The Wolf Pack (Chapter 10)

The Timeless Palace


THE DIRECTOR

“We have a child killer roaming the streets, answering to no one, and violating the rights and laws of this city every chance he gets!”

Could it sound more scripted?

“And yet some people want to claim it’s all for the greater good and prop him up on this pedestal as a hero!” Jackaby White, that’s the male newscaster’s name, I remember now.

Scarlett Dune is the woman, and for once in their careers they actually vehemently disagree on something. First for everything, I guess.

“What would you have him do? Let us all die? By all accounts and reports, this wasn’t a life that could be saved.”

“Are you saying it’s okay to kill children for the ‘greater good?’ Where does it end?” he shoots back, dragging the conversation to the topic he really wants to talk about. “Now we have to respect people’s choices when the choice is killing innocent people? I’m on the side that I won’t stand for it!”

“That isn’t the issue here, there’s a difference between all of us and one person, a person on their way out! The sacrifice of one person shouldn’t be an issue when compared to everyone in Aegis City. You’re acting like we weren’t all in danger, and I’m sure as hell you weren’t standing around to go down with the ship yourself!”

Something tells me this broadcast is going a little off script.

White tries to cover his ass with a deflection back to the same tired topic of my team. “But what about the Hood, who took matters into his own hands, killing an innocent child with no overhead authority to tell him what to do. Whose stopping him from having a profound effect on the other superpowered kids who are barely out of high school!”

Well, he has one fact right, it seems no one can tell my oh-so great grandson what to do.

“What about him, are you angry because it’s a bad image for what happens when you let anyone run around with a gun, acting as their own militia as I know you’ve championed for? I don’t like him, but he seems very in line with the kind of people I’ve seen you have sympathy for in the past, White.”

Dune challenges White, and I can guarantee that in the next few minutes she won’t be on the show. This is a Burke owned station.

“Are you mad that someone is doing exactly what Republicans and the NRA have been preaching for years to get guns in Aegis City? ‘Get yourself a gun and protect yourself, it’s your god given right,’ but once they’re used in a place you didn’t approve of, you’re so against it. Who are you a mouth piece for? In fact, it explains why you’re so hard on superhumans, with them here, the people who can’t afford weapons, the people who would have a target on their backs, they have someone who can protect them.”

When White says that, “Gun control isn’t the issue here,” it’s probably the only honest thing I’ve ever heard from him.

“It’s not?” Dune challenges, twisting her head, patronizing him. “What about suicide, or euthanasia, when you brought something up it was fine for it to have nothing to do with the topic of this city’s vigilantes but-” she stops mid-sentence and winces as her finger moves towards her ear.

She tries to speak again, “But when I-” only to rip her earpiece out and yell at White, who’s clearly shocked that the show is no longer a show.

“This bullshit is keeping us from actually talking about the problem, do we want people with superpowers here, selling their souls to protect us? And if we do, are we going to let them do the job or are we going to question them at every turn? We can’t have it both ways forever. It’s time we stop beating around the bush and talk about the issue we’ve avoided ever since these kids came on the scene.

“Do we want them her or not? Do we need them are they just more trouble than they’re worth? Are we willing to get over our-”

That’s when the TV stops, and this time it wasn’t me who changed the channel or turned it off.

I can’t say that I’m upset that one of the same old bullshit newscaster’s finally snapped.

Though, I don’t agree that they’ve been avoiding the issue of whether or not Aegis City wants my team around. It’s more like they’ve been avoiding outright telling us to screw off, mainly because of Emily’s last name.

Those in power don’t like anyone who can easily challenge it, and bullet proof kids challenge that. I bet if the Burkes were Democrats it would still even be an issue with the media wanting to destroy them. It’s insane to think any world would truly welcome someone with the powers of Superman. Even if Emily were half as good, you couldn’t prove it with Twitter around.

Plus, having our closest thing to Superman be from a family that runs everything, makes me sure it’s impossible for Emily to have the chance to prove me wrong.

Then again, I can’t say it’s not eyebrow-raising to see a Burke-run news network question the idea of super-powered heroes. Maybe the Burke extended family isn’t so on board with the head if they question Espada at all.

Thinking of Emily and Espada, I guess it’s only a matter of time before it’s too late to stop her from quitting. If she quits then the other two will too. Money may keep Marie here, but I’m not going to make her go out on her own.

Not that I can’t blame them. Emily can’t accept what needs to be done sometimes, she’s naive, a kid, but she’s hopeful.

While Marie doesn’t like accepting money when she doesn’t know where it comes from, I don’t doubt she’ll do it to free herself from me.

Tommy has clean hands, he’s been able to avoid all the terrible things that the rest of the team has been put through, but he’s a follower, he won’t come back if the girls don’t.

The Hood, that kid of mine, he’s too much like me, or how I used to be. Knowing how hard I was to reach, I’m not sure what will convince him…

The biggest problem with getting them to come back is how many problems there are with suiting up again.

There’s a lack of a threat. The president is questioning whether the Savaage really exist, and if they’re the threat I think they are. I should expect the team to start asking the same question too.

I don’t know anything about the Savaage, we’ve been unable to learn anything about them outside of Hundress’s name.

Even if they still believed in fighting the Savaage, there are so many barriers between all four of these kids. Getting them back together won’t matter if they break apart again.

To bring them together and keep them together I should take a cue from people who do this all the time. I look at my strike teams, ex-Seals and Marines, all men and women who trained with their fellow Americans and formed a bond.

Even if they weren’t from the same walk of life, they went through the same experience and were molded by it.

Obviously, I can’t do something so intensive with kids, nor do I want them to be as deadly or indoctrinated as military men. I’ve spent thousands of years watching governments and militaries break people down. They make people subservient, praising the institution and kissing its feet like it’s all some god’s creation.

America’s the weirdest. Somehow people absolutely hate the government and politicians for existing, but they’ll bend over for any military man whose a politician in disguise. They act as if they don’t prey on the weakest and dumbest to get a gun in their hands.

But then again, how different was Rome?

These kids need something better, and they deserve something more.

We don’t have time to disappear though, we need to find out why so many of these accidents are happening. While I have no proof, it doesn’t take a genius to assume the Savaage has to be behind it. I need a place that will give me time. A place like that needs to be magical.

I know a place.

Who am I kidding? I always knew where I was going to take them there eventually, I just needed an excuse. It’s not a place I can just spring on people.

*****

Emily will be the hardest sell I imagine, and the most important. As I ride the elevator up the Burke’s very own tower, I can firmly say that I’m walking half-cocked with no plan.

‘Half-cocked,’ that word has always been funny to me.

I could appeal to her need to serve, to use her powers, but what she’s going to want to know is how I plan to make sure no one on the team is in the position the Hood or Marie were in ever again.

I know Emily by now, she wants to be a leader before she’s ready. She has the traits for it, but she’s protective instead of empowering. She’ll want me to make a promise I can never keep, and under different circumstances I would easily make that promise.

I won’t now.

If she’s happy-go-lucky in terms of retirement, I could use guilt. I could say that Aegis City needs her with the growing threat of laser weapons finding their way to the streets, or superhumans like Atlas or Dr. Magician terrorizing them.

Someone who’s bulletproof and can knock those people for a loop can help people feel safe. It’s not necessarily true… I mean I’m sure someone feels better but I don’t know anything factual about that, that’s for the marketing department to know about.

Anger might be what I’m met by, and that can be soothed by sympathy, I could pretend I’m filled with regret and empathy. Acting is a skill one gets after a couple thousand years. Yes, if she’s angry I can play right into her worries, telling her I need her help to keep the same thing from happening again. That will make her feel responsible, like she has to come back and work harder.

I watch the numbers loom ever closer to the top floor, the upper part of her apartment. So, I’m not walking in completely clueless, I have a simple strategy. I’ve lied and manipulated emperors and kings, why should a teenage girl be a problem for me?

