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!”

True Deception, Chapter 14

I recognized him. The towering man with tawny skin, smoky hair, and a long, crooked nose sat on a small couch on the other side of the room, and while I was used to seeing him perched next to Nicole during their broadcasts in a fine suit, his unique visage made him easily identifiable in plain clothes. I didn’t watch their show very often because of the political bias presented in their version of the news, but if I knew that they were being forced to deliver that tripe, I would have tuned in to their show more regularly! While I couldn’t have known that their network was under the control of the Fallen, I wished that I had ignored their words so that I had some idea of what his personality was like. Right then, as Violet and I stood there, I couldn’t tell if we were in the presence of a friend or foe! Not that we could do much anyways with that security guard keeping an eye on us in the hall! It seemed like a difficult feat prior to this moment, but with this unknown variant now before us, the odds of Violet and I obtaining the information we needed from Nicole seemed nearly impossible! I remained motionless as my brain went blank on solution to this conundrum!

            Nicole, who had been leaning against the ledge on the vanity mirror across from us, gazed at us in awe. Clearly, she could see through our mail carrier disguise and was astonished at our presence, and I could tell that she ached to bombarde us with questions, but she didn’t say or do anything that would give our identities away. Instead, she stood up and politely asked us,” Can I help you?”

            “We have a certified letter for you to sign.” As I answered her, I stared at her in a meaningful way hoping to signify to her that we came her for a much different cause than what I conveyed to her moments ago.

            “Oh, I see.” She subtly signaled to us that she understood our situation, and while that came as a small wave of alleviation to me, I still felt confused on how we could discuss this vital issue with so many witnesses present! She didn’t give us any concrete prompts on how to proceed, so all I could do was hand her the envelope that Violet and I nicked from the supply room at that post office. As I did so, I realized that we hadn’t included an actual document for her to pull out! If that security guard beheld her putting her signature on an empty vessel, I fretted that we would end up battling our way out of the studio! Nicole must have sensed my distress since she chose not to write on the flat surface next to her and instead requested to her co-anchor, “Jeremy, can you give me that clipboard?”

            Jeremy picked up the item that she petitioned for, and I got relieved when I noticed that it had some papers on it! I prayed that she would pretend that one of them was new so that it looked more natural when she gave us the envelope back, and fortunately, that’s exactly what she did! She placed the envelope on top of the clipboard, and after she scribbled her name on it, it remained on this surface as she opened it and pretended to add something to her pile. Once she finished, she returned the envelope to our possession and stated, “Here you go.”

            I began to rejoice that the transaction had gone so smoothly, but soon I developed a frown from sheer disappointment! Our interaction would have come to a close at this point, and we didn’t gather anything viable from it! We put in so much work to get to this juncture, and apparently, it had all been for nothing! We couldn’t interrogate Nicole on what she knew about the Arch Deity, and we had no other way to converse with her on another occasion! I mean, I knew we could probably have cooked up another scheme, but it would take time, and the longer we waited, the more opportunities the Fallen had to wreak havoc on our society! Yes, it would have been fatal if we had attempted to dialogue on this subject, but it was devastating that we had no method of communicating about this topic whatsoever! My last shred of hope got dashed when I observed that the envelope was empty, which meant that she hadn’t slipped in any sort of message detailing a manner in which we could talk to each other privately! All Violet and I could do at this point was turn around and head out, and we started to do just that until…

            “Wait!” Jeremy called out to us. Violet and I swiveled back around not knowing what to expect. In the clips I saw of Nicole and Jeremy at work, they certainly acted like they were good buddies, but in this industry, it was difficult to discern whether or not they were being genuine or if they simply put on an act for the cameras. If their alliance was authentic, then I thought he may have had an offer of assistance to us, however, if they were adversaries, then he might have chosen this second to take us down! I also considered that the truth may have laid somewhere in between and that he had a more neutral objective to this interruption. Neither Violet nor I could make out any hints of his motives, he had such a poker face! We could only hope for the best as he inquired, “Can you take this with you?” He held up some mail for us to grab.

            “Sure,” I replied without enthusiasm. It was sealed and stamped prior to our visit, so I doubted that it contained any contents for Violet or me to go over! I supposed that I should have felt grateful that he wasn’t a loyalist to Birsha, but despite our guarantee of exiting from the station safely, I couldn’t muster any joy from this encounter! Actually, it kind of annoyed me that we had an extra task to perform as we tried to think of our next move! I decided that we could drop it off in the nearest postal box while we sought out a safe harbor, so I extended my arm to retrieve his mail.

            Jeremy pulled it back towards himself and let us know, “Oh, I forgot to put my card in it! Hold on!” He procured a letter opener and undid the adhesive. He then quickly found a fresh envelope to replace the ruined one, and he slipped in a business card before sealing everything up again. None of this appeared very noteworthy… except that he wasn’t at his own desk! This was definitely Nicole’s dressing room, only her name was etched on the door, so they couldn’t have been sharing this space, and yet he claimed he needed to add something to some mail that he got from her quarters! My curiosity peaked- did he know about Nicole’s secret investigation? Was he intending to give us some assistance in our journey or a warning not to interfere? I inwardly acknowledged that it was possible that he honestly had some mail to send, but something told me that he aimed to provide us with some aid! That insight only got confirmed by the earnest expression he bore as he handed the letter back to us! He very seriously regarded me, “Thank you!”

            I cordially addressed him, “Happy to be of service!” Violet and I walked out of that sector, and when we rejoined the security guard in the hall, I reviewed his demeanor and did not detect any changes, so we assumed that our correspondence hadn’t raised his suspicions! He initiated his obligation to lead us out without saying a peep to us, and I was totally fine with that! The less banter we engaged in with our probable foe, the more we increased our probability of vacating the premises with no incidents! My mind eagerly anticipated studying what Jeremy relayed to us, and for the sake of the world’s future as well as Violet’s fate, I crossed my fingers that we now held the key to finding the Arch Deity in our hands!

            The security guard who escorted us to Nicole and Jeremy reunited with his comrade stationed at the door, and the two of them watched us as we headed towards the back of the building. We came from that direction, so it would have been suspicious if we travelled toward the street, which is where I really wanted to go. I hankered to tear open this envelope immediately, but there was no way we would be able to do that traversing this course! There was nothing back there but cameras that could capture most of our movements, so how could we escape from this place let alone read Jeremy’s letter? I momentarily panicked that Violet would use her magic to get us out of here, and that was out of the question as feasible option for us to perform! She claimed that she had enough to last throughout the remainder of this mission, but I didn’t know how long she estimated that our quest would last! For all I knew, she could have only had days remaining, and I couldn’t bear the concept of losing her so abruptly! Thankfully, my anxious fantasies didn’t come to pass- Violet and I spotted a large chestnut tree in the back corner of their property line, and it hung over into their neighbor’s territory! We swiftly climbed it and got out of that perilous locale!

