by A. G. Laroy
We don't need violence to harm others; we don't need evil intentions to act like villains.
IV - Investigations.
After lunch, they decided to take a break from their interviews and try out the fire department next. Their presence had been noticed by that point and people were generally starting to avoid them. Lyra had wanted to try the police first, but Gabe was disinclined to go, claiming that the police might not be too eager to talk to them with him there. "I'm Afro-Hispanic, you're a Latina, and none of us are from around here. Let's not test how well that would work out for us." So the fire department it was.
The map on their phones sent them in the wrong direction at first, and then led them to a restaurant called Fire House. Falco, admitting defeat and putting his phone away, guessed this area hadn't properly been mapped yet. Gabe offered to cut through all the buildings and find the department that way, but Falco quickly shot down that idea. "What if you walk into someone's living room?" It took some asking around and twice walking down the wrong street to finally find their destination.
The fire department was a lot less inconspicuous than expected. A simple two storey brick building stood before them, with big windows and red doors. A silver plaque on the side of the building told them they were at the right place, but everything else about the building blended so seamlessly into the surrounding houses that Lyra would have walked right past it.
They lingered on the pavement, unsure whether to walk in unannounced, when someone called out to them.
"Hey, you three! What are you doing, loitering around?"
A burly man, about fifty years old, marched towards them. His face was clean shaven, his greying hair cut military-style. He was partly dressed in a firefighter uniform, wearing a white shirt under a pair of suspenders, his lower half in typical firefighting gear. His face was stern, but crow's feet around his eyes hinted at a kinder man beneath.
"We're not loitering," Lyra shot back, stepping forwards to stand before her friends. They had agreed that Falco would hang back this time, and Lyra was eager to stand up to the challenge. The man was at least a foot taller than her. "We wanted to ask you some questions about the recent wildfires."
"Is that so?" The firefighter crossed his arms, his face growing less inviting by the second. He briefly considered Gabriel before talking to Falco over her head. "Well, make it quick."
"Is there anything unusual about them that you can tell us?" Lyra asked the man's chin.
His eyes flickered down to her face before continuing to talk to the silent Falco. "Unusual, you say? How so?"
"Anything out of the ordinary," said Gabe, and Lyra knew he was losing his patience with the firefighter, judging by the colourful phrases he thought up about him. "Townsfolk seem to think there's something unusual about all this."
If anything, that might have been the wrong thing to say. The firefighter seemed more closed off, retreating ever so slightly from them. "Talked to the people, have you? You're not from around here. Are you trying to stir up trouble?"
"Just curious," Falco offered. Lyra sensed they were quickly losing the firefighter. They would never find out anything at this rate. She considered her alternatives, how Falco had told her repeatedly not to enter someone's mind uninvited. But surely this was a worthy exception? There was only one way to turn this conversation around.
She mentally reached out, brushing her kanoth along the firefighter's subconscious. What is it you want?
Right then, his desire to have them all leave was deafening, screaming at her from every angle of his mind. There was a nice pudding waiting for him in the fridge upstairs, something his wife had packed for him, and he was eager to get back before one of his colleagues ate it.
It seemed too obvious. Granted, she had never tried something like this, but this was a quasi-emergency. They were still trying to prevent the town from being razed by another fire. Her mental fingers trailing his subconscious, softly tickling it, she whispered a suggestion into his mind. The sooner you answer our questions, the sooner we leave.
The firefighter's eyes glazed over as her suggestion took hold. She sensed Falco recoil when it happened, then followed him along as he put the pieces together. He momentarily lost control of his kanoth, projecting his emotions outwards. There was surprise, disappointment (naturally), and... fear? It had been too brief for Lyra to be sure. Regardless, there were bigger fish to fry.
"Anything weird about the fires?" she repeated.
The firefighter was still for a second. "Well, meadows burnin' in the middle of winter is weird enough, I would think. I'm talking damp grass, wet branches, that kinda stuff. We thought someone might be using fire accelerant or something. But there was no fire starter or nothing. As if the fires just... happened."
She traded meaningful glances with Gabe behind her. Falco closed his eyes, his last hope of an ordinary explanation blinking out of existence.
"Do you remember where the last fire occurred?"
"Just out of town, behind the Benson's farm."
"What a coincidence," muttered Gabe under his breath. It seemed like the noose was tightening around Jeff's neck.
Lyra felt the firefighter clawing his way through the daze of his consciousness. "That would be all. Thank you for your time." They left as fast as they could before the man fully came back to his senses.
