“And so,” Maverick finished. “Noah ventured into our world to become the very first Time Shaper. He married, had children, and their children had children, and the gene was passed on through the decades.”
Sophie let the silence surround her for a few moments. She loved listening to stories, and Maverick had such a way of telling them, everything felt so real. Real enough to scare her.
“Are you saying this is a true story?” she asked.
She gave him a look of uneasiness. “So those monster things…”
“Not monsters, Guardians.” Maverick seemed slightly appalled by the mix-up - like it was a great insult to his deity.
“Well, how do you know? I mean, if they are supposed to look like normal animals…”
Maverick gave her a new look that suggested the answer should have been obvious. “They are camouflaged to those who don’t know of their existence. To those who do, well, they will look just as they are.”
He gestured then for her to follow, and he stood and led her to the front room. Here, the odd trinkets hung from walls, and the intoxicating fumes swarmed the showroom. He walked to the table where his purple orb machine rested as it had the night she’d first come here. Except, it wasn’t a funny-looking toy anymore. It was… alive.
A crazed face appeared in the smoke. She wasn’t sure, but it looked like it was trying to smile at her: a devious, menacing smile. Smoke billowed around its body, which was just a head - a giant purple smoking head on a podium.
“Holy!” she screeched in shock at the sudden appearance of the face. The surprise made her jump backwards, and she tripped over her own foot and fell over.
“Now now, my dear. Don’t scare him.” Maverick picked up the thing and cradled it in his arms like an infant.
“What-is-that-thing” she huffed one word at a time as she pulled herself from the floor, wincing.
“Well,” Maverick answered, “he is a spirit who put himself into some kind of tomb, so I call him Spiritomb.”
“Genius.” Sophie couldn’t take her eyes off the creature long enough to catch Maverick’s glare as he placed it back on the table.
“There there.” He stroked the smoke lovingly.
“I saw some twisted show trick before, I thought I was supposed to see an animal as the camouflage.” Sophie looked to Maverick questioningly.
“Over time, humans have become more civilized. There are less places for animals to live. And the Guardians, they stay by our sides; all of us descendants of Noah. But you wouldn’t think it was normal to watch a bear trudging down Main Street, or a zebra in a restaurant. They had to evolve to match our times. Some put their spirits in appliances even.”
“Oh…” she breathed, unsure how to respond, then felt stupid for sounding like a moron. “Don’t they…die?”
“They can, if injured badly enough.” A moment of sadness found itself in Maverick’s eyes, but it left quickly enough for Sophie to forget that it was ever there. “But, they don’t age. They are immortal to time.”
She leaned against the wall, pondering this. She still didn’t feel comfortable enough to sit at the table with the odd glow-ball. Maverick was becoming oblivious to her presence when he placed himself upon a seat and made goo-goo eyes at the smoking orb.
“Wait,” she said finally, after an odd moment had passed. “None of this explains my initial question. Why are people calling me Stag?”
“Oh yes!” Maverick exclaimed with newfound excitement. “The gene. The presence passed down from Noah that lives in our blood. It skips a generation. Always. None of us are sure why. Perhaps it is the Timekeeper’s way of preventing an abundance of people with time powers. But nevertheless, a generation is always skipped. That generation is stagnant. We tend to call those in it, Stags.”
“Yes. Your generation should not have any manipulation of time. Your father was a Shaper, and his grandfather was not, and his father was a Shaper, and so forth. You should have been skipped, and your children should have had the active gene.”
“So what does that mean?” Sophie asked, wondering if it was something bad or if she should be sorry.
“I don’t know, midget. It means the presence decided to activate in you regardless. It means you’re very important to Him somehow. And it also means we must keep you a secret from them scoundrel Shifters. If they found out…”
“Shifters?” The name sounded familiar to her.
“Ah yes, you’ve yet to hear their story as well? Well, not all of us are good. It is common knowledge that the world is full of many different kinds of people. Some of us can’t handle what we are given. The Shifters are a group of ex-Shapers who branched off from us to seek their own ends.
Over the years, as the bloodline spanned out and the pull of His presence became fainter, the small control over time overwhelmed many people. They saw strength and power through it, and they lost sight of the initial task. They use it for their own evil purposes, which even we do not know the full details of. Though, we know they are planning something.”
He was twisting his finger through the violet smoke. Sophie was about to say something, but he continued.
“A soul is a delicate thing. It hangs in a very impressionable balance, and those that fall to that side, well, then that is what you become.”
Maverick was a strange, strange man, Sophie thought. One moment he was crazed goon, the other he seemed suspiciously wise. It was this thought that lead her to another, off-topic one.
“Why aren’t you rambling?” She’d said it more bluntly than she intended. A more appropriate question would probably have been 'Why do you ramble?' but she became so accustomed to his random phrases between regular speech that it was odd to hear him speak uninterrupted.
He grinned politely, slightly amused, and pointed to the swirling purple cloud. “Spiritomb calms my mind when he is near. Sometimes my thoughts are too wild to tame, but often, he succeeds. He can block out what I do not wish to see at times, but eventually, he tires. But it is possible.”
“You can see the future like me?” she guessed.
“I can see the future… But no, not like you. My visions come in pictures. Moments in time, months, and often years in advance. It is an ability far more useless than yours. I cannot harness it easily, as you’ve seen.”
“So you pose as a fortune teller, but can actually tell fortunes.” She laughed a bit at the irony.
He smiled proudly and said, “Something like that, yes.”
Maverick told Sophie more details of her past, a past she never knew existed, and she listened politely as he droned for hours with the occasional mutterings that his Spiritomb failed to prevent. He told her more of the Shifters and their desire for self-preservation, and he told her of the Shapers and their desire for peace. But most importantly, he told her of the fate of the world. How the Guardians felt it dying beneath their feet. How there was something… else out there that was behind all of it. And he told her that was their ultimate goal; to find this savior the Timekeeper searched for and somehow save both worlds. He couldn't explain the feeling that drove him to dedicate his life to this cause, but he didn't have to. Sophie felt it too; it was almost some kind of...instinct.
“And, my dear,” he finished with a long yawn. “You’re one of us now. I’m sorry if your uncle led you to believe you have a choice in the matter, but you do not. If you leave, they will eventually find out what you are, and kill you. Or worse…” His right eye twitched like he was trying to stare right down into her doubt. “Tomorrow you will meet the rest of us.” He left the table then and trotted up the stairs to his bunker.
Kill me, or worse. Very comforting, gramps.
Nothing seemed to surprise or worry her at this point. A meteor could fall from the sky and crash into her face, giving her telekinesis and super strength, and she wouldn’t find it absolutely preposterous like she would have three days ago. It was some kind of dream-like state she was living in. At first, she was just going along with most of the crazy to humor them, but… She knew it was real now; some powerful feeling was telling her this. But she also felt like the logical part of her brain was malfunctioning and being closed off from the rest.
Hearing that she had no choice after all didn’t change her feelings in the slightest, though. She already knew she would stay, she’d decided that five seconds after Finn had asked her the question. She was mainly just delaying and pretending to consider it to appease the girl inside of her that screamed for rationality.
She loved her grandparents and she knew they loved her, but she never truly felt like she belonged there. She felt like she was intruding on their perfect life in their perfect little world; and she was meant to be somewhere else far away from the endless sea of corn and crop. Somewhere just like this place. It wasn't rebellious teenager peeking through that led her to feel this way, it was simply that she herself had always felt like an alien. Maybe the fact that there was alien blood inside of her explained why.
She fell asleep on her pull-out couch easily. Finn did not return.
The following morning, she found herself being forced yet again into the hideous contraption people called a Taxi. This one looked like someone had been transporting a cougar to the asylum, and let it claw its jollies into the upholstery. A giant man was plopped in the driver’s seat, puffing on a cigar. A cigar that was smaller than every one of his sausage-like fingers.
“Take us to the end of Thirteenth,” Maverick told him, waving a wad of dollars in his face.
“There’s nothing down there but dumpsters,” a voice escaped from the far depths of the driver‘s throat.
“Hmph,” the man grunted and dropped his fat foot on the gas pedal.
When they arrived, several large piles of trash and rotting rat corpses were waiting to greet them. If a septic tank exploded inside a men’s locker room, it would still smell better than this.
Sophie winced and pinched her nose and slammed her eyelids shut, following her leader only by the sound of his footsteps.
“Why would a group of … special people, have their base here?” Sophie gagged.
“Who would come here looking for us?”
“Good point,” she choked.
Maverick laughed. Perhaps because of the hilarity of the sound of her distorted nose-plugged voice, or maybe because he was amused she hadn’t thought of it on her own. But regardless, Sophie didn’t care, she just wanted to be out of range of this putrid smell and she wanted to be out now.
The sound of metal scraping metal convinced her to peek through the slit of an eye to see Maverick pushing back a door in the floor of the alley, a door she was sure hadn’t been there before. She didn’t dare think about what trash Maverick must have touched to uncover it.
“Coming?” he asked her, as his head disappeared beneath the entranceway.
Sophie swept to the open passageway, and bounded down the stairs after him.
There was a hallway, long and dark - very original. The air smelled like musty and molded laundry. The girl followed Maverick all the way to the end of it, and then into the last and only door on the left. A strong light source flooded her vision as the old man pushed open the door, causing her pupils to painfully shrink.
What she saw when she’d finished rubbing her eyelids and her vision cleared, was nothing short of extraordinary.
It was an arena. Albeit, a quite small one - only the size of maybe two or three classrooms, but it was an arena. Underneath an alley… filled with dumpsters…
Long rows of stadium lights hung somewhere high above the pure white, stone walls, making the whole area agonizingly bright. The effect was amplified by its reflection off the polished wood flooring, which was of the same style and making of a basketball court.
“Why woul-” she started to ask, but stopped when she saw what was going on in it.
There were two men standing on either side of the room, and in front of them were the strangest creatures she’d ever seen. Well, the strangest she’d seen before her reality did a front flip into the lake of lunacy.
The first one was some combination of a sheep and a bumblebee. Its body was striped and rubbery with some sort of stinger for a tail, while its middle was fluffy and wooly like the typical barnyard sort. While she was staring at it, some kind of light bulb on the end of its tail started glowing and then sparks began spitting from its sides, until finally, a great burst of lightning went rocketing to the other side of the arena.
“Stop! What are you doing?!” Sophie screamed at the man telling the bumblesheep what to do. She watched in horror as the lightning struck the poor creature on the other side clear in the face. She couldn’t see its figure quite clearly, but it was bulky and blue.
“It’s ok, they are just practicing,” Maverick reassured her. “Besides, Marshtomp is immune to electricity.”
“Marshwha?” she rubbed her forehead.
Maverick only laughed and urged her to follow as he walked through the arena and out the other side, with the strange sounds of supernatural abilities echoing behind them. She could only follow reluctantly and sneak a few more glances at the scene before the door shut after her.
The next room she went in was much less stressful and somewhat familiar. It resembled a small workshop, but what they were working on was hard to tell. Steel cabinets lined the cream colored walls, encircling classroom styled rows of desks. Each housed a single lamplight. Most of them were unoccupied, but the few heads that were buried behind projects or books looked up at the pair when they entered. And stared.
A girl only a couple years older than Sophie‘s age stood up from somewhere in the middle of the room and walked over, wide-eyed. Her jet black hair was gelled up the center into a radical mohawk. She wore ripped jeans, and the closer she got, the clearer the logo read on her black T-shirt: Behind every great man, is a woman: rolling her eyes.
“Is this the…?” the stranger asked.
Maverick only nodded.
“Nice to meet you!” she almost squealed, busting her hand out to shake Sophie’s. “I heard so much about you! I was waiting for them to finally bring you down here but-”
“Calm down, Brinny.” Maverick grinned, patting the girl in the shoulder and ushering her away. “There’s plenty of time for that, I have some things to show her first.”
“My name’s Brinny by the way! Can’t wait to show you the ropes, and then we’re going to be practicing, after that we’ve got some studying; you’ve missed quite a bit. Starting off so late too… we’ve got a lot of work to do! OKAY MAVERICK, I’M GOING.” The old man was shooing her from the room through some doorway in the back.
“Heh.” Maverick rubbed the back of his neck awkwardly.
Sophie grabbed her earlobe just as awkwardly. Everyone was still staring at her.
“Now now, back to work. Nothing to see here.” Maverick let a few mutterings slip under his breath as he ushered Sophie from this room as well.
They walked between two rows of desks with outdated computers and through the side door. In this next room, was something Sophie finally didn’t recognize at all. Or rather, somethings.
It was laid out like a library, the room. The walls rose high above their heads, dozens of feet in the air. It made little sense that the ceilings hung at varying heights through each room they passed, but Sophie assumed that normal architectural protocols weren't followed when creating a secret base below the streets of a city.
There were row after row of shelves. All old and worn, but still kept clean. A faint but familiar sent of Pine-sol wafted around her nostrils. And like a library, the shelves were arranged one after the other, but, instead of books spread out upon them, there were balls. Hundreds of them, in varying shades of primary colors, spread intricately across each plank. Six balls a shelf, four shelves a case, three cases a row, six rows a side. Two sides. Sophie tried to do the math in her head.
“There’s almost a thousand of them,” she said mostly to herself.
“Eight hundred and sixty-four,” Maverick replied.
“What… are they?” she asked, looking around. She picked up one from a shelf near her and turned it around in her hand. It felt hollow.
“Balls.” Maverick said.
Sophie shot him a stare that said 'And?'.
“And most of these are empty,” he continued, gesturing around to all the shelves and even the one in her hand. “But this one…” he reached into his pocket and pulled out another ball only a third of the size of the ones around them. At his touch, it enlarged, and at his command, it opened. A beam of transparent red light burst from the innards of the ball and fell to the floor between them.
“is occupied,” he finished. And in a moment, his Spiritomb materialized at the end of the light’s path.
“How in the..?” Sophie let slip after a gasp and a look of surprise left her face. But she didn’t bother finishing. This wasn’t the most unusual thing for her to see this week. She’d just add it to her list of crazy and move on.
But, Maverick answered anyway. “Alien technology,” he said, as if this was a normal and scientific explanation. “We use these to transport them without drawing attention. It’s a way to stay together at all times, safely. Nelson is the head crafter; he’s been experimenting with the mechanics and thinks he’s invented a type that will contain even the sleeping guardians. HEY!” Maverick flicked Sophie in the ear.
She was poking at the little button on the ball in her hand, entranced. “Ow!” she whined, and rubbed the stinging cartilage.
“Pay attention, this is important,” he said sternly. “Put that down and come with me.” As if rewinding time, Maverick sucked his companion back into the hand-sized sphere the same way he had released it, and returned the device to his pocket. The nonchalant way these people acted around all of the weird was going to take Sophie some getting used to. She could attempt to refrain herself from constantly staring wide-eyed at the phenomena this new world contained, but she wasn't sure she'd be able to ever pretend it was normal. Ever.
Her mind continued to wander as they walked through yet another room, and Sophie started becoming turned around. If they were to get separated, she felt she would be lost down in this crazy maze forever.
“Guardians are not pets. They won’t roll over at your whim, they won’t depend on you for their livelihood,” Maverick spoke as they walked. “They are very much like people. Consider them soldiers who will fight by your side. That is… if you can prove yourself a worthy general.” He looked down at the girl through the corner of his eye. She looked confused. As usual. “Their loyalty is earned, not given. And the best way to earn it, is to prove your strength and wit - by defeating them. In battle.” Maverick watched the expression on Sophie’s face change from confusion to downright horror.
“Whaaaat?” she breathed. “What on earth is the point in that?”
