Month: October 2021

Kith And Kin 20-06 (Summus Proelium)

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“There’s my baby girl.” With a broad smile as I approached, my father opened his arms before yanking me up into them once I got close enough. He lifted me clear off the ground and hugged me tight. “Now, who said you were allowed to grow so much while we were gone?” he demanded. “I thought I made it clear that you’re supposed to stay exactly the same while I can’t see you.”  

God, some part of me really wished that it was easier to only be disgusted by what my father was really like. It would have made this whole situation less agonizing, if I could stick to just seeing him as the leader of a criminal organization, who hurt and killed people. 

But that was the whole problem. He wasn’t just that. He was my father too. And beyond that, the Ministry had done some good things. It was all so complicated, the whole thing. He was my father and I loved him, just like I loved my brother and my mom. But they were all criminals. They all did bad things, along with some good. They were… it was… complicated. So complicated. Seeing him right now, being embraced by him, just made all those conflicted feelings come rushing back into me even more than ever. Especially after that whole thing with them helping Luciano escape. That was wrong. It was horrible. I had to do something about it. I had to get that piece of shit put in prison where he belonged. And I couldn’t excuse the part that my family had played in helping him escape. And yet… and yet… my father was here. I hadn’t seen him in what felt like forever, even if it hadn’t actually been that long. Despite all the terrible feelings deep in my stomach, I found myself returning the embrace tightly. Which only made me feel even more conflicted about the whole thing. 

Finally, I found my voice while making my head shake. “I didn’t grow at all! It’s only been a couple weeks, you know.” Belatedly, I added in a mutter under my breath, “Besides, you could have left for five years and I wouldn’t have grown at all.”   

“Couple weeks?” Dad gasped as though completely confused by that. “I tell you, it felt like that five years.” With a smile, he set me down and ran his hand through my uneven hair. “Ever decide if you want that to be long or short?” he teased, tugging a bit at the longer side. 

“More fun to be both,” I retorted, poking him in the stomach. “I didn’t know you were going to be here. Let me guess, you drove Jefferson over the edge and he quit to go work for Uber.” 

With a snort at that absurd thought, my father shook his head and turned to open the front passenger side of Royal Thunder. “Actually, I thought we could get some practice in. You’ve got your training license, right?” As he said that, Dad stepped down in the passenger side of the car, leaving… leaving the… the…driver… side…

As that realization slowly filled my head, I gaped, eyes widening. “Wha–you, you mean it?” 

Chuckling with amusement as my reaction, Dad gestured. “Come on then, get in before I change my mind. Let’s see what you can do.” Abruptly, he grimaced before quickly amending, “And by that, I mean let’s see how many rules of the road you can follow while being extremely careful. Speed limits are fine things, but let’s pretend it’s like five miles per hour lower. Or ten. Ten is good too. Hey, parking lots are fun, how about we do circles around one of those?”

“Too late!” I chirped, dashing around the front of the car to jump in the driver’s side. Once there, I found that my father had already arranged the seat to be higher and more forward, specifically ready for me to use. The pedals had also been extended a bit forward so I could reach them more easily. Finding all that, I turned a bit to stare at my dad.

He, in turn, winked. “Well? You’ve been going on about wanting to drive for so long. Let’s see what you can do. I need to figure out if I can put you to work once you get that real license.” 

Despite myself, despite everything, I leaned over and gave him a side-hug. Then I started the car, checked everything over, and pulled away from the curb after making sure the road was clear. I didn’t peel out or anything, tempting as it was with the power of the machine I was controlling. I kept myself under control and brought it up to just under the speed limit as we cruised out to the regular street to join up with traffic. 

Dad watched me the whole time, his head shaking with disbelief. “I can’t believe you’ll be seventeen in under a year.” His voice was a thoughtful murmur. “You were only nine a couple years ago, weren’t you? Where’d the time go?” 

Snorting, I carefully took a right turn at the light. “Yeah, and a couple years ago, you were only thirty.” 

Making a strangled noise in the back of his throat, Dad retorted, “Just how old do you think I am, kid?” 

Pretending to think about that for a few seconds while drumming my fingers along the steering wheel, I offered, “I dunno, fifty-seven?” 

“Fifty-se–” That strangled sound was back as my father choked, giving me a look. “Okay, you know what, maybe you can wait another ten years before driving.” 

A laugh escaped me. Which just made the whole situation worse. God, it was so easy to fall into this routine, so incredibly easy to forget the truth, even for just a few minutes. Yet in the back of my head, I couldn’t completely stop thinking about what Murphy and Roald were doing right now, and how their lack of justice was in large part the fault of my family. 

Clearly noticing the way my expression changed, Dad reached out to touch the side of my face while we were waiting at the red light. His voice was concerned. “Hey, what’s wrong? Did something happen? Whatever it is, you know you can talk about it.” 

Oh God, if only that was true. For just a split-second, I seriously imagined what would happen if I actually told him everything. How crazy would it be if I just unloaded the whole thing and told my father everything I knew and everything I thought about what they really did? What if I actually told him about how their bullshit allowed the murderer of my friend’s brother to escape? How would he react? Would he be ashamed? Would he offer to fix it? Would he apologize? Or would he just find a way to excuse it? Would he simply erase my memory again? How would he really react? I was so tempted, in that brief moment, to actually go through with it and see what happened. Maybe it was partially because of just how upset I was about the Murphy situation in general. Or maybe it was because of the actual fight I’d had with Simon the night before. Or because they’d been gone for awhile and this was my first time being close to my dad in a couple weeks. Either way, whatever the reason, the words were right on the tip of my tongue.  

And yet, I suppressed the urge and simply shook my head while looking at him. “I just missed you,” I found myself easily lying straight to his face, even as my stomach turned itself into knots. “Did you guys finish your business, or are you leaving again?” There, it was easy to make it look and sound as though the reaction he had seen was about being upset that they had been gone. Manipulative, yes. But I had to give him some legitimate explanation for the look he had seen, so he didn’t wonder about it too much. Because the last thing I needed was my father to spend too much time wondering about what I was doing and why I might be upset about something.

Thankfully, it seemed to work. Dad gave a low sigh and reached over to brush my hair fondly. “We’re back for awhile now, I promise. Pretty sure your mom will kill me if we have any more business interruptions anytime soon.”  

Again, I was tempted to say several things to that. Thankfully, the light turning green distracted me, and I was able to shove those impulses down along with pushing my foot against the accelerator. As the car pulled away, I found my voice. “Maybe she’d just maim you a little bit.” 

Dad, in turn, chuckled once more. “Oh sure, maiming sounds better.” Shaking his head, he focused on giving me driving advice for the next thirty minutes or so, telling me where to turn and asking how I felt about freeway driving, parallel parking, downtown traffic, and more. Through it all, I pushed aside my troubled thoughts about the whole situation and tried to focus on just being there in the moment. But the whole time, a voice in the back of my head wouldn’t stop talking about how I was betraying my friends by not confronting my father about what happened, even though I knew it wouldn’t actually help anything if I did. It would, almost certainly, make everything worse. So, I shoved the impulse down and lost myself in the driving lesson. 

Eventually, we stopped to pick up Izzy, who had stayed after to work on some project. As I brought the car to a halt in front of the school, she approached alongside a boy who looked familiar. He was blond and scrawny, with messy hair and glasses. Where had I–oh! 

Yeah, the realization of where I had seen the boy before came to me even as Izzy spoke up. “Uh, is it okay if we give Errol a ride home? His sister… didn’t want to wait.” 

Right, his sister. Arleigh Fosters. Somehow, the fact that she refused to wait around to give her little brother a ride home didn’t exactly surprise me. And I was pretty sure Izzy was giving a sanitized, polite version of her likely reaction to being asked. 

Dad gestured. “Sure thing, as long as you don’t mind getting a lift from the speed demon over here. Why don’t you guys both hop in the back? How’s it going, Errol? How’s your dad?” 

Oh right, Errol’s (and by extension, Arleigh’s) dad was another rich businessman. Specifically, he owned a pretty big stake in that Taurus Touched-Tech shipping company. Not as much as my parents did, but still quite a bit. Enough that my parents did have the occasional meeting with him. Actually, come to think of it, I was pretty sure we had even had Arleigh over to the house once or twice years back. It would have been while I was still in first or second grade, so I barely remembered it, but I was pretty sure she had been there. 

Gee maybe we were best friends too and then my parents erased that. 

While I was thinking about that, Errol gave some light remark about how his dad was fine, then he and Izzy started to talk some more about their project. I tuned them out after a minute and focused on driving. Despite everything I already knew about my family, I bizarrely didn’t want to disappoint my father with my skills. My father killed people and ran a Mafia-like organization to control all crime in the city, and I was worried about him thinking I was a bad driver. How absurd was that? 

Whatever it was, I drove carefully (but not too carefully) back out to the main street before asking Errol to remind me of where he lived. He, in turn, tried to demur by telling me that I could drop him off at a nearby library and he would take the bus. 

“Nonsense,” Dad objected. “It’ll be just fine, Errol. We’ll drop you off right at your house. Believe me, nobody’s going to try anything.” 

Well, that was confusing. Looking over at my father and then to the back seat while we were at a stop sign, I echoed, “Try anything?” 

Errol, in turn, sighed and told me where to take him. Only then did I realize why he’d had that reaction. Apparently, he lived smack in the middle of Sherwood territory. Yeah, no wonder he was a bit nervous about bringing strangers into an area controlled by a bunch of psychotic anti-technology Fell-Touched. Hell, I was certainly curious as to how a family like his could continue to live there, given everything. Their entire business revolved around transporting, repairing, and selling super advanced technology. So how could they afford to live in a place that was literally run by a gang that wanted to destroy technology? Did the gang not really know who they were or what they did? Or… or…

“Yo, Earth to Evans Junior.” Dad’s hand touched my shoulder, making me snap out of what had apparently been an extended moment of staring off at nothing. “Did you forget you’re the one piloting this craft?” 

Flushing a bit, I checked both ways before pulling away from the stop sign. “Right, sorry. One taxi ride home coming right up. We’ll be there in ten minutes.” 

“Fifteen minutes,” Dad corrected me with a raised eyebrow. “We’ll take the scenic route, no need to get on the freeway with our guest.” 

There it was again, the total cognitive disconnect. My father was both one of the biggest superheroes in the entire state, and one of the biggest criminals. And yet, he was worried about me having a fender bender or something while one of his business colleagues’ kids was in the car. Trying to comprehend him in both ways (or rather, all three) was making my brain twist itself into knots. Hell, I wasn’t even sure that thought made any sense at all. It was just words, thoughts about how strange this whole situation was. My dad was a hero, a villain, and my father. He ran a Star-Touched team, helped Fell-Touched do bad things for money, and he was worried about his daughter getting the son of one of his business partners hurt. It was so hard to make all that fit together into one person all at the same time. 

The point was, being around my dad like this was confusing. It made my brain and my stomach hurt. But I pushed all that down and focused on driving. I liked driving. I could lose myself in that for the time being. 

So, that was exactly what I did. For the next fifteen minutes, I focused on driving to the gated community that had once been known as Pinewood Hollow. Now, the graffitied sign at the front had had the Pine part crossed out and had ‘Sher’ put in front of it. Meanwhile, ‘Enter, all ye who are’ was written in front of the Hollow part. 

“Dad, can objects turn into Touched?” I asked, staring that way. 

“I don’t think so, kid, why?” Dad replied, sounding curious. 

I pointed to the sign. “Because whoever made that was obviously some kind of giant anime sword, to have all that edge.” 

Even as I said that, a bird that was sitting on a rock next to the sign gave a sharp caw before flying away, making me jump a bit before silently cursing myself for it. Right, angry birds, spy-plants, wonderful. It was just so welcoming. I definitely couldn’t see any reason why going in here, let alone living here, was a bad idea. 

Dad’s hand found my shoulder once more, squeezing it. He chuckled at what I’d said, even as he reassured me. “It’ll be okay, trust me. We’re not doing anything wrong, just dropping off someone who lives here. You can’t let people like that control everything you do. Don’t be stupid about it, but don’t surrender to them entirely either. They’re not stupid, they’re not going to pick a fight with every car that drives through their territory.” 

Some part of me wondered if this was some sort of test somehow. But I shook that off and gave a distracted nod while pulling the car into official Sherwood territory. 

Nothing happened, of course. It wasn’t like simply entering their area was instantly going to make the whole gang descend on us. Though some part of me wondered what my father would do if there was some sort of confrontation. After all, most of the bad guys had no idea who he really was. Either of his identities, come to think of it. How would he react if some of their people got a little ambitious and tried something? The thought made me just curious enough to almost want it to happen. Part of me was morbidly interested in how he would handle something like that without giving away any of his secrets to the three of us. 

But, of course, it was like he’d said. Nothing happened. No one approached us at all as we drove through the subdivision to the large house that Errol had directed me to. The whole place just looked like any other quiet, fairly upscale neighborhood. 

Except, of course, for all the flora. Seriously, there were exotic plants all over the place. The grass was deep green and cut perfectly on each yard, there were bright, colorful flowers and bushes everywhere (some of them clearly tropical or just rare), the trees were larger and fuller than any other place in the city. It was like driving out of Detroit and into a well-maintained rain forest or something. Say what you would about these guys’ methods, but they kept some pretty homes. 

No. They forced everyone else in this place to keep pretty homes. The correction immediately came to mind, while a knot formed in my stomach once more. Everywhere I looked, all these pretty bushes, tall trees, the vines along some of the houses, even those perfectly manicured lawns, were all reminders that the people who lived here were essentially being occupied by a hostile force that made them do all that. 

Okay, granted, there were worse tortures than being forced to have pretty plants in your yard. But still. The plants also served to help spy on these people. They were all basically cameras and microphones. 

That little tidbit stayed in my head while my father walked Errol into the house, with Izzy following after to be polite. Apparently Dad wanted to visit with Errol’s dad for a few minutes, to talk about something that was going on at Taurus. 

Unless, of course, what he really wanted to talk to the man about was Ministry stuff. That would explain how the family could afford to stay here, surrounded by that gang, right? If they actually were connected to the Ministry, the Sherwood people would be told to leave them alone. And it would explain why my father wasn’t worried about being confronted in this place. Not because they knew who he was, but because they knew Errol and his family were off-limits. That made sense. Plus, of course my family would have Ministry-connected people in the high positions at Taurus. It all fit. 

Also, it was possible that part of me just thought that Arleigh having supervillain connections, even if it wasn’t her fault and she didn’t know about it, made sense. Meanwhile, another part of me chastised myself and said that wasn’t fair to the girl. Even if I didn’t really like her. 

Speaking of whom, while lost in those thoughts, I heard Arleigh’s voice call out my name.  Quickly, I looked that way to see her approaching from the front door of the house. There was someone else with her, a somewhat lanky guy with light, somewhat curly brown hair that was cut fairly short. He wore jeans and a long, green shirt that was unbuttoned over a black tee with a local band’s name on it. 

“Hey there, Cass!” Arleigh cheerfully greeted. Again, like we were best friends. “Cool ride. You get your license after all? Dad pull a few strings?” She added that last bit conspiratorially. 

Coughing, I shook my head. “Just having a practice ride with him, that’s all. Hey Arleigh. And umm…” I looked to the boy. 

“Oh, this is my new college prep tutor.” Arleigh gestured back and forth between us. “Cassidy Evans, this is Ryder Towling. Ryder, this is Cassidy Evans.” 

Offering me a slightly self-conscious smile, the boy extended a hand as he and Arleigh stood by the driver’s side of the car (it was parked in the driveway). “Cassidy Evans, huh?” 

I felt a strange sense of familiarity in that moment, but shook it off and turned to shake his hand. “Yeah, I know, disappointing in the flesh, huh?” 

“Oh don’t be silly!” That was Arleigh, laughing a bit too much. “The last thing you could be is disappointing. Actually, you should come to this party we’re having Friday night. It’s gonna be at Sonya Deckermire’s lakehouse, and I swear to god, they’re gonna have jet skis.” 

“Oh, well, jet skis make that really tempting,” I managed to reply. “I’ll see what’s going on.” Quickly changing the subject, I looked back to Ryder. “College prep tutor?” 

“It’s really not a big deal,” he claimed. “I’m just making sure she’s ready to apply for different schools next year, that she’s got her extracurriculars all worked out, her applications look nice and tidy, that sort of thing.” 

“You should let him help you at some point,” Arleigh noted. “You know, after he gets me all squared away.” That was accompanied by an almost convincing laugh. “You don’t get to steal him until I’m done.” 

“Oh, uh, sure.” Ryder dug in his pockets, coming out with a card, which he handed me. It had his name and a phone number on it, along with a note about what he charged for various tutoring services. 

Tucking it away, I thanked him. Again, there seemed to be something familiar there. But before I could focus on it, my father returned with Izzy. He took a moment to talk to Arleigh and her new tutor, before getting in. As Izzy tucked herself alone into the backseat, Dad gestured. “Home, Jeeves. And you better make it snappy. If your mother doesn’t get to see you in the next few minutes, she might just kill all of us.” 

All thoughts of Arleigh and her tutor left my head as I pulled the car out of the driveway and began to head for the house. Right, time to see my mother. 

And hey, the good news was that my stomach was getting a lot of exercise today with all those jumping jacks it was doing. 

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Interlude 15B – Senny And Denny (Heretical Edge 2)

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“You’re really a umm, a vampire? Like, a real vampire?” The question, tinged with nervousness mixed with genuine curiosity, came from the young girl who sat perched on a swing in the middle of the park in the artificial town where the Fusion School adult students lived. She was holding the chains of the swing tightly, slowly gliding back and forth on it while her eyes remained locked on the (much) older figure on the swing next to hers. 

“That’s right, Denny,” Asenath confirmed without looking that way. Her attention was on the artificial moon against the dark ceiling. “I was born in seventeen-ninety-five. Kinda crazy, isn’t it?” She asked that with a small smile, finally glancing over to the girl. 

Denny, in turn, flinched despite herself. “Everything about all of this is crazy. Are… are they really right about me? I mean, was I really older? I mean, not as old as you, but…” From the tone of her voice, it was clear that the girl knew it was true deep inside, but she needed to hear it from someone else. 

Asenath gave a short nod. “It’s true. Everything they told you is true, all of it. You were just a teenage girl minding your own business when you got dragged into this because that boy thought you would be a fun victim. It wasn’t your fault and you certainly didn’t do anything wrong. He was just… his father turned him into a monster, and he took it out on you. I’m sorry that happened. I’m sorry for everything that happened to you, and I’m sorry that you were alone for so long while you were trying to figure out what’s going on. You didn’t deserve any of that.” 

Turning away, Denny silently swung back and forth. The only sound was that of the creaking chains. Finally, after almost thirty seconds of near-silence, she spoke again. “That girl back at the gas station, Kalia, she didn’t deserve what happened to her dad either. And… and from what you guys said, that… umm, Ammon didn’t deserve to have his dad make him bad.” She sounded hesitant to even say that, but forced the words out. Her voice turned even softer. “Sometimes good things happen to bad people and bad things happen to good people. I think… I think it’s not about what anyone deserves. It’s just about what happens. Good and bad.” 

“You’re a smart… person,” Asenath replied after taking a moment to absorb that. “But I’m still sorry you had to try to deal with all that by yourself. Even the strongest, smartest people need to depend on others. You had no idea what was going on or what was happening to you, and you still handled it better than most would have. You didn’t hurt anyone. You helped those people at the bus station. And you saved the sword from Kushiel, even after she kept threatening you. You were smart enough to know that giving it to her would make things worse, and brave enough to lie right to her face. Even after dealing with… with everything else you’ve been dealing with. Even after you saw her kill those people. You still did the right thing.” 

“Brave?” Denny sounded doubtful. “I was so scared I almost threw up. I didn’t have a plan or anything. I didn’t know what to do. If she started killing people again, I couldn’t stop her. I couldn’t do anything. I tried to use the voice thing, but it didn’t work. I couldn’t–I didn’t–” She cringed, hunching in on herself, voice almost inaudible. “I didn’t know what to do. I just didn’t want to give her the sword. Because if I gave her the sword and she killed people with it, that would be my fault. I don’t want people to be hurt or die because of me. Because if I do… if people die because of something I do, I think that might make him stronger. He might win. He might take over.” She swallowed a hard lump in her throat, hoarsely adding, “I’m not brave. I’m terrified… of him. Of what he’ll make me do if I give him a chance.”

Shaking her head, Asenath slipped off the swing and stepped around to stand in front of the other girl. “That’s why you’re brave, Denny. Do you have any idea how many people would be curled in a ball in the corner, completely catatonic from seeing those memories and thoughts? That or they’d just give into him entirely. Going through everything you did and still keeping yourself from doing anything bad? Having bad thoughts doesn’t make you bad. Listen, I’m a… I’m a vampire. There are so many times when I look at someone, smell their blood, and I just want to give in. I want to taste them. I want to indulge. Even around people I like, sometimes it just… flares up. I used to think that made me a monster. But having those thoughts isn’t evil. You had no idea what was going on. No one explained anything to you. These memories and impulses just kept shoving their way into your head and you still resisted. You did everything you could. You helped those people. You had Ammon’s thoughts in the back of your head and you still saved them. Yes, you are incredibly brave. Braver and smarter than I think almost anyone in your position would have been. You are one incredible girl, and everyone is so lucky that you are.” 

There was a moment of silence. Even the creaking chain stopped as the girl put her feet down to stop the swing. She kept her gaze locked on the ground, staring intently at nothing as various thoughts worked their way through her mind. Finally, Denny exhaled and looked up. “I think the memories are what helped me. My memories, I mean. I… I remembered how scared I was when he… when he made that man hurt me. I remembered laying on the floor and trying to curl up so he wouldn’t kick my stomach so hard. But I couldn’t stop him. I–I remember shooting him. I remember how he looked. I remember going to the gas pump. I remember the taste of–I remember. I remember it.” She swallowed hard, a visible shudder running through her. “I remember being hurt and… and killed like that. And I never want to make anyone feel the way I did. I think that’s why I could… why I can resist him. I think remembering those things helped me not be a monster. I don’t want anyone to ever feel that scared, and that helpless.” The pain in her voice was raw as she stared at Asenath. 

