Month: August 2019

Collectors 5-02 (Summus Proelium)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Bullshit you will,” his companion spat. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Denouement 3 – Fray (Heretical Edge)

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The secret Crossroads prison (or this one, anyway) turned out to be located in an old long-since abandoned mining town somewhere in southern Kentucky. Or, to be more precise… under said mining town. Despite the outward appearance of a few broken-down, cobweb-filled buildings, there was, apparently, an entire elaborate underground complex that had been constructed a mile and a half down. And every inch of that one-point-five miles was filled with various magic spells, traps, alarms, and other contingencies to keep the prisoners in and uninvited guests out. 

It was also a god damn hornet’s nest, because the very instant that the group of Atherby/Rebellion aligned Heretics and werewolves moved through the portal and appeared on a low hill just along the side of the ‘ghost town’, they were met with heavy response. Automated turrets appeared both from the ground and from the supposedly empty, broken-down buildings. Drones erupted into the sky and began to open fire as well, and several Crossroads portals opened up, releasing actual Heretics. A few of those had Cyberform partners to mix in with the drones and turrets. It was, in short, absolute and total chaos. 

Which, of course, was the plan. All this group had to do was keep the attention of the prison’s first line of defense. Guinevere and the others involved with the primary distraction would (hopefully) keep Crossroads from sending reinforcements immediately. It wouldn’t stop them for long, but a couple minutes was all they would need. Keeping the guards busy until the infiltration group could break down any anti-transportation powers that were in there and get out with Sean and the rest of the prisoners. That’s all they had to do. They didn’t have to win, just… survive. 

Unfortunately, that ‘surviving’ bit was going to end up being a bit easier said than done. In the mere twenty seconds that had passed since this attack began, it had already become a full-fledged warzone. Gunfire, laser blasts, balls of flame and ice, chunks of electrified sharp metal, bursts of intense gravity, and more were flung every which way. Entire sections of ground, some rather large, simply tore themselves up and went flying toward one enemy, only to be caught by another and returned. A blast of purple-tinted lightning, bright enough to blind one looking directly at it, crackled through the air before being converted into a chunk of frozen ice at a touch. A figure zoomed at super speed across the crater-filled dirt and grass, only to be struck from the side by a powerful wave of kinetic force, sending the figure sprawling. 

On one knee at the edge of a three-foot deep crater, Scout brought her rifle (Nothing) to her shoulder, peering through the scope. She cycled through several possible portals she had already set up in the midst of this chaos before settling on one that gave her a view of the sky. One of the drones flying overhead passed through, pausing briefly to reorient itself in order to open fire at someone else. But Scout took it out first, firing three quick shots through her series of portals that hit the drone repeatedly, sending it flying sideways before it exploded. 

Before she could adjust, she felt the sudden appearance of someone appearing through a portal or teleportation. Their hand caught her arm with a violent curse, and she felt it suddenly grow… hard. Her left arm had turned to stone, and it was already starting to spread up to her shoulder and down over her hand. She couldn’t move it, her rifle simply falling from her grasp. 

Then something hit her own attacker from behind. Scout fell hard onto her side, a shock of pain running through her as she twisted to see. Doug. The boy was about ten feet back, but he’d sent two metal coils from the palm of his hands to wrap around the person who had attacked Scout. 

She was a Heretic, of course, a short woman with fiery red hair and even more fiery eyes. As the metal coils yanked her away from Scout, she jerked her arms and both coils shattered under the force. This was no trainee, but a full Heretic. Strong enough to shatter coils that were made of what amounted to solid steel, and with the ability to turn someone’s arm to stone at a touch. 

Even as the woman spun toward Doug, Scout grabbed for the rifle with one hand. Before she could do anything with it, however, a pair of what looked like metal wings erupted from the Heretic woman’s back. One of the wings lashed out, smacking Nothing from Scout’s grasp and cutting her remaining arm pretty deeply in the process. The other wing moved just as quickly, pushing right up close to her face in a clear, sharp warning. 

“Stay down, girl,” the woman snapped testily, “before you get hurt. And you.” Her hand rose, extending toward Doug before she made a sharp gesture that brought the boy flying helplessly toward her before dumping him on the ground at her feet. “Both of you can cool off in–” 

Cool off was the wrong thing to say, apparently. Because in that instant, the woman suddenly spun to the side while bringing her metal wings in front of herself as a shield. Her danger sense had warned her just in time, before a three-foot-wide fist made of ice collided with the wings in a blow that sent the woman stumbling back several feet. 

Gordon. The boy was covered in ice armor that made him much larger than he should have been. The burst of intense cold from the blow enveloped the woman as he sent as much of the power inherited from his father as he could into her. Instantly, the woman’s skin began to turn white-blue, her eyelids frosted over, and a rapidly thickening layer of ice rose around her. 

And then, in a burst of fire, it was gone. The Crossroads woman let out a loud, violent scream as she let loose with the ball of fire around herself, melting the ice and singing both Scout and Doug. Another ball of fire appeared between her hands, before hurling its way toward Gordon. 

“No!” With that cry, a much smaller ball of fire suddenly appeared. It intercepted the large one, absorbing it and preventing the fire from hitting the ice-encased boy. A second later, the ball of fire shifted, transforming into a small, unassuming-looking girl. Rebecca Jameson. One of her gifts allowed her to transform into an orb of either water, fire, earth, or air, and (among other things) absorb/collect any of the same element she directly contacted in that form. 

Seeing the girl appear where the fire had been, the Heretic woman summoned some kind of green goo in her hand before flinging it that way. Before Rebecca could move, the goo took her in the chest, expanding quickly to almost completely envelop her. She was yanked to the ground with a yelp, unable to stand.

Scout couldn’t use her rifle right then, unable to reach it from where she was lying (and unable to hold it properly with one arm turned to stone anyway). But she could still help. With a thought, she summoned her Tzentses-given power to conjure small items made of solid energy in order to create a dagger, flinging it at the woman’s shoulder from behind. Nearby, Doug had managed to click his pen to create a spear, which he hurled at her as well. 

