Month: April 2019

Becoming 2-03 (Summus Proelium)

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I only knew where one exit from this place was, and that was one of the directions that people were coming from. So I did the only thing I could in that moment and ran for one of the doors leading deeper into the building. The guy who had been chained up was right on my heels as we sprinted through the open doorway and found ourselves in a carpeted hall.

It was pretty dark in here aside from some emergency lighting. But I could see enough to notice the stairwell to our left leading up. Hearing the sound of a lot of people storming their way into the room behind us, I pivoted that way and started up. But first, I made a bit of black appear on my chest while shooting another bit of black onto the guy behind me.

The guy stumbled, clearly taken aback when he realized there was no sound coming from him. Turning to him, I made a sharp jabbing motion up the stairs before grabbing his arm to pull. We could already hear people shouting back and forth in the other room about what the hell just happened. Thankfully, the guy got over his surprise quickly enough and we ran silently up the stairs.

On the way, I finally had a chance to really look at the man I was busy rescuing. He looked like he was a few years older than me, maybe just out of high school. He was a pale, thin guy just under six feet tall, with scraggly brown hair that was in bad need of being cut and styled. Or at least combed. He had a goatee and had clearly not shaved the rest of his hair for a few days, given the stubble. His dark green eyes were wide with panic.

Hitting the second floor landing, we pivoted to go up to the third. Unfortunately, that was when the door just above us was slammed open and a guy with a gun burst through. He saw us immediately, his weapon snapping toward me.

Somehow, I was faster. A shot of blue paint went from my outstretched hand to the floor at the guy’s feet. It instantly launched him up into the ceiling, making his gunshot go completely over both of our heads.

The guy dropped, his gun falling while he groaned from the force of being hurled headfirst into the ceiling. But the damage was done. I heard people shouting below and running for us. So much for doing this quietly.

We ran past the guy, hopping over his outstretched arm before continuing up the stairs. I wasn’t exactly sure where we were going aside from up, but at least it was away from all the angry guys with guns. For now, at least. Once we ran out of building… well, I’d figure something out then. Hopefully.

By the time we reached the fourth stairwell, the guy blurted, “Look, man, I don’t know who you are or what you’re doing this for, but where are we going? I mean, thanks, seriously. But there’s only so many stairs in this place.”

I couldn’t exactly be annoyed, considering it was the same thought I had just been having. Shooting the man a quick glance, I gave him an exaggerated shrug while deepening my voice a little bit. Between that and the way the mask and helmet together muffled it, I would probably keep passing as a guy. “I’m kind of making this up as I go. So if you’ve got a plan, I’d love to hear it. Maybe we could ask those guys.” I gestured grandly back the way our pursuers were coming from. “They sound pretty helpful.”

The man paused (verbally, neither of us slowed down physically) before admitting, “Good point.”

So, we kept running. Running away from what sounded like an army of guys who seemed awfully goddamn intend on catching him. I still didn’t know why they wanted him so badly, or what was going on. And there wasn’t time to ask.

With the sound of stampeding bad guys just a little bit behind us, we reached the top floor. I looked around quickly before spotting a door labeled ‘roof access.’ It was locked, but a quick burst of purple paint let me kick it open and I half-dragged my companion through.

One short flight of stairs later, and we were on the roof of this eight story building. The guy with me put both hands out and turned in a circle while blurting, “Now what?”

Instead of answering, I ran to the edge of the roof. He muttered something and followed after me. Below, we could hear the bad guys starting up the last set of stairs to catch up with us.

Leaning over the edge, I looked down. There was another building next door that was about half the height of this one.

The guy at my side started to ask something. But there wasn’t time to listen. There wasn’t time for me to explain anything. The bad guys were already bursting out onto the roof. We were out of time, period.

So, instead of explaining, I shot orange paint onto the guy, covering his upper torso as much as I could. Then I used purple paint on my arms, caught him by the back, and gave him a hard hoist and shove. His horrified scream filled the air as he plummeted.

Oh God, oh God. Please work. If it didn’t, I was about to fit in with my family pretty well by becoming a murderer.

To buy a little time, I spun back to where the bad guys were and shot a wide spray of blue paint. It covered several men who had already emerged, sending them flying in various directions as they were repelled from each other.

Good enough. Spinning back, I hurled myself off the roof with a scream of my own. Only in mid-air did I mentally stop to hope that I hadn’t just run out of paint.

I hadn’t. Spots of orange appeared on my feet and legs as I dropped to the roof below, crashing into a roll that took me tumbling end over end before coming to a stop on my back.

I lay there for a second before the sound of heavy, panicked breathing reached me. Turning my head a bit, I saw the guy I had rescued, laying there with his eyes wide open, his face pale. “What the f-fuck, what the fuck, what the fuck was that? What the fuck was that?!” With each repetition, he grew a bit louder.

“It’s called rescuing you,” I replied simply before pushing myself up. “Do you want to complain, or do you want to get out of here?”

He chose the latter, scrambling up as well. Together, we ran to the roof access door for this building. Above and behind us, guys were already appearing. A couple shouted when they saw us. But they had no way to catch up.

That, however, didn’t stop them from opening fire. A few bullets ricocheted off the roof around us, and I let out a squeak of fear before I could stop myself. Grabbing the door, I yanked it open and unceremoniously shoved the guy through before joining him.

Together, we raced down the stairs of this new building. Huffing a bit beside me, the guy stammered, “Th-they’re not gonna stop just like that, you know. They won’t just give up.”

Realizing that I finally had time to ask the question that had been bothering me this whole time, I demanded, “Why the hell are they so obsessed with you? This is insane. You weren’t just being mugged or something.”

“Being mugged?” the guy echoed, his gaze jerking to me as we hit the last set of stairs. “Are you serious? You don’t even know what’s going on?”

My head shook quickly. “Dude, I’m kind of new to this. I thought I was rescuing you from a couple random thugs, not a whole pissed off army.”

The guy visibly flinched a little before nodding. We had reached the front door of the building by then. It was locked, but that didn’t mean much when I brought a splattering of purple across my chest and shoved at it. The door broke open while an alarm began to blare. Great, that was just what we needed.

Wait. Actually, it was. Maybe the idea of the cops coming would scare off our pursuers. Not likely, of course. But I’d take anything at that point. At the very least, it might be a distraction.

As we ran onto the sidewalk and, without needing to discuss it, pivoted away from the building we had just escaped from to run together down the street, the guy started to explain.

”Okay, it’s about my brother. They think I know where he is, but I don’t. Not that they’d believe me. Ashton and me aren’t exactly on the best of terms.”

Grabbing the guy by the arm, I pulled him down an alley to get off the main street. “Why do they want your brother?”

The guy grimaced, muttering, “Because he’s a fucking idiot.” Belatedly, he clarified, “You know that bank robbery at Prime International a couple days ago? The attempted bank robbery, I mean.”

