The Terra-Belle Ghost, Chapter 4

“What are these doing here?” Blaise indignantly asked Miriam as he gestured towards the luggage in the hallway.

            “I’m sorry, I just thought…” Miriam started to answer as the doorbell rang for a second time.

            I picked myself up as Blaise chided Miriam, “See, I don’t believe you were thinking or else you wouldn’t have left them in such a haphazard spot!”

            As Miriam apologized for the inappropriate placement of the bags, I briefly considered ignoring the person who had come to visit because no decent person deserved to get subjected to this clown show, but then I decided to open the door in hopes that maybe it would compel everyone to act normally! To my astonishment, it wasn’t a stranger who had chosen the most inappropriate time to come, it was Roxy! Actually, I shouldn’t have been too surprised about that- she was across the street a few minutes ago! “Blaise, Conor left the luggage there!” Phoebe stepped into that foray. “He-.”

            “And why was he doing your job?” Blaise accosted Miriam.

            “How can I help you, Roxy?” I loudly queried Roxy in case no had realized that their conversation was no longer private.

            To my dismay, Blaise and Miriam kept contending the same point, but Roxy either hadn’t noticed their scuffle or chose to ignore it. “Can I use your bathroom?” she requested.

            Phoebe tried to intervene and put an end to that ruckus, but they continued to loudly debate each other despite her most earnest attempts at reconciliation. It baffled me that Roxy could witness such chaos where two of her teachers lived and not even bat an eyelash, but since it didn’t appear to bother her, I supposed that there was no harm in allowing her to enter. “Fine, go ahead!” Big mistake- you’ll see why in a minute!

            Roxy went around the participants of that fracas as unmoved as she might be having to steer around an overgrown bush on the sidewalk, and as she nonchalantly strolled past the valises, I lost my patience with this kerfuffle and bellowed, “Alright, that’s enough!” Everyone froze, and admittedly, I felt rather proud of myself for this feat! My father was always able to command attention like that from me and/or the neighborhood kids if anyone was acting up, and if we knew it was one of the rare instances he didn’t have to work, we strove to behave our best to avoid hearing the scary dad voice! …Not that we were bad that often… Anyways, I hadn’t become a parent yet, so I didn’t know I could do that! I made a mental note to keep this tool in my back pocket for my students at school, and then I spoke to Roxy first, “Not you, you can go to the bathroom!” Roxy gratefully sped into the restroom at the end of the hall.

            I turned to Blaise and reasoned, “The longer you bicker, the longer the luggage stays out here where you don’t want them to be! So, let’s get your things to your room and focus on getting everything settled for your stay instead.” Miriam swiftly grabbed the baggage and hurried them into the extra bedroom. Blaise clearly didn’t relish someone other than him commanding the helm, so prior to him protesting this standard, I warned him, “It’s my home, so you gotta listen to my rules!” After I heard myself utter those words, I remarked, “Wow! What’s up with me today? Am I being possessed by my father?”

            “Are you?” Blaise probed. He then peered at me with great interest, which I found incredibly odd! So much so that it was too difficult for my brain to wrap around this peculiarity to give him a reply!

            “Mister Fenmore?” Roxy broke the uncomfortable silence quite unabashedly.

            I somewhat vexedly responded, “What?”

            She replied, “Your toilet is clogged.”

            “Oh great! We’ve got extra people here now, and this is the moment we find out the toilet is broken!” I ranted. “Ugh! It’s too late in the day to call a plumber! We don’t even have any de-clogging fluid!”

            “You could use salt and boiling water,” Miriam suggested. “That’s what we used to do in our old commune. We did most of our own fixes ‘cause repairmen tended to avoid going to our place…”

            I exasperatedly shrugged and declared, “It’s worth a shot!”

            Phoebe filled a pot with water and set it on the stove, and Miriam advised us, “You gotta let the salt sit for a while…”

            Still fairly irate, I grabbed a container of salt and marched over to the guest bathroom. I began pouring some in, but I wasn’t certain on the correct amount, so I momentarily quit. I was about to consult with Miriam about this issue when I espied the salt already getting sucked into the drain! “Wow, it’s working without the…” Suddenly, the water inside of the tank started swirling around without being preceded by a flush! “That’s kinda weird…”

            “Ooh, it could be magic!” Roxy, who had interestedly peered over my shoulder, excitedly theorized.

            “Oh please, it’s not magic!” I disagreed. At that instant, the water rose out of the bowl in a vortex that swirled like a tornado! I stammered, “What the… What’s it… Why… Phoebe!”

            Phoebe ran over to us, and the speed of this phenomenon heightened substantially! It whirled faster and faster until it morphed into a ball and shot out towards the wall behind us! We ducked, and when we felt ensured that we would be safe from projectiles, we looked up and beheld the portrait of a pallid, slightly older man with a large bald spot, a crown of darkly hued hair, an obtuse and very crooked nose, and beady, black eyes hung above us on an old nail and rather aged twine! Phoebe and I remained speechless, but Roxy triumphantly exclaimed, “I told you!”

            I couldn’t contradict her- obviously, that occurrence hadn’t been produced naturally! I couldn’t comprehend how it came to pass, but I did know one fact regarding this sordid event, “I didn’t do any spells!”

            My heart nearly leapt out of my chest when the portrait opened his mouth and articulated, “It’s not a spell, it’s an effect of a potion! And you poured in the final ingredient to make it brew!”

            A million bewildered cognitions flurried throughout my head! Did Roxy create a certified jinx for once, or did Blaise set her up? Did Miriam know that salt was needed to produce this enchantment? Did Damon’s key really contain a curse after all, and if it did, why did it wait until right then to manifest? I couldn’t get past this aura of familiarity I got from that man in the painting, so I chose to bring that up in the leadoff, “I’ve heard your voice somewhere! Are you…? No way! You can’t be the guardian of the Netherworld!”

            “What’s that supposed to mean?” the man in portrait challenged me.

            “Well, in that abandoned house, you sounded like a… Your pitch gave the impression that… I pictured you more demon-like! I never would have imagined that the scary speaker from the depths of hell was just a grumpy old monk!” I altered my tone completely when it dawned on me that while a talking portrait was super creepy, it didn’t seem like it posed much of a threat! My slur made him pout in an overly miffed manner, and I hypothesized that if he had the same potency that he did previously, he would have struck in that second! I snarkily inquired, “So, what does this spell do other than give you the power to be very annoying?”

            He took exception to that characterization, “How dare you! First of all, it’s a potion, not a spell! But more importantly, while I may not be able to attack you personally, I am still guardian of the Netherworld- I could wreak havoc on you if I really wanted to!”

            I raised my eyebrows at that. “Seriously? You’re gonna claim that you don’t actually wanna hurt me at all? A few months ago, you threw several bolts of lightning in my direction so your minions could disembowel me in order to retrieve something I swallowed! And now you’re gonna show me mercy?”

            “I am not showing you mercy!” the man refuted. “I could easily unleash my wrath if I wanted to! I’m not going to yet though because I need something from you.”

            “Oh?” I put my hands on my hips to brace myself for this doozy.

            The man requisitioned, “I want my key back!”

            I pulled the spoon out of my pocket and pondered, “This is yours? I was under the impression that it belonged to that old geezer, Damon!” Roxy stared at me dubiously, so I let her know, “He was wearing a young person’s disguise! And not a very good one, he had the looks of a rejected extra from The Great Gatsby!”

            “Wow, you’re insulting my masterpiece now? You’re not very nice!” the man commented.

            “Psh! You tried to kill me, and you want me to show you politeness? You can go to Hell! Oh wait, you’re already there!” I laughed at my own quip partly to incense him further but also due to my lack of sleep making everything seem hilarious!

            The man seethed, “I’m in the Netherworld, we’re a grade above Hell! I mean, we do partner with them, but it’s not quite the same! In this realm, the inhabitants are neither alive nor dead…”

            I loudly yawned, which wasn’t on purpose but had opportune timing, and then I disinterestedly regarded him, “Alright, that was very interesting, but if that’s all you got, I have other stuff to do…”

            “I don’t!” Roxy chimed in. “Is my Damon in there? Can I see him?”

            “You can see him if you give me that key!” the man offered.

            Roxy lunged after the spoon, but I held it up high enough where she couldn’t reach it. She still kept leaping towards in desperately, but I tuned her out as I addressed the man, “Even if I had any inclination to give you Damon’s key, how would I even do that?” I put it up to the portrait and pointed out, “You can’t exactly grab it, can you? And I don’t know if that spell unclogged the toilet or not…”

            He corrected me, “Damon borrowed that key from me. I placed it on earth ages ago so that I could gain direct access to this region and cause even more mayhem!”

            “You enjoy causing trouble, but you’re not in Hell?” I needled him.

            “No!” He shuddered in annoyance. “We simply allied ourselves with them! You’ll see what I mean when you get here!”

            I sardonically posed to him, “I will?”

            He insisted, “Yes! You will open the portal and return the key to me!  I can’t take it directly since the magic I used before broke when you locked the door, so you got to bring it to me yourself! You can get here through that locked portal. Oh, when you get to the front desk, tell them you’re there to see Babelsama and someone will guide you up here.”

            Front desk? He conveyed a visit to Hell as though it was a mere jaunt to an associate’s office space! It was intriguing, but I didn’t pry into it since I had no desire to comply with his demand! “Why would I do that? You’re trying to spread death and destruction throughout the land- why would I let that happen?”

            Babelsama made a noise of irritability. “I wouldn’t do anything to you personally! Mayhem is an important part of the life cycle, and I’m just doing my job to make sure that it goes on!” Phoebe and I appeared extremely skeptical, so he growled, “You know what, forget it! I’m not explaining it to you! I’m going to give you one last chance to make the correct choice…”

            “Pass!” I rejected his proposition.

            “No! I haven’t done anything yet!” Babelsama snapped. He closed his eyes and concentrated hard, and once he built up enough stamina, he released it in a fury of lightning bolts around him! When he finished, we gazed all around the vicinity, but everything seemed unchanged! Before I could say anything smart-alecky, Babelsama instructed, “Give it a while! I had to make it go the long way!”

            We let another beat elapse, but we still didn’t detect anything out of the ordinary. I was starting to get the opinion that he had been bluffing when a thunderous clatter blasted from across the street! Babelsama cackled in delight as we ran to the front window and peeked outside in sheer curiosity. To our astonishment, we saw a white glow emanating from the area of that abandoned house where the final vampiric battle ensued, and it grew bigger and bigger until it unexpectedly decided to jet over to our abode! I had no clue what he sent over to us, but what I didn’t expect was…

            Roxy shrieked, “Eek! It’s my Damon!” She raced over to give him a hug, but her arms slipped through his transparent body as he floated over us in confusion.

            “Why did you bring him here?” I hollered to Babelsama. “Also, I thought you couldn’t do any magic here with the portal closed!”

            “I didn’t use the portal,” Babelsama relayed to me. “That was Damon’s final resting place. I may not have the capabilities I’d like to, but I still have power over the undead! If you don’t hand over the key, I’ll keep him there permanently!”

            Roxy squealed, “Yay!”

            We walked through Damon to return to that bathroom, and I stated to Babelsama, “If you think an annoying presence will tempt me into buckling down to you, you’re dreaming! I’m a teacher- I deal with plenty of them, and no one has broke me yet! I’ve been desensitized to that sort of crap!”

            “I didn’t send your typical, run-of-the-mill ghost; I equipped him with the power of the fear mongers!” He glimpsed at us with the assumption that this would paralyze us with apprehension, but we all had blank expressions on our faces. “You know, the fear mongers! Really?” He huffed and then educated us, “They have the ability to conjure up the deepest fear of their chosen victim! If you agree to take the key back to the Netherworld, I won’t allow him to bother you, but if you don’t, he will unleash an unbelievable amount of terror in your community!” He snickered at our perturbation, and then he entreated, “So, what do you say now?” My eyes flickered between him, Damon, and my housemates as I mulled over how to respond to this…

The Terra-Belle Ghost, Chapter 3

“Great, now we can begin!” Aleck declared. “Hand it over to me.” I gave the spoon to Phoebe, who tried to pass it to Fletcher.

            “You expect me to touch that thing?” Fletcher flinched when the object came near him. “I ain’t getting cursed!”

            I denoted, “It was Damon’s key to the Netherworld, why would he put a curse on something he regularly used?”

            Phoebe tacked on to that, “We’ve had it for several months and nothing weird has happened! Since we defeated Damon, everything’s been normal!”

            “Don’t say that!” Ellie warned her. “You’ll jinx our luck!” Too late! Little did we know, at that very moment, the wheels of chaos had already been set in motion!

            “Here, you pass it to him!” I attempted to bestow the spoon over to Ginger.

            Ginger’s nose crinkled at this prospect. “Ugh! No way! I’m not touching the poop key!”

            I objected to that characterization, “I passed it way back in October! If I hadn’t cleaned it, do you really believe I would hold on to it this whole time? Like I want a constant reminder of that ordeal!” I shuddered as the memories of that event came floating back to me, but then I shook it off and went on, “Anyways, since that day, it’s been washed! Not mention burned and drowned in bleach! It’s okay to touch!”

            No one else wanted to lay a finger on it, so Aleck proffered, “Oh, you big babies! I’ll get it myself!” I envisaged that he would walk over to the desk I was sitting at, but instead, he stopped at the halfway point and used some long, metal tongs to grab it!

            As he returned to his station at the head of the class, Ginger inquired, “We’ve used a dozen different methos that should’ve obliterated it, and nothing’s worked; what makes you feel like this stuff is gonna do the trick?”