When the elevator door opens, it opens to their front door. Still need a key to get in, I guess. People can take the elevator ride up if their names are on the list, but everyone still needs a key to get in.

I walk up and knock on the door. A part of me considers shooting the lock with my taser-gun, but I have to remind myself that I’m in a section of my life where that’s not necessary. I’m not an outlaw.

The door opens to Evelyn Burke, CEO of Burkestone Industries, and matriarch of the Burke name. That actually includes a lot, now that I think about it. I wonder which cousin runs the news channel whose newscaster just blew up on live television.

She seems quite surprised to see me. She knows me, knows I’m the Director of S.I.L.A.S.

With her pull I needed her consent for her of-age daughter to serve under me.

By the way she licks her lips upon seeing me, I’d say she’d like to tear me apart. If I weren’t on a busy schedule, I’d tell her ‘bring it bitch,’ but I’m not in the right mood today.

I greet her with her first name, “Evelyn-”

She stops me with her finger and finishes chastising someone over the phone.

“Jim, Jim, listen to me,” she orders over the phone, Jim Burke being her cousin, so pretty far removed from her love as she threatens, “fix the mess that you had running on the twelve o’clock news. Get a new newscaster with White, temporary or not, I don’t give a shit, and run the conversation again, and make sure they both manage to do their job which I remind you, is kissing Emily’s ass.

There’s a voice that comes out as static over the phone, which in true killer mom/exec fashion she interrupts, “Get it done today, or I’ll find someone who will. Your sister is at the top of my list of replacements.”

In cruel fashion she hangs up the phone.

Damn, other Burkes aren’t safe from the wrath of the CEO.

I smile and greet her again, “News trouble? I caught that shit storm this morning on my lunch break, it was good entertainment.”

Evelyn isn’t one to play games, at least not with me, but I doubt her sons have ever convinced her to throw a ball around.

She gives me the same glare she gave the phone as her hand rests on her hip.

“Shit storm is what I would call your operation, the loss of your team, the death of a baby, and more civilian injuries than your average mass shooting,” she shoots back, the real bitch. With the hint of a smirk, she adds, “That shit storm makes mine look pretty pale in comparison.”

I push my way past her, earning a disgusted look, especially as I retort, “At least my fuck up won’t be YouTube’s most viewed video of the day.”

I hope that simmers in the back of her head.

I haven’t been inside the Burkes’ huge penthouse in a while. It’s actually small compared to the mansions people with less money live in, but compared to everyone else’s… I’m sure that’s a point everyone knows.

Even I wouldn’t feel comfortable going through their home to find Emily if she was in her room, so I’m thankful she’s sitting on the couch, watching the news.

If there’s one thing I’ve learned, people, especially teenagers only watch the news for three reasons, they’re angry, they’re anxious, or they’re on it. With Emily, I can tell by the lack of blemish she wears, the baggy sweatpants, and the depressed look on her face that she’s more than anxious, she’s sad…  and also on the news.

Shit, I forgot to plan for sad.

Evelyn comes up behind me with her arms crossed, which looks more intimidating than it should be. She’s wearing a blouse and slacks, not armor.

She orders me, “Fix my daughter, or I swear to god-”

“What you’ll ruin me?” I interrupt her. “Trust me when I say I’ve mastered the ability to do that on my own.”

I walk up to their abhorrently large couch in front of a 6ft wide TV, right where Emily sits with her eyes glued to the world’s televised version of garbage. I could spend the extra minute walking along said couch, but it’ll probably be more casual if I just hop over the neck and plant myself right next to her.

It pisses off Evelyn but Emily doesn’t move an inch. I look over at her to make sure she sees the arching eyebrow I’m giving her, and she only moves her eyes.

“I know what you were saying, I have super hearing,” she reminds me, and then looks back to the TV that spews YouTube’s live feed of hatred towards her.

I make myself comfortable as I think about how to word this. As I stick my feet on the nearby table, I hear a grumble behind me.

Evelyn nods her head and mouths ‘off the table’ at me. I roll my eyes as I bring them down to the floor. God, I hate that woman.

“My mother,” Emily says to catch my attention, “just wants to see our family succeed, and as Dad says, ‘success needs respect.’”

Respect, success, and meaning well, did she not hear what the hell happened to cousin Jim? He didn’t get any of that from Evelyn.

I keep that to myself as I tell her, “Doesn’t seem like it.”

The big-ass TV brings up the protesters again, and like all ‘peaceful’ protests, somebody comes and pisses off the wrong cop, turning it into a beating. It only takes one person to set off cops and get everyone attacked and gassed. I wonder who will get blamed for starting it this time.

Thank god, that’s not a problem I have to deal with.

You’d think I would be considering the protest is outside the Needle where I work.

“Do they even want us?” Emily asks me, not looking at me, she’s still looking at the TV. “I see proof that they do, and I never hear it, so I don’t understand why you’re here.”

I lean closer to Emily. She finally meets my eye so I hope she can see the condescension coming. “If the job of protecting people were about whether not people wanted us, there wouldn’t be cops half the time. They never go away and they’re a hundred times more corrupt than we are.”

She narrows her eyes at me for that.

I turn to her and lay it on thick. “If you think that when things get really get bad, and they always do, that they won’t be calling out for Espada, you’re out of your mind.”

“You… you really think things will get worse than they already are? This wasn’t even a supervillain, this was just a power gone out of control, and we didn’t help, at all.”

Emily wraps her blanket tighter around her.

I’m honest with her, not only because I need her back but I need her to realize she’s necessary.

I remind her, “The baby, Atlas, Saint Lucifer, Dr. Magician, and the Reapers on the street, they’re all coming from somewhere, and it’s someone we haven’t caught.

“They’re coming for us, Emily, and Aegis City, probably even the whole goddamn country if not the world because why stop there. We’re going to need Espada and her… the… her friends.” 

In all this time, I forgot to give these kids a goddamn name for their team. How did I fuck that up?

Not important, what’s important is how I may have overdone it, because Emily is wrapping herself in her blanket cocoon, her safety cocoon. Espada is only useful if she’s brave, a leader, a fighter, and that kind of person doesn’t walk around in a blanket cocoon.

“What if we mess up or we fail again, and we’re right back here,” she asks as she points to the screen, “with people fighting over us existing and you regulating us.”

Her confidence, the populace, they’re so intertwined it’s almost nauseating to me, but I know where it comes from. I turn a stink eye to the cause as I look behind me, CEO Burke and her Senator chess piece.

Emily needs to know that she can’t worry about what the people are going to think at each and every turn. The minority opinions are always the loudest, the hateful opinions are always the loudest.

If people really hated Espada and superhumans they’d protest in front of her building or they’d hunt down Tommy’s address en mass. People don’t, the majority don’t care enough because they have the logic to realize when someone has to do something. Espada needs to be confident in what she’s doing despite what some people will say.

A person can be nuts, so… yeah, we’ve picked up a few people who’ve strayed to close to the Rodriguez residence after a few threatening posts.

The best way for that to happen is to actually be ready, which is what I want to help her and the team do. This is quite the conundrum. I have the answer, I just need to figure out how to word it. I don’t know why it’s so difficult, it’s not like this isn’t a lesson I had to learn myself.

Things were so much easier under the Khan.

“What do you think of the Hood,” a question that understandably confuses her, less so when I clarify, “not the guy running around now, but from a while ago, from what I think they call the Roaring Twenties now.”

Forgive my memory, it’s hard to remember what nicknames were given to times I actually lived through. What we called it then and what they call it now are rarely the same. What they called the Prohibition, others called hell, a time of violence.

Emily admits, “I… I’m not sure, don’t know a whole lot about him, just that he really screwed up and tanked Chicago’s economy.”

Yeah, that’s about right. I mean there’s no way it was only me going after Capone that caused Chicago to tank. An immortal can only do so many things. The fact that good jobs were disappearing along with the value of the dollar was not a problem caused by me. I just sped up our approach to collapse.

