Author: Cerulean

Schooling 24-10 (Summus Proelium)

Previous Chapter

As promised, Wren had the tracking device done by the time we met over there when school was over. In this case, ‘we’ meant Paige, Sierra, and me. Well, aside from Fred and Wren themselves, of course. Murphy, Roald, and Peyton all weren’t going to be able to make it for a while thanks to things they had to do at home. The last thing we wanted was for their families to get annoyed or upset about them being gone too much. Especially in Murphy and Roald’s case. With Murphy’s brother… dead, and their parents still in prison, Roald’s older sister had a lot of pressure on her. She needed all the help she could get, which meant those two had to be around when she needed them. Obviously, that was understandable. 

But, the three of us were here, so we watched as Wren put her hand on top of what looked like an ancient Apple 2e computer, the kind from like forty years earlier with the tiny horizontal main part attached to a keyboard with a tiny monitor set on top. Seriously, this thing looked positively archaic. If you counted Sierra as having only been alive for like a month (or less, if you went by how long she’d actually had her body), I was pretty sure the computer was just about as old as her, Paige, Wren, and me all put together. Somewhere in there anyway. 

But of course, it didn’t look like that under the hood anymore. Wren had done a lot of upgrading and changing things. When she hit the spacebar button, an incredibly detailed color map of the world appeared. At the moment, it showed the whole planet slowly rotating around in a circle while small words under it said to input coordinates and that it was waiting for connection. While we were watching, the young Tech-Touched took a cell phone and connected it via cord to the back of the computer. The ‘waiting for connection’ line on the screen changed to ‘actively tracking.’ There was even a smiley face emoji after that, as well as what I thought were supposed to be randomly colored firework splashes. 

“Um, if… if it works,” Wren started to explain, “it’ll track any connection no matter how they try to hide it. But it’ll take longer the more they’re protecting it. And I’m pretty sure they’ve got a lot of blocking stuff over there. I mean, I would, and they’re a lot smarter than me. And they have more money, more resources, more time, more–” She stopped herself in mid-sentence, shaking her head. “Anyway, uh, we should try it with something else first. I mean, I tried it already, but you should see for yourself. You know, before we actually try the big thing.” 

Yeah, she was obviously nervous about this whole situation. And who could blame her? I was basically shaking in my pace-skates as it was, and I wasn’t the one responsible for building this thing that we were trying to use to beat Breakwater security. The kid had a lot of pressure on her. Too much, really. It wasn’t fair. But then, not much about this entire situation was.  

Reaching out, I squeezed her shoulder so she would look at me. “Wren, trust me, each of these people by themselves is not smarter than you. You’re right that they’ve got more resources, more time, and all that. But they’re not ready for you.” With a smile, I gestured. “So, how do we want to test this thing first? Would it work if we tried calling the phone we used to call the island in the first place? You said that thing physically moves the signal to other towers, so… wait, would this thing still work then? What if that’s what they do?” 

Paige spoke up before Wren could. “There’s no way that’s what they do. They use signal jammers, not signal movers. They don’t want any signal getting out at all. Our father must be using some sort of direct-link satellite phone. My guess is that he’s built something on the island that points out into space, and when a satellite comes into range, he gets a connection.” 

“It’s probably too big and unwieldy to move around,” Sierra put in. “Plus it would have to be hidden so the guards over there can’t see it on their monitors. Which means he can only use it when the satellite moves into range.” 

I nodded slowly. “Right, so when we do this, we’re gonna have to just leave a message and tell him to call us. Like at ten pm, the exact time he told me to have Paige ready to answer the phone before. I’ll be done with dinner at Arleigh’s by then.” After saying that, I grimaced and held up my crossed fingers. “At least I really, super-duper hope so.” 

We agreed to tell him to call back at ten, then moved on to the actual testing the tracker part. As it turned out, Wren had a jammer of her own. It wasn’t as good as her actual untraceable phone, because it didn’t move the signal so much as… move… pieces of junk data into the–yeah, I had no idea. She explained it, but there were a lot of technical words. The basic gist seemed to be that it obscured the signal source by throwing a bunch of false data in there. Whatever it was, she said it would work to block most tracking systems, but it would be obvious what was happening. There was no subtlety to it, or anything. The ‘move the signal somewhere else’ solution was like a magician deftly using misdirection, whereas this one was like throwing down a flashbang. Everyone who saw it would know exactly what happened. 

