James looked at the sea of people spreading before him and numbers began to appear in his mind.
“You’re figuring out how many you can save, aren’t you?” Jin asked.
“What do you mean?” James asked, looking over at his sister. He adjusted the pile of shopping bags he was buried under to get a clear view of her.
“You’re a great superhero ‘o brother of mine, but you’ve gotten a little bit rusty at being a regular guy.” Jin said.
“I don’t know what you are talking about. I’m as regular as any guy here.” James said.
“If this was Mt. Olympus then that would be true. But the only demigod beside you is trying on new bras and, last I checked, doesn’t exactly qualify as a guy.” Jin said.
James grumbled but decided not to argue the point. His fiance, being the Champion of Zeus, was all too likely to take his sister’s side and he was pretty sure he wasn’t going to win a battle against either of them alone, much less the two of them together.
“So what would a regular guy be doing here? Aside from carrying boxes and bags?” James asked. It seemed unfair in a sense. Maggie, his fiance, could juggle elephants and as far he knew, Jin could make them fly if she wanted to. How he wound up being the group’s pack mule was a mystery to him.
“Well, you’re relaxed but you’re paying more attention to the exits and the crowd patterns than you are to the presents we’re buying.”
“Maybe I just don’t like shopping.” James said.
“Which is why you jumped at the chance to come with us on this trip?” Jin asked. The trip had been Maggie’s idea, a chance for sister and future-sister-in-law to get to know each other a little better.
“Maybe I just wanted to spend time with my little sister. We’ve both been kind of busy for, what, a year now?” James said.
“Year and a half for me.” Jin said. “But I’ve gotten to come back and spend time with you guys more than I thought I would so it hasn’t been that bad. Except for your schedule being perpetually out of sync with mine.”
“I know. Perils of the job I guess.”
“How are you liking it these days?” Jin asked.
“Some days are better than others.” he said.
“Anything I can help with?” Jin asked.
“Nah. It’s just people stuff. I’ve been leading the team for a while now and sometimes the squabbling gets a little tiresome. Plus with the wedding coming up it feels like our free time can be measured in seconds per week.”
“Mom said you two were having some ‘fun’ with the guest list.” Jin said.
“Yeah. If I wasn’t pretty sure that Zeus would literally strike me down with a lightning bolt, I swear we’d just elope and head offworld somewhere for our honeymoon.” James said.
“Sure it’s worth going to all the trouble?” Jin asked.
“Wouldn’t be here if I didn’t think so.” James said with a calm and certain smile gracing his face. “What about you though? I thought you were going to dream up a big gala for you and your bride-to-be? Or wait, did you two go and elope already?”
“What are you nuts? Do you know what Mom would do? No, we’re still waiting till we finish our apprenticeships. For now I’ve got her promise and she’s got mine.” Jin said.
“That’s gotta be tough. Being apart so much. I see Maggie every day and it still drives me crazy when we’re on different cases.” James said.
“You have no freaking idea.” Jin said. “I mean, we’re always close in one sense, but there are times when you just want to be together. Like in person. Physically.”
“We might be veering into Too Much Information land.” James said with a laugh.
“I didn’t mean like that. Although, yes, like that too!” Jin said.
James took a moment to look at his sister. Step-sister to be accurate, though it had been ages since he’d made that distinction in his head. His father and Jin’s mother had remarried after losing their first spouses and somehow found a happiness together that defied all the odds that James would have placed on such a thing. Jin and he had been wary of each other at first, but that had melted away quickly enough. Where there might have been competition for their parents affection, Jin had been so withdrawn at first that James couldn’t help but feel sympathy for her.
Something about being a “big brother” had really appealed to James too. He’d liked the idea of being a protector, liked it so much that he’d eventually drawn the attention of Athena, the goddess of Wisdom and Battle, to act as her Champion in the mortal world.
That was exceptional for any teenager to do but he’d always wondered how he’d managed to catch the attention of a Greek deity. From what he knew, he didn’t have a drop of Greek blood in his veins. His family tree stretched back to the rural South of the US and then back to Africa. It wasn’t like the African deities weren’t active in the world too. He’d met them and their Champions several times over the years that he’d been Aegis. For some reason it had been Athena that had taken an interest in him though.