Both weapons stopped an instant before they would have struck the woman. The spear from Doug hit some kind of forcefield, while Scout’s energy-dagger was caught by an opposing power. The woman growled, arms rising. With that, part of the ground rose up as well, coils of rock and dirt appearing all around the group. “That,” she announced, “is enou–” 

In mid-sentence, a glowing orb appeared at the woman’s feet, and she was instantly yanked down toward it. The orb was one of Jazz’s gravity-manipulation balls, as the girl herself dropped her invisibility (she’d been moving very slowly to get close enough without being seen), one hand outstretched to keep the orb up while her other hand pointed that way, mouth opening to shout, “Now!” 

With that, the Heretic woman, held against the ground by the orb, was set upon by an army of… rats, squirrels, chipmunks, mice, and other small rodents. Dozens of the creatures, all that Jazz had managed to recruit around the camp using her power to vocally control any non-intelligent animal that met her gaze, and stored in a specially prepared extradimensional bag for just such an occasion. 

The army of rodents swarmed the woman with a loud series of chitters and squeaks. A dozen were instantly blasted away by a single laser from her hand, and several more were vaporized when the woman sent a second laser from her eyes. Their teeth could not even penetrate her skin. They were a nuisance at worst, not a threat. The gravity orb as well became an afterthought as the woman used a power of her own to negate it, pushing herself up. 

But both the rodents and the gravity orb were a distraction. A very effective one, as the woman couldn’t even pay attention to her danger sense anymore considering there were rats attacking her from all sides. She barely saw Gordon’s ice fist rearing back in time to fling one of those metal wings in front of herself, still taking a good blow from it that sent her tumbling. 

The woman ended up on both knees, skidding to a stop after the blow from Gordon. Her eyes snapped up as her power warned her of yet another threat, only to see Rebecca, apparently freed from the goop from before, there with her own weapon deployed. Her backpack, in full enormous cannon-mode, was pointed directly at the Crossroads Heretic, and already in the midst of firing. Once more, the woman was barely able to cross those metal wings in front of herself while summoning a powerful forcefield. 

The cannon blew through the shield and the wings, and even with that much of the shot dissipated, she was still flung a good twenty feet as a long, two foot deep ditch was torn through the ground along the path of the shot right up to the wall of the building she eventually crashed into. Her metal wings were left mangled and partially broken, bits and pieces missing. 

Bloodied and bruised, the woman rolled over, hand flinging out to conjure an eight foot tall, three-foot wide metal wall from the ground, which she sent toward Rebecca. It rushed that way, cutting through the ground it had popped out of as it moved fast as a car (and would probably hit just as hard). Powerful as the girl’s cannon was, it would take another second to recharge even to its least powerful state. The wall would hit her long before then. 

Or it would have. But Gordon was there, his huge ice form intercepting the flying metal wall. At the same time, he flung his hand forward, opening it to reveal Jazz and Doug. Both were sent flying toward the Heretic woman, crashing into her. Doug’s metal coils were back, wrapping their way around her while Jazz simply grabbed onto her arm, gripping tightly with her own enhanced strength. Both held on for dear life as the woman jerked first one way, then the other. 

“When will you kids learn?” the Crossroads loyalist snarled. “You can’t hold me.” With a grunt and a yank of her arm, she broke the coils once more before slamming Jazz and Doug hard into one another, then flung them to the ground in front of her with a curse. 

Her hand rose, but before she could do anything else, a shot ricocheted off of her forehead. It staggered the woman, making her head jerk toward an empty spot in the air just as a second shot from Scout’s rifle came through the portal there, rebounding from her cheek and snapping her head to the side with a sharp curse. 

Scout was laying on her side, using her one good hand to fire the rifle through the portal. She sent more shots that way, but they were caught by one power or another as the woman held a hand up, ready that time. Scout sent another handful of shots through more portals that she had erected around the woman, but none of those hit either. The Crossroads Heretic was ready for each of them, her warning sense giving her time to intercept each shot. 

What she was not ready for, was another shot from Rebecca’s cannon. By that point, it had recovered enough to fire again. As the woman’s danger sense flared up, she spun that way, hand up to intercept another shot from Scout. What she saw instead, was Rebecca’s glowing cannon in mid-firing sequence. 

She tried to dodge, of course. But Doug sent the remains of his metal coils up, smacking the woman in the back as hard as he could. At the same time, Jazz summoned another gravity orb directly in front of the woman. Between both, she was flung toward the orb and directly into the path of the cannon blast. With a scream of power, the blast struck her full on, and she was once more hurtled into the wall of the building. Reinforced as it secretly was, her impact still left a solid dent in the wall, and she fell limply to the ground in a heap. 

Before she could recover, Jazz was there, all-but flinging herself at the woman. She held a rock in one hand, quickly blurting the command word before shoving it against their dazed-maybe-unconscious opponent. The rock glowed brightly before disappearing. A second later, the woman did the same. 

Wyatt had made these rocks. They were all carrying a couple of them. According to him, the spells on the rocks would render the targets unconscious for a number of hours while also teleporting them to some random (relatively safe) location. The woman would wake up eventually, long after the fight was over. The only downside of the spell was that it wouldn’t work against a fully conscious and combative opponent. They’d had to knock her unconscious (or at least close to it) before using them. 

With that finally done, the small group gathered to collect themselves for a brief second. The battle continued to rage around them, but Gordon raised several ice walls around them, and everyone turned their attention to Scout, who stood there with one arm turned to stone. 

“Are… you okay?” Rebecca hesitantly asked. 

Scout hesitated before nodding. She hoped so. She really hoped that this rock thing was temporary or fixable. Having to regrow an arm would be hard even for regeneration. But now wasn’t the time to worry about it or be shocked into inaction. They still had a lot to do, even if they’d managed to dispatch one of the adult Heretic responders. One. It had taken five of them to even knock one adult Heretic out of the fight. 

