345 Days Ago
For the longest time, I simply stared at the other girl. My brain felt like it was caught in some kind of loop where I just kept replaying her last words over and over again.
“No.” I shook my head, feeling as though I might fall down. “No way. That’s impossible. That’s wrong.”
Gesmine’s voice was tender as she lowered her hand, with a note of what sounded a lot like pride. “It’s true, Sav. We just proved it was. You didn’t think about it, and you were running just like me. Just as fast, just as long.”
Still, my head shook. I was reeling. “That can’t… Are you sure?” I finally asked, rather lamely.
To that, Ges chuckled and raised her right shoulder in a shrug. “Easy way to find out.”
“There is?” I asked, before flushing from the duh. “Oh, right, I should still be able to run without touching you.”
“That’s right.” Gesmine put her hands behind her back demonstratively. “So go for it. Run to that field over there and then back again.” She indicated the weed-filled dirt lot that surrounded the back area of the truck stop, about a hundred yards away. “Just try not to overshoot too much and get lost somewhere in Canada. I can’t tell you how many times that happened to me.”
“A lot?” I asked, raising an eyebrow, not that she could see it.
“I just said I can’t tell you.” Her masked face tilted to the side as she replied dryly. “You’d laugh.”
“Me, laugh at you?” I asked, full of false innocence. “Why, I’m insulted that you think I could be so shallow.”
Gesmine’s response was to lift her gloved hands, settle them on my shoulders, and physically turn me around away from her before leaning in close. Her voice was a vaguely muffled whisper. “Run, then come back.”
“You’re changing the subject.” I informed her, while focusing on the weeds of the field across from us. Could I really do it? Could I possibly actually run that fast without Ges’s help? It was insane, wasn’t it?
“You changed it first.” She pointed out before giving me a light kick in the rear. “Go, Sav.”
I shrugged and started to jog. I took one step, then another. “Okay, fine, but I don’t think this–”
My voice cut off, because I was talking to myself. I was also standing by myself. I had stopped running in mid-sentence, only to look around and see nothing but dry, dead weeds and grass around me. In the distance to the left, there was the beginnings of a housing development. When I looked behind me, I could barely make out the distant shape of the trucks racing along the freeway. It was so far away that I had to strain to see anything.
“Oh… my… god…” I sat down abruptly and heavily, just sort of collapsing down into the dirt as I stared in shock back the way I had come. “How… how… how…” My brain was broken, it was all I could do to simply stare and not pass out. I honestly, truly had not expected it to work.
A blur of motion attracted my attention, and then Gesmine was in front of me. I could tell she was grinning even behind the mask. “See?!” She crowed and grabbed my hands to yank me back to my feet. “I told you that you could do it!”
I wobbled a little, needing Ges to hold me up. My mouth felt dry and my knees were shaking. I felt my stomach turn over and over a few times as a strange feeling bubbled up in my stomach. It was a feeling that I couldn’t quite explain or understand.
The feeling rose through my chest, making me duck my head a little while trying to stand on my own two feet. It continued upward, until it manifested in a tiny little giggle. The softest, lightest little laugh came, and I blinked.
It came again, another little giggle, and I realized that the feeling I had was something that I hadn’t really, truly felt since the death of Paragon. Even running with Ges, while amazing, hadn’t quite felt like this.
I felt happy. I felt free. But this was more than that. This was more like something I didn’t feel. There was something missing, something that had been weighing me down ever since I had seen the world’s most powerful hero cut down. For all this time, even when I had helped Kacey or escaped from Kansas Trude and his boys, or the thing possessing them or whatever, I had felt weak and vulnerable.
Now, in this moment, for the very first time since everything had gone wrong, that feeling had been crushed like it was the dust that was currently lightly blowing around my feet.
Because for the first time since Paragon had fallen, I didn’t feel helpless.
I felt so happy and free, in fact, that I took another quick run, crossing several more football fields in a handful of seconds.
