Issue #46 – The Juniper Chronicles

This entry is part 11 of 15 in the series The Descendants Vol 4: Confluence

Part 5

“Scatter!” Majestrix shouted over the coms. Her prior encounter with Groundswell warned her what was coming next. Even as she issued her warning, she thumbed open the flight controls on the Queen’s Gambit’s twin control sticks and fired jump jets. Orange flame and white exhaust belched out of nozzles in the mecha’s calves, lifting it just ahead of dozens of small stalagmites. The stone growths tore out of the road, angling to entrap the machine’s feet. Ephemeral and Hope dodged left, under the cover of the exhaust while Zero went right, heading for the hotel and the refugees within. Someone still needed to help the people inside. The stalactite barricade presented no resistance to her as she directed her powers at the nearest one and broke it into shards with a flying kick without losing much speed. It barely registered to her just how quickly she’d done that, usually it took almost a minute to make something that brittle. Meanwhile, Majestrix cut her jets and engaged the lift pad to hover, turning a quick circle to survey the area. “Does anyone see him?” She asked. “You won’t.” Darkness said over the com, “He’s probably still underground.”

“Then it is up to me.” Ephemeral said. He and Hope had taken cover against the side of a nearby building. To Hope he said, “Please, keep an eye out for me, I’m going to attempt to find him.” When she nodded, he folded his hands before him, a fist in the opposite palm; the meditative stance he found most comfortable to hold while standing.

It took only a moment before he began to feel the familiar clusters of layered thought that constituted the minds of those around him, starting with Hope and expanding slowly outward.

As it had been for weeks now, Hope’s mind was different. Instead of one slightly louder voice that was the consciousness, her mind was operating at a shout, drowning out everything beyond surface thoughts, even to his supernatural ability to hear them.

This condition was the result of her turning her own mood elevating powers on herself, an issue she’d utterly refused to discuss with him. The middle of a battle, however, wasn’t the time to bring it up again. He briefly scowled at the fact that there never seemed to be a right time, but quickly forced himself back to the task at hand.

And with dozens of panicking townsfolk filling the mental landscape with their chaotic emotions, that task was not small.

***

Well before Groundswell sprang his ambush on the group at the hotel, Alloy and Zero Point had found the twisted metal the younger hero had been sensing. At least, Alloy was certain they had.

“Should have guessed.” He said, looking at the front of the building and it’s modest signage naming it the Skyline Credit Union. “A bank.”

Zero Point also looked upon the building as well. It was, as many small town banks, a squat rectangle of gray bricks with small windows and glass doors. There was a distinct lack of twisted metal or any sort of destruction whatsoever.

“I’m… definitely not seeing what you are.” He was forced to admit.

Isp and Osp seeped their liquid metal edges into the crevasses in the mortar, anchoring solidly enough that they could carry Alloy around the corner of the building.

“It’s not actually like seeing.” He replied. “And the damage isn’t outside, somewhere near the back…” He paused, getting a sense of the metal inside. He was telling the truth when he said it didn’t work like sight; his metal sense was closer to taste and the sense of stressed and damaged metal in the vault was akin to burnt food.

“The vault door’s still whole, it’s the reinforcement in the… crap! In the floor!” He instantly opened his channel to Codex. “The Burrower wasn’t just here trying to lure them out, he was robbing the bank too.”

“That makes even less sense than this already does.” Codex chewed her lip as she monitored all the computer screens. “It’s a small town credit union, why stage a major encounter with powerful opponents just to cover up a theft he’s already perfectly suited to carry off.”

“Even that sounds too ambitious for him.” Said Zero Point. “His lack of ambition’s exactly what made him dangerous; he used a brute force tactic over and over because it was a big pay off for little work and he didn’t even care enough to change the plan to avoid murder charges.”

“Maybe he’s grown.” Alloy guessed. “Not for the better, right, but maybe into a better baddie?”

“It’s not impossible…” said Zero Point.

“No time for that now.” Codex interrupted them. “Groundswell just attacked Majestrix and the others at the hotel. They need you and everyone else there, ASAP.”

“Maj.” hissed Zero Point. Almost without thought, he was enveloped in the blue energy field that marked his powers. “Come on!” He shouted to Alloy. “Do you need me to take you with me?”

The younger hero shook his head and directed the tentacles to lash to the top of the building. “No, go ahead, I won’t be far…” Zero Point was off in a flare of cerulean. There was a loud thump of air rushing in to fill his place. “…behind.”

