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  1. Thanks so much! I'm really proud of this chapter 😊
  2. Ronnie's first week at the Syndicate flew by. The days began early, with orientation classes designed to teach him the overall structure of the Syndicate, as well as the major rules and regulations. It turned out that an international crime-fighting organization had a lot of red tape to navigate in daily operations. Generally speaking, it was the job of Syndicate Support to know the guidelines inside and out, but all new trainees were given a crash course. The classes were dense and pretty dull most of the time, but Ronnie did his best to get through them. He got the impression that Taran was a stickler for the rules, and he didn't want to let him down. Orientation was also the one part of the day that Ronnie felt he actually managed to be successful at. After morning classes, it was lunchtime. For the first time in his life, Ronnie had a group of friends to eat with. Maya, Taran, and Lydia joined him, and through their conversations, he learned more about what a Syndicate hero's life was like. Taran and Maya had recently been on a mission at a museum that had not gone according to plan, and someone managed to steal the jewels they were meant to investigate. Maya and Lydia had spent the last few days in the research library searching for clues, but no new information had come up regarding the Jewels of Katar, or who could have been behind the burglary. Ronnie noticed that the mission's shortcomings had put a cloud over Taran's mood. It appeared he was unaccustomed to field operations not going his way, and the mysterious jewel thief left him distracted. Taran was back to himself a few days later, smiling and doing his best to help Ronnie. It turned out Ronnie needed all the help he could get. Every day after lunch, he went with Taran to the small training room for meditation exercises. And every day, he had ended up exhausted and dizzy, nearly retching up his meal as his vision spun around him. No matter how hard he tried, his powers fought against his focus, leaving him mentally and physically drained. Taran had been there every day to make sure Ronnie got through it. Keeping him steady on the walk back to the locker room, trying to keep his spirits up when Ronnie got frustrated after yet another incomplete exercise. Taran repeatedly stressed that everything was perfectly normal, that it often took a long while for trainees to lock onto their power sources. Ronnie had once asked Taran how long it had taken him but didn't get an answer. He had a feeling he didn't want to know. It was Friday, Ronnie's fifth consecutive day of being in the training room. He sat in his spot at the center of the room, already prepared for the worst. "Today's the day, I can feel it," Taran told him. His dark eyes sparkled in the light of the room. "You're so close. Just keep in mind all that you've learned this week." Ronnie closed his eyes and began to meditate. After a few breaths, the tingling in his fingers began, and he could feel the soft glow of the light. In his mind, he saw the light flow once again around his fingers. With a bit of prodding, it formed into a small sphere in his palm. This part had gotten easier over the week. He was able to push the construct with his mind, and it rolled smoothly across the surface of his hand. It thrummed with energy, and its shape was more stable than ever before. "Don't forget to breathe," Taran's voice called out. It seemed so far away. Ronnie slowly took a breath. Inhale. He continued to focus on the energy in his hand, imagining it sinking slowly into his palm. He felt its warmth under his skin. Exhale. The green glow of energy began to fade in and out in time with his breathing. He pushed the sphere with his mind, and it rolled around under the skin of his palm. It appeared to snag on something at the base of his wrist. A new development. Ronnie turned his focus to the snag, which shimmered with a faint silver light in his mind. It reminded him of a thin, delicate root. A tendril that responded every so slightly when Ronnie pushed his thoughts against it. He nudged the energy globe onto the thread, which began to wrap around it. He shifted his focus further down his arm, and the ball continued to follow the shiny silver thread. The power traveled up his forearm, weaving back and forth as it matched the path of the pale tendril, pulling in some of the energy of the thread as it advanced. The tendril's route meandered, Ronnie felt a whisper of it passing through bone and muscle. Like a spool of thread come undone inside him, it was tangled and messy, but always progressing further towards his core. The power sphere was soon at his shoulder. Ronnie could feel the energy radiating at the base of his neck. The shimmering thread was growing wider and becoming more challenging to travel along. With another breath, Ronnie pushed his focus harder against the sphere. It slowly rolled across his shoulder and along his collarbone. The energy had grown brighter and more intense. It felt heavy in his throat, and the heat from the orb was starting to become painful, like a match held against his skin. The sphere had grown to be the size of a fist, resting just below his adam's apple. Ronnie's focus slipped ever so slightly. From far away, he could feel the sweat on his forehead. He sensed his hands resting on his knees, how they were starting to shake from the effort. In his momentary lapse, the sphere of energy began to fight back against his efforts, like it wanted to retreat back down the tendril's path. It knocked violently back and forth, nearly impossible to hold on to. Ronnie's heartbeat was pounding in his ears. He could feel his grip on the images starting to slide away, unsure of how much longer he would be able to hold them together. "You got this, Ronnie. You're almost there!" He heard Taran's voice again. Why was it