Get Free Copy

100 free copies left

This novel is limited to 100 free copies due to its part in Inkitt’s Novel Contest.

0
Free copy left
You can read our best books
Emily Vitori would love your feedback! Got a few minutes to write a review?
Write a Review

Scions: Ragnarok

By Emily Vitori All Rights Reserved ©

Fantasy / Action

A Dark and Stormy Night

It always starts with something small.

Well, that's pretty much bull. Truth is, we – the gods of old, the gods mankind thought they'd outgrown and discarded – have always been fighting an uphill battle. I rather sympathize with that Sisyphus fellow that's still pushing his rock up the damned hill. Mankind has advanced, and they've done some truly amazing things, some of which has come on the backs of some truly horrible things. War. Nuclear weapons. Laws, just and unjust. Stupidity that makes the caprice of the gods seem harmless.

History is nothing but the opening act for the End of All Things.

"Hey, Marcone! How's that foundation break-down going?"

"Slow," Marcone frowned. "Unless you wanna pick up a spare jackhammer and pitch in."

"Hey, no, I'm having enough fun with this brick-and-rebar FUBAR."

Marcone spat into the dirt. "What was this place, a bank?"

"Office building for some rich guy. World War II type, died last year," his co-worker said.

Marcone looked around the work site. What should have been a routine knock-down of an old building had been complicated by reinforced construction. "Yeah, I suppose all this built-to-last stuff makes sense, then. Probably thought the Commies were gonna parachute in and take the place over."

"Vegas? Lots of glitz, but who in their right mind would want this hell hole?"

"Gotta keep your gold bars somewhere," his co-worker laughed.

"Yeah, I find any gold bars, I ain't sharing," Marcone said. He worked the pedal sink and splashed some water on his face. "Round Two."

More rebar-laced concrete. And then Marcone caught a glint of something … metallic? Perhaps the old man had a hidden safe, after all. He set his jackhammer aside, picked away a few chunks of concrete to reveal a corner of something. It looked more like a stone box … waitaminit, didn't they use stone liners at cemeteries? Was this something bizarre like out of Psycho ? An ex-wife buried in the basement?

"Hey, Pete, can you come down here? Found something odd," Marcone radioed the site supervisor.

"What now?" Pete Connors asked a moment later. "Steel plating under the floor? Unexploded munitions?"

Marcone just pointed to the corner of glossy black stone he'd uncovered. "Hammer ain't doin' nothing to it, but I didn't want to go any further without your go-ahead."

"It's not slate. Even obsidian would break under a jackhammer," Connors mused. "And what's that, an inscription?"

"Saw it on History Channel, runes. Viking stuff."

"Great. An archaeological find in the middle of a tear-down that's already overbudget in cost and time," Connors shook his head. "Okay, not ready to send you home. Go work on the corner or something. If you find anything else, call."

"Dr. Fisk?" the student assistant asked. "Call on 2041."

"Who from?" Fisk asked, not looking up from the photographs he was studying.

"Max Bayer over at City Hall," the young woman said. "Said it was important."

"It always is," Fisk shook his head. He waved at the papers spread out before him, dashing off cryptic scribbles on Post-Its and sticking them to pages. "Would you take notes, Miss Warburton? I don't want to lose track any more than I already have."

"Sure thing," she said brightly. Callie Warburton was a graduate assistant this close to her own Master's, and if hadn't been for Fisk's mentoring, she'd have been just another cocktail waitress with a major in schlepping drinks, a minor in getting groped, and zero prospects.

"Max, what can I do for you?" Fisk asked.

"Usual. Construction worker turned up something. Stone marker, possibly a sarcophagus."

"Sarcophagus? In the middle of Vegas?"

"It's the old Roget building, at the end of South Bridge and South Vegas," Bayer said. "Part of the teardown for the next big casino."

"Roget. Didn't he file suit against a couple of developers back in the 90's?"

"He did. But he kicked the bucket last year, no heirs. City Council expedited things, property turned over, and the Roget building is history."

"Except for the possible artifact in the basement," Carlton sighed. "Look, I can't get out there until tomorrow. Soon enough?"

Bayer shrugged. "It'll have to do. Lord, please not another Indian burial ground. The City Council will go apoplectic. Call me when you have something."

"Dr. Fisk? Do you want me to handle that tomorrow morning?" Callie asked after the call ended.

"That would be capital," Fisk allowed. He was already mumbling to himself, tracing fingers between the Post-It notes and trying to regain his train of thought. "Standard site survey, please, Miss Warburton."

"If you'll not be needing me, Dr. Fisk, I could head out there now, take a preliminary look?"

Fisk looked at her over his glasses. "It's getting dark."

"It's never dark in Vegas, Dr. Fisk," Callie smiled reassuringly. "I'll have the Frezzi kit with me."

"You gotta wear this," the security guard at the gate handed Callie a hard hat. She was already wearing a day glo safety vest, her camera slung around her neck. "And sign in."

A hastily-scribbled C. Warburton later, Callie was examining the corner that had been uncovered. The rock was smooth and cold, with striations and mottling that looked like meteoric iron. A hint of Nordic runes, but that didn't mean it was Viking in origin. Anyone could carve runes. Maybe Old Man Roget had been a closet Odin-worshiper.

Photos. Measurements. Some simple tests to establish the material. Whatever this was, it was big.

And this was how it always started, with something small.


"Come on, Hitoshi... the night is young!" Lya calls out to her friend walking a few steps in front of her on the sidewalk as she raises her walking stick and flask to the sky and spins around before stopping and taking a sip. "You sure you don't want any?" she scoots up behind her diligent friend and puts her hand holding the flask on his shoulder before mock whispering "This is a special batch of tsipouro you know...made by the monks of Mount Athos! I figured I'd ask before we got to the party... I don't exactly have enough for everybody!" She chuckles to herself. "I suppose I could ask him... but nah...better save the family favors for the serious stuff."

Hitoshi shakes his head. "No thank you Lya, I might have something later." That usually meant he wasn't planning on drinking tonight, or if he did drink, it would be alone. He rarely drank in public. "You go ahead and have all the fun you want. I'll be around if you need me." A drop of wetness hits his forehead and he looks up with a frown. "I think it's about to rain." sure enough, seconds later the sky opens up and a light rain begins to fall. "Well Shit."

