At a glance and without advance knowledge, the subdivision would appear to be picturesque, a true example of upper-middle class prosperity within the greatly thriving city of Detroit. The area was a gated community, consisting of ninety-two houses spread across ten blocks. At the entrance to the neighborhood, once one pulled past the gate and entered the subdivision proper, a street ran to the left and to the right. Straight ahead was a medium-sized park with a winding hiking trail, a pristine playground for children, and a very well-cared for soccer field and baseball diamond. Directly in view of anyone entering the community through the main gate, at the corner of the park, was a large wooden sign with the neighborhood’s name of Pinewood Hollow proudly and boldly written across it.
At least, it had once said that. At some point much earlier, the ‘Pine’ part of the sign had been crossed out and painted over in white. Then ‘Sher’ had been spray painted in green over it. The word ‘Hollow’ had been left intact, but someone had added ‘Enter, all ye who are’ above that part. Now, rather than a simple, polite and joyful sign welcoming people to Pinewood Hollow, the sign read, ‘Sherwood – Enter All Ye Who Are Hollow.’
With that altered sign and the park lying straight ahead as one passed through the gate, the entrance street ran left and right (west and east). At either edge of the park’s width, a street extended perpendicular to the first, both running to the north with the park on one side and various homes on the other. The west-east street at the entrance continued beyond that in both directions, each extending past another block before curving northward as well, with homes on both sides. The two streets continued on to the end of the subdivision before curving back to the west or east respectively, where they joined up once more. The two streets that ran along either side of the park’s length connected with the newly rejoined streets at that end as well.
The result, essentially, was that the main street formed a large, rounded rectangle, with a square (the park) taking up the entire center portion of that rectangle, two streets running up the length of either side of that park, and homes with large front and back yards filling the rest of the space.
Also filling up a lot of that space? Trees, bushes, shrubs, flowers, grass, vines, and every other sort of plant imaginable. The neighborhood was one of the greenest, most colorful in the state of Michigan. There were plants found in that single neighborhood that could not be found anywhere outside of exotic greenhouses and the like in the rest of North America.
Ninety-two houses. Ninety-two families. And somewhere within those ninety-two homes lived most, if not all of the members of the Fell-Touched gang known as Sherwood. A group of Touched individuals who, as a general rule, despised most forms of modern technology and preferred nature and wildlife. They also obsessively protected their relatively small and contained territory of this single neighborhood, and it was impossible to effectively keep any secrets or surprises in the area from them, thanks to the spies they had in both plant and animal forms. When the tree outside your house, the weeds your police cruiser drove past, the simple vines wrapping around the edge of the welcome sign that a Star-Touched landed on top of, or the bluejay sitting atop a nearby telephone pole watching your whispering huddled group could all be reporting back to the loyal Sherwood members, it was quite difficult to get anything past them.
Police and authorities had tried, of course. They raided the neighborhood with Star-Touched assistance now and then. But nothing ever came of it. By the time they got anywhere, there was no evidence of any wrongdoing to find. Whatever people in the neighborhood knew, they refused to provide information or testimony to the police. For some, it was a fear of retaliation. For others, it was loyalty (or perhaps Stockholm Syndrome). The neighborhood might have been ruled by a gang of Fell-Touched, but it wasn’t bad living there, so long as you stayed within Sherwood’s rules. Those essentially involved forcing people to keep their lawns neatly trimmed, their flowers, trees, and other plants well-watered and fertilized, and so on. But they didn’t actually hurt the people who lived there, so long as those rules and others like them were followed properly. You were allowed to do what you wanted within your own house, as long as you kept the single houseplant you were sent by the gang in a central location and took care of it.
It was, in most cases, quiet and peaceful in the neighborhood, with beautiful scenery and some quite interesting wildlife wandering through or living within the park and surrounding forested area. Not to mention the fact that Sherwood managed to keep any other gang from ever entering their territory, which prevented the people who lived there from having to deal with problems like Oscuro or Ninety-Niner violence. If you could live with taking care of the plants and knowing that anything you said could be spied on by random animals, grass, and flowers, it wasn’t bad.
One of the largest houses in the neighborhood, located at the furthest spot away from the entrance gate, and directly across from the north end of the park, belonged to Trey Fosters and his three children. The eldest was twenty-year-old Micah, the youngest was thirteen-year-old Errol, and the middle child was seventeen-year-old Arleigh.
