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Chapter 8: Room Service


'Room for two for one night will cost you fifteen.'

Lucian folded his arms. 'Twelve.'

'You know what? Fine. It's late.' The lich behind the wooden counter turned around to pick the key off the rack and Lucian smiled tightly at a deal well won. Without turning his head he said 'Jason, stop staring.'

'I'm not staring!'

'You've been staring at everything since we got into this city. Also, you sound defensive when you're lying.'

'But that thing has a shelled carapace and an eye in the middle of its face and-'

'Then stop staring at it. You want to draw its attention?'

'...Oh.'

'One floor up,' the lich declared in its eternally dry voice, turning back as it slapped the key onto the table. 'Eighth corridor, first room.' Lucian scooped the key up and automatically began towing Jason towards the staircase past a couple staring romantically through the window, ignoring the other boy's protests at being manhandled so.

'That thing could have vapourised you in an instant if it wanted,' he hissed to Jason only once they had got onto the staircase, the wood creaking as the light of the day's end came in through the larger window up ahead. 'I understand that this is all impossible for you, I get that. But at least try not to get yourself killed.'

'But I don't know what will get me killed!' Jason tried to hiss a reply to Lucian, he really did, but it came out almost as a wail and an erratic gesture instead as confusion vyed with despair to make itself heard. 'Nothing makes sense around here! I don't know what's going on!'

'Yeah, well, learn. Make mistakes and learn from them. 'S not hard.'

'But that thing could have vapourised me, you said so! I might not be able to learn from these mistakes! That's the scary thing! I...' Need to take a deep breath, he thought lucidly. Don't hyperventilate and make it all worse now. If Tom could see this... He took a deep breath. 'I'm just about getting used to the idea of all these freakish creatures being alive and actually existing, I really am. Now I'm just getting used to the fact that they live in industrial cities and have nine-to-five jobs.'

'What, that's what you're confused at? Didn’t they have jobs in all those weird stories you told me about?'

'Well no, not really! You sometimes got things like goblins in banks or gryphons as mathematicians, but you didn't get ridiculous things like a zombie running the front desk!'

'He was a lich. Be careful on that one, they appreciate people who know the difference.'

'See?! Exactly!' Jason emphasised with another pointed wave of hands, nearly hitting a serpent that was crawling the other way down the hall. 'How was I supposed to know that there was social angst amongst the undead? This is the kind of thing I have no preparation for!'

'How indeed were you,' Lucian said with a still expression. 'This is our floor, by the way.'

The two boys lapsed into silence as they turned off along the corridor, not having so much finished talking as having run out. Under a thin carpet the floorboards creaked ominously as they walked. Great. Well, we were never going to get The Ritz, Jason thought to himself. Good grief, they even have tacky carpets and cream panelling here. If you closed your eyes, or just never spoke to anyone, you'd get away with almost thinking it was home.

Oh, if only. He'd already nearly died once today. There hadn't been much call for that back in the English Midlands. He sighed as he walked, drawing the attention of no-one. If he knew where to go to help him, he'd go straight there and forsake the sleep right now. But he only had ideas, and he wasn't the best at processing ideas after a day this long. A good night's rest would have to come first, for better or worse.

Behind them, the drake approaching the staircase paused and frowned as the board at the top appeared to creak for no reason at all, before shrugging it off as a trick of the mind and keeping going.

I wonder what 'The Ritz' would refer to in this world, Jason thought absently as silence prevaded. Maybe there's, I don't know, a golem tribe by that name or something...

The upstairs layout made the eighth corridor easy to find, and Lucian fished the key back out of his pocket as they stood in front of the first door. 'So,' Jason asked as Lucian did, genuinely curious, 'is this the worst place that you've ever slept on your, er, travels?'

'Are you kidding? I've slept in several forests and a haystack. This might well be worst you've had, though, if you're used to staying at home- Why do you keep looking over your shoulder like that?'

'Sorry... thought I heard something,' Jason said with a shake of the head as the key was produced and Lucian unlocked the door. The magnolia hotel room was very tall but not particularly large in any other dimension - this, Jason thought to himself as yet another reminder of his situation, must be for those guests who are nine foot tall. The rest was quite familiar, though - beds, cabinets, a sink and bathroom. Kitsh decorations. No chest of drawers, although most patrons likely didn't need one - it wasn't as if he had anything to put in it, of course. A cheap painting of a waterfront hung on the wall with the title 'Crestis at High Tide'. Jason had had his refusal to believe in fantasy monsters driven out of him at fifty thousand feet by a pack of rocs, but it would be nice if they had helped him adjust by at least behaving the way he expected. Then again, he was very much in the minority here.

'You won't be able to do this sort of thing every night, obviously,' Lucian was saying coolly as he walked through and started to lay out a bed with what looked like practiced efficiency. 'Tomorrow... I don't know, go register yourself with a charity or something. They'll give you a roof, you can plan your next attempt to meet Callum from there. If you insist on it.'

'I... I suppose so...' Jason sighed as he sat into the other bed, and slowly began to empty his pockets. 'I don’t have much money after this evening... Any wild dining tips would be greatly appreciated if we're going to get through this.'

'If it's brightly-coloured, smells strange or talks, don't eat it.' It was hard to tell how serious he was being.

'Got it.' It suddenly occurred to Jason as he glanced out of the small, high window that he didn't know if it was also evening in his world or not - could there be a 'sealed time envelope', or something equally fantastical, whereby he'd return at the time he left? He'd buy that by now. But it might well not be. Assuming his world still existed anymore. 'Speaking of advice, I... Well, anything else I should know about this world?'

'That's... a pretty broad request...' Lucian's voice came as he finished laying out his bunk opposite.

'Alright then,' Jason said, turning to look directly at his roommate, 'how does it work? Start basic. Where did all the weird creatures come from?'

'Always been here,' Lucian said without looking back, appearing to gaze casually through the window above his bed at the early evening sky outside. 'Don't know why you don't have them. Humans are just another species that've got to pay the bills. They get by on being smart, not strong.'