Blinking at him, I shook my head. “Uh, not really? I’ve been a little busy.”

He gave me a brief look as we turned the corner of the alley and kept going. “Okay, well, it was a pretty stupid attempt. I don’t know if you know, but that place is run by La Casa. It’s one of their banks. And a few low ranking idiots from the Ninety-Niners tried to rob it.”

Nodding slowly, I agreed, “Yeah, that does sound pretty stupid. But what is that have to do with your brother? Is he one of those idiots?”

Again, the guy grimaced. “Worse. He’s the idiot who talked those idiots into trying it. See, Ashton worked at the bank. He convinced those guys he could help them get away with it and make a name for themselves. You know, boost their cred in the gang. But he was just using them. He waited until everyone was distracted by the morons, and then he took something out of one of the safe deposit boxes in there. I think his first plan was to blame the theft on them. But they got caught too quick.”

We kept going, crossing another street to get as far from that place as possible while I murmured, “Let me guess, it wasn’t just some cash that he grabbed.”

He shrugged a bit helplessly. “Man, I don’t know what it was. But they’re all pissed off right now. There’s some kind of huge reward for his ass. That’s why those guys grabbed me. They thought I could tell them where he is. But you know what, I don’t have a fucking clue. No one’s going to believe that, though. That reward? Whatever Ashton took, it was worth putting a million dollar bounty on his head.”

That made me stumble a bit. Even growing up as I had, I knew that was a lot of money for most people. “No wonder those guys are so obsessed with catching you. What the hell did he take out of that bank?”

He offered me a new helpless shrug. “Fuck if I know. But it’s got all of those guys pissed off beyond belief. He kicked the goddamn hornets nest and left me to deal with it. He’s probably already skipped town. Which is what I need to do. I’ve gotta get the hell out of Dodge.”

He was right, I knew. For a million bounty, none of those guys were going to listen if he just told them he didn’t know where his brother was. His only chance was to leave town, at least until things calmed down a bit.

“Do you have a car or something?” I asked. “You know, a way to get out of here.”

He nodded. “Sure, I’ve got a car. But it’s at my house, which is where those guys grabbed me. And I’m pretty sure they’ve still got guys there. They’re tearing the place apart looking for anything about Ashton. They’d probably notice if I showed up to grab the car. And I’d take a bus or a train, but I’m just gonna guess that there’s guys watching those places too. Like I said, these people are obsessed.”

Slowly, I nodded. “Then you’ll have to take a cab or an Uber or something to get out of town. Get thirty or forty miles away and catch a bus somewhere else to go wherever you need to.” Reaching into the pocket of my costume, I took out the two hundred dollars that I had left. “Here. You can probably get pretty far with that. It’s a start, anyway.”

The guy stared at me, mouth open. “What the hell do you–why… who are you? What do you call yourself?” He still hadn’t taken the money. “Paintboy?”

“I… uhh, don’t actually have a name right now,” I admitted. I’d been a bit too focused on other things to worry about that. “I doubt I’ll go with Paintboy, though.”

His head shook. “Whoever you are, you don’t have to give me that. You’ve done enough. I’ll find some way to get out of here.”

“Yeah,” I agreed, “this way. Here.” Taking his wrist, I pushed the money into the guy’s hand. “Take it and get the hell out of town. After everything that just happened back there, I really don’t want to think about those guys finding you, okay? I… you need it more than I do. Just go.”

He took the money, swallowing a little while staring at me as if there was a dozen things he wanted to say. “My uhh… my name’s Josh. Josh Austin. I just… I just wanted you to know. I’ll find a way to pay you back for this, for everything you’ve done tonight.”

Meeting his gaze, I replied, “Pay me back by getting out of town and staying hidden. You have a place to go?”

“Yeah,” he confirmed. “I’ve got a friend who lives down in Illinois. I can hide out there for awhile. But you know, you kind of stand out like that. And if I’m gone, those guys that are after me… they’re gonna start coming after you instead. Especially if you make a name for yourself. You’ll be a target.”

“I know.” Trying to sound confident, I added, “Better me than you.” Even as I said it, my heart was hammering so much I was almost sure he could hear it. Shoving the fear aside, I gestured. “We’re probably far enough now for you to call a cab or whatever. Take the cash, get out of town. Go see your friend. Keep your head down. Stay safe.”

With that, I looked around once more to make sure we were alone before pivoting. Clicking my heels together to make the wheels come out of my skates, I took off back through the alley we had come through. As I went, Josh called, “When you pick a name, make it a good one! You deserve something better than Paintboy!”

I didn’t actually go very far. Instead, I waited until I was just around the corner before using red paint to climb my way to the roof of the two story building. Then I painted myself black, rushed to the edge, and lay down to peek down at the guy.

Part of it was to make sure he actually made it into the cab and out of town without being caught again. But I also had to admit that another part was to see what he did when I wasn’t there. There was a part of me who wondered if he was lying about any part of what he’d said. After everything I had found out over the past couple of days, trusting people wasn’t exactly at the top of my mind.

If he was making any part of it up, he didn’t give himself away. The guy fidgeted back and forth a bit before taking a phone from his pocket. I couldn’t see what he was doing with it, but he seemed to be summoning an Uber.

Sure enough, he was. I knew for sure a minute later, because I recognized the car that pulled up, and the driver inside. It was Adrian, the same guy who had driven me the other night, and had turned out to be a custodian at my school.

Okay, so this Josh guy really did summon an Uber. I heard him speak as he leaned down, showing the money I’d given him. “Hundred bucks enough to get out of town?”

Whatever Adrian said, it must have been an affirmative, because Josh opened the back door and got in. The door closed after him, before the car pulled away from the curb.

Straightening, I watched the vehicle until it turned the corner at the end of the street. As it disappeared from view, I let out a breath that I hadn’t realized I was holding.

It was done. He was gone. Whatever else happened next, at least I had managed to save one guy, who at least seemed to be innocent. Maybe it wasn’t a lot, but it was something. I had actually accomplished something that I could feel proud of.

That was what I was going to do, I realized. I couldn’t actually stop my family right now, not until I understood more. And maybe not even then. But I could make my own choices. Maybe my family were bad guys, but I could choose to be better. Until I actually had some actual idea of what to do about that whole… other situation, I could just help people.

Maybe it wouldn’t amount to much. Maybe I could never make up for everything bad that the rest of my family had done, and would continue to do. Maybe no matter how much good I did, it would never be enough. But you know what? I was sure as hell going to try.

And Josh was right, I should probably start by coming up with a name.

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Mini-Interlude 76 – Rebecca & Mini-Interlude 77 -Sariel (Heretical Edge)

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“I can’t believe you guys were dealing with this for like, the whole year, and I didn’t know anything about it.“

As she spoke, Rebecca Jameson looked at two of her teammates, Koren and Shiori. All three of them were sitting on the long wooden dock that lead out over the lake at this campsite they had come to. “You must think I’m pretty oblivious, huh?”

