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Max_Writer

Superworld: Investigation and Fire Part 1

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Monday, May 18, 2015

(After playing Superworld Sunday from 12 p.m. to 5 p.m. with Kyle Matheson, Nissa Campbell, and Aaron Scott.)

Arclight had returned to Charlotte from California on Saturday, Oct. 18, 2014. His flight had landed that afternoon. His agent had gotten him a lead on a small walk-on part in the Arrow television show and it was in negotiation. There was talk of Dr. Light being on the show, just a cameo, with the possibility of it leading to something else. In any case, it would pay him something and would give him exposure. He had been in Hollywood for over a week in negotiations though nothing had yet been resolved.

He had seen the terrible news about the murders at the Thom Tillis fundraiser in Charlotte. Tillis, in response to the attack, vowed to crack down on exotics if he was elected to the U.S. Senate in November.

Arclight decided to get in touch with the others through his pager.

“S’up everybody,” he typed. “I’m back from California. With love from Arclight.”

He waited at Vanguard’s apartment for someone to respond to the page. He hadn’t seen the other hero since he’d gotten back though José was, of course, there. That man welcomed him back and pointed out that they had plenty of Oaties in the kitchen cupboard.

“So, have you ever seen that show ‘Arrow?’” he asked José.

“Uh … no, I haven’t,” José said. “But I’ve heard about it.”

“It’s, like, a big show,” Arclight said.

José said he thought he heard they were going to do a spinoff of the show about the Flash.

“Why are they doing these fake superheroes?” Arclight asked. “Why don’t they do a show on me? My story’s pretty cool!”

“I don’t know, man,” José said.

“Like, the whole first season could be me delivering mail,” Arclight said.

His beeper went off. It was a message from Absolem’s Riddle that read: “Did you hear about the mass murder by Dr. Murder and Thom Tillis is awful.”

“Dr. Murder?” Arclight said as he read it. “José, who’s Dr. Murder?”

“He’s that guy that murdered Thom Tillis’ people,” José said.

“Man, I heard about this in California, but … I wasn’t here for that,” Arclight said. “Man, they would strike when I’m gone, wouldn’t they? Always.”

His pager beeped again from Absolem’s Riddle. “If you have any ideas, you should pass them along our way so we can get this guy. And by our way, I mean let’s meet at Charlotte Take-Out later today.” He typed a group page: “All available super heroes meet at Vanguard’s place.” He put the address in the message as well. He signed it “With love from Arclight.”

“Already there,” Edward texted back.

Arclight started preparing food, filling 10 bowls with Oaties. Absolem’s Riddle appeared in the apartment, teleporting there. Edward arrived soon after. No one else showed up so Arclight put the cereal back into the boxes. Edward took a bowl of Oaties and Arclight poured some milk into it. The crocodile liked the cereal very much.

“These are amazing!” Edward said.

“Are they?” Arclight said.

“They are!” Edward replied.

“Here’s a whole box,” Arclight said, handing one to Edward.

“How did you make this?”

“Huh?”

“How did you make it?”

“I didn’t make it.”

“Oh. Well, who made it?”

“It’s made in factory.”

“Well, that’s stupid.”

Absolem’s Riddle gave a few pieces of Oaties to Ñaro. He loved the things. Arclight made a mental note to call his agent and ask if Oaties was some kind of animal food. He was pretty sure it was cereal.

“So, something big happened when I wasn’t here,” Arclight said. “Let’s talk about it. And guys, I might be getting on ‘Arrow.’”

“That’s on point,” Absolem’s Riddle quipped.

“Yeah,” Arclight said, not getting it. “I went to California, that’s why I wasn’t here.”

Absolem’s Riddle tried to explain the terrible joke.

“I don’t do puns, man,” José said to her.

That made Arclight laugh.

“No, but I might be in the show,” Arclight went on. “It’s about some guy that uses a stupid bow as a weapon, I don’t know.”

“He doesn’t have super powers?” Edward asked.

“No!” Arclight said.

“I like that guy,” Edward said.

“Nah,” Arclight said. “But yeah, I might be on the show. You guys should watch it.”

“How about you tell us when you’re on the show and then maybe we’ll watch it,” Absolem’s Riddle said.

Arclight noted that he was planning on making a hash tag on twitter when he was on the show. He said it’d be like “#arclightssocool.”

“Since we’re on the topic of things that are important in real life …” Absolem’s Riddle said.

“What?” Arclight said. “No. What? That is important. We’re going to get to the secondary matter of … how many people died?”

“About a hundred,” José said.

“Ha … that’s … that’s bad,” Arclight said.

“A lot of people,” Absolem’s Riddle said. “And they were all pretty rich.”

“Who was leading the group while I was gone?” Arclight said. “Who was in charge?”

Edward and Absolem’s Riddle looked at each other.

“Who was in charge?” Edward asked her.

“I’m trying to remember,” Absolem’s Riddle said.

“That’s why we failed,” Arclight said.

They told him it had been Chillrend, Magic Man, Tera, and the two of them.

“Chillrend was there?” Arclight asked. “No wonder we failed.”

“And Magic Man,” Absolem’s Riddle said.

“So fill me in on what happened with the Thom Tillis thing,” Arclight said. “All I know is what the news told me. I don’t know what’s going on.”

They told him they had learned about the event after it happened and so investigating the scene. They had found the substance was some kind of nerve gas. Absolem’s Riddle suggested they find a facility that could create such gas and Arclight suggested they contact the CDC in Atlanta. They told him the police were working on the case and had connected it to Chez Rouge that had been gassed in September. Arclight brought up the CDC again and José pointed out that the Center for Disease Control handled diseases as opposed to neurotoxins.

“All right, José,” Arclight said.

“I’m just trying to help, man,” José said.

Absolem’s Riddle suggested they try school chemistry labs or meth labs. She noted there might be something going on at one of the local colleges or universities. Arclight thought they should spread out for information gathering. It was also pointed out most of the events in Charlotte that might cater to the rich had been shut down for fear of another attack. The only lead they had on him was his name.

Arclight thought Edward should go into the sewers and ask about Dr. Murder there. He thought the homeless people might know of someone who was mad at the rich people. He suggested Absolem’s Riddle go to UNC-Charlotte and investigate the science labs there. He said he would go talk to the police about their progress. Then they would all meet up back at the apartment.

“Can I have some more Oaties?” Edward asked.

“You can have a whole box,” Arclight told him. “You don’t even need milk with it. You can eat it, just like that.”

“Really?” Edward said.

“Try it,” Arclight said.

Edward did and found it was good.

“Sweet,” Edward said.

“Oh man,” Arclight said, pleased. “I got seven more boxes for you when you’re done.”

He put out his hand.

“Hands in, team,” he said.

Edward put his hand in as, eventually did Absolem’s Riddle, muttered “Scaly” as she did so.

“Arclight and Friends!” Arclight said.

He turned and ran out the door.

* * *

Arclight flew to the police station and, after he got a dressing down from Chief Dean for not answering his cell phone or returning messages, the man filled him in on Dr. Murder. Basically, the gas used was an unknown neurotoxin that killed very quickly. It was the same type of gas used to murder everyone in Chez Rouge Restaurant in September. The police had no leads on where he or his henchmen went. The limo used in the attack was rented with a fake ID from Hertz. Another vehicle must have been used to leave the scene but there was no record of it. The police had no idea where the people came from or where they went. They were still investigating the terrorist attack and were advertising on television and the newspaper, asking for help. Crime stoppers was also involved. The henchmen were thought to be fanatics who ascribed to his world view of the war between the poor and the rich.

Chief Dean noted they weren’t above stealing the money, watches, wallets, and jewelry the people at the fundraiser had on them. They left behind all cell phones and other electronics, however.

