Month: March 2020

Interlude 4B – Puriel and the Seosten Children (Heretical Edge 2)

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Like Earth, Elohim, the Seosten homeworld, was almost entirely covered by oceans and lakes. Seventy-five percent of its surface was water. Yet unlike that far-away world, Elohim had little in the way of full sized continents. Most of its land surface consisted of thousands of islands of varying sizes. Some were as large as Earth’s Texas or even slightly bigger. But the majority were considerably smaller bodies of land. Some were tiny enough to jump from one side to the other, barely more than large rocks there in the vast, unending ocean.  

One island in particular was roughly three-quarters of a mile wide and a mile long, shaped somewhat like a teardrop. Near the center of that island was a single, very large house. A mansion, really, with a dense yet fairly small forest behind it (on the fat end of the teardrop) and a sandy beach in front (on the pointed end of the teardrop). 

A metal landing pad rose up from part of that beach to settle into place moments before a raindrop-shaped ship came in for a gentle, if somewhat slow, landing. The pilot of the ship seemed overly cautious and vaguely unsure of themselves, yet sufficiently skilled to land safely on the barely-large enough platform with only the slightest bump. 

Once it was down, the ship went still, mostly powering off. The engines were so quiet in that idling state that the only audible sound, even for one standing directly next to it, would be the lapping of the nearby waves against the shore, and the chirping of a few birds or other animals in the slightly more distant forest. With the successful landing of the ship, all was peaceful. 

Inside the main cockpit of the ship, the elderly-looking man at the pilot’s seat remained motionless. He stared at nothing, gazing off into the distance. He appeared to be daydreaming, his mind drifting and lost for a moment, his hands unnaturally tight against the control yoke. 

Finally, after several long seconds of that, Puriel jerked a bit. His nostrils flared as his eyes widened briefly, looking around the cockpit with a gasp before coming back to himself. 

It happened again, he directed inwardly, a pained wince crossing his face to match the regret in his thought-voice as he began to unstrap himself from the seat. How long was I out this time? Ever since the incident with the banishment orb back at… at Sariel and Haiden Moon’s home, Puriel had had issues with his own mind and memory. At random times, he would simply zone out, lost in the past. Things had gotten somewhat better over the years, but it still happened. Yet now he had help, help that could take over in those times and either pull him back to himself, or pose as him long enough to make others believe there was nothing wrong.

The answer came promptly from his passenger. Or, more accurately (especially right now), his co-pilot. Only a few minutes, Spark assured him. I landed the ship. There was clear pride in her voice, despite the young (she was only eleven years old) girl’s attempt to sound nonchalant. 

Excellent work, we’re not dead, was his response. That was a joke between them. A joke… and yet more than that. ‘Excellent work, we’re not dead’ was what he said to the girl whenever she took control in any situation, no matter how inconsequential or truly important. The true meaning and intent behind the words, for the two of them, went far deeper than simple surface level. 

After saying those very important words, Puriel continued. Soon I won’t have to fly at all. You’ll be able to do all of it yourself. Perhaps I should take up a hobby to keep myself busy. Even as he gently teased the girl that way, the man who had once been known as Zeus rose from his seat and turned to face a nearby door. He stood there, watching the door in silence briefly. This time, however, it wasn’t because he had zoned out. He was entirely aware of his surroundings and situation. And certainly aware of what waited beyond that door. It is a frightening thing. 

Spark promptly corrected him with, There’s more than one. And I don’t think you’re supposed to refer to children as things. Belatedly, she added in a thoughtful voice, Or as frightening. 

Children are terrifying, Puriel insisted. But that is not quite what I meant. The responsibility, that is the frightening thing. They are here. What happens to them next is my… our responsibility. Whether they live or die, succeed or fail, rise or fall, that can all be influenced by what I do now.

Spark’s reply was curious. You’ve had a child before. And a crew.

Yes, Puriel confirmed. And I have failed each. My crew was sundered, split into two sides of a war. They loathe one another. My own actions against your mother led to… He paused, shaking his head. Because it was complicated. Spark, his… his Spark only existed because of those actions. Yet they had also been terrible, loathsome actions leading to a reprehensible situation. How did one come to terms with that? He cared for Spark as much as he had ever cared for any living being, yet he felt deep shame for the very same situation that had caused her birth. 

It was a level of complication that he couldn’t even begin to pick his way through. For the moment, he simply continued with, And my daughter… I have thoroughly failed her as well. I was not there when she needed me. I was not the person she needed me to be, to protect her from… From her own mother. He had failed to protect his unnamed daughter, who had ended up being tortured by his wife, by her mother, for years in a failed attempt to ‘fix’ her condition. 

Now his wife was dead. After all the harm she had caused, she was gone forever. And his daughter was… who even knew? He’d gotten very conflicting reports on that front. 

You are not alone, Spark reminded him. As always, there was deeper meaning behind her simple words. He was not alone as in she was there for him, and as in he had help within the house itself. He would not be solely responsible for the care of the group they had rescued. 

Still, he had reservations. But Puriel set those aside and moved to the door. A hand against the control panel made it slide open, revealing an assortment of cots, toys, books, and games that littered the floor on the other side. All eight of the Seosten children the two of them had liberated from the secret medical facility were also there. They stood together, on the far side of the room, facing the now-open door with expressions of uncertainty. None truly understood exactly what was going on, or that they had been freed from their previous lives. 

They did, at least, now have clothing. Puriel had made certain of that. Each of the eight children were clad in yellow versions of the normal Seosten bodysuits. They seemed generally uncertain as to why they were given clothing, but wore it without complaint. They complained about nothing, actually. As far as Puriel had been able to put together, the children didn’t understand the basic concept of complaining. It hadn’t so much been beaten out of them as it had never been allowed to exist in the first place. Freedom, choices, those things were foreign concepts. The children had had games and books in their cell back in the station, yet they played and read when and what they were told to. They ate what and when the scientists ordered them to, and slept when the lights were turned out. Every moment of their lives was rigidly structured. 

There was a lot of damage that needed to be fixed. Unfortunately, Puriel was far from any sort of what the humans would call a therapist. He had no idea what to do for these children. But he did have an idea of who would know what to do. For the moment, he simply announced, “We’re home. Come–” Belatedly, the man stopped himself. He’d been trying to make a point throughout this trip to not give orders. He was trying to teach the children that they did have choices. And while it was true that staying here on the ship or going out to see the house wasn’t that much of an actual choice, he still wanted them to make it for themselves. That simply felt… important, somehow. 

So, he amended his aborted words into, “Would you like to come and see the house?” 

His words were met with silent stares from all eight children. They ranged in age from a couple who were barely three or four, up to one who seemed to be as old as Spark. Each of the eight remained silent, looked to one another, then began to file toward the door and out of the room as Puriel stepped aside. 

This is going to take time, he silently informed Spark. 

Yes, she agreed with her usual economic use of words. That single syllable packed more thought and meaning than it should have been able to. 

Following the group of children out of the ship and down the ramp to the waiting beach, Puriel found a single figure waiting for them. She was an older woman, with skin that was green and lined with age. She had long black hair streaked through with dark red, a sign of the elderly in her people. 

Her name was Olan, and she was one of very few whom Puriel trusted with this. She and her husband were the only living members of his household staff whom he had not dismissed. 

“Take the children for food, please,” he requested with a look to Olan. She was already well aware of the situation thanks to multiple messages that had been sent ahead. “And has she sent any word?” He added the latter while giving a look toward the children. They were showing the first real signs of curiosity now, slowly turning in circles to take in the sky, the sand, the water. The two youngest had dropped to their hands and knees and were digging in the sand with their fingers. The eldest was staring at the nearby ocean, his hands clenching and unclenching. 

Giving a crisp nod, Olan replied, “Very good, sir. And your guest was held up. She will be here as soon as possible, but it may take some time.” She stepped over, stopping in front of the two youngest, who were still digging curiously at the sand. With a snap of her fingers, the woman summoned a pair of plastic buckets. Under the curious gaze of the two toddlers, she then scooped sand into each before straightening to hold the buckets out. Soon, they were taken by the smallest children, each of whom held a bucket of sand in one hand and dug curiously into it with the other. 

With that settled and the small ones content, Olan pivoted smartly before walking toward the nearby mansion. “Come, children. It’s lunchtime.” 

Even as the group began to obediently follow, however, Puriel spoke up. “Omni.” When the small brown-haired boy turned to face the man, he gestured. “Wait here, please. I promise you’ll eat soon too.” 

The boy did so, stepping away from the group while the other seven followed Olan inside, where they would all be well-cared for. Between Olan and Rufe, her husband, the children would be as fine as they could be, under their circumstances. 

Which left Puriel standing there on the beach with the boy who had been named Omniscereon. In the old language, the name essentially translated to ‘All Above Myself.’ Even the name that he had been given was meant to drive into the boy that he was supposed to be worthless and that every other Seosten was more important. 

Kushiel had been quite a piece of work by the end, that much was certain. 

But Puriel didn’t use that full name. Instead, he called the boy by his nickname. Omni, or ‘all.’ 

“Omni,” the man carefully spoke while taking a knee in front of him. He met the eight-year-old’s curious gaze. “Do you remember my name?” 

After a brief pause, the boy quietly answered, “Trierarch Puriel.” 

“Just Puriel,” he corrected. “Tell me, what do you know of your mother?” The question came hesitantly. He had wanted to talk to the boy more over the trip, yet he didn’t want to separate him from the group until there was someone else who could help them. With Olan and Rufe to care for the other seven children, Puriel had a chance now to have this conversation. 