It was Arleigh Fosters, that last-mentioned, middle child, who stood in the (quite expansive) front yard of the four-story house shortly before ten at night. The tall, blonde girl was rapidly texting several of her friends back at Cadillac Preparatory School, fingers dancing over the screen so rapidly that one might have expected to see smoke begin billowing up from it. She was, in fact, so intently focused on her texting that the girl failed to notice the large (six foot four and quite muscular) figure stepping out of the thick tree directly behind her. Silently and slowly, the person reached out toward her, hands extending until his fingers were mere millimeters from touching her exposed throat. His narrow smile could barely be seen glinting in the dim light from a nearby street lamp as he prepared himself… and then struck.
“Booga!” With that cry, he grabbed onto her neck and shoulders and started to shake the girl.
“Gaaaah fuck you!” Jerking forward out of the man’s grip, Arleigh spun to face the figure behind her, pointing. “Fuck you, Micah! Fuck you, you stupid, ugly piece of shit! Stop doing that!” She hated her older brother’s power to both manipulate and transport through plants. Or rather, the way he abused it to always get the jump on her. Micah had always lived to make her jump and scream, from the time he was eight and she was five. And probably before then, but she couldn’t remember back that far. The only thing that had changed now was that he was very good at either using his power to sneak up on her, or getting leaves to tickle her ear, branches to tap her shoulder, roots to rise up and grab her feet, and so on.
Glaring at the twenty-year-old fucking child as he doubled over laughing hysterically, Arleigh snarled a bit before pointing both hands. As she did so, a semi-transparent teardrop-shaped forcefield appeared all the way around him. It was about six feet from front to back and eight feet tall. A moment after the teardrop forcefield materialized around him, Micah had time to blurt a brief curse, before he was suddenly pummeled by hurricane-force winds and rain. The wind slammed him up into one side of the forcefield, then reversed course to send him crashing into the other side. No sooner had he struck there than the wind shifted entirely to come down from the ceiling, knocking the young man prone against the ground. And all the while, freezing rain thoroughly soaked him.
“Okay, okay, Jesus Christ, Arleigh! Get over it!” her brother shouted from inside the field. Even as he said that, Micah was slapping his hand against the lawn. At his touch, the grass that his sister was standing on grew over a foot so it could wrap around her ankles and yank hard to knock her to the ground. That was enough to disturb her concentration so that he could punch the forcefield and shatter it, escaping its confines even as the heavy rains and winds stopped. That was Arleigh’s power. She created small, contained forcefields and could create severe weather effects within them. But the forcefields were weak if she wasn’t intently focused on them.
To the other members of Sherwood, and the public at large, he was Landscape and she was Clime. Their father, Trey, was better known as Hemlock. His power, at its base, made him a powerful hydrokinetic, able to mentally manipulate water. But it was more than that. Any water the man put under his control could then be altered into various poisons, toxins, and venoms. And what amounted to drugs. It was that latter ability he used on the water that went into the houses of the neighborhood, providing what he referred to as ‘just a little happy juice’ that made those who drank it enjoy living there a little bit more.
Fear that Hemlock could poison the greater water supply before they stopped him was another thing that stopped the police from pushing too hard. If they stopped him while committing a crime, when they could see him in plain sight, that was one thing. But invading the Sherwood stronghold neighborhood and tearing everything apart? Giving him nowhere to run would create a nasty situation.
Micah and Arleigh’s father was even heavily responsible for how well the plants in the area grew, ensuring they received all the water they could need. And healthy, nutritious water at that, suited specifically for each individual plant species.
And yet, as important as Trey/Hemlock was to Sherwood as a whole, he was not the leader or founder of their organization. Sure, he was the second-in-command, and often led in the field. He spoke for the leader in many respects.
But he wasn’t the true guiding force of the gang. These weren’t his troops. This wasn’t his neighborhood.
That honor and title belonged to Sequoia, the founder and leader of Sherwood. Sequoia’s own power involved infusing plants (or pieces of them) with various effects that could be triggered by various means such as touching them, ingesting them, or even inhaling their scent. The effects Sequoia could create varied wildly as well. Some gave temporary powers (including the ability to grow to enormous heights), or created explosions, poisons, and so on. Some could even heal. The bigger the effect, the more time and focus it took. The power was quite expansive, allowing for a lot of variation so long as the appropriate time was taken to fill each leaf, twig, flower, and so on with the desired effects. Not to mention his… more elaborate powers.
Sequoia was the true leader of the Fell-Gang, yet Hemlock tended to do the talking, thanks to a rather… unique situation involved.
