Issue #52 – Scenes From a Changing World

This entry is part 4 of 14 in the series The Descendants Vol 5: How the World Changes

Part 5


Stephan Arceneaux felt tension and unease wash over him even as he stepped into his suite at the Dornez.

It was raining with a purpose outside and the city lights threw crazy and distorted images across the darkened room as they passed through the drifting sheets of water on the windows. Thunder boomed distantly, a single explosive noise, probably from a lightening strike.

Even if the night were still and silent, he knew he never would have noticed her until she chose to allow it.

She seemed to fade into being from a corner. The deadly underworld enforcer known as Vorpal.

Instead of her usual strange costume that mashed together stereotypical ninja garb, some sort of medieval corset and mail armor, she was clothed head to toe in dark gray, the clothes snug, but not form-fitting. The only thing that was normal was the mask, also in the style of the ninja, revealing only her eyes. The mask was the constant between them and he hated it.

Nonetheless, he smiled. “Hello, Alice.” He greeted her like a friend, because they were. His smile was slightly flirtatious because he wished it was more.

“You know my real name.” It wasn’t a greeting. And it was said so coldly that it might by the opposite. Stephan froze, shock in his features. He knew that he wasn’t supposed to know, but neither was she supposed to be aware of his knowledge.

“How long?” She demanded.

Very carefully, he shrugged off his sopping coat, letting it fall to the floor instead of hanging it up. His hat was next and with that, he walked over to the love seat. “Since always.” He said quietly. Her silence was all the demand he needed to elaborate.

“That first night. When we found you… I thought you might be in trouble. That there was something I—my father could do to help you. You were delirious, but my Voice still worked on you.”

His Voice. The ability to compel people to do as he told them to the letter simply by changing his tone and pitch. It was potent and terrifying and he had spent the better part of his life learning to be a conventionally persuasive orator in order to reduce the temptation to abuse it. It was such a large part of who he was that in some circles, he was known solely as ‘Mr. Voice’.

‘Alice’ was alive because of it. Because he had used his Voice to order her not to harm herself, preventing her from taking her own life. To that day, she was unable to even put herself at risk if she wasn’t confident that she would survive it. On some level, she still resented him for saving her that way.

Until that very moment, she had been under the impression that it had been the only instance of him imposing his will upon her.

She glided closer, a shadow in the dark room. “You…” She growled, but bit the insult off before it escaped. “Why did you never tell me?”

Stephan lowered his head. “I did it before I knew how important it was to you. Before you nearly went berserk over Arnold and I trying to take your mask off to check for injuries. I would apologize, but if I hadn’t your penicillin allergy might have become a fatal issue.”

“You’re never sorry.” She said coldly. “You act like survival is the most important thing and that anything you do in the name of it is fine.”

“For your survival, yes.” He said firmly. From her bearing and tone, the anger was apparent. He knew that he wasn’t just verbally sparring with his friend, the woman who thought of him as a confidant; he was dueling Death herself. “How did you find out?”

She didn’t answer. Her shadowed eyes drifted away from him.

That was all the answer he needed. Working for the crime lord, Vincent Liedecker, was the only source of shame that she actually showed. The information came from him. Which meant that Liedecker knew Stephan’s connection to his chief enforcer.

“I should have told you.” He admitted. “But with how you felt about my using my power on you… If I told you, I feared that you would hate me.” Though he was a tall, broad shouldered fellow, he shrunk under her gaze. “You know how I feel. I wasn’t going to risk losing you Ali… should I keep calling you that? Alice?”

A rueful sound came from her throat. “By the time you met me, there hadn’t been a Zoe McNamara for a long, long time. And you’ve lost the right to call me Alice. It was… endearing before; your little bit of cleverness that. At least it was when I thought you were just playing off of ‘Vorpal’.But if you know my name, then you know what really happened. Now it’s just cruel.”

“I didn’t mean…”

“Of course you didn’t. You didn’t mean anything. You never do, Voice. But you don’t even understand what the ‘good deeds’ you try to do mean. When you beg and cajole to see beneath my mask, you never believe me when I tell you that the mask is the face. You think that I think I’m ugly, or that it’s because I’m ashamed or something. You never stop to believe that I say what I mean and that there really is just something wrong with me that even you can’t fix.”

The soliloquy left her breathless for a second. They locked eyes and the wild look in hers made him shiver.

