Month: August 2019

Denouement 8 – Ambuscade (Heretical Edge)

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Despite all of the attention the attack outside was getting, there were still a decent number of guards left in the prison. Those guards made their presence known as Flick and Sean’s group raced through the hallways of the facility. Most were dealt with by Athena, as she used her power repeatedly to warn her of incoming danger. Here and there, she would direct one of the others, warning them to stop, where and when to swing a weapon, and where to step to avoid the prison’s own substantial traps and defenses. 

As the group turned another corner, Sean scribbled on a piece of paper, drawing quickly while occasionally glancing up to check their progress. Finally, the boy-turned-young-man slapped the paper against a wall and blurted the activation word. As he did so, a knee-high wall apparently made of the same material as the actual wall shot out into the corridor all the way to the opposite side. A second later, the short, newly summoned wall extended itself clear back down the corridor they had just come from, curving around the bend. It seemed to stretch on for a good sixty or seventy feet, before popping upwards to fill in the space above itself, forming a full wall. A full wall almost a hundred feet long, leading back down the way they had come to close off the entire corridor for that length. 

“Been wanting to try that one for awhile,” Sean observed in a somewhat hoarse voice. “Nice to have space to actually use it.”

He tried to sound casual about it, but there was clear anger, loss, and bitterness lying just behind the words. 

They continued on, Sean laying more walls, traps, and illusions as they went. None of them were expected to actually stop any pursuit, but forcing them to deal with it would take time. As would forcing them to slow down, anticipating anything that was put in their way. 

Finally, the group reached the door leading into the room containing their part of the anti-teleportation defense. Just as they got there, however, the door opened and a guard stepped out. He didn’t seem surprised to see them, but neither was he holding any kind of weapon or making any move to attack. Athena also didn’t do anything more than raise an eyebrow at the man. The two of them stared at each other for a brief moment before the woman spoke. “You know why we came this way?”

The Heretic nodded, then grabbed the door to open it once more. “It’s all yours.”

Before Flick, Sean, Avalon, or Sands could question that, the door slammed shut once more, ripping its way out of the man’s hand. A new voice spoke up, from back the way the group had come. “It most certainly is not theirs.”

Everyone whirled that way, only to see Litonya. The ancient-looking Native American woman stood there, a scowl crossing her heavily-lined features. Power, the extent of which none of them, not even Athena, could hope to actually face straight on, emanated from the angry Committee Heretic. 

“Though I am quite certain we can find other accommodations for each of you.”

*****

A shower of tiny bone spears that had been shot from Pace’s raised hand were intercepted and destroyed by a flurry of lasers courtesy of a small, frisbee-sized drone. The drone adjusted its fire to shoot at her as well, but she blurred out of the way in a burst of super speed, catching only a couple of shots that hurt, but not nearly enough to put down a Heretic-werewolf. 

Unfortunately, she had only gone a few short feet out of the way before a heavily muscled arm slammed into her, going just as fast. Pace was knocked onto her back, as the adult male Heretic stood over her. The drone fit itself back to his arm, matching its twin on the other arm.

“Garden bitch, huh?” the man snarled while forcing a half dozen metal bands to pop from the ground and wrap around the girl as she was trying to catch her breath. “Gotta tell ya, I don’t hate the idea of killing one of those, orders be damned.”

With that, he raised his foot, silver encasing it just as he began to slam it down toward her head with a loud cry of rage. 

A small, blonde figure slammed into him from the side. It wasn’t enough to knock the man down, despite Roxa’s strength. But it did make him stagger just enough that his descending foot missed Pace’s head. It slammed into the ground a few inches away, leaving a small crater there, as rocks and dirt were sent flying. 

Before Roxa could recover from her headlong crash, the man’s hand snapped out, yanking her off her feet before he smacked her upside the head with his other hand, stunning the girl. An instant later, he shook her violently while holding the dangling girl up by her arm. “The fuck are you supposed to be, the cavalry?”

Though dazed, Roxa shook her head. A smile crossed her face as she held a small mouse up with one hand. Her answer was a quiet, “Transport.”

With that, her fingernails extended into claws, piercing the mouse’s throat. It died instantly, and a glowing figure appeared before revealing Theia, as she grabbed the man’s shoulder. “Hi, fuckface!”

She disappeared into him, possessing the man before he could do more than make a slight sound of protest. A moment later, his hand waved, removing the metal bands from Pace before helping her up while simultaneously setting Roxa down carefully. 

Wincing, Pace murmured, “Thanks, are you—”

Before she could say anything else, the man’s head abruptly jerked so hard to the side that it turned almost one hundred and eighty degrees. He fell to the ground dead, while Theia emerged from within him. 

“You could’ve passed off the damage to something else and let him go!” Pace blurted. 

“And we could’ve used his Heretic powers in this fight,” Roxa pointed out, a bit more mildly. 

To Pace, Theia sniffed. “He tried very hard to kill you. I don’t let that go.” To Roxa, she admitted, “But maybe I was a little impulsive about it. Which is very strange and out of character for me.”

The three exchanged looks, but couldn’t say anything else, as they were suddenly lifted off their feet and sent flying by a tidal wave of earth. A new threat had presented itself, and they were once more thrust into the ongoing battle. 

******

A gleaming blue sword cut rapidly through the air, intercepted three quick times by a shield that left a glowing forcefield behind. Miranda, back-pedaling with her shield raised, ducked under a fourth swing from her Heretic opponent. An instant later, the man pivoted in place, lashing out with a kick that took a second Miranda in mid-leap, colliding with her stomach and sending her to the ground. His sword snapped down to intercept the hurled forcefield disc from a third Miranda, before he used a gesture to send a diagonal pillar of stone out of the ground to collide with yet another. 