'Right.... ok. So why is it all so... modern? How does this magic society work?'

'It's modern because we've made progress. Simple as. You told me about those stories you have in books where everything's olde-worlde and basic and 'horse'-and-cart, and I dare say we used to be like that. But times have changed. Things develop. The world moves on.' Lucian sat down onto the bed, tearing his stare away from the sky, rolled onto his back and stared dispassionately at the ceiling. 'And now I've got to summarise our whole society to a foreigner. Huh.'

'Don't feel any pressure on my accoun-'

'Hey, you've to learn somehow. Bear in mind that I'm more of a hanger-on myself, but...' There was a pause for formulation of thought. 'It didn't used to be this organised. None of these multi-species cities. Just packs of creatures, fighting other packs when they got bored of fighting among themselves. Then times moved on and... business became a thing, basically, and everyone realised they could trade with each other. So we all started working together, and gradually businesses got more complicated so cities got more developed. Now ever since the Strontite Species Formula we've got land for those who want to live with everyone else and other bits of land for those who don't. All officially allocated, so there won't - in theory - be any arguments over it. That's my understanding.'

'Species Formula?'

'You've got any kind of government in your world?'

'Oh... so it's like a Parliament Bill...'

'If you say so. There's not so many cities up north, what with all the mountains and wet moors being hard to build on, so they just gave big parts of that region over to big, scary things like dragon roosts. Also the undead, because they're not worth better.'

Jason glimpsed the expression that came over the other boy's face as he said this. 'Um... you ok over there?'

'Hm? Sorry... don't like the undead much, personally. Don't ask,' he added on seeing Jason open his mouth. 'I just don't. Personal things. Then again, a lot of people don't either. They're creepy buggers, for a start.' He rolled over and looked at Jason, and just like that the previous exchange never happened. 'After all that you've got the magic counties, where all the magically-gifted do whatever they want 'cause no-one can stop them. Like I said before, humans are mostly at the top of some sort of organisation using their brains, apart from the poor suckers that don't catch up. A lot of people felt they got the rug pulled out on that one. You should get on your feet fairly quickly once you've found somewhere to live for that reason, though - down-on-their-luck humans can get sympathy for having lost a lot. You'll get by and you can find out how to get home again. I wouldn't worry too much.'

'Easy for you to say.'

'Jason, that is not easy for me to say at all.'

'Really?'

Lucian suddenly became very quiet and Jason realised he had very probably over-stepped his mark. He cast his eyes away from the other boy and, seeking something to do, surveyed instead the meagre collection of possessions that consisted of his entire worldly ownership. £4.70, a long-dead phone and headphones, a scrunched up receipt... and the rock that he'd been given by the strange boy on the moor. He reached out and turned it over, and looked at it unthinkingly. What was it he'd had said? This entire country is in your hands as long as you've got that thing on you. What was that supposed to mean? It was a rock. Personally, Jason was more preoccupied with when the teen had said to him You’re not wrong, and you're not mad. That kept him going. He was the one who'd said he needed to find Callum, and he seemed to be knowledgeable. Somewhat. For a guy who appeared out of thin air. Small comfort, Jason knew, but it was all he had. He was going to value it.

He felt tears well in his eyes and tried to force them away, only partially successfully. No. He- He would be fine. He had to be. There must be a way to fix this. The time traveller - that was what he must have been, right? - had said he was there when it happened. Jason believed that. But more importantly, Jason insisted on believing this because the alternative was too horrible to even think about.

Sometimes it was all too much. With a sigh, he scrunched the receipt even further. They've probably never even heard of that company in this world, he thought bleakily as he threw it from his bed straight into the-

Not straight into the basket by the wall, but instead seemingly bouncing off an invisible surface in front of it and falling back towards him. Jason frowned. This would be a very strange use of forcefields, he thought to himself as he swung out of the bed and waved his hand over the space around the bin, meeting no resistance. The ball was still lying by his feet. Absent-mindedly he picked it up and dropped it in. No problem.

'Jason, what are you doing?' he heard Lucian say.

'Sorry, I... just threw something at the bin, and it bounced off thin air.'

'Thin air?'

'Yeah. Like it hit something invisible.'

Lucian sat up. 'In that case, close the door so that whatever it is can't get out.'

Jason's body was already moving into action before his brain processed the implications of that sentence, and so managed to get in front of the door and slam it shut just in time to turn around for something that didn't seem to be there to crash into him.

'Oof!' he groaned, falling back against the door. There was a thump in front of him as if something heavy had hit the ground, but by the time he was upright again it was gone. Lucian jumped to his feet in one motion, scanning the surroundings as well, before a spare pillow on the floor levitated off the ground and hurled itself at Jason. Jason's instincts kicked in first and ducked, then he grabbed the pillow and threw it back as it fell. It hit something that wasn't there and drew an annoyed hiss before Jason panicked and threw himself bodily after it in a desperate move to catch it before it escaped. He made impact on whatever it was and grabbed a hold desperately, before his momentum carried him down and he hit the floor with a thump. The unseen pair of legs buckled as he fell and something heavy dropped on top of him as he hit the ground. His captive squirmed for freedom as they lay there and he fought valiantly to maintain his grip, when Lucian suddenly threw his duvet over the two of them together. The thrashing mound that was definitely bigger than one person continued in motion for a while, coming to rest eventually as whatever it was considered its options and realised they were generally quite lacking.

There was a second or two of silence and breathing out, in which Jason could see nothing but the inside of the duvet, before Lucian said 'Well, well, well. You're a nosy one, aren’t you?'

There was no response, but the leg that Jason had hold off seemed to tense somewhat.

'Look, it's pretty obvious that you're there. You may as well stop pretending.'

'Yeah, but that's what I do best,' the female voice said suddenly and Jason almost lost his grip in surprise. 'Can you get your friend off me? It's kind of creepy.'

'But then I've got no way of knowing if you're still here. How long have you been following us?'

There was a thoughtful pause, then 'About an hour or so. Look, can you at least take the duvet off?'