Of course, immediately after that, I had a moment of intense guilt. The only reason that I had this ability at all was because Paragon had died in the first place. He’d died, so now I had his power. He hadn’t even known me. He hadn’t chosen to bequeath his power to me. I just happened to be standing there. Or rather, cowering there. How sick was that?
And yet, Gesmine wasn’t wrong. I hadn’t killed Paragon. The creature that was after him, this Drude thing, would have taken any opportunity. It wasn’t like Paragon had been a recluse. Waiting for him to save someone was a bit like riding a bike and waiting for someone to blare their horn. You couldn’t exactly set your watch by it, but it was bound to happen a couple times a day.
But in all honesty, it still wasn’t that knowledge and understanding that convinced me to at least try to let go of my guilt and accept this gift. It was the fact that I didn’t hold Gesmine responsible for what the Drude had made her do. She’d had no more control over the situation, no more defense against the Drude’s manipulation, than Paragon. She had been a victim as well, and couldn’t possibly have stopped it.
Which meant that I had to let go of that guilt. Because if I held onto it for myself, I was tangentially blaming Gesmine as well, and that wasn’t fair, or right.
I caught sight of a blur of motion out of the corner of my eye, and when I focused on it, everything slowed down again. Now I could see Gesmine coming toward me as though she was running at normal speed.
This was so indescribably awesome.
“Is this indescribably awesome or what?” Ges rocketed to a stop next to me, and I could tell she was grinning. Her head cocked to the side when I laughed. “What?”
My head shook as I continued to giggle. “Nothing, I was just thinking the exact same thing, that’s all.”
“Duh.” Ges smacked her hand off the side of her head to demonstrate the obviousness of my words. “We are best friends. We’re totally in synch. Plus, you know, maybe you’re borrowing my brain as well as my powers.”
“I hope not.” I shot back. “I can’t afford your English Lit grades.”
She leapt for me, and I spun to flee. It was just like when we were kids chasing each other around the backyard. Except in this case, the backyard was the entire state of Oregon. I ran for thirty seconds and crossed over a hundred miles into a wooded area. Looking over my shoulder, I saw the blur of Gesmine approaching, so I cut right and followed the treeline. Branches and bits of debris were flung either way in my wake.
Ten more seconds of running in that direction brought me back toward a residential area. Rather than continue, I leaned right again. A gopher of some kind poked his head up right in front of me, but the amazing reflexes I had acquired let me adjust course, speeding around the little creature in a rush of motion that actually yanked him out of his hole and made him tumble a few feet away.
“Sorry!” I called back to the dazed little gopher, though he was already miles away so it was a symbolic gesture at best.
Then I sensed motion to my left, but by the time I turned that way, Gesmine was there. She collided with me and we went tumbling end over end, rolling through the weeds and dirt. Both of us squealed, but I assure you that it was heroic, impressive girly squealing.
Falling onto my back with Gesmine perched atop me, I squinted at her through the mask lenses. “Best two out of three?”
She laughed, picking herself off me and extending her hand. “Next time. Right now, we should really talk to Kristof.”
I accepted the hand and let her pull me up. “Right, well, where are we going?”
“Back to the truck stop.” Ges was already jogging the way we had come from. “Follow me, if you can keep up.”
“If I can–” I rolled my eyes. “I have your powers, remember? The exact same powers.”
Her answer came in a slow, easy drawl that I’d heard her parents use, but Gesmine only spoke with when she was being exceedingly sarcastic or making a point. “Well yes, ma’am, but you ain’t Gesmine Montana, powers or no. That’s me, one and only.”
She picked up speed, and I chased after her. We blew across the land, terrifying that poor gopher one more time. Gesmine knew exactly where she was going, and I stayed behind her the whole way.
When we made it back to the lot behind the truck stop, I was a bit surprised to see Ges head up to the backdoor. Questions rose, but I bit them back and followed the other girl through the door and into heaven’s own kitchen.