"Was that really necessary?" Falco's voice was half an octave higher than usual. His lips were pressed so tightly together they disappeared. But he was guarded, he had put up his mental walls as soon as she had influenced the firefighter. His distrust in her sent an ache through her heart.
"What? What happened?" Gabe looked back and forth between them, oblivious to their metaphysical argument taking place.
"She mind-controlled him!"
"I did not!" How could he? He should know the difference! "I only looked for what he wanted most, then gently convinced him to take the steps to achieve it. I didn't force him to do anything he didn't already want to do!"
"Lyra, please, listen to me." His voice had grown serious. He cupped her face between his hands. A familiar vertigo at their touch filled Lyra, she felt her own emotions bounce back at her, heard her own thoughts echo in her head. It felt like two mirrors placed in front of each other, one reflecting the other, infinite. For a moment she had access to Falco's kanoth, and she was betrayed once again when she felt shock and fear in Gabriel at Falco's words.
If Falco had wanted to get her attention, he had succeeded. Lyra's entire focus was on him.
"In the original Order, they also had a telepath. Brilliant, and full of potential. But he gave in to temptation, he saw what his powers could do. If he wanted something done, he would just order it done. If someone resisted, they were coerced. He could control their muscles. He could convince them to do things against their will. He was powerful, and dangerous. He could even convince their lungs to stop breathing, or their heart to stop beating. Do you understand where I'm going with this? He was so powerful. And you have a similar kanoth, Lyra. I'm not saying you will end up like him. But please, be careful. With this amount of power, you have to be careful how you use it. Remember, leave people their free will. You have the potential for greatness in you."
Stunned silence. Lyra broke their contact, retreating slowly, like she'd spotted a deer in the forest and was afraid to startle it. Falco had never opened up to her so wholly before. And he was terrified... of her? She shook her head slowly. Her ears had started to ring. She looked back and forth between her friends. Worry stood in Falco's face, Gabe wore a conflicted expression. She took a deep breath to calm her racing mind, fighting to hold back tears. Her first instinct was to defend herself, to brush off their criticism. Of course she didn't mind control the firefighter!
She looked at Gabe again. "What do you think?"
He flinched when she spoke to him, which was like a slap to the face. Did they really see her as such a dangerous monster?
"It was creepy, what you just did. It was like the light in that man's eyes just... went out. The way he spoke, like he was in a trance. I don't... I don't know how to feel about it. We got our answer sure enough, but was this really necessary? You say your telepathy makes you better at talking to people. Taking short cuts like this isn't talking."
"We might not have gotten that sort of information otherwise," Lyra pointed out, careful to keep her emotions at bay. The rational part of her could see the merit in Gabe's argument. The emotional part of her was still very disturbed by the fear and distrust her friends suddenly showed her.
"And now we'll never know," Falco responded.
"So, what you are saying is, the end doesn't justify the means."
"I think that's not the right way to think about it," said Gabe. "You have been reading people like books at a library all day, both of you. We're dealing with..." he searched for the right word, "...greater powers? Let's go with that. It would be stupid not to use everything at our disposal. But you have to draw the line somewhere."
"Lyra, there is a reason I advocate that both of us use our kanoths as sparingly as possible," Falco chimed in. "Neiro and Gabe, for instance, what they can do, they mainly do to themselves. But neither of us can use our powers without interfering with the inner life of someone else. I can't force you not to use your powers that way," he added when Lyra opened her mouth. "Just be aware how you use your kanoth, and what kind of person that makes you."
"Alright, alright, fine," she sighed, yielding her point. Anything to get him to stop his preaching. "Never thought I'd see the day that Falco gets to lecture me and Gabe actually agrees with him. For the record, I didn't mind control him. It was more like a suggestion. But," she added when Falco and Gabe swapped concerned looks, "I can see what you two are saying." There was a sinking sensation in her stomach, as the realisation set in that her powers meant more than taking a short cut, more than simply having an advantage in life. She pushed that feeling to the periphery of her consciousness and gave her friends a brittle smile, donning the mask of a calmer person.
"Don't we have a mission to complete?"
They agreed that Jeff was almost certainly the arsonist they were looking for, that he had found the fire crystal lost during the Conflict. But for them to confront him, Falco explained, they had to be a hundred percent sure. None of them were.
Falco suggested checking by town hall. They were bound to keep an archive of historical documents, and if they got lucky, they might find something from back during the time of the Conflict. "We could see if there is anyone at all who might also have a motive from back then. Maybe even trace back which parts of town burned down." This sort of knowledge would be helpful in the long run, in piecing together the legacy their Order had inherited.
