Author: Cerulean

Summer Epilogue 18

Previous Chapter

As he parked the beat up old jalopy he drove in the staff lot of the Capital One Arena in D.C., the Heretic known as Broker glanced toward the boy in the passenger seat beside him. “You remember what I told you?”

Columbus nodded dutifully. “Don’t try to talk him into siding with the rebellion. Don’t try to talk him into picking any side. He’s neutral and he stays neutral. If I try to talk up our side he’ll—”

From the backseat, Shiori piped up, “Throw both of us out so fast our heads spin?”

Opening his door, Broker stepped out. “Correction, he’ll throw all of us out. And I’ll have lost any good grace I had with him. I went out on a limb to get you this meeting, kid. Don’t make me regret it.”

“We won’t,” Columbus promised, opening the other door while looking over his shoulder at the backseat. “Will we, boy?”

Giving a soft wuff of agreement, Vulcan waited for the back door to be opened before hopping down. Shiori followed suit. The metal dog cocked his head sideways as though listening for a moment before trotting over to a semi truck that was parked nearby. 

Watching the cyberform sniff for a moment, Columbus turned his attention back to Broker. “The others thought I shouldn’t meet with you. They thought it was a trap or something, because you’re still part of Crossroads.”

Shiori stepped beside her brother, adding, “Some of them were pretty adamant about it.”

The dark-skinned man chuckled, making his long, clearly dyed red braids bounce a bit as he shook his head with a flash of golden teeth as he smiled. “That’s why Prosser showed up to check things out first? Yeah, I figured it was something like that. Let’s just say maybe I inherited a little bit of my old mentor’s thing for neutrality. You seem to make a lot more money if you sell to everyone.”

Quietly, Shiori noted, “I guess we’re glad no one paid you enough to turn us in.”

To that, the man shook his head once more. “Betrayal’s bad business. It might pay off once or twice, but your customer base dries up damn quick. Fredericks taught me that too.”

Columbus, meanwhile, watched him for a moment before quietly noting, “I guess I shouldn’t try to talk you into choosing a side then either.”

Broker shrugged. “Consider it easy practice for not talking the big guy into it. Now come on, you wanna meet him or what?”

Before answering, Columbus looked around the almost completely empty lot. “Not very busy, huh? Does Fredericks still have security around here?”

“NBA and NHL are both in the off-season,” Broker pointed out. “And yeah, he has plenty of security. As your little friend there is about to find out.”

Blinking, Columbus turned to see Vulcan still curiously sniffing at one of the wheels of the silver and blue semi. His mouth opened to say something, only to stop short as the truck abruptly moved. Except it didn’t just pull forward or something simple like that. Instead, the sides of the truck cab bulged out and then extended down toward the ground. Several giant metal fingers appeared, while the back of the cab shifted and extended a pair of legs. The truck cab straightened up on those legs, a head that looked like that of a human in a full plate mail helmet appearing. 

Actually, Columbus realized, the whole thing looked like a guy in plate mail. Standing at its full impressive height of just over thirty feet, the silver and blue figure looked like an old knight combined with a…

“Transformer!?” he blurted out loud, eyes widening. For just a second, he actually forgot about everything else. “Holy shit, he made an actual Transformer?”

“Only because I asked very nicely.” The booming voice came from the upright robot itself, as he loomed over the pair. “You should’ve seen how many chores I had to agree to do.”

While Vulcan gave a single bark, Columbus  opened and shut his mouth a couple times, feeling like he needed to sit down. There was a high-pitched whining sound in his head. Wait, that wasn’t just in his head. It was coming from… 

He turned, to see his sister standing there, mouth hanging open as an incredibly high-pitched squeal escaped her. The girl’s eyes practically had stars in them, and she started a full-body shake that rose up from her toes, reached her head, then extended down her arms to her hands, making her fingers all-but vibrate. 

“Is… uhhh…” The knight-robot pointed a finger to her. “Is she okay?”

“Eeeeeeeeeee!” With that glorious, delighted squeal, Shiori suddenly raised that way, arms flailing wildly before throwing herself up against the standing figure’s metal leg in a tight hug. “Ohhh my God, you are so awesome! This is the coolest thing ever! Ever! Aaaaaaahhhhh!

Tilting his head to look down, the knight-cyberform asked, “She’s not letting go anytime soon, huh?”

“Kinda doubt it,” Columbus agreed. “Maybe if you told her what your name is so she doesn’t start calling you Optimus. Wait.” He paused, frowning. “Am I talking to an actual cyberform?”

A sound that was suspiciously similar to a cough escape the giant metal figure before he reached down to gently tap Shiori with one finger. “Milady?” He opened his hand then, offering it to the girl, who gave another high-pitched squeal before climbing on so that he could lift her up, depositing her on his shoulder.  

Finally, the ‘robot’ answered. “No, I’m not a cyberform the way you know them. I used to be a… person. I was about to die and Harrison transferred me into one of his little friends.”

“Wait.” Perched on his shoulder, Shiori piped up, “He can do that? You used to be like, a human or an Alter and he just put you in a cyberform body?”

The figure was briefly quiet before replying, “I was a bit of a special case.” Looking over toward Broker then, he added, “I’ve got it from here. Harrison says he wouldn’t mind having lunch on Sunday if you’re up for it.”

Shrugging, the adult Heretic replied, “Sure, he knows my number. Assuming he didn’t lose it again.” With a wink, he pivoted to head back to his car, calling over his shoulder, “Have fun, kids.”

From her high perch, Shiori called, “Thank you for introducing us to the coolest thing ever!” Belatedly, she amended, “I mean coolest… guy?”

“I like to think of myself as still male, yeah,” the figure in question replied. “Haven’t had much luck trying to convince Harrison to make it physically official, though.”

Columbus shook his head slowly back-and-forth. “I came here to meet the father of cyberforms, and now my sister is talking about robot penises with a Transformer.”

“I know,” Shiori blurted, “isn’t it great?! Err, the Transformer part. Wait, what do we call you?  Because seriously, I am really close to the whole Optimus thing.”

“As cool as that kind of universal crossover might be,” the metal man easily replied while watching Broker’s car pull out, “you can call me Galahad.”

That made both young Heretics and Vulcan do a double take as sounds of surprise escaped all of them. Columbus blurted, “Galahad? As in the Galahad?”

There was a brief pause, before the large metal man slowly answered, “Yeah, see, I know it might be hard for you to accept if you were raised as Bystanders, but Arthur was a real person and—”

“Hard for us to accept?” Shiori blurted. “Dude, we already know that Percival guy on the Committee is one of the knights. Not to mention, ya know, Guinevere is living at the camp with us. We are already completely brought up to speed on the whole Arthur thing.”

Galahad’s gaze snapped to the girl then, head turning and shifting back so he could stare at the girl as if she had become a second head attached to his shoulder. “The who in the what is staying where?”

Snorting at his reaction, Columbus spoke up. “She’s right, Guinevere’s at the camp. She was at the school, posing as a student.”

“And she kicked Ruthers’ ass,” Shiori noted with a grin. “It was awesome. But yeah, dude, we already know all about Arthur and all that. You’re really Galahad?” 

Columbus wasn’t sure how a face that looked like the front of a plate mail helmet could look flummoxed and taken aback, but Galahad managed it. He stared at both of them, switching his attention between looking at the girl on his shoulder, then at the boy on the ground, then back again, repeating that several times before he finally spoke. “Okay, well, I definitely wasn’t expecting that reaction. She’s… she’s really at the Atherby camp? I didn’t think she’d ever join up with…” He trailed off, managing another minor miracle by looking thoughtful. 

“You were one of Arthur’s knights?” Shiori hesitantly prompted, staring at him. 

Seeming to snap out of a deep well of memories, the tall robotic figure made a noise before shaking his head slightly. “No. I mean, yes. Sort of. Yes, I was… I was part of… of that group. But I was never officially…. I started as a–I was only. I–” He stopped then, head turning toward the stadium. “Oh, uh, we should head in.” 

“Head in?” Columbus stared at him a bit doubtfully. “How are–I mean you’re pretty–wait, what do people think they’re looking at when they see you?” 

“You mean Bystanders?” Galahad shrugged the shoulder that Shiori wasn’t sitting on. “Depends. Sometimes they forget me entirely. Sometimes they act like I’m a really tall guy. I think the Bystander Effect has its work cut out for it with me in this form.” 

“In this form?” Shiori jumped on. 

He reached a hand up once more, holding it out for her to climb on before lowering her back to the ground. “That’s right. This isn’t my only body. I’ve got a handful of them scattered all over the place that I can jump between. It’s ahh… useful. Hang on, I’ll lead you in with a different one.”

His current robot body shifted back into its truck form while the two adopted siblings watched in awe and fascination. Afterward, the two of them just sort of looked at one another, then to Vulcan, who whined quietly before moving to Shiori for head pats. 

They were waiting for only about thirty seconds before a man approached. The three looked that way, a bit uncertain. The man looked perfectly ordinary, just under six feet in height, with short brown hair very slightly unkempt, slightly tanned skin, and a cleanly shaven face. He wore nondescript jeans and a brown button-up shirt. 

“Uh,” Columbus started, “hi?” Beside him, Vulcan made a curious sound, sniffing once before huffing with what sounded like amusement. 

Giving them a brief smirk, the man raised a hand to wave. “Hi, yourself,” he replied. With those words, his appearance abruptly changed. The hologram of a normal person disappeared, revealing a metal humanoid shape beneath. His body was gleaming silver, with a glowing purple line running up both legs before joining into an arrow shape on his chest. His eyes were purple as well, and glowed just as brightly. When he spoke, it came through a speaker where his mouth would be. “You guys coming or what?” 

Vulcan, for his part, trotted over that way while making a woof sound that clearly translated as, ‘Yeah, come on already.’ 

Recovering quickly, Columbus and Shiori both nodded before moving. Galahad pivoted back the way he had come and began to lead them to the stadium. As they went, Columbus spoke up. “Oh, um, this is Shiori and I’m Columbus. And that’s Vulcan. You know that already, but our parents sort of taught us that it’s rude not to introduce yourself. I’m pretty sure they meant for us to do that before we go climbing all over someone though.” He added the last bit with a squint toward his sister.

“Dude, he was a giant Transformer,” Shiori retorted defensively. “Dad would totally understand.”

“I’m with her,” Galahad put in. “I mean, if it was me, I’d understand. I mean, it was me, but it wasn’t… I mean…”

Shiori leaned close to her brother, whispering, “I honestly don’t know which is cooler, that Galahad can be a giant transformer, or that he’s also kind of a massive dork.” 

Giving up on the semantics of what he was trying to say, the man clearly just opted to change the subject. “Right, so where was I? Oh yeah, I never actually met Arthur. I came later, after he was already… gone. My umm, my father’s people tried to kill me as a boy. Guinevere saved me. She raised me from the time I was a kid. Taught me everything I know, and… eventually knighted me.  

“So she’s kind of like a mother to you,” Shiori murmured. 

Making a soft chuckling sound, Galahad’s robot head tilted over toward the girl. “Yeah, you could say that Guinevere is like a mother to me and Lancelot is like a father. Which is kind of funny if you–” 

“Guinevere is also Lancelot,” Columbus finished for him. “She kinda gave that away too, back at the camp.” 

“Well shit, is she keeping any secrets anymore?” Galahad blurted, just as they reached a door on the side of the stadium marked for staff use only. There was a keypad there, and he reached out to hit a series of buttons until it beeped and turned green. Then he hauled the door open and gestured for them to head through. “Things must really be coming to a head if Gwen’s being open about stuff. That lady and her secrets…” 

As they walked through an ordinary looking corridor that could’ve been in any office building to a completely unlabeled door, Shiori asked, “If she meant so much to you, why did you leave?”