“You think you can beat me with numbers?” the man snarled. “Two can play at that game. Or should I say…”

Three more glowing figures emerged from the man. Each resolved into a near-copy of him, though rather than being exact duplicates, one was made of obsidian, one of silver, and the third some kind of red metal. 

“Four,” the quartet finished a bit smugly. 

In response, each Miranda duplicate split twice more, providing three opponents for each of the four of him. They all attacked at once, sharing powers between them as they collectively threw themselves at the man. It didn’t help that much. Despite being outnumbered, each of him was more experienced and had more abilities to work with. Several of the Mirandas were killed, briefly stunning the others. One of the Mirandas, on the ground from a particularly rough blow, slammed her hand against the dirt. As she did so, the sound of it was amplified into a shockwave that spread out from that point, staggering each of the men briefly. She then quickly rolled over, mouth opening to shout in a voice that was amplified and focused, “Hey!

The shockwave from her voice slammed into the original man, knocking him back a step. His hand snapped up, only to be hit from another side by a different Miranda using the same power with, “Leave!”

A third struck him from behind with an amplified, “Me!”

“Alone!” The final word came from the first Miranda again. But she didn’t use it to strike him. Instead, the girl turned her head toward the ground and used the force to launch herself up and at the man. He had already recovered and grabbed her leg easily. But a new Miranda burst forth from her in yet another duplication, locking her arms around the man’s neck as she shoved her face right up to his ear and used the power again. “Fuck you!”

That was enough to truly stagger the man. He went to one knee, dropping both Mirandas as blood fell from his ear thanks to his burst eardrum. 

Unfortunately, it wouldn’t keep him down long. Worse, there were still his metal duplicates to deal with, who didn’t disappear when the original lost focus as the Mirandas had hoped they might. Instead, the three metal versions of the man simply looked profoundly pissed off as they closed the distance with the various Mirandas. 

Then the girl(s) had help that actually wasn’t from herselves. A Hunga Munga throwing axe flew through the air just past the silver man, before stopping as Koren appeared, holding it. Without an instant of hesitation, she swung her second axe in the other hand. In mid-swing, the weapon suddenly grew in size, becoming almost comically enormous aside from the bit where she was holding it. The head of the axe was almost as large as the man himself. And more than its size was increased. Making it bigger also magnified the force with which she hit by many times. 

The blow literally cut the silver man in half, making the others stop short while Koren returned the axe to its normal size. “Hey,” she snapped, “didn’t my friend here tell you to leave her alone?”

Each remaining Miranda had gotten to their feet by that point. They spread out, a few more filling in their lost numbers. The man whose eardrum had been burst rose, a forcefield appearing around him as he snarled, “Traitors.”

Koren retorted, “Child-soldier rearing, mass-murdering psycho. Tell you what, when your side isn’t indiscriminately killing everything that isn’t exactly like you without so much as a trial, locking someone in solitary confinement for years, kidnapping toddlers to be held hostage, and seriously considering using a blood plague to enslave half their population, you can think about being within an airplane’s reach of the moral high ground. Until then, fuck you!

The man’s eyes narrowed as he gave a quiet snarling sound that resolved itself into the single word, “Lies.” 

With that, he teleported the distance between himself and the nearest Miranda. His hand grabbed her by the face and lifted the girl off her feet as he spun to slam her down into the ground on her back. At the same time, a group of precise waves of kinetic force struck each of the other Mirandas and Koren. They were thrown into the air with cries as the two metal duplicates each fired several bolts of electricity straight into the spot they were launched toward. Koren and the Mirandas were caught by the lightning bolts, spasmed in the air, and were dropped to the ground where they lay still. 

The man experienced a brief rush of pleasure as his blue aura flared. It wasn’t much, but then, a couple random students wouldn’t provide any huge boost. 

He exhaled after the aura faded, sighing a little as he stepped over to where Koren’s motionless form was. “Wasn’t really supposed to kill you, but oh well. Accidents happen. Guess that means you don’t have anything else to say though, huh, smarta—”

He was interrupted by the giant axe head suddenly bearing itself in his chest. Blood spilled from his mouth, choking the man as he blinked down in disbelief. The axe was held by a very much alive Koren. 

“Thank my Uncle Wyatt. He made a spell that triggers a small version of the Heretic kill aura. Only works if they actually think they could have killed something. So we had to give you an opening.”

With that, she shrank the axe back down to its normal size while yanking it out of him. The man choked up more blood before collapsing to the ground. As he fell, Koren’s aura flared to life, the girl’s back arching as an unwanted cry of pleasure escaped her. 

And hers was real. 

The remaining Miranda, the one who had been slammed into the ground, found her a moment later, both of them looking very bruised and battered. “You okay?”

Koren’s head shook. “I didn’t want to kill him. I… I was going to use the transport stone. But I was afraid it wouldn’t work yet. He wasn’t that hurt. If we didn’t stop him right now, he could’ve… I mean… it was the only opening we had, and we might not have gotten another one before… I… I… oh God.”

She turned then, throwing up on the ground while Miranda quickly moved to help her. She pulled the hair away from Koren’s face, keeping an eye out around them just in case while letting the other girl purge herself of at least the physical manifestation of her revulsion. Maybe it would help for a little while. 

Both girls crouched there on the edge of the chaos, each trying to cope, and help the other cope, with the violence they had to perform. Violence they would continue to perform, no matter how sick it made them. 

This was war, and it was only going to get worse. 

******

The man who had come through the door and began to let Flick’s group pass him was yanked off the floor, hurled down the corridor, and left to slam into the wall. He slumped unconscious, as Litonya announced, “I do not know if you are a coward or a traitor. Nor do I care. You will be dealt with later.”