'Jason, under no circumstances let go of her, are we clear?' Lucian said, his voice coming closer as he reached down.

'Um, ok?'

The duvet came off and immediately Jason felt the invisible thing move to run, but then Lucian's hands clamped on thin air and the motion was lost, defeated. Steadily it rose to full height, the hands on the invisible shoulders eventually coming level with Jason's own. Jason stepped back, opting to delegate whatever happened next to the grimly-determined Lucian.

Lucian opened the proceedings. 'Who are you?'

'You first.'

'You're not in a negociating position.'

A pause. 'Alright then, Suzie. Nice to meet you.'

'I'm Jason and this guy is Lucian,' Jason said quickly before the chance of any basic goodness left the conversation. The better he got on with as many people as possible in this strange world, the better.

Lucian's scowl professionally disappeared almost as fast as it came. 'Why are you following us, Suzie?'

'I, well...' There was a silence, and for some reason Jason couldn't help feeling it was to guess how honest she should be. 'You made me curious. I couldn't help noticing earlier, but you practically reeked of magic when you entered the city - both of you.' There was strange shift in Suzie's tone now, a voice as she said it of excitement instead of the usual public responses of concern and fear. 'I just had to know what kind of teenagers come in at this time of night with that lingering on them. You've been in the magic counties, haven't you? Have you? Ooh, that's a recipe for trouble that is.'

'It's none of your business,' Lucian got halfway through saying before Jason had an idea.

'Yes,' he declared suddenly and enthusiastically, 'yes we have! We're trying to find a magic being and they've already thrown us out of the counties once! We're going to be heading back in somehow, as soon as we know how to do so without them realising and getting even angrier at us!'

'Jason!'

'Oh, no, keep going. This sounds like a good bit.'

Suzie was summarily ignored. 'Jason, what are you doing?!' Lucian got stuck halfway between a hiss and a shout. 'We can't trust her! You're giving out your secrets to every idiot who crosses our path and you think it won't come back to bite you?! Stop talking!'

Jason tried to level his eyes at Lucian's. 'Lucian, she can help us find Callum again!'

'No! There will be a better way! Stop endangering yourself like this and use your stupid brain for once!'

'I have to say, this is tremendously entertaining,' Suzie's disembodied voice added to the conversation.

'But what if this works?! And I need to find as many people to trust as I can in this crazy world!'

'Not like this, you won't!' Lucian wrang his hands in frustration as if he couldn't believe this was actually happening. 'Not everyone can be trusted! There will be time enough for that tomorrow! Not everyone will help you, and it's not like you could have possibly been expecting people to just interrupt you in the middle of the evening on your very first day here!'

There was a knock on the bedroom door.

You could have heard a pin drop inside. The only movement was people breathing, and even Suzie had frozen in shock if Lucian's grip on her shoulders was any indication. After several long seconds in which no-one spoke a word, Lucian called out 'Who is it?' in as calm a tone he could manage.

'Message for Jason,' a female voice on the other side of the door replied.

Jason and Lucian's eyes meet desperately for a second. 'Don't know who you mean,' Lucian called back quickly.

'Jason Riley, human male, teenager. Has he told you that he thinks he's from another world yet?'

Now you could have knocked them down with a feather. Any of them. The panic on Jason's face froze halfway across, unable to process any more or handle any more action as his train of thought lost control of its brakes and veered straight off the rails into a ditch. Even Lucian was paralysed, unable to speak and for a critical moment, uncertain of what to do. This was by way of being a calendar event under normal circumstances.

'Hello?'

'Who are you?' Jason called out with a quaver in his throat, unable to keep himself any longer.

'I'm your fairy godmother. Open this door before I blow it off its hinges.'

Jason glanced at Lucian again. 'Fairy godmothers don't exist in this world, right?'

'Jason, don't be ridiculous.'

The door shot through its frame into the room with a noise that seemed to come from everywhere.

Jason dived out of the way with a yell as he threw himself clear of its path. In his peripheral vision Lucian lost his grip on Suzie as he tumbled back for cover. The door smashed into the bed opposite with an almighty crack, the heavy wooden frame splintering under the impact. As the dust blew in through the now-vacant doorframe the figure on the other side appeared to put a packet of something back in their pocket before stepped through the frame calmly as if they owned the place, which gave them the right to blow its doors off whenever they wanted. The woman who entered was dressed seemingly in a sensible jacket and trousers, but the way her eyes scanned the room and alighted on Jason had something that genuinely terrified him about them. That gaze was sharp, and directed. It had hunted him out the second she had entered the room, and Jason suddenly got the feeling that they had been doing so for some time before as well. And now they had found him.

On the plus side, at least she was human, or appeared to be. He could only take so many monsters in one day before giving up.

'Mr. Riley,' the woman said with her eyes on him as if choosing something off a shelf. 'So this is where you've ended up. Well, it's been fun tracking you down, but I've had quite enough for one go-around. Get yourself off the floor and come with me quietly, now. It's not an offer.'

'Oh no you don't.' A lesser mortal would have stopped to consider the wisdom of the action before rising from the floor, but Lucian didn't have time for such trivialities. 'What makes you think he's going with you? What makes you so trustworthy that he needs to come now? I have a reliable gut feeling, lady, and it tells me to avoid people who blow doors out of public buildings.' To Jason's amazement, Lucian actually seemed to move sideways to move into the gap between him and the intruder. 'Jason, don't trust her.' Don't tell me twice, Jason thought to himself.

The woman blinked and frowned at Jason, as if this was somehow all his fault. 'Oh, for goodness' sake. Well done, you made a friend. Now move out of the way before I throw you out.'

Jason scrambled to his feet, brushing himself off slightly to try and retain some dignity. 'But he's right. I don't know I can trust you. Why are you looking for me?! I'm not anyone!'

'Not the problem. You can call me Falcon, if that helps the trust fund. I can help you though, boy; I-'

'Obviously a codename.' Lucian growled impressively and raised his fists. 'Jason, I'll make a cover. You run for it and get to a shelter.'