            We landed in the rearmost part of a movie theater, and while it was presently vacant, we didn’t dare to delve into our message until we could ensure total privacy, so we marched out of that parking lot and out onto the main avenue. While no one paid attention to us in these uniforms, my previous dread of getting identified by a passerby renewed itself in me! We kept our heads low so that our hats could conceal our faces, but the risk of getting caught persisted still! I wasn’t familiar with this division of Anwynston, so I couldn’t offer any suggestions to Violet on where to proceed to next. We wracked our heads until we happened to stumble upon a vacant construction zone, and when we spotted a port-a-potty on the site, we gazed to each other to wordlessly query on whether or not we should use that facility. Since time was of the essence in this harrowing scenario, we shrugged and agreed to give it a shot.

            This unit was pretty cramped, and if I had the opportunity to nestle this close to Violet in any other instance, I would have been thrilled! Unfortunately, the various odors that lingered in the air made any romantic notions I might have had vanish! Straight after Violet shut the door, she avidly directed me, “Open it!”

            Excitement cascaded throughout my body as I finally got to rip open this mysterious letter, and my optimism reached its pinnacle as I awaited the results! I truly expected to behold something marvelous that would provide us with some much-needed guidance! My hands shook as I held the document before me… and then my spirits deflated in an instant! “It’s a logistics company soliciting Nicole for business!” I hollowly announced.

            “Seriously?” Violet read the paper for herself, and she concluded, “That can’t be what he meant to tell us! What about the card he took from Nicole’s desk?”

            “Oh yeah!” This reminder prompted my aspirations for a fruitful outcome to rise once more! I didn’t get the impression that he aimed to rid himself of some junk mail, the business card he purposefully placed in this envelope had to offer us some insight to Jeremy and Nicole’s plan! I presumed he dealt us some means of contacting them in order to discuss the vital issue at play, and it shocked me that we received something else entirely! “It’s for a soup kitchen down the road!”

            Violet’s expression looked puzzled at first, but then she appeared to get struck by inspiration. “They must want us to meet them there!”

            That sounded plausible at first, but then I grew skeptical of this theory. “I dunno, it’s not exactly private there…”

            “There has to be something there that they want us to see!” Violet insisted. “Jeremy didn’t slip this in here by accident, and nothing about our outfits cause anyone to believe we might need these services! This means something! We need to find out what’s there!”

            “Alright,” I acquiesced. “I didn’t get any vibes from Jeremy that would make me think that he’s trying to set us up for a trap, so there probably is some sort of lead there. I just…” A prickly sensation developed all over my extremities, so I asserted, “We better keep our guard up just in case!”

            Violet put her hand on my shoulder, stared straight into my eyes, and voiced, “Jack, ‘til we find the Arch Deity and defeat Birsha, we always gotta keep our guard up!”

            I concurred, “Right!” For a minute, we said or did nothing more than stare deep into each other’s eyes! My heart fluttered for a flash, but before any other pleasurable phenomena occurred, the putrid stenches of this edifice invaded my nostrils again, so I appealed to Violet, “Can we get going?” She nodded and vigorously got on board with that proposal! We barged out of this stall, causing us to garner some strange faces from the pedestrians who witnessed this event! We gave them no explanation as we made our way out of that vicinity!

            I was astounded at how drastically different the conditions of the structures on this side of the street were compared to where we had originated! The news station was surrounded by professional and sophisticated complexes, and everything around this region seemed so rundown and neglected! The soup kitchen was no exception! It had blemishes so visible that I wondered how it was allowed to stand! It saddened me to see so little effort getting put into a neighborhood in dire need of improvements, and it made me that much more nervous to have gotten sent there! “Why would Jeremy and Nicole send us to this neck of the woods?”

            Violet reminded me, “Guardians go where they’re needed the most! Nicole and Jeremy are classy people, so they wouldn’t hang out here without a real good reason! I’m guessing one or both of them are a Deity who chose to assist this community! The soup kitchen is significant to at least one of them, so let’s go see why!” My hesitation hadn’t waivered, but I also had no inclination to stray away from Violet, so I continued to follow her.

            When we approached our destination, we paused our gait as we took a gander at the long line of folks waiting to get inside of the soup kitchen- it wrapped around the block! Neither of us were pleased with how long it would take for us to get inside, but we resigned ourselves to committing to this endeavor… Or, at least, we were going to! I froze as a wave of alarm stuck me unexpectedly! I didn’t see Nicole or Jeremy there, but I saw two individuals whose presence there horrified me to the core…

True Deception, Chapter 13

The shadowy figure emerged, and from our low vantage point on the nearby grass, Violet and I could see what looked like a janitor heading to his vehicle, the only one other than the mail trucks in the lot. I anticipated that we would wait until he was out of sight to make our move, but Violet had other plans! She grabbed a rock, and before I could ask her about what she was doing, she threw it towards the building! I panicked thinking that the man would notice it and retrace the projectile’s steps, but luckily, he used his car faab at the same moment that the stone landed, so her hasty choice didn’t get us discovered! I wondered why she couldn’t have waited to do that, but then I observed that she hadn’t even gotten close to the security camera! I almost had a serious discussion with her about this perceived error, but as the custodian’s lights lit up the entire area, I could see that her stone had landed in the doorway and had kept an entrance open for us! As the guy hovered into the darkness in the road ahead, I complimented Violet, “Nice work!”

            Violet remarked, “You sound surprised. You don’t think that I learned some survival skills in the woods?”

            I didn’t want to iterate my astonishment at her cleverness so she didn’t get the impression that I had no faith in her skills, ergo, I opted to deliver a witty retort instead, “How many houses were you breaking into, Goldilocks?” She grinned at my quip, and with the boost of confidence that her smile gave me, I picked up a piece of gravel and hurled it at the security camera. I could hear the small tinkle of its minute lens breaking, and just like that, it became safe for us to enter into the post office.

            We moved through the hall of offices slowly in case the owners of this property had the foresight to install additional security measures inside the premises, but so far, it didn’t appear as though anyone had thought to do that! “Remind me to use a different facility when I wanna send out important documents,” I kidded.

            “Sure, if we live long enough to be able to do that!” Violet jested back to me. “Alright, which one of these computers has the list we need?”

            “This one!” I indicated to the largest room in the vicinity, which prompted Violet to stare at me in a doubtful manner. I justified my conjecture, “It’s gotta be the manager’s, I’m sure it’ll have a master copy of everything.” She accepted my logic, so we went into that space.

            Much like Doctor Canenta’s office, this one had a ton of file cabinets in addition to a desk, but unlike his layout, these quarters were large enough to house everything without it becoming cramped for the people using it! We tiptoed over to his computer, and I could see that he hadn’t turned it off, so I used the mouse to wake up the monitor. The screen floated in front of us and demanded a password, and Violet frowned as she queried, “Are you a good hacker?”

            I responded to her, “Let’s find out.” I typed in one attempt, and it opened up onto the desktop right away!

            “How did you do that?” Violet gasped in a skeptical bewilderment.