muffled and so far away? Ronnie pushed it aside as the sphere continued to buck under his focus, trying anything to escape his hold. With a final breath, Ronnie forced the energy down from his throat with as much effort as he could muster. It rolled with a shudder down his chest, before sinking into his sternum. The vision in Ronnie's mind exploded with a violent green light as the ball of energy fit into space deep within his chest. Every nerve ending was on fire as the shimmering silver tendrils grew from his chest and snaked along his entire body. One strand branched out into two, which quickly split again into four. Over and over until the impossibly thin fibers embedded themselves deep into his muscles and bones. Ronnie felt them everywhere, stretching to his fingers and toes, and even behind his eyes. A network of pathways had grown from the concentration of energy that was now socketed behind his ribcage. Its light grew in intensity once more, then pulsed and raced down each newly created path. Ronnie's eyes shot open as a wave of energy burst out of his body from all sides, ripping the floor mats up and flinging them outward. The wave radiated like a ripple in a pond until it slammed against the walls of the small room. The windows on Ronnie's left were blown out, and he heard the mirrors on the far wall shatter. Glass shards rained down onto the floor. Then there was silence. Ronnie's vision suddenly spun, and he slumped over onto his side. He gasped for air and clutched at his chest, which felt like it was on fire. Ronnie wiped the sweat from his eyes and tried to sit back up. He was hit with the realization that he was the only person in the room. Taran was nowhere to be seen. "Taran?! Anybody?!" He called out. Surely there had to be a camera or something in the room. He tried to locate one but found nothing but broken glass and dust. The door to the room opened slightly. Ronnie sighed with relief when Taran peeked his head in. "Ronnie, you doing ok?" "Oh, thank God. I thought I hurt you." "No, I'm alright! I ducked behind the door when I saw you were really struggling." He looked around the room and inspected the damage. "Which appears to have been the right move." "Taran, I'm so, so sorry! I thought I was controlling it!" "You didn't do anything wrong! I had a feeling this might happen." Taran swept his arm over the ground, and a gust of wind picked up. It carried all the debris: glass, dust, and plaster to the other side of the room. He sat down next to Ronnie again. "That burst of energy. You did it! You found your focal point." Ronnie nodded and put his hand on his chest. "Right here," he said, still trying to catch his breath. "Tell me about it. What does it feel like?" Ronnie explained the sphere of energy in his chest and the branching network of pathways. "What does all that mean exactly?" he asked Taran. "Think of it as a mental shortcut. Before this, your mind was blocking you from realizing your full potential as a self-preservation tactic. You could get outbursts of power during times of stress or danger -- like that night in the alley-- before your powers went dormant again. They were mentally locked down, but now that the door's unlocked, it should be a little easier to have control over your powers. The more you practice, the stronger that connection will be." "And this is the same for everyone?" Taran nodded. "For most of us who developed powers naturally, yes. But mentally, we all visualize it a little differently, and it's a pretty personal thing. My focal point is right here, in a spot behind my eyes." He put two fingers on his left temple. "During my exercise, it was like hundreds of tiny mirrors radiated from that spot and scattered into the sky, blown around by the winds. "I think that makes sense. Your power doesn't come from within you, you manipulate what's already there." "Exactly! And once I managed to focus all of those mirrors back to me, they began to orbit around me in a giant ring. I accidentally sent a tornado down the hallway." Ronnie gasped, and Taran laughed before continuing. "Like I said, it happens a lot around here. Best just to avoid this room when a new person is here." Ronnie was still breathing heavily, but he could feel his heart rate start to return to normal. He was absolutely exhausted like he had just done a mile on a full sprint. "What more is there to do today?" Taran laughed. "That's all for today. For both of us, actually. I made sure to clear my schedule, because there's really no way of knowing how long this exercise will take, but I knew this was the day you did it!" He looked at his watch, "You managed to complete it in about four hours. "What?!" Ronnie was shocked. This was the hardest day yet, but he had no idea that he had been out of it for so long. No wonder he felt so drained. "That's crazy!" "Yeah, time really flies, doesn't it?" Taran smiled, and Ronnie couldn't help but do the same. Finally, after a week of failure and frustration, a better day. Ronnie was absolutely elated and realized he didn't want the feeling to go away just yet. "So… what are you going to do with the rest of your night?" he asked. "Honestly? I hadn't given it much thought. It's been forever since I've had a night off, though." Ronnie got to his feet, a little wobbly at first. As he managed to stand and stretch out his sore muscles, he suddenly believed he had been sitting on the floor for four hours. He reached out a hand to Taran and pulled him up off the mat. "Well, that settles it. We're going out tonight!"
  3. Thanks so much! I have a bunch of notes about the museum's design which is an amalgamation of a few of my favorites (but primarily the Natural History Museum in London). There's an official photo of the mineralogy hall that's pretty much directly referenced here. But I didn't want to get lost in the details, so I did my best to just highlight essentials. It makes me happy that someone noticed. 😊
