Interlude 3A – The Girl With The Lizards (Summus Proelium)

Previous Chapter

Three months ago

Wearing a dark green ski mask and a black leather jacket with the logo of an alligator on the back, the girl entered the jewelry store shortly before closing time. As she passed through the metal detector, the old security guard sitting at a chair nearby came to his feet, his hand already reaching for his holstered pistol at the sight of the mask.

“Ma’am, I’m going to need you to—”

“Gently,” the masked girl interrupted without looking that way. “He’s an old man, we don’t want to hurt him.”

The elderly guard’s mouth opened to ask what that meant, but before more than a couple sounds had escaped him, something almost but not quite invisible reached out to catch hold of him. The thing blended in with the wall behind the man, the floor under their feet, and the very air itself to the point of being all but impossible to truly see at a glance. One had to look very close to even hope to make out its vague, ill-defined shape.

Whatever it was, the thing behind the guard pulled him back and squeezed just tight enough to make him collapse, lowering the old man gently to the ground, as ordered.

By that point, the handful of customers and staff still in the store had noticed what was going on, and were staring that way. One of the sales people behind the counter began to edge toward what was obviously an alarm button. Before she could get close to it, however, the masked girl called, “Tuesday!”

At that single, unexpected word (particularly considering it was actually Friday), a small shape leapt up from behind the girl. It landed on her shoulder just long enough to launch itself across the room to land on the counter in front of the saleswoman.

It landed there, giving the woman, and everyone else, a good look at it. The thing was shaped mostly like a monkey, a Capuchin monkey, to be exact. It was the right shape, the right size, had a tail, and so forth. However, the similarities ended there. The thing had no fur. It had scales instead, like a lizard. Its face and tail were decidedly lizard-like as well, though the latter retained the monkey tail’s prehensile nature.

The thing opened its mouth to reveal a large collection of sharp teeth, screeching in the woman’s face as she cried out and stumbled backward.

“Good boy, Tuesday,” The girl praised while coming closer. “Now, let’s see how much fun shiny stuff you people can put in a bag for me in the next ninety seconds, huh? Don’t worry, I’m not that picky. Just throw it all in a bag and I’ll be on my way.”

Racing a shaking hand to point at the creature on the counter, the saleswoman whimpered out, “W-what is that thing? Who are you?”

“Damn it!” The masked girl cursed, snapping her fingers. “I knew you were going to ask that! But I still don’t have a good name yet. It’s surprisingly hard to come up with a good name, you know? One that hasn’t been taken, one that isn’t stupid, one that isn’t going to get a bunch of lawyers sicced on me… it’s hard.”

Shaking her head dismissively then, the girl added, “And that’s Tuesday. He’s going to be keeping an eye on you. Just to make sure you’re not tempted to do anything stupid. Just fill the bag with shinies and we’ll be leaving. Nobody has to get hurt, and it’s all insured anyway.”

Spinning on her heel then, back toward the doorway where a man had been slowly edging, the girl raised a hand. “And you don’t wanna go that way! Twinkletoes? Show him why.”

The almost invisible shape moved away from the wall. As it did so, the thing became visible, shedding its camouflage. Like Tuesday, it looked like a cross between a lizard and something much furrier. In this case, the combination appeared to be a chameleon and a gorilla. It had the same massive size and general shape of the latter, and the basic appearance, scales, and face of the former.

The man who had been trying to leave stumbled back, cursing at the sight of it.

“Yup,” the unnamed girl chirped. “As you can see, Twinkletoes is a pretty good bouncer. But he’ll be nice as long as nobody makes a move for the door. Fair enough? Good, now about that bag of shinies…”

******

A few minutes later, the masked girl ran through a nearby alley, laughing giddily with each step. “Oh my God, how fun was that?!” She shook the bag full of jewelry and beamed while reaching up to take off the mask. Doing so revealed a dark-skinned, somewhat busty girl with short hair that had been spiked up. Most of the hair was black, save for the tips, which had been dyed shocking white.

Turning to Tuesday and Twinkletoes, who had been following her (the former riding on the latter), she grinned to them. “Come on, boys, let’s get your sister off lookout duty and—”

In mid-sentence, she was interrupted by a loud screech. The girl snapped her gaze up in time to see something fly down out of the sky, screeching once more before it landed on the edge of the nearby dumpster.

It was another reptile combination. In this case, the thing looked like a bearded dragon lizard that had been crossed with a large golden eagle. The thing really shouldn’t have been able to fly (particularly given the fact that only its wings seemed to have feathers), but managed to somehow. It landed on the dumpster and tilted its head curiously at the girl.

“Oh, there you are.” Smiling, the newly-unmasked thief reached out to rub the eagle-lizard’s face. “Hey there, Riddles. You ready to go home too?”

“Nice friends you’ve got there,” an unexpected voice announced, causing both the girl and all three of her companions to whirl that way.

The woman who stood there at the mouth of the alley was quite obviously Touched. Her costume consisted of sleek white pants with matching boots, a black turtleneck with a purple leather jacket over it, and a full head-covering white mask with dark purple lenses covering the eyes that matched the jacket. A silver briefcase sat beside her.

“Cardsharp?!” the girl blurted while Twinkletoes stepped in front of her with a growl at the woman. “You’re Cardsharp, from the… like… La Casa? What’re you doing here?” Defensively, she added, “You better not be trying to steal my haul.”  By that point, Tuesday had hopped onto Twinkletoes’ shoulder and was adding his own growl, while Riddles spread her wings to make herself bigger and gave a loud screech at the woman from where she was perched on the dumpster.

“Easy there,” Cardsharp murmured, spreading both hands with her palms out. “I didn’t come to fight or cause trouble. But ahhh, that store you just robbed back there? Yeah, it belongs to us. It’s in our territory, and the owners pay a decent amount for protection from… well…” She coughed and gestured to the bag from the store in question.

Blinking down, then back up again, the girl narrowed her eyes. “What, so you came to fight me for it? Came to teach me a lesson?”

“What?” The woman stared at her briefly before shaking her head. “You’ve been reading too many comic books. No. Like I said, I’m not here to fight. First of all, here.” Reaching down, she picked up the briefcase that had been at her side. Unlatching it, she showed her the contents. Cash. It was full of cash. “There should be the exact amount in here as what you would have gotten by selling that stuff, plus a couple thousand. You give back that bag and I’ll give you this case.”

The girl blinked again. “So I rob places you’re trying to protect and you just give me money to give it back?“

Cardsharp chuckled. “That wouldn’t really be a sustainable business model, would it? No, this is a one time deal. If it purposefully happens again, then we’ll have to take other, more unpleasant measures. But hopefully, that won’t be an issue. Because I’m not just offering you a cash payment. I am also offering you a place with our group, with La Casa. See, the boss believes in recruiting and nurturing new talent. And you… well, you look uniquely talented. So take the case. With the cash, you’ll find a card with a phone number on it. You decide to take me up on the offer, call that number and they’ll talk you through coming in for an evaluation and training. But first…” She held her free hand out, gesturing for the bag to be thrown to her.

The girl considered briefly. Actually fighting sounded bad, considering what she knew about the woman in front of her. Basically, Cardsharp’s powers allowed her to temporarily alter the physical properties of both herself and anything she was touching or had been touching within the past few seconds. She could make herself weigh almost nothing, or make herself weigh up to about a ton. She could also do the same for an object in her hands, reducing the weight of something by a huge amount, or increasing it. She could make herself extremely bouncy, or could throw a knife and give it the properties of a rubber ball so that it rebounded around a corner before returning its sharpness. Sticky, bouncy, sharp, heavy, light, she did absurd things to her own physical properties and that of the things she held.

No one seemed to know if her unerring, perfect aim with anything she threw was a power, or just skill. Either way, it just added to how dangerous she was. Especially as she had a habit of making something incredibly light so she could throw it easily, then making it incredibly heavy right before impact.

Yeah, she was a great big cheater, and while she seemed to only be able to alter the properties of one thing at a time (including herself), she was still a great pain in the ass for anyone who tried to fight her.

So, after a brief hesitation, the girl tossed the bag that way before noting, “This all sounds pretty official and stuff for some gang of thugs.”

Cardsharp smiled easily. “What can I say?

“That’s just the kind of guy the boss is.”

*******

One week later

 

“The boss is kind of a weird freak,” The girl with the lizard creatures announced. She was wearing the same get-up, with the mask stuffed into a pocket. She was once more addressing Cardsharp, as the two of them stood in a long hallway in front of an unlabeled door. The girl held a cage that had been covered with a blanket in front of her self with both hands.

“Not that he really minds people thinking so,” her sponsor into this whole thing replied, “but what makes you say that?”

“This,” the girl retorted, gesturing at the door in front of them. “You seriously want me to go to some kind of school thing? I thought you saw what kind of badass I was and wanted me to jump on your team.”

With a soft chuckle, Cardsharp shook her head. “You’ve got an intriguing power, one with a lot of potential. You’ve got a lot of potential. But you also have no fucking clue what you’re doing. That’s not an insult. Most people don’t have a fucking clue what they’re doing when they start with all this. The boss knows that. It’s why he set this place up. Everybody goes through training. Everybody. Doesn’t matter if you’re Touched or Prev.”

Prev. That was short for Prevalent, the generally accepted word for ‘normal humans without powers’ or ‘non-Touched.’ It wasn’t exactly insulting, and encompassed the idea that they were the majority while not calling them ‘normal’ as if there was something wrong with people who did have powers (a problem that just calling them human would also have had) The shortened form of ‘Prevs’ was also often seen as another way of saying ‘Previouslies’, as in ‘humans before they had super powers.’

Cardsharp was continuing. “There’s different kinds of training depending on what you are, but everyone gets training of some kind. Think of it as a combination school and boot camp. You’ll go through three months of this before you hit the field.”

For a moment, the girl stared at her as though she had to be joking. “Are you serious? Three months of training before I do anything on the streets?”

The woman nodded once. “That’s the rules. It’s what Blackjack insists on, and it works. Trust me, there’s a reason our people are better than the other guys out there. We are better trained, we’re better armed and equipped, and we know how to work together. Our squads train together, live together, and work together. everyone matters, and that means no one is cannon fodder. Which means we’re not going to send you out on those streets until you actually know what you’re doing.

“So yes, three months of training. Take my word for it, it’s worth it. You’ll never have to go out there alone again. You’ll be part of La Casa, The House. And we take care of our own. Or you can turn around and walk right back out of here, no hard feelings. But this is your only chance, there’s no do-overs. You leave now, you’ll never be invited again. And believe me, you’ll make a hell of a lot more with us than out on your own.”

For a second or two, the girl looked indecisive. She lowered her gaze to the covered cage in her hands, biting her lip before finally looking up. “Okay, we’re in.”

Cardsharp gave her a thumbs up. “Good choice. Now before we go in and meet your classmates, may I assume that you have your friends there? That means they can shrink down again?”

The girl nodded. “They go back and forth. All I have to do is think about it and they’ll change back.”

“Excellent,” Cardsharp replied with a thumbs up. “Now I know their names are Tuesday, Riddles, and Twinkletoes, and that you haven’t chosen a Touched name. But what should we call you?”

