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A note from pwtucker

Thank you Ilos_Libris for the great review!

 

“I’ve really fallen down the rabbit hole here,” said Cindy, smiling up at James from where she sat at her computer. “But in many ways this is still simpler than running fantasy conventions. No prima donna Hollywood guests, no switching schedule, and dealing with a few thousand people instead of a hundred. Still.” She typed into the command window and brought up the search function. “Despite all the moving pieces, Star Boy’s created this lovely database that does most the work. What are we looking for?”

“Replacements for Inspire and Dark Vision.”

“Those were Bjørn and Becca, weren’t they?” She suddenly looked stricken. “They fall in battle?”

“Something like that.”

Cindy studied him for a moment then decided not to pursue it. “All right let’s see. Smite is the biggest overall category, but only a quarter of Smiters went Dark Vision. That leaves us with seventy-five candidates, as we’ve had some luck recently forming new squads.” Cindy hesitated. “As well as needing to patch holes. What sort of person are we looking for? Male, female, age, etc.?”

“We can drill down that much?”

“To a degree.”

James thought of Becca. Acerbic, confident, brash. How she’d always felt outside the team, to a degree, and latched on to Bjørn so quickly. “Team player. Someone who’s going to work with us, lift us up, be a good influence.”

“Hmm.” Cindy tapped her lip. “Good influence. Let’s see.” She scrolled through the names, then stopped. “Oh! Kerim might be perfect for you. Let’s see… here he is. Kerim Alakuşoğlu. Forty-two, visiting professor at Columbia University, Novitiate 2, went Smite, Dark Vision, Shadow Step.”

“Shadow Step?” James considered. “Good mobility. What brings him to mind?”

“He’s very striking, for one thing.” Cindy sat back and sighed. “Very handsome man, very dignified. But a profoundly good man, you know? Which is a weird thing to say about a person, especially as I don’t know him, but you get the impression right off. Very educated, very thoughtful, but he has this… I don’t know. Not reserve, but this old school dignity? You should just meet him.”

“OK, sure. What about Inspire?”

Cindy tapped on the keyboard a few times. “What are we looking for?”

“Same again.” Bjørn’s saturnine features appeared in his mind’s eye, his powerful, dour personality, his sociopathic tendencies, his arrogance and scorn. “Someone nice.”

“Someone nice. Someone nice.” Cindy searched through the database, frowning. “Oh, Kimmie’s an Inspire. Where is she? Here. Kimmie Baum. Twenty-three, was a yoga instructor, worked at a rock-climbing gym, went Bless, Inspire, Holy Zeal. She’s like a ray of sunshine.”

“Ray of sunshine sounds good.”

“I think you’ll be really happy with them both. Kerim and Kimmie are real steals. They’re on the premises right now. Let me call them down.”

“Sure. How about you ask them to meet me in… I don’t know. Conference room #3? The small one past the business center? Let’s do them one at a time. Kerim first?”

“Sounds good. I’ll let you know when he’s on his way.”

“Thanks Cindy.” James smiled at her. “You’re the best.”

“The best?” asked the Anima, who’d been hovering silently behind James’s shoulder the whole time. “That is incredibly impressive.”

James chuckled. “That she is. Let’s go, partner.”

He grabbed a cup of coffee en route, and then entered the little conference room, grabbed a chair, and slumped back. Sipped till Cindy paged him that Kerim was inbound, and a few moments later there was a polite but firm knock on the door.

“Come in.”

Kerim was as elegant and dignified as Cindy had said. Tall, poised, with a coffee-colored wrap around his shoulders and a pair of slender spectacles balanced on his nose, he had the air of a medieval scholar, a man who’d traveled the world describing all the far-fetched wonders he’d discovered. Lean, with a mass of chocolatey-black curls about his head and a trimmed beard, he closed the door and entered. “Mr. Kelly? Ms. Robinson said you wished to speak with me.”

“Take a seat,” said James, gesturing to a chair across the table. “Crimson Hydra lost a few folks today, and we’re looking to get replacements as soon as possible. Cindy spoke highly of you.”

“Ms. Robinson is too kind.” Kerim sat, smoothed down his shirt, and studied James in turn, his gaze lively, curious. “So this is an interview?”

“Of sorts. No need for a resume.” James sat up, prompted to better posture by Kerim’s own alert poise. “Just seeing if we’ll get along. Tell me about yourself.”

“Very well. My name is Kerim Alakuşoğlu, and I am - or was - the Robert Yik-Fong Tam Professor in the Humanities at Columbia University, where I taught comparative literature and poetry.”

His accent was curious, refined, polished, but subtly inflected in a way that made him sound foreign.

“Visiting from where?”

“Most recently out of Frankfurt, Germany, where I’d been living this past decade. I was born and raised in Istanbul but found the political climate growing too repressive to remain.” He frowned gently. “Certain religious fundamentalists took objection with one of my poetry collections. I wrote openly about the Armenian genocide, and a criminal case was opened against me. Ultimately, I was forced to pay a fine for having insulted the honor of various gentlemen, and that was sufficient for me. I left for Germany and have only returned home a handful of times.”