Her eyes focused on the group, settling on Flick first, ignoring Avalon as the dark-haired girl stepped in front of the blonde. “Gabriel should have taken my advice and had you quietly killed before you could cause this much trouble. He still hasn’t learned his lesson. So absurdly soft-hearted, having your siblings spirited from their crib before my agent in the Rebellion could eliminate them.”

A look of mixed shock and confusion leapt to Flick’s face, as she stammered, “Wait, w-what?”

Litonya shrugged. “Gabriel believed that taking the children hostage would be enough. I knew that while it may temporarily force Joselyn into compliance, it would not truly change her. We would have this same issue soon enough, as proven now. But finding her infant children murdered in their crib? That would truly break her, and we would never have to deal with her again.

“We disagreed. I overruled him and gave the order. He went around me and had the children abducted before my agent could do the work. If he had simply listened to me the first time, we wouldn’t be here now.” Her head tilted a little thoughtfully, a small sneer crossing her lined face. “And, I suppose, you wouldn’t be anywhere at all.”

Flick rocked backward from that, both hands covering her mouth as her face turned white. A sound of various mixed emotions choked its way out of her covered mouth while Avalon and Sands split their attention between her and the woman in front of them, clearly at a complete loss. 

Sean spoke up, his voice was hard. “You tried to send someone to murder innocent children? You try to have babies assassinated, and you still think you’re in the right? You somehow managed to make Gabriel Ruthers abducting infants into a moral improvement over your own plan, and you still think you’re some kind of savior?” His voice shook with a mix of disbelief and anger. Nearby, all Flick could do was stare with her hands over her mouth, completely unable to find any words at all. 

“You’re an evil bitch,” Sands spat. 

Litonya regarded her impassively. “I do what is necessary to protect the majority of this world, against any who may threaten it.” 

Her attention shifted toward Athena. “And you are one of those threats, are you not?”

The Olympian drew herself up to her full height, short brown hair seeming to glow a bit as she drew Excalibur. “Am I a threat to your world? Absolutely. I am Athena, though many on your world know me as Nimue, the Lady of the Lake.”

Litonya’s eyes narrowed. “Do you truly believe that you have the slightest—”

Her head snapped to the side then, avoiding the sword as it was thrown through the air. It sailed past, missing her throat by an inch before embedding itself in the wall beyond. 

A dry chuckle escaped the old woman then. “And here I had believed that Athena was known for some great tactical ability. I suppose such accolades were thoroughly undeserved. Throwing away the most powerful asset you have was the single dumbest thing you could have done.”

Athena looked unperturbed. “Was it? I told you, I am also called Nimue. And if you knew anything at all about my history, you would realize one very important thing. I was not known for using the sword. 

“I was known for giving it to someone far better than I.”

A sound behind her made Litonya spin, in time to see a glowing figure emerge from the man she had knocked out, the man who had been neither traitor nor coward, but possessed. The figure resolved itself into a physical form, hand grabbing Excalibur before pulling it from the wall and turning to face Litonya. 

“Hi,” Chayyiel announced. “Do you mind sharing?”

“Do I mind—” The confused Litonya began to echo the words, but they weren’t meant for her. Another glowing figure appeared, as Tabbris stepped from Flick, who made a quick portal, hand extending through it. Chayyiel caught her hand, before disappearing into her. Flick straightened, one hand holding Excalibur while the other hand held her staff. 

“Now then,” Chayyiel spoke through her. 

“What were you saying about this girl’s family?”

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Collectors 5-06 (Summus Proelium)

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Stopping next to the door leading into the band room after school was over, I listened for a moment. Sure enough, the sound of the guitar portion of The Who’s ‘My Generation’ came from within. Smiling a little to myself, I took a breath before giving the door a little push as I stepped in. 

He was there. Tomas Jackson. He looked… basically like I remembered, though a couple inches taller. He had naturally pale skin that had always made him look almost like a vampire or something, coupled with eyes that were a piercing dark green, and dark blonde, almost brown hair that was worn down to his shoulders. His build was fairly slender, though his arms had filled out somewhat since I’d seen him last. As always (whenever he could get away with it by not being specifically in class), he wore a leather jacket with the name of some British punk band on it instead of his actual school uniform jacket. 

Mostly faced away from me, his attention seemingly focused entirely on the guitar he was strumming, Tomas nonetheless stopped once I had fully entered. He turned to glance over his shoulder, giving me an easy smile as my name slipped from his lips. “Cassidy Evans.” 

“Hi, Tomas,” I managed. My heart was beating hard, despite the fact that our relationship was supposed to be over. But we’d broken up out of necessity. He’d had to leave. Being boyfriend and girlfriend from across an ocean might’ve seemed romantic in some respects, but we’d both known it was a bad idea. So we broke up. I’d… well, I hadn’t exactly moved on, considering I didn’t have another boyfriend after him. But we’d definitely gone our separate ways. 

But he was here now. And seeing him brought back all those old feelings. Stupid as it might’ve been, part of me just wanted to go kiss him right then. I remembered kissing him, what it was like. I remembered the feeling of Tomas actually finding me attractive, and how much it helped me deal with the people who kept calling me a boy. I remembered that feeling. I missed it. 

And yet, I also didn’t want to look like a desperate idiot. Shoving those thoughts and feelings down, I did my best to look and sound as casual as possible. “Someone told me you were back. Figured you’d come check this place out again. You ahh, you spent a lot of time here before.” 

“We both did,” he reminded me, giving a brief strum to the guitar before setting it aside as he moved to sit down on the nearby carpeted step that led onto the small stage. “You ahh, you wanna sit down? I was hoping you’d show up. Missed you in class this morning.” 

“I had a doctor’s appointment,” I murmured under my breath before moving to join him on the stair, perching myself at the opposite side of it (so maybe four feet away). Part of me wondered if I should sit closer, then I rethought. Unfortunately, once I finally did sit down, I suddenly reconsidered. Would he take it as an insult that I didn’t sit closer? Was he hoping I would? Was I hoping that he hoped I would? Did I–was I–what in the hell was I even thinking right then? 

