True Deception, Chapter 24

“What do you mean, sir?” I made my voice hoarse and imitated the Fallen whose gear I had taken, and I crossed my fingers that Nathair thought he was talking to the people on his team rather than the people from his enemies’ list!

            “Why does your voice sound so strained?” Nathair inquired.

            Okay, phew! He didn’t jump straight into anything accusatory, so that signified that he bought the premise of Violet and me being members of his security force! Now I just had the pressure of making sure I said the right things in order to avoid rousing his suspicion! I fibbed, “We did a lot of yelling at the dissidents, sir! I’m lucky I can still speak! She lost her voice completely!” I felt proud of myself for coming up with that one! I wasn’t sure if Violet could mimic the female Fallen’s voice or not, but since it physically pained her to tell a lie, I’m sure she appreciated having an excuse not to say a word! She nodded vigorously, and I could tell my thoughtfulness pleased her, so I inwardly celebrated scoring some personal points with her!

            Nathair got more excited about my pronouncement than I expected him to! “Did you get them before the cops showed up?”

            “Uh… no…” I was certain that Nathair interpreted my response as one of shame of failing in a mission, but I actually became pretty confused by his remark! Wouldn’t they prefer us to get captured by the police instead of doing the dirty work themselves?

            “They got away!” Nathair roared, and the noise in the background suggested that he banged his hands on the table in front of him. “Sam, how could you?”

            I knew that Sam wouldn’t like having his superior upset, so I tried to smooth things over by assuring him, “We won’t let it happen again! In fact, we got a tip that they were heading to this school…”

            Nathair appeared approving of this measure. “Well, at least they didn’t get taken to prison! We don’t wanna make that mistake twice!” He laughed heartily in relief, and I joined him in a sycophant way because I felt as though Sam would have done something like that, but it wasn’t very easy to display mirth right then! My mind was swarming with curiosity about why he didn’t want us in prison anymore! What could that possibly mean?

            “Where’s Berith?” Nathair peered behind us and apparently noticed that the third Fallen in this brigade was missing.

            “He’s dealing with the cops, you know, just in case.” I didn’t want to mention the bear since I had no clue what it was doing with Berith once it dragged him into the woods, and I didn’t feel like going over something that may require a long explanation with him. It made sense to me to limit our interaction with one of Birsha’s allies, and while I would have loved to grill him more about this concept of their side not wanting us to get incarcerated, this imitation was starting to hurt my throat!

            He evidently agreed with that decision owing to the fact that he praised us, “Good idea! I’ll text him to remind him to join you when he’s finished.”

            Not wanting to prolong this conversation any further, I told him, “Sir, we better start looking for the dissidents before it’s too late…”

            Thankfully, he acquiesced, “Oh, yes! Sam, Amy, go get them!” Violet gave him a thumbs up prior to him hanging up, and as soon as he did, we bailed out of the car! Obviously, he hadn’t heard anything about our previous discussion, but neither of us wanted to take any chances!

            I met Violet at the passenger’s side of the vehicle, and I immediately reacted to that interaction, “What the hell?”

            “I know!” Violet concurred. “I wanna enjoy the prospect of not having to go to jail, but if they want us to avoid it so badly, can staying out of lockup really be such a great fate for us?” I shrugged, and she decided to shake off this befuddlement and move on. She gazed at the elementary school in front of us and wondered, “Well, we’re here! But what do we do at this place on a Saturday night?”

            “Hmm…” I had to mull that question over for a minute. I didn’t think we would gain anything from the empty classrooms, but I also had no desire to waste anymore precious time either. I caught a glimpse of my reflection in the car window, and it continued to strike me as odd at how well we blended in with our foes! I felt reasonably confident that if any of our adversaries saw us, they wouldn’t suspect anything hinky about our intentions… except their comrades wouldn’t adopt our current behavior… “When the Fallens knew we were inside of the temple, they patrolled the building and waited for us to come out, so we should probably do that in case somebody from Birsha’s Army happens to see us.”

            Violet shook her head in agreement. “Yeah, I guess we gotta play the part ‘til we figure out a new plan.”

            The facility was definitely closed, but a few lights shined throughout the perimeter in this area. As we passed a playground clearly built for small people, it heartened me to know that the little ones still received some joy despite the Fallens’ dark reign over their school! While this image gave me some satisfaction, it saddened me in the same instance! “It’s so awful that they’re indoctrinating kids at such a young age!”

            “Uh huh! It’s terrible!” Violet shared my sentiments, but then she reasoned, “But they’re not completely brainwashed! Remember why we came here! The students in that factory didn’t copy their teacher’s moves, and that teacher complained that some of her coworkers weren’t on board with the regime…”

            “F’ing traitors!” a voice from behind us commented. Violet and I both jumped from fright! We had no inkling that we weren’t alone out here… We turned to face the speaker, and a man who resembled a custodian faced us. For a second, we believed he had made that statement about us, but then his expression grew more remorseful and he apologized, “Sorry! I didn’t mean to scare you guys! You must be newbies!”

            It alleviated us to discover that he viewed us as novice guards, and it didn’t seem like too daunting of a task to pretend that we were inexperienced at this job since we literally hadn’t done this work before! Violet joked, “Can you tell we’re not in familiar territory?’

            We all chuckled, and then the janitor probed, “How come you’re circling the outside of the school?”

            “We’re patrolling the perimeter to look for these dissidents who might have fled here.” I knocked on wood that his sort of exploit wasn’t unusual. If he found that fishy and reported us to Birsha, then we wouldn’t maintain the clearance we needed to return here on Monday when the teachers came back, which is when we really wanted to explore this space! It would have been tragic to lose this opportunity before we even had a shot at seeing if the Arch Deity was stuck within these walls or not!

            “Nathair gave us permission to do this,” Violet put in. Her assertion was completely true and completely brilliant! Plus, she delivered that line at the most opportune moment- he was eyeballing us in a very perplexed manner!

            The custodian probed, “Didn’t he tell you to use the camera room to do that?” When Violet and I gave him blank expressions, he sighed, “Why is that schmuck in charge of security?” He shook his head and invited us, “Come on in.”

            He led us down a hallway full of darkened classrooms, and while I observed our surroundings, it struck me as odd to see no whimsical crafts or decorations that most people would expect to see at an elementary school! The façade projected a lot of gray hues and posters that depicted various rules and procedures, and I couldn’t imagine children surviving in a cold environment like this! I saw a blank door labeled “Art Room,” and I had a strong urge to investigate that site! What kind of artwork would they teach in this sterile climate?

            “Here we are!” the custodian announced when we reached the end of the foyer. “Now, I’m heading out for the night. There’ll be a couple of folks coming in the morning to open up the school so the teachers can prep for the week, but if you need any help before then, call Nathair.”

            “Thank you!” Violet politely regarded him, and he tipped his non-existent hat to us as he headed back out to the parking lot.

            Violet and I would normally stay quiet until we heard any potential eavesdroppers get out of our earshot, but in this scenario, we didn’t have to force ourselves to be silent- the wall of screens that stood before us left us dumbstruck! Nearly every corner of the school got filmed! After a couple of minutes of simply soaking it in, I posed to Violet, “Why does an elementary school need so much security?”

            She stoically articulated, “Well, ‘cause this property is full of those who are loyal to the regime, and too many dissidents wanna tear Birsha’s empire down!”

            It appalled me to hear those words spew from her mouth, especially with her dressed in Fallen’s armor! I knew that she fretted becoming one of them, but I couldn’t fathom it actually happening! We hadn’t had these disguises on for very long either! I almost wanted to call her out on it in hopes of bringing her back to the Guardian’s side, but then I saw a microphone hanging over our heads! I couldn’t discern if it had been turned on or not, but I realized that Violet was acting out of an abundance of caution. It really disappointed me that we could only chat in code; there was a lot we needed to go over, and at the present, we couldn’t broach any of these topics! The notion of sitting in a noiseless quarter watching screens with nothing happening on them filled me with angst! Part of it stemmed from combining my boredom with the lack of sleep I got, but more importantly, I didn’t feel productive! Yes, there wasn’t much we could do until the staff arrived, but I absolutely didn’t want to do nothing! I chewed it over in my brain for a while, and then a stroke of inspiration came to me! “Some of the faculty has been describing a lack of loyalty from their peers. I’m gonna search the grounds to see if they hid anything in their classrooms. Call me if you see anything!” Violet consented to this, and I ventured out to check this terrain out.

            The first classroom I went into was so devoid of personality that I almost deemed it as it unused! I spotted a name on the desk, and it upset me to catch a glimpse of how perpetual this bleakness appeared to be! I thumbed through some of the teacher’s desk drawers, but it didn’t contain anything other than office supplies. The one touch of personalization, if it could properly bear that label, was a map of the world on the wall with certain countries, including ours, highlighted in red. I didn’t totally understand what it meant, and honestly, I didn’t want to, so I moved on to the next classroom.

            This one seemed a tad friendlier than the other, but it didn’t give off the warmth that I would assume a service designed for little kids would have! It had a section dedicated to reading, but upon a closer inspection, I noticed that the selection merely offered stories with an overly propagandized theme. It stunned me to behold a bit of personalization at their computer, but it was just a wallpaper with a screenshot of Nathair in one of his commercials for Nerium Night Ware. I mused that I may have entered into the classroom belonging to that obsequious educator we met at the factory, and then I made my way to the next sector.

            I grew excited to go into the art room! I anticipated that I would finally get to survey something with a spark of creativity, and I did not get let down! I saw colorful paintings of pets, vivid drawings of fanciful adventures, and even some pottery with vibrant patterns cascaded all over their surfaces! “That’s more like it!” I thought out loud. With this drastic contrast to the rest of the school, I couldn’t grasp how this flagrant use of whimsy was permitted to exist! Any sense of individualism or sanity that these pupils had to have originated from here, which led me to conjecture that if the Arch Deity had any kind of connection to this establishment, it probably came from here! I saw a name scrawled on the whiteboard, and I puzzled, “Who are you, Gabrielle Vinetra?”

            All of a sudden, Violet yelled, “Sam! You gotta see this!” Naturally, I rushed over there immediately, and I prayed that nothing too serious had gone on! As soon as I arrived, she pointed to one of the monitors and asserted, “I think we have a problem…” I gazed at what she indicated to, and unfortunately, I couldn’t disagree with her! This was the last thing we needed right then! I didn’t know what we were going to do…

True Deception, Chapter 23

I expected something much worse! Yes, Samaya recently indicated that she wanted to commit to non-violence, but the survival instinct can make people do drastic things! Not her though; I theorized that she led the Fallens to believe that she was going to do us in so that they wouldn’t attack us in the process, but apparently, she had no intention to do Violet and me any harm! Instead of obliterating us, she floated us up to the treetops! The Fallens could still see us though, and all three of them aimed a hex in our direction… It bounced right off of the tree! They managed to avoid the reflected magic unfortunately, so Violet and I couldn’t leave this protected area. Her spell was effective, but there was just one problem- Samaya was left down there with no allies to help defend her!

            She did surprisingly well blocking jinxes from three different directions, but it was obvious that this wouldn’t last long! She was outnumbered, and while she made a couple of feeble attempts to shoot some offensive strikes at them, it was evident that she didn’t have the will to take them down! Violet fretfully expressed, “We can’t leave her there to fight on her on!”

            Before I could delve into how we could give her some much needed assistance, Violet leaned against the tree trunk and pushed all of her weight into the bough we stood on. When I discovered that this branch hovered right over two of the Fallens, I completely understood why she chose to do this move! I braced myself against the trunk as well and pushed with all of my might…

            SNAP! Not only did we successfully break it, but it landed exactly where we hoped it would! Luckily, the two Fallens weren’t able to get out of the way in time, and the impact knocked them both out! The third Fallen watched the scene unfold in total shock, and during his slight pause, Samaya gasped, “You removed my protective measures!”

            We didn’t have a chance to respond to her. The third Fallen recovered from witnessing this stunt and aimed his projectiles at us! Violet and I jumped behind the branch and ducked low enough to shield ourselves using the unconscious Fallens’ armor, and Samaya used her powers to create a protective orb over herself. I expected that Fallen to try to find a way around this barricade, but he flabbergasted us by cackling, “You wanna use up the rest of your life force hiding, go ahead! I can wait!”

            I had no idea how long it would take for her magic to drain, but I couldn’t let someone so young tap out so early in life! Violet and I needed to do something to provide her aid, but if we left our cover, we would be done for! We had no method of combating him, and I feared that Violet was contemplating using a spell of her own to remedy the situation! I couldn’t allow her to use the last of her life force either! I could only come up with one solution for this conundrum, “Samaya! You have to fight back!”

            “I can’t!” Samaya objected. “I can’t hurt anyone, not even bad people!”

            “If you don’t find something to knock him out, you’ll cause us all harm!” Violet reasoned. “What’s worse, hurting him or letting us get killed?”

            Samaya mulled it over for a moment, and then a stroke of inspiration seemed to hit her! She released her jinx and aimed another towards the woods on her right. I couldn’t fathom why she had done that, but I wished she hadn’t because that Fallen used this opportunity to pummel her! She dropped straight to the floor, and while she was still breathing, her breath was very labored! We watched helplessly as he knelt next to her… He gazed at us and leered, “What? You’re not gonna back your friend up at all?” I could tell he was trying to bait us into leaving our safeguard, so I resolutely stayed put! “Really? Still nothing? How much are you gonna let me do to her…?” He caressed her side, and that was too much for me! I nearly bolted out of my seat, and I would have too if Violet hadn’t pinned me down! I struggled against her grip until…

            A large black bear came stampeding out of the forest and lunged towards the Fallen! He held his arm up to throw a hex at it, but the bear smacked his arm and tackled him to the ground! Violet and I dragged Samaya out of the creature’s reach, but it didn’t seem interested in anyone else! Despite all of the screaming the Fallen did, the bear grabbed him and dragged him into the wooded area!