“Yeah well, Chicago was polluted with crime,” I remind her, the part that pertains to me. “The people loved him at first for doing a job that the cops wouldn’t,” I mean that, I can remember the times when they cheered, “but because he didn’t know what he was doing, he ruined exactly what he wanted to save,” and that hurts the most about it.

“What are you trying to say, that I can still fuck things up?” Emily questions me, shaking her head and squinting her eyes at me like I don’t know what I’m doing.

I sigh and develop a headache from this girl. “No,” I correct her, “I’m saying you can be trained so you never make the mistakes the first Hood made,” the mistakes I made. I can see by the way her face softens and looks less stressful that she sees what I mean.

I need a cigarette.

“If I try to smoke is your mom going to lose her shit?” I ask her. Now it’s her turn to look at me like a dumbass. Of course, the answer is yes.

“Not if you go outside,” Emily recommends, somehow holding back annoyance from coating her voice.

I get up and see the door outside, to the pool that I bet no one uses. I take my sweet time walking there, and get my lighter out before I even get outside. One last dig at Evelyn before I take this conversation where she can’t hear, because Emily will follow.

I inhale as I walk around that pool, I feel the ashes coat the back of my throat, it tastes like crap but it scratches that itch like nothing else.

Leaning against the railing, wind blowing through my hair, and the smoke flying away as I take a puff, it all comes together to create one of my favorite ways to smoke. I should get a high-rise apartment, but none are both empty and close enough to the Aegis Needle.

What? I’m not gonna kick anyone out of their home so I can move in. I’m not the nation of Israel.

I hear the door behind me open and close, and the fact that there are no footsteps means that it’s not Evelyn. The fact that Emily flies to me is signal enough that the hard work is done.

“You know,” she starts as she leans on the rail next to me, “there were a lot of uncovered reports that said the Hood was a woman.”

I can’t help it, I grin like I’m eating shit, that trick I pulled always makes me smile.

All I say is, “Is that so?” and take another puff of the cigarette and watch the smoke blow out my nostrils. The warm feeling flees from me far too quickly.

She asks me the question that’s music to my ears. “How can I be trained to never end up like the first Hood, because the Danger Zone isn’t doing it.”

Hey, the Danger Zone isn’t my fault. Thinking I knew how to train kids is, admittedly

“Have you ever heard of a place called ‘The Place Without Time’?” I ask.

And of course, she says, “You mean the Land Before Time?”

“No,” I sigh. I try listing off other names, “It’s also called, the Timeless Palace, the Center of Time, the Pool of Time…” Nothing rings a bell in her head. “Well, it’s this secret mythical place where we can train and learn without suffering the passage of time,” I inform her, a lot of magic stuff is involved that I don’t want to get into yet for the better.

Emily’s face slowly tightens into a mean squint. “If it’s a secret, how would I know about it?”

That’s all part of the joke.

“Super hearing, I dunno,” I tell her, just to annoy her, get back to the usual back and forth of our old status quo, “but if we go there, you can learn how to control your powers better and faster with Tommy and Marie.” They’ll be what I can’t make them into, “You’ll be a team.”

Understandably, and logically, she asks, “Why didn’t we go there in the first place?”

The resurgence of my forgotten humanity over the last decade shows itself. “I wanted you guys to learn naturally, I’ve learned that some things shouldn’t be fucked around with, but we don’t have that luxury anymore, you guys needed to be a well-oiled machine tomorrow, not months or years from now like you should be able to.” The truth is that they have to give up their youth like I’ve seen so many do, and forced too many to do, but I tell her the truth. “You all have to be adults, at least when you put on the suits.”

“This is a lot of pressure.”

“No fucking shit, Burke, that was always a given, but do you know who will do the job if you don’t?” I question her. I’m not asking her a hard question to answer but a hard one to accept. “Nobody.”

Emily turns her head and looks me right in the eye, and I don’t have to explain to her how right I am, she knows, she has to try. I’ve done that thing where I’ve convinced her there’s really no choice.

As she looks away from me, she cedes her depression for a semblance of sacrifice, and I can work with that.

“Alright, I’ll go to this place, but I’m not promising that I’m putting on the suit again.” I can deal with that. As I start to blow smoke again, she tells me, “You know they say patience and time are the two most powerful warriors?”

Leo Tolstoy said that, a Russian writer from days long ago to her. I think it’s funny to tell her, “I don’t know who the fuck those guys are but we’re about to kick their ass.”

THE HOOD

I finishing up my nightly raids on the Reapers, sporadically hitting spots around Marie’s apartment complex. I try to avoid killing a lot of them, even the ones the mask says I should. Marie says they’re just kids, maybe she’s right, maybe it’s worth looking into the murders, just to be sure.

The code and the mask tells which are murders and which ones aren’t, but…

I got close to ignoring it. I let go tonight, really let go. The blood on my suit shows.

This week has not been the best so I can attribute that to how merciless I was tonight. I couldn’t control myself.

I didn’t shoot any of them through their heads, today I used my knives, carved a lot of them up. That’s not going to look good for Claire, but… the urge has to be calmed. This may last me for a while, at least until another treatment.

The blood on my hands is that of other murderers, people who sell drugs to kids, it’s… the code says it’s okay, the helmet says this is who deserves so it’s done.

No use getting upset about it, so why is my hand still shaking?

The second I slip in through the window of my apartment, I know someone’s here. The lights are out so I don’t see her, she’s quieter than a mouse so I don’t hear her, and nothing’s been moved around so nothing’s out of place.

But I know Claire’s here because Nina hasn’t begged me for a snack.

“Do you like sitting in the dark, Claire?” I ask her as I move towards the kitchen.

She responds as I go to turn on the lights, “If I turned them on you might think there were intruders.”

“You are an intruder.”

As I turn on the light, she’s petting Nina on the couch instead of looking at me.

She smiles and jokes, “Yes, but violent intruders.”

“You are violent,” I remind her, and this time she looks up and sees that I’m covered in blood. The way she looks at me, the way her chest heaves high for one moment tells me that she’s worried, so I assure her, “The blood isn’t-”

“The blood’s not yours, I know you’re a big badass,” she interrupts with a wave of her hand, the sarcasm duly noted.

She looks me up and down, inspecting me. If she doesn’t know what’s wrong with me, she’s going to start finding the clues.

Better get the towels and start wiping myself down. If I don’t clean it, it’ll get crusty and it smells.

When I look back, Nina is trying to lick her chin but Claire’s pushing her away, dead set on inspecting me.

I do what most psychopathic killers do when confronted with family, try and make idle and awkward conversation.

“So, Nina remembers you,” I tell her and Claire doesn’t make a response to that, so I add, “cute,” just aggressive enough so she knows she’s being rude.

“Okay,” Claire starts as she clasps her knees and stands up like my dad or something, “let’s not beat around the bush, what do I gotta do to get you to come with me?”

That could mean a lot of things, like come back to her team, come with her tonight, or go on a trip. She should really be more specific when she’s making her pitches. “Well first you gotta say where you’re going,” I remind her.

“The Place Without Time, the Timeless Palace, let’s go with that last one,” she tells me.

I haven’t gone back there in a while, a while for me anyway. Being able to train for weeks, months, even years on end and losing no time in the current day is incredibly useful for someone like me.

Better not let her know that I’ve been there, so I question, “What?” I don’t say that I’ve never heard of it, so I’m not lying.

She takes it the way I wanted and explains that the Palace is, “Just a secret mythical place you’ve probably never heard of it.”

If she could see through my helmet, she’d see me rolling my eyes. To maintain appearances, condescension is my response. “I gathered that, but why do you want to go there?”

“The team’s not ready,” she admits, but makes it seem like I’m part of the problem, and I have to be a part of the team for that. “Oh, I know, you think you’re not a part of it but you are. More importantly… it’s getting embarrassing with how stupid it makes you look when you pretend you’re not.”

I could go on about how I just want to keep an eye on Emily, someone who may be or become the most powerful person on this planet.

I could say that I wanted to use S.I.L.A.S. and its resources for my own war on crime and the issues were just too big to ignore.