As soon as both siblings had recovered, they each lunged to their feet. Micah was holding out both hands. “Truce, truce, damn it. God, why don’t you learn how to take a joke?”
“And why don’t you learn how to leave me the fuck alone?” Arleigh shot right back. “You didn’t even–oh damn it, Micah, my phone!” Reaching down to where she had dropped the phone, she cursed once more upon seeing a large crack across half the screen. “Look what you did!”
“Dude, you get an allowance of like five hundred dollars a week,” Micah retorted. “And that’s before you add in whatever you skim off the take whenever we get a good score. And even if you were completely fucking broke, just get the kid to fix it. Not a big deal.”
“That’s not the point!” With that declaration, the blonde girl raised her hand as though she was about to trap her brother in another weather-field. Seeing that, Micah instantly hopped up and then dropped through the grass under his feet to disappear off… somewhere else.
“Yeah,” Arleigh shouted after him even though he could have been anywhere within a half-mile radius, “you better run!” With a muttered curse, she looked at the crack on her phone and considered before turning to stare up at the leftmost window on the third floor of the four-story house.
“Obnoxious, isn’t he?”
The deep male voice came from the nearby telephone pole, making Arleigh jolt and jerk that way to find herself staring at a small owl that was perched there. Unlike with her brother’s interruption, however, she didn’t snap at the talking bird. Instead, she swallowed before giving a little nod. “Sorry if we disturbed you, sir.”
“Disturbed me?” the owl echoed, then abruptly flew up from the pole and glided silently off into the night.
“Nonsense.” That time, the voice, identical to the first, came from near Arleigh’s feet. She looked down to see a chipmunk perched there, gazing up at her while continuing with, “Siblings annoy one another and fight. This is the way of the world.” With that, the chipmunk chittered and then abruptly took off in a panicked run to get up the nearby tree.
The nearby… Sequoia tree.
Not that it was the only one in the neighborhood. Indeed, there were over a dozen of them within the formerly named Pinewood Hollow. Sequoia trees planted back when the housing division had first been built, by an enterprising developer who thought having some of the gigantic trees within the subdivision would attract attention. Of course, it would take the trees quite some time to reach their full height and width (and some would almost certainly be cut down or moved before then). In any case, most believed that the Fell-Gang’s leader had taken their name in honor of one of those rare trees. But the truth was a bit more… direct than that.
Yes, the leader of Sherwood, the true founder of the gang of nature-based criminals, was a Touched tree. Gifted intelligence and powers, with the ability to move (albeit quite slowly and deliberately to the point that it would take an entire day to cross a football field), Sequoia the tree had lived on these grounds since before there had been an actual neighborhood here. They (though the voice used sounded masculine, Sequoia preferred the gender-neutral they) and Arleigh’s father had both become Touched on the same day, at nearly the same moment. They had worked together since then, with Sequoia becoming what amounted to an uncle or aunt for Arleigh and her siblings.
They may have been incredibly slow, and lacked anything in the way of a mouth to speak, but Sequoia got around that through the use of their powers. Not only did the natural materials they empowered grant special benefits, if something of less than human intelligence ingested them, Sequoia gained the ability to control and speak through them. And even when the affected animals weren’t being actively controlled, they still followed the directions they were given, acting as minions for the tree so long as they stayed within a certain radius. That, of course, was another reason the neighborhood was so secure. All those animals who could be spying on its residents at any time did so under the control and direction of Sequoia themself.
“Go on then,” the tree-Touched spoke through a third animal, this one a small deer that stepped through the nearby bushes and stared at the girl. “Run and get your phone fixed. Perhaps later you can show me more videos of that funny cat.”
“Oh yeah, sure.” Arleigh was about to say something else before stopping herself. With a shrug, she turned and headed for the door before making her way through her family’s home. She trotted up the stairs two at a time, calling out in the direction of the kitchen for the cook to make her something spicy to eat and that it better be ready in twenty minutes because she was starving. The fact that it was ten at night was immaterial, of course. They had people working in the house around the clock. There was always someone in the kitchen ready to make whatever they needed, what with her family’s odd hours.
Despite being the second-in-command of a group whose entire mission statement revolved around hating technology (not to mention having the actual leader literally planted in their back yard), Arleigh’s father actually didn’t. Nor did Sequoia, as a matter of fact. Despite being a plant themself, the tree-Touched was fine with technology, so long as it didn’t cause them direct problems.