“My mother’s name is Sariel,” Omni recited dutifully. “She’s a traitor who deser–” 

“No,” Puriel interrupted. Of course. Of course Kushiel wouldn’t have been content to simply leave the boy with no knowledge of his mother. She would have to rub salt in the wound. Sighing, he looked to the boy, who had fallen silent and was now simply staring at him once more with his hands linked behind his back. Most of the experiment children who were old enough to understand stood like that, the man had noticed. They stood with their hands out of the way, as though making it clear that they would not try to touch anyone. An act that, he was sure, had been drilled into them. 

“Your mother is a lot of things,” he informed the boy quietly. “She is… she is a brilliant researcher, an incredible soldier, a fine…” His voice choked itself off, and Puriel looked away. Everything he was trying to say, everything he wanted to make the boy understand, was all jumbled. He didn’t know how to put it into words. Everything just sounded wrong, in a way that it hadn’t since he was a young officer reciting his first duty chart. 

Finally, he settled on looking back to the boy with a firm, “Your mother is one of the finest people I have ever had the pleasure of knowing. She is a good person. A good soldier. A good mother. You deserve to have a chance to know her. And if it is the last thing I do, I will ensure that you both have that chance.” 

“Both?” The boy echoed his word, head tilting slightly. He turned, looking to his left, then to his right as though trying to find out who else Puriel was referring to. 

They had planned for this, had rehearsed it, in a way. But this was still quite new and tense. Puriel’s gaze looked to one side, as Spark borrowed his power and focused on pulling and shaping energy into light, which soon became a hologram of sorts. A hologram of Spark herself, or the way she chose to make herself look in any case. But this wasn’t just any old hologram. It also functioned as a forcefield, giving the projected body a physical presence. 

Soon, the hologram was complete, and the solid-light hologram Spark stood in front of Omni, the two facing one another. “Hello, brother,” she greeted him. 

“I’m very glad to meet you.” 

*******

Two Months Later

“Yelly?” 

Hearing the soft, plaintive voice, Puriel’s eyes opened. He had been resting in a chair on the beach. Ahead of him, the eight rescued children were scattered around. Several were up near the waves, playing in the water. The two youngest were digging in the sand to create some kind of tunnel that only they knew the purpose of. A few more were throwing a ball back and forth. 

Spark was there too, in her holographic body. They were able to essentially cheat and allow the girl to act in the real world by enchanting a stone with a spell that allowed Puriel to see and hear through it as if the stone was a camera. The stone was then placed inside the head of Spark’s hologram and pointed in the same direction as her eyes. After that, Spark simply paid attention to the information coming back through the spell while Puriel ignored it, and the girl remote piloted the hologram accordingly. It was, he supposed, somewhat similar to creating a Theriangelos and having the possessor control it while the host tuned it out. 

Spark’s hologram was with Omni, standing out by the water. The two were almost always together, having become all-but inseparable over these past days. Omni had hundreds, if not thousands of questions. He asked them constantly, for everything from deep historical questions all the way down to what various bugs tasted like. No matter the question, Spark always answered, though she drew the line at requesting that Puriel taste the bugs himself so that she could give an appropriate answer. And strongly discouraged Omni from tasting such himself. 

The boy was curious about everything, even more so than the rest of the former prisoners/experiments. They were all curious, but Omni took it to another level. He questioned everything. But he wasn’t really the sort, at least so far, to look for the answer in a book. If the person he was talking to didn’t know, Omni seemed far more likely to go and find out himself. Often through personal experimentation. He wanted to know what something tasted like, so he tasted it. He wanted to know how an engine worked, so he took it apart. He wanted to know how to bake a cake, so he experimented in the kitchen (under Rufe’s supervision). The boy was curious about everything, and solved that curiosity by acting. 

Taking a brief look around the beach to ensure everything was in order and that no one was in danger, Puriel focused then on the figure right next to his chair. It was the six-year-old girl, a dark-skinned child with bright green eyes and short black hair. She’d been given no name in the facility aside from her number, but Olan had since dubbed the child Zahd, which was apparently the word for ‘laugh’ in the language of her and her husband’s people. 

When he looked to her, Zahd bounced up and down, hands clutching the chair. “More please. Too slow, too slow. More please.” 

Zahd was the one Niekal back at the lab had mentioned who had trouble coming out of her boost. For a long time, she had functioned almost entirely in that sped-up state where everything and everyone around her was far too slow. Puriel, however, had found that he could drain energy from the girl. This slowed her boost dramatically, allowing her to function normally as long as he did that a few times a day.

He did so now, reaching out to drain the extra energy from the girl, as she let out a sigh of relief. “Thank you, Yelly.” 

Yelly. That was what the children called him. Somehow ‘Puriel’ had become Yel, and then ‘Yelly.’ There were members of his old crew who would have been amused by that, given his… reputation for anger back on Earth. 

Once it was done, the girl bit her lip, staring at him while hesitantly asking, “Touch please?” 

“Touch yes,” Puriel assured her. He opened his arms, and the girl stepped up to embrace him. They were trying to teach all of the children that it was okay to touch if they had permission and wanted to, if the other person was aware of their condition and accepted it. Some, like Zahd, took to it more readily than others. 

Through that short hug, Puriel heard the sound of an approaching shuttle. Which meant it was time. Releasing Zahd, he looked over to one side, finding Spark and Omni already approaching. The rest of the children gathered as well, standing in an assorted group around Puriel while they all watched the shuttle come in for a landing on a second pad that rose into place behind the ship they had come on. 

Eventually, the shuttle settled into place. A moment later, the ramp opened, and a figure appeared. She was fairly small, a dark-haired and dark-skinned Seosten woman wearing a dark red suit with black piping. For a few seconds, her gaze passed over the assembled group, before she descended the ramp. “You have been busy, Puriel.” 

“As have you, Aletheia,” Puriel replied. “But I’m glad you’re here now.” 

“We have a lot to talk about.”   

Author’s Note: As a reminder for anyone who has forgotten, an explanation of who Aletheia is was given by Sariel in 38-06, which can be found right here. Check roughly 20 paragraphs down in the first section, or do a search of that page for Aletheia. 

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Private Affairs 9-04 (Summus Proelium)

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It definitely wasn’t hard to have fun at this party. Amber (or her mother, rather) had seriously gone all out for it. And I knew why. A little over a year earlier was when Amber’s father had been killed by that hit-and-run driver. So, obviously, Amber hadn’t really been in much of a birthday party mood when her sweet sixteen came around. This whole thing was probably her mother’s way of trying to make up for that and help her daughter move on or something. 

The point was, there was definitely effort put into this, and it showed. The whole place had been rented out. There were batting cages, go-karts, bowling, a full arcade area with several VR stations, a room for laser tag, and so on. I knew I wasn’t the best judge as far as money went, but renting this whole place out had to cost a fair bit, right? Especially on a Saturday night.

There were also a lot of people here. It felt like a good portion of our grade had shown up, along with some other members of Amber’s family and maybe some from other schools or something. Lots of other teenagers running around, yelling to one another and visiting with the birthday girl herself. She was super-busy the whole night. I hoped she was having a good time herself. She seemed to be, it was just that every time I looked that way, she had a whole crowd of people around her. 

So yeah, it was impressive. And just a lot of fun in general. I spent a couple hours completely mostly forgetting about everything else while focusing on using the camera that Amber’s mother provided to take pictures of everyone to use as reference for the drawings later. I even saw Izzy enjoying herself. She seemed to get along with Amber, Jae, and the others pretty well, whenever they interacted. Izzy still didn’t talk very often, and she wasn’t doing much, if anything, with the debit card I’d handed her. But she was definitely having a good time, and that was the important part. 

Also, Jae was really good at the go-karts. Like, crazy good. As I stepped out of my own kart after she beat me in a best two-out-of-three contests (I was debating about whether to go for best three-out-of-five or something), I glanced that way to the other girl getting out of hers. “Where the heck did you learn to race karts like that? Are you an Indianapolis 500 driver in disguise and you’ve just been playing us this whole time?” Pointing at her, I fake-demanded, “Are there cameras around here watching me get schooled by a stunt driver?” 

With a faint but visible smile, Jae shook her head. She took the helmet off and reached out to set it back on the rack before looking to me once more. Her voice was soft. “Lots of Mario Kart?” 

“Aha!” I pointed at her. “I knew you were a ringer. I demand a new challenge at the ping pong table, where I may reclaim my lost honor, or something.” Dramatically moving my finger from the girl herself to the arcade room, I added a bit more casually, “But first, we grab more pizza?”  

She agreed, and the two of us moved to the room where the food was. There were several long tables laid out with basically all the junk food in the world on them. Finding some pizza, we loaded a couple plates. As we were finishing with that and stepping away, food in hand, Jae looked past me. Immediately, I saw the expression on her face go from casually happy and enjoying herself to incredibly guarded. It was like she’d flipped a switch and was closed off. 

Confused, I glanced over my shoulder and immediately understood her reaction. Standing there, staring at both of us with a small smirk on her face, was Elesha Carver. She was a black girl from our school, and I was pretty sure she was basically to Jae what Paige was to me. 

Okay, maybe not exactly the same. At the very least, I was really hoping Elesha wouldn’t also turn out to have some unexplained immunity to memory erasing, and be holding onto secret information that she refused to share but could potentially take down an entire underworld criminal empire. Because that kind of coincidence at this point would just be silly

But she was definitely a bitch. Which was a fact she proved an instant after opening her mouth, with a sly, “Heeeey, Jae. I’ve got a great idea. Why don’t we string you up to the ceiling and then bounce strobe lights off your skin. You’d make a great party decoration, you know?” 

My mouth opened as several not-so-polite retorts leapt to mind (as well as the urge to punch her), but before I could say anything, another voice spoke. “Out of curiosity, exactly what level of lack of self-awareness does a black person have to have to talk about stringing someone up?” 