Codex watched their departure through her satellite and drone feeds. Even though she didn’t know exactly what she could do against Groundswell’s powers, but she wished she could be out in the field with her friends instead of operating from the isolation of the carrier.

Before she could meditate on it any longer though, a horn-only rendition of Find Out Who You Are by SB and the Fountain of Soul played in her earpiece. The Vimes webcrawling server had found something. A swift set of keystroke brought the program to her main monitor.

She blinked at the first connection it had found. “Hello there.” She breathed.

***

Two spars of rock burst up through the ground, collapsing a corner of the Greenview Diner. Their growth was directed specifically to draw parallel lines directly at Majestrix. Between them was a boulder large enough to do significant damage to the Queen’s Gambit.

The moment they were lined up on target, the spars drew together at angles, compressing the boulder with tremendous force. It was more than enough to crush it to gravel, if not for the specific angling of the spars, which allowed it to instead slide forward as if on rails. The pressure was so great, by the time it reached the end of the impromptu barrel, the projectile was traveling fast enough to be lobbed into the sky.

The collapsing diner gave Majestrix plenty of time to fire jump jets and maneuver out of the way, but even as she did, two more sets of spars finished the job on the diner, disgorging their payloads in turn.

There wasn’t enough time to fire jets again with any hope to evade, so she bought the Queen’s Gambit’s artillery arm up and fired into the first stone. The shell struck true and on impact, blasted the boulder into a cloud of flying dust and gravel that struck the mecha with a sound like a hailstorm on a salt dome.

But the second boulder kept coming, now hidden from her by flying debris.

A column of black fire fell from the sky. The heat did little to effect the boulder, but the force behind it pushed it into a flatter trajectory. Just not flat enough; it impacted the Queen’s Gambit just below the right knee, crushing metal struts and sending the mecha into a short spin before Majestrix could correct.

“Now we know how he was throwing those rocks.” Darkness said over the coms. Chaos and Facsimile weren’t far behind. “Are you okay?”

Majestrix jockeyed the control sticks to stop the spin. The structural sensor monitor above her and to the left was awash in yellows and oranges all over the right leg, with a smaller window scrolling the diagnostic feed.

“Let’s see…” She took the time to brush sweaty hair out of her face. “Looks like we won’t be able to walk. Landing is going to be tricky too, but I’m not all that excited about landing right now anyway.” A flick of a single finger ejected the casing of the spent artillery shell and chambered a new one. “But we can still fight.”

***

The less than gentle end of the Greenview Diner marked the end of most attempts at calm amongst the citizens. Sheriff Gaskin was shouting for order in a fruitless attempt to conjure it from the panic and chaos that was now ruling. The best he could hope for was to prevent trampling as people poured out of the Greenview American Inn and suddenly realized they had no idea which direction was safe.

Straight toward the stampede of humanity ran Zero. It had seemed so simple when she’s struck out to lead the townsfolk to safety; she would just tell them to follow her, they would do so, and then not only would she be doing a good thing, but she would be escaping her problems for a very good cause.

But how was she going to lead them now? They wouldn’t hear her, probably wouldn’t even notice her. Facsimile, she realized, was far more suited to this sort of work; being naturally loud and more than happy to show it.

She stopped short of the crowd pouring out of the hotel. It wasn’t that she didn’t appreciate their fear; something was destroying their homes and businesses, and could very well bring harm to their loved ones and themselves at any moment. She just didn’t share that attitude.

Her mother had called her fearless. When the threat of death loomed, be it from a fall from the rocks near their home, or later from bullets, beatings or more creative means of the opponents she faced as a member of the Descendants, she met it with a casualness that even Cyn had found unnerving.

But she wasn’t fearless in all things, her mother had been wrong about that. Death wasn’t the only thing a person could fear. Like the fear of hurting people she cared about.

She shook her head. Her mind was wandering and that wasn’t going to help anyone. “Excuse me, everyone?” It was mostly to herself, really. Even the closest people to her would have had to strained to hear that.

Chewing her lip, she took a deep breath as if that would build her confidence. It didn’t.

And then the earth shook.

***

Intellectually, Kareem knew that his telepathy was just another sense. It was only a few degrees of difference from hearing or sight.

But when he engaged it, he felt that he had stepped into a mental realm, just as real as the Astral Plane. Here among the constellations of swirling thoughts, he wasn’t Ephemeral; there was no need for disguises.