'Falcon' only sighed at this, one hand distractedly searching through her purse as she eyed up Lucian. 'You know, no-one ever makes this easy for me. Kid, go outside, get yourself a pop-ball and have a kickabout in the alley with the troll kids. The grown-ups have business to be doing in here, and you're really getting in the way.'

Lucian snarled and began to run at her, his arm coming back for a punch. 'Jason-'

Suddenly Falcon's hand snapped up towards Lucian as he ran, the palm of her glove cracking in one strike into his sternum and stopping his momentum instantaneously. Lucian's eyes bulged and he buckled, the wind driven out of him, when Falcon's other hand came up holding... an inhaler. Jason frowned, especially at the way she was holding it the wrong way round, before she pressed the catch and no medicinal spray seemed to come out. Lucian tried to stand up and catch his breath when a frown suddenly crossed his face. He looked down in surprise at the two little prongs that seemed to have appeared in his chest, before Falcon pressed the other catch on the device and Lucian's body convulsed with a scream, jerking as 50,000 volts of electricity coursed through the disguised taser and straight into his chest.

'And today's lesson has been in minding your own business,' Falcon remarked dryly as Lucian fell to the floor, still shaking. 'Now Jason, come with me and no-one else gets electrocuted today.'

'Lucian!' Jason looked up from where he had leapt to Lucian's side, making an attempt to cradle his head. 'You... you psycho!' He blurted out through incoherent panic. 'Why would I trust you?!'

'I'm not asking for trust. And this is just respondong to a threat during apprehension. Look, I'm clearly in a better position than either of you, so stop wasting my time.'

'What do you mean, "either"?'

Falcon frowned and turned at the voice just in time for the lamp seemingly floating in midair behind her to slam into her jaw. 'Run, Jason!' Jason heard Suzie's voice shout. 'Now's your chance!'

'But Lucian!-'

'It's you she wants, genius! Quick, before Crazy Lady comes back round!'

In his haste Jason almost forgot to scoop the rock on the side up and into his pocket. Putting all his force into it he ran at the stunned Falcon, and with a 'Sorry!' shoulder-barged straight into and past her and out into the hallway. His momentum lead him on and he was running on, away from the room.

He heard the sound of feet catching up behind him. 'Ha, yeah!' Suzie's voice said just behind, unnervingly excited. 'Teamwork! I like it!'

'What do we do now?!'

'I dunno! Get somewhere with witnesses!' Already Jason was on the landing and he rounded onto the stairs, nearly breaking his neck on the loose carpet. There was a sound to his side and ahead of him as he ran, which he could only guess as being Suzie sliding down the banister with a grin.

The hotel lobby was sparsely-populated, a few last monsters (people! Think of them as people, Jason!) doing menial evening things like checking the morning weather forecast as a family of dragons tried to check in at the desk. What a world I've entered, Jason thought to himself as he launched off the last set of steps and cleared five at once, immediately regretting it on landing. Some heads turned at the disturbance, but he didn't care. He was already thinking. What now? Run further? But then how would Lucian catch him up? Did he still have that luxury anymore?

A paper on the pinboard advertising 'Mermaid Spotting Tours' wafted into the air and then suddenly snapped down again. No-one else attached anything to it, but it gave Jason a moment of enormous relief. So Suzie was still here... Wait, why? Why was she still hanging around? Maybe just the spectacle...

There was a faint 'clink' sound behind him and he looked over his shoulder to see something small and oblong rolling into place in the gap between the flight of the staircase. He frowned, and stooped to get a better look at it. His instincts screamed at him briefly, but there didn't seem to be anything to worry about... It looked just like some kind of boiled swee-

No sooner was his face was within a few inches of it did the sweet suddenly split open with a crack and Jason's eyes boiled in the thick black smoke that poured forth from it. Within seconds the entire entrance hall was eclipsed.

Everything seemed to happen at once. There was an orchestra of screams and shouts as an alarm bell rang for fire or disaster or whatever meaningless klaxon it was. Jason staggered backwards, trying not to choke from his faceful of noxious gas and wishing he'd taken a better look at the room first. A table of some sort went into the small of his back and he hissed through his teeth, his flailing arm hitting the windowpane and knocking a display over as he pulled the curtain cord too hard and it came loose. Where was Suzie?! What had happened?! That... that woman! She had a taser disguised as an inhaler! There's no telling what kind of magic gadgets she had in her handbag! Why did he bend down and examine a smoke bomb?!

'Kid! Over here!' he heard Suzie shout to his right. He lurched towards it but something caught his ankle and he fell, rolling over as he came. The smoke was not clearing and destroyed all sense of direction. He had only wanted to stay the night!

His unhelpful devil's advocate added Does Lucian get this all the time?

On the staircase above Black Falcon rounded the corner and sighed at the sight of the lobby. Typical. She'd had to get civilians involved again. Look at them all, scrambling for doors they couldn't find. She raised a finger to her glasses and adjusted the tiny dial and a heat-sensitive overlay presented itself on top of her view of the hall, presenting her with a view of red-and-orange blobs milling blindly through the fog. Yeesh... And she thought wyverns looked ugly. She already had visual from before on the boy, and she didn't need a clear view to start making reliable matches. Where are you...

Ah. There.

Her hand was already halfway into her pocket to draw out the grapple wire when Lucian's hand karate chopped down on the back of her neck. Her eyes bulged ungraciously and she pitched forward, managing to reach for the handrail and turn it into a semi-controlled stagger before she tumbled down the stairs themselves. Gripping the handrail she forced herself to a halt and whipped round, in time for Lucian to run straight into her chest as he threw himself down the stairs shoulder first. The two of them came down in one whirling mass, the smoke cloud enveloping them as shoulders and heads and sensitive bits of torsos collided with the edge of each stair. They hit the bottom and immediately Falcon snapped her head forward in a crunching headbutt, pushing herself free and up as Lucian reeled back in pain. Well, I suppose this is happening now! She growled to herself internally, head already turning to locate Jason. It's a mercy she didn't break her neck in the fall - the military-grade padding in her jacket was only so good, and the last time an agent broke their spine an entire hemisphere went almost completely unsurveyed for the three-week healing process.

