Denouement 6 – Signa Inferre (Heretical Edge)

Previous Chapter

Tsseewww! Tsssseeeww! Tsseeeeewww!

One after another, light green lasers filled the air, each shot blasting a hole into the dirt as the automated defense drone dove toward its target, a large grizzly bear currently ripping apart one of the Crossroads’ prison’s turrets that it had ripped out of the ground. 

The bear, Twister, pivoted around toward the incoming shots with a roar that seemed to shake the ground she was standing on. An instant before the next round of lasers would have struck her, the bear form vanished. In its place hovered a small hummingbird, just as four simultaneous shots sailed past her… striking another figure entirely, a girl who had been crouched behind Twister’s bear form, just waiting. 

“Thanks!” Bobbi Camren, clad in the blue-white, glass-like body armor created by her power, grinned as the energy from the drone’s shots coursed through her. It manifested in the form of brightly flickering lightning-like electricity dancing through her armor. 

The drone adjusted instantly. A small compartment slid open in its front, and a rocket shot forth with a sharp whistle on its way toward the pair. In the next second, the rocket would explode in a ball of fire and force powerful enough to destroy everything in a thirty foot radius around them. 

With barely a thought, Bobbi shoved all the power she had just absorbed into her speed. The world around her slowed to the point of nearly standing still. The rocket inched its way through the air, flames dancing behind it even as a second rocket very slowly began to emerge from the drone, a follow-up shot just to be sure of its kills, aimed in the direction they would likely flee. 

Bobbi cracked her neck, watching the rockets for a brief instant before shoving off her left foot. She sprinted that way, feet tearing up the ground, leaving little smoldering imprints in her rush. With a raised hand, she used a bit of her power to conjure a solid-energy ramp leading up along the first rocket’s path. Passing the rocket in a sprint, she grabbed the front of it on the way past. It turned, facing back the way it had come while continuing its oh-so-slow (from her current point of view) flight. 

From there, Bobbi leapt from her ramp. The second rocket had gained about a foot of distance in that brief time, and she threw herself at it. Her hands caught the side of the rocket, yanking it off course. A new thought summoned a small wall of energy in mid-air, which Bobbi kicked off of while holding onto the explosive weapon. Course adjusted, she let go and allowed herself to drop to the ground, landing in a roll. 

Her speed ended then, and the girl’s head jerked up just in time to see the first rocket slam into the drone it had emerged from. With a deafening explosion, the drone went up in flames, showering bits of metal debris all over. 

At the same time, the second rocket struck its new mark as well: another turret mounted on a nearby building that had popped out to begin shooting at the intruders. Both the drone and the turret were simultaneously destroyed by the former’s own adjusted rockets. 

In the next moment, a coil of stone and dirt erupted from the ground, wrapping around Bobbi and yanking her down. One of the loyal Crossroads Heretics came into view, his long, dark hair wet with sweat as he tightened his fist to make the rock coil in turn tighten. The rock was giving off some kind of… dust that went through Bobbi’s helmet and made her feel dizzy. It was hard to focus. “Stardrinker Heretic, huh?” The man’s voice was a mixture of harsh and genuinely curious. “Haven’t seen any of those for a long time, kid. Where’d you find yours?” 

“Mars,” came a snapped retort from about ten feet away, just before a blast of energy shot through the stone coil, blowing it apart into small chunks and freeing Bobbi. 

The Crossroads loyalist spun to the new attacker, already flinging his hand out to throw a dozen glowing energy blades that way. But Columbus, whose goggles had just blasted apart the man’s stone coil, vanished from sight. 

He reappeared on the opposite side of the man, already throwing both hands forward as he summoned a wave of incredibly powerful kinetic force to throw at him. Just before it struck him, however, the Crossroads man snapped his hand out behind his back, catching the force with a power of his own before converting the power into fire and flinging it back at Columbus. The fire took the form of a snake whose head was the size of a Volkswagen, mouth wide open as it flew at the boy. 

The fire-snake was blown apart into separate sparks and bits of flame in mid-lunge, as a new figure leapt through it. Aylen Tamaya, body covered in the armored shape of her own cyberform, Sovereign, landed in a crouch. The scattered remains of the fire snake turned white-hot before shooting back toward their progenitor. He, in turn, gave a sharp wave of his hand to summon a rush of wind to send them flying off into the distance. 

In the time that he was dealing with the flames, Aylen rose with a sharp whistle. The sound was answered by a heavy bark, as the cyberform dog called Vulcan all-but flew across the ground in a sprint to rush at her from behind. At the last instant before he would have collided with the girl (who showed no sign of moving), Vulcan leapt, his body splitting apart into two halves almost directly down the middle. As Aylen raised both arms to either side, the two halves of Vulcan latched onto her armor. The half on her left arm produced the minigun that gave Vulcan his name. Meanwhile, the half on her right arm produced a sharp, foot-and-a-half long blade. The bulk of the dog’s body had slid up into itself in both halves, leaving what amounted to a pair of shields all along each of the girl’s arms in addition to the weapons.

Columbus had already been putting his studies with Harrison Fredericks to good use. 

The minigun opened up, flooding the air with bullets as the Crossroads figure recovered from hurling the incoming flames away from him. Several shots took him in the chest, but did little more than stagger him before he brought a quick forcefield up to send further shots ricochetting uselessly away. 

Keeping his shield up with one hand under the assault of gunfire, the Heretic abruptly snapped his other hand down, turning just a bit to catch Columbus by the wrist just as the boy appeared beside him. Gripping tight enough to break the bone there, he began to jerk upward as though to hurl him out of the way. 

In the midst of that, however, Columbus’s free hand snapped up, throwing a cloud of sand into the man’s face. 

That sand promptly transformed into a certain small Asian girl who went by the name of Shiori, whose fist collided with the Heretic’s jaw with enough force to snap his head back with a sharp grunt of pain. Reflexively, he used Columbus as a flail, jerking the boy’s body at her while cursing out loud. 

Shiori, however, turned back into sand, allowing her brother’s form to pass right through her before reforming herself. Still in mid-lunge, she caught onto the Crossroads man’s shoulders, mouth opening. Just as Columbus collected himself enough to teleport away from his captor’s grip, Shiori unleashed a burst of lightning from her mouth that caught their opponent full in the face. 

It accomplished little, aside from briefly blinding the man as his head jerked back. Shiori, in turn, was hurled away from the man by a wave of force as he roared in annoyance while staggering a bit, eyes blinking rapidly. The Asian girl tumbled and fell, skidding along the ground with a yelp.

And in that moment, as the man recovered, he caught a brief glimpse of a crow flying directly into his face. In the next instant, that crow transformed back into Aylen. She had abandoned Sovereign and Vulcan, both still in the form of the armor with attached weapons, leaving both still there firing at the forcefield as a handy distraction. Now, back in her own body, Aylen brought both hands together in a hard slam that sent a deafening wave of sound centered solely on the man himself. To outside observers, there was simply a distortion in the air and a slight thud-like sound. To the Crossroads man, an earsplitting boom struck, sending him to one knee as blood poured from both ears.  

Still, the man was able to summon enough focus to draw a new rock-coil from the ground, wrapping around Aylen’s ankles before hurling her out of the way with a vicious slam into the ground that left her lying a bit dazed, as she lay in a slight crater that had been created there. Despite her prodigious protections and regeneration, she wouldn’t be getting up again for a moment or two. 

Disoriented as the man was by the loss of his hearing, he did not, however, detect the pounding footsteps coming up from behind him. Not even his assortment of danger senses helped, given it had been spending all its effort alerting him about the still-present gunfire from the Vulcan-Sovereign combination that whole time. The man’s only real warning was the way the ground shook around him, and he spun just before Twister, in rhino form (having just switched from the horse form she’d been using to gain as much speed as possible), crashed into him. The man went flying, bouncing end over end along the ground before ending in a tangled heap of limbs. He was still breathing, slowly trying to push himself up with a mixed mutter of curses and grunts. Despite everything, he was still ready to go, still oriented enough to fight, just as soon as he could get his feet back under himself.

Then Columbus was there, appearing beside the man just in time to press one of Wyatt’s knock-out and teleport rocks against the side of his neck. With a quick command word to activate it, the boy sent their opponent far away. He’d be pretty pissed off once he woke up, but that was something to worry about another day.

“Did… did we win?” Bobbi managed, pushing herself up as she finally shook off the effect of that rock coil. Nearby, Aylen was starting to do the same. 

“Win?” Twister echoed while shifting back into her own form. “Not yet, kid. Why, you’re not tired yet, are ya? Cuz we’ve got a long way to go, and Ol’ Assy’s gonna be pretty ticked off if we don’t hold up her end of the battle since she can’t be here with the whole sun thing.” She paused then before adding, “At least she’s keeping busy with the other thing.” 

“I’m okay,” Bobbi insisted, shaking the cobwebs out of her head as she focused. “But these guys really don’t want us to be here.” She took a quick glance across the chaotic battlefield. They were mostly along the outskirts, picking up stragglers and dealing with random defenses, while the bulk of the allied Rebel Heretics, Seosten, and Atherby Alters handled the main threats. Seeing the display of powers, weapons, and utter destruction that had overtaken the once-supposedly abandoned town was staggering. The destructive capability of an entire World War had descended into this small area. 

“Well,” Shiori muttered as she picked herself up and shook the dust out of her hair. “If they don’t want us here, they just have to do one thing. 

“Give us our people back.” 

*******

“I gotta say, Flick,” Sean called out over his shoulder as he jogged down the narrow prison corridor, “you guys still know how to make a pretty good entrance!” 

Flick, running along behind him with Avalon nearby, replied, “You like that, huh? Yeah, we would’ve been here sooner, but we really had to practice that.” There was a slight hitch to her voice, as, despite her attempt to sound casual, the very thought of joking about how long Sean had been left in this prison, from his point of view, was too much.  

Sands, just ahead of Sean, called back to the others, “Don’t… don’t forget about the part where we just could not get the welcome back cake to taste right.” She too, was trying to lighten the mood a bit after the shock of seeing Sean as an adult and realizing just how long it had been for him. And like Flick, her attempt to do so was accompanied by hesitation, and a voice that just couldn’t quite convey the casualness she was going for. 

The four teammates were accompanied by Athena, who was ahead of them by a bit to allow them to talk as they raced through the prison toward one of the defense stations. Vanessa, Tristan, and their father were heading for the other one, leaving Larissa and Apollo to guard the main room. All three groups would need to take down their respective defense consoles near-simultaneously to avoid triggering the evacuation procedures. 

Flick’s voice sobered a bit then, as she reached out to touch the back of the… now-man’s arm. “Sean,” she started. “Seriously, if–” 

“Not now.” His voice was rough, but Sean quickly tempered it, exhaling. “It’s not–it’s not your fault. I know you were trying, but… but I don’t want to talk about it right now. Later, okay? Just… later. Let’s get the hell out of here right now, before we get into the apologies, promises, and all that shit.” He knew even as he said it that it wasn’t the best response he could’ve had, but it had been quite some time since he regularly dealt with people he wasn’t openly contemptuous of aside from Apollo and the occasional visit from someone like Flick. This was different. Between that and his anxiety about being so close to escaping this hellhole, he just… couldn’t think about anything else. 

He’d thought of almost nothing more for so long than getting out of this place that had been his prison for so goddamn long. And now that the moment was here, now that it was so close he could taste it, the fear that it would all be snatched away and he would once again be trapped for endless weeks, months, and even years… it left his body shaking despite himself. 

Luckily (in a way), he didn’t have much more time to dwell on that for the moment. Because in mid-sprint, Athena abruptly spun back toward them. Excalibur leapt to her hand, already rising on an intercept course against seemingly nothing… an instant before it suddenly collided with the descending blade of the Crossroads Heretic who had just teleported into view, appearing between the Seosten woman and Sands. Simultaneously, another Heretic guard appeared ahead, that one armed with some form of shotgun, which she opened fire with. 

“Wall!” Athena snapped without looking as she threw her left hand out, a dagger flying toward the second Heretic before it exploded into a field of energy that intercepted the shotgun blast. At the same time, the woman used Excalibur to parry several quick thrusts from the first Heretic’s blade. 

Sands didn’t argue or wait for even a moment. Her mace snapped up immediately and she conjured a wall in front of herself, cutting them off from Athena for the moment so the woman could do her work without worrying about the four of them getting in the way. Where the girl Sands was at the start of the year might have tried to throw herself into the fight alongside Athena to prove something, the one she was now had already proven everything she needed to. And almost none of it was what she had set out that year to prove. 

Unfortunately, the group wasn’t exactly in the clear. While the sound of Athena dealing with the adult Heretics came through the walls (Sands had hastily erected a couple more just to be on the safe side), a new figure appeared between them. 

Sean saw the woman, a single word full of disgust and anger jumping to his lips. “Mom.” 