            “Is she gonna be okay?” I asked Violet as she examined Samaya.

            “She will be if she can get treated quickly,” Violet answered me. She then grabbed Samaya’s wrist, and her contact list hovered over her watch. She called Lama Malva, and her image appeared above us! We didn’t even have to explain to her what occurred- she surveyed the scenery and asserted, “I’ll be right there!”

            In an instant, she dropped into the vicinity! She pointed her palms at Samaya and started working her magic immediately. She instructed us, “You two need to get out of here before these Fallens wake up!”

            Violet protested, “But if they wake up without us here, then you’ll be outnumbered!”

            “I can handle them!” Lama Malva assured us. “I appreciate your willingness to be of service, but I won’t accept you availing yourselves in this instance! The police are searching my temple as we speak, so it’s only a matter of minutes before they come looking for you here! You can’t let the Fallens or the authorities catch you! Please go! Get far away from here!”

            We were alarmed to learn of this development, and I was certainly glad that we left the temple when we did! I waved and gratefully told her, “Thank you!”

            “Wait!” She stopped us in our tracks and then suggested,” Take their armor!”

            We hastily stripped them of their helmets and mail, and instinctively, I took my Fallen’s watch too. Violet questioned me, “What are you doing? Do you want Birsha to follow us?”

            “Yes! Well, not us,” I justified my actions with logic to that eventually came to me. “If she sees them staying still in one spot for too long, she’ll call to see if they’re okay. When they don’t answer, she’ll have people check on them! We can’t let Samaya and Lama Malva get into that kind of danger!”

            Violet got persuaded by my argument, and she took the female Fallen’s watch as well. We ran down the path, and Lama Malva shouted, “Good luck! “ as we exited that locale.

            The trail led out to the busy expressway, but the side of the street we were on had plenty of grass to walk on. The small field wasn’t the only discovery we made either! A compact car with a security logo on the side parked right outside of the pathway we just traveled! Violet inquired, “Does this belong to the Fallens who ambushed us, or is this a huge coincidence?”

            “There’s only one way to find out!” I replied after peering into the vehicle and seeing no one there. I took the watch I garnered from that Fallen and combed through his apps in order to locate something with manufacturer’s logo on it, and with so much junk on there, I worried for a second that I may have been proven wrong! We didn’t need a ride necessarily, but I had gotten my expectations high pretty fast of us avoiding another long trek! Finally, following me sifting through quite a bit, I came across it at last! “Oh, thank god! Why would they keep it buried like that?”

            “Probably as a deterrent for thieves,” Violet conjectured right as I clicked the link to unlock the car. The vehicle’s lights flashed and the clicking sound of the locks unlatching resonated! I wanted to jump straight in, but Violet seemed reluctant to do that. “Hold on! Are we sure we wanna steal something that belongs to Birsha’s Army?”

            I reassured her, “No one even realizes they’re missing yet! It’ll be fine!”

            Violet posed to me, “What if they do figure it out and try to shoot us down?”

            “We don’t have that long of a trip to take,” I argued. “It’s unlikely that they would work that out before we get there! Plus, if we put this armor on, any of their peers who happened to pas by will assume we’re one of them!” I paused and wittingly added, “Personally, I really like the concept of those Fallens hoofing it back to their headquarters when they wake up!”

            “Alright, let’s go for it!” Violet agreed with a slight giggle from my quip. We speedily put on the mail and helmets, and it surprised me how much this guise hid our faces! It was difficult to look at Violet’s beautiful visage when it resembled our foes so closely! I had to keep reminding myself who she really was! It felt strange to show kindness to someone dressed like that, but despite my awkwardness about it, I offered, “Would you like to steer, or should-?”

            Violet promptly regarded me, “No, you do it!” I could sense she had a deep discomfort about our outfits, and while a part of me yearned to comfort her, we needed to vacate this vicinity as soon as possible, so I simply strolled over to the driver’s seat and resolved to make it up to her later.

            We buckled our seatbelts, and then I used the watch to turn the engine on. As I pulled the lever to make it levitate, my mine tried to recall the last time held a steering wheel. I guessed that it had been at least a decade, but thankfully, my reflexes didn’t have any issues remembering how to pull off these maneuvers! As we wedged ourselves into traffic, I was concentrating so much on navigating that I almost forgot what destination we were heading to! I requested to Violet, “If you see the school, let me know:”

            “Yeah, sure!” she curtly addressed me.

            “After all we’ve done, why does this make you nervous?” Out of the corner of my eye, I could tell she was staring out of the window rather forlornly. From a practical standpoint, I deemed that it was better to get any ill feelings out of grasp prior to the onset of our next mission, but instinctually, I seriously hated to see her in turmoil!

            Violet probed, “Did you ever wonder why I decided to investigate Birsha even though the whole world was in love with Nancy Nox?”

            I hadn’t envisaged her to say that, and now my head was buzzing as to why she had brought that up! “I assumed it was your intuition guiding you in the right direction.”

            “I learned about some shady stuff occurring at her headquarters from my servants, but I didn’t hire those servants. I was once allies with Nancy Nox, and she recommended this business…” Violet revealed.

            “Your servants were from Birsha’s Army?” I surmised.

            Violet defended herself, “I had no clue who they were ‘til I got to know Edward! You know, the one who got…”

            I finished her sentence, “Murdered. Murdered by Birsha, something that wasn’t your fault!” I didn’t want her to start blaming herself for that tragedy again! She didn’t deserve that!

            “Yeah, well…” She grew severely uneasy at this reference, and I anticipated her to vent about something related to her unwarranted guilt, but instead, she admitted, “He was more than just my bodyguard. We were… an item…”

            “Oh!” My heart practically stopped when I heard this! I mean, obviously she had developed relationships before she met me, but it distressed me to comprehend the notion of her losing her last lover in such an abrupt way! I imagined that she still harbored some romantic emotions for him, and it made me ponder whether or not she had the capacity to form a connection like that with me in the future! I shelved that matter aside temporarily though because something else troubled me about this revelation. “Your ex-boyfriend was a Fallen?”

            Violet swiftly explained, “When we first got together, neither of us were being honest with each other. When it seemed like we were getting serious, I told him the truth, and he told me his secret too. But he also said I inspired him to be a Guardian! I wasn’t fully positive I could believe him ‘til he started giving me secrets to further my mission. Then his sacrifice proved that he… Oh, there’s the school!”

            I pulled over and parked in front of Monico Elementary, but I didn’t want to get out until we resolved the topic at play. I would never have confessed this to her, but a little jealousy surfaced over the impact that Edward had over her! In spite of those sentiments brewing within me as well as the anxiety of having a romantic pull to somebody grieving over a past flame, I cared about her too much to allow her to agonize over this! I put a comforting hand on her shoulder and encouragingly stated, “If these uniforms stir up some awful memories for you, that’s fine! But don’t let that fool you into thinking that our situation will have a similar fate! We’re gonna be alright, I swear!” I could see her smiling in appreciation, and it was so hard to resist the urge to kiss her…

            Without being able to move another inch closer to her, Nathair’s image surfaced over the car’s control panel! He growled, “What are you two doing here?”

True Deception, Chapter 22

“We have to go!” Violet insisted. “We can’t let the ugliness that’s taken over society carry on another minute longer than it has to!”

            “I agree, the Fallens’ evil must stop,” Lama Malva responded, “but it shouldn’t get stopped by the two of you! I admire your willing spirits, but you’re not physically capable of taking on their forces! A couple of weak Guardians can’t take on a whole army of Deities!”

            I corrected her, “I’m not a Guardian, actually.”

            She blinked in surprise when she heard this. “Really? I could have sworn…” I shook my head to iterate my point, and when she finally accepted this fact, she exclaimed, “That’s all the more reason for you two not to do this! You got lucky when I found you, you may not be as lucky next time around!”

            “We’re not going into this blindly,” I assured her. “We know there’s a chance we may not live long enough to see our mission get completed, but if we don’t continue this, we could end up dead anyways! We already crossed the line with Birsha, so it’s not like we’d stay safe if we quit right now!”

            “You would be if you stayed here,” Lama Malva argued. “We have everything you need to survive, you could remain with us and keep yourselves alive for a lot longer!”

            Violet debated her, “What kind of life would we live if we could never leave the premises? I know you spend most of your time here, but when you need a break, you have the freedom to leave! If we decided to hide here forever, we would live like prisoners ‘til the end of our days!”

            Lama Malva differed, “You wouldn’t have to do it for years! I’m sure once they realize you plan on leaving them alone, they will give up their pursuit of you and you can roam where you want to!”

            “Birsha isn’t gonna allow us to exist on this planet knowing all that we do!” I contended. “Besides, we’re getting framed for murder, so if we did decide to camp out with you, eventually the police would figure out where we are and throw us in prison! Then they’d take you down for assisting us! You’re probably already in trouble for what you’ve done already!”

            “Don’t you think I know that?” Lama Malva shot back. “Haven’t you noticed that I haven’t once asked either of you for your names? I knew who you were when I took you on!”

            Violet challenged her, “So, it’s okay for you to take risks but not us?”

            Lama Malva reasoned, “I thought I could change how the world sees you. They would observe your reformation and would forget their previous misconceptions about your character!”

            “Birsha will never let anyone forget!” I retorted. “The only way to clear our names is to destroy the stronghold that Birsha has over the world! If we don’t do this, we’ll be hated as long as we’re permitted to breathe!”

            “That’s not true!” Lama Malva dissented. “There are others who are embarking on this quest! You’re not the only ones who are fighting this battle! Why can’t you wait for somebody more capable to prevail?”

            I asserted, “That person might not be in any condition to fight! Look, we’re not trying to obliterate Birsha’s entire army ourselves, that would be lunacy! We’re not able to do that, but someone out there is! We’re looking for the Arch Deity- they have the power to save us all from this reigning evil! No one has a clue what’s holding them back from doing it immediately, but Violet and I are gonna find our why they haven’t already acted and persuade them to do it! After they get going, our role will be finished, but this cause is too important to not have every individual who can scout for them out there trying to flesh them out so they can do what they were chosen to do! Listen, we appreciate you giving up some of your life force to revive us, but you can’t prevent us from doing what’s right!”

            My words seemed to have had a profound impact on Lama Malva! She hung her head low and appeared incredibly guilty for her actions, but despite all that, she still come across as ready to give us permission to go. She mulled it over for a minute, and then she concluded, “You’re not wrong, but it would be irresponsible for me to have you two venture out alone! You wouldn’t do well on your own!”

            “You could join us,” Violet offered. “Your powers are probably much stronger than mine!”

            “They are, but I couldn’t leave my temple,” Lama Malva relayed to us.

            Samaya entered into our proximity and inquired, “Lama Malva, I wrapped up that meditation session for you! What are you doing out here?”

            Lama Malva recommended, “Samaya can accompany you.”

            “Accompany them where?” Samaya replied.

            “They’re trying to unearth the Arch Deity’s location,” Lama Malva informed her.

            Samaya’s eyes grew wide with alarm. “I assumed you wanted me to take them somewhere on the temple grounds! You want me to guard them on a dangerous journey? How can I do that when I’ve dedicated my whole being to non-violence?”

            Lama Malva assured her, “You do not have to do harm to anyone! They need protection, and we can’t maintain a clear conscious if they leave under their present condition! They don’t need you to participate in any combative measures, they simply need a watchful eye until that task can get passed on to someone else.”

            Her rationale obviously made sense to her, so she obliged, “Okay. I can take care of them until they find somebody else to do it.” She turned to us and asked, “Ready to go?”

            “We’ve been ready to go for a while, we just got caught in the act!” Violet wryly answered. Samaya giggled at her quip and then used her watch to shine a small light on our path.

            “Good luck, you three!” Lama Malva bade us.

            I responded to her, “Thank you for everything!” She smiled warmly at us, and we returned her gesture. We then faced the forest behind the gate again. This was it, we were finally on our way once more! Her impression of our well-being daunted me slightly, but I couldn’t succumb to my anxiety at such a critical juncture! We not only needed to ensure that Samaya returned to this facility intact, but we had to achieve victory while we still had an iota of strength left in us! I took a deep breath and opened the gate. I sort of expected to instantly get ambushed by sinister entities, but nothing heinous occurred to us! I was reminded of my many other trips inside of Sylph’s Hollow, and I told myself that this walk the woods was no different! And with that in mind, we set off onto the treelined trail!

            During the onset of our trek, we all walked in silence. Under normal circumstances, I wouldn’t have had any problems making small talk, but since we embarked on a potentially dangerous journey, it hardly seemed appropriate! How could we chitchat about our favorite movies and television shows when we had the possibility of getting attacked at any given moment! I didn’t think that we would have much to discuss anyways- she was half our age and devoted her life to religious activities, so she led a very different lifestyle before Violet and I first fled from Birsha’s Army! Violet and I would have loved to go over our operation, but not in front of Samaya! She already could have potentially gotten herself in peril for the little she did so far, so we really didn’t want to add more motivation for our adversaries to hunt her down! Besides, at the first opportunity we had to do so, we planned on sending her away. Violet and I clearly didn’t converse about this out loud, but I got the sense we were on the same wavelength on this issue. We may have wound up spending years scouring the land for the Arch Deity, and I doubted that Samaya anticipated accompanying us for that much of a stretch, so, for her own good, we needed to separate as soon as we had the opening!

