever love me, or was I made to-(Demyan gives Karyana a heartfelt kiss). "Was that real enough?" (Karyana takes a step back, shocked and teary-eyed.) "I don't know who told you all of this, and I don't want to know. I just want you to understand. You were the first friend I ever had. You let me take care of Chime back when we were children. You helped me become the man I am today, and in some way, you became the woman you are today not because of the Planars... but because you had a family and friends ready to help you every step of the day. Ten years you were Kaina and Laurinya, and part of you still reminded me after all that time. I told you time and again that I wouldn't give up on you when you were at your worst... I know things look bleak, and I know that you're scared and you're hurt. You and I have made it together through the toughest of challenges and the greatest misfortunes... Don't give up yet. Not on you. Not on me. Not on all of us. Please?"
Fragments of Selessannea's memories - IntroMade possible with the support of Patrons on Patreon. Selessannea screamed. Beneath cradling fingers, flesh and skin ruptured; a terrible warmth spilled into her dress and hollowed her mind. She took short breaths and braced herself for the next contraction, back arching against the wall as she felt pain thrashing its way down her distending belly. Selessannea screamed, and her heart strained; she winced as the magic within her veins jittered and burned. With every swell of flesh, her head pounded, her throat knotted tighter. And, instinctively, she cradled her forming daughter even closer. A chuckle caught in her throat. How terrible a realization it felt, finally understanding the reasons her malia, Nefahtil, had rejected Daeron, the man she had fallen in love with. Her malia must have seen this day coming. Selessannea's smile turned bittersweet. Tears flooded her cheeks as she recalled the soft, gentle coldness Daeron had embraced her with during their few years together. Now more than ever, she sensed its grip on her heart, on her spirit, on the very magic that was every Syrilae's lifeblood. It was peeling her apart, just as her forming daughter took of her rigid flesh to become whole. For an instant, Selessannea regretted every decision she'd made that had led to this moment, to the pain and the grief that she would cause by fading away. Sitting quietly next to her, the gentle spirit who had been as a father to her was restraining his anguish with every beat of his racing heart. It was wrong of her to feel happiness, when she knew what she was putting him through – what she had put him through. Yet, the love in her heart widened her smile. "I'm sorry, Devon," she said, taken in every detail of his twisted face. How she wanted to reach out and hold him, to just touch his face again. Weakness kept her subdued, as well as the knowledge that she couldn't be this cruel to him. "I'm sorry for hurting you," she added. It was all she could say, for her heart broke when she heard him sob. "This isn't your fault," he said, his head low, obscured. But the drumming rhythm of his heart betrayed his thoughts to her. She knew what he meant to say. "It isn't Daeron's fault, either." Her words barely wheezed, she heard a wave of rage rush through his veins. Her apology caught in her throat as her skin swelled and ripped open, her entire body convulsing. A hazy glance down her midriff revealed to her a bulging, fleshen silhouette covered in blood – her own blood, gushing from the many splits in her body where, she knew, her skin was becoming her daughter's. It wouldn't be too long anymore. Soon, she would finally get to rest. But she could not leave yet. She could not leave Devon to deal alone with the violence of his grief, not with precious lives still at stake. "Please," Selessannea said to him, "Please look after my children. I beg you." Wood snapped, her wide ears twitching to the shrill sound. She glanced down, at his hands, at his fist shaking against cracked floorboards. Devon bared his grinding teeth. She heard the screech catching in his throat. Selessannea's eyes lingered on his exposed fangs, her heart bearing the guilt she felt for breaking his own again. She never could imagine how excruciating controlling his nature had to be. It was boiling within him, wild, vicious, ready to burst free. And Selessannea gasped in surprise when she felt the warmth of his tense hands enclose hers. "I failed you," he said, never looking at her. "I failed you, and Nefahtil, and Sorasiehn. I should never have agreed to this." Selessannea couldn't help but smile. Her daughters were truly in safe hands. "Thank you," she needed to say. Finally, he looked up at her; every tear on his face felt like a promise she knew he would keep, for such was his true nature. She kneaded those safe hands of his, tears rolling down her own cheeks. "I love you—" "Don't say that." "—and I need you to forgive Daeron. Please, Devon, forgive him." Devon's lips curled up to reveal his fangs. She felt his hands shake, his fingers tense against her skin. Selessannea knew that, were he not clearly restraining himself, he might have killed her without meaning to. "How dare you say that to me," he spat, hissing. "How dare you, after everything that – that thing – had us endure. What he had you endure. Necromancers are death, Selessannea! You are dying, and that is all on him!" Devon rose to his feet, snatching his beloved warmth away from her. "How dare you speak of forgiveness! I will never forgive him! Never!" Wood snapped beneath Devon's stomping foot. "I swear to kill every necromancer I ever encounter! They took everything away from me, Selessannea! Everything! You were all I had left!" I know, she meant to say. Her lungs pleaded for air with every beat of her failing heart. She fought dizziness as hard as her blanking mind could, for she wanted – needed – him to hear her last words. "I'm sorry," she breathed, with a smile. She couldn't quite hear his words anymore, nor his sobs, nor the anguish pounding in his heart. Vaguely, she sensed his presence by her side, strong and gentle arms cradling her dying body. In her heart, she sensed Daeron's voice, reaching out his care to her. Selessannea thought she smiled, but she could no longer tell. Right before the end, fragments of her life immersed her...
Random skitsRandom skitsby Yurix----------------Xelnos: Is it just me, or do you look tired?Karyana: Exhausted, really. Being a mother to Dawn and Asha is one thing, but helping to rebuild Citadel... even with everyone pitching in, it's tiring.Xelnos: Well... it might not be much, but do you think I could help?Karyana: You're actually offering to help? After all this?Xelnos: Call this a way for me to atone for messing with you for so long. I know it's not much...*Karyana turns around* If you want to atone, the least you could do is start by changing into less frightening armor. Seeing people wear bones would creep anyone out.Xelnos: How about like this? Think it's a bit much?Karyana: A bit much? What do you- *Karyana turns around, noticing that Xelnos had shapeshifted into a young adult version of Progeny.* "Goodness!"Xelnos: I didn't think it could work, but I guess shape-changing while in a Surrogate is possible.Karyana: But... but why do you-?Xelnos: Let's just say that creation and destruction are two sides of the same coin. Can we leave it at that?------------------Alex: So... um... Maria?Maria: Hmm?Alex: Where are you from?Maria: Nihileis.Alex: Huh?Maria: The Void Lands. The home of restless spirits that linger on, uncertain or unwilling to move on to the next life.Larxinia: That story again? Alex: Larcie?Larxinia: She says that to everyone who asks. Honestly Maria, if a place like that existed, do you really think you'd come from there? It sounds like a place for dead people.Maria: That's why I want to go home.Larxinia: Would you cut that out!?!-----------------???: Asherah Merid Destine...Asha: Mmmm.... huh????: Get up.Asha: Who said that? *opens her eyes, only to see Aphrah* YOU?!?Aphrah: I was wondering when you would wake up.Asha: What are you doing here? *looks around* Wait... where are we?Aphrah: The land of the dead.Asha: What?!? I- I can't be dead! I just... *checks pulse* Huh? What the... come on!Aphrah: Don't bother. Our body is gone.Asha: OUR body?!? You're the one who took me over? *looks around* Dawn! Where are you?Aphrah: She's not here. I already looked around.Asha: Then why are you here?!?Aphrah: The moon always has a dark side. It looks like you and I are trapped here for some reason.Asha: You don't know? I thought you said that we were dead.Aphrah: Perhaps we can get out.Asha: How?Aphrah: I don't know... but I did notice some sort of mausoleum up ahead. Maybe someone there can tell us a way out. Let's be off.Asha: Why would I help you?Aphrah: I'm the only one who can. Besides, I'd like to offer you a deal.Asha: What kind of deal?Aphrah: I bring you back to the world of the living, and you give me a life of my own.Asha: How can I trust you after all you've done?Aphrah: You can't....
Being a friend (Remembered Eternity skits)Being a friendRemembered Eternity skitsby Yurix-------------------------------Alban: Kary? What are you doing here?Karyana: I heard about Kaina. ...How is she?Alban: She's still grieving. I can't blame her.Karyana: I'm so... so sorry for your loss. If there's anything I can do -Alban: Can you stay and take care of her for a bit? I really feel like being with family will do wonders.Karyana: I'd be a terrible sister if I said no.Alban: Also, I'd like to talk to you about something... personal.Karyana: I'm listening.Alban: Ever since I ended up in that glass... thing, I've been feeling... well... not as strong as I used to.Karyana: Probably because of Volkram. Though I'm surprised you haven't recovered.Alban: I don't mean physically. Okay, maybe a bit, but what I mean is... I feel like my adventuring days are behind me. Back when I was recovering in Saberbia before the battle, I swore that I'd marry Kaina if I returned from the war, and I did... We decided to keep it on the low to avoid... complications.Karyana: I can understand. So, what will you do now?Alban: You'll probably laugh, but I actually started to study under Leara's tutelage to be a druid. Maybe my old-time love of flowers is coming back, now that Medierth no longer has to deal with Volkram.Karyana: Aren't druids supposed to be unmarried?Alban: Hey, I did say I was studying.Karyana: Any luck? and... had you thought of a name for the child?Alban: M-maybe you should go talk to Kaina.(Karyana walks over to the room, only to notice that the door was open.) Did she step out?(Alban slowly gets up.) We would have seen her if she did...-------------------------Onyx: Well, well. If it isn't our favorite Magelady!Karyana: It's nice to see you again.Onyx: Oh, don't be like that! Last I remember, you were there for Llaelyn's birth, so it's only been... (notices Karyana's downhearted expression) Did I say something wrong?Karyana: About Llaelyn...Onyx: Aye... sorry about that. She was the greatest thing to step out of the Motherforge. As loyal as a soldier, and a beauty to boot.Karyana: She gave her life to stop Melothios... to save me from-Onyx: Hold it! Don't go there. It ain't your fault that she did that.Karyana: But I was-Onyx: And don't go there, either. Knowing you, you gave 'em more than their worth of your goodwill.Karyana: How can you say that?Onyx: You, Alban, me, and even Arius... we've known you since you were a wee girl. You've always been a tough girl to handle. A bit wet behind the ears at time, and not always confident...Karyana: Gee, thanks.Onyx: ...but you were always the sunniest lass around. A smile and a heart as big as a mountain, and you never turned down a chance to help people. Blimey, even the worst of the bunch like Pison. What I'm saying is: don't beat yourself up over the past. Sure you had some blunders, but don't we all?Karyana: My last "blunder" nearly killed everyone.Onyx: But it didn't now, right? By my record, you probably did more good for the world than the bloody Planars themselves!Karyana: Don't say it like that. The last person who badmouthed them was struck down by Luriah!Onyx: I was just jiffing. But seriously, if I were you, I'd give your young'uns a hug and tell'em how lucky they are to have parents like you.Karyana: About that... have you seen them recently? I thought Dawn said she wanted to visit you to learn how to make her first sword.Onyx: You sure? Haven't seen them since you arrived.---------------------------Yu Shaia: Now there's a rare visit!Karyana: Yu Shaia? Olin? What are you doing here?Olin: Having a -hic- celebratory drink... Care ta join?Karyana: What are you celebrating?Olin: Elany's... memory.Karyana: What? Was she-Yu Shaia: No. She passed away peacefully. Apparently, her latest body wasn't able to support her soul for very long, so she and Olin spent their last moments together before she departed.Karyana: Olin, I'm-Olin: Don't be. Always lived fast... died young, but man, she was spunky! Loved that fire 'bout her... Her old man decided he'll let her rest this time... Good for -hic- him.Karyana: 'This time'? How many times did he bring her back? and how?Yu Shaia: Apparently? Four. And as for how... (hands Karyana a large book) ...with this.Karyana: A spellbook?Yu Shaia: A codex. It combines alchemy, magic... and prayers to something other than the Planars.Karyana: Other than them?Olin: Can't read that gibber-hic-... some crazy crap about 'tearing open the doors of time' or some shit...Yu Shaia: Olin, I think you had one too many bottles. How about I take you home? We got a spare room. Besides, Meilin would kill me if I came home this late without an excuse.Karyana: Anything I can do to help?Olin: Keep that book. Who knows? Ya might need -hic-!-----------------------
Genesis: BeravonGenesis: Beravon21M.998Bloodsworn, Zahoriana-class BattleshipAulusHe – like over three-hundred brothers – had assembled on the observation deck to behold the fleets of their cousins. He saw a mass of starships, many hundreds of them. From the smallest corvettes to the largest battleships. As the glorious Scarred Angel approached the two legionary fleets Ulvus pointed to three ships whom he did not recognize. Neither did Aulus. They were nearly as large as a Zahoriana Battleship, but they were almost twice as large as a Citadel War Barge. He thought they must be a new class of battleships. In fact, they were even larger than the Basilisk-class Battleships that were visible in the fleet. “It feels like an eternity since I saw this many Citadel War Barges together,” Ulvus said.“Yes,” Aulus said in awe of what they saw before them. Legions only joined forces to face the greatest of threats. “It was bound to happen sooner or later, wasn’t it?”“Is it the rumours you’re referring to?” Aulus inquired.“It is. I mean it’s an inevitable fact that we are going to war with the Second would-be-Galactic Republic. It's one of the galaxy’s great powers so we have to conquer them eventually. It’ll probably take the might of most – if not all – legions when that day comes.”The rumours of war with the Galactic Republic had been around for decades before Aulus and his dear brother Ulvus joined the Blood Marines twenty-three years back. He found it interesting that the empress slowing the expansion down bit by bit throughout this tenth century had led Secunatus Marines to discuss potential the end goal. He would never claim to be an expert of logistics but it made sense to slow the expansions to increase the legions’ size and prepare the Imperium’s military industries to focus their materiel on a single front. “Whenever that day comes our focus is on the here and now,” Aulus said.“Right you are brother,” Ulvus agreed cheerfully. “I can’t wait to smash Urk skulls. You know what’s even more impressive than fighting with our cousins?” He gestured in the direction of the fleet that awaited them. “Yes. Going to war with the entire legion.”Ulvus beamed at him. “One-hundred-thirty-eight-thousand Blood Marines, Aulus. Our glorious Archon brought our full fighting might to battle this day. We’ll crush those Urks. Especially if they brought most of their entire strength too.”Aulus smiled back. There was no possibility where the Urk warlord came out victorious. Or even alive for that matter. With the Blood Marines, Onyx Crusaders, and Imperial Hands combining their strength. He could barely wait.“Ah, Aulus, Ulvus,” Æinwald exclaimed as he entered the observation deck and approached them in the mass of their brothers – most either newly made Hastati if even that. He came up behind them and put a hand on their shoulders. He wore blood-red fatigues and a lime-green robe over them. It was the same as everyone gathered. A brooch was attached to Æinwald’s left breast, though, something neither Aulus nor his brother-cousin had. The brooch was a metal piece that depicted a bronze banner. A similar bronze piece was attached to his power armour to show that he was a Standard Bearer. He was honoured as one of the legionnaires that carried the legion’s banner into battle. A truly noble and honourable task – especially since all he could use in battle was a handgun. Granted, a bolt-pistol but all the same. “I heard from Lieutenant Green-Eye who heard from an Astropsycher in Sixth Company who heard from a technician that we’re the first in.”“Our Legion?” Aulus inquired for verification.“Aye,” Æinwald confirmed excitedly. Then he raised his voice to address everyone present. “You hear that boys? We’re dropping in first!”They all cheered and many raised a fist into the air. As they did so Aulus pondered their foe. He had heard old veterans, Optioclavii with over nine centuries of service, talk about their frustration fighting Urks. One of these days he thought that surely even the Urks must suffer a blow so hard that they could be considered bested. Empress only knew how many warlord’s petty empires had fallen before the Imperium. Hundreds? No, it must have had to be closer to thousands.“Legionnaire Aulus respond,” he heard his Centurion’s voice over the comlink.“Yes, sir. I copy,” Aulus replied.“What’s your location legionnaire?”“Observation deck.” Why did Centurion Lucky ask about that? He wondered.“Armour up and maker your way to the main hangar bay stat.”Aulus frowned. “Only me, sir?”“Son, did I stutter?” Lucky asked in her hard voice.“Oh, sorry, sir. Heading to the hangar.”“Lucky out.”Ulvus arched an eyebrow and Aulus shrugged. Without knowing what it was about he made his way to the elevator and down several decks and walked at a rapid pace through the corridors, passing Rexionis brothers, mortal crewmen, and armour-attendants. He saw an argument between two First Cohort marshals that appeared close to come to blows outside the armoury. At his section one of his armour-attendants handed him his bolt-pistol and long-barrelled boltgun. It was the Aesajinj Boltgun model, equipped with a long-barrel, improved accuracy over longer distances, and less likely to jam. It had the standard chainsword bayonet under the barrel. The armour-attendant then kowtowed as Aulus. The hangar bay abounded with activity, gunships, and dropships being prepared for the assault on the Urruk stronghold. He saw the gunship of Aholi standing prepared with their father and his Spirit Guard looked ready to embark. He looked for Lucky but didn’t see him anywhere. Then a sergeant of the Spirit Guard waved him over. Aulus put his helmet on and jogged over.With his helmet on his, HUD read his armoured brother’s name as Eardwulf. Aulus was in the presence of a legend, a hero of the legion. Not only was he the only augmented Rexionis in the Spirit Guard Company and also Mia Prosper-born, though the latter was a minor thing since almost all augmented brothers in the Blood Marines came from Mia Prosper – at least those augmented after the planet became their Blood World – but he was as close to a walking legend that a legionnaire that hadn’t yet reached the honorific of Hastati could possible come.“Sergeant Eardwulf,” he said as he approached the legion veteran. He kept his voice as steady as he could to remain professional and clear-headed.Eardwulf’s blood-red helmet had several old scars and like a Rexionis worth his bolter he had kept them as badges of honour. Three scars and Aulus knew from the stories told in on-board barracks, mess hall, and training yards where he had received them. The scar that went from top right straight down from the eldest. It was the one he’d received when his squad defended his birth village of Gründ from a great beast from below. It was then he was first called the Gründhammer. The second scars that crossed from the upper left and bottom right came from an Urk in a mech suit on a nameless gas mining habitat. The third scars stretched across his helmet like the second and he had received it in a duel with a demonic beast even twice the size of an Archon. “Reporting as ordered, sergeant,” said Aulus.“At ease brother,” Eardwulf told him. Aulus saw the two-handed warhammer attached to his back. “Aholi has decided that you’ll join us to the Hand of Might.”“I…I will? I mean yes, yes sir,” he stuttered and tried to pull himself together.“Yes kid, you,” Eardwulf confirmed amused. “The Archon’s seen something in you. Don’t disappoint.”He turned on his heels and the Spirit Guards began to file into the gunship after a declaration from Aholi that it was time to depart. Aulus realized after a moment that he held his breath and then realized it. His father’s head turned and looked down on him. The Archangel of Mia Prosper half-turned in his power armour. His braided raven hair flowed on the sides of the fair face. He reached out a hand for him to step forward.“My dear brother doesn’t enjoy being kept waiting, Aulus.”Aulus quickly walked to the gunship and up the ramp. “I’m sorry, my lord.”Aholi smiled in light amusement.He stepped into the gunship and joined with the greatest warriors of the Blood Marines Legion. “Hmm, you’ve never fought with any of your cousins, have you?” Aholi said as the ramp was raised.“I, no my lord. Never met one. O-on or off the-the field.” He mentally kicked himself for stuttering like a fool. He chuckled and placed an armoured hand on his shoulder. “This is to be quite the experience then.”Aulus was nervous through the minutes it took to cross the distance between the Bloodsworn and the hangar of the Hand of Might. The deck was packed with mechanics preparing aerospace fighters, dropships, and gunships, and Imperial Hands were present by the hundreds in full dark fiery-orange armour. He saw by the metal chevrons on their right pauldron that they were captains, marshals, and senior marshals, all overseeing preparations for the massive planetary assault that was soon to take place. It made him feel exhilarated. Never in his decades of service had he partaken in a joint-campaign between three of the empress’s legions. Then he saw them, the Archons. Majestic in their power armour. Aholi’s brother Ibeji and sister Ceres approached him and Aholi embraced them. “It has been too long since our legions spilled Urk blood together,” he said delightfully.“It has that brother,” Ceres agreed. “Come then. Let us sit down and discuss draw up a plan to crush the Urruks in their stronghold.”“Just like the early days of the Imperium,” Ibeji reminisced. “When mother commanded all the legions to war. Well her truest children.”“Acheron, Resheph, and Andraste don’t deserve that tone,” Aholi reprimanded his brother. They cannot be blamed for not participating in an event that happened before they were even born in the palace’s laboratories. Mother didn’t need three other archons then, but a century ago she did. I have the same love for them as I do for you.”“I apologize, Aholi. You are right of course.”The honour guard remained in the hangar as the archons made their plans. A meeting he definitely wished to be a fly on the wall in. Aulus imagined that for three legions to be marshalled for a single world showed what kind of threat the Urruks below represented to the Fringe Territories. No matter, he decided. They would crush the vermin either way. Nothing could stand against the might of a full legion, less so three. He supposed another legion could, but such an action was unthinkable, impossible. For half an hour they waited before their master returned. As the gunship prepared to take off Aholi send word ahead. He ordered the entirety of his legion to prepare for an immediate assault by drop pod and landing craft. Aulus was unused to witness an operation on even that scale, so he knew that this would be glorious. “The honour of heading in first is ours,” Aholi told them. “As it should be,” Eardwulf remarked proudly.“Aye!” Several of the honour guards agreed.A legion needed only moments to prepare its full complement for planetary assault. Back aboard the Bloodsworn tens of thousands of drop pods were soon ready, and one of them was his way planetside. It was a great honour to be in the first wave. After all, it would take time for the dropships and gunships to reach the stronghold on the surface. “I just can’t believe that Aholi wanted you for that little trip,” Ulvus complained as they entered their pods. “I mean what could he possibly see in you?”“Thanks, I appreciate your support,” Aulus chuckled.Ulvus laughed as his pod closed. “Maybe he took pity on you. Thought surely one of my Rexionis can’t be that terrible.”“One minute until drop,” an Oannonian officer announced over the ship’s intercom. Aulus took a deep breath as he closed his pod. Twenty-three years had passed since he and Ulvus was going into the tunnels beneath the fortress on Mia Prosper, that day when Master Captain Lugius Saar Ezt anointed them with the empress’s holy light and declared them legionnaires, and brothers. This would be the first time they partook in a mission with the entire legion. It hadn’t been necessary for them to send the whole legion into battle together for decades. Then the moment came and drop pods were launched from the Bloodsworn and the dozens of Citadel War Barge and War Cruisers in the Blood Marines Legionary Fleet. They were fired at the planet at an incredible velocity, tens of thousands. Aholi, who was in a drop pod of his own, gave them a few words of trust and spoke of how certain he was that they would win the day. Though they mustn’t become overconfident. He said, “You are Blood Marines. Not Minotaur’s Sons.” Aulus snorted in amusement under his helmet. “The empress will remember your sacrifices. If the Imperium lasts for eternity they will never forget the bravery of the Blood Marines.”The pods descended so quickly that anti-air guns would find it near impossible to gain a target lock, though that was also thanks to the technology involved in their creation a thousand years ago. Of course, that didn’t matter with Urruks. Their targeting systems were outdated. Mayhaps their anti-air guns fired more rounds per minute than their Imperial counterpart but it mattered little without the aim to make use of those shots. He would never cease to be amazed by how Urruks could turn a pile of scrapmetal into something actually useful. On the pod’s small screen he saw that he was passing through the clouds and the ground was quickly becoming visible beneath. Soon the moment would come. Urruk defences soon became visible as well and he saw great and powerful gun towers first, powerful walls, then bunkers and trenches. Then the impact came. The hatch was automatically shot off and fell to the dry grassy ground. Aulus stepped out with his boltgun ready. All around him drop pods had landed. There were Urks aplenty about them and so Aulus only needed to raise his bolter and squeeze the trigger. His first bolt was aimed for a Warcommander and his bolt tore through the chestplate and entered his chest, exploding inside and throwing pieces of green flesh around him and bathed anyone in range in blood. It was only on his fourth kill that the Urks finally reacted to what must have been an unexpected entrance. His seventh kill was an Urk that rushed him with a scrapmetal axe and a bolt-pistol. His first shot had torn his right arm off but didn’t drop him. He seemed angrier afterward. The second shot pierced his skull and removed it in a hail of flesh, bone, and blood. He stepped back a few steps and used his pod for cover when an Urk bunker let loose with their heavy boltgun. It was silenced by a brother of his. He quickly joined up with the nearby Blood Marines and they mowed down any Urk in range of their powerful guns. He then saw Æinwald and Ulvus. Æinwald fired his bolt-pistol and held the standard high. With them and eight others were the senior marshal of the First Phalanx, their commander. Lucky, they called him. Aulus had heard many rumours as to why he had taken that name for himself. He never knew what was true, however. A brother fell beside Aulus and he quickly put down the shooter. Drop pods still rained from the sky and he estimated a few minutes before dropships and gunships arrived, as would transports that would carry ground vehicles. Columns of Rexionis tanks were a beautiful sight on any battlefield.“We gotta take that bunker,” Corporal Ryder decided. He was the highest-ranked man in the group.“Copy,” Aulus affirmed as he took out the Urk in the entrance.It laid only thirty-meters from them with a half-dug trench separating them. They jogged towards it and fired at foes in every direction. Another man fell, dead before he hit the ground from a bolt round. Aulus was the first to the bunker and rushed inside and fired three rounds, each killing an Urk. There was a fourth but he was on him so fast that he could only raise his chainsaw bayonet to block the axe blow. The Urk gave a war cry. Aulus took a step back to avoid the next two swings. With each, the Urk closed the distance again, but in the next moment, Aulus proved faster and drove the spinning chainsaw bayonet into his chest and tore through metal and then flesh. The Urk’s war cry turned into an agonizing death scream. “Clear,” Aulus said over the external speakers.As he came out from the small half.-buried bunker he caught sight of the marshal of the Phalanx’s Secunaris Chapter. Ærdolf’s right pauldron had seen chunks torn off by a bolt and the arm hung, barely attached to the Rexionis. It hadn’t slowed the veteran down for a moment, however, and he swung his chainsword and cut apart foe after foe as he stood in a circle of fallen brothers and slain Urks. The chaotic battlefield was turning into two neat lines, one of Urks and one of Blood Marines pressing against it. Gunships flew over the bloodied field of corpses and mowed down foes. He saw one hit by rockets fired from the surface and it crashed into a bunker, breaking it and the ground around it. Three of his brothers leaped out of his, armour damaged but functional. They joined the advancing line of over one-hundred-thousand as dropships landed behind them with the last Phalanxes. Praetorian Tanks and Cataphracts Troop Carriers raced forward, hoverbikes covering their flanks. Aulus put down a powerful Charruk, larger and bulkier than the normal Urks, and it was the next moment when he saw the Archon. Arrayed in full power armour, wielding a bolt-pistol and a chainsword. He moved elegantly, so swiftly that the Urks barely had time to react before he slew them. He was surrounded by the Spirit Guard and as Aulus jumped into a trench he saw Captain Goutahur, captain and lord of the honour guard. Aulus had joined dozens of brothers in the same trench that unleashed a flurry of bolts against the enemy. He reloaded and continued to fire. “The only thing we’re missing is walkers, eh,” he heard a brother remark with a laugh.That would be nice, he thought. A giant Magnaeques type walker would do fantastically. A giant fifty-metre Godsbane-class specifically, a true machine god of war. He thanked the empress that he had yet to see an Urk walker of the same type. The Grizzled Ravager-class could annihilate entire companies of Rexionis in a single moment with its guns. He heard Senior Marshal Lucky’s voice then. “Come on! We still have ten kilometres before we reach the stronghold proper.”Aulus and the others leaped out of the trench and advanced. He saw Ulvus nearby, but not Æinwald. His banner was nowhere to be seen. Had he fallen? He couldn’t consider that at the moment. He’d find his body afterward for transport back to the Bloodsworn if that was the case. He then heard Aholi’s voice over the legion comms channel. “My sons,” he addressed them. Aulus looked over to where he was fighting. He had engaged a giant Charruk, a warboss he thought, and it looked a surprisingly even fight. “I have spoken to my brother. We’ve cleared enough ground for their forces to join us.”Aulus advanced as he saw the warboss and Aholi danced the dance of battle. It lasted for no longer than two minutes, however, for then Aholi took its fat head off. None had expected anything else. What creature could kill an Archon? The children of the empress were demigods, above all but the empress herself. Aulus felt like they were unstoppable, invincible when their father was with them. When he led them victory could be the only path. “I see you’re still alive then brother,” Ulvus said. His brother – formerly cousin – had come up close to him.“I am happy to see you to Ulvus,” Aulus remarked.Ulvus laughed. “I’m sure I’ll kill twice as many as you.”Aulus was planning to say that he doubted that, but before he could there was a noise. A thundering explosion. They spun around.“What by the lord?” Ulvus exclaimed. “Are they behind us?”There was another explosion, an eruption of fire that threw earth into the air. Then there was another, then ten. Each obliterated countless brothers and it took a good moment before he understood what had happened. It increased as could be seen striking the entire field. “Get to cover!” Lucky yelled.Bombardment. It was a planetary bombardment. And it was right atop of them. Every second thousands died. It tore the earthworks and cement bunkers apart. There was nowhere to hide. It crept onward and ravaged every inch of the bloodied ground. Aulus and Ulvus attempted to run but with a nearby impact, it threw them. Aulus’s body was broken when he landed, his power armour a skeletal frame. He couldn’t move and every muscle hurt beyond anything he’d felt before. He heard screaming and explosions. Blood filled his throat. He tried to understand what had happened, but his mind failed him and his vision blackened. Was this the end of the Twentieth? He managed a prayer for the empress to preserve Ulvus. He must live, they couldn’t both die on Beravon....