In the next instant, Sands and Sean were hurled backward against one wall, while Flick and Avalon were slammed into the opposite one. All four were held there telekinetically, as Andrea Gerardo brought both hands out, holding them in place. “That’s enough!” she blurted in a voice that filled the hall. “You children don’t know what you’re doing, but this is as far as you go. You’ve–” 

“Hey Sean!” Flick interrupted, drawing the woman’s attention. “I know I was late getting here, but how’d you like a–” In mid-sentence, a portal appeared in front of her hand as she was held against the wall. She stuck one finger through and out the other end of the portal behind Andrea to touch the woman’s neck. 

“–free shot?” Andrea’s mouth finished Flick’s sentence, as the girl disappeared from where she had been pinned. The others were all released, stumbling a bit. 

Sean, recovering first, didn’t hesitate. His fist lashed out, slamming into his mother’s face. Her head was knocked backward, and the woman collapsed as Flick’s glowing figure emerged and solidified. 

“Do I wanna know how much of that was you knocking her out and how much was me?” Sean asked, rubbing his bloodied fist. 

With a shrug, Flick replied, “Let’s just say she got the message.” 

There was a series of quick knocks against the walls that Sands had erected then, and the girl quickly dismissed them to reveal Athena. Stepping into view, the Seosten woman took a glance toward the collapsed figure on the floor, then looked at Sean. “Everything okay?” 

He swallowed once, staring at his mother for a moment before lifting his gaze with a slight nod. “Peachy. Let’s go. I’m not in the mood for any more family reunions.” 

“Well,” Flick informed him as they started to move once more. “Your brother’s outside, so I hope you’re okay with one more.

“Cuz he’s sure been anxious to find you.” 

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Collectors 5-04 (Summus Proelium)

Previous Chapter

“So, not that I wouldn’t have brought him anyway,” Pack informed me in a slow, deliberate voice, “but why exactly do we need Twinkletoes?” As she spoke, the girl stared at me. Well, I assumed she was staring. That full face-covering black mask made it hard to tell sometimes. 

We were standing in an alley, a couple streets away from the main Taurus repair facility. Pack had her lizards in their cage at her feet, aside from the chameleon (Twinkletoes, apparently), who lay draped over her left shoulder, watching me with a kind of lazy curiosity. 

“That’s for tomorrow,” I replied. “I figured–well, one step at a time. You said you’d bring a hacker?” Pausing, I added a bit plaintively, “please tell me it isn’t one of the lizards.” Immediately after I said it, my head shook. “Wait, what the hell am I saying? Is it? Because that would be awesome.” 

“It would be, wouldn’t it?” the other girl agreed with what sounded like a grin. Then she sighed. “But no, sorry. He’s on his way. I told him where to meet us, and he should be here any…” There was a brief hesitation as she looked around. “He should be here any… aaaany miiiii…” Sighing, Pack waved her hand. “Never mind, that would’ve been really cool timing. I guess he’ll be–” 

“I’m here!” The voice came abruptly from the opposite end of the alley, as a figure came rushing around the corner. With a splash, their right foot hit a puddle, sending water spraying everywhere as the person cursed, stumbling a bit and almost falling before catching themselves against a nearby dumpster with a very undignified yelp. 

Dark as it was, the nearby streetlight at least gave me a good enough look at the person to make out details once they straightened from the dumpster. It was a guy, who stood about five foot eight or so. Thin, with an obvious costume consisting of dark gold pants (now with wet spots on them from the puddle), black boots, and a black silk shirt with what looked like ruffles on it that had gold piping along the sides. His mask was a pair of criss-crossed diagonal bands across his face, one stretching from the top left of his forehead and going down across his left eye and over his nose and right cheek, while the other did the opposite. One band was gold, the other black. His mouth was left uncovered, and he wore a black derby hat.

Snorting at his arrival, Pack gestured. “We were so close to timing that right, dude. Anyway, here we go. Eits, this is Paintball. Our, you know… friend, for now. Paintball, this is Eits.”  

Blinking at that, I asked curiously, “Eights? Like… six, seven… eight? Crazy eights?” 

The guy cleared his throat, pushing away from the dumpster to extend a hand to me while stepping over. He sounded embarrassed, and I could see the hint of a blush on what little of his face wasn’t covered. “Uh, kind of, but not exactly. It’s E-I-T-S, just pronounced eights.”  

“Eits,” I repeated, hesitantly shaking his hand. He was a villain, right? These guys were both villains. So why was I shaking hands and being all friendly with–never mind, that was a situation to work out later. Too confusing to worry about right now. “I guess that stands for something?” 

Releasing my hand, the masked guy nodded. “Yeah, it stands for Eye-In-The-Sky. You know, what they call security cameras in places like casinos.” He shrugged then. “Most people guess Crazy Eights like you did though, so I guess it kind of works as a twofer.” 

“Eye-In-The-Sky? So, I guess your power is like… security system based?” I wondered if this was the right thing to be saying. Was it rude to ask people directly what their power was? Was the level of that rudeness magnified or lessened by them also being villains? 

Either way, Eits apparently wasn’t offended, because he easily replied, “Sort of. I make these guys.” With that, he held his hand out, palm up. A moment later, a glowing ghost-like figure appeared on it. The thing was a humanoid figure, maybe five inches tall, blueish-green and faintly glowing. Like, again, a ghost. Leaning closer, I saw that it had four arms, two legs, long ears like a rabbit, and a bright glowing purple eyes. It looked up at me, made a hissing sound, and showed its (rather pronounced and scary-looking) teeth. 

“He’s not an enemy, stop that,” Eits insisted. “Sorry, he can’t actually hurt you or anything. See, no solid body.” His finger brushed through the figure, which I then realized wasn’t standing on his hand, but floating just a bit above it. “They’re just a bit… protective. I call them my Mites. Miniature Invaluable Technology Elves. I know, it needs work. But Mites works for them.”

“Uh, hi.” I waved, feeling a bit awkward before looking up to the guy again. “They’re not solid?” 

His head shook. “Nope. So, you know, they’re about as much help in a fight as I am. Which is to say, not at all. It’s why I got the name Eye-In-The-Sky, because I don’t fight. Too… uncoordinated. But I am good at keeping track of a lot of things at once. Multitasking. It’s kind of a sub-power. And what my Mites lack in firepower, they make up for with… well… here.” 

With that, he turned, rearing back his hand before hurling the Mite like a baseball. The ghostly creature let out a shriek of delight as it flew straight down and out of the alley before hitting a car parked out on the street. A second later, the car turned on, headlights flashing twice before the car pulled away from the curb with a squeal of tires. I swore I heard a loud gremlin-like cackle.

“He’ll be right back and put that thing where he found it,” Eits informed me as I stared at the empty spot where the car had been. “You get the point. They take over computers, machines, anything technological and control it for me. High enough security gives them trouble, but I just send more in to help. Anything from one of the good Tech-Touched out there basically takes my whole crew, so no taking over an entire army of super tech equipment. Plus if they’re good, they tend to install defenses against my kind of intrusion. Still pretty useful though.” 

“You said you keep track of a lot of things at once,” I murmured, fascinated about this whole thing despite myself. “Does that mean you can see through them or… or something?” 

“Basically, yeah,” he confirmed. “I sort of… see through my eyes and theirs at the same time, any time I want to. Then once they take over the computer or camera or whatever, I give it orders through them. They control it, but they’re doing what I ask. It’s a little confusing, but–” 

“But he’ll get the point,” Pack interrupted. “Look, we could go on comparing powers forever. How about we focus on the actual reason we’re here, huh? I mean, we do have a time crunch.” 

By that point, the car had returned, and Eits held his hand out that way. His little Mite thing came flying back, landing against his palm before fading from sight as it was… absorbed back into him or something. Then he nodded. “Right, yeah, sure. Sorry. Pack said you needed someone to help you take over a computer and change the maintenance schedule or something?” 

Quickly, I explained the situation and what I wanted, ending with, “So I figure we can just put the thing we want onto the schedule to be picked up and worked on tomorrow morning, then quietly grab it on the way here. Then we just take it off the schedule so they don’t know it’s missing, do what we need to do, put it back on the schedule, and secretly give it back on the next trip.” 

“Uh, yeah,” the boy agreed, “If we can get close to the computer that does the scheduling, my little guys can fix that much. They could even make it automatically add the thing back onto the schedule at a given time so we don’t have to come back. But how exactly are you going to get it off the truck ‘secretly’ without letting them know they’ve been robbed?” 

“That’s what I keep asking,” Pack pointed out while idly scratching Twinkletoes behind his head.. “He’s being pretty secretive about it, but apparently it involves my little friend here.” 

Flushing a little behind my mask and helmet, I protested, “I’m not being secretive, I’m just focusing on one thing at a time. We have to fix the schedule first. Then we can work on the plan for getting the thing off the truck without hurting anyone.” I stressed that last bit pointedly. 

“She says that like we’re villains or something,” Eits intoned dryly before shrugging. “But sure, I get it. Anything to help Mel–” He grunted as Pack elbowed him. “I mean, Blackjack’s kid.”

“Which means getting into that place,” Pack reminded us with a gesture in the vague direction of the Taurus facility. “And I suppose you want that to be done without hurting anyone too?” 

I nodded. “That would be nice, yes. Quietly and cleanly. I mean, beyond my own preferences, I’m pretty sure our whole plan would be in trouble if they had any reason to run a full scan of their systems or whatever, right?” Eits nodded, and I continued. “Okay, so we sneak in, get to one of their scheduling databases and let your little Mites do their work, then get out.” 

“And how are you planning to do that all secretly?” Pack asked, head tilted as she looked at me.

“Uh, very carefully,” I replied. “But actually, probably easier now if the Mites can take over any of the security systems they can reach. They can deal with security cameras and alarms?” 

Eits nodded. “Sure can, just have to get me close enough and they’ll deal with it. Only problem is that they can’t really get too far unless they’re possessing something like that car over there. They only last a couple seconds away from me without taking control of something. So whatever you want to get them into, I’ve gotta be pretty close to it.” 

“I’ll get you inside,” I promised, stepping over to peek out of the alley at the building in the distance before turning back. “But ahh, it’d probably be easier with just the two of us.” 

Pack shrugged, gesturing to herself, the chameleon on her shoulder, and the four other lizards in the cage at her feet. “Don’t worry, we know when not to be third, fourth, fifth, sixth, seventh, and eighth wheels. I’ll just stay out here with my buddies and play overwatch.”

“And here I didn’t think you even had a computer with you,” I teased despite myself. 

Despite the mask, I could tell her eyes were rolling. “I’ll watch to see what happens and step in if you get in trouble.” Her hand moved to scratch Twinkletoes. “See, the boy thinks he’s a comedian and a superhero. Which one do you think he’s best at?” After a brief pause as though listening, she gave a fake little scandalous gasp. “A plumber? Well, that’s just rude.” 

Snorting at her, I turned on my heel to face Eits. “Come on, the best spot to uhh, jump in from is this building.” My hand patted the wall beside us. “I was scouting it out earlier.” 

Unlocking the cage, Pack withdrew the bearded dragon. “You kids go on. I’ll send Riddles up to fly lookout. Anything happens, he’ll start screeching and we’ll play cavalry.” 

With that, I took Eits by the arms, glancing up to the roof above. “Ready?” 

“Uhhh…” He trailed off uncertainly. “Ready for whaaaaaaaaaaaaaa!” The last bit, of course, came because I had shot blue paint at the ground, caught hold of him once more, and used the paint to shoot the two of us upward. Painting my arm purple to get a good grip on him, I used my other hand to shoot red at the edge of the roof, yanking us that way before letting the paint fade so that the momentum shot us up and over to land in a couple rolls. 

Scrambling over onto my knees, I looked at Eits laying there panting heavily on his back. “Sorry, sorry.” I winced at his reaction. “That sounded less assholey in my head. Are you okay?” 

“Gimme a second,” he murmured, putting a black-gloved hand over his mouth before making a brief dry heaving noise. Then he nodded and slowly sat up. “Yeah. I uhh, sorry, I get a little… motion sick sometimes. But it’s okay, it only happens when I’m in motion.” 

His words made me grimace. “Seriously, I am so sorry about that. I thought it’d be cool.” 

He waved me off, sounding just as embarrassed as I felt. “Like I said, it’s cool. I suppose you don’t meet a lot of supervillains who get motion sick after a single jump.” 

“Can’t say as I meet a lot of supervillains at–” Pausing, I sighed. “You know, now that I think about it, I have met more villains than heroes.” And at least one of the heroes I have met is actually a villain, which probably counts double, I thought to myself silently. 

Shaking that off, I helped Eits to his feet before stepping over to the edge of the roof. “I umm, if you get motion sick, I’m really sorry about this next part.” My hand gestured over to the large billboard in the distance. “We have to jump over there, then go from there…” Slowly, I moved my hand, pointing to the roof of one of three buildings within the Taurus compound. “To there. Then we wait for the security guard to go past before making a run for the garage at the far end of the lot. That’s where they keep the delivery schedules, in the manager’s office. We get in there, you do your thing, and we get out again. Does my saying it all matter-of-factly like this make me sound confident enough to pull it off?” As I spoke, my suit turned solid black. Easier to blend in to the shadows. 

“Uh.” Eits looked at me before giving a thumbs up. “Sure. Does my saying that make it sound like I’m going to avoid throwing up from all that jumping and falling?”