            “Where are we going?” Samaya abruptly broke the quiet.

            “Huh?” I heard her perfectly, I just needed a second to pull myself out of my trance! It slowly registered to me that we had come to a fork in the road, so naturally, she wanted to know what direction we were heading. A part of me didn’t want to mention it to her for her own safety, but neither Violet nor I had any inkling of what route we ought to take, so I supposed that I didn’t really have much of a choice in this instance. “We’re trying to get to Monico Elementary School. Do you know where it is?”

            Samaya confidently verbalized, “Of course! It’s not far from here!”

            We turned left, and Violet reacted with a slight disbelief, “Really? All I can see is trees in front of us! Is it kinda hidden?”

            “Not at all. Maybe it just seems shorter driving there. I’ve never actually walked down Sentinel Expressway! I know this path goes alongside it even though I haven’t actually gone this far before! I mean, I went into the woods plenty of times to gather firewood and wild berries, but I haven’t traveled this far until now! I’m pretty sure this trail will take us all the way there! It’ll be fine!” Samaya rambled in a manner that very much showcased her nerves.

            “You’re darn right it’ll be fine! There’ nothing too drastic in the forest!” I meant to give Samaya some reassurance, but all I did was make Violet give me a reproachful look! I didn’t understand it initially, but then after a quick memory jog, I recalled what prompted her to do that, “Oh, well, there’s some bears and stuff, but I can’t imagine that they would put a pathway through a bear’s territory! The construction crew would get eaten alive!”

            Samaya chuckled at my bit of humor, and then I expected her to expound on her newfound confidence. Instead, she shocked us by stating, “Oh, I’ve dealt with plenty of bears! Wolves too!”

            I rapidly blinked for a beat, and then I remarked, “And you claim you never went this far into the woods!”

            “I didn’t! They come around the temple a lot, especially at night.” Samaya observed my horrified expression, so she clarified, “Lama Malva did a spell around the compound so they can’t hurt any of our visitors! We make sure people don’t go out the backdoor once the sun starts to set too. That’s how Lama Malva caught you leaving.”

            I could have delved more into how that system worked, but a tune popped into my head that I couldn’t get rid of! After listening to it for a moment, I couldn’t help but share my status with my companions, “That reminds me of a song…”

            Violet exclaimed, “I knew it! I knew you would bring that up!”

            “Bring what up?” Samaya wondered.

                        “She caught me leaving, leaving out the backdoor!

                        The darkness can’t hide me anymore!

                        I didn’t wanna end things in such a bad way,

                        but now she knows, she knows I can’t stay!”

            I sang this ballad enthusiastically in hopes that she would recognize it, but her blank face only heightened by my demonstration, so I explained, “It’s from Luke Ladon! Please tell me you’ve heard of him!”

            To my relief, she recollected that reference! “Yeah, duh! Everyone’s heard of him! He’s a legend! But I don’t remember him doing that track! I guess he did a lot more than just ‘Don’t Stop Dreaming’ and ‘Freaky Dance!’”

            I excitedly filled her in, “He did so much more! Did you know he once had a number one record on the country charts? And he worked on the soundtrack for-!”

            “Jack!” Violet interrupted me.

            “Sorry!” I apologized. “I didn’t mean to-.”

            She cut me off again, “Shh! I heard something…”

            We all froze and became eerily hushed as we concentrated on hearing what was occurring in our surroundings. I detected the faint sound of whooshing, and originally, I attributed this noise to the wind, but to my dread, I realized it wasn’t a mere breeze, and it was getting closer! “Run!” I directed to the others.

            The three of us sprinted towards the temple, but then we spotted a figure on a hoverboard barreling at us at full speed! We switched back to our former course, but then we spotted a couple of people coming from that site too! We attempted to dart into the trees, but one of the invaders held his hand up to us and ordered, “Don’t move!”

            “Don’t hurt us! We’re cooperating!” I held my hands in the air and prayed that this armored trio would show us mercy.

            “Yeah, right!” the female of the group spat. “We know what you did to our comrades, you’re not gonna fool us so easily!”

            The man behind us interrogated us, “Who’s your friend?”

            Violet commanded, “Leave her out of this!”

            “Look at you! You really think we’ll obey you!” the first man snickered.

            “Fine, don’t reveal her identity! If she wants to fight against us, she can die with you!” the female decreed.

            Samaya turned to us and fretfully uttered, “I’m so sorry, but I have to do this…” My pulse raced infinitely faster as she raised her arm and shot a hex at us before we could even attempt to escape…

True Deception, Chapter 21

All of a sudden, I woke up surrounded by metal bars! It bewildered me as to how I got there, and it mystified me as to how I would get out! All I saw around me was a sea of pitch black until a faint green light illuminated a figure that turned out to be Birsha! She leered malevolently and then jeered, “So, you thought you could defeat me, huh? I’m about to show you what a grave mistake that was!”

            I swiveled my head to view Violet’s reaction to this, and I realized that I had grown so used to having her by my side that it took me a while to notice that she wasn’t there! With Birsha’s emphasis on the word grave, I began to worry about Violet’s fate! “Where’s Violet?”

            “Oh, you’ll soon find out! First, I wanted to have a little talk with you…” She leaned against my enclosure and more seriously asked, “Why did you cause so much trouble?”

            “Because people are suffering!” I answered emphatically. “I wanted to fight for a better future!”

            Birsha coldly stated, “All you did was break into a few buildings and get into a couple of clashes! Actually, that’s not true… You also caused a lot of structural damage too! And for what? What good came from all of these stunts?”

            I felt remorseful for the negative outcomes of our endeavor, but ultimately, I didn’t regret a single minute of it! “I got the satisfaction of doing the right thing! At least when history books will look back on what I did, they’ll see that I made the morally correct choices!”

            “You really think historians will compliment an outlaw who achieved nothing?” Birsha prodded me.

            “What do you want? Why don’t you just kill me already?” I had no desire to end my life, but I refused to allow her to subjugate me to this mental torture before she enacted whatever plot she intended for me! Plus, if I was meant to die that day, I wasn’t about to go out sniveling from fear or regret! If I had to perish, I would insist on doing so with dignity and honor!

            Birsha’s eyes lit up with a demonic delight usually only found in an animal planning to play with its prey, and she maniacally told me, “Because I’m a Fallen- I’m not here to murder you, you deserve a punishment! You wanna know what it is so badly? Well, let’s get started then!”

            The rest of the lights in the room came on, and to my horror, I saw Violet laying on the floor bound and gagged! She looked absolutely terrified as Birsha approached her, and it became clear that she was going to penalize me by hurting her! That was more than my heart could stand, and I ran to the edge of my cage to shout, “No!” I wanted to reach out to her, but she was far out of my range! There was nothing I could do to help her, and that drove me crazy!

            Birsha cackled, “Aw, what’s the matter? Did you love her? Well, you should have thought about that before you crossed the line with me!” She raised her hands to strike her with a hex, and I basically jumped out of my skin as she executed her magic…

            I bolted up with my chest panting and my whole body sweating! It took a moment for it to register to me that in reality, I hadn’t left the healing clinic of that Buddhist temple, and although it relieved me to learn that none of those dreadful images I had just witnessed were real, the experience still disturbed me! Even the mere concept of seeing Violet in agony rattled my senses! I gazed to the makeshift bed next to me, and it comforted me to no end to behold her slumbering safely! Obviously, that sleeping draught that Lama Malva gave us worked on her! I could hear snoring from the men who slept on both sides of our curtained room, so apparently, I was the only one who was awake at that hour! Well, not counting the person who was guarding the entrance to this space. Luckily, he was too busy watching the outside to pay attention to my animation! Even if I wanted to tell someone about my vision, I couldn’t do it because of all of the secrets it contained! I would tell Violet about what occurred when I got the chance, but unfortunately, we hadn’t gotten an opportunity to be alone since we got here! We couldn’t’ even privately have a discussion with Samaya to learn all she knew about the resistance to Birsha’s Army since these two meditation pupils fell ill! As I laid back down, I inwardly prayed that our prospect for success would feel less grim and that we would get to pursue our mission again soon!

            “Did you hear something?” Violet opened her eyes to whisper that question to me.

            “No, I just had a bad dream,” I quietly informed her. As I spoke to her, I observed a lot of red lines that marred her beautiful eyes, so I surmised that she had a bout of insomnia as well, which made me a little sad! She was such an amazing person, and she had been through so much that she didn’t deserve to get deprived of a period of peace like that! “How come you can’t sleep?”

            Violet explained, “I got woken up ‘cause I needed to go to the bathroom, and I couldn’t relax after that! My mind kept racing about all of the things we gotta do, and I wondered if we’ll ever get a chance to do any of it…”

            I firmly reassured her, “We will! We’ll find a way to make it happen one way or another!”

            “How? Even if we overpowered the people supervising us, we would still have to contend with the Fallens patrolling the perimeter! How could we get past them without a weapon? I don’t wanna use the last of my life force on those jerks!” Violet stared out into the distance with an expression full of worry.

            “No, you won’t have to do that!” I assured her. “There’s gotta be more than one way to leave this property! Lama Malva said they were pretty much self-sufficient, so I doubt she would say that if she didn’t take every single measure possible to secure it! She must have some sort of emergency exit! She did mention that we could explore the area when we felt better, so maybe tomorrow we can search for this backdoor.”

            Violet seemed a bit mollified by this notion. “Yeah, or we can try getting a one-on-one with her to get her take on the situation. If she is a Guardian, she could get convinced to help us!” She faced me once more and smiled broadly. “Thanks! You always make me feel better when I’m feeling down!”

            I can’t describe how much this sight elated my spirits! Additionally, her admiration of my character flattered me in an incredibly intense way! I tried not to show her my enthusiasm in case it freaked her out, so as casually as I could, I responded to her, “I feel the same way about you! I couldn’t have gotten through this without you!” I gave her a friendly pat on the back, and the warmth of her body felt absolutely soothing! I didn’t believe my nightmare had any truth to it until right then, one accusation Birsha made seemed accurate… I always had faith in a positive outcome for our quest, but what if it didn’t end well for us? It would burn me up if I never got to do anything passionate with her! I denoted how close she was to me, how easy it would have been to kiss her… I pondered if this was my only shot at doing this…

            Lama Malva burst into the room unexpectedly, and I grew mad at myself for my hesitation with Violet! I acknowledged that it was still plausible that I would get another opening to go for it, but I felt skeptical of that premise because my gut suggested we wouldn’t get another slow interval like that again for a long time! Lama Malva asked the attendant of this clinic, “The kitchen has breakfast ready for any early risers, has anyone…?” She answered that by surveying her surroundings, and when she spotted us, she remarked, “Oh, I didn’t expect you two to wake up so soon! Do you feel strong enough to walk? If not, we can bring some food to you.”

            I hadn’t considered whether I had the physical strength to complete that task or not prior to her bringing it up, but for the sake of our vital operation, I was willing to force myself to get off the ground if I had to! We had to unearth a route out of this establishment, and it seemed unlikely that anyone would volunteer that information to us, so the only possibility for us to discover it was to explore the area for ourselves! I confidently conveyed to Lama Malva, “I’m sure we’re well enough to do some walking now!”

            With a little wobbling, I managed to lift myself up! Lama Malva came over to assist me with the finish, and we both supported Violet as she got up. Once we were both firmly on our feet, Lama Malva invited us, “Well, shall we then?”

            As we crossed from one building to the next, Lama Malva purposely travelled in a manner that covered us from the detection of whatever Fallen lurked on the street. I certainly appreciated her intentions, but this sort of annoyed me. I wanted to see for myself what we were up against! Right before we entered the main hall, I finally caught a glimpse of one of them! He gave me a malicious grin, and I got the impression that he wanted to communicate to me that we could take as long as we liked to vacate this vicinity since he had a masterplan all worked out! I hoped the expression I bore let him know that Violet and I would not get intimidated by their antics!

            The dining hall of this community had several low-reaching tables all lined up in one row. It felt strange to park myself on the floor to eat, but the meal made me forget all about my discomfort in this event! It wasn’t anything fancy, but it was refreshing to chow down on some naturally grown food for a change of pace! Violet and I got disappointed that we weren’t the only ones eating at this early hour, which meant we weren’t able to discourse with Lama Malva pertaining to anything that involved the revolt against Birsha’s regime! After our meal, we were invited to attend her worship session, and we could hardly decline in order to wander the premises alone, so we agreed to join them. The sizeable hall contained lengthy mats and an ornate altar but no visible means of a secure departure. Lama Malva consented to give us a tour of the facility afterwards, but she got so bogged down by tending to her guests’ needs that we had to skip it and go straight to lunch! Thankfully, lunchtime wasn’t a total waste…

            “My brother got arrested for voter fraud!” one patron glumly announced. “It wasn’t his fault though! No one ever explained that you gotta cancel your old voter registry if you move somewhere else! They claimed he was gonna vote twice! It’s such garbage!”

            “It seems like they’re just looking for an excuse to throw everyone in jail!” someone else complained. “I’m so tired of this bull! Why isn’t anyone doing anything about it?”

            Lama Malva very as-a-matter-of-factly stated, “Oh, people are! They keep their strategies a secret for their own protection ‘cause they would get tried for treason if they got caught, so we may not know who they are, but trust that we won’t have to endure this suffering forever!” She garnered the utmost attention of Violet and me with that insight! Was she referring to us, or did she have her own tactics of defiance against Birsha in the works? Either way, I took that as a promising sign of her reaction to our basis for disappearing from this territory!