Without turning her head she snapped a hand up to intercept Lucian's fist a foot away from her neck, then spun and shot a one-handed palm strike into his solar plexus that threw the boy into a noticeboard. In her other hand she cracked another boiled sweet, dropping it as another layer of thick smoke began to fill the lobby.

The sensors picked up Jason's position again. He was in front of the main desk, scratching around wildly as if it might hide him from her. He had his back turned, as well. She strode over calmly, the dark smoke no more than a background shade to her, reaching into her pocket for the disguised cuffs already-

A foot from behind hooked around her ankles and she pitched forward suddenly. She righted herself and made a dash for her target regardless, but suddenly tipped over backwards and nearly fell as Jason slipped off the edge of the visual. A second innate force pulled sharply on her other shoulder, and she fell all the way down to ground level.

'See, the problem with those smokey sweet things,' a female voice that she didn't recognise said behind her, 'is that the noise they make makes it very easy to find you. Even in all this stuff.'

Falcon tried to push herself up, but the force was still making a good attempt at pinning her down on her shoulders. There was no-one behind her, but she sensed the shifting of weight and the pressure increased as more weight came down on her. Ignoring her natural instinct to squirm and struggle uselessly her head snapped up and she hit something soft that recoiled with an apparent gasp of pain. Falcon twisted and her now free hand shot around in a blow to whatever-it-was' side, batting it off as her other hand helped herself up. Instinctively she raised her arms to block, preparing for an unpredictable forward assault. She wasn't seeing anything, even with the sensors. She hated creatures like this.

A voice to her side said 'Hi there.'

Her hand moved but what felt very much like a headbutt came first, straight to the side of her head and making her stagger. A table or shelf of some description hit her hip as she recoiled, but she didn't care. Bringing her momentum into a turn on the spot, she brought her arm up and blocked the incoming hit before her other arm snapped out to grab hold of the invisible fist. She didn't have a gadget with her to solve this. Well, looked like it would be the old-fashioned way instead. Her free elbow came down on where she predicted the arm to be, and then as Suzie stumbled towards her her knee came up and her foot kicked out into the girl's sternum. Her grip slipped and Suzie staggered away gasping, but Falcon dashed forward before she could escape and caught her in a two-handed grab, twisting and throwing her down into the floor with practiced efficiency. Quickly she put a foot down on the invisible lump that squirmed under her shoe. Not heavy enough to actually harm, of course, just so that the little bugger couldn't wriggle out from underneath her and cause trouble again.

'See, this is what happens when you mess with other people's business,' she said down to the figure that she didn't have to see to sense its fierce glare. 'This Jason boy must be either a master diplomat or incredibly charismatic to have so many people throwing themselves down to protect him already, but to be honest from what I've seen of him I really don't believe either. Now, hold still while I go and find Mr. Riley. Wouldn't want me to arm-lock you again, would you?'

There was a silence, except for the smoke alarm still blindly warbling away in the distance, before the voice under Falcon's foot chuckled and said 'Oh, you want to find Jason? Something tells me he's right nearby.'

Falcon raised her head automatically and began to turn to see what the girl meant, and for a millisecond she saw it coming before Jason swung the registration book from the main desk into her side and the wind flew out of her. She recovered quickly but Jason was too desperate to stop and swung again, with no mastery or finesse but a lot of desperate need for the other person to not hit back. This time he hit her over the head, and although it was a glancing blow it stunned Falcon enough in her wounded state for him to toss the register over his shoulder and sprint away into the smoke. By the time Falcon caught her bearings again the sound of the large front hotel doors swinging shut echoed through the lobby with a thud, and she immediately knew she'd lost her mark.

'Develo zano I ateommu,' she cursed under her breath as she nursed the side of her head. If her superiors caught her using that kind of language they'd have words to say about it, but then they'd also have words to say about her letting herself get surprised and a perfectly good apprehension slipping away into the evening. Now she'd have to start over, at best.

The thing she'd caught underfoot moved again and she realised her pressure on it had waned. 'For a secret mysterious agent,' the invisible girl on the floor said as if she had all the time in the world, 'you sure don't listen very well. It's like I said - all that noise you're making makes it easy to find you in this smoke. Oh, and by the way, rope.' The hand that had been scratching around on the floor found the curtain cord that had been torn down and snatched hold of it firmly, tearing it away from the rest of its chain with a firm yank before hooking each end around the foot pinning her down. With a sharp pull upwards Suzie pulled Falcon's foot off of her and knocked her balance out in one movement, instantly scrambling to her feet as Falcon tried to stop herself falling on her back in her surprise. The door, she thought to herself as she circumvented the woman in the clearing smoke. It's in a straight line from the desk. Find Jason - he seems to be the centre of everything around here.

'NO!' Falcon shouted furiously as she caught her balance, only to realise that the girl had evaded her and was no longer on the ground. She couldn't find her now. She'd only found her before because the girl had come to her. She wouldn't do that now. No, no, no! This was supposed to be routine! Now her target and one of his captive associates had escaped her. No, calm down... it wasn't a total loss, she reminded herself as she flicked the sensors in her glasses on again and began scanning the clearing lobby. At least she still had that other one, the boy that she'd thrown into a table earli-

Now where the Voltix had he gone to?!


---


Smoke poured through the doorway behind Lucian as he ran out into the warm evening air, the setting sunlight creating streaked bars of light across the street. He tried to run onwards but as he did his chest creased up and he jolted on the spot with a gasp, staggering backwards into the hotel front as he clutched his side. Gahhhh... Ahh... Ah... That woman... and her... taser... Come on, Lucian, recover! You've made it through worse than this... You... He gritted his teeth, and took a step forwards. His legs didn't buckle underneath him, which meant he could still run. Fine. Good. Now all he-

Where were they?