In Greenview Ridge, most of the minds were boiling with activity like overturned beehives. They wanted to get away from this place, they wondered why this was happening to them, and to a person they worried; for themselves, for their loved ones, for their town.

As much as he wished to calm them, Kareem ignored them. So too did he pass over the minds of his friends and colleagues, focusing instead on finding the man behind it all.

Here and there, he found islands in the seas of chaos and adrenaline tides; people too shocked, self centered, or just naturally calm to fly into a panic at something as small as the earth rising up to do battle.

But at last, he found the needle in the haystack. There was one mind that held no confusion or fear, or even loss at the damage to the town. And it was supremely focused on accomplishing their task.

Now, Kareem thought as he extended his mind to touch his target’s with a will toward putting them to sleep, Now I have you.

***

The ground heaved to a new peak of violence, the tremor sending the already extruded spars of stone crumbling to the ground. It also proved to be too much for the superstructure of the Greenview American Inn. An inorganic groan escaped from its facade as the whole building started leaning.

“Everyone, out. Now!” Zero screamed, finally finding her voice. “Follow.. um… um…Dawn Lane to the hiking trail! We’ve broken a hole in the wall there!”

A fraction of the crowd figured heard and started passing the instructions around, but a much larger number was paralyzed as they looked up and realized they were out of time; the front of the hotel was coming down.

Before it could, a figure in a knight’s armor landed before the crumbling hotel, arms raised. Rebar and metal beams strengthened and locked together, holding the wall in one piece. It wouldn’t last forever, but it might well last long enough.

“You heard her!” Shouted Alloy. “Go!” Shaken out of their fearful paralysis, they complied.

“What was that?” Zero asked into her com.

“I believe I have disabled Groundswell.” Ephemeral replied. “But I underestimated his control over the bedrock beneath the town.”

“Can we get some help here?” Came a shout from across the street. It was fire chief Frank Bundy. “We’ve got sick people that need to be moved and a couple that fainted clean away from fright!” He was supporting Neena Betterman against one arm as he approached.

“Of course. We’ll do everything we can.” Zero Point levitated down to where Frank was standing. “We still need to find Groundswell though.”

“Don’t you dare!” The piston of rock that exploded upward into him took him completely by surprise and the spar that jutted out at an angle to slam him in the back completed the ambush. The blue glow surrounding him went out like a candle as he fell to earth, rolling hard.

He came to rest with his back against a wall with two stalagmites jutting out of the ground to threaten his jugular. “This is it, Zero Point.” came the demonic voice of the Earth. “And I’m feeling pretty good about it. To think, I didn’t want to.”

“ZP!” Majestrix shouted, dropping into an airborne charge. Don’t worry, I’m—“ She was forced to bring up the Queen’s Gambit’s undamaged foot and fire jets to avoid a head on collision with the small mesa that suddenly erupted to block her passage.

“I’ll get to you soon enough.” Groundswell snarled. But right now, I think it’s time to show Zero Point just how big of a punch I can give him.” A third stone spike emerged from the ground and ground slowly toward the still stunned Zero Point’s throat.

“No!” The scream was primal and stricken. And it was accompanied by a scintillating ray of blue energy that slammed into the stalagmites like a ram, pulverizing them to powder. But it didn’t come from Zero Point.

A corona of blue, just like that of her father surrounded Zero and lifted her a yard off the ground. Only instead of a soft light like Zero Point’s it was like blue flame that rolled over her. Viewed from outside, the wash of psychokinetic energy dyed her green and white costume azure and black.

“Leave my parents alone.” She didn’t have to shout, the same power that held her aloft amplified and carried it out over the town.

The coms were suddenly filled with confused chatter, none more confused or hope filled than Majestrix, who only asked, “Willow? Sweetie?”

Codex shared their confusion and yet, couldn’t let that stop the job of protecting what was left of Greenview Ridge and stopping Groundswell. “Everyone, focus. Please.” She broadcast. “On my mark, Majestrix, grab Zero Point.”

Head reeling from the recent news, Majestrix found herself nodding even though Codex couldn’t see. “But isn’t Groundswell going to block me again?”

“Not if he’s blind, he won’t.” Codex touched a separate screen and was rewarded with a message from the Forestry Service: ‘Drones recalled. Good hunting’. “Now Chaos, I’m sending an image to you on your visor. I want you to find this woman, grab her, and fly straight up.”