            After we cleared our plates, Lama Malva notified us, “I got to harvest some of our crops. You two are welcome to-.”

            Violet proposed, “Jack and I can help you!” Lama Malva appeared reluctant on permitting us to engage in an activity so strenuous, so Violet ensured her, “If we start to feel sick, we’ll stop and go rest, but we would really like to do as much as we can so we can pay you back for your hospitality!” Her logic was effective- Lama Malva allowed us to participate in her gardening!

            Without saying it out loud, we both highly anticipated this endeavor in the expectation of the occasion to talk to Lama Malva by ourselves, but to our dismay, many individuals had beaten us there! We pitched in anyways and crossed our fingers that sticking this chore out until its conclusion would grant us the circumstance we desired! We ended up not even coming close to her though! At one point, we worked besides Samaya, and we almost initiated a conversation with her, but then somebody else jumped in to chat! We nearly deemed the entire day as a total loss, but then…

            As I approached the edge of the temple’s greenery, I stumbled across it- a gate! A gate that led to a pathway in the woods behind the property! It was our way out! I covertly nudged Violet and ushered her to it, and I could see the light of comprehension dawn on her face! She nodded, and we wordlessly concurred that as soon as we could, we would make our way there! We got the window to do that during her evening meditation session. Everyone else closed their eyes and concentrated inwardly, so Violet and I snuck out through the exit facing the plants during this exercise!

            “Too bad we never looked up where that school is!” Violet articulated when we got out of the congregation’s earshot.

            “We’ll figure it out!” I reassured her. The closer we got to the gate, the more nervous I became! I didn’t look forward to giving a plausible rationale for our venture if we got caught in the act! “It’s kinda hard to believe we got to finally move on! I mean, I know we only stayed here for a day, but still…”

            Violet shared my sentiments, “Yeah, it felt like we were gonna be here for an eternity! I have no idea how we’re gonna get into that school, but one step at a time!” When we were reached the gate, Violet posed to me, “Care to do the honors, or should I?”

            A voice from behind us pronounced, “I’m afraid I can’t let either of you go anywhere!”

True Deception, Chapter 20

“We died in there, didn’t we?” I only half kidded when I made that jest! Violet and I not only got surrounded by white sheets, I noticed for the first time that our clothes had gotten changed into a cloud-colored shirt and pant combo! Plus, the unknown woman who stood before us had an angelic aura to her too! Her blonde hair sort of resembled a halo, her soft facial features made her practically glow, and the way she carried herself in the same outfit as us made her wardrobe practically glide in the air! She radiated a strong sense of peace and calm, which prompted me to consider that the explosion we underwent took away our lives! I felt as though the serious injuries I sustained during that incident should still have been plaguing me, and the fact that my pain and soreness had vanished made me really start to worry that we got killed! If we died, who would save the planet from the dark forces that haunted everyone and everything?

            The woman giggled slightly at my inquiry, and then she informed us, “You’re not dead! I happened to be driving by the factory when that blast went off, and when I saw you two fly out of there like that, I knew that I had to help! The hospitals are so full right now that I’m sure not everyone would have been able to get the proper care that they deserve! I offered to treat some of the other victims too, but when they heard that I ran a healing practice and not a clinic that uses western medicine, they all declined my services! I hope they fare well wherever they got transported to!”

            Violet queried, “Did many people get hurt from that… accident?” I could see guilt eating up her entire body, and while I wouldn’t want anybody to come to harm, considering that most of them tried to murder us, I refused to weep over their ill fate!

            “Many of them were unconscious, but I didn’t stick around long enough to find out their status,” she replied to her. “I didn’t’ have a minute to spare- I had to ensure you two got proper treatment immediately! I hope you two aren’t offended that I brought you here instead of trying your luck with the doctors! I know it’s not most people’s ideal choice for healing, and neither of you were conscious to make your own decision, but I thought…”

            “If we had been conscious, we would have pretended we were fine and then suffered for it later, so we appreciate you taking care of us!” I refrained from adding that I was relieved that we didn’t resurface in Saint Cyprian’s! Of course, we probably would never have been able to wait long enough to see the ambulance arrive! If this kind lady hadn’t shown up when she did, Nathair and his surviving crew would have used our inability to defend ourselves to finish us off once and for all! This woman saved our lives without a question… Well, maybe I did have a couple of questions… I didn’t want to seem ungrateful for her services, but considering the breadth of Birsha’s influence, it seemed prudent to wonder about her motives for preserving our well-being! Was she merely an altruistic soul, or did she have something more sinister in her mind? I had to investigate this matter, so I began by remarking, “We’re really fortunate that a person who ran a healing practice found us in such a critical moment!”

            She politely corrected me, “Well, I run an entire temple, the healing center is simply a small part of it. When you two are up for it, you’re welcome to explore the entire property! But please don’t feel the rush to resume normal activity! You two need your rest, you’ve been through a lot lately!”

            Violet jovially reacted, “You don’t know the half of it!” After a brief chuckle, Violet gingerly asked the lady, “So, can you tell us more about this temple?” I could tell Violet’s main concern was whether or not this would have been deemed sacred enough grounds for us to be safe from another ambush from the Fallens. It sounded as though we were sent to a religious institution, but sometimes fraternities and other organizations dubbed their headquarters as temples, so it was better to check and make sure we landed somewhere secure! If we hadn’t ended up in a house of worship, then Violet and I would have had to work out a way to escape quickly since this woman gave our adversaries a hint to our location!

            “This is the Tara Buddhist Center of Northeast Massachusetts,” she explained. “The majority of this land is dedicated to prayer and meditation to Tara, the female Buddha, but in the interest of self-sustainability, we also have this medicinal area too. We also grow our own food and sew our own clothes. We have nearly everything necessary to take care of all of your needs, you’re in good hands here!”

            “Lama Malva!” A young woman peeked her head into the room in order to get our rescuer’s attention, but she instantly grew uncomfortable at her intrusion into these quarters.

            Malva genially responded to the girl, “What is it?”

            The girl told her, “It’s almost six. Did you want me to take over this session, or…?”

            “Well, they’re conscious now, but I do wonder if they would be safe by themselves…” Lama Malva gave this notion serious consideration.

            “I can miss this one and watch over them if you’d like,” the young girl volunteered.

            Trying not to sound too suspicious by having a strong desire to rid ourselves of any company, I reassured her, “I think we’re well enough to be alone for a little while!”

            Lama Malva addressed me, “Healthwise, you probably are, but with our recent… visitors… I wouldn’t feel comfortable leaving you by yourselves. Okay, Samaya, you stay here and watch over the entrance. Let no one in without my permission!”

            “Yes, Lama Malva,” Samaya obliged.

            “I’ll be back shortly,” Malva let us know as she headed out.

            Samaya locked the door behind her and positioned herself by a window that overlooked a fairly empty section of the parking lot. My curiosity compelled me to stand up and see if I could catch a glimpse of these visitors that Lama Malva mentioned, but it appeared that I hadn’t fully recovered yet- my legs wobbled tremendously, and I almost fell down! I caught Samaya’s attention, which I didn’t particularly want in this juncture, so I sat myself down again. I turned to Violet and quietly wondered, “Who do you think these visitors are?”

            Violet shrugged. “I would assume that people from Birsha’s Army would come looking for us, but then again, it could be anyone with a bloodlust since we have a bounty on our lives!”

            “Do you think that’s true, or did Nathair make that up so he wouldn’t have to use up his life force to do it himself?” I posed to her.

            “I have no idea if it’s a legal doctrine or not, but if he gets people to believe it’s true, then the results will be the same,” she concluded. “I’m just glad they didn’t involve the kids with that ordeal! That would have been awful!”

            With all of the traumatic events that unfolded that day, I almost forgot we encountered that group of children during our tour! “I don’t even wanna consider what may have happened if anyone that young got involved with that mess! Then again, they may not be as shielded from it as we’d hope! Did you hear what that teacher said about her coworkers at this school?”

            Violet lamentably nodded. “I always knew the Fallen had infiltrated schools, but it’s sad to picture those sweet, little souls getting indoctrinated with that crap Birsha’s Army pushes! Although it sounds like some of the adults who work there resist it, maybe some of those students will turn out okay!”

            “If the Arch Deity is there, then they’re already getting some protection from it,” I brought up. “Did you see how differently they acted than their teacher? They obviously have some thoughts that are independent from her!”

            ‘Yeah! We obviously gotta go there next, but how are we gonna get there now?” Violet pondered. “If word gets around that there’s a reward for turning us in, then it’ll be practically impossible to roam the streets again! We could leave at night, but regardless of how much the darkness covered us, it would take us a long time to get there since we don’t even know where this Monico Elementary School is! And then there’s those ‘visitors’ we gotta deal with- can we even make it off of this property without getting caught?”

            I gazed at Samaya vigilantly guarding the entrance to this room, and then I commented, “I’m not convinced we can even leave this clinic! I know Lama Malva told us that we could explore the joint when we recouped, but how long will it take before she rates us as healthy enough to walk around?”

            Violet theorized, “I imagine she would have someone escort us wherever we go, which is helpful in a way ‘cause there’s safety in numbers. It’s nice to have extra eyes on us, but that comes at a price- they probably won’t let us leave for who knows how long! If Lama Malva figures out what we’re up to, then she may never let us go!”

            “How would she know that?” I probed.

            “She might’ve gauged the dynamics of it all based on how separated we were from the rest of the people in the factory,” Violet pointed out. “Not only were we far apart from them physically, but we dressed differently too! Way differently! And I know we weren’t conscious, but I’m guessing even our facial expressions were polar opposite of theirs! And undoubtedly, if she’s a Guardian too, her instincts would spell everything out!”

            I hadn’t entertained that possibility prior to Violet throwing it out there, and while that concept interested me, I hadn’t totally bought into it yet. “If she really is a Guardian, then wouldn’t’ she have grilled on our plan so she could do everything she could to make us succeed?”

            Violet differed with me, “Not necessarily. No Guardian likes what Birsha is doing, but not all of them want to put serious effort into stopping her. A lot of them prefer to defend the victims than to proactively go after the villain.”

            “That does sound like Lama Malva,” I regretfully admitted. “So, how do we get out of here then?”

            “All we can do is wait for an opportunity to open up for us!” Violet espied the unsatisfied expression I bore from that pronouncement, so she sympathized with me, “I know, it sucks! The longer we wait, the more damage they’ll do! But if we try escape too quickly, then our mission will die with us!”

            Her reasoning made absolute sense to me, but it was hard for me to accept! It prompted me to speculate whether or not our enclosure truly had no manner for us to flee after all… I used Violet’s shoulder to lean on like a crutch as I picked myself up, and in this instance, I prevailed! I peered out the window and beheld aa couple of security guards from Nerium Night Ware pacing in front of the temple’s driveway! I gasped, which caught Samaya’s attention again. I feigned as though all was well and sat back down, but once she shifted her focus back to the exterior, I notified Violet, “Nathair’s goons followed us here!”

            Violet didn’t appear to welcome this news, but she didn’t seem surprised by it either. “What were they doing? Trying to break in?”

            “No. They were walking around on the sidewalk,” I reported. “They acted like they were patrolling the premises.”

            “So, they’re not trying to get us out, they’re just waiting for us to come out,” Violet stated. “We’re probably not going anywhere tonight!”

            I frowned at that impression initially, but then something occurred to me. “It’s Friday, no one will be at the school anyways! We probably wouldn’t be able to do much good if we rushed out of here so fast. This isn’t such a bad place to sleep really- it’s very relaxing! And they did do a good job putting us back together! I may have to come here when I’m sick in the future!”

            Violet filled me in, “You could, but honestly, I wouldn’t be shocked to hear that Lama Malva used more magic to heal us than holistic practices!”

            “Wow!” That hunch hadn’t come to my mind at all until right then! “We’ll have to really thank her when we… Oh, but if we get too close to her, the Fallens will go after her too!”

            “They already know she helped us since she went into the factory to see if anyone else wanted her assistance,” Violet asserted. “I really hope she’s a Guardian ‘cause if she’s not one, then she’s completely unaware of the danger she put herself in by lending us a hand!”

            I concurred with that statement, but then I puzzled, “If she is a Guardian and purposely took on that risk, then why wouldn’t’ she want us to get out of here and finish our quest?”

            Samaya unexpectedly joined in the conversation, “I trust Lama Malva’s judgement, you should too!” I nearly had a heart attack to hear her say that! It mortified me that she had been able to listen in to our discussion, but then it slowly dawned on me that she hadn’t interrogated us for clarification on anything! Did they have a plot against Birsha too?

True Deception, Chapter 19

“You underestimate the power of Birsha!” one of the security guards pronounced. “We sent your pictures to her, and she recognized you right away!”

            “How long did you think we would let a couple of dissidents defile our territory with their presence?” another security guard probed.

            Violet bravely retorted, “Well, you let us get pretty far into your factory! If we had wanted to do you harm, we would have done it already!”

            Even in the midst of this terrifying moment, I couldn’t help but admire Violet’s refusal to kowtow to their attempts at intimidation! A part of me worried that her brassiness would garner her some sort of punishment, but considering that we were completely surrounded by a group of people who considered us as treasonous traitors, I supposed that it didn’t really matter- we were doomed even if she complied with their decrees! Really, I had no idea how we could get out of this dire situation! There was eight Fallens around us, and I assumed that all of them had a potent supply of magic. Violet’s life force was weakening, so even if she gave up the last of it to save us, I doubted that she had enough left in her to get us away from danger! Unlike at the hospital and in the alleyway, there were no convenient pieces of silver for us to reverberate their own spells back at them! The only defense I could come up with was keeping them talking as long as possible so one of us could unearth a better solution to this conundrum, but if we didn’t figure something out fast, that strategy wouldn’t prevail for long! There had to be some way out of this- I refused to accept our demise at this point!