Silently, Senny offered her hands to the girl. She waited until they were accepted, then pulled Denise to her feet. “I am so sorry for everything that happened to you, before and after your… death. Whatever your reasoning, you are still one of the bravest people I’ve ever had the pleasure of knowing.” Squeezing her hands, she added quietly, “Your mother never believed that you killed yourself, you know.” 

Blinking rapidly, Denny stared at her, voice tentative. “What do you mean?”  

Asenath, in turn, told the girl about being hired by her mother to find out the truth. “Everyone told her that you killed yourself, but she didn’t believe it. She hired me to find out the truth, to find out who was responsible. That’s how I got involved in this whole thing to begin with. Hell, I’d say that’s why I was there to help Felicity when he tried to hurt her. If your mother hadn’t called me, I never would have been trying to track him down. I never would have showed up at that house and been able to help stop him, save Flick from the people he was controlling, and stop her father from being forced to kill himself. I never would have been there if your mom hadn’t refused to give up on finding out the truth, if she hadn’t refused to believe what they told her.” 

Digesting all of that, Denise turned away and folded her arms tightly. She stared down at the swing she had just been sitting on, silently processing for several long seconds. Finally, she spoke in a quiet voice. “You’re saying I should go back and explain everything to her, to both of them. You think I should tell my parents what’s going on. But how?” She turned back, pivoting on one foot to stare imploringly at the older girl. “How am I supposed to tell them any of this stuff? It sounds really crazy. It sounds… it’s…” Her eyes closed tightly, a small whimper escaping her before she opened them. “And they won’t remember anyway. Isn’t that what you guys said? It’s the umm, the…” 

“Bystander Effect,” Asenath finished for her, giving a short nod. “Yes, that is a thing. But there are pills that your parents can take that will temporarily disable it. So they can remember and understand what you’re telling them, what we can show them. We will still have to convince them that it’s real, but we can stop the Bystander Effect from butting in.” 

“And… and then what?” the girl asked, biting her lip. “Do they just keep taking those pills forever? What’s going to happen to them once they know the truth? Can you just have them do that umm, bonding thingie you were talking about? What if they don’t want to? What if they think I’m a monster? What if they think everyone here is a monster? What if they try to tell the police? What if–”

Reaching out, Asenath put both hands on the girl’s shoulders and spoke gently. “I can’t tell you that everything will be fine. I can’t tell you how they’ll react or how any of that will go. I’ve seen it go really well, and really poorly. I’ve seen the best and the worst reactions. But your parents deserve the chance to show you their reaction for themselves. They deserve the opportunity to know the truth. Like I said, your mother believed in you when everyone was telling her otherwise. Maybe they won’t be able to accept this, but give them a chance, okay?” 

Remaining silent for a few seconds as a conflicting rush of thoughts and feelings worked their way through her, Denny finally gave a very short nod while swallowing a thick lump in her throat. She was clearly still terrified at the prospect, but pushed past that. “Okay,” she managed weakly, “I want to tell them the truth. But you’ll come with me, right? You’ll help stop me if–if…” She was clearly terrified not only of her parents’ reactions, but also what she herself might be tempted to do when she saw them again.

Smiling very gently, Asenath nodded. “Yes. And don’t worry, we’ll help you block those memories and the… the impulses. You’re not alone anymore, I promise. And we’ll bring some others too. Come to think of it, we still need to find out if Felicity and her family are immune to the Denuvus power or not.” 

That made Denny blink. “Immune to the what?” 

“Oh, I guess we didn’t explain that part.” Asenath gestured with one hand. “That power you have, it didn’t come from Ammon originally. It actually belongs to a guy named Denuvus. He–”

“She.” Denny immediately interrupted the other girl, head shaking quickly as she stared with rapidly widening eyes. “You mean she. She was a woman. She talked to me. She was—I mean she even tried to use the–I mean she said her name and she was trying to make me–I mean–” 

Asenath frowned, gently taking the girl’s hands. “Denny, slow down. What do you mean she talked to you? Take a breath. What happened? Do you mean someone started to talk to you about Denuvus? Or… or…” She trailed off, staring at her. This was too important to not be completely precise about what exactly had happened. 

So, Denny did just that. She took a deep breath and let it out before explaining everything about the therapist she had been sent to see. Starting from the beginning, she detailed the entire encounter, including the part when the woman had switched to the name of Denuvus and had clearly tried to control her. Now that Denny understood the power and looked back on it, the meaning behind introducing herself with that name was obvious. 

“And it didn’t work at all?” Senny pressed, thoughts whipping their way through her head. It was a lot to take in. Granted, appearing as a woman didn’t exactly mean a lot in a world of magic, especially given how secretive Denuvus was. He or she always obfuscated details about themself and used proxies to hide behind. There were a thousand different rumors about where they had come from, and she was pretty sure that at least half of them had been started by Denuvus. Being a male could have been a lie from the start, or they could have appeared in a female form to throw people off that way. When dealing with someone like that, you could never take anything at face value. And yet… and yet this was still huge. 

Denny was nodding rapidly. “Uh huh. I mean uh uh. I mean, it didn’t work. She tried to make me tell her about my dreams and then told me to sit down. And she introduced herself both times, with that weird name. I just… I guess I kinda forgot about it because of everything else that’s going on.” Cringing a bit guilty, she quickly added, “I could tell you what she looks like, and if–oh. Oh. I told her to leave me alone and go jump in a lake. I mean, I told her my name and then I told her to go jump in a lake. Umm… that didn’t work though, right?” The girl suddenly sounded pensive and worried. “If I’m immune to her, she’s immune to me, and I didn’t actually make her jump in a lake. So she doesn’t have to be mad at me or anything. She doesn’t have to be angry and–and… umm…” Trailing off, she swallowed hard at the thought of having someone that dangerous angry with her. Even if she was immune, Denny wasn’t stupid. She knew that this Denuvus wasn’t limited to simply trying to use that single power on her. She could use it to hurt other people, or use other things. 

“It’s okay,” Asenath quickly assured her, though she herself was a bit stunned by the whole situation. “Like I said, you aren’t alone. We’re all going to help you, I promise. And we’ll figure out what’s going on with this Denuvus thing. Tell us where his… or her office was and we’ll check it out. I mean, I doubt there’s anything there still, but there’s always the chance Denuvus missed something when cleaning up. Anything that helps find out more about them. I’m pretty sure you’re the only person I know of to have a face to face with them and actually remember it. So anything you can tell us, anything else you remember or think of, it could all help.”

“I don’t–I’m not–” Cringing visibly, Denny gave a quick headshake. “I’ll try. But um, I think I need to check on my mom and dad now.” Drawing herself up, clearly trying to push down all her doubts and insecurities about that, she added, “I… I need to see them. I miss them.” Her voice shook slightly with the admission, revealing just how hard it was to say. She was so afraid of accidentally hurting her parents, and equally afraid of being rejected by them when they found out the truth. Yet she desperately wanted to be with them again. 

Squeezing the girl’s hands, Asenath nodded. “It’s okay. We’ll take you there right now. You’re right, we can deal with everything else later.” Plucking a phone from her pocket, she gestured with it. “Let me just set it up.” 

Quickly, Denise spoke up. “S-so, we’re really… umm… you know, this place is really…” She looked around the park, slowly raising her gaze to look at the artificial sky before swallowing hard. “It’s not really in the sun, right? It’s just somewhere else. Like a big building. That Mr. Sean guy said it was in the sun, but he’s just teasing.”

With a small chuckle, Asenath replied, “Well, he does tease a lot. But not this time. We are one hundred percent inside the sun. It’s a really big space station with a bunch of forcefields to protect it from being burnt up and crushed. It absorbs the energy from the sun and turns that into more force field power. So we never run out.”

Denny stared at her in disbelief. “But why would you do that? Why be in the sun at all? It’s like… super-dangerous. So why take the risk? What if something goes wrong? Won’t it, umm, like, kill everybody before they can do anything? One little crack or whatever and everyone gets incinerated, or crushed. Wait, would you burn up first or get crushed by the pressure?” For a brief moment, it looked as though she was trying to calculate that before quickly abandoning the thought. Instead, she settled on, “It’s bad. It’d be really bad. So why live here?” 

Gently, Asenath explained, “First, as far as the danger goes, you’re right. If anything went wrong, it’d be pretty bad. That’s why they built over a hundred redundancy systems. If there’s any problem with the integrity of the station, everyone on it will be teleported to one of a dozen different potential safe zones down on the planet. See, the way it was explained to me, the computer that helps run this place can do over five hundred thousand trillion calculations per second. You know how many that is? If you made a stack of pennies all the way up to the moon, you’d have to make two more just like it to equal one trillion. You know how long ago the dinosaurs lived?” 

“Um, sixty-five million years?” the younger girl offered. 

“Right, so sixty-five million years,” Asenath confirmed. “A trillion seconds is thirty-two thousand years, so you’d have over two thousand trillion seconds to reach sixty-five million years. Two thousand trillion seconds between now and when the last dinosaurs lived. And this computer can calculate five-hundred thousand trillion times per second. The instant it detects a problem, it will grab everyone on the station and teleport them off. That’s faster than anyone can think.” She smiled a bit, trying to be reassuring. “You see? Does that make you feel better?” 

Flatly, Denise replied, “Sure, unless the computer goes evil and kills everybody.” 

Asenath blanched a little. “Right, that’s where some redundancies come in. But trust me, it’s all as safe as it can be. As for why we live here at all, it’s because there’s a lot of bad people out there who are really powerful, and they want to find us. They want to do a lot of bad things. So, we have to hide in a really good place to make sure everyone who lives here is safe. It could be dangerous if something goes wrong, sure. But it’d be a lot worse if those people found where we live.” 

Swallowing hard as she processed that, Denise offered a weak, “There’s a lot of bad things going on that I don’t know about, huh?” 

“And you don’t need to know about them right now,” Asenath insisted. “You need to think about your family, and deal with your own stuff. Come on, I’ll call ahead and we’ll get an escort to go down to find your parents so we can explain everything.” 

*******

Forty-six minutes later, the group arriving at the front door of Denise’s family home included the girl herself, Asenath, Sarah and Sands Mason, their mother Larissa, and Risa Kohaku. Such a large group normally wouldn’t be required for a simple pick-up job, but they were being careful given the entire situation. And they wanted Denise to know she had all the support she needed when telling her parents what was really going on. 

Besides, Risa was the one who knew how to administer the Bystander Effect-blocking pills that would allow the girl’s parents to even retain any ability to understand and remember what they were being told. 

“Girls, watch the front yard, okay?” Larissa urged her daughters, while the rest of the adults moved up to the door behind Denise herself, who leaned up to push the doorbell, looking even more anxious with every passing second. 

“Sure, we got this,” Sands confirmed, exchanging a fist bump with her sister before the two of them stepped out by the front sidewalk. They listened as the doorbell rang a couple times, then heard Denise try the door and step in, calling out for her mother and father. Silence passed for a few seconds, aside from the sound of the others moving inside. And then, that silence was broken by a scream. 

Exchanging quick looks, Sands and Sarah resisted the urge to pivot and rush that way. Their job was to watch the front walk. If they ran off now just because they were curious, and someone came right in the spot they were supposed to be guarding, it could be really bad. 

“Mom!” Sands called. “What’s going on?” 

The next thing they knew, their mother was rushing Denise right back out of the house, before the girl collapsed to her knees there in the grass and threw up. She was sobbing so hard it seemed like her whole body might tear itself apart from the inside. 

“Kushiel,” Larissa managed flatly after falling right beside the younger girl to gather Denise into her arms. She held her tightly, half-laying there on the grass. “Kushiel was here.” 

“Wh-what?” Sarah spoke up. “How do you know?” 

“She left a note above the bodies,” Larissa informed her daughters. 

“It said, ‘you should have given me the sword.’” 

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Kith And Kin 20-05 (Summus Proelium)

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A/N – There was a commissioned chapter focusing on a SPHERE forum discussion posted yesterday. If you missed that, you might want to click the previous chapter button above.

By the time I was done with the cops and Pack, there was a message on my phone saying that Murphy and Roald were going to go back to the hospital. People were looking for them anyway, so that was a whole situation they were going to have to deal with. I told them to let me know what was going on and if they needed anything. Not that I would have known how to help, most likely, but still. I just wanted Murphy to know that I’d try if she–if there was–ugh. 

Yeah, I had nothing. The one thing I could do, help find that bastard, wasn’t going to happen right now. No matter how badly I wanted it to. And everything else within Murphy’s personal life was… out of my depth. I had no idea how to help her with any of that. But at least she had Roald, and I was pretty sure she was going to be staying with him and his family. At least, I hoped she was. The thought of her sitting at home alone with–no, that wouldn’t happen. She was a minor. They’d want her to stay with an adult. And Roald’s older sister probably fit that, if she was able to take care of him and their younger sister. Well, for a given definition of ‘take care of,’ given what they’d been doing when we first met. 

But hey, they had money now. I had made sure of that. So they would have food. Somehow, I comforted myself a little bit with that. And then immediately felt so guilty I wanted to scream. Was I patting myself on the back because I gave them money for food, after Murphy’s fucking brother just died? What–why was–I couldn’t… think. Every impulse I had was wrong, every thought that popped into my head immediately made me feel sick, like there was something wrong with me. How was I supposed to help Murphy? What was I supposed to do? 

Home. In the end, that was the only choice. I had to go home. Tomorr–later today was still going to be really big, considering my parents were officially arriving. Which would mean looking my brother in the eyes and pretending I knew nothing about what he had been doing, pretending I didn’t know that he helped a murderer escape. Hell, I was going to have to pretend I hadn’t just been in an actual physical fight with him. 

I was tired. Just the thought of sitting at home and playing nice, pretending to be clueless, was exhausting. Hard as it was to even think about, I was going to have to go home and sleep. 

So, that’s what I did. I made it home and checked on Izzy, only to find that she was still in bed. She’d slept through the whole thing, which was simultaneously completely understandable and yet also bewildering. I honestly had not been out that long, no matter what it felt like. So, I made my way back to my own bed, fell into it, and was asleep again within seconds. Seriously, it was almost immediate. I thought that I would toss and turn for hours, but it was like someone flipped a switch. My head hit the pillow, and I was completely out. The next thing I knew, several hours had passed and my alarm for school was going off. 

Blearily, I reached out and swatted at the thing a couple times before finding my phone to stop the sound. Then I rolled over and sat up, just in time to hear a quick knock at the door before the house computer informed me that it was Izzy. I told her to come in, and she quickly burst through before shutting the door behind her. In a rush, she blurted, “You went out last night?” Accompanying her words was her phone, which she held up in front of me to show me a thread on the SPHERE forums about Paintball being involved in a fight. “Was it–did it have anything to do with those shootings?” 

After a brief hesitation, I nodded. “Sorry, there were all these messages on my phone from Roald, about this whole thing with… with Murphy. Her… her brother died and it was–” Swallowing hard, aware she would see the way I flinched, I pushed on. “It was bad. But I didn’t want to wake you up and I didn’t know it was going to turn into… sorry. I need to talk about it, but not here. Later. Maybe with Amber. I–yeah. I need to talk to you and Amber about some stuff. Can you see if she’s busy? I… need to take a shower.”

“Are you okay?” Izzy’s voice was pensive as she stared at me. 

I nodded quickly. “I’m not hurt or anything. I just–I can’t talk about it right here. I just… can’t.” I couldn’t bring myself to get into that whole discussion in this house. The thought of it made my stomach clench and roll over. 

In the bathroom,  I checked my Touched phone. There are a couple messages from the others. Pack let me know that she was going to call in that favor from Blackjack to keep an eye out for Luciano or anyone associated with him. Then there was a message from Peyton to say that she got Murphy and Roald back to the hospital, and was going home as soon as she saw them leave together with Roald’s sisters. And finally, there was a message from Roald himself, telling me that they had made it home and Murphy was sleeping in his little sister’s room with her. He also asked me to let Wren know that they wouldn’t be there that afternoon. 

Right, yeah, that was another conversation I was going to have to have. I had to tell Wren just why her brand new employees were going to need a little time off. I was pretty sure the story was going to upset her as much as it did me. She really liked them. This was just… unfair. Yes, it was childish to think about it that way, but damn it, it really was unfair! Murphy’s brother deserved to be alive. She deserved to have him back. Luciano deserved to be in prison. This whole situation was fucked up and wrong and my family helped make it happen. 

Needless to say, I went through the shower very quickly. Izzy did the same, before the two of us made our way downstairs and let the kitchen know we didn’t need anything. I didn’t need to say anything to Jefferson, because he was officially focused on doing things for my parents that morning. We were supposed to take a car service anyway. So that was what we did. We just took it a little bit early, heading out to pick up some breakfast before going to the park. The same park where we had met Amber before. And, conveniently, where we would be meeting her again. Izzy had sent a message to the older girl and asked to meet her there while I was in the shower. So at least that was one less time I would have to tell this story. 

She was there waiting for us when we arrived, and I passed a breakfast sandwich to her before plopping myself down on the picnic table, with my feet on the bench. A long, heavy sigh escaped me. The other two stood there and watched silently, giving me a moment to collect myself. Finally, I started to tell them what happened the night before. Without looking up except for once or twice, I went through the whole story, from the moment I woke up to find all the messages on my phone, all the way to falling asleep again after getting home. Getting to the part about Simon helping that piece of shit escape was one of the only times I actually glanced up, only to find their expressions basically unreadable. My gaze found the grass once more as I went on. 

“Anyway, that’s all of it,” I finished after swallowing the hard lump in my throat once it was done. “Now they know… more of the truth. They know about the Ministry, and they’re going to help break into that base so we can find out where they sent Luciano.” My gaze rose once more to look at both of them intently for the first time, as I continued. “We’re going to track him down. Wherever they sent him, we’re going to find him and drag him back. He belongs in prison.”  

With a nod, Amber pushed her way to her feet and put both hands against the side of her head. “God damn it, that poor girl. That poor–god damn it.” She gave me a look then, frowning. “Just how much fucking money did that guy give your parents to make them give him a pass on killing several people? I mean, don’t they have enough already? I kind of doubt some nobody lowlife drug dealer could pull together the sort of funds to even pay your family’s gardening bills for a week.” With a long, heavy sigh, she waved both hands. “I mean, sorry, I just–”  

“No, it’s fair,” I replied flatly. “I don’t know. Seriously, I have no idea. It might just be part of maintaining their, you know, reputation or whatever. If it gets out that this guy paid his taxes and they still left him high and dry, it could wreck the whole system.” Realizing how that could be taken, I quickly added, “Don’t get me wrong, I’m not defending it or anything. I’m just saying, that could be an explanation for why they’d go to bat for him even when his payments don’t really amount to that much in the long run. If they start picking and choosing whose payments actually buy them what they’re paying for, the whole system can fall apart. I mean, I want the system to–” My eyes closed and I shook my head. “You know what I mean.” It was really hard to talk about this from my parents’ point of view without sounding like I was agreeing with them. 

Izzy, who had been sitting on the bench, rose to her feet and looked over toward the nearby road while speaking thoughtfully. “You’re right, that’s how they would see it, probably.” She folded her arms against her stomach, looking distinctly uncomfortable. “They’re probably not looking at it the same way we do. Not even close. They don’t know any of the people he shot. They don’t… it’s not… it’s just numbers for them, you know? It doesn’t affect them. Not really.” 

“That doesn’t make it better,” I pointed out. “Actually, it makes it worse.” Pushing down the rolling nausea in my stomach, I made myself continue. “Anyway, I’m pretty sure he’s not exactly a top priority client for them. So, they probably don’t go completely nuclear if something happens to him. Actually, they’ll probably be more upset about their base being broken into than they are about someone bringing him in. But even so–” 

“They’ll probably make the connection,” Amber finished for me. “The whole point is we don’t want them to know that any of us were involved in that break-in. And if his files get stolen just before, say, Paintball finds and arrests him…” 

“It could raise a red flag or two,” I agreed dryly. “Yeah, I’m pretty sure they could put that together. So even when we take him down, we’re going to have to be careful about how it happens. Maybe we can do it anonymously or something. And as a part of a whole group of takedowns. You know, get as many files as we can and use them to bring in other people they’ve helped escape.” 

A very slight, somewhat predatory smile crossed Amber’s face. “Now that’s something I could get behind. Grab all the files we can and hit people who think they’re safe and sound. Make this Luciano guy just somewhere in the middle of the list so he doesn’t really stand out.” Her head bobbed quickly. “Yeah, that could work, if we do it right. Like you said, we’d have to be anonymous. No flashy power use or anything. Has to look like other people hitting them.”   

Agreeing with that, I added, “It will actually probably be easier to do that with more of us. We just have to be careful to hit hard and fast before getting out of there. We can’t get into some prolonged thing, or it’ll come down to either getting caught or exposing our powers. Which would kind of mess up our ability to pose as other people.” 

“Let’s focus on getting the tunnel made first,” Amber murmured thoughtfully. “Once we’re close to getting in, we can plan out exactly how we’re going to do it.” She gave me a brief glance. “You trust your new friends to help pull that off?” 

My head bobbed. “Yeah. They’re definitely not connected to the Ministry at all, that’s for sure. And they’ve got reason to want to stop them. They’re with us.” 

“Yeah, but that’s not what I mean,” the other girl pointed out. “Do you trust them to help without rushing off on their own and getting hurt? They’re not exactly super-experienced.” 

“Hobbes did okay while it was the two of us,” I noted. “I mean, yeah, she was pretty motivated, but still. It looked like she could help even more.” 

