With the body–or man–or whatever he was completely gone, we all just stood there staring at the spot where the last of the ashes had blown away. Three or four full seconds of complete silence passed, where you probably could’ve heard a pin drop. And then that silence was interrupted, rather abruptly, by a distant voice shouting from the rooftop.
“What the fuck was that?!”
It was Murphy, of course. Or Hobbes. She was standing there next to Roald/Calvin, both of them staring past us at the spot where the man had been. Her voice came again, but it was quieter. She was saying something about what happened to the guy. I could guess the gist of it. But I certainly didn’t have any answers for her. I was too busy asking the exact same questions.
Wren, landing beside me, spoke in a far quieter, more subdued voice. “Did… did he just die?”
“No,” Peyton immediately answered, before catching herself. “I mean, I don’t think so? I mean, he looked like he was already–but we didn’t actually–I mean…” Her head shook helplessly as she looked around at the rest of us. “What just happened?”
Finally, I found my voice. “I don’t know,” I murmured. “But it was nothing we did. I mean, we caught him. We had him. And then he just…”
“Disintegrated,” Paige put in flatly. “Whether that was some form of teleportation or just suicide, I have no idea. But the latter seems a little bit dramatic given the circumstances.”
“The other dude disappeared like that too,” Sierra pointed out. “I mean, that has to be it, right? He was out of our sight in that dumpster and when we took it off, he was just gone. Like this. It has to be the same thing. So did they both burn up forever and… I mean did they just–I… huh.”
My head nodded slowly as a grimace crossed my face. “Yeah, huh is about right. Part of me really wants to freak out right now, but the other part is too confused to do any freaking. Whatever all that was, it was really screwed up. This whole situation is screwed up.” Even as I said that, I was turning to where Murphy and Roald were, extending a hand to send a shot of orange paint that way before calling out, “It’s safe, you can bring them down!”
Murphy, who took the bulk of the paint, immediately hopped down. She landed fairly smoothly on the ground below, then stood still and waited while Roald got the two people who had been hiding behind the bench before they rescued them. They held onto him, while he snapped his fingers and pointed at Murphy, teleporting down to her with passengers in tow. The two civilians were staring at the spot where that guy had disappeared with as much shock and confusion as I was feeling right then. Maybe even more, considering some of us had already encountered something like that.
Speaking of which, I forced my gaze away from that spot and focused on the two people he had been attacking. Making my voice as calm as possible, I spoke up. “Um, did either of you know that guy? Do you know who he was, or what the hell that was about?”
Rather than answer right away, the woman of the pair, a dark-skinned girl in her early to mid twenties with long braided hair, quickly blurted, “Y-you saved us. Oh my God, you saved us. You all-you all–Dash was gonna–” With that, she promptly turned and bent over at the knees to throw up in the nearby ditch.
“Dash,” Paige jumped on. “His name is Dash?”
The man, a Latino around the same age as his companion, gave a quick, almost frantic nod. “Fuck, yeah, that’s him. Dash Cooper. He was–we were–he died, okay? We were at a party a couple weeks ago. We were driving home and he had a little too much in his system, so he totaled it against a stoplight. He was dead, totally and completely dead. We buried that motherfucker. We fucking buried him, dude! There was a funeral a-a-and he was dead!”
The woman straightened up, spitting once before giving a shaky nod of agreement. “We were just out here picking up some food, and then… then h-he popped up out of nowhere and started like… fucking repeating our words, echoing what we were saying. Only it sounded like us, like our voices in his mouth! He was like–he was mocking us and trying to… fuck, fuck, fuck!”
Okay, yeah, this was getting more disturbing by the moment. This was definitely the same sort of thing as the other zombie. But what did that say about the Luciano version? Were there really two zombie guys with heat powers and–fuck, I had no idea. Nothing. None of this made any sense. How could there be two dead guys who both happened to get the same power to keep them in a half-alive state? It had to be something else, the coincidence was too absurd otherwise. There had to be some other person doing this, right? This was all–the whole thing was just–what? We had more information now than before, but none of it helped. In fact, it made the whole situation even more confusing.