Shayna, Genie, Heather, Candi: Realignment“We are gathered here, in Empire City’s grandest cathedral, to pay respects to Cherry Stone. This non-denominational service has been opened to all people who wish to pay their respects…” Candi sat on the front edge of one of the cathedral’s pews. Her oversized calves pressed into the seat, eliciting groans from the wooden panel as they crushed into it. Standing there as the investigators scraped every bit of Cherry’s nanite fluid off of me was the hardest thing I’ve ever done, she thought. Will anyone ever talk to me again, or will I be all alone? “We have all seen the footage multiple times,” The bishop said as he was flanked by other religious representatives. “Cherry gave her life to prevent a dictator from creating his empire. Imagine if Napoleon or Hitler had been stopped in a similar fashion. Countless lives could have been saved. The enormity of her sacrifice is that it touches all lives, everywhere on earth. We will, thankfully, never know the full extent of his plans, and that is for the best.” I wonder what happened to Hackerman, Candi thought. He seemed to have vanished. The rabbi took over the podium and looked at Candi, “We bear no malice towards the Goddess whom Cherry served, as no other force on earth could have served to prevent the global tragedy which would have surely occurred. Earth’s greatest superheroine chose to end her physical existence and to consign her soul to the safekeeping of her Goddess, Candi’s, omnipotent form. While I am not one of her followers, I know that a great many here are. Out of respect to them, to Cherry, and to Her,” He bowed his head toward Candi. “I ask that all who can hear my voice bow their heads and give a silent prayer to the symbol of Candi’s divinity, her all-powerful biceps.” Candi felt dizzy as the rush of emotions and prayers came toward her. Her eyes momentarily lost focus as people’s words echoed. I can hear all of them, individually, Candi thought. How could I do that? It must be one of those divine abilities that I wasn’t told about. Her pulse echoed, a thumping bass that was louder than the din of the crowd. Candi’s muscles responded to the onslaught of attention by expanding. The flagstone floor cracked beneath her as she bounded into the aisle. It’s really hard to hold back on my strength when everyone is pumping me up like this. She had her magical armor taking on the form of Comet Girl’s bikini, with the addition of the blazing comet emblem looking like it was painted in black and white over her protruding biceps and their pulsing veins. “I’ve been asked to give a short statement,” Candi announced as she looked out at the sea of faces. Wow, that’s a lot of television cameras, she thought. Why aren’t the studio lights hurting my eyes? “I’ve been asked to give a short statement. Just like many others, I’d been a fan of Comet Girl. Being asked to stand in for her when needed was the greatest honor I’d ever received. We had joked about being twins, except for the hair color and height difference, as well as the slight differences between our physiques,” She smiled slightly as she thought about their conversations. “I don’t want to make anyone listen to a long speech, so I won’t. My biceps sense and acknowledge your heartfelt prayers and offer you their support, comfort and protection. They can also feel Cherry’s presence within them and beyond this plane of existence. If anyone ever questioned whether or not she was truly alive as part of her nanite-created form, the answer is yes. Machines and androids don’t have souls. Cherry did.” Candi stood silently as the crowd slowly filed past her, with each person either tapping or kissing her biceps peak. She blinked past a tear as Cherry’s parents, along with her friends and teachers went by. * * * * * Meanwhile, in the faerie realm, Genie slowly raised and lowered an enormous barbell. The bar and circular plates were jet black and appeared to house incandescent galaxies within them. She pulled it upwards until the bar barely touched her protruding biceps each time. “Something is wrong here.” The nymph frowned and held the barbell out at arm’s length with one hand. “This should weigh at least several thousands of tons. Why is it weightless today?” The glowing chains looked thin and weak. “If I keep pushing the spell this hard, I’ll break it, and the feedback could kill her majesty. I’ll have to ask for some new weights.” She put the barbell down casually, causing the ground to shudder. “Well! Maybe not completely weightless… still, I really must get something heavier from the queen.” She left her mountaintop exercise location and ran to Queen Gouda’s castle. * * * * * “Oh my,” Gouda said as she paced across the crystal floor of her grand chamber. The train of her embroidered robe swept across the floor. “This is a problem that I cannot fathom the solution to.” The dark blue elf heard a familiar, low pitched thumping sound. She could also feel it vibrating every inch of her body. “Hello, Iphigenia. Please come in.” The nymph entered the throne room and curtsied gracefully. “Your humble servant seeks an audience with you, your Majesty.” “Of course you may enter,” Gouda replied. “You are one of my most trusted lieutenants, after all.” The nymph’s feet thumped on the floor as she crossed to the center of the chamber. She stopped about a foot from the Queen, her quadriceps widening and relaxing as she shifted her weight from foot to foot. Her chiseled abdominals flexed with each breath, while her breasts, easily twice the diameter of the elf’s, rose and fell with each breath. “May I please have some more powerful enchanted weights? The spells on the ones I have provide so little resistance that I cannot feel anything when I use them. I’m afraid that if I tried to exert any effort with my biceps, I’d break your spells.” “I spent a great deal of effort in enchanting them,” Gouda replied. “Their magic is based on the most powerful restraint spells I know of. All that I would be able to do would be to duplicate the existing dweomers multiple times, and that would strain the magma flow’s power so much that it would cool and solidify.” “Is there another source of magical energy that you could draw upon?” Genie asked. “I really must grow stronger, and it feels so good to have my muscles challenged. Maybe your apprentices or the city’s magicians could all be ordered to add their magic to the enchantments?” Gouda gave a half-smile, “I do not wish to see all of them killed by the backlash when you break their spells.” She sat a hand onto one of Genie’s protruding bicep peaks, “I do wish that I could provide you with additional enchantments, but I fear that I cannot even maintain those which I now have. My ability to channel the magma flow’s power to enable my spells has been sabotaged. I am certain that it was done by the Wizard’s Guild. If I were to lose the source of power for my spells, the kingdom would be easy to conquer.” “Then we must find another source of power for you!” Genie frowned. “Your kingdom cannot be left defenseless. Perhaps that source can be me!” She flexed the bicep Gouda’s hand was on, making it rumble to life and lift the elf into the air. “If my biceps are too powerful for all of your kingdom’s magicians to oppose, then they surely must be able to aid your spells.” Genie saw that she had Gouda raised from the ground and relaxed her arm back down. “I apologize for my overzealousness. Sometimes I feel like my biceps have a mind of their own.” “I… I thank them for their offer,” Gouda replied. “I cannot accept such a service from them… you… unless I know that they are fully up to the task. The strain of powering all of my enchantments, my mystical fortifications and my spells would have to be beneath their notice.” “Why, your Majesty!” Genie put her hands on her hips. “Are you worried about me?” “Shifting all of the enchantments, as well as aligning myself with a new source, is not something to be taken lightly,” Gouda replied. “It would involve rituals that would sever my connection with the deep earth, and bind me mystically and spiritually to… your biceps. The kingdom itself would be an extension of their power. Are you sure that they are capable of this? If they aren’t, all would be lost, the kingdom, it’s people,” she sat a hand on her breastbone. “and my life.” “You are wise, your majesty. I shouldn’t offer that so casually.” Genie thought. “Can you reconnect to the magma? Is this temporary?” “Once I break the connection, the land will not allow me to summon it’s power again,” Gouda answered. “As things stand now, my ability to draw upon the earth diminishes by the day, so maintaining my connection will become meaningless soon enough. I don’t have time to learn how they have mystically poisoned my enchantments. They will signal their attack as soon as they can tell that the kingdom is too weak to oppose them.” Genie took a deep breath to calm herself. Her breasts pushed forward over Queen Gouda’s head for a moment before she exhaled again. “Then I will do whatever I must in your service, your majesty. Is there any way we can know for sure that my strength is enough to support the kingdom?” Remember, she’s a nymph, Gouda thought. Showing off is as important to her as breathing is to me. “My strongest foe remains the incorrigible elf whom you visit so often,” the Queen replied. “Her strength matches that of my most powerful spells. The wish-granting genie empowered her so that she could be a heroine by being able to oppose the sovereign of her family’s homeland.” The elf sighed, “The actions that I must take as Queen often go against her moral code, so she constantly thwarts my plans. If any of your muscles can even notice her best efforts, then they would not be able to effortlessly provide for me and my kingdom.” “Shayna?” The nymph smiled. “That would be fun. I don’t bear her any ill will, but it would be the best for both of you if I reminded her of the dangers of opposing you. Can you find her for me, your majesty?” “I can create a portal to her current location,” Gouda replied. “I cannot order her death without good reason, so I ask that you leave her alive. She is my subject, even if providing for her pains me.” She grinned, “It would be beneficial if she were your servant, even if she cannot be mine.” * * * * * Back on earth, Candi paused as she stood at the end of the driveway. “I’m at Alice and Max’ home. It used to be Cherry’s…” She paused as she felt a tingle down her spine. Candi turned to see a winged woman in white descending to the ground. Angel’s voice was a musical, soft alto. “I’m glad you came,” she said. “Max and Alice deserve what comfort you can provide them.” She tossed her mane of blonde hair and turned her glowing cobalt eyes to gaze into Candi’s face. “And what about you? How are you holding up?” Candi paused to think for a second. She laced her fingers together in front of her, causing her biceps to bump each other, “It hasn’t been easy. Every time someone looks at me, I imagine them blaming me for Cherry’s death.” Angel nodded. “I am certain many do, even as they understand the necessity,” she said. “Does that trouble you?” “It was one of those awful, evil thought traps that gets talked about,” Candi replied. “What if you have to kill one person to save many others. That Cherry forced my biceps to… instantly destroy her,” Candi sniffed. “Is the only thing that makes it bearable.” Angel reached out and laid her fingertips over Candi’s protruding biceps. “It was Cherry’s decision,” she said slowly. “I don’t know if she considered how it would affect you, but I’m certain she was at peace with her choice.” She breathed in, then out again, slowly, through her nose, then put just a hair more pressure into her fingertip-touch. Candi separated her hands and carefully changed her stance so that her arms were at her sides. She took a half step backwards to avoid having the peaks of her biceps bump Angel. “I can feel it here,” Angel said, maintaining the touch for a second longer before withdrawing her hand. “I’m able to sense her spirit as a tiny memory, a slight tingle inside of my biceps, like her soul has become part of their power,” Candi looked at her biceps’ peak. “I cannot speak with her. I don’t know how.” She took a small breath, “I’m nervous about what she might say, and afraid that I’d fully absorb her by reflex if I felt threatened.” She looked at Angel, “Can you communicate with her?” Angel concentrated, her brow lightly furrowed. She reached out again and touched Candi’s bicep once more, then shook her head. “Beyond how she feels, I can’t. Her spirit is not forming ordered thoughts for me to sense.” “Could you help me to speak to her?” Candi asked, “Are you prohibited from doing that?” Angel shook her head. “I do not believe the creator would wish for any of his creations to suffer needlessly. If it is in my power, I will always help.” “Knowing that she’s in peace is enough, then,” Candi gingerly started along the walkway to the front door. “Would you be able to knock for me? I don’t trust myself with physical contact right now. All of the attention has my muscles pumped so that I can barely keep my strength down to non-destructive levels.” Angel nodded. “Of course,” she said, stepping up to the door and rapping twice with her knuckles before stepping back. Cherry’s father, Max, opened the door and stepped aside, “Angel… Goddess.” He sat his hand on the side of Candi’s bicep as she entered, then gave its peak a quick kiss.” Thank you for coming.” “I couldn’t ignore you in your time of need,” Candi said. “I should be thanking you for allowing me into your home.” “My heart tells me that Cherry sacrificed herself… for the greater good.” Max replied, “Is she there?” He squeezed his fingers against her bicep. Angel nodded. “She is at peace with her decision, if that helps you,” she added, then deferred to Candi. “Is Alice up to seeing me?” Candi asked, “I’d be happy to visit if she were.”* * * * * Early next morning, Candi was seated on one of the rocks of the beach’s jetty when she heard Kat say, “Goddess?” Candi got up and looked to see her, along with a few of her other friends, “I didn’t hear any of you walking up. I must have been a bit lost in thought.” “We could have been a gang sent to toss a net over you and kidnap you,” Cindy said. “I’m sure there’s gotta be someone out there that would pay for it. I’ve learned from movies that no one is capable of escaping from a flimsy net.” “Victims also always help their captors to pull burlap bags over them,” Candi replied. “Uh, how did you find me here?” “Angel suggested you might have headed this way,” Kat admitted. “I accosted her this morning.” “I kind of suspected that she’d be into that kind of thing,” Candi said. “Uh… what sort of thing, Goddess?” Kat asked, a little archly. “The more reserved someone is in public, the more interesting they are when in private,” Candi said. “Am I right?” Kat scrunched up her face. “Ew!” she exclaimed. “That’s my sister!” “Does that mean she’s even more straight-laced when no-one’s looking?” Candi asked. “You two really are polar opposites, aren’t you?” “That would cast me as a kind of shoulder devil,” Kat replied. Sadie cleared her throat, “That role’s been taken,” she said, tapping her index finger on the cleavage between her pecs. “You could be my minion that I’ve sent out to tempt the goddess, though, if you want.” “It would be fun to actually have someone sitting there tempting me,” Candi said. “Well, I didn’t want to press you for anything big,” Kat said, “but you do still owe me more show-offs than I can calculate on a scientific calculator.” “You’d also be too easy a target for temptation to do mischief,” Sadie said. “Both you and Cindy.” “It really means a lot to me for all of you to find me here,” Candi sniffed and wiped her nose on the tiny strip of fabric that went over her shoulder. “Cherry’s favorite activities are teasing people by ‘mistake’,” She held her fingers in air quotes. “Rollerblading and posing on the beach.” “Um, why are you referring to her in the present tense?” Cindy asked.“ I can sort of feel her presence,” Candi replied. “That’s why my biceps have stayed so ‘pumped’.” Kat poked a finger against Candi’s bicep, “Do you mean figuratively, or is her spirit really inside of here?” “I’m not an expert on metaphysics,” Candi said. “But I’m positive that I feel her there. I don’t know what will happen next. Does she go elsewhere? Does she stay?’ She thought, Do my biceps absorb her? Candi shivered. She looked from person to person, “You all saw what happened, right?” “I didn’t see it live,” Sadie admitted, “but I caught the replay that evening.” “What should we do about Comet Girl?” Candi asked, “Does anyone put on the costume to continue the good deeds of the world’s mightiest superheroine?” Kat frowned. “Would any one person be able to?” she asked. “Even you, Goddess?” “I was only asked to be a stand-in so that Cherry would be able to take some time off,” Candi answered. “I don’t have her wide array of abilities.” “I think…” Sadie began, then paused and changed directions. “I don’t think anyone is going to be fooled into believing any of us are actually Cherry just because we wear some version of her costume. Donning her colors would be more to honor her spirit, wouldn’t it?” “Heather’s been doing that for the past few years,” Cindy replied. “I think it best that we continue to try to live up to her example by aiding others whenever possible.” She sat her fingertips on one of Candi’s biceps’ peaks, “I assume that you already have your followers do that because of her.” “I hadn’t thought of it that way,” Candi replied. “It just seemed right.” “I can see that you’re still acting a little self-consciously,” Cindy said. “None of us are blaming you. There would have had to have been malice for there to be a need for blame. Cherry wasn’t stupid. She chose the only way she could to stop the villain from becoming a conqueror. Maybe she knew that your biceps would accept her soul when they destroyed her form.” “But…” Candi stammered, “I can think of other ways that he could have been stopped. Ivey could have taken Cherry through a portal to the faerie realm. Heather could have held her inside of a force-bubble…” “Were either of them there?” Sadie asked. “I mean, Heather is still MIA and I needed Ivey to get me to him. I thought about what would have happened if you and I traded places… a lot of people would be dead. And even if Ivey had stayed, do you think that Hackerman didn’t do his homework? I doubt he’d have just followed a dryad through a gateway or not used Cherry’s hyperspeed flight to avoid being captured.” “I’ve gone through the events so many times in my head,” Candi said. “I’m sure that something else could have been done. I just can’t think of it.” “I’m the one who plays at being a brilliant mastermind, and I don’t see any other way things could have worked out,” Cindy said. “I think that Heather or Sadie may have been able to go toe-to-toe with Cherry, but it would be a fifty-fifty chance of winning, with a lot of painful injuries and collateral damage happening.” Kat pursed her lips. “Even if something else could have been done, it might not have been better. You’re trying to armchair quarterback an event you were field quarterbacking at the time,” she said. “We accept you did what needed to be done in the moment. Cherry accepted it. Now, I guess you’ve got to give yourself time to let you accept it.” I’m kind of glad it wasn’t me for another reason, Sadie thought. Killing anyone is a sin and I’m not sure I could come back from that. “Knowing that Cherry is safe, protected within the metaphorical space of your biceps, is reassuring, Goddess,” Cindy leaned in to kiss Candi’s peak. “Your actions are just, and we will not abandon you.” I need to continue to meet that level of expectation, Candi thought. “You are right. I cannot shirk my responsibilities. I enjoy being a friend to each of you, but I’m not a superheroine, per se. I’m a Goddess, and I have to accept that there will be times where I must act as one.” * * * * * Shayna had just climbed out of the lake and onto a stone ledge when Genie stepped out of Queen Gouda’s portal. The low angle of the sun’s rays highlighted the blonde elf’s lean and chiseled figure. Her bobbed hair nearly glowed in the light while water droplets rolled down between her breasts and along the furrow between her paired sets of abdominals. “Shayna! Hello!” The nymph smiled. “I must ask you for a favor. You are an experienced warrior, are you not?” “I should hope that I am,” the elf replied. “My main area of expertise is in fighting monsters. What could I do that you won’t be able to accomplish easier? Do you need someone to face one of the Queen’s enemies without anyone knowing who sent them?” Shayna concentrated and gestured, so that green motes of light surrounded her. Water flowed off of her in a sheet. She pulled her shirt on and picked up her skirt. Genie applauded. “Very impressive,” she complimented Shayna. “No, I actually need you to fight me. Her Majesty needs a new source of power for her magic, and we must make sure that I am strong enough that her strongest spells will be completely harmless to me if I am to be that source; And your muscles are as strong as her magic.” Shayna walked over to Genie, stopping a couple of yards away. She looked up to the nymph, “You’ve never done any fighting,” She replied. “It’s not in your nature. How would your skill in combat relate to her using you as a power source? Doesn’t she have that entire volcano to draw upon to supply her with energy for her magic?” “Hmmm, how to say this… the volcano will not do for her majesty anymore. However, I am confident that my own strength is equal to or greater than it! You are right that fighting is not in my nature, however.” Genie stood up straight, pushed out her chest, and held her superhumanly muscular arms out to her sides. “I won’t hit you at all. All I ask is that you try to harm me, using any methods you can think of.” “Won’t that just test your resiliency?” Shayna stepped closer and poked a finger at one of Genie’s stacked abdominals.” “This is a little more complicated than I thought,” Genie said. “I hope that you don’t mind this, but I need to be sure that your best efforts against my strength aren’t enough for my muscles to even notice. I won’t be able to power our Queen’s magic otherwise,” She paused for a second to think. “You needn’t worry. Her Majesty made me promise to not kill you on purpose.” “That doesn’t sound too comforting,” Shayna replied. “The kingdom’s future depends on it,” Genie said. “My biceps in particular are very eager to toy with you. I fear that it will take my full concentration to hold them back.” Shayna swallowed hard as her eyes opened even wider than they normally did, “That is very… reassuring…” “I think that we should start with something simple,” Genie holds her hand out in front of her, with her fingers curled inwards and her thumb pointing up. “Thumb wrestling?” Shayna asked. “It is the ultimate test of physical prowess,” Genie paused for a few seconds. “It isn’t, but we had to start somewhere. It wouldn’t really test my strength against yours. Let’s start with something simple. I want you to punch me as hard as you can.” Shayna snorted. “In the ear?” “Why the ear?” Genie blinked, sparking a guffaw of laughter and snickers from Shayna. “Perfect!” Shayna’s shoulder and arm muscles bunched up as she sent a blurring haymaker into the side of Genie’s head. The force of the blow knocked Genie a few feet to the side, “Hey! You could have warned me!” “I did,” Shayna protested, shaking out her knuckles. “Why did you think I asked?” “At least you’re being polite about it,” Genie replied. “I don’t want you angry at me,” Shayna admitted. “I think I’m going to need to put more effort into this. Why do you want me hitting you, anyways?” “Strength is related to resilience,” Genie paused to think, I also want you to learn not to oppose the Queen’s servant. She sat her hands on her hips. “Now I’m ready, so do whatever you like. Please don’t hold back.” Shayna nodded, “This still feels odd to me.” She spun around into a roundhouse kick. Her calves, quadriceps and hamstrings expanded into chiseled definition in the split-second her action took. Genie was pushed a few inches across the floor by the impact, while the elf staggered back. “Are you sure that’s the hardest you can hit me? My abs didn’t even notice,” Genie said. “Isn’t that what you expected?” Shayna winced as she set her foot onto the ground. “You hunt monsters for a living,” Genie said. Shouldn’t you be used to striking opponents?” “Golems have more give than your muscles do,” Shayna replied. “Thank you,” Genie said. “I don’t want to have to hurt you… do you have any weapons with you?” She looked down at the stone ledge they were both standing on. “If you want, you could hit me with this.” Shayna glanced down and then back at Genie, “Would it be any different from punching or kicking you?” Genie tilted her head from side to side. “It probably wouldn’t hurt your fists as much,” she offered. * * * * *“Huh?” Heather looked up from the oversized tome that was floating in front of her, “Good morning Earth Goddess.” “How did you know it was me?” Candi asked as she stepped into the room. The book vanished as Heather closed it. She stood up from where she was sitting on her dormitory room’s floor and faced Candi. “Your pulse echoes the same as mine does and you are terrible at stealth,” She sat a hand onto Candi’s bicep peak. “These enter the room before you do. You also rumbled the walls when you tapped on the doorframe.” “I’m kinda distracted, so I forgot to go lightly,” Candi said. “Do you have a few minutes? There’s something I’d like to talk to you about; official Goddess business.” “So you know that Zeus didn’t strip everything from me?” Heather asked. “If he really was a total jerk, he’d not have kept his position,” Candi replied. “The titans would have empowered someone and sent them to kill him. You’d be the Queen of the Gods. I think your appearance before him was a bit of a wake-up. You’d have to ask Nyx to get the inside scoop. When I tried talking to her, I was kind of brushed off.” “What did you want to discuss?” Heather asked. “I don’t know how to tell Principal Leonard and Headmistress Crowley about the dreams I’ve been having,” Candi said. “I’m expected to be an authority figure, so it could come across weirdly for me to ask them for advice.” “Do your aspects include infinite wisdom, foresight, and knowledge?” Heather asked. “You know, that’s not the first time someone’s pointed that out to me, lately,” Candi chuckled. “I wake up from nightmares, covered in sweat. I’m having vivid dreams about torturing and killing my friends with my biceps.” “Is it always your biceps?” Heather asked, then shook her head. “That’s probably irrelevant.” “They’re my metaphysical foci of power,” Candi answered. “Maybe it would be my boobs if I were a fertility goddess.” “Fertility would be lower down; boobs is lust,” Heather noted off-handedly. “Are you having second-thoughts about being chosen for ascendance?” “I like having the responsibility,” Candi replied. “Overall, it is a lot of fun. I get a bit of a head rush when someone close prays to me. I hope that never goes away.” “It didn’t when I wore the mantle,” Heather admitted. “In fact, it sort of still hasn’t.” “Okay, but,” Candi said, “how do I bring this- I mean my dreams- up with the profs?” “You’re a Goddess seeking the advice of sages,” Heather said. “It is a hallmark of benevolent deities to not be overly arrogant.” “There’s something else I wanted to discuss with you,” Candi looked away for a second. “It’s about Cherry. You were her closest friend, so what happened had to be very difficult for you.” “I felt her spirit momentarily, so I knew something had happened.” Heather said. “I also saw the video footage several times.” She swallowed hard, “You were put into an impossible situation. It would be victim-blaming to be angry at you.” Heather squeezed her fingers against Candi’s peak. “We were fortunate that it was you who Cherry went to face first. She wasn’t stupid. Being overly idealistic does not mean that one is naive.” Heather paused for a second, “Being destroyed instantaneously by a twitch of your biceps was a lot more merciful than her choosing to engage in a drawn out fight with everyone else at once.” “It was a little more than a twitch,” Candi said. “The former was a guaranteed outcome,” Heather continued, “while the second wasn’t. You don’t have to be shy about your abilities. It was common knowledge that your biceps easily outclassed her. Why do you think she used them?” Candi nodded, “It’s still a bit much to accept.” “I can feel her presence in them,” Heather said. “She’s not angry. She’s comforted.” “I think we should visit the main office,” Candi replied. “I’ve had the schools’ leaders waiting on me… Thanks.” Looking back on it, Candi thought. It really did feel good splattering Cherry. She opened her eyes wide and looked around quickly. Did I just think that? * * * * * The Headmistress’ study, located adjacent to the administrative offices in the SIAA, was warmly and comfortably furnished, with a thick, soft carpet and deep plush chairs and sofas. Instead of a desk, Headmistress Crowley had a large, round coffee table in dark wood and several filing cabinets that blended unobtrusively into the walls. The lighting was indirect, but bright enough to be comfortable. The headmistress, herself, was a tall woman who appeared to be an athletic mid-sixties, although Heather privately suspected she was much older than that. She smiled at her visitors. “Heather, Goddess Candi,” she said, “please, enter and be welcome.” Heather nodded her head, “Thank you, Headmistress.” She turned to the room’s other occupant. “Principal Leonard.” She sat on the center of a sofa, making sure to be directly over it’s legs. It would be really embarrassing to break her furniture, Heather thought. Odd things like that come to mind. Candi paused at the doorway, “I’m glad that all of you were able to come here at short notice.” She took a path to the center of the room that allowed each of those present to tap the side of her biceps, “Something has come up that I need help with.” She looked to the Principal and then to the Headmistress, “I’ve been having bizarre dreams, which haven’t happened in the past. I’m also having disturbing thoughts during the day. That’s why we’re here. I’m not the Goddess of psychologists, after all. I’m not omniscient.” “I suspect Mr Leonard will be of more assistance if this matter is psychological in nature,” the Headmistress confessed. “My own insights tend to be a bit more esoteric, although I will deploy them in your service as best I may.” Turn down my awe powers, Candi thought. “I’ve never dreamed of dominating anyone in the past…” Her cheeks tinged pink, “other than my plush-toy boyfriend; but I”ve been having bizarre, violent dreams…” She repeated the scenes that had played out in her head concerning her friends. Candi shook her head, “Those are not normal. I really don't think that way.” The headmistress looked over at Principal Leonard, deferring to his expertise. The man cocked his head and steepled his fingers as he thought, “I’m not a clinician, so I won’t profess to be the ultimate authority. Everyone’s mind has a tendency to wander. It is natural to explore one’s possibilities. One explanation could be that your subconscious is evaluating the darker aspects of your abilities.” He slid forward on the seat, “Having realistic details in your ponderings stands out to me as unusual. You don’t float, glide or fly in your imaginings. There’s no impossible-for-you actions occurring.” He looked at Ms. Crowley, “People don’t tend to have dreams that leave the fantastic out of the mundane world. I can’t imagine why someone who has unearthly abilities would leave other ones out of their fantasies. For anyone else, I would suggest taking time to come to terms with their body’s changes. When it’s involving someone with a Goddess’ abilities, it may be best to think outside of the normal. Regular people don’t undergo things like mind control or demonic possession, but supremely empowered individuals might. In Candi’s case, it would be wise to consider the outlandish.” “It would not be entirely unwise, in that case,” Ms. Crowley mused, “to perform a ritual. With your permission, of course, goddess.” “Uh, what does this involve?” Candi asked. “Am I going to be suspended, floating naked in the air on my back?” “I only do that for sanguine rituals,” Crowley responded in a tone that could only be described as arid. “Somehow, I suspect that my athame would blunt before it drew any blood from you.” “Too bad,” Candi muttered. “Which part are you disappointed about?” Heather asked. “Both, really.” “You wanted to be exsanguinated?” Crowley asked. “Nah,” Candi replied. “Levitating would be fun, and it would be a disservice to others to not show off.” “I would not give you permission to upload one of my rituals to your online site, in any case,” Madame Crowley said; “there’s too much potential for foolish people to attempt to replicate the spells with disastrous consequences. I hope that your followers will not be disheartened in not seeing a few moments of your daily life.” She allowed her eyes to lose focus for a moment as she spoke with Wiggins, her familiar: Fetch Jacob and Falstaff; I will need them directly in my workroom. Candi thought for a second, “I could set up a sleep-cam. It would be kinda sad if it got more views than any television programs.” “Someday, you may wish to have some uninterrupted privacy,” Crowley pointed out. “Your worshippers will be less distressed if you begin setting boundaries now, in advance of your needs.” She looked at Principal Leonard, “Sidney, would you please attend the proceedings?” “I’m not a magician,” he replied, “so what would I be doing?” “You’d be a calming influence for Candi, someone she could focus on in case we’re all too busy in the ritual.” Madame Crowley said. “She would be at least as dangerous physically as Heather is magically if she were to become agitated.” She rose from her seat, “The chamber will be ready when we arrive.” They were greeted by the headmistress’s raven familiar, a thick-set tabby cat, and a bespectacled man in his late forties with salt-and-pepper hair. The man smiled graciously at Madame Crowley, then nodded to the rest of her guests as they passed him on their way into the room. The runes of a protective ritual circle were inlaid into the wooden floor in polished silver. A simple workbench and shelves of books, reagents, and glass and metal implements were the only items inside the room. “Mistress Hall,” The Headmistress looked at Heather, “as a master abjurist, you are to concentrate your efforts on protecting us from whatever Powers we may encounter, outside actors, and our subject.” She looked in turn to the other magician, the raven and the cat, “Jacob, Wiggins and Falstaff already know their roles.” Until Crowley spoke, Candi hadn’t realized that a bird could actually look smug, but Wiggins somehow managed it as he flew to one side of the circle, opposite the large cat. “All that you have to do is to sit inside the circle,” Heather pointed to the center of the room. “We’ll be doing the work. Please don’t try to resist the spells, as the feedback could be dangerous and destructive.” She looked at Crowley, “You’ve changed the inscriptions and the inlay. They look a lot more… robust.” “The original wards were designed for mortal students,” the headmistress explained. “Since you have become my pupil, I thought it wise to create a recursive ward capable of channeling much greater power. I hope it will be sufficient for our needs.” She paused, “I do not need an overpowered and somewhat inexperienced sorceress leveling the campus because of a miscalculation.” Heather blushed, “I understand. My arcane actions are equivalently powered to my physical ones.” Madame Crowley nodded and patted Heather’s hand. “It is not meant as a criticism, my dear. Merely an observation.” She sat on a short hassock at the edge of the circle. Heather interrupted Principal Leonard as he was about to speak, “You can use the desk chair behind me. It’s the safest location.” She knelt behind one of the inlaid runes, as much as her oversized calves and hamstrings allowed her to. Heather spoke a quick incantation to summon her staff. It hovered in front of her, made in three non-touching sections with a glowing gem floating inside the shepherd’s crook. “I need just a moment to set the wards in place,” Heather said as she assumed her meditative position, with her arms held parallel to the floor and bent in front of her. She slightly flexed her biceps, resulting in their peaks meeting in front of her as she concentrated. Both her’s and Candi’s pulse echoed in the room. “The shimmering around you is a protective barrier.” She announced, “It’s able to resist my physical strength, so no earthly force should be able to harm you.” “I could be the sole survivor of an Armageddon if it were to occur now,” Principal Leonard tapped at the translucent barrier. Madame Crowley looked down at the floor, then raised her eyes to look directly across the circle at Jacob, seeming to look through Candi as she did so. She opened her mouth and began murmuring in a low, guttural language, the power building through the words as the chant continued.” “Ancient, dead or obscure languages are used for incantations as they remind the practitioners of the importance of using exact wording and diction,” Heather said. “Madam Crowley’s preferred tongue is Old Russian. Jacob prefers Ancient Greek.” She paused, “Latin is passé.” The chanting grew more intense and, periodically, Jacob joined in, adding his voice to accent percussive words, creating a nearly musical effect. As the chanting reached its climax, there was a ripple of energy, almost like static electricity, and a figure appeared above Candi in the air. The nude torso of a man wearing a tragedy/comedy mask formed out of mist and coalesced darkness. ‘Do you really seek to draw me out so that you can face my full might, witch?’ He glared at Madam Crowley as his voice echoed in the minds of everyone in attendance. He pivoted to face Candi, ‘How does it feel to confront one who is immune to physical effects? You have no defense against the power of the mind!’ “Master Abjurist Heather,” The Headmistress croaked. “Can you contain this entity?” “I’ve only devised magics to deal with physical and blatant energy,” Heather replied. “I never thought I’d need anything like this. I’ve never known anyone to actually use mental attacks. I didn’t know they actually existed.” “We must divine our answers quickly, then,” Crowley said. “We must banish him before he becomes too powerful to contain.” ‘Ha-ha-ha!’ he swooped around the periphery of the magical circle, ‘Lord Fear is more ancient and more subtle than your human sorcery.’ “And more boastful,” Jacob murmured from across the room. ‘Do you volunteer to be my next target?’ Lord Fear asked. ‘We Ch’thon enjoy the nuances of different beings’ fear as delicacies.’ Candi stood up and backed away from the apparition. The air in back of her glowed as she pressed against the edge of the magic circle’s protection. “Goddess!” Heather shouted, “Don’t push against the barrier. Your frightened strength is enough to overcome it… The backlash will incinerate the coven.” “He’s the one from my nightmares,” Candi said. “I can feel Cherry’s recognition of him. She’s faced him before.” “He’s no remembered threat,” Crowley grated. “His presence is very real.” Falstaff bared his teeth and hissed, with Wiggins translating, “Amplifying someone’s personal tragedy to cause them psychic pain is among the worst things that anyone can do,” He ruffled his feathers and cawed a couple of times. “There are few actions that I could imagine which would be more vile. Were he the most delectable appearing weevil I’d ever seen, I’d sooner eat from Falstaff’s litter box.” “Too bad ending the ritual won’t just dispel him,” Jacob said. “Heather?” Madam Crowley asked. “I’ve got something!” She hopped to her feet. Heather planted the butt end of her staff into the stone floor with a ‘Chunk!’