His eyes widened under the gorse of his hair as he turned on the spot to scan the street, the stares of passers-by rolling straight over him as smoke continued to drift out from the building. For a second he thought he saw a human-esque figure duck out of sight a few hundred metres away to his left, but he couldn't be sure. And the girl, well, she could be in front of him right now and he wouldn't know. Think... from the sounds of the door slamming inside, he must be the last one out. Right? He'd heard Suzie taunting the woman as he lay in there trying to get his breath back... Was she out yet? He wasn't going back in there to check, that was certain. The crazy lady with a freaking taser in her handbag was still in there. He'd probably stood still too long already.

He should get moving...

He scanned the length of the street, ignoring the distraught lady calling for Bob or someone that ran out of the hotel behind him. There were no returns. No obliging answers or pop-up humans. He could go anywhere... That is, he could have gone anywhere. Jason seemed like the type to run a long way for safety. What if he couldn't find either Jason or the girl again?

What... if he couldn't?

Lucian glanced over his shoulder down the length of the opening up street, and immediately turned back. Oh, no, no. Jason was lost in this city somewhere. Until he found him, there was nothing Lucian could do for him. He would not be able to protect him, he would not have to help him find somewhere safe to stay, he would not know whether Jason was safe or not, he would not...

The boy looked over his shoulder again, in the opposite direction to the way he had come earlier that day, and for some reason now his glance lingered.

...be Lucian's problem to solve...


---


Suzie rounded the corner into the alley a few streets from the hotel, and in a moment of emotions she rarely used was immediately both relieved and disappointed at once. On the one hand, she had been right - there indeed was Jason. Chasing a human-shape figure into an alley had been the cause of much trouble even in civilised cities - if a vampire is trying to get out of the Sun, they don't tend to appreciate being interrupted. On the other hand, as Jason stood there with his back on the brick wall and a hand to his side, breathing rapidly as he stared at the floor, he had apparently decided the best place to take shelter was an alleyway. Really?, she thought to herself. An alleyway? This guy's going to get eaten alive at this rate, maybe literally. Oh well. She picked up a stone to show her location and said 'Hi, Jason. Still here.'

Jason looked up from his attempt to get his breath back in panic, blinking for a second before realising what was going on. 'S- Suzie?' he said, turning on the spot with a look of bewildered surprise and distress, sincerely hoping that he wasn't wrong on this one. 'You're still... following us?'

'Hey, I'm not one to just ditch someone I headbutted a secret agent for.' Suzie folded her arms and leant back against the fire escape on the wall, with a metallic clang. 'Wow, and I thought pranks were a good thrill rush. You know how to surprise someone, Jason.' Maybe that's what she'd been after the whole time, she thought in an oddly-profound way. Maybe it was the excitement, rather than the tricking itself. Heh. One for later. 'You ok?'

Jason lowered his head again, his breathing coming back to normal as he recovered the shreds of his confidence. 'I've never punched someone before,' he said as if awe, disturbance and shock couldn't all fit themselves into five words. 'I've never been in a real fight before.'

'You get used to it,' Suzie said with a shrug, moving to stick her head out and check the street. No-one coming... she thought. 'So if you don't mind me asking, what did Ms. Dressed To Kill have against you, anyway?'

'I wish I knew. But she seemed to know me, and so well too...' Jason massaged his forehead with a hand and sighed slowly. 'And we just lost our room for the night, too. And all the money we paid for it. This day cannot get worse. And I thought my biggest problem today would be Reading and Comprehension.'

'Don't jinx it,' Suzie muttered somewhere to his side. 'For the moment, how are we going to find your friend?'

Jason sighed again, a belated laugh finally making it through his lips. 'You know, I've only known him for one day, but I'm already pretty sure that Lucian knows how to find what he's looking for. The way he talks, he can find his way to anywhere without even trying.'

'Even on these streets? It's a big city.'

Jason smiled and nodded. 'A big city that he knows his way around. On the way here he practically gave me the tourist agent spiel for the whole region. He navigated his way here without having to check even once. And he's smart enough to know or work out that I won't have gone far, either.'

'Alright then. So how do you know he's actually going to try and find you?'

The words came like a slap across
Jason's brow. His eyes shot open and he looked up at Suzie, mouth opening as he searched for a sign that she didn't mean what she said. The lack of a reassuring face to stare into made it only worse. 'W-What? What do you mean?'

'Lone wolves tend to avoid packs,' Suzie replied with an unhelpful calm tone. 'Maybe he doesn't want some dumb foreigner trying to get himself killed and attracting trouble on his watch.'

Trying to swallow the rising knot in his chest, Jason muttered 'But surely... He wouldn't... He wouldn't, would he?'

'What're you asking me for? You know him better.' The calm evening street scene played on behind Suzie, and only now was Jason becoming lucidly aware of how long it was taking Lucian to become part of it. 'But from what I heard in there, big guy, he sounded very non-committal.'

'But...' Jason floundered momentarily, piecing the words together like glass shards. 'But he said he'd help me find Callum and get me back home, and-'

'Did he say that?'

'Well... I... He gave me so much help, and-'

'Jason. Did he say that?'

Lucian was still not appearing in the street beyond the alleyway.

Jason's sprint was stopped mid-motion by an invisible hand over his mouth, whipping him backwards in a move that to an onlooker would defy all laws of physics. 'What, are you stupid or something?' Suzie said in his ear right behind him. 'Sure, go stick your head out into the street with that woman looking for you. Idiot. I'll keep an eye out for Lucian.' There was the sound of something moving past, and Jason withdrew back into the alleyway obediently. He hadn't the strength to put up a fight. He hadn't the strength for anything. He blinked, but the world didn't come back into focus. Coherent thoughts slipped through the pink fog that seemed to be numbing his mind, but they either told him things he already knew or told him things he'd never wanted to know. This could not be happening. Lucian had never actually committed to helping him past a certain point. But he... he'd been so much help... but when that boy on the hill had said he'd be there to help Jason him, he'd been shocked at the idea. As if... as if he'd never have been prepared to do so normally. No, no, no. Lucian was a friend, right?

