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« on: <10-18-14/1512:40> »
Please make sure to read up to the end of Act II(, and of course the intro and Act I (

Chapter 13
Saturday Morning

They lay in bed, listening to the cheerful gurgling coming from the other room.  Sound echoed loudly in the sparsely furnished house, but in the mornings, just after the sun had come up, a delicate tranquility suffused every room.  Maria lay wrapped in Pablo's embrace, enjoying the moment.  He smelled deep, smoky, a comfortable familiarity in this strangely welcoming and totally unfamiliar place.

All good things come to an end; she could no longer ignore the growing pressure in her bladder.  She extricated herself from her fake husband and padded to the bathroom between the two bedrooms, carefully avoiding the loudest floorboards.   She closed the door slowly, hoping to avoid the reverberating click of the catch engaging.   She sat down on the cold seat, mentally preparing the checklist of what she needed to do today as she relieved herself.  She'd volunteered to get another part of the sensor array up and running, this one a bit further afield of what passed for a downtown area.  She'd need to take Stan on this little expedition to provide her with some cover for why she'd be walking around.  The boy also did well when he got some air, and she found that she actually enjoyed their pretend domestic arrangement.

After finishing in the bathroom, she opened the door to what they'd affectionately dubbed the nursery.  Stan lay in his bed, swaddler akimbo, staring at the mobile above his head.  She'd gotten it at the furniture store because of some hazy memory that mobiles helped babies develop vision.  When her face appeared to him, he started kicking his little legs and holding up his arms, cooing and grunting. 

"Here we go, little man.  Here we go." He'd grown bigger in the last month, and Maria had had to get stronger to lift him out of the crib.  He smelled terrible.  "Who's my big pooper?  Who's got a big poop?  You do! You do!  Let's let daddy sleep and get you all changed."  She continued babbling at him while she went through the diaper changing routine-- moving the baby to the changing station, putting on the large chemical-resistant gloves and gas mask, taking the diaper off and sealing it away in the hazmat container, using the tongs to wipe his butt free from all the toxic goo and getting it into the container before the acid dissolved it, a few more wipes for good measure.

Stan looked at her while she held his legs in the air, and then gave her one long slow blink.  She blinked back.  He grinned and cooed, then did it again.  He looked faintly ridiculous, with his horns and lopsided grin and a jaw that clearly needed huge teeth to be full.  He slow blinked again, and she did it again, and he shrieked in delight.  She finished getting him cleaned up, and grabbed a new diaper and outfit from the drawers underneath her changing table, one hand holding him in case he rolled off. 

"Let's go for a walk, little man.  Let's go get some breakfast and let daddy sleep in.  He was up all night with you, and he needs some sleep.  Here we go.  Here we go." She strapped him into a Troll-sized urban stroller, one step above the absolute bargain basement model because she had no idea how long she'd need it, and steered him towards the door.  When they got outside, the day had grown bright and warm.  She decided to walk to Lafayette Avenue, and then follow the road until it ended at Main.  Maybe she'd do some shopping, maybe she'd talk to some of her neighbors.  All part of the cover.  The day stretched forward, full of as much laziness as Stan would allow.  She could not remember the last time she felt such peace.

She'd gotten about halfway to Lafayette when a memory detached itself from a cloud overhead and slammed into her mind at full speed.  For a moment, her vision filled with his repulsively handsome face, her skin crawled with the ghost of his touch, her nostrils clogged with the stench of what he'd done to her.  She stopped and had to sit down on the curb, one hand keeping the stroller from rolling away, fighting to keep her imagination in check.  She closed her eyes and willed the vision to be replaced with something, anything, but that. 