. Her muscles swelled as she concentrated.” “Did she choose isometric exercises as her concentration technique because they felt natural to her or because she needs to show off?” Jacob asked quietly. “She thrives on attention; awe and lust,” Madam Crowley said. “If I didn’t know better, I’d think that she had fae nymph ancestry.” I can hear what they’re saying, Heather thought for a split-second before she began her gestures and incantations. Her cut-off shorts split up along the sides as her thighs grew, while her sleeveless t-shirt gained runs and splits. Silvery tendrils appeared in the air, looking to originate in infinity. They coiled together into cables that wrapped around Lord Fear’s apparition. Heather’s pulse was nearly deafening as she said, “This should hold him. It’s not elegant. I’m using brute force to create a containment.” Beads of sweat rolled down her form as she clenched her teeth and hyperflexed in effort. The peaks of her biceps plunged into the reinforced concrete ceiling, sending cracks radiating out from the impact points as she lifted the weight of the multi-story structure. The edges of the chamber’s ceiling lifted from the walls. “Got him!” Lord Fear’s apparition snarled curses and threats as it was dragged into the aether. “I don’t know how long it will take for him to figure out a way to escape. I doubt he’ll be able to overpower his prison,” Heather said. As she started to relax her biceps, lowering the ceiling, Madame Crowley shouted over the echoing pulse, “Mistress Heather, It might be a good idea for you to magically reinforce the building until Jacob and I could work some repair spells. Thousands of tons of stone might be meaningless to you, but I’d rather not meet my end should the ceiling collapse.” Heather looked around at the magicians and the principal. “I’ve never ‘flexed out’ around any of you before. I’m really not trying to intimidate or dominate anyone. I’m also being careful, since there’s people on the other floors that I’m holding up.” She kept one of her biceps hyperflexed enough to support the ceiling as she slowly lowered it and used her free hand to work a protection spell to support the building’s weight. The ground shook as the building settled into place. She couldn’t help but to smirk as she thought, I’ll never not enjoy having people in awe of me. * * * * * “Okay,” Genie laced her fingers together and extended her hands out in front of herself, palms forward. “I’m nearly convinced that I’d be able to be a source of power for Her Majesty’s spells.” “Does that mean my input is no longer required,” Shayna asked. “It looks like my passive defenses are enough to ignore your attacks,” Genie replied. “I’m a bit disappointed in that, to tell you the whole truth. Since you’re a monster hunter, I expected you to have some kinds of special attacks that would surprise me. While I really do want to provide the Queen with the energy she needs, it would have been fun to have to flex even a tiny bit to withstand your kicks or punches.” “I could come back after spending some time practicing,” Shayna said. “In earth-realm entertainment, there would be a training montage. Another thing their stories always seem to have involves finding a reluctant teacher to learn a secret fighting technique from.” Genie pursed her lips and sat a finger on her chin, “We don’t have any time for that, since a new power source is needed by the end of the day.” “Oh?” Shayna asked, “Why is that?” “Since we’ve been friends, I can tell you as long as you give your word not to reveal it until Gouda goes through the necessary rituals,” Genie said. “A secret loses its appeal if it isn’t revealed, so I cannot ask you to keep it to yourself permanently.” “I promise to tell no one until it is too late for anyone to take advantage of it,” the elf replied. “Now that you are honor-bound, I can reveal what’s been needing to get out,” Genie said. “The Wizards’ Guild has sabotaged the volcano. Queen Gouda is unable to draw power from it. They will be sure to attack once they are sure that she’s unable to work her higher-tier magic.” “Without her spells, the kingdom would be overrun,” Shayna added. Genie nodded, “I cannot allow that to happen, so I need to be her power source. She refuses to change her mystical connections without being sure of the outcome, since it may not be reversible.” “What are the requirements for the job?” Shayna asked. “She said that I’d be unsuitable if drawing enough magic from me to resist the actions of her primary menace would be noticeable to me,” Genie replied. “That’s why I have to be sure that your best efforts won’t require any noticeable effort for my muscles to overcome.” Shayna frowned, “I can see where this is leading…” “It will also be a lesson for you to know your place in social ranking, with you being subservient to my muscles,” Genie thought for a second. “This may seem a bit odd, but it feels like it is them and not me who are looking forward to you acknowledging them as your master.” “That sounds suspiciously like something the Goddess Candi or even Heather would say,” Shayna said. “I don’t feel any great desire to be referred to as a Goddess, though,” Genie replied. “I’m happy being the Queen’s greatest servant. I don’t want to rule a kingdom.” Genie sat her thumb and forefinger onto either side of Shayna’s bicep peak, “Since this is the focus of your power, maybe we should test it against my one.” Shayna winced, “I won’t be able to do anything if you crush it with your fingers.” “Don’t you have special magical defenses that keep attacks from hurting you?” Genie said as she let go. Shayna rubbed her arm and chanted out a healing spell so that the spreading bruise faded, “They lessen the effect of any attack, but don’t eliminate all harm. Your strength seems to be enough to overwhelm them.” “My biceps are very eager to test themselves against you,” Genie said. “I promise to hold them back as much as I can. Please remember that I swore to Her Majesty to not kill you on purpose.” Shayna grimaced, “I feel very safe now.” Genie cupped her fingertips behind Shayna’s triceps so that she held the elf’s arm with their bicep peaks touching each other’s. She clenched her teeth as she resisted her own biceps’ desire to flex. She forced her words out, “Flex your bicep against mine as hard as you can. You need to put all of your effort into it. If you know any enhancement spells, please use them.” “Your biceps are pressing into mine,” Shayna said. “It hurts.” “I’m forcing them to stay relaxed,” Genie said. “I have to concentrate on it. They want to flex so bad that my mind hurts.” Beads of sweat rolled down Shayna’s form as she narrowed her eyes in concentration. Her body shook as her shoulder and back muscles swelled. The veins stood out on her forearm as she strained, “Gyah!” Genie’s eyes lost focus as she gave her full attention to her biceps. Keep… relaxed… She thought. Queen Gouda is depending on you. Her body was racked with painful frustration for several seconds before Genie lost control. She felt her biceps twitch, with her gaining a slight amount of relief. She then heard a muffled ‘Crack!’ accompanied by a shriek from Shayna. Genie’s senses came back with her seeing Shayna cradling her shattered and crushed arm. Gold colored blood flowed out from her injuries. Genie’s eyes opened wide as her mind raced, “I couldn’t hold my biceps back.” She thought, All they did was a tiny flex… I’ve gotta heal her! She put both of her hands onto the elf’s arm and pulled energy from their surroundings. Grass and bushes wilted as a green glow surrounded Shayna’s ruined arm. Genie’s eyes glowed to match the spell for several seconds. She dropped to a knee and pulled her hands away. “I’m so sorry. My biceps almost pinched your arm off. They seem to have a mind of their own.” She took a deep breath, “I just had them pull magical energy from the land to heal you. I don’t know how I did it.” Shayna slowly bent her arm back and forth, “I… I thought I had lost it… lost my arm.” She looked to Genie’s eyes, then to her biceps, “They healed me when they didn’t have to.” “They don’t wish to permanently disable you,” Genie said. “The way of the faerie realm has always been to ensure that any rivals know that they cannot hope to prevail.” She got to her feet, facing Shayna. “I may still be a novice adventurer, but I know the basic rules of the land,” Shayna replied. “I may be Gouda’s equal in ability, if not in status, but I am humbled by your biceps.” She paused for a second, “I accept their superiority to me.” Genie felt her biceps expand in response to Shayna’s statement, “Do you swear fealty to them, as your master, to serve them unquestioningly?” Shayna bowed her head, “They are the embodiment of faerie’s power.” She sat her hands onto either side of Genie’s bicep, “I am theirs, body and soul.” Genie felt a nearly electric rush as her biceps expanded forward, followed by Shayna kissing her peak. * * * * * “Status report.” “Systems unresponsive.” “Information recovery has begun.” “99% of component nanites destroyed.” “Defense assessment: No external input detected.” “Re-synthesis/assembly begun.” * * * * * Genie paused at the entrance to Queen Gouda’s audience chamber until Lady Neufchatel walked over to speak to her. “I want to follow the proper means for entering Her Majesty’s presence. I respect her too much to simply use my new status to bypass all of that.” The thin dark elf nodded, “Even though I’m not trained in the mystical arts, I can sense a presence about you. It is similar to what I feel when around the Queen, but more pervasive, more imposing.” “I’m not trying to be imposing,” Genie replied. “That is contrary to my nature.” “I chose the wrong words,” Neufchatel said. “I think compelling is the better term.” She reached a hand out to sit it onto the peak of Genie’s protruding bicep. “I feel like I want to follow you. It’s like you’re almost hypnotic.” Genie chuckled, “I’m a nymph, so that’s the normal reaction.” Neufchatel’s gaze remained fixed onto Genie’s biceps even as the nymph stood more at attention to lift her breasts. “I was able to overcome that when you first appeared to offer your services. You seem somehow different now, like I should accept you as my superior.” “I am Her Majesty's most capable servant,” Genei replied. “So that would make sense. I’d ask you to try your sword against my biceps, but it would be wrong of me to destroy your weapon just for fun. Please introduce me to the Queen as Demi-goddess Iphigenia.” Neufchatel kept her gloved hand on Genie’s bicep as she led her into the chamber and announced her presence. Genie flexed slightly so that her quadriceps would show off better as she walked. Each section of them swelled and quivered as her footsteps echoed. The force she used to walk with caused her to bound across the room and to leave cracks in the crystalline floor. She stopped at the edge of the dias, “Your Majesty,” She nodded her head. “You no longer have to worry about the sabotage that the Wizards’ Guild has done to you. My biceps can provide you with all of the magical energy you could ever need! Every enchantment that you can perform combined with the most powerful spells that you can cast won’t even be noticeable to them. Isn’t that great?” Genie smiled. The dark elf swallowed hard, “That is… interesting news. I expect that you mean it as a boon for me.” She descended from the platform to stand next to Genie, “Your trials with Shayna went well, I take it?” She traced a finger along the vein that went over Genie’s biceps’ peak. “I felt a combination of disappointment and relief when I found out that she couldn’t affect me,” Genie said. “I really wanted to have her as a worthy adversary, since she’s been one for you, but I needed to be able to provide the force that you need.” “How is she faring?” Gouda asked, “You were able to spare her life?” “It wasn’t easy to do so,” Genie answered. “My biceps felt that her challenge to them had to be met with a show of force,” She looked down. “It took all of my concentration to keep them from killing her.” “Neufchatel introduced you as a Demi-goddess,” Gouda said. “What can you tell me about that?” “I can’t hide anything from you, can I?” Genie asked. “I can feel that my biceps represent the power of the faerie realm. Maybe they are to be worshipped instead of the earth-realm deity.” “How would you feel about that?” Gouda asked. “I’m not sure,” Genie answered. “I can feel their connection to the faerie realm. Would people be honoring them or me? It is difficult to describe.”“You know that your statements from just a few minutes ago affirm that, since Shayna is my equal,” The dark elf paused. “I am as powerless before you as she is; even less so if I were to depend upon your biceps as my mystical energy source.” “I promise you that I have no desire to rule over the kingdom,” Genie said. “I have no knowledge of how to conduct politics, and I do not want to have to manage the endless daily tasks that you perform.” “I have prepared the rituals to sever my connection to the magma chamber below us and to bind myself metaphysically to your biceps,” Gouda said. “I have experienced the overwhelming capabilities of both Heather and Candi, as well as that wielded by Ivey. How am I to be sure that your power will not see me as attempting to challenge or bind it to my will?” Genie ran her tongue over her lip, “You could swear your allegiance to them.” “My spirit is already pledged to Candi,” The elf said. “I respect the power that your biceps contain, but my soul is pledged to her.” She let go of Genie’s arm and turned to the side, “If the choice is between turning away from her or death, I would rather that her biceps accept my spirit into them.” “I apologize, my Queen!” Genie stammered. “It is my nature. My mouth runs a second ahead of my mind. There should be a way that a compromise could be reached. I am not seeking political power, after all.” “This does present a conundrum,” Gouda tapped an index finger against her pursed lips. “I could accept your biceps’ power as a master over mundane matters while Candi’s rule over spiritual ones. I don’t see any inherent conflicts.” “That is acceptable, Your Highness,” Genie replied. “They will agree to your pledge.” “I am prepared to begin the rituals necessary to bind me to their power,” Gouda said. “This will change the nature of my magic, so I will need some time to become used to it.” She sat her fingers onto Genie’s biceps peak, “Please do not try to be helpful or generous by feeding me more power than I can handle. With that said, I will have my acolytes bring in the ritual items.” She sat both of her hands on the sides of Genie’s biceps, “I accept you as my connection to the realm, as my partner and master. I yield to your superiority over me and my kingdom.” Genie felt light-headed as Gouda kissed her biceps on each arm. She thought, Am I now of a higher rank than she is? “Queen Gouda?” Genie asked, “Will you dip your head in reverence to my biceps when I enter a room?” “If that is their wish,” the dark elf answered. * * * * * Candi sat up in bed, causing the thin silk blanket she used to pool at her lap, “I felt that, too.” She cupped her hand over the peak of one of her biceps, “There was a tug at your spirit, Cherry.” Candi paused, then thought, You can feel the nanites attempting to reconstruct your form. Do you want to return to physical existence, or to remain where you are? Candi shielded her next thoughts from Cherry, I can’t force you to do either, though I feel that the longer you stay, the less likely you’ll ever want to return.” Candi wondered how long she’d be able to keep her biceps from fully absorbing Cherry’s spirit. After a sleepless half hour she called up Cindy, with the girl answering, “Uh, Goddess, is there an emergency?” “There’s something bothering me,” Cindy replied. “What exactly happened to Hackerman? Where is he now?” “Without going too far into high level techno-speak,” Cindy said. “He’s in a kind of fractal maze. Escaping should be like calculating the last digit of pi.” “Thank you,” Candi replied. “That’s one less thing for me to worry about.” She hung up and let the thrum of her biceps responding to her followers lull her to sleep....

Mature Content

Kat and Mouse 3: Real AdventureAfter hearing a few echoing ‘Whump’s’ from the door, Katherine shouted, “I’ll be there in a minute!” She thought, Who’d be here at the ass-crack of dawn? Whoever it is had better be bleeding, as she undid the lock. A frigid breeze cut through her Tom & Jerry sweatshirt and pajama pants, causing her to shiver as she opened the door. “Holy…” “I’ll accept that as a greeting,” Candi said. The bob-haired girl had on sneakers without socks, a pair of yellow shorts that would more accurately be described as a denim thong, and a yellow baby-doll top with a blazing comet emblem. Steam rose from her shiny skin. “You’re either here to get me to go to the gym as a kind of Dickens ‘ghost of eating binges past’, or you’ve got another job for us to do,” Katherine replied. “Are you gonna come in, or are you waiting for me to freeze to death?”“I didn’t wanna be rude, and you’re kind of blocking the doorway,” Candi replied. Katherine took a step back and to the side, letting her friend close the door. As Candi did that, Kat felt a wave of heat hit her. “You’re like a furnace.” She slowly looked over the girl from bottom to top, seeing that Candi had heart-shaped calves that matched her own thighs in width, quadriceps that showed deeply grooved separation between each section of muscle, brick-like abdominals, and biceps that stood out from her arms in rising arcs. “You look… different from last time,” Kat held the corner of her lower lip in-between her teeth. “It must have been an eventful week. Did you just assign a butt-load of stat points?”“I’m gonna answer your first question first,” Candi answered. “I’m not going to brow beat you into heading to the gym. Your own conscience will do that. I’ve also got us a job, and it isn’t with Throg this time.”“Who is it with, then?” Kat asked. “I know you’re not going to have us at a convenience store. Also, don’t you make enough from your modeling and clothing line so that you don’t have to do anything else?”“I like getting these odd jobs with you because they’re fun. Also, have you seen how much I eat? I need the extra money for food. This machine–” she gestured at herself– “needs fuel! I also like how we’ve got to figure out some kind of puzzle each time,” Candi raised both arms, closing and opening her fists as she stretched. As she did so, the motion caused her biceps to swell out to past fingertip height, while her lats flared out to the sides, nearly tearing the stretchy top she wore. “I had a kind of a boost when I was in the faerie realm. I was hired to do a jailbreak, getting Shayna out of prison. The job had to be done right away, so I wasn’t able to get you to help.” She lowered her arms back down, smiling a little as she saw her friend staring. “There’s a drawback to having high stats. I get half experience rewards when an opponent has lower hit points than my damage bonus.”“Going on a fantasy adventure is something I’d really like to do,” Kat mused, “It would be a good break from the urban city things we’ve been doing. Isn’t breaking someone out of jail against the law?”“I was told that in the faerie realm they see it as part of their way of life. They sort of look the other way as long as it’s not violent criminals, like murderers who are being freed.” Candi said. “I can see that you like the effects of your boost,” Katherine sat her hand on one of Candi’s protruding biceps. “I’m not going to feel sorry for you because nearly everything is too easy for you to kill with one hit.” She gave a squeeze, blanching her fingertips while not even denting in Candi’s skin. “If I can guess at your way of thinking, you’re wearing a Comet Girl styled outfit as a way of saying that you want to be compared with her.”“My thought processes are extremely subtle,” Candi replied. “It is impossible for anyone to ever guess my motives.”“You know that my personality requires me to not give in to your blatant exhibitionism or to stroke your ego,” Katherine said.Candi tilted her head to the side and pushed out her lower lip into a pout.“Using the adorification power against me isn’t fair,” Kat laughed. She turned her head a little to the side and half-lidded her eyes. “Us mortals are defenseless against it.” She slid her hand over Candi’s bicep peak. “Since I haven’t built up any defense, I’ll have to oblige you this once. It’s pretty obvious that you’re more muscular, since her maximum flex is to wrist height and your resting size is to fingertip height. The vein that goes over your peak is probably as thick as my wrist. I’m not going to dare to hold onto it. I’ve heard the safety warnings about what could happen if a normal human were to subject their body to the force of a Goddess’ heartbeat. I don’t know who has the larger tits, you or her, but you’ve gained a letter or two. Your boobs and bicep peaks enter a room before you do. Is that enough to satisfy your need for me to state the obvious?”“I was prepared to shift into my were-mouse form if necessary,” Candi said. “I was going to find your cuteness breaking point.”“Dream on. I know when I’m beaten,” Kat sniffed.“I’ll consider this to be enough payment to let you know what the job is. Your compliments and gawking are pretty much my only payment for going on adventures, since it seems that the cash is always gone before it’s my turn to get a share of it,” Candi replied. “This job is going to be awkward at first, since we’re going to meet up with Queen Gouda, whose prison I broke Shayna out of.”“That could feel a bit strange for you,” Kat said. “How did you get this job and how are we going to get there?”“One of her lieutenants, Lady Neufchatel, found me and sort of told me that I owed the Queen a service due to my actions.” Candi replied. “I couldn’t tell her no. I was caught breaking their laws and need to pay back some kind of restitution. She gave me a key to open the gateway at the park.”“This sounds a lot more like a job– or indentured servitude– for you, not us,” Kat said. “How did you meet the fairy Queen’s representative and when did this happen?”“I was woken up about a half hour ago by a dark blue elf and told that I had volunteered for this,” Candi answered. “She didn’t tell me that I was to do it alone. That means I’m not being forbidden to have help.”“Why didn’t you ask Nikita or one of the superheroines instead of getting me?” Kat asked.“Do you want the inspirational answer or the honest one?” Candi asked in turn.“I would like the honest answer to be inspirational,” Kat said.“I could solo most of the monsters in a fantasy game, so I don’t need help fighting,” Candi said.“Yes. The modesty is really working for you. You should keep that up,” Kat said.“I was about to say that I’d need help against the weird stuff,” Candi replied. “I can’t punch a ghost. That’s where your equally weird powers come in. You’re also fun to show off for.” She paused for a second. “There’s also the chance to get some cool stuff as souvenirs and to see the exotic locations.”“I was just giving you a hard time,” Kat said. “You don’t have to try and sell me on the idea. It’s not like I’d ever go, ‘no, I’m not going to accompany you on a trip to another world.’” She used her free hand to pantomime waving ‘goodbye’. “So, when do we go and what should I pack?”“We have to go now, and don’t pack anything,” Candi replied. “We’re going to be given supplies when we get there.”“Pajama pants and a sweatshirt to meet a Queen?” Kat asked. “I’m no expert, but that feels like taking dressing down to a new low.”Candi shrugged her shoulders, deepening the grooved striations on them momentarily. “We’d probably be in trouble for doing that if she was holding court. I’m expecting her to meet us in some hallway for about ten seconds.” She reached into her pocket and pulled out a thin silver chain with an oak leaf shaped pendant. “This is the gate key. Could you wear it? I’m going to try and draw all of the attacks onto me, so I don’t want to risk it getting damaged.”****Candi slowed down and then stopped the bicycle. “Here we are. I’m sorry that I don’t have a fancy way of getting us around. I don’t fly and can’t teleport.”“And since you refused to tell me the location, I couldn’t drive us… I think we need to address these issues you apparently have with cars.”“I’m being environmentally conscious,” Candi said. “Being out in the open is also a lot more fun than sitting in a metal box.”“I will grant you it’s not as bad as it might’ve been if I hadn’t been riding with a human-shaped blast furnace; I only froze half my body. I think my nipples might fall off, though, so maybe we can hurry up and get indoors?”“The gazebo is in the middle of the park,” Candi replied. “As far as I know, you just hold the key and will the gate to open. Fae are very outdoorsy. At least the few that I’d met are.” Candi led them a few hundred yards to the small wooden building. “Time for you to work your magic.”“I guess that’s a ‘no’ on the going indoors, then,” Kat groused. She pulled the pendant out from under her sweatshirt and held it up. “So… what’s supposed to…” the pendant flashed and Kat’s eyes burned incandescent as a glowing doorway sprung to life in the center of the platform.Kat blinked. “Never mind, then. Coming?”“Oh, absolutely.” Candi stepped through the gateway. She felt weightless for a second, and emerged with her hair standing on ends. Her eyes took a few seconds to adjust, while the higher oxygen levels made her slightly dizzy.“Candi?” Kat murmured as the therianthrope struggled to get her bearings.“Um?” Candi asked, rubbing her eyes.“I blame you for this. I told you we’d be underdressed!” “Greetings,” a short, blue colored elf said. “I’m glad that you did the sensible thing and agreed to my summons.” She rose from the chair at her desk and crossed the room to where the pair had stepped through the doorway. As she did so, her brocade gown swam over her shifting hips. “I am Gouda, Queen and Sovereign.”“Oh… Um... ““That’s Candi, the impetuous,” Kat cut in, “and I’m Kat, the inadequately accoutred. Thanks for seeing us on… abbreviated notice.”The elf smiled slightly, “I prefer to see to important matters immediately. Statesmanship can wait.” She sat a hand on Candi’s protruding bicep as she looked at her. “Since you saw fit, Miss Candi, to sneak into my basement and free my highest value prisoner, I think it equitable that you offer a service as payment of her bail.”“I didn’t know that she was beneath your fortress, your majesty. I was just told that I was to free her from prison.” Candi replied. “I’m also kinda sorry for whatever damage I did.”“You only broke years of defensive enchantments and terrified everyone inside of my mountains,” She said. “A lesser strategist would seek revenge, rather than recruitment. Would you agree to pay for the damages you’ve caused by doing a small favor?”“I’d been told that offering an open-ended favor to a fae could be very dangerous.” Candi said.Gouda laughed, “You do have some small amount of wisdom.” “I believe the standard contract is for payment for services rendered,” Kat interjected. “You can’t charge her for the damages to your fortress; you would have to appeal to her former employer for that… which, I suspect, would be inconvenient. What, exactly, are you offering and what are you offering it for?”The Queen frowned momentarily, “Very shrewd. I never handle these mundane details personally; instead, I would ask you to apply to my chatelaine, the Lady Neufchatel.”A slight cough came from the side, where the taller elf had been standing silently. “If you’d please accompany me, we could attend to the details.” The thin, armored woman turned her head to look towards the doorway.Candi looked, then turned back to the Queen, “Then, by your leave.” She bowed her head then turned to go out of the room, slipping from the elf’s grasp. Neufchatel followed the two into the hall, then walked past them to lead them to an office that was furnished more simply. The passages they traveled were carved from granite, with every inch polished. Stress cracks could be seen in places, along with chips of stone that had recently come loose. As they got inside, she gestured, causing lanterns to glow. “Candi, Miss Kat. As you know, there is a war underway, with multiple forces working to plunge this kingdom into chaos.” She sat a hand on Candi’s upper arm. “You would be working to preserve the rightful order, and to preserve this civil society. Your payment will be to claim whatever you find along your mission, other than your objective, for yourselves.”“As an opening bid,” Kat said, “it kind of lacks punch.”“You’d also be allowed to keep the equipment that you purchase and the remaining gold from your provisioning expense.” Neufchatel answered.“Why didn’t Queen Gouda ask one of her students that came here from our world?” Candi asked.“Simply put, they are not skilled or capable enough for this. We also don’t want them to perhaps fall into temptation to work for the enemy.” Neufchatel answered.“I’m a little confused about something,” Candi said. “She wasn’t angry at me or at what happened. Wouldn’t having someone important freed be kind of bothersome?”“Your friend touched upon something that should not be mentioned in the Queen’s chambers. That is the most likely place for others to have planted auguries.” The elf replied. “Shayna is too valuable as an easily manipulated force to keep locked up. She lives to aid others, and there is nothing wrong with pointing her where her altruism also aids the Queen.” She smirked, “We also know that it is not good to summon a goddess and then anger her.”“Queen Gouda paid to have Shayna freed from her own prison?” Candi interjected. “Oh-kay,” Kat said. “That’s being sneaky. She gets to have the satisfaction of capturing her enemy, then gets to blame the breakout on some mysterious outsider.” She paused, “How much gold are we being given for supplying ourselves? Ah… not aelf-gilt.”“You won’t be disappointed,” The elf replied. “You won’t be as wealthy as a knight, but you’ll have enough to keep you in food and drink for a good amount of time.”“That’s nice for a start,” Kat nodded. “How much are we being paid on top of that in order to render services?”“You’d both be offered minor titles as reward.” Neufchatel replied.“I think we’ll pass on titles, all things considered,” Kat said, shaking her head briefly, “unless they’re officially honorary titles. We’re not swearing oaths of fealty. Honestly, though, as nice as being ‘milady’ sounds, it lacks substance. What else have you got?”“The Queen has idle lands that she scarcely has use for. I am sure that a parcel could be deeded to you upon successful completion of your task. I do not wish to be unfair to my patron.”“Independent estates? Free from the Queen’s influence and governance?” Kat asked.“If you desired any services from the queen, you would, of course, have to pay taxes, but if you choose to abstain, that would be your right,” Neufchatel confirmed.“Then we have a deal,” Candi said. “Whoa!” Kat said, holding up a hand. “I would like to know that the lands we’re getting aren’t somehow really unpleasant, if that’s okay.”“It won’t be a trash pit or abandoned mine,” The elf replied. “It also won’t be a district of the capitol city. You will be deeded a portion of the countryside.” She used her free hand to sit a paperweight at one end of a curled parchment, then pulled it open. “You just need to sign at the bottom and you’ll be given the full information to begin your service.”Kat took the pen before Candi could sign. “Give me a moment, as your agent, to read through this, please.” She flattened out the page and scanned through the document. “This… This is too simple. There’s no hidden clauses or vague passages.” Kat looked to the elf, “You’re offering a simple payment? Wow.”“You can’t have surprises as exceptions if you never have things progress simply,” Neufchatel answered. “You two sign, then I sign and we proceed.” Once the document was set with a wax seal and put into an envelope, she said, “You are to go to the caverns of the Artificer’s Guild and retrieve the clockwork golem. By studying its manufacture, the Queen will know the weaknesses of any of their constructs. The map shows how to get there. All you need to do is put it into the holding pouch, then bring it back here.”****“Everyone’s staring at us.” Kat said.“You said ‘us’ and not ‘you’,” Candi replied. “Isn’t it good to be noticed?”“I’m in pajamas with fuzzy bunny slippers,” Kat raised one of her feet. “I don’t think being in a clown costume counts.”“It’s how people joke about what starting characters do,” Candi replied. “They go into town with nothing but a bag of money and buy everything new.”“If this were midsummer, that’d be true to life. I don’t get dressed up to go to bed when I’m sweating balls,” Kat snorted. “You’d be happy walking around in nothing with people gawking, but I don’t really want to stand out this way. I bet you’re thinking about doing it, now that I mentioned it, aren’t you?”“I’ll now list telepathy among your many abilities,” Candi pointed to a shop window painted with ‘Urban Fashions’ in an arc over the word ‘Seamstress’. “How about if we get dressed first? We can’t go adventuring with you looking like you just woke up.”The shop’s bell rang as they opened the door. “Given the weather, I’m not getting a slinky dress with my boobs falling out, much as I might like to,” Kat said. “Adventurers are always immune to cold, but I need wardrobe compromises to keep warm.”A cheerful looking brownie dressed in an art nouveau bustled dress greeted them from the counter. “Welcome. Welcome adventurers.” The short woman stepped down from behind the counter and hurried over to the pair. “I can tell that you two are in need of my skills. I look forward to helping others look their best.”“I'm looking for something that'll be comfortable and not make me look like a Boris Vallejo painting,” Kat said. “I’m not the one who’s got the build for it. No stomach windows. I don’t need to show off my paunch. I’m also not going to be up front fighting things, so I don’t need it to be extra durable.”“Do you magically come up with designs that fit our personalities?” Candi asked.“You’re not supposed to say things like that,” Kat punched Candi in the shoulder and winced. “No one is supposed to ever question things like that.”“It’s all skill,” The short woman replied. “In the absence of guidance, I fall back on my years of experience.” She sat her hand on Candi’s bicep. “Let me guess. You’re looking for something that shows off your impossible to obtain attributes.”“Isn’t that the most important reason to have custom tailoring done?” Candi asked. “You guessed right that we’re adventurers.”“It wasn’t much of a guess, dearie,” the brownie chuckled. “Only adventurers have such impossibly defined muscles, especially on the diets we provide here in Faerie.” She looked over to Kat. “For you, I see… a long, concealing robe in dark colors to demonstrate the gravity of your power, right?”Kat shook her head. “I was thinking something more along the lines of Dragon Sorceress Zyra from League of Legends, to be honest,” Kat said.The brownie cocked her head, “I’ve heard of the Wizards’ League, who are waging war against our Queen. I don’t know who the League of Legends are.”“I don’t think that video game references are the best idea,” Candi said. “Are you sure that you don’t want a set of grey and black leather tights and a hooded cloak to help you hide with?”“You want me dressed as a thief?” Kat sat a hand on her hip. “Really?”“Come on,” Candi said. “Can’t you see yourself carrying a pair of daggers and stuff like that?”“If I was carrying a dagger, that might be okay. Lots of people carry a dagger,” Kat said, raising an eyebrow. “If I had paired daggers, people might expect me to know how to use them.”“You can bluff,” Candi replied. “If you’re good at it, you’ll never have to prove it.” She looked back to the proprietor. “I’m dressed sleeveless because I end up tearing whatever I own.” She tightened her arm and leg muscles, swelling them out. “I’d prefer something sheer, to show off rather than something that looks like a tent.”“Have you considered wearing paint?” Kat interjected. “Also, try not to do that indoors. The thumping’s going to shatter the window.”“I can keep both of your ideas in mind, but it might cost a bit,” The brownie said. “I”d like payment upfront. No offense meant, but adventurers sometimes include unsavory types.” Once the brownie took her coins, Kat looked at Candi, “That’s just cut a sizable chunk out of our budget. Clothing here is awful expensive.”“Food and other supplies will probably be cheap,” Candi responded. “We could save money by hiring a chef. He’d say ‘Umber hulk is the stone crab of the underdark’ and cook whatever monsters I kill for our meals.”“Thank you for that convincing argument for veganism,” Kat snarked.“We’re going to save costs on weapons, so that will help,” Candi looked to the curtained-off area in the back of the shop. “She must be sewing at incredible speed if she’s going to have our things ready in half an hour.”“Magical sewing machine?” Kat replied. After half an hour, the gnome carried out a tissue paper package, wrapped with a ribbon. She handed it to Kat, saying, “Here you go, dearie. I hope that it is to your liking.”“Thousands of dollars worth of gold should be enough for something pretty nice,” Kat replied. “Do people pay that much per outfit for a week’s worth of clothes to adventure with?”“Only adventurers, sweetie. Other people know the market.” She replied. “The cloth has a minor enchantment to keep itself clean and maintained. That doesn’t mean it can reform itself from being destroyed by a fire or anything like that.”“Is mine ready?” Candi asked.“Yours will take a couple of minutes to finish,” The brownie adjusted her glasses. “I just had hers done quickly.” She went back into the work area. When she returned, she said, “I matched the color scheme of what you have on now,” The brownie said. “Making everyone’s clothes in black is unimaginative.”“I’ll have no problems being the target,” Candi said.“You said that you wanted to tank,” Kat replied.“Let's get into our adventuring gear and stop at the provisioners. Then we can head out,” Candi said. “Here?” Kat asked.“Do you want to rent a hotel room just to change in?” Candi asked, slipping her sneakers off.Kat sighed, pulling the sweatshirt over her head.”I really, really do,” Kat admitted.Candi peeled her yellow top off, leaving her bare breasts hovering in front of her.“You know, that isn’t human,” Kat pointed at Candi. “Normal people are affected by gravity.”Candi stuck her tongue out. “Who wants to be normal?”Kat held onto Candi’s bicep with one hand to steady herself as she pulled the pajama pants off, leaving herself in a nightshirt and panties. “You’ve got me there, partially.” She grabbed the ribbon on the clothing package and gave it a tug to the side, unraveling it. “Okay. This is something I can see bringing home.” Kat spread the contents across a padded bench and started getting dressed. “Aren’t you going to change as well?”“I’ll wait my turn. I’m curious as to what you’ve got.” Candi replied.Kat took several minutes to get dressed, ending by cinching the lacings on her outfit. She had calf-high boots, leather pants that had laces going up the outsides. A blousy shirt disappeared beneath a leather corset. She had fingerless gloves and goggles with cranberry lenses. She looked in a standing mirror and turned slowly.“It is too tempting to say something inappropriate about how that makes your butt look,” Candi said. “It does a good job of enhancing your features. Can you see your toes?”“Only if I use a mirror- the boning in this corset makes bending over… difficult.”