It smelled that way, at least. Between the smells of sausage and bacon sizzling, warm and buttery pancakes, and frying eggs, I was somehow instantaneously and simultaneously content and starving. “Oh my god.”
“I know.” Ges chuckled. “Trust me, we’ll get food. Come on.” She led the way from the empty supply room and toward that smell.
“Uhh, Ges?” I hesitated. “Aren’t there people out there?”
She looked over her shoulder at me, expression hidden. “Like I said, trust me. This is why you’ve got the mask. And it’s not really so much people as, well, take a look.”
I did so, stepping past Ges and into the restaurant’s kitchen before stopping short at what I saw. My mouth fell open, and I’m fairly certain that a long, continuous ‘uhhh’ noise emanated from it for the next several moments.
On the bare surface, it looked like any busy diner kitchen. The industrial sinks taking up one side of the room were going full blast as plates were swept through, scrubbed, and deposited on the other side to dry. Papers with the scribbled instructions of people’s orders were brought in and attached in an orderly line to the board near the enormous stove, which itself looked like a particularly ill-disguised Transformer who couldn’t quite get the hang of not looking like a super advanced killer robot. The food frying or grilling all along the stove was swept up and arranged onto plates which were then deposited onto trays, and carried out the door toward the waiting diners.
Except, one thing separated this kitchen from every other one I’d ever seen. Everything that was happening was being done without the benefit of any human assistance. The plates washed themselves, the receipts floated into the room and attached themselves to the board of their own volition, the pancakes flipped over without help, and the trays full of food simply floated back out of the room.
Behind me, I could hear my companion giggling. Once I got my confusion under control, I looked over my shoulder. Sadly, the lenses in the mask I wore tempered the murdering power of my scowl. Actually, given what little I understood about the gifts I had inherited, that wasn’t so much a toss away joke as it was a wise investment idea. I really needed to find out if murder lasers were going to shoot out of my eyes at any point.
I suppose it would be a larger issue if I spent much time around anyone else with such power.
“You could’ve warned me.” I complained before turning back to stare at the automated kitchen once more.
“And miss this reaction?” Ges shook her head and stepped next to me. “Not on your life. Besides, how awesome is this?”
“Not quite as cool as crossing the entire continent in half an hour, but definitely right up at the top.” I took a cautious step further in. “Let me guess, Augurist works here? This is his like, Daily Planet or something?”
“First, you are such a geek.” Gesmine passed me and continued to a door marked ‘manager’. “And second, he doesn’t just work here, he owns the place.”
Before Ges could open the door, I paused. “You know, it occurs to me that this whole concealing my identity thing might not be fair if I get to know his.”
With her hand on the door, Gesmine looked back at me. “Sure, it wouldn’t be fair. That is, if I hadn’t been sending him messages through the com in my mask to make sure that it’s okay.”
I blinked at that, glad that the mask hid my blush. “Oh, well okay then. In that case, can I ask him why the most powerful sorcerer in the world is–”
A deep, baritone voice continued my thought, “–shacked up in some rinky-dink roadside diner?” The door in front of us had opened, to reveal a tall, barrel chested man with a weathered face and long gray-brown hair. He looked old enough to be my grandfather, yet his green eyes were lively and sparked with amusement and power.
I stared up at the man, my voice failing me. Give me a break, it was only my second big hero meeting, and the first one hadn’t ended very well. Third, I suppose, counting Ges. But I had known her forever.
My friend kicked my foot and coughed. “Say something.”
“Something.” I blurted, and was immediately even more grateful for the blush-concealing mask than I had been before.
To his credit, the man didn’t laugh in my face. I don’t know if I could have resisted had it been the other way around. “Well, now that we know she can talk.” Those green eyes sparkled with amusement before he reached his hand out toward me, “My name is Kristof. What shall I call you?”