She'd decided to sacrifice everything in her life-- degree, career, family-- to bring him down.  For years afterwards, she'd used a different memory as her balm, the memory of him begging for forgiveness.  He wept in terror at the sudden reversal in fortune after she'd shot his kneecaps off.  She'd chased him through his house, through the mansion where he'd tortured her in every room, and she inflicted pain after pain on his battered and broken body.  She had left him in his bathtub, arms and legs useless while the water filled up, drowning his screams.  The police had been baffled by the brutality of the crime until they found the recordings he'd kept of all the graduate students he'd defiled over the years.  By the time they thought they had a perp, she'd already fled to Seattle and taken up her life of crime.

Stan's gurgling brought her back to awareness.  The kid had been looking at the same spot for a good few minutes now and seemed to be wondering why they'd stopped.  The cobwebs of another life fell away, and she noticed someone cooing at the baby.

"Are you OK?"  The woman had a kind face, Human, wrinkles placing her at around 45, bright blue eyes making her appear very alert, hairstyle so old it had just come back in style in Seattle before they'd left.

"Yeah, yeah.  Thanks.  I just..."  She'd never had a spell like that before, not even right afterwards. 

"You remembered something.  Is he your first?"  She nodded at Stan, who apparently had a death grip on one of her fingers.

"Yeah... yes. Yes, he's my first," She said as she stood, wiping bits of grass and leaves off of her backside.  "Why do you ask?"

"Because the last time I saw that look, it was on my little sister's face after her boy Travis went missing.  Happened about a year ago.  I'm Bernice, by the way, but everyone calls me Bernie."  She offered her left hand to Maria, now that two fingers of her right were being pulled in opposite directions by Stan.

Maria tried to shake the proferred hand with her right out of habit, the two of them doing a little dance that ended in mess of fingers.  This woman probably did not expect that she would be in danger of broken knuckles when she woke up this morning, Maria thought to herself.  "Mary.  We just moved in up the street."

"Yes, Josephine told me.  It's a wonderful old house you've got there, goes back a while."

"That's pretty clear from the plumbing.  Sorry to hear about your nephew, by the way.  That sort of thing... "

"Happen often?  No, not at all.  Travis and his friend Brad decided to go playing out past the wards, near as anyone could tell.  Not sure why they'd want to do that; we musta told 'em hundreds of times not to.  Maybe that's why they did it?  Anyway, poof.  Gone."  She said most of this while playing with Stan, poking his nose and making faces.  Maria just looked at her, slightly horrified.

Bernie turned to see her expression.  "Oh, don't get the wrong idea, so long as you're inside the wards, you're safe.  That's the point.  But Viola, well, that was the last straw.  Had to leave this podunk town, she said, everywhere she looked reminded her of her missing boy.  She held no hope he'd come back, and decided to move on.  Want to go grab some coffee?"

Maria could think of at least fourteen other things she'd rather do than get coffee with this curiously blas\'{e} woman, but the one thing she could not think of was a reasonable excuse to do any of them.  "Sure.  I was planning on walking down to Main from Lafayette.  Want to join us?"

"Sounds good.  So how was it?  Carrying a Troll baby?  He looks like he was a big one."

"He was, he was.  They had me on bed rest for the last trimester, he was so huge."  The urge for some wild improvisation could not be contained.  "I was so drugged out during delivery... so much for all of our plans for a natural birth, right?"  She had to rely on dimly remembered conversations other women had had with her mother in their kitchen back on the farm from back in the beginning of time.

"I bet.  I have no kids of my own, but my sister's boy... he couldn't get out into the world fast enough!"  Bernie started to ramble on, prodded only by occasional grunts and affirmations by Maria.  She seemed to need someone to talk to, and after a few minutes of strolling, Maria got the distinct impression that Bernie's apparently calm demeanor about her family's recent separation had been far more devastating than she originally let on.  She must have been waiting for an opening to introduce herself; from her conversational cues, Maria gathered Bernie wanted to play with the baby.

