Here’s Toga Chapter One to give you a taste. Zita gets to visit the Old World, and it’s far stranger and more historically inaccurate than she expected.
Anyway, enjoy! This is from the edited but not proofread copy.
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Toga Chapter One
She had no idea what she was doing wrong, but making the mistake was awesome.
Snow flew beneath shapeshifter Zita Garcia’s snowboard as she sped down the gentle mountain slope, leaning eagerly into the chill wind. She focused, letting her body find its balance naturally, despite the delightful speed and unfamiliar sensation of having both feet bound to the board. This was worth the money for the second-hand gear. I needed to get out of my home gym and away from my weight set.
Fiercely, she shoved aside the memories of the endless search of the mudslide for the missing, especially the last few days where she found only the dead. She fixed her gaze on a small snowbank between two trees. Her mood lightened as she contemplated it. That could work as a tiny ramp. I’m certain I’ve got going straight correct; it’s turning that I have to master. Since my Arca form’s identical to my natural body, other than the hair, face, pointy ears, and fingerprints, it should be a fair test whether I’ve got it without being too risky. Unless the long hair throws me off. Por supuesto, if I could figure out how to use that like a rudder or a cheetah’s tail to turn, I’d be ahead of the game.
Zita shook her head to make the long black braid down her back settle into a more comfortable position. She chuckled at her own silliness. The noise temporarily silenced the jeering birds, which had been the only sound on the isolated mountain other than erratic wind gusts shaking the trees and the crisp slide of snow under the snowboard.
Her sole companion didn’t speak. He rarely did.
She craned her neck to see where the taciturn mercenary was and glimpsed him weaving in and out of the trees on a course paralleling her own. Although his speed matched hers, his movements still held an economical strength and control she envied. He gets the fun run while I’m on the baby course? He might be the teacher, but I’ll catch up. Of course, if I fall behind a little, he does provide eye candy. I bet you could bounce quarters off… I need to focus on what I’m doing and stop ogling the poor man.
Warmth spread through her as the familiar presences of her two best friends filled her mind.
Trying to keep irritation from her mental voice—they might need her for something important—Zita sent, Hey guys! What’s up? I’m in the middle of something.
Can you come to the air park right now? Wyn sent.
Zita glanced at Freelance. By the additional tension in his stance and the way his head had lifted, he knew she was up to something. She forced herself to move her lips as if whispering, since she’d told him that her friends communicated with her using a magic subaural device previously. In truth, Wyn’s telepathy tied the three of them together in a link they called “party line,” but she wouldn’t be the one to give away her friend’s secret ability. She tapped her ear at him and made the phone signal.
That done, she answered Wyn’s question. I’m in Colorado, snowboarding with a buddy. I can be there after I get rid of him and get far enough away that he won’t catch me teleporting, but it’ll take a few minutes. ¿Qué onda? You guys okay?
A wave of curiosity came from Wyn. I thought we agreed we’d all take more time for resting after the mudslide rescue we did in March. You worked yourself into exhaustion, emotionally and physically, and haven’t said a peep to anyone about it since then. You know I’m here if you want to talk about it, right?
Learning a new sport is relaxing, and thanks, but I don’t need to talk. As her mind filled in the acrid reek of the mud and buried… things… that she’d been trying to forget, Zita suppressed the memories before they could leak to her friends. She didn’t bother to mention the extra working out she’d been doing since then either.
We’ll come to you. It’s bad, Andy sent.
What’s going on? Is it Dragon? She prayed it wasn’t. When Dragon was angry, the death toll was always ugly. Not only had Zita had more than enough of corpses, but she also couldn’t do much directly to stop the colossal shapeshifter.
Wyn responded immediately. No, she’s still keeping a low profile somewhere in Egypt or Libya. The African metahuman team is monitoring her. We’re almost to Colorado. Can I use my tracker spell to pinpoint your location? Are you there as Arca or Zita?
Thank you for asking first. Go ahead, and I’m here as Arca, mask, costume and all under my coat. Zita glanced back at her path and noted she was closing on the snow bank and a stubby tree that had been hidden behind it. She tried to bleed off speed and turn, remembering too late to align her leading shoulder. Carajo, I’m too close.
The edge of her board caught.
