Melissa

Virga: Act 5D

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A Virga Mystery: BALANCING ACT

ACT 5d: OF ZOMBIES AND ZEALOTS

Melody was immediately moving, reaching out for Melissa. Melissa was having none of that.

She leapt to the side, up onto one of the thrones, using it as a launching pad to spring for some ceremonial fencing swords that were just out of her reach. (Sometimes her height is a particular drawback.) Snaring one, she brandished it in self defence, waving her palm along it to check that it was an effective weapon, and not merely decorative. To be clear, preventing a witch from speaking doesn’t prevent her from spell casting, it merely prevents the ability to focus magick for the more intensive spells.

“Magnes,” Melody stated.

Melissa felt the magnetic pull as Melody tried to relieve her of the blade. She allowed for a slight pull, then turned the trajectory into a spin, and flung the blade at the elder blonde witch. As Melody was forced to deflect, Melissa ran back for the entrance.

“Volo.” Melody flew up into the air.

Melissa

MELISSA VIRGA
Commission from Shirley

Melissa was overtaken before she could get out. Which was when her hand came up out of her bag, throwing a handful of backup salt into Melody’s face. As Melody flinched, concentration broken enough to make her return to the ground, Melissa made up the couple extra steps.

She grabbed one of the spears from the zombies who were only now untangling themselves at the entrance.

But there were more zombies closing in from all sides. Melissa saw she had no viable escape other than back through the large throne room. She took a second to clear her throat before charging back in.

The spear being mostly wood, it kept Melody at bay temporarily. Melissa needed to find the access point to the hidden room ahead.

“Aduro,” Melody intoned, and Melissa’s spear caught fire.

The brunette smirked a little at that, having hoped for just such an attempt to disarm her. Holding her bag in her hand to act as a fire buffer between her palm and the spear, she maintained her grip and ran backwards, to a tapestry. Using the flames to set it ablaze, Melissa then waved the burning shaft of wood about, to keep any newly arriving zombies at bay.

Perhaps realizing that she had just given Melissa a MORE dangerous weapon, Melody’s next summons was “Aqua”.

Again, anticipating something of the sort as soon as Melody opened her mouth, Melissa was a hair faster. Perhaps trying to make up for her earlier hesitation. She threw the blazing spear towards the entranceway, making the zombies back up. That the water then condensed and fell upon her, instead of the spear, verified that all Melody’s spells were area based, and cast in her direction, as opposed to actually on her person.

Another clever loophole. Melody wasn’t performing magick on the unwilling, Melissa was simply in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Reaching out, the now slightly dripping witch ripped the still burning tapestry down from the wall. Concluding that her arms and shoulders were soon going to have a hard time forgiving her, she ran back for the thrones, still using the fire as a buffer.

Now Melody hesitated. Or perhaps merely concluded that she had time to think of another plan, as Melissa seemed to be cornering herself.

‘Come on, come on,’ Melissa said in her head, and possibly would have been muttering it aloud if she’d had the capability.

She saw the scuffmarks on the floor. It had to be due to the hidden door scraping on the stonework. The only remaining question was how to open it.

Unfortunately, at that moment, her luck ran out. Before she could figure out the door, there was the sound of someone clearing his or her voice on the upper level.

“What,” the voice rumbled, “is happening here?”

It was Mortum.

***

With Zamboni’s words, the attention of everyone in the park shifted from him to me. I was pretty sure he hadn’t set out to make my Agency (technically Melissa’s) into this lightning rod for her status, but asking me whether I had propositioned Melissa and/or was pulling her strings? Had managed to do just that.

“Melissa’s not the marrying type,” I shot back at the waiting Zamboni.

Which I immediately knew was the wrong response. First, it didn’t deny that I might have asked her, and second… it made me wonder myself whether Melissa was, indeed, inclined to stay single. For the first time since Amy, at the start of the summer, I found myself wondering how far things were going to go between Melissa and I.

“Perhaps she’s merely not the type to marry YOU,” Zamboni said, far too smugly.

Did Zamboni have a point? Why hadn’t Melissa or I touched on this subject yet? We’d merely returned to our status quo. For weeks now, nothing had changed.

I was forced to do more self-reflection. At what point do you know you’ve found ‘The One’? More to the point, hadn’t I already answered that question? My debating three months ago with Amy had led me to choose Melissa.

But I hadn’t returned to her with a ring and a promise.

Of course, Zamboni seemed to be in this for the magick lifestyle, and Melissa had feared as much of me when I first came back. And while I wasn’t about to run off with another witch, if Melissa were to give up the Agency, would I feel any disillusionment? I supposed there was an answer for Zamboni in that.

“Melissa’s married to her job, anyone who knows her knows that,” I fired off.

Except this was a job which would go away in three weeks – as either the supernatural would be a reality, or it wouldn’t. There would be no need to have an agency to balance things out. And without the job, what were we? Still a couple? What would Melissa’s next project be after the Agency? Would she want me along? Would I still want to be a part of her life if we weren’t solving supernatural crimes?

“Sorry, what?” I said, realizing I’d missed Zamboni’s latest retort.

“I said you have no reason to be speaking for Melissa here,” Zamboni repeated, narrowing his eyes. “Her job should speak for itself. Frankly, you do not even seem capable of investigating the supernatural without her. Can you perform magick?”

I grimaced. Well, lying wouldn’t help. “I can do illusion.”

“Please,” Zamboni sniffed. “Anyone can do that. No, you couldn’t conjure up a rose even if your life depended on it. You are a mere puppet, the only question is whose. Perhaps Melissa conjured you up herself, to keep suitors like me at bay, hm? Or to keep give the factions here a red herring to investigate?”

He attempted to push past me again. “Come, Melissa, let us ignore this fool and be joined. It is time.”

I reached out a hand to stop him. “Melissa is not going anywhere with you.”

“And who’s going to stop me?” Zamboni said, managing to make his voice even colder than mine. “You?”

“Perhaps,” I answered, even as I realized I was getting way out of my depth. “Don’t underestimate me. I’m full of surprises.”

“That’s true enough,” Trixie/Melissa muttered.

It was Zamboni’s turn to pause, perhaps wondering just how far I’d be willing to take this. “Very well,” he said slowly. “Let us say I agree to back off, and even give up my explosives… it would be under condition that YOU marry Melissa. After all, if she is so fond of you, doing this will avoid further meddling by me or anyone else.”

“Y-You can’t guarantee that though,” I protested, hating the quaver in my voice.

“Can’t I?” Zamboni smirked again. “You merely do not wish to finish things. Come, I have the priest. You shall be married in my place. Unless Melissa wishes to speak up for herself, for once? Rather than letting you continue to speak?”

My expression sort of froze, as I directed my gaze back towards Trixie/Melissa. She returned the look with a very Trixie-style expression that I found I could only interpret as, ‘You idiot’.

After all, the more she spoke, the more likely the deception would be uncovered. But I couldn’t play along and marry Trixie. Even if it were somehow judged to be marriage by proxy, Melissa hadn’t given consent. Nor could I admit now that this wasn’t Melissa, as Zamboni was liable to simply blow the whole place up. But then, what was the alternative?

For a moment, I felt like I needed Melissa’s guidance more than ever, and wished that I could have been with her just then.

***

Quick as a wink, Melissa yanked an adhesive scroll out of her pocket and slapped it onto the wall, before turning and standing in front of it.

Melissa could see him now, coming down the stairs. Mortum was a slightly portly man, balding, maybe Melody’s height, currently dressed in a black bathrobe. He quickly sized up the situation.

“Fascinating,” he concluded, expression almost a smile. “I haven’t had an unexpected visitor get this far in over fifty years. Someone, go and hold her. And my dear, if you resist, I assure you I have no qualms about throwing the person who fails me into that fire you’ve prepared.”

Melissa could think of several choice things she wanted to say to the man at that point, but perhaps fortunately for him, she still couldn’t speak. So she merely stood there, fists clenched, as two type I zombies, a male and a female, moved in to restrain her by the arms.

“Now then,” Mortum continued, upon reaching the bottom of the stairs, “we can do this the easy way, or the hard way. The easy way involves you explaining to me why and how you came to be here. The hard way involves me zombifying you and getting the same information that way. Though I suppose that way is easier for me.”

Melissa’s eyes narrowed. Mortum flashed a smile. “Aha, yes, rather seems a bad idea to let you speak just now. I suppose that wasn’t really a decision I’d let you make anyway.”

He gestured at Melody. “We’ll let my most powerful spirit split it’s attentions between you two witches then. See what it can learn. Maybe it will even find itself a new home. Melody?”

The blonde witch took a step forwards as the other two zombies held Melissa firmly to prevent her getting away. The brunette’s eyes darted left and right, but she saw no possibility for escape there, and a slight struggle showed she wasn’t about to break free.

Melissa decided she had no choice but to fixate her gaze on Melody’s hand, as it drew closer and closer to her. Wondering when the zombi spirit would jump into her head.