She showed us how it worked using an ordinary, over the counter tracking device. Which, apparently, was something she had one of her online Tech-Touched friends send over. The thing was essentially used by city and state-level authorities to track people past most low-to-mid level blockers. Essentially, it was meant to bypass the security measures local gangs used to hide where they were calling from. As with most situations like this, that whole thing was an arms race between what criminals could get their hands on, and how easily police could counter it. This was an older model that was only sold to complete rubes. Useless for evading any but the lowest type of search. But, it would work for demonstration and testing purposes. 

To that end, Wren activated the jammer on another phone and called the one attached to the commercial tracking system. We all watched that small, hand-held screen as Wren showed us the way dozens of different addresses, some on other continents, flashed across it. The jammer was doing its job. Next, she called the blocked phone using her own brand new system. Again, the jammer was working, at least at first. The pointer on the world map kept dancing around for a moment, going from the United States over to Europe then down to Africa and up to Canada. It jerked almost violently, before moving to the United States again. Only it ended up in California, starting to focus in there. My mouth opened to say something, but Wren held a finger up to stop me, staring intently at it while whispering, “Come on, come on…” 

Sure enough, only about ten more seconds of that followed before the pointer on the screen abruptly spun sideways, the view pulling out of the San Francisco neighborhood it had previously been zooming in on. It went north-east, all the way to Michigan, then zoomed in on Detroit. It took the thing another ten seconds or so to get that far, but finally it was pointing straight at a satellite view of this neighborhood. 

As soon as that happened, Wren jumped up and down, pumping her fist into the air while cheering. “I knew you could do it! Good boy!” She bounced over and hugged the machine. “Who’s a good boy? Who’s gonna get a treat today? You’re getting a polish and a cleaning and you can be plugged into the best outlet for electricity. Yummy yum yum, power.” 

Okay, that was both amusing and adorable. A very slight giggle escaped me before I clamped down on it and cleared my throat. “Thanks, Wren. That’s pretty awesome. And yeah, if this thing does its job, we’ll make sure it gets all the yummy electricity it could ever need.” That said, I paused before exhaling slowly. “So, uh, I guess since it’s about as working as we’re gonna get it, we should call and leave that message?” 

Sierra spoke up. “Use the special phone with the tracker anyway. Even if you don’t expect him to answer, there’s always a chance. And I don’t think he’ll accept it if we just tell him ‘oops, hang on, let us call you right back. We weren’t expecting to be able to get a hold of you this easily.’” Her eyes met mine before she pointedly added, “We can’t screw this up. Not now.” 

“We won’t,” I promised her. It was still strange looking straight into my own eyes like that. It probably always would be, and made me wonder briefly if this is what it would’ve been like to be born with a twin sister. But I focused on the main point. “I promise, we’re gonna use him to find out where Irelyn, Flea, and Trivial are, and get them off that island.” 

Fred, who was busy doing some paperwork again, looked up from it and put in, “You’re sure that whole thing isn’t gonna lead them right to our door? I really don’t want to test these defenses you’ve been putting in against people like that, kid.” 

Wren’s head bobbed rapidly. “It’s safe, Uncle Fred, I promise. I mean, as safe as I can make it. I mean…” She trailed off, biting her lip before visibly shaking off her insecurity. “It’s okay. We can do this.” Her gaze moved to me, and she gave a little nod of encouragement. 

So, making sure the system was still active, I picked up the phone connected to that ancient looking computer and found the number Pittman had called from. It had come in as unknown, but Wren had done something that had to do with checking call logs, or some such thing, and managed to get the actual number itself. We were hoping it still worked. 

Just before I hit the button, Paige half-swatted me upside the shoulder and gestured to my ear. “Voice,” she pointed out. 