Koren snorted, shaking her head. “You’re not oblivious. I mean, we were keeping secrets from full power Heretic adults. If they didn’t figure it out, you shouldn’t feel bad.”

Shiori nodded. “And we had help from Gaia and the others. You didn’t have anybody helping you figure stuff out.”

“Figure stuff out…” Rebecca echoed that quietly. Sitting there with her legs hanging off the edge of the dock, the diminutive girl bit her lip before looking at Shiori. “That’s what happened at the beginning of the year, isn’t it? When you were all quiet and upset. It’s because you found out that you’re… a… vampeel?”

“Dhampyr,” Shiori corrected. “Dhampyr have one human parent and one vampire parent. Vampeel have both vampire parents.” She hesitated before adding, “My sister was a vampeel before she became a full vampire.”

Rebecca‘s head shook quickly, as she clamped her mouth shut tight while trying to come to terms with everything she was hearing. It was all coming too fast. It was too much. She just couldn’t handle everything. The information that had been shoved into her head by that spell, the subsequent realizations that had come to her, the things she was hearing now from her teammates, any of it alone would have been too much for just a couple of days. All of it together was just… insane.

She found her voice then, managing a quiet, “But that’s what you were so upset about before?“

Again, Shiori nodded. “Yeah, it’s not a lot of fun to find out that your mom is one of the so-called monsters that you’re supposed to be training to kill. And that you’re probably one of them too.” The last bit came in a very soft voice that was barely audible. Then she straightened a bit. “But Flick helped me. It’s a long story, and it’s about going to another world to help these giants. And then… yeah, it’s really long. I’ll tell you about it later. But the point is, she helped me figure out that I wasn’t a monster.”

Koren coughed. “Yeah, Aunt Flick’s good at that.”

That made Rebecca blink, looking at the brunette in confusion. “Aunt?” Then her eyes widened as the realization came. “Wait, are you saying that one of those twins from that story, the ones that…”

Koren nodded. “My mom. She’s Flick’s big sister. Joselyn’s oldest daughter. I know, it’s weird. I think they—” She paused, frowning. “Wait, why can I tell you that? The… huh. The spell that stops us from telling people exactly who they are must’ve broken with the Revolution eraser when Flick did that thing, I guess.” Frowning uncertainly, the girl shook that off. “Anyway, yeah, Joselyn. She’s–”

“My middle name is Joselyn,” Rebecca suddenly blurted, unable to contain herself. Her eyes were wide as she pushed on. “My grandma chose it. My grandma who went to school at the same time as that Joselyn. And she even spelled it that way, with an S instead of a C like it usually is.”

Looking to the other two, she hurriedly continued. “I was curious about Grandma‘s life at Crossroads, about what her life is like. So I tried looking it up awhile back. But the records barely mention her. Like she didn’t do much the whole time she was there. And she didn’t have a roommate. Like, through all four years, she never had a roommate. At least, that’s what the records said.”

“Joselyn,” Koren agreed. “She was your grandmother’s roommate. She had to be. And if she made your middle name Joselyn… they were close. That’s probably why they erased most of the things she did. When they erased Joselyn completely, most of what your grandmother did had to disappear too.”

Cringing in on herself, Rebecca looked down at the phone sitting in her lap. “I need to talk to my parents, and to my grandma. But they’re not answering. I’ve tried like twelve times, and they haven’t sent anything back, or answered. What do you think is wrong? Do you think the Crossroads guys went after them already? Do you think—”

Shiori’s hand found her shoulder, squeezing. “Hey, we’ll figure it out. They might just be busy getting out of there, you know? They got hit with some pretty big memories too. Your grandmother is probably still dealing with remembering Joselyn.”

Rebecca push herself to her feet, the tiny girl shoving her phone in her pocket as she straightened. “We have to find them. We have to find my parents and my grandma. We can’t just sit here doing nothing. If Grandma Lillian was so important to Joselyn, Crossroads is going to go after her, right? I mean, they know the rebellion is coming back and all that, so they’ll see her as like… an obvious target. They’ll take her, and throw her in a dungeon like they did Joselyn, and they might—”

“Hey.”

The single word interruption came from further back on the dock. Rebecca turned that way quickly, seeing the girl standing there. The second she did, her Stranger sense started screaming at her, and she reflexively grabbed for her backpack, the one that transformed into a cannon. Then she stopped short. “Wait… you’re…”

Shiori stepped past her quickly, gesturing to the other girl as she came forward out of the shadows. “Rebecca, this is my big sister, Asenath. Asenath, this is my teammate, Rebecca. She’s still trying to get used to this.”

Asenath nodded, taking a step closer with both of her hands open and out, palms showing. “It’s okay, Rebecca. I wouldn’t have interrupted, but I was checking on Shiori, and I heard what you were saying. You’re right, your grandmother was close with Joselyn. They were best friends.” She pointed to her own head. “I was part of the rebellion before, and I’ve been remembering things all year. Things that were erased. And I remember Lillian. She and Joselyn were best friends, and they’d do anything for each other. I mean, they were close enough that your grandmother chose Joselyn for your middle name even though she was erased. That’s how much she meant to her. They couldn’t erase that entirely.”

It wasn’t exactly news that made Rebecca want to jump for joy. Her fear just redoubled. “So they will go after her. If she was that important, they’ll definitely try to grab her.”

It was pretty terrifying, how quickly she’d gone from loving Crossroads and everything that being a part of it meant, to fearing what they would do to her family. And it gave her some idea of what people like Shiori had gone through.

Asenath’s head shook. “I’m not going to let that happen, Rebecca. Trust me, I have plenty of experience in finding people. As long as there’s a chance, I will find your family. I owe Lillian a lot. I’ll get out there, figure out where she is, where they are, and bring them back here. I’ll let them know where you are.”

Shiori did a quick double take, stepping that way. “But it’s going to be dangerous. If Crossroads is really after her, they’ll have Heretics looking. Full Heretics. It’ll be too dangerous to go by yourself.”

“She won’t be by herself.” That announcement came as Deveron stepped into view on the dock. He moved beside Asenath. “I remember Lillian too, and I am not about to let those assholes hurt her, or her family.”

Rebecca stared at the boy, mouth opening and shutting. “You remember… What?

With an incorrigible grin, the boy held a hand out to her. “Hi, nice to meet you. Joselyn is my wife. The twins are our kids. I’ve been posing as a teenager to keep an eye on my family and find a way to get close to that piece of shit Ruthers, which I did by having my memories erased for awhile last year. But I got them back for this year. And all my powers from most of a century of fighting in Jos’s rebellion.”

“Oh.” Speaking that single, soft word, Rebecca slowly sank back down. “I think I need to sit for a minute.”

