I followed the GPS coordinates out of the city and drove until I started to get concerned I was chasing a lark. I didn’t think Akma would send me on a merry chase just for kicks, but first I watched the city fall away and then the roads turned from asphalt to gravel. The elevation rose along with the trees on either side of me and I had to wait for several deer to cross my path. I was totally out of cell phone coverage so I couldn’t call back the number Akma had called me on. I made up my mind to just go to the GPS coordinates and if Akma wasn’t standing there, I would turn around immediately and drive home.
Turns out I didn’t have anything to worry about.
I turned off the ignition and climbed out of the car.
“You mind telling me what I’m doing out here?” I asked.
“Getting some fresh air. Recalibrating your psychic position. That sort of thing,” Akma said. She looked transformed. Her dark hair had been lightened and had a rose pink tint to it that suited her. She wore jeans, leather boots, and a beat-up bomber jacket. Her face was fresh and free of makeup.
“Seriously, Akma. You disappeared from the world. What happened?”
She shook her head. “After the team broke up I had to…center myself. I joined the League because it was a better option than what I came from, but I don’t think that’s enough. I don’t know that I was meant to be a superhero and I wasn’t sure what I was meant for.”
“So you had to exile yourself?”
“Look, I’ll explain everything in a few, but right now there’s a few people I’d like you to meet.”
I locked my car and followed her. She was sure to give me a look that practically said: ‘Really? You think someone is going to steal your car out here?’ but I let it pass without comment. She led me off the road and into the forest. The terrain was uneven, slightly hilly and covered with debris in the form of tree branches, huge logs, and other detritus. I wished that I had worn my hiking boots. I wished that I had owned hiking boots.
We trekked until we came to a cliff. It was a beautiful view down the mountain that I had just driven up. The forest seemed to stretch endlessly.
“Wow,” I said. “Great view. But why did you bring me here?”
“Do you trust me, Nick?” Akma asked.
“Because I need to you to trust me here.”
“Hey, I trust you. Now what is this about?”
“I need you to step off the cliff.”
“Trust me. Step off the cliff. If I go first and you see me fall you’re not going to want to do it. So I need you to go first.”
My heart was not shy about letting me know that it wasn’t thrilled with this plan. “I don’t know that I’m going to step off a cliff for you, Akma.”
“Do you need me to shove you?”
“NO! Are you crazy? Don’t —”
So of course she did. Akma shoved me off a cliff.
Then I found out that I wasn’t standing on the edge of a cliff at all. I stumbled forward, ready to scream, but I was on solid ground. Behind me, in the direction I’d come from, was a hazy wall of — something — that was hard to see through and in front of me there was a house. A little cottage sandwiched in between all different kinds of flora: there were wildflowers and palm trees alongside rows of cacti made into hedges and oaks stretching dizzyingly high. In a circle surrounded by stones there was a pumpkin patch, elsewhere huge strawberries and a few towers that looked like honey bee shelters. It was a bizarre conglomerate of natural elements and I had an idea who was responsible.
Akma stepped in — in? — from the haze behind me.
“Sorry about that. But like I said, if I went through first, you would have seen me fall even though I didn’t. Just like I saw you plummet screaming to the ground even though you made it through safe and sound.”
“How did that even happen? And what is this place?”
“The cliff is an illusion. There are quite a few of them in this area. They’re meant to ward off strangers from this place. As for what this place is…think of it as a shelter. I’ll explain the rest inside. Come on, follow me.”
Akma lead and I followed, finally just getting my heart rate back to normal. She opened the front door and walked in. The living room was a large communal space with a fireplace and a few couches. On one couch sat two nearly identical women. They were both diminutive and older. One of them looked up at me and then nudged the other so she looked up as well. On the other couch was a young black man holding an abnormally large peach in his hand.
It was around that point I started wondering if I’d been drugged.