At least there were a lot more here, many far more powerful than Scout and the others. And the group inside… well, hopefully things were going okay there. 

Because she wasn’t sure how long they were going to be able to keep this up. 

********

He knew it was coming. This was the day. Apollo had brought the spell in, and helped him place the very discrete beacon inside a book he was idly scrawling in. It was there. This was the time. They were coming. 

The problem, for Sean, was in not looking like he was waiting or anticipating anything. Because his jailers would definitely notice anything that was off. He had to go through the day like it was any other. Which was part of why he and Apollo had decided it would be better if he didn’t know the exact time they were coming. It could be morning or evening, or anything in between. He just had to play it cool. 

Well, as cool as he could. For the moment, that meant eating his breakfast of quiche Lorraine and skillet-fried potatoes while watching Jurassic Park yet again. He’d taken to watching movies by the year. This week he was up to 1993. 

Speaking in time with Ian Malcolm, he intoned, “That is one big pile of–” 

“–shit,” his mouth finished, as he briefly froze at the realization that there were suddenly a lot more minds inside his head than there had been a second earlier. Luckily, Apollo had quickly taken over to speak for him so any guards paying attention wouldn’t notice the stumble. 

Then there were voices. So many of them he couldn’t keep track, couldn’t hear them all. People talking. It almost made him drop his fork, but Apollo took care of that too, while telling everyone else to stop. 

Voices. People. People besides Apollo. Sean had… well, he’d talked to a few others. Flick had visited him before by possessing Apollo so she could hitch a ride here, just as the group had just done. Vanessa and Tristan both had also done the same a couple of times. But this… the whole group being here, this was new. This was different. 

This was final. His last few minutes in this prison… one way or another. 

The movie continued, as Sean reeled inwardly, trying to collect himself. Apollo kept his face impassive, his body still, even taking the time to have a bite of his breakfast. Outwardly, everything was completely normal. 

You okay, kid? The Seosten man’s voice was gentle, clearly understanding even as he repeated, No one else talk. Not yet. This is a lot. 

I’m… I’m okay, Sean finally managed. He could still feel a lot of their… impulses, their reactions. He could sense their minds. This whole Russian nesting doll thing was pretty shaky to begin with. Who knew how long it would hold up. Let’s do this. 

Apollo took over once more, rising to his feet. His eyes glanced toward the mirror on the wall, and Sean felt the reactions of everyone inside him. 

He wasn’t a boy any longer. For Sean Gerardo, eight years had passed. Eight years. He had come in here a boy of eighteen. He was now twenty-six. 

It was time to leave this prison. Because if he didn’t…

He would be leaving this prison. 

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Collectors 5-01 (Summus Proelium)

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Ten days. I had ten–wait, no, it was the day after I’d found Ashton, and Blackjack would absolutely count that as a full one. Nine. I had nine days to get answers out of the guy about where the rest of the vials were, before La Casa took their turn with him. And what was I doing right now? What was I doing during a time when the clock was ticking so audibly right in the back of my head, when every minute counted?

I was sitting at lunch, struggling my way through my chemistry homework in between taking bites of food. Not that I was a bad student or anything. I did decent in most of my classes. But I’d been a bit preoccupied lately, and if I let my grades slip too much, my parents were going to notice. I had to get this done and turned in before the end of the day. It was already late, but I’d told the teacher that I left it in the library and she’d given me that long to get it to her. 

I’d gone to my dress fitting the night before. After everything that had happened with catching Ashton and meeting Pack, going to a simple, mundane thing like that had been pretty disorienting. I’d barely had time to take a quick shower before the appointment, which had actually made me a few minutes late. But I’d figured that was better than showing up smelling like… well, smelling like I’d just chased a guy halfway across town in a full body suit. 

In any case, I’d made it and gotten the fitting for my dress, which would be ready for the ball. Now I just had to focus on my homework. I really needed to get it done, since I was pretty sure the teacher wasn’t going to give me any more time. Besides, I wouldn’t have been able to do it after school even if she allowed it. I had to go see what I could do to help Wren build her truth-device. And, well, also check on that La Casa lizard girl to make sure she wasn’t trying anything. Not that I really expected her to, but paranoia was a powerful drug. 

Speaking of my increasingly rampant paranoia, it wasn’t exactly helped as a voice somewhere behind me abruptly announced, loudly and clearly, “Paintball.” I jerked a bit, twisting in my seat to look over my shoulder despite myself. Which, honestly, was really fucking stupid. 

But it wasn’t someone trying to prove who I was. Instead, at the next table over, there were a group of guys and a couple girls. One of the boys was the one talking, both completely unaware of my reaction. “Yeah, it’s definitely Paintball, dude. That’s what the little guy goes by. He’s the one who was out there being chased all over the city by that Cuélebre son of a bitch.” 

“I saw that, man!” another guy abruptly put in, taking a bite of pizza before continuing with a wild wave of his hand. “That kid was like, flip-jumping all over the place, with dragon dude right behind him. I was waiting for the bus and they went right over our heads. The little guy went through the alley and Cuélebre just kinda went… through the alley.” He made a crashing noise to illustrate his meaning. “I was so pissed that I couldn’t get my phone out before they were gone. You know how many views you can get for that kind of shit up close? That could like, launch my channel.” 

“Hey,” one of the girls at their table put in after taking a long drink of her iced tea, “just be glad you weren’t Paintball. I mean, powers or not, some scrawny twelve-year-old boy being chased by Cuélebre in full on pissed off mode? I hope the little guy’s okay.” 

Okay, ouch. Sure, she was being empathetic and all, but still, I felt a little indignant. Fourteen year old boy, maybe. But twelve? That was pushing it. I wasn’t that small, people. The fact that it made my disguise even more effective crossed my mind, but I still felt like grumbling to myself. 

