Lanie's Journal

Who I Truly Am: The Life of Dr. Lanie the Therapy Dog - By Ish'ta

A large, dark brown leather-bound book with a red tassel for a bookmark. On the first page is a comment from the writer, written in intricate cursive that when read will be legible to any and everyone.

"This book was written to keep alive the memory of Lanie, an amazing canine with the dream of changing the world for the better. My hope is that her story, however long, will inspire and bring the same hope she carries to all those who both dream of a better world, and wish to know who they truly are. Thank you for sharing your wonderful story with me, I will cherish it just like I do you, Lanie."

     ~Written with care, Ish'ta

A photo is tucked in between the first and second pages.

The Boy Who Drew Cats

A Plan

Mel pushed open the door of her house in the Lakeshore neighborhood of Oakland, California as the first light of dawn began to brighten the dark, overcast sky. After checking on the unconscious Vincent at the local hospital, calling back school staff in the area, coordinating the immediate pick-ups of a third of the children, and coordinating the hotel stays of the remaining two thirds (with staff supervision), Mel could finally conclude that everyone was okay. Sort of. The frail, short woman in her early thirties mechanically set her backpack down on the entryway table and then took off her leather booties. Attributing her lack of tiredness to the adrenaline from the past twelve hours felt like a lie. It wasn’t the past that bothered her as much as the future.

Flipping off the hallway light which her roommate and best friend had graciously left on, Mel slowly moved down the hall into the living room and plopped down on the firm modern couch. This changed everything: what she thought about supernaturals, Contractors, herself. The limits that she could reach were now unbound--assuming she could survive and succeed. Most importantly, though, Mel had tainted her real and fully normal identity by leveraging her status as a licensed psychologist in the presence of other Contractors (and the detective, but he took that with him to the grave). Neither Jason nor Rico seemed overtly malicious, but who knew what they would become--what they wanted to become--as they increased in power. 

Power. Within reason, anything could be gained according to the mysterious person who hired her. To become… anything… 

Mel shook her head and sighed. Better to focus more on what is than what could be, while still keeping the latter in mind. First and foremost, Keara could be in jeopardy from Mel’s newfound hobby by simply being associated with this new group. Supernaturals were often feared due to the power imbalance and the unknowns, while Contractors could be overpowered serial killers and terrorists... or simply scapegoats for destructive supernatural occurrences, like the sudden appearance and disappearance of Kylo Ren. 

She needed a plan. A plan to continue succeeding at these "Contracts" and become one of the powerful “good guys,” like the harbinger said. At the same time, a plan to monitor Contractors to turn in the malicious ones to ... who, the FBI? Vincent's supernatural, secret organization? The Idaho superman?

And a plan to protect Keara’s happy, normal life as much as possible.

Downtime

Health & Wealth

The first step in the plan was to amass wealth so that--whether Mel closed her practice, died on a Contract, or otherwise disappeared--Keara would be able to pay the remainder of their 30-year mortgage. Mel had a decent life insurance policy, the result of her late mother’s advising, but in her mind that payout was already called for. It would go towards the welfare of Jonathan Dakkera, who was in a memory care facility and also had several physical health challenges. A clear source of wealth was to simply spend her Contract “pay” on a million dollars, like the harbinger said, but that would move Mel towards one goal, not multiple. She also had the welfare of her patients to consider; this is where warm compassion outweighed cold calculations. Thus, Mel selected her first Gift, Intensive Therapy.

Over the course of the next month, Mel almost cleared out her patient list while padding her bank account (and cash on hand). Specifically, she cured one or more Traumas of all thirty regular patients in exchange for either 2% of their last year's annual income as a lump sum in cash or 1% of their annual income in monthly payments for the next two years (received only when she billed them through her practice, since she didn’t want her death or disappearance to cause the Traumas to return). She made sure that each patient understood that a missed payment would mean they could never recieve her highly effective services again. In truth, their Trauma would suddenly, inexplicably return, but that was more than she was willing to disclose.

To avoid questions about the visible supernatural elements (and protect her clients' minds from being shaken), Mel simply framed her new technique as a breakthrough hypnotherapy. Thus, all clients were asked to close their eyes during the therapy session. With her eyes open, Mel could monitor if anyone peeked and was shocked by what they saw. But even if they did, protecting her identity didn't matter so much now that it was already tainted and would continue to be for as long as she accepted these new jobs. In addition, Mel encouraged her patients to make referrals (earning them a discount) to help replenish her now dwindling patient base.

Beyond that, Mel prepared for her next Contract. While being in full makeup and business attire worked well for the past job, reviewing the news on supernatural activites that could be related to Contractor activities implied that the work wouldn’t always be so clean cut. And getting hired as she was commuting home meant that advanced notice should not be expected. To that end, Mel adjusted what she carried with her at all times and created two “Contract bags”--one for home and one for work. All the while, she made the purchases using Rico’s burn phone (she owed him several hundred dollars for it but couldn't pay him back due to not having his real phone number), VPNs, Visa gift cards, and P.O. boxes to avoid obvious traces of her unusual activities. Mel also picked up a stack of books on mythology, rituals, and magic. Although she couldn't discern between fact and fiction, her last job proved that this kind of information could be helpful in the future.

Who Done It?

Okay

Mel again turned off the hallway light. Abandoning her shoes and luggage in the hallway, she moved to the kitchen and quickly prepared dinner using a reusable water bottle and a meal replacement packet containing dark green powder. The tea in that Johannesburg cafe hadn't settle well in her stomach--but then again, most things didn't. The microwave read 2:30 AM as she absentmindedly stirred her drink. Unusually late for Mel to come home, especially when she went on a sudden trip of unknown length to a location she didn't want to disclose. She could have taken a different flight than the soonest one to SFO to return at a more reasonable hour, but she wanted to get out as soon as possible, back to a familiar culture, back to higher safety, and away from her … “co-workers.”

Unlike the first job which involved doing some good, this one was simply a test. Their employer implied that the murder was both inevitable and known. From this she concluded that sometimes the tasks would be meaningful, and other times they would simply entertain someone powerful being's whims. Mel sipped the bitter, comforting drink in the brightly lit modern kitchen. Frankly, she was fine with either given the rewards, so long as she could avoid directly harming anyone or herself. Jason and Mr. Serna had showed up to the cafe injured, but based on Mel’s past experience with Jason and the situation, she expected that. Besides, they knew what they were getting themselves into. She hoped.

"Mel?" A tall woman with messy blonde hair wearing only an oversized t-shirt sat up from laying on the couch. Then her housemate and best friend, Keara, yawned. "You okay?" 

“Yeah, I’m good.”

Keara simply stared at her in response, head resting on crossed arms atop the couch. After a long pause, she concluded with, “Okay. ‘Night.”

“Night.”

Mel sighed as Keara’s bedroom door softly shut. Alone once more. While there was no pressure to share, Keara definitely wanted to know what was going on. Ignorance could protect her best friend, but knowing too little could cause stress. Was that choice for Mel to make or for Keara to make? She yawned before downing the last of her drink. That didn't have to be decided tonight, but it couldn't be put off forever.

Downtime

Worried

Wealth bought convenience, comfort, and influence--and it almost bought protection, only furthering Mel’s resolve to quickly accumulate it. 

Over the course of the next month, Mel worked through a second round of patients, the ones that were referred to her from her original long-time patients. Business was booming since many of her original patients referred multiple people. While the referral discount remained, now Mel no longer treated additional Traumas for free. Instant and complete treatment for a mental health issue was the convenient magic pill that many had been looking for. The price was high, but in the Bay Area 1-2% of a person’s annual income seemed to be expendable--and longer treatment with questionable results was also expensive when totalled up. Disguising the treatment as hypnotherapy generally kept her first and only supernatural Gift hidden. However, by now several people had peeked and then panicked at the sight of the silver ethereal halo around Mel’s head. In an effort to do no harm to them or herself, Mel treated their shock and “hallucinations” as a normal part of the hypnotherapy process. It was a fine line for a mental health healer, denying their accurate perceptions of reality. Most patients seemed to buy it and proceeded with treatment, but some clearly didn’t. Either way, those were the days when Mel came home visibly worried, even feeling a little paranoid about the further tainting of her identity and Keara’s normal life. Did they really believe her over themselves? Would they tell others about their experiences, and would anyone believe them? Would they develop an interest in her as a ‘super’--one of them? By the end of the month, Mel switched the sessions to being entirely remote. Working from home helped settle her; it also accommodated her expanding client base and allowed her to turn off her camera during the session, removing all risk of being revealed (so long as the blinds were closed and Keara wasn't home). Nevertheless, the habits developed from a month of being highly alert to her surroundings seemed to stick, whether she was going grocery shopping or simply looking out the livingroom window.

Vampire Slayer
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Downtime

Better or Worse

Mel met four Contractors so far: a charming ex-military man who was uncomfortable around the police, a self-proclaimed monster hunter who had overt mental health challenges, a man who seemed to be made of candy (given the intense smell and the crack in his face from that punch), and that other one. She wasn’t sure what Rico’s gig was. They all seemed fine enough, but she knew them superficially. What did they want out of these jobs? What would the power help them accomplish? Would they use it to make the world a better or worse place? And, if the latter, what would she do about it?

Mel, for one, wanted to heal minds--and so she was. One Trauma healed per day was technically breakneck speed in the mental health field, and she was accumulating wealth just as fast. At some point she would have a sufficient cash flow and switch her client base, maybe to children if she could speed up the process (expecting kids to keep their eyes shut for a total of 8 hours was foolish). And the Contractors needed to be monitored. Who better to do that than an insider? That meant going on more jobs, subtly gathering as much information on each one as she could, and then staying casually in touch afterwards. However, each Contract attended also increased the risk of impacting her and Keara's regular lives. One way or another, all three jobs involved Mel providing her full name for others to record. Even if she stopped now, a thorough investigation into her activites--her online activities, locations based on burn phone use, and purchases--would warrant suspition. Coincidence could not explain being at the wrong place at the wrong time so consistently (in fact, she just narrowly avoided pegging herself as a terrorist and mass murderer). There was no going back now… but what did it mean to go forward? Mel wanted to clear her name, mostly to protect Keara and, if she was being fully honest, for her own inner peace. Maybe an alias? But she wasn't sure how to set that up enough to be believable, and she’d also need a consistent, comprehensive disguise (more than that clothing swap that Abbas employed). Maybe a supernatural transformation into a different thing? If vampires existed, then so could werewolves--or were-anythings. But then there was the risk of being paired up with monster hunters like Abbas, and, in both situations, if others saw her change from one thing to the other she'd be back to square one.

Mel closed the survival book in her hands, giving up. Her brain was going in too many circles to learn how to be alert in every situation--so much that she wasn't even being perceptive in that moment. She tucked it into her small designer backpack and stood up from the ornate park bench, immediately remembering how sore her legs were. Training for the half-marathon was much more inspiring when one imagined running for their life from a bloodthirsty, supernatural monster. Even if it was foolish (it's not like she could outrun the last job's dangers), building up her speed and stamina through running provided a sense of control over her life--and it also helped with stress management. 

Take a deep breath. In doing so, she indulged in her most recent Gift. Freshly cut grass. Tree bark and asphalt. The distinct hum of insects in the bushes. Something else. Turning around, Mel quickly found the source: a fluffy shiba inu! Bubbly excitement washed away all other thoughts as Mel walked across the manicured lawn to the dog and elderly owner.

Maybe I should adopt another dog... 

The Third Sick Hall First Escapee
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Downtime

Sure as Hell

A tall woman with platinum blonde hair in a near-perfect bun and workout clothes seared bacon wrapped scallops to the beat of loud techno music which competed with the stovetop vent. As she moved from that to rustling the long stalks on gai lan in the nonstick pan, Mel set a makeup mirror on the counter. Then she took a seat on a barstool and turned down the bluetooth speaker.

Looking clearly uncomfortable, Mel finally asked, “So, do you want to know?”

Keara turned down the heat on the vegetables and then leaned on the counter, looking back at her roommate and best friend. “Sure as hell I do! The last time you took this long to tell me something, your committee chair was sexually harassing you--which I already knew about, by the way.”

Mel sighed. “Look, the reason why I’ve been putting it off is because the more you know, the more you could be affected by it…”

Keara’s brows furrowed and her smile disappeared. “I’m already being affected by it, Mel.”

“I know, I know,” Mel replied quickly, hands raised in defense. “I meant more affected.”

“Alright…” Keara seemed exaggeratedly pensive for a moment before glancing back at the scallops. “Yep, I still want to know.”

Mel sighed. “Okay. Let’s start at the beginning, okay? Let's start with you telling me about that time when you were four years old and you got bit by a spider.”

“You know the story--and I don’t see how it’s relevant,” Keara replied as she used tongs to transfer the scallops from pan to plate.

“Trust me.”

With that, Keara began to share the story of how she developed a phobia of spiders. A very faint, ethereal, jagged halo of silver immediately appeared around Mel’s head--something like the paintings and mosaics in Catholic cathedrals--but Keara was too busy talking and cooking to notice. At the same time, a very transparent, ethereal, jagged halo of black appeared around Keara’s head.

“Keara…” Mel gently interrupted, holding up her friend’s circle makeup mirror at just the right angle.

“What?" Keara replied impatiently before turning around. "I thought you wanted me to--what the fuck is that?!"

The Hospital
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Downtime
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The only thing
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Downtime
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Vox Pupa
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Downtime
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Downtime

Slices of Life I

The Bill

At some point when Jason and Mel are recharging in their "campsite" of sleeping bags, a battery-powered lanturn, and a pile of snacks and toys in a haunted hallway, when Violet has already fallen asleep, Mel will ask Jason what he would charge a regular client for 24-hour bodyguard services.

“Depends on the details. Probably a few grand minimum.”

"Per what? Day?” She pauses. "No known enemies."

"Yep, think I put my life on the line for a couple bucks? If they don't have enemies then why would they need a bodyguard?" 

Mel chuckles. "How about this--high kidnapping risk?"

"Kidnapping attempts can get messy. Why are you asking?" 

"Just give me an estimate." She's grinning.

"If it's for Violet I'd do it for free." He looks suspicious.

"Damn, you're stubborn!" Mel declares with amusement. "Okay, you win. How much would you charge to watch over a medium short-haired dog that certain supernatural people--mostly allies but not exclusively--would know can instantly heal their body and mind? ... I'd help you pick up chicks too--they love dogs..." she muses, still smiling and now looking rather mischievous.

"That's true, they do love dogs..." Jason sarcastically ponders with a grin. "I wouldn't charge you, maybe just expenses, but I am NOT giving you a bath!" He starts laughing.

Mel's eyes widen for a brief moment and then she smacks him on the arm in revenge for even having the thought as she laughs too. Violet stirs at their interaction, causing Mel to control herself and wipe away a joyous tear. "You wouldn't clean up my shit either--I'd be the damn best dog you'd ever have--even split the rent!" Then a sigh. "If we get out of here, it's a deal."

"We could get you a dog walker." Still grinning but the amusement seems to be quickly fading. "Deal." He looks over at sleeping Violet. "You should sleep too. I'll keep the Boogie Men away."

Mel looks over at Violet too for a moment. "Really, I should start paying you now..." she says mostly to herself as she rolls away from her protector with a yawn, following his command. 

"Wait till you see the bill." He smiles again as he heads out to make his rounds. 

 

---

Phone Calls

Each day in the crypt or their apartment for 30 minutes to an hour, Mel sits straight up, back against a decrepit wall, taking deep breaths as though she's in meditation. Her gaze is off in the distance or her eyes are shut until Violet shows her something she drew or asks her what this thing is in the picture book. Mel's response is delayed by a few seconds, and then she briefly showers Violet with loving, patient attention before encouraging her to show "Daddy" and then returning to her previous state.

These are her phone calls.

 

---

The Further You Go

Bu Fang receives a phone call. The contact shown is simply "Mark Collins' Friend" with the image of a paw print.

Bu Fang picks up the phone. "Chef bu Fang on the line. What would you like to order?" Over the phone you hear metal clanking, sizzling, even some talking.

"Mr. bu Fang, I'd like to call you back when you're a bit less busy. I'm a friend of Mark's and I'm seeking... supernaturally capable people who might be interested in trading services with me or simply lending a hand. When might be a good time to chat?" 

You hear a soft chuckle as all the noise goes dead silent and his voice changes to more of a soft younger voice, perhaps about late 20s early 30? "You may call me Chef Fang. Anyways, right now is fine, no one is here. What do you require?"

"Oh! Well, even if people were there, they wouldn't hear this conversation. The call is confidential, not using your actual phone service, and no one else can perceive it. I didn't want to inconvenience you--but thanks for making the time… Chef Fang, I haven't been in this... line of business for very long. Not compared to Mark, I mean. But I've survived long enough to gain a decent amount of wealth, enhance my ability to heal the human mind from traumas, and several other tricks that cannot be explained. If I continue to survive, my intention is to be a supernatural healer of the body and mind--undercover, of course, to avoid the associated social issues.

Recently a job went sideways and now I'm seeking a list of services. This includes restoring a friend's maimed hand and seeking the knowledge of an Occult expert to make a curse more manageable or break it entirely. Those things are for my benefit. 

Separately, I have rescued a neglected, abused toddler from a powerful demon. The child has no memories of life before the demon got her. As a result, I'm hoping to find a skilled hacker or savvy politician in order to fake her identity and records so that she is legally my child--and also an expert investigator to discover the child's true family and past. Plus, we have no idea if the demon will come looking for her, so maybe a trustworthy powerful person to keep her with--which sadly is not me--I would die for her but I'm not strong enough for my death to make a difference in her safety. So a person or a place to keep her safe in the long term."

Some silence is heard over the phone "... Well, I see, I see... hmmm hahaha! What are you willing to pay? I may be able to provide something in terms of your friend's maimed hand. As for the rest, I certainly do have the connections to assist in those, though I will need much more information, such as who this demon is or what it is, where did you find her and what nots. Information on the curse as well."

"Really?" Her tone is excited. "What could I give you in exchange for my friend's healing?"

"How about ... a favor? It’s simple--you just owe me one that I can redeem sometime in the future."

"Of course!" A long pause. Her tone becomes serious. "Even if I die from this curse or something else, I can still heal your mind--you will be repaid."

"Ahaha! Do not worry, I work with the mind myself," You can hear a chuckle akin to a senior hearing their junior tell them they can do what the senior is doing.

"Oh! ..." Mel is now baffled as to what she could offer this man. But Mark said he was one of the good ones, so the blank check didn't make her too nervous. "My name is Dr. Melanie Dakkera. I'm a psychologist in the Bay Area, California." She sounds nervous.

"Heh, how about that? Come on down to my restaurant sometime, I'm a chef in the Bay Area, Cali, as well. (INSERT ADDRESS HERE), it’s Golden Mist. Anyways, I’ll have someone deliver something to you. Where do you want to meet them?"

"Oh! I... uh… I'll definitely visit your restaurant! But at the moment I'm tied to a location in Detroit... my apartment is (ADDRESS), and please stay clear of the Motown Museum nearby--I don't want you to die." 

"That's quite some underestimation right there, but, of course, you'll be receiving a delivery within the next week then."

"I..." She didn't mean to sound rude, but wasn't sure how to save it. "Thank you.”

“Now, about the curse... My friend and I are tied to a Crypt location, which is--" Not wanting to assume the chef had no idea, Mel changed the angle, “--which we soon discovered is one of several locations on Earth where people disappear. It's basically a dangerous, haunted location in another dimension that has a portal connected to Earth. A Crypt stores some aspect of the missing people--such as a monstrous version of themselves--and also a more powerful dangerous creature of some kind. The only two other locations that we suspect are Crypts are in Boston and Northern New York. We're still in the process of exploring the Crypt we're tied to--tied meaning if we are outside of it for too long, we begin to die from supernatural side effects. But it's difficult to explore because... one section has like 50 decently strong monsters in it which we easily can't get past. But exploring may help us understand the nature of the curse and how to either manage or break it, as will (I'm hoping) a discussion with an Occult expert if you happen to know of one."

"Oh, yikes, don't go to the Boston one, that one is deadly even to even the older members. Lost two close friends in that one. Mark and I barely made it out. I can check in with an occult expert if you're exploring THE crypt. But be warned, being tied there is one of the merciful things they can do..."

"Merciful? 'They' who?"

"We call them crypt keepers--monstrous humanoids, elongated features, able to speak into your mind. They know, they plan, they think, they retain sanity, protecting the crypt treasures and punishing trespassers. Mark lost his arms and combative capability, I lost my Qi and usage of a knife to them. We managed to retrieve it, but they are deadly creatures"

"... So there is someone we need to meet here--someone we should apologize to for trespassing and possibly even thank?" Mel seems lost.

"No. Run if you see them, never interact with them. They only love the crypt. They will keep you and turn you into one of them if you meet them and don't negotiate your way out. They are akin to devils, contracts and deals are their favorite, to test those that come and see what you're willing to give to survive. That includes what we earn from these ‘Contracts’."

"I mean... we... can't leave." And now she sounds overwhelmed.

"Of course, but be weary is all. If you're already tied to it, I can assume they won't harass you due to you belonging to the Crypt."

"... Thank you for the information, Chef Fang. I really appreciate it, and I'm sorry for your loss. I nearly died here as well--which isn't saying much--as did my friend. We are thankful to be alive. Do you happen to know if we're tied to the Crypt as a whole or this specific Crypt--or is that a question for your occult expert? I ask because I want to know if I can avoid death via the curse by entering any Crypt to 'recharge' or only my specific one--it's essentially a mobility issue as I cannot expect all future jobs to take place in Detroit nor take less than 24 hours." 

"My understanding of the Crypt is that you would be tied to the Crypt as a whole, as they are interlocked between each other, akin to tunnels within the veil of our dimension. if you find other crypts, you should be able to navigate amongst them. Of course, I shall consult said expert and shall send a message if I learn of anything new." 

"Thank you. You can reach me at (PHONE NUMBER). I won't pick up though; I'll call you back on a more private line--although the return call may be delayed because the Crypt has no cell service. And Mark already gave me yours. 

Aside from the curse... we also pissed off a demon. In short, I can confirm that my crypt is tied to different locations, each which house a powerful monster. This is what we've called the Hall of Doors. We tried opening the doors and tossing GPS devices in to determine more crypt locations, but it didn't work. In the process, we opened a door and discovered an abandoned and neglected three-year-old girl that a possessive demon was keeping alive and feeding off of. I grabbed her and we shut the door, cutting off the connection. Violet is in our care now. Now I'm seeking out several trustworthy people: a medical doctor who could evaluate her current health and possibly identify magical illnesses or markings, a hacker who could fake her identity and adoption paperwork, a private investigator to investigate her origins and parents, someone knowledgeable on demons... and a person or place to keep Violet safe in case her captor comes looking for her. Of course, we'll do all we can to protect her ourselves, but I'm not sure if that's going to be enough... I know that's a long list--but any referral would mean the world to me, as she is now my... my ward and my daughter now until further notice." Mel will suddenly chuckle. "Cursed, a pissed off demon, and now a parent--and I've only been in this for six months!" 

"Hmmm, I'll see what I can help with. Sidenote, expect more than one. It'll happen the further you go, heh. Good day then."

As Chef Fang hung up, Mel wondered which she should be expecting more than one of: curse, demon, or child.

 

--- 

A Delivery

After a week, at Mel's apartment in Detroit, you will get some knocking followed by a doorbell ring. 

A sweet toddler with pale skin and stark red eyes wearing a red princess outfit opens the doors almost immediately, in parallel with a woman's command coming from deeper within: "Don't answer the--Violet!" 

At the door is a Chinese guy, looking approximately in his mid 20's, he is in fully casual clothing with just a box in hand saying "Hey there, i have a delivery for your mom?"

The young girl looks up at the visitor with unprecedented amazement, wide-eyed. "Hi," is all she can muster. 

A thin, short half-Asian/ half-white woman in her thirties rushes around the corner into the hallway and then relaxes when she sees the visitor. Her hair is in a messy ponytail and she's wearing a blouse, fashionable jeans, and an apron that clearly has some tomato sauce on it. She looks like she hasn't slept in days and appears severely dehydrated. Mel approaches the visitor at the door. "Delivery from who?"

"Uhhh, Chef Fang?"

"Great!" Mel receives the package as Violet asks, "Is that a present?"

"Yes, honey, it's a present for Jason. Turning back to her guest, "Would you like to come in?" 

"Nono, I will have to go right after this--I'm paid by the job, haha." He will hand you the box and quickly after a bow walk off. When you pick up the box, you'll notice it has quite a bit of weight to it.

Mel nods as he bows and adds with a smile, "Thank you. Please pass my gratitude on to Chef Fang!" Taking the heavy package, she sets it down on the kitchen counter. Violet stays close by, eager to see what's inside.

"Jason!" Mel calls. It's a cozy enough apartment where one doesn't have to be very loud to be heard. After all, she had selected it with two people in mind, not three. She waits a moment before giving into Violet's quiet yet bubbling excitement and opens the package, carefully cutting the lines of tape using a kitchen knife.

There are 4 items in the box: t3 to-go boxes of food and 1 pill. Opening the box aead fragrance that seems to envelop the room, causing even someone with an eating disorder to practically drool. The pill has a note attached to it.

Within the to-go box upon taking it out, are what at first may appear like basic food, yet they seem to have been taken and cooked to the pinnacle. The first box is a box of Egg fried rice with some shrimp. The egg coating the fried rice with about 90% consistency, giving off the rice almost like a golden glow, the shrimp are peeled and cooked in a way that you can tell is fully cooked while allowing some bounciness, the vein removed cleanly without a single trace of any of those dark strands of shrimp poop. The green onions are spread softly amongst the top of the rice giving this refreshing smell and look onto the golden landscape of the simple fried rice, it doesn't look greasy either! In the second box is what appears to be meat, char siu pork it seems, glistening with only a hint of grease, doesn't even seem sickeningly fat at all, Some Beef slices that seem like they would practically melt in your mouth. A crispy, slice of roast duck that almost feels like you're biting into a piece of chip, yet it isn't hard, only amazingly crispy, soft underneath, cooked to perfection and more? Some squid slices and fish as well, practically begging for you to eat it. A box of meat and seafood that would practically draw in any living being. In the final box are stir fried and boiled vegetables, broccoli, bok choy, Green peppers, peas, carrot, kelp, kale, and so much more vegetables. Seasoned in different ways, it appears as if they were cooked with the intention of giving 100% nutritional need while also remaining excruciatingly tasty. Never liked vegetables? Well then it's time to question your life, as these are cooked in a way that even children who despise vegetables will constantly beg you for them again. Some soft tofu at the side with 3 sauce cups? 1 is labeled sweet, 1 is labeled savory, and the last is labeled spicy.

The note appears to explain the pill usage, "The pill may react with the body in a special manner and instead of consuming the pill, the pill will force itself out of your mouth. The consumer will feel their scar rearranging itself, and it is very visible as it heals. Cooked using starfish as a base, this will stimulate your cells to regenerate at an accelerated manner. Be warned: by the end of it, you will feel exhausted for an hour or two since it is upping your metabolism."

Jason would appear around the corner. He looks like he hasn't slept in a week (which he probably hasn't). "Something smells good." He looks at Violet and says in a whispered tone (pretending Mel can't hear him) with a wink. "Obviously Mommy isn't cooking."

Violet giggles and glances not so slyly over at Mel, who is glaring at Jason before turning off the now bubbling pasta sauce and boiling water.

"Check out the note, dear." With sarcastic emphasis as she puts away the uncooked pasta.

Jason shares the giggle. "I think I made her mad." 

The little girl giggles more. A week ago she had to be taught that they were just joking--and what joking meant. But she's made much progress on social interactions with Mel's help and Jason's ... shenanigans.

"Sorry, honey," Jason yells into the kitchen in the same snarky tone. He winks at Violet again. Looking at Violet and the food. "What do you want to try first?" he asks while he looks over the note.

Violet points to the variety of greens because it's the most recognizable: "Weeds!"

Under his breath Jason mutters, "Weeds might taste better," greens not being a favorite of his. He'll serve up some greens and some rice on a plate. He points to the rice and with mock shock. "Those are maggots!" To which Violet squeals with excitement and picks up a handful from her plate with her bare hands (she's still working on the use of utensils). A few seconds later, with a very full mouth, "M-mggts..." Now the child seems a bit confused. 

Upon eating the fried rice, Violet will experience a soft fluffy texture of a perfect fried rice, having a rich egg flavor with a soft taste of sea salt. The rice covers her taste bud and gives her quite an experience. The child immediately calms down, stunned by the multifaceted and profound experiences of her tastebuds. She's still mildly confused. 

Mel, ignoring all of this as she finishes cleaning up the kitchen from what would have been a very sad dinner, instructs her roommate and friend, "The pill is for you. Take it."

Jason will read the instructions and, thinking better of it, will take the pill to the bathroom. Before getting up, he looks at Violet. "It's rice sweety, it's good for you." An explanation which the child ignores as she takes another handful of the fried rice and shoves it into her mouth, slower this time, savoring it.

He goes to the bathroom and takes the pill, and then spits it up again, catching it before it falls into the sink. Jason immediately starts to feel his hand getting somewhat itchy, almost like worms are wriggling. The pill tasted quite nice; he would love to eat it again at some point. Nevertheless, after, when he looks at his lost hand, it's slowly growing--albeit at a visible rate that is kinda disturbing to normal humans.

Mel pokes her head into the small bathroom and sees the pill in Jason's (only) hand still. "Don't trust me--or don't trust the guy I exchanged an unknown favor with for that?" she asks softly. 

"Oh, I took it. It just came back up." He says with a grimace and raises his "missing" hand.

"Oh!" Mel glances down at his stub and then rummages in a bathroom drawer for a small container--usually for storing a liquid soap but this one is empty. "Great--let's save it! ... How's it feel?" 

"Very... weird."

"Guess he's legit then." She sighs with relief.

"Maybe I'll be better at the guitar now," he says with a grin and a wink.

"Mhm, your playing really is the best defense," Mel replied with an amused grin before walking away to keep an eye on the child. 

"Love you too!" Jason yells behind her in the same mocking tone as before. He grabs a hand towel to cover his stump before leaving the bathroom. When he gets to the other room he's actually looking serious for once. "Thanks Mel." Not letting it get too serious, he quickly starts grinning again. "Now this food isn't going to eat itself. Let's eat!"

Mel nods with an equally serious expression. "Glad to be alive," she says quietly before following Jason's switch. "That's duck, honey, and it's really yummy!" 

Violet's eyes widen as she swallows a really big half-chewed bite. "What's duck?"

 

---

Assistance to the Knights

Kevin Sparkles receives a phone call. The contact shown is simply "Mark Collins' Friend" with the image of a paw print.

Kevin would answer. “Howdy, Mark’s friend?”

A soft woman's voice with a West Coast accent. "Hello Kevin, thank you for picking up. I'm a friend of Mark's, and I'm seeking... supernaturally capable people who might be interested in trading services with me or simply lending a hand if they feel the cause is important. Are you busy at the moment? Should I call back later?"

Kevin will look at the pony he is drawing and will save it. “I am not currently busy. but it’s not very friendly to talk behind your friend's back. May I ask who is calling?”

A long pause. "My name is Dr. Melanie Dakkera. I'm a psychologist with a private practice in the Bay Area, California--called Mind Thrive." (All of this can be Googled. She has a well-designed website and a list of client comments there and a resume on LinkedIn. Graduated from UC Berkeley. Lots of volunteering with training puppies to be dogs for the blind and deaf. Google Maps reviews are very positive, with some claiming she helped them overcome mental health issues in mere weeks.)

“What exactly did Mark tell you?”

"I asked him if he knew anyone who was highly trustworthy and highly connected, because I'm looking for very specific types of help and I don't take disclosing my identity lightly. And he said you were one of the good guys and might know a lot of capable, decent people.” Another pause. “And you're a member of the Knights of Equestria."

“I, in fact, am all of those. How could you be of assistance to the knights I guess is the best way to ask, mind you we are always looking for new friends.”

"At the moment, I have a decent amount of wealth, and I can rapidly heal the mind of traumas. In the future, I intend on being a healer of the body as well as the mind--of wounds and dismemberment and diseases. Aside from that... I suppose I could screen new recruits? As Mark said, some people seem nice but can end up being horrible. As an experienced psychologist, I'd be happy to do psych evaluations with potential members to make sure the reputation of the Knights of Equestria remains upstanding and the values are upheld. Psych evaluations identify a person's motives, personality, mental health challenges, strength of will, and likes and dislikes--and so long as it's done in-person I'm very good at determining if they're lying..." By the tone in her voice, she's clearly becoming unsure of whether the assistance she could offer is desired. 

During this monologue, Simba the Maine Coon decides to sit on your computer desk and keyboard, also covering a good portion (if not all) of the screen, and act like he has no idea that he's in anyone's way. 

Kevin will pick the Maine coon up with one hand and will scratch under its chin, listening before speaking. “You don’t always get to choose who your friends are, like the one we no longer talk about, the one Knight who fell to the taste of blood on his blade. However, having a doctor on board would certainly be wonderful. What do you want in return? Are you wanting to join the Knights?”

"Uh... what specifically does that entail?"

“It would be best if you watched My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic to really see where our values lie. We help our friends, whoever that is in accomplishing whatever goals they have. Simply if a friend of the knights or the knights ask for help, you do so to the best of your abilities. There are many friends across the globe.”

"Hm... to be honest, making my identity and supernatural abilities known to an international network of knights that are Mark Collin's friend's friends ... it all sounds a bit intimidating--especially when becoming a friend seems to be pretty easy and being a poor friend or even an enemy is also an option. Put another way, I consider myself to be a good friend. I have a couple of friends that I would be willing to die for--and one of them I almost did--and living for one's friends can sometimes be even harder. But how do you know that I, a random person who just now magically called you, would make a good friend to you and to your friends?" 

“You asked what being a Knight entails, and nobody knows who all the Knights are. Becoming a friend is easy; becoming one of the Knights you have to be chosen or prove your worth. You seem to have been sent by a friend and, frankly, if you were a bad friend well … bad friends sometimes need some tough love, and that’s ok.”

"In that case, I'm willing to be a friend to the Knights, and I'm open to becoming a Knight as well--should there be an opportunity and an opening. For now though, let's start as friends. Simply tell me about anyone you consider a friend who is in need of (and willing to pursue) mental healing, and I will reach out to them and heal them. When my services expand, so will my offer to help."

“There is one of use could us that right now--he believes he is The Mothman and that creates tons of issues. He, uh, goes by Mothman. When it comes to ‘willing to pursue’ maybe you can convince them. But he is hard to track down, so I will let you know.” 

"Does he use modern technology, like a phone or laptop? And do you think he might suffer from paranoia?" 

“He might have one still, and he is definitely paranoid.”

"Well, I can probably contact him then, even without his real name, but the paranoia will likely prevent him from wanting to pick up and talk to me... So I think you and your friends tracking him down will be the more effective approach. My phone number is (NUMBER). I won't pick up though; I'll just call you back on a more private line once you try to reach me. And Mark already gave me yours. Anyone else come to mind as needing mental health services?"

“I do also have a daughter that could use some therapy; however she is a special case. Very precious to the Knights and their friends--the next generation. I would want to thoroughly vet anyone like, well, us who would interact with her.”

"Yes, of course--that's understandable. I have a young daughter as well, and I feel the same way. I'm open to participating in the vetting process. Perhaps you and I could meet in person, or you know someone who could do an extensive background check? Or I can provide healing to your Mothman friend as evidence of my abilities and good intentions. My mundane clients don't know I'm supernatural though, so I'd prefer you not chat about that with them--though they can vouch for my effectiveness. Just let me know what sounds good to you."

“Just tell me how you do with Mothman, and, honestly, if you're a bad friend I would deal with that by talking to Mark, so let me know what you need to do for therapy.”

"Okay. I just need to talk with the patient in-person about the thing they're struggling with for 8 hours total--so eight one-hour sessions or one intense day. We'd talk about when and how they believe it came about, how it has impacted them, how they understand it--things like that. I normally have my patients close their eyes so that they can't see the halos--I don't want to scare them--but with your friends and family I don't think that will be necessary."

“We will have to do supervised visits obviously. But we can schedule them soon.”

"Yes, supervised is fine. And I don't recommend a full 8-hour session for minors, assuming she is one." A long pause. "Where are you located?"

“The Chicago Suburbs”

"So, there's a slight logistical challenge. I will die if I'm outside of Detroit for too long. I also am caring for a 3-year-old who has a lot of needs. Two solutions come to mind: you and your daughter spend a week in Detroit where we do private sessions in your hotel room or my apartment or I send my twin to your area--who has exactly the same mental healing power as I do."

"You will what?”

A long pause. "Sorry, I'm not sure which part of that you'd like me to explain more."

“I think you do, but I guess it’s not something you need help for. We can work that out. How does next weekend sound?”

"Kevin, I reached out to help you... and for your help."

“Ah, my apologies." You’ll hear My Little Pony be turned down. “I apologize. How can we help?”

"... The biggest issue is that I stole an abused child from a demon that was keeping her alive just to feed off of her. I'm looking for someone who can make a fake identity and adoption papers so that I can legally care for her until I find her real parents. I also need a private investigator who can help me with that. And maybe an Occult specialist to help me figure out who the demon was and how to break its hold on her. And maybe a person or place where I can keep her safe, because I'm not sure if the demon will come looking for her--because I'm confident we can't take it down on our own."

“Sure I know a few guys who can help with most of that actually.”

"Who?" Mel sounds hopeful.

“I have a buddy named Bu Fang who could probably set up the identity. I know a good hacker who can help you potentially find them. The safe place, I mean, that’s a bit more difficult. As for the demon, I don’t know any occult specialist.”

"Thank you so much! I'm already in touch with Chef Fang--Mark spoke highly of him as well. And please pass my name and number on to the hacker: Dr. Melanie Dakkera, (PHONE NUMBER). Sometimes I'm in a deadzone, but I'll try to get back to them as soon as I can. Aside from the issues involving my daughter, I'm cursed--nothing that controls my mind or anything like that--I'm just tied to a haunted, dangerous location... do you happen to know anything about the Crypt?"

 

---

“No prob-lemss.”

If Mothman has a cell phone or personal computer or pager or any other electronic device that facilitates communication, it's going to ring. The caller is "Kevin Sparkle's Friend," and it somehow shows a profile picture of a My Little Pony character.

"Hello?" a weak, shy, raspy sounding voice answers.

"Mothman?" A gentle woman's voice, West Coast accent.

"Mmhm," he replies almost like a grunt. Mel hears a decently loud intermittent humming/clicking, like something that clicks on and off intermittently and hums while it's on.

"I'm a new ally of the Knights of Equestria. My name is Mel, and this is a totally private and confidential conversation. It cannot be recorded in any way, and others around you don't hear anything you say. Your phone isn't even registering this as a real call. This is one of my supernatural powers, and I encourage you to test it out--so that you'll know I'm one of you--someone who goes on missions once a month. Do you want to test it?"

He mumbles "kev-in" during a long pause, and then finally replies, "K. Not worried."

"Okay. When I told Kevin that I have the ability to rapidly heal the mind and asked if there was anyone he knew of that might benefit from this, he mentioned you might be interested. My services cost nothing because you're a Knight, and they are fast and painless. I can support you with overcoming most anything, including fears and obsessions. Is this something you might be interested in?"

"Thanksss... But good. No prob-lemss. No doctor."

"Okay! That's totally fine. Oh, also Kevin wants to see you in one week at his place in Chicago. He wasn't sure how to get a hold of you, so I said I would pass the message along."

"Wher ... She car go?"

"Oh! Um..." The woman was clearly not expecting this. "Maybe it would be easier if Kevin visited you? Where are you right now?"

"Hmm." Another long pause. "Forest."

"Great! Which one?"

"Hmmmm." You know that sound kids make when you ask them something, and they shrug? Like the Uh-I-uh sound? That's what he does. He doesn't sound like a kid though; he sounds like a 30-year-old with a slightly numb mouth.

"Okay... are you really far away from people--like you haven't seen people in a few days? Yes or no?"

"I've seen people," he says almost defensively but doesn't elaborate.

"Okay..." The woman sighs. "Are you lost or are you hiding?" She asks gently.

"Not lost--lost is where you don't want to be. I like it up here." You hear wind now too.

"I'm glad. Kevin misses you but it doesn't sound like he can visit you. There are a lot of forests out there, so he won't know which one to go to."

"I know Kevin... Money to get to... Kevin?"

The woman is clearly smiling. "I want to give you money to visit Kevin in Chicago. How can I do that?"

"Mail?"

"Do you have an address?"

"Uh I uh... Oh!" You hear footsteps running on metal. He drops the phone. He comes back after a moment, and you hear him pick back up. "I did find numbers."

"Can you take the phone to the numbers and then tell them to me?" She sounds very patient.

"AT&T Cell Tower 7139-yt 15500Kw No Trespassing Danger In Accordance with FCC code 47 CFR § 1.1314(d)."

"Wow, okay! That's great. Um... mail takes some time. Will you be there for a day or two?"

"Maybe. I go see Kevin."

"Right, but you have to stay there to get the money in the mail--the money to go see Kevin." Mel pauses. "Okay, now you tell me: why do you have to stay there for a day or two?"

"Letter." Then he adds, "Mail."

"Right! Letter with money. Perfect. Stay there when it gets dark--nighttime--twice. Two nights. And then you'll get the mail. Got it?"

"Yes, though night not dark for me. Don't like dark."

"Okay, well I'm glad you have lots of light then. But other places will be dark, like the sky."

"Yes night time."

"Stay safe. I'll send the money right away." The call hangs up.

 

---

The Metal Cylinder

On the couch in the living room of the cozy apartment, Violet plucks a string on Jason's guitar. He uses his good hand to alter the fading note, amazing and amusing the young girl. Each thrum is followed by a giggle and brief silence as she selects her next string. Mel, wearing the attire that Jason has regularly seen her wear on their past missions (including gloves, booties, a scarf, and a long waterproof jacket all in various shades of grey and black) briskly walks out of her bedroom and grabs her pre-packed waterproof designer backpack out of a cubby in a (mostly empty) bookshelf in the living room. Then she proceeds to pull a fabric cube drawer out, located on a higher shelf for safety reasons, and retrieve her handgun and mag.

"Something you want to tell me?" He asks from the couch. "That doesn't look like 'I'm running to the store' attire."

"Mhm," Mel replies as she pops the mag in and double checks that the safety is on, being careful to point it towards the ground. Jason has been a good teacher. She moves to the couch where they are and then leans on it from behind, backpack in tow, expression serious. "I'm going to Warrensburg, NY, near Charles Lathrop National Forest--to a cell phone tower." She hands a paper to Jason with the exact cellphone tower written down and some additional related information: AT&T Cell Tower 7139-yt 15500Kw No Trespassing Danger In Accordance with FCC code 47 CFR § 1.1314(d). The handwriting is sloppy and rushed. "One of my new allies asked me to conduct a psych evaluation on his friend who is mentally unstable. Thinks he's Mothman, and I'm pretty sure he has degenerative amnesia. He declined treatment, but I can at least evaluate him if I can talk to him for a few hours. To do that, I'm going to deliver some cash to his "address" that he asked for to cover travel costs--and while I'm there I'm going to offer him a ride that gets him halfway to his friend--my ally--in Chicago."

As the two continue their duet: "Are you sure that's a good idea? Do you know how long this will take? You can't be gone that long. How are you going to get there?" Finally looking away from the guitar, he looks at Mel. "Do you even know how to drive?"

"I'll hire a dog walker," Mel instantly replies with a grin, expecting this string of questions. "It'll take at least 18 hours total--probably 20. A good idea?" She pauses. "I'll get back to you on that. But as Kevin Sparkles said, friends help each other and now I'm sort of in his network..." As she talks, she double checks the contents in her backpack, balancing it on the back of the couch.

"Better be a damn good walker. I don't like this. And who the hell is Kevin Sparkles? That's a stupid name." Jason gives Violet a side glance as he realizes he said a 'bad word.'

Violet has no idea what hell is and continues unphased. "Someone's driving me. Kevin is the guy who's connecting us with his friends to get us..." Mel glances at Violet, "new names and formal paperwork--and possibly do some investigating on someone's origins. And I didn't get to pick his name." Now she sounds a bit short as she moves away into the kitchen to find some probably-Mothman-approved snacks--nothing Mel would have ever bought, but Jason keeps the place well stocked in that capacity.

"Here, Nugget, play with Daddy's guitar." He gets up and goes to his room. A moment later he joins Mel in the kitchen. "Who's driving you? Can you trust them?" Jason looks at the snacks Mel's packing up. "Don't take the Cheetos, Violet likes to pretend they're crunchy worms."

Aside from the designer clothes that Keara got her years ago, Mel never acted rich. At the same time, she never seemed worried about money. Getting the apartment, filling it with affordable furniture and decor, going to the local firing range with Jason for up to 8 hours a week, buying several firearms with accessories, and then the additional expenses associated with Violet--Mel paid for without issue nor hesitation. In fact, paying for everything they seemed to need was her unspoken default. In this moment, however, Mel replies. "I'm hiring a female chauffeur. For that price, I trust she won't ask too many questions." She removes the Cheetos from her bag with a slight frown and then proceeds to pull a bottle of lemonade (also Violet's favorite) out of the fridge. The sound of light knocks on the body of the guitar followed by more giggles come from the living room.

Reading the room, Jason says, "I can't talk you out of this can I?"

Mel pauses her packing and looks Jason in the eyes. "Would you feel better if Abbas came along?"

"It'd be a start." Jason holds up a small metal cylinder. "I hope you won't need it, but we don't need all of New York knowing where you are." Jason says with a half-hearted grin. "You just screw it onto the end of the handgun. Also..." He walks over to a cabinet. "You might need this too--you did say 'Mothman,' right?" He hands Mel a lightbulb. This grin is real. The grin quickly vanishes. "24 hours. Then I come looking for you." He turns and leaves the kitchen. "Hey, Nugget, you're going to be better than Daddy in no time!"

"Okay..." Mel's eyebrows raise at the metal cylinder, and then she grins slyly at the lightbulb. "I'll text you--the regular way since I just did a ton of back to back 'calls' today already--when I arrive to the location." She follows Jason into the living room. "See you in a little while honey," punctuated with a goodbye kiss on the child's head. Violet replies with a smile, "Bye Mommy!" Lastly, Mel nods to Jason before going on her way.

Mel hears as she walks out the door. "Maybe we can go to the zoo and see the animals while Mommy's gone. Doesn't that sound fun?"

"Okay! ... What's a zoo?"

 

---

Lo-Jacked

Mel arrives at their apartment 20 hours later exhausted but unharmed.

Jason is half asleep in front of the TV himself from chasing a 3-year-old around a zoo in his cursed state. Sleeping Violet is curled up next to him. "Glad you made it back okay," he says with a sigh of relief. "She wanted to wait up for you." He looks at Mel. "She didn't make it. Did you do what you needed to do?"

"I did the best I could," Mel replies quietly as she carefully scoops up Violet, disturbing but not waking her. "Let's go."

After picking up a small pre-packed bag of snacks, drinks, Scratch, and some toys to amuse Violet in the morning, the three head out of the apartment and begin the short, familiar walk to their haunted prison--the only place where the two adults can rest.

While the "couple" are walking Violet wakes for a brief moment. "I saw bears," she mumbles and then falls asleep again in Mel's arms. 

After a long pause, Mel adds, "Thanks for waiting." Then she glances over at Jason while shaking her head and smiling slightly. "You're worse than Keara."

"Hey, you had four more hours," he says with a slight grin. "Just be thankful I don't have you lo-jacked." He turns to Mel in mock questioning. "Or do I?..."

Mel looks back at Jason with half-fake/half-sincere suspicion. "Low-what?"

"Don't worry about it dear," he says in the teasing "husband" voice.

Downtime
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Downtime
You cannot view this Journal entry because it contains spoilers for a Scenario you have not discovered.
Downtime

The Network I

A Bit More Comfortable

Jason receives a phone call, even if his phone is on silent or dead. Despite the number being restricted, the caller ID shows the image of a paw print and the caller's profile is somehow registered in his phone as "Friend of Abbas."

"Hello?" In the background you hear the tinkering of machines and the sounds of welding, and a TV is blasting talking about the Dodgers game and it's the third quarter.

A young woman's voice with an American (West Coast) accent. "Hello Jason. My name is Mel, and I'm a friend of Abbas. He told me you were looking for someone, and I might be able to help."

"Hey. Mel. Nice to meet you.” Jason takes a drink of his beer. “I am looking for two people."

Mel’s background is totally silent. "Would you like to tell me about them, or would it be helpful for us to establish more trust first?"

Jason watches the TV for a second and gets distracted, saying, “Goddammit, he should have moved!” He then apologizes and turns off the TV. "Come down to my shop, I'll get you some lunch. 2273 Fig Street. Los Angeles, California."

"I'm one of you, but I'm in a situation where I can't travel far from Detroit--at risk of death. However, this 'call' is one of my powers--it just uses your phone as a conduit. It's totally confidential and supernaturally obscured at both ends--it cannot be recorded or even heard by outsiders. I welcome you to test that out, or you can come to me in Detroit to discuss things." A pause. "Abbas is here too."

"Wow." Jason takes a moment to think. "I can come and visit you, but for the sake of trust I'd like to meet in a public place first. Deal?"

"That's fine. Pick anywhere in Detroit, and I'll be there. Abbas may choose to join us too, as my bodyguard--unless you want me to try to persuade him otherwise." A pause. "I'm not... I'm a healer by trade. That leads to certain vulnerabilities." She sounds apologetic.

Jason smiles. "I getcha. I can see how that can happen. No worries. I will take a flight tonight. I will see you tomorrow." Jason purchases a business class ticket to Detroit and a hotel room.

"Perfect. Here's my burn phone number..."

The meeting place that Jason selected is Heart Plaza, Detroit--an open public space consisting of several metal art structures, several fountains, spots of landscaped greenery, and the occasional concrete seating. Jason sits outside and waits. He is a large man hunched over staring at an iPad and yelling a bit. A young couple walks by several yards away, their peaceful moment interrupted by the avid sports fan. A teenage girl on a skateboard whizzes by them.

A short, rather thin half Asian/half white woman in her 30s gets out of an Uber and looks around. She wears understated designer clothes in blacks, whites, and greys: sunglasses, black skinny jeans, white modest blouse, grey peacoat unbuttoned, and brown booties. She carries a small waterproof designer backpack (also black). Upon closer inspection, the woman appears sickly--like she hasn't slept in days and severely dehydrated.

Jason received another call, but this time the profile photo in his phone shows what Mel currently looks like, zoomed out a bit to show the surrounding area. The contact says "Mel." The woman isn't visibly interacting with her phone in any way. Instead, she takes off her sunglasses and puts them away in her bag.

Jason answers the phone. “Wattup?”

"I'm here." The call immediately ends. Mel, seeing the man pick up his phone, walks across the plaza straight to him. "Hello, Jason," Mel says with a smile. She looks exhausted.

“Long day, Mel? Did you want a coffee or something?”

Mel chuckles. "No thanks, but that's kind of you! Unless it's some special coffee, it won't help--I'm actually quite cursed." The unusual bad news seems pretty normal to the woman as she takes a seat next to Jason on the concrete bench structure, buttoning her jacket closed to stave off the cool breeze coming off of the nearby water.

Jason takes a sip of coffee. “Sorry to hear that.”

Mel nods. "It's ... a work in progress. Certainly has taken me in some new directions, and I believe we can eventually break free of it--although not on our own." She looks down at the iPad. "Who's winning?"

“Cardinals. They really should get better coaches. Not as good as they used to be.”

Mel nods again, knowing very little about sports. "Well, thanks for coming all this way..." Mel looks around and, satisfied that no one is paying attention to them, pulls a business card out of her coat pocket. Instead of offering it to Jason, who is seated a few feet away, the small paper gains a soft silver glow and floats over to him, hovering right above his iPad. Her eyes also have the same overlay of a silver glow, although she's not looking at Jason nor the card. The card reads "Dr. Melanie Dakkera, Clinical Psychologist, [PHONE NUMBER], [SAN FRANCISCO ADDRESS]." Her private practice is called “Mind Thrive,” and it has a website and a professional logo.

Jason takes the card and looks at it. "Neat trick by the way. Did you prefer for me to call you Dr. Dakkera?"

"Mel is fine." The card becomes mundane when Jason touches it, and Mel looks at him with a soft smile. "Even if I were to provide you with supernatural therapy, I prefer 'Mel'--after all, we're colleagues."

"Sure, Mel.” Jason puts the card in his pocket. "Down to business then? I am looking for two people. One is Iryna, I did a few jobs with her. I just want to make sure she is ok. The second is my daughter--the whole reason why I am doing this. She went missing a few months ago but the thing is she vanished. No one remembers her."

"That's horrible--I'm so sorry Jason." Mel seems visibly moved by the news. "I have the power to call anyone I know in any dimension--including people who are slightly removed from me, like a friend's friend--so long as they have an electronic device on them and 'pick up' the call. How old is she, and what's her full name?"

"Thank you. She is 17 years old. Her full name is Jessica Valent."

"Okay, Jessica Valent. It won't look like I'm calling her because I don't need to use my phone, but I'll tell you if I reach her." Mel looks around again for a moment. The damp wind coming off of the water makes it difficult for her to smell Abbas, but she trusts he's somewhere nearby, watching over her while she concentrates. Mel closes her eyes and begins to breathe deeply…

As you start to pull into the aether, grasping through the void for Jessica Valent, you seek for a signal, sending out your own, and yet there's no response; there's no dial. Your message just echoes through the darkness like a single burst of the star into the infinite void, with nothing returning.

Mel opens her eyes and turns to the man with a frown. "I'm sorry, Jason. She either is not alive or she doesn't have an electronic device with her--even a dead or broken one."

Jason becomes angry for a moment and regains his composure. "Figured she would have forgotten her phone or something. Or they took her phone. If she's dead I'd at least like to bury her. Is there another way to reach out or try something..."

Mel nods, unhappy with the outcome and empathetic with Jason's reaction. "I'll check with all my allies and see if anyone has relevant power or skill. If someone does, they may do it for free or they may want something in exchange. Is there anything you can offer up, any services or goods, that I can pass on--assuming I find someone with the right skillset who wants to barter?"

"I am a crafter and can make items that are mundane or those of power. I have some cash available as well. I can also do it for a favor or help them with something else. Abbas can speak to the quality of my items."

Mel nods. "So, we have two bits of business remaining then. First, I'll try calling your Iryna..." Mel closes her eyes again and takes in another deep breath. So long as Iryna has some electronic device nearby that's hers (even if it's turned off, dead, or broken), it will ring. The most common calling app is used, and somehow the contact is saved in the device yet the exact number is restricted. The caller is "Jason Valent's Friend" and the profile picture is a paw print.

There is some commotion on the other end of the line as there is the sound of boiling, and something erupting in flames. Then comes a woman’s voice, low and thick with a Slavic accent. “What is wanted?”

"Iryna, my name is Dr. Melanie Dakkera." A young woman's voice with a West Coast American accent. "I'm one of you who goes on insane missions for insane payments. I learned that Jason Valent--a colleague of yours--was looking for you. Specifically, he wants to know if you're okay."

As soon as she stops communicating telepathically, Mel opens her eyes and says to Jason: "Iryna has picked up. Hold on please." This would be much easier if I had a 'speaker phone' option... she thinks to herself.

“Well then, hello Dr. Dakkera. You can inform Mister Valent that I am quite alright, alive and well.”

"I shall. Would you like to pass your phone number on to him? No pressure of course--and unfortunately I can't just hand him the phone--I'm calling you telepathically using your phone as a focus."

"Let her know my shop is open, and we are looking for employees."

On Jason's end, Mel continues to sit there quietly. She nods, acknowledging what he said. Technically her eyes could be opened, but she wanted some way to signal which conversation she was focusing on in a given moment. And she appreciated Abbas watching her back.

“Yes yes, my number is [###-###-####]. Though I do not believe I will be consistently available for calling during the day.”

Mel audibly repeats the number to hold it in her mind, signals Jason to write it down, and then repeats it again for him. To Iryna: "Thank you. He will be calling you soon to, I believe, offer you employment at his shop. Now that his needs have been met, I have a separate bit of business with you--another motivation for helping him. I'm exploring the idea of forming a network of people like us to promote the exchange of goods and services. As a mental health healer, anyone in this network will receive supernaturally effective therapy for free. I also have an item that can be used to heal physical scars--which I'm willing to part with because I intend on having that ability soon anyways. My goal is to gain other useful abilities as well, such as healing and enhancing the body. People within the network could tell me what they are willing to offer and what they need, and I would match them up--respecting individuals' preferences for privacy. For example, those who want to be hidden can talk to me about the request and the requesting member instead of me directly passing on their name and contact information to others. To control the quality of the members, I would meet with each applicant in person to ask a few questions--just to make sure we don't let in, say, serial killers and terrorists and such. My profession as a psychologist combined with supernaturally enhanced perceptions makes it easier for me to detect liars and those with ill will. Iryna, is this something you might be willing to consider being a part of?"

“It sounds tempting, I could make quite a use out of an item to mend my scars. I agree to your preliminary interview. Mind you though I am not able to leave the state of California for prolonged periods of time. I have obligations.”

Iryna hears Mel laugh hard. "E-excuse me!" More laughter. "I'm so sorry..." Chuckles. Then Iryna hears Mel take a slow, deep breath to compose herself. The smile is still apparent in her voice. "I'm supernaturally bound to Detroit--with risk of death if I stray from here too long. But I'm sure we can figure something out--maybe a state in the middle? It would only take a few hours of conversing. If finances are an issue, I'd be glad to help you pay for it."

“Well, if that’s the case, I shouldn’t miss too much if I am gone for a day. I will require money for airplane tickets in that event however.”

"How would you like me to get the money to you? Or... shall you share your personal information so I can book the flight on your behalf?" Mel opens her eyes and grabs her bag, pulling out a notebook and paper.

“If you send the money to this account, that should be fine. And do tell mister Valent that although his offer is kind, I will likely not be taking it. It is not… in my path I have planned.”

The account information is recorded by hand, as Mel knows a bit too much about hackers. "I will pass that on to him. Also, my burn phone number is… ready? [PHONE NUMBER]. Just text me when and where exactly you'd like to meet--nothing else. I'll call you on this private line if I have any questions--and you'll get the money within an hour. Pleasure talking with you, and I look forward to meeting you in person." Mel's tone becomes very professional, as though she's said that specific phrase a million times.

“You as well, Doctor Dakkera.”

The unnaturally clear call ends. It was about a 5-minute conversation before Mel opens her eyes and looks at Jason. "Iryna seems to have a different career in mind, but you have the phone number so you can talk to her directly now."

"Great. Thanks for doing that. What do I owe you?"

Mel smiles. "You owe me nothing--although I'll accept any gift or service you're freely willing to offer. But before we get to that, we do have one last bit of business left..." She looks around again for a moment, still not sensing Abbas. "Ah, excuse me. Abbas is somewhere nearby, but he's practically perfected hiding in plain sight..."

"That was kind of you Mel. I appreciate it. Are you good with computers?"

"I can use them, but not really anything beyond that. Why--oh, is that the goods you make, or something else?”

“I have a device that can help you hack a computer or unlock items. Abbas has one. It is useful but right now I have a bunch of spiders come out and it's a bit creepy. I have to go to my shop to make it but I can mail it to you."

Mel chuckles. "My standard for creepy have gotten much higher than that lately. I'll gladly receive one!" She opens up the small leather notebook again, writes down an address, and tears out the paper for him. It's the address of a museum in Detroit. "Now, that call went long because I made Iryna an offer--and you're getting the same offer. I'm forming a network of people like us, as a way to help people exchange goods and services. Anyone in this network will receive supernaturally effective therapy from me for free and any other healing power I get. Assuming I succeed at more of these insane jobs, I plan on healing the body as well as the mind. People within the network could tell me what they are willing to offer and what they need, and I would match them up. However, individuals' preferences for privacy would be respected. Anyone who wants to be hidden can talk to me about a requesting member, for example, instead of me directly passing their information on to others. To qualify for the network, I would meet with each person ahead of time to ask a few questions--as some of us are not worthy of being trusted. Being a psychologist and having supernaturally enhanced perceptions makes it easier for me to detect fakes and sociopaths--a least, the malicious ones." Mel smiles at the thought that, in a way, they are all rather psychotic. "What do you think, Jason?"

Jason takes a moment and thinks. You see his big hands come to the table he seems to be missing part of a finger. "These jobs are crazy and I have never had my life at stake so many times. Your help is welcomed. I am happy to answer your questions."

Mel smiles. She still looks like shit from the curse, but this moment she seems to be in her element. "Would you like us to have this conversation here in the open, or beside me yet through my private line, so it's hidden from others, or somewhere else--like a hotel room? I just want to respect your privacy."

"Out here isn't a place to answer questions like this. And I'd like to get a burger or something. Do you have an office or something nearby? I have a hotel room rented as well."

"Let's do your hotel room--er, with Abbas as well." Mel imagines her "husband" questioning her decision to screen a client in his hotel room. She looks around and then sighs, not knowing if her ghostly bodyguard is within hearing range of their conversation. "Abbas?"

You hear a sound of acknowledgement from behind you right beside your ear. Though you don't see him "mm"

"Ah, there you are."

"I am at the Marriott on 2nd street room 442. I am gonna grab a burger. You hungry?"

"No thanks, I have a really odd diet--and that was pre-curse." Turning to the empty space where she heard Abbas (and can now smell him), "Abbas, you hungry?"

"No."

Mel grins and turns to Jason. "Marriott on 2nd Street, Room 442. We'll meet you in the lobby in an hour--sound good?"

"Sounds Good"

 

About an hour later, Mel, seemingly alone, enters the modern, well-lit Marriott hotel lobby. In the early evening, the place is bustling with a collection of middle schoolers with their adult shepherds as well as several smaller groups of people chatting. She looks around for a moment and then walks across the common area to Jason, who was seated at the bar. "How was dinner?"

Jason, still eating his fries, looks up. “Pretty good thanks.”

Mel nods with a smile. "Great! Lead the way."

Jason puts away his food and cleans his large greasy hands. He then politely leads Mel to the elevator. Through his actions you can see that he is a well-mannered person. He leads you through the hallways to his room.

As you enter you see it's a small room with one bed. His luggage is still to the side. He pulls a chair up for Mel.

Mel takes the offered seat. In the enclosed space, she can smell Abbas nearby. She also focuses on taking in Jason's smells and sub-sonic sounds, with no visible indication of what she's doing. He smells like someone who took a shower in the last few hours. He also has a bit of oil on his hands from tinkering. His heart rate is a bit higher than normal.

"This won't take long." Mel smiles softly and motions for him to take a seat on the bed, a few feet away from her. "I just have a few questions, and I appreciate you letting me into your life a bit like this. To start, how are you feeling right now--in this moment?"

"A bit nervous. I... don't get out much."

"No worries, I'm here to help. Whether you're in the network or not, you'll have me as an ally for trading goods and services. What do you do with most of your time, when not doing our jobs?"

Jason nods. "That would be helpful. I spent the last few months trying to get my shop going. I make items and repair things. If not that then I watch the Dodgers and have a few beers. Nothing too exciting. What about you?"

Mel hesitates, like she's deciding something. "Well, if we're going to be allies then you should know that there are two of me--we split during a mission several months ago. The other one is working our therapy practice in California, and I'm busy trying to raise a young adoptive daughter and break a curse." She says this with an even, unshakably professional tone. "Next question though--why else do you go on these jobs? You shared you are looking for your daughter... Any other reason?"

"Thank you for sharing. I can see that we both care for the young. Well, I want to make something of lasting importance, something that will create a legacy. I have ideas for a device that can fly and do other manner of things but I need to compete is these games to get the juice I need." Jason pulls out his sketchbooks and you a number of devices he has been noodling with such as a hoverboard, transporter pad, and mind wipe device. "These are just some ideas but I want to make a bunch of them."

Mel looks at the sketches, genuinely interested. "Nice! I'm sure that's something that others would want--in the network and beyond." She goes back to her seat, sitting properly with crossed legs. "Now, what would you say your personal, moral limits are on these jobs? What lines have you tried hard not to cross--regardless of whether you did or not?"

Jason thinks for a while. " Anything that involves hurting a real innocent kid I can't do. I will protect myself in self-defense, and I am not a fan of large amounts of death and destruction. While I say this, I think I will be making a change so I can be useful. I mean to say as long as I don't steal from someone that can't afford it or harm a kid, I should be alright."

"That makes sense. I feel the same way about children, and it extends to animals too. Also not a fan of causing death--or even harm if I can avoid it. Now, a slightly harder question: what is your greatest regret--a mistake you've made on one of these jobs?" Mel is attentive to Jason's heart rate in this moment.

"I had a job where we had to prove how we were better than the others. The other guy was some sort of super hero and was able to convince the others so I lost. My missing finger is a painful reminder of that."

"I'm sorry to hear that." She looks sincere. "I think I would simply bow out of a situation like that, if I could. I have my strengths, but I'm no better than my colleagues--on average." Mel sighs. "These tasks truly are insane..." Then she looks at Jason and tilts her head with overt curiosity. "Are you aware of any mental health challenges you'd like me to help you with--fears or compulsions or things like that?"

"Yeah, that was a weird one. I have an odd compulsion. Once I see machine parts I need to keep working with them. I can't stop. One time I worked all night until I passed out."

"Thank you for sharing. Do you trust me enough to try to work through that with you over the next few days--in person here in this hotel room?"

"Sure. That's not a problem."

"Sounds good." Jason's consent makes Mel smile. "Now, is there anything else you think I should know about you? Tracked by the FBI perhaps, someone trying to kill you, cursed--things like that? Something that could get me into trouble too, if I'm not careful?"

"No nothing like that." Jason’s heart rate is calmer now. Seems like he is a bit more comfortable.

"Okay, Jason, you're in. In fact, you're the first one of at least seven people I have in mind at the moment. Let's meet here for the next four days, two hours per day, to work through your compulsion. How does that sound? Can you close the shop for that long--and is money an issue?"

"Really? That is great. Thank you. I am happy to be here. Sure, I can stay here. Let me make some phone calls and make sure my clients are taken care of."

"Sure thing. Now, just a few questions about how you'd like to access the Network. Do you want to be 'private' or 'public'? Private means I don't share your name and contact information with anyone. Basically, I'm the middle person who reaches out to you if I find someone who has something you want or know of someone who wants your services. Public means I have your permission to pass your name and contact information on to others within the network as needed--although alias and burn phone number works just as well here."

"I'm gonna go with private. I want to be discreet to start."

"That's fine. I can call you on my confidential line as needed without knowing your phone number. So, a few more things..." Mel seems to have an onboarding list in her head. "Referrals from those in the network are encouraged--people who you'd consider to be trustworthy. Does anyone come to mind besides Iryna?"

"Sure Kurigo "Oz" Osikawa is great. Abbas is, as always, a good person to help. I have met others but don't want to mention at this time."

"Thank you, and I understand. Kurigo Osi--Osikawa." She repeats it twice to remember the name. "I'll reach out to them. To keep this network off of the record, I would prefer you not call my burn phone number. Instead, would it be alright if I confidentially called you once a month? Sort of like a check-in to see if you want anything, have anything new to offer, or have someone else to refer."

"Of course. You are welcome to call or reach out as needed."

"Great!" Mel seems more relaxed now too. "Now, personal squabbles between members in the network are on the people involved--it's not my business. I'm vouching that the people in the network are well-intentioned, but I don't guarantee that everyone will get along. Is that fine by you?

He smiles. "Yea I have seen some folks that are a little rough around the edges. I get it."

Mel smiles too. "Indeed. However,” her expression becomes serious and her tone drops. It might have been intimidating if she wasn't physically Pathetic--or maybe her dangerousness lies elsewhere. "... betrayal will not be tolerated in any fashion: betrayal of me as the person hosting the network, betrayal of the network as a whole, and betrayal of a group of co-workers on a job, if one of those co-workers is in the network. This is for our self-preservation."

“I get that betrayal just makes things worse. We need to stick together.”

"It does. In fact, my friends and I are working on dealing with a traitor at the moment--a guy from New York called Conrad. But that's not a Network issue, since you're my first member." Mel relaxes in the chair and her smile returns. "Now the fun part: what do you want? Someone who can help you find your daughter... someone who can heal your finger... anything else?"

“I’d like to expand my shop and use these abilities to be more. I want to make more friends that can help me and be more useful. Can you tell me about Conrad? I’d like to help if possible.”

Mel smiles. "I don't want to scare you, but right now I have an ex-military sniper, an experienced monster hunter, and a supernatural hacker working on the Conrad issue--ideally to resolve some unsettled business and make a point about betrayal without killing him... But thank you--I'll reach out to you if I think we could use more help. I more told you about him as a double warning: first, to be careful if you're on a mission with him and, second, to take the Network rules seriously. But, back to the last bit of business: besides devices that can hack and unlock things, is there anything else you'd like to offer to the group?"

“Some money if needed it seems young contractors might need some cash. I can help locate items that are supernatural in nature and can destroy most things smaller than an SUV. I can upgrade items including armor for the day and make them stronger. I can also scan people to find their weakness. And I was thinking about things I'd like in the future. The ability to talk in other languages and creatures, a better gun, and a way to control ghosts. I am fine to trade my services to be able to do these things and curry favors where I can. These games are deadly and we need all the help we can get."

At this point Mel is taking written notes to make sure she doesn't miss anything. She nods to Jason's final statement. "I completely agree." And then a grin. "Will you humor me? I trust you to be discreet with this--what are my weaknesses?"

“Well, you said you were cursed…” Jason goes to the bathroom and comes back with an electronic headpiece. "Do you mind if I scan you?"

"Go ahead." Mel seems quite calm. 

A green light flashes and begins to scan every inch of Mel. The device seems out of this world. Jason looks at her and says, "Your weakness is your physical body and your desire to not hurt people. Further, your hidden desires are to protect Kera Star. Additionally, you are paranoid about the government and their knowledge of you. There is more but I didn't want to overwhelm you."

The psychologist's expression becomes serious. "Yes... I would die for Keara--even cross my own moral limits and attempt to kill if it would keep her safe. And despite being so open with you, much of what I'm doing to create this Network terrifies me. How will you use this information, Jason? What do you think of me now?"

"This information is private and it will stay with me. I think better of you and now know that this is serious for you as lives are on the line."

"Thank you. Everything comes with a cost, but I'll do my best to protect my people--and that includes you now." Mel stands up. "I'll be back tomorrow at noon for our first therapy session." She looks into an empty corner of the room, sensing her invisible bodyguard by scent. "Abbas, we should probably head out now. I'm sure..." Mel looks at the first Network member with a smile "... my husband is wondering why this took so long."

Jason will smile. "Happy to be a part of this. I will walk you out."

"Heh." Abbas will appear, give a wave to Jason, and head out as well.

As they walk down the hotel hallway, Mel asks, “Oh, I almost forgot--is there anyone you do not trust that you’d say should not be in the network? Of course, I’ll look into any accusations myself, depending on how serious they are.”

"Hmm. I am not sure if I should mention this, but I know Mike Du Bois threw a grenade during a contract and nearly killed us all. Iryna was there. He is useful but dangerous."

“Good to know.”

 

-----------------

Smart Woman

As the sun finishes setting over Detroit, at the top of some all but desolate parking garage, sits running a large black truck. The size of the chariot does not appear to be a luxury, rather, a necessity, because the woman leaning on the hood is easily about seven feet tall, and built more solidly than any bodybuilder Mel has seen. Though she’s displaying a healthy amount of body fats, where professional bodybuilders would be lacking. She’s currently wearing blue jeans, a large black jacket over a cropped black shirt, and boots so large Mel would be certain one could fit both of her own feet. She brushes some of her thick, raven-colored hair from her face as Mel approaches, her bright green eyes faintly glowing in the dark and observing carefully.

Mel is Iryna's foil, at least physically. The short, rather thin half Asian/half white woman in her 30s gets out of an Uber that pulls into an empty parking space several spaces away from the black truck. She wears understated designer clothes in blacks, whites, and greys: black skinny jeans, white modest blouse, grey peacoat unbuttoned, and brown booties. She carries a small waterproof designer backpack (also black). Her thick, slightly curly black hair is cut in a tidy bob. Upon closer inspection, the woman appears sickly--like she hasn't slept in days and severely dehydrated. She appears to be approaching the vehicle unarmed and alone. The driver pulls away a minute after she gets out.

“Well, you must be the good doctor. Doctor Iryna Vorobyova at your service.” She nods her head at the woman, still looking over her with her own arms crossed, a nondescript black backpack clutched in one of her hands.

"Iryna, I see that you've been busy. Would you be willing to turn off your cell phone or any other electronic device you have on you?"

She takes out her cellphone to display that it is already off. “Only thing I have on me that transmits. Radios in the truck are off.”

"Thank you." Mel nods. "Are you aware that the odds are very high you're being actively tracked by the government--probably the FBI?"

“All the more spectators to watch my little stunt. Let them think they hold the cards.