There was one more brief pause before she answered. “Danielle Kalvers.

“Call me Dani.”

******

Present Day

“Dani!”

The blurted cry came from Dani’s left as the black girl stepped out of the building that had been her home for the past three months. Turning there on the sidewalk, she barely had time to open her mouth before she was suddenly caught up in a tight hug by a girl several inches shorter than her own five foot five.

It was KD. The super enthusiastic girl was barely over five feet, with pale skin and bright blue hair fashioned into pigtails. She wore sunglasses with little yellow smiley faces on the lenses.

“Oof,” Dani muttered, “hey, KD.”

Bouncing up and down a little, the other girl finally stepped back, grinning broadly. “Can you believe it? We’re graduating! We’re gonna be real supervillains!” She gave an excited squeal then, spinning all the way around on one foot.

Dryly, Dani replied, “I think you might have a little further to go on the whole villain thing.”

KD stuck her tongue out while retorting something incomprehensible. Then she tried again, this time without her tongue out. “Don’t be a grump. It’s time to celebrate! And hey, I even…” As she spoke, the girl pulled off the backpack she was wearing and reached inside. “… Got you a present!”

With that announcement, she pulled out a smaller cage with a wide-eyed little lizard in it. “Ta da! It’s a crocodile skink. I wanted to get you a real crocodile, but, you know, not allowed to go do villain things like rob the zoo until after graduation. Do you like her?”

Staring open mouthed, Dani slowly reached out to take the cage, lifting it up so she could see the skink better. “Oh my God, KD, you didn’t have to do that.”

“You’re my friend,” KD replied. “besides, I haven’t gotten to see you do it with a new one yet. I wasn’t here when you got Mars Bar. Can I see you do it this time? Huh, huh?”

Smirking despite herself at her friend’s excitement, Dani nodded while turning to walk back behind the building. “Sure, come on.”

The complex they were staying at was miles outside of Detroit proper. To the outside world, it was some kind of religious camp or whatever. Dani wasn’t sure. The point was, it was walled off and required about a half hour drive along a rocky dirt road to reach. There were a handful of buildings out here and a garage full of vehicles. The place really was like a whole university or something.

Together, she and KD walked past a group of people training to be La Casa foot soldiers, moving to a more private spot behind the academics building they had just left.

As Dani reached into the cage to take out the skink, KD asked, “So how does it work? I mean, I know you can only choose one other animal to combine them with, and that’s the only other form they get, but how do you choose?”

Clearing her throat, Dani started, “First, she needs a name.” Holding the skink carefully, she considered for a moment before pronouncing, “Holiday. Her name is Holiday.”

“Cuz she’s a present!” KD blurted with a wide smile. “I get it. Okay, so…”

“So now,” Dani finished for her, “I focus on thinking really hard about the animal I want to combine her with.”

“Well,” KD recited, “Twinkletoes is a chameleon combined with a gorilla. Tuesday is a gecko combined with a monkey. Riddles is a bearded dragon combined with an eagle. And Mars Bar is an iguana crossed with a grizzly bear. Which is really freaking scary, for the record. What do you need next?”

Dani considered that. Monkey, gorilla, eagle, and bear. What did she need? “Something big enough to take care of itself, but faster than Twinkletoes or Mars Bar. Like a wolf. Or…” Her smile brightened. “Or a panther.”

Kneeling down on the ground, she set the newly dubbed Holiday in front of herself before putting two fingers on the lizard’s back. As she focused, the skink suddenly went very still, eyes closing as both girl and lizard fell into a kind of trance.

Almost ten minutes passed that way before Dani opened her eyes. As she did so, the girl found herself facing a much different skink.

As she’d wanted, the skink was now combined with a panther. It looked like a cross between the two animals, a reptilian hunting cat without any fur. To many it probably would have looked horrifying and dangerous. But Dani immediately hugged her new friend. “Holiday!”

KD came in for a hug with both of them as well, proclaiming, “That was awesome! I mean, not much happened at first, but then she started growing, and you were all whispering stuff, and then she was growing some more, and then you were both making noises, and then poof! Here she is.”

Rubbing the top of Holiday’s head for a moment, Dani smiled. “Come on, girl.” With a thought, she shifted the creature back into her small lizard form. It took about ten seconds for the panther-reptile to fully shift and shrink back down into her ordinary skink form. Once she had, Dani reach down and picked her up. “Let’s go meet your brothers and sister.”

Before they could go anywhere, however, a figure stepped into view. It was Elarc Sorn, one of their combat instructors.

“Girls,” he announced, “Time to pack your things. It’s all hands on deck.

“La Casa’s about to go to war.”

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Summer Epilogue 12 (Heretical Edge)

Previous Chapter

“So that’s why I wanted to tell you about it alone,” Flick announced to Virginia Dare, just after explaining the entire situation with Jophiel and Elisabet, as well as the more recent revelations, as the two of them stood out in the forest a bit away from the camp. “Now that the spells stopping us from talking about it are gone, I wanted to… to tell you myself. So we can talk about it without talking around all the other stuff that no one’s allowed to know.”

With a faint smile while her eyes remained contemplative, Dare replied, “You mean the fact that I’m your grandmother, so I might feel especially outraged at what those two want to use you for.”

Biting her lip, the younger girl nodded. “Yeah, that’s about the size of it.” She hesitated then, looking to the woman directly. “Sorry we couldn’t tell you about it before. But, I kind of figured that if anyone was going to understand magic stopping us from talking about something, it would be you.” She ended that with a kind of sheepish half-smile, trying to break the potential tension.

Raising an eyebrow at that, Dare was quiet for a moment before heaving a long, low sigh. “A part of me wants to confront them, yes. For whatever little good that would do. But, on the other hand, as you said, they could have done much worse. And their intentions are… if not totally pure, at least along similar lines as our own. We don’t always get to pick our allies, and it sounds as though their goals and ours are at least within similar… ahhh, zip codes, as it were.” Lifting her hand, she laid it on Flick’s shoulder and squeezed. “If this Jophiel has already taken a few steps from ‘only Seosten are worthy’ to ‘Seosten and humans are worthy’, it feels like a better idea to keep pulling her toward ‘all species are worthy’ rather than shoving her off the bridge entirely just because she’s not quite to the end of it yet.”

“That’s a… a good point,” Flick agreed, looking over to the woman while reaching up to put a hand over the one on her shoulder. “I also thought you’d be mad that they weren’t doing more to get Gaia out of the Crossroads prison. I mean, part of me is kind of mad about that.”

“Yes, well…” Dare hesitated before murmuring, “there is a bit of that. But on the other hand, I highly doubt even a full Committee member could simply release Gaia, given everything that’s happened. If they were to push too far, they would blow their cover with both the Committee and their own people. As much as I want Gaia back, I can’t blame them for being more cautious.”

She looked to Flick pointedly. “They have already helped you in aiding Sean, after all.”

Quickly nodding, Flick confirmed, “Yeah, they were the ones who helped get Apollo in so he could start helping Sean stay… you know, sane.” She hesitated then, before adding. “I… I could go in with him, you know. I could possess Apollo and let him pull me in to talk to Sean.”

“You could,” Dare agreed, glancing to the girl curiously. “Are you going to?”

“Yes.” Flick spoke instantly before pausing with a wince. “Soon. I just… want to have something to tell him about how we’re going to get him out of there. I don’t want to tell him that we don’t have any ideas. I feel like that would make things worse, somehow, you know?”

“Felicity,” Dare started, then hesitated. Her voice turned softer. “Sometimes it’s good just to know someone is thinking about you, even if they don’t have all the answers. If you want my suggestion, go with Apollo. Visit Sean. Just the fact that you’re there, that you take the time to visit him, could make a world of difference in his… psyche. Having Apollo to talk to will help, of course. But one of his friends showing up? That’s even better. Even if you can’t get him out.”

“Good point,” the girl agreed softly before kicking at the dirt. “I guess I also feel bad. I mean, we can’t help him except for this. We have no idea how to get him out. And I feel like… we escaped and he didn’t. I don’t know how to look him in the eyes with that. I can’t tell him that we can get him out, only that we’re trying. And we’re not even doing that twenty-four seven. I’m… I’m having fun with Avalon, Shiori, and the others. He’s in prison constantly, and I’m just… every time I think about him and remember that we don’t know how to get him out, I feel like a… a traitor because I’m not burning down the world to try to get him out. I feel helpless. And then sometimes I don’t feel helpless because I stop thinking about it, and that makes it worse when I do think about it.” She was half-flailing by the end before folding her arms tight against her stomach. “I feel like a shit. I should have found a way to get him out of there by now.”

“I wish I had a better answer for you.” Dare’s voice was quiet, as she stepped around in front of Flick, adding a second hand to her opposite shoulder and squeezing with both. “I wish I knew how to get him out of there, just as I wish I knew how to save Gaia. But we don’t have those answers yet. You, however, have the ability to let your friend know that you’re still thinking of him, that you’re trying. Do that. Be there. Let him see and hear you. I think you’re truly underestimating just how much that can help when he feels alone and lost.”

With a tiny smile, the girl nodded. Then she embraced the woman. “I know. I… you’re right. See?” She leaned back and winked at her. “You’re already giving good grandmother advice.”

“I think that falls more along teacher advice,” Dare mused, “but I’ll take it.”

The woman turned then, starting to walk through the trees, with Flick following. “For now, I’m less interested in impotently ranting about what I’d like to do to Jophiel and Elisabet if they hurt or manipulate you, and more interested in hearing about what you’ve learned from them so far.” She glanced sidelong to the girl, adding, “Or what they plan on teaching you. After all, if they want to be helpful, even if it is for their own purposes, there’s no reason not to take advantage. Learn everything you can from them. If it helps convince the Seosten leadership to ally with humanity, great. If it doesn’t… well… you won’t be alone out there, I can promise you that. But even if you were, I’m pretty sure those Seosten would end up being pretty surprised about what you pull off.”

Another brief smile came to Flick’s face, and she walked faster to move alongside the woman. “Speaking of surprises, you should’ve seen Harp–I mean, Gwen’s face when Aylen turned out to be the person she’s been looking for all this time.”

“I can imagine,” Dare murmured thoughtfully. “What about Aylen’s… mothers? Do they know anything about this connection with Arthur?”

“We don’t think so,” Flick replied, walking literally through a tree and out the other side using her wood-traveling power. “But I guess we’ll find out in a few weeks, since we’re supposed to meet them, and her other grandfather.

“I just wish I knew why she keeps snickering whenever someone asks if her grandfather thinks it’s weird having a Reaper in the family.”

*******

“Okay, Chambers, new rule. You have to deal with at least six of the gigantic conspiracies that you’ve tripped into before you’re allowed to find any more of them.”

The words came from Avalon, as she stared intently at the girl in question. The two of them, along with Shiori, were sitting on a small sailboat out in the middle of the lake. Flick had brought her girlfriends out here to talk about everything, and was sitting across from them, looking a little sheepish.