            “How lucky are we to become the ones who get to finish off Birsha’s enemies!” a third security guard maniacally rejoiced. They all raised their hands in order to strike us with a jinx, and I furiously wracked my brain in order to dig up a topic that might delay this eventuality…

            “Don’t you touch them!” Nathair’s voice commanded. Violet and I grew completely confused; as much as we needed a rescuer to come to our aid right then, we so no plausible cause for him to do that for us!

            The security guards seemed perplexed too, they almost didn’t clear a path for him as if they feared he had converted over to the wrong side of the battle. They reluctantly did though, and I beheld him for the first time! He was fairly tall, but his stature was hardly menacing since he had the frail stance of somebody whose malnourishment sapped the majority of his strength! If it weren’t for his wispy mustache, his face wouldn’t have had much color to it! His thin, penny-colored hair got styled in an obvious combover, and his buttoned-up polo suggested that he strove to keep up the appearance of a friendly yet firm boss, but his wrathful demeanor evaporated any chance of that happening! It was hard to believe a man like that would have any desire to show us an ounce of mercy, so my instincts instructed me not to trust him! Logically, I acknowledged that one of Birsha’s most loyal supporters was unlikely to offer us support, so I speculated that he intended to set us up for some sort of trap…

            A skeptical security guard objected to this move, “But, Boss! These guys-!”

            “I know who they are, and I know what they did, but why waste resources if we don’t have to?” Nathair argued. The security guards didn’t contend with that reasoning, but they obviously couldn’t fathom where he was going with this method he was in the process of enacting. Nathair draped an arm around Violet and me, and while he intended to convey an amicable gesture, his bony limbs felt more like we were getting trapped inside of a pillory! “I think we got off on the wrong foot, don’t you?” Neither Violet nor I had a response, but he didn’t need one. He suggested to us, “Come on, let’s wrap for a minute!”

            “What did you have in mind?” I’m sure I radiated a total mistrust of him, but I no longer cared to feign interest in this interaction! He didn’t steer us to a safer area, so I had no reason to accept any of his forms of goodwill.

            Nathair conversed, “I have in mind the same concept that you do- we wanna do what’s best for humanity! Am I right?”

            Violet folded her arms and remarked, “Funny, I don’t recall seeing any evidence that Birsha had any good intentions for humanity!”

            “That’s where you’re wrong!” Nathair differed. “Everything she does is for humankind’s own good!”

            “People are losing everything that matters to them! Many have lost their homes, and some can hardly feed themselves! Your regime has created laws so strict that we have a record number of innocent souls in prison! You’re taking away their freedom, how is that good for anyone?” I debated.

            Nathair countered with, “Have you seen what people do with absolute freedom? They lie, they cheat, they hurt each other… No one acts like an angel without consequences for their misdeeds! Human beings are wild animals at the core, and they need a tight leash to reign them in! People have to know their transgressions will get them punished or else our society will be overrun with chaos! By maintaining a strong hold over the world, Birsha is preserving a civilized society!”

            I disputed that, “I’m not saying the planet shouldn’t have any rules! I’m a lawyer for God’s sake! If someone commits a crime, they deserve punishment, but what about the people who haven’t broken any rules? They don’t deserve to get damned when all they do is the right thing!”

            “Human beings aren’t so blameless!” Nathair spat. “Hardly anybody is guiltfree, they all deserve to get disciplined for something! If you don’t deal them a preemptive strike, they’ll betray you! Only a fool trusts most people to act with high morals! I mean, look what’s been done already? Brisha may have come up with some of those guidelines, but she’s not the one carrying them out! See how many people are perfectly willing to stomp on one another? If you give these monsters more liberty, you’ll only create anarchy! Is that what you want?”

            “You’re judging the entire human race by what a small fraction of their brethren does!” I dissented. “Humankind can’t move forward without helping each other out, just like you have assistance right now as we speak! No one can do everything alone! Most people won’t act against their own self-interest, so the majority of individuals will do the morally correct choice if given the chance! They don’t know the truth of what’s going on, so their actions stem from doing what they deem as right1 If they had a full grasp of what’s happening, they would behave very differently! You gotta give them a true opportunity to show their real nature! Human beings are worth saving, and nothing you say will convince me otherwise!”

            Nathair took a second to soak in my words before responding, “Alright… Kill them!” He pushed us away from him, and the security guards sneered in a demented delight to see us in such a vulnerable position! Violet and I had no shot at mapping out any escape routes, and at first, we were totally blindsided! I didn’t know how we would get out of this still breathing!

            Just as they unleashed their hexes, Violet and I ducked and rolled to the side of the ramp! Their trajectories all missed us and hit the ground, which formed a giant hole that led to the factory level. Under ordinary circumstances, I never would have even considered doing a jump from so high up, but whatever injury that occurred from such a leap seemed like a batter fate than what we might endure up there, so without giving it any more contemplation, Violet and I grabbed each other’s hand and took the plunge before any of those Fallen had an opening to strike us again!

            The factory workers all stopped their activities to watch us plummet to the surface. Violet and I both landed on our feet, and the instant we made contact with the ground, I felt a shockwave of pain course throughout my legs! I could sense that something inside of me had torn or broke, but I had no time to nurse my wounds! In the seconds it had taken for us to touch down, Nathair ran to a spot overlooking these quarters and shouted, “There’s a ten-thousand-dollar reward for bringing these two murderers in, dead or alive! Get them!”

            Everyone abandoned their posts to pursue us, and we had no other option but to ignore our agony and flee! A couple of the machinists hurled spells at us, but we were able to hurry swiftly enough to avoid them! We had to pause when we reached the rows of stitchers since they approached us brandishing scissors and large needles! I could see an exit behind them in the laboratory area, but I didn’t know how we could get past the sea of weaponized opponents until I pinpointed a trolley close to us. I led Violet onto the base, and after doing a running start, I hopped onto it too. Our velocity knocked down most of the people standing in our way, but a few managed to get a couple of cuts on us as we passed them. We got nearer and nearer to the exit, and right as I dared to anticipate a victory for our side…

            A chemist spilled some kind of slippery substance onto the cement beneath us! Our route zigzagged around until we crashed into a table full of chemicals, and we had to jerk out of the path of vials containing strange stuff that tumbled in our direction! From his lofty position above everyone, Nathair mocked us, “Where’s your basically good humans now?” A flood of individuals marched towards us, and we could see several of them ready to use their magic against us! Violet grabbed the cart and flipped it over to shield us, and while it was effective in protecting us, it didn’t allow us to budge from this site! We only had feet between us and the exit, but if we exposed any inch of our bodies to them, we could succumb to the jinxes’ full blast! Our minds whirred at full throttle to acquire a resolution for this perilous quandary, but we fell short of materializing anything prior to the obligation to take action…

            “Oh, did I forget to let you know that Birsha is arriving shortly?” Nathair taunted us. “If my crew doesn’t get you, you can bet that she will!” He emitted a maddening cackle, which would have thoroughly vexed me except that I was overcome by the gnawing sensation at the pit of my stomach! Birsha would show up in the flesh? In our prime, we likely did not have favorable odds of besting her, and in our condition at the present, only a miracle could save us!

            “Hold on tight!” Violet directed me. I clutched onto the trolley, but it baffled me as to why until I saw her grab a flask of a silvery liquid. During her brief uncovering, a Fallen fired a hex at her, and she flung her flask in the same beat. Right as she crouched back down and clasped onto the trolley again, two things took place in unison: a shadow of a woman in a frilly dress loomed over us, and the silvery liquid met the Fallen’s magic…

            BOOM! An explosion erupted and sent us flying through the brick wall and out into the grassy field beside the factory! We could see smoke billowing throughout the building before us, but we knew that if anyone withstood that detonation, it wouldn’t be long before they initiated a search for us! We used the last of our remaining strength to make an endeavor to reach a secure location, but it didn’t take long for our afflictions to catch up with us! We did all we could, but our anguish became too unbearable to continue! I lifted a heavy hand with the goal of signaling to the passing cars that we needed help, but ultimately, it registered to me that no one would want to tend to us, not when we had a price on our heads! My eyes got too heavy to leave them open, and when I quit resisting the urge to close them, I eked out a silhouette heading towards our proximity…

            I couldn’t guess the extent of time I was unconscious, but as my wits returned to me, I found myself in a place of warmth. My immediate assumption was that Birsha captured us and started to burn our corpses, so I bolted up to do something about that! When I arose, it stunned me to behold that I was surrounded by white sheets! They gently flowed to a small gust, and their soft appearance had a very comforting effect! I then noticed that my legs and torso were cocooned in a plush cloth, and I laid on some downy cushions as well. I inhaled a soothing fragrance, and tranquil music played in the background. All of this would have been very calming if it weren’t for the fact that I had no notion of where I ended up! And something important lacked from my scope… “Violet? Violet? Where are-?”

            A faint voice from behind the curtains responded, “I’m here!”

            After I yanked the drapery next to me, I felt a wave of relief rush over me! It alleviated my apprehension immensely to see her beside me unharmed! Despite finding each other, we couldn’t determine how we got to this unknown locale! “Waking up in a strange scene again- déjà-vu, huh?” I aimed to quell our anxiety with humor, but it didn’t have a comical result for either of us!

            “Where did we end up this time?” Violet inquired.

            “I believe I can address that,” a mysterious person replied.

True Deception, Chapter 18

“Pardon me, old chap!” I tapped the shoulder of a man in an industrial jumpsuit and spoke in a British accent. I felt proud of how fluid and natural it came out, but I supposed that I shouldn’t have been terribly surprised, we did a lot of practicing! I tried my best to maintain an indifferent face as this guy gazed at us in a peculiar way, but in my head, I had begun to panic! Violet and I definitely looked the part of a couple of well-off investors, but since we had spent several hours traversing across Anwynston, I feared that we bore the marks of more labor than people of the stature we pretended to belong in would ever engage in! We didn’t have much of a choice on that- we had no money for a taxi, and if we took the bus in these outfits, we definitely would have raised too much suspicion! Prior to the sun rising, the journey hadn’t been too bad, but after that point, our heavy clothes began to bother us! She had a long, elegant dress, I had a three-piece suit, and we both wore luxurious capes, so we had a lot of layers on during this unusually warm Autumn day! The walk took several hours since we were still sore from our foray with the Fallen on the previous evening, and we had to take a break to eat since our stomachs didn’t provide us with the energy needed to complete that trek, so we probably did a lot sweating on the way to our destination! We did our best to clean ourselves up and make our visages appear as though we had just stepped out of a town car, but I worried that perhaps we hadn’t done enough… I prayed that I had successfully hidden my nerves as I completed my request, “Can you please direct us to the person in charge of this facility?”

            “Uh…” He continued to gaze at us in a quizzical manner, and I was so sure he planned to throw us off of the property! Right as I wondered if we ought to bough out and make another attempt with a different worker, the man unexpectedly accommodated us, “Yeah, sure! Follow me!” Violet and I did our utmost to not show any surprise as he led us into the giant, brick factory.

            When I pictured the headquarters of one of Birsha’s biggest sponsors and most influential ally, I saw pristine floors and the most fashionable fixtures throughout the building, so it caught me off guard to see cracks in the concrete and outdated furniture in the lobby! A receptionist hose attire seemed far more casual than what I would have expected for someone who was supposed to be the first impression of the company to its guests filed her gaudy nails and hardly even glanced up as we entered, which made me think that perhaps we didn’t such a clever ruse after all! The worker assisting us directed Violet and me, “Wait right here.” He indicated to a couple of old and very worn chairs that were situated in front of a wall with some obvious water damage, and I thought that individuals who were actually in a high social class wouldn’t dare to park themselves on those ghastly things, but we were so weary from our long trip that we didn’t object to sitting there.

            The man knocked on the door labeled “Nathair Schumn- President and CEO,” and we peeked around the receptionist’s desk in order to watch this transaction take place. We heard a nasally but tough voice bark, “What?”

            “Hey, there’s some people here that-,” the worker started to fill Nathair in about our arrival.

            “Get in here!” he ordered to that man. When the door opened, Violet and I did everything we could to view what may have lurked in that room! The receptionist still hadn’t taken her eyes off of her activity, and I couldn’t tell if she assessed our behavior as a normal move from some curious investors or if she had a complete disregard for her usual job functions! Regardless of the case, I was glad that she hadn’t interfered with our efforts to hear their muffled discussion! Nathair quietly scolded the worker, “What did I say to do about any visitors who come here?”

            The man justified his decision, “Oh yeah, I understand your policy, Boss! But they’re not those kinds of visitors! These folks definitely got money!”

            At the mention of our potential opulence, that receptionist’s attitude completely reversed course! She perked up quite a bit and finally caught a glimpse of the strangers in front of her, and I was grateful for the opportunity to test our getups on somebody else! We managed to avoid contact with anyone on the route to this building, and I hadn’t espied any behavior that caused me to believe that any of our brief encounters would result in the police getting called on us, but this interaction was much more up close and personal, so I deemed it as a more accurate measure of our performance. Luckily, she beheld us with the great interest of someone who would benefit significantly by our presence, so it appeared we had achieved success with these disguises! As she zipped over to Nathair’s office, I knocked on wood that Nathair would become equally as enamored by our appearance!

            “Oh, Natie boy! It finally happened for us!” she rejoiced. “We finally got some moneybags here! I can-!”