Right, just in case he answered, I couldn’t sound like myself. Hitting the bit on my phone to turn the voice changer on my earbud back on before adjusting it to the same random male voice I’d used before, I gave her a thumbs up. And with that, I  called Pittman while everyone, even Fred, stared in complete silence. They were all watching my face, waiting to see what would happen. I would’ve switched it to speaker, but we were still a bit afraid of any special voice commands the man might end up having. So, I was just going to relay anything he said. 

As it turned out, it was a good thing that Sierra said we should use the tracker just in case, and that Paige had made me turn on my voice changer. There was a click, then another click, then a beep, and finally I heard what sounded like the ocean before a familiar man’s voice spoke, “I’m a little shocked you actually managed to track down this number, even with my daughter’s aid.” 

My expression, combined with faint sounds from the man speaking, must’ve been obvious, because the others immediately reacted. Sierra’s mouth opened as a flash of rage came across her face, but Paige was faster, slapping a hand over it before she could say anything. I saw Fred and Wren react with surprise too, but I forced myself to sound as casual as possible. “I’m full of all sorts of surprises. And so are you, it seems like. I didn’t expect you to have phone privileges right now. Thought I’d have to leave a message.” 

“You’re lucky you called within one of the satellite windows,” he informed me flatly. “Now, is my daughter there? Are you all finished having your childish tantrums and prepared to make a deal for Irelyn and the other one?” 

I was barely listening to him. My attention was on the screen. The tracking system was clearly having trouble. It was moving around the Pacific ocean at the moment, which didn’t exactly narrow it down. Wren, for her part, looked a bit anxious but not upset. She waved a hand for me to keep talking. 

So, I made a noise deep in my throat. “Are you still trying to play that game? As if we don’t know that you don’t actually have them?” I knew being so dismissive and arrogant right back to him would piss the man off. But I was hoping it would make him want to rant at me rather than hang up. It was a tough line to balance. Quickly, I pushed on before he could think about it too much. “Let’s not lie to each other. You want to get off that island and we want to get them off that island. You had a way to do it when you were going to get Paige over there, so why is that impossible now?”

It was a stupid question, of course. Paige wasn’t there, and I was pretty sure his plan heavily involved using her. But it being a stupid question was the point. I hoped it would prompt him to spout off at me a little bit, which would give the tracker more time to do its thing.

To my relief, the man took the bait. He gave a long, heavy sigh before snidely retorting, “She’s not here, is she? But, if you truly wish to do something that will get all of us what we want, you should listen very carefully. I don’t know who you are, or why my daughter brought you into this, but I assume you are not entirely incompetent. To that end, you will need to collect a few things if we are going to safely transport off of this island. Do that, pick up what I need, and I will ensure both Star-Touched know where to meet so that we can all leave the island together.” He gave a tired sigh then, and I could imagine him waving his hand dismissively. “With, of course, proof of life before you transport all of us.” 

For some strange reason, I didn’t really believe that he intended to let them get off the island safely. Call me crazy. But, a glance toward the monitor showed that the cursor was starting to narrow in on something. It was still covering far too much territory in the ocean to be usable, but at least it was working. So, I waited for just a moment to make the man think I was considering it before replying, “No promises, but what exactly do you need me to get?” 

The man began to give me a list of equipment I was going to need to go find if I followed his little plan, whatever it ended up being. Honestly, I really did write it down. If nothing else, it would help us understand what he intended to do, and that was always a good thing. But I was also keeping an eye on that monitor while Wren’s machine did its best to narrow down the location. It was taking a long time (or maybe it just felt like it given the stakes), but it was definitely getting closer and closer. The girl herself looked even more anxious, as did Paige and Sierra. Even Fred, still sitting over by the counter, had completely abandoned all pretense of doing paperwork and was staring at the monitor along with the rest of us. 

It looked like the thing had gotten to within five hundred miles. Which wasn’t perfect, but it was definitely a lot better than we had before. It was dancing around erratically, still trying to hone in on the exact spot. All I could do was keep him talking for as long as possible. And to that end, I did my best to ask clarifying questions that he would expect to hear without getting suspicious about me dragging the call out. Playing on his need to lecture me about how much smarter he was and all that seemed to do the trick. This was not a man who was averse to gloating, or demeaning others. Especially since I’d been so rude to him before. 