“Nick, these ladies are my aunts. Collectively they are bunian, but singularly, the quicker one is West and the slower one is East — she’s responsible for the illusion protecting this place. Don’t worry about differentiating them right away, they don’t care what you call them. They’ve lived her for thirty years in seclusion. In Malaysia they were thought of as witches of a sort, here they just are.” She pointed to the young man, who seemed maybe eighteen or slightly older. “And this is Ray. He’s…well, he’s one of the reasons I’m here.”
“Nice to meet you all,” I said.
The bunian didn’t respond, but Ray jerked his head up by way of greeting and said, “hey.”
“Can I get you something to eat, Nick? Drink? We have more fruit juices than you can imagine and I’ve been making my own wine for some time now.”
“No. I’m ok, if we could talk about all this though, I’d appreciate it.”
“Sure. Take a seat.” I did. “After I left the league, Sanctuary came calling almost immediately. They wanted me to come back, to help finish their grand work. I turned them down, but they weren’t so interested in taking no for an answer. One night I woke up and there was a man in my apartment, multiple men actually but from one source. This guy could split himself at will and all twelve of him were trying to take me in. I guess he didn’t realize that I keep all those plants at my place for a reason. After that I figured something wasn’t right. I started doing some research, looking into things. My brother, Jasni, leaked me a bit of information that Sanctuary had stolen from the SLA. It was a dossier, like the one Owen gave you six months ago, on this guy, Ray.
“Ray has the ability to bend light into tangible shapes and for some reason the SLA wanted him. They employed the research clause in the contract his parents signed for his “free” healthcare as a child. Something I’m told you know a fair bit about. I managed to get to his parents first and let them know that I could keep him safe. I brought him here and I highly doubt the SLA is going to be able to get to him unless they send a very specialized team.”
“Did Jasni tell you about the Selena Huerta case?”
Akma nodded. “I think he’s still hoping that I’ll join up with Sanctuary if he feeds me enough damning information on the SLA. But he never tells the whole story, never anything about Sanctuary involvement. But I can read between the lines. Sanctuary isn’t neutral here, and they’re certainly not innocent. I have a trashed apartment in the city because of them and I’m definitely not getting my deposit back. Sanctuary is trying to snatch up people with abilities just as readily as the SLA.”
“So it’s some kind of arms race?” I asked.
“That would be my guess.”
“So why did you contact me? What do you think I can do?”
“I’ve kept up with your work with the Whole Project. You have access to housing resources. I need you to find a place for Ray to go. Only temporarily. Only until I figure out what is going on. That would mean I could devote more of my attention to identifying other targets and passing them along to you which means that the SLA won’t get their hands on them.”
“And what about Sanctuary? If they’re feeding you the information it stands to reason they’re going to be keeping an eye on you. How do you know that they’re not just waiting for you to collect some of the people they’re targeting only to just pick them right out of your hands? Jasni and some of his friends tried to kidnap Selena Huerta. That drove her right into SLA custody. How can you be sure that you’re not being played?” I asked.
“So what do you suggest, just waiting as both sides acquire people like baseball cards? Look, the bunian and I can ensure Ray’s safety here but it wasn’t his choice to fall out of the world. It’s not fair that he should have to. And there are dozens of people like him, just waiting to be targeted. Shouldn’t this be about helping them?”
I ran both hands over my face and groaned. I looked over at Ray. He had good posture and a haircut that was probably incredibly detailed two weeks before, but had since started growing out. His eyes were keen.
“What do you want to do, Ray? The group I work for…we can’t promise you will be safe. But we can get you a place to stay. I also can’t promise you peaches the size of a person’s head, but we can probably get a small — tiny really — stipend for you to live on while we try to sort this mess out. How does that sound?”
“It’s been alright staying up here with Ms. Akma and her…aunts, but I’m built for cities, man. This country-living is driving me crazy. I’d rather take my chances out there, no offense.” He looked at Akma, but she dismissed the concern.
“Alright, Ray. We’ll help you as much as we can,” I said, then to Akma. “I’ll set something up for him, but I can’t make any promises beyond that. The project isn’t an underground railroad. And you and I are not accomplices. I can’t just traffick people out of harm’s way…”
“Jasni,” one of the bunian said abruptly.