“Does it have to do with your, uhh condition?” Columbus added. 

Galahad opened the door and ushered them through into what appeared to be an unfinished room. “Yes, at least at first. I was… let’s just say I was magically cursed. I was going to die and there was nothing she could do about it. I didn’t want her to see me like that, and I didn’t want to see her get more and more desperate. So I left to die alone.”

Moving to the other side of the room, he reached up to the apparently blank wall and pushed something on it. There was a chime, and part of the wall slid aside to reveal an elevator. As the group stepped into the elevator, he continued. “Long story short, Harrison Fredericks found me and managed to transfer me into one of his cyberforms. He saved my life. But I wasn’t exactly… good with having robot bodies for a long time. It took a lot of effort and failure before I could control them properly.”

The elevator began to descend, as Columbus rested a hand on Vulcan’s head while speaking up. “That’s why you didn’t go back to Guinevere, at least right then?”

Galahad gave a brief nod of his metallic head. “That and I was ashamed of what I became, for awhile. Maybe it was stupid. Okay, it was definitely stupid. But I felt like I had lost who I was when I lost my body. I was a robot who couldn’t even control my arms and legs properly. It took me six months to figure out how to walk in a straight line. I didn’t want Guinevere to see me like that. After that, I just felt like I owed Harrison too much.”

As the elevator came to a stop, he added, “And by the time I felt like I could face her, I had no idea where they had moved on to. I didn’t know how to find them. She’s really good at hiding, let me tell you.”

The elevator doors opened to reveal a room whose size was truly mind-boggling. Despite the fact they had not gone down all that far, the ceiling appeared to be a good ten stories up. The room itself was circular, and the distance from one side to the other was the length of at least four football fields. Dozens of vehicles of all shapes, sizes, purposes, and conditions were scattered through the place, from bicycles to motorcycles to cars, trucks, full fighter jets, and even yachts. Various mechanical animals of literally any conceivable kind wandered or flew through the room as well, some in completely finished states, others barely more than a metal skeleton with wires and circuits hanging out. Tables piled high with equipment and tools were everywhere, along with blueprints, notes, odd ideas, and more scribbled on paper, on tables, on the side of passing cyberforms themselves (there was a half-finished cow with a sticky note on its rump about buying milk), and more. 

“Um,” Shiori started while pointing toward the far end of the room, “are those dinosaurs?” 

Sure enough, in a pen whose six foot fence seemed hilariously ill-equipped to hold them, a handful of cyberform dinosaurs, including a Triceratops, an Ankylosaurus, a Tyrannosaurus rex, and several others, wandered. 

“Yeah,” Galahad confirmed. “Harrison likes his dinosaurs. Don’t worry though, he’d never let anyone buy one of the big ones. He has a thing about keeping anything over a certain size for himself, or super-close friends. Helps maintain our neutrality.”

Stepping in front of them, he turned to spread both arms out as if to gesture around the entire facility. “Anyway, this is one of the labs. You like it? We, ahh, don’t get many visitors.”

“Wait,” Shiori realized, “one of the labs? You mean this isn’t the only one?”

Galahad chuckled. “The only one? No, there’s at least five more this same size. Some of them have more stuff than this, some of them have just one or two things that he wants to work on in private. I’m pretty sure he’s got a whale-Titanic thing in one of them. He keeps himself busy. Which is why meeting new people for once is a good thing.” Turning, he pointed toward a door on the far left side of the room, so far away it was barely visible, and only then because it was a different color than the wall. “So, you three ready to meet the man himself? Let’s go say hi.

“Oh, and if he’s in the dragon room, try not to make a lot of loud noises. They startle easily sometimes.”

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Patreon Snippets 9 (Heretical Edge)

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Hey guys! Here are (most) of this edition of Patreon snippets. There was one request for a bit from Summus Proelium, which is awesome to already have! After some thought, I’ve decided that mixing snippets from different stories could probably get confusing for anyone who is reading through only one or the other at any given time. So I’ve decided to keep them separate. But by the same token, one 500 word snippet is entirely too short for a whole chapter. Thus, we will simply have that stuck onto the end of the next actual Summus Proelium chapter as a sort of addition, with a quick note about what exactly it is. 

As a quick reminder,  the way these work is that every month, each Patreon supporter who donates at least ten dollars is able to request five hundred words toward any subject they would like to see written about (within reason), join their idea to others to make it longer, or hold it for future installments. All of my gratitude and thanks go to them for making this story possible. 

“Koraug, Teragn, Meyfers, Three-oh-oh-two, Three-oh-oh-three, Zaps, and Qork, with me!” The tall, blond man calling out names from a list stood in the doorway of a large barracks-like room. Hundreds of simple cots filled the room stretching off into the distance. At least, they looked simple at first glance. In reality, there was a powerful forcefield blocking each occupant from leaving their cot or the small area immediately around it. Not only that, but while most of the cots were of generally uniform size, there were some that were either much smaller for occupants who were actually tiny, all the way up to beds that were several times larger than normal. 

Gordon Kuhn’s father, a dark-skinned man with a neatly trimmed goatee named Sindri Koraug, rose from his bed as the forcefield dimmed. His eyes, pure silver with no white or pupil to them, glanced over the other six people that had been called as they all made their way to the Eden’s Garden Heretic who had summoned them. 

A second Heretic stepped into view, this one a younger-looking dark-haired female. “The hell, Coppe? Where’re you getting all those names from? Only thing on that list is the numbers.”

The blond man replied, “Simple, Pike, I’ve asked them what their names are before. The ones who gave me a name, I use. Three-oh-oh-two and Three-oh-oh-three haven’t.” With that, the man gestured to the assembled group. “Come on, big job today.” 

He turned to leave through the doorway, followed by Pike. Sindri glanced around at his companions as they filed through as well. Teragn was a male Orc, Meyfers a female Deitezen (a humanoid species with no hair, green skin, four eyes, and no mouth who communicated telepathically and also had telekinetic abilities), Zaps and Qork were both male Gafaiez (short, squat beings who looked like piles of rocks and crystals capable of generating lasers of varying intensity from the gems that were scattered throughout their bodies), and ‘Oh Two and ‘Oh Three were Trolls. 

The group walked together through the Heretic outpost. The world they were on didn’t have a name yet. It had only recently been discovered. This was the first exploration camp sent by Eden’s Garden. By the Lost Scar tribe, specifically, to whom Sindri and all of his companions belonged. The camp itself had only been set up a couple weeks earlier, and was essentially a circle of quickly-erected buildings set down in the middle of a clearing that had been created at the edge of a forest of gray-and-black trees. The dirt under their feet was a light orange, and a mountain that the camp was near was mostly black as well. 

Given the make-up of their group, Sindri had a pretty good guess of what their job would be. His assumption was born out as they were led right up to the side of that jagged, imposing mountain.

“Boss wants a defensive station,” Coppe explained. “That means cutting into this mountain so we can use it as a backdrop. That’s your jobs today. Cut into the hill here so we can start moving buildings in. There’s a design page here.” His hand extended a sheet of paper, which Sindri took. “Follow the illustration, come if you have any questions. There’s breakfast on the table there.” He pointed nearby. “Lunch will be in four hours. If you do a good job, you’ll get double allotments for dinner tonight. Any questions?” Receiving nothing but silent looks, the man nodded. “Good. Get busy. We’ll be watching.” 

As he turned to start in on the newest job, Sindri thought briefly about his wife and the son he had not seen for so long. Were they okay? Were they safe? He had to assume they were, as if any of his captors had known anything about them, he had no doubt he would have been killed to prevent any word of human-Alter genetic compatibility. 

And that was good enough. Whatever he had to do, wherever he had to work, as long as he was put to work and treated like any other slave, it meant they didn’t know about his son. Which meant his family wasn’t in immediate danger.. 

If it meant they’d stay that way, he…

*******

“… could move mountains,” Lincoln Chambers announced. “You know, before I found out that Jos literally could at some point. But not counting powers or anything, just force of personality. Talk at a mountain and make it decide to move.”

Lillian Patters looked up from the table where she and Lincoln were sitting on the porch of one of the cabins. “Joselyn has that effect on people.” 

With a small smile, Lincoln noted, “I asked her about Lillian, you know.” 

“You asked her about Lillian?” she echoed curiously. 

The man nodded. “I asked her where the name came from. She didn’t know. She just said it was a nice name, that it made her smile and… and that she felt like our daughter would be safe with that name. Like it would watch over her.” 

With a small smile as a pang of heartache swept through her, Lillian quietly replied, “I felt the same when I suggested my daughter use Joselyn for her daughter’s middle name.  It just felt right.” She looked away then, thinking about her old best friend, her sister in almost every respect. Memories, newly unlocked, flooded her mind. Too many to focus on. 

Finally, she breathed out, forcing herself to speak through a somewhat shaky voice. “It… must have been hard for you, to believe that she would just leave her family like that.” 

Lincoln didn’t respond at first. She looked up once more to see him gazing off into the distance. His voice, when he spoke, was soft. “I didn’t believe it at all for… maybe ever. I thought she was… taken, abducted, from the beginning. The message she left, the things people said they saw when she took off, the phone call to the station… none of it was convincing. Not for me. I just… I just knew she was in trouble. Someone had her, someone was hurting her. I knew it. So I… I tried to find her. For a couple months, it was all I focused on, following every lead, harassing her old deputies, calling the FBI every day.” 

Watching his face, Lillian pointed out, “It doesn’t sound like you really changed your mind.” 

He swallowed. “I guess I kind of made myself set it aside. Two months, and… and I had to put it away. There were no leads, no signs of her, no one was taking me seriously.” 

“But you wouldn’t have given up like that,” Lillian murmured. “Not after two months. What happened?” 

“Taddy,” Lincoln answered softly, looking over to her. “Taddy was… he was the stuffed raccoon that Jos gave Felicity when she was a baby. She loved that little guy more than anything. I was still working on the case, still trying to find Joselyn a couple months after she disappeared. It was… it was getting to me. I found one of her sweatshirts that she wore the night before she disappeared and was trying to go over it for any hairs or anything that weren’t hers, in case the guy who took her made contact earlier. I guess I kind of lost myself in it, and Felicity saw me. The next thing I knew, she…” He swallowed hard once more, breathing unsteadily. “She cut it apart. She ripped it into pieces. She destroyed it, to hurt her mother, because she thought her mom hurt me.” 

Lillian winced. “That’s when you decided to focus on raising her.” 

“Yeah,” Lincoln confirmed. “That’s when I knew that… that Joselyn would want me to make sure our daughter was okay. That’s where I put everything I had, on… on raising Felicity, on being there for her. Because I realized that I was obsessing so much on finding Jos that I could lose our daughter too. I… I had to choose which one to save. I chose Felicity.”

“That’s the choice Jos wanted you to make,” Lillian assured him. She hesitated then, before asking, “What about this Flick thing? I prefer Felicity, for the record.” 

“She decided she hated the name Felicity,” Lincoln informed her. “I… I couldn’t argue with her. It made things worse. She connected Felicity to her mother, since Jos loved that name so much. It was…” He paused. “It was actually… this year, at her birthday, when she finally said she wanted me to call her Felicity again. Here I thought it meant she’d made some big breakthrough about forgiving her mother. And she had. Little did I know she made that breakthrough because the psychotic piece of shit necromancer who took her mother to begin with showed up to gloat about it and tell her that her mother never chose to abandon her at all.” 

Lillian reached out to touch his arm, squeezing it. “You and Felicity have been through a lot this year.” Pausing, she amended, “You’ve been through a lot your whole lives, even if you didn’t know it.” 

With a soft chuckle, Lincoln nodded in agreement. “Tell me about it.” He checked his watch before standing. “But do it on the way to meeting Scott. I’m told you and he have some history.” 