It was Paige, speak of the devil. She wasn’t paying any attention to me. She might not have even noticed me, to be honest. All of her focus was solely on Elesha, as she continued with a flat, “I mean, there’s being a completely incomprehensible moron, and then there’s being stupid enough to be black and mock someone for their fucking skin color, you ludicrous twat.”

Was this a bad time for me to speak up and say something about how it was equally stupid to hate (and spend years mocking) someone for being short and not fitting some classical idea of adult beauty? Because I felt like that was a really good opening for it. But I resisted, because this wasn’t about me. It was about making sure Jae’s night didn’t get ruined by this bitch. 

“You know what?” Elesha was retorting, “Fuck you. At least I’m not some kind of freak.” She said that, of course, while giving Jae a disgusted look, her mouth twisting hatefully in a way that made her look even nastier than she already had. “I’m not a mutant albino walking abortion.” 

“You know what else you’re not?” That was Amber, having extricated herself to come up from behind the other girl while she was talking. “Invited. As in you were never invited here.”

I could see by the expression on Elesha’s face that she’d already realized she’d made a mistake by picking this argument right now. But, of course, she didn’t back down. Shooting a glare toward Amber, she retorted a bit heatedly, “You invited everybody, remember? You put those invitations up all over the goddamn school. I’m pretty sure one of the fucking janitors is here.”  

“The janitors are cool,” Amber informed her. “And if you’ll take a quick look at any of those invitations, you’ll see that it says quite plainly, ‘All People Welcome.’ You, you’re not a person. You’re basically mucus, and I don’t want mucus at my party. It’s gross. So why don’t you leave?” 

For just a moment, I had the terrible feeling that a fight was going to break out. I had no idea what Amber would even do if Elesha took a swing at her, to be honest. Actually, I didn’t know what I would do if someone took a swing at me in here. I couldn’t exactly use my powers like I would in costume. I could paint the skin under my clothes and be careful about how obvious I was with the boosts, but even that felt risky. Honestly, the safest thing to do if something did start would probably be to let myself get hit, then just drop to the floor and stay there. 

In the end, I never did get to find out if Elesha would have backed off or not. Because just as this whole situation seemed to be right on the cusp of boiling over, someone called out from the far side of the large room, by the televisions, “Hey! Hey, shut the fuck up, it’s a Collision Point!”

That immediately shut down everything else that was going on. Everyone turned away from what they were doing. And I did mean everyone. The entire room grew completely silent, save for the televisions as we all moved closer. They were already changing the channel to match the one that the middle one was on, a channel that showed a serious-looking anchor talking. 

“Where?” Amber asked quietly, stepping up beside me while staring intently at the screen. “It’s not…?” She didn’t finish that sentence, trailing off instead. But we all knew what she had been about to say right then. Here. She had been about to ask if it was happening here in Detroit. 

Someone else, I wasn’t sure who, answered with, “Not here. Not this time. It’s Salt Lake City.” 

Sure enough, the anchor had a picture of Utah projected beside him, with a marker showing where Salt Lake was as he said something about the Collision Point starting near a library.

“Anyone know if they’re dealing with Stalkers, Wanderers, or Hidden?” Paige asked from somewhere behind me. I still didn’t know if she’d even noticed my presence yet. 

In answer, the guy who had called everyone over replied, “It’s Hollow and Grote Slang.” 

“One Hidden, one Stalker,” someone noted. “At least it’s not two Stalkers. They’re the worst.” 

Yeah, they were probably right. Two Stalkers hitting a Collision Point was bad. All Collision Points were bad, regardless. But those were bad on a whole other level. 

Collision Points. That’s what we called it when two Abyssals ran into each other and started a fight. See, when an Abyssal first… manifested or whatever, they were stuck in a single monstrous form. It was usually pretty big, between ten to twenty feet or so, and looked distinctly not human. That was what a lot of people had thought Cuélebre was at first, a new Abyssal.  They had no real intelligence at that point and just attacked everything around them. Which was also how people figured out that Cuélebre couldn’t be a new Abyssal, because he definitely had control. New Abyssals lashed out at everything and tried to do as much damage as they could. 

But it was worse if they managed to survive long enough to evolve to the second stage. First of all, second-stage Abyssals shifted back into a mostly or even entirely human-looking form. Some people said it was to recharge or something, but no one really knew. They simply went from being giant monsters down to looking like they had before their initial transformation. 

That was where the three classifications came in. Stalker, Wanderer, or Hidden. Stalkers were those who actively remembered what they were, liked it, and hunted for others of their kind. Wanderers were those kind of in the middle, the ones who had vague ideas or recollections, maybe dreams about doing bad things. They tended to… well, wander. They were drifters who went from town to town, simply staying on the move. According to a couple rare interviews that had been taken from a coherent Wanderer or two, they always felt the urge to keep going. It was like they were being pushed to look for something, but they had no idea what.  

Yeah, while Stalkers were actively malevolent and often did their best to hurt and kill people even in their human form, Wanderers could sometimes actually be spoken to, if you happened to know what they were. There were recorded interviews with Wanderers, who always just seemed… pretty out of it, like they barely understood what was going on. A lot of people dismissed them as mentally handicapped. Which hadn’t exactly done wonders for how actual mentally handicapped people were seen, that was for sure. They always spoke in a slow, somewhat dream-like voice, like they were partially in a trance. 

Then there were the Hidden. Those were the people who had absolutely no idea what they were. They went about their lives completely oblivious to the fact that they could transform into a huge monster at any given moment. 

The Hidden went about their lives as normal as possible. The Wanderers… wandered, drifting from place to place in their endless and unexplained search for whatever they were looking for. And Stalkers tried to locate any of their kind so they could trigger a fight. 

Because yeah, that’s what they did. Abyssals, when they encountered one another, fought. When two second-stage humanoid Abyssals touched one another, they would transform into their monster selves. Then they would set about doing their level best to completely fucking massacre each other. There was no love between any of them, no cooperation. There was nothing but violence and death, as they would hurl themselves at one another, doing everything they could to kill not just the other Abyssal, but anything that happened to get in their way. 

That was what we called a Collision Point. Two or more Abyssals who found one another, touched, and turned into huge (sometimes gigantic) monsters intent on beating the living shit out of each other, even if they had to rip apart buildings and massacre dozens or even hundreds to do it. At that point, they would fight either until one of them killed and absorbed the other (which basically seemed to make the winner take on some of the loser’s traits and powers while getting even bigger), or until something  (like a local Touched team) forced them to withdraw from each other. 

So yeah, to put it simply, Collision Points weren’t fun. They usually ended up with a lot of damage being done to the city they happened in, as the dueling Abyssals threw around absurd levels of destruction in their attempts to kill one another. Even Wanderers and Hidden, once shifted into their Abyssal forms, turned basically completely rabid and tried to destroy or kill everything between them and their opponent. 

Once enough damage was done by other Touched, or one of them managed to kill and absorb the other, the fight would be over. Once that happened, any of the surviving Abyssals would simply disappear. The… understanding was that they were transported somewhere else and returned to their human forms. Wanderers resumed their old mental state, while Hidden completely forgot what they had just been doing. Or maybe they had false memories. It wasn’t clear, and it was pretty hard to get that kind of information. There had been one short interview with a Hidden Abyssal who managed to be captured and locked up, but it wasn’t very enlightening. And he had vanished pretty soon after that brief discussion. 

Pencil, of course, was the leader of the Scions of Typhon. Typhon was a Stalker Abyssal, one of the largest, most violent, and most… successful in North America. He had killed and absorbed multiple other strong Abyssals. In one such fight, he’d basically leveled the majority of Waunakee, a small town in Wisconsin. A third of their roughly fifteen thousand residents were killed in that, while almost all of their buildings ended up uninhabitable. It was… bad. A lot of these Collision Points were bad. 

That was why no one was playing any more games or arguing. We all stood there, watching the news in silence as they showed footage of the local Utah Touched teams trying to deal with Hollow and Grote Slang before too much damage was done. 

Of the two, Hollow was the small one. She was pretty tiny, as far as Abyssals went, standing ‘only’ about eight feet tall. She was fairly humanoid too, though her skin was pitch black and oily. Really, her entire body seemed to be made of oil shaped like a person. She had only vague facial features, impressions where her eyes should have been. And she didn’t have permanent arms. Instead, any number of arms would extend from any point of her body whenever she happened to need them. 

Grote Slang, on the other hand, was far different. He was one of the bigger Abyssals, and definitely not humanoid. In his monster-form, he was basically a giant snake. And by giant, that was a snake a hundred feet long and as wide around as a city bus. Wicked-looking tusks came out of the snake’s mouth, curving up with venom dripping from them. Worse, he had two actual trunks, like an elephant’s, one leading off of each side of his head. The trunks were about a third as long as his body but could stretch to about half, and were used to grab prey and drag them up to his mouth. 

Yeah, like his mythological counterpart, Grote Slang was basically a cross between an elephant and a giant snake. It was bad. Really bad. 

We all watched on those screens as the news reported on the ongoing fight. None of the other guests tried to play any games or anything. We just watched as the Touched tried to stop too much damage from being done. They were… about as successful as they could be. Several full buildings and houses were still either heavily damaged or outright demolished, and a couple city blocks weren’t going to be safe to live in anytime soon. But the authorities reacted quickly enough and managed to get somewhat lucky in separating the two and doing enough damage to make them pull back. Didn’t kill either of them, but they at least managed to stop things from getting a lot worse than they could have.

At some point in all that, Izzy had found me. We stood there together and I had ended up taking her hand without really thinking about it. Once it was over, I glanced down, then looked over to where she was still staring at the television. “Sorry, we didn’t have to… watch all that. Are you okay?” 

Her head nodded slowly. “I wanted to,” she assured me quietly. “And yeah, I’m okay.” Strangely, she did sound okay. She didn’t seem too freaked out by all that. 