  4. Thanks so much! We are starting to pivot from the slice-of-life chapters to a little more plot (gasp!)
  5. "Ok, walk me through the plan one more time." "Got it," Maya's voice responded in Taran's earpiece. He was perched on a roof across the street from the Liberty City Natural History Museum, peering through night vision binoculars at the museum's glass roof. "This is a typical Track or Take mission. Our target is a necklace known as the 'Jewel of Katar.' Currently on tour, and outside Katar for the first time since 1922. Tonight is our only chance to investigate it before it's flown back home and hidden away again. First, we need to get inside the museum. I'll portal us in while you deactivate the alarms. Second, we study the jewel and determine if it's magic or not. If the enchantments are minor or not life-threatening, I'll put a Seal of Tracking on the artifact. That'll allow us to keep an eye on them from headquarters." "Right. And if it's something not so minor?" "If I sense major dark energy, that's a different story. In that case, we take the jewels to lock in the Syndicate vault for safekeeping, and I'll leave behind a duplicate. No one knowingly lets a major magical artifact go on tour, so the owner of the jewels won't even notice they've been switched." "And then we both get out of here before any security shows up." "Exactly!" Taran smiled. He was so proud of Maya. For the past few months, she and other Syndicate magic users had been developing a worldwide registry of magical artifacts. While owning mystical objects wasn't explicitly illegal, the Syndicate liked to know where such items were located in the event something sinister occurred. If a registered artifact was ever stolen and used for nefarious purposes, a Seal of Tracking would allow the Syndicate to hunt it down and return it to the proper owners. This was Taran's first time on such a mission, and even though he had studied, he admittedly felt out of his league. His powers were genetic, and not the result of spells or mystical items that broke the laws of nature. The Syndicate magic division dealt with a whole other level of threat than his more straightforward cases and understanding the complexities of arcane objects was still something he had to get used to. Maya had invited Taran to be her sponsor tonight so he could learn more about it. She also went to great lengths to warn him the evening would likely be pretty dull. The Track or Take missions were being run on a regular basis, but thus far had only encountered a few minor charms. Many of the items investigated had turned out to be completely ordinary and had no magic at all. "Alright. let's get started, shall we?" Maya signaled to Taran from her spot on the opposite building. He could barely make out her long black coat in the shadows but heard a flutter of fabric as she leapt from her perch. Her beaded necklace pulsed with a faint blue light as she levitated across the street towards the museum. Taran jumped from his rooftop to meet her, the winds carrying him softly through the air. As he approached, Maya crouched down and started drawing a series of strange symbols on the roof in chalk. She worked for a few more moments and then enclosed her markings inside a wide circle. "Step one is about to begin," she said, taking a few steps back. Her fingers deftly felt the beads of her necklace until she found the one she was looking for. It glowed between her pinched fingers as she threw her other hand out at the chalk drawing. The symbols on the roof illuminated briefly before the circle flared with energy. Then, it was merely open air to the museum below. Taran unclipped a small case from his belt and flipped the switch on the side. There was a fast, high-pitched whir as the device warmed up. After a few moments, a small green light blinked at the top. "Security cameras are set on a loop. Let's get going." Maya gestured to Taran, and he approached. She took the strand of her necklace and looped it over his head. It once again began to glow with faint blue energy. "You ready?" she asked. Taran nodded, and they stepped together over the edge of the circle into the museum. The levitation spell felt warm and tingly as it lowered them deeper into the building. The museum's collection was delicate, and each gallery case came equipped with sensors. Taran's flight ability was too cumbersome for a room of priceless artifacts, and he couldn't risk accidentally blowing something over. They silently touched down on the marble floor. Taran pulled a small flashlight from his belt and switched it on. The thin beam of light crossed over a long row of glass cases, each one holding a multitude of glittering gems. "The Jewel of Katar should be