I duplicated his thumbs up. “Sure. Just try to aim away from me, huh? Ready for this?”

He nodded, giving me the okay sign. “Nope. I wanna go home.” 

“Cool,” I replied, “go for it, as soon as we get that schedule set up.” I looked both ways then, making sure the coast was clear before wrapping my arm around his waist. Holding tight with a bit of purple along my sleeve and my pants, I activated it all, lunging out over the street with the boy clinging to me as he yelped. The ground rushed up, but I used red paint to get us the rest of the way to land on top of the billboard. Eits stumbled, but I quickly steadied him. “It’s okay, catch your breath. Halfway there. One more big jump. But uhh, you see that?” 

He looked, as I pointed all the way down at the building near the one we were about to jump to. “The security camera going back and forth? Yeah, I see it. You want something done about it?” 

“I figured we were gonna have to get real creative with hanging off one side,” I replied, “but if you could fix it, that’d be great.” 

He nodded. “Yeah, one of my little friends can deal with it. If you time our…” There was a pause before the boy gulped. “…Our landing for when the camera is at the far end of its turn, I can take it over and make it just send back the same view it did for the past few turns. They’ll notice if we take too long though.” 

“Then we won’t take too long,” I assured him. After a brief check to make sure no guards were in sight, I checked the timing of the camera before taking hold of the boy. “Let’s go. Remember, barf away from me.” 

That said, I held him firmly, used my paint, and leapt out. Eits made a noise suggesting that he was restraining a scream, as we flew out and across the rest of the street, passing high over the stone wall and electrified fence before I pulled us straight to the roof of the smaller building far below. 

We landed, scrambling a bit. My eyes snapped up to see the camera starting its way back, but Eits was already on it. Even as he was still gagging a bit, his hand flung that Mite of his across the pathway between buildings, hitting the camera with it. The Mite disappeared, and the camera simply continued moving. 

“It’s cool,” the boy assured me. “They’re not seeing any of this.” 

I started to respond, then quickly yanked him down to lay flat with me on our backs. “Guard,” I whispered. “Stay down.” 

We lay there, being as silent as possible as the security guard made his way past, keys jangling almost in tune with his whistling. As we were waiting, I had a moment to wonder about myself. Exactly what kind of hero was I? What kind of hero broke into a place to set up a high tech robbery? 

The kind of hero that was trying to save a little girl, and who didn’t know who could be trusted, considering her father is both a supervillain and the lead hero in the city. And besides, we were just borrowing the thing. We’d give it back after we were done. There wasn’t time to go through all of this the right way. 

But that didn’t stop me from feeling guilty. 

Realizing the guard was gone, I snapped myself out of my inner debate, rolling over to peer over the edge. The building was only a couple stories tall, so it was easy to help Eits down with a bit of orange and black paint (the latter to keep it silent). From there, we made the run to the garage. He had to deal with two more cameras on the way, and once we were there, used a fourth Mite to mess with the electronic lock and attached alarm so we could get in.  

The garage was pretty dark, and we really didn’t want to turn on a light. So it took some time to find our way past a few trucks, over to the stairs, then up to the manager’s office. There, I waited and played lookout while Eits and his Mite did their work. Every second felt like an eternity, but it actually went fairly quickly and easily. Within about two minutes or so, he had it set up. The bit we needed was on the list to be retrieved in the morning for scheduled maintenance. It would subsequently disappear from the list later, before the truck was scheduled to return for drop-off. 

He’d actually even improved on the plan. There was a box of random supplies and parts sitting around the place. We taped that up and printed out a new shipping label for it with a delivery code. When we took the box out of the truck tomorrow, we would replace it with this one and, thanks to his little hacking job, the computer would switch the model number on the box we were taking with this one. That way, even if the driver knew exactly how many boxes he had, he’d still have the same number. And when he scanned the codes, they’d all come up as the right ones. 

“Take this too.” Eits instructed, handing me a piece of paper with an e-mail and phone number scrawled on it. “I managed to give myself a backdoor into their scheduling system here. Shoot me a text, e-mail, call, whatever, when you need to return the toy. I’ll set it up to be delivered.” 

“Thanks,” I murmured, looking at the paper before stuffing it away. “I guess we should get out of here, huh?” 

He nodded slowly. “I don’t suppose we could use the front gate.” 

“Probably a bad idea if we don’t want to get caught and interrogated,” I reminded him while patting the boy’s shoulder. “Don’t worry, one more trip. And hey, you’ve managed to avoid throwing up so far. If you keep up the record before we’re done, maybe I’ll buy you a pizza.” 

“And if I don’t,” he replied, “I’ll buy you one.” 

In the end… he owed me pizza.

Denouement 5 – Cercetare (Heretical Edge)

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The Committee’s primary headquarters was not something that anyone could just walk up to. Unlike Eden’s Garden, which kept their leadership at the top of the tree and in a very known location, Crossroads tended toward more obfuscation. There were several ‘offices’ kept by the leadership in various locations that could be accessed, such as J Street in Washington DC. But their actual stronghold was much more difficult to get to. It was that place, that most private and secure location, that Elisabet had disappeared from, which could only be reached by select people using a select few methods.

At the moment, Sariel, Jophiel, Mercury, and Larees were possessing four of those people, and were driving one of those methods. The Range Rover had been deeply enchanted, allowing it to pass through the dozens of shields and misdirects set up to keep intruders away and/or alert the Committee and their people. The spells were slightly altered every day, preventing one from simply finding an old copy and passing through that way. And they would have been altered automatically should anyone expect that this group had run into trouble. Hence the need for such subtlety to get to this point.

Driving the SUV along the street away from the Lannery Towers building, Jophiel reached down. Her hand (or the hand of the man she was possessing, in any case), found a button there, which she pushed and held in for five seconds. At that point, there was a crackle-boom of electricity that engulfed the vehicle, reminiscent of a certain famous Delorean traveling in time. Any Bystanders watching would immediately forget the other vehicle had ever existed. 

The Range Rover, meanwhile, appeared driving along a completely different road somewhere on the California coast. A bright blue light manifested itself in front of the vehicle, just as they passed through it. If the spells on the car had not been correct, they would have slammed into it like a fly hitting a windshield. As it was, they passed through like it wasn’t there. A second later, the crackle-boom was back and they were driving along some mountain road somewhere in the midwestern United States. A green light appeared that time, allowing them to pass. 

That continued another six or seven times, as they passed through shield after shield. The final light was gold, and it transported them to a small country road in a place surrounded by grassy fields, with high, snowy mountains visible off in the distant horizon. One more shield, a black one, appeared in front of the car. This one actually tingled as they passed through it. 

Then they were through, and a massive castle lay ahead of them. A literal fortress, perched on the edge of a deep cliff, a thousand foot drop into the ravine below surrounding three quarters of the enormous stone building. It towered over the surrounding landscape, bigger than any made by ancient humans. Three layers of black walls of ascending height, about fifty yards apart, surrounded the part of the castle that was still accessible by land, and each of those walls were manned by dozens of gargoyle statues. Not the literal gargoyles, those small creatures that piloted their suits of armor, but statues similar to those at the academy. Given provocation, the statues would spring to life and form a first line defense. 

There were more defenses than that, too many for Jophiel to easily name. But with any luck, they would not come into play. They just had to continue being… subtle. Which, given the presence of Sariel and Mercury, two of the Olympus’s best covert agents, should be doable.

Using the memories of the man she was possessing, Jophiel drove right up to the large gate at the first wall. His hand moved to press against the reader there, which read far more than just his prints before the gate began to slid open. They were able to pass through into the first courtyard, where a guard house stood. The Heretic there looked them over before stepping closer. He spoke a passphrase, testing them before Jophiel gave the answering code. Then he let them pass through. 

They continued that in the second courtyard with a new guard, before finally being admitted into the lot of the castle itself. There, Jophiel pulled the car around to park amongst several other cars along the side of the castle, before the four emerged, along with their non-possessed companions. A brief bit of small talk followed, before Jophiel’s group managed to excuse and extract themselves to their own business. Giving a brief look to one another, they left the others and started along the marble path to the main doors. On the way, they passed several small flower gardens and fountains before reaching the flight of steps leading up to the entrance, a pair of doors that stood a good fifteen feet high, each eight feet wide. The doors opened as they approached, revealing that they were also several feet thick and lined with powerful spell runes that glowed as the group passed through. It would take an army to break into this castle by force. 

Or a handful of Seosten could do it much more quietly. 

The inside of the castle itself was much more modern than the outside would suggest. It looked like the interior of any other high end office building, not that different from the one they had just left. People bustled to and fro, everyone clearly moving with a mission and not paying much attention to the Seosten-possessed group who had just entered. They were all quite busy. 

As were Sariel and the others, of course. Without looking to one another, they continued on. Jophiel took the lead, as she had been to this building far more recently than the others (Larees, of course, had never been there at all). She walked onward, guiding the other Seosten through the maze of corridors and a couple different elevators until they reached the right floor. Each Committee member commanded their own floor of the building. This one was Elisabet’s. 

Even with her gone, the floor was nowhere near empty. Dozens of Heretics moved through the various rooms and halls on this floor, their work continuing in the hope that their leader would be found soon. Elisabet’s focus had been on the security of every Crossroads-controlled place on Earth, and that kind of thing wasn’t going to go away just because Elisabet herself was missing.

Ignoring everyone just as they in turn were being ignored, the group moved down the hall. The main office belonging to Elisabet was, of course, protected from entry. Only other Committee members or those with the correct spell code could pass through the doors.

Jophiel, of course, had the codes. As they approached deceptively simple-looking wooden door, a holographic circle appeared in front of it. She reached out, and as her finger made contact with the glowing circle, a dot appeared there. Carefully, yet with a quickness born of so many years experience, she drew the symbol. It glowed briefly to match the circle, then both disappeared and the door opened. 

No one spoke until they had entered the room, the door closed, and both Sariel and Mercury checked the place for any listening or observation spells. Once the two gave a nod, Larees finally exhaled. “I’m kind of surprised they don’t have people all over this place still.”  

“They don’t see the need,” Jophiel informed her. “As far as they’re concerned, Elisabet wasn’t here when she disappeared. They believe she was ambushed elsewhere, by Prosser and his people. They have no reason to specifically lock down this office. Though we should be as quick as possible. Our… hosts have some time free, but they will be missed eventually.” 

This first room wasn’t the actual inner sanctum for Elisabet. Instead, it was the outer office where her assistant was supposed to work. But Elisabet had purposefully not kept an assistant for quite some time. Actually, she and Jophiel had entertained some possibility of asking Vanessa to take the job in a sort of internship capacity over the summer. That, of course, was before everything had happened. 

Passing through the outer office to reach the sanctum itself, the Seosten looked around briefly. Jophiel and Sariel took opposite sides of the office, making some preliminary inspections and preparations for the assortment of spells they would need to use. At the same time Mercury stepped over to the desk while using a Seosten field-engraver to draw a spell on the sleeve of the man he was possessing. He activated it a second later, producing a silver and purple orb, slightly larger than a golf ball. It was what the Heretics referred to as a PAWS, which stood for Panoptic Analysis Window System. Essentially, it recorded the entire area it scanned, including the contents of all the dressers, bookshelves, and so on. Later, it would be able to project a solid holographic reconstruction of the room and everything in it. If, by chance, there were any clues in the room that they didn’t have time to go through now (such as a note stuck or scrawled into one of the books), the PAWS recording would allow them to find and read it. 

The downside, of course, was that it (understandably) took a decent length of time to make a full recording of the entire room and every object within. Given the size of the place and the amount of books and other things in it, the scan would probably take at least twenty minutes. Between that and the spells that Sariel and Jophiel were working on, they weren’t getting done here any time soon. 

Moving back through the outer office and checking the door to make sure the hallway beyond was clear, Larees turned back, giving a beckoning gesture to Mercury, visible through the other door as he finished setting the PAWS to record the room. He nodded before joining her, and the two of them slipped back out into the hall. They had their own work to do while Sariel and Jophiel were busy. 

Passing other Heretics in the corridor and beyond that in the elevator, Larees and Mercury used the knowledge pulled from their host’s minds to greet them appropriately. To any and all who saw the two of them, they were those people. They knew names, histories, the way each person interacted with them, and more. They knew it all, passing seamlessly as the one they were possessing. They even knew what to say when asked what they were doing to allay suspicion. 

Riding the elevator several floors up, the two stepped off, giving a farewell to the ones they had ridden with before heading on through a softly carpeted, pleasantly lit corridor with paintings of various historical figures lining the walls. 

As they were passing a couple of other Heretics who were talking, Mercury abruptly stopped, looking back that way. Something they’d just said… “Hey,” he spoke up, drawing the attention of the other pair. “What was that about Joselyn Atherby?” They all knew the name, of course. After Gaia’s spell removed the memory eraser and flooded everyone’s minds with that rush of information (or misinformation, as many were calling it), there was no need to be coy about it. Of course a Heretic, even one working in here, would be curious about hearing the name. 