Arclight asked about the possibility of holding a fake rich event to bait Dr. Murder but Chief Dean noted he was already approached with that idea and the police department would not be involved in a trap like that. If anyone got hurt, the police didn’t want to be held responsible.

“My team’s one step ahead of me,” Arclight murmured when he learned the other heroes had already approached Chief Dean with a similar idea.

Chief Dean said he planned to increase security for any other events though most events for the rest of October had been cancelled already.

* * *

Absolem’s Riddle went to UNC-Charlotte in costume, making herself average-sized, but found most of the buildings were locked up as it was a Saturday evening. Faculty and staff were mostly not there. She found the chemistry building was closed and the only buildings open were the student center, the library, and the dorms. She ended up talking to several students. She asked if anyone noticed any people doing other things besides homework or research in the chemistry building. No one really knew of anyone doing any independent studies.

A few people tried to figure out who she was, thinking they had recognized her. One student pointed at her and said “You know Gargirl! Can you hook me up?” Others were helpful, some were jerks, some of them wanted to know if she knew Arclight because they wanted to meet him. A few tried to get her to tell them her name but she just changed the subject for the most part. She gave her name to a few people but none of them got what it meant. She also asked around about any loners who might have been using the chemistry building.

* * *

Edward went into his sewer community to see if anyone there either hated the rich enough to kill them or knew of anyone who hated the rich enough to murder them. Bob didn’t particularly care for them but didn’t want to kill them. Other people he talked to either didn’t have an opinion, didn’t like rich people, or didn’t care. Most of them had too much else to worry about in their lives. A very few thought the rich glamorous. He didn’t find anything he felt was relevant and a few others asked Edward if he had found the missing homeless people.

* * *

They all returned to the apartment around 10 p.m.

Arclight arrived first and sent a page that he was there. Then he played some video games with José. Absolem’s Riddle simply appeared in the apartment and Edward arrived shortly after.

“Did you guys find anything?” Arclight asked. “The chief wouldn’t help me. I came up with this brilliant idea all on my own that we should bait him with some sort of rich party, but the chief wouldn’t do it.”

“Um … we told you that we tried that already … remember?” Absolem’s Riddle said.

“I don’t remember that,” Arclight said.

“Oh,” she said.

“Really good idea by me though, huh?”

“I’m sure that’s where it came from.”

“All me. All me.”

Edward told him he had not found out anything. He noted the general consensus was that the rich were snobby jerks but nobody wanted to kill them. That surprised Arclight. Absolem’s Riddle said nothing was going on at the school and no one knew anyone who was inclined that way. She guessed it might be because all of the kids who could go to college were already rich.

Arclight pointed out that if all of the rich parties were cancelled, Dr. Murder might attack someplace with money involved in it. When Absolem’s Riddle mentioned The White House, he thought it would be more local. He asked if any rich events were still going on and Absolem’s Riddle noted all of the expensive events in Charlotte had been cancelled. They talked about events of rich people but there was nothing there either. They also talked about throwing their own party but none of them were wealthy.

Arclight suggested they patrol the city that night. Absolem’s Riddle noted Dr. Murder only struck irregularly and guessed something else would come up between his attacks.

“Yo guys, by the way,” Edward said. “There are people going missing in the sewers.”

“What?” Arclight said.

“You know about this,” Edward said.

“Like your friend?” Absolem’s Riddle said.

“Oh yeah,” Arclight said.

“Like people you know?” Absolem’s Riddle asked. “Or are they just … people you’ve talked to that are disappearing?”

Edward shrugged.

“Do they have connections?” Absolem’s Riddle asked. “Like, do they have anything besides homelessness in common?”

“I’ve asked around−” Edward started to say.

“Then it sounds to me like they’re doing experiments on people who won’t be noticed are gone,” Absolem’s Riddle went on.

He told them about the Peripherals, the strange people living on the edge of his community. He also told them he learned of a place called Freak Town from his friend Bob, where the mutant homeless people went, some of which probably had some kind of exotic powers. Arclight asked about the Peripherals.

“I don’t know,” Edward confessed. “They’re just … people that you only see from the corner of your eye, which is why they’re called that.”

“Like body-snatchers?” Absolem’s Riddle asked.

“Like … for what we know they don’t do anything to anybody,” Edward said. “They’re just there.”

He knew of a place in the sewers that led to their area. It was a crack in the regular sewer wall and someone had spray-painted “Keep Out” next to it. He knew it led to where they lived.

“That’s where we imagine them to be staying,” he said. “Biding their time.”

“But you say they don’t do anything so do you think they’re evil or not?” Absolem’s Riddle said.

“I don’t know,” Edward admitted.

“Well, we might as well do something if we can’t find Dr. Murder,” Arclight said

“Right?” Edward replied.

“What if Dr. Murder and his goons are the Peripherals?” Absolem’s Riddle said.

“There’s a chance of that,” Edward said. “So, let’s go in the crack in the wall.”

Absolem’s Riddle suggested sending Ñaro and her in to spy around but Edward noted it was very dark. Though Ñaro was nocturnal, the darkness underground would be too dark even for his eyes. She asked if the people lived in completely pitch blackness. Edward just shrugged.

“I don’t know anything about this place, man, you’re going to have to lead us there,” Arclight said.

“Gotcha,” Edward replied.

“We going right now?” Arclight asked.

“Bring a flashlight,” Edward said.

“But can you see in pitch dark?” Absolem’s Riddle said. “Wait, we can just bring Arclight. He glows.”

Arclight got a flashlight and Edward fiddled with his suit. A small panel slid back on the shoulder of his armor, revealing a bright flashlight head with three powerful LED lights in a rectangular configuration. Absolem’s Riddle suggested she get some glow sticks and vanished. She returned within a few minutes, having gotten some from the storage room of the bar she worked at.

Edward led them down into the sewers not far from Vanguard’s apartment and then to a place where there was a hole broken into the side of the storm sewer. Someone had spray-painted “Keep Out” and “Danger” next to it. The part of the sewers was closer to downtown near the Elmwood area of Charlotte. Behind the crack was a tunnel. Arclight lit his flashlight and the light on Edward’s shoulder came to life.

“I’m going to get small and me and Ñaro will ride on your shoulder if that’s cool,” Absolem’s Riddle said to Arclight.

Then she shrunk, got onto Ñaro, flew up to his shoulder and sat there. He shrugged.

Edward led the way into the tunnels. Old, ancient, rotten wooden supports held up the dirt and stone ceiling and kept the walls from collapsing. The manmade tunnels intersected with natural caves. Water poured down in several places and the passages branched as they went downward. Some passages led upward and after they had been in the passages for a short while, they thought they heard the sounds of movement ahead of them. Absolem’s Riddle was worried about getting lost.

“Are you good at getting back to places since you do tunnels a lot?” she asked Edward.

“Can you save us, Edward?” Arclight asked.

“Yeah, sure,” Edward said offhandedly. “Maybe. I wouldn’t bet money on it.”

“Then lead on, Edward,” Arclight said.

The noises ahead continued.

“Edward, do you hear noises like something’s fleeing away from us?” Arclight asked.

“That’s exactly what it sounds like,” Edward said.

“What could it be?” Arclight asked.

“Someone fleeing from us?” Edward said. “I don’t know. Has anyone seen anything?”

No one had yet.

“Screw this,” Arclight finally said. “Shield your eyes.”

He suddenly started to glow brightly, filling the tunnel they were in. Ñaro was blinded by the light. For a moment, the others thought they saw a bipedal figure that ducked around a corner of the tunnel ahead and out of sight.

“Edward, did you see that?” Arclight said.

Absolem’s Riddle leapt from Arclight’s shoulder and grew to the size of an average-sized woman. She tucked Ñaro away again.

