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Mid-January, 2020, 11.47 AM

 

Claremont Academy, inner grounds

 

 

The black monolith had risen with the white mist, the winter sunlight slowly blanching as shadows deepened and colours faded. From its sides dangled ropes of horned skulls, each the size of Dio, though that was hard to tell with him crouched behind Leroy, Judy, Ashley and Headmistress Callie Summers.

 

Leroy's cousin had wanted to meet on the ship. Leroy had objected strenuously, and at length, and even just in its shadow the black-robed boy had grabbed Jusy's hand tight, face set behind a veil of black diamonds danging from a silver circlet perched in his long hair. "Adrian," he had whispered as the first skull came into view, "the Demon herself."

 

He had called her that before, and other things as well, and as a diamond-shaped opening apleared and a wedge of cold crystal stretched from the wall, Judy felt his warm hand go cold and tremble.

 

A wash of white glare spilled out, light like liquid pooling everywhere, obliterating all shadows and anything but the white. From it, three figures emerged.

 

The first was skin and bone under a thin white robe, her grinning face lacking even eyesockets, though when she looked at you, you knew, This was the Lictor, Adrian's herald, a vampire and her oldest friend.

 

Second was a plain white women in white armor, a bullethole in the forehead of her placid, half-asleep face. This was Claire, her nominal bodyguard.

 

Last was the Demon, her round moon of a face scarred similar to her two-foot-shorter cousin. Square in her armor, her shoulders and back were bedecked with a furry white cloak.

 

"A thousand thanks for your hospitality, virtuous guardians of the homeworld!" sang out the Lictor in a thin, reedy voice, "May I present the fearless, the unequaled, the conqueror of Hells, the Dhartarastra Adrian!"

 

"Li!" Adrian sang out with a grimace, glancing curiously at the Primes, "Where can we talk? I'd like to get you back to your senses and back home sooner than later."

 

Swallowing hard, Leroy looked at Summers like a drowning man grasping at a raft.

Edited by Ari
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They're just trying to scare you, Judy thought. That can't be real. 

 

Bomb at their feet to drive them back to the ship, then autofire till they shut the doors and run, thought Ashley. She was expressionless behind her red helmet, but armed and ready for bear where she stood just ahead and to one side of her ward. 

 

"Welcome to Earth-Prime," said Callie Summers. "As per the terms of the treaty with your homeworld, I request that you remain within the boundaries of Claremont Academy during your time in our dimension. Any use of force or threat of force against our citizens will be punishable by breach of treaty." There was no obvious sign of how she planned to enforce such a thing but the look in her eye suggested that she could. She was between Leroy and Adrian. 

 

Judy stepped forward and ignited. "On behalf of the people of Earth, Ah bid you greetings," she said as she flared bright like a star. "Ah am Judith Claudia Smith, but you may call me Daystar." She closed her eyes for a moment, centering herself, and then opened them. She'd have curtseyed to a foreign leader back in DC, but this felt different. Such courtesy here would have been more like bowing to a false god. Instead, she gestured for the new arrivals to step away from their ship and join them on campus. 

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"I don't blame you, Judith, you don't have to suck up to me." Adrian stumped past Judy to follow the Academy head back to the administrative centre. Behind her, Claire withdrew a black crystal from her pocket and slid her thumb across it in a pattern, pointing the object at the ship the trio had arrived in.

 

The thing resealed itself, sinking back into the earth in the same deliberate silence it had arisen. The cold white light drained with it, though some pooled here and there where shadows should have layed. That done, the woman turned and fell in beside Ashley, glancing curiously across at the smaller woman. "Grue, aye?" she asked suddenly, the words jolting out with the husky, awkward sound of a voice long-disused. After a moment she added "Me, UMBRA."

 

"Oh how exquisite. Daystar." the Lictor's lipless grin, already stretched farther than any human mouth should, pulled that much more. "A propitious title, and your namesake was a glorious champion to the oppressed. " Drifting beside her and Leroy on the walk indoors, the Lictor put one wing-like set of talons next to her face to whisper conspiratorially "Please, be not dismayed, our good Demon is merely concerned that you perhaps, ah...not quite human."

 

Leroy shot a glare at Dio, who was trying to pass as a ray of sunlight on the grass. "Adrian has dragon-blood in her veins," he whispered sharply, "we all do. She set out to become even less human for power. This is a farce"

 

The Lictor tittered nervously, but did stop talking until they'd reached the conference room. 