“They will be convinced they have the upper hand, but I am not a fool. I am a radiobiologist by trade. I’ve seen how things are handled here in regards to anomalies in social order. So I’m using that.” Iryna smells a little like burning, and a little like ozone before a lightning strike. She is a creature of energy, that much you can tell. As for her heart rate, it is at a strong and steady pace, like a hammer using her chest as a drum.

Mel raises an eyebrow to Iryna's response and then shrugs. "I'm glad things are as you want them to be. Now, would you like to go somewhere more private for our chat, like a room in a nearby hotel, or perhaps sit in the back seat of the truck?" She makes a mental note that Abbas and Jason wouldn't approve of the latter option. Oh well.

“Back seat would be preferable, though cramped on my legs.” She moves to the truck and slides the passenger seat forwards, before hopping in and taking off her jacket. She’s also taken something out of the passenger seat, which almost looks like a steel animal travel cage, and set it in her lap.

Mel glances around thinking, Sorry Abbas, and then climbs into the back seat of the large vehicle and shuts the car door. She keeps her jacket on and holds the backpack in her lap. And then eyes the cage in Iryna's lap. "A pet?"

“A trouble maker, that’s what he is. His name is Vuhlynka, and he’s a volcanic little drakon from Hawaii. He’s the one who started the fire.”

"Ah, a sweet thing!" Mel seems delighted to see this creature but smart enough to not try to touch it or its cage. "I'm glad you found him--I'm sure there are less gentle hands that would want him." 

“You can hold the cage if you wish, it is insulated to ensure he does not scorch the vehicle. And yes there are, this particular type was thought to be extinct, and his… less exothermic cousins are being poached and trafficked into endangerment.”

"Horrible!" Mel shifts her bag to be in the middle seat and holds the cage in her lap. it is slightly warm. She grins at Iryna, truly an animal lover. Then a more professional tone and expression--still mildly happy though--takes over. "I suppose we should get started then... Iryna, why do you do these insane jobs?"

“The jobs are more a byproduct. The more I go on, the more I get to figuratively workout my body and mind, which allows me to continue to grow towards my ambitions of global environmental protection. And nuclear disarmament.”

"Both are vast and noble goals--and I hope you are successful." Mel smiles. "What fills your time when you're not on these jobs--firefighting I suppose?"

“And tech repair, until two weeks from now. Full time firefighting. A large boost to the public image I’m building.”

"I'm sure!" Mel nods. "What would you say your personal--moral limits are on these jobs? What lines have you tried hard not to cross--regardless of whether you did or not?"

“I avoid killing when it can be helped. I would also prefer not to torture people, unlike the horse man.” Iryna’s heartbeat increases noticeably.

"Understood, and thank you for sharing." Mel makes a mental note to ask about the horse man later. "Now, a slightly harder question: what is your greatest regret--a mistake you've made on one of these jobs?"

“Well… not necessarily mistakes on my end, however…” she shifts uncomfortably in her seat. “I have witnessed multiple events where many people died. Most recently many drunks in a cellar that a colleague set ablaze. The explosion killed them near instantly. Then before that… I saw a man on a motorcycle destroy multiple city blocks. Handled a situation carelessly and blew up much of Indiana Metropolis.” Now her heart rate is extremely agitated. “Only when I got free, no such incident existed. It’s like it never did.”

"I'm sorry, Iryna." Mel sets a hand on the large woman's shoulder and looks her in the eyes, now fully taking in how they're practically glowing. "These tasks are truly odd--insane even--and I completely believe you." She returns her hand to the cage in her lap. "These jobs can scar the body and the mind. Are you aware of any mental health challenges you'd like me to help you with--fears or compulsions or things like that?"

“Fortunately nothing severe. Hard times make strong wills. Well, I lied. There is one phobia I have. I panic if captured or completely imprisoned without hope of escape.”

"I actually think that's a very reasonable fear to have--common among many people, to have such a level of power and freedom forcibly taken away..." She pauses. "Now, is there anything else you think I should know about you, besides your newfound fame? For example, are you aware of anyone or anything actively trying to kill you or are you cursed--things like that? Something that could get me into trouble too, by association, if I'm not careful?"

“Let me think… if we are in battle together, and I bleed on you, I suggest you wash it off very quickly.”

Mel looks surprised. "I will do so." She looks down at the creature in the cage for a moment and then back at Iryna. "You've answered all of my questions--thank you. Do you have anything you'd like to ask of me?"

“Why do you go on these jobs, Doctor Mel? What is your purpose for pushing forwards?”

Mel sighs and looks out the window for a moment, to arrange the bits of the story cohesively. "At first I wanted to have more power to heal the human mind. Then I realized that I needed a way to do so undercover--to not be..." She remembered what Mark Collins had said "... the golden goose that dies at the hand of its owners--something like that. So I started pursuing a completely new identity--no, setting myself up to be a completely different species that could live independently yet fit in well with people and do undercover healings." She looks at Iryna with a tired grin. "I was preparing to become a therapy dog, so that I could visit and supernaturally heal children in children's hospitals." A pause. "Along the way, I became cursed--which is why right now I look like shit--cursed alongside my coworker and friend. As we started to work through that, we stumbled upon a toddler--a sweet little girl being barely kept alive by a demon that fed off of her. Now..." The Pathetic woman has a hardened expression, one of extreme determination. "I must protect my daughter from a demon and free myself and my friend from a curse..." Her expression softens into a slight smile. "And I can still heal others along the way."

“A therapy dog? My my, quite the endeavor. A noble one, and I apologize greatly for the curse that has tied you away from that. Although I personally do not know anything about magics, I offer you my full support and assistance. If you would like, I can even attempt to run by the details of this curse by a friend of mine. He may even be able to help with your demon problem.”

"Thank you, I accept all and any help. That's what gave me the idea to form the Network--which you're now a part of by the way. But first, did you say you had a scar that needed healing?" Mel reaches into her backpack, digging through it in search of something. From Iryna's tall vantage point and given that it's in the seat between them, she can see a small black handgun in there, a wallet, a couple of snacks, a couple of smaller metal items... 

“Smart woman, to always keep a weapon on her. And as for the travma.” She lifts her shirt to reveal a heavily indented and scarred over area, directly over her kidney. “Also Vuhlynka has an eye missing. The tail grows back on its own.”

"Thank you." Mel pulls out a small pill bottle that clearly has something inside of it and passes it to Iryna. "At the moment, all I have is this one pill that may get used up when you take it. If it, uh, comes back up on its own, then we'll wash it off and I'd appreciate if you return it. If it gets used up, that's also fine. Soon I'll have the ability to heal all kinds of scars, but at the moment I'm sharing what I have." She looks down at the lizard. "Vuhlynka will probably have to wait."

Mel passes along a handwritten note that explains the pill's usage: "The pill may react with the body in a special manner and instead of consuming the pill, the pill will force itself out of your mouth. The consumer will feel their scar rearranging itself and it is very visible as it heals. Will take a week. Cooked using starfish as a base, this will stimulate your cells to regenerate at an accelerated manner. Be warned: by the end of it, you will feel exhausted for an hour or two since it is upping your metabolism."

“Thank you. I would like you to have something of mine as a token of newfound partnership and goodwill.”

Mel is genuinely surprised by this, as though her providing aid was perfectly expected and getting something in return was not.

Iryna hands the woman what appears to be a portable charger, about the size of a smartphone. “This is my own blood forged into a powerful battery. Leaves no external traces. It takes an hour to power any machine in working condition, or you can use it to repair anything you wish to power. Taxing mathematics and science behind it though, causes a bit of a headache.”

“But, I need you to promise me, that by taking this, you are my ally in protecting the world we live in, in its natural glory. And how you use this will reflect that.”

Mel looks at the device and listens with a mix of confusion and awe. By her own blood? Any machine? She listens to Iryna, processing the terms of the agreement being laid out, and then thinks through it for a long moment just to be sure she's sure. Looking up at Iryna, eye to eye, Mel replies, "I am committed to protecting animals, which includes wild ones. I'm not sure how I can support you in protecting the natural world given my specialty is working with people, but I'm willing to be your ally and help in whatever ways I can."

“Then take this. Doctor Mel.” She smiles and hands it off. “Why do you seem so confused? Trying to find a pattern in everything you know of me?”

"Always," Mel replies with a grin. "Now I very much don't want your blood on me." She giggles and then glances out the window. "I suppose at this point I should tell you that I didn't come alone--I have a friend hiding out there who is probably fuming that I got into the back of this truck with you and shut the door." 

“I suppose I should’ve assumed you’d have backup. Well let him know that I don’t have an extra core for him.” Iryna gives a wide, mischievous grin.

Mel grins too. "I will--he's not much into technology anyways, although I can see why Jason Valent wanted to partner with you." Mel pauses. "Let's finish getting you set up though. How would you like to access the Network? Do you want to be 'private' or 'public'? Private means I don't share your name and contact information with anyone--although you can always use an alias and a burner phone. Basically, I would be the middle person who reaches out to you if I find someone who has something you want or know of someone who wants your services. However, public means I have your permission to pass your name and contact information on to others within the network as needed--and you're already pretty public as it stands." 

“I think I’ll be public, just so others are encouraged to go through you and not randomly show up where I live.”

Mel laughs. "An excellent choice! Now, personal issues between members in the network are the issues of the people involved--it's not my business. I'm vouching that the people in the network are well-intentioned and relatively sane, but I don't guarantee that everyone will get along or have the same end goals. Sounds good so far?" 

“So far, yes.”

"I doubt this will be an issue between us at this point, but I do want to cover everything." Mel's expression becomes serious and her tone drops. It might have been intimidating if she wasn't physically Pathetic--or maybe her dangerousness lies elsewhere. "Betrayal will not be tolerated in any fashion: betrayal of me as the person hosting the network, betrayal of the network as a whole, and betrayal of a group of co-workers while on a job if one of those co-workers is in the network. This is for our self-preservation."

“Clear as day. The only time I would actively bring harm to a co-worker is if they were about to do something morally reprehensible, such as murdering a bystander.”

"Entirely understandable. By 'betrayal' I more mean shoving a knife into one or more people's backs to get ahead of them--or turning the whole group in to the FBI. At the moment I'm working with several friends to deal with a verified traitor, someone who backstabbed his whole team near the end of a job." Mel pauses to determine the remaining things on her mental list. "This network is based on referrals. Is there anyone you know of in our line of work who you trust? I can confidently, telepathically call anyone so long as I know their name and am not too removed from them--relationally, like a friend's friend... or even based on their face or scent." 

“Virgil Arrior, Kurigo Osikawa, Akira Han. May I make blacklist recommendations as well?”

Mel pulls out a journal and pen and writes down the referral list, asking Iryna to repeat them. "Yes, blacklists as well--although I'd like to know why and may verify it for myself from a safe distance." 

“Kevin Sparkles and Kaerym Yasura. The first is a manipulative sociopath who is willing to torture as soon as you disrupt his friendly facade. The second is flighty and impulsive, and will explode away from a landmine even if you have dropped down to release him from it.”

"I've spoken with and met with Kevin Sparkles--not on business related to the Network--and also with one of his 'good friends.' I found some concerning inconsistencies that your information now confirms. As for Kaerym, I will look into them more. Your warnings will be taken seriously. Given that your phone is likely tapped by the FBI and my desire to keep myself and the Network hidden, I ask that you don't call me--not even my burn phone. Instead, I'll look into ways for you to be able to privately reach me, beyond me simply calling you. That said, my plan is to contact everyone in the network once a month to ask for updates: new requests, new goods and services to offer, and new referrals--or blacklist candidates. That way the figurative message board stays current." In fact, Mel had trashed her recently replaced burn phone (due to the hacker prank) as soon as she saw Iryna make the news headlines.

“Good to hear. I will keep things quiet. In the meantime, feel free to contact me in your way. Should a radio work for contact?”

"Yes, anything that can send or receive audio, even if it's dead or broken. Now for the fun part: what goods or services would you like to offer to trade? And what are you wanting from the Network--besides healing your friend's eye?" 

“I offer my protection services, my might. And I may need assistance from anyone with underground contacts, I need information on supernatural creature trafficking and materials from poached creatures.”

Mel continues to take notes as Iryna shares. "Understood. I'll keep an ear out for underground contacts as the Network grows. Also, I'm assuming your protection services are going to be relatively limited in range and duration--aren't you tied to California?"

“Actually, in two weeks I will be full time employed at Nashville Tennessee. So I may have to keep my head down for the time being. But I can repair things and destroy things beyond recognition, and be of medical help, which may be of use to someone.” 

"Got it. I'll keep that in mind, and we'll update your offerings when you're ready." Mel closes the notebook, puts it (and the pen and the "charger") into her bag, and then passes over the insulated cage. "Anything else, Iryna?" She looks back at her new friend with a contented smile. She still looks like shit due to the curse, yet Mel seems to be in her element.

“Yes, one thing.” Mel’s smile is mirrored on Iryna’s face. “Don’t be afraid to call for non-Network related things. It will be good to have a friend.”

"I appreciate that very much. Getting a friend out of all this effort is not expected yet always welcome. And I haven't forgotten your offer to help me with my current situation... I'll call you about it soon." She glances out the window again and sighs. "But at the moment I should probably apologize to my paranoid, loving bodyguard."

“Yes yes, go ahead.” She smiles and hops out of the car herself, fitting a small piece of meat through the bars of Vuhlynka’s cage.

Mel hops out too with small backpack in tow, turning back to wave goodbye with a "Drive safe!" before walking across the desolate parking garage towards a staircase in the corner. Nearing the staircase, she says aloud to the seemingly empty space around her, "I'm sorry for scaring you, Abbas, and grateful that you came. Iryna could probably snap me in half if she had felt like it--although she never would. Next time, you're welcome to be visible and right beside me as I screen new members, if you'd prefer that over being outside and close by ..." On the one hand, Mel feels bad. On the other, maintaining stealth is Abbas's choice.

Silence fills the air for a bit before a soft sigh comes from Abbas as he reappears from the shadows. "Too dangerous, keep your own safety in mind." "I'll consider it next time if you're going to be this reckless.."

Mel's face gets red from the scolding as she looks away from Abbas. He wasn't wrong, and she would likely hear it from Jason next. "... I'll be more careful from now on ... we're in this together."

Abbas nods before lending an arm to help her back as the curse start weighing on her 

Mel accepts it and also gives him her small backpack, more weary than she had realized. They disappear side by side into the darkness of the stairway. 

 

Downtime

The Network II

It Works

About a week later, Theo receives a call, even if his phone is on silent or dead. This time the caller ID says "Mel/Alice," and the profile picture is a paw print. Just as before, the phone number is restricted.

Theo answers "Hey there"

A familiar friendly voice. "Hello Theo. How are you?"

"Doing good, and you?"

"Been busy, and I partially blame you." Her smile is clear in her words. "Remember how you asked if I was making a Union with agreements and such? Well, now I am. It's an informal network of people like us who I'll stay in touch with--privately like this--each month. Members can request and offer goods and services, and refer new members and warn others about people who may need to be blacklisted. I'm screening everyone as well to make sure they are at least well-intentioned and relatively sane. These screenings happen in-person. And members' privacy will be protected at all times, with me being the middle man passing along requests throughout the group. What do you think, Theo? Interested in meeting with me to build more trust?"

Theo takes a moment to think over the offer, before deciding "Y'know what? Sure. We were gonna need to meet to take care of your kids' problem, anyway."

"Thank you, I appreciate it. Pick any place in or around Detroit, and if money is an issue, I'd be happy to help you pay for the trip. The meeting can start in public, but if you want to proceed with a screening, I'd recommend finding a more private space, like a remote hiking spot or a hotel room. Also, just to be totally transparent, a bodyguard may accompany me."

"Anyone I'm familiar with?"

"Mm, not Jason--he'll be busy watching Violet. Do you happen to know a paranoid, shy monster hunter?

"...Paranoid would fit someone I know, but I wouldn't describe them as shy. I had a bit of an encounter with some of the jackass variety on my last job, your bodyguard wouldn't happen to be that sort, right?"

His only intention is to make sure I'm safe--and given how shy he is, he's usually invisible. However, I can see if Jason and him are willing to swap given that you know Jason--I'm sorry I didn't think of that sooner."

"Good. I'll pick somewhere out in Detroit, call you back? I might need to catch a flight to get there, I'll see what I can get sorted"

"Yes... Actually, I scrapped my burn phone recently and still need to get a new one. How about I call you back in 2 hours?"

"Sure, that sounds good"

"Thanks again, Theo. Talk to you soon." The 'call' goes quiet.

 

A 23-year-old Asian man with dyed red hair wearing a tough jacket, jeans, a blue and white striped shirt, hiking boots, and a straw hat would be standing in the open, pretending to admire nature while actually using his super senses to look out for Jason. He remembers his scent from when they worked together, and can track him with Bloodhound. He's standing fairly close to the brush, where he could quickly dive into it if needed.

A bit before their designated meeting time, Theo smells a faint something that is almost Jason. As the smell gets closer, he perceives that the scent is fundamentally off in a strange way--something he's never smelled before. As expected, someone is with him. As the minutes pass, two adults finally emerge around the corner of the dirt trail and thick greenery. A short, rather thin and frail half Asian/half white woman in her 30s walks beside the taller and more fit man who Theo knows to be Jason. Mel/Alice wears designer gray skinny jeans tucked into brown hiking boots and a plain black hoodie (with the hood down). Her hands are in her hoodie pockets, as though she might be cold. She carries a small waterproof designer backpack (also black). Her thick, slightly curly black hair is cut in a tidy bob. Jason wears plain jeans, a dark purple t-shirt with a cartoon bear on it (Violet picked it out), hiking boots, and an unzipped bulky jacket. He is seemingly unarmed, although Theo probably knows better. Upon closer inspection, both appear to be sickly--like they haven't slept in days and are severely dehydrated. Jason, who by conventional standards was quite handsome when Theo last saw him, now seems a bit unattractive. And, as the two come down the path, the self-proclaimed goblin king will notice that they smell rather similar: the unrecognizable smell is the same between them and they share other more familiar ones (such as laundry detergent and a recently cooked meal). In addition, the woman smells faintly of sandalwood and rose.

Jason briefly says something to Alice and then she smiles and waves to Theo, but neither rush over to him. When they first turned the corner, they seemed to be quietly chatting, but now both are silent as they approach. Theo has a very floral scent, with earthy undertones. This is a man who spends a lot of his time around plants and dirt.

Theo nods towards Jason and Mel "Jason, good to see you again. And you must be Mel, nice to meet you in person"

Mel/Alice nods and replies, speaking quietly, "Hello Theo." He recognizes the voice. "Please turn off your phone and any other electronic devices you have on you. We may be in an area with poor reception, but I don't want to take any chances."

“Of course." Theo turns his phone off.

"Good to see you too, Theo. It's been a while."

"Thanks." Alice grins at Jason, signaling that she's taking over from here. "So, how was the trip, Theo? Did you have far to travel?" As she talks, she takes a few steps down the hiking trail, looking back at the two guys as though to say Coming?

"Not too bad, had to book a flight over, there was this kid near the back who just wouldn't stop crying the entire flight, but other than that it was fine.” Jason will follow a few steps behind the two so they can chat more freely. Theo is following closer to Mel as they talk.

The three walk for a bit. In the middle of a weekday in the early afternoon, they indeed have their privacy. Wind rustles the trees, sounding briefly like ocean waves--a sound that makes Mel take in a deep breath and smile to herself. A nearby bush has a pile of chirpy birds which briefly catch her attention. "Normally I ask a list of questions at the beginning and then offer to answer questions at the end. But ..." She looks over at Theo. "What would you like to know about me?"

"Well, for a start, are you ok? You and Jason aren't looking too good. You mentioned something about a curse?"

"You're so thoughtful, Theo!" Alice smiles but then her expression becomes serious. "Outside of a haunted location in Detroit, we're both basically ill--and if we stay away from there for too long, we'll die. We're working on finding a way to break the curse, and until then..." She glances back at her bodyguard. "... we're making the most of it."

"Alright then, I'll make sure not to take too long with my questions. Next, I guess, I'll return a question of yours: What do you do all this for? What's your goal in going on these jobs?"

"Nah, we're fine right now. I promise." She thinks for a moment before answering. "Originally, I wanted to be an undercover supernatural healer--of the body and the mind. I really don't want to be known by the public as someone who can nearly instantly heal mental challenges and genetic diseases--the thought is terrifying. But I wanted to heal children in hospitals without outing myself or exposing them to the supernatural.

Now... I want to help Jason and I break free of this curse, and protect and care for Violet. And that may require more than what we can do on our own, so I'm trying to build a network. And maybe it will make the burden of these insane, dangerous jobs a little easier on everyone."

Theo nods "That's a nice goal. One of the most important things I've learned on these jobs is that we've got to stick together. Some of the teams I've been on have been good, others could barely stand each other, hell, even aside from Conrad one team I was on before had a couple of us try to kill one another. Actually getting to know who's who beforehand will be great for keeping infighting to a minimum."

"I'm also compiling a blacklist, where people can share negative experiences, and I'll do my best to confirm or cross reference the accusations. Hopefully that will keep us all safer--and maybe even deter reckless or immoral behaviors." She kneels down and feels the texture of a fuzzy green-white plant on the ground. "Of course, I'll try to keep all of the members safe too by maintaining their privacy, encouraging the use of burn phones and nicknames, and sharing contact information on a need-to-know basis only." She continues to seem exhausted. Then Alice stands up. "Really, the main weak point in the Network ..." She smiles softly. "... will be me."

Theo shrugs "If it works, it works. No use worrying about what'll happen when you're gone if you can't do anything about it. Unless someone else with a similar skill shows up, you're all we've got."

"And hopefully my friends will make me stronger," Alice says a bit less quietly as she glances back at Jason who is a few yards behind them.

"Any other questions before I go through my list?"

"I think I got what I wanted to know so far."

"Okay. I already know why you go on these jobs," Alice grins, "and I won't make you repeat yourself while detecting your heart rate--as an indication of your honesty and stress level. So the next question: what do you do when you're not on a job?"

"I'm a florist, a pretty good one too, if I do say so myself."

"Nice! That explains your smells. Now, a slightly harder question: what is your greatest regret--a mistake you've made on one of these jobs?" Alice is attentive to Theo's heart rate.

Theo thinks for a moment. "Hmm, that's a tough one. I've fucked up a few times that I regret."

"Right, so, early on, my third job was for this super shady looking guy. [SPOILERS] Because we fucked up. It was a really shitty day honestly."

Alice stops walking at some point in hearing this story. Her expression shifts from surprise to mildly troubled. Jason could easily guess that she's far more disturbed than she's letting on. "That is ... absolutely horrible." She looks Theo in the eyes and gently sets a hand on his shoulder. "I'm so sorry you were manipulated into that situation ..." Wondering if she actually had permission to touch him (and what Jason might say about that later), Alice quickly takes her hand away and hides both in the pocket of her hoodie, looking away in mild embarrassment and still processing what Theo just shared. "I've never been betrayed by a client, although the possibility had crossed my mind..." She looks him in the eyes again. "... and I think nothing less of you."

“Thanks, Mel.”

Alice nods, making a mental note to mention her new identity when the timing is better. They continue on their walk for a few minutes, quietly as the psychologist resettles herself. The story is pretty upsetting given that Alice is in the same line of work. Theo could have been her. Finally, Alice asks the next question in a composed, neutral tone: "Besides not harming the innocent, what would you say your personal, moral limits are on these jobs? What lines have you tried hard not to cross?"

"I try to work with the team. Sometimes, we encounter some magic object or something that only one of us can have, or there's some big monster after us, but it can only get one of us, and I don't want to be the kind of person who screws the other guys over for my own gain. Aside from that" Theo cracks a slightly cheeky grin "I consider myself somewhat environmentally conscious. I wouldn't do something like burn a forest to smoke out a target, or anything like that."

Mel nods as she listens and then smiles. "I understand. The natural world is pricelessly valuable, and I know of at least one other like us who feels the same way." She pauses, momentarily checking on her mental list of questions. "Now, I know that these jobs can scar the body and the mind. Are you aware of any mental health challenges you'd like me to help you with--fears or compulsions or things like that?"

"No, gotten lucky so far. Been holding up fine”

Mel smiles. "I'm glad to hear it." Then the conversation pauses as the three Contractors watch what appears to be an extremely fit (like no a speck of fat on him) tan (like almost leathery skin) man in his 60s wearing nothing but tight running shorts, a fanny pack, and Vibrams (toe shoes) rapidly jog to and then past them. For Alice, this sight is not entirely unfamiliar, as she had done much hiking in the Bay Area over the past ten years. The man smells overwhelmingly of sweat and body odor.

Once their privacy returns, Alice continues: "If you ever are in need of mental health services in the future, I'd be happy to help free of charge. And, um, on that note... I think now might be a good time to mention that, due to the events of a job, there are two of me. We share all memories and skills up until the moment of the split several months ago. Our personalities and goals are almost identical as well. That being said, I gave her my true identity so that she can live the life she wants. Her name is Dr. Melanie Dakkera--Mel. And now I'm Alice Decker. Even if I die and the Network comes down, Mel will be alive and she's willing to help you through any mental health challenges you may have." With that, Alice hands Theo a business card.

The card reads "Dr. Melanie Dakkera, Clinical Psychologist, (phone number), (address in Oakland, CA)." It also has a website and a logo: "Mind Thrive."

Theo accepts the card “thanks. So should I call you Alice then?”

"Yes please, and sorry about that." She pauses. "Now, is there anything else you think I should know about you? For example, are you aware of anyone or anything actively trying to kill you or are you cursed? Do you think that the general public or maybe the FBI know that you take these jobs--things like that? Something that could likely get me or others into trouble too by association, if we're not careful?"

Theo thinks on this "I'm reasonably confident that I've kept my tracks covered. Besides that incident with Conrad, there shouldn't be anything that could be tied back to me by the government. There was this one incident, a while back, where my team ended up turning on the guys who hired us when the people they sent us to capture gave us a counter-offer, but I haven't seen any signs of repercussions so far"

"Understood. Thank you for sharing." Mel stops walking and grins. "Okay, you're in."

"Now let's get you set up! How would you like to access the Network? Do you want to be 'private' or 'public'? Private means I don't share your name and contact information with anyone. Basically, I would be the middle person who reaches out to you if I find someone who has something you want or know of someone who wants your services. However, public means I have your permission to pass your name and contact information on to others within the network as needed--although you can always use an alias and a burner phone."

"I'll keep things private, for now. Whole point of communicating this way is to protect us and our privacy, right?"

"Indeed. Some people in the Network are already more well-known though, and so they didn't mind being public. Now, personal issues between members in the network are the issues of the people involved--it's not my business. I'm vouching that the people in the network are well-intentioned and relatively sane, but I don't guarantee that everyone will get along or have the same end goals. Sound good so far?"

"Sounds reasonable to me."

"I doubt this will be an issue, but I do want to cover everything." Mel's expression becomes more serious. "Betrayal will not be tolerated: betrayal of me as I am hosting the Network, betrayal of the Network as a whole (if it is even possible), and betrayal of a group of co-workers while on a job if one of those co-workers is in the Network. This is for our self-preservation. That being said, I welcome recommendations for people to invite to join us--and I also welcome blacklist suggestions."

Theo nods "Absolutely, was never a question. I can think of a few people I would recommend, but I don't have most of their contact info."

"That's fine. Can you share their names--first and/or last?"

"There's this guy I met on my last job--Archie. Middle-aged, brown hair, wears glasses, dressed in business casual when I met him. Think he had an Apple Watch, too"

“Is Archie a referral?"

"Yeah. Good guy, didn't really like violence when I met him. Tried to talk down this family of crazies who were shooting at him, didn't even want to hurt them when they tossed a grenade at him. I don't necessarily agree with him, but he seems the type you'd want, and he'll probably get into trouble at some point, so it's best for him to have people he can call on for help"

"Thank you, I'll call him after this. Now... is there anyone you'd recommend I blacklist? Any accusations will be investigated--if at the very least cross-referenced."

"Apart from Conrad, no one I'd go so far as to blacklist."

"That's good news for me--I'd hope that list stays short." She pauses, figuring out the next thing on the list. "I desire to keep myself and the Network hidden. That being said, I ask that you don't generally call me or Mel. Instead, my plan is to privately contact everyone in the Network once a month to ask for updates: new requests, new goods and services to offer, and new referrals. That way the figurative message board stays current."

"That works for me, I'll make sure to keep notes for when you call."

"Perfect. Now for the fun part: what goods or services would you like to offer to trade? And what are you wanting from the Network? You're the third member, although my referral list is quite long." As she asks the question, she slides her backpack around and takes out a small black leather notebook and pen.

“I’m a good lookout and tracker. My senses are superhuman, particularly my sense of smell, and aside from that I can open any lock I can get close to, unless it’s outright magic. Found a mysterious locked chest or jewelry box or something? I’m your guy. As for what I want? Nothing in particular at the moment, but I might need some muscle in the future. I’m not any stronger or tougher than the next decently athletic guy.”

"Got it ... Oh, and no names." Alice shows Theo the shorthand notes of what he just shared on a page titled simply 'T'. This page is only several pages into the notebook. Then Alice puts pen and pad away and looks back at Theo with a smile. "I think that's everything. Thanks again for being willing to try this out with me--I hope it's beneficial for both of us."

Theo smiles back “Me too, Alice.”

"Also..." She's still grinning. "Honestly, I think you're pretty cool. I hope you feel free to talk about more than just Network stuff on our calls--and you don't mind me talking about other things as well."

“No problem. It’s been nice, connecting with people outside of a job.” Theo turns to Jason. “Been nice seeing you again, too, Jason.”

"Good seeing you too. Hopefully next time it won't involve Conrad." He says with a smile.

With that Alice goes back to Jason's side. They stand together rather closely, like they're very familiar with each other, and exchange looks--something like satisfaction from Alice and Jason just looks down at her with a smile. Then Alice looks back at Theo happily and waves: "Safe travels! Talk to you soon!" The two turn around and make their back down the path.

Theo waves goodbye, then waits on the trail for a few minutes for the others to leave, before making his own way out along a different route.

High Noon
You cannot view this Journal entry because it contains spoilers for a Scenario you have not discovered.
Downtime

Escapees

Sit Pretty

The appointed hour is 9 AM, three hours after the Dallas incident and enough time to cut and dye with her hair, with stunning, edgy results. Alice ditches her (fake) ID, conceal carry permit (tied to the fake ID), firearm, and magazine by throwing it away in a public trash can outside of the local drug store where she bought the hair dye. She also leaves behind/throws away the rest of her clothes. She puts the insane-looking leather armor into the now empty carry-on luggage and transfers the things in her backpack into a different one. She also wipes, physically breaks, and then throws away both of phones before hopping into that van that Albert coordinated--paying the driver in cash.

Two rugged men are in the mini-van. Their eyes are red, drinking last night or roused from bed early, maybe both. They look like typical, small town America, but if they were on the Dark Web, there is probably more to them than it would seem. The driver says, "Waffle House in Amarillo, right? Off Conroy avenue?"

Alice nods.

They make way for you to get in. After a short drive, you end up waiting in line as police stop every vehicle. You see police dogs as well as cops in full tactical gear, sweltering under the morning sun. Tensions are high: Texans don't like being held up, and more than a few cars are getting deep searched off to the side while red-faced drivers shout at cops cutting open car seats and prying open trunks.

By scent and heart rate, Alice notices that the two rugged men are getting nervous about the situation they're driving into. Then she calmly asks, "Do you know what you're going to say?" 

After being so quiet, her voice startles them. "Yeah, we're headed into 'Rillo, piece o' cake. Just sit pretty there and we'll be fine."

Alice internally sighs and plan her own explanation, as it will likely be needed.

They pull up, with the driver rolling down the window, "Mornin' Officer." The cop looks stern and a bit tired, brusquely demanding, "I'll need registration and ID from everyone in the vehicle. Where are you headed?"

The men move slowly, making sure to keep hands visible, "Just rollin' to Amarillo officer, get a bite at the ol' Waffle House."

Alice rolls down the window. Speaking quietly and seeming genuinely uncomfortable: "I-I'm sorry, sir, I don't have my ID on me." She feels the tension rise across in the vehicle. She almost winces as one of the drivers licks his lips nervously.

The cop looks directly at you. "Ma'am?"

"M-my name is Jen--Jennifer Williams," Alice proceeds uncomfortably. "My boyfriend and I are, um, were cosplayers--like, um, traveling actors who dressed up like superheros for kids parties and stuff. We had a job scheduled for a birthday party tonight, in Pampa. But, um, last night we got into a, uh, um, a disagreement at the motel and... uh... I--it didn't--I left with my stuff--whatever I could grab that was mine. I, um, I left him--quickly. And, like, I didn't grab all of my bags... A-and now I'm just trying to get home." Hopefully her bruised face helped support the story.

"Cosplay, eh? Well, you best get on out of here, Miss Jenny Williams. There's a killer on the loose." He barely looks at your drivers info before waving you along.

"Jenny" audibly and visibly sighs as soon as they're out of the view of the cops. And then falls asleep for the rest of the ride, exhausted. She is deposited at the Waffle House without incident, where her and her lemon car (bought by Albert) are picked up by Sherpa Auto Transport. They do this kind of thing often.

Once settled on the final leg of the journey, Alice calls him again to report how everything went well and thank him profusely.

And then she hears what she needs to hear. "Listen, I understand you like these people, but it's clear that they're getting you into more trouble than they're worth--but not only that. I can tell when someone's stopped being true to themselves, and it's clear to me that you're someone who's become used to compromising your ideals and your dreams as a matter of course. Focus in on yourself, and find your own way before getting mixed up in ensuring other people get to find theirs.” A long pause. Alice is surprised by such a coherent string of heartfelt thoughts from the paranoid hacker. “Also, don't forget to filter your water. The government's put a lot more flouride in the Detroit water than just about anywhere else." Ah, there it is.

Uncharacteristically, Alice replies with only a quiet “thank you” and then promptly hangs up.

 

------------------

The Call Ends

Around 8:00 PM the same night that Alice tried to "call" Jason, Mel’s phone rings. The number that shows on the caller ID is not listed in her contacts.

A familiar voice. "Yes?"

Heavy breathing. "Alice! Thank God you’re okay!"

"Is this Jason? Alice is safe--what's happening--where are you?"

Heavy breathing. "Trying to get out of Amarillo. Cops are chasing me--they have a chopper."

"Turn off the phone but keep it with you for now--this is putting us in danger. She can call you directly." The call ends.

Heavy breathing. "Ok, I doubt I have much time though."

A few minutes later, Jason receives a call even though his phone is turned off.

Heavy breathing. "Alice?"

Alice is clearly crying as she attempts to talk. "I-I'm safe--Abbas a-and Violet too--" A sob. "I tried to-to h-help you--but I ..." A sharp inhale and then a shaky whisper. "I killed you." 

Heavy breathing. "I'm not dead yet."

"N-not... Someone is coming to-to help you." Another sob. "H-hide as long as you c-can. But Mel and Keara--p-please..." Alice struggles to say the words. "Protect t-them... your phone--k-keep it as long as you can ... but d-don't let them f-find it on you.”

Heavy breathing. "Where do I meet them?" He pauses for a moment, gasping. "The chopper’s to the east and a blocked highway to the west."

"H-hide wherever you can--he'll come to you--I'll c-connect you both ..." 

"I don't know how much time I have before they catch up to me."

"Is t-there anywhere underground or underwater w-where you can hide?" 

"There's a pond not far from me but that has me heading back towards the chopper." 

"I-I can't--I don't know--I--" She's crying again and struggling to speak. "D-don't--can't ... help… I ... l-love you."

"I love you too. It's not your fault… If things go south, tell Violet that Daddy loves her."

To which Alice openly sobs once more. The tow truck driver sideeyes her for a moment. While he's heard nothing of the conversation and his passenger isn't even using her phone, she is visibly and audibly crying. It's louder over the ‘call’ though. "I-I ... will." 

"There's a small pond by some mansions that I already ran past. Maybe they won't think I'd backtrack. Can your guy get here in time?"

She takes a few shaky breaths. "Only if t-the police l-look elsewhere for a while."

"I can try for the bigger pond, it's closer, maybe if I stay under long enough they'll move on. You know I can hold my breath for a really long time."

"Y-yeah..." This plan seems to calm her down.

"Tell your guy I'll be at the pond. It's all or nothing now. No matter how this turns out it wasn't your fault. I love you Alice." With that he takes a few seconds to re-amp himself and take off for the big pond trying to avoid surveillance.

"W-which pond?"

"East of Wildcat Bluff."

"O-okay." She doesn't know if she should say goodbye. "I'm ... glad we met--I love you Jason." And the call ends.

Downtime

Lending a Hand I

What Friends Are For

It’s all over the news. After a four-hour pursuit, "Bruce Johnson" is apprehended by law enforcement. The next morning, he is found unconscious in his holding cell, apparently comatose. He is taken back to the local hospital for treatment.

A day later, as Alice awaits for Abbas to return with Violet to their ‘home’ in Detroit, there is a knock on the backdoor. She opens it to see two men standing in her backyard, the side gate opened. One is a Chinese man in his mid-thirties wearing a headband over his head in a chef outfit and a Caucasian middle-aged man in basic jeans and a t-shirt. The Caucasian man is holding a small Chinese takeout box, which he opens. “Here’s your husband,” he says, providing an explanation that gives Alice far more questions than answers. "Dont worry about it,” the man quickly adds. “He will be back to normal in a month.”

The Chinese man waves to Alice. "Here's Jason," he clarifies. 

Alice stands at the backdoor, looking at the men blankly for a moment, registering who exactly these people are based on their voices and what they just said. She takes the takeout box slowly, in shock, and peers inside. The frog ribbits, seeming happy to see her. Then she sets the container gently on the ground … and begins to cry as she hugs and kisses Bu Fang and Kevin Sparkles.

Kevin hugs her back. “He will be back to normal soon. He will be seen disappearing from existence, so you should be okay for a little bit.” 

Bu fang also reciprocates the hug. "Give it a month, the effect doesn't last too long. Also I saw him missing an arm. Have this." Bu fang passes her a familiar pill. 

"What can I--there's nothing--how can I ever repay you?" The young woman is clearly overjoyed and overwhelmed. She takes up the box again to look at Jason. The frog is indeed missing a front leg. 

"Join us up here and help us when we need it too. Connections never hurt. Oh also order more from my restaurant. "

“And reconsider my previous offer perhaps.”

Alice nods to Kevin. "Join us?"

Bu fang gives a bit of a shrug and looks at their ‘home’ with a face of annoyance. "Eugh, this place--can’t believe you are forced to live here…"

Alice looks down. "I don't mind... I'm just thankful that we're alive."

“Damn it, I forgot to make a Prince Charming joke,” Kevin declares.

Alice’s face gets red with embarrassment. But she quickly shakes her head, as though to shake it off, and continues to smile.

"I almost forgot!" Bu fang facepalms. "God, I really need to check if I have dementia. Contact this place--consider joining it as well." Bu fang passes over a union card to Alice. "It's a nice group. Not restrictive."

"So many networks!" She pauses and becomes pensive. "I wonder... if mine will be redundant--I've started one myself too.” And then looks down at the frog with tearful joy. "We all need to help each other." 

"Can’t really go wrong with more networks. In the end, everyone is usually around to help each other," Bu Fang replies.

“Regardless, I would consider getting him a new identity before you go on a job as well,” Kevin adds.

Alice nods, wiping her watery eyes. "I will do my best to break the curse--before going on any more jobs. And look into joining. And help whenever I can. I can't thank you two enough..." glancing at Jason "... and I know he'd say the same."

Bu Fang nods. He steps away for a moment and returns with five full-sized containers of food. "Some stuff to eat. I need to go now, but I wish you luck in your endeavor. And no worries--it’s what friends are for."

“That’s what friends are for--” Kevin smiles. “--like Bu said. But I am going to head home--haven’t seen the wife or kid in a day or so.”

"Ah, my disciples are gonna yell at me." Bu Fang says to himself with a chuckle as he leaves.

"Safe travels! We'll be in touch--but like, not over anything this, uh ... yeah..." Alice fumbles. She waves to them as they leave. Alone, woman and frog, Alice takes Jason out of the container and into their home. She just stares at him, beaming.

The frog seems very happy and nestles into Alice's hand.

She gets a sly look and then smiles and blushes. "Don't get used to this," she says as she holds the frog up to her face and kisses him on the lips. Jason’s first kiss from Alice and probably his last.

 

 

-------

Amazing Meal

A handwritten list in Alice's notepad, in her purse.

  • Ask Kevin for details on bracelet
  • Chat w/ Amy about curse & 'friend'
  • Schedule Violet's check-up with Dr. Buckworth
  • Invite Akira to Network
  • Invite Daisuke to Network
  • Invite Oz to the Network
  • Re-thank Bu for amazing meal

 

 

-------

Up for Auction

As part of her monthly calls with members of the Network, Alice reaches out to Jason Valent.

"Hello Jason! I'm sorry I didn't have a chance to connect with you much at Bu Fang's dinner party, but I was glad to see you there." 

"Not a problem. So I am looking into my brain thing. It might work if I can get part of my memory erased or at least the event."

"Oh! Um, at the moment I can't erase memories supernaturally... what led you to believe that that might work?"

"Just an idea. Maybe an MRI machine?"

"Hm, I'll look into it and let you know."

"Thanks. Also, there is an item up for auction that I want to buy. Could I borrow $500,000 from you?”

Um..." A long pause. "I'd have to liquidate some of my assets to try to get that much, and it would be quite a hit even if I could ... but first I have a couple of questions. What is the item, and how do I know you're able to pay me back?"

It’s an artifact that protects you from attacks--a bunch of ants that cover your body. I have a large business and will pay you back in a month.” 

"This isn't my usual offering to the Network, but let me see what I can do. Also, let's meet in person to discuss all of your financials--both personal and business.” While Alice is no accountant, she wanted to do at least a little bit of fact-checking herself.

 

 

-------

A State of Disrepair

Jason Valent's mechanic shop in LA is filled with parts and many cars in a state of disrepair. In the back is the manager’s office where several people are testing the device. One is Jason, and there are two people who look like Allie: one with an undercut who appears physically sickly/ill and has a bruised face and one who has long slightly curly black hair and appears to be perfectly healthy. Otherwise, they wear similar fashionable greyscale clothing and are exactly the same in every other way--to the point of it being uncanny.

Terry enters wearing a doctor’s coat and slacks and carrying a medical bag. His glasses are perched atop his round nose. He smiles warmly when he sees the three of you and shakes your hands in turn.

The healthy version of Allie does not introduce herself as anyone, but the unhealthy one identifies herself as Allie.

Jason takes the time to shake Terry’s hand. “Thanks for taking the time to meet us.” 

“Hello! Nice to see you all again.” He rubs his glasses. “Am I seeing double?

"Yes, you are," the unnamed one replies with a nod but not a smile. Then she pulls out a pair of fashionable glasses that, if one is perceptive, has no prescription and puts them on, as an additional visual distinguisher.

"Indeed. I would appreciate it if you kept my sister's existence private," Allie adds with a serious tone.

“I will. I take doctor-patient confidentiality very seriously.”

"Thank you," they reply at the same time and in the same way, prompting a glance at each other.

"So do we," the nameless one adds. 

“Now then. Anything to discuss before we move on to business?”

After pleasantries, Jason sits on a dingy couch and watches a Dodgers game while eating a hot dog and then a Ho Ho as the two doctors discuss the procedure. “It’s like an experimental memory-altering process? Sounds risky and abnormal.”

The nameless sister nods slowly. "All mental health treatments come with risk, especially ones that involve changing the physical--through chemical means or otherwise. Mental health medications often have side effects, great and small, and the problem would never be actually treated. His compulsion would just be managed, possibly. Jason is seeking full treatment for a supernaturally caused mental health issue. In short, his mind was forcefully uploaded with foreign data which is the root of his otherwise untreatable compulsion. Electroconvulsive therapy is commonly used to treat severe mania and catatonia, but it has a well known side-effect--which in this case would be a main effect--of memory loss. If done properly, this treatment would be ... a forceful unload, basically.”

Chiming in, Jason says loudly over the television: “I got zapped reprogramming an alien spaceship and now I can’t stop tinkering.”

“Sounds reasonable to me. After all, folks like us do exist on the fringes of what’s considered proper. And Jason is a consenting adult who’s been apprised of the risks involved. I’d like to perform a medical examination of Jason. Then I can administer the anesthesia.”

"Of course." Allie replies, and both look at the man downing nutritionless food and a large soda.

“I’m fine, I just want this to go away. I’d rather stay awake,” Jason says.

"What?" Both therapists reply in surprise.

“Will Mel be here?” the obese man asks.

"Both of us will be here the whole time." Allie replies, looking slightly concerned.

“Alright, do your thing doc. Let me get the device upgraded real quick.“ Jason drinks a beer to calm his nerves and then a blue light surrounds him as he supernaturally upgrades the machine.

Terry pulls out a stethoscope, tiny mallet, and some tongue depressors and gives Jason an extremely simple medical examination.

After the examination, Terry proceeds to explain to the Allies and Jason: “Jason, I believe you have a seizure disorder. I may be able to cure it after doing a bit more research and observing you for a while. Until it’s gone, it could cause complications.”

"How would you cure it?" One Allie asks, eyebrow raised.

 

To answer her, Terry takes the Allies outside of the manager’s office for a private chat. “He hasn’t built up enough good karma for me to heal that particular issue. I’m not sure if he’s a selfless, helpful person, and there isn’t enough good will to turn his brain issue around for the moment. Informing him about that would taint his actions and make it more difficult to acquire the good karma. To do this sort of delicate cleansing, I need to believe he’s worth it. That he’s a good person. I need to see it.”

"I certainly support a fool-proof supernatural method over an experimental mundane one, to reduce risk. Having completed a psych evaluation on Jason in the past, I would agree that he isn't necessarily benevolent--fair certainly, but I haven't witnessed the kind of selfless generosity that you're describing. Let me think..." A long pause. "Having seen this demonstration of his skills, I will suggest that we use the time--while you're observing him and doing more research into his condition--to create other improved designs for popular mental health equipment. For example, EEG monitors come to mind. If he remakes one or two things with not compactness but affordability in mind, and gives the blueprints away, this could greatly increase access to mental health equipment in poorer countries. It wouldn't be his idea per say, but if he's willing to do it … does that count?"

"Certainly. I believe that my otherworldly ability to heal folks stems from my goodwill and the gratification I get helping others. For this particular sort of ailment, I really need to believe I'm helping someone who helps others. We may be able to develop a sort of test like you're describing. Something that gives him a chance to demonstrate his selflessness. But he will need to choose the wellbeing of others over himself."

The Allies chuckle. "Nice to know that we'll always be eligible," one adds with a wink (a gesture that she learned from Jason Decker). "Well, in what I've proposed, giving the machines and blueprints away for free would be forgoing a lot of financial gain, I'm thinking, for the benefit of total strangers." 

“Okay, I like this idea of yours. We can encourage him to work on medical supplies, and when he makes a valuable advancement, see if he’d be willing to give it away for the benefit of humanity."

"Sounds good. Would you like to suggest it or me?" one Allie replies as the other nods.

“I’ll suggest it. Easier to do it in a way that’ll convince me that way."

"Of course." A pause. "Your work and how you go about it are admirable."

Terry smiles bashfully. “Aw shucks, thanks. I’m just being myself and doing what I do.

Both Allies smile bigger. "Well, I appreciate who you are then," the more sickly-looking one with the undercut replies.

 

The care team returns, and Terry addresses Jason. “Well, Jason, I think we need a little more time to research this new treatment option for your condition. Perhaps a week or so. In the meantime, I’ve noticed you’re incredible with technology. Have you ever considered getting into the medical technology field? I’m sure you could drive some very valuable advancements.”

“I’m so grateful for any help. This has been driving me crazy. I have considered helping the medical field. Do you know something that would be helpful that I could make?”

"Well, a more compact insulin pump, advancements in MRIs or screening technologies, or cheaper ways to manufacture certain medical devices could really change a lot of people's lives. I could advise if you'd like to partner up on it while I research your condition. I mean, take this ECT machine you've been working on. Do you realize how valuable this is? I mean, giving this tech away could make a huge difference in peoples' lives. Or, you could patent it and make a bundle selling it to a medical tech company. Have you decided what you're going to do with it?"

“I’m happy to give away the device and leave the patent open for everyone. Yeah, let’s make some tech. I like the idea of a better MRI, something that is portable and can be used on the go...”

Seeing that their services are no longer needed, both Allies take their leave.

 

 

-------

The Direct Line

Issac Norton II receives a call on his Nokia phone. The caller is Dr. Melanie Dakkera, who he met a Contract four or five months past and had last seen attending his Tai Chi lessons in a San Francisco park for a few weeks after that.

"Ah, you have reached the direct line of the Emperor of the United States! How can we assist you this fine day?"

"Your Highness, this is Dr. Melanie Dakkera--although I'm going by Allie now. It is so good to hear your voice," Alice sounds genuinely relieved. "How have you been these past few months?"

"Dr Dakerra! It is of course our pleasure to hear your voice again! The past few months have been rather troubling to tell it truly. Geopolitical stability is at an all time low, & our entreaties to other heads of state have thus gone unanswered. Without such diplomacy, the future is in PERIL! Nevertheless, we remain grounded in these times by recalling that the people require poise & decorum in a sovereign; we recently passed the Bar to better serve the people, & spend much of our time building homes with Habitat for Humanity. Bah! Where are our manners: you hardly called to ask about our well-being - how can the Empire serve you today?"

"Passed the Bar--wow, congratulations! Well, I did call to ask about your well-being, one of several things I wanted to ask about. Several of my other frie--acquaintances who, uh, accept ongoing offers to, like, right what is wrong in the nation and in the world, as you and I do, in the face of dangers and mysteries and the like, they have not been doing well lately. So I'm really glad to hear that you're well, your Highness."

"My own personal situation has changed dramatically since we last talked--in some ways for the better and some ways for the worse. Concerning the good things, I have an identical twin sister now who I have given my original identity--which is why I now go by 'Allie'." Hopefully that would sufficiently encourage him to call her something different. "I've also recently gotten married to a good friend of mine, and we've adopted a precious young girl. However, she suffers from a supernatural problem that dramatically impacts her well-being, and finding a solution has been my top priority. Which brings me to another question: on our, um, mission together, you managed to near-instantly convince a man who was clearly intent on murder to be convicted of his actions--past and current. Have you ever convinced other intelligent beings who are not human to, uh, cease their violence?" 

"Are we not all human? Despite these parsings of origin - to think is to be human! The humble chicken has feelings, does it not? Sapience? It can choose to cross the road, this it can choose its own destiny! Would one then say, "This chicken - it is human!" We believe all life is precious, & that in but the natural state of things ordained by the almighty - it is true some have fallen from that path, which is when the good shepherd must nudge them back to righteous pursuit. However, this is a power we all share - the ability to shine the light of human empathy & kindness into the darkness! While it is also true that our station may lend gravitas to our words, you, a practitioner of the hallowed arts of the mysterious mind must surely find such ability within yourself!"

By her tone, Alice is clearly smiling. "I have, to a much lesser extent than you, your Highness, 'shone empathy and kindness into the darkness.' And I hope to do so even more in the future. My daughter is currently being haunted by a spirit--something like a sapient guard dog that, at the first sign of her being slighted in any way, resorts to violence. 'Slights' include not giving Violet exactly what she wants when she wants it, or another child pushing her or not sharing a toy. This makes it extremely difficult to parent her and allow her to socialize with others her age. Once I've gathered more information on the situation, would you be willing to help my husband and I tame this spirit so that Violet can have the life she deserves?" 

"Ah, well why didn't you simply say so! A spirit, no matter what it's providence, is still a citizen of our United States and must learn to embrace the 'melting pot' of equality & brotherly love upon which our nation stands! If we were able to convince the Undead of the error of their ways, we should think a spirit with such noble, of perhaps misguided intentions should see the light of reason readily."

"Thank you so much!" Thoughts of screening Emperor Norton into the Network cross Alice's mind, including how each question would likely be answered with royal enthusiasm and at least mild insanity. After a pause, she finally asks, "In the meantime, is there anything specific that you nee--that would benefit you, like, in your calling to ..." What was this man's end goal? "... to advance this great Nation and, uh, be of royal service to its citizens? I don't have much to offer, but I may know others who could help..."

"An excellent question! However, with the inexhaustible resources of America at hand, the only thing we require is that citizens such as yourself approach the world with eyes open to the beauty & joy that is the American dream! To know that, no matter one's station, anything is within the grasp of those who would strive to reach it! To approach each other with the Golden Rule firmly in heart, & reject the greed & indifference that still yet plagues us!"

"Of course! What you're asking for is something I strive for every day--and something I'm hoping to instill in my husband and daughter too. Thank you, your Majesty. I really appreciate you and what you do." As peculiar as you go about it. 

"Our heart positively glows to hear that. Congratulations on your nuptials as well, and wish your significant other our very best wishes please."

"I will! Once my life is a bit more settled, I still intend on inviting you to grace me and my family with your presence over a humble dinner. But, work before play--I'll be in touch and do take care of yourself." The call ends.

 

 

-------

Pony Form

During a monthly check-in call with Iryna to offer Bu Fang's Golden Pill for her pet lizard, Alice learned that Bu Fang had been kidnapped and subsequently rescued and also that Akira (a friend of Mark and Bu who she had seen at the dinner party who was a part of the rescue team) was now desperately in need of it instead. Alice gladly shipped the item to Dr. Buckworth, who was providing lodging to Akira while he remained stuck in his My Little Pony form.

 

 

-------

An Open Hand

Bu Fang, with the assistance of several other Knights, places the casket into the hearse. Through the thick layer of dark clouds looming in the sky, a drop falls as the heaven itself cries while the cars move in an orderly fashion. The procession of cars, though slow, are many in Chicago; even if they don't know of his name, they know him as a great hugger. Through the streets to the cemetery, it is solemn and silent, with only the sound of the rain enveloping the land. In what feels like moments, despite it being only 15 or so minutes, they arrive. Iron fences and graves bordering ornamented by age and growth and gates that, though they are small, give a feeling of tenseness. A church in the distance. Stone angels can be seen about, and with them are headstones made of marble, concrete, and granite ranging in hues from white to black to gray. The occasional mausoleum. 

Lifting up the casket, Bu Fang, Mark, Akira, and Dorthy. Even when they tried to tell her no, she looks at them and says, "It's my grandchild. I will be a part of this," with a stern tone and stubbornness. They relent, making sure that at least she doesn't work too hard. 

Through the simple walk of carrying the casket to the grave, the smell of the cut grass, rain and rot, newly turned earth, and fresh flowers fills the air. The sound of the rain, creating almost a static sound with an undertone of people crying/sobbing, sniffing, speaking in low voices, with whispered prayers can be heard once they arrive and start lowering the casket into the grave. Right at the head of the grave, the tombstone was cut in the shape of a pony. Kevin's name is inscribed at the chest. The the words engraved are:

Kevin Sparkles,

The best Grandson,

The best Husband,

The best Leader,

The best Friend.

 

Next to the mourners is Kevin's parents' grave, well maintained, clean of any growth, now making an even set of four. 

Then, they start burying him, one shovel of dirt at a time. "The rain is oddly salty..." mumbles Bu Fang. Covering his eyes with a hat, he continues assisting with the burial. Though the rain was cliche to some... it just somehow wasn't at the same time. Each shovel of dirt is followed by a memory of the past for Bu Fang. Finally, when the final bit of dirt is placed, he goes over to the newly-turned soil, patting it down gently. Breathing in the smell of dirt, rain, and grass that would be growing soon... he knew Kevin wouldn't mind this place at all.

Under the mournful atmosphere, first to leave were those of the Sparklestar Swordies. They lost not just an idol, but a friend, a role model, and their leader. One by one at a time, crying into each other's shoulders, sniffling, even wailing...

Following next were those of the were organization, although they didn't fully leave--only exiting the graveyard as they waited for Mark to come out after--leaving behind only the Knights, Barbara, Dorthy, Jason Valent, Jason Decker (the frog), and Oz. 

Mark looks around, then back down at the stone. "Any leads on the vehicle the police were looking for?" Mark says to no one in particular.

Jason, not one for speeches, will sit and watch.

Alice, wearing the same as she did at the wake in the Sparkles' home the day before, crouches down facing the freshly turned dirt and tombstone and whispers softly: "Thank you for your insane compassion towards a stranger. I will strive to give with an open hand as freely as I have received." She looks over at the frog on her shoulder and then back at the dirt. "As a warning, honey, I'm striving to be a bit less sane now."

"Riibbbbiiit."

"You didn't have to agree so enthusiastically," the masked woman mutters under her breath as she takes a seat beside Jason Valent (who is occupying two and a half seats). 

Mark solemnly walks over to the grave, looking down at it, running his hands on the stone. "Kevin.." Mark says with a deep breath. "You were more than an ally. You were a friend to all of us and the world. Your legacy will serve as a reminder to us all, that no matter how uncertain or dark the world may seem, it is our duty to be a friend, to reach out to one another, to stand united in times of adversity and give friendship a chance. " Mark looks up at the sky relishing the breeze a moment, then looks around before turning back to the stone. "I will leave absolutely no stone unturned, and I will not rest until justice is served. I will fight for the truth, for closure, and for the solace that comes from knowing that your spirit is at peace. Rest in peace, friend."

Jason sits and watches. After a few minutes, he walks over to the graves and says, "We will get those sons of bitches."

Alice shifts back a row to be seated next to Akira. It's easy to do so; few of the many chairs are occupied. "Um, so ..." She messes with her Friendship Bracelet. "Do you know how this works? Kevin didn't have a chance to explain it..."

As Akira heard the voice of Alice, he turned to her and replies, “I’ll explain after this whole thing is over, but if there’s one thing I will say… if you use it right, that bracelet will save your life.” Nodding to her before slowly standing up and then walking to Kevin’s gravestone. Gently placing his hand on the headstone, Akira closed his eyes and gave a slight nod. Opening his eyes and speaking softly, “Rest In Peace, Kevin. Hope you’re one the other side and living it to the fullest.” Giving it a slight pat before going back and sitting next to Alice again. Taking a deep breath to recollect his thoughts.

Bu fang lays some flowers on Kevin's grave. Looking up at the sky, it seems heaven tribulation continues for him. Also taking a pat on the tombstone, looking at everyone he says, "Thank you all for coming... I know Kevin is warm hearted to see that everyone is here, for him. This moment, I have learned that being just peaceful, trying to help others and work with them... isn't a true option. There are some who just aren't reasonable. You give them an inch and they take a yard. I swear to everyone here I will rush to your need without a moment of rest if you call for me. For I come to regret Kevin's involvement, but time comes and goes... Everyone, we will discuss this outside the graveyard. Batimir's castle shall no longer stand." The rain plops onto the dirt ground, a soft plop. A breeze comes by, embracing everyone in its cold yet slightly wet touch. "May you rest in peace Kevin, my old friend."

 

 

-------

Good Care

With Barbara grieving the sudden loss of her husband and now her adoptive teenage daughter, who had run off to join a group of people like her, Alice committed to visiting Mrs. Sparkles at least once a week--sometimes two. Kevin had specified in his will his desire that the Knights take good care of his family. To Mark Collins, this had meant being available if they needed the help of a famous superhero. To Bu Fang, this meant providing financial support. So Alice gave what she had to offer: mental health services and emotional support. It helped that she already had built trust with the family by treating Anna’s several phobias at Kevin's request several months earlier.

To make the 4.5 hour car rides from Detroit to Chicago easier, Barbara agreed to let her borrow Tori, a supernatural vehicle created by one of Kevin’s friends (but not a fellow Knight) which could drive itself. On these car rides, always accompanied by her frog and sometimes accompanied by Abbas and Violet, Alice made her monthly calls with those in her Network and beyond.

Several weeks later, these rides also included regular check-ins with Anna Sparkles, so that Alice could pass along updates to Barbara. Wherever Anna was staying, cell phones were not allowed--but a basic two-way radio was, and that was all Alice needed.

 

 

-------

Speak It Out

A day after the Knights returned to knock down the front door of Count Batimir's castle, Akira receives a phone call even if his phone is dead, on silent, or in a place with no reception. The caller is somehow saved in his phone as "Allie" with a profile picture of the woman that Akira has previously only ever seen with a partially covered face--her upper half via a stylish mask at the party and then her lower half via a black cloth facemask at the two-day funeral in Chicago. However, in this photo she wears no face covering, and it's clear that the half-Caucasian/half-Asian young woman is sleep deprived, dehydrated, malnourished, sickly pale, or all of the above. Nevertheless, she has a thoughtful gaze and a soft smile. 

Akira, whilst he is in his car and thinking of the outcome of their failed investigation, heard his phone ringing in his right pocket. Wondering who was calling him, he gently reached into his pocket and pulled out his phone, seeing the name and seeing the face of the woman calling him. At first, he is slightly concerned about her physical state… and also pulling off a smile. But soon enough he would recognize her. So, once he sees who she is, he answers his phone. “Hello?”

"Hello Akira." A familiar voice with unusual crystal clarity, as though the West Coast woman is right there. "Do you have a moment? Is this a good time for us to chat?"

“I was about to drive off before you called, but I’m free to talk,” he said, interested that she was speaking crystal clear through the phone--no background noise, not even static. Relaxing his arms, he spoke further. “What’s up?”

"How did the raid go?" 

“Unfortunately, we were left high and dry. The Brothers wiped everything clean, aside from some statues and empty bookshelves.” Rubbing his temples and letting out a tired sigh. “But Mark handled the rest once some cleanup guys came through.” Straightening up as he picked up more strength to speak. “By the way, how did you pick up this phone? You didn’t accept my phone number when we were at Fang’s restaurant.”

"To be honest, that's sort of what I expected, but I'm sorry to hear that I was right." Alice nods at the mental image of Mark chatting it up with a bunch of strangers with a famous musician's castle in the background, essentially making a public appearance. Seems that several Knights are used to the center spotlight, albeit in different ways. 

“Yeah… I got a feeling it was a bust. We shouldn’t have waited.” Taking responsibility and nodding. His tone, the slight pauses in his speech, and his quick delivery made it clear that Akira was just tired of everything that had happened within the past few weeks.

"Oh, and I don't need a phone number to make calls. I can call anyone based on a name, alias, appearance, or scent. And our conversation is supernaturally obscured--I highly prioritize privacy." 

When Akira hears how she got his number, he thinks about it for a second. “That’s pretty smart. Don’t want anyone else dropping in on any conversations you’re having.” Making a mental note the next time she calls and imagining the usefulness of such a power, especially when you’re in a tight spot. “I’d like to ask more about that power, but I feel like we’re getting off topic about the real reason for this call.” Reiterating why she truly called him.

"Go ahead and ask. I called you for a couple of reasons, and one of them is just to get to know you a little better. It seems like we're in the same circles but always too busy to connect.”

“Yeah… you do got a point about that.” Now that Akira thought about it, aside from a few people he met throughout the Contracts, and even meeting those same Contractors multiple times like Oz, Iryna, or Jason Valent, he never had the chance to properly talk to them, barring the restaurant event. Now that he thought about it, this is the first time he ever interacted with a fellow Contractor… like an average human being. Not talking about how to go about investigating certain things, yelling out to help or attack any supernatural beings--none of that. Just normal talking. “Well, first to start off… How did you get involved in this whole Contract business? Any strange incidents? Some strange looking fellas offering you something more or the like?”

"Of course!" Alice chuckles. She expected a question about her ability, but they could start at the beginning instead. "After talking with several others, I'm getting the feeling that's how it always starts. An offer that's difficult to refuse involving payment that's hard to believe and risks that are not fully understood. Same for you, right?" 

“Well… not exactly.” Taking a moment to pause before resuming. “In my case, there was an accident I had to fix during the night, and during that moment something bad happened and I almost got killed… and then I got ‘an offer that’s difficult to refuse involving payment and undertaking risks that weren’t fully understood.’ That was an entire year ago that happened, and I went on more of these ever since… and I’m still kicking.” Akira finishes his abridged version of his entrance to the Contracts. “Gotten a lot of these… powers because of it, and, in all honesty, they’re pretty potent, and I don’t know how far these can go. Which leads me to my next question: have you gotten any other powers besides the conversational one?”

How far the cumulative power or a single power can go? Alice wonders before quickly moving on to the typical exchange of exposing information that she has come to expect for building trust with her colleagues. It helps that Akira is a friend of nearly all of her own allies: Jason Valent, Iryna, Mark, Kevin, and Bu Fang--well, was a friend of Kevin's. 

"Yes, several. I am close to mastering telekinesis, and I avoid a lot of harm--but both of those only work well so long as I don't harm others, basically following the Golden Rule. I'm also a psychologist by trade. I can heal the mind of most maladies, now quite rapidly through supernatural methods. That includes phobias, compulsions, delusions, and other things like that, although I have come across some mental health issues that are beyond my reach. Also, I'm quite good at discerning scents and heart rates--it helps me read the people I'm interacting with." 

“A psychologist, eh? That’s interesting.” Akira hummed before he closed his eyes for a bit and reopened them again. “Healing and mending traumas would do just fine right about now. Now that you mentioned it, I had a theory about these powers we’re getting as contractors… maybe it’s all linked to how we are in life? I’m a park ranger down in Texas, and throughout all of it, I gained the ability to survey 500 feet of an area about who’s there, who they are, and what kind of traps are in the area. Normally, I couldn’t do it in manmade environments and only could survey for 100 feet, but now it’s grown. I can repair just about anything with some elbow grease and wits, I can go on fighting without anything slowing me down, and I can even control creatures! Well, only one at a time. I even managed to control one black bear in the woods that was almost close to encountering a family down in the designated traveling areas.” Going on about his powers and the like. Alice might detect a hint of bruised excitement as he talks, almost forgetting the events that transpired and how it affected him.

"Impressive!" Alice listens, something she is naturally good at, and she hears what Akira says between the lines. While Alice barely knew Kevin, Akira's speech at the wake revealed how much of a loss it was to him. The castle visit was probably salt on the wound. "But I confess that I'm not surprised. Given the people you hang out with, I already know you are capable and powerful." Although the timing and weight of the compliment is strategic, she means it. What the Knights (and company) seemed to lack more than anything is clear thinking, not power. "You mentioned that healing some of your trauma might be helpful--and I know firsthand that the jobs we are sent on, and the ones we take on for ourselves, can be extremely difficult. Would you be willing to share a little more about that?" A gentle nudge. Best to see if she could get him as stable as possible first, before proceeding down the list of potentially lengthy business topics. 

“Hehe, that’s mighty kind of you, but I feel like some of the Knights and even many others I’ve seen got me beat in the combat department. Aside from my gun and sword, I don’t got any fancy fire powers… at least not yet.” Although a deep part of him feels like he needed to step up with battling other foes in the future, especially if he’s going to go on more of these Contracts, he does feel pride that, at the very least, he’s doing some things right with his powers. However, when the topic shifts to sharing the deeper aspects of his psyche, he freezes and starts to look around his environment. Even though Alice’s power is obscured, and the fact that Akira’s inside his car with no one but him, he looks around as if he is being watched. 

“Um…. I don’t… I don’t know if I want to burden you with the stuff I have. Some of the stuff I have been through is… it’s not pretty.” The first attempt of turning down her help is very much clear to Alice with the awkward pace of him talking just a while ago and freezing up for a couple seconds also being signs of bottling it in.

"It wouldn't be a burden, it would be an honor--and I never expect it to be pretty." Alice pauses before shifting to speaking in a lower, softer tone. "Hold onto the power of friendship, Akira. As Knights, we can strengthen each other in our times of need, our times of weakness. Based on your actions and the fact that Kevin made you a Knight, I know you believe in helping others as best you can. But the street runs both ways. I encourage you to allow others to help you too... because you deserve it and you being stronger makes everyone else stronger too--because we're all in this together." 

Once he hears Alice say those words, Akira takes another pause and slowly shifts the phone away. While taking another moment to slowly look around the car and check his surroundings, the thought dawns on him again… he’s never spoken to anyone about the incidents and fears he had developed over the course of his journey. Not to any therapists, his regular friends, not even to his parents. It’s been so… so very long to talk to someone about it. If there was a chance to speak it out and open up…. guess now is the time.

“O-okay… any… any particular events you want me to… t-talk about?” Of course, being that it’s his first time taking some supernatural therapy since… practically ever, he awkwardly doesn’t know how to proceed.

"Thank you for trusting me." Then Alice sighs. "My supernatural ability to heal the mind doesn't work over long distances. Would it be possible for you to travel to Detroit or shall I come to you? We can rent a hotel room or meet anywhere else that gives us privacy--wherever you'd be comfortable." 

“No, it’s alright. I’ll come to Detroit, it’s just a 2-hour flight from here. I’ll pack my things and come over as soon as possible. Just give me the deets on where to meet up.”

"Perfect. I recommend you get a room in the Marriott on 2nd Street room near Hart Plaza, Detroit. It's by the waterfront, and if it's too pricey I can repay you in cash. I don't have a functioning phone at the moment, but I'll wait for you in the center of the plaza, uh, tomorrow morning, 10 AM?" 

“Okay. The Marriott, on 2nd street, Detroit. Tomorrow morning, 10 AM. Alright--and don’t worry about the cash. I have some to spare.” Taking his time to add mental notes on what to bring and planning to schedule his flight to Detroit, hoping that there would be no delays.

 

Off-Track (Part 1)

Hart Plaza is an open public space consisting of metal art structures, fountains, spots of landscaped greenery, and brick and concrete. At this hour the place is mostly empty. A young woman jogs with a stroller and an older couple slowly walks along the water's edge, chatting quietly. A homeless man quickly gathers his things into a shopping cart, having overslept on a portion of the long, flat, curving concrete bench that circles the center of the area. The day is somewhat overcast with the occasional full sunlight peeking through the clouds, brightening spots of the plaza. 

A few minutes before the meeting time, Alice exits the driver's side of a black vintage Beetle with tinted windows that Akira might recognize as Kevin Sparkles’ TORI. After paying the parking meter, she walks to the center of the plaza and looks around. As per usual, Alice wears understated designer clothes in greyscale, almost fully covered from head to toe: black jeans, white blouse, gray peacoat unbuttoned, white scarf, black gloves, and brown booties. She is also wearing a cloth face mask once more and carries a small waterproof designer backpack. There is no frog on her shoulder this time. 

As Akira drives to his destination in Detroit, he takes a second to realize how even just traveling to a new location has become routine for him. Over the span of a year, he traveled to a whole variety of places--from California to Washington to Russia--and even ventured into a whole different dimension even. And through all of the wild and dangerous obstacles he faced, having a normal trip throughout another state, and not for a Contract, was refreshing. 

Akira indeed notices the TORI whilst he is looking for a parking spot near the plaza. He looks at the vehicle before finally parking and paying the meter. He would have to ask Oz later if he could build a TORI of his own or at least beef up the Toyota he has.

Once he gets outside, he looks around to see where Alice is. As befitting for a man in his occupation, the ranger wears a dark brown, short sleeved, buttoned up shirt, blue jeans with a belt, black boots, and a light, brown jacket. Where he had his aviator sunglasses in one of the pockets. Carrying around a camo-ordained backpack. Whistling a song as he entered the plaza.

Alice smells Akira before she sees him. She turns around with a smile and then waves. "Hey there, good to see you! Did you find street parking, or are you parked at the hotel?" 

Akira sees the wave and reciprocates it with a nod before briskly walking towards her and meeting her in person once again. A hint of concern forms from how frail she looks, but he didn’t want to bring it up. “Good to see you, too. I found street parking, so it wasn’t a problem for me… and sorry if I showed up a bit late. It’s actually my first time being in Detroit.” Speaking in a gentle tone.

"No worries. In two hours, when you have to feed the meter again, I'll help you download the app to do it digitally." Alice glances up at two seagulls flying high with the morning breeze for a moment before turning back to him. "I've been stuck here for about five months, so I'd say I know the area pretty well at this point," she adds casually.

“Shit, it does that?” The Ranger looks in disbelief as he rubs the back of his head with his hand. “Well, at least there’s someone digital to help me with that.” Laughing slightly as he swiveled his head to check the plaza. Eyes darting rapidly as he avoided any source of extreme light. To lighten the mood, he responds, “And at least I have a therapist and a travel guide to help me ‘long the way.” The avoidance of extreme light was enough that he was shuffling around and beads of sweat dripping down his forehead.

Alice notices Akira's rising discomfort immediately as he speaks, despite barely being able to smell his sweat over the smells of the plaza and the waterfront. "Of course!" She smiles and points to the hotel across the street. "Let's figure out what your parking spot number is and then head to the hotel--or is something else the matter?" His words aren't matching up with his physical tells. Is he being hunted? He didn't act like this before. Maybe it's being out in the open or a public space? Unless this is just nervousness involving therapy... she ponders. 

“N-Nah, nothing’s wrong. Just making sure the light ain’t hitting too much on my eyes. That’s all.” Wiping the sweat from his forehead once he finished talking. Once she asks for his parking spot, he simply closes his eyes and does a quick breath in and out. Calming down, he steeled himself against his fear. “I was able to get in the 16th spot, but I had to parallel park.” His heart rate slowly goes down to a regular level as he talks to Alice. The therapist is still able to see him dart his eyes in one direction, then another, and then another, as if he’s looking to see if someone is watching the both of them. 