“Some history?” Lillian snorted. “The boy owes me fifty dollars from one of his previous lives.” She glanced to Lincoln while standing. “That must’ve been a lot for you to take in too, this boy who grew up right in your view turning out to be a lot older than that.” 

“In the grand scheme of things, it’s one of the larger surprises, yes,” Lincoln confirmed, heading for the steps. “Kind of makes sense though. I always thought that kid’s musical taste was really old-fashioned.” 

Lillian started to respond to that, before her gaze moved to look off the porch. “Looks like we have company,” she announced with a smile at the sight of the young Seosten children rushing up to meet them, accompanied by their current (rather exhausted) babysitter. As the kids approached, they waved while loudly calling…

*******

“Walker!” 

The trio of voices chorusing his name made Jonathan Walker look up from the newspaper he had been reading while leaning against the black Mercedes that he drove for his employer. He watched as said employer’s three young children, two boys named Bart and Max who were in sixth and fifth grade respectively, and a fourth-grade girl named Erica, all ran from their school to meet him. 

“Hey, kids,” the man greeted, opening the back door of the car to let them all pile in with their backpacks. “How was school, oldest to youngest?” He walked around to the driver’s side then, getting in just in time for Bart to launch into the story of his day. 

Pulling away from the curb while listening to that with one ear, he glanced into the rearview mirror and caught sight of his own face. The way the shadows fell across them made it look as though he had two very black eyes. And in that brief second, he wasn’t in the car. He was transported back to that day forty-five years earlier, when so much had changed. 

He wasn’t born Jonathan Walker. He’d gone through several names and identities in his time, most of them bad ones. Johnny Walker just happened to be the brand of whisky that was used in the bottle that was broken over his head in the barfight that had resulted in him having two actual black eyes. 

The barfight he had lost against a normal human. He was a werewolf. A werewolf, and he had lost a fist fight with an ordinary human being. A human being named Arthur Chambers, in fact. 

That had been a wake-up call, but it wasn’t the only one. Seeing him lose a fight had made his pack abandon him. The man left on the floor of that bar with no pride, no pack, and nothing left in his life had decided to erase it all. He’d changed his name, changed his entire identity. He had remade himself, seeing that as the low point from which he would either lose himself literally, or metaphorically. 

He chose metaphorically, abandoning everything he had been. Taking the name of the last drink he’d had (as well as the one that had been broken over his head), the newly dubbed Jonathan Walker set out to educate himself, grow in every way he could, and eventually became bodyguard and driver for the rich and secretive. His current job, protecting these children, had only been a thing for a couple years. But it was already one of his favorite gigs. He loved these kids, and God help anyone who tried to hurt them. 

“Sounds great, Bart,” he spoke up then while guiding the car to a stop. “Just make sure you ask your mom or dad before having those kids over next week. You know the rules.” His eyes moved then to catch sight of the other boy. “Max, how’d that project go? You tell Miss Forter about Donny not doing his share?” 

Yes, getting the shit kicked out of him and being abandoned by his pack back in ‘73 had been a damn fine wake-up call. A lot had changed since then. For the better, as far as he was concerned. He was a different man. Without that beating, he had no idea what kind of person he would be today.

When all was said and done, he definitely owed Arthur Chambers a drink. 

******

“Four. You owe me four drinks,” Seamus Dornan informed his cousin. The red-haired man, who stood only five-foot seven inches, seemed smaller than that as he leaned over the bar scribbling notes on inventory papers. Given the time, the place was empty aside from himself and the man he was addressing. Roger Dornan, his cousin. 

Roger was an inch shorter than Seamus himself, and of even slighter stature. His own hair was a very light blond, worn down to his shoulders. At the moment, he was throwing darts at a nearby board. “We own a bar, dude,” Roger informed his cousin. “Put it on my tab.” 

“You do have a tab, you know,” Seamus retorted. “I’m keeping track of every drink you take. Every drink I know about,” he belatedly amended. “Just because we own the place doesn’t mean we get to take everything we want. We have to keep track of it, or you’ll put us out of business.” 

“And I am right on top of paying that back,” Roger distractedly and unconvincingly replied, judging his aim before throwing the dart. Halfway there, it multiplied into a dozen identical darts, all of which hit the board along the triple score band, with one hitting the exact center. “God, I am good.” 

Turning then, Roger asked, “How many are we moving this morning?” 

Flipping over a paper, Seamus replied, “Looks like nine. They’re waiting downstairs. Seven are anyway. We’re still waiting on a couple Rakshasa. Think you can get all the way to Wonderland without getting pulled over for speeding again?” 

The cousins, though they were Heretics graduated from Crossroads, had abandoned their former beliefs almost six years earlier after encountering a group of Stranger children and finding themselves both unable and unwilling to kill them or leave them to die (or direct other Heretics to the so-called threats). They’d taken care of the children, realized they couldn’t go on like that, and proceeded to fake their own deaths. 

From there, Roger and Seamus had made up new lives, purchased this bar to operate as their cover story, and began to work as transport experts, helping take fleeing Alters safely from one place to another. The two of them knew how Heretic checkpoints worked, could break the various enchantments used to track down Alters or alert Crossroads or Eden’s Garden about them, and in general could keep their charges safe. 

It wasn’t much, given everything going on, but Roger and Seamus both knew they had to do something, and with only the two of them, they didn’t dare openly go against the Establishment. Faking their deaths, using their inside knowledge to keep some Alters safe, developing contacts within that world who were only now, six years later, starting to trust them? That was something. Not much, but something. 

Then it hit. As Roger drew back his hand to throw another dart, and Seamus opened his mouth to tell his cousin to do something useful by checking on the group downstairs, both were hit by a sudden wave. A sudden rush of information… knowledge… revelations. It staggered the men, sending Seamus stumbling back a step while Roger collapsed into the nearest booth. 

Slowly, the two rose. Their gazes found one another, and the two men each spoke a single word, a single name, together. “Joselyn.” 

“She needs help,” Seamus announced, his voice cracking a little from the force of the memories and revelations still exploding through his mind. 

“Yeah,” Roger agreed, just as staggered. “But where the hell is she?” 

******

“Right in there.” 

Atop a dark roof several blocks from the glitz, glamor, and blinding lights of the Las Vegas strip, two figures stood. Their backs were to the neon paradise, attention focused instead on a building across the street. It was ostensibly a motel, though one that charged only by the hour (and in many cases, not even that much time was needed). More relevantly, it had been closed for the past week. Closed to new guests, anyway. But it was far from empty. There were lights on in many of the rooms throughout the six-story structure, and the parking lot was half-full. 

“Yeah,” Haiden Moon continued under his breath, “I’d say that’s where our friends are. Right there.”  

Beside him, Sariel nudged his arm and nodded upward toward a large winged figure on the roof. It was armed and watching for people like… well, like them. But Haiden wasn’t worried. The invisibility circle that his wife had drawn around them would stop their friend up there from noticing anything as long as they stayed within it. 

“Yeah,” Sariel agreed quietly, “I’d say this is definitely where those kids got dragged to.” There was a hardness to her voice that reminded Haiden just how personally his wife took someone putting children in danger. 

It made him smile a bit. Sure, the two of them having children was apparently impossible. But still, if they happened to adopt or… or anything in the future, it was good to know that the woman he loved was so great with kids. 

“What do you see?” Sariel asked him, her own gaze on the lookout, who had brought up his rifle to look through the scope toward the strip off in the distance. 

Haiden lowered his gaze from the sniper to the rest of the building, focusing on running through several different vision powers as he scanned the whole place. “They’ve got it pretty well shielded, but… looks like a large group of smaller energy sources on the third floor, near the middle, with three stronger sources around them.” 

“That’ll be the kids and the guys watching them,” Sariel murmured. “As close to the exact center of the building as they can get, to make it harder for any outside group to reach them before they portal away.” 

Haiden nodded. “That was my read too. Beyond that, a few dozen guys spread through the floors above, same amount below. There’s a small army in there, babe.” 

“The part of that they’re going to regret is ‘small,’” she informed him with a wink. “You ready for this? I don’t want to take the chance that they move those kids again, after taking this long to find them.” 

“Yup,” Haiden agreed, reaching into his trench coat before withdrawing four metal balls. He held them out, his attention on the building across the way as he pointed with his other hand. “See that window with the blue curtains? That one.” 

Sariel took one orb at a time, running her thumb across the spellwork inscribed in each before throwing them across the street to hit the each corner of that window. The metal balls struck the wall there before sticking firmly. Once all four were in place, they glowed red once before fading. 

The room was too magically protected to go straight through from the outside. The abductors had taken care to put a powerful shield around the space they had the children stashed. It would take too long to break through that shield before the men inside could portal themselves and their prisoners away. 

But the point of the orbs wasn’t to break through the shield. Instead, the orbs would use the forcefield, adding their own effect to it. An effect which would essentially stop any sound from outside the shield from penetrating, leaving those within deaf to anything going on outside of it. 

In other words, Haiden and Sariel could make as much noise as they wanted without alerting the people inside the room. 

“You want upstairs or downstairs?” Haiden idly asked, glancing to his wife. 

“You take downstairs,” she replied, leaning in to kiss his cheek. “I think angels are supposed to come from above.” 

With a small smile, Haiden nodded. “I guess you should stick to the brand, huh?” Running his hand through her hair, he watched for a second until their friend on the roof moved to another spot of it to check that direction. Then he moved to the edge. “Let’s do this then.” 

“Yes,” Sariel agreed, taking a few steps back before running forward. “Let’s.” 

Haiden held a hand out, waiting for his wife to get near before creating an energy platform about knee height. As Sariel leapt onto it, he made a heaving motion, sending it, and Sariel, flying up toward the top of the other building. That done, he stepped off the roof, falling several stories before landing lightly on his feet on the street, as though he’d simply stepped off the curb. Straightening, he walked toward the door of the motel. 

******

Leaping from the flung forcefield to land silently on the roof of the building, Sariel saw the tall, angular figure across from her spin that way. His rifle was already raised and ready to fire. But she was faster, her hand having lashed out to send the knife in it flying even as she landed. By the time the lookout had the barrel in line with her, the blade had already driven itself through his eye. As the weapon embedded itself there, it sent an electric shock through his body to ensure that his brain shut down entirely. He collapsed to the ground without firing a shot. 

Using her power, Sariel recalled the throwing dagger without breaking stride as she moved to the nearby hatch. Crouching, she checked the spell on it, taking a few seconds to carefully break the enchantment that would have signalled everyone below if anyone but the man lying dead on the other side of the roof had gone through. Once the spell was disabled, she opened the hatch and dropped through. 

*******

As Haiden strode toward the motel entrance, a figure stepped out to stop him. “Sorry, bud,” the man started before jerking to a halt, hand grabbing for a weapon inside his jacket as he blurted, “Heretic!” 

That was as far as the man got before Haiden abruptly appeared behind him, teleporting to the man’s back before catching him around the neck. “You know,” he murmured in the frantically struggling guy’s ear, “I’ve felt pretty guilty about willy nilly killing every non-human out there for a long time. But you? Someone who kidnaps little kids just to start a war they can profit off of? I’m not gonna feel guilty about you.” 

With that, he snapped the man’s neck with a single motion, letting the body fall as that familiar rush of pleasure went through him. He barely acknowledged it, already moving to the door. A man was there, starting to come through with his gun raised. Haiden, however, teleported across the remaining twenty feet or so in an instant, lashing out with his foot to kick the door. The blow sent it flying backward, crashing into the face of the man who was trying to come through. He stumbled, gun firing wildly twice through the gap that had been left. The bullets struck Haiden, but did nothing to penetrate his skin. 

“Dude,” Haiden informed the man while stepping through the doorway, “you’re gonna need a bigger gun.” 