“What? Why?”

“Because she’s the mastermind of all this: Neena Betterman, nee Taggart, formerly of Paradise Valley, Arizona.”

“Excellent answer.” said Chaos, falling into a dive toward the crowd outside the Greenview American Inn.

***

“This doesn’t make any sense. A daughter?” Groundswell’s voice came from the ground, but no more attacks came with it. He was really and truly blind.

With extreme difficulty, Majestrix came to a hover beside her downed husband and used the machine guns on the robot’s arm as pincers to lift him onto her shoulder. “We thought we’d lost her.” She replied, more for Zero’s benefit than Groundswell’s. “Thank god you’re alright, sweetie.”

The blue flames around Zero flared fitfully with her emotions as tears started to wet her cheeks. “I’m…I’m sorry, mom.” Her voice carried across the whole town. “You were right, the Academy was not good. They were really… really bad.”

“Forgive me for no caring.” Groundswell snapped. “But your father’s got some payback coming, even if I have to level this town.”

“Even if it means leveling your wife, Braylocke?”

Hidden in his tunnel beneath the town, Ethan Braylocke started. That hadn’t come to him through the vibrations in the ground. That had come from his solar phone. But no one had that number except his superiors and… He grabbed up the phone. “I have no idea what you’re talking about.”

“Really?” Asked Chaos, high above the town with Neena Betterman fastened to him by a safety harness. “Then you don’t know Neena Betterman? Because we know everything about you and her. You went to high school together. Dated. Our computer found your prom photo in the Paradise Valley High yearbook.

“Then, a year after you escaped jail, she married Nathan Betterman, a man that doesn’t exist, and he became a forest ranger in Greenview Ridge. Funny that, because the second the Forest Service called back their survey drones, you stopped attacking. And you knew where we were headed because your wife was feeding you the conversation with the sheriff using your spare solar phone. The same phone I’m talking to you on.”

Chaos gave this a second to sink in before going in for the kill. “So here’s the deal, Braylocke: turn yourself in, and we don’t tell the cops that Neena was an accessory to what is definitely going to be called a terrorist act.”

At this, Neena suddenly sprung into action, scratching at Chaos’s exposed jaw with her nails. “You forgot emptying the bank’s security deposit boxes of all the nice things the rich folk keep here to wear on vacation.” She followed this up by grabbing the solar phone from him. “Ethan, you can break me out later! Get out of here, baby!”

***

“Shit, he’s running.” Chaos reported over the coms.

“And we can’t track him underground.” Codex groaned. “So much for that plan.”

“No.” Zero choked back her tears to speak into her coms. “I think I can.” Without explanation she lifted off into the air in her flaming aura.

It wasn’t something she talked about, but she could, if she concentrated, see the world in thermal vision.

And as she climbed into the sky, she sensed exactly what she was after: through the thick stone only twenty yards south of where he’d attacked Zero Point, Zero sensed the warmth of Ethan Braylocke.

Alternating between drawing the heat from the rock and pounding it with blue blasts of psychokinetic force, she made short work of the surface street and bedrock between her and her quarry, finally breaking through just in time to see him trying desperately to coax an old, beat up quad bike to life.

The man who had threatened her family and destroyed a town for greed and petty vengeance goggled at the glowing girl bearing down on him like an avenging angel.

Zero drew back her fist and flew at him. Like her father, she’d end this in one punch.

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About Vaal

Landon Porter is the author of The Descendants and Rune Breaker. Follow him on Twitter @ParadoxOmni or sign up for his newsletter.

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3 Comments

  1. Rebecca Thompson

    So I’ve been working my way through your stories for the past month, and now that I’m finally almost up to speed (on the main series, at least), I figured I should comment. Your series is absolutely incredible–your characterizations are fun, your characters actually grow, but beyond that, the world you’ve created for them is just phenomenal in its detail and scope. I’ve had so much fun reading it, and I look forward to more in the future!

    • Wow. Thank you so much for the kind words. It’s reactions like this that make the work I put into the series feel more than worthwhile. I hope you continue to enjoy the series and related pieces and that you continue to offer your thoughts, even if they aren’t all as positive.

      Thanks for reading, and commenting!

  2. Pingback: Descendants Serial » Vaal’s Top 20 Moments In Descendants Vols 1-5 (Part 3)

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