Maverick chuckled. “Don’t worry, it’s not a fight to the death, youngin'.” He smiled as they found the end of a hallway and turned into another one. “More of a boxing match. The first to get knocked out, loses. It’s a custom from their world.”
“I see…” Sophie said. Even though she didn’t see. At all.
They found themselves finally in a completely normal room. The kitchen. Here was placed an ordinary oak table and chairs, a stove and microwave, a hideous orange refrigerator and a stainless steel sink.
“Someone very special lives here,” Maverick said with a gleam in his eye.
Sophie recoiled, looking desperately around for anything that resembled a mouse or rat.
Maverick ignored her. “Someone very special to your father.”
At this, the girl stopped, surprised. She looked around the room, wondering what friend of her father’s could possibly reside in the kitchen. Sophie was starting to get rather annoyed at all of the references people were making to her dead parents, as if she were supposed to know the memories of people she never met. People she only dreamt about her entire life. People she would never remember. But Sophie had long let go of self-pity; life was unforgiving. She'd learned to go with the flow and stop living for yesterday. Her easy-going personality shielded her from the common disappointments of the world, and in the end, left her with an open mind. There was no reason to fight when you had nothing to fight for, best to just go along with it. Which was why she was standing here today, awkwardly scanning a room at the command of an old fogey.
“Go wake him up.” Maverick nodded his head ominously toward the puke-orange colored fridge.
Ah, she thought. Secret doorway to the underground labyrinth and the magical hidden troll.
Sophie tiptoed sarcastically to the side of the fridge, going along with the whims of her crazy old tour guide and gripped onto the back corner of it. She heaved the thing with all her might away from the wall, but it wouldn’t budge. After a few moments of fruitless struggling, Sophie let her foot vent out her frustrations into the side of the refrigerator.
Then, something really weird happened. The fridge groaned. A stomach-churning moan of real discomfort. Sophie flinched and backed away from the appliance, eyes so wide they were almost bulging out of their sockets.
She watched the fridge as it began to vibrate, and a pair of enraged eyes blinked to life. The massive Guardian bent over the teenager, only stopping an inch shy of head-butting her in the face, and angrily stared deep into her eyes.
Sophie shook with terror, and she heard Maverick laughing hysterically in the background.
The machine roared, pulsating both madness and electricity. A visible violet energy engulfed the appliance, creating a pair of arm-like structures at its sides. Sophie felt the air chilling around her as she stood frozen in place. Crisp frost was accumulating on the creature’s surface, and she was close enough to hear its hefty breathing.
If you’ve never heard a refrigerator breathe before, it sounded like a fan blowing inside a running motor.
The orange box, a foot taller than she was, straightened up again after it was satisfied with its assessment of the human. Its chest heaved up in one enormous inhale of air, and then it bellowed a scream directly at Sophie’s head.
She felt the moist, icy spit slap her across the face and stick into strands of her hair. She also felt the electricity in the air. A faint presence that was strong enough to make her hair frizz out as though someone were rubbing it with a balloon.
And during all of this, Maverick was simply hunched over, clutching his gut and losing himself in fits of laughter. Sophie might be worried something was mentally wrong with him if it weren’t for this gigantic demonic appliance towering before her, ready to store her organs inside of its freezer. She looked at the old man desperately, searching for any cue of how she was supposed to respond to the thing, but none came.
Somewhere in the back of her mind, Sophie vaguely remembered what Maverick had been telling her on their way over here, something about honor duals. Her eyes darted wildly around the room, and fell upon a spatula resting atop the table directly behind her. She flailed her arm and clutched the cooking utensil tightly in her fist, then wielded it high over her head as if it were a powerful machete that was fatal to refrigerators.
“O-o-okay,” Maverick finally spoke between his chortles. “Enough, enough. Bahaha, I can’t take it anymore.” He still hugged an arm around his middle and bent haggardly over it while he stumbled his way toward them. “What are you planning on doing with that?” He gestured toward the weapon choice she’d collected, still managing to let slip a few more cracks of laughter.
If looks could kill, the glare Sophie gave the old man just then would have. She lowered her arms, and dropped the spatula back on the table with a soft clank. The fridge wasn’t making aggressive movements toward the pair, it simply watched while making frustrated grumbling noises from somewhere deep inside of it.
Sophie was too appalled for words. Or maybe it was enraged. Or terrified…or annoyed. Some combination of all of these feelings were smashed into a ball and shoved into the back of her throat, preventing any speech from emerging.
“Well, that’s not going to help you any,” Maverick referenced the cookware, picking up the spatula and inspecting it as if it were a serious weapon he’d never noticed before. “Haha, let’s move on. That was an amusing sight.”
“A-amusing?!” Sophie finally spoke, but it came out in more of a squeak. Her eyes were still wide open in panic. “Th-thaat-that-that-that…-”
“Wouldn’t have harmed you,” he cut off her stuttering. “Rotom’s bark is significantly worse than his bite. Just a little joke. Your father hated the thing, it was always spoiling his milk, melting his ice cream… He eventually stopped bringing lunch items that needed refrigeration. They always had a friendly rivalry, those two...” Maverick smiled at the memory, with a hint of sadness in his eyes.
But Sophie didn’t notice it. She’d just found out that Guardians existed less than twenty-four hours ago, and already Maverick was setting her up as prank bait. She could have had a heart attack, or worse, wet herself.
“I thought you were wanting me to fight it…” Sophie said so low it was almost a whisper.
“Fight? Haha, you’re far from capable of fighting, kid. You don’t even know how the Guardians battle yet, let alone challenge one. No, I just wanted to introduce you two.”
“Well I’m happy I could amuse you!” she yelled in sarcastic rage. She could hear the fridge’s motor behind her soften as they left the room, and suspected it willed itself back to sleep.
“You could have just told me what it was, you know, instead of just letting me piss it off,” Sophie said minutes later, after she had calmed down. They were traveling to yet another destination that Maverick deemed of importance. This base seemed endless. She wondered how long it had taken to build.
“Where’s the fun in that?” he responded, nonchalantly. And though it irritated her to be thrown into a world with such strangeness and then be the dolt of that world as well, she had to admit to herself: it probably was funny. It must be hard to be so serious all the time, and have this duty that the rest of world never knew existed. She supposed making someone laugh at her expense wasn’t so bad after all.
Maverick seemed to read the expression on her face as they walked on. “Perhaps I should have waited a few days to pull that particular trick on you. It has been many years since we have gotten a new recruit. Needless to say, we‘re all a little…excited.” A faint smile spread his lips.
Sophie couldn’t help mirroring it.
Another door. The flooring turned from carpet to stone as they entered a room far more technologically advanced than the rest. There was a table with steel chairs here, but nothing else. Just the single largest television Sophie had ever seen in her life taking up the entire length of the wall. It seemed more of a holographic computer screen than a TV though, as the electronic device was pencil thin and didn’t have the grainy picture of the common household counterpart.
Playing on the screen looked like a map of the world. The colors were bright and vivid, almost painful to look at. And on the map, were hundreds of glowing white dots.
“What are those supposed to be?” the young girl asked, enthralled.
Maverick didn’t answer, but walked closer to the colossal screen and began typing on what appeared to be a small keyboard positioned in front of it. She hadn’t noticed it was there before.
“These are all of the Sleeping Guardians we have located and tagged,” Maverick said finally, his fingers floating across the keyboard as he spoke. Pictures of common animals like possum, bears, birds, dogs and fish flashed and disappeared again on the monitor. The old man was concentrating hard, and occasionally grabbed his forehead out of pain or frustration, then muttered under his breath.
“Elaborate?” Sophie asked after a long awkward silence filled with nothing but clicking keys. This wasn’t the first time she’d heard the phrase ‘Sleeping Guardians’ today. She’d originally assumed it was referring simply to the alien creatures… sleeping. Getting rest. And so the boring assumption prevented her from pursuing the topic further. But now, she sensed there was more to it. Why would this base have a room dedicated entirely to watching the things sleep? Better yet, why would they all be sleeping at once?
“Eh…” Maverick continued to speak gibberish for a few more moments before he stopped typing, and turned his head to look at her. “Guardians… you have a lot to learn…” he sighed while wiping sweat away from his brow with the back of his pale hand. “It has been a long time since they left the Timekeeper.”
More silence filled the room, quiet enough for her to distinguish the soft thrumming of electricity powering the giant television. Sophie waited patiently for him to continue. She was starting to learn that asking questions only seemed to leave her wanting more answers.
“A lot of them… lost themselves. They have been pretending to be something that they are not... I suppose they have been doing long enough that they've even begun to fool themselves. ” The man seemed more distressed than usual. His body quivered as he strained to find the words. Or rather, omit words that did not belong. “When they lose their memories and mind, they lose their, well, their magic.”
Of course, Sophie’s skeptical and sarcastic thoughts bested her. It always comes back to magic… everything is magical.
“Not magic as in wizardry,” Maverick spoke again in a slightly annoyed, but exhausted tone. She suspected he‘d noticed her arched eyebrow. “Think figuratively. Their magic, aura, essence, what makes them tick. They forget they have abilities far surpassing those of the creatures they replicate. They forget the cloaks that shield them from the unbelieving are in fact a facade. They simply become… animals.” He finished with a heavy droop of his shoulders. Simultaneously, Sophie heard an abnormally loud Pop! that echoed off the pale walls enclosing them.
She startled, but noticed a ragged beam of crimson light speeding towards the floor beside him. The familiar purple smoky cloud shimmered into existence where the streak had landed. A soft howl, a sound similar to the wind whipping through a night forest, flowed into her ears. The ghost Guardian rippled like water, swirling the green orbs that hovered inside its cloud around and around as Maverick stared sad and defeated into them. The color twirled and flowed to a soft and non-existant melody. Sophie was as transfixed on the spirit as the old man was. Abrubtly, the dance stopped, and the hypnotic effect had faded from her. Another Pop! and the creature was gone again, leaving only a shimmering trail of the fluorescence behind it.
Maverick’s eyes eased. His mind seemed to have been calmed. His posture straightened, and he turned to face the screen yet again. “So,” he breathed, like nothing had happened, “these are the ones we’ve found and tagged. We claim these Guardians to be ‘sleeping’, because it seems that’s what they are doing to themselves: hibernating. As I mentioned before, Nelson is working on a device to capture them… humanely of course. We tagged the ones we’ve discovered with a tracking device to be able to watch and locate them at all times, but that’s about all we’ve accomplished. The ultimate goal being to bring them in peacefully, and remind them of what they are. We’ll need all the help we can get, we are running out of time.” Ominous endings were beginning to become a specialty of his.
Now Sophie’s head hurt. She groaned, and pressed her palm firmly to her temple. It hadn’t even been a day. She tried to be like a sponge, and absorb detail after detail and store all of it up in her brain for future usage, but at the moment she only felt like an engorged balloon ready to burst at any second. Soon information would just pass through one of her ears and out the other. She leaned her back to a wall and let herself slide to the ground, then crossed her legs and rested her chin on a hand.
Sophie wondered if Maverick would be suspicious of her lack of comment or current lack of interest, but he seemed to be unbothered.
“Sorry for having to baby-sit you so much today,” Maverick apologized emotionlessly, back still turned and typing once again on the keyboard. “Finneus had some work to do, won’t be back for another couple of hours.”
Oh right, I have an uncle… Sophie’s eyes drooped. She didn’t realize how tired she was. Maverick paid her virtually no attention now as he stood focused on the million pixels before him. He can wake me up when it’s time to go then… The elder probably wouldn’t even notice if she fell asleep for a while anyway. Her vision darkened, then her heavy lids closed. She could still see the glowing dots of the Sleeping Guardians through the skin of her eyelids for a few more moments after.
A hand squeezed her shoulder, firm but gentle.
“Wake up, child.”
“Ugh,” she groaned. Her vision went from black to blurred. She blinked a few times, collecting a clearer picture of the white haired, worn face before her.
“You’ve been out for a while.” Maverick looked at her and smiled. But the smile seemed to be stemmed more towards him being pleased with himself than her.
Sophie started to move lethargically from the ground, then looked down, confused, at the wool blanket draped over her.
“Supply closet,” he jerked his thumb over his shoulder towards a doorway. “You shiver when you sleep,” Maverick stated as though he had uncovered knowledge she was unaware of.
“Oh,” Sophie mumbled, yawning and standing up. “Thanks.” She was surprised by the random act of kindness from the man who was still a semi-stranger to her. And to be honest, she wondered why she’d felt so comfortable around him. Sure he was crazy, and normally out of his mind, but for some reason, when she was around the old hoot she felt in an oddly good mood.
The girl brushed the sleep from her eyes, and rubbed the sore spot on her right cheek that she was sure would be pink from the pressure of the floor.
“Let’s get going, they are waiting for us.” Maverick held open the door of the exit-way for her as she groggily stumbled through.
At least a dozen faces were looking at her intently. She felt her cheeks flush with embarrassment, and she lowered her gaze to the ground.
“Hi again, remember me?" a voice emerged from the small crowd. This was some kind of welcome gathering that Maverick had orchestrated; an awkward meet-and-greet that left Sophie feeling more drowned than before. "It’s Brinny, in case you forgot. Maverick said I’m going to be the one to initiate your training, he thinks you’ll learn best from someone your own age.” The other teenager smiled genuinely at Sophie, truly delighted to have the task. Rich brown eyes blinked their expectations.
“Oh…uh… training? Ok…” she wasn’t sure what this other girl, Brinny, was expecting her to say, because she really didn’t even know what she was talking about. She could only smile half-heartedly and feign interest.
But, the uncomfortable moment was removed by a young gentleman, who elbowed Brinny playfully out of the way and reached out a hand for Sophie to shake. “Hello, Sophie. I’m Nathan, and this is my brother Nelson.” Sophie politely shook the outstretched hand while looking beside its owner, at the other man with the same dark blonde hair, blue eyes, and lanky build that he did. “Yeah…we’re twins.” The two of them were quite on the thin side, and appeared to be somewhere in their early twenties.
"Oh, nice to meet you...both," she'd tried to say casually, despite the slight panic that she was now starting to see double. She brushed a strand of hair behind her ear.
“I’m Rodger.” The assembly line continued, this man forcing himself up to meet her. “You saw me and Bob in the arena earlier. Sorry to spook you, Asha just needed to practice releasing her thunderbolts properly in a controlled environment.”
“Uh…” Sophie started to become lost. “It’s okay…Asha?”
The thick man chuckled, and tossed his silky black bang out of his eyes. “Aha, no. My name is Rodger… Asha is the Mareep, the Guardian who used the electricity?” he gave her a friendly smile. “It’s alright, you’ll know everyone here before you know it.” He winked and moved on.
Sophie lost herself in a flurry of handshakes and strange faces. Some were old, some were young, some middle aged, some weak, strong, fat, red-haired, and every other custom feature known to present itself upon the human race... Many of them told her their time ability. Some she found hard to believe, such as Nelson's, who could apparently look at any object and see exactly how it was made. Or his twin brother Nathan's, who could in similarity look at any object, but see where it had been. It confused her at first, how these were time-based abilities, but after a long discussion and some unnecessary details, she saw it made sense after all. Together, they could see what time had done to any item they inspected.
Sophie was also surprised to find out that a few others here were Stags. Or, people who married into this world or discovered it by other means, and did not possess the alien gene at all. She wished she’d brought a journal to keep notes.
Maverick sat in a corner, eating a powdered jelly doughnut that dribbled all down his dark shirt. He watched happily as everyone mingled, a sly smile stretching up one side of his face, like a criminal observing his master plan.