“It’s not my fault things keep jumping into my lap!” Flick protested, face flushed. “Besides, most of these are things that have been going on for a long time, I just stumble across part of them.”

Shiori used her foot to poke Flick in the leg. “Are you okay, though? I mean, if Elisabet and this… Jophiel put all those spells on you, did they really get rid of all of them?”

“Wyatt, Athena, Sariel, and Gwen went over us,” Flick replied with a quick nod. “They said we’re clear of any unknown magic as far as they could see. And trust me, they were thorough. Especially Wyatt.”

“Good,” Avalon replied shortly, head tilting a little as she watched the blonde girl.

“Are you… upset?” Flick asked hesitantly, biting her lip as she watched her reaction.

With a long, quiet sigh, Avalon shook her head. “No, Chambers… Felicity. I’m not upset or angry. I’m a little… disappointed that I didn’t realize something else was going on. And I kind of want to yell at them for not saving Gaia, but… but logically I get it. And for the record, I would’ve understood even if it took you a lot longer to tell us the truth. You’re allowed to have important secrets. Especially ones like that. Because… because I know if I was in their situation, I’d want to make sure you were safe, above everything else. That’s what they were doing by putting those spells on you. They were protecting each other. I get that. And you were making sure you could rescue Sariel. I get that too. I’m not going to be mad at you just because you were in an impossible situation, and I’m not going to be mad at them for doing something I could see myself doing if it meant protecting you from a potential enemy.”

Her words were perhaps slightly undercut in seriousness by the fact that Porthos climbed from the girl’s pocket to her head and made chittering noises of agreement. The little metal lizard ended by jumping from Avalon’s head to Flick’s quickly raised hand, landing in her palm before dashing along to her cheek so he could reach up and pat her cheek.  

Shrugging, Shiori gestured toward Avalon. “She said it better than I could, but yeah, that. We get it. And she’s right, those two might have really different ideas about the whole… enslaving other species for the good of the universe thing and all that, but in this case, they’re protecting the person they love. I can get mad at them for a lot of things, but not that.”

With a tiny smile, Flick stepped over and embraced Avalon first so that Porthos could jump back to his partner’s shoulder. The two girls exchanged a brief kiss before Flick did the same with Shiori, quietly murmuring, “You guys are pretty awesome, you know that?”

Grinning despite herself, the Asian girl drawled an easy, “You ever wonder why awesome is good and awful is bad? Wouldn’t it be better to be full of awe instead of just some of it?”

“Okay, fine,” Flick replied deadpan, “you’re awful.”

With a snicker, Shiori blurted, “Yay!”

“You’re both awful,” Avalon informed them both, rolling her eyes before settling into a slight frown. “But I do want to know what Jophiel and Elisabet can do about Gaia. I… understand that they can’t get her out. But they have to be able to do something. Tell us what kind of spell they’re using to keep her asleep, let us know who is in charge of her, any ideas about where they have her, anything. They have to know something. And they have to know that getting Gaia back is the best chance we have of being strong enough to actually make the Seraphim listen to any alliance ideas.”

Flick and Shiori exchanged brief glances, the former nodding. “I mean, you’re not wrong. There’s others that are stronger, but Gaia’s got her whole ‘I puppet your technology’ thing that might make them think twice about bringing their ships here.”

“Not to mention,” Shiori added, “there’s lots of Heretics that will listen to her because of everything she’s done for them. And she’s the one who knows the most about who and where all the hybrids that are probably still pretending to be loyal are.”

Slowly nodding in agreement, Avalon murmured, “So, they have to know something, anything that might help. Even if it’s not useful right this very second. I want to eventually succeed at saving Gaia, not just make myself feel better by trying something immediately that fails.”

“We will, Valley,” Flick promised while putting a hand on her arm. “We’ll get her back.

“I just hope we can do it before whatever Fossor wanted her out of the way for happens.”

******

“Knock knock.”

As she said those words, Avalon rapped her knuckles against the side of a tree in the forest while looking up into it. Her other hand was taken up by the plastic bag that she carried.

In one of the branches above her head, Aylen leaned over, face appearing as she blinked a couple times, clearly having just woken up. “Oh… uh, hi.”

“Do you mind if I come up?” Avalon asked, lifting the bag. “I brought food.” She felt awkward. This kind of outreach was usually more Flick’s thing. But she’d gotten to know Aylen a lot better than the other girl had while Flick was gone, especially after finding out her secret.

Nodding quickly, Aylen started to ask if Avalon needed a hand. But the girl was already on her way, taking a few steps back before running up and jumping to plant her foot against the tree, using that to reach a lower branch. From there, she made her way rapidly and smoothly up before settling in beside her.

“I guess you’re fine then,” Aylen noted dryly, shifting over on the branch a little to give Avalon more room before returning her attention to looking out over the cabins and lake in the distance. As she did so, Sovereign landed further out on the tree, giving a soft scree that drew Porthos out of Avalon’s jacket. The two exchanged a flurry of sounds, before the little lizard looked to Avalon for permission.

“Go on then,” the girl motioned with one hand. “Have fun.”

With a chirp, Porthos darted that way, clambering up onto Sovereign’s back before the flying cyberform took off into the air.

The two girls sat there in comfortable silence for a minute or so, neither needing to talk. They just watched as Sovereign flew with Porthos riding. Finally, Avalon spoke up with a soft, “How’re your mothers doing with all this?”

“I don’t know,” Aylen admitted. “They’re still off on their… uhh, mission. I’m not really sure exactly what they’re doing, but they said it’d be another few weeks. It was an emergency.” She glanced over to the girl beside her, adding, “If this was an emergency, I could get them here right now. They’d drop everything. But I don’t think it is, so I don’t want to take them away from what they’re doing. I mean… Arthur’s been… gone for this long, and we don’t even have all the bones or anything, so–”

“Bones?” Avalon echoed, raising an eyebrow.

“Oh, yeah.” Aylen gestured over toward the cabins. “I talked to Ha.. I mean, Gwen. She said we need to find all of Arthur’s bones before we can do… uhh, whatever it is I’m supposed to do. She’s got most of them, but apparently there’s still some out there.”

“Do you think they used some of his bones to help make the Heretical Edge?” Avalon suggested. “If he’s so powerful, maybe his bones are powerful. And if you were going to try to free your… your grandfather from that, maybe freeing him is what releases Arthur’s bones. That could be how you’re supposed to bring Arthur back.”

Aylen blinked at that, head tilting a little. “I… huh. Maybe, I didn’t think of that. But Gwen and that… um, Mercury guy said the Seosten didn’t want to just kill me because they were afraid that might be what wakes up Arthur.”

“They probably don’t know what you’re supposed to do,” Avalon pointed out. “They’re erring on the side of caution because they have no idea what could happen to make him come back.”

“Point,” Aylen conceded before letting out a long breath as she tilted her head up to the sky above, visible through the tree canopy. “Maybe that is it. I dunno. It’s strange though, right?”

“Definitely strange,” Avalon agreed before adding, “Though strange is normal anymore. Here.” She lifted the bag, offering it to the other girl. “Here. I thought you could use it.”

Aylen took the bag, blinking once before reaching in to retrieve a small glass box with holes in it. A rat was there, breathing slowly as it was clearly alive, but sedated. “What–you… brought me…”

“I knew it was getting about that time,” Avalon murmured, feeling a little uncomfortable. “And I didn’t think you’d been out lately. If that crossed a line or something–”

“No,” Aylen quickly interrupted, shaking her head. “No, it’s okay. I just meant… thank you. Most people would not be bringing me something to kill just like that.”

“You kill to eat,” Avalon replied flatly. “How is that different from any non-vegan or vegetarian out there? If you eat meat, something died to feed you. This isn’t different, you’re just… not exactly eating it.”

With a tiny smile, Aylen retrieved the rat from the box. Taking a breath, she hesitated before carefully asking, “You’re sure you’re okay with this? I can wait until later.”

Shrugging, Avalon assured her, “Don’t worry about me.” She reached into the pocket of her jacket, retrieving a wrapped sandwich, which she began to pull the plastic off of. “I brought my own.”

The simple words and actions, completely dismissing any thought that there was something wrong or strange with what she was doing, made Aylen’s smile grow a little. She glanced down at the tranquilized rat before smoothly breaking its neck. A rush of energy flooded the girl, put off by the animal’s death. She gave a soft gasp and slumped slightly from the rush. She could… feel the creature’s life, could… see a flash of memories from its life, short as it had been. It was tiny and incredibly quick, but it was still a wave that washed over her.

Avalon’s hand was on her shoulder, keeping the other girl steady on the branch. “You okay?”

“Um… yeah.” Aylen blushed, sitting up a bit more. “I’m good. And thanks.

“I guess if I’m supposed to wake up Arthur, being close to Avalon isn’t a bad start.”

Legwork 3-05 (Summus Proelium)

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I was too dazed to put up much of a fight. And there were too many of them anyway. Before I really understood what was happening, my hands were tied behind my back with some kind of cord, and the men basically frog marched me out of the building and into the back of a car.

Double Down got into the back of the car beside me, with one of the other man driving in the front. We pulled away from the curb with a squeal of tires as the sound of police sirens in the distance got closer.

Wincing at the sound of the tires, Double Down leaned forward a bit, putting a hand on the back of the driver’s seat. “Come on, man. We’re trying not to attract attention now.”

What a sigh, he leaned back once more and looked to me. “Good help, am I right?”

For a moment, I just stared at him. My voice was dull. “I wouldn’t know.”

The man cracked his knuckles and glanced out the window as we drove for a few seconds while my mind raced. Then he turned back to me. “First of all, relax a little bit. You’re not being taken to be tortured or killed or anything like that. The boss doesn’t go in for that stuff, even if he is kinda pissed and desperate right now. Especially since you’re a kid. I mean, not a kid but…” He gestured vaguely at me. “You’re not an adult, okay?”

“Two more minutes,” I said flatly.

His head tilted a little curiously as the man watched me. “Two minutes?”

I nodded once. “Two minutes. If you people had held off for two minutes, I could have given you the stuff from the bank. I was right there with him. You coming in distracted me and he set off that… whatever it was.”

“Stun grenade,” Double Down informed me. “And how much do you know about what that guy stole?” He was watching me somewhat suspiciously. Maybe he was thinking that my knowing too much about it could imply that I was working with Ashton or something. After all, they didn’t know what I had been doing in there. And I couldn’t exactly explain that I’d overheard my supervillain parents talking about it.

Taking a quick second to decide how to answer, I settled on, “I met the guy’s brother when some thugs were trying to beat information out of him. I found out Ashton was the one who stole the thing from the bank. I’ve been tracking him down so his brother could be safe again. When we were in the apartment back there, he told me why he stole the vials and what they were for.”

The best part about that story was that it was all true, for the most part anyway. And it didn’t require the bit about my parents to work, which had to make it worth extra points in the keeping secrets Olympics.

Wait, did they have those? Because this was excellent training for future medalling efforts.

Double Down seemed to take it well enough. At the very least, he focused on a different part. “He told you why he stole it, how much he wanted?”

Hesitating slightly, I started carefully, “He’s says he’s going to ask for money.”