It was enough that a public maintenance worker picking up trash nearby takes notice and walks up to them. “Excuse me, is there anything wrong?” a young man, early 20s or so, asks the pair, wondering if they are lost.

Alice steps next to Akira and gently grabs his upper arm as though they are a couple. "Oh, we were just going for a walk, but then we realized we must have left your wallet at the hotel, didn't we?" She looks to Akira expectantly, along with what she hopes will be either a comforting or a mentally disrupting squeeze on his arm. Either way works so long as he's compliant with her lead. 

As Akira opened his mouth of respond, he felt his upper arm gently grabbed by Alice, and he shifted to look. Such an unexpected act caused the ranger to widen his eyes slightly, before slowly picking up on what she was trying to do. Going along with it, he looks back at the worker in front of them and replies with, “Y-Yeah. Really should’ve checked my pockets before I left.” It did work. Noticing that focuses him; he is no longer looking around with a swiveling head.

“Ahh, okay! If you need anything, just let me know. Have a wonderful day!” With a friendly tone, the young man gets back to his work. Others in the public space could have gazed on Akira if Alice hadn’t stepped in. Then a street performer in the nearby amphitheater begins to play the flute, and attentions solidly shift.

“T-thanks.” Uttering out a word as he tries to hide his embarrassment, almost cursing to himself for acting like a bumbling fool. “Sorry for that.”

Alice keeps her position beside Akira. Her tone is low and serious. "If you can, fully close or mostly cover your eyes and follow my guiding lead to the hotel." Her grip on his arm stays firm, as firm as someone as weak as herself can be. "I promise you're going to be okay--I'm going to do my best to help you." Photophobia and maybe scopophobia. She forms a mental list as they begin the short walk. 

Akira nods and replies, “A-alright.” With that in mind, he decides to grab his sunglasses and puts them on, following her lead as they walk to the hotel. 

As they began their short walk, Akira’s immediately picks up the multitude of cars driving down the roads, some of which blazed right past as the sounds passed them by but also some blaring of horns as some drivers were either late to their destination (or sheer impatience). Almost instantly, his body tenses up. Despite this, he didn’t break his movement. He continues to follow Alice with a mostly calm demeanor, but the sweating reappears, albeit not as prominent. 

And she could smell it. "I'm assuming you don't have a room yet?" she asks quietly as they enter through the automatic glass doors into an air conditioned, well-lit, luxurious three-and-a-half-star hotel lobby. The lobby is bustling, with several people working the front desk to keep the wait times short. Quite a few people are in the seating area, probably waiting for their transportation to arrive. A few are even seated at the bar in the far back, starting their day off right. For vacationers, 10 AM is just about “go do stuff” time. 

“No, I don’t.” He quickly replied as he instantly felt the air conditioned lobby hit his skin. Breathing a quick sigh of relief as the sweat gently flew off and calmed his body. Once he heard the chatter of vacationers and conversational guests, Akira removed his sunglasses and placed them back in his shirt pocket. Looking around to take in the environment and check out what this hotel had to offer.

A receptionist handles some guests. Unfortunately, there are a couple of guests in line that are acting… out of line. Just in front of them, a couple—probably in their mid to late 40’s—are giving the receptionist—a younger woman, who seems like she was just starting out her job—is demanding her to fix something regarding a payment. The woman in question has dirty blonde, short hair, is tanned, and is slightly overweight. Her husband standing right beside her has sunglasses, a goatee, a sleeveless shirt, and shorts. He is just as tan and has a protruding gut. Despite his sunglasses blocking his eyes, his stance and demeanor projected a similarly displeased joke.

“Do you know how much we paid for this hotel room?! You should feel lucky that we even bother to come here and stay!” The young woman trys her best to accommodate and calm this guest. “Yes, ma’am. I understand, but, please, lower your voice. There are children here.” The shrillness of the guest’s voice makes Akira wince in annoyance.

Alice sighs. She releases Akira and moves into the social space of these two guests and the receptionist. "What seems to be the issue?" The well-dressed (albeit quite covered up) Pathetic therapist hoped to approach the situation authoritatively, but feeling ill made that difficult to pull it off, so instead her question simply came off as a tired inquiry by a stranger. 

The woman, in the midst of verbally tearing this poor receptionist down, stops when she hears Alice. Calming down a little bit, she resumed her tirade by saying, “This little brat messed up our payment for this hotel. I have the receipts right here, proof that she’s lying, and she should consider herself lucky I don’t call the manager and fire her ass!” There were some people that turned their heads and wondered what the commotion was all about, but considering that it was in the morning, many just turned back and went along their way, hoping that woman would just shut up.

"That is absolutely horrible!" Alice responds empathetically. "And I'm sure you have plans today, stuff to do that's much better than dealing with her," she says as she gestures to the slinking hotel employee with a gloved hand before crossing her arms. "How much are they charging you?"

The woman, in response, pulls up her phone and he exclaims, “Here! The price is right here! It’s supposed to be lower, but this lady is saying that it was the price I originally payed for!” The employee, combined with the yells of the lady and Alice’s gesture, slightly recoils.

Akira, this whole time, just looks around and observes the situation, not wanting to fuel the flames of this interaction. His darting eyes catch the eyes of the tanned lady, who looks at him and then back at Alice. “And what the hell is his problem?! You like staring at others?!” In which the ranger puts his hands up. The husband makes a half-hearted attempt to calm his wife down.

"You shouldn't have to deal with this!" Alice declares in agreement as she slips off a thin strap and swings her small designer backpack around. "It's unfair, and you should be enjoying your trip from start to finish!" And with that she offers the woman $1,000 in cash--ten $100 bills. Suddenly lowering her tone, in a dramatic contrast to how she spoke seconds before, she continues: "Your time is precious. This should make up for the discrepancy. Don't let her or this stupid hotel eat up any more of your vacation." 

The lady looks at her, taken aback by the offer, but looking at the money, she gently takes all of the cash and nods. “At least there’s some hospitality in the world. Unlike this girl over here!” And with that, she leaves. Her husband follows behind her. The chaos of that event now over as the guests continued on their day in peace, finally free from that woman’s rants and ramblings.

The receptionist, on the other hand, is not faring so well, at least emotionally, almost shrinking down and on the verge of tears from the verbal abuse that she’d taken from the lady, and also taken from Alice. Akira, once it had died down, tries to calm her down. “Hey, uhhh, miss. It’s gonna be alright… don’t worry about it.” Attempting his own use of empathetic understanding.

Alice approaches the receptionist as well with a neutral and somewhat tired expression. "I'm sure hotels keep blacklists..." she says quietly as she glances in the direction the couple walked off in. "That woman should be on it." 

Akira, once the couple was out of sight, and hearing Alice say they should be part of a blacklist, he replies, in a straight face, and with a gentle voice, “Oh, yeah. She’s a fucking bitch. I would’ve taken a swing to shut her the fuck up if I was the manager. With no hesitation.” Combined with his earlier attempts of comfort, this bluntness shocks the young girl. “U-Um… Sir? Ma’am?” Unsure on how to proceed with such a flurry of events happening so suddenly.

"He's being metaphorical," Alice says dryly. "And he'd like to rent a room for two nights." With that set up, Alice looks Akira in the eyes--possibly conveying a silent please just rent a damn room--before slipping her backpack all the way off to hold it like a regular purse and finding an open seat in the lobby. She watches the variety of guests but primarily keeps an eye on her soon-to-be-patient. 

Akira looks back to Alice and gets the message. He looks back at the receptionist and sighs, “Yeah… renting a room for two nights, please, for me only.” In which the young woman quickly refocused on her tasks and nodded, “Y-Yes, sir.” He puts his card on file. The woman then hands Akira two key cards to the room, “Right this way, sir.” Following her, Akira looked back at Alice and motioned her to follow, calming down as he sighs.

Alice follows Akira and the woman to the fourth floor, down the hall, and around a corner until at last they arrive. She should have brought obvious luggage--like a roller bag or something--to make this look more natural. Although, after all the attention that guest caused and Alice's intervention, it was a moot point: they would be remembered at the very least by this woman (who is clearly looking for any excuse to get away from the front desk).

Soon the receptionist leaves them and the hotel room door clicks shut. The interior is familiar to Alice, as this is the same hotel where she tried to treat Jason Valent’s mental health issue. To her sensitive nose, the space smells powerfully of stale air and cleaning agents with hints of expensive perfume. "Nothing to worry about," Alice says quietly, mostly to herself, as she walks across the room and takes a seat on one end of the couch, crossing her legs. 

As soon as they enter the room, Akira places his backpack on the tables and checks the room out, smelling the variety of artificial aromas that are present. After he stands there for a moment, he then looks at Alice and the couch. Slowly walking towards it and sitting on the other end: “Well, at least that’s over with.” Talking of the situation before to break any sort of awkward silence that was previously there. No extreme sources of light in the room… so far. The ranger slowly looks around a second time before looking back at Alice.

Alice sighs as she takes off her mask, gloves, and finally her brown leather booties--crossing her legs under her. Leaning back against a non-removable throw pillow, the woman seems weary yet increasingly comfy. However, she keeps the unbuttoned peacoat on since the room is a bit cold. Her undercut bob haircut has purple-dyed tips, a style that doesn't at all align with her more formal monochrome fashion. "If I had a working identity, I would have reserved the room for us in advance," she says as she looks out the window at the river and the urbanscape. 

As Akira gets a bit comfortable, he decides to look into his phone to check the usual—weather, emails, etc.—and respond to some messages, mainly to the few, regular friends he has, and to his mother. Whilst he finishes up, he perks up on what Alice said and he responds, “Why don’t you have a working identity?” Putting his phone aside and focusing on her. “Did something happen?” Concern slowly forming in his tone.

Alice looks back at him with a grin. Since Akira's only seen her at a distance at the dinner party (where she was mostly nervous) and then the funeral (where she was either serious or annoyed), this is probably the first time he's seen such a playful expression on her. "Something did happen...  You know that manhunt that you and Mark went on in Texas--which also involved a suspect at a hospital in Amarillo vanishing?" 

Seeing Alice’s more playful expression makes the ranger a little surprised. And when she brings up the manhunt that he volunteered for with Mark, he is even more surprised that she even knew it was him, considering that he was an unknown ranger. “Yeah… a couple months back. That man was holed up in an abandoned mine, and me and Mark went in to take him in. Why’d ya ask?” Even though he went unnoticed by the rest of the media, he gently lifts his lips in a small smile, knowing that at least someone acknowledged the event.

Alice pulls a full collapsible water bottle out of her backpack as she answers: "Because the person you both were hunting was a criminal that my husband and I and one other Contractor were hired to transfer from Pampa to Amarillo--and the job went horribly wrong." She takes a drink before explaining. "The other Contractor turned on us mid-job. There was a shootout on the side of the freeway that ended up with the Pampa sheriff and deputy dead, Jason's arm blown off, and... uh..." Her brow furrows and her speech slows down as she looks past Akira, re-seeing and smelling the memories. Burning flesh and anguished yelling in the deputy's last moments of life. Overwhelming panic as Jason bled in her arms. "... and, um, me fleeing from the scene, like, in a car, uh, with the t-traitor and the criminal." 

Downtime

Lending a Hand II

Off-Track (Part 2)

When Alice talks about how she and other contractors were originally tasked to transport that criminal in a previous contract, Akira’s eyes widen in shock, “No frickin’ way… “ And now his entire body turned to face her, fully focused on the rest of her story. The fact that another contractor betrayed her was another shock that had the Ranger’s jaw drop slightly. He did have an incident where a fellow contractor he was with went crazy and ran off on their own… and they suffered a horrible fate. If there were similar incidents of contractors betraying one another, what would happen if one betrays him in the future?

“Wait… Jason? You in the car with the traitor and the criminal? What happened after that?” Looking more intensely as, all this time, the criminal that he and Mark apprehended was involved in something much bigger in scale.

The Pathetic woman pushes on, eyes now closed tightly and arms crossed. "T-they were, uh, heading to a hideout where some of his buddies were... I knew I was kidnapping material, so I jumped out of the vehicle when it slowed for a turn through Pampa--and then the Contractor--he almost shot me in the back as I ran." She takes in a slow deep breath and then exhales just as slowly before opening her eyes to and looking back at Akira--a determined gaze. Her tone is a warning: "I will never be that helpless again." 

Hearing her finish what happened, and her final sentence, softened his gaze and nodded to her, “That’s good.” Commending her dedication to do better. Even if the situation was dire, and even if she almost died from getting shot in the back, she still found a way to escape and live another day. “You’re a goddamn survivor, I’ll tell ya what.” Further complimenting her resilience. Though, he did wonder who the contractor that betrayed both Jason and Alice were. Were they a secret accomplice to the criminal? Was it to save their own skin? “Jason…” the name dawned on him for a second. Placing a hand under his chin and thinking hard. There were only two Jasons that he met during the contract. He already knew Jason Valent well enough, but he couldn’t put his other finger on Jason… until he realized who it was he asked her, “That other guy… was his last name Decker or something like that?”

Alice nods. "Yes, Jason Deck--" And then it dawns on her. "--not Valent! Oh god, no!" She shifts from seriousness to laughter, more than willing to replace the visual of that traitor cocking his revolver as he prepared to kill her with an image of an obese Dodger fan in a tux standing at the altar for their fake wedding photos. "Decker--ex-military!" Alice insists between laughs. A long moment later, as she wipes the tears out of her eyes, she adds, still smiling, "It's a marriage of convenience--a cover story for adopting a possessed child we both found... but he..." She begins to mindlessly fiddle with her simple, silver wedding ring that was previously hidden under her glove. "... he, uh, is like my best friend."

“Alright alright alright! Sorry.” Putting his hands up and blushed in embarrassment. The thought of her being with Jason Valent sent goosebumps down his spine. Not that he had any problem with Valent himself, though it would’ve been out of the ordinary. He was relieved that Decker was still alive after their stint in Russia, though. “Alright. The ex-military guy.” But another fact that surprised him was that he and Alice were married. One that calmed the Ranger down and fixed his posture. His eyes looking at the ring and formed a smile. Even if she said that it was a cover up/out of convenience, it was good to know that they got along well. “Well, I’ll be damned… That son of a bitch got hitched. It’s been a while since we met, now that I think about it. How is he?”

Alice chuckles. "Well, Bu and Kevin had to rescue him from the hospital after his solo escape attempt--with nearly all of Texas hunting him--failed. And to do that they temporarily turned him into a frog..." Which would explain her shoulder amphibian (which currently she didn't have with her).

“Oh, shit. He got turned into a frog?” Another surprise that took the ranger off guard, though he sympathized with his predicament. Considering he was also turned from a human into an animal. “Well, at least it was temporary.” Relieved that Decker wasn’t cursed to be an amphibian for all of eternity… not unlike the glorious nature of a noble pony and steed.

"Bu Fang said it would wear off in a month, and we're right about there--any day now." Alice takes another sip from her water bottle. "And from all that mess, both of our identities are trashed, at least, we think so. Hard to know exactly... If I could call up the FBI and casually ask them if we're suspects and wanted for questioning, I would. But one clear giveaway is that an FBI agent--coincidentally also a Contractor--showed up at our apartment in Detroit and almost took our child away the same day Jason was questioned in the hospital.” Alice frowns as she shuts her eyes. "I tried to tell him he didn't know what he was getting into, but he didn't listen. And then he triggered my daughter, who's demon possessed... and the demon killed him."

“Jesus, another contractor died? And your kid is possessed by a demon?” Just as if the revelations before weren’t enough, more events of a contractor getting killed and the supernatural being involved is absolutely pushing it. “Well, sucks for him, I guess… I might’ve heard that name before.” Thinking about the name of who died, “Dallas… I think that was his name. I’m guessing he wanted the child because she was supernatural, and he was a hunter of sorts?” Trying to guess the motivation.

"Dallas--yes. Actually, I'm pretty sure he was going to take her into custody to then easily arrest Jason and I--to force us to turn ourselves in--since we are suspects in the Texas case," Alice answers. "Which is why, at the moment, I'm pretty sure we have no working identities." Bringing the topic full circle. "But, we didn't come here to talk all about me, did we?" She smiles slightly as she looks back at Akira.

“Well, that would’ve been a helluva lot worse if he actually succeeded, but I’m glad it didn’t.” Breaking out a chuckle as the thought of a demonic child ripping through an FBI agent was morbidly humorous to him. “Sucks to be Dallas, then.“ He didn’t know the man, and he frankly didn’t care. “Though, I hope you guys aren’t getting into more trouble.” Though with the nature of the contract, it was nigh impossible to avoid it. But when they went back full circle to talk about Akira now, the ranger nods and hesitates, “Oh… yeah. I kinda forgot about that, hehe.”

"You said I could help you with a few mental health things... So far, I've noticed bright lights make you very uncomfortable. Are you also uncomfortable around fast-moving vehicles--or is it all fast moving things?"

“Bright lights and… vehicles.” Akira took a few moments to contemplate on his thoughts, though he elaborated on the former, “Y’see.. the bright lights. They were the result of a contract I was in… a few other people, and one you might know, Oz. We were sent to investigate some sort of… supernatural phenomena during midnight.” Taking a few seconds to pause before resuming, “There were…. There were these creatures… and one of them exploded in my face…. Powder got in my lungs. Just a few seconds later, I was starting to getting voices in my head and… the nightcrawler… the source of light…. It was all so dark and… and loud.” Slowly devolving into muttering as Akira placed his hand and rubbed his forehead to calm himself. Shaking his head and repeating the words, “Nightcrawler… nightcrawler.”

Akira feels a light tap on his shoulder despite Alice being at the other end of the couch and not moving a muscle. "Akira..." the therapist says softly. "... look at me." If he does, he'll see that Alice's eyes briefly have a silver glow and then they are back to normal. In addition, she now has a very faint, silver, ethereal halo around her head--a shifting supernatural circlet. At the same time, a very visible black ethereal halo appears around Akira's head, although he wouldn't know unless he looked in a mirror because it feels weightless. "Breathe," Alice instructs. "Slowly in, deep, and slowly out... again ... one more time... okay, let's take this one thing at a time-- one thing a day. And let's start with the lights."

To say the thoughts were overwhelming was an understatement. As the events during that fateful night played in his mind, the thoughts slowly but surely assaulted his psyche. Hushed whispers and exclamations attacked him mentally. Words like, “She’s planning to kill you,” and “She will sacrifice you to the nightcrawler” dominated him, almost as if to entrap him in a sea of paranoia and despair. The ranger feels the tap, and his attention shifts back to Alice. Seeing her eyes glow for a brief moment had him perplexed, but it was soon replaced in concealed awe, as a halo appeared floating above her head. The color and appearing what seemed to be from thin air made the ranger… calm down. Following Alice’s instruction to the letter, he started to slowly breathe in and out. Doing so once more to refocus. “”Alright… Alright. One at a time…” Closing his eyes and sending the thoughts receding ever so slowly. Now, with a sharpened look in his eyes, he began to talk to Alice about the event in clear and detailed fashion, with a degree of lucidity that he didn’t even know he had. Slowly, he felt more at ease as he talked, and, soon enough, his posture relaxed once more.

The two Contractors meet in the Marriott hotel to discuss Akira's several traumas--his life before gaining them, the details of the events when he gained them, and how they've each impacted his life since then--for a long, tiring eight hours each day. As each day comes to a close, Alice's faint silver halo becomes vibrant and nearly tangible, while Akira's dark halo fades away into almost nothing. Right as they approach the final minutes of the session, he feels a firm tug on his mind and then a release, the removal of one of the weights oppressing his mind as though they had been digging around it for hours and then it finally was yanked out. On the second day, this doesn't happen and so they spend two days discussing his fear of fast moving objects. But then, on the third day, he's free of it. Then they move on to the topic of skinwalkers.

Each day includes several breaks for lunch and walks. Alice seems to know the area, but she doesn't order anything for herself--explaining the first day that she has digestive issues. Instead, she sticks with whatever's in her water bottle and roasted almond snacks. This lasts for four days total. During the breaks, when they're not peacefully quiet and all talked out, Alice shares about her life. She does this supernaturally, by giving Akira AirPods and then telepathically calling him. Yet all Akira sees is Alice breathing deeply and looking a bit less attentive to her surroundings as they walk the area--and, if they're sitting, she closes her eyes.

On the first day, she talks about how she and Jason Decker became cursed while exploring (and nearly dying) in a haunted location in Detroit about 15 minutes away as part of a job. The effects of the curse are serious: feeling ill for as long as they're outside of the location and increasing health problems (to the point of death at Day 5) for every day they haven't slept there. She talks about Jason. Before turning into a frog, he was training her to use a handgun and basic self-defense. He also drives her crazy, constantly teasing her and feeding Violet junk food. However, he is tidy, he genuinely cares about Violet, and he watched over the two girls as they slept in the haunted location (as he doesn't need to sleep much and the place has monsters--a job which she's now struggling to do). From the way Alice talks about him, they may sound to Akira like two contentious, loving siblings.

On the second day, Alice shares how Jason and her, while exploring the haunted location--which is sort of a dimension of its own--found a starving, dirty, neglected 4-year-old girl who was playing with a demon. Alice promptly stole (or rescued, depending on one's perspective) the child, and all three fled. Then Jason and her set up fake IDs with the help of a friend, they got an apartment together (where they hang out during the day), and they "got married"--all to have a cover story for having the little girl as they figured out what to do with her. It turned out that the demon they took Violet from had been caring for her in its own way by feeding her bugs, dead animals, and forage and by protecting her from harm. In exchange, however, it fed on her lifeforce and had supernatural ties to her mind that caused Violet incurable anxiety as she worried about where her "friend" went. Eventually, when Dallas Smith tried to take the toddler away, the demon re-found its host and fiercely defended her. Now it lives hidden in her shadow, a constant threat if Jason and Alice fail to meet the little girl's needs (and possibly her wants).

On the third day, Alice shares how she's been working on networking to not only help her and Jason with their problems, but also to help other Contractors find the help they need while also maintaining their privacy. The key is making confidential calls with everyone in the Network at least once a month and then playing matchmaker between the goods and services offered and the goods and services desired. Everyone is psychologically screened by Alice herself before gaining "membership" so that the malicious and unstable ones stay out. She's also forming a blacklist of untrustworthy Contractors based on the experiences of the people in her Network. Alice then invites Akira to the Network if he's willing to stay one extra day to do the screening. 

Slowly, but surely, Akira would feel his mind getting lighter and lighter. At first, he thought that it was headaches. A culmination of both stress and anxiety caused on opening up to his traumas to someone—albeit one he’s familiar with and considers a good friend—whom he met a handful of times. But when he was finally onto the final topic of his trauma, his fear of skinwalkers and the like, he finally felt the last, tiring chain on his psyche broken. No longer does he have any discomfort when discussing those cryptids, no urge to dodge out of the way from any fast moving car, and extremely bright lights were back to a bearable annoyance rather than a fight or flight response. 

Even if the trip lasted longer than he expected, and underestimating the sheer length their talks went through, it was definitely well worth the length. Given how, in the end, it was always nice talking to someone he felt confident to confide in… doubly so as they shared some of the same circumstances of being a contractor. Listening to how Alice and Decker interacted with each other, the origins of their 4-year-old, the unfortunate curse that Deckers gained, and how they take care and tend to their child, and still having a relatively decent (by his knowledge and what he interpreted) living situation, made the ranger happy. Knowing that one of his fellow contractors is happy with his pseudo-family and did not suffer the fate as Dallas or any of the other contractors that Akira has known. And when she talked about the Network and asked if he would like to stay another day to get screened and get into the network, Akira accepted it wholeheartedly.

After being reminded, Akira shareed how Kevin Sparkle's Friendship Bracelet works in detail. Alice gasped and laughed when she learned that all clothing worn tears off upon transforming--meaning that you revert back to your human form naked. It is at this point she mentioned that she is the one who provided one of Bu Fang's Golden Pills to Akira, having heard of his semi-permanent My Little Pony form from Iryna (who is in the Network). It seems these two's stories have intertwined more than Akira originally realized.

As Alice told her story, Akira couldn’t help but feel compelled to share some bits of his life as well. Mainly as he felt like it would be sort of a dick move for her to share all of this information about her situation and relationships and basically for him to share nothing in return. As well as being the one to basically save him from being a pony for the rest of life in the aftermath of saving Bu Fang in Castle Batamir. Throughout the days, he gave little tidbits on his life before his exposure to the Contract.

On Day 2 he talked about his parents, where they both met in a UN refugee camp during the early 70’s. His father was a mercenary that fought in the Vietnam War, whilst his mother fled communist Mongolia due to religious persecution. Eventually sailing on boat en-route to America in hopes of a better life, in spite of its immense danger involving pirates and the vast distances. It was so bad that, when his father told him of the story, there were about 40 to 50 people by the time they left. When they arrived in America on shore, only 10 of them were still alive. Despite having limited English skills, and basically arriving to the U.S. with nothing but in their clothes, they feared that the both of them would live in squalor, but they were eventually taken in by a large, but closely knit community in Dallas, Texas. Primarily by a man named Desmond Strauss; a Vietnam veteran. Which, with all of their heart and resources, helped Akira’s parents to get them on track and start a new life. Eventually starting their own successful restaurant business, buying a new house, and eventually, in 1996, had a son named Akira Han.

On the third day, Akira talked about his early childhood. Where the ranger opened up on the various hardships he and parents faced growing up. Due to their ethnicity, he was stereotyped for his eyes and height, and more often than not, got called Chinaman from some racist bum or a student trying to get a rise out of him. The most damning of which was always having the looming feeling that he was treated as somewhat of an outsider, despite being born here. Alice would note the casual tone Akira talks in, like it was just something he was used to. Despite the discrimination and racism, his overall childhood was… peaceful. His parents loved him dearly, the community cared and helped him with whatever he needed, he was doing good in school, and he got immersed in classic southern culture. About his love in Clint Eastwood movies, Johnny Cash, and the overall image of the rugged cowboy.

Another thing that Alice would note was how Akira would talk about the man that took his parents in: Desmond Strauss. Talking about him like he was like another father to him. And he went into detail on how he was the one that helped him and his parents integrate with American Culture, both in a grand and personal sense. Especially in teaching him how to shoot guns, learn the important history of Texas, and talking about his time during Vietnam. But most importantly, was the fact that he stood up for Akira and his parents when they literally had nothing, and when all of those assholes spewed hatred and anger, he fought back just as hard to keep them safe.

However, as time went on, he opened up about how, during the COVID era, his parents had to leave Texas as they received death threats, harassment, and even an attack from an unknown assailant for “spreading the virus” to the population. Fearing that the next attack would be the one that’ll end their lives, his parents begged him to go with them, but Akira was adamant and, in his stubbornness, refused. Seeing as it was a sign to all of the people that hurt him, discriminated against him, and made fun of him that he gave him… that he didn’t deserve to live here. So, he stayed in Texas, whilst his parents moved to upstate Michigan, as they managed to start up a new business and live comfortably. Where he still talks to them when he has the chance. His tone whilst speaking of all this changed from a fond happiness, to a more bitter, confused voice. Almost wondering what he or his parents ever did to deserve any of this hatred.

Afterward all of that, he didn’t really say much. A bit troubled as he basically vented to Alice about his life and apologized to her for dumping his story onto her, feeling ashamed that he let an outburst of emotion when he should’ve been professional. 

"No need to apologize, Akira. We're friends, remember?" Once again, Alice sits on one end of the couch with gloves, mask, and shoes off and legs crossed, leaning back comfortably. Every day that they met, including today, she continues wearing fashionable, expensive clothing. Today it's high-rise white canvas pants, a gray crop top, and a black wrap that hangs loosely over that.

It's the morning of the fifth day, their last day together of this particular endeavor. The hotel room feels familiar now. On the coffee table is a plate of what remains of Akira's continental breakfast and a now empty mug of black coffee. And Alice's reusable water bottle.

“Yeah. Yeah, we are.” Sitting on the other side of the couch. Now wearing some jeans and a crew neck black shirt. For the past five days, his mental state’s doing much better than before. Further cementing the prowess of Alice’s therapeutic abilities, now feeling more and more like his regular self. 

"So, let's get you into the Network then." Alice smiles. "You're a Texas park ranger and a Contractor--and sometimes you join the other Knights on their ... shenanigans. Is there anything else that you do in your free time?" 

When the day came of integrating with the Network, Akira laid out any information that she needed. “Yeah, a national park ranger in the Big Bend National Park. In my free time, I like to watch Clint Eastwood movies, go to the gun range, plant trees, and enjoy the outside. If you’re looking for any major scars to heal, I can provide it for you. It can take a while, but I can heal just about anything from broken limbs, lost fingers, and fatal lacerations. But everytime I use it, it takes a lot outta me… so don’t get hurt too often, heh. And if you need an extra gun or swordsman to protect, you know where to find me.” 

"Nice, my dad loves Clint Eastwood movies." Alice then nods at Akira's offerings, writing them down in a small black leather journal. "That's pretty incredible, I have to say. The thing that people have asked for the most is that kind of healing, including Jason." She pauses and then chuckles. "Both Jasons actually--seems like a Jason curse!" After taking another drink from her water bottle, Alice continues. "I'm sure you'll be in high demand, so consider pacing yourself... and consider getting something out of all of your efforts, okay?" Indeed, Alice charged Akira nothing for her own healing services upfront, only the promise that someday she would call on him for help of some kind and, if he considered the request to be reasonable, he would do so. "I'll keep the protection services in mind, thank you. Is that offer available to everyone in the Network for the right price and in the right situation, or for friends only?" 

“Yeah. Comes in very handy whenever you sever a limb or some lasting nerve damage, but hopefully it never comes to that for any other contractors in the Network, heh.” When talking about Jason, Akira concurred as he took a sip of his iced tea, “Yeah, those two took some nasty beatings when I worked with them, so I’m glad at least one of my abilities mitigates the long wait times and expenses at the hospital.” He continues after Alice encourages him to consider potential awards for his services to the others, “I’ll... keep that in mind.” Now contemplating on the future and his relationship with the contractors. After countless Contracts and assisting in a variety of tasks, he did like the idea of getting compensated for his future services. “It’ll be available to everyone in the Network. I want to help around as best as I can with others, and not just to people I already know. Also, it’ll help me understand and build some friendly relationships with all of the other contractors as well, if they’re also up to it.”

"Got it. Okay, next question. You already shared the circumstances around you accepting your first job--you were in a serious bind and a harbinger made you an offer. But why do you keep accepting the jobs now, when you understand the risks just as much as the payments?"

“Why do I keep accepting it?” Akira takes a moment to answer. Closing his eyes to gather his thoughts and remembering every contract he went on up until this point. His interaction with his fellow contractors, and a good handful that became friends, his life being saved from the harbinger, and the same one who, in many ways, kickstarted his journey and so many others. 

Opening his eyes again to look at Alice. “It’s… because it gave me a way to… I guess you can say prove myself. To prove to everyone that ridiculed me, shamed me and my parents, and the ones that I can do some good in the world. With the environment, my loved ones, and, if I get far enough, help the entire world… the entirety of nature and all to those who inhabit it.” Taking a moment to stop and gather his thoughts once more before continuing. “Who knows. Maybe throughout my journey, I might get killed, either through an unlucky situation, an enemy that got the jump one, another contractor with ulterior motives that wants me gone… or even getting myself killed for my own decisions. But even if I fall… I’m gonna go out on my own terms. Even so, I… I made it this far… I’m going to do everything I can to help out as best as I can. I know I might fail, but hell… I know I must try, right?”

Alice silently looks Akira in the eyes for an awkwardly long moment, her expression pensive, and then she strays from the Network screening script. "You are enough just as you are, Akira. If the people out there can't see your inherent value--apart from what you can do--then that's their fault and their loss." A pause. "If you're really aiming to do good in the world for as long as possible, then be sure to prioritize yourself too. I encourage you to invest in doing what it takes for you to stay alive and well just as much as you're dedicated to helping others... because we are no use to anyone dead. And I encourage you to think about when you'll feel done taking these jobs... because I have a feeling that the longer we go, the harder they get. In other words, think about what point you might be 'enough' ... for yourself." 

Akira sat through the silence and looked away for a bit. Not really used to having these long bouts of not talking. He was about to say something before Alice spoke up, and he promptly listened. Taking in her words and encouraging him to look after himself on these jobs and helping others. Which he appreciated and nodded in response. And most importantly, she was right. Not just with health, but the progressively lethal contracts. Aside from the first one or two contracts he went on, his journey has been a manageably easy one, but taking more and more of these jobs have put Akira on death’s door more times than he was comfortable with. Hell, the last few had him almost dead and/or horribly maimed. 

“I’ll... I’ll try my best.” Clearing his voice and responding to her. Especially with prioritizing his duty to stay alive and, hopefully, gain the power to fight more effectively.

Alice sighs and then looks back at Akira with a slight smile. "And this is why it's not recommended that your therapist also be your friend." 

Akira lowered his head and began to chuckle. “Yeah… but it definitely helps.”

She shakes her head a little before continuing. "Thanks for hearing me out. Okay, next question. What would you say your personal or, like, moral limits are on these jobs? In other words, what lines have you tried hard not to cross--regardless of whether you did or not?" 

Nodding in response to her thanking him for listening to her. When limits came up, Akira answered quickly, “Biggest limits are harming any animal on the job except for self defense, and the other is doing everything I can to not harm a kid. If they’re not related to the job, I won’t lay a finger on them.”

Alice, who was taking notes, looks up when Akira says the disclaimer at the end. "Thank you for sharing. Now for a slightly harder question: what is your biggest regret, like maybe something you did wrong or you didn't do but you now wish you did on one of these jobs?"

“My biggest regret.” Taking the moment to think. It only took him a couple seconds before opening up to Alice, and one regret that, unfortunately, is far too recent. “My biggest regret is not being there to intervene during our trip to Castle Batamir… for not calling the bluff that it wasn’t the real Batamir and taking the charge to end him right there and then. We saved Bu Fang and Iryna’s lizard but because I stayed in Preston’s… dimensional bag because of my injuries, that fake Batamir and his cult members went to Kevin’s house and…. And…“ Stopping right there and taking a breath. “He died because I didn’t take action… that’s my biggest regret.”

Alice closes her eyes as she listens, and her brow furrows a bit. Then she looks at Akira with a mix of sorrow and compassion. "You and Bu carry the guilt of Kevin's death... yet from what little I know, Kevin was a powerful man. I don't know all the details of what happened the day he died, but he somehow took down the fake Count on his way out, and I'm sure that was his final act of love towards his friends. He loved you, and I'm confident he wouldn't want you to live with this guilt. His death... it's an immeasurable loss." She speaks gently from her heart. "It's good and right to grieve." Alice sighs. "At the same time, I see Bu... I see that the guilt is breaking him, poisoning his mind and heart. Maybe he thinks it will make him stronger, but I fear it will actually make him weaker by clouding his judgment. So I'll tell you the same thing I'm planning on telling him: I encourage you to recognize that Kevin Sparkles was not solely a victim to the Brothers of Blood and the actions--or inactions--of his friends. I encourage you to believe in his power and agency--that the fearless, selfless leader of the Knights of Equestria died on his own terms. And when you hear an inner voice accusing you of his death, recognize that that isn't Kevin's voice. I'm confident that he would never want you to bear that ... because he loves you."

All Akira could do from that point on was just look down at his coffee and listen to Alice. Although her words and the affirmation that Kevin died for the noble cause of eliminating the false Batamir and diluted the threat of the cult comforted him, he couldn’t help but think of the variety of situations that could occur because of that, or that another false Batamir could rise up and usurp the position. Leading to the reunion of said cult and continuing wrecking havoc.

That being said, he eventually shook his head to deter those thoughts. Especially when the name of Bu Fang came into play. Alice was right that the guilt that Bu had was breaking him. Seeing him at the funeral, all despondent from their friend’s death, was equally worrying. He was considering the option of calling him after the screening was done to check up on him and see how he’s doing.

The last words that Alice said was enough for the ranger to soothe his future worries and pull him out of a potential depressive state. “Yeah… I just hope wherever he is, he’s enjoying it to the fullest. And hope that his wife and… and Anna are doing fine.” He hadn’t talked to Barbara at all, after the funeral. And his last known knowledge of Anna was with the Werecreature State.

Alice nods. "Barbara is working through the stages of grief. It will take some time. I've committed to doing a house call at least once a week--two to start off. That's why I'm borrowing Kevin’s TORI. I don't like to drive and, uh, as a frog Jason can't drive me around at the moment..." 

“That’s good. TORI always do come in handy with that self-driving feature.” They both take a conversational pause to enjoy their drinks before continuing.

"It’s been invaluable. I also intend on calling Anna regularly when and if she gets a device on her--she left her phone behind when she ran off. If I called, I'm assuming she'd pick up to let me check on her and pass on how she's doing to Barbara because I am, in fact, Anna's therapist." 

Akira takes more solace in the fact that Anna also has Alice as her therapist. “That’s also good. I just hope they’re treating her well. She’s a sweet girl once she got over her fear.” Thinking of the time where he and the others first met her, and the absolute fustercluck that happened throughout. “At least she got you to help her out, too. The people who took her in are okay, but hopefully I get the chance to see her again. She didn’t deserve any of this.” His tone shifted to a slightly more concerned tone. Through the few times he visited her, he always viewed Anna as a sort of niece.

"It's an honor to help the family,” Alice says. “And I agree--she didn't deserve any of it ... I think Anna is looking for her place in life, more than someone usually is at her age. And we'll do our best to support her in her search." 

“Alright. And let me know if you find any more leads on her. Maybe I could help and make sure she’s okay.”

Alice nods. "Someone else is getting involved as well--Daisuke. He's waiting to hear back from the organization that Anna joined, something about helping her do monthly home visits when she's ready. I'll be sure to keep you posted."

“Daisuke? Well… that’s… alright.” Leaving it to rest and nodding to Alice, “Thank you.” 

"Let's get the screening done. Last question: is there anything else you think I should know about you? Tracked by the FBI, someone trying to kill you, or maybe cursed?" She grins. "You know, something that could maybe get people who collaborate with you into trouble?" Technically it's a bit late to ask about the FBI thing, as they have already spent four days together. She did ask Akira to turn off his phone during their first break on the first day, to reduce their trackability (and she had no phone to turn off). She also figured that him helping Mark with the Texas manhunt was a good indicator that his identity was in the clear. Still, the question is relevant for protecting the other members of her Network--at least, the future ones she's planning on adding who Akira won't know personally. 

Once she got to the last question, Akira took less time to answer than the others. As if he was waiting for the time that it popped up, “Well, unfortunately, there is a… group that’s ‘expecting’ me when I get back to the Big Bend.” In which Akira went into detail. Basically summarizing his encounter with the Bigfoot hunting group, and, through his own foolishness and falsely promising them the location of the Bigfoot, now intend to find Akira and force him to unveil the Bigfoot’s true location. “Me, Iryna, and another contractor that was with us, Vergil Arrior, encountered during my time on trying to free the Bigfoot. Luckily, they don’t know about the Network, and they don’t suspect I’m a supernatural. And they don’t have supernatural powers on their own… but they’re heavily armed. And I’m afraid they might do everything they can to track it down. Even though it’s gone.”

After listening to the situation, Alice clarifies: "So, you know where the Bigfoot lives, and a group of armed people want you to deliver on your deal of sharing the information, and they are continuously hunting it? And is the Bigfoot currently free or captured?" 

“Yes, I do know where it lives. And yes, I guess the group are on the lookout for it. It was my fault. I fumbled the situation and thought it was done and over, but I underestimated them. And the Bigfoot is freed, thankfully. I haven’t set in the place where they originally presided.”

"Got it. Do you have any thoughts on how to handle this?" Alice asks gently, trying not to imply anything negative if he didn't have a clue.

“A couple ways… either proving to them that I trekked all around the national park and record the entire day and prove that the Bigfoot isn’t there… or I could just tell them to fuck off and/or write a report… or I can call up some friends and track them to see if they mess up, do anything to suspect they might harm me or do harm to any werecreature, I could have them…” Stopping for a bit before sighing. “I… don’t want to kill them. That’s a last resort. And that leaves a whole ‘nother can of worms if I do that. If any agency or FBI suspects it and gets me, and if they go through and find some way to know who you, Jason, Iryna, and the others who they are, then they…” Stopping for a moment as his voice rose in fear, and then calming down. “I’m sorry, I don’t… have a concrete idea.”

"Let's set that last idea aside for a moment," Alice suggests, making a mental note that Akira is open to murder to protect supernatural (natural?) creatures, even if he doesn't prefer it. "Would it be possible to simply move the Bigfoot to another national park without them knowing? Then they can trek all over Big Bend and never be a threat to it... Also, is what they're doing in any way illegal? That is, can one travel in an armed gang around a national park? And how big is the group?" 

“I could… but there are more bigfoots then just the one I met. The one Bigfoot I encountered that almost ripped my arm off? Turns out she was pregnant and took refuge underground for her kids, and there’s always a possibility of someone else that can see and spread the news and location.” When she got on to the next question of legality, Akira sighed and replied, “Well, they’re big enough to form a Facebook group and ask for more volunteers, and the last I saw there were a handful of them. And for legality? Well, this is Texas. Having a whole armed group of people ain’t out of the ordinary, and even then, hunting is allowed in the Big Bend. Especially during seasons like this, so they would be just viewed as a big hunting party.”

Alice nods. Coming from California, a group of armed men running around a national park sounds illegal, but, as she recently experienced, Texas is a whole different world. "About how much is a 'handful'?" Alice presses. "And does the group seem to have one or a few leaders? And would it be safe to assume that these people are religious?"

“Around 5-10 people. Their leader is this late-aged man with a cap. White beard, hunting clothes and the like. And religion? Shit, it ain’t out of the ordinary… hell, I used to be a catholic when I was younger.”

"Well, going the non-violent route, it sounds to me like they need a change of heart. I know someone who can... let's call it 'evoke overwhelming conviction to become a Pacifist,' but I'm not sure if they can do that with multiple people at once. That could take out a leader or two. Beyond that, the next best thing I can think of is either striking fear in their hearts or some other powerful conviction that what they're doing is wrong. Fear would only work if it was overwhelmingly horrifying, to the point of it even being traumatizing, because these are 'manly men' we're talking about. Social pressures will make it hard for them to admit they're afraid of anything, and, frankly, if they're not afraid enough they may come back more armed to take down their fears. Which leaves just 'conviction.' My understanding is that Christianity is the norm there... so one idea is staging a 'visitation from the Lord' where someone who resembles Jesus, like, with fog and bright lights in the background, basically tells them that what they're doing is wrong--maybe even suggesting that they do the opposite and protect the Bigfoot--and then magically vanishes. The vanishing without a trace would reinforce the idea that it's truly a heavenly vision." 

Akira listened intently at Alice’s suggestion. Letting the scenario play in his head and visualizing the different ways it could end up. It did have some merit to it, seeing as how something similar happened. Placing a bet on finding the bigfoot first and some persuasion of other rangers working allowed Akira, Iryna, and Vergil to essentially gain a head start. 

“Getting them to protect the bigfoot might be good… but I’m afraid they might go collateral if things got dicey and more hunters come for the bigfoot. The scenarios… they’re worth a shot, but I need them to not cause any ecological damage.”

"I don't think ecological damage is much of an issue. If we can get them to protect the Bigfoot, that's, like, ecological preservation--and then they'd be up against other normals hunting it. And the illusion itself shouldn't do any harm to the environment." 

Akira nods before resuming. “If I may ask, who’s this someone who can do all of this?”

Alice sighs. "It definitely wouldn't be a one-person job. Lets see... you would be the one leading them into the trap, since the group expects you to take them straight to it. For the vision, we need someone who is persuasive and who looks like the stereotypical Jesus Christ--or maybe an angel will work better... Either way, someone we can make look supernatural who isn't already famous but who has presence." She pauses for a moment, lost in thought. "Between Bu and Kevin, they somehow temporarily turned Jason into a frog and someone else into a fake Jason--replacing him in the hospital. Do you have any idea how they did that?" In fact, Alice also noticed that Kevin had a completely different appearance at the dinner party compared to his wake, but she didn't want to bring up his death so soon after consoling Akira. She even kissed Kevin on the cheek while he was disguised. If it was an illusion, it was a powerful one. 

“I guess you’re right about that.” Thinking on the idea and doing some nods here and there. Though, his worry still persisted. “No, I don’t got a clue. I haven’t seen anything do like that before.” Akira answers swiftly. The rest of the plan was something he could do with some ease, but completely propping someone into someone else is entirely new to him. “Turning a person into another… and turning Jason into a frog for a whole month.” Repeating those same tidbits of information with a sort of awe in his voice. Cementing the reality of how far these powers could go. “Unfortunately, I don’t really know anyone that fits that description, at least not immediately.” Admitting to Alice of his limited knowledge of anyone that could be cut for the job. Looking down for a moment to think of anyone that matches the idea. Overtly supernatural but not too famous to be illuminated.

"Would you be willing to ask him about it? If you fully explain your situation, he may have other ideas.”

“Yeah, I can explain myself to him.” Confirming to Alice as he took another sip of his coffee. 

“I'm willing to be the angel. Concerning the vanishing part, Barbara told me that Kevin made several charms that allow one to teleport directly into his basement through any doorway. One of those charms is in a box of supernatural items that she's hoping the Knights will eventually sort out. We could borrow it for this.

Regarding the teleportation bracelet, Akira replied, “I think I actually have one of those on my person, a while back when Kevin was still alive.” Also confirming to the doctor that a way out is secured. “Unless we need a second one for both of us to get a quick way out after the effects wear off, if that’s what you mean.” Chuckling as well. 

"You have a home charm? That works perfectly then. We'd need to set up a door somewhere in the wilderness--uh, with as minimal ecological damage as possible--without trekking in and out, so I think both of us being able to leave using the charms would be helpful. Then we'd have a guide, the messengar, and a fast way out. The final part is theatrics that similarly vanish without a trace--fog and lights and maybe even music. I have an acquaintance who's in the film industry; I can give him a call ... But it's probably best to do that after we have my disguise figured out." Alice chuckles. "I'd prefer to not be Illuminated." 

When he heard of her preference of not wanting to be illuminated, the ranger nodded, “I understand that. All of that unneeded attention. Someone like Mark might be good with it, but…. I can’t handle all of that, at least not yet.”

"Mark and Iryna seem to be leveraging it, which has its merits. But for me being Illuminated would complicate my life and several other people's lives. No need for all that," Alice concludes in agreement. “I need to think all of this through a bit more..." Her brow briefly furrows. "Check in with Bu, and I'll call you in, like, a week so that we can keep planning. If you're afraid the group will find Bigfoot any minute, maybe you could buy time by having Sparklesword run around the area once and a while? That could distract them without putting the real wildlife in danger..." 

“Alright, I’ll try to call him as soon as possible. And I’ll have the Sparklesword ready when it’s needed. It is a big park, so I have some time before they really inch in on the true location.” Rubbing his forehead before finishing up the last of his coffee, “But… thanks again. For everything. For fixing my mental state, hearing me out, and… and helping me with this hunter problem. You’re an amazing person.” Giving a small, but genuine smile to her as he continued, “If there’s actually anything you need help with right now, any other problems or concerns, you can let me know now.”

Alice smiles softly. "You're welcome. I haven't solved your hunter problem yet, and I make no promises. But I'm always willing to brainstorm with you and see how I might be able to help, within reason. I know you'd help too if I needed your swordsmanship and expertise with something. As I said before, we're in this together." She turns a few pages back in her notebook, just to double check the list of screening questions. This conversation has been productive and worthwhile and also the most off-track one thus far. "Okay, Akira, you're in! You're the fourth person to join the Network, although I have a long list of people to add. I've, uh, been pretty busy with personal things lately..." She sounds apologetic. "... but I intend on growing this group over time." A pause. "Now I have a few questions about how you'd like to access the Network. Do you want to be 'private' or 'public'? Private means I don't share your name and contact information with anyone. Basically, I'm the middle person who reaches out to you if I find someone who has something you want or know of someone who wants your services. Public means I have your permission to pass your name and contact information on to others within the Network as needed--although aliases and burn numbers are fine."

“Thanks… I guess you’re right. We’re in this together.” Taking one last sip of his coffee before nodding at his integration to the Network, “Alright. That’s good. And don’t sweat it too much, we all got our stuff to deal with and get busy in life.” Reassuring her that he didn’t have a problem with it, also noting the size of the current Network and Alice’s intent on slowly but progressively increase the numbers overtime. When the topic of sharing his number and contact info to the Network comes up, Akira quickly answered, “I guess we can go public. It’s small right now, so might as well give it out and be on standby in case anything bad happens.” Giving her permission to do so.

"Public it is. The Network grows based on referrals, in addition to whoever I meet on the jobs and consider trustworthy. Iryna is already a part of the Network, and I intend on inviting several others who are in our social circles. Is there anyone beyond that who you would recommend I reach out to--like maybe Virgil?"

“Hmmm. Aside from Vergil, I have some people for recommendation. People like Minerva McAlaster, Charlie Blackstone, Preston Astor, and Theodore. They’re all very capable people from the times I’ve seen them. Especially with the latter two with their magical and physical capabilities. Minerva is excellent in terms of her mental capacities, though I haven’t seen much of her powers… and I don’t know if the Network is willing to accept 10-year-olds. Lastly, Charlie Blackstone is also one with good investigative ability and knowledge in werecreatures. Funnily enough, she and Minerva knows of the friendship bracelet and even wanted to join the knights with Kevin until he sadly passed.”

Alice's eyebrows raise at the mention of a ten-year-old Contractor, the youngest she's heard of by far. The fact that children are permitted to participate in such dangerous, damaging jobs--no matter how excellent their mental capacities are--makes her all the more dislike the harbingers. And she would most certainly be inviting Minerva to join the Network, if only to provide support and keep an eye on her. She repeats the list of names twice to commit them to memory, only writing down their initials to protect their identities. In fact, even Akira's answers to the screening questions are written down in discreet, minimal notes that (hopefully) only she can interpret.

"Perhaps it's not too late for them to join the Knights. According to Barbara, he left behind several bracelets... but that's probably for all the Knight to decide." Is Bu the new leader of the Knights, or was the group leaderless? They certainly lacked order and organization. 

The thought of child contractors was a shock to Akira as well. When he got into the Contractor system, he thought it would only be adults that were given these sort of powers. That is, until the second one where he met Sally Mason, who was 14. In his mind, it’s a scary predicament, as they’ll be sent to the same dangerous missions as adults, but now there’s a possibility that, if the worst came and they die, their parents will have to go through the trauma of losing a child. Especially when they’re away to do these types of contracts from uncaring, malicious harbingers. “Yeah… I figured.”

Alice sighs and presses on, in part to shift the conversation away from all of that. "In what ways is Charlie a good investigator?"

“On the contract we met, we were supposed to investigate on trying to find our perpetrator. She and Minerva were able to deduce what had happened and, through research and using her animal senses, was able to track and find that person. She also has a neat little gadget to open up doors and other contraptions, so that helped in opening places and finding info that was restricted behind a lock. And that was all within a day.”

Alice writes a few more notes as she listens. Unfortunately, Charlie's skills are not what she's looking for to work towards discovering the true identity of Violet. But, one thing at a time. "Thank you for sharing, she sounds very talented. I'll reach out to everyone you've recommended when I get a chance. On the other side, though, is there anyone you wouldn't recommend join the Network? And, if so, why?"
 

“Thank you.” Smiling a bit before returning to his resting face. When she asked him of who he didn’t want, he answered in kind, “Hmmm. I don’t really know. The people that I didn’t want to be in the network are all dead. Thankfully, or luckily, all of the people I’ve worked with were competent people. There were some people, a man named Emperor Norton is a little too… how should I say this… kinda odd? Though, I guess that’s ironic when there’s a whole lot of supernatural creatures and otherworldly beings at play.” 

Alice chuckles. "I've worked with Norton. He's very effective at several things, and his heart is in the right place, but there are certain aspects of his personality that make me hesitant to invite him into the Network." Then she adds with a wink, "But, yes, I can say that, as a mental health professional, we're all a bit odd." The less gentle label is insane, she thinks to herself. "I think I have a good idea of what you're willing to offer to the Network, but do you have any ideas of what you'd like to request? Your requests can change over time too--I'll call you confidentially once a month at least see if you want anything new, have anything new to offer, or have someone else to refer--or blacklist." 

“Yeah, I guess we all are.” Nodding in agreement. Adding a small laugh as Alice was hesitant to invite him, “I guess when the possibility of him actually become Emperor is a reality, he might make the Network an actual federal organization.” Shaking his head as he refocused. Akira thought about his requests, and he rubbed his chin in thought before answering, “I don’t think I have any at this time, and hopefully I don’t run into any contractors that might get into the blacklist. I’ll let you know once the call comes.”

At the possibility of Norton really becoming emperor, Alice smiles. "Reminds me of a book titled 'Solutions and Other Problems," implying the complications that would result if that impossibility became a reality. "Okay, I'll check back in next month." She flips back a few more pages again to run down the onboarding list before finally shutting the notebook and setting her pen atop it. "The last part is just a disclaimer, which I don't think will be a problem for you but I want to make sure everyone knows. The disclaimer is that I make no guarantees that everyone in the Network will get along. If problems develop between you and another member, that's not my problem. I screen people for decency and relative sanity--not aligned interests and goals beyond trades. The only issues that become my problem is if someone breaks trust, such as by Illuminating a member without their consent, turning them over to the FBI, or backstabbing on a job. I have zero tolerance for betrayal, and I guarantee that it will end poorly for the traitor. How does all of that sound?" 

Akira listened intently on the disclaimer. The issues were clear: don’t illuminating someone without their consent, do not betray other members, and don’t turn them over to the FBI. He agreed that everyone might not get along. Hell, there’s always a possibility he might not get along with some people that he might meet in the network. Even if he doesn’t get along with the members he might meet, he’ll do his best to put that aside and work with them as best he can. “All of that sounds good, doc.”

"That's everything I hoped we would cover during this hangout--and more," Alice says with a smile. "Maybe when Jason turns back, would you like to come over for a BBQ--like, give us some pointers? Something that's less business and more pleasure." 

“Well, that’s good to know.” Responding to Alice as his screening was complete. “And yeah, I’d love to show you the ropes on some proper cooking.” Chuckling as he was flattered to be the one helping the decker’s out with some Southern cuisine, “I’d enjoy that very much. A nice break from dealing with so much supernatural crap.”

After five days of intense conversation, the two Contractors part ways from the Marriot hotel on the waterfront of Detroit. They started out as provider and patient and as acquaintances; they ended as friends.

Downtime

Silver Flower

The Card

The card is on plain white stock, easily forgotten. It has all the hallmarks of being mass produced off an online template. The typecast is bold, in Times New Roman:

The Association of Certified Specialty Contractors

A.C.S.C.

Recruitment Division

Mr. E. Powelton

Followed by a number, address, email, fax number, and office location in Philadelphia.

Looking up the name reveals a simple, bootstrap website. It has the same language as the card. Seems like a group for General contractors? There are a dozen more like it that come up in the search.

Mr. E Powelton receives a 'call' from Alice. She gets no response. Alice then calls the number using Abbas' newest burn phone.

After a few rings, you will get the following message, delivered in man's deep, resonant voice: "You have reached the Association of Certified Specialty Contractors. Business hours are 9-4 Eastern Time. If you are looking to hire a Certified Contractor, please press ‘1’. If you are a Contractor looking to obtain Certification, please press ‘2’. For all other business, please stay on the line and someone will be with you shortly."

Alice selects nothing.

After a moment, you hear the line switch over to yet another automated message, "Thank you for your interest in the ACSC. All of our associates are busy at this time, but please leave a message with your name, phone number, and the reason for your call and someone will return your call shortly."

Alice shakes her head, smiling slightly. There's a long pause before she speaks. "My name is Allie. I received a business card from one of your members a while ago--a friend and associate. I'd like to learn more about this group before pursuing 'certification' or hiring anyone. You can reach me at ..." Another pause as she looks up the phone's number. "XXX-XXX-XXXX. Please call me back in the next two hours and over the next two days from noon to 2:00 PM EST. I hope to hear from you soon." Her message concludes formally.

 

It's not till the second day at noon that Alice gets a call back.

"ACSC?" Alice answers. No one else would likely be calling this burner phone, especially within the timeframe she had provided. Alice has a West Coast accent, and there's the some dog barking in the background.

"Yes, my name is Ephraim Powelton, representing the ACSC. Would this be Allie?" Again, the voice is slow, deep & resonant - implying a barrel chested man

"It is. Pleasure to make your acquaintance, Mr. Powelton. Hm, where should we begin?"

"In a perfect world we would begin with the name of the associate that directed you to us. However, if you choose not to share that information, we can start with the ‘How can I help you?’ approach." 

"Fair enough. May I call you back in a moment on a confidential line?"

"Certainly."

"Thank you. Now, two days ago at noon when I left my message, did you not have a working phone or computer near you, or is your real name not Ephraim Powelton?"

"Looking to get your questions answered first I see. I do appreciate a bit of moxy, so I'll answer that - I am not in the habit of carrying a phone."

"Nor am I. Talk to you soon." After a moment, Ephraim's phone rings. If it is a smartphone, the caller is somehow saved as "Allie" and the profile picture is dog paw print clip art. 

"Ms. Allie I presume?"

"Sure." She answers cryptically. "To answer your question, Bu Fang referred me."

"Ah - well then, that will save you some roundabout talk regarding laying foundations or putting in sewer lines. How can I help you?"

"Glad to hear it. I have several questions to begin with. For starters, how big is your group, and is the intention of this group to offer Contractor services to other Contractors or also the general public?" On this confidential line, Allie's voice is crystal clear as though she is standing right next to him. The background noise is also gone.

"Membership numbers are confidential, though I can say this organization is in its infancy now. As any Union, there are a number of goals, among them being: Collective Bargaining & even strikes set against the ‘Foreman’ who put on the Jobs, provided they are proven malicious, moderation for inter-Union conflict to achieve peaceful resolution, certification & ongoing training to make certain Union members are representing themselves well in the field, conciliatory prizes in the event ,multiple Union members are sent on a "Highlander" arrangement, as well as a "Widows & Orphan" fund for those who fall along the way. Not to mention the social benefits of Union meetups & the like. A public offering is not currently on the table, however the thought had crossed my mind." 

Allie chuckles. "Went all the way, it seems. And what is the certification process? I'm assuming I need a functioning human identity to apply?"

"Not one bit. It's an in-person affair where we see what a prospective member's capabilities are in a practical application - I'm sure you have seen the Foreman are not terribly picky about who they scrounge up for these Jobs. We want to make sure all our members can represent well, have good situational awareness, perform under pressure, & so on. There is an application fee, as well as Union Dues - membership is of course voluntary, & can be canceled at any time."

"They are definitely not picky," Alice agrees. "Also, I confess, it's nice to come across another group that has a screening process. One more question at the moment: is it possible for me to offer my confidential, highly effective, supernatural mental health services to your members without me formally joining? Obviously I'd need to prove that I can deliver this service. If I can make a mutually beneficial deal with those in charge, my services could become another Union benefit--or I can simply be a referral where individual members would cover their own treatment costs." 

"Referral services to members are always appreciated, provided we can verify such methods are safe, effective, and come with no hidden strings attached. That being said, the real goal is Contractor solidarity, and as such you might consider the benefits of full membership."

"I have a thriving mental health practice on the West Coast, but I'm treating regulars so I've kept the supernatural aspect hidden from them as best I can. Nevertheless, they're leaving positive reviews on Google Maps and Yelp--almost too good, frankly... Unless you yourself or whoever is behind the Union has a mental health challenge, I'd only be willing to provide treatment with an audience if you can find a member who is in need, who is in want of treatment, and who consents to a few onlookers." A pause. "I help people work through compulsions, phobias, delusions--most but not all mental health issues. Some things, like genetic-based ones, are beyond my current skills. The only strings I attach is that my patients pay me what they had agreed ahead of time to pay me, assuming I'm not doing it pro bono." 

"The Association is patently against ‘Pro Bono’ work in general. People should always be paid for their time. Alright, I will take that into consideration, run it by the Board. Did you have any other questions?"

"Of course, thanks for looking into it. Since it seems we're both hard to reach, it would be best if I contacted you at a set time when you'll be sure to have a phone on you. How does two weeks from today at noon sound?" 

"That will do."

"Maybe by the time we coordinate something and I'm at your office in Philadelphia, I'll be open to applying for membership. The benefits are enticing, but I have a lot on my plate at the moment, so I don't mind the delay... Do you have any questions for me, Mr. Powelton?" 

"Not at the moment. I will be of course verifying your identity through Mr. Fang. Since you mentioned another group, I should mention that the Association offers a generous finders fee should a Contractor become certified. Also, we are hoping to have elections for the board next year, so it's a good time to get in on the ground floor."

"Oh, he'd get a finder's fee?" Alice chuckles. "Anyways, as you said, the goal is Contractor solidarity, which can be achieved formally and informally--and some place a high value on privacy. I'd only send my allies your way after I've tried out the Union myself, so let's take it one step at a time. Thank you for answering all of my questions, and talk to you in two weeks." 

"Until then." click

 

A Busy Man

At the exact time Alice specified two weeks later, Ephraim Powelton receives a supernatural phone call. "Mr. Powelton? Hello, this is Allie. How are you today?"

"Ah, hullo Ms. Allie. I am as well as can be expected in these troubling times. Nothing you need be concerned with, however."

"Fair enough. I suppose I could say the same. Did you have a chance to speak with the Board about vetting me as a supernatural mental health care provider?"

"I did. We have a potential volunteer who the rest of us have deemed… ah, in need of such services, and they have agreed to be a test subject. If you can help them, you will be approved for referral."

"Wonderful! I suppose this will be happening at your location in Philadelphia?"

"Whatever method works best for you. The member in question is a founder, and their word won't be questioned."

"Oh, no audience then. If it's alright with them, and they can travel safely, I would prefer they come to me, in Detroit. They can rent a hotel room so that we have privacy. As I don't have an identity currently, it's difficult for me to maintain an office location. If that's complicated though, I can come to them. It's not too long of a drive... What is their name--or alias?" 

"The name is Edgar Stokes." There is a long pause, as if waiting for a reaction. “My understanding is Mr. Stokes is a busy man, and travel at the moment may be difficult. I can run it by him and let you know."

"If multiple people agree that he's in need of my services, this may require multiple day-long sessions. I'm currently in a situation where travel for longer than 24 hours quickly becomes problematic for me. So if he can find the time to travel to me, I'd appreciate it. But if he can't, I'll just make multiple trips. Also, for ease of communication, I can call him myself now that I have his name. Please pass that on too." 

"I will do so. Like I said, he's a busy man, but several on the Board believe a … ah, intervention may be in order. You have our word: you would not be in any personal danger--it isn't that sort of issue. Safer with him than anyone, I'd imagine, Mr. Stokes counts around 30 of these Jobs the Foreman provide to his name."

Thirty? Alice gasps, followed by a pause. "I suppose now is a good time to also pass on that I generally prefer to provide services for those in our line of work with a personal bodyguard, as defending myself from danger has never really been my strong suit. But my guard will be deafened for the entire session, for client privacy, and he is usually invisible. And, as I said during our first chat, some mental health challenges are currently beyond my skills--but I'll do my best. Shall I call you back in three days, at noon again, to continue our planning?"

"A bodyguard? At your pleasure, Ms. Allie. I would simply advise Mr. Stokes of your intentions there. He is… well, I'll let you talk to him yourself and form your own opinion. We can meet whatever schedule you wish."

"Of course! And it's not mandatory, just a personal preference. I'd be just as willing to talk to him myself and cut out the middleman, but I did want to make sure he was okay with that and had some forewarning. Talk to you soon, Mr. Powelton."

"Until then."

 

Ms. Shrink

Several days later, after permission to contact is confirmed and other minor details are discussed, Edgar Stokes receives a phone call at a designated time (set up to ensure he has his phone on him). 

The call picks up to silence...not even breathing.

"Mr. Stokes, this is Allie, the supernatural psychologist..."

"...I know who you are." The voice is deep, resonant, and somehow sepulchral--has a slight lisp.

There is a pause before the professional young woman continues. "I was told it would be easiest if I came to you. Where are you currently located?"

"Right now? I'm also in Philly. Some mess to clean up, and no one else was steppin' to the plate." At the end there, Alice will hear an ultrasonic meep clear as a bell. Well beyond the range of human hearing.

"Understood. When and where would you like to meet with me privately? I know you have a full schedule, but the treatment process could take several days--although it's much faster than the mundane treatment time of several months or years, if ever."

"Yeah… I never had my head shrunk before; that's what yinz do, yeah? ‘Shrinks’?" - prolly the ACSC office then, downtown. It's cozy, has a sports bar next door if'n you wanna catch the game."

There's a smile on Alice’s voice. "Sometimes things grow in the mind that don't belong there. That's the only thing we're going to try to shrink--things in your mind that you don't want, that aren't doing you any good. The office, alright, I can meet you there in ... two days? At any hour you'd prefer?" Thirty. Would Abbas even stand a chance if something went down during a session? And then who would watch over Jason and Violet? "I will come alone." 

"Midday is good for me then, Ms. Shrink--my work is mostly after the dark settles in."

"Sounds good. Assuming our sessions are successful, would you be open to an exchange of services as payment?"

"Course I would. Our kind don't work for free."

Some do. "Excellent. See you soon."

 

Frail

Philadelphia is a city of great beauty and tragic poverty all rolled into one. The office is in the middle ground of such--one step between the slums and the Liberty Bell. It is a balmy Spring day, cicadas can be heard buzzing in the trees...

Alice, in her usual fashionable of black, white, and gray attire--complete with small backpack, fabric gloves, wool cloche hat, and a cloth mask over the lower part of her face--approaches the building. No haunting, invisible ghost archer and no frog accompanies the short, frail young woman. 

As Alice approaches the door, her enhanced sense of smell is nearly overpowered by the scent of raw sewage--happens in the big city from time to time. The office door is unmarked and decidedly humble. So much so you find yourself checking the address again. Still, upon pressing the buzzer the door unlocks, and you are free to enter a small office. Honed Contractor reflexes pick up the following: there is only one exit, the one behind you. There are a few security cameras unobtrusively placed in the corners. There is a single secondhand desk that fills much of the room, which holds an ancient typewriter and an office phone. Standing before the desk is an incredibly ancient, wizened Asian man leaning on a cane. He looks to be at least 90 and is almost impossibly frail. His eyes glitter beneath bushy white eyebrows as he welcomes you to the office. "Ah… Ms. Allie, I presume! Ehehehe… please, take a seat. Would you like some tea?"

"Yes I am--I'll pass this time, but thank you." Alice approaches and offers a hand to shake. "And you are?"

"Ahahah… I am Lao Chi… yes, yes" The old man hobbles to the other side of the desk and carefully lowers himself into the +size chair, "Ehehe… Lao Chi. I am also Edgar Stokes."

Alice takes her seat as Edgar takes his, not at all minding the handshake being declined. Her legs are crossed and she sits with good posture. "Pleasure to meet you in person, Mr. Stokes. How are you doing today?"

"Heh, these old bones… they are wearisome! I am… how do you say… still alive?? Yes, yes… still alive. You are a psychologist, yes? Get into people's minds? Eheheh… such a frail young flower for such a task… hehe." The reedy, heavily accented voice of the man is nothing like what you heard before. 

"Only if they let me," Alice replies with a soft smile. "There is the code of mental health practitioners, and I also have my own code that I follow." Alice glances around at the security cameras before turning back to Edgar. "I'd prefer this not be recorded." Was this his true form or the form before that she had called? Or perhaps he didn't have one any more, like her lack of identity. But, it didn't matter; the mind is the same (to her knowledge). 

"Ah… these?" He springs upward with sudden, surprising agility, tapping a camera with the cane, "All fake! Eheheh… no cameras, but it makes you think there are, eh? Eh?!?" He pulls one open showing it is in fact an empty shell. "Appearances… heh, that is how we fool them you see… the Wise Man questions what his eyes are telling him."

Alice's eyebrows raise at the old man's spryness, but she shakes her head with a smile. Thirty. Still, the mind cannot resist attaching facts and expectations to what is perceived.

"Indeed. So what led your staff to believe you'd benefit from my services--and you to consent to meeting with me today?" 

"Yes… Let the duplicitous knave not be afraid to dine wholly on his enemy, so that he may, after fully consuming his flesh, partake in his wives & concubines in the flesh & likeness… some wisdom; it is not meant to be known, eh? Eh?" The old man cackles and falls back into the chair with a creak. "It may be that reading old books can make one… unstable."

Cannibalism? Alice thought. And he just referenced skin crawling... May we never be enemies. The young woman's professional demeanor doesn't waver. "Depends on the books I suppose--although plenty of other things can cause instability. Anything else that might have led us here, to this moment, regarding your mental health?"

"Other things? There were nightmares, now that you mention it, yes, yes… sleeping in the coffin seems to fix that however, when we do sleep, which is rare at our age, eheheheh… who can say? How many Gods has Edgar Stokes put down with these hands?" The ancient old man looks at his veined, liver spotted hands--for all appearances frail and weak, "Three? Four? The Wise Man knows that Nature abhors a void… does he need to take their place now? Lao Chi cannot say, for Lao Chi does not know--a simple fisherman, Lao Chi, who only wished to be interred with his ancestors." The man is suddenly sad, even mournful, with genuine tears forming in his eyes… "Yet, this was not to be--Edgar Stokes must feed. Is that madness? Can one be MAD in this insane world? The Wise Man does not know… but you do, Ms. Allie… you know a great deal; we can smell it on you." 

Alice remains stonefaced. "I am here to try to help you get free of what you want to be free of--in the realm of the mind, where I have at least a little authority." A pause. "If you 'must feed,' then you must. That is your truth." And quite possibly the truth, she considers. Perhaps Edgar has contracted something similar to vampirism, over the course of his jobs? Hard not to consider it when he sleeps in coffins. Her brow furrows. "Cannibalism is indeed considered by many to be a type of madness, but that's a judgment made by people who collectively redefine sanity and insanity at will. Do you consider this behavior to be problematic for you?" Because if you don't, I have no chance of addressing it with you. "Do you want to see if your truth can be different?" 

"Ahhaha.... truth, that is the problem. Edgar eats the dead, as he must: the issue is the memories that flow with this repast. He recalls who they were--how they lived, how they died. As mentioned, he can wear them like a suit if he wishes… sometimes too well. He believes he is them, and resumes their lives unaware. When he sleeps, he dreams of them being eaten--of being eaten by himself.. .enough to disturb anyone, don't you think?"

"Indeed--very disturbing." Alice means it. Frankly, it continues to take courage to be in this office alone with Edgar. The appearance of the old Chinese man comforted her until she learned that Edgar had skincrawled into the dead (?) man named Lao Chi. 

"How about we start there then, with the nightmares?" Having a rested mind is a foundation to mental health, and there is less debate about whether this issue is problematic in Edgar's eyes. As Alice speaks, a very faint, silver, ethereal halo (the jagged kind, not the circle kind) appears around her head--a shifting supernatural circlet. At the same time, a very visible black ethereal halo appears around Edgar's head, although he would feel nothing. "I was told you are trustworthy, so I will not pursue contractually binding you to a specific payment, other than that you'll agree to what you consider is reasonable once our sessions are done. Do you consent to that?" 

"Oh certainly… hehehe. Quite trustworthy, we all think so. Yes, yes, my silver flower--you shall receive your payment, indeed." The old man seems unconcerned about the glowing halo.

Alice grins at the 'silver flower' comment (and also visibly relaxes). Probably for the best that neither Jason nor Abbas are here... "Let's start at the beginning then. Do you remember when the nightmares began?"

Alice and Edgar discuss the possible origins, impacts, and details of his nightmares for the rest of the day, until the sun goes down. It quickly becomes clear to Alice that there are actually two issues intertwined--a type of imposter syndrome which manifests both in the nightmares and in the daytime, which she had partially witnessed. As the session progresses, her silver halo becomes increasingly visible while Edgar's black one becomes faded. 

The young woman doesn't mind being away from the Crypt the first day, no more than her usual oppressive illness, but the second day she seems even more sleep deprived, pale, and malnourished than before. Nevertheless, her performance as his psychologist doesn't falter. They continue on with the treatment from noon until the evening once more. During that time, Alice eats nothing, only occasionally pulling out a silicone water bottle and drinking. 

The "Lao Chi" persona never abates during this time, seeming for all the world to be a wizened, eccentric elder. However, the use of "we" fades and the tittering laughs become less common, with the whole conversation becoming more coherent. He speaks of alien worlds, of strange lands, forgotten Gods, and literally going to Hell. Even so, for all the horrors he has witnessed and perhaps even embodies, the tales seem true: Edgar Stokes has put down several malicious creatures that thought themselves invincible Gods--several times single-handedly. He has witnessed alien body snatchers that can become anyone, experienced multiple alternate realities, and traveled through time on several occasions. The scale of his experiences are breathtaking, yet are delivered in an almost laconic banter, as if just another day.