            “Science!” Aleck replied as he turned on a small venting fan above him and brought out all of the chemicals he needed. “This chemical is often used to remove the oxide coating on metal. If we can remove the protective layer that surrounds it, it should be fairly easy to destroy the rest of it.”

            “That’s assuming its protection comes from an earthly source!” Ellie brought up.

            Aleck didn’t address the possibility of supernatural shielding. The whole vampire concept was hard for a scientific man like him to grasp onto, so I guessed that he didn’t want to entertain a new paranormal possibility right then! He shushed her as if he needed to concentrate on the chemicals in his hand, but I felt certain that he had done experiments like this in numerous instances in the past and could have done this blindfolded if he wanted to! Ellie obviously evidently shared that view, but she couldn’t prove anything, so she resorted to folding her arms as we watched him carefully pour the two substances together. The beaker started to emit smoke, and as it was billowing, Aleck placed the spoon into the vessel. Our anticipation escalated through the roof- maybe this would be it! Maybe we found something that finally worked! The vapor grew stronger and stronger, and I dared to build up my optimism higher and higher on the notion that when everything cleared up, the blasted artifact would, at last, disappear from existence…

            When the smoking effect ceased, we saw a perfectly polished piece of silver resting in a pile of white powder! We all groaned, and I gazed to the skies in frustration, which made me bang my head on the cabinets behind me and prompted Roxy’s “Isaac Newton” project to fall onto my skull! Luckily, everyone was too stung to laugh at my misfortunate, but Aleck couldn’t resist saying, “Oh look, gravity works!”

            The others ignored his quip, still trying to absorb the disappointment of this flop, and Fletcher lamented, “That hogwash didn’t destroy the spoon, the spoon destroyed the hogwash!”

            “Actually, that’s the proper reaction to this mixture. Ammonium Chloride is the compound that makes up industrial salt,” Aleck clearly presumed that we would get enthralled by that educational tidbit, but we were all too discontented to care! Although, if we hadn’t been so freshly wounded, we more than likely would have produced the same outcome for him!

            “Now what?” Phoebe posed to everybody. “I dunno about the rest of you, but I’m out of ideas!”

            We all put our minds together, but nobody could come up with any suggestions. I griped, “So, what, am I supposed to carry this around for the rest of my life?”

            Fletcher proposed, “Drop it off at a thrift store donation site! As far as anyone can tell, it’s just an ordinary spoon!”

            “Um… We’ve discussed that before,” Ellie reminded him. “We can’t risk something like that floating around the area like that! What if somebody figures out what it is and opens that door back up? Damon hurt a lot of our kids when he did it!”

            “And Mister Armand didn’t do too well when he unlocked that realm!” I added.

            Fletcher differed, “It’s been almost six months and not a soul has taken a whack at trying to collect it. I say it’s time to scrap it and be officially done with this garbage!”

            Ginger disagreed, “Look, I don’t like it either, but if we let it continue to exist, then there’ll always be the chance of that portal reemerging! I know, this process is annoying, but battling those vampires was more bothersome than that! I’m not risking having to repeat that nightmare ever again!” Aleck, Ellie, Phoebe and I all vehemently nodded in agreement, and Fletcher reluctantly acquiesced.

            “It seems like all we can do is do a little research in unusual ways to destroy that key,” Phoebe concluded. “We can try scientific as well as less orthodox ways to do it, and I’m sure one of the solutions we conjure up will eventually pan out!”

            “I hope we can do it before the prom,” Ginger commented. “I told Brielle that I was part of the planning committee, and if that day passes, I can’t keep giving my girlfriend that excuse!”

            Ellie put in, “While we’re doing research on that, we really ought to learn more about Damon’s history!”

            We all protested that proposition, and I exasperatedly expressed, “I thought we agreed that now that he’s dead that we weren’t gonna ever waste a second recollecting anything about that asshole!”

            “You brought him up ‘cause of your poop key!” Ellie pointed out.

            “It’s not a poop key!” I barked.

            Fletcher stated, “You don’t know that! If you don’t learn from history, you’re doomed to repeat it!” None of us concurred with that opinion, but I wish we had! His personal story wouldn’t prove consequential, but if we had become more well-versed in mythical topics, we could have handled the upcoming obstacles in a much more productive fashion!

            Prior to us debating the issue any further, a Hispanic man with a bright sweater-vest, round glasses, and a fatherly smile popped into the room and queried, “Hey! What are you all still doing here?”

            “They were helping me peer review this experiment for a future lab,” Aleck fibbed. “Sorry Manuel, I should have asked to use this space after hours.”

            “I see…” Manuel rubbed his chin contemplatively. It didn’t appear that he bought his explanation, but after a beat, he apparently dismissed it and advised us, “No more work! Go home, enjoy your weekend!”

            Phoebe muttered, “Like that’s gonna happen!” Manuel gave her a quizzical look, so she clarified, “I gotta make some calls for the prom committee… And my mom and stepdad are coming…”

            Manuel repeated his contemplative chin rub. “I see… Well, in any case, it’s the weekend, go home!” We all complied, and he grinned at us before heading out. Once he left, the six of us collected our belongings and despondently exited, none of us looking forward to the extra task we had to tackle. I took back the spoon, and as I stuffed it in my pocket, I crossed my fingers that Ginger would get her wish on the timeline of the completion of this undertaking!

            “No, I need the price of your yellow roses, not posies! I didn’t even know posies came in yellow!” Phoebe did her utmost to remain polite on the phone, but I could sense her vexation heightening more and more as the conversation went on. We were getting closer to our home, and I prayed that she would wrap up this call before then because Miriam and Blaise were due there at any minute and I did not want to encounter them all by myself! “No, I need them for Rosemary King’s prom, I’m not ordering myself a bouquet!”

            “Not yet!” I voiced out loud, which was something I intended to only inwardly muse about!

            Right as I was wondering if she heard that, she asked me, “What did you say?”

            I quickly answered, “Nothing!” While I drove to our place, I began mulling over different methods of proposing to her that were less cheesy (both literally and figuratively) than my first attempt, so marrying her was on my train of thoughts when I heard her touch on buying flowers for herself. I didn’t realize how tired I felt until then, and rather than risk another slip up, I decided to table any ruminations on the subject!

            “That is the group rate?” Phoebe bewailed. “Okay, I’ll get back to you later.” She hung up in a huff.

            “Why don’t they just make them out of paper?” I probed.

            Phoebe grumbled, “The student government wants it to look super Boujee, so they want all of the fanciest decorations there! I’m trying to get an estimate of how much their ideas will cost so I can give them an exact number on the amount they went over the budget! Ugh, I never pictured running into this problem for a country western theme!”

            I puzzled, “They want Boujee and country western?”

            “They’re going off some tv show where rich people go to the Old West and live out their fantasies,” Phoebe explained. “I don’t know why Manuel okayed this- I’m pretty sure they kill a bunch of people on that program!”

            “Apparently he hasn’t seen it either!” I conjectured. “Or, at least I hope he…” I trailed off when I saw some movement across the street from our house! Phoebe and I nearly had heart attacks- we needed a little longer to mentally prepare ourselves for this arrival! Upon closer inspection, I recognized the silhouette that spooked us. Roxy was sitting in front of the decrepit building with wooden panels that appeared as though the wood had flimsy before it caught on fire. Its roof had holes that were plainly created from a mix of damage from the flames and poor upkeep, and its driveway had gotten so covered by pine needles that it was no longer visible. Roxy sat by a mailbox full of rotted newspapers and waved her hands in front of a memorial with various blooms and candles beneath it, and I cringed when I spotted a freshly printed photo of a pale man with black clothing, red irises, and a vintage hairdo that hadn’t been worn since the nineteen-twenties! “Where does she keep getting those things?” I mumbled.

            Roxy turned around to face us in a style that indicated that she had overheard my griping- obviously, I could not muster any subtlety that evening! “Huh?” she glimpsed at us with furrowed brows.

            “Do you need anything, Roxy?” Phoebe covered for my blunder. “A snack maybe? Do you gotta use the bathroom or something?”

            “I’m fine,” Roxy asserted before returning to her strange gestures. I could distinguish that she was striving to manifest some sort of spell, and while I knew nothing about witchcraft, I was fairly certain that she was doing it wrong! I could easily comprehend why Ismeray would want to intervene!

            Phoebe and I went inside and immediately leaned on the walls! We could have fallen asleep right there in the foyer, we were that exhausted! I canvassed Phoebe, “Do you think we have time to take a fast nap?”

            All of a sudden, the sound of a loud, sputtering truck bellowed throughout the neighborhood, and Phoebe relayed to me, “I doubt it!”

            The cacophony of their vehicle increased in volume, and something from their car emitted a sharp squealing too! I couldn’t fathom how that clunker made it across state lines! Phoebe and I faced the entrance and planted fake smiles on our faces when the din disappeared. The patter of footsteps echoed from the pathway, and I found myself beseeching the universe that this stemmed from a couple of solicitors coming to push their ware on us! The front door barged open, and Blaise walked inside with a carriage so superfluous that you’d expect it to have originated from an actor from that show where the student body got its prom theme inspiration from! I aimed to offer him hospitality nonetheless, so I extended my hand and politely greeted him, “Nice to meet you, sir!”

            He disregarded my hand and went straight for a hug! “None of those formalities, we’re family now!” After an awkward squeeze, he boorishly embraced Phoebe and then informed us, “Hold on, I gotta take a bigger leak than a broken outhouse!”

            Phoebe and I partly closed our eyes from disgust from that outburst, but before we were able to articulate our feelings on that ghastly image, we saw Miriam hobbling up to the porch with two large suitcases. “Let me help you with those!”

            Miriam gratefully handed them over to me. “Oh, thank you!” Considering that Miriam was such a frail person, I didn’t expect her luggage to weigh so much! I resorted to pushing them down the hall, and Miriam wanted to know, “Do you need help with those?”

            I meant to ensure her that I didn’t, but then a crash sounded from the end of the hall where the guest bathroom was located, and Jett frightfully fled from it and accidentally tripped me! Fortunately, I caught myself before I tumbled completely down, and I moaned, “Can this get any worse?” Another piece of advice: never tempt fate by asking that question! At this precise instant, the doorbell rang, and believe it or not, all of these harried incidents would bring us to the origin of the ghost that would soon haunt our community…

The Terra-Belle Ghost, Chapter 2

“Listen, I’m sorry I invited them over without discussing it with you first! I was insensitive, and I will do what I can to make it up to you, I swear!” I gazed at Phoebe hopefully. I thought that my preemptive strike might ebb her white-hot rage not because I still believed that I had a shot at success for a proposal- I just wanted to avoid sleeping in the doghouse that night!

            “Gosh, I didn’t even think of that!” Phoebe concluded after mulling over my statement. “I should be mad about that too!”

            Drats! It appeared as though I had unwittingly dug myself in a little deeper! I then grew baffled by her vehement reaction. She once accused herself of being too nice to people who may not always deserve it, so her hostile attitude towards her mother and stepfather staying with us for a stretch completely addled me! “Oh, come on, what’s the big deal?”

            Little advice: Never ask an angry woman that question! It incensed her further, and she bellowed, “They ran a cult! Happy?”

            “No!” Initially, I wasn’t sure if a heard her correctly. That seemed like such an outrageous concept that it couldn’t possibly have been accurate! Then again, a few months ago, I encountered a gang of vampires (What is a group of vampires called? I never did look that up!) and a guardian of the Netherworld, so I deemed that I ought to have opened my mind up a bit! “You never mentioned that you came from a…” Phoebe and I got to know each other fairly comprehensively inside and out, so I couldn’t see how she would have failed to disclose that she had to get deprogrammed from a mind-controlling sect!

            “I was never a part of it!” Phoebe asserted before inquiring, “Do you remember how I told you that my mom and I didn’t really talk anymore?”

            I replied, “Yeah, but when you said it was too painful to speak about, I assumed that you two had a fight over an ex or something and just lost contact with each other; you didn’t say anything about a cult!”

            She defended her action, “Well, it’s not an easy thing to admit about your family!”

            “You could have revealed this sooner!” I supportively reassured her. “You stuck by me when I claimed that blood-sucking monsters really existed! I mean, I turned out to be right, but you didn’t know that in the beginning! Did you actually expect me to judge you too harshly after that?”

            “I guess you couldn’t, huh?” she chuckled slightly, which was a relieving sight for me! I was seriously already making plans to either make that leather couch more comfortable to sleep on or fight Jett for her kitty bed, and I now held more optimism of getting welcomed back into our room! She sighed, “I probably owe you an explanation…”

            I kidded her, “Probably? Were you considering leaving the conversation there? You can’t announce that your family ran a cult and then carry on like nothing happened! Like ‘Oh, one of my relatives started their own crazy religion, so… What kind of pizza do you want for dinner?’”

            Phoebe laughed, and then she illuminated me, “When I was in college, my dad cheated on my mom, so she walked out on him. The only problem with that was that she had no money and nowhere to go. She ended up going to different bars to either get men to buy her drinks or take her home or both. So, one day, she’s in this dirty, old pub and met Blaise, and then… then I wished that I had chosen to live off-campus so she could have crashed on my couch instead of feeling forced to join his cult! I could have avoided getting paired with that snobby roommate too! Bleck!”

            “So, what kind of cult does Blaise run?” I wanted to be sympathetic with her, but my curiosity was so peaked that I couldn’t concentrate on anything else!