“Money is not exactly an object in this case,” the man replied. “So that’s kind of a relief. If he’s willing to sell it, then he can be reasoned w—”

I quickly interrupted. “I don’t think he’s going to give them back. I don’t think he’s ever planning to give them back no matter how much you pay him.”

Staring at me, his brief good cheer gone, the man asked, “Do you want to explain that?”

So, I did. Carefully and simply, I laid out what Ashton had said about his friend who was killed and how he wanted Blackjack to feel the same helplessness he had. I also mentioned how he had reacted when I had guessed that was his plan.

Once I had finished, Double Down turned away. He reached up to scratch the back of his neck while staring out the window. I heard him mutter a soft curse. Then he turned back to me and held out a bag. “Okay, I’m going to need you to put this on. Like I said, you don’t have to worry about any torture or anything like that. You’re going to come in with us once we get where we’re going and talk to the boss. That’s it. Don’t start any trouble in there and you’ll be fine. You’ll be back out playing hero or whatever you want to do in no time.”

Staring at the bag and then add him, I retorted, “I’m really supposed to believe you people are just going to let me go?”

His response first was a shrug. “Like I said, the boss has rules. Think of it as our Geneva Convention. We don’t torture. We don’t try to kill civilians. It’s not unheard of or anything, but we don’t make a point of it. If something happens to you in the middle of a fight, well, that’s one thing. But we’re not in combat now. Not unless you start one. You’re a prisoner. You do what you’re told and we’ll let you go. We see you later in the middle of a fight situation, and that’ll be a different story. But right now, all we want is to have a conversation. We can be civilized like that, don’t you think? Especially considering you already know the stakes we’re dealing with.”

It took me another second, but finally I sighed and nodded, waiting as he put the bag on for me. It was just big enough to fit over the helmet. Pulling it on, I turned my head his way. “How do you know I don’t have some kind of power to see through this? I mean, I don’t. But you kind of have to take my word for that, don’t you?”

“Nanocircuits sewn into the bag,” he replied. “They detect any kind of vision power or anything like that being used and the bag will incinerate the contents.”

He held that just long enough for my brain to seize up before snorting. “Dude, I’m just fucking with you. There’s no nanocircuits. After you put the bag on, I pointed a gun at your face. If you would have reacted, we would’ve known you could see through it.”

“And if I’d have reacted violently!?” I demanded in a voice that squeaked even more through with the voice changer than it really needed to, in my opinion.

There was a brief pause before the man admitted, “Yeah, that might’ve gotten bad. But hey, it’s all good. Now just sit back and relax for a minute. We’ll be there before you know it.”

*******

Apparently ‘before I knew it’ was about ten more minutes of driving. I didn’t know if they were deliberately going further than they needed to in order to throw me off or what. It wasn’t like I could keep track of the turns or anything. I tried, but it got confusing too quickly. That also might’ve been purposeful.

Either way, eventually we stopped in what sounded like an underground parking garage, going by the echoes. I was helped out of the car, then escorted to what was obviously an elevator with the bag still on my head. We rode the elevator up, and partway through, Double Down pulled the bag off and cut the cords binding my hands. He passed them off to the other guy in the elevator with us (I thought it was the driver, but all the minor guys were wearing simple black masks so it was hard to be sure) before looking to me as I glanced around the elevator. It looked like any other elevator in any office building anywhere except for the fact that there was no array of buttons. There was just a single slot for a key, which was filled right now.

“Like I said,” Double Down reminded me, “play nice, answer questions, and we’ll let you go.”

Rather than bother responding verbally, I just gave him a thumbs up. How sarcastic that gesture actually was… well, I’d leave that up to him to interpret. I was busy trying to think of exactly what to say to the La Casa leader.

Blackjack. Nobody was exactly sure what his power was, aside from the fact that he seemed to be very lucky and good at guessing secrets. Which was… worrying, considering my own secrets. They said he wasn’t actually telepathic or anything (though there were some arguments about that). What everyone basically agreed on was that the man could pull information out of seemingly nowhere, and he always seemed to be several steps ahead of everyone else in a fight.

He clearly wasn’t perfect, though. Or Ashton never would have been able to steal the medicine or whatever it was from him.

Shaking that thought off as the elevator came to a stop, I watched the door slide open, revealing what looked like… well, it looked like a nuclear bunker or something. The hall ahead of us was made of thick cement with some kind of metal plates over part of it, leading to a single vault-like door that was standing open. Through it, I could see two guards in their black masks waiting. The room behind them seemed even more secure. Going by the size of the vault door, the walls were at least three feet thick.

“You seriously want me to walk in there?” I demanded, looking to my escort.

“We’re careful,” he informed me in a flat voice. “And thorough. I told you you’d be fine if you just answer questions, and that hasn’t changed. You’ll meet the boss in our secure room, answer some questions and make sure he’s satisfied that you’re telling the truth, then we’ll escort you out. So let’s go. Don’t start something now.”

As unsettling as it might have been to walk into a place as apparently escape-proof as this seemed to be, I didn’t have much of a choice. I could try to fight, but I was pretty sure there were a lot more guards around than I could see. To say nothing of any automated defenses in this place. And I didn’t have the key to use the elevator, nor did I know any other way to get out. Or where to go. Yeah, all of that sounded bad.

My only choice was to keep playing nice and hope that they were telling the truth about letting me go. Or, failing that, watching for a chance to escape when they lowered their guards.

All of which meant walking into that vault room was my best chance. So I did. With a soft sigh, I walked forward, through the small antechamber/hallway, and into the vault. The two guards waiting stepped aside as I approached, allowing me to pass with Double Down and the other unnamed guard right behind me.

The place clearly wasn’t exactly designed with comfort in mind. It was a simple, square room about seventy five feet across. The walls, ceiling, and floor were all that same hard cement with uniform metal plates spaced a foot or so apart. In the middle of the room was a table with a few leather chairs spaced around it. One man sat in the single chair on the opposite side of the table, facing me.

Blackjack. It was him. The man stared as I entered, watching me through that gold face mask he wore. His expression was, obviously, impossible for me to see. But judging from his body language, he was… tense, to say the least.

Behind me, the vault door groaned a bit as it closed with a final, definitive thud. Then I heard half a dozen bolts loudly clang into place. Whatever was going to happen next, I wasn’t going back through that door until they opened it.

I really hoped Double Down was telling the truth about letting me go after I talked to Blackjack. Because otherwise, I had no idea what I was going to do.

I was starting to think I was in a little bit over my head here.

“Mr… Paintball, was it?” As he spoke, Blackjack gestured to the seat straight across from him. “Please, join me. I trust my associate ensured you that you are in no danger here as long as you cooperate?”

For a moment, I just stood there. Then I sighed under my breath before following his instructions, stepping over to sit down. “Call me crazy,” I started, “but I’m pretty sure you already know he did because you were listening in on that entire conversation from the car all the way up through the elevator. Hell, you might’ve been telling him what to say. Something tells me you’re just that kind of person.”

The man inclined his head a little, as if appraising me. Then he simply announced, “Using a voice synthesizer. I assume that means you interact with people in costume who might recognize your voice otherwise.”

Trying to keep the surprise out of my voice, I took a quick second to swallow back every initial reaction I had. After what felt like an eternity but was probably only a couple seconds, I replied, “I said something I figured out about you, so you said something you figured out about me?”

Rather than respond to that directly, Blackjack watched me in somewhat unnerving silence for a moment before speaking carefully. “I know what you said. But I’d like you to tell me all of it again, now, in person. From start to finish, explain how you found Ashton Austin and what happened while you were in his apartment. Any detail at all might help locate him.”

Here went nothing. Taking a deep breath, I explained everything about how I’d rescued Josh the other night and found out about Ashton being his brother. Then I went on to say that I’d been looking for Ashton so that Josh wouldn’t be in danger, and gave my reasoning for the apartments I’d checked, finally leading me to the right place. Then I told him everything about the conversation I’d had with the guy, adding in a tiny detail about him being the one to tell me that it was medicine and who it was intended for.

“Well,” Blackjack informed me, “you are certainly a very resourceful young man, I’ll tell you that much. You believe he had the vials on him?”

My head shook. “I checked him and they weren’t there. But I think they were close. I figure he hid them somewhere safe enough to grab and run for it. I mean, he was smart enough to set up that stun grenade, and probably other traps.”

Pushing himself up from the table, the man turned away. He walked over to the nearby wall, resting his hands against it while leaning over, as though lost in thought. Seeing him, how tense he was despite an obvious attempt to project himself as calm and collected, I would’ve known this was life and death for him even if I wasn’t already aware.

“I know,” the man finally broke the silence, “that you are leaving certain details out or rearranging them. I’m not exactly sure why, but I do… believe that you are simply protecting yourself or avoiding giving away information.” He turned his head, looking to me. “I do not believe that you are hiding details that could help me. But if I am wrong…”

“I’m not,” I quickly put in. “If I knew how to find the medicine, I’d tell you. I mean… you’re a bad guy, but your daughter isn’t. She doesn’t deserve to… she doesn’t deserve to lose her medicine just because you’re a Fell-Touched. Letting her die isn’t just punishment for you being… what you are. I promise, if I could help, I… I would.”

Blackjack’s voice was dark, as he informed me, “I will find this man. And when I do, he should hope with all of his soul that I make him pay for simply endangering my child, and not for…” He didn’t say the rest of the sentence. He didn’t need to. The fear underlying every word was enough.

Looking toward Double Down then, the man nodded. “Give it to him.”

At those words, his subordinate stepped up to me, handing a cheap flip phone over. “There’s one number programmed into it,” he informed me. “You find this guy again, you call the number.”

My hand took the phone, but I shook my head very slightly. “I’m not going to sic your men on him. I’ll get the medicine and then call your people after the cops have him.”

“Young man,” Blackjack spoke in a tired voice, “you say that as though I could not have men take him from any jail the local authorities put him in. I could have him killed or released to be brought to me.” He stepped back over to the table, pushing his chair in with one hand while remaining standing beside it. “But whatever makes you happy, as they say. I want the vials that were stolen from the bank. That’s it. If you return those, the bounty is yours.”

“I don’t care about the bounty,” I informed him quickly. “I care about your daughter getting her medicine. That’s it.”

“All the same,” he replied, “I will owe you.” His head tilted a little, as though something had just occurred to him. “Though if you are… set for funds, I’m sure there will be other ways of paying that debt. Given how you tracked down Mr. Austin to begin with, you would fit in quite well among my people.”

“Sorry,” I replied as airily as I could, “Paintball doesn’t really fit the whole gambling theme. And I just don’t know what I’d change it to. Also, I don’t want to be a bad guy.”

Besides, I added silently, even if I did, I’ve already got what you’d call an ‘in’ with a different group of murderous psychopaths.

“As you wish,” Blackjack replied, sounding every bit the tired, stressed, horrified father rather than the supervillain he was supposed to be.  “Mr… Paintball,” he started slowly then. “I believe you may be just the outsider who can track down this man again. You did it once. Should you do so again, I do not particularly care if you call us, or the authorities first. Secure the medicine and return it to me, and I will owe you a favor with the worth of my… my daughter’s life.”