One of the other men, a guy named Turry according to Mercury’s host’s memories, gave that easy smile of one with gossip. “Yeah,” he replied, “one of the scouting pairs think they spotted her outside some mall in Timberline, Iowa. Can you believe it? They’re suiting up a group to go check it out.” He winked. “Who knows, maybe those fucking traitors are holed up somewhere in there. Get in one of the old stores, use magic to make it bigger on the inside? They could do it. Hiding in plain sight.” He shrugged. “Or maybe it’s bullshit. Everyone wants to be the one who catches these assholes, especially that psycho bitch. Maybe the scouts were just seeing things.”  

Reaching out, the man clapped Mercury on the shoulder. “But hey, man, either way, they’ll get ‘em, right? Those fucks’ll get what’s coming to them.” 

With an easy smirk, Mercury patted the hand on his shoulder, nodding. “Of course they will. Those guys are gonna get exactly what they deserve.” 

They split apart then, the two Seosten-possessed Heretics heading further down the corridor while Larees spoke through their silent connection. What in the living fuck? 

I don’t know, Mercury replied a bit tensely. But it’s obviously not any of us. Joselyn… why would she be at some mall to be spotted by Crossroads scouts right now, of all times? This doesn’t make sense

Should we tell the people back at camp about it now? Larees asked. Her real question, of course, was if they should tell Joselyn’s children about their mother potentially being seen. 

There was a brief pause from the man before he sent back, No. Not right now. We don’t know everything about it, and looking into that too much is going to draw suspicion we can’t handle. We’ll keep our ears and eyes open, see what we can take in. If we told them now, we’d just be distracting them right as they’re working on getting that Gerardo kid and the other prisoners out. We’ll see what happens and let them know once we have real information. No point adding more confusion and distraction right now. 

Larees agreed. She had agreed, actually, before even asking the question. But Mercury was the superior officer here, and she had defaulted to his opinion. 

The two continued on, heading through several more layers of security. These they passed not simply with information drawn from their own hosts, but also codes provided by Jophiel. They were ways through security that she and Elisabet had built in over the years without the other Committee members realizing, so there was no reason the codes would have been revoked after Elisabet disappeared. 

Security was tight here. Yet no one questioned them. The other side of having so many layers of protection that it was (supposedly) impossible to quietly break through them was that once you were past it, everyone there just assumed you were supposed to be. As long as you looked like you knew where you were going, you could be invisible. 

Reaching an unlabeled metal door down an unremarkable side corridor, the two exchanged brief looks. Mercury produced a pair of sunglasses from his host’s jacket, slipping them on. As one, the two turned to put their backs against the nearby wall. They checked for surveillance one last time, before Mercury stepped out of his host. As he did so, Larees put an arm around the Heretic, using a telekinetic power from her own host to keep her partner’s upright. She stood there like that, keeping the unconscious Heretic upright to avoid drawing any attention from someone who might pass by. 

Mercury himself, meanwhile, stepped right to the metal door. He input the code they were given by Jophiel, tugging it open before stepping through. As he did so, a warm tingle began to spread over him. 

This was the security measure that even Jophiel couldn’t do anything about. Elisabet had not been in charge of this section of the building. She could get them the code to go through the door, but could do nothing about the actual magical scan that was supposed to ensure that only those with access were allowed in, code or no code. The security scan would see that his host was not allowed in, and immediately alert security. 

Or… it would, if not for Mercury’s Tartarus-given ability to delay magic affecting him. The scan should have immediately shown he wasn’t allowed in that room, but he was delaying its work, slowing the magic from completing on him long enough to do what he needed to. It was why he had to be the one to do this.

The room was relatively small, mostly filled with computers, monitors, and a table with a holographic map on it. There were several wheeled leather chairs around the room, though only one was occupied. The man there turned in his chair, speaking up casually. “What’d you forget this ti–what the–” 

That was as far as he got before Mercury used his Seosten-boost to lunge across the room. His hand grabbed the other man’s, possessing him instantly. 

With his new host in hand (and immediately shuffled into unconsciousness), Mercury moved to the nearby console. The security station was just starting to flash its warning about the man who had just moved through it when he used memories drawn from his new host to silence it with a guest access code. He then added another couple codes before opening the door for Larees. The two of them brought in his earlier host, setting him on a chair. 

“I’ll deal with the blood,” Mercury informed the woman. “You handle the logs and cameras.” 

Larees nodded, moving to one of the nearby computers. Working quickly, she adjusted the security logs to remove all traces of their group’s access and presence in any of the places they shouldn’t have been. She also deleted them from any of the camera footage in those areas.

Mercury, meanwhile, moved to the holographic map in the middle of the room. It showed an image of the Earth, with various countries and cities listed and marked with different colors. In the middle of the table, below the map, was a vial of blood, set in a provided slot there with several green lights on around it. 

The vial was Elisabet’s blood. While there were many ways to shield against a scan like the one being performed here, intended to point out where in the world the person eventually appeared, there was still an off chance the scan might eventually pick up something if Elisabet were ever on Earth without such defenses up. 

Jophiel, therefore, wanted the vial for her own use. Tracking her partner (in every sense of the word) would be easier with the blood. And she definitely didn’t want Crossroads to have it. So, carefully, Mercury replaced the vial set into the map slot with an identical one drawn from his pocket. Identical, that was, save for the contents. The blood in that vial was taken from a long-dead Heretic woman who had been lost in the war against the Fomorians. The odds of it showing up anywhere on Earth any time soon were… slim, to say the least. But the computer would keep scanning for it, and the Heretics would be none the wiser. 

Both of their work done, Mercury erased the memory of his current host, leaving him to wake up in his chair in about thirty seconds with no idea anything had changed. He then repossessed his previous host, and they left the room, heading to rejoin the others. The work that Larees had done would continue to erase their presence for another hour, just to be on the safe side. 

By the time the two rejoined Jophiel and Sariel, the place was a lot more active. People were running around, orders were being shouted, and there was general barely ordered chaos. Not because they had been found out, of course. No, the reason this particular beehive had been kicked was that news of both distraction-attacks had reached them. Committee agents were being mustered to back up the other Heretics already being sent to respond. 

We should go, Sariel murmured as the four stood in the corridor, watching a group rush past. Before things get too crazy.

What did you find? Mercury asked, once they started moving together for the exit. 

The answer came from Jophiel. Not enough. There was obvious frustration in her voice. Someone went in and erased almost all of the evidence. There were trace signatures of a teleportation happening around that time, but not enough to get an actual location. 

Not yet, anyway, Sariel put in gently. This wasn’t a complete waste. We have the blood, so if we can get a general location, even just a place to start, we can use it. And there’s more we can do. Whoever cleaned up the room didn’t do a perfect job. Believe me, I have some ideas. But they’ll take time. 

Time that Elisabet might not have! Jophiel snapped, while they climbed into the same vehicle that had brought them here. 

I know, Sariel assured her. Let’s just go. We’ll leave these guys at a restaurant with memories of going to get food, and get out of there. Then find out if the others managed to save Sean and the rest of the prisoners. 

In the meantime, Mercury informed her, there’s something else we heard. Something we might want to go check out.  

It’s about Joselyn Atherby, and a mall. 

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Mini-Interlude 81 – Joselyn and Denuvus (Heretical Edge)

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Please note, the following takes places immediately following Mini-Interlude 55, when Denuvus revealed herself to be the ‘prisoner’ Ammon brought back from one of his outings and left her to help his mother. 

Also note, this is NOT the regular chapter whose early release is tomorrow. That is still coming as scheduled. This is an entirely extra (commissioned) chapter. I hope you enjoy it. 

“Hold that thought.”

Moments after she had simultaneously introduced herself and used her power to ensure that her command for Joselyn to answer all of her questions was actually followed, Denuvus held a hand up to stop her from doing just that. A small smile played at the pretty, yet unassuming-looking woman’s face. “You seem a bit surprised, Mrs. Chambers. Was it something I said? Oh, and while we’re on the subject of things I’ve said, you should stand there without making any move to alert anyone, attack me, or do anything else beyond breathe and talk to me until I say otherwise. And you can scratch your nose or any other itch you have. I’m not a monster.” 

Joselyn, staring at her for a moment, managed to breathe out. “You look different than I imagined, ‘Denuvus’. Unless you shapeshifted yourself to look like… this.” She did her best to keep her words calm, while her mind raced. Even for someone who had seen a lot in her life, finding out that this woman, who had appeared to be an innocent victim of one of Ammon’s temper tantrums, was actually the mysterious, whispered-about puppet-master whose potent ability was the basis on which Joselyn’s own son’s powers were based was… a lot.

“Yes and no,” came the clearly amused reply. “Yes, I’m using a power to change what I look like. I do that a lot, though I happen to be partial to this one. She’s… no one important, just a woman I saw once. But her face has stuck with me for some reason.” Denuvus mused on that for a moment before continuing with a shake of her head. “And no, I’m not really a man. Though people believing that is very useful for me. Oh, and ahh, my name is Denuvus, never tell anyone anything you find out about me, anything I tell you about my plans, goals, or even what I like to have for dinner. I’m a fish person, for the record. Deep fried catfish and hushpuppies, that’s basically my kryptonite.” 

The time that Denuvus had taken to say all that had given Joselyn a chance to regroup a bit. “Are you here to kill Fossor?” she asked carefully, unsure how she would be forced to react if the answer was yes. She was sworn, magically, to protect him from direct and legitimate threats. On the other hand, Denuvus had used her power to make her stand still. Which would win out in a direct competition? She genuinely wasn’t sure. 

“Kill him?” Denuvus echoed. “Eventually, I’m sure. But for now, what I need when it comes to that man is information. I’ve tried to extract it from him before but, well, our conversations never go very well. Even when he doesn’t know it’s me he’s talking to.”

She smiled a bit, clearly remembering a particularly amusing moment before shaking that off as she leaned back on her heels to look at Joselyn. “Anyway, getting information out of him, especially what I need, it’s a bit like getting blood from a stone. Although, I have actually done that, and it involves a lot more cayenne pepper than you’d think. But this man? I can’t get what I need out of him. Or I couldn’t, until you and your son came along. People close to him.”

Eyes flashing a bit with anger, Joselyn snapped, “I’m not close to him. And neither is Ammon. We’re both tools to him. If you think you can threaten either of us and make him do anything…”

“Physically close,” the other woman amended with a vague wave. “You spend a lot of time with him, and if he enjoys anything, it’s the sound of his own voice. We do have that in common, at least. I need you to tell me everything you know about him.” 

Joselyn just stared at her for a moment before speaking. “I’ve heard plenty about you, from a lot of people. A lot of it contradicts itself, and I’m pretty sure there’s as much bullshit as truth in it. And I sure as hell don’t know about you being a woman. If you even truly are, you could be lying about that. You could be lying about anything. But what all of those things agree with is that you are dangerous. You kill anyone who gets in your way, without batting an eye. You kill people just because they might be able to expose something about you. He’s a monster, but so are you.”

If she was offended, Denuvus didn’t show it at all. “And you have just… no experience in being close to monsters, right? Joselyn, I’m not here as a threat to you. In fact, I may eventually end up getting you out of here. Who knows? It would be nice to stick something to him that hard. He would be so pissed off…”

She shrugged, adding, “Besides, we shouldn’t fight. After all, we’re kind of co-mommies. My blood was used to make your son what he is. Which, given the whole Heretic thing, practically makes him my family. I mean, if they have a take your son to work day, we might have to thumb wrestle over who gets him. Although, isn’t it pretty wrong that he’d be both safer and less fucked up mentally if he came with me?”

She chuckled softly before letting out a breath. “So, let’s get down to business. Like I said, you’re going to tell me everything you know about Fossor and Ammon. Let’s start with the kid. I just have one very important question. When you were pregnant, did Fossor ever take you away from Earth?”

Joselyn clearly hadn’t been expecting any kind of questions like that, blinking in confusion. “Take me away from Earth? I mean, yes, we went to a few places. Why?”

Ignoring the question, the other woman asked, “Did he take you to his world?”

Slowly, Joselyn nodded. “We spent a little time there. He said something about it being important for the baby to have a connection to his father’s world. He said it was a tradition, but I’m pretty sure it was about magic.”

“Bright girl,” Denuvus agreed. “Let me guess, at some point, your memory has a big blank spot, where are you have no idea what happened.”

For a few seconds, Joselyn just stared at her, thoughts whirling in her mind before she confirmed, “I remember him giving me a tour of the house he grew up in. He was looking at a picture. Then it’s blank. The next thing I remember, we were on our way back to Earth, and it was two days later. . I have no idea what happened in that time, and quite frankly, I’ve been trying very hard not to think about it all this time.”

“I have some ideas,” Denuvus murmured. “But first, tell me what you know about Fossor as a boy. I want to know everything, even the smallest detail, about his life on that world. I want you to walk me through every little bit you know. Be completely honest.”

Sighing, Joselyn did just that. She told the woman about Fossor being a child gifted in his species’ rare gift to speak with the dead, and how his abusive father had reacted. She told her about the young Fossor trying to render his sister immortal and killing her.