Pizza and cakes and pies that spread all the way down a long fold-out table were picked at as the hours passed. Sophie felt herself become more and more comfortable with these people. Because in reality, that’s all they were: people. People just like her. Also scattered scarcely around the room were a few of the Shapers’ Guardians. One of them looked like a creepily mutated golden rat, and it was helping itself to a piece of pepperoni pizza. Marinara sauce stained its white cheeks while it sat jollily atop the table.
Others were much less familiar. She spotted a reddish-orange lizard with rubber-like skin and a flaming tail scurrying between people’s legs. And another, small bear-like creature with large innocent eyes and a beige half moon colored onto its brow. They were all so… comfortable with each other, the group. They seemed natural, and at ease, as if this was how the world belonged. The sight was intriguing for her to watch.
Sophie asked a Shaper by the name of Bob for the time, then. A Shaper whose ability was that he always knew what time it was - without a watch or the sun to tell him.
A sheen reflected off his mostly bald head as he raised his eyebrows slightly and answered, “10:43. Why?”
Just wondering where Uncle Finn was…
But before she verbalized her thought, the door to the room creaked open, and a shaded figure staggered from the darkness beyond.
As if on cue, it was Finn.
But something was wrong.
The light slowly illuminated his face as he crept through the doorway. His eyes were dark and sunken, and he was leaning against the wall for support while he walked. Or rather, limped.
Sophie’s eyes widened as she saw a moist stain of deep red fluid soaked all the way down the left side of his white button-up shirt. He cringed, holding that side of his waist, and the blood stuck thickly to his fingers before dripping to the floor. He fell, weak, to his knees.
The room went silent for what felt like a painful eternity. Maverick dropped his doughnut, the powdered sugar and jelly splattering all over the floor, and rushed over toward his wounded comrade faster than the girl had seen him ever move before.
Sophie was paralyzed; she couldn't move or speak, only watch helplessly at her uncle's body sway back and forth as he tried to hold himself together. The room was a blur. She wasn't sure what everyone else was doing, she wasn't even sure what she herself was doing. But, she did know her heart was beating its anxiety rapidly into her chest.
“They…they,” Finn wheezed, and collapsed. He was fortunate that Maverick had been there to catch him. His elder held, almost cradled, Finn's brawny torso into the crook of his arm, and had his frail fingers wrapped around the other's jaw.
"What is it, Finn?," Maverick asked with urgent concern, gently shaking the face in his hand back and forth - an attempt to keep the younger man on this side of reality.
“They know… about her,” he said faintly from the embrace of Maverick’s arms just before he slipped into unconsciousness.
The old man turned his head and looked at Sophie from all the way across the room. An undeniable expression of worry and dread resided behind a thin pair of spectacles.
The following week, Sophie found that she was spending most of her time beside Finn’s bed as he recovered. The wound had been grave, but not fatal. Teeth marks sunk deeply into the flesh of his left side; he was missing an entire chunk of skin from it. And while it was more likely to get infected, it couldn't be stitched until it started to heal as the gashes were too wide.
Finn had told them some of what had happened to him, grudgingly, once Maverick informed him that Sophie was just as much a part of their world now as the rest of the Shapers. But he’d only share the facts about the creature that had attacked him while Sophie was around, and nothing more.
Finn had sighed, and groaned, clearly hoping the girl would have decided to go home rather than stay.
“I’m so sorry I brought you here,” Finn had winced, ghostly pale and sweating, the first time he had woken since he’d passed out. “I had no idea. I thought you were just a Stag…I should never have brought you.” After this, he’d faded away again.
Sophie was left to feel the sting of his words for three days after.
“…and he just set the thing on me. I honestly don’t know how he did it. Not a command, not a sound, just that bloody remote control.” Finn’s voice softly hit her ears as Sophie entered the room at a later date. A room that reminded her a lot of the office of her school nurse. There was a single hospital bed, a desk, and a cabinet full of medical supplies.
Maverick scratched his chin, pondering whatever information Finn had given him. The white-haired man started to respond, but stopped when he noticed the teenage girl entering the room. He was clearly respecting Finn’s wishes of keeping her in the dark about the whole event.
This aggravated Sophie far beyond what she openly expressed. She hated feeling like everyone was talking about her behind her back, keeping secrets, telling only parts of the truth… She wasn't a four-year-old, despite being treated like one her entire life.
The newest recruit spent most of her days studying in the time that passed. She found the Shaper library to be a sanctuary. A place where she could answer her own questions. The room arched up into a globe, similar to that of a cathedral, and spread out throughout the circular area were a number of bookshelves ranging somewhere in the double digits. But unlike the joint with all the ball devices she'd seen on her first day here, these shelves were actually occupied with books.
There was one book in particular she would read like a bible. It was an encyclopedia filled with every known species of Guardian. It had their names, colorings, height, weight, diets, general personality types, and even included a picture for each. She learned that the descendants of the Timekeeper tended to nickname their closest Guardian friends, in order to treat them more like equals. Even though, a lot of the species names were merely invented by the people who discovered them first. And as she'd already begun to notice, some preferred species name, and others preferred nickname.
Like Maverick’s Spiritomb, and Asha the Mareep…
At another reading session, she discovered that the guardians understood human dialect but could not convey it back. Every small seed of intellect she gained about them, she planted in the garden of her brain. If she was going to be helpful, if she was going to even know what everyone was talking about half the time, she needed to become one of them. The easiest way she found to achieve this was to simply read until she could read no longer. She felt the world unfolding before her, and found the creatures were feeling less and less like aliens and more … familiar as time went on.
A good portion of her spare hours, though, were spent training with Brinny. At first, she had no idea what she was going to be training for and assumed the other girl was just trying to politely tell her she was out of shape. But then, after the first five minutes of her ‘lesson’, she felt stupid for not understanding in the first place. Why hadn’t Maverick told her? She needed training to learn how to use her powers.
Powers…heh. Move over, Nightcrawler! …lame.
But then, she actually started practicing... and found that comics didn't portray the true frustrations of being a super mutant.
“Gah! I can’t do it!” Sophie flung up her arms in frustration after another fruitless hour of teachings. Finn had been recovering for three weeks now.
“You can, Sophie. You’re just trying too hard,” Brinny rested a hand on her hip, and pulled at her dark blue T-Shirt that this time read: Danger: High Voltage. Her brown eyes were lined with thin black make-up, and tips of her black mohawk were dyed pink.
“And last time you told me I wasn’t trying hard enough.” Sophie now rested her elbows on her knees from her place at the table in the workshop, and looked up helplessly at the punk girl standing over her.
“Because you weren’t. Look, Soph, you need to find yourself a happy medium. Concentrate, but don’t concentrate so hard that you give yourself a headache?”
Sophie was due for another eye-roll. The lamps in the room glowed bright enough to irritate them. She could see the flecks of light reflecting off all of the dust particles around them, and it made her nose tingle just from knowing they were in the air.
“Just try one more time,” Brinny pushed the book they were using closer to her on the desk. It accented her heavily-painted black fingernails. “Remember what I said: it’s like pulling saran wrap off your brain, you gotta find just the right spot.”
“Fine,” Sophie huffed. Then, burrowed her eyes into the book before her. A fan was blowing the dust debris all around the room, she felt like it was tunneling up her nostrils. She sneezed. “Ugh, this is hopeless… I’m never going to learn how to do it on my own.”
Sophie slumped and turned the page of the nursery rhyme book to the next, revealing a picture of a baby blue elephant that read: Blue is a color I’ve loved for years, and it looks best upon my ears.
“Well, here’s another page I didn’t See.” Sophie sighed, giving up.
“Huh?” Brinny asked, arms crossed, and stared intently at her student.
When she opened her eyes, they fell upon the children’s book again. But, the page wasn’t turned to the baby elephant, it was still on the monkey from the page before.
“Uh…” Sophie turned a bewildered glance to Brinny, realizing what happened. “I think there’s an elephant on the next page…”
Brinny’s eyes widened, and her hand darted to the book. “That’s right!” she exclaimed after flipping the page to see for herself. “You did it Sophie, you did it!” She flung her arms around the other teenager in excited glee.
Sophie stood up, laughing along with her and awkwardly patting Brinny’s back. Power of the sneeze?
“Your mother would be so proud!” Brinny cheered. “She’d have wanted you in our world if she knew you Soph, I know it!”
Sophie’s arms dropped. “If she knew me?”
“Yeah, after you were born. If she’d survived the birth-” but Brinny stopped, and a look of complete horror and guilt washed over her porcelain face. “You-you didn’t know?”
Sophie didn’t answer, her face was emotionless. She turned on her heel and almost ran from the room, leaving Brinny to cry out after her.
“A car crash?! REALLY? That’s what you guys come up with?!” Sophie nearly screamed as she barged through the door of Finn’s recovery room.
The injured man looked over and attempted to sit up out of concern, but winced at the tearing stitches that were recently sewn in and fell back down into his bed.
“Why couldn’t you just tell me?! You all have been lying to me my entire life?!” Sophie boiled. Angry mostly at herself for not figuring it out sooner. Her mother wasn’t in any of the baby pictures she’d seen of herself with her father. It should have been obvious.
“Soph…” Finn pleaded, directing a clear look of pain toward his niece. But she couldn’t tell if it was out of regret or of his wound. “Look... kiddo...”
“Stop it! Just stop! I’m not a little girl anymore, Uncle Finn! I wish you all would stop acting like I was!” She didn’t wait for him to answer, she didn’t even wait to see his expression change from pain to sorrow. She was heated and she wanted to get away from everyone. It wasn't just her grandparents and Finn, either - all of them knew more about her life than even she did, and she found it enraging.
She sped through rooms and hallways, the maze was a breeze to her now after the weeks spent inside. She bounded down the final cobblestone passageway at a near sprint and flipped open the trapdoor to the alley. She didn’t realize there were tears welling in her eyes until the cool night wind sent them trickling down her cheeks. This made her fume even more; she hated to cry.
A freaking car crash... that’s what they told me and I believed it, Sophie’s thoughts whirled. The truth that it was her own birth that had killed her mother sank into her gut like a dagger. She was sure this tantrum was the outcome of all of this stress, but that didn't make her feel any calmer. She power-walked to no destination, hoping the exercise would ease the anger.
The street of this part of the city was empty, and cold. Sophie sunk her fists into her pockets and pulled her sweater’s hood up over her head. It was unusually quiet as she passed under yet another overhanging light, unnoticing as she was drowning herself in her own self pity. Her emerald eyes stared angrily at her own shadow on the sidewalk, as though even it were mocking her. She kicked at it, and swore, and only when her legs ached of fatigue did she cease.
Sophie walked on, unaware of the world around her, (the gloomy buildings she passed, the pockets of street-lamp light she walked under one after another...) only of the distinct echo of her footsteps.
She was caught off guard when the muscled arm reached from the darkness and coiled around her neck. She felt her body lurch backward, hard, against another body much larger than hers. She writhed, and tried to scream, but a second arm was shoving a piece of cloth roughly into her face.
She remembered the faint sweet scent of chloroform before her world went black.
Sophie slammed the fridge door shut, holding up a cup of deflated Jell-O in front of her nose. “Come ooon, I thought we were buds now! I fixed your ice-maker and everything!”
The refrigerator chuckled, creating a clanking noise of various produce, pop cans and containers from somewhere deep inside its stomach. The machine playfully swung back open a side door and bumped her in the hip.
The girl sighed, aggravated, but couldn’t hide the slight smirk forming in her rosy lips. The Guardian had warmed up to her recently, once she had forced herself to stop being afraid of it. It took guts, courage, and a lot of nerve to barge into the Shapers’ kitchen and give the appliance a piece of her mind.
After the fact, she’d discovered Rotom was in the mindset of a bratty toddler. It was used to getting whatever it wanted, and always having its way, so it settled for no less. This mindset would often lead to the treating of people like inferiors, because to it, that is all they were; it was all it had known them for. Only when someone asserts themselves as a superior, does obedience follow. It all comes down to respect.
Sophie had pointed an accusing finger directly between the snotty eyes of the refrigerator. She furrowed her eyebrows, swept her chestnut hair business-like out of her eyes, and stood her ground as she let the fridge have it. “Listen, you-you… heartless piece of poo. I have done nothing to deserve this attitude of yours. I can’t set foot in this hellhole without you flinging ice cubes at me, leaking fluid onto the floor so I slip and fall, or shocking me with your stupid plug thing! So KNOCK IT OFF.” Sophie’s eyes narrowed and she shook her finger more aggressively at the machine. “I had to purchase these,” she held out a foot completely enclosed by a rubber shoe, “so I could walk in here without becoming your personal shish kabob. And I got this,” she held up a silver fork with her other hand, “to show you that I mean business.”
At this, Rotom’s eyes widened. A look of utter terror swept over his metal face.
“That’s right! And I’m not afraid to use it!” Sophie waved the eating utensil in front of the Guardian’s face. “One shove into the power outlet and KABLAMMY. No power-source for Rotom. No shocking, no freezing, no nothing! You’d just have to sit there and watch everything... quietly.” She lowered the fork and her assertive finger simultaneously.
Rotom shook what was probably his head and waved his energy arms in front of his face as if to say 'No! No no no. Please, no!' A sincere apology crept from his eyes, and his worry seemed to elevate.
“All right… you be nice to me, I be nice to you. Kapeesh?” her gaze was unmoving.
The fridge nodded briskly and held out an electric hand.
Reluctant at first, Sophie shook it. She let go after one solid, deal-making thrust, and was surprised to find herself unscathed. Not even a little spark transferred from the machine to her vulnerable skin. Surprised, she looked up at the guardian and gave him a heartwarming grin.
The feeling was mutual.
Bright light… it burned. The smell of rubbing alcohol and sterilized equipment… A masked figure wearing rubber gloves…
“This is called the trigger.” Nelson took the sharp metal object in his dirty hand and tapped the circular button on the black orb.
It popped open, and revealed a hollow compartment within the sphere. The two halves of the circle lie flat against the wooden surface of Nelson’s desk. The inside of the ball seemed to be holographic, and looking into it, it appeared that the compartment was much bigger than what it suggested to be on the outside. Even so, it was hard to believe that an entire Guardian could fit inside the device without breaking the laws of physics. Perhaps they were meant to be broken.
“See this?” Nelson pointed to a small screen written in what looked like a foreign language, with the same metal utensil. “It’s a code. From their side, of course.” He gestured now to his notebook which sported hundreds of alien numbers and symbols on every page. “When a Guardian enters one of these,” he pointed again to the black sphere, “for the first time, its DNA is automatically entered into the device’s internal database. Consider it a permanent fingerprint. Once this happens, no other Guardian can use the capsule but the one that was first imprinted.”
Nelson took an impossibly small screwdriver and starting twisting it into the ball’s hinges, separating each half from the other entirely. Then, wiping sweaty blonde hair from his brow, he held the bottom half of the ball up for Sophie to see more closely. “See it?” He pointed to the miniature computer screen, layering the bottom of the enclosure. Even dissected like this, it was still generating some kind of turquoise light source.
“What you see when a Guardian passes into or out of one of these things is its genetic coding. Red is the base color that gets programmed into each orb, but I’ve figured out how to tweak the formula to change that. At the moment though, I’ve only been able to program colors from the red family, such as pink, orange…” Nelson seemed lost in thought for a moment, then continued, “After this, when the device closes once again with the Guardian inside, it sets off a chain reaction of commands. First, it scans the Guardian to ensure the imprint matches. Then, it transforms the creature into millions of microscopic particles, which are transferred from there to its own personal, registered headquarters. It’s a small area of space located on the hard rive, that to the Guardian, feels the size of an entire room.” Nelson turned his blue eyes from the material in his hands to the face of the lost teenager beside him. He grinned, and rephrased, “Think of it as the internet. The Guardian is scanned, then emailed to its own mailbox.”