"Talk about putting a damper on things," Lya mutters as she pulls her long coat tighter around her. "Good thing it's not an outdoor venue, eh?" She pushes her wet locks out of her face and looks up to the darkening clouds as a chill runs down her spine. "You know we could always be fashionably late and see if this storm blows over...how about we catch some grub, Hitoshi?" she hurries up to his side and gestures at the welcoming glow of a diner's "Open" sign down the street. "They've got some great pie there... I remember eating there once with the girls after this amazing after-party when we played the HAZE...or maybe I'm just hazy, huh? Get it?" she laughs as she grabs his arm and walks quicker towards the diner.

Hitoshi nods solemnly. "yes, I know. In fact I distinctly remember the last time you dragged me here... drunk... off your rear. I also remembering you eating a whole apple pie that same night and then puking on my shoes while I held your hair back. Such a waste of pie." He shakes his head trying to hide his grin while he gives his friend a good ribbing.

"Well at least I know I remembered right," she chuckles as they enter the diner. Lya waves her hand in greeting to the waitress behind the counter who nods at them as they take a seat in a booth by the window. "Though this time I think I'll go for cherry, and you'll have to have some with me. Wouldn't want me eating a whole one by myself again, would you?" she winks. "Two slices of cherry pie, a cup of coffee and a hot tea for my friend here, Marie," Lya says with a friendly smile to the waitress as she catches her eye. "Oh and a paper if you guys have one?"

"Looking for reviews of your latest performance?" Hitoshi asks curiously as he subtly scans the other inhabitants of the diner.

"Nah...it's just...I've got an odd feeling, is all... and no, it's not the tsipouro before you say anything," she laughs weakly as she gazes out the window at the rain.


Inside the diner, Evie Cartwright sits in one of the back booths, pouring over pages of scribbled notes. One hand flips through the papers, shifting each around as she eyes data there, trying to make a connection in this seemingly random case. The other hand holds a delectably sweet doughnut, all soft and warm with bits of blueberry suspended in the middle.

Cops and donuts? Yeah, it may be cliché. But, screw that. Donuts are delicious.

She sighs and sets the food down, leaning back in her seat. Both hands lift to her face, rubbing her eyes before moving on to run through her short, brown pixie cut, ruffling her already messy locks into an even more impressive array of cowlicks. None of this makes sense, she thinks. But, I know there is a connection here. I can feel it. I just need to prove it...

The front door chimes happily as another customer walks in and Evie looks up to see the couple stride in out of the rain. Her brows furrow and it takes her a minute, but she places Lya's face after a few moments. It's the singer that her brother is rather fond of. He had insisted on taking her out to a concert not too long ago, convinced that she needed to relax a bit. Evie smiles at the memory, but is then distracted as the theme from Pirates of the Caribbean begins to emanate from her pants. She quickly answers her phone, saying softly, "Cartwright. Whatcha got?"

The waitress sets down to slices of warm pie on the table between them and pours their drinks before handing Lya a copy of the morning's paper. "Let me know if you need anything else, hon... doesn't look like it's going to be too busy tonight with the rain and all." She winks and walks back behind the counter where she starts filling napkin dispensers.

Lya moans around a mouthful of pie as she leans back in her seat. "The tourists don't know what they're missing, Maggie!" she says loudly before setting down her fork and taking a sip of her coffee. She misses the saucer when she sets it down and splashes a little onto the newspaper.

"Aw crap..." she grabs a napkin and starts blotting it before she notices the small article underneath the stain about the building of a new casino where the Roget building used to stand.

"Now see, this is what I'm talking about Hitoshi..." she says to her friend as she points at the article and pushes it across the table towards him. "It's like we're constantly sacrificing our history...our...sense of self... for the next big thing."

Hitoshi sips his tea and sets it down on the table. "Didn't you run away from your history in order to make a fresh start?"

"What little of it I knew, anyway... which I think was part of the problem, honestly." She picks up her fork and starts playing with another bite of pie on her plate. "If I'd known where I came from from the start, maybe things would've been different."

"Ahh... but then we may never have met, Lya-san. And do you not know your history now? Enjoy your pie, my friend... things have a way of working themselves out." Hitoshi smiles knowingly and returns to his tea.

"Yeah... I guess you're right... no sense letting the pie get cold."

Hitoshi takes a bite of his pie. "Okay, this IS really good Pie. Remind me to buy a whole one to take home to mom." He snags the paper and looks at the article she is pointing at. "hmm... the city is like the layers of this pie. Each section built on that below it, but all is part of a greater whole."

"I think it's more like we keep making the pie and forget to clean the pan," Lya jokes as she scrapes up the last piece of pie from the plate. "Not yours, Maggie..." she calls out as the waitress raises a disapproving eyebrow. "Yours is delicious and would go fantastic with a nice 2007 North Slope Pinot Gris. I'm talking about more the..." she waves her fork about, " universal pie."


Would counsel like to poll the jurors?" asked the judge.

"Very well. Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, this completes your service …"

"Mr. North, I … I owe you, man," said Glenn Vernon. "Thanks. I know that don't cover it at all, but thanks."

"Don't worry about it, Mr. Vernon," Alex North told his client. "That's my job."

"Come join my family at church on Sunday. North Vegas Baptist," Vernon said.

"My relationship with God is … complicated," Alex smiled.

"God can be like that," Vernon said sagely. "He's a strict father that you may not understand. You may not feel close to Him, but He still cares about you."

Alex thought back to the handful of times he'd spoken with his father. His real father: Tyr, the Norse God of War. Their relationship was formal and absent familiarity, a superior officer to a subordinate. An occasional bit of praise, but often on the tails of a personal challenge or demanding trial. His chopper getting shot down in Afghanistan. A highly-charged rape case at Torii Army Base. An officer-involved shooting in New York.

"I'm not sure I could handle a closer relationship," he smiled.

"He'll be there for you, just as He made sure you were there for me. Thank you, again."

Alex checked his phone as he left the courtroom. There was the usual assortment of missed calls and messages, clients looking for his services. The fact that he was an independent with a growing reputation for championing those who were caught in the cogs of the wheels of justice attracted all sorts, from repeat offenders looking to avoid a third 'strike' to progressive political groups.

"Nice work, Alex," said a colleague from the District Attorney's office. "If I ever wind up in a pinch, I want you on my side."

"A lineup is usually pretty solid," Alex admitted. "But I had a gut feeling my client didn't do it."