 

---

 

Adrian eased into a chair, pointing her fore and middle fingers at Judy and Leroy. "So, to recap: you two are in love, and you're getting married. That the shape of it?"  

 

Her cousin cleared his throat, putting his ring-bearing hand on the table, clasped with Judy's. "When Dee and I are of age, yes. We will marry. Your mediation is not desired or needed. You may return. Give Sister White and the Lioness my compliments." 

 

"Oh for...Judith, you let him walk all over you like this?" Adrian pointed at Daystar, red eyes narrowing, "How much say do you have here? Sit down, Li," she added sternly, glaring at Leroy as he started to rise, "I'd like to hear from the non-bull&@$% artist. You're on thin ice with this stunt as it is." She nodded approvingly as he sat down, scars red and speechless, and turned back to the girl.

 

Claire had sat down and stared at the wall over Ashley's head without any interest in the proceedings. The Lictor had set up at the very foot of the table, spectacles perched on the edge of her tiny nose and talons cradling a tablet and stylus, scribbling away busily.

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"Now let's see, Adrian, isn't it?" asked Daystar, her voice cool. She lay her hand on Leroy's and said smoothly, "First of all, I know y'all are new to Earth-Prime and our ways, but y'all really should call people by what they want to be called. Ah know a lady of high birth such as yourself has to appreciate the need to maintain order - after all, if people start making up their own names for other people, who knows what they'll call you?" She smiled, the expression clearly visible despite the overall glow that still obscured much of her face. 

 

This sort of talk would have surprised people who only saw Judy around her friends and family, the Judy who was devoted to making people happy and being a good Christian girl. But she'd heard Leroy talk about his family before and she understood the kind of people they were - poisonous as rattlesnakes and just as inclined to bite. If she was going to talk to them long enough to make sure Leroy got free of them, she had to be able to bite back. Plus, she was confident that Ashley could shoot Leroy's cousin through the head if she caused any trouble here. 

 

"Now to actually answer your question, Ah think you'll find Leroy's not the boy his mama sent off to Claremont." She heard the accent thick in her voice, and not for the first time realized she sounded very much like her mother when she was feeling this way. But the truth was that Rachel Cahill was a survivor, a woman who'd walked in a world that judged her for her family, skin, her gender, and what church she attended since she was small. Maybe she wasn't such a bad model after all. "But I'm sure Ah don't need to tell you that he's brave, kind, and has a good heart. He's going to be a fine husband to me.

 

For her part, Ashley knew better than to be baited into talk by the other side's bodyguard - but what the hell was going on with her head? Was this an actual talking zombie or what? What the hell was wrong with these people? 

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The significantly larger woman clenched and un-clenched her left hand for a few seconds, studying Judy as one might a tree one wishes to fell.

 

At last she said, very quietly "I don't agree."

 

Adrian shrugged, a motion that flowed through her armor as if it were just another layer of skin. "Can't make you change your mind, though I wish I could. A few billion people considering you the Buddha reborn makes you forget what it's like for someone to talk back, and mean it. I mean, the ones who can't just vaporize you." 

 

Relaxing back into her seat, the Demon of Earth-2 went on, "But you mentioned birth, and that's a much more serious issue than my stagnant, weakling cousin. Your lineage is partially alien, correct? You're host to Stellarian engineering? Not that I can say much about my parents. Amatuken comes from the rich side, and she came up with the idea of all these titles and s&$@."

 

"Genes aren't the issue, of course. I just like knowing what I'm talking to." Adrian smiled reassuringly.

 

"Someone stronger than you, cousin."

 

Adrian turned an eye towards Leroy, who had very suddenly and angrily spoken. She smiled a little.

 

"I don't agree."

 

She turned back expectantly to Judy.

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Judy took this as an opportunity to do something she'd practiced on her own but never actually demonstrated in front of people who didn't already know her - she raised her hand, snapped her fingers, and dimmed down to her usual levels of illumination. From the look in her eye, it didn't look like the inner fires had gone out at all.  

 

"You're talking to me." She folded her hands and looked the older woman in the eye. "If the fact that Ah am part alien is a problem for you, then your homeworld is not the civilized place that Leroy has described." 

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"Varies. Chimaera wouldn't mind at all. Colony would make a loving little fuss over you every day of your life. But Amatuken? Anything she can't control she doesn't trust, and what she doesn't want to understand she can't control. And she's the one you'll have to deal with if you go through with this. You're not a pushover, which is good."