After getting through what was apparently the normal part of the list, the man paused before speaking very intently. Once you have those items, you need to go to this address in Tooele, Utah. That’s T-O-O-E-L-E. There is a house there–” 

“Whoa, whoa,” I found myself interrupting reflexively. “What’s this about going to Utah?  Did you recruit the Mormons into helping you escape from death-prison island? I knew you were a piece of work, but I thought you had standards.”  

I swore I could hear the man growling a little under his breath before he pushed on, ignoring my comment entirely. “You need to go to that address and find the equipment in the basement. Take my daughter there. She will know what to do with it, especially if you have the other pieces I just told you to pick up. Fix the machine properly, call if you are both too incompetent to manage that much and I will talk you through it. When it’s done, we will talk about how to ensure we all get what we want.” 

My mouth opened to try to say something else to keep him on the line, but he had already disconnected. Quickly, I snapped my gaze back over to the monitor while blurting, “Did we get it? Please tell me we got it, because I don’t think he’ll accept another call any time soon. He is not a patient man.”

Even as I was saying that, I could see the cursor. It was blinking steadily on one specific spot, with latitude and longitude coordinates displayed next to it. 

“It’s okay,” Paige flatly replied, her gaze laser-focused on that spot. “We’ve got him. He can play all the games he wants now. It doesn’t matter. 

“We know exactly where that son of a bitch is.” 

Previous Chapter

Calm Before 20-01 (Heretical Edge 2)

Previous Chapter

A/N – the following takes place shortly before the situation depicted in interludes 19C and 19D at Harrison Fredericks’ lab. 

After everything we had been through inside the vault, we were all exhausted by the time we got out of Wonderland. With the promise that we would go back and visit again while hopefully not ending up trapped in another pocket dimension for the entire time, of course. We were tired and just plain done with everything. So, Mom insisted that Marina, Dakota, and the Carnival (that was what Denny and all her new Aspects wanted to be called when referring to all of them together) come with us to my parents’ apartment and sleep there for the night. She said other people would ask way too many questions if we tried to go to sleep in our houses or our own rooms, and that they had plenty of space. 

She wasn’t wrong about that part, for sure. There was a big room my parents weren’t using at all, and after a quick reunion with my father and grandparents, Mom insisted they had let us sleep and that there would be more explanations in the morning. Or that she would explain things while we got the rest we needed. Either way, glad as I was to see all of them again, I was almost as glad to be able to fall into bed and completely turn my brain off for awhile. It had been a long day. Between dealing with the whole murder thing, trying to help Denny, and then running into the ghost of Manakel, it was… a lot. I just needed to stop for a bit. 

I did, of course, want to know what I had missed while we were in there. So, Tabbris caught me up to speed about the Avalon situation. Or rather, the Zeke situation. Apparently the Whispers had gone after him for some reason that no one was exactly clear on, except his mother said that it had to do with something his father had done on that same world where the Whispers had been imprisoned to begin with. Which probably meant that we really didn’t want them doing whatever they were intending with Zeke. 

So now, at Sophronia’s request, he was staying here on the station with us. And boy, from what Tabbris said, was he not very happy about that. To say the least. He still thought we were all evil cowardly traitors or something, and now he was convinced his mother was crazy. Still, he couldn’t really stop the adults here from keeping him. He didn’t know how to use transportation magic (they didn’t teach that this early at Crossroads), and any powers he had for that were short-range. He had no way of getting all the way from the sun back to Earth. Not that that stopped him from ranting about how we were holding him prisoner and all that. According to Tabbris, Abigail had tried to talk to him for awhile but gave up and told him they’d talk a bit later, once he calmed down. She did make sure he had all the food and entertainment he could need, and kept sending some of his old classmates to talk to him. Especially Erin Redcliffe and Travis Colby, his old teammates. Even that didn’t really seem to help, though. If anything, he was apparently even angrier with them.

Obviously, I wanted to talk to Avalon. But she was asleep when I got back, apparently at Abigail’s order. So was Shiori. They had both been told that there was nothing they could do to get into the vault where I was, and that if that changed, they would be informed and wouldn’t it be just terrible if there did turn out to be a way to go in and they were too exhausted to do it? 

