Chapter Fifteen: Setting Things Straight
Later that day, Natalie gently roused Ben. "You don't need to sleep all day."
Ben groaned and slowly sat up. "What time is it?"
Natalie looked over at the clock and decided to have a little fun. "Es cinco y media de la tarde."
Ben blinked. He looked at his aunt's mouth in confusion because she said, "It's 5:30 in the afternoon." However, Ben felt like he was watching a dubbed Anime because, while he heard English, his aunt's mouth didn't match up with the was something odd about this, and Ben couldn't understand it in his half-awake state.
Then, Natalie started laughing. "I'm just having some fun with the translator nanobots left in your body from the Watch."
Ben only nodded with a groan. "Let me wake up before you mess with me, Aunt Nat."
Natalie kindly nodded. "Wake Gwen please." The woman requested. "Dinner is on the table, and I laid out an extra place setting for you." The mother stopped for a moment. "Frank wants to talk to you."
Ben turned pale. They may have accepted Ben and Gwen, but that didn't mean Ben was safe from Frank's possible wrath. If anything, it only put a bullseye on Ben's back if he screwed up. With that at the forefront of Ben's mind, he headed down with Gwen to the dinner table after he woke her.
The dining table had four dishes on it besides the cutlery and plates: a bowl of rice, one of gravy, a plate with hamburger patties on it and finally a pan of biscuits. The speed looked good to Ben.
However, the hero's eyes quickly drifted to a polished six-gun at Frank's right. He felt an icy fear as he looked to the pistol but fought it back down. Why does the mere sight of the thing terrify me?!
Frank nodded in Ben's direction when he saw the boy's unconscious reaction of absolute fright at the sight of the six-shooter and looked down at the weapon while Gwen started eating, albeit nervously. Then, the father looked back up at his daughter's boyfriend. "Do you know the story of Carter Slade?"
Ben raised a brow. "Isn't he in comics as an old western Devil's Bounty Hunter?"
Frank nodded. "That's the story your grandfather told the creators of the Caretaker, yes." He sighed. "The real story is much more…" Frank patted the Colt .45 methodically to bring Ben's attention to the handgun for a moment. "…interesting. For example, his name was Tennyson not Slade. To give him the tools he needed, a prince in Hell had demons forge pistols in the Phlegethon. Carter was given these pistols because the fire in the river imbued them with the ability to rend the soul into nothingness with their bite."
Ben stared at the pistol in renewed terror for a only to be soothed by a rush of Gwen's Mana.
"Carter Tennyson is your ancestor, and his pistols have been pasted down in our family for generations. I have one and your father has the other."
Ben shivered as he read between the lines. "Yes sir."
Frank nodded. "I'm glad we can understand each other." Frank our his hands in a "power pyramid" and looked Ben in the eye as he calmly moved his plate to the side. "How do you plan on supporting Gwen and any family that comes along?"
Tread carefully, Ben. Serena advised. You may love Gwen, but you didn't raise her.
"Gwen and I are both being paid now for our police work." Ben said calmly. "It may be odd hours, but we are getting part-time pay." Anticipating his uncle's next question, Ben added: "With the stock options I've been able to invest in with Grandpa Max's guidance, that money is slowly growing as I sit on it and put a percentage of my check in the investment account every month."
Gwen nodded. "I'm doing the same with my check, Daddy." Gwen restrained a grin when she saw her Dad relax at her wording. "Ben is going to go full-time with the EDF after high school, but I'm going to at least get a masters degree in Psychology before I go full-time with him." Gwen mentally groaned as she watched her father lock up again at the mention of her as a full-time EDF operative.
When Frank showed confusion at the acronym, Ben explained. "EDF, Earth Defense Force, is the Sol System's Plumber 'precinct'." When Frank nodded, Ben continued. "There are jurisdictional protocols that say Plumbers who are not affiliated with the EDF must ask permission to operate in the Sol System to keep outside interference to a minimum."
Frank raised a brow. "You both want to be interstellar police?!"