The guys at the other table went on to talk about how cool the whole Paintball and Cuélebre thing had been. Which helped salve my ego about the whole twelve-year-old boy thing, while simultaneously making me remember the unholy terror I’d felt while the chase was actually happening. It was easy to sit here and think, ‘wow, that was badass.’ But thinking about being in that moment, mostly what I recalled was trying very hard not to piss myself in the middle of it. 

Before I could listen to much more, there was a squeak of the chair nearby as Amber sat down, accompanied by Jae. “Hey,” the brunette girl started when I looked that way, “how’s it going? You ready for tonight?” As she spoke, Amber started pouring ranch dressing over her fries. 

“Tonight?” I echoed blankly. How would they have any idea about my plans for the night? I was just going to help Wren with anything she needed for that truth machine and then–oh, shit. Wait. 

Jae spoke up quietly, confirming just as the realization came to me, “Library.” 

Right. Right, shit. We’d planned on going to one of the main city libraries to do some more work on that project this evening. Apparently it was one of the few times during the week that Jae and Amber weren’t busy with one thing or another, so I couldn’t just put them off. As much as I really needed to help Wren with her work, I had class stuff to do too. 

Geez, being a superhero and a student at the same time was already complicated enough. How did people with actual important day jobs deal with it? Because this was pretty exhausting. 

“You didn’t make plans, did you?” Amber asked, squinting at me. “I mean, I guess if we really–” 

“No, no.” My head shook. “No, I’ll be there, no worries. I’ve just got things to do after, but I can work out the scheduling. No big deal.” I offered her a slight smile, trying to make it sound like it wasn’t important before looking over toward Jae so I could change the subject. “Hey, you’re pretty good at science, right? Little help?” I turned the homework page around and pointed to the number I was stuck on. “I can’t figure out where I’m supposed to look for this.” 

Looking at the page, the pale girl nodded before getting up. She moved around to my side of the table, sitting beside me while adjusting the book. I watched as her fingers flipped pages back to an earlier chapter to show me what I’d forgotten. It was actually pretty simple, I’d just spaced on one little thing from the last section that made it clear. Which was probably a consequence of skimming too much while trying to blow through the homework so I could get out to the streets.

“Thanks, Jae,” I murmured quietly, skimming the page she’d pointed out. “You’re seriously a lifesaver. I dunno how long it would’ve taken me to remember this part by myself. I might have to borrow your brain some more just to get this whole thing done in time.” 

“Oh, she’s definitely a lifesaver,” Amber agreed, popping a fry into her mouth with a small smile before continuing. “I can’t tell you how many times she’s made sure I didn’t miss an assignment.” Winking at the girl in question, she added, “But I suppose I can share.” 

With Jae and Amber’s help, I managed to get the rest of the worksheet done before lunch was over. So I’d be able to run that down and turn it in, which solved one of my problems. Then I’d just have to get to the public library and work with them for a couple hours before going to check in with Wren. But hey, at least Mom and Dad were going to be ‘gone’ for the next few days, so even though it was Tuesday, I didn’t have family dinner to worry about. That was a plus. 

So I’d hit the library, then deal with the Ashton thing. One situation at a time. Nine days. I had nine days to figure this out and get the rest of those medicine vials out of him. 

Eight and a half.

********

The trip to the library took a couple hours. I tried not to seem like I was rushing or anything. But honestly, Jae and Amber seemed fairly eager to get out of there too. They didn’t try to hang around after we’d done what we needed to. Which suited me just fine, though I did wonder where they were going. 

I also wondered if they were dating, considering Amber didn’t exactly keep her preference for girls quiet or anything. But I was pretty sure Jae was straight, though I supposed that was more a feeling, since I’d never seen her actually date anyone. Unless she and Amber were dating, in which case–

Right, it was none of my business. Moving on. I made my way to the bookstore where Wren’s secondary lab (and, I supposed, her new home) was. As I approached the door, it opened and I went right through to join the others in the basement. 

Pack was still there, obviously. And it looked like the two of them had had quite the evening. There were blankets and pillows scattered around, along with food carry-out bags and a handful of empty soda cans. A partially-finished Monopoly game was sitting on one of the tables, with a couple other board games nearby. And there were pages and pages of half-done blueprints and design ideas, most scribbled out or with various reasons why they wouldn’t work written over them in red marker. Some had bits missing that were cut or torn out, and there was a larger page, clearly haphazardly taped together from those pages, in the middle of the main table.

Pack was sitting over on the floor with her collection of lizards all over her. She was feeding them, looking up as I came in. “The kid’s a real genius, you know. Knows her stuff.” 

“Is that a ‘wow, I’m impressed,’” I asked as neutrally as possible, “or a ‘I could really get in good with my boss if I told him to really go after recruiting this kid before someone else snatches her up?’” New to all of this though I might’ve been, I knew just how valuable a good Tech-Touched was to these gangs. Let alone one as young and impressionable as Wren was. 

Her response was to lift her head a little. I couldn’t see her expression, but there was an obvious smirk in her voice. “Relax, man. I’m not hardcore or anything. I just joined La Casa a few months ago because they offered me better training, equipment, and help. I mean, it took me a week before I stopped saying ‘the La Casa.’ They really don’t like that.” There was a pause before she admitted in a quieter voice, “Sometimes I still say it like that, just to tick some of them off.” 

Okay, was it wrong that I kind of liked this girl? Because, well… yeah. Shaking that thought off, I focused on replying with a simple, “I’ll try to remember the etiquette for that. And got it, you aren’t some obsessed fanatic or anything. Good to know. Remains to be seen if that’s the truth, but still.” Giving her a thumbs up, I added, “So you guys look like you’ve been busy.” 

“Ain’t that the truth,” Pack muttered, gesturing toward Wren. “The kid kept changing the plans for this suit thing over and over. I think we went through about twenty-seven different blueprints.” 