Then he moved, his speed suddenly magnifying to the point that all the man in front of him would see was a blur, as he tore the extended gun from his grasp, crushing it in the same motion as he threw it away. His left hand caught the man’s side while his right held his head, and he hurled the guy sideways to crash into the wall with so much force that his skull was instantly caved in. Haiden was moving so fast in that moment that he actually spun around to the opposite wall and used it to cave the other side of the man’s head in before his death even set in. 

Another rush of pleasure, even as the sound of running footsteps filled the hall. 

*******

Landing lightly on her feet after dropping through the roof hatch, Sariel found herself standing directly between two men, with a third further down. Even as they started to react, she drove her elbow hard into the face of the man behind her while simultaneously shoving the blade in her other hand up through the throat of the one in front of her. Blood sprayed wildly from the wound as she dropped her elbow away from the first man, letting him double over, clutching his broken nose. Using that, she vaulted up and over his hunched form, landing on the far side of him even as the one further down the hall opened fire. Three of his shots hit the body of the man she had already killed, while it was still collapsing. Several more hit the wall right where she had been an instant earlier. 

The man who had been doubled over gave a shouted curse, pivoting to bring his own gun up toward her. But it was gone. The weapon in his hand had vanished, as had the one being held by his still-living partner. Both guns simply vanished from their hands. 

They reappeared in Sariel’s, one held against the near man’s cheek, while the other was aimed down the hall toward the man who had been holding it an instant earlier. Each fired once, the resulting shots putting their respective owners on the ground. 

Tossing the guns to either side, Sariel retrieved her knife from the first man’s throat before jogging for the stairs. 

******

Seven men flooded the hallway ahead of Haiden, rifles raised or hands brimming with energy of their own. One held barely-contained lightning between his palms that was ready to lash out at the threat. All of them came rushing through, saw the Heretic ahead of them, and moved to open fire. 

Just as abruptly, they jerked aside as his black sword was hurled their way. It sailed past the men, embedding itself in an open door somewhere behind them. There was the slightest pause as the group looked from the apparently wildly thrown sword, then back to the Heretic. 

“Uh,” Haiden started with a small smile, “could I get a do-over?” 

Apparently not, as all seven of the men suddenly opened fire. Bullets, lasers, fire, and lightning were sent his way, while Haiden made a pulling gesture with his hand. A sudden pillar of rock broke through the floor, rising up to impose itself between him and the incoming shots. It instantly shuddered under the assault, unable to hold up for long. 

But that was okay. It didn’t need to hold for long. Safe behind his rock wall for the moment, Haiden gave a sharp whistle. Down the hall, beyond where the men stood, his sword reacted. The black blade slid apart right where the glowing red line was, and a pair of gun barrels popped out. They swiveled around to face behind the sword before opening fire to take the gathered troops completely by surprise. 

Several of the men were cut down almost instantly, and Haiden gasped his way through the pleasure of that before forcing himself to focus. A thought and a gesture with both hands broke what remained of the rock pillar into two balls, which he quickly reshaped into spears and sent flying that way. Two of the remaining four men were taken down as the rock spears went right through their backs when they spun to face the sword. The remaining two tried to run for it, sprinting past the sword while the guns swiveled to follow them. Haiden, however, quickly teleported that way. His foot lashed out to kick one of the running men into the nearby wall, while he yanked his sword free and spun, throwing it once more. This time, the blade went right through the last guy, impaling him against the wall. 

“Do-don’t-” the man that he had kicked into the wall used the second he had as his partner’s death gave the Heretic a brief rush of pleasure to plead through the blood that soaked his face. “Just a job. It was just a job. Nothing personal.” 

Haiden lifted his chin. “My friend,” he replied, “that job was kidnapping little children.” He grabbed the man by the throat with one hand, lifting him up before making a gesture that made a rocky spike pop out of the nearby wall. “I take that very personally.” With those words, he gave a sharp shove, impaling the back of the man’s head on the spike before turning away as his aura flared up. 

******

Eventually, Haiden and Sariel met at the door of their destination. Dozens of bodies lay around them, the last stand of the guards who lay outside of the hostage room, while dozens more littered the other floors of the hotel. 

“Chinese,” Haiden informed his wife while flicking blood and… other bodily remains off his blade. “We should totally have Chinese after this. I’m starving.” 

“Once the kids are safe,” Sariel reminded him. “And you’re always starving.” 

“I work up an appetite,” he defended himself, moving to one side of the door. “Let’s see…” He focused his vision on the door, looking through it as he judged locations of the energy signatures. With a flick of his hand, he made an image appear on the nearby wall, a roughly drawn outline of the room beyond. He sketched out the square of the room, showing where the door they were standing by was, then drew in the small circles of the children in the middle, along with the exact locations of each of the three guards. One was just behind the door, one in the far corner, and one standing just over the kids. “Got it?” 

Sariel gave a short nod, cracking her neck before producing her knife in one hand and a small rubber ball with a spell inscribed on it in the other. “Go.” 

He went. Haiden kicked the door off its hinges, already hurling himself through to tackle the nearby man to the ground. 

In the same moment, Sariel hurled the knife with one hand and the ball with the other. The knife flew straight through the eye of the man in the corner, dropping him an instant before the ball bounced off the wall where he had just been standing. The ball rebounded off that wall, flying toward the remaining guard, who ducked out of the way. 

Then Sariel activated the spell on the ball, teleporting herself to it. She appeared behind the man, a second knife appearing in her hand. She drove it through his ear, triggering the brain-killing shock on the blade before giving his collapsing body a shove over the nearby bed. 

Eight children, none older than ten, sat on the floor of the motel room, staring at her and Haiden as the man rose from the body of his own target. They huddled together, a few already starting to cry, while others rose protectively in front of their frightened friends. 

“It’s okay,” Sariel assured them, making her knife disappear as she took a knee in front of the kids. Her voice was as gentle as she could make it. “It’s alright. Your parents sent us to bring you all home. You’re safe now.” 

As safe as they could be, that was, while being the youngest children of the Three Families, the trio of Akharu, Vestil, and Oni who ran Las Vegas. Their abductors had intended to renew the bloody war that had been put on tentative truce for years now. The vampires had always hated the Vestil, and both hated the Oni. But the vampires and the mages had joined forces against the Asian demons, before one of the Akharu leadership’s sons had fallen for and married one of the Vestil princesses. That locked the local vampires and mages into a somewhat shaky alliance that the Oni didn’t want to risk dealing with. So, all three sides existed in something resembling a truce, controlling different parts of Las Vegas proper, with the strip considered neutral territory. 

With their children gone and all of them blaming each other, the war would have been rekindled. Sariel and Haiden had been hired to find the kids before that happened. 

It was a living. And with their children returned to them, Haiden and Sariel’s anonymity and protection within Vegas would be assured by the Three Families themselves. 

For awhile, at least… they would be safe here. 

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Pursuit 4-04 (Summus Proelium)

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Spinning back to the other two, I blurted, “Okay, all those guys have either powers or guns or both. The point is, we need to get out of here. Like, now now. Is that remote gonna help us leave?” As I was speaking, I made three separate lines of green paint, running from my ankle up to my waist, appear on my right leg. A second later, I did the same on my left leg with purple paint. I didn’t power it, I just made it appear. 

One of the guys I had handcuffed called out, “Or you could fucking surrender, hijo de puta! Maybe Cuélebre’ll actually let you keep one of your lungs!”

Fred stared at the man for a moment, while Wren started running back toward her lab. “This way!” With a grunt, the man turned back to follow his niece. I was right behind him. 

Just as we reached the spot where the stairs were, a hail of gunfire greeted us from below, making all three of us duck back away from them. Apparently the first group had made it through the doors down there and were already shooting. Which seemed like a really stupid way to get information out of any of us, but what did I know?

Someone down there must have agreed with me, however, because I heard frantic shouting to stop shooting. Then a new voice called up, “Hey! You give us the guy, or the thing he stole from that bank. Either way, then we leave you alone! You got it? That’s a good deal, right?”

I had a real bad feeling that they weren’t going to listen if we just told them we didn’t have either of those. I also saw Fred’s mouth opening to say so, so I shot a small glob of black paint to silence him before whispering, “The only reason they’re not rushing up those stairs right now and shooting all of us is because they think we might have what they want. Let’s not give them a reason to doubt that.” 

Raising my voice then, I called, “These things are worth a lot! You think we’re just gonna let you take them?” As I said those words, three triangles appeared on my left arm, along with three circles, and three stars. The triangles were orange, the circles purple, and the stars green. 

While a loud burst of murmuring started from the people below, I thought quickly before looking back the way we had come. Using red paint, I pulled two of the discarded guns to me, catching them in either hand.

“Do you even know how to use those?” Fred hissed, clutching his own weapon. 

From below, the guy who had spoken before called up, “You know, you’re in a bad position! But maybe we can work something out! Say, you walk out with a cool hundred grand!”

Shaking my head to Fred’s question, I focused on painting the guns in my hand white while calling back, “Hundred grand out of three million isn’t much of a share!”

While they were reacting to that below, I looked to the others. “On the count of three, run for it. One… two…”

I threw both guns over the edge of the stairs them, letting them fall a bit before triggering the paint. There was a sudden bright flash and screams from the men who were blinded. 

“Three!” I blurted, already scrambling to my feet to run across the opening. Guns were going off, but we were already past the opening and on our way into the lab.

The second we were through, Wren blurted some kind of code, and a heavy steel door fell into place. Hopefully that would buy us a little bit of time, though I had no idea how many of the Oscuro Touched had shown up. I was racking my brain, trying to remember what powers we had to deal with. But it was hard to think through all the panic. 

Wren was moving toward one of the tables of random junk, digging through it for something. Meanwhile, Fred looked to me. “You really think you can get us away from these assholes even if we get out of the building?”

For a second, I was quiet before nodding. “If we can get to the roof, I think I can get us to another building. Then we can go from there. But I don’t see what we’re supposed to be doing in this—”

“Got ‘em!” Wren blurted. We both looked that way to see her triumphantly holding up a pack of batteries. She took four out and shoved them into the remote I’d gotten for her, then hit a button on it. As she did so, part of the roof above us immediately began to retract. It slid aside, revealing open sky. 

“I like to see the stars sometimes,” the girl explained with a shrug before gesturing to the opening. “Are you guys coming, or what?” Even as she spoke, her dragonfly-like wings popped out of that harness once more and she hovered up off the floor. “Come on!” Her hand snapped out to grab a backpack that she had apparently thrown some things into before rising. 

“Kid,” Fred started, “how the hell am I supposed t—”

By that point, I had finished filling some of the blank space between the lines I’d made earlier with new purple, and sprayed a circle of blue under our feet. In the middle of the man’s sentence, I wrapped my arms around him, then triggered that purple bit and the blue on the floor all at once as I leapt. Between the new strength in my legs, and the boost from the blue circle, I completely cleared the hole in the roof, while Fred screamed in my ear. Really should’ve hit him with black paint again.

Landing easily on the roof, I let the man go. He stumbled to his knees and panted as Wren hovered nearby on her mechanical wings. 

Meanwhile, below us, there was a sudden commotion. I looked down through the hole in time to see the heavy steel door melt into slag. One of the Oscuro Touched came through, accompanied by several foot soldiers. I recognized the guy immediately, thanks to his long red leather trench coat and matching welding mask. His name was Coverfire, and his powers allowed him to sheath himself in a very close force field that was immune to most damage and also so hot it could basically melt through anything. 

Coverfire looked up through the hole in the roof and started to shout something, just as Wren hit the button to make it close once more. “Kay!” She chirped while gripping that backpack with one hand. “We can leave now.”