Deveron pressed on. “Asenath’s right. We won’t let your grandma be taken by those bastards. The two of us, we’ll track her down, and the rest of your family. We’ll get her back here, okay? Lillian was my friend and my teammate. She’s my wife’s best friend in the world. I’m not going to let a damn thing happened to her.”

Swallowing hard, Rebecca looked up at him, her voice quivering a little. “You promise? I mean, I know you can’t really promise that nothing will happen. You can’t control the world. But you promise you’ll try to get them? You promise you’ll help?”

Crouching down there in front of her, Deveron met Rebecca’s gaze. his voice was solemn. “Rebecca, I give you my word, I will do absolutely everything in my power to bring your family back here. And I won’t rest until they are safe with you. Okay?” He extended a hand to her.

Rebecca took his hand and shook it, murmuring a soft, “Okay.”

Then she stood, stepping past the man to stand in front of Asenath. Her voice was quiet. “You’re a vampire.”

The woman gave a single nod, watching her. “Yes.”

Almost ten full seconds of silence passed then as the two stared at one another, Rebecca‘s mind spinning a dozen different ways. Everything she wanted to say, all the fears and doubts that she had, everything tumbled back-and-forth in her head through that long silence. Finally, there was only one thing she could say.

“Please bring my family back.”

 

*******

 

Sariel was floating. A vast, unending ocean surrounded her on all sides as she lay spread eagle, her gaze directed toward what would have been the surface if there had been an actual end to the water. But there was nothing to see, no light, no land, nothing but dark emptiness that stretched on forever. Her world was empty, a void that went on into infinity, leaving the woman questioning whether there had ever actually been anything else.

Yes. Yes, there was more than this. There was her family. She knew they existed. They were real, tangible, living beings. They weren’t figments of her imagination. Most of them weren’t, anyway. She was pretty sure that she had made up a few in her head, and had imagined entire long lives with them during these times of loneliness.

These times? This time? Was there more than one? She had the feeling that there had been interruptions. Interruptions by that woman whose face came swimming into her mind. A face that was always the same, with its hateful, glaring eyes. Was she real? Were faces real at all? If they were real, were they… right? Did she remember where eyes and noses and mouths went? Did food really go in the mouth? Was skin really that color? Were there really multiple colors? Which one was right? What color was she? How many fingers did she have? Fingers. Hands. Toes. She knew those words. She knew where they went, how many there were. At least, she thought she did. Everything was… fuzzy.

How many dreams had she made up through all of this? How many of those dreams were real memories? How long had she been lying in this void, her mind forced into this nothingness, this sanity-killing emptiness by her captor?

Kushiel. That was the name of her enemy, the name of the woman who had so thoroughly imprisoned  her. The name and face came and went with her sanity. Sanity that faded more rapidly every time she was shut in this void and left for her mind to wander.

It was a spell. She knew that much. Kushiel messed with her mind by shutting her in this void, leaving her mind trapped floating in this empty ocean with nowhere to go, nothing to see, nothing to focus on. And because that wasn’t enough, that spell also altered her perception of time. It could make her think that one minute had passed when it was actually a month, or stretch what was actually a single hour out into years. Years spent floating in this place, making up stories in her head. Stories that fought with her true memories until she had no idea what was real and what wasn’t. Decades passed in her mind, while only minutes or hours passed in the real world. Or days. Days and decades, did she have that right? Was it the other way around? Which word meant what? It all jumbled together. She couldn’t speak, couldn’t talk to anyone. Years would pass in her head with no one to talk to, nothing to save her from the soul-crushing emptiness and solitude.

And yet, she would prefer this punishment over others that the woman had invented. Being lost in this void was nothing compared to other things Kushiel had done. She had pushed virtual reality scenarios into Sariel.  Scenarios which forced her to see her family being killed in so many different ways. She had witnessed the torture and death of her husband and children more than a dozen different ways. She had screamed herself hoarse until she tore something in her throat. She had lost and failed over and over again to save them, never succeeding, always seeing them die. Then she had woken up, and realized that it was only another forced dream brought on by the monster for her own petty amusement. For revenge.

Or was it? Some days Kushiel told her that they were fake memories, that her family was out there and had forgotten her. Other times the woman told her that they had been killed, that one of the memories she was implanted with was the truth, but she would have to figure out which one. Other times she was told they were still prisoners and that Kushiel was putting them through the same thing. And still other times, Kushiel made her believe that her children were being taught to hunt and kill everyone she ever cared about. She changed her story all the time. Purposefully, of course. That made it harder for Sariel to keep her own thoughts straight. It tormented her more.

She didn’t know what was true. She didn’t even know for certain which children were real and which ones she had made up in an attempt to cling to her sanity. Sometimes she almost thought that nothing was real. Her mind would have given up entirely, collapsing under the weight of these attacks on its psyche, if it wasn’t for one thing. One thing that Kushiel couldn’t touch.

Tabbris. Tabbris was real. That was one of the only touching stones that Sariel had. Tabbris was the only thing keeping her from losing herself completely. She was a single light in the vast darkness. Because Kushiel didn’t know about her, she couldn’t mess with Sariel’s memories about her. That memory, the memory of her tiny, innocent little girl, was enough to stop Sariel from going completely insane after being subjected to all of this. Tabbris was her lighthouse, her beacon.

Tabbris was her savior, in so many ways. Her existence was something that Kushiel didn’t erase or throw doubt on, because she didn’t know she should erase it.

And yet, was she even still alive? Sariel didn’t know. Not for certain, anyway. Her only true source of hope in that regard was the fact that Kushiel had not taunted her about the girl. Sariel had no doubt that if that vile, evil woman ever actually knew about Tabbris, she would not hesitate to use that information to torture her. She used everything else she knew about Sariel to cause as much pain as possible. Whether they caught the girl or not, simply knowing about her would make Kushiel torment Sariel with stories about her imprisonment or death. The fact that the woman remained completely silent about her proved that she knew nothing as far as Tabbris was concerned. And that little bit, the knowledge that Tabbris existed and was out there, was enough for Sariel to hold onto her hope. Hope that kept her somewhat sane through all of this. That alone provided a focus for her to cling to in the storm of this emotional torture.

But hope or not, she was still trapped here. Trapped in this emptiness with no one to speak to, no one to tell her what was right or wrong about her memories. She couldn’t help the family like this, could not save the people she cared about from the monsters that were out there. She could do nothing like this. Nothing but float here in the ocean with her thoughts, her doubts, and her fears. Fears that threatened to suffocate her soul the way this ocean would have suffocated her body if it had been real. She was alone. And at this point, there was a not-insignificant part of her who wondered if she had ever truly not been alone. Was any of her old life real? Or was she always like this. Was she always floating here, alone and empty? Was there anything else in the world? Was this the universe?