“So, next time, so you don’t blind my poor sugar glider, will you give me an extra second so I can communicate to him ‘cause he’s probably going to be blind for the next ten minutes,” she said.

“Poor little guy,” Arclight said.

“Yeah,” she said.

“Way to go Edward,” Arclight said.

“Yeah, I’m sorry,” Edward said.

“Edward’s sorry,” Arclight said.

“What’d I do?” Edward asked.

“Are you sorry though?”

“Meh.”

“Yeah. Anyway, did you guys see that figure when I lit up?”

The other two just looked at him.

“He went that way!” Arclight said. “We gotta go get him!”

“Which way?” Edward said. “Lead. Leader.”

Arclight led them down the rough tunnel to the place where it turned abruptly and the figure had disappeared. He spotted a footprint.

“Guys!” Arclight said. “Did you guys notice this footprint?”

“No, I can’t notice anything right now!” Absolem’s Riddle said.

It appeared to be a cloven hoof.

“Holy shit!” Arclight said. “It’s like a hoof print.”

Absolem’s Riddle looked at the print more carefully. It was about the size of a horse’s print.

“Do alligators have awesome sense of smell?” Arclight asked Edward.

Edward sniffed the footprint. It stank of rotten meat and dirt.

“I don’t think this thing’s alive,” Edward said.

“What?” Arclight said.

“This thing smell’s dead to me,” Edward said.

“What?” Arclight said.

“Like a zombie goat?” Absolem’s Riddle said.

“Either somebody is carrying a carcass and they let it down for a second or there’s a dead, hoofed creature walking around,” Edward said.

“What do you think it could be, though, honestly?” Arclight asked.

“I’m imagining someone carrying something, honestly,” Edward said.

They talked about what it could be and someone mentioned a minotaur. When Absolem’s riddle brought up centaurs, Arclight pointed out it had been standing on two legs. Absolem’s Riddle asked if it had made the footprint and Edward asked if it was carrying something.

“I don’t know,” Arclight said. “It got out of the way really fast.”

“Well let’s go,” Absolem’s Riddle said.

“Okay,” Arclight said uncertainly. “Nobody else is really freaked out about this? All right. I guess I should still be in the lead?”

“Makes sense to me,” Edward said.

“Aw,” Arclight said.

“Leader,” Edward said.

The noises continued to come from ahead and they followed. Absolem’s Riddle asked Arclight if he could shoot light beams but he said he couldn’t. She suggested he fly down, find the figure, grab them, and come back to them. He thought they should just follow it.

They continued for an hour, the tunnel climbing towards the end. It finally came into a natural cavern with several candles burning around a stone seat near the far side of the room. Other passages left the large, dark room, but they saw no sign of any other figures. Sounds of movement came from several of the side passages as did the smell of rotten flesh.

Something came out of the passage on the opposite wall. The creature was solid and muscular, standing probably over six feet tall. It had dog-like legs, canine features, and claws. It was covered in grayish-black fur and had white eyes. It wore no clothing but had thick fur.

“Holy shit!” Arclight said.

The thing crossed the room and sat down on the base of rubble the chair stood on. It looked at them.

“Shall we tell him we’re looking for the missing people and we don’t - we’re not trying to pose a threat?” Absolem’s Riddle whispered to the others.

The thing continued to stare at them.

“Uh … well, he didn’t attack us outright,” Arclight whispered.

“We should let him know,” Absolem’s Riddle said.

“I think we should let Edward talk to him,” Arclight said. “Sewer people to sewer people.”

“What? No!” Edward said.

“Makes sense,” Absolem’s Riddle said.

“It’s not human,” Arclight said. “I mean, maybe I’ll piss him off if I talk to him.”

“Well, what am I going to say to him?” Edward asked.

“You can say that we’re, like, your human slaves,” Arclight said.

Edward just looked at him.

“And you’ve come to …” Arclight said.

“I’m sure that would go really awesome,” Edward said.

“What do you want?” the creature said in a deep, grating voice.

Absolem’s Riddle walked in front of the two.

“I’m pretty sure he can hear us whispering,” Arclight said.

“We’re looking for people that have been going missing and we were wondering if they would happen to have come this way and never come back,” she said.

The thing looked at her. Arclight and Edward whispered to each other.

“We just want to make sure everyone’s okay,” she said. “Have you seen them?”

“We’re not responsible for those who have gone missing of your kind,” the creature said.

“I didn’t say you were,” Absolem’s Riddle said. “I was just wondering if you’d seen them.”

“They’re smart enough not to come into our area,” the creature said.

“But we think there’s bad people that might have taken them and we just don’t know which direction they might have gone,” she said.

“It might have been the man in black,” the creature said.

“Which one?” Absolem’s Riddle asked. “Where does he live?”

“I was approached by a man, all in black, sometime before,” the creature said. “Maybe your friend could shut his fat, glowing mouth for five seconds.”

Absolem’s Riddle tapped in Morse code to Ñaro to go shut Arclight up. The sugar glider jumped to Arclight and landed on his shoulder again. He put one of his tiny fingers to Arclight’s lip and then to his own lip, pantomiming for him to be quiet. He even shushed the man.

“You’re being scolded by a rat,” Edward grinned at the man.

“Scold you like a rat!” Arclight said to him.

“Edward!” Absolem’s Riddle said.

“Huh?” Edward said.

“Shush!” she said.

“Wait a minute,” Edward said. “I thought you guys were my slaves.”

“Oh boy,” Arclight said.

“The man in black wanted me to help a new super villain,” the creature said. “In your city.”

“Dr. Murder?” Absolem’s Riddle said. “Or did he say a name.”

“Somebody with an eyeball on his chest,” the creature said.

“Cyclops-man,” Absolem’s Riddle said.

Both Arclight and Edward remembered Troublemaker had an eyeball on the front of his costume.

“In return, I and my fellows,” the creature went on, gesturing towards the other entrances to the cavern, “would be rewarded with as much food as we ever needed. As you people have been poisoning the meat that you bury in the ground for years and our population had dwindled, I complied. So, the man in black helped us.”

“We poison meat we put in the ground?” Absolem’s Riddle said.

“You mean dead people?” Arclight asked.

“Pretty much,” the creature said.

“They eat dead people,” Arclight said to Edward.

“Wait … so you helped out a super villain?” Edward asked the creature. “You helped out Troublemaker … the guy with eyeball chest?”

“Yeah, Troublemaker, that was his name,” the creature said.

“Probably to him, there is no good or evil, just survival,” Absolem’s Riddle said to the other two.

“My people needed the meat and it was delivered,” the creature said. “The man in black said he could give us more but I wasn’t particularly interested. We have other ways of getting it.”

“So, you have any more ties with him?” Edward asked.

“We were just wondering … so you’re not eating these homeless guys, right?” Absolem’s Riddle said.

“We take those who are already dead,” the creature said.

“Okay,” she replied.

“The suicides. Some who actually want to die for us. Those about to be buried,” the creature went on. “There are many mortuaries in the city that will take gold or jewelry for the simple expediency of not cremating the dead or befouling them with poison. Enough to keep my brethren and I alive. If not, there’s places we can go, other worlds, wherein we can get food we need and return or stay there, dependent upon our wishes. We do not murder for our meat unless we are truly desperate. Even then, fresh flesh is foul. It’s not until the meat’s rotten that it’s edible.”

“Interesting,” Absolem’s Riddle said.

“Huh,” Edward said. “That … sounds weird.”

“What … what are you, again?” Arclight asked. “What are you?”

“It doesn’t really matter,” Absolem’s Riddle said.

“You eat other people …” Arclight said.

“We’re just trying to find the homeless people,” Absolem’s Riddle said.