“I-is he like… dead and gone now?” The man looked between all of us as he asked that. “I mean, he’s not… he’s not coming back, right? He fucking disintegrated.”
“He was dead before and came back, Carlos!” the girl blurted those words while almost hyperventilating. “What the fuck’s gonna stop him from coming back again?! I don’t know what the hell happened, why he–what–” She looked straight to me, pleading desperately, “Just fucking tell me, what the hell is going on?”
Swallowing hard, I shook my head. “We don’t know, exactly. I’m sorry, I wish we did. I’m pretty sure he’s not gone forever though. Whatever this is, that seems too… easy.” I was grimacing even as I said that. Part of me wanted to tell them that he wasn’t the only one, but I was afraid that they would get interviewed by people working for the Ministry, which could potentially lead to my parents learning that Paintball and company had encountered this zombie thing before. Which could lead to them realizing that we were the same people who encountered Luciano earlier, and that… yeah, it could potentially give them too much information. So I kept quiet about that.
Before anyone else could say anything, a glimpse of movement from one side made my gaze snap toward one of the surrounding buildings. A figure came running across the rooftop there, before leaping down from the top of the six story building. She landed as lightly on the pavement as if she had just stepped off a curb before straightening up.
Caishen. It was Caishen, apparently having used her power to reduce the ‘value’ of that fall damage down to being negligible. She stood there in her usual costume of dark purple scale mail armor, a gold leather coat, black boots, and a black helmet with glowing purple lenses over the eyes. The coat itself billowed a bit too perfectly in the breeze, making her look even cooler. I was very tempted to ask if that was some sort of Touched-Tech enhancement, but it felt like the wrong time.
“Was there another one?” the woman demanded, looking us over. “Another… zombie?” It sounded like she was already regretting even saying that out loud, but couldn’t think of another, better word for it.
“Another one?” I found myself demanding despite myself, giving her a quick double-take. “What do you mean, another one?”
Her gaze locked onto me as she flatly replied, “There’s been a few of them all over the city. We’ve been dealing with them, but they keep disappearing.” After saying that, she focused on the two civilians. “Here, you two should go sit down with the medics.”
I was about to ask what medics she was talking about, but even as the words came to my mouth, an ambulance with its lights on but no siren came around the corner and screeched to a halt. She must’ve been in contact with them or had their location marked inside her helmet or something. Whatever it was, the medics were already out and guiding our two witnesses over to sit down and get looked over.
Once they were on their way, Caishen focused on us. “Okay, first of all, should I assume that all of you are together?” Her gaze moved over each of us before she added, “This seems new. You’re all–what was it you said your ahh, team was called back at the convention? Avant-Guard with a u?”
Hopping once, I nodded. “Yeah, this is us. We’re still working out the details and all that. But uhh, you know me, Paintball. You should probably know Alloy. And uhh, this is Trevithick.”
“Hi!” Wren blurted, hovering up on those wings to be on the same level as Caishen. “Does your daughter really make giant bugs?”
“She does,” Caishen confirmed, giving her a curious once-over. “Maybe you should visit sometime.”
While Wren hurriedly agreed to that idea, I gestured to the others. “This is Calvin and Hobbes, and that’s Style and Poise.” The first two waved a bit awkwardly, while Sierra and Paige simply saluted in unison before glancing at one another and making uncomfortable noises in the back of their throats.
“I suppose those all fit your team name theme, in one way or another,” Caishen mused thoughtfully. Her gaze moved over all of us intently, and I could tell she was filing away every detail. I could also tell that she wanted to ask about powers and such, but for whatever reason decided not to. Instead, she asked, “Are you all okay?”
“Physically, sure,” I confirmed. “Pretty perfect, really. But mentally? That’s a different story. What the hell was going on with that guy? What do you mean there were others like him? Was he really a zombie? Those guys over there said he was their friend and he died a couple weeks ago. Died and was buried. Then he just popped up a few minutes ago and started going after them, taunting them with their own voices or whatever. So what the hell?”