“The others wouldn’t have worked,” Wren herself piped up after taking a gulp from a glass of what looked like orange juice. “Or they would’ve taken too long, or needed more than we could get, or–” Stopping, her head shook. “The point is, this should work.” As she spoke, the girl brushed some crumbs and food wrappers off that taped-up collection of different pages, holding it up for me to see a design not too-unlike the one she had shown me yesterday, with notes all over it, individual components scrawled in, and things like power sources and specific wiring details written along the side. 

“That’s the suit we’re going with?” I asked curiously. 

She nodded quickly. “Uh huh. It’ll work, I know it will.” Smiling at the taped together sheets before glancing up to me, she added, “But we need some things.” 

“Name it,” I replied, “we’ll pick up whatever you need to build this thing.” 

“I could name it,” she carefully informed me, sounding like she was trying very hard not to be insulting. “But you probably wouldn’t remember half the names. So I wrote it down, with details!” Scrounging around the table a bit, she came out with a smaller notebook, one that would fit in a pocket. “See, I wrote all the pieces down on different pages. These ones are easy to get and not too expensive. These ones are available but kind of expensive. And…” She flipped to the last page, with only one item listed. “This one isn’t really available for sale anywhere. It’s sort of an experimental piece of medical equipment. I’m pretty sure Seraph Hills has a few of them.” 

“The university?” I asked, thinking. “That place is pretty upscale.” It was, in fact, one of the best medical schools in the entire country, having been built only about twelve years ago, but had rapidly become what amounted to the foremost training center for doctors and medical professionals in a Touched world. It was also very well protected with its own private security team, many of whom were actually Touched themselves. Understandable, considering a lot of the research that went on in there. Not to mention all the equipment that Tech-Touched donated to keep the place as state of the art as possible. 

“Isn’t there any other way we can make it work?” Pack put in with a visible wince. “I mean, I’m not exactly super-eager to run up against Seraphs, you know?” Seraphs, of course, were the name of that private security team, a mixture of well-trained and equipped Prevs (humans without powers/non-Touched) and people who did have powers. Their entire job was to keep the hospitals and medical schools they were attached to safe from attack. And they were very good at their jobs. There was a reason the Seraph-protected hospitals were safe ground. It was an enforced neutral zone. Any hospital that got attacked had Seraphs protecting it, delaying the attackers while basically every decent Touched in the area would swarm in to provide reinforcement. No one bothered Seraph places and got away with it. 

Wren hesitated. “Yes and no? I could maybe build something that would work, but it wouldn’t be as good with the stuff we’ve got, and it’d take a lot longer to get done than ten days.” 

“Eight and a half,” I murmured under my breath before heaving a sigh. “And I’m pretty sure those Seraph guys won’t exactly be super-eager to share their tech, even if we ask nicely.” 

Pack shrugged. “I guess I could tell Blackjack he needs to send some people to pick up that stuff. He could probably mount a quick smash and grab just to get it and run.” 

“And probably hurt innocent people who are just doing their jobs?” I pointed out. “Not to mention potentially breaking a bunch of stuff that those med students need to learn to use so they can help people. And if anyone died in that ‘smash and grab’ just because your boss isn’t exactly in the mood to play nice?” My head shook. “No, I don’t want to ask Blackjack to do anything like that.” 

That blank black mask turned a bit to stare at me. “So what do you suggest?” she asked, while reaching up to scratch one of the lizards on her shoulder. “How do we get the last thing on that list without stealing it, if it’d take the kid there too long to build a working facsimile herself?”

That… was a good question. I hesitated, sighing inwardly as I tried to think. “I’ll work on it. Let you know what I come up with. Right now, let’s worry about the stuff on the first two lists. Stuff that’s easy and cheap, and stuff that’s more expensive.” 

“I can take care of the expensive stuff,” Pack put in. “I didn’t see anything on there that me and my friends couldn’t grab.” She gave me an obvious look. “You know, after the stores are closed so no one gets hurt.”

“We don’t need to steal anything,” I insisted. “I…” Then I paused. How much could I say here without giving too much away. I glanced at the second list. The stuff on it probably wasn’t too expensive. Not for someone whose allowance was in the thousands per week and who hadn’t exactly spent all that much of it in her life. “I’ll handle the second list. You deal with the first. I–here.” Turning away from them, I unzipped the front of my costume, reaching in to find my wallet. There, I fidgeted with it a bit before coming out with a handful of twenty dollar bills, then zipped up the suit again and turned back to hold the cash out toward Pack. “Use this, get whatever you can on the first list. And pay for it.”

There was a brief pause as the girl stared at the money in my hand before snatching it. She gave a low whistle. “You came prepared, kid. Sure thing, I’ll get the stuff, and I’ll even play nice the whole time. But you know, at some point we’re gonna have to figure out what to do about that last thing.”

With a soft sigh, I replied, “Trust me, I know. Let’s just worry about the first two for now, huh? And hope that one of us thinks of something helpful before we get to that one.” 

Because getting into a fight with the Seraphs for stealing from a medical university probably wouldn’t do wonders for my budding superhero career.

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Denouement 2 – Appropriation (Heretical Edge)

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Four figures, three female and one male, sat in the back corner of a coffee shop. Given the beauty and general attractiveness of each of them, it would have been easy to mistake the group for being models or actors. Or even to believe that one observing them had fallen through a dimensional rift into the world of film or television where such stunning features could be found randomly wherever they went. 

Four ridiculously attractive figures. Four Seosten. Sariel, Jophiel, and Larees were the females. The male was Mercury. He was the one who spoke first, after taking a sip of coffee with his eyes on the nearby window. “I guess it’s almost like old times, huh?” 

“For some of you,” Larees pointed out before taking a gulp of her own cup. It was only about half-coffee, while she had filled the rest of it from her trusty flask. Swallowing hard, the spikey-haired woman added, “Some of us weren’t actually on that spiffy ship of yours.” 