“And there is something wrong with me, Voice. I made money cutting people’s heads off. And I did it that way to be clever, the same damn clever thing you were trying to do with Alice. But you did it with a name and I did it with severed brain stems.” She made fists in the air, looking as if she wanted to pace, but her eyes never left his.

Finally, her exasperation built to the point where her voice stopped being a hiss and became a shout. “Why are you even sitting here?! You know who I am and what I do and you see me breaking up right here. You should run and… why are you so stupid, Voice? You should have run when I told you what I was doing right before you found me. You should have let me die and instead, you made it impossible for me to even end myself and maybe save a few people in the process.”

Stephan said nothing. They’ve had this conversation in calm, usually sarcastic tones before. How she was evil and unstable and he was supposedly a saint for caring for the outcast children at his home back in France. It always came back to how she hadn’t killed anyone since they met and how they had only met then because she spared an honestly repentant man. He pointed out constantly how the children were cared for by stolen electronic funds and leverage he wielded against certain politicians.

They were nether black, or white. She was merely a darker shade of gray than him.

But Vorpal didn’t care. To herself, she was a predator constantly backed into a corner. She would eventually claw and tear through everything and everyone around her.

“Is it the mystery?” She asked in a sudden whisper. “Can you simply not let yourself quit until you see what’s under the mask?”

Academically, she knew he had almost certainly seen her unmasked in the guise of Stephanie Carroll, part of the staff at Liedecker’s school for powered youth, not unlike the home Stephan ran. But Carroll was as much a construct as her mask; a wig and heavy make-up.

Without further preamble, she reached up and tore the cloth and metal covering from her head, a move that utterly stunned Stephan.

Beneath it, she wasn’t deformed, nor a striking beauty. She wasn’t even plain. In a way that took a moment’s study of her face, she was attractive in an asymmetrical way. There were thin lines that used to be scars across her forehead and along the side of her nose. Her hair was dark brown, nearly black and kept cut military short. One eye opened slightly less than the other, and one earlobe ended prematurely in a straight line. None of that took away from her full lips and the delicate curve of her face. And though wild and now fearful at what she had just done, her eyes were lovely.

Even as Stephan recovered from shock and sat staring at her, she edged closer to him. Before he realized it, she was leaning over him, crawling up on the love seat the straddle him.

Leaning her slender neck down, she placed her lips right next to his ear and spoke quietly. “The truth is, Voice… I hate you. I hate you because I can’t love you. Because who I am, what I’ve done… I can’t. But the heat inside it’s got to go somewhere. I hate you because it hurts when we talk and it hurts worse when we don’t. Because I know that you should be smarter than this. One day, something is going to happen… and I’m going to be the one to kill you. And I hate you for not getting away before it happens.”

There was no warning. She moved so quickly that by the time the words were in his head, her lips were on his. He didn’t hesitate to return it. She tasted like copper and he didn’t know what that meant, possibly it had something to do with her abilities, or maybe it was all in his head because of her past talk of blood on her hands. It didn’t matter, because in that instant, he had learned to love it.

His hands found her sides and he started to slide them up her lithe form.

That’s where the kiss ended; in the same lightening quick blur of motion with which it began. His wrists were in her hands now and he didn’t know how long they had been aching from the pressure.

“No.” She said firmly, as if commanding a dog. His arms were thrust to his side and she slid off him, walking over to the window.

“What was…”

“Nothing.” She said tersely. “Don’t be stupid, Voice. Go out right now. Go to a bar, be the French playboy you’re supposed to be. Spread some money around. Find a nice girl. A girl with a face. Give her everything you want to give me. She’ll appreciate it.”

Stephan stood up, snatching the mask from the floor where she’d dropped it. “If that’s what you want… Vorpal. But even if I do, that doesn’t change what there is between us. I’m not going to just give up on our talks, or your visits that easily.”

When he was in range, she snatched the mask from his hands and quickly put it back on. “I know.” Her voice was her usual, worryingly causal tone again. “That’s why I hate you.”

There was silence between them again. Then she ended it with a forced laugh. “And forget what I said about calling me Alice. ‘Vorpal’ sounds wrong coming out of you.”

Stephan nodded and they stared out the window at the rain, the only two people in the world that knew how they got there.

On Patrol

The rain was coming in sheets, which created an interesting effect as it hit the invisible boundary of Occult’s experimental anti-rain spell and was repelled. The city lights and the red glow of the inverted shield the pair stood on were caught in the resultant haze, turning it into a dim halo.