When he’d asked her about it, she’d pointed out that while she’d been worshipped by the ancient Greeks and had shaped their civilization to some extent, her dominion covered Wisdom and Battle, not a particular land area. James suspected that taking him as a Champion was a move in some form of celestial “turf war” but the other gods and goddesses of wisdom that he’d met had struck him as being among the more reasonable of high powered entities.
Which brought him back to Jin.
“Have I grown a second head, again?” she asked.
“What?” James asked, shaking his head.
“You were staring at me and thinking deep thoughts. I could see it in your eyes.” she said.
“Yeah. Was just wondering how much of where I’m at today is because of you.” he said.
“Very little. I try exceedingly hard not to mess with this world.” Jin said.
“No, I mean, I was wondering how much having a little sister to protect put me on a path towards attracting Athena’s attention in the first place.” James said.
“Probably something you’d need to ask her. I can promise you it’s not directly my fault though.” Jin said.
“Not directly your fault? You know when people are that specific it makes me worry all the more.” James said.
“Some of the things I do can have fallout.” Jin said. “It’s the problem with changing the world. Everything’s connected. You change one part and all of the other parts get affected too.”
“Is that why you’ve never registered your powers?” James asked.
“Technically I am registered.” Jin said.
“The registration got lost then. I’ve never seen your name on the official rolls.” James said.
“You need to look under ‘Agent of a Foreign Power, Non-Hostile, Non-human’. I’m listed as a ‘Junior Emissary’. Or at least I was. Not sure if that got updated last year.” Jin said.
“How are you not human anymore?” James asked. There were times he could barely even believe his sister had powers much less that they were as impressive as Athena claimed they were.
“Do you remember the night I first learned you were Aegis?” Jin asked.
“The night Mom and Dad and half the city was grabbed by the Shadow Court? Yeah. That was kind of a tough one. First time I told Mom about who I was too.” James said. He’d been so afraid that people would attack his family back then. A part of him still was, but the years had taken the edge off that fear. That and the fact that his step-Mom had become the Champion of Gaia and was significantly more powerful than any three other champions put together.
“Do you remember the Courtiers that broke into our house?” Jin said.
“I don’t think I was there for that, but I’ve had nightmares about it.” James said.
“Those weren’t nightmares. Those are what is left of your memories of that event.” Jin said.
“What happened? Did someone mess with my memories?” James asked.
“I happened.” Jin said. “I destroyed them so thoroughly that they never existed. I was standing right on the brink of doing the same to myself when you pulled me back.”
“How?” James asked.
“You were there. You reminded me of who I was. Who I wanted to be. What I had.” Jin said.
“So you turned away from that power then?” James asked. It was scary to think that Jin had almost lost herself and worse that he could barely remember what he’d done to help her. He was also concerned, he noticed, by the unusual number of men in identical trenchcoats milling through the crowd.
“Nope. I still have it. I’ve even used it since then.” Jin said.
“On what?” James asked. He couldn’t picture the girl sitting next to him, the sister that he’d known for a decade and a half destroying something so utterly.
“Nothing in this world. Nothing that was supposed to be in any world in fact.” Jin said. “Only things that are a little bit like me.”
“You realize you sound ever so slightly crazy don’t you?” James asked. He was joking but it was mostly to keep her from calling him on the fact that he was actively scanning the crowds again. The trenchcoated men were growing thicker in number. Almost as though they were closing in on him.
“Yeah, I get that a lot.” she admitted with a wry grin.
“And you do know that this is your home right? I may not quite understand what you can do, but I get a bit worried when I hear you compare yourself to things that ‘don’t belong in any world’.” James said.
“I know. I’m just saying that’s why I’m careful here. This is where the biggest part of who I am is, so I try to make sure it stays real to me and that I stay real to it.” Jin said.
“Good. You’re nice to have around. And you’re one of the bridesmaids, so if you bug out, Maggie’s going to electrocute me. Am I looking less relaxed now by the way?” James asked. The trenchcoated figures weren’t men. Not human ones anyways. They’d gotten close enough that James could see that, and in doing so has removed any doubts he’d had that they were surrounding him.
“Just a little bit. You’re good at hiding it though. Not sure I’d notice if I didn’t know you.” Jin said.
