Issue #46 – The Juniper Chronicles

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

Part 6

Flickering blue light spilled out of a borehole in the middle of a ruined town. Over the murmur of frightened voices, only those near it could hear the blow landing, or the soft thud of an unconscious body hitting cool stone. Long minutes dragged by and twice, the blue flame dimmed before finally, a figure cast in blue fire rose into the night air of Greenview Ridge. It was a young woman, clad in a hooded cloak and a theatrical half mask. Tinted by the azure maelstrom, her normally brown, curly hair was black. She bowed to the side as she rose, her right hand firmly clutching the jacket collar of a man in his late-twenties. For his part, he was lightly built and clean shaven except for a thin mustache the same light brown as his clean cut hair. He was still wearing the uniform of the Forest Service. Also, he was well beyond the waking world with a purpling bruise across his jaw. He was Ethan Braylocke, AKA Nathan Betterman; once the criminal known as the Burrower, now calling himself Groundswell. And his captor was the hero known as Zero of the Descendants; known to the teammates and friends she’d lived with for more than a year as Juniper Taylor. But she had been born Willow Chamberlain, daughter of Pete and Emily Chamberlain who were known to the world as the heroes Zero Point and Majestrix. Zero only flew forward enough to clear the hole in the ground before trying to suppress her power. The psychokinetic fires that whirled around her were just as hard to banish as they were to call forth and it took her a few moments before they flickered once more and finally winked out.

Without the support of the powers inherited from her father, Zero dropped five feet to the ground. Those same powers that kept her aloft had also been doing the major work of also keeping Braylocke aloft, so when she hit the ground, it was a fight to stay upright and still keep a hold on him like a leopardess trying to drag a gazelle up a tree.

Free of the blue flames’ light, her cape was milk white with dark green lining. Her hair was plastered to her face with sweat and tears. Teetering between panting from exertion and sobbing at the reality of what had just happened, she cast around with exhausted, fearful eyes.

The object of her search was thirty yards away; a bipedal war machine with arms tipped with weaponry and one badly broken leg. She remembered having lunch with her mother up on the scaffolding almost every day of the two years it was under construction; the smell of grilled cheese mingling with hot metal.

Now, Majestrix carefully maneuvered that hulk, her Queen’s Gambit, toward the ground, the weapon arms fully extended to take the weight the damaged leg couldn’t. The joints creaked in protest of being used in a way they weren’t designed for, but all structural readings and those from her gyroscopic stabilizers said that it would hold.

“ZP?” She pulled the switch sequence for an emergency egress, causing the mecha’s chest plating to swing down and the primary sensor array to tilt backward, while at the same time, the flight harness that kept her in place came undone.

Her husband was at rest in the recessed area just inside the shoulder where he often sat when they were on a long flight without the Rook, a short climb from the cockpit using the natural hand holds in the articulated armor plating. “Are you alright, sweetie?”

There was no blood, and nothing seemed to be broken, but he was lying there, head swaying slightly from side to side as he tried to get his bearings.

Stripping off a glove with her teeth, Majestrix went about some basic field triage.

“Maj?” He managed as she shined her pen light into his eye.

“Right here. Oh, honey, Burrower sure rung your bell, didn’t he? I think you might have a concussion. Let me call the Descendants’ healer…”

He bobbed his head in a tired nod, then grabbed her arm with a trembling hand. “Willow. I… did I… I mean…”

“She’s here.” Majestrix smiled despite her concern for her husband. “She back and… and alive and healthy. And we’re gonna see her just as soon as you’re okay.” Keeping up her reassuring smile, she switched on her com to make the call to have the others bring Hope in.

***

“I’ve got him, Jun.” The voice seemed far away and then suddenly nearby. Zero gasped before realizing it was Facsimile. The golden heroine had landed beside her at some point and was reaching for the collar of Braylocke’s shirt, still clutched in Zero’s fist.

She didn’t register any other word but ‘Jun’ and it made her cringe with guilt. “Willow.” She said quietly. But she didn’t let go of Braylocke though. She’d forgotten his weight entirely.