“You’re going to be getting some attention in that,” Candi undid the button and zipper on her denim shorts and slid them off, leaving her fully undressed. She picked up her outfit. “It looks like I’ve got something much simpler than what you have. She slipped the one piece dress over her shoulders, with it falling into place as sleeveless, with her having an oval cutout going from her breasts to below her navel. The upper outsides of her breasts were also exposed. The dress was sheer down her sides and had a thin piece of fabric that fell to nearly knee level in front and back, while thin chains went to the sides over her exposed hips. She slipped a pair of matching, yellow, low cut boots over her feet. “Wow, I like it. This looks really, really nice.”“You’ll be able to transition seamlessly from slaughtering your opponents to seducing them,” Kat said.Candi half-closed her eyes and slowly turned around, with the sheer fabric clinging to her, revealing every striation. “Is it working?”“Since I’m not dead, then yes. I’m questioning my sexual orientation,” Kat replied.“I thought you were bi-”“Yeah, but half that equation isn’t standing in front of me in a sexy dress,” Kat said.“You’ve got some drool on your chin,” Candi said. “Are you ready to stop at the next store?” She swayed her hips as she left the seamstress’ shop. Kat blinked, shook her head, and followed her friend out into the street. “Where are we headed next?”“You’ve got the city map,” Candi replied. “There’s got to be somewhere that sells the kinds of supplies that we’d need.”Kat rolled her eyes and pulled out the map. “I don’t think they have department…” She trailed off. “I’ll be damned. What do you suppose this is?” She pointed.“There’s a store called ‘Orc’s Mart’ that’s listed as adventuring supplies,” Candi then pointed at a different spot on the map, “Adventurer’s Paradise is here, at the opposite side of the city from where we are. Since you don’t like walking any further than you have to, let’s go to the first one.” They walked several blocks along the narrow streets until they came to a storefront with the words ‘Orc’s Mart’ painted on the windows in choppy, brutalist style lettering. A pair of carved wooden, hulking figures loomed at either side of the awning. Candi said, “Those look like they’ve walked out of a nightmare.”“I ain’t skeered,” Kat quipped. “Not as long as my tank is escorting me. Come on. Let’s buy out the store.”“I get extra experience rewards if I keep you from taking too much damage,” Candi walked into the store and held the door for Kat. “That’s a nice touch. All of the signs are done in the same blocky style as on the windows.” She walked over to a shelf, and paused, “Rope only comes in 50-foot coils?”“All poles are ten feet in length, too. Not even collapsible.” Kat cocked her head to the side. “How do people ever use any of this stuff?”“Maybe you’re expected to have tools to cut things down to size,” Candi suggested. “Is there a hardware department?”“Do you really need things like a hammer or a pry-bar when you've got near-infinite strength, miss Universe?” Kat asked.“What if I don’t want to get my hands dirty?” Candi asked.“Bite me, earth-goddess,” Kat replied. “I’m not carrying any tools that you don’t need.”“Then that leaves stuff like a tinderbox and…”“You’re a space-heater,” Kat interrupted. “We don’t need a fire to keep warm, and I can see in the dark, remember?”“Then we just need to get some food, armor and weapons,” Candi walked over to where there were some suits of armor standing along the wall.“So… you’re thinking that armor is going to make you harder to hurt?” Kat asked. “Really? And, besides that, you’ll have to have the armor significantly altered or you’ll just bust out of it.”“I can get a huge set of steel plate armor and put stilts in the legs so it’ll be like medieval mecha,” Candi said. “Shouldn’t I have a set of something just because it’s what’s expected? I’m sure that there’s something that’ll fit. Is there anything here that I could try on?”“I think I saw some lengths of ribbons back in the arts and crafts,” Kat suggested. “You’re not getting anything to stay on and in the same shape over these –” she touched Candi’s biceps – “or these,” she finished, laying her finger on the top of Candi’s pecs.“Jars of paint are in the arts and crafts department, too,” Candi replied. “Some of the excitement disappears when you’re looking for armor as a fashion statement rather than protection. I could go with the always popular chainmail bikini.”“I’ve seen cartoons about that. Is it true that chainmail bikinis have the same armor class as enchanted suits of full plate mail?”“We could always put you in one so that you’ll be better protected,” Candi said. “Or we could both get them if you want encouragement to wear it.” She looked around and then darted over to where a sign read ‘Fetishwear: Half-Off Sale!’ “We’ve hit the jackpot. You’ve got the fur boots and bikini to keep you warm. I’ve got the chain bikini. We’d have to flip for the metal spiked leather bodysuit.”“Frankly, I think the bodysuit is made for me except that it’s clearly fetishwear. You can’t wear it- you’d split it up one side and down the buttcrack.” Kat held her tongue against the corner of her upper lip for a second, “That doesn’t mean I’m not buying it for myself anyways.”“Does that mean I fight monsters in this fashion runway dress, or do I get the chainmail?” Candi asked.“I’m not going to say yes or no,” Kat replied. “The thought of heavy metal sitting over my boobs when it’s freezing out isn’t my idea of fun.” She pursed her lips. “Actually, the idea of putting heavy metal on my boobs so that they end up squishing flatter than pancakes doesn’t really sound fun, either.”Several minutes later, Candi was dressed in the chain mail, with the small triangles of the top barely covering more than a third of her breasts. “We’ve got armor and food. Now all that’s left is to get weapons.”“You accomplished the impossible, Candi,” Kat said. “You’ve found something that technically counts as being dressed, yet shows almost every square inch of skin on your body.”“I could always add something to cover up,” Candi replied.“Hell no!” Kat replied, “Where would the fun be in that?”Candi pointed to the rack of maces, daggers and various swords. “Which one do you want, and which should I be carrying? I’m tempted to get some kind of oversized axe.”“I’ll get the daggers, since you won’t let me say no to it, but you don’t need anything,” Kat said. “You really don’t need a giant axe or sword. I’ve heard about what happens when non-giant people swing giant weapons around.”“Awe and inspiration for those on her side?” Candi asked.“Not exactly, unless her side is awed and inspired by seeing her spin like an uncontrollable top,” Kat sniffed.“Oh,” Candi replied. “I forgot about momentum. It’s a bad idea to use a weapon that weighs more than I do. How about just a sword, then?”Kat put a finger to her lip. “Hm. Let’s try an exercise… this is going to cost a couple coins, but I think it will be worth it.”“Um?” Candi asked.Kat picked up a short sword and held it out in front of herself with two hands. “Okay… I want you to put your hands on either side of the blade, right? Now push your hands together as far as you can.”Candi put one palm at the end of the pommel, and the other against the tip of the blade. “I’ll stop if I feel it pinching against me.” She pushed her hands towards each other about halfway, with the metal squealing as it was crushed. “It’s good so far.” She then clapped her hands together, splashing out a glowing red spray of steel. “Whoops…”Kat prudently took a step back out of the way of the glowing metal. “Yes. A sword is definitely needed in order to reduce your combat effectiveness. You should get one of those.”Candi peeled the remaining amounts of glowing steel off of her hands and stomach, rolling them into a ball. “You’ve made your point. It looks like we’re ready to go.”Kat chewed on her lip for a moment. “You know,” she said pointing at the metal ball in Candi’s hand, “that gives me an idea. Have you ever considered carrying sling stones?”“I’ve got my meteor hammer that I used for short range attacks, but I stopped using it when I snapped the cable a couple of times.” Candi replied. “I’ve got zero skill in using a sling.”“I’ve seen how fast your reflexes are, or I should say I’m not able to see how fast they are,” Kat said. “You’ve got ranged attacks with unlimited ammunition.”“Splattering people by throwing things through them just doesn’t seem right,” Candi said.“The difference in doing the same thing at touch range is?” “How about if I only do that for monsters or robots?” Candi asked.“As long as I don’t meet my demise due to your sense of fair play,” Kat replied. “I can’t think of anything else to buy. We’ve got a fortress to raid.”****A few days later, the pair was seated on a pair of rocks in a hilly area. “Have you been able to figure out the landmarks so that we can find the entrance to the Artificers’ caverns?” Candi bit a piece of dried food and crunched on it.“I have to be honest,” Kat mulled. “This map always seems to make sense when I’m looking at it, but it never seems to match anything that I’m currently seeing. There was supposed to be a spire over there –” she pointed “– and we’ve been travelling in the right direction, but now it’s over there.”“Heather told me that the geography here is conceptual rather than physical,” Candi replied. “Places are where they feel like they should be. I think that works to make it both easier and more difficult to find anything.” She snapped the chunk of food she had in half with a sharp ‘Crack!’ and held out part of it toward Kat. “Aren’t you having breakfast?”“Yeah, no. I like having teeth. How are you eating that?”“It’s supposed to be soaked in water for a few hours before eating it, but it’s better this way,” Candi replied. “It’s the first thing that I’ve had in a couple of weeks that’s had any feel to it. Everything feels like I’m biting through jello.”“The hidden downside of super strength,” Kat mused philosophically.“On the plus side, nothing goes to waste,” Candi replied. “I can squish bones with my tongue.”“That's… More than I needed to know,” Kat said. “I’ll stick with my own, non-crunchy breakfast.”“How are we supposed to get inside?” Candi asked, “Do we fight some monster, or steal the door keys from a sleeping guard?”“If I’m being given a vote,” Kat said, “I’d prefer something that doesn’t involve potential death or dismemberment.”“Maybe it would be a good idea for me to go ahead a bit as we get close to the entrance,” Candi replied. “I could sneak around and see if there’s anything guarding it or if there’s any traps.”“You’re able to sneak?” Kat asked.“It’s a racial ability,” Candi answered. “I don’t have to pay points for it.”“I see. And game mechanics say that it’s unaffected by wearing shiny steel, right?”“I could change into the fancy dress or my jeans and halter top, but I’m not giving up the added protection that the chainmail gives me.” Candi replied.Kat blinked very slowly. “Yes, that added protection is certainly substantial.”“It covers a good, um.. Five square inches,” Candi said. “It might be magic. Okay, it isn’t. Stay back a bit in case there really is something lethal guarding the back door.” Candi led the way up a few hundred feet of steep hillside and paused as she got to a crest. She gestured to Kat to come up the last steep bit.Kat scrambled up the last incline, sometimes using her hands to get over the steepest parts. “Okay… so it’s time to camp out, right? Maybe a nice, quiet night to rest and recuperate and eat and not get hunted and killed by bad guys?”“We’ve been camping out for the last few days,” Candi replied. “You’ve had all of the fresh food that we’ve found. Throwing smoothed rocks through animals to hunt them is pretty effective. It leaves almost a quarter of them still remaining. Anyways, we’re at the way in. We can find the golem, pack it up, and be out right away.” She pointed down into the bowl like depression in the hills. “The door’s right there, framed by a rusty lion.”“Yeah, that looks friendly,” Kat muttered. “You walk into the mouth. The mouth that has teeth like stainless steel razor blades the length of my arm. That’s encouraging.”“If you were building an underground lair, wouldn’t you spend that little bit extra to have a really cool looking entry?” Candi said. “It’s like an awning, but designed by a terrifying evil magician.” Candi hopped over the five foot high carved lip on the crest of the hill. She then held onto it from the opposite side, pulling herself up to look over it. She reached down with her other hand. “Need a lift over?”“I’m certainly not jumping.”Candi pantomimed opening and closing her hand. “Well?”“I’m not letting you close that bazillion ton vice grip onto me until you’ve had more practice,” Kat reached one hand onto the top of Candi’s head and the other onto the side of her protruding bicep. She pulled herself up to sit her foot on Candi’s hand and climbed over.“Hey, no pulling my hair!” Candi said.“It worked,” Kat replied. “How about you go ahead first and get the door open?”“Sounds good to me.” Candi crossed the fifty or so feet to stand in the lion’s mouth at the door. She turned back, saying, “There’s three slides in a kind of a puzzle on here. Do you have any suggestions?”“There’s only so many combinations,” Kat said. “Is it something that’ll take all night to go through?”Candi pushed the slides all the ways up and gave the door’s handle a slight tug. She moved the first slide a little then gave it a second try.“Can’t you just kick the door off of its hinges?” Kat asked.Candi looked back, “That could collapse the roof into the passages. It also might set off some kind of alarms.” She tried another combination, leading to a loud, ‘Clack!’. “That didn’t open the door.”“I predict that it’s not something good.” Kat said. She wetted her lips. “And… why am I suddenly starting to smell ozone?”“Lightning’s gonna hit?” Candi shrugged her shoulders. “First,” Kat said, “there are no clouds. Second, magic smells like ozone. Everybody knows that.”“It does?” Candi then saw the entryway shudder, with the tongue that formed the walkway lifting. She leaped out and rolled to a crouch as the lion’s mouth snapped shut. “That was almost a really fast fight.”“Aren’t you invulnerable?” Kat asked as the animated lion pulled itself free of the hillside.Candi looked back to her, holding her fingers up like quotation marks, “Magic… I don’t wanna find out if I’m not immune to that.” The lion shook chunks of rocks loose from its mane. “It’s looking for a fight,” Kat said as chunks of stone landed around her. “Let’s not give it one.” She sprinted towards the entrance. “Open the door fast!”Candi ran past her friend and leaped into a punch, crumpling the metal door as her fist and forearm sank through it. She staggered back as she lifted it overhead and was overbalanced by it. “Hurry up and get in!”Kat ran past Candi, huffing as she went inside.Candi used her free hand to push the door off of her arm and followed Kat in, scooping her up over her shoulder as she went into the passage. The lion leaped at the entrance, slamming into the hillside as it reached its paw in, knocking Candi forward a few steps. “Kat?”“Uh, yes?”“How was there a doorway in place when the iron lion got up?” Candi asked as she set Kat down.Kat thought for a couple of seconds as she caught her breath, steadying herself with a hand on Candi’s arm. “More magic?”“That’s as good an explanation as any I could come up with,” Candi said. “Do we have a map or anything written down about how to find our way through here?”“We’re in a tunnel that’s carved into a mountain,” Kat replied. “I doubt it’s filled with passages like it’s Swiss Cheese. Also, I think that anyone inside of here probably knows that we made our way inside. My ears are ringing from you punching through the door.”“I failed my stealth check,” Candi said.“In epic fashion. I know six-foot giant women who are more stealthy than you, Candi,” Kat said. “It’s part of your charm.”“I might as well stand with my hands on my hips and ask the Artificer’s Guild to surrender,” Candi replied.“Comet Girl would be proud of you,” Kat said.“If I bleached my hair I could be a stand-in so she could take some time off,” Candi replied.Kat looked at her, then looked over her head, “You’re planning on wearing stilt-shoes, I take it?”“My disguise as her would need a bit of work,” Candi said.“You’re also too buff, pipes princess.” Kat gave a squeeze to Candi’s bicep peak. “I’ve got a pocket flashlight so you can see your way. You’re not able to manage complete darkness, after all. There’s no reason to pretend to be locals.”Candi’s cheeks blushed pink, “Thanks for noticing.”“It’s pretty obvious, but I don’t want you to get too over-confident,” Kat replied. “You go first, just in case of trouble.”“Too bad we didn’t purchase a bunch of torches that could fill the corridors with smoke for an authentic adventure experience.” Candi said as she started down the winding steps that the entrance led to.“We’ll just have to make due with the intense heat you give off and the near-deafening thumping from your pulse.” Kat replied.“I’ll take it as a compliment when you say that I’m hot.” Candi said. “Are you going to draw up a map as we go, or should we be confident that we can find our way back out of a single hallway?”“I have to wonder if a map of the spire would be any more useful than a map to the spire. I guess we can try; I got paper and chalk,” Kat said. “It’ll slow us down a lot, though; I don’t have a table to write on unless you bend over and flex your lats.”“It’s painful to refuse your invitation,” Candi replied. “We’ll pause to jot down notes if there’s forks in the passage. I’m already thinking of giving the spire a bad review due to it not being enterable. It’s just a hundred yard wide, really tall point of rock. I’ll tell people that it’s a tourist trap.” The steps ended at a landing with a metal-shod stone door. “Now we’re in a real adventure dungeon!” Candi grabbed the ring in the center of the door and pulled. There was a sharp ‘Snap!’ as the lock sheared off. “I’m picking locks the fast way. There’s a spring device pulling the door shut. I’ll keep it open, because it’s a bit heavy for you.”“You think it might be? A foot-thick door of metal and stone? Yeah, I’m thinking it might be a bit out of my league,” Kat said as she strode out and across the room to the door on the other side of the chamber. “Hey, this one’s made of wood and has a simple mechanical hinge. Gimme a second to get it open.”“The first door is spring-loaded,” Candi said. “It really is a tourist trap.” After Kat passed through the far door, Candi looked to see the girl’s footsteps on the dusty floor. She thought, Just in case, I’ll walk in her tracks. As she got halfway across the room, the paving stone snapped in half. The floor dropped away all at once, with Candi shouting, “Kat!”Kat spun and looked back just in time to see a huge slab of stone drop past the open doorway. The top of the block fell to nearly the same level as where the floor was moments before. “Gyah! The roof fell in with me,” Candi pushed herself to a squatting position, raising the block of stone that was on top of her as she did so. “Kat? Can you hear me?” She called out as she stood up. A little bit of light filtered in through the space between the block and the four walls, allowing her to see where she was at. “It’s the pancaking pit trap.”“I can barely hear you,” Kat called down. “That block is a really effective sound barrier.”There was a loud grating sound as the floor of the room raised up a few more feet as Candi stood up. “I can hear you just fine.”“That makes sense. You get better ears to compensate for my better eyes,” Kat said. “I think there’s a locking mechanism for this block. Hold on a second.”Kat clambered on top of the block. “I can’t quite reach it. Can you lift the block another foot?”“I’m already at fingertip height,” Candi replied. She lowered the block and thought for a second. “I can toss it up, but that might end badly.” “Almost certainly with me standing on top of it,” Kat agreed. “I need to find something to stand on top of. Any ideas?”“Now I know why the block got so heavy all of a sudden,” Candi grunted with effort.“Any more smart remarks about my ass and you’re gonna be on your own,” Kat sniffed.“Just a second,” Candi replied. She concentrated on shifting to her therianthrope form. As she went into mouse-girl form, she gained enough height to raise the block another inch. She sat the end of her tail on the ground and tensed it. “I really never thought I’d ever do this…” As her tail straightened, it lifted her feet from the ground. Candi’s voice was a little higher pitched as she said, “Hurry up! The floor’s not going to support this much pressure.” Kat took her dagger out and pried the locking mechanism open so she could see the mechanical workings behind it. It was like a series of 2-way door latches all controlled by a single mechanism. Kat jammed her blade in place and hammered it in as far as she could manage.“Let me back down, now. I need to get in place before you put the block back,” Kat said.Candi lowered herself to her feet and brought the block down to head level, “What did you just do, and what do you mean by putting it back into place?”Kat scooted off the block and stepped back past the door. “I’ll explain the first part as we walk. As for the second part, you need to toss that block straight up enough to get it past the point where it started before.”Candi pushed both hands straight up, sending the block up several feet before it dropped back to her. “That’s not far enough. Second try!” She squatted and then straightened as she tossed it up, with the block reaching nearly to ceiling height. It fell a little off-center, catching in place halfway down. “That looks good. Anything that lets me out of the pit works.” “There’s a little problem with that,” Kat said. “This passage has to be open for us to get back out.”“Oh, I didn’t think of that…” After a few seconds, the side of the wall gouged out as the block dropped back into the pit. “Problem solved! This is as easy as a carnival game.”“I really don’t have any advice to give on this,” Kat said. “This is pretty new to me, too.”“This next toss will get it into place,” Candi announced. She leaped up and pushed upwards at the same time. “Yah!” The stone block went past Kat in a blur, slamming into the ceiling with a loud ‘Crack!’ which shook the room. Some 90 tons of stone hit the roof at high speed, then dropped onto the metal brackets. “Yeah! We did it!” Candi shook her fist in the air. “We need some video game fanfare music right now.”Kat looked uncertainly at the locked ceiling. “I’m so glad they didn’t shear…”“I think it’s a requirement that we cause some kind of structural damage when we go somewhere on a job,” Candi hopped out of the pit on Kat’s side of the room, then stepped to where her tail wouldn’t be in the way if the block fell. “I’ll tell you how I got the block raised that extra foot if you tell me how you got the locking mechanism into place.”****After exploring the caverns for over an hour, Candi said, “I thought dungeons were supposed to have monsters in them. All we’ve come across is traps.”“I don’t think most real dungeons ever had monsters in them,” Kat mused. “I mean, think about the upkeep. What would you feed them? It’s not like foolhardy adventurers would go wandering in on a daily basis, right?”“The owner could sell maps to people in bulk,” Candi replied. “That would keep a steady supply of fresh dinners. It would be sort of like having self-delivering pizzas.”“I don’t know if I’m more amused or horrified at the idea of Adventurers-Ready-to-Eat, sealed in their own tins,” Kat snorted. “I suppose that explains one thing I was wondering about: why would anyone put food down here with all these traps around it? You’d risk dismemberment every time you needed a loaf of bread.”“Maybe it’s a kind of memory test,” Candi said. “You have to remember to disable all of the instant-death rooms.” “We’re using cheat mode for it. Send the hyper-muscled invulnerable tank to disarm traps the easy way.” Kat said.“That almost makes sense, except for you getting through some traps ahead of me scott free,” Candi sniffed.“I really don’t want to experience what a pit of snakes or a half-ton pendulum feels like,” Kat replied. “Those would definitely ruin my new apparel. You’re the one who bought armor, after all.”“We’ve got the checklist of traps almost complete, don’t we?” Candi asked.“Pit trap, sliding block… does animated statue count as a trap?” Kat mused. “There was also the spring-loaded scythes and… oh, yeah. The rockfall with the Indiana Jones-style shooting spears. What’s left?”“There’s always jets of fire or acid,” Candi suggested helpfully.“Bite your tongue!” Kat shuddered.“There is a plus side to them storing food down here,” Candi said. “I liked the dried fish and pickled vegetables.”“You’re able to bite through steel and digest rock,” Kat replied. “I put zero credibility on your opinions as a food critic.”“We’re on an upward incline,” Candi tried to look out into the darkness. “Doesn’t that mean that we’re now headed to the regular entrance? That’s how it is in pretty much every game book.”“You’re as much of an expert on that as I am,” Kat said, “but my guess would be that it means we’re walking into a rolling-boulder trap.”“It wouldn’t make sense for a trap to be repeated,” Candi replied. “It needs to be a new one. Maybe a river will be diverted into the hallway, or there will be an army just waiting for us to walk in on them.”“It’s gotta be something… look at the colored floor tiles!” Kat pointed out. “They’ve even got symbols carved into them.”“Eep!” Candi stopped and stood on tip-toes. “That’s the first time I’ve seen you look frightened since we’ve arrived,” Kat stepped around Candi. “You tensed up instantly.”“Shouldn’t you hang back for when the adventure-party killing machine activates?” Candi asked.“This is the first time we’ve entered an area that I’ve felt comfortable in,” Kat pulled her cellphone out of its pouch. “Hold that pose, though. The lighting in here is doing wonderful things for your physique.”“You’re risking a potato masher of doom or swarm of trolls.”“You’ll open the door at the end of this hallway just in case either of those are waiting,” Kat replied. “I just want to record some showing-off so that we’ll meet the quota.”Candi waited a few seconds before relaxing. “You’re ruining the suspense.”“Next time we’ll bring along some theme music to set the scenes,” Kat gestured to the door. “That’s your job.”Candi walked the few dozen feet to the oaken door and pulled on the iron ring that hung from it. The sound of the locks and restraints snapping and popping was followed by clicking and whirring. “Uh… I think something’s been activated inside of there. You might want to duck behind some cover.”“I am behind cover. If I duck, I’m invisible behind you,” Kat said.“I’m not really a good wall,” Candi replied.“Are you claiming your abs aren’t harder than stone?”“I’ll pop the straps for the armor if I flex my lats enough to give you extra cover.”“Prove it.” Kat said.“After we’re out of the Tunnels of Trapitude,” Candi replied. She shook the door by its handle and then pulled it open, holding one forearm in front of her face. After a second, she looked inside. “The clockwork golem’s in there. We might have to fight it.”“Maybe,” Kat said as she peered over Candi’s shoulder. “Why is it walking in circles?”“That’s kind of a let-down,” Candi replied. “I was looking forward to fighting it.”“Maybe it slipped a gear,” Kat said. “Give me a few years to study mechanics and I’ll fix it so that you can smash it apart.”“The hall was a false alarm, and I fell for it,” Candi said. “That’s gonna hurt my experience point reward. Hand me the magic bag and I’ll put the golem away.”“You don’t think being over-levelled for this by a factor of a thousand is going to hurt your XP, but falling for a false trap will?” Kat laughed. “I want some of the XP kool aid you drink.”“I don’t want to have to go through all of the traps again on the way out,” Candi handed the back back to Kat. “I’d rather fight through whatever army’s waiting at the entrance. The Artificers’ Guild probably will have a hoard of wind-up soldiers. We can always use hyperflex cheat mode to flatten them.” “Just make sure that there’s no one inside the automated armor first,” Kat said. “Slaughtering guards is bad karma. And, while we’re at it, make sure you don’t accidentally squish me, too.”“That would deprive me of my number one fan and the main supporter of my website,” Candi replied. “It would also be like setting off a negative karma bomb.”“Fear my retributive strike!” Kat unlatched the room’s other door and opened it. “That’s a long step down…”“We should have bought one of those fifty foot lengths of rope,” Candi said. “Want a lift as I hop down?”“Very much, thanks. I’d like to not end this adventure with a broken leg.”Candi grunted with effort as she scooped Kat up to have her sitting on her forearm. She took a couple of deep breaths and then dropped the ten or so feet to the ground below, squatting as she landed to try and absorb the impact. “Give me a little bit to recover.”Kat hopped down out of her friend’s grasp. “Take your time. I think I recognize this room. We’re close to where we came in!”“You’re not going to humor me with any remarks about me struggling to hold you up, are you?” Candi looked down the hall to see sunlight coming in. “It should be an easy trip back to the Queen’s fortress.” Kat approached the door ahead of Candi, then drew back as they heard a low growl emanating from outside. “Uh… I think we may have forgotten one last trap,” she said.“I don’t think we’re going to run past it like how we entered,” Candi replied. “That means fighting it. Do you have any suggestions? I haven’t faced anything like that before.”“If it’s magical, it has to be powered by something,” Kat said. “Either some sort of device or else a rune or symbol that allows it to draw power from the universe, otherwise it would have stopped functioning a long time ago. Look for something that doesn’t fit?”“I’ll search for that once I have it subdued and pinned in place,” Candi replied. “It looks like I’ve got to fight something meant for a full party to handle.”“If you can just keep it from killing me, I can try and find a vantage point to observe,” Kat suggested. Then you can focus on not getting dead yourself while I try to figure out how you can kill it.”“You get to be my mentor while I do the hero’s journey thing,” Candi replied. “I will come out of this with the great wisdom that only the display of extreme violence can impart.”“Yeah,” Kat said. “Go with that.”“It’s pacing. I can tell because my greatly enhanced senses can tell that the ground is shaking.” Candi said.“Your enhanced senses are the envy of all us mere mortals. Do they also tell you if it’s closer to or further from the door?”“That’s beyond my level of divination,” Candi said. “We’d need a real magician for that. We’ll have to do this the easy way.” Candi walked to the entrance. Her quarter inch long fur stood on end as the enormous iron lion walked past the open doorway. She stage-whispered back to Kat, “It’s close by. I’ll wait a few seconds for it to move, then catch it by surprise.”Candi held one hand behind her, with her palm up and fingers together. She waited a few seconds and ran outside. The anthropomorphic mouse paused to look around and blinked as she saw the metal beast pivot and launch itself through the air at her. It landed just shy of on top of Candi and one enormous paw flashed out, not quite faster than Candi could react. She spun into a kick, with the metal ringing as the lion’s forelimb was extended out to the side from the impact. “Hah. You’re fast, but not fast enough!”Kat sprinted out behind her friend as the giant cat began to recover. “Keep it off me while I make for the treeline!” she yelped. “I’ll spot you from there!”“I was worried this was gonna be a tough fight,” Candi shot back over her shoulder, “but this thing’s just a pussyca-aaah!” She didn’t finish her comment as the monstrous feline’s jaws closed around her waist. It lifted her into the air and shook its head violently, then flung her away.“Ow!” Candi cried. “That hurt!” There were puncture lines where the jaws had closed around her, but fortunately, the fangs had missed their mark and none were too deep.Kat skidded to a halt just beyond the edge of the clearing and turned back to watch the battle, just in time to see the beast lunge for a second time. “You’re not landing on me…” Candi stepped back as the lion hit the ground with a loud thump. Blood seeped from the multiple pokes into her skin around her as she waited for it’s attack. “Is it gonna bite…” She was hit from the side by the lion’s paw as it swept at her with blinding speed. Candi managed to roll to a crouch just as the golem lunged forward. “Oh, no you don’t!” She punched its lower jaw, collapsing in the metal with a loud ‘Grunk!’ as it snapped at her. “You’re not getting those teeth around me again.” The lion retreated a step. As it backed away, the metal over it’s jaw creaked and popped, slowly pushing its way back out. Candi didn’t pursue, immediately, holding her stomach as the bleeding over her abs slowed. “That took a lot out of me,” Candi muttered. “Its magical bite must make it harder to heal.”“I think I’m getting the pattern,” Kat called. “If I’m right, its next move will be to pounce again.”“It’s like a video game boss,” Candi said. “If it’s predictable, then we can beat it.” She sprinted forward when it leaped, so that she was in back of it when it landed. “What’s next?”“A…” Kat wasn’t able to finish before the metal monster spun and slammed its huge paw into Candi’s legs, sweeping her feet out from under her. “Sorry! Bite next!”“No-no-no!”Kat sucked in a deep breath as the lion’s jaws descended on her friend. “It’s not alive,” she muttered, “my powers won’t work on it… but they’ll work on Candi.” Her eyes glowed in the dim light and the lion’s head snapped up, looking for all the world as if it was sniffing the air.“Oh,” Kat said. “That can’t be good…”Candi had her hands outstretched, in an attempt to grab onto the lion’s fangs when it suddenly moved away from her. “It’s pausing.” “I think I got aggro,” Kat gulped. “Sorry!”As the lion turned away from her, Candi grabbed onto its tail and pulled. She was dragged across the ground, her heels leaving ruts. “I don’t weigh enough to hold it back!”As the giant cat gathered itself to pounce again, Candi bounced and landed with her foot stuck deeply into a divot carved by the beast’s claws. Before she could be pulled back out, the mouse bent her knees and drove her heels in, jamming herself into the stone. “Hah! Caught it!”“The tower!” Kat gasped. “It’s drawing its power from the spire!”“That’s really cool, but not really helpful. Can you stop it?” Candi asked“Do I look like an archmage?” Kat shot back. “I don’t have that sort of power.”“I’ve got an idea!” Candi shouted, “It’s a way to break two things at once. This thing’s weight isn’t a problem. It’s leverage that’s needed, and I’ve got it now…” The lion pulled against her, trying to ready itself for a leap. She thought, That’s just what I needed for it to do. Candi squatted down, with her heels pushed against the dip in the mountain plateau. She then sprung forward, her calf and quadriceps muscles swelling out. She pulled her arm forward in an arc at the same time, swinging the golem overhead in a blur. The stone surface of the plateau cracked and lurched from the recoil as Candi sent the golem in an arc towards the spire. “Did I aim it right?”Kat got up from her knee, “Warn me next time you’re going to cause an earthquake?” She shaded her eyes from the sun. “It’s going… going… Hit!” There was an echoing boom as the lion crashed into the base of the spire, causing the stone monolith to collapse into a pile onto it.“I think we got it,” Candi replied. “Queen Gouda would probably be surprised if we showed up with that thing at her fortress.”“Let’s not do that,” Kat said. “I don’t want to be too close to that if, by some odd chance, it managed to re-animate.”“I noticed something else,” Candi said. “It has nothing to do with the job we’re doing here. You seem to get extra-snarky whenever I come up with a ‘finishing move’.“Psychological defense,” Kat replied. “Being a mortal in the presence of a physical demigoddess requires a degree of snark or else I lose a portion of self-realization. Don’t take offense.”“This is something that maybe I shouldn’t be saying, but you’re not the first person to call me that. Another superheroine sees me as her patron goddess,” Candi said. “It’s sort of a huge responsibility that I’ve gained all of a sudden.”“Anytime you have vastly disproportionate power compared to others, it’s a responsibility,” Kat agreed. “If it helps, I described you as a physical demigoddess, not a religious one. A description of muscle power, if you will, not theological power.”“Having your sister being an angel sort of gives you a perspective on that, doesn’t it?” Candi asked.Kat nodded. “And if I’m not dropping to my knees and worshipping my twin sister, I’m not going to do it for anyone else.”Candi thought for a second, holding her lower lip in her teeth, then blurted out, “Shayna prayed to my biceps. I feel that I’m now responsible for helping her if she ever needs it.”Kat reached over and lightly touched Candi’s upper arm. “She prayed to your biceps?” She asked. “Do they have willpower of their own? Decision-making abilities?”She shook her head. “They just tingled when she did it and I heard what she was thinking to them.”“Weird,” Kat said, still touching. “Angel told me she sometimes hears prayers, too. Maybe you are evolving into something semi-divine.”“I’m kind of happy with this being my final form, but I know what you mean,” Candi replied. “I had hoped to earn the title of superheroine because of actions and not just because of abilities. Living up to people’s needs is going to be more than a full-time job.”“It’s also not really healthy unless your newfound divinity comes along with the ability to act outside of time and space. You still have a mortal brain, right?”“I don’t feel myself becoming transcendent,” Candi said. “I don’t notice myself aiding others at a distance on some kind of automatic reflex.”“Right. So… some advice: you have to be a little bit selfish, sometimes, or else you’ll burn out, and then you won’t be able to help anybody.”“I’ll need to learn how to take some vacations from living for others, or I’ll never have a life of my own.” Candi folded her hands together in front of herself as she talked, the motion causing her biceps to swell. “I think that’s a good reason to look for odd jobs like this. They are time out sessions.”Kat kept her hand cupped over Candi’s arm as it grew, “That’s enough metaphysical stuff for now. How about if we collect our rewards from the Queen? I’m looking forward to being a titled Lady.”****“I think you did very well on this deal, my Queen,” Lady Neufchatel said.We traded a tract of monster-infested property for valuable information,” Gouda set down her jeweled hairbrush and turned from the vanity mirror to face the tall elf. “Granting semi-independence to useless land on a disputed border with hostile neighbors isn’t a loss. If anything, the kingdom has gained from this. If those two want to deal with the problems that region has, all the better for us.”“Oh, I agree whole-heartedly,” Neufchatel nodded. “Having a sorceress and a goddess protecting the border is like a wish come true. As long as the Goddess remains pleased with us, we should have nothing but gains from her presence.”“Please remember your oath to serve the throne,” Gouda got up from the bench and smoothed out her embroidered robe. “Oh, I recognize the difference between respecting the needs of my nation and that of my own personal guidance,” Lady Neufchatel replied. “I will not waver in my loyalty to you. It’s just that she seems so comforting and empowering.”“Candi has a compelling aura about her,” Gouda said. “She is cloying and cute, almost disturbingly so. Her companion is shrewd and enjoys matching wits. Katherine should have been born a nephilim dark elf.”...