“Ahhh,” Sophie said finally, starting to understand. “And what is it called, anyway?” She looked down at another, unopened orb in her hand. This one was blue.
“We call it a Compass.”
Eyes slowly blinking open… A white light; a train in a dark tunnel… Stinging… Sharp pain, like a needle… Blackness.
Apart from the library, the nursery was Sophie’s most favorite place of all. It was a beautiful garden somehow completely underground. Small trees lined the room, producing seeds, nuts, or fruit. Rich, thick ivy crawled along the walls, completely covering whatever material lay behind them. Flowers, vivid with both color and health scattered across the grass carpeting. And, Guardians romped, and slept and played here all throughout the day.
“See that little bugger?” Brinny leaned against the low gate that acted as the door. She pointed off to the slight side, at a rubbery-orange lizard sticking a clawed finger up its nostril. “He’s mine.” She smiled and gave the creature a look of endearment.
Her Guardian rolled lazily onto its back, whipping its flaming tail through the air to a voiceless beat. He kicked his stubby feet for a while before falling asleep, a bubble of snot expanding with each of his tiny reptilian breaths.
There were dozens here. Dozens of Guardians - alien creatures that Sophie had only recently had come to know. She saw a blue turtle, three times the size of its earthly counterpart, a deep black fox, with glowing rings encircling its every extremity, and even an extremely hideous fish that could somehow survive out of water. Its unsaturated blue fins protruded from a body that looked like browned and molded cheese. Even it, though, seemed beautiful to the girl experiencing this world for the first time.
She watched the creatures play happily with each other, each innocent and full of life. Not a single Guardian here ever showed even the slightest hint of unhappiness. Sophie always felt peace just watching them. Her thoughts would wander, and as the days passed, she felt herself becoming more and more attached.
“Will I get one?” Sophie asked Brinny one day, when they were both eating their lunch at the nursery. It was becoming some kind of tradition for the two as their friendship grew stronger.
“When you are ready,” Brinny said absentmindedly, and stared into the garden. “They kind of…choose you.”
Another pierce of pain… veins flooded with chemicals… Thoughts, not hers… Thoughts….
“No.” A determined male voice. Raspy, and low-pitched. “No, we need to go deeper…”
A woman sewed string into Finn’s ravaged skin. He winced at every poke of the needle through his wound. It was apparent that he was making the extra effort to move his mind to a happy place; he refused to show weakness in front of his niece. The nurse gave him an apologetic glance every so often until she finally dropped her needle into a tin can and tied the end of the string. Lasty, she wiped a thin layer of antibiotic ointment over the freshly sewn skin with a clean cloth, gave her regards to her patient, and left the room.
“C’mere, kiddo.” Finn nodded his head, beckoning the scrawny girl to his bedside. “It looks worse than it is, I swear.” He read her worried look plain as day.
“Uncle Finn…” Sophie’s troubles came in multiples. There was never a single thing upsetting her. “Why won’t you guys tell me what’s going on? Am I not…did I do something wrong?” She wrung her hands.
Finn’s eyes softened, and he sat (or attempted to sit) up. His complexion was still pale as a ghost, but at least he didn’t look like a man living inside of a corpse anymore. “Of course not, Soph…there’s just,” he sighed, struggling for words, and looked up at the ceiling. “There are a lot of things you don’t understand, not yet. Knowledge is dangerous. You… we are just trying to keep you safe. Someday you will understand everything.”
It was the promise from an adult to a child. A promise of growing up. A promise of the future. A promise wrapped around a truth that was simply that she wasn’t ready or trusted for what there was to say.
Sophie let herself slip into the seat of the cushioned mahogany chair beside Finn’s bed. She blew a wisp of hair out of her eyes and pouted into her hand. Ever since she had come here and learned of the world in which Finn belonged, she felt like the two of them were being split further and further apart. Who knew that being close to your family was actually what could tear you away?
Finn always seemed to know her innermost feelings. He reached a weak hand to her head, and ruffled her hair. “You’ll always be my partner-in-crime, kiddo. No matter what.”
Thin, ivory hands massaging her temples, uncovering her secrets… Memories leaked from the safety of her mind… Love, loss, rage… More poking… more prodding… more pain.
“We still aren’t deep enough! Do your job, or rot with the others!”
The city stretched across the earth. Or so it seemed. The buildings were endless, the skyscrapers many. The streets were an entire world of their own.
Each day, she went for a walk outside of the Shaper base. With Finn injured and forced to stay in its infirmary, it was strongly suggested that she stay there as well. (In other words, she was told to). Often Brinny, or another Shaper would accompany her whenever she went out to get fresh air. They would say it was out of willingness, but Sophie had a hunch they were instructed to keep an eye on her now that the Shifters apparently knew of her presence. What this meant for her, she had no clue - Finn was still being stubborn about it and unhelpfully silent. But, she shrugged it off and pretended that she was just an abnormally fun person to be around.
She was still learning the city, but her inner-map was finally starting to function. Today she was alone. Sophie walked casually down the smooth sidewalk, kicking the occasional piece of trash that emerged in her path. She turned right onto Thirteenth avenue, a place where even criminals would avoid. Dumpster after dumpster sent a vomit-inducing reek into the air. The girl was becoming immune to the toxin, however.
She was here, finally. The place she’d been looking so hard for. Why was she trying so hard to find it though? She’d practically been living here over the previous weeks; it's location had become second nature. Why was this time so important?
Her shoe scraped the litter around the trapdoor away, and she bent down to lift the handle.
But then she stopped.
What was she doing here? Sophie couldn’t even remember how she got to this place, or what she had been doing beforehand.
Wires suction-cupped to her face… An omnipresent force instructing her like a marionette…
“She’s realizing it’s not real, sir. We should abort. We will damage her.”
“No. Just hurry up!”
Something was telling her, urging her to open the door. She felt it was of dire importance. She wanted to obey. She felt her fingers wrap around the latch’s handle.
And she felt how wrong it all was. She looked up around her. She saw there were no details in her surroundings. No bricks, windows, clouds…only masses of blurry color. She felt it. She could feel the dream. Feel it slipping away to somewhere beyond, almost as though it were being eaten…
In the distance, there was the sound of a heart monitor blaring with a frenzy of beeps. A few scattered voices shouted in rage, frustration, and worry.
A body (was it hers?) pulsed with electricity. The force of it aimed into the center of the heart.
Pain. It was hers. She was being resuscitated. She could see it now. But why could she see it from above? There was her body, spread out on the operation table. A small creature with flowing white robes was being dragged away. She barely caught its depart from the corner of her eye as she gazed down upon the three men in the room. One typing rhythmically on a computer, the second fiddling with a series of medical tools, and the third was pressing a defibrillator into her chest.
Her body jolted. She felt herself swirl down and down until she was once again inside of it. She felt her heart beat to life, the monitor in the back corner reflecting its normalcy.
So much pain. But most of it resided in her head.
A man was dressed as a doctor. A white overcoat hung over his shoulder and graying hair was sleeked behind his ears. He stuck his beard-covered face directly in front of hers. A flashlight secured on his headband shown directly into her eyes.
“What’s your name?” the man said with no emotion, as if questioning an android.
She squinted. “S-Sophie…” she rasped. Her throat was painfully dry. “Wh-Where am I?”
The assumed doctor ignored her question. “She’s still there,” he spoke to the man on the computer, who only nodded with his back still turned and typed even faster into the keyboard.
Sophie tried to turn her head. She tried to look around and see where she was, but her body was so stiff. And even if it weren’t, she felt her arms and legs bound to the table with leather wraps.
She panicked. Her heart was almost beating out of her chest.
“G-get me out of here! Who are you?!” she yelled pathetically, her dry voice nowhere near the pitch of a yell.
The doctor stood up, and was now out of her vision. But, at least his ridiculous lighted headband wasn’t burning her corneas anymore.
She was seeing spots from the now sudden lack of light. Her eyes darted around, but all she could see was what lie directly in front of her. Some rolling cabinets covered in metal instruments, the man at his computer, and the wall.
Sophie heard footsteps, the sound of boots on cement. Then the swish of a long coat. The third man was beside her now, she could feel him and see his shadow. Fingers wrapped around her jaw, and forced her face to turn with them. Her neck seared with pain; the muscles did not want to turn that way. They wanted to do exactly as they were told and stay frozen. But her gaze followed where her head turned and her eyes fell upon a skeletal face and a wry grin.
“Hello, Sophie.” Horse teeth appeared in the malicious smile. The man stroked his greasy blonde hair. “Do you remember me? We met at the museum, do you remember?” Beady black eyes stared at her.
Her memory ached and tried to recompose itself. She wracked her brain, but it was as though someone had set off a small bomb inside of it and the dust was still settling. Her current state of anxiety was not helping it clear.
“My name is Byron, do you remember? You are a very special girl, do you know that?” His head tilted awkwardly to the side, as seemingly double-jointed as an owl’s.
A bony finger stroked her cheek, and she furrowed her eyebrows. Hatred was bubbling up inside of her, a feeling that shouldn’t have developed, not yet.
Yes, she remembered him.
An emaciated rodent traveled across the cracked and worn cement, searching for a sign of life, or better yet, food. Its whiskers twitched and its claws scratched at the surface earnestly. The darkness was no hindrance to the rat, as it took one old hole in the moss-covered wall to another. The inhabitants of this once abandoned building had long been asleep. Surely they left some unfinished crumbs behind…
Another hole-pathway led to the room with the prisoner inside. The three jail cells stood side by side, with a sole occupant in the center one. Her head drooped, and her breathing was light. The rat scurried up to an empty plate lying just behind the barrier of iron bars. Not one crumb. It moved on with an annoyed squeak, its footsteps clattering after it.
“H-hello?” the prisoner’s faint voice echoed from the depths of her cell. The darkness blinded her. She could barely see her hand, even when she held it right in front of her eyes. “Is anyone there?”
Sophie couldn’t remember anything. One moment she was having a freak-out session on the sidewalks of the city, and the next she was locked in some kind of dungeon with really cold and uncomfortable floors. Her head was also pounding so loud, she could almost hear it reverberating off the walls. At least, she assumed walls were out there somewhere; she only guessed, since her vision was practically blind.
A door cracked open to the right somewhere, and a beam of light poured in. She raised her forearm in front of her eyes to shield some of it from her screaming pupils, and noticed two figures coming in. One was a man in a lab coat that she did not recognize, and the other… was a wolf.
A wolf? In the city?
But, it wasn’t a wolf at all. It was grey-ish like one, and it had the general body shape of one, but it was significantly larger and had a strange two-layered coat that would probably be considered some kind of genetic defect of the species had it been seen by any scientist of the study. Deep black fur spread all the way down its back to the tip of its tail, and everywhere else was tinted a silvery-grey. They wouldn’t see what Sophie saw though, she knew she was looking at a Guardian.
The creature appeared to be a companion of the man in the lab coat at first, but as they passed her cell - which she could now see clearly thanks to the stream of light from the room outside of this one pouring in - she noticed the man was holding some kind of taser to its throat and pushing it along. The wolf glanced at her as they passed, its bright yellow eyes gleaming through the half darkness, but was immediately punished by a snap of electricity, then promptly kicked into the cell beside hers.
“And you,” the man said, turning to face the only other human in the room. “I wouldn’t try any funny business. Not that’d it would be effective, since they’ve dosed you with a solution that blocks any powers you may have." He accented the word as though it were something disgusting. "But I don’t want you injuring yourself, we aren’t through testing you yet.” He then quickly moved towards the exit, but not without slightly tripping over a loose cobblestone in the floor and then trying to cover it up with a flurry of his coat, then he slammed the door shut behind him.
At least now she had somewhat of an idea where she was.
Infamous lair of the Shifters, of course. How they heck did they even find me… and what is this guy doing here, she thought, thinking of the poor creature next to her.
The room had three cells, and now only one was empty. There was only one way in or out, and it was through the door that she just watched shut the outside from her with a depressing thud. Nothing else was worth thinking about, not the slimy moss-covered walls, or even the cobweb-invested corners. Anxiety was emerging, but it wasn’t because of her surroundings, it was the people beyond them - on the other side of the door. What did they want with her?
She'd learned so little about these people in the few weeks she'd spent officially as a Shaper. Sophie wished she had pursued the topic much more than she had, now that she was rotting away in their dungeon. It probably wouldn't have made a difference, though. Finn was determined to keep her out of it. Maybe this was why, but it didn't stop them from kidnapping her. She brushed her noise, feeling slightly violated while she remembered the cloth-full of chemicals that had been smashed into it.
It seemed hours passed without a noise. She sometimes forgot there was another prisoner beside her; it required concentration to even hear it breathing. She wished it could answer her questions, or even speak at all. Company would have been welcome. But how do you start a conversation with a Guardian who could want nothing more than to snack on your jugular?
The door opened again. There seemed to be less light leaking through this time. Or perhaps, less electrical light. Was it daytime? Another man walked in, this one definitely different from before. Same vague and shadowed middle-aged features, but this one wore no lab coat and was certainly shorter. She remained silent as he scurried to Sophie’s cell, and slid a plate in the small gap between the front bars and the floor, then left with out a word. She wasn't going to humor these people.
Sophie was pretty sure there was some kind of food on it, but she obviously would rather starve to death than eat this strange rubbish. At least, she thought it was obvious.
She slid the plate from her cell through the lower gap again of the bars that separated hers and the Guardian’s after feeling around in the darkness for it.
At least someone should benefit.
Time passed. How much of it exactly, she didn’t know. Nothing happened aside from that door opening and closing after long whiles, and someone bringing her a plate of food, then her dumping it to the wolf beside her. She saved a piece of stale bread or two for herself when she could hardly stand the hunger anymore. It was almost spite keeping her from eating - that they refused to give the Guardian any food at all, while apparently trying to fatten her up.
Every once in a while, she could hear the animal whimper, or chew on whatever she dumped over there. The sounds of any life at all gave her comfort and kept her mind from falling into panic. She was comfortable being alone, but not like this. The wolf was keeping her sanity in check more than it knew.
The door opened again, and this time two men walked through. One of them she recognized, it was Lab Coat Man.
“I’ll take her, you need to move that one. It should have regenerated enough by now,” he said to the other man. He unlocked Sophie’s cell, and quickly grabbed her harshly by the arm.
“Where are you taking him?” Sophie asked in a demanding tone of voice, surprised by herself. A more logical question would have been, ‘Where are you taking me?’
“None of your business. Get moving,” Lab Coat Man ordered without even looking at her.
Sophie was practically pushed through the infamous door she saw open and close so many times. And beyond it was…. Nothing. Just an empty room with a window and some lamps. It was just as decayed as the one she'd just left. She was then led through a hallway, and some more random rooms, and started to realize she was in some kind of abandoned building that these people were apparently squatting in. If she had to guess, she’d say it was an old jailhouse, or more likely, an old asylum.
Suddenly, they stopped in front of a door with a glass window properly placed for looking in.
“Wait here,” the man said, nodding to some guards that Sophie hadn’t even realized were in the room, then went inside.
‘Wait here?’, Really? She frustratingly folded her arms and glared at the men behind her, who were blocking off whatever exit she could apparently escape through. She turned back to the windowed-door, and stood on her tip-toes to peer inside.
And she did a double-take. It looked like a hospital room. Except, instead of a bunch of sick people hooked up to IVs, there were Guardians- at least a dozen of them. She recognized a few of the breeds, including the tiny blue one with the giant head that ate a blue whale’s weight in food before it was full. There was an orange lizard similar to Brinny’s, just far more pale. In fact, all of them looked pale.