at the end of the row," Maya said softly. The room was tall and dark, with the faintest bit of moonlight pouring in from the skylight. Taran looked around over the jewelry cases, sweeping his flashlight in wide arcs. Each piece glittered for just a moment as Taran and Maya made their way across the exhibit. Shadows stretched from the far end of the hall, where polished stone columns supported the massive archway that led to other wings of the museum. Taran felt for the air around him, and it was still. He couldn't detect anything interesting: dust and wood, which made sense given their surroundings. And under that, the faintest whiff of smoke and embers. As soon as Taran noticed, it faded away, replaced once again by the musty smell of old things. "Here we are," Maya said triumphantly. She stood before the largest showcase at the end of the row, flashlight shining on a beautiful pendant resting on a velvet cushion. The center stone was a huge, blood-red square cut ruby. It was sunk into a flat disk of gold and surrounded by four dazzling sapphires the size of blueberries. It was held by a thick, claw-like clasp at the top and connected to a woven gold chain. Even in the faint moonlight, the ruby shined. When Taran peered into its center, the facets inside seemed to stretch on forever. It was the most magnificent set of jewels Taran had ever seen. They were clearly the prize of Katar. "Wow," Taran said, still astonished. "No wonder they don't let this thing leave Katar very often. You could sell it and buy your own country!" "It's absolutely beautiful… but is it magic?" Maya crouched down eye level with the pendant and stared at it intently. She closed her eyes and fell silent. Taran looked around the room again, careful not to make any noise as to disturb Maya as she worked. "Taran, we have a problem," Maya's eyes snapped open, and she quickly turned to him. "Wow, that was fast. So, it's crazy bad magic, huh?" Taran felt a twinge in his stomach. He really didn't like strange arcane stuff, and Maya acting alarmed sure didn't help his nerves. "Not it's not that… it's nothing. There's nothing on the jewels. No magic, but also no memories. These jewels are centuries old and have been in the care of the Katari royal family since the 1600s. I should be getting the echoes of generations off of them, but they're blank." "How is that even possible?" "These jewels are fake, just like the ones I would have left. Identical to the real things, but without their memories. Someone got here before we did." That was all Taran needed to hear. Finally, a chance for him to feel useful. He quickly turned toward the heavy wooden door behind them. Pushing the door open revealed a short, window-lined hallway that connected to the main wing of the museum. A window in the middle of the hallway had been smashed open, the cold night air wafting into the building. On the floor against the wall was the crumpled form of a museum guard. Taran knelt close to the body. The guard had scorch marks across the front of his uniform, but Taran was relieved to find that he was unconscious but still breathing. It appeared that whoever had beaten them to the jewels wasn't looking to leave a body count. "Maya, call for an ambulance!" He called back down the hallway. Maya was still at the jewelry case, muttering over the fake necklace. Taran moved away from the guard and examined the window. It had been broken from the inside, the jewel thief was trying to make a quick escape. Taran jumped down from the window and into an empty courtyard. It was dark and quiet as he pulled the air towards him. A thick tendril of smoke drifted from the other side of the yard. Taran sprinted towards the source and found a black, charred patch of ground. A few embers at the center glowed a flickering orange. Maya approached from behind. "Paramedics are on the way. We need to get out of here unless you want to explain to the museum why we're sneaking around in the middle of the night," Her eyes caught the burnt area that Taran was investigating. "Woah. Major vibes coming off of that spot. Someone used magic to portal away." Taran winced. Charred remains were a bad sign, as fire-based magic was considered particularly dark and destructive. He tried to recall what he had studied before the mission. His pulse quickened. "Maya... please tell me this isn't what I think it is..." Maya put a hand out over the burned area. She flinched and pulled back immediately, shaking her hand as if she had been burned. Taran heard a soft rattling sound and noticed that the beads on Maya's necklace were vibrating. They calmed down as she gently reached for a few of them. "I wish I could, Taran," Maya sighed. "But, this is definitely hellfire."