“And then he went to prison,” Denuvus noted. “But not just any prison. He was sent to one of the single most secure prison facilities in the known universe, which just happened to be held on his own home planet. At least, at that time it was. He kills his sister, and ends up in a place that’s meant to hold the worst monsters who have ever existed? How exactly does that work? Did he ever tell you how he ended up there?”

“He was kind of vague on that,” Joselyn admitted. “I take it you know how he ended up there?”

“Yes,” Denuvus murmured, “it’s because he wanted him there. And even as their prisoner, he still had that kind of influence. Enough to get the young, untrained and incredibly powerful necromancer brought close to him.”

“Another prisoner?” Joselyn was frowning. 

“Not just any prisoner,” Denuvus informed her. “The prisoner.  The one the prison was built for. Literally, the one. You know the name Fossor is just Fah-Seur, thirty-four in their language? The thirty-fourth prisoner. The one we’re talking about now is their word for One. You know about Arthur? The King, not your father-in-law.”

Joselyn nodded. “Of course, I— wait. You’re not…”

With a soft chuckle, Denuvus shook her head. “It’s not Arthur. This was long before his time. Several thousand years ago. It’s another natural Dragon-Heretic, one that’s… let’s say less Camelot and more Genghis Khan. The prison was originally built to contain him and his personal minions. That is its primary purpose. When our friend here escaped, they moved the prison. There were too many defenses for him to get all the way to One and the other important prisoners before the people in charge could get out with them, and now the prison is somewhere else. One is still safely locked away.”

Joselyn squinted that way.  “And do you think you can control this guy? Is that why you’re so interested?”

Denuvus gave her a long look. “I am not suicidal. Nor am I quite that arrogant. No, I don’t believe I can control this man. He was a full fledged powerful Dragon Heretic who was dangerous enough to build the universe’s strongest prison for, over three thousand years ago. Now? Even locked up, who knows how strong he could be? No, controlling him is not my plan. But I do believe that he could be useful to my overall goal.”

“And what is that?” Joselyn probed. “Because as far as I knew, your only real goal was to be as comfortable as possible and live like a quiet emperor. Excuse me, empress. Sticking your neck out as far as looking for whoever this guy seems like a really good way of getting your head chopped off, at the very least. So what makes it worth that risk?”

“Perhaps some day I will tell you more,” Denuvus allowed thoughtfully. “But at this exact moment, let’s just say there is a creature whom I very much wish dead. Everything I have become, everything I have… sacrificed… turning myself into what I am and amassing as much power as I have, even keeping so many secrets about myself, has been toward the goal of killing this creature. He believes himself to be a god, and he’s not far wrong. But, even gods can be killed, given the right power in the right circumstances.”

Joselyn’s head shook slowly. “You want this… whoever it is dead so much that you’ve become a monster yourself. How many people have you killed to get here? How many of the people who actually cared about you or could have if you let them have you thrown away? How many lives have you destroyed with this obsession? You mentioned sacrifice, and that meant something to you. What was it? Who? Who did you sacrifice for your power? Because you clearly love them, and their death isn’t something this other creature did. You did that. Whoever this person was that their death still affects you after all this time, that was you. For everything this enemy of yours has taken away from you, it seems to me that you’ve thrown away just as much in this mad rush for revenge.”

An invisible force suddenly gripped her, lifting the woman off the floor and squeezing tight enough that Joselyn let out a gasp of pain. 

“I threw nothing away,” Denuvus announced in a low, dangerous tone. “She is still a part of me, as she always will be. Making a choice and standing by it doesn’t mean it will never hurt or that you will never regret it. But I would not change what I did. I accept the pain as part of the price for eventually killing the monster who took my—” She stopped, emotions warring on her face for a very brief moment before she contained them.

“You are far from the only one who knows what it is like to have a child taken away from you. Some in a more permanent sense then others. Whatever it takes, whoever’s life is lost, I will see this creature bloodied, broken, and dead. And in the end, as he falls, he will know it was me. He will know that his death and every loss he has suffered has been my doing. Before he dies, the last words that leave his filthy mouth will be the names of my son and daughter that he took from me. Then he will die, and every atom of his flesh will be incinerated.”

Swallowing slightly at the end of that, Joselyn spoke carefully. “I’m sorry. I’m sorry for what that creature did to you, and what it made you become. But you never had to do all of this. You didn’t have to make this whole crusade yours and no one else’s. If he’s as much of a monster as you say, you could have gone to…”

Denuvus raised an eyebrow. “Gone to who? The Seosten-puppeted Heretics? One of these other groups would not do what needs to be done to destroy him? People who would completely fail to understand the threat until it was too late? His tendrils are everywhere. He could control any of them. No, I will kill him myself, whatever the cost.”

She let Joselyn drop to the ground finally. “And thanks to our son, or at least his existence, I am several steps closer to that.” The woman offered a faint smile. “I suppose influencing Fossor  with the idea of using my blood on an offspring of his own was worth the effort.” 

Joselyn’s eyes widened slightly. “You… what? No, Fossor had to have your blood stolen, and then killed the intermediary.”

The other woman chuckled. “Well, of course. He’d hardly do what I wanted him to if I just handed the blood to him. It had to be his idea. Or, he had to believe it was. Planting those seeds took quite a while. But now they have paid off. He took you back to the world he came from. And if I’m right, he did exactly what I wanted him to.”

Smiling at the other woman’s expression, she waved a hand idly. “But, that is something that won’t come to fruition for sometime, as the lord of the house here furthers his plans. Which is just fine, as I am nothing if not patient. In any case, it will be fun to see him made useful to me again.”

“Again?” Joselyn carefully echoed. 

Denuvus nodded. “Yes well, the ritual which granted me my Djinn required an unbelievably powerful spell be cast so that I could draw the excess into mine.”

“Powerful spe—” Joselyn’s eyes widened. “ The banishment curse. The one the old Heretics used to try to get rid of Fossor. You took energy from it. If you hadn’t done that—”

“The spell would have proceeded exactly as it did,” Denuvus interrupted. “I know it would have because they came to my sister and I to ask for help. They were looking for the aid of anyone capable of contributing to their spell. So they let us see it. I knew what would happen. The loophole was right there. But I didn’t say anything, because I needed them to cast it. I needed that energy.  The energy from so many incredibly powerful people throwing their all into this spell was something I’d been waiting for.”

Shaking her head, Joselyn demanded, “How do you know that things would have gone the same if you hadn’t interfered?”

With a sigh, Denuvus answered. “Because my ritual did not take from their spell before it was cast, it used the cast-off energy afterward. Djinn are created in one of two ways, accidentally or purposefully. An accidental Djinn comes about when a world shaking spell is employed and the… let’s call it exhaust from that spell happens to miraculously find its way into a recently deceased body. Even then most of the time it will simply destroy the body. To form an accidental Djinn, the body must be far enough away that the energy has to strain a bit to reach it, thereby entering the body slowly enough that it doesn’t promptly explode. Yet if it’s too far away, the energy will drain away before enough pools to create the Djinn. It’s all very complicated, sort of like not only predicting where lightning will strike, but from how far away. And then, for good measure, do the same thing for every bolt in the entire storm.”

“Lightning rods,” Joselyn murmured. 

The other woman smiled once more. “Yes, the ritual I used was like a very specific series of lightning rods. They pulled the energy in just the right way, at the exact speed to create my Djinn. Think of it as a complicated recipe, where food must be cooked at precisely the right temperature for precisely the right amount of time, or it’s all ruined.”

Joselyn swallowed. “You mentioned a sister. What happened to her?”

Denuvus was quiet for a moment before answering. “Creating a Djinn requires a sacrifice, a blood cost. You can’t just put it in any old body. It must be the body of one you truly love. I truly loved my sister. But it was the only way to put a stop to this monster.”

“Or you could have told the Heretics who came to see you for help with the spell about him,” Joselyn pointed out. “With enough help—”

“We tried,” Denuvus snapped. “Right after we escaped from our confinement, we tried to tell others about the threat. Some didn’t believe us at all. Others just believed we were grossly exaggerating the threat. And others… others were agents for him, willingly or otherwise. We were nearly enslaved once more because we went to others for help.”

She exhaled slowly. “No, I learned a long time ago that I can only depend on myself and my sister. Now only myself.”

Her hand waved that thought away, after a brief troubled frown that was also dismissed. “But let’s get back to it, shall we? There’s still a lot I need to know about Fossor and our little boy. 

“So, I suppose it’s a good thing that we have all night to talk.”

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Collectors 5-03 (Summus Proelium)

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Okay, so considering the risk I’d taken and the fact that I’d put getting the supplies to build Wren’s machine that was supposed to lead to saving Blackjack’s daughter on hold, I hadn’t actually found out that much. Other than the fact that there was something going on under the mall. And that my brother wasn’t just a crazy, murderous villain, but also a certifiable (literally) badass, powers or no powers. I’d had no idea he could fight like that! I thought he was just… just… Simon. Seeing him do what he’d just done was… um… surprising, to say the least. 

Oh, and of course I’d also found out at least part of how my family was actually profiting off criminals. They were selling things like the right to operate in the city (exactly how they enforced that I wasn’t sure exactly) and heroes’ patrol schedules in exchange for percentages of their take. It was like they were running a protection racket on actual villains. Which was… it was… wow. It was wow. 

And now I really had to go. There was no way I could get through that door to go deeper into this place without at least setting off some kind of alarm. Plus, I had no way of knowing how long it would take Simon and/or anyone else to come back. I had to get out of there and go back to the actual plan. 

Slipping out of the side room I’d hidden in once Simon and the others were gone, I listened carefully at the main door. Hearing nothing, I still waited a moment before cracking it a bit. No one. They had moved on. Trying to look as casual as possible (though I restrained the urge to whistle nonchalantly), I opened it, strolling out before heading on my way. All the thoughts and confusion I had about what my family was up to had to be shoved aside for the time being. Right now, it was time to focus fully on the whole Ashton situation, and getting the rest of those vials.

With the list pulled up on my phone, I made my way to the first shop that Wren had mentioned. It was actually more of a junkyard. At one time it had been some kind of auto shop. Now there were high, apparently fairly recently constructed, metal walls around the place, with barbed wire along the top, a heavy iron gate at the entrance, and cameras pretty much everywhere. Yeah, it was a good thing I’d gone with the ‘disguise myself as a boy’ thing, because anyone who happened to watch this footage later would probably have like six different camera angles to watch me from.

The gate was locked, but there was an open sign next to a single button mounted on a speaker. So, with a shrug, I reached out and put my finger against the button, holding it for a second before releasing. There was a deep buzzing sound both right at the gate and from somewhere in the distance. My guess was that the buzzer alerted anyone who might be busy in the back of the lot. I could see stacks of machinery including fridges, ovens, actual washing machines, and broken down cars lining the whole area beyond the gate, with a narrow walkway leading to what had been the main garage itself back when this place had been a normal mechanic’s shop. 

Was whoever happened to be behind this shop a Tech-Touched as well? Because I was starting to assume that any place set up like this was for someone like that. It would also probably help explain the overabundance of cameras, heavy walls, and likely other security. 

Maybe Wren could take some pointers from this person when it came to getting set up again.

A few seconds after the buzzers sounded, there was a voice that came through the intercom. “Whatchu want, kid?” It sounded like an old man who really wasn’t in the mood for visitors. 

“Um.” Coughing, I turned to look at the nearest camera. “I’ve just… I need to buy a few things that I can’t really get in a regular shop. Someone told me your place might be a good one to check. Sorry if I disturbed you, the sign said you were open, so I figured I was supposed to–” 

“Yeah, yeah,” the voice cut me off. “I don’t need an oral essay. You got money with you?” 

Pausing briefly at the thought of just how open about having cash on me I wanted to be for this gruff stranger, I eventually put that aside, nodding. “Yes, sir, I have money.” 

With that, there was a chiming sound, and the gate began to grind its way open. I stepped out of the way, watching until there was enough space for me to walk through. As soon as I was on the inside, the gate stopped and began to close once more. It shut fully with a solid clang. 

Walking past all the broken down cars and appliances, I made my way into the main shop. The big garage doors were closed, so I went to the normal one, tugging it open. Bells above the door dinged pleasantly, and I found myself standing in front of a counter. There were a few plastic and metal (mismatched) chairs sitting randomly around the small room, and a television in the corner. Oh, and a thick sheet of bulletproof glass surrounded the counter itself, with a small slot in the middle for passing stuff through. A heavyset, older black man with scruffy gray beard sat behind the counter, a half-eaten plate of lasagna and open beer in front of him. 

Pushing his plate aside, the man reached out to touch a button in front of him. As he spoke, the voice came through a nearby speaker, magnified and somewhat distorted. “Whatayawant?” 

“I, uhh, I have a list.” Reaching into my pocket, I took out a sheet of paper that I had carefully written all the serial or model numbers down on from the copy on my phone. The little slot opened with a dull clank, and I passed it through to the man. “They’re numbers for–” 

“I know what fucking model numbers are, kid,” he interrupted impatiently. He scanned the list, glancing up to me a couple times with an inscrutable look before returning his gaze to the paper. That went on for about a minute or so as he scanned his way through them. He didn’t look at anything else, didn’t type them into the computer that sat nearby or anything. He just read them, mouth moving along as he murmured numbers and occasionally glanced toward me. 