It was then she noticed that they weren’t getting any medicine, they were getting their blood drawn - a ridiculous amount of blood. Enough blood to kill a human, had the same amount been drawn from one as they what appeared to be taking from the Guardians. Some kind of nurse was going around collecting the bags as they filled, then replacing them with new ones.
There was a very strange looking Guardian that collapsed then. It had pink rubbery skin and a curled tail, but the really strange thing was that it had such an unnecessarily large tongue that it didn’t even fit in its face, it just hung out onto the floor.
The nurse looked questioningly at a man crouched on small stool, who was no-doubtedly injecting himself with the blood they just harvested.
What the bloody hell…
He’d fastened a rubber band around his skeletal bicep, tapped a vein, and pierced it with a crimson liquid-filled syringe. When he was done, he acknowledged the nurse only by heaving a finger to the corner of the room, where a stack of small kennel crates lie.
She scurried to that pink Guardian then, and dragged it into one of the kennels by its under arms. Then, continued about as if nothing had happened.
Lab Coat Man, who had been waiting to the side for these few moments, finally addressed the hooligan who had just stuck himself with a needle of Guardian blood. He seemed to start a conversation by pointing to the door that Sophie currently stood behind, which caused the thin man to look in her direction.
She couldn’t help the reflex to gasp and turn away. Even if she wasn’t doing anything wrong, what she saw was certainly very, very wrong.
The door burst open beside her.
“Well well well!” the hooligan spoke excitedly. “If it isn’t miss Sophie!” His smile was eerie, and the teeth it revealed were so large that she thought they may reach out and smack her in the face.
She recognized him from somewhere, she was sure of it.
“Aw, you don’t remember me?” He seemed genuinely hurt by it.
“You were at the museum… you knew my Uncle…”
“Ah yes! Good ‘ole Finny-boy! How is he? I heard he had a nasty accident.” Byron gave an exaggerated pout.
“That’s ok! You don’t have to share. We have more important things to do. Come, come!” he grabbed her hand and pulled her through the door she was just outside of, and into the room.
It felt even gloomier than it looked inside of it as he pulled her along. There was the smell of rubber gloves and depression - if the feeling had a scent.
“What are you doing with all of this blood….” she couldn’t help ask.
“What am I- What am I doing with it?" Byron pondered this as if questioning the question itself. "Dear girl, how old do I look?”
“If you had to guess, how old would you say that I am?”
“Mid-twenties, perhaps? That would be a good guess, but I am actually 94.”
Sophie looked at him, even more confused.
“And that,” he gestured back towards the room full of sick-looking Guardians as the two of them made their way through a passage in the back of it, “is why my body does not reflect it.”
“What are you saying?”
“IMMORTALITY!” Byron exclaimed. “We can achieve what they do, if we posses their blood! It unfortunately does not last long, so we must get lots and lots!” he clapped his hands together with excitement.
She wasn’t sure if she believed him, but she wasn’t sure of anything these days if she was being totally honest with herself. Her ruby red slippers still hadn’t arrived, and there was no sign of Oz.
“But what about them? It looks like half of them are about to pass out, let alone live while being sucked dry.” Sophie was nauseous.
“Ah, yes… that is an… unfortunate expense.”
..Expense? Sophie felt the urge to punch this guy in the face. This kind of cruelty was appalling, but she wasn't in the position to do anything about it. She didn't know what Byron was truly capable of, and he was clearly insane.
They were in the back room of the so-appearing infirmary now. It looked like an emergency room where one might go to have surgery done, with the wide table, fancy tools, and technology. And it seemed so familiar.
The look of déjà vu on her face must have been obvious, because Byron said, “Having trouble remembering? Don’t worry, nothing bad will happen this time.” Then he winked at her.
When she said nothing, he motioned for her to have a seat on the table; and for the simple reason of fear, she obeyed. Byron looked at her curiously. He twisted his head and squinted his beady eyes. “Why is it,” Byron stroked an appalling finger down the side of her cheek, “That you can bend time when you are stagnant?”
Still quiet, Sophie could only sneer at his pasty skin and skeletal face as it examined her.
Yet another man came through a different entrance than the one they just emerged from, followed by some kind of white troll. It appeared to be the size of an infant, but could walk on its own. The Guardian, for Sophie once again had no doubt that that is what it was, seemed to be wearing a white pantsuit and a green dome covered half of its head.
“This is our wonderful friend, Ralts,” Byron stated, gesturing toward the creature. “We’re gonna see if we can find what we couldn’t get to last time.” He nodded.
But her eyes went cloudy. Ralts was floating mid-air before her in an instant and pressing soft ivory hands into her temples. She was sent far away from the room she was actually in. A flurry of memories swept by, and she could do nothing but watch them go. It felt like something was blocking her off from herself, and trapping her in an invisible bubble.
Sophie could feel the dream-like memories slipping away to somewhere that wasn’t back into her mind. She tried to resist, but there was no tread in the giant invisible bubble. She watched as Finn spoke of her family, as Maverick told her she was a Shaper, as she first learned of the Guardians…
Stop it… stop
There was the taxi, the first time to the base, the arena, the library, all of the people she had began to call friends… A dark tunnel swirled around her, guiding her to one destination. She was in the alleyway again, the one covered with litter and trash. She noticed this time however that the waste was not actual garbage. Random objects were scattered everywhere: an old blanket that very vaguely reminded her of one she dragged around as a child, a pink tricycle with sparkly streamers and a gimp wheel that seemed to be an exact replica of her first bike, a stained book that she remembered having read to her every night before bed... This alley seemed like a dump for all of her old memories.
Her body strode forward against her will, towards that trap door that led to the Shapers' base. She had this intense feeling that what lie inside of it here, however, held an answer to an ominous question. A question, perhaps, that was not meant to be answered. Not yet. But she couldn't will herself to stop. Her limbs swung forward, her arms reached down to the latch, her fingers wrapped around the handle...
“ENOUGH!” she yelled. Didn’t she? Was that throaty scream really coming from her tiny lungs?
A heavy pulse of blue energy crashed through the room from the origin of her voice. The Ralts, was sent flying back against the wall, along with its Shifter comrades - its tap to her mind severed. The cart that held the small utensils flipped over in the wave, sending everything crashing loudly against the ceramic tiled floor. The two bodies of the Shifters and the little Ralts lie unconscious on the floor when the azure aura faded.
Disoriented, Sophie looked around for any sign of the source of the blue energy. Had it really come from her? She didn’t formulate a plan, she didn’t really think at all, but she did leap from the table and run out of the room.
On the other side of the door were all the Guardians. She stopped suddenly. They were all looking at her, albeit, weak and pale gazes, but they seemed expectant somehow. As if they knew something she didn’t. The nurse was nowhere to be found, and without thinking, Sophie raced around to all the tables and started pulling out IVs, untying restraints, and breaking buckles. Soon, the majority of them were freed and were scampering off to what Sophie hoped was safety.
She then rest her eyes upon the final few still trapped. There was the strange-looking pink one with the long tongue still trapped in its kennel, and a lump of dull brown fur beside that crate which Sophie didn’t need to examine to confirm that whatever it had been had already passed on. And chained nearby to the wall…
“Hey…” Sophie said softly, approaching the giant grey wolf. “When did you get here?” She kicked at the bolt connecting the chain around the Guardian to the wall, then realized it would probably be more effective to remove the collar it was attached to instead.
Everything was made of metal, even the buckle. She shook it frustrated, forgetting the animal could be potentially dangerous, and threw her face in her hands. “I don’t know how to get this off. And I don’t even know how to get out of here even if I did… I don’t know jack.” The creature promptly perked its ears and tilted its head at her curiously. She felt like crying suddenly, this must stress couldn’t be healthy.
“Who’s in there?! What’s going on?!” voices and hurried footsteps could be heard from the hall. Sophie wished she had ran when she had the chance.
Three large men entered the twisted infirmary, all looking like night club bouncers with their tight black shirts and large pectorals that were bigger than even Sophie’s. The nurse she had seen earlier was cowering behind them, trying to angle herself to have a better view between the gaps in their towering tree-trunk bodies.
The wolf started to growl.
“You!” One of the bouncers yelled to the Guardian, his bald head reflecting light like a mirror. “Go round up the others.” He walked over, reached down, and snapped off the collar with a flip of his hand. Then, stuck the dog’s pelt with a taser that he must have gotten off of his belt. The creature yelped at the electricity frying its skin.
The other two men were herding Sophie into a corner. She backed away slowly, eyes darting for any openings she could run through - there were none. The claustrophobic panic of having no escape began to set in, but it was interrupted by the other guard hollering in pain. The wolf had him by the arm and was sinking its teeth deeper with the man's every writhe.
“JACK. RELEASE HIM AT ONCE,” one of the guards spoke, enraged. Both of Sophie’s pursuers turned away, distracted, and went to assist their colleague, whose arm was gradually turning into ground beef.
She wanted to run the minute the opening came, but…
Idoit, idiot, idiot… She regretted the decision before she ever made it.
Sophie lunged at one of the men, grabbing him around the neck from behind with some kind of piggy-back maneuver, just as he was reaching to unclip his own taser from his belt. She was a chipmunk picking a fight with a rhinoceros, and resorted to gauging into his eye sockets with her fingers as he flailed about.
“AAAGH! You little bitch!” He slammed his back into the closest wall, causing her to crumple and fall to the ground. She was certain she heard a crack somewhere in her ribcage when the guy squashed her between the two rock-hard surfaces. He immediately whirled around to face her body, winded and dazed on the ground, and shoved his taser into her shoulder.
It felt like getting stabbed by a thousand nails simultaneously. Her eyes watered and she screamed.
“WHAT ARE YOU DOING?” It was Byron’s voice. He stumbled from the operation room, wincing and holding his head. “What is the matter with you?! Why would you use that on her, you will damage her memories!”
“I- sorry, Sir.” The body guard lowered his weapon.
Sophie kicked him in the shin.
With a groan, she leapt up and whirled around to face the newest addition to the chaos, holding a hand in front of her as if that was somehow intimidating.
“How- what did you do? You were given the serum, you can’t access your powers….” Byron seemed to be talking more to himself than her. He also kept blinking hysterically as though he could hardly see where he was.
The wolf, whom Sophie assumed now was named Jack, was making quick work of his two-on-one scenario. The first victim was cowering on the ground, clutching his chewed up arm like it was about to fall off. And the second, had a large gash in his leg that was starting to seep blood into his jeans. He held out his taser warningly, but his eyes were wide, and he was clearly debating whether or not he should run away.
Sophie grabbed a syringe off a counter a flung it at the guard, where it managed to lodge itself into the back of his neck. He screeched.
It was all the distraction Jack needed. He tackled him to the ground and ripped into the side of his face.
“Just run!” Sophie screamed at him. Byron was somehow on his knees now, still clutching his skull, even though he hadn’t been involved in the mauling. He must not have really recovered from the strange blue blast of energy that had first rendered him unconscious, even though he was now awake.
Jack looked up at her at the sound of her voice, and started sprinting in her direction. Sophie was sure she was next in line for his attack.
She had a moment to wince before she realized the wolf ran right past her and out the door. Then he stopped, as soon as he realized she wasn’t following. He tilted his huge head to the side again, questioning her as if to say ‘Aren’t you coming?’.
Relieved, she smiled briefly at the animal. But first, she made a few quick strides to the kennel with the pink, tongue-y Guardian inside of it. Sophie pinched open the gate of it, and pulled the creature out. Its body was chubby and it clumsily tried to assist her efforts, but it seemed extremely dazed. She took it by the hand and drug it along after her as it waddled laboriously to keep up.
Sophie ran after the wolf who was still waiting anxiously in the hallway. Nothing else crossed her mind other than escaping from this building. Distant voices were yelling as the girl and the two Guardians sprinted through several hallways and up a flight of stairs. She’d have never managed to find her way through the building without that wolf leading the way.
The three of them were making quick work of the grungy hallways. The chaos that followed a dozen Guardians rampaging throughout the building was enough to provide a significantly effective distraction. They were only stopped once, by two more men. But, at least these looked average. No towering height, or buldging muscles - just two medium built guys with shaggy brown hair and casual clothing.
Jack did something really weird to them, and he didn’t even stop running to do it. Everything in the area turned dim, and darkness was sucked into a tiny ball of energy forming inside of his mouth. It looked like he was collecting shadows… With a howl, he sent the orb flying towards the duo, and it knocked them back as easily as a pair of dominoes. He didn’t even pause to glance at the wreckage, he just leapt over them and continued his escape.
Sophie was beginning to have a hard time keeping up. They had only been running for mere minutes, but it felt like someone was stabbing her lungs with every left stride. The fat pink creature now seemed in better shape than she was. She no longer guided its wobbly steps with her hand, it was running all on its own. She pushed herself now as hard as she could, and luckily, Jack smashed through a wooden paneled door that had been recently nailed over.
Stars. They were outside. A crisp wind bit at her sweaty cheeks as it passed. She was so dizzy. She stumbled forward a few steps, trying to slow herself down after such fast running, but she was too fatigued and ended up collapsing onto the grass. Pure, un-cut grass. She wanted to fall asleep so badly.
The chubby pink Guardian didn't wait for her to get back up, it continued jogging off into the night, dragging its massive tongue behind it.
The distant voices were getting louder. Sophie knew she hadn’t escaped yet, but she couldn’t find the strength to pick herself back up. Hot breath touched the back of her neck, and she felt jaws grip the back of her shirt. Claws tread into the hard soil, and Jack drug Sophie’s exhausted body behind some brush and into a ditch behind a small thicket of trees. That’s all she could see of it at least.
The voices were really loud now, as she lie uselessly in fetal position. She pressed into her side to dull the pain screaming from it. The voices were shouting to each other, and splitting up. But, suddenly, everything went quiet. Completely quiet. Not even the wind blew. She felt an ever so faint vibration coming form Jack, who was now crouched beside her, watching whatever was happening between the trees. It almost felt as if they were beneath a force field.
She didn’t think about it at all, however. Because the moment she felt the slightest bit of safety, her body did not allow her to stay awake any longer.
The sunlight burned through her eyelids, when dawn broke. They were so accustomed to darkness that the world seemed too bright. Sophie startled awake. She rose to her feet and looked around.
There was the building she’d just escaped from. It looked even older on the outside than it did on the inside. Windows were shattered or boarded up; bricks were worn and crumbled with age. And in fact, the look of abandonment was so thorough, it almost seemed staged. Not a person was in sight, and she’d never believe anyone was inside had she not just been there herself.
She was standing about fifty yards from the very back of the building, and from there she could see only inches of the road it fell on. Whatever city this was, this must be the most ghetto part of it, because as she raised her hand to her brow to increase her line of vision, she noticed that this wasn’t the only building that looked like it hadn’t been inhabited for a good thirty years.
A noise behind her made Sophie jump. She turned and saw Jack scratching behind his ear with his hind leg, and sitting in nearly the same exact spot as she remembered.
“Still here, are you?” the thankful teenager asked. “Do you need help getting home?”
The wolf seemed to sigh, the strands of his fur rising and falling with the depressed breath. He glanced towards the prison to which they just escaped from.
Sophie knelt down, and hesitant for a moment, gave him a stroke on the head.
Do they find being pet to be condescending? she wondered. But, the dog subtly pushed his head even farther into her hand.
It took a few minutes to decide which direction to go, but Sophie wound up wading through the rest of the weedy brush behind the Shifter base and emerged on the other side of the block, with Jack loping behind her. This end didn’t look too well-off economically either, but at least the run-down houses on this end looked like they were lived in.