            “You sound surprised!” I echoed her words from earlier. She still seemed suspicious about my expertise in this arena, so I let her know, “They have a list of passwords on a sticky note.”

            I pointed to the myriad of reminders hanging on the desk in front of me, and Violet’s face dawned in comprehension. She then commented, “Man, this place is wrought with security hazards!”

            As I searched through the folders on the computer, I conversed, “Lucky for us, huh?” I located the correct form, and then I puzzled, “This has a list of zip codes. Which one does the BBN belong in?”

            “We can look it up.” Violet took the reins and used an internet search engine to retrieve the information we needed. “There!”

            “I’m guessing they won’t mind if we take one of their sticky note papers!” I jotted down the ID number of the truck we needed to go to on a giant wad of this colorful stationary, but before Violet could react to what I conveyed to her….

            We both froze when we heard the loud bang of a door opening on the other end of the building! I hastily nabbed the info we obtained before we peeked out to survey the scene. A worker had come in, but thankfully, it wasn’t the owner of the office we were in! Not that this made us completely safer… The woman turned on a machine and began sorting through some envelopes, and while she wasn’t paying attention to this end of the establishment, she could easily have pinpointed us if we chose to move to a different room! I bore a pronounced grimace as I eyeballed the supply room at the end of the hall. We couldn’t complete this phase of the mission without our disguises, but if we actually made it to that area, I feared that we would get caught trying to leave! And I had no clue how long it would take before somebody started to load the trucks! The onset of this operation had gone so smoothly, and now our odds of success didn’t seem so high…

            Another person entered into the property and announced,” Hey, Kathy! I brought coffee!” As Kathy went to fetch her drink, Violet and I darted into the supply room!

            We found the mail carrier uniforms pretty fast, and while Violet initiated her wardrobe change from the privacy of a large stack of boxes, I tore of my garments out in the open. I assumed that the employees arriving at this hour were primarily stationed in another section, but I dreadfully fretted that an individual would use the backdoor and inevitably chance upon us! I grew so nervous about this possibility that my hands were almost shaking too much to button up my shirt! I was so close to finishing up when…

            A man walked in through the door near us! I halted my movements from sheer fright, and for a second, I believed he would pass by without interacting with us, but he doubled back and approached me in the supply room! I was sure that he would declare us in deep trouble, but instead, he gently put his hands on my back and advised me, “Hey buddy, there’s a bathroom down the hall if you need to put your uniform on here!”

            “Uh… Thanks, my friend!” I stammered. I felt relieved that he had no intention of turning us in, but I hoped that he wouldn’t prolong our conversation so that Violet and I could continue with our escape out of here!

            “No problem! I know what it’s like to be new! If you need anything else, come find me! My name’s Andy!” He showed me his badge on his polo.

            I jovially regarded him, “Thanks, Andy!” I prayed that he would leave after this, and once he gave me a supportive pat on the shoulder, he did exit out of our sector! Violet tossed a large hat onto my head, and we nicked a large envelope as we made our way towards the delivery truck lot.

            We passed a couple more postal workers as we went out, and I crossed my fingers that no one would engage with us on the way out. I felt sure that I hadn’t done a sufficient job hiding how jumbled my nerves were at that minute, and I fretted that a lengthy interaction might give our identities away to the wrong person! I had no inkling on whether or not any Fallen were employed in this branch, and even if we didn’t encounter any, our lack of expertise in this industry was bound to give us away! Plus, didn’t they display the most wanted posters in these joints? I took a deep breath and strove to push these qualms out of my mind in order to concentrate, but it was hard to fixate on anything but my rapid pulse! I can’t recall how much time it took to find the vehicle we sought- each step seemed like an hour to me! We hung out behind the truck until the coast was clear, and I beseeched the universe that the assigned driver to this unit wouldn’t head this way during the process! Finally, we were alone, and we hopped in without incident! I truly thought that the hard part was over until…

            We heard someone’s whistle coming closer and closer, so we had to swiftly assemble a barricade with the material inside! We achieved that just before the mail carrier opened the cargo door, and as they put in some last minute additions to their load, Violet and I held our breaths and knocked on wood that they couldn’t detect us! When we heard the doors shut again, we breathed a sigh of relief! I began to relax a little until Violet whispered, “There’s no windows in here!”

            She was correct, we were completely closed in! In a hushed tone, I asked her, “How are we gonna know when we get there then?” Violet answered by holding her hand up to perform a spell, and my heart sank completely! “Don’t do it!” I plead.

            Violet softly told me, “We have no other option! We won’t know where we’re going otherwise!”

            I cringed, and as she used her magic, I cringed knowing that it would physically hurt her to do so. I could feel a gentle wind flow in the cabin, so I knew it was over, but I didn’t dare to glance over until I knew she was done reacting to it. I listened to her shuffle slightly, and I assumed that she had briefly writhed in agony, which sent a million jagged pieces to my core! I had a growing care for her, and I loathed these remembrances on how depleted her life source had become! I let my inner aches to burn a renewed and more vigorous motivation to find the Arch Deity, and as we viewed the passing cityscape, I ardently wished that Nicole did turn out to be the one so we could extend Violet’s life!

            Several stops later, we beheld our appearance to the BBN studio! My excitement level elevated again, and I couldn’t wait to hear what Nicole had to say! I let myself believe that she could alleviate our woes immediately, especially Violet’s tragic circumstance, and that fervor chased away any angst I harbored over this ordeal! As we road towards the back of the property, I impatiently waited for the mail carrier to hit the brakes so we could finally complete our quest!

            The vehicle fluidly lowered to the ground, and I was mildly stunned to see that our mail carrier was Andy! At first, I was glad that we had such a friendly man unwittingly partnering with us because I didn’t think he would get too bent out of shape if he stumbled across us, but then I recalled our exchange in the supply room, and I pondered if that occurrence would make him connect the dots about our deceit! I forced myself to stay optimistic on this regardless of my trepidation- we were so close to our end goal, so I refused to accept failure at this critical juncture! He opened the trunk, and as soon as he ambled over to the property’s mailboxes, we burst out of the vehicle and disappeared from Andy’s sight!

            No one followed us, so I gathered that nobody was purvey to our suspect emergence! I spotted some security cameras alongside the structure, so I made sure to move as casually as possible. We initially intended to go to the front entrance, but when we saw a security guard stationed on one of the side doors, we decided to give this accessway a whirl. The gatekeeper here donned some silver sunglasses as well as silvery jewelry, and his clothing had small and subtle rhinestones of the same hue all over them. I couldn’t tell if this signified that he was a Falle nor if those Fallen executives simply wanted to protect one of their subordinates. I didn’t relish dealing with him, but I judged this to be a safer method of entry than the main doors since it had less traffic, so I had no hesitation about taking a shot with him!

            The security guard surveyed us thoroughly, and while our presence didn’t seem especially welcomed, he didn’t turn us away either. I confidently fibbed to him, “We’re here to deliver a certified letter to Nicole Avalloch.”

            “It takes two people to do that?” the security guard probed.