***

Trying to stave off desperation, I looked from Trixie/Melissa, to Zamboni, to the priest. It was upon seeing the priest that something Zamboni had done a short time ago fully registered, and the solution hit me.

With that, I felt a surprising amount of inner calm.

“Perhaps you are right,” I said to Zamboni, “it would be proper to ask Melissa’s opinion here.”

I turned again to the image of my girlfriend, whose Trixie-expression immediately morphed from ‘You idiot’ to a concerned ‘What are you doing?’ I smiled reassuringly.

“But before we do that, you should know two things, Zamboni,” I continued. “The first is that she has been working with a protégé of her’s, Trixie, on an amazingly complex technological device, called Rixi. Mel, could you perhaps give us a demonstration? Have it call up some scrolls for a containment spell, say five or six?”

Trixie/Melissa eyed me before reaching into her jeans pocket and pulling out the device she I knew she’d grabbed before departing. She never goes anywhere without it. “Rixi, containment scrolls,” she said into it.

“All right,” Rixi said brightly. “Accessing.”

I glanced back at Zamboni, who was now starting to look suspicious, and the priest, who was looking confused.

“Yeah, Mel’s been working a bit too hard lately, she’s starting to sound like the tech,” I pointed out, as the glowing sphere deposited scrolls into Trixie/Melissa’s hand. I quickly took them from her. “It’s rather interesting though, the design wasn’t merely based on Siri, what were those other animated television shows that Trixie said she had been watching? I never remember.”

Trixie/Melissa eyed me as I began to walk to the gazebo. “Magical Lyrical Nanoha and Martin Mystery,” she admitted quietly after a moment.

“Those were the ones,” I said, as I slapped a scroll up onto one of the beams of the gazebo. “Never have found the time to get into what she calls anime, but I hear it’s fascinating stuff.”

Trixie/Melissa had to have known by now that I was stalling for time. Given how my memory wouldn’t let me forget those trivial little details, which we’d discussed during our first dinner, all those weeks previously. But would she see what I wanted her to do, or more importantly, when I wanted her to do it?

“Stop wasting time,” Zamboni cut in, apparently cluing in to the delay tactic too. I picked up the pace of my circuit of the gazebo as Zamboni continued, pasting up the scrolls. “We’re here to decide who is going to marry Melissa, not what her friend watches on TV. Is there even a second thing we should know?”

“You aren’t listening to me,” I shot back. “Marrying Melissa is merely why you’re here. And you’re trying to pull me into it to, almost like as long as it happens, you get paid. Is that tuxedo even yours, or is it a rental?”

“It is MINE,” Zamboni sighed in annoyance, reaching up to adjust his bow tie. “Now stop stalling or I swear I will activate the explosives.”

“Very well,” I said, raising my index finger. “The second thing then. It involves a case I was part of, one regarding a young lady named Danielle. Saving her included the use of a latin phrase, ‘die dulci fruere’. Do you perchance know how to spell that?”

Out of the corner of my eye, I gave Trixie/Melissa a pointed look. She DID remember what she’d said about the case less than an hour ago, right? Her eyebrows went up, and I knew she understood.

“It’s a rather meaningless latin phrase,” Zamboni was answering. “Which has nothing to do with those scrolls, but which I’m about to interpret as a threat.”

“Here’s the thing then,” I finished. “You say this moment is a turning point, which some spirits foretold. That may well be true. I’m sure it’s why the most devout are staying to watch, even now. But I don’t think YOU are meant to be part of this turning point, Zamboni. Because you aren’t even brave enough to carry the explosives yourself.”

I immediately shifted my attention from Zamboni to his priest, snatching the bible from his hands before he had a chance to prevent it. As I suspected, the book was a lot heavier than it should have been.

“Trixie!” I called out, throwing the object into the gazebo.

Trixie/Melissa raised her voice slightly as she completed the latin chanting that she had been doing under her breath. She raised both her hands, creating the necessary mystic gesture.

“Fac ut gaudeam!” she concluded.

The papers which I had placed around the gazebo lit up with a bright glow, just as the book hit the ground. There was a massive explosion.

And that’s when I realized I’d made a mistake.

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Virga: Act 5C

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A Virga Mystery: BALANCING ACT

ACT 5c: OF ZOMBIES AND ZEALOTS

Trixie looked startled, her twintails bouncing cutely in the process. “Oh, of course. So obvious, I should have realized. Except it’ll have to be me who transforms into Missy, yeah?”

I wasn’t sure I liked the idea of her being there, looking like my girlfriend. Particularly given her earlier thoughts about Zamboni, and possible jealousy issues towards Melissa having been picked. “I don’t know, Trixie.”

Trixie

TRIXIE
Commission from Sen Yomi

“James, I have to use a low level version of the illusion spell, or it’ll register a mile away,” she explained. “That means no vocals. So unless you’ve gained the ability to talk like Melissa in falsetto, you’re out. Plus, ever since throwing your name on this agency? Your identity’s been twisted up with Melissa’s. You coming along wouldn’t be seen as weird. Me there plus ‘Melissa’ too would put people on their guard.”

She made sense. “I suppose,” I said. “But you don’t really sound like Melissa either.”

“I’ll mumble and pretend I have a cold,” the redhead countered, already starting to pour a circle of flour around Melissa’s desk chair. “Honestly, me or you, what’s the difference?”

Even setting aside my concerns over ‘Trixie/Melissa’, I realized I was still worried about Trixie being in the thick of the action all of a sudden. “Just want to make sure… you really wouldn’t rather back me up from afar?”

She looked up at me then, and frowned. “I won’t freeze up.”

I raised my hands. “I didn’t say you would.”

“Don’t get all protective and caring of me either. You’ll make me hate you more, over how we can’t have a relationship.”

I rubbed my forehead. “I just want to make sure you’re doing this because you want to, not because the situation seems to require it. Okay?”

Trixie sighed, dropping the flour sack onto the floor. The circle was ready. “Fine, well, you got a plan C?” she asked.

“Not yet.”

“Then it’s fine.” She grabbed one of Melissa’s personal items from the desk and then jumped up into the chair, crossing her legs to prevent her short, plaid skirt from revealing too much. “I really am doing this to see what it’s like living in Missy’s shoes for once. We good?”

I wasn’t sure if that was a satisfactory answer, but even my plan B wasn’t solid in my head. “Okay, just make sure the spell makes you look like you’re wearing something Mel would wear.”

Trixie smiled impishly, and started to chant in Latin.

***

Melissa peered out from the alcove she’d selected as a hiding place. She saw nothing.

The coast should be clear now, she reasoned, all the way to the vicinity of the throne room. As to whether she’d be able to work her way back out… well, one thing at a time. She attuned herself again to her tracking spell, which had continued to move on ahead, at the edge of her awareness, and used it as a reference.

She then set out, moving quickly but quietly. Maybe ten minutes later, she was only a corridor away from her destination.

Two steps past the suit of armour, she registered her mistake. Melissa quickly jumped forwards and rolled on the ground, narrowly missing the axe that had been swung down at her.

“That was stupid,” she muttered to herself. Of course armour could contain a body. Still, it was armour. Obvious weakness. She came up on one knee, and readied the electrical spell at her fingertips.

Then paused. Once burned, twice shy.

Could a type III zombi animate a suit of armour? If THAT was the case, she couldn’t touch it at all, lest the spirit jump to her. But maybe this was a simple enchantment, and not even a zombi?

It was readying another swing of the axe. She couldn’t risk the touch.

She switched her focus from her fingertips to her palm, holding it out as it to say stop, while at the same time intoning, “Caecus!” A bright flash of light lit the corridor in front of her, and the swing of the axe went wide.

The armour could apparently be blinded, therefore had eyes of a sort. Hence not a simple enchantment. Melissa didn’t waste time with a follow-up, hopping back up onto her feet and racing down the corridor in her initial direction.

She should be able to get into the collector room around the back of the throne room, and then seal herself inside temporarily. Buying time to work out an escape. But that plan went awry too, when a person with vacant eyes stepped out of a side passage, seemingly investigating the noise.

Seeing Melissa, it blocked her way.

Melissa reached back into her bag, fingers connecting with the end of the rope inside. She yanked it out, calling out, “Ligatio!” as she threw it at the zombi that stood before her.

It had started to extend its arms, only for the rope to magically wind around it, pinning its arms to its sides. That allowed Melissa to edge to the side of it. Then, reasoning that they’d expect her to continue on her current path, she ducked back down the side passage from where her opponent had emerged.

With her presence known, stealth was becoming less and less of a concern. Given her location, she decided to go for broke.

Three more right turns would let her hit the throne room dead on. Unlikely that Mortum was hanging out there this late at night, and from there, she could still get into the room with the orb and barricade the entrances.

Heading for her third right turn, an obvious type II appeared from the left. Obvious, as no living being could have a chest wound that large. As such, she decided to risk a tactile spell.