Alex knew his 'gut feeling' was a legacy from his divine parent, but it was his skill at investigation that made it worth anything in the modern era. Men didn't take each other at their word any more.

"The Boss threw your name onto the table the other day as a possible ADA. You've got the chops. Experience, high-profile cases."

"Not sure the boys in blue would be as enthusiastic," Alex said.

"Because you stuck NYPD for a wrongful death claim? It'd actually look good. Show the D.A. takes things seriously."

"Just in time for election season?"

His friend laughed. "Why? You thinking of running for Public Defender?"

"Politics gives me hanging chads. Hives. A rash."

"I'm just letting you know Clemens will be asking."

Alex still had paperwork to take care of, which meant dinner in town. Choice wasn't the issue – there was everything from middle-American franchises to casino steakhouses and novelty restaurants. He wasn't really in the mood for pirate wenches or singing waiters, and one could only have so much Kung Pao. That left a couple of hole-in-the-wall treasures, an honest-to-goodness Philly cheesesteak, or the Soul Food Café, a small diner that lived up to its name.

Maybe he could make it there before the clouds on the horizon turned into something nasty.


"… the knurled edge does suggest that it is a some form of coffer or container rather than a tablet," Carrie dictated, using her smartphone as recorder. The advantage was that her notes would immediately become available in the cloud, with no risk of losing a cassette or other media. She hadn't really learned much in her prior visit, returning to the site with additional tools. She asked a worker to break up the concrete around the perimeter, and another to stand by with an acetylene torch to cut away the rebar. They could then lift the block away to reveal the surface of the object. Hopefully, the object itself was surrounded by packed earth and not more reinforced construction.

"Okay, Miss," said the torcher. "I'm about to start. You should wait upstairs."

Carrie did as the torcher suggested. She took the time to review notes she'd made about Armand Roget, the building's owner through its entire history. An eccentric sort who kept to himself, the only news stories about Roget were a one-time run on the tables at the old Sands, and the more recent articles detailing a vociferous battle with the city council back in the 1990's.

The voice of Jeanine, Evie's contact down at the lab, filters through the phone, "Hey. Got those results back for you. You're looking at the same caliber weapon, but with a completely different rifling pattern."

"Aw, shit...that means we're missing a weapon," Evie balances her phone between her ear and shoulder while she sorts through her papers. She quickly finds the page that she's looking for and places it on top of the stack. Pulling a pen from her pocket, she says, "Gimme the particulars."

Jeanine rattles off a bunch of specific information about the bullets that had been collected. All the while, Evie scribbles it down, sometimes turning a page to the side so that she can write along a space that is not already filled with her chicken-scratch. Unconsciously, she chews on her bottom lip as she writes, worrying the flesh between her teeth.

Soon, Jeanine stops, ending the conversation with, "Good luck, Evie. I'll call you if anything else turns up. Oh...and tell Saul that he owes me. Big time."

Evie's eyebrow shoots up and a bemused smirk breaks across her face, despite running into yet another obstacle in her investigation. " 'Kay," she chuckles. "Do I need to beat him about the head and shoulders? Because, I can do that!"

Jeanine's laughter tinkles through the phone, "No, no! Weellll...mayb...nah!"

Laughing softly, she says, "Thanks. Take care!"

She hangs up the call and looks back to her notes.

"Elder Futhark, certainly. But not from the period," Fisk ran his hand over the sarcophagus lid. "Are there any additional inscriptions on the sides, Miss Warburton?"

"No, Dr. Fisk," Callie said. "But there's a surprising absence of tool marks. Something like this would have to be carved, wouldn't it?"

"That we cannot discern the methodology does not mean 'space aliens,' as that one fellow likes to spout," Fisk said sternly. "It simply means that we don't know, and will continue to explore the possibilities. For example, it could be poured. The mottling occurs as the compound cools unevenly, and an acid bath could explain the striations."

"We'd need a metallurgic analysis to be certain, then," Callie said. "A poured compound would be different from meteoric iron."

"Have the sarcophagus removed and taken to the university," Fisk told the site supervisor.

"Miss Warburton will do a short survey of the excavation, and you should be able to resume work in short order."

Fisk ran a series of tests on the outside corner of the sarcophagus. A sample of the metal was easily obtained from within the runes. He examined the flakes under a microscope.

"Interesting," he said. "It's meteoric iron, after all. But we still don't know whether this was carved from a single meteorite, or from several. We'll query databases and newspaper archives. The building is from the 1940's, and a meteor of that size would not have gone unnoticed."

"We're recording, Dr. Fisk, if you want to proceed?" asked another student.

"Of course," Fisk answered. He ran a fiber optic scope around the underside of the lid, checking for hidden catches or indications that the lid was booby-trapped, found nothing. "There appear to be no hidden catches, only a wax seal, which will be quite brittle. Prybar, please."

Fisk drew a surgical mask over his mouth and nose, then donned a Plexiglas face shield. He accepted the prybar from Callie and wedged it under the lid. At first, the lid refused to budge. Then there were several loud cracks as the seal gave way.

"It looks to be solid metal, so let's be careful. We'll be carrying it to the left and setting it down on the table there," Fisk directed. "On three …"

They lifted the lid clear. Fisk was the first to look inside.

"Oh, my god," Fisk paled.

The cameras showed them what had left Fisk unsettled.

It was a human skeleton.

And while its clothes were faded with age, the cut of the blue serge fabric was unmistakable. Not to mention the shield pinned to its left breast pocket. There was a clear indentation on the right side of the dead man's skull, and the right hand was missing.

"Miss Warburton, please call the police."


Alex made it most of the way to the diner. About a block-and-a-half away, the impending storm broke, a full-on Vegas gully washer, with rain sloshing over his shoe tops and putting the waterproofing of his trench coat to the test. He made it inside and stood there, dripping, rather than shaking himself off like a dog.

"Just hang your coat and hat up, and find a seat, Alex," the waitress called out. "I'll bring you a towel."

"Appreciate it, Maggie," Alex smiled. The place was quiet – it wasn't the dinner hour, and it wasn't shift change at any of the precincts or hospitals. Just a few locals, like himself. He recognized Detective Cartwright, but only by reputation. A younger couple with a bit of a party-ready look to them. Maggie arrived with a menu and a towel, and it felt like a gallon of water sluiced out of his hair.

"Usual daily special," Maggie said. "Chef has smothered pork chops, as well. And the cr—"

"—awfish etouffee over cheese grits. Just what the doctor ordered."