James tried to make sense of this. It felt as if he stood at the brink of a gulf whose depths he couldn’t understand. He hadn’t even known there’d been an Armenian genocide. “You wrote those poems knowing you’d get in trouble?”

Kerim’s smile grew pained. “I wrote them hoping I wouldn’t. Trusting that the liberal foundation of our republic would prove strong enough to resist the temptation, but alas.”

“And how’d you come to be Novitiate 2? I’d have thought a professor would have just hidden in his office and waited this all out.”

“Some, perhaps. But I have spent my life writing about virtue and its crucibles. It did not seem to me, when this apocalypse began, that I could hide while others fought and not consider myself a hypocrite. So I ventured forth and was fortunate to join with a group of students who had seen one of your earlier videos. We all placed our points in Fanaa, and more by good fortune than anything else were able to advance quickly.”

“Fanaa?”

“I am a cultural Muslim, if not a practicing one, but that was sufficient, apparently, for my sheet to appear differently from that of Christians. Fanaa is the rough equivalent of your ‘arete’. It is a term from Sufism which means the annihilation of self before Allah, whereby the self becomes the instrument of Allah’s plan in the world.”

“Fascinating,” said James. “Do you have Aeviternum?”

Kerim smiled at James’s enthusiasm. “I have Haal points. Haal is another Sufi term for a temporary state of enlightenment and transcendence, a gift from Allah over which man has no control. Even nonbelievers are said to be capable of experiencing haal, as it is a gift that stems from Allah’s overabundance of divine grace.”

“That’s awesome.” James hesitated and then waved his hand. “I mean no disrespect, obviously.”

“None taken. I am not a mystic and find these terms fascinating and strange as well.”

“Benedictions?”

“Karama.”

“But you have an aura?”

“We call it Naf.”

“That’s… wow.” James sat back. “What kind of intelligence is controlling all this? To know enough about… what did you call it? Sufism? And whom to apply it to?”

Kerim spread his hands. “That is a question being debated around the world. The simplest answer might be correct: Allah.”

“But…” James frowned. “Why would Allah do this to us?”

“A question that echoes throughout our holy texts. There is a prophet in the Quran known as Job who is tested yet remains steadfast in his faith. He does not understand why he is being made to suffer, but his form of grace lies in not seeking to understand. He remains steadfast in his faith, perseveres, and is rewarded.”

“So you’re saying we shouldn’t ask questions?”

Kerim shrugged. “It is human nature to ask, and I am not secular poet, not a pious man. But when all we are faced with is mystery, I think you must either choose faith or embrace ignorance. Speculation is fruitless.”

“Yeah, I can see that.” James mulled this over. “All right, yeah. So, Shadow Step. Why didn’t you go with Black Apotheosis?”

“To be honest? The idea frightened me. Already I feel myself greatly removed from the man I was but a month or two ago. If I were to take on a demonic form of shadow and fire? I Kerim Alakuşoğlu would cease to exist.”

“But Shadow Step works for you?”

“It does indeed.” Again Kerim smiled his quiet smile. “It has offered me great versatility in the field, as I believe the military call it, and at night I am impossible to pin down.”

“Great.” James realized he’d already made his decision. “You want in with Crimson Hydra?”

Kerim laughed huskily. “Is that a rhetorical question? It would be an honor.”

James extended his hand. “Then welcome aboard.”

Kerim shook his hand, grip firm, his palm smooth. “Thank you.”

“I’ll introduce you to the others soon, and after we have a day working together, well, I’ve something big to tell you. If you’re fine with that, you’ll be a full member. In the meantime, I’ve got one more spot to fill.”

Kerim stood. “I’ll await your call in my room, then. Good evening, Mr. Kelly, and thank you again.”

James sat back, bemused, as the poet left the conference room. Cindy had been right. The man possessed a rare dignity and poise that made James feel educated and smart just for being around him. James grinned. The man would be a good influence, there was no doubt of that.

He called Cindy, who paged Kimmie, and a minute later there was another knock on the door, a friendly rat-a-tat-tat, and the door cracked open immediately so that Kimmie could peer inside, her smile tentative but warm. “Mr. Kelly?”

“Kimmie, hey, come on in and take a seat.”

She did so, slipping in sideways through the cracked door and closing it behind her. She was short, lively, her energy fresh and her hazel eyes gleaming with good humor. She wore a green military cap atop her bouncy head of pale blonde curls, and a pair of jean overalls over a long-sleeved white shirt. Snub nosed, freckled, with striking dark eyebrows that contrasted sharply with her nearly white hair, she smiled at him, bobbed her head and slipped smoothly into Kerim’s chair.