Yeah, it was blatant manipulation and everyone involved knew that. Still, it apparently convinced them enough to lay down for a bit, so they were asleep when I got out of that place. I didn’t want to wake them up, no matter how much I wanted to see them. Besides, there was that whole thing about me needing a bit of sleep too, so my brain could actually function. So, I put off that particular reunion. Besides, as long as it had felt in the vault, we weren’t actually in there even for a full day. It just seemed like it had been a week. Or longer.

I did do one important thing before sleeping. I took Perrsnile to the haunted mansion and told the other ghosts to keep an eye on him. I also used another of those ghost containment spells just to make sure of it, and promised to explain more later after giving them a quick rundown of what was going on and who the son of a bitch was. I also dropped Ausesh off there, but let her know she could do whatever she wanted in that place and that I would turn one of the rooms into an actual lab to work in as soon as possible. Then I left to get some actual rest. 

Marina, Dakota, the Carnival, and I camped out on the floor in sleeping bags. Letters was the one who had manifested when we went to sleep, but when I came to a couple hours later (fully-rested, of course), I didn’t see her at all. Then I spotted Peanut, the tiny pixie Aspect, curled up in a nest she had apparently made out of a towel on a nearby table. She was making adorable little squeaking noises with each soft exhale, wings fluttering a bit now and then.  

Quietly getting up so I wouldn’t disturb the others, I slipped out of the room. They definitely needed more rest. After all, not everybody had the benefit of Amarok power allowing them to get away with being fully refreshed after just a couple hours of sleep at most. Though if asked, I’d have to say that I highly recommended it. Especially if you were going to throw yourself into the sort of situations that kept popping up in my life.

The only person awake in the apartment when I stepped out was Grandmaria. It was early enough that she was sitting in a kitchen illuminated only by the small light over the stove, drinking a cup of tea. As soon as she saw me, my grandmother was on her feet saying something about how she would make me some food. Before she could, I stepped over and embraced her. I’d done it earlier, just before going to sleep, but I needed another one. And it was clear she did too, from the way she squeezed me back. 

I thought about insisting that she didn’t need to make me anything, but I also knew that it made her feel like she was contributing and helping. And I didn’t want to take that away. On the other hand, I also didn’t want her to do it all by herself. So, I insisted on at least making my own drink and refreshing hers, while asking if she’d had any sleep. 

“Oh, I’ll get some rest later,” she replied shortly. “Don’t you worry about me. I want to know how that girl in there is doing.” She paused, clearly sorting through things in her head before questioning, “I mean, those people? I’m not sure what the proper… term would be…” 

Yeah, we had explained a little bit about that before crashing, and I was sure my mother had told them more before she’d gone to bed herself. Still, it was no wonder that my grandmother would probably be a bit confused about that whole situation. So, while we were making food for ourselves and something to drink, I went through the whole situation from the top and explained everything. Not just about the Carnival, but everything that happened in the vault. Some she already knew, but I could tell it helped for me to go through all of it like that. And it also helped me sort it out in my own head. 

“So, we talked about it, and if you’re talking about the body as a whole and the people inside it, they prefer ‘they or them.’” I informed her. “But each one of the different Aspects has their own preferred term. Most of them are ‘she or her,’ but there’s a couple individual ‘they or them’ and ‘he or hims.’ Like Bang-bang. The easiest thing is just to use the term for the one who is physically active and in control of the body if you’re saying something specific like, ‘do you want a soda?’ Or address all of them if you’re trying to ask the whole collective something. And don’t worry about being confused. They’re still working out that whole thing too, so it’s not like they don’t have questions themselves. All that really matters is to listen to what they say, and  understand that they may share a body, but they’re individuals. They have their own likes and dislikes, so just because one of them says they prefer something doesn’t mean they all do. Denny… Denny needs a lot of help. She’s been through a lot, and she’s not ready to be in control of the body right now. I mean, she deserves a break.” 

“She does,” Grandmaria agreed with a troubled frown. “I just wish there was more we could do for her. For all of them. So many people inside one body. I… it reminds me of when you, your father, and the others came into my head while your grandfather and I were still out in space. Hearing all your voices and feeling you there, that was, well, it was a lot. If I had to share my body with you, I would do it in a second. But are we certain we can’t get them their own bodies?”