By stopping short in her run, it couldn’t correct as fast, and almost plowed into her; Melissa extended her index finger. “Dormis!”

The zombi with the chest wound fell to the side; she didn’t waste any thought on whether the undead could dream or not. Fifteen steps became ten, then five – yet at the main doors, there were two more, now registering her arrival and holding up spears.

Two was the number she’d hoped for.

“Everro!” Melissa called, making a hand motion from left to right. The one zombi got yanked sideways into the other, both of them falling to the ground in a cluster of arms and legs. She pressed her advantage.

“Fit via vi!” was the spell, with both palms now out, her fingers interlaced. The hinges on the double door buckled from the force blast, and when Melissa slammed into the wood with her shoulder, the opening yielded to her weight. Even so, Melissa wagered she’d need an ice pack when this was all over.

As soon as she burst into the central room, with its stereotypical columns, raised dais and additional stairwell curving up one side, she was looking for a way to access the hidden area that she knew existed behind the thrones.

As such, she missed the woman with the long blonde hair standing in the corner until it was too late.

Or rather, Melissa noticed her within two seconds of entering, but was then frozen for the critical extra seconds that she’d have needed to cast a spell. She knew this woman.

“Melody,” Melissa breathed out.

“Qui tacet consentire videtur,” Melody intoned, raising her finger and pointing.

The elder blonde witch, the one who had once consulted with an old classmate of Melissa’s, who had once suspended me upside-down in a position of peril, and who had once caused Melissa herself to suffer a breakdown after summoning a recently departed spirit, stood in Mortum’s throne room.

She was now a type III zombi. Who had just taken away Melissa’s voice. A fact that my girlfriend became acutely aware of, when she found she was unable to cast a protective shield.

***

As we started down the stairs of the apartment building, I looked at Trixie again. The illusion made her appear exactly like Melissa, right down to the pair of tight jeans.

“So, how we gonna play this then?” the witch chirped, thrusting her smaller chest out at me. Reinforcing the fact that she didn’t have Melissa’s voice or mannerisms.

I looked away. “We determine how this lunatic is going to blow up the park, and defuse his explosives or the situation before he can marry you,” I stated.

“Duh. Can you be a bit more specific?”

“I’m still working out the details,” I admitted. “Thing is, the faction side of this worries me. Why would they let Zamboni get this far?”

“What, you think they’re working together?” Trixie/Melissa asked.

“Alicia did say the groups wouldn’t be working at cross purposes for much longer.”

“Yuh huh. I bet Alicia said a lot of stuff to rope Missy into going on her mission.”

I sighed. “Maybe. Just… follow my lead, okay? And please don’t say things like ‘yuh huh’ or ‘duh’ when you look like that. It’s all kinds of wrong.”

Trixie/Melissa smirked. “What if I call you an idiot instead? Hey, curious, would it be a turn on for someone who looks like Missy to call you that?”

“Trixie…”

“Call me Mel,” she giggled. She briefly grabbed for my arm, but my reaction must have told her that she’d crossed a line, and she quickly disengaged. “Sorry. Look, I won’t say that stuff because I’ll have made it look like Missy’s lost her ability to speak or something. That said, since your thinking’s stalled, I reserve the right to improvise.”

I nodded. “I guess that’s fair, but don’t take any undue risks.”

We headed to the park, after making sure our protective charm necklaces were still in place under our shirts. We weren’t about to get stabbed in the back without warning. It was just starting to grow dark, making for a bit of a gloomy atmosphere; the sunset seemed to be mostly red.

The park, I discovered, also had a lot more people in it than we might have expected… some I recognized as previous attempted guests at the apartment. Had they simply not been in this park when I walked this way? Or had they somehow used illusion to seem different?

Of course, given Zamboni’s ultimatum, maybe a lot of them were here now to catch a glimpse of Melissa, which would be more difficult at most other times. I hoped no one would try to take a shot at Trixie/Melissa, or all hell might break loose. That is, assuming they weren’t all working together somehow.

Crazy marriage guy turned out to be hard to miss. He was standing with a priest close to the park’s centre, next to the gazebo.

Oh, don’t get me wrong, he wasn’t one of those guys who looked that crazy. Sandy blonde hair, hazel eyes, reasonably good looking, dressed in what seemed like a rented tuxedo, complete with white bow tie. He simply drew the attention of everyone around him.

The priest nodded at Zamboni, for reasons that would make more sense later.

“Aha! Aha!” Zamboni shouted at us, as we stopped short a couple paces away. He shook his finger in the air. “See, I knew the true Chosen One would not let her brethren come to harm. See how well I know you? We are destined to be together.”

“Right, well, we’re here now, so why don’t you put away whatever detonating device you have as a show of goodwill,” I said. It looked like the guy had even put some flowers around the gazebo, which I supposed was a nice touch.

His gaze fully turned from Trixie/Melissa to me, becoming a glare. “Who are you?”

“James Conway. I run a supernatural agency, and I speak for Melissa in this case. Who are you?”

“I am the Great Zamboni. Surely you’ve heard of me?”

“Right, yes. Ice to meet you.” (That just slipped out.) “So, let’s defuse the situation, okay? Give me the explosives.” I stepped closer and extended my hand.

Zamboni shook his head. “I will not give up my insurance until me and Melissa are joined in wedlock.”

Trixie/Melissa must have rolled her eyes or something, because he then moved to try and step around me.

“Melissa,” he continued, “the time is near. You must pick someone. Surely you don’t want to face your decision alone?”

“Look,” I continued, keeping myself between Zamboni and Trixie/Melissa. “Even assuming that’s true, we don’t need a shotgun marriage yet. Let’s reschedule.”

The priest let out a grunt. Zamboni laughed.

“Fool,” Zamboni said. “This is the time that was foretold to me by the spirits from the other realm. It is the turning point, the moment when Melissa’s fate is realized. Of course we shall do this now!”

I exchanged a quick glance with Trixie/Melissa, wondering if I’d missed part of a conversation, before turning back. “Zamboni, check your calendar, you’re about three weeks early.”

The blonde man glared at me again, then waggled his finger. “You mock. But I don’t mean this is the decision of the Chosen One itself. I mean this is the turning point. And the presence that is here, within me, will help Melissa sift through the data to make the proper decision when it is time. I know it.”

He lifted his hand to his heart. Were his feelings the presence he meant? I belatedly wondered if this was a case of possession, kicking myself for not thinking of the possibility sooner.

“I don’t need a guy like you in my data,” Trixie/Melissa piped up in a rasp.

“A marriage here is out of the question anyway,” I broke in quickly. “Melissa’s parents aren’t even here. They would want to attend such an event.”

Zamboni’s eyes narrowed as his gaze was again brought back to me before he could address Trixie/Melissa. He peered. “You know of her parents? Ah, yes, yes, I can see that now. It took me a moment, but you see yourself as my rival, James. Yes? You wish to be the one sifting through Melissa’s data?”

Trixie/Melissa snorted. I had to agree, somehow that sounded dirty, but I’m not sure if it was from his tone or my mind.

“I am merely her business associate,” I stated.

Trixie/Melissa started coughing violently.

Zamboni now looked ticked off. “I am not a fool. You care for her. I know now. Curious though.” He stepped back and made a wide gesture with his hand, almost hitting his priest in the process. “Perhaps you could reveal your game to everyone here? After all, could it be that YOU have proposed to her already, as I have? Is this why you claim to speak for Melissa, hmm?”

He caught me off guard with that one.

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Virga: Act 5B

Previous INDEX Next

A Virga Mystery: BALANCING ACT

ACT 5b: OF ZOMBIES AND ZEALOTS

“Come on up,” I said to Danielle.

Trixie gaped at me. “Really? We want someone like that to realize Missy’s away?”

“We can pretend Mel’s sleeping, or will be back soon,” I answered. “Danielle Timins, she was involved in my first case here. The one I documented online. I’m curious about what she wants now.”

Trixie frowned. “First case… the invisible friend thing? Where you nearly blew up a building on campus?”

Apparently this was another of the cases that Melissa had mentioned to her cousin during my three-week absence in May. “That’s the one.”

“Okay. And you’re sure that this is the same person, not some sort of illusion? And that she hasn’t joined a faction in the last four years, like maybe the stabby-stabby one?”

“I… euh…”

TRIXIE
Commission from Sen Yomi

“Once an idiot, always an idiot,” Trixie sighed, rolling her eyes. She glanced at her palm, as if debating smacking me upside the head, like old times. Instead, all she said was, “I’ll hang around long enough to keep you out of trouble.”

I opened the door for Danielle.

Trixie immediately fired off with, “What faction are you representing?”

Danielle shrank back. “Oh, um, I do have scriptures explaining why the human race isn’t ready for supernatural incursions,” the blonde said timidly. “Based on what I remember of my own experi—”

“Rationals.” Trixie slammed the door in Danielle’s face and turned to me. “Told you.”

“B-But that’s not why I’m here!” Danielle called out from the other side.

I sighed. “Trixie, let her back in?”