Right. Quickly, I sprayed a line of blue paint down near the edge of the roof. “Fred and I are going to jump off that circle there. It should get us to the next roof. From there, we can drop down and run. Wren, can your uhhh, wing… things keep up with that?” At her quick nod, I breathed out. “Okay, then let’s do it.”

“Wait, wait,” Fred blurted, “are you sure this is gonna work?” His eyes were wide with panic. 

Shrugging at him, I pointed to the spot of roof where the hatch was. It was already glowing red. Somehow, Coverfire was able to get high enough to start melting through it. I didn’t know how, since I was pretty sure he couldn’t fly, but I wasn’t going to question it. “You could always stay and talk it out with them.”

Grimacing, the man spun toward the blue circle and ran for it. I was right behind him, with Wren flying alongside us. I caught up easily, and we jumped on the blue circle just as I activated it, using that to launch ourselves over to the next building. 

We came down on the roof. Fred basically crashed into a heap, rolling with his fall as he cursed the whole way. Meanwhile, I painted my feet orange and landed easily in a crouch. While straightening up, I painted a sort of… comet shape on my chest. It was mostly orange, with a bit of black as an outline, along with purple and green flames trailing behind it.

We’d made it. We were off the first building. Now all we had to do was get down off the other side out of sight before they got people up on the roof, and then—

Fred suddenly started cursing extensively, and I quickly looked that way to see him peering off the edge of the roof near the shop we had just left. Moving that way, I looked down. 

Unfortunately, I didn’t have to look that far to see what he was staring at. The figure below was about half the height of the two-story building we were standing on. Fifteen feet tall, with enormous bat-like wings, dark blue-violet skin, and a long bladed tail, he was instantly recognizable. 

Cuélebre. It was Cuélebre, the leader of Oscuro. And he was looking right at me, a slow smile appearing on his enormous face. 

I didn’t stop to think. My hand snapped out and I grabbed the backpack out of Wren’s hands while blurting, “I’ll get it back to you, get outta here!”

With those words, I leapt off the side of the building while hauling the bag onto my shoulder. Painting my feet orange once more at the last instant, I landed on the ground just a short distance away from Cuélebre. Then I looked up. 

Ohhhh God. Oh fuck. Oh shit, shit, shit. He was even bigger from this angle. He was fucking gigantic. He was an enormous demon, watching me with a wry smirk on his face, which itself was clearly recognizable as a Latino man, even if it was purplish-blue. He was a fifteen foot tall, hugely muscular winged demon standing at his full, impressive height. Meanwhile, even when I was standing up, I barely topped five feet. And I wasn’t standing, I’d landed in a crouch. 

I looked like a mouse he might step on. 

“Well,” the man announced with obvious amusement, “this does save me the few seconds it would take to chase you down. I wasn’t expecting you to be this cooperative.” 

Strangely, for a man whose entire thing was to create a gang consisting only of Latino members, Cuélebre spoke with literally no accent. If I had closed my eyes, I could have believed that I was hearing any old white guy talking. And I dearly, dearly wanted to close my eyes. 

Instead, I rose to my much less-than-impressive height, squared my shoulders, and looked up at the man. “Your friend in there wanted to rip me off. A hundred thousand off of three million after all the work I’ve put into finding these— those vials? Why don’t you make a better offer and maybe I’ll tell you where they are?”

For a moment, the giant figure in front of me stared as though finding it difficult to believe I was that stupid. Behind him, some of his foot soldiers chuckled, saying some things in Spanish. 

“Well,” Cuélebre slowly drawled, “we could stand here and negotiate. Or you could hand over that bag.”

Making myself look at it quickly and, I hoped, expressing guilt in my body language and voice, I blurted, “What do you want my bag for?”

The smirk grew, and his tail suddenly flashed forward, stopping right in front of me as though waiting for me to place the bag on the bladed tip. “Call it a hunch.”

Shifting from one foot to the other, I hesitantly replied, “Well, I… I suppose… if you want the bag…”

My hands snapped up and back over my head, pointing to the roof of the building across the street while I finished with, “You can come get it!”

Before he or the others could react, the red paint I had just shot and connected to my red gloves yanked me up and backwards. I heard the man shout a curse as I was hauled across the street, spinning over in the air to face that way. 

Hearing gunfire and shouting behind me, I released the red paint and tucked my legs to overshoot the roof. Landing in a sprint, I raced for the opposite edge of the roof while painting the blank space on my legs green to speed myself up. 

Chancing a peek over my shoulder as I reached the edge of the roof, I saw Cuélebre as he hurled himself into the air, his wings beating down hard. He could fly. He was going to catch up with me pretty damn quick if I didn’t hurry the hell up. 

Hitting the edge of the roof, I leapt, snapping my hand out and shooting a glob of red paint at a billboard in the distance to yank myself that way. Behind me, I could hear my terrifying pursuer’s wings beating the air. Faster, Cassidy, go faster!

Landing on top of the billboard, I ran along it while Cuélebre shouted for me to stop. He was soaring over the roof I had just left, as I turned my feet purple for a bit of a boost and leapt from the billboard to another roof a short distance below. In mid-air, I spoke the code to make my skates pop out, landing smoothly right on the raised brick lip at the edge of the roof before rolling along it. 

Everything had started too quick for me to really think about what I was doing. My only thought had been to get this guy away from Wren and Fred. And now? Well, now I was basically running in a blind panic. If he caught me, and even worse, if he found out I didn’t really have the vials but had purposely tricked him into thinking I did so he would chase me? I really didn’t want to think about what he would do. Didn’t want to think about it at all

Less thinking, more running, skating, jumping, and fleeing. 

Hitting the edge of the new roof just as Cuélebre came down hard right behind me with enough force to shake the building, I shot a bit of blue paint right at the corner, launching myself upward and forward right before the man’s giant hand swept through the air where I had just been.

“Have you thought about working for my school?!” I half-frantically called back to him while landing against the wall of a taller building, using red paint on my right hand and right foot to hold myself there with a quick glance that way. “They could really use you as a truant officer!” 

Why was I trying to piss him off even more? The guy was already mad enough and definitely following me. I let out an almost cartoon-like meep as the giant demon-figure hurled himself off the last roof toward me, and used a line of red to yank myself away, back to the next roof over.

I landed on my wheels, activated one of the green lines on my legs. This is what they were for. I–well, I hadn’t known that I’d be running from fucking Cuélebre, but having paint made in advance had seemed like a good idea after what happened back in the shop. And it was sure coming in handy now. 

Glancing over my shoulder that time turned out to be a good thing, because Cuélebre was hovering in the air with his tail up, bladed end pointed at me while sparks danced around it. 

Oh shi–I dove sideways, activating a green mark on my leg and one of the orange triangles on my arm. An instant later, a bolt of lightning shot from the end of the man’s tail, slamming into the spot where I had been. He’d clearly toned the shot down from what he was capable of, trying to stun me rather than kill me (I’d seen news footage of a full-power shot from that tail taking out a car). Even then, it blew some of the bricks from the roof away, singing others. 

I was wrong, he hadn’t just been trying to stun me. He’d been trying to blow at least one of my feet off, if not a whole leg. 

Of course, things weren’t done getting worse. Even as I picked myself up from where I’d haphazardly thrown myself into the middle of the roof, I could see sparks dancing out from the impact site where the bolt had hit. It looked like static electricity or something dancing around the rubble there. Then, one by one, the broken pieces of metal, stone, and brick lifted themselves into the air. 

Yeah, because having a lightning doom cannon attached to his tail wasn’t enough. The guy could dial the damage on the shot all the way from ‘blow through a car’ down to ‘stings a little bit,’ and every time one of his shots hit something, it sent out those bits of electricity that gave the man telekinetic-like control of any non-living material they hit. 

So to recap, Cuélebre was a giant demon with flight, vast super-strength, was basically invulnerable, had a lightning cannon for a tail, and could telekinetically control anything said lightning hit and didn’t destroy. I, meanwhile, had… paint. Whoever’s idea it was for me to pick a fight with this guy was an idiot. 

Oh. Right. 

Ducking as two larger bits of debris were hurled at my head, I shot a quick wave of yellow over the rest of the debris, hoping that the slowing effect would keep them off me as I spun to run away. In the process, I activated another line of green paint on my legs as well as one of the green stars on my arm just to boost myself even further. Then I hauled ass, running to the edge of the roof. 

Cuélebre was right above and behind me. I leapt from the roof, using red paint to yank myself to the next building over before skating along the wall. He sent several more shots around me, narrowly missing with each one, mostly thanks to the green paint keeping me going faster than he expected. Each shot blew bits of the building away, adding more to the debris that he kept flinging my way. I had to keep activating the orange triangles to avoid being knocked off the wall. 

From that building, I jumped to the roof of another and kept going. Run, run, run, ruuuuun! 

He was there. He was always there, right on my heels. I raced through the city, leaping from roof to roof, saved from screaming in a blind panic only by the fact that all of my breath was going toward running. If he caught me, if he caught me…

Eventually, I hit the edge of yet another roof. I could see a covered pedestrian bridge in the distance connecting two buildings in the nearby business park. As I ran for it, I’d barely crossed about three quarters of the roof when the whole thing shook under me as Cuélebre landed with a guttural roar that practically made me pee myself for like the seventeenth time in the past ten minutes. I didn’t dare look back. I didn’t need to, considering I could practically feel his breath on my neck. 

I heard and felt him lunge. It was too soon, I wasn’t going to make it. My only chance to avoid being caught and probably killed was…

I jumped. Using the last of the purple lines on my leg, I hurled myself straight up into the air rather than forward. I felt his massive form pass by right under me while I turned in a flip in mid-air, landing in a crouch on his back. His wings beat hard against the air, nearly knocking me off while the man himself let out a grunt of surprise. 

Oh my God, oh my God, oh my God! I was literally riding on the back of one of the most powerful and dangerous Touched in the tri-state area. And from the sound of things, he wasn’t exactly thrilled by that fact. That tail of his was already whipping up and around to smack me off of him. 

Quickly, I shot one glob of red paint at the incoming tail and another glob to the roof. My ten seconds on the purple paint wasn’t up yet, so I hurled myself up off of him while activating the red paint. “No thanks!” I called while his tail was yanked down, “I’ll just get off here!”

In the air, I snapped my hand out and shot another bit of red at the bridge across the lot. Cuélebre was already recovering, snapping his tail away from my paint, breaking the hold it had. The bladed end cut through the air right where I had been an instant before my new paint yanked me away. Giddy from my escape, I yelled back, “Seriously, truant officer, you could wear a cute little vest!”  

Soaring toward the bridge, I tucked my legs up to clear the railing and landed right inside between a couple of startled onlookers. 

“Are you stupid?!” I blurted without thinking. “Run!” 

Both of the men screamed, as a loud crunch filled the air and part of the roof of the bridge dented inward. Cuélebre was here. 

With a shriek of tearing metal, his tail was driven through the roof of the bridge. It narrowly missed everyone before being retracted lightning quick to come down again. That time, it came within a few hairs of splitting one of the men in half. 

Cursing myself (and them, to be honest), I painted part of my arms purple and lunged that way. I managed to catch hold of the tail and held on for dear life with one arm while grabbing onto the nearby railing with the other. “Run!” I repeated to the men who were frozen in terror. 

Thank fuck, they ran. Cuélebre tried to retract his tail again, but I was still holding on. For a second, anyway. I could feel his strength completely outstripping mine. He was going to rip that tail out of my grip, or rip me in half. Whichever came first.

Or, he was going to punch a hole through the roof with his fist, rip it open and glare down at me. Yeah, that was the one he went with. 

“Uhhhh…” I gave him an awkward nod while still clinging to his tail. “Sup?”