A dimly luminescent, red ‘bubble’ with a magic circle for a ‘floor’ was never going to sneak up on criminals any more than Zero could when she flew wrapped in her blue, psychokinetic energy. But as Zero’s father rightly pointed out, it made for a handy deterrent.

Now a full member of the Descendants, she had the right to take turns patrolling with the others.

It was funny how patrolling was actually a desirable thing to most of them. When she was on her own, Occult had never thought of it that way. It was a job, a crusade to do something to mitigate the damage she and her aunt had played small parts in creating. It was a quest for redemption that encroached on her personal and family life and introduced her to a face of the city she lived in that she would have rather never known.

Her new team didn’t see it that way. Being part of a group let them pick and choose when they went out. And when they did, it was a chance not only to do some good in the world, but to have quiet time to clear your head, or spend with your friends. Even the ugliness of crime and accidents was lessened when it was a shared experience. Kay had always been her mission control, of course, but she wasn’t in the thick of it. The Descendants were, and had made heroism into part of their own little culture.

All but one, which made it all the more strange that Hope of all people had volunteered to head out with her on her first ‘official’ patrol with the red iron ‘D’ on her component satchel. And here they were, sitting side by side on the floating platform in the rain.

“So…” She said, a bit self conscious, Silence had reigned for about ten minutes, ever since they took off from an alley a few blocks from the Dungeon. “What’s up?”

Hope gave her a dull stare from behind the white domino mask. It was her first night in the new costume, and not by choice. Cyn had pilfered every copy of her white ballistic cloth gi and hooded veil and left her with something the shapeshifter deemed more appropriate for heroics.

A white cowl covered her hair and flared out from her neck into a kind of blood-colored shawl that covered her chest, which was a good thing, because the bodysuit underneath was tight enough to follow the indent of her belly button. A similar concession to modesty had been made in adding a red tube skirt that came to just above the knee. Knee boots and long gloves, both visible armored, matched the shawl and skirt. Topping it all off, a pair of red leather belts hung form her hips, one with a first aid kit (complete with red cross stamped on) and emergency ration pouch attached, the other with a trio of pouches containing now standard equipment: rebreather, two screamer grenades, a smoke bomb, a clip on flashlight, and, of course, her locator beacon. Despite the only skin she was showing being her face, Hope never felt so exposed.

“Come on,” Occult urged, “I know from everyone else that you almost never patrol. So what’s so special about tonight?”

Hope was silent for a moment, then shrugged. “The others use this time to talk about things, or so I’ve heard. They act like it’s a trip to the therapist’s or something.”

Which was exactly how the other described it. Occult was a little amused; the others, especially Cyn, thought the healer didn’t understand, but they were wrong.

“Did you ever go to therapy before?” She blurted before she could stop herself. “About what happened to you?”

Hope made a rude sound. “And tell them what? That I’m a decade out of sync because some mad scientists put me in cold sleep in hopes of stealing my DNA to make a chimera-soldier? You’re as bad as Laurel, you know? It’s easy to suggest these things, but it’s another thing entirely to find a shrink that won’t think I’m making it up.”

Not entirely true. The ROCIC knew what happened to her and by extension, Patricia Masters should be able to help. Hope, after having spent time in therapy at the Academy, only to be betrayed into the aforementioned situation, had an irrationally dim view of the practice over all.

Falling silent again, Occult steered the platform down the next city block. After a few minutes, she offered. “Want to talk about it to me?”

“About that? No.” was the flat reply. “But… you’re right. I did want to talk.”

“I’m flattered that you think you can come to me… but can I ask why me and not one of the others?”

“Because I don’t have to live with you.” Hope said quickly, then sighed. “Look, I can’t even explain it, but I hate the others seeing me being…. emotional about stuff. They try to help. And as much as—and I will never, ever tell them this—I appreciate it, I don’t want help, I just want to get things off my chest.”

“So… you came to me because you think I won’t help…”

“We don’t know each other.” Hope reasoned. “Not really. You might want to help, but let’s face it; you don’t know me well enough to know where to begin, and you don’t like me well enough not to take ‘no’ for an answer when I say not to help.”

Occult frowned in the recesses of her hood. “That doesn’t really sound…”

“Call it respecting my boundaries.” Hope interrupted. “No one I live with does. Kareem says he does, but he worries and tears himself up. Warrick acts dumb, but he’s got it in his head that he’s everyone’s big brother or something. Cyn’s even worse than he is and as much as she pretends she’s not, Alexis is Cyn in ten years.” She folded her arms across her chest, having to adjust to the shawl. “So can I talk to you, or not?”