Biting my lip, I offered a shrug. “Honestly, I don’t think it works that way. They’re part of–they’re all sort of… it’s complicated. But even if it did, I’m pretty sure some–or even most of them don’t want to leave. Grandmaria, I get it. Believe me, I understand. But I don’t think this is something we need to ‘fix.’ It’s just who they are. They’re like a family living in one body. They need each other, they’re a part of each other. And that whole situation isn’t something we need to fix or change, it’s just something we need to accept. If they need help with something, they’ll ask for it. We just need to listen, and give it to them.” 

My grandmother absorbed that, clearly considering it before giving a short nod as she nibbled on some toast. “Well, if that’s what they need, it’s what they’ll get.” She hesitated then, clearly uncertain of how to bring it up before carefully adding, “But, about this other part, the… Theodore. Is he really– I mean is he only…” 

“As far as we can tell, that’s not Theodore mixed with part of Denny,” I confirmed. “He’s just the memories or… personality of him before Fossor turned him into Ammon. Before he–before he did all that. He’s like the piece of Theodore that was locked away, the part Fossor cut out or blocked off or whatever. It’s complicated, like the rest of that entire situation. But it’s him, Grandmaria. It um, it kinda freaked me out too, believe me. You didn’t know Ammon. You never met him, you never–” A shudder ran through me as my face twisted a bit. “It’s weird, seeing him now. But it’s not Ammon. It’s Theodore. He’s Theodore. Or at least as close to him as we’ll ever see. Closer than I thought. And we can talk to him. Mom already did.” 

A smile found its way to the elderly woman’s face as she sipped her tea. “Yes, she was quite happy about that. And chatty. I don’t believe I’ve seen Joselyn so talkative since…” She paused again, head tilting before her eyes found mine. “Actually, I do remember the last time she talked that much. It was over the phone just as you went into first grade. She had dropped you off, still had time before her shift, and your father was already at the paper. She needed someone to talk to, so she called us, and your grandfather put the phone on speaker. I remember sitting out on the back porch on our swing, listening to your mother telling us everything about that morning. She told us what you were wearing, how you woke up, the lunch you both made together, every single thing you said on the drive there, what you looked like going into the big, big building with that little green backpack…” She trailed off, smiling fondly at the memory. 

Then Grandmaria swallowed hard, voice troubled. “I never should have believed that she would ever willingly abandon you or your father. Not after that, let alone all the other times that… I never should have believed it.” 

“It’s okay.” That wasn’t me. It was my mother, standing in the doorway. Her voice was soft, gaze focused on the older woman. “I understand why you would.” 

My grandmother was already on her feet, moving that way to embrace her. The two of them exchanged a couple of quiet, private whispers before Mom joined us. Which meant Grandmaria was bustling around making more food. Meanwhile, I turned to my mother and I asked about Manakel. So she informed me that Puriel and the other Seosten were still with him, as far as she knew. They were keeping an eye on him while a proper containment room was prepared. He’d already agreed to stay wherever we wanted him to, but no one was going to take any chances. Not with someone like him. Yeah, I wanted to take advantage of the lessons he was offering, but we were still going to be careful with it. Even if he was telling the truth about not being a horrible person anymore, even the man himself admitted that there was no telling when Tartarus might get its hooks into him again. We had to make sure that, if something went wrong, he couldn’t do any damage to this place. Or to any of us, for that matter. 

Giving them a moment together, I stepped out of the kitchen to the main living room and simply stood by myself for a minute. Or rather, for about seven seconds, before a lump laying on the nearby couch was suddenly picking it–herself up. My item sense picked up just what I needed to tell me who it was in the relative darkness, even as I spun that way. “Shiori?” 

She threw herself at me, and I caught the other girl while taking a step back to brace myself. Then we were kissing. It was… oh, it was nice. Wow. Really nice. After a moment of that, I came up for air and smiled a bit. “I think I found the sweet spot. If I’m out of touch for just most of a day, you get worried about me without getting mad at me for being gone for much longer than that.”

Snorting at me, Shiori punched my arm. “Don’t be a jerk about it or I could be mad at you for that.” She was smiling though, beaming really. “You solved a murder mystery.” 