 

"I'm sure Li's told you about New Atlantis. But before she raised it back into the sky, it was the ruins of Zerzura. The people who made it still looked like us, but they were inland Saharan, not *her* kind of people, didn't fit the picture she wanted. So everything they had and were needed to be changed, she redid the art, architecture, psychic echoes of its history, everything. She even moved it over the spot Atlantis usually is on most Earths."

 

Leroy stared, speechless at the news of his birthplace. Adrian looked much more serious now. "After so much time in other dimensions I've gotten a bit of a soul-sight going. Usually I can get the gist of someone's heart at a glance. You I can't read at all, it's like staring into the Sun with my old eyes."

 

"This little romance novel s&#@ is a way bigger risk than you two dumb kids think, and I want to know what kind of a spine you've got. I know Li's got a little one since he started going out with you, but that won't cut it."

 

Claire chuckled, a low gravelly sound, "Plan's changed. A lot. No "I'll put her in her place", Demon?"

 

Adrian's white scars turned bright red, but she was otherwise impassive. 

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Judy decided that it must be the blessings of Jesus that were protecting her soul from the Demon's (indeed!), and that it couldn't be that her physical transformations were turning her into something without an immortal soul because that was impossible. 

 

In the moment or two it took her to think that, Watchdog spoke up. "She's not doing #($# for you," Ashley growled flatly, knowing how stupidly far Judy was probably willing to go to defend her relationship with Leroy. If that's a problem, you can suck it, she thought.

 

Judy shot a look her way that was a little hard for the others to read, then said, "Ah'm sure what mah sister means is that any such discussion will need to be two-way, and of course filtered through this dimension's superhero community. After all," she said with a nod to Callie Summers, who was notably watching them both very closely, "we're just two girls without anything to our names." 

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"It's true," Adrian admitted sourly, propping up her head on one massive fist, "if this involved your local government somehow, that'd make this a lot easier. But since you're just two refugees. not a lot to be done. Maybe if you were a princess or prime minister's daughter or something, Amatuken loves all that dynastic legitimacy...Li, something's on your face, what's up?" 

 

"N-nothing!" Leroy jolted guiltily, looking down at the table as he turned the silver ring on his finger round and round, "I was, ah...w-well what if...cousin, what if Judy was politically significant? Would that truly make such a difference?"

 

"Yeah, but she's not, so kind of a moot point, Li. Come on, keep your head in the game." Turning back to Ashley, the Demon went on briskly "Anyway, bowvy, I seriously, honestly, genuinely need something to bring back so it's not just 'oh hey, conqueror of the ten thousand skies, your worst son hooked up with a random non-human girl.' As a(marginally) disinterested third party, do you perhaps have some sort of witness you'd like to make about how this is not a clearly terrible idea? To start what your dear kinswoman so delicately describes as the 'discussion'?"

 

"And I don't have any trouble seeing you, so don't lie. Here." removing her right gauntlet, which slithered and shifted too fluidly to be metal, Adrian offered a callused and brawny arm coursed with livid scars. Underneath, in lie to the five fingers outside, only thumb, forefinger and midfinger remained on the half of a hand stretched over the table. In place of nails they bore vicious black talons. "You've got some sort of copy gimmick, the ship told me, so I'd like you to see what it looks like from my end, so you know it's not just a line to try and intimidate people for no reason."   

 

"Adrian, when did...what happened?" Leroy looked stricken at the sight, reaching out himself as his golden eyes welled with tears, until a glance from his cousin almost bodily shoved him away.

 

"Nothing. I'll get worse, coz."  

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Judy stared at the Demon, and suddenly regretted dousing her light. The glow hiding her facial features would have come in handy now. "Y-you're asking me to prove that Ah am worthy of Leroy?" Her jaw worked for a moment, then she said..."As y'all are the guests in this dimension, Ah believe...the burden of proof goes in the other direction." She lay her hands flat on the table and forced herself to make eye contact with the terrifying extra-dimensional conqueror. "

 

Ashley thought Can you see this? and realized to her annoyance that Callie Summers was looking at her and probably knew perfectly well the gesture she was making under the table. She folded her arms and stared implacably at Adrian, torn between admiration for Judy's spunk and a conviction that things were going to get bloody. 

 

"It's simple," she growled, backing Judy's play because God help her she _was_ the adult guardian here. "This girl is a queen. She's not auditioning here. You are." She practically radiated not-impressed.  

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Without moving her gaze from the wall over everyone's heads, Claire frowned. 