“Yeah, sure.” Occult said. She swallowed a lump in her throat and prayed she wasn’t about to hear something that would require immediate crossing of boundaries. “So what’s on your mind?”

Hope sighed again and shifted to get comfortable. Mystical shields, even those repurposed into floating conveyances, weren’t designed for leisure. “I’m going to my senior prom this weekend. Alone.”

Occult wanted to leap up and shout an ‘Hallelujah!’ to hear that the problem was a normal problem instead of deep psychological issues she would be of no use with. Normal, everyday teenaged angst was doable. She restrained herself due to the somber tone it was conveyed in.

“There’s nothing to be ashamed of in that.” She finally said. “A lot of people go to prom without a date. Hey, Kay’s going without one, even.”

Hope frowned at this. “Kay is going alone so she can get her car this summer. But she did get asked, I know.”

“No one asked you?” A frown came to Occult’s face when the other young woman shook her head. “That doesn’t make sense. I remember last year, plenty of people asked you and you turned them all down. Same for Fall Formal, now that I think of it.”

“I guess I finally scared them all away.” Hope said with a bitter laugh. “I guess it didn’t help that I started hanging out with Lily for a while there.”

“Lily does a good job keeping all guys but her ‘top tier’ away, true.”

“Jocks and art guys. Not my thing.” Hope agreed. “I’m not even sure what ‘my thing’ is. I’ve only even kind of liked two guys ever. Terry doesn’t count; I pretty much went with him because he liked stuff from the 60’s.”

Occult’s eyebrow twitched beneath her hood. “So which two guys are you talking about?”

“Absolutely none of your business.” Her voice dropped to a warning growl.

“Understood.” the sorceress couldn’t help but laugh. “But if you rejected everyone that asked you out before, what’s changed now? Prom is big, yeah, but…”

“Maybe it does have something to do with what happened to me.” Hope interrupted again. “In a way, at least. Look; I’m more or less used to things now; like how my parents are older, I have a brother… how terrible modern music and movies have become…” They both laughed a bit there.

“But then sometimes, I remember how things used to be. Back at the Academy, when Alexis was my flighty, hyper roommate; I wasn’t kidding when I said she’s Cyn in ten years; and Ian was her and Laurel’s pet loser. And all of a sudden, Little Miss Anarchy and the Dateless Wonder are engaged? It’s not fair.”

She chewed her lip and focused on the traffic far below. “Even if I was kind of messed up because of my powers, I could always look at those two and say ‘hey, I at least have more hope than them.’ And it turns out I’m wrong. Wrong and stupid. I never had any hope to start with.”

Before she knew what was happening, an arm reached around her and pulled her into a sideways hug, a hand pulled her head to Occult’s shoulder.

“Hey.” The sorceress said quietly. “I think you’re looking at this all wrong, Melissa.”

‘Melissa’ not ‘Hope’. The name was always ironic and only in this moment did Occult realize it.

“See, the way I see it, they’ve had a ten year head start. And even they didn’t get it right until the last few years. You’ve still got plenty of time to outdo them and I think you can do it.”

It wasn’t entirely heartening, but Hope was beyond arguing. She let the tears and frustration out as Occult continued to hug her. Without her knowledge, the platform rose up, topping the tall apartment towers until they had an unobstructed view of the entire city.

At length, Occult gently lifted Hope from her shoulder and pointed. Even in the haze of the rain, the night-scape of Mayfield was laid out before them.

“Have a look at this.” She said to the other girl. “You know, Cyn told me that whenever he’s mad or upset, Warrick climbs up on the highest thing he can find; one of the bridges, one of the City Central towers… you know some place high. And he just sits and stares for a while.”

Hope didn’t understand, but she looked anyway.

“I don’t know how it helps, but Cyn says it helps her too, and I can vouch for it too. Maybe it’s something about being alone, but able to see… everything. No idea. It’s always helped me get my mind together and if it helps you too, we can stay up here as long as you need. And if you want to, we can talk some more.”

“What about patrolling?” Hope asked, eyes focused on the city. There really was something about it…

“This is my first time, but I think that this is all part of it. After all, it’s not just things like Tome or Morganna that can hurt us.”

Series Navigation<< Issue #51 – Amore DetestabilisIssue #53 – The House on Dawson Bay >>

About Vaal

Landon Porter is the author of The Descendants and Rune Breaker. Follow him on Twitter @ParadoxOmni or sign up for his newsletter. You can also purchase his books from all major platforms from the bookstore
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