"To drink?"

"Just a Coke."

"Food'll be up in a jiff."

Evie glances at her text messages. There is nothing of pressing importance, only a message from her mom asking if she is going to come over for Sunday dinner. She makes a mental note to call home later that evening before slipping the phone back into her pocket.

Once again, the door chimes merrily, admitting yet another customer. The detective looks up, unable to help herself. It's sheer force of habit (and nature) that makes her take note of everyone that enters.

This time, she sees a familiar face. Well, sort of familiar. Much as Mr. North knows Evie through reputation, so too does she know him. His name is well known within the law community. She's seen him around the courthouse on several occasions, though she's never spoken to the man.

This does not stop her from giving him a friendly nod and smile as their eyes meet, a silent greeting between two civil servants.

The bell on the door jingles and Lya leans back in her booth to take in the waterlogged man who entered the diner. "Man...I'm even happier we skipped that party now, Hitoshi, the stage would've been drenched!" Her friends fork stops half way to his mouth in shock as she realized what she just said.

"Yeah, I said it," she chuckles as she kicks him playfully, "you can stop staring at me like that. Even I've got to take a break sometime. "

Lightning streaks through the sky followed by a booming rattle as squealing late-night partiers run past the diner window with coats and newspapers covering their heads. "Besides..." she sighs as she looks out the window. "I can't shake the feeling that we've got a bigger event to attend and I've somehow lost the invitation, ya know?"


Evie heard her phone ring, but ignored it as she was still juggling pieces of the case in her head. Most folks would hang up before five or six rings, figuring the call would go to voicemail. This time, the phone kept ringing. She glanced at the display, saw that it was HQ. Just after dark, inasmuch as Vegas actually got dark. Never a good omen.

"Cartwright."

"Hey, Evie. I know you're still working on the Davison case, but I have to drop another one on you," said her boss. "Cold case. Construction crew uncovered a coffin, sarcophagus, whatever you call it."

"Where at?"

"Roget Building. What's left of it, anyway. Stuff was buried under the foundation."

"So no real crime scene," Cartwright frowned. "Where am I going?"

"Lab at the University. And Evie? The victim looks to have been one of our own. Badge 5849, Officer Thomas Cardinelli, went missing during a nasty round of flash floods. His patrol car was found in a culvert, he wasn't. Figured he'd just been drowned, body swept away. We were wrong, obviously."

The door to the diner slammed open, and another rain-soaked patron came in. Maggie greeted him with a cheerful smile. He looked to be in his twenties. Stringy - and wet - black hair fell to just below his shoulders. He wore a motorcycle jacket, but had no helmet. A greasy t-shirt over black jeans and work boots. Dark circles under red-rimmed eyes suggested getting caught in the rain was the least of his problems. There was a brooding quality to the way he half-slouched at the counter. He glanced towards Cartwright, looked away a bit too quickly, only to see Hitoshi leaning back against the intersection of wall and bench, his long legs stretched out.

"Merde," the newcomer mutters under his breath.

"Huh. Okay, I'll head on over to the university, assuming that anyone is still there. If not, I'll drop by in the morning. I'll let you know as soon as I find something," Evie's brows furrow and a small frown tugs at the corners of her mouth. "Thanks, chief."

As she ended the call, the door chimed again, admitting a rather sketchy looking fellow. There was certainly nothing at all wrong with looking sketchy. Heck, there had been more than a few occasions where she had probably appeared less than trustworthy after long nights of work and frustration...and no shower...and less sleep...

She turned her attention back to her phone, turning it sideways to make it easier to read and type. She pulled up a search engine and quickly began looking for mention of Thomas Cardinelli, the floods and the search for him.


Lya's eyes narrow as she takes in the newcomer to the diner as she's seen her share of thugs before. From the conversations she'd been hearing in the booth behind her she figured the lady must be a cop... and if Hitoshi and her make this guy nervous, then something is definitely up.

She takes a sip of her coffee with one hand as she reaches below the table to grab her cane and nudge Hitoshi in the hip. When he looks her way she shifts her eyes towards the newcomer at the counter. Here goes nothing...

"Aw man, out of coffee!" she moans as she picks up the mug and gets up from their booth to take a seat two stools away at the counter. "Hey Mags, how about some of the good coffee this time? I know you've got some free trade rainforest coffee in the back and you've been holding out on me. How about being a sweetheart and finding it for me, eh? After the night I've had I need the extra boost." Come on Maggie...take the hint and make yourself scarce in case the shit hits the fan!

With one hand grasping the coffee cup she reaches into her pocket with her other and pulls out her flask. "Probably has something to do with the rum," she chuckles before smiling at the man at the counter and gesturing with the flask towards him. "Want to try a taste? It's so smooth you don't even notice you're drunk till you stand up!" Let's see if I can get a closer look at this guy and see what his deal is...

"Yeah, thanks, I'll pass," the newcomer mutters. "Not much for rum."

There's a mischievous gleam in Lya's eyes as she mimics a pouring motion once more. "Are you sure?" she says, leaning a bit closer.

The newcomer shakes his head. The phone chimes to announce an incoming message. He grabs the phone and holds it out of sight under the counter's edge. The movement is enough for Lya to catch a glimpse of a tattoo, the ragged edge of a wolf's head over scroll work and the crossed hilts of two rapiers. The kid was part of the Manada de Lobos , the Wolf Pack. Not the thugs who'd tried to rape her that one night, but with an equally unpleasant reputation.

Evie's ears perk at this turn of events from the singer. Her eyes lift from her phone and she watches quietly. In all honesty, she is all for giving people the benefit of the doubt. She's met burly, hairy bikers who were nothing more than giant kitties on the inside, and sleek, handsome GQ types who would just as soon stab you as speak to you. But...she had to admit that there was something about the man...something she couldn't put her finger on...

It was the reason, despite her telling the chief that she was leaving, that her butt was still firmly planted in the booth. And, it was going to stay that way until things shook out here.

Hitoshi glances out of the corner of his eye at the man and mentally sizes him up. "Hmm, he might be trouble." He thinks to himself. Quietly he sips his tea, but now is on alert. While Lya was one to be loud, Hitoshi always grew quiet during situations like this. Slowly he shifts position in the booth so he's closer to the edge of the end, all the while continuing to drink his tea as if nothing is wrong. His free hand rests nonchalantly on the hilt of his sword, the familiar feel of the wooden walking stick sword as much of a comfort as the tea he was drinking.