With a snarl, the demonic-man went to grab me. But I reacted quicker, releasing his tail and the railing. The purple paint was done anyway. Falling onto my back in the middle of the bridge as his groping hand narrowly missed me, I threw myself into a backward roll before he could correct his aim. The bag came off my back, but I snatched it up just in time while scrambling to my feet. Then I was running along the bridge, hearing the sound of Cuélebre scrambling along the roof above me while the whole structure shook around us. Every once in awhile, one of his hands would punch through the roof, or his tail would come lashing in from the side. I was running, ducking, rolling, jumping, twisting, doing everything to avoid him. His fingers would nearly catch my head before I rolled under them. His tail would sweep in and I would leap up and over it. He was only missing by millimeters. The end of the bridge leading into the building was close, but so was he. 

“Shit, shit, shit, fuck, shit, fuck!” My stunning verbal skills throughout this leg of my frantic escape were sure to win me an astounding number of grammatical awards. 

But I was there. I was right there, almost into the building. Unfortunately, Cuélebre noticed how close we were too, and leapt ahead. Just before I had a chance to get into the building proper, the enormous demonic figure literally slammed his entire body down through both the roof and floor. The whole end of it broke apart with a terrifying crash, shattering into pieces to leave a gap between the end of the bridge and the building. Cuélebre himself hovered there, glaring at me. Even better, the damage we’d done to the bridge was extensive enough that the whole thing was starting to collapse. With a loud grinding, tearing noise, the structure was swaying. The floor was literally starting to fall out from under me. 

Oh, and there were people far below who were staring up like idiots while the pieces of the bridge slowly began to collapse. The whole thing would fall any second, and they were just standing there. So, this whole thing was just… lovely, really. 

Activating the green comet flames on my shirt to speed myself up, I simultaneously turned the backpack white, with a small red circle, hurling the bag up toward my relentless pursuer. Reflexively, his gaze snapped to it, just as I triggered the blinding flash. He recoiled, buying me a second or two. 

In the meantime, I was falling through the air. Flipping over, I turned my feet red and used a quick shot to attach myself to the side of the building, facing downward toward the two idiot rubberneckers. Perched there, I pointed one arm at them while pointing my other hand a short distance away. Red paint sprayed from both, coating the two and a nearby park bench. As it activated, the onlookers were yanked off their feet and hurled sideways to crash into the bench an instant before the collapsing bridge completely gave up and crashed down right where they had been standing. 

Meanwhile, Cuélebre had recovered already and was grabbing for the bag. But I activated the spot of red I’d left on it while holding a red glove up, and the thing flew right between his hands and into mine.

Yeah, I could’ve just let him have it, but something told me that while it didn’t have the medicine, any Tech-Touched stuff Wren might have in there wouldn’t be good for him to get either. Or she could have family mementos, and I didn’t want to lose those either. 

Before I could move, Cuélebre was there. Hovering right in front of me, his massive hand caught hold of my body. I was suddenly crushed in his grip, while he glared. “That,” he announced as I felt sharp pain spreading, my bones seconds away from collapsing under the force, “is quite enough of that, little boy. You could have done this the easy way. But now, I think I prefer the–” 

He was gone. No, I was gone. I was somewhere else. Suddenly, I wasn’t in his grasp. I was standing in a parking lot somewhere. With a yelp, I stumbled and fell onto my backside. 

“Sorry!” Wren was there, hovering over me with an apologetic look. “It took a few minutes to get to the van, and then we had to set up the teleporter, and wait for you to have the bag back so we could use the beacon in it. Are you okay?” 

Beacon… teleporter… van… I was… I was safe. I was away from the demonic asshole. I wasn’t dead. 

I wasn’t dead! 

“We’re okay?” I asked a bit shakily. “We’re safe? No one’s around?” 

Her head bobbed up and down. “Uh huh. We weren’t followed or anything. No one’s here.” 

“Okay.” Slowly pushing myself up, I murmured, “Excuse me for just a second, okay?” As gracefully and carefully as possible, I stood, stepped away from the girl… and then proceeded to pump my fists in the air, jumping up and down as I cackled madly, laughing so hard I nearly peed myself. 

“Yes, yes, yes! Haaaaaa ha ha! Haaaaa! Take that, you giant demon asshole! What’d you get out of all that, huh? What’d you get out of chasing me? Tired! That’s what you got! 

“Hah!” 

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Pursuit 4-03 (Summus Proelium)

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“Uncle Fred?” Wren sounded confused from behind me. “What do you mean, you made a deal? He wanted to break into a bank vault. We don’t help bank robbers, remember?” 

Fred sighed, but kept his fancy looking gun pointed at me. I wasn’t sure what it did, so I didn’t trust my orange paint to protect me from it. I could try yanking it from his hands, but my paint wasn’t exactly instantaneous. He could fire before my paint managed to reach him and activate. Yeah, that was a bad idea. I had to wait for an opening.

“No,” the man was saying, “you don’t help bank robbers. Do you have any idea how much money he offered? Do you have any idea how many new tools and supplies we can get with that? You may be a genius at inventing stuff, kid, but you don’t know shit about the real world. So he was going to rob a bank, so what? All that shit is insured anyway, so who does it hurt?”

Taking that as my cue, I spoke up flatly. “It hurts the little girl whose medicine was in that bank before he stole it. That’s why he wanted to get into the bank in the first place. He stole her medicine and he’s going to let her die because he’s mad at her father.” That was kind of an oversimplification, yet at the same time, not. It was what mattered right now. 

Fred squinted at me, shaking his head. “The hell are you talking about? Why would someone keep medicine in a bank vault? That doesn’t even make sense. You’re just making shit up for sympathy.”

Shaking my head at him, I retorted, “No, I’m not. Look, the medicine belongs to La Casa, okay? It was their bank, their medicine. But that doesn’t matter. What matters is that the little girl the medicine is for isn’t a part of that, and she is going to die unless you help me figure out where the guy went. Why did he call you yesterday? What did he want? Maybe you wanted or… or needed to make money, and okay, I understand that. But I know you didn’t want to let a little girl die. You take care of this girl.” I gestured over my shoulder without taking my eyes off of him. “Would you just let someone like her die if you could help it?”

I was really, really hoping the answer was no. Otherwise, I was still trying to think of what I could do. Shooting any paint anywhere would probably make him pull the trigger. Suddenly, I really wished I could make paint appear places besides myself without actively shooting at there. It would’ve been really useful. 

“Are you stupid, kid?” the man snapped. “Maybe I’m just a little sick of just barely scraping by when the kid’s power could make us millionaires. Half the time, she won’t sell the shit she makes because it’s ‘too dangerous’, and when she does sell it, she puts the money into building more shit. So yeah, just once I saw the chance to make some real money by handing off something she’d never notice missing. You know what we got for it? Fifty thousand dollars. That’s right, fifty k. You know what I did with some of that money? I took care of my brother’s and his wife’s hospital and funeral bills that the sons of bitches wouldn’t stop hounding me about.”

Behind me, Wren’s voice was quiet. “I would have built something we could sell if you told me we were having problems paying Mom and Dad’s bill, Uncle Fred.”

“It’s more than that,” the man snapped. “Look at what you can do! Look at what you can build. We could be on the top of the world. But you’d rather live in this… place. I’ve got the rest of that money, and I’ve been looking into getting us a real lab, a real workshop where you can do real work. A place where we can get out of this… this worthless junk heap.”

Wren sounded even more hurt, her voice softer than before. “But this was Dad’s shop. We can’t leave, it’s… home.” 

“It’s garbage!” he insisted. “You think your dad wanted you to live like this forever? He wanted you to have a better life, a better place. And you could get that anytime you wanted with what you can build. You’ve got everything right in the palm of your hand if you would just take it. You build and patent some of these things for us and we could be living like the goddamn Evans family!”

Hearing my family’s name made me start a little bit, flushing a little under the mask and helmet. It wasn’t the first time I’ve heard people talk about my parents’ money like that. But in this kind of context… yeah, it made me uncomfortable. 

Speaking up from behind me once more, Wren politely informed the man, “I don’t want to live like that. I like living like this. I like making whatever I want and not having to listen to what other people want me to make. I don’t want people to use what I make to hurt people. I won’t do that.” Her voice was plaintive. “Uncle Fred, if he’s right and some other kid dies because of something I made, I’ll never forgive you.”

A long, wild sigh escaped the man. “God damn it, kid. I’m telling you, he’s making shit up for sympathy. He—”

Before the man could continue, there was a loud chime from somewhere off behind me. Reflexively, I looked that way. It was coming from that security camera screen. On it, we could see the image of the front room of the shop downstairs. The door was standing open, and a line of figures were streaming in.

“Fucking hell,” Fred snapped, “why can’t we ever have this many customers when I’m not in the middle of something? Wait, I locked that. We’ve got customers breaking down the fucking door now?!”

“Those aren’t customers,” I informed the man. “Look at their jackets.” Clearly visible through the security footage, the men were wearing the colors and logos marking them as part of Oscuro, the Latino gang led by Cuélebre. 

Staring at the screen, I couldn’t see any Touched. That didn’t mean they wouldn’t show up though, and regular old armed thugs were dangerous enough all on their own. But hey, at least the dragon-man himself wasn’t here. Not that his giant body would’ve fit through the door. Still, this was bad. Really bad. 

From the corner of my eye, I saw the girl press something on her belt, and we could abruptly hear sound from the screen. 

“Spread out,” a guy who had stayed by the door ordered. “Find anyone in the building and bring them here. We’ll find out what that guy was doing here yesterday if we have to take this place down to the foundation.”

Wren turned a reproachful look to her uncle. “That guy was here yesterday?”

Fred grimaced, waving his free hand while muttering, “He just needed—look never mind. I’ll go deal with this.”

He started to turn, and the second he did, I shot a bit of red paint at his gun while turning my glove red too. It was yanked from his hand and over to mine as I snapped, “You’ll get yourself killed.”

As soon as I caught the gun, a polite female voice immediately announced, “You are not authorized. Please put me down, or I will have to take measures. Five, four–” 

Quickly, Wren reached past me and took the weapon from my grip, and the gun stopped counting down. Her voice was sheepish. “If an unauthorized person holds it for too long or tries to fire it, it’ll fall apart. And then melt into goo. It’s a, umm, a safety feature.”

Coughing, I replied, “Good to know.” On the screen, some of the guys were clearly trying to figure out how to get through the doors, while others had spread out throughout the large shop, looking through things, tossing stuff off of shelves, and generally making a mess. I didn’t know if they were just trying to attract attention, actually looking for something, or expressing frustration. Probably all three. 

“Yeah,” Fred snapped in a terse voice without taking his eyes off the screen, “it’s great. Now give me that damn thing and I’ll go down and get rid of these assholes.”

Wren shook her head and pointed to me. “He’s right, Uncle Fred. They’ll kill you. And I don’t want you to die, even if you are being kind of a jerk right now. But…” She stomped her foot then, staring at the screen. “They’re wrecking Dad’s shop!”

“What the hell are they even doing here?” Fred demanded. “What the hell does this have to do with Oscuro?”

“Could have to do with the reward,” I murmured. “Or they’re just–” 

The man’s gaze snapped to me. “Reward? Why the hell didn’t you say so? If it’s the kind of reward that’s got these guys out in arms, then it’s worth it. You get us out of here and I’ll tell you anything you need to know to track that jackass down. But we get a cut of the reward.”

Before I could respond to that, another alarm beeped. The screen split, showing what we had already been watching on half. On the other half, it showed several men using an extension ladder to climb up toward the same window I had come in through. They were about halfway up, and coming fast. It looked like they had some kind of submachine guns or something slung over their shoulders. 

“Huh,” Wren murmured, “I guess I should’ve started putting in those defenses I had ideas for.”

Quickly looking to the girl, I asked, “Will those doors hold down there? And where do those stairs go? I don’t see them on the screen.”