My mind went blank for a moment, while Ges simply waited patiently. Should I give him my real first name? Should I use a pseudonym and just come up with a random name, like… like… Oh god, I couldn’t remember any other names! That part of my brain that should have contained a whole expansive list of potential fake names was just showing white static.
Finally, I remembered what I had told Kansas Trude. “Fixation.” I said, drawing a clearly curious look from Gesmine. “Let’s just go with Fixation.”
The man’s eyebrow rose curiously. “Ah, is there some meaning behind your choice?”
“Yeah.” I answered the man simply, without going into details.
Once it became clear that I wasn’t going to say anything else about it, Kristof gave a nod of acceptance. “Well, Fixation, your friend tells me that you have had a rather interesting couple of weeks.”
I started to nod, then looked at the autonomously flying dishes all around us. “Is it safe to talk about this stuff? I mean, the dining room is right there, and you seem busy.”
Kristof waved a hand dismissively. “No one sees or hears anything within this building unless I wish them to. Our conversation is quite private, I assure you.”
Deciding that I was going to have to be satisfied with that, after all, the man was supposed to be the most powerful magic-user alive, I started to talk. I told him everything, repeating it for Gesmine. I told them about my stupid plan, which earned me a scowl from Ges. I talked about what had happened, what I’d seen, how I’d gone over to Ges’s house for answers and ended up using skills I shouldn’t have had to rescue Kacey. Then I went over my subsequent abduction and what had happened in the Trude’s basement with the Drude.
When I was done, I hesitated before looking at Kristof. “With all that information, and what you know about Ges, it wouldn’t be very hard for you to figure out who I am just by doing a little bit of research.”
A smile touched the older man’s worn face. “More effort than it would take to learn your identity using magic, dear.” His eyes twinkled with amusement as he shook his head. “I have promised that I will make no effort to learn who you are, until you wish me to. Whether the means be magic or mundane, my word stands.”
He went on after I nodded in satisfaction. “We will send people to this Kansas Trude’s house to learn what they know. You say they knew your name while possessed, but not once the creature had fled. Do you believe that the creature knows who you are, and that you possess what it wants?
“I…” I hesitated. “I don’t know. I haven’t seen it lurking around, haven’t seen anyone acting odd. Actually, I haven’t seen any sign of it at all.”
“That makes sense.” Kristof nodded. “From what little we know, it seems as if the monster must go into hybernation after exerting itself. Possessing Whiplash, then a handful of humans in short succession? I daresay it has exhausted itself for some time.”
“How long is it going to have to sleep for?” I held my gloved hands up with my fingers crossed. “Please say thirty seven centuries. Please say thirty seven centuries.”
A slight chuckle escaped the mage. “I can’t truly begin to say, but I would wager on a matter of weeks, or months.”
“Great.” I slumped a little, feeling the weight from the fear of that thing knowing my name and coming after me to get what it wanted.
Gesmine crossed to where I was, putting a hand on my arm. “We’ll teach you to defend yourself. And to use your power. Won’t we, Kristof?”
He nodded and extended a hand. A glass flew to him from the nearby counter, and he held it on his outstretched palm. “I wish to try something. You know of my power. Telekinesis, that is, moving objects–”
“Dude,” I interrupted, “I know what telekinesis is. It’s like, the most common power in movies and stuff because it’s so easy to fake. Plus Maiden used it before she retired. And when you were fighting Gallant, you used it to manipulate the giant suit of armor that he stole.”
Kristof looked toward Gesmine. “You clearly were not exaggerating your companion’s interest in our doings.”
Ges was giggling behind her mask. “You haven’t seen anything yet. Wait til she really gets going.”
“In any case,” Kristof said with a smile, “I want you to try to use my own power to move this glass. Telekinesis is the most simple, easy to use bits of magic that I know. Just focus on the glass and attempt to move it.”