            “I’m not sure. They’re really secretive, and no one’s ever divulged much about it unless they were trying to recruit them. Even then, they didn’t give them much ‘til they could trust them. People kinda just disappeared onto their compound! They could write letters to their families, but they mainly just proved that they were alive, they didn’t describe their lives much. I quit responding to Mom’s communication ‘cause she kept trying to get me to live with them. I tried doing research on them to help her, but all I could gather was the gossip from the small mountain town nearby their headquarters. Apparently, the word was that they performed strange rituals in there. They heard mysterious chants sometimes, and they would see weird behavior. Like one time, Blaise got arrested for public indecency and smuggling tropical fish in the same day!” She paused and added, “I don’t know what that means, and I don’t wanna find out!”

            I concurred, “I’d rather not know either! People followed him for spiritual guidance?”

            Phoebe exasperatedly shrugged. “A lot of people devoutly held the belief that this guy was some kind of savior! Not the IRS though- they’re seizing all of their assets! And now their glorious leader is coming to live with us!”

            “Ugh! Damn it!” I exclaimed. I inwardly chastised myself for getting myself into this mess, and after uttering a stream of curse words and scaring Jett again, an idea suddenly struck me. “If he tries to organize another cult while he’s with us, we don’t have to feel any guilt for kicking them out, right?”

            “I was gonna let them live in their truck all along!” Phoebe pointed out. “Pepperoni.”

            Very much confused by her last declaration, I queried, “Huh?”

            Phoebe clarified, “You were asking what kind of pizza I wanted.”

            “No, I was pretending to be you,” I corrected her.

            “Oh! Well, I still want pepperoni.” She went into the kitchen and poured herself a glass of wine. “I should’ve finished writing that Dickinson quiz over the weekend ‘cause I’m certainly not getting it done tonight! Eh, I’ll show them a video instead! They’ll probably love me forever for that one!”

            I romantically conveyed to her, “I already do!” I briefly considered this interaction and swiftly amended my sentence, “Not ‘cause of the quiz, I just do!”

            She smiled and affirmed, “I do too! I mean, I love you, not me! Yes, I love myself, but not in the same way! Wow, I need more wine!” We both giggled at each other, and as she decompressed from the anticipation of these potentially troublesome guests, I wistfully toyed with the ring in my pocket and crossed my fingers that Mirriam and Blaise’s temporary residency wouldn’t’ interfere with my intentions to try again…

            …. But, as you might have already figured out, they definitely did! So did the ghost! But someone else had equal blame to that pending fiasco… The next day, my sixth period class filed in and began taking out their homework from other teachers’ classes, so I attempted to hide my irritation as I reminded them, “Once again, this class is no longer study hall! Do I look like Mister Dusan?”

            “Yeah, sorta!” one student assessed.

            “Whatever! Just take out your textbooks… from this class!” I instructed them through gritted teeth. “Turn it to page…”

            I trailed off as a student entered the classroom long after the tardy bell, and she seemed completely oblivious to the fact that a bunch of her peers were watching her slowly trek to her seat! She wore a long, dark dress, a black hat with a small, mesh veil over her face, and very gothic makeup. Other than her platinum blonde hair, she had no color on her whatsoever! I couldn’t help but stare incredulously- this girl, while definitely not the brightest, used to have a bubbly personality and donned every asinine trend that teen’s currently coveted, but ever since Damon’s demise, she hardly spoke a word and always dressed like she was attending a funeral! I got used to ignoring her melodramatic demeanor, but since I didn’t get a lot of sleep that night, my patient fell short and I snapped, “Still?”

            She halted in her tracks and had to blink herself back into the present upon hearing that. “What’s still?”

            “This whole mourning stunt!” I vented, “How could you still be grieving over a guy that you had one date with? Really, it was more like one half ‘cause he ditched you halfway through!”

            “I’m not explaining myself to you!” she retorted. “Because of you, I couldn’t say goodbye to him before he died! I never saw him again since you got him kicked out of school!”

            I cried out, “He tried to kill me! Don’t you think that’s a pretty darn good reason to have him expelled?” She didn’t articulate another word, she simply pouted and turned her head so that we could no longer make eye contact. I exhaled in aggravation, and then I directed her, “You’re late, Roxy. Go see Principal Palillo.” She posed her nose up in the air in order to emanate reprobate my decision, but as she tried to smoothly march out of the room, she missed the doorway and crashed into the frame! The other students heartily chortled at this, but Roxy didn’t react to them since her veil got stuck in one of the hinges! “Don’t tug on it, you’ll rip it!” I advised her.

            I walked over to lend her a hand, but she managed to free herself prior to my intervention. She gave me a dirty look and then cawed, “I don’t need your assistance! Good day!” She then proceeded to collide into the door! The other children uproariously cracked up at her antics while I opened the door for her to make sure she didn’t hurt herself. Either she didn’t receive any injuries or it didn’t bother her much- she left without further incident after that! I threw up my shoulders and figured that if she sustained too much bodily harm, Manuel could deal with it!

            “We’re not talking about it!” I snapped to the class as they watched in a heightened amusement. Their excitement turned into a crushing disappointment, but I didn’t care- I was too grumpy to calm down a few dozen hyper adolescents!

            “But that witch-!” one of the students objected.

            I grumbled, “Don’t call her names. Take out your textbook and-.”

            A girl in medieval-inspired, purple clothing disputed, “She is a witch though! I’ve seen her practice her spell work! She was doing it completely wrong though! I offered to show her how to do it right, but she-.”

            I interrupted her, “Thank you, Ismeray! Now, if you all don’t open your books to chapter thirteen, I’ll give you all detention!” That certainly got all of their attention, which I felt grateful for since I was totally bluffing about that punishment! I didn’t know if there was a maximum capacity for the detention hall, but I had plans after class, so I had zero interest in enforcing that threat! And, in case you’re wondering, yes, that airheaded witch played a huge role in the ghost conundrum! The smarter witch caused trouble too, but not as much as Roxy! I’ll get to that soon, don’t worry!

            Once the bell rang, I dashed out into the hallway! Or, at least, I meant to do that! My path got blocked by a man with the appearance of an aged football star well past his prime! He may have been a total stud back in the day, but he was merely an arrogant prick in this decade! He gazed at me in a triumphant fashion, so I addressed him, “If there’s anything I can do to help you, Casper, I’m not going to! I’m late for-.”

            “I heard that you had some struggles with getting your lesson started today,” he tauntingly conversed as he took a bit from an apple that he held in one hand while his other hand remained behind his back.

            “Why were you listening to what went on in my classroom?” I challenged him.

            He haughtily assured me, “Connor, I would never try to overhear your boring spiel about maintaining client relations! My kids were taking a test, so I listened for spirits on my horn!” He raised his non-apple hand to showcase a bronzed bull’s horn.

            I sarcastically remarked, “Oh yeah, that’s totally normal!”

            “This school is haunted, you know!” he alleged.

“Sure it is…” Ordinarily, I would have entertained that notion since the town’s rumor of the house across the street from me being haunted turned out to be accurate, but not a single other staff member made that claim about Rosemary King!

Casper insisted, “Trust me, I’m an expert on the paranormal! You see, in addition to governmental studies, I spent my university days closely following the- Hey!” He got insulted as I lost interest in that conversation and began walking away. “Where are you going?”

I mockingly proclaimed, “I’m gonna go hunt for spirits!”

Casper sniffed, “Well, I doubt you’ll ever find any!” In this one instance, I would have loved for his theory to prove to be correct! He didn’t have anything to do with the phantom dilemma we had to deal with later, he was just annoying and made this burden even more cumbersome!

Hurrying, I entered into a room draped with science posters and small aquariums with little snakes inside of them, and everyone had already beaten me there. Phoebe sat next to a middle-aged man in gym shorts and a polo that barely covered his pot belly, and next to him was a woman with vibrant, tawny skin and an outfit that a Barbie doll might wear. She sat beside a plump woman with dark skin, gray hair, and very bold-colored garments on, and at the front of the class was a short man with thinning hair and a wrinkly, unkempt wardrobe on. Seeing this motley mix made me breathe an alleviated sigh! After enduring this exhausting shift, their company eased a lot of my tension! “Sorry I’m late! Sir Pompous Dorkington was hassling me again!” I sat down next to Phoebe, and after a quick peck, I noticed that she appeared equally frazzled. We would definitely have to have a chat about it, but it would have to wait until later- I already put everyone behind, so I didn’t want to delay this any further… except that’s exactly what I did! I caught a glimpse of the paper mâché bust resting over me and commented, “Oh, you still have the Billy Squier project up here, Aleck?”

“Come on, dude! We’ve been over this! It’s Isaac Newton,” Aleck reflected on this and then refined his stance, “It’s supposed to be anyway. Roxy didn’t like how he looked, so she modeled him after Timmothy Chalamet. Ellie thought if I put up reminders of her old personality, it’d pull her out of her funk.”

“I didn’t suggest that,” the older woman refuted. “Ginger did.” The Barbie girl nodded. “I recommended counseling, and Fletcher started going on about installing a uniform system…”

The man in gym clothes dispelled that, “I didn’t bring uniforms up ‘cause of Roxy! My twin girls decided to put on skimpy crap to punish me for not letting them go on that cruise for spring break! They only have a few months ‘til graduation, why can’t they pretend to be saints ‘til they move into their dorms!”

            Phoebe cut this topic short, “Anyways, Connor, did you bring it?”

            I proudly reported, “Of course! I always keep it with me just in case!” I reached into my pocket and pulled out a small, silver spoon. If you haven’t read my last story, you’re probably wondering why I would frequently tote something like that around, and if you did check out the last installment of this saga, you’re probably wondering why I still have it. This may sound unbelievable, but the reason that any of the chaos that later ensued took place at all was due to this object…

The Terra-Belle Ghost, Chapter 1

Hey, you’re back! I got another question for you: What does a ghost like most about going to a party? Did you say boo-ze? Well, that’s wrong for several reasons! One, I know the play on words with boos and booze seems cute, but really, a ghost is nothing more than a haunting image of someone’s former self, so how can they drink anything? They’re more likely to enjoy boos at a bash, but how much fun would it be for them to go to a large event and then merely heckle the attendees? And who started the rumor that all they can say is boo? If a version of a deceased person comes back to Earth, why would that be the only phrase they can utter? Was a ghost from early history upset about their demise, booed it, and made the dude witnessing it get the impression that this is what ghosts do? The real answer to that dad joke is their favorite part of festive fetes is disappearing from them! Trust me, ghosts don’t want to hang around anything with high levels of merriment! In the beginning of my last book, I wanted to immediately impress upon you how much I knew about vampires, and today, I’m doing the same for ghosts! I have a ghost story that probably won’t give you chills, but it’s still worth a read!

            Do you remember what happened in the last novel? Well, in case you forgot, the basic summary is that my desperate attempt to win back my ex-wife led me to saving a high school from an inept but completely demented vampire. If you didn’t read The Terra-Belle Vampire, that probably sounded completely insane! It makes more sense if you checked out the last installment, I swear! In fact, I’m going to highly recommend you go read it and then get back to this one! If you’ve already taken a look at it, or you’re too lazy to peruse it for the first time, the drama went down like this… I met a girl in college, and after graduation, I got married to her and to a new sales job. Eventually, she got unhappy and cheated on me (Or she could have been doing it all along, who knows!), and I wanted to prove to her that I could do a career that took up less of my life, so I quit my position as a high-level businessman at a prestigious marketing firm and became a substitute teacher. Surprisingly enough (Well, surprising to me, everyone else probably saw it coming!), it didn’t work! I didn’t get her back, but I did get a vampire problem…

            Apparently, this guy named Damon Karro fell in love with a lady named Martha, but she dumped him when she found out he was a vampire. Totally bitter and scorned about the breakup, he tried to punish her by killing himself in the most dramatic way possible- by going into a haunted house and having the demons that possessed it do him in! What happened instead- they gave him the power to get revenge on Martha by enrolling him in the high school where she taught English literature, allowing him to prey on the students that she loved. I subbed for her while she recovered from the heart attack Damon gave her from this reveal, and I accidentally stumbled across his plot! I bought the house across the street from his spooky headquarters, not believing in the rumors that spread across town, but after witnessing a vampire transformation… Let’s just say I became a hard-core believer! So, my pathetic attempt to win back that tramp morphed into me being the only one who knew about the existence of this monstrous threat! The responsibility fell on my lap to solve the conundrum, and initially, I thought I’d have to do it alone. I mean, if I went up to someone and requested assistance in slaying some mythical beings, they would have thought I lost my mind! Luckily, I found some help at exactly the right juncture, which was a super good thing since I normally fainted at the sight of blood…

            I managed to convince five of my new coworkers to lend a hand! They didn’t buy into the whole blood-sucker concept at the onset of this journey, but they went along with it since they felt compelled to aid authorities in the rapidly growing number of kids vanishing from the school. Once they learned the truth, they stuck around to finish this cumbersome debacle! It wasn’t so easy to do at our age, but somehow, we managed to foil all of his schemes one by one! I made some new best friends (because you can’t go through something like that together and not bond a little!), and they gave me an endorsement for a permanent position in this new business program that Rosemary King High decided to create! So, the vampire gig totally sucked (in many different ways!), but I got some buddies and new occupational calling out of it! Oh, and there was one other perk to this entire ordeal…