Ben and Gwen nodded before Ben spoke seriously to the man. "I've been doing this since Gwen and I were ten." Ben shivered. "I almost lost Gwen twice." The brunette blinked away tears as the shattered look of a combat veteran looked back at Frank instead of a hormone-driven, lustful teen. "We go together."
Frank felt his heart clinch at the fear in Ben's eyes, pleading not to be denied. "You have this planned well, Benjamin…"
Ben tensed and gave a fleeting look at the revolver that still rested by his uncle's left hand. "Yes, sir…"
"…I would expect the man who pledges to care for my daughter to treat her like a queen." Frank softly smiled. "I think you are that man." The man stood and offered Ben his hand which Ben took after he schooled his emotions.
With Gwen's father content, Ben felt a mountain of fear and tension he didn't realize he held slide from his back and smiled warmly at Frank. With a slight nod shared between the men, the tension formerly in the room evaporated, and the family returned to their meal among the peaceful sounds of eating and small talk.
You did great, Ben, Serena congratulated from inside his head. I'm proud of you.
The similarities between Serena and Ben's Mom briefly once again came to the teen's mind before another thought replaced it. Why is Belecus so quiet?
I've been preoccupied with a battle in Legerdemain. Belecus' gruff voice spoke up. That is for tomorrow. Right now, you need to rest.
Ben agreed with Belecus as a yawn caught him by surprise. "Dinner was wonderful, Aunt Nat, but it's been a long day, and I need to get to bed."
Natalie and Frank half expected Gwen to object vehemently until Natalie realized Gwen could see the weariness in Ben's mystic aura better than Natalie could. If Natalie could tell Ben was tired, Gwen should be and was able to see exactly to what extent that tiredness went. However, a sickly red taint that pulsated and seemed to glow brighter as Ben's aura grew duller worried Natalie as she watched her nephew leave and go back toward his own home.
"Go rest, Ben." Gwen said after she smiled and kissed Ben lightly before he left, giving the less experienced Magus a brief boot. "You're exhausted."
Early Wednesday, the following morning, Gwen woke up coughing and hacking. It felt as if her lungs were burning like she was trying to breathe through an atmosphere of cigarette smoke. The foul smell hung in the air like a screeching vulture, impatiently signaling something ominous and deadly. However, as Gwen looked around, she saw no visible source of the irritant that painfully affected her airway. What's going on?! Gwen's mind yelled in fear and mild panic as she stumbled out of bed and ran for the front door.
Once outside, Gwen felt her breathing normalize and sighed with relief as the formerly debilitating pain left her. Gwen looked up at the stars and, after some quick math in her head, guesstimated the time to be two in the morning. With a groan of frustration at losing sleep, Gwen shook her head and went for a run in the cool of the early morning.
As she ran, Gwen's mind cleared. Neither of her parents smoked. Her Mom hated the smell, and her Dad was too health conscious to do that to himself and by extension his family. That left one very likely and disturbing explanation: Dark Magic. This however wasn't normal Dark Magic. A spell like this would require some of the victim's blood to properly bind the spell to the intended recipient and, much like the Dark Side of the Force, adversely affect the caster. That left a burning question: Who cast the spell?
Then, Gwen's mind came to a crashing halt when she felt a foreign ripple of pain. Oh, god! Ben! As that thought drove her, Gwen ran as fast as she could to Ben's house to help him with the Mana Drainage Spell she could feel echoes of in their Bond.
Ben woke up to pain so great he could barely move. Invisible weights in combination with lead flowing sluggishly through Ben rendered him motionless and unable to move. Inside his mind, Serena and Belecus tried to calm the young wizard.
Calm your mind, Benjamin, Serena offered. If your mind is in chaos, we cannot help you.
Ben's mind raced. Every time he would try to calm down, a vision of Gwen screaming as she is taken in the jaws of a Wildvine, being drained by Kevin as Ben watched, or worse would a sail his mind and send him wailing and fighting hard to overcome the weight of his own body to move and do something about the visions.
Gwen felt the scream of pain more than heard it as her own Mana twisted to a slightly less painful degree due to Ben and Gwen's state of Entanglement. Hang on Ben! The redhead yelled mentally as she sent as much of her Mana as she dared to him in his compromised state. I'm coming!