As they walked, she checked as surreptitiously as possible that all of the sensors she and Ruby had placed around the town were still in place and working.  Periodically, she'd glance at a rooftop, at the upper branches of a tree, or near a utility pole or shop window.  Near each of them nestled small detector arrays, providing the tacnet with a constant feed of information from all around the town.  They sat in the middle of a vast web of information that had taken the better part of the last few weeks to construct clandestinely such that the other residents of the town were none the wiser and now had a solid understanding of the town's comings and goings.  She'd tasked the Tacnet with monitoring the traffic of the town and using idle time to analyze said traffic in the hopes of detecting a change in established patterns.

They got to a small cafe on Main Street, none of the sensors out of place.  Maria dedicated herself to the art of motherly communication, relying on acting classes to keep the lies going and her eyes and ears to record everything so she could keep the story straight later.  All in all, a pleasant way to spend a morning, making a friend.


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« Reply #1 on: <10-18-14/1522:46> »
Chapter 14

Once Maria had taken Stan out to check the sensor arrays, Pablo dragged himself out of bed and over to the kitchen.  Maria had made a pot of her typically rich soykaf, and what she hadn't drank sat steaming on the counter for him.  She'd once joked that she liked her brew thick enough that she could stand a spoon in it, and with a straight face, he'd used a telekinesis spell to lock her spoon in place while she stirred.  From then on, they'd been inseparable.

He leaned against the counter, holding his soykaf in both hands.  The ancient linoleum sapped all the warmth from his bare feet.  Pablo considered wearing something other than his underwear and his cross, but no reasonable goal for the day that required clothes presented itself.  The crucifix had been a present from his abuela after graduating from a thaumaturgy program in Seville, the only remnant of his old life he kept around.  It served as a focus for his magic, a talisman through which he could channel more energy than he could otherwise handle on his own.  The light from the morning sun caught on the gold chain, bouncing around bright yellow reflections throughout the sparse kitchen.  Their landlord, Josephine, must love milk in her coffee, as the entire room had been painted light brown, including the handles on the cabinets and the tiles on the walls.  Only the fixtures had escaped, adding chrome reflections to those from his gold chain.
Pablo had spent the entirety of his adult life avoiding this exact domestic situation.  He'd grown up bored, a brilliantly talented mage in a small Spanish town renowned for absolutely nothing.  He'd never had to hide his gift once the Catholic Church had embraced the return of magic as another tool in the war for men's souls.  The magical arm of the Jesuits appealed to him in particular, if only to leave Spain and to see the rest of the world.  His power had drawn the attention of recruiters for La Universidad[/] instead, and he'd breezed through the scholarship interviews and four years of classes while barely breaking a sweat.  All to avoid marrying, settling down, and becoming thoroughly bored with life.

He had really enjoyed his time at University, even if he hadn't paid too much attention to what they tried to teach him, mainly because the combination of sex, drugs, and magic made a powerful kaleidoscope to view the world.  Finally freed from his family's stultifying conservatism, Pablo vowed never to return to a scheduled life if he could avoid it.  Yet here he stood, in his underwear, drinking the same soykaf he'd drunk for a few years now, and having essentially adopted a baby.

He regretted none of the decisions that had gotten him here, but the broken promise to himself still rankled.

He grimaced, then realized that no one else could see his facial expressions.   He got irritated with himself for broadcasting his feelings to a nonexistant audience; who could possibly be watching him?  He chugged the rest of his drink, forcing himself to swallow the lukewarm liquid, put his cup near the sink, and went to go get himself dressed.  He had to find something to do today to take his mind off just how much he didn't want to be here.  Besides, given how he'd missed so much about Stan until the flight out of Seattle, he rationalized that spending the day learning more about the surrounding town and the ghost legends surrounding it was worth putting on pants.

A thought occurred to him as he pulled on a shirt and pants over his form-fitting body armor.  He could go and inspect these so-called wards placed around the town, just to see if these mages in the sticks actually knew anything at all.  He suspected that the boundary around the town had been caused more by a lack of power by the encroaching forces rather than any real competence from the locals.  Unlike anyone else on the team, once he'd gotten dressed, he was ready to go; no need to make decisions about whether or not to strap on any ordinance that may break local or international gun laws.  Maria had left her Predator behind, he saw, and he hoped she knew what she was doing.