Finally, the man leaned back on his stool, reaching under the counter to take out a blue pen, which he used to begin circling numbers. In the end, he marked a little under half of them. “These I’ve got. These,” he added, putting check marks next to few, “I can get in a day or two. The rest of that stuff you’ll have to get somewhere else. And none of this is cheap.” His eyes found mine again, as he grunted out, “The hell you want this stuff for anyway?” 

Honestly, I was still recovering a bit from the fact that he’d known what everything on the list was just from the serial numbers. But I shook that off and replied, “My ahhh, partner at school. He’s some mechanical genius and he says we can build something cool for the fair. Since it’s his idea, I get to do the grunt work.” I was trying to keep my voice at least a little bit deeper than usual, to go with the whole disguise thing, since I couldn’t exactly use the voice changer here.

Whether the man bought my explanation or not, I couldn’t really tell. But he apparently didn’t actually care enough to challenge it, either way. He just grunted a little, then picked up an old plastic calculator and started punching in numbers. Again, he didn’t actually look at anything before doing so. He just started pushing buttons, glancing at the list to see what he had marked, then looking back again. After a minute of that, he cleared his throat. “It’ll be six hundred and twenty-seven bucks for what I’ve got now, nine-fifty-two for all of it including the stuff that’ll take a couple days.” 

“You’re sure you’ve got it?” I asked hesitantly. The man hadn’t gone anywhere, hadn’t even looked at a list of his inventory or anything. And with everything piled up out there like it was…

Heaving a sigh, the man pushed himself up from the stool. He reached under the counter to push a button, and part of the nearby wall between the two of us slid open. “Come on,” he grunted out with a wave before turning to walk to a door behind him. “I’ll take you out there.”

Shrugging, I started that way, moving through into the space behind the counter and to the door the man had already stepped through. We came out in the back of the lot, which… looked a lot like the front. It was a junkyard, full of random machines. Seriously, was this a Tech-Touched thing? Was being allergic to understandable organization a side-effect of that? 

Or maybe not having things organized in a way outsiders could recognize was actually a benefit and a security measure. Because this guy knew exactly where he was going. He made his way through the yard, grabbing a laundry basket on the way. Here and there he stopped to grab things, dropping them in the basket seemingly haphazardly. One thing that looked sort of like a u-bend pipe he went to toss in, then stopped. Lifting the thing, he shook it a bit, listening before grumbling under his breath. He tossed that one aside, bent down to root through what looked like a pile of garbage, and came out with another one, which he dropped in the basket. 

All of that took about ten minutes, while I just followed after him. Finally, the man turned with the basket. “Here it is,” he announced, holding it up with a raised eyebrow. “Now, am I giving you what you asked for, or just a random bunch of junk?” 

“I… um.” Pausing, I looked at the basket, then up at him. “I’m hoping it’s the former and you’re just making a point about how you could be ripping me off?” 

He made a noise that I belatedly realized was a chuckle. “I could be. But I like money. And something tells me that whoever your friend is, if they’re making something that needs all this stuff now, they’ll need to make other stuff later. Which means I get more business.” With those words, he shifted the basket under one arm, extending his other hand to me. “Six-twenty-seven for this much. Another three-twenty-five when you–” Pausing, he squinted at me. “You need this quick, don’t you?” When I nodded, he exhaled. “Three-twenty-five when you come back tomorrow for it. Twenty-four hours.” 

I thought about just getting all of it tomorrow, but maybe Wren could get started with this stuff and what Pack brought in. So, reaching into my pocket, I paid the man what he asked for. He took the time to count the bills before passing the basket to me. “Come on then,” he ordered, gesturing as he led the way back to the door. “Lemme get back to my food. Like I said, come back in twenty-four hours. I’ll have the rest. Long as you come with more cash.” 

We made our way back inside, and I glanced toward the television, only to see myself. Well, Paintball. I was there, captured on cell phone camera in the midst of my rush through the city to escape from Cuélebre the other day. I was so surprised to see… well, me like that, even as the image was split between showing that and some reporter saying something that was muted, that I stopped short basically in the doorway. 

“The fuck?” Behind me, the man snapped, “This ain’t a theater, kid. Get going or pay to use the TV.” He stepped around me, then paused at the scene on the television before grunting, “They’ve been talking about this shit all day. You know they got people saying that idiot was taunting Cuélebre? Actually saying shit to piss him off even more. How stupid do you have to be to do something like that, am I right?” 

Slowly, I nodded. “Oh yeah, you’re definitely right.

“You’d have to be pretty damn stupid.” 

*******

Well damn, a magic idea about how to get the ‘not for sale’ items from Seraph Hills without jumping into World War 3 hadn’t magically occurred to me while I did the rest of the shopping. 

On the plus side, I managed to collect everything on the ‘expensive but doable’ list aside from what my new friend back at the junkyard place said he’d have in twenty-four hours. It was all back at Wren’s new shop, while I tried to decide how to actually tackle the hardest part of the list. 

At the moment, I was sitting on a roof a good distance away from the medical school and attached teaching hospital, with my back against one of the air conditioners. I had been staring at the place for the past ten minutes, waiting for something… anything to occur to me. I had changed back into my costume to do this (the Paintball costume, that was, though my hair was still dyed and everything as well), so that I wouldn’t stand out sitting up here. 

Okay, so they wouldn’t sell the stuff we needed (and I was pretty sure at the prices they might sell or rent them for, even I couldn’t afford them without attracting attention from my parents), so I had to get the stuff another way. Without stealing them or causing some huge problem. Which… yeah, led to me sitting here, staring at the buildings, parking lots, expensive-looking cars, huge fences, roving security, and so on. This… was complicated. 

I’d even used the phone with the provided number that Double Down provided to ask if La Casa had any way of getting the stuff. Only not the way Pack had suggested. More subtly and… well, legitimately. There was a bit of back and forth, but what it amounted to was that they could eventually get stuff that high-end and specialized, but it would take time. Time we didn’t have. And Blackjack wasn’t going to risk his daughter getting that close to death again by extending the time limit. As he put it, Ashton would cross the deadline before she did. 

Blackjack had, however, made clear that he would send an army to steal the things we needed, consequences be damned. I’d had to talk him out of that, telling him that I would find another way. He told me to call him back when I couldn’t, or to just ask Pack to give the word. 

Honestly, as much as I didn’t want it to, I was starting to think it was going to come down to that. 

Then it happened. The sound of a rumbling truck caught my attention, and I glanced over the roof to watch a heavy truck heading past my building on its way to Seraph Hills. The name on the side was ‘Taurus’, which made me frown behind the mask and helmet. 

Taurus. One of many, many companies owned or partly owned by my family was Taurus. As a company, they delivered and maintained high end equipment all over the country. They worked with things like computer servers, prototype stuff put out by tech-touched, stuff like that. Basically, their whole thing was that they built the stuff (or had it built for them), delivered it, and maintained it in cases of the stuff breaking down or needing scheduled regular upkeep. Dad had let me see one of the warehouses and garages where the trucks were kept once. He even let me go under the truck to check it out from underneath, since he knew how much I loved cars and engines, and showed me the workshop area where they brought faulty equipment in to work on it.

He… wait. Wait a minute. 

Slowly, I stood up, straightening as I watched the truck head right through the gate at the medical center, making its delivery. Standing there, I stared for a moment, my brain working wildly. My hand found its way to my pocket, and I called a number that Pack had given me. 

She answered after a couple rings. “Hey, you ready to give up on the martyr routine and get this done? We’ve got people just waiting to go.” 

“Is one of those people good with computers?” I asked. “Do you have some kind of hacker?” 

There was a brief pause before she replied, “Uhhh, yeah you could say I know someone good. Why?” 

“Get them. Tell them to meet us somewhere.” 

“Sure,” came the answer. “But do you mind telling me why I’m calling in a hacker when we can just use Blackjack’s literal army to go straight in and grab what we need?” 

I watched the hospital in the distance. “Because we’re not starting a war, Pack. We’re not stealing anything from Seraph Hills. Not for long, anyway.

“I’m going to get your hacker access to the computer systems of the company that fixes and delivers the stuff. We’ll get the thing we need added to the maintenance list, wait for them to bring it out to take to the lab, get it off the truck en route without hurting anyone and without being noticed, then take it off the maintenance list so they don’t know it’s missing. After that, we do what we need with it, stick it back onto the list after we’re done, and have it sent right back into Seraph Hills before anyone knows there’s anything wrong.” 

“Huh.” There was a brief pause before Pack replied, “Doesn’t sound bad. Except you kind of skimmed over the part where we get it off that truck without hurting anyone and without, you know, them finding out it was stolen. How do you think we’re gonna pull that off?” 

“How?” I smiled a little, not that she could see it. “Very carefully.

“And we’re gonna need that invisible gorilla-lizard of yours.” 

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Denouement 4 – Chicanery (Heretical Edge)

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Hand pressed against the red circle on the wall of his living room to activate the intercom linking his prison house to the guards, Sean Gerardo’s mouth opened as he called, “Hey, Cristof! You still out there?” 

There was a momentary pause before Cristof Manders appeared in a brief flash of light. The man was three inches shorter than Sean’s own six foot four, and much thinner. Sean may have been stuck in this prison for eight years (from his point of view), but over time he had convinced his jailers to provide a few extra amenities, including an entire, well-equipped gym to replace his own makeshift one. He spent hours each day in that gym, and it showed in his form. 

But while Cristof may have looked smaller than Sean, the power discrepancy had always been far lopsided in the other direction. Cristof was a full Heretic and had been for over forty years. Which could be said for any of the man’s coworkers as well. Sean’s personal training and workout regime meant nothing next to the powers that any of his jailers could employ. 

Squinting at Sean suspiciously, Cristof asked flatly, “What do you want, Gerardo? Your parents aren’t scheduled to visit for another–” He paused, clearly considering the time differences. “–another two days by your clock. And you’ve already had your groceries delivered this week.”

Sean’s head bobbed up and down. “Right, yeah. But I figured you might want to play another game.” He gestured toward the table where he’d set up the chess board. “If you’re not busy.” 

Again, the other man paused. His head tilted as though listening to something that Sean couldn’t hear, before he lifted his chin. “I don’t know if you’ve somehow figured out what’s going on, or if this is all part of a contingency plan for anyone who ended up like you, but it’s not working.” 

Doing an admirable job of looking confused, Sean’s eyes widened fractionally. “Uhh, what?” 

“The people you’ve got outside,” Cristof snapped. “They’re not getting in here. And you know what? Even if they do, you’re still not getting away. Because the instant they breach the prison is the instant we teleport you out of here. I mean hell, that’s not even something we have to do manually. It’s built into the prison defenses, Gerardo. The instant anyone who isn’t allowed in this prison sets foot in it, you and every other prisoner are immediately transported to a back-up facility on the other side of the ocean. So this whole attack? It’s completely pointless.” 

“Okay, well, I don’t know anything about an attack.” Sean’s shoulders shrugged. “Not sure how I could, unless you guys are a lot worse at security than you’re supposed to be. But if there’s something going on out there, do you need to go out and help?” 

The man gave him a dangerous smile. “Nah. They don’t need me out there to deal with this. Trust me, we were ready. I’m here to play backup for the backup. On the off-chance your old friends manage to bypass the automated security, I’ll take you to your new prison myself.” 

With an easy nod, Sean’s mouth opened to ask, “Well, it’d probably be easier to protect those automated security spells if you were in the room with them instead of here, wouldn’t it?” 

“And leave you alone in here?” Cristof snorted. “Nah, you’re up to something. I can tell.” 

“Sure, okay.” Sean’s voice was agreeable and personable. “Well, I suppose the easiest thing to do would be to take me with you then, right?” His shoulders shrugged once more. “I mean, if my friends out there are coming here to get me out, my not being here would thwart that pretty effectively. You could keep an eye on me and the emergency security spells at the same time. Then if anything did happen to them, you could probably see it in time to fix it.” 

For a few long seconds, the man just stared at him. “Take you out of your prison cell?” 

“You have to admit,” Sean’s voice pointed out, “no one out there would expect it. They come bursting in, using all their plans and effort just getting to this cell and… whoops, I’m not here. I’m out there with you, in a secure room where they don’t have the slightest prayer of finding me. You’d be saving the day. Saving the whole prison, really. Hell, you could leave a trap here so that anyone who jumps in to save me gets caught in it.” 

“A trap…” Cristof echoed slowly, clearly considering it. “Yeah. Hey, you get over here.” He pointed to the front door. “Stand right there and don’t move, you got me? Do not move.” He waited until Sean had moved to stand there, then quickly scrawled a few quick runes around the walls, activating several prepared spells before backing up to join his prisoner. “Right. First one of your friends out there that manage to come here are going to get a real big surprise.” 

Sean’s head bowed. “I feel sorry for whoever ends up in here.” His mouth turned up in a very slight smile then as he looked at his jailer. “But hey, they did pretty much ask for it.” 