“I’m called Arch-Ghoul,” the creature said.

“Arch-Ghoul,” Arclight said.

“My people are the ghouls,” Arch-Ghoul said.

“Ah, nice,” Arclight said.

“How many of them … of you guys are there?” Edward asked.

He looked at the other cave entrances warily. He could hear movement and strange noises from them. Arch-Ghoul shrugged his shoulders in a way that made it look like the bones weren’t really attached to one another under his skin.

“Iunno,” he muttered. “Count the graveyards in Charlotte. Multiply that by … I don’t know … 500? A thousand?”

“What?” Edward said.

“Thank you for your time,” Absolem’s Riddle said.

“There’s more of us then there used to be,” Arch-Ghoul said.

“I’m confused,” Edward said. “That sounds like a lot.”

Arch-Ghoul nodded.

“There’s more than there used to be as in you’re having kids?” Absolem’s Riddle said. “Or … like … more things are created?”

“More come, once in a while,” Arch-Ghoul said. “More than there was a hundred years ago. Once they started poisoning the meat, many left. We leave those in the sewers alone.” He pointed at Edward. “We don’t need to bother ‘em. They do us no harm. They avoid us. So long as they continue, we will not war upon them or bother them.”

“That’s something I’ll tell them,” Edward said.

“Okay,” she said.

“As long as they treat us with respect,” Arch-Ghoul said.

“Thank you,” she said. “One more line of inquiry: So, the man in black comes to you or do you know where to find him? Or what he’s called?”

“He came to me,” Arch-Ghoul said. “He used something to mask his smell, but I still recognized it. It was … from years ago. I don’t remember who he was. From back in the 80s.”

“Have you always been a ghoul?” she asked.

“Nope,” he said.

“Were you human before?” she asked.

“Yep,” Arch-Ghoul said. “This is better.”

Arclight reached forward and tugged on Absolem’s Riddle’s shoulder. He was ready to go.

“Can we leave?” he hissed at her.

“Thank you,” Absolem’s Riddle said. “And we would appreciate it if you would not tell−”

“Wait,” Arch-Ghoul said. “Have you had that dream? About that kid?”

“Yes, but I had forgotten it,” Absolem’s Riddle said.

“Yeah, that’s what brought me to Charlotte,” Arch-Ghoul said.

“What?” Arclight muttered.

“I’m getting tired of it,” Arch-Ghoul said. “If you could stop it, I would appreciate it.”

“Um … we’re trying,” Edward said.

“Yeah, we want that to stop too,” Absolem’s Riddle said.

“Next time you come, bring tribute or some gift,” Arch-Ghoul growled.

“So, you’re saying we’re welcome back, but need to bring food next time,” Edward said.

“Well, something,” Arch-Ghoul said.

“Cool,” Edward said. “Oaties! I got great food for you!”

“I don’t think he likes that,” Absolem’s Riddle said.

“These things are amazing!” Edward said.

“It’s not rotten,” Absolem’s Riddle said. “It’s not rotten.”

“Is it rotten meat?” Arch-Ghoul asked.

“It’s not,” Absolem’s Riddle said.

“It’s cereal,” Edward said.

“That boxed crap?” Arch-Ghoul said. “Like Frosted Flakes?”

“These are called Oaties,” Edward said.

“The smell of the man, do you remember him from when you were human?” Absolem’s Riddle asked.

“No, I couldn’t smell like this when I was human,” Arch-Ghoul said. “It was back in the 80s when I started my career as … Arch-Ghoul.”

The creature gestured at itself.

“Farewell my king,” Arclight said. “Good-bye.”

He walked back into the tunnel they’d come from.

“Thank you,” Absolem’s Riddle said.

The creature waved at them as they left.

They headed back the way they’d come and were worried about finding their way out until they heard the sounds of movement ahead of them as if someone was leading them out through the tunnels.

“That was interesting,” Edward said. “If they invite us back as long as we bring food, I don’t think we have to worry about these people.”

“I don’t think so either,” Absolem’s Riddle said. “They’re …”

“I mean, they’re pretty scary though, right?” Arclight said. “They’re pretty scary-looking, right?”

“What makes them scary-looking?” Edward asked.

Arclight just looked at him.

“They’re scary,” he finally said. “And big. And stuff.”

He looked at them.

“You guys not terrified!?!” he said.

“Should I go get your binky?” Absolem’s Riddle said.

It took them less than an hour to get back to the sewers and by then it was close to midnight. Arclight asked if they could take a break as he was tired and a little jet-lagged from the trip to California. Edward mentioned they’d only been investigating for an hour and a half. Arclight continued to insist that he wasn’t tired, just jet-lagged.

“You all can continue the investigation,” he said. “I’m just a little shook up by what the **** just happened.”

“I mean I’m really interested in that there’s so many living down here for so long,” Edward said.

“And that they’re peaceful, so that’s cool,” Absolem’s Riddle said.

“Peaceful while they have food to eat,” Arclight said.

“They said they had plenty of other places they can get it,” Absolem’s Riddle said. “They can leave and come back.”

“And that’s what scares me,” Arclight said.

“But they said as long as other people don’t bother them, they won’t bother other people,” Absolem’s Riddle said.

“They’re like bees,” Edward said.

The other two looked at him.

“They’re like bees,” Arclight said.

“Although yellow jackets will sting you whether or not you bother them,” Absolem’s Riddle said.

“Are we really talking about bees at midnight?” Arclight said.

“If you don’t bother bees, they won’t bother you,” Edward said.

“Listen, I remember how we got down here, I’m going to go back to José’s,” Arclight said. “If you guys want to continue the investigation that’s fine.”

“No, just go to bed,” Absolem’s Riddle said.

Edward noted Arclight could come to his bunk but he declined.

“Not tonight, man,” he said.

“Someday,” Edward said.

“Not after seeing that,” Arclight said. “You guys handled it really well. That thing scared the **** out of me.”

“Cool,” Edward said. “Tomorrow: Freak Town.”

“Yeah,” Arclight said. “Oh boy. Bye.”

* * *

On Sunday, October 19, 2014, around 11:30 a.m. at the same place where they’d left the sewers the last time, they met again. Edward was waiting for them when they climbed down into the storm sewers.

“Have you seen Tera yet?” Absolem’s Riddle asked Arclight.

“Gargirl?” Arclight asked.

“That’s why I wasn’t freaked out - because of her,” Absolem’s Riddle said.

“All right,” Arclight said uncertainly. “Freak Town, I guess. Lay it on.”

“Let’s go get Bob,” Edward said.

Bob’s niche was one of the old maintenance areas. A television that was always on was mounted on one wall near a large pipe. An easy chair that had seen better days sat in front of it, its back to the main sewer. A mattress with a blanket atop it was on one side. The news was blaring on the television.

Bob was an old man, probably in his 70s, with messy gray hair. He wore jeans and a t-shirt as well as a flannel shirt over that. He had a three day growth of gray beard on his face.

“Edward!” he said when they arrived.

“Hey Bob,” Edward said.

“Hey, I recognize him!” Bob said, pointing at Arclight.

“Hey Bob,” Arclight said.

“That’s Arclight!” Bob said. He looked at Absolem’s Riddle. “I don’t know who the hell … who’s that?”

“Uh …” Edward said.

“You’re very tall,” Bob said to the woman.

“That’s Solomon’s Key,” Edward said.

“Solomon’s Key?” Bob said.

“Yeah,” Edward said.

“Absolem’s Riddle,” she said.

“Oh,” Edward said.

“We call her Abby,” Arclight said.

“Okay Abby,” Bob said. “Absolem’s Riddle? Wait … is that like that caterpillar?”

“Yes, it is,” she said.