  6. So glad you like it! I was definitely trying to illustrate how this stuff is pretty hard until you get more accustomed to it.
  7. Our boy needs some more confidence, but he will get there.
  8. "So, how does all of this work exactly?" Ronnie asked, pulling on a grey Syndicate t-shirt. A set of athletic gear had been waiting inside a locker with his name on it. "Is it like school with a class schedule and a report card?" He wrinkled his nose at Taran. "I thought I was finally done with all that!" "Ha! No, nothing quite so formal," Taran replied and slammed his locker shut. "The Syndicate trainers coordinate some of the larger groups classes on a schedule. Things like combat exercises where you'll be linked up on a team that you're compatible with. But otherwise, most of it is independent or one-on-one study. Every person's powers are different, meaning everyone learns at a different pace. You'll keep studying on your own and with your team. Then, once you think you're ready, you can choose to be evaluated by a Syndicate member. Pass, and you become a provisional hero that can accompany a full member out on missions. The Syndicate wants everyone coming home safe, so there's no rush or penalty if you don't pass the first time." Ronnie nodded. He thought he understood. "So... it won't be an issue that I'm starting all of this so late?" Taran sighed. "I'm not gonna lie to you, Ronnie. You're most likely going to be frustrated the first couple weeks. Progress is often really slow at first, and there's no telling how long it takes to get a handle on your powers. I may have been born into this life, but trust me when I say that it wasn't much of an advantage." "That's not exactly comforting," Ronnie muttered. "Just tried not to get too discouraged. You've got the entire Syndicate backing you up." Taran motioned for Ronnie to follow him down the hall. "Come on, let me walk you through some exercises." The training room was relatively small. It reminded Ronnie of a classroom, only without any desks. There were gym mats across the floor and a mirror that ran along one wall. A row of narrow windows let in a thin strip of sunlight. Taran closed the door behind him and dimmed the lights. A sunshade lowered over the windows, casting a dull grey light into the room. "The first thing we need to figure out is the best way for you to draw on your abilities." He walked towards the center of the room and sat down on the floor, motioning to Ronnie to do the same. "For most of us, that requires immense concentration as we focus our powers. We exercise that ability to concentrate just like we would any muscle group." "Sure, that makes sense." "I want you to close your eyes. Think back on that night in the alley, right after we first met. You got scared and threw up a forcefield without meaning to. What did that feel like?" Ronnie lowered his head and took a deep breath. He sorted through the jumble of memories and tried to recall that night. The ringing in his ears. How everything in the alley seemed to slow down around him. There was also the tingle in his arm that traveled down from his shoulder and focused in his hands. As he concentrated, he could feel his palms start to warm. They soon buzzed with energy. "You're doing great, Ronnie." Taran murmured. Ronnie could feel him slide closer on the mat. "Now, try to visualize that feeling: what does it look like, and where does it come from? See if you can follow the energy back to its origin." Ronnie focused on the buzzing in his left palm and tried to see it in his mind. It was like trying to hold water in his cupped hands. The energy flowed around and in between his fingers, warm and pulsing with a soft green glow. It was continually rolling and changing its shape, like some sort of living fluid. Ronnie put more thoughts out, trying to get it to slow, but the energy seemed to fight against his willpower. He pushed to the side to keep it moving one direction, which just made it slide around his hand the opposite way. Ronnie gritted his teeth and imagined surrounding it from all sides. As he pushed harder with his mind, he felt the green light flare brighter, but it slowed down and poured in on itself until it resembled a softly glowing sphere. Ronnie struggled to hold the shape together. From what somehow felt like miles away, Ronnie sensed his body. He felt the sweat that beaded on his forehead, and how every muscle in his body was tense with focus. The moment Ronnie acknowledged this, his willpower slipped away. The green sphere he had visualized shuddered and then shot away from him, green light fading into the air. Ronnie's eyes shot open as he gasped for air. He tried to bring the energy forth again, but he was exhausted. No matter how hard he tried, there was nothing. No tingling feeling in his palm, no green light dancing around his fingertips. Taran was still sitting in front of him, and he smiled kindly. "This is the hard part, I'm afraid. But don't worry, very few people make it the first time. We'll try again tomorrow." He stood up and offered Ronnie his hand. Ronnie took it and attempted to stand. The world seemed to spin violently to the left. The muscles in his legs didn't engage, and he nearly fell back to the floor. "Easy now!" Taran wrapped an arm around Ronnie's waist to keep him steady. "Just take a second to get your balance back." The two arrived back in the locker room, and Ronnie crashed onto the bench in front of his locker. He leaned forward, head in his hands. Anything to stop the place from spinning. "I feel awful!" He cried. He sensed Taran sit down beside him, and risked a look. Taran held a water bottle out to him and encouraged Ronnie to drink. "This part is rough. It's almost like seasickness. Your mind isn't used to focusing at this level yet, so it's tired. But the more you practice, the easier everything will be." Ronnie accepted the bottle and took a drink. His heartbeat hammered in his ears, and his stomach churned. Ronnie prayed that he wouldn't throw up in the middle of the locker room. He curled forward into a ball with his head between his knees. "Slow your breathing down," Taran said softly, putting a hand on his shoulder. "Deep breaths, nice and slow." Ronnie put all his effort into trying to calm down. After what seemed like an eternity, his insides settled, and his heart rate returned to normal. He slowly sat back up and opened his eyes. Taran was still beside him. "All better?" "Better." Ronnie and Taran took their time down the hallway and eventually arrived at Ronnie's room in the trainee wing. "It's best that you stay here tonight, you're still a little green." Taran said, "You did great today, honestly. Get some rest, and we'll be at it again tomorrow." He patted Ronnie on the shoulder again and waved goodbye. Ronnie shuffled to the bed and crashed. Every muscle in his body ached, but the worst part was the shame he felt. Obviously, training was going to be difficult. But he hadn't expected to fail so spectacularly on the first day. It was just a silly breathing exercise, what could be so hard about that? What if he never managed to do it? Ronnie strained for his phone and sent a quick text to his dad, letting him know he was staying the night. He sighed and stared at the ceiling. "Tomorrow." He thought. "Tomorrow, things will be better. I will prove myself to everyone."