Izzy spoke up then. “It’s umm, gonna take some time to make that tunnel. You know, if umm, if we’re going to do it without attracting attention. Even with help. We could probably use that time for practice.” Belatedly, she added, “For everyone, I mean.” 

“Right,” I confirmed, “We’ll practice as much as we can. I’ll put paint on the inside of our clothes and everyone can work on some drills. We need to hit the guys in that place hard, fast, put them down, grab what we need, and get out. I’ll do multiple sections of paint, and we can have like… a timer or something beep in my ear whenever I need to activate each section. But I’m pretty sure we still need to be in and out within sixty seconds. That’s six sections of paint boosts. If I do them all ahead of time, it’ll be fine.” 

“Sixty seconds,” Amber agreed. “That should be too fast for your family to get the call and react. We get what we need and get out. We escape through the tunnel and leave them with no idea who any of us are. Maybe we should have a quick way to fill in the tunnel so they can’t follow that easily?” 

Thinking about that, I gave a slow nod. “Yeah, we’ll come up with something. Fill it with water or something. Maybe not water, that’s too close to Raindrop.” I added that bit with a gesture toward Izzy. “We don’t want them thinking about her at all.” 

“Which means I can’t be there,” she pointed out. “I mean, look at me. It’s gonna be hard enough pretending you aren’t Paintball. Me? How are they gonna believe someone this small is some big commando thief? Even in black with a mask, I’d stand out.”

“We’ll all stand out,” Amber replied pointedly. “But yeah, maybe it’s best if you work behind the scenes. Cover our backs, work on sealing the tunnel behind us, something.” 

Coughing, I gestured to my phone for the time. “We’ll work on it. But we should probably get to school. Last thing we want is my parents paying more attention, and they might just do that if they hear about either of us missing classes.” 

A bit more quietly, I added, “Besides, I should probably talk to Tomas about going over to his house at some point, so I can check for anything about that sex-shifter you saw. 

“Cuz God knows, I’m super-excited about that.” 

******

Somehow, I made it through the school day. It wasn’t exactly easy. The whole thing seemed to drag on forever, as though every class took up as much time as the entire day should have. Periodically, I received text updates from Roald, letting me know what was happening on their end. They hadn’t gone to school, of course. They were dealing with the fallout of that whole situation. Apparently Tyson’s funeral was going to happen Saturday. A lot of the details were being taken care of by Roald’s sister, with assistance from a helpful cop who had shown up to investigate the drive-by. Not that there were going to be many people there. Unsurprisingly, Murphy didn’t have a lot of friends or family that would show up. It was basically just a small thing with her and Roald’s family. Which was… completely awful, to be honest. I hadn’t known the guy at all, and obviously he’d had problems, but he deserved to be remembered and mourned. Murphy deserved to have her brother’s life matter to people.

But no, they would have an almost empty funeral and then he would be put in the ground. Apparently they were setting up a donation thing to pay for all that. My first instinct was to throw a bunch of money at it myself. But I would need to be more careful than that. If I just handed them over a bunch of cash without any explanation, it might look a bit suspicious. Even more than my funds already were. Maybe I could anonymously donate? Or make it… I’d figure it out. I would make sure the guy got a decent burial. It was pretty much the least I could do. Especially considering I had failed, thus far, to bring his killer to justice. 

Bring his killer to justice. How stupid did that sound? How naive? Even the thought made me grimace to myself while standing in front of my locker at the end of the day. And yet, that was exactly what I wanted to do. Luciano belonged in prison.  And I was going to make sure he ended up there. No matter how many wheelbarrows of cash he had given my parents. 

“There she is.” Startled out of my thoughts by Tomas’s voice, I turned to see the boy approaching before he leaned against the nearby locker. “You said you wanted to talk about something?” 

Right. I’d mentioned that in passing between classes. Now it was time to actually get into it. Forcing a casual smile, I replied, “Oh, you know, I was just thinking I should come over sometime so you could show me that song you’ve been working on.”

Raising an eyebrow, he asked, “How’d you know I’ve been working on a song?” 

The question made me snort and wave my hand in a vague gesture. “When are you not working on a song, dude? It’s just been a long time since I got to hear you practice.” Slyly, I added, “And, you know, if your mom happens to be there and is anywhere near the kitchen…” 

“Ohhh,” he drawled, “I see how it is. Play to my musician ego to get your foot in the door just so you can see if Mum’s got any pies done.” 

Allowing a guilty flush to cross my face (it wasn’t hard), I coughed. “What can I say, she makes really good pies. Are you really sure she does it all by herself?” 

“Cross my heart and hope to die,” he replied while holding up his hand in a scout’s honor sign. “I’ve watched her in the kitchen. Still can’t do it like she does, but she definitely fixes them all by herself, from scratch. Not a frozen pie or restaurant delivery in sight. You trust me, right?” 

Oh boy. Forcing myself to continue meeting his gaze without flinching or looking away, I shrugged. “I mean, you’re a boy, so I trust you about that far.” 

“Ouch, my wounded soul.” Making a show of staggering backward while clutching his heart, Tomas winked. “Maybe I can pry some more trust out of you by getting pie into your face. You wanna come over today?” 

“Just my mouth is good enough, not the whole face,” I retorted. “And today’s not good. My family just got back from being out of town and all.” I was watching his face to see if he gave anything away. If he even knew anything. “So they’ll want me to be around.” 

With a shrug, Tomas replied, “Oh right, yeah, they were gone, huh? Any idea what they were doing?” 

“Business stuff,” I answered flatly, trying to pretend I didn’t care at all. “Or something. I dunno. Anyway, the point is they’ll be back. Maybe tomorrow.” 

“Oooh, kinda got a date tomorrow.” As soon as the words were out of his mouth, Tomas looked uncomfortable. “I mean… sorry. It’s just this… guy from an ice cream shop. We started talking and–yeah. We’re just hanging out and… boy, this got weird all of a sudden.” 

Swallowing the hard lump in my throat, I shook my head. “No, no, it’s fine. It’s cool. We’ll plan something later. I umm, have fun. On your date, I mean. When it happens. I just–I uhh, I’ve gotta go.” Grabbing my bag, I shut the locker and started to head out. 

Fuck, damn it, why was I so stupid? Why did hearing about Tomas having a date make me feel queasy inside? I didn’t still feel that way about him. Hell, there was still a chance that our entire relationship had been a trick of some kind. I couldn’t–I couldn’t think about that. I had far more important things to focus on. 

Those ‘more important things’ came into clear focus as I left the school and looked to where Jefferson would be. Only he wasn’t there. Instead, Royal Thunder was parked in that spot, with my dad waiting in the driver’s seat and waving to me. 

Oh boy. Time to shove down all my emotions, pretend to be a completely clueless happy little daughter just running to meet the dad she’s been missing, and give literally nothing away about what I was actually thinking. 

If nothing else, maybe I should put in for some extra credit from the drama department. 

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Commissioned Interlude 9 – Sphere Online Forum 2

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A/N – The following is a commissioned interlude, separate from the ordinary schedule.

Welcome, MagicalMagellan (click here to log-out) to the Summus Proelium HERE forums, or SPHERE. It has been (nine hours four minutes) since your previous log-in, and there have been (1/One) rule clarifications or updates and (0/Zero) administrator announcements. Click here to read them, and be aware that the system will not allow you to post any replies or make any new topics until you click the button at the bottom of any announcement(s) and rule update(s) acknowledging you have read and understand them. 

[][][][][][]

<> Topic — Touched Identities (Boards – Announcements – Rule Clarifications)

Razoev (Administrator – Original Poster)

Posted on April 21, 2020: 

Hey guys, just a quick clarification on something the staff have been noticing that skirts close to the line. As you know, we at Sphere do not allow any discussion about the private identities of any Touched, Star or Fell. That means no trying to figure out who they really are, ever. As we have said many times before, even accidentally outing someone through that sort of guessing can have drastic and terrible consequences. The easiest thing for us to do is a blanket ban on any of those discussions. What you do in your private life is up to you, but it won’t be allowed here. 

Most of you are good about following that rule. But, as I mentioned, there is something that comes close without technically violating it up to this point. I’m referring to the increasingly popular roleplaying forum, where many of you have enthusiastically joined one of several ongoing Touched games. As per the sticky at the top of that forum, all characters played there must be one hundred percent fictional. We do not allow anyone on this forum to roleplay as existing, living people. You must make up your own Touched and play as them. We’ve noticed a few… let’s call them very thinly-veiled expies of real people, both Touched and otherwise. And a few that weren’t veiled at all. So let this be extremely clear. You must make up your own character. You may use existing Touched as a baseline/starting point, but you cannot simply palette-swap a few colors around and call it good. Yes, Radiant is cool. No, you cannot make up a character who looks exactly the same except for a red costume and call her Luminous. Get creative, combine her powers with someone else’s and mix things up. 

The staff will be monitoring these threads closely. Anyone who attempts to play a real person will have their posts deleted and receive a warning for a first offense. Continued violations will result in a ban from the games forum. If you are unsure if your created character is sufficiently different, feel free to message a games forum moderator and they will be happy to tell you. 

Thanks for reading, and as always, if you have any questions, feel free to message a staff member for clarification. 

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Click here to acknowledge that you have read and understand this rule clarification. This thread has been closed to further replies. You will be unable to post new replies or topics until this clarification has been acknowledged.

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<> Topic — Minority Thread Forty-Four (Boards – Places – United States – Michigan – Touched-Teams – Heroes)

Berryonalake (Moderator – Original Poster)

Posted on April 2, 2020

Okay, now that the joke thread is done with, back to our regularly scheduled monthly thread change. As always, the prior threads can be found archived here. Go ahead and resume discussion, and remember to follow the rules. These are minors, as you should be reminded of every time you see the name of the team. Keep that in mind and ask yourself if you should really say what you’re about to before you hit the post button. 

The current membership details of the Detroit Minority can be found here

(Showing page 49 of 51, displaying ten posts per page)

—> ASilentPersian 

Replied on April 21, 2020: 

So, do we have any idea who the next person to move up to one of the adult teams is? I know they don’t share real ages or anything for obvious reasons, but I could have sworn there was a list somewhere about which people were next up to leave the team to go somewhere else and now I can’t find it anywhere. 

Oh, and while we’re at it, someone really needs to update the membership list over on the main website. It still lists Kermode as a member and he went to Texas ages ago. 

—>  Mach3 

Replied on April 21, 2020: 

The website isn’t actually connected to the forum anymore. Not since the split a few years ago. I don’t think any of the admins here have anything to do with that, and the site itself isn’t really maintained very well. That’s why the list is so old. People have tried emailing the owner, but nothing really happens. You’re better off just using the member list linked in the pinned post at the top of the thread. 

Anyway, trying to guess who the next person to leave the team might be gets too close to trying to guess their identities. That was the reason I got for why that list you were talking about was removed, anyway. It was all just educated guessing, nothing official. The fact is, we don’t know who might leave and when. Sometimes they keep Minority members for months past their actual birthday, and sometimes they graduate them months early. It’s all to obfuscate who they actually are. Face it, if you knew someone who missed class a lot, always had excuses to disappear, and showed up with bruises sometimes, then found out they had a birthday at the same time that one of the Minority members (who fit their general description) graduated, you’d be a bit suspicious. So, they try to hide it with that sort of thing. 

—>  LivelyAnteater

Replied on April 21, 2020: 

I miss Kermode, he was fun. And I’m pretty sure the team could use someone with that sort of super strength right about now. They’re sort of limited on that front, aside from the strength of Whamline’s energy coils. Too bad Paintball still hasn’t joined. I’m pretty sure one of his paints makes people strong, right? He could really buff the whole team that way. Come to think of it, he’d be better on a team all around. What’s his deal? 

Just saying, I can’t be the only one who wants to see just how crazy-effective Paintball could be if he took advantage of his support capabilities to buff everyone else on a team. 

—>  MagicalMagellan (You)

Replied on April 21, 2020

Purple paint makes people strong. And I bet he just doesn’t want to deal with any rules or team drama. Maybe he’s afraid That-A-Way is the jealous type. After all, she’s the one that has powers with weird rules and conditions attached to them. Her powers change based on what direction she’s looking, his paints do different things based on what color they are? Maybe he thinks she’ll be weird about it. 😉 

—>  RingAroundARosie

Replied on April 21, 2020

Magellan, her powers change based on which way she’s moving, not which way she’s looking. It’s an important distinction. But I bet you’re right. She probably told him to stay away. She seems like the jealous type. 

—>  Sickstalker 

Replied on April 21, 2020

You guys are kidding, right? TAW never struck me as that kind of person. She’s always been approachable when they make appearances. Which is kind of weird given how simple her mask is. You’d think someone from her school would’ve recognized her by now. 

Edit: Mods this is not actually trying to guess anything about who she really is, only an observation about her costume. 

—>  Darth01110 

Replied on April 21, 2020

They’re kidding. At least I’m pretty sure. And maybe the whole thing is one big mask, like the full face things from Mission Impossible.

—>  RingAroundARosie

Replied on April 21, 2020

This whole thing has gone completely off-topic anyway. We’ve lost sight of the most important question. If Syndicate is the next one to leave, who gets to be the leader next? My vote is for Raindrop, she seems like the one with the most level head. The others would all fall apart without her. 

—>  MagicalMagellan (You)

Replied on April 21, 2020

Oh for sure. Raindrop’s the keystone of their entire team. Can you imagine if Raindrop and Kermode were on the team at the same time? They would’ve cleaned every gang out of Detroit by now. We’d be living in Paradise right now. But nooo, Kermode had to graduate and go be an adult hero in Texas. So Raindrop has to try to pull everyone’s weight. It’s sad, really. 

—>  Flaboran

Replied on April 21, 2020

Okay, but now I really want to see what it would look like if the youngest member of a Minority was the leader. Maybe default or something, if they Touched really early. Hm. Ideas. *zoops off to the writing forum*

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<> Topic — War In Detroit Thread Six (Boards – Places – United States – Michigan – Events)

4D-Daniel (Moderator – Original Poster)

Posted on April 16th, 2020

Thread number six as the last one was getting unwieldy! Remember, if you want to look at one of the previous threads for information or to find a conversation, there’s an archive right here

You can also find a roughly up-to-date map of the current gang-claimed territories here. Do note that the lines are constantly shifting with this war going on, and nothing stays the same for very long. If you live, work, or spend any time around the front lines, be very careful and try not to be out there at night if you can help it. That’s when things tend to blow up more. The city instituted a rolling curfew for civilians whenever they think something bad is about to happen. If you are in these areas, you will receive a text notification on your phone and/or hear an announcement from a passing police car. That will tell you whether to return to your home or shelter in place. Listen to these warnings. You do not want to be caught in the middle of one of these fights. The bad guys won’t care about going through you to get to their enemies, and the good guys will have to spend far too much effort trying to help you instead of actually dealing with those bad guys. Just stay out of the way. 

Various emergency numbers and contact information if you see a fight starting or need assistance beyond standard 911 can be found right here. User Constructicon has been helpful enough to create a list of businesses in the area who have agreed to create shelters within where those caught in an area of effect can hunker down, and Sqornshellous Zeta turned that data into an app that you can download here. It will both alert you when there is an incident within a customizable area of where you are, and direct you to the nearest safe zone. 

(Showing page 43 of 46, displaying ten posts per page)

—>  Ravenjoy

Replied on April 19, 2020

No, I really don’t think this is some kind of trick from Braintrust. You guys are getting way out there in the conspiracy theories. Why would they have anything to do with what’s going on? The war is between Oscuro/Ninety-Niners and La Casa/Easy Eights. Braintrust has nothing to do with it. 

—>  StarOfImps

Replied on April 19, 2020

Are you sure? Because think about it. Who do we know who could make that medicine that Blackjack was using to make his super soldiers or fix his sick mother or whatever? That Doctor Worthy guy. And he used to be part of Braintrust before totally disappearing. I’m telling you, this could be a long con. Braintrust sent Worthy to create these vials, manufactured a war between all these gangs, and then Braintrust can pick up the pieces when it’s over. Is it really that far-fetched? 

—>  SpeakerOfFables 

Replied on April 19, 2020

What I want to know is what those vials actually do. It has to be something big. And it can’t just be simple medicine. I mean, maybe they do help someone who’s sick, but it has to be more than that. Otherwise why would the other gangs have been after them so much? I’m fairly certain there’s more to that whole story. Something just doesn’t sit right about what they said. Maybe the vials give you some sort of super-regeneration. 

Paintball and the Minority helped Blackjack get the vials, so you have to assume he at least convinced them that it was for a good cause. But that can’t be the end of it. Why would the Easy Eights come in on La Casa’s side in this war? Have they ever been friendly before? It just feels like there’s something really important that we’re all missing. And it’s probably going to bug me forever. 

 —>  MagicalMagellan (You)

Replied on April 19, 2020

Maybe they’re just opportunists. Blackjack was going to go after Oscuro and the Ninety-Niners for fucking with him anyway, maybe Deicide saw an opportunity to do some damage to the other gangs and jumped on board. I don’t think she’s ever expressed any real problem with La Casa, even if they haven’t been allies. But when Cuélebre showed up, Oscuro basically tore through all the different gangs in that area until the ones that were left allied into the Easy Eights. They’ve been enemies basically forever. She probably saw La Casa as a good ally to let the Eights go to war against their real enemy. 

—>  SpeakerOfFables 

Replied on April 19, 2020

That is a good point. I had forgotten that they had that history. It was sort of before I moved here. Still, even with that, it feels like there is something more to it. I just can’t shake the thought that those vials are still going to be important somehow. They just sort of disappeared at the end of that one big fight, but I’m pretty sure they’ll pop up again. They just seem too important to not come up later. 

—>  AlmanditeSerpent

Replied on April 19, 2020

Well if it was multiple files (edit: vials, damn autocorrect!), they probably wouldn’t all be given at once, right? So there’s still the chance they could be stolen again. I mean, if they were taken once… OK, maybe it’s not that likely because Blackjack would be an idiot not to really protect them this time, and we all know he isn’t an idiot. But hey, anything could happen.

—>  GuruOfZeal 

Replied on April 19, 2020

Everyone be advised, there is a skirmish going on over on 87th and Dane between Coverfire, Yahui, and about a dozen Oscuro troops versus Skadi, Pivotal, and some of their people. Seems to be mostly contained to the construction area on the corner there, and authorities are on the way. But it could always escalate. Stay out of the area and follow instructions at the top of the post. 

—>  VotMoon 

Replied on April 19, 2020

MagicalMagellan Weren’t you talking up one of the restaurants in that area like an hour ago? You’re not around there, are you? But if so, see if you can get a Star-Touched autograph. When it’s all over and they’re cleaning up, I mean. Be safe!

—>  MarsSpider

Replied on April 19, 2020

I don’t think she’s going to be getting any autographs anytime soon, if she is around here. That whole situation just got worse. I’m up in one of the apartments across the street and it looks like a brawl between Cardsharp and Silbón just crossed over with this fight and now it’s a whole thing. Most of the Minority just got here too, but I don’t know how much they can do. 

—>  OnceWereWarriors

Replied on April 19, 2020

It’ll be OK, I’m a few blocks down the street, and I just saw the Spartans go past. They’ll get this under control pretty soon. Everyone stay safe and hunker down until it’s done. 

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<> Topic — La Casa Thread Twenty-Eight (Boards – Places – United States – Michigan – Touched-Teams – Villains)

4D-Daniel (Moderator – Original Poster)

Posted on April 10th, 2020

The last thread got up over two hundred pages, so it was time for a new one. Use it to discuss La Casa (the Fell-Touched team founded and currently led by Blackjack) as a team and individual members. Everything about the group as a whole that is not covered by a current events thread (such as the thread on the ongoing gang war located here) should be kept within this thread. 

The archive of previous discussion threads can be found here, and the Sphere-Wiki entry for the gang is here

Showing page 24 of 24, displaying ten posts per page)

—>  SirAnthonyWatcher 

Replied on April 22, 2020

I don’t see any of them splitting off into a new group, honestly. They all seem pretty loyal to Blackjack. Wasn’t there an anonymous former rank and file gang member who said everyone loves that guy over there? Somehow, I don’t think they’re all going to turn on him just because of this war. I mean, it’s not like it’s going terrible for them. 

But if someone did leave, it would be one of the newer people. Eits, Pack, or Broadway. The others have been with Blackjack too long. So if one of those younger Touched left, they wouldn’t really draw a big group to go with them. There’s no way La Casa splits apart over this. Not a chance in hell. 

—> Gepetto’s Lad  

Replied on April 22, 2020

Yeah, Anthony’s right. If it was one of the other gangs, then maybe. Depends. But everything I can find online talks about what a good boss Blackjack is to have. I mean, if you’re a criminal. If they had the kind of problem you guys are talking about with what’s going on, they’d probably just talk to him about it. 

—> MagicalMagellan (You)

Replied on April 22, 2020 

Oh, I’m sure he’s a fantastic boss. Just lovely. Probably gives vacation days and stock options. But you know what one drawback of being a good little employee for such a good boss might be? 

Jail. Prison. The big house. The slammer. The gulag. The clink. Up the river. 

It doesn’t matter how good your boss is if you end up in prison doing the things he wants you to do. The luck for these people tends to run out. And when it does, it’s not the leaders who take the fall. It’s the little guys. Especially the people who just got there. Even if he isn’t the type to throw his little guys under the bus, that’s just the way these things work. He’ll escape and the people who aren’t as important get taken down. 

—> Marconi’s S

Replied on April 22, 2020

Good point, it’s always the little people who take the fall. But that’s pretty much true wherever you go. You think the Star-Touched aren’t getting screwed over? It’s the people in charge who use and abuse them no matter what side they’re on. Touched, Prev, Fell, Star, whatever. Doesn’t matter. Everyone’s getting fucked by the aristocracy. They’re the real bad guys in this. You know what happens to them when everyone fights like this? They get even richer. This whole gangwar? You think it hurts the people in charge? Nah. It hurts the little people, and the elite just find more ways to profit off it. If those Touched were smart, they’d all join up together and do something about the people exploiting everyone. They could make some real change in the world, instead of just maintaining the status quo. 