The newcomer fumbles with a smartphone, one in the bright fruity colors of a WalMart discount item. He texts someone, then lays the phone on the counter. Another edgewise glance at Hitoshi.

"The good stuff, eh?" Maggie repeats cheerfully. "I put on a pot when you and Hitoshi walked in, should be ready by now. Let me go check." She disappears into the back.

Evie keyed in the search terms, got newspaper articles that told the same story the Chief had given her. Cardinelli was a patrol officer with a solid reputation. He was from a law enforcement family, parents deceased, a brother and sister still in Vegas. There had been nothing suspicious about Cardinelli's disappearance at the time, but having his bones turn up under the foundation of a building made it murder.

Her search is disturbed by the roar of a custom-tuned engine. More than one. A half-dozen young men swagger into the diner. Two head to one side, down towards where Alex North is sitting. The others saunter past the other couple and mill about a corner booth. One of them stops by the nervous-looking newcomer, who suddenly looks more confident. Strength in numbers, no doubt.

"Hey, hermano pequeno ," he says, gesturing for the newcomer to join the larger group. They head towards the others in back. A nod in the direction of the Japanese man, and a smirk. A dare, then.

That-a-girl Maggie... "Hey your loss, muchacho," Lya replies with a forced grin as the rest of his gang saunters through the door. She spins in her stool and hops off, exchanging her coffee cup for her cane as she walks by Hitoshi with a grim glance before swaying towards the cops table and forcing another smile. "How about you lady? It goes great with coffee!" She bends over her coffee cup and pours a little rum into her cup as she whispers the name of the gang to her.

Hitoshi watches the rest of the gang walk in and sighs to himself. He's not sure which gang it is, but to him they are all the same, nothing but trouble. Which is what looked like was about to happen.

As soon as the rest of the gang show up, Evie goes on high alert. Inwardly, she sighs at the young man's choice. Had he simply sat there, had a piece of pie and done nothing, everyone would've gone about their day without giving him so much as a second thought. Now, though? Yeah. There's no way that she's leaving the restaurant until these jokers clear out. She may not know exactly which gang she is looking at, but she can tell trouble when she sees it.

At this point, Lya wanders over and tips her flask over Evie's cup. The detective gives a small gasp of surprise and moves her hand over her cup to try and protect if from the alcohol which she assumes Lya wasn't lying about, sending a few drops of golden of rum streaming across the back of her hand.

Evie starts to give Lya a polite refusal, "I'm sorry, ma'am but, I really shouldn't have anything like that..."

Lya whispers the gang's name.

"...I'm still on duty," she finishes softly as she looks up at the singer, meets her eyes, and gives a small, almost imperceptible nod of thanks.

Manada de Lobos. She knows them. Granted, she's not as familiar as the beat cops since she spends most of her time chasing cold cases but you'd have to be deaf and blind to not know about them and still work in law enforcement. Once again, Evie pulls turns her attention to her phone. Not wishing to draw too much attention to herself, she keeps it low to the table as she pulls up her texts. She finds Saul's number and quickly types:

Group of Manada de Lobos at Soul Food. No trouble yet, but would like backup nearby. Do not enter. Do not wish to incite. All calm so far.

She sets the phone down as she smiles and says, "I know you. My little brother is fond of your band. You're part of The Furies, aren't you?"

"In the flesh," Lya replies as she spins around, swirling out her coat and finishing with a cross-legged bow with flask and cane raised. She takes a swig from her flask before putting it in an inside pocket and pulling out a Sharpie with a grin. "How about an autograph for your brother?" she asks as she grabs a napkin and writes "We've got your back, xxoo Lya Bach." She pushes it over to the cop with a wink.

"The rest of the band went to a CD party, but we got caught in the rain and decided to have our own party instead. I think it needs some music, though... don't you?" She saunters over to the jukebox and grabs some quarters out of her pocket. "Ahhh... perfect..."

Evie can't help but smile at the woman. Her style is so flamboyant and upbeat that it's hard not to instantly like her. She reaches out and takes the signed napkin, carefully folding it, "Thank you! Ian will be tickled. You have just officially made me 'The Cool Sister.'"

She chuckles and reaches into her pocket, this time pulling out one of those hard wallet cases. She snaps it open and gently tucks the napkin inside where it will be protected from the rain, "I'm Evie, by the way. It's nice to meet you." As Lya saunters over to the jukebox, Evie lets her eyes drift over the gang members, taking silent note of their general mood.

Alex shakes his head as the gang members roll in the door and separate, loosely covering opposite ends of the diner. There seems to be some byplay between the gang and the young couple, perhaps members of a rival gang, or perhaps someone they're trying to shake down. The message is clear enough - mind your own business. But Alex felt a familiar energy pulsing through his veins, the thrill he'd felt when he'd first laid hands upon the sword Worldbreaker , the gift from his divine father. The threads of War were here, to be woven into a greater tapestry … or not.

"Hola, Ryder-san," the group leader says, his tone anything but respectful. "Just you and the lady? Where are the rest of your bitches?"

The words ring out in the suddenly still atmosphere of the diner. And then a pounding bass line comes across the speakers, edgy and harsh …

Hitoshi drains his tea in one gulp and sets the cup back on the table. Standing he straightens his tie, picks up his Sword, and looks the ganger that had spoken right in the eye. "Leave Now" His voice echos slightly as he puts the full force of the power that flows within him behind his words.

"Leave now," Hitoshi says quietly. And yet, there's a force to the words that brooks no dissent.

The group leader swallows whatever wisecrack he'd had on deck and heads towards the door. His eyes widen slightly as he finds himself unable to stop, and he continues out into the rain.

The laughter from the rest of the gang members dies off. Two of them head out the door to check on their companion.

"Jefe?" one asks.

Their leader is shaking his head angrily, his fists clenching and unclenching.

"Son of a bitch insulted my mother," he explains. He knows that isn't true, but he can't explain why he had to follow Ryder's instructions. Or why he feels oddly reluctant to re-enter the diner.

"Make him pay for it, Jefe," says one. "Maybe we pay one of his girlfriends a visit later, eh?"

Their leader nods, anger bolstering his will. "Okay, okay. I came out to get something from the car. Let him think he won."

His cruiser parked at the corner on the opposite side of the street, Saul watches the trio fetch something from their heavily-modded truck. A weapon, perhaps? That'd be a rookie mistake that could get the lot of them tossed in the joint. He texts Evie a heads-up.