            Phoebe Caracy! She’s the woman of my dreams! She teaches American Lit, which was right next to the classroom I was subbing in! The moment I saw her, I became breathless! Literally! It was in front of a child and very embarrassing! It took ages for me to let go of my ex tramp, but the more I got to know her, the more I loved her! She’s smart, funny, a blast to hang out with, and, of course, f’ing gorgeous! And she shares my taste in music! Classic rock is one my passions; I listen to it very frequently, especially when I need to relax, and it amazed me to discover an attractive woman who appreciates this interest! We got together shortly after I defeated Damon, and a couple months later, she moved in with me! Well, she was there practically every day anyways, so all in all, it wasn’t a huge transition! Plus, it saved her a ton of money on rent! Okay, well, sort of… We’ve been putting a lot of our paychecks into repairing the home since my place… correction, our place… needed a ton of fixing! Pretty much everything broke down, and I’m no handyman, so our extra income is basically spent on contractors and mechanics! That’s alright though- five months later and we’re still happy and going strong! You’d imagine that my happily ever after would station itself there, but that saga was only the start to our misadventure…

            Oh, my name is Connor, by the way! Connor Fenmore! Did I forget to mention that? I did! Hmm… There’s not such of a marvelous spot to throw it in during the exposition… Oh well! I’m forty years old, and I live in Terra Belle, Pennsylvania. I’m originally from Philadelphia, and I sued to not have such a favorable opinion of this city. I nicknamed it Terrible, but after half a year here, it’s grown on me, so I stopped using that moniker. A little about me: I have black, clean-cut hair with maybe a fleck of gray here and there. I used to be adamant about dying it to hide those blemishes, but now I imagine it’d be strange to see a school teacher without a hint of silver in their locks! I have a muscular body… mostly! I haven’t had as many opportunities to work out as I used to, unless you count running for my life every now and then! My old job had a gym in the building, and my new one does too, but it’s not built for the teachers’ use! I still have a fairly in-shape appearance, but I might have grown a dad doughy in a few sections after the last book… My green eyes are still equally as pretty nowadays as they were previously! Anyways, enough about me! You’d rather hear about my ghost excursion, which truly got set in motion on a random day in March…

            I came home earlier than Phoebe and cooked a really lavish meal, complete with a diamond ring, and since the kitchen was right next to the front door, I kept an ear out for her arrival. I wanted to set up everything perfectly before she got here! I went the extra mile of plating her food in a way to make it more appetizing as well as keeping my surprise for her hidden until the right moment, and I spent more minutes than I normally would have setting the dishes at the ideal angle on the table. I brought out a tablecloth and candles to make that small space above the living room seem extra enchanting too. Once I lit the wicks, I could hear her car pull up, so I speedily stripped off all of my clothes (all of our most romantic escapades entailed a passionate romp followed by a ravishing repast) and waited for her on the small stoop that separated the two rooms with a rose in my mouth. She took longer than usual to make her entrance, so my out of the ordinary stance drew out the curiosity of my little black cat. As she sniffed my arms, I tried to tell her, “Not now, Jett!” I don’t know if the muffle effect from the flower made me too difficult to understand or if she was ignoring my demands in the most cat-like fashion possible, but she rubbed against my hands, indicating that she wanted to get pet. I attempted to move her, but she refused! I spat the rose out of my mouth and commanded, “Jett, out!” Her feelings got hurt, but she didn’t go far, which stressed me out! I needed this night to be flawless, I couldn’t let anything spoil it!

            The doorknob turned, and my heart pounded wildly! This was it- the big occasion! I already knew I was going to marry her someday, but the definitive determination of this occurrence had finally come to pass! I knocked on wood that she hadn’t realized that she could do better than me and prayed that she would say yes to my proposal! I became more nervous than anything I had ever done in my life! Not even the most high-stake sale topped this! I did use the same techniques to buoy my confidence about the outcome though! Finally, she appeared into the vicinity, and this plus-sized goddess made my pulse skyrocket! Her outfit gloriously displayed her thick but curvaceous body, and her chestnut hair cascaded so elegantly onto her shoulders! Her light-beige skin glowed like an angel, and her golden-brown eyes completely seduced me with the bubbling sensuality that sparkled beneath the surface… Well, at least, I thought it was sensuality! Upon closer inspection, she seemed rather irritated about something, and she wasn’t exactly by herself…

            “This is my new… Oh jeez!” Phoebe swiftly made the camera on her phone face in the other direction, and I fell backwards into the living room when I realized that we had company! Jett got offended by my move, hissed, and scurried off as I scrambled to get my clothing back on, and Phoebe addressed the audience on her video call, “I’ll show you in a second!”

            “Phoebe, what’s going on?” a man with a slight Texas drawl probed. “Why are you showing us your chest?”

            She raised the camera up further and then corrected him, “It was my collarbone!”

            An older woman’s voice opined, “you could really use some better lotion, dear!”

            “Sure, Mom!” Phoebe exasperatedly sighed as I ran up to her my wardrobe back on, and I saw that she was speaking to a couple in the sixties with gaudy but rustic garments that preceded a view of an aged and very worn vehicle. The woman had a rich resemblance to Phoebe, but her male companion did not. He had a wavy, straw-like mane and a sunken-in set of blue eyes, and his general visage reminded me of a creepy scarecrow- definitely not one of Phoebe’s blood-relatives! Phoebe introduced us, “Mom, Blaise, this is my boyfriend, Connor! Connor, this is my mom, Miriam, and her husband, Blaise!”

            “Hi!” I greeted them somewhat breathily.

            Miriam gushed, “Oh Phoebe, he’s really cute!”

            Blaise didn’t partake in those sentiments. “Puppies are cute, Miriam! And he may be handsome, but there are more important qualities that one should consider in a life partner! Tell me, Connor, have you found peace with your creator?”

            “Uh…” It wasn’t clear to me whether he meant my parents or my religion, so I didn’t know how to reply to that!

            “No, we’re not doing that!” Phoebe cut that line of questioning short, which I felt grateful for! “Oh look, Connor made dinner!” She sat down rather speedily, and I couldn’t distinguish if she simply meant to change the subject or if she was hinting around to her parents to end this conversation. She sat at the table but didn’t touch her food, and a part of me wished that Blaise or Miriam would permit her to eat in front of them so that they could witness the grand development…

            Miriam asked her, “So, have you heard from your sister lately?” Phoebe cringed at the prolonged nature of this discussion, and I now grew impatient about this interaction! This was a once in a lifetime experience, and I disliked its delay by idle talk! Plus, Phoebe obviously didn’t dig this happenstance, and I would have preferred for her to be in a pleasant mood for this exciting transaction!

            Phoebe grabbed her fork as she answered, “Yeah, I saw on her page that she got engaged recently. Apparently, this doofus got the brilliant idea of putting the ring in her food!” I began to panic! I didn’t know that my method of proposing wasn’t unique to her world! “Why do people think that’s a smart way to do it? She nearly choked on it, and when they finally got it out of her, it was covered in cheese and stuff! So unromantic!” She almost gathered a bite from the section of her meal that I hid the ring in…

            “Well, this dinner is bad! Let me take care of it!” I grabbed her dish before she could proceed any further!

            “What’s wrong with it?” Phoebe queried.

            I lied, “It’s… burnt!” I inwardly admonished myself for that one! It was pasta, who burns pasta?

            Phoebe noted, “It seemed fine to me…”

            “Trust me, I burned it!” I insisted. She raised her eyebrows at me but then returned to her phone call. I discretely slipped the ring out, and as it laid on the counter, I observed bits of cheese on it, which led me to believe that she had a point about this means of proposal!

            “Listen, I gotta get going,” she told Blaise and Miriam. “I’m gonna have to order a pizza apparently. Let me know when you get a place to live!”

            I had been in the middle of shoveling the entirely fine pasta down the garbage disposal when I caught that last bit, and it made me completely freeze! Her folks didn’t have anywhere to stay? She said that so casually, but it invoked a deep sense of pity from me! “Wait, you’re homeless?”

            Blaise informed me, “Yes, we are! We got kicked out of home a few days ago, and we’re living in the truck ‘til we figure out what we’re gonna do…”

            Phoebe perceived what I was about to do, and she stepped away from the camera’s view in order to heavily gesture to me not to do it. I couldn’t fathom why, especially when Blaise and Miriam stared at me with such sad eyes! I couldn’t help it, I felt compelled to make them an offer, “We have an extra room. You could use it while you sort everything out.”

            “Really?” Miriam chirped as Phoebe’s face fell. “Oh hon, we’ll have a roof over our heads!”

            “Trucks have roofs, Miriam,” Blaise pointed out before gratefully regarding me, “We really appreciate it!”

            Phoebe looked positively livid, so I instantly regretted my choice as I conveyed to them, “Oh, no problem!”

            In a falsely sweet voice, Phoebe stated, “We’ll see you guys soon! ‘Kay, bye!” She hung up and faced me with an obvious rise in fury, and I knew I severely messed up! I didn’t get a fiancée that day, but I got something else… I promise it has something to do with ghosts! You’ll find out why soon…

True Deception, Chapter 29

“Don’t be afraid, it’ll be alright!

                        Hold on for just one more night!

                        It’s never too late for a brand-new start!

                        Never give up the battles of your heart!”

I sang this to myself as I sat in the barren, gray hall that marked the onset of the tunnel leading from the prison to the courthouse. Many men waited in this space, but they shackled us up in a way that kept us all separate from each other. No one looked optimistic about going through this process, and I can’t say I blamed them! After years of working on the other end of this system, I knew exactly what would happen for each of us after we got our trial! They may as well have left us in our cells, it wasn’t like anybody would get to go home afterwards! It drove me crazy to waste all this time sitting here with nothing to do but croon out Arielle ballads! I would much rather have begun searching for the Arch Deity, and not merely so I could save the world from Birsha’s domination- the sooner I found them, the sooner I could reunite with Violet!

The last moment I saw her kept replaying over and over again in my head! Right after the security car crashed, Violet confessed that she loved me! I got so stunned by hearing exactly what my heart hoped to hear for so long that I couldn’t move or speak, and I really kicked myself for not saying something back! Seconds later, the police opened the trunk and got us out. From that point on, we would remain apart! I can’t even put into words how painful that felt! To find out that this beautiful, saint-like goddess returned my affections in one minute and to get torn away from her in the next minute was insanely devastating! It broke me! I got no sleep whatsoever from the agony of it all, and my sorrows only deepened as the evening went on! The longer I was without her, the more it seemed like I would never get to see her again! This plan made so much sense when we initially embarked on it, but now I regretted the choice we made! Well, we had a moral obligation to search through every corner of the lockup organization, and I knew we intended to escape if we came up empty, but I really wished that we would have found a way to spend one more night together so we could act like a true couple! Even one more hour would have sufficed so we could have made love, talked, held each other, and et cetera at least once in case we lost the chance to ever do any of that with each other…

            When I contemplated the prospect of getting incarcerated for my entire lifetime, it sounded so unreasonable and unfeasible, but now that I was here, the possibility had so much more merit! I hadn’t imagined how daunting this isolation would feel, and while I had originally started on this journey alone, the support I received throughout the mission made more of a difference than I realized! Yes, I could have made new allies in this place, but that was no guarantee! I glanced around at the individuals around me, and a few of them didn’t seem terribly friendly, which led me to the topic of my safety. Birsha could have certainly implemented some plants within this establishment, and they could silence me before I even had a shot at speaking to another helpful associate! Not only did it appear plausible that I would hunt for the Arch Deity until my last breath, but that event could have come earlier than I anticipated!

            Suddenly, a bright light blinded our dark quarters! Our eyes had barely readjusted when an officer ordered us, “Everyone rise!” Once we had all done so, he went on, “The judge will see you in the order your cases were received. You may talk to your lawyer but no one else. If you do not get your trial date today, we will assemble you for tomorrow’s pool. Any questions?” Not a single soul raised their hands, and I wasn’t sure if that stemmed from a clarity of his directions or a collective surrender of willpower! “Okay, let’s go!”

            We all shuffled forward with dismal expressions, no one hint of optimism emanated from any person there! As the group inched forward, I wondered if I would see any of my former colleagues in the room. Even if one of them got permission to communicate with me, I doubt any of them would want to do so! They most likely believed in my guilt, and with the corruption in the system, my pending verdict would only enhance their opinions! That was fine with me; I chose to represent myself to expedite this process, and my one silver lining in this instance was that I may get sentenced quickly, which would enable me to return to prison swiftly so I could begin my exploration for the Arch Deity that much faster! I had already begun to sift through all of the probable scenarios of this portion of the quest when, in the blink of an eye, the mood in the tunnel totally changed…

            The officer commanded to us, “Stop! Everyone, stop immediately!” We all heeded his word, but we also gazed at him peculiarly. He conveyed his instructions rather nervously, and while the volume on his watch was low enough that we couldn’t make out what was being discussed, we could tell the guy on the other end felt rather frantic! “Are you sure?” the officer probed. Whatever response the other officer gave made our guard bit his lip, and we all knew that something drastic had occurred! I dared to let myself shed some of my pessimism- perhaps Violet had dreamt up a method of freeing herself! If she had done that, that could only mean one thing: she had found the Arch Deity! It seemed like a ludicrous notion to entertain until…

            “Run! Everyone, run back to-!” Before the officer could even finish his sentence, an explosion boomed above us! No one got hit by the stones that shot out in our vicinity, and when we uncovered our arms, which we had instinctually hid under, we beheld a perfectly round hole over our heads! This confused the other men, but I knew that we had just witnessed magic! The faint hope of the Arch Deity coming to the rescue grew stronger in me, so when I abruptly got lifted into the air, I did not panic as the others did! My restraints slid off in an explicable manner, and as I looked back at everyone, I gave them a small shrug. I didn’t want to announce anything exciting that may have been on the horizon without any proof, but I felt a little bad for leaving them utterly addled by my strange departure. I supposed that most people would have freaked out at a juncture like this, but the closer I got to the outside, the more peaceful I became! I could smell the sweet aroma the city emitted, and it made me imagine how thrilling it was to be able to gain freedom from both the legal system and the evil reign that loomed over our society! As I exited the tunnel, I fully expected to meet the kind soul who was destined to save us all, but instead…

            “You!” I shouted as my insides practically froze from shock. All of the joy that I experienced instantly evaporated, and going from expecting a savior to viewing a killer felt like walking into a bad dream! It didn’t seem real, and my brain had trouble processing this surrealism! I had scratch my arm and feel the sensation in order to make sure that I hadn’t fallen asleep in my cell, and Birsha took a minute to thoroughly savor my anguish! As she relished in the distress that her appearance had caused me, I couldn’t help but ponder if this was the reason she had kept me alive. She could have killed me in the tunnel, and that would have eliminated the threat I posed to her regime in an instant, so her sparing me was significant! She wanted something from me, so I didn’t need to fear death from her, at least not yet! It mystified me as to what she might draw out from me, but it perplexed me more to see how she carried herself- her arms were folded in fashion that made her cloak hide the entire front of her body! I almost didn’t want to learn what to know what she was keeping concealed in there, but I had to determine the cause of this behavior- whatever show she had planned must go on! “What do you have there?”

