After confirming that she wasn't dead, Alison wasted no time in getting out of that metal deathtrap, brushing past her mother attempting to climb off the roof. “Hey mom!” she called, not slowing her pace. “I’m gonna try and get away from all the fighting for a bit, I’ll try and get back by dinner, see you, goodbye!”
She didn’t wait to hear Mom’s reaction, which probably wouldn’t have been very happy. But her parents couldn’t be mad in the long-term. She was getting herself out of danger, right?
Then again, finding a place that wasn’t dangerous in a military complex being raided by an army of robots wasn’t exactly a jaunt through the mall, and Alison could spend hours jaunting through the mall. The thing was, at the mall there weren't killer robots everywhere. Alison passed by the non-killer Envoy robot and considered asking it for help, but remembered that it had kind of messed up the RV-carrying situation, and moved on. That thing was creepy anyway.
The smart thing to do, Alison decided, would be find Carnea. Getting the protection of a goddess was a safe bet, plus she’d have a cat to play with. Carnea could do her locking thing and lock her away somewhere safe until everything cooled down and Mom could come get her.
But how could she find the goddess? The obvious thing would be to pray, but Alison wasn’t really comfortable with that. She got bored easily in church, but still knew enough not to start praying to every deity who teams up with you in a battle. Plus, she’d probably end up doing it wrong. She knew that Arabs prayed to Mohammed by lying down on special carpets, so Carnea probably had her own thing going on too.
Oh! Jen! Duh! Jen would know what to do, of course. Alison seemed to have found herself in a hallway that hadn’t yet been totaled by robots, so she could slow down, catch her breath, and pull out her phone.
Under her contacts, “Jen” now read as “Jen (unconscious)" in a dull grey text. “Shit,” cursed Alison, looking around to make sure no adults had heard. She scrolled through her other contacts experimentally. While she had the time, she might as well pick one at random, make some friends.
She stopped scrolling at the tail end of the alphabet. Under “Riko (dead)” in that same morbid grey text, there were two names under the letter "S." “Simphonia” sounded pretty friendly and inviting, but a morbid curiousity drew her to the second name.
She hit the “Call” button. The phone didn’t ring, and only a distant sound like footsteps could be heard on the other line. She dared to speak. “Hey. Is this Syvex?”
Crashing in the RV was awesome, like a rollercoaster. Like one of those rollercoasters Ethan couldn’t go on cause he wasn’t four feet tall yet. Those were the best rollercoasters.
“Were you scared?” he asked John, when everything stopped moving and there weren’t any sounds except the normal sounds of robot-fighting and screaming. “I wasn’t.” He really hadn’t been. John looked like he’d been really scared and he was holding onto the walls like he was afraid of falling. Ethan wasn’t afraid of falling, or anything.
John looked down at Ethan like a teacher. Should he be calling him Mr. Smith? Or Uncle John? John and his dad were in the same fight together, and Ethan didn’t know if that made him what Dad called an “honorary uncle.” ”Kid, you’d better get out of here,” warned John. ”I think this clunker's gonna attract a bit of undue attention.”
John ruffled Ethan’s hair and ran for the door of the RV. Ethan looked around. Alison was already gone, and Dad was busy with the baby. Ethan knew he wasn’t supposed to go off with strangers, but he wasn’t sure if that was still a rule during fights to the death. He figured his parents couldn’t be too mad if he helped them win the fight. They weren’t doing much, anyway. Alison and Mom and the baby were all girls, so they couldn’t fight, and Dad was too busy trying to “keep the family together” and all that stupid Dad stuff. Someone had to step up and be the awesome good guy and fight everyone.
Plus, John was pretty cool. Ethan ran out the door into the cool military place. “Hey, mister Smith!” he shouted in his loudest voice ever. “Do you want to team up and fight together?”
Oh, God dammit. Was that both of them gone now?
Tom held onto Baby Emma for this dear life, hoping to go at least one for three as a parent, and watched Ethan scurry away after John. He couldn’t go after the boy without leaving the RV and his wife, and there was a knife ominously poking through the ceiling, so he supposed he had better check on Clarice first.
He hadn’t gotten out the door before... what was his name? Before the fellow in the coat blocked his path, brandishing a dagger. “Take my wallet and leave the baby alone,” he mumbled immediately, trying his best to hide Emma behind his back. She’d stopped crying around the time John left, at least, and this newcomer didn’t seem to bother her.
The man with the dagger looked Tom’s features over carefully. ”Stein?” he asked uncertainly. ”Stein, it’s Parsley speakin’ to ye. Apprentice demon hunter, ye would know my face if ye could see it proper.”
Tom's experience dealing with crazy people was limited to two alcoholic uncles, neither of whom had ever been allowed around knives. “I’m sorry, sir,” he said. “I don’t think we’ve met.” He’s under the impression that none of this is real, the Fool had said. How do you negotiate with someone who doesn’t believe you exist? “I’m Tom Broderburg. We’re in the battle together. I’m not going to hurt you. Do you want something to drink?”