Glancing nearby, I could see Amber’s mom talking to her. It looked like this whole thing was about to be closed down for the night. Which was just as well. After watching all that on the news, it was clear that people weren’t just going to jump right back into playing games. Yeah, it had been almost two thousand miles away on the other side of the continent. And yes, they’d managed to contain things before too much damage was done. But even in that near-best case scenario, at least a few dozen people had still died. They wouldn’t have a real count until tomorrow, at the very least. Still, it wasn’t great. 

Abyssals were bad. When they found each other, bad things happened. Buildings and sometimes entire swaths of land were destroyed. Lots of people died. It was horrific.

And after watching something like that, even on the news from so far away, well… a lot of people didn’t feel like partying anymore. This sort of thing happened every once in awhile. Sometimes it was better and sometimes it was worse. But it was never good. 

Some of us stayed, mostly talking about either the attack or other attacks. A few drifted off to try to distract themselves with other games. From the corner of my eye, I saw Paige glance down at her phone. An annoyed look crossed her face before she turned and walked away, heading for the restroom corridor. With a quick look around to make sure no one was paying attention, I slipped away too, trying to follow her without being noticed. 

Reaching the area where the bathrooms were, I saw Paige step inside the women’s restroom. I carefully moved closer, stopping right next to the door. Through the crack, I could hear her talking. 

“Yeah, behind the library on Woodward, got it. I said I got it. When? And you better be exact, Pat, because my father’s contact windows are narrow. Specific coordinates, specific times.” 

Wait, what? What was she talking about? Paige’s mother and father were right here in the city. She talked to them every day. So… huh? 

The other girl continued. “I’ll be there. Yes, I know. Three hours and six minutes. Yeah, something tells me complaining about how late it is wouldn’t do much good. 

“After all, Breakwater’s an inescapable super-prison. It’s supposed to be hard to call out of.” 

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Interlude 4A – Erin and Dylan (Heretical Edge 2)

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“Damn it!” 

The blurted expletive burst from Erin’s mouth as she looked away from the cell phone she’d been intently staring at for the past minute with disgust. “They really think I’m that stupid,” she muttered while gripping the phone and snapping the device in half. Both pieces were tossed into the nearby trashcan along the side of the path that led through the park she was standing in. Late as it was, the park was dark, save for spots of illumination from a few lampposts. 

From a few yards away, Dylan spoke up while continuing to coast back and forth on the playground swing in the relative darkness. “Too many spy eggs getting in your batter?” 

“What?” Blinking that way briefly, Erin belatedly nodded. “Something like that. They’ve obviously taken over my dad’s phone number and emails. I can’t get hold of him. I mean, ‘he’ answers my messages, but it’s obviously not him. Whoever’s writing his responses or answering in his voice doesn’t pass any of my tests. There’s things he should know, things he should pick up on about what I’m saying, and they don’t. They think I’m stupid enough to fall for their idiotic tricks.” 

Tucking her legs to swing backward before snapping them out for a good forward arc, Dylan replied, “They sound really clingy. Why are they so mad about you leaving, are you a princess?” 

“A prince–” Erin laughed, shaking her head. “No, but let’s get out of here before the royal guard show up anyway. I don’t know how long it’ll take them to trace those messages, but I don’t want to find out.” She glanced around the park, already nervous. It had been a little over a day since her escape from the grocery store, and it all still felt like a dream she would wake up from soon.

Kicking her legs out for one more high swing, Dylan hopped off at the end in a jump that brought her close to the waiting Erin… then sprawled out awkwardly across the grass with a yelp. Rolling over, the dark-haired girl looked up to the Heretic and raised a hand for help while asking, “Well, how come you stayed with these Crossfit people for so long if they’re that bad?” 

Erin sighed at that, reaching down to catch the girl’s hand. She pulled her up while replying, “Crossroads. And they’re not bad. I mean it’s–not all of them–we didn’t know what…” Pausing, she admitted, “It’s a long story. A real long story. I’ll tell you about it after we get out of here. And you can tell me about you, because I’m curious about that whole story. Come on. Like I said, gotta go.” 

The two turned to walk out of the park, while Dylan whistled. “C’mon, Fiesta, we’re leaving!” 

In response to that, one of the dark shadows in the far corner of the playground area seemed to get up and move, revealing, as it moved closer to the light, a massive wolf-dog creature. As big as a lion, she was the same Crocotta from the grocery store that Erin had chosen not to report finding after seeing her with an assortment of puppies. And trailing along behind their mother were those same pups. There were six of them, whom Dylan had apparently named Taco, Nacho, Burrito, Fajita, Chalupa, and Queso to go with their mother’s name of Fiesta. Erin was pretty sure the other girl had been really hungry when she came up with all those names. 

It was… strange being around an obvious Stranger-Beast like the Crocotta without fighting it. Erin had been raised to believe that Crocotta would almost never stop eating. They were constantly ravenous, filling their bottomless pit stomachs with absolutely anything they could, whether it was traditionally edible or not. There was very little their teeth couldn’t bite through, and they seemed to gain nourishment of… some kind from anything they shoved into it. They were, as far as she had always been taught back at Crossroads, essentially mindless beasts who devoured entire houses, neighborhoods, and towns if not stopped and culled in time. 

But when she and this Dylan girl had escaped the grocery store the night before, finding themselves in the old-looking creepy house that Dylan said belonged to her, Fiesta and her pups had been waiting. And despite what Erin had learned, the Crocotta did not, in fact, eat literally everything from floor to ceiling. She and her offspring were clearly hungry, of course. But Dylan had simply fed them each a decent amount of meat for their size, along with a single metal coin for each of them. The coins were enchanted with some kind of spell, and when Erin had asked about it, the other girl had simply told her that it didn’t matter what kind of spell it was. 

Because that was the truth about the Crocotta. They did eat a fair amount. But in reality, they had to be fed with two different things. They ate regular food and magic. Getting both was the only way for them to be satisfied. In the wild, they tended to rampage through places eating anything they could in order to take in the little bit of ambient magical energy all things naturally absorbed (and that living beings created). If they were simply fed a regular diet of objects enchanted by various spells, they were fine. Erin figured they’d probably like Enners too, the coins enchanted with blank magical energy that Heretics used as currency. Anything with magic.

Now, the two girls walked down the sidewalk rapidly away from the park, with Fiesta and her six pups trailing after them while the animals all made happy little barking noises. If any Bystanders noticed them, they would simply see a grown dog and her litter walking with their owners. 

They didn’t go far before Dylan tossed another of what she called her ‘trip bags’ in front of them. A cloud of smoke enveloped the group, reaching around to take their canine followers. It didn’t take them directly to their destination, of course. As Dylan put it, that would have been too easy to track. Instead, the teleport spell jumped them through half a dozen locations for a split-second each time. It was… disorienting, to say the least. But just as Erin’s stomach heaved, the spell finally deposited them onto the large grass yard behind the old mansion they’d eventually appeared at the night before. Immediately, Fiesta and her pups went running across the yard, bounding happily in circles before sniffing along the tall fence that blocked them off from the dark forest beyond. Far off in the distance, the lights of a nearby city could be seen.

Now that they were safely away from the park and fairly unlikely to be jumped by a Crossroads squad anytime soon, Dylan curiously asked, “So, how’re you gonna find your dad now?” 

Letting out a long breath, Erin admitted, “I don’t know. He’s not staying at our house, he already told me that after the whole Rebellion thing started. They moved him to a ‘safe location’ that he couldn’t tell me anything about. And even if he was at the house, it’s gotta be surrounded by now. If they think I’m stupid enough to believe some schmuck posing as my dad is the real thing, they definitely think I’m stupid enough to walk right up to our old house.” Her eyes rolled. “I’ve gotta think. There’s ways to get around them and talk to someone who can help me, I’m just… not sure how yet. I can’t exactly look up the phone number or address for these guys.”

Shaking that off, she focused on the girl in front of her. “But seriously, you’ve gotta tell me about you. Cuz this is all really confusing. You’re amazing at magic, but you don’t know anything about Heretics or the bigger world out there? And this place. This is like…” Pausing, Erin looked around, her gaze moving toward the enormous, ancient-looking mansion ahead of them. “This place looks like it’s haunted. You live in an empty haunted mansion on the outskirts of some town, but work at a grocery store? And you know all this magic. And what about your family?”  

For a few seconds, Dylan didn’t respond. She stared at the Crocotta bounding around the yard in silence before finally replying quietly, “It’s not my house. I stay here and take care of it, but it’s not mine. It really belongs to the fox-man. I mean, it belonged to him. But he’s gone now.” 

Erin frowned at that, glancing toward the Crocotta before hesitantly asking. “The fox-man?” 

“I used to call him Ninetales,” Dylan informed her, still not looking that way. “Like the Pokémon.” 

“I’m sorry, like the what?” Erin asked, staring at her blankly. “Wait, no, I’ve heard some of the Silverstones–errr, Bystander-Kin talking about that at Crossroads. It’s a game about making monsters fight for you, right?” 

It was, apparently, Dylan’s turn to stare at her in confusion. “You’ve never seen… Where did you grow up, the moon?” 

Snorting, Erin muttered, “Something like that. Anyway, a nine-tailed fox man. A Kitsune. You mean a Kitsune lived here?” 

“Yup, that’s it!” Dylan agreed, pointing to her. “I didn’t know what he was called when I was little, so I just called him Fox-Man or Ninetales. He’s the one who saved me when…” She trailed off, her expression dropping into a look of fear and loss for a moment before she shook it off, clearly physically shoving the feelings aside as she changed the subject. “Come on, let’s go inside before Galazien’s people turn their spy satellites this way. I don’t think my cloaking spells are up to snuff with two of us here. Not yet, anyway.” The girl was already walking toward the dilapidated back porch of the mansion while waving a hand toward the assortment of doll heads mounted along the fence. Each doll head had various glowing spell runes drawn across its face.  