“There’s an elevator and stairs through those doors,” she replied. “And they’ll hold for a minute, I think.” 

“Can we get out of here?” I asked. “I know you don’t want to, but that’s a lot of guys and–” 

Her head was bobbing up and down quickly. “Uh huh, but umm, we need the remote that’s in the room those guys are coming in.” She pointed to the screen, switching to a view of the bathroom. “It’s on the sink.” 

Wincing, I swallowed before making myself speak again past the sudden rush of fear. “I’ll… do something about the guys at the window and get the remote. You be ready to get out of here.”

I heard her start to object, but I was already moving, going right past Fred and through the door. A glance over my shoulder at the security screen on the way out showed that the men were almost to the top of the ladder. 

What the hell was I thinking? What was I doing? I was acting like I actually had the slightest clue how to handle this. Those guys had guns. I’d seen them on the screen. And yeah, I’d dealt with men with guns already. A distressingly large number of times in the past week, to be honest. But still, I could die. I could seriously die. Even as I move through the doorway and into the hall as though I knew exactly what I was doing, my heart was beating its way out of my chest, and I could barely contain the whimper.

But I shoved all that down and focused on the place that I already knew those guys would be coming through. The bathroom. I could still picture it in my head, and I could actually hear the men climbing through that window into the tub as I got nearer. They were trying to be quiet, but not that much. No, these guys were clearly planning on hitting fast and hard. Just outside the door, I heard them checking their guns and whispering about going on three. 

Okay, that was it. Scared or not, I had to do this. Those guys were not going to listen if we tried to reason with them. They would hurt Wren and her uncle, maybe even kill them to get what they wanted. Oscuro wasn’t like La Casa. They had no rule against harming children. And to get those vials and have leverage over Blackjack, I had no doubt that they would do whatever they thought it took. 

I was going to shove my fear into a box, lock it away into a deep, dark hole, and deal with this. 

Thinking quickly, I sprayed down a wide swath of blue paint on the floor with one hand. It almost matched the blue carpet that was already there. Enough that it might not stand out immediately.   At the same time, I used my other hand to shoot a thin line of red at the ceiling. Hearing the men coming for the door, I quickly slipped into the nearby storage room that I had checked earlier. Waiting there, I listened as the man came into the hall. Through the crack that I left in the door after pulling it shut, I caught a glimpse of them moving forward. Holding my breath, I waited until the guy in the lead (a big man with a full beard and shaved head) was almost to the end of the blue paint I had laid down. Hoping that all the men were on it by that point, I triggered the paint. 

The results were immediate. With a collection of screams, the trio were sent flying hard up into the ceiling. As they fell back down, I shoved the door open and focused on the guns. Two of them had dropped their weapons while the big guy still had his. I shot red paint at all three before activating both it and the paint on the ceiling. 

I hit two of the guns, one that was falling and the one in the big guy’s hand. The third I missed, and it bounced off the floor while the first two were yanked up to the ceiling and held there. 

Trying to keep shaking terror out of my voice, I blurted, “Geeze, I heard the Mormon missionaries were getting pretty gung-ho, but come on.” 

My distraction worked, and the trio looked to me instead of diving for the gun on the floor. The big one growled while lunging for me, his heavily muscled arm lashing out. It was like a tattooed freight train coming my way. 

Painting a green lightning bolt over my chest and activating it to speed myself up, I ducked under the much slower man’s outstretched arm. Both of my fists turned purple as I drove one into his side, hearing a couple cracks from his ribs and a cry of pain from the man. My other hand caught his outstretched arm, and I yanked him forward into the wall. 

I was already continuing my pivot to face the other two, both of whom were going for the gun on the floor, as the paint on the ceiling had not yet faded. Thinking quickly, I shot green paint at both of them, speeding the men up so that they collided with one another in their rush to grab the weapon. 

Suddenly, I was grabbed from behind, as the big guy recovered enough to let out a loud string of curses while hauling me off the ground. At the same time, the ceiling paint disappeared and the guns up there were dropped to the floor almost right next to the recovering pair. 

Right, this is going well. 

“Stupid son of a bitch,” the guy holding me from behind growled while crushing me against his chest with my feet dangling. “I don’t know who the fuck you think you are, but—”

“Paintball,” I interrupted, forcing the words out through the pain in my ribs and lungs. “You should really know about me by now.”

My arms were pinned to my sides. But that was fine, because I wanted to point down anyway. With those words, I sprayed a puddle of blue paint at the man’s feet and activated it. 

Once more, he was launched up toward the ceiling with a loud curse. This time, I was yanked with him. But he was taller than me, so he hit the ceiling first, losing his grip. I collided with the ceiling too, but hey, helmet. Which, just to be on the safe side, I had already painted orange. 

I had to be running low on paint. Time to deal with this, before things got a lot worse. 

Luckily, the second trip up into the ceiling seemed to have affected the man more than the first. Probably thanks to the other injuries he’d already taken. He was down on one knee, shaking his head slowly back-and-forth as though trying to clear it. 

Unfortunately, that still left the other two guys, who had collected the guns from the floor and were already bringing them up to face me. My hands came up to shoot paint at them, aaaaand nothing happened. Sure enough, I’d used too much in the past few seconds. The men, however, jerked back reflexively, giving me a second to throw myself through the open doorway back into the storage room where I hit the floor just as they started firing.

Oh God, oh God, oh fuck! I didn’t have any paint. I was just a little kid, cowering on the floor while bullets blew through the wall and door around me. All the stuff on the shelves was shattering and blowing apart. I might’ve screamed, but I wasn’t sure. 

The shooting finally stopped, and I heard one of the guys tell the other to check it, followed by the sound of him continuing down the hallway. 

The kid. Wren. Hell, even her uncle. Forcing my blinding terror down, I rolled onto my back and opened my eyes. I had to do this. Looking at my hand, I focused and prayed that my paint had recovered. 

A couple seconds later, the man kicked the remains of the door open and stepped through with his gun pointed right where I had just been. 

But I wasn’t there anymore. I was beside the door, and as the man came through, my purple glove snatched the gun from his hand, partly crushing it as I tossed the weapon aside. The man’s gaze snapped to me and he swung a fist. But I caught it with my other purple hand, hearing a cry of pain as his bones cracked. 

With a grunt, I hauled the man into the room and slammed his head into one of the shelves hard enough to daze him. Before he could recover, I had one of the metal cuffs that Flea had given me latched around both of his wrists. Leaving him there as the cuffs turned blue, I went for the open doorway.

The big guy there was starting to pick himself up. But I used the remaining time on my purple gloves to put a fist in his stomach, doubling him over once more before cuffing him as well.

From there, I started to head for the main workshop, breaking into a run. But before I took more than a few steps, Fred and Wren came through. The guy who had gotten away from me was facing them. But he didn’t have time to actually do anything, because Wren had given Fred the big gun back. He fired it. As he did so, an orange-gold beam shot from the weapon, hitting the man in the chest. Then the beam sort of… wrapped around him. Crackling with power, the beam lifted the man off the ground and threw him backward into the wall with enough force that he collapsed.

“What–what did that…” I started. 

“Most of the stuff I build is about moving things,” Wren informed me brightly. “The gun moves things that don’t want to move. Sometimes really roughly. And repeatedly.” 

“They’re coming,” Fred snapped at me while I was digesting that. “They’re cutting through the doors down there. We need to get the fuck out of here, right now.”

“Got it,” I replied, jogging back past the downed guys to grab the remote that Wren had pointed out. As I turned, the other two were there, and I held the remote out. “We’re good now?” 

“Uh huh,” she confirmed, taking the remote. “But more problems.” She held out a small pocket computer, showing me the screen. On it, I could see a security feed of outside of the building. Three vans had pulled up and more Oscuro troops were getting out. 

And Touched. There were obvious Touched with them.

This situation had suddenly gone from bad but manageable, to a whole lot worse. 

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Summer Epilogue 16 – Vanessa (Heretical Edge)

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A hand caught Vanessa’s arm, squeezing tight before she was flung up and around to be slammed hard into the wall of the cabin she had just stepped into. The impact against the girl’s back almost knocked the wind out of her, and she barely managed to blink blearily through the pain to see who her attacker was. “Jo… phiel?” It was her, the beautiful Seosten who had, for so many years, posed as the literal goddess of love. Now, however, she seemed more like the embodiment of vengeance. 

“Where is she?!” The words came in a shout, as the woman held Vanessa tight against the wall with one hand. Her eyes blazed with outrage, a righteous fury that seemed all-but ready to set the entire cabin ablaze from the sheer force of her anger.

This… wasn’t supposed to be how today went. The cabin Vanessa had just walked into wasn’t part of the Atherby camp. It was the one that Jophiel and Elisabet had taken the teenagers to before, one of their private little homes. They’d left an enchanted bit of rope for Vanessa, Tristan, and Tabbris, and Flick to use for the next bit of training. Which was supposed to be today. Was… was this a test? Vanessa couldn’t figure out the point of it. Was–what was–

“Jo, let her go.” The words, calm though with an edge of danger, came from the doorway, where Sariel stood. A metal bow, the humming energy string drawn to create the arrow, was held in her hands, and pointed at the woman. Just behind her, visible through the doorway, were Tristan, Flick, and Tabbris. All three looked anxious and just as confused as Vanessa felt. 

“You.” Jophiel snarled the word, releasing Vanessa as she turned toward her ex-crewmate. “Is this one of your plans, huntress? We trusted your children, we trusted your children enough to let them tell you our secrets. And what happens? What happens the moment we trust them?” 

Without lowering or moving the bow in any way, Sariel quietly replied, “I don’t know, what happens?” Her eyes remained locked on the clearly crazed woman. “Where is Elisabet?” 

For a moment, Jophiel remained still. She glanced over her shoulder toward Vanessa, who had pressed against the wall and was staring at her with wide eyes. There was a tenseness to her, a fury that was barely held in restraint with the ever-present threat of boiling over. “Do not lie to me,” she began in a tone that shook slightly, anger and fear coming together in a volatile mixture that could explode at any second. “If you know where she is, if you have done something and I learn that you are lying now, I… I…” 

“Jo.” The single word from Sariel came with far more sympathy than the previous warnings had. She lowered the bow, dismissing energy string and arrow in the process. The weapon itself folded up into something roughly the size of a flashlight, which she clipped onto her belt while stepping forward. “I swear to you, if Elisabet has disappeared, we had nothing to do with it.” 

“She’s telling the truth,” Vanessa put in, slowly pushing herself up from the wall. “We didn’t know anything was wrong. Why would we come here for training if we did something to Elisabet?” 

“For training…” From the way Jophiel echoed those words, it was clear that she had entirely forgotten about that. She had simply seen them come to the secret home for herself and her beloved, and reacted, as her outrage and terror about Elisabet completely took over. 

Flick slowly stepped into the cabin as well, easing her way around Sariel as she stared at Jophiel the way one might a dangerous, hungry tiger. “How could something happen to Elisabet? I mean, she’s… she’s part of the Committee, and you’re always–” 

“I was not there.” Jophiel’s retort was half-angry and half-distraught, her voice cracking just a little as her eyes snapped to Flick. Vanessa could see the way her friend took a reflexive step back, Tabbris moving in behind her leg. But Jophiel clearly wasn’t angry at her, or at any of them. Not now that she had been assured they had nothing to do with whatever happened. 

“I wasn’t there,” the woman continued. “I had to… there were things I had to do, discussions to have with Cahethal. I left Elisabet back in our private offices, as I have many times before. While I was gone, our connection cut out. I could not reach her. When I returned to the offices, there was no sign of her. And… as far as I can tell, her connection to the Committee has been broken. I do not know how, but she was taken and her links to both myself and the Committee have been blocked, suppressed, or…” She saw the look on their faces, snapping, “She is alive. I would know if she were dead. But I cannot find her.” 