Holding up the phone, I promised, “If I find him, if I get the vials, they’re yours.” I resisted the urge to point out again how close I’d been to getting the vials to begin with before his men had interrupted. The guy felt bad enough as it was, despite how much he was trying to portray himself as calm and collected.

“One week.” The man’s voice cracked very slightly before he controlled it, looking straight at me from behind that golden mask. “My daughter has one week. Find the vials, and do it within that time. If you do not, I…. I will have no reason to hold back any more. If my daughter dies, I promise you, it will not be one man who pays for her death.

“It will be this entire city.”

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Legwork 3-04 (Summus Proelium)

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I was right about it being a long night. It took me another two and a half hours to actually check the next four places on the list I’d put together. Five of the six were as thoroughly searched as I could, and I still hadn’t managed to find Ashton. Not that it being hard to find this guy was that surprising. He’d managed to stay hidden from what amounted to an entire city searching for him.

But I had one more place to look. It was the smallest of the apartments I’d picked out, consisting of what amounted to large house separated into a few separate units. Part of me thought that might be too small and put him too close to nosy neighbors. But on the other hand, if he had developed a reputation for keeping to himself… it could work.

As small as the place was, it also meant there was no on-site manager’s office to check or anything. Which was another part of why I’d saved it for last. I was going to have to go peeping in all the windows to check for my quarry, which I had been really hoping to avoid. Oh well. Finding Ashton to stop the gang war and save a little girl, no matter whose daughter she might have been, was worth it. I’d just be quick and try not to… pay attention to anything private.

Repeating that silent mantra to myself as I stood by a dumpster in the alley beside the building in question, I took a few more deep breaths. Making sure I was all painted black aside from a bit of purple on my legs, I finally turned and stepped around the dumpster. Activating that bit of purple as well as the black that was on my shoes, I leapt up and over the tall wooden fence there. Landing silently, I crouched, watching the building. There were lights on in three of the four apartments, including the nearest one. That was the one I moved toward, staying low.

The building itself was a tall Victorian-style place. There were two apartments on the bottom floor, each taking up half of the level, and a matching two on the top floor. It was the lower-right apartment that I was heading for. The fence around the property kept me from being seen by passersby, so all I had to worry about was someone seeing me through one of the windows.

There were bushes lining the windows I was heading for, so I stayed low and carefully stepped around them. Knowing how bad this would look if I was seen, I kept going anyway. Very slowly inching through the back of the bushes, I leaned up to take a quick peek through the window.

It was a kitchen. There was an open pizza box there on the table, and I could see a television on through the open doorway. There was also the back of someone’s head sitting on the couch, but I couldn’t see a face.

Thankfully, I only had to wait a few seconds while racking my brain before the person sitting there stood up. They were a black guy. Definitely not the one I was looking for. Just as he turned to head for the kitchen (and probably that pizza), I quickly ducked out of sight.

One down, three to go. Debating about whether I should go straight up to the next one, or work my way around the building to check the other lower one (the far upper side was the one where the lights were off), I eventually decided on the former. The upper apartment was right there. So, renewing a bit of black silencing paint on my shoes to keep my costume nicely dark, I sent a bit of red up to a spot just under the window above this one, then let myself be yanked that way. The ten seconds that my red paint lasted would hopefully be enough to look for the inhabitant.

As it turned out, ten seconds was more than enough. Because the instant I hit the wall and peeked through that window, I saw the apartment’s occupant. And that was the end of my search.

It was him. It was Ashton. I knew that from the instant I saw him, in a side-on profile as the man was standing in front of the microwave. He’d dyed his hair and had cut the beard he used to have, but it was definitely him.

It was also a really good thing that I’d used the black paint to silence myself, because I actually gasped out loud, which probably would’ve given me away. As it was, something seemed to catch the guy’s attention, because he started to turn just as I ducked out of sight.

Him. It was him. He was right there. All this time and the guy was–

My paint ran out. Realizing that at the last second, I started to fall. There was only one thing I could do to avoid attention. I activated the rest of the black paint on my costume, as well as a bit of orange to protect myself. Silent and safe from damage, I crashed into the bush.

Yeah, that would’ve sucked without my paint. As it was, I still made a bit of noise. Or rather, the bush itself did. I snapped off a couple small branches and lay there, half-sprawled for a second before quickly scrambling off and ducking myself as low as possible under the shrubbery, just as I caught the sound of the window above me sliding open.

Pizza guy stood by the open window, just above me. I lay there, just a few feet under him, as the man leaned out the window and looked left, then right. The two of us stayed like that for a moment, me not even daring to breathe. My eyes were wide as I stared up at him while staying as still as possible. I willed myself to be smaller, trying to press down into the dirt.

Finally, the man grunted, withdrawing back into the room. I heard him slide the window shut, then walk away. Listening to the floor creak, I finally exhaled, closed my eyes, and let my head fall back into the dirt. Taking a couple deep breaths to steady myself, I finally opened my eyes once more.

Just in time to see Ashton leaning out the upper story window, staring right down at me.

The guy must’ve seen my head move or something, because he withdrew back into the apartment instantly. Cursing frantically under my breath, I quickly jerked my hand up and shot a wad of red paint up to the edge of the roof, above that window. Letting it yank me off the ground and up, I shifted my legs purple. Just as I reached the red spot, hand clapping against the wall, my other hand shot a short spray of black paint at the window to silence it. Then I drew my legs back and quickly kicked out while dismissing the red paint on my first hand. Kicking through that window with a spray of shattered (silent) glass, I landed in the kitchen on my knees.

Ashton was there. Right there. He had grabbed a pistol off the counter, and was turning back toward me. Just as he brought it up, I threw myself to the left, behind the table there. There was a quick series of soft whuff whuff whuff sounds from the clearly specially silenced weapon, as he shot three times, each bullet striking the windowsill right behind where I had been crouching.

Before he could recover and check his aim, both of my hands snapped up. I shot a bit of red paint at the man’s chest, while slapping my other palm onto the table to leave more red there. Activating both sent the table up into the air, as it flipped over to slam into the man with a crash.

His gun dropped to the floor with a clatter, as I sprang back to my feet. The table had already fallen, as the guy grabbed a nearby carving knife from the wooden holder and came after me with it. He swung wildly twice, both of which I quickly dodged before I snapped a hand up to intercept the third swing. My glove turned orange for protection, just as I caught the blade.

Ashton stared at me for an instant. Which was all the time I needed to shift one of my arms purple. Yanking the weapon from his grasp, I caught his arms and gave him a hard yank up and around. His feet left the floor, as I threw him backward against the far wall. He hit it hard, slumping down with a grown.

Below us, pizza guy banged on his ceiling a few times, clearly annoyed by the noise. Which was probably good. If he felt safe enough to bang instead of calling the cops, he must not have thought anything too bad was going on.

Maybe it was stupid to not want the cops to show up, but I had a feeling they wouldn’t be quick to give whatever vial Ashton had stolen straight to Blackjack. And bad guy or not, I wasn’t going to condemn his daughter to death for what he did. The cops could have Ashton after I got what he stole.

Dazed as he might’ve been, Ashton didn’t stay down. His hand grabbed a loose plate from floor, which he chucked at me like a frisbee. Seeing his motion, I’d already painted a green image of a stick figure running onto my chest, using it to speed myself up. My hand snapped out to catch the plate in midair, and I tossed it to the side while blurting, “Stop that, asshole!”

Instead of stopping, the man dove for his gun. With a sigh, I shot a bit of red at it, yanking the weapon from the floor to my grasp before he could get it. Then I set it on the counter behind me, snapping, “Are you done now? Knock it–”

In mid-sentence, I was interrupted by the man scrambling off the floor to throw himself at me. My green paint had worn off by then, but he came at me so wildly, it was easy to sidestep him. Catching his arm and back, I put purple around myself once more before turning to hurl him again. He went crashing face-first into the fridge. And that time, he stayed down, groaning.

“Okay,” I announced, “now you’re done.” Grumbling to myself, I sent a bit of red paint to the man’s foot, and another to the floor somewhat near me. I wasn’t going to step over there and risk him somehow taking me by surprise. So I just used the paint to yank him out into the open where I could see him better.

He lay there, dazed, while I quickly checked the man for more weapons or anything else. I was ready for him to make a move, but he just stayed still (aside from the occasional groan), while I ran my hands over his pants, up across his chest, then under to check his back. He was clear. Which was both good, bad, and good again. Good because he didn’t have any weapons. Bad because the vials weren’t on him. And good again because that meant they weren’t broken from that whole little thing where I kept throwing the guy around or tossing tables into him.

That done, before he could recover too much, I hesitated. Part of me wanted to use a pair of those cuffs Flea had given me on him. But I hadn’t actually brought them with me. They were still in the box that I’d hidden at the half-finished skating place where I’d been training because I’d forgotten to grab them before coming out here to do all this.

So I didn’t have any way to cuff him. I did however, yank the cord out of a nearby blender and the attached wall socket. Kneeling down, I tied the man’s hands behind his back as quickly and tightly as I could before quickly stepping back. By that time, he seemed to have settled a bit, rolling over to stare up at me. “So who sent you, kid?” he demanded. “Blackjack? You tell that–”

“He didn’t send me,” I interrupted. “Nobody did. And I’m not after you for the reward. Tell me where the vials you took are.”

Glaring my way, he shook his head. “I dunno who you think you are, kid. But you–”

He grunted in surprise as I shot a small ball of red paint at his chest. It didn’t hurt, but seeing the blob fly from my hand to hit him made him jerk a bit.

“Paintball,” I informed him. “That’s who I am. And I want to know where the vials are. Do you have any idea what’s going to happen if Blackjack doesn’t get them back?”

“Yeah,” he snapped, “I do. Which means I know that bastard has all the motivation he needs to pay me for them. Give it another day or so and he’ll write me a blank check.”

For a moment, I just stared at the man. “What the hell are you– you’re endangering a girl’s life!”

“Yeah?” Ashton echoed, his words a snarl. “What about the life of my friend?! That fight between La Casa and Oscuro last year? One of the La Casa fucks took a few shots and missed. But they hit my best friend. His name was Carlos, and he’s dead. He died because of them. He wasn’t even involved. He was just walking by when the La Casa bastards started shooting. He’s dead, and no one gives a shit! So yeah, I’m gonna fuck Blackjack over. I got nothing against his kid, and I’ll give the vials over if he pays me. But if he doesn’t and worse comes to worst, that’s on him.”

Swallowing, my head shook. “I’m sorry about your friend. I am. But you can’t just use a tragedy as an excuse to be an evil asshole. That kid, she… she didn’t do anything to you.” Softening my voice (and hoping the voice changer itself was good enough to pick that up), I added, “I didn’t know your friend, but do you really think he would’ve wanted you to put some innocent kid’s life in danger just to get a payday out of Blackjack? Which, for the record, doesn’t sound much like justice to me. You’re not trying to stop him, you’re not trying to bring him to justice. You’re just threatening his kid to get money out of him. That’s selfish. You’re using your friend’s death for your own profit.”