I could even be a jackass and say that I never technically got inducted, and while all those things would be true, she wouldn’t buy them, and I don’t really either.

The best answer in this situation is a noncommittal. “I’ll think about.”

She overreacts, of course.

“Goddamn it, Clay,” she curses, using a name I don’t answer to, not anymore. “I know what you’re doing, I’ve been there, I’ve lost all of our family before and lost my mind like you think you have.”

She doesn’t know, she doesn’t know the truth about me at all, but she feels the need to think that she does, so she acts like a parent and tells me, “Keep doing what you’re doing then, stay noncommittal, never give straight answers or make real connections, stay alone and make yourself believe that you love it.”

God, it takes all of my willpower to restrain myself and standstill while she tells me things I know aren’t true about myself. I know I don’t love loneliness; I know that it’s safer for everyone that way, but Claire runs her mouth. She tells me about her long life that I don’t give a damn about. How, “Nobody worth anything loves being alone,” and how, “I’ve had thousands of years to learn that,” so she thinks she should get snippy with me, telling me to, “take your goddamn time, we’re leaving tomorrow.”

Claire stares at me for a long time. I don’t know if she expects me to snap and kill her, maybe she wants that. Maybe she wants me to break down and cry to give her the chance to be the mother we both know she fucked up at being to her long dead children. I know this, I’m not giving her the satisfaction today.

“Claire, get the fuck out.”

She didn’t expect that because her eyes flare.

She holds out her hand, tries to use that name again.

“Clay-”

Get out,” and with my growl, Nina knows. She’s a good dog, she gets off the couch and growls too.

Claire looks sorry but that’s her problem, she knows she overstepped, but the sad thing is I bet she doesn’t know when she did it. She tries to look between me and the door, to get a second chance but Nina speaks for me through her teeth.

I watch her walk towards that door, I watch her open it and wait in the door frame.

“You know,” she begins to admit, “I know that blood doesn’t just make us family, only loyalty can do that, but I’m trying, it may be the first time in a long time that I’ve tried.”

Then she shuts the door as she leaves.

I breathe out, I breathe in, and I breathe out.

I start to take off the suit piece by piece. The blood is still in it, the carpet is red so I don’t care for stains.

I throw the goddamn thing to the floor.

I was taught… I was taught that I need to take a moment now and then and remember what I am before I consume myself, and the voice comes back.

I take off my helmet, and I sit on the couch.

Nina comes up and licks my face, and this may sound weird but it’s oddly soothing in this moment. I can’t think about myself right now or what I do, I have to find something to focus on.

How awkward the trip to the Palace will be tomorrow is a good thing to focus on.

THE DIRECTOR

On the floor of the Danger Zone, I use the blue blood of an octopus to paint the outline of a tiger on the floor. It represents the ferocity and brain of the feline. I know, weird to use an octopus but the mythical tiger god that protects this place is blue.

I use red blood from humans, easiest to get, and paint the outline of the wolf on the floor. The wolf is for the will and loyalty of the canine. The wolf god is red if it wasn’t obvious.

Together, I paint them similarly to yin and yang, only with a tiger and wolf instead of koi fish. If me being an artist sounds strange, it is, I’ve messed this up twice already. Poor octopuses.

“Susan, as I told you before, expect us to come back a minute after we leave,” I remind my assistant as I wipe the blood off my hands.

The three kids are here and waiting, just as I thought. They heard that Emily would come and the other two came like dominos, but no Hood.

Well, I’m sure he doesn’t need as much as these three do from a training standpoint, but working on teamwork would have been helpful.

Susan opens her mouth to correct me with her name, but she thinks better of it. She shakes her head instead as she surely thinks of ways to kill me.

Tommy heard what I said and walks up in his jacket and jeans, I told them to wear civilian clothes that can be ruined or lost, they’ll replace ours.

He asks me again, “Can you run by me how this whole-time dissonance works again?”

This boy of science just can’t wrap his head around magic. I gather them all together so I only have to say it once. “Let’s all go over this one more time because I’m not repeating it afterwards.

“As I explained to Marie, the Timeless Palace is a place out of time, a pocket dimension created by magical forces that allows us to practice for weeks on end without aging or missing time here. However long we stay for, it’ll only pass a minute here, assuming we don’t die,” I explain, adding that last part to see who gulps.

It was Tommy.

Emily tilts her head as she seemingly thinks about the many pluses to this place. For her the most important is, “So I won’t have to catch up on Netflix, awesome.”

Who… who doesn’t need to catch up on Netflix? Forget it, that’s not important.

Tommy unsurprisingly is quite dumbfounded by the idea of magic, but surprisingly he is the only one. He examines the faces of all the women around him and wonders, “Why the hell does it seem like I’m the only one shocked by magic here? Magic, like spells and warlocks!”

I wag my finger and shake my head, “No, no warlocks, more like magical forces that pick and choose who they like and give their power to. Say someone tries using a spell book. If the book likes them, it lets them use its energy for the spells. This place likes people, or just thinks they need to be there, so it gives us a chant to help us get to it.

“Humans need something to make a contract with, a magical object, a place, or a magical creature, but magical creatures aren’t so common anymore.” The only commonplace creatures that can use and summon magic on their own are angels and daemons to my knowledge. Better not tell them all that, that’s a bit much for a short lesson.

Angels and daemons are not as religiously affirming as you would think once you meet one. At least, one that wasn’t pretending to be exactly what you think they are.

It’s weird how many pretend to be all good and evil, especially when they suck at it.

When the girls just shrug their shoulders, he throws his hands up and questions, “Guys, magical forces, places, stuff that we can do, how the hell is it that I’m the only one losing my mind?”

Emily twists her head to stare at him. She reminds him, “I can fly and bench press a cargo plane like it’s nothing, she can make anything absolute zero in the blink of an eye, and you literally turn people to ash in seconds.”

In a strange turn of events Marie adds to Emily’s point that, “We fought a titan the size of a skyscraper, and a man whose glove can make you see anything he wants, why not magic?”

“How the hell are you two so jaded already?” Tommy asks them.

“Tommy,” Marie tells him, lowering her voice and laying a hand on his shoulder, “you’ve managed to miss the worst we’ve had to deal with, and when you’ve seen what Emily and I’ve seen, you don’t really care for new superpowers anymore.”

Magic isn’t really a superpower, a person just has to be likeable enough to use it, but her point still stands. This life has already taken the wonder out of them already.

Tommy leans back from Marie to look to Emily. She cements what Marie said with a frown and a nod of her head, so Tommy takes a breath, and realizes that maybe he should shut up.

We only talked for a minute and already things are awkward. I don’t remember things like this happening in the Dark Ages.

Might as well take the time to leave. “Now that we’re all on the same page, I think it’s time that I-”

Wumpth.

That’s the sound of the door opening and everyone’s attention being stolen from me.

The doors open and there’s the Hood. There’s a first experience for everyone in this room, he’s not wearing his armor.

He’s still wearing his helmet, but he’s wearing normal clothes, well normal for him. A leather jacket, a sleeveless shirt underneath, sweatpants and sneakers. It’s strange, not because that outfit is strange but because he’s wearing the helmet over it.

It’s literally the outfit I used to wear without the Hood… it’s… why is my old vigilante outfit his casual wear? Was I poor?

No, no that can’t be it…

His one hand hangs over his back as he walks towards everyone, with us staring at him silent. He holds a suitcase, and I wonder what the hell he brought it for.

Emily is the first he speaks to as he walks past her and her glare. He doesn’t ignore it, when he’s standing beside her, he stops and looks straight into her eye.

“I’ll leave if that’s what you want,” he offers to her, and the anger is replaced as her eyes grow wide. Maybe I was wrong, it’s not anger towards him, just around him, about him.

If she were angry with him, she wouldn’t look away and mutter, “No, I don’t want you to leave.” She faces me again and it’s my usual lineup.