“All right,” he said.

“Only it’s his riddle,” she said. “Because I can shrink and grow. Just like Alice when she ate the mushrooms.”

“Okay Abby,” Bob said.

She suddenly shrunk to half her size and then grew up to the size she had been before.

“That looks really painful,” Bob said. “Why … I don’t have any breakfast …”

“I’m not … we’re here for directions to Freak Town,” Edward said.

Bob looked at the three.

“You brought friends,” he said. “That’s a good idea.”

“Don’t go into the place that says ‘Keep Out,’” Arclight said.

“Yeah, don’t go there,” Edward said.

“I wasn’t planning on it,” Bob said.

“Don’t,” Arclight said. “Don’t.”

“Did you go in there?” Bob asked.

“Uh …” Arclight said.

“Maybe,” Edward said.

“Okay,” Bob said.

“Don’t go in there,” Arclight said again.

“Did you see the Peripherals?” Bob asked.

“Yeah,” Edward said.

“Are they scary?” Bob asked.

“Yeah,” Arclight said.

“They’re nice,” Absolem’s Riddle said.

“What?” Arclight said.

“They’re nice?” Bob said.

“Yeah,” Absolem’s Riddle said.

“No!” Arclight said.

“Yes, they are,” Absolem’s Riddle said.

“They’re intimidating,” Edward said.

“As long as they−” Absolem’s Riddle said.

“I’m not going in there,” Bob said. “It says ‘Keep Out.’ I don’t know who painted that one there.”

“They’re smart!” Arclight said.

“Yeah, I can tell you how to get to Freak Town,” Bob said.

“Cool,” Edward said.

“Nice,” Arclight said. “Thanks Bob.”

“You think I’ll need my gun?” Edward asked.

“You shouldn’t,” Bob said. “But you might want to have it. I mean, you know we’re all friendly here. But Freak Town is more …”

“Lawless,” Edward said.

“Well, there’s some people down there that ain’t so nice,” Bob said.

“Jerks,” Edward said.

“They’re usually okay,” Bob said.

“Angry?” Absolem’s Riddle said.

“Yeah, yeah,” Bob said.

“Jaded and bitter,” Absolem’s Riddle said.

“I’ve been down there a few times,” Bob said. “It makes me uncomfortable to be there just because … you know when you’re in a bad part of town, you’re not sure if somebody’s gonna jump you? It’s that kind of feel. You know, I never had any problems, but …”

“You never know,” Edward said.

“Exactly,” Bob replied.

He gave them instructions on how to get to the place.

“So it would be best if Edward went and not us?” Absolem’s Riddle asked. “Are people angry if you look normal?”

“Iunno,” Bob said.

“We’re here to help Edward,” Arclight said. “We go as a team, we do it as a team. It’s a team.”

Bob knew that some normal people went down in there and some of them as lived down there looked normal. He cautioned them not to provoke the people there.

Freak Town was deeper in the sewers and closer to downtown. There were deeper tunnels that were below the present-day Charlotte storm sewers. The area was darker than the sewers that Edward lived in. Water poured down through old pipes into deep caves, abandoned pipes, and tunnels and such until a large room opened up ahead of them. From somewhere high above, a single beam of light shined down from some hole or grate or manhole cover. Around the edges of the large, tall room, which appeared to be the remains of some ancient, huge, long abandoned pumping station, was a shantytown. The homeless there made their homes in small buildings around the peripheral of the area and even built up into the sides of the hundred-foot high room. The place was very dark except for candles and torches and small fires burning in individual cells. There must have been scores or even hundreds of people living in the place, which stunk of smoke. They occasionally caught the scent of marijuana.

One of the first men they saw just stood there and grunted over and over. He muttered gibberish and stared at them as they passed.

They started to ask some of the people about missing homeless people. They spotted a man who didn’t look homeless but wore a doctor’s coat and carried a doctor’s bag. He was tending to an old woman who was huddled under a blanket, coughing.

“Excuse me,” Edward said.

“Yah yah,” the man said in a German accent. “Do you need something for your skin condition?”

“Uh … what?” Edward said.

“He doesn’t realize you’re a crocodile,” Absolem’s Riddle said.

“How can he not?” Edward said.

“He might be nearsighted,” Absolem’s Riddle said.

“I’ve got a tail!” Edward said.

“Oh!” the doctor said. “It is very dark in here. Yes. Yes. What do you need? I do not recognize you. You are not from here?”

“No,” Edward said. “No, I’m not from … here. I’m not from this part of the sewers.”

“Ah,” the doctor said.

“We’re investigating the missing people,” Absolem’s Riddle said. “Have you noticed any missing people?”

“No,” the doctor said. “They change quite often when I come down here. I only come down every few weeks to help out as I can.”

“So, you’re from the surface?” Edward asked.

“Yah,” the doctor said. “Yah yah. I found about this place a year ago, and so I come down to help out when I can.”

“That’s nice of you,” Edward said.

“Well, you know, you do what you can to help other people.”

“That’s cool.”

“Thank you.”

“I’m Arclight!” Arclight said, suddenly glowing.

Several people cowered away from the light.

“You need to give people a warning about that, damn it!” Absolem’s Riddle said.

“Ah, I saw you from the news,” the doctor said.

“Yes,” Arclight said.

“Yes yes, one of the super … ah … are you three …?” the doctor said.

“This is my team!”

“Ah.”

“My team. Arclight!”

“I don’t recognize you … I’m sorry, are you super … somebody …?”

He gestured at Edward.

“No,” Edward said.

“He’s the Cool Crocodile,” Absolem’s Riddle said.

“I don’t have a−” Edward started to say.

“You are the Cool Crocodile?” the doctor said. “I’ve not heard of the Cool Crocodile.”

“We don’t have a name for him, really,” Absolem’s Riddle said.

“Edward,” Arclight said.

“Ah,” the doctor said. “And … so you are part of a super team, you are part of a super team?”

“Yeah, we’re looking for the missing homeless people,” Absolem’s Riddle said.

“I have not heard of any missing homeless people,” the doctor said. “I am only here every once in a while.”

“Well, you know me from the news,” Arclight said.

“Yah yah,” the doctor said.

“There are missing people from the sewers and I’m trying to help my friend, Edward,” Arclight said.

“Who is, like, the mayor of this area?” Edward asked.

“No one is really in charge, per se,” the doctor said. “You could, I suppose you could talk to some of the people around here, maybe they could help you.”

“Yeah,” Edward said. “I was just hoping to get it in one shot.”

“Do you know somebody that could help us?” Arclight said.

“Uh … Sarge?” the doctor said. “He calls himself Sarge.”

“Okay,” Arclight said.

“I wonder if he was a sergeant.” Edward said.

“I believe he was,” the doctor said. “Yah yah.”

“Cool,” Edward said.

“He might be able to help you,” the doctor said. “There’s the magic potion lady. Uh …”

“Magic potions,” Absolem’s Riddle said. “That sounds cool.”

The doctor pointed out one of the shanties built into the wall at ground level and they could see it actually had a thatched roof. The doctor told them she called herself Granny Witch. He had never visited her, though, as she had never needed his services. He noted he only tried to help the people who needed him and left the rest alone because many of them wished to be left alone.

Absolem’s Riddle asked where Sarge stayed but the man didn’t know. However, he gave them a description of the man as an older gentleman with a mustache and goatee and burns on his face. He wore a black cloth hat and black shirt. Absolem’s Riddle suggested Edward should see what he smelled like and the doctor said he was very friendly and he had talked to him several times. The doctor noted though a lot of the people in the place had physical deformities, he did not.

“I guess we should go talk to Granny Witch then,” Arclight said.

“I wanna to talk to Granny Witch,” Edward said.