“I’m using it as motivation!” he snapped right back at me, glare blazing hotly. “Carlos is dead because of that cocksucker. I’m gonna need money to get out of this town and make a new life. The one Carlos and I always said we were gonna live. And doing it with Blackjack’s money, that’s just fucking poetic justice.”

“No it’s not,” I murmured. “It’s an excuse.”

I don’t care!” he all-but thundered, pushing himself into a sitting position with his hands still tied. “That son of a bitch is going to feel afraid! He’s gonna feel the same thing I felt when I heard Carlos was shot! He’s gonna be scared of losing someone he cares about, and then he’s going pay out the ass to stop it! And then–”

He stopped, but my head snapped to him, as I finished his words. “And then he’ll lose her anyway. That’s right, isn’t it? You were lying before. You aren’t going to give the vials back. You have no intention of giving them over. Even if he pays, you want him to lose her. You want to take his daughter away from him, just like he helped take Carlos away from you.”

Now he was really glaring. Sitting there, staring at me as if I was the one who killed his friend, his mouth opened to say something. But that was when the sudden creak of a gate outside caught my attention. Turning, I glanced out the broken window.

Touched. There were Touched there. Two La Casa Touched, and several of their non-Touched minions. They were coming through the gate, pointing up at the building, at this apartment. How had they–

A sound made me spin back the other way in time to see Ashton pull something from one of the drawers, fumbling with it with his hands behind his back. Before I could react, he pressed something on whatever he’d grabbed, and the world exploded.

Or at least, it seemed to. There was a sudden deafening and blinding… explosion of sorts. A flashbang with a shockwave that knocked me to the ground. The table and chairs went flying, glasses shattered, and I was left lying there, completely out of it. My vision went in and out, I heard a loud buzzing sound, and it was all I could do not to throw up. I couldn’t move, couldn’t focus, couldn’t… couldn’t make myself… do anything but… close my eyes.

“–not here, damn it!”

The voice snapped me awake, and I saw men in the room. They were the same ones I’d seen before, the ones from La Casa. Staring up through bleary, barely conscious vision, I saw one of the Fell-Touched standing over me. His name was Double Down, and he wore black chainmail-like armor over his lower half, and a black leather bomber jacket with two face cards, a king and an ace of spades, printed across the front. The top half of his face was covered by a form-fitting white mask, leaving his mouth and short blond hair exposed.

“If he’s not here, our new friend here knows something about where he went,” Double Down was saying to someone I couldn’t make my eyes focus on. “Grab him and let’s get out of here before company shows.

“Blackjack is gonna want to talk to this kid.”

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Summer Epilogue 11 – Eden’s Garden Victors (Heretical Edge)

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It was known as the Chamber of Victories. The room, located in the very center of the very top of the tree that served as the home of Eden’s Garden, was a mixture of beauty and danger. Perfectly circular, the wooden walls, as well as the floor and domed ceiling, held thousands of intricate carvings in the polished wood. Those carvings told the stories of not only the history of Eden’s Garden itself, but of each of its leaders. Every Victor, past and present, had the main points of their history carved into the wood. If one knew where to look, they could follow the story of any of the Garden leadership, with their battles, their losses, and their triumphs.

At least, normally one could do such a thing. Currently, there were dark scorch marks, acid burns, and deep gouges from various blades cut deep throughout the room from some recent battle.

In the center of that room was an enormous table, large enough to allow each of the sixteen Victors ample room to sit without being too close to their neighbor. Not only for the sake of simple comfort, but because many of those Victors, if put too close together, would resort to violence at the first provocation. More marks of damage lined the table itself.

Meanwhile, above the table was the main tree canopy, each leaf large enough to serve as the sail of the largest wooden Bystander ship from the ancient days of exploration. And below those leaves, lighting the room itself, were glowing vines and fruits, the latter of which gave the Garden Heretics their power. They only grew in that specific spot, the fruit-bearing vines themselves carefully cultivated to appear here, above the Chamber of Victories, where they could be monitored, counted, and divvied up between the tribes as needed.

The glow from both the fruit and the vines they were attached to wasn’t nearly as bright as it should have been. Several full vines with their attached budding fruit had been severed recently, in the same battle that had left the room beneath them so damaged.

Around the edges of the damaged room, nine figures stood, eight of them in pairs of two while one stood alone. They watched one another carefully, eyes roaming from one to the next as a palpable tension hung in the air like an oppressive mist that clogged the senses. No weapons were drawn, but it was a near thing.

“How about it?” The one who spoke was a tall, heavily muscled man with long white hair that fell to the middle of his back. Despite the color of his hair, he seemed young, appearing to be in his early thirties at most. His face would have been handsome were it not for the long hook-shaped nose that curved out a bit too far. Brown eyes, peering out from a deeply tanned face, scanned the room. “Anyone else want to make a play for more fruit so they can follow the others?”

Beside him, a much smaller, black-skinned man with white-lensed sunglasses gave a single nod. “As Lorenzo said, would anyone else in this room like to turn traitor?”

Straight across from both men stood two more figures, one male and one female. The latter was a very slight and slender woman with incredibly pale skin and soft brown hair. She appeared almost china doll fragile.

The man, meanwhile, stood around five foot ten inches in height, his skin almost rosy white. His black hair was elaborately styled with curls and a single long braid. Some might have called him soft-looking at a glance, but the glare he was shooting across the room at the first two who had spoken was anything but soft. “You’re looking at me,” he declared. “It wasn’t funny the first dozen times, Prestor. It will never be funny.”

“Never?” the small black man named Prestor Cannon asked with a note of curiosity. “I don’t know, assuming that the great Benedict Arnold, whose name is quite literally synonymous with traitor, would be up to his old ways? That seems a little funny to me. And, you know, maybe a little bit common sense too.”

“My great-uncle is not a traitor,” the small woman beside Benedict Arnold spoke up then. “Watch your mouth, Prestor.”

On the far side of the room, to Prestor and Lorenzo’s left, stood another male and female pair. The man was an elderly Native American, who stood alone with no apparent counterpart. “Hannah,” the man spoke, addressing Benedict’s grandniece. “No one trying to claim anyone here is a traitor.”

“Aren’t they, Quevias?” Hannah demanded. “Because it sure seems to me like that’s what they’re doing.”

“Enough.” The snapped word came from the elderly, severe-looking woman with the tight gray bun who stood opposite Quevias and his partner. Remember Humility Bennett, looking somehow even more like an angry schoolmarm than usual, stood next to her own Victor partner, a much younger-looking Indian woman who did not look old enough to have even graduated Bystander high school.

It was that younger woman who looked at her supposed ‘partner’ while speaking simply. “Of course, while we’re talking about traitors… maybe we should bring up the big ones.”

“Zoya,” Remember spoke through gritted teeth. “Now is not the time for your games. Victors are to present a united front.” She turned sharp eyes to her. “And you know that I hold no allegiance toward either Joselyn or Felicity. Nor they to me, clearly. We are strangers to one another.”

“Either way, we should stop pointing fingers at one another,” a new voice grumbled from yet another male and female pair. In this case, it came from a somewhat heavyset Middle Eastern-looking man with dark skin and a full beard. He stood beside the smaller, light-skinned and dark-haired female figure who was known to those present as Ikita, and to very few as the woman currently possessed by the Seosten named Cahethal.

Most of those present had their own Garden-based names that they went by amongst their own tribes. But here, in this room, they used their real names. That was part of being equals within the leadership of Eden’s Garden. Only Ikita, her real name of Lydia Smallwood almost completely forgotten by all but a select few, used her tribal name here. None were really sure why she was allowed to get away with such a thing, but a lot of it had to do with the fact that she had been going by Ikita since long before Garden had ever been a thing.

“Kyril has a point,” Zoya agreed with a nod to the Middle Eastern man who stood next to Ikita/Cahethal. “I’m sorry, Remember. We should be united now.” Her eyes flicked over to the damaged walls. “There’s been enough fighting.”

“Enough?” Prestor demanded. “Or not even close? Because from where we’re standing, the traitors still escaped with a third of the apples for this year.”

“Don’t forget the Stranger resources they released,” Zoya put in. “Thousands of cages and magical prisons were broken. Some went with the traitors, some simply fled through other portals. They’ve scattered by now. It will take quite some time and effort to collect the ones who went on their own, to say nothing of those who are now accompanying the traitors.”

Hannah, still standing close to her great uncle Benedict, nodded. “The escaped Strangers are irrelevant compared to what was stolen from this room. Because it’s not just the apples. They have the vines. They could technically find a way to grow more with the vines.”

“Doubtful,” Remember disagreed with a frown. “I suppose it could be possible. But without the Children of Bosch…” Her gaze moved to Prestor and Lorenzo, the Victors of that tribe. “It is not likely.”

These, who had spoken and stood facing one another, were the Victors of the five Eden’s Garden tribes who had remained loyal after the spell from Gaia Sinclaire and her pet student Felicity Chambers, the daughter of the first great traitor, Joselyn Atherby, had reawakened the rebellion. Five tribes.

Remember Bennett and the incredibly young-looking Indian woman Zoya Dalal led Lost Scar.

Ikita, secretly Cahethal, and Kyril Shamon, the heavyset Middle Eastern man, were the leaders of the Eternal Eye tribe.

The Victors of the Children of Bosch, known for their scientific experiments, were Prestor Cannon and Lorenzo Hunt.

The tribe known as the Reapers took their name from those same powerful creatures from which all Bosch Heretics drew their power. Unlike the other tribes, their Victors had been split on their loyalty. The elderly Native American known as Quevias Quarter had stayed, along with roughly half of their number. Their other Victor, the woman named Aniya Keita, had left with the remaining half.

Finally, the eponymous American ‘traitor’ himself, Benedict Arnold, led the so-called Remnant Guardians alongside his great-niece, Hannah Beckman.

Kyril looked toward Prestor and Lorenzo as well. “How about it?” he asked in a voice that rumbled through the room. “How many of yours went with the traitor tribes? Enough for them to work on planting those vines?”

Three and one half of the eight tribes had turned almost fully traitor, rebelling nearly as one. But not all of those tribe members left with them. Some stayed behind and would be taken in by the remaining tribes once their loyalties were assured. Unfortunately, as Kyril’s words implied, some from the loyal tribes’ members had left as well.

Four and one half loyal tribes, versus three and one half traitors. An almost even split. The loyalists had considered it a win that they retained control of the tree while the rebels left, but that would not be nearly as much of a victory if the traitors actually managed to use their stolen vines to grow new fruit. It was a process that should have been impossible, or at least too slow to be useful anytime within the next few decades. And yet… more unlikely things had happened. Losing any of the fruit, let alone entire vines, was a dangerous blow to the loyalists.

In response to Kyril’s question, Prestor and Lorenzo looked to one another, before the latter spoke. “We don’t believe that any of those who left are… advanced enough to succeed at such an attempt.”

“Belief is not knowledge,” Ikita/Cahethal pointed out flatly, letting her gaze move over the assembled group, her eight fellow loyal Victors. “We cannot be certain until we retrieve the vines. That should be our primary goal, above all else. We take the vines back, before the traitors manage to defy expectations by finding a way to make them grow.”