Facsimile glanced at her still empty hand and withdrew it. “So that’s your… you know?”

New tears started to well up in Zero’s eyes. “I’m sorry.” She muttered. “I lied. I mean, I couldn’t use my name at the Academy and then… then I couldn’t go back because…”

A golden hand reached out and patted her shoulder, then, with some hesitancy, patted her on the cheek too. “Hold on there, kid.” Facsimile said. “I’m the last person you’ve gotta apologize to for not showing people who you really are, alright?”

Zero looked up into her friend’s eyes. Like the rest of her when she was portraying Facsimile, they were gold; solid gold, no whites or pupils. But somehow, she saw the meaning there and nodded. “Maybe you, but the others…”

“Screw their gobs if they’ve got a problem with it.” Facsimile shrugged. Noting the alarm on the other girl’s face, she added, “But they won’t. Seriously, you think we can’t get over a secret identity?”

“But this isn’t like that!” Zero protested. “I… Cy—I mean Fax, I wasn’t doing it for a good reason! I did it because…” She sniffed and choked back a sob. “Because they wouldn’t let me go to the Academy. I-I ran away.”

“So did I.” Facsimile pointed out sympathetically.

“But you had a good reason.” said Zero, her arm was shaking under the strain of holding up Braylocke. “I was just being a brat. They said I couldn’t go to the Academy, so I ran away.” She bowed her head and chewed her lip. “And then I started lying to all of you.”

Facsimile grabbed Braylocke under his arms and took the only load she could from her friend. “Jun… I mean… Willow. God, that’s going to take some getting used to. Anyway, l didn’t hear the whole thing, but they’re your parents; the other prelates?”

Zero nodded.

“And… they were good to you?”

“They were the best.” Zero said quietly. “They loved me so much and I was…”

“No, hold on.” Facsimile tried to prevent the other girl from sinking further into self loathing. “Thing is, I don’t know anything about nice families, or non-shitty parents. I can’t help a lot here, but you should probably go talk to them.”

“But…” Zero protested.

“No. Look, I’ve got our wonderful town wrecking jerkwad here, and me and the others, we’ll be okay.” Facsimile said, hefting Braylocke as if to illustrate, “You go talk to your parents; Warrick follows them all the time on PrelateWatch and he says they’ve been searching for their kid forever.”

Zero peered at her from under the hood, looking more like a shy girl lost in the forest rather than a nationally known super-powered heroine.

“It means they love you, Jun.” Facsimile said. “Get over there, or I’m gonna take your place.”

***

Hope held her hands gently to the sides of Zero Point’s head, her own eyes closed tightly as she concentrated on directing her powers into him. The injured hero was set up with his back against the undamaged leg of the Queen’s Gambit with an emergency blanket tucked up around him. Majestrix was sitting on her heels right beside him, leaning in and watching closely as if she could learn the trick of healing through observation.

“You’re going to be really hungry after this.” Hope warned. “But you should be feeling better now.”

Zero Point drew a long, slightly uneven breath and nodded. That wasn’t the best idea, apparently, as it made him wince. “I do. Thanks.” Then his gaze traveled to Majestrix. “Maj… Maj… Willow. That was her, right? Did you here what she said?”

Her hand found his under the blanket. “It was, ZP! She’s here!”

“Where?” He croaked.

“I was going to go and bring her to you once you got better, ZP. I don’t…”

“Here.” Came a voice from the vast shadow cast by the Queen’s Gambit. “I’m… I’m right here.” With caution usually reserved for stepping into a minefield, Zero stepped into the light shed by the mecha’s running lights. Tears glittered in the depths of her hood.

“Willow.” Majestrix leapt to her feet so fast that she got a quick head-rush and had to brace herself against the same leg Zero Point was leaning against. Her husband tried to sit up more straight while holding out a hand to unsuccessfully help his wife balance.

“I should… not be here.” Hope said, the discomfort of the situation warring with her over-elevated mood. “I’m going to just… Willow?”