“I’ll talk to Granny Witch,” Absolem’s Riddle said.

They crossed the large area to the thatch-roofed hut. It was dark in the place and smelled like chemicals. A woman sat in a rocking chair in the darkest corner of the room. They could see in the dim candlelight she had a shock of white hair pulled back in the bun, but could not make out her facial features.

“Granny Potion Witch Lady?” Edward said.

“Yes?” the old woman said. “What do you need?”

“Wow, she answered to it!” Edward said.

“Holy shit!” Arclight said.

“Do you know where Sarge is?” Edward said.

“Missing people too,” Arclight said.

“Sarge?” the old woman said. “Sarge, he wanders. He doesn’t have a place he actually lives. He sleeps wherever he falls down, tired.”

“Oh,” Edward said.

“Does he leave here sometimes?” Absolem’s Riddle asked.

“He goes up on the surface to beg, that’s what I heard,” Granny Witch said.

“What do you sell here?” Edward asked.

“Potions of every kind,” the woman said.

“What kind?” Edward asked.

“Love potions,” Granny Witch said. “Hate potions.”

“Oh,” Edward said.

“Love potions?” Arclight said.

“No,” Absolem’s Riddle said.

Arclight started glowing and they could see, in the growing light, the old woman, who has seemed so normal to them, had no face. It was as if her eyes, nose, and mouth were covered with skin.

“Holy shit!” Arclight said.

Edward and Arclight stared at the woman’s face while Absolem’s Riddle looked away from the old woman.

“We’ve heard of people missing from the sewers and we were wondering if you had seen any extra new people or if people had been missing from here as well,” Absolem’s Riddle said.

“Ah, not that I know of,” the old, faceless woman said. “No one’s been missing from here.”

Arclight was amazed the woman moved her jaw as she talked and the sound seemed to come from where her mouth should have been though there was no mouth there. She also looked at Absolem’s Riddle as if she could see her. When Edward waved his hands in the air, she looked towards him. He gestured wildly before putting his arms away uncomfortably.

“There are a lot of people here who have come from all over,” she said. “You might have to ask around. Who are you looking for specifically?”

“There’s about … what 10 or 20 missing homeless people?” Absolem’s Riddle said.

“He knows a couple of ‘em,” Arclight said, pointing at Edward.

“Scott the Creep,” Edward said. “Have you heard of Scott the Creep?”

“No, can’t say I have,” Granny Witch said.

“He’s one of the missing ones,” Absolem’s Riddle said.

“Do you want any potions?” Granny Witch said.

“Love potion, please,” Arclight said.

“It costs a lot,” the witch said.

“Do people down here … can they afford your potions?” Edward asked.

“Well, there is also trade,” the old woman said. “We barter.”

“I’ll barter,” Arclight said. “I didn’t bring my wallet with me today.”

“What have you got to trade?” she asked.

“Good looks,” he said, smiling dazzlingly.

“Young man, I’m far too old for you,” Granny Witch said. “I would teach you things that could kill you.”

Arclight giggled.

Absolem’s Riddle asked if she had invisibility potions but the old woman said she did not. Arclight asked if there was anything she needed for a love potion. The woman said he could bring her food or other useful items and chemicals that were available in a pharmacy.

“Do you like Oaties?” Arclight asked.

“I like Oaties!” Edward said, suddenly excited.

“I have a lot of Oaties,” Arclight said.

“You should try Oaties!” Edward said.

“She might not even … does she even know what they are?” Absolem’s Riddle said.

“I’ve tried … I know what Oaties are!” Granny Witch said.

“How can she eat?” Edward asked.

“I know what Oaties are,” Granny Witch said again. “They’re awful.”

“No, what?” Edward said.

“I don’t like them,” Granny Witch simply said.

“They’re not good,” Absolem’s Riddle said.

“I’ll bring some food for a love potion,” Arclight said. “How much do I need to bring?”

“Bring how much you think will be fair,” the old woman said.

“Okay,” he replied. “Guaranteed success on the love potion?”

“It is not guaranteed,” the old woman said. “And you have to feed it to the girl. Or boy. I know how you young folks are.”

He said he would bring much food one day and they left the shack. A little dog, a pug with a wrinkly, short-muzzled face and a curly tail, was outside. He probably stood about a foot tall and looked like he was still a puppy. He looked around and then spotted Arclight.

“Hey! How’s it going?” the dog said to the man.

“Holy shit!” Arclight yelled.

“Aw, hey,” Edward said as he exited. “It’s a dog.”

“Hey, a crocodile!” the pug said.

“That thing talks!” Arclight said.

“Hey! That crocodile talks!” the pug said.

“The dog talks,” Edward said with a smile.

“The crocodile talks!” the pug said.

“You two should, like, hang out,” Arclight said.

“I know,” Edward said.

“I’m Doug!” the pug said. “ Doug the Pug!”

“Doug the Pug,” Arclight said.

“What’s happening?” Doug said.

Absolem’s Riddle’s eyes opened wide when she saw the talking dog.

“Edward, ask him about the missing people,” Arclight said.

“Hey, do you know anything about missing people?” Edward asked.

“Missing people?” Doug said. “No!”

“Oh,” Edward said, disappointed.

“Do you know where Sarge is at the moment?” Edward asked.

“No,” Doug said. “I could probably find him though!”

Absolem’s Riddle was making strange noises and pointing at the dog. Doug went over and started to sniff her and she cried out.

“Okay … um … hi,” she said.

She quickly shrunk and leapt onto Ñaro’s back. The sugar glider quickly climbed up to Arclight’s shoulder. Doug leapt up onto the man’s leg and Ñaro clambered up onto the man’s head.

“Hey! Hey! You got something on your head!” Doug called to the man.

Arclight reached up and carefully removed the sugar glider from his head. He was surprised to see a little saddle on the animal with Absolem’s Riddle atop it. He laughed. The woman shook her head at him.

“Holy shit!” he exclaimed.

Doug leapt up under his hand and he put the little animal back on his head.

“Aw,” Doug said, obviously disappointed.

Then he started running around Arclight, leaping up and trying to get closer to the sugar glider. He was very excited by the animal, obviously.

“Look at this little guy,” Edward said with a grin.

“Ask him how he talks,” Arclight said to him.

“What does it matter how he talks?” Edward asked.

“It matters a lot,” Arclight said.

“Well, how do I talk?”

“How do you talk?” Doug asked, suddenly interested.

“Huh?” Edward said.

“It’s not coming out of your mouth,” Doug said.

“No,” Edward said.

“Where’s it coming from?”

“Out of this suit that I wear.”

“That’s weird!”

“Well, it’s kind of weird that you’re able to talk.”

“I’ve always been able to! I don’t know why!”

“Well, that’s … odd.”

“It is! That’s what they tell me! That’s why I’m down here! Because they said I’d be put in a circus or something if I’m up top!”

“I’d take care of you,” Arclight said.

“Really?” Doug asked.

“Yeah,” Arclight said.

“You won’t put me in a circus?” Doug asked.

Absolem’s Riddle, meanwhile, was smacking Arclight on the head.

“You could be like my pet dog,” Arclight said.

“You could be my pet human!” Doug said. “Oooo.”

“Exactly!” Arclight said.

“How do you like Oaties?” Edward asked the pug.

“I don’t know what that is,” Doug said.

“If you like ‘em, I’ve got a lot of ‘em,” Arclight said.

“I think they’re pretty ballin’,” Edward said.

“What are they?” Doug asked. “Is that like … wait …”

“It’s a cereal,” Edward said.

“A cereal?” Doug said, thinking. “Oh! That comes in boxes!”

“Yeah.”

“Yeah, and when you knock ‘em over in the supermarket, people get really mad! And they yell at you and they chase you!”