The trio re-enters the diner, ignoring Hitoshi except for the very blatant act of mimicking a gun with thumb and forefinger. The three laugh as they join their friends. One of them pumps some quarters into the jukebox, picking several old Santana tunes …

Lya drops her head and does her best to hide a grimace as she witnesses the exchange from her spot leaning against the wall by the jukebox. Humiliation just makes them angry...gangs like this only respect a force stronger than themselves. She grasps her cane tight and runs her thumb over the words hidden in the vine work carvings as she mutters under her breath "Theo̱ró̱ po̱s i̱ dýnamí̱ mou gia na mou." (I summon my strength to me)

"Ah Santana... that's some great dance music, you know," Lya says with a grin as one of the gang looks up with a sneer from the jukebox. She feigns looking around the diner and pouts, "But there aren't enough dance partners, are there? Lets see if I can fix that..." She grins slyly as she raps her cane against the door of the women's restroom.

"Where my bitches at?" Lya's words ring out across the room.

"Say my name, say my name!" Klepto laughs as she comes out of the swinging doors to the kitchen.

Phoebe and Orithia emerge from the ladies' room, sharing a conspiratorial smile. Toxic is last to enter, coming in from outside. "Finding a parking space is a bitch. I'm just … Toxic."

And while all of the Furies could be said to be dressed to kill, there was a certain practicality to their wardrobe. Heeled boots, but not vanity spikes. Tight leather jackets, pants, and bustiers or artistically-torn t-shirts that didn't seem to bind or constrict.

There's a clear shift in mood as the numbers balance out. The Furies aren't clustered, but form a loose gauntlet about Lya and Hitoshi. The Wolf Pack has the choice of cowering in the corner or walking past Lya and the Furies to reach the door.

Lya smiled. There must be a special place in Tartarus for little boys who think they're men.

Alex hadn't taken particular notice of things until now. There was plenty of parking outside, and none of the other tables had had so much as a glass of water. And there was that a-storm-is-coming feeling in the air. The problem was that punks like the Wolf Pack never knew when to back down. And now, they were cornered. The two on his side of the diner began to saunter back towards the press.

"You boys should have a seat," Alex said. "Order something. On me."

"Mind your own business."

Alex got up from the table. "I am. I like eating here, and I'd hate to see the place busted up."

"Fuck off," says one, making to shoulder Alex aside.

"I asked nicely," Alex's hand lands on the gang member's shoulder. The gang member tries to pull away, and his eyes widen in fear as he realizes he can't.

"Your bitches, Chica?" the leader smirks. "What's that make him?"

The remark only draws an icy look from Hitoshi.

"Hmph," the leader continues. He leers at Orithia. "You want to party? We can party."

Hitoshi looks over at Lya and shakes his head. "These Aho no (Dumbasses) never learn." He turns to face the gang. "Sorry boys, I was trying to be nice and keep you guys out of trouble, but you guys just had to be stupid just to prove a point. There's a terminology i keep hearing... now what is it? Oh yea. Sucks to be you." He moves to stand in front of Lya knowing she's not much of a fighter.

"Ladies, play nice. I like this place and so does Lya and we'd like to be welcomed back." Though his attitude is serious, Hitoshi can't help but have a slight grin, and a scary gleam in his eye.

"Play nice?" scoffs Toxic. "He needs to take out the earplugs and actually listen to our music sometime."

"Oh I love parties," replies Orithia with a sweet smile at the gang member as she cracks her knuckles. "Especially the ones where I get to beat up animals and see what's inside."

"It makes him smart enough to know who he should be friends with... and who he shouldn't piss off," Lya replies to the gang leader with a grim grin. She nods to the girls in greeting. "Now do we all want to sit down and share a drink like normal people do because seriously I've got some killer rum I've been trying to share, or do we need to continue this dance outside?"

Hitoshi chuckles. "Now Toxic, you know I only listen to Country." It was a joke between him and the band. They all knew how much he hated country music. "Listen gentlemen, Lya's being extremely nice right now. She's not kidding about the just sitting down and having a drink part."

Evie hears her phone beep but, quite frankly, she's not too keen on pulling her attention from the fight that looks like may well break out. However, she flips it open, reads the text and quickly replies, "Thnx shit going down. Standoff. No weapons so far."

She pockets the phone once more and stands, adding her presence to mix. She shakes her head, sighs and adds, "Look, guys. Things are about to go all pear-shaped in a serious sort of way and, depending on what you got out of your truck earlier...that could mean hard time for you."

Her voice is soft. She never raises the volume, but there is a hard edge, a clear warning, "Had you just sat there and enjoyed a nice piece of pie, things would not be going badly. But, you made a stupid call and here we are..."

She shakes her head, "There's a cruiser just around the corner. You really want to go down this road?"

"Lemmego! I ain't done nothin!" the gang member hollers at Alex.

"Like the nice detective said: do you and your friends really want to go down this road?" Alex asked.

The gang member tries to pull away again, but the vise-like grip on his shoulder is unrelenting.

"I said let me go, puta cabron !"

"Gods, you really are that stupid," Alex mutters. He looks at the second kid, who is standing with one foot braced and his hand in his jacket pocket. "Oh, come on. In front of a police detective and with a cruiser outside?"

The gang leader holds up his hands. "Keep your damned rum. We'll have this dance some other time. Vayamos, muchachos."

The group makes their way towards the door, the two over by Alex and Evie meeting them. The leader makes a kiss-kiss gesture towards Orithia, and another slaps Toxic's ass as he passes.

"I love redheads," he leers.

"Titian, asshole. My hair is Titian," Toxic rolls her eyes.

As the gang files out, Evie breathes a sigh of relief. The last thing she had wanted was a confrontation. She didn't want Maggie or any other of the staff injured. Fortunately, the Soul Food had been fairly empty, this evening except for this group...

Evie chuckles and says quietly, "Thank god. The last thing I needed, tonight, was more paperwork..."

Her eyes then fall to The Furies and a frown creases her brow. Where had they come from? They had not been here, earlier, and did not arrive after Lya and her friend. Evie would've definitely noticed that. In fact, Lya had quite clearly said that the rest of the band was at a CD party but the two of them had gotten caught by the rain and decided to stop here...something ain't kosher, here. She looks out the window and watches as the gang pulls out and drives down the road. Once they are gone, she steps just outside of the door and waves to Saul, giving him the thumbs up. She flashes him three fingers, forming a "W," the signal between them that she owes him a beer next time they go to Worsely's bar for pool.