            “She’s in training,” I lied again. I felt that it was a plausible explanation, so I did not hold any concerns about him not permitting us admittance inside. My expectancy of such a daunting scheme coming to a close slowly arose in me… until…

            The security guard gruffly spoke into a headset, “We need an escort service at Entrance Two.”

            An escort? I wasn’t counting on a chaperone babysitting us for this phase of our plan! I timidly joked, “Wow! You guys really have tight security for a news station!”

            “You can never be too careful nowadays!” the security guard coldly stated. An even rougher-looking man joined his comrade’s side, and the door guard instructed, “Take them to Avalloch for a signature.”

            “Yes, sir!” the other man brusquely obliged. The gatekeeper stepped aside and created a narrow aisle for Violet and me, which we instantly used before he changed his mind. While we tailed behind this intimidating man through a sterile and practically blank hallway, I wracked my brain to unearth some technique of communicating to Nicole without this overseer catching on to our message. We ceased our footsteps at a door with Nicole’s name etched on it, and the guard barked, “Be quick!” I nodded in compliance, but my alarm heightened at how impossible it seemed for us to pull this off! We went in hoping for a favorable outcome despite our fears, but as we entered into her room, we realized that she wasn’t alone…

True Deception, Chapter 12

“I only have one idea, and it seems even riskier than the last one,” Violet told me. “I think we should head to the BBN building next.”

            “I’m so glad you said that!” I responded in relief. “I feel bad about ditching Nicole like that! She’s stuck doing the Fallen’s bidding, and it must have crushed her when we left! She’s probably been waiting for answers for years! I’ve been there before, it’s an awful thing to go through! I bet she must have so much frustration built up after getting so close and losing the opportunity so abruptly like that! It’ll be good to be able to help her out!”

            Violet only partially agreed with me, “Yes, that would be nice, but don’t forget, that’s not the main reason we would be going there!”

            This reminder made me frown. “Oh, right! We’d be there for those executives she mentioned. But we can’t go there just to fight them! Do you think that the Arch Deity could have chosen to hide there?”

            “Possibly. It’s also vaguely possible that we already met her…” Violet cryptically stated.

            “What, you mean Nicole?” I inquired with a hint of doubt in my voice.

            Violet picked up on my underlying tone and replied, “You don’t believe it’s at all likely?”

            As politely as I could, I differed with her, “If she were the Arch Deity, she wouldn’t give into the Fallen so much! Those jerks would have already disappeared from that news station! How could it be her?”

            “Deities are humans, they succumb to the same issues that we do,” Violet educated me. “Both our physical and mental health can hold us back from reaching our full potential, and remember, the Arch Deity hasn’t surfaced to put a stop to Birsha’s regime for a reason! Maybe she doesn’t have the confidence to pull it off. We can certainly assist her with that! You’ve got a real talent for that sort of thing!”

            “Thanks!” I grinned while trying not to let this attractive woman’s compliment elate my spirits too much. I shook off my more fanciful notions and brought up, “And what if she’s not the Arch Deity? Then what do we do?”

            Violet asserted, “We see what else she knows about this subject! She figured out our involvement in defying Birsha and her Army pretty quickly, so I’m guessing that she may know more about all this than we realize. If she’s not the Arch Deity, she may have learned some clues about their location. Or, at the very least, she might’ve gotten something handy to use against Birsha, so it’s worth a try to have a chat with her! However, there is one problem with this… how do we get to her without getting caught by those executives?”

            I mulled it over a bit and came up blank. “It’s hard to say without knowing the layout of the studio. There’s probably some sort of backdoor that we could use, but we won’t know that ‘til we get there! Actually, we probably couldn’t even do it then- I’m pretty sure they’d have surveillance surrounding the property! They’d capture us in a minute if we strolled up to the place and started sneaking around the entrances that aren’t open to the public!”

            “We would have to portray ourselves as someone they trust,” Violet noted.

            “Are you saying that we wear another disguise?” I asked her. “Do they have a cafeteria there?”

            Violet laughed, and then she answered me, “Not likely. They may have food delivered there sometimes, but I doubt they’d accept anything that they didn’t order. Even if they’re not smart enough to get suspicious about strangers randomly showing up at their doorstep, they’re executives, so they’ll be leery about anything that might cost them money… Not that I was ever like that when it came to running my company…”

            I teased her, “Uh huh, sure…”

            “Hey! I wasn’t cheap!” She pretended to show anger as she threw some grass at me.

            “Throwing projectiles at me, huh? A few seconds ago, you were trying to lessen my pain, and now you wanna create more injuries on me?” I feigned being affronted by her actions.

            She ribbed me, “Wow, I didn’t know you were so delicate!”

            I slyly reacted, “Okay, let’s see how you like it!” I plucked up a small clump and tossed it at her. She repeated the same move, and we went back and forth like that for a while! When no one appeared to win this scuffle, I called out, “Alright, truce!”

            Violet obliged, “Yes, truce. But this ceasefire won’t last forever!”

            I pretended to get scared by her threat, and we erupted in laughter. My pulse began to race, but unlike in the hospital, this time it had nothing to do with a severe case of stress! For a brief instance, I forgot that we were in the midst of planning a dangerous mission! In that moment, I almost felt like I was on a date with her, and when I realized that I had that thought, I immediately chastised myself for it! Not only had I gotten distracted from a vital task, but I nearly let myself fall into the temptation of acting upon my enamored inclinations for her! This woman was a Guardian, she was practically a goddess, and I found it improbable that a lady of that caliber would choose me as a lover! If I attempted something affectionate, I assumed that she would rebuff my advances and would lose the will to partner up with me to save the world! I couldn’t take the chance of going without her services, there was no way I could take on Birsha’s Army with her! It would have been lunacy for me to make that endeavor solo! I didn’t want to use her powers and deplete her life force unless we absolutely had to, but it was prudent to have somebody who could do magic on my side for this ordeal! I resolved to avoid any scenarios that had the potential to make me lose my ally, and I redirected my focus as I addressed her, “So, what would be a feasible disguise for us in this situation?”

            When I heard how bitter I sounded as I spoke to her, I grew worried that she would know that something was up with me! It irritated me that I felt spurned right then, and I inwardly harped on myself for not dating more when I had the chance! I never married, and I hardly ever got into a serious relationship because it was so rare to find a girl who didn’t adhere to the societal standard of isolationism. In addition to that, I sought out ladies who shared my passion for coming to the aid of people in need all around us, and that was even more of an unusual find during these times! Most individuals that I encountered were centered around nothing more than their own survival, which was totally understandable now that I thought about it. I wondered if I had simply been too picky, but still, I preferred to go out with someone who had the same drive of putting in great effort into altruism as I did. It drove me crazy to have somebody who had everything I ever wanted from a future life partner and not do anything to pursue that venture, and even though it would hurt like mad to ignore these sentiments, I knew that I had to do it… unless my emotions became obvious to her and she ended our quest!