            “Jack, don’t listen to her-!” To my shock, Violet popped out from beneath her draping! Her hands and ankles were bound, and before she could finish speaking, Birsha pulled a band out of her pocket and gagged her as well!

            Birsha scoffed at my appall, “Aw, did you love her?”

            She squeezed her face into her side in a mocking simulation of empathy, and I could ascertain that she was trying to get under my skin. I refused to give in, so I bravely asserted, “I still do!”

            Birsha cackled, and then she addressed me, “Well then, I’m sure you wouldn’t want anything to happen to her, would you? Tell you what, I’ll make you a deal: You leave me alone, and I’ll do the same for the two of you. No one gets hurt!”

            “No one but the people you oppress!” I corrected her.

            “Ugh, oppression is positively the wrong term for what I do! I was a Guardian once, you know! Very idealistic, like you! Once I saw how much wickedness flourished in the world, I knew my calling was to rectify it! The planet will be better off once the wicked have paid for their sins, you’ll see!” Birsha stared at me with a slight necessity in her eyes as if she was crossing her fingers that her argument had swayed me.

            I retaliated, “No, I won’t! You can call it by any other name, but what you’re doing is tyranny! You don’t get to decide who’s good and who’s evil! And honestly, I don’t think it matters to you! You just want control, and you have enough financial and magical power to do that! You don’t wanna help humankind, you only wanna serve yourself! No one deserves that, not even the people you disagree with!”

            Birsha scowled at me, and then she made one last attempt to persuade me, “So, you’re giving up your girlfriend so you can make some kind of moral stance? Sounds kinda selfish!”

            It really stumped me as to why she was going through so much effort for a bid to get me to acquiesce to her whims! She threatened our lives during this entire venture, and now that she was in our presence, she seemed adamant about our surrender! It was almost as though she was hesitant to harm us! I peered at Violet’s pleading expression, and then it hit me! “Don’t kill her! Take me instead!” She gawked at me dumbfoundedly, so I iterated, “Sacrifice my life, and you’ll save yourself a lot of trouble! If you don’t, I’ll keep fighting you and your reign for the rest of my days! I’m the mastermind behind the resistance against you, so you’d be better off killing me!” She did nothing but glare at me, so I challenged her, “What’s wrong? Your powers are legendary! Surely, you can defeat the likes of me in a flash, can’t you?” I gave her a second to reply, and when she didn’t, I concluded, “Maybe you can’t! Maybe your life force is-!”

            I meant to convey that her life force could be running short, but she cut me off by barking to some nearby Fallens, “Get him!”

            She threw Violet down and disappeared behind her armored forces, who all took aim at me! I received a silver shield out of nowhere covered myself with it, and once the hexes bounced off of it, I could see that Violet used a spell to free herself and was now firing back at them! “Violet, no!” I cried out. I wanted her to run and preserve herself, I couldn’t allow her to sap the last of her life force on this! We were both outnumbered, we needed to escape right away!

            To my surprise, Gurcharan and Jasleen stepped forward and began to engage in combat! I had no clue how they knew we needed their assistance, and I kind of always figured that they had a non-violent stance like Lama Malva. Just as she came to my mind, Lama Malva appeared on the battlefield along with Samaya! Gabrielle and some teachers joined in too! A few strangers volunteered too! It floored me to see this large quantity of Guardians, especially since it took me years to discover one! However, it also gratified me to witness so many of them were willing to forgo their secrecy and contend in this public foray! I deduced that they sensed how great the need to do this was, and as both sides hurled jinxes at each other, it truly seemed like we were battling for the soul of civilization!

            I picked up a pipe that I found in the rubble from the blasted tunnel, and I struck as many Fallens with it as I could as I weaved my way through the crowd! It agonized me not to check on Violet, but I couldn’t ensure her security until I located Birsha! As long as she maintained her existence, she would only use her influence for injustice, so she had to get fished out! Somebody had to take care of her and put a stop to this malevolence! When I reached the other side of the battlefield, I still didn’t see her, so I hollered, “Come on, Birsha, you coward! Come out and fight! If you don’t, everyone will learn your secret! Your wealth is strong, but your life force isn’t! You rule over people with your money, and you make them all buy the idea that you have potent abilities, but you’re a liar! Aren’t you? You pathetic little-!”

            All of a sudden, a gust of wind hit my skull, and it caused me enough pain that I tumbled to the ground! Everyone stopped what they were doing as Birsha hovered over me, and she snapped, “You’re not worth losing any life force over! I could though! It would be so easy- you’re right here and you can’t go anywhere else! You can’t defend yourself either, so you’re truly doomed! Was it worth it to you? Some of your comrades have fallen, have you noticed? I craned my neck to study the damage, and while I saw many individuals from her Army on the floor, I saw Lama Malva and couple of teachers also lying motionless! That was difficult to behold, and then it got worse! My heart plummeted completely when I saw Violet had become unconscious too! Birsha could perceive my turmoil, so she expounded on that concept, “Your love is gone too! And soon, you will be too! Everything will go back to as it was after this is over, and my scheme can really expand with a few less dissidents in it! So, do you still think that this was the right decision? Was it worth it?”

            I used every iota of my strength to relay to her, “Yes!”

            She snarled, but the then she accepted my conclusion. “Then so be it!” She raised her hand and conjured up a spell to strike me down…

            An unexpected warmth spread throughout me, and at first, I assumed that I had met my demise, but as the warm sensation gained steam, it didn’t feel destructive! It was soothing and comforting as if every fiber inside of me now emitted a radiant energy! An electricity spread throughout my veins, and it moved faster and faster until… poof! I couldn’t explain it at the time, but something in my gut indicated to me that I had just become the Arch Deity! I tested the waters by pointing my palms at the ground and willing my powers to lift me up, and it worked! Birsha watched me float above her in sheer horror, and I could detect her life force emptying. Never in my life did I envision myself doing any fatalistic harm to anyone, not even rotten people, but I knew that if I didn’t act, I would endanger countless of innocent lives! As a show of mercy to the earth, I had to empty out the meager remains of her life force! “It was worth it!” A bluster of wind shot out of my fingers, and with one final shriek, Birsha transformed into a pile of dust!

            The bystanders all cheered at this victory, but my work wasn’t done yet! I aimed my magic at the Guardians who fell, and one by one, they all came back to life! I sped over to Violet’s side and prayed that my spell would work on her too… Once her lids flew open, I stooped down and braced her in my arms! She smiled at me and exclaimed, “Jack!” She pulled me in, and we kissed passionately! The pleasure was intense, but it elated me more to have her with me right then! She survived, and now I could spend a lifetime making her feel as happy as I felt from simply having her company! It was astonishing to believe she wanted me as much as I wanted her, and instantaneously, everything became so much brighter! It struck me to repeat so many of the words from my favorite love songs, and it may have sounded cheesy to everyone else, but I felt too wonderful to care what anyone else thought! The villain was defeated, and I got the girl, it was just like the perfect finish to my very own eighties’ flick!

            When our lips parted and we took a breath, Violet stared at herself incredulously and observed, “My life force is restored! So, you’re the…?”

            “That’s right!” I confirmed.

            “But that means the previous one is…!” She scoped out the area, and her eyes grew wide in aghast when she espied something on the opposite end of the battlefield! “Grandma!”

            Violet darted over to where Patty laid, and my insides ached to see this sight! Patty was gasping, struggling to inhale! When she saw Violet, she croaked out, “I’m sorry!”

            She assured her, “Don’t be sorry! You did good!”

            “I’m sorry I didn’t do this sooner!” Patty apologized. “I forgot who I was sometimes! When she killed my grandson, Alfred, I remembered everything and knew it was time!” She looked to me and stated gratefully, “Thank you for bringing her back to me!”

            “A promise is a promise!” I replied with tears brimming in my eyes. She appeared as though she wanted to talk more, but the color drained from her skin and her muscles grew heavy. She closed her eyes and then moved no more!

            Violet sobbed uncontrollably, and I embraced her as I ached too. The truth of the Arch Deity was startling, and it bewildered me that she had given me her life force! I imagined that if she hadn’t had those memory issues that she would have made the transition sooner, and it saddened me to think of the misery her plight must have caused her! As we mourned her loss, I resolved to make sure that Doctor Canenta’s cure would come to fruition and distribute to all the afflicted patients eligible as a dedication to her legacy!

            Once the grieving somewhat subsided, Violet and I stood up and faced the crowd, who all celebrated our contribution to this victory! It felt totally strange, but we were grateful for their accolades! Gurcharan approached us and asked, “What happens now?”

            I answered, “There’s gonna be a lot of changes around here!” As we made our way through the debris, I reflected on where to start. We had reached the ending I had hoped for, but truthfully, it felt more like an entirely new beginning!

The End

True Deception, Chapter 28

And, just like that, the four walls that surrounded us flew right down! The force that Alfred used sent us all soaring in different directions; the Fallens got flung to the front of the school, Alfred and Gabrielle plummeted towards the playground, and Violet and I got hurled into the hallway! Alfred’s spell shook the whole building, and a myriad of teachers and students poked their heads out to see what was happening. Right then, the dust settled, and the seven of us who were in that office met eyes with each other! Leonard used a hex to make a piece of debris zoom towards us, but Gabrielle ran over and created a protective shield over the hall. Alfred used his powers to fling heavy objects towards them, and he successfully knocked out Alastor! That’s when it occurred to me- Amy and Sam were wearing armor when we took them out with that tree branch, and Samaya summoned that bear to take care of Berith, so while magic couldn’t penetrate silver, other things till could! That was the secret to taking Birsha’s Army down! We couldn’t let Alfred fight them on his own, so I directed Violet, “Come on! We gotta help him!”

            Violet nodded, and we both bolted up to assist him. We didn’t get very far though- something pulled at our arms to hold us back! We turned around to see that obsequious teacher had grabbed onto us! She bellowed, “Don’t you dare interfere with the dissidents’ takedown!”

            “Zilla, they’re endangering our children’s’ lives!” Gabrielle scolded her. “How could you allow this to go on when it means putting innocent kids in harm’s way?”

            “Change involves sacrifice!” Zilla coldly asserted. “If there are casualties in the line of fire, then so be it!”

            I could tell that even the teachers who supported Birsha’s regime got disgusted by her callous attitude, and many of them seemed to second-guess their decision of where to place their allegiance! At any other time, that would have been a welcome development, but at this point, since Alfred and Gabrielle seemed to be the only ones willing to take action, their shift of loyalty didn’t make much of a difference! A couple of people looked angry that she wouldn’t free us, but everyone appeared too frightened to even get close to her! “You’re a monster!” Gabrielle shrieked.

            Zilla argued, “No, you are! The current system is poison, and you’re letting it spread! You’ve been making it grow all along! That’s gonna stop now! You’ll thank me later! You’ll see! Everything’ll-!”

            A little girl ran up to Zilla and bit her arm! Zilla yelped in pain and nearly struck the child in retaliation, but with Violet now able to have full range of motion, she seized the opportunity to punch Zilla in the face! This impact sent Zilla stumbling into the mob of Monico Elementary faculty, and they very willingly apprehended her! Gabrielle’s jinx destroyed a projectile heading in our direction, and once that threat had gotten extinguished, Violet and I sped to aid Alfred in the battle against the Fallens!

            We were horrified to see the four of them standing over Alfred’s unconscious body! I couldn’t fathom what they intended to do with him, but regardless of what they had in mind, I wouldn’t permit it to happen! I spotted a nearby pipe and catapulted to their vicinity! It nailed Jinn, but he didn’t get hurt enough to prevent him from participating in the foray! Their attention averted from Alfred over to us, and they used their hexes to throw enormous material at us! Violet and I managed to dodge them, but it grew more and more difficult for us to continue this because they spread out and aimed from three different locations! I didn’t know if we could keep this up for too much longer, but I did know that we couldn’t win this contention if we didn’t go on the offensive, so I wracked my brain to come up with a pathway in order for us to gain the advantage we needed to do that! It was too difficult to think with our constant movement though, and that sentiment only deepened when…

            “Kenzo, no!” Gabrielle roared. My heart dropped as I witnessed a small boy break out of her protective field and sprint over to this perilous sector! He picked up a meager stone and held it up with the objective of tossing it our opponents! Kora leered at him, “You wanna play, you little brat? Then fine, let’s play!”