—> Obscurist 

Replied on April 22, 2020

Marconi if you think the world isn’t better than the status quo used to be before Touched came along, you should really look into some history about Detroit. This place was going down the tubes a few decades ago. Twenty years back when Touched started showing up, everything turned around. Yeah, the rich get richer, but they’ve done a lot of good for the city, and the world. I’m not saying it’s all fantastic and perfect or anything, but it’s definitely not nothing. So Touched have helped a lot. Hell, look at all the manufacturing jobs that popped up in the city. Actually, just find a picture of Detroit from the mid-90s and compare it to a picture today. It’s absurd. Touched-Tech basically rebuilt this whole city and added a hell of a lot more to it. Now we’re one of the biggest, richest, most advanced cities on the planet. All because of Touched stuff. 

—> MagicalMagellan (You)

Replied on April 22, 2020 

I wasn’t trying to start the communist manifesto or whatever Marconi is talking about. My point is that someone has to take the fall for this war, and it usually isn’t the actual people in charge who go to prison. It’s the little people, and usually the newest little people. Just don’t be surprised if Eits and the others are the ones who end up getting the shaft when it’s all said and done. 

—> Gepetto’s Lad  

Replied on April 22, 2020

That’d be a good thing though, wouldn’t it? I mean, Eits is a bad guy. They’re all bad guys. They should go to prison or whatever. Isn’t that the way it’s supposed to work? 

 —> 98Pontiac 

Replied on April 22, 2020

Have you seen the prison system around here? We’re supposed to hope they become better people. I mean, there’s some that can just go straight to Breakwater, do not pass Go. Those murderous fucks like the Scions or whatever. But people like Eits and Pack? They just steal things. Sending them to prison isn’t going to fix anything. It’s just going to make them worse. Especially prisons around here.  

 —> WontHave 

Replied on April 22, 2020

I’m sure glad you clarified that, because yeah, people like Pencil and Cup don’t deserve any more chances. Not after all the damage they’ve done and lives they’ve destroyed. They need to throw people like that in a hole and never open it again. 

But to stay on the La Casa topic, let’s get the name game going again. Remember, write ‘Name Gamble’ at the top of your post and highlight it in red so it’s easy to find. Then list what you think the next La Casa name is gonna be. They all have something to do with gambling/casinos/that sort of thing. You get up to three choices before the next La Casa Touched shows up, and everyone who guesses correct (or close enough by our panel of judges’ determination) wins (or splits if multiple people guess correctly) a one year premium membership here on Sphere and an assortment of candy and other treats shipped from the online store here

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<> Topic — Paintball  (Boards – Places – United States – Michigan – Individual Touched Discussion)

Berryonalake (Moderator – Original Poster)

Posted on March 9, 2020:

There’s been a few different sightings of him now, so here’s an official thread for the newest Touched in Detroit. As soon as there’s a known name for him, the title will be fixed (edit: there we go, apparently it’s Paintball). But for now, feel free to discuss him, his powers, what he gets up to, whether he’s going to join a team, whatever. Just keep things civilized and remember this is an obviously underaged Touched we’re talking about. I already had to banhammer three different people in the That-A-Way thread between last night and this morning. 

(Showing page 87 of 90, displaying ten posts per page)

 —> EnemyOfTheGoose 

Replied on April 20, 2020

Wait, wait, go back. When did we find out what that pink paint did??? Are people just making something up and running with it or… I don’t know if I’m missing a joke or something. What’s this about bending things? Did Paintball turn into Aang?!

 —> LivelyAnteater

Replied on April 20, 2020

Not that kind of bending EnemyOfTheGoose. And it happened yesterday, at that bank robbery. Some people saw Paintball use pink paint to make a piece of a car bendable so he could wrap it around the bad guys. From that and what some of the cops and paramedics said when they showed up, it looks like the pink paint makes objects malleable or something. Or more like taffy. It stretches and bends. 

 —> SPB Disciple

Replied on April 20, 2020

It’s more than that. I saw a video somewhere, have to try to find it now, that showed Paintball use the pink paint to get around. He sprays something and then bounces off it like it’s a trampoline. Or bends it back and then makes it snap forward. The video showed him do it to a telephone pole. It bent over completely in half, then snapped upright and sent him flying. Then the pole was just fine. 

Edit: Found it! There’s the video I was talking about. 

 —> MostAmazingFinalGuiderOfCults 

Replied on April 20, 2020

Holy crap! How does that work?! I mean, the other stuff is all pretty basic. Cool and useful, but simple. Easy to understand. But the pink stuff makes things bend and snap and then go right back to normal? What the heck??? What are the limits of it? How far can it bend things? Do they always snap right back to what they were? Can he use it on people, or just objects? Could he maim someone with it? Did Paintball jump up a bunch of places on the most dangerous Detroit Touched list? I mean, if he could spray someone and then pull their arms out, or take their head off… I’m not saying he should, but could he? Cuz that whole thing has some pretty huge implications.  

 —> ButcherOfBujold

Replied on April 20, 2020

We don’t know exactly how it works yet. Paintball hasn’t exactly sat down and explained it. Actually, I’m pretty sure he only started figuring out how to use it himself pretty recently. Otherwise, he probably would have used it before, like when Cuélebre was chasing him. Give him some time and he’ll figure out how to do more tricks with it. But just to put it up front, I really doubt he could kill someone with it like that. It just doesn’t seem like it would work that way. I could be wrong, but I’m just saying, it seems pretty unlikely that he could just spray someone with pink paint and permanently maim them. And even if he could, he’s like twelve. I don’t think he would do something like that. Not to mention the personality we’ve seen doesn’t fit. 

  —> CultureClubber

Replied on April 20, 2020

He could change a lot though, he’s still a tiny little kid. Maybe when he gets older, he’ll be vicious. He could even join one of the Fell teams. Like you said, he’s twelve. That’s practically a baby. A lot can change between now and whenever he grows up. Wait til he gets a little more experience under his belt. Or at least gets out of 7th grade. In another year, he might totally switch sides. 

  —> RobertR

Replied on April 20, 2020

Guys, guys you’re all missing the most important part here. Paintball was working with his dad! He was at the bank with Lucent (and Carousel). Obviously his Dad was testing him to see if he’s ready to join the Seraphs! That’s where he’ll go if he joins any team at all. No way would Lucent let his son be a bad guy. He raised the boy better than that!

—>  OnceWereWarriors

Replied on April 20, 2020

Hey, I don’t know, Lucent is obviously a really good dad. But doesn’t that mean letting his son make his own mistakes? He’d definitely try to guide him the right way and all, but he’s not going to control his life. Hell, That’s probably why they’re having him act on his own like this, so he can make a name for himself out of his dad’s shadow. And, you know, make his own decisions, become his own person. That must be why they’re hiding the beak too. 

If Paintball goes bad, Lucent will guide him back to the right side. He won’t give up on him, no matter how evil the boy turns. 

—>  FullBass

Replied on April 20, 2020

Bird dad best dad! Father-son bonding time. Wait, how did this topic turn to Paintball being evil????

—> MagicalMagellan (You)

Replied on April 21, 2020 

FullBass – Internet (™)

CultureClubber –  I’m pretty sure Paintball isn’t going to change that much when he gets older. I bet you anything that he’ll be the same person when he’s sixteen as he is right now. He just seems like the type. Look how much fun he has playing for the crowd. He signs autographs and all that. You can’t do that as much if you’re a Fell. I mean, you could try, but you’d get caught pretty quick. And it’s not as fun if a bunch of sirens keep going off every time you try to entertain people. 

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<> Topic — Multiple Shootings (Boards – Places – United States – Michigan – Events)

Hermetican Beer (Original Poster)

Posted on April 20

Okay, I’ve been given permission from the mods to make the post for this. There have been at least three confirmed drive-by shootings here in Detroit in the past thirty minutes. The authorities believe all the shootings are from the same guy, but they aren’t releasing a name yet. Please, if you are anywhere in Detroit, especially anywhere within a mile of Mack Avenue and Helen Street, stay inside and away from the windows until this is taken care of. Authorities are already responding, but there are multiple scenes to deal with and the shooter is still at large. The Baptist church there on the corner is taking in anyone who needs shelter, as is the nursing home just a couple blocks down Grand Boulevard. Again, stay down until the all-clear signal is given. This post will be updated at that time. 

Edit: Police have given the official all-clear signal as of 1:00 am. The shootings appear to have stopped. They do not have a suspect in custody, but believe he is no longer an imminent threat. According to the news reports here, his name is Luciano Munoz, the leader of a minor gang. His motives are unclear, but seem to be money-related. That news report includes a picture of him. If you see the man, do not try to confront him. Alert the authorities immediately. 

(Showing page 9 of 10, displaying ten posts per page)

—> Asian14

Replied on April 21, 2020 

I don’t live in that area now, but I used to. I know the apartments where that one guy got shot, used to ride by them on my bike all the time. It’s kind of a shitty neighborhood. Nothing wrong with the people who live there. Well, most of them anyway. Let’s just say it’s the sort of place where if you hear gunshots, nobody’s that surprised. People just mind their own business over there. 

—> GearK

Replied on April 21, 2020 

So, let me get this straight. He just killed several people in multiple shootings and got away? How does that happen? He didn’t have any powers or anything, right? How does a guy like that just up and vanish when basically the entire city is looking for him? There has to be more to this. Maybe he had help or something. People can’t just GTA their way through a city and then bounce without getting caught. The whole internet knows what this guy looks like, and there’s no sign of him? I don’t buy it. And why would the authorities give the all clear if they hadn’t caught him yet? This whole situation stinks like my brother’s gym bag at the end of the school year.

—> Dehny 

Replied on April 21, 2020  

He could be holed up somewhere. It probably isn’t that hard to hide if you just get in an apartment and stay in it. People didn’t really know to start looking for him until this morning when they woke up. Remember, not everyone is online overnight. People have jobs. They go to sleep. If he got out of the initial search area and went to ground, he could stay out of sight for a long time. Hell, with food and grocery delivery services and the option to leave it at the door so he doesn’t have to see them, he could stay out of sight for weeks or longer. I think the biggest chance of finding him would be if one of his friends rats him out. 

Needless to say, I’m rooting for the rats.  

—> GujaratiSugar

Replied on April 21, 2020  

What about what people were saying about Paintball and that masked guy fighting with those gangbangers over by the Tipsy Beaver? That was right in the same general area and everyone knows it’s full of nasty types. You don’t go over there unless you’re either connected or you’ve got a death wish. Pretty sure that Luciano guy hangs out there too. That’s what somebody on the Forum Which Must Not Be Named was saying. 

—> MercurialGumball

Replied on April 21, 2020  

Does anyone have the updated list of how many people were hurt or killed last night? That’s probably something that should be added to the top post. And speaking of things that should be added, several people have started charity drives for the victims. There was a list of some of them here. Just make sure you give to a reputable site. Lots of greedy fucks come out of the woodwork and try to take advantage of stuff like this. If you’re gonna donate, make sure it’s to one of the official sites, and that the charity has one of those little checkmarks next to it. That means the site has confirmed the charity owner is legit and has some connection to the victims. 

 —>  Marconi’s S

Replied on April 21, 2020  

Isn’t this what the Fund is supposed to be for? They charge buttloads for all that Star-Touched merch. I thought that and the taxes were supposed to pay for people’s bills when shit like this happens. What happened to that? 

 —> Cthuwood 

Replied on April 21, 2020  

Technically this doesn’t follow under the Fund. Because even if some Touched end up getting involved in trying to find him, the dude isn’t Touched himself. He didn’t use any Tech-Touched stuff either. So by the way that law is written, they can’t really pull money from it for this. As far as the law is concerned, this is just ordinary crime. Sucks, but they can’t just decide to move money around like that willy nilly. And there’s nothing the local people can do about it. That stuff is written in international law. It’s a pretty huge deal. If they tried to appropriate it for this, they’d set off a lot of problems. 

Oh and that list of victims you were asking for Mercurial should be here. As far as I know, that’s the most up-to-date one.  

—> MercurialGumball

Replied on April 21, 2020  

Yeah, I know why they can’t use it. Trust me, I looked it up before I posted. That’s why I really think people needed to donate if they can. These people are going through the worst time of their lives, and we don’t need to add to it by making them sell their souls trying to pay for the funerals and medical costs. 

—> Threeb4

Replied on April 21, 2020  

Thanks for the list, I’m definitely jumping on that. I moved away from Detroit about a year and a half ago, but I know that area. Like Asian14 said, it’s pretty rough. Those people don’t have the cash to spare for an extra large popcorn at the movies, let alone a funeral. This whole thing is so fucked up. Still can’t believe that piece of shit got away. Hope they find him and nail his ass to the wall. 

—> Spaghetti Citizen

Replied on April 21, 2020  

In addition to the list that’s already been shared, everyone should be aware that you can go straight to local hospitals and donate directly to funds there. All you have to do is tell them you want the money to go to victims of the shootings and they’ll add it into the general fund that gets divided up as much as it’s needed. 

Anyway, as everyone else has said, this whole thing is totally fucked up and I hope someone grabs this guy. I can’t imagine him getting very far though. Everyone knows what he looks like now. 

But seriously, how does a guy without any Touched powers or help completely disappear without anyone knowing where he is after pulling something like that? Yeah, yeah, he could just hole up in an apartment or whatever. But still. He’s got the everybody after him and nobody knows where the hell he is? I swear there’s gotta be something else going on. #paranoid

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<> Private Messages From DancingInIt

DancingInIt: Cass went for a walk last night.

MagicalMagellan: I heard about it from Lizzie. Cass didn’t wake you up? 

DancingInIt: No, wanted to let me sleep. Pillow talk?

MagicalMagellan: Don’t YOU start about that. You’re too young. She has my number for emergencies. :sigh: She uses it for more than emergencies. 

DancingInIt: I mean we all knew she had your number. 😉 Srsly what’s going on with the employees? 

MagicalMagellan: Not sure yet. Cassie’s folks get home today, don’t they? 

DancingInIt: Yeah, later. She wants to meet for breakfast this morning b4 school. You game? 

MagicalMagellan: Same park as before? I’ll head over there.  

DancingInIt: :waves:

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Interlude 15A – Joselyn (Heretical Edge 2)

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A black blade glowing seemed unnatural. And yet, as she stood in the mostly dark room, holding the sword in the front of herself, Joselyn could see the illumination coming from it. Not from the ruby handle or the amber jewel on the end, but from the onyx blade itself. It was casting enough light on its own to brighten the room around her to the point of being able to read a small-print book if she had so-desired. Black metal giving off light with no apparent spell or source. She hadn’t activated any sort of magic on the blade. Nothing specific anyway. It just glowed all on its own while in darkness, without any sort of obvious input. It… created light around it. 

The room itself was one of the empty magical research labs. Most of the larger ones were being used in developing the spell that would protect everyone from Seosten possession, but this one was free. She had brought the weapon here to examine it safely, where any sort of protections wouldn’t do any damage to the station. 

“Pretty snazzy sword, isn’t it?” The voice came from the nearby doorway, as Abigail stepped into the room, trailed by Athena. “I only got to look at it for a second,” she added slyly, “but I’m pretty sure that’s at least two hundred on eBay, easy.”  

Turning to face the two women, Joselyn smiled faintly at her oldest daughter before casually replying, “Maybe we could go as high as three if we put the right sort of filter on the pictures.”   

“Ooh, we’ll have to have Koren work on that then,” Abigail returned, “I’m afraid the last time I tried to upload pictures of something, all we ended up with was photos of the carpet instead of my grandmother’s silverware.” Pausing, she amended, “I mean, the grandmother that…” 

“Your grandmother,” Joselyn firmly put in. “Your parents–I mean… they raised you, Abigail. I’m not trying to take that away or anything. They raised you, they took care of you. They were there–they were there for everything.” Her voice caught a bit, the lump in her throat briefly choking the words away before she managed to swallow hard. Because that was both the truth and the problem. She hadn’t been there for anything in her eldest daughter’s life. As hard as it was to have missed ten years of Felicity’s childhood, she had missed almost everything of Abigail’s life. She’d missed her growing up, going to school, becoming a lawyer, getting married, having a child, over fifty years worth of a life, and Joselyn had missed all of it. 

She was determined to be there for her daughter any way she could now. But she would never use that as an excuse to diminish what Abigail’s adopted family had been for her. Someday, Joselyn wanted to meet them. She had no idea how that would be possible, or what sort of explanation they would give to those people. But she did want to meet them. She wanted to know the people who had raised her daughter into such a fine, wonderful woman. 

In the meantime, Athena had spoken up. “Jokes aside, if that is truly the sword of Mordred, it is priceless several times over. And I believe it truly is that weapon, from everything I have seen. Do you mind?” she asked, extending a hand that way with a raised eyebrow.

Some part of Joselyn bizarrely didn’t want to hand the sword over. For just a moment, that voice in the back of her head told her not to let the Seosten woman touch it. She hesitated, then shook that off and flipped the weapon around before handing it that way. As Athena took and examined the weapon, she focused instead on Abigail. Her voice was quiet, yet still intense. “How is she doing?” 

Abigail, of course, immediately knew she was talking about Denise. Or Denny, as she apparently preferred to go by. It had been several hours since they brought the girl up to the station and allowed some of their people to give her a once-over. Sariel hadn’t been able to pull herself away from the anti-possession spell just yet, given how critical things were with it at the moment. But they at least had enough free people to get a better idea of what was going on in that girl’s head. 

“Considering everything she’s been through, and is still going through,” Abigail replied, “she’s doing pretty incredible. That kid has been through hell and back. I can’t even think of what it would be like to have that voice in my head, his memories, his impulses. The fact that she’s kept it together this much is just… she’s amazing.” Clearing her throat, she added, “And in some ways she’s even more confused now than she was before she had any answers. Confused about how she feels, that is. It’s a lot to take in. I mean, you told her that she died. Not only that, you told her she used to be several years older than she is now. It might explain why she knows stuff she doesn’t consciously remember learning, why her education seems higher than it should be. And it explains her nightmares. It explains all of it. But she’s still confused. Just… differently confused.” 

Joselyn heaved a sigh, nodding. “Of course she’s confused. If I was in her position, I have no idea what I would do. I mean, I suppose I was somewhat close, getting memories of my old life back when Fossor found me. But even that isn’t even remotely the same. I just…” Turning, she gestured and summoned a pair of chairs from the far side of the room. As they slid closer, she moved one over to Abigail before sitting down heavily. “I want to be there for her. I want to help her. But I don’t think I’m the right person for it. My son was the one who killed her. He was the one who did all of that. It’s not right for me to try to absolve my own feelings and guilt over that. She needs to be with people who can really help her, not make her feel worse just by being there.” 

Gently, Abigail replied, “What she needs right now is time to cope with everything she’s being told. And… perhaps her parents?” She added the last bit pointedly. “That girl needs her mother and father, and we can bring them up here. We can give them the pills to temporarily restrict the Bystander Effect so they understand what we’re saying when we explain the situation. Let them decide how to handle things. They’re her parents, they deserve that chance.” 

“Yes,” Joselyn agreed. “We’ll go there and explain everything to them. She can come with and… and we’ll see what happens. That’s going to be some conversation,” she murmured the last bit with a wince. “Though not even close to the hardest one I’ve ever had.” 

Abigail opened her mouth to ask for more clarification about that, but before she could, Athena turned to them, holding the weapon up higher. “This is absolutely the real Clarent. No question about it. I have run every test I can think of, and it passes all of them. This is the genuine article. Although I have no idea how it could possibly have ended up in that hotel room, or where else it has been in the meantime.”

“Can it really do what Kushiel said?” Joselyn pressed. “Can it lead to Mordred’s body? And if it does, can she really… possess that permanently the way she said she could?” 

Athena, in turn, gave a helpless shrug. “Honestly, I have no idea. I wasn’t around my people when they built this sword, or when they… prepared Mordred’s body for Puriel to use. And I certainly have no idea how Kushiel could have returned as this powerful of a ghost. You said she was too strong for even Felicity to control?” 

“Even with help from Tabbris’s Archangel boost,” Joselyn confirmed, “the best they could do was catapult her out of the hotel and into another state. Which, I know, sounds impressive. But it took everything they had to get rid of her. And they took her by surprise. Next time, I’m not sure how well that will work.” 

“Next time, we will be more prepared,” Athena insisted. “And so will your daughter. She is getting stronger with her power every day.” A sigh escaped her then, as she added, “Although again, I have no idea how this could have happened. Yes, she is being fueled by Tartarus, but… is that what will happen to all of us with enough exposure? When we die, will we be brought back as… powerful ghosts?” 

“People from your ship have died before, right?” Abigail pointed out. 

“Minor… crew members, yes,” Athena confirmed. “No one from the bridge. Perhaps it takes a certain level of exposure, of power. Or perhaps… I don’t know. There are so many unanswered questions about that place. We need to bring Apollo and Sariel in on what is happening. If anyone around here has any chance of understanding this situation, it’s the two of them.” 

“Beyond that,” Joselyn pointed out, “they both need to know about Kushiel coming back. You know she’ll go after them if she gets the chance. And have you talked to Theia yet?” She added that last bit while looking toward the other woman in the room.

Grimacing, Abigail shook her head. “Not yet. She’s working on some sort of project with Douglas Frey. I sent word for her to come see me as soon as they’re done. I don’t… I have no idea how to bring that up. How am I supposed to tell her that the woman who did all that to her for so long, who tortured her, who killed her friends, who… who did that… is back? How am I supposed to tell her?” 

“She’s not back,” Joselyn replied flatly. “She’s still dead. She’s just…” A sigh escaped her. “The difference is elementary at this point, I suppose. She can still hurt people. She can still kill people. And she’ll want revenge against her daughter as much as she does Sariel or anyone else.” 