“Probably,” Arclight said.

“With brooms,” Doug said.

“Probably,” Edward said.

“Yeah, I know what cereal is,” Doug said.

“I’ve never done that,” Edward said.

“So, Oaties is a cereal,” Doug said. “Okay. Okay. Okay. Okay. Okay.”

“Yeah,” Edward said. “He’s got a lot of it.”

“A lot,” Arclight said.

“Ooo,” Doug said. “Does it taste good? Because the cereal I had was so sweet! Wow!”

“I like it,” Edward said.

“He likes is,” Arclight said.

“I like it,” Edward said again.

“He likes it,” Arclight said again.

“Well, the cereal I had was too sweet!” Doug said. “But I was going to eat it anyway because it was sweet!”

“That’s fine,” Arclight said. “It’s not sweet.”

“Oh, okay,” Doug said. “I’ll have … do you have some?”

“Not on me,” Arclight said.

“Aw,” Doug said. “Oh well.”

“Come to my apartment and be my dog, have all the Oaties you ever wanted,” Arclight said.

Absolem’s Riddle started to smack Arclight on the head again.

“Why?” Arclight said. “I want this dog.”

“Who are you looking for?” Doug asked.

“We’re looking for Sarge,” Edward said. “You said you could help us find him?”

“I can help you find him!” Doug said. “I can smell real good.”

“Oh sweet!” Edward said. “I mean, I can too.”

“I mean, I don’t smell real good,” Doug said.

“I just don’t know what he smells like so I can’t track him down myself,” Edward said.

“Let’s find him!” Doug said, jumping up again. “Let’s go!”

“Let’s do it,” Edward said.

Doug ran off and they followed. He stopped every few yards and sniffed at the ground or at air. Arclight and Edward followed as fast as they could. They had no trouble keeping up as the dog kept stopping to sniff. After about 20 minutes, he led to a niche wherein was sitting a man in a black sweater, blue jeans, and a black toboggan cap. He had a mustache and goatee and his face was scarred with old burns. Edward sniffed the man when they found him but he didn’t smell at all familiar.

“C’n I help you?” the man said.

“Hey Sarge,” Edward said.

“Hey, you’re … what the hell is that?” Sarge said, pointing at Edward.

Doug sniffed the man all over.

“Doug, stop it,” Sarge said. “Doug, stop it. Doug. Doug.”

He looked at the other two.

“Who are you?” he asked. “What the hell? You got a rat on your shoulder or something.”

“Yeah, I don’t like it,” Arclight said.

“How is that weird?” Edward said, looking around at the other people in Freak Town.

“What?” Sarge said.

“For this place,” Edward said.

“I’m just letting him know in case he doesn’t know,” Sarge said.

“Oh, okay,” Edward said.

“If he knows, I don’t care,” Sarge said. “There’s a guy with parrot. Thinks he’s a pirate or somethin’.”

“Oh! Let’s meet him next,” Edward said. “Doug, can you find that guy?”

“A pirate?” Doug said. “There’s a pirate down here?”

“We’ll find him later,” Edward said. “Anyways, sorry.”

“Yeah,” Sarge said.

“Mr. Sarge,” Edward said.

“You can just call me Sarge,” Sarge said. “I don’t care.”

“Cool,” Edward said. “Sarge.”

“Who’re you?” Sarge asked.

“Uh … Edward.”

“You have to think about your name?”

“Kind of.”

“All right.”

“What are you?”

“I’m a crocodile.”

“Oh! Okay. That makes sense.”

Sarge looked at Arclight.

“Who are you? You look familiar,” he said. Then he snapped his fingers. “You’re Brad Pitt!”

“Yeah,” Arclight said.

“A’right,” Sarge muttered.

“Yeah, we’re travelling down here with Brad Pitt,” Edward said. “But um, we’re looking for some missing people from the sewers above.”

“Oh, okay,” Sarge said. “Who? You got names?”

“I know one is missing that was called Scott the Creep,” Edward said.

“Doesn’t ring a bell.”

“He’s the only name I know but I know a few others have been missing.”

“Uh-huh.”

“Has anyone from this area gone missing?”

“Not that I know of. Sergeant-Major might know. But …”

“Wait, what?”

“Sergeant-Major.”

“Okay.”

“He’s a friend of mine. He outranks me.”

“Where can we find Sergeant-Major?”

“Hold on.”

Sarge looked to his left a moment.

“Yes sah!” he said in a British accent. “What can I do for you sah?”

“Holy shit!” Arclight said.

“Uh … what?” Edward said.

“Are you Sergeant-Major?” Arclight asked.

“I’m Sergeant-Major, sah!” Sarge said. “Well one! There are two of us, yes!”

“This place is crazy,” Arclight said. “I’m going to go outside with Doug. You got this, right?”

“Uh-huh,” Edward said.

Absolem’s Riddle, still on Ñaro, leapt to Edward’s shoulder.

“Oh sah!” Sergeant-Major said. “Sah! Hold still, sah!”

“Hm?” Edward said.

Sergeant-Major picked up a newspaper and rolled it up.

“Oh wait,” Edward said. “Wait wait wait. I’m good.”

“There appears to be something on your shoulder, sah,” Sergeant-Major said.

“Yeah, I’m aware,” Edward said. “It’s good.”

“Very well,” Sergeant-Major said, dropping his newspaper. “Very well.”

“So, um, we were wondering if you happened to know if people have been disappearing from this area lately.”

“No, no, no one to my recollection has been disappearing from this area, no.”

“What about−?”

“We have newcomers coming in every day though. And then there’s the other Sergeant-Major and he might be able to also answer your questions. But you’ll have to get Sarge to get you to see him.”

“So, there’s two sergeant-majors?”

“Yes.”

“All right. I guess I’ll ask Sarge to take me to the other one.”

“Let me go get him. I’ll be right back.”

“All right. Sounds good.”

“Well, he’ll be right back.”

“Sounds good.”

A few feet away, Arclight was audibly laughing. Doug also started laughing.

“What are we laughing at?” Doug asked.

A couple of vagrants walked up to Arclight and stared at him.

Sarge’s face changed subtly and he seemed to wake up.

“What? What? What?” he said, his voice an American accent again. “What do y’need? You talk to the Sergeant-Major?”

Edward stared at him for a moment.

“I think you’re going to take me to Sergeant-Major?” he said.

“Oh, the other Sergeant-Major, you want to talk to him too?” Sarge said.

“Y … yeah,” Edward said.

“All right,” Sarge said.

“It’s a different person, right?”

“Yeah! They’re totally different.”

“Okay.”

“Sergeant-Major’s British. Sergeant-Major’s not. Sergeant-Major’s tall and the Sergeant-Major’s average-sized. The Sergeant-Major has a big mustache and the Sergeant-Major doesn’t.”

“They’re totally different!” Arclight called. “How can you not know this?”

“Let’s go to the not-British Sergeant-Major,” Edward said.

“All right,” Sarge said.

He got up with only a little difficulty and stretched. Edward could hear his joints cracking. Arclight walked back over with Doug. Sarge led them across the giant room but stopped in the center.

“You gotta promise that you’re not gonna hurt him,” Sarge said to them.

“Okay,” Edward said uncertainly.

“Well, people don’t like him,” Sarge said. “They try to kill him.”

“Oh,” Edward said.

“So, you gotta promise you’re not gonna hurt him,” Sarge went on. “He said okay - okay?”

“I won’t do that,” Arclight said.

“All right, fair enough, fair enough,” Sarge said. “He’s been through a lot. He’s been through a war. He’s been through a war just like me.”

“Yeah,” Arclight said.

“I don’t want you to try to hurt him,” Sarge said.

“No,” Arclight said.