After Ges gave me an encouraging nod, I focused on the glass. I imagined it flying up out of the wizard’s hand and coming to my own. I pictured Luke Skywalker getting his lightsaber on Hoth. I pictured it spinning around in the air. I focused on pushing it off of Kristof’s outstretched hand, wobbling and falling.
Nothing happened. For almost five minutes, I focused on that glass, and it didn’t react whatsoever.
“As I suspected.” Kristof gave the glass a toss and it floated carefully back to where it had been. “Though you, like Paragon, are capable of using the mundane skills of anyone you have personally met, powers are different. You must have a personal connection with the person whose powers you are attempting to use, and they must be willing. That would explain Paragon’s beginning.”
“His beginning?” I frowned. “But he just came out of nowhere and had all these powers.”
“Not precisely.” Kristof shook his head, and now even Gesmine seemed curious. “What do you remember of the boy called Kid Assist?”
That threw me. “Uh, he was a sidekick for the Society about twenty years ago. He just kind of hung around a lot and tried to help. He got in trouble sometimes when the bad guys came after him, and finally he just retired and disappeared. Some people thought he died.”
Kristof smiled faintly. “Yes and no. Kid Assist did retire from active duty because things had become too dangerous. But he remained in the Society Headquarters, because he was an orphan and had nowhere else to go. He stayed around the Society members for a decade after his retirement, before beginning to display the ability to use the powers of those he knew well.”
My eyes widened and I did a double-take. “Wait, you’re saying little Kid Assist is actually—I mean was actually Paragon?”
“Indeed.” Kristof nodded. “The years he spent around the Society allowed him to borrow the powers of any of us who were willing to let him. It needn’t even be open agreement. If the person whose powers were being borrowed would have been willing, even if nothing was outright stated or thought, he was able to use their abilities until or unless they consciously or unconsciously withdrew that permission.”
I was still reeling, and had to put a hand out to the counter to stop myself from stumbling. Gesmine came to my side and put an arm around me quickly. Her voice was worried, “Are you all right?”
“I-I’ll be fine.” I swallowed thickly and looked toward the old man. “How did I end up with this power?”
His head shook. “That I do not know. Perhaps Paragon wished you to have them and transferred the power before it could be stolen.”
“So… so now what do I do?” I asked, weakly.
“We will help in case the Drude returns for you.” Kristof answered, his voice soft and reassuring. “But in the meantime, you have a choice to make.”
“A choice?” I felt Ges tighten her hold on me. “What kind of choice?”
“You may simply hold those powers and return to your normal life, allowing us to do what we must to track down this Drude.” Kristof explained. “Or you may use the powers, the skills, to do the things that Paragon can no longer do.”
I stared in shock. “You want me to take his place?”
Kristof’s look was sad as he shook his head. “No, I do not believe that anyone could take Paragon’s place. But he is gone, and you are here. I will not lie and say that it will be easy, or that you won’t lose things that you care about. It will be dangerous, but it is your choice.”
My voice was small and weak. “I’m not a hero. I’m just a stupid little girl with a crush.”
Gesmine started to speak, but Kristof interrupted, his voice firm. “What you have been does not dictate what you may or may not become. Whether you remain a stupid little girl with a crush, or become something better is decided by your actions now and in the future, not the ones from the past. Your life is not guided like a train upon the rails, but by your every step. Forward or backward, wherever you go, it is your choice. If you were a stupid little girl, then so be it. Your act now must be to decide who you will be, not who you were.”
I almost shrank further beneath his gaze, but held my ground. I felt small and insignificant, but his words made me think, made me consider. “I… I want to help. I want to try. I want to be better.”
The man smiled, turning his attention to Ges. “Well then, I believe that means you have some training to do.”
“Yup.” Gesmine nodded, her attention on me. “You ready to become the thing you’ve always loved?”
I was scared, worried that I wouldn’t be good enough, that I would make a mockery of the chance I’d been given. But I lifted my hand to give her a thumbs up. “Where do we start?”