“Yeah… yeah, they did. Now come on.” Cristof grabbed him by the shoulder. “You try to pull anything right now and I swear, you won’t wake up from the coma for a month. Got it?” When Sean’s head bobbed in a nod, he grabbed the door, activating the spell on it to transport both of them out of the cell that the boy-turned-man had been trapped in for so long. 

They appeared together in a narrow corridor with metal walls lined with various glowing spell glyphs. Behind them was a vault door, apparently what Sean’s cell entrance had looked like from the other side. “You pull away from me,” Cristof warned him, “and those spells on the walls will put you on your ass so fast you’ll think you time-traveled.” He then yanked his charge along down the corridor. They passed several more metal vault-like doors. Other prisons. 

“I thought there’d be more guards out here.” Sean’s voice was contemplative, as they reached a short flight of stairs at the end of the narrow corridor. “You know, normal patrols just in case.” 

“There are,” his jailer snapped, grip tightening on his shoulder while all-but dragging him up those stairs. “Most of them are busy dealing with your friends outside. But don’t get cocky, I can deal with you myself, and I’m not the only one here. You’re not going anywhere, Gerardo.” 

“Wouldn’t dream of it.” Sean’s voice was smooth and quiet, a reassuring timbre that eased Cristof’s suspicion while the man pulled him along in a tight, inescapable grip. 

“Hold it!” The new voice interrupted just as they reached the top of the stairs, where a pair of double doors waited at the end of a circular landing. There was another Heretic there, a guard Sean knew by the name of Julien. He had a three-bladed spear in one hand, his face a mixture of apprehension and disbelief. “What the hell, Cristof? You brought Gerardo out of–explain this! Do you have any idea what’s going on out there? We’re under siege and you choose now to-” 

“Yeah,” Cristof snapped, “I know what’s going on. And I know that if those guys actually make it in here, the first place they’ll go is this guy’s cell. So better for him to not be there, get it? This room is the most protected one in the prison. I’m taking him in there. Anyone tries to get past you, I’ll teleport him the hell out of here and they’ll get absolutely nothing.” 

“It–are you sure that…” With a frown, Julien slowly asked, “Is that really something that we–” 

“You’re right.” Sean’s hand rose for attention, drawing the men’s gazes. “It’s not a perfect plan. But you know what would make it better? You keeping guard right here.” His head nodded toward the floor in front of the room. “Believe me, I know my friends and you should be ready to deal with them if they get this far. Don’t let yourself get distracted, because they’ll take advantage. You should be here, ready for them.” 

“I… right, yeah. Go inside.” Julien stepped away from the double doors, already watching the way they had come from. “Get him in there, lock the place down. I’ll make sure no one gets through.” He gave a sharp look toward Sean. “Your friends are about to fail, you know. Then you’ll have plenty of company in here. Hell, maybe we’ll arrange some play dates so you can all talk about how dumb this rescue attempt was.” 

“Hey, that’s enough,” Cristof snapped. “Yeah, the kid–err… guy’s not going anywhere. But you don’t have to be a dick about it. These people are just doing what they think is right. They’re wrong, but we don’t convince them of that by being assholes. They’re misguided, not some kind of… Strangers. Just protect the entrance, let me handle Gerardo.” 

With that, the man opened the door and pulled Sean in after him before letting it close. They were now in a circular room about thirty feet in diameter. The walls were lined with consoles, computer monitors showing various parts of the prison inside and outside, and lots of flashing warning lights. On the screens for the exterior of the prison, they could see dozens of figures fighting, spells and powers sending bright flashes of light here and there as the intruders fought against the prisons defenders. It was total chaos, impossible to easily follow over the monitors. 

“Nice place,” Sean’s voice murmured as he slowly looked around the room, taking in the security screens with barely a glance before focusing his attention back on Cristof. “I can see why you’d bring me here. I mean, if you’ve gotta hold out somewhere, this is the place to do it. Hell, you could probably stick the controls for every security measure in this prison here.” His head shook. “But they didn’t do that, did they? They didn’t put every security measure in this room.” 

“Hell no,” Cristof retorted. “We’ve got spells to stop anyone not authorized from teleporting in or out of this place. Not just here. Two redundancies in opposite parts of the prison. Three layers of security, counting the one in here,” he bragged with a confident smile. “And if one goes down, the other two activate emergency evacuation in seconds. Like I said, your friends out there don’t have a chance. We know what we’re doing here. They’re wasting their time.”

“They’re pretty good at that.” Sean’s voice was a murmured agreement before he added, “But I hope you guys didn’t put those redundant spells too close together. They’re not like, next door or anything like that, right?” 

With a snort, Cristof snapped, “How stupid do you think we are? Look, right there.” He pointed to a map of the facility on a nearby wall. “See these two rooms? That’s where the redundancies are. Like I said, completely opposite sides of the prison, and far from this room. We’re safe.” 

Sean’s head bobbed in a quick nod. “Wow. Yeah, you guys really thought of everything. Seems like it’s all handled.” There was a brief pause before he murmured a thoughtful, “Unless…” 

Frowning with equal parts anticipation and suspicion, Cristof demanded, “Unless what?” 

The prisoner shrugged. “I dunno. I just… I mean, I certainly didn’t tell anyone about this place, right? And you know you didn’t. Seems to me like the only way my friends out there could know where this place was and how to get to it would be if somebody told them. But if it wasn’t me, because I’ve been stuck here the whole time, and it wasn’t you, then… it kind of had to be…” 

“Someone else,” Cristof finished, staring at him with wide eyes. “You think someone in this place told your friends about it. You think someone–one of the other guards– is a traitor.” 

With a cough, Sean’s gaze moved to watch the security monitors, his voice idle, as though it hardly mattered. “It’s kinda the only thing that makes sense. No other way for them to find this place. Lots of traitors going around, no way of knowing who might’ve changed their mind about the rebellion lately. And you know, if there’s a traitor in here, someone who told those guys how to get to this place, they could’ve done more than that.” 

Cristof’s weapon, a sword with two parallel blades that could each shift between various elements and metals, was in his hand. “More than that?” he demanded with a look at the door.

“Sure.” Sean’s head nodded toward the control consoles. “You know that security spell you were talking about, the one that’s supposed to teleport all the prisoners out of here the second an intruder sets foot in this place? Whoever that traitor is, he would’ve told my friends about it, right? No way he wouldn’t. So why are they trying so hard to get in here? Unless…” 

Eyes widening, Cristof’s gaze snapped from the door to one console in particular. “Unless it’s compromised,” he finished for the other man, already starting to step that way. 

“Yup.” Sean’s own voice was a conspiratorial whisper. “I bet they changed it. They made it so the spells will transport you and the rest of the guards out of here instead. You’ll be teleported so far away you’ll never make it back in time. And they’re just waiting to activate it, any… second…” 

“Not this time!” Cristof retorted, shooting Sean a hard glare before his hands danced over the controls. It was a mixture of spells and actual technology. One hand dismissed a rune intricately drawn across the console, while his other hand punched in a code on the physical keypad. His voice was triumphant as he spun from the console with a laugh. “Sorry, Gerardo, your friends’ little tricks aren’t gonna work today. I just disabled that security spell, so let’s see them try–” 

“What the hell did you just do?!” The demand came from the figure who appeared with a snap of power in the middle of the room. Another Heretic, this one a dark-skinned woman carrying a bladed shotgun, had teleported in, already whirling to face Sean while snapping her free hand up, a ball of semi-invisible force appearing at the ends of her fingers. 

At the same time, the door slid open, as Julien came rushing through as well to see what had just happened. His spear was raised and ready to throw. 

With a flash of light, a bright, glowing figure stepped from Sean’s body. Apollo stood there, hand raised. Two of the rings on his hand flared with power. The first summoned a forcefield, intercepting the ball of energy the Heretic woman had just flung toward Sean. The other sent a burst of electricity back that way, flinging her into the far wall where she crashed through one of the screens there with a spray of glass and sparks. 

Simultaneously with that, another figure shot out of the back of Apollo. Felicity Chambers was there, hand already raised. As Julien’s spear flew toward Sean, she summoned a small portal. The spear sailed through it before reappearing behind Julien to slam into the man’s leg. An instant later, Flick’s kinetic-empowered staff slammed into the staggering man’s face, knocking him into the opposite wall. She followed that up with another blow before he could recover, even as two blades, hurled by Apollo, embedded themselves in the wall to either side of Julien. 

Cristof, by that point, had jerked around, two-bladed sword coming up. But before he could do anything, Sean slapped a hand against his arm. A napkin, pulled from his pocket, was there. The napkin he had spent hours subtly drawing a spell on under the tutelage of Apollo. With a single word, Sean activated that spell, and the napkin exploded into a sudden spray of liquid metal that enveloped Cristof before instantly hardening into a cocoon. A second later, the cocoon was filled with a potent knockout gas. Even as the cocoon fell to the ground and began to melt away into a puddle, the man inside lay completely unconscious. 

Meanwhile, the two daggers Apollo had hurled produced figures of their own. Sands and Avalon both appeared while Julien was raising a hand toward Flick. He had just summoned a bolt of power that would punch through the girl’s body, when her newly emerged teammates each struck the man from either side. Sands’ mace and a glowing warhammer conjured from one of Avalon’s gauntlets each slammed into him. That time, he collapsed and didn’t rise again. 

Quickly, Flick and the others took the man’s spear from his leg before using one of the enchanted rocks Wyatt had provided. This one wouldn’t teleport the man anywhere (that was impossible from in here until the security defenses were taken down), but it would ensure that he stayed unconscious for a few hours.

That done, the trio looked over first to where Cristof was, finding the man completely in hand. The woman who had appeared was down as well, Apollo tugging her limp form over to lie next to Cristof. 

Another glowing figure emerged, this time from Flick. Tabbris appeared, before she in turn produced Larissa, who produced Haiden. Athena emerged from him, Tristan from her, and Vanessa from him. Soon, the whole group was there in that room. 

“Sean!” Flick blurted the instant the initial threat was over and they were all present. With that, she threw herself that way, even as Sean reflexively opened his arms. The two embraced tightly, as Flick’s head shook. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry. I’m so sorry it took so long. Oh my God. I’m sorry.” 

Shaking his head, Sean tried to say that it wasn’t her fault, that it wasn’t any of their fault. The words stuck in his throat, and he just clung tighter. They’d interacted before during all this, in his virtual reality space whenever Apollo brought her in. But that was different from this. He hadn’t even let Flick or the others see how old he was getting in comparison to them, preferring to project himself in his mind as the boy he’d been back then. This was the first time they had really seen him as he was now. 

“Holy shit, dude,” Tristan managed, staring at him. “You’re… you’re… fucking buff.” 

A hiss of disbelief that turned into a coughing-laugh emerged from Sean, as he shook his head. “I’m… a lot of things,” he muttered. “Mostly glad to see you, man.” The two boys embraced firmly. “Really god damn glad to see you.” 

Tabbris took her turn for a hug then, followed by Sands, Vanessa, and the others. Even Avalon took his hand for a moment, squeezing before leaning in for a brief hug as she whispered in his ear about being glad to see him. But before that went on too long, Athena spoke up. “Very good. But we have to keep moving. There are still two redundant defenses to take down. Thanks to Apollo and his Tartarus gift, we know exactly where they are.” Her hand gestured to the spots on the map that Cristof had so helpfully pointed out. 

“We split into groups. One group stays here to defend this room. Two more go to each of these places, and we shut down their security simultaneously.

“This isn’t over yet.”

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Collectors 5-02 (Summus Proelium)

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First up on the available-but-expensive side was… I had no idea. Seriously, it looked like gibberish letters and numbers. Apparently it was a model or serial number or something. I had to make Wren read each bit off to me as I looked at it just to make sure I didn’t misread part of her handwriting. Not that it was that bad (better than mine, actually), but with something like this I really didn’t want there to be any mistakes. Just to be on the safe side, I made her read it again while typing it in my phone. Then I read what I recorded back to her to triple-check. 

So I had a bunch of names, model numbers, and some vague idea of where I might go. And then I had a question. The same question I’d had back at Wren’s place, actually. Should I go to these places as myself, or as Paintball? A new Touched flashing around a bunch of money to buy expensive, semi-niche things might grab certain people’s attention. 

On the other hand, the daughter of Sterling Evans doing so would definitely get attention. So even if I didn’t actually go in full costume, I still couldn’t go as myself. It just came down to, ‘in costume’ or ‘in disguise.’ And the fact that there was a distinct difference between the two really helped to show just how weird my life had become in such a very short time. 

So, I decided to go with a disguise. But if I was going to do that, I had to go all the way with it. Making a brief trip to the mall, I picked up a few things as quickly as I could. Baggy jeans, a chain with a wallet, basketball sneakers, a couple loose-fitting shirts, and a levi jacket to start. Then I went through the cosmetics and found myself some temporary blonde hair dye that would wash out. To cap the whole thing off, I took a pair of non-prescription glasses and a hat. 