Gazing at the dolls for a moment, Erin gave herself a little shake before quickly hurrying after the other girl and into the house. Fiesta and the pups were fine outside, according to Dylan. They’d just have to bring the Crocotta out some food before they ended up getting too hungry. 

As worn down and broken-looking as the outside of the mansion was, the inside had been fixed up pretty well. The kitchen was almost as large as the one the cooks used at Crossroads (Erin had to shove the thought of poor Chef Escalan out of her head really quick), the place clearly intended to serve an enormous amount of people. The same went for the rest of the house, really. It was gigantic. In the short time she’d been there, Erin had barely seen a small portion. 

Now, as the two of them stood in that giant kitchen, she asked, “Um. What… I’m sorry if this is too much, especially after everything you did to help me. But what happened with the Fox-Man? What do you mean, he saved you? And um… is there a reason you don’t use his name?” 

For a few long seconds, Dylan didn’t answer. She didn’t even move, standing there with her back to the other girl, apparently frozen save for her hands, which opened and shut nervously. When she finally did speak, her voice was quiet. “Galazien the Iron-Souled. It was his people.” 

The urge to start blurting out more questions rose up in Erin, but she pushed it back down. Dylan would explain things in her own time and… well, in her own way. She just had to wait.

Another few seconds passed as Dylan moved to take down a glass from the nearby cupboard. She filled it up with water and took a sip before staring into the sink. “I was in fifth grade. I just got an A on my math test and I came home with it. I was waving the paper and yelling for my mom when I went inside. It was… it was the back door. I went in the back door. Not here. We lived in Iowa. Ames, Iowa. It was nice, we–” Realizing she was getting off on a tangent, the dark-haired girl shook her head quickly, taking another long gulp of water without looking up. 

“I was calling for my mom, so I could show her my test. But there were people there, two guys right in the hallway by the backdoor. I thought they were wearing costumes, cuz they had… armor. They had metal and leather armor on, and they were holding these big swords. They were just standing there, looking at me when I saw them. One of them said, ‘That’s her’ and he sounded all… happy? He sounded really happy. Then I heard my mom yell for me to run, so… so I tried to run. I turned around, but the one guy grabbed my shoulder and he picked me up. I was yelling and kicking, but he carried me into the living room. My mom was in there with more of those guys. And some girls. There were like… ten of them in our house, all dressed in armor.”

Without saying anything, Erin stepped that way, putting a hand on the other girl’s back before gently guiding her over to sit on a nearby chair. She pulled another chair over to sit next to her. 

Dylan, staring at the floor as she sat stiffly in that chair, swallowed hard. “They said some other things. I can’t remember. There was something about my mom hiding me from them. She was… she was sitting on the couch, with these two big guys next to her. When I tried to kick away from the guy holding me, she reached for me, but one of them hit her in the face. She yelled, I… I screamed, and the guy holding me threw me against my dad’s chair. Another guy put his sword against my mom and told me not to move. He called me something… not my name. He called me barn. Like, ‘little barn, if you do not sit and be silent, your mother’s blood will spill.’” 

Another quiet moment passed, the girl clearly lost in her own memories before she closed her eyes. “My mom, she tried to tell them it wasn’t me. She said they had the wrong one. Then my dad came in. He wasn’t supposed to be home yet. He was supposed to be at work still. He came home early, with… with a pizza. He had a pizza in his hands and he… saw… he saw what was going on. But they… the guy by the door, he had this big axe and he… he… my dad… his head was… the axe… his neck… and his head was… and…” Her own head dropped, collapsing against her raised hands as she buried her face against her palms while falling forward off the chair to land on her knees against the floor. 

Quickly, Erin moved off her seat and knelt next to the other girl. Without thinking, she put both arms around her. “Dylan, I’m sorry. I’m sorry. You don’t have to talk about it. You don’t have to say anything else. It’s okay. I’m sorry I asked. I’m so sorry.” 

Dylan, however, continued despite her clearly wretched memories and feelings. “My mom was screaming. I was screaming. She tried to get up, but they… the man put his sword through her chest. She was dying. I watched her die. I watched her die and I saw my dad’s head. I saw them, and the man by me, he grabbed my hair. He grabbed my hair and made me look at them. He said, ‘They thought they could hide you from him. They thought they could hide from Galazien the Iron-Souled. You’ll come to him now. You’ll come to him with us.’ And… and he started to pick me up. But the Fox-Man appeared. He just… he teleported in with smoke, and he killed them. He killed all of them with magic. Then he picked me up and said we had to go. But… but just as he started to use another teleport bag, like… like the ones I use, another bad guy came through the door. He threw a spear and it… it hit the Fox-Man in the stomach right before we teleported.” 

Abruptly, the girl pushed herself up to her feet, looking around the kitchen. “We showed up right here. His blood was all over me. I was screaming… crying… he was… he was dying. I said I could call 911, but he grabbed me. He grabbed me right over there.” Her hand rose to point into a corner of the room, by one of the sinks. “He held me really tight and told me not to trust anyone. He told me Galazien’s people would do anything to find me. He told me to get his book, his… his magic book. It was in the living room. I brought it to him and he… umm… he used some kind of spell. It wasn’t a spell from the book though, it was another spell. He pushed his fingers into my mouth. They had blood all over them. It was gross. I was trying to get away, but he held me really tight and put his bloody fingers in my mouth while he used some kind of spell. 

“That was… that was only… only a few seconds, but it felt like a long time. Then he let me go. Because he was dead. He died with his fingers in my mouth, and I threw up. I threw up over there.”

“He was turning you into a Natural Heretic of himself,” Erin murmured under her breath. “Probably using a spell to make sure it took or… or something.” 

“I don’t know what any of that means,” Dylan admitted, her voice hollow. “But when I looked at his magic book, I understood it. I just… I knew what the spells meant. When I looked at the magic that was in this whole building, I knew how to make them work. I knew what they did, how to copy them, how to make them different. I just… knew.” 

“He was a Kitsune,” Erin quietly informed her. “They’re like… there’s different types that are good at different things. He must’ve been a magic-focused Kitsune. And he passed that instinctive expertise at magic to you.” 

Shrugging at that, the other girl folded her arms, staring at the spot where the old fox-man had died right after saving her. “He had other magic books around here. I read them. I learned how to do magic, and I took care of myself.” 

“You… you stayed here in this big empty house all by yourself?” Erin hesitantly asked. “How did you eat, or… or learn things? You didn’t go to school?” 

“He had a big library. I taught myself,” Dylan replied. “And I used magic to summon food, or grow it in the backyard. I can plant seeds and use magic to make them grow really fast. Sometimes I’d sell things to people for money, or get jobs babysitting or walking dogs, that kind of thing. I used magic to make them think they already knew my parents.” 

“And eventually you got a job at that grocery store,” Erin finished for her. “You’ve been hiding from this… this Iron-Souled guy all that time, after raising yourself in this mansion since you were a kid.” 

“I saw his people sometimes,” Dylan murmured. “I saw his fire-breathing skeleton horses, and his slaves. Never him though. He can’t get here. I think he needs me for that, but I don’t know why. I just know he can’t find me. I have to keep hiding.”

Erin had a lot more questions, but she didn’t want to push any further after everything she had just heard. “I’m sorry, Dylan,” she said quietly. “I’m sorry you went through all that, and that you’ve been alone for so long. You… is that your real name, the one you told me before, Dylan Averty?”  

“Dylan is,” the girl murmured. “Not my last name. We… we used my mom’s last name. I dunno why. All I remember was my mom said she wanted to hold onto her past just a little bit. Maybe that’s why I keep using Dylan. Because I don’t wanna let that go.” 

“Dylan,” Erin started slowly, “what’s your real last name? What was your mom’s real name?” 

There was a brief pause then, before Dylan answered in a soft, sad voice. “Holt. 

“My mom’s name was Vanessa Holt.”

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Private Affairs 9-03 (Summus Proelium)

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Please note that there was a commissioned interlude focusing on That-A-Way and Pack posted yesterday. If you have not seen that, you might want to use the Previous Chapter button above.

Unfortunately, I didn’t find anyone else that I could hit that night. I did run across a couple… situations, but by the time I got there, they were already well in hand by one Star group or another. I mostly watched while a few of the Conservators or Ten Towers people mopped up some bad guys here and there. In a way, it was bad for the fact that I didn’t get to hit anyone else (and I was really in the mood to hit things). But it was also cool to watch other Touched from a good vantage point when I didn’t have to worry about life and death problems. 

Okay, correction, I was worrying about life and death problems. But not immediate ones. 

Anyway, it was also a good thing because less crime meant less people being hurt. As much as I wanted to work some of my stress off, that much was undoubtedly true. And just what the hell was wrong with me anyway? What had changed so much in such a short time that I felt at least a little bad that I couldn’t find more violent bad guys to punch? Was that really the best way to deal with all the stress I was feeling because of the whole… every bit of my current situation?  

No, probably not. Undoubtedly not. Ideally, I should talk to someone about it and just vent to a live person. But who the hell was I going to talk to? Who could I tell… half this stuff to, let alone all of it? Telling anyone about who my parents were was just… it was either too dangerous or unfair. I couldn’t dump it onto Wren. I wouldn’t dump it onto Wren. She was a kid. A pretty great kid with an incredibly useful power, who was fun to talk to and all that. I trusted her. I liked her. That was why I wouldn’t tell her about all this bullshit. She didn’t deserve that kind of stress. 

In the end, I found a less violent way of working off my aggression. Specifically, I spent an hour or so skate-painting my way across the city. Jumping from building to building, running along walls, popping the wheels out to race down the side before hitting a blue patch that sent me rocketing back up to a nearby billboard, and so on. It was my own insane extreme sport and I actually noticed a few people here and there taking pictures and video recording. I might’ve hammed it up a bit for them just because it was a way of putting everything else out of my mind. 