Tabbris. Tabbris was real. She had to hold onto that. It kept fading, as she almost slipped from the single buoy that was her daughter’s existence. She had to cling to that single bit of certainty. Because if Tabbris was real, then the rest of it was also real. She had to be. It had to be. She had to hold on to her sanity. She had to hold on. Even as the ocean threatened to tear her mind apart with it’s eternal emptiness. Hold on to Tabbris. Hold on to her little girl. Nothing could tear that away from her. She would hold onto it, hold onto… onto… her.

Oh Void, she wanted to. She wanted to hold her little girl. She wanted to hold her children so badly. It was a physical ache deep in her heart.  Please. They were real. They had to be real. They were alive. She couldn’t live in this world or any other if they weren’t alive. She would gladly spend an eternity in this void if she could just know that they were okay, if she could just hold them one more time. Please, let her hold them once more. Let her touch their hair and smell their soft skin. That was all she really wanted. Her children… her husband. Her family. She needed her family more than she needed her next breath. Please, please…

Mom?

At first, she thought that she had thought the word herself. Yes, she was a mother. She was a mother of such beautiful, wonderful children. Wasn’t she? That was real, right? She didn’t make that up. She couldn’t have. This ocean was so empty, so quiet, she was—

Mom!

Sariel’s eyes opened under the water. But there was nothing to see. Nothing but vast ocean in every direction. There was nothing for her to see, and nothing for her to have heard. Her mind was playing tricks on her again. Or maybe the tricks were coming from Kushiel. Either way, it wasn’t real. She was as alone now as she had ever—

Mom!

Something appeared in front of her then. No, someone. His form was hard to make out in the darkness as he caught hold of her arms, shaking her.

Mom, wake up! Snap out of it! You’re okay, you’re alive! Mom!

Her drifting, dreary mind focused. Her eyes narrowed and she truly saw the boy in front of her. Truly saw him, and truly knew him.

Tristan. It came to her mind that easily, that swiftly. She knew the boy in front of her even though she had not seen him for a decade. Even though she had last known him when he was a small child. She knew him, knew her son.

But that was wrong. He couldn’t be here. The realization crushed that tiny budding bit of hope that had only briefly appeared. This was simply Kushiel trying to destroy her once more with yet another glimpse of hope that would be snatched back and destroyed in the worst possible way.

She saw pain flash across the boy’s face then, his mouth opening and shutting in front of her before he whispered, It’s real, Mom. I’m here. I promise. Just… just hold on. I’m gonna get you out of this. I’ll get you out. Trust me, Mom. Just… just trust me.

He reached out to her then, his hand touching his mother’s face gently. A myriad of emotions passed through his eyes then. If she had believed he was real, the look in those eyes would have made her cling to him. But he wasn’t… He wasn’t real. She wouldn’t fall for that again. Not this time.

The boy moved. His arms wrapped around her. He was holding her tight, and Sariel’s mouth opened under that water in a sharp gasp.

Memories. They rushed from the boy into her. He shoved his thoughts into her head. Thoughts that were real. They were too complete to be fake. She saw everything. She saw what he had been through. She saw how far he had gone, and how he had found his way back to Earth. She saw his reunion with his sister, the friends he had made, the things he had done. She saw how he had come to Seosten space, how they had found the facility where she was being kept. She saw where they were, what had happened, and the danger they were in. She saw all of it.

Everything, in that moment, became real in a way that it had not been for so long. Her sense of self, of purpose, of sanity, came roaring back thanks to her son. She knew where she was, she knew who she was, and everything that was happening. Her son was here, right here with her. He was real. He was alive. And he was here.

Her arms moved. She put them around him, holding onto her son tightly in that… dream world. Her mind. They were in her mind. She understood that now, in a way that had been more vague and uncertain only moments earlier. He was there with her. He had… he had recalled to her. He was there. Right there. She could feel his presence, as it dragged her out of the drifting, vague void that she had been lost in. If the thought of Tabbris had been an anchor that kept her from floating out to be lost forever, Tristan’s presence pulled her completely out of the water entirely.

Out of the water. It was gone. The ocean had disappeared, and Sariel was no longer floating. She was standing, she and her son together. The vast emptiness had been replaced by a room… their living room, she realized. It was the room of their home, back before… everything. It was the last room they had stood in before Puriel had arrived.

Perhaps that was a room that should have held bad memories, given everything that had gone wrong. But it didn’t. Being here, even if it was a facsimile, felt right. It felt safe. She felt truly at home here, in a way that cleared more cobwebs from her mind.

“Mom.” Tristan spoke out loud, his voice cracking just a little. “Mom, we found you.”

A little shudder ran through Sariel at the sound of her grown son’s voice. She made a soft noise of amazement, hugging him tighter while giving his hair a slight sniff. “My son,” the woman whispered. “My son. You’re alive. You’re okay.”

“Mom.” Leaning back, Tristan stared at her. “Mom, I’m gonna get you out of this tube, okay? I’m gonna wake you up and get you out. Just hold on for a second.”

They embraced once more, and then he disappeared, withdrawing from her mind. For a moment, the rush of fear threatened to come back, like a tidal wave that was barely held back by a swiftly crumbling dam. The fear of being alone again, of this being yet another trick by Kushiel to destroy her hope, crept into her mind despite her own firm assurances to herself that he was real. Yet every small second that passed allowed another crack to appear, and more of that cold, dark water began to fill the room while the furniture began to fade away along with the light itself to leave everything cold and dark once more.

“No.” Opening her eyes, Sariel looked to the cracks along the wall of the room where water had begun flooding in. She focused, and the water vanished, along with the cracks. The light, which had been gradually fading, returned. The living room was restored to the way it had been.

“You will not win, Kushiel. My son is here. My family is here. I am not lost.”

As she spoke those words, Sariel felt a rush of air on her skin. A sudden, almost blinding light came from above, as if the roof of the room was being taken aside. And as she looked that way, head tilting back to stare up at that light, the woman woke…

She was in a tube. The same tube that Kushiel had sealed her into, leaving that hateful woman’s face as the last thing she had seen, with the promise that it would be the first thing she saw when they arrived at their destination.

But Kushiel had been wrong. Because it was Tristan who was staring down at Sariel as her eyes opened. His beautiful, amazing, wonderfully living face wore an expression of worry and also hope as he spoke quickly. “Mom? Mom, please, you have to help Nessa and Flick. Please–”

She sat up. Breathing out, Sariel pulled herself out of the tube. Her arm extended before slamming back to crash into the tube, shattering the glass in it. Taking one piece of broken glass in each hand, she nodded to her son. “Go. I’m right behind you.”

She wanted to hug him and never let go. She wanted to cling to him, weep and plead with him to be real and to stay with her. But there wasn’t time for that. Vanessa needed her. Tabbris needed her. Felicity needed her. They all needed her right then. And she would be there for them. Finally, after everything that had happened, after everything she had been forced to sit aside for, she would be there.

She would save her children.