“He’s my friend,” Sarge went on. “I’ll have to translate, because … but I don’t want you to turn him into the government because I think he’s on the lam from the army or somebody. So, you won’t hurt him, right? What about that thing on your shoulder?”

“The light?” Edward asked.

“No, the other side,” Sarge said. “That rat with that woman on it.”

“Oh,” Edward said. “I don’t imagine. She can’t talk now. I don’t think she will be able to.”

“All right,” Sarge said, seemingly satisfied.

He led them to a tunnel off the side of the main room. It proved to be an old sewer tunnel made of brick that was still intact. The fifty-foot long tunnel opened into a small cistern where it was very humid. Water dripped down from above and there was little light. Back in the darkness of the corner of the room by rusted pipes was movement. Sarge made some strange clicking noises with his mouth. Then he saluted.

Out of the darkness from behind the pipes came a mantoid. The creature was roughly the size of a horse with four legs on its rear abdomen and two arms from shoulders above. It had an insect-like face with large, black eyes, heavy mandibles, and two drooping antennae. Dark brown wings pressed against its main abdomen and it moved its arms strangely, gesturing. A clicking noise came from the thing’s mouth.

“I knew it!” Edward said.

He had thought the second Sergeant-Major was some kind of alien. He had not expected a mantoid, exactly.

“Uh …” Arclight said.

“How are we not prepared for anything?” Edward hissed. “We should be prepared for anything.”

“Just ask the questions and let’s get the hell out of here!” Arclight hissed at him. “I’m starting to think we’re never going to find the missing people.”

“I’m more interested in just finding more interesting people, honestly,” Edward whispered.

“Let’s just start looking around at people and people-watching,” Arclight said.

“I thought you folks had some questions,” Sarge said.

“He does!” Arclight said.

“Hey,” Edward said. “So, I got a couple questions. First off, there’s some people who have been missing in the sewers above. Other sewers. Have you happened to notice anyone missing from this area?”

The mantoid clicked and hissed at them.

“No, no, no,” Sarge said. “He don’t socialize much.”

“Oh, this is great,” Edward said.

The mantoid started to click and make noises again.

“Oh, he says ‘They’ll be back,’” Sarge said.

“How do you know?” Edward said.

“What?” Sarge said.

“How does he know they’ll be back?” Edward said.

“Yeah, what does he mean by that?” Arclight said.

Sarge clicked at the Sergeant-Major and the creature clicked back at him.

“Uh … I don’t think he’s talking about the missing people,” Sarge said. “He just says ‘They’ll be back.’ He’s being all mysterious or something.”

“Who’s ‘they’ then?” Edward asked.

“Yeah, who’s ‘they?’” Sarge asked the mantoid.

At the creature clicked and hissed, Absolem’s Riddle tapped on Edward’s shoulder and pointed at the creature.

“He just says ‘They’ll be back,’” Sarge said again. “He’s different from us. Sometimes their thinking process ain’t the same. So, maybe he thinks he’s being clear.”

“I never been back here,” Doug, who had tagged along, whispered to Arclight. “This is awesome!”

He sniffed at the air.

“Man, that guy smells so different,” the pug said.

Edward had noticed the strange, sour smell as well. Absolem’s Riddle tapped irregularly on Edward’s shoulder, trying to contact him in Morse code. He swung at the air near her.

“If you have something to say, get bigger,” he said. “I mean, I can’t do anything about tapping.”

“That all you got?” Sarge asked.

“I feel there’s another question but I’m at a loss for words right now,” Edward said.

“Ask him about eyeball guy,” Arclight whispered to him.

“Eyeball guy?” Edward said.

“Yeah,” Arclight said. “He was down here dealing with those other people, maybe he dealt with him.”

“Do you know of Troublemaker?”

“Eyeball guy.”

“Eyeball … he has an eyeball on his chest. He wears a lot of black and covers his face up.”

The mantoid clicked and hissed again.

“No, he hadn’t heard of him,” Sarge said. “I hadn’t either.”

“Can he tell me a story?” Edward said.

“Him?” Sarge said.

“Yeah, Sergeant-Major,” Edward said.

The mantoid started to hiss and click loudly. Sarge translated. The mantoid told them it survived the attack on its people and fled into the sewers, wounded but alive. The other freaks found it and let it live there. It’d been there ever since.

“Cool,” Edward said. “‘They’ll be back.’”

Absolem’s Riddle got Edward’s attention and pointed at the mantoid again.

“Yeah, I see him,” Edward said.

She rolled her eyes.

“Very clearly,” Edward went on.

Doug the Pug came over and sat by Edward, eyeing Ñaro and the tiny woman.

They turned to go and Sarge saluted the mantoid. The creature returned the salute. Then Sarge led them back out into the main part of Freak Town with Doug the Pug in tow. They continued to interview people in the place. Arclight realized they might have some better luck if they actually knew the names of the people who were missing. He told Edward but Edward noted he felt if someone they knew had gone missing, people would tell them. Arclight agreed, but it sounded to him like the missing people were from Edward’s end of the sewers. No one from Freak Town seemed to be going missing.

Doug the Pug kept trying to get Edward and Arclight to lower Ñaro and Absolem’s Riddle down. He really wanted to play with the sugar glider. The woman and the sugar glider climbed atop Edward’s head much to Doug’s chagrin. She moved to the other shoulder.

They discussed what to do next. Arclight suggested they could go back to Papa Franchetti’s Pizzerios, where they thought Scott the Creep had vanished, continue interviewing people in Freak town, or get food so he could purchase the love potion. Edward deferred to him that he was the leader but Arclight noted it was Edward’s mission.

They ended up questioning more people in Freak Town for a couple more hours. They talked to many people with terrible deformities. One man had a face covered in what appeared to be terribly thick scar tissue, probably at least two to three inches deep. His hands were also covered with the terrible stuff. They learned the man was called Jimmy Spaghetti and Edward remembered hearing he had disappeared from their area in December 2013. Edward also recognized a smell on the man that was similar to the smell on the strange stain behind Papa Franchetti’s Pizzerios.

“Do you know this guy?” Arclight asked.

“I don’t, but I’ve heard his name before,” Edward confessed. “So you say you used to live in the upper area of the sewer?”

“No, I didn’t say nothin’,” the man replied. His voice was very rough. “I just said my name was Jimmy Spaghetti.”

“Did you used to live …?” Edward asked.

“Yeah … seems like,” Jimmy said.

“Cool.”

“It’s hard to remember …”

“You don’t … you don’t remember living up there?”

“Uh … long time ago … like a hundred years ago.”

“That’s a long time. What made you come down here?”

“‘Cause they did this to my … to me …”

“Who did?”

“It was that guy.”

“Cool.”

“He … said ‘I’ll give you stuff.’ And I said ‘I like stuff.’ And … then he … shot me … and I couldn’t move. And … and then … then he used one of those … those things they give you vaccines with? Like … that goes ‘poomp?’ And … and then … and … and then … and … then I … and then … it started … this awful stuff. And then … and I ran away. And I couldn’t run ‘cause it hurts. Everything hurts. And I came here … and … I don’t … and he got Cornelius too.”

“Okay.”

“But that was before I met him.”

“Ask him what the guy looked like,” Arclight whispered to Edward.

“Why don’t you ask him?” Edward said.

“What’d the guy look like that did that to you?” Arclight asked.

“He was all in black,” Jimmy said. “And his face was covered.”

“He have an eyeball on his chest?” Arclight asked.

“No,” Jimmy said. “Just black. And a gun. And a vaccine thing.”

“This is probably our best lead though, honestly,” Arclight whispered to Edward.

“So, who’s Cornelius?” Edward asked.

“Cornelius!” Jimmy called. “Cornelius!”

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