Akma looked over at her. “Right now?”
The woman, West I think, nodded. Akma made a noise and said to me, “stay here, Nick. I’ll talk to him.”
Akma stepped out the door and I thought about listening to her for a second, but not much more than that. I followed her out onto the porch.
“Goddamnit, Nick. Why can’t you just listen?!” she said as soon as I came through the door.
“Lover’s spat?” asked Jasni from the yard in front of the house.
He was standing there as finely dressed as before, but this time there were two animals on either side of him. A beautiful white bengal tiger just basking in the sun and a white wolf pacing and watching.
Akma laughed off his question. “A lover’s spat? With Nick? I’m not his type I assure you.”
“When has my little sister not been good enough for a man?” Jasni asked. His hands were in his pockets and he looked very calm despite the two incredibly deadly animals beside him.
“Drop it, Jas. Now what do you want?” Akma folded her arms across her chest.
“I think it’s about time you give back what you took, don’t you? The boy isn’t really your concern. I gave you the information about him in confidence and you went behind my back to take him from me. That’s not very sisterly behavior, adik.”
“Did you think you were going to come up here and make me roll over for you? Here of all places? This is the heart of the forest, abang. My grove. Don’t push me.”
Jasni squatted down and scratched behind the ear of the tiger. He smiled sadly.
“I remember a time when you were a modest girl, still shy about the world. Times have made you so hard. I consider that my primary failing as your elder brother and as a man.”
“So you brought along your wolf and tiger in order to remedy that situation?” Akma asked.
“I would prefer if we didn’t have to fight, Akma. You can believe that, can’t you?”
“The bunian let you approach because you’re family, Jasni. Walk away and prove them right, because if you attack me, we’re finished.”
“I’m sorry it has to be this way —”
“Nick. Please let me handle this,” Akma whispered to me.
” — if there was another way, we’d have found it. I’m sure —”
“I’m not leaving you, Akma,” I replied.
“— but here we are.”
“I’m not asking you —” Akma said, but stopped as the wolf started to charge. Akma’s focus snapped in the wolf’s direction and a handful of vines lashed out from the pumpkin patch. The wolf seemed to be anticipating this and managed to dodge out of their way, though the vines seemed to be slowing down its progress.
The tiger roared and launched itself straight toward us. I tried to push it, but I got the same block that I experienced with Selena’s dog. Suddenly the pieces slid together.
“This sonofabitch sicced a dog on me!” I yelled.
“Hey! That bitch was my mother,” Akma shouted back. The wolf had evaded the lashing vines from the pumpkin patch and was trying to come in on our right while the tiger came directly at us.
Akma looked in the direction of the tiger, and said, “sit.” Instantly the grass around the tiger started shooting up. But it wasn’t grass at all, it was thicker by far. Bamboo. The stalks ripped out of the ground at all angles until there was roughly teepee shaped structure of hard bamboo locked around the tiger.
“Stay,” Akma said and then turned her attention on the wolf who had leapt up onto the porch while she was dealing with the tiger. It was just a few feet away from me and slinking closer, baring its teeth and growling low in its throat.
“I can call him off, Akma. Just send the boy out and none of this has to go any further.” Jasni explained. “But if you want to continue this…”
Something fairly large flew by my face and I leapt back. Then another of the same thing went by me even faster. I jumped back and saw that they were a pair of falcons circling me. They screeched in a totally bizarre way that I didn’t even know birds were capable of. I tried to push them out of instinct but the same block was there. Whatever control Jasni exerted over these creatures was absolute as far as my powers were concerned.
One of the falcons dove across my face and raked a claw across the hand that I raised to defend myself. The wolf was still coming forward.
I looked over at caught Akma’s eyes. She was looking at me and then at her brother who was also making his way up to the porch. She gritted her teeth.
“It’s gotta sting, Jasni. That you had to bring all your little friends to play. A whole hive of deadly animals to harass your little sister. That’s gotta sting pretty bad,” she said.
