Mars and Venus’ home embodied everything wrong about their organization: rot festering beneath a nice veneer.
Oh, at first glance their manor looked like the height of casual opulence. Venus had tastefully decorated her home with luxuries such as English furniture, hardwood cabinets from Spain, Turkish carpets and Tunisian tapestries. The manor also housed billiard tables, private poker rooms, and even a Roman-themed art gallery. Ryan guessed they couldn’t help but pucker up to Lightning Butt’s obsessions.
But everything came from the pre-war era. The chairs were old, the rugs were worn flat, the stone foyers wrinkled. Even the main room’s TV was outdated. And while the staff had numerous employees, they were nowhere near enough to take good care of the estate. Most rooms felt empty and lifeless.
This place reeked of past obsessions and lost glory.
“Ugh, I can smell the dust,” Ryan said as he visited an empty ballroom, Livia holding his arm. “Wait, is that asbestos?”
“All the non-Genomes in the staff will get illnesses,” Livia confirmed with a sigh. “I warned Fortuna’s parents, but they wouldn’t listen.”
Huh, not only did the Verans deal in drugs and prostitutes, but they also knowingly gave their staff lung disease. They were truly irredeemable. Most worryingly, Ryan noticed Cancel and Mortimer shadowing him and Livia. While it was ostensibly to ‘protect’ the couple, when the courier tested his time-stop, it didn’t activate.
This immediately put him on high alert. Something was up.
“Can I shout, ‘it’s a trap?’” Ryan candidly asked his girlfriend, whispering in her ear.
“Maybe later,” she replied in the same hushed tone, resting her head against his shoulders while he put his arm around her shoulders. To outsiders, they looked like they were about to kiss. “Do you have weapons on yourself?”
“Yes, but not my best ones.” Though he came dressed casually, he always kept hidden knives beneath his clothes. “I can always drop my pants; that should blind them.”
Livia gave him a dirty look. “It didn’t blind me when I looked closely.”
“Because I put the safety on.”
“Keep your pants up, and your other weapons closer,” she replied, careful that Cancel and Mortimer couldn’t hear them. Thankfully, while they remained at close distance, the two hitmen gave the couple enough space for privacy. “And have Len be ready to evacuate you. You might need to go to Antarctica quicker than expected.”
“So this is a trap?”
“Yes,” Livia admitted with a dark look. “But not for us.”
“You could have warned me beforehand.” Then again, Ryan did interfere with her power. She probably had a hard time adjusting to his actions. “I like surprises, but not when our favorite power-canceler is nearby.”
The threat of dying permanently or worse still frightened the courier.
“I wasn’t sure until we entered the building,” Livia admitted, as they left the ballroom for a mirrored hallway. It reminded Ryan of the ruins of Versailles, which he had visited in a previous loop. There wasn’t a Genome assassin hidden in his reflection this time around though, much to his disappointment. “I foresaw some worrying possibilities, and Greta’s presence only confirms my worries.”
“Doesn’t our cheery sociopath prevent you from seeing anything in her vicinity?” Ryan asked, taking his cellphone and sending a text message to Len, the Panda, Shroud, and everyone else who would listen.
“She does, which is why Father sent her,” Livia replied darkly as her boyfriend put his phone back in his pocket, “but I saw all the ways this dinner could end before coming here. Except those where you interfere, of course.”
“Do some end with explosions?” Ryan asked hopefully, “because I can help with those.”
“I know you can,” Livia replied mirthfully, as they reached the dining room’s entrance. “But please don’t burn the carpets. I like some of those.”
A single guard stood watch over the doors, a man in an all-black bodysuit covering his entire body. Ryan wondered how he could see without holes in his mask. The guard flinched upon seeing the couple, while the time-traveler gave him a sadistic smile worthy of Jack Nicholson.
“Ryan, this is Night Terror of the Killer Seven,” Livia introduced them to each other. “Night Terror, this is Ryan Romano, my boyfriend.”
“We met,” the man said, spitting each word. “With all due respect, Lady Livia, your companion is a home-breaking asshole.”
“Wait, this is the guy who punched you in the face for no reason?” Mortimer asked from behind the group, suddenly interested. “Oh, that’s awkward.”
“For no reason at all!” Night Terror complained while raising an accusing finger at Ryan’s face. “I don’t even know him!”
“I’m sure my companion had his reasons,” Livia said, before glancing at her boyfriend. “Right, Ryan?”
The courier didn’t answer. Instead, he kept staring at Night Terror, the way a mongoose glared at a snake. He didn’t say a word. He just waited.
“Maybe he punches everyone?” Mortimer asked, trying to fill the silence while Livia raised an eyebrow.