And as usual, Tommy takes a shot at the Hood. He raises his head and asks, “What if I want you to leave?”

The Hood looks over at him, and then looks around which confuses me. “Did you guys hear something?” the Hood asks. “I thought I heard an opinion that mattered.”

Emily and Marie both crack a smirk, and Tommy crosses his arms as he finds himself dumbfounded.

He looks up as he curses, “Fuck, I don’t have a comeback for that.” He closes his eyes as he grumbles in frustration, and he realizes his time to take another shot in their pissing contest has passed. He does seriously question, “Honest to god, though, what are you doing here? You keep saying you’re not on the team, and it’s not like you have powers you need to train.

Tommy walks up to him, wrapping his arm around his shoulder, teasing him, “Is this the part where you finally admit you like us?”

“Never said I didn’t like anyone here,” the Hood says, before turning into Tommy’s face and snorting, “except you.”

Hand over his heart, Tommy mocks, “You wound me.”

“Good thing you have a healing factor.”

“But it’s so minor…”

The Hood swings his suitcase to the ground and begins to shuck off his jacket. With his sleeveless shirt he reveals the many scars that one can’t see when he puts on the armor.

He sees us staring and remarks, “Believe it or not, 90% of these scars are from doing stupid shit with stupid people.” He points to a line that runs down his arm. “This one I got by after going down a zipline I forgot to strap myself to. I still remember the laughing when I fell.”

“You with your friends?” Emily questions.

“He has friends?” Tommy asks.

“I wouldn’t call them friends,” Clay says.

“Do you like them?” Marie asks.

“Hmm… usually.”

“Are you related?”

“Kind of?”

Marie purses her brow. “What do you mean kind of? You are or you aren’t. If you aren’t, you’re friends; if you are, you’re family.”

“I don’t know,” Tommy jokes, “that’s not what Vin Diesel says.”

“You should watch better movies,” Marie tells him.

“Don’t insult the family,” the Hood says, in all actual seriousness, making Tommy jump and point at him in excitement.

“You see that, Marie?” Tommy says. “That’s my movie tastes being validated.”

As the Hood walks over to the circle I made, I wonder what the hell he’s doing.

Emily inspects the scars no less. There are ones that look like sword or claw slashes, some tooth marks, and I count at least two bullet holes, one in his bicep and another in his opposite shoulder.

How do you get those by fucking around? That’s actually a story I’d like to know.

“Also, are you black or Spanish?” Tommy asks right as he begins to kneel down.

Everyone turns to look at Tommy, including the Hood. The Hood asks him, “I’m mulatto, does that bother you?”

“No, it surprises me,” Tommy admits as Marie mouths at him, questioning his problem. “What? I’m just surprised, I’ve read statistics, serial killers, mass murderers, people with too many guns, they’re just usually white if they get away with it for so long.”

“Yeah, and those are just stats from super biased sources,” Emily scolds him.

“They can’t all be that biased, Em,” Tommy tells her with a crane of his neck.

“I’m sure Democrats and Republicans both don’t like me, don’t worry,” the Hood tells them both.

“Tommy,” the Hood calls his name, gaining everyone’s attention. One day I want to sit down and figure why everyone turns to him when he speaks. “To answer your question, I’m here to make sure you guys can actually get where you want, and get back,” on which point, he points to me to inform them, “they’re not gonna let her in but they’ll let me in.”

Wait, he, he knows the people…?

“You’ve been there before?” I ask him, right as my gloves make that squeaking sound. “You didn’t tell me.”

He finishes inspecting my paint job and retorts to me, “You didn’t ask, nor was it your business.”

I don’t know why I’m surprised, begin secretive is in his blood. I should start assuming he’s not telling me a hundred percent of the truth whenever I’m talking to him. It’ll save me the heartache of feeling lied to every week.

There is another thing.

“Wait, wait, wait a minute,” I ramble as I wave my hand back and forth, “why wouldn’t they let me in?”

“Because I’m willing to bet that like my dog, they remember you.” I was kind of hoping that they would get over what happened the last time I was in the Timeless Palace, but I guess I could be wrong about that. I was much colder, and harder then, no sense of humor. With a step between the lines, he makes to stand over my yin-wolf and my yang-tiger as he comments, “Now if you don’t mind, I’m gonna knock on their door.”

As he starts Tommy mutters to Marie, “What kind of dog do you think he has?”

“I bet a typical rescue breed,” she guesses.

In the ancient language the place was named in, and the same language that inspired Latin, he says the first line, and then starts the rest in English.

“Pain is my oldest friend.”

Tommy snickers at the ridiculousness of the words, until the blood on the ground begins to float.

“Pain is my mantra, pain is my glory.”

The blue blood begins to take shape in a better outline of a tiger and moves to float before the Hood.

“Let others bask and fall in fear, for I am the tiger and the wolf, the fang and claw, the beginning and the end.”

The red blood takes the shape of the wolf that floats over the tiger.

“I am what I am, and that does not upset me, I will fight the same as they, they who know no time.”

At once, the wolf and tiger collide and mix before the Hood in a swirl of blood and wind. I look back and the shocked expression on everyone, including Susan, makes me wish I had my phone to take a picture.

Lightning erupts from the swirling blood and creates the end of the circle, giving the passageway form. The blood mixes into a purple swirl that looks as if it’s caving inwards but the portal is flat like a sheet of paper, and it expands to fit us all.

The Hood turns back and presents it to us. “Who wants to go first?”

Tommy raises his hand and says, “Fuck yeah! I want to go first!” He’s about to jump but I stop him.

I warn him, “It’s better that the Hood goes first,” and to him I finish, “wouldn’t want them thinking he’s an imposter.”

The Hood dips his head and looks back to the portal. “Yeah, that could happen.” So, he picks up his jacket and his suitcase and just walks through.

“I don’t know what I expected when I told him to go through,” I admit, and I tell the rest of the kids, “you guys follow after me, don’t take too long.”

I start after him, and I shut my eyes before I walk through. I mean, it’s not dangerous to keep my eyes open but that’s like getting blood in my eyes, I don’t want to do it.

When I open my eyes it’s like stepping back through time. This place never changes, not in the last 800 years since I’ve last been here. For them, it’s likely been much less, it’s technically been nothing at all.

The architecture resembles several different time periods. With three main buildings, to my front, left and right, and a graveyard behind me, the palaces resemble multiple time periods.

As with any ancient grounds, one building is quite reminiscent of Japan during the shogun era, which is the home of one of the current elders. That’s to my forefront, a place fit for Emperor Go-Horikawa.

To my left a place that seems to be a Japanese home from the modern age, versus the palace size dojo before me.

To my right is the Cavern of Souls, where there’s a boulder with a hole to enter, and because it’s much bigger on the inside than the outside. I went in there once, was much to my misfortune.

While the architecture can be summed up by the periods, the materials that make the ground below me and the structure of both the palace and the mansion is brick and cobblestone. A material that was never alive. Plants and wood must be held inside, because it dies and decays otherwise, animals and insects don’t do that, but plant life doesn’t accept the loss of time, it must be tricked.

The palace before me is much grander than I remember. The pathway to its entrance has always been grand in design but right now it makes me remember the old times with the etchings of floral patterns and old Japanese paintings carved into the stone floor. Renaissance style sculptures line the way, visitors worthy of being remembered from the past and future.

Where the Hood and I stand is a large grand platform, and a flat arena marked only by the large chalk circle. It’s a square cobblestone formation, with water running through the small cracks between them. The yellow collar around is much more inviting than the white halls of the Aegis Needle.

When I watch the Hood, I can tell he’s waiting for us to be greeted by those who are surrounding us while remaining unseen. I know for sure that he’s been here before because nobody who hasn’t been here before isn’t shocked by the sky.

The sky isn’t the same as Earth’s. During the day it’s red, with a clear line of sight to gaze upon two separate galaxies, slowly moving to collide over billions of years. To make it worse, neither of them are the Milky Way.