Akma’s hint was a subtle as a hammer. I turned my attention to the bee towers and gave a massive push of alarm pheromones. The desperate, immediate feeling to protect the hive and the queen was so jarring that for a moment I forgot where I was and what I was doing. I stood there staggered as the wolf attempted to leap at me, but a potted plant at my feet erupted into frenzy of growth just a moment before. It climbed up my legs, up my chest and across my arms, arms which moved on their own and grabbed the wolf in mid-air without any input from me at all. The falcons swooped again and tried to slash at me, but the plant was still growing across my body and was now so thick that I didn’t even feel it. The plant was also growing over the terrified wolf, locking him in place as surely as it did me.
“The bees, Nick. Focus,” Akma said.
I tried to turn my head to look over, but the plant-suit had completely rooted me to the spot. Instead of using my eyes, I reached out with my power and found that the hive was seething and disorganized, flying all about the yard trying to locate the threat. And so I gave them one.
Jasni’s first howl of pain was evidence that I’d done my job right because I couldn’t turn around to look.
He swore and shouted, “goddamnit. Tell him to call — fuck! — call them off. Dammit, I can — fuck! — these bees are fucking crazed!”
“Get out of here, Jasni, or we’ll let them sting you to death,” Akma said calmly, but loudly.
“Fuck!” Jasni yelled again.
I just stared at the wolf in my — or the plant-armor’s — hands. It was trembling and trying to chew through the tough plant growth around it. I reached out and tried to calm the wolf down and when it worked, I figured Jasni had taken Akma’s advice and fled because his influence over the creature had dissipated.
“Sorry, man. I know you don’t want to be stuck here any more than you do. I guess it’s just bad luck that we’ve gotten swept up in this whole mess, huh?” I said to the wolf, who was now licking rather than biting the plant growth around him. I gave him a little push of pleasure hormones and he yipped happily. “Earth mama should be along soon to cut us loose, I hope.”
A moment later Akma stepped into my field of vision. Her arms were crossed over her chest and she was scowling fiercely.
“Can you believe he tried to attack me here? I don’t know what I was expecting but this…”
“Akma,” I said, trying to turn my head toward her and mostly failing. “If Jasni came here willing to attack you, what’s to say that he’s not going to bring the rest of his cronies next time. This place isn’t safe you anymore and that’s saying something considering how risky this whole operation was from the beginning.”
“Nick, I’m sorry. I cannot take you seriously when you’re wrapped in a plant.” She touched the plant somewhere near my waist and immediately it started receding. It quickly retracted completely away from me, but left the wolf bound. I was left smelling incredibly botanical.
I scanned the yard and saw that the tiger was still pacing inside its bamboo jail. “You can release the animals, Akma. They’re out of Jasni’s control and I can calm them down.”
“Are you sure?” she asked. “What if he comes back?”
I shook my head. “He was stung a lot. Not enough to do permanent damage maybe, but I don’t think he’ll try us again for a little bit.”
“Us? I thought we weren’t accomplices,” Akma said with a raised eyebrow.
“You,” I corrected. “Whatever. The point I was trying to make earlier is that you can’t stay here and you can’t continue trying to play Sanctuary against the SLA. As you now see, it’ll just blow up in your face.”
Akma sighed. “Then what do we do? Do we just just let this play out even though it’s ruining people’s lives?”
Someone else, someone a little more cynical or practical, would have said: “yes, that’s exactly what we’re going to do?” Hell, I probably would have said that too if I hadn’t just watched the SLA take Selena Huerta away. So I didn’t give Akma the rational, measured response. Instead I said:
“Look, I’ll take you into the city and you can hide out at my place for a while. We’ll talk to my boss tomorrow and we’ll find a place for Ray to go. If you need someplace safe for your aunts, I’m sure we can work that out too…”
And then the words that sucked me further into the grandest clusterfuck in superhero history. “…after that we’ll find a way to fix this.”
Sometimes I sincerely wish I hadn’t said that.