Zita catapulted forward. A lifetime of martial arts and gymnastics had her instinctively rolling and twisting to avoid the tree, even with the cumbersome attachment to her crimson boots. She stopped at the very base, the bottom of her board thudding into it.
The branches above dumped snow on her. Icy crystals cascaded over her head and slid down the back of the too-large thrift shop coat she wore.
Too close to what? Are you okay? Wyn sent.
Coughing and sputtering, Zita yanked her orange goggles off and threw them aside. She wiped the snow out of her face, half-snickering at herself. After lifting her feet in the air, she jiggled her feet until the vibrant colors on the board shone through. That done, she stood. Fine, just… fine.
Her friend’s mental reply was brief. Good. We’re in the air.
After pulling her jacket away from her back, Zita wiggled her shoulders and hips, trying to dislodge the tree’s frigid gift. “¡Frío! ¡Frío! ¡Frío!”
A stolid black snowboard came to a halt beside her. Freelance stared at her, his head angled to the side. Despite the dark layers of clothing he wore, the fabric couldn’t hide the outline of a taut, strong form. A grappling hook gun hung on one side of his lean hips, a handgun on the other, with a row of little pouches sandwiched between them. A balaclava hid his face as usual, and his goggles whirred as he considered her.
“I’m good,” she said, licking her chapped lips and tamping down the hormones that roared at his proximity. By habit, she slipped into a fake Mexican accent, a comfort and camouflage she always used speaking aloud in her Arca form, even among friends. The tips of her ears burned. She didn’t mind failing, even in front of the seemingly always-efficient man, but she preferred not to seem an idiot doing so. To help herself focus, she brushed snow off the purple coat she’d livened up with random splashes of glittery gold paint.
“Distracted before call. Too late to commit. Control speed, flat and straight one second, then turn. Shoulder alignment.” he said, the mechanical rasp of his voice changer having grown familiar. He picked up her goggles and tapped them against his hip to dust them off, offering them back to her.
“Thanks. That must be it. I’ll get it next time.” Zita flashed him a smile and hung her goggles on one wrist, relieved she wouldn’t have to struggle anymore to get them to stay over the mask hiding the upper half of her face.
Freelance returned a brusque nod.
At least he doesn’t want me to go back to stationary practice on turns, she consoled herself. She shrugged at him and removed a large, folded plastic bag from her pockets. After stripping off her gloves, she unzipped her coat. “Trouble. My friends and I need to handle something, so I guess the lesson’s over. Thanks for texting me to join, and I’ll hit you back when I have something fun in mind. I owe you some tightrope lessons, too.”
Guessing at his question, Zita shrugged. “They didn’t say. I’m certain they’ll fill me in when they get here, any minute now.”
Freelance nodded. As he tilted his head skyward, his goggles focused on something with a soft whir. He took a few steps back so he stood in the shadows of a tree, almost invisible despite his dark clothing in the bright landscape.
She followed the direction of his gaze, absently stuffing her coat, gloves, and goggles in the bag. Hopefully, the mercenary wouldn’t notice that she’d left the top button of her neon orange snow pants undone. I was lucky to find winter gear in May at all, let alone in cool neon colors. It’d be nice if the pants were one size larger, though. Ah well. I better get it all off since my costume is the only clothing that’ll let me shift wearing it.
With Wyn in his arms, Andy descended from the clouds until he hovered a foot or two above the snow. He wore the male version of the costume beneath Zita’s winter clothes: a deep purple sleeveless tank top instead of a sports bra, matching bicycle shorts, and a mask that covered the top half of his head. His straight black hair was also bound back in a braid, but his was tidy, uniform, and missing the snow that no doubt decorated hers. Unlike her, he wore a fluttery cape that matched his shirt. Andy’s eyes widened, and he gave a visible start when he caught sight of Freelance. Next time mention that he’s the buddy. He’s way too easy to miss.
“Arca. Freelance.” The second word dripped with figurative ice. Preferring magic to a mask, Wyn wore the illusion of a ghostly blond woman, one whose physical beauty Zita privately considered too sharp-edged and perfect to be real. Her deep purple eyes narrowed as she glowered at the mercenary. Golden magic twined around her slender arms, and a small, floating arrowhead pointed at Zita. After a curt gesture, the glow disappeared and the arrowhead dropped into her hand. Why is he here?