            “No!” Violet and I shouted in unison as she lifted a heavy piece of furniture and cast it at that student! Violet and I both lunged towards him, but since she was closer, Violet became the one to rescue him! She pushed him out of the trajectory’s target, but unfortunately, that caused her to absorb the brunt of this collision!

            My whole body froze! This sight made everything go numb, and all I wanted to do was rush over to save her! I couldn’t do that though, the Fallens resumed their siege on me! It was pure agony to have to defend myself as she laid motionless on the floor! I prayed that she would wake up- I didn’t know how I would be able to go on if I didn’t have her by my side! I refused to succumb to the notion that she wouldn’t get revived, the thought of her perishing was too awful to even consider! Clearly, the Fallens could sense the mental torture plaguing me in that moment, and they snickered delightfully as they sustained their assault! I was more outnumbered than ever, so in all honesty with myself, I couldn’t guarantee I could salvage either one of our lives…

            All of a sudden, the sprinklers went off, pouring tons of water out over everybody! Normally, I would have used this distraction to ambush the Fallens, but my instincts pushed me straight to Violet! I shoved the file cabinet off of her torso and immediately knelt down to check her vitals! My pulse raced like crazy in anticipation of the worst case scenario, and I beseeched the heavens that I would discover some good news instead! To my immense relief, she started to stir! I can’t describe just how relieved it made me to see this! “Thank god, you’re safe!” I exclaimed as she lifted her lids.

            From above our low positions, Jinn taunted us, “I wouldn’t be too sure of that if I were you!” We glanced up and beheld that the three remaining Fallens hovered directly over our heads! I grew cognizant of the fact that my emotional stronghold had lured me into a trap, and I admonished myself for getting us surrounded like this! I berated my decision-making for not saving her by taking care of our enemies first, and I could only hope that I would be able to make up for my blunder in the future!

            Leonard removed our helmets and mockingly queried us, “Any last words?” I couldn’t drum up a snarky retort that this interaction deserved, my panic forced me to shut down completely! Violet and I simply braced ourselves for this ill fate… until…

            Sirens blared in the distance, and the three alert Fallens had all of the color in their face drain away completely! Leonard muttered, “Who on Earth…”

            He scoped out the area as if the perpetrator would reveal themselves, and after a few seconds, he espied the girl who bit Zilla putting down a landline that hung on the wall! She flipped her braided hair at him in a defiant sort of manner, and he started to charge at her, but Jinn nabbed his extremities and strongly recommended, “Forget it! We gotta go!” Leonard’s lividness rooted him to the spot momentarily, but as the sirens’ howl heightened, Leonard relented, “Get them into the trunk and let’s go!”

            As Leonard ran to the driver’s seat, I prepared myself to kick and scream as they dragged us to the vehicle! I wasn’t eager to deal with the sham of a murder trial that we’d have to go through, but my survival rate seemed higher in prison than going with Birsha’s Army wherever they planned to flee! They probably couldn’t return to the Punishment Site since Gabrielle’s brother had called the police from there and alerted them to its presence, but whatever the alternative became couldn’t have been much better! Besides, with their intense trepidation of us getting incarcerated, my curiosity made me wonder what they were trying to prevent us from encountering there… That concept wouldn’t come into fruition in this instance though! Jinn and Kora pointed their palms at us, and in one fast sweep, we got magically hurtled into the trunk of their car!

            The lid shut in a flash, giving us no window to endeavor a jump so we could regain our freedom! In the span of a heartbeat, we got enclosed and they became airborne! Once my eyes adjusted to the darkness, I could discern Violet’s shadow next to me, and I asked her, “How do we get out of here?”

            “I have no idea!” Violet answered forlornly. “Even if we popped the trunk open, we would still have to find a way to get back to the ground safely! They would most likely discover what we’re doing before we even set a foot outside of the car!” She sighed and then followed her statement with, “I’m gonna have to use a spell!”

            “Violet, no!” I adamantly objected to her suggestion. “We can’t risk depleting your life force!”

            She debated that, “If we stay in here, then the Fallens will take it away completely! At least if I used a small hex, I’d have a greater probability of continuing my existence!”

            I knew her logic had merit to it, but I still had an intense aversion to Violet sacrificing herself like that! If we got out of here, I wanted us both to be alive for the occasion! I couldn’t furnish any alternatives to her projection, but I knocked on wood that I could inspire her to weigh some other options first! Maybe one of them would sprout some wings in the nick of time to preserve both of our us from meeting our demise! “What would you do though? Create a soft landing for us? The Fallens would be able to catch up pretty fast if we did that!”

            “Well… I could transport us somewhere…” Violet proposed.

            “Where?” I challenged her. “We had nowhere to go if we didn’t discover the Arch Deity at Monico Elementary!”

            Violet mulled it over for a minute and then reported, “I have no clue! Truth be told, I didn’t think about escaping back there, I was kinda interested in getting arrested…”

            I concurred with her, “Me too! Never in a million years did I ever feel grateful that I’m wanted for a felony!”

            “I know!” Violet chuckled. But since they’re so damn insistent on us not going to lockup, I’m guessing that there’s something advantageous for us in one of the cells…”

            “What if it’s the Arch Deity?” I probed. “What if the reason they’re not coming forward to eliminate Birsha’s threat to society is ‘cause they’re imprisoned?”

            Violet deliberated the plausibility of this. “Hmm… Well, that would make sense…”

            I iterated my argument, “Innocent people are getting thrown in jail left and right these days! I should know… Do you know how many decent clients I saw get taken away for the pettiest of crimes? How could they protect the planet without busting out in such an unorthodox and probably illegal way?”

            “How are we gonna get out of incarceration though?” Violet brought up. “If the Arch Deity isn’t in there, we could land ourselves in there for the rest of our lives!”

            “We’re not guilty, they shouldn’t lock us up forever!” Even though I couldn’t see her visage, I could tell that Violet was giving me a quizzical look, so I acknowledged, “Okay, so that doesn’t mean they won’t succeed!” I contemplated it for a bit and then submitted to her, “There’s bound to be some Guardians in the prisons we’ll get sent to. We can convince them to lend a hand in getting us out if we both strike out!”

            Violet worriedly conveyed, “That’s really risky! But what choice do we have? We can’t ignore this lead and run the risk of losing out on finding the Arch Deity! It’s gonna be so hard though! I don’t like the thought of continuing this journey without you!”

            It elated my spirits to hear that she treasured my company! She couldn’t possibly have valued our stint together as much as I did, but it was still incredible to learn that she held our comradery dear! My mirth evaporated as rapidly as it came as it slowly dawned on me that we would be separated for quite a lengthy stretch! That made my insides ache, and all I could do was reassure myself that we would get reunited again soon! Prior to me getting to express any departing grief to her, our conversation got interrupted…

            The trunk space got completely illuminated when we each received a text message from Natair warning everyone that the police were on the hunt for their security vehicles, which prompted Violet to cry out, “Oh, duh! We still have the watches on!” She immediately dialed 9-1-1 and informed them, “We’ve been kidnapped! We’re in the trunk of a security car!”

            “I’m gonna turn the power off of this thing so they can’t get too far from the cops!” I announced. Moments later, we heard the faint sounds of police sirens heading towards us! Before I pushed the button on the vehicle’s app, I hurriedly confessed to Violet, “I’m gonna miss you!” The Fallens sped up, so I powered down their car as hastily as I could! The vehicle came to a screeching halt and then swiftly fell to the pavement! We landed with a bang, but just as I was about to pop the trunk open…

            “Jack, before we go, there’s something I gotta tell you…” Violet gazed at me with such a serious expression on her face that all of my skin tingled and my lungs ran out of breath at the expectation of the drastic communication she would relay to me…

True Deception, Chapter 27

“Are you two okay?” a woman with a wheatish complexion, a soft jawline, and a short but trim body gazed at me with her light gray eyes full of concern.

            “We’re fine, just tired!” I bolted out of my seat to portray myself as alert and ready to work. She had an aura of gentleness to her, but I didn’t want to take any chances at such a critical juncture! She surveyed the two of us with great interest, and since I had no way of knowing whether or not her intentions meant well, I gruffly asked her, “What do you want?”

            Her tone became more formal as she answered, “Well, when I was setting up my classroom for our next project, I noticed my window was open. It looked like it was forced open from outside! I was just wondering if you any video of it happening.”

            It never occurred to me that I should prepare for this possibility! Sitting in the camera room and watching the monitors didn’t bother me, but I had no idea how to pull up past footage! I turned to Violet to see if she had any clues what to do, and her blank expression indicated that she did not. I fretted that the inability to do this customary function of the job would blow our cover, and I prepared myself to fumble my way around this equipment in hopes of figuring it out on the fly, but luckily, this teacher proposed, “Perhaps you’d like to take a look at the window?”

            I tried not to appear too relieved as I agreed to her suggestion, “Okay, we’ll check it out.”

            With all of the discussions that went on over the weekend, it struck me as odd that no one brought up what room that intruder we found tried to break into! I should have realized that a person breaking into the art room, the one slice of individualism and creativity in this school that led me to believe that a Guardian or maybe even the Arch Deity occupied this space, was highly significant! I had nearly forgotten about my curiosity of the name I found in there, and now that I stood in her vicinity, my whole perspective on this situation changed! Instead of striving to maintain appearances, Violet and I could delve into the inner workings of the Fallens’ scholastic scheme! I suddenly grew very excited- I wanted to learn the truth when school resumed, but I didn’t expect it to happen so soon!

            Violet and I peered at the damage that the trespasser had done, but our attention didn’t linger there long since we already knew what went on at that spot. We quickly diverted our focus back to Gabrielle Vinetra, and I inquired, “Do you store anything valuable in here that might attract thieves?”

            “The only thing in here with any monetary value would be the microphones they hide in each room,” Gabrielle replied as she pulled out a piece of paper from her desk and began scribbling something down. I used her temporary distraction to cringe; I always knew that the school could be bugged, but it was a huge disappointment to confirm this chance as a fact! How would we question her about the Fallens’ involvement at this establishment with our adversaries’ ears all around us? “I mean, my kids’ work has value to me, but I doubt anyone else would wanna keep them!” She pushed the paper towards us as if she wanted us to take a peek at it…

            “Do you have any enemies?” Violet posed to her as we read what she wrote. It shocked us to see her enquiring if her brother was okay! Why would she mention something like that to us? How would we know about his well-being? Unless…

            Of course! That man who we apprehended resembled her in so many ways! “I have an abusive ex-husband, but he moved to the west coast…” As she went on, we jotted down that he was fine, but then we gave her the largest inquiry that presently burned in the forefront of our minds- why would her brother break into her classroom?
            Violet probed, “Have you seen anything strange go on around here lately?” As she talked, Gabrielle doled out a written reply. Apparently, he wanted to disable the surveillance in her room even though she begged him not to do it.

            “Nothing out of the ordinary…” Gabrielle responded as she read what I was writing, which was a wonderment as to why he would do that. She scribed her explanation, and it floored me to read that she wanted to discuss the mission to locate the Arch Deity with Principal Shaton! She relayed that nowhere was safe for them to do so as she voiced, “Maybe a homeless person just needed a place to rest and picked my class at random!”

            “Maybe…” I hardly knew how to react to her written statement! Lama Malva mentioned that other people were embarking on the same quest as us, but it never dawned on me that I might possibly meet up with any of them! It felt incredibly noteworthy to run into a person with the same vocation in the same area that we suspected the Arch Deity could have an association with! However, my interest still gravitated more towards another aspect of this conversation, so I penciled my issue to her- How did she know we were searching for the Arch Deity?

            Gabrielle state, “Well, there is one other thing… Some of the teachers have accused me of being disloyal to the school’s cause, but it isn’t true! My only allegiance lies with my commitment to teaching my students!” As she expressed this opinion, she covertly advised us to leave this place immediately!

            She thought we should depart from Monico Elementary? I had to scan over that sentence a few times to make sure I understood it correctly! It stung quite a bit to meet a peer who bore the same calling and have that ally insist that we should break ties straightaway! I had absolutely no inclination to heed her word, not when we got so close to getting some much-needed guidance for the vital duty we had in saving our society! I yearned to know what information she obtained from her own experience in this field, and I pondered how far she and the principal had gotten in discovering the Arch Deity’s true identity! I considered that she may have grown some apprehension of our presence in quarters with so many members of Birsha’s Army roaming freely throughout the vicinity, but she should have gleaned by our outfits that we were well aware of their stronghold over Monico Elementary! This past weekend enlightened us as to how dark their misdeeds could be, but we managed to avoid getting involved in the worst of it! Nathair hadn’t given us any hints in anyone shifting their trust in us, so there was not likely any tentative troubles on the horizon for Violet and me! I tried to relay all of this to her, but then…

            “Hey, Gabby! Have you…?” It stunned us when the teacher we encountered at the factory burst into the room! She had been so full of pip and vinegar when she originally entered, but as soon as she saw us, her mood changed completely! “Oh, you have company…”

            “We’ve heard some reports about this one being a dissident!” I brusquely asserted with my husky speech. I knew that she would recognize me if I used my normal tongue since I used it at Nerium Night Ware, and I also remembered her high level of dedication to Birsha’s regime, so I crossed my fingers that a show of force would throw off any suspicions she may have possessed about the two of us! “We’re taking her to the front office for interrogation!” Violet and I each grabbed an arm, and as we brushed past her and escorted Gabrielle down the hall, I got the impression that we may have landed ourselves in the clear…

            When we stepped into the door labeled “Principal Shaton,” we saw portly man with a bald head, russet skin, and a nose that I swore I had seen somewhere before pacing back and forth across the room under the guise of tidying up. It was one of the most organized offices I had seen in a long while, so clearly, this man had some underlying anxiety that had begun to surface! When we walked in, he froze like a deer in headlights and nervously asked us, “Oh, hi! Is there a problem?”