Abigail swallowed hard, giving a short nod. “I’ll bring her in and explain what happened. She needs to know the truth, and she should hear it from me. I just… she’s doing so well lately. She’s improved so much over these months, especially after her mother died. I don’t know what this is going to do to her. But it won’t be good.” 

Athena glanced away, clearly lost in thought for a few long moments before speaking quietly. “Kushiel’s return, in any form, is going to be bad for many people. Her daughter is near the top of an extensive list. It is something we need to deal with as soon as possible. I will be searching for any information about Tartarus-empowered ghosts. I do not expect to find much, if anything. But perhaps there will be enough to point in the direction of answers. My people have studied the energy from Tartarus quite extensively over the millennia. Someone may have found something helpful.” She sounded doubtful even as the words came, yet determined to at least try. 

“I’ve already got a list of Necromancy experts,” Abigail put in. “Mostly from checking for people who could teach Felicity. I’ll see if any of them have any ideas about containing a super-boosted ghost. There have to be spells and such that can stop her. Or at least slow her down. And for the record, if I had heard myself say something like that just over a year ago, I might have had myself committed.” 

“It is a lot to come to terms with,” Joselyn murmured quietly. “And you have even more than most. You only found out about this last year, and you’ve already taken on the role of principal for all these people.” 

“Like mother, like daughter,” Athena noted, glancing back and forth between them. “I do not believe that any member of your family could stand to be an ordinary, average part of the crowd if your lives depended on it. You are all remarkable people, and none of you could ever simply blend in. I mean, look at what you did while in Laramie Falls. The youngest sheriff in county history. Even with your memories erased, you stood out and protected people. Your daughter was making a name for herself as a young reporter exposing the truth and standing up to injustice before she even reached high school.” To Abigail, she added, “You became one of the finest defense attorneys in the country. Hiding is simply not in the nature of any member of your family.”  

As she finished saying that, the nearby door slid open, and another woman entered. “I’m sorry,” Virginia Dare spoke as she took in the sight of the other three. “Am I interrupting something?” 

“No, you’re fine,” Joselyn assured her. “We were just talking about how to deal with our new ghost problem. And what to do about this body she’s supposed to be looking for.” 

“Mordred’s body,” Virginia confirmed with a heavy sigh. “I sent word to Guinevere to come back so we can find out if she knows anything about that. She’s still on that little trip with Michael to Sudan, but hopefully we’ll get a response back soon.” 

“I sure hope someone knows something about Mordred’s body and what it could possibly do,” Abigail muttered. “Because from what you people said, Kushiel knows, and I don’t think she’s going to give up on finding it just because she doesn’t have that thing.” She gestured to the sword. “She’ll keep looking for some other way to find it.” 

“Well,” Joselyn noted while glancing to the weapon in the Seosten woman’s hands, “That thing is supposed to lead straight to it, so maybe we can beat her. But how does it work, exactly?” 

Athena answered carefully. “As I said, I am far from an expert in that sword. But from what I know, it will only work properly and unlock all of its gifts for someone who has bonded to it. Which means keeping it on your person, using it in battle, training with it, and so on.” 

“In that case,” Joselyn replied, “who is going to be the one bonding to it?”   

“That, I believe, is an easy question.” Turning the sword around once more, Athena offered it back to her by the handle. “You are both a descendant of Arthur’s knights, and the leader of this rebellion in your own right. There is no better choice for who should carry this sword.” 

Joselyn, however, shook her head. “I’m not the leader of anything right now. Gabriel Prosser has been leading the rebellion for longer than I ever did. I’ve been… gone for too long. And even if they did need a leader, I don’t know whether I would be the right person for it. After everything with Fossor, all the… everything I had to do…” She trailed off, pain in her voice. 

The others exchanged glances, before Athena spoke up. “You have been through so much. Truer words have never been spoken. But you are wrong when you say that you are not the leader of anything. The Heretic rebellion was begun by you. The people who chose to abandon centuries of indoctrination did so because of you. It was your words that showed them the truth.  And it was your memory that brought them back. The rebellion exists because of you.” 

“No one wants you to step into a role you aren’t ready for yet,” Dare put in while moving closer. “You’ve been through more than enough. You deserve as much of a break as you need. Be with your loved ones, your… your family. But you are the one who should hold onto that sword. You need to bond with it, work with it, let it get to know you. And when you have, allow it to lead you to Mordred’s body.” 

“Before Kushiel finds it, preferably,” Abigail added. “Though I’m still not sure how a sword is going to lead to a body, I’ve pretty much accepted that all of this is way beyond me.” Her voice softened as she looked at her mother. “But they’re right, even if you are taking a break from it, you are the leader of the Atherby clan, and of the rebellion itself. Believe me, I hear people talk. I listen to them. The ones who came back, came because of you. And the other ones, they came because of what they heard about you and about what you’ve done.” 

Taking in a deep breath before letting it out again, Joselyn finally reached out to take the offered sword from Athena. Her voice was flat. “I don’t know if I can ever be the same person I was back in those days. That’s why I keep saying I’m Joselyn Chambers now, not Joselyn Atherby. I don’t know if that person, that woman, can ever exist the way she was, before everything that happened. Before Wyoming, before Fossor. I’m different now. I’m not the woman who started this rebellion. But then, the rebellion itself has changed. After all,” she added with a glance toward Athena, “we’re working together this time.” 

Athena, in turn, gave a nod of agreement. “Of course. Both of our organizations… all of our people, are better off now than they were before. Being allied this way, that is what will make the difference. The Seosten, those of my people who cling to the old ways, they win these wars by keeping groups separate when they would be stronger together, by taking advantage of lack of communication. We didn’t take on the entire universe at once, we took one world at a time, bringing each under our heel by targeting their leaders, by exploiting weaknesses and making them fight against one another. Even the Bystander Effect itself was about creating divisions, about turning allies against one another.”

“It’s certainly the best chance we’ve ever had of making things right,” Dare confirmed. “We have Liesje’s spell, the original rebellion, the Aelasetiam people, the Seosten have already agreed and held themselves to this temporary truce, which gives us time to put things in order. Quite frankly, I don’t believe there will ever be a better opportunity to make this world–this universe, better. And you, Joselyn, are the right person to stand at the head of that.” 

For a long moment, the woman in question gave no response. She looked away, clearly lost in thought. The flash of pain that went through her gaze was quick, but everyone in that room saw it. 

“Like I said,” she finally announced, “I’m not the woman I was back then. But maybe I can try to be better than that. Maybe it’s not about going back to being the person who started the rebellion, but about being the person who can finish it.” 

While the other three watched, Joselyn slowly turned to face them. “My father sacrificed his life to stop the Fomorian invasion. My mother allowed the memory of who she was to be erased from everyone’s mind. Now… I hope she still lives, but she could be anywhere. She sacrificed everything she was.” She gripped the weapon tightly, holding it out in front of herself as the black blade continued to give off light. “I’m tired of my family having to make sacrifices. It’s time to make some real changes. Lasting changes. The Fomorians need to be stopped for good. Which means stopping this war with the Seosten and working together. Those monsters don’t differentiate between Seosten, human, or anything else. If it’s not Fomorian, they kill it. We’re all in the same boat. And that boat is going to sink if we all keep fighting each other. Your people tried this their way,” she added with a glance toward Athena. “They’ve been trying their way for hundreds of millennia, and it’s not working. We have to show them a better way. We have to show the Seosten leadership that their best move going forward is to make the truce permanent. We have to make them see that working with us is the only way anyone is going to get anywhere. A true, lasting alliance is the only way this universe is going to survive total genocide at the hands of those monsters.” 

“You think you can make the Eden’s Garden and Crossroads loyalists actually listen to you?” Abigail carefully asked. 

“I don’t know,” Joselyn admitted. “They’re pretty stubborn. What I do know is that the best way forward is to make the Seosten leaders see that we’re a better asset than a liability. If we can make them stop backing up the loyalists, or even agree to show what they’ve done to create this situation in the first place, we’ll have a chance to change some minds. Maybe even enough to make everything better. But that’s the trick. We need to convince the Seosten to back off for good and let us bring our own people together. And we have about six months to do that. So I hope everyone enjoys the holidays and gets ready for the new year. 

“Because as soon as that anti-possession spell is in place, it’ll be time for the real work to begin.” 

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Kith And Kin 20-04 (Summus Proelium)

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I didn’t start immediately. Mostly because I figured this whole story would be told to Roald anyway, so it was probably for the best that I just tell him at the same time. Besides, Murphy was obviously still broken up, barely keeping herself in any shape to listen. She needed her best friend. So, I gave the boy a call and asked him to meet us right here. Yeah, it was maybe a little risky to not move away from the spot where we’d fought Simon and Luciano, but I was pretty sure neither of them had any intention of coming back here anytime soon. 

We did hear sirens approaching, and I checked to see that they were headed into the lot over by the laundromat. I  probably needed to go over there and explain what happened, or at least some of it. But I wasn’t going to leave Murphy alone right now. Not in the state that she was in. While waiting for Roald to show up, I took a seat next to her once more and put an arm around the girl again. She was sitting with her knees drawn up to her chest, head lowered as her shoulders shook. Her eyes were closed, and she didn’t say anything during the time we were sitting there. She just cried mostly silently to herself. She didn’t return the half-embrace, but nor did she pull away from me. It was clear that she was too lost in her grief to want to talk, and I had no idea what to say anyway. So, the two of us sat in silence. Which really told me all I needed to know about how broken Murphy was right then, given she hadn’t really pushed hard for me to immediately explain what the hell I had just been talking about. 

Simon. God damn it, Simon. Why did you have to help that guy escape? He was a murdering piece of shit, and you knew that. Even as the angry thoughts flashed through my mind, I knew the answer. He helped the guy escape because Luciano paid for protection. This was the Ministry. They helped bad guys get away with crimes if they paid their taxes. And the people left behind with no justice were like Murphy. My family helped those pieces of shit get away, and people like this girl in tears next to me were just expected to suck it up. The thought was making me angrier by the second, and I had to close my eyes to let out a long breath so I could keep it under control. I had to keep it under control if I was actually going to explain the situation to these two. And I had to tell them now. After what had just happened, I couldn’t keep it away from them anymore. There was no way. Murphy deserved to know the truth. And if this situation was going to continue at all, they both deserved to know what the Ministry really was. 

It didn’t take long for Roald to show up. And he wasn’t alone. Apparently at some point in the intervening time, he had managed to get hold of Alloy, and she snuck out of her own home. The two of them came flying in on one of the marble hoverboards, landing nearby. Immediately, Roald went to sit on the other side of Murphy, and I let her go so she could lean on him. 

“What… what happened?” Alloy asked tensely while I stood up. “Did you…” 

“He got away,” I murmured under my breath. Nope, the anger I felt about that whole situation hadn’t dissipated at all in the time we’d been waiting. Saying those words still made me want to turn around and punch a hole in the nearby wall, without help from the pink paint. And scream. I really felt like screaming. But I kept it together. I had to. 

Alloy reeled back a bit from the news, even though she had to be expecting it. I supposed she’d been hoping for the best. Her head shook. “Is there any way we could still find him? I mean if we start right now, we could–” 

“He knows something.” That was Murphy. She had pushed herself to her feet as well, pointing at me. “He knows something about what happened. He said he’d explain. There was some guy here, and Luciano said he’d paid for help. He was a Sell-Touched or… or something. But he wasn’t–he helped that fucker–” Her voice broke at that point, even as Roald caught her arm to steady her. “That guy helped that fucker get away. Paintball said he knew what was going on. He said he’d explain what is really going on in this city. Whatever that means.” 

“You’re ready to tell them the truth?” Peyton asked quietly, rocking back a bit on her heels. She sounded surprised. 

“What–you know something about it?” Roald looked to the girl, then back to me. “What’s going on?” 

Now all three of them were looking at me expectantly. Peyton because she knew what was coming, and the other two because they didn’t. Oh boy, I really had to get into this again. I had to tell Murphy and Roald the truth. Or at least, part of it. I knew what was the right thing to do. It was the only thing to do. But that didn’t make it any easier to start talking. A part of me was screaming that I was opening up too much already. Izzy and Amber knew the whole truth, all of it. To say nothing of Paige and Raige. And Peyton knew about the Ministry. The secret was spreading too much. And now I was going to talk about the Ministry part with these two? A whole parade of ‘what ifs’ went through my mind in those long few seconds.

Finally, I forced all of it down and focused on Murphy. I thought about how I would feel if I was in her situation and had no idea what had just happened. That was all it took. With those thoughts in mind, I exhaled and then started to talk. 

Over the next few minutes, I explained what the Ministry was, and how they operated. I talked about how they had infiltrated every single Touched group in the city to one extent or another, as well as all law enforcement, the courts, everyone in power. 

“It’s not everyone, it’s not even necessarily people like the mayor or anything like that,” I explained. “It could just be, say, the mayor’s secretary or something. Someone who can get information in and out, that sort of thing. They have ins everywhere, on both sides. And like I said, the bad guys pay them for permission to operate in the city. Like this whole gang war that’s going on right now, they paid for permission to do that. Both sides, I think. I mean, I’m not sure on how that works exactly, but I’m pretty sure the Ministry is refereeing the whole thing. Or whatever. The point is, they’re the ones in charge of the city.” I looked to Murphy. “That’s what Luciano meant before. He made his payments, so they stepped in and helped him escape when he got in trouble.” 

“Believe me,” Peyton put in, “I was pretty freaked out too. It might be a little hard to believe at f–” 

“They helped that piece of shit get away?” That was Murphy, interrupting as she stared at me. Her voice cracked just a little. “You’re saying he paid them some cash and now they’re gonna help him get away with it? What part of that is supposed to be hard to believe? He has money and he spends it to get away with everything, even murder. That’s not hard to believe, it’s just every other fucking day.” Her voice practically oozed bitterness. 

My mouth opened to tell her that I understood, but I stopped myself just in time. Because I really didn’t understand. That would have been one of the worst possible things I could ever say. I would never really understand what it was like to live like these guys did. And I sure as hell didn’t understand what it was like to have my brother killed right in front of me. So I didn’t say that. Instead, I took a deep breath before starting with, “He’s not getting away. Not forever. We’ll find him, I swear. Whatever it takes, we will find that fucker and bring him down.” 

“And how are we supposed to do that?” Roald was the one asking that time. “You said these Ministry guys basically control, or like, influence every group in the city, right? Including the cops. So how are we supposed to find out where he is? And even if we find him, how are we supposed to get anyone to arrest him? You know, without immediately ‘losing’ him and all the evidence or whatever.” 

“Maybe he shouldn’t get to go to prison,” Murphy retorted a bit sharply. “Maybe that’s a privilege he threw away when he killed a bunch of people. You know, people like my brother.” For the most part, there was pure rage in her voice. But at the last bit, when she said the word brother, it broke a little bit. The grief was tearing her up. 

It would have been pointless to start an argument right then with her about what we would do with the guy. So, instead, I simply answered both of them with, “We’ll figure out how to handle him when we get a bit closer to that. As for finding him, we need to figure out where the Ministry sent him. We need to get a look at their files. And as it happens, we’re actually working on a way to get into one of their bases already.” Quickly and succinctly, I explained the bit about the secret base under the mall.

By the time I was done, Murphy was nodding, her mouth very tight. Her hand had caught hold of Roald’s arm, squeezing firm enough that I saw him wince just a little. She could barely speak through the emotions she was holding back. “We’ll find him. We’ll find him? You won’t let him get away?” There was a clear desperation to her voice. She needed me to promise her that. 

“Yes,” I replied firmly, meeting her gaze. “I swear, Murphy. I promise on… on everything. We’ll find him. We’ll track him down. He is not going to get away. We won’t let him.” 

She held my gaze for a long few seconds after that, our eyes locking even though she was looking at me through the helmet visor. I saw her throat move as she swallowed a few times, struggling to speak. Finally, she managed a weak, barely audible, “Okay.” 

That was it. She didn’t say anything else after that. She didn’t need to. She had my promise, and I was going to keep it. Instead of speaking, the girl turned away and clutched her stomach, falling back to her knees there on the pavement. Her whole body shook heavily once, a full-on shudder before I heard the tears start again.

Roald was right there, crouching beside her as he said something too quiet for me to hear. Peyton, meanwhile, looked back and forth between us, clearly torn about what she should be doing.

“Stay here with them,” I told her. “Actually, when you can, you guys should probably leave, just in case someone comes back to check this place out. But just be with them. I need to go over there and tell the cops… you know, some of it.” I still wasn’t sure exactly what I was going to say, but I knew I needed to explain at least part of what had happened. Even if it did make me feel like I was abandoning Murphy. But the truth was, she had Roald. He could help her more than I could. And I was pretty sure she had even bonded with Peyton a good bit already. 

Either way, what she had needed from me was the promise that the man who killed her brother wouldn’t get away. I’d given her that, and planned on following through. 

But in the meantime, there was nothing I could do for the girl, as much as I wanted to. I needed to leave her alone for now. No, not alone. I needed to leave her with the people who could actually be there for her. 

Shaking off that thought, I told Peyton to text me with updates and let me know what was going on. And to tell me where they ended up going so I could meet them later. Then I pivoted and used red paint to yank myself up to the nearby roof. 

Time to go find out how much the cops knew. 

*******

The answer, as it turned out, was both a lot and a little. They knew who had been in that laundromat and what he had been up to the rest of the night. But they weren’t sure what had gone down at the building itself. Their best guess, one of the uniformed guys told me, was that one of the other small gangs had gotten pissed and came after Luciano and his people in retaliation for one of his hits that night. Which, I supposed, was fairly close to the truth. And better than the full thing, given I really didn’t want them to know anything about Murphy. 

The only actual witnesses they had were a couple members of the gang themselves who hadn’t managed to flee before the authorities showed up. Apparently they were telling a story about being ambushed by several armed and masked figures, saying nothing about her being a teenager. I wasn’t sure whether they genuinely believed that, given how quickly Murphy had been moving around, or if they were lying to save their pride. Either way, it was another thing that protected the girl. 

I’d had a little time while crossing the street and listening to what they said happened to figure out what to say. I didn’t want to outright lie, but then again, I had no idea how much of what I said would go straight to the Ministry. Or how much they would share with Luciano, given what good terms they were on with him, considering the man paid his bills and all.  And the absolute last thing I wanted to do was say anything that would lead back to Murphy. 

So, what I ended up telling them was that I had seen some sort of confrontation between Luciano’s group and another going down, and one of my associates, whose identity I had to keep secret, had gone to get a closer look. Unfortunately, ‘he’ (another layer of protection for Murphy) had been seen and all hell broke loose. From there, I mostly told the rest of the story, except I didn’t mention anything about Simon or the Ministry, of course. I told them that we followed Luciano through the tunnel, tussled with him ‘and one of his men’ at the far end of it, and then they got away. 

The police officer taking my statement didn’t really question any of it. I had the feeling this was all just commonplace for him. Especially right now with the whole gang war going on. Sure enough, he finally sighed and shook his head. “You see, this is what happens when we get these big gangs going to war with each other. They call in debts from the smaller gangs, make threats, and these guys get desperate enough to do shit like multiple hits in one night.” 

That made me do a double-take. “Wait, you mean this guy was getting money to pay somebody else.” 

The cop, a slender Latino guy with a thin mustache and narrow eyes, who had introduced himself as Officer Sandro, nodded. “Pretty much. In this case, seems like Luciano owed Oscuro a bunch of cash. Think of these guys as like a uhh… subsidiary of that bigger gang. He owed Cuélebre a bunch of cash, and since this war is pretty expensive, Cuélebre called in the debt. Seems he made quite an impression on Luciano,  because the guy went around calling in every tab he had. Made a big show of it too. Shot some people who didn’t owe him as much, just to make sure the ones who owed him a lot got the message.” 

That made me reel back on my heels, bile in my throat. Fuck, Luciano wasn’t even that interested in the money that Murphy’s brother had owed him. He was using the guy to send a message to the bigger fish. God… damn it. How was I supposed to tell the girl that? She deserved to know the whole truth, but this was going to destroy her even more. Her brother’s debt and death wasn’t even a big deal to Luciano, aside from a means of intimidating other people. 

One thing was for sure, I was even more determined than ever to bring that piece of shit down. I didn’t care how much protection he paid for from my family, he was going to get what was coming to him. 

In any case, I thanked Officer Sandro and promised to let the authorities know if I found out anything else about Luciano or his group. Sandro, in turn, told me that I should have my ‘associate’ submit a report. They could be covered by the Touched anonymity thing too, but they still needed to explain what had happened from their point of view. That was going to be more complicated, obviously. And include a lot more half-truths or outright lies in order to protect Murphy’s identity. Because no way was I going to expose who she was to my family, or their organization. That was just asking for a lot more trouble. 

Still, I promised to see what I could do and then took my leave. I walked away from the cop cars and was about to text Peyton, when a sharp whistle caught my attention. Looking that way, I saw a familiar figure standing in a nearby alley, half-shrouded in shadows. Pack. She was waving one arm, beckoning me over. 

So, after glancing around to make sure no one was looking, I jogged that way. As soon as I approached, Pack stepped back further out of sight. But I could see Riddles perched on the top of the fire escape, keeping an eye on things. 

“Paintball,” Pack started once I entered the alley. “What the hell is going on?” 

“You wanna know what’s going on?” I caught myself, forcing the anger down. Lashing out wouldn’t accomplish anything. Instead, I took a deep breath and let it out before explaining from the top. I told her about what happened to Murphy and Roald earlier on the bus, then about Tyson being murdered, and finally everything that went down over at the laundromat. Finally, I pointed out, “So I guess what I’m saying is that this big war your boss is pushing made Cuélebre call in debts, which made Luciano call in debts, which got people killed. Including my friend’s brother.” 