“Guys. What’s the emergency?” Zita brushed a layer of snow off her pants, trying not to shiver. We were snowboarding. He’s cool, relax.
Freelance said nothing, but his gaze was on her friends.
Andy rubbed the sides of his pants. “It was quicker to come to you than the alternative. Zeus, Jennifer Stone, and their gang have resurfaced at a new tourist site in Greece. They’ve barricaded themselves inside a cave with hostages. According to the news, none of the closer teams are available. The Africans are keeping an eye on Dragon, and the Europeans are handling a French riot in progress.”
Zita took a second to swear in four or five languages. “Right, we’ve got to go.”
Wyn eyed Freelance, her expression frosty. She shook out her long white-blond hair. “Sorry to interrupt your… date?” For some reason, she’d chosen the short, glittery club dress and high heels version of her favorite disguise, rather than the one in impractical but flattering winter gear.
With a wave, Zita hurried to correct the misconception. Let’s not give Freelance a reason to avoid joining me. It’s hard to find a good extreme sports partner, especially one who doesn’t ask questions that require me to lie much. She buried the thought that attractive, relaxing ones were even harder for a woman in a mask to find. “Oh, it’s not a date. We’re just hanging out, practicing sweet moves.”
Her expression screaming doubt, Wyn shrugged. “My mistake. We need to leave now though. Who knows how many they killed before the kid posted the videos on the Internet and they went viral? Jennifer Stone seemed quite unwell.”
Sympathy welled in Zita at the memory of the schizophrenic metahuman, whose introduction to her powers had been triggered by a villain’s torture. She turned to Freelance. “Did you want to come with? You’ve been after Jen for a while, and she could be with them.” Zeus threw away a small army in Brazil, but we don’t know how many they started with. If he brought a lot of guys with him, Freelance could really help us.
Her posture stiffening, Wyn shot her an accusing glare. We don’t need his aid unless you want people to die.
Depending on how big of a force we’re facing and what the local authorities have managed, we might need him. He’s effective, and the last time he helped, he didn’t kill anyone. Seriously, you shouldn’t let the man spook you just because you can’t read his mind. Move your lips if you’re going to talk like this. He thinks we have magic subaural transmitters. Zita rolled her eyes.
His mental voice apologetic, Andy sent, In all fairness, he has a tendency to sneak up on people. He did make the effort to move his lips.
And shoot them. Not knowing when he’s there or his intentions would be considerably less discomforting if one could be certain he was not about to murder one, Wyn added.
The mercenary broke his stillness with a small shoulder twitch. “No. Jennifer Stone requires medical expertise and medication to ensure a safe extraction. No time.”
Wyn relaxed. Praise the Goddess!
I didn’t know he could use full sentences, but maybe the extra words fell out after being exposed to the fluorescent overdose of Zita’s outfit. We have to save those people. Andy straightened, and after another glance at them, he jerked his chin at the clear slopes above. “The mountain has a big open area up higher. We’ll go there, and I’ll shift to Wingspan so we can go straight to Greece from here. Muse, will you get the GPS out?”
“Right, we don’t have the time then. I’ll be right there, guys, once I get enough stuff off.” Zita worked to free the bindings on her feet, some part of her mind calculating if it would be faster to run through the snow to Wingspan or to remove her remaining gear to fly. Flying would work best given the board. Once I unfasten it, I can shift to a cat to get out of my snow pants, and then carry it all as a large bird to my friends.
With one last cryptic look at Zita, Wyn let herself be led away.
She glanced up and smiled at Freelance, her hands busy. “I’ll text when we’re done and let you know if Jen ends up in jail so you can work with whoever it is. Hasta.” Zita collected her snowboard and planted her feet, preparing to shift.
He called her name. Her vigilante name, anyway. “Arca.”
Surprise and curiosity stopped her. Usually he disappears without a goodbye or waiting for me to finish a sentence. One hand automatically sought the pocket she kept snacks in, but then she remembered she’d already eaten them all. She checked her other pocket. The backup food was gone too, and her water was mostly empty. “Did I forget something?”