They walked the sidewalk for a good quarter hour before finally spotting a taxi car cruising by. Sophie excitedly threw up her hand to get the driver’s attention. And instantly regretted it. The familiar pain seared down her side, and she buckled over.
Luckily, the driver had spotted her regardless. He stopped and rolled down the rear window. “Are you alright, miss? Did you need a cab?”
“Yes….” she groaned, slowly walking forward.
“Wait,” the driver said, his face hidden beneath the canopy of the car’s hub. “It costs extra for pets.” He stared at Jack, who was waiting patiently beside her.
“Ok. Whatever…” and she climbed inside, the canine following behind her.
After she managed to pull the door shut, the driver asked, “So where are we headed?”
“Er, where are we exactly?”
The driver arched an eyebrow, and Sophie couldn’t blame him. She also just noticed what she looked like in the rear-view mirror. She had a massive bruise along her left cheek bone and her hair looked like it had been electrocuted. Then she remembered that it actually had.
What the heck am I wearing?
Some kind of white scrub shirt that was a size too big for her found itself on her torso, and she didn’t remember putting on these jean shorts that she was sure weren’t even in her wardrobe…
“Staten Island.” The driver looked back toward the road ahead of him, his bronze skin catching bits of light as trees passed by overhead.
Sophie gave him directions to Finn’s house, then changed them to Maverick’s shop, then changed them again to the end of Thirteenth street, where the entrance to the Shaper base lie. She knew she probably sounded like she belonged in a hospital, but she didn’t care. All she could think about was getting somewhere familiar.
“So what kind of dog is that?” her latino driver asked, probably trying to force a conversation through the silence he may have deemed to be uncomfortable.
The man chuckled under his breath, then turned around for a brief glance at the animal. “Looks like a poodle to me," he said in a tone that was completely serious.
Sophie turned to Jack, and mouthed ‘Really? A poodle?’, with an amused grin. She was sure her companion rolled his wolfy eyes. Did normal people really see a poodle when they looked at Jack? She couldn't help but laugh under breath that this menacing-looking Guardian appeared to be such a fruity breed to the world outside of time-bending.
That’s when a newspaper left on the seat beside her caught her attention. At the very top of it, read: Monday, July 28th.
I have been there for 13 days… It was almost double what she had originally been under the impression of.
It took all of an hour to drive to the end of a certain alley way, where Sophie, followed by Jack, promptly jumped from the vehicle after promising to return with pay. She reveled in the familiar preposterous scent of puke and molded milk festering in a porta-John as she made her way to the trap door.
Jack seemed to gallop after her as she scurried from one room to the other in the underground labyrinth.
Where is everyone?
Finally she made it to the recovery room she had last seen Finn in. Surely he would be there…
And he was. The moment she entered, he spun around, expressing a dozen undecipherable emotions and immediately smothered her with a giant bear hug.
“Ow…” she squeaked.
“Are you okay?” he gave a look of deep concern, but didn’t wait for her to respond. “Where have you been? We have been looking everywhere for you! We thought you were-” it was then Finn noticed the giant wolf in the room.
“That’s-” Sophie started to say.
But Finn wasn’t listening. Rage glazed his eyes, and in a moment he flipped his pocket knife and was a half second from plunging it in the Guardian’s charcoal hide.
“STOP.” Sophie threw herself in front of him. “WHAT ARE YOU DOING?”
“That thing is what attacked me!” Finn spat, his face red as a ripe tomato. “What on earth is it doing here?!” Flustered, he tried to shove his niece out of the way.
“That thing saved my life!”
Finn stopped abruptly, and suddenly, very calmly, asked, “What..?”
“I think you should sit down,” Sophie suggested. Just now realizing how impressive it was that Finn was even walking. She could see the pattern of bandages pressing through his shirt, and slight fatigue betraying him in his eyes.
For some reason, he obliged, and Sophie proceeded to tell him everything she remembered from the moment she saw him last.
Finn said nothing for the entire time that Sophie relived her experience with Shifters, and most of the time, he didn’t even look at her. He folded his hands over his knees, slouching, and stared blankly at the floor. He did furrow his eyebrows when she told him about getting smashed into a wall and shocked by the taser-like weapon, then interrupted her entirely when she told him about not being able to hide without Jack’s help.
“Wait, you are injured?” Finn asked, almost angrily.
“I… I’m not sure,” she said, a bit confused after stopping her previous train of thought.
“Let me see,” her uncle told her while he nodded once in her direction.
Reluctantly, Sophie lifted her shirt just over the left half of her ribs. It was entirely black and blue, and there was a disturbing bulge where a rib should have been flat. It looked worse than she’d thought.
Finn’s eyes widened, and he stood abruptly. “I’m getting the nurse.” And he left.
While he was gone, Sophie watched Jack sleep. He was curled up like a kitten right beside her chair. Now that the adrenaline was beginning to wear off, she noticed that his grey and black fur was all matted and there were clumps of dried blood in various places, which made her wonder if it was his or if it was from one of the men he attacked. She hoped he wasn’t injured as well.
A few minutes later, Sophie heard familiar sounds drawing near. Most notably was Finn’s, and the other were the strange ramblings of Maverick.
“Ah, there she is,” Maverick sighed with relief, and held her face in his hands. He tilted it left a right, inspecting it, then mumbled some more incoherence under his breath.
Sophie looked to Finn, puzzled.
“He’s been watching the future for you.”
Finn didn’t need to explain, Sophie understood how difficult it was for Maverick to access his abilities, and even then, they were almost impossible to organize. It was a wonder that Maverick hadn’t gone completely insane.
The nurse, Mary, entered then. She wasn’t really a nurse, everyone just called her that because she was the only person in the base with any medical knowledge. She was actually just the wife of a Shaper named Charlie, and she dropped out of medical school when the two of them married and moved to New York.
“Alright, let’s see what we have here.” Mary crouched beside Sophie and examined her abdomen. “Well, you’ve definitely broken a rib, possibly two, but I don’t think it’s any more serious than that. I’d suggest not doing too much for a few weeks. This looks pretty nasty.” She discussed some more details for a few minutes, before resetting the obvious broken bone. The pain for that split second of it getting re-placed was intense enough that Sophie tried not to remember it ever again.
“What about Jack?” Sophie asked.
“Who?” Then the nurse saw the dog lying beside them on the floor, who was now awake and watching the group intently. “Ah, well look what we have here! I’ve only seen one of these once before, and it was in Colorado.” She kneeled beside Jack, and stroked him admiringly along his spine.
“What is he?” the young girl wondered aloud, holding her newly bandaged ribcage gently.
“Well,” the nurse answered, examining the wolf’s bones with her hands while checking for lesions. “From what I have read, he is a Mightyena. Very loyal Guardians; they bond strongly and to usually only one companion - ever.” She held his massive head in both of her palms, and spread open his eyelids. “Well, he’s perfectly healthy. Whatever injuries he may have had are all healed up by now. Could probably use some food though…and a bath. Don’tcha, handsome?” she concluded happily, then ruffled his fur. Mary put her hands on her hips as if to ask 'anything else?', and when Finn simply thanked her, she left.
“So what are we going to do?” Sophie asked a few moments later to the two men in the room.
“We aren’t going to do anything,” Finn responded. “You are going to go get some rest while we,” he pointed to himself and Maverick, “figure out what this means.”
Sophie was annoyed, as usual, but this time she couldn’t argue. She was ridiculously tired, after all. “Fine…” was all she managed to reply.
“Hey, where are your glasses?” Finn asked, just now noticing that Sophie wasn’t wearing any.
Sophie felt her face. “I- I don’t know.” She hadn’t even realized they were missing, her vision was perfectly clear.
“Hm,” Maverick looked puzzled as well. “When’s the last time you remember having them?”
Sophie couldn’t quite remember this either. She realized they were probably gone the entire time she was being held captive. “I think the last time I was here actually…”
“You can see clearly without them right now, can’t you.” Maverick seemed like he knew something she didn’t.
“I’ve never heard of anyone regaining impaired senses when the gene activated,” Finn commented to Maverick.
“We’ve never heard of a Stag Shaper either, have we now?” the old man puffed.
"I told you some giant blue force thingy kaboom-ed out of me, and you guys are worried about my glasses?" Sophie narrowed an eyebrow.
Finn didn‘t say anything, he only shrugged and looked at the eldest of the three curiously. “We need to go get word out to the others that you are safe,” he said back to Sophie after a minute. “Almost everyone has been out trying to find you. This-er…Jack… should follow us as well, they have food in the nursery.” And with that, Finn, Maverick and Jack started to leave too.
"Wait," Sophie asked as Maverick, and then Jack had scampered through the door. "Uncle Finn, can I talk to you for one more minute?" Finn nodded at Maverick to go ahead without him, letting the old man escort Jack to the nursery by himself.
Finn turned in the doorway, and headed a few more steps back towards his niece. "Sup, Soph?"
"I have just been wondering something...about my father." She warily pushed a strand of hair behind her ear. "He didn't die in a car crash either, did he..."
"Ah," Finn said sympathetically with a small sigh, then moved to sit back down in a nearby chair. "No... he didn't"
This information didn't surprise her. "Would you tell me what happened?"
"I suppose it's unfair to you to continue to keep you in the dark, isn't it," Finn voiced in the tone of a statement. He nervously rubbed his forehead. "Abram...he was murdered. Only a few years after you were born."
Sophie couldn't say anything even if she had the words pieced together inside of her mind. Murdered?
"He was a stubborn, and iron-willed man. Your mother's death...it really shook him up, Soph. He had a hard time being around you even though he loved you more than anything in the world..." Finn trailed off, and stared into empty space for a moment. "He became obsessed with the Timekeeper. He researched and researched and scoured every source known on the planet and some that even we didn't even know about then... he thought if he found Him, he could convince Him to take him back in time to save her. But there was no saving her, Soph... it was no one's fault. It was just...life. No amount of reasoning could convince your father of that, though. Abram worked himself to the bone despite everything."
Sophie sat herself down on a chair next to Finn's, and still said nothing. Blood seemed to drain from his face because it was becoming increasingly pale as he relived the memory.
"The Shifters..." Finn said through gritted teeth. "They became aware of his mad obsession, and somehow came to the assumption that he knew where the Timekeeper was - in retrospect, I suppose now we know why they were so intrigued. They tried to get him to spill, and when he wouldn't, they killed him...Fucking weasel Byron distracted him while that leader of theirs aged him a hundred years..."
"Byron?" Sophie blurted out in shock and rage. She had been inches away from the lunatic less than a day ago. Nausea plummeted into her stomach at the thought of that bastard cowering on the perverted excuse for an infirmary's floor. Oh how she wished she could go back in time, herself, and give him a hefty kick in the grown.
Finn shared more about her father's past with Sophie before the day ended. She had never seen him so heated before; what happened those dozen years ago really affected him, and Sophie was empathetic to the fact that he lost his sister and his best friend over the course of a few years. The reasoning of it also made her feel guilty.
Something about knowing the truth finally, however, gave the young girl peace. She'd believed their stories before, but the vagueness and inconsistencies of them always felt wrong and off. She wished more than anything that she had her parents here to guide her, and show her the ways of this new world she'd been exposed to, but at least in knowing the truth, it gave her drive and determination to make them proud.
Sophie healed relatively quickly. It was only a week before she could lift her arms above her head again, and in two, she felt almost unhindered entirely.
It was a nice feeling finding out how much everyone was worried about her, but it made her feel guilty at the same time. Almost every person she had ever met since the time she'd found out she was a Shaper had come to visit her at least once during her recovery. Including Brinny, it was unusual of her if she didn’t stop by at least once every day.
“So I hear you have your own Guardian now. Nice going, Champ!” Brinny had said the moment she’d entered Sophie’s room for the first time.
Sophie almost choked on her Ramen noodles. “What?”
“That Mightyena, who looks awfully out of place in the nursery. They say he’s yours.” Brinny had a huge grin on her face. “You know what this means? We can spar now!”
“Spar? What- he’s not ‘mine’. He was just… a prisoner too. He helped me get out.”
“Oh no, he is most definitely yours,” Brinny responded a soft giggle. “They’re having a hard time keeping them in there, he keeps breaking out trying to get to your room.”
Sophie pondered this for a minute.
“Though, in all honesty,” Brinny continued. “I think he thinks you are his, heh. Never seen one so attached, and definitely not this soon.”
“I still don’t see how that- I thought I had to do some kind of dual with one before that could happen,” Sophie puzzled.
“Guess he doesn’t care. So how are ya feeling?” Brinny sat at the foot of Sophie’s bed.
“Well, finish your food, and hurry up with this getting-better thing. I’m bored out of my mind and could use a study buddy.”
“Hah, well alright.”
The girl patted Sophie’s shin once and got up to leave.
“Yeah?” she answered, turning around.
Brinny only smiled, then turned back to the hallway and disappeared into it.
After a few days, Finn agreed to let them allow Jack into Sophie’s room while she healed. Half because he decided the wolf was not a real threat after all, and half because some of the caretakers were threatening to kick him out of the nursery because he was being so difficult. Sophie explained multiple times that the Shifters were controlling Jack with a shock collar, but she understood Finn’s hostility. After all, Sophie had witnessed how dangerous Jack could really be. She wondered why she wasn’t nervous around him herself, but for some reason, whenever Jack was nearby, she felt completely safe.
It wasn’t long before Sophie felt well enough to venture the halls again, with the ever-present company of her wolfy companion.
“Ah, Sophie!” Nelson called to her one day as she passed by his laboratory. “C’mere, I’ve made something for you.”
The teenager arched an eyebrow and walked in.
Nelson held a blue orb in his hand. He smirked as he buffed it with a worn rag and held it out. “I made this for you.”
“You made me a Compass?!” Sophie said excitedly, genuinely touched, and took it from him.
Nelson awkwardly scratched the back of his neck, with a warm smile on his face. “It took me a little a while to get Jack’s coding right, I’ve never made one for a Mightyena before.”
“It’s beautiful!” The sphere was more blue than Nelson’s eyes, and there was a thick black stripe down the middle. “What do say? Wanna give it a try?” she knelt next to Jack, and held the Compass in front of him.
At first, Jack only tilted his head to the side while he looked at it, but then he pressed a wet nose on the button and was swept inside in a quick flash of red light.
“That is so cool,” Sophie remarked. “Do you think he likes it?”
“Well, he hasn’t come back out yet. That’s a good sign.”
Almost as if he just wanted to spite Nelson, Jack reappeared from the ball in a cherry flash, wagging his tail and almost grinning.
“Haha, well, I guess he likes it out with you more.” Nelson gave the wolf-dog a happy pat on the head. “Welp, I’m off to lunch.”
“Thanks again!” Sophie called after him, and watched him flick a wave with his hand as he rounded the corner of the doorway.
Later that week, Sophie started practicing with her powers again. Whatever the Shifters had done to block them from her had long worn off, and she could actually feel them inside of her now that she knew what it felt like to be without them. When she concentrated hard enough, she almost felt like they were bubbling up inside her - like swallowed carbonated soda.
She’d also finally gotten the hang of that ‘happy medium’ thing that Brinny had been harping her about: the state of mind where you are thinking about everything and nothing at the same. She often wondered if she would have ever found it at all, if she hadn’t found it on accident the first time that she saw the future on purpose.
“Ace of hearts, two of clubs, Queen of spades, and eight of clubs,” Sophie said positively, and watched Brinny flip over the four face-down cards on the table between them.
“Aaaand right again,” Brinny confirmed after the last card was revealed, unsurprised. “Seems you don’t even have to try anymore with these.”
“It still takes a bit of effort.” Sophie smirked at her lie; Brinny was right.
“Have you tried chaining yet?” Finn’s question startled the both of them. Neither had realized he’d even entered the kitchen where they sat doing these Sight drills.