Pack rocked backward a bit. Her hand moved to touch the side of Twinkletoes, the only other lizard she had out of their backpack cage and transformed other than Riddles. She processed that, exhaling before focusing on me. “It’s more complicated than that, and you know it. They tried to get Blackjack’s daughter killed. She’s a little kid, Paintball. She didn’t deserve to suffer, and those guys were all fine with letting her die if it would hurt her dad. It’s fucked up that your friend’s brother was killed. Seriously, I’m sorry. I–it’s… “ She sighed, head shaking. “I really am sorry. But Cuélebre kills people all the time. So do his lieutenants and other underlings. You can think we’re all the same, but Blackjack doesn’t target families like that. And he sure as hell doesn’t do drive-by shootings on civilians. We have standards.” 

“I know it’s not directly your fault, or his,” I replied slowly. “I just–this war is hurting people. And it seems like it’s just getting worse by the day. Not to mention, now the Ministry is helping that piece of shit get away with everything, just because he paid his taxes for them.” 

“So what are we going to do about it?” Pack asked. 

Catching that she had said ‘we,’ I gave her a brief look while she stared at me, before nodding once in appreciation. “Same plan as before. We need to find out where they took that fucker.  Which means getting into their files in the base under the mall. Now Calvin and Hobbes are in on it. So they’ll be helping with the tunnel.” 

“Sounds good to me,” she replied easily. “You ready to get started on that…” Checking her phone for the time to find that it was well-past midnight, she finished, “Later today?” 

The question made me realize I really couldn’t, so my head shook. “I can’t today. I have… commitments.” Namely, my parents were going to be home and they would want me around. “Besides, Hobbes is going to need some time. I don’t–tomorrow. We’ll start on the tunnel tomorrow.” 

“I’ll be there,” Pack replied. “Just give me a ring when we’re meeting up. And Paintball, whatever happens, I’m all-in for taking this Luciano fucker down when it comes to it.” 

“Good,” I murmured. 

“Between all of us, we’ll make sure this son of a bitch gets what’s coming to him.” 

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The Runaway 15-12 (Heretical Edge 2)

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The moment the horrible ghost woman was gone, I fell to my knees and gave a deep gasp. Even with help from Tabbris, and my ridiculous stamina, that had taken a lot out of me. A large part of it, of course, was actually channeling all that power into my necromancy and using it properly. It was a lot to push through my system. I had to sit there for a few seconds to catch my breath. Mom and Asenath had already rushed forward to see what happened to me, while Sean and Twister moved to check on Francis, who had apparently passed out the moment Kushiel disappeared. While I was busy catching my breath, I felt my little sister step out of me to quickly explain that I was okay, just really exhausted after all that. 

My head bobbed as I looked up to see them staring. “She’s gone. Not for good, but it’ll take her a while to get herself sorted out after getting hit that hard. And even then she can’t get back here without a lot of help.” Biting my lip, I looked over to where Francis’s limp form was. “Is he okay?” 

“Breathing,” Sean confirmed. “I think he’s sleeping it off. Whatever Kushiel was doing to keep him paralyzed while she wasn’t even possessing him, it looks like it packed a pretty big wallop. Which, what was she doing? How the hell is any of that possible? Is it all just Tartarus bullshit?” 

“I don’t know,” I admitted weakly. “All I know is that we don’t have to deal with her right now.” 

“But we will have to deal with her eventually,” Mom murmured, her voice dark as she gazed off into the distance. “A problem that should have been dealt with and gone for good, yet suddenly she’s back again and somehow even worse. Strangely, that isn’t nearly as surprising as I feel like it ought to be.” 

Grimacing it despite myself, I offered a weak, “I’m sorry, I should have been able to handle her. I’ve got all of this power from two different necromancers, and she’s a ghost. But she was just so strong. It’s like that Tartarus place is still fueling her or something. I don’t know. But one thing’s for sure, she’s not just going to go away. She’ll keep trying to get that sword. I just…” 

“First, don’t apologize.” That was Asenath, her hand moving to squeeze my shoulder as I knelt there. “Seriously, if it wasn’t for you, we would have been completely screwed. She has her old power plus now she’s a ghost, so she’s even harder to hurt without the right skills. It may have taken a lot out of you, but you still got rid of her. At least for now. And next time, we’ll be more prepared. This was a complete ambush and you still handled it better than most would have.” 

“Yeah, what she said,” Sean agreed. “That bitch be as crazy strong as she is just plain crazy. At least now we’ve got the time to practice and prepare stuff for whenever she shows up again. There’s some anti-ghost spells in some of the books I’ve been looking at, and she feels like just the right pain-in-the-ass spook to use them on.” Belatedly, he glanced over to Grover and Seth. “Uh, no offense.” 

Seth just blinked at him. “Why would we be offended by you wanting to get rid of that psycho bitch? Come on, I wanted her to burn in hell when we were alive, so I’m sure as fuck not gonna start feeling attached just because we’re both dead. We’re not suddenly kin or something.”

“Yeah, man,” Grover put in. “Hashtag not all ghosts.” Leaning over, he stage-whispered to me, “Did I use that right? I feel like that’s how they were using it back in the Runaway.” 

My mouth opened to confirm that before the word ‘runaway’ suddenly made me remember the other person in the room. With a gasp, I turned and looked over to the corner. Denise was crouching back there, looking like she was trying to disappear. As everyone else followed my line of sight, she cringed. “I–I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to hurt anybody. I didn’t want to help her. I don’t even know what’s going on, I don’t–I wasn’t trying to–I was–” 

“Denise.” Speaking quietly, Mom took a step over there, going down on one knee near the girl, but not quite close enough to touch. She was clearly worried about scaring her even more. “It’s okay. You didn’t do anything wrong. We’re the ones who should apologize. We didn’t know you would remember anything. We didn’t…” She trailed off, exhaling. “We thought you could go back to a normal life. I suppose we should have known better.” There was a brief pause before she amended in an even softer voice, “I should have known better.” 

That made the girl blink in confusion, her eyes taking the rest of us in before her head shook. “I don’t know what you’re–I don’t… wait… I know you. I mean, I don’t. I don’t know you, right? But I do. But I… I don’t. You’re… I’ve seen you before. But I haven’t.” She made a helpless noise in the back of her throat then. It was clear that this was confusing her even more. 

“Denise,” I started while pushing myself up so I could move over to take a knee next to my mother. “Maybe you could tell us what you remember, then we can help by filling in the blanks. It’s okay, no matter how… strange you think it is, we’ll believe you, I promise. Just tell us what you’ve seen, what you’ve heard. Just… talk to us. We’ll help, I promise.” This whole situation was so much to get into (seriously, it was so much), that it felt like the best place to start from was by finding out what the girl herself already knew. 

So, Denise launched into the story of everything that had been happening to her over the past long while. It was a horrible story to sit there and listen to, knowing how many answers we could have given her. She had been having nightmares about her death and about Ammon’s own memories. Somehow, she was dreaming about all the terrible things he had done. His memories were mixed in with hers and it was really screwing her up. Not only that, she had indeed also somehow ended up with his power. Despite the fact that the power transfer thing was only supposed to be temporary (and, I was pretty sure, was only supposed to give her his Pooka power for that temporary time rather than everything), it seemed to have been permanent. She had his power and some of his memories, though all jumbled together. That was why she was having nightmares. She dreamed of being murdered by him, and of being him as he murdered her. Seriously, how fucked up was that? No wonder this kid was having a hard time. That would have been bad enough by itself, but she was also dreaming about all the other people he had killed. And seeing ‘monsters’ because the Bystander Effect wasn’t working properly. Monsters like Mercer, whom she had used Ammon’s power to make forget about that whole debt thing. So that explained that whole situation. 

The only positive part of all this was that Ammon wasn’t actually back. Not exactly. She had some of his memories, but it was still Denise in there. She was still in control. Yeah, positive in the sense that Ammon wasn’t back. Instead, Kushiel was. Honestly, I’m not sure that was really an improvement. Sure, Ammon’s power was terrifying,  But we had people who were immune to it, and he was still just a kid. Kushiel could conceivably be a hell of a lot more dangerous. 

But in any case, right now we had to focus on Denise. Who apparently also remembered a bunch of fairly inconsequential, academic-like stuff from her previous life. She remembered math and science and history that she had learned as a high school student, despite technically looking like she belonged in middle school. Which wasn’t exactly a problem, really. But it did add on to her confusion, which was even more stressful. Yeah, this poor girl needed help. And by help, I meant an explanation. She desperately needed, and definitely deserved, an explanation. 

“Sean,” Mom started once the poor girl had finished telling her side of the story, “I believe things should be fairly safe now. Could you go down and find Mennin to let him know what’s going on, and have him send some help for Francis?”  

As if her attention had only just turned that way, Denise abruptly blurted, “I-is that a robot dog?” 

“Sure is,” Sean confirmed, putting a hand on his head. “This is Vulcan. Vulcan, why don’t you go say hi?” 

The cyberform promptly moved that way, trotting closer. He passed my mother and me, before sitting on his haunches right in front of the girl. Denise hesitated, then reached out to tentatively touch his snout. Running her fingers along his mouth curiously, she inched closer, then slowly put both arms around Vulcan in a hug. One that I was pretty sure the poor kid desperately needed. 

Apparently Sean agreed, because he told Vulcan to stay here for now. Then he headed out for the medical room, calling back that he would find out what was going on with the other guests too. 

Once he was gone, I looked toward Denise once more. She still had both arms around Vulcan, clinging to him like a lifeline. “Okay. So, we do have answers for you. Some of them are really not… some of them are gonna freak you out. But it’s the truth. We won’t lie to you, I swear.” 

“Yes,” Mom agreed. “You deserve… a lot. But the very least we can give you is the truth.” 

So, we started from the beginning, at least as far as we could while still being vaguely relevant to Denise. We told her about Crossroads and Heretics, about the rebellion and my mother being sent away with a new memory, and eventually being taken by Fossor. We told her about Ammon, and how he had been turned evil. Then we got into the fact that he had gone to that gas station while on his way to find me

“That girl worked there,” Denise filled in, her voice full of trepidation as she clung even tighter to Vulcan. “He killed her, didn’t he? I saw her memories too. I saw… I mean… what?” She was looking at all of us as we stared at her, clearly reading the trouble in our expressions. 

Realizing how hard this was going to be, my mother and I exchanged looks before she turned back to the girl and started to gently explain the full truth. She started by calling Twister over, before the two of them explained what a Pooka could do beyond turning into animals, how they would ‘respawn’ as a child upon being killed, then mentioned that Ammon had forced one to ‘kill’ himself, thus inheriting his power. Twister tried to explain what it was like, waking up as a child once more and then gradually getting the memories of her past lives back. 

From the look on her face, I had the feeling that Denise was starting to put things together, though she was clearly still in some denial. She held onto Vulcan even tighter while watching, eyes completely unblinking as she waited for the other shoe to drop.  

In the end, Mom tried to lower the shoe as much as possible before dropping it, but there was no way to stop it from hitting the floor. Taking a deep breath, she explained exactly what had happened, that the dreams about dying Denise had been having weren’t dreams at all, but her actual memories. She told the girl exactly how that whole thing had gone down, and how she had transferred Ammon’s powers to her in order to bring the girl back to life. She also told her about how she wasn’t supposed to remember anything, and that the powers were supposed to be incredibly temporary, only lasting for a few seconds at most. Just enough to bring her back. 

“If I had had any idea that you would actually remember anything, or retain any of it, I would have… I would have made sure someone was there for you.” There was pain in Mom’s voice,  and I could tell she wanted to reach out to the girl, but didn’t know how it would be taken. She clenched her hands and quietly added, “I’m so sorry for everything you’ve been through. I’m sorry no one was there to help explain things to you, and I’m sorry you’ve had to try to understand this all on your own. You deserve better than that. Much better.” 

Denise didn’t respond at first. She stared at my mother, then at me, then looked down at the floor. Her grip on Vulcan remained tight as she made a low whimpering sound deep in her throat, clearly trying to cope with what she had just been told. I tried to think about how I would feel in her position, but I couldn’t even imagine it. Even after everything I have been through, I wasn’t sure how I would cope with being given the story that Denise had just been given. It was too much. How was she supposed to cope with the amount of shit that had just been dropped on her? She wasn’t just finding out the monsters were real and all that, she was also finding out that she had literally been murdered and brought back to life as a younger version of herself. 

“I know it’s a lot, kid,” Twister put in. I expected her to add a joke or something after that, but instead, she simply added, “Some of us Pooka have a sort of group meeting sometimes where we can talk about our memories. You know, the ones about being killed, and all those times where we don’t remember our past lives and think we’re just normal people. Sometimes the real memories kicking in are… well, kicking is the right word. Like a mule. It can really hurt. So, you know, you can come and be a part of that, if you want. Anytime you want, when you’re ready.” 

Staring at the floor and silence for several long seconds, Denise finally pushed herself up and folded her arms tightly, turning away from us. Her shoulders were shaking visibly, though no sound emerged. After an extended moment of that, she took a long, deep breath before quietly speaking. “I’m scared. I thought getting answers would make things better, but now I’m even more scared. You e-explained everything, but it didn’t help. It doesn’t help. I’m–he’s… he’s still there.” She turned it back to us, fists clenched. “I can feel him. I can hear his voice. I can see the things he did, the things he wants to do. And now… now I know it’s not just in my head. He’s really evil and he really killed all those people. He killed me. They aren’t just dreams. They’re real. And the things he makes me think about when I look at my mom and dad, they’re what he wants me to do. He wants me to kill them.” Tears had flooded her eyes, as she shook violently while standing there.

It was Twister who moved first, stepping over to embrace the girl tightly. Again, there were no jokes, no off-color remarks or attempts to break the tension. She just held onto Denise and let the girl cling tightly to her as the tears continued to pour out, uncontrolled. A dam had burst, and it wasn’t going to stop anytime soon. Not with how long Denise had been holding so much of it back. She had answers now, but as she’d said, the answers didn’t exactly fix things. 

“But you won’t,” I found myself saying before even realizing that I was going to speak up. The words came without conscious thought. And it wasn’t because of Tabbris, because she was still out of me. “You’ve already proven you’re stronger than him, than those memories. You were all by yourself and you still beat his memories. You resisted. You already proved you can beat him. And now you’re not alone anymore.” 

Mom gave a short nod. “That’s right, and you’re not going to be alone again. I don’t… I know you probably don’t want to be around us very much. Not after what you just found out. But we have people you can stay with, others who can help you understand your… power and how to get through those memories and dreams. We have friends who can be there for you.” 

For a moment, it looked like Denise was really fighting to find the right thing to say. Her mouth kept opening and shutting before she looked back to the floor, a frown knitting her brow. “Can’t you just erase those thoughts and memories? You do things like that, right? You could take his memories out of my head, right?” 

Again, we all exchanged looks before I hesitantly answered, “We have someone who might be able to do something with that, but I don’t want to speak for her. She’s definitely an expert at that sort of thing, so if anyone can do it, she can. But she’ll have to talk to you for a while and find out for herself if it’s possible. And how to do it without hurting you.” 

Swallowing, she met my gaze. “I just want them gone. I just want him gone. I just…” Her eyes closed and I saw a few more tears fall as she whispered in an exhausted voice. “I just want to sleep without dreaming about killing people.” 

Oh boy, what was I supposed to say to that? I had no idea. The only words that would come was a very weak, “Come with us and we’ll get you some help. Somehow.” I didn’t know if it would be as easy as just removing those memories or not, but somehow we would help her. 

“What about my parents?” she asked then, just as weakly. “They think I’m at my aunt’s. I… I lied to them.” Her voice was even more pained than before at the admission. “It was bad. It was wrong. But I had to tell them something. I had to… I had to leave, before the dreams made me… before…” She shuddered visibly, unable to go on. 

“We’ll work out what to do with your parents, I promise,” Mom assured her. “We’ll figure all that out later. Right now, we just need to have you talk with Sariel and see what she can do. That’s the first thing.” 

Even as she said that, the doors opened and several uniformed medical people came in, escorted by Sean. He waved them over to where Francis was (someone had put a pillow under his head). One of them split off to move over to check on Denise as well, taking a knee while having her sit in a chair so he could ask medical-related questions. 

Meanwhile, the rest of us moved out of the way for the moment. Feeling a tap on my shoulder, I turned to see Seth there. He arched an eyebrow. “So, seems like this ghost problem isn’t going away anytime soon. Think I could tag along with you, Miss Necromancer?” 

“Do you mean the problem of Kushiel being a ghost, or of you being a ghost?” I found myself asking. 

“Sure,” he replied with a sly wink before sobering. “Seriously, better than sticking around and haunting this place even longer. Last time I checked, you’re where the action is.” 

“Yeah, hey, me too.” That was Grover. “Your life seems pretty exciting. I want to see more. Besides, you still owe me a stabbing.” 

Glancing toward Asenath, who was standing in a corner of the room trying not to stare too much, I gestured. “Yeah. You’re welcome to stay. I need more ghosts. But uhh, maybe you should go talk to her, huh?” 

Giving me a brief salute, the man turned and moved that way. I couldn’t hear what they were saying to each other, and I didn’t want to eavesdrop. It was between the two of them. 

Instead, I looked over at the doorway, where Koren and Rebecca had arrived. They looked at me questioningly, and I exhaled before stepping over to explain what was going on.  

They listened, with obvious increasing incredulity about the whole thing. Partway through, however, I paused and looked toward my mother. “Why do you think Kushiel was so convinced that sword was in here?” 

“Oh!” Denise piped up. “Um, because it was.” As the rest of us stared, she darted off the chair, moving to the fireplace to root around inside it before coming out with something long wrapped in cloth. She carefully set it down on a table, then unveiled… the sword. It was absolutely the right one, fitting the description perfectly, with a black blade, a red handle, and an amber jewel at the end. The sword, it was here. It was right here the whole time.

“What… but… but…” My mouth opened and shut, staring at the thing. “You said you couldn’t find it.”

She, in turn, squirmed a little uncomfortably. “I thought umm, I thought it’d be bad if she got it. She said she’d kill people if I didn’t help her find it, but I’m pretty sure she wanted to kill people anyway. I thought if she found it, everything would be worse. If she killed people because I didn’t give it to her, she would’ve done that anyway. But if she killed even more people because I did give it to her, it would’ve been my fault. I umm… I know it’s bad to lie. Am… am I bad?” 

“No, Denise,” I started. 

“Denny,” she interrupted. “I umm, please. Please call me Denny.” 

“Sure, anything you want,” I agreed while continuing to stare in disbelief at the sword. “But you’re not bad, Denny.

“In all, I’d say you’re pretty amazing.” 

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Kith And Kin 20-03 (Summus Proelium)

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A/N – If you don’t read Heretical Edge and thus missed this note, the first non-canon for Summus Proelium this month was just released for everyone right here

Damn it, why did my brother have to show up now? I already had enough to deal with. Why did it have to turn out that my family was protecting the guy who had killed Murphy’s brother? Seriously, this guy? They had to protect this guy? Fuck. Now this whole situation had suddenly become a lot more complicated. And it came just when we had the guy dead to rights. Because of course it had. We couldn’t just finish this thing just by chasing Luciano down and sending him to prison that easily. Something like this had to happen. 

That rush of annoyed and worried thoughts flooded through my head even as I pivoted that way. I saw my brother, of course. He was standing there in a pair of designer jeans, with a gleaming silver shirt, red leather jacket, and thin red leather gloves. Though I was pretty sure that wouldn’t be what the other two saw. He was almost certainly using one of those illusion devices, or whatever they were. The point was, I highly doubted he was actually standing here in the open looking just like himself. 

Murphy was already snapping her shotgun back and forth between the man who had killed her brother, and the new arrival. She was clearly right on the edge of losing it entirely. “Who the hell are you? Back off! Just get the fuck away, this doesn’t have anything to do with you.” 

With his hands raised, Simon gave a slow shake of his head. “Two things. One, I’m afraid this does concern me. See that guy there has paid an awful lot of money to make it concern me. Not saying I’m his biggest fan, but money is money, and we have a reputation to keep. And two, I really don’t like people pointing guns at me. Especially jumpy people with their finger way too close to the trigger.” 

Even as he said that, Simon made a grasping motion with his right hand. A sudden silvery glowing rope or cable (actually not too dissimilar from Silversmith’s power) extended from that leather glove, catching hold of the shotgun barrel. With a sudden yank, he tore the weapon from her hands as Murphy yelped, tossing it over to the side about twenty feet away, where it clattered to the ground.

She made a motion as though to go after it, but abruptly Simon’s other hand snapped out and a pistol suddenly appeared in it, jumping out of the sleeve of his jacket. “Uh uh,” he called out. “Just stay there. Trust me, I know why you’re so pissed, and I don’t blame you. I really don’t. He’s a piece of shit. But just stay there.” His eyes moved to me then, squinting as though trying to figure out why I had remained rooted to the ground. “If you’re planning something, kid, it’s a bad idea.” 

Planning something? No, not really. At that very moment I was still mostly reeling from having my brother this close. It cut through a lot of the confidence I’d built up over these past weeks. All I could think about at that moment was how nervous I was about keeping my identity from him. I’d managed it back when I was first starting out, of course. But I wasn’t sure how much of that was luck. And I hadn’t really stayed and talked to him. Actually standing here and interacting with him? Even with my changed voice, I was terrified that he would immediately figure out who I really was. This whole situation had become a lot more dangerous. 

And yet, what was I supposed to do? I could not and would not let the guy who had killed Murphy’s brother just walk away, no matter how worried I was about my brother and my secret identity. That wouldn’t happen. It was wrong, and she’d never forgive me, no matter how much I explained. I had to do something about it, but I still had no idea what. Could I actually fight my brother? I’d seen how easily he dismantled that guy back at the mall. Yes, I had powers, but could I actually deal with him when he had his skill, the pistol, and those clearly Touched-Tech gloves? A small voice in the back of my head was insisting that I had faced much worse threats. And yet, I couldn’t stop telling myself that he was my big brother and I didn’t stand a chance. 