Freelance closed the distance between them. His goggles hummed as they focused on her, and he held his body in a strange, tense position she could not identify. “We’re not dating? I thought… My apologies.”
Her mouth fell open, and she dropped her snowboard. “Wait, what?” she said, blinking. “You—why?”
“Why else spend so much time together with obvious mutual interest?” His head tilted.
“Because we both enjoy awesomely fun things, and we’re using secret identities so we can’t include friends and family?” Zita frowned. “Wait, obvious? I was obvious? I was trying so hard to be all respectful and subtle. Caramba.”
Whether it was tactfulness or his customary reticence, he did not reply.
Her jumbled thoughts caught up to the rest of his question. “Momentito, you thought you were obvious? In a full-face mask and body armor? You never made a move or said anything. I mean, you don’t usually say much, but you never said… I don’t even know if you’re single. Did you enjoy all the climbing and other sports or were you just humoring me?” She frowned.
One of his shoulders twitched. “I am. I did. My apologies. Cordial still?”
Words poured out before she could think about them, perhaps because of all the other thoughts jostling each other. “Órale, I’m not opposed, just surprised. If you’re—we’re—interested, maybe we could see where it could go?”
The mechanical sound of his voice held no clues to his emotions. “You’re a hero. I’m a mercenary. Reputation protects you; dating might damage.”
She nodded absently and picked up her board again. With a frown, she traced the edge, flicking off snow. “True.”
A chorus of male voices sent a single word in unison, letting her know that Andy already wore his Wingspan shape, a jet-sized golden eagle, without needing to check. Ready.
For once, Wyn’s tone was harsh. Are you coming? Those people need our help.
Usually I’m the impatient one. I’m coming. I need to finish something first. Zita tilted her head. “Just a few seconds more,” she said, speaking aloud in her distraction.
“You must go.”
“Sí, I do, but—” Zita turned back and saw he was gone. “Wait, are we dating or did we break up or what?” Swearing, she ran toward where her friends waited.
Are we there yet?” Zita peered over the edge of Andy’s enormous wing, eying the area below.
The vivid cobalts and emeralds of the ocean stopped abruptly at sharp, sheer cliffs of khaki rock and olive grasses on an arthritic finger of land gnarled with rolling mountains. Tiny clusters of ruins and rugged villages, isolated from each other, were either joined by a single narrow, winding road or not at all. Terraces, both natural and not, drew jagged horizontal lines on the stone like giant claw marks. As if to underscore the isolation and austerity of the area, the few beaches bristled with rock instead of smooth sand. Even the brilliant swirls of colorful blooming wildflowers in the mellow afternoon sun could not soften the hard edges of the land.
Zita made a mental note to check out the rock climbing in the area later. Her stomach growled, and she appended visiting a local eatery as well.
Still wearing her Muse disguise, Wyn made no attempt to get up from where she rested in the center of Andy’s back, studying a map on her tablet. “If it looks like a remote Greek peninsula with an ancient lighthouse at the very tip, yes. The cave is on the coast, directly west of a set of ruins and set into steep hillside. It’s only accessible by foot or small off-road vehicles and was discovered following a large earthquake several years ago. Up until then, the major attractions were a demolished church, the lighthouse, and a different, flooded cave. The Goddess only knows how the boy got enough of an Internet connection to upload the video, but perhaps the recent increase in tourism explains that.”
Despite the weariness that was just making itself known now that she wasn’t focused on snowboarding, Zita jiggled her leg restlessly. Cramming my usual chores into a few hours to go snowboarding with Freelance might not have been the best idea, especially since we agreed to meet at dawn. It did stop that annoying meta who was nagging me in my dreams, though. Again. No time to dwell on her or her warnings about crossing lines and lizards. Wyn healed my bruises, and my gear will be safe in her purse, so I should focus on the problem at hand. “I don’t see none of that, but I’m guessing the gunfire and flames might be a clue to our destination.”
Wyn sighed. “So much for hoping the local authorities have it all contained by the time we arrive. Did you wish to review the video again?” Without waiting for an answer, she raised her hand and used an illusion to display the scenes from the shaky video again.