Alice listens and gently prods where it seems certain details might have been glossed over that might be relevant to the task at hand. However, unlike her sessions before accepting these jobs, she takes no notes. The information isn’t as important as the process. Technically the lack of notes could be an additional level of protecting client privacy… However, these notes would probably seem like a fiction author pondering their next book topic. The stories Edgar shared were fanciful and insane, and she believes every one of them.

At the end of the second day, several hours after nightfall just like the day before, Alice makes a familiar mental tug on the last lingering bits of darkness around her patient’s mind. Well, the last bits of this specific darkness. There are many aspects of the mind of Edgar Stokes that, as they both recognized early on, could be considered insanity. However, she just as quickly discovered that some things were immovably ingrained in the man’s psyche.

Nevertheless, Alice considers the second and final supernatural tug and snap--like the uprooting of an oppressive weight after digging all around it for hours--a solid win. She sighs as her vibrant halo dissolves. At least she is able to provide a little relief to this man who she now trusts, at a minimum, to deal honestly and kindly with her. So long as she wasn’t dead.

Downtime

One Compassionate Doctor

"Violet, please sit still honey," Alice asks gently, eventually resorting to giving her a bag of animal crackers out of her messenger bag to distract the child from the grabbable medical gear. "Thanks again Dr. Buckworth," she adds. 

Alice (who Terry knows as "Allie" from the dinner party and "Dr. Alice Decker" from their work together involving Jason Valent) wears fashionable clothing all in dark colors: jeans, booties, sweater, and gloves. Her accessories are a Friendship Bracelet with several charms and pearl earrings. After the doctor, mother (with shoulder frog), and daughter entered the hotel room, she removed her face mask (one that covered her nose and mouth this time, not the upper half like when he saw her at the dinner party). Alice Decker is visibly ill--pale skin, looks like she hasn't slept well in weeks, and too thin. However, thus far she has said nothing about her ailments to Terry. 

Terry demonstrates masterful bedside manner during the examination, utilizing some candy, a genuine kindness, and a handful of charms he’s picked up in the past couple decades of working in family health. When he’s finished, he sits back and begins the consultation. He suggests that Violet stay in the room, but will respect Alice’s choices. 

Given Violet's relationship with the demon, Alice 'calls' Terry so that all can remain in the room but Violet cannot hear what is being discussed. This looks like Alice simply looking at Terry and sometimes Violet (motionless and wordless). Yet Terry alone hears her voice through his phone on speaker. 

When the call is made, Alice hears a ribbit from her shoulder.

“Hush. I'll tell you afterwards," Alice immediately answers.

“It seems Violet is sharing her body with another entity. I sensed a profound desire to keep Violet safe, and I understand that this entity has acted to ‘protect’ her in the past. “It’s tempting to call their relationship symbiotic, but that depends on our friend’s discretion. If she were an adult it would be one thing, but children have to test their boundaries. They hurt each others feelings on purpose and on accident. They hit each other. But as upsetting as these conflicts are, they’re a key part of childhood development. If our friend overreacts in one of these situations, someone could get hurt.

You don’t want to endanger other kids, so you keep her away. That’s understandable, but it also robs Violet of the opportunity to grow. She’s smaller and less emotionally developed than I’d expect for a kid her age. And that gap is just going to grow unless you provide ample socialization opportunities. “It’s a difficult situation. However, I think given what you’ve already attempted and the results, you may want to start thinking of how you’re going to live with this situation.

When grown, she will have a responsibility to wrangle her demons, as do we all. Her task is more difficult than our own. She will be challenged. She will be tested. To equip her for her demons, she needs a solid foundation.”

"Thank you, Doctor." Alice's expression is troubled. "Either she wrangles this demon as an adult or ... my husband and I find a way to wrangle this demon for her. But I believe that's a different conversation ... Are you familiar with Casa Verde?"

“I’ve heard of it. It may be the best option for her. If I may, my own daughter, Ellen, is a non-verbal autistic person. Raising her has been a challenge, and she is also a danger to people around her, though to a lesser degree. You may be facing a demon you can’t wrangle, no matter how much you want to do so. And if you or others perish facing this demon, where does that leave her? What guilt will that saddle her with? She will learn. You can’t keep a secret from her forever. In the end, you face a difficult choice, isolation, which is a tragedy, or socialization with kids her age, which bears a risk of tragedy.”

"Yes..." Alice looks over at Violet. The little girl is seated in the middle of the bed and performing a checkup on her bear plushie, Scratch. "I understood from the beginning that we are out of our league here. Jason and I were right to remove her from a situation of absolute poverty and total isolation--but ... our lifestyle ... Violet deserves all that is good in the world. And the longer we keep her, the harder it's going to be on all of us ... We have to decide ..." 

The frog just looks back and forth at the two adults, knowing there's a conversation he should be a part of going on between them.

Noticing the frog's glances, Alice adds with a sigh, "Let's speak freely now." Terry's call with her ends.

“Alice, I think a lot of parents feel like they’re in a situation that’s out of their league. “That said, you aren’t looking very well yourself. Would you mind if I also gave you a check up while I’m here?” 

"I'm cursed, and it makes me ill," the woman explains. "My husband is cursed in the same way..." She gently scoops up the frog and sets it down on the desk. "But... sure."

The frog looks at Terry and ribbits, as if that explained everything.

“Well, want me to see if I can cure yours? And, uh, your husband’s? I will admit, I’m not a veterinarian…”

"I doubt it'll be that easy but certainly." Alice gently pets the head of the frog with a finger. "Actually, he should be back to being human any day now--this isn't the curse--this was, uh, something else..."

“Well, thanks for making an effort to be here for your daughter’s checkup.”

Violet calmly gnaws on an animal cracker, watching with curious eyes.

“Would you like privacy for your checkup, Alice?”

Violet feels a hand tap her shoulder and sees a bag of gummy worms next to her when she turns her head. Her eyes beam in excitement. She seems very unphased by the manifestation of snacks and tries with gusto to open up the bag. Turning it upside down and pulling on the sides, the revelation becomes clear that... she isn't sure how to open it…

Alice could almost hear Abbas sigh, though she's pretty sure that was her imagination. Abbas doesn't sigh. She glances at what's happening between the invisible Abbas and the visible Violet and shakes her head disapprovingly. "Yes..." Seeming to speak to Violet, Alice answers, "I would like some privacy actually. Let's … I suppose the bathroom would be the easiest option. We'll just leave the door open so that I can hear if Violet needs anything." She moves into the bathroom, leaving Jason on the desk. 

Terry nods and will proceed with the examination. For Alice's consultation, he speaks quietly. "You are afflicted with an unusual disease that ties you to a certain location. Unless you return to and remain in that location or cure the disease, you will die. Would you like me to try and treat it?"

Alice nods, her expression (professionally) neutral. "Yes."

Terry nods and takes Alice's hands in his own. He looks her directly in the eyes. "This disease is not who you are."

"It isn't." It's hard for her to say the words. The curse shaped her life so dramatically for five months that felt like a lifetime. She looks away from him at first but then brings herself to stare back into the soul of the compassionate doctor--a look of fear breaking through the false neutrality. 

"Close your eyes and breathe deeply." Terry instructs. He slides a caring, healing hand from Alice's temples, down her neck, her shoulders, and arms, ending in the palms of her hands.

Alice does as he says. Breathing deeply is difficult as two quiet tears roll down her cheeks, but she does the best she can to do what she so often has instructed others to do. Alice suddenly opens her eyes and wipes them clear. She sighs, as having the answer is the source of much relief. "I appreciate you trying, Terry." She looks slightly healthier, like she just woke up from a long, deep rest, but it's clear by her palor and thinness that the supernatural illness remains. "Don't worry," she smiles softly, trying to reassure the both of them. "We'll figure this out."

“I’m sorry, but it appears to be beyond my abilities. But I have a radical treatment option you may want to consider. You ever see a dog with fleas die? Pretty much the second that dog’s heart stops beating, the fleas all go jumping off.   possess the power to restore life to those who succumb to their injuries. I don’t know about this friend of Violet’s, nor your curse, but some more metaphysical illnesses are tied to a patient’s life force. It is a radical option… one I’d prefer not to use. But consider it.” 

Alice shifts from surprise to mild amusement. She wipes her eyes clear one final time. Whispering, knowing the question would upset both adults in the other room, "Did you just gently offer to kill and then resurrect me?"

“Yes. Well, oh I most certainly can’t do the killing. You’ll need to find someone else to do that. Do no harm after all.”

"Uh huh..." Alice crosses her arms and leans back a bit on the bathroom counter. She's intrigued (and still whispering). "What's your success rate on revival? And how many times have you done it before?"

“Thankfully I haven’t had the need to exercise that particular ability very often, but I have never failed. Far as I can tell, I’m the best there is. Look, it’s an extraordinary option, but it is an option. Don’t feel pressured to do anything you’re uncomfortable with.”

"Ribbit." In the bathroom doorway is the frog sitting there, glaring daggers at the two in the bathroom. He slowly hops into the room and then jumps onto the closed toilet seat. Continuing the death glare, he looks at Terry. "Ribbit." The frog turns to Alice, who is still leaning against the sink. The glare softens a bit. "Ribbit."

Abbas stops stealthing, and what appears right in front of Terry is an older, tanned gentleman, the outside of his clothes a dark gray/maroon color, about 6" 3’, with a face mask over his face, different eye color contacts, and a cap over his head. He gently picks up the frog while whispering, "It’s her choice at this point... I know, I don't trust it too but... the curse is deadly and you know it. If there’s even a chance..." pulling him out of the restroom he continues to talk. "Also it’s kinda weird joining them in the restroom. Even I have my manners."

Alice looks down at the intruding frog and then at the suddenly visible, formerly unintroduced, intruding Abbas. She appears and sounds mildly annoyed. "Maintaining the illusion of privacy would have been nice..." she says to them as Abbas leaves with the amphibian in hand. "Thank you." The bathroom door handle glows silver, as do her eyes, and the door gently shuts behind them. 

Terry looks surprised but recovers quickly when he sees that Alice knows who this person is. “Who you involve in your medical consultations is your decision,” he says.

 

The frog wiggles in Abbas's hands and tries to bite him. "Ribbit!"

"C’mon, Jason. Privacy,” Abbas answers as he opens the candy snack bag for Violet and pulls out a gummy worm snack for Jason. Then he moves the gummy worm away. "Actually, can you eat gummies as a frog?"

"RIBBIT!" as he goes to bite Abbas's finger instead of the gummy. The frog is clearly not happy at the current situation.

Abbas looks at the pitiful frog and shakes his head.

 

Returning to the conversation in the cozy hotel bathroom: "They are deeply invested in my health and well-being, but, as you said, the choice is mine. And I haven't agreed to anything yet--nor will I until I have some more details." Alice tucks some of her short black hair, an undercut bob, out of her eyes and back into place behind her ear. Her arms stay uncrossed. "Do you happen to know if you can revive a person at any point after their death, or is there a time limit? And can you purge the body of poison?" 

"Were we to do it, I would have to revive you very soon after death, probably within a minute. And yes, I can purge the body of poison."

There is a long, quiet pause as one compassionate doctor looks back at the other. "So, two things. First, do you think you might be able to revive something other than a human? I'd prefer to confirm your abilities before making my decision. Second, I want you to understand right now that if we attempt this and something goes horribly wrong, leaving me dead or worse, then there is one person in this room who might immediately attempt to kill you. And another person who, as soon as he is able, will absolutely attempt to kill you--no matter what I say to him beforehand."

 

"Sounds like you and Violet keep the same sort of company." Terry takes off his glasses and rubs the bridge of his nose. "Alice, do you know how much death I've seen. How many patients I've tried my darndest to save, but just couldn't? This is the field I'm in. At the end of the day, if we did this procedure, it would be your choice. I suggest you try to impress that fact upon your friends. Now if you want a demonstration, that can be arranged. Animals work fine. It feels cruel, but I understand the need for proof."

 

Violet continues to pull at the bag of gummy worms, visibly upset at her imaginary projection of whoever had designed it to be so difficult to open.

"Violet, here, let Uncle open it for you" Abbas places his (visible) hands out in a offering gesture

She looks up at Abbas with an expression that must've been similar to Jesus' apostles when he was resurrected. She wordlessly yet excitedly holds the bag outstretched for him to take.

Abbas takes it, and shows to her how to open it step by step, opening the bag for her. "You can take this flap right here, and pull it while you grab this other side too.”

 

Another long pause. This time Alice's eyes are closed and she presses on her temple with a gloved hand, stressed. Finally: "Let me talk to him."

Alice steps out of the bathroom and into the hotel room, leaving the door open. First, she carefully takes the pissed off frog from Abbas. Holding him up to her at eye-level, she talks to Jason softly. "Between the two of us, I'm disposa--well, replaceable. If Dr. Buckworth really can revive things, I should be the experiment, not you. This is what I'm choosing." 

The frog shakes his stubby head. "Ribbit"

Violet watches like a dad watching the Super Bowl, totally engrossed in this process. When the bag splits open, she beams and silently claps in elation. She looks up at Alice and points to Abbas and the bag.

"Look, look!"

"Good job, honey!" Alice praises automatically--not even noting what is actually going on--before moving herself and the frog to the front door in the short hallway, close to the open bathroom, for at least some visual privacy.

Sitting down with her back to the door, the ‘princess’ continues to converse with her frog--although the conversation seems rather one-sided. "To explore this option, either you or me, dear." She says 'dear' genuinely, not sarcastically like when her 'husband' endlessly teased her as a human. "I know you want it to be you, but if things go horribly wrong, there's not another you to step up. So if I try this out and it doesn't go well, do you promise not to harm Dr. Buckworth? He's just doing the best he can..." 

Jason takes a hop forward, "ribbit," then looks up at his wife. "Riiibbiiittt".

Alice purses her lips and closes her eyes, finally asking the question she realized when she heard Terry's extremely gentle retort about her friends. "... Do you want to be the test subject?"

"Rrrriibbbiiittt!"

Alice sighs. "Fine. But I don't like it as much as you don't like it--and don't you dare tell me we never compromise on things." With that, sets the frog on her shoulder, a familiar place for both of them at this point, and gets up. Poking her head into the bathroom, looking mildly annoyed again, she tells the doctor, "Thank you for waiting, Dr. Buckworth. My husband, Jason, has consented to the experiment--assuming the test run goes well."

Then Alice walks over to Violet, where she can smell and sense the heartrate of Abbas in this small room. She should have rented a larger suite, but she didn't want to borrow too much from Abbas. (Having made a massive loan to Jason Valent last month and still awaiting repayment, Alice is now running short on her own funds). "Abbas, can you, um, go poking around in the bushes outside and bring us, like, the biggest bug you can find?"

Abbas' heartbeat vanishes outside the room for a moment. Several minutes later, Abbas places the moth into Alice's hand. "Go wild."

Alice looks at the absolutely massive moth crawling up Abbas' face mask with raised eyebrows. Then she accepts the insect; it barely fits in her hands. "Let's do it out here, Doctor. More space for everyone to watch." She and her frog move over to the desk, as does the currently visible Abbas. "... Are we ready?" 

The moment Alice says that, Abbas just nopes out of existence and vanishes. Though with her hearing, she can tell Abbas did join them behind said desk 

Violent noms a gummy bear and sits back, legs extended on the bed. She clutches the bag to her chest as if it were an ancient highly sought after text, and she was being robbed by a very enthusiastic historian.

“Ready, Freddy. Go ahead and do the moth in however you’d like.”

Alice gently pins the gigantic moth down to the desk with one hand. It tries to flutter and wiggle, a fruitless attempt to avoid its fate. She takes in the insect's details for a moment--the pattern on the wing tips and the fuzzy antennae. How the hell did Abbas find one of largest moths in the world, native to Asia, in the city streets of Detroit? Why couldn't he come back with a cockroach or something?! Alice swallows. Terry's going to bring it back. It'll be fine. But Terry's earlier statement of doing no harm resonated with her own convictions.

After a long, suspenseful pause of Alice just looking down at this helpless insect, struggling internally between her compassion and her calculatedness, she finally says quietly, "Um, Abbas, can you deal with this? I need to, like, step outside..." As she speaks, she moves the frog with her free hand from her shoulder to the table.

"..." Abbas breaks stealth again and looks at the little bugger. Moths, annoying creatures, especially one this big. Abbas takes out an arrow and starts off strategically. Wings off. This will stop it from flying away. Next, one simple stab to its head. If the doctor speaks true, then they should be able to restore this injury. The wingless moth struggles in Abbas' hand before he stabs its head with his arrow, crushing its head in the process. A little moth blood goes onto his face that he easily wipes away before looking at the doctor.

The door to the room clicks shut as Abbas begins his work. Once Alice has returned, Terry will turn to the moth. He holds his hand over the creature, mostly concealing it from view. A teal glow emanates from beneath his palm.

The moth’s wings shift, rearranging themselves along the creature’s body. Then they flap. Then flutter. Terry withdraws his hand, and the moth stands, alive, cleaning its antennae as if nothing happened. “Poor thing,” he says.

Alice sighs in relief. Looking down at the frog that sits on the desk, about six inches away from the massive moth. "What do you think, Jason? Do you still want to give this a try?"

Looking up at her, Jason answers, "Ribbbbbet." 

“I feel like we should maybe consult a mystic. You know, a real one, to get some idea whether or not this might help your situation. It’s pretty drastic for ‘try it out and see if it works.’” 

The moth flutters, chittering and swinging its little legs in a mix of fear and confusion over its antennae. It had... had it really just? This experience... How many creatures have returned from the veil? The underworld? Death? The creature tested its wings with a little flap... And seconds later, it took flight! Straight lines, turns, spins, circles. Over and around Terry's hand, encircling Alice, steering clear of Jason, and hovering over Violet. It was alive... It was ALI-

Violet reaches up with a clumsy but quick hand and snatches the moth by one of its wings. Only Alice, with her subsonic hearing, could make out the: SQEEAK SQUEAA-

The little girl chomps down on the critter; the moth goes silent. A satisfied squeal escapes from Violet as her other hand lifts to stuff the rest of it into her mouth. The chewing sounds are a mix of crunchy and gooey.

"Do you have someone in mind because if not I--" Alice's gaze follows the beautiful insect's flight across the room. "Violet, NO--!" And then she's leaning back on the desk, eyes shut, brow furrowed, gloved hand pressing on her temple again. The cursed mother simply sighs, wishing her 'husband' could be the one to explain why this is totally normal behavior for their paranormal three-year-old daughter. 

After a moment, Alice provides no additional explanation (hoping that her earlier comment about rescuing Violet from poverty would suffice). She opens her eyes and turns to Terry, hands now down on the desk that she's half sitting on. "... There is someone I was going to reach out to regarding Violet's friend after her checkup, someone by the name of 'Amy' who I met at Chef Fang's dinner party. She seemed interested in both our curse and the dem--friend. But, beyond her interest, I have no idea if she could be considered a 'mystic'. We've done some digging ourselves, of course, but none of us have expertise in the supernatural. Is there anyone that you'd recommend?"

“No. I don’t know anyone like that. Amy isn’t all sunshine and roses either. You know she specializes in blood manipulation. And I think she might be possessed herself.”

"Oh, you know her? I noticed the smell of blood on her but hadn't yet figured out why... What is blood manipulation, and what makes you think she's possessed?" 

“We were on a job together. She had a way of extending a spike of blood from her body to use as a spear. And then her eyes changed at one point and, well, she just seemed different. I haven’t seen her do anything terrible, but our objective on that job was to save everyone. We weren’t really tested in that way that day.”

"Understood. Thank you for the information. I'll see if I can get in touch with her..." Alice moves towards the bathroom, not wanting to make a silent call that involves no one in the room in front of them. Then she pauses and turns back to Terry. "If it seems like Jason and I are in a rush, Dr. Buckworth, it's because we are. This curse nearly killed us once already when a job went horribly wrong far away from our recharge location. I'm hesitant to accept future jobs until that--and our daughter's situation--" Her gaze falls onto the frog on the table, and Alice sighs again. "--and my husband's situation is all sorted out. Thanks again for taking the time and offering to help however you can. We really appreciate it." A soft smile before she disappears into the bathroom.

"No problem. I accept most forms of insurance, or if you'd like to pay another way, that's okay. If you're unable, that's okay too. Doing good is its own reward."

Abbas sighs and pays in cash.

 

After a long telepathic explanation about the demon provided to ‘Amy’…

"At the risk of coming off as cold, what is your worry about this creature clinging to your daughter? It seems to protect her, keep her alive. And she seems to become distressed if it's not around. Does it trust you, her new family? Or is this a... tumultuous partnership?"

"Its presence could be a threat to us if we ever chose to discipline Violet or deny her what she wants.” Alice replies. “But, more importantly, its presence is a risk to other kids. If someone, say, pushes or hits her--which children inevitably do as they learn the social limits of their world and how to navigate them--it could manifest and rip off that child's head. Thus, she hasn't had much time with other kids her age, and this isolation will ultimately harm her.”

“And I'd guess that your daughter has very little control over the creature."

"Zero, from what little we've seen."

"Has it communicated to you what it wants? Beyond, well, trying to keep the little girl alive."

"It has not."

"Well, that's... annoying. Demons that don't talk to you are the worst."

A pause. "Well, to be fair, I haven't, like, sat my daughter down and tried to chat with her 'friend'. According to Abbas, it said nothing when it re-found Violet. And it's not made an appearance since then. Since we might have to do something... something that is uncomfortable for my daughter to draw it out and given how open it is to violence, I'd prefer we attempt to chat at a time when we're also prepared to use force--that is to say, use force just as it seems to be willing to use force." A sigh. "Here's what I want to know: are there ways to draw it out of Violet, if only for a few seconds, while she is asleep or otherwise unconscious? I don't want this confrontation--however it goes--to traumatize her. And then, if diplomacy doesn't work, how do we trap it so that it cannot easily manifest or kill it or tame it? I have some ideas for taming. I know someone who is, um, let's just say capable of rapidly convicting beings of their violent ways to the point of making them practically pacifists. Killing it sounds risky for both adults and child, given how hard it would be to even hold down--it shifts shapes and can become immaterial--and possibly invisible. And I don't know enough about demonology to even begin to trap or suppress it." 

“I cannot say that my preferred field is demonology, but I can start researching what I can. A full visual description, or even a picture, of what it looks like when it manifests could be very helpful. If by some grace you can get its name, too… I somehow doubt that killing it is going to be the best use of time. I’m sure that we have people who would be capable of doing so, and I could easily protect them while they do it, but then you lose a potentially powerful resource. The creature may be reasoned with if it is not simply programmed. Begin to consider who you might want to take on the demon. It may be a type of inherited curse or spiritual parasite. It might not be able to be removed from your daughter without requiring a new host.”

"I can send you a picture if you give me a few days and an address to mail it to.” Amy provides a P.O. Box to send the images to. “A resource? Perhaps... Killing is never my preference. This creature has been caring for her, in its own way, so I would hope it has some semblance of compassion. And either robotically or intelligently, it has accepted our roles--at least to an extent--in caring for Violet, despite the fact that we could be considered 'kidnappers' who stole her from her 'friend.' Without needing to ask, I know that Jason or I--my husband or I would gladly host the demon if it comes down to that. And, thank you for your help with this, Amy. Violet means the world to us. I'd be inclined to end our chat there, like, to not overstep, but you said you had an interest in curses... how familiar are you with the Crypt?"

“I am not personally familiar with the Crypt, but after looking into the phenomenon, I have a few haunches. It’s an extra-dimensional space that seems to expand near-infinitely, accessible from certain locations in the world. Kind of like… well, kind of like The Backrooms, a popular online community fiction."

[A very long explanation of Alice and Jason's experiences with the Crypt later...]

"From what you’ve shown me, the [location] with the [monsters] seems to be ‘crafted’ in an uncanny facsimile of an actual place. Similarly, the deeper parts of the Crypt seem the same. I suspect that there may be an entity responsible for the phenomenon… especially since it seems to be a ‘new’ manifestation. There’s not much history on it.” A pause. “I believe that I have a way to pause the symptoms of your curse. Though I cannot claim that it’s a terribly comfortable way to do it.”

"To be fair, nearly dying due to not being in the right location and feeling ill at all times outside of the location is also not terribly comfortable. And presently I'm in a hotel room with a supernatural, powerful doctor who has offered to kill and resurrect one of us to see if that breaks the curse--like, if it's attached to our life force. Also not comfortable." Alice sounds sarcastically dry. "Ah, sorry..." She switches back to a professional, neutral tone. "All that being said, I'm open to hearing your suggestion."

“Don’t apologize. Sarcasm is basically the only way that Contractors can communicate in a healthy way,” Amy laughs, “It, unfortunately, involves killing a person a month to renew the effects of the ritual. Doing it for an extended period of time makes the effects permanent. I have not personally used it, but I know it works,” she says… and you know everything she is saying is true. “Killing yourself then getting revived is likely more comfortable for you, at least morally. But I offer you an option.”

A long pause. "That means we'd be giving Dr. Buckworth regular business, I suppose. How do you know it works? And, other than resurrection, does the ritual have to involve you or others?"

“Ah, Terry. Good guy. I have personally seen the effects. It also allows a person who has done it for long enough to shrug off a killing blow,” truth, “My version of the ritual involves me and the participant. And, I am particularly suited to storing the blood necessary for the ritual. I’m unsure if the good doctor would be able to revive a body that has been completely drained of blood… but to be entirely honest, I’ve never thought about doing it like that. Might be a clever idea. Oh. And a body without a heart. Look, I didn’t say it was pleasant.”

“Once a month, we would need you to drain us completely of blood and remove our hearts to perform a ritual. Terry could also be involved, but he's not necessary--which means you can resurrect us yourself--is that correct?" Alice is so glad this conversation is happening on a confidential line. "Also, would this ritual be of any benefit to you?"

“Terry would need to be involved. I cannot revive someone from the dead nor create a new heart for someone. Not yet, anyway,” she thinks for a moment, “I’m growing my connections. I’ve grown tired of feeling like a stray without a real home. Helping you means that we can help each other in the future. I wish to create a coven of like-minded supernaturals and occultists, where we can research and be safe. Having you and other Contractors as an asset would be much appreciated when the framework is built. I do not ask for payment beyond what is required for the ritual, a human body worth of blood and its heart, still warm. And the promise that you will help me as I have helped you.”

"Jason and Abbas and I were also strays until we found each other--Violet too, I suppose. I'm in the process of creating my own group as well, with much more of a screening process than the Knights of Equestria. A network that prioritizes privacy and confidential communication to support the exchange of goods and services. We don't have to agree or have the same goals to help each other. I have two more questions for you, Amy. First, who invited you to Bu Fang's dinner party?"

“Mark Collins.”

"Thank you. Since the ceremony requires two people and Jason is currently a frog, I guess we’ll have to wait until he de-transforms to do this--which, honestly, should be any day now."

“Very well.”

A long pause. "Also, are you aware that Kevin Sparkles is dead?"

“I am. I didn’t realize that you knew him. I offered to research a way to bring him back from the dead. That kind of ritual needs… well, the kind of payment we get from the higher ups.” 

"To be honest, I barely knew him. Kevin saved Jason's life alongside Bu Fang. Both are practically strangers to me, and they asked for nothing in return. In fact, they proceeded to give us even more help after that--a kind of radical, nearly insane generosity. As a part of that, I'm half-way a member of Kevin's group at this point... which is right where I'd like to stay.

Thank you for honoring Kevin and his family with your services." Another pause. "Right now I'm in need--I don't have much help to offer you or others besides making connections and healing the mind. But I won't always be trapped here; I will have more to give in time. If that's something you're willing to believe, then I would be grateful if you came to Detroit as soon as you can."

“Contractors are investments. But they are good investments. I understand.”

"Thank you."

“We’ll schedule this when the two of you are ready. I hope that Terry really is as good of a doctor as he says he is.”

"I just witnessed him resurrect a bug. Assuming it's the same amount of effort regardless of the creature's size and he's as honest as he appears to be, he can pull this off."

“Alright… I’ll bring my supplies. I have enough blood and a heart to perform the ritual on you once without needing to risk your death. Taken from a cultist on my previous job. That way, we can check if the curse is suspended without killing you."

"... You said you have a way to save that blood and that heart, right--like preserve it?" She harvested a cultist?

“I do,” Amy thinks for a moment, “Oh, the man was killed in self-defense to be clear. Real bastard, trying to sacrifice a teenager, too,” Truth.

Alice sighs. The way she called using her power and Amy's phone as a conduit makes her voice (and sigh) crystal clear, as though they're sitting side by side. "I think you should save it then, for if you'll need to perform the ceremony on us or someone else when we don't have a supernatural doctor present. And, as I said, we don't have to agree to collaborate. But, thank you for the additional details about the man."

 

After about thirty minutes, Alice re-emerges from the bathroom. First, she scoops up Jason from the queen bed (the frog was hop-playing with Violet to pass the time). Turning to Terry: "Thank you so much for waiting. Amy believes she knows of a way to suppress the effects of the curse which, if she performs the blood ritual once a month for several months, could permanently suppress the effects. The ritual would involve death and resurrection. That being said, we could perform two tests in one go and see if that results in the curse being totally gone or at least suppressed. Would you be willing to proceed with this once Jason turns back into a human? It should be any day now…"

“Sure. I can do that.”

"Thank you. So that we're all on the same page, the ritual involves removing the heart and draining the body of blood. At that point, we'd be looking to you, Doctor, to revive Jason..." Alice holds Jason up to look at the amphibian eye to eye. "Are you still willing to be the first test subject?"

“Rrriiiibbbbiiiitt.”

Turning back to Terry: "Jason has consented. I'm sure you haven't been asked this before, but what's the fastest, most painless way to..." She glances over at Violet, who has now acquired a bag of potato chips (which she is again struggling to open). "... put a human to not-so-eternal rest? I'm leaning towards poison, if there is one that's easy enough to obtain and that's sufficiently potent. Although if you can somehow put us under, supernaturally or not, I suppose more straightforward approaches wouldn't matter so long as it doesn't, like, make a mess..." Her brow furrows and she speaks quieter. "I get the feeling Amy would be willing to help with that route, if we asked her." Contractors were indeed insane.

Terry uses a handkerchief to wipe his brow. “It’s a simple matter, really. We just need a location. I have an office we could use after hours. But we might as well rent a small space and set something up makeshift here. Probably more private that way.”

"Simple..." Alice takes in a deep slow breath as she presses a thumb on her temple. Frankly, absolutely nothing in her life feels simple. But it is almost comforting to hear that Terry considers the answer to her question of a clean, easy, relatively painless suicide so easy. She looks in the direction of the invisible Abbas, based on his scent, and then down at the frog. "What do we think about using our apartment?" Nearly two months ago, when an FBI agent busted through their apartment window (and so many things went down in their lives), Alice and Jason abandoned it, sending Abbas in to retrieve only a few small personal items. However, Alice continued to pay for it, including coordinating with the landlord to repair the window. Because a dead body found in a law enforcement vehicle curbside meant that the best thing for them to do was nothing sudden or unusual that might tie them to the crime scene. Yet, not sure if both of their identities had been compromised, their second home felt unsafe. Seven weeks later, Mel still hasn't been interrogated by the FBI, Alice's bank accounts remain functional, and no one has visited the apartment (according to the couple of cameras they set up). Perhaps the space could be of some use again.

“My private practice works fine. And it has medical facilities set up.”

Downtime

Two Months Later

Bu Fang said it would wear off in a month. Two months later, Jason Decker snuggled down on a damp hand towel on a pillow on the edge of the bed, still an amphibian. 

Alice lay on her side, facing him. "Any day now, honey," she said each night, trying to console her nervous, impatient friend and 'husband' as she gently stroked his little head with a finger for a few minutes before bedtime. Limited to only looks, hopping, and ribbeting, Alice began calling Jason the endearing terms with less sarcasm and more sincerity (although he never got another kiss). He probably had a pile of sassy comments stored up, but for now he is at her mercy.

To accommodate for their lack of a guard in the evenings, Alice barricaded the open end of the hallway (where several months earlier they had set up camp) with furniture. She had movers deliver the tall bookshelves, dresser, and several sets of headboards to the museum's backyard. Then, when no one was watching, she moved them in using her increasingly effective telekinesis skills. The barricade was more so that the enemies would have to go to some trouble to get to the sleeping trio, and things on the shelves would knock down in the process, alerting them. Thus far, it only happened once, to which Alice calmly shooed Violet outside and then shot the intruder to pieces. The frog was proud. 

Since Jason was rescued and the evacuation of their nearby apartment, the 'camp' evolved as the situation felt less temporary. The hallway is now set up like a bedroom: a full bed with a foam mattress on a large rug, modern tapestries on the decrepit walls (to prevent dust and decay from falling on them), a lamp, a pump water dispenser, a futon couch (for when Jason turned back), and the barricade. The shelves are filled with books and games and toys for Violet. 

Jason just sits on his towel, enjoying the petting. Any day now she says! Easy for you to say when you're not a frog... "Ribbit" is all Alice hears.

Alice giggles and finally says something she'd been holding back. "You know, this whole thing makes Kevin Sparkles my knight in shining armor and you the damsel in distress." She shakes the Friendship Bracelet in front of him, showing it off for a moment, and then sticking out her tongue. 

Violet is already asleep, snuggled up against Alice's back and snuggling Scratch (who, unbeknownst to her, is a replacement after the original got left behind in a pool of blood on the driver's seat floor of Dallas Smith's vehicle). Not needing to play 'mommy' nor 'wife,' this is a totally relaxed Alice, a side Jason had barely seen until his frog form.

It might not have felt possible that they could spend more time together, but somehow they did over the duration of his 'second curse.' Alice fed Jason, kept him damp with a spray bottle, set up a mildly warmed bowl of water for him to enjoy at camp, and kept him in her messenger bag (even cutting a hole in it so that he could see what was going on in the world) as she ran errands. She also protected him, including telekinetically shoving a cat away when he and Violet were playing in the backyard. When in less populated areas, which took a long Uber ride to get to, as Violet ran free to catch bugs (to eat and for Daddy to eat), Jason rode on her shoulder in the open. Alice had opened up to him when they first got cursed about the things she wanted in life. Now, trapped as a listener, the cursed psychologist shared about her desire for Violet to be safe and happy (with them or with her real family), her desire to be with Jason indefinitely, and her desire to break the curse and do what she had originally set out to do--heal children.

Jason also learned all the little things about his 'wife.' Her deceased mother, her now mentally disabled father, her favorite color, the development of her digestive problems as a child, her favorite music and movies, her college experiences (including a professor who sexually harassed her). And the future plans to retrieve Shadow Killer, remove the demon, and finally go after that traitor. Eventually there wasn't much more for her to say. For the past week, she was instead peacefully quiet. 

The frog turns his head to look at Alice and just glares before “... ribbit…”

She giggles again at his protest and then says simply, "'Night."

When the girls fall asleep, Jason hops from his towel and walks the perimeter before going back to the girls and nestling in for the night. I can still patrol the area anyway, he thinks, before he too falls asleep.

The girls, sleeping soundly, are startled awake by a loud thud next to the bed. As they look around the room, blurry eyed, all they hear from the corner is "owww..." then a brief pause as the blanket is being slowly pulled off of the other side of the bed. "This is awkward..."

"J-jason?" Alice, now sitting up, stops reaching for the handgun on the nightstand and instead turns on the battery-powered lamp while peering over the edge of the bed. As she does, the pulled blanket fully leaves the bed, covering what it should just in time. "JASON!" she declares excitedly, seeing him in human form (albeit with a bruised forehead from colliding with the nightstand on the way down). 

"Mommy?" Violet asks, rubbing her eyes and blinking, waking up much more slowly.

"Not monsters--Daddy's back, honey!" Alice declares as she kisses Violet on the head. 

The girls see Jason rest one arm on the bed as he rubs his head with the other. "Hey Nugget! Miss me?" he says to the sleepy girl with a smile. He then looks at Alice and with a wink. "The Prince is back, baby!" He slowly stands, getting used to having human legs again, blanket wrapped around his waist. "You can have this back when I get some pants… Who wants waffles?"

Alice shakes her head disapprovingly while grinning, her face also slightly reddening, as Violet scampers over her and then launches off of the edge of the bed into Daddy's arms. He barely secures the blanket in time to open his arms and catch her. "Waffles!" the little girl declares in agreement. While her co-parent was a wordless frog, Mommy had severely limited her access to processed foods. Jason receives the biggest, tightest hug Violet can muster. 

"I didn't know your exact size, so there's a couple of pairs of jeans and stuff in the dresser ..." Alice adds, her gaze lingering at his bruise.

Jason returns the embrace. He pulls Violet back to look at her face-to-face. "Maybe we'll get cheeseburgers later, or pizza!" She’s giddy. Then he looks over at the blushing Alice. "Thanks, hun," he says with a grin. He looks back at Violet, "Daddy's gonna get dressed and then we'll get some waffles, ok?" He heads over to the dresser and grabs an outfit of the appropriate size and turns to girls. "No peeking." When the two cover their eyes he gets changed. When he's done, instead of speaking he tosses the blanket at Alice. He chuckles "Man, I got a lot of catching up to do!" He claps his hands together. "Now we get waffles!"

Violet uncovers her eyes--failing to resist peeking--as the bundled up blanket collides with Alice's head. She laughs. "Jason!" Alice protests, partially muffled, as she pulls the blanket off. Her eyes and the blanket glow silver as it balls up in front of her, about to be launched at his head telekinetically.

Jason just stands there, blanket half draped over his head and body. He lets out a laugh that's been stored up for two months. When he finally is able to stop himself he sighs. "I missed this..."

Alice laughs too, sparking more giggles from Violet. "Two whole months of reprieve!" Alice declares as she hops out of bed. Then she rummages through a pile of clothes neatly folded in containers under the bed. At the moment, she's wearing gray sweatpants and a sports bra. "Lemme grab a shirt and then we'll get those damn waffles."

"Vacations over now, babe." He says with a wink. Taking the blanket and placing it back on the bed, he looks at Alice. "You eat bugs for two months and tell me even you wouldn't want some real food."

Alice pulls a workout shirt on as she replies, "Waffles aren't real food, honey." Yup, back to normal indeed.

 

The night after Jason turned back into a frog, in their makeshift bedroom complete with barricade, Jason lays Violet down on one side of the full bed which is shared by the two girls. Alice, still in (a fully covering) sports bra and sweatpants, sits cross-legged on the futon that is currently a couch. A cheap laptop is atop a stool for the family to watch My Little Pony. However, Violet drifted off after only one episode. Getting up early to appease the Daddy's (celebratory) waffle cravings followed by a full day of activities together as a family--for she had deeply missed his human presence--left the little girl exhausted. Alice watches her 'husband' tuck in Violet, complete with setting Scratch beside her. Staring at Jason as he returns to his own bed (currently a couch), the sleepy yet practically glowing woman with messy hair seems lost in thought.

After tucking in his daughter and Scratch and giving her kiss on the forehead, Jason unceremoniously plops down on the futon next to Alice. Exhausted from his first day back in human form he looks over at her. "You have that look on your face like I said something really smart or really stupid."

"Stupid is usually a safe bet, but this time it's neither." As Alice speaks, she looks at the dresser and bookshelves several feet away. Her eyes glow silver as she pulls something small off of a high shelf--Jason's (replacement) wedding ring. The original was probably beside Shadow Killer in some evidence box in Texas. Also glowing silver, the ring floats over to him until he snatches out of the air. "I didn't get this one engraved since that could tie your future identity to your sullied one..." She closes her eyes and her brow furrows. Her voice drops to a whisper. "Frankly, depending on what we do with Violet in the long term, we might not need them."

"We're having that conversation." Jason takes the ring and places it on finger. He then looks up at the ceiling. 

Alice sighs as she watches Jason put on the ring. Hers has been on over the past two months as well. "Also, I'm sure you owe your mom a call..." The comment is relevant. In his parents' eyes, Jason is married and has a young step-daughter. And, depending on how much news they watch and whether they were questioned by the FBI, he's a supernatural criminal at large. Ironically, neither of them own cell phones at the moment. Both lost them during the fallout of the last Contract. And Alice doesn't need one, technically. When she absolutely has to receive a call, she borrows Abbas's burn phone.

"Yeah... maybe give that one a few more days."

"Maybe." Alice sighs again. Then, for the first time ever, she leans on Jason, resting her head on his shoulder. "I haven't contacted Albert for new identities because I don't know if we need them--or who we want to be... or how long we'll have her." Still whispering, her eyes are shut. She's fiddling with her wedding ring.

Jason absently rests his arm around his 'wife' looking over at the sleeping Violet. "She could've been there 10 months or 10 years for all we know. See if Albert can find any missing persons cases that match her. I think it's only fair to find out who she really is and if she has anyone looking for her." He lets out a sigh. "I know if I lost her I wouldn't stop until I found her again, we owe her that much." Jason rests his head on the back of the couch and closes his eyes, exhausted from the days events and the weight of the current conversation. "We can start looking into those schools in the meantime, just in case."

Alice nods. Two identity-less American citizens, beaten down Contractors, tired parents, and friends. It was nice that he could talk back now though. On the topic of friends... "And her 'friend'--what approach do we want to take there? Tame, exterminate, or ignore for now?" Thankfully the demon had been dormant, although over the past two months it sometimes took Alice a lot of Charismatic savvy to navigate parenting Violet without upsetting her too much. Even the most angelic of children could occasionally be little monsters, and this one housed a literal monster.

"We can't ignore it forever. Tame, yes...exterminate, maybe." He lets out another sigh. "How do you even try to negotiate with something like that?" Jason squeezes Alice in a side hug as he gets up from the futon. "Get some sleep, we'll talk about it more tomorrow after some rest. I'm going to get some air before I keep watch." With that he heads out of the room towards the museum's exit. As he leaves, Alice can see the glint of metal peeking from the back of his pajama's waistband.

"Be safe, Jason--come home." Was it a command or a request? 

On the dresser is their 'wedding photo' taken from within the crypt, one of the few things that Alice asked Abbas to swipe for their apartment after they abandoned it. (Physically abandoned it. On paper they were still renters to avoid the creation of any suspicious ties between the broken apartment window and Dallas Smith's body found curbside outside and to test if their Decker identities were still under scrutiny. Nevertheless, after the FBI agent showed up there, Alice didn't consider the space to be safe anymore). The back door quietly clicked shut. Alice sat on the couch for a while longer--looking at the decorated, lived in, yet still undeniably decrepit prison they lived in--before finally going to bed. Somehow she wasn't as worried about Jason as she might have been before their last job, as though the heartfelt goodbyes she had said to him then covered her heart into the future. After all, everyone in her line of work was insane.

Downtime

Dots to Connect

During a 30-hour drive across the country from Detroit to Terry’s medical practice in Idaho, Alice borrows Abbas’s burn phone to check the news. He’ll be spending the weekend at their previously abandoned apartment with Violet; he doesn’t need it. 

The video recorded murder of a werewolf by a supernatural teenager who goes by the handle SilverHeartedWolf online (and who is an Illuminated werewolf) gets Alice’s attention. That same small town in Indiana is a place that she and Mel will never forget. Coincidence? After a restless night asleep in the backseat--using a folded up blanket from their Crypt home and the leg of the awake, alert, and now fully human Jason Decker as a pillow--she checks the news again to discover the mysterious kidnapping of a minor suspect from a police station. Concerned for the child and suspecting that there are dots to connect, Alice begins to do the second best thing she’s good at: calling people.

 

The Kit

Charlie receives a phone call early in the morning, even if her phone is dead or on silent or she has no reception as long as the phone (or a laptop or any other electronic device that sends and receives audio) is in her possession. The caller is somehow saved in her phone as "A Friend" and shows the profile picture of a dog's paw print. 

Alice hears the phone pick up, after calling persistently, to the voice of SilverHeartedWolf, and another grumbling nearby. “Hullo? Who is this?”

The crystal clear voice of a serious adult woman with a West Coast accent--so clear that she could be standing right next to you. "Wolf Girl, this Allie, and I'm calling you on a supernaturally confidential line. It cannot be heard by anyone else around you, even if it's on speaker, and it cannot be recorded. Would you like to see if that's true?"

“No need, but I’ll stop you right there. I literally just got off a job, I don’t need another one right now. The team will do alright without me.”

"I'm not one of them, I'm one of you."

“Huh. Give me just a minute then.” You hear the phone be put down, then something be said to someone else in the room. The phone is then moved somewhere else, and you hear the significantly less sleepy “Wolf Girl” on the line. “I’m listening.”

"I have been on seven jobs and only successfully completed five of them. On one of those jobs, I went to a hospital in Goshen, Indiana. Based on the news and your social media, I'm guessing you took a job very similar to mine." Alice pauses. Anyone else listening to her hears nothing, and if they look at the phone it shows no call is happening--only a dark screen.

“Seven for seven here. And yeah, Goshen, the works. One casualty on each side of that one.”

"Obviously one of you survived, and it's not my business to know which one it is. I'm calling because I want to know about your teammates. Was there another minor in your group?" 

“Yes, the Kit was in our group. Both survived and were in police custody awaiting escort last I saw. I had to bail though, I wish I could’ve stayed.” 

"One of them has been kidnapped, and I'm looking into if I have the power to help. Other than 'the Kit', do you know her name, an alias, or anything else about her?"

“Minerva is her name. I’m not at liberty to share much else of hers unless you tell me why you need this information.”

Minerva McAlaster, the 10-year-old Contractor that Akira had semi-referred to the Network. Alice could stop there, but it might feel more natural if she learned about Minerva from her friend--and there wasn't any real risk for pushing for it. "Wise, Wolf Girl. I'm in the middle of my own mess right now, with a demon-possessed daughter and a curse that ties me to a physical location, at pain of death. But I have powerful friends, and I can make these phone calls to try to help out wherever I can, even total strangers. If I have Minerva's full name or her scent, or if I know exactly what she looks like, then I can try to call her. The same is true of anyone, including the kidnapper. I'm hoping to understand what happened to determine where I might be able to support, whether it's helping to find the missing one or helping the found one through this difficult time, as I'm also a licensed psychologist."

“Many hats, a useful person to know. Minerva McAlaster is her name. I’d offer a scent but Google hasn’t figured that one out yet. Call me if you figure out what is going on.”

"I will most certainly be calling you back, if only to check on how you're doing. But you're in less of a bind than they are. Talk to you later." The call ends. There is no history of there being a call.

 

Trust

Minerva's eyes open slowly, wiggling her nose, as she wakes up on the plane where she fell, the escort from Faraday sitting anxiously next to her. She looks down at her phone as it's buzzing, and she picks it up. She looks at the caller ID before answering it. It shows someone who is, oddly, saved in Minerva's contacts as "A Friend" with the profile picture of a dog paw print. Unusual to get a phone call in the middle of a flight, when her cellphone is on airplane mode and has no reception.

Minerva is still half asleep, and the fact that her phone was in airplane mode and really shouldn't be getting a call doesn't quite occur to her yet. A friend? The dog paw print didn't really surprise her, more than half of her contacts were like that.

"...Hello?" A tired voice says.

The crystal clear voice of a serious adult woman with a West Coast accent--so clear that she could be seated right next to you. "Hello Minerva. Are you safe right now?" 

There's a short pause, as Minerva starts to fully start her mind. She looks around the plane for a moment. This was where she was expected to be, and she knew the escort was honest. "...Yes? Who is this?"

"My name is Allie, I'm one of you, and I called you to see if I can help you and your twin sister."

"...One of us?" She sits up fully. "One of us, what?" The phone thing occurs to her--how was she being called? Was this about a job? But as soon as the sentence completes, she sucks in a breath. "How can you help? Someone kidnapped her."

"I know. I'm not sure how I can help, but this call is evidence that I'm willing to find out. And it's possible that I have a friend or two who would be willing to help too. But first I have a few questions for you that will help me understand the situation better--starting with, why do you go on these jobs?" A brief pause. "Actually... the first thing I should explain is that no one can hear our conversation--it is supernaturally confidential. Although they will see you messing with your phone, so I recommend not holding it up to your ear and turning on speaker." 

Minerva wiggles her nose a bit more. "Okay... and okay..." She nods slightly--not that Allie could see it--as she listens. "Um..." This did feel just a tiny bit 'stranger danger', but.. the young girl listens some. "Okay." She turns on the speaker phone and sets it in her lap, which wasn't too weird for her. "Can you hear me?" She glances over at the escort, to see if they were reacting. If no... "How do you know me?"

"I noticed the news coming from Goshen, Indiana--including the murder of a werewolf, the Silver Wolf Girl's response on social media, and then one of the suspects, a minor, going missing from police custody. So I called Wolf Girl, confirmed that what happened there is what I was suspecting might have happened, and made sure she knew that one of you was in trouble based on the latest news report. And then she shared your name--which is all that I need to call you. Aside from your full name, the fact that you're a minor, and you're one of us, I don't know much about you." The escort does not react to Minerva talking nor the voice of Allie coming through her smartphone. 

Minerva listens a little. "Oh. Charlie." There's a pause, and she wiggles her nose. "...I guess 'one of us' is people who go on these jobs?" She scratches behind an ear. "I... I don't know. I need to." There's a pause. "I guess that's kind of a lame answer. I... life was empty, before. Nothing made me happy. This... these jobs give me a chance to be happy. And I know if I do enough of them I will be."

Alice sighs. This Contractor is 10 years old. Many thoughts and feelings begin to crowd, but she pushes them away. "No answers are lame when they're spoken in truth. Thank you for sharing. I originally went on these jobs to become an undercover mental health healer for children. However, my situation has changed. At the moment, I'm just trying to get a demon out of my adoptive daughter and break a curse on me and my husband--and help my friends."

The young girl wiggles her nose a little as she leans back in her seat a little. "...Maybe?" She's heard people say there's no stupid questions, but she heard lots of stupid questions in school. She thinks this is sorta like that. There are definitely lame answers. She knows Alice believes that, though, so she doesn't comment. Most adults don't like it when they're contradicted. She wiggles her nose some. "An... undercover one?" She raises her eyebrows. "...A demon out of your adoptive daughter, and a curse?" There's a pause. "Your life is interesting." There's another pause, longer. Saying she'd like to be Alice's friend sounds self-serving. But... "If you help me, I can help you? I... I have abilities. You know. The things we get from these jobs..."

"Of course. Before I start asking you more questions, what else would you like to know about me? I'd normally give you my real name and refer you to the website of my mental health practice, but I gave up my identity to my twin and then later got into some trouble with my new identity. So at the moment I have no real name to offer you."

Minerva nods slightly, wiggling her nose some. "Um. Your twin--was she like my twin? A... double?"

"Yes she is. I would appreciate it if you keep that between us, Minerva. She is my sister, and I love her."

nods. "Okay. I know how to keep a secret." She smiles some. "Okay." There's a short pause. "Is she a good person?"

"She is. We respectfully disagree on how to make the world a better place, but on everything else we are aligned. What about yours?"

There's a pause. "...I think so. I think she was just scared and angry when she woke up and did some things, but... I think she's just scared and angry and not a bad person." She nods after. "Are you planning to double cross me at all?"

Another pause. "That's a wise question to consider but odd of you to vocalize. If I was planning to double cross you, would I answer your question honestly? Or are you that confident in your ability to discern truth from lies?" Then a chuckle. "I did say I would answer your questions though--sorry, that one caught me off guard. No, I'm not planning on double crossing you. Even if doing so could remove a demon from its host, break a curse, or get me one step closer to my original goal--I'm just here to see if I can help you in any way." 

Minerva smiles just a little. "Maybe just hearing you say it would be nice. It's nice to hear..." she wiggles her nose a little at the deflection before Alice follows it up. She lets out a breath after hearing those words. "Thank you." She opens her mouth to ask the question she just realized she'd missed before Alice carries on. And Minerva decides that's close enough. "I believe you. I won't double cross you either."

"Thank you." Alice keeps to herself that, presently, Minerva doesn't have much to use for double crossing her--no names, no faces, no contact information or locations. But this wasn't the time to be instructive (and the lopsided amount of information could change in time). "Do you have another question? I'm willing to answer one more before I ask for it to be my turn." 

The young girl pauses, thinking. She thinks on everything she's seen, what she's gotten... and then what Alice has said. "Has it been worth it, for you?"

Alice immediately feels the tension between saying what she wants Minerva to hear, for Minerva's sake, and actually answering the question. Stop. This path nearly always leads to an early death--if not of the body then of the soul. The bodies of the twins on the news. Her 'final goodbyes' to Jason. The recent funeral. Bu Fang's broken mental state. But that wasn't what Minerva asked. And that was only half of the story.

"The answer I give you today might change tomorrow, if someone I love dies or suffers because of me. And my answer is this: sometimes things must be torn down before they can be rebuilt. I have been stripped to the core by these jobs. Now I am rebuilding, and what I'm building--both on my own and with the help of others--isn't what I had expected. It's... much different and much better than I ever could have known--as though, like, the darkness of life became darker... but the light also got much brighter." A pause. "I am finding--or maybe, like, deciding (?) who I am, especially as I look into the eyes of my friends and family--friends and family I have made as a result of these jobs.

However, I don't enjoy teasing death nor putting those I care about in danger. And I've already seen too many deaths--or worse. I intend on solving some of my current problems, completing a few more jobs, and then stopping. Because although it has been worth it for me up to this point, my intention is to take what I want from it and then live my life--like, for myself and for others." 

Minerva nods slightly, and listens in silence as Alice speaks. After she finishes, there's a long pause. "...I understand. I think." She wiggles her nose. "I promised someone I would quit the jobs when I was strong enough. I just don't know when I'll be strong enough." She wiggles her nose some. "I hope it's soon." She had multiple conflicting thoughts... but she couldn't quit going, not now. Not when she was so close. "I hope no one you love dies or suffers because of you." She sat a moment in silence, just thinking. She hadn't been stripped to the core. Not yet. But.. might that happen to her? Or was she already at that point? That sounded self-pitying, but.. she didn't start this as a lark.

"When you are strong enough is for you to decide. I suggest making some trustworthy friends and keeping them close--they will also make you strong."

Minerva is willing to just listen and answer for a little bit; Alice did that for her. "I'll keep that in mind." At the end of this, she did hope Alice would be her friend. "It's your turn now."

"Thank you, Minerva. If I can, I'm open to helping you and I'm open to helping your twin. First, you. Do you have a home to go to--somewhere that you feel safe and aren't alone?"

Minerva nods after the question. "Yes. I do. I'm being taken there now." She felt safe at Faraday, and she definitely wasn't alone. It took her a moment to realize that she did consider Faraday home, rather than just where she was staying. She was happy there. More than she'd been before. Not that there was anything wrong with her place with her parents, intellectually.

"Good, I'm really glad to hear it. Now, please tell me about the kidnapping of your twin--everything you know and are willing to share, if it's not too difficult for you to talk about."

There's a pause, and then, in a quiet voice, Minerva asks "Can I trust you?"

"You can trust that I'm here to help, and I'll only share your story--the necessary parts--with those I trust in order to try to help you and her."

Minerva starts to speak, at the beginning. It felt good to tell someone, rather than just writing it all down in her journal. She tells how she first saw her clone, exactly what happened, how it burnt into her memory. How she tracked her to the police station, not knowing what she'd do when she got there. How she ended up getting arrested and thrown in a cell with her double. How she'd spoken with them, how she learned Mars' name and that she was just scared and angry and not evil. How she'd found out that their dreamscapes were connected.

Eventually, she got to the morning, when Ms. Wumbra came. She describes the pair being sleepy, only half listening. How they took Mars away, and then didn't come back. She describes the woman as well as she can, and the fact that by the time the Faraday escort got here they were gone. How she went into Mars' dreamscape, the other girl was passed out, and the last memories she'd seen. She describes how the other person had been burnt out of the memory. It all comes out in one long story, with the young girl barely stopping to breathe. She's obviously somewhat worked up towards the end, and when she finishes she's just quiet, panting a little. 

Alice then listens quietly, with only the occasional mhm and okay to affirm she's still there and listening. At the end of it, Alice waits for a moment to let the girl rest. When she speaks, her tone still neutral and composed. She continues to say the truth as she knows it. "I'm sorry that you're going through this, Minerva. This is a lot for anyone to have to bear. I just have one or two more questions, and then I'm going to call some of my friends.”

She nods a little. "Okay. As long as you trust them." She starts to speak. 

“Is there anyone you know of or any group that might have wanted to kidnap you before you went on this job?" 

There's a long pause at the end, before Minerva shakes her head. "No... I don't think so. My parents have money, and they were always kinda scared of me being kidnapped? But I don't know of anyone in particular..."

"That's okay; the answer is still helpful. Do you happen to remember where Mars walked when she stepped out of the police station and the type of car that she got into?"

A pause. "And about what time it was when she left the station? I know this is a lot of details--if you don't remember, that's okay."

Minerva nods a little. She still remembers Mars' memories. She describes the car and where it was parked. She can also give about the time... ish...

"Got it. Are there any skills or powers that you both have that I should be aware of that might help us find or rescue her?"

There's another long pause... but she did trust Alice. "...I don't know..." she feels a bit uncomfortable--she hadn't really ever said this out loud. "I can shapeshift. I can... kinda... teleport, a little, if I focus really hard. It's getting easier. I can kinda make things. For a little bit. They're fragile, though. And... um..." her voice drops. "I can tell people to do things, and they'll do them. So... um... It would be really hard for them to hold her when she's awake, I think. ... I trust you..."

"Thank you. I trust you too. And I can communicate confidentially like this, avoid harm from anyone I haven't harmed, heal the mind of some illnesses, identify smells and very small vibrations, and manipulate the world telekinetically." All true. “Here's my last question for now. If my friends and I manage to find Mars, what can we tell her to prove that we're on your side, safe, and only trying to help her?"

This might not be relevant if one of the kidnappers can wipe memories, Alice thinks to herself, but if he can wipe memories then he wouldn't need to get Mars to "lock her out" when she awoke. Wouldn't it be easier to have Minerva entirely forgotten? These people seemed to know a lot about Minerva and Mars though, if that comment was referring to their dreamscapes being connected. And that is one of many things about this situation that concerned Alice.

Why take just the clone when they could have easily taken both? And how did they know that these minor suspects (who's actions didn't go viral like SilverWolfGirl's) are in fact supernaturals? Perhaps they made the same connections Alice did from the first news, but that would mean... they are Contractors? Definitively talented supernaturals who knew exactly what they were doing... The whole thing feels like something big. As per usual. 

Minerva nods, listening to that... and also taking note of “heal the mind of some illnesses.” Honestly, she might need that at some point. But she didn't right now. Right now she needed help in other ways. "That all sounds cool."

She goes quiet at the question of how to prove to Mars that they were on her side. She's obviously thinking, going back over their conversations. What could be said. What had been said. She'd meant it all at the time, believed it all. But there was one thing that had stuck with her, and she was still trying to reconcile. "Tell her she was wrong. That her twin doesn't want to play second fiddle. She wants to play first." She listens to her own words as she says that... and she wasn't sure what to think when she realized that wasn't a lie. She looks down at her lap, wiggling her nose. Oh dear.

"Alright." Alice also notes to share more about her relationship with her own twin, when and if the timing seems right, assuming that's what the message referred to. But not now. "The next step is seeing who might be interested, available, and sufficiently skilled to take this on... Minerva, I'm not making any promises that we'll find Mars. I know that it's hard--risky to have hope... I'll do what I can. And I'll let you know if I have more questions or an update to share, okay?"

The young girl takes a few moments to be drawn out of her thoughts after saying that. She looks down into her hand, and a small sphere of dim light appears. She gingerly plays with it as she thinks. "...I'll find her. I promise you." Truth. Minerva genuinely believed that. She nods a bit after. "Thank you, though, for your help. Okay. Is... your number in my phone now? Or how can I contact you?"

Alice does not comment on the girl's promise. She knows that Minerva will have and already has a lot to work through, whether Mars is found or not. "You're welcome. I cannot presently be contacted, but I can call you so long as you have something that sends and receives audio--a phone, laptop, even, like, Airpods without a phone." A pause. "You're going to have to keep trusting me. And ... maybe someday we'll meet." 

Minerva nods a little. "Okay..." Well, if she found Mars first, she'd just have to go get her herself. That's fine. That's what she was expecting to do anyways. Well. Maybe she'd call Charlie. Charlie was nice. And she'd call- 

She looks down, slumping a little. "...Yeah. Okay."

A long pause. "At the moment, I primarily live in another dimension. Even if I borrowed a friend's burn phone, I'm rarely in places that get reception. But how about I check in with you every couple of hours for the rest of today, just so that we're in touch about any new developments?"

"... another dimension?" The weirdest part was that wasn't a lie. How powerful was Alice? Maybe she was being arrogant, thinking she could be that powerful. Or maybe as long as she kept doing these jobs... maybe she'd be that powerful one day. Being able to travel to other dimensions. "... okay." She lets out a breath. "Thank you. I'm... I'm sure you're busy otherwise--" how could someone as powerful as Alice not be? "--but... thank you for helping. Just... when you can, is good."

"I will. Goodbye for now." The call ends, lingering only for a second before the phone screen goes dark. There is no record of the call in the girl's phone, and no saved contact of "A Friend."

Minerva just stares at the phone for a little bit before letting out a breath. She wasn't tired anymore. She just has to wait until they get back to Faraday now. She starts to draw in the air with light, entertaining herself. She was getting better at it...

 

Quid Pro Quo

Inspector Bluedo receives a phone call, even if his phone is dead, broken, or on silent. The caller is somehow saved in his phone's contact list as "Norton's Friend" with the profile picture of a dog paw print.

Bluedo spies the curious caller ID. He thinks for a moment. "Norton...Ah! Emperor Norton! Must be some contact of his." He answers the phone. "Hello?"

"Hello Inspector Bluedo," a professional young woman's voice greets him. It has a West Coast accent and is unusually crisp and clear, as though she's standing right there. "My name is Allie. I've just now become aware of a kidnapping of a supernatural child in Goshen, Indiana. This child and her twin sister are my friends, and one of the two girls was taken against her will from a local police station by several supernaturals like ourselves. I've been asking around, and Emperor Norton recommended you as a talented investigator. Is this something you'd be willing to help me with?"

"A kidnapping you say? And on recommendation from the Emperor of the United States?! It sounds like a case! I would be happy to help!"

"Thank you! Where are you currently located, and what specific skills do you bring to this endeavor?"

"I am currently at my office in Los Angeles, California. Aside from being a top investigator, I bring skills in tracking, some light stealth, a smidge of self defense, a touch of healing, and a strange new thing where I can move things from a distance. What about you, Miss Allie? Quid pro quo, you seem to know quite a bit about me, yet I know almost nothing about you."

"Of course, Inspector." As though she expected that. "I'm located in a haunted building in Detroit--a curse keeps me here almost always. In terms of my own abilities, I similarly can move things from a distance--telekinesis--and I pretty well avoid harm from those I haven't harmed. I can also 'call' people I've never met based on knowing what they look like, what they smell like, their name, or their alias. These calls are confidential on both ends, such that no one can hear us and there's no record aside from our memories. I'm also a mundane and supernatural psychologist; I can heal the mind of most maladies rapidly. Oh, I am quite good at discerning scents."

"Fascinating" said Bluedo as he took notes on a notepad. "So, if I wanted to reach you in the future, would the number you called from work, or would I require a separate set of contact info?"

"I cannot be reached, actually. I have no identity at the moment, I have no cell phone, and I spend most of my time in another dimension--the cursed location is like a pocket dimension. However, I will be in touch with you and the rest of the team for this mission until you connect with each other."

Bluedo then proceeds to ask Alice a ton of questions to better understand the case, including Alice's connection to the kidnapped minor.

 

Probably Stronger

Alice and Theo discuss Theo’s recent struggles with vampirism, resulting in Alice suggesting he see Dr. Buckworth…

"Yeah, he's the guy who figured out what happened to me, we went on a job together recently"

"I guess that means he couldn't cure it?"

"That's what he said."

"Then it sounds like it may be a curse. But I'm not the expert. Did you happen to meet a woman wearing dark red named Amy at the dinner party?"

"I... think I remember seeing her, but we didn't really talk."

"She seems quite well versed in the Occult, especially curses. In fact, Jason and I are on our way to meet with her to see if a ritual that she'll be guiding us through will reduce the effects of our curse. I don't have a history with her, but it seems that she's friends with Mark Collins and Dr. Buckworth is also acquainted with her. I recommend giving Amy a call. In fact, assuming the ritual goes well, then I can call you back and speak to the quality of her services. And if it doesn't ... I suspect you can ask Dr. Buckworth or Mark Collins for her contact information. I confess that I don't have it--I don't need it to make calls..."

"Thanks Alice. I'll do some more research on the vamps that did this to me in the meantime, see if I can turn up anything that'll help, I hope you and Jason get through this ritual thing fine."

"Thank you, Theo. So do we. In the meantime though, something new has come to my attention. Did you hear about the kidnapping of a minor in Goshen, Indiana, just a day after that werewolf killing by a girl went viral?"

"I caught a bit of it, haven't been keeping up with the situation though."

"The minor kidnapped was a young girl who does jobs just like us--she's completed at least seven of them. Based on the details of the kidnapping that I learned from her twin sister, who was there when it happened and who wasn't taken against her will, it sounds like Contractors kidnapped the other girl. Which even more so makes this feel like my problem--well... a bigger problem."

"Damn. What could they want with her, though? Any idea if this was a job they were on, or if this was more personal business?"

"The girl who is safe let me know that she knows of no one plotting against her. The level of precision and intentionality though--a woman walked straight into the police station pretending to be from her boarding school, opened the jail cell, walked away with the girl, shoved her into a car, and drove off. The servers of the police stations were wiped for the past week, the evidence was stolen, and the kidnapped girl's memory of the man who knocked her out in the vehicle when she realized something was up was wiped." Alice sighs. "Like... that's a lot of power in one go. Like, most jobs don't even go that smoothly."

"Fuck. So whoever they are, they're at least on our tier, probably stronger. I've only met a few people who could pull off something of that scale, and they're pretty specialized. Best case scenario, these people were lucky enough to have the exact abilities needed for the situation, and burned through their reserves to get it done fast, worst case, these people were either hand picked or are just so much stronger than us that doing something like this doesn't even faze them. Yeah, that's pretty concerning."

"Agreed, And now a young girl who went on these jobs to get fun powers is indefinitely in their care--whoever 'they' are. I don't like this at all. I can't look into this situation myself, but I'm checking around to see if anyone I know has the interest, capacity, and skills. I just confirmed that someone by the name of Inspector Bluedo--an actual detective who is one of us--is willing to look into this issue. Given that kidnapping trails grow cold very quickly, is this something that you'd like to look into? No pressure Theo, it seems I'm always signing you up for trouble… And I have no idea what it might lead to. My end goal is to rescue Mars. But I'm afraid of what else we might find in the process."

"I'll probably need to focus on the vampirism thing, but I'll give it a shot. I doubt there'll be anything like a scent trail left, but I'm pretty good at normal investigation. Could you arrange for me to meet up with this Bluedo guy?"

"Thank you. Yes, for now it's safe to say you should get to Goshen, Indiana, as quickly as you can. I'm still building out the team, so to speak. I'm planning on contacting a skilled hacker next; they may have wiped the servers, but they probably didn't touch the street cameras which could tell us where the car went. And Inspector Bluedo said he's good at tracking--I'm not sure if that means scent trails or something else. Best to probably ask for the details when you see him. Besides a hacker... is there anyone else you think might be well suited for this--and willing and able?"

"Not that I can get into contact with. Could you mention to them my, uh, temporary special dietary needs?"

"Of course. And you know that getting into contact with people is my specialty..." Theo can hear her smiling. "Wait, will you need a donation--is that what you're saying?"

"I've managed to avoid killing anyone so far, but I can't exactly walk into a blood bank and ask for a blood pack, y'know? … Let's see, thinking on it, my buddy Oz could probably come in handy? I've seen him hack into a hospital database once"

"Oh, Mr. Osikawa. Okay, shall I reach out to him or you?"

"Probably best you do it, since you have all the others’ contact information. I wouldn't know if there's anyone else you've picked up he doesn't get along with or something"

"Fair enough. I made no promises to the girl that we'd find her sister. I only said we'd try. So thank you for trying--it means a lot to me."

 

Someone Capable

The talented hacker who Alice knows as Albert receives a call even if his phone is dead, broken, or on silent. The caller is somehow saved in his phone as "Alice Decker" with the profile picture of Alice, her face no longer bruised and her edgy colored undercut maintained. It's been at least two months (in Alice's timeline) since they last spoke as the escapee headed northeast in a tow truck to her Crypt home--their conversation concluding with her gratitude as well as a deserved, heartfelt scolding and a dire warning to avoid consuming fluoride in the Detroit tap water.

The voice on the other side is… manic to say the least. Albert is wearing a full NBC [Nuclear Biological and Chemical] suit and it does not look... washed. A concern that continues as he begins with his characteristic mad rambling: "The ghouls! They bring with them the end of days. Plagues sent from the moon to cleanse the Earth; the mark of the beast wasn't ever really for- oh. Wait. This thing is always on speaker. Alice. What do you need?"

"Hey Albert. Troubling times, huh? Supernatural pandemics, alien assaults, and, like, shadow governments aside, how are you doing?"

"I am troubled as always, but the filters in my air vents and my predisposition towards avoiding contact with those contaminated by chemtrails seems to have spared me from the virus that ravages our world. Are you and the others uncontaminated?"

"Yeah, I mean, we're still cursed and all but we're not afflicted with this new ghoul plague. I have to say though, as a mental health practitioner this issue is very troubling. But, that's not something I have the capacity to look into right now." Alice sighs. "Have you heard about the latest news in Goshen, Indiana--the werewolf getting killed by that girl and then the kidnapping of a minor suspect this morning?"

"The second time I've heard of a terrible issue in Goshen. The last time it involved that old movie star Icarus Lockhart. What happened this time with the werewolf and the little girl? Sounds like terrible problems."

"I've been looking into it, and it's basically the same job I went on these kids went on--both the teenage girl who's a werewolf and also a young girl. Doubles and then, well, murders as per usual. Not everyone can get along with themselves, it seems, like I can. Except in the little girl's case, she was getting along with herself and then her clone got kidnapped. And based on the details of the kidnapping that she shared with me, it sounds like these kidnappers were professional supernaturals--like us. A woman walked right into the local police station, unlocked a jail cell, grabbed the other physical evidence, walked out with the clone, shoved her into a car, and then another one wiped the girl's most recent memories--oh and they also wiped out the police station servers. As someone who's trying to build out a Network of trusted Contractors, I find this pretty concerning."

"Wiping memories? Dangerous to know that there are beings capable of that. Though it sounds like they're punching a few weight classes higher than I am right now if they're also able to go out and deal with the police so handily to the point where none of them stopped the person in question when they exited with a supernatural prisoner. It's hard to tell with folks like us though. Our power is hidden well. Someone in our ranks could have the ability to do this and simply never tell anyone else. What is it that you want me to do if you've already confirmed the servers were wiped? Data recovery work is tedious at best but I could try my hand at it if that's your angle."

"I'm trying to figure out why they took the clone but not the original--or one but not both. If this were a standard kidnapping case, the original would hold more value than the 'spare' so to speak. If it's, like, slave labor or something equally horrific, then why not both? And, I don't know... something just feels off about the whole thing--and a minor that's one of us, you know? I have the girl's full name, the names of her parents, and the name of her school. Maybe you could do some digging online--far better than I ever could--and see if this incident is personally motivated? And if you want to attempt data recovery work, be my guest--I confess I didn't even know it was an option. I've already coordinated a team of three to arrive there in about 7 hours. One Inspector Bluedo, a supernatural detective, who I shared all the details of the case, and two others to provide backup support. I didn't tell them that I'd contact you though--thought you might prefer it that way."

"Well. I'd say you already have the answer to personal motivation. If the original is believed to be more valuable, likely as better clone stock, then it should follow that the only reason a sapient, and powerful being would do these things is because they have a vested interest in the clones on a personal level. Occam's razor would dictate that it would mean that this woman is most likely a clone herself. Given the effort and personal risk associated with separating a clone from what seems like a perfectly safe situation from what you were describing. So, this can also be assumed to not be about asset protection. My personal estimate is that this was about protection of something less tangible. Preventing this double from being contaminated by outside mental influences, likely to ensure that they retain their hatred of the original... has anything else happened while you've been looking into this?"

"And this is why I wanted to call you. I was, like, on the edges of the answer but now quite there yet--you're truly incredible, Albert. No, nothing has happened yet to my knowledge--although the clones do share a dreamscape and, based on what the original shared, the original will soon be locked out of her clone's mind. But the original is safe and I'll do my best to keep it that way." A pause. "The team is on their way but hasn't arrived yet to Goshen. I'd like to give you an update when I have one, but, coincidentally, in about seven hours I'm going to undergo an occult ritual with my husband involving death and resurrection--hopefully--to try to shake off this curse of ours. That being said, the team will be on their own until that business is taken care of--like, assuming I survive. It's ... been a busy life." Alice sounds tired.