She shot me a look. “As if we don’t have enough on our plate already?”

I crossed my arms. “And here I thought you were eager to help the Agency out with more than just the engrams.”

“This IS helping,” Trixie said. “Isn’t it?” She searched my expression, then frowned and reopened the door. “Fine. Make your case for sticking around in ten seconds or less, Danielle.”

Danielle reached to push her glasses up higher on her nose. “There’s a guy in the park down the street who says that if Melissa doesn’t show up in the next hour to marry him, he’ll blow everything up.”

I did a double-take. “He’ll what now?”

“Huh. Blow the PARK up or blow MISSY up?” Trixie questioned. I turned to see if she was making fun of the situation, only to realize she was doing up the half of her blouse buttons that had been undone. She was taking this seriously.

“Blow the park up,” Danielle clarified. “The one where a lot of us faction people have been hanging out. Trying to figure out how we can get the upper hand on the other groups.”

“Wait, all the factions are there?” I asked, looking back at her.

“Sure,” Danielle answered.

“I figured you all had to have a home base,” Trixie mused. “Okay, sorry for slamming the door on you. Question though, how is him blowing up your base a smart move?”

“He’s not part of any faction,” Danielle insisted. “Or if he is, he’s some hybrid. He showed up about five minutes ago with that crazy ultimatum. And a priest, for the marriage. And our rudimentary magick shows he does have explosives. So we’re at a bit of a loss as to what to do.”

“Did you sneak out to come get us?” Trixie asked.

Danielle shook her head. “I was nominated, as a Rational person who had once seen Melissa, and could thus maybe gain her sympathy. Even though I don’t remember much about my case, they thought you’d at least let me in.”

“In that, they were right,” I realized. I looked to Trixie. “You know, the fact that Melissa just left can’t be a coincidence,” I pointed out.

“A-duh,” Trixie retorted. “Way to not be an idiot for once, though minus points for saying that with Danielle still here.” She turned to the blonde. “It’s fine. Run along and we’ll fix things within the hour time frame this guy gave. Unless you have other useful information?” She made shoo-ing motions.

Danielle started wringing her hands. “Are you sure? When is Melissa due back? We don’t even know where this guy’s explosives are, and a lot of people in the park are hanging around to see what happens, rather than being smart and running away.”

“It’s fine,” I said, to back Trixie up. “Though, you might want to be one of the smart people who leaves the area. Okay?”

Danielle nodded, her glasses slipping down once more. “A-All right then. I’ll pass on the message. Oh, if it helps, the guy called himself the Great Zamboni. That’s all I’ve got.”

I closed the apartment door as she headed down the stairs.

“Okay,” Trixie said, tugging up on her dark stockings. “I figure that Mortum guy used Alicia’s orb, and sent this Zamboni to keep Missy busy here, so that she wouldn’t be messing around his castle. But the message was a bit late.”

“Though it could be coincidence,” I suggested. “Maybe this marriage guy was planning to blow up the park regardless, and he wants Melissa there for it, to get her in the blast. He doesn’t exactly sound balanced, he might be full of crazy instead of worship.”

Trixie nodded. “No kidding. Anyone considering marriage to Missy can’t be balanced.”

She smirked. It took me a second to parse why, and as I did a double take, she extended her tongue impishly back. At least the earlier conversation hadn’t made things awkward between us.

“Either way,” Trixie stated. “I’ll put my intimacy cravings on hold to help you with this.” A flash of uncertainty appeared. “Unless you don’t want my help. Since I guess this will be field work and a half.”

“No, I’ll need the help,” I assured her. “Since my back-up plan is going to require magick casting, and that’s your department.”

Trixie nodded. “Cool, you have a plan. This, I want to hear.”

“We have almost an hour, so it involves doing some research, while hoping Melissa’s able to complete her mission particularly expediently.”

“Uh.” Trixie didn’t look impressed. “And your back-up plan…?”

I exhaled. “Well, Plan B involves getting some flour from the kitchen.”

***

I’ll now relate to you some of what happened with Melissa. You’ll find out in the end whether I know this from her directly, or through other means.

When Melissa first arrived, she was forced to blink a few times to adjust to the lower light levels. In the end, she didn’t like what saw. There had been three possible points for her arrival, as Alicia had said her informant couldn’t guarantee placement.

One was down in the dungeons. Another was an arboretum-style room. The last was at the top of one of the towers, where she now seemed to be. Where there was only one point of entrance or egress, unless you counted flying. (The dungeons, funny enough, had two.) With no alternative, Melissa crouched and hurried down the stairs before her, hoping not to encounter anyone on the way. These being the same stairs she would need to take to get back out.

One of the main reasons Melissa had known this would be difficult, was because she had to avoid casting any particularly powerful spells in order to avoid detection. Ironically, casting invisibility would only serve to pinpoint her position. Another drawback was the fact that Melissa didn’t want to attack any zombies if she could avoid it; she’d already resigned herself to the fact that she would need to obtain Alicia’s orb before attempting to free them.

After all, she could only be sure all of them were released by blocking, or otherwise incapacitating, the magick of Mortum. Which implied removing any advantage he might have. Alas, since (according to Alicia) the orb itself was kept in a sealed off storage room behind the throne room, a face-off might become inevitable.

Fortunately, Melissa was in luck – there was no one in the vicinity of the stairs. As she reached the bottom, she opened her pack to remove a small jar, which held the tracking spell she had prepared earlier. It appeared as a tiny glowing ball of light, and once Melissa had unscrewed the lid, the spell fluttered out and down towards the ground.

It remained there for a moment, hovering, before shooting off down the hall. Melissa attuned herself to it, before setting off in quiet pursuit.

It was upon peering around the third corner that she caught sight of her first zombi.

It was a male, perhaps in his thirties, looking none the worse for wear (outside of his tattered clothing), thus likely a type I or type III. He’d been slowly walking through the hall, facing away from her.

Another misconception I should dispel here is that zombies always move slowly. They tend to do that when they’re on a routine patrol (who wouldn’t get bored and go on autopilot?), but they can speed up if they have to, just like a normal human.

Melissa now searched her memory, to recall what Alicia had mentioned about security patrols. The majority of the interior squad was type II (no need to feed those ones), while the majority of the exterior squad was type I (despite the remote location of this guy’s castle, there was always the possibility of them being seen by the public, or one of his collector guests).

So the fact that she’d passed the perimeter, and yet this wasn’t a II, meant it was one of the inner guard. Melissa was closer to the throne room than she’d realized. The specs hadn’t been entirely accurate.

Moreover, given the position of that zombi, and the other information she had, she reasoned that she’d have to work her way back out and around. Then wait a full half hour before a window of opportunity opened for getting through.

Melissa’s tracking spell was already out of sight, but it remained close enough for her to draw a bead on it. She wasn’t in any hurry. Or so she thought, not knowing what we were facing back home.

***

“Flour from the kitchen,” Trixie said, dropping the sack onto the desk and then looking at me expectantly.

“Right,” I sighed. We were down to twenty minutes left. “So you didn’t turn up anything useful on this Zamboni guy?”

I’d spent my time combing through Melissa’s files for any reference to him, or any similar cases in the past, and had come up empty. My eidetic memory had implied as much at the start, but there’d been a couple places where I’d wanted to be sure. I’d left the internet in Trixie’s hands.

Trixie leaned forwards against the desk. I saw she’d unbuttoned part of her blouse again, whether as a conscious decision or otherwise. “I didn’t find anything I saw as useful,” she said. “But here’s the rundown, on the off chance you spot something.” She smirked. “First, Zamboni’s not the manager of an ice rink, much to my surprise.”

I rubbed my forehead. “Yeah, I’m going to have to curb a desire to pun,” I admitted.

“Maybe don’t,” Trixie said. “What little there is on the guy shows that he can get riled up when he’s made fun of, which in turn leads to him making mistakes.”

I frowned. “Do we want a guy with explosives to get riled up?”

Trixie shrugged. “I said MAYBE don’t.”

“Noted. Anything else?”

She seemed to hesitate. “He’s a regular guy with bare minimum magick who’s aware of its existence, and as such is constantly looking to hook up with a witch. Which is why I did find cursory information. But his lovers don’t seem to satisfy him, or he accuses them of ulterior motives, and so he keeps bouncing around, from one witch love affair to another. Never finding a lasting relationship.”

“Ah.” I wondered if Zamboni had been exposed to magick the same way I had been. Trixie seemed to want to say something else though, so I kept staring at her.

Her mouth tightened. “So even an idiot like you can see there’s a bit of a parallel in my own life? Fine. Look, I won’t turn out like that. Whereas he’s sleeping around trying to find his place in the magick community, I’m just trying to find my place in the world. And whereas he’s thinking he’s finished because he’s found a Chosen One, I’m just going to keep going until I make, oh God, I’m not as pathetic as this guy, am I? Please say I’m not.”

I couldn’t tell if her attempt at a smile was her joking or being sincere.