A quick look around proved that the arriving ROCIC and National Disaster Area Management Administration (N-DAMA), personnel were keeping everyone well clear of them. Still acting as if any sudden movements would lead to injury, Zero let down her hood and took off her mask. “I’m Willow.” She informed her housemate and teammate. “Willow Chamberlain.”

“They didn’t know that?” asked Zero Point.

“Of course they wouldn’t.” Majestrix reasoned. “”Otherwise, they would have seen the missing person’s report, and known she was our daughter.” Her expression turned to one of mixed confusion and pain. “But that would mean you gave them a fake name… Why did you do that, sweetie?”

A sob wracked Zero’s body. “Because that’s the name I used to… to… I’m sorry. I—you were right! The Academy was nothing but bad news, and they… I shouldn’t have run away, and I shouldn’t have gone!”

“You’ll be hungry, like I said.” Hope said quickly. “I’ll just go get you some food.” With a quickness she rarely displayed when there wasn’t a threat of serious injury, she got to her feet and scrambled off. It was unnecessary, as she’d been forgotten before she even regained her feet.

“So that’s it.” Majestrix crossed the space that separated her from her daughter. Now face to face, she only saw her little girl; the one who had always called her to chase the monsters away rather than the one who fought them. Without even thinking, she reached out and started rubbing Zero’s arms.

It always worked to calm her down, from when she was a toddler onward. Shoulders to elbows in gentle, even strokes. For some reason, it worked even better than a hug. Like magic, it continued to work. Zero’s breathing came under control and before long, she was leaning on her mother’s shoulder, getting herself back together.

Once she was sure Zero could handle it, Majestrix led her over toward where Zero Point sat, still not strong enough to stand and join them. “I remember that fight.” She said in soft tones. “About a week before you disappeared.”

“Dad said they were bad.” Zero sniffed. “That they couldn’t be trusted.”

“We thought they were behind it when you disappeared.” Zero Point entered the conversation.

Zero nodded and allowed herself to be lowered to the ground so that she was sitting alongside both her parents. “I ran away.” She said. “I used the stuff you taught me in case someone revealed you secret identities to invent…” She frowned at this, “Become Juniper Taylor. And then I took classes for about half a year before…” A ragged breath choked her off.

“You were right” She repeated. “It was stupid and selfish and I should have accepted that you knew what you were talking about…”

Distressed at seeing his daughter so upset, Zero Point took her hand in his and gave it a squeeze. Then he offered her a crooked version of the sly smile he’d always gave her when sharing secrets. “That’s the thing, Princess,” A nickname she once loved as a little girl and had started hating in her teen years. It made her smile in spite of herself now.

“The truth is, I didn’t know what I was talking about.” That earned him a confused, tear stained face. “You should know this, especially if that’s why you feel bad. When it boils down to it, I didn’t actually have proof; I just hated the Academy on principle. They were this shadowy conglomerate in bed with the government, promising to raise these kids up to be drones like the Enforcer Corps.

“All of that was right in the pamphlet, Princess. I didn’t have some sort of fatherly intuition about it.”

“But that doesn’t matter.” Zero shook her head. “I still ran away, and put you through all this!” Somehow, Zero Point found the strength to loop his arm around her neck and bring her in close for a hug and a kiss on the forehead.

Majestrix patted her on the back, joining the familial hug. “It’s okay, sweetie. You’re back now and we know you didn’t mean it.” For reasons she wasn’t fully cognizant of herself, she didn’t just leave it at that. “But… I’m curious: why did you join the Descendants instead of coming home?”

That was one question Zero actually knew all the answers to. “I… Tome did take me. After I was at the Academy. They put me in stasis for a year and it was the Descendants that got me out.” She neglected, rather purposefully, to mention the scars she still had from the bio-mapping procedures performed on her.

“After that,” she continued, “I wanted to help stop them, you know? To make sure that Tome didn’t do to anyone else what they did to me. Luckily, they never realized who I really was, and I didn’t want them to find out and try and use me against you. So I stayed Juniper.”