            I shut the door and took off my helmet before I answered him, “We heard you were looking for someone. We’d like to help!”

            “You…?” Principal Shaton gazed at Violet, who had also removed her headwear, and me in confusion. I could only imagine how this impacted him! Going from expecting to receive a couple of surly Fallens only to behold their number one foes had shown up instead must have been completely trippy, so I waited patiently for the reality of this situation to come to him. When it finally did, his mannerisms changed completely! “Oh, yes! That ‘historical figure’ has been of great interest to me for years, and I believe learning about them would greatly benefit the school and the entire city for that matter!”

            “Do you have any hints as to where you might locate them?” Violet probed. “Do you have something that might be helpful to our investigation, Principal Shaton?”

            He shook his head. “I’m afraid not. I haven’t had a lot of free time lately! Running this school takes most of my day, and my nights have been taken over by caring from our recent agreement to care for my grandmother! It’s fine certain days, but then sometimes, her memory problems kick in! She’ll forget what she was doing and break things or get lost while wandering around my neighborhood!” He sighed and then added, “Oh, and please, call me Alfred.”

            Violet related to him, “Alfred, I totally get it! My grandma had memory problems too!” I recalled Patty getting a little confused when I spoke to her, but it surprised me to hear that she had more comprehensive ailment than that! Violet never really discussed it prior to this occasion, but then again, we never really got as many openings to chat as casually as we could have liked! I wistfully pictured Violet and I having long talks about our pasts on a typical date type of setting, and I sincerely hoped that we would get a shot at making an ordinary like that come true in the future!

            “Yeah, so you know time-consuming that can get!” Alfred remarked. “On the same token, we’re also running out time to pinpoint this person! The longer we wait, the more that…”

            “They’re in here, Leonard!” Kora shouted from the sector that bordered Alfred’s office! Violet and I swiftly put our helmets back on and tried to keep our cool! We hadn’t left on bad terms with that crew, but since they were actively seeking us out, we became nervous about this encounter! Last night, we were so weary that we didn’t fuss over Nathair’s lack of communication, but with this development at out feet, I instantly regretted not addressing it! If we had simply notified Nathair to inform him of our status, we wouldn’t have gotten ourselves into such hot water! We had no evidence that they had any unfriendly intentions with us, but their abrupt arrival made the air fill up with the same energy that a person experiences as a storm begins to brew…

            Leonard, Kora, Alastor, and Jinn burst inside of these chambers in the most unceremonious method imaginable! Obviously, they were angry enough that common courtesies were entirely abandoned! Alfred and Gabrielle backed into a corner behind the desk, but Violet and I stayed up and pretended as though we were simply carrying out official duties. I attempted to offhandedly break the ice with them, “Oh, hello! Nice to see you guys made it out of the-.”

            Cutting me off without a shade of goodwill to his message, Leonard growled, “Cut the crap! We know the truth!”

            “What are you…? What do you…?” I stuttered. I wanted to feign as though I had no inkling as to what he was referencing, but my nerves were getting the better of me! I surmised that they must have gathered some unfavorable intelligence about us, and all I could do at this moment was knock on wood that what they obtained could get explained away and remedy this dilemma easily!

            “We found Sam and Amy tied up in the woods!” Leonard grimly revealed. “Apparently, Nathair was under the impression that they were going to this school to search for dissidents! He was baffled as to why they didn’t take care of that intruder! He had never heard of any new hires named Harvey or Sabrina! Ugh! And here we were worried sick about losing you guys at that dangerous scene! We were losing our minds about your disappearance! We were all prepared to rescue you from jail, and then we find out that we were deceived! How dare you pull at our heartstrings like that!”

            A bout of silence followed that oration, and it was incessantly unsettling! I knew they were livid, and I knew what they usually did to those who betrayed their ranks, so I didn’t have to guess what they had fated for Violet and me to endure! It astonished me as to why they didn’t capture us and carry it out right away, and I greatly desired to use this lull to work out an avenue of escape, but I blanked out! We were stuck in a small space with four powerful Fallens blocking our only exit, so I couldn’t fathom how we would get out of there alive! This feeling only increased when, to my horror, Alfred stepped forward with his palms up, ready to strike the Fallens with a spell! Leonard derisively cackled at this gesture, “You’ve gotta be joking! You must be delusional if you think you can beat a group of Birsha’s Soldiers by yourself! We’re all wearing armor, how can you hurt us?”

            Alfred bravely assured him, “I may not be able to get through your silver, but that’s not the only way to damage you! Your power over my school is over! This ends now!” Out of both trepidation and curiosity, the four Fallens stood perfectly still and prepared themselves to witness the magic Alfred would emit as he held his hands to the sky…

True Deception, Chapter 26

“This doesn’t seem like much of a punishment!” I conveyed to the four Fallens with as much cynicism as I could muster.

            “I’m sorry?” Leonard reacted in disbelief. Jinn and Alastor stared at me incredulously, and even Violet seemed surprised by my assertion! I would have to explain it to her later, but for the moment, she would just have to trust me on this!

            I shrugged and then expounded on my point, “You said this was the Punishment Site, and, well, this seems so quick and painless. How is that a punishment?”

            Leonard, Alastor, and Jinn appeared impressed by my stance, and I inwardly pat myself on the back for how convincing I had been to our foes! It never occurred to me until then that I had any acting skills, and I bemused myself in thinking that I wasted my college years studying pre-law! Leonard asked me, “Well, what did you have in mind?”

            “Uh…” My inflated ego popped as I had to go back to business, and I made sure to really concentrate on radiating a sociopath with homicidal tendencies as I answered him, “There’s a forest right there! Why not make it more sporting? Let him run and dare to believe he has a chance at survival, and then, the moment he thinks he’s got a shot at victory- BAM! We get him!” I didn’t have any actual interest in hunting this poor man down; I was hoping to get the Fallens away from him so that Violet and I could secretly help him out, and I prayed that these goons were sadistic enough to fall for it!

            “I like what your twisted brain comes up with!” Leonard mused himself with this notion I raised, and I started to get the impression that my plan might prevail, but then… “But we can’t possibly do that!”

            My heart sunk to hear his refusal, but I wasn’t prone to give up so easily, so I challenged him on that, “Why not?”

            Leonard rationalized his denial, “We don’t have much control over what happens in the woods! There could be a hiding spot there that we’d never be able to find, or he could run into someone who could save him! Plus, you don’t know when something dangerous could turn up and hurt us! The longer we let him live, the more danger we put ourselves in, so it’s better to kill him right away! And bury him right away too! If we got him out there, we run the risk of somebody seeing us with his corpse! Your idea sounds fun, but…”

            Out of the corner of his eye, he saw something that caught his attention, and when he whipped his head in the direction of this source of distraction, we all mimicked his move. The Fallens were horrified to see that the trespasser had a watch on and used our preoccupation in that discussion to discretely call 9-1-1! For a second, Leonard stared at the device as if it were a time bomb ready to explode, but then he abruptly shouted, “Scatter!”

            As Alastor, Jinn, and Leonard all sprinted in different directions, they did a spell to remove their armor. Violet and I kept ours on as we prepared to depart, but before we left, the intruder stopped us, “Hey!” I don’t know why we complied with his wishes- we were his perceived enemies, what good could have followed that request? I guess something about his tone made us consider trusting him, and I crossed my fingers that we hadn’t erred in trusting him! Luckily, he gazed at us gratefully as he expressed, “Thanks!” I felt relieved to learn that he caught on to how we assisted him, but since Violet and I were still getting framed for murder, we couldn’t stick around. Instead, I gave him a thumbs up as we took off.

            Violet and I didn’t have a pathway to guide us, we simply headed away from the beach and figured that if we kept going this route, eventually we would come across some sort of road. After quite a bit of fleeing, the two of us had to pause and catch our breath! Once I had gotten enough inhalations to speak again, I remarked, “It didn’t seem like such a long trip as we were heading over here!”

            “Seriously!” Violet shared my sentiments, and after taking another big gulp, she suggested, “We should probably take the silver off since that thief probably gave the police a description of his assailants.”

            “Yeah, we don’t wanna get back to Anwynston in the back of a cop car!” We laughed a little despite our wheeziness, and as we shed our helmets and mail, I conversed, “Too bad we’ll never know why that dude broke into the school!”

            Violet thoughtfully reflected on that, “Yeah, I’m curious if he was gonna do a regular robbery or if he had some kind of resistance to Birsha in mind! If Nathair hadn’t contacted us when he did, I wonder if we could have gotten an ally out of him!” She paused and added, “Oh well! It doesn’t really atter what might have been, we gotta focus on what we’re gonna do now! How do we travel that far without getting caught and thrown in prison?”

            I brought up, “But do we wanna avoid capture anymore? The Fallens are pretty adamant about us not getting incarcerated!”

            “Because they don’t want anyone else blabbing secrets,” Violet asserted. “I’m assuming some Guardians have been telling the courts everything they gathered from their encounters with Birsha’s Army! Oh! Nicole just got arrested, and she did imply she was gonna do that!”

            “I hope she stays safe wherever she is!” I greatly admired her conviction to inform the masses on this regime’s malevolent practices, but I could only imagine that she obtained a huge target on her back from this intention, and I fretted for her well-being! I couldn’t linger on that concept for too long though since we had our own safety to worry about! “It’s still dark out, and we have a lot of plants to shield us on this trip, we can probably make it back alright.”

            Violet frowned as she commented, “It’s gonna take us at least eight hours to get to Anwynston on foot! That’s a long time to go without us running into something that might get us thrown in jail!”

            I reminded her, “The authorities are more likely looking in the air for a vehicle that matches what that man described, I doubt they’ll search for anyone walking around on the ground! Besides, who would be crazy enough to hoof it for such a long trek?” Violet giggled at my quip, a feat that always elated my spirits, and I attempted to further my joyful impact on her mood by encouragingly ensuring her, “School doesn’t start ‘til Monday anyways. We have a whole day to wait anyways! It’ll be fine even if we never stumble across another method of transporting us home!” Violet gave the mirthful reaction that I wanted, and I began to look forward to having such an expansive opportunity to be alone with her!

            My solitude with her was briefer than I envisioned it would be! What felt like no time at all, we saw pavement ahead of us! Initially, we assumed that it was part of a street, but it turned out to be a parking lot belonging to a church. We presumed that this house of worship was in a remote location, and we expected their driveway to lead us back to the freeway, but the avenue we faced led to the entrance of a tiny city full of antique buildings! “Hmm… Do you think this town will get us back on track, or should we go the other direction through the woods?” Violet posed to me.

            “I dunno…” Both routes contained potential danger for very different reasons, and I had no inkling which one would offer us the most amount of protection! The mail and helmet grew heavy in my arms, it would have been so nice if we could have ditched these garments in the forest! Unfortunately, we had to use them when we returned to Monico Elementary, and the outfits we obtained from the Buddhist temple didn’t have any pockets! The material would have folded up if only we had somewhere to place them! I tried to make my peace with this burden we had to carry, but I grew uncomfortable with the extra weight! As I readjusted my load to make it easier to bear, I happened to read what the message on the sign said. It intrigued me, and I alerted Violet to this development, “Wow! Talk about meant to be!”

            “Trip to Anwynston, nine a.m.! What a coincidence! Too bad we can’t go with them!” she sighed.

            I inquired, “Why can’t we?”

            She replied, “They probably already have a set number of people slated to board whatever vehicle they’re using. They may even do a role call! We’d get caught for sure!”

            “They would do that for a long trip, but not a thirty-minute drive!” I argued. “If they let us on, we’d save at least five hours of travel time!”

            “And if they don’t, we’ll lose several hours waiting here!” Violet differed. “Or worse, they could recognize us and we’d land ourselves in lockup! Although… in a small town like this, their jail system would probably be simple enough for us to break out without too much trouble…”

            It relieved me to see her entertaining this possibility! I really believed that it was the most practical method of getting to Anwynston, but I needed to address one lingering issue… I glanced around at what resources were available around there, and I grew ecstatic to see a costume shop a few doors down! “Aren’t you glad Halloween is just around the corner!?!”

            Violet chuckled, and we walked over to that store. It was still dark out, so obviously the store wasn’t open. I peered through the window and declared, “It doesn’t look like they have any kind of a security system here. They probably have a cheap lock too!” As I wiggled the handle to test it, the door instantly became ajar! “This is just too easy! It’s gotta be a trap!”

            “Shh! Someone might hear you!” Violet quietly reminded me before we set foot onto the property. We tiptoed inside and scoped the vicinity out. It wasn’t a big space, but it had a lot of options! The inventory was numerous enough that all of the racks were stacked to the max, so we had a multitude to pick from! “What would make the most sense for us?” Violet whispered.

            “Is somebody there?” an elderly voice yelled form the top of a staircase in the center of the structure! Panicking, I grabbed the first costume I laid my eyes on and dashed out of there! Violet copied my action and got out before the shopkeeper could catch a glimpse of us!

            We came back to the church and found a wall bordering their dumpsters where we could discretely change, and I volunteered to go last. While she swapped her garments, I studied what I nabbed and commented, “I hope these things fit!”

            Violet exclaimed, “Oh, we’re pilgrims!”