  9. You are very welcome! I hope to have more posted soon, and I'm so happy that you are enjoying it
  10. Small Author's note: I have gone back and changed "tomorrow night" to "Saturday night"... There were a couple chapters added since I first wrote this, and I forgot about that detail until I was polishing up Chapter 15. Sorry for any confusion!
  11. Mari comes back at some point, so stay tuned!
  12. Maya's gonna be a wingman whether Taran wants it or not. She's a good friend 😊 Ronnie needs to get more acclimated to this world and maybe then he can chill out a bit. Crazy teens!
  13. Ronnie is too distracted by meeting his hero to connect the dots just yet...
  14. A short time later, Ronnie arrived at the front of a massive granite building. This was the Syndicate main entrance, he supposed. A broad set of stairs lined the entire face, leading up towards giant stone columns. He could see a few people walk between the columns towards a pair of glass doors that were set back under the overhanging roof. And in front of the building, a group of picketers stood holding handmade signs. “What on earth?” Ronnie thought. He had never recalled hearing anything about protests at the Syndicate before. The crowd wasn’t impressively large, but there were enough of them to form a misshapen circle around a man with a megaphone. “The balance of the universe has shifted!” The man called out to the crowd. There was anger in his voice that clashed awkwardly with his lazy drawl. Shouts of affirmation came from a couple of the protesters. “Time and time again, history has shown us that a price must be paid for humanity’s follies! And that price has always meant sacrifice at the divine creator’s hand.” Ronnie gave the group a wide berth, keeping his distance from an older woman who tried to hand him a flyer. But he had to know what this was all about. The man continued speaking. “The world is wicked, and the divine creator desires retribution for these misdeeds! But these so-called heroes, these interlopers… They deny the divine creator what is rightfully his!” More comments from the crowd. A woman closer to the speaker nodded emphatically at his words. “These false gods have the audacity to interfere with divine authority. Every time The Syndicate prevents our rightfully angry god from exacting his toll on humanity, he grows more and more wrathful. If we do not turn from this path, the divine creator will have no choice but to smite all of mankind!” Ronnie staggered at the man’s words. Did this group seriously think that disasters were caused by some sort of god, and by keeping others from harm The Syndicate was angering it? Were heroes just supposed to stand by and let people die? The thought was insanity, and Ronnie didn’t know how anyone could actually believe such a thing. It went against everything he had been taught growing up. Ronnie skirted the group of protesters, taking the steps to the entrance two at a time until he quickly reached the top. The doors opened to the central atrium, one that Ronnie remembered from his field trip many years ago. The room seemed impossibly high, stretching so far up that you had to crane your neck back to view the domed ceiling. On a busy day, the atrium would be filled with people: government representatives checking in for official business, school groups learning about the history of the Syndicate, tourists checking the building off of their bucket list. Ronnie suddenly realized that he had absolutely no idea where he should be going. He approached the information desk that was situated at the far end of the main hall. Behind it, a fat, balding man sat in a chair. He was wearing a private security uniform and absent-mindedly munched on a donut. “Excuse me,” Ronnie piped up. “I need to find where to go for training?” The man barely looked up from the paperback book he was reading. “Yeah, sure, kid. Don’t we all?” “I’m serious. I’m supposed to start at the Syndicate today! If you called Silver Cyclone, he’d be able to vouch for me.” The guard put his book face down with a sigh. “Listen, kid. I get about four of yous a day. All claiming to know somebody in the Syndicate, trying to get into restricted areas. I’m not buying it. Now off you go, enjoy the museum.” He reached for another donut out of the box to his side. Ronnie was beginning to panic. What was he going to have to do to make this guy believe him? He stared at the box of donuts and felt the now familiar tingling sensation in his fist. A green dome materialized over the top of the box. The guard’s hand glanced off the top of it with a zap. “Yowch!” he cried and retracted his hand. “That stings!” He stared at Ronnie, and his eyes went wide with surprise. “Alright, maybe you are telling the truth.” He grabbed a phone receiver at the desk and dialed a number. “Yeah. I’ve got a guy down here saying he’s starting training today? What’s that?” He looked up at Ronnie. “You still got your red card?” Ronnie slapped the card on the counter with a smug smile. The guard muttered a few curses under his breath as he examined it before handing it back to him. “Scan the card by the door at the end of the hall.” “Thanks a lot.” Ronnie pocketed the card and turned away. He broke his concentration, and the force field on the desk dissolved into the air. The guard gingerly waved his hand over the donut box before grabbing another pastry. The door at the end of the hall was completely unmarked. It was made of grey metal with a small scanner to the left of it. Ronnie had pulled out his card and was reaching for the pad when the door burst open. Taran barrelled through and almost knocked him over. “Ronnie!” He cried. “I am so sorry, I’m running super late this morning. I totally meant to meet you outside.” “The guy at the front desk is a real piece of work. He didn’t believe me when I said I had an appointment. Also, I think there’s a cult outside picketing you guys.” “Yeah, sorry about that. It’s Roger’s job to discourage people from coming in. You should have had an escort. And ignore the crazy people out front, they don’t know what they’re talking about. Again, you could have avoided them if I was on time.” Taran hung his head. “My bad, dude.” “Hey, no worries. You’re here now, dude.” Ronnie laughed as Taran blushed. “So, um… I guess we’ll get started.” The morning was a whirlwind of activity, and Ronnie could barely keep track of everything. First, his biometric information was put into the system. Handprints, vocal matching, and retina scans were recorded and saved in the Syndicate database. He would no longer need his red card to access areas of the headquarters. He now had trainee security clearances, the most important of which allowed him to learn the secret identities of Syndicate members as needed. Ronnie was also permanently assigned a room in the trainee wing where he