            “Shh! Don’t spoil this for us, Mom!” Nathair warned her. I smiled as I mused that if I had been a real investor, I would have raised an eyebrow to hear that he had to resort to putting his elderly mother on his payroll! With the job I saw her doing so far, I doubted that she had been his first or even his second choice for that role! Our anxiety over this operation began to ebb, but soon we realized that gathering pertinent information from these dupes wasn’t going to be such a cinch after all…

            The worker asked Nathair, “So, what happens now?”

            I presumed that Nathair would recommend them to get out of his office so we could discuss finances, but instead, his answer to his question was, “Put them on the tour with those second graders. If they’re still interested after they’ve seen the show, I’ll go close the deal!” It disappointed me slightly that we wouldn’t be gaining access to his office, which I felt certain had a treasure trove of evidence to help our cause, but it pleased me that we would get to explore his command post a little! I was skeptical that he would let us witness any clues to the Arch Deity’s whereabouts, but if we happened to spot something hinky that could lead us to the right path, then Violet and I could create some sort of diversion from anyone supervising us so we could check it out! I felt great about the events about the events about unfold until I heard Nathair say, “Have the guides find out as much as they can about these two, see if we can gain any kind of leverage over them…”

            I cringed at that notion. Not only would we have multiple adversarial escorts alongside us as we strove to unearth Nathair’s secrets, but we now had the obstacle of having to respond to very probing inquiries! I inwardly grumbled that maybe Nathair wasn’t as inept as I initially judged him to be, but as soon as that worker and Nathair’s mother reemerged, I made sure not to radiate any of that and I put on an extensively chipper façade! That man informed us, “There’s gonna be a group from a school coming by soon. You can all go through the factory together.”

            “Splendid!” Violet and I both gushed in unison without either of us actually meaning it.

            “Welcome to Nerium Night Ware!” an enthusiastic tour guide greeted a crowd of small children who did not seem particularly excited to visit a pillow factory. Their teacher smiled and clapped while Violet and I had huge grins on our faces. The employees of this establishment probably assumed that we outwardly displayed our enthusiasm for this occasion, but in reality, the scene was too ridiculous to not gain an ounce of amusement from it! At least, it was amusing until a half dozen men in high end security showed up! Clearly, whatever scant amount this business incurred after it paid off Birsha went to these guys! I felt confident that Nathair spent more on their outfits than he did on his own infrastructure! The tour guide went on, “Get ready for excitement- we’re gonna have some fun, fun, fun learning how all the magic works!” No one but the teacher expressed any conviction in his assertion coming to light, especially not with those guard’s grim demeanors casting out into the audience, but I did grow more curious about this walkthrough right then- was his use of the word magic just a coincidence?

            As we entered through a set of double doors, the guards spread out amongst us, and while we went down a runway surrounded by pipes and cement, one security person packed himself in tightly next to my side and queried, “What did you two say your names were?”

            We prepared ourselves for this to come up, so I told him without hesitation, “I’m John Smith, and she is Ann Robertson. We represent Lady Hallewell’s estate.” Violet and I guessed that they would do a background check on us, and since Lady Hallewell ran a large and very famous investment firm, we knew that at least one person with each of those monikers had to have an association with that organization. He covertly gave our identities to someone on his watch, and we assumed that they found no issues since the tour was allowed to move on from there.

            “Here we have the textile area!” the guide avidly pointed to all of the various machines busy whirring away on the factory ground. They were so old that it astonished me to see them running as efficiently as they were! On the surface, the laborers seemed hard at work keeping all of the devices operating, but the more I watched them, the less I esteemed that their actions actually had a real impact on any of the mechanical maneuvers! As the tour guide spoke about the various fabrics used in their products, I noticed one employee forgot to push a button, and yet his contrivance maintained its usual flow! It made me wonder how many poor souls depleted their life forces to keep this joint open!

            “How much did you say you were giving the company?” the security guard probed.

            Violet pleasantly corrected him, “We’re not giving anything away! An investment provides its donor some sort of return! And it doesn’t make sense to talk numbers ‘til we see what’s needed in an establishment, does it?” Her response quelled the security guard for the moment, and it impressed me how much she was able to play the part without telling a real lie!

            The tour guide took everyone to see several rows of sewing machines, and it threw me off completely to witness all of the tailors moving simultaneously! They moved more mechanically than the actual machines, which was so unnerving that we found it difficult to hide our aghast! “Here’s where we lovingly fashion together our pillows, sheets, covers, and more!” The children looked confused and craned their necks as if they were searching for the love he described, but their teacher conveyed genuine fervor for this spectacle! Violet and I must have been giving her a judgmental stare because one of the security guards gestured towards us and whispered to his colleagues, so we did everything we could to ignore her odd behavior and carry on with more vivacity.

            We came to what resembled a giant laboratory, and the tour guide explained, “Here’s where our products go for their diet… Get it? Dye it!” He chortled at his pun, and the teacher roared at his quip. Violet and I attempted to feign mirth, but I got the sense that the security guards weren’t buying it! The tour guide prattled on, “We use all natural ingredients to create all of our unique colors and hues! Each mixture also includes essence of the oleander flower that Nerium-.”

            “But that’s toxic!” Violet accidentally blurted out. She obviously regretted that involuntary reaction the instant it came out of her mouth, and although she immediately followed that with, “Isn’t it?” and returned to her bubbly façade, the security guards undoubtedly became much more leery of our motives for this sojourn!

            “It’s a common misconception that the Nerium is poisonous,” the tour guide calmly addressed her. “It actually has a lot of health benefits and healing qualities to it, which is why we infuse it into all of the stuff we sell!”

            I spared Violet the pain of having to fake her change of heart by spouting out, “Marvelous! Simply ingenious!” I didn’t think that the security guards were completely sold, but they allowed us to move on with the rest of the crew, so I crossed my fingers that the rest of our excursion would go more smoothly!

            The group was taken into an area with large, metal brackets with Nerium Night Ware paraphernalia stacked up to the ceiling, and it disgusted me to see Nancy Nox’s mug plastered all over them! The teacher inquired to me, “You’re not gonna invest in this company, are you?”

            “Why would you say that?” I replied in what I hoped sounded like sincere shock.

            “You act like some of the other teachers at Monico Elementary!” she asserted. “You show just enough spirit to convince the others that you’re on board with the regime, but really, you can’t stand any of it! You’re nothing but a couple of dissidents, aren’t you?”

            I had already reckoned that the security guards were a part of Birsha’s Army, but it never occurred to me that she was a Fallen too! I did what I could to remain neutral in that instance, but it alarmed me to my core that Violet and I were even more outnumbered than we had previously thought! Luckily, I didn’t have to reply to her as the tour guide educated us, “Here’s where we package each item carefully so that it comes to all of our consumers in perfect form!”

            My feeling of trepidation increased when I observed that we were at a dead end! There was no way out except to go out the way we came in, and given the teacher’s mistrust in who we gave our allegiance to, I had serious doubts that she would permit her students to let us get by! I nearly panicked until the guide instructed us, “Now, the best part of the tour… Everyone head back this way to the gift shop!”

            It was a relief to see everyone going out of such a precarious location, and I was really glad to hear what sounded like the end of this venture! We hadn’t seen any sign of the Arch Deity, but it buoyed me up just to be able to leave these premises! Plus, the allure of sitting somewhere quiet with Violet, even if its purpose was to decipher out our next move in this dangerous mission, gave me something very pleasant to look forward to! Unfortunately, my optimism didn’t last long- a strong hand bolted me to the floor, and as the security guards closed off our exit, a threatening voice seethed, “You two aren’t going anywhere!”

True Deception, Chapter 17

“I definitely heard voices out here!” the man who called out to us told whoever accompanied him. Violet and I grew as still as statues since we couldn’t fathom what sort of situation we got sent into, and while this guy conveyed a friendly tone, we couldn’t assume anything was safe right then! We had just survived an intense attack, and we were in no shape to live through another harrowing ordeal in that moment! We had no clue as to where Jeremy sent us, so we didn’t know if these individuals in our vicinity could be considered friends or foes! We suspected that he made us go somewhere purposeful, but there was still a possibility that he simply meant to get us as far away from that dangerous alleyway, which meant these people could be completely random! We couldn’t risk running into a new adversary or even a neutral passerby for that matter, anyone could turn on us! He may have drawn us to some potential allies to support us in our mission, but if that was the outcome of this cryptic experience, given the fate of our last ones, I would have preferred to carry out this undertaking alone! So, we stayed quiet and motionless in hopes that the curious strangers would lose interest and leave us to our own accord, and for a split second, we thought our plan had proven itself as effective…

            All of a sudden, bright lights illuminated the area, but our vision had become accustomed to the darkness, so it took a few seconds to actually see what was in our surroundings. What unfolded beneath us was a cobblestone pathway, and as we craned our heads up, we saw that it winded all around several small islands of plants and trees. We also noted an old, stone building that formed a perimeter around this space, so I gathered that we had landed in some sort of courtyard. A man with dusky, almond skin, a short, bushy beard, and a turban came out of the oak doors behind us with a veiled woman of a similar complexion following closely behind him, and before we even had a chance to get frightened by their appearance, the woman expressed in astonishment, “Oh Gurcharan, you were right! There are people here!”

            With a wry smile, Gurcharan responded to her, “I can’t even take the time to enjoy this occasion of me being right and you being…” She gave him a piercing glare, so he omitted the part of his sentence where he obviously would have proclaimed her as wrong about something. Instead, he cleared his throat and finished his thought, “Well, it’s unfortunate that I can’t celebrate this rarity because we have people in need of our assistance!”

            “You can take a minute to do a victory lap if you want,” I jokingly permitted. They’re playful antics instantly put me at ease, and I liked them enough already that I really hoped they had no intentions of double-crossing us!

            “Are you insane? If I do that, I’ll be the one sleeping out here!” Gurcharan kidded.

            His wife knelt down to help Violet stand up, and as she did so, she inquired, “What happened to you, dear?”

            Violet hesitantly replied, “It’s… It’s a long story…”

            “Do you need medical treatment of any kind?” Gurcharan asked me while he propped me up.

            “No!” I answered a little too hastily. I didn’t want to act rudely to these kind strangers, it was a knee-jerk reaction to the thought of possibly returning to Saint Cyprian’s! It would have been a disaster, but I couldn’t tell Gurcharan or his wife about our sordid history at that establishment! I appreciated the concern, but I also had to make it plain to him that going to the hospital wasn’t in our best interests, so I stated to him, “We’ll be okay after we get a bit of rest!”

            Gurcharan obliged with my wishes, “Very well! Jasleen, let’s escort them to the sleeping quarters.”

            As they guided us through the courtyard, Violet couldn’t resist querying, “Sleeping quarters? Where are we?”

            “The Sikh Gurdwara of Anwynston,” Jasleen informed her. “Do you recall how you got here?”

            “Everything was just a blur!” Violet seemed fairly delighted that she found a way to give her an honest response.

            Jasleen genially addressed her, “That’s not important right now. We’ll get you settled down and warm, and we can figure it out in the morning.” The more we interacted with this pair, the more I admired them! It was a pity that we couldn’t lengthen how long we stayed in their temple!

            They opened a set of French doors that led into a vast room with a myriad of cots neatly lined up in several uniform rows. A couple of guests were scattered throughout the facility, but not many folks appeared to occupy this building during this hour. I recalled that we arrived at the news station towards the end of Andy’s route, so I calculated that the sun must have set sometime after our battle with those executives behind the soup kitchen, which meant that it would be a while before most denizens of this property would arrive to use their beds. I felt relieved to think that Violet and I might get some privacy in order for us to discuss our next move, and I crossed my fingers that none of these occupants would recognize Violet or me so we wouldn’t lose our safety nest before deciphering a proper strategy to continue our quest!

            Jasleen began setting up a couple of cots with blankets and pillows as Gurcharan explained, “I’m afraid we’re all out of food to give you, but we should have more coming first thing in the morning. If you need anything, feel free to come back to the office and let us know! However, there’s also a couple of attendants here that can take care of you as well.”

            “Thank you so much!” I extended my hand to him, and he graciously shook it. It warmed me up inside to meet such an altruistic soul, but very quickly after denoting this pleasant development, it occurred to me that I better keep my distance from these two from now on if I wanted to keep them safe from Birsha’s Army! I glanced around and did not see anyone looking in this direction, and while Violet said that the Fallen tend to avoid religious institutions, at this point, I couldn’t count on anywhere being totally secure for us!

            “Here’s some clothes donated to our center!” Jasleen plopped a large box between our cots and offered, “When you feel up to it, you’re welcome to choose a new outfit to wear!”

            It baffled me as to why she felt compelled to provide us with new garments to wear until I gazed down to what we had on… Our clothing had gotten torn to shreds! Thankfully, we had enough left on us to not expose anything salacious! I’m sure they must have had a plethora of dubiety on our unsightly appearances, and it floored me that they had a high enough level of benevolence that they did not probe too deep into our recent past! We conveyed our gratitude to them as they exited this sector, and as I watched them leave, I inwardly prayed that our presence in their lives would not cause them to endure any trouble!

            A person who resembled somebody who might work in this place interrupted my train of thought, “Are you two doing alright?”

            “Huh? Oh, yeah! We’re fine.” I didn’t know whether or not I gave that woman a lie or not. We went through a lot that day, and the road ahead of us didn’t seem to bode much better for us, but at the same time, we were lucky to be alive! I decided not to settle my internal argument and communicated to the attendant, “We just need to take it easy for a bit.”