It would’ve been pretty hard for Trey Fosters to hate technology as much as Sherwood claimed to anyway, given the fact that he’d made his fortune from his involvement in the Taurus shipping company. Taurus both maintained and delivered high-tech equipment, including Touched-Tech prototype stuff. These days, the Evans owned the majority of the company (like they did so many other things in Detroit), but Trey Fosters had been one of the first investors, and still held enough of a stake in them for the family to live far more than comfortably in this enormous house. Not to mention his continued involvement in the company’s ongoing growth as they expanded their business across the continent and became the name associated with safely getting expensive technology from one place to another.
The point was, no one would believe that a man involved in a business like that, particularly as heavily as her father was, would be such an integral part of a group that was so rabidly anti-technology. And that was the point, of course. That had been the very reason Trey and Sequoia had come up with this gang plan together in the first place. It was the perfect cover for their overall plan. A plan they had presented to the Ministry leaders, eventually making Sherwood indispensable to that organization.
Essentially, Arleigh’s dad used the gang to carefully target companies that rivaled his, or refused to do business with them, or even just to convince a wavering client that they needed Taurus. He wasn’t stupid about it, of course. Trey made sure to have his own assets get hit enough that it wouldn’t be immediately suspicious. But even that was helpful in the long run, as he would simply write off anything that was ‘stolen’ or ‘destroyed’ and then collect on the insurance while selling the items and equipment themselves on the underground market. In some cases, the items that they stole from other companies were even analyzed and reverse-engineered so that Taurus (or a different company linked to them) could come out with something similar or better. Naturally, Trey made sure to have a few items stolen from them end up making their way to Taurus’s rivals to avoid suspicion. And proceeded to make even more money off forcing those rival companies to pay for the stolen tech.
There was, of course, the question of why a gang like Sherwood would allow someone as connected to technology as the Fosters were to live in their territory. But Trey solved that issue by insisting that the house had been his late wife’s (Arleigh’s mother’s) dream home, a house designed from the ground up by the woman herself. She’d died of cancer within six months of moving into the house a little over fifteen years earlier (in the very same incident that had led to both Sequoia and Trey himself becoming Touched), and he made a show of refusing to leave the home his dead wife had put so much of herself into designing. Instead, he paid what amounted to protection money to the gang (ignoring the fact that it was his own gang, of course) so they would leave his family alone. The authorities (those who weren’t corrupt themselves) still thought he was crazy, of course. And they were also somewhat annoyed that he was essentially handing cash and resources to a known group of supervillains. He, in turn, played up the angle of a still-grieving husband (even fifteen years on) who refused to let go of his wife’s memory and would pay anything to keep himself and their children in that house.
In any case, to the outside world, the Fosters were simply a rich family who were paying a good bit of extra ‘rent’ to a gang of fanatical nature lovers for permission to continue to live in the home designed by the deceased wife/mother. The true aim of Sherwood, to control the creation and distribution of technology, remained obfuscated behind their stated mission of hugging all trees, destroying all computers and cars, or whatever it was people thought they did.
Sometimes playing the part of a tree-hugging flower girl hippy while in costume was hard, but it was a good way of concealing her actual identity, Arleigh had to admit. Just as no one believed that the leader of the nature-obsessed Fell-gang was one of the main investors and leaders of a company based entirely around protecting technology, there was also no one who was going to guess that a girl whose cell was basically glued to her ear and who always drove the the latest model car (to say nothing of having the fanciest electronic toys) was an enthusiastic member of that gang.
Of course, even with all of that, there were decent investigators who might have stared very intently at their family. But one more major thing protected them. That was the Ministry themselves, who made sure to keep any such investigation from going too far. And, of course, warned Arleigh’s father about them to help him set up airtight alibis. He and his children would appear on one side of the city in front of plenty of witnesses while Sherwood hit a convoy on the opposite side of the city. Body doubles and holograms were quite good for that sort of thing.
In the end, the plan that Sequoia and Hemlock had come up with all those years ago had served to make them a very important piece of the Ministry’s ability to control the city so effectively. Essentially, Sherwood and Braintrust were two sides of the same Ministry-connected coin. The latter group were a bunch of Tech-Touched who helped keep the Ministry themselves fully equipped with the latest and greatest toys, while simultaneously driving away or recruiting almost any other Tech-Touched in the city.