“Yeah, dude,” Peyton put in, “I mean, supervillains and stopping robberies and stuff is one thing, but a zombie apocalypse? That’s like, the completely wrong genre. Every time they try to stick zombies into a superhero thing, it’s cash grab nonsense. Or like, an alternate universe. And quite frankly, I really don’t feel like thinking that I’m an alternate version of myself, because those usually get killed for not being important enough to carry a monthly book.”
My mouth opened and then shut as I stared at the girl for a moment before turning back to Caishen. “Uh, yeah, basically what she said. We’d really like to know what’s actually going on. And, you know, I’m not that eager to be considered a disposable alternate universe version of myself either.”
“Yes,” Paige agreed simply, her tone sounding completely serious. “We’d all prefer not to be killed off just to prove the situation is serious. So would you please explain how this is not an actual zombie apocalypse? I’m sure we’d all appreciate it. Or just anything you know.”
“Well, ahh, Poise?” Caishen started before continuing when Paige nodded in confirmation. “I wish I could tell all of you exactly what’s going on here. But the fact is, we don’t know the details. We have no idea how this started, where the… people are coming from, or what’s controlling them. It does not seem to be a… ahem, apocalypse, because there are only a few of them. Well, so far, at least.” She held up her hand so we could see her crossed fingers. “They all seem to have the same regenerative and fire-related powers, along with having been dead at one point. Our best guess is that this is a single Touched who has gained the power to reanimate and enhance dead people. How they have memories enough to attack people connected to them or… whatever is still up in the air. But we do believe it’s being done by a single person who has not revealed themselves yet. They may still be testing their power, finding out what they’re truly capable of. Either way, we will track them down. Don’t any of you worry. If you see another attack like this, try to get any civilians out of the way, and delay the… reanimated beings. From what we’ve seen, they have some sort of time limit that they can be active. It seems like they keep going for a relatively short time before… falling apart or needing to rest. So far there’s no information on whether they can come back a second time after falling apart. We need you to keep your eyes open for that too. If you see this same guy back again, let us know, okay? We’re all flying pretty blind right now and could use all the information we can get for how to deal with this.”
I was nodding quickly even as she finished saying that. “Sure, yeah, if we find out anything else, I will personally let you know. And I guess it goes without saying that if we find out who is actually behind all this…”
“Report that too,” Caishen confirmed, her gaze locking onto mine. “I mean it. Whoever’s behind this is incredibly dangerous. If you find out anything, and I mean anything at all that could help track them down or identify them, you call. Even if you don’t think it’s that important, even if it’s minor. You have no idea what tiny clue could give the rest of us answers. And you do not, under any circumstances, find out where this person is and go after them alone. Do you hear me? I don’t know what half of you are capable of, but I do know that you’re all really new and very young. So if you find something out, you call it in. If I find out that you’re going after this person by yourselves or knew something you didn’t report, I will make it my mission to ground all of you. And in case you didn’t know, a grounding in Touched life means you will not go out on the streets. Police will not tolerate your actions. I am positive that all of you are technically under age. So you can be grounded if it comes down to it. If you know something, report it so we can all work together to stop this person. Have I made myself clear?”
Swallowing, I gave a short nod. “Completely crystal. Anything we find out, we’ll let you know. Believe me, none of us have any desire to go after whoever could do something like this all by ourselves. It was bad enough dealing with one zombie. If this person can make several of them all at once…” I made a noise in the back of my throat. “I promise, we’ll let you know if we have something solid.”
Accepting that with a nod, the woman promised to talk to us some more later, but explained that she had other things to deal with. Mostly revolving around handling all the other zombie appearances. Then she took a moment to hand each of us a card with a number we could call if we found out anything or just wanted to talk, adding that this whole life could be very dangerous and complicated. That was mostly directed to the five of us she had never seen before. Especially Wren. She stressed that she had been serious about having the girl visit her daughter, even if she was several years older, reminding her to call and set something up.