Kat and Mouse 2, Return to Throg'sCandi walked past the row of stair climbing machines and found her way to the free weights area of Antoine’s Gymnaise Hydraulique. “There she is, my quarry. Now to sneak up for the ambush,” she whispered. The heroine tip-toed her way over to where her friend was busy using an empty barbell to do curls. As Candi got close to the girl, Kat said, “I can hear you. I’m not deaf, even if I don’t have giant cartoon ears like some people.” “Your kung-fu must be pretty good if you can detect me.” Candi said. “That’s right, no one could possibly hear you giving exposition when you’re ten feet behind them.” The girl’s arms shook as she raised the bar, sweat slicking her smooth skin. “How’d you know to come find me here?” “I used a few special detective tricks.” Candi walked around Kat to be in front of her. “Today’s Opposite Day, so I thought of the thing that you hated most. I also saw that your passcard for the gym had been used. It’s a perk of having access to the ‘hyper-tonnage area’. Secret superheroine stuff.” She sat a finger beneath the center of the barbell to support it. Candi tapped her other forefinger on top of the girl’s bicep. “I’m glad that you’re finally exercising, but your form’s off. You’re using too much weight, so you’ll end up injuring yourself.” “An empty bar is too much?” Kat grunted. “Maybe you want to show me the right amount?” “That’s about fifteen kilos, which is an awful lot for someone who’s only previous activity was lifting corn chips and drink cans. I’d suggest using the empty single handed ones. They’re about two and a half kilos. Add to them as you get used to them.” Candi replied. “My rates for personal training are very reasonable. I like it that you’re in here sweating and grunting, and don’t want you to get hurt and discouraged.” “Are you really here just to be my ‘gym fairy’, or is there something else that you have in mind?” Kat let go of the barbel, so that it remained balanced on Candi’s fingertip. “I’ve got us another job. This one isn’t office work. It’s a bit more active, sort of like field work.” Candi replied. “Should I be afraid?” Kat asked as she picked up her water bottle for a drink. “I don’t think there’s anything to be afraid of while I’m around.” Candi answered. “Let me guess, you want to keep the specifics a surprise so that I won’t say no.” Kat said. “You’re also dressed in gym clothes, so you’re probably going to want some company as you do a show-off session.” “It’s called a workout,” Candi replied. “That’s what you call it,” Kat poked ther heroine’s bicep peak, then winced. “With your build, there’s no difference between the two.” She paused, “I just jammed my finger.” “I should write a safety manual for those who want to interact with superheroines. Their muscles pose a danger to the unwary. Be careful not to poke, grab or feel them unannounced, as they present a crushing hazard.” She paused for a second, “I’ll post it for free on the Blazing Trails website.” “That will only get more people interested..” Kat paused. “Oh. Being devious, I see.” “I’ll show you how to do proper form while we talk.” Candi sat the barbell in its rack and headed towards the automatic glass door to “The Fishbowl”, the central room with the hydraulic machines. “I’ll be sure to pay rapt attention, oh master,” Kat laughed. The lights came on as the scanner recognized Candi. “You know how the machines work from last time, right? They apply force until they feel the right amount of resistance.” She turned the power on to one that had a pair of oversized handholds connected to thick cables going into the floor. As she picked them up, the machine hummed to life. “I wonder if you’ll be able to use these soon. Do you have any physical abilities?” “I can devour a pound and a half of corn chips in one sitting. Does that count?” “That’s impressive for when people gather to watch sports on television. That’s also kinda disturbing.” The display quickly changed from its start in the hundreds of kilograms and went to tens of tons. As it did so, the veins on Candi’s forearms, biceps and thighs stood out like spiderwebs, while the individual muscles swelled. “The amount of weight that I’m using doesn’t matter for this. What’s important is that I’m going to perform correct form.” “Doesn’t matter to you, maybe,” Kat said.She tilted her head in a nod to the glass. “I think your fan club might disagree.” “The video feed and machine readouts go directly to the fan page. It keeps people happy.” Candi replied as she slowly lowered and raised the handles. “It also puts a lot of pressure on any of us who use the machines. There’s discussion threads about how much or how little we’re progressing. For me, it’s about always being in contest shape. I can’t afford to slack off or I might not get modeling jobs.” Her abdominals tensed as the machine continued to increase the amount of resistance. “I like it that the Goddess gave me a boost, but it’s a lot of work to try and improve on it.” Kat peeked at the monitor and smirked, “You’re doing this on purpose, aren’t you?” “What are you talking about?” Candi asked. “Sixty-eight.” Kat replied, “You’re doing innuendo with your workout.” “It’s just a coincidence.” Candi replied. “You’re also not really straining, or your freakishly oversized biceps would have filled out.” Kat sat a hand on one of Candi’s peaks. “I’m not good at bluffing, am I?” Candi asked. Kat shook her head, “Don’t try poker. Also, do you even notice how much you're lifting? Or does it feel like what I’d notice when hefting a bag of chips?” “It’s not weightless to me.” Candi replied, “I’m not Heather or Ivey. It’s more like what you’d probably feel when lifting a full pitcher.” She paused her lifting to say, “I’m keeping the same form while the machines build up more resistance. I’m going for low repetitions with high weights. I can’t expect to grow if I don’t push my limits.” The hydraulics whined as they rapidly built resistance to her. Kat’s hand was jerked backwards when Candi’s bicep peak filled out, pushing against her palm. “I’m still not used to this, Mighty Girl.” She paused as she looked to the screen, mouthing the word, ‘wow’. She traced a fingertip over the girl’s expanded bicep, “Don’t these get in the way when you do things?” “It’s only a problem when I’m lifting heavy items.” Candi lowered and raised the handles, causing her biceps to go down to half their fully flexed size and then back out again. “I’m careful not to crush the handles of the machine against them.” She held the handles up, as the resistance reached a plateau, then lowered them. Candi grunted with each repetition, sweat beading on her, to roll along her grooved striations. “How much am I using? I can’t see while working out.” “I think the machine’s busted again,” Kat sniffed, looking back at the readout. It was just in the nine-hundreds, but now it’s dropped back down to two-point-three.” Candi paused, hissing in a breath between her clenched teeth. “It feels like it’s gotten heavier. I’m really having to work at it.” She held her arms straight up and down for a few seconds. “The units are a bit to the right of the number. You’ll see them as I get my next set in.” She grunted in effort as the hydraulics loaded her with resistance. “It feels like I’m using a steady amount now.” Candi’s sleeveless halter top stretched as her back and pectoral muscles swelled to support the amount she was lifting. “What’s the number saying now?” “It’s at three-point-nine, with a K-T at the end.” Kat replied, “Does that make sense?” Candi paused with her eyes wide and her mouth open. “That’s in.. That’s what the top tier uses.. I’m not at that level.” “Uh, numbers don’t lie, hyper-mouse.” Kat replied, “This is a new record max for you isn’t it?” “I’ve been going heavy.” Candi said, “I don’t know my max.” “You didn’t know what was heavy for you, either.” Kat sat her free hand on her hip, leaving the other one on Candi’s peak. “Should I really be the one coaching you? I can shout cliches about giving me one more lift if you want.” “No need.” Candi took a couple of deep breaths, stretching her top over her breasts as she did so. She then screamed out as she lifted the handles. The superheroine paused before repeating her action a few more times. As she finished, she asked, “How much did I do?” “Twelve.” Kat said. “It doesn’t sound all that impressive when you say it like that,” Candi huffed. “It makes it sound like you’re only a little stronger than me,” Kat agreed. “I lift around ten, you lift around twelve. Any scientist would agree that I’m mere hours away from catching up.” “I can’t argue with your logic. Units are superfluous.” Candi replied, “By comparison, Nikita maxes at two tons.” Kat handed the sweaty girl a towel. “Which means I’m, like, five times stronger than him, right? I can’t wait to tell him.” She paused. “You mentioned something about work, Li’l Miss Beastgirl?” “It’s a good hourly rate as long as we are able to last for each full day at the job.” Candi replied, “It’s a job with a catch. If we quit on any day, we don’t get paid for it.” She wiped her forehead. “I’m really excited about getting a new max lift, by the way.” “Congrats,” Kat replied. “Why does that employment offer sound like it comes from a strangely familiar source?” “Thanks.” Candi leaned in to whisper, “Have you been keeping that you can affect luck a secret so that you won’t be a celebrity? And, um, If I ever do get popular enough to be famous, I’ll make sure that you’ll get whatever fan stuff you want.” “Honestly?” Kat asked. “No, I prefer it when you lie to me,” Candi sniffed. “That’s my line,” Kat said. “No, seriously, though. I just never really thought of luck manipulation as a power worth writing home about, you know? It’s there, but it’s not like it makes a big difference in my day-to-day.” “As long as you’re not out buying lottery tickets or playing in casinos you won’t be drawing attention. My abilities are a tiny bit more showy.” Candi replied. “Well, my power is more strictly speaking karma amplification; I’m not sure that cheating at the lottery or cards would garner good karma, you know?” “People around you get what they deserve?” Candi chuckled, “You need to be a frequent visitor to politicians’ offices. Maybe their pants will actually catch fire.” She paused for a second, “By the way, if you were to become a top-tier fan, you’d get to have one free photo or show-off request per day.” “And just who did you imagine ‘Purrfektion69’ was, huh?” Kat grinned. “You’ve changed your name,” Candi said. “You used to be The Mouser.” “I was keeping my identity a secret,” Kat replied. “It helps to be mysterious sometimes.” “Thank you for subsidizing my workout gear purchases. That stuff is expensive.” Candi replied. “You’ve still got two photos and three requests that you haven’t redeemed. I’ll meet you for the first day on our job here at six, tomorrow.” “Six… in the morning?” Kat asked, horrified. “Why would you do that to me? Why would you do that to you? I think your next strength feat is going to have to be dragging me out of bed to get to this mythical job site.” “We’re getting in a workout, then going to the job. Don’t worry, you’ll love it.” Candi replied, grinning at Kat’s decidedly nonplussed expression.* * * “Good morning” Candi sang as she saw Kat at the entrance of the gym. She had on her usual outfit of baby-doll top, micro shorts and sneakers without socks. The early dawn light reflected off of her skin, with the sun’s angle causing shadows that highlighted her definition. “Only half of that statement is true before my coffee,” Kat groused. Kat, unlike her diminutive friend, was covered from head to foot in ratty gym sweats and wore her sneakers as if they were an offense to God and man. “My feet still hurt from the treadmill, yesterday. How is it your shoes never look like they got run over by a cattle stampede?” “I have a few pairs that I wash after each use, and I throw them out after a month.” Candi replied, “The bottoms of them get crushed paper flat after I wear them a few times. Why are you dressed for arctic cold?” “It’s October, or didn’t you notice? It is cold!” “Don’t you mean that it’s more comfortable out?” Candi replied, “I feel like I’m going to overheat almost all the time.” She typed a code on the lock by the door, and held it open for Kat, “That’s probably a side-effect of my metabolism. Muscles produce waste heat. Anyways, I hope that you brought a change of clothes for this morning. You are absolutely not working out in all of that.” “I have a tank top and sweat shorts in my bag,” Kat confirmed. “Good. That’s what you should have on. I don’t like leotards. They make people look like they should be on stage doing interpretive dance or mime type of stuff.” Candi switched the lights on and walked to the locker room. “We’ve got the whole place to ourselves for the next hour. It’s just us and whoever’s going to be watching the live-feed on the web site. That should make you feel more comfortable.” Kat tilted her head down and looked up towards Candi, “Yeah. That’s a real boost for me. A thousand people are going to have my muffin-top on their screens. Actually, nah... they won’t be looking at my belly when they can be drooling over your abs. I guess I can live with it.” “As long as they’re doing it virtually, that’s fine with me. Otherwise it would get a bit messy.” Candi replied, “I prefer to have only one person drooling over them in person.” When she saw that Kat was looking, she flexed them, so that the grooved striations deepened and her veins stood out. “Don’t you have even a single gram of fat anywhere?” Kat blinked. “You have lines going up in, like, slashes along the side of your belly. Is there a flex for those?” “You mean my obliques? No one ever asks for them to be shown off, but I can do that.” Candi’s sides furrowed, gaining the same level of vascularity as her abdominals. “If you want, I can set up a nutrition and exercise schedule for you, but you’re not going to get to where I am for a few years.” “Or ever,” Kat mumbled, then added in a louder voice, “would it include chocolate kisses and fried chicken? How about cheesecake?” “That would require some very powerful magic, and I haven’t had much luck in casting spells.” Candi replied. “My sorcery has been limited to the ‘cause damage’ spell, which depends heavily on somatic actions.” “Reduce Person?” Kat snarked. “That one has a long casting time, requires that the subject power it, and might be unable to overcome genetic damage.” Candi opened the door to the locker room, “Time to change. Also, you’re free to drool over my abs any time you want.” “I’ll save my drooling for Nikita,” Kat said. “You, I’ll just envy and admire.” Kat followed Candi inside and shimmied out of her sweats, skinning down to her bra and panties. “I can share him if you like. He’s cute, loves showing off, and is very shy about asking girls out. You’ve got to make the first move and not expect him to understand flirting.” Candi replied. “You’d share him? That… is very modern. I don’t think it would matter, though; I’d need a hammer with a spike in it just to get his attention, especially when you or Cindy or Cherry is anywhere within a ten-mile radius.” “You don’t need to be so self-deprecating about your appearance,” Candi objected. “I’m an inhuman hybrid, as well as being a magically-augmented, obsessively exercising bodybuilder. Put into plain English, you have curves in the correct places.” Kat shrugged and sniffed a little, pulling on her tank top. “You mean I have boobs and most guys don’t see any further than big boobs and a nicely rounded butt. Thanks. I think most people would definitely miss me in any crowd that also happened to feature you.” “Squeeze your butt into some jeans and you’ll get attention.” Candi reached a hand up to run through the wavy hair next to Kat’s ear. “That and a new hairstyle. Most guys like curves more than abs.” She took a step back, “I like showing off because the attention is fun. I don’t expect other people to match my physical abilities. That would be like Comet Girl expecting people to fly. You’re free to look, stare or gawk. You can feel or squeeze wherever you like. Just remember that I’m not human, and that comparisons therefore are meaningless. If you’re curious, my measurements are on the web site.. Or you can just ask.” “I feel strangely demotivated,” Kat chuckled. “You know, I’m not normally very self-conscious at all. At least, I wasn’t till I came to Empire City… thanks for trying to make me a little more comfortable.” She paused. “Now, I believe I have a workout and you owe me some flexing to keep me interested.” “As one of my top backers, you do have several photos and show-off requests built up. I’d really like it if you’d please use them up.” Candi replied. “I’m looking forward to getting to work,” Kat mused. “I’m betting there will be some golden opportunities, there.” “I’ll give you three free show-offs and an extra photo, but you have to promise to use them up before the day is through.” Candi said. “Right now, we’re splitting our time fifty-fifty. You’re going to be put through a workout, then I get to do one. We can’t use the same equipment, for obvious reasons.” “Fine, taskmaster. Put me through the wringer and I’ll come up with a couple photos for the end of your workout, when you’re all pumped. They won’t be silly at all, I totally promise.” “I think the title of ab-dominatrix might be a better one for me.” Candi replied, “I can see why you want to wait for me to be all hot and sweaty. I’ve got nothing to show beforehand.”* * * “Okay,” Kat said. After her workout, she’d minded Candi’s readouts and drank a protein shake recommended by her friend and, as a result, she was pretty much back in wind as Candi exited the fishbowl. “I think you promised me some photos… and you were making some pretty strong claims before we started out. If you wanna be the ‘Ab-dominatrix,’ you’re gonna have to put your money where your belly is in a comparison with me.” “What do you have in mind, or do you want for me to do some choreography?” Candi asked. “The only thing I know about posing is what I’ve seen on the website; you’re gonna have to position us both for the picture… but I wanna see your abs next to my belly.”C andi put her phone onto a countertop, leaving it on video recording. “I’ll send you a copy. It’s up to you to post any videos or still pictures you want out of it.” She led Kat a distance from it, saying, “This is the best distance for photography. I’ve done this enough to almost be an expert at it. This spot in the gym also has the best lighting.” She guided Kat to have her legs and arms in the best positions, then said, you go first for a solo shot.” “You’re putting me on the spot, literally.” Kat said. “I already told you not to be self-conscious,” Candi scolded. “You look good. Now just show it off!” Kat rolled her eyes but did as instructed, hiking her shirt up and sucking in her tummy as much as she could. “Congratulations. You’re now going to be a named person on the Blazing Trails site. You’re about to get fans. You’ll also get trolls, but be thankful that your ones aren’t actual, man-eating ones.” Candi said. “In a month or so, you’re gonna have abs, then you’re going to be showing them off all the time. You’ll be addicted to them and need to go to some kind of meetings.” She then stood next to Kat. “We’ve got the same size waists, by the way.” “I don’t even know how that’s possible,” Kat scoffed. “I mean, I’m no wilting violet when it comes to packing away food, but I’ve seen you eat. And you’re like half my size. Well… half my height, anyways.” “I’ve got a fast metabolism. Muscle burns calories. When you gain some, you’ll see what I mean.” Candi said. “That’s why I’m like a space heater.” “Will cheesecake be back on my diet then?” Kat asked hopefully. “Occasionally.” Candi grunted with effort as she flexed, so that while her abdominals and obliques swelled, her pectorals gained a deeply grooved definition, lifting the girl’s breasts so that her shirt stretched over them. “I’m not sure where the extra size comes from when I flex. It might be a magical ability. It might come from the dimension of mass. I don’t know.” “I think it comes from the dimension of badass cool chicks,” Kat opined. She blinked. “Okay, but that still doesn’t answer the question. I guess we’ll call this flex-off a tie. How about biceps, next. You can teach me how to flex, then show me just how in awe of my amazing guns you are.” “It works pretty much the same from front or back. Cheat for the viewer. Use an angle that gives an illusion that they’re more impressive than they really are.” Candi guided Kat’s arm, forearm and wrist into place. “You’re selling yourself. Now on the count of three, give them your best squeeze.” She sat her forefinger on Kat’s arm. Then, as the girl shook with effort, raising her peak nearly a quarter of an inch, Candi bent her wrist to make it look like her hand was being raised. She looked wide-eyed and took in a deep breath. “Okay.. That’s really good. You were hiding this, weren’t you?” “They don’t call me the Big Kat for nothing,” Kat boasted, not quite managing to hold a straight face. After another second, she snickered, then snorted, trying to hold in a solid belly laugh. “Okay, seriously. Your turn. Let’s see how big you can flex it.” “I need for you to promise me that you aren’t going to..” Candi started. “-think less of you for being so tiny?” Kat interrupted, her voice carrying over Candi’s commentary. “I promise. Just do your best.” “I hope that I’m able to come close to your display.” Candi held her arm straight out to the side, parallel to the ground. As she bent her elbow to ninety degrees, her bicep’s peak rose to be halfway up the height of her forearm. The sections of it were clearly defined, while rows of striations covered them. A few veins showed, with one that was as thick as a finger going over the peak. “You’re right.” Kat said. “I can barely notice anything on your spindly, stick-figure limb.” A pink flush showed on her cheeks. “I apologize for being so disappointing.” Candi said, “My poor diet and laziness have me wasted away to almost nothing.” “You’re going to have to put in the hours if you want to impress me from now on,” Kat said. “No more slacking just because you studied all night for exams. No more staying up all night to study, either. You need your sleep if you’re going to get big and strong! Am I going to have to come and oversee all your workouts?” Kat’s drill sergeant imitation stopped as she watched her friend flex. Candi’s bicep peak rose up along the side of her forearm, with the sound of her pulse being noticeable. She closed her eyes a little as she said, ”If you look at Comet Girl’s pictures, you’ll notice that she’s able to flex up to her wrist like this.” “Not that I would object…” Kat added in an awed, murmured non sequitur.“I mean that she’s able to do this much without activating her hyper-flexing power.” Candi added, “I hope that you’re able to see the slight upward bowing of my upper arm.” She shifted her hand from clenching her fist to having her fingers pointed upward. Candi then concentrated on flexing as far as she could, her arm shaking a little while she grunted with effort. Kat started to reach over, then hesitated just a hair’s breadth from Candi’s flexed arm. The faintly mocking expression on her face had been wiped clean, but nothing had settled in to replace it as she stared at her friend’s massive, deeply cut and thickly vascular limb. Her eyes traced along the vein leading from her distended deltoids up her thick bicep until it split and peaked higher than Candi’s fingertips, with the girl’s spread fingers laying against its side. Her striations covered the expanse of flesh like deeply cut furrows. She was silent as she watched Candi’s bicep fill out, with her peak settling in well beyond the reach of her fingers. Candi gasped as a wave of pleasure replaced the feeling of exertion from flexing. Her eyes took a few seconds to focus and her head to stop swimming. She whispered, “Thank you, Goddess.” and took a couple of breaths. “I.. I hope that I’m able to flex out enough for you. If you want to, I could relax it down and flex it again with you straddling it.” I’ve never seen it filled out this much, Candi thought. No wonder I can do so much in my curls. Kat blinked, her mouth working silently as she stared. Candi relaxed her arm and held her hand in front of Kat’s face, snapping her fingers. Even that small movement made her forearm flex and bulge, sending ripples along it. “Hey,” she said, “anybody home?” Did I break her? she wondered. Kat caught her breath and cleared her throat. “Sorry,” she croaked. “That was, um… wow.” “Maybe I can do a little more than twelve as a max lift.” Candi replied. “We can get a couple pictures of you on top of it before we go to my mystery surprise job.” Kat shook her head. “Thanks, but I think I might get afraid of heights. How about we just do a side-by-side comparison shot for the website. You guys usually only do those with each other, so nobody knows what those cannons look like next to normal arms.” “Now you’re looking to overshadow me in a picture for my fans. I see what you’re doing, sneaky girl.” Candi replied. “Shut it,” Kat chuckled, “you love showing off at least as much as we love seeing it. Now show me how to do this thing, and then we can go to work.” “If you keep encouraging me like this, I might end up punching a hole in the ceiling by flexing.” Candi replied. “Challenge accepted, muscle mouse.” Kat chuckled.* * * “I’ve been quiet about the job because I expect you to not like it. Our last attempt didn’t go too well, but I think this one will be much better.” Candi said. “I’m not getting the best feeling about this. Is it Thikk the Orc, or whatever his face was?” Kat asked. Candi tilted her head, pretending to be interested in something above and to the side. “It might be him. He pays pretty well.” She waited a second, then looked back to Kat. Kat shrugged. “Well, he did pay better than twice what the next best-paying job was offering. Of course, we only stuck it out for one day…” Candi turned to have her back to Kat, “My evil plan is working.” “You don’t have evil plans,” Kat snorted. “At best, you have naughty plans.” “She knows!” Candi stage whispered, “The girl is wiley. I must somehow distract her so that she is forced to agree.” “You should stuff her mouth with toffee so she can’t blab your secret,” Kat advised. Candi flexed her lats, back and gluteal muscles, so that her outfit pulled tight over them as they grew. “Hypnotizing her is sure to bring about her compliance.” Kat made little corkscrews in front of her eyes with her fingers. “I must obey the bouncing buttocks,” she intoned. “That’s better. Now that I have complete control of your mind, I can reveal all to you.” Candi pivoted to face Kat. “Yes, we are going to answer Throgg the Ogre’s advertisement. We will do whatever odd tasks he requires. We will also take home the payment that he is offering.” She paused for a second, then added, “You will awaken from your trance, but will remain under the complete control of the mouse.” Kat arched her eyebrow. “You’re kidding, right? Now that I’ve cleverly gotten you to reveal your skulduggery… but I approve. Okay, Lats-a-licious. Let’s do this thing.” “Does this mean that you aren’t completely dominated by my powerful mental abilities, even after I revealed my plans to you?” Candi partially closed one eye and opened the other wide, while holding her hands out in an exaggerated gesture. “My fortitude is every bit the match for your mighty mental muscles,” Kat boasted. “That’s only because the gym doesn’t have a mind machine. If it did, I could have a glass skull to show off a throbbing brain. On second thought, I don’t want there to be a mind machine. That would freak me out. I’ll stick to working the normal muscles. Anyways, how did you get here? Throgg’s office is only about a mile away. We could jog.” “You could jog; I’d like to still have a little air left once we get there. Not seeing double from oxygen deprivation would be a bonus, too. Let me grab my bike and I can pedal alongside.” “That sounds good to me.” Candi accompanied Kat as she unlocked her bicycle and got onto it. Once the girl was ready, Candi started running. “I have the address memorized, so just follow me.” Once she left the sidewalk and got onto the street, she accelerated. “If I get hit by a car trying to keep up, you’re carrying me and the bike the rest of the way,” Kat panted as she sped up to try and keep pace. “Does that mean you want to speed up so that there’s no chance of your getting hit from behind?” Candi asked, “A short distance like this is something that you should be able to sprint. You’re going to have to be in top shape so that we can go out superheroing.” “Why are we friends again?” “There’s a few answers. One of them has to be correct. You enjoy the odd events that I find. You’re able to put up with my sense of humor. You like watching me work-out in person and copping occasional feels.” Candi replied. “I got confused... when picking my... fanpage. I thought... I was clicking... Nikita,” Kat panted. “I’ll accept any fans that I can get. I’m not too picky. Does that mean that you don’t want to have the three free flexing or strength show-off feats for today?” Candi slowed down when she saw that Kat was struggling. Kat slowed a little to get her wind back. She swallowed. “Nope. It means I’m gonna make you work for them,” Kat answered. “Some celebrity. I have to beg fans to pay attention to me.” “I don’t think you have to do much begging with your fans,” Kat averred. “Maybe with Heather’s fans, but your fans seem pretty loyal.” “I’m not trying to get anyone to abandon her. People can be fans of more than one person. Also, she’s divine and has worshippers.” Candi replied, “I don’t think anyone’s praying to my legs, abs or biceps.” “Are we almost there?” Kat asked. “If we keep this pace much longer, I’m gonna need to pee.” “We’re over halfway. It’s just a few more blocks.” Candi replied, “I’m not going to make the distances that you’re biking any longer than your fitness level allows.” Kat started muttering under her breath as she struggled to keep pace. Despite her exceptional hearing, Candi couldn’t quite make out the words, although she thought ‘pineapple’ and ‘rutabaga’ might figure into the chant. They arrived at the construction site where they had worked for Throgg the previous time. Candi did some stretches while Kat locked up her bicycle. “You can keep all of our papers and stuff in your backpack? My pockets are just for show. Nothing fits inside of them.” Kat parked and locked her bike, slipping the chain through the helmet straps. She nodded, waiting for herself to recover the rest of the way before answering. “Yes. And I promise not to alter your contract in any binding ways, should it fall into my clutches,” she finally managed. She flashed Candi a scimitar grin. “It looks like he’s milked all of the money he could out of building the studio.” Candi pointed to the nearly finished building. “It’s hideous, but what should we expect. He is a monster, after all.” “Kat pursed her lips and nodded judiciously. “If you squint hard enough, it doesn’t look too bad. Specifically, you have to squint hard enough to keep any light from getting in.” Candi led them to the door, holding it open for Kat. They walked past the desks of the armored and armed hobgoblins. A few of them had incorporated firearms into their gear, by attaching blades to them. “We’re just here to talk to Throg about the job.” When one of them grunted a response and pointed to the back of the room, she looked to Kat, “This isn’t what anyone expects hobgoblins to be like, is it?” “Aren’t they like orange goblins with a hormone imbalance? I think that’s what I remember.” “That’s pretty much everything that I know. Our experts on faerie are kind of busy lately, so I don’t think we need to call them up on this.” Candi knocked lightly at the office door, then opened it, “Mr. Throgg, we’re here about the job.” “Oh, it's you again.” The ogre’s voice dripped with contempt. “What makes you think that I’ll hire the pair of you a second time?” “We successfully completed every task last time, and we didn’t tell anyone about our suspicions of you somehow doing some kind of fraud.” Candi replied. “Me? Commit fraud?” The ogre replied, “I follow the exact letter of the law.” He grasped both hands to the lapels of his Hawiian print shirt. “Contracts are a specialty of mine, and I stayed within the boundaries of the ones I had with both the city and the insurance companies.” “So, does that mean you’ll be willing to let us sign work contracts with you again?” Candi asked. “Of course!” Throgg answered, “Your mischief was the best thing that could have happened for my bottom line.” He opened a desk drawer and took out some papers. “I have your ones from last time, but I’ll need you to fill out an electronic work application. It seems that this world has an aversion to signed forms. No one appreciates penmanship.” He sighed, “Once you finish, I’ll give you your work assignments.”* * * As they got to the site of their work assignment, Candi said to Kat, “I just realized something. When you asked me to shift to therianthrope form as I was filling out our applications, you didn’t do it just to feel the velvety fur on my shoulders, did you?” “No human can resist fluffiness, but that wasn’t my only reason.” Kat replied. “What do you mean?” Candi asked? “Think about it for a second.” She answered. “Oh… You didn’t. You did. I lived out a pun.” Candi said. “I used a mouse to fill out computerized forms.” Kat added. “You won that round, big time.” Candi pointed to the faded mural painted on the building’s facade. “He wants us to inspect the factory building. That’s it. There’s no series of impossible tasks for us to accomplish. Something feels wrong.” “So… like a treasure hunt, except with no defined treasure at the end of it? What’s supposed to stop us from just sitting down inside the door and taking an eight-hour lunch break?” “We’re supposed to give a written report at the end of the day. Also, there’s going to be people going inside of there after us, and I don’t want them walking into some kind of a deathtrap.” Candi replied. “Spoilsport,” Kat grumped. “This is why I never use my powers on myself…” “Neither do I.” Candi said. “Um, you can’t. That’s not a comparison.” Kat replied. “What was this place used for, anyway?” “The sign is about two stories high.” Candi said. “I’m not blind, but seeing an elephant doesn’t help.” “It’s the Elephantine Motors factory. They closed down around 1950.” Candi replied. “So it’s been abandoned for about 70 years.” Kat added. “What did they build, miss trivia?” “It wasn’t sports cars. It was trucks, locomotives, cargo ship sections and construction vehicles.” Candi answered. “I think they also made army stuff.” “They made everything that collectors want.” Kat said, “Follow-up question: what does the boss think he’s gonna do with this place?” “He said it's going to be rental apartments.” Candi replied, “Who wouldn’t want to live in an ancient metalworking facility?” “Murderous science-fiction robots.” Kat said, “Factories are like chambers of horrors for them.” “You’ve got to wonder why they aren’t built with a fear of factories, junk yards and power plants.” Candi added, “Anyways, I’m sure that everything inside is going to be safe and well-organized.” “I half-expect that we’re going to be electrocuted by the lightswitch as soon as we go in.” Kat walked up to the front door and tried it. “Locked. Of course.” “This isn’t the classic killer fantasy dungeon.” Candi said, “There’s no way that the entrance is going to be a deathtrap.” She grabbed the latch on the metal door and turned it. There was ‘Snap!’ as the lock gave way. “I made my open locks roll.” “By cheating at it.” Kat replied. “It worked.” When Candi pulled the door open, the steel bas-relief cartoon elephant fell off of the front of the building. “Kat! Run!” She held her hands above her head as her partner dove into the lobby. Candi’s legs, back muscles and triceps swelled out as she braced to catch it. The sign hit her with an echoing ‘Pang!’, cracking the pavement as she absorbed the impact. “I did it! I caught it!” Candi lowered her hands down to the level of her head, then pushed them upwards rapidly to send the sign upwards. “That wasn’t so hard to do. This is going to be a piece of cake.” Kat was getting to her feet from her sudden lunge. She thought, If that had been in a movie, people would think it was just there to have me show-off. As the sign reached the apex of Candi’s toss, it lazily spun from nearly vertical and then all the way over as it started back towards the earth. Kat raised her hand halfway in an effort to point and was about to shout a warning, but was a hair too slow as the steel elephant fell on Candi’s neck and back and tackled the young bodybuilder to the ground. A few seconds later, the sign moved. “Ow!” Candi winced as she crawled out from underneath the sign. “That was definitely not impressive.” “I wish I’d had time to get out my cellphone… a clip of that would’ve made the bloopers reel on Blazing Trails, I promise you.” “I get the feeling that I’m going to be at the receiving end of some slapstick pratfalls.” Candi said. “Maybe it’s my powers at work,” Kat suggested. “I’m the squishy one, or am I referred to as a ‘crunchy’?” “I’m not the one who said it.” Candi straightened her tank-top. “I’m glad that I can regenerate. Um, can you tie the shirt’s strap for me? It sorta tore. I don’t want it to be just faith that keeps my top on.” It’s not like you’ve got the typical superhuman perkiness to hold it up, Kat thought as she put a knot into the fabric. “You’re going to come out of this with no clothes left, aren’t you?” “I’m not planning on that.” Candi replied, “I don’t think Throgg will care. He probably thinks all human types are ugly. Anyways, we made it into the entrance.” “I think this is going to be a long day.” Kat said. “It wouldn’t be fun if it were easy.” Candi answered. It was over an hour later when Kat said, “So far, we’ve found offices of antique typewriters, lots of old catalogs, and a safe filled with nothing.” “I was half-expecting post-apocalyptic ghouls or something awful to have been waiting for us.” Candi opened the door to the factory floor and stepped inside. “Oh, wow. This room is gigantic.” “Let me get the lights. Some of us can’t see in the dark.” Kat levered the knife switch to turn on the lights with a ‘Choom!’, followed by a low electric hum. “This room has everything.” She pointed around to each item as she saw it. “There’s a rickety walkway over some open,metal vats. There’s exposed wiring. There’s some half-finished trucks made of rust, and.. I’ve got to get a closer look at that!” Candi jogged across the factory floor behind Kat, “That is 100% the stuff of robots’ nightmares.” “A multistory hydraulic press. I bet that’s how they made the truck bodies or tank parts or whatever.” Kat said. “Heavy steel cigarette lighters. They overbuilt everything back then, right?” Candi replied. “The lighters were made of steel. The furniture was made of steel. Even the windows were made of steel.” Kat walked beneath the press, looking upwards at the mechanism. “This was used to make the steel plates people used for writing instead of paper.” “You’ve got the idea. People were also as tough as nails and were thankful for everything.” Candi said. As Kat pivoted in place, they heard a loud ‘CLICK’ and the floor shifted. Kat stumbled losing her footing, and a pair of retaining plates pistoned out and clamped over her foot. “Ow!” Kat yelped, “it’s got me!” Candi looked up as the press’ mechanism started. “It’s coming down fast. There’s no time to look for an ‘off’ switch. I could pull you free.” “Don’t you mean I could pull your leg off and save the rest of you?” Kat replied, “I’d rather not lose limbs right now... or ever!” “I could pry the clamps loose and pull you to safety.. No I can’t, not without pulling your foot off.” Candi held her hands over her head to catch the lowering metal platform. Her hands dented into it while her feet pushed divots into the metal stage. She grunted as her calves and thighs swelled out into chiseled definition. Candi grunted with effort, “This isn’t working. It’s too heavy for me, and it’s driving me in like a nail.” “My earlier statement about being squishy is still true.” Kat sat a hand on Candi’s hip as she crouched next to her. “Can your powers..” Candi pulled in a breath between her clenched teeth, “help?” “I can try, but it’s not like it has an on and off switch!” Kat shouted. “Do something.”