Sherwood, on the other hand, focused on destroying or driving away any technology that the Ministry didn’t want in the city. Or simply secretly acquiring it and passing that tech to their sister gang of Braintrust. The Ministry gave them targets to hit and Sherwood did so, under the guise of hating all that stuff. Braintrust and Sherwood were both actually quite close, a tight-knit group of allies. But in public, they were often at one another’s throats. It helped to play up the illusion.
Finally approaching the door to the room whose window she had been looking at from outside, Arleigh spoke up as she took those last few steps. “Xanah, tell the brat I need to talk to him!”
There was a brief pause before the household computer assistant demurely acknowledged the request. That was followed by a slightly longer pause as it clearly passed the message inside. Finally, the door opened and Arleigh found herself looking at her younger brother. Thirteen-year-old Errol was scrawny to the point of looking unhealthy, with glasses and enough of an asthma problem to require constantly keeping an inhaler nearby. His blond hair was stringy and stuck out in every direction no matter how much he attempted to keep it under control (not that he tried that much anymore), and he almost always wore tee-shirts advertising old cartoons from the seventies and eighties. Or, more seldomly, newer cartoons. But mostly the old ones.
Blinking at his big sister a few times, Errol hesitated before asking, “Uh, yeah?” His tone was wary, given how seldom either of his siblings wanted him for anything good. He was, in many ways, the black sheep of the family.
Still, Arleigh gave him an encouraging smile. “Hey, Dorkfish, need you to fix my phone.” She held it up and waved the cracked screen in his face. “And you better hurry, Sequoia wants to see more cat videos.”
“Umm, okay,” the boy started carefully, “but the last time I fixed something for you, you said you’d take me to the aquarium. We still haven’t gone, and that was like two weeks ago.”
Arleigh rolled her eyes. “Okay, Jesus, don’t be so dramatic about it. Look, fix my phone and we’ll go the day after tomorrow. I’ll even drive us out to get something to eat after, all right? Now would you just do your thing, please?”
With a small sigh that said he already knew he would probably regret it, Errol took the phone from her. Holding it in one hand, he pointed his other hand at the screen and focused. Three pulsing waves of nearly invisible, very pale-blue energy emanated from his palm. The first wave, upon hitting the screen, made about a quarter of the crack disappear. The second erased most of the rest, and the third finished the job. Finally, the phone looked as good as new. Not just as far as the crack went, but all the smudges were cleaned off, a bit of dirt that had been on the side of it from being dropped on the ground was gone, and the whole thing gleamed as if it was fresh out of the box.
Grabbing the phone from her brother with a blurted thanks before ruffling his hair a bit too hard, Arleigh darted off with it. She was already texting her friends once more, jumping right back to that conversation.
For a moment, Errol watched her go. Then he exhaled and turned to walk back into his room. On the way through it, he glanced over to where his discarded dirty jeans from earlier lay on the floor next to an overturned book, a scattered (and slightly bent) set of collectible trading cards based around famous Star-Touched, a plate with a crack in it from where he had dropped it, and his dirt-caked shoes.
Reaching out with both hands, the boy focused. Several more pulsing waves of energy emanated from his palms. As the waves hit the items on the floor, the bent cards were straightened and returned to look as good as new before shuffling themselves together and back into the nearby box. The crack in the plate vanished before it floated up to rest on the desk. His dirty jeans looked like they had been through the wash and dried, even folding themselves properly before the nearby drawer opened and they flew up into it. His shoes were equally clean, and slid backward into the closet before that door closed. And the overturned book flew up to land where it belonged on the nearby shelf.
Fixing things. That was Errol’s power. But it was more than that. His gift ‘put things together and in their proper place.’ It fixed damage, cleaned objects, moved them where they belonged (or as close as they could get to where they belonged within a relatively small area), and even organized them. He could shuffle a deck of playing cards a dozen times, then use his power and the cards would organize into their proper new-deck order. Or, alternatively, he could make them appear in any order he wanted. He could organize things by color, size, date, whatever. He fixed and put things in their proper place.
It was also a power that had nothing to do with nature, a fact that annoyed their father given how out of theme it was. Which was just par for the course, really. Errol didn’t fit in with his family in any other way, so why should his power be any different? At least Sequoia thought it was cool.
Sighing once more, the boy sat back at his computer and hit the button to turn his webcam back on. “Sorry,” he started, “it was just my sister. Where were we?”
“That’s okay,” his homework partner assured him, “I think we were on number seventeen?”
On the computer screen, Izzy Amor shook her head while lamenting, “I’m sure glad you understand this algebra stuff, cuz I’m completely lost.”