Of course, Tomas didn’t look like he even noticed. He just gave me a brief look and smile as he pulled out his phone. “You remember what I said I’d do?” Holding up the phone, he showed me a picture of himself standing in front of the London Eye, holding a green balloon with a face drawn on it. Under the face was a name. Cassidy. 

“Oh, my God! You total dick!” Shoving him with a laugh, I blurted, “I told you not to use a balloon for that because of the whole ‘airhead’ thing, remember!?” 

Grinning back at me, he replied, “Yeah, see, that just made me want to use a balloon even more.” Ignoring my sputtering, he started flipping through more pictures, showing me how he had taken the Cassidy balloon to every conceivable British tourist trap. “And here’s the airhead at Big Ben. Here we are at the Tower Bridge, at Buckingham. I wasn’t gonna do that one, but you know, balloon you insisted. Then we have the London Dungeon. Almost left you there.” 

Flushing deeply, I kicked his ankle with my foot. “You’re a jerk, Tomas. I can’t believe you even took all these pictures. What, just in case you came back someday?”

“Okay, actually, I did this like… the day we left to come here,” he confessed with a snicker. “Once I knew we were coming back.” 

“So how long are you back for, anyway?” I asked, trying not to sound too much like I was prying. “And wait, you only found out you were coming here right before you came? Was your dad keeping it a secret, or…” 

“Apparently it was a last second thing,” Tomas informed me. “Something about the last ambassador having some kind of conflict. As for how long we’re saying, the assignment’s supposed to keep him here at least until next Christmas. So… most of a year, I guess? Not sure what’s coming after that. But hey,” he added with a shrug, “it means I get to be here for  awhile, so I’m dead chuffed, you know?” 

Winking at me, Tomas flicked through a couple more pictures on his phone before asking, “So what’ve you been up to, Miss Cassidy Evans? Jumped off any tall buildings lately?” 

The words made me do a quick double-take despite myself as I blurted, “Wh-what?” 

Raising an eyebrow, the boy clarified. “Remember, we were watching the video of those pillocks jumping off those buildings with the parachutes and wingsuits? I said it was stupid as fuck and you said you wanted to do it someday. So, you still think it’s something you want to do?” 

It was stupid, but I almost told him the truth. Seriously, next to my family, Tomas had been basically one of my favorite people for a long time. I’d confessed a lot of things to him that I hadn’t told anyone else, not even my family. Add other things we’d done and… well, experimented with… yeah, I really trusted him. It was so easy to fall into this natural rhythm. It felt like he’d never left. If I could actually talk to someone I knew as well as Tomas about this… maybe it would help. 

Or maybe it would just get him in trouble. What if he tried to tell his father the truth about my parents, thinking that his dad’s diplomatic connections could do something? What if something bad happened, either to him or his father. Or… my family. How did I feel about either of those? 

“Cassidy?” Tomas asked gently, a slight frown touching his forehead as he watched me with obvious concern. “Sorry, I–are you alright? You… you look kind of–” 

Quickly, I nodded. “I’m fine. I–I just wasn’t expecting to see you today. It’s kinda surprising.” 

Pushing on from that, I told him a bit of the… innocent stuff that I could say. I kept it casual, still uncertain of how much I should confide in him. I’d trusted him for a long time. But then, I trusted my family too, and look where that ended up. If I couldn’t trust my mom and dad, was there anyone I actually could? 

“Oh, and I started doing this.” Reaching into my bag, I took out my notebook. I’d been experimenting ever since lunch, drawing everything that popped into my head. I had sketch after sketch of monsters, people skateboarding, a ninja with a sword running along the top of a fighter jet that itself was shooting at some kind of giant flying squid… yeah. And they all looked good. Like, really good. I just pictured the image in my head and my hand automatically transferred it to the paper, like I was xeroxing it straight from my brain to the page. 

“Good holy shite, Cassidy,” Tomas blurted, taking the notebook as I extended it. His eyes were wide. “When did you start drawing? This… this is really you? No fooling?” 

“No fooling,” I replied, already blushing despite myself. “I uhh, I just started messing around with it and… and I guess I’m pretty good?” 

“Pretty good?” he echoed, using the notebook to swat me lightly. “This is professional stuff, you daft girl. You taking art classes? Cuz you should be.” 

“I, umm… not yet.” How could I explain that I’d only just found out I could draw like that this morning? Or that it was probably some kind of side effect that came from the superpower involving paint. That was… a whole other deep conversation. “I haven’t really put too much thought into it as more than a hobby.” Mostly because it had only even been that for a couple hours by this point. 

“You need to do more with this,” Tomas urged me, gesturing to the artwork. “Really. Hell, maybe I’ll contract you to do the art for my band when–.” 

“You have a–” I started. 

“–when I actually get a new band,” he finished with a self-depreciating snort. 

We smiled at each other for a moment. I was about to say something else, when my eyes happened to glance down toward the phone in his hand. There was a really hot guy on his lock screen. It wasn’t Tomas. This one had short black hair and blue eyes. Seeing him there, I asked curiously, “Hey, who’s that guy?” 

“Hmm? Oh, I meant to change that.” Tomas shrugged. “That’s Charlie. He’s uhh, he was my boyfriend for awhile.” 

That made me do a double-take, my eyes snapping from the phone (though I couldn’t see the picture anymore) up to him. “I’m sorry, your what?” 

He wasn’t looking at me. His attention was on the phone screen, a fond look in his eyes. “Yeah, I ahhh…” Blinking up at me, Tomas winced. “No, sorry. I know what you’re thinking, Cassidy, but I’m not gay. I’m bi. Kinda figured it out like… six months ago. I like girls and boys. And believe me, I like you for all kinds of girl-related reasons.” 