Something told me that Caishen tried to have any and all of the young Touched visit Lightning Bug whenever she could. Even if there were several years worth of difference in their ages, it wasn’t like there was an abundance of Touched that young. As far as I knew, Lightning Bug was the only one in the entire state who was under the age of eight or nine. And even those were pretty rare. Most Touched were either adults or in their mid-teens at the youngest. Which made me feel a little sad for LB herself. It had to feel weird, being that openly Touched and having no one else her own age like that. To say nothing of the fact that she couldn’t go to normal schools or anything like that. Yeah, she had her family, and everyone at Ten Towers loved her. But… well, I knew just a little bit about how it could feel isolating to be in a situation similar to that, considering my parents were… who they were. Even discounting the Ministry stuff. Yet I had been incredibly lucky when it came to that. I didn’t fit the physical profile of what the daughter of the richest people in the state should look like, or even act like. I was mostly left alone thanks to that, as well as my family’s efforts to keep me from being a spectacle. I didn’t experience even a quarter of what someone in my position probably normally would have. And yet even then, I knew how weird it could feel.
For someone like Lightning Bug, who couldn’t hide herself unless she used a hologram creator, whose entire life was built around her powers even though she was only five years old? I couldn’t imagine being in that sort of situation. So yeah, it was no wonder that Caishen clearly tried to have other kids in similar situations come over and visit. She was probably trying to help them as much as her daughter, knowing how they felt.
And yet, even as those thoughts came through my mind, I also couldn’t help but wonder how much she was getting information for the Ministry. After all, as much sense as all that other stuff made, she could just as easily be using it as an excuse to find out as much as she could for my parents. Just because she wasn’t the one in charge didn’t mean she had no connection to them, after all. We still had to dig through that data we’d stolen to find out if there was anything connecting her to them. At that moment, I made that a priority in my mind. I was going to triple-check everything and see if there was even the slightest sliver connecting her to the Ministry before Wren went over there.
“Yo, Earth to Paintball!” I was suddenly brought out of my musings when Sierra snapped her fingers in front of my face. “You okay?”
Jerking a bit, I looked around. They were all staring at me, clearly waiting. “I uhh, yeah, sorry. I was just thinking.” Even as I said that, my gaze caught sight of a couple cops approaching after having secured the area. “Here, you guys should head out. See that roof over there? Head that way. I’ll tell our friends here what happened, then meet you there.”
“You sure?” Paige asked. “We could all stick around.”
“No,” I quickly replied while shaking my head. “Don’t worry, I’ll take care of it. I mean, there’s no reason to make all of you sit here and talk to the cops. Go ahead, I’ll be there when it’s over.”
With varying degrees of reluctance, they headed out, and I took a deep breath before turning to face the officers, raising my hand. “Hey guys,” I started slowly.
“How’re your days going?”
After leaving the cops about fifteen minutes later once I’d given them all the information I could (and found in turn that there had been five other separate sightings over the past couple hours), I had just red-painted my way up to the nearby roof where I’d sent the others. No sooner had I landed and started to tell them how it went, than something caught my eye. It was Riddles, flying close to me before looping around to head toward a lower building. When I glanced that way, I could see Pack standing there, clearly waiting.
With a shrug to myself, I pointed her out to the others before giving them some paint protection. Once they were safe, I created a wide blue line to shoot all of us over to the other roof. Landing smoothly, I tried to sound cheerful. “Hey, what’s up? Birdwatching?” Behind and around me, the others landed.
Rather than joke back with me, or even address the rest of the group, Pack spoke flatly. “I need your help. You saw one of those zombie things, right?”
My head bobbed immediately. “Sure, I–wait, why do you need help with it? Is something wrong? Did you see one of them?”
Pack didn’t answer at first. Instead, she let out a breath, hand idly scratching Tuesday in his small form on her shoulder. “It’s more than that. It’s–”
“It’s me.” The new voice came from one side, as Broadway stepped into view. She sounded nervous, not at all the way I’d seen her before. “She wants you to help me. Because I think I know who’s behind these zombies.
“I’m pretty sure it’s my brother.”