            “Very good! Have a nice rest!” She nodded her head in a cordial manner before moving on to the next person. Violet and I laid down on our cots so that we wouldn’t face anymore intrusions, but I could hear that woman friendlily chatting with someone in the distance, which indicated to us that seclusion may not come to us on a regular basis!

            I turned over and whispered to Violet, “Why do you think Jeremy sent us here?’

            In a hushed tone, Violet theorized, “He wanted to keep us safe. I wouldn’t be surprised if Gurcharan or Jasleen were Guardians, but mostly, I imagine that he aimed to get us out of harm’s way.”

            “No, I mean why did he send us here?” I quietly clarified to her. “Nicole was in trouble too; he could have rescued her, his friend, his colleague of several years… Why did he pick us?”

            “Must’ve been something in his intuition,” Violet assessed. “I don’t know many people other than us who are willing to battle mystical forces and rid the planet of pure evil, and I doubt he’s met anyone that audacious either! He had to have believed that doing this was his best odds in saving the world! He was willing to sacrifice his life to protect humanity…”

            My gut wrenched in tight knots to hear that insight! I couldn’t stand to think that he depleted his life force just for us, an honor that I certainly didn’t feel worthy of! “But we’re not any closer to finding the Arch Deity than we were before! He could have lived and used his resources to locate them, he didn’t need to…” I couldn’t say that he died because that would have made it real, so I opted to finish my topic of conversation without including that in my vocabulary. “He could have let us try our luck with the police! We might have made it out okay!”

            Violet asserted, “Keyword: might! In all honesty, I wasn’t too sure we’d make it out of there! Even if I used my magic against them, they already called for backup. And sooner or later, that stupid executive would have paged for reinforcements from the rest of Birsha’s Army! How would we have gotten out of that? Jeremy most likely saved our lives!” What she articulated rang true for me, but it did not chase the guilt away! On the contrary, I berated myself for getting into a situation where he felt obligated to do that! Right as I was contemplating on what I ought to have done to prevent that tragic outcome, Violet bitterly sympathized with me, “It sucks, doesn’t it? Knowing that someone got themselves killed so that you would live…”

            My eyes widened when I recollected that Violet’s servant took a deadly hit for her, meaning that this had become the second occurrence of this nature for her! Any agony I endured in this instance, hers was doubled! It tore me up to see the mental torture that got inflicted on her from all of the trauma she went through washing over her again, and she didn’t deserve it at all! She was the bravest and most selfless person I had ever met, and while I had no inkling of why Jeremy chose to bail me out, I could totally understand why he would protect hers! She was more powerful than she realized, and if anyone was going to preserve civilization from absolute doom, it would be her! I counted myself as lucky to even play a small role in her glorious future! I couldn’t let someone with that much potential give up, so I firmly exclaimed, “Yes, it’s awful! But you know what would be worse? If they did it all for nothing! Let’s honor their memory and solve this dilemma once and for all!”

            “You’re right! We can’t disappoint them!” Violet rallied herself back to the cause. I couldn’t help it, seeing her look of determination made my heart purr! As much as I attempted to avoid letting my attraction to her distract me form our operation, it was too difficult to keep from relishing in how alluring she looked with that degree of tenacity etched on her face! I could have savored this image for hours, so I was glad her focus hadn’t gotten swayed like mine had! “We’re gonna need new disguises!”

            “Yeah, no kidding!” I heartily agreed as I peeked at the tattered remains of our previous attire. After mulling it over for a trice, I puzzled, “Wait, you wanna pick out our disguises before we decide where we’re going?”

            Violet brought up, “Do you remember what we were talking about when those executives showed up?”

            With the numerous events that happened this evening, I had nearly forgotten about that exchange! “Oh right! Nicole mentioned that one of Birsha’s sponsors could be holding the Arch Deity. So, we’re infiltrating Nerium Night Ware?”

            “We gotta check it out!” Violet contended. “The Arch Deity didn’t end up somewhere where they didn’t have a purpose! Guardians go where they’re most needed, sites where they can prevent the most destruction from getting unleashed! Right now, the most potent damage is coming from misinformation and dark money, and Nathair Schuman shells out both! It’s possible that the Arch Deity got trapped while they were trying to put a stop to his corruptive abuse!”

            “Yeah, that would make sense! And even if they’re not there, we could learn a lot about Birsha by studying one of her lackeys! But if we get caught, can we survive a factory full of Fallens?” I questioned.

            Violet shrugged. “We can’t afford to sit and recover for too long!” I concurred with her, and then she opined, “I’m willing to bet that Nerium Night Ware is guarded way more efficiently than the post office, so we can’t break in at night this time around. We’ll need t o pose as people who would be welcomed onto the factory floor.”

            I pondered, “Who would Nathair Schuman give that sort of access to?”

            “I dunno…” Violet frowned as she contemplated this subject. “I’m not even sure where we would get a uniform right now!” She eyeballed the box of donated clothes and avidly dug into it. “I feel bad that we can’t return these mail carrier outfits!”

            “Technically, those executives made them get ruined,” I reasoned to her. “I mean, if they hadn’t attacked us, then Jeremy wouldn’t have…” I cut myself off as that fresh wound burned me once again.

            Violet grimaced too, but she forced herself to not fixate on those memories during such a critical juncture. Her purposefulness took over once more, that is until she came across something that had a negative impact on her. “Most of this came from my line! Why would… Oh yeah, no one wants to associate with me ‘cause they all believe I’m a murderer!”

            I reassured her, “It’s their loss! Once we clear our names, they’ll be begging to get it back!” I’m not positive she completely bought that, but she seemed somewhat pleased by my gesture, a circumstance that almost got me to repeat my fanciful tailspin! Luckily, something else caught my eye that forced me to break that cycle! “I think I have an idea…”

True Deception, Chapter 16

“Finally, I’ve got you cornered!” A hologram of Birsha leered over one of five men in fine suits! My anxiety went into overdrive at this sight! Not only were we outnumbered, but we had our arch enemy’s presence directly before us! And unfortunately, she was completely right- we had nowhere to run! The only way out of this dire predicament was to defeat the adversaries blocking our path, and that didn’t seem too likely since two of us had no magical powers, and the other two had a scant amount left, which rendered them nearly as incapable of contending with these goons as the rest of us! Birsha stared at Violet and I like a bird of prey ready to close in on a particularly appetizing morsel, and I did my best to put on a brave face, but somehow, I think she could see right through my façade! After a moment of savoring her perceived victory, Birsha went on, “You two have caused me enough trouble; it’ll be satisfying to watch you go!” I gave her my best scowl before turning to Violet, whose wheels were spinning fast in this instance! I sincerely hoped she could come up with a valid way for us to defend ourselves because I couldn’t come up with anything! Birsha’s attention shifted to Nicole and Jeremy, and she brusquely addressed them, “I’m surprised at you guys! Up until now, you’ve been valuable assets to my empire!”

            “Actually Boss, they’ve been real secretive lately,” the thug whose watch held her image corrected her mistaken assumption. “They’ve been doing a lot of sneaking around lately; I knew they were up to something!”

            Birsha frigidly inquired to Jeremy and Nicole, “So, you’re not happy with the lofty position I’ve given you, and you’d rather risk your careers and your lives to help a couple of dissidents wreak havoc on my realm?”

            Jeremy bravely replied to her, “This isn’t your kingdom! But your reign is coming to an end! The people you oppress aren’t gonna stand for your brutality anymore, and they’re already rising up to take you down! You don’t have much longer now, and you know it!”

            “Silence!” one of the rough men behind Birsha raised his arm and prepared to jinx Jeremy.

            “Not yet!” Birsha commanded, so he gave Jeremy a dirty look as heeded her word. “They still could be of great use to us! Let’s give them one more chance. If they value their lives, they will comply!”

            Nicole’s expression bore no hint of any desire to obey Birsha’s order, and she folded her arms as she asked her, “What did you have in mind?”

            Birsha doled out a sinister answer, “Kill them!”

            Jeremy and Nicole glanced to us in alarm, and then Nicole refused her request, “No way! We’d never do that!”

            “You have to prove your loyalty to our alliance,” Birsha coldly stated. “If you don’t do it, you’ll die with them!”

            “I’ll die if I do!” Jeremy countered. “My life force is almost tapped out, and I’m not using the last bit of my power to-!”

            One of Birsha’s cronies interrupted him, “We can remedy that!” He conjured a gun out of thin air and then made it zoom over to Jeremy, who eyeballed it like it was a grenade ready to explode.

            Eventually, Jeremy decided to pick it up, and his head hung low as he cocked it. I didn’t believe he would really go through with it, but I prepared myself to dodge his bullets if he did. Nicole’s eyes widened immensely, and she shrieked, “Jeremy, don’t!”

            “I have to!” Jeremy raised his weapon up, and for a second, my insides ached at the thought of this betrayal from someone I considered to be an ally, but then suddenly, he changed his trajectory towards Birsha’s team and…

            “Ha! It’s not loaded!” One of the associates taunted Jeremy as he tried to fire. His peers all snickered at his error, and Jeremy’s face fell as he realized the significance of this move.

            When the laughter died down, Birsha assessed, “They made their choice. Kill them all!”

            Birsha’s picture dealt us one last sneer before it disappeared. For a minute, we all stood there in silence. Slowly, the head of the pack raised his hand to initiate combat, and right as his trajectory blasted out…

            I spotted some metal trash cans out of the corner of my eye, and prior to the point where his spell could hit us, I grabbed Violet and pulled her to the ground with me! I didn’t know whether or not the soup kitchen’s receptacles contained any silver, but I figured that, at the very least, it would provide us some cover. Violet must have judged them to be the protective metal that we needed since she handed me a lid once we had recovered from our tumble, and as we shielded ourselves, we could see hexes flying in all different directions! Nicole hid behind a dumpster on the other side of the alley, and as she wracked her brain on what to do, we saw that Jeremy was firing magic right back at them! It horrified me at first, but then I reasoned that he must have had more life force than he previously projected. I altered my focus in aiming my cover so that their projectiles bounced back to them, and the ones that landed on their torsos got redirected to our way again! They were obviously wearing silver mail underneath their clothes, so I aimed my lid so that it would nail my target in the head. It was successful! Violet took one of them down this way too, and Jeremy got one as well as he continued to effectively guard Nicole. For a brief stretch, I dared to let optimism of our impending win fill my senses, but then…

            Jeremy fell to the floor writhing in pain! My heart dropped completely as we watched him clutching his chest, and it sickened me to see the two remaining guerillas delighting in his demise! Those pricks averted their intentions to finishing him off, and when Violet and I rose up to protect him from these attacks, they fired rounds out at us and forced us to stay in our place! We helplessly witnessed Jeremy struggling to roll around and avoid their impact, and just when we feared we might lose him…

            Nicole summoned all of her strength and pushed the dumpster towards those snakes! She successfully pinned down one of them, and while the other one got distracted by this abruptness, I flung my lid at his skull! My pitch didn’t know him out, but I managed to give poor Jeremy a break from their wrath! I grabbed another cover to dispense that blow again, but he eked out another spell, so we ducked behind the garbage bins again. He advanced towards us, and we were prepared to ambush him…

            The ringleader of that gang unceremoniously collapsed to the concrete in the exact instance that two police officers ran into the alley and yelled, “Freeze!”

            “They attacked me!” the wretch on the cement pathetically wailed. “All we wanted to do was volunteer, and they got us! They got us all!”

            “That’s… That’s not…!” Jeremy attempted to argue against the accusations that this scoundrel cast out, but he hardly had the energy to even open his mouth! From between the cracks of the bins that Violet and I hid behind, we could see him struggling to stay conscious, and I dearly hoped that the two officers would send an ambulance over here immediately so they could get him medical treatment before it was too late!

            To my dismay, the police’s eyes darted between the gun on the pavement and the weapon’s proximity to Nicole’s position, and their conclusion was fairly obvious! Nicole fretfully defended herself, “This isn’t what it looks like! We-!”

            One officer barked, “Hands behind your back!”

            “No!” Jeremy feebly uttered out. “She…!”

            “It’s fine,” Nicole assured him. “I’ll have my day in court, and I intend to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth!”

            She glared at the miscreant on the alleyway floor, who let a snivel that sounded so wimpy that the other policeman felt compelled to check on him. “Are you alright, sir?”

            He moaned, “I’ll be okay, but my friends won’t be! They’re all gone, aren’t they?”

            The three dirtbags who had got impacted by deadly hexes had been reduced to a pile of dust, but the one crook that Nicole bludgeoned had simply gotten incapacitated. The officer who had attended to the weasel on the ground went over to the man’s accomplice and used his fingers to test for a pulse. “Dispatch, this is Sergeant Dallan. We’re gonna need an ambulance at-.”

            “Two ambulances!” Nicole indicated to Jeremy, who remained floored and in a great deal of agony.

            “Yes, two ambulances,” Sergeant Dallan at last acknowledged. “And a crime scene team too. Please be advised that the alley is too narrow for our vehicles to land. Oh, and we have one ready for transport.”

            That reprobate bolted straight up upon hearing that last part. “One? There should be three going to jail!”

            The policewoman who held Nicole queried, “What do you mean? There’s three sets of remains, two injured parties, and you. Who else-?”

            “There’s two more people who were here!” he insisted. “They must be hiding behind the trash cans! You need to get them! They’re wanted felons, they need to be captured!”