“Paintball?” Murphy spoke up in a confused, worried, helpless tone. And it was hearing that, the obvious pain and loss in the voice of a girl I cared about, which snapped me out of my moment of being completely paralyzed by indecision and panic. 

“Sorry,” I found myself blurting without thinking about it, “I was just trying to figure out what makes you think you’re going to walk in here and stop this worthless fuck from going to prison where he belongs. He’s a murderer. You really wanna walk in here and defend a murderer?” I tried to keep my voice more casual than it wanted to be. I did not want Simon wondering why Paintball would be emotionally upset about that. I didn’t want him wondering anything about me at all, if I could help it. God, this whole thing was so dangerous. In more ways than one. 

“Fuck you, cocksucker!” Luciano snapped. “You think you can judge me just cuz I capped a few assholes? You’re just a–” 

He was interrupted by Murphy making a noise of outrage in the back of her throat, starting to throw herself at him. Which made Simon snap his gun that way to warn her. But I moved first, before he could speak. Besides being frozen by indecision, I had spent the past few moments painting designs across the back of my costume. I activated green, orange, and purple spots while lunging that way. Speed, toughness, and strength boosts, all at once. 

It wasn’t enough. Even moving a little under twice as fast as I would have normally, Simon still had quicker reflexes. He pivoted aside smoothly, snatching the outstretched pistol away from my grasping fingers as his other hand snapped out to catch hold of my wrist. In an instant, his foot collided with my ankle while he gave my arm a yank. The next thing I knew, I was tumbling head over heels and landing on my back on the cement. It didn’t hurt, but the sudden rush of being knocked around like that was enough to leave me briefly disoriented. 

Simon was standing over me, starting it to point his gun down to tell me not to move. But before he could get more than a single word of it out, I managed to lash out and up with one foot. A foot that had a blue spot on the bottom of my shoe. Just as my foot made contact with his pistol, I activated the paint. Between the purple strength that was still running through me, and the added boost from the blue push, the gun was sent flying away from him. 

Instantly, I lashed out again in a kick toward his stomach. But Simon caught my ankle under his arm and twisted so that the force I was trying to use to kick him was instead spent in spinning myself sideways along the ground. 

In the process of that, I caught a glimpse of Murphy. She wasn’t having much more luck. She had jumped on Luciano’s back, but he yanked her off and was about to throw her bodily to the ground. My hand snapped out in the midst of being yanked around by my ankle, shooting orange paint, then a quick burst of purple that way. Both hit, a pair of orange and purple splotches across the side of her shirt, activating just before she was slammed to the cement. 

Hoping that that would be enough to help her get out of that, I slapped my own hand against the cement and painted the palm blue. The sudden force from that, as my hand rebounded away from the sidewalk, shoved my foot out of Simon’s grasp and up, kicking his stomach. It wasn’t nearly as hard as I was trying for, given the way he twisted aside at the last second, but it was still enough to make him stumble backward while reflexively releasing my leg. 

I was able to spring back to my feet by that point, before he could recover. A quick glance to the side showed that Murphy had taken advantage of the paint I gave her. She grabbed Luciano’s foot with both hands and yanked it out from under him, sending the man to the ground with a blurted curse. 

Meanwhile Simon was already lunging at me, giving a muttered curse of his own about me being a stupid asshole or something to that effect. Quickly, I activated another picture across my costume, this one of an orange demon face with a wide grinning face of purple teeth and green eyes. 

Again, purple strength, green speed, and orange toughness. Sure, it wasn’t a huge picture, I was still trying to conserve paint as much as I could. But still, it made me about as strong as an adult man, about half again as fast as I should have been, and tough enough to tank a bullet. 

And it still wasn’t enough. Not really. My brother was too fast, too skilled. He had been doing this for a long time, that much was patently obvious. Despite having no powers, and not even using those gloves of his, he evaded every single punch I threw at him over those few seconds. He wasn’t even actually trying to hit me back or anything, aside from a few light taps as though he was testing me. Or maybe taunting me. Whichever the case, what mattered was that I couldn’t actually hit him. I needed more speed. But that would mean using more paint. 

I had to. I could either conserve paint and keep being too slow to actually hit him until I ran out of everything anyway, or I could expend it and maybe manage something useful in the process. It was the only real shot I had with this. Especially with Murphy struggling against Luciano right behind me. I needed to change things up and take a risk. I needed to end this fight right now. But I also had to make it count. I needed to create an opening that I could take advantage of. 

With that in mind, I lunged backward away from Simon to create a little distance between us. Thankfully, the fact that Simon was busy showing off meant that he didn’t press me too much. He clearly thought that there was nothing I could do. And now I was (hopefully) going to make him choke on that assumption. That’s what I told myself, anyway. This whole thing reminded me of all the times I had wrestled with my brother. I hadn’t won any of those either. At least, not without cheating. 

So, cheating it was. With a blurted curse, I threw myself that way, letting loose with a completely wild punch that Simon easily evaded before pivoting back around to grab my arm so he could casually throw me to the ground. 

At least… that was what he attempted to do. But just as his hands closed on my arm, I painted it pink. The force of his grip made my arm completely collapse under his hands, squeezing out both sides of his tightened fists. It didn’t hurt, of course. But boy was it weird. Luckily, I had been ready for it. Simon, on the other hand, wasn’t. As my arm, bone and all, collapsed as though he had squeezed a large tube of toothpaste or frosting too hard, Simon made a noise of confusion. 

He had just enough time for his gaze to snap down to see what happened to my arm before I dismissed the paint early. Instantly, my arm snapped back to the way it should be, with enough force that Simon’s hands were snapped back away from me. And in that very instant, I painted almost my entire body green, save for purple on my fists. I thought about going with a bit of orange protection, but no, I needed every bit of speed I could get. I spent all the paint I had left in that moment to make myself as fast as possible. Then I lashed out with a punch. Even with that speed, Simon nearly avoided it. Not because he was anywhere near as fast as I was, not really. But because he was such a good fighter that he actually anticipated what was about to happen and was already moving almost before I did. His head twisted, but my fist was just a hair faster. Fast enough, in this case, to nail him right in the chin. It made his head snap back. My fist hurt after that, but I couldn’t think about it. I had to follow up. I only had seconds of speed. Eight now. Then I would be completely out, at least for a few seconds.

Simon still hadn’t recovered entirely from the force of his hands being thrust away from my arm. He was reeling backward thanks to a combination of that, and being punched in the chin. And I was already moving to follow up. With a grunt and lunge, I buried both fists into his stomach. The force staggered him, even as he dropped his hands to grab onto my shoulders. But again, I was still faster. Before he could finish grabbing me, I ducked and pivoted to get out from under his left arm. At the same time, I caught his extended wrist with my own left hand, and held it out to full extension while simultaneously lashing out with one foot to kick the back of his knee. As that buckled under the force of the blow thanks to my still slightly enhanced strength, I brought my right hand up to collide hard with the middle of his back. With his hand captured in my grip and his knee kicked out from under him, Simon couldn’t stop himself from falling face-first to the ground. 

The instant he was on the ground, before he could recover, I grabbed a set of handcuffs from my jumpsuit pocket, latching one side around the wrist I was still holding and the other around a nearby pipe that extended out from the building. They weren’t the special stay-down type, but at least they would hold him for a minute. 

A quick glance up showed that Murphy had managed to get Simon’s gun, the one I had kicked out of his hand, and was pointing it at Luciano while he lay on the ground. She was shaking a bit, staring intently down at him while keeping the pistol pointed that way. Immediately, I stumbled that way, the paint already wearing off. “Get him up, let’s go, let’s go!” I blurted. We had to hurry. I did not want to think about what would happen when Simon got out of that–

Something hit me in the back, colliding with enough force that I was sent sprawling to the ground. Nearby, I saw Murphy hit the pavement as well. And I also saw what had hit her. It was one of those silver cable things that Simon’s gloves could make. They were sort of like a mix between one of Silversmith’s constructs, and Whamline’s… lines. Either way, we had each been hit by one of them hard enough to knock us down. A second later, both lines grabbed onto the prone Luciano’s arms, yanking him up and away from us. 

With a blurted curse, I managed to jerk myself over onto my side and look that way. Sure enough, in those brief couple of seconds, Simon had already managed to free himself from the handcuffs. He was back on his feet and had used those cable things to knock both of us down and then yank Luciano over to him. He wrapped one cable tightly around the man and then extended his hand. Even as I shouted out for him to stop, my own voice lost in the furious scream from Murphy, Simon sent the other cable out toward the roof of a nearby building and let it yank him that way. Luciano was pulled after him. 

“Paintball, stop them! Stop him!” Murphy screamed at me, already scrambling to her feet. 

I tried, lunging up and extending my hand. Red paint. Just a little bit of red paint. Just enough to yank that guy away from my brother. It wouldn’t take much, right? I just needed a bit. But nothing came. It hadn’t been long enough yet, and I was still out of paint. 

Cursing, I shook my head. “Fuck, fuck, I can’t, I don’t have paint! I’m out!” 

An inarticulate bellow of rage escaped the other girl as she grabbed the pistol she had dropped and pointed it that way. She was about to start blindly firing after them when I grabbed her arm. “Stop!” 

“Get off me!” Murphy shoved me away, making me almost stumble and fall. “He’s not getting away!” She turned back, gun raised. But they were gone. Simon and Luciano had disappeared off the opposite side of the roof. Murphy, in turn, screamed out and pivoted to drop the gun. Her fist punched the wall, then she hit it again, and again. She was cursing and crying all at once, punching the wall repeatedly as she ranted about hating everyone and everything. With a choked sob, she collapsed to her knees and clutched her stomach. One hand yanked the mask off and dropped it before she doubled over and threw up. 

I stood there, staring, as Murphy fell onto her side, curling up in the fetal position while her entire body shook. She was crying so hard she couldn’t breathe, while a jumble of words that didn’t make a lot of sense escaped her. I can only catch some of it. She was saying something about McDonald’s, a bus, and a rehab center. She kept saying rehab over and over again, and clothes. No, close. She kept repeating ‘close, so close,’ and that she just wanted him to eat. She brought him food, she wanted him to eat. She wanted him to sit down. Something about laying on the couch. If he’d been laying on the couch, he wouldn’t have been hit. And that she was sorry. She was so sorry. All of that mixed into cursing about everyone she hated. At that moment, I was pretty sure I was on that list. Not that I blamed her. 

Looking around briefly, I took a seat next to her and was silent for the moment. I had no idea what to do, but I wanted her to know that she wasn’t alone right then, even if I wasn’t the person she wanted to be with her. Swallowing hard, I reached out to touch her shoulder very gently. Immediately, she jerked away with a blurted curse. But I kept my hand there, shifting a bit closer. She stopped, slumping a bit more against the ground. All the energy seemed to have left her body. She was exhausted, having been running on fumes for a long time. Her rage was a fire that lit the fuel of her grief. And now the rage had run out. There was no more target for her to attack, so the anger had fallen away for the moment. The fire of rage was gone, leaving only the fuel of the grief. And the fumes of that were choking her. 

Scooting closer, I put my back to the wall and slipped an arm around the other girl, pulling her into an embrace. She didn’t fight it. Instead, the girl just leaned against me, shaking uncontrollably. 

“Gone,” Murphy finally murmured in a broken voice, once we had sat there like that for a couple minutes. “He’s gone. He’s gone.” 

I knew she wasn’t talking about Luciano. It was Tyson. Her brother was gone. He had been murdered in cold blood, and the man responsible had just gotten away. 

For now. 

“We’ll find the piece of shit,” I quietly assured her. “I promise. I swear, Murphy. We’ll find him. He won’t get away. We’ll find him.” 

Her head shook a little, as she made a noise deep in her throat that sounded like a cross between confusion and anger. Finally, she pulled back, staring at me. Without the mask, I could see the tears that ran freely down her face. “Who the fuck was that?! Who–what the fuck did that–what did he mean about paying a lot of money to make it his concern? W-was that a Sell-Touched? What was he–I never–who–” Her words were all jumbled together into a nearly incoherent ramble. But I understood. I knew what she was asking. She wanted to know who Simon was, where he had come from, and what that whole situation with Luciano ‘paying for protection’ was about. 

“Murphy,” I spoke quietly, my voice just the right tone to make her look at me, staring through the tears that had half-blinded her as I continued. “I think… I think we need to talk. 

“I need to tell you the truth about what happens in this city.” 

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The Runaway 15-11 (Heretical Edge 2)

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A/N – The first non-canon for Summus Proelium this month was just released for everyone right here

Seeing Seth as a ghost had been a pleasant sort of surprise. This? This was basically the worst kind. Seeing Kushiel there, even as a ghost, made me reel backward. This was wrong. This was all wrong. She was supposed to be gone completely. And how was she possessing Francis? I didn’t–what–how? All those questions rushed through my head as I stared open-mouthed at the figure. 

“Lady,” Mom announced, “I don’t know who you are, but you’re going to explain just what the hell is going on here. And let Francis go. Now.” Even as she spoke, my mother focused, producing a gleaming silvery-gold sword out of nowhere, with runes inscribed on it that were glowing with energy. I had no idea what it was or where it came from, but it seemed pretty dangerous. My mother clearly wasn’t playing around. 

“It’s Kushiel,” Sean informed her in a flat voice, without taking his eyes off the woman in question. He had one hand on Vulcan’s head, while the cyberform gave a low growl. “Puriel’s wife. Theia’s mother.” 

“Her name is not Theia!” Kushiel practically thundered. Seriously, the room shook a little bit, with paintings and light fixtures rattling against the walls. Her ghostly figure turned a bit red, and seemed to actually give off a bit of heat. “She has no name, she is Mendacia. She could have earned a name if she worked hard enough to help fix what she is, but she wouldn’t. She didn’t. She has no name. And even if she did, it certainly wouldn’t be that name.”

“What are you doing?” I put in, before we could get more off track. Besides, I really didn’t feel like letting her talk about Theia at all. She didn’t deserve to. “How are you controlling Francis? And what the hell did you do to Denise?” Even as I said that, I gave the girl in question a quick glance. She had moved to hide behind the nearest couch, peeking over it with a tiny whimper when I said her name. 

“What am I doing?” Kushiel echoed, her voice reverberating through the room once more. “Well, little girl, as it turns out, it would seem that being dead is not exactly the end for those of us with enough of a Tartarus gift. We still have things to do. That energy, that power… I can still feel it.” She looked at her own semi-translucent hand, clearly marveling. “Yes, I am a ghost. But you can feel for yourself, not the ordinary sort. Tartarus sustains me, gifts me with the strength to resist even your control. I even maintain my ability to possess and control others.” She glanced over her shoulder at the motionless man behind her. “In exchange for service.” 

“Something’s wrong,” I murmured. “This isn’t her. I mean, it is, but it isn’t. She’s different.” 

“Different?” Kushiel glowered at me, gaze seeming to burn straight into my soul. “If I have changed in some way, perhaps it is the fault of the creature who murdered me.” 

“That creature is your own daughter!” I snapped back. “The one you abused and tortured for most of her life, just because she’s different.” 

“She is an abomination!” The ghostly figure roared. That time, several of the paintings fell off the walls and I felt a blast of heat fill the room. It was enough to make me wince a little bit, though it only lasted for a moment. “And I assure you, she will get what is coming to her.” 

Mom spoke up then. “You are not going to hurt anyone else.” As she said that, the sword flared to life with light blue flames. A form of ghostfire, I was pretty sure. 

“You might want to think twice about using that,” Kushiel retorted darkly, even as her form seemed to fade just a little bit. She didn’t disappear, but most of her body turned even more translucent. Except for her eyes. Those flared even brighter. “Even in life, I was a bit harder to harm than you might assume.” 

“She reflects damage to other people,” I put in. Mom knew that, she’d heard the stories. But I wanted to make sure everyone remembered, just in case. High as tempers were right now, one wrong move could turn incredibly bad. “You hurt her, she makes it hurt someone else instead.” 

Kushiel’s cold, dead gaze focused on me. “Very good, child. Gold star for you. That is what they say on this backwater, nothing world, isn’t it? Several gold stars. Have all you want. For all the good they will do you.” 

Twister, straightening up beside Sean, replied, “How do you know she even still has that power? I mean, she’s a ghost. Did she really get to smuggle that sort of gift past Death Customs?”

A look of amusement crossed the woman’s gaze, as she stared Twister down. “Oh, by all means, have a go if you wish to see for yourself. Or, perhaps you should ask the child there.” 

Denise, with a tiny gulp, managed to weakly put in, “They tried to hurt her when she showed up. Mr. Gale did, before she… before she took him. But everything they hit her with, it… it hurt other people.” 

Great, so there was our confirmation. Kushiel really had kept her power after death. Because that was fair. Sometimes I really just wanted to look at the sky and scream bullshit as loud as I could. Not that it would actually help anything, but it might make me feel a little better for a few seconds.  

Asenath finally spoke up, her voice quiet. “But what does Denise have to do with any of this?” 

“That child?” the tall, ghostly woman gave a contemptuous glance that way, making the girl in question whimper and duck down again. “Everything and nothing. I sensed the dark presence in her as soon as they brought her in. The power she has, I can smell it. For months, I had no firm presence in this place. I floated through its walls, my form… scattered. It was so… difficult to focus, to think. I was dreaming of Tartarus, of what has to happen. Dreaming of what must come, but unable to bring myself together. I could not force myself to coalesce, no matter how hard I tried. Like attempting to wake from a deep slumber. The protections within this place forced me to continue my aimless drifting, my sleep, my dreams. When that child was brought into this place, I felt her presence like a beacon. It helped me bring myself together, just a bit more. Not enough, but it was better than nothing. And then… when the man who has been entrusted with this hotel’s care left the premises, my head cleared even more.” 

Mennin, I realized. His mother was gone, and when he had left to come collect us, it somehow removed the protections that had stopped Kushiel from bringing herself together fully. I didn’t know how or why that was a thing in the first place, but it was the only way this made sense. For a certain definition of ‘making sense.’ The thought that all of this had started happening just because we pulled the man away from the Auberge was enough to send a cold chill through me. 

“I felt my strength return,” Kushiel was saying. “For the first time in months, I truly felt like myself. And I knew what to do. I took their protector.” She gave a dismissive wave of her hand toward Francis, who was still standing motionless, staring at nothing. “I took his body for my own. He fought me, as she said. But it was both meaningless and too late. And, of course, it did not help that he was distracted attempting to aid the child there.” 

“She killed them,” Denise managed in a voice that cracked from fear and grief. “They were trying to h-help me, and she… she killed them. She killed them and their… their ghosts were there. But sh-she took them. It was like she… swallowed their ghosts.” 

That was enough to make Grover and Seth each take a step back, while Kushiel gave them a dark smile. “Yes, absorbing other ghosts does seem to help with my own focus and strength. And I am getting a bit peckish.” 

Denise went on quickly. “I tried to stop her, I tried to use the voice, but she didn’t listen. It didn’t work. I-it didn’t do anything.” 

Kushiel was immune to Ammon’s power? That raised even more questions. Was it a ghost thing or–yeah, I had no idea. Not to mention the way Denise talked about it seemed to indicate that she wasn’t actually being controlled by Ammon’s memories or whatever. But that opened a whole new confusing can of worms that we didn’t have time to get into thanks to the elegantly dressed and psychotic ghost elephant in the room. 

Denise was still talking. “Sh-she said she’d stop killing people here if I helped her find the thing she’s looking for. I-I didn’t want to, but she promised she’d leave everyone else alive if I found it.” 

“Yes, and you have failed at that repeatedly, haven’t you?” Kushiel shot back, her harsh voice making the girl recoil and drop back behind the couch once more with a choked sound of terror. 

Asenath quickly snapped, “Leave her alone! What the hell are you even looking for in here? What do you want?”  

From the corner of my eye as she was saying that, I noticed Seth move to put his hand on her shoulder, only to fail as it simply passed through the girl. He glanced down at his hand and grimaced. 

“What do I want?” Kushiel echoed the question, just as she had the earlier one. “What I want is what belongs to me. Perhaps if you children assist that one in finding it, I will be grateful enough to allow you, and everyone else who still resides in this pit, to live for the time being. Who knows, if I get what I want, I may be so pleased that I will spare you permanently.”

We really were in trouble here. I had been trying to get hold of her ghost form with my power this whole time, to no avail. It was that Tartarus energy. Not only was it somehow sustaining her as a ghost and allowing her to do far more than she should have been able to, it also made it impossible for me to make my Necromancy latch onto her. It was shielding her or something. Or it just made her ghost too different for my power to get a good grip. I could sense her pretty well now. Hell, I could even sense the link she had to Francis, like a piece of her sitting inside him. Her recall point. 

Either way, beating her the easy way was out. At least for now. Worse, none of us had the sort of power it would take to kill Kushiel without having it rebound back on one or more of us. I was curious whether Tabbris’s wings could destroy her without being reflected, but I wasn’t sure. And that really wasn’t the sort of thing that you could just test. If I was wrong and the damage from the wing blasts could be reflected, whoever it hit would be obliterated. We couldn’t risk that. 

On the other hand, thinking about that made another thought pop into my head. Immediately, I blurted, “Well, it’d be pretty hard to help you find whatever you’re looking for when we don’t even know what it is.” 

“I-it’s a sword,” Denise put in. “A sword with a red handle, a umm, a little yellow jewel at the end, and the blade is black. Like, totally black.” 

“Shit, you really think you can find that thing?” That was Grover, of all people. The young-looking ghost boy had floated up to one side of me, staring at Kushiel. “You know how many of our folks have scoured the whole world for that sword? It’s a myth. And not the real sort of myth. The fake kind. You think you’re the first dead thing to try to get it? I had a pal who wasted two centuries looking for that thing. Never got anywhere. You know why? Because it’s a dumb bedtime story. It ain’t real and it never was.” 