            Thankfully, I didn’t think she detected anything based on the neutral way she relayed to me, “I’m not sure what we could wear to get into the BBN’s headquarters, but before we come up with that solution, we have to work out a way to get across town without getting recognized! Got any ideas on how to do that?”

            “Hmm…” I briefly contemplated this predicament. “I know I passed a number of businesses on the way to Sylph’s Hollow, but I didn’t anticipate quizzing myself on what was there or else I would have made more of an attempt to cement them in my memory! Let’s see… there was a florist, a liquor store, a dentist…”

            “There was a couple of restaurants too,” Violet added to my list. “And a hair salon too. Oh, and a vet’s office, which was next to a daycare and a post office…”

            That last one struck a chord with me. “A post office! They travel all over the city without too much of a hassle…”

            Violet queried, “Are you saying that we disguise ourselves as postal workers? Delivering mail would really eat up a lot of time!”

            “Yeah, and this place wouldn’t be as hectic as an understaffed hospital kitchen, we can’t just show up and start working!” I acknowledged. “I’m assuming that they would keep track of who they assign their vehicles to. It’s too bad ‘cause I know at some point one of those trucks would drive right up to BBN with no trouble from the Fallen!”

            “I wish we could hitch a ride with them! Wouldn’t be great if we could mail ourselves to the station?” Violet kidded, but that prompted her to unearth a more serious thought. “But we could hide ourselves underneath all of their letters and packages! I’m positive they have certain people sorting through the mail and that they’re not the same people delivering it, so it’s not like the mail carriers would check their trucks too thoroughly before beginning their route!  Hold on though, there’s bound to be multiple vehicles that they use, so how do we figure out which one is going to where we wanna go?”

            After ruminating over this matter for a spell, I submitted to her, “We’d have to break into the building while it’s closed.” She gasped at the prospect, and I articulated to her, “Yeah, it’s insane, but we don’t have a choice! We would need to borrow some uniforms anyways ‘cause even if we managed to stow away in the correct truck, those executives aren’t gonna let us inside with our plain clothes on.” Violet appeared hesitant at the outlook of my proposal, so I assured her, “If we can come up with a way to get to the news station that’s less complicated before we get there, we’ll do that, but if we can’t, then we gotta use this plan!”

            Violet gazed at the setting sun as she reflected on the proposition for a short interval, and as I anticipated her reply, I couldn’t ignore the fact that under any other circumstance, sitting together by a forest stream watching the dusk set in would be incredibly romantic! It was difficult to restrain myself from holding her right then, and a part of me lamented that we had this daunting task that prevented from using this idyllic scenery to initiate an amorous tryst! Most of my senses didn’t sincerely believe she would desire me in the same way I wanted her, but it was pleasurable to picture the two of us in a passionate embrace…

            “Alright, let’s do it,” Violet concluded.

            “Huh?” It stunned me to hear her utter that phrase1 Could my fantasy literally have been coming to life? My logical side urged me not to get my hopes up, but the rest of me ignored that advice and practically trembled with excitement…

            She expounded on her statement, “Well, I can’t root out any other method of getting into the BBN studio, and we can’t afford to sit around here ‘til something else pops into our heads! It’s extremely bonkers, but if we can pull it off, we’ll at least be safe heading over there! Those trucks have a bunch of silver in them, so we’ll have some protection in case some Fallens decide to ambush during the trip!”

            My exuberance sank down quite abruptly! Of course, she meant our post office plot! I admonished myself for being so foolish as to convince myself of any expectations of some kind of intimacy in the middle of a period of unrest for the planet, and I pondered how long it would take for those ridiculous abstractions to vacate my mind! Now I had to endure the pangs of disappointment coursing through my veins again, and it was incredibly challenging to shield my altered mood from her! My curiosity managed to permeate through my bitterness after a minute though, and I posed to her, “Why does silver have that type of capability?”

            “I don’t know the scientific explanation for it, but a Deity’s powers can’t penetrate it,” Violet illuminated on this for me. “That’s why Birsha’s Army wears armor- a Guardian would have to aim between all the silver to successfully administer a hex. We got so lucky in that arbitration room!”

            “Why didn’t those thugs in Saint Cyprian’s have any silver?” I questioned.

            Violet shrugged. “They could have worn a silver vest under their scrubs, but it wouldn’t have made a difference- we took them down with more conventional techniques! Funnily enough, they looked less prepared for hand-to-hand combat than magical warfare!” We both chortled at their error in judgment, and as we observed the stars commencing with their nightly appearance, it seemed even more unfair that a deadly force threatened the earth as we found ourselves in such a pleasant scene!

            Once the hour became late enough, Violet and I journeyed to the post office that edged the woods. We spotted several security cameras above its various entrances, but we didn’t see any signs of an alarm system, so I made the suggestion, “If we throw a rock hard enough at the lens, it can’t capture us jimmy-opening the locks on the door.”

            “Are you a good aim?” Violet probed.

            “We’re about to see!” I picked up a decently sized stone in the unkempt field that we stood in, but prior to me going for it, I espied a shadowy silhouette in the distance that caused me to cease my fire! “Quick! Hide!”

True Deception, Chapter 11

“What are you looking at, Nicole?” a producer on the other side of the parking lot asked the statuesque and very thin woman with stringy, auburn hair and an elegant skirt-suit who stood before us. I grew so irate that it rendered me unable to move or speak! I couldn’t believe we went through all that effort only to get discovered right afterwards! Birsha’s thugs in the nursing department failed to destroy us, but they may have gotten their way anyhow!

            “I… Uh…” Nicole glanced over at us, and then she answered the producer, “I thought I saw a stray cat in here, but it was just a squirrel!” A jolt of shock coursed throughout my veins! I felt certain that she would bring our hiding spot to everyone’s attention so that they could get the full story of what happened in the ICU, so it flabbergasted me that she would keep our location clandestine like that! She told her producer, “I’m gonna contact my sources real quick before we go live. I’ll be right there!” Violet turned back to me with a look of confusion on her face, and she wordlessly questioned me on what we should do. I couldn’t give her a response since I didn’t even know what was happening! At least, I didn’t until Nicole put her watch up to her chin as if she were speaking on the phone, and she covertly inquired to us, “So, why are you two sneaking around like this?”

            It was hard to tell if she aimed to assist us or if she simply wanted to get an exclusive scoop on the event that unfolded earlier. I wasn’t sure if I could trust her; after hearing her talk a little more, I identified her as the same reporter who accosted Violet and me before the trial, and she didn’t exactly present a chord of friendliness to us then! If we gave her too much information, she could potentially use it to double-cross us! However, if we didn’t indulge her at all, she could call us out and bring the entire media over to corner us! We had to placate her a tiny bit, so I decided to give her the truth, well, some of it. “We’re in danger! We need to get out of here without being seen!”

            Nicole probed, “Danger from who? Birsha’s army?”

            “This is off the record, isn’t it?” Violet posed to her.

            “Of course!” Nicole assured us. “Are you kidding? I don’t want them to have even more of a cause to follow me around!”