“He didn’t punch me,” Cancel said. “I would have killed him if he had tried, sure, but he didn’t.” She sounded a little disappointed about that.
“Did you use your powers on my boyfriend?” Livia asked Night Terror with a falsely innocent smile.
The Darkling impersonator crossed his arms. He was trying to look strong, but Ryan could tell that the silent glare was slowly startling to unsettle him. “Maybe? I don’t keep track.”
“That’s why poor ol’ Mortimer kills his victims,” the wall-phasing hitman said. “When they come back to haunt him, at least he knows why.”
Ryan said nothing, causing Night Terror to start losing his nerve. “Don’t you have anything to say for yourself?”
The courier said nothing. Instead, he kept staring at the man’s mask, until Night Terrorized started looking away. But he couldn’t escape Ryan’s stare inside a mirror gallery. “Stop doing that,” the hitman asked, unsettled. “You think you can make me lose my nerve? You think you can get under my skin? I’m fear itself!”
The silence stretched on, more and more uncomfortably.
Cancel and Mortimer probably exchanged glances behind Ryan, and Livia clearly struggled not to laugh, but he only had eyes for the gaping darkness in front of him.
“Lady Livia, can you ask this man to stop, please?” Night Terrorized tried to look down, but Augustus’ daughter said nothing. “Stop it.”
Ryan gently put a hand below his prey’s chin, and forced him to look up.
There was no escape.
Eventually, Night Terror crumbled. “Okay, okay, I get it,” he said, walking away from the doors. “Vamp will take my shift.”
“Sparrow won’t like it,” Cancel said, while Mortimer chuckled like a hyena.
“Whatever,” Night Terrorized complained, before realizing that Ryan’s gaze followed him. His pace accelerated greatly afterward, until he exited the gallery.
When he was gone, Livia couldn’t hold her laughter anymore. “You’re horrible, Ryan.”
Ryan looked silently at his girlfriend... but she was better at this game than he was, and he submitted.
The dining room turned out to be a large banquet hall on the first floor, with a sprawling table capable of housing two dozen persons. An unused fireplace faced three windows giving an impeccable view of the gardens outside, with Cancel positioning herself to look through the central one while Mortimer protected the entrance. Adorable, they expected an attack from the outside, but not from within.
Mars had taken over the table’s head, one daughter sitting on each side. Jamie and Ki-jung had taken the seats closest to Narcinia, while Mathias ‘Shroudy’ Martel stayed at his girlfriend’s side, having traded his transparent costume for tasteful blue jeans and a shirt. Considering how close he sat to his lucky charm, Ryan guessed they had patched up somehow.
“Livy!” Fortuna grinned ear to ear upon seeing her best friend, while Mathias gave Ryan a sharp nod. He looked secretly relieved to see a friendly face, especially when he noticed Cancel and Mortimer. “Come, sit with us!”
“Sorry to have kept you waiting,” Livia said, the very picture of courtesy. “Mercury, Chitter, I am so glad you could come.”
“I can’t get used to that name,” Jamie replied. Ryan hadn’t seen this caring bear of a man much lately, but he had made some effort to dress well for this dinner, wearing a suit and a tie. His Korean girlfriend Ki-jung fidgeted in her seat, clearly uncomfortable with either the situation or her sleeveless black dress. She had given up her glasses for contact lenses, but would rather stare at the table than at the other guests. The pressure weighed on her. “I don’t think I ever will.”
“It will come with time,” Mars reassured him. The older man shared his junior’s paternal aura, and Ryan had the feeling the two men were the same, a generation apart. But when the courier examined them both, he noticed a predatory glint in Mars’ gaze that wasn’t present in Jamie’s. “Though it’s a shame you took the job on the day we lost our Bliss production center. Darn ill omen.”
The drug’s mention made Ki-jung raise her head, like a dreamer waking up from a long nap. “Oh?” her boyfriend said, holding her hand to comfort her. “Oh, yes, that’s true.”
Jamie tried not to look pleased, but he was a terrible liar and Ryan could see his true feelings in his eyes. Ischia Island’s destruction clearly came as an enormous relief to him.
“I can’t believe they killed Geist,” Narcinia complained, arms crossed. “I know he wanted to die, but…”
“Wasn’t he already dead?” Ki-jung finally found the courage to speak up. “How can you slay a ghost?”
“One attempt at once,” Ryan said from experience. “Hopefully, eventually it will stick.”
Narcinia’s mood worsened further. “It won’t feel the same without him, even if we rebuild the place. He was funny and kind, and always there.”
“The loss of Ischia island weighs heavily on all of our minds,” Livia said as she sat between Fortuna and Ryan himself. The courier’s chair let out a worrying sound, as if it threatened to crumble beneath him. “But this should be a joyful reunion, not an occasion to open old wounds.”