She licked her lips a few times and kept going. “But even after we beat the Redeemers, and the Academy got shut down, it didn’t stop them. They went underground and they kept trying to kidnap people… and it took longer and longer. And the longer it took, the harder…” She was on the verge of tears again. “The harder it was to explain this. I was scared and I thought you would think I didn’t love you… especially because…”

Suddenly, something she hadn’t even been thinking about was right at the forefront of her mind. The real reason she hadn’t come home. The reason she hadn’t even let herself ruminate over, and which the others wouldn’t even believe if she’d told them.

“What is it, honey?” Majestrix asked.

“Don’t be afraid to tell us, Princess.” Zero Point said. “I swear we won’t get mad.”

“Because…” Zero sighed, then swallowed pensively. When she spoke again, it came out more coherent and resolute than anything she’d ever said before. “Because the job isn’t done. Tome isn’t gone. And the others need me to do it: To end them for good.”

There was a long silence before she decided she needed to fill it with reassurances. “But that doesn’t mean I’m going to be gone again. I love you both and I’m never losing touch again. Please say something?”

Something happened then that she never expected. Her father chuckled. “We know, Princess. It’s just that… well I can’t speak for your mother, but I was just thinking about how I remember you spending so much time with her; in the garage, learning all sort of survivalist strategies from her… it’s only what you said just now that made me realize just how much you take after me.”

***

It was well past midnight when the N-DAMA Total Response Carrier Succor arrived in Greenview Ridge. Seven hundred feet long, with ten decks, the floating leviathan resembled a marriage between a cruise ship and an inverted aircraft carrier. A wide skirt base housed the construction equipment and the twelve lift engines that kept it aloft and cast an orange glow over anything it passed over while a turret the length of the craft housed offices for the N-DAMA administrators, and suites for displaced families.

One of only three ships of it’s kind, it cost sixty-eight billion dollars and another million for every hour it was in the air.

Or so Warrick had just finished telling Cyn as the two watched the carrier touch down just outside of town. Cloaked in shadows and confusion, the two were taking a break from helping the relief effort out of ‘uniform’.

Cyn was having none of that brand of small talk when there was something much juicier to discuss. “So do we still call her Juniper? Or Willow? If it’s Willow, I’m calling her Will from now on.”

Warrick was quiet for too long for her taste. “Well come on, War, what do you think?”

“War?” He blinked at her in confusion.

“Spirit of the thing.” Cyn shrugged. “But come on, what do you think?”

“I don’t know.” said Warrick with a scowl. “Is she even going to be around for us to call her anything?”

“Say what?”

“What I’m saying is, we’ve been lucky staying together so far; with my parents being okay with me staying, Kareem’s too. And I’m not sure what went on with Melissa’s parents, but she got to stay too… but how long is our luck going to hold?”

This removed the smile from Cyn’s face entirely. “Oh.”

“Well actually…” A thin voice came from the alley behind them, followed by a not-very-thin girl whose name the pair was currently unsure of. She gave her a far away smile that became more genuine as she looked at them. “It’s going to hold a little longer. At least until graduation. And until then, because well, I’m registered at school as her… I’m still Juniper.”

The words were barely out of her mouth before Cyn tackled her in a hug.

***

“Their cities are being broken by these… these creatures.” Mad eyes stared at the images being shown on the small palmtop computer. Greenview Ridge devastated, people left homeless and the very foundation of the town in question.

The image changed as her companion, holding the computer up for her, tapped an arrow on the screen. A news ‘portal’ was the name for this new set of images, though it was nothing like any portal she knew.

The page displayed read ‘Mayfield’s Tricentennial Celebration gears up for Descendants Appreciation Day’.

“And yet, they still love them. Hold festivals in their name. This… this will not stand.” Morganna stood, looking away from the screen. “Manikin.” She said with sudden and uncharacteristic focus.

Her companion snapped the computer screen closed. “Yes, O Heir.”

“Is it done?” She asked without looking at the simulacrum. “Is the transference complete?”

Manikin had told her as much. Often, over the past months. But only this time did her confirmation take and light a fire in Morganna’s eyes.

“Good. Good. Now find the one who will be my Knight Inexorable.”

End Issue #46

Series Navigation<< Issue #45 – The Gremlin and The GameDescendants Special #4 – Some Day In May >>

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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