He took the minivan, driving slowly through town, hoping that the sensor array wouldn't be too alarmed at his movements to warn Maria.  This particular road had once been on the local route to the state highway system, but now he had a vacant lot covered in waist-high grass on his left and an abandoned garage on his righ.  He parked on the shoulder a good twenty meters from the town's boundary, fully conscious of its location despite no obvious visual cues.  Sure, the vegetation on this side certainly seemed more vibrant, but that could be his imagination.  He eased his seat down, locked the doors, and slipped into the astral.

Here, on this side of reality, a faint orange shimmer barely stood out against the flat grey of the world.  Pablo supposed the orange to be the barrier, but he could not really gauge its strength or its origin.  The other side looked hazy, indistinct, possibly as a result of the barrier.  He moved his consciousness forward, leaving behind his body, and gently reached an ethereal hand to the orange in front of him.  His hand passed through with no resistance, and he felt no difference having done so.  He moved through.

Haziness persisted on the other side, so Pablo assumed something else had to be causing the effect.  Having ruled out the barrier itself, he began to suspect that the stories were true, that there had been a great many mining tragedies in the area, and that the general depression had resulted in a degradation of astral space around the town.  Such `high background regions' make handling magic difficult for those not used to them.  It certainly explained why he'd felt so tense right before they'd arrived.  He'd already suspected as much, but hadn't actually scouted astral space to be sure. 

As he stood with the barrier about five meters behind him, considering this minor revelation, he spotted a shadow moving rapidly through the deadened trees.  Insubstantial and vague, the shadow disappeared as he turned his attention to it, nothing more than a wisp of rumor.  A ghost.  They hadn't been lying, or melodramatic, these hicks; he recognized the astral signature from two previous jobs.  He began to prepare the usual countermeasures when he saw another ghost, further back in the trees, then two more.  Finally.  Something to do.

Mana darts fired from his ethereal arms, slicing through the haze and puncturing the nearest ghost.  It burst into a cloud of blackened motes, suggesting that it had been more of a shade or a phantasm than an actual ghost; ghosts had enough remaining essence that they weren't so easily dispelled.  Still, removing these nuisances would be entertaining, and might even help alleviate some of the toxic background magic. 

Rather than dispersing, more phantasms began to congregate.  He supposed that his magic drew them in like moths to a flame, but unfortunately for them, he could sling these darts all day and not get tired.  None of them were getting within ten feet of him, so he decided to start having a little fun with it.  He began dancing around, just near the edge of the border, firing darts in barrages to wipe them out.  They finally began to swarm, so he ducked back to the other side of the barrier, leaving hammering on it behind him.

At least, that had been the plan.  At the last second, one of them managed to grab his astral leg on the other side as he made the crossing, numbing him from the knee down.  Its grip seemed to merge with his leg, shredding his spirit and sending shooting, excruciating pain throughout his astral body.  He fired darts at it, but the face that reared up bore as much resemblance to a phantasm as Jinx did to an action star.  This thing exuded malevolent triumph as it began clawing its way up Pablo's astral form, breaking through the barrier and coming out through the other side.  Cold terror fed his next spell, a much more powerful blast of magic that blew the thing off of him and sent it tumbling back to the other side of the barrier. 

The swirling cloud of distracting phantasms had all but disappeared, leaving this larger, nastier spirit on the other side of the barrier.  It tapped experimentally on the orange wall, an impossibly long tongue reaching out to lick its eyeball as it looked at Pablo's battered astral form.  Ripples grew from the taps like ripples in a pond, but the barrier held.  The spirit winked at him and slowly faded away. 

A dark shadow flitted in the trees just beyond the barrier.  Pablo supposed that the trap had been reset.  He returned to his body with a gasp.

As much as it pained him to admit it, he was in over his head.  They definitely needed to call in some magical support on this one.