“The people here literally teased you about being gay for dating me,” I pointed out. “Just like they did Peter Fauning the year before that. And now you’re saying that you actually are into guys? I mean, that’s not–it’s not a problem or… or it’s just not a… it’s not any of my… I mean..” My stammering cut off as I sighed. “I don’t know. I’m sorry. I’m being stupid.” 

“Cassidy, you are not being stupid,” Tomas assured me. “I don’t–ahh, I don’t blame you for having feelings about it. You’re right, those morons did say a lot of stupid shite. I don’t pay it any more mind now than I did then. I like you cuz I like you. Boy, girl, it doesn’t rightly matter. But ahhh, that said, I know that you’ll need time. It’s easy for me to say it doesn’t matter to me, but you’re different. It matters to you, and that part of it matters to me.”

Wincing a little, I managed a weak, “Damn it, Tomas, you’re making it really hard to be a drama queen about this.” 

He gave me one of his patented perfect smiles then, shrugging one shoulder. “If it makes you feel any better, we can pretend I said something stupid so you get to storm off. I’ll even do the dramatic, ‘Cassidy, wait, I’m sorry!’ and you can slam the door right in my face.” 

“Right in your face?” I echoed, pretending to consider it. 

“Boom, right there,” he agreed, pantomiming with his hand. “So what do you say? Shall we put on our dramatic faces?” 

“I think I’m good without the drama,” I informed him with a little shudder. Despite our little banter right then, however, I still hesitated. “But… I do need a little time to think about everything.” 

He nodded once. “I thought you might. Just know that whatever people say, I like you for you, Cassidy Evans. You think through everything you need to. My number’s the same. Give me a ring when you feel like it.” 

I couldn’t help it. Leaning in, I gave him a hug, holding on for just a moment before pushing myself up. “I… I’ll talk to you later, Tomas. I’m glad you’re back and that you’re… doing okay.” Feeling suddenly even more awkward, confused, and out of my depth, I fumbled my way to the door and slipped out. 

I felt like an idiot. An overly emotional idiot. Yes, being with Tomas last year had done wonders for my confidence, the fact that he found me attractive and didn’t think of me as a prepubescent boy had been huge. So finding out that he was attracted to both boys and girls was… it was… 

It should have been nothing. I shouldn’t care. He still liked me for me, so why did I have to make a big deal out of it? 

Emotions were stupid. I needed some kind of distraction. 

*******

“He’s ours, you son of a bitch!” a guy in a red jacket with a black claw mark design across the back of it blurted. Arrayed around him, other guys (and a few girls) dressed similarly echoed the sentiment. All of them backed up the words by pointedly brandishing the guns and knives they were holding.

An equal number of people faced them, holding weapons of their own and looking not the least bit intimidated by their opponents. One of those snarled, “He came into our turf, cocksuckers. You come into our turf, you’re ours. Just like him.” 

The two opposing groups were Fell-gang members, of course, though none were Touched, as far as I could tell. The first, led by the guy in the red jacket at the front, were members of the Easy Eights. These ones in particular were under one of the other lieutenants, not my old friend(s) Janus. Easy Eights, eight gangs, eight lieutenants. Going by the claw mark designs on their clothing, their particular leader was the woman known as Skadi, a Fell-Touched focused on hunting and wild animals. The group facing them, meanwhile, were more members of the Ninety-Niners. Between them, the object of their argument, was some random guy cowering on the ground with his arms over his head. 

“We fucking chased him out here,” one of the Skadi-gang members snapped. “We found him, we chased him, he’s ours. That reward is ours. You get in the way, we’ll put you down like dogs.” 

This was getting out of hand really fast. Any second now, these idiots were going to start shooting at each other. From my perch on the edge of the building where I had been watching this, I carefully aimed both hands before shooting off a spray of red paint from each. Quickly, I adjusted my aim so that the paint went over all of their guns. I tried to get any knives too, but mostly it was the guns. 

As the red paint sprayed over their weapons, the gang members all blurted out curses of surprise and confusion. Their gazes were already snapping my way for the source of the paint, even as I activated all of it, yanking all of the guns out of their hands and toward each other to collide before crashing into one big pile. 

By that point, even as a couple of the guys tried to lunge for the weapons, I had already hopped down to land on the sidewalk in front of them. “Hey, don’t do that.” The two who were scrambling that way each got hit with a spot of blue paint at their feet to send them flying. “No guns until after you eat all your vegetables and clean up your bedrooms.” 

“Hey, it’s that Paintball shit!” One of the guys blurted, pointing his knife at me. “The hell you want? This guy right here, he’s our fucking bounty. Blackjack wants him and we’re gonna fleece that motherfucker dry.” 

“Ahh, good luck with that,” I replied with as casual a shrug as I could manage given the situation, “cuz that’s not Ashton Austin. Hey, you. Your name Ashton Austin?” 

“N-no!” the man squeaked out, clearly terrified. “My name’s Tony Bastmer, these guys just started yelling and chasing me, so I ran away!” Now that he was looking up at me, I could see where they might make the mistake. He and Ashton were similar enough that that might have been related. 

“Course he’s gonna say that!” one of the Ninety-Niners snapped. “He’d be an idiot to admit who he is. Look at him. That’s the guy.” 

“You got some kind of ID?” I pressed, watching all of them looking back and forth between me and the guy on the ground. 