Much closer are other planets that seem to orbit this place, and once you look long enough at the sky and over the edge of the siding, it looks as if we’re at the top of a mountain whose bottom cannot be seen through clouds. In reality, I would bet that there is a mountain peak, and only the peak.

No one can be thrown off thankfully, gravity will work in reverse the second you touch the clouds. 

The other three come through. They enter together and I realize upon watching Marie’s and Emily’s physical reactions that I forgot to mention one very important fact.

Their powers don’t work here.

Or at least they don’t work without the water that naturally flows through this place. Marie and Emily must be feeling a pretty violent reaction. I watch Emily and she moves really slow, shaking the whole way. As she moves, she whips her arm to the side as fast as she can and it looks ridiculous without her superspeed.

That’s her problem, she had gotten so used to moving slow with her superspeed she has to get acclimated to having nothing now. She’s also getting reintroduced to normal gravity, and as she goes to take a step she falls over.

The Hood is there to catch her. He moved fast, one moment he was beside me and the next he wasn’t.

I move past Tommy to Marie, who immediately wrapped her arms around herself the second she stopped walking out of the portal. I bring my hands to her shoulders to hold her still as she shakes. Her skin is cold but that’s normal for her.

I ask her, “How do you feel?”

“In-in in my chest,” she stutters out, “I-I fe-feel, warm.”

She smiles, she grins actually.

“I hav-haven’t, been wa-wa-warm… on the inside…  in a la-la-long time.”

Interesting, like Emily, Marie’s powers are always on, always active. Her cold comes from inside and it’s released, so she must hold it back the same way Emily does with her strength…

From what I remember from Emily’s training, her control is much more active. For Marie it’s like having a small distraction, like ADD or auditory processing. Emily, on the other hand, had to change the way she moved entirely.

I think to check on Tommy, but when I look to him, he has the most normal response. He’s looking up at the sky in amazement. His jaw would drop to the ground if it could. That makes me wonder how must his powers work.

Tommy eventually feels my eyes on him and looks at me holding Marie and the Hood sitting on the ground with Emily, both trying to acclimate.

Concerned for his friends he asks me, “What’s wrong with them?”

I shrug and admit, “I may have forgotten to warn you, your powers don’t work here.”

The Hood explains, “Their bodies are going through immediate changes you don’t seem to be having.”

Tommy’s face twists, and it seems as if he hadn’t noticed. He holds his arms out and tries to snap his fingers to light a fire. His fingers are the only thing he can light without going full blaze, but he can’t even do that.

When it doesn’t work, he goes, “The hell?” and tries again and again.

It seems unlike with Emily and Marie, Tommy’s power works like a car. One moment it’s on, and it can be turned off.

Tommy eventually gives up and decides to just come help Marie and Emily. He comes and takes Marie from me to help her sit down, and hugs her to try and warm her up now that she feels how cold her skin is.

As he holds Marie, he looks to me to ask, “Is there any way to help them?”

“Only the elders know how to do that,” I admit, and I would begin to wonder where they are, but as with anything, people don’t like to show themselves until someone mentions them.

Just like I thought, the Hood informs me, “They’re walking down from the palace.” Three elders, same three from when I was last here. I wonder how many of their warriors they’ve replaced since then.

There are three, but they aren’t all wearing their silk robes, not anymore. The tallest is a black man, in his hoodie and sweatpants, led by a Chinese man dressed like Emily’s mom. Only the third still wears ceremonial robes.

Last time we all saw each other it was on pretty bad terms, terms that left these three in need of a whole new roster of protectors outside of themselves. Honestly, I don’t know if I should bow my head.

But the Hood helps Emily to sit up, and bows his head to them on one knee. He basically instructs the others to do the same.

I feel the wind hit me and blow my hair back. I know science and physics dictates that this place shouldn’t have wind, let alone exist, so anytime something natural appears somewhere unnatural, I take it as a sign.

I’m the last one to bow and dip my head. When I was here last, I was determined, vengeful, and on a mission that blinded me to everything else. I was heartless towards this place’s suffering and its fate. I let doom itself fall upon them.

Despite that, they took in my blood and the beast inside me.

Uub, the short man leading the elders, he speaks to me first, his voice sounding as old as he looks. “I see you have graced us with your ill presence again, Guardian of the Forest,” he greets me with a title I haven’t heard in a long time. “Why have you come to us now?”

“These children,” I reply while avoiding their eyes, “the ones I have brought with me need a kind of guidance I don’t know how to give, and you gave it to me once, and my own several times.”

Uub asks me, “But why should we?”

Um, because this place let us in, but that’s not what he wants to hear, they all know that. If people were here that weren’t wanted, they wouldn’t have shown up through the door. I hate answering questions people know the answer to.

“They have the power to save the innocent, sounds in line with your status quo,” I reply, trying very hard to hold in the sarcasm.

“I meant for you,” he clarifies, repeating a question I already answered.

I know what answer he wants. Good for him it’s at least true.

“It has been a long time since I last stepped foot in the Place Without Time, and since then I have suffered in ways worse than before. I have lost, I have made even more mistakes, and for once, they are the ones I recognize. I am no fool, nor naive, I understand the desire to strike me down, and I desire to work towards the redemption I will likely never have.” I lift my head to look Uub up in his wise old face to ask him, “Are you satisfied?”

Uub grows this grin on his face. “A little, but strike you down? Pfft!” he snorts and chuckles, “It’s not like Icould kill you.”

Darwin, the man in yellow, takes his head off to show his short wool-like hair, and inform me, “Despite what your dumbass seems to think, we don’t blame you for what happened, we just think you were a total bitch about it.”

Ali, the woman in black, keeps her hood on and snorts.

“Ali, agrees, wholeheartedly,” Darwin jokes, and Ali walks between Ubb and I to kneel between Emily and Marie. She still has that glare of a predator on the prowl.

The kids lift their heads, especially as Ali places his fingers to Emily’s head and heart, and presses in with a crack of her fingers. It’s always gross and creepy when she does that, but she realigns Emily’s mind with her body as it is now.

I’ve seen this elder do this before, and it was explained to me that she aligns people with times in their lives when their mind thought and processed like it should now. By the reaction on Emily as she quickly stands up and finds herself able to move at the right speed, I can tell it worked.

Emily tries to thank her but Ali moves to Marie and does the same, maintaining the same awkward silence as she takes her leave to the stone door.

We all begin to stand and I try to get information from Darwin as Uub goes to talk to the Hood.

Darwin sticks his finger towards the Hood and asks me, “So your kid stole your gimmick?” chuckling throughout.

“How-?” I almost ask at first, but they know many things that they shouldn’t, so I catch myself, and correct in a whisper, “-oh just fuck it, yeah, he did, so what? It’s a secret family business I guess, but more importantly,” I ask as I stick my finger in his face, “why the hell are you guys walking around without any guards or anything? I could have been here to kill you.”

Darwin loses his smile and just shows me teeth. He leans closer to me, more so I listen than to keep a secret, “There aren’t any, unlike for you, there hasn’t been time to replace enough warriors, only to train a few loyal repeat visitors.” That’s what I was afraid of, they’re unprepared.

Uub stands at the Hood’s shoulder but lays his hand on it just the same. He’s whispering to him about something, and I wish I had Espada’s super hearing to know what. Darwin steals back my attention as he tries not to laugh. Clearly, he’s caught me being nosy.

“Why don’t you introduce us, your kids seem to be getting the hang of things?”

I turn back and Emily seems to be done testing out her limbs as Marie goes from being really cold, to learning what it is to get sweaty. Tommy’s looking around so I order him back, and he twitches pretty hard which makes everyone laugh.

“Team, you should meet the elders,” I start to explain, “they look over this place-”

“Elders?” Uub interrupts, “Why does everyone have to make us sound so old and wise and crotchy?” He’s still willing to get smart with me, and he chuckles when I turn back to glare at him. “Now what we really do kids,” he says with a wave of his hand, “is hang out here and tell people what they should already know, like a fortune cookie,” and that makes Tommy laugh, “and sometimes we teach you how to not get killed, but that’s not as fun. Suffice to say, you can all me, Uub.”