"Hmm. Well, it's good that they haven't noticed you digging and sent a kill squad yet. I'd be wary. Now that we know this job has happened multiple times there's no telling how many clones there are, you could be sending whomever is going there into a death trap backed by the might of even 10-20 people like us. I can run operations for you still, and I'll do my research into previous incidents for you. I understand well enough that you have more than your share of babysitting to do. Though tell your friend or whoever is doing that dream delving to be careful. I'm not an expert in dreamscape studies, but I dabble in the occult enough to understand that any connection you form in the mind allows them to touch you as much as it allows you to look at them. So just do your best to be careful. " Albert says, always wary that people are out to kill him in even the most basic of circumstances. She'd hear a sigh though as he processed the bit about the occult ritual, and then he'd say, "My apologies, but death and resurrection rituals are beyond the pale of what I'd ever trust someone else with. I do hope that you are able to contact me in a few hours, but know that if whomever doing it harvests your soul in the process to feed to Elon Musk, I will ensure you are avenged."

"My power to communicate confidently protects me, and I've done my best to convey to the team that they're up against professionals of an unknown league... although the potential numbers of the group is a new consideration." A pause. "I'll pass the warning along, thanks. I'm not looking forward to what awaits me at the end of this 30-hour car ride across country. But I've witnessed firsthand that this friend of a friend can bring things back to life, and without much effort. But this will by no means be pleasant, and there are no guarantees. So thank you for your warm wishes, Albert.” Including the utterly insane Elon Musk comment. “I value your--" a brief hesitation "--friendship… Oh, on that note, are you aware that Kevin Sparkles was murdered?"

"Mhmm... Well, part of this job is trusting people I suppose, you've made strides by taking means that I would've been far too untrusting to ever approach, so I suppose I can't judge too harshly. I appreciate your trust and compassion as well. It is rare that I see someone with power that I do not have concerns about whether or not they're attempting to use me and you have managed that." He said with a sigh as he'd shake his head on his side. "Kevin Sparkles died? Well. I suppose that's the opposite side of this whole coin. He was always so eager to work with others. What got him?" Albert says, a little morbidly curious, but there is no joy in his voice. He recognizes the tragedy of another of their ranks falling in the line of duty.

Alice's tone similarly lowers. "Apparently an 'old colleague' thirsty for blood--literally. A Contractor turned I believe vampire who was going down the list of his co-workers to harvest their blood for who knows what--Batamir, head of the 'Brothers of Blood,' which apparently has a legal side and a cultist side. He kidnapped Bu Fang first, and then a group went to this guy's castle--I'm not making this shit up--to rescue him and they ended up surrendering their own blood samples in exchange for his freedom. And then he went after Kevin, but it was a 'shoot first, ask questions later' approach. Kevin died, assaulted in his own home, but somehow he took down Batamir with him? I don't know all the details, to be honest. The Knights sort of filled me in--plus someone who went on the rescue mission--but they're..." what was the word? "...not thorough."

"Wait. They fucking what? You know they're all dead right? At literally any moment." Albert sighed as he heard that these, less-than-intelligent individuals, gave up blood samples to a literal fucking vampire. "Even if they got away with Bu of course he let them go because he's going to use their blood to slave them to him and force them to follow his commands until the blood sample can be returned." The less than helpful side of Albert showing here as he recalled some information on vampirism that wasn't strictly accurate before he'd go along with "Eugh, it's just a good thing that he died otherwise they'd already be corpses, but if any of his spawn ever grow to his level of power their days are over. Tennessee is where that Michael Jackson vampire lived right? Whole place is a shit show as far as I can tell you before I even start. Governor's wife just up and vanished, they found her decapitated body in the river and then a week later she shows up having gained a cup size in the same month this all happens? I don't care what the media says, man clearly benefited from helping Batamir's cronies flee the state like the catholic church and the Nazi's. Just with creepy clones instead of gold as the pay off."

Alice knows little about vampires, but there's one thing she can fully agree on. "I'm grateful to Kevin that he somehow took this guy out--makes the world a bit less of a headache for us collectively, I think. He was a good albeit insane man." A sigh. "And, like, the Knights showed up at Batamir's headquarters a week later, and guess what they gallantly marched in on?"

"A place already cleaned out? I already figured once the head of the serpent had been cut off, they ditched." Albert said with a scowl behind his NBC mask before he'd continue with "A pity Kevin had to die to cover up for, with all due respect, the blatant incompetence of this team. With all due respect I'd like to know who I have to watch in the future. Who was on it?"

"Are you asking who the Knights are?" Alice suddenly realizes that she knows all the info--and the gossip.

"In this case, yes. Kevin was a competent man with a charisma that let him bring people together. It seems to me they were the ones responsible for his death ethically, as much as Batamir is the actual villain here. "Though I don't seek vengeance, just... well. I need to know when I need to babysit someone."

"Fair enough. Our friend Bu Fang is one, as is Mark Collins--both well-known names, I think. Another is Akira. I don't know his last name, but I will be calling him soon to screen him for the Network--a comparatively quieter and calmer one--seems to be good friends with Mark. I saw someone else wearing a Friendship Bracelet at the wake, a buff white woman, but I don't know who she is. She's with an organization of werecreatures, I heard." A pause. "And maybe me? Kevin gave me a bracelet at Bu Fang's dinner party and called me a 'knight in training.' To be honest, I feel like I have one foot in their club and one foot out--and I'm going to keep it that way. Like, when they decided to 'storm the castle,' I basically wished them well and went on my way--for numerous reasons.” A pause. “Kevin was insane, but he wasn't stupid."

Alice will hear some keys clicking on Albert's side for a few moments before he'd say, "Well thank you. I'm not exactly in the spirit of joining this club either. Kevin had once offered me a bracelet but I'd refused on the basis of not wanting to associate quite so closely with them before knowing all the members. I see now I made a call that I would best describe as "wise."" He says with a sigh before following it up with: "Though rescuing Bu Fang wasn't a bad idea, they could've at least done drone recon over the site first. Confidence in supernatural abilities to carry them through gunfire is one thing but doing so could've helped them identify electrical power sources to disable any static defenses, outside communication lines should've been cut to prevent a call for help to distant forces with an organization this large, radio jamming operations should've been done as an intro. Both to inhibit communications and prevent detonator activation. Amateurs. One and all."

"Good lord, Albert. May you always be my friend--and not my enemy." That was the second time in one month Alice said that, and she meant it deeply both times. "I suppose I know when I'm missing something, unlike some others. But you seem to know what specifically is missing."

"Knowing it is one thing, employing it is another. If you're worried about the BoB coming after you and yours, I'd personally recommend getting an IMSI catcher for your car. It's a device that mimics a cellphone tower letting you scrub text messages and calls in your area. An excellent tool if you're concerned about say, a bunch of angsty Team Batamir teens deciding they want to run round two on the Knights. Cops will get antsy about it if they know what they're looking at while searching your car, but it's not illegal. Though you will need someone capable of analyzing the data you get from it. Doesn't just print it out in a sheet unfortunately."

"I suspect I entered the group so late that they have no idea I'm a part of it, aside from attending the funeral maybe... Nevertheless, that sounds like a good idea for other reasons... Jason and I still don't know if our identities--his original and the one you set up for me--are usable after the Texas incident. It's been two months, and no one's snooped around or broken into our apartment--although we haven't been actively using it. And no one's questioned Mel about anything. My bank accounts haven't been locked, I can't find our names and faces on any FBI or Texas law enforcement suspect lists. I was going to ask you if you had any advice on this--or maybe we should just start fresh again--but ... um, probably best to wait, like, until after this ritual...

"Yes, as you have no idea what'll happen with this ritual to be realistic with you. You can say you've seen them do it without any effort, but that's a lot of trust to be putting into something you've only witnessed personally once or twice. As for your identities. I've not gotten any pings, though I would really recommend Jason not just reusing the same name if he is going to try and rebuild an identity. Though now's not a good time. Some asshole took down most of the forgery experts on the west coast not too long ago. They're still rebuilding their networks after that major sting."

"He'll probably stick with his original for a while, either way, if it's clean. One idea he had was seeing if you could easily put together some digital evidence that, when stuff went down in Texas, he was in Europe on a job related to his actually legitimate personal security business." Another sigh. "But, again, we don't want to ask you to do anything unnecessarily..." Another pause, and then, speaking more quietly: "Someday I hope to give you something, or do something meaningful for you too. You more than deserve it."

"Thank you, but knowing that I will be considered when it comes time, and that my record of assistance will be remembered is enough. My ambitions are being pursued at a reasonable pace. The world is growing wise to the hidden truths as they bear fruit. Though, what they do with that knowledge isn't always to my liking." Albert would say with a chuckle before continuing with "As for forging video. That should be easy enough. I have access to systems that'd make the FBI's servers look like trash in comparison so I can at least do a doctored video. Something to say ‘No, I was definitely here.’"

There's a smile on her voice now. "You're too cautious and intellectual to be a Knight, but I'm confident Kevin offered you the position because he saw your selfless heart… And, I suppose we'd better live then! How about I check in with you in six hours--is that enough time to do your digital digging into the kidnapping case?"

"I'll do my best to crack the case open. At the very least the security systems of the local PD should bear no threat to my systems. Though, if possible, I would like to know any names you have from there. Need something to feed the algorithm I use to crack the passwords."

"Certainly. I'm confident you can call Inspector Bluedo, as he's a professional detective and has an office in Los Angeles. I don't have his phone number on hand, but I'll get it from him right after we hang up. And concerning other details: Minerva McAllister, seven years old, is the original. 'Mars' is the name of her double. Minerva attends Faraday School, which I couldn't find anything on online. Her parents' names are Henry and Samantha McAllister. The woman who kidnapped Mars claimed to be 'Ms. Wumbra.' I considered attempting to call the woman, if that's a real alias, but I'm not sure what I'd say if she picked up. And I don't want to give away that someone is possibly coming after them--if they don't already suspect it. Please do protect the identity of the girl as best you can. She put a lot of trust in me today by sharing everything she knows--and much more about herself--for the sake of trying to find her double. Bluedo knows as much as I told you, and a bit more, due to his specialized role on this job... This is on a need-to-know basis, basically."

"Alright, thank you. I'll put that information to use in building the program that'll scrub for any mentions of those, clones, or strange lapses in memory. As for Minerva. You needn't be concerned. I have no interest in exposing children to the world. Worry not. I'm not the Catholic Church." He says with a dry chuckle. Dark humor was his refuge.

Alice silently shakes her head at the dark joke.

Albert continues. "Please do update me with this… Inspector Bluedo's information when you can. Though I have to ask. Is that a pseudonym or this guy's real name? Because it's within spitting distance of Inspector Cousteau." He'd say, pretty bemused on the other side of this. After all, the name was hardly believable.

"Whether his name is real or not is a mystery I'm too busy to solve," Alice replies dryly. "We'll be in touch... and thanks again." The call ends.

Downtime

Dots to Connect II

Chances

While seated in the lobby, under the weight of the suspense of being called in to speak with the principal any second, Minerva's phone rings. The caller is "Alice" with the familiar dog paw print profile picture.

Minerva sits in the lobby, kicking her legs under the seat a little as she waits. After a little bit, she starts to entertain herself practicing her illusions. Just forming things in her hands, and then breaking them, or letting them exist until they faded. Trying to focus on making them last longer.

She's focused to the point she nearly jumps! when her phone rings, and she lets out a breath after. She picks up her phone, and wiggles her nose a bit as she sees the caller. She answers. "Hello?"

"Hello Minerva. How are you?"

"I'm.... here? As well as could be expected, I guess. I'm safe. Trying to keep my mind off of the issue and give it a minute to relax. I think I'm getting more rest when awake than when asleep. Going to try and find out where she is again in a little bit. And then I can go get her." She says it all in one burst, barely taking a moment to breathe.

"That's understandable. Please be careful. If they manage to turn Mars against you through regular persuasion or supernatural means, like memory manipulation, it may be dangerous for you to confront her in your dreamscape... Otherwise, are there no new developments on your end?"

She nods a little bit. "I will. And... ...could..." She trails off. "I will. I'm going into hers, more than her coming into mine. If she does want to hurt me, it'll be harder for her, like that." She lets out a breath. "No. Not yet. I'm just... waiting. Principal Wolstenholme is busy."

"'Could' what, Minerva?" The experienced psychologist is attentive yet gentle. 

"...I was going to say 'could they really do that, change your memories...'" Her voice drops a bit. "But.. I don't know. I see how they could do it. I think I could do it, if I really needed to. ...but that means others could do it too."

"Yes." A sigh. "Anything is possible. And that is, sadly, probable..." Alice shakes her head, as though to push away the sheer insanity of it all.

Minerva wiggles her nose some, just staring at the phone in her lap. "...I don't know if it's probable. Um... I think my mind is pretty hard to attack. And in the dreamscape, Mars had the same defenses. If someone wants to edit her deeper memories, I think it would be really hard." Or maybe that was just wishful thinking by her, hoping that it couldn't happen to her. She nods. "Okay..." 

"I'm glad you're back at Faraday. Just let me know when you need to go, okay? In the meantime, I have some updates. I called around over the past few hours and managed to coordinate a team of four: three friends and one friend of a friend. It includes a talented hacker, a supernatural detective, and two others providing support. They were interested in the case for several reasons, as I am, and so they're going to look into it as best they can despite the clear risks. I only shared your personal information with the hacker and the detective, as they need to know to do their work."

She listens to the next comment, and nods. "Okay. Where are we gathering? Back in Goshen?"

Alice expected this. "They are gathering at a designated spot in Goshen. And, keeping with my promise to try to help you and Mars, I am not inviting you to join them."

The young girl nods. "Good, where- wait, what?" She fluffs up a little. "I can help! I can take care of myself! I'm useful! She's my double, you don't get to tell me I can't help!"

A pause. Then Alice replies in a quieter, lower tone. "I regard you as my colleague, despite your age. And colleagues can disagree. You can up and leave wherever you're waiting right now and try to find this team in Goshen--and maybe even tell them I sent you, or command them to let you help. That's not what I want, but I fully respect that you could do that--although if you did, I confess I would respect you less and regret being this transparent with you."

Minerva is a little worked up, but she just listened to start. After Alice finishes, there's a long pause as Minerva takes a second to both calm herself and order her thoughts. "If I'm your colleague, why don't I get to help? Explain that to me." Her voice was level--something she didn't feel inside of herself. Yes, I can leave if I want. No one can stop me. And I probably could find that team in Goshen. And I could make them let me help. But... Something inside of her balked at having someone she did respect and trust respect her less. That wasn't fair

"First, you are deeply emotionally invested in this issue--and rightfully so--and those emotions can hinder good judgment. It can happen to any of us. Two months ago I went on a job with my best friend and almost lost him, and in the process I almost lost myself, mid-job, when I needed to think clearly more than ever." Alice's voice wavers. "I-I will never go on a job with him again."

Alice regains professional composure and continues. "Second, this job is extremely dangerous. I'm hoping our group has the element of surprise--they're not expected, no one is waiting for them. But there's no guarantee. And what could be waiting for them there or at the end of the trail as they pursue Mars is an unknown number of highly skilled supernaturals like ourselves--possibly all clones. If the kidnappers wanted you alive, they would have taken you. So it's logical to conclude that they don't care about you, which includes being open to killing you." 

"I--" She starts, almost interrupting, before going quiet again. She sucks in a breath. "I'm not-" She can hear the lie in her own words before she even finishes speaking, and falls silent. "Okay. Maybe I am deeply emotionally invested. Isn't that a good thing? It means you fight harder..." She looks down, though, past the phone, as she thinks of the truth in Alice's words. She really would never go on a job with him again. "...But how will you feel if you don't go on a job with him and he dies out there?" She wiggles her nose a little at the end after. "...But they're out there because of me. And I can take care of myself..." She knew Alice was telling the truth about all of that, and... it was scary. But how could she just sit here? This was her fault.

"Maybe you'd fight harder, or maybe you'd be in an emotional daze--I can't say for you or even for myself,” Alice replies. “And, if he dies out there... it would be because he chose to accept the risks on his own--not because of anything I did or didn't do something beside him ... If he dies out there, I wouldn't be the one who killed him." Never again. "They're heading to Goshen because they've accepted the risks. I know you're willing to accept the risks too, but I'm asking you to stay where you are... because I think you have a higher odds of dying--higher than each of them." 

Minerva's about to say I can accept the risks too before Alice gets right to that. She curls her tail into her lap, starting to just pet it absentmindedly. It was soft. "...Why? I can fight just as hard as any of them."

"Because I don't yet believe that you can run just as hard as any of them. At 7-10 years old, your prefrontal cortex--the part of your brain that helps you differentiate among conflicting thoughts, determine good and bad, better and best, future the consequences of current activities, and predict the outcomes--is not yet fully developed. That part of executive control develops primarily during puberty and into early adulthood.

But let's say you already have the mind of a twenty-four year old. There is still a high likelihood that, due to your physical age, you're experiencing distinct social pressures. You probably feel like you have to prove yourself to others--that is to say, you're probably in the habit of showing off or doing things independently to make a point to onlookers--and maybe even yourself. Those behaviors can also lead to you making poor choices that harm you and possibly the team. 

Also, you're probably used to defying authority. You're likely afraid of blackmail because your school and your parents either don't know that you go on these jobs or they don't fully understand them--nor the 'pay'. And I will not be the one to tell them. However, if my team collectively decides that it's too dangerous to proceed despite having a lead to follow, I don't trust that you would be willing to stop with them. And if you keep going, they might feel pressured to keep going too--against their better judgment--so that you're not going at it alone.

Do you know where your limits are, Minerva? And if you do, do you accept them? Do you know when to stop and give up to live another day, even if it means lower odds of rescuing Mars? Would you participate in the team that I formed as a colleague and collaborator?

These are the kinds of things that I have to take into consideration to decrease the chances that my friends, including you, end up dead." None of Alice's words are said judgmentally, although they are undoubtedly a form of judgements--neutrally expressed opinions with clear undertones of patience and concern. 

Minerva momentarily pauses, thrown for a bit of a loop. Run? Why would one-

The young foxgirl just stares at the phone after as she listens, scowling just a little. "That's not fair--" She starts, but Alice just keeps going. She huffs a bit, her fluffy ears pushing back against her head a little as she listens. She could make good decisions! She could predict outcomes!

She lets out another soft huff. ...Did she? ...Maybe. Maybe, maybe that was a tiny bit true. But she could do things independently! And... they wouldn't just result in poor choices! She opens her muzzle to defend herself and Alice just keeps going. She glowers at the phone a little.

"The school knows." She mumbles, not really interjecting. Her parents didn't understand, though. But... She looks down. Would she be willing to stop? Maybe not. "Maybe." She mumbles again. "We could handle it..."

Minerva looks at her paw, and a small sphere of light appears in it again. She starts to roll it a little. Did she know her limits? Did she think she had any? "...I..." No. She probably wouldn't give up if it meant lower odds. But...

She's just silent for a long time after Alice finishes speaking, before eventually saying "So what would you have me do?" She... hadn't committed to anything yet. And if Alice was just scared for her friends, she could still do this herself. But... did she have a point?

"I'd like you to try to stay in contact with Mars through your shared dreamscape, despite the dangers involved in going there, to monitor how she's doing and learn anything you can--but not share about me and my team. As I said, I think they're going to try to turn her against you. That may include locking you out of her memories--if not her whole tower. If Mars doesn't want to come home, then our odds of success are practically zero given your specific supernatural skillset. I'll also try to call her at least once before my ritual starts and the team arrives in Goshen. Even if she's conscious, I doubt they'd let her have her phone this soon..."

Minerva wiggles her nose. "I don't think it's that dangerous..." She nods a bit after. "Fine. I won't mention anything to do with your team. And..." She wiggles her nose. "I don't know. I think she'll be hard to turn." She hoped. "But I'll make sure she doesn't." She looks at her paw for a moment. Did she have a useful one? Maybe. "Okay." She closes her eyes. Was this a good idea? Just... letting someone else do it? But everything Alice had said was true. Or at least, Alice believed it. And... she found it hard to argue with. It didn't hurt to look in the dreamscape first, did it? "I want a number to call you at."

Alice sighs. "Okay... but I want you to understand that I'll be unavailable in four hours--around the time when the team arrives to Goshen--and there's also a possibility that I'll be dead. So I want your phone number as well to pass on to the detective so that my absence doesn't sever the communication lines." Somehow Alice says every part of that with the same neutral and composed tone.

Minerva nods slightly. "Very well, and--wait, what?" There's a pause. "...Do you need help? I can be on a flight--" Could she really help one as powerful as this woman? But... she had to offer something. She swallows. "I can't help, can I?" She says in a somewhat defeated tone. "It's..." She scratches behind an ear. "I need to be stronger."

"It's more like ... the ritual I'm about to complete requires my death, but I have a friend who can perform resurrections. But, no one's perfect--nothing's guaranteed. I only told you because I don't want you to think that me going silent suddenly indefinitely is because I've abandoned you and Mars. For as long as I'm alive, and you don't betray me or my friends, we will continue to be friends." Alice pauses and then begins to talk in a way Minerva hasn't heard before. "Just get strong enough to be happy, not strong enough to solve everyone else's problems. Stay true to yourself. Try to find your own way before getting mixed up in ensuring other people get to find theirs. I know that's hard--I'm learning how to do it too, how to help people within my strengths and limits along the way to my own happiness--without carrying the weight of the world on my shoulders. "

She blinks a few times, nodding just a little. "... Ah. I..." She doesn't really know what to say to 'I have a friend that can perform resurrections'. "I wish you luck. I... hope you don't die. You're a good person." Truth. She nods some. "That's fair. I want to be your friend." She just pulls her knees up into her chest, wrapping her arms around it after, her phone in her lap trapped in the cloth.

"I..." She nods just a little.  That's why she'd started this, right?  Strong enough to be happy.  But...  She still didn't know what she wanted.  Herself?  Everyone?  Or did she to play first fiddle? She'd have to decide that.  But.. she wasn't ready yet.  "I don't know.  I don't know how to do that yet."

"And that's okay," Alice affirms. "I'm still figuring it out too. I guess where I'm starting at is, like, asking myself what I want and what I feel right now... and... what I'm truly responsible for. Those are big questions--my answers might change over time... but... that's how I'm going about it."

Minerva nods softly, wiggling her nose a bit.  She goes silent for a long little bit.  "...Okay."  She lets out a breath.  "I don't know that either.  Or that." She closes her eyes.  "I thought I knew yesterday....

"No rush. One step at a time. Here's my friend's burn phone that I'm currently using--are you ready to type it down?" Alice reads off a phone number that has a 313 area code.

"Okay..." Minerva writes it down in her phone.  "Okay. I have it.  I'll... I guess I'll call it if I find out something."

"Please do. And yours?"

Minerva tells the number for her cellphone. She doesn't have a burner phone. Maybe that would be a good thing to get.

"Thank you. Stay safe, and we'll be in touch over the next four hours--and at some point after that too, assuming everything goes well."

Minerva nods softly. "Okay. Please... please just keep me up to date." She lets out a breath, pulling her knees tighter into her chest, curling her tail around herself. "I hope so..."

"Of course... I'm glad we met." And with that, the call ends.

Downtime

Surgical Precision

Terry’s small family practice lays empty on a lazy Saturday evening. It's a warm evening in this Idaho suburb, where glancing in any given direction treats you to an idyllic, pastoral scene.

Terry unlocks the rear door and brings a small group into the waiting room.

“You want some coffee? Tea? We’ve got camomile.”

"Got anything stronger Doc? By the way, name’s Jason. Finally nice to officially meet you." He holds his hand out to Terry.

Terry shakes his hand. "The pleasure's mine, Jason. I'm glad to see you're feeling better. We have some Champagne in the fridge." Terry brings back a cheap bottle of champagne and some plastic flutes.

Jason, who normally would be considered a handsome man, looks like he hasn't slept in a week. He has dark circles under his eyes and has a gaunt look to his facial structure. He takes the flute from Dr. Buckworth and downs it in a single swig. "So Doc, who's killing me?"

“I will. I can explain the procedure if you like.”

"One second." Jason grabs Alice into a hug, whispering something into her ear. After a few seconds he lets go. "Nah, I trust you Doc. Let's just get it over with."

Alice blushes but does not resist, clearly not at all used to this gesture from her 'husband.' Here, her mask is off. She is similarly sickly looking, as though she hasn't eaten or slept in days and also quite pale. Otherwise she is a short, average looking, thin half-Asian/half-Caucasian woman with an edgy undercut in her late twenties or early thirties. She wears designer jeans, a nice white blouse, an unbuttoned peacoat, the Friendship Bracelet, and carries the same small designer backpack. She whispers nothing back and looks away from him, clearly fighting being upset as she nervously messes with the gloved finger where her wedding ring is.

Lilith comes in wearing black jeans, a Red Hot Chili Peppers band t-shirt depicting the album art for Blood Sugar Sex Magik, and a backpack. She is wearing a blue medical mask. Under her arm is a bundle of something made of padded plastic, and in her other hand two orange, 5 gallon buckets.

"Good evening," she says simply, appraising Jason and Allie with a glance. 

"T-thanks for coming, Amy."

"You may call me Lilith," she says as her gaze moves to Terry, "Worlds collide, huh? Not much need for anonymity anymore given how far we're going tonight."

"Nice to actually meet you in my person form." Jason says to Amy as he walks over to the exam table. "I don't want to kill the 'bands back together' mood, but I'd like to get this over with."

"Patience is a virtue, my once-amphibious friend. Unless, of course, you'd rather remain ignorant to what the plan is," Lilith says, putting the bucket and bundle down on the other side of the room. "I'd prefer my patients to be fully informed on what they're getting themselves into if I can help it."

"You're going to kill me, then hopefully bring me back? Isn't that the gist?"

Lilith looks at Allie, "That's the gist. She is going to eat your heart."

"... What?" Somehow she got paler.

"I promised you that it wouldn't be pleasant." 

"Wait, what!?" He looks at Alice. "You forgot that little nugget!" He turns back to Lilith. "I kinda need that. You know she barely eats solid food, right?"

"Terry will bring you back to life. He believes his abilities will regenerate your heart as well," she looks wholly unfazed by this revelation. A coping mechanism? "We'll make sure you're fully alive with your heart back, just in case I need to put it back. Should be easy for me to perform on you, especially with Terry's help.” A pause. “Oh, it will be a paste. Not much chewing involved."

Alice just sits down, stunned. She clearly had no idea. 

As if with a non-verbal punctuation mark, Lilith slips her backpack off her back and pulls a mortar and pestle from it, followed by a black draw-string bag.

"Oh, well since you put it like that..." sarcasm dripping from every word. Jason goes over to his 'wife' and takes her hand. "What do you want to do? This is fucked up, even for us."

"Do keep in mind, we might not even need to do this. Who knows, perhaps just killing you will break the curse. But if not, I know this will work."

“We could administer it with a feeding tube.” Terry adds. “I know the whole thing sounds yucky, but that’s medicine. It isn’t always pleasant.”

Alice accepts Jason's comforting gesture, but just shakes her head at the mention of a feeding tube, continuing to hide her face by looking down and slightly hiding with a hand. 

Lilith nods at Terry, "He's right, you know. I'm also a medical doctor in addition to my occult studies."

“To be honest, I just recently learned of it myself. I understand if you don’t want to continue.”

"It's up to you. I'm not really a fan of having my heart ripped out and mashed into mush, but you have the worst of it. It's your decision." Jason gives Alice a kiss on the forehead and goes back to the table.

The sudden kiss on the forehead seems to wake Alice up with a jolt. Standing and protesting with a reddening face: "You can't just--I do not have the worst of it, 'Mr. Decker'!" Her arms cross and her brow furrows as she takes a deep breath to resettle herself. Looking away from everyone now, she adds, "I swear, if you survive this and tease me about eating your heart out--you're such a--" A long pause. Finally glancing at Terry and Lillith, Alice shifts back into exhaustion and nervousness as she sits back down. "L-let's just get this over with." And then a whisper with her eyes closed as she messes with her hidden wedding ring. "I love you too." That brought it up to two goodbyes. Maybe in time this would get easier, through desensitization. Probably not... 

"Don't worry, Alice. We will do everything in our considerable power to ensure this operation is painless and a complete success." He guides them into an office where a makeshift surgery theater has been set up. "Jason, would you like to give Alice the option to observe the procedure?" 

"Fine by me, it's up to her."

"... Sure." Alice takes a spot along the wall beside a stiff plastic chair. Even if it scarred her... she wanted to be near Jason to the very end.

"The procedure and the administration of the ritual can be completed in two different steps. Jason can observe the ritual on Alice after you have been brought back."

Lilith thinks for a moment, "Oh, and Alice. When the ritual is successful, you will not need to worry about IBS anymore. Solid foods will no longer be a problem for you."

Alice tilts her head slightly to one side (like a confused dog). And then actually smiles slightly. "Like I said before, Lillith, the least of my problems."

She smiles back at Alice, "Then let's begin. See how many of those problems get fixed this evening."

“I’ll start with a brief checkup.” Terry proceeds to take Jason’s blood pressure and listen to his heartbeat with a stethoscope.

"Hey, if this doesn't work, can we tell people I was, like, mauled by a monster or something?" Jason looks over at Alice and winks.

Alice sharply inhales and then looks back at Jason, shaking her head slightly with disapproval.

"Alright, I'm going to administer the anesthetic now. You'll be awake before you know it. Anything you'd like to say before you go under?"

"I shouldn't need any last words, right Doc? Let's get this over with."

Terry and Lilith work together like only a pair of trained medical professionals can. Terry injects a fluid into the catheter on Jason's arm and puts a mask over his nose and mouth.  "Alright Jason. Count down from 100." After three seconds, Jason slowly slips into unconsciousness.

"Okay Lilith, open the rib cage and prepare to remove the heart. I'll get ready to drain the blood." He turns to Alice. "The goal is to bring him back as quickly as possible."

Terry is a highly trained professional and sometimes, some medical surgeries go wrong. This was one of those times, but thanks to Terry's experience, he managed to curve the worst of it and make the way for Lilith to properly drain Jason's blood in the proper time frame needed to remove the heart and then be able to revive Jason within the parameters of Lazarus.

It was a bumpy ride at first, but it was salvaged in the end and in your clutches are Jason's fully drained blood, his heart, and his corpse.

Terry continues speaking to Alice as he prepares another needle attached to a long hose. “You see, we’ve got him injected with a blood thinner to prevent clotting.” He moves to insert the needle, his hands are shaking. “So that when we collect it all, we can—“ He pauses and dabs his forehead with a handkerchief. “Lilith can you help me with this?”

Meanwhile Lilith is doing the dirty deed of opening the chest cavity. It is a brutally violent procedure to crack the ribcage and pry it  wide enough to access Jason's still-beating heart. At this point, she helps Terry perform the most basic task of inserting the needle to drain Jason of his blood. Soon the flow begins, gathering in a large biological material container on the floor. Through the cloudy plastic, the group can watch the line of blood rise steadily. Pint after pint empty into the vessel. Is that really how much blood is in a person? The heart, plainly visible through the opening in the chest cavity, skips a beat, then begins to convulse. The EKG on the wall emits a warning tone.

Jason is dead. Terry nods to Lilith, and she gets to work removing the heart. Terry removes the IV once the last drop of blood has been drained.

Alice watches until she realizes that Terry is nervous, by his shaking hands, his pounding heart, and his intense smell of sweat which she can discern through the overwhelming smells of raw flesh and blood. Then she shuts her eyes and resists the urge to rush out of the room. 

Fresh death has a certain smell. And Alice now knows what the smells of Jason's death--and hearing his pulse stopping--is like. 

Lilith lifts the hastily-cut heart into a tray. They remove the calipers holding the chest open, and Terry sews the incision shut. As he does, a teal light emanates from Jason's skin.

Lilith works at Terry's pace, helping him along with the more grisly parts of the operation. She does not seem to take pleasure in the act, but there is nary a wince from her as she cracks the ribcage open, her eyes filled with cold focus. She looks up just in time to see Terry's hand beginning to shake and gingerly takes the needle from him. "Breathe, Doctor," she says in her icy alto. 

Once the needle is in Jason's heart, beginning to pump the blood out of his body, she takes a step back to the first of her two buckets. Flipping the hair over her shoulder, she lifts up the long sleeves of her shirt and reveals the thick bandages underneath. She pulls the material off entirely, letting the blood-soaked bandages fall into the bucket. Immediately, the swirling runic wounds on her wrists begin to weep, dripping down into her palms. The flow does not slow... in fact, it gets faster. Her fingertips methodically trace the cuts on both arms as the blood seeps out of her skin... before she gestures sharply down into the bucket. The wounds on her arms bulge sickeningly as an immense amount of blood is loosed from her body, filling the five gallon bucket over half way. She pulls her hands from the bucket, deep crimson painting her pale white skin... and with a flick of her wrists, the fluid on her skin beads and rolls off, leaving her clean.

Lilith sighs, looking over her shoulder at Alice. "Last chance to look away, Mrs. Decker," she says as she approaches Jason again, body nearly-entirely drained of its blood. She lifts her right hand up as her blood-red fingernails begin to sharpen into extremely thin surgical blades. Once the last drop has dripped into the receptacle and Jason has officially flatlined, she works with practiced swiftness. She disconnects the heart from the rest of the body and pulls it free, clearing the way for Terry to work his magic. 

While Terry sews up the cadaver, Lilith kneels down in front of the bucket containing all of Jason's essence. Holding the heart in her right hand, she slips her fingers on her left hand into the receptacle as her muscles begin to tense. In a matter of seconds, the blood in the bucket races up her fingers and into her eldritch wounds, leaving the container almost entirely clean... save for a small measure of pink, unmetabolized anticoagulant resting at the bottom. At the same time, Jason's heart melts into a deep, deep red liquid that is then pulled into her right arm. "There," she says, looking up at Terry just as he finishes sewing Jason up and his wounds begin to glow, "That will keep it warm... Now let's see how well we did..." 

Terry works a miracle. The culmination of multiple hours of strife that comes together all at once in a burst that lasts no longer than a handful of minutes.

Terry closes the chest cavity, and loose skin meets just as Jason's heart can be seen growing itself back between the seams. Sterile sutures are worked to stitch the chest back together, Terry's fingertips glowing a faint teal light that extends down into Jason's chest. The Sergeant, just as well, slowly regains the color in his skin. Hollow bones clung to by dry skin is replaced with its natural peachy color and by the time Terry's procedure is complete, the EKG machine beeps twice to signify a found pulse and begins to read the beating of Jason's rebuilt heart. He's still a little bit pale, but buy and large, he has returned from the dead.

Terry administers a blood transfusion to help refill his fluids, followed by the antidote to the anesthetic.

Alice moves to the operation table while taking off her gloves and gently holds Jason's pale hand as Terry administers the blood transfusion. "J-jason?" By Terry's heart rate and Jason's appearance, she knows she has nothing to be nervous about. But knowledge often fails to override the raging emotions of the mind and heart.

Jason blinks a few times as he regains consciousness. "Fuck, it didn't work." He squeezes Alice's hand slightly. "I didn't think I'd go to Heaven, but I see an angel before me." He lets out a strained laugh as he takes Alice's hand and kisses it. He tries to get up from the table as a wave of dizziness hits him. "I think I'll sit here a minute longer." He gives Alice a wink. 

Lilith mocks vomiting, the wounds on her uncovered arms continuing to seep with blood. “Alright, alright Casanova. Do you still feel the degenerative pain of the Crypt curse?”

Alice pulls her hand away just in time to avoid the kiss, with a scoff. "He's back to normal, and yes, he's still cursed," she answers dryly. Having done a total of six jobs together, Alice knows exactly what Jason looks uncursed and cursed. She puts her gloves back on as she turns away from her revived 'husband,' her pale face red once more. 

Since when was Jason so compliment-y and kissy? Alice was re-getting used to a baseline of mild, silly harassment, but... Maybe this performance was his way of handling stress or maybe he didn't believe her when she told him to not get used to that one kiss. Either way, they'd be having a discussion about boundaries on the car ride home. Assuming she survived the night. 

"I actually feel pretty good considering, but something still seems off." He tries to get up again, this time with more success.

Alice moves to be beside Lilith. "We're on to the next step then," she says quietly, arms crossed and looking clearly uncomfortable. 

"We are," Lilith says, looking Alice up and down. "Now that we know that death is not the answer to our troubles, we work on alleviating the symptoms instead." She backs away from the table with Jason and kneels down to the bundle of plastic and support rods that she brought with her. After a minute of unfolding, it has become a small, upright bathtub, large enough to fit an adult. "We have two options, Alice. You can choose to drink Jason's entire body worth of blood, over seven liters, about a gallon and a half, or you can bathe in it. Ruin your clothes or not, that's up to you. The second part of the ritual, involving the heart, you must eat from the mixture that I produce. Take the time you need to decide, I am ready when you are."

"The fucking details." Alice says quietly under her breath before sighing. To be honest, it was better that she didn't know until the last moment. Turning to Terry, she asks, "Do you have an extra patient gown?" And then, looking at both men, "And, uh, I'd like some privacy… And, uh... can you, like, pick up a bottle of vodka for me?"

“Sure, I know a corner store. I’ll be back in 3 minutes,” Terry replies.

"Just a small bottle, Doc. She's a lightweight." Jason sighs and whispers to himself. "This is going to be bad..."

"A large bottle, actually," Alice clarifies quietly as she walks out of the surgical theater with Terry, heading to the bathroom she noted on the way in with a patient gown. 

About ten minutes later, Alice twists open a 750 ml bottle of vodka. Both men have been pushed out of the room, the door shutting quietly behind them via telekinesis. She leans against a counter with a sink, looks at Lilith and the empty tub, and then takes a swig of Blue Ice straight from the bottle--cringing and coughing as it burns her throat. At least it will warm her. The gown provides no warmth in this cold room. Although... the blood will be warm...

"At the moment, I'm 'Alice' or 'Allie,' but I'm not sure how long that'll last," she says before bracing herself and taking another generous swig. As soon as she finishes coughing, she continues. "I can't seem to hold onto names."

"So much in common we have," Lilith says, running her fingers over the blood dripping from her arms and gesturing into the first bucket that she filled, keeping her skin relatively clean as the fluid beads and flows down. When done, she keeps her arms as still as possible at her sides... movement seems to speed the gradual hemorrhaging. "Call me superstitious, but I believe that names have power. Power that is gained by our use of them. I had a name before that was a version of me. And a name even longer before that, before all of this," she says, gesturing at herself, causing the wounds closest to her wrists to tear up with crimson. 

"When we met, I was Amy, but that was a lie. Just like any other name I give someone as a cover on our jobs. But Lilith... Lilith is who I am now. You, on the other hand, don't seem so sure. Are you really Alice? Can that name ever give you power?" 

"If Jason and I find Violet's true family and hand her over, I won't need to be Alice Decker anymore." Alice takes another gulp. It's getting a bit easier now, or at least less shocking of a taste and feel. She's such a lightweight that her face is already feeling a little bit warm. "I gave my original identity away to someone who needed it more than me. 'Alice'... " She contemplates before drinking more. "For me, like, the name was for a job--just one he and I took on ourselves. No client, no pay--just trying to do the right thing for her. So, uh, honestly?... I have no fuckin idea." 

Lilith can't help but giggle, a light chirping into her soft palate. "That's an acceptable answer too. Sounds like you're quickly running out of parts of yourself to give, though. I hope that you find the name 'Alice' gives you what 'Lilith' gave me, even if you don't need to be 'Alice Decker' any longer," she pauses, thinking to herself as she moves towards her ritual mortar, "And who knows, one day still I might outgrow my name. Lilith is a version of myself who might not be around forever, but not because I won't need her, rather because it no longer describes me."

"Makes sense. Coming from the psychology-side, names influence how others perceive us--including our personality and worth--and how others perceive us inevitably shapes how we see ourselves." Another swig. "Humans are such social creatures... we're so lost when we're on our own--whether it's the truth or, like, our beliefs that that's the truth..." And another. Then she sets the now half-empty bottle down and walks over to Lilith, eying the mortar. "But now that I know what you smell like, you can change your name as many times as you want--I can still call you, like, so long as you have a device on you." 

Lilith looks at Alice with an eyebrow raised. For a moment, the cool exterior of her personality falters as she processes what was just said. “Alright,” she says after a short cough, the slightest hint of flush on her face, “Time to get you in the tub before you’re too sloshed. You’re gonna soak in the blood for a few minutes while I prepare the consumable portion. Don’t drink so much liquor that you can’t keep this down. The effects should be pretty immediate, so you’ll stop feeling ill after you’ve swallowed everything.” 

Alice looks at the portable tub with a frown, arms crossed once more. "I was hoping to be more sloshed, actually--it's, like, a really fine line..." She walks into the tub and slowly sits down in it, legs crossed, as she continues, "This is, uh, the second time I've turned to alcohol to, like, make an incredibly shitty thing a little more manageable..." Suddenly she giggles and then looks up at Lilith with a mischievous grin. "Better not tell my therapist."

"Oh trust me, I know,” she says looking you over once you sit down in the tub, “Couple of times in this business, I’ve really regretted my decision to not drink while on the job. But, look at that,” she says, playfully grabbing Alice’s wrist which holds the bottle of alcohol, “...we’re off the clock. Little sip for good measure,” and assuming she does, she’ll take the bottle and place it at the base of the tub. She reaches her hand into the tub once more, looking at Alice’s face for a moment, the wounds on her arm beginning to bulge. 

Then she pauses, her arms going back to their normal lithe size. “Oh. You really meant it when you said that you could smell me. Here I thought you were doing some off-handed tipsy flirting.” She looks towards her backpack, “We need to plug your nose. I really don’t want you throwing up, this much blood is probably going to be a lot for you...” She goes to retrieve some extra gauze from her bag.

At "off-handed tipsy flirting," Alice's pale face, which was already becoming flush, gets even redder. "Oh fuck no!" she exclaims a little louder than she intended to, clearly surprising herself before bursting into laughter. She then barely manages between laughs to nod in agreement over Lilith's comment about her keen sense of smell.

"You aren't my type," Alice says, wiping her eyes clear, still grinning. "But that's because nobody's my type--I'm typeless!" She receives the gauze and proceeds to stuff her nose. Suddenly speaking quietly, no longer smiling, and looking at the simple silver wedding ring that she forgot to take off: "And, like, Jason knows it..."

Lilith’s laugh harmonizes with Alice’s. It’s strange... Though you know that she’s being fully honest with her laughter, there is a practiced nature to it. Almost like she’s copying your cadence in a slightly lower pitch. She grabs the black bag and mortar and pestle and brings it next to the tub, kneeling at eye level of Alice before handing the gauze over. “You really put me off-guard there for a moment.”

Lilith hums lightly in the back of her throat, taking a look at Alice’s wedding ring as she moves her gaze to it. “I can see lies just as easily as you can smell people. Now that ring... that ring does not feel like a truth. We’ve only recently met, so I only know so much about you. But I find it sad that I do not detect a lie when you tell me that you’re ‘typeless’... But everyone deserves a family. Everyone deserves love... but if you believe that being typeless is how you find your happiness... I suppose I would support you with that decision too.” Lilith points at the ring then opens her palm, offering to take it to keep it from getting bloodied.

Upon seeing Lilith's offer, Alice defensively covers her left hand with her right while pulling both away to her chest. She looks down. "Everyone... like, everyone thinks it's a decision," she replies in low tone, frowning. "Or even like a problem..." Alice shivers. "...But Keara and Mel know--and Jason knows..." She suddenly faces Lilith, her expression a mix of indomitable and pissed off. 

Just as swiftly, Alice turns to the door across the room. Her eyes glow silver, as does the door handle, and it swings open forcefully: bang. Then the Pathetic, enraged woman wearing just a ring and a patient gown and sitting in a portable tub proceeds to yell across the well-lit, nearly empty doctor's office with all her might. "STOP SEXUALLY HARASSING ME! I LOVE YOU BUT YOUR FEELINGS ARE NOT MY PROBLEM AND I DESERVE TO BE FUCKIN RESPECTED!" The door telekinetically slams shut as Alice lays down in the tub, legs still crossed and a hand partially covering her eyes, with a big sigh. 

After the incident with the door, Jason looks uneasy. "I'll be back in a few." He leaves the small practice.

"Wow," Lilith says, eyes widening as this unfolds in front of her. "Damn, you tell him," she says as she starts to grin despite herself. "We've gotta drink together more often. I'm happy to be the therapist's therapist, since it seems you've really been waiting to get that out of your system. But... as much as I want to continue talking to you in earnest, we need to complete the hard part. Afterwards, I'm happy to talk to you as much as you want. Especially since 'now that you know what I smell like, you can call me whenever you want,'" She giggles softly. "Ready for the bath, Alice?" 

Alice sits up and nods. "Bathtime," she whispers meekly, avoiding eye contact. "T-thanks--sorry," she quickly adds, confident that an apology is due but not quite able to nail down why. 

“Not necessary, but I’ll accept it anyway,” Lilith says, sitting up and placing her fingertips in the bottom of the tub. Her wounds bulge as the torrent of Jason begins to flow out of her.

Alone in the waiting room, Terry hears the muffled sounds of Alice from down the hall and past the closed door. These outbursts include, "Your blood is gross!" and "Eeew!" and, a few minutes later, "I'm sorry I yelled at you!" consistently followed by quiet pauses and then loose giggles and even full on laughter. There are also the fainter sounds of Lilith talking (and occasionally laughing too), probably doing her best to focus an increasingly inebriated patient on the task at hand while preparing the 'heart meal'.

"I'm gonna, like... be a dog someday," Alice says slowly four and a half minutes into the five-minute bath. She looks like something out of a horror movie, fresh blood up to her neckline and streaming down from her messy undercut/pixie cut, thick red lines slowly cutting down her pale forehead and cheeks. Her hair, head, and face are the last things to be 'washed,' and most of her concentration--what little is left of it--goes to keeping the cool, sticky liquid out of her eyes. "A doctor dog ... Dogtor Allie," she adds absentmindedly as she scoops up some of the liquid and smears it onto her cheek. Then, looking at her blood-covered hands: "This is, like, so fuckin gross." 

Lilith pours a mixture of flowers into the stone mortar as she converses with the inebriated Dogtor. She begins to break them down with the pestle into a thick paste before dripping some of her own blood into the concoction and continuing to grind. “I’ve met many types in this line of work. One guy was a mosquito superhero. Literally called himself “Mansquito”. But even he wanted to keep his humanoid form. Such an interesting desire... and you believe in it as fully as I believe in my own ambitions. Just don’t get dognapped and make a new Call of the Wild story, yeah?”

Almost to punctuate Allie’s final line Lilith lifts up her right hand and flexes her fingers. Dark red ichor seeps from her wounds and floats into the air, swirling around her wrists before converging into her palm. The orb of liquid shimmers and becomes thicker until it lightly touches her fingertips. With one final gentle squeeze, the liquid focuses and completely solidifies until she holds Jason’s heart. Allie swears she sees it beating for a few moments until Lilith plops it into the mortar and pestle with a squelch. “Yup. I promised you it wouldn’t be wholesome,” she jabs the pestle at the corners of the severed organ, slowly breaking it down. “You’re going to feel much better after this, though. A shower and maybe some carbs before we do it all over again for Jason.” Crrr... crrr... crrr, the mortar grumbles until the heart, flowers, and blood have been completely blended together. She lifts up the unholy meal above the rim of the portable tub, angling it away from Alice to not make her lose her appetite. “Swallow, don’t chew. It’ll be like eating an oyster. Ready, Alice?”

At the mention of dognapping, Alice giggles. "Nah, I'm gonna have a kickass dog walker," she declares, but then she quickly shifts to having a troubled expression as she fiddles with her blood-covered wedding ring. "... like, maybe ..."

The supernatural reconstitution of Jason's heart distracts her with a mix of awe and disgust. Starting to get overwhelmed despite the alcohol, Alice takes slow deep breaths as the concoction is prepared, which ends with another burst of giggles as Lilith approaches the tub. "Shit--this has, like, gotta make us married on some other level--double-fake married!"

The woman's laughter and smile is clearly mixed with a pile of negative emotions, but what she lacks in physical capabilities she makes up with Iron Will. Alice shifts just as rapidly to a serious and quiet nod and leans forward, lips to the edge of the mortar and eyes shut tight. "Double-fake married" echoes in her mind and her eyes water as she begins to slurp the absolutely disgusting ritual meal. At first she gags, but after a pause to regain composure and control, she proceeds, rapidly consuming it in a desperate attempt to alleviate the symptoms of her curse. 

The moment Lilith's concoction slips down Alice's throat, the burning starts. It begins at the base of her stomach, but not like a normal stomach ache from spicy foods. Nay, it's akin to the sensation of a very acidic solution, the likeness of either C-Stoff or T-Stoff, melting through Alice's stomach lining. Or like the raking of a boiling hot poker, aflame, digging into her insides. The agony is quite literally worse than anything she's ever experienced. 

And it doesn't stop there. 

Oh what a blessing it would be for this process to prove quick. But no, it rolls with the slowness of a cooling lava stream. First down, expanding to her lower torso and legs. Alice probably wishes she didn't have them. But that pain proves a blessing as her upper torso and arms are next, burning with a suffering Inferno that is next to impossible to bear. 

And once it reaches up to the head, it is not the face but the brain that bears the brunt of it. Alice's head will literally feel like it's about to burst. The front, the back, the temple, the top- every single part of her head will throb with a fiery anguish.

And this will last for a while- about an hour.

Alice takes little breaks between gulps to breathe, breathing which quickly becomes irregular as tears start to stream down her blood-smeared face. 

At first the crying comes from confusion, fear, and sadness, but soon it comes from the inconceivably overwhelming pain. With nothing else firm to hold onto, she grabs Lilith's wrists as tightly as she possibly can with bloody hands--in part to steady herself to continue consuming the meal and in part to simply not be alone. 

When the mortar is pulled away from her lips, Alice releases Lilith and then writhes in the tub, sobbing loudly until the pain finally hits her head. Then she proceeds to groan and, in the beginning, even yell from the utter anguish like a woman giving birth--until, finally wracked with exhaustion and overloaded, she is reduced to quiet whimpers and sobs, trembling as she lay on her side in the several inches of Jason's blood, sometimes whispering the names Mel, Keara, and even Jason. 

Lilith says nothing, but gives a reassuring smile as the woman consumes the concoction, allowing her to cry as the terrible meal is swallowed. It's only once she begins to convulse with pain does she enter a more focused state. She looks over Alice's physical form, making sure that she is medically stable, before using her senses to ensure that she's still emotionally with her. She lets Alice's fingernails dig into the wounds in her wrists, something that is enough to slice strips of flesh next to the cuts, but the woman does not even grimace at the sensation.

"Breathe, Alice. You are stronger than the Crypt," She whispers in a soft, cool tone. She puts two fingers up to her eyes, bending the blood on her face to be clear of the corners of her eyes so that she may weep without external stinging. "You have fought worse monsters than pain, breathe with me," she says as she continues to support her the best that she can. Upon a quick examination, her body looks fine, with the exception of her skin growing flushed from head to toe.

The pain reaches its peak at the top of the hour and right when it feels to Alice like she might just drop dead from the abnormally rapid pace of her heartbeat, the pain suddenly swirls within, sliding along her extremities and shifting back into her stomach. 

And the pain stops. But only for about a single breath of relief as she feels her stomach broil and groan. And then suddenly heave. Uh oh, something was coming up and quick.

What comes out of Alice into the tub is a black mucus with the consistency of coagulated blood. There isn't a lot of it, but it's particularly disgusting to bear. It plops into the blood and thins out rather unceremoniously. At which point, all sensation returns to Alice as she feels... a soothing cool breeze wash over her. She will feel... refreshed. In fact, she will feel like she's an entirely new person. She feels younger and more energetic. And even though she has no sense for it, she just knows that whatever was lurking deep within her is now absent.

And as for Lilith, even though she's still drenched in blood, Alice looks far far better than you've ever seen her. In fact, now that she is drenched in blood... she might even look better than normal like this to Lilith.

All these revelations are unfortunately overshadowed by the slowly blackening liquid inside of this bathtub...

"JASON, TERRY--COME HERE!" Alice yells to the waiting room as she stands up and wipes some of the blood away from her eyes (rather fruitlessly given her soiled hands). Her voice is unusually sober compared to before. Then she carefully steps out of the tub next to Lilith, trying hard not to slip, and readies to telekinetically grapple down whatever thing might emerge. 

Jason will drop the bottle of Jack Daniels (that he got at the corner store) that he'd been nursing while he contemplated life. He looks at Terry and draws his pistol. Running into the room, expecting to see some kind of crypt monster, he surveys the room. Seeing nothing unusual except a blood-soaked Alice standing next to Lilith, he lowers his weapon. "What? What's the problem?" His words are slightly sleered. Terry follows after him.

Lilith deftly leads Alice out of the tub and towards the bucket of her own discarded blood, eyes locked on the strange black ichor now manifesting in the center of the room. "Really now, the Curse comes to show its face," she says in an almost-playful tone. "Let's do it, then." Underneath Lilith's wounds, something seems to writhe and wrap around her muscle and bone. It pushes another pint of blood out of the bulging cuts, staining her t-shirt in dotted spatters. Her expression drops from that of focused compassion to cold calculation. Whatever lurks below the surface of her lily white skin... it does not emerge, but it does seem to be waiting. 

The tub blood blackens, darker than a sunken star. The angle is not right, but you can see your own reflection in it mirrored perfectly, as if it were a computer screen. But not for long. The blood begins to bubble- a steamless boil that violently shakes the tub. Steadily growing in intensity until other utensils and scanners inside the room begin to bounce and wheel around on their own. The floor becomes unsteady and dizzying to stand upon, taking all but the most dexterous of you to the floor. 

Then follows the decay. It creeps from beneath the tub- a slow crawl at first. The sterile tiles begin to crack and mold over. As it spider's out to touch different machines, fungus grows in between the wheels, the complex screens grow cracks, and the buttons must over. But within seconds, the decay suddenly surges all around the room. Each light it touches bursts as the fluorescent lights pop. Bits of the ceiling splinter off in sections and fall to the floor. The walls crumble and crack. It passes under your feet and even though it tries to creep up your shoes (or bare feet in Alice's case), it fails and moves on. When the decay reaches the door with which you all entered, it swings shut.

BAM!

You are all left in quiet darkness, save for a single weak light above you that blinks in rapid and random intervals. The rumbling ceases. Mold spores and dust float about in a nearly unrecognizable room that looks as if it had been neglected for decades. Dirt and old blood on the walls. Rusting instruments. Bacteria covering every dark and moist surface possible. The tub gurgles. A torrent of tub blood splashes out and onto the floor. It quickly slinks away, into the nearest wall. You can hear its surrounding presence.

"ErrrRA-A-A-A-A-A-"

The noise of what sounds like someone blowing into a fan, echoes around you before cutting off as if someone turned off a radio.

Then, the voices start, beginning beside Lilith, over her shoulder. A younger boy, someone none of you other than Lilith would recognize. But if she turns to face it, she's only greeted by the wall. "I bear new promised lands…"

The voice then shifts and moves. Suddenly, it is beside Terry. It's the voice of a young woman this time that nobody but Terry would recognize. Again, only greeted by wall when turning to look: "To those with horrors past."

It moves to Alice next. A very familiar voice of a woman who is normally so energetic and flirty. Now, her voice is sullied by a cold and distant disposition: "The lost… The confused… The hopeless… I shepard them. And you. You…"

The voice then centers on Jason--different sides of him. All greeted by nothing if he so looks.

In Alice's voice to the left: "Your… polluted minds."

In Abbas's voice to the right: "Your… pitiful bodies."

In Violet's voice behind: "Your… poor souls."

The presence returns to the tub as the black blood begins to move. Lilith would recognize it as very similar to how her coagulation worked when she summoned Jason's heart.

Keara: "I perfected you!" 

Terry's daughter: "Made you my kin!"

Lilith's Brothers: "Welcomed you! I opened my arms and accepted your ugliness!"

Alice: "But rejected? Me?!"

All of the voices chime in a demented dysfunctional choir,

" No.     No.    No.         No.    No.      No.   No.

    No.     No.     No.    No.         No.           No.

No.     No.          No.        No.     No.    No. No.

     No.     No.     No.  No.       No.      No.   No...”

The room begins to shake again. 

Terry pulls a flask of holy water out of his jacket and splashes the coagulated blood. “Back demon!”

“The last entity to puppet those voices became my pet,” Lilith shouts, and the black blood would know it to be true. “I hold no mercy for those trying to use them against me. Pray for servitude instead of banishment,” she says as she lifts her right arm in front of her and keeps her left pointed down to the bucket, her sword and shield respectively.

Alice, who had fallen to the floor during the dizzying spell, gets up and rushes to her bag, picking it up just as the decay engulfs the room. The small black designer backpack avoids the fate of the chair it was set on, a chair that's frame is now so rusted it looks like a breeze would make it topple over. Turning around to keep an eye on the tub, she starts to dig through the bag with blood-stained hands. Watching the thing absorb into the wall answers her longstanding question about Violet's fears of "the man in the wall." The familiar voices make her shutter, and her heart sinks at the claims it makes--a small bit of it ringing true. Finally, Alice holds what she was looking for. Speaking into the haunting choir, the woman, still wearing nothing but a patient gown and drenched in blood, grips a bracelet and says, "Kevin, I need your help." 

Suddenly the space beside Alice rifts, one second a crack and the next second a gap, as though two curtains in reality have been pulled apart. Leaping through that gap is a pure white, full-sized alicorn with a silver horn on its head and large feathery wings. It wears a diamond-shaped silver chest plate, and it looks around the dark, decrepit room, snorting softly. Alice reaches for it to steady herself as the room begins to shake again, a little bit of blood from under her fingernails marring its perfect coat. As soon as Sparklesword enters, the rift closes. 

"I feel a little under-equipped," Jason says as all this is going on. But he points his gun at the entity anyway.

The voices cease as the blob in the tub begins to rise, piling upon itself in droves, ignoring the splash of liquid that is swiftly absorbed. It rises to nearly as tall as the theater, closing on 8 feet. It grows arms and a torso, and raises them into the perfect position for a violin to spawn in its hands, ready for play. The head is last- that of a porcelain doll face made of ceramic.

Or at least, that's what it looks like, as its expression changes--molds into that of a wide toothy smile. It readies the bow against the violin string and begins slowly dragging it down the instrument. 

You expect a note to play, but instead, a hellish cacophony of screams echo around you, with the voices of your friends, family members, and co-workers (contractors included). Every single person you have heard speak, whether you remember or not, screech from all around you. This time, however, if you turn to look at the walls, you see dozens of faces protruding from the tile surface- all twisted into distorted expressions of rage, anger, and fear. 

You can not hear yourselves think. The screeches and shrieks assault your ears, beat against your skull, and batter at your brains.

"Not more fucking dolls!" Jason yells into the cacophony. 

The room goes a bit upside down for Lily as her ears ring and the internal balance fluid in her ears does somersaults. The headache isn't pleasant either. She was... sure she didn't take a sip of that alcohol… Terry manages to fight off the worst of it even though his vision does blur a bit. Alice and Jason aren't quite so lucky. The floor quakes to them even though it isn't physically moving.

If pulling Wei’s hair is how to make them insanely pissed off, messing with Lilith’s head is her fury trigger. The thing underneath Lilith’s arms finally emerges, a viscous carmine that weaves between her eternal wounds like veiny yarn. “Fuck off!” she shouts over the reverberating screams as she flexes her fingers and sends countless vicious spikes of blood towards the creature’s instrument. 

Jason will spend a point of source to use his grit power to ignore penalties. 

Terry begins to speak to the creature. “Hey, you know, I bet you have interesting fish down there in hell. You ever caught any?”

Alice drops her bag as she steadies herself again against the horse to avoid falling as the floor beneath her feet trembles. Suddenly she has a headache, but it's a mild one. While sliding on the bracelet, she commands the alicorn to protect Jason. It casually trots over to the gunman to stand between him and the siren, wings almost blocking the enemy from his view (although there is plenty of view under it). 

Then, as Terry strikes up an unusual conversation and Lilith attacks, their voices contributing to the existing noise, Alice unplugs her nose and takes in a deep sniff--first and foremost smelling the drying blood on her and the room's utter decay. 

Over the course of the evening, the group has seen what must be over 20 gallons of blood come out of Lilith's body in one way or another. Unlike the streams that she drops into buckets or small amounts that she bends around her hands, this attack is fully and precisely controlled. Each of her fingers control one or more of the blood spikes, articulating them with surgical precision. The veins wrapped around her hands beat in-time with her heart (elevated, but not as fast as one would think given the situation) as they blast the instrument to pieces. The streams whip around the creature as it dissipates into nothing before returning to Lilith's arms and hiding underneath her skin once more.

Lilith's fury reigns true. While everyone else prepares for a fight, she wastes no time in ending this shit show here and now. The spikes of blood arcs over her limbs and surges forth in the blink of an eye. A few miss, but most of them strike the terribly conditioned violin, shattering it into a mess of wood and string.

In an instant, the shrill shrieks turn to pained wails. The contractors can see the faces in the walls twist in agony and recede one by one, decreasing the overall volume with each. When the last one disappears, the room returns to silence. The perfect atmosphere to watch as the porcelain entity begins to dissolve from the top down and dissipate into the air. 

In moments the tub is empty, save for a sheet of drawing paper. Alice and Jason can recognize it as one of Violet's drawings. A family portrait, except Jason's, Alice's, and Abbas's faces are all vigorously scratched over with black crayon. The room remains decayed, but the looming presence and air of... whatever all of that was has dissipated.

Upon seeing the drawing, Alice's face pales--which it can actually do now that she has a healthy skin tone--and she immediately closes her eyes, standing still and ignoring everyone else.

"Jiminy Cricket! Is everyone okay?"

"I've been better... I've also been worse. How's everybody else?" Jason goes and rests himself against the surgical table, that not a couple hours ago Terry and Lilith removed his heart. 

The surgical table collapses. Jason goes down with the table. As Jason lands with a thud on the ground. "Fuck my life… Hey, Doc, I think you need to fix your ceiling." The magical winged pony walks over to Jason on the floor and nips gently at his hair to see if he's alright, continuing to fulfill his duty to protect him.

“What in the Sam heck? Is that a My Little Pony?” The male steed looks back at Terry for a moment before focusing again on Jason. He has a sword cutie mark on his upper left thigh. 

Jason lays on the floor staring at the ceiling for a few more moments. An extradimensional pony licking his hair. "How is this not the most fucked up part of my night?" he says out loud more to himself. He waves his hand to shoo the pony away before he moves to stand up.

The coldness in her eyes does not leave as she calmly walks towards the tub to methodically search for any remaining signs of the black fluid that once filled it. "I'm alright, Terry, thank you for asking," she says without looking at him, "We got the parasite out. I'd recommend that we scrape off some of this decay on the walls and study it to see if we can create some kind of protection against whatever nonsense is in the Crypt," she looks over at Alice, noticing that she's a little distant in the moment, "Y'all might need it." 

Alice's eyes open and glow silver as the crayon drawing portrait of the Decker family floats up to her hand. She immediately crumples it, visibly pissed off. Then Alice looks around the dark room for a moment, at Jason getting off the filthy ground, the white pony gently tugging on his shirt to help him up, Terry approaching Jason with a stethoscope in hand for a checkup (correct me if I'm wrong), and finally at Lilith who stands close by. "Since that thing attempted to choke my daughter as it attacked us, the plan has changed," Alice states in a low tone. "My next step is taking down the actual siren and all of her minions in the Detroit Crypt."

“Why don’t you guys just call the cops on it? Seems like something the government would want to clean up, if it’s a known location.”

“Sounds like a hammer. Government doesn’t know the first thing about how to deal with things like that,” Lilith says with a scoff. “If Alice’s daughter is connected, too, we don’t want to risk her being ‘cleaned up’ along with it.” 

Alice raises an eyebrow to the suggestion before remembering that Terry doesn't have the full story. Then she nods as Lilith answers. 

"Normals can't handle it," she answers plainly. "Jason and I and one other were hired to clean up the place several months ago, but we failed and became cursed. No, I've had several people in mind for this... Edgar owes me a favor, Mark Collins has already agreed to it ..." She looks at Lilith and Terry. "Of course, you're welcome to come too, but you've already done so much for us tonight--please don't feel obligated." 

“I’m no monster hunter. I’m a doctor,” Terry replies. “But let’s get this mess cleaned up and check Jason.”

Lilith sighs. “More fucking hammers… but at least Edgar is effective on multiple fronts… well, at least not when he thinks he’s another person.” She shakes her head, “Jesus, that job was a shit show… But, I need a good therapist. I’m pretty resilient, but some of my abilities put a great deal of mental strain on me. I would be happy to trade favors. I’d also like to put that doll in a box and shake it for reasons that have become personal.” 

Jason slowly rises from his downed position at the surgical table. Continuing to try to wave the weird pony away. "I don't need help getting up!" he says. He lets Terry approach to do his check up. When Terry's close he whispers (at least he thinks he does), "What's everyone saying? I see lips moving, but nothing’s coming out."

Alice raises an eyebrow, lips still pursed and fists still clenched. "Thank you Lilith. I can attest that Edgar is mentally stable--stabler now. Also, I'm open to alternatives if you want something other than 'hammers.' But my goal is to take down the whole place, so hammers seem fitting." 

“Hammers are good for this situation,” Lilith replies. “I just hope that Superman isn’t as aloof as he usually is. I’d like to learn as much about it as I can as it breaks, however.”

Alice and Lilith turn to Jason, surprised and concerned by what he just said. "W-what?" Alice asks.

Jason looks really bad. Sickly. Pale skin, bloodshot eyes, pimples full of pus, and maybe he's even lost weight--almost as if he's about ready to decompose before your eyes.

“His condition is worsening. We need to complete the treatment right now.”

Lilith reaches her left hand towards the bucket of blood. She wills a liter into her possession, keeping it in motion around her fingers. “I can monitor his vitals like this,” she says, reaching her right hand out to him. “Take my hand and breathe,” she exaggeratedly mouthes to him. 

"Whatever the doc said sounds good." Jason looks around the room confused.

Lilith grips Jason’s hand, scratching a cut into his palm with one sharp fingernail. She flicks the blood from her left hand into space around their interlocked hands, creating two interlocking rings that surge, then spin and get absorbed into Jason’s palm. Jason will suddenly become aware of a stinging pain on his wrists, very similar in sensation to Lilith’s scarring… or rather, he would feel it if he were not painless right now.

Alice rapidly digs through her bag and pulls out two noise-canceling earbuds, which she then puts into Jason's ears as he holds Lilith's hand. Speaking telepathically such that only Jason (might) be able to hear her while she silently looks at him, taking deep breaths: "Lilith is going to monitor your vitals..." Her mind races. What to do? "...We need to get you home." 

As Alice puts in the ear buds he looks at her. "Home, I like home. I don't feel so good..." Jason looks at his hand, not flinching when the cut is made. He looks back at Alice. "Can we go now? I'd like to not die twice tonight."

Alice nods and turns to Terry, speaking quickly. "How many times can you heal Jason tonight--like, whatever it was that you did during our first check up? I want to take him home--either we drive or I book a private jet--whatever's faster. We're in no condition to take down that thing a second time in one go." 

"I can treat Jason as many times as I need. Once per Injury?"

"Perfect, heal him right now please to reset the clock. Then we're taking him home--and unfortunately you'll have to join us for the 30-hour drive to make sure he survives." Alice looks around the decrepit room. "I know you'd do it for free, but I'll make sure you're covered for the extra services--and the room." She walks over and picks up her backpack and the crumpled paper beside it, her anger reigniting. Her gaze meets Lilith's. 

At about this time, Lilith’s phone would get a text alert, from an unknown international number. “Felt that. Need help or have got things handled?” -Dr. V.

Lilith points her left hand towards the bucket of blood once more, causing some of the liquid inside to defy gravity and lift towards her in a thin stream. She then extends her right hand to Alice, "I like seeing you like this. I've got things to fight for too. Let's work together and make sure the Crypt burns. This will make sure that we know where to find each other and I will be much more effective at healing and protecting you." 

"I don't take threats to my daughter lightly," Alice answers in a low tone as she watches the process of being Marked, cringing briefly from the pain. "Thank you, Lilith." Through the same process, Alice becomes aware of the distance, direction, and vital state of Lilith. She feels the sensation of cuts on her forearms, and a dull wriggling underneath. Compelled physical empathy. 

“Terry,” Lilith starts, taking her hand back from Alice after a final glance, “Let’s get some sterile vessels. I’m not the best with science, but I’d like to see what I can learn about this rot on the walls, how it might link to my occult knowledge. We will leave promptly after collection.”

"Well shoot. Who’s gunna clean all this up?" 

“I’ve got it covered, don’t worry.” Alice repeats.

“How clean is your consultation room?” Lilith then sticks her hand into her bucket, sucking all of the blood back into her arms, leaving the inside completely clean. She will then take a look at the patterning of the walls, go about gathering rot, and anything else of note from this supernatural manifestation.

There isn't anything on these walls she hasn’t seen before if she’s ever been to an abandoned building that has seen absolutely no use for over 50-100 years. Which is quite peculiar for a supernatural manifestation as powerful as what you just experienced. 

Lilith takes a moment while she's inspecting and investigating the walls and floors to think upon the past few minutes. And as she powers through the screams of her brother being repeated in her head, she comes to the realization that whatever mental attack was launched at them was followed by an oddly specific set of symptoms that manifested in a specific order. Ratting eardrums, followed by a reverberation in the skull, and finished off with the ridiculously painful headache. Maybe some sort of auditory blocker would help in that regard. At which moment, following this revelation, her eyes drift behind the tub and toward a very easy thing to miss on this white tile floor. The violin strings curled up on the cracked surface like small wires. And it's only something you're able to find because every so often, the ends twitch on their own. In addition, something that you notice is a single cigarette butt behind one of the instruments. The only reason you'd have to think that this wasn't just an example of gross incompetence and uncleanness is that it does not look like it suffered from any decay.

"Mmm," Lilith hums, walking away from the disgusting walls and heading towards the center of the room near the tub again. She kneels down and examines the twitching violin strings which blend into the rotted and ground. "What have we here, then? Looks like our friend left a present..." Her red fingernails extend about five inches and morph into blunted tweezers, which she then uses to gingerly pick at one of the two strings wriggling about the ground. Now that Lilith thinks about it, the violin that had manifested in the hands of that doll was missing half of its strings. As she picks at those strings, they don't seem to visibly react, but Lilith’s ears start to ring after a little bit of poking.

Lilith takes the pair of strings and shows them to the room. "Weird... Makes my ears ring. Wonder what might happen if we strung this to an instrument... or perhaps wore it? Whatever these are, they are closely related to that thing that you're calling the Siren," she says before wrapping the two strings together in a circle to organize them a little better. She will then make her way over to the cigarette butt, sure that wasn't there moments before. "Don't think I've ever seen Terry smoke... Jason? You smoke?"

Jason looks over at Terry, "What did she say?" He asks, louder than he expected.

Lilith can’t help but laugh, “Oh, yeah, that’s right…” Lilith will find a plastic bag then will pick up the cigarette butt with her tweezer fingernails, trying to see if there was any supernatural sensation with this odd object as well before putting it away in the sanitary container.

"This all looks fascinating, but if you don't need me I'm gonna bail." Jason starts to walk towards the door. He's not moving very fast due to his deuterated state, but seems determined. "The car can take me home." 

To which Alice answers, looking at the unusual find with concern, "Neither of us smoke. But let's hurry up and get Jason home--Terry, please join us in our car for the ride and do whatever you did to me to try to cure my curse during our first checkup to Jason."

"Give me a call when it’s time, Alice. I’ll be in contact with you as well."

Alice nods. 
Then she rushes out to catch up with Jason, telepathically explaining all of the conversation that he just missed. 

"I'm done with this." Jason continues to leave the building. "I'm going home."

Downtime

Compensation

Shittier Pay

A conversation between Alice and Albert the paranoid hacker, several hours into the long drive home.

"The people you hired are morons. Sat around too afraid of murdering some clones. They got froggy so I ended up doing the whole thing myself in one day. I have their old phones, a hard drive they tried to take, and I got a look inside the inky void that whomever they left to protect the place has. Guessing it’s some sort of pocket dimension they can put stuff inside given it's all shadowy. I'm betting it's "WU
mbratainment. Anyways, I'll be back to you with the data I recover from it soon. Inspector got me a name at least, but still. Oh, also I have tire tread patterns, DNA samples, hairs they left behind, used cigarette butts en masse including some strange ones burnt at both ends rather than smoked, video of the strange apparatus they were using to watch my drone, and body imprint patterns from the bed sheets with video of all of it."

"Overly cautious sounds more accurate, and, to be fair, they were last minute volunteers--and I 'hired' you as well." Alice listens to the list, impressed but not surprised, until he mentions bedsheets. He found their beds? "I'm guessing you didn't singlehandedly murder them all and they're on the move but we know who they are now and can possibly track them--is that right?" 