Flashing a quick, relieved smile, the same smile that she knew from so long ago on a now-grown face, Tristan pivoted and sprinted toward the open hatch of the ship. As Sariel followed, leaving the broken tube behind, she thought of the void, of floating alone and lost in that empty place. She thought of being taken away and cut off from everyone she had ever cared about.

And then she thought about just how furious Kushiel was going to be that she had escaped, that her children had saved her. And that thought actually made Sariel feel better. Good enough, in fact, to smile just a little as she followed her son, her pace growing more assured with each step.

Kushiel wasn’t here. But her soldiers were. Her soldiers were here, trying to hurt those children, Sariel’s children, and the child of a woman she deeply respected.  

They were hurting children. And they were about to learn just how much of a mistake that was.

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Becoming 2-02 (Summus Proelium)

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The door was locked.

I tried it very carefully, intending to sneak inside. But it didn’t budge.

Okay, so I was going to save this guy. Just one problem, now I had no idea how. Hell, I wasn’t even sure how I was going to get into the building with the door locked. I could try to use the strength paint to break through, but they might hear that and kill the guy before I could even get in there.

I needed a better way through, and I needed it quick, before they… before the guy ran out of time.

But there was nothing. There was no window to sneak in or anything, it was just a blank wall. And the longer I stayed here trying to figure out how to get in, the bigger chance that the whole point would be moot. They could be killing him right now. I had to find another way in besides that door.

Or did I? Standing there, staring at the door with the mounting thought that I was failing my first real attempt to save someone, I thought of something. It was pretty stupid and crazy, but maybe stupid and crazy was all I had time for.

There was a trashcan at the end of the alley, near the entrance. Looking that way, I pointed a hand and shot two bits of red paint, one at the side of the trashcan itself, and one at the ground next to it.

That done, I turned back to the door, reared back my fist, and struck the thing as hard as I could. I tried to make it sound like there was a whole army out here waiting to bust the thing down.

Knocking five or six times as loud as I could, I then put a bit of purple paint on my legs and threw myself upward in a jump. Red paint appeared on my hands and feet, to hold myself against the wall.

It was just in time. The door slammed open and one of the guys came storming out beneath me. He was the only one who appeared, much to my disappointment. Still, he was there. So I quickly activated the paint on the trashcan and ground. It made the can fall over, as if someone had just run past and bumped it.

The guy took the bait. He went running that way, shouting something I didn’t catch. He probably wouldn’t go far once he hit the end of the alley and saw nobody in sight. But that was all I needed. The red paint I was using faded, and I dropped to the ground, using a tiny bit of black to silence my landing. Then I spun the other way, looking through the open door. There was a short, unfinished hallway on the other side, and no one in sight. Good. Good. Now I just had to—

“Hey!” That one was directed at me, as the guy at the end of the alley had turned back to see me standing in front of the doorway. He had a gun in his hand, but before he could point it at me, I threw myself into the building. My hand caught the door, and I slammed it shut with a loud clang.

Apparently the door automatically locked, and this guy didn’t have the keys, because he immediately started banging loudly on it, swearing emphatically at me.

Okay, okay, I just had to get to the guy still in here (and their victim) before he figured out what was going on. Or before the guy outside managed to call him or something. Turning back to the hall in front of me while the pounding continued, I swallowed the lump of fear in my throat.

There were three doors, but two of them were open to show unfinished bathrooms. The third was closed, and that was the one I went to. Pressing my ear against the door, I tried to shut out the banging from the other one.

Actually, wait a second. Turning back to the other door, I shot a bit of black paint at it and silenced the damn thing. There, now I could hear.

Footsteps. I heard footsteps. They were coming closer, along with muttering and cursing. Eyes widening, I quickly threw myself at the nearest open door, where one of the half-finished bathrooms was.

I’d barely shoved myself out of sight when the door I’d been listening at banged open and the guy came storming through. He was cursing about the guy outside forgetting to prop the door before he went outside.

My heart was pounding so hard that I was almost sure he’d hear it. But he didn’t, stalking right past the bathroom where I was hiding on his way to the exit. There, he grabbed the door and threw it open, already starting to demand that his buddy tell him why he let it shut.

The guy outside was saying something, but I didn’t give him time to finish. Before he could get more than a word or two out, I was already launching myself down the corridor. I’d brought the wheels of my pace-skates out, and put a green smiley face on my chest, as well as making both of my gloves purple. With my speed and strength boosted, respectively, I hurtled through that hall. The guy at the door had time to look over his shoulder just before I slammed into him. The impact sent him flying out into his partner, both of them crashing to the ground.

Meanwhile, I caught myself against the door jamb. The two thugs were entangled with each other and cursing, both rolling over. I quickly slammed the door again, trapping them outside.

Unfortunately, if the first guy hadn’t had the keys for this place, I was almost positive the second guy did. So I had to hurry. Turning, I moved to the nearby bathroom door. Gripping it near the hinges, I activated another spot of purple on myself and heaved backward. It cracked, but resisted, until I heaved again. Then the door gave up the fight and broke free of the wall.

By that time, I could hear keys jingling outside, and the lock was starting to turn. I had to hurry!

So I did. Dropping the door onto its side, I shoved it as fast as I could up against the door. The way it was positioned, one side of the door was up under the door jamb, while the other side bumped up against the far wall. It was squeezed in tight, and the door couldn’t open like that. It was shoved into place just as they got it unlocked, and I heard cursing as they tried throwing themselves against it to no avail.

Okay, okay. They probably had another way in somewhere. This couldn’t be the only door there was. But it would take them a minute to decide to give up on this one and go to it. I just had to hurry the hell up and get to the guy they’d dragged in here, free him, and get out. Easy pea–

I stopped before finishing that sentence, but the damage was probably already done. Flinching, I pivoted and ran back down the hall, to the door that the second guy had come through. Find their prisoner and get out out with him. Find their prisoner and get out with him.

My luck seemed to actually be holding a moment later, as I passed through the door and found myself in what looked like a half-finished (or maybe half-destroyed) office floor. There were a handful of broken cubicles scattered around, a bunch of random desks, and some separate offices around the edges and corners. More importantly, directly ahead of me was a heavy metal chair with a man sitting on it. A man who was chained to that chair by a couple different handcuffs attached from it to his wrists. Yeah, I was gonna go ahead and guess that was the guy I was trying to rescue.

Sprinting that way, I neared the man just as his gaze snapped my way. Seeing me, he made a noise of surprise while jerking backward. The chair was apparently bolted to the floor or something though, because it didn’t go anywhere. He did, however, start cursing and pleading with me not to hurt him, and that he didn’t know where ‘he’ was. Whatever that meant.

“Shhh!” I blurted, holding up both hands. “I’m here to– I’m here to help you! Look, you wanna get out of here?” When he hesitated before nodding, I pressed on. “I’m gonna get you out of that chair, okay? Just hold on a second. Let me–”

“Look out!” The man jerked in his seat as he blurted that, looking at something past me.