“Oh like that fucking matters,” another guy retorted even as the one on the ground gave a frantic nod. “Of course he’ll have a fake ID. How stupid do you think we–” 

“What’s going on here?” A new voice spoke up then, as a female figure emerged from the alley nearby. She gave me a passing glance, and I recognized her immediately. Skadi, the Easy Eight lieutenant over the group with the red jackets. She was a lithe woman with white tiger-print pants that tightly hugged her legs, black combat boots, a black leather jacket with the emblem of a tiger’s face on the front of it and that familiar claw mark on the back (both in red), and a hard metal mask over the front of her face with holes in it for her eyes and mouth. The mask itself was silver, with a tiger’s face emblazoned on it in red. Well, tiger for now. I happened to know that the woman could change the image on the mask at any point, between various predatory animals. 

Changing her mask image wasn’t her power. That was just some kind of tech thing. Skadi’s actual power had something to do with anticipating the actions, choices, and whatnot of anyone whose blood she… well… tasted. Yeah. She also had some other things like metal claws and maybe some kind of strength, speed, and other general enhancements. But mostly it was that whole ‘taste someone’s blood and then be able to predict what they do and just generally know things about them’ thing. 

Seeing one of their enemy’s Touched arrive made the handful of Ninety-Niners even less eager to pursue this. Several of them were already taking off, a couple more trying to seem strong but clearly ready to join their companions at any second. 

“We got that Ashton guy,” one of the Easy Eight guys claimed, gesturing to the whimpering man. “Then this asshole shows up and says it’s not him.” 

Without saying anything, Skadi glanced to me, then stepped over to the man. I tensed as she held up a hand, producing a metal claw from the dark glove she wore. But the woman wasn’t attacking anyone. She poked the man in the arm, watching me the whole time as she took a bit of his blood and touched it to her lips for a taste. 

“He’s right,” the woman murmured while still staring at me. “It’s not him. Let the man go.” 

There was a collection of mutters of disbelief and annoyance, but they did. The Ninety-Niners didn’t pursue him either, as the man took off running. 

“Right,” I started, “now that we’ve resolved that peacefully–” 

“You, on the other hand…” Skadi interrupted, “you clearly know more than you should. I wouldn’t be surprised if you know exactly where our missing man is right now. And even if you don’t, there are others who would like a conversation with you.” 

Too late, I realized that the woman had been glancing somewhat past me at the last bit of that. I tried turning, but something grabbed me first. Something… huge. A hand as big as I was. Suddenly, I was yanked around, given a brief glimpse of Mister Harmful’s face as he snarled at me, before his giant hand abruptly slammed me face first into the wall of the building. 

Everything went dark. 

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Collectors 5-05 (Summus Proelium)

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“You sure this plan of yours is gonna work?” 

It was the next morning. I had gone to school for the first couple periods before taking off. With a call from ‘my dad’, of course, thanks to my voice changer. As far as the school was concerned, I had a doctor’s appointment and would be back to school as soon as it was over. Which gave me time to (hopefully) get this component that Wren needed away from the delivery truck so she could finish that little project. 

Looking over to where Pack was leaning against the wall in the alley we were hiding out in, I shrugged. “If I was sure it was going to work, it’d be a memory, not a plan. But it’s the best we’ve got. Unless you’ve had any better ideas about how to get that thing off the truck?” As I spoke, my eyes glanced to the side, where Mars Bar the iguana-bear and Holiday the panther-skink were waiting as well. Tuesday, the gecko-monkey, was sitting on top of a nearby dumpster, playing with… I didn’t know what he was playing with. Nor did I want to know.  

Expression hidden behind her full face mask, Pack shrugged. “I’ve been thinking about it, but nope. You’re right, this pretty much seems like our best shot. If you’re absolutely positive that you don’t want to just call in Blackjack to deal with it. I’m pretty sure he could get that thing.” 

“And I’m pretty sure he wouldn’t really care all that much about who got hurt in the process,” I reminded her pointedly. “We can do this without help, and without sending in an army of thugs to stampede over that poor driver. Scaring him just a little bit maybe, but not hurting him.” 

Once again, she shrugged. “If you say so. Still think you’re overcomplicating this, but I guess it’s your show.” As she said that, the girl glanced up to the roof of the building where the lizard-bird Riddles was perched and had just made a soft cawing noise. “Right then, that truck’s on its way. Just turned onto our street, so we’ve got about twenty seconds. You ready for this?” 

“Guess I better be,” I replied before cracking my neck from one side, then the other. Bouncing up and down on my heels a couple times, I breathed out. “Okay, let’s do it. Just… you know.” 

She nodded once. “Yup. Okay, Mars, carefully, just like we practiced.” Giving a quick glance up to her bird for the exact timing, the girl finally made a gesture with her hand. “Now!” 

And just like that, the enormous bear-lizard picked me up from behind. I tried to brace myself, but even knowing it was coming, it was still terrifying. Holding me up above his head, the grizzard gave a deafening, pants-wetting roar before hurling me out of the alley. 

With a yelp, I went flying end over end through the air. From the corner of my eye, I could see the Tauros truck almost directly under me. The driver was even leaning forward, craning his neck while already slamming on the brakes. The squeal of the tires on the street filled the air, and I shot a bit of red paint down to yank myself straight at the hood of the truck before landing in a crouch on it. The paint held me in place even as the truck jerked to a sudden, wild halt. 

“What the hell!?” I heard the driver shouting, even as he started to open the door, standing up and leaning out to stare at me with wide eyes. “What do you think you’re–” 

His words were cut off then, as he caught a glimpse of movement from the alley I had just been thrown out of. Looking that way, he very clearly saw Mars Bar and Holiday charging, because he made a noise of shock and started to sit back down so he could close his door. But I was faster, throwing myself off the hood to ground just past the driver before shooting red paint at him to yank him toward my suddenly red gloves with a shouted, “Get down!” 

The man collided with me and we went tumbling, just before Riddles swooped through the open door of his truck with a loud screech. At the same time, Mars Bar shouldered his way past the truck, bumping it hard with another roar. Boy was he hamming this whole thing up.