"No, I didn't murder them all. I was going to. Found the tunnels under their complex and was going to leak some Soman into their ventilation, but they'd already been spooked by the time I showed up. From the cooling of the tire rubber on the ground from the point they peeled out from, they left probably within the day--who by the way, ditched for greener pastures after taking a round to the dome. Also, yes, I did find their beds. Seems most of them still need to sleep.  They also didn't clean their sheets and left a trash can full of mostly broken burner phones. Unfortunately for them, that's not enough to just stomp on a phone. So we can assume the group is pretty technically incompetent. Once I find whatever is going on there, I'm going to start committing identity fraud and freezing their assets across the board. Right now, though, I'm hacking the local intranet and getting access to ring doorbells, security cams, and the like to try and follow a path from where they tore out to let you know what direction they went in. Also I wasn't joking when I said one of them literally tried to snatch this hard drive I got from me when I cracked open their computer. Weird shadow tendrils came out, but I knew that light bulb was one of the eyes of the deep state and put a round in it before it could finish the job. Different one still got my drone, but I did get to see into what else they kept in that place and uh... don't engage these people on an open field. Saw a TOW missile launcher strapped to a back of a humvee with some strange shadow creature at the controls, along with a whole fuck ton of heavy sniper rifles with the same story. Also a sketch book? Don't know what the fuck that's about." 

To be fair, Albert was beyond the shadow of a doubt in Alice's mind overly cautious as well--just more... aggressive. "Probably for the best you didn't poison the air given that the primary goal is to rescue Mars--not recover her dead body..." Theo got shot in the head? But if he was okay enough to ditch then I'm assuming that means he's fine? I'll call him next. Albert's comment on the group's burner phones makes Alice sigh. She had similarly smashed and then threw away her own burner phone before fleeing Texas. I guess that makes me technologically incompetent...

Lightbulbs? Deep state? "Damn, like, thanks for being the one to take initiative, and I'm glad you're alright. I'm on a long cross-country drive home at the moment--oh, by the way, I'm de-cursed now." No one fed my soul to Elon Musk, she thinks to herself with a slight smile.

"That's good. I'm glad to hear you're okay. I wouldn't murder Mars either if she was there. Just, with so many powerful snipers, it'd be at that point where I'd either poison the air and handle the group or call in backup if she was. She wasn't. We knew they'd flown the coop, unfortunately. So I was going to kill the sniper and his friends that had shot Theo in his brain. Not one to tolerate that kind of cowardice without responding in kind." Albert could be heard sighing on the other side. 

"Fair enough," Alice replies to Albert's explanation and his intolerance for cowardice. No wonder he considers Inspector Bluedo and Oz to be morons.

"Either way, good to hear you're uncursed. I'm going to set the investigator and the... car guy? I don't know what he does. Either way, I'll set them both on the pursuit track and operate from the shadows as I do. Sorry that I couldn't get to Indiana fast enough to stop the goblin man from getting shot in the head, but I had a job interrupt my journey."

"No need to apologize. Interruptions happen..." Frankly, Alice's whole life involved layers upon layers of interruptions, some voluntarily taken on and others not. "I'll check in with Theo to see what he might need. I'm sure between myself and a few allies he'll be fully recovered soon. Now that the on-the-ground team is down a person, should I see if I can find someone else to provide support?" 

"The reason for the two's reluctance to head in was their apparent lack of combatants. We should all be able to kill people on some level though. It's part of the territory that violence is required at times, either in terms of being able to inflict it or respond in kind. So they'd probably prefer someone who can fight better than they can. Though they didn't seem too keen on the idea of liberally employing napalm or ramming their car into people so I'd probably ask for a front liner to make up for what they lack."

"With Kevin Sparkles gone and Mark Collins' recent arrest," something Alice saw on the news minutes before calling Albert, "the number of available front liners in my reach is shrinking. I'll try Mark first, as I can easily cover his bail, but I suspect he'll want to lay low for a bit. There's one other heavy hitter I have in mind if he declines. After that, I'm reaching out to friends of friends again--like the Inspector. But the worst they can say is no."

"I saw that. The military stepping in to chain up a superhero for crossing a line they didn't want him to is pretty harsh, so I'm imagining there's more to it than his publicly stated offense. I would be a bit careful around that, but, I'm sure you can handle the DA at least. Seems like your strongest area. "

"As I said, it's really not preferred. He's such a public figure, and in the news again..." Alice sighs. "I'll see what I can do. Continue to keep a phone on you, even if it's dead, so we can stay in touch."

"I know. The news constantly. I don't trust him myself, but that's just my instincts flaring up. Telling me that he's not one to stick around. Plus. All the attention. Euuugh. That many cameras at the same time would make me nauseous. Either way, I will keep a phone on me. Is there anything I need to be made aware of what's happened in the meantime in your network?" 

Alice raises an eyebrow. Did he just mention the Network--or maybe he meant my general network... "Uh, I suppose there is one other thing. I'm in the middle of coordinating a job to take down the Detroit Crypt in about a week, with the goal of killing its guardian and de-cursing the place. The job will involve quite a few of my allies--five or six of them, some who owe me favors and others who are involved for personal reasons--and it will be extremely dangerous. Besides logistics, I don't have skills and expertise to contribute, so I'll be on the sidelines for this one. It's not really relevant to your current job though..." Alice chuckles. "You know, I'm sounding like a harbinger but with shittier pay!" 

"Unfortunately you are, but thankfully it's a matter of personal resolution that's needed seeing to for a while. Thankful I haven't been cursed yet, but I'd be lying if I said I hadn't changed some of my job procedures to avoid coming into direct contact with mystical objects or locations before I'd verified some means of preventing them from fucking me up too bad. Like wearing an NBC suit before going out to the nuclear plant. You don't want cancer, you gotta take precautions. I'd still be prepared for the curse to reach out and touch you somehow when they start smashing shit. Prepare yourself with as many specific anti crypt measures as you can, and of course. Be ready to employ some good old fashioned lead while running away at full speed if shit goes south. I can create shields myself, but I feel like I might be redundant with the amount of people you have running around."

"That's on my radar. We were going to do the same ritual for Jason. However, in the middle of my ritual--which felt like complete and utter hell--the crypt guardian sent ghost things that attempted to strangle Violet." Her tone drops briefly. "No one touches my daughter without consequences. Now that I know it can reach out to her at will, the plan is to tear the entire Crypt down. But first an occultist is looking into defensive measures for the, uh, 'Crypt divers.' I'm also working on employing a few extras who can do more than point-and-shoot combat to try to keep Violet and I alive while the main team does their work. Plus that doctor who can perform resurrections, as insurance." 

"Understandable. I apologize for not being an 'occultist'; those types are normally operating entirely on rumor and keep terrible notes so it's been hard for us to develop any follow up methods that are more reliable for those of us who are looking to produce wards against the mole demons that are crawling up from hell in the next hundred years. I personally don't trust them much, but you can't discount everything you hear. Especially when evidence of a curse is so prevalent. Dismantling the entire thing is going to be tough. Especially if they don't necessarily operate on traditional geometry, or if they have control over the space, but hopefully if you do enough damage they'll agree to release Jason and Violet just to be done with the issue." 

Alice smiles at Albert's distrust of occultists. Technically most conspiracy theorists could fall into that same description. "The occultist I know is one of the best there is, given that the ritual was successful." She nods to the rest, a gesture unseen over their supernaturally confidential conversation. "Indeed. In the meantime, we have our work cut out for us. I'll let you know if I've confirmed a new teammate for the Goshen job and, regardless, check in on the developments in about an hour." The call ends. 


-------

Princely Sums

Alice (finally) supernaturally calls Amarjeet. Despite the phone number being hidden, the caller ID is "Friend of Mark Collins" with the profile picture of a paw print icon.

After a few rings the line picks up. You have reached the Inderpal agency. How can I help you?" A woman's voice, slight British accent

"Hello Amarjeet, my name is Alice and we're speaking on a supernaturally confidential line. No one can see us speaking or hear us, and what we say cannot be recorded. Would you like to test that?"

"I see. How do you mean 'supernatural'? My mobile is rather advanced, and I always record my work calls."

"Your phone is just a focus for my ability. This conversation is actually taking place via telepathy, with the illusion that it's happening through your phone. If you'd like, I can 'hang up' so you can see if what we've said so far has been recorded."

"That won't be necessary. Again - how can I help you?"

"I'm considering offering you an immediate job to recover a kidnapped supernatural child. Early this morning the child was subtly taken from a police station in Goshen, Indiana, by a group of supernatural adults. They tried to cover their trail, but a hacker friend of mine discovered their local hideout, which they recently fled, and many of their identities. He's currently working on pinpointing their new location. The group consists of at least one sniper, a hacker, and possibly someone who can manipulate memories. Mark Collins described you as a 'mercenary, investigator, hacker, and jack of all trades.' Is that accurate?" 

Meanwhile, Alice uses Abbas’s burn phone to Google "Interpal Agency." She mainly finds the disastrous, career-ending video where a young Sikh agent inadvertently caused the death of the British prime minister some years back, and the outpouring of hate that continues to this day. The agency appears to provide close protection services, security consultation, and some custom equipment. It’s based out of India, with offices in London, Dubai, and Hong Kong. 

The woman's slightly impatient tone changes a bit into an exasperated sigh, "Mercenary? Not a sterling recommendation then, I'll need to update my CV. Most of those other qualities are reasonably accurate, though I don't fancy myself a Private Investigator as much as a Close Protection Specialist. Have done a priority extraction from time to time."

There's a clear smile in Alice's voice. "Mark isn't exactly the most intellectual nor perceptive, so I wouldn't let that worry you too much. I do want to stress, though, that this job may be unusually difficult and dangerous given that the kidnapping group is a group of supernaturals of unknown size. That being said, are you interested and available in taking this on? If so, you'd likely work with one other. My hacker is extremely talented and prefers to stay in the shadows, but he's capable even on the frontlines. I'm just afraid that this is too big for him to handle alone."

"So a gang of unusual terrorists. I might be available depending on the scope - I do have other responsibilities, & a missing person case can be an extended task. What sort of compensation did you have in mind? I'm certain Mr. Collins mentioned my ‘mercenary’ sensibilities."

"No he didn't, although I expected as much. To be honest, I don't know what the going rate is for something like this. Cash? Concerning services, I am a supernaturally effective psychologist; I can rapidly heal the mind of most illnesses. I'm also building a Network of talented people like ourselves to facilitate the trading of goods and services while maintaining a certain level of privacy. Perhaps someone else in my group has an item or service I can acquire for you, if you're looking for something specific? Also, if you, like, lose a limb on the job, I can arrange for your healing. In terms of valuable items, I have something that lets you hack into technological and old fashioned devices, although that sounds redundant with your skillset..." There's a pause, hinting at Alice's hesitation. "I also have an unusual bracelet that has a broad set of powers--summoning an overtly magical horse that will guard you, summoning that same horse to ride away from danger extremely quickly, turning into an overtly magical horse, and a sword that can shrink down into a small charm. However, I would only pay you with that if you succeeded."

There is a lengthy pause. Even an awkward one. Finally, she responds with, "Look here Miss or Mrs. Alice; I have no interest in this ‘supernatural’ nonsense. Nor am I any longer in the market for healing, especially from the kind of company Mr. Collins keeps. I work for money. Typically princely sums thereof, as I will get results, or will die trying." There is a moment where she hesitates there, as if that last part wasn't entirely supposed to be said out loud. Either way, she bulls onward, "Keep the witchcraft and other bollocks for those who peddle in them. I only need my skills, my faith, and my tools to get results--and a payday, of course. That being said, my needs are currently well situated by my current contract, and I can't afford a long search. Perhaps you would like to simply propose a bounty for information on this girl, and I'll consider it?"

Now that is an answer that Alice hasn't heard from anyone else in her line of work, ever. Well, she certainly sounds confident--and isn't a fan of Mark. "It wouldn't be a search; it would be a rescue. I already have several people on the ground who are tracking her--it's the extraction that they probably cannot pull off. Assuming that happens in the next day or two, since it wouldn't be productive to trail after them forever, would you like to propose a price?" It would have been nice if Amarjeet had said outright that compensation equated solely to cash, but here they are. 

"A day or two is hardly time to orient a proper extraction. Even that being contingent on my location, current operations, the validity of any information you have gathered as well as any plans made by these terrorists that will need to be circumvented. Granted, if the situation is desperate and a life is at stake a month to plan is probably not going to come easily… I would need to do my own due diligence to accurately scale the operation."

Alice listens quietly, beginning her response with a sigh. "It isn't a life or death situation. The group is going to keep the child indefinitely and attempt to brainwash her to join their cause. They do know that they're being tracked--although I don't think they know who is doing the tracking--so it's realistic that they're making plans to be on the defensive. But I understand the need to do due diligence, and I apologize for not understanding the complexity of the request. Thank you for your time." 

"What do you mean thank you for my time? A girl is being trafficked by insane, godless cultists - of course one should research the strengths and weaknesses of said opposition: however, these mental jobs never allow for that, now do they?" Her tone has changed now, could even be called venomous.

It takes three quiet seconds for Alice to recover from this second round of conversational whiplash. She had hoped that more details about the situation would engender a little empathy, but this new direction far exceeded her expectations. "You're completely right--this is an absolutely horrible situation and your help would be appreciated. Let me pass your number on to the hacker who is currently coordinating the mission so that he can share what little information he's been able to gather. Is it still [PHONE NUMBER]?" 

"Yes, yes, that's my bloody personal line. "

"Great. As a warning, the hacker is as paranoid about government conspiracies as he is capable and intelligent--so I recommend you ignore his occasional tangents about the Illuminati and fluoride in the water. Once you're caught up on the situation, we can determine how involved you want to be and what you'd consider to be fair compensation." Hopefully her sudden passion will make her more affordable... Then, fearing Amarjeet will change her mind, Alice promptly ends the call.

 

 

-------

The Call Fails

Six and a half hours after the early morning call with Charlies, seven or eight hours after the kidnapping, and about thirty minutes before Alice and Jason arrive to Dr. Buckworth's office in Idaho, Alice tries to telepathically call Mars. The call fails.
The Photoshoot

Supernaturally Delicious

Someone Else

It’s early Saturday morning. Dr. Melanie Dakkera, wearing only her underwear and covered with a fluffy orange comforter on a twin bed in her tidy bedroom, wakes up to her phone ringing. She rubs her eyes with a yawn--having stayed up a bit later than usual the night before due to chatting with Keara--and then reaches for the phone on the nightstand. It’s probably just Alice letting her know that Jason got home safely after the 30-hour cross-country trip. She answers, putting it on speaker before laying back down with a plop.

“Jason's home, and I’m going on another job."

“Now, really?”

“Yeah, and you’re not going to like it.”

“I never do.”

“I know, but this one you’re really not going to like.”

Mel telekinetically grabs and then glances at phone. The profile pic shows a much healthier looking, de-cursed headshot of Alice. The two look 100% alike again, aside from Mel wearing fake glasses and Alice having an edgy undercut/pixie cut. “It can’t be worse than the Crypt one.”

Alice answers quietly. “Not that kind of worse--like, potentially worse for you.”

Mel’s tone drops. “What is it?”

“I’m, uh, being cast in a Pepsi ad as an overtly supernatural person and, like, I’m going to do everything I can to make sure they never see my face.”

Mel sighs. “And if you fail?”

There’s a long pause. “If I fail,” Alice answers slowly, “then you can say that it’s not you--it’s someone else.”

“It’s ‘Alice Decker,’ who is uncomfortably married to Jason Decker, who's child is demon possessed, who might be wanted by the FBI, and who is now starring in a Pepsi ad.” Mel pauses. “It really is time for you to ditch that identity.”

“I know… soon.”

“Soon.” The line is quiet once more for a few long seconds. “Let me know how it goes.”

“I will and, uh … thanks.”

"You know what I want,” Mel replies.

"What we want," Alice corrects. The call ends.

The nearly perfect copy of the original Melanie Dakkera lays there for a few minutes longer, frowning, thumb pressed into her temple as she debates what to do next. Probably best to create an ironclad alibi, just in case things become dicey like the Texas job. For all Mel knew, the task would turn into “get framed for the murder of a famous actor while being filmed for a soda ad.” Eventually the Pathetic, calculated, compassionate woman pulls her laptop up from the side of her bed with another sigh and begins to form a plan.

 

 

-------

Supernaturally Delicious

A small horse with a bright blue mane, small feathery wings, and a blue heart cutie mark gallops through the misty, well-lit woods. Long streaks of light and shadow cast patterns on this majestic creature's pearly white fur, which, after several seconds, is suddenly ridden bareback by a sparkly female apparition in flowy garb with a form and face that some would say distinctly resembles Dr. Melanie Dakkera and Dr. Alice Decker. The camera cuts away to a majestic stag similarly galloping through the forest. However, as it leaps into the air it transforms into what some would recognize as Nanook's true form--a humanoid with large antlers. Just as the magical pony arrives at the destination, Nanook lands with an earth-trembling stomp, cracking the ground beside a boulder that has a well-placed can of Pepsi's latest flavor. Nanook picks up the shiny, dewey can, opening it with slow-motion perfection and bringing it to his lips. Suddenly the can has a silver glowing aura as it flies out of his hands towards the pony, who's eyes also glow. The pony proceeds to drink the Pepsi, head turned upwards, telekinetically holding it just right to pour it down a long stream into her mouth. The final scene zooms in on the product. "Pepsi. Supernaturally delicious," Morgan Freeman says in his god-like voice. The can glows once more as it's telekinetically crushed flat, the sugary liquid inside exploding a moment before the advertisement ends.

 

 

-------

Slowly Diverge

The real-life My Little Pony original character (OC) takes slow, deep breaths as it lays in the rather cramped aisle of the limo during the one-hour ride home. 

“They got my face on camera--on the ad."

“I expected as much,” Mel replies coolly.

“However, no one on the set or at the studio saw my human form, and I never signed anything. I only spoke telepathically to a makeup artist and then whispered to my one colleague when we were alone. I transformed on the way over in the limo before he joined me, and I’ll transform back after he gets dropped off. And the limo doesn’t have any cameras--I checked.”

There is a long pause as Mel uses the fresh information to reach the same conclusion as Alice. “I’ll start looking for a quality lawyer, and you call Albert.”

"I will right after this." Alice glances over at Nanook, who sits nearby on a plush black leather seat, looking out the window as the world supernaturally passes by. He is a stocky man with red eyes and scarred skin wearing tribal clothing with animal furs visible beneath the layers and sturdy boots. His braided hair and beard are laced with ornamental beads, and protruding from his head is a pair of glorious antlers. Alice’s backpack and neatly folded clothes are right beside him. He had faithfully carried her stuff around for the several hours of their job so that Alice didn’t have to do so telekinetically. Frankly, even if he had seen her true form, she is confident it wouldn't matter. He seems to be a polite, animal-loving luddite who lives in the wilderness, forging his own path in complete independence and isolation from the modern world.

“Also, uh, you should ditch your backpack and your favorite outfit,” Alice adds quietly.

“I did that right after the Texas job.” Mel sounds slightly annoyed. She really loved that backpack and outfit. There is another long pause before Mel asks in a softer tone, “Are you still going to deal with the Crypt?"

“... That’s next. I still need to get ahold of a few people and see when they're free, but it's looking like it'll happen in a few weeks. It may take a few days to make me legally dead, and it may take a few days for the ad to be published..." Neither know much about making ads, but surely there are many post-filming steps? "So maybe I can get this taken care of beforehand.”

“I know you're considering staying with him, but have you thought about what Jason's going to tell his family when 'Alice' is legally dead?"

Alice is quiet. The brief conversation she had with his mother replays in her mind. Then the wedding photoshoot resulting in "evidence" that they never sent to his parents due to reaching the understanding that their "marriage" would be whatever they wanted it to be between them. Frankly, Alice still has no idea--not after two days ago, at Terry's office, with Jason treating her like that. It's no consolation to consider that Jason might not survive the upcoming Crypt job. Even with such a big, capable group and Terry on standby outside, death feels like a very real posibility for him, seemingly always right around the corner.

“One thing at a time,” Mel finally says, breaking the long silence. It’s the same comforting phrase that Alice has used with her clients, now being spoken to herself by someone who is practically herself. As the months go on, the two women slowly diverge, shaped by their different experiences. Nevertheless, thirty three years of sameness is a firm foundation.

After a long pause, the woman who will soon shed the name Alice finally repeats, “One thing at a time.” The call ends.

Downtime

Coordination

Intellect, Detail, and Insanity

The telepathic, supernaturally obscured conversation between therapist and hacker takes turns and twists.

Teeth extraction. A suicide note and a camcorder. A smokeless fire in a double-walled container. After determining the details of how exactly to best fake Alice Decker’s death, the woman who would soon no longer be called Alice apologizes for the extreme inconvenience. Having minimal knowledge of computers, hacking, and how to go about such shady business, Alice had assumed Dominic could simply make an identity dead as effortlessly as he could make a new identity alive. She also expresses her deep gratitude for his willingness to help and a desire to pay him one way or another, prompting the insane man to comment on his beliefs in “a complex calculus of relationships.”

Next they discuss her return favor for him--a lawsuit of Genwyld. Melanie would have to do it, probably after the Pepsi lawsuit settled, since Alice wouldn’t have a legal identity anymore--and she really didn’t want another fake one to deal with. 

Dominic then encourages her (for the second time) to be what she wanted to be in life, prompting Alice to share what she already had in mind for her pseudo-suicide note. Alice also shares why now was the right time to take on her “true form”: (1) Jason Decker would no longer view Alice as a viable love interest, (2) her Alice Decker identity is probably wanted by the FBI anyways, and (3) once dead, Mel can sue Pepsi to make money and distinguish herself from (the criminal and supernatural) Alice Decker. Alice is at first surprised and then flattered when she learns that Dominic answers with his intention to install an overly secured doghouse onto his property--complete with snoot based biometrics

But moving in with Albert is not even a remote option (and after Keara and Mel on the housing list) until Jason’s curse and Violet’s multifaceted situation are more settled. Only then would Alice have accomplished her detour Ambition--and then… to just be a carefree dog who heals people--her ultimate dream.

From there they talk about Jason’s problems: still Crypt cursed, definitively wanted by the FBI, and his supernaturally enhanced gun locked up in some FBI evidence box. Problems that Alice wasn’t totally sure how to solve, including the Crypt curse. Problems Albert audibly wasn’t interested in getting involved in, as hacking the FBI is its own caliber. And of course the bonus problem of Jason’s developing attraction to Alice--which she hopes would be solved via her newest supernatural development. But it was nice to vent to someone about it other than Mel: "And then he got all grabby--fuck!"

"Gross."

"Exactly!"

The topic briefly becomes less standard business and more weird. Dominic offers her an assault rifle that looks like a plush toy and proceeds to warn that he has a bunch of animated teddy bears he rescued from slavery living in his basement cutting coke for dark web shipments.

Not knowing what to do with that information as a generally law-abiding mental health practitioner who genuinely doesn’t want to shoot anyone, despite her recent training from Jason, Alice switches the topic back: “Do you even like dogs?”

“Microchipping dogs are a plan for the government to be able to hack into the devices in your home in order to spy on you… but otherwise they're just fine." There's a long pause. "Also, my name isn't Albert. It's Dominic. Dominic West. If you tell anyone, I will have you killed.”

Alice brushes the threat off; she’s good at keeping things confidential. At the disclosure of Albert’s real name, she’s both honored and confused. "I … I think, like, my name is Allie. Or maybe Lanie--based on the latter half of Melanie. Which sounds better? I, uh, don't really know at the moment… ‘Mommy'. 'Wife.' ‘Pretty horse.’ Doggy." Alice hears Dominic gag a little at the wife mention.

"Lanie sounds better to me? Allie is tied to who you were before you were a dog. If I were to make a break like this I'd want fresh. Lanie is close to Melanie ,yes, but it's also its own name that doesn't start with the same sound."

"Fair enough. Mel got the first half, which is why I went for Lanie for about two months..." Before the curse.

"Sorry, that whole nuclear family scam is a way for the government to become able to track your location through your children via the microchips in their vaccines. Thankfully I know how to cleanse the vaccines so the microchips pop, but, still. No. That said, to get away from the dark truth of the world for a second… Marriage, especially to someone who's clearly holding onto you for them rather than helping to lift you up with them, is not for everyone. You have an important dream, and if people can't respect that your ambition outstrips their feelings for someone they've known for maybe half a year. Fuck em'. Obviously I have helped save this Jason guy's life a few times now, but he clearly has problems seeing the individual past his government enhanc--no no I said I'd stop with the dark truths. He has problems seeing past his hormones. If you make this break, probably a good idea to make the break clear."

Well, he saved Jason’s life once. But Alice wouldn’t argue that point; once is still immense. "He has helped. He's been supportive as I, uh, did all of this work... he's helped parent--" Fed the Violet sweets and junk food. Played with her a ton, which is the love language of a child. Guarded them at night while they slept. But not exactly the epitome of parenting nor a brainstorm buddy to find solutions like Dominic is. It had been a mixed bag. She'd been looking into supernatural schools, teaching Violet preschool lessons, cooking healthy meals (whenever they weren’t burnt), and familiarizing her with things that other girls her age would be interested in. "He's protected--" He has always wanted to protect her, but thus far they both got cursed... and then she coordinated his escape from the Texas hospital, and then rushing him home after the de-cursing ritual, and now the Crypt tear-down plan. Although the ritual situation was because he insisted on decursing Alice first; if their roles had been reversed, she would be the one more heavily cursed… Albert hears silence as Alice tries to sort these thoughts.

"He's done basic good uncle things and gotten into trouble. I bugged your house, remember?"

"Shit." Alice thought she had purged him from their devices when they switched out the old stuff with new stuff. So that was how he knew about the Network. “... Well, if I did 'break from him' it would only be to protect Violet." As a dog, Alice personally doesn't have anything to lose if he got bounty hunted or arrested. "His identity is tainted since they fingerprinted and face-profiled him when the Texas police and FBI got him. Which means as soon as he stops living in the Crypt and starts living in the real world, he's a wanted and now findable man. I can't keep custody of Violet in my true form--and if he can't either then… Keara and Mel need to take her in." A conclusion she’d honestly been putting off reaching until she could delay it no longer.

"Yeah, I know the FBI wants him, but I'm not scrubbing that shit. The heat from even a slight misstep there would follow me to my grave, and from what I've heard. Keara is decent? I don't know your clone, and the other clones… Yeesh, but if you've had cause to trust them, well, you're a braver soul than I."

"No, I'd never ask you for that--I'm trying to get my friends out of trouble..."

"Also this whole crypt business with both of you being cursed. Gonna bet it's because you had a hammer at your side when you needed a scalpel."

Her tone drops. "... I ... I can't say I was very useful on that job either, frankly." But Albert's Dominic's analogy reminds her of what Lilith had recently said. Lilith is undeniably a scalpel. "Mel and I have been talking regularly since I got cursed. The whole reason why we get along is because we love ourselves--and, like, if the other person is technically us then it's a logical conclusion that we'd love each other."

"Well it'd make sense why most people in this line of work have rather aggressive clones then."

"As I said before, my run of the Goshen job was not pretty for my colleagues." A pause. "Can you help me transfer Violet legally to Keara Star? She's a financially stable child psychologist with a perfect record. It could be an adoption--I just don't want Violet caught up in the foster care system." Jason wasn't going to like it, but what else could Alice do? Abbas's true identity is also tainted, and Violet living with him in the woods forever would definitively not prepare the child for normal, modern life.

"I can do so, it's not a problem to arrange that. She's a family friend, DSS and CPS should have no problems handing her to an accredited professional in the field as well. It's for the best, Violet's had enough of people breaking down doors in her life."

Alice sighs at that analogy as well. Technically her and Jason 'broke down a door' to find her in the first place. "When will I help you, Alber--Dominic? This really isn't fair." He certainly had mental health issues, but she can't and won't force treatment.

"I'm a needs rather than wants kind of guy, but. Someone else does need your help. The teddy bears. They were in what amounts to concentration camp conditions. If you can help them, that'll be a start. I have a sympathy towards those oppressed by fascists you see, and even as silly as they are. I can't let that go."

"... They have mental health issues ... Can they talk?"

"They cannot talk. That has been the problem. They do think, and can understand you though."

"Not even write? Wait, I can talk to them via telekinesis probably.”

"They're... also animated by a necromantic ritual that requires the heart of a cow. They may be able to write. I haven't tried that yet, this is why I ask about this stuff. Me and social shit... we just don't mix well. They did have a bunch of rather grevious wounds but thankfully I know a doctor, who though they healed it with some visually unconventional side effects, gave them their limbs and eyes back."

"So you have to animate them and that lasts for a period of time? I guess I'll be paying your highly secure house a visit after this..."

"Oh no, they're… permanently animated."

"Visually unconventional?" This is sounding like a horror film in the making--nothing she's not used to by now.

"They help me process orders from the dark web for work. Don't really eat so it's nice to have the help. And yes it's about as bad as you're imagining. A Dr. Rhea Allister. But I took what I could get for restoring limbs. I'd rather have a scary looking claw hand than no hand, and I asked them first. I also have a heart that can animate a stuffed animal from the same operation, but I have no capacity to control such creatures."

"I'll probably have to do a house call." Alice giggles. "Just tell them not to run away from me, or it might trigger me to, uh, like, chase."

"No, they're fine with animals, only scared of bears. Weird, I know, but there was a polar bear… and their oppressors were also bears. This was a weird job.” 

“Not at all what I would have expected. But then again, these days I have no idea what to expect."

"Also when I say it can animate the stuffed animal I mean. It also gives it the physical equivalent abilities of that stuffed animal. So, stick it in an elephant. It will be as strong as an elephant. And the size of the stuffed animal."

"That's incredible! I know a guy who can control animals--I bet that would be a nifty combination, so long as there's a way to protect the heart… One thing at a time though." In her voice, it's clear she's grinning now--a contrast from when they first started speaking about her faking her death. "First we have to kill Alice Decker." 

"We do, and that my friend, is the easy part." He then proceeds to rattle off a million ways that he has to drive the car to fake tire tracks, how he's going to abrade them with a sander in order to artificially age them and a million other ridiculously complex things.

"..." Alice listens, fascinated and slightly horrified by his level of intellect, detail, and insanity.

"One other thing--I got two houses in Salem Indiana. You want one of them for your fake dog identity thing? Both the owners are dead, wasn't me, but neither had any family so I figured it was better to allocate them somewhere than to have them go to the state. We both know they'd just turn it into a fluoride pump station to drug the poor people of Salem more than they already are." 

"Thanks for the offer, but let me get back to you on that. I'm still figuring out who I might be staying with once Alice Decker is dead--there's just a lot of variables in my life right now."

"Understood, just figured I'd give you a strings-free option of a place without any considerations to think that over until you've made that choice. I'll still offer one of them up as a location for you to turn into a safe house. Good to have fallbacks in case someone starts shit."

"... I appreciate you, Dominic. You know I do."

"As I'd hope you should. All the messes I clean up it'd be pretty crazy if I wasn't. Still, it's just keeping an eye out for things that other people gloss over, besides. I can only use one safe house in one county myself. If I keep anything extra I draw attention where it's not needed, whereas if I give one away I don't look as suspicious to the deep state. So give it to whomever if you decide not to use it, I can't have the legal scrutinizers looking my way."

"If you really want to offload one of the properties, give it to Keara. Her and Mel are looking to leave the Bay Area to get some distance from the Sleeping Sickness. We--uh, they have a half-paid off house in the nice side of Berkeley, and they don't exactly want to take on another mortgage if the phenomenon goes away--nor continue living out of an AirBnB in Solano County." A brief pause. “And I'll pay you for it over time."

"Alright, seems good enough. I'll change the name of the trust that I've put the house into to them and arrange for it to be inherited in the form of a step-up basis so that they only have to pay the property tax of the property's value when it was originally purchased. In the 80s. Should be nice and cheap, especially compared to Berkley."

"Indeed, a good change of pace--hopefully far from the blatantly dangerous supernatural.” Alice recalls that a kraken tentacle was also recently fought along the shore of San Francisco. Why was that place such a weirdness magnet? “Just let me know what I can give you for it." 

"If you find any tech shit that you don't have a special need for obviously slide that my way, and if I ever get hurt make sure to put in a word to the good doctor for me. Otherwise I make plenty of money. I've got a hundred G's just sitting in a safe SOMEWHERE in gold bars. I'll be honest. I don't ask for much because I don't need much and being able to freely call on services when I need them through you seems a valuable investment of my time. I can buy stuff, I can scam Logan Paul out of a hundred thousand dollars, I can write an expose decrying Elon Musk's soul harvesting Samurai. I cannot be there for myself when I'm hurt. That is what friends are for. Even I know that."

"I'll certainly keep an eye out for 'tech shit' and connect you to what you need when you need it as best I can. And of course, we'll put that teddy bear mental health check-up on the calendar too."

"Of course. You'll have my thanks for that. They're essentially holocaust survivors, and my entire crusade against the deep state is to help beings like them. Even if they aren't human."

"And mine is to heal the mind." The perfect pairing.

 

 

------

Kill or Otherwise

Several weeks after their last conversation, Edgar Stokes gets a phone call. The profile picture shows a paw print, and the name of the contact is "Allie (Ms. Shrink)."

The line picks up on the fourth ring. "Don't recall giving out these digits." A young man's voice this time.

"Edgar?"

"Sure. What's up doc?"

"I would like to cash in on that favor--specifically, I have a 'god' for you to kill or otherwise humble."

"Alright - a deal's a deal. What can you tell me?"

Alice sighs both in relief and at the delayed realization that Edgar has probably skin crawled out of the old Asian man and into a young man, who is probably now dead--unless this is the original Edgar Stokes? Who knows... 

"There are haunted extradimensional locations across the world called crypts which are set up by and house powerful entities called Crypt Keepers. These locations can have extensive interiors which are decrepit versions of real places or--according to Mark Collins who went on a job in one of the Crypts--possibly reflections of someone's subconscious?" Alice seems unsure about that last part. 

"These Keepers are sapient and powerful. According to Bu Fang, their purpose is to protect 'crypt treasures' and punish trespassers. Bu and Mark's experience with a Keeper involved the Keeper putting them through 'contrived challenges' which resulted in them temporarily losing some of their abilities. It also tried or wanted to turn them into something like itself. I had a different but similar interaction with what I believe is the Keeper of the newer Detroit Crypt. Five months ago, a colleague and I entered that Crypt with the task of clearing out and de-cursing the place, but that Keeper defeated us in combat. However, instead of killing us, she cursed us--which geographically tied us to the Crypt at risk of death if we strayed from it for too many days and stops most of the Crypt creatures from attacking us--as we essentially became one of them. I recognize that becoming cursed as opposed to dead... was an act of mercy."

"We've been calling the Detroit Crypt Keeper a 'siren' because she uses sound combined with a haunted version of the things you cherish--like the voices of loved ones--to wear down your mind. Specifically, she sings and plays a supernatural violin. She also uses sound to control mobs of sentient mannequins in the Detroit Crypt. When my colleague and I first fought her, she was supported by a doppelganger as well who took the form of a mutual friend--although we haven't seen the doppelganger again after months of living there."

"We recently confronted her again--or, like, a version of her--a few days ago when Lilith helped me complete a de-cursing ritual. At the end of the ritual, that same creature manifested, rapidly aged the room by, like, 200 years, and then attacked everyone's minds. But that wasn't the real thing because a single strike to her violin sent her away. While briefly fighting her, though, she somehow sent ghosts to my apartment in Detroit to try to choke my three-year-old daughter to death. Violet, she--while living in the Detroit Crypt, my colleague and I found her abandoned and living in filth in a "room" accessible by a hallway of interdimensional doors that I believe connects all of the Crypt locations. She's demon-possessed, which is why I had asked if you knew anyone who could hold down and deal with the incorporeal." She sighs. 

"Anyways, I don't want to try to complete the de-cursing ritual for my colleague because if we summon her again in that way then she might again attack my daughter. In fact, it's entirely possible that the siren could attack my daughter, who also has ties to the Crypt through her demon, at any point. So now my goal is to kill or otherwise humble the siren--the Crypt Keeper--so that she's no longer a threat to Violet and my colleague--and possibly the location itself--becomes decursed." There is a long pause. "I have a bit more to explain, but first, do you have any questions?"

"Chicago, eh? Great - when should I leave?"

Alice is taken aback by the lack of questions, evident by a sharp inhale. "... Lilith, who I believe you're familiar with, will be joining you because she has a personal interest in curses, as well as a few others. I need to make a few more calls to coordinate and then I'll let you know the exact meeting time and location--probably in a few weeks." A pause. "On a related note, may I have the name of the person you know who can deal with ghosts? I'd like to reach out to see what they can and would be willing to do. I may try to hire them to help me protect Violet during this job--and possibly tame a demon." 

"Oh yeah - Grace Cyanide is what she calls herself. Tell her Spookums sent you, she should be cool. As for the rest, yeah let me know: I'll be taking the scenic route, so give me 12 hours."

Alice stifles a laugh as 'Spookums' which immediately leads to embarrassment. "I-I will, thanks." She nods. "I've, uh, been taking the scenic route lately too--I understand. We'll be in touch, and, thank you." Even if it's repayment, she is grateful. The call ends.

 

 

-------

Isolating

Abbas will lead Mel through the Manistee National Forest, a large dense forest with tons of cover and few trails/passerbys. He walks carefully behind Mel, covering her tracks and showing her how to as well. Each step may crumble leaves and leave a footprint, bending plants and stems. He navigates slowly, telling her which direction. Occasionally she may hear a yelp of an animal, perhaps see birds and owls atop trees watching the two transverse. Abbas seems considerably more relaxed compared to when he was in the city. There’s a sense of... isolation yet calmness that can't be felt within human boundaries--one of nature. The forest smell is overwhelming, yet it’s soft and gentle. She can smell if an animal has marked its territory here or not and the likes. 

After a bit, she will see what seems to be a small, slightly crude hut. It's not amazing nor large, enough for at most 1-2 people. Even two full-grown people would be pushing it. It’s made with scraps of wood and leaves. Plants and stems abound as well, making it blend in with the surrounding. Even a wasp nest is near it. 

"Hold your breath for 10-30 seconds while walking by. The wasp only senses you through your breathing. It's a great natural deterrent to most people."

With slightly keener eyes, Alice sees some of the branches nearby are actually rope, appearing to be placed to swing or maybe climb rapidly. On the other side of the clearing is a person-sized hole, perhaps to hide? And a bit further away is a trap door covered in leaves and vegetation.

She follows the instructions. Her exposure to nature is the occasional hike in the Bay Area and that doesn't compare to this. The smells distract her as she tries to walk the right way--but not a bad distraction. So many new scents! She subtly wants to know what exactly they are and where they lead. 

"Abbas ... you're incredible," Alice telepathically says via an AirPod (not connected to any phone) that she offered him before they left civilization. Thanks to her power, they can talk without making noise that anyone else can hear. "And you've been here for months..." she adds with awe. "Should we hide inside, or is it okay to hang around out here?"

Suddenly a small black squirrel scampers down the trunk of a nearby tree. Alice's eyes lock onto it and it looks back at her, momentarily unsure. Then the Pathetic woman full-body lunges for it with a big wide-eyed grin, an expression Abbas probably hasn't seen on Alice before. The squirrel swiftly rushes up the tree and branch-hops away. And Alice begins to (audibly) laugh--all-in laughter to the point that she starts to get teary-eyed and she's clutching her side. Their ‘call’ ends.

Abbas coughs, thinking to himself, that... was oddly doglike, huh, before he lets off a small chuckle as well. Shaken by the random sight. "You're an odd one Mel, truly."

"I'm an odd one?" She replies audibly, wiping her eyes clear as she calms down. Then she re-establishes the telepathic line, Abbas having only to press on his AirPod to accept it.

Answering her earlier question, Abbas says, "We can go in. Follow my steps precisely." He walks carefully avoiding piles of leaves and certain low berry bushes on the ground--stuff that blends in--leading her to the hut. He opens the door, and she sees spider webs, seemingly almost as if someone hadn't cleaned them out. Abbas goes inside and mumbles softly, "Hey there buddy, how's it been. I brought some snacks, kept the house guarded, yes? Sorry to break your web again." He places dead flies onto the web. Leading her in, it's kinda comfy though barren. Hung up on the walls are arrows and what seems to be dried animal leather. A stack of canned goods sits in a corner. The ground is covered in a soft pelt that’s warm and fuzzy, soft and nice. Light in the place seems to be lacking, and then Abbas pulls up the pelt. Underneath is a small opening from which he takes out some animal fat candles and lights one up. 

The interior of the hut is covered in dried mud, isolating any smell from the outside. There are some wooden racks with tendons strewn on them, creating a mesh-like net. Next to it on the ground is a large jar of salt and rocks, three packages of water bottles, and two jugs of water. Lastly, there is a vat sitting next to which appears to be a dried out leaf bowl.

"Welcome to my hideout."

Alice admires the spiderweb door trap and then the rest of the details of the interior. "I bet Violet really loved it out here..." she said. Abbas had been babysitting whenever Alice needed it, since Jason couldn't while in his amphibious form. She sets down a small brown leather bag and then crouches down to dig through it, looking for something. It was quite cramped in there for two full adults… She pulls out a plain black dog collar with no tags and snaps it on. As she does, her human form turns to silver dust that dissipates nearly instantly, and all that remains is a pure white 45 lb Samoyed. "That's better--now there's more space," Abbas hears in his head. 

Abbas looks absolutely flabbergasted. Bewildered, confused, just the look of bamboozlement. "I, wha, huh, wha???" He stumbles over his words absolutely confused.

"Now I take up less space?" Alice clarifies, the dog looking over at him with her head tilted slightly to one side, confused.

Abbas looks at her for a moment, closes his eyes, and does the confused head shake as he says, "You know what... not the weirdest thing, not even close. Just, uhm... unexpected to say the least but yea, you most certainly take up less... space? Wait... are you? a Samoyed?! OMG YOU'RE FLUFFY, is your tracking better? Can you be stronger? How strong is your bite? How fast can you run?! Aside from that... do ... mark your territory?"

Alice was not prepared for this level of excitement. "Y-yes?" That covered most of the questions. "I don't, like, know?" That covered most of the rest of the questions. This being her first transformation, she really had no idea. And for the final one: "Don't be vulgar." The now seated dog looks (and sounds) annoyed now as it turns away from him, Alice's voice continuing. "Like, I'm obviously going to go to the bathroom at some point during my stay here, but I'm still civil--I'll go outside of the camp."

"Ah, nono, I meant the pheromones gland, thingy, whatever. I think it's a fully valid question, haha. Nevertheless, only reason I'm asking is cause the wolves here are a bit territorial and annoying. It took two months of me feeding them to stop harassing me." 

"Well, I'm 100% dog at the moment, so, like, yes?" Alice's tone switches to slightly embarrassed. "I'll, uh, see what I can do..." 

Abbas sighs. "Feel free to make yourself as home as you can. It's only the bare minimum, but I can see if I could buy any toys or anything for you. There's a trapdoor I built out there that leads into a small ditch in the ground for about three people and a child. It has enough resources to bunker down for about four months before needing to go out again. Any questions, don't hesitate," after which he starts going around checking on the walls. She’ll notice where he checks are lines of salt. There are several holy crosses engraved on the mud wall. He also switches out some hanging red talisman, places some incense on the ground (unlit), and changees out what seems to be spoiled garlic with new ones. Then he begins placing some silver strings where the ceiling meets the wall, leaving them dangling.

At the invitation to make herself at home, the dog moves over to the fluffiest looking spot on the animal pelt and lays down, rolling onto her back, tail wagging slowly. "Damn--this is nice." Being a dog finally, the feel of the fur (both her own and the pelt). The pelt smells absolutely amazing too.

Then Alice listens to the whole explanation, true Abbas protection and hospitality, while semi-watching him ensure the occult safety of the space. It's a very different view, being both upside down and so close to the floor. Once he's done, she rolls upright to be laying down and answers, "Toys won’t be necessary..." She’s not ready for that particular aspect of amusing doghood, although just hanging in Abbas's natural habitat while in her true formis shaping up to be extremely amusing already. "I'm just glad I have a place to hunker down now that I'm no longer tied to the Crypt and about to kill off the 'Alice Decker' identity." 

"What" Abbas stops what he is doing, turns around, and looks at her before realizing, "oh… Oh... I see... hmmm. What's the plan then after?" 

The dog looks back at Abbas, head once again tilted to one side. "Did... I never, like, tell you why I go on these jobs? Uh, it's not to be 'Alice Decker,' mother of Violet who's demon possessed and wife of Jason Decker who's cursed..." Keara and Mel knew. Jason knew, even if he was having trouble coming to terms with it. Shit--even Iryna, Theo, and Jason Valent knew since they mirrored her screening question back at her. But had she forgotten to tell Abbas after all this time? 

"Oh... well... I-I don't believe so?" Abbas stumbles over his words. "We never had really, like, sat down and had a chat about that on your end, it was... well, mostly on my end?" He picks up a jumping spider from seemingly nowhere and lets it crawl over his arm as he softly pats its head.

"No wonder you were so surprised!" Abbas hears in his head followed by more laughter, which again cuts off the telepathic line. The dog rolls over onto her back, tail wagging rapidly, panting, and pawing at her snoot with eyes closed--the canine equivalent of rofl. Is Alice less serious or maybe just happier in this new form of hers? Then she gets up and paws the air in his direction, calling him once more. "Take a seat, get comfy!" There's clearly a smile in her voice. The command is a bit ironic given that Abbas is in his own home. 

Abbas looks around for a few seconds longer, making sure everything is in place, before he takes a seat on the pelt. His eyes are filled with curiosity, and he remains silent in fear of possibly interrupting.

The woman who is not currently a woman begins to explain, the dog looking back at Abbas, all the while taking deep breaths.

"I wasn't always this confident around people, like, as a person among them. For seven years, from first grade to high school, I was consistently the target of bullies because I was socially awkward, smaller and thinner than everyone else around me, and couldn't eat normal food. I might have fared better if I tried to fade into the background, like you do, and find my own safe space to exist in alone..." She looks around the small hut, her keen eyesight revealing many details despite the humble candle light, and then back at Abbas and his pet spider. Well, he’s not fully alone. "But I desperately wanted to fit in--and children, like adults, can smell desperation." Her ears go back and her head droops a bit. "Seven years of torture and rejection could have sent me down a dark path if I didn't have loving parents and a good child therapist. Even when I figured out the rules of social engagement in early high school and began to 'play the game' to achieve popularity, I felt like I had to sacrifice being my real self, faking interest in things I genuinely couldn't care less about to connect with others. This whole time, while rejected and then accepted, I did have best friends. My dad bred and trained German Shepherds as a hobby since before I was born. Dogs are so interesting, socially accepted in modern and ancient societies despite being outsiders. In fact, in some situations they are not only accepted--they are the ones willing and capable to do things that humans aren't, whether for good or evil: bomb dogs, eye-seeing dogs, therapy dogs. They don't judge people, and they are not harshly judged. All they ask for in return is safety and affection. I've always admired them, even their hilarious quirks. They fully live in the present; they are selfless and loyal... It would be a lie to say becoming a therapy dog has been my goal from the beginning, since I signed the Contract in blood. I think, like, it took me several months to be fully honest with myself. But when Mel--when my clone came along, I realized that this aspiration was fully possible. Mel would take my place in Keara's--my best friend's life, ensuring that nothing substantially changed for her. She still has human companionship--someone who is genuinely myself aside from one small thing. The bills are paid, our mundane human clients are being treated. And I ... like, I get to become who I've always wanted to become--who I really am." Her tail starts to wag. "And do what I've always wanted to do: a dog that supernaturally treats the mental illnesses of children." 

"I think that's a pretty honorable cause..." Abbas replies, "with a wonderful reason as well and method of achieving it. I wonder what I should be doing myself nowadays... Especially as everyone seems to be moving forward and I'm... stuck in the past. Unwilling to let go of memories.'' Abbas sits down with one of his knees to his chest. "I still hold much anger and even phobia in regards to monsters. Beings such as the demon, they look at us as nothing less than mere insects of meals. Things for them to toy with. Some have... a more mild temperament but the look in their eyes are the same. Disdain, nonchalance, arrogance, annoyance. Yet, as I discover more of myself, even though I enjoy the hunt, it's weighing on me, if what I'm doing is actually right. My own blood feels heavy as I realize who my mother truly was nowadays. I wonder if one day I'll break down and lose my mind in this process." Amongst Abbas's soft slow voice, his expression reveals one of exhaustion despite his tall stature and his broad shoulders, his muscular arms used to wrestling and moving amongst the forest. There are signs of gray hair on his head, some wrinkles on his face, and hints of weariness in his eyes. 

Seated, the dog listens patiently. At the mention of the phobia, she becomes alert. "Abbas… are you willing to let me heal your phobia?" She knew of his compulsion but not of his phobia.

Abbas shakes his head no. "It keeps me on my toes. Perhaps one day, but today is not the day..." 

"Very well." It is a burden he chooses to bear. "I will always be your friend, you know that." 

Abbas gets up. "Probably enough sappy talk on my end. Still, uh, not used to this all, haha, well, uh, any questions about the surrounding?"

She respects the topic switch. "Not about the surroundings, but I do have two other questions... First, what are you going to do about the Nain?" The dog lies down, getting more comfortable. 

"I... honestly don't know. Usually it appears on New Years, and it hasn’t appeared since then. I might need to go read into it. All I know is that it’s a creature of the Lunar New Year and is scared of red and explosives/gunpowder. That's why I keep firecrackers on me at all times now,” he says as he takes out a small roll of the mouse firecracker.

"I see." The dog sniffs the air in the direction of the firecracker. Explosives smell very distinct. "And what are you going to do about the FBI?" 

Abbas goes silent. "Well... once the Crypt is done, I guess I’ll go back into hiding. Continue my objective of staying hidden and hunting alone. I can feel my presence waning more these days, as if I will vanish into the air itself if I don't try to focus. It’s not like I had much of a real life going anyways." 

"Violet will always need her uncle," Alice replies quietly. "Whether she goes to a supernatural boarding school or lives with Keara and Mel until Jason clears his own identity, if it's all the same to you... You're welcome to be nearby for the rest of her life."

"Mmm... we... shall see. If the FBI comes, I’d rather take them with me and vanish off the face of the planet rather than involve the others..."

"I doubt they'll arrest every person you interact with, especially if your interactions with her are kept subtle… But the choice is yours."

"I... will need to think about it. It's been very relaxing, just taking care of her, to say the least. Perhaps if the demon vanishes, I will become the same being for her if she seeks a guardian..." Abbas gives a self-deprecating chuckle, one filled with regret.

"Taming or otherwise dealing with the demon is certainly on my list of things to do." Then the dog sighs. "It's a long to-do list..." The weight of her whole, small, social world on this white fluffy Samoyed's shoulders.

Abbas sighs with her. "You have quite a long list indeed. If you need any help, well, I’ll be around. Somewhere."

"I know. For now, just watching over Violet when we need it is more than enough. And then you'll be providing support on the Crypt job, which I'm still planning. It's scheduled to happen in a little over two weeks, on a Monday. That's when everyone else is free." A pause. "To be honest, just having a place to hang out away from Jason and even Violet--but not too far away ... I really appreciate this." 

Abbas gives her one of his rare smiles before thinking about the Crypt a little. "Speaking of... which... should I be... uh, worried about anything in regards to who’s coming to the Crypt? if they're monstrous or can become one, I’d enjoy a bit of a warning to prepare myself mentally, you know."

"..." She hadn't thought that through. "Um, yeah, a Contractor who's essentially a skincrawler." Does that count as 'monstrous'? It does to her. 

"A SKINCRAWLER?!" Abbas looks at her with eyes wide open filled with disbelief, though he didn't exactly yell, the pure shock and disbelief in his voice was enough to shake her slightly as Abbas jaw drops open "You had the audacity to befriend a skincrawler?! I will be honest, I’m kinda shocked you’re alive... Those witches are... not fun."

The dog looks back blankly, blinking in surprise. "He's, uh, relatively sane and was quite respectful when we met for several days to address his mental health problems. Runs his own Contractor-only network, like me, but it's more of an official union. And, like, Bu Fang has worked with him on jobs before?" By her questioning tone, she's unsure of whether any of this is persuading Abbas that this person is trustworthy. "I, like, didn't know he was a skincrawler before I met him..." She adds softly. Frankly, that revelation caught her off guard too. 

"He? I'm confused now... Did he use a powder or anything? Any kind of poison?" Abbas scratches his head as he stumbles over his words a little.

"He's one of us. And I have no idea--I didn't watch him do it..." At this point, Alice gets a self-addressed mental warning to shut up due to the patient-client confidentiality training she has deeply internally ingrained. 

Abbas sits down again with a thinking expression "I mean... if it's a he, it might be a warlock... maybe he's something else? I really hope so." Abbas looks up and turns around to you, grabbing with a serious expression as he looks directly into your eyes after a bit of hesitation, he starts speaking sternly "if you ever meet a real skinwalker, run, they aren’t reasonable and can use corpse powder and poison. They curse people they see and are always angsty. Never trust them. You'll know if they're a real skinwalker, as they’re usually animalistic, not like you, more... feral. They’re cunning like a fox, sly like a snake, they trick you like a coyote and their very existence is a bad omen. The very ground they walk on is filled with deceit and lies. You could think you killed one only to have it appear again to grab you from behind as the tree. NEVER trust one. They will seek a way to possess your body and take over your life, stealing your skin and leaving your corpse behind for their magic."

"O-okay." Upon hearing the full warning, her ears are back and her head slinks down. "I'll be careful." A pause. "Do you, like, think you can work with him then?"

"I'll... try my best to."

"Alternatively, you can stay with Terry, me, and Violet, to protect us if the Crypt Keeper sends something after us--that would be helpful too." Really, Alice preferred that. Her plan for Abbas’s involvement, if he were to enter the Crypt, would be to identify the number of monsters on the other side of the doors and then leave them to the rest of the team--something he’d undoubtedly have difficulty doing due to his monster hunting compulsion. The better plan would be for him not to enter the Crypt at all.

"I'll need to see with my own eyes first, this person."

"He, like, looks like a normal person..." The dog shutters and keeps the rest of the details to herself. "We'll figure it out.” She’d try to persuade him further later; she had time. “Anyways, let me know how I might be able to help with the Nain. I know several people who could do some digging on it after you do the initial research..." Then dog-Alice seems to grin, which isn't hard to do given her breed. "If we manage to tame the demon, maybe we could do the same for the Nain?" 

"That would be quite a thing, taming an immortal beast of myth... If so, well... you can keep it. It would be a great assistant to you. But for the Nain, please, if you know anyone with a wide expanse of knowledge in myths, monsters, and the likes, I’d like to ask them if there are any cases of the Nian appearing outside of New Years and any possible ecology of it."

The dog nods. "I'll pass that along and let you know what I hear back." A pause. "Speaking of which, uh, would you like to be screened into the Network?" 

Abbas shakes his head no. "It puts me at risk of being discovered, I can't trust having even just my name or face or even a hint of my existence too widespread. I'm sorry. I’m fully content with you, Jason, Violet, and a few others knowing though."

"No need to apologize--I figured that would be the case. Just wanted to ask to not assume." A pause. "Actually, on the topic of information gathering..." Alice then describes Theo's blood-consuming condition and how it came about. "... Maybe while you're looking into the Nain you could also do some research on this?" 

"Hmm, I’ll look into it..." Abbas frowns at the idea of possibly vampires spreading, especially if it's an illness. "Take this if it's someone you know." Abbas takes out of his bag a cross made of silver, then one made of gold, then one made of iron, as well as a wooden one with a sharp point at the end--looks like a stake but in the shape of a cross too. "I'd give garlic, prayer beads, and more but... well, I don't have them on me right now. It’s just in case." 

"He's not a full on vampire--doesn't mind sunlight, I mean." She looks at all of the anti-vampire stuff. "But, thank you." Then her backpack glows a bit at the top as it unzips and each item slowly floats in, the dog's eyes also glowing all the while. Then she puts her head down over one paw and is starting to look rather sleepy, blinking slowly and looking at nothing in particular.

Abbas gives a slight chuckle before the large-eyed spider parts his hair near his forehead and jumps down into his palm. "Feel free to sleep. I’ll need to think about what you told me real quick." After a while, Abbas will take out a notepad and write down some notes on it before he slowly exits the hut and vanishes, letting the dog sleep peacefully. Stepping out into the open air, he takes a deep sigh and his eyes sharpen as he decides to go hunt off those wolves.

On the notepad is the following:

“There are countless types of vampire myths & stories from all over the world. With the details of this one, there are several folk remedy cures - mainly involving fasting & privation IF the person in question has not given in to the curse & consumed human blood yet If they have drank the blood of others, then they are a vampire now & decapitation is said to work well, then burn the body & head separately on two different pyres, & scatter the ashes."

Under the cover of nightfall, man and dog exit the hiding place to discover the answers to Abbas's slew of dog-related questions.

Downtime

Familiar and Foreign

It is a little over a day since Alice returned to Detroit from her last Contract. As Jason and Violet exit the local waffle house, a place that has come to know them on a first-name basis, Jason finally receives a phone call from Alice. The caller ID shows a photo of the head of a white, fluffy dog--a departure from the typical black paw print icon. 

Jason answers the phone. "Hey." He holds the phone like a normal call. 

"Hey Jason. Can we, like, go for a walk or something--not near the crypt? We have a couple of things to talk through." She sounds a little nervous. "Abbas can watch Violet..." 

"Nugget and I are just leaving the Waffle House. Where are you two? We can meet up."

"We're heading over from one of his hideouts. We'll be in the area in about, uh, twenty minutes. How about we do the swap at the parking lot of that place where we went hiking with Theo?" 

"Alright. We'll see you guys there." Jason 'hangs up' and straps Violet into her car seat. "Want to hang out with Uncle Abbas for a little bit?" he asks her. "Yes, Daddy!"

About thirty minutes later, a black vintage Beetle with tinted windows pulls into the mostly empty parking lot of Rouge Park, right beside Jason's truck. The parking job is flawless. The driver's side door opens and for about a full two minutes Abbas (in his typical almost-fully-covering outfit complete with sunglasses, cap, bulky jacket, and medical face mask) makes an appearance. At least the face mask is a bit more normal now given Ghoul Fever. He’s also wearing an AirPod in one ear.

Violet, who was jumping around in the truck bed to try to make the vehicle bounce a little (with Daddy's help), squeals with excitement the moment she sees Abbas and jumps out the open back into Jason's arms before rushing over to him. They embrace for a moment--and Jason might catch Abbas secretly slipping the little girl a (real) bug snack. Abbas looks at Jason and nods a silent hello.

After setting Violet down on the ground, Jason leans his back against the truck. "Quite giving her bugs, dude. It's bad enough you got her hooked on food that looks like bugs." His voice is flat and arms are crossed. Jason's wearing his usual outfit of a button-up shirt and jeans. He's also wearing a light jacket due to chills from being away from the crypt for so long. For those that know to/where to look, there is a slight bulge under his left armpit.

"I didn't make up maggot rice," Abbas replies with a slight smile. "Plus it's a good source of protein." He keeps to himself that they aren't exactly eating hot dogs and mac n cheese when Violet stays with him. Then the peculiar adoptive uncle opens the backseat door to help Violet get situated in the car seat.

There's a few other people in the parking lot at the moment: two teenage boys hanging out and vaping on the other side of the lot and a middle-aged couple who had pulled in a row over and are now doing stretches beside their SUV. "Might want to open the door for Alice," Abbas adds quietly after he shuts Violet's door. 

With a shrug and a raised eyebrow, Jason opens the passenger door.

A white fluffy dog unsquishes from being on the floor of the passenger side, crawling up to the chair and then hopping out of the car. It wears a black collar and holds a neatly folded up black leash in its mouth. As the dog looks up at him, ears back and tail down, visibly nervous, Jason gets a 'phone call.'

Jason ‘answers’ his phone. "Totally not weird," are the first words of the call.

"Doggy!" Violet squeals in excitement, now a bit frustrated that she's strapped in. 

"You can play with her later," Abbas replies as he gets situated in the driver's seat (to pretend he's driving) and shuts his door. 

"Nice to see you too," Alice's voice answers. "Probably should take the leash so this looks a bit more normal."

"Be good for Uncle Abbas now, Nugget. We'll play later." He says to the young girl as he connects the leash to his 'wife's' collar. Into the phone, he replies, "So many jokes ... so little time," with a grin.

"Okay Daddy!" 

"Oh," Abbas adds before Jason shuts the passenger door, "use these." He opens the glovebox to reveal a pair of AirPods in a Ziplock bag.

In response to the comment, the dog shakes its head disapprovingly as Alice scoffs. "I missed you too, Pain in the Ass--although, on the topic of jokes..." She looks away from Jason. "I, uh, apologize for, like, yelling at you in the doctor's office. We should have had that conversation in a different way, at a different time."  The dog's body language is still visibly uncomfortable. 

Jason takes the AirPods and places them in his ears, "Don't worry about it. I deserved it, I'm sorry too. Also sorry in advance for this." After he gets everything in its proper place he takes the end of the leash and not being able to help himself he says out loud, "C'mon girl. Wanna go for walkies?" 

"..." The dog looks back at Jason so dryly. Then she lurches forward and chomps on the leash, a single bite immediately cutting it clean through like a sharp blade. "I am going for a walk." Alice is visibly and audibly annoyed. She moves a few feet away and then looks back at him. "Would you care to join me?" A nearby sign at the start of the path indicates that dogs must be on leashes in public spaces, with a fine for being caught of up to $10,000 and a misdemeanor. On the upside, however, she looks less nervous now.

Meanwhile, the babysitter and child drive away. 

"Well, hold on, I have to fix this fucking leash now." He moves to the dog and then leans down to half-ass tie the leash around the collar, at least to make it appear it's connected. 

As they begin on the path, the fit, middle-aged Korean couple also approaches. "Awe, what a sweet dog!" The woman in expensive-looking hiking attire (complete with a wide-brimmed sun hat, tinted sunglasses, and daypack) declares. She kneels down a few feet away from Alice, getting to the dog's level and reaching out a hand for sniffing. "Samoyed, right? May I?" 

Immediately Jason (only) hears Alice say plainly, "No, she may not." The dog doesn't move towards the woman, although her nose is indeed sniffing in her direction. The man, also wearing expensive hiking attire and daypack, sighs at the additional delay but then looks to the overcast sky and says nothing. 

"Sorry, she's not great with strangers." He says to the woman. In the secret phone call he tells Alice, "You're a dog now, better get used to the attention."

Jason hears Alice sigh. "I know... it's just that this is, like, my second time ever and no one's pet me before--like, uh ... yeah." She snorts.

The woman nods understandingly and stands up. "Well, have a lovely walk." Her and her husband exchange a knowing glance and then both start jogging down the path, side by side, as though they've done it a thousand times. 

"Thanks, enjoy your jog." He says to the leaving couple. Turning his attention back to Alice, "Well, that's what people do with dogs. Everyone always has to pet them. Couldn't you have become like a therapy badger or something?" 

Alice's tone becomes more formal as they start walking. She glances up at Jason. The angle is really weird; as a human she's shorter than him, but not that short. "I appreciate your concern, and I’m aware that people like to pet dogs. I'm just going to take this at my own pace, okay? Thank you for respecting that."

"Do what you need to do." Jason's tone has been fairly flat the entire conversation.

"I am." The two walk quietly for a bit in a heavy silence. The trail is fairly empty. The air is damp and cool. Finally, Alice continues. "So, uh, thank you for letting me go first, like, with the de-cursing ritual. As you probably heard, it was hell--but if I had gotten what I wanted and you went first, then I'd be in your ... situation. So, really, thank you Jason--and I'm sorry."

"Don't worry about it. I'm just doing what I promised to do. If something went wrong, who would pick up the pieces? I'm expendable." He continues walking.

The dog stops, immediately creating tension in the leash, and growls a little at him. "You are absolutely not--stop giving me that bullshit!"

Jason stops also, his face turning into a cowl of anger. Luckily there aren't others on the trail at the moment and their conversion can't be heard anyway. For the first time since this conversation started, emotion is creeping into his voice. 

"I AM! I have one set of skills, and that's done fuck all so far! Texas showed me that I need you to get me out of problems. I can't even do anything for this curse shit! You've spent all this time planning and making contacts and what I have done? Sit on your fucking shoulder saying 'ribbit'! I tried making a family together, and with who!? A woman who's emotionally distant with everyone, but wants to be a fucking therapy DOG, and a little girl that we STOLE and is possessed by a demon! FUCK!" 

The dog's eyes glow silver, as does the collar, and it snaps off. All within a few seconds, the dog is replaced with a silver mist that spreads upward to form a familiar humanoid shape. Suddenly the woman that Jason knows as Alice Decker stands before him in her typical fashionable monotone attire. She holds the collar that's still attached to the leash Jason's holding, gripping the wedding ring on it tightly. "You want me to be less 'emotionally distant,' Mr. Decker?" She replies sharply (aloud), looking him in the eyes. "FINE! If you really want to know what the source of all of your problems are, it's me! If I had been better at combat, I might have been fucking useful in the Crypt instead of someone you felt you had to constantly protect. If I had been better at first aid, I might have not caused you to bleed out more on the Texas job after your arm got blown off, which then caused you to pass out. If I wasn't fuckin asexual, maybe we could have been a real couple and not a fake one. And I'm the one who stole the demon-possessed child, without even asking you--without giving you a choice! I'm the one who's RUINED YOUR LIFE and now I'm doing everything I can to make it right but it CLEARLY HASN'T BEEN ENOUGH! You think I'm constantly doing all of this shit--constantly trying so fuckin hard--because of charity? I threw us into hell--I'm SORRY--I-I'm ..." She stands there stiffly, fists clenched, looking down at the ground. Based on the smells of the woods, someone is approaching around the path, but she isn't done yet. However, her speech is slowing down and getting quieter, and her breathing irregular. "I didn't--like, I wasn't trying to... I just ..." Tears form. "Like, you didn't deserve any of this--I just ... keep messing up your life, no matter what I do--no matter how hard I try..." She turns around, not wanting to face him, crouches down, and starts to cry. 

"Then why!? If it was so fucking horrible, then why keep it going!?" As Jason's anger becomes an actual, tangible, argument a random jogger rounds the corner.

The jogger does his best to just stay as far to his lane as he can, not looking at the enraged 'couple'. Unfortunately Jason is in a rare rage. "What the fuck, dude!? Can't you see we're talking here!?" If the jogger could shrivel up into a ball, he would.

"Why wouldn't you fucking talk to me!? If everything was so bad, WHY!? I rolled with the punches, tried my best to make all this fucked up shit work, and for what!? And NOW you tell me that you did this out of what, fucking GUILT!?" 

Alice's crying slows down until there's silence. Then she takes in a few slow, deep breaths. "I-I'm ... I'm just trying to make it right," she whispers through the AirPods. "Because ... you deserve better and, like..." She stands up, wiping her eyes (which immediately get re-watery) with the back of her gloved hands, and faces him to say out loud: "... I love you." Her expression is incredibly mixed--regret, pain, sorrow, and affection all in one. She looks down at the ground. "I, like... I don't know what I'm doing... and I'm really sorry." 

Jason takes a moment to try and calm himself also. He's angry, but the rage is subsiding. "How can you love me? What does that even mean to you?"

Still avoiding eye contact, wiping her eyes again, and sniffling--a visible mess--Alice thinks about it for a moment. It doesn't take long for her to form a coherent answer. "I love you like I love Keara. I … I want to be with you for the rest of your life as your sister and best friend." Jason might notice that her face does not get more red, on top of the redness from crying, as she quietly answers. "But I-I don't think... like, that that's going to be enough for you... and I understand..."  She offers him the dog collar while wordlessly adding, "It's ... not your fault." 

"It could be, maybe... I don't know anymore." Without the adrenaline from his rage, he's beginning to look much paler and his legs are shaky. If Alice was looking at him she’d see that he's looking past her. "I… can… try better... Hannah?" With the last statement, Jason falls to the ground.

Until Jason enters the Crypt, his life is a blur of familiar and foreign sounds and scenes.

Alice calling out his name and scooping up his aching head off the ground, brushing the dirt off of his face. Someone helping her get him up with urgent conversation about some health condition. "I just need to get him home," Alice insists. A seemingly eternal walk with a stranger on each side of him to the parking lot. Violet calling out "Daddy" at first excitedly and then confused when Jason doesn’t respond the way she expected. That is followed by "Mommy!" and Alice replying warmly. Abbas helping Jason get into the passenger side of the car. A car ride of urban and suburban scenes passing by. Finally, Abbas helping him get to the back door of their his Crypt home. 

The door opens, and the semi-conscious ex-military man stumbles in, feeling immediate relief. It's more than restoration back to his normal self; it's the damn best he's ever felt in his life--emotional turmoil aside.

As Jason stands there, he hears a thud on the door. He turns to pursue his rescuer yet again. Rushing out of the Crypt, he yells, "We're not done yet!" He barely notices one of Abbas's smaller hunting knives pining a small folded up note to the backdoor, instead focusing on the gate that just clicked shut. As soon he reaches it, however, his vitality is taken away as if hit by a semi. "Fuck..." He goes down like a sack again, just as Abbas re-opens the gate (bonking Jason on the head) to make sure Jason is okay…

After his little siesta, Jason awakes just inside the doorway of the Crypt once more. He feels much better again but decides it's best not to leave for a while longer. After a few moments of gathering his thoughts, he remembers the note. He pokes out of the Crypt for a brief moment, just long enough to pull the knife out of the door and take the note.

The note is in Alice's slightly-messier-than-usual handwriting: 

Violet is with Abbas for the rest of the day; he'll drop her off tomorrow morning. Get some rest. In three weeks, this nightmare will be over, and you'll be free of everything that's holding you back. Then you can build the life you want, the life you deserve, with or without us. 

Jason stares blankly at the note for a few seconds. Growling, he rips the note in half and yells, "GODDAMN IT!" If the Crypt wasn't soundproof, the neighbors would hear 13 consecutive gun shots as he unloads his clip into one of the hallway doors. He drops the smoking 9 mm pistol onto the floor and walks down the dark hall towards his 'home' inside the crypt.

Downtime

Man and Dog (Part 1)

Enough

In the late afternoon on a Tuesday, a day after they last spoke, Dominic gets another call from Alice. The caller ID shows a profile picture of a paw print icon, as per usual, although this time the name is Lanie. "Hey Alb--Dominic... uh, are you, like, busy right now?" She sounds timid, not the usual tone for this psychologist and friend.

Dominic is between bouts of mania himself and was finishing his monthly order of various insane products that he was spurred into getting by hearing various conspiracy theories when Lanie's phone call comes in and Dominic will think to himself, well. Something big certainly happened, and he will pick up the phone and say "I'm not busy, just buying a bunch of stuff I want but don't need again. Saved me and my wallet from some trouble. How can I help you?" The conspiracy theorist picks up on the tone, and tries to do his best to offer his version of a sympathetic statement though as usual there's always some stilt to how he talks, something just wrong enough to remind even Alice that she's talking to a man who for all his vast intelligence doesn't exactly get people. 

"Well, like... Mel got a hold of a lawyer yesterday and learned that her case isn't viable. Something about actors being filmed as evidence of consent to acting in a commercial--uh, money-making capacity, even if no payments were made and nothing was signed." Talking business seems to calm her down. "Basically, actors in the United States have no rights. Given that development, this morning I accepted Pepsi's initial offer to be a mascot so that it'll go public that it's me, and not Mel, who was filmed. All that being said, our plans will be slightly delayed. After I attend a Pepsi-sponsored event in ten days, then we can kill off Alice Decker." A pause. Her tone shifts back. "I, uh, have the time now--and I want to, like, get away for a few days--focus on something else ... Can I come over and try to heal your, uh, employees?" Wards? But maybe they were full grown, supernaturally animated stuffed animals. And it just felt a little bit too insane to ask if she could heal Dominic's teddy bears. Make a house call would have been the best way to say it, but now it was too late. 

"Actors having no rights is... concerning. I'll need to fix that. Shouldn't be too hard actually, but it'll need to come after." He pauses to gesture with his hands, believing that Alice can see him through his camera thanks to the nanites in the blood of anyone who received the covid vaccine before continuing with "And if you need somewhere, my door is always open, I understand that I am not the most approachable of people and trusting is difficult for me. Especially with details of where I live, but, I know I can trust you. 4187 White Bear Ave, White Bear Lake, MN 55110. Don't walk on the grass, there are land mines, and rotate the door knob forward and backward twice each. It disarms the claymore and the backup thermite trap. The door will be unlocked and I will buy... I don't know what you like to eat actually. What would you want?" 

Lanie sighs in a combination of relief and also disbelief that she now has befriended not one but two extremely paranoid people who go to the trouble of boobytrapping their homes. "Thank you Dominic, that means a lot to me. Um, food? I... don't really know. Like, all my life I've had IBS, but for some reason the ritual got rid of it, like the occultist had predicted. So, um, I'm sure whatever you have on hand is fine--no drugs." Did that count as food? She doesn’t know. But Dominic seemed to be pretty well acquainted with cocaine and who knew what else he was well acquainted with. The last thing she wants is weed-laced baked goods. 