I didn’t look. Instead, I threw myself to the side, landing on the floor. And it was a good thing I didn’t turn back to see what was going on, because a bat whiffed through the air right where my head had just been a second earlier.

A guy was there. A different guy from the two who were outside. Of course, just because I’d seen two guys come in here didn’t mean they were the only ones in the entire building. Fucking duh, Cassidy.

The guy was tall, very pale, and covered in tattoos. His chest was bare to show off those tattoos, and he wore ratty old jeans. He wasn’t super muscular or anything, but he had some definite strength behind his swing. Which was evidenced even more as he followed up that first swing with a second. This one came around and down toward the spot where I was sprawled, and I barely managed to throw myself backward in an awkward roll as the bat rebounded off the floor where I had been with a terrifying clang.

“Hey, jackass!” the guy snarled, his face twisting in a way that made him look ugly and vicious (helped by the collection of piercings he had). “Who the hell invited you?!”

I couldn’t help it. Terrified as I was, the response blurted its way out of me before I could stop it. “Well, it wasn’t Better Homes and Gardens, I’ll tell you that much. This place is filthy.”

Holy crap, why did I say that? If the guy hadn’t already been angry, that definitely didn’t help. He snarled, taking a quick step after me before swinging that bat even harder. That time, however, I was ready. Raising my open hand, I made my glove red while also shooting a bit of red toward the bat itself. Activating both bits of paint, I let the bat rip its way out of the man’s hand and fly into mine while he made a grunt of surprise.

Barely catching the bat, I made it back to my feet while the guy froze, staring at me as if seeing my costume (for what it was worth) for the first time. As he took that in, I turned the bat around in my hand. “Are you sure this thing is field-legal? Cuz it feels a little hefty to me.” Adopting a scandalized tone, I gasped and pointed the bat at him. “Does your Little League coach know you’re cheating?”

With a sound that was half-snarl and half-curse, the man hurled himself at me. He would have tackled me, and that probably would’ve been the end of it. But I saw him start to move and quickly brought a tie-dye splash of green and purple across my chest, activating both for a speed and strength boost.

Thanks to the speed, I was able to sidestep out of the way as the man lunged. And thanks to the strength, my follow-up swing with the bat connected with the side of his leg hard enough to knock the man to the ground, as the loud crack of the bone breaking filled the room. Owww. I wasn’t even the one that was hit, and that still sounded bad. And his leg was… well, it didn’t look right, that was for sure.

The guy collapsed with a cry, clutching his leg while I dropped the bat in surprise at just how much damage I had done. It clattered along the ground, and I almost fell over while backpedaling. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry!” I reflexively blurted, before realizing what I was doing. The guy probably would’ve hurt me a hell of a lot worse than that if he’d gotten hold of me.

The sound of running footsteps snapped my attention over toward a nearby hallway, as my two friends from outside came sprinting. Both of them had guns drawn. Before they could fire, I used red paint to yank the bat back into my hand and hurled it at them, forcing the two to duck as it flew past.

They immediately straightened after that to take aim. But that was a mistake. Because just as they did so, I activated the red paint that I’d left on the bat before throwing it, as well as my newly repainted glove. The bat made an abrupt turn in mid-air before flying back toward me. Which made it crash into the back of one of the guy’s heads. He cried out, falling to one knee, which made the other guy stumble as well.

“Okay, we got off on the wrong foot,” I conceded. “I said some things, you said some things. I don’t suppose you guys want to thumb wrestle to settle this?”

Oh shit, oh shit, oh shit, what was I doing? What the hell was I doing?!

Catching the bat once more, I did two things at once. First, I pointed it toward the first guy, the one whose leg I had broken. He was pulling something out of his pants pocket, and I really didn’t want to know what it was. At the same time, I clicked my heels to make the wheels on my pace-skates pop out.

It was a gun. The guy on the ground had hauled a small, but still dangerous-looking revolver out of his pocket. Just as he tried to take aim, I turned my glove blue, sending the bat flying away from my hand to crash into the man’s face. I didn’t have time to make a full swinging-throwing motion, but the blue paint worked just fine. The bat rocketed into his nose, knocking the man flat once more while blood sprayed everywhere.

At the same time, I made a bit of green appear on my skates while throwing myself to the side just as the guy by the hall who hadn’t been hit in the back of the head managed to aim his own gun at where I had been, opening fire with a couple quick shots.

Shots. He was shooting at me. For the second time that night and the third time in the past couple of nights, I was being shot at! This wasn’t a game. It wasn’t just pretend. I was being shot at by psychopaths who wanted to kill me, who would kill me if I gave them half a chance.

I almost surrendered right then. Maybe it was stupid. Maybe it was childish. But I was scared, and I very nearly just stopped and pleaded with them to let me go. I didn’t want to die.

Some hero I was. A couple bullets came my way and my first instinct was to piss myself and beg for them not to kill me. How pathetic was that?

But I didn’t. If I’d been asked in that moment to say what stopped me from surrendering to the terror, I couldn’t have said. I honestly, truly had no idea. Maybe it was simple momentum. Or maybe I was more afraid of what would happen if I surrendered than of what would happen if I didn’t. Either way, with that burst of speed from my green paint (and a little orange for extra protection), I skated along the side of the room in a quick blur of motion while the guy with the gun fired several more shots that failed to come anywhere near me. With my skates and the speed boost, I was too fast for him to adjust his aim quick enough.

Unfortunately, I couldn’t slow myself either, or he would hit me. I threw a couple shots of paint that way, but both missed. I was rocketing along too quickly to aim properly.

Rocketing along so fast, in fact, that I was about to crash headlong into the wall as I approached the corner of the room. I’d been so focused on seeing what that guy was doing that I almost didn’t see where I was going in time. At the last second, I leapt, spraying paint from my hands at the wall that I was hurtling toward.

It worked. Holy god, it worked. Red paint on the wall and red paint on my skates, and I was rolling along the wall. I was literally skating over the wall as if it was the floor, spraying more paint ahead of myself. Holy shit, holy shit! I was skating along the wall!

And then I ran out of paint. Suddenly, my skates weren’t sticking to the wall anymore. As a loud cry escaped me, I went flying off, crashing headlong into a pile of desks and chairs in the opposite corner of the room. I went down in a heap of metal and wood, groaning a little.

Okay, okay. No more paint for a few seconds. The guys were already starting to recover, I couldn’t make myself fast or (relatively) immune to their bullets, and they were pissed off. Meanwhile, I was lying here on my side half-beneath an overturned desk, which, along with the pile of partially-broken chairs just above my head, served as the only things protecting me from their bullets.

This was going swimmingly.