would have the option to stay whenever he wanted. After completing a health assessment with Doctor Peters, who was very happy to see his face looking better, it was time for lunch. Taran showed Ronnie to the main cafeteria. It looked similar to the one at his high school: large circular tables clustered around the room, each with about 10 chairs. The two grabbed lunch and were finding a seat when Maya waved them over. She was sitting with an African-American girl who had her hair half up in a twisted bun. “Hey, guys!” Maya said brightly. “Ronnie! It’s so good to see you!” She motioned to the girl next to her. “This is Lydia, she works in Syndicate Control. Best logistics officer in the whole damn organization. She’s normally the one on the other side of the earpiece when we are on patrol.” The girl waved to Ronnie. “I’ve already heard a lot about you, Ronnie. It’s really nice to meet you!” Ronnie smiled, “Likewise!” People seemed genuinely friendly here. Everyone related to his story, and they knew where he was coming from. It was like being the new kid at school, but without the bullies or hormonal drama. The four of them ate their lunch and talked about what had been happening so far today. Lydia helped navigate a cargo ship rescue in the middle of Lake Michigan earlier that morning, and also alerted heroes to two different bank robberies. Ronnie was impressed and was glad that when it was time for him to be out in the field, he would have someone like her on the line. They were finishing up lunch when a woman walked into the mess hall that made Ronnie stop in his tracks. She was wearing a deep purple uniform with a silver belt, and a pointed mask that covered the top half of her face. A shimmering cape that nearly brushed the ground was draped over her silver shoulder pads. “Holy crap,” he said. “That’s, that’s Zephyr!” Ronnie’s all-time favorite superhero was headed right towards their table! Zephyr’s knee-high boots clicked against the linoleum as she walked towards them with confident, even strides. A few people at other tables had also seen her enter and were taking notice. It seemed that it was a rare occasion that such a high profile superhero would visit the trainee mess hall. She reached their table and smiled. “Ronnie Nolan,” Zephyr said his name very matter-of-factly. His name! She spoke with the trace of a British accent that Ronnie remembered from watching countless interviews when he was a kid. He nodded, suddenly unable to speak. He felt like there was electricity in the air. And knowing Zephyr, there might have been. “I’ve been hearing a lot about you. Welcome to the Syndicate of Heroes.” “Th-thank you,” Ronnie squeaked and tried to clear his throat. Zephyr, his childhood hero, was standing right in front of him. And she knew who he was! Ronnie wanted to faint. “I trust that everything has been going well on your first day?” “Yes, ma’am. Taran and Maya have been really helpful.” “Well, I’m glad to hear that. The first few days can be very overwhelming. Just do your best, and I’m sure you’ll be fine,” Zephyr placed a hand on Taran’s shoulder. “Now the reason I’m here: Taran, remember that your father has rescheduled dinner for Saturday night. He’s due to be back from Japan by then. 7:30 at the house, please try to be on time.” Taran shifted in his chair, uncomfortably. He was clearly unhappy with the attention. “Yes, Mom,” he grumbled, pushing the food around on his tray. Ronnie caught himself from gasping. Zephyr was Taran’s Mom?! He couldn’t believe it. Maya and Lydia noticed his reaction and were stifling giggles. Ronnie knew that Weather Boy had been Zephyr’s sidekick for years, but would have never guessed they were related! He looked closer, noticing they both shared the same brown skin, and without the mask, Zephyr would be sure to have similar sharp features. Now that he knew, it was actually very evident. “Alright, then. I’ll let you four finish lunch.” Zephyr nodded to Maya and Lydia. “Nice seeing you, girls. I miss having you at the house. A pleasure, Ronnie.” She spun on her heel and exited the mess hall. “Oh. My. God.” Ronnie practically shouted. “You didn’t tell me Zephyr WAS YOUR MOM!” “You never asked.” Taran took an unhappy drink from his water and scowled. “She is the absolute coolest! I have a poster of her above my bed! I wanted to be her for Halloween when I was seven! But wait, that means,” he gasped again. “That means the Crimson Cosmonaut is your dad?!” “Yep...” “That makes you like, superhero royalty!” Ronnie couldn’t contain his excitement. This was turning out to be the best day of his life. Taran looked down on his plate and continued to push some food around with a fork. “I don’t really like to bring it up.” “Wait a second,” Lydia interrupted, changing the subject. “You wanted to dress up as Zephyr when you were a little boy?” Ronnie swallowed a bite and tried to explain. “My Mom was pretty open about make-believe when I was a kid. Sure Zephyr wore a purple skirt, but she has the coolest powers! I used to run around the house, pretending I could fly and throw lightning bolts and create rainstorms. Was never very good at the heels, though. It’s a miracle she can fight in those things.” He paused for just a moment, his heart rate slightly elevated. The next part never failed to make him nervous, but these were good people, and Ronnie knew he could trust them. “In hindsight, I suppose it wasn’t a total surprise when I came out at 15.” Taran dropped his spoon mid-bite, spilling peas all over. Maya shot him a look, and he glared back at her. She wiped her mouth with a napkin and looked very pleased with herself. “Came out? How did that go for you?” Maya asked. She raised her eyebrows at Taran, who was still picking peas off himself and the table. “It was the best you could hope for. I was really lucky. My parents had basically figured it out before I did. It’s only my dad and me now, but he just wants me to be happy.” Lydia sighed. “It figures. The cute ones are always gay...” Everyone laughed, and Ronnie blushed. She checked her watch. “Shit, I’m running late. I’m supposed to be walking Starblast though some bomb defusing exercises. That girl is real clumsy, and she WILL blow herself up if I don’t get there. See you guys later!” She grabbed her tray and hurried off, leaving three of them at the table. “So, Ronnie,” Maya continued. “You seeing anyone special?” “Hah, no. I’m single and likely to remain so. Just haven’t found the right guy, I guess.” “Oh, that’s so interesting! Isn’t that just FASCINATING, Taran?” Taran had finished cleaning up and was gathering his stuff to leave. “We better get back to work,” he said quickly. “Ronnie’s got his first lessons today.” He pointed Ronnie to the tray drop off. Ronnie followed the directions but noticed that Taran and Maya were buried in a private conversation back at the table. Taran appeared to be annoyed by something and shook his head as Maya laughed and bounded away. Taran turned towards Ronnie and met his gaze with a small smile. The two met back up before heading to the locker room to get changed for training.