            Violet and I got another flash of surprise from her when she revealed that tidbit, and Violet queried, “Birsha’s Army is after you too?”

            With a bitter tone, Nicole stated, “If I said they’re after me, that would imply that I’m ahead of them! Birsha’s Army has a heavy presence at our station, and they control everything we do. I don’t get to choose the stories Jeremy and I cover during our broadcast, and when I’m out in the field, I gotta go with the angles they choose for me! I didn’t spend six years in college to become someone’s puppet, but here we are!”

            “Then why do you do it?” I pried. “Why don’t you go somewhere that she doesn’t control? She can’t have taken over every news outlet!” I paused and then added, “Can she?”

            “There’s a couple of small magazines that are outside of her dominion, but no one takes them seriously. I dunno, I guess I stay ‘cause I’m waiting for the one chance I’ll get someday of showing the world the actual facts of what’s going on. Plus, if I left, I could only imagine what would happen to the BBN without a good person’s input! I’ve convinced them to scrap some of their most ludicrous propaganda, so I suppose my presence has had a small impact!” Nicole sighed.

            Violet petitioned her, “How did you find out about Birsha? Did they actually say her name to you?”

            Nicole explained, “Oh, no! Most of the staff thinks they’re just really controlling executives, but my instincts led me to the conclusion that their stronghold over us stemmed from something bigger than a need for power over a television station! It seemed odd that they dictated what messages got broadcasted, so I did what any good journalist would do- I investigated them! One day, I followed a couple of them out the door, and I heard them mentioning it. I wish I could tell the world what I know, but how? Birsha’s influence reaches the entire planet, so it’s not like I could go anywhere with this knowledge! I could slip it into our show, but nobody would buy it! Birsha has everyone convinced that she’s innocent, so everybody would wind up thinking I’ve gone crazy! And then her Army would have me killed, and the truth would die with me! Then if I ever did share this with the world, would anyone do anything with it? Most of society is happy with the way their lives are, or they’re under the delusion that they’re satisfied, so if I did leak this secret, would any person actually care?”

            “We care!” I asserted. “I’ve never enjoyed the way everything got ran! They don’t keep us safe from natural disasters, and they’re definitely not treating everyday citizens with dignity in the name of the law! The earth is suffering, and it’s a wrong that shouldn’t last any longer!”

            “I know,” Nicole acknowledged the honesty of my statement. “When I saw you going into the courthouse, you had this look of righteousness about you, and so I wondered if there was more to the Violet Harlow saga then merely a spoiled brat running away from punishment. Then when you attributed the Cassiel murder to her, I figured that her Army would hunt you down! I never bought their claim of an unlawful killing and attempted murder on those guys in that arbitration room! You got a mistrial, you were essentially free from prison, so why would you put yourself in more legal jeopardy? But you never gave me a real reply to my original question- what are you guys doing here?”

            She seemed sincere, and I truly pitied her for her desire to act with veracity in her field getting squashed like that! I did not hold the belief that she would betray us anymore, but we had another problem… If we went into detail about our mission to find the Arch Deity, we would evoke the possibility of the cameras or even the police catching us, so we really didn’t have any spare minutes to give her the details that she craved. It felt like a shame to dismiss a potential ally in this battle for the soul of humanity, but as far as we could see, Violet and I were the only ones taking action to thwart Birsha’s evil regime, so it was imperative that we keep moving! Quite regretfully, I relayed to her, “We can’t discuss this right now! We gotta get out of here immediately!”

            I prayed that her immersion into Birsha’s reach would compel her to understand the urgency of our need to escape, but to my disappointment, she protested, “Oh, please don’t go! We’ve barely scratched the surface of this issue! Are you just running from her, or do you have plans to stop her? If it’s the latter, how do you intend to do it? What’s going on? Please! I’ve never been this close to knowing the full scope of it all! People need to know what’s occurring! I’m not sure what I would do with this info yet, but if I had it documented, then history would-.”

            “Hey, Nicole! Get over here! We’re ready to go live!” The producer motioned for her to join him.

            “Oh! Please, stay here so we can keep talking after this segment!” Nicole pleaded with us. She hurried over to where her colleagues were stationed with quite the distressed expression, and Violet gazed back at me for cues on whether or not we should continue with our getaway. I was slightly torn; Nicole did have a point on the significance of putting the background of our operation onto some kind of recording, and I did feel guilty for not being able to aid her when she pined for it so badly, but on the same token, we obviously couldn’t give her anything if we didn’t live long enough to narrate our chronicles! With that in mind, I gave Violet a nod, and we resumed our trek out of this vicinity.

            We ran through the rear parking lot with our heads looking over our shoulders and our fingers crossed that nobody would emerge from this side of the hospital or the vehicles in this section so that we could finally vacate the premises! Fortunately, no one did! We found a group of trees next to the freeway behind the property, and while the cars that utilized this road hovered high enough where their drivers were highly unlikely to notice any of our specific features, it was still nerve-wracking for us to traverse a channel so close to a densely populated quarter! We did our utmost to remain unseen by concealing ourselves with the plants we encountered, but I remained worried that someone would spot us, view our behavior as suspicious, and turn us in! In addition to fretting over the passersby, I got filled with anxiety that Nicole would figure out the path we took and drag us back to Saint Cyprian’s! To our relief, we reached the outer territory of Sylph’s Hollow, and once we entered into that terrain, our tension finally started to ease a little!

            After travelling into the thick of the forest, we slowed down our gait to some degree. I pondered what the ideal site to rest and recoup would be for us, and my puzzlement got resolved when Violet exclaimed, “Oh good! There’s some chamomiles down there!”

            We went down a small incline where a narrow brook steadily babbled, and she settled herself down amongst a patch of daisy-like flowers. The scene was picturesque, but my curiosity peaked as to why she had chosen this plot to situate ourselves at, so I asked her, “Is Birsha allergic to these things or something?”

            “I wish!” she answered with a giggle. “No, these things will help us with our pain.”

            “What pain?” Right after those words had left my mouth, my sedentary stance invited the aches I incurred during our confrontation with the Fallens began to set in. I groaned slightly, and Violet gave me an I-Told-You-So look, so I rectified my previous sentence, “Oh, I see!” She smirked as she commenced in gathering this peculiar supply for us, and it heartened me to see her grin after all we went through that day! She had such an enchanting smile, and I thought it was a shame that she had frowned so much during her days as a celebrity icon! Her happy image might have sold so much more merchandise than her constant scowl, it was very alluring! She glanced up at me, and I realized that not only had I been staring at her, but I had been enjoying her beauty more thoroughly than I should have! I didn’t comprehend why I had let myself get hypnotized in that manner, but it embarrassed me to have created an awkward moment between the two of us! The last thing I needed was for her to grow uncomfortable from my lack of grace and leave! She was a valuable partner in this quest, and I would have never forgiven myself if I drove her away! It was horrifying to picture the world getting doomed over an entirely avoidable complication, so I cleared my throat and switched my focus to a more viable matter, “So, what? We rub these plants on us and get rid of our sore muscles?”