“You think she’s ready for that?” Brinny questioned, sticking her tongue out at Sophie.
“Chaining?” Sophie asked, ignoring the friendly jibe. “You mean like, watch the future while watching the future?” She remembered Finn telling her about how he was able to slow time for a few moments while he was already slowing it, allowing him to extend how long he could keep the power going at once.
“Yeah, I think you might be able to pull it off. That is, as long as you realize you are seeing the future at the time you are watching it.” Finn picked up the deck of cards. “How far do you go, Soph?”
“I’m not exactly sure…I think it is around seven seconds.”
“Okay. When you feel you are at the end of the vision, around the fifth or sixth second, try going in again. You will feel resistance, because its not a natural-given ability. Chaining is forcing your mind to expand what it already knows, and the longer you chain, the harder it becomes to hold.” Finn started flippin cards onto the table.
Realizing what he was doing, Sophie pulled the plastic wrap off her brain and watched. He was now five cards in. Six. Seven. Eight. And now he was back at the beginning again. No chain. She tried a few more times, but before she knew it, Finn had finished flipping the cards. There was nothing to watch anymore.
“It’s too short.” Sophie shook her head, defeated. “By the time I realize what I am seeing, and attempt to go farther, I am already back to the present.”
“Well, I am sure it will take practice.” Finn gave her a reassuring smile. “Gives you something else to work on at least, now that these little games provide no stimulation anymore, eh?” Her uncle gave her a push on the shoulder.
“I suppose.” Sophie grinned and sighed simultaneously.
“Aww, come on! Really Rotom?!” Finn had opened the burnt-orange tinted refrigerator and held a soggy sandwich in his hand. The freezer portion appeared to be leaking water directly onto the area that his lunch was resting.
The machine seemed to chuckle, then drooped as though feigning remorse.
“Why don’t you ever mess up Sophie’s food?!” Finn questioned, half teasingly, before angrily shutting Rotom’s door and stomping out of the room.
Sophie gave a wink of approval to the mechanical Guardian.
Now that he was allowed to roam around with Sophie almost whenever he pleased, Jack was beginning to enjoy himself whenever he was in the nursery. It was a strange experience for the wolf at first, and if Sophie admitted it, he did look exceptionally out of place. Most of the Guardians who resided there were the small sort. A little electric lamb, small lizards and rabbit-looking creatures, a lot of rodent-classed animals had they been native to our world, and even something that looked as though it were crafted from pink wood. Then there was Jack: a giant wolf-dog that stood almost three feet tall at the shoulders, with a scruffy dark coat and menacing eyes. He appeared as though any of the creatures in the nursery would be a daily part of his balanced diet.
But, something interesting about Guardians was that appearances mattered so little; it was almost as though they didn't even possess the ability to judge. All of the animals started growing attached to Jack, and portrayed nothing to suggest that he looked any different from them at all.
Sophie once spotted a Teddiursa (a tiny brown bear-like Guardian with a crescent moon shaped into its brow) perched upon Jack’s shoulders when he thought no one was watching. He promptly nudged the cub off his back with his muzzle, letting it fall with a thump to the soft grass of the nursery floor once he saw his human companion looking.
The teenager laughed at the human-like personality of an obnoxious older brother, and called in to him. “Would you like to try out this training-thing with Brinny, you bully?”
The wolf strode over to the girl with wide, flowing steps and leapt over the half-door at the nursery’s entrance. He was the only one in there able to perform the feat, or his bad example would have caused a lot of trouble for the caretakers.
The pair of them made their way down the passageways to the arena right inside the entrance of the base. She’d passed through here many times before, but she hadn’t actually used it. The lights were so bright, they almost hurt her eyes, and the reflection of them off of the polished wood didn’t help much. But, at least the vision of the area they provided was almost flawless.
Brinny sat on a bench beside the court waiting, and stood the moment she saw them enter. Her short black hair was swept to the side today, looking much calmer than it usually did.
A sleek reptile stood clutched to her shin. It couldn’t be more than a foot tall, and its flaming tail waved back and forth with anticipation.
“How about we take a bit to let your guy show us what he can do, huh?” Brinny suggested. She moved herself out of the way and nodded at Jack to concede.
Jack sauntered to the middle of the arena, and stopped at the center. He tilted his head at Sophie. She was beginning to understand his head-tilts as if they were words.
“Go ahead,” she said.
The first thing Jack showed them was something Sophie had already seen before. The wolf narrowed his eyes and let his jaw hang agape, where a deep violet orb began growing inside. The lights of the room flickered and dimmed slightly, until suddenly, the orb went flying at the wall behind them where it burst.
“I’ve seen this before…” Brinny commented, slightly surprised. “Maverick’s Spiritomb can perfom this as well. It’s called a Shadow Ball. It’s supposed to be pretty powerful.”
“He used this when we were escaping from... it seemed much stronger then.” Sophie gave a fragmented remark.
“Probably because it was,” Brinny said. “It absorbs shadows and darkness as energy. And as you can see, there is not much of that in here.”
For the next few minutes, Jack displayed an assortment of dashes, lunges, tackles, and jumps that were far from the physics of this realm. Towards the end, he let out a howl so loud, Sophie could have sworn that even the walls were shaking. And lastly, he produced a wave of dark energy that turned the entire room black for a moment. They would come to discover that this was referred to as a Dark Pulse.
“I never knew something like him could create these abilities. I had always assumed only the more ghostly paranormal types could pull them off, but there’s no arguing with proof. I suppose I should be spending more time in the library, huh?” Brinny elbowed Sophie playfully in the ribs. “Oh! I’m so sorry!” she added, realizing what she had just done.
“Ah, hah, don’t worry about it. It doesn’t hurt at all anymore; I’m perfectly fine,” Sophie reassured her.
“Well how about we spar a bit,” the darker haired girl stated, rather than asked.
The two of them went to opposite sides of the arena with each of their other-worldly companions, and before Sophie had even processed a thought, a great blast of fire came barreling toward them.
“Charmander! Let’s start off with a Flamethrower, girl!” Brinny had yelled.
The cyclone of flames spiraled from the lizard‘s mouth. The room went hot and the red and orange hues lapped angrily. Jack seemed just as caught off guard as his partner was, because he took the entire force of the inferno to the face.
Sophie’s heart dropped. Heat at that intensity would sear the skin right off his body. To her surprise, however, once the blast had ceased and the embers had settled, Jack was…perfectly intact. His fur was not singed and he stood as though the flames were only a mild disturbance.
“Their abilities don’t physically harm one another,” Brinny called from across the way, as if reading her mind. “At least, no more than a mild punch would. They more or less sap each other’s energy until one of the two cannot continue.”
For a while, the two Guardians traded blows - the Charmander spitting fire and the Mightyena using darkness. Then, the fight turned physical, and a series of scratches, bites, and tackles were thrown around.
Sophie had originally thought the idea unfair, considering Brinny’s Charmander looked so quiet and harmless compared to Jack’s intimidating figure. But there the reptile was, digging her claws into her opponent’s hide and sending scalding hot breath into the wolf’s eyes. With a yelp, Jack somehow managed to twist his head far enough around to wrap his fangs around the Charmander’s tail, and launch her into the air. The smaller creature dropped with an unsatisfying clunk, and shook her head. Then, she sprung herself back at her dark nemesis with more motivation than before.
The pair of them wrestled for what seemed like a long while before, exhausted, they eventually stopped picking themselves off of the wooden floor. Sophie only smiled at the heavy satisfied breaths they took, that must have been the other-world's version of a dog panting.
Brinny came back over to Sophie’s side of the arena, looking pleased with herself. “I think they enjoyed that, yeah?”
“Looks that way,” Sophie remarked as she gazed at the ruffled fur of Jack and the sweaty skin of Charmander lying side by side. The active scene she had been watching earlier was now reduced to the synchronized snoring of two very worn out Guardians.
"Ohhhh, no. No. No. NO."
Sophie was in the nursery playing with Jack and some of the other Guardians when she heard Finn's voice coming from down the hallway. She quickly made her way around the door to see what was happening outside.
Maverick was standing against the wall, clearly laughing, but hiding it with his hand. And Finn was... desperately trying to escape from a large pink, dumpy creature that was waddling after him with open arms.
"What is this thing?! Why are you standing there watching?! Get it off of me, Mav!" Finn juked the thing with an impressive spin, and the motion forced it to trip over its own tongue - which hung out of its mouth and all the way down to the floor.
Maverick laughed a little bit louder. "It's a Lickitung, and I think it likes you, boy."
"A what? Where the heck did it even come from? It followed me down here when I came back from the apartment...UGH!" In the time it took him to say those first few sentences, the Lickitung had gotten up and happily wiped its large tongue all the way up the side of Finn's body. A thick coat of slobber was left behind in its place.
Sophie couldn't help but laugh at this, herself. She made her way toward them, and said "I think...I think he is one of the Guardians that I set free when Jack and I broke out of the Shifters' place. It sure does look him."
"YOU." Finn breathed at his niece, spinning wildly around to face her. Then, he looked at the Lickitung again. "See? She saved you. Go to her! Gooo. Go on." He tried to shoo the thing away like a baby, but it only answered him by wrapping its stubby arms around his leg. Finn tried to shake it off.
Agitated at this rude response to the kind gesture, the Lickitung reached its tongue upwards and slapped Finn in the face with it. Drool goo-ed into his auburn hair, and made it slop awkwardly to the side.
"Why you little..." Finn started, but then tackled the rosy Guardian to the cobble-stoned ground of the hallway. The two bodies rolled around for a while, wrestling and trying to get each other in a headlock. Until finally, Finn got the best of it, and finished the odd battle by sitting on its face. Maverick and Sophie cracked up the entire time. "Oh, you think this is funny, do you?" Finn glared at the both of them.
"Kinda, yeah," Sophie giggled.
Lickitung rolled himself out from underneath Finn's behind, and promptly gave the man a giant hug.
"I think you just proved yourself worthy of its servitude, you dolt," Maverick spoke after a raspy chuckle as well. "Looks like you got yourself a Guardian."
Finn looked down at the fat creature disgustingly, none too happy about his new-found companionship.
Two days later, Sophie was minding her own business by drawing graffiti on the entranceway walls. The stone passageway was just too welcoming for her chalk murals. She turned slimy dirt-covered stones into puffed clouds and then gouges and cracks along the bottom into a shallow river. She’d tried many times to create replications of the Guardians she had come to know along the walls, but her skills couldn’t turn that giant red blob into a dragon, nor could it make that black and grey disaster into Jack. So she kept herself to linear and inanimate objects while she swirled away at the stone.
“Ah, there you are.” Maverick’s footsteps echoed on the walls.
Sophie spun to face him, and quickly hid her hand that was grasping a piece of chalk behind her back. “Uh.. Hello!”
“Oh please, Soph,” Finn rounded the corner as well behind the older Shaper. “You think we assumed these sketches just magically appeared? No one cares if you chalk them.”
“Oh.” Sophie dropped her half-used purple piece into the box she had on the ground beside her. “Well, what’s up then?” she asked next, dusting the powder off of her hands, then awkwardly scratched behind her ear.
“This is probably better discussed somewhere….not here,” Maverick answered, then walked away. Finn shrugged and followed him.
Later, the three of them found themselves walking through the entrance of the library. Little was said apart from common casualties during the minute or so it took to get there. Clean stone walls arched into a dome, and a giant mahogany rug covered the majority of the floor.
Finn stopped when he reach the first isle of books, and leaned against the thick wooden case. “So we’ve been trying to decide what our next course of action is,” he said, folding his broad arms over his chest.
Maverick said nothing, but continued walking. He soon disappeared behind the fifth row of shelves.
“And?” Sophie asked. She stopped herself at the place where Finn was.
“Well, we’ve known about the Shifters using Guardian blood to prolong their life for some time now, and we think we’ve figured-”
“Wait, you knew? Why haven’t you done anything?!” Sophie argued, cutting her uncle off.
“Does it look like we’ve been sitting around eating doughnuts?” Finn responded, mildly annoyed. “Look around you, every day we are training, studying - we have a group scouring the city for their base of operations every day. Every time we find them, they move. It’s like they know we are coming.” Finn rubbed his face with a hand.
“So what have you figured, then?” Sophie tried to move the topic to his original train of though. She felt a bit bratty for questioning him.
“We think we’ve figured out what they are actually after.” Finn stopped leaning on the bookshelf and walked over to a small, square table near the entrance of the library then sat atop it. “See, Guardian blood only slows aging. By a massive amount, sure, but it doesn’t stop it altogether. They also have to constantly re-inject themselves with it because it wears off in less than 24 hours.”
“And how do you know this?” Sophie said, then regretted it immediately. She hoped she didn’t sound accusatory.
“We figured it out about twenty years ago. The Shifters hadn’t looked any different for decades. I’m honestly ashamed it took us as long to realize this as it had.” Finn stopped for a moment, appearing dazed, then continued. “But as I was saying, Maverick and I have come to the conclusion that they are after true immortality. And there is only one creature in this world that is truly immortal.”
“The Timekeeper…” Sophie whispered.
“Precisely.” Maverick had returned and plopped a thick leather book onto the table between them. “We need to find him before they do. At his weakened state, I’m not sure he could defend himself from an army of rabid Shifters and their mind-controlled pets.” The old man began to flip frantically through the pages of the book he had retrieved from the depths of the library.
“And how do you expect we do that?” Sophie inquired. “Hasn’t nobody seen him in like a seven hundred years?”
“No human has,” Finn added.
The teenager put two and two together relatively quickly. “You think a Guardian will know?”
“Not any Guardian. Most of them are mere descendants themselves, They were born on this earth just as you and I were. The Sleeping ones, however, they have been here since the beginning.” Finn stated.
Sophie remembered Maverick showing her the room tracking these so-called Sleeping Guardians. She remembered they weren’t really sleeping at all, they had just forgotten what they were.
The sound of ruffling pages stopped, and Maverick pushed the open book to the side of the table where Sophie stood. She peered down at it, and upon the marked page was a small inscription and a picture of a flute-like instrument.
“A Pohkay Flute. An instrument invented by the late Darius Weaver. It is said to have musical properties so vivid, that it can awaken any Guardian within ear shot. Whether sleeping, or trapped outside of their own memories, the music made from this apparatus can return the mind of a Guardian to its pure, awakened state.”
“You want to wake one of the Sleepers up with one of these?" she asked rhetorically. "Wait, I’ve seen this before…” Sophie commented, trying to jog her memory. The image was so familiar, even though it was sketched. The picture looked just like an average flute, but the music keys stuck out a little oddly. And the mouthpiece, instead of being a small slit at the head of it, more resembled a trumpet’s. It was a tiny protrusion that required pursed lips to get wind inside.
Finn smirked a bit, and said, “You have. There is one on display in the Museum of Natural History.”
“Okay… So what do I have to do with all of this?” Sophie asked bluntly.
“Well,” Maverick snapped the book shut and placed it in the crook of his arm. “We need you to help us steal it.”
The night of the theft came five days later. Sophie couldn’t help but feel giddy about being part of an actual heist. She annoyed everyone with James Bond quotes and puns the entire time they were suiting up.
“Do we get guns too?” Sophie asked, pulling on a pair black spandex leggings.
“Why- what the heck would we need guns for?” Finn bopped her on the back of the head. Then he stretched his hands into a pair of black leather gloves.
“You are one strange kid.” Nelson shook his head at her. He gave her a coy grin while adjusting his watch.
Maverick and Brinny, along with a couple of other Shapers - including Nelson’s twin brother Nathan - were bent over a table discussing the blueprints of the museum. They had devised a pretty convenient route through the museum, but were still working out some loose ends. Finn, Nelson, and Sophie, however, were the only three actually going on the mission.