"Listen, those are emergency stimulants. I use cocaine like it's intended to be, a solution to a problem. The problem is just generally "I would like to be at a location faster than booking a plane would allow me to be". I'm astounded more people don't carry amphetamines on their person to help with times when they've been worn down to the bone. We're practically soldiers ourselves Lanie', it's not like we have the luxury of expecting to get by on faith, trust, and pixie dust. As for food.. hrmm. Around here we mostly have family style places... I know there's a pretty good steak joint, some good seafood, we are right on a lake. There's some fantastic sushi. Though nothing compared to what they have in the actual big city. I'll get a platter from each. Why the fuck do I do all the business I do if I can't at least eat well when a good friend comes over? Either way, do you need any help showing up? I know there's one stream of insane business into another these days, and I'll send some people to pick you up if need be."

Soldiers? After a pause, Lanie replies, "Well, as a mental health professional, all I can say is I hope you don't have to be at a location faster than booking a plane very often." She instinctively nods to the food (under no impression that Dominic can see her), wondering silently if she likes seafood--or steak for that matter. The digestive problems had been so impactful for so long, and the cure so recent, that the thought of full on eating like everyone else is actually a bit intimidating. But one thing at a time. "Now that I can transform, I have a, uh, undercover means of transportation, but thanks for offering." Again and again, Dominic is solid ground to stand on, insanity and all. "Once I arrange that, I'll let you know when to expect me--I'm guessing no later than tomorrow night."

"I would hope so as well. I don't like doing cocaine, it is the CIA's method of keeping inner city populations oppressed. Damn Ronald Reagan, marching powder is marching powder, you don't misuse it like that." He sighs though and after taking a moment to calm himself, before refocusing on the topic at hand as he processes that Lanie had decided to show up tomorrow. "Oh thank god you aren't coming today. I can clean at a more relaxed pace. Alright. I won't have to rush the deep cleaning process. Also glad to hear you got the covert transportation handled. I was worried that the whole crypt situation may be rearing its ugly head in regards to making that difficult again. Are you going to stay transformed? I'll deactivate the door trap if so, can't exactly rotate the knob without hands unless you've got a means of handling that."

Alice wonders what 'deep cleaning process' means. Her mental image ranges from ‘ensure once again that nothing related to government conspiracies has found its way into my fortress home’ to ‘rinse everything with rubbing alcohol.’ Maybe both? 

"Since I'm still not sure how compromised the Alice identity is--including by association with two people who have gotten tangled up with the FBI--I'd prefer to stay on all fours at least until I make it into your house." His house is probably the safest place to transform, frankly. She never should have done it earlier that day in public, even though no one else was around. Alice sighs again. "But yes, I can handle the door trap on my own if it's, like, a quiet neighborhood." 

"It's quiet, though you may get some funny looks from that rat bastard Winkleheimer. Always watching me from his fucking blinds. He's why I had the house sound proofed. Probably has some listening equipment on the other side of that wall. So be careful." The man says, fully having the capability to just look inside his neighbors house but seeming to have not come to that realization before continuing with, "And sounds good. I'll have the gate open when you arrive, and close once you're through. I won't be there too much before you, have to pick up the food and all, can't give the government my real address by putting it into a delivery app. That's how they get you." 

Actually, they're more likely to get me beside Jason or Abbas, Alice thinks to herself. And hopefully by then I'm an innocent-looking dog--and childless. "I promise to be careful." Compared to the start of the conversation, Lanie sounds much better. "See you soon, and thanks again."

 

Air travel as a dog ended up being more complicated than Lanie had envisioned. While enough money could secure an "air nanny" without advanced notice, and even include doorstep-to-doorstep service, her 45 lb size prohibited her from traveling in the cabin unless she was a service animal, which would require mild forgery and someone complicit to set up. She also wasn't in the mood to find out what flying in a crate as a checked bag or as cargo would feel like. In the end, Lanie arrived to White Bear Lake, Minnesota, after an eleven-hour chauffeured drive coordinated by Keara (whose identity was squeaky clean). Knowing that Albert wanted to 'deep clean,' Lanie arrives in the late afternoon the following day, just like they had talked about.

A recently washed red SUV slowly pulls up to the lakeside address and parks in the driveway. A Latina woman in her thirties wearing black pants and a gray polo with a small embroidered company logo gets out, unloads a carry-on sized duffelbag from the trunk onto the front porch, and then opens a door to the back seat. Having never transported a solo canine passenger before, she isn't sure if she needs to direct the animal. Thankfully the fluffy, pure white Samoyed wearing a black collar immediately hops out and sits down next to the bag. Just then, the woman receives a phone call from the client. "Yes, I've dropped off your pet and luggage. Yes ma'am." Hesitating only briefly as she glances at the well-trained animal, the woman gets back into the vehicle and drives away. The driveway gate closes behind her.

Lanie takes in her surroundings, nose to the air. The neighborhood is still, and the air is cool and damp on this overcast day. While Detroit is also by a body of water, this place smells cleaner--more suburban than urban and more woodsy. Lots of pine. The row of privacy trees and hedges around the property probably contributed to this.

The older single-story house made mostly of brick with a generous, verdant front lawn that wrapped around one side of the house and flower patches along the porch seems normal--perfectly innocuous. To be honest, Lanie expected to see something tasteless and practical, like electric fencing. Maybe something so overt would signal to Dominic's real and perceived enemies that he is aware of them, taking away the element of surprise... Lanie chuckles to herself. The last thing she needs is to embrace her own inner paranoia.

After confirming that no one is around, the dog faces the front door. In an abundance of caution, she turns the doorknob just as Dominic instructed but from the inside so that no one outside can see it glow with a silver aura. Her eyes similarly glow as she mentally handles the knob. Hopefully "forward" meant clockwise--otherwise, this would be a terrible and sudden way to go. 

Thankfully, Dominic had not been so foolish as to base the trap on directions that'd change if he was leaving or entering the house. He'd been too tired some mornings to still be alive if he had. The door is indeed unlocked, and opening it will reveal the row of nozzles intended to spray unwise intruders with shards of molten metal, and the now deactivated claymore at the side of the door around a lip that seems designed to make it impossible to peak around without exposing yourself at least partially with a strange curve. The rest of the house is.. astoundingly normal, beyond the trapped entry way, and the similar traps that the dog can see on each windowsill the place has photos of family, a college degree framed on the wall, and hardwood floors that would've gone beyond the probably imagined sterile steel bunker that most probably imagined Dominic lived in. What would draw attention after that though is the smell of food. The mixed aromas of steak, fish, and a vegetable platter coming to the enhanced senses of the Dogtor in ways human experience couldn't properly quantify as Dominic would emerge from the kitchen for once not outfitted in anti-surveillance gear. Merely a blue polo shirt, and a set of black slacks that belayed the vicious operator that was known to hide behind the astoundingly normal home life as he would say "Ah! So this is the form you chose. Excellent. Well, I've got food in the kitchen as you probably already know. Try not to use any of the other doors without warning me, and otherwise. How was the trip?"

The dog enters cautiously, abandoning her bag and telekinetically shutting the door. Lanie takes in the sights and sounds of this almost typical American home, ears alert and mouth immediately watering (far more than she's used to). Normalcy as a guise continues to be a viable explanation... but, well, it's hard to deny that the place is nice. The smell of cleaning agents underlying the delicious food in the kitchen answer her question: 'deep cleaning' was, at a minimum, literal. Her sensitive ears pick up on living things below the floor, probably the basement. The sound of ... many things eating? 

The well-dressed, young Caucasian man with the beginnings of a beard, short brown hair, blue eyes, and the voice of Dominic poking out of the kitchen surprises her--a slight jump, ears up and tail down--even though, after all they'd talked about and all he'd done for her, she really shouldn't be on edge.

Dominic's instant acceptance washes the embarrassment away. The Samoyed is visibly pleased as she answers his question with a cheery bark, curly tail now wagging gently. And then she seems surprised again, this time at herself. 

"Ah, right. Should probably learn how to talk to animals at some point now. It feels almost disrespectful not to bark back, but knowing me I'd probably come off dog racist or something somehow by accident. Though I have my means of communicating with you still." He says with a shrug as he turns around and comes out with what looks like a fairly wide bottomed dog bowl in one hand and a plate in the other both with a similar spread. Sushi as a starter it seems and he'd approach the rather large samoyed and lean down to provide a choice between the two as he'd say "Again, not very good at social stuff so I tend to hedge my bets. I knew you'd be coming as something knew but I didn't know if you'd want the dog stuff for comfort or a plate for respect. Just pick whichever."

After a pause, Lanie noses the dog bowl option. As Dominic sets it down, he receives a phone call.

He seems to be trying to play the part of a normal man today as he'll reach into his buzzing pocket and say "Ah, you can still do this when you're a dog! I've only seen one person who could do this and they turned in a horse who well... couldn't do much." He'll press accept on the phone call.

The dog takes a seat before the bowl and looks up at him, now breathing deeply. The familiar voice says gently, "Technically... if you can respect me even like this, then I can have both--comfort and respect.

"Ah. Got me. I was being inconsiderate in the first place, as I said. Social stuff isn't my bag. I try, just, I get caught up in all the things that were before I get into thinking about the things that should be. Even my brain starts to spin when trying to calculate EVERYTHING a person is." He'd say with a chuckle. Still he'd go and get his own plate and sit down in front of her, taking a seat cross-legged as he'd say "I am still glad that you got here safe. I know I shouldn't be, but as this was your first outing as yourself I was worried animal control would be a problem. Especially given you don't have any visible tags. Had the address of the place written down and everything ready to go in and hack the system to show me as the registered owner, but, I'm glad to see that wasn't necessary. My worries aside though. I have to ask, as your voice on the phone didn't sound happy, so I'll be direct. Are you okay?"

"Actually, I'd consider you to be extremely considerate..." Lanie replies as Dominic leaves for the kitchen. Her host coming down to her level solidifies this conviction. She is about to thank him for being watchful during her travels and even apologize once again for being such a burden in the past, but his final words derail it. The ears go back, and she looks down at the meal before them. "You know..." she replies softly, "I don't, like, really know..." A pause. The dog glances at the man. “Sometimes I just get overwhelmed by how, uh, not enough I am--not enough for…” Him. Them. Everything. The sentence doesn't finish as she instead takes a sushi bite, avoiding eye contact. There are no tears this time; only the meekness of defeat. That happened the day before while talking with Keara and then Mel. 

Dominic sighs, taking a bite of his own sushi to let his brain… process. He wasn't good at empathetic decisions in snap environments, but as his brain processed everything that had happened between the pair of them some of the things that would've been more apparent to a more charismatic and empathetic person would become apparent to him as he'd swallow, and then take a small sip of water. He was going to need it. Then he would say,

"Lanie. I've been working with you for a while. I've worked with a lot of other people in our line of work as well. We've had good people, we've had bad people. Really bad people even. Lizard men, pod people, nightmare entities that exist only to traumatize the innocent, Werecreatures, and now this crypt and clone bullshit. The one thing I can say having worked with, or for, all of the myriad creatures, shadow organizations, and every single person I've ever been on a job with is that you are hands down the most reliable of the ones I've met. No one else puts in the effort that you do, no one else is there as often or in the same capacity if they are there for others that you are, and I have watched you spend your entire life for other people's sake. It's been frustrating honestly, and at first, I was helping you because I was worried you'd never find time for yourself if I didn't and I didn't want one of the kinder members of our ‘Chosen’ kind ending up a slave to the incompetent ones. No offense, I know Abbas and Jason try their best but there's just... a clear delineation between how you and I operate and how they operate in terms of thorough application of our mental faculties. It's not kind, but it's true. Now you're here, and you're here as who you want to be. The good dogtor, can help any and everyone without the hedgehog's dilemma getting in the way, and still. Do you think that being this paragon of empathy, this person who can solve problems that no one else can even hope to properly address that'd otherwise cripple people for life, this openly loving person who places the needs of others before herself is not enough? In my experience, you've routinely been more than enough for one person's contributions to anything, and I know you want to do it all, but that's not reasonable to expect of yourself. I know you wouldn't expect it from anyone else, even me, it's why you went out and contacted that Inderpal woman when the old team turned out to be more in danger than capable of helping. You're doing everything you can Lanie, and not in the bullshit someone saying that but not actually doing anything meaningful way. You creatively apply yourself, you find people better able to handle problems when your own skills aren't sufficient, and when you find someone isn't suited to a task you make sure a better substitute is found. So, while that may not always be able to get you the outcome you want, it's always enough."

He'd say as he'd shimmy to the side a bit and awkwardly place a hand on top of Lanie's head to give her a pat. Not quite emotionally ready to attempt something like a hug or god forbid petting, so he'd settle for a gesture he'd do for a person he was trying to console while handling the social anxiety that was currently preventing him from saying another word. 

My entire life for other people's sake... She did her best to prevent the jobs from negatively impacting Keara's life, including building up a nest egg in case of Lanie's sudden death. Then she surrendered her place to her clone, the only thing that would make Mel happy. 

She took up the mantle of Alice Decker to co-parent Violet and also make the best of being bound to Jason--first bound by the Crypt curse and then by their friendship. At least, she believed and wanted it to be a friendship. Now... she wasn't so sure. 

She discovered every possible lead to make alliances and trade favors to accumulate power, hopefully enough to set them free. The leads she hadn't yet followed up with was only because of how busy she'd been parenting, providing assistance to allies, and putting out life-threatening fires.

Openly loving? Dominic's words contrast with Jason's the day before: "How can you love me? What does that even mean to you?" The person she'd intimately spent six months with--and known for a total of ten--didn't recognize her sincere, sacrificial, no-strings-attached affection... yet Dominic did?

And then there are the pile of compliments--factually supported appreciation and recognition from this person she hadn't (yet) really done anything for. Some were things that Keara and Mel had tried to tell her, but at the time Lanie couldn't receive them. And Jason... he had thanked her for healing his hand; that was it. In fact, he seems angry with her (and himself) for most everything else. 

Lanie shuts her eyes and accepts the pat. Dominic hears a sigh come from the phone and dog. In that sigh, the harshest judge--herself--finally yields. As her host's hand retreats, she licks it. It's salty. That and the quieting of her internal thoughts makes room to hear his rapid heart rate and smell his sweat. He has once again wandered far from his comfort zone on her behalf. "Thank you, friend," the dogtor whispers, not for the first time and probably not for the last. 

Dominic kind of blinks for a few seconds, not really expecting all that, but he sighs after a moment of looking at his hand. His blue eyes were transfixed by what he saw for a few moments before he says:

"You're... welcome. It feels weird saying that. As I don't feel like I'm doing enough for you, you have said rather repeatedly that you don't feel like you're doing things for me but you're helping me overcome a thing that I know I couldn't do otherwise. Hell. I can barely do it when I'm paired with people. There's so much darkness, so much vileness in the world that hides underneath the surface. I find it overwhelming honestly, and in that state, I find it hard to trust... anyone. Even to the degree of working with them. I likely wouldn't bring anyone on jobs if I had my way about it honestly, and to be perfectly honest. In a way, I'm using you as exposure therapy to get through this and try and find people who can tolerate all of what I am, and who I can tolerate in turn. I'm glad to say that I think you're one of them, and anytime you need something my door remains open, but on that topic I do have to ask. I've never seen you go out for something that was actually just for you. You've orchestrated things for children, and you've gone into the crypt but even that was only half for you, hell even now you're here to help me untraumatize some holocaust camp survivor teddy bears. Thus I've been perplexed for a while. What exactly do you want to do?"

Lanie listens as she enjoys another couple pieces of delicious sushi; so far, the one with the cooked fish and the dark, sweet sauce is her favorite. Dominic's "confession" makes her tail thump thump a little. Frankly, it is a set up which, in light of his blatant paranoia, she had suspected for a bit and is perfectly okay with. However, the tail stops when he gets to his question. 

She swallows instinctively to speak, but then replies telepathically, "It's not just what I want to do--it's also, like, who I want to be. I want to be comfortable in my body, and this form is a big part of that. I want to be myself... Between being visibly weak, IBS, and not interested in what most others my age and gender are interested in, believe it or not I've always been an outsider--even though I can fake my way in. But all I've ever wanted is to be myself yet be accepted into the inside--welcomed among people despite not really feeling like I was ever, like, one of them... And I want to heal minds, especially the minds of children, but without putting the people I love or myself in danger." A pause. "Early on, a couple jobs in, I charted a path for how to get there. Providing a more potent, supernatural form of therapy was the beginning and changing forms is a milestone... but along the way I've also tried to collect resources and abilities that will make me self-sufficient, so that even like this I can maintain my independence and hopefully avoid becoming an easily identifiable, kidnappable Golden Goose." 

Dominic ponders what is being said for a few moments, taking in the information that was presented about Lanie's history, and what her motivations were and he'd pop a few pieces of his own sushi seeming to savor the fatty tuna the most of the set before he'd speak.

"Well, being easily kidnappable is something even I struggle to avoid. Hence why I've got so many redundant layers of traps here. It's all about the hope that they'll miss one of them and end up giving me a warning that someone is inside my home trying to kill me or kidnap me. So I live that fear that you have quite often. As for not being interested in what most people your age and sex are interested in. I sympathize there as well. As much as delving into the hidden truths of the world, and developing a rather lucrative business in technology, is a personally fulfilling line of work it also has led to me discovering things that when I talk about them people go running. 

My circle of friends, real ones, is... exceedingly small. Between being called crazy, and the visible gunshot scar on what is otherwise a pretty frail form I know what you've lived. I'm not sure if I want to be accepted myself, I don't mind being on the outside as much, but I do want to have people I trust. Anyways, enough about me, this is supposed to be about you and I let myself get on a tangent. If your goal is to be able to protect and hide yourself, then you really don't need much more from these jobs, do you?  You've got the dog form, you've got the ability to mend people's minds. The only thing you really need to fix is.. hmm. Perhaps an ability to teleport out of trouble like what Kevin had? Not sure when you'd be able to pick that up, but after that, good luck kidnapping Lanie losers. Hah. The welcoming part will come in time for you I think, after all, once you've got the unassailable golden goose part down people will clamor at your door. The government will likely have their problems, they always do, damn shadow state bastards. I have confidence though that you aren't like Avril Lavigne. You won't be replaced by a clone after the government takes you because you've done the right things. You've made good friends, you've kept your wits about you, and you've kicked enough ass for any ten other people who take jobs that I know. Most importantly though. When you do, you'll do what even I struggle to imagine myself doing. You'll make the world a better place." 

Lanie takes another bite and nods as Dominic shares, an unusual gesture for a dog. Oddly, his paranoia actually makes her feel safe, and his bouts of insanity are almost endearing. If he seemed to be spiraling downward, of course she'd be concerned and try to intervene, but presently the man seems to be on all other accounts stable. Then she is visibly pleased by Dominic's confidence in her, tail thumping again.

"Thank you. No, not much more. I have a couple of things in mind along the lines of escape and defense, including teleportation, as well as strengthening my healing abilities... Assuming I live long enough, I intend on tackling the backlog of degeneration that Ghoul Fever has brought on--mental healing en mass. But, one thing at a time. First I have--want to deal with the Alice Decker identity, the Crypt, and get Violet settled into long-term care, which also means dealing with her demon... There is also Jason's FBI mess, but once he's de-cursed that's no longer a life or death situation and I'm, like, leaning towards letting him handle it especially after he, uh, expressed a desire to do more himself..." She gets quieter and her ears go down for that bit. That's one way to put it. "And, before all of that, dinner and teddy bears." 

The dog seems to grin, something easy for that particular breed to pull off, before licking her chops and proceeding to slowly eat the rest of her sushi appetizer, this time using telekinesis to pick up each piece and dip it in the soy sauce dish before moving it up to her muzzle and biting it out of the air. She's also careful to avoid drip soy sauce on the remarkably clean. As soon as her eyes and a sushi piece gain a glowing silver aura, the 'call' drops (although Dominic might not have noticed if he wasn't looking at his phone, and him speaking normally would be just as effective).

"I envy the people who get to pick what they get from these jobs a little. For me, it's always what I'm able to wrest from the control of the deep state. Intercepting their priority shipments and cobbling the technology together or reverse engineering their methods. Makes it a bit hard to find the upgrade parts when I really want them. Either way the remaining tasks don't sound too terrible, well, besides this whole crypt nonsense. That's a bit beyond the pale of standard understanding I fear, and is going to take the full force of whatever you've managed to muster to handle. Honestly that's the only one I'm worried about, but hopefully Violet at least will make it through to the other side. Sad that a child had to grow up in that." 

He'd say, continuing to talk to the dog despite the absence of the phone call, not really looking at it but instead at the dog this entire time anyways, a basic respect thing he'd been taught as he'd continue with,

"And indeed. Dinner and Teddy Bears. Something I didn't expect to find myself involved with, to be honest. Quite a bit... I hate to say it but sillier than what my typical jobs include, but I'm not going to ignore people in pain just because I'm not used to how they look. Struggle to call myself a good person if I didn't give help to disaster survivors because they happen to look cute and cuddly.  I mean, I think I'm preaching to the choir a bit but it holds true."

Lanie nods. Her plate dog bowl is now empty, and Dominic's plate nearly empty. She's about to reply but then remembers that the line is cut off. This will take some getting used to. Albert's phone rings yet again, and the moment he picks up Lanie replies, "You are indeed one of the good ones, and I'm a professional judge of character." The Samoyed winks and the emphasis is playful, a change of pace from all their business and heart-to-heart talk. 

"But, going back to the Crypt stuff, with a doctor and a bodyguard or two on standby with Violet and I, I'm more concerned about Jason and Abbas. If I had my way, neither of them would be on the job at all; I'm pretty sure they're out of their league given the group I've put together and what they're up against. I might be able to get Abbas to stay behind, but Jason... I doubt he'll listen. Given how an--" Lanie glances away as she awkwardly self-censors. "--uh, frustrated he's been with how much I've--" Again. "--like, how little he's been able to do lately, I think he sees this as an opportunity for personal redemption. But, like, at the end of the day, half of this job is for his survival and freedom…” A pause. “I'm doing enough," the supernatural dog concludes (or maybe simply reiterates to herself, trying to get it to stick more).

Dominic will blink for a moment as he looks down at his phone, and he'll chuckle and shake his head before answering it. "Thanks, that means something, getting caught up in nasty work like this. It's easy to lose sight of what you should do and who you are." He'll listen to her follow up, and in particular his expression will fall at the mentions of Jason and Abbas. With his lack of social graces he doesn't exactly have the ability to hide his feelings there, and he'll sigh and say,

"Of course you are. You can't be constantly responsible for an entire group's safety and well being even when they include grown ass adults who should be capable of managing their own affairs and feelings. As for Jason being mad about how little he's done. That's partly a masculine thing? Like we have a lot of our identity tied up in how much we can do for people, and if we aren't useful then we aren't living up to the ideals of what we were born into, but part of being useful to people is also. Not being a hindrance. With all due respect, I don't expect much to be done when it comes down to this crypt business by putting a dozen or so rounds into the crypt keeper so.. Jason should just stay out of this. If he has any sense. If you want me to talk to him and get him to see sense that'd be possible, but I think it'd be easier to just engineer something else for him to do during that. Abbas.. I still don't know what Abbas does besides use a bow and claim to hate monsters? Oh, and that he apparently got his demolitions license in that completely fucked state of Tennessee."

Alice shakes her head no to Albert's suggestion of stepping in. Although it is a kind offer, but it would probably make things worse. Planning something else for Jason to do had crossed her mind (it is in fact what she is trying to do with Abbas), but guarding her and Violet would also probably require more than a firearm--and a bow and arrow for that matter. She's about to explain this when Dominic mentions Abbas's demolitions license--something she didn't know about. "Just how deep did you dig into my friends and family?" There is nothing negative in her voice, but the dog would have a raised eyebrow if it could. "And, on that note, are you still watching and listening in, like, using our electronics?" There are pros and cons to having a second ghostly guardian, this one existing primarily within machines. Time to set some healthy boundaries.

"Not yours, Abbas's and Jason's mostly these days. It's part of the pre-screening. I figure out what people have done with their lives until then, and either weed them out for being not useful or interesting, or if I identify problems I steer clear of them. One of the things I noticed about Abbas back when we first met is that he was registered to get his demolition license with the state of Tennessee. I keep tabs on Jason and Abbas still, because, well.. It's like looking in the other room every time a toddler makes a noise, or when they make no noise at all. I can trust you to mostly handle yourself, but I'm concerned about the child that you routinely leave in both their care. I know you can't always be there, and it wouldn't be reasonable to expect you to, so I employ a little help from the watchers who don't need rest." Dominic would offer with an apologetic shrug like he wasn't engaging in massive, blatant, violations of privacy.

"..." The dog stares back at Dominic blankly. The empty bowl and her remaining hunger has been entirely forgotten. "You've been... watching over Violet, like, when they watch Violet?" 

"Yes, I roughly know what's been happening. Is there a problem? I must admit I was a bit worried when that cop showed up but it seemed to sort itself out. No thanks to Abbas." He asks, wondering exactly what Lanie was going to get at here. 

Lanie is visibly confused herself, head tilting slightly to one side as she continues staring into the eyes of her oblivious host. There is an uncomfortably long pause before she speaks. "Dominic... like, if I suspected any part of you was perverted or malicious... your watchfulness would have been a cause for concern--like, extremely serious concern as an adoptive mother and a therapist and a friend--because that kind of behavior--without prior consent, I mean, especially involving a minor--is, uh, most would consider it to be quite invasive and a clear marker of a 'problem person to steer clear of.'" She sighs. It makes sense to learn about your co-workers, but ongoing monitoring? "Even if the government or some other illicit organization does it, that doesn't, like, make it any better..."

"That being said, I haven't found any reason to question your character yet... Actually, I have much evidence to the contrary, that you are exactly who you present yourself to be, and your caring actions speak loudly--despite your ignorance or maybe intentional ignoring of social norms..." She shakes her head and tries to get back on some kind of linear thought, despite not knowing quite where the track will take her. "Shit--I, like, honestly ... can't decide ... I'm comforted knowing you might have intervened in the Dallas situation... and at the same time stunned, like, that you would ..." What? "... would, uh ..." The dog shuts her eyes for a moment, navigating the internal tension, and then finally settles on just saying both things: "... stunned that you would break social norms and invade privacy to such an extreme extent while also maintaining vigilance and care over Violet for such a long period of time." 

The concept that he might have been doing this for weird sexual reasons when watching a child was rather immediately concerning as he would go,

"What? Perverted? That's... No. Just fuckin no. I'd be absolutely fine with removing the bugs if I thought that the child was actually safe in the hands of Jason and Abbas, but this is a breach of social norms for a reason, and a damn good one at that. Both of them have routinely proven that they have difficulty securing their own safety let alone that of a child, and having some manner of recording to know if something goes wrong is simply best practice. Privacy and Safety are always exchanges, if you want a certain level of safety you have to sacrifice privacy, and I.. I didn't have another way to help. I can't exactly approach a child and hang around them. I've got too much fucked up, up here." 

He says pausing to tap the side of his head, "To be allowed within a school zone for anything other than the jobs. So I keep my distance, able to radio you in when someone messes up, and otherwise I don't monitor for anything else. You have my promise there. Though. This is also only in the case of Jason and Abbas's personal devices, so it's not like I've set up a stealthy home security situation in your home anyways. However."

He pauses to sigh and shake his head before he'd finish with, "I am trying to be better, and though I think that all I've done is co-opt the existing surveillance devices in your home and devices that the Illuminati would be watching you through anyways if I wasn't, I can turn them off instead if it really does matter to you."

Alice monitors Dominic's heart rate and scent as he talks, both which give no indication of insincerity or some other underlying issue. Technically, he did say he was always watching. Lanie had just made the mistake of deeming it a prank, as no one normal would literally always be watching.

"I, uh..." More internal wrestling for a brief moment before her ears go down a bit and she glances away awkwardly. "... you, like ... so, how are they doing? If they're in the Crypt, you probably won't get a signal..." The indirect giving of her consent. 

"Sorry, they're outside of my observational range right now. Probably in the crypt if I had to guess as I don't see Jason as the naturalist type. Though if you'd like to fix that and take on some of the observational responsibility yourself... Come with me." Dominic will stand up and begin walking out of sight, and then to the stairs. Stopping mid-way at a...wall? There he'll slide a section of wall to the side and begin typing on a keypad. That he'll punch some numbers into, and then, provided Lanie follows, she will see him withdraw a strange little pen that the click of which has a very small almost imperceptible camera on it. Said Pen he will hold out for Lanie to inspect looking rather proud as he'll say "I wasn't lying before when I said that I'd managed to co-opt the Illuminati surveillance, and with this device, you can do it as well. Though I've yet to work out the bug that disables their cloaking once I have control over them, and currently it drains some of the electricity in your body to be able to initially power the devices, but with this. You'd be able to keep an eye directly on Jason, Abbas, and Violet. Even talk to them without it interfering with that silvery glow I think you'll be using a lot more to manipulate things now that you're The Dogtor. At least, assuming that real intense expression you keep making is you applying your mental focus when you do those things." 

The dog definitively follows. Ah, secret wall panels. That feels much more in line with the kind of home that Lanie expected. Deep cleaning indeed, since that part of the wall previously had no fingerprints on it.

Upon seeing the pen, she has questions. One that she dares not ask is whether the Illuminati is actually real. If opportunities to steal inconceivably advanced technology is what Dominic considered "payments" for the jobs, well, then the harbingers are either paying him in a indirect (and possibly self-amusing) way OR he is receiving his payments directly but the experience is being filtered through his paranoia and delusions.

While Dominic's ongoing observation remains morally ambiguous, Lanie watching over Violet feels perfectly acceptable--and she would inform Jason and Abbas about it so that there'd be no deception. But the last part of the explanation is what gets her really excited. "I could, like, talk through this?" she asks with disbelief.

Dominic had indeed scrubbed his apartment of identifying DNA and markings prior to Lanie's arrival. He hadn't wanted any potential contaminants or any inklings or where any of his little treasure troves actually were besides this one, and holding the pen out for the dog to inspect once she had asked her question and he'd smirk when she finished as he'd proudly present his handiwork and fish a fifty dollar bill out of his front pocket and present it to Lanie, the eyes of the president subtly moving back and forth as Dominic would speak through the dollar bill's mouth

"Indeed, you can. I've spoken through all other manner of things through this even when gagged. Though they do need to have the item in question actually on their person for you to be able to, and they can even communicate back.  Though doing so strips what little camouflage I'm able to give them.. so far. Not only that, but you can see, hear, and even smell through them. A recent breakthrough of mine also allows me to use my detection abilities through it. It's just a theory at the moment but the same should probably apply to any of your canine senses as if you were standing right there, and finally. Though I am revealing a trade secret here."

He'll click the end of the pen and then flip it over like he was aiming a neuralizer at Lanie and then says,

"Alright take it, and make sure that end stays depressed for a few seconds, then press it again. It'll play back the time recorded when you do. You can rotate the base of the pen to select different times you've played things back or to set a new recording slot. I'm not sure how much this thing can hold but I've never run out. Though I've yet to get it to broadcast the recordings. Just plays for the person holding it. Bonus, it seems to automatically run some kind of playback software so even when one of these is destroyed you'll be able to play back the recording." 

She doesn't know much about cutting edge (Illuminati?) technology, but this is definitively a magic pen. 

The tail wags as Lanie's eyes glow silver and Dominic's now glowing phone floats out of his shirt pocket down to her. The offered pen also glows and floats down. She touches the pen's point to the phone for a few seconds mid-air, just like she saw Dominic do with the bill, briefly wondering if a telekinetic touch is sufficient for powering it. It is. A wave of tiredness hits her, a feeling reminiscent of the Crypt curse but not quite so bad. The phone returns to his pocket and the pen she gingerly takes in her teeth before walking down the hall and out of sight into the kitchen.

A few seconds later, Lanie happily declares through the phone, "I can smell you--this thing is amazing!" 

"Good, good. I'm glad that it's working the way you need it to. I always worry about user experience with untested stuff like this. After all, not like I was able to put it through a design and testing phase. I will work out that kink with it making you tired as fuck as soon as I can though, I'm thinking piezoelectrics but I need to find a material that can sustain the near-infinite use these things can put up with. Wouldn't want to go in tinkering and end up reducing the lifespan of the device with some half-thought-out modifications you know?" 

He'd then go to the wall safe, and input a code, and Lanie could see for a brief moment what looks like a dumb waiter lowering with what seems to be four more of those things lowering out of view before Dominic would turn back to Lanie and say

"That said, it's a good thing you like it because It's yours. The current iteration can only sustain connection with 3 of the devices simultaneously, but you can bet your ass I'm going to be finding a way to remove that hard-coded limit sooner or later."

"Thank you!" The dog is very pleased; the tail has never wagged this hard before. This device solves a problem she had become aware of since the Ghoul Fever outbreak--that in her true form she can only communicate to one person at a time, making group therapy impossible.

But what does she have to trade in return? She's already there to return a favor (or three). "I promise to get you some interesting technology, whatever the source." The pen is still in her mouth, causing her to salivate a bit. No pockets, just a black flat collar and excessive fluff... She glances down the hall in the direction of the front door. "Uh, could you please get my bag? I didn't want to bring it in myself, like, in case your neighbor was somehow watching..." Doing it manually would be odd dog behavior, and magically would have been quite overt. 

Mention of his neighbor seems to trigger some of the neurosis that lays behind Dominic's exterior as he will shift and go check the windows, squinting through at.. something? He'll take a few moments of looking through before he'll go to the coat rack and put on his anti surveillance jacket and mask, putting them on before sliding in and out like he was on a stealth mission before coming back and placing the bag in front of Lanie as he'll say 

 "Fuckin Winkleheimer is probably watching, he's always watching. I'm glad that you were careful. Asshole would call the local news and the PD faster than you can blink. If this wasn't the only house that existed on a lake that had a natural underwater tunnel structure connecting it to the local waterways, I'd have moved a long time ago. I'll find a way to get rid of him eventually, but that's another topic. Now I can see that keeping that pen in your mouth is probably not the best solution. We'll probably need to do some DIY home crafts to make you a collar to hide it, though the easier method will probably be to put a bandanna around your neck and simply include a pocket on the inside for you to carry your essentials."

At "natural underwater tunnel structure," Alice begins to wonder if his basement in fact resembles a batcave or some equivalent, complete with submarine on standby for an emergency getaway. There are certainly pros to being this paranoid.

"Yeah, I haven't quite figured out the stuff part yet..." Lanie replies while mentally bringing her bag into the living room, walking behind it and savoring the fact that she can now multitask. "I'm not very crafty. A bandana sounds nice... With this pen, though, now I'm thinking, like, a collar with a small speaker attached would be great!"

As she talks (and continues to hold the pen in her mouth), the small black duffle bag is unzipped, and then telekinetically rummaged through. The bag mostly contains a white fluffy blanket at the top, her efforts to be a conscientious guest because now she sheds. Some human clothes are below that along with a couple of dog accessories: gray collar, leash, an empty dog pack... 

Dominic will go over towards the bag when it's being rummaged through, in part to satisfy his paranoia. Something he couldn't stop even if he wanted to. Though the rest of it was genuine concern that Lanie might be forgetting some essentials and seeing what she had he'd sigh and say,

"The collar is a good idea. Though the state of what you've got in this bag... we're gonna need to get some essentials. Did you know they make tactical vests for K-9 units? Might be a good idea to get one and recolor it to look like a standard dog harness. It won't protect you if you get shot in the head, but, it'd be a good idea to be prepared for an asshole to decide that he wants to put a round in the canine. Secondly, we can take a note from Saint Bernards, I think, and give you one of those neck barrels to keep in line with the canine aesthetic and give you a little extra storage space. Even though the K-9 harness will have its share of pouches, storage space is at a premium for things that can be preserved organically without you needing to.. well. Look odd. If people see a dog walking around with a duffel bag in her mouth all the time you'll draw some unneeded attention. What do you think?" 

Lanie pulls out a small 2x2x1 metal box that has the engraved image of a spider on it and sets it on the ground at Albert's feet. "Believe it or not, I have something in the way of armor on already, like, at all times. It's sort of like the Golden Rule; if I don't hurt someone then, one way or another, they have difficulties hurting me. I have considered a tactical vest, just in case I have to, like, bite someone in self-defense, but I haven't gotten around to ordering that yet--I've been, uh, it's, like, been a busy life..." From all the things that had happened in the past couple of days, professional and personal, the travel, and powering the pen, the dog is suddenly quite tired. The adrenaline is waning in this place of safety. She yawns as both a dog and a female voice on Albert's phone, revealing unusually sharp pearly white teeth before picking up the dropped magical pen and continuing with a slower, more tired tone. "Maybe tonight we can put together a list, like, after I assess the teddy bears." 

Dominic looks down at it, and sighs as he'll crouch down and give the dog a pat around the same time as he sees her yawn, and he can't help but chuckle as he'll say shake his head. His read had been accurate, this woman had been waging a war all her lonesome for so long that she hadn't really been able to rest in forever he'd bet. So, standing, Dominic would go to pick up the bag for now after putting the little box back in, and setting it up on a little outcropping on the coat rack by the door as he'd turn to Lanie and say, "I bet it has been a busy life, we'll get it situated so that you can defend yourself. Though if you really have some ability like that it does make me feel better for your safety. As much as I'm sure you can handle yourself, I'll bet dollars to doughnuts that's a part of it. As for the teddy bears.. they aren't going anywhere, and they've been like this for months. I know it isn't exactly a dog bed, but I do have an.. unused... guest room upstairs. Why don't you go up and get some rest? That pen takes a lot out of you, and the jet lag combined with that can't be doing you any favors. I'll re-engage security while you sleep. Feels weird looking at my windows and not seeing the comforting little red dot of the laser emitters over them blinking. We can talk about anything else after. You're a psychologist, you know that operating on less than 7 hours of sleep means you will always take at least some hit to your cognitive ability, and I'd rather not chance their therapy on us being a little too hasty."

"Okay," Lanie replies. All of the points were valid, which she's come to expect from him. "But uh, Dominic?" Her body language shifts as she sits there, an exhausted fluffy cloud of a dog with eyes full of hopefulness and tail thumping ever so slightly. "Can, I, uh... eat, like... a bowl full of steak first?" 

Dominic blinks and can't stop himself from laughing. Of course, the dog wanted the steak, and he'd turn toward the kitchen and reply with,

"I can't believe I forgot that I bought like 3 pounds a person for it, sure. I don't mind. I bought it half for you after all. Sorry for getting caught up in all the big things that I forgot the minutiae."

He'd then go into the kitchen, picking up the dog bowl as he'd walk on his way to it, and return with a bowl full of what is probably decently high-end steak, two porterhouses, and a filet mignon, that he'd set down in front of the Samoyed half curious to see how she'd go about tackling it.

The dog sniffs the bowl, instantly salivating a ton. Then she slowly licks the filet mignon with closed eyes and shivers with delight, visibly pleased. Looking up at Dominic, "Ohmygod, this is heavenly!"

Maybe it is a higher quality meat, and actually properly prepared, than she's used to--which isn't saying much given her pre-ritual diet of power-based nutritionally complete shakes. Maybe the experience is enhanced by her new form. Maybe she's finally indulging in the absence of her digestive issues. Maybe she's just really damn hungry. 

Standing with her head down and tail wagging like a perfectly average, overjoyed dog, Lanie proceeds to eat the entire bowl. The only clear abnormality is that she can cut through the larger pieces of meat easily with a single concerted chomp, revealing that her teeth are probably as sharp as extremely honed knives. At first Dominic hears a happy "mmmm" but within seconds that cuts out and it's just the sound of a dog eating.

Dominic is content to watch her be happy and eat, though he will take a second to go and get a piece of steak himself. Coming back with a slab of beef wedged between two slices of bread as he'd squat down beside the dog and just enjoy the moment for a while. Not really needing to talk that much, and merely just enjoying the shared ritual of eating a meal together. The inherent connection of satisfying a mortal need a connecting experience, and once finished Dominic will go and take the bowl and wash it and his hands before returning to say 

"Well, I take it that you enjoyed the food. I think I'll leave the rest of my portion for your breakfast and have the sushi myself. Now. You ready to rest or should I go put on the TV in the living room? I've not used it in awhile, propaganda being used to mind control the masses and all, but I could put on something, not the news for us to enjoy."

"Yes, that was wonderful--thank you! I think, like, I should go to bed." With a full belly, the dog yawns again, blinking slowly before her eyes start to glow. The folded white fluffy blanket that she brought floats over to her back so that she can carry it easily into the bedroom. She doesn't seem to need to see what she's handing in order to telekinetically handle it. 

"I'd, like, have you over someday, but you'd probably not enjoy the Crypt or an FBI-raided apartment," she says sleepily. And then there would be Jason, Violet, and Abbas... 

"Yeah, no thank you, all due respect. I do a lot to keep my house hidden from the public eye, and it's part of why I'm so secretive about my identity. No one knows who I really am, no one has any data even to extrapolate that from, and that means this place is safe. No one's going to be able to hunt me down, and if they do. Reinforced Steel Cored Walls, a heavy machine gun hidden inside the ceiling that I can remote control, and an escape tunnel all ease even my worries. So go on and get some rest. I'll hold down the fort and keep an eye on Jason, Violet, and Abbas for you and then pass the reins to you on that after you've gotten a full night's sleep."

The dog nods, and then slowly moves closer and licks Dominic's hand again as she says, "Thanks for having me over." The amount of trust and faith is not lost on her.

Man and dog go down the hallway to the guest bedroom. The blanket is telekinetically spread out atop the bed and then she jumps up onto it, curling up tight with the tip of the tail over her nose--a habit the breed developed to protect themselves from frostbite in extremely cold weather. Her fur is her covering. The bedroom door remains open--not like she needs to change or something. It's dark and quiet outside.

"It's no problem. I know you'd do the same for me." 

Dominic will move to guide her once the conversation finishes, having been merely waiting for the discussion to end rather than being a poor host. He will leave the door open once Lanie has made her spot on the bed, the spread rather.. archaic but very very heavy. A massive winter comforter, an array of five pillows, and the bed itself an ancient hardwood affair that could probably survive a bomb. Likely why Dominic purchased it. He'll chuckle once he sees her curl up on top of them and say 

"Alright, good night. I'll see you when you wake." 

"Goodnight." 

Then he leaves, allowing the sleepy dog to enjoy a moment of rest in a room with bullet-proof windows.

 

 

 

-------

In the Midst

Alice turns off the hallway light. Abandoning her shoes and luggage in the hallway, she moves to the kitchen and quickly prepares dinner using a reusable water bottle and a meal replacement packet. It's good to be home. 

She walks quiety through the house to her bedroom, careful to not disturb Keara. She's always seen well in near darkness, and everything is just how she left it. Exhausted, she moves to the messy bed. It is occupied. This is not her bedroom. This is not her home. 

Embarassed and confused, she backs up slowly through the doorway. Instead of a hallway, she enters a foggy forest lit by the first rays of morning light. In the midst of the smells of damp leaves, bark, and ground, she knows Abbas is nearby. There are also the distant sounds and smells of people. She moves in his direction, but his scent grows fainter. A whisper: "Abbas?" Is he running away from her or from everyone else?

Violet giggles, snapping her attention. The little girl emerges from behind a thick shrub wearing an adorable dress with leaves in her hair and some dirt on her face, hands, and clothes. "Ribbbbit." She's playing with Jason. "Catch him, Mommy!" The woman smiles and follows. The girl and amphibian's meandering chase takes them down a slope momentarily out of sight. When she reaches the ridge, they're gone. "Violet? Jason?" Silence. Her worry borders panic as she rushes forward.

The forest immediately rots. Black streaks of taint spread out from her along the ground, covering yards in seconds. Branches and several trunks fall as green trees transform into rotten, burnt bark; leaves and grass turn into stubble and ash. Swirls of black dust displace the mist, and the small dewy diamonds adorning the forest's surfaces are now dark rubies. In the edges of her vision, always just out of view, the desolate bark and ground seem to form a thousand faces.

She dodges a falling branch as the landscape changes. She's on all fours now, much closer to the ground and panting as she continues to forward, smelling for anyone or anything familiar other than the overpowering scent of fresh and rotten blood. Her white paws and legs are quickly stained red. Then two things cause her to freeze and her heart to sink. The first is the scent and shrill, unearthly song of the Crypt Keeper, a melodic howl that rattles the ruins of the bleeding forest. The second is the faint smell of Jason--his dead body. "Jason? JASON!?"

Downtime

Man and Dog (Part 2)

Plain Sight

About eleven hours later, around 6 AM, a Pathetic woman wearing a white crop top and loose gray linen pants with a messy bob undercut and purple dyed tips snaps awake to the sound of her own voice calling urgently out to Jason Decker (loudly, but not quite as loud as in her dream). Lanie sits up on the fluffy white blanket atop the queen bed and slowly looks around as the adrenaline, feelings, and visuals of the nightmare rapidly fade away. The sun hasn't quite risen yet, and the thick curtains block most of the early morning light. Nevertheless, she can see the room clearly. This is not the Crypt, nor Abbas's hideout in the forest, nor her (old?) home in Berkeley.

She reaches for her neck; the collar isn't there. Of course not--if it was, she wouldn't be in this form. It's also not on the bed. Then she slowly remembers where she is, where her bag is (which has a backup collar), and, finally, where the missing collar is. She had taken it off to use the bathroom in the middle of the night and probably left it there.

Lanie gives the bedroom another visual scan, momentarily wondering if there are any cameras. When her gaze rests on the pen that had fallen to the floor, she sighs. If Dominic did want to watch her or any of his other guests for whatever reason, he undoubtedly could do so quite easily and subtly. She'd just have to trust him. No reason not to so far. Next, she listens and notices that the room is unusually quiet given the home's location right next to a lake with a generous amount of trees in the neighborhood; she can barely hear the couple of early rising birds through the window. 

Perhaps this is simply because she's not in her true form? Suddenly it occurs to her that she can spy on her host just as easily as he can spy on her. The temptation to peer at Dominic through his bugged phone quickly passes when she remembers that some men sleep naked. Perhaps scent would be informative yet less invasive? She shakes her head as though to push the thought away, considering that to be even worse if he is still asleep--equivalent to her standing over his bed and sniffing him--regardless of whether, for whatever perfectly logical and/or insane reason, he considered that behavior to be acceptable. Perhaps just sound then? ... No ... But it is tempting. Finally, as the last of the sleepy haze wears off, she remembers that this man is both intelligent and utterly paranoid. The phone is probably far away from him anyways.

With that, Lanie cracks open the closed bedroom door, listening and sniffing like a perfectly respectful albeit slightly unusual and highly perceptive guest to determine whether her host or anyone/thing else in the fortress of a house is presently awake. 

The visual scan of the bedroom doesn't immediately identify any cameras, and sniffing around gets her nothing immediately but it does identify that the scents in most of the house are either in the form of now vacant steak, sushi, and cleaning product. Dominic apparently never even went by her room, and depending on the accuracy the freshest scent trail would exist heading on down towards the basement. Appropriately paranoid if true really. 

However, no more recent scent trails exist in the house, so either Dominic is exceedingly clean when performing his clandestine viewings, a total possibility, or he's been down in the basement since Lanie went to sleep.

With this information and confirmation that the coast is clear, Lanie slips into the bathroom. At first she intends on just fetching the collar, but the tub is too tempting. The last time she had a nice long soak in a tub (not filled with blood) was six months ago, before the curse. That a washcloth and towel are neatly folded and waiting for her on the bathroom counter is a testament to Dominic's hosting skills. 

About an hour later, a damp, squeaky clean, fresh-scented Samoyed wearing a black collar exits the bathroom. By her tail and grin, the dog is in a really good mood. From there Lanie slowly meanders around the public areas of the main floor, particularly taking in any pictures on display (including gently telekinetically picking up a framed photo on the entryway table to bring it to her level) with the hopes of learning a bit more about the friends and family of her host. It immediately crosses her mind that the photos are excellently photoshopped ruses, but even then it might hint to some insight about Dominic beyond his paranoia and desire for privacy. 

She sees some photos from an early career in the military apparently, something Dominic’s never talked about, including some pictures of him seeming to be relatively happy with friends. Later on pictures of him with an older-looking heavy set woman along with what looks like a vase of flowers by it where he has the scar on his cheek, then him holding a degree at a ceremony with an older man, and a smattering of other photos involving things which begin to get a bit stranger as it becomes photos of various locations with no one in them, photos of buildings, photos of a lake, and photos of him with people that progressively become more and more uncannily.. wrong. People dressed like they're out of the correct time period, or dressed seriously while attending relatively simple functions. Little circles marked around people in the backgrounds of things as mundane as McDonalds or Denny's parking lots, less mementos and more a hidden in plain sight conspiracy board. 

Taking some mental notes, Lanie concludes her self-guided tour in the kitchen and then her bedroom. She's still full from yesterday's feast, having eaten more actual food in that one meal than she's had in the weeks prior--and no digestive problems yet! Finding the dog bowl in the drying rack, she gets herself some water (lapping it up still feels strange) and then heads to the bedroom to pick up the magic pen. Next, she goes towards the basement, towards the faint sounds and smells of activity, trusting that Dominic would have specified if he didn't want her to go down there. She intended on walking down the staircase slowly and casually, but on all fours and at that downward angle she soon discovers that it's more comfortable to descend rather quickly. 

The descent shows the building becoming more and more militarized as Lanie descends. Going from at least a veneer of militarized construction to all pretenses being thrown out of the window and a sharp contrasting shift to pure military bomb shelter type construction about 10 feet down the spiral staircase that goes to a depth, that if Lanie knew it, was built to survive a nuclear attack on the city. Of course there was nothing you could do if you were in the crater, but Dominic had prepared as best he could. At the base of the stairs was a far more obvious observational set up as well, an array of cameras, biometric and redundant layers of security in keypads, locks, and even a door jam in front of what had to be at least a 12 inch thick titanium or something to that effect door. If she descends to the point those cameras can see her, a heavy machine gun will lower from the ceiling momentarily before retracting as Dominic would say through speakers,

"Ah. You're awake! My apologies. Automated security being what it is, I have to manually disable it when it activates in response to motion. I will begin unlocking procedures for the door, stand back, there's some escaping gas from the pressurized lock that is a bit uncomfortable." 

With that, the mechanisms on the door would begin to operate like some form of security rube goldberg machine, levers lifting door jams, machines beeping in affirmation, and a violent jet of pressurized gas escaping before eventually the door to the bunker would lay open for Lanie. Showing off what looked to be a combination underground lab and storage room. Honestly, it wasn't a wonder that Dominic was always looking for profit opportunities even with his skills if he was running something like this; the electricity bill had to be astronomical.

This is more like it... Lanie thinks as the surroundings shift and she sees the door at the bottom. The sudden appearance of the machine gun fills her with a rush of adrenaline as she bites the (thankfully metal) pen harder while crouching down, immediately ready to dart to one side and then book it back up the staircase--a reaction that required nearly zero time and conscious consideration, surprising herself. The gun's retraction accompanied by Dominic's voice brings her posture and ears back up, although her heart continues to pound. What if he was still asleep?! She goes back up the stairs a bit, unsure of how far away is far enough, does a full body shake to reset herself, and then watches the door unlock with fascination.

Finally entering the bunker, the damp dog uses the magic pen and Dominic's (far more convenient) bugged phone to say, "Good morning. How did you sleep?" She certainly hoped that under these inconceivably secure conditions the man could get some genuine rest--if he had to sleep at all. 

There is a bed, a military-style cot, and rows of buckets that contain high-calorie dense food and water. It's conceivable that Dominic may do the bulk of his living down here from the 2-3 that are open and empty here. There are also a number of large jugs of water, and filtration systems, along with rows of boxes with caduceus on them. Also yes, indeed, there is a TON of cocaine. The smells in the area are cotton, some small amount of blood, some well used latrines. However, when she attempts to speak to him through the phone she'll notice through her ability to smell that the device was most certainly not on Dominic's person any longer from the smell of metal rather than a person being the prevailing scent near it, and she'd hear through a speaker being spoken back through to her,

"Apologies, but I don't feel comfortable with anything bugged actually on my person. I have the phone in a digitally monitored safe. Spent most of last night rigging the speakers and such inside and threading the cables through the holes drilled in the safe. Go down the hallway and turn right, I'll disable the security on the blast door once you're through."

Lanie nods, assuming Dominic can see her. Goodness, he certainly went to a lot of trouble on my account. But she appreciated the effort he'd gone to to navigate the tensions between trust and paranoia. She obediently follows her insane, hospitable host's instructions.

The hallway turns to the final barrier, being a massive door with no apparent opening mechanism. Like a vault door, but somewhat different, with a number of strange pipes running along it's side. In addition to all the cables networking themselves straight to here, it is as obvious as breathing that this is the central nexus of Dominic's operation. The nerve center where all of his many irons in the fire are connected, and as Lanie approaches there will be another audible hiss of air. A second literal air gap between him and atomic warfare, redundant and unnecessary by scientific standards, but something that Dominic had apparently decided on as the door would raise and reveal the center of the area. Dominic, standing up from an array of monitor screens and about a dozen or so interfacing devices, and a slew of about 6 teddy bear like creatures all wearing scrubs and transferring cocaine from one package to another once it had been cut with what looks to be baby powder. 

As Lanie entered Dominic would approach only to poke his head out momentarily, as if scanning to see if she was followed, and then saying,

"Good, it looks like they didn't pounce on the chance to breach my inner sanctum. Come in, come in Lanie. Did you sleep well?"

Dominic in his natural habitat, the dog ponders as the final door opens. Lanie enters as the potent chemical and fruity, flowery smells of the powdered cocaine and baby powder hit her, causing her to sneeze several times in a row the moment Dominic finishes his question.

"Y-yeah, like, really well," she finally answers, glancing at the screens; the monstrous teddy bears that have tendril-like arms, compound eyes, and strange digitigrade legs; and then their work. While her ears are alert, the tail and head are both low, signaling her mild discomfort. "You?"

"Busy night, dark web orders come in, I process them. Even if they come in at 2 AM on a day that we'd agreed that there'd be no shipments. Problem with dealing with people willing to break the law for money, you end up with people who don't care much about established rules. It's whatever, there's already an anonymous tip going out to where this is going to be delivered and the teddy bears don't have any DNA or fingerprints the cops can trace." 

Dominic would say with a sigh, and then turn to Lanie properly from looking at the teddy bears as he spoke to continue with

"Unfortunately, they're not in great shape as you can see though. I give them the work I can because they get antsy if they aren't doing anything and I need to give them something else to focus on besides their tragic pasts. Once I have them.. able.. to function in more traditional ways I was thinking of having them start a horror themed YouTube channel or something."

How much Dominic needs to sleep continues to be a mystery. "I can't imagine there's a five-star rating system for a buyer to express their displeasure if a shipment arrives slower than they'd have liked..."

The idea of the teddy bears doing something else other than contributing to the existing drug addiction and mental health issues of the United States perks the dog up. She would have done the favor even if they'd continue in this trade, but entertaining YouTube videos didn't violently grate against her professional and moral inclinations. "So, do they have names?" Lanie asks as she slowly approaches the backside of a plushie that has tendril arms, wondering how to get its attention (and how much it is listening to their discussion).

Dominic didn't seem to have much problem with the idea of selling cocaine to random people, hell, he'd even already given his opinion on the substance itself viewing it as nothing more than a very powerful tool, as likely to hurt someone who didn't understand it as an angle grinder. Whether or not that was a sane position to hold was another matter entirely, but he'd answer her question coherently enough at least with,

"Ah, not originally. No. I've given them names but they aren't terribly familiar with them. I'll be happy to give you their names, but also as a reminder. They can't talk. All that intelligence and ability packaged into a body that can't express itself through anything but body language. I've tried to teach them writing, but, it's taking a hot minute. Either way. Names. Starting from left to right." 

He'd go down the row, naming them. Rush, Jack, George, Busch, John, Frank, Kennedy.

Lanie had apparently approached Busch. "Yes, I remember..." On the one hand, having difficulties communicating one's wants and needs might be extremely frustrating. On the other, if one never had the space to have wants and needs, well, it was possible that this issue hasn't come up for them, yet. One thing at a time

"Busch, may I have your attention for a few minutes?" Lanie asks while poking the teddy bear's non-monstrous, fabric shoulder with her damp nose. That Lanie's gentle voice comes through the speakers of the monitor is a bit disconcerting. Being that close and fully attentive (as she always is to a future or current patient), the dogtor notices something else: They have heartbeats.

The teddy bear turns towards her and seems apprehensive at first but then seems to reconsider as if it realized that it was a teddy bear and that a talking dog really shouldn't seem strange to it. It approaches her and stand at attention. A slightly haunted look lingered in the glossy black eyes of the creature as it looked towards the colossal cloud of a dog before it, as if it was looking through Lanie rather than directly at her despite the angle. 

Dominic meanwhile would sigh, and turn to the computer and pull up a dossier file. Documenting a series of issues in dry, clinical, terms but showcasing that Dominic had at least been documenting the various PTSD episodes and triggers as he would say

"Busch is one of the one's that had it the toughest.. hard to work with him because they can't talk but I hope you can do something to help them."

Lanie (pen still in mouth) reviews paperwork on the screen, skimming it quickly by telekinetically scrolling with the mouse. Busch has several conditions if these records are correct: at a minimum nightmares, a phobia of the dark, and violent, angry outbursts towards the others (excluding Dominic). 

"Thanks, now I know where I'm starting," the therapist concludes. "On the ride over here I experimented with my conversation power with Mel and learned that she needed to talk into a phone for that to work--so that option's ruled out." Lanie returns her attention to the teddy bear that is still standing at attention. "Okay Busch--like, be at ease please. Just try to relax and take a few deep breaths. Focus on, uh, something bright maybe... how about that light if it makes you any calmer--or close your eyes. I promise I'm here to try to help..." 

Having supernaturally healed the minds of nearly a hundred clients in the past--including several Contractors--Lanie knows what removing each of these three issues feels like. 

In general when the client begins to talk, it feels like they're guiding Lanie's hands, well, more like her soul towards themselves to touch their mind. The more they share, the more sensitive she becomes to the overall size, shape, weight, textures, and temperatures of their mental state--which cannot be perceived all at once but rather must be explored bit by bit, as each mind has many different facets.

For nightmares, the feeling is distinctly cool, hard, and tangled, like layers of tree roots covering a portion of the surface. Rather heavy too once tugged loose, maybe because such an issue is more on the subconscious than the conscious. However, Busch could share nothing, so this would have to be all on Lanie.

The dog sits right beside the bear, closes her eyes, and focuses on the being beside her. Heart beat. Breath. The shifting of Busch's weight, probably a sign of his discomfort. The still overwhelming smell of cocaine in the room and also the smells this creature--mild salty sweat and body odor. To reach beyond to what is undeniably there yet unseen, just like Lanie's telekinesis but with a different kind of mental hands into the murky darkness...

A very faint, ethereal silver halo appears around the head of the dog--a jagged kind made up of overlapping wispy lines that constantly shift. At the same time, a pitch black ethereal halo appears around Busch's head (which physically feels like nothing). If Lanie notices this development, she doesn't react.

The teddy bear tenses, his haunches rearing back for a moment like he intended to pounce. One of those angry outbursts taken to an extreme at someone getting so up into his business, but as he feels the halo begin to form and sees the genuine compassion in Lanie's eyes he will retract his advance. Muscles un-tensing, fur settling down as the soothing influence of the mend trauma went to work the creature not seeming to understand but at least not being openly combative however as the silver halo would come into contact with the black one it became apparent from the initial sparks of mental energy that this was going to take some doing and as time went on Busch seemed to go from being somewhat relaxed to becoming more anxious. The initial impact was only going to last so long after all, and it seemed that with each spark there was some part of him that was afraid or resistant to the idea of changing even if it was for the better. Dominic meanwhile would look on in earnest, he had never seen this process before himself and found himself briefly wondering if this is what a holocaust survivor's halo looked like then what would someone far worse like Mark Zuckerberg's halo look like? His mental unhinged nature was actively polluting the minds of billions after all, but he would keep his concerns to himself. They could be vocalized later after all, one didn't topple Facebook in an evening, so he would merely choose to gather the other teddy bears and have them observe. He believed in Lanie, and knew that seeing was believing for something like this. Otherwise, no one would believe him even if he told them.

About ten minutes later, Busch's halo suddenly expands and thickens, Lanie's retracts, and the onlookers feel a small wave of energy flow out from the two across the room. Then both halos vanish as the supernatural session abruptly ends. The damp Samoyed does a full-body shake before moving a bit away from her patient. She also telekinetically moves the pen from her mouth to be clipped onto her collar before speaking (still through the monitor's speakers) in a gentle, professional tone: "Thank you for being willing to try that out with me, Busch. I respect your choice to hold onto the nightmares. I would never want to force any changes onto you--it's your mind, not mine. If there's anything you'd like me to help you with concerning your mental health, you can let me know--just, um, tap me on the paw three times. And, like, if I'm not here, you can tap Dominic on the shoe three times and he'll reach out to me." With that wrapped up, Lanie looks around. Her serious gaze lingers on Dominic for a moment, as though she has something to say to him, before she turns her attention to the half circle of teddy bears. "It's possible that I can help you with your mental health issues, if you're willing. That includes compulsions, phobia, nightmares, and other things." Despite being at the unknown edge of her supernatural skills, Lanie is clearly in her element. "The past doesn't need to be forgotten, as it can strengthen and shape us in beautiful ways." She briefly looks at Busch. "But it also doesn't have to hold us back." Then, addressing everyone, "Please put a paw on me if you're open to letting me serve you today. My mental health services come without any fees or requirements--I'd be honored to help you find some peace and live your best life."

The other teddy bears look between each other for a moment, seeming to be more willing as Lanie explains that this isn't going to expunge the memory of what happened. Merely the damage that had been done. Each of them looking then at Dominic, and then at the piles of cocaine for a moment and seem to make a decision as they come up one by one and place their hands onto the dogtor. The halos that alight each blazing in a different colored corona, though each of them was blighted by the blackness that was the malady known as mental illness to most. Surviving a horrible tragedy scars us all in different ways it seems. Then, they all turn at once to look at Dominic. A sort of expectant look that tinges on slightly annoyed he isn't already over here in their body language that the maddened hacker seems to understand. Dominic balks for a moment saying "What?! Just because the people online say it doesn't mean I'm actually crazy... but fine. I saw Lanie look too and I can't say no to ALL of you." He'd say before approaching and placing a hand on Lanie, his own halo showing up and while it was relatively clean in an astounding display that defied some logic there were two sharp, clean, breaks. Lanie detected no delusion based paranoia, none of the maladies from tragedy that blighted others. Just, the harms of life, Dominic's insane behavior seems to be learned patterns more than trauma responses. The vagaries of life having worn this man down in little ways over his entire existence to shape him into this, putting him a step beyond the current magic. Though there were two clean breaks. Deliberate and sudden, like they had happened all at once, and those strange wounds carried two burdens she could lift.

As each being sets a hand on Lanie, surrounding her with their scents and heart rates and minor movements, the dogtor reaches out with her mind. She has two "mental hands" for telekinesis, but what are the limits to her ability to mend the mind? What is her maximum capacity? She starts to count and then considers it a waste of time, instead focusing on perceiving the many multifaceted sensations--on making sense of unknown, slowly revealing landscapes simultaneously--with a mix of curiosity and excitement. After a few minutes, Lanie's voice comes through the monitor again although the dog seated in the middle of this crowd with eyes shut is motionless. The halos remain. "Thank you for trusting me. It seems I can help all of you at the same time. Each full session, focusing on a single thing, will take about eight hours--and I'll need to be close to you like we are now. But before that I'd like to make sure everyone is comfortable. Dominic, should we move this to the upstairs couch maybe--or the guest bedroom?"

The teddy bears would nod, feeling that the experience had not exactly been hostile. Intelligent creatures are able to recognize a hospitable environment when they see one after all and Lanie was anything but hostile. Dominic would chuckle as she made the suggestion, as the idea that lizard people ran the world now seemed a bit silly to him but he'd roll his eyes still believing his was largely going along with this to humor the group as he'd say "I'd say the guest bedroom. My mother did buy the most ridiculous blankets. Insisted that people should feel like they're sleeping on a cloud when they're here as our goal should be to make them feel like they're in heaven. I suppose I should be thanking her about now." He said with a chuckle, knowing well enough that Lanie only meant well. With many others he would've sent them packing a long time ago. He'd already done the same with a few mundane therapists back in the day. Though he would turn and press some buttons to undo the bulkhead door in the bunker, he would gesture for the teddy bears to follow out and up to the soon-to-be cuddle pile.

And a cuddle pile it was on the massive winter comforter atop the queen-sized bed: dog in the center, Dominic laying down (?) on one side, and monstrous sapient teddy bears above, below, and beside her--including two partially on Dominic--each with their own pillow if they desired. Despite a couple of tentacles and claws being on her, the most comfortable one by far as they get situated is the dog who--even as an asexual and aromantic human--cuddled her best friends in the shared spaces like living room couches (and sometimes even in the private spaces like beds). However, as soon as Lanie restarts the treatment and the halos reappear, the feelings of awkwardness and anxiety ever so gently wash away--not forcefully like emotional control but instead like a suggestion of comfort and ease that each one considers and then willingly accepts. In fact, as the second session progresses all of the patients--really a friend and friends of friends in her eyes--feel a growing sense of inner peace. A few teddies fall asleep within the first hour, and a few more in the second, and the rest by the third (Busch being the last one)--a deep and refreshing rest like many of them have never known.

It took two more days of this kind of cuddle therapy, for each teddy bear had multiple mental health issues. However, when the task was finally finished it was clear in how they wordlessly interacted that a great burden had been lifted from each one of them. For the remainder of Lanie's stay, Dominic and her finished up the plans to make "Dr. Alice Decker" legally dead. Her genius host also helped her manage a dog pack inventory and created a custom collar that met her needs (and, to an extent, Dominic's). With a little telekinetic nudge, Lanie could easily access all of the magical pen's effects which was hidden inside the center of the collar. The dog accessory also included a built in speaker, a transponder that can be activated to send her location to him as an emergency rescue method, and a spool of wire that could be used as a wire saw (which she didn't find necessary but the additional thought was sweet, and hopefully it gave Dominic some peace of mind). For no specific reason to Lanie's knowledge, Dominic also gifted her a truth serum and oddly dangerous, supernatural cufflinks.

Next, the two proceeded with the pseudo-suicide plan. Lanie, as a dog, flew to Terry's office in Idaho, where he pulled numerous human teeth, set them aside, then promptly restored her mouth. Then she travelled to Los Angeles, also as a dog but transformed back soon after arriving, to attend another Pepsi-sponsored event as Dr. Alice Decker, new Pepsi mascot and Illuminated supernatural pony-being, before heading back to Dominic under (fluffy) cover. Really, she didn't want her name to show up as a passenger and then the FBI get alerted--perhaps paranoia and perhaps not.

 

---

 

Six days after Alice returned from her most recent Contract (five after she fought with Jason and then promptly left town):

As Jason exits the Crypt with Violet in the morning to get some breakfast burritos, his phone pings. He received a voicemail from Abbas's burn phone, the one Alice has been borrowing indefinitely because she's too paranoid to get her own after the Texas incident.

"Hey. Just wanted to let you know that I finished helping a friend in need of my services. Also, so that it doesn't catch you off guard, any day now a Pepsi ad is going out worldwide and I'm, uh, starring it as like a new, supernatural mascot." A pause. "That was my most recent job, and, like, now I'm going to clean it up. Give Violet a hug for me and tell her I love her--oh, and please delete message."

 

---

 

While Lanie took care of her dental visit and final acting gig, Dominic surreptitiously hired a towing service to pick up Lanie's cheap, old, dented Toyota Corolla from the neighborhood of the Detroit Crypt and deliver it several blocks away from his safehouse so that, upon the dogtor's return, she could drive across several states to get to a hardly used field beside a hardly used road, read a suicide note to a camcorder, and then "take her own life" via fire. Driving was extremely uncomfortable for her, as someone who never drove regularly before, but she managed to get to the location without any accidents.

 

---

 

A video clearly taken from a camcorder of a woman the world now knows to be Alice Decker, the new Pepsi mascot and recently Illuminated supernatural person (who can turn into a real-life version of a My Little Pony and use telekinesis). She seems unusually calm, almost emotionless.

"A couple of days ago, I realized that I'm not who I should be, who I really am, but that I can free myself and step into my true form--a different form--through death. These flames aren't going to be the end, but the beginning. I know that I will return and finally become who I was always meant to be and do the things I was meant to do--a chance to live the life that I should have all along. Darling, your love these past few months has made me stronger. It has given me the strength to tear down--to burn to the ground--so that I can rebuild. I hope that you find peace in your current form or the next, with or without me."

Downtime

On the Way

Running Low

Minerva's phone rings about ten minutes after she initially called the supposedly powerful woman she knows as "Alice." It might register in her mind that it's a confidential call as the caller profile is now the head of a white fluffy Samoyed (not a paw print icon) and the name is now "Lanie/Alice." 

Minerva lies in her bed, trying to stay calm.  It was all going to be fine.  It always had been before, right?  She'd been on ten of these jobs in just about six months, and it was fine.  She was fine.  They were going to go out, and find Mars, and bring her home safe, and it would be fine. The young foxgirl jumps some as her phone rings, and she picks it up, looking at it and nodding a bit.  At least she recognized it this time.  She answers it, and then.. "Lanie?"

"Minerva, I need to apologize for forgetting to contact you after the ritual. Obviously I'm alive, and I'm also de-cursed now. It's been..." Lanie sighs. "... a life."

"It's okay.  I'm glad you're de-cursed!  And...I'm sorry about that.  Can I help at all?"  She wiggles her nose some, just staring at the ceiling. She had her own issues, of course, but Alice was going out of her way to help her.  She should at least do anything she could to help in response.

Could she? "Thanks for offering. Nothing comes to mind at the moment--" a lie, the first one Minerva's heard her tell "Well, nothing of high enough priority." The truth. "I still have a demon to tame and a frien--husband to de-curse, but one thing at a time." Another sigh. "Anyways, from now on, I'm 'Lanie.' I've just shed the 'Alice' identity. Hopefully that won't make too big of a splash on the news, when they find out." 

Minerva tilts her head to the side just a little at that lie, and then nods slightly after.  "Okay.  After, then..."  She makes a mental note to get out of Alice what she could help with, and then do so.  She owed Alice already.  She could understand that maybe she wasn't strong enough to help tame a demon or such, but surely there was something to do.

"...Ah.  Okay..." She takes a moment.  "Lanie.  Okay. " There's a pause, as gears turn in the young girl's head, but it doesn't quite come to the right conclusion.  She'd seen the Pepsi commercials, but.. she didn't make the link.  That, and she wasn't a big Pepsi drinker.  Stuck to her teeth.  Half a conclusion, though.  "Why'd you shed the name Alice? I think Alice is a nice name."

Lanie answers slowly. "The Alice identity is tied to two people who are wanted by the FBI, one who is suspected for brutally murdering an FBI agent and the other who is suspected of helping a cop-killer escape execution. Neither of my friends are guilty of the charges, but its best I step away from them both physically and legally for now until they figure out how to handle their situations. Basically, I don't want to drown in the waves of their messes."

"...Oh."

A pause. "Plus, 'Lanie' is part of my original name. It feels better."

"...Okay, Lanie.  Lanie is a nice name too.  And I hope your friends sort out their issues!  And it doesn't come back on you.  ...I hope helping me doesn't make any trouble for you." 

"No more trouble than I want to take on. To be honest, you caught us at a good time. Albert and I were just leaving the scene of Alice's 'death' and I had forgotten to destroy this borrowed phone. That being said, you can't reach me by that number anymore, but here's the new one..." She reads it out slowly once Minerva's ready to type it down. "Part of my delay in getting back to you was my busyness, but the other part was that I was waiting on some things. To catch you up, my four friends went to the scene of the crime and followed a trail to their closest safehouse in Goshen, which by the time they got there was very trapped and abandoned. Albert did most of the work, including getting all the evidence and information, and advised that I dismiss the other two from the investigation given how little help they provided--and the third one left before the investigation really began because a sniper almost took him out as he snooped around the police station on his own." A pause. "He's fine now--I hired a friend to restore his eye. It's taken a while for Albert to recover the data from the wiped and broken hard drives. In the meantime, I've recruited one more person to join us: a professional bodyguard and quite possibly a mercenary named Amarjeet Interpal--one of us."

"Okay... as long as you're sure."  She nods after.  "Okay..."  She takes a moment to write the number down in her phone before going back to listening.  "Mmm."  She still feels a little annoyed she hadn't gotten a chance to help with that!  But there was nothing to do about it now.  "Ah, and-  oh!"  She says as soon as the sniper is mentioned.  "Is he-  Oh.  Good.  ...A sniper..." She shivers a bit.  Scary.  What could one do against a sniper?  At least he survived. 

She nods again.  "Okay, and that's good!"  A professional bodyguard sounded great, really.  She quickly googles them, and then... "...Oh."   She'd seen this video before.  "Um... is she good at her job?"