 

"Not how these work, if you're the unknown." she said slowly.

 

"Not unless you're willing to change the rules. Which is what Judy's doing right this moment." Adrian was smiling in earnest now, eyeing the smaller woman as she slid the gauntlet back onto her hand, the lower two fingers flexing experimentally before going still. "And you're right, bowvy," she added with a polite nod to Ashley, "though it's not something I like to admit."

 

"I hope you can forgive my earlier behaviour, Judith? I'm so used to dealing with evil people, good ones are hard to readjust for. What would you like to know?"

 

Leroy raised an eyebrow at Adrian "What must I do to get such a tone?" 

 

"You'll make something of yourself yet, Li, I believe in you."

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If I stand up for Leroy now, he'll suffer the next time he's back with them - unless he's never back with them again. She sat there uncomfortably for a few moments, wishing one of the adults in the room would speak up - until she remembered that this was her idea, and her responsibility. "Say everything goes well today, and all the other days - and Leroy and Ah lived on your homeworld after we graduate," she said, even though she had no intention of ever doing such a thing, "what would our lives be like?" 

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Posted (edited)

"If you chose to live with us, there'd be no limits on you. Anywhere you want to live, anything you want to do, it's possible...so long as it's not on the surface of Seethe." 

 

"The name for Amatuken's Earth. A wild place, full of beasts and tectonic havoc." The Lictor clutched the tablet close to herself as she shuddered "A planet given over to dragons and other monsters of the deep. No human has set foot there for almost half a century!"

 

"Yeah, Lictor. We kinda swore." Adrian said 'swore' with finality, like when one of Judy's father's friends called something 'unconstitutional.'

 

 "Living spaces, goods, food, any material need is freely provided for. If the inhabitants of other Earths are fine with it, you can live on any you like. If you'd like to live in space, or the Sky habitats, that can be arranged too. Li says you're interested in medical science. If that's true, then we have teachers and schools from across hundreds of timelines for you to choose from, or just teach yourself with help from the exoweb, a nearly-infinite database of knowledge anyone can access.

 

"He tells me you're religious. I'm not, but angels and followers of countless faiths live among us. If you want to help people get fed, clothed and sheltered, new worlds are coming in all the time, and many with people kept starving and afraid by their old rulers. Someone nice but with a spine is just what they need."

 

Adrian shrugged, "You could also voyage across the stars, unravel the secrets of infinite power, party for the rest of your life, or join the Army of Light, become a warrior against tyranny and idol of billions." Her lips quirked "But I'm biased."

Edited by Ari
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Judy looked to Leroy to see if all this was having any effect on her fiance, wondering exactly what was going on inside that head of his while the women talked. Adrian certainly made all this sound very attractive, but she'd seen the way Leroy went quiet like a whipped dog when people talked in loud voices around him, the way he deferred to the authority of strong women like...well, like the mirror image of many of the women she'd known growing up, if she was completely honest with herself for a moment. But she'd never seen somebody raised in the church who reacted the way Leroy did, which told her everything she needed to know about his homeworld. 

 

"Yet here you are, a guest." said Ashley. "What's stopping you from rolling into Prime and liberating us?

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Adrian spread her arms and was about to speak, frustration in her eyes, when suddenly Leroy broke in.

 

"...Um, mother believes this world is special. Th-that us absorbing it into our Skies would wreak a cataclysm on the Omniverse. She told me that its rescue must come from its own heroes." 

 

The Demon snorted. "What, and that's worth most the planet suffering? Sister Red can handle a god on its home turf, me and the gang can deal with some bad cosmic planning."

 

Judy felt Leroy grab her hand under the table, almost painfully.

 

"Cousin," he said, "do we help anyone not born on an Earth?"

 

Adrian's jaw clenched. "No," she admitted, "we don't. What's your point?"

 

"That all must be saved." Leroy smiled at his girlfriend, "Something I did not know until I met Judy. This world became her refuge, cousin, there is something at work here! Something good."

 

"Whatever line you're feeding this kid, Judith, it's working." Adrian grumbled, though she smiled wryly. "You've given me something to think about, at least. I guess that's the reason," she added to Ashley, shrugging her huge shoulders, "space magic says 'no'."

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"Yes. Leroy has told me about what happens to worlds liberated by yours." 