Benedict gave a firm nod at that. “Agreed. We track down the traitors. First priority is to take the vines. Second is to apprehend our… counterparts. This rebellion must be stopped before they ally themselves with the Atherby camp. You know what happened the last time, how far we had to go to ensure that war was ended.”

“It will not get that far,” Kyril stated firmly, his dark eyes blazing with anger at the very idea.

“I certainly hope not,” Remember murmured, her soft voice drawing the attention of the others. “As Benedict said, we all remember what happened during the last rebellion, when entire tribes abandoned the tree. We need to nip this in the bud.

“Before it’s too late.”

*******

“This… is a very long way from the Chamber of Victories.”

The man who was speaking was small and relatively thin, though with arms that were tightly corded with muscle. He appeared to be in his early twenties, with green eyes and hair that was cut short, its natural blond color turned dark blue.

His hands gestured to the room around himself and his companions. Like the aforementioned Chamber, it was a large room with a single table in the middle. But that was where the similarities ended. In this case, rather than being at the top of a magically gigantic tree, this was the private dining room in the back of a small buffet restaurant in a medium-sized town somewhere on the west coast of the United States.

“Yes, Carseus.” The Asian woman who sat beside the man who had spoken looked equally young, save for her incredibly ancient pale eyes, which looked as though they had been through many centuries. Given the woman was well over three thousand years old, the eyes were a far more accurate representation of her age than her flawless skin and hair were, in this case.

She looked to her male partner, adding, “It is very different. Yet I… cannot find too much fault in it.” She offered a very slight smile. “I rather enjoy it more than the Chamber, personally. So much food variety. I am planning on trying that… what is it called? Spawgetshe?”

“Spaghetti,” the man sitting across from her who spoke up then looked very old and very weathered, like an ancient cowboy, his skin wrinkled and leathery. He even wore a leather duster and the wide-brimmed hat most associated with the old west. Or normally wore them, in any case. Currently, the duster had been draped over the back of his chair, while the hat sat in front of the man on the table. “They call it spaghetti.”

“Thank you, Jack,” the Asian woman, known as Fu Hao, gratefully murmured with a slight bow of her head. “Yes. I am looking forward to trying this… spaghetti. It shall be an adventure.”

Beside the cowboy, known as Jack Childs, sat his own partner, a man who appeared to be in his early forties, with short black hair and a wide face. His expression looked almost permanently surprised. Since the days when he had served at the command of King Arthur with the other Knights of the Round table, he had been known as Lamorak.

Now, Lamorak the knight sat in quiet meditation, his eyes closed as he let the words of his fellow Victors wash over him. Arthur’s words had guided him this far. But what would come next? And would he know what to do when it did?

Near Lamorak, close enough to touch him (which she did, occasionally), sat a lone woman. Aniyah Keita, the Reaper Victor who had taken half of her tribe away from her own actual partner to follow her knight lover, had long red hair with one part at the front that was midnight black. Her skin was quite tanned, particularly for a red-head, and she had gray eyes with flecks of black.

Finally, on the far side of Fu Hao and Carseus, sat two figures whose similarities revealed their close relation. Each had equally olive skin, on the somewhat darker side, with black hair and brown eyes. Their noble, regal facial structures came from literal royalty, as the siblings, Alexander Helios and Cleopatra Selene, were the direct children of the latter’s namesake. Their mother had been the last true pharaoh of the Ptolemaic Kingdom of Egypt, while their father was the Roman general and leader Mark Antony. The twins had, in all their many centuries of Heretic life, remained a near-constant in each other’s lives. Including now, as they led the tribe known as the Dust Striders.

These were the leaders of those who had rebelled from Eden’s Garden following the removal of the memory spell. Alexander Helios and Cleopatra (or Cleo as she preferred) Selene had taken all of the Dust Striders who were loyal to them. Carseus Elsen and Fu Hao had taken their own Vigilant Sons (and Daughters), Jack Childs and Lamorak had taken the ones known as Fate’s Shepherds, and Aniyah Keita had taken roughly one half of the Reapers tribe.

From her seat, Cleo looked toward Fu Hao. “Don’t forget,” she murmured, “we aren’t here solely for the enjoyment of new tastes. Our people are depending on us.”

“And the Alters we took out of that place,” Lamorak quietly pointed out. “The ones who stayed with us.”

“That’s right,” Childs agreed with both while rubbing a hand over his heavily-lined face. “We’ve got ‘em all spread out pretty well between here and the border with Canada, so we probably won’t attract too much attention just yet. But we need to find a place to settle in and start building up defenses. And we can’t go any further north than that.”

He was right. Even the seven of them together did not want to risk angering the one who called themselves the King of Canada. That place was off limits to Heretics. It was entirely too dangerous to make an enemy of that… being.

“What about Seller?” Childs asked then, addressing his question toward Carseus and Fu Hao, the Victors of Seller’s tribe. “Is he joining us? And what of the others in his… group, Atherby’s oldest daughter, and the Eternal Eye girl.”

“Miranda,” Fu Hao informed him. “And we believe he will come to meet us. But she… she will likely stay with the Atherbys. As will Abigail and the other girl, Gia. Or ‘Pace’ as she is known.”

Childs coughed. “Then there’s the elephant in the room. Hannah Owens. Bosch’s descendant. We really screwed up there, didn’t we?”

Fu Hao was quiet for a moment before simply replying, “It is doubtful she will have any interest in returning either. Most probably, she and the others will choose to stay with the descendants of Camelot.”

“Are we sure we shouldn’t join up with them too?” Childs considered, head tilting curiously. “Linking up with the remnants of Arthur’s kingdom might just be exactly what we need to do to win the war that’s coming.”

Eyes still closed, Lamorak murmured, “Not yet. It’s not the right time. We need to be able to stand on our own first.”

Cleo gave a nod of agreement. “He’s right. The Atherbys and Prosser may be a great help, but we must come as allies, not dependants. We will create a new place for ourselves and defend it.”

Carseus spoke then. “We have the vines too. They’re safe enough in the storage dimension, but they’re not going to grow like that.”

“As far as we know,” Alexander Helios put in, “they will not grow at all. We do not know how to make them work.”

“We have some ideas,” Aniyah corrected him, moving a hand to gently squeeze Lamorak’s leg while she amended, “Some of our people do, and those who came with us from the Children of Bosch.”

Fu Hao gave a very slight, almost imperceptible nod. “Yes. Yet this is not something we will have more chances to get right. We must be absolutely certain that the vines will thrive and grow before we risk losing them. If we do not have the vines to create more of our people, the other tribes will soon hold an insurmountable advantage.”

Drumming his fingers along his hat, Childs pointed out, “Maybe we should’ve stayed then. If we had the tree and drove them out…”

Opening his eyes, Lamorak shook his head. “We didn’t have the numbers, old friend. Better to take what we could hold and leave to fight again another day. We will find a safe place for our tribes. And we’ll grow the vines.”

“You sound confident of that,” Alexander noted, his dark eyes watching Lamorak curiously. “Is there something you want to tell the rest of us?”

For a moment Lamorak was quiet. “I’m… not entirely certain. But… yes, I think so. Arthur, when he was alive… he told me a lot of things. Some of it had to do with visions he had of the future. I’m not entirely sure how it all fits together. I don’t think even he was. But one of the things he said was that the seeds would grow near the Lost Territory.”

“Lost Territory?” Cleo echoed. “That… sounds like Desoto.”

Aniyah leaned back a bit in her seat. “You think the old king saw all of this and wanted you to take the vines and plant them near what used to be Desoto?”

“I don’t think he understood much of what he saw,” Lamorak pointed out quietly. “It was all just images and thoughts jumbled together. But yes, I think that’s what he was saying. Even if he didn’t understand it then.”

“Well then,” Fu Hao announced, “we will begin taking the tribes south-east, toward what was once Desoto.

“But for now, let us eat. I wish to try this… spaghetti.”

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Legwork 3-03 (Summus Proelium)

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“Man, I still can’t believe you get to come here whenever you want.”

Amber was the one talking, and ‘here’ was the White Pines Country Club. It was a pretty exclusive place. A pretty exclusive place that my parents happened to be on the board of directors of. We’d been members basically my whole life.

I wondered how many of the other important members were also supervillains.

Feeling self-conscious (for a few reasons), I shrugged at both Amber and Jae, who sat next to her. The three of us were out on one of the balconies overlooking the golf course, sitting on some admittedly incredibly plush and comfortable chairs. “It’s not a big deal. Your families could probably join up if they wanted to. I mean, we all go to the same school, you know.”

Taking a sip of her virgin strawberry daiquiri, Amber shook her head. “No, see, our families are comfortable. High end of comfortable. Yours is filthy stinking rich. There’s a difference.”

“It’s not just filthy stinking rich people who come here,” I pointed out. “If it was, there’d be like, four members.” Shifting in my seat as I tried to push my thoughts away from that one about how many of the people I saw here all the time might be evil, I looked to the quiet Jae. “Besides, with how cool she looks, I bet you guys could get in all on your own.”

“It’s true,” Amber agreed with a wink at her friend, “she is pretty cool.”

Jae, who was wearing dark shades and a large sun hat to help keep her sensitive skin from burning so easily while we were out here in the open, flushed a little and took a drink from her iced tea. Her voice was very soft as she suggested, “We should probably start.”

“She’s got a point.” Looking to Amber, I added, “We should get to it. I just figured coming out here might be a nice change of pace from holing up the library or whatever. But we can still work on the project without too many distractions.”

Clearly distracted, the dark-haired girl stared at a passing woman in a short tennis skirt. “Uh huh, not too many distractions. Sounds yummy–I mean good.” She looked back to me. “Good.”

Giving her a disbelieving stare, I shook my head while muttering, “Has anyone ever told you that you’re as bad as a guy?”

Her response was a Cheshire grin. “Bad wasn’t the word they used.” Before I could respond to that, her eyes glanced over my shoulder as she added a quiet, “Heads up.”

I turned, just in time to see basically the last person I wanted to run into (okay, there were a few lower on that list, like Janus). It was Simon, dressed in his own tennis outfit as he smiled broadly while sidling up to the table. “Well, if it isn’t my little sister and her friends. And here I thought you didn’t like watching golf.”

“I don’t,” I retorted. “I like playing it, but it’s boring to watch. Thankfully, it looks like a lot of people agree with me.” I gestured around the mostly empty balcony to illustrate that fact. “So this is a quiet place to work.” Pausing pointedly before making my voice sound as lightly teasing as possible, I added, “Or at least, it used to be.”

“Psst,” Simon stage-whispered toward Jae with a slight smile. “I think she’s talking to you. There’s already been noise complaints about the racket you’re making out here.”

Jae, in turn, sank a bit in her seat while apparently trying to hide behind her iced tea glass. Her reply was a very quiet, “They must have very sensitive hearing.”

“Ears like rabbits, I tell you,” Simon agreed, winking before he looked to me. “Anyway, I just thought I’d see if my little sister was bored.”