“I’m..” Candi grunted, “doing something, but not enough.” She hissed in a breath, “What can your powers do?” “Is this really the time? I make you lucky!” Kat shouted. “That’s it!” Candi shuddered with effort, her body aching. She whispered, “Please help. Goddess, please help..” Sweat glistened over her as she strained to keep the press from closing. “I can’t let Kat die.” She thought, If I crouch down, I've already lost. I won’t be able to stand back up. Candi felt dizzy and her eyes lost focus. Is my body shutting down? She then screamed as every part of her felt like it was on fire. Her already sizable muscles thickened, accompanied by the sound of the machine’s hydraulic pumps suddenly whining and then going silent. The steel plate above bowed upward as her biceps expanded into it. Metal groaned and squealed as Candi flexed through the machine. The wide steel support columns that formed walls to either side of the press were stretched upwards and then tore. After a few seconds, the upper steel plate, as well as the frame of the machine was torn in half. Some parts of the device were flung across the cavernous chamber to crash into the unfinished trucks on one side and through the concrete and brick wall at the other. The remainder crashed to the floor just inches from the two girls. This had only taken a few seconds, and Candi’s muscles relaxed mostly down afterwards. “What.. What happened?” She looked different, with her hyper-defined physique now reacting to any motion with the associated muscles swelling momentarily. Her resting arms, held straight up and down, now showed her biceps’ peaks standing out from them to look like chiseled blocks. “Um… it looks like you had a radiation accident and grew spider powers. That’s how that works, right? Check out your arms!” “Is that like being bitten by a radioactive sheep and gaining lots of hair?” Candi asked. “Also like being bitten by a radioactive dog and becoming sensitive to whistles,” Kat riffed. “Um… want a hand out of your pit?” “Are you telling me that you’re only now noticing that I’ve got a show-off amount of definition?” Candi raised one of her hands and looked to see that her resting bicep swelled out to about wrist level just from bending her elbow. “Oh, wow.. I’m ultra-pumped. Maybe I need to put in some more serious effort in the gym, especially before photo shoots or competitions.” She paused for a second, “I didn’t just get shorter..” Candi looked to see that her feet had been pushed into the steel support pad that made up the hydraulic press’ floor. “I’m kind of stuck now, too. And.. why are your eyes glowing?” “Um… you know how things fell just so, just now?” Kat asked as she reached down to grab onto Candi’s outstretched arm with both hands. Even with both hands together, she couldn’t fully encompass the mass of the shorter girl’s thick forearms. “My power amplifies karma. So… our accumulated karma was in the good, so we got lucky. I didn’t realize I’d activated it.” “If the karma needle was in the negative, it would have fallen on us.” Candi replied, “I get it.” Her legs flexed as she pulled her right foot upwards, swelling out her quadriceps nearly as wide as her chest. The metal that her foot was sunk into groaned and then tore. She repeated the action for her other foot. “So much for my shoes. What’ll happen if I step on a nail?” “Bullets bounce off you, right? I’m pretty sure a loose nail isn’t getting through.” “Admitting to that takes some of the sense of danger away.” Candi replied, “Don’t you want to keep our day more exciting?” She squatted down next to Kat and slid a finger into either side of where the clamps had closed around the girl’s shin. “It’s also lucky that this grabbed you in just the right way.” Candi pulled on the metal plates, collapsing them out to the sides. She then put her hands in to pull the metal floor open to either side of Kat’s leg. The metal that she’d crushed glowed a dull red from the pressure. “You’re not hurt, are you?” “Nothing I can’t walk off,” Kat confirmed. “Looks like I got all-around lucky, despite nearly getting squished.” “I sorta blacked out for a few seconds during, um, that.” She gestured to where the press used to be. “You blasted it apart?” “Yes, that would totally explain your sudden development, wouldn’t it?” Kat snarked. “Or, you know, there’s the entirely less likely answer that you broke it when you hyperflexed into next Tuesday.” “I, um.. Didn’t know that I could do that.” Candi replied, “Maybe my needs were answered just then. She looked down to herself, “I’m definitely more swole. Did I gain any favors from the boobie fairy, or is that just my pecs?” “Comet Girl did not visit while we were in the press, if that’s what you’re asking,” Kat answered. “I think that Shayna or Genie fit the magical part of that even better.” Candi pursed her lips, “I’ve got to make due with my mouse-sized ones.” Kat shook her head mock-piously. “I will pity you for your tiny C-cups,” she teased. “Compared with Cherry or those fae, I’m practically flat-chested.” Candi replied, “Even you’ve got more in that department than I do. I guess I’ll have to suffer through my inadequacy. So.. I think I’ve done enough damage here. What’s next on the map?” Kat pulled the map out of her pocket and unfolded it, “Well, now that we’ve almost got a hole punched through to the basement, maybe we should head down there?” She put it away and asked, “When did I volunteer to keep the map and to record where we’ve been?” “I’m the tank and you’re the mage, so it’s my job to run into danger while you stay back.” Candi answered, “You’ve also got pockets.” “You didn’t have to wear your denim-mail bikini,” Kat said. “It’s the best outfit for dealing with urban fantasy adventures. It is surprisingly protective. If I didn’t wear it, how would I show off my legs and the buns of steel?” Candi replied, “Besides, it’s either these or huge tent sized pants.” She thought for a second. “Are you suggesting that I not wear anything?” “I don’t even want to think of where you’d put your keys if you did that,” Kat snorted. “Nudists can’t worry about home security or money,” Candi replied. “...or skin cancer?” “It’s the price they pay for being able to jiggle and dangle as much as they want,” Candi said. “I have to settle for my incredibly modest attire. You do notice that as someone’s muscular definition increases their outfits tend to shrink. Working out affects clothing even worse than washing in hot water does.” “Sure.. Sure it does.” Kat replied. “How do we get to the basement?” Candi asked. “There’s supposed to be stairs at the side of the factory floor,” Kat peeked at the map, then across the room. “But someone’s tossed about fifty tons of steel framing and collapsed the brick wall where the door is supposed to be.” “Next time you’re caught in a death trap, I’ll make sure to keep property damage in mind.” Candi said. “The corridor goes under where the press is. That’s got to have won the architect some kind of design award.” Kat paused. “Oh, look! An opportunity presents itself. How many show-off feats do you owe me, now?” “After this, you’ll still have two of the bonus ones left.” Candi replied. “Excellent. Let me get my phone-cam rolling.” Kat held up her phone and a light came on, illuminating Candi with its harsh glare. “And… action!” Candi walked to the edge of the steel plating that formed the base of the press. “The weight of this isn’t the problem. It’s getting it free so that it doesn’t just flop back into place that’ll be tricky.” She knelt and traced a finger along the edge of the metal. “There’s no seam to grab onto. Get behind something. I don’t want any shrapnel to hit you.” “How’m I supposed to film if I’m hiding behind cover?” “Your phone will be in the open. I just don’t like to see pieces of masonry tearing through my friends.” Candi held one arm out to the side and slowly flexed, so that her bicep swelled out to boulder size. “You can stay behind here and set the phone on the side of it to record.” Kat stepped behind Candi’s expanded bicep and watched it for a couple of seconds. “I’m not sure about what you’re planning on doing, but your invulnerable shield is kind of wiggling at the edges.” “I don’t have much practice at keeping a steady amount of hyper-flexing.” Candi replied, “This is kind of new to me.” She waited as she saw Kat extend her arm to the side, holding the cellphone in the open. “This should be like breaking boards during practice.” Candi’s triceps swelled out into an exaggerated shape as she prepared. “Hold up a second. You break boards in practice?” “Yeah” “You break boards…” “Yeah, I just said…” You break boards.” “Well, okay, they’re made out of slabs of granite, but it’s the same principle.” Kat nodded smugly. “I’ve got to be sure I keep proper form. I don’t want to end up injuring myself. You can break your knuckles if you hit someone wrong.” Candi replied. “Maybe I could; I kind of doubt you could, though,” Kat teased. “I may have to fight D&D iron golems or some sort of invulnerable villains and I don’t want to be unprepared.” Candi took a couple of deep breaths as she concentrated, then punched the floor just next to the steel plating. “Yah!” Her fist and forearm sank into the reinforced concrete, going nearly to her elbow. As she did so, the crash of the impact echoed in the room, while bits of stone bounced off of herself. Cracks radiated out from the point of impact, across the floor. “Now I’ve got a way to reach and get a handhold.” She relaxed her biceps down so that it returned to its resting size, only standing out half a foot above her arm. Kat waited for a few moments. “Okay… and what are you going to do with that handhold?” “We’re going into the dungeon the easy way, from above.” Candi squatted next to the hole she had blasted and reached a hand into it. “I sort of scraped away an inch of metal from the edge of it. I hope that Throgg won’t mind.” Once she had her forearm down into the ground, she said, “I’ve got the bottom edge of it. My plan is to lift the edge of the metal plate up and then flip it over so we can just drop down into the basement.” She bent her wrist to push her fingers forward, to go beneath the metal. The side of Candi’s bicep pushed into the plate, with the metal groaning. “I think,” Kat said judiciously, “that you’re getting lazy in your old age. You ought to transport me to the lower level like a proper lady.” She sniffed and tossed her head, raising her chin and making the black ringlets of her hair bounce. “I should be more careful.” Candi replied, “I’ll do my best to use my incredible stretching powers to lower you down. I just have to get the plate free, first.” She straightened her legs to stand up, causing her quadriceps to swell out, with the deeply cut sections swelling out. Her bicep tensed, pushing out into the thick steel plate. The metal that was pushed away from her growing peak glowed with heat from the sudden increase of pressure. At the same time as she lifted the foot-thick plate from the floor, equally wide steel beams that radiated out from it were torn free to rise out of the ground. They extended to the ends of the factory floor, bowing from their own weight and the weight of the walls rising up on their ends. “First, you get to ride the elevator up.” Kat scowled. “What we want to see is down, though,” she grumbled, but she stepped over to the edge of the platform that she was standing on. “I hope you’ve got some nifty plan for this…” She lowered herself to sit on its edge, then dropped herself to the floor.“I’m making it up as we go along.” Candi replied.**** Meanwhile, at their boss’ office, Throgg had security camera footage showing up on his desk monitor. The city block sized building rose up from the ground, with the outer walls cracking. He chuckled as he punched keys on his mechanical adding machine. “How do they find ways to cause so much destruction. It is a gift.” He pulled the machine’s lever, causing its gears to whirl and clack. Once the display showed the result, he laughed, “So much profit for me..”****“Candi? Please hold still for a minute and look around the room. I think your impromptu solution to our problem may not be working out too well.” Kat said. “No wonder I’m feeling a little strain...” The walls of the building showed cracks along them. A frame of steel girders sat along the bottoms of the brickwork, attached to the network of them that Candi had lifted out of the ground. She did a small grin, “I guess it’s a good thing that the building is built like a large box, right? That’s probably what’s keeping it all balanced so that it doesn’t topple over.” “I guess,” Kat agreed. “Uh, what do I do now? I’m sort of stuck for ideas.” Candi said. “We’re supposed to check out the basement,” Kat pointed out. “Either you can break this plate away and lower us down, or, I suppose, you can find some way to lift the building up so that the basement is at ground level. I leave it to your imagination.” “I don’t have any way to pick it up any further than I can reach.” Candi replied. “The basement is probably attached to the same framing, so it should... come up as the building rises. My arm doesn’t stretch.” She bent her elbow to about 90 degrees, causing her bicep to swell out further into the metal plate. Glowing rivulets of melted steel ran down her bicep where it pushed its way into it. “Do you have any idea how surreal this conversation is? I mean… the difficulty with transplanting an entire building doesn’t lie in the fact that it’s stupidly heavy; it’s simply that you’re too short.” “I gain an impressive one inch in height if I shift to my therianthrope form.” Candi said. “I have to get it raised far enough to move it to the side, or it’ll just sink right back down.” She thought for a second, then cocked her head, asking, “Hyperflex beneath it?” “As much as it would be fun to watch, that is a monumentally bad idea.” Kat replied, “Do you know how far you fill out at your max? Are you going to punch it downwards and cause an earthquake with the displacement it causes? Are you doing to launch it upwards? Will it topple over or just crumble apart? Every one of those is not only outside the parameters of our contract, they’re also bad.” “I could just set it back down and pull open the metal plate that’s in the floor so we can drop down.” Candi replied, “That’s kind of what I was expecting to happen.” Kat pursed her lips. “Could you… um… could you tear the plate free of the floor?” “That should be a lot easier than lifting a few hundred tons like I’m doing right now.” Candi replied. “Um… hundred tons?” Kat raised an eyebrow. “How much do you think this building weighs?” “A thousand tons or two? I didn’t feel like bragging.” Candi replied, “It feels good to have some tension against my bicep, though.” “Yeah… based on the footprint of the building, I’m thinking it’s twenty times, maybe thirty times that. Buildings weigh a lot. “It was kind of a strain to lift it with you standing on the plate.” Candi said. “Is that a crack about my butt?” Kat asked. “My butt isn’t that fat, is it?” “I shouldn’t answer that if I value my safety,” Candi replied. “If it’s any consolation, my one is just as wide.” She absently lowered and raised where she was holding onto as she talked, causing creaking and grating sounds from the building. “I hope this is worth using one of your free show off coupons on.” “You have to finish the feat before I can judge,” Kat said piously. “You drive a hard bargain.” Candi bent her knees to lower herself. “I just realized something. The only way that I have to set this down is to relax my bicep and let it drop a few feet. I squeezed my hand through where I was holding onto it. The building’s being supported by my bicep being flexed out through the plate and going a bit beneath it.” She paused for a few seconds, “Brace yourself.” She clenched her teeth and let it drop. The ground shook, accompanied by a loud ‘Boom!’. Candi looked around, “It didn't collapse. “We’re in luck.” Kat smiled slightly and raised an eyebrow. “You think?” “We’re earning our pay.” Candi stood on top of the steel plate and took hold of where she had crushed it. The metal squealed and groaned as she tore it and rolled it backwards. “It’s kind of dark down there. There’s probably a twenty foot drop. Could you do that, or should I put in something for you to climb on?” “I could do a twenty foot drop if I didn’t mind a broken leg,” Kat answered. “Maybe we can come up with a better solution?” “I’m sure that the gravel that fell off of the platform would act as a good cushion to break your fall.” Candi looked around, “There’s a bunch of jagged metal for you to use as a ladder. Ooh, I have a solution. It would normally cost you one of your tickets, but you’ll get a free pass.” Candi dropped into the basement, landing with a thud. “Can you see me?” “Plain as day,” Kat answered. “Why do you ask?” “It’s dark down here.” Candi replied, “I might not be in view.” Kat shrugged. “I’ve never had that sort of problem. There’s always a little light for me to see with.” “So, you can see like a cat does?” “I guess?” Kat said. “I’ve never really thought about it before. I see better than my camera does, in any case.” “It’s good to have special abilities like that.” Candi replied, “Here’s how we’re getting you down. Think of this as an elevator. I’ll pause when I’m in place. You get on top, then I’ll lower you down.” Candi held her arm out to the side, parallel to the ground. She slowly flexed until she felt her bicep bump against the edges of the hole she had opened up in the floor plate. The steel lifted a few inches from the ground as the width of her peak filled the space. At the same time, it pressed into the sides of the corridor, causing the brickwork to crack and dust to rain down. Kat clambered into the center of the platform. “If you're going down, let’s get moving,” she said. Gotta hold still, Candi thought. I think I feel her walking on top. She slowly relaxed, lowering her peak. “Let me know if you’re going to fall off.” Her peak lost width as it lost height, until it extended upwards to the level of her wrist. “Did you just do all of this in an elaborate scheme to have me straddling on top of your biceps?” Kat asked as she kept one hand on top of Candi’s head to maintain her balance. “I may be devious, but I don’t have that level of planning.” Candi replied, “By the way, you’re the first person to ever get a ride like this. If you want, you can stay up there, but doorways will be a little difficult to navigate.” “Thanks for the offer, but I tend to prefer to be able to move under my own power,” Kat said as she slid off of Candi’s peak and dropped to the ground. “I didn’t expect that getting into the basement would require so much effort. It should be easy to continue from here.” Candi said as they headed down the corridor. “I don’t see there being anything else that we’ll have to deal with.” Kat winced, “You just cursed us. That’s the statement that no one ever says if they want to have trouble.” “Exactly. We’re almost through searching through the building, and you’ve still got coupons.” Candi replied, “I don’t want for you to be disappointed. Anyway, we’re in a basement. There can’t be much of anything down here.” “You realize you’re under the effect of my power, right? How much bad karma do you think saying that aloud is likely to bring? And then repeating it…” “Would saying good things bring me positive karma?” Candi asked, “Isn’t it actions that charge up the cosmic karma-tron? Otherwise, wouldn’t murder mystery writers really be in trouble?” “Not all words betoken action, but some do. Some words have karmic weight when spoken in the right, foreboding circumstances.” “It’s kind of like magical effects, then? I can see why I’m not a mage.” Kat nodded. That’s why you never say- The building shook, interrupting Kat’s train of thought. There was a low, bass rumble, followed by the thunderous crash of shearing stone and tearing metal. “That came from both in front and in back of us. It’s like hearing disasters in stereo.” Candi said. “I told you you were jinxing us!” Kat yelped as debris started raining through the hole that was their only escape to the ground floor of the building. “We were planning on going forward anyways.” Candi said. “Could you take your phone out? I can’t see in complete darkness.” “Oh… is it that dark?” Kat fumbled and pulled out her phone. “I hadn’t actually realized.” “One thing kind of strikes me as odd,” Candi said; “you’re the most prolific poster on my Blazing Trails profile, so I can guess that you kind of like getting special favors. It seems kind of odd that you were blase about being given a seat on top of my peak.” Kat shrugged. “I may be the first person to snag a ‘cep ride from you, but it’s not like that was the first ‘cep ride anyone’s ever gotten. I was busier just trying not to fall off, cause a two-story drop onto my noggin struck me as a bad idea.” “What about resting size?” Candi asked, “Or is that something to do when we’re not in danger.” “You’re the first mouse I’ve ever met who enjoyed fishing,” Kat said. Her glowing hazel eyes flashed with amusement. “Fishing?” “For compliments, you goof.” “I like for other people to be happy, and, yes, I really do enjoy attention,” Candi replied. “I’m not asking people to literally pray to me as if I were a goddess,” She whispered, Though I wouldn’t stop them. “I just like compliments, and us fuzzy types live off of them and physical contact.” “Well, if you were fuzzy, I’d happily scratch behind your ears,” Kat teased. “My mouse form is more cuddly, but I think the fur hides my definition.” Candi replied, “No one would notice it at all. I’d just look like a skinny twig.” “We can test that theory, later… after we find a way out of here,” Kat suggested. “You’ve got a deal.” Candi replied. “So, I guess we found out what that big noise was from,” Kat said as they rounded a corner. “What are you talking about?” Candi asked. “You can’t see- oh. Yeah, let’s get a little closer so you can get a better look. I don’t think we’re getting out this way,” Kat mused as they proceeded a bit further. An enormous locomotive engine had fallen through the building, landing so it was trapped between the ground floor and the basement and thoroughly filling the hole it had fallen through with its body and debris. Candi stopped and stared. “No. That can’t be.” She held her arms straight down, with her hands clenched. “Did it really wait decades to be able to fall through at just the right time?” “I think it had a little help,” Kat reached a hand to her side to cup over the peak of one of Candi’s biceps, “You did show off what this could do by lifting an entire city block.” “How am I to get that out of our path? I can’t just lift it and put it somewhere.” She looked to Kat, “I could probably flatten it by hyperflexing through it.” “That’s a great idea,” Kat enthused. “I’m sure I wouldn’t get crushed under thousands of tons of collapsing building when the ceiling and all the floors above it collapsed on top of us.” She raised an eyebrow. “Maybe start with something a little less likely to result in my death by crushing or asphyxiation, hm?” “There’s got to be some sort of situation that can be remedied by just flexing at it. It’ll probably come up when I’m not thinking about it.” Candi walked up to the locomotive. “I have another idea of how to get us out, but it’s not as flashy. I can hollow out what remains of this rust farm.” She hopped onto the platform on the front of the locomotive and grabbed the front of it. After tearing the front of it open, she punched her fist into the engine block, then walked back, dragging it behind her. “I’m sorry if this doesn’t look as impressive.” “Hollowing out an enormous diesel engine isn’t impressive?” Kat asked. Candi was absently playing with a long, metal piston, twisting it and bending it back and forth while she pondered her approach. Kat blinked. “Um, Candi? Can you do a giraffe?” “What do you mean?” Candi looked confused and Kat nodded significantly at the young bodybuilder’s hands. “Oh, I thought you meant could I shift into one. You mean mold the pistons into one. I don’t see why not.” She set the piston down and hopped back onto the engine. She reached into each cylinder in turn and pulled out the contents, snapping them free. Candi held one end and slid her hand along the piston, squeezing it down to form a leg. “I’m going to have to go with a stylized shape. I’d need to be staring at reference pictures to do a realistic one.” She repeated the action for all four legs, then bent their knees. She used another piston to mold into a head, squeezing the steel out into the animal’s horns. It took a few minutes to get the metal into shape for its head. “I’m not going to try and put a face on it. I don’t want it to come out looking as bad as the gaming miniatures do.” Candi twisted two of the remaining cylinders together and smoothed them into a vaguely cone shape. She kneaded an oversized bolt between her hands, causing the muscles along her arm to dance. “I’ve got to heat this enough to melt it so that I can stick the head and neck together. What do you think of the shapes so far? Do you have any changes you want done?” Kat shook her head mutely. After a moment, she said, “See, that is impressive. I had no idea you were so artistic. Can you do any other animals?” “If you want simple shapes for them, I could do about any animal. They’ll look like they’re made of balloons.” Candi set the heated metal down and pushed her thumb into the bottom of the giraffe's head, indenting the metal. She then dropped the glowing metal in and forced the neck into the slightly smaller hole. “That’s better. I can’t have my art looking awful.” Candi walked into the front of the locomotive and emerged after a few seconds, dragging the drive shaft out. She crushed it lengthwise, then rolled it to smooth it into shape. It took a few more minutes to indent and then force the legs and neck into the main body to have them welded and pinched into place. After adjusting the legs so that it would stand straight, she used a fingertip to push into the steel to sign her name. Candi turned it to face Kat, “What do you think? Would that go well in your bedroom?” “That’s awesome! It’s like a fifty-pound blown-glass sculpture!” Kat eyed it judiciously. “Of course, I’m pretty sure that I can’t carry it; any way you can act as the transporter on this?” “You’ve got my first signed art piece. It’s sure to become a collector’s item. I think you’re off by a factor of ten on its weight, though.” “Right. So… it’s not going on a card table, then, I guess.” “You’re making me work for show off number two, aren’t you?” Candi picked up the statue and walked toward the hollowed-out locomotive. “Oh, I got the whole giraffe on film, so you’re covered for that one. I’m a little curious how you’re going to get the train clear without something else giving way and smooshing me, though.” “We’ve got a few options,” Candi replied. “We can crawl through the locomotive, hoping that there’s not going to be anything behind it. I can grab onto the front of it and drag it backwards.. Nah, that will only have it fill the corridor where we’re standing. I can lift the section that we’re walking under and hope it doesn’t snap in half, squishing you. Or… I can just flatten the whole thing the same way I broke apart the press.” Kat held a hand in front of her mouth and mimed yawning. “You need to try harder, fuzzy.” Candi looked up to Kat, “I’m really out of ideas. That’s all that I have.” Kat considered the engine. “If I walk around this, you’ll keep it from slipping and falling over on me, right?” she asked. “Are you sure there’s enough room on the side of it to squeeze past?” Candi leaned to the side of the corridor to look. “Maybe you could make me a little walking space? Or would that be a really bad idea?” “If you’re not five inches wide right now, you will be if the train slips or the side buckles in.” Candi replied. “I sorta like you at your current width.” “It would be an effective way to shave inches off my waist and butt,” Kat said, “but… yeah, the side effects of that diet program are almost certainly bad.” “Here’s the plan.” Candi said, “I squish the train. Then as soon as I relax back down, we both run through the space. You sprint and I follow right behind. I could toss you over my shoulder and run if you want to go faster.” “Or maybe we could try something that was less likely to lead to my inevitable gruesome demise?” Kat suggested. “What if you shored up the walls with pieces from the press and then squished the train like a tube of toothpaste?” “Doing that won’t give a dramatic sense of urgency,” Candi replied. “I’ll go back and fetch what we’ll need… Let’s both go back. I need some light.” “I have no sense of drama,” Kat said, pulling out her phone again. “I have a sense of self-preservation, instead.” After pulling in half the floor plate and dragging the two stacked halves down the corridor, Candi sat one half of it on it’s side, with the foot wide thickness of it on the floor and the steel plate sitting up most of the way to the ceiling. “I see how to get this in place. I push this, getting up to a good speed, and let it slide along one side of the locomotive. We repeat the same thing for the other side of the corridor and we’ve got roof supports. What do you think?” “I hope it will work? I’m not exactly an expert in materials engineering, but it sounds good.” I love how I’m a part of ‘we’ in this plan.... Kat mused. “Am I being inclusive in our success or am I hoping to halve my share of the blame in my failure? There’s no way to know.” Candi gripped the end of the metal slab, sinking her fingers into it. She lifted the end of it from the floor, saying, “Too bad there’s no way for me to raise the other end. That would make it so much easier.” She let the plate drop to the ground with an echoing ‘Boom!’ that was accompanied by the ground shifting. “Let’s get some speed behind this to carry it into place.” Candi’s feet slid along the ground a few times before she dug them into the cement floor to get the slab moving. “I’m so glad you don’t need me to keep up with you,” Kat chuckled. “I don’t run as fast as the average Chevrolet.” “That’s the only reason I’m not asking you to get the other slab at the same time as this one.” Sparks flew out along the wall that the metal section scraped against as she sped up. “That, and you haven’t completely divorced yourself from reality, you mean,” Kat amended. “I have to keep in mind your abilities and weaknesses, which include your running speed.” Candi sped up into a jog, then ran ahead of Kat. “That’s right, you do,” Kat sniffed. “Neither my strength nor my value is measurable in tons. Or meters per second.” Candi let go of the end of the metal slab just as it got to where the train was. There was a piercing screech as the foot thick plate slid down the side of the locomotive, collapsing the side of it. It came to rest with the end of the metal slab going several yards past the beginning of the train. Kat eyed the metal plate. “How thick is that, really, do you think? Ten inches? More?” “I’d guess a little more than that. It had to be durable enough to support the building, after all.” Candi replied. “And the other plate is equally thick?” “Why wouldn’t it be?” Candi asked. Kat grinned. “I just figured out your next show-off trick…” “Would this be before or after getting it into place?” She cocked her head. Kat frowned. “You may need to reposition them a little bit, actually,” Kat said. “It’s just a guess, but I’m betting that no portion of that train’s structure is as thick or tough as those plates, right? So… I want you to use those plates to flatten the train side-to-side.” “It’ll be fun to find out how Throgg’s going to have this all removed from here,” Candi said. “I’d guess a hundred tons per plate and twice that for the locomotive.” “I have a suspicion that I can hear the gears in his head winding already,” Kat said. Candi put the second plate on its side and sent it to crash its way through the locomotive, as it slid along the first plate. “I see how this can be done.” She pushed her fingers into the plate that was against the train and pushed her other hand against the plate that was abutting the wall. Metal groaned as she crushed the locomotive. “I can only push this as far as I can reach…” Candi thought for a second, then walked forward into the wedge shaped path she had opened up. She hopped up and put her feet out to either side against the steel plates, with her knees up to her chest. Candi kicked her legs out into a side to side split with her toes extended outward. Her calves swelled into waist-thick heart shapes while her quadriceps flexed to wider than her torso. Each section of muscle showed sharply cut definition, accentuated by her veins. The steel slab to one side sank through the brickwork, compressing deep into the soil and rock beyond it. The metal plate on her other side was thrown outward to crush the locomotive instantly and slam through the opposite side wall. The ground shook from the impacts, with masonry dropping from the ceiling to crash to the floor. “I sorta got carried away…” “Just a little,” Kat squeaked. “Can we exit, stage left, now?” “I wanted to be sure that you got your money’s worth.” Candi picked up the giraffe statue. “I also didn’t know what effect I’d get from kicking, so I was kinda surprised, too. I hope it’s wide enough for you.” “Was that a crack about my butt?” Candi blushed brightly, “I can’t top that.”****Candi knocked at the office door and peeked inside, “Good new, Mr. Throgg. We searched out the factory and were able to get back by sundown. That means we get to be paid.” “That’s Throgg. I don’t have a mister as part of it.” He got up from behind his desk. “Did you find what you were sent there for?” “Uh…” Candi peeked over to Kat, “Did we find things?” “We found the basement. Wasn’t that what we were supposed to find? Oh. And we found all the pratfalls and hidden dangers. They’re in my report.” Candi asked, “Report?” “They’ll be in her report, too,” Kat added. “We just have to type it up.” “Whatever the two of you were doing inside of there showed up on the Richter scale.” Throg pointed at Candi, “It doesn’t tax my intellect to deduce it was your doing. I should be charging you for damages!” “Didn’t the contract allow for incidental damage?” Candi gave a weak grin. “Uprooting a million tons of brickwork and steel isn’t what I’d call incidental!...” “It’s what I would call a major cash saving,” Kat countered. “Or were you planning to leave it in situ and work around it? Having us on the payroll and not skimping out on us means that you make money off the fruits of our labors like you never dreamed before.” The ogre steepled his fingers together, “You’re a woman after my hearts.” He slicked his hair back, “I was given full salvage rights as well as a long-term lease on the land for practically nothing. Would you be willing to take a separate agreement for demolitions?” Kat leaned forward, a slow smile spreading across her face. “Let’s discuss terms,” she said....