With all my bags in hand, I headed to the restrooms. There, I stopped short. Wait. Hold on. I was… Okay, so the point was that I needed to disguise myself (even more) as a boy. That way, if it came back that the things that had been bought by me ended up used by Paintball, I wouldn’t give away my secret. But there was a catch. I wanted to change into my ‘boy disguise’ here at the mall. So did I go into the women’s restroom, where I belonged, and come out as a boy? Or did I go into the men’s room, where I didn’t belong, and come out of there as a boy?

I’d never been to superhero school, but if I had, I was pretty sure this still wouldn’t have been covered.

In the end (after clearly overthinking it for too long), I decided to go with the male restroom. Mostly because I figured people already mistook me for a boy as I was, so when I came out looking even more like one, being in the male restroom was probably the way to go. 

With all that in mind, I waited around, pretending to window shop and check out the nearby food court until I was pretty sure the restroom was empty. Then I quickly made my way in, went to the handicapped stall in the far corner, and set my bags down before hurriedly getting to work.

The stall was one of those with its own small sink, which was part of the plan. I used the sink, washing my hair quickly, then ran the hair dye into it before scrubbing it in thoroughly. The dye was meant to go with Halloween or cosplay outfits, so it would set in after about ten minutes, then wash out the next time I took a shower. Which I would be doing as soon as this was over.

Once my hair was colored and I was waiting for it to dry, I moved over to the next stall. It was a tighter fit, but I really didn’t want to take up the handicapped spot for ten minutes. Then I just… tried to pretend I was anywhere but there. I also prayed that no one would come in. It was a prayer that sadly went unanswered, though the second I heard the door open, I quickly took my headphones out, shoved them in, and turned my music up loud so I wouldn’t hear… anything. 

Finally, the hair was done. I hurriedly ran a comb through it, then put on the new clothes including both layers of shirts and the levi jacket before slipping my feet into the new shoes and stepped out to the mirror. The glasses went on, and I tied my hair back into a loose ponytail, hoping that would look sufficiently ‘guy-like.’ That done, I threw on the hat and checked myself out. 

Okay, I definitely looked like a boy. I looked like I belonged in one of those boy bands, actually. The kind that made little girls squeal. Wincing at how easy that had been, I grabbed my stuff and made my way out. 

Aaaand immediately almost ran into Simon. Yeah. He was on his way into the restroom, looking back at one of his friends. Seeing him, my eyes went wide, like a deer in headlights. Instinct kicked in, and I slipped past him. In my hurry, I kind of brushed up against his shoulder, muttering an apology under my breath with as deep a voice as I could manage before hurrying off. I had to tell myself not to look back. I really didn’t want to know if he was looking. 

Seriously, what were the odds that Simon would be right there right then? Sure, he spent a lot of time at the mall (or I’d thought he did before knowing he was basically employed as a goon for our parents), but still. Once I was far enough away, I sat down at one of the food court tables and took a second to glance back toward the bathrooms. Was he looking for me? The real me.

It didn’t look like it. A few of his friends that I recognized were there (were they part of our parents’ group too?) hanging around outside the restroom. A moment later, Simon and another of his friends emerged. He wasn’t looking around or anything, and he didn’t even glance toward the female restroom. Instead, the group briefly conferred, Simon checked his watch, and then he and a couple others walked off together, leaving the rest behind. 

Wait a minute. Wait. Yeah, maybe this was a bad idea. Okay, maybe it was a very stupid idea. But I might’ve just tripped over a way to find out… well, anything at all about my family’s situation. I just happened to be in disguise and almost tripped over Simon at the mall? Right, maybe he was just hanging out and not doing anything untoward. Maybe this was a waste of time, a waste that I really couldn’t afford given our time constraints. But if he was doing anything here…

I had to know. I wouldn’t take too long with it, but this was just too good of a chance to waste. Picking myself up from the table, I followed my brother and the friends who had joined him. I’d just take a few minutes to see what they were doing. If they were just doing ordinary shopping things, then there was no problem. I’d take off and focus on getting those supplies for Wren. 

The mall was busy enough that it wasn’t that hard to trail Simon. I stayed back far enough that I wouldn’t stand out, stopping now and then to pretend to window shop while keeping half an eye on the trio. They didn’t really seem to be in a hurry, and I was quickly starting to think the whole thing had been a waste of time. Simon was just hanging out at the mall, not doing anything nefarious. It was time to leave him alone and focus on the whole reason I’d donned this disguise.

Then it happened. As I was pretending to study a turtleneck on a very confident-looking mannequin, I saw Simon look at his watch once more. He said something to one of his friends, then beckoned with a finger while moving to a nearby employee’s only door midway between two different shops. Producing a ring of keys, he unlocked the door and headed through. The guy he beckoned to followed, while the other guy simply turned around, put his back to the wall beside the door, and waited. A lookout, apparently. 

Okay, now something was going on. Managing to stop staring before the guy by the door glanced my way, I straightened up and turned to meander that way, crossing the aisle to look at the opposite store. In reality, I was using the reflection in the window there to stare at that door. Approved Employees Only. That’s all it said. What were Simon and the other guy doing there? Why did they need someone to stand by the door and wait? And how could I get through it to find out? 

Right, first, I needed to distract the guy by the door. I… thought his name was Derrick, but I could’ve been something like Devon or Darius. I was going to go with Derrick for the moment. Derrick was checking his phone, idly looking up now and then but mostly just focused on texting or whatever he was doing. My guess was that his sole job was just to make sure no one else went through the door, so he didn’t have to pay attention to much beyond that. And I needed to make him stop doing even that much. This would be interesting. 

Thinking quickly, I looked down the mall to see a group of teen girls coming, arms loaded with bags. From the corner of my eye, I could see Derrick watching them too, with obvious approval at what he saw. Okay. Maybe I could use that. Yeah. Yeah, I could definitely use it. 

Pointing at my feet, I checked to make sure no one was watching before shooting a small blotch of red paint there. Leaving it, I casually walked that way, toward the incoming girls. As I passed them, a few more tiny shots of red paint hit the bags they were carrying. Then I just kept walking, passing a cart full of teddy bears for sale in the middle of the corridor before using that for cover. Picking up a bear, I watched as the girls neared Derrick and the spot of paint I’d left. Just as they were about to pass it, I activated the paint both there and on their bags. 

The result was immediate. The bags were ripped from the girls’ hands as they yelped in surprise. With a loud crash, they hit the floor, spilling their contents everywhere. The girls cried out, cursing even as Derrick jumped. 

I stood there, holding the bear in my hands as I watched the girls quickly drop to start gathering things. Under my breath, I murmured, “Go for it, Hot Shot. Come on, they’re cute girls. Help them. Do it. Come on.” 

“Dude.” A voice nearby cut in, and I blinked over to see the guy who was actually selling the bears staring at me. “Are you okay?” 

Jumping a bit, I saw Derrick moving to help the girls. Quickly, I pushed a twenty dollar bill into the man’s hand. “Thanks,” I murmured, “my girl’ll love it.” Then I moved around the cart, glancing over my shoulder to see the guy shrug and turn his attention down the hall to ask a passing couple if they wanted one. 

Derrick was still helping the girls pick up their things. His back was to the door, so I moved quickly past them. Giving one last quick look that way to make sure he wasn’t looking, I tried the door while praying silently. It was still unlocked. Breathing out, I quietly slipped through, closing it gently behind me before slowly looking around to see where it had led me. 

I was in a narrow corridor, with a gray floor and puke green walls. Ahead were a few closed doors, with another one at the end that had a little window in it. I moved that way, listening. 

Dumb, dumb. This was so dumb. What the hell was I doing? I was going to get caught. I was going to be in so much trouble. This was going to backfire. I needed to get the hell out of there, like right now before the whole thing completely blew up in my face. I had to leave. 

I went forward, carefully checking the side doors. They were locked, and I was pretty sure no one was in them. Quickly and quietly moving to the end of the hall, I chanced a peek through the small window to see what was there. Stairs. It was a landing, with stairs leading down. 

Biting my lip, I hesitated for a second before trying the door. Locked. And now I noticed the single white button beside the door. Was it a doorbell? A button to open the door? Something else? I didn’t know. I had no idea what might happen if I pushed the thing. The whole thing was seeming like more of a bad idea by the second. 

This was all so confusing. What the hell was my brother doing down there? Why were there stairs leading down in the first place? What could possibly be there? And why was I stalling instead of trying harder to get down there to find out? 

Because the last couple times I’d found my brother doing criminal things hadn’t gone too well, that’s why. The first time I’d seen two people get viciously executed, and the second time I’d found out that my dad was both a villain and my favorite superhero. So yeah, maybe I was a little hesitant to go through that door and see what new revelation popped up this time. 

Either fortunately or unfortunately, the decision about finding a way through the door was taken out of my hands then, as the sound of feet on the stairs made me look through that little window. People. My brother and some other guy, different from the one he’d gone in with. I could see the back of their heads as they came up the stairs toward the landing right before they would turn to come up the last set right to this door. 

Grimacing, I pivoted and looked around quickly. I couldn’t go out the door I’d come in. Derrick had to be right there by now. Instead, I moved to one of the side doors, the ones that were locked. Making my arm purple and activating the paint, I murmured a quiet prayer before shoving at the knob. 

It worked. The door popped open, and I quickly slipped through, giving a quick glance around to find myself in what looked like an old supply closet full of cleaning stuff that seemed like it hadn’t been touched in months, at least. There was a lot of dust, anyway. Hearing those footsteps reach the top of the stairs beyond the other door, I quickly and quietly closed the one for this room most of the way, leaving just a crack to see through. Then I paused, frowning. Hadn’t I been in a very similar situation just recently? When I went to save Ashton’s brother, I’d gone in a short hallway full of doors, then had to hide as one of the guys came back through the one at the end. Yeah, definite deja vu. 

I was really hoping this one wouldn’t end with me in a fight. 

Holding the door so that it stayed mostly closed, I listened as the one that had been locked beeped. There was a weird sound of rushing air from the other side as it opened before the footsteps came through, then the sound of air stopped as the door was closed. That was followed by a definitive sounding beep, then a metallic thunk that probably meant the door was fully locked again.

As soon as that was done, I heard my brother’s voice. “I don’t have time for this, man. You know the rules. Ten percent of the take from any job you do in the city just for permission to operate here. You’re operating here, that’s ten. You asked for the patrol schedules of the Spartans and Conservators for that day. That’s another twenty. Thirty percent. We know exactly how much you took and what it was worth. Thirty percent is forty-six thousand. Just be glad you didn’t ask for our direct intervention. That’s even more. Stop acting like this is some kind of surprise.” 

While I was taking that in, Simon and the other guy came into view. The latter was a tall, heavy-set guy with bulging muscles, a leather vest, and copious tattoos along his exposed arms. He looked like a biker. 

“It’s bullshit, man,” the guy was complaining as he stopped walking to look to my brother. “Why am I even talking to some punk bitch like you anyway?” He made a dismissive snorting sound, reaching up to catch him the shoulder. “Spoiled fucking rich kid. You ever even been in a fight, huh? You ain’t Touched, that’s for sure.” 

I saw my brother stiffen a bit at that. He went completely still, then pushed the man’s hand off his arm, voice turning a bit cold. “Tell you what. Hit me.” 

“Excuse you?” The man was staring at him. So was I, to be fair. 

“Hit me,” Simon repeated. “Just once. You hit me once, and I’ll call the entire debt clear.” 

“Bullshit you will,” his companion spat. 

Simon smiled, shrugging. “What’ve you got to lose? I mean, haven’t you wanted to hit me for awhile now? It’s kind of your best chance.” He spread his arms, taking a step back from the man that put him almost out of my sight. Then he closed his eyes and stood there, arms apart, eyes shut. “You’ll never get a better shot.” 

The man hesitated just for a second, then took a step that way and threw a vicious haymaker at my brother’s face. I very nearly blurted out a warning reflexively, but it died in my throat as Simon’s head turned just a little. The punch whiffed through the air. The guy threw another punch, and Simon did the same thing, his head snapping the other way. 

Frustrated by that point, the other man lashed out in a wild roundhouse swing, followed by a hard kick. Simon’s entire body tipped backward first, letting the punch sail just above his head. In the same motion, he pivoted and side-stepped a bit, allowing the kick to pass through the air where he had just been standing. It threw the man off balance, and he stumbled forward. With a roar of frustration, he produced a knife and spun to drive it toward Simon’s face before I even knew what was happening. But Simon just jerked his head backward out of the way, seeming to know that the blade had been brought into play. 

The man swiped with the blade twice more. Each time, Simon avoided it by stepping backward. His opponent was getting frustrated, and it showed, as he lunged at my brother with a shout, driving the knife toward his stomach. 

Pivoting away from the incoming knife, Simon’s hand snapped out to catch the man’s arm just as the blade slid past his chest. Gripping the man’s arm, he kicked out to knock his legs out from under him, then let the man fall while stripping the knife from his hand. 

Tossing the knife aside with a clatter, Simon breathed out. Only then did he open his eyes, having kept them closed through all of that. He stared down at the man on the ground, a long moment of tense silence passing before my brother eventually spoke. His voice was calm. “Looks to me like you have something in common with super powers.” He turned on his heel then, heading for the exit.

“I haven’t been touched by either of you.”

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