            “Okay, okay!” Sergeant Dallan seemed a little thrown off by the venom that abruptly appeared in his vocabulary, but it didn’t dissuade him from investigating his claim. He drew out his firearm, pointed it at the garbage containers, and directed, “If anyone’s hiding behind those refuse bins, you need to come out with your hands up now!” Neither Violet nor I had any inclination to obey this order, but we were more cornered than ever now! We couldn’t budge an inch without giving away our presence, and yet if we were to remain in this stance, it would be inevitable that we would get caught! “This is your second warning! If we find you back there, you will pay the consequences!” I could sense Violet gearing up to use her powers against him, which filled me with dread! It anguished me to envision her depleting the last iota of the life force within her and succumbing to the fate that Jeremy was presently enduring! “You have until the count of three, and then I’m coming in! One…” I beseeched the universe to send us any alternative than the two terrible options that we had on our plate prior to our short time running out! “Two…” No solution got offered, so this was it! I anticipated absolute doom to rain down on us…

            Sergeant Dallan never got to three! Jeremy pointed his palms in our direction, and a tremendous force collided into Violet and me! We got enveloped in an electric cloud as we momentarily hovered in this air! We caught a glimpse of the two officers and Nicole’s shocked visages in addition to the hoodlum’s distraught over what he assumed was a loss for himself, and while the latter was certainly satisfying to see, I grew numb when I beheld Jeremy lying motionless on the surface underneath us! I ached to inspect his well-being, but in the blink of an eye, we got sucked into what felt like a whirlpool behind us, and the alleyway disappeared from our vision!

            Violet and I zipped through what I could only guess was the clouds, and as we zigzagged through this strange atmosphere, I wondered if Jeremy had killed us in merciful way to spare us from the torture that Sergeant Dallan would have administered on Violet and me or if he had intended to transport us somewhere on Earth. If he had meant to cast us away from there, there, then where were we going? I sincerely longed for this experience to come to a halt, but I flinched at the thought of what outcome we would have to go through once we did! Would it hurt? Would we discover ourselves somewhere safe or not? Would we meet someone waiting for us on the other side? I had so many questions that I needed answers to, but simultaneously, I also didn’t want to know any of it! Our movements arbitrarily stopped, and I mentally readied myself for the worst…

            We landed on a hard terrain, and for a minute, all I could do was reorient myself! I waited for the world to quit spinning, and I inwardly mandated my organs not to allow my body to vomit! The scenery ultimately settled down, and my queasiness began to somewhat subside. I craned my neck up a little, and I espied Violet next to me as her skin started to lose its greenish tinge. She sounded pretty strained as she relayed to me, “We made it!”

            “Made it where?” I retorted as I attempted to accumulate the fortitude to pick myself up.

            “No idea!” Violet let out a groan as she lifted herself up into a sitting position. “But we’re still alive, which is more than I can say for Jeremy!”

            A lump rose up in my throat after that assessment. “Do you think… Are you sure that…?”

            Violet glumly proclaimed, “A spell that potent takes a lot of power. I seriously doubt he would have any life force left after that!”

            “Oh no!” I bemoaned as I say myself up. That effort nearly took my breath away, so I gave myself a period to recover so that I could stand up as soon as possible. As I reflected on Jeremy’s noble deed, I asserted, “He gave up his life to send us here! It must be important then! So, where could he have-?”

            “Who’s there?” a mysterious male’s voice called out to us…

True Deception, Chapter 15

“We have to go talk to them!” I urged Violet as I already began to head in their direction.

            “You can’t!” Violet worriedly responded to me as she held me back.

            I insisted, “I’ve got to! They’re my parents, and look where they are!” I indicated to the handsome, older couple waiting in that long line to get into the soup kitchen’s doors. “How can I ignore that?”

            Violet advised me, “You love them, and you want to protect them, but the best way to do that right now is to pretend you don’t know them!” I opened my mouth to protest, but Violet cut me off by gently reminding me, “Birsha’s Army went after my grandmother ‘cause they knew we were associated with her! They almost hexed her! Do you want that to happen to your family?”

            “Well, of course not! But…!” I trailed off as I couldn’t summon up the words to properly explain how devastating it was to see that my mom and dad were struggling with hunger! Food is essential for survival, so it felt like I was watching them dying! I couldn’t stand it!

            “I know!” Violet put a sympathetic arm around me and reassured me, “I know it’s not an easy sight to see! As a Guardian, I don’t ever like to see good people suffering, but if we want them to live, we can’t be seen having a close relationship with anyone! Birsha has plants all over the city, all over the world actually, so the only way to keep people safe is to leave them alone ‘til this is all over.”

            She definitely spoke the truth, and while I loathed the concept of my support getting them put in harm’s way, I had a hard time accepting that I was powerless to help them out of such a critical situation! I felt as though I was acting cruelly by not rushing to give them assistance, and I became overwhelmed by guilt for not doing something sooner to prevent this from occurring! “Last time I talked to them, they were fine! That was just fine! That was just days ago! How could they have gotten to this point so fast?”

            Violet wisely stated, “Sometimes, all it takes is a day! One piece of bad luck could turn your whole life upside down! I’ve seen hundreds of people in Sylph’s Hollow who lost their home through no fault of their own. Some people were victims of some harsh new from crooked politicians, and others lost their place in a fire or natural disaster. It’s gut wrenching to witness, which is why my life force is so depleted! I couldn’t let them starve to death! I guess it’s dangerous to give too much of yourself to others!”

            My respect for Violet heightened by hearing how selfless she had become, and I got significant comfort from our close stance in that moment- the heat from her body warmed me like a cozy blanket!  I still didn’t enjoy viewing my folks in such a vulnerable position, but I started to convince myself that things would turn out okay for them eventually! “Well, at least they’re getting a meal today! If we solve this-.”

            In the middle of my sentence, somebody from inside of the soup kitchen came out to whisper something to the man at the door who was greeting everyone, and the greeting man then addressed the crowd, “Sorry, everybody! We’re out of rations! You’ll have to come back another day!”

            The vast expanse of visitors to this building all groaned at this news, and most of them glumly dispersed. My parents lingered though, clearly stunned by what they heard, and as the workers tried to shut the door, my father asked them, “You said another day, what day will that be?”

            “Hopefully tomorrow,” the man dismally answered him, “but I can’t guarantee anything. It all depends on what gets donated.”

            “Okay…” my dad unwillingly accepted. He turned to my mom and promised her, “Don’t worry, we’ll figure something out!”

            I nearly ran up to them as they sadly walked away from the scene, but Violet prevented me from doing that. I queried, “Can’t we give them one of our food pills?”

            Violet kindly shot back, “The Fallens will know we singled them out for a reason. I’d magick some over to them, but… well… you know…” A pit developed at the bottom of my stomach, and I couldn’t prevent myself from tearing up! Violet embraced me and empathetically regarded me, “I’m so sorry!”

            “Thanks!” I croaked out. After I allowed myself to emote for a minute, I channeled this pain into fuel for me to take action! “The sooner we can find the Arch Deity, the faster I can reunite with my family and… Oh, I should say we! I’m sure you miss your family too!”

            “I do, but I doubt they’re eager to have me return to them!” Violet lamented. I gave her a quizzical look, so she clarified, “They never approved of the persona I presented to the public. They thought I had become a monster, and they didn’t wanna have anything to do with me ‘til I changed my ways! I’m positive they dismissed me completely after I got accused of murder! Well, I suppose the one good thing about this is I don’t gotta worry about keeping them guarded during our quest!”

            It surprised me to hear about this unfortunate detail, and I couldn’t believe how much she had to sacrifice in order to take down the dark forces that plagued our planet! I couldn’t imagine being in her shoes, but then I recalled a recent event that put things into a different perspective. “I wonder if Mom and Dad disowned me too once they heard that I was suspected of murdering that Fallen! I’d like to believe they’d know in their hearts that I’m innocent, but…” I frowned at the possibility of my folks having this reprehensible opinion of me, and it certainly made my yearning to run after them disappear! I reckoned that it was wiser to have them adopt this false narrative of me, but it hurt to picture them rejecting me if I tried to visit them in the future! I shook my head and declared, “We gotta put a stop to Birsha’s regime and clear our names! Maybe Nicole and Jeremy will…” I paused as I made a noteworthy observation. “Hey, where are they? They had us come here for a reason, it couldn’t have just been for me to see what happened to my parents!”

            Violet conjectured, “That man at the door said that they were waiting for donations, maybe Nicole and Jeremy are responsible for that.” My expression appeared somewhat skeptical, so Violet bargained with me, “Let’s wait here for a bit longer. If they take too long to get here, then we’ll go somewhere else and… Oh, look!”

            We spotted Nicole and Jeremy casually walking into the alley behind the soup kitchen, which certainly captured our interest! Why wouldn’t they use the front entrance if they were welcomed there? At first, we assumed that they volunteered here, but now my curiosity led me to wonder if there was more to this space than met the eye! Since Jeremy gave us the business card for this establishment, we could assume that whatever they were up to back there, they wanted us to get involved. If we hadn’t heard about Nicole’s plight with the Fallen executives at the news station, I wouldn’t have gone into such a narrow area with someone whose motives were still unestablished, but since she had accompanied him, we followed them back there. My nerves were still rattling throughout my body as if some unknown peril lurked in the shadows, but we couldn’t waste this opportunity! If we lost the chance to get a key shred of evidence, I never would have forgiven myself, so I raised no objections about this move for us.

            They alleyway was dark and shabby as the ones featured in horror flicks, and I had to keep telling myself that these ominous signs merely stemmed from my imagination running wild! I was absolutely convinced that Nicole was our friend and would not lure us into any sort of trap! The path we traversed branched off into an aisle behind the soup kitchen, and when Violet and I glanced down this corridor, we saw two silhouettes standing in a pose that suggested they were waiting for something. We took a deep breath as we inched our way towards them, and one of those two exhaled a puff of smoke from a cigarette. I inwardly reasoned that if they meant to attack us, neither of them would do an activity that required a degree of stillness like that. It seemed so logical that they had chosen this site because of the privacy it offered, so nothing appeared very threatening to us… So, why did my apprehension refuse to budge?

            When we got closer, a dim light illuminated Nicole and Jeremy, who smiled and put out his cigarette upon our appearance. “You got my hint!” Jeremy rejoiced.

            “I told you they would!” Nicole asserted as we joined them.

            “How did you find out about this place?” Violet inquired.

            Nicole replied, “Jeremy has been volunteering here for years, and I decided to join him so I could do a little good for the world after spreading all the lies and misinformation that those executives always force me to dish out! It’s nice to have something that makes me remember that deep down, I’m a decent person!”

            Jeremy jumped in at this juncture, “I went to this joint when I was a kid, and since it prevented me from starving to death, I like to give back to it now that I’m doing well! I do all I can to ensure that nobody starves to death, but no matter how much I do, it never seems to be enough!”

            “Yeah, we saw that they had to close their doors and turn away a lot of hungry people!” I deemed it prudent not to mention that my parents were among those who got denied food. Since our main focus of this rendezvous was to obtain information regarding the Arch Deity, I didn’t want to prolong this conversation about the soup kitchen!

            “It’s sickening when they gotta do that before dinnertime!” Jeremy wistfully remarked. “I used to use my magic to supply them with more, but I went overboard and nearly depleted my life force! Between that and my damn smoking habit, I feel like I don’t have much time left…”

            Nicole scolded him, “Don’t say that! We’re gonna find the Arch Deity and restore your life force, so you’ll be here for decades more!”

            My heart sunk to hear all of this! It was distressing to hear that he may not live a full life, but it was devastating to discover that neither of them was the Arch Deity as I had hoped! My aspirations of quickly unearthing the person who could both save the world and save Violet got unceremoniously dashed, and it was discouraging to know that our search would last more extensively than I would prefer, but I wasn’t about to let any of this deter me from reaching this goal so vital in rescuing so many innocent souls! I pressed them, “So, you guys don’t have any clues to their whereabouts?”

            The pair of them grew crestfallen at my query, and Jeremy revealed, “We were kinda hoping it might be one of the two of you!”

            “Unfortunately, it’s not. I’m actually on the same page as you with a depleted life force.”

            “What about you?” Nicole petitioned me.

            I shook my head and informed her, “I’m not a Guardian at all.”

            Nicole ranted, “Oh, great! We have two powerless beings and two Deities with weak powers! How are we supposed to free ourselves form Birsha’s tyranny now?”

            “Our biggest lead is that the Arch Deity would seek out an area they’re needed most, but something is preventing them from finishing this oppression once and for all,” I relayed to them. “Do you have any ideas of someplace where they could be stuck?”

            “You mean like a location where the Fallen have taken over and won’t let them leave?” Jeremy probed.

            Violet entertained that notion, “Possibly. If they’re trapped ‘cause of anything else, they could be anywhere! We planned on looking for them all over Earth anyways, so we may as well begin there. If the Arch Deity isn’t there, we would eliminate one spot at the minimum. Do you know anywhere like that?”

            Nicole dejectedly spat out, “Everywhere! I don’t think there’s any section of the land that Birsha hasn’t touched!”

            “That’s not true!” Jeremy disagreed. “She wants you to believe crap like this! There are certain sites she can’t reach ‘cause it’s too full of good and honest people! Like this soup kitchen! She never sunk her claws into this territory! If she had, we would never have been able to meet our secret sources here!”

            “Well, a lot of buildings may have a Fallen or tow haunting the premises, but what’s somewhere that probably has more Fallens than usual?” I posed to them.

            Jeremy suggested, “Maybe they’re at one of the businesses that Birsha sponsors.”

            Nicole tacked on to that theory, “Most of them just line themselves up with Nancy Nox ‘cause she makes them tons of money, but some of them get very vocal on their allegiance to her. Nathair Shuman is the worst about that! He-.”

            From behind Violet and me, a gravelly voice menacingly articulated, “Oh look, Boss! They’re talking about you!”