”Dear God, Stein, listen to yerself!” Parsley put away the dagger in frustration and grabbed Tom’s shoulder, growing suddenly pensive. ”Now, such is the depth of the illusion under which we’ve been placed that it may be I’m not talking to Baron Stein at all... but, yer at a height with him, ye come down in yer flying machine and find yerself in the middle of all these galvanic abominations, so me best guess is, yer Baron Stein all right. Now, assumin' that ‘tis truly ye, ye may be playing me fer a fool... aye, this illusion may be of yer own devising, through some craft I know not of... but I’ve never known ye to parley with sorcery and demonfolk, and me heart tells me yer as hexed as I, if not more so.” Outside, there was a sound that was difficult not to imagine as the sound of an approaching robot mowing down dozens of soldiers in its path. ”This place is bein’ torn to shreds, Baron. Best we take yer flying machine out of here and regroup.”
Flying machine? That was going to be a problem. “I don’t have a flying machine. Just an RV, and my wife might still be on the roof, so I don’t think I should—“
”Stein!” roared Parsley, drawing his dagger again. Then he looked down at Emma and lowered it. ”Stein, due to the workin's of the demon, the object in yer hands takes the form of an infant child to me eyes. ‘Tis disturbin’ to see ye swaddle a babe, an' I almost hesitate to draw steel against one cloaked in such... maternity, though I recognize it for the demonic mockery of holiness that it is.”
”It's a real baby! Her name is Emma!” insisted Tom. Emma cooed in agreement.
”So help me, Stein, yer iron thralls bear down on us while we do nothin’ but confuse one another. I saw yer contraption flyin’ through the sky not a minute a’fore, and if ye canna’ make it move, I’ll kill ye and try to work it me own damned self!”
Tom decided not to take any chances, at least not while he had Emma. “Sorry, honey,” he whispered, and started up the RV’s motor.
They landed on what seemed to be an airfield in what Clarice presumed to be central Fort Ayers. Clarice was winded hard from the harsh landing while attempting to fumble open the RV door to get to her baby—which, all things considered, probably hadn’t been the best move, but desperate times and all that. She surveyed her surroundings. There were robots bursting through the walls and flying through the air and it all seemed a bit theatrical. Distantly, the Envoy was picking itself up a few feet from where—she flipped through her notebook to see if she remembered the name right—Mr. Parsley Krose was navigating his way over towards her and the RV. The Charlatan’s done his job well, she thought grimly. This is going to be over soon. Someone’s going to die.
Punctuating her morbidity, Clarice almost fell off the edge of the RV roof as her daughter slammed the door open and ran out. “Hey, mom!” she yelled as she sped off into the distance. I’m gonna try and get away from all the fighting for a bit, I’ll try and get back by dinner, see you, goodbye!”
That girl could be a real chore sometimes. What did she think she could accomplish by running off? Clarice groaned and made to run off after her when Mr. John Smith (that name she could remember easily enough) jumped out of the vehicle and ran off in a different direction. When had he gotten there?
Clarice rose to her feet and tried to work up the courage and footing to jump to the ground, when Ethan ran out to follow Smith. Jesus. She briefly debated with herself which child she ought to follow and settled on Ethan, less because she believed Alison was more capable of taking care of herself on the battlefield and more because she didn't trust John Smith. Where was Tom? Handling the baby, she supposed.
Clarice dangled her legs off the side of the RV and was about to jump when Parsley reached the RV and went inside, reaching for something under his coat. She groaned. She felt oddly impotent, watching all this happening and somehow failing to take action.
She looked behind her. The soldiers were gone; a woman she didn’t recognize was kneeling on the roof… sobbing? Clarice couldn’t be sure. Stuck in the roof of the RV was an elegant-looking dagger, shining in the sunlight. One half of her brain was looking to the dagger and to the woman and to Ethan catching up with John Smith in the distance and to the approaching robots and back again to the dagger, while the other half was keeping a meticulous record of the time she was wasting looking at things. After nearly ten whole seconds, she caught up with herself. She reached over and lifted the dagger up out of the roof.
A steely hand closed around hers. The woman (in men’s clothing, not to pry) had righted herself and was looking very angrily at Clarice. She was young, and wasn’t a soldier, but wasn’t wearing any makeup. How had she gotten here?
”Get. Your hands. Off my knives.” The woman—no more than a girl, really—was making very sure that Clarice heard every word.
She needn’t have worried; Clarice was a very good listener. She took her hand off the knife. “You seem to have one of your own,” she responded, putting her hands above her head and chiding herself for reminding the crazed-looking girl about the murderous implement in her off hand.
The girl softened, just a bit. There was an easy affection fighting through the grit in her voice, though it might have been an ironic thing. One could never tell with these kids. ”Well, darll, maybe you should have brought your own means of self-defense to this tournament to the death. I haven’t yet figured out why you and your family are here.”
None of this was making things any clearer to Clarice. She took out her notebook and flipped through it, knowing she wouldn’t find anything helpful. “Look, you’re not one of the battlers that I know,” she ventured. “Has there been some kind of mix-up?”
The girl shook her head and flashed an untrustworthy smile. “Well, darll, the lighting in that getting-to-know-you session was pretty atrocious, so maybe you didn't get a good look. It’s me, Ashley. Contestant number three.”
Well that couldn’t be right. Clarice shook her head doubtfully. “There was an Ashley, but he was a man.” Non-human (???) Childhood trauma, that among other things change--military training, knives, read her notes. Among other things. Huh. Well, she was fine with all lifestyles, as long as they stayed away from her kids. She smiled at Ashley. “But that must have been a mistake in my notes. What kind of parents name their son Ash—“
At which point the RV started moving and Clarice fell flat on her ass.