“Can I just say before we get started that it’s really, really great to actually get to meet you?” She beamed. “I’m going to gush a little bit, but seriously, what you’ve done here is amazing. Blue Light, setting everything up, the patrols, the way we’ve already cleared out all the symbols in New York while so many other places are struggling? Super impressive. And your TikTok video about aura was like, a literal godsend. I’d no idea what I was doing, other than I had to do something, and then you appeared in that amazing outfit and just told me what to do.” She shook her head in wonder. “And so I just got out there and did it. So. Thank you.”

James didn’t know whether to laugh or blush. “It’s nothing. Glad the video helped.”

“What happened to that fur coat though? You looked so good in it. Like… I don’t know, an avenging angel sent from the heart of Burning Man.”

“Burning Man?”

“You never went? I only got out there once, but it was so mind blowing. Just… well. Guess it won’t be happening for a while yet.”

“What won’t?”

“Burning Man. This festival that was held every year out in the desert in Nevada.”

“No, I’m thinking it’ll be a while till it does, if ever.”

“If ever?” Kimmie sat back. “Are you kidding me? People are going to be celebrating like crazy when we win this thing. It’ll be Burning Man non-stop.”

“You think we’re going to win?”

She raised both dark brows. “Do I think we’re going to win? Of course we’re going to win.”

James smiled. “I like your confidence.”

“You don’t?”

“I’m not sure.”

“Well, take it from me. Humanity’s got this one in the bag. I’m not saying it won’t be hard, that billions won’t die, but… yeah. I just know we’re going to win. In the end. Nothing can stop us.”

For a moment they just sat thus, Kimmie beaming at James, until he chuckled and shook his head. “All right, I like your version better. Tell me about yourself.”

“Oh man. Where to begin? The short version. I’m from North Carolina, grew up in the Blue Ridge mountains on a horse farm. Perfect childhood, my moms allowed me to pretty much run wild. But I broke their hearts when I told them I wanted to go to college in New York. So I came here, enrolled in the New School, and started teaching yoga at the studio on Broadway and 43rd? Also got a job at Climb Extreme gym, where I completely fell in love with rock climbing. Before this went down, you could find me there almost every evening. Such a cool crew. I guess I was growing tired of yoga? Been doing it since I was six. Which I love, and I honor the practice, but rock climbing is so fun.

“Never done it,” said James.

“Anyway, then the apocalypse happened, and I took Bless - maybe because of my yoga background, actually, you know, Namaste y’all. And Inspiration seemed like the perfect fit, as I’ve always felt called to inspire others, or help them find their path, either on the mat, up a wall, or just in life. And then Holy Zeal just felt right. I don’t know why. Terrify was out, obviously, and Arete Font just felt too passive. So. Here I am.”

James shook his head in amazement. “You’re nothing like the last Inspire teammate we had.”

Complex emotions flickered through Kimmie’s hazel eyes. “I’m sorry. Were you guys close?”

“No, not really. My comparison was a good thing. How do you use Inspiration? What role do you see yourself playing in a team, in this new world of ours?”

“I mean, the name’s right there on the can, right? Inspiration? My job is to get people to do their best, to feel their strongest, to give folks hope.”

“Yeah? How do you do that?”

“Can I use my power on you for a moment?”

James hesitated, seeing Bjørn’s dark gaze in his mind’s eye for a second, then nodded reluctantly. “Sure.”

“OK.” Kimmie inhaled deeply then smiled. “Despite everything, you’re doing your best and it’s fantastic.

Her power washed over him. But where Bjørn’s had been a leaden hand reaching into his mind to wrest control, from Kimmie he felt a golden surge of well-being and an elevating sense of confidence. It felt like that moment when you step out of a cold stairwell into the sunlight and raise your face to the warmth. Weight James hadn’t even realized he’d been carrying seemed to lighten, and tension left his shoulders.

“See?” Kimmie’s smile was infectious. “Inspire. It’s like we’re all in a yoga class. I’ve found that the more Hallmark I get, the better. It’s super cheesy, but it works. Things are so dark, so intense right now. A little boost of goodness can make a world of difference.”

“Yeah, I can see that.” The warmth was still there, but James could tell now how it would slowly subside. He gave a surprised laugh. “That felt really good.”

Kimmie shrugged both shoulders high about her ears and grinned. “Even though I know we’re going to win, I also know it’s going to be really hard. I’m an optimist, but that doesn’t mean I’m hopelessly naive. So, yeah. Inspire can really help a team stay focused, stay positive, and believe in themselves and humanity.”

“You’re hired,” grinned James. He hadn’t realized just how much harder Bjørn had been making things till this moment. Instead of being a net positive, he’d been a threat, a drain on James’s resources and the team’s overall vibe. “If you want it.”

“Yes!” Kimmie leaped to her feet with a little fist pump. “That’s fantastic! Thank you! Wow!”

James laughed. “C’mon. We’ll let Cindy know, then I’ll introduce you to the others. We need to get ready. Tomorrow’s the Third Wave. I’ll have something big to tell you when the day’s over, and if you’re OK with it, you’ll be a full member.”

“Mysterious,” said Kimmie, then beamed. “But I’m sure we’ll be ready for tomorrow. I guarantee it.”

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