So, while I couldn’t hit anyone, I did manage to… exercise a lot of my aggression out. At least enough that when I finally made myself go home… home to a house full of bad guys save for Izzy, I actually fell asleep very quickly. And, wonder of wonders, I didn’t have any bad dreams. Or any dreams at all. I was able to sleep through the whole rest of the night, and because it was Saturday, I didn’t even wake up until midway through the next morning. It was almost eleven when I finally dragged myself up. Apparently I’d really needed that extra sleep. Go figure.  

Yup, I was well-rested. Which was probably a good thing, considering tonight was supposed to be Amber’s big birthday party. And I was pretty sure she would hunt me down if I didn’t show because I was too tired. If I was afraid of nightmares now, the thought of Amber kicking my door in while I was napping through her party was even worse. Yeah, I was definitely going. 

And so was Izzy. I had no doubt we wouldn’t be going anywhere without the entourage that had ‘secretly’ followed us around when we went to the mall to pick up treats for that movie night. Which meant I was going to have to be super careful not to do anything that might give away my own secrets. Because I was positive that there were going to be a lot of eyes, my family’s organization watching to make sure that… whatever threat they were protecting Izzy from didn’t touch her. Or making sure that she stayed put and didn’t run away. Or making sure she didn’t–

Okay, so I still had absolutely no idea what that was about. Was my family protecting her? Were they keeping her prisoner, even if she didn’t know she was a prisoner? Some combination of both? Part of me wanted to drag the girl into a closet and get answers out of her about all that once and for all, but that… that would probably be a bad idea. A very bad idea. 

In any case, I spent those few hours I had before the party taking a trip out to see Wren. Making my way to the other girl’s hidden shop, I found her and Fred hard at work in the basement once the door buzzed to let me in. The two appeared to be converting the room where we had been keeping Ashton into some kind of metal workshop. Which probably made sense, given the fact it was already apparently soundproofed. Actually, Wren had said something about setting up that room for ‘little explosions and stuff’, which… come to think of it, should that kind of worry me?

Nah. I was sure Wren knew what she was doing. And if she didn’t, I certainly couldn’t be any help. 

“If you install a swivel chair that can turn around slowly,” I informed her while leaning against the doorway to watch her work, “I think I might know someone who can get you a fluffy white cat.” 

“Hi, Paintball!” she blurted, popping to her feet and pushing the welding mask she’d been wearing up away from her face. Her hands were covered in what looked like black soot. “I like fluffy white cats, but it’s not an evil lair. It’s a room for me to build things that could, um…” 

“Things that could damage the rest of the building if they aren’t contained,” Fred finished for her. He was just setting a heavy H-shaped metal beam thing down against a spot on the wall that had been marked out with tape to show where it should go. As he spoke, the man picked up an electric screwdriver sitting nearby and proceeded to start driving in screws through slots in the metal thing. Clearly, he was doing the heavy lifting part of this after Wren detailed what to do.  

“Well, it’s a good thing you have this room to contain anything like that, huh?” Stepping into the room, I asked, “Is there anything I can do to help? Even just grunt work. I need to take my mind off… things.” Why did I say that? Why did I even bring it up? Now Wren was going to– 

“What’s wrong?” Sure enough, the little girl immediately piped up with that question. 

My head shook quickly. “It’s nothing I can’t handle, really. It’s okay, if I need help, I’ll definitely ask.” Giving her a thumbs up in the hope that it would stop her from worrying about me, I gestured. “Like I said, I need a distraction right now. So, how can I help out around here, huh?”  

I spent the next couple hours just helping them fix up that room. There was a lot to do to get it ready for all the stuff Wren wanted to build and experiment with, And the more she talked about all of that, the more excited she was. Not that I really followed what she was saying that well, but her eagerness was infectious. It really did help me take my mind off all my stuff, thankfully.

When we were done, at least for the moment, Wren beckoned for me to follow her into the main room. She moved to a box and produced what looked like the same shoes I was wearing. “Ta da!” 

Grinning behind the helmet, I teased, “Hey, they look just my size too. If this whole Tech-Touched genius thing doesn’t pan out in the end, you could probably make a killing as a cobbler. Mmmm, cobbler. Now I want pie. Do you think shoe cobblers want pie a lot? I bet someone at some point heard ‘shoe cobbler’ and got very confused about people’s tastes.” 

“You’re weird,” Wren informed me with a giggle before tossing the shoes to me. “Try them on! Come on, come on, I wanna see!” She was bouncing up and down with obvious excitement. 

Chuckling despite myself, I moved to sit down on the nearby couch. While Wren (And Fred, who stood in the doorway and looked pretty curious himself) watched, I took off my own pace-skates and pulled the new shoes on. As expected, they fit just fine. Perfectly, really. Lacing them up, I stood and walked back and forth across the room a couple times. “Yup, they feel great.” 

Literally bouncing up and down eagerly, Wren urged, “Say, ‘Wheels-Out’.” 

Readying myself, I did so. Of course, the wheels popped out. The phrase ‘Wheels-In’ brought them in. According to Wren, the skates would only respond to the code being spoken by the person wearing them, which was nice. It meant I could make them work even if I wasn’t using my voice changer thing, without asking her to program my real voice into it. Part of me wondered just how much of a coincidence that actually was. Did she, like Blackjack, know I was using a voice changer and simply wasn’t pushing to find out why? 

“But I didn’t just reinvent the same pace-skates,” Wren excitedly informed me. “That’d be boring. They’ve done that already. These are special! Check it out, when the shoes or the skate wheels are against something like a wall or a ceiling, they’ll stay there unless you pull them away yourself.”

“But the wheels still roll and everything?” I asked, certain she knew better than I did how to make something like that work, but still curious about the specifics. 

Sure enough, her head bobbed up and down quickly. “Uh huh, uh huh. See, they don’t… ummm… they don’t really stick like your red paint does. It’s more of a… a gravity thing.” 

Blinking, I asked, “Gravity thing?” 

So she explained. “See, whenever the shoes or the wheels are pressed against something, they project a sort of… umm, okay well the simple version is that they change your personal gravity depending on the orientation of the thing they’re pressed against. If you’re walking on the ground, your gravity is normal. If you put them against the wall, it’ll change your personal gravity so that it’s coming at you from the side instead of above, see? And if you’re upside down with the shoes against the ceiling, it’ll reverse gravity so it’s coming at you from below to keep you up there. No matter which way you’re facing, the shoes will make the gravity bubble around you act like you’re standing right-side up on solid ground!” As she finished explaining that much, the kid was (understandably) beaming. 

“Holy shit, Wren,” I muttered in amazement. “You do good work on short notice.” 

She shrugged at that. “Not really short notice. I was working on the gravity thing for my own stuff, and started sketching ideas for your thing right after we met. Getting your size was the last part and that was just to buy shoes to put the equipment into. It–” She hesitated, biting her lip with obvious apprehension and uncertainty. “You really like it? I thought it’d help if you could get around like you do without using as much paint.” 

“Like it?” I echoed, stepping over to hug her tightly despite myself. She gave an eep of surprise and then returned it with a giggle. “It’s amazing, Wren. I mean damn. This is ridiculous. Come on, let’s see…” 

Letting her go, I stepped over, lifting my foot to press it against the nearby wall. Then I lifted the other foot and put it against the wall too. Sure enough, I just sort of… stood there, sideways, with my feet against the wall. It was kind of disorienting, but not hard at all. There was a brief twisting sensation in my stomach as my own personal gravity reoriented, but nothing too bad. After that, it was just like Wren said, I felt as though I was standing upright on the ground.

Standing like that for a few seconds, I started walking up the wall. Whistling casually, I walked all the way to the ceiling, put my foot up to that, took a breath, and then put my other foot up. That twisting sensation came back as my stomach briefly protested gravity adjusting the way it did, before I was suddenly crouching against the ceiling. Crouching against the ceiling with no paint. Holy shit. Holy shit. This was…

From below, Wren called, “You can jump to get down, but be careful!” 

Taking her advice, I pushed off with both feet. Gravity swung up and around into the proper position again, and I felt a rush while flipping over. I didn’t exactly land completely smoothly, stumbling a bit to the side. But still, it was pretty good. 

Popping back upright, I grinned. “See, I knew partnering with you was gonna be awesome. I just didn’t know it was gonna be this awesome this quick.” I was smiling broadly like a goofy idiot. She was right, I’d be able to move around as Paintball a lot more easily like this, traveling the way I liked to without using up red paint to stick to walls. That would free up paint for a lot more things. 

“I’m gonna make more!” Wren promised quickly. “More fun things that’ll be even better for you, I swear. I’ve got lots of ideas, and I think you’ll really like them. But they take time and work and stuff. But I–” 

Stepping that way, I embraced the girl. “It’s okay, Wren. These are amazing. Seriously, thanks. Every bit of paint I save from not having to use it to stick to walls will be paint I can use other ways, to help people. I can move faster like this. You’re amazing, and so are these.” 

“Superkid’s right,” Fred put in. “You did good work. But you know the rules, what we said.” 

She nodded, glancing to me, “Gotta do homework, not just fun work.” 

Chuckling, I rubbed the top of her head. “Good. I’ve got things to do too. But I’ll put these things through their paces, I’ll tell you that much. Thanks for making these so fast, Wren. 

“Something tells me they’re gonna come in handy real soon.” 

*****

Of course, hopefully that real soon wouldn’t apply to tonight. Because it was time to go to Amber’s party. I changed into my street clothes before stopping by the mall on the way back to look for a present that she might like. In the end, I grabbed her some new AirPods and an iPad that I thought she’d like, along with a box of chocolate candy, and had them all wrapped there. 