“I couldn’t agree more!” Fortuna said with a bright smile. “We should savor the champagne! Jamie, Ki-jung, tell them the news!”
The two exchanged a sheepish glance. “We’re getting married soon,” Jamie announced.
“Jamie proposed,” Ki-jung said, blushing.
“Congratulations!” Ryan said with genuine joy, though he already learned the news in a previous loop. “When is the baby?”
This made Jamie laugh. “We’ll wait a few years.”
“At this rate, we will only have married couples around this table,” Mars said while glancing at Mathias. “When will you propose?”
It sounded innocent, but the man’s eyes didn’t smile when his mouth did. Unlike Jamie’s, his easy-going friendliness was all a sham. A mask that hid something darker and calculating.
“Dad!” Fortuna protested. “That’s not something you ask at dinner!”
“It won't be for tomorrow,” Mathias replied dryly.
“My daughter told me you were a videogame designer?” Mars continued to fish for information. “Is that working out well for you?”
“I’m still looking for sponsors,” Mathias replied.
“Have you tried GoatVPN?” Ryan asked mirthfully.
His co-conspirator raised an eyebrow, skeptical. “GoatVPN?”
“In this information age, it is key to protect your data from Dynamis and other heartless Dynanet providers,” Ryan said with a telemarketer’s voice. Which was to say, like someone who sold his soul for money. “With more than ten billion users, GoatVPN creates a wall of goats to shield your emails from unwanted ads, except their own.”
“I remember an ad like this one on the Dynanet,” Ki-jung said with amusement. “Alongside one for Wyvern League Legend, I believe?”
“I’m sure their marketing budget is bigger than most third-world countries,” Ryan said. “Which, to be fair, isn’t saying much nowadays.”
“We could help with that sponsor issue,” Mars told his future-in-law.
Thankfully, the Carnival infiltrator’s soul wasn’t for sale. “I would prefer to stand on my own feet, sir.”
“Yes, Dad, my Mathias has something better than money,” Fortuna said. “He has me!”
“You should have dumped him,” Narcinia said, pouting. Clearly, she didn’t like Mathias any more than in the previous loops; she probably sensed he wasn’t as transparent as he let it look.
“I almost did, but then I asked Livy to tell me my future,” her sister admitted with an uneasy smile, while Mathias’ eyes wandered from Narcinia to her adoptive father. “Then I decided to give him another chance. I knew things would turn out alright, of course, since they always do, but it was nice to have an outside confirmation.”
“Come to think of it, you could make a killing from palm-reading,” Ryan told his girlfriend.
“I work better with crystal balls,” Livia replied with a giggle, “or when I open sheep entrails to interpret the content.”
Narcinia gasped. “You’re kidding right?”
“Of course,” Livia reassured the young teen. “It was a joke.”
“But just in case, keep your sheep safely penned in at night,” Ryan said with a knowing grin.
Narcinia childishly stuck out her tongue at the courier, much to his amusement, while Jamie started asking Mathias and Fortuna about how they met. With the guests distracted and the Killer Seven focused on the windows and doors, Ryan started whispering into his girlfriend’s ear. “I thought you hated our translucent friend?”
“I still think Fortuna is too good for him,” Livia replied with a shrug, speaking low enough that others wouldn’t hear. “But he makes her happy in most futures where they end up together. Or at least, the possibilities where I can reform my father’s organization and avoid a war. I simply told her as much.”
Ryan raised an eyebrow. “There are futures where things go well?”
“Yes, Ryan, there are,” Livia chuckled while rolling her eyes. “They’re rare, but if Dad fully retires and Enrique Manada takes over Dynamis, I get to reform my organization peacefully. No more drugs, forced prostitution, intimidation, or money laundering. My family goes legit. I funnel our war chest towards renovating Rust Town, creating jobs. We help Europe rebuild into something we can be proud of.”
“I hope to see that one day.”
“You will, if I have my way.”
But to Ryan’s surprise, instead of saying this with a smile, Livia glanced at the fireplace anxiously. The courier followed her gaze, noticing nothing extraordinary.
“You said you trusted me,” she whispered back, so low he could hardly understand her words.
Okay, something was definitely wrong here. “Livia, what’s happening?”
“I hope I’m wrong.” Thankfully, the others were making enough noise for the two of them to whisper close to each other. “But, I have seen how this dinner could go, and… it seems like this possibility might come to pass. If it does… if it does, someone will fall down the chimney’s shaft. Mars will make a call to my father, and when the call finishes, that person will die. Unless you intervene.”
“Someone?” How could someone slip past the guards, climb over the roof, and move into the chimney unseen?
Someone who lived here for years.
A chill went down Ryan’s spine, and he realized he had already lived through these events. “Your father would order a hit on him?”