            She corrected my conjecture, “No, we have to consume them. And since we don’t have the time or the means to steep them and turn them into tea, we’re gonna have to eat them!”

            I laughed due to my impression that she had made a joke, but when she maintained a serious face, I grew somewhat frazzled. “You want us to swallow these things?”

            “They’re not poisonous,” she argued.

            “Yeah, but they’re not clean!” I countered, and when I eyeballed the water next to us, I instantly knew I lost that debate! “Alright, fine! You win!”

            As she handed me some chamomiles, she chuckled, “No, we both did! You’ll feel loads better after these kick in, and you’ll be in strong enough shape to fight off the next set of evil Deities we come across!”

            I wanted to dive more into this material, but after I had washed my bouquet, I couldn’t concentrate on anything else but eating this greenery! I took nasty medicine earlier in my life, but it was a much more achievable feat since that remedy came in an easy to choke down pill! I didn’t relish the concept of chewing this stuff, but since I didn’t have any other options in this juncture, I forced myself to man up and do it! I bit off a piece and… It didn’t taste as acrid as I feared they would! I meant to convey to her my shifted views on her suggestion, but when I beheld her gnawing on some too, an eighties’ tune popped into my head and I chortled. When she reacted in befuddlement, I clarified my action, “Sorry, it just reminded me of this song by PowerFlite called ‘Millionaire Dreaming.’ They were comparing their old lives with what they-.”

            “I don’t wanna eat no grass!/ Gimme some steak and a champagne glass!” she sang out loud, which totally floored me! Nobody else my age knew the lyrics to the classic hits I listened to! “I used to watch old music videos for inspiration for my designs.”

            “You did?” I was so stunned to hear this that I needed further confirmation of it!

            She expounded on that, “Yeah. They used such interesting shapes and colors in their fashion! Plus, it was fun to listen to some upbeat melodies while I worked!” My heart pounded wildly to learn that she had the same passion for this genre as me! It was an incredibly rare find! She then jested to me, “Evidently, you never shopped in my boutiques or else you would have known that already!”

            I shrugged. “I couldn’t afford it! Unless one of your pieces happened to end up in a thrift store!” I tittered at my rejoinder, and she found it comical too. As we partook in the same laughter, my spirits elated! I was dumbfounded that this woman wasn’t merely gorgeous, but she had a pure soul that did so much to benefit so many people in need and a fun, adventurous personality too! She was the perfect person, and all of a sudden, I realized that I was beginning to feel more than respect or friendship for her! I inwardly cringed at the notion of harboring romantic sentiments for someone I counted on to help me save the planet, it was a potential hazard to the cause! I knocked on wood that my fancy would pass so that my inconvenient emotions wouldn’t complicate our relationship and ruin everything for the future of humankind! I uncomfortably fidgeted with the flora in my hand, and I took a shot at getting my wits back in order by enquiring to her, “Okay… So, where else can we go to find the Arch Deity?”

True Deception, Chapter 10

“Hey!” Kory roared out as he suddenly struck something behind him, and to my horror, Doctor Canenta hit the ground hard enough to render him unconscious! As badly as I wanted to come to his aid, I had to strike back at Kory while his attention was still elsewhere! I used my elbow to hit him in the stomach, and thankfully, he inadvertently loosened his grasp! I slipped out, and once I faced him, he attempted to shoot another hex at me, so I pushed his arm so that his trajectory hit the floor! Before he could summon another spell, I punched him in the forehead and sent him flying to the ground! I dove to his side to pin down his arms and prevent him from using his magic, and he struggled against my grip! He rolled me onto my back, but he couldn’t loosen himself from my restraint! When I tried to think of my next move, I spotted a trail of blood by my head! I glanced to my right and realized that it unfortunately came from Doctor Canenta! I also noticed that he had dropped a syringe with some kind of serum in it, but I didn’t have much time to process it because Kory managed to free himself! I couldn’t reach his arms anymore, so he brewed up another jinx and taunted me, “Say goodbye, dissident!”

            “Goodbye!” I grabbed the syringe and drove it into his thigh! I assumed that Doctor Canenta had tried to inject him with something to knock him out, and as I pushed down on the plunger, I crossed my fingers that my hunch would prove correct! Mercifully, whatever concoction that was in there worked incredibly fast! He slowly grew more and more drowsy, and with one last glare at me, he fell unconscious!

            The crowd cheered at our victory, which felt strange to me since most of society was not on our side right then, and I attributed that to my efforts to persuade them to our position in the beginning of the confrontation. I suspected that it would work, but I had no inkling that it would be this effective! However, I hardly felt like patting myself on the back in that instance, my thoughts went straight to Doctor Canenta’s well-being! I turned to him, and a couple of nurses were already working on him! One of them reported to me, “He’s still alive, but we need to get him to the ER stat!”

            As they began to set up their hovering gurney, I inquired, “What about the…?”

            “We’re on it!” another nurse who was in the process of putting constraints on the knocked out blonde woman replied.

            “You guys did it!” The woman we had served food to earlier ran up to me as Violet put herself next to me. Violet had an expression of confusion and discomfort as the bystanders all teemed in to offer their accolades to us. “You saved us all!”

            How did she know that? I was grateful that they didn’t view us as the enemy as those nursing assistants attacked Violet and me, they could have easily interpreted the situation as the hospital staff defending their patients, but it surprised me that the people who made up the rest of Saint Cyprian’s gleaned that they were in danger too! I thought perhaps the admittance of them interfering with Doctor Canenta’s work coupled by the powerful force they used to fight us compelled them into apprehension, and they must have been fearful enough of these adversaries to overlook our criminal identity since nobody seemed tempted to turn us in! It was such a different reaction than the scene we encountered in downtown Anwynston, and it felt wonderful to receive this sort of jubilant admiration, but I didn’t let these festivities lull us into a false sense of security! Birsha wouldn’t allow the world to adopt a favorable perception of us, and it was only a matter of time before she sought vengeance for the damage we did to a group of thugs that I could only presume had some kind of allegiance to her, so I whispered to Violet, “We need to get out of here!”

            Violet gazed at the adoring onlookers doubtfully, and I couldn’t blame her for feeling hesitant about our exit! They all appeared to have grown attached to our presence, so it was going to be difficult to convince them to permit us to vacate the premises! Violet caught sight of the old man who helped us, and she pulled him in and told everyone, “Don’t forget to thank him! We couldn’t have done it without him!”

            The elderly man bashfully addressed everyone, “Aw, I was just doing my duty! I served as a Marine during Desert Storm, and I never stopped protecting my countrymen ever since!”

            As they all congratulated him for everything that he did, Violet and I were able to duck out from the masses’ reach, but we weren’t able to get very far! Somebody espied us pretty quickly and exclaimed, “Wait! Where are you going?”