Yeah, part of me still felt bad about using what was obviously dirty money from my parents to buy gifts for some girl at school. But the truth was that that money was already there. Whatever had been done to get it was over. It wasn’t like ignoring it would make whatever bad things that happened to get it just… disappear. Making my parents contribute to some random girl’s birthday was a hell of a lot better than a lot of other ways the money could be spent. 

Besides, if I didn’t spend money to buy Amber a present, it would look awfully strange at this point. Mom and Dad knew we were going to a party, knew Amber was a close enough friend that we’d brought her home to see that movie, and so on. If they noticed me not buying her something nice, it’d attract attention.

All of which were things I told myself repeatedly while picking out those gifts. It didn’t help entirely erase the guilt about that whole situation, but it was something.

Catching an Uber ride home, I found Izzy and the two of us headed out to where Jefferson, the driver, was waiting. He led us to Henlein (Jefferson’s favorite black BMW, named after the guy who invented the watch), and we were off. 

On the way, I glanced to the girl beside me. “Here.” I offered her the package with the AirPods. “Those can be from you.” 

Blinking in surprise, she looked at me with a frown. “But I didn’t help–I mean I never–I didn’t even… what?” 

“Don’t worry about it,” I assured her. “Just help me with something now and then and we’re totally even. I mean, technically my parents bought the gifts, so you might as well get as much credit as I do for one of them.” With a wink, I glanced out the window to watch as we passed other cars on the road, adding, “Oh, that reminds me, Dad said I should give you your allowance card. He said as long as you’re living with us, you should get the same benefits Simon and me do.”

“Um. Allowance card?” The other girl was clearly baffled. “What’s an allowance card?” 

Digging into my pocket, I came out with the thing, handing it over. It was a debit card with her name on it. “Dad said he’s starting you out with a thousand a week, but if you end up needing–”  

“A thauuuuuwhat?!” Izzy blurted, jerking in her seat as she dropped the card as if it had burned her. “What? A what–he’s giving a–what?” 

Reaching down, I plucked up the card, holding it out to her again. She eyed it like it might be a snake. “A thousand a week. You should be able to get whatever you need with that, but like I said, if you need more, Dad’s usually good with fudging it and adding extra to the account.”

Now she was staring at me like I’d grown three extra heads. “Why would I need more than a thousand a week? What–how do you–what bills do you even have?!” 

First I giggled reflexively at her reaction, ignoring the pit in my stomach. How bad was it to get Izzy involved in this whole thing by handing her dirty money? But as with the whole gift thing, Mom and Dad would really notice if I didn’t give her the debit card and tell her about the allowance. Then I’d have a lot more questions to answer. I had to act like the money didn’t bother me. 

Again of course, giving it to Izzy was another way of putting at least a little bit of that dirty money to better use. Even if it was just like bailing water out of a sinking boat with a teaspoon. 

“Just have fun with it tonight,” I urged. “Play whatever games you want. Buy games for other people too. It’ll be great.” 

Izzy was still staring at me open-mouthed, as I put the card back in her hand. “I guess so… all this stuff is… you know how weird this is, right? That’s a lot of money for most people.”

“Yeah, I know.” Looking back to her, I replied, “I mean, not personally, but I kinda get it. But seriously, it’s okay. If this freaks you out, you should see where Dad wants to take us for vacation next time.” 

Flatly, the other girl replied, “Right now, I wouldn’t be surprised if the answer was Mars.” 

“Oh, don’t be ridiculous,” I retorted with a grin. 

“Like he’d take us to the same place two years in a row.”  

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Commissioned Interlude 1 – That-A-Way and Pack (Summus Proelium)

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The following is a commissioned interlude, not part of the normal schedule. The next regular chapter will come out tomorrow as always. 

As his semi rumbled to a stop in the back of a nearly empty truckstop on the edge of Detroit, Aaron Jessup shut down the vehicle while letting out a loud yawn. Giving his head a firm shake to wake himself up, the man thought he caught sight of something out of the corner of his eye, toward the passenger side of his truck. Snapping his gaze that way, however, he saw nothing more than the edge of the lot with the still-busy freeway beyond. He’d thought there was a shadow moving closer, but clearly, he was just so tired that his eyes were playing tricks on him.

Shaking that off, the man opened the door of his truck and started to step down. Just as his left foot touched the ground, however, with his right still on the step and his arm holding the bar, he felt something press up against his crotch. The sensation, naturally, made him stop suddenly.

“Good instincts,” the man heard from below him. Slowly and gingerly, he lowered his gaze before finding out what was pushing against his groin. Seeing it, however, did not make the man feel any better. It was a gun. The barrel of a sawed-off shotgun, to be specific. The weapon was held against him by a figure laying on their back half-under the truck. Even without the gun, the figure themselves would have been terrifying to behold in that situation. She wore a leather jacket that started out black at the bottom before gradually becoming green toward the top. The hood of the jacket was up to cover her hair, and she wore a featureless black mask with no mouth or eye holes, turning the area where her face should have been into a dark void. 

“Believe it or not, I really don’t want to shoot you,” the girl’s voice informed Aaron quietly while he stared where her eyes should be. “It’s not my idea of a good time. And I know it’s not yours. So we’re all gonna play nice and you’ll be just fine. I’ll get what I want, then you can call the cops and report the loss to your company and their insurance. Nod your head and say okay.” 

After the briefest of pauses, during which he felt that gun barrel push just a bit more against his most precious part, Aaron finally gave a quick nod. His voice sounded a little choked up. “Okay.” 

“Good,” the girl replied. “And my friend doesn’t want to hurt you either, unless you make him.” 

“Him?” Aaron echoed, only to hear the passenger door of his truck open before someone climbed in that side. Someone quite large and heavy, given the way the truck shuddered. 

“I’m gonna need you to not scream, not try to escape, not make any sudden moves,” the girl on the ground informed him in a very patient, yet commanding voice. “If you cooperate, he won’t hurt you, I promise. Just get back up in your seat and buckle up. Remember, no matter how much he freaks you out, he will not hurt you if you follow instructions. Can you do that for me?” 

Not trusting his voice at first, the man nodded weakly before managing a soft, “Y-yeah.” He very gingerly moved, pulling himself back up into the truck and away from that gun. Only once he had safely settled in the seat did the man glance over to see who was in the truck with him.

It was a monster. Literally. The enormous thing, taking up most of that side of the front seat, looked like a gorilla with lizard-like scales instead of fur. It was giving him a broad, toothy smile, one hand raised in a wave of greeting as though all of this was a perfectly normal thing. 

Whether he stayed still because he remembered the order from the girl to not move or scream no matter what he saw, or because he was frozen in terror, Aaron couldn’t rightly say. All he knew was that he was completely frozen in place, staring in shock at the figure beside him. 

“Good,” the masked girl praised while picking herself up. She put the gun away, apparently content that her monstrous companion would keep him in line. “But what else did I say?” 

It took the man a moment, before he very shakily reached out to catch hold of his seatbelt. Without taking his eyes off the thing beside him, he fumbled with it a bit before buckling up. 

Rather than speak again, the girl simply closed the driver’s side door, patted it briefly, then disappeared as she walked around the front before climbing in the open passenger door. Through it all, Aaron simply stared at the scaled gorilla, unable to take his eyes off it. 

“Okay,” the girl announced after climbing in, perching on her… pet’s lap, and closing the door. “Let’s get out of here. I’ll tell you where to go. Like I said, be nice and cooperate and you’ll get out of this without a single scratch, I promise. Oh, I’m Pack, by the way. Given your Maryland licence plates, I’m pretty sure you don’t spend much time around Detroit. 

“So… what do you think of the city so far?” 

*******

With the truck safely parked in the backlot of an old, unused hardware store, Pack watched as Twinkletoes and Mars Bar unloaded the electronics equipment from the back of the truck and transferred it into a waiting van. The truck’s driver was sitting on a nearby curb, being watched by Holiday now. The man showed no interest in trying to run away or fight back. Which was good, because Pack meant what she had said. As long as he cooperated, he’d be fine. Blackjack wanted this guy’s cargo, but there was no reason to be an evil cunt about it. 

However, things apparently just couldn’t go completely smoothly no matter how cooperative the driver was being. That much became clear as, just when Pack was about to offer the man a bottle of water, a warning screech came from up in the sky where Riddles was flying cover. 

Instantly upon hearing the warning, Pack spun. She’d taught her bird-lizard specific calls to give based on what the warning was. This one meant that a threat was coming from behind her. In mid-motion, the girl had the shotgun in her hand, extending it in time to see the threat appear right in front of her, snatch the gun from her hand, and toss it aside to clatter on the ground. 

“Well,” she announced to the newcomer. “That was rude. Not even a hey, good to see you?”

“We’re not on the same side this time, Pack,” That-A-Way informed her sharply. She had just teleported into place after hearing the warning cry from Riddles that told her she’d been spotted. “I told you I’d have to take you down if I saw you out doing bad shit again, no matter what we went through before. So what exactly do you call this?” She waved a hand to where Mars Bar and Twinkletoes had stopped moving boxes from the truck to the van and now stood watching.  

“Uh…” Pack considered that for a moment before offering, “Some early Christmas shopping?” 

Despite herself, and despite spending the past few seconds before making this confrontation telling herself to be firm and take no excuses or nonsense during this, That-A-Way wanted to smile. The answer was so absurd, and came out with such false earnestness, that a snicker almost escaped her. That was why confronting Pack right now was so dangerous. Not because the girl herself was so terrible, but because… because she wasn’t. Because That-A-Way actually liked the time they’d spent together the two times they’d been forced into being allies. 