“You’re not,” I assured her, honestly. “After all, you’d never blow people up to find yourself a boyfriend.”

Trixie almost facepalmed. “James. Seriously. The explosives aren’t for Missy, they’re because he’s decided that, after all this time, if she ISN’T his doorway in, nobody else WILL be. She’s no longer a girlfriend, she’s his Chosen One. His final solution. Much like how I’ve decided that anyone who wants me must have ulterior motives, making me wonder if I shouldn’t just build an AI boyfriend.”

“Uh. Wait, what? Are you making an AI along with everything else?” I said, not sure about the timing of this conversation.

“No, idiot, I’m too busy helping you and Missy first.” Trixie glanced down, apparently realizing her button popping had been distracting, and she started to do them back up. “Look, don’t worry about having this conversation with me, James. You’re no good at it. Suffice to say, I’m realizing I shouldn’t coerce people to walk my path, even if it’s obviously the best path, because I’m so smart. People have to be themselves, and forcing otherwise means things will blow up in my face.”

“Right. You’re not like Zamboni though, seriously.”

“I’m glad you think so.” She gestured at the sack she’d brought. “Now explain to me why we are throwing flour at the guy?”

I seized the topic change. “Right,” I said. “We don’t throw it. The plan is, we put that in a circle, and then you work a transformation spell to make me look like Melissa.”

Previous INDEX Next

Virga: Act 5A

Previous INDEX Next

A Virga Mystery: BALANCING ACT

ACT 5a: OF ZOMBIES AND ZEALOTS

“This is somehow several degrees worse than what I’m thinking, I guess,” I said at last.

Melissa looked startled, as if she’d forgotten I was even there. She looked towards me. “Sorry, James. But yes. A zombi is the ultimate perversion. Using witchcraft to turn a body into a puppet for one’s own purposes. There are laws against that sort of thing in our trade.”

“Aha. Obviously this is different from the classical ‘eat your brains’ kind of zombie.”

“Hollywood strikes again,” Melissa said with a shrug. “Also, zombi, fast i, only the plural uses an e.”

It also says something that she had to tell me that. I was pretty good at the language of the supernatural by now, yet zombies had never come up in all of our time together.

She went to sit back down at the desk, which I think was to prevent pacing back and forth. I waited until she was ready.

MELISSA VIRGA
Commission from Shirley

“There are three types of zombi,” Melissa began at last. “In the first case, a regular person, or occasionally animal, has their willpower totally supplanted by the spell, basically becoming a slave in their own body. Their actions are totally controlled by the caster. In the most dire of cases, the body can die because even though the brain knows they should be drinking water, the body received a command not to do so.”

My eyebrows went up. “That’s terrible.”

Melissa’s voice was clipped. “It gets worse. The second type of zombi involves reanimation of a dead subject by forcibly tying their spirit back into their body. This tends to warp and taint the spirit, be it slowly or quickly depending on the actions the zombi takes – and again there’s nothing the individual can do about it.”

Here I understood Melissa’s apparent revulsion. She strongly believes that once a death has occurred, that individual has passed into another state of being, if not another realm. Thus it’s unhealthy for us to use supernatural means to tie them to our mortal plane of reality, messing with the natural order of things. To do so is at best irresponsible, and at worst, can compromise the deceased’s spiritual existence.

She’s indicated that some ghosts and specters were not originally evil when they first chose, or were forced, to remain on Earth.

In fact, that one time I saw Melissa break down and cry? Was when she was forced to briefly call upon a recently departed spirit, in fighting an older witch named Melody. I’m not sure she’s ever fully forgiven herself for that one, though it did get me out of a potentially life threatening situation. It was one of the first cases that I chronicled.

“Do I even want to know about the third type?” I asked.

“Well, they’re perhaps the most dangerous, while simultaneously being the least horrific, as far as I’m concerned,” Melissa said. “Creating the third type involves enslaving a spirit, rather than a body itself, and requires at least passive acceptance on the part of the spirit. But said spirit is useless without a body, so it can take over whatever is available – temporarily. It can jump, and in fact must, once human immune systems kick in. But for hours, even days, it can supplant the will of whoever’s body it likes the most at any particular time. It is sometimes able to control multiple bodies at once. You don’t want one of them touching you.”

I thought about this. “Seems a bit like using magick on the unwilling,” I admitted.

“Alas, the dead don’t really have an advocate for what they want or don’t want,” Melissa said. “And a person not being satisfied with their life is often enough of a wedge for the zombi spirit.”

She finally couldn’t sit still any longer, standing and starting to pace despite her best efforts. “Incidentally, it’s that last zombi type that gives rise to the belief of zombies spreading an infection, and the lack of their own will that has people believing they seek brains. It’s more that a zombi seeks to regain control of their own brain. The whole practice is absolutely despicable, and I cannot believe that it’s still going on in what we laughingly call a civilized society.”

I looked a little more closely at Melissa. “Did you accept this mission in order to retrieve Alicia’s orb, or in order to free the zombies?”

She gave me a look, and I knew it was the latter.

“But if there are laws against this sort of thing, can’t you or Alicia notify the magick authorities?” I protested.

“I’m guessing this Mortum doesn’t publicize the scope of what he’s doing. Alicia probably only knows because of her person on the inside, and for that matter, this orb is probably giving the guy an advantage as well.”

I nodded slowly. “Well then, I’m going in there with you.”

“No.”

“Mel, we do these things togeth—”

“Not this time!” Melissa repeated loudly. Then her gaze softened and she reached out to take me by the shoulders. “It’s too dangerous, plus Alicia specifically stated that I’m the focus point. The only one who can slip under the radar.” She smiled. “Don’t worry. I’m not going to go in unprepared.”

I tried to think of a good objection.

“Damn it, what’s all the shouting about?” came Trixie’s annoyed voice. Her twintails appeared as she opened her door and poked her head out. “I’m about to do some delicate work here, constructing a memory circuit using what feels like stone knives and bearskins. Do you mind?”

“It’s about zombies,” Melissa said, looking towards her cousin.

Trixie’s eyebrows shot up. “Oh, fuuuuck. Spill.”

***

Melissa left us the following evening. She had already coordinated with Alicia by that point, so that she would have some idea as to the layout of Mortum’s castle and the size of the force she would be dealing with. She refused to share the information with me or Trixie.

“So what if we have to charge in and rescue you?” Trixie had asked earlier that day. “We won’t have your map.” The techno-witch had surfaced to find food, and found Melissa putting things into a backpack.

“You won’t need to charge in,” Melissa retorted.

“Uh huh. You know, being this Chosen One doesn’t make you invincible, yeah?” Trixie pressed. “There’s others who can take over, or whatever.”

“Of course I know that. The same way we both know field work isn’t something you excel at,” Melissa fired back. “So back off.”

Trixie glared. “Low blow. In return, maybe I should get in contact with your parents and tell them how often you’ve been sexing it up with James, against their advice?”

“At least I’ve had sex with a guy in the last three weeks, unlike you,” Melissa said. “Are your silly tricks not having their desired effect this month?”

“Whoa. WHOA,” I interjected from across the room. I’d been looking at Wing’s accounts. That had escalated too quickly. “Mel, decorum!”

Trixie’s face had become red, with either embarrassment or anger – or both. I’m not sure. “Wow, sorry for caring,” was all she snapped before going back into her room and slamming the door.

I approached Melissa. “You must know that was uncalled for.”

Melissa pressed two fingers to her forehead. “Right. Right, sorry. This zombi thing has me on edge. If you talk with Trix later, apologize to her for me? Please?”

Insisting to Melissa that she apologize herself felt like a conversation for later, particularly when Alicia herself came by to create the circle of salt for us shortly thereafter.

Know that it wasn’t strictly necessary for Alicia to do that, but she knew where the corresponding circle would be on the other side, as laid by her inside informant. Which would help to ensure safety on the return trip.

“Okay,” Melissa concluded, just before 8pm. Meaning after 1am European time. She had dressed in black for the occasion, within her usual motif – jeans, T-shirt and running shoes. “Give me at least two hours before you start to worry.” She shouldered her backpack.

“Kind of hard to schedule my concern,” I pointed out. “Besides, is there anything I can do when those two hours are up? That I couldn’t do now, that is.”

Melissa seemed about to wave me off, only to change her mind. “You could have Trixie contact the witch authorities,” she allowed. “Since at the least, I should have made it more difficult for this Mortum guy to disguise his zombi hordes by then.”

I nodded. “Please be careful, Mel.”

She simply grinned back, though the smile didn’t quite reach her eyes. “Always.” Melissa leaned in for a quick kiss before moving into the salt circle. “Alea iacta est,” she muttered at last. And she vanished.

Less than a minute later, Trixie came out of her room. She was wearing a barely buttoned up red blouse and a short plaid skirt with long, dark stockings, meaning she’d changed from the more conservative outfit (for Trixie, at least) that she’d worn earlier in the day.