Fortunately, they didn’t know that I couldn’t use my power right then. That was basically the only thing I had going for me. Because it meant they hesitated. One of them called, “Hey, asshole! You gonna come out of there, or do we have to drag you out?!”

The guy whose leg I had broken interjected with a bellowed, “Just go get the fucking cocksucker so I can go to the hospital, shit-for-brains!”

Right, they were a bit nervous about coming after me. They didn’t know exactly where in the pile of junk and desks I’d fallen. I was out of their sight, able to slowly turn over onto my hands and knees without disturbing anything. There was so much crap around here, including a couple broken cubicle walls, that they couldn’t see where I was.

Think, Cassidy. What could I do now? Just wait for my paint to come back?

There wasn’t time for that. I heard footsteps coming closer, as one of the guys carefully made his way around. Peeking through a little hole in the underside of the desk I was hiding behind, I saw him. He had his gun up and ready as he made a slow approach, waiting for any sign of me.

So I gave him a sign. Carefully but quickly, I picked up the top half of a broken chair and gave it a toss over to the opposite side of the junk pile. It hit one of the propped-up cubicle walls, knocking it over with a loud clatter.

It worked. Several gunshots rang out, and I saw the guy who had been getting close go sprinting past the desk. He actually bumped against it in his rush, cursing loudly as he took the bait and threw himself after the sound of the crashing junk.

All of their attention was focused over there. Which gave me an opening to throw myself in a roll right past the spot where the man had just been, and through an open doorway into a small corner office, where I put my back to the wall and breathed.

“Nothing!” the guy who was poking around where I’d thrown the bit of chair called. “Nobody’s here!”

“Look again!” the one on the ground with the broken leg demanded. “He can’t just disappear!”

“How the fuck do you know?!” the guy who had been hit in the back of the head shot back. “He’s Touched, right? So maybe he can disappear! You ever hear about this guy?”

There was a collection of denials, before one of them shouted, “Whoever the hell you are, little punk, you better be scared! Powers or not, we’re gonna fuck you up!”

Yeah, that was likely to make me come out and show myself. Idiot.

Hearing footsteps approaching the office as the guy left the junk pile to come look, I realized my time was up. He was almost to the doorway, and if he saw me like this, just sitting on the floor like a helpless little bug…

I did the only thing I could think of. Pointing my hands straight up, I shot red paint at the ceiling while praying that I actually had paint again.

It worked. Paint appeared, and my body was jerked up from the floor. I didn’t even have to jump or anything. The paint just yanked me that way. I hit the ceiling and clung there, using paint on my feet to keep myself in place. All that just an instant before the man stepped through the doorway. He was right under me, barely inside the room as he swept the pistol from one side of the room to the other.

Then he looked up. His mouth opened, while he started to jerk the pistol my way. But my hand was already pointed at him, spraying black paint that took the man along the arm and gun, muting the sound of both as he simultaneously fired and shouted. His bullet silently hit about halfway up the wall.

Before he could adjust his aim or do anything else to draw attention, I dropped from the ceiling to crash into the man. Small as I was, my weight still took the guy to the ground before he could brace himself. We fell into a heap, and I quickly turned my arm purple for the added strength before punching the man hard.

Ow. His skull hurt my hand. But I hurt him more, as he jerked with a still-muted cry. The guy tried to struggle free, heaving my body off of him before yanking his gun up a bit dizzily.

Then my flailing foot hit his face, and he went down hard. His body collapsed, and a very slight moan escaped him as the black paint wore off.

Scrambling, I took his gun away. Not that he was in any mood to stop me. The guy just laid there, mostly-unconscious. I stared at him for a second like that, until a voice called, “Steve!? Hey man, you okay over there?!”

He wasn’t. His eyes blinked blearily at me, mouth opening as though to say something. Then his eyes closed and he slumped. He was breathing, but he was definitely out of it. A thick bruise was already starting to show where I had kicked him, and he had teeth missing. Or at least, teeth that weren’t in his head anymore. I could see them scattered along the floor.

“Yo, man, this isn’t–the fuck?!”

The remaining guy was in the doorway. He saw his buddy and me both there, his gun jerking up into position.

He fired. Luckily, I’d already brought a splattering of orange paint over my chest. It still hurt, almost knocking the wind from me. But I’d take ‘hurt’ over ‘big bleeding hole in my chest’ any day. He shot me point-blank, and the bullet felt like being hit with a rock.

Clearly surprised by the lack of blood, the man froze briefly. Just long enough for me to throw the pistol I’d taken from the other guy at his face. His head jerked back reflexively, giving me an opening to scramble to my feet. Purple and green appeared in a pattern of stars along both of my arms as I threw myself at the man, tackling him out of the doorway with strength and speed that he wasn’t prepared for.

He landed on his back with me on top of him. Before he could recover, I punched him hard. Then I hit him again, and a third time. By that swing, the man had stopped struggling to throw me off. But I hit him a fourth time, the adrenaline and terror of the moment driving me to keep swinging.

He wasn’t fighting me. He was lying there, groaning in pain. My rush of energy left me panting as I perched there on the man’s chest, staring with wide eyes at him as he tried to curl into a ball and whimper.

“Eddie?!” the guy whose leg was broken was calling. “Steve?! The fuck is going on over there, guys?! This isn’t funny!”

Taking a few breaths to steady myself, I straightened and caught the guy at my feet by the arm. With a little help from my purple strength boost, I gave him a toss out from behind the pile of junk. He crashed to the floor in plain view of his buddy, who suddenly started cursing.

The guy cursed even more after I tossed the other guy out there as well, letting both fall into a heap together. He was cursing and praying at the same time.

Deepening my voice, I called, “You’ve got two choices! You can throw the gun away, or–”

There was a clatter as the pistol was tossed over, bouncing along the floor before I could even finish that sentence.

“Well, okay then,” I managed with a little cough. Taking a breath, I walked around into view, staring at the man who was watching me with wide eyes.

“Whoever you are, you’re gonna regret fucking with us! We’re getting that fucking bounty, man!”

Ignoring him, I moved over to the guy chained down to the chair. As he stared at me, I reach down to grab the legs of the chair. Powering myself up with purple paint, I yanked hard. The legs snapped off after grinding in protest, and the guy was able to stand up. He still had handcuffs on either wrist, but they weren’t attached to anything as the legs of the chair fell out of them.

“Who… who the hell are y-you?” he stammered, his voice shaking with each word.

“I—” That was as far as I got before the sound of squealing tires drew both of our attention to one of the nearby doors, through which there was clearly a parking lot. People were here. And I was pretty sure they weren’t friendly.

“I’m the guy rescuing you,” I blurted, instinctively embracing the mistake that everyone seemed to make about my gender. It would help me keep my true identity secret. “Unless you’d rather get help from whoever just showed up.”

The man’s head shook quickly, as the sound of slamming doors and running footsteps reached us.

“Great,” I replied.

“Then let’s get out of here.”

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