“That’s good. Pardon me for a moment please.” James said. He started placing the boxes he was holding on the seat beside where he was sitting.
“So that you can deal with the Brotherhood of the Silenced Words?” Jin asked.
James stopped transferring the pack of presents off of his lap.
“How do you know about them?” he asked.
The Brotherhood of the Silenced Words was a mystical sect bent on ‘returning humanity to the proper path’. James had chased them down for months and from everything he’d found ‘the proper path’ meant the Brotherhood living in absolute control over ‘the lesser born’. The ‘lesser born’ seemed to include all women and nearly all men, except for those related to the sect.
They had a backward ideology but that didn’t make them any less dangerous. With the support of one of the Titans of old that Athena and the other Greek Gods had cast down, the Brotherhood was more than a match for the Champions of Olympus that James led.
“If you come with us now, none of the chattel around us needs to be injured.” one of the Brotherhood said from behind James.
James breathed in and called on Athena’s wisdom to supplement his own years of experience. The Brotherhood was offering to move the inevitable battle to a spot where innocents would be out of harm’s reach. That was a powerful incentive for him to play along with them. Almost powerful enough for him to ignore the fact that they wouldn’t be offering that option if they didn’t have a trap ready that they were sure would be able to kill him.
“We’ll bring your little sister along with us to ensure your cooperation.” the Brotherhood member said.
At that Jin burst out laughing.
“I’m sorry, you were trying to be serious there weren’t you? Wow, did you guys ever pick the wrong day for this.” she said.
“You’ll see how serious we are, you…” Whatever epithet the Brotherhood member was about to say was cut off by Maggie’s return.
“This creep bothering you?” she asked, lifting the cultist off the ground with a one handed grip on the back of his neck.
“He was trying to.” Jin said.
“So be it. Everyone here is going to die then.” the cultist said. He drew a small vial from the sleeve of his coat and smashed it on the floor.
“You expected that to release a cloud of poison gas, didn’t you?” Jin asked.
“What happened? That’s not possible! We should all be dead!” the cultist said.
“You mixed the chemicals wrong. It why you didn’t all die when you loaded them into the vials.” Jin said.
“But we checked! We tested them!” the cultist protested.
“Poor quality control. There’s probably a few of the vials in your lab that got the proportions right by chance. Unfortunately you used them all up on the lab rats.” Jin said.
James watch the exchange between the two of them in disbelief. Something was odd about the lighting in the mall. Something felt off in general in fact. Like he was standing on shifting sand that was being shaped by a hurricane. Athena’s wisdom filled in the gap in his knowledge. This was the Dreamlit world that Jin had spoken about. Or some combination of it and the real world. The transition had been so seamless that James could barely make out the differences between the two realms. The only clue that left him certain of his guess was in Jin’s eyes. A girl as young as Jin should not have eyes that made James think of the endless reaches of the cosmos.
“We will kill you by hand then.” the cultist said.
“We who? You’re alone here.” Jin said. There was an undercurrent to her words that passed through James like a wave. The words were a mandate to reality, one the world couldn’t have ignored even if they demanded its destruction.
James looked at the crowds. The trenchcoated figures were gone. All of them. Except for the one that Maggie was holding onto.
“What have you done?” the cultist asked.
“Very very little.” Jin said.
“Where are they? What are the rest of my Brotherhood?” the cultist asked. He’d felt the weight of Jin’s words too. They’d been simple words. Nothing to get particularly upset over. But he was terrified, and James wasn’t sure that was unreasonable of him.
“They’re with your master. Bound in Tartarus.Don’t feel too lonely, you’ll be joining them soon. We’re going to stop down there together and have a little chat.” Jin said.
“I thought you had to be careful about what you did here? Be careful to stay real?” James said.
“This is being careful.” Jin said. “And have I mentioned how much I love that our world is very forgiving about what’s real?”
James looked at his sister and saw her for the first time as someone other than the little girl she’d been. Withdrawn and vulnerable had described her once, but she’d left that girl behind somewhere. The young woman before him had grown quite a lot since those days and he had no idea why it had taken him so long to notice.
“James, your sister is on party crasher duty for the wedding.” Maggie said, with a smile at her impending sister-in-law.