Kushiel looked like she was about to retort, before giving a double-take, her eyes narrowing. “I have no idea who you are.” The words came in a suspicious snarl. 

“Grover Clyde, at… her service,” he replied with a nod toward me. “And like I said, lady, if hundreds of ghosts over the past thousand years can’t find that sword, what makes you think you can within five minutes of waking up?” 

Glowering once more, as her ghostly form gave off even more heat, Kushiel snapped dangerously, “Perhaps it is the fact that I was there when it was enchanted, simpleton. I know who took it. And I know he stayed in this hotel, in this room. It may have been changed and redecorated many times over the centuries, but I know it was here. The blade is in this room somewhere. I can feel it.” 

“Uh, for those of us who have no clue what the hell you’re talking about,” Sean spoke up, “how about you tell us what the hell you’re talking about? What sword? Why do you want it so bad? And why were a bunch of ghosts looking for it?” 

Kushiel’s glower turned that way. For a moment, I was afraid she’d get so hot she might start incinerating things. It was almost like that old Disney Hercules movie, when Hades would get so pissed off he turned red. But this wasn’t funny. It was dangerous, and we still didn’t have a way to safely counter her. Especially not when she could jump back into Francis at any point and suddenly be in control of a Steward-Hybrid within his own home. That was a recipe for disaster. 

In the end, however, I supposed her need for the sword was stronger than her rage. Because the ghost woman calmed a bit, lifting her chin thoughtfully. “You want to know what this sword is? Why doesn’t your little friend there tell you all about it? Given his clear expertise, and all.” 

“Yeah.” Seth was looking at Grover as well. “I’m kinda curious about that myself.” 

Grover, in turn, shrugged carelessly. “Well sure, I guess. According to the myth, because that’s all it is, the sword is called Clarent.” 

“Wait, hold on,” I blurted. “I know that one. That’s the, you know, the sword Mordred used. G–Morgan’s son. That was his weapon, right?” Yeah, I had done a little research after the whole Guinevere revelation. Not to mention finding out that Aylen was supposed to be the one that brought Arthur back to life somehow. That was still a doozy. 

“Very good, another gold star,” Kushiel put in, a bit tauntingly. It made my mother growl just a little while stepping closer to me. If the Seosten woman cared, she didn’t show it. Instead, she simply offered me a very faint, humorless smile. “But then, from everything I have heard, you were always an ambitious little go-getter. I’m not surprised you did your homework.” 

Grover quickly pushed on. “Well, uh, anyway, according to all the rumors, this Clarent can be picked up and used by ghosts. Or anyone else of a less-than-tangible nature. It’s got a lot of powers attached to it. And it’s supposed to help you find his body. Mordred’s that is.” 

That made me do a double-take, though Sean spoke first. “Why would you want to find that body?” 

The ghost-boy’s eyes glanced toward me before he flatly replied, “Because that body is special. You know, according to the legend. Yeah, even ghosts have legends. If you believe them, a ghost is supposed to be able to possess that body and control it permanently. You know, basically coming back to life. And you get all his power and everything too. Supposedly.” 

Turning my gaze sharply back toward Kushiel, I snapped, “That’s what you want? You want to find that sword so you can get to that body and possess it?” 

“What can I say,” she lazily replied, “there’s a few bells and whistles on that corpse that would be very useful for someone as living-impaired as I happen to be. To say nothing of some other benefits. My little friend behind me there is a decent temporary fix, but maneuvering him is so much more awkward than it should be. He’s always fighting me. But with the body that Manakel and my dear husband prepared? It would be exactly like coming back to life again. Or, as close as one can get. Add a little magical shapeshifting, and I’ll be as good as–well, better than new, really.” 

Yeah, this was definitely bad. One of the last people I wanted to find a way to come back to life again was Kushiel. Not exactly the very bottom of the list. That spot was and always would be reserved for a certain necromancer. But she was definitely pretty far down there. We couldn’t let her find that sword or that body. And we absolutely couldn’t let her kill anyone else in this place. But we still couldn’t fight her directly. Anything we tried to hurt her with, she would just reflect back at one of us. 

“How do you even know that sword is in this suite?” Sean demanded with a glance toward me. “Seems to me like the kid over there has been tearing this place apart without much luck. Maybe you got your rooms wrong. Did you mix up the one and the seven, or maybe the nine and the six? People do that all the time. I’m just saying, we could expand the search.” 

Kushiel was… unamused. She gave him a withering stare before retorting, “The sword is here. I know it is here. And now that you are all here as well, you can help find it.” 

Taking two steps forward, my mother spoke quietly. “And just what on this planet, or any other, makes you think we would ever help you find something that would allow you to be that dangerous?”

Unmoved, Kushiel flatly replied, “Because unlike me, your daughter is not a disappointment. Truly, you have so much to be proud of.” Her eyes moved to me, and I felt a shiver run down my spine at the coldness of that gaze. “She has done so much to gain the enmity of me, and my people. But given our respective sides, I believe that makes you care for her even more. As you care for all these people. So allow me to put this plainly. Find me what I am looking for, and I shall take my leave of this place and you may all go about your day. Perhaps you may even discuss a way to kill me again.

“But deny me? Try to keep my property away from me? Should you make such a foolish choice, I will have the gentleman behind me incinerate every room in this hotel. Believe me when I say he is capable of it. This is a true Steward Hybrid.  And this is a home full of so many gifts for him. You cannot harm or stop me without killing yourselves. And should you try, I will burn this entire place to the ground and retrieve my property from the ashes.”

Mom started to say something to that, but I quickly interrupted. “You were right about something else, you know.”

That made Kushiel look at me, eyes narrowed. She was clearly suspicious, and yet too arrogant to act on that suspicion. Which said a lot given the fact that she was literally dead thanks to underestimating someone. “I have been correct about a great many things, child. Perhaps you should be more specific.”

For a moment, I didn’t respond. Instead, I took in a deep breath and let it out, eyes closing briefly. Then I opened them and looked at her. I intentionally kept my voice as calm and steady as possible. “A minute ago, you said I was an overachiever. I guess I have been in some ways. It’s been that way for a long time. I always felt this extra drive to try harder at something I cared about. And awhile back, I found out why that was, where that extra drive came from. The truth is, I was feeling the drive of two people. There is always someone right there with me cheering me on, encouraging me, pushing me to do better. She was right there, every time I needed her.”

Kushiel raised a hand, but it was too late. Because in that moment, Tabbris, whom I had spent the past several minutes summoning and silently conferring with, made her presence known by manifesting those glowing wings out of my back. 

But we didn’t use them to blast the woman, not without knowing whether it would work or not. Instead, every ounce of the power they could provide was pushed into my necromancy. The wings flared blindingly for one instant before fading, as I felt their strength flood through me. 

“Bye, bitch.”

With those words, I pushed as hard as I could with every ounce of power I now had.

And with a scream of rage that seemed to shake the entire building to its foundation, Kushiel’s connection to Francis was snapped, and the ghost herself was sent far, far away. 

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Kith And Kin 20-02 (Summus Proelium)

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A/N – If you missed it, the Heretical Edge noncanon chapter was posted over the weekend right here. There will be two Summus Proelium noncanon chapters posted over the next week.

This obviously wasn’t the best position to be in, crouched behind a car with my very Prev min–employee, while a bunch of guys with guns on the other side of the car rapidly approached to surround it. And yet, on the other hand, at least none of these guys were Touched. As far as I was aware, anyway. Not that that completely eliminated the potential danger the guns themselves presented if we weren’t careful, but at least I knew what we were dealing with. 

After taking a few precious seconds for preparation and explanation, I peeked through the window of the vehicle. Five guys were approaching, three moving toward the front of the car and two moving toward the back. There were more standing up by the laundromat, and what looked like a couple lingering in the doorway of the bar with their own weapons ready. This whole shopping center was obviously their hangout. 

“Count of three,” I whispered to the girl next to me. “Remember what I told you about the gun.” Once she gave a short, reluctant nod, I counted off. “One… two… three.” On that last number, I abruptly activated the blue paint I had sprayed beneath both of the tires on this side of the car, front and back. Instantly, the vehicle flipped up on its side before tipping over to its roof. As it fell that way, I heard a few yelps and curses from the guys there who had just been reaching the front and back. They dove out of the way, landing hard on their stomachs to avoid the vehicle as it fell all the way over onto its roof.  

At the same time, Murphy aimed high with the shotgun, firing a blast that took out the neon sign above the laundromat. The terrifying crash of the car falling onto its roof, accompanied by the even more terrifying boom of the shotgun and shattering glass from the neon sign being blown apart made the guys right in front of the place recoil, a couple of them literally falling on their backsides or crashing into each other in their reflexive urge to escape. 

Before any of them could recover, I activated the green and purple paint I had put on myself and Murphy. Then I was right there in front of the three guys who had been near the front of the car. My foot lashed out to kick one in the face hard enough that he collapsed fully, while I reached down to grab the weapons from their hands and threw them as far as I could off into the distance. As I leapt over their sprawled forms, my fist hit another guy in the side of the head so he wouldn’t get any bright ideas, foot snapping backward to hit the last guy just in case he felt left out. All three were left disarmed and groaning in pain. And all of it happened too quickly for them to react. 

Meanwhile, a quick glance to one side showed that Murphy had done her part. Both guys that had been at the back of the car were curled up on their stomachs, clutching themselves in pain while she hurled their guns far off to the opposite side of the lot. 

Just like that, these five were dealt with. But I sure as hell wasn’t going to sit back and congratulate myself, considering how many other guys were waiting for us. To that end, I focused on the group up by the shop, as well as the ones by the bar. Thanks to the green paint, all of that had happened so quickly, they were still recoiling from the shotgun blast. But they were recovering quickly, so I threw myself that way in a sprint. They saw me coming and tried to snap their weapons up in time. But I activated blue paint just under my shoes, launching myself upward to hit the wall just above the doorway, where the neon sign had been. My gravity-shoes kept me there, looking down at the men below me. 

They, of course, started to look up and adjust their aim. But I gave a sharp whistle and pointed back the way I had come with one hand, and toward their feet with the other. The guys looked that way reflexively, immediately noticing two things. First, the blob of red paint that I had put against the side of the overturned car while dashing toward them. And second, the identical bit of red on the cement right in front of them. 

Yeah, they processed what was about to happen very quickly, all of them screaming as they dove back through with the broken windows and doorway of the laundromat. At the same time, I activated the paint to yank the car over. It slammed into the spot where they had just been, crashing partway into the laundromat with a loud, thunderous bang. 

Okay, I did feel bad about the person this car actually belonged to before Murphy had stolen it. I was going to have to make sure they had good insurance, and maybe send an anonymous donation to help. 

But for the moment, I had to focus. A glance toward the bar showed that the two guys there had started to lean their way out and take aim. But I sent a quick shot of blue paint at their feet, launching them into the top of the doorway hard enough that they immediately collapsed once they hit the ground once more. 

In the meantime, Murphy was already sprinting toward the far end of the hair salon on the opposite side of the laundromat than the bar. There was a narrow alley-like area there to reach the back of the buildings. As she neared it, I quickly activated another blotch of green paint I had given her, speeding the girl up once more. Then I did the same for myself, and used red paint to reach the roof, sprinting my way straight across the top of the laundromat to reach the back as well.

Murphy beat me there by about two seconds, and the gang guys themselves by one. Just as I skidded to a halt on the edge of the roof, I heard her voice snap, “Drop it!” Looking down, I saw one guy who had started to push his way out the rear exit of the laundromat. He had a pistol in one hand. But Murphy was there on one side of the door, shotgun pointed at his head. 

The guy clearly considered his options for a moment, before Murphy snapped, “I reloaded before I got back here. Which means I’ve got five shells in this thing. It’ll only take one to put you down, then I’ve got four more for your friends back there behind you. And you’re all lined up like a nice turkey shoot. So I’ll tell you one more time. Drop. It.” 

While she was saying that, I had already taken a few steps back and sprayed pink along the roof. I made a large enough circle for myself to fit through. Then I listened until the clatter of the pistol hitting the ground announced the man’s choice. 

That prompted a wave of curses and shouts from the people behind him who thought he was being a chickenshit. Which was my cue. Activating a line of purple stars along both of my legs, as well as an orange moon on my back, I jumped up and then stomped down as hard as I could on the pink circle. Instantly, I broke through, crashing down through the ceiling to land right in the middle of the gathered group. Before they could react, I snapped my hand toward the floor behind me, where several guys were, and shot blue paint to launch them into the ceiling. At the same time, I grabbed the guy in front of me by the arm, hurling him into the wall with my purple-strength with enough force that he rebounded off it and collapsed, in no mood to do anything else.  

The guy at the door had started to turn to see what the hell was going on with the rest of his buddies, just as Murphy slammed the butt of the shotgun into the back of his head, knocking him stumbling into the next guy. Which was the one I had just reached, grabbing him by his shoulders as he stumbled from the other guy crashing into him so I could yank him down closer to my level, headbutting him hard with my helmet. 

That last guy, the one who had tossed his pistol at Murphy’s order, immediately dropped to his knees as soon as he saw the situation behind him. And just like that, they were all down. It worked. The plan that Murphy and I had come up with in just those few seconds had been very simple. We stop the guys right by the car, then use the car to block the front of the laundromat so they would have no choice but to flee toward the back. Then Murphy would catch them at the door there, where they could only come out one at a time, and while she had them distracted, I would break in through the ceiling to take them by surprise as they were all bunched up like that. Again, a very simple plan. But it had worked. Thank God, it actually worked. 

Well, sort of. Unfortunately, Murphy looked around frantically, a curse escaping her. “Fuck! He’s not here! Fuck, fuck, where is he?!” Her foot lashed out to kick the nearest guy really hard, enough to make me wince a bit for him. “Where the fuck is Luciano?! Where’d he go, motherfucker?!” Only then did she remember that she had the shotgun in one hand, and quickly pointed it, tracking the barrel across all the guys while still demanding that they tell her where their boss had disappeared to. 

It didn’t take much threatening for several of the guys to point back through the main room toward the manager’s office, insisting that their boss went that way. The two of us glanced at one another, then I quickly sprayed red along the guys before activating it. They were all yanked together and would be stuck like that for ten seconds. It gave us a head start. Which we used, sprinting toward the manager’s office even as I activated a bit more orange on both of us, just in case the guy we were running for decided to start shooting. I was still trying to figure out why he would have gone for his office rather than trying to get out like the rest of his men. Even as I had that thought, however, a realization of the probable explanation struck me, and I muttered a curse, hoping I was wrong. 

But no, I was very right. Even as we got to the office and shoved our way in, we could both see a hole in the floor. A trapdoor. There was a trapdoor there, and no sign of the man in question. He had sent those other guys to the back door as a distraction, while he went out through his secret exit. Apparently he had been in too much of a rush to even bother closing the door, which was a boon for us not having to look for it, but still.  

“Fuck,” I muttered while skidding to a stop just above the hole and looking down. “Another tunnel. I’m really starting to hate these things.” 

“Paintball,” Murphy snapped at me, her voice high and stressed, “if he escapes again…” Her tone made it clear just how unacceptable that was, as did the way she was tightly gripping the gun. She gave me a sharp look, expression hidden behind the mask. But I didn’t need to see her face to know just how angry she was at the whole situation. Before I could respond, she started to lean down to jump into the escape tunnel herself, intent on not allowing the man who had just murdered her brother to get away. 

Quickly, I caught her arm. “Wait, let me go first.” Making sure I still had orange active on me, just in case the bastard was hiding right there, I activated the headlamps on my helmet before dropping down through the hole. Once I was sure there was no guy there with a gun waiting for us, I waved for the other girl to join me. She did, dropping down. But unlike Luciano, she took the time to yank the trap door shut. I, in turn, used a quick, small shot of pink paint to bend part of the trapdoor out and over the ceiling it was snug against. That way, if anyone tried to open it from above, they wouldn’t be able to. We had enough problems right now without ending up with bad guys coming up behind us in this narrow tunnel. So that was one potential problem out of the way. 

That done, I was able to look around a bit more. Unlike the one I had been in a couple days earlier, this tunnel had clearly been professionally made. The walls, floor, and ceiling were all made of cement rather than dirt, making it clear this had been set up a long time ago. Probably for a situation similar to this, or if the cops made an appearance. Whatever problem showed up on his doorstep, Luciano wanted a way to escape. And unless we moved quickly, he was going to do just that. Who knew where this tunnel came out, or how impossible it would be to find him again if we didn’t get there before he vanished. I didn’t even want to think about how Murphy would react then, or what she would be going through. We had to find this guy right now. 

To that end, I started sprinting down the tunnel, reaching back to grab Murphy’s hand so I could yank her after me. Then I actually flipped off the headlamps to avoid giving away our presence any further, simply trusting my mysterious navigation power. If the other girl objected to moving through the darkness, she didn’t say anything. She might’ve been too enraged to even think about it, honestly. Together, the two of us sprinted blindly down the tunnel as fast as we could. 

The tunnel was fairly straight, but there were a couple turns involved. Turns that I just… somehow knew were there. With no visible warning and no idea how I would know about them, I instinctively turned us to the right just before we would have crashed headlong into the wall. A fact that was confirmed as I reached out with my free hand to feel it there. Without missing a step, I kept running, turning left just as unexpectedly a few moments later. I didn’t know how this navigation power worked, but I sure as hell was not going to argue with the results. 

On the way, I used green paint to speed us up, hoping to counter the head start our quarry had. I also used a bit of black so he wouldn’t hear us charging down the tunnel like a herd of elephants. Please, please let us get there in time. This son of a bitch just killed Murphy’s brother. Whatever problems the guy had, he didn’t deserve to die. And Murphy didn’t deserve to lose him. This shitface was going to pay for what he did. We just had to catch up with him. 

There. After one more sharp right turn, we could see a bright shaft of light ahead. There was an exit, and we could both see the man in question starting to climb a ladder right there. At least, I assumed it was him. It was hard to make out details, and I didn’t really know what he looked like anyway. 

Murphy did, however. And she immediately confirmed my assumptions by shoving past me, sprinting full-tilt that way. As she passed, I sent two shots of paint into her back. One was green, the other orange. She was a quick little missile, still silenced for the next couple seconds by the black paint that was already on her hand. 

Still, silent or not, she was a shape rapidly approaching through the darkness. The climbing man noticed her, looking over. But it was too late, as she slammed into him with enough force, despite their size differences, to knock the man off the ladder, where he fell hard onto the tunnel floor with a yelp. 

He recovered quickly, firing a shot from that pistol of his. But the orange paint meant it only stunned Murphy a little bit, making her recoil. That, however, was enough for him to lash out with his foot. Again, it didn’t hurt her, but the force knocked the girl off him as he fired twice more. Luckily, the gun was silenced, or we all would have been completely deafened from the sound echoing through this tight space. Doubly-luckily, the paint was still holding strong, so Murphy wasn’t hurt. From personal experience, I knew it would sting, and she would have bruises. But that was a hell of a lot better than being shot several times and bleeding out. 

By that point, I was already there. Before he could fire again, I painted part of my arm purple, snapping a hand out to take the gun away from him while simultaneously kicking the man in the leg, making him stagger while yelping in pain. 

Unfortunately, it wasn’t enough. I saw the man’s hand grab something and hold it out. The next thing I knew, a blast of light and concussive force slammed into me. I was sent staggering to the floor next to Murphy, who had fallen as well. It was some sort of Touched-Tech flashbang or whatever, strong enough to put me on the ground. 

It didn’t keep me there for long, thankfully. Still, it cost us precious seconds. Even as I pushed myself up and looked around, I could see the man already disappearing up the ladder. My hand snapped out to shoot red paint at him, but it was too late. He pushed himself up and out of the hole just as my paint splattered against the ladder rung where his foot had been an instant earlier.

No, no. Fuck no. I wasn’t going to let this happen. Shoving myself up just as Murphy did the same, I grabbed her arm and yanked her close to me while putting blue paint underneath us right at the bottom of the ladder. Looking up, I activated the paint, sending both of us flying upward. We didn’t bother with the ladder at all, instead launching straight toward the hole above us. On the way, I made sure we both had a bit more orange paint, just in case this asshole was waiting to shoot us rather than running. 

But no, he wasn’t sticking around, apparently. We shot out of the hole and landed in a small parking lot across the street from the shopping center itself. At first, there was no sign of the man we were chasing. Then I saw him disappearing around the corner of the nearest building. He was running like his ass was on fire. Which, to be honest, sounded like a really good idea right then. 

Murphy started to sprint after him, but I caught her hand and pulled her with me. Instead of running after the guy, I used blue and red paint to get us to the roof of the building he was running around. Together, we sprinted across it to the far side, before I gave us both orange paint to soften the landing as we jumped off, falling straight to the ground below. 

The shortcut worked. We landed together right in front of the man, giving me my first decent look at him. He was a fairly big Latino guy, both in height and girth (fitting through the trapdoor must have been a tight squeeze), with long dreadlocks that had been dyed bright blond. He wore a long, oversized (even for him) Pistons jersey and loose sweatpants, and gripped a pistol in one hand. Yeah, that I used red paint to rip away from him.  

As that gun disappeared from his grip, Luciano staggered backward in shock. Well, that and the fact that Murphy and I had basically just dropped out of the sky right in front of him. That was probably pretty surprising too. He started to blurt something, then stopped. His eyes moved past us as he snapped, “Well, it’s about fucking time. What the hell am I paying you assholes for if you can’t get these shits off my back?”

Yeah, my instinct was to say it was a trick. But the specific thing he said put a sinking sensation into my stomach. Which only got worse as a voice spoke up behind us. A very familiar voice. 

“Oh, don’t you worry. You do pay pretty well. And we’re going to take care of this right now.”

Well, I may not have been sure whether my parents were actually in town at this point or not. 

But at least I knew exactly where my brother was. 

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