At least, I hoped he was hamming it up. Pack had insisted the grizzard completely understood that this was all fake, and I was praying she was right about that. This would suck otherwise. 

Coming to a stop, I made sure to end up on top of the poor driver. He grunted under the impact, and I blurted a quick, “Sorry, sorry! Stay down!” Patting his side, I rolled off the man before shooting off a wide spray of red paint toward the charging Holiday and Mars Bar. Activating it yanked the two into one another. It wasn’t all that hard, and definitely less than they could actually take. But the two animals still gave loud howls of pain and surprise before falling in opposite directions. Apparently they thought this was the time for their Oscar reels. 

“Hey!” The shout came from Pack herself, as the girl came running with a bat in her hand. Seeing her, I reached down to wrap an arm around the driver, coloring part of myself purple before using a shot of red paint to yank us up to the roof of a nearby fast food joint. There I carefully set him down. “You okay?” I quickly asked, glancing between him and the others. 

The man’s eyes were wide as he stared at me from his seated position. “I–I don’t know! What–” 

“Hold that thought,” I blurted. “One sec, gotta deal with this.” With that, I leapt off the building, throwing myself into a lunge aided by a bit of blue paint that sent me flying at Pack. The two of us collided, sprawling end over end. Her bat fell away, and she swung at me with her right fist, actually connecting, though not that hard. I still made a point of staggering before grabbing onto her and giving a sharp whistle toward Mars Bar, Riddles, and Holiday. “Hey, you guys like your owner? Well, come get her then!” That said, I used more red paint to yank myself toward the same alley we had emerged from, with the trio of lizard-animals charging after us. 

Landing in the alley, I checked to make sure no one was watching. We’d already planned out exactly where to leave the driver so that he wouldn’t have line of sight either to the back of the truck or the inside of the alley here. And I’d moved the dumpster from the side of the building itself so that he couldn’t easily climb down. For a moment at least, he was stuck up there.

“We good?” I quickly asked Pack after setting her down. My three ‘pursuers’ came lumbering into the alley as well, slowing as soon as they were out of sight of the street. 

In response, she glanced to the side. “Twinkletoes?” 

At her words, the gorilla-chameleon appeared, complete with a little metal collar around his neck that had a cell phone hooked into it. He grunted, reaching down to the side of the dumpster before picking up a crate with the Seraph Hills logo on it. It looked pretty similar to the one Eits and I had taken from the Tauros building the night before, though maybe slightly larger. 

I hoped it was the right one. Eits had given Pack that collar to put on Twinkletoes. The  cell phone in the collar had a little camera on the front that was supposed to have scanned the serial numbers attached to the crates on the truck and chime when it scanned the right one. Supposedly, Twinkletoes would have made his way invisibly onto the truck, moved around until the thing gave him a pleasant chime, then took the box that prompted it, leaving all the other ones. That was the idea, anyway. Like with the others and our play-fighting, Pack insisted he understood the explanation, and the few test runs we’d done with other boxes had seemed to work out. So… here was hoping. 

Pack was already stepping that way. She picked up the crate, checked the serial number against a piece of paper that she’d written it on, then gave me a thumbs up. “We’re good.” 

Exhaling the breath I hadn’t even been aware that I was holding, I returned the gesture before starting to move. “Keep Riddles out of sight,” I reminded her, not wanting the driver to see the bird-lizard that had ‘almost gotten him’ hanging around. That’d probably be suspicious. 

I took off then, not out of the mouth of the alley we’d just come through, but past Twinkletoes and Pack, to the opposite street. There, I used red paint to pull myself up to the next building over, right on the corner, took a running start, and launched myself with blue paint out over the street with the parked truck. There were cars backed up there, and a few that were pulling around. This wasn’t a busy street (we’d intentionally chosen it that way), but it had been parked there for a couple minutes by that point.

Coming down on the roof of the fast food place, I startled the driver, who jerked reflexively from where he’d been talking on his phone. Apparently he’d called for help. When he saw me, the man settled. “Yeah, yeah the paint kid’s right here. Guess you don’t need the ladder after all.” 

He disconnected, and I offered a weak, “Sorry about that. Are you… are you okay?” 

“Fine, I guess,” the man replied in a voice that was still just a little shaky. Thankfully, he seemed unhurt. “What happened to–uhh…” 

“Pack,” I replied. “One of La Casa. And she got away. I didn’t want to leave you here too long. Should’ve figured you had a phone.” Kicking the roof, I injected embarrassment into my voice while squirming with feigned self-consciousness. “Guess I should’ve kept chasing her.”

“Shit,” the man muttered. “I hope she didn’t take off with any of my shipment. God damn it, you have any idea what kind of paperwork is inv–” He stopped then, wincing. “I mean, sorry. Sorry, kid, you were great out there. Didn’t mean to sound ungrateful. Thanks for your work.” 

Oh boy, did I ever feel guilty right then. It would’ve been easier if he was a jerk, or at least dismissive. Swallowing, I nodded and reached out to him. “Here, I’ll help you get down, then make sure no one bothers you while you look through your shipment. I didn’t see her get near it, so it’s probably fine. But ahh, I’ll wait until you look through it. That’s the least I can do.” 

After all, I didn’t add, I kinda have to stick around to make sure our little ruse really worked. 

Helping the man down, I walked with him back to his truck. There was a uniformed cop there, already writing out a ticket. When he saw us approaching, the officer stopped. “You the driver?” 

We explained the situation, and the cop agreed not to ticket the guy (another potential problem off my conscience), and stuck around while he went into the back of the truck to check his load. 