“Here, take these.” Finn handed Sophie a pair of plain black sunglasses. Nelson had already put a similar pair on.
“Seriously? You realize it’s night time out there, right?” She looked at the glasses questioningly.
“Precisely,” Nelson said. “Flashlights will draw too much attention.”
Sophie, still confused, put the sunglasses on and realized that they weren’t sunglasses at all. They were low-profile night vision goggles with a heat-detection function. It was something you’d see in the military or the CIA.
“Holy….how the-” she stammered.
Finn laughed. “Yet another creation by our boy Nelson here.” He smiled and gave the man a single friendly pat on the shoulder.
The three of them were about ready to go by then; all were dressed in black, with rubber boots and a utility belt.
Maverick came over and gave Finn a few more notes on the blueprint they had been going over, then said, “Welp, if you need me, I’ll be taking a nap. So don’t need me.” The old man casually removed himself from the room before anyone had the chance to respond.
A few more goodbye's and good luck's were given before the trio of Finn, Nelson, and Sophie left as well, but their destination was in the opposite direction.
Three bodies crouched high above the tall stone building on 79th street. The words ’Truth’, ’Knowledge’, and ’Vision’ were etched into the surface above the arched entranceway. There was little hustle and bustle coming from the streets. At three o’clock in the morning on a Wednesday, most of the city’s residents had already retired for the evening. Dark clouds shrouded the night sky above, blocking the stars’ view of the earth below. The only light that could be seen was the faint glow of the moon behind a thick layer of overcast.
A light-haired man with faint freckles across his nose and warm skin crouched over a skylight on the roof. He felt along its seams and over the small glass frame.
“Alarm won’t go off if you unhinge it, it’s only set to alert if the glass is broken.” Nelson stood, wiping his hands on his ebony cargo pants.
“Alright, that’s easy then.” Finn took his turn crouching beside the window now, and worked at the hinge with a pair of pliers and a lock pick.
“So do you get visions or anything, when you see how the things are made?” Sophie asked Nelson. She never fully understood how Nelson’s ability worked; it was so unlike everyone else’s in the fact that he didn’t manipulate time at all. He simply saw what happened when an object was built. He could see the components it took to create it.
“I don’t really see anything,” Nelson responded and shoved his hands in his pockets. “I just touch it, and I kind of just… know.”
“There we are!” Finn flipped the window latch and swung it open. Then he attached a grappling hook to the edge and dropped an armful of rope into the new opening.
“Nathan sees images though,” Nelson finished, speaking of his twin brother who could, similarly, see wherever an item had been. “He always says it’s like watching a short film of the item’s ‘life’.” The young man attached a hook from his utility belt to the rope, and plunged through the window only a moment after the answer. Sophie could hear the soft hum of the zip line as he traveled quietly to the museum floor below.
“You next, kiddo.” Finn gave her a soft nudge in the middle of her back.
Sophie followed suit, and repeated the same few steps that Nelson had just done. When she felt properly latched, she looked to her uncle for reassurance.
“Yep,” Finn nodded behind his pair of agent glasses, and fed some rope out of his hands.
Sophie sat on the tiny ledge, held her breath, and jumped. She didn’t see much of anything until she felt her feet touch the ground, because the moment she felt herself dropping through the air, she slammed her eyes shut and tried to resist the urge to vomit. The girl had never been too fond of heights.
The flooring was so smooth when she landed that she almost tripped and fell. The granite flooring was so thick with gloss, it must have just recently been waxed. She managed to steady herself and unclip the hook from her belt in a single motion, then she looked around to see Nelson was a few feet away from her. He was scanning the corridor ahead and checking the alarm systems.
“Alright, let’s go,” Finn’s voice came from beside her suddenly. She hadn’t even realized he’d starting slipping down the line; he seemed to have appeared down beside her only a second after she’d arrived. “I have powers too, remember?” her uncle smiled at her confused face, then led the way from the prehistoric display they had all been standing in.
Something about these bone statues and scene recreations seemed off to Sophie now. She hadn’t ever thought about it before, but looking at the fake carcass of a wooly mammoth fending off a group of Neanderthals made her feel like something was missing. Even the giant sculpture of fossilized bones that supposedly belonged to a dinosaur appeared inaccurate. Everything felt…staged.
“Looks different know, huh?” Finn asked as the three of them quietly passed by. “We all got that feeling once.”
The teenager was only half listening. She felt slightly entranced by these displays. They rounded a corner into a hallway, then found themselves passing through the section of the museum dedicated to American history. Roped off in the front corner was wreckage of a 1940's aircraft that had been pieced back together; Sophie was nearly certain it had fought against the attack on Pearl Harbor. Large ship models hung from the ceiling, and an enormous copper statue of George Washington rested in the room's center.
“Quick!” Sophie pushed Finn and Nelson behind a large display case of miniature models of airplanes crafted by the Wright brothers. “Security guard patrolling in about six seconds.” The two older men crouched down beside her.
In moments, a flashlight could be seen darting around the room, followed by a pair of heavy footsteps. There was a soft buzz, and then a “Clear.” Then the footsteps receded and the room went quiet again.
“Nice watching, Soph.” Nelson stood back up, and gave her a hand.
They made their way through a couple more sections of the museum before they reached the room they were looking for. Finn grasped the shoulders of the other two and sped them through sections that were monitored by security cameras. And one of the shrines was tripped with a laser alarm, that Nelson was forced to deactivate before they could continue any further.
Approximately fifteen minutes was all it took for them to reach the mythology portion of the museum from the time they set foot inside the building. The collection of spotlights that hung from the ceiling were much dimmer now than what she had remembered from her tour during the daytime. The familiar paintings depicting ancient Greece still lined the walls, displaying vivid imagery of what was once believed to be true. The strange statues towards the far end of the open exhibit led the pathway to the display case with the unusual flute inside.
Nelson simply stared at the large glass cabinet, then rested his palms on the top of it. “Cut in from the bottom. The glass is monitored, but not the wood,” he told Finn, referring to the base of the container that all of the objects inside were placed upon.
“Keep watch, Soph,” Finn noted. Sophie smiled to herself at how this request was such a normal thing to say on a heist, but the double meaning made it abnormal.
Finn removed a small, silver pocket knife from his belt. At least, Sophie assumed it had been a pocket knife. However, once Finn had bent down, flipped to his back, and pulled himself beneath the cabinet, a faint red glow was tracing a clear circle through the bottom of the display case.
The knife-disguised laser connected with the beginning of its cut circle with a soft hum. Finn pulled the now loose piece of wood out of the structure, and reached inside.
“To the left,” Sophie said, watching the hand grope around the other odd devices inside.
Finn wrapped his fingers around the Pohkay flute and pulled it through the opening. In a flash, he was up and at their sides again. “Grab that book too, kiddo.” Finn pointed towards the old books atop the case as he snapped the flute safely into a pocket of his cargo pants.
“The big one.”
Sophie recognized it from before, it was the only one she had bother to skim. The girl picked it up with a grunt and severed the elastic band tying it to the table with her own pocket knife. For a moment, she was slightly jealous that she wasn’t actually given a laser as well.
Oh well, at least I have these cool shades, she thought, smiling behind them with her eyes.
The three Shapers, with their merchandise in tow, made their way back out of the museum with relative ease. They were aware of all the alarms now, and Finn could just push the two others through the path within a minute or two of actual time. The security in the museum was so minimal, that Sophie wondered how things weren’t stolen more often. She guessed most objects of any value to a common thief were either too large to conveniently remove or too known to be able to sell on the black market. Then again, she was also working with a couple of superhumans - an advantage not available to your common thief.
Back up the zipline, and out the window, Nelson flipped the window back shut and re-latched the hinge. Apart from the obvious hole in the display case and the missing merchandise, it appeared as though nothing had been disturbed.
It was around five in the morning when Finn, Nelson, and Sophie trudged into the lobby of the Shaper base. It was here that Sophie remembered her first gathering - the long fold-up table was still up that she’d remembered from before. Except, now, only a few Shapers sat at it instead of the crowded mass that resided in this room the night Finn had been attacked.
“Ah, right on time,” the bald Shaper named Bob spoke when he saw the trio enter. “I can go to bed now. Looks like I’ll only be getting four hours and thirty-seven minutes of sleep tonight,” he commented matter-of-factly. He ran a hand over a pair of groggy eyes, then onto his bald head.
“Not sure what we’d do without our living alarm-clock,” Finn joked and gave the man a pat on the back. Bob smiled and stumbled out of the room.
Nelson’s twin brother, Nathan, was also awaiting him at the emptying table of Shapers. The likeness of the two was uncanny. If Nelson had been wearing the same grey T-shirt and blue jeans as Nathan had, Sophie doubted she’d even be able to tell the two apart.
“Looks like we’ve got a long night ahead of us, brother,” Nelson stated disappointedly, holding up the thick leather book that Sophie had filched from the mythology display herself. She'd given it to him at some point on their way back.
Nathan stood and took the book into his hands. “Ah…” he sighed. “So we do.”
The twins, too, walked from the lobby together, speaking in hushed voices.
After the back-up plan of Shapers had all made their from the area (the group had been significantly large enough that Sophie wondered what could have possibly gone wrong to warrant all of them), all that was left was an excited Brinny and a crazy-looking old man with wild eyes.
“Is it authentic?” Maverick asked, unenthused.
“You tell me.” Finn removed the somewhat-small flute from his pocket and handed it to him.
“Ooooooh. Let me see!” Brinny nearly squealed as she lunged for the instrument.
“Back off, child!” Maverick spoke with a smile, then slapped her hand away. Brinny began to pout.
“Does anyone even know how to play it?” Sophie questioned.
Maverick didn’t respond at first. He ran his fingers along the silver-tinted brass and softly pressed the keys. He held the end of it up to his eye, and peered inside. After a minute, he said “Seems legit.” He then put the mouthpiece up to his lips, and blew.
The sounds that emerged were not wind hitting brass, not muffled notes nor out of tune blaring like Sophie had anticipated. What she did hear was a harmonious symphony of crisp and pure music. The notes rose and fell as though they had come from the lungs of an angel. Her ears tingled at what sounded like the mixture of a harp and a piccolo, as joy and despair intertwined into what almost sounded like life itself.
Unrelenting peace filled the entire room before Maverick stopped playing and licked his lips. “Yep, definitely legit,” he noted. The old man plopped the flute back into Finn’s shocked hands and trudged off to his room without another word, leaving three baffled Shapers to wonder what the hell had just happened.
Some days later, while Maverick was scoping his massive monitor for signs of the sleeping guardians, Sophie found herself rummaging through the library - yet again. She sighed heavily with her chin resting in her hand, and flipped the pages of the book she had read so many times before. Guardian after Guardian was depicted in a sketch and a small paragraph.
“Whatchya got there, kiddo?” Finn asked over her shoulder. Sophie was beginning to get used to his abrupt entrances; she hardly flinched at all this time.
“Nothing really… none of these books answer any of my questions.” She let her arm drop from her face and onto the thick oak table.
“What kind of questions?” her uncle inquired innocently.
Sophie glared. “I don’t know… maybe where the Guardians even come from? Why they are here? I mean, don’t get me wrong, I’ve grown just as attached as you all have, but I’m just wondering what the big picture is.” She sighed again and ran her hand through a scalp of messy brown hair. She felt the same blind loyalty to the Timekeeper as everyone else did, but she summed it up to the fact that she had part of him coursing through her bloodstream. It didn’t mean she never wondered why.
“Ah,” Finn answered. “I think we’d all like to know those answers.” He shrugged and walked deeper into the library.
Sophie rolled her eyes, then rested them back onto the familiar page before her. There was the drawing of Jack, or rather, of a Mightyena. Its eyes were narrow and menacing, and its thick black fur stood on end. Detailed below was a few sentence summary: First discovered in 1917. Often found solo or with one companion. Believed to be a descendent of Zoroak.
Finn had returned as she finished reading the paragraph another time, and dropped a small book in front of her. “It won’t answer everything, but it is important for you to know.” He said nothing else, and left the library.
Sophie pulled it closer, examining the worn leather cover and aged latch. It wasn’t a book at all, but rather some kind of diary. She pulled it open easily. The binding was so buttery-soft that the pages were almost falling out. Her eyes flitted across the first page as the story began.
I saw him appear that day. I was the only one watching as the sky tore and he fell to the earth. His small, elven hands cradled his head and he appeared to be in great pain. He looked around, confused about where he was. His wide, blue eyes blinked. He seemed to be surveying his surroundings.
Then more came. Twelve more. I counted them as they emerged from the same tear in our sky that he had, one at a time. He spoke to them somehow, though I heard no words or sound emanate from his emerald lips. All of them gathered around him, nodding perhaps, or shaking their heads. Some eyes were wide in worry, others in fear. It appeared as if they were almost…lost.
One of the more menacing appearing of the invaders looked agitated. It scowled at their leader and snarled. Where its hands should be, were long, silver blades. They went rigid as it appeared to argue.
But the original was angry too. His delicate wings buzzed as they beat too fast to be visible to my human eye. He appeared in front of the bladed-one’s face before I had even realized he was moving. His black-rimmed eyes pierced into the dim eyes of the other. The blades relaxed, and the more inferior creature of the two looked ashamed, but not before a ripple of clear energy pulsed out of the orignial's body.
I must have gasped, because as the ripple made its way through the trees and over my body as well, his head turned immediately and he stared right upon me.
Who are you? A heavy, authoritative thought came bursting into my mind.
I put a hand to my head, confused. Afraid and irrational, I ran. But, I had barely gone two strides before he appeared right in front of me. I could hear the soft hum of his wings, and see the intensity of his eyes. They seemed to do more than simply see me.
Who. Are. You? The thought came again, this time louder and more dire.
“I-I….” I dropped to my knees, and held my head in my hands. The pressure from the extra thoughts that were not my own disorientated me. My vision was getting blurry and I felt I was going blind.
But the pressure eased, suddenly. He dropped down beside me. He tilted his head and watched me, curiously. Then, placed a child-sized hand on my shoulder.
Where are we? What is this world? The questions came gentler this time. They were still apprehensive, but soft and understanding.
I could not comprehend them enough to answer, however.
His large eyes seemed to droop with disappointment. His hand left my shoulder.
“Wait!” I reached out to grab it, hoping there was some knowledge I knew of that would help. Oh how I wanted to help, even though I was not sure why. But, the moment my hand touched his, I felt it disappear. Or rather, absorb into my own. I could see his eyes widen as his small, strange body was somehow merging with mine. In a moment, he was gone.
But he was here, inside of me. I felt his mind grasp at my own, his power pulsing in my muscles, and his essence giving me life. It was almost intoxicating.
Then, as soon as it had begun, it ended. I felt him tearing away. It must have looked like resurfacing from beneath a wave when he left me. I held my hands up in front of me and watched his pull out of them. His chest appeared from mine... his knees... his legs. He was stretched and contorted, but in an instant he was completely out and his body reverted back to normal.
He looked at me, eyes still wide, and blinked.
What are you? a question came flowing through my mind.
I’m…human, I thought it.
His head tilted to the side, pondering this. He looked at the others who had followed him to this world, and then back again at me. But whatever he had been thinking, he did not relate it to me. He simply beat his wings again, and lifted from the earth. Then returned to his companions and never looked back.
I was the only one watching that day. Or so I thought.
Sophie turned the page to reveal the next; the words began to blur together as she continued to read. The scene around her changed from that of a dusty underground library to the surface of another time as her imagination ran wild. The story unfolded before her eyes…