Mature Content

Haunted Shadows: The Devil's Stone Chapter 1,Haunted Shadows: The Devil's Stone Inaugurate Chapter 1Sometimes you expected the good in life, sometimes you expected the bad... many things of trying to find what you think of what you want, what you deserve, what you need in a desperation of being loved or being isolated. Many times we want to live... many times we just want to die...It's not like the world is ending literally...Although that is what most people think about...Other than laying my head down over on the front school bus in front of me, I laid my arms down, the wheels on the bus, no pun intended, gives out a rhythmic rhyme on the road, the gravel road has a couple of bumps and a few splashes of the water puddles from the side of the roads, the light rain sprinkled not to hard but will later today and the very gentle breeze felt great.Having my black wired Skullcandy Icon 2 Headphones 2011 on, Black Celebration by Depeche Mode, I enjoy how dark this song sounds, it gives out a perfect vibe for a rainy day, the cold and rainy weather mixed with this song gives me comfort.As I leaned up and leaned against the side of the bus, overlooking through the window, the rain continued to drip lightly and I couldn't wait for another sense of time to myself. The city of Chicago, Illinois on a light stormy day of the driven school bus towards White Oak High School, the entire town looks like it will be on the verge of a riot from the streets below of a higher road, the travels of going around the time to collect children to a rotten school... isn't much of a fun time... the large rolling thunderstorms started to get a bit more heavy, as the raindrops kept on hitting the ugly school bus.Most of my time is just listening to the darkness in music, the understanding of horrors of everyday life in one of the most cruel cities in the USA, corrupted by the powers of street gangs at night, the murders or killers just waiting for the right moment to strike their next victim...Sure that is my life of course, danger lurks everywhere in Chicago, it's not like I'm just gonna die from someone being insanely crazy right? Oh wait that's right... I'm slowly becoming one of those people, that is what it means to be a Goth kid right? Maybe... although this growing darkness within me keeps on going, it's a never ending kind of isolation, pain and loneliness. That one...fucked up kind.Along the fading music it has been changed to Bela Lugosi's Dead by Bauhaus, the song gives me a sense of relaxation if I'm going to be honest, the rhythm, the beat, the chilling of the guitar and the little darkness in the vocalist's voice gives out a haunting tune. During the song I couldn't stop staring at the heavy storm clouds piling up, the shades of bluish-gray clouds started to turn into a darker shade of blue, hinting that it will be raining all day or all night.The more I got drawn to the cloudy sky, it felt like I was almost being hypnotized by the clouds just piling up over the other cloud to the next, even if life can sometimes being hypnotizing, life can be gone in a matter of seconds sometimes, and sometimes you can't keep on running away from reality.I always hate my reality, how despicable it is due to the terrible influences of Susan and Ruben Sharp, Ruben Clyde Sharp; an abusive-alcoholic-smoker father of age forty three, his messy short thick black hair covers most of his eyes and the underlining of a small mustache over his lips and around his jawline, knowing that I have his thick messy black hair, I hate being related to him when I resemble mostly towards him. He has those angry or aggressive expressions that can scare me and my sister for life, he has been a scary man even if he was a military soldier, no one on the force messed with him. Ruben has a couple of scars that proves that he is an aggressive soldier, he has a scar on his left neck, most of his short chest hair hides a scar on his upper stomach along with a scar on his left hip, he had no regrets of his scars on his white skin tone. Knowing that Ruben can be scary with his brown fierce eyes, his height is almost the same to mock shorter people than him, he almost reaches up to six point five feet tall.Compared to Ruben is his wife and one of the cruelest mother; Susan Amber Sharp, sharing the same age of forty three Ruben and Susan seemed to be a great match maker in hell, in my case, Lucifer fell in love with Lilith. Whenever I see Ruben or Susan, my reality is a nightmare for living with those two evil lovebirds, a real hellhole. Susan has soft dark blue eyes although, it just shows how her eyes are just a false reflection of black demonic eyes instead. Susan's white skin tone is flawless with no visible scars, she has a beautiful shade of short auburn hair with short red bangs in front of her eyes with fading red at the ends of her hair. Susan has a few common things with Ruben, she is a smoker, she lies just to control what she wants than what others want, she manipulates her own children and mostly makes me fight with my sister. Susan always feels comfort in the chaos she creates and never ceases her satisfaction.Sadly I feel more bad for my sister, Caitlin Sharp since she feels more damaged from the cruel actions of our parents, she takes it more seriously and tries not to talk about it, but always talks to me because of the good things of having a brother. Caitlin and I would usually discover the truth or motivation behind Susan's lies and Ruben's abusive nature.Caitlin Madison Sharp, she's just a year younger than me at the age of fifteen, she carries the brown eyes of Reuben as I carry the blue eyes of Susan, Caitlin also shares the flawless white skin tone to Susan, she has soft curly dark brown hair with galaxy purple highlights on her ends and midway up to her ears. She's an amazing girl and I loved how bright her personality is, while I am the one having a dark personality, even when I noticed the connection of the whole yin and yang balance.Now on my Samsung Galaxy Nexus, Shadow of Love by The Damned began to play with my headphones, I still continued to look out to the pouring rain than listening to the laughter from the other teenagers and from my sister, not caring about the laughter but I at least enjoy the silence even it means, I'm the misfit of the whole school that no one likes to hang out with, I didn't care about being the so called "misfit" at least, and I am not the kind of kid who would hurt another kid for no reason.Flashing my phone to a black screen I can see my face being reflected, my dark gray hat covering over my normal messy black hair, the tired and careless blue eyes additionally with dark bags, my white skin tone gleams a few spots of clouds and rain from outside. I can see a few sparkles of my black leather jacket's gold rings flickering.I mean, sure I look like a bad boy but I'm not exactly a bad boy, just a depressed goth kid who suffers in silence of being abused, lied to, turning towards insanity, negative or dark thoughts fills my life with nothing that truly doesn't matter. Some strange or weirdness for a goth kid who goes through rough problems in the family.I just want a normal life like everyone else, I want to laugh like everyone else, I want to tell funny stories or jokes, I want to smile brightly like everyone else, I want to play games like everyone else and etc. but honestly... is it worth it? To be like everyone else? To be normal? I never wanted a life for being a goth but I was drawn to the whole culture, the interesting fashion designs, the taste in music that has a mysterious vibe to both heart and soul, the history of how it all started and so much more. If my parents weren't cruel, I wouldn't have gone goth in the first place, but in secret, I enjoy the morbid culture of goths and how goth people look, gives me the insight of being a part of darkness in life from my perspective, I give all of my respects and honor to these people... mysteriously horrifically awesome! It would really tell me that I've found my people! I find solace for goth people and the culture.Although for finding solace in the goth culture, Caitlin worries about me a lot, though I keep on reassuring her that I'm not as creepy or dangerous I may look, I'm still the same Nicolas Arthur Sharp, that she knows and how I'm not the kind of person, who would literally turn to the dark side, maybe pun intended, I do my best to be protective for Caitlin of how broken she really is on the inside. I don't blame Caitlin for hiding her darkness inside of her, she wants a happy life, a life to explore, to travel around the world, taking photos and go to college as a photographer for a better life, than being trapped here in Chicago.Caitlin and I are desperate to escape from Ruben and Susan, but the odds are against us, we're not legally adults and are trapped under the warranty or guardianship of Ruben and Susan. Once Caitlin and I finally graduate, I have a strong feeling that we will finally escape the past, of living in a hellhole of torture and blood.Not sure what the future may hold, I know Caitlin is working hard to gain a scholarship for any creative colleges alongside me, trying to work hard on writing to gain my own scholarship for literature colleges.For now, Caitlin and I are a team, other than being siblings we look after each other to protect, and that's what a real family does...Thankfully, Caitlin and I are not the only ones going through family drama, knowing about our meet up from what our friends call ourselves; "The Misfit Family" we are not a large group of friends, but we are the outcasts of the school that no one else likes. Just seven friends enjoying our time together without caring about... well what other kids think about us.Suddenly I felt someone grabbing my hat and pushed it down my face and bonked off my headphones, I snorted and I knew who it was; Luther John Allen, he's the same age as me of being sixteen but his height tells a different kind of age, he looks more like a college kid due to his strange growth spurt at six point one feet tall, I wasn't surprised when I saw his dark maroon eyes, the only thing that makes Luther interesting compared to his body structure of being a basketball player, he gives me a gentle smile with his dark African American skin tone but behind that smile, I knew he was laughing and trying to cheer me up from being a strange or difficult goth kid, he does have short black curly hair being shaped up in a squared style, though I attempted to grab his hair for a little revenge, but not in a violent way to rip of his hair but to be playful."Dang it, Luther!" I giggled and soon Caitlin was actually happy to hear me laugh just a little, she gave me a quick hug but soon took my hat, put it over Luther's head and face just to play around with the same trick that Luther gave to me."Caitlin!" Luther laughed."That's what you get, Luther!" Caitlin laughed it off as her other friends got her attention to be in a fun little story or telling jokes. Which brought me back to my thoughts from earlier, I got my headphones back on as the music was changed to Nothing Else Matters by Doro, which ironically tells me that nothing else matters than a little laughter won't help to ease my thoughts. Although as the bus got closer to the school, I wasn't really ready for this and regardless enough, always going to hate the kid who looks like a dangerous punk. I placed the hood over my head and over my headphones to protect it from the pouring rain.Now that the buss arrived at the school, all I know at this point, you're getting close to face some of the demons that will always torture you... such a way to place this starting inaugurate life, no matter where you go, all you might see are the demons judging you and the angels are just starring at you... only to feel the uneasiness rattle you.As the pouring children exit the bus, Caitlin is on my right side with a playful smile, to show her smile and energy of just having fun, although with Luther on my left, he's somewhat a lot like Caitlin, they both love to show kindness, sharing the smiles, the energy and positivity.We always go in different paths and one day that will happen... some day everyone goes on their own paths in life, either it's a good one or a bad one. It's the reason why everyone is different and not all the same all the time, although that brings my thoughts to something else... no one at this damn school is like me. At all. I'm the one who stands out of the rest of the whole school of nightmares.My music finally changed to Love Like Blood by Killing Joke, I love how sinister it starts off with, the mysterious beats of the drum sticks, the sinister strums of the guitar, the singer has an interesting dark tone in his voice and a whole lot more.One shoulder bump from one of the passing students, his shoulder contacting my right shoulder, it felt painful and he didn't take it kindly towards the only out of place kids."Watch it, freak!" I heard his voice fading away, until another kid bumped his left shoulder onto mine, it's no one's fault but being the only one who is the freak show of the school, no one likes a creep or a goth kid, after all I am the one who being pushed aside by almost everyone."Psycho!" The other kid shouted at me.I don't take the insults personally, not mentally or physically, it's just something that doesn't affect me at all, despite the pain at the home that I share with the most horrible parents, I don't show any remorse of being one of the different people than anyone else. I kept my eyes focused in front of me or down on my feet or just closing my eyes, feeling the other people's shoulder bumping against mine, the insults kept on coming and didn't cease.Sure... pick on the guy who is weird, strange, freak, psycho, bitch or asshole and etc. Nothing else changes in the life of everyone's future, let the freak die and he's forgotten... sarcastically or in regards that would happen... I sighed.Sometimes when enough is enough, I would get my big bad boy boots on and with the same resemblance with Reuben, my eyes are one of the things that makes everyone fear me, seriously, I never wanted to resemble my evil father at all, but I inherited most of his cruelty which I see a few good things and bad things. The more kids that would insult me by passing by I just ignore them.A few tough guys would sometimes want to come eye to eye just to threaten me, unlikely I will look at them with the most evilest eyes, at least that is what many bystanders and tough guys would spread the rumor about me.They can spread rumors all they want but all they'll get from me is a death wish, there's likely no way my looks can really kill, but it is completely false, everyone wouldn't stop spreading the rumors at all, I can hear a couple of whispers being told behind my back.As I was continuing to walk towards the cafeteria, I felt a few kids punching my arms or shoving their shoulders against mine once again, in exchanging a warning or the continuous insults, I didn't care about what everyone thinks or says about me, nothing matters, I didn't matter to many people, no one likes a kid like me just because I look like a dangerous drug dealer, a member of the mafia or a kingpin of the underworld. I'm not that kind of a guy... but with a story with my sister, Caitlin, no one must know how much pain and depression that goes on with our lives. A darkness that is actually desperate to be turned into light..."So... I'm thinking about going to see a movie in theaters, something funny and action wise, what do you think, Luther?" Caitlin asked as she looked at Luther, his size comparison is crazy to the many kids at school and towards me and Caitlin. It was no joke that Luther is up at six feet tall and one inch, it's not that high, but makes him different from other kids but normally for athletes."Sure, why not? The Green Hornet? The Rite? I Saw The Devil? Dead Space: Aftermath?" Luther threw out some ideas as we made our way to the line for breakfast that the cooks made, during the whole time we were discussing what movie seemed to be the best option, Luther kept on throwing more movie ideas that almost became a problem, more movies and less time of deciding what sounds good."Those movies do sound all good, Luther, but we have to choose only one, can't pay for more than one movie, it'll waste a lot of time, money and energy. I mean come on, they all can't be that good..." Caitlin was thinking out loud and almost argued with Luther."Come on, if the green hornet really saw the devil, he's going to end up being right, in the end it's just going to be in the aftermath, what good can it be?" Luther said, mentioning all of the jokes to come up with a movie crossover storyline."Did you really have to do that, Luther? I knew you were going to say that and now I don't know you..." I said as we were all choosing our breakfast options, none of the school food gave me any interest, I just went with ones that caught my attention, pancakes with syrup, milk, eggs and a small chocolate bar. It wasn't much but I just went with it and didn't care much about the food, I just kept on talking with Luther and Caitlin over the idea of going to the movies with one choice.Luther looked at me with an expression that he's going to joke no matter what."Nigel? Negan? Nolan? Or Nelson?" Luther joked.I laughed sarcastically."Sure... be funny, whoever you are, Logan" I joked back."You're killing me, Nick... you need to work more on your jokes and dad jokes" Luther said, somehow he was the one killing my mood, regardless. I patted Luther's back and tried to find another joke but I was already bored of the jokes, besides I had nothing else to say to Luther at the time."Luther and Nicolas, get along please, I don't want friends to be torn apart just because we can't decide on a good movie for all of us, might have to place votes with the entire Misfit Family first just to find out what sounds good. Come on, Misfit Family Forever" Caitlin had a point, if Luther and I can't decide, we're gonna have to let the group of friends decide for the whole voting. Politics...Sometimes I wonder why I am existing except being one of the school freaks and suffering through family drama and trauma.I was suddenly knocked back into reality when I couldn't see and realized that one of my other friends finally arrived at the table with their plates as well, I can tell it was Cody Beck, he's a lot like Luther for being at six foot two, his put a hand on my hat and shoved it down over my face, literally likely pulling a Luther move from the school bus that he did. Cody is at Caitlin's age of fifteen, he has short wild black curly hair, curly as in not tight to his scalp but a bit loose over his black squared glasses that protects his brown eyes, Cody chuckles with a smile and I can visibly see a few freckles on his cheeks at the corner of his eyes and under his eyeglasses. Cody wears a plain light gray t-shirt with denim blue jeans and black running shoes, he is a lot like Luther due to his height and his athletic sport of basketball, they do play together and get along great although very close as brothers, but the only thing that Cody also does is being the science nerd of the group, his interest of being a scientist was odd and out of place for his other teammates."Sorry but I couldn't help it, Nick, you might want to get rid of the hat, when no one else is around, or you'll continue to get the same hat dumping on ya," Cody said as he sat next to Luther on the large white marble rectangular table."You really think that'll happen, Cody? Try the other way around, what about those glasses? Expensive right?" I spat at Cody with a little amusement, but I smirked just to show that I was just messing with him back."Don't be a dick, or else, it'll bite you in the ass, Nick" said Wesley Cameron, although being the third tallest kid in our group, he's just seventeen at five foot eight, he has short dark brown hair with blondish highlights, he also has nice gleaming light blue eyes to also show positivity, he has a nice darker tanned hue on his white skin tone, Wesley is sometimes considered to be a punk in our group but also the artist, he's great at being a rapper or musician, and enjoys his time of drawing traditional artworks in his sketchbook that he takes everywhere."Playing around with Nick again, hu? What did I even miss? A prom date or something?" said Tristan Adams, it isn't sometimes fun but when realizing that his height matches Cody's of six foot two, most of us think it's not fair but we all didn't mind having four tall people. The one thing that stands out that makes him a part of this group, is his strange hair color only being a dark silver hair color, the many times over his life and his parents tried everything to change his hair to a blonde or a brown color, it is unfortunate that he was born with silver hair, his family bloodline never had anyone being born with silver hair regardless. Besides Tristan's silver hair he looks great with his soft and gentle green eyes, he has a similar white tanned skin tone to Wesley but a bit lighter from the sun. I wasn't even too sure if it was something with Luther, Cody and Tristan being the three basketball players of the Misfit Family but it wasn't surprising that they are all the most interesting friends that I had. In regards, Tristan's silver hair wasn't just the main difference for a person, his parents were okay with him having large white angel wing tattoos on his back to look like he was an angel from the heavens. I'd prefer angel of darkness or from hell... I still hate my life...I sighed."Very funny, Tristan, how's your back? Still stings from the tattoo?" I asked, of course it was a recent event for him from two days ago, it would take a while for Tristan to not feel the stings anymore."Yeah, much better than yesterday" Tristan drank his chocolate milk carton as everyone else started eating their breakfast.Although as everyone was eating and staying silent, there were two things going on in my mind, one, I still needed to bring up the plan for going out to the movies with the entire gang, two, we're just missing one more person and there's no sign of him."Don't tell me... he locked himself in a bathroom stall and once again cutting himself?" Luther asked cautiously and concerning. Everyone sighed and thought to themselves about our emo friend, it would be rude to take the worst life than anyone else, but for Jonathon Maxwell, a seventeen year old kid who acts and suffers the same way that Caitlin and I go through, Johnathon suffers through multiple problems at once, his parents had divorced since he was only six, he's under the care of his mother but there was no care from Jon's mother, she makes him do all of the chores, the work around his household, his mother would also abuse him, torture him, scare him to not look like his own father that had left them for good, he resembles so much of his criminal father, that he doesn't want to become his father at all. Jon suffers through a lot and feels like he's been a slave or servant rather than being his mother's son, he fell into a huge depression and turned his life around to become more of an evil looking version of himself. Jon has a sharp edge of short auburn reddish hair, not as in like spikes of red hair but pointy straight medium hair, he has dark green eyes that shows almost no emotions at all, his skin tone is darker than mine of being white tanned skin tone, he wears two black skull earrings on his left ear and would never want to take it out, except for when he sleeps at home. Knowing how depressed and different he is than everyone else here at this school, I was able to break through to Jon and comforted him with my story as well. It turns out that Jon and I are likely equals and so much like each other, not because of being a goth from the torturous parents, to a emo with a violent and hated mother, who slaves her own son, we've related so much that we practically became friends... more likely best friends once he stopped cutting himself. But now that Jon is cutting again, it has to be something with his mother or from the kids who treated him dirty. Either way, Jon and I are best friends regardless of what happens, we really complete each other due to our hellish lives that we go through.Right now... I feel responsible... I can't let Jon suffer alone forever... even with Caitlin, I can't let Jon and Caitlin suffer anymore."I guess I have to find him then..." I said as I stood up and left, until I heard Caitlin say my name."Nick! You sure about this?" Caitlin asked as she jumped up from her seat."I'm sure, besides, I lost my appetite..." I replied back to Caitlin and went off to the nearest boys restroom next to the trashcan and across the room to the indoor basketball court. Unsure if Jon is really in this restroom, my next guess would be that he will be in the nurse's office trying to treat his wounds. Since I'm not entirely sure, I have to find him or he'll eventually end up at our table with no problems."Wait Nick, I'm going to text him right now" Cody said as he got out his phone and started to text where is Jon, I started coming back to the table as if I was about to do something stupid then I got back to my seat.Even if there are the possibilities on where Jon is, Luther suspects that he's cutting himself again, most of us think that he's in the school nurse's office but I'm thinking that he's running late to school, it's a possibility that his mother is beating him up again but who knows? Most of the time I do jump to some conclusions and try to do the best I can to be his friend.A few moments later, Cody's phone made a sound and Jon texted back."He says; my mother is such a slut!!! I had to escape from her and her douche bag boyfriend, who needs family? Thug life is the best and fuck them both... hashtag...whores..." Cody said suspiciously and cautiously, unsure how to react, Cody let his phone drop on the table with wide eyes."Not my words, his... this dude has an interesting choice of racial slurs...damn..." Cody said, waving his hands up, over his head and down to his neck."You can't blame him, Jon has been suffering like with me and Nick, he's mad for obvious reasons" Caitlin mentioned trying to pitch in on the conversations, even when being mad for those obvious reasons, Jon relates to Caitlin and to me more often."The psychology for Jon's mental health and his life to be grown as an emo... no offense, Nick, depression is quite an experience and negativity corrupts the calculations for a human brain, though, the persecution can get unstable and make assailable possibilities to hurt themselves, despite feeling emotional pain, it can get worse to the next stage, not being insensibility until the physical feelings are the only one left-" Cody explained but we weren't understanding his vocabulary choices of words."Can you please just get to the point, Cody?" Luther asked.Tristan flicked some of his food at Cody, just to get Cody's attention to actually get straight to the point, alike Luther wasn't wanting to listen to his nerd stuff."Okay, okay! Jon isn't wanting to live with his mother anymore since he's suffering too much, again, no offense to Nick and Caitlin" Cody finally finished his sentence normally and not by his nerd talk."None taken...I think..." Caitlin said, skeptically."Unlikely or not, this isn't just about Jon here, this is about us now, we have to support him as much as we can, I can be careless enough about anything else but for us, we're all we have left for just being the Misfit Family..." I said undoubtedly for Jon's life and safety, I can't help but to still feel responsible.It's not just because of how I feel responsible, everyone actually looks to me for answers but with an uncaring and black heart, I have some dust to brush off just to have fun with my friends. Right now, it seems irrelevant to mention a good movie for the whole family at this Jon situation...I closed my eyes just to get into my deep thoughts, but when I opened them again, my eyes were still dark with a few holes of light poking through my hat. I sighed, not sure who dunked my hand over my eyes again, but I had a good guess on who it is."Hey Jon..." I said as I took off my hand with my right hand and lay my arms over my chest, I smirked and shook my head although in an instant... I grew back to my usual self, the darkness around me is once again back to normal and the numbness returns."Really hope that you guys got my text, my whore of a mother was trying to keep me away from school today, just so I can hang out with her douche bag boyfriend, fuck that shit, just die already weirdos..." Jon said then sighed with a strange passive aggressive look, sure it surprised everyone but right now, breakfast matters right now and we don't have enough time to eat."Sorry guys, I really needed that off my chest and my mind, you guys know that I won't say anything like that to all of you, just trust me when I use my mouth against enemies like that okay? Only towards the enemies" Jon explained."Whatever you say man, just know that we're genuinely concerned for you" Luther said, gently trying to show Jon the brotherly love while Jon was just starting to have his breakfast, we all sat down in silence for the rest of the breakfast time until the bell rings for class to start.Just like that, the movie option that Luther, Caitlin and I were discussing earlier was completely discharged from the time being, movie or not, we still have to support everyone in the group regardless.My chest grew very heavy for overlapping every problem in my mind and my heart. Due to the amount of heaviness, the circulating numbness in my chest grew more dense and my heart remains in cold blood. Thankfully, Vampires Cry by Nosferatu started to play on my headphones.If I have to be honest, the movie didn't matter, the people here on this table mattered to me, they are the only ones that makes me feel like I really have a family, the brothers that I always wanted and the sister that always brings out the happiness for me, the love, the caring, the energy and the motivation. Without Caitlin and the boys, I'm nothing. I'd even die to protect my friends and my only caring family member.Well, besides Reuben and Susan being horrible parents, Principal Stephen Lewis is a longtime friend of Reuben as they both went to this high school, Stephen is the only one who would take the bullet for both Caitlin and I.Who knew that the main man, Principal Stephen Lewis actually does care about one of the brightest and the most negative teenagers in school.The latest song on my Iphone of Deliverance by The Mission, is by far one of the most favorite songs, it has a classical vibe even it was made in the start of the nineties, I love how the music has a mysterious vibe as well, it also gives me motivation in which I needed for my school work. During the remaining few minutes of breakfast, I just messed around with my hat, spinning it around on the tip of my index finger, I kept my eyes on the hat as it continued to spin around.Finally as the bell rang for the first class, Caitlin quickly reminded me of meeting up with two of her teachers after school; Dwayne Casey her Chemistry Teacher and Dean Hopkins her History Teacher for an afternoon tutoring. Caitlin has been struggling with her Chemistry test and her struggling with most of her History as well. Although by the mentioning of both of their names, Dwayne and Dean just strangely gives me a weird vibe, something about those two that I don't trust, I'm not entirely sure why I don't trust them both and remains a mystery to why I don't trust or even like them at all."Anyway, once I'm done from the tutoring, I might be...home late..." Caitlin sighed as she didn't want to say mom and dad's names at all, once again, Caitlin and I hate them and will continue to hate them until they see what they have been doing to us. Control freak monsters..."Don't have to be at home, why don't we just head off to all know what place, right?" I said, although that instantly made everyone pause from walking away from the cafeteria, they all looked at me suspiciously, they don't like what I was talking about, they knew that I was talking about the Safe Haven, none of them liked the Safe Haven for obvious reasons, but Jon cared since it became a routine for all of us, a place for all of us to hang out together, to loaf around like we own the place, the Safe Haven isn't like any other places that we go to than to the Blue Violet Cafe, our Safe Haven is a burnt down church from the burnt shadowy remains, it shows us that the church was burnt from the eighteen seventies, the Safe Haven has a English Gothic architecture style, the building is large enough to fill almost all of the population in Chicago. Even if the burnt church is still standing, no one goes to this church anymore, no one even talks about the place but only left with frightened looks on their faces. As if something terrible happened at the church back then. Whenever we go to our Safe Haven, we're free to do whatever we want to do and we would trash the place if we ever feel angry. Although Luther, Cody, Tristan and Wesley look frightened from me almost mentioning the Safe Haven, it was like they weren't sure about the urban legends cycling around the cathedral, and even they won't mention what urban legends goes on there, like the cathedral's history is meant to remain a secret until dead."I don't know, Nick, that place still gives me the creeps" Luther said as he threw away the trash in the bin and placed his tray above the other dirty trays, while I do the same with no food being touched and like I said before... I lost my appetite."Sometimes I won't mind, but it's just me talking... I'd say screw it, I'll bring some snacks okay?" Jon said not caring if our Safe Haven has a dark history, he's always into something that has a morbid history and loves the creepy nature. I'm just glad that Jon and I are best friends.By the time I turned around, I was unexpected to see my long term rival... Prince Jake Dustin Holloway... age seventeen, similar short wavy black hair that covers most of his cruel green eyes, his expression reads out 'danger' or 'back off, bitch' although we agreed never to make eye contact anymore... turns out that one rule got broken...Next thing that I knew, Jake grabbed my shoulders and shoved me down to the ground, before Luther and I could react, Jake punched my nose directly as he leaned down on me, all of this hell was just beginning to break loose, Jake's tall structure towered over me up to six point three feet tall, his eyes became very animalistic or predatory to playfully fight his favorite prey. Me. Jake's aggressiveness was a part of our past ever since elementary school, our fights never ceased after all of these damned years and here we are once again brawling against each other. After Jake's attack on my nose, he reached his pulsating hands around my neck, trying to strangle me although I put my hands over his neck as well, we were both looking at each other as if we've been expecting this to happen.As I tried to push Jake away with my feet on his chest and I did a back flip to land on my feet, he backed away a couple of steps and screamed or roared at me like an angry tiger, trying to feast on his prey. Although Luther interfered and pushed Jake away from me."Hey! Mess with him! Mess with me!" Luther taunted against Jake and his crew helping him up.Patrick Oliver Ford, age sixteen, he has long dark blackish blue hair, rough dark green eyes that grew sharp, his white skin tone clashes against Luther hand to hand in a second brawl, his height almost reaches close to Luther up to six foot one, his alliance with the devil, Jake, Patrick never liked me as well every since elementary school, he always supported Jake no matter what happens."I'll take that bet," Patrick said as he taunted back.Jake pushed Patrick away and rushed towards me to continue the fight, even if Jake wanted another fight, he was getting it but I was the one being bullied here. I didn't even do shit other than looking at his eyes, I mean, what's the problem with meeting eye contact?All of the kids started piling up around us in a circle, chanting 'fight' over and over again, Jake grabbed my jacket collar, he pulled me up in the air then pushed me against one of the wall pillars in the cafeteria, I managed to punch Jake's left cheek with a fist then repeated the same action with my other fist. Before I did, Jake blocked it with a free hand then punched his fist into my right eye. I grunted.Even if Jake wasn't done yet, he pulled me away and threw me against the floor, I landed on my stomach and tried to get away, even if I did, I was able to see Luther and Patrick fighting until Jon was able to break up the fight. I groaned and kept on crawling away until I was hearing Jake's footsteps gave off a stomping sound, he grabbed the back of my jacket and turned me around on my back.I didn't realize that the warm blood was oozing off from both of my nostrils, it was even pouring around my mouth and over my cheeks. Once again, Jake pulled onto my jacket and banged me against the hard floor, this happened a few times, I felt my neck popping and cracking a few times, even I felt it puncture on my spine as the pain flooded throughout my body.Last of all, Jake stopped to catch his breath, then with one last attempt to escape I back away until Luther sprawled against a wall pillar, gasping and wheezing painfully. "I bet this is how much pain you felt for all of your life..." Luther gasped."You have no idea..." I gasped myself.Jake walked towards me and placed a foot on my right shoulder, pinning me against the ground, once again until the pressure was getting crazy, he put so much force on my right shoulder I felt a shock of shearing pain literally broke me, entirely, as I screamed so loud, I knew my shoulder bone was broken from the socket until Jon and Tristan pulled Jake away from me."That's enough, Jake!!!" A number of people shouted, Benjamin, Jon, Tristan, Dan and Kevin as they kept him restrained."It's not enough! I enjoy this!" Jake laughed in a sinister manner."Jake, it's over! Let it go, man!" Shouted Dan."JAKE DUSTIN HOLLOWAY!!!" A booming loud deep voice echoed throughout the whole cafeteria room, the presence of my favorite fatherly idol is in the room, he's mad... no one likes it when Principal Stephen Brandon Lewis is mad, his fatherly protectiveness over his high school kids, has a very powerful demeanor, if anyone is hurt mentally or physically... he won't cease his detective or military personality to keep anyone safe and protected."It's. Not. Over...Nickel..." Jake snarled at me as he struggled to get out of everyone's hold on him, his outbursts has become so overwhelming towards other victims, but most of it is on me specifically. I was Jake's favorite target to bully and to fight with, although I don't know if this is good for his ego or for his title of being a Prince.With only one working eye, my right eye was slowly turning into a black eye, I grunted and groaned from the increasing pain from my right shoulder and arm, I couldn't even move the arm nor even the fingers, I held onto my right arm as a way to cradle myself from the agony of the pain, I was even panting and gasping for air."Nick!" Caitlin shouted and tried to get through the crowd, she managed to get through and saw me with a horrific expression, she came right towards me and tried to calm me down."Oh my god, Nick! Please tell me nothing is broken! Jesus..." Caitlin panicked as she stayed by my side just to help me calm down for once, Caitlin always makes me feel better, brother and sisterly love always makes me feel happy but with this pain, it doesn't do much and now I'm sure that my friends are going to help me get to the nurse's office or the hospital."Well... I can't even...move my...right arm..." I was coughing in between my words, though with Caitlin's arms around me I feel safe and loved."Caitlin...I'm sorry but you might need to get out of the way right now, I've notified the police and an ambulance to take your brother to the hospital, while they arrive..." Stephen paused and looked at Jake with a highly angry expression."...You are not getting detention... you're getting something worse! Not suspension... but you are now expelled! For good! And I will be seeing you... and your family at court! Now pack up your things and get out of here, now!" Stephen said period, violence like this is never welcomed in any school but with Jake out of this school at least the Misfit Family and I are now getting less threats in school."Hey Nick, it's me, Cora, I need you to lay down your head on the ground, Caitlin, place this ice pack over his right eye, Luther, please place this pillow under his neck gently, Jon, place this other pillow over his arm and shoulder carefully! The ambulance is here now and don't worry, right now I need you to rest, I already called you're parents and my sister at the hospital" Cora Simpson said, her age is twenty nine, she has long straight blonde hair up in her ponytail, she has gentle green eyes with a warming smile and concern in her expression, she wears the usual white lab doctor's coat with a plain blue shirt underneath and black jeans.The one thing that made me worry was that Cora called my parents! Like that would help me for sure!!! I thought sarcastically."Prince Jake Dustin Holloway, you are now under arrest for the assault, violent harassment, aggressive behavior and bullying of a school classmate!" I overheard a police officer and heard handcuffs locking down Jake, although he ran towards me again but was halted by the police, somehow I can hear a low utterly deep growl from Jake as if he was still not done fighting me. Although, I can see Jake's eyes from a different and from a strange angle from laying down completely still, Jake's eyes don't just look animalistic, it looks like something has a hold of him internally... his eyes have a light red flick from his green eyes, although he shows off a sinister grin like he really enjoyed toying with me until I broke. Literally. Jake was satisfied from all of this pandemonium and carnage.I was now being lifted by Luther, Cody and Tristan to be on the gurney with a few other people."Ma'am, are you by any chances you are related to this kid?" said a male police officer, I was able to look and saw Caitlin being interviewed by an officer."Yes, I'm his sister, his name is Nick Arthur Sharp, I am Caitlin Madison Sharp, can I now please be by my brother's side? He needs me as much as I need him" Caitlin said and pleaded with the officer, though I was sure that I was getting slightly dizzy right now, I had to move my head back up to the ceiling and close my good eye to rest for now."Of course, and what about these five boys? Neighbors? Classmates? Friends? Friends of the family?" The same officer asked, taking some notes I believe that's what the officer is doing."Friends of the family, sir" Caitlin replied."Alright, you can ride in the ambulance, but for these five boys, there isn't any room, the doctors will be doing their job to keep you're brother breathing along the way to the hospital" the officer said and in a few moments, I felt Caitlin's presence next to me, holding onto my good left hand."Caitlin..." I spoke softly."Hey, rest up, I'll be here okay? Just rest" Caitlin reassured me."Before you do, the Principal will be taking our friends in his car to the hospital, so you can rest now" Caitlin said as I felt her warm lips kiss my forehead, I knew that she loves me as much as I do for her. Caitlin and I are literally the only ones that can trust each other, but how can I tell her that mom and dad will be at the hospital as well? I don't want her to freak out nor wanting her to freak out at the hospital. I just hope that the Misfit Family will keep her safe..."Alright, King Eider Hospital, here we go," the ambulance driver said while I rubbed Caitlin's hand lightly to give her comfort."I love you, Caitlin..." I spoke softly and from a few vocal cracks.Caitlin smiled with a tear dripping on her cheek."I love you too, Nick" Caitlin spoke gently, as I realized that I was fading to sleep, everything was becoming disoriented, voices, the wailing sirens, the car purring to life and driving off along with the hospital equipment beeping as the paramedics did their job.I never had expected a fight like this to go overboard but... the look in Jake's eyes wasn't human, I kept on seeing actual red in his eyes, Jake wasn't the bully that I knew back then...unless I didn't notice his changes over the years. Until now, Jake is very different from what I've remembered and aside from him. I was more than a warrior to make it out alive from Jake's recent violent attacks, though from the suffering I've been through for all of my life, this was something new and a new level for Jake's violent behavior. I don't even think that Jake even deserves the crown of a Prince nor the blood of a royal family member.Even I should be resting, the only one who keeps my mind distracted from the recent event, I can tell that Caitlin will never let go of my left hand at all, she wasn't just worried or concerned for me... she was terrified of losing me and the hellhole... she'll be living alone with the monsters out of the closet daily.I don't even plan on dying, even as a teenager, I didn't want to die but I know that all of this isn't life threatening, not at all and I still suffer through the worst of any kind of pain, I'll keep on getting stronger than the scars of the past....No matter what happens......I'm not afraid.