“Missy gone?” Trixie asked.

“Yeah,” I confirmed. “And she said she’s sorry about earlier.”

Trixie crossed her arms under her breasts, seemingly to push them up a bit, while leaning back against the wall. “Sure she is. Because you told her to be.”

“She is,” I insisted. “I mean, I know you don’t see us a lot of late, so maybe you couldn’t tell, but Mel is pretty on edge about this zombi stuff. Probably the Chosen One stuff too. Let’s talk again once this is over.”

“Uh huh.” Trixie looked me up and down. “Missy’s part of the reason I’m not getting any, you know,” she blurted out.

I stared. At Trixie’s face, for the record. “O-kay?”

“You heard her call me out on not bedding a guy lately, huh? She was right, of course. I dunno what the hint was, but her perception is as acute as ever.”

“I wasn’t going to bring it up.”

“No kidding, that’s why I’m bringing it up,” Trixie continued. “My last major Friday date was three weeks ago. Turned out to be one of Missy’s Worshippers. He was trying to use me to get to her. Ask me how I knew.”

“Um.” Playing along seemed safest. “All right, how did you know?”

“Any normal guy would be fine with nailing me back at his place. Ergo, insisting that we do the deed here, in this apartment, was a huge red flag. And yes, maybe he lived with his parents, the way I used to. Or it could’ve been a kink.” Trixie took a deep breath. “So I swiped his wallet when he wasn’t looking. Had pictures of Missy in it, and a membership card for some fan club. Can you believe it? What an idiot, keeping that stuff on hand while trying to pick me up.”

“Uh, yeah. Look, Trixie, I’m… not sure why you’re telling me this,” I admitted.

Trixie lowered her arms to push herself off the wall. “Well, aside from the fact that it’s a pretty good bit of field work on my part, who the HELL else am I going to tell? Besides, Missy’s life is interfering with mine in more ways than one… and I’ve wanted to get that off my chest.”

I think Trixie’s got it down to a science, using the word ‘chest’ at the same time as she does a heel bounce, to naturally draw the eye down. I still fall for it. “Fine,” I said. “Now could you at least… not do that, for right now?” I asked, gesturing.

“Oh, sure, because I can turn off my personality on a whim,” Trixie shot back. She stamped her foot. “Never mind all the work I’m doing for Miss Chosen One. Without any reward to speak of, aside from the work itself, I might add. Just screw Trixie, except of course I’m NOT getting screwed lately, I’m lonely as hell, and nobody cares!”

I now realized her eyes were misting over. My first instinct was to give Trixie a hug, except I worried that would result in mixed signals. “I-I’m sorry,” I said. “I didn’t notice.”

“Of COURSE you didn’t,” Trixie said. She rubbed her arm over her eyes, as if to clear them. “Because you’re the wonderful kind of idiot. But Missy obviously deduced it all, and didn’t care. That’s why I’m upset. Damn it, why am I helping you two idiots out again?”

I was swiftly feeling all kinds of awkward in this conversation. “Because you know Mel cares, even though she doesn’t express herself very well?”

“Cares about YOU, you mean. Maybe I should have just let her fan club into this place after all, might have taught her not to ignore me.”

“I’m, um, not sure that would have solved anything.”

Trixie stared at me. “You still don’t get it, do you. The big reason why I’m telling you.”

I rubbed the back of my neck. “No?”

“Agh, IDIOT,” Trixie groaned, sliding her palm down her face. “Look. I thought I was finally fitting in here, James. Sure, I’m a bit of a third wheel, but I was helping out, right? With my skills? It seemed like that. Finally, the fact that I’m so smart, or so shallow, or so witchy, or so whatever, wasn’t a barrier.”

“Is this about field work again?”

Trixie pursed her lips. “Only partly. It’s about how despite being a part of this, I still craved intimacy. Which I thought I could fulfil through… you know. But now this job is screwing that up. I mean, don’t misunderstand. I won’t leave you now, not when I’m so close, but damn it, I need to be held. And to not wonder if it’s happening because I know Missy.”

“Um.” Again, I wondered if I should give her a hug. “Held, or groped? Because as a friend, I could manage the first…”

“James, connect the dots, it’s kinda the same thing for me,” she interrupted. “Which is why I’m going out now, dressed like this, despite Missy’s life possibly being in danger. It’s not that I don’t care. It’s an attempt at self-care. You get it?”

I nodded. “Okay. You have needs too, I get it,” I agreed.

“Good.” She didn’t immediately make any move for the doorway. “James… I AM helping you both out, right? With more than just the engram work? You still like having me around?”

I didn’t get a chance to answer, because that’s when the protective wards downstairs tipped us off to the presence of a new arrival. When I went to look, I saw a blonde woman with short hair, wearing glasses. She looked vaguely familiar.

“I need to talk to Melissa,” she said into the monitor, seeming a little out of breath.

“Who are you?” I asked.

“Danielle. Danielle Timins.”

I knew that name. She’d been involved in my first ever Virga Mysteries case.

Previous INDEX Next

Virga: Act 4E

Previous INDEX Next Act

A Virga Mystery: BALANCING ACT

ACT 4e: OF PARENTS AND PROGRAMMING

Okay, so I suppose some context is necessary before the time skip, given how over two months elapsed between my taking control of Melissa’s supernatural agency, and the events involving Alicia.

First, by August, Melissa and Trixie had toned down their sniping at each other. This was largely due to how Trixie was very preoccupied with the immense computing task we’d given her, and as such remained mostly in her room.

I realized that her inexperience with field work had been a source of insecurity, one she masked through humour and conflict, to avoid appearing stupid. So having it scaled back by choice worked out.

MELISSA VIRGA
Commission from Shirley

Meanwhile, Melissa’s own insecurity – about whether I was in love with her, or with witchcraft – was put to bed within the first couple weeks of my return. Granted, she was still vexed with how her “rival” Trixie would shake her chest at me (particularly if it was over breakfast, because there occasionally wouldn’t be a bra involved yet, and that is damn distracting) but I explained (in private) how it was a coping mechanism for Trixie.

Meanwhile, Trixie seemed to be handling her relationship issues by vanishing on Friday nights and arriving home Saturday morning looking disheveled. (“Yes, it’s what you think,” she told me once, when I asked her. “If you must know, the challenge of programming a sophisticated magical neural net gets me hot and bothered, and a vibrator is not a great way to ever find myself a permanent relationship like yours, so what do you care anyway?”)

To avoid getting into deeper trouble, I simply said Trixie could talk to us if there were problems. With that, enough said about my roommates (Agency-mates?).

As far as the three factions went – recall the Crazies, who wanted Melissa dead, the Rationals, who wanted to petition her, and the Worshippers, who wanted her venerated – we didn’t see much of them. At first.

It probably helped that, with Melissa’s true location submerged, we’d put out a few false trails in other locations around the world. It’s also possible that Melissa’s parents were running interference somehow.

The first evidence that we weren’t invisible was near the end of June, when a guy refused to leave the front stoop of the apartment until he’d been allowed to touch Melissa’s hand. And present her with a rose. (“I’d almost prefer we see more of the type of people who are trying to kill me,” Melissa admitted that night. “At least I know how to handle them.”)

She did throw the rose out of the back window, over concern that it was booby-trapped. I suppose that was possible.

In July there was more of a shift. A guy came into the office claiming that he was being stalked by a demon, only to pull a bunch of files out of his briefcase and then begin a lecture on the benefits of urban fantasy entanglement.

A week after kicking him out, there was a ticking package left on our doorstep. After dunking it in water, we determined from the card that someone had tried to give Melissa a new clock. (We really should get the batteries fixed in the old one. The fact he/she didn’t know that the present wasn’t useful was somewhat heartening.)

Then the first Crazy. Someone in the apartment downstairs admitted to me that he’d let in a guy dressed in robes and a pointy hat; supposedly a knife salesman. We were out at the time, and there was no sign of the guy later.

We extended our protective wards out that day, from covering only Melissa’s apartment area to the entire building. As much for our safety as to avoid further issues with the other tenants. Also, fringe benefit, the wider net interfered with Melissa’s parents spying on us. So, one less thing for me to worry about.

Speaking of her parents, as far as I knew, they were continuing to work on the spell that would suspend all electronic activity on Earth, which would allow them to cast the ‘Merlin Reinforcement Spell’, for lack of a better phrase.

Melissa still didn’t think the latter would work, and still wasn’t sure why. If her parents knew we were working on a backup plan, they said nothing.

At any rate, none of the factions impacted our daily lives, aside from our decision to wear protective wards when out in the city. And speaking of being out, the Agency did get a number of supernatural cases that summer, though they were pretty routine.

And what is routine for us, you ask?