“Bored? Not until you showed up,” I tried to tease before giving him a firm pushing motion with both hands. “So why don’t you let us get back to work before you put us to sleep?”

Snorting, he gave me a light jab at the shoulder before stepping back. “Yeah, yeah, I get it. I’ll stop crowding you guys and let you work. You don’t need a ride home, do you?”

The thought of being alone in a car with him made me repress an almost violent shudder. It was all I could do to keep the revulsion off my face while quietly replying, “I think I can manage.”

With a nod to the other two, he headed off. Amber, watching him go, murmured, “Something about him bugs me.” She jolted a little then, as I caught the slight motion of Jae subtly kicking her under the table, eyes finding me. “I mean… um, sorry.” Flushing as she clearly just realized she’d been talking out loud, the girl gestured. “I guess we should work, huh?”

“Yup. And don’t worry, I uhh, I get it.” Leaving it at that, I reached down to grab the bag at my side, taking a book out to set on the table. “Right, so… Laura Cereta.

“Let’s see what history has to say about you.”

******

Hours later, we’d done enough on the project for the day, so Jae and Amber had gone off to do… whatever they were going to do. I, meanwhile, was standing on the roof of a building downtown, dressed in my costume. Because it was time for me to started on my other project. Namely, finding either Ashton himself, or at least those vials, so Blackjack’s daughter didn’t die.

Yeah, I had a feeling this project was going to be harder than the other one.

Face covered by the ski mask but with the helmet hanging loosely from one hand, I tried to think. What did I know? Or at least, what could I be pretty sure of?

I was pretty sure that Ashton guy was still in the city. Mostly because what he took had to be useless for him personally. It was valuable only as a way of getting money out of Blackjack, or one of the other gangs. Unless I was really off, my guess was that he was going to lie low until it was clear they couldn’t find him in time, then find a way to start auctioning it off. He’d try to get money out of Blackjack, or out of one of the other gang leaders who wanted to take the vial to get control and concessions out of the man. Or just to fuck with him. Either way, it was only worthwhile to Ashton as something to sell. And the only people interested in buying it would be the ones here in this city. So he was probably hiding out somewhere within it.

But where? He had basically the entire city looking for him. Cops, heroes, villains, entire gangs were going to be roving the city, turning over every stone they could to find this guy. He wouldn’t be able to hide anywhere they could find out about. Every family member, every friend, they’d tear through every clue to drag him out. They’d be going through showing his picture at every motel, homeless shelter, bed and breakfast, taxi driver, bar, everywhere. And yet, despite all the people out scouring the city, apparently he was still safely hidden.  

So how was he doing it? Why had no one been able to find him, even with what had to be incredibly intense motivation? And how was I going to do any better than they were?

I needed to think outside the box. I needed to figure out where to look that everyone else wasn’t already looking. Obviously, Ashton wasn’t stupid enough to stay somewhere he could easily be noticed. My guess was that, wherever he was, he hadn’t left for a long time. Probably since he stole the vials to begin with. He’d most likely set the place up far ahead of time, so he had food, water, everything he needed to stay holed up without venturing out to be recognized.

Also, I realized belatedly, he’d probably only ever gone there in disguise. There was too big of a chance of someone noticing a new person fitting his description. So, be it a wig and glasses or… or whatever, anyone around where he was staying had probably never seen the real him.

Right, unless I was wrong, this guy was holed up somewhere he wouldn’t have to come out of for a long time and was disguised so that no one around would recognize him.

How the hell was I supposed to work with that?

“You got any ideas, Pinky?” My question was addressed not to a cartoon mouse, but toward the blob of pink paint that I had sprayed out onto the nearby wall. Glancing to it, I waited until it was painfully clear that no answer was forthcoming. “Right, so you’re not ‘magically instill answers’ paint. Got it.” Scratch that off the list of possible powers the pink stuff could’ve been hiding.

“I guess I’ll have to do this myself then. Hmm.” Frowning behind the mask, I moved to the edge of the roof and looked down. I’d come to a place across the street from the bank in question, hoping it would give me some ideas to work with. But even looking at it now, I still wasn’t sure.  

Unless… apartments. Right, so I could guess that he’d set up an apartment ahead of time, and that it was stocked with everything he needed. But I was also pretty sure that it would be somewhere within walking distance of the bank. Because he wouldn’t want to take his car there to be found, and there was no way he’d risk a cab or Uber driver remembering him. So he’d walk. Beyond that, he’d also probably want to change into his disguise on the way, rather than doing so at the bank where his disguise would be seen, or at the apartment where his real self would be seen. He’d want to leave the bank as his real self, change somewhere along the way, and show up at his hideout in his disguise. That made sense, right? Yeah, totally made sense.

So apartments within walking distance of the bank, preferably with a place he could stop and change at. Either a fast food or gas station bathroom, some other store, an alley, something. There were probably a few that fit that bill, depending on how far he’d want to walk. Not longer than ten to fifteen minutes or so, I was guessing, since he would want to get out of sight quick. But not much less or he’d be too close to the bank. He’d want a sweet middle ground where he felt safely distant from them, but close enough to get to and hide in time.

Okay, then step one in this plan that was slowly taking shape in my head was to identify potential apartments that could fit that bill.

With that in mind, I put the helmet on my head, adjusted it, and then took a few steps back. Taking a breath to brace myself, I ran forward, painted my legs purple, and leapt as high and far off the roof as I could before extending a hand to shoot a burst of red paint toward the antennae sticking off the edge of the next roof over. Using that to yank myself across the distance before disabling the red paint on my hand, I tucked myself into a flip to fall just under that antennae, landing on the roof on both feet before sprinting once more.

I was going apartment hunting.

******

Cripes, there were a lot of apartments in Detroit.

Yeah, a lot. Even narrowing it down the way I had still left more than I’d thought there would be. Being incredibly picky about it, I ended up with six strong possibilities. Six apartment complexes that were within the right distance, that seemed private and quiet enough, and generally fit the idea I’d had in my head. If none of those six panned out, I’d have to expand. But I’d start there.

To that end, I was crouched on the roof of yet another building (I was becoming very acquainted with roofs already), watching the nearest possibility. It was a small complex that amounted to four main buildings, all in a line, with dog paths between the first two and a pool between the others. There was a high fence all the way around the whole place, with a gated parking lot.

It was late enough that the windows of the main office were dark. They’d been closed up for a few hours by that point, the employees long gone aside from possibly a night manager, who didn’t work in the main office itself.

So the main office was clear. Exactly as I wanted. Looking around briefly to make sure I wasn’t being watched, I used a purple strength boost combined with a blue springboard to fling myself high into the air, then red-paint-yanked myself across the street and down toward the building in question. A shot of black made sure my landing would be silent, as I came down in a crouch.

Waiting there for a minute just to see if anyone had seen anything, I couldn’t hear any reactions. So I slid over to the far side of the roof, leaning over to carefully look through the window.

Nothing. It was dark aside from the light from the screen savers on a couple computer monitors. Which was just perfect for me. Aside from the fact that I was about to technically break into a place illegally. Yeah, I probably needed to work on that whole ‘hero’ thing. But this was important. Plus, I wouldn’t actually be stealing anything. Nor would I be really be breaking.

Nope, no breaking here. Instead, I boosted myself back up onto the roof and took a phone from my pocket. This one wasn’t mine, it was a pay-as-you-go phone I’d picked up from a gas station. I’d already taken it from the package and made sure it worked, and now I used it to look up the number of the after-hours office for this place. Dialing it in before lifting the front of my helmet and mask, I carefully moved the slider on my voice changer over to the first option.

“Yeah?” aman release voice grumpily spoke up. “I mean, ahh, Four Pines Apartments, how can I help you?”

“Yes, hello,” I started. My voice sounded like an old woman. Mostly because I was pretty sure no one on the other end of the phone would have listened to either my regular voice or the one I used that sounded like a fourteen year old boy. “I think someone might’ve made a mistake at your office, young man.”

There was a brief pause before the guy replied, a little uncertainly. “Sorry, ma’am, if you have a problem with your bill, I’m sure you can–”

“Oh, no, no, no,” I interrupted. “This isn’t a complaint. I’m just calling to warn you that someone left the door to the main office open. My little Posey almost ran right in there after the squirrel. I shut the door so no one else would go rooting through your things, but it’s still there. The squirrel, that is.”

The man on the phone clearly had to take a second at that, realizing he wasn’t about to be sworn out by an angry tenant. “Oh–I–right, thank you, Miss…?”

“You’re quite welcome, young man. Have a good evening.”

With those words, I disconnected. There, that should do it. Laying on my stomach, I carefully watched the path leading up to the main door into the office.

I didn’t have to wait long. Within a couple minutes, I spotted a figure moving quickly along the sidewalk from one of the other buildings. Laying flat, my costume painted black, I watched as a man in his late twenties approached, grumbling to himself. Slowing as he approached, I heard the man mutter about people not locking the door, just as he went to open it.

“What…” There was a brief pause, then a jangle of keys as the man unlocked the door before carefully stepping inside. “Hello? Squirrel? Are there any squirrels in here?”

Leaning carefully over the edge of the roof, I peered down and watched. The man made his way into the office. As soon as he was through the door, I activated the black paint to silence myself, dropping behind him before quickly and carefully scooting through the doorway. There was a small lobby, with several private offices attached to it. The man was standing in the middle, looking around for the supposed squirrel. Quickly, I slipped to the right, through the open doorway of one of the offices to slip out of sight.

The man looked around a little bit more, but it was pretty half-hearted now that he’d found the door locked. I heard him talking to himself as he tried calling the number of the phone that had called him, but I’d already turned it off.

Finally, he gave up and stomped out, locking the door behind him. Once he was definitely gone, I straightened up and moved to the nearby computer.

Password locked. And no convenient password written down anywhere. Damn. But there were still several more computers. I moved quickly to the next office.

They were apparently pretty security conscious here, at least as far as computers went. Or they were used to other employees trying to snoop on them. All the computers were locked, but I was able to find a password written on a post-it note inside one of the desk drawers of the last office. That opened the computer, and I went through the files, looking for resident information.

There it was. They had it in an Excel file, which I brought up and sorted by date, looking for anyone who had rented an apartment within the past six months. Ashton might’ve started this further back than that, but I was kind of doubting it.

Once I had that list of nine possibilities, I looked at other criteria. Anyone with more than one person living there was immediately dismissed. I also looked at birthdates, mentally crossing out anyone who was definitely too old to be Ashton in a simple disguise.

Doing all that left three possibilities. Three different apartments. Noting where they were on the handy map posted on the wall, I turned everything back off, then carefully opened a nearby window and slipped out to climb back on the roof. Three apartments to play peeping tom at, just to see if any of the people in there looked like they could be Ashton.

They didn’t. One was a black guy, and the other two were Hispanic. None were white, and none looked anything like the picture I’d looked up of the man I was looking for. While he could have been in disguise even in the confines of his safe apartment, I kind of doubted it. And it wouldn’t have been that much of a disguise.

So, unless I’d missed something, these apartments were a bust. But that still left another five possibilities to check.

Yeah, it was gonna be a long night.

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