"Well thank the Gods that's over," Lya chuckles as she walks over to the counter and hops on a stool with a spin. "Now we can get back to what's really important..." she whips out the flask and grabs some coffee cups from behind the counter as the Furies call out in unison "Wine, Women and Song!"

"Exactly!" Lya replies as she pours a little of her rum into each cup. "Klepto, was Maggie ok when you came in through the kitchen? I'm sure she could use a drink after all of this." she looks over to the booths. "Officer Evie? Care to join us in a toast? And what about you kind sir in the sharp suit?"

Orithia sits on a stool at the counter and pouts as Toxic consoles her. "It's ok hon... we'll get you a pinata next time."

Phoebe leans against the jukebox with quarters in hand. "Enough with the never-ending guitar solos... "

Hitoshi goes to the window and watches the gangers as they leave. Frowning he walks over to Lya, snags a cup of rum and throws it back before stepping outside to light up a rare smoke. Something wasn't right, he could feel it. It was in the air, the gangers were just the start. However, it wasn't something he'd tell Lya. No need to worry her. Quickly finishing his smoke he looks up at the sky for a second before going back inside and up to the counter. "Maggie, How bout some pie all around, it's on me."

Evie politely holds the door for Hitoshi as he steps out and she steps back in, the two of them passing briefly.

She smiles and shakes her head at Lya's offer, "Thanks, but no. I really am still on duty. In fact, I was supposed to be headed to the university when the Lobos dropped in, but I felt like staying was the wiser course. Now that that's over, though..." She chuckles, "Back to work!"

"A slice of apple, then, please," Alex says. "I'll pass on the rum. Even if it would make the paperwork I still have a bit more amusing."
A brief pause. "So, who are you that gang members quail when they see you enjoying a cup of coffee and some pie?"

"We are but humble minstrels kind sir," Lya chuckled as she handed out the coffee cups to the four women who gathered around her for a toast.

"And we're very protective of our Lya," says Toxic as she gently hip checks her with a laugh and grabs a cup.

"Gods knows she needs it," adds Klepto as she takes hers.

"Oh you bitches you love it," Lya laughs. "Hitoshi is the one who is going to have a heart attack one of these days, since he's been looking out for me since we were kids. I've already driven him to drink before us!"

"Live life to the last drop!" They all call out before downing their drinks and setting them on the counter.

Alex recalled the last time he'd seen a woman of this caliber, and it had been the valkyrie who came to claim the crew of the downed helicopter. Lya and her friends had the same direct, brook-no-nonsense manner, veiled under the glamorous mien. He wondered if the Manada de Lobos even had an inkling of the kind of trouble they'd nearly bought into. Or were still planning to, if the leader's parting words about having this 'dance' at another time.

"Alex North. I have a private practice ... law. Usually defending the guy who can't swing fancy lawyers in suits."

Hitoshi frowns. Maggie hadn't come out of the kitchen. "umm yea, what Lya said. They are the minstrels, I'm just the chaperon." He looks through the serving window trying to see Maggie. "Hey Lya, somethings up. I'm gonna go check on Maggie." With that said he moves around the counter. "Hey mags, you need a hand or two back here?"

Hitoshi knew Rick the owner well enough because he was the brother of Mike who owned the Auto shop Hitoshi worked at from time to time. In fact, it was Rick who gave Hitoshi his old Honda motorcycle. A cycle that Hitoshi still kept running to this day.

"Rick? Anyone else back here?"

"Hitoshi?" asks Rick. He has the staff - Maggie, another waitress, a second chef, and two busboys - in the back of the stockroom, out of harm's way. He's standing at the door with a baseball bat. "Do I still have a restaurant? And was that a case of oh-shit-that-Ryder-guy-is-here, or are those punks sick of eating at Mickey-D's?"

A protection racket wouldn't be entirely out of the question, although such things were now fronted by pleasant people in tailored suits. Nuisances like theManada de Lobos didn't work the collection side. They started fights, tagged your building, torched your dumpsters, that sort of thing.

Hitoshi chuckles. "Yes Rick, you still have a restaurant, and its safe to come out." He smiles and shrugs. "As for why those guys were here, I don't really know. I know they didn't seem happy to see me, and they were ready to start something. I certainly didn't recognize any of them though. Have they come in here before and tried to start trouble?" He starts picking up the kitchen that was left when Rick and the others made their dash for the back stockroom. "Lya, everyone's okay back here!" He shouts out while he works.

"I think I've seen all of them at one time or another. 'We're always open, and you're always welcome,'" Rick says, mimicking a television commercial from several years back and best forgotten. Word of mouth was the Soul Food Diner's true strength. "Admittedly, we have an eclectic customer base. Cops, musicians, Japanese businessmen, and now gang members.

"I gotta say, it scared the hell out of me when Klepto marched in through the back door," Rick shakes his head. "Thing's supposed to be locked. At least from the outside."

Hitoshi realizes Rick is assuming Klepto came in through the back door, instead of 'beaming in' as the girls usually do. He's thankful it was one of their less-showy entrances.

Lya waves goodnight to Officer Evie and smiles in relief at the good news. "One more round then for our culinary compatriots," she calls out to the back as she pours a new set of drinks.

"This might've just been an unfortunate case of the rain making strange bedfellows," she says to Alex, "but I can't help but feel there's more to it. He won't tell me," she nods towards Hitoshi in the back and continues in a conspiratorial whisper, "but I know he feels it too. It's like..."

"... a storm is coming," Alex nods. "The rain is just the beginning."

He fidgets with the ring on his left forefinger. It's a simple spiral design, made to look like a rope or cord. There's a distant look in his eyes for a moment, and wherever his mind is, it's not here in the diner.

"You know, I think I'll take you up on that rum, after all," he says.

"Yeah... thought you might," she muttered to herself as she poured another drink and passed it down the counter.

"Thank you, Lya." Alex takes the drink and raises it in salute. "Ave victores mortuis," he says quietly, then tosses the drink back.


Hitoshi steps back out front and grins. "Well it looks like everyone is okay then." Suddenly his cellphone rings. Picking it up and looking at who's calling, he groans and looks up at the ceiling. For a moment he contemplates not answering it, but after 3 more rings he answers.