“It’s too bad,” Jophiel noted, her own expression somewhat distracted. “We probably could’ve used another one of your… people.” She nodded slightly toward the younger Seosten’s face, where the blue-green phoenix tattoo normally was. It had been magically hidden for the moment to avoid drawing even more attention. “Could’ve been useful to have you around.” 

“Another?” Larees asked with a raised eyebrow. Her hand snapped out to catch hold of a biscotti from the middle of the table before popping it directly into her mouth. 

“Esconeas,” Sariel replied. “He was another from your group. His partner was a Laevok.” That was a creature about the size of a large moose, with an armored, tank-like shell fashioned similarly to an armadillo that covered a body that was very similar to one of Earth’s predator cats. It was a tiger with an armored shell it could retract or expand at will. Often it would use that by capturing its prey with the shell down, then raise it to trap the target inside the shell to be eaten.  

Larees nodded with a smirk. “That’s Esconeas alright. Never met the guy, he was before my time. But I’ve seen the holos. Pretty fierce fighter, from what I saw, and what others said.”

“Sounds like Esconeas to me,” Mercury confirmed. He shifted in his seat, his attention clearly focused somewhere off in the past. “Big guy, big temper. But useful to have around. Had some good jokes too. He was fun.” Heaving a sigh, he added, “Gonna suck if we have to fight him.” 

Jophiel spoke up, her gaze laser focused on the table in front of them. “I don’t care who we have to fight. If it turns out our people actually are the ones behind taking Elisabet, I will destroy all of them.” Her voice was dark, yet also very slightly hesitant through part of that before she pushed on. She really wasn’t accustomed to talking about her true feelings for her host/partner in front of others. Sariel had convinced her that they needed help if they were going to actually find out what happened to Elisabet, so she had agreed to bring in Mercury and Larees. But it was still a new thing, and she had made it very clear what she would do to them if the story got out. 

“Right, guess that’s us back on track,” Larees noted. “How’s our guy doing?” She was looking at the window once more, toward a tall office building across the street with various people in suits moving in and out of it now and then. There was a sign on the front near the doors denoting it as ‘Lannery Towers’ along with a list of the companies who kept offices inside the building. 

Sariel wasn’t looking at the building. She had a small hand mirror out, with which she was watching the view through the Lannery Towers’ security cameras that had been enchanted earlier that day. “Still in his meeting,” she murmured. “Looks like it’s about to wrap up, though.” 

“Time to move out, then,” Mercury announced while pushing himself up. “We’re all clear on how this goes? No one needs to check the notes again? Nobody has to pee? Cuz this operation is going to fall completely apart if someone has to pee in the middle of it.” 

Unamused, Jophiel grunted, “Just do your job and don’t screw it up. Understand?” 

He gave her a brief salute, before turning on his heel to head out. Larees was just behind him, while Sariel stayed back a bit, her attention on Jophiel. “I know this is hard. But–” 

“Is there a reason you didn’t involve Lucif–Apollo?” Jophiel cut her off, looking that way. “Or did you ask him, and he turned you down? Because I can’t see you not involving him. Though I suppose you did let him go off without you for a pretty long time.” 

As soon as the words were out of her mouth, the woman winced. “I mean…” She sighed then, looking uncomfortable. “Right, I’m sorry to put it like that. I am curious about why he’s not here, but I didn’t mean to make it… confrontational. And I didn’t mean to imply that you were–” 

“I understand,” Sariel informed her quickly, “And he’s busy, as you know.” 

Jophiel gave a slight nod. “Of course. But we could have timed this to take place either before or after that little… mission. The distraction is not absolutely necessary. Which makes me wonder if you wanted it to take place now so that he would have an excuse to not participate in this one.” 

“That’s not it,” Sariel assured her. “He helped with some planning, and he would have come in to help. But I told him not to, because the time and effort for this is… a lot. He needed to focus on the plan to save Sean and the other prisoners.” She shrugged then. “We don’t know what might happen on either our mission or theirs. Security might be raised, so better to do this before they change too much from what you know about. Doing all this at the same time is the right call, and Apollo is exactly where he needs to be to get Sean out.”  

For a moment, the two Seosten women stared at one another, before Jophiel quietly noted, “If there was a way for Elisabet and I to have gotten the boy out without blowing our cover… I believe we would have, even if simply for the points it would have gained us in the eyes of our students. Not that our cover seems to have done us much good in this situation.” 

“We don’t know what happened yet,” Sariel reminded the woman, putting a hand out to rest on her arm. “Have you actually spoken to Metatron, or anyone else in command?” 

Jophiel gave a slight nod. “There was a message from him in one of the drop points. It said to report to an address in Chicago to give an explanation of what happened to my host. I was supposed to be there two days ago. I sent a messenger that I have the situation under control, but can’t report in yet. I’m sure he’s not happy about it, but I’m not leaving before I find Elisabet and get to the bottom of just what happened.” 

“And it could have been a trap,” Sariel noted, getting a nod from the woman. “He’ll probably start sending people after you. They won’t just let another of us defect. Especially one of your level.” 

“Let him send whoever he wants to.” The words came with a gaze that had turned hard. “I might be able to get answers out of them about how much the old man knows. Or suspects.”

With a brief look of understanding between the two, they moved out. Sariel took a moment to drop a twenty dollar tip in the jar for the time they had taken, before they emerged from the coffee shop to the street where Larees and Mercury were already waiting. The four stood facing the office building across from them, while cars and people passed steadily by. 

“Well,” Mercury started in a low, somewhat drawling voice, “what are we waiting for?

“Let’s do this.” 

*******

Larees

 

The pale woman with short, spiky hair that was black with blue tips strode through the alley. “Hey!” she called out, holding up an outstretched hand with cash in it. “Hey buddy!” 