“She’s your host,” Vanessa carefully pointed out. “But you still can’t–” 

“I cannot recall to her, no.” Jophiel’s voice wasn’t quite a snapped retort. She was frightened, in a way Vanessa had never thought she would see the woman. “Something is blocking me. Which, I shouldn’t have to tell any of you, is all but impossible. But then, suppressing the link to the Crossroads Committee and holding one of them against their will is something that should also be impossible. Someone has managed it. And given your… let’s just say extensive history of the impossible…” She said the last bit with a look toward Sariel.  

Vanessa watched then, as her mother stepped that way before embracing Jophiel. “I’m sorry,” she murmured quietly while hugging her. “We didn’t do anything to Elisabet, and neither did anyone that we know of. You have my word and I will give you a binding oath.” She leaned back then, meeting Jophiel’s gaze. “We’ll help you find out what happened, and where she is. Whatever is going on, whoever took her, we will find out the truth and save her.” 

There was slight twitch to Jophiel’s expression, her shoulders hunched up a bit before she straightened. “You would do that?” Her voice was brittle. “You would expend the effort to find Elisabet when–” Stopping, she exhaled. “I suppose questioning such things at this point would be an insult to all you have already made a point of doing. I just… never believed that I would… be someone for whom you–” 

“You were like family once,” Vanessa’s mother reminded the woman in a firm, yet somehow still gentle tone. Her hands found their way to Jophiel’s shoulders. “All of us–most of us on the Olympus were family. That’s why I stayed for so long, because I wanted our family to be… well, better. That includes you. I do not respect all the decisions you’ve made. But by that same line, I do not respect all the decisions I have made. You care about Elisabet, and she is in danger. That is what matters now, and that is what we will deal with. Other things… they can wait.”  

Tabbris spoke up then, stepping more into view. “But what could hurt Elisabet? She’s part of the Committee, and like… a really powerful Heretic all by herself. What could actually do that?” 

Tristan, who had moved in and slipped around the room to stand next to Vanessa, spoke up. “If they had something to block her connection to the Committee and to Jophiel, how powerful she is probably didn’t come into play. Maybe it also blocks Heretic powers completely?” 

“Something that could do that…” A grimace touched Jophiel’s face briefly at the thought. Vanessa could see how pale the woman was. She looked physically ill with worry. 

“Something that could do that at all, let alone without giving Elisabet time to warn you,” Sariel announced, “is one of the gravest threats I can imagine. To simply cut the connection to the Committee and prevent you from reaching her…” She frowned then, head tilting.

“Why?” Vanessa quickly put in, realizing what her mother was thinking about. “Why would they block you from her? I mean, how would they know to do that to begin with?” 

“That is why I suspected–wanted to suspect you,” Jophiel flatly replied while stepping over to pick up a mug, which she slowly drank from before continuing. “You children were allowed to tell our secret, and in such a short time afterward, Elisabet was taken by someone who knew enough to cut off my return to her. It seemed to be too much of a coincidence.” 

“Maybe someone already knew,” Tristan pointed out after giving Vanessa a brief glance. “I mean, maybe they knew and were waiting for a chance to do something like this. They found out you let us tell, so they took advantage because they figured you’d blame us. Maybe they even thought you wouldn’t stop to listen to reason and you’d do something… bad and Mom or someone else would have to fight you.” He shrugged, finishing with a quiet, “They were probably counting on you being too upset about what happened to be at all reasonable.” 

“Elisabet said that you are smarter than you are given credit for,” Jophiel noted after watching the boy through his input. “I’m quite glad to see that her belief in that was well-placed.” The woman’s voice was decidedly more controlled now. She was still clearly reeling from the situation, but her emotions were held in check, only the slight clenching of her jaw and the way she looked around a lot more making it clear to Vanessa that she was still extremely upset. 

“Wait.” Flick raised a hand, looking apologetic. “I mean, sorry to drive this home, but does that, um, does that mean you don’t have access to the Committee powers right now either?” 

“Your apologies are not necessary,” Jophiel informed the girl curtly, yet without hostility. She extended a hand toward a nearby chair, paused, then sighed before stepping over to sink down into it. “Yes. I find myself cut off from the Committee entirely. Cut off from all of Elisabet’s powers, actually. Even the ones that were solely hers. Whatever is blocking our connection also blocks the spell we use to share such gifts. Which, upsetting as that is, is unfortunately logical.” 

Vanessa swallowed hard, thinking about how the woman must be feeling right now. She had been basically inseparable from Elisabet for… for longer than the United States had been a thing. And now she had no idea what was going on with the person she loved so much. She didn’t know where Elisabet was, what kind of condition she was in, who had taken her, or… or anything. Spending those years not knowing what was happening to her family had been bad enough. This? This had to be torture. 

Almost as if she had read her mind, Jophiel looked toward Vanessa. There was a moment of silent communication before the beautiful-yet-ancient Seosten spoke quietly. “You…” Then her eyes widened fractionally. She looked to Sariel, then to the children. Vanessa could see the realization there. She understood. With Elisabet gone and herself desperate to find her, Jophiel actually finally fully understood just how the children felt about getting their mother back. 

Nothing was said, because nothing needed to be said. Jophiel understood. She straightened a bit, turning her attention fully to Sariel. “I do not believe that it was the Imperium. They would not leave me if they knew anything about our arrangement or situation. This is someone else. I would say Fomorian, but we would know if the Fomorians had returned.” 

“Could be a solo one,” Flick hesitantly pointed out. “Like the one that attacked that boat with Larissa and Scout.” She gave a brief sideways glance toward Sariel before continuing. “Or the one that… that killed Koren’s father at Thanksgiving. There’s probably still a couple like that floating around. Maybe one of them did some… genetic tampering thing to make those blocks.”

Despite herself, Vanessa cringed at the thought of Elisabet being taken by a Fomorian, or anyone else who was powerful enough to completely shut her down like that. She still remembered the woman as Mrs. Reibach, the social worker who had been so nice to her when everyone else treated her like she was crazy. The thought that a Fomorian might have its hands on her made thick, choking bile rise up briefly in her throat. She didn’t want to think about it.

From the look on Jophiel’s face, she didn’t want to consider that either. But she gave a slight nod. “That is one possibility,” the woman acknowledged quietly. “Whoever they are, they are very powerful, very knowledgeable, and they were able to either get to Elisabet in our office, or lure her out in a way that made her not send a message to let me know what was happening.”  

“We’ll find her,” Sariel promised, reaching out to take her former crewmate’s hand as she sat down in the chair next to her. “There has to be a trail, or clues. There’s a person or two in the Committee we can at least talk to, and…” She paused, before asking, “Does this mean the Committee think she’s dead?” 

“No.” Jophiel’s head shook. “They believe that your group managed to capture her. The rebellion, I mean. They think it’s payback for their imprisonment of Gaia.” 

“Wow,” Flick muttered, “they think a lot about our capabilities, don’t they?” 

“We do have Gabriel Prosser,” Tristan pointed out. “And Lancelot. With that and everything else, especially the fact that they probably still think your mom is involved in all this somehow, it’s not that far outside the realm of possibility that the rebellion might be able to grab a Committee member like that. Even she kind of believed it for a second.” His hand waved at Jophiel.  

As Flick gave a nod of acknowledgment to that, Vanessa looked back to Jophiel. “How do you know what the Committee thinks? I mean, they don’t exactly talk to you without Elisabet, right?” 

“Yes and no,” the woman murmured while reaching out to pick up a mug. She took a drink from it absently before continuing. “Let’s just say I possessed a few of their staff and aides in order to go through the building and look at the, shall we say, ‘scene of the crime’ for myself, and listened in on certain conversations they were privy to. Then I simply erased their memories.” 

“Wait,” Vanessa blinked, looking to the woman with a frown. “How–I mean, wouldn’t possessing others take away your… I mean…” 

Jophiel gave her a brief glance. “Over the centuries, Elisabet and I developed a ritual involving her blood which allows me to make her my host from any distance. We have… tried it with others, but the spell seems limited to a particularly close bond.” 

Moving up to stand by her mother, Tabbris quietly announced, “The Crossroads people’ll probably want to come after the rebellion even harder now if they think we can hold one of their own Committee members prisoner. Especially after Oliver was killed. They’ll want to hit something really hard so their own people don’t get, um, you know, discouraged or whatever. They’ve gotta prove they’re not weak.” Pausing, she added in an even softer voice, “And just make themselves feel better.”

“Your daughter is very bright, Sariel,” Jophiel murmured, eyes flicking from Tabbris to Vanessa and Tristan. “All your children are quite impressive. Yes, there are already voices within the Committee pushing for an immediate, powerful counterattack. Your allies in the group are doing their best to keep things from going too far. But I’m afraid that without Elisabet to temper the situation, things are… escalating. Litonya, Ruthers, Jue, Geta, Sigmund, and Davis wish to put an end to this rebellion before it starts, to deal a decisive blow. Sophronia, Calafia, Teach, and Percival are trying to calm things down somewhat, but they are outnumbered. If… if Elisabet was there, she might have manipulated a couple of the others such as Sigmund and Davis to hold back, with or without changing her own vote. But in this case… I’m afraid that very bad things may be coming in retaliation. The Crossroads loyalists are angry.”

“What are we supposed to do?” Vanessa couldn’t help but ask. “They don’t know where the camp is, but we can’t stop every bad thing they might try. There’s still a lot of sympathetic Heretics out there who haven’t made it to the camp, or who don’t want to come in. They could find one of those groups, or hit a place like Wonderland just to draw out the rebellion. They could–” 

“They could do a lot of things,” her mother interrupted while reaching up to lay a comforting hand on Vanessa’s arm. The girl herself hadn’t even realized that she had been subconsciously moving closer throughout all of that. “There are many very terrible options they could go through, none of which I have any interest in seeing. It would be impossible to precisely predict what the target of their anger might be.” 

Her eyes raised toward Jophiel then. “That’s why a better move would be to dismantle the source of that anger. If we can find Elisabet and return her to the Committee, get her to tell them who really took her… it may dilute some of their rage.” Her hand gestured that way. “Not to mention, bringing her back is the right thing to do. Either way, we have to find her.”

“I am so glad we are in agreement about the necessity of that,” Jophiel dryly replied, managing to keep her voice relatively flat. “If you would truly like to… assist me in finding her, I would be appreciative.” Though the words themselves were fairly simple, there was definite emotion there. 

Vanessa felt her brother step next to her then, as he spoke up. “I don’t mean to put it this way, but are you going to be okay? I mean are you going to be able to help with this if you don’t have your link to use all those Committee and Heretic powers?” 

Jophiel gave the boy a brief squint, before pushing herself up. “Young man,” she informed him. “I am older than your city of Jerusalem. I have been practicing magic and combat against the Fomorian scourge since before your bronze age. I have used my Tartarus-given gifts of manipulation since before the birth of your Olmecs. Do you understand?” 

“I… I… think so,” Tristan slowly started, “But did you–” 

Before Vanessa could say anything, their mother spoke up. “She said Olmec, Tristan, not the OMACs from Batman.” 

“Oh,” Tristan gave a weak smile. “Then I have no idea what you’re talking about.”

“Olmecs,” Vanessa informed him. “As in the first major human civilization in Mesoamerica.”  

Eyes flashing back and forth between them, Jophiel spoke sharply once more. “The point is yes, my abilities are far more limited right now than I have grown accustomed to. But do not for an instant mistake that for weakness. If need be, I will destroy anything, and anyone, who stands between me and the woman I love.” 

“Good,” Sariel replied simply. “Because violence will probably need to happen at some point. But for now, we need to investigate the scene.

“Jo, you and I need to get back into the Committee’s offices.” 

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