“I’m Darwin, since you probably don’t know,” Darwin says as he begins to crack his fingers and roll his neck, trying to seem cool. The three powerless kids take note of how he sounds.

Emily is pointing at Darwin as the others twist in turn in confusion. Marie asks, “Why do you talk like you’re from, well, our time?” Tommy smiles but doesn’t laugh at that pun.

“Um, because I’m probably from ‘your time,’” Darwin answers with finger asterisks.

The three of them stay confused. “So, you’re not that old?” Tommy asks.

“Yes and no, I’ve been here since the beginning, but I was born in ’82 in Harlem” Darwin puts a weird emphasis on the two but that’s just the way he is.

When everyone is still dumbfounded, he explains, “I’m sure you’ve been told this place doesn’t exactly abide by our normal rules of physics and time,” to which they nod in response. “Well, that means people from different time periods can be here at the same time, I grew up in the 80’s and 90’s, Ali over there is from caveman times,” a revelation which floors everyone, “and Uub here is probably…” Darwin hesitates as he tilts his hand over Uub’s head, trying to figure out how to explain him.

Darwin puts his hand to his chin as he looks down at the short elder. “Are you technically younger than them, I mean you come from a time far away from me and these guys.”

Their jaws collectively drop at the idea of this old, short, goofy man, being younger than them on the technicality that he was born after them.

Uub informs them, “I will be born many, many, many years after Darwin here was, but such a fact would say too much about your future, which now that I mention it, reminds me of a rule we need to set.”

“Oh good, you remembered, because I forgot until you mentioned it,” Darwin admits as he wipes his forehead. Knowing what he’s talking about, I would think he would take it more seriously considering breaking the rule means we have to stay.

“Yes, listen to me,” Uub tells them with a come-hither finger which draws all three in, “you can meet many people in either palace, people from the past and the future, and you may all talk of course, converse like normal people, but,” a ‘but’ that makes them stop breathing, “you may only learn about the past, and you may only teach your time to someone who’s ahead of you. For your souls, you must say you are in the Internet age, and then they must tell you when they are.”

There’s a squint and roll of their eyes at the name of the Internet age.

I inform them to be safe, “The Modern age is technically after the 14th century, so not the best term.”

“Exactly,” Uub continues, “and know this, if you learn of the future, you won’t be allowed to leave, and if you tell someone their future, they won’t be able to.”

Marie and Emily are taken aback, more so than Tommy which makes me wonder if he realizes he’s the one most likely to break this rule.

Tommy surprises me though by asking the question, “Wait, what if by some chance we meet our older selves, a scar or injury would tell us the future without even asking.”

Darwin waves him off. “Oh, you don’t have to worry about that.”

“But good question,” Uub is nice to say, “you can’t be here at the same time as your future or past self. While it doesn’t matter what time period other people come from, you’ll always come here after you were here last, which means we also can’t know your future that way.”

While it’s okay with space being broken, this place was only willing to twist time’s arm.

Uub claps his hands, “Well, that’s enough rules for now, why don’t we show you the palace, it’s where we’ll train you. You’ll get to meet some others walking around here too.”

Uub begins to walk up the long path up the stairs and the Hood goes to follow first. He’s been silent, and not in the brooding or detective way, just quiet like he has nothing to say.

We all begin to follow, and I take up the back, hoping to grab Darwin for something when Uub starts to talk to the Hood like they’re old friends.

“Has it been a while? It feels that way,” Uub asks him with a tap on his arm.

The Hood scratches behind his neck as he says, “It has been a while, I’ve updated the helmet since then.”

Uub groans and wonders, “You know you’re not that ugly, why are you still wearing it?” That catches the others’ attention, Uub knows what the Hood looks like under the helmet.

The Hood moves his head to stare at him for a few seconds of silence. “You know that’s never been why I wear it.”

Uub looks back at the three kids behind him, so he definitely knows.

“Thank god,” Darwin says, and then jokes, “cause man you are ugly, and we didn’t want to be the ones to tell you.”

Everyone ignores him but Uub goes to continue talking to the Hood as we walk up to the Japanese style palace. You know what, maybe they have a specific name. I don’t remember that shit anymore.

Uub asks the Hood, “Are you still using those infernal weapons?”

I’m assuming he means guns.

“Sadly, yes,” the Hood answers, which confuses me to an extent, but I have always figured a love for blades ran in the family too. 

Marie doesn’t hesitate to arch her brow and smile. With one word, she starts, “Sadly?

“I hate guns,” the Hood answers immediately.

And Emily and Tommy immediately shout, “What?!

Tommy raises his hands in the air as he walks up, “But you use them all the time!

“I use toilets a lot too, doesn’t mean I like them.”

Tommy can’t help but be flabbergasted. “But, but why-?! I don’t get you.”

The Hood doesn’t turn back to look at him, he just shrugs his shoulders and explains, “It’s not that complicated, I need guns to win and win quickly, but guns are tools that have too easy a learning curve and are too easy for idiots to get. I’d like them better if the people who could own them were actually trained and tested. Not a bunch of assholes who think them and their buddies at the range count as a ‘well-trained militia.’”

I have to admit that I’m amused by this irony, chuckling along with Marie, who I’m sure is loving the look on Tommy’s face.

Uub on the other hand, groans, “Now I regret asking.”

I think the Hood takes that comment as a personal slight, complaining, “Sorry, but only people who actually know what they’re doing and upkeep their training are people I trust with guns… so people like me.”

I don’t necessarily disagree, but the way he says it makes him sound more like an ass than usual.

Emily gets annoyed by the preaching, as if that were a surprise.

“I guess you’re not big on constitutional rights, are you?” she asks, both rhetorically and with an attitude as she crosses her arms. She uncrosses them quickly, realizing that walking with crossed arms and flying with crossed arms aren’t the same thing.

The Hood is quick to shoot back that, “Neither are the people who sell guns, but that never matters.”

“Oh fuck off, you want to blame guns for people?”

Uub groans, “Why did I have to open my mouth?”

“Who said anything about blaming inanimate objects? I blame people, so I don’t trust people, because people are fucking stupid and more often than not, crazy.

Emily gestures to him, asking, “What the fuck are you then? Sane?

Tommy tries to explain, “Sanity is a legal term, not a medical-”

We know!” they both shout at him.

Darwin lets out this long and loud moan, “Aaaaghh,” prompting them both to shut up, “I don’t care about this crap, I literally left the planet to get away from this shit. I can see why Claire brought you all here,” and points down the line starting with the Marie, “with the ice princess here, the spineless fuckboy right there, and the two future divorces before us, I see you’re all real pieces of work.”

Only Marie goes unoffended, uncharacteristically joking and telling Darwin, “Thank you.” I wonder if her powers affect her personality directly, even her chuckle seems out of character.

The four go back to being quiet, which is only awkward for a few moments because we get to the top of the steps.

 I hear silence inside, which seems strange being that there are supposed to be people here from all across time. I lose my train of thought when I notice Tommy, ever the inquisitive one, placing his hand against the wooden exterior between the bricks.

“This place is even more amazing up close,” he utters, causing Darwin to grow a smirk, “I’ve always wanted to go to Japan. Is this just like it was during the time of shoguns and samurai, right?”

He turns around and expects to see Uub come to answer him, but is instead answered by Darwin.

Darwin holds his hands in front of him, his smirk becoming a grin as his ego grows. He tells Tommy, “Kind of, I was always into Japan before I got here, favorite things were Dragon Ball and Dragon Quest.” Tommy grows confused as he realizes that Darwin is the one who designed this place. “Only got to go once, but I’ve got a good memory for stuff like that, was able to design this whole place,” he gloats with a wag of his finger. “Also, I was an architect, really perfect all around.”

“Wow, that’s impressive,” Tommy says, believing him.