With a snort and a cough, the homeless man laying on his side jolted awake. He blinked blearily at her, frowning. “I didn’t fucking do nothing,” he grumbled, “just tryin’ sleep. Ain’t you got no–” 

“Look, shut up,” Larees interrupted impatiently. “I don’t have time for it. You want this?” She held her hand up in front of his face, showing him five one hundred dollar bills. When he went to snatch the cash, she brought it out of his reach. “Not yet. I need to borrow you first.” 

The homeless man squinted at that, his eyes still a bit bleary and bloodshot. “Borrow? The hell is this, some kinda day labor thing? Cuz if it’s prostitution, I’m–” He burped, loudly. “I’m pretty sure you’re confused about how that whole thing is supposed to go.” 

With a soft sigh, Larees shook her head. “It’s not prostitution. Kind of day labor. I just need to borrow your body for a few minutes.” 

Her words earned a squint from the dirty, drunk man. “Sounds a lot like prostitution to me. But whatever floats your boat, princess.” He reached down to start undoing his pants right there in the alley, in broad daylight. “Just gimme a second to get m’self up to the task, and we’ll start–” 

That was as far as the man got before Larees sighed and grabbed his arm. A second later, she had disappeared, possessing him. His body jerked once, falling back against the wall before she took control of it. 

Wha–what the fuck?! the man blurted inside his own head. 

Don’t worry, Larees assured him. I’d explain it, but you wouldn’t remember anyway. Here, short version. I need to pilot your body for a few minutes. You won’t be in too much danger and I’ll eject from you if anything happens. You also won’t remember any of this afterward. You’ll wake up after that with the money I offered you and no memory of how you got it. Say no right now and I’ll find someone else to help. Say yes and I’ll put you into a… let’s call it a dream. The next thing you know, you’ll be five hundred dollars richer. Choose now. 

Ahh, body snatcher lady, the man hesitantly replied, if’n this is actually real, then five hundred bucks is five hundred bucks. But I want something else too. 

This had better not have anything to do with prostitution, Larees warned him sharply. 

Nah, nah, nothing like that, he assured her, having adjusted remarkably quickly to the whole situation. It’s just, I dunno if I’m dreaming or if you’re really in my head. But if this is real, I figure you can do more than five hundred. Not more money, a ahhh, help getting a job. You help me get cleaned up and get a job, and you can drive me around any time you want. 

Larees paused for a moment. She hesitated, then poked through the man’s subconscious for just a moment, to see how serious he was. It was an invasion, but she tried not to look too far. In the end, she simply replied, Deal, it might not be immediately, but I’ll see what I can do. 

Well then, pretty lady, the man replied, you said something about me going into a dream? Could I make a request? 

Don’t worry, I can read your mind, Larees assured him. And I think you’ll enjoy this. With those words, she shifted the man’s consciousness over to the dream scenario she had built up for him, before focusing on the mission at hand. Lannery Towers was across the street and down a short distance. Reaching down to grab the nearby bottle, she made the man take a swig of it before heading out. Through the magical Seosten connection the four of them had set up, she reported, Got him. On my way to position. 

*******

Sariel

 

Striding toward the main entrance of the office building, Sariel carefully timed her approach to coincide with that of a man in a crisp, dark blue suit carrying a briefcase in one hand. Seeing her near the doors, the man slowed, tugging one open before standing aside with an easy smile. 

She returned it gratefully, quietly thanking him while stepping into the doorway. Her hand brushed across his arm faintly. 

And then she was gone, possessing him. Yet she didn’t take control. She didn’t read his memory, didn’t do anything aside from sit in the back of his mind. The man, stopping short as the woman in front of him disappeared, gave a soft gasp of confusion. Then that was gone too, as the Bystander Effect removed the memory of her disappearing. To the man’s recollection, she had simply passed through and kept going. He shrugged to himself, wondering which office the pretty woman had business in, before dismissing her entirely in the span of a couple of seconds as he stepped through the door and let it close behind him. 

There were locked gates with ID readers about halfway through the spacious lobby, with security guards at a desk nearby. One of the guards looked up as Sariel’s ride walked by, greeting him by name with a slight wave, which the man himself returned. His card found its way to his hand, and he flashed it in front of the scanner, which beeped as the gate opened for him. He passed through and headed for the bank of elevators at the end of the room with a few others. Together, the small group waited for the next lift to appear before stepping onto it.

Five people were in the elevator. Then six, as Sariel simply stepped out of the man she had possessed to get through security. The appearance of her glowing form resolving into her solid self drew a few startled gasps as everyone’s attention spun to her before just as quickly disappearing entirely as they too forgot what they had seen. To them, she had always been there. One of the men gave her a brief nod before turning his attention to the doors as they opened. He and one of the other men got out, while Sariel and the others continued on. 

Eventually, the rest of the people, including the man she had used to get past security, stepped off, leaving Sariel alone on the elevator as it reached the floor she wanted. Once there, she waited for the doors to open, then held them while glancing at her magic mirror. Through the security cameras, she could see the meeting had indeed broken up. Her target was heading for the elevators now, flanked by no less than three bodyguards and two assistants. All six were Heretics. The man Sariel had been watching was one of the Committee’s top aides, here at Lannery Towers in his guise as an ordinary businessman to keep real, tangible money flowing.

Each of the six Heretics wore glasses of some kind, the bodyguards sunglasses and the others normal ones. Except not normal. Because the glasses were the reason Sariel and the others had to do this whole runaround, subtle thing to begin with. The glasses were linked to the security room in the Committee’s headquarters, allowing people there to monitor everything they saw.  Lately, every time someone linked so closely to the Committee went out in public like this where they could be vulnerable, they and everyone connected to them wore the glasses. It meant that not only could Sariel and the others not depend on the Bystander Effect to erase the memories of the Heretics watching their targets if they happened to see, but even actively possessing and erasing their memories wouldn’t work, because they couldn’t do anything about the people sitting in the security office at the Committee headquarters watching everything. 