She should have called in back-up. She knew that. Given her feelings and history, her first action as soon as she saw what was going on should have been to call in one of the other Minority who could help deal with this. But she’d frozen, torn between calling in help or… not. And through that hesitation, Riddles had spotted Way, forcing her hand. Now she was here, standing in front of Pack after disarming her and trying to tell herself that the other girl was just any other villain. She was robbing this truck driver. No matter how much That-A-Way enjoyed talking to her, she was a villain who needed to be taken down and brought in. 

“You’re right,” Pack agreed casually. “We’re definitely not on the same side. But wouldn’t it be fun if we were?” The tone of her voice implied the wink that couldn’t be seen through the mask. “Seriously, come on. I know you’re not some stuffy boring old hall monitor. You and me, we could have some crazy times out here. We don’t need to fight.”

“Are you insane?” That-A-Way demanded, voice rising a bit defensively despite herself. “In case it escaped you, I’m not a supervillain. And I’m definitely not going to hurt people.” 

Pack’s response to that was a simple shrug. “Who said anything about hurting people? Does that guy over there look hurt? Do you really think losing a few boxes of equipment like this is gonna hurt that big ass multi-billion dollar company? Trust me, they’ve got all this covered.”  

Slowly, That-A-Way shook her head. “Look, I’m telling you, we can do this the nice way. I’ll arrest you, take you in, then you sit in jail. Neither of us has to throw a punch. Maybe they’ll let you switch sides, Pack. You and your friends here, they could do some real good, instead of stealing things and hurting people. And you are hurting them, no matter what you think.” 

There was a brief pause then, as Pack seemed to consider. But in the end, the suggestion was apparently not what she was thinking through. Instead, she offered, “Tell you what. I’ll tell my buddies here to stay back and not intervene. Which means I won’t be using my powers. You don’t use yours. If you can take me down like that, no powers on either side, then we’ll all surrender and you can take us in. How’s that sound?”

“You’re serious?” That-A-Way blurted with a frown. “You want me to fight you without either of us using powers, and if I win, you and all your friends here will just surrender peacefully.” 

“Well,” Pack pointed out slyly, “we’ll have just fought, so I’m not sure how much you could call it peacefully. But other than that… yeah. You and me, right here, no powers. Think you can hand-” 

In mid-sentence, Pack was interrupted as That-A-Way took a swing at her face. She jerked back, twisting with a laugh. “See?” she blurted in mid-pivot as the fist went right past her nose, “you would make a pretty good villain with underhanded sneak attacks like that.” 

She quickly snapped an arm down to deflect the other incoming fist, before twisting once more so That-A-Way’s kick hit the side of her hip. It still hurt, but not as much as it might have. Before the next attack could come, however, she continued her pivot, putting her back toward That-A-Way as her elbow lashed out to hit the other girl in the face.

The impact made the blonde stumble a bit, but That-A-Way recovered quickly, both hands snapping up to catch Pack’s swinging arm as it came in for a hard punch. Gripping tightly to keep the girl in place, she lashed out with a kick toward her opponent’s side and was rewarded with a grunt of pain as she connected. But the leather jacket was clearly padded for protection.

Through all of this, the menagerie of lizard-creatures watched with a mixture of confusion and curiosity. That same curiosity was reflected in the face of Aaron the truck driver, as he too watched all of this. Together, they all stared as their owner and the girl she had previously worked with (and who had actually saved Holiday’s life) went after one another in a wild brawl.  

Taking the kick on her side while her extended arm was held by both of That-A-Way’s hands, Pack grunted before stepping in close, her free hand snapping out to slam the heel of it into the other girl’s shoulder. The blow was enough to loosen the grip Way had on her other arm, and Pack twisted free, pivoting in and around before driving her knee up into the girl’s stomach. 

Or at least, that was the plan. In practice, her opponent managed to catch her rising knee with one hand before slamming her arm into Pack’s face with a somewhat-wild swing. Pack did, however, manage to put a fist into the side of the elbow of That-A-Way’s arm that was holding her knee, knocking away her grip. 

Both girls yelped in pain, stumbling back away from each other for a moment. It had been a wild handful of seconds, with both landing a few blows but neither actually getting very far. They each moved, pacing in a slow circle around one another while watching for an opening as they breathed hard in and out. 

“Hey,” Pack announced with a slow pant, “I guess you Minority guys must learn how to fight without your powers after all. Kudos.” Her voice adopted a teasing tone once more. “I don’t suppose there’s any chance you could tell me what parts of that class you weren’t so good at?” 

“Nice try,” Way snorted before doing a quick step-in, feinting a kick while using her opposite hand to catch hold of Pack’s wrist. She quickly pivoted in and around, shoving the villain girl’s hand up behind her back before putting her other arm around Pack’s neck. “I was pretty good at grappling, I’ll tell you that much.” 

“Well yeah,” Pack agreed with a grimace, arm pinned behind her back as it was, “who wouldn’t want to let you practice on them? Have you seen yourself?” Using That-A-Way’s brief distraction at those words, she stomped down on the girl’s foot, then twisted her arm free before pivoting to punch at her stomach. Her fist, as expected, was knocked aside. But she was free, and both girls stumbled away once more. 

Their fight continued that way for another minute, neither gaining any real advantage as they avoided any use of their powers (which, in Pack’s case, simply consisted of repeating her order for the lizard-creatures to stay out of the way no matter what happened). Blows were exchanged between them, each taking a few bruises and bumps that they would feel through the rest of the night and into the next day. This whole thing was clearly more than a simple sparring match, yet also somehow less than an actual fight. They bantered, they teased each other, they… talked, to an extent. They were simultaneously taking it seriously and yet not. It was an impossible situation for either to explain. All the two girls knew was that… it was fun. They both wanted to win, that was for sure. Yet they also… didn’t terribly mind the idea of the other winning either. 

Finally, That-A-Way managed to slip behind Pack while the other girl was stumbling forward, off-balance. Before she could recover, Way lashed out with a kick into her back that launched her up against the back of the nearby truck with a yelp. It was the best opening Way had had through all of this, and she took advantage by grabbing the stay-down cuffs from her hip and lunging that way. She brought one cuff in toward Pack’s wrist even as the girl hit the truck. 

But Pack recovered faster than Way had expected. At the last possible second, she snatched her hand down, pivoting to catch the incoming handcuff. A quick twist of the metal and That-A-Way felt it snap around her own wrist. The other cuff was just as quickly attached to the handle of the truck’s rear door. Way lashed out with her free hand, but Pack stumbled backward just in time, panting heavily. 

“Whew,” the girl managed with a cough, “that was close.” 

Turning to face her, hand still cuffed to the truck, That-A-Way shook her head. “You still don’t have to be a thief, you know. You can stop this any time. It’s your choice.” 

“But I’m so good at it,” Pack replied easily. “And besides, what would I do otherwise? Be a hero?” 

“You could if you wanted to,” Way pointed out with narrowed eyes. “You and your friends over there could help a lot of people.” 

“See, I can help people without being a hero,” Pack retorted, though her voice was light. “But I don’t have to do it at the beck and call of a system designed to make the rich richer and smash the poor under its treads. What do you think I do when I see someone being hurt? I mean really hurt by real bad guys. There’s a difference between what I do and what they do.”

“You want to change the system and make people’s lives better?” Way blurted a bit incredulously. “Then do it inside the system! You want Star-Touched to really help people who need it? Be a Star-Touched and help people who need it!” 

There was a brief pause before Pack stepped closer. “You still see everything as being that black and white? Things aren’t that simple, babe. Though I will admit,” she added carefully while stripping off one of her gloves to reveal a dark-skinned hand that she gently touched against Way’s pale cheek. “Black and white does make a pretty good combination at times.” The words came in a soft voice, both girls staring at one another for a long few seconds. 

Abruptly, Pack stepped back, casually adding, “One, we both know you can teleport out of that cuff any time you want to.” 

Even as she said those words, That-A-Way was disappearing from the cuff. She reappeared a few feet away, mouth open to interrupt in one last plea for the other girl to just surrender. 

But Pack continued. “–And two, I just gave the stand-down order for Holiday to stop guarding her prisoner. Which means…” 

With a loud, somehow delighted and friendly rather than terrifying, snarl, Holiday the panther-lizard lunged out of the shadows to knock That-A-Way to the ground. They landed heavily, Holiday frantically licking all over her face and nuzzling up against her while the girl squealed in surprise. 

“She wants to say hello,” Pack finished with a small smirk. She let that go on for a few seconds before reaching down to take hold of Holiday, pulling her back. The two stood over the Minority hero, Pack offering a shrug. “Hey, you interrupted when we were only halfway done, so I guess we can call it a tie.” 

That-A-Way started to say something, only to look over from her prone position to see the van start up and drive off. “You weren’t alone…” 

“Never said I was,” Pack pointed out. “Don’t worry, Broadway’s cool. She would’ve held to the deal I made and let you take me in. Maybe you can meet her next time.” 

“Next time,” Way assured her, “I’m going to bring you in.” 

Walking backward away from the girl, Pack casually replied, “Maybe I’ll let you cuff me then! Could be fun!” 

She turned then, sprinting away while accompanied by her animals, leaving That-A-Way laying on the ground. As the girl watched the menagerie and their leader disappear into the darkness, her comm beeped. 

“That-A-Way?” Wobble’s voice came, “you okay? What’s going on?” 

Touching the comm in her ear to activate it, Way answered, “I’ve got the truck and the driver. Thief took off in a van, but I managed to interrupt before they took everything they wanted.” 

“Any bad guys to bring in?” her teammate asked. 

“… No. No bad guys this time. She got away.” 

“Shit,” Wobble muttered through the comm. “Eh, don’t worry. There’s always next time.” 

“Yeah,” Amber murmured in a soft voice, staring through the darkness where the other girl had disappeared. 

“There’s always next time.”

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