Let’s summarize it as:
-Person comes into office with a problem (“I think there’s a curse on me” / “My garden gnomes are coming alive at night” / “My roommate has become invisible”).
-Melissa (disguised) and I listen and diagnose (“It’s not a curse, there’s a devil on your left shoulder controlling your actions” / “Simple case of possession” / “Sounds more like your roommate became half an inch tall”).
-We take payment and remedy the situation (“We’ll distract the devil by creating an angel on your right shoulder” / “Don’t blink, don’t look away, and tape this scroll onto their pointy hats” / “Leave this small cake out with a sign reading ‘Eat Me’.”).

For some cases, the field work is necessary (for instance, to locate the origin of a problem, so that there isn’t a new curse next week, or in that one case, to locate the tiny roommate), but all these kinds of cases tended to take less than a week from start to finish.

But make no mistake. While the cases were routine, there was definitely an uptick in supernatural events, the longer into the summer that we got. It was simply in frequency, not scale.

That is, there was nothing I know of on the order of Amy’s knife remaining as a lamp, and certainly nothing that made us think elves were about to invade from a nearby realm or anything. (Spoiler: They don’t.) But maybe these things were happening in more rural areas, so don’t get the wrong idea.

Then in early August, Alicia Wing came by. That was a big deal.

***

Alicia runs a small store of mystical artifacts and trinkets, the location of which is half hidden above a bookstore. She’s been Melissa’s ingredient supplier for at least the last four years, and is very tolerant of the witch’s quirks, such as her calling at three in the morning looking for an ingredient for a spell.

I’d gotten to know her reasonably well too, but had never before seen her outside of her business. Alicia had always given me the impression of being a sixty-something Chinese shut in; the white haired woman was simply there whenever we needed something, wearing traditional garb, her store perpetually cluttered and always faintly smelling of incense.

So I was a little caught off guard when she buzzed to come into our apartment building in the middle of the day, and looked to be wearing a floral print dress and straw hat.

“Mel, did you or Trixie order something from Alicia’s?” I asked.

Melissa, still sitting at her desk, looked up at me. By this point, she had dispensed with any sort of illusion spell so long as she was in the apartment, and I’d effectively returned control of the office space to her.

“Not me,” she said. “And I doubt it was Trixie – you want to risk disturbing her?”

I glanced at Trixie’s bedroom door. “Pass. Could our supplier have been recruited by one of the faction groups then?”

“Let her up and we’ll find out,” Melissa concluded.

I let Alicia come up.

“I’m sure you’re wondering why I seem to be making a house call,” the older woman said as I let her in the room. “Know that this is more of a case, along with a chance to finally settle your bill.”

I stared. “Our bill?”

It struck me then that she’d always extended us so much credit that I had no idea how much we still owed to her. In a business like ours, you’re pretty much fortunate when you’re making ends meet. Then again, maybe the same could be said of Alicia.

“Your bill,” Alicia repeated back, with a hint of a smile.

I looked to Melissa once more. “Uhm, Mel, check the third file folder in the second drawer, how much DO we owe Wing’s Mystical Collectibles and Assorted Knickknacks?”

She went to have a look. Then shook her head slowly. “Did you drop a decimal when summarizing the account back in April, James?”

I went to have a look myself. “Oh. That’s not good.” I looked back at Alicia. “Please tell me we’ve at least paid you something in the last four months.”

“Something,” the older woman said, nodding. “Interest accruing can really be a problem though, can’t it?”

“Well, you’re welcome to repossess a lot of stuff,” Melissa offered. “The way things are now, I don’t think I’ll be using most of it this August, and things are a little up in the air after that.”

“I’m aware,” Alicia said. “Chosen One.”

I tried not to frown at the title. “ARE you with one of the factions…?”

“No,” Alicia assured us. “But I know this city. And they are closing in on you. At present, they’re largely cancelling each other out.”

“Cancelling out? What do you mean?” I said, at the same time as Melissa said, “I wondered about that.”

I turned to look at Melissa. “You know what she’s getting at?”

Melissa nodded. “I saw a shifty looking guy with a rifle in a trench coat at the corner last week. He was chased away by what I assume to be a small group of Worshippers. And a Rationalist got his iPad zapped and deleted by examining rather too closely our ward across the street. The one meant to protect against bladed weapons.”

“And there was a worshipper in my store looking for leads,” Alicia agreed. “She decided to move on after being subjected to a librarian’s lecture about the dangers of fantasies coming to life.”

“See James, anyone in the Crazy faction can’t attack me by conventional means,” Melissa concluded. “The Worshippers wouldn’t allow it. While the Rationals can bore Worshippers to figurative death, convincing them to give up. Unfortunately, they ignite blind rage in the Crazies, to the point where that group don’t care anymore, which is why I got that death threat in the grocery store yesterday. It’s all a cycle.”

“You mean the fact that the groups are at cross purposes has been working in our favour,” I summarized.

“Correct, but it won’t last for much longer,” Alicia cautioned.

I turned back to her. “You get that from a crystal ball or something?” I wondered.

“Or something,” Alicia repeated back, again almost smiling.

“Okay,” Melissa concluded. “So you said you had a case that would settle our debt.”

Alicia nodded. “I want you to obtain a particular mystical artifact for me. A collector who lives overseas took it from my family some time ago. If you can return it to me, I’ll consider your debt to my store paid in full.”

Melissa frowned. “One artifact? It’s worth all that?”

“It’s worth all that,” Alicia affirmed. “And it will, incidentally, retain its value regardless of your upcoming decision. Because it’s an orb that gives one the ability to look into their personal future. Even alter that future. This makes it very valuable.”

“And very difficult to get,” I reasoned. “Since if you have it, you’d see anyone else trying to obtain it.”

“Precisely,” Alicia agreed. “Except recently, Melissa’s become a bit of a focus point. Ironically, this means she’s best suited for a stealth mission into Lord Mortum’s European abode, as signs will point to her still being in this town.”

“I don’t do break and enter though,” Melissa protested. “I stay within the law, not to mention within the country.”

Alicia wasn’t about to back down. “I have a person on the inside. You can teleport right inside Mortum’s castle, at which point you merely have to deal with his security force, get the orb, and teleport out. An orb, I remind, that was in my family originally. I have the papers to prove that. Also the orb will square your financial debt to me.”

“Still a form of theft,” Melissa said, hesitating. “Have you not tried other means to obtain it?”

“I have,” Alicia assured. “He’s very stubborn.” She paused a beat. “And his security force is zombies.”

“Fuck,” Melissa swore.

I’m sure I’ve heard her do that less than a dozen times in all our history together, so for her to do it now, I knew it had to be serious.

“I have your cooperation then?” Alicia said.

Melissa’s jaw was tight. “Yes.”

“It can only be you, of course. Your other associates must remain here.”

“Understood.”

“Very well. I’ll return tomorrow with the castle layout, once you’ve made preparations.”

With that, Alicia departed, and I turned an expectant gaze upon Melissa. The emotional walls that I’d worked my way around over the last few years now seemed to be firmly back in place. She continued to look at the closed front door.

END ACT 4

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Virga: Act 4D

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A Virga Mystery: BALANCING ACT

ACT 4d: OF PARENTS AND PROGRAMMING

Melissa opened her mouth to say something else, but I didn’t think snapping Trixie out of her thoughts would be beneficial. I held up a finger, motioning for Melissa to keep quiet.

We remained standing that way for at least ten seconds, at which point I decided I might as well grab a piece of toast, and offer one to Melissa as well. It wasn’t until almost five minutes later that Trixie moved her head and gave a full-on blink, processing that we’d changed positions.

TRIXIE
Commission from Sen Yomi

“Oh, there you are. Okay, look,” she began. “Making such an AI from scratch would be ridiculous, as I’m sure you both realize, particularly given the time constraint. But what I COULD do is take what I’ve already got coded for Rixi, and find a way of laying down the mental engrams of a real person on top.”

“Sort of like creating a virtual Melissa?” I asked.

Trixie made a face, her nose scrunching cutely. “If you insist on using HER engrams, something like that, yes.”

“Hold on,” Melissa protested. “I know enough about science to know that engrams are, first of all, hypothetical, and second of all, only valid for reliving prior traumatic events. Moreover, I don’t want Trixie screwing with my head any more than she already does on a daily basis.”

“I’m obviously using a magick component here,” Trixie explained. “To preserve engrams to a level above your typical scientific definition. And while I’m not going to say there’s no chance of complications on the technical side, on the biological side, the real person involved wouldn’t feel in a thing. In fact, I’d been thinking of using MY engrams.”

“Ahh. You’re not the Chosen One though,” Melissa fired back. Her tone was matter-of-fact, but I couldn’t escape the feeling that she was trying to claim some sort of superiority over her cousin there.

“It can be done then,” I said, in an attempt to summarize.

Trixie pulled her attention back to me, crossing and uncrossing her arms. “Yeah,” she said. “That is, I’m pretty sure.”

She finally simply clasped her hands behind her back, while simultaneously pushing out her chest, in my direction. “James, truly, you may have just given me the first actual honest to goodness challenge I’ve ever had to face in my entire life to date. I kind of love you for that.”