  15. Ronnie woke the next morning hours before his alarm went off. Sleep had been entirely out of reach. He spent the night tossing and turning, mind racing with the possibilities of tomorrow. “What are we going to do first?” he wondered. “When do I get a code name? Or a costume?” Everything was just too exciting to think about, like the first day of school, Christmas, and a vacation all rolled into one. Giving up on sleep, he leapt out of bed and got ready for the day. Ronnie was surprised to see that the bruise under his eye was already healing up, less purple, and more of a sickly green. The welts across the rest of his body were also starting to fade, while the pain under his ribs had changed from a sharp jolt to a heavy throb. Ronnie hoped that the memories of that night would fade away as well. He had a new life to look forward to now. Ronnie sat in the dark kitchen and ate a bowl of cereal before leaving a note on the table for Greg. His father was still asleep, and it seemed to be one of the first good night’s rest he had gotten in weeks. Heading out, not sure when I’ll be home. -R The air outside was damp and humid. Dew still shimmered on the lawn, and a few birds were singing in the trees that lined the quiet street. The dingy old neighborhood was peaceful at this time of day. Soon everyone would be waking up, and more traffic would head down the road. But for now, Ronnie was enjoying the quiet. He started on his way towards the bus stop when something on the street caught his eye. The black town car that Taran used the night before was still sitting at the curb. Ronnie thought this was odd, as he had assumed the car would have automatically driven back to the Syndicate headquarters after Silver Cyclone few off on his emergency. But there it was, glossy black paint job shining bright in the early morning glow. Ronnie approached the car and studied it. “I wonder…” he thought. “Hello?” Ronnie said out loud to the vehicle. “IDENTITY REQUIRED,” a metallic voice responded. “Ronnie Nolan.” “IDENTITY NOT RECOGNIZED” “Well, shit.” An idea sparked. Ronnie reached into his back pocket and pulled out his wallet. Inside was the red keycard that Maya had given him when he first arrived at the Syndicate. He had forgotten to give it back to Taran when he left to go home. Ronnie held the card out and tapped it on the silver door handle. There was a metallic ring, and the door popped open. “ACCESS GRANTED. WELCOME, SYNDICATE GUEST” “Yes!” Ronnie got into the back seat of the car. “Syndicate Headquarters, please.” The car chimed, and the navigation route lit up on the screen in front of him. The car pulled away from the curb and zipped down the street. The storefronts he passed were still dark. Ronnie thought about what he’d typically be doing on a day like this. Probably just getting ready to fall asleep after a long diner shift. The diner. Ronnie called out to the computer. “I need to make a stop first. Take me to Rita’s Diner.” He felt the engine shift as the car seamlessly detoured down a side street and started heading away from the city center. The sign above the diner glowed red and orange in the murky light as Ronnie rolled up. He could see through the windows that the place was mostly empty. It was too late for the barflies, but still too early for anyone coming in for breakfast. The bell above the door jingled as he pushed his way inside, and a head popped up in the kitchen window. “Ronnie! What are you doing here?” “Hi Mari, you got a second to chat?” “Sure thing, be right out!” Ronnie found a seat in the corner booth and waited. The smell of strong coffee and bacon grease permeated everything, and he took a moment to soak up the silence of the restaurant. Everything seemed so bright with fluorescent lights glinting off of the chrome-accented counter and bright red and blue vinyl furniture. After a while, Mari came over with two cups of coffee and slid into the booth. “Shit, what happened to your face?” “Long story. Got held up the other night on the walk home.” “Damn. Sorry man. You doing OK?” He nodded and took a sip of coffee. “Mari, some stuff has happened, and I won’t be able to come to work anymore. At least not for a while.” She looked concerned and leaned in closer to him. “Are you in trouble?" “No, it’s nothing like that.” Ronnie glanced around to confirm that they were alone. No one else had come into the diner since he had arrived. “I’m, um… I’m going to be starting a Syndicate internship. I’m told it’s the same one that you did?” He let the question hang in the air. Mari raised her eyebrows in surprise as she took a drink of coffee. “I see. Well, that’s certainly something. It’s a little late for you to be starting, isn’t it?” “Apparently. I’m still trying to figure things out.” “Pretty scary, isn’t it?” Ronnie nodded. “Who’d they have you training with?” “Not sure yet. Silver Cyclone got me signed up. “No shit? Weather Boy’s doing orientations now? When I was there he was still early in his training,” she chuckled softly. “That kid took everything way too seriously.” Ronnie grinned. That sounded exactly like Taran. “I was told that you decided to not stay with the Syndicate. Why is that?” Mari sighed and took another drink. “The Syndicate and I didn’t quite see eye to eye on some things. They do alright on global level events, but a lot of the small neighborhood stuff falls through the cracks. Sure, they’re always there to stop a big bank from being robbed, but what about that?” She pointed to Ronnie’s bruised eye. “They don’t stop you from doing things on your own, but you can forget about any kind of official support. Besides, my family needs me more than the Syndicate does right now. I still try to do a neighborhood patrol when I can. Sorry I wasn’t able to keep you from getting beat up.” “It’s OK. If you stopped it, I might not have manifested any powers. Or done it during a time that would have been even more dangerous.” “I suppose that’s true. What can you do anyway?” “I.. I don’t really know how to explain it. Force fields, I guess?” he motioned with his hands “Like, big green energy domes.” “That’s pretty rad.” “What about you?” Ronnie's voice rose in excitement. It was so cool to talk about super powers with another person. Mari shrugged. “I lift a lot of heavy stuff, and I throw it at people.” “That’s awesome!” “Yeah. It’s also nice for when people park in front of the dumpster out back.” Ronnie watched the steam rise from his coffee cup and thought for a moment. There was something else he needed to know. “Mari, how do you keep it from your family?” “It’s tough. But it’s better than putting them in danger. Mom had enough worries about me taking over the night shift, and it took forever to prove to her I could handle it. Can you imagine if she knew I was super powered? Keeping your family out of the loop is just part of the job.” That wasn’t exactly what Ronnie was hoping to hear. He wanted to be told that it was possible to be a hero and not keep it a secret from the people he was closest to. But maybe Mari had a point. If something happened to his father, Ronnie knew he would never forgive himself. Ronnie and Mari talked for a while longer until a group of people came in looking for breakfast. Mari stood up to take their orders but turned back to the booth. “Good luck, Ronnie. Stay safe. And say hi to Taran for me.” “Thanks, Mari, I will. Tell Rita I’m sorry I couldn’t see her before I had to leave.” He finished his coffee and headed for the door. Ronnie had thought that talking with Mari might give him some clarity, as they came from similar backgrounds. Instead, he left with the same uncertainty as before.
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