The Hood tells Tommy, “He had the help of a magical place that could replicate any era he wanted. He probably just picked the layout, if that.”

“I forgot that being a dickhead runs in your family,” Darwin snipes at my grandson.

Emily smacks her lips behind me as she says that, “Maybe we should just go inside.”

Uub opens the door as one-by-one we give the Hood either a look of disappointment or laugh in his face, except for Tommy, who says, “I love the sound you make when you shut up.”

“Keep talking and maybe I won’t,” the Hood threatens. I wonder if that’s a real threat.

The front of this palace is the dojo, and it’s full of people, it’s astounding really. People are dressed from eras I’ve seen and missed, and hopefully won’t be around to see.

Several dozen people surround the fighting mat. Scratch that, as I look over people’s heads, I see that the floor is wood again.

The real fighters are out.

As I try to find a place to see what everyone is watching, I can’t help but recognize a Mongol, dressed in his fur hide and cone hat, a knight ripped from the crusades, and a damn Viking, to name a few.

No samurai ironically.

Not everyone is a warrior though, not everyone is here to learn how to fight but hone other skills with the extra time.

I see a black man with an afro, wearing something right out of the 70s, 60s? When was disco? I can’t say I remember which, I was high on something for most of those decades. There are a couple people wearing the simpler versions of the robes that the elders wear use to wear, and some are wearing karate gis.

It’s quite amazing really, this is the only place where we can see a physical timeline of humanity by the people. I even see a few people wearing skin tight and mechanical clothing who are definitely from the future.

Darwin yells to people, “Make way, some of us who want to watch are shorter than all of you!” Many turn their heads to the elders who entered, and some bow after moving out of the way.

They let us through to see four fighters in the ring, three in white karate gis, and one only wearing pants. As we all move to see the three opponents stretching as they face against the one.

I notice that Marie and Emily appreciate the skins versus shirts attire. Emily whistles but when people look at her, she gets embarrassed and moves closer to the Hood.

The Hood catches the gazes of many, causing many to keep their distance. I see he has a reputation.

“I thought it would be funny,” she says.

“I know what you thought,” the Hood snarks, “did you dad tell you would be?”

“Shut up…”

The shirtless fighter in the ring turns around to see the commotion caused by us, and his eyes fall right on the Hood. This dark-short haired Korean kid can’t be much older than the kids on my team, even as he stands ready to fight.

Already shining from sweat, I can understand why Emily would wolf-whistle on instinct.

Though, his right arm catches my eye more than anything. It’s mechanical, made out of this gray metal. Sounds a little unfair, not something I’d want to mess with.

Uub confirms that this kid and the Hood know each other by muttering to him, “It seems our old rivals have returned, I can tell Ken’s excited.”

The Hood holds his arms crossed as he grunts, but Emily asks, “You know him?”

“We used to be training partners,” the Hood informs her, “it’s been a while, I wonder if he’s kept up.”

Uub grins at the idea, “We’ll see soon won’t we.”

Ken is still looking at us and clearly waited for Uub to stop talking, because after he’s done this kid points his finger at the Hood to tell him, “Don’t go nowhere, you’re next!”

Tommy grins with his hands in his pockets as he teases the Hood, “Looks like he’s calling you out.”

“Hmph, he’ll be disappointed.”

Ken turns back to his opponents, a bunch of nervous looking students who have figured out there’s a reason this sparring match is three-on-one.

They trade their respects, customary for these kinds of things. Basically, I get bored watching and take a quick glance around, at least until I catch someone in the banisters from the corner of my eye. Up top I see a robed woman watching from above, no longer watching the match but watching me.

Silent and deadly, it seems the elder checked on her little rock and climbed her way to the banisters before we even got up the stairs. I wink at Ali and she bares her teeth at me. I guess Darwin wasn’t speaking for her when they said they don’t blame me for anything. The oldest elder seems to be quite angry with me.

Darwin mutters to me, “Leave Ali be, you know she’ll molly-whop your ass.” I look back at him as he pulls away, giving me a good glare for teasing the cavewoman.

“Is there a reason she’s even here?” I ask him, letting my eyes return his cold look. “Last time I checked the great Alekandra didn’t train anyone, let alone care for the dojo.”

Darwin smirks and nods his head back to the match. Ken is already smashing his metal palm against another fighter’s face when I look back.

He has a guy on his knees with his arm up above his back. His punch knocks this first guy out.

While still holding the first limp guy by his arm, Ken swipes a kick away, and gives a kick of his own right to the chest.

I’d give his opponent’s airtime a good three seconds. Kid’s got powerful legs. Maybe he wouldn’t be such a bad lay.

Darwin informs me that, “Ali is here because Ken is her student.”

… and never mind my dirty thoughts, she’d probably kill me.

Still, Alekandra hasn’t taken a student in several lifetimes, not since before Brutus killed Caesar. Something must be special about him besides that metal arm, though knowing how tragic people’s lives tend to be, I’m sure the reason and his backstory are all intertwined.

I do realize something that hasn’t been true for a long time, “There’s an heir to the Tiger Fist.”

I watch as Ken blocks and counters his third opponent with ease, palm-striking the other guy between blows. He’s dismantling his opponents, while saving his energy and making the other guy tire faster.

I can imagine what he wants his energy for.

The second one who was kicked is coming back for more and is running in to help. Even the most skilled fighter has issues predicting multiple fighters, but Ken does fine, kicking the third guy in the way of the second’s blow.

Crunch!

The third’s jaw is broken by the second’s poorly placed punch, and Ken lays on the punishment by striking the second guy right in his nose.

Blood flies out of the poor guy’s shattered nostrils. He doesn’t go flying, his feet just whip up to the sky as he falls right onto his back.

He thinks he’s about done, but the guy who got punched by his ally is pushing himself up. Ken goes from standing straight to a backflip kick to the guy’s face. The audience is impressed and appalled.

OOOH!!

I don’t know if I see much of Ali’s style in him yet, but knowing that he can fight and has a metal fist… 

It makes me worry now that he wants to fight my, my… saying great grandson is too wordy and not even accurate, I need to define our blood relation at some point.

Ken looks up at the Hood, and calls him out, “I told you I’d be quick.”

We all look at the Hood, standing and watching with his arms crossed. I’ve said before, I’ll say it again, I really hate how that helmet covers his damn face. I can’t tell what he’s thinking, which means I can’t predict anything.

“Hmm, no thanks, I’m good.”

Ken’s grin turns a little lopsided.

“What? Why? No!!

Ken is already racing towards us as people come to clean up the mess he made.

“What do you mean ‘what?’” the Hood says, turning his back to the martial artist as Ken climbs his way up to us in a flash. Emily staggers back the most, probably still not acclimated to how fast people are when you see things at normal speed.

“You can’t come here and not fight me!”

“Of course, I can, ‘no’ is a pretty simple word, said the same way in like twenty different languages, I’m sure you know it.”

“But, but, but-!

“I’m here to do shit, I can’t be laid up after kicking your ass.”

Ken’s face nearly goes red, but slowly turns into a smile. “Oh I see, better to wait until one of us is about to go, when we’re at our best.”

“You’re delusional.”

“And you’re a liar.”

The Hood turns his head and watches Ken with this sideways look. “You know Kendall, two things can both be true.” You know, I noticed how he doesn’t have a heavy accent, and if his name is Kendall, he was probably born in the U.S., or might even be mixed like my kid.

“Yes, yes I do,” Kendall says, before turning towards us.

Ken finally thinks to extend his hand, shaking mine first and introducing himself, “It’s nice to meet all of you, I’m Kendall Guku Dokgo, from the Internet age, year 2022.”

“Shit, that’s our year!” Tommy informs him.

“Really? Awesome, I’ve never met someone from my time before, at least not here, though I guess I did,” and Ken sticks his thumb at the Hood, “this bastard never wanted to tell me where he was from.”

The Hood shrugs, “Never thought it was worth sharing.” Emily shrugs her eyebrows. “Not surprising in the least.”

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