Jason's parents had always told him to be wary of making friends with people he had only just met without getting to know them. But he thought... that he knew Lucian...

'Is he-'

'No.'

Silence descended like a thick blanket, but without any of the comforting warmth.

'Is he-'

'No, Jason. But neither's the woman. Just random people, wondering why a hotel seems to be blaring all alarms without any sign of fire.' There was a long silence. 'Um, if he doesn't come back-'

'He will do.'

'Right, right. But just in case he doesn't, y'know, as a precautionary, what would you do?'

What would he do?

Silence continued to flow. After a long delay in which Lucian still did not appear, Suzie's voice came in a tone of forced casualness saying 'So... "this" world, right? What's the deal with that?'

'What?'

'Back in the hotel room. You referred a couple of times to "this world". As opposed to which other one?'

Jason didn't have the strength to lie anymore, so he told the story. All of it. It took his mind off his treacherous thoughts, at least for a while. He almost choked at the mention of his home town disappearing, but forced his way through it regardless.

There was a long, slow whistle after he finished. Lucian had still not appeared. He had still not appeared. 'Wow, Jason. Just... wow. I've heard some strange things about our world, but I've never heard of there being another one like it. And you say none of these creatures exist in your world?'

'Apart from books and stories and stuff, no.' Lucian had still not appeared. He needed to stop fixating on that.

'But then who keeps the background magic in check if there's no magic species to control it?'

'No-one. There is none. All of this is new to me, Suzie. In my world, you would be a miracle.' He leant his head back on the metal fire escape and sighed. 'And just to kick me in the teeth, there's so much in common at the same time. The cities, the businesses, the civilisation. But it's not. It's not home. I need to get home. And apparently this centaur is going to help me.' I really hope I'm not just going crazy, he thought to himself. I can cope with being wrong, but not with being insane.

There was another long pause, then he heard Suzie move as if turning back to look at him. 'I... don't see him anywhere, Jason. It's getting kinda late. We probably need to start making... alternate plans.'

'But... I...' The words died in his mouth. 'Fine. Yeah. We need to go- Wait, we?'

There was a laugh, a clear and bright sound from the invisible girl. 'What? It sounds like you're in a whole mess of bother. You think that doesn't interest me? A boy from another world! And here I am, pulling pranks on building workers! You bet your life I want some of that adventure before it slips by!'

'Hopefully there'll be no adventure,' Jason muttered. 'We need to... we need to...'

'To?'

He realised. 'I don't know.'

Lucian isn't here, he thought to himself. I don't know why, but he isn't here. But I am.

He was actually wailing earlier, wasn't he? In the hotel. He'd been wailing and bemoaning his fate instead of standing up to and reckoning with it. What an... old maiden thing to do. That was how you really lost it in a world like this... just cry all the time that it isn't the one you know, until you despair yourself into a corner and insist that they're all the crazy ones...

'Uh, Jason?' he heard Suzie say somewhere in front of him. 'You ok? I'd ask how many fingers I'm holding up, but that's kind of pointless...' He ignored her.

So Lucian has gone, he thought. And he seemed so... dependable. Like everything I needed. Well, now it's just me.

Slowly, slowly, his expression began to harden. Then I'll use what I've got, he thought. That's all I have with me. Didn't I jump off a roc earlier? If I've got no-one to steer me, at some point I've got to reach over and grab control of the wheel myself. I'll do this. I have to do this. I have no other choice.

I just hope I don't regret this.

'Suzie,' he said, standing up straight, strengthening his voice by force as he turned to face where he thought she was. 'You know this city better than me. You must know somewhere where we can sleep for cheap. Maybe even nothing...'

Suzie's tone came across with a thoughtful edge. 'I'll warn ya, it's not going to be The Palace. But I know a few places. They'll do for a night.'

'Good. Then tomorrow... Tomorrow, we follow our only lead. That lead is a centaur named Callum, which means going back to the magic counties. Fortunately I can remember a lot of the route we took to get from there to here, but if I enter again there'll be hell to pay after being warned off once. I have no idea what kind of magical detection systems they have in place on their land.'

Suzie grinned invisibly. 'Then it sounds like you need someone who's hard to detect, savvy about the area and knows a bit about residual magic. Don't pretend you weren't thinking it.'

'How well do you know natural magic?'

'Like I say, it's in my blood.'

'I'll gladly take that over nothing. Ok then. What we do next depends on what happens when we do this. If we can in any way I'd love to track down that probably-time traveller, but I'm pretty sure I can't make him turn up for me so we may as well put that on the backburner. For now...' He breathed out, and suddenly realised how tired he was. It had been a long, hard, emotionally strenuous day, and he had been standing up for almost all of it. 'I need sleep. I need rest of some sort. Show me to this safespot, Suzie.'

He heard a noise in front and then behind him, a greasy sound of someone swinging around a metal pole, and the metal stairs of the fire escape clanged by themselves. 'This way, prince. We'll move quicker and draw less attention if we go up a bit. I'll pick a route with jumps you can make, promise.'

'I... Thank you.' And now to trust himself into her hands. Jason smiled, though, peace flowing through him finally. He had someone he could do this with. 'Don't go too fast, if you can.'

'Don't worry, I got it.' The stairs further up clanged on their own as Jason mounted the bottom stairs cautiously. 'By the way, uh...' Suzie's voice drifted down with a cautious note. 'What'll happen if we do meet Lucian again?'

Jason opened his mouth, closed it, closed his eyes and swallowed and then opened them again. 'I will decide that as and when it happens. Right now I don't think I'm in an appropriate mood to think about it.'

'Ah. Got it.' And good luck to them both when it happens, Suzie thought to herself. 'Alright, this way! Follow me up!'

Right now, Jason thought, I need to follow you regardless. I don't have the faintest idea myself.



---


Three blocks away on a parallel, higher rooftop, the woman in a sensible jacket, trousers and an expression like the gates of hell itself snapped the scope binoculars shut and muttered darkly into the night.