A woman and a child exclaimed as boulders thrust out of the ground. Other voices in the background were an unintelligible, nervous murmur of sound. Three large men in bulletproof vests steered a barefoot, brown-haired woman, whose gaze was distant and cloudy, in a wide circle around the cave. A vest hung open and unfastened on the woman’s tall frame. Huge rocks speared up from the ground to either side of the small group, as if called to mark her path.
Of the four, Zita could identify only one. Jen Stone, and definitely still off the medication.
The view changed to show a group of men, armed with a variety of assault rifles, advancing on the camera’s position.
“Run, boys!” the woman’s voice commanded, and the mutters changed to panting and screams. The camera jostled and bounced wildly, finally coming to a standstill in the grass. The long, uncut strands blocked sight of anything more than changing shadows, but the microphone picked up a small zapping sound, followed by a man’s cruel laugh and a cold command in English.
“I’ve got this one. You get the tourists. Kill the locals.”
Through the grass, Jen stared at something near the camera, her gaze clouded, and lifted her hand. “Children aren’t dangerous. Leave the little one alone.”
A kid’s voice whispered in English and the view shuddered, settling on a view of rock, “They’ve got my mom and big brother. Help us! Send, send, send.”
Someone off-camera wailed, a young, high-pitched sound of anger or fear, and then the images disappeared.
Zita licked her lips, hoping the kid or kids in question still lived as she peered below. To aid in picking out details, she did a partial shift to a harpy eagle. Feathers whispered instead of hair when she turned her head, but her vision sharpened as she’d hoped.
The already mountainous area had been transformed into the kind of ground she would’ve expected to see in one of the Andy’s beloved video games. A narrow path wound between natural terraces with one ridge showing signs of significant modification. Forbidding spires of stone thrust out of the ground, filling the gaps between walls she guessed were natural and ones that had the bare look of newly unearthed rock. Separate from all the others, one spike impaled an off-road motorcycle with an official-seeming symbol on the side. Fire bloomed from the remains of other multiple off-road motorbikes and the nose of a boat stuck out of the water by some huge rocks. A few limp forms lay unmoving here and there.
Hidden behind the barrier spikes blocking off the warped terrace, a deep crevasse split the ground in a gap wide enough to swallow even a large vehicle. Past that, several small, rocky enclosures squatted with the long, deadly noses of guns pointed out from all but one of them. A burning rope dangled above an eerie cave mouth, where the entry had been closed with stone bars.
Zita frowned. The Grecian police or military… or both… had set up a wide perimeter around the rock. Armored vehicles blocked off the narrow two-lane road that seemed to be the only access to the general area from the closest town. Several boats floated offshore, two with guns large enough to see from a distance. With one exception, they stayed just barely within what she guessed was eyesight of the shore. Clusters of men, most in uniform but a few with the practical, worn clothing of locals, hid in a ragged semi-circle around the cave, under terraces and behind rocks. In the air, multiple sets of spindly metal machines flew.
“Something’s not quite right,” she murmured. “Neither side is making any sense. Most must be sitting inside, because I don’t see Zeus or any of his cronies, just a bunch of thugs with guns. If they’re in the cave, why aren’t they using it as cover?”
Wyn lifted her head from her tablet, sighed as she tucked it away, and got to her feet. She drifted over just enough to peek below. “That is odd. The cave is renowned because deadly gases make exploration impossible without special breathing apparatus, so I can’t imagine why Zeus would herd his people inside. He seemed far too narcissistic to kill himself the last few times we’ve heard from him.”
With a nod, Zita pointed at the clusters of military people. “Verdad. Plus, the Greek authority-types are here, but they’re not doing anything. Why do they have their men positioned so Zeus’ men have one—no, three—escape paths, if you count a possible sea route? Why haven’t they closed the circle? Why are the boats all so far off? They have enough men and firepower to shoot the guys outside the cave to pieces, assuming Zeus’ men aren’t all bulletproof. Why has the military deployed drones over the sea? In case they have attack tuna or something?”
Craning her neck, Wyn tried to peer more closely and then backpedaled rapidly to where she’d been. She assumed a cross-legged, seated position and held out her hands. “I’m going to see what I can discover. Don’t leave before I can tell you the results.”
Zita nodded. “Por supuesto, I’ll wait unless someone is in immediate risk of death.”