The mood between the friends had shifted dramatically from when they had first arrived. Lyra felt tired and exposed, as if her mental link with an unwilling participant had chipped something away within her, something she would never be able to recover. She'd only ever established a mental bond like that with Falco, and in a weaker form with Gabe. And even that had been different, Falco had had control over how far she ventured into his mind. The firefighter had succumbed to her, she had held all the power during their interaction. Terrifyingly, she had liked holding power over this man.
Finding town hall took considerably less time. Then again, it was a more pompous building, standing fifteen feet high, made out of white slabs and stones, like it was built to emulate the feel of polished marble. It almost succeeded in that.
"They won't talk to us," Gabe said suddenly as they approached the building. "We won't be able to just waltz in and ask all the questions we want to ask."
"No, of course not." Falco pretended like the thought didn't just occur to him. "Any ideas?"
"Just one." Neither of them liked the smile that spread on Gabe's face.
Five minutes later, they had found their way to the back of the building, trying to look as inconspicuous as possible as they examined the back wall. Like they weren't about to break into town hall.
"Try not to enjoy this too much," Lyra half-joked. Gabe's past had consisted of a great deal of theft and shoplifting before they had found and recruited him. Breaking and entering was no new experience for him.
"Sure." His grin only widened, which Lyra hadn't thought possible. "Just remember, whatever happens, don't let go. I've never tried taking someone with me when I phase. I don't want to find out what happens when someone rematerializes inside a wall."
"Just try to find the archives as soon as possible, please." Lyra felt queasy. Her first time teleporting with Neiro had left her with an upset stomach for two days. She didn't look forward to seeing how Gabe's kanoth worked either.
Gabe offered them his hands, standing between Falco and herself. "Ready?"
"Now or never." Falco took Gabe's left hand, Lyra his right.
As soon as she touched him, her entire body started tingling, as if a thousand needles prickled at every inch of her skin. It wasn't painful, but neither was it a pleasant feeling.
Gabe surged forwards and Lyra almost let go right there, only his iron-tight grip keeping her from being left behind. She instinctively closed her eyes as they collided with the wall, holding onto Gabe for dear life. His warm hand against hers was the only anchoring point she had in the world. She couldn't feel air move past her, couldn't feel her feet touch the ground. She wasn't even sure any of her limbs were still there. There was only the void, a terrifying silence.
Only when they stopped did Lyra allow herself to open her eyes. She let go of Gabe and her knees immediately gave out.
The room they stood in was vast and yet felt crowded, like there wasn't quite enough space to move around comfortably. Shelves, arranged in rows leading into the shadows, pressed close, suffocating them. Gabe had brought them to the end of one such row, two shelves stretching out before them. Circular ceiling lamps were interspersed along the columns, just the right distance from one another to keep the shadows at bay. As far as Lyra could tell, every shelf was stacked with boxes, faded strips of paper labelling their content. She sat on the floor, clutching her quartz in trembling hands.
"I - I'm never doing that a - again."
Over the last year, she had grown used to the ever-present air molecules around her. Not being able to feel them had freaked her out more than she was willing to admit.
"You alright there, little one?"
She fixed Falco with a look that promised his imminent demise. "Stop calling me that! Neiro has already picked up on it."
"Yep, she's fine." Gabe offered her his hand to help her up. An amused smile played around Falco's lips. Then he froze.
"Someone's - "
He fell silent as a presence appeared about twenty feet behind Lyra. Gabe dove inside the nearest wall, Falco vanished behind a shelf. Lyra was too dazzled to react in time. She had been spotted. It was too late to hide.
"Hey! You there!"
Lyra slowly turned around to see a tall man marching towards her. He must've been in his early twenties, a pair of rectangular glasses resting on his hooked nose. She sensed Gabe shift through the wall next to her. Falco is to your left, she told him. It was game over for her, but her friends were still in. If she could create a distraction and buy them time, then that's the best she could do right then. Keep searching. I'll be fine.
The man had reached her, looming over her in the twilight of the room. He bent down to her eyelevel, and she suddenly felt very small again.
"Who are you? What are you doing here?"
Momentary panic flooded through her, her thoughts fumbling over each other. Who do you want me to be?
She hadn't meant to ask him, but she got her answer regardless. Brief impressions flashed through her mind and she saw herself the way he saw her: a petite young girl with a dazed look, confused and scared, found in a place she had no business being. So she played along, though every fibre of her being screamed at her with indignation.