            “What?” I puzzled.

            “Look!” She came out wearing a long, old-timey dress with an apron and bonnet! We cracked up at this realization, and then she gleefully regarded me, “Please tell me your hat was attached too!”

            I held up a capotain and kidded, “Hey, these things may be goofy, but I bet no one will think we’re up to no good in them!”

            As I got out of my previous attire, Violet stated, “Hopefully we won’t be the only ones dressed up! If this is a solemn ceremony, we’ll have to walk to Anwynston like this!”

            “So? At least it has pockets!” I came out of the shadows and showcased my outfit for her. “What do you think?”

            “Your shoes don’t match!” a man behind us put in. We grew startled by this abrupt appearance, but he didn’t seem to find our presence so strange! “We may have some boots in the back! Hold on!”

            He ducked into the building and swiftly rejoined us with a pair of shoes that kind of matched my costume! As he gave them to me, he also gave me a compliment, “It’s so nice of you to do this! Now as we pray for the lost souls of the witchcraft trials, the kids won’t picture ghosts of the past, they’ll know real human beings died that day!”

            And just like that, Violet and I basically became party hosts! No one questioned our identities, everyone assumed that we belonged there! We thought we ran into an incredible stroke of luck at the premise of us being actors who tagged along for the journey, but once we arrived at this historic district of Anwynston, we found that we couldn’t separate ourselves from the group! We were too noticeable to slip away without getting seen, so we felt forced to remain on their touristy adventure! I don’t know what we could have gained from that school on a Sunday, but I knew we weren’t doing much for our cause by participating in this stunt! Fortunately, almost no one recognized us in this façade! One old lady queried if we ever got mistaken for the two most wanted criminals in the area, but she was merely teasing us! Finally, at some staged production of the trials, Violet and I managed to sneak out of their periphery!

            The door was unlocked when we, at last, got to the school! We ditched our headwear and donned our armor again, so none of the staff suspected anything heinous! When we were alone in the camera room, I joked, “Well, on the plus side, I kicked the itch to become an actor to the curb!”

            “Good!” Violet grinned as she sleepily rested her chin on her hands. “The real plus side is that Nathair didn’t call us when we were with that church bunch!”

            “Why didn’t he call us?” I pondered with a yawn.

            Violet gave me a shrug. “As long as he doesn’t have us thrown out of here, I’m not gonna worry about it!”

            I agreed, “Yeah, we should be glad were here again, and tomorrow, we can search for the…”

            All of a sudden, someone was nudging me to wake up, which was funny because I didn’t recall falling asleep! I opened my eyes, and my panic began to resurface…

True Deception, Chapter 25

“What do we do?” Violet urgently asked me. We watched a man dressed in dark colors try to pry open one of the windows of the school. Abandoning the ruse of speaking like the adversaries we disguised ourselves as in case of a hot mic, Violet went on, “We don’t have any weapons, and my powers are almost completely drained, so how can we stop him?”

            “Maybe we don’t,” I answered her. “I mean, we could ‘accidentally’ turn off his camera and say we didn’t see him… Oh, but then Nathair will kick us out of this post and we won’t get a chance to look for the Arch Deity among the teachers on Monday!”

            Violet suggested, “We could call for back up. That’s what Sam and Amy would probably do if they were here in case the ‘dissidents’ showed up while they were dealing with this intruder.”

            I felt reluctant to go down that route. “Yeah, but it’s not like they would call the police and go complete the rest of their shift! If they don’t wanna deal with cops, then how would they handle thieves?” On some level, I think we both knew that Birsha’s Army wasn’t likely to go lightly on anyone that they might take prisoner, but neither of wanted to know any specifics on what happens during these apprehensions! I doubted any of the possibilities would have been pleasant to hear!

            “Well… We can scare him enough to make him leave on his own,” Violet proposed.

            “Worth a shot! Let’s go!” I exclaimed as the trespasser started to gain traction with his intentions. We bolted out of our seats and ran outside.

            As soon as we got close to his break-in spot, we held our palms out towards him, and I shouted, “Stop right there!”

            The man, who already had a leg on the sill, reluctantly slipped out and put his hands up in the air. “I’m cooperating! Don’t hurt me!”

            “Now what?” I whispered to Violet. I was counting on the culprit running off as soon as he heard Violet and me! I didn’t know what to do with someone who surrendered to us! Violet obviously didn’t have a clue either, and the man began to grow confused by our hesitation. Before we could speculate on a solution to this conundrum, the watch I had on indicated that a call was coming in! I glanced at its face and inwardly groaned when I saw that it was Nathair! I told Violet, “Let’s just ignore him ‘til we figure this out!”

            “If we don’t talk to him, he’ll think that something is wrong and send some Fallens this way! I’m sure if tell him that we got the situation handled, he’ll leave us alone after that.”

            I was skeptical of her theory coming to pass, but I heeded her word anyhow. Nathair’s image floated above us, and I made my voice hoarse again as I graciously greeted him, “How can we help you, sir?”

            Nathair brusquely responded, “I got notified that somebody opened a window at that school! Was it the dissidents? Did you get them?”

            “No, it was someone else…” I reluctantly turned the watch so that he could face the intruder. I wished that I could have lied and said everything was fine on our end, but I didn’t know how else we would explain the window opening like that. All I could do at this point was hope that he would trust us to handle the problem ourselves! “Amy and I were about to take care of this.”

            “Sam, is this your first day?” Nathair addressed me, and I tried not to smile at this allusion to the story we gave the janitor earlier! He wouldn’t have understood why I was grinning, and I’m not sure how I would have explained it to him, especially since it sounded like “Sam” was about to get lectured on his performance! “You can’t take him to the Punishment Site with those dissidents still on the loose! Keep him there for now, and I’ll send for back-up.”

            Praying that I still conveyed calm, I agreed to that order, “Yes, sir!” Privately, I was panicking! If we had to interact with other Fallens, then they would see that we weren’t Sam and Amy right away! And then we would join this intruder at this Punishment Site! I had no idea what that would have entailed, but clearly, they wouldn’t have put us through anything helpful or pleasant there!

            When Nathair hung up, Violet reassured me, “This won’t be so bad! All we gotta do is hand him off to whoever gets here, and then we can go back into the camera room! We may even be able to duck inside as soon as they arrive so we don’t gotta talk to anyone!”

            That thought hadn’t occurred to me until she mentioned it, and now that she had, I felt like I could take a deep breath and relax a little. I didn’t get the opportunity to do that for long though because the man who tried to break in gazed at us in confusion and probed, “What’s going on? Why did you talk differently with him? How come you seem so uneager to punish me?”

            Neither of us knew how to reply to that! Had this guy had run-ins with Birsha’s Army prior to today? I frowned as I wondered if he would say something to the Fallens who were set to join us here and blow our cover? Unfortunately, we didn’t have time to figure it out- a vehicle with a security logo parked in front of the school! Violet tried to dart back inside of the building, but she couldn’t reopen the door! “We never got the keys to this place!”

            I cringed at the prospect of having to deal with the four unfriendly-looking individuals who exited the vehicle, and I crossed my fingers that we wouldn’t have to fight them for our freedom and risk losing this possibility to unearth the person who had the power to save the world! I did my utmost to portray a convincing amount of poise and control as they approached us, and although I knocked on wood for the best, I feared the worst…

            It was hard to read their mood since their eyes were covered, but their lips formed fairly deep frowns, so I didn’t foresee anything positive coming from this encounter! The one at the head of the pack gruffly inquired, “What happened?”

            A wave of alleviation washed over me! If they didn’t have any details other than a location, then we were unlikely to get identified as imposters! Violet honestly reported to them, “We’re not really sure what to do right now!”

            “Sullivan was lying, Nathair didn’t give the new recruits any training!” One of the other Fallens shook his head. In my mind, I pondered whether or not that custodian’s name was Sullivan or if Nathair had been lackadaisical enough about his hiring practices that everyone started to take notice…

            “We have a special spot we take troublemakers,” another one of the Fallens informed us. I expected them to give a simple explanation on this subject and then take the trespasser away, and I already started planning out the details of the rest of our evening, but then that Fallen went on, “Memorize the route so you won’t need help next time! Come on, bring him to the-.”

            I interrupted him, “Wait!” I uttered that a little too hastily, and they gave me a peculiar look for doing that. I attempted to smooth things over by disclosing, “We’re expecting some really dangerous dissidents to break into the school. We can’t leave it vacant!”

            The smallest out that bunch volunteered, “I can watch over the school while you guys are out.”

            “Oh, well, I was thinking we could stay here since we were already…” It really disappointed me that we weren’t given permission to remain at this station, and while it sounded as though we would have been able to return, somehow I pictured it as not being so easy for us to come back once we went away!

            “Aw, I know you wanna be the ones to catch some high-level offenders, but if you don’t know how to punish dissidents properly, what are you gonna do if you do catch them?” the head of the pack sympathized with me, and I pretended to get comforted by this gesture, but in reality, I didn’t believe anything good would come of us leaving a scene that might have ties to the Arch Deity! The head of the pack continued, “Plus, if you truly want those dissidents caught, it’s better if you have a more seasoned soldier on the job! Some of these traitors can be really slick, so it takes some sharp ears and a keen eyesight to outsmart these bastards!”

            Violet carried an air of seriousness when she spoke, but I sensed an aura of amusement as she remarked, “Nothing gets past you all, huh?”

            The head of the pack proudly reacted to her statement, “Are you kidding? We’re masters at our craft! We could sniff out a dissident in a second if they dared to go near us!” It took all of my willpower to not bust out laughing at the irony of his claim! I could tell that Violet had to resist snickering too, but luckily, we were able to hold it in since the head of the pack decided to introduce everyone in this moment, “I’m Leonard, and this is Kora, Alastor, and Jinn. Welcome to the team!”

            “I’m Sa…” I nearly gave him Sam and Amy’s monikers, but they seemed more discerning than Nathair, so that would have been a disaster! I had to wrack my brain to come up with something else immediately! “… I mean, she’s Sabrina! I’m Harvey!” I tittered to convey the level of edginess that someone who was on their first day might possess, but I actually hoped that none of them would get the reference to the television show from the nineteen-nineties I used! My mother used to watch that series when she was younger, so Sabrina was the first “sa” that came to me! I crossed my fingers this information didn’t come across as too contrived!

            “Nice to meet you!” Leonard chimed. “Okay, go have a seat in the car! Alastor and Jinn will load the intruder in for you two.”

            I meant to relay some gratitude to Leonard, but as we headed to his vehicle, a lump rose up in my throat! I still had a strong aversion to abandoning this locale, but because we had begun to step away, it occurred to me that, in order to maintain this façade, we would have to participate in some of the incredibly dark activities that Birsha’s Army engaged in! It was not something I wanted to learn about these adversaries, and now I had no choice but to do that! The premise sickened me completely, but there was nothing we could do to back out at this stage of the operation! I resented this notion so much that I couldn’t even enjoy squeezing next to Violet! It took all of my strength not to vomit as we soared towards our destination!

            We spent enough time driving that my anxiety sort of got tabled and replaced with impatience! I did not look forward to performing any kind of misdeed with these Fallens, but after such an expansive stretch, I just wanted to get it done and over with! If we could have gotten it out of the way quickly, Violet and I would have gone back to doing more practical things already and we would have had this burden off of our shoulder sooner, but the persistence of this apprehension was agonizing! If I had any inkling that we were embarking on a faraway journey, I probably would have tried harder to stay at Monico Elementary! After staying silent for close to half an hour, I finally had the audacity to pose to them, “Where are we going?”

            “I might you’d never ask!” Leonard chuckled. “We’re heading to a secluded beach near New Avernus Bay.”

            “Pay attention! We’re getting near our exit, and once we get off of the freeway, you need to see what streets we take,” Jinn directed us. Violet’s focus seemed wrapt on the roads we took, and I didn’t totally understand why at first, but as we slowed our speed, it felt tempting to hop out and make our way back towards Anwynston. That’s when it hit me- we had to concentrate in case we had to find our own way back to town!

            We travelled down a few dirt pathways and at last, we parked under some leafy trees near the water! The cool moisture that the ocean emitted felt amazingly refreshing, and the moonlit sea glistened like a jewel in front of us! This resembled a vacation resort more than a Punishment Site to me, and it perplexed me as to why the Fallens took us here until we ventured further onto the sand… Violet and I tried not to appear appalled as we stared at it, which felt strange to me! To anyone other than these demented creeps, seeing a shallow grave was a terrifying spectacle! I couldn’t decipher how many of them were there due to the natural darkness that the nighttime brought, but it revolted me to know that multiple people got buried in these quarters!

            Alastor and Jinn set the woozy intruder onto the ground, and Alastor offered to Violet and me, “Would you guys like to do the honors?”

            “What honors?” I was pretty sure I knew what he meant, but my thoughts didn’t want to process what he intended for us to do!

            “We’re not taking any more chances with dissidents who cross our lines,” Jinn enlightened us. “He has to go!”

            Violet protested, “This is a pretty drastic measure to take for someone who committed such a low-level offense! He tried to break into the school, and now he’s gotta die for it?”

            Alastor coldly asserted, “He may have been entering for reasons detrimental to the cause! We can’t risk anymore dissidents leaking our secrets! He has to go! If you’re too scared to do it, then stay out of our way!”

            They raised their arms in order to strike him with a spell, and I simply couldn’t allow them to do this! Whatever motive this man had to sneak into Monico Elementary, he didn’t deserve this fate! Before they could execute their deadly jinxes, I stepped forward and…

True Deception, Chapter 24

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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