“That’s the best I can expect, I suppose.” Party line cut off as Wyn’s face took on a distant expression.
Movement by a spike drew Zita’s attention, and she focused on it, grateful for raptor vision. When she resolved what she was seeing, she could not refrain from wincing and swearing. That poor kid! Did Jen think she was doing him a favor?
Wyn was too engrossed in whatever she was doing with her telepathy, but Wingspan shrieked and flapped his wings, sending thunder booming.
By the time party line returned and Wyn finally spoke again, a few minutes later, Zita was pacing in a tight, impatient circle as she ran through possible rescue plans.
Wyn spoke aloud; they knew from experience that Andy could hear anything said on his back. “It’s all any of the Greek commanders are thinking about, so I found the problem. Someone’s commandeered the drones and computers in the area and is blocking voice communication. They’ve also intercepted text commands and inserted false information, so that can’t be trusted. Additionally, they’re under surveillance from their own hijacked equipment. The teams on the ground were attempting to coordinate using hand signals, but the couple tries they made to move ended with Zeus’ men concentrating fire…”
Zita winced. “They’re pinned with no way to request backup.”
Wyn nodded. “They believe the drones are broadcasting their moves, but no one is willing to destroy the expensive equipment without a high-ranking officer’s permission.”
“Which they can’t get because comms are down,” Zita said.
“Correct. Utilizing their own computerized systems against them, the hacker has already run one boat aground. The hacker has partial control of another ship, the one separate from the others. Navy reinforcements are remaining outside what they believe to be the radius of the hacker’s reach.”
After considering the boats, Zita nodded. “No drones close to the boundary either, so they’re probably right. That’ll help. In case you missed it while you were rummaging through brains, one of the rock spikes is hollow and has a kid stuck inside. If anyone tries to ram it, they’ll kill him, so he’s got to be top priority. The top half of the spike is missing so we can see his face and his hands—I think he’s trying to get out, but he lacks the upper body strength. I don’t see anyone else in any of the others, but we’ll need to tread with care.”
Only one child is trapped above ground. All other hostages are below ground, Wingspan added in one of his rare comments while in bird form. His voice echoed like that of multiple men speaking in unison, and anger vibrated through the statement.
Knowing Andy’s bird form had a homing instinct for people in trouble, Zita nodded, even though logically she knew he couldn’t see her. “Thanks, that makes things easier. How’s this for a plan? Mano, drop off Wyn either by the ruins or behind that outcropping near where the river joins the sea. Then, you get the kid out of the rock and drop him off with her. If he’s stuck in the rock or something, you’re strong enough to bring the whole chingado thing with us so he can be extracted later. Once he’s safe, you can draw fire from Zeus’ guys so the official Greek types can get into better positions. I’ll see if I can find the hacker and shut down his controls. If I can do that, the military can use all their nifty toys again. Wyn, can you help me find him quicker by scanning the area and narrowing down where the hacker’s at? Once you’ve got the boy, keep him safe and see if you can put any of Zeus’ thugs to sleep.”
Wyn frowned, chewing her lower lip, then nodded. “I’ll see what I can do. Set me down in the ruins above the cave. The Greeks had a team that attempted to come in from above, and they’ve got serious injuries that need treating as well. Between the walls and the team up there, I should be safe enough, and I can see better from there.” She sighed and wrapped her arms around herself.
Zita padded over and patted her friend’s arm. “Look on the bright side,” she tried, “we’ve got an advantage because Zeus’ thugs have a major weakness.”
“Freelance was with me, so they didn’t hire him or his team to fight us. So, even if the numbers seem overwhelming, bad leadership is likely to sink them. Jen is too sick to be coherent for long, Pretorius is in some Brazilian jail, and Zeus is obsessed with being on camera. Tiffany and Garm might be a threat since they’re not brainless, but they’re all wrapped up in being dramatically evil, which handicaps them.” Zita ticked off names on her fingers as she spoke, concluding with a smile.
Her friend’s eyes narrowed as her attention moved to Zita. “We’ll need to revisit the Freelance thing later.”
“Oye, got to go find me a computer geek. Where am I checking at?” Smile gone, Zita leapt from Andy’s wing and shifted to a golden eagle.
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