They had to be subtle. Hence, this plan. Sariel waited until the group were approaching, then held the door and glanced out as if just noticing them. “Going down?” she asked pleasantly. 

The men barely gave her a passing glance, enough to ensure (to their senses) that she wasn’t a Stranger or a threat. One by one, they stepped onto the elevator. As planned, given the routine the Seosten had noticed, the Committee’s aide held a large cup of coffee with a lid, and a tiny hole to sip it through. He took a sip then, after giving her a nod before turning to face the doors. The men, as a whole, dismissed her, though she had no doubt that their senses would pick up any actual threatening moves. 

So, she made none. Instead, Sariel linked her hands behind her head and leaned back against the wall. One of the men glanced her way, saw what she was doing, and turned back once more, wary for any trouble. 

With two fingers, Sariel produced a tiny, barely visible pill. She glanced up toward the corner of the elevator opposite her, then to the wall next to it, and finally to her target. With the tiniest, imperceptible flick of her wrist, she threw the pill toward that corner. It bounced from there to the wall, rebounded backward, and fell, completely unnoticed, through the tiny sipping hole in the cup. There, it would immediately dissolve, entirely tasteless. 

Without noticing a thing, the Heretic took another couple sips of his coffee while the elevator continued. By the first floor, however, he called for a stop, saying he needed to use the restroom. The group piled off, and they all, sans Sariel, headed that way. 

Coming your way, Mercury, she sent through their communication connection. Hope you’re ready. 

*******

Mercury 

 

Possessing a man to get through the ordinary security wasn’t hard. Mercury simply waited for someone to be going in, hitched a ride, then directed him to the restroom before stepping out once he was there. Nodding to the man who had unknowingly taken him into the building, he stepped into a nearby stall and waited. 

Before too long, the report from Sariel came, and Mercury moved. His hand touched a spell he had drawn on the nearby wall, activating it to turn himself invisible to pretty much any sense so long as he remained relatively still or moved slowly. A second later, two of the Heretic bodyguards entered. They held up an orb, activating the spell on it. Mercury felt it tingle against him. The spell would immediately disable any stealth abilities or magic being used to hide someone, revealing them. 

Well, for most people it would immediately disable them. Mercury’s Olympian power allowed him to extend, delay, or quicken effects like that. He delayed it, forcing the effect not to take place just yet. The men glanced through the room, made a thorough check, then left. Their boss, clearly wanting privacy, came in then and made a beeline for the nearest stall. 

Mercury let the man do his business. It was only polite. As he heard his target finishing up, he slowly eased himself down to the floor. His stealth spell was about to run out, and he carefully reached out. The man in the other stall stood up, and opened the door just as Mercury’s hand found his foot. His stealth spell ran out, but by that point, he was already possessing the man. 

He didn’t take control just then. Not yet. Instead, he sat in the back of the man’s mind, letting him walk them back out of the restroom to meet up with the rest of his entourage as they returned to the elevators and descended the rest of the way to the parking garage. 

*******

Jophiel

 

Waiting outside the building, near the entrance into the parking garage, Jophiel watched the street. Her eyes scanned the approaching cars before she saw the one in question. Spending so much time as part of the Committee, she knew all the vehicles that belonged to them. There, she sent to Larees, the dark green Range Rover. 

She watched then, as Larees, in the form of the homeless man she had possessed, approached that side of the street. The vehicle in question slowed to avoid running over ‘him’, and she directed her host to hurriedly go up to the windshield to start cleaning it with her rag and the spray bottle of cleanser she had picked up. Jophiel walked past, hearing the homeless man’s voice rambling apologies and promising to do a good job, a great job, at cleaning up the car while the lone driver repeatedly said that it wasn’t necessary. 

What he didn’t see, of course, was Larees using one hand to attach a small metal disc to the vehicle that would silently disable all of the security sensors on it. As soon as that was done, Jophiel reversed course, walking toward the vehicle while activating the spell on her jacket that would turn her invisible, immediately removing her from the memories of any nearby Bystanders.

By that point, the Heretic was getting out of the Range Rover. He pulled a couple twenty dollar bills from his pocket, handing them to Larees’ host while politely but firmly telling him to step away from the car. Not needing or wanting to push things, Larees did so, stepping back just as Jophiel reached the man. He seemed to feel something behind him, turning right when Jophiel put a hand on his back. 

She was possessing him then, immediately taking over while shunting the Heretic’s consciousness into dreamland. There wasn’t time to be gentle or polite about it. “Get in,” she ordered Larees, before stepping back to the driver’s seat. 

The driver wasn’t wearing the glasses connecting him to the Committee security room, so there was less need for subtlety. So, Larees simply stepped out of her host. She put a handful of more cash into his hands, thanked the thoroughly confused-looking man, and stepped into the back of the car, settling herself into one of the seats. Jophiel waited just long enough for the man to notice how much money he was holding and give a startled, yet shocked yip of surprise before pulling away to guide the vehicle through the entrance and down into the garage. There, she parked near the entrance. A moment later, the door opened and Sariel stepped down into the seat beside her. 

The call from Mercury came a moment later, prompting Sariel and Larees to activate their own invisibility spells, just as the Heretics emerged. One of the bodyguards stopped by the door, asking, “All that’s good?” 

It was a passphrase. Reading her host’s mind, Jophiel gave the positive return code. “Sparkles as gold.” 

That was enough. The doors opened and the men began to get in. Of course, two of those seats were occupied by invisible Seosten. But Sariel and Larees simply waited for the Heretics to almost sit on them, then reached up to touch their backs, possessing the figures in the midst of sitting down. 

Mercury was possessing the Committee’s aide, Jophiel their driver, and Sariel and Larees two of the bodyguards. Together, the four exchanged brief glances, while the people around them remained blissfully unaware. Then Jophiel shifted the car into drive, pulled away from the curb, and headed out of the garage. 

It was time to get into the Committee’s offices and find out exactly what happened to Elisabet.

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