Exhausted after what felt like an eternity of fighting the mind games, Ben shivered as a lone tear escaped his right eye. I'm sorry, Gwen.
Gwen forced herself to move still faster as the feeling of defeat slammed into her and almost knocked her to the ground with sobs and bitter tears. Oh, no you don't! Gwen mentally roared as Carl and Sandra, in their nightclothes after Ben's screaming woke them, met Gwen at the door and ushered the redhead to Ben's bedside.
Gwen's heart twisted in pain as she looked at him twitching weakly and softly crying as he whispered her name in a broken voice. With his face white from weakness and the low moaning of sorrow and pain, Ben looked like the classic representation of a wandering, miserable ghost. His pale skin also seemed paper thin and made his arteries and veins visible as they pulsed weakly with blood flow. His eyes, sunken into his skull, seemed to have only a faint sheen of life left in them as the once vibrant orbs of green now looked almost black with the dark shade they now held.
"I'm here, Ben." Gwen said as tears fell on her boyfriend's body. Gwen growled, gripped his hand, and focused on expelling the corrupted Mana. Gwen vaguely registered sounds behind her as a drawer slid open and something metallic slid across the bottom of the drawer before Gwen heard the tale-tale cla-click! as someone pulled the hammer back on a revolver. Gwen didn't bother to look away from Ben and sent wave after wave of her own Mana crashing into the foul corruption, forcing it into retreat.
With a gasp, the corruption left Ben.
Then, it formed into a large insectoid beast as the "flames" of corrupt Mana licked along the creature's semisolid form. It screeched in rage and lunged toward Gwen as its wings beat the air quickly in an angry fashion only to explode in a brief but intense blast of heat a split second later.
Gwen wondered briefly what just happened until her mind registered the report of a gunshot as it echoed through the house and gradually died. Ben and Gwen looked at the space where the creature had stood a moment before and backtracked it to a smoking barrel of a revolver in Carl's hand.
"Kids," he chided sternly at their gobsmacked expressions. "THAT was a Lucubra, a servant of Dagon."
Ben looked at his father. The young man wanted to say he knew that because of the way the thing tortured him but decided to ask a question that was less confrontational. "Where'd you get the gun?"
Carl smiled wickedly. "You didn't think Frank was joking about the .45 he had while he talked with you about Gwen." The father raised an eyebrow. "Did you?"
Ben decided not to question how his Dad knew about the talk he had over dinner with Uncle Frank.
It's a Daddy-daughter thing. Serena answered. If the Dad can scare off a boyfriend, he's no good for her.
"I sorta did." Ben confirmed with a nod. "You mean it can…"
Carl nodded to his son and answered, "They both can."
Ben suddenly felt a wave of unease roll over him at the thought. No pressure…
Gwen only sighed. "Stop it, Uncle Carl!"
The man chuckled before he looked out the window to see the sun rising. " I can call in and say you're both too sick to go to school." Carl sighed. "Frank would likely agree. I'm sure you need to sleep." He looked wearily at his niece and son. "You've both had a rough night."
Ben shivered at the thought of sleep while Gwen shook her head. After the night they had, they might as well have been tormented by Freddy Kruger from A Nightmare on Elm Street. Sleep was the furthest thing from their minds. Gwen said as much and raced to the bathroom to shower and get dressed.
As the shower ran upstairs, Carl raised a brow at his son. "I didn't see her bring a change of clothes earlier."
Without really thinking, Ben shrugged. "She has spare clothes in my room just as I do in hers." Ben looked up as the shower stopped a few moments later. "We've had that arranged for years in case of emergency."
Carl looked at his son with a moment of disbelief and slight anger before it quickly faded away when he realized Ben talked of work-related emergencies. "That's understandable."
Ben noticed this but didn't comment on it. The hero may be a teenager, but one didn't go toe to toe with the manipulative tactics his rogues gallery regularly used without learning methods of self-control and restraint. "I know what I'm doing, Dad. I promise."
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