Meanwhile, the cop and I stood outside the truck and waited. His name was Officer Lensroy, and because I so needed another reason to feel guilty about this, he was really nice. He asked me questions about being chased by Cuélebre, and seemed genuinely interested. He even made a few jokes. All of which made it harder and harder to stand there and lie to both him and the driver. But I had to. For Blackjack’s daughter, I had to. I’d make sure everything worked out. 

I hoped. 

Finally, the driver stepped down. “Looks good,” he announced with a voice of relief. “Never saw that girl go anywhere near the truck, and neither did ahh, Paintball was it?” When I nodded, he continued. “Neither did Paintball. And my handy little scanner here says every box is accounted for.” He waved the small device in his hand. 

I suppressed the urge to openly sigh in relief. It had worked. Twinkletoes managed to switch our box with the one that was already on the truck, and Eits’ little delayed magic with the computer system set the serial number on our box as the one that was supposed to be on the truck. Perfect. 

Congratulating the man on his truck being safe, I made my farewells. As I started to leave, Officer Lensroy called out, “Hey, one second!” 

A million things went through my mind just then, as I slowly turned my gaze back to him, waiting. No way was I going to say something potentially incriminating in that moment. 

The cop smiled at me. “Whoever you are, you run back to school now, you hear? Ain’t no emergency going on, and that lizard girl, wherever she is, ain’t causing trouble at the moment. Get on back to your classes. Hero or not, don’t you go making me call the truant officer.” 

Flushing a little, I saluted the man. “Yes, sir.” And I meant it. I would be going back to class. 

Just as soon as I made sure Wren had everything she needed to start building that suit. 

*******

It was the right piece. With that and what I picked up from the junkyard guy, Wren had what she needed. So now she was busy working. Pack and Fred were going to be running any physical errands she needed done over the day, and I would check in later. Hopefully, there wouldn’t be any unexpected problems. 

It was only after I’d left that I realized I hadn’t actually asked Pack what her school situation was like. Which probably made me worse at this whole hero thing than Officer Lensroy. 

In any case, for the moment, I was back in class. Or rather, lunch. As we had fairly often over the past little while, Jae, Amber, and I were eating while talking about our project. 

That was the idea, anyway. Mostly we gossiped, joked, and basically just hung out. We did work on the project too, of course. It was just… not as much time or effort as we spent talking. 

“So Cass,” Amber was saying as she stirred her pasta salad idly, “you must be happy about Tomas, right?” 

I blinked at her blankly, idly doodling with a colored pencil in my notebook. “Happy about Tomas?” 

“You know, Tomas Jackson?” she prompted. “That diplomat’s kid from–” 

“From London,” I finished for her, nodding as I absently picked up a different colored pencil and sketched a bit more. “Yeah, I know who you mean. But why would I be happy about him? He went home last year.” 

“You mean you don’t–” Stopping, Amber blinked toward the silent Jae, then back to me. “He’s back, Cassidy. He was in my first class this morning. You didn’t know that? I–” Realizing what she’d said then, the girl flushed. “I mean–sorry, I guess he just hasn’t had a chance to–” 

“It’s fine,” I assured her. “I–we broke it off when he went back to London anyway. I haven’t even exchanged more than a couple e-mails and texts since then. And I was at the doctor’s earlier. Maybe I would’ve run into him then.” I shrugged, thinking about that. “He really moved back here?” 

She nodded. “Something about his dad getting another assignment, right, Jae?” 

“That’s what he said,” the Albino girl confirmed quietly. She was watching me with a thoughtful, somewhat curious expression. About what, I couldn’t say. 

“Yeah,” Amber decided, nodding. “I’m sure he’ll come find you, he probably just has the other lunch period. So, you know, be ready for that.” She gave me an easy smile, eyes glancing down before widening. “Holy crap, dude.” 

“What?” Blinking the way she was staring, I found myself looking at the doodle in my notebook. 

It wasn’t a doodle. Somehow, while not really paying attention, I had used my colored pencils to draw and color a pretty damn good image of a knight fighting a dragon. 

“What, yourself,” Amber retorted, clearly thinking that I was just being falsely modest. “Can I see?” She waited until I moved my arm before tugging the notebook over. “Holy shit. That’s–when did you learn how to draw like this? That’s really good. That’s like… professional quality.” 

“I…” I hadn’t. I’d never drawn like that in my life. I’d taken no lessons for it or anything. I hadn’t even really been paying attention. So… how? How had I just done that? Was it part of my power? It had to do with like… colors and stuff, was it related? It had to be, right? But… but…

Realizing both the girls were staring at me, I felt the heat rise to my cheeks as I mumbled, “It’s not that big of a deal.” 

“Dude, trust me, this is a big deal.” Amber waved the notebook, sliding it to Jae for her to see better. “Like I said, that’s totally professional quality. Seriously good professional. You could be a comic book artist or–or something. And you did that just sitting here talking? That’s awesome. You’ve gotta show me some other stuff.” 

“I…” Swallowing back my total confusion, I nodded. “I’ll see what I can do.” 

Jae slid the notebook back to me, offering a smile and a quiet, “It’s really good.” 

I stared at the drawing briefly. They were right. It was good. My hand pressed down against it, as I felt that rush of confusion and uncertainty come back. How did I draw like that without even thinking about it? Was ‘super-artist’ really a side effect of my power? Why? 

Between that and the news that Tomas had apparently come back, I had a lot to think about that lunch period. 

And here I’d thought that I was going to be bored for the rest of the day. 

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Denouement 6 – Signa Inferre (Heretical Edge)

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Tsseewww! Tsssseeeww! Tsseeeeewww!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Give us our people back.” 

*******

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Collectors 5-04 (Summus Proelium)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But that didn’t stop me from feeling guilty. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In the end… he owed me pizza.

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Denouement 5 – Cercetare (Heretical Edge)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It’s about Joselyn Atherby, and a mall. 

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