Book1: A girl with conditions- chapter 5 Narrator: After hearing that Emma has to stay in the house for a month without going to school. she began to lose it and her "condition" was about to begin. Emma threw a blue fragile vase and it broke on the floor. she even kicked her cat whisker when her cat was only trying to help. but she only got worse and worse throughout the entire day. she started screaming and had gotten more upset. her dad had gotten home at that time."Emma! what the hell do you think you're doing?" I look behind me towards the front door and saw my father in shock while glaring at me. "what is it-" I saw myself holding a wooden chair in my hands that was up in the air and was aiming towards my cat whiskers. "oh..." I carefully put the chair down back on the ground and placed it where it was before. and started rushing to my room, knowing well what I did to the house. I had sprinted to my room crying and my dad ran after me. My dad said that I should stop this because I never wanted to go back to the hospital after what they had done to me and I wanted out during that time. dad explained to me that he only never took me to the hospital again was because he felt pain for me and didn't want to deal with that anymore but enough was enough he said and decided to take me to get checked even if I get worse there's nothing the doctors can do about because once you get sick you can never be cured and only die. he told me to come out but I didn't want to. and I stood there the whole day, and father was trying to get me out of my room the whole day. but then we both ended up tired and started sleeping. The next day...I woke up with dried tears on my face, and my eyes were red from myself rubbing them. I wish mom was here, she would have sat next to me on my bed confronting me. and always saying that everything will be okay. but she not here anymore...I opened my door to see my dad gone and on the rocking chair asleep still while holding a glass bottle of alcohol. I felt growing pain in my bruised stomach. I knew it had to heal over time but I couldn't accept the fact that I had to stay in the house for a month. so I decided to run away before my father woke up and caught me. I packed all my things and fled. I think I almost ran for an hour, I ended up in the forest. however, when I was about to turn to a corner I came across a thick still black gate you won't be able to break. and then saw a mansion behind it. it was huge and red, you can see a huge lawn as far as the eye can see. when I was distracted by the green lawn, I see something in the corner of my eye it was a mailbox right next to me. on the mailbox, it said "Jamerson" below a crossed-out word that said "huntsmans." "so...this..was..jack'" I shuddered to myself. but I then thought to myself, what if this is jack's stepfamily's house? because before he ran back home jack mentioned that he doesn't want to get his stepmother mad because he knew what will happen if doesn't come home on time. so I tried to open the gate but it didn't budge. I looked down and saw a lock on It with chains surrounding it. so I decided to do something no young lady should do in the 1800s. I attempted to climb the gate since it was easy to grab. after getting my dress caught in the gate many times I finally arrived on the other side. I carefully run to the door and ring the doorbell and wait for someone to arrive. I saw the door open slowly and I there see jack in dirty clothes and his face as well. "EMMA??!" jack yelled surprisingly. "jack...are you okay?"
A Ringmaster's history line: book cover by Eclipsetheringleader
Beyond the RiverThere was a small family that housed itself in a small cottage along a large river. The river had no name and neither did they but the surrounding forest was surrounded by red colored leaves that stood out vibrantly against the main green tapestry of the land. Red soon became their names. Mother and Father Red tended to the food, growing the crops and protecting the home, as parents do. The children, Brother and Sister Red tended to the cleaning of the house and making sure that the inside was nice and tidy.There was one simple rule. A rule their father told them every night before they went to bed and every morning when they awoke. Never cross the river. The river marked the edge of the boundaries of home. And what lay beyond… was not for children to see.One day Father Red forgot to tell them though…Brother Red had been ordered to do his chores in the house by Mother Red, her usual cold self, but he wanted to explore. He wanted to see what was out in the forest. He was on his way out into the Green world. And Sister Red had started to follow him.“Mom is gonna kick your butt when she finds out,” she shouted.“Which is exactly why she’s not gonna! Now go back home!” He yelled back. His sister wore a bright yellow and white dress, reaching to just around her shins that had a little bit of dust and dirt around the brim of it as she had recently finished cleaning the floors. Her brother on the other hand wore some blue shorts with a grey shirt, dirtied up a bunch not from work but from play as he had done all he could to avoid chores today.“If I gotta go back, then I’m gonna tell her.” Sister Red crossed her arms, a pout on her face as her brother looked at her in disbelief.“You wouldn’t dare.”“MOM!”“Alright alright!” Brother rushed over and covered his sisters’ mouth. “You can come just… Keep up with me.” She nodded and he grabbed her hand, bringing her deeper and deeper into the vibrant red forest. Even though they’d seen it all their lives, the beauty of the multi colored leaves was breathtaking. Red’s and oranges and yellows galore, some falling from their place on the mighty trees, slowly descending to the soft grass. No matter how many leaves littered the floor, the trees overhead always seemed abundant with more every passing day.And then they hit the river. A simple river, a few stepping stones over it, the cool water wafting its way around them. Brother Red took his sister's hand and walked with her over the simple stream. Nothing stopped them so… why the hell not.The air felt different. Once they crossed the stream and entered the forest behind it. There was a strange fog that covered the woodlands. It was colder. Like really cold. Before the weather was something of a light spring temperature even with the very autumn looking environment, but now it felt like early winter. And to top it all off, it was now completely white. The whole floor had been coated in a massive blanket of white. Like the clouds itself had laid across the floor. It was soft and cold and the two shivered slightly as they traveled further in.“What… Where are we?” asked Sister Red.“I don’t know. I think we’re still… not far from the house.”“Maybe we should go back.” Sister Red was already starting to shuffle away back to their cabin. Her brother scoffed and continued on, ignoring his sister's obvious apprehension.“I knew I shouldn’t have brought you. You’re such a baby!”“What? I am not!”“Are too! You always act like this. Remember when dad brought home that dog and you were too scared to even look at it!”“It was missing an eye! It was creepy!” She could never forget how weird it looked. Dad had returned early in the morning and brought home an injured dog, wanting to heal it. He said he felt he needed to but Sister Red was terrified of its injured state. Missing one eye and limping through the house. It barked at night as if it heard something and when she opened the gate to let it out, she never saw it again. Dad was really sad the next day.“Whatever.” Brother Red scoffed and continued on into the forest. “Go back to the house then. I’ll keep going.” Sister Red frowned and pushed by her brother.“Fine! Jerk! I’ll stay. But only cause you’d be lost without me anyway and you know it.” Sister Red didn’t even bother looking back to see if he was following.The further in the two walked, the colder they felt. Or maybe it was just because they spent so long in here and weren’t prepared for it. The snow beneath their feet muffled their steps and when Sister Red leaned down to touch it, she immediately dropped it.“Ah! This stuff is super cold! What is it?”“It’s uh…” Brother Red began before he stopped himself and smiled. “I think it’s that snow stuff! Remember mom’s stories?” The smile on his face was impossible to hide. He grabbed a bunch of snow and held it up, feeling how cold it made his hands. How it almost hurt to hold cause it was so cold.“No way! I thought mom was just messing with us!” The both of them started laughing before a piece of snow fell down on Brothers head. Sister Red laughed even harder before her brother grabbed a handful of snow and threw it at her. It didn’t even hurt and she once again laughed, grabbing her own handful and throwing it at her brother. And back and forth it went for sometime, the curiosity and confusion in their hearts now replaced with fun and joy. They began to chase after each other for some time, rushing around and tossing snow at each other, forgetting how cold they were until they stopped at a tree, resting against it. With their exhausted breathing, they could actually see their breath coating the air like a chimney. Like they were dragons breathing out smoke before a powerful fire breath.“My smoke is bigger,” Brother Red bragged.“Yeah, stinks too.”“What? It does not.” The both of them laughed before Sister Red pushed him into the snow.“Yeah it does! You didn’t brush your teeth did you?”“I… may have forgotten.”“Gross!” She laughed. The both of them sat down, The cold of the snow not even bothering them as they sat there in silence. The silence was there for a while. The quietness of the snow was almost eerie. Not a single noise was heard except for Brother and Sister Red’s breath.“Hey bro?” she asked quietly.“Yeah? What’s up?”“Do you ever think that Mom is… not a Mom?” Brother stood up and frowned, looking back at his sister almost in disbelief.“Where’s this coming from?”“Well it’s just… her stories. Even how she acts sometimes. She’s kinda mean. Kinda cold. I remember she used to tell us about how much fun she had playing in the snow and how when she was a kid she would always make snow angels. Remember?” Both she and her brother smiled, remembering the times their mother told them such kind and entertaining stories of the beauty of the world.“Yeah. I remember she used to tell us those stories to get us to sleep. She doesn’t do that anymore.”“Right? Like Dad is always playing with us. He’s telling us the stories mom used to, he lets us skip chores sometimes ha ha.”“Well it’s less him letting us and more of you just not doing them,” Sister said as she poked her brothers side.“Eh details. But I see what you mean I guess. I mean… when was the last time mom looked you in the eyes?” Sister Red immediately shook her head.“Oh no. I don’t do that anymore. She scares me. They’re so… blue. It’s like she’s looking through me. It’s creepy!” She shivered before her brother gave her a little hug, telling her to ignore it. Surely Mom had her reasons. Right?The two of them got up and cleaned the snow off of themselves before Brother Red had brought them to a small expanse in the woods and there in the center was… well neither of them was even sure. It looked old, a massive slab of metal just plopped down in the middle of the woodlands, the grass starting to grow into the rubber feet of the object. It rested on the bedding, almost like it hadn’t moved in a while. It was covered in red but the color was starting to rust off, age catching up with it like the grey hairs in a man’s beard. The front of this… beast was smashed. Permanently so. Like it had crashed into something. The front of the creature had a strange splatter of red along the muzzle and the glass of its front. It didn’t match with the rest and was badly done, just spilled over the front as if by accident, and the glass windows on its front and side were broken.Surrounding the metal beast were splatters of red soaked into the snow. It was grotesque as the red even reached to the trees and scarred them with its sickening color. It was blood. All of this was blood. Something creepy happened here.“Woah…” was all they could say as they looked around the area. Brother Red was going to touch the blood in the snow before his sister smacked his arm.“That’s gross! Don’t touch it!”“Gosh, you’re so boring. This looks super cool. Like uh… like a crime scene!” he raced around the car, looking at his sister from the other side of the broken windows.“I heard mom and dad talking about this thing one night. I think they called it a… car? Something like that.”“It looks really… creepy,” Sister said, hesitating to press her hand against the door. It was still warm.“Yeah. But they said there was something in here. I wanna see what it is. Maybe it’s something cool!”“I don’t know about this, bro,” Sister said as her brother rushed in through the busted window on the driver's side. He looked around through the car but found nothing of any real importance. Until he checked the center console right next to him and opened it, revealing a wallet and a phone. Two things he’d never seen before. He grabbed them and gave his sister the wallet while he looked over the phone.“What is this thing?” Sister red said as she flipped it open and looked at the contents inside. Some green pieces of paper fell out but she was more interested in the picture of some man inside it. “And who’s this?”“Probably this guy,” Brother said as he lifted up the phone and it lit up, showing a picture of the man in the wallet with his wife and children. They were smiling, happy as can be, surrounded by the woods of the forest Brother and Sister Red now stood in. But in the background there was a glimpse of something, almost invisible upon first glance. The picture was too focused on the family so the creature in the back was hard to identify but it looked inhuman and very big.“Who are these people?”“Maybe other cabin people. Like us!” Brother smiled, tossing the phone in the back.“But why have this car thing?”“I don’t know… It’s a pet? Like a dog?”“Doesn’t look anything like one.” Sister Red pet the car’s door while her brother grabbed the wheel and pulled on it.And the car went crazy.It released a loud and terrifying screech and the lights of the car began to flash repeatedly, calling for the attention of what seemed like the entire forest as the birds that were singing moments ago could be heard flying off in a flurry, now cawing like some sick deformation of what they once were. The echo of the car's alarm was heard throughout the forest, at least that’s what it sounded like. Not even bothering to ask questions, both Brother and Sister Red stumbled away from the screaming car and almost separated in their desire to flee from whatever dangers may have been coming their way.Brother Red had tripped over a tree stump and hit his head on a rock, falling unconscious instantly as his sister rushed to his side.“Come on you idiot! Get up!” She grabbed him by the arms and started pulling but he screamed and held up his arm, it was bent backwards, almost like it had been snapped in half, and a huge gash had been torn into it. And worst of all, a rather large stick had been stabbed into his stomach. Rather far in too. Brother was too dazed to even realize the damage done to him and soon… they heard growling. It moved the entire forest floor and a strong gust of wind came from the distant echoes of the car.“What? What is-” Brother started but Sister Red ignored him and tried to pick him up again.“Whatever it is, it’s not for us to find out! Come on!” She did her best to carry her injured brother but his wound coupled with his dizziness had really driven him to inaction, her only able to pull him to a nearby tree and hide behind it.A roar came from deep within the forest. The car alarm had stopped and in its silence was breathing. Heavy, HEAVY breathing. Every breath taken began to shake the ground and every exhale caused the trees to shake and the leaves over heard to rustle at the intense wind, the snow falling from the high points of the trees. Footsteps were heard, crashing into the ground, shaking it even more and some of the trees could be heard snapping and breaking in half, like whatever was walking had started knocking them over.Where were they? What was going on?“Sis… are we… home?” Brother Red’s eyes had gone red and now he had started to go limp. Sister shook him and he remained still, going cold almost instantly. She heard the cries of the beast start to get closer and she clutched her brother close to her chest. She cradled him. She curled up with him. His breath still and hers erratic. She was now alone. All alone with no one.“Yes brother. We’re home. We made it back home,” she lied, holding him tighter. The steps of the beast grew louder and louder before it stopped and a voice was heard. It was a woman's voice and it sang some strange tune. It was almost beautiful to listen to and it somehow made the earthquakes stop. She sounded like… like she was calling it. Like she was speaking to the beast directly, her voice miles away but carried over perfectly by the echo. The beasts’ breath could be heard slowing before it released a guttural growl, inching closer to the tree Brother and Sister hid behind. That was before a high pitched cry, almost ear splitting for Sister Red to listen to, came from the woman and the beast chased off after her, still snarling.It felt like hours had passed before Sister Red was hit in the back of the head and looked up to see her mother, eyes a glowing icey blue. She held her finger to her lips in a shushing motion and then carried Brother Red in her arms, taking Sisters’ hand and guiding her out of the cruel forest.*****The rest of the day was quiet. Silent as a statue and twice as scary. Mother Red tended to Brother but refused to let Sister be present to see. She had to finish the chores that he never started. When night came and Sister wandered into bed, she was given a drink of milk to help her rest. She never did find out where they got this milk from. They didn’t have any farm animals so...“Mom?” Sister asked skittishly.“Yes?” Mother Red had started tucking her into bed, never meeting her daughters eyes.“What was… I mean… Why can’t Brother and I go into the woods?” She had already begun to form an idea in her head but she wanted to know what her mother would say.“The forest is a scary place darling. All kinds of scary things in there. Things children like you can’t handle.”“You mean that… that thing? Whatever it was in the woods?” Her mother looked visibly confused at this and Sister started to feel a bit dizzy.“What thing?”“The… ya know. The big thing that growled and made the earth move. And the lady. The singing lady.”“‘The big thing that’… darling what are you talking about?”“Mom you were there! I heard uh.. It was a… Uhm...” With every passing second, Sister Red began to feel her mind empty. Every second of the day had begun to fade away into nonexistence, to the point where she could scarcely even remember waking up this morning. The trip in the forest with her brother, the car, the strange creature, all of it gone.She didn’t remember anything.“I… uh…” Mother Red kissed her daughters forehead and laid her down, smiling.“Goodnight darling. Thank you for washing all the dishes today.”“Oh. No problem… goodnight,” she faked a smile back as Mother Red left the room, closing the door behind her. Sister Red looked up at the ceiling, decorated with a mural painting of the night sky, and she thought long and hard. What happened? Why couldn’t she remember a single detail about today?“Hey Bro. Do you remember-” she began to ask before she looked at the other side of the room and noticed the bed was empty, her brother nowhere to be seen.She suddenly felt very cold and oddly scared looking up at the night mural on the ceiling. She bundled under the covers and turned so she faced her brother's bed, curled up in a ball. All alone with no one. For some reason this feeling was familiar…***Mother Red walked out onto the porch and looked at her husband who had his face buried into his hands. His breath was panicked, hastened out of worry and exhaustion. He wore a white t-shirt that would have been the wrong thing to wear in the cold autumn weather the house seemed stuck in but he didn’t mind. The white shirt was stained with splatters of red and his hands were callused and grey. He had been resting out here, waiting for the news on his children, a small candle the only thing keeping him sane.“This is the second time, Erik,” she said, crossing her arms. “Your children are as stubborn as your wife.” Father Red looked up at the woman, eyes wrought with tears. His vision of her was blurry but in truth he didn’t want to look at her face anyway. The… cursed face of his wife. The woman who wasn’t his anymore.“Please tell me! Are they...”“They’re fine. Both are sleeping soundly. Your son especially.”“Oh Thank God.” He sighed, leaning back into his chair before Mother red grabbed him by the face and made him look at her.“GOD didn’t save your children tonight. I did!” She whispered sharply. “Your children are becoming a thorn in my side every passing day. You had best keep them under control or our deal is off.”“Our deal? Our Deal?!” Father Red stood up and grabbed the woman by her arm. “You change our deal every month! First it was getting rid of some construction workers you thought would tear down your forest and then it was some hunters during Open season. Now you’re sending me out in broad daylight to kill campers! Campers! This was not the deal!”“The deal was!” She snatched her hand away, forcing the man to sit back down in his chair as her eyes glowed that steel icy blue again. “That I heal your wife and in turn you protect my woods from threats. ALL THREATS. Which is whatever I deem to be a threat!”“But-”“And your other form is simply a better way to do this job. You agreed, she agreed, I agreed, Now suck it up!!” She nearly shouted the last part, her breath quick and frantic. “I… am sensing a high degree of disloyalty from you Erik.” This nearly froze him in his chair. His hands gripped the arms of the chair and the woman took a deep breath, a brief hiss could be heard and her serpent tongue briefly slithered out of her mouth.“I… I didn’t mean-”“Today was a very scary day for your daughter. Running through the woods without supervision and nearly being attacked by some horrid monster that roams the lands.” Father Red was silent for a bit before he looked up at the woman, smiling down at him. He brought the candle closer to her and for a second, just a brief second, he saw something he wished he hadn’t. He saw a face beyond description. He saw something that nearly made his heart stop entirely. Something that looked back at him with hungry eyes of avarice and fascination. Wide eyes… and a wide toothy smile. So wide it deformed her face, stretching it beyond human capacity. And the teeth. God, so many jagged and broken teeth...And then she blew the candle out, leaving the both of them in darkness together, the only thing truly visible of her being her bright blue glowing eyes but Father Red knew her face. She loved to torture him with his fake visage of a woman. A woman he loved dearly more than anything else in the world. His wife. Lured into the woods one day when her husband was in his other form. He couldn’t stop himself from… from hurting her.And yet here she was now, looking down at him. The woman who he wanted to spend the rest of his life with now pissed him off beyond words. The woman he cried for months after losing, after killing her himself, he now wished he could tear to pieces. The face he wanted to stare at for the rest of his days he now wished he would never see again.And this witch was cruel enough to pretend to be a mother to his children.“What… Did you do?”“Whatever do you mean?” Her fake voice of innocence was annoying. Father Red wanted to smack that smile off her face but he held himself back.“My son! What did you do to my son?!”“Nothing. I didn’t do a single thing to your precious boy.” Her words were still as ice and it took only a moment to catch her meaning.“You… bitch!” He rushed forward and grabbed her by the throat, slamming her against the wall of the house before he felt how… how easy it would be to hurt her. How simple to break her neck as tightly as he held it. And that was because now she no longer had the form of an adult woman, but of a young child. A boy. HIS boy.And he dropped him.“You know I don’t raise the dead, Erik. I simply play with them.” The little boy chuckled and slowly walked away from the house, pulling on a jacket before turning back around. He could hear the man crying and quickly walked back up pat his back, not even really trying to console him.“What… What did I do to deserve this hell?” he asked, clawing at the wooden floorboards.“We had a deal. Don’t let a dead wife and son come between us… Dad,” the boy gave the smallest little laugh but it rang in Father Red’s ears like the loudest bell ever.“Don’t call me that! DO NOT! Call me that!”“Such anger. Such rich emotion…” The boy sighed and for a brief moment, that monstrous form came back before it went back to normal. “I have to go. I have a new arrival coming. Wouldn’t want them to get lost on their way home, would we?” The boy laughed as Father Red chased after him, wishing to tackle him into the ground before the boy vanished into thin air without a trace. As if he never existed at all.

Mature Content

Papa Grande's Epilogue,October 3rd, 203610:00 AM As the rain poured outside of the large, half-burned-down building, the inside of the building was quiet. All that echoed was the sound of the rain dripping softly onto the floor below. In a nearby room, the older form of Grande sat on an old bed. As he took a deep breath, everything sounded raspy and he quickly started to cough. His bloodshot eyes had deep bags underneath them, he was obviously exhausted. His right hand twitched and reached down to pick up something from the floor that he had dropped. “Perform for us, it’s been too long.” A voice echoed in his head. He didn’t even bother to react, he only balled up his right hand around a peridot necklace, one that he had given Melanie when they first started dating. He closed his eyes tight and shook his head, he hadn’t felt too well the last few months, at all. His nausea had increased to an alarming rate and his body mass went down significantly. Something just felt wrong inside of him, he was very aware of such a thing. At first, he believed it was the flu, but after a while, it became more obvious what it was. “I understand now, Melanie.” Grande’s voice sounded just as raspy as his breathing. He slowly brought the necklace to his chest. “I understand the pain of it all.” He continued, though his voice was starting to sound shakier. Grande’s entire face started to turn red as his eyes filled with tears. His teeth slowly started to show as his face scrunched up. “I think I’m soon to join you, my dove. I can barely stay awake now, I can’t eat, I can barely function.” He said. It was hard for him to speak so bluntly like this, but he had to be truthful. There are no more lies to be told, not for him at least. As he stood shakily up from his bed, he moved his left hand over to grab a cane. Pain coursed through his body as he straightened himself up. “I’m going to come and see you, I’ll be there for you like I have been, I promise.” He whispered, then started to slowly move his way from the room. Once he stepped outside, the rain greeted him with little mercy. Trees shifted all around him and the dirt squished under his shoes as he carefully maneuvered his way through the debris of the building. Every step that he took, he could feel himself growing weaker. His legs started to shake and as soon as he went past the gate, he collapsed into the mud. His face slapped against the muck and he emitted a frustrated growl. He slammed his left hand into the mud, all the while his right still had the peridot necklace still in it. He grabbed his cane to help push himself up and continued on his journey. He knew where he had to go, he knew where he had to rest. Thunder roared in the sky even as he ventured from the forest into the more open area of the road. “Melanie…” He was getting close to his destination, though what only took him a few minutes in the past would take him much longer now. Every bone in his body was basically aching at this point, all without a single second of mercy. He winced, and winced, then had to stop to breathe. “No, don’t leave us!” A voice yelled inside of his head. He once again chose to ignore it, the voices were in the past, the future always does come, even when others beg it not to. Nobody can deny the future, even if they believe that they can. “I’m sorry, my audience, I cannot perform, not anymore.” He whispered out, the voices went silent for him, giving him a sense of relief. It was the truth, he couldn’t do it anymore, not even if he wanted to. He stumbled along the road and could feel a faint smile forming on his face as the two stone pillars finally started to appear in the rain, he finally made it to his destination. The old cemetery had been abandoned for a very long time, nobody ever visited anymore except for him. He looked over and spotted a white flower blooming among others, each together peacefully, thriving. He stared for a moment and formed a soft smile, using his right hand to not only hold the peridot necklace but to also grab one of those beautiful flowers. The flower bent upwards in his hand, swaying slightly in the breeze as rain landed on it. A single raindrop fell from a petal and Grande held it close to him as he ventured deeper into the graveyard. “I’m almost there, my dove.” He announced, yelling out to nature as if it were to speak back to him. The gravestones all were covered in moss, disgusting and unkempt, all except for one. On the far center of the graveyard, a white tombstone seemed to outmatch all the others in its beauty. The closer that Grande got to it, the weaker he started to get. “I brought you another flower, I’m sorry that I didn’t come the last few days.” He apologized as he walked closer to the grave. He lifted his right hand up, allowing the necklace to dangle downwards and the flower to sway. He could feel warmth forming in his eyes again, especially as he collapsed right in front of the grave. The cane landed directly into the mud, but the necklace and flower remained grasped in his hand. He continued to talk, even though he was on his side. He scooted himself closer towards the tombstone so he was leaning against it. He brought the necklace and flower up to his chest and placed them on the ground, right next to the old flowers. He released a cough and adjusted his body the best that he could. “I also wanted to say that I’m sorry for everything that I had done. I should have listened to you, to Ricky, just so none of this shit ever happened. I messed up, so much-” He slowly stopped himself from speaking from his cracking voice. He formed a large, broken smile and felt tears go down his cheek, combining with the rain as he took a moment to recover. “I don’t deserve any of it, but I hope to see your beautiful face again. Nothing would make me happier than to hold you in my arms again. Please, forgive me, forgive me for everything that I’ve done!” He cried, all the while holding himself close as can be to the grave. His tears only grew as he felt his body beginning to go numb as if he was fading away. A smile remained on his face as he cried even so. His lips only twitched as the world slowed down around him. “Grande.” He heard a soft voice echo, a female’s voice that was soothing to his ears, familiar even. Grande’s eyes widened at the voice, but then slowly started to close as two warm hands touched his face. His eyes went still and his breathing started to slowly become quiet. “Melanie?” He asked, though his lips could barely move. He could feel himself beginning to fade as if he was floating on air. “You can rest now, Grande. Don’t be afraid.” Melanie’s voice echoed, but then started to sound closer to Grande, as if she was right next to his ear. Grande’s eyes slowly started to close. “Can we rest together now, Melanie?” He asked with a soft whisper. His eyes opened, but all he could see was his body on the ground below next to the tombstone. Two arms wrapped around his form as the black-haired female held onto him. She leaned in and hugged him tightly, but two more arms appeared and held onto Grande as well, making him smile more as his body started to get smaller below him. “Yes, the pain is over, let’s all rest together again,” Melanie said soothingly, bringing her fingers through Grande’s brown hair. Grande’s eyes glanced down at the clouds, he was now unable to see his own body. The two other arms hugged him tightly. “It’s good to have you back, my friend.” Ricky softly whispered. Grande’s eyes started to close again, especially as his world became nothing but white.


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The months go by so fast don't they. I've been absent due to some great things and some not so great things. My 4th was born in June and he is getting bigger by the day and as you can imagine with 4 kids things have been pleasantly hectic. The bad news is that I had to put in a new drain outside my house to keep water out of my basement, and since it rains a lot here in Western Washington it was important to do it while it was dry. Now that things are calming down I will be back around to moderate on a more regular basis.

Some house keeping things we could all be reminded of:
-Only first chapters, first parts, or solo works go into the featured folder. The admins that remain, had decided that to keep successive chapters from completely clogging the featured folder like had happened before. If your story was rejected that is likely the cause because I can honestly say I have never rejected anything for any other reason.
-Well what do I do with my other chapters? Great question. Decide which is the closest genre folder to your story and submit it there. We recommend putting links in the descriptions of your first chapter to your other chapters so people can still find it in the featured folder. The idea the admins had was if they like the first chapter they won't mind clicking links to see the others.

On a completely different note: I have a Typeform survey that I created to get people's opinions on editors. It is a quick five minutes or less survey that does not require any of your personal information at all. You can find it here:…

Lastly, it is October, the month before NaNoWriMo. While I will not be doing it, there are a lot of folks who do, so now is a good time to start preparing. Outline, Map, and flush out your characters in anticipation of the craziest month of writing likely in your entire life if you can keep up. Good luck to you. Have a great month!
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PMacleod Featured By Owner Oct 17, 2017  Student Writer
hi! Everybody. I have recently joined DA, as I want to start showcasing some of my work and I would really like to meet other writers. I have only uploaded two stories so far, but I will add more in time. Hopefully I linked them in the correct place for the Group. 
lexxii Featured By Owner May 29, 2017  Hobbyist General Artist
Great Group & :iconcutieshots: :star: Requests Affiliation With :iconstory-tellers: :star: Request Sent :star: Thank you :star: xoLexxiiCutieShots :target:
CalTravos Featured By Owner Mar 23, 2017  Hobbyist Writer
I just joined DA this week, and I'm looking to network with fellow authors. Is there a way I should go about submitting my work here?
I write mostly light novel-esque stories, would that be allowed in this group?
SuperiorStory Featured By Owner Mar 27, 2017  Professional Writer
Welcome to the gaggle. You submit first chapters or stand alone work into featured. Other chapters go into respective genre folder. I recommend linking chapters to each other in the comments. If you need an editor there are a few lurking around, like myself.
BootShopStory Featured By Owner Jun 29, 2016   Artist
DanikaMilles Featured By Owner Jun 30, 2016  Hobbyist Photographer
BootShopStory Featured By Owner Jun 30, 2016   Artist
Very kind
TheSoylentOrange Featured By Owner Jun 15, 2016  Professional Writer
Hey there, I'm a longtime writer who made the jump into professional editing- what would the etiquette be for offering my services to the group?
SuperiorStory Featured By Owner Oct 9, 2016  Professional Writer
I think you just did, but if you want to be specific we don't have guidelines for such a thing as of yet. Don't be that person and you should be fine.
TheSoylentOrange Featured By Owner Oct 9, 2016  Professional Writer
Well, I mean, I had a journal I was hoping I could link here that would spell everything out. Would posting it make me "That Guy"? ^^;
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