"I - I'm sorry!" She forced herself to sob. Falco must have heard her, for she felt him mentally probe towards her. She slapped him away. I'm keeping him busy. Keep going.
The man fixed her with a curious look. He wasn't fully buying it. The sob might have been too theatrical. She looked young for her age, but not that young.
"I took the wrong door somewhere. And this building is so huge. I - I think I'm lost." She made her voice quiver, looking up at him with big eyes, trying to make herself look as small and innocent as possible. Her slim physique already made people think her younger and less capable than she was. She tried to lean into it, make the most of the hand she had been dealt, but there was no satisfaction tied to it. It annoyed her, more than anything. "Please, can you help me?"
Throughout her entire spiel, the man hadn't said a word. He only looked at her with his lips slightly parted, his eyebrows raised. His gaze flickered past her, as if he'd noticed Gabe or Falco. In that moment, though she was loath to do so, Lyra knew she wouldn't hesitate to use her kanoth to persuade him. Not if it meant helping her friends or ending her humiliation.
Thankfully, he seemed satisfied with her performance, and whatever he'd been looking for wasn't there. He turned his attention back to her, a kind smile on his face.
"Of course, dear. Let's get you out of here."
She took the hand he offered her, resentment pooling low in her stomach. She was angry at herself that 'scared little girl' was the first narrative that had plopped into her mind, as she was now stuck with it. A part of her was annoyed at how quickly he had bought into the narrative. She thought back to her interaction with the firefighter, how he looked right over her head, ignoring her to talk to whom he perceived to be in charge. Neither of these men had taken her seriously.
As they passed Gabe and Falco, she struck up a conversation to cover any noises her friends might me making. A small voice inside her head screamed at her to stop all pretence, to let it come to a confrontation, so she could show who she really was. Falco's voice echoed through her head. Little one.
"Do you keep all this organized by yourself?"
"That I do," he said, pride dripping into his voice.
"Oh wow," she exclaimed, trying to use his ego for her advantage. She felt like she might throw up. "That's so much!"
"And I know exactly where everything is. I never have to read the labels. My memory is just that good."
"That's really impressive!" she exclaimed through gritted teeth.
Please hurry up, she begged Falco. They had reached the end of the hallway, and the man opened the door for her. Meet me outside. The thought of being separated from her friends was less than thrilling, but she had no excuse to linger anymore. Her brief distraction seemed to have bought them some time.
The man kept a patronizing hand on her shoulder as they walked through hallways towards the exit. It took all her restraint not to shrug him off. She was growing very irritated very quickly now. Lyra thought about how Falco and Gabe were probably finding all sorts of interesting titbits, while she was stuck playing the frightened girl.
"Thank you, sir," she said when she couldn't bear it anymore. They had reached the grand entry hall, glass doors promising her freedom. She hoped that Falco and Gabe had had enough time to find what they were looking for. She skipped ahead, out of his reach, hoping her fade didn't crumble in these last few seconds. "My parents will be waiting outside. Have a nice day!"
Before he could say anything else, Lyra ran off, perhaps a bit too fast for an ordinary person.
"I hope you found something," she greeted Falco, who was waiting for her when she stormed out of the building. Clouds had sewn the sky shut, leaving it a smear of murky grey. The winds were picking up around her.
"Not much, in the time we had. Unfortunately. Someone else showed up a couple minutes after you left."
"Not a lot of new information," he corrected himself as Lyra rushed past him. "Apparently only the eastern part of the village was razed during the Conflict. Now guess whose farm that includes."
"What's wrong?" asked Gabe, who had come running after Falco. "Now we know it was Jeff!"
"We don't know anything we didn't know already!" A gust of wind knocked over the nearest trash can. "This was a waste of time."
"No, I'm done." Her pride wounded, she felt a searing hot ball of anger swell in her chest, ready to singe everyone in her general vicinity. She took off in a random direction, shouldering past passersby, almost knocking over a small child. Someone grabbed her arm.
"Now wait a sec."
The hot ball was now dangerously close to bursting. "Let me go, Gabe." She jerked her arm away, whisking around to face him. Confusion stood in his blank face. Of course he wouldn't understand. "Go find Jeff, I'll join you."
"Leave her be," yelled Falco from a distance. He had wisely decided not to run after her.
She took a step backwards. Gabe stood defeated, showing no sign of following her. A plea stood in his face, he fought to keep his composure.
"I'll find you," promised Lyra, before she once again turned around, running from her friends.