"Yes mom?" ... "What? Why am I late? No Mom, you didn't tell me that you planned for us to have dinner tonight, I told you that tonight was the CD party for Lya and the band and that I was going to be there. Yes, yes I did. I even marked it on your calendar on your desk just so you'd know. Nooo, your plans do not trump mine or Lya's... No, I don't really care that you found a nice cute waitress at the Casino and invited her to dinner. No, I don't care about that either, I'll get married when I'm damn good and ready."

He looks over at Lya and rolls his eyes while mouthing "More Rum Please." Silently. He waggles the cup he grabbed before in emphasis.

"No mom, I am NOT going to give you my address. Lya and I moved out because of you being exactly like this. Both of us live on our own now, and we like it the way it is. No, I don't care that you could get me a better job, I LIKE guarding the band, and working at the auto... Yes, yes I am ungrateful, and a horrible son. No mom, you haven't been providing for me since I moved out, I tore all those checks up that arrived in the mail, the money is still in your account. What money I have, I made myself without your help... Okay mom, love you, gotta go, NOT going to listen to this anymore."

He ends the call and tosses the phone on the counter sighing as he does so. The phone starts ringing again seconds later. Angrily he turns it completely off. "Well that's going to be fifty or so messages in the next hour or so. Tell me why we didn't move away from Vegas again?"

"She just wants the best for her son," Alex smiled. "For me, it was the 'Army? You're joining the Army?' talk and a week of tears and near-hysterics. She was afraid I was going to get killed by a sniper or and IED."

He paused. "Well, a chopper I was in did get shot down, but I survived."

"It all just reminds me of why I ran away from home, honestly," Lya mutters to herself as she pours another drink and scoots in down the counter. "I don't know why you stay here, Hitoshi... but me, I stay for the excitement... and things look like they're getting a little too dull around here again for my tastes." She grabs her staff, spins around and hops off her stool with a flare of her coat as she slips her flask back into her pocket. "Whatta you say, guys?" She looks around at Hitoshi and her band mates. "If that party is any good it's got to still be going on. All else fails we might get lucky and the Lobos are even stupider than I thought."

Toxic picks up two coffee cups and clinks them together as she sings out "Lobos... come out and play-ay..."

Klepto lets out a loud laugh. "I knew we shouldn't have watched that movie."

Hitoshi can't help but laugh. "No, she's great. That was perfect. As for the party, I say lets get going, I'm up for a good time!"

"Like I said, I've got work to do. Spent the day in court, now it's time to play catch-up," Alex shrugs. "It was a good day, though. Got an innocent man acquitted."

"Well then I'd say it was a fantastic day all around," Lya grins as she reaches out to shake his hand. "Till the next time." She reaches into her coat pocket and leaves $40 on the counter. "Sorry about the crazy, Maggie!" she calls out before heading towards the door and holding it open. "Hitoshi? Ladies? Time for the ramblers to keep on rambling..."

"We're going to a par-ty! We're going to a par-ty!" The Furies sing out in unison as they strut out the door.

Continue Reading Next Chapter
Further Recommendations

mrh: This interesting take on the Harry Potter series fascinated me from line one on. I am in love with this tale and its characters and cannot wait to read the next chapter. I look forward to more soon.When can I expect the next chapter? I am so excited to read it!

Jean Tryon: As a beta, I found this story outstanding!! Plot, grammar, phraseology, etc Rachel gives us it all. She takes the story into the future from where due South ends. She is an exacting and thoughtful author.

Kayla Wentz: This book had me hooked from the beginning! I kept coming back for more. It only took me a day to read! I couldn't put it down! Absolutely A-Mazing! This book keep the story going and there's never a dull moment!

tyleroakleyfan: thank you for writing this story I loved it. it was great I enjoyed every minute of it I couldn't stop reading you did a fantastic job. Thanks for killing ron he was starting to piss me off. he was being a dick. I love that you made it a gay love story its about time someone did. love it great job.

John Reed: Seadrias masterfully captures the impressiveness and complex scope that a science fiction novel should provide while carefully crafting an entire universe that will leave a reader in awe from start to finish. The only flaw I could find is that I wish I could have read more. This book is certainly...

ernbelle: When I first started this story I was a little unsettled by all of the information that appears in the prologue, and wasn't sure if I would continue. However, I am very glad I did. The plot was very well thought out and really interesting. There were not any page breaks or markers to acknowledge ...

Nymeria: Really can't get enough of this story. It flows well, it captivates the reader from page 1, and throws you into such a well-written, well conceptualized world that you'll believe it's real. Everything in the book is meshed together really well. From character backgrounds to plot twists, you can t...

Usagi Kita: This story is emotional from beginning to end. You get to watch the characters struggle and grow, maturing in different ways so that they come to be the people they are meant to be. Inea is insanely adorable, and his antics made me laugh more than once, and Kaedon is perfect for him in so many wa...

JWalker: I loved this story from start to finish! It flows at a really nice pace and the story world feels so real. The fight sequences are a treat especially when Isanfyre is training to become a warrior. I found the names really cool and thankfully easy to pronounce. Personally I have always struggled w...

More Recommendations

Alice Liu: Whoa! I've been wondering how would the Maurauders react to Harry's life and here we go! YOU ARE THE BEST! All the characters are consistent with their personalities shown in the book! I love how you compare Lily with Molly and it's definitely true for her being a mother! I wish Peter comes have ...

FateFellShort: I have read this story and have followed the writers on tumblr from the beginning. Its a wonderful story. Beautifully written with a really nice pace, that makes it enjoyable to read more than once. For me, fairy tail has very good characters but what the writers have done is give them more depth...

Steve Lang: I thought this story was imaginative, and well thought out. I also think it was an original piece, and not a rehash of previous scifi stories I've read in the past.Thank you for the effort put into this tale, and I look forward to reading more of your work!

This story wasn't for you ?
Look at our most viral stories!
Iosaghar

FreakyPoet: "you made me laugh, made me cry, both are hard to do. I spent most of the night reading your story, captivated. This is why you get full stars from me. Thanks for the great story!"

The Cyneweard

Sara Joy Bailey: "Full of depth and life. The plot was thrilling. The author's style flows naturally and the reader can easily slip into the pages of the story. Very well done."

This story wasn't for you ?
Look at our most viral story!
Spectra

Ro-Ange Olson: "Loved it and couldn't put it down. I really hope there is a sequel. Well written and the plot really moves forward."