            “Uh…” I mulled it over rapidly, and the first excuse I could dig up was, “We may have gotten hurt during all this, so we’re gonna go get examined in the ER.” The congregation seemed disappointed to lose us so soon, but they accepted our reasoning. Just when we were thinking that we would be able to bolt out with no fuss…

            “I’ll go with you,” a nurse volunteered.

            Violet and I strove to hide our grimaces at this development. Neither of us wanted to wound anyone’s feelings, but it was imperative that we got away from there as speedily as possible, so we couldn’t accept this offer. I could only imagine that the police would arrive shortly, and I was certain that they wouldn’t be as forgiving as the witnesses to this ordeal were! Plus, we had to figure out a new place to investigate as rapidly as possibly! The Arch Deity wasn’t here, but we had to discover where they were hidden in a flash or else the Fallen would have more opportunity to invoke their destruction on the planet! The longer we took, the more damage they could do, so we had to move with haste! I politely declined his proposal, “That’s okay, we can handle it ourselves.”

            The nurse insisted, “Absolutely not! If you are injured, you might collapse on the way there, and we can’t have that, can we?” Violet and I exchanged looks; we each recognized that we wouldn’t get a choice on this matter, so we relented. As this nurse escorted us to the elevator, the spectators cheered for us again. We cordially waved to them, but as soon as the doors shut, we ceased participating in that merriment and pondered over our next move.

            We stood in that space in silence for a long minute. I dearly wished that Violet and I could discuss the issue together, but we couldn’t even gesture to each other without this nurse detecting our communication! He seemed nice enough, definitely didn’t give us any negative vibes like those cronies did, but at this stage of our operation, we could not trust anybody! I studied Violet from head to toe, and she didn’t seem like she had any injuries that would require any extensive treatment, so I reasoned that we would most likely not get stuck there for too long. The hard part was going to be escaping before any authority figures arrived! I inwardly prayed that the Emergency Room entrance would be clear when we got released! I sincerely hoped that Violet wouldn’t have to use her dwindling life force to get us out of there! It drove me crazy to have no picture of what was coming, but at this point, all we could do was wait and see what we were met with in order to create our desperately needed plan!

            “Here we are!” the nurse suddenly announced. The abrupt break of silence made Violet and I both jump, and we tried not to look too nervous as we were led to the Emergency Room triage area. All of the staff appeared equally as chaotic as the cafeteria kitchen workers were, so I guessed that they also had a shortage of employees, an extreme number of cases, or both! The nurse brought us to a curtained off section that seemed like it was once part of the lobby, but it now got used as a screening room. It had a few examination tables with drapes that left each patient with physical privacy but not any auditory seclusion, and it had some basic first aid tools as well as a couple of wheelchairs ready for transporting patients who needed more intensive care, all of which I beseeched the universe wouldn’t get used on us! I knocked on wood that they would give us an expedient examination so we could rush out in a trice, but I worried that their thoroughness would mandate Violet and I to stay longer! It was one of the few instances that I wanted to get proven wrong on a viewpoint! The nurse asked us, “Do you two mind sharing a space?”

            “No, that’s fine,” Violet answered very agreeably. I got the impression that she acquiesced in the interest of expediency, but she attempted to shield this sentiment from the nurse so we could maintain our cover of actively seeking medical services. Either he didn’t catch on to her underlying emotions or he didn’t care because he made no mention of it, but in a way, I thought it would have been advantageous if he detected a drift of that so we could cease this waste of precious minutes!

            The nurse closed off our quarters, and for a second, I believed we were going to get some much-needed isolation, but apparently, he had merely signaled to a nearby doctor, who came in and greeted us with, “So, what have we got here?”

            The nurse stated, “Possible head trauma and internal bleeding.”

            “Thank you, Raziel.” The doctor approached us as Raziel left, and he started examining me first. As he visually scanned me, he inquired, “Any pain or numbness?”

            “No,” I hastily replied. Honestly, I had no clue what ailments I may have incurred as a result of that altercation because my adrenaline was too pumped up to really delve deep into myself and assess how I truly fared at this moment, but I had a suspicion that I didn’t have anything noteworthy plaguing me, so I felt no guilt in my response to him.

            He put his stethoscope up to my chest, and after a short listen, he noted, “Your heartbeat sure has accelerated! Let’s get your pulse!” I disliked the concept of getting tethered to the building with this device, but I stuck my arm out in a reluctant compliance anyways. While the machine read my vitals, he took a quick peek at Violet. “I don’t see any evidence of any cranial injuries. Can you take off your hair net?”

            Violet’s expression relayed a sense of dread at this directive. “You want me to take if off?” she apprehensively queried.

            “I have to check your entire skull,” the doctor justified his instruction to her.

            “Okay…” Violet unwillingly agreed.

            I inferred that she feared that this order would open up the possibility of the doctor recognizing us; if that were to occur, it would induce more unnecessary delays in our quest! To our dismay, her distress over this possibility may have been justified! The doctor peered at her curiously and probed, “Do I know you from somewhere?”

            My panic made the monitor attached me beep in warning, but before the doctor could react to this outcome, an azure light flashed and a siren blared! “Code blue! I’ll be right back!”

            Violet stood up and observed his movements, and as soon as he vanished from her scope, she commanded to me, “Come on!” I gladly ripped that instrument off of me, and I thanked our lucky stars that we had a clear shot at the exit! I could feel the fresh air hitting my skin, and right as I started to savor our win…

            We froze in front of the automatic doors when we beheld a line of media vans arriving! We concealed ourselves as much as we could, but that wouldn’t last long! “We can’t go out there!” Violet assessed. “If they see us coming out, they’ll wanna ask us about the incident in the ICU!”

            I suggested, “We can say we weren’t there. How would they know we were even involved?” Simultaneously, Violet and I realized that our getup would probably give us away if their sources notified them that a couple of food handlers saved the day, so we swiftly shed our uniforms! After we returned to our plain clothes, I posed to her, “Now what?”

            Violet searched around the vicinity, and then she proposed, “We could go through these bushes to get to the parking lot in the back.” That idea seemed a little outlandish to me, and when she saw my skeptical expression, she vocalized, “We can go back into the hospital and hope we don’t get seen, try our luck with the reporters, or go through the shrubs. Which one do you expect will turn out best for us?”

            She had a point, and while it still sounded like the odds were against us here, none of the other options had a phenomenal degree of certainty, so I acceded, “You’re right! Let’s do it!”

            We ducked down and took one last glance at the journalists who were assembling in front of Saint Cyprians, and when we were assured that nobody’s attention laid in our direction, we scurried into the foliage! The terrain we traversed had a coarse texture, but if it kept us free from prying eyes, then I did not want to complain too much! I kept staring at the camera crews and news people from between the leaves, and it amazed me that not one of them detected our presence in the greenery! The rear parking site was vacant, and as we inched closer and closer to our safe harbor, I grew more and more hopeful of get out of there without any further incidents! We had almost reached our destination when, all of a sudden, a pair of legs blocked our path! Alarm coursed throughout our bodies as a somewhat familiar female’s voice rang out, “What are you guys doing here?”