 

Judy closed her eyes for a moment, her hand tightening around Leroy's to match his. She pictured her father dead, her family in chains, the White House burning - and her friends at Claremont too, all crushed under the heel of a ruthless interdimensional tyrant. Why doesn't anyone stop them!? When she opened her eyes, she and they glowed with the fire of a thousand suns, and her hand burned hot in Leroy's grip. 

 

When she spoke, her voice cracked like a whip. "We're grateful for your discretion in not invading us, Ah'm sure." She set her hands on top of the table and said, "It is clear that we have many differences between us." She turned to Leroy, her fiery white gaze hot, and said suddenly, "Leroy, honey, what do you want to do about this?"  

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"I am torn," Leroy admitted, the boy's lovely smile dimming as he spoke, "rent in two on all respects. Alien though it is to anyone born under a blue sky, Earth-2 is my home. I know you would be great among us, Dee, as you are among the people of your adopted Earth. I grew up in the seat of our highest and most rigorous debates, yet until I came here I had never heard anyone say our work could be more just, more virtuous. Even if my mother never listened to you, others would. Mercy over vengeance, to care for weaknesses as equal to fostering strengths, these things could change the course of our whole history!"

 

His golden eyes surveyed the world outside their window, Freedom City rising on its hills into the distance, the great mass of Wharton State Forest looming behind it, the two rivers ribboning westward. 

 

"Yet this world, of which I have seen only a fraction, calls to me. I smell it in the air, I feel it in the earth, I hear it in the water. There is suffering here, a loneliness that will never be filled. But this cold, hard place brings out the true shape of a heart."

 

The boy looked down at her, the six long rents in his face a stark white against his dark skin. "Judy, if you will have me, I will remain here. Your God is my God, and your people are my people, where you go I too shall go, to whatever end."

 

"What, you won't even visit?" Adrian shook her head that's cold, man, ice cold."

 

Leroy's eyes flashed as he rounded on her "I never said-! of course I will visit, just not to see you, cousin!"

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"Of course Ah'll have you, Leroy." She reached up and touched his face with the hand that still wore his ring. There was a brief moment of tension in the room. "It sounds like we're done," said Judy, her slight, reassuring smile a glowing white slash across the lower part of her face. "There's no need for angry words now.

 

This was, Ashley supposed, good news - though it didn't mean she had to feel good about it. "Nobody wants a fight," she said, trying to sound as much as a conciliator as she could. "And Leroy's got plenty of time to make up his mind." That got her a glare from Judy but she didn't actually give a crap.

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  • 2 weeks later...

"Merely a handful, Dee. They will see, and confess, that they underestimated you." Leroy planted a kiss on Judy's ring-bearing hand, smiling across the table to Adrian. "Cousin, it would delight me if I might see you again, to make up for my hasty and careless words. The Commander is correct, a fight profits none of us."

 

"Oh, can I come too?" the eyeless horror at the end of the table perked up, the horns framing her tautened skin seeming to strain it all the more as a fanged grin separated her jaws.

 

Claire rose, picked up the Lictor and walked through a door into white light that opened silently to admit her while Leroy visibly struggled to find an approrpiate response. "Meet at ship." she said, before the door slid shut.

 

"Be right with you." Adrian's face was significantly relaxed compared to how rigid and grim she'd been earlier. Returning her cousin's smile, the Demon of Earth-2 stood as well, nodding to the Headmistress. "Thanks for the meeting. Took a real weight off knowing this wasn't the disaster me or  Beast expected. I'll see you next time I can, Leroy, if Judith's alright with it. If you'll excuse me, I got reports to make, worlds to save, the neverending battle..."

 

A door of light opened behind her, swallowing the Demon and closing noiselessly behind, leaving the four alone in the conference room. For just a moment, to Judy's eyes, she saw the shadows of armies in the blazing light. Behind them soared a tower of fire from which the light came, its radiance illuminating and almost healing. But magnetic, so the eye had to fight to turn on anything else, to not be lost in the sussurating, calming flames...

 

Then, like the memory of a dream, it was gone.

 

Beside her, Leroy said very softly "You can see why I wanted the meeting here. Thank you, Ms. Summers," he added, rising to bow to the Claremont administrator, "for the trouble you have taken and the time given, and for your forbearance in this matter. And you, Ashley," he added with a rueful smile, "for your help I consider myself well indebted."

 

"Would you like to go somewhere to-day, Judy? To make up for such an unpleasant noon?" he asked, golden eyes asparkle, "there is to be a performance in Liberty Park, by the city symphony. I have never heard such music before, until Kameron relayed some from the internet."

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