No, no, no, no, no! This was supposed to be routine! Ok, so he'd picked up allies faster than expected. And one of them was an invisible human... Unpredictable factors, she thought as the wind blew through her jacket and long hair. Black Falcon did not like unpredictable factors. They lead to unwanted surprises and difficult cases. And now the boy had just lost his hardiest, savviest group member, too. Of course Jason wouldn't know what there was in this world that could drastically change and/or end his life - that was why she had been so glad to see and overhear one so knowledgeable attach himself to him already. And he hit pretty hard, too - stronger than most human teenagers his age. No. No, she couldn't have Jason and the girl lose that boy.

Otherwise, Jason might very well get hurt, which was the last thing that she wanted.

Her phone was already in her hand even as she started to form the plan. Tricky, yes, but she'd used it a couple of times before and it produced extremely authentic results when successful. Not bothering to enter a phone number, her thumb touched a series of points on the underside of the phone before tapping a hidden button on the screen. Immediately the call channel opened. The systems they operated were impossibly-advanced and must have been built by a genius of the first calibre, but she didn't care about that. The call connected after a brief triangulation of her position.

'Hello?' a voice of indeterminate gender said simply on the other end.

'This is field agent Black, citing an official request for C-Class Support on operation.' She hated having to go cap in hand to her superiors for help on the job, but she hated failing missions even more so. Besides, it was just one-off. 'I need a non-obtrusive Grade 2 psion.'

'I'm sorry, I don't know what service you're referring to,' the voice said with calm flatness. 'Please do not try and access my private call line again. I paid a lot of money to reserve this channel.'

'Well,' Falcon said without the least concern, 'don't allow me to obstruct you then. This evening must be very important to your dimensional well-being.'

'Your concern is appreciated,' the voice continued as the appropriate codewords were registered and approved. 'For what purpose do you require this assistance?'

'An in-depth mind reading that the recipient won't detect. Basically, I need a profile of a guy down here called Lucian and his entire personal history. Which will be erased after the mission, obviously,' she tagged onto the end with a barely-perceivable bureaucractic sigh. 'I need it quickly - fifteen Vistic hours or less.'

'Your request has been noted, and put forward for approval. You will hear back shortly, and a suitable assistant found,' the operator said smoothly in the same calm, flat voice.

'Good,' Falcon said unconcernedly as she reached up to close the call.

'Oh, and Black...'

'Yes?'

'You need to ease up on the property damage.'

'...Yes, I'm aware,' Falcon said as she closed the call and returned the phone to her pocket. Yes, that was true, she was hardly being discreet. At least getting permission was easier than expected. Now she could find who really mattered to that boy. In the meantime, she'd need to fetch an appropriate disguise suite... Which were all back at HQ, she realised with a frustrated groan as she pinched her forehead. All of them, still in her outlet back at the Bureau. What was wrong with today?! She'd come straight up from casual reconnaissance, so she left them at HQ, which isn't even on this planet! For goodness' sake! Now was going to take her a good three hours to get her hands on them! Argh! Why couldn't the stupid boy just stay somewhere easy and lie still when she wanted him to?!

Hm. Well. Never mind. The past can't be prevented, as she had (reluctantly) admitted long ago. Now she had an idea of what to expect from them. Casually, the woman stalked up to the building edge and looked down on the colourful streets below, a curt smile forming as if pushed up by the wind that rustled through her hair. Fine. She had scoped the field out. Now she knew what sort of time would be perfect to catch Jason once and for all. Until then, he needed that other idiot to keep him safe in this world. But when that right time came, Jason Riley would not have the faintest idea what hit him.
A short chapter last time, a much longer one now. In the old days, this and Ch. 7 would have been one long-ass entity. Yeah.

Ugh, this became a pain for a while for me to write. There was a lot of re-jigging in the middle... and end... and a bit at the start... So then that took extra proof-reading, which became just depressing after a while. But I think it's much better now. It's good to have Black Falcon back at the serious property damage.

Next part of the story is going to be fun for me to write!


Next: fav.me/dag3us0
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:iconyellowfire7:
yellowfire7 Featured By Owner Nov 3, 2016  Hobbyist Writer
"Lucian scooped the key up and automatically began towing Jason past a couple staring romantically through the window towards the staircase."  You know, at first I read that as if the couple was staring romantically at the staircase, and I thought, "Wow these people have strange ideas about romance," and then I realized what was going on.

Oh boy, is it invisible girl?  She was a girl right?  This is what happens when I wander off for months, I forget things.  (Aaaand, yes, female.)

Lucian, fighting someone who literally knocked the door across the room is not a viable idea, you're not a hero, what are you doing?

Uhh, a couple paragraphs later, doing alright, considering.

So Suzie's invisible on more than just the usually-visible spectrum.  Good to know.
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:iconman-in-crowd-4:
Man-in-crowd-4 Featured By Owner Nov 13, 2016
Oops! Yeah, bad syntax. This is why I need people like you around. Fixed now!

That's Lucian right there - what he knows he ought to do and what he ends up doing often don't line up.

I hadn't noticed that detail either! I mean yes, that was an interesting thing to do with. This is magic invisibility, after all, it doesn't have to interact with technology the way we think it would.
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:iconyellowfire7:
yellowfire7 Featured By Owner Nov 19, 2016  Hobbyist Writer
Yeah, that's a lot easier to understand.

I didn't expect her invisibility to work like that beforehand, but then it made sense.  The light humans can see is just a narrow band, and we know other animals can see more or different ranges, so surely some of the others in that world can see different ranges.  If nobody's seen her, she's hidden from a lot of different eyeballs/stalks/sockets.
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:iconman-in-crowd-4:
Man-in-crowd-4 Featured By Owner Nov 22, 2016
That also is a very good point. Yes, many creatures won't see in the same spectra we do, and yet she still goes unnoticed. I feel a little awkward that what looks like a carefully-planned measure to maintain internal consistency was actually a total fluke!
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