His eyes wandered around the room, and he noticed Mortimer had vanished. Did he move to another part of the manor, or was he hiding in the walls in ambush?
“Dad already did, though he thinks I don’t know yet,” Livia said darkly, her eyes turning to Mars. “His parents tried to invite him officially, but he smelled the trap.”
“Why would he even come?”
“For Narcinia. He will want to talk her into leaving the family behind now that the factory is destroyed, and he knows my family wiretaps her phone.” Livia shook her head sadly. “He will think my father wants to capture him, not kill him.”
Ryan tensed. “That’s why Cancel has her power active in your vicinity? So you wouldn’t see it coming and stop it?”
Livia nodded sadly.
But why? Ryan tried to figure it out, before realizing his mistake. “I mentioned Dynamis while fighting Geist.”
“My father is convinced the Bliss Factory assault was an inside job, rightfully so.” Of course Lightning Butt would get paranoid and grasp at straws. “I will distract Cancel, but Mars and some of the other Killer Seven will probably give pursuit.”
“What about Jamie and Ki-jung?” Ryan asked, glancing at the couple. The courier knew they were good people, but would they make the right choice?
“It can go either way,” Livia said. “It depends on who they are deep down.”
Ryan frowned. “You knew this could happen. You could have stopped it.”
“I could have,” she admitted, her face undecipherable. “I know my father gave the order in a previous loop, but… I hoped those were exceptional circumstances. This possibility is unlikely, Ryan. Maybe it won’t come to pass.”
But she could have guaranteed it wouldn’t happen by making the right phone calls. ”Why did you make it possible at all?”
“Because Narcinia needs to see it, as my previous self did,” Livia said with a sigh. “Or else she will never open her eyes to what her parents are, and the happy future I have seen will never come to pass. And…”
She shyly joined her hands and looked up at her boyfriend.
“I did it because I trust you, Ryan,” the Augusti princess said softly. “Because I know you can make it work. That you can change things.”
Ryan looked into her eyes, and realized that she had put all her hopes on him.
He didn’t even consider refusing.
The courier had fought all the Killer Seven before, except Fortuna—who would certainly help. He could beat them. As for Mars, Ryan had seen him in action before. He could teleport objects around.
“What’s his range?” Ryan asked Livia while looking at the Olympian. Mars chuckled at something Mathias said, but his fingers brushed against the table, like a cat itching to show his claws.
“Ten meters,” Livia said, her fingers brushing against his. “If something happens, I will move to Sorrento. We will meet again there, after you are done with your business in Antarctica.”
“And if nothing happens?”
Livia smiled. “Then we will have a very boring dinner on our hands.”
Uh, this made Ryan wish for more action. “I’ll find a way,” he whispered.
“I know,” Livia replied, before rising from her seat. “Cancel, can you escort me to the bathroom?”
“Oh, sure!” the guard said, clearly eager to follow; too eager. Ryan watched his girlfriend and her bodyguard exit through the door, his eyes wandering to the fireplace next.
“It’s been a while,” Narcinia complained to her adoptive father. “When is Mom coming?”
Mars shrugged. “She is in the kitchen, supervising the staff.” Or more likely, preparing an ambush. “You know your mother, she’s obsessed with everything being perfect. It’s almost compulsive.”
“You're telling me,” Fortuna said with a displeased face. A perfect face created by her mother’s power.
“Your mom is dealing with anxiety in her own way,” her father said. “The Carnival is in town, and they killed many of our own. She will feel safer with you and your sister at home.”
“But not Atom Kitty?” Ryan asked the hard question. He noticed soot falling down the fireplace, almost imperceptibly so.
A few chuckled at the nickname, but Mars wasn’t among them. “We invited him,” he said. “But my son is stubborn.”
“He didn’t even answer my messages,” Fortuna said angrily, “I swear, when I see him again, I will punch him in the arm so hard, it will never work again!”
If only she knew he was hiding in the room, waiting for the dinner to end and the guests to go to sleep. Dynamis’ inactivity must have frustrated him a great deal to even consider something this reckless. Did he think he could convince his sister to leave, and then sneak them out? What kind of foolish, idealistic boy would think this was ever a good idea?
The same bold boy who accepted a Carnival invitation knowing it was a death sentence.
But for all his strength of character, he tripped down the chimney shaft and crashed into the fireplace.
The other guests glanced at the chimney, as a shape loudly fell on the ground and blew a small cloud of soot in the room. Ryan wondered if Santa Claus had taken on an intern, for the young man that emerged from the fireplace was fifty years too young to be Father Christmas.
“Uh...” Atom Cat scoffed as he rose from the fireplace, his hero costume tainted black and grey by ashes and soot. “Hi.”