I then that realized her breathing rate was quicker, and her face was getting flushed. I hoped it was only excitement over the project itself.

“Ahem, must I remind you he’s taken?” Melissa cut in.

Trixie’s gaze snapped towards Melissa. “Did I SAY–”

“Um, look, Trixie, I’m glad,” I said quickly, trying to head off another argument. “Though here’s the second thing. We also need to you retroactively scrub out any information on the internet related to Melissa’s Supernatural Detective Agency, putting it in my name instead.”

Trixie turned her stare back at me, pulling herself back to her full height. “The hell? Because you thought me trying to devise a highly sophisticated neural net wasn’t challenge enough?”

“You’re the one with the IQ of 151,” Melissa murmured.

“Yeah, 151, not 515, dumbass,” she snapped.

“Sorry, Trixie,” I apologized. “I figured it would be as simple as a search and replace virus. If it can’t be done–”

“Don’t YOU start with that,” Trixie said, obviously vexed as she pointed at me. “I can do it easy, but it would take a day and there would be loopholes and my brain is kind of totally preoccupied with your first project right now. Why didn’t you lead with the simpler task?”

“I… guess we should have?” I mused.

“Right. So.” Trixie pulled the end of her ponytail into her hands, curling it about her fingers, as she again leaned towards me, now batting her eyelashes. “Can you pleeease give me at least a week with the big stuff before I look into the silly name thing?”

“We need the name thing done first,” Melissa said bluntly.

“I wasn’t asking you, Missy,” Trixie growled, this time without looking.

“She’s right though,” I said. “We’re over the three month mark, if we don’t submerge Melissa’s name fast, we’ll be faced with interruptions from all those other factions we mentioned earlier.”

“Nnngh. Three days then?” Trixie pleaded. “I have some ideas that I want to start looking at right away.” She brought a hand up to unbutton the second button on her blouse. I think the first had been unbuttoned the whole time, I’m not sure. Either way, at this point my eyes wandered, I couldn’t help it.

“No,” I asserted to Trixie’s cleavage. “Sorry.”

“Multitask,” Melissa suggested, now elbowing her way in between the two of us.

The redhead stamped her foot on the ground. “Missy, you’re never ANY fun. I’d quit this agency, if I had anything better lined up.” She pointed at me. “And James, you… you… oh God, I don’t know if I want to slap you real hard or kiss you even harder.”

“I’d STRONGLY suggest doing neither,” Melissa said.

“Fine. I’m going to my room,” Trixie concluded, storming out of the kitchen. Moments later, her door slammed. Then opened, then was slammed again for emphasis.

I looked at Melissa. “Something tells me her parents had to deal with tantrums far more than yours ever did.” My girlfriend smothered a laugh.

***

At least Trixie understood, in the end. We’d decided to let her stew for a day, but by the next morning, a routine online search on Melissa Virga’s real name turned up nothing. Or at least nothing related to our Melissa. But the Agency still existed, and I was in charge.

It occurred to me after the fact that if anyone else happened to have the same name as Melissa, they might be in trouble (sort of like in those Terminator movies). Mel reassured me by saying that in person, she’d be giving off certain magick vibes that were unique to spellcasters – a bit like how there’s apparently a scent on people who hang around witches long enough – along with pointing out how unusual her last name was in the first place.

I resolved to thank Trixie the next time I saw her, for her prioritizing. But then I didn’t see her until Thursday. She spent most of the intervening time in her room, working. I glanced in at one point when the door was ajar, seeing that during my absence, she’d moved in a small computer mainframe, next to the bed. Where she was asleep.

Even after I saw and thanked Trixie over breakfast, she only mumbled back a thanks, obviously preoccupied.

It wasn’t until the following Monday that Trixie surfaced from her engramatic studies, having remembered that we were owed a dinner together. Melissa agreed, even though it was technically too late per the original deal. It’s not like we were busy with cases anyway, in fact I wondered if our Agency having ceased all advertising was responsible for the lull.

I let Trixie pick the restaurant. As such, I learned that the techno-witch may have a thing for Japanese.

Trixie also wore pants for the occasion, whereas I’d thought she only owned skirts of various lengths and fabrics. And she let her hair all the way down too. I commented on that fact, as we headed out.

“Yeah, see? I can be mature. VERY mature,” Trixie said, smiling. And with that, she thrust her shoulders back, pushing her chest out into her blouse, so much so that a gap appeared between the buttons.

“Remember, nothing’s coming of this, aside from a good meal,” I pointed out.

“Uh huh. Remember that you felt you had to remind me of that,” Trixie said, wiggling her shoulders to set up vibrations.

“I say that for your sake, not mine.”

“Uh huh,” Trixie repeated, still wiggling.

With that, I ceased looking at her. At some point on our way to the restaurant, she stopped thrusting her chest out. And her possible attempts at seduction diminished even further through dinner itself, to the point that, by the time we left, she was slumped as she walked.

Of course, I also knew more about her by then, as Trixie was more of a talker than Melissa. And as I’d suspected, Trixie hadn’t had many friends in school, in part because she’d told me that she’d never been sure if they wanted to be friends for her personality or her mind. Or as she put it, “It’s no fun if people are cozying up to you for test answers.”

I wondered if maybe that’s why she’d taken to emphasizing her body the way she did, after puberty hit. Namely to remove personality and mind from the equation, so that she would always know why people were approaching her.

Trixie also admitted over dinner that she’d always had something of an interest in technology, much like her mom. In fact it was Marissa’s marriage to Wayne, a technophobe, that caused Trixie’s mother to communicate less with her sister. They weren’t estranged, to be clear, but they talked so little that Trixie hadn’t even known about Melissa’s agency until she’d been approached.

Related, her Rixi device apparently took some inspiration from Japanese anime, and a television show called ‘Martin Mystery’.

And then there was the matter of Trixie’s sex life, which I didn’t get lots of detail on (thank goodness) but apparently she’d had a couple of boyfriends. Which she brought up as more evidence of her maturity. Even though it transpired that she’d basically initiated and then broken off the relationships herself.

Not because they’d been bad in bed, more “too high maintenance”. She may have been implying she’s more into one night stands.

As we reached our street, out of the blue, Trixie straightened her posture again. “So, have you figured out why I wanted to do dinner with you yet?” she asked.

I shrugged. “To annoy Melissa,” I figured.

“Fringe benefit, but no.”

“Then to learn about me first-hand, without Melissa’s possible embellishments.”

“Kinda, but also no.”

I realized I had to think about this now. “Was it because of Melissa’s cooking?”

“No, that was an excuse, not a reason. Keep trying.”

“Uh, because you hadn’t been out on a date in a while?”

“Oh, you truly are an idiot,” Trixie sighed. “I mean, I thought the whole point of this exercise is that this wasn’t a date? Besides, I only need to dress in leather and go to a club to get a guy to buy me dinner. Which, I gotta say, would end in a way more fun way than this night is gonna.”

“Why don’t you tell me then,” I decided.

She stopped walking and fell silent, looking away from me. Then, “James, I thought I was going to be kicked out of the apartment. Before that happened, I wanted to peek into the window of a successful relationship. To see if I could learn to spot whatever Missy saw in you.” She turned back to me, her gaze questioning.

“Oh.” I felt like I should say more, but I wasn’t sure what to say. “It’ll happen for you some day,” I finished, as she kept staring.

Trixie sighed, and resumed her walk. “I wasn’t asking for platitudes, idiot. Look, did I at least seem like a normal girl towards the end of dinner? I’ve kind of forgotten how to not mess with people.”

I fell into step beside her. “You’re asking the guy dating Melissa about what’s normal?”

“Point,” Trixie admitted. “Oh well. It’s funny though, I felt like I could ask you that question, versus anyone else I’d be out with. Oh, and kind of related? On a casual basis, I’m going to keep shoving my breasts at you and doing seductive things. Just so you know to be ready.”

I held back a sigh of my own. “Trixie, there are less annoying ways to bug Melissa.”

“It’s not about Missy,” Trixie snapped. “It’s about me wanting to treat you the same as I do all other guys, James. Because if I start treating you special, I think I’ll start to care about you, and then everything will get complicated. Because of how you’re taken. Okay? Can you maybe stop saying stupid things now?”

We reached the front door of the apartment building in silence. “I wonder,” I said as we headed into the stairwell, “do you call all guys idiots, or is that more reserved for me?”

“Oh, you’re a special kind of idiot,” Trixie muttered. “In that you actually listen to me when I say that. Now, stop talking altogether, or I might want to kiss you on the cheek.”

I stopped talking.

The next day, around the apartment, Trixie wore what I think was a sheer negligee overtop of a bikini, almost like she was making up for dressing so conservatively the previous night. Or maybe she wanted to reset her life equation back to something she understood? Or show up Melissa. Trixie’s mindset was still hard for me to understand.

Regardless, at this point, I’m going to jump from the end of May to the start of August. Because that’s when everything started to come to a head, including a case that came to us courtesy of a visit by Alicia Wing.

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