Lanie's mind goes back to the same video that Minerva's watching. "My bet is that she's advanced over time, like we all have. Mark Collins recommended her, so I'm willing to find out how skilled she is. Plus, I'm already pulling heavily on my Network to take down a sapient, powerful demonic being that recently attempted to murder my daughter and continues to curse my husband--an endeavor that's scheduled for late next week. With one friend uninterested due to the sniper incident and the other two dismissed," and Iryna dead, and Mark Collins tied up in legal trouble, and Jason Valent missing, and Bu Fang being mentally and emotionally unstable "I'm running low on people to pull in." 

"...That's fair, we all have, and-  Wait, you know Mark Collins?  Wait, is he one of us too?" Minerva blinks a few times.    When her her mother told her she could grow up to be like The Mother of Dragons or Mark Collins... maybe she really could be.   But really, Alice  Lanie knew everyone!    They were like the godfather or something.  "...I'm sure they're very skilled, then..."  A sapient, powerful demonic being.  Wow.  "...Can I help at all with that?   I'm not very strong, but I have some abilities..."

Lanie blinks. It wasn't obvious that Mark Collins was a Contractor like the rest of them? She had pieced that together since her very first job, during a conversation with the harbinger. "Lets try to survive this first task--one thing at a time." It wasn't a yes, and it wasn't a no. "I'm confident that with Albert and Amarjeet co-leading, we have a solid shot at extracting Mars, assuming she wants to leave. That being said, have you been able to touch bases with her in the dreamworld or otherwise?" 

"...Okay." She nods some.  "That's good, and... no.  Typically I can reach her in the dreamworld, but... there's no link anymore, it's unstable.  I guess... I guess I kinda use my amulet as a crutch in some ways, and I think hers was taken from her.  So I can't reach her.  I'm sure she'll want to be rescued, though.. and... and I know they can mess with memories, but.. I think I can too.  I think I can fix them."

"Oh?" That wasn't on this list of supernatural skills that Minerva had originally provided. "Is there anything else you'd like to share with me?" An open invitation to self-disclose whatever the girl considered important. Assuming the principal consented to it, they would soon walk into something exceedingly dangerous together. Better to know more than less. 

"Umm....   I've... I've just been getting stronger.  I can put people to sleep... and go dreamwalking... and pass though walls and doors if I focus enough, and.. I don't know, I've been practicing just a little, it's like... I can influence people to accept me as long as I'm not the focus of attention."  She scratches behind an ear.    "I.. think that's it?"

Lanie adds these three to the mental list. "My ally was right when they recommended you to join the Network. They described you as 'very capable in your magical and physical capabilities.'"

Minerva smiles a bit at the compliment.  "... I'm glad!  I'm sure it's nothing compared to the rest of your allies, but... I'm getting stronger!  Maybe in another six months I'll be as strong as some of them."  She nods.  Very capable!  Yay.  She glows a little at the compliment. Literally.

"On my end," Lanie continues, "since we last spoke I've almost fully shed my human form along with my identity. This comes with pros and cons, but I've been preparing for it since I started on these jobs."

She nods a little.  "... I understand that. Human form sucks.  I have too... even if I need to go back into it when I go out because people are lame."  Minerva doesn't think too deeply on it past that - she'd shed her human form too!

"People are... complicated," Lanie answers in partial agreement. "I'm glad you're finding your way. Now, one last thing before I reach out to Principal Wolstenhome and then Amarjeet. I'm considering attempting to call Mars without directly revealing who we are and that we're all on our way to her, as I'm not sure how much memory reading and manipulation is happening on her end. What would you like me to tell her, if I reach her? The same thing you said before about you not wanting to play second fiddle?"

There's a pause. "Mmm." She comments, and then tilts her head to the side. "....Somehow I doubt she has a phone. Does she need a phone? And.. yes, that's probably the best thing to tell her. She'll know it was from me, at least..."

"Any electronic device that sends and receives audio will work, even a two-way radio or an Airpod or something, so long as its in her possession. It can even be dead or broken. We'll see. I don't expect to reach her, but I can't think of any massive downsides from trying to. Anyways, we'll be in touch."

"Okay..." She wasn't sure Mars would have any of those. "How long? It needs to be soon, doesn't it? Or they'll move safe houses..."

"We'll need to swing by Albert's house to pick up the explosives. Aside from that, can you travel on your own or do we need to pick you up?"

"Umm... I can.. typically arrange transport.... If you're passing by, though, travelling with you would be nice..."

"We aren't passing through Massachusetts; that would add 20 hours to the drive to pick you up. Let me confirm that you're coming with your principal. Assuming it's a yes, you can meet us at the Minneapolis airport, and we'll drive the rest of the way from there."

"... She said I could go if I went with someone else already!" She huffs a little. "But okay... I can make my way there."

"Indeed, our conversation should be quick and seamless," Lanie states. "Talk to you soon." The call ends. 

She nods a little. "Okay. Talk to you soon." She lets out a breath. After a minute, she stands up, going to run around outside. She needed to burn off some energy. Maybe climb a tree.
 
 
 
-------

Quick Question

A quick phone call to Amarjeet: 

"Hey Amarjeet, this is Lanie. Quick question. Mars and Minerva might need additional protection after this for a period of time, as I'm not confident that their school's security will be sufficient. Are there any US-based companies that provide protection services that you'd highly recommend?"

"...if it is not overly troublesome, please use 'Ms. Inderpal' as opposed to 'Hey Amarjeet' or God forbid, 'Yo Ama'. That being said there are several CSP agencies in the States that might meet your needs. I will message you a list."

"O-of course, Ms. Inderpal. Please send them to Albert, and thank you for your help." The call ends.

 
 
-------
Plenty
 
During the six-hour-long car ride from the Minneapolis airport to one of the three safehouses in Illinois, Minerva gets two small charms that are shaped like houses. They telekinetically float out of a small bag beside the Samoyed who's laying down in the back seat area (Minerva got the passenger seat). The dog speaks through an Airpod (on the private line) that Albert provided Minerva upon entering the vehicle. "Give one charm to Mars and keep one. At preferably at the same time or close to, approach a shut door and say 'Friendship is magic' and then open the door and walk inside. My friends will greet you on the other side. Please don't lose these--I'm borrowing them from my friends."
 
Minerva takes both of them, tilting her head to the side.  "Okay.  I'll keep them safe."
 
"Thank you. The person waiting for you will collect them and return them to their owners once you get there."
 
"Okay."  She nods once, looking down at them and putting them in a pocket.
 
"And then we'll meet you there--we'll just have to drive instead of teleport, and might take a long route if Albert thinks we're being followed."
 
"Can't we all teleport together?"  There's a pause.  "... do we have to worry about revenge from these people?"
 
"It's one person per charm. That's how the magic works, so sadly we can't teleport together. Albert is hoping to strike so much terror through his forced body alterations that they'll want to wash their hands of the whole thing. That's my preference too--less killing. But I recommend you and Mars lay low at the location you teleport to until we touch bases with you. You'll be with two mundane women, a woman and her mother-in-law. Sweet people who have exposure to the supernatural but no powers themselves. My intention is to smuggle you both out of their house once we're clear of the enemies because I don't want there to be any ties between what we're doing today and them."
 
"Okay..." She nods a little, wiggling her nose after.  "I hope so.  I don't want anyone to have to die."  She sucks in a breath and nods.  "Okay. We can stay low." She wiggles her nose a bit and listens, and then nods again. "That's fair."  She stares out the window.  "I hope this doesn't go really badly.  For me, Mars, or anyone else."
 
"Maybe when we reunite there you can show me that less than human form of yours. And I can show you my human one, even though I consider it expired."
 
Minerva just smiles a little, and nods. "I'd like that a lot, yeah." She nods a few times, and then wiggles her nose. "You don't have to if you don't want."
 
"Seems only fair."
 
"Not really.  I'm showing you who I really am, you're showing me who you were. Not the same thing."  She shakes her head.
 

A long pause. The dog's head tilts slightly to one side as she considers the counter-point. "I suppose." The dog climbs up onto the backseat to look out the window, lowering the window a bit to get all the smells. The wind whips into the vehicle. "And after all this, I'll add you to my Network of Contractors, a way to exchange information, favors, services, and goods with a certain level of privacy."

Minerva smiles some at the breeze from the window, and lowers her own.  "Okay."  She nodnods.  That sounded useful!

About five minutes later, Lanie's voice speak again into Minerva's ear, a bit louder through the device to be heard over the wind: "There's no guarantee that Albert can take down everyone inside the building remotely. You and Amarjeet might be rushing into a combat zone. I want to make sure you understand that."

There's a long pause. "You mean I might die when I go in." She just stares out the window, into the breeze. It makes her hair a bit messy. "It seems like such an abstract concern." She lets out a breath. "I don't... I don't have a great method for hurting people. I can just make them sleep. Eventually. But I'll try."

"Does you ability to command people work a bit faster?"

"...Yeah, it does..."

"Then tell them to run as far as they can from the safehouse."

"As far and as fast as they can."

"Actually... how complicated can you make those commands?" Minerva can hear a smile in Lanie's voice.

"Umm... sorta complicated?  But not super complicated...  I... haven't really tested how far I can push people, either.   I'm worried if I told them to put a gun in their mouth and pull the trigger they would."

"I would never want you to command that," she replies quickly. "I was more thinking, 'Take this weapon and packet of evidence to the nearest police station and tell the first police officer you find that you're a kidnapper.' Or 'run quickly into the nearest police station and point this weapon at an officer' if we're feeling particularly savage. Hopefully they don't get shot down--just arrested. But it's cleaner to make the threat real for law enforcement to act on it quickly."

"I... I don't think I can issue compound commands like that.  I could maybe work on it..."  She wiggles her nose, seemingly considering.  "But I wouldn't count on it.  'Run as fast as you can to the closest police station' maybe?

"No worries. Let's play it safe with 'as far away from the safehouse as fast as they can.' That way it'll work even if they don't know how to get to the closest police station."

"That's fair." She nods, memorizing the command she was going to use. It seemed generally useful!
 
"Maybe Dominic can set up some cameras or drones so that we get footage on what they look like for 'thorn in their side' purposes later on."
 
nodnods. "That makes sense. He's planning to try to hack into their security cameras first, so.. hopefully that works out."
 
"Ah yes, I forgot. So many moving pieces... I wish I could do more than unite you all."
 
"You're doing plenty already."
 
A pause. The cracked window rolls up, and the dog lays back down on the floor of the backseat. "We'll see if it was enough."
 
 
 
-------
Evolved Qi
 
A brief telepathic conversation with Bu Fang, who appears in disguise to deliver three bloodhounds and a husky to the team in preparation for their mission. The dogs will be an auditory cover as Amarjeet and Minerva enter what they believed would be a warehouse where Mars was being held. 
 
"Bu, please help me explain what you've done to these dogs and what they can do so that I can pass that on to the others."

"These dogs have been... evolved, combined, and trained with qi to resemble and improve their body. You can think of it as a layer of armor and weapon that flows within their flesh."
 
"Evolved qi? Is that how you turned Jason into a frog temporarily?"

"Much different. Jason, I used a Dao. I exerted my understanding of the laws of heaven and bent his soul to take the shape of a ingredient upon which the world reflects that transformation in real time. It uses qi to build a connection with heavens path. It sounds painful, but your soul really can't feel any pain, maybe uncomfortable like wearing tighter clothes."
 
"Being hypothetical here, because I'm trying to grasp it--if I fully became a dog, could you turn me into a human temporarily?"

"Absolutely. If I really tried."
 
The white fluffy Samoyed quietly ponders that last bit of information as Bu promptly leaves.
Downtime

A Few Days After

An Indirect Call

A teenager, a drone, a Samoyed, three bloodhounds, and a husky occupy the living room. The hostage was moved to the guest bedroom (still under supernatural surveillance), freeing up the couch for Minerva, her dog, and Lanie. The drone rests on the close by coffee table with Albert's dog seated on the floor at the base of the couch beside Minerva (hoping for more pets). The other two dogs are playfully wrestling and pseudo-fighting over a dog toy rope in the middle of the carpeted floor. 

"I'll do my best to share what Mars says word for word," the dogtor explains while looking at Minerva, the woman's voice coming though the speaker on the dog collar, "but if she says a lot, I'll have to summarize. The same goes for you unless you share what you want to say in chunks. I'm basically the translator, as my ability wasn't designed for an audience."

Minerva wiggles her nose, the freckled teenager nodding.  "Okay."

The dog nods. Then she closes her eyes and begins to breathe deeply...

Around noon, Mars receives a phone call on whatever device she has on her, even if it's turned off, broken, or out of the cell service range. The caller is somehow saved on the device as "Indirect Call from Minerva" and the profile picture is the silver fox pendant.

It takes a few rings, but right when you’re worried she might not pick up, you hear the dark, smooth, almost patronizing voice of Umbra ring back, loud and clear, no interference or background noise. “I’ve been wondering when you’d call. Enjoy my little gift? I figured maybe if you had her, you’d stop running around after me.”

Lanie sighs. "Hello Mars. You can call me Sam. As I tried to indicate through caller ID, this is an indirect call from Minerva. She didn't know how to get ahold of you, so I offered to help. If you'd like to talk to her directly, I can give you a number to call. Otherwise, I'll be the middleman passing along what each of you say--not as convenient or direct but potentially functional. What would you prefer?" 

“Oh this line of communication is perfectly fine for the time being.”

"Alright, just be patient then--hold on."

Lanie then says to Minerva, "She wants to know if you 'enjoyed her gift' and if you're done going after her."

Minerva wiggles her nose a little.  "Tell her that it... uh, it wasn't what I was hoping for. I didn't want revenge or anything. I wanted Mars safe."  She hesitates.  "And... tell her that there's something wrong with the body she's in, and the book she's using.  They're corrupting."  There's a pause. "Tell her that we should talk in person.  So she'll know what I'm saying is true."

Lanie repeats what Minerva says word for word, at a slightly halting pace as she balances both listening and 'speaking'.

She waits, and she listens. “Hm. A chance to talk to Minerva, in person, with all of you on my terms? An interesting offer. And what is it that you all get from this, telling me I’m in a 'corrupt' body?”

Lanie pauses. "Speaking for myself here, I'm personally not getting much from 'this' beyond knowing that I've done my best to help you two resolve whatever's going on between you, and I'm not actually sure Minerva wants a crowd--although I suppose it might be necessary if there's no trust between the two parties... let me check." 

"She wants to know if the meeting will be on her terms, if we will be there--not sure if she's aware of who we are and how many of us are helping you. And she wants to know what you'd get from meeting with her."

Minerva waits for the response, fidgeting a little.  As Lanie speaks, she listens, and considers.  She suddenly swallows, realizing exactly how badly it could go.  "...If her terms are reasonable... I guess.  And I just want to.. I want her to believe me when I speak to her."  There's a pause.  "Uh.  Maybe just a phone call? As long as we're speaking directly I think it would work. And I'm sure she can... use a burner phone or something if she's worried." Lanie nods. 

"Your terms would have to be reasonable. Minerva just wants to make it possible for you to know that she's telling the truth, so a phone call between you both would work if you're willing. To clarify, I contacted you using telepathy--your phone is acting as a focus for my ability, but I don't actually have your number. Oh, and she suggests using a burner phone to ensure your privacy." Lanie pauses. "If you agree to a call, I'd do my best to ensure your privacy as well." (the truth) 

“Here’s my offer for you. I have something I want to show her, so have her arrive at the following coordinates in two days time. She can bring her associates, but do know that any attempts at interference or ambush will be met with violent force.”

Lanie repeats the offer word for word.

Minerva wiggles her nose a little, listening to the offer.  "...Ask her if anyone is going to get hurt there, us or other people."

The dogtor opens her dark brown eyes, looks at Minerva, and snorts softly. "I can't detect lies like you can, especially if the person's far away. Maybe we should just state our terms instead of asking her? Or do you trust that she'll tell the truth?"

The young girl looks to the side.  "...Maybe?  Or...  I don't know.  People believe me when I'm telling the truth.  You'll know if she's telling the truth.  If you have doubts after, she's probably not..." She scratches behind an ear. "Or... what do you think are terms?  That nobody, including us, gets hurt at it and both sides get to leave if we want?"

Lanie now turns to the drone. "Does that sound sufficient, Albert?"

"I'd say that you should at least bring one of my wards, and if it were up to me. I wouldn't trust them as far as you can throw them, but similarly. A back and forth nuclear war isn't in anyone's interests right now. They've hurt us, we've established we can hurt them even if they run as I have no doubt they saw what happened to Wumbratainment. Part of why I wanted her blind folded, woman was clearly seeing through her eyes in that moment she snatched your pendant. No telling how far that one goes, but regardless. We have swung, they have swung, neither side has a clear advantage. If you really want terms and peace. This is the cheapest time to buy it."

Lanie nods to the drone and then shuts her eyes again, still breathing deep and ears up with alertness. 

"Okay Mars. We agree that an ambush and other forms of interfering would be breaching the temporary truce. We'd also like to add on that no one--including Minerva, her allies, or the public--is harmed before, during, and after the interaction. And also that both sides will be allowed to leave without any issues at any point. So, no using the meeting to either side's strategic advantage, no one gets hurt, and anyone can leave whenever without any trouble. You and your group will have the exact same terms as us." She pauses to figure out how to word the last part right, just in case the wording mattered. "Do you and your group agree to these three things?"

“Hmmm…. Sounds fair enough to me,” Mars replies. Lanie repeats what Mars said.

"..."  There's a short pause.   "Ask her if she's going to be fair."

The dog nods. "And the members of her group too, right?"

"Yeah, and them..."

“Your group, nor any of the forgotten are to be harmed on these premises. And for that you have my word.” And you know it to be true.

"And the public. Please tell me that the public--the normals--will not be harmed on the premises," Lanie asks gently.

“There will be no “normals” on the premises.”

"Alright. What's the coordinates?"

She gives you a set of coordinates. They are to a school, that Minerva will know and dread. The old mundane private school her parents sent her to before the contracts. The school is currently closed due to an infestation of some sort.

After Lanie tells her the coordinates well, they probably don't mean anything to Minerva.  Who knows the coordinates of one of their old schools?  But once Albert looks them up...  "...Why there?"  Minerva asks. It wasn't... it wasn't that terrible.  No more than anything else, really...Or at least she told herself that.

The dog looks over at Minerva and says patiently, "Are you asking her that, us that, or yourself that?"

"Yes."

"Lets start with Mars then." Lanie passes on the question.

“You’ll have to wait and see. I’m in the body of an artist, so I am going to act like one.” And the line goes dead.

Lanie repeats the last thing Mars says and adds, "She's gone now." The dog's deep breathing returns to normal. She does a light shake to reset herself, several small white dog hairs shedding off in the process.

"So, why there, Minerva?" 

She hesitates, wiggling her nose.  "I... don't know. I didn't hate it there.  No more than I hated anything else, at least..."

"She said she's going to do art there. I doubt that's going to be an actual art installation. If you both hated it there, then maybe destruction of the place."

"...Maybe?  I.. don't have any particular hate for it there.  I guess I wouldn't... really object to it burning down -"  Does that make her a bad person?  Maybe... "-But... it's not like I'd go out of my way to do it.  I know intellectually it wasn't really the school's fault..."

"Art can be symbolic." A pause. "I have no issues with a school burning down if no one gets hurt. But if she does want to do that, I suspect she'll want to do or show something else as well." 

Albert, from his drone proxy, chimes in. "Never go anywhere without preparation is my advice, and given your history of hating a place the clone may love it given their strange mirrored ideals. Still, this is an attempt at armistice. If there is any honesty in her words, failing this attempt egregiously enough will mean war." 

"It really depends. Mel and I love a lot of the same things actually--it's just what we want to change in the world and how to go about it that's starkly different..."

"Strange," Albert replies, "but I suppose that's something I should be glad I don't know. A clone of myself would be.. most undesirable. We do possess an anti-interference tactic as well on that topic though, and you do still have methods of supernatural exfiltration correct?"

Ensure the strength of the government and that all conspiracy groups--real or not--stay strong and hidden, Lanie thinks to herself as she audibly chuckles at the idea of an opposite of Dominic.

Minerva wiggles her nose, and nods a bit.  "That's fair.  Unless she's hurting anyone it's probably best if we don't interfere."  She listens some, and then nods.  "Yes, I do... I still have them..."

"They require about 6 seconds and a functioning door to work. The school should have plenty ... I can invite someone to come along who can supernaturally detect if an area is trapped or if there's an ambush. We do have 'anti-interference tactics' if you're referring to your capabilities, Albert, on at least some of them and concerning electronics. In terms of being outnumbered, I can summon a guard animal--that is, it's a supernatural one that can be re-summoned again and again." Lanie looks across the room at the four dogs, all who are now asleep in a cuddle pile on the ground. "I'd prefer we not put the real animals in harms way if we can help it. My friend can summon one as well, and I know where we can get one or two more. All of those horses will look odd if there are any onlookers though--but Mars said there would be no normals there... I suppose it could be more subtle if we asked Bu to transform them into something else..." 

"I would prefer not to kill real animals as well with all due respect," Albert replies. "It's tough enough doing what we have to do without having any harm that may come to them on our conscience. I would prefer not to kill the clones as well to be honest, they're ultimately victims of this 'Wondertainment' and the structure of the jobs behind all of this as much as anyone is. I wouldn't want to kill them if I had a say in it, but, similarly. I will fight to protect the innocent if they turn into the aggressors. It is the entire point of my mission, to eliminate shadow organizations like these and ensure that people need not worry about people wearing the faces of other people causing problems."

Minerva nods a little.  "That sounds super useful, about detecting an ambush. I've been trying to do something similar..." she nods a little. "I agree, we shouldn't risk the animals. Or kill them!" She nods again.  "We shouldn't kill anyone if we can help it."  She smiles at Albert.  It was good to know he agreed!  But... having to protect the innocent made sense too. 

Lanie nods in agreement as well. "Oh, speaking of which--please hold on a minute, Minerva."

Albert's phone (the one he put into a safe in the bunker which feeds into speaker) gets a call from Lanie, switching the conversation to be private between them. Minerva can see that the dog is breathing deeply now.

"I'd like to know the welfare of the sniper. What's his current condition? If he's still alive, I can arrange for whatever you've done to him to be undone and see if Bu is willing to transform him into a dog too. Seems more humane than keeping him in the bunker for all time."

Albert will hit a keyboard macro to switch audio feed "He is still alive... are you sure that you can trust this Bu with his containment? If this is the one who brought the dogs he's seemed.. reluctant to remain for long term assistance time and time again. If you just want him to transform the being and go from there that's fine, but... the subject was not cooperative and thus will need a fair amount of care. They're medically stable, but I've drugged them a few times in order to obtain information, and while their limbs can be regrown it will take about 30 days for the nanites to undo the damage they did to the subjects body."

Lanie winces as she hears 'I've drugged them a few times.' "Sadly, Bu's transformation similarly resets after about a month. But I don't know if I can handle another 'not cooperative' one with Wumbra already on my han--paws. ... Is he part robot? Can you, like, hack him into being cooperative?" It wasn't a pleasant idea but, then again, none of this was.

"It seems as though I'll have to design a manual rather than a timed release into the nanites responsible. It'll require expanding their alloted memory which at that size is already.. lean, but I'll do my best. As for hacking him. I have already done that, there about 9 contingency commands regarding all written permutations of the concept of violence being enacted on any of us.. benefit of my technical abilities not taking the largest amount of energy and me having already put a contingency into him during initial containment. You know me Lanie, I do not work in half measures. I just feel uncomfortable with the idea that your life would ride on how closely I adhered to technically correct wording."

"Bu is willing to do the reset indefinitely, but such a committment doesn't come for free--nor did I expect it to... Don't pressure yourself. I'll have Wumbra (and Mar's body) under control, and you'll keep the sniper. Thank you." The call ends and the dog looks over at Minerva. Speaking through the collar now: "Just sorting out the sniper's fate. Albert is going to continue to monitor and contain him, and I'll keep Wumbra, transformed."

Minerva tilts her head to the side as Lanie says that,  and she looks confused. "What am I holding on for?"  She can see Lanie start to pant.  It takes for a moment to clue in why both have gone silent.  "Hey!  Are you talking without me?  That's rude..."  She nods a little as it's explained.  "Is he okay?"

"He's medically stable, contained, and under Albert's control due to him being part robot and Albert being an excellent hacker--which is a big part of why he's staying here." The white fluffy Samoyed then walks across the couch to Minerva, sits right next to her, and then leans on her. "Sorry for being rude--I just wanted to spare you the unsettling details, if there were any."

The young girl watches Lanie walk over and lean against her,  and nods a bit.  "... were there any?" After a moment though she hugs the fluffy close.  "I wanna go back into my proper form.. but changing forms is super exhausting lately.  And I'm worried we're going out again soon."

The dog leans into her further, curly tail wagging lightly with a thump thump on the couch cushion. "Probably best to save your strength for now. Hopefully this will be resolved one way or another in two days." Lanie swiftly licks the teenager's hand and then moves back to her spot.

"Now you know that Mars is not in mortal danger, but that she's heading down a path that she might not have fully or knowingly chosen at the time. I know you'll do your best try to reach her... and at the same time, she is her own person and she may decide to stay the course no matter what you say. Please consider that you may be faced with the choice of pursuing her further after this meeting--likely on your own--or letting her go." Lanie looks over at the drone and then back at the girl before adding, "Assuming they don't commit further acts of blatant terrorism and other horrible acts that necessitates Albert and I and possibly others taking them down, one way or another."

"Yeah with all respect," Albert says, "no matter how old someone is committing terrorism or like, bombing a school, is pretty bad. Even if no one's there that still doesn't sit right with me. The message it sends is just wrong."

Minerva nods softly,  wiggling her nose. "... okay.   I'll... keep that in mind." She didn't know what to say. Would she be willing to pursue Mars even if they didn't want her help?  Did she have the right? "Thank you for everything you've done so far. Both of you."

"You're welcome, honey." The term of endearment slipped out, and, feeling a bit embarrassed by it, Lanie promptly hops off of the couch and walks away into the kitchen to carefully telekinetically bring down her water bowl from the counter, not wanting to share it with the other dogs. However, her movement results in the pile of sleeping canines in the middle of the living room to wake. Her two scramble up and follow her and that inspires the other two to get up and follow them. Seconds later, the Samoyed is growling softly, just barely baring her teeth at three bloodhounds and a husky who are all trying to get at her water--claiming it for herself as the alpha of the pack.

 

 

-------

A Child Kidnaping Case

Akira gets a call even if his phone is dead or on silent. The caller profile is somehow saved as "Alice/Lanie" and the photo shows the head of a white fluffy dog. 

Whilst watching a movie in his spare time, his phone was just in range for him to see the profile name change and now showing a Samoyed. Raising his eyebrow slightly before answering and placing his device near his ear, “Hello?”

"Hello Akira, this is Alice." It certainly sounded like Alice, and the voice coming from his phone is crystal clear. "However, 'Alice' is about to be legally dead and so I'm going by 'Lanie' now. Anyways, how are you?"

“Oh, hey, Alice… or Lanie. I’m doing alright… and I hope you are, too. I’m guessing that a legal name change meant that a contract didn’t go well, eh?”

"Multiple Contracts, actually. It was time. But I'm doing alright now, thanks. I'm even free of that curse that made me ill and bound to Detroit, although Jason isn't yet. But that's a whole other story... I called because of a colleague of yours, Minerva. You've been on a job or two with her, correct?" 

“Well, that’s nice, and I hope Jason’s alright, too. And Minerva? Yeah, I did… I think it was some time ago, but I remember her. Why’d ya ask?”

"I've been working with her over the past few weeks, and she's about to be in a situation that would really benefit from your skills and help. This is quite a story, so bear with me." The woman/dog takes a moment to order everything.

"Two weeks ago I did some personal investigation into a child kidnapping case in Goshen, Indiana--called some allies and strangers using my confidential communication power--and learned that a child Contractor, who is in fact the Minerva you'd recommended to the Network, had been cloned as part of a job. Soon after, her clone was kidnapped from a small town police station where both girls were waiting to get escorted home. The kidnappers displayed an impressive collection of supernatural powers, including memory manipulation, hacking, unlocking things, and possibly issuing commands to the police officers that they were compelled to follow. I found the whole thing to be concerning. A hacker and several others I reached out to, all who were interested in this case for various reasons, followed the trail and discovered that the kidnappers are, in fact, a terrorist group of cloned Contractors. 'Cloned' includes memories, powers, and even gear--the work of harbingers I'm sure. Next, the hacker found several of their hideouts and determined which one had Minerva's clone--and then a group of us got past a pile of traps in the house, neutralized a sniper, and retrieved Mars. This is why I asked to borrow your home charm--so that both girls could escape quickly. However, we soon realized that we have her clone's body with someone else's soul. Mars, Minerva's clone I mean, apparently used a supernatural item to body swap with another clone in the terrorist group, essentially escaping being a kidnappee and victim. We also learned from the person trapped in Mars' body that Mars is now trying to lead the clone terrorist group." Lanie pauses, trying to figure out how to get to the next part."

Lanie continues: "Minerva wants to try to reach a truce with Mars, and Mars has agreed to meet so they can talk face-to-face. Best case scenario, the two girls agree to never dabble in each other's affairs again or Mars leaves the terrorist group and comes home with Minerva. Worst case scenario, the face-to-face meeting is a trap. Mars has promised to not harm Minerva or her allies... Minerva believes her, but I would prefer an abundance of caution." Another pause. "I'm reaching out to you to see if you'd be willing to attend this 'meeting' in two days at a vacated school in Seattle and, once you're there, use your ability to determine if traps or an ambush is in place--to see if we can proceed safely.... I know that was a lot. Let me know if you have any questions."

Akira listened throughout the whole ordeal. His face, though Alice/Lanie couldn’t see, scrunch up in a series of different emotions when each important point of the story got to him; confusion, surprise, worry, fear, awe, and relief. It was series of events that not even he could believe, but he was able to process it and understand his potential role, “Well, I think I can, but I wanted to ask if you reached out to other people in the network about this. I’ve been trying to keep low for a bit, and I’m sorry to sound like a dickhead, but what do I get in return?”

"I don't know many that have that particular skill like you do," Lanie replies patiently. "And it doesn't sound 'like a dickhead' to me--in fact, I encouraged you to ask that kind of question the last time we talked, so well done. Are you still in need of some help getting hunters to cease pursuing the bigfoot? Also, I totally get laying low. Is there something you'd like to share about your current situation--something I could try to help you with? No pressure to share of course; I'm just checking in." 

“The Bigfoot situation, I think I’m good, I got you and Bu for that illusion thing, but if there’s more people you know that’s interested, I’m all for it. And for the second question, it’s nothing too serious. No one’s hunting me down, but… this whole contracting thing’s starting to get to me. I haven’t thrown in the towel, though. Far from it. It’s just… hard keeping up.”

"I understand. Pace yourself and consider when you're ready to be done with it. Personally, I'd like to do three or four more and then I think I'll be done." Lanie makes an odd sound for a human--an exhale through the nose sort of like a dog's snort, not quite a sneeze. "I wasn't totally sure if Bu did illusions, although I remember we talked about him possibly putting me into a disguise somehow." Lanie considers that she saw Bu with a different appearance when he dropped off the dogs and stopped by to turn Wumbra into a dog. But was that an illusion or an actual self-modification that would expire after a while? "Has he agreed to help then?"

“I haven’t talked to him yet, but I’ll see if he can. He’s a busy man running a world class restaurant after all. But he’s powerful. Anyways… like I said before, I can help out with Minerva’s problem with her… twin. Just give me a heads up on when we roll out, and tell Minerva that, too.” Whilst he was talking, he caught the snort, which he noted.

"You should get something out of this, Akira," Lanie pushes back lightly. "Even if you show up, sense the area for traps and an ambush, tell us what you find, and then promptly leave, there is a level of risk associated with getting involved--especially with this clone group. I recommend you come in disguise, at the very least with your face covered, so that if things go wrong this doesn't follow you home. In exchange, I'm confident that Minerva would be willing and capable to help us with the Bigfoot problem, in part because I've worked with her for a bit now and in part because I know her entire skillset in detail. How does that sound?" 

Akira looked at his phone and then silently cursed himself. Thinking of the perfect suit that could’ve aided him which is now lost, but he quickly recomposed himself and replied, “That sounds alright.”

"Great! Let me check in with the team--the hacker and Minerva--about where we'll meet you. I'll call you back soon... Thank you."

“You’re welcome… and stay safe.”

"You too, my friend." The call ends.

As the call ends, Akira takes a sigh and readies himself for his newest task in the near future.

 

 

 

-------

Easier Containment

Lanie telepathically speaks to Bu when she briefly sees him in person in Dominic's van:

"I've agreed to exchange a lasting item--the Spider 1.0--for a temporary fix of turning what is essentially my captive into a canine for easier containment. In a month or so, such help will no longer be required. Would you be willing to do one more thing, that is, evolve my qi in a permanent way as well? I should have asked earlier, but it only just now occurred to me--I've had a lot going on lately."

"I can manipulate in a way, yes, but i will need to test some stuff first."

"Alright. Would the tests need to involve me or would you perform them on your own?"

"Just me alone."

"Let me know when you're done then. Oh, also, expect a call from Akira soon if he hasn't already reached out."

The task is quickly completed. A dharma figure of Bu Fang grabs threads of Wumbratainment, visibly drag out her soul, cuts and meshes it like rolling a dough ball, and then puts it back into her. As her soul is returned, she transforms into a pomski. Then the disguised Bu Fang rushes away.

The little fluffy dog is put into temporary containment in Dominic's basement with plenty of food and water until the final aspect of their mission--a confrontation between Mars and Minerva--is done. 

Downtime

Along the Way

To Seattle

A few hours into the long cross-country drive to Minerva's old school in Seattle, Washington, former Pepsi mascot Alice Decker's 'death by suicide' hits the news. The brief snippet airs on the radio following a briefing on an interview with supernatural killer and "devil incarnate" Ky Matranaga. Lanie immediately seems fidgety. Noticing, Minerva asks the dog what's wrong. 

The dog's ears and tail are down. "Oh, uh, I just haven't seen my daughter in, like, over two weeks." 

Minerva frowns a little, and... well, she knew Alice's name before. When she sees the news and the reaction to it being announced... "Were you Alice Decker?" she asks.

The dog continues to lay on the floor of the backseat, not getting or looking up. "For a short time, yes."

The young girl undoes her seatbelt, just going to hug the dog on the floor. "And... and you can't see your daughter anymore because you're pretending to be dead now?"

Lanie stiffens for a moment and then comes up and relaxes into the embrace. She's quiet for a few seconds before finally replying quietly, uncharacteristically briefly, "Yeah, something like that." Another pause. "May I, uh, sleep by your feet for a bit?"

Minerva keeps hugging them, and nods softly.  She just starts to pet them gently.  She can see that ring, but doesn't make the connection at the moment. She nods at the request, before saying "How about like this?"  She lies down in the back seat, just resting an arm over the fluffy warmth of the dog.  "I'm kinda tired too."

"There's a blanket in the back of the truck," Albert says. "You can use that and." He'll press a button and a sliding cover will block out the light in the back of the truck "Typically used to keep out people I don't want to watch me, but, the cabin is sound proofed as well." Try not to dwell on why someone would want the cabin of their truck sound proofed. Totally just for sleeping.

The young girl nods a little, fishing out the (thermal) blanket and pulling it over herself.  She smiles.   "Thank you."  She says as the light is blocked out.  It was really handy that his truck was modified for sleeping.  "Do you spend a lot of time on the road?"

"Yes he does," Lanie mumbles as she also gets comfy, hoping to end the conversation there.

"I do. It's handy to have reliable transportation when you're on the jobs. A place to sleep, bullet proof siding keeps things where they should be, white noise emitter lets me know when people are recording me. Old reliable here has been with me through a lot."

Minerva drapes the blanket over Lanie too.  "Mmm."  She murmurs.  That all made sense.  She closes her eyes.

Something to be said for the safety of paranoia, the dogtor thinks to herself as she yawns under the blanket.

After a few minutes, the blanket is telekinetically moved off of the dog who is physically adapted to survive in the arctic. And the two get a good long rest.

 

 

 

-------

Burgers

A private call between Lanie and Albert, while Minerva sleeps:

"Albert, is the sniper robot clone that you have in the basement's original dead?" 

"No, he's not. I saw no reason to dispose of him, keeping him disabled was the better decision. People tend to talk around fools."

"No, is his original dead--the Contractor."

"Very depressing individual to speak to by the way, no knowledge of culture, science, or technology despite - oOooh. yes. very dead. At least according to state records and the clone."

"If we got him to do a full confession on the record and turned him over to the authorities in a way that this doesn't trace back to you, and if they did a DNA test where he is the twin of the dead man--and based on the DNA you have from their bedding and cigarette butts which I'm assuming are also of Contractors who are literally dead and buried ... Do you think we have enough evidence to make the clone terrorist group public and hounded by the government?" 

"It'd be a possibility, but they'd go from individual conflict to viewing government institutions as their enemies, and with all respect to the government. A powerful, dedicated, group like that could cause incredible devastation to the stability of any given nation if they apply themselves correctly. Is that a chance we want to take?"

"Not exactly. I was more wondering if we had even more leverage to make their lives difficult if we really wanted to--beyond your, uh, forced transformations."

"Even I find using that particular tool somewhat repugnant, to be honest, but waging war means swallowing your morals. They're a dead man's quality on the battlefield. So yes, I can say with certainty that I can run the information to the hands of people who'd want to see them punished for their.. numerous crimes. Scorpio has killed a lot more people than just his clone."

"Snipers tend to do that," she says much more quietly than before. Her ears go down and and she looks out the window at the boring world of Montana go by.

"I know.. it's tragic, but. That's why I have my alternative methods. To demoralize and terrorize is my method of avoiding unnecessary death, to make the idea of fighting seem so terrible that they choose to avoid it at all costs, and at the very least. I promise you I wont kill anyone on this mission you don't give the okay on."

Dominic's response catches Lanie off guard. She looks at the back of his seat, ears still down, as she quickly replies, "I-I uh, no it's not that--I, um, was more thinking--I m-mean..." She takes a deep breath. "I trust and appreciate you, and you know that. Don't wait for my okay--do what you think is best. I, uh, I'm pretty sure I can tear someone up decently in this new form of mine, but like you I don't ever want to. Actually, um, I was just thinking about Jason--how he has struggled with becoming a monster of sorts to take down, well, those some would consider 'monstrous.'" So, in the end it sort of was about 'that'. 

"Ah... Jason. My apologies. I was doing everything I could not to bring him up to the point that I pushed him out of my peripheral. My apologies. Like I said. Not great with people. Jason's a tough case. I don't know what his backstory was, and being an army sniper is a "Take orders and don't ask questions" kind of position. Especially when you push into black ops. I was an intelligence officer myself, and I wasn't army, so I had a lot more leeway in making intelligent decisions. My job was information and framing that information after all but I can say this. When someone takes a life it changes them, each and every time, even if they lie about it and pretend like it didn't. It did. They either became even more callous to the idea and isolated themselves from everyone else, or they begin to break down. From what I know of Jason.. you probably found him in the prior state, and though it didn't play out the way that.. Someone who listened to you would've had it play out, you did improve his life. Undeniably so, and that, that is worth everything. 

The words and feelings of Jason and Lanie's most recent fight--arguably the most raw and hurtful one they've had--flood the dog's mind. A moment later she crawls down to the floor, finding comfort in the more enclosed and darker space, and curls up. "... You haven't been wrong yet," she finally whispers. 

"It's tough, I know, I'll leave you be for now, but, I am gonna stop for food later and I'm gonna need help eating all the burgers I'm gonna buy. So do me a favor and perk up then so I'll know you're okay alright?" he says giving her a somber head pat.

Despite her mood, the dog's mouth waters at the mere mention of burgers. "... Okay."

 

 

 

-------

A Desolate Wasteland

Sometime later, Minerva wakes up from her long nap. Lanie seems to have moved from the backseat to the front, and the smell of fresh burgers and fries fill the truck interior.

Hearing Minerva stirring, the dog pokes her head around the passenger seat and says (from the collar speaker), "Hungry?"

Minerva yawns some, sitting up and stretching a little bit. "Kinda..." She could just decide she was not hungry, but... she still liked eating. Food was good.

A paper bag of Burger King goodness floats from the passenger seat to the floor of the backseat. "Help yourself."

The world passing them by seems to hardly move at all aside from a few big rigs on the freeway. The I-94 which cuts through several un-notable states doesn't really have a lot going for it in terms of scenery. Aside from the occasional conversations and listening to the radio, the boredom can become heavy on a trip like this--especially given that the less populated areas have little to no mobile data service. Even Albert seems to have gotten quiet finally, a reprieve from his insane, ongoing ramblings.

Minerva widens her eyes a little at the fast food bag, fishing a burger out and starting to nom. She really didn't get enough fast food. Nom nom nom. After a bit, she spends a lot of time looking out the window... after complaining about her cellphone having no signal. What kind of a desolate wasteland didn't have cell signal?

In response to Minerva's complaint, Albert makes an extensive comment about the benefits and (blatantly insane) drawbacks associated with portable satellite internet, which nether female passenger have much to add to.

Minerva listens to the comment, looking confused a bit. She looks at Lanie for a moment before shrugging.

After a long gap of silence, for even the radio isn't picking up anything decipherable during this particular stretch of nothingness, Minerva's phone suddenly rings. The caller is Lanie, and the phone shows a rather silly photo taken in a way that makes Lanie's nose look massive.

The young girl squirms a little during the ride. She wanted to change her form, but trying to wait until this was done with. She almost jumps a little as her phone rings. Yay, signal! Salvation!  She retrieves the phone from her pocket and just blinks a few times as she sees that photo. She giggles before answering it. "Hello?"

Lanie's voice chuckles through the phone as the dog hops over the center console, moving from the passenger seat to the back beside Minerva. "Seeing how much time we have on our hands," paws? "Would you like to get screened into the Network now?"

Minerva makes sure she's out of the way as the dog jumps back, tilting her head to the side. Could a dog have a seat belt? The young girl spent a moment considering the logistics of it before remembering she'd been asked a question. "What's the Network, again? And what's being screened consist of?" She still remembered the last group she'd heard about.

The dog takes deep breaths as they continue to communicate confidentially. "I'm slowly creating a comprehensive Network of ... trustworthy Contractors as a way to exchange information, favors, services, and goods with a certain level of privacy. 'Trustworthy' means that they're good for what they say their good for, not necessarily that everyone will get along or are moving towards the same end goals. And it also means that they aren't, like, known traitors, Contractor hunters, or mass murderers--things like that." While all Contractors are insane to an extent, Lanie thinks, I'm sorting out the malicious ones.

The young girl hesitates, listening and nodding a little.  "Mmm." She considers. "... does being a part have any obligations?" She wanted to know what she was signing up for!  "I'm flattered that you ask me, and- wait, contractor hunters? Is that a thing?"

"I hope it isn't a thing, but how can we know for sure? People in our line of work can be very powerful and also have powerful things on them, things which can be forcefully taken." The dog pauses for a moment, glancing out the window before looking the teenage girl in the eyes. "To be honest, Minerva, before I owned the fact that I'm a Contractor and we're all in this together, I was planning on creating a list of bad actors who, like, committed horrible crimes, and then turn them over to the FBI--and I'd be attending the Contracts to find them. Now... I believe they can and, like, should be dealt with internally as best we can. And it's best to keep Contractors away from the government's radar, away from outside involvement."

Minerva nods softly. "I guess." She'd never thought of that! That was another thing to worry about now, though. It had been bad enough having people on her team that were sociopaths, but some that were hunting them? She shivered a bit. She nods softly. "I don't have anything powerful on me?" Besides herself. But she could take care of herself. Right? She nods softly, listening, and wiggling her nose. "...Have you met anyone who did that? And..." She looks out the window. "Would the FBI understand?  Could they do anything?"  She... wasn't sure. They could, right? But they wouldn't be particularly discriminate, she was also sure...

"I have met someone who was a Contractor and worked for the FBI, and... he wasn't very understanding." A pause as Lanie thinks, And now he's dead, but I wasn't the one who kill him. "To my knowledge, I haven't met a 'Contractor hunter' yet, but it doesn't mean they aren't out there." The dog decides to turn this into a teaching moment. "That's why when I was human I gave out a fake name and a burner phone number, and I was careful with how much I shared about myself until I had a better idea of who I was working with." Admittingly, not at first due to the nature of her first job, but she quickly caught on. "Hackers might be able to easily follow your data trail home regardless," she blatantly looks over at Albert who glances back at her through the mirror but continues to quietly drive on the long, boring stretch of road. "But I think those measures generally work."

She nods a little. "Not very understanding?" She echoes, before nodding again. "Okay. That's good..." But that was fair! They could be. She nods a bit again. "Okay. I've been trying to give out a fake name in the last few, but I gave out my real name for a while to start..." She smiles a bit, looking at her reflection in the window. "I think I'm pretty good at the disguise front, too!"

Lanie nods and her tail thumps briefly. "Yes, you are!" However, having never seen Minerva's true (foxy?) form, she doesn't know if the girl has changed her scent and voice in addition to her appearance. But still, a fake appearance to burn makes a big difference. The (not buckled in) dog moves closer to Minerva, subtly hoping for pets. The girl was the first person who ever pet her, and it felt so lovely.

Minerva beams a little at the complement, and smiles. While she was buckled in, she still goes to hug Lanie, and start to pet her. But... where were they? Oh, right... "So... any obligations for being part of this Network?"

Based on the leaning in and the tail wagging, Lanie is enjoying the pets. "... Obligations, uh..." thump thump "... don't betray me or any other Network members and, like, deliver on the good or services you promised to deliver on as part of a trade--right there under the ear please, mhm, right there--" thump "--and keep the identities of the other members you make deals with a secret."

Minerva keeps scratching, following where directed. She giggles some. As she listens, she nods a little. "Okay. That all sounds fair... So, what's screening mean?"

Lanie sheds a bit as a result of the extensive scritches. It's inevitable with a thick, fluffy fur coat like that, and unfortunately the interior of the truck is dark grey. After a pause to enjoy the pets, she says, "Nothing complicated--just a conversation so that I can get to know the Contractors better... although for you it'll be shorter since I already know some of the answers. Questions like, 'Why do you go on Contracts?' and 'What have you tried hard not to do or to always do to stick with your morals during these jobs?' Things like that. And since we're already friends, I'll tell you that I do these meetings in person so I can notice the person's scent and heartrate--like if they're sweating or becoming anxious or something. Sometimes I ask extra questions based on what I can sense or I just make a mental note of it. Smells can give away a lot, you know."

Minerva... is kind of used to fur being everywhere, so she doesn't even notice as she makes her companion shed like that. Hopefully Albert didn't mind too much. She nods a bit after, slowing down some (but not stopping). "Okay. That makes sense." She sucks in a breath, and then nods again. "Okay. We can do it."

"Relax, Minerva," the dog says gently, noticing that the girl's a bit more nervous. "As I said, you're already halfway onboarded and you didn't even know it. The first question is about what you do when you're not on Contracts, but I'm pretty sure I know the answer: you're busy being a student at Faraday, right?"

"Yeah. I spend all my time there when I'm not on a contract. Well. Or here... but this is a special case."

"It is a special case." Lanie certainly hoped so. "I think you have an idea of what I've been busy with lately... but feel free to ask me any of my own questions or anything else that comes to mind, okay? This is a conversation, not an interrogation."

Minerva nods a few times, looking around the cabin for a moment as though that would provide inspiration for a question to ask. "Okay."

"And we've already talked about why you go on Contracts... did I ever share my end goal?" These two had talked so much through multiple conversations that it was hard to remember what they'd covered.

nods softly. She remembered that, and wiggling her nose a bit. "...Wasn't it to turn into a therapy dog?" She looks at Lanie and pets a bit more.

Lanie mhms, tail wagging again and looking up and back at the teenage girl.

There's a short pause as Lanie makes that sound, and she pauses a moment. "Does that mean you're done, then?"

"I'm not quite done yet, no. I want to get better at healing the mind first and also get a bit more independent as a dog--it comes with quite a few downsides. Specifically, I want to be able to, like, take care of myself... When I do go public, I may become a target for, uh, kidnapping or capture and experimentation or some other horrible thing. So, I want to be strong enough to get away on my own, without troubling my allies."

Minerva nods. "That makes sense..." She wiggles her nose again. "But if you do ever need help, you can just tell me and I'll come! Or! Or you could stay the school... I'm sure we'd love to have you..."

"Ah, thank you." Lanie briefly envisions Minerva breaking into a highly secure government facility to free Lanie. She could probably do it... Although Lanie didn't really want her to. "Actually, I intend on visiting your school sometime after all this, at the very least to thank your principal for trusting me... I'm also considering enrolling my daughter there if we successfully tame or otherwise gain control over the demon--and, if that's the case, I'll probably see you regularly."

Minerva smiles warmly and nods. "Yay! I'm sure everyone will love you. I know Kerrigan certainly will." She nods. "Oh? Is your daughter magical? I'm sure everyone will like her!" She beams. "I'm looking forward to that! It's nice to have good friends." She looks out the window again. "How do you see this all ending?"

The dog looks out the window too, having moved to being sort of in Minerva's lap for more convenient pets, although she's careful to not put all of her weight on the girl. Forty-five pounds could be unpleasant for a smaller-sized person despite the fluff. The landscape continues to be boring, but as an upside Lanie doesn't feel the impulse to bark at the wildlife or civilians out with their dogs (a minor downside of passing through cities and towns). "You'll either come home with Mars or you won't... But at least you'll know you did your best."

Minerva nods softly, just absentmindedly petting now. "I did my best. Is that enough?"

The dog is quiet for a bit, trying to sort her thoughts on this. "I think if the outcome was entirely in your control, then I'm confident your best--and all of our bests combined--would be enough to bring Mars home. But... now we know that it's not entirely in your control. She has a choice to make, either to keep going down her current path or make a new one with you... If Mars doesn't come home with us, then it's not because you failed. Rather, it's because she's strong like you. No one can make her do anything she doesn't want to do... and we'll have to respect that." Of course, if Mars went on a terrorist rampage, 'respecting that' might be less peaceful and passive than it initially sounded. But, one thing at a time.

Minerva rests her chin against the dog as they're both quiet, just looking out the window and thinking. As Lanie starts to speak again, Minerva keeps staring out the window. She nods softly at the end. "What if there's some combination of words that will make her choose to make a new path with me, and I can't find them?"

The physical contact feels so nice. Lanie always was cuddly with her couple of closest people long before being a dog--and now, in her true form, she could do so in a socially acceptable, non-romantic way with a broader range of friends. Hopefully the contact comforted the girl a bit. "Maybe think of it ... less like a magic spell and more like an expression of your heart. I know you'll be able to express your heart to her. And no matter how she reacts--positive or negative--I'm confident that she'll understand what you're trying to say, the meaning underneath your words. Because if anyone speaks your language, like, it's you and her."

Minerva nods softly, and closes her eyes. The contact was comforting, yes. She nods softly. "Okay." What more could she say? That's... all she could do. Was go there, and be honest. And hope it worked out.

Several quiet minutes pass before the dog asks gently (through the phone which is on speaker), "Would you like to continue the screening?"

"...Yes, we can keep going."

"Okay. What do you try really hard to do--or not to do--on these jobs to stick with, like, your convictions and morals?"

Hearing the question, Minerva wiggles her nose. "Umm... I don't want to kill anyone? I haven't. I don't want to even hurt anyone... monsters don't count, though. Like, kill-people-first monsters." She considers a bit. "I just want to be a good person?"

"I understand. Me too." The tail briefly wags before Lanie gets back to business. "Now, a slightly harder question: what is your greatest regret--a mistake you've made on one of these jobs?" Being in her lap, it's particularly easy for the dog to be attentive to the girl's heart rate.

There's a short pause. "...I sat in a police station when one of my friends died." She says quietly, and looks down. "Izzy- She stayed outside, and... I was.. I was just trying to talk to them, and I messed it up, and... and while I was talking, outside, they killed Izzy. And I wish I could go back and have saved her."

"I'm sorry, honey." Lanie says softly as she leans onto Minerva a bit more. "... That's the risk each of us accept by going on these jobs--Izzy too. To lose a friend..."

"... She was really nice. She... she even helped me when I lost my hand. And... she was..." Minerva starts to sniffle a little. "She always seemed upbeat, and..." She looks down.

"She was a good friend," Lanie affirms patiently, leaving open the option of Minerva full on crying. It's good to cry sometimes, and the dog wasn't sure if she had someone else to talk to about this kind of thing. While the principal knew that Minerva went on these jobs, it might be strategic not to mention that one's allies commonly died, including getting murdered.

Minerva hadn't really talked to anyone about it. Bottling it up seemed like a much better idea... talking about it with her classmates or the principal both seemed like a bad idea. She tried to vent in her diary, but... She starts to sniffle, before just hugging the dog as tightly as she can, crying into her fur. She cries for a long couple of minutes, letting it out in a way she hasn't yet for weeks.

Albert glances back in the mirror at the two passengers but otherwise says nothing as Lanie is just there for Minerva, for as long as she needs. He does pass something back though. Once Minerva quiets and slowly pulls away from the dog--a red-faced, puffy-eyed, sniveling mess as one is when one full-on cries--she finds a travel packet of tissues beside her. The dog's fur where Minerva buried her face is also a mess, but Lanie doesn't mind. She just carefully shifts around on Minerva's lap so that it's now on the opposite side, out of sight and hopefully out of mind, to clean up later. Then the dog give a single lick to Minerva's hand.

Minerva was really a snotty-nosed little girl at the moment. She was typically good at controlling her emotions - growing up the way she did that was a requirement. For the moment, that was gone. When she was done, finally, she found those tissues, starting to try to clean her face up. "Thank you," she whispers.

"Thank you too," Lanie whispers back. The requirement of deep breathing and concentration on her end to maintain the 'call' prevents her from forgetting that their conversation is confidential--so no whispering is required. And yet in that moment whispering made sense. "Thank you for being my friend." And Lanie meant it.

The young girl closes her eyes. "And thank you for being mine." She suddenly feels exhausted.

"Mhm." The two stay close together in tired quietness for a while. Crying is indeed exhausting. And Lanie, well, she was deeply tired for other reasons. She even begins to doze, accidentally ending the 'call'. They begin to pass through a small town. Then the truck exits the freeway, prompting Lanie to look out the window. Were they getting gas again? He was quite a champion for doing all the driving...

Instead of an off-brand gas station, they approach a quaint ice cream shop: Henry's Creamery. It looks like it could use a fresh coat of paint on the outside and new signage, but there are several vehicles in the small parking lot. That's a good sign for such a middle-of-nowhere place.

"Thought it might be time for dessert," the hacker says with, uncharacteristically, zero additional explanation or insane ramblings. He seems a little tense and already has on his baseball cap, sunglasses, and anti-surveillance gator mask as he backs the large truck into a parking spot (for easier peeling out if necessary). He must have put the not-so-clandestine accessories on when they were first approaching civilization. For all Lanie knew, Albert may have researched ice cream shops while driving (he seemed quite good at multitasking) and settled on this one being the least likely to be a front for the Illuminati.

Albert will turn the keys in the ignition to turn off the car, and grab his wallet, it was his idea may as well go in and pre pay, he'll stand and turn around to say "Come out when you're ready, gonna let them know to have a few pup cups ready. Gotta account for the dogtors special dietary needs, and uh... you've done good kid." He said, feeling the intense awkwardness in every word. He really sucked at this whole emoting thing. Maybe there was a class and some techniques he could use to help him with this. Either way, Albert knew that he was inherently a social risk and thus would open the door and wave to the pair in a display of an attempt at friendliness before heading towards the shop.

Albert's attempt at comforting words warms Lanie's heart and makes her chuckle softly.

Minerva has her face flush a bit more, embarrassed by her lack of control.  She nods just a little at Albert's comment, and waves back, looking away a bit as though she could hide the fact she had been crying. After Albert leaves, Minerva just sits with her arms wrapped around Lanie for a long minute.   She nods softly after.  "I'm sorry." 

In response to Minerva, the dog re-calls her: "There is nothing that you need to apologize for... but if you really think there is, then you are fully forgiven."

She holds her breath for a moment, before biting the back of one of her hands, holding it for a long moment.  Her breath is under control by the end of it.  "Okay.  Are you ready to go in?"

"Ready."

Then all three Contractors quietly enjoy some small batch ice cream together. Finally, the crew is not doing something directly related to their mission. Could they pass for a typical family? Albert is far too covered up for anyone to make judgements about him being an older brother or perhaps cousin of the red-haired, freckled teenager who presently has puffy eyes and a somewhat flush face. And the 45-lb fluffy white dog the teenager walks is the perfect accessory to any family set up. Although it is a non-service dog and this technically a dining establishment, so the group ends up eating outside together.

 

After a satisfying distraction of dessert (and after lapping up some water because sweets always made Lanie thirsty), all three pile back into the large truck and they're on their way again. The soon landscape is as desolate as it was before. Would this trip ever end? Settled in the back middle seat beside the buckled in teenager, Lanie re-calls Minerva and asks gently, "Ready to finish up the screening? We're almost done."

Minerva's face has calmed some, and she's regained some of her normal stoicism she has while in a human form.  She thanks Albert for the ice cream politely, as well as Lanie, and settles in to ride. Maybe watch the scenery some.  After she hears Lanie's voice, she looks back.  She nods.  "Yes. I am."  She sucks in a breath.  Everything was okay.  She nods again.  "I'm ready."

Lanie nods. "I know what your current situation is with Mars... Is there anything else you think I should know about you? Do you know if you're, like, cursed? Harboring another entirely within you? Do you think that the general public or the FBI know that you take these jobs--things like that? Something that could likely get me or others into trouble too by association, if we're not careful?" Such questions are based on Lanie's experiences, unfortunately. Given Albert's paranoia-inspired hacking, the dog is confident that the girl isn't on a wanted list--otherwise Albert wouldn't have gotten anywhere near her. But it didn't hurt to ask.

She wiggles her nose some, tilting her head to the side, obviously thinking.  "I... don't think so.  I don't think I'm cursed, or have anything else inside of me, and I don't think anyone like that knows."  She nods a bit at the expanded question.  "No, I don't think so."   She was pretty sure no one outside of the principal really knew she did the jobs... her parents and the other students at the school knew she was magical, though.    But nothing that could threaten Lanie, or anyone else.

"Alright, you're in, Minerva--welcome!" The dog's tail thumps again as she looks at her. "As a Network member, you have access to my mental health services free of charge." Frankly, she would have done so for Minerva anyways, but Lanie was just going through the bullet points in her head. "Oh, and now I can do checkups--like, if something feels off but you can't quite identify it, I can try to work on it anyways without you having to say anything. So let me know if anything's bothering you."

"Now, would you like to be a 'public' or 'private' member? Private means I don't share your name and contact information with anyone without your specific permission. Basically, I'm the middle person who reaches out to you if I find someone who has something you want or know of someone who wants your services. I can also pass along messages. However, public means I have your permission to directly pass your name and contact information on to others within the Network as needed. Alias and burn phone number works just as well here though for practical reasons."

Minerva beams a little as she's told she's in. That wasn't too bad at all.  She nods once, and hugs Lanie again.  "Thank you!"  She nods a few times.  "Okay."  She nods. That sounded reasonable, but... well, thinks were okay right now.  Nervous about going to see Mars, but... mostly okay. She tilts her head to the side, and nods softly.  "Umm... is it okay if I ask to be private?"  She blushes a little bit.  "I don't mean to put more work on you, but..."

"That's fine--I wouldn't offer it if it was too much trouble." Is the dog smiling or does that breed always look like that?

"Some people in the Network are already well-known, and so they didn't mind being public, but part of the point of the Network is to have the private option." Lanie pauses to remember what's next. "Just so you know, personal issues between members are their issues; it's not my business to make sure everyone gets along. I'm vouching that the people in the Network are well-intentioned and relatively sane, but I don't guarantee that everyone will become friends or have the same end goals. The only exception is betrayal, including backstabbing to win a Contract or gain power and, like, revealing someone else's supernatural nature to the world without their permission--things like that. Does that make sense?"

The young girl nods.   "Yes, I think that makes sense."  She nods.   She reaches out to pet Lanie again.   "Thank you for doing all of this work.  For the Network thing.  Knowing well- intentioned people will be good."  At least there won't be any evil people in it.  "Can I ask how many members there are now?"

The dog leans into the scratches again, really enjoying it (but without losing her train of thought). She really seemed to like right under the muzzle and under the collar. "Let's see... you would be the fifth member, although there are several more I'm planning on adding based on referrals. Speaking of which, is there anyone you've worked with that you'd like to refer? Or anyone you'd recommend to the 'greylist' because you're unsure about them--or the blacklist?" While to an extent this dabbled in gossip, such information promoted accountability among those in their field.

Minerva is happy to scratch in those places.  She liked behind the ears herself, but to each their own.  She nods a bit as she listens, considering.  "Okay..."  She looks out the window. "Well, Charlie... um, I think Blackstone? is a good person.  She's a werewolf, and one of us, and nice.  Alister... someone? Seemed nice enough, if weird...  Oh, Asher." She pulls out her phone, checking something.  "Asher Keaton?  He was nice.  He made a movie dedicated to a fallen contractor." She thinks a bit more.  She pauses, as if considering if maybe naming all of the memorable people was a bad idea.  "Um... for the blacklist..."  She mumbles a bit, as if... nervous. "Sally... someone.  Russian last name or something? She’s... not a good person."

It's at this point that the dog realizes she left her notebook and favorite pen back at Albert's house; both had been deemed impractical to bring on missions--both the main ones and the side ones--now that Lanie is committed to being and acting like a dog in most circumstances. She hopes she'll remember all of the names Minerva just listed off... but then again, even if she forgets, she could always call the girl again. In fact, Lanie intended on keeping up with Minerva once all of this was over (assuming both she and Minerva made it to the end alive). The tail stops thumping as Lanie listens. When Minerva goes quiet, she also contemplates probing how exactly Sally With-a-Russian-last-name-or-something is 'not a good person.' After a pause, the dog replies, "Okay. If you'd like to share what you know about Sally, I'm willing to listen, but you don't have to. I believe in your recommendation to steer clear of her as best I can."

Minerva hesitates.  "She used her abilities on me.  To hurt me.  Because she said she hated kids and I didn't show enough respect."   There's a remarkable amount of venom in Minerva's tone at the end, but it is true.   "I think she also hurt other people."  She shakes her head a bit more.  "I don't wanna talk about it anymore."

Was this an instance of betrayal or a squabble? The young girl being simply disrespectful would, in Lanie's mind, never be enough to justify an attack. Sally is dangerous, she internally concludes. Lanie moves closer to try to be comforting again, no longer looking at Minerva as she replies quietly with a lowered head, "It sounds like this person doesn't deserve our respect. We don't have to talk about it anymore." There is another long pause as the dog snuggles in, her ears going back, her muscles tensing, and her fur briefly quivering as she suppresses her rising anger that the Harbingers chose a 10-year-old to go on such dangerous and scarring missions, sometimes with dangerous and scarring "teammates."

Minerva nods softly and just hugs Lanie a bit more again, resting her head on top of Lanie's.  She can feel the dog tense under her, and she tilts her head to the side, pulling back a bit and looking down at them.  "It's okay."  She says, and just hugs Lanie a bit more, starting to pet again.  She lets out a breath.  "She was the only one I've had who was... evil.  I think..."

The dog remains tense despite the hugs and resumed pets and verbal reassurance for a bit longer. It was, in fact, not okay. But the decisions of the Harbingers weren't something Lanie could control, nor could she deter Minerva from accepting the jobs. But if the statement was reframed, Minerva was perhaps sufficiently okay. And the girl's wellbeing is something Lanie could--in fact, is actively contributing to. Settling this issue between her and Mars, monitoring her mental health, providing emotional support and a safe space to unburden, and giving her access to the Network... hopefully it would all be enough. The dog relaxes with a sigh.

"Let's hope so. I'll check in with you at least once a month to see if you have any more recommendations--good or bad." It felt good to get back on track. "So, what would you like to offer the Network? And what might you be wanting from it?"

Minerva nods.  "Okay.  I tend to be going on the jobs about twice a month, so... hopefully I'll have something for you!"  She wiggles her nose.  "Umm... I guess I haven't thought that deeply about it. I guess I can help people with my abilities if they have problems?  And vice versa?"

The dog nods to 'twice a month'. Seemed like Lanie's rate of going on jobs was increasing to that as well. Frankly, it was a bit overwhelming in the midst of all the other things she's been taking care of. "That's fine. I think I have a pretty good idea of what your abilities are. Are there any abilities that you don't want me to keep in mind for, like, helping others? Not that I'll tell others all that you can do--I just wanted to know if any skill of yours was off limits."

Minerva was a little burnt out on it, but she knew how to deal with it.  Just bottle it up and keep moving, right?  Worked so far.  She nods again.  "...Umm... not really?  I'd rather not have ... never mind.  No, it's fine."

A pause. "You sure?"

"...I don't know how comfortable I am in situations where I have to... mind control people.  Because it fails sometimes. But I can generally work around that."

"That's understandable; I'll keep it in mind. To be honest, very little of what any of us do is foolproof. Even my doctor friend was pretty sure he could resurrect Jason and I--but it wasn't at all guaranteed." Maybe just Albert's hacking skills, the dog considers as she turns and looks at their tenacious driver.

The girl nods once and sucks in a breath for a moment. She really hoped it wouldn't come to trying to mind control Mars.  She didn't know if that would work.  She hadn't tried, and... she didn't think it would. She'd been inside Mars' mind; she'd seen the defenses.  She wiggles her nose.  “...I understand."  She nods softly.  She follows the look to their driver, just staring for a moment.

Lanie notices the shift in Minerva's mood and returns her gaze to the girl. "No more questions--we're done. But, uh, you can keep petting if you want to." The pets always felt good. Stroke by stroke, she wonders how many more hours they had left to go but doesn't dare to ask. Albert really was a champion doing all of the driving. Then the dog's eyes and the radio buttons on the dashboard glow; it turns on and switches from one station to the next. The first time she did this it really caught Albert's attention, but that was at least ten hours ago. Now he barely looks back in the rearview mirror at them. Maybe she'll get lucky again and find something to fill the silence for this stretch. Lanie soon settles on an unusually clear country station. Beer and trucks and heartbreak... The dog pulls away and lays down on the other seat, lost in her own thoughts and feelings about someone she knows. Both passengers in the backseat carry their own emotional weights, and, while Albert is no smooth talker, he's perceptive enough to maintain his uncharacteristic silence for a while longer.

 

 

 

-------

Dead

Hours later, Minerva gets a text. She wiggles her nose as she reads it before looking at Lanie. "Um... Ms. Interpal is looking to speak with you. Should I say something back?"

"Please let her know that Alice is dead. No need to tell her that I'll call her back immediately." The dog then begins to take deep breaths with closed eyes.

 

---

 

About a minute after Minerva texts Amarjeet back, Amarjeet gets a phone call. The caller ID is "Lanie" with the familiar profile picture of a paw print icon. "Hello Ms. Inderpal. How may I help you?"

"Hello Lanie," her tone seems a bit more at ease than previous conversations, if still very business-like, "I take it this line is secure on your end?"

"Actually, it's secure on both of our ends." Lanie's tone is business casual as well--a little more formal than usual though given who she's speaking with.

"Excellent. I understand you are in the business of organizing the occasional job. If that is still the case, I may have one for your cohort that needs doing in the States. I find myself indisposed at the moment, so I will need to sub-contract it out."

"... I suppose I am in that business, although the jobs I organize are mainly to help my allies." It's not like I do all of this as a business model or, like, hobby... "What's the task?"

"Someone in our line of work apparently took a wrong turn, and I believe they are now dead." A hint of annoyance is the only emotion there. "They had an item of some sentimental value to me on loan. I would like it recovered from their home and sent to me."

"Any additional complicating factors there, such as they were extremely famous or extremely paranoid such that their house is a fortress?"

"They are rather infamous perhaps..." she trails off there, as if thinking to herself, "However the rest should be rather simple - the individual was quite wealthy, & certainly does have a fortress in a remote location - one that I set the security at, so penetration will not be difficult. Anything else found there is not my concern and may be kept by your team if they like."

"Okay. What's the ideal timeframe? Do you expect them to be plundered--despite the security and remoteness of the location--by anyone else soon?"

"I was not able to find a last will on file, and it is unclear exactly what happened. Due to the nature of the work we do I would assume sooner would be better."

"Of course. But how sure are you that the thing you want is at their home and wasn't on them when they died?" Jason Decker's compact sniper rifle, which is likely in an evidence box somewhere in Texas, comes to Lanie's mind as she asks the question.

"It is a special suit made by a ... former associate. We collaborated on its design, and it is packed with sensors - I know exactly where it is & can send that information to your field team as required."

"I see." A pause. "The finding and taking of anything else there sounds like a variable bonus, not guaranteed payment. Assuming the team succeeds at retrieving the suit but is otherwise emptyhanded, what might you be willing to pay or trade with for the service? Admittingly, breaking and entering a dead man's house sounds easy enough, even if it is occupied by their friends or family... On that note, do you happen to know if they were living alone? If not, I can look into it myself..."

Another uncharacteristic pause before, "This was Timothy Humbug. They have no family, certainly no friends. Naturally, I am inclined to pay for work done on my behalf--that was never in question."

Lanie had heard of the man. "That makes the task easier. Alright then, a cash payment, I'm guessing. Assuming I succeed at getting a couple of people together to take on this job, which state does he live in? And would you like the suit to be shipped to you or personally delivered to one of your international locations?"

"Cash, or more of that "supernatural" nonsense you lot are so fond of - makes little enough difference to me. Yes, once you have the item, I can provide a suitable delivery location. It should go without saying that no one on your team should know I am commissioning this job?"

"Correct. I will keep your identity confidential and act as the middleman." Middledog? "Let me ask around and see what I can do."

"Excellent. I would find a team of more than 3 to be wasteful for something I could do myself in a lazy afternoon if not otherwise occupied, & payment options will reflect that."

"I honestly had only one or two in mind in terms of size--in part due to the simplicity of the task and in part to avoid unnecessary complication. That is, payment would be for the task itself, not the number of people involved in completing it."

"Understood. Let me know when you have a team, and I will provide the security countermeasures & location of the item."

"I will. Talk to you soon." The call ends.

 

 

 

-------

The Details

The vehicle that Albert drives is a black F-150 King Ranch. The largest cabin model of the truck that is commercially available, you can see some subtle signs of modification to the siding, and the tires themselves seem different than the standard along with non standard rims. The meeting spot that Albert would have picked out would've been a standard civilian park. Out on the hiking trail. Away from cameras, not really a lot of nosy people, and he feels like it'll fit Akira's vibe.

At this hiking trail spot, under the shade of a tall, lush tree, stands a young Caucasian man with the beginnings of a beard, short brown hair, blue eyes, dressed rather inconspicuously and wearing an anti-surveillance gator mask; a pure white Samoyed wearing a black leash connected to a grey collar that's nearly buried under all of the fluff; and a red-haired, freckled young teenage girl holding the leash. The dog sniffs the air and then informs the other two--through a light yip and a tail wag--that their fourth teammate is approaching.

As Akira exited his 2010 Toyota Corolla, in the spot they were supposed to meet, he walked towards to where the rest of his team was at. Per Alice’s/Lanie’s advice, the ranger dressed as inconspicuously as he could: eschewing his more southern style of clothing for something more urban. He still wore his dark, blue jeans, but he wore a simple white shirt, a brown hoodie, sunglasses, and a mask covering his face. His short, black hair concealed under the hood. As he was close, he took a deep breath of the air. Taking it in as it was a long time partaking in something supernatural. Waving at them, and then looking at the Samoyed and slowly waved as well, slowly recognizing that the dog was also Alice.

The dog's tail continues to wag as Akira approaches them, but she is a well-behaved "pet" who stays seated beside her "owner." Speaking exclusively to Minerva through the Airpod (since they're in a semi-public space), Lanie chuckles. "I had suggested he hide his identity from the clone group--not us. Please make the intros, Minerva..." 

"If you could, I don't like people, and they tend to not like me." Albert would say fidgety in the face of meeting a new potential power player. He'd say inclining his head between Minerva and Lanie unaware of the conversation but just not liking talking to people.

Minerva, the freckled teenager, smiles and waves to the newcomer. She leans down, petting Lanie a few times as they approach. "Hello! I understand you're Akira?" She smiles warmly. "My name is Minerva, and this is Lanie..." She pets the dog a bit more. "And Albert. Thank you for volenteering to help us."

The dog seems to mildly enjoy the pets, looking up at and butting herself against Minerva more. 

Akira nods and responds, “Yes, I am. And it’s no problem. Always good to lend a hand.” Looking to Lanie and smiling underneath his mask. Then he looked at Albert, slightly raising an eyebrow and responded, “And you, too, Albert.”
The Night The Storm hit
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Downtime

Cleaning Up

Dust, Dirt, and Debris

Two Contractors who look like they've been baptized in dust, dirt, and debris enter the pet friendly, 3.5-star, double-queen bed hotel room, part of the Marr