“That’s what they pay me the big bucks for,” I replied as casually as possible. “Maybe I should get a private office and a trenchcoat, huh? You could be one of my dames.” 

Shiori giggled, started to say something, then just hugged me tighter. That felt about as good as the kiss, honestly. I held onto her, giving a soft sigh of contentment before quietly asking, “What are you doing here? I mean, sleeping out on the couch?” 

“We didn’t wanna wake you up,” she informed me. “But we knew you wouldn’t sleep all night. I uhh–” Looking over toward one of the recliners, which had also been made up for someone to sleep in but was empty now, Shiori added, “I think Avalon went for a walk. Saving Zeke and then having him stay here was… a lot. Especially since she was worried about you the whole time.”

“I bet,” I murmured softly before kissing her once more. “I’ll find her. Are you okay though?” 

She confirmed that she was fine. She and Twister had been off helping Asenath try to track down the person who erased her father’s memory. Apparently they had some big lead with that. Asenath and Twister had found some group of other people who were also looking for Grigori Rasputin, the Akharu who had been with Tiras on that last mission. There was some woman named Inanna who could point them all in the right direction. Unfortunately, it wasn’t as simple as just giving them a current address. Inanna had clues about where Rasputin was, and they were working on narrowing it down. The man wandered a lot, apparently. 

Either way, they were all busy with that. I made Shiori promise to let me know the second they needed any help. By that point, she was yawning, so I walked her back to the couch and got her to lay down again. But just as I was about to quietly head out, she caught my hand. “Oh, I almost forgot. Is it true about Denny having… I mean about her having a lot of people inside her head?” 

Blinking once, I nodded. “Yeah, they’ll definitely wanna talk to you when they wake up again and all that. Err… you know, I’m not sure if the inside carnival part sleeps or gets dark or… what.” Briefly, I gave her the explanation about what I was even talking about. 

Shiori, in turn, nodded slowly as she absorbed that. “You should have her–or them talk to Robin.” 

“Robin?” I echoed, tilting my head curiously. 

With an audible snicker, Shiori informed me that she was talking about Robin Hood. Or Robin Med. Or Robin Chat. And so on. Apparently one of the people Asenath was working with now was a robot. Actually, they were one of the Mevari, the incredibly powerful robots created by the Tseuckaviel like Lord Yup, the small, purple-skinned man who was capable of seeing through the eyes of any living person he’d ever seen. Now I really wanted to find Lord Yup and let him know that one of his peoples’ creations was still intact and living on Earth. 

In any case, the point was that apparently this particular Mevari had been the actual Robin Hood. And they, like Denny now, had many different personalities/minds living inside one head. I wasn’t sure how that worked, if it was an intentional Mevari thing or something new. But they had experience communicating as several people living in one body. So, Shiori thought Denny and the rest of that whole group would want to meet them. I was pretty sure of that too, but told her I’d check with them first to make sure. 

With that, I told Shiori to go back to sleep, kissed her once more, and headed out. Grandmaria and Mom were still talking in the kitchen, so I stepped out of the apartment and looked around for Avalon. Not that I had to look very hard. She was just down the hall, doing something with her phone. When I approached, I could see that she was looking at pictures of herself with Gaia that looked like they had been taken last year. 

“I didn’t know you had those,” I murmured while stepping up beside the other girl. 

She, in turn, smiled very faintly. It was almost a grimace. She was blinking rapidly as well, pushing wetness out of her eyes before she put the phone away. “Gaia sent them to me. She had cameras watching us sometimes, and they… she wanted mementos.” Swallowing visibly, she looked to me, and I could see the vulnerability there. “Felicity, we have to get her out of there.” 

Flinching, I reached out, pulling the other girl to me. We embraced tightly, and I whispered, “We will, I promise. We’ll get her out.” Putting both hands on either side of her face, I made her meet my gaze. “You hear me? We’re gonna get her back.” 

“She saved my life,” Valley murmured, staring intently at me. “More than once and in every way possible. She saved me, Felicity. We have to save her.” 

She kissed me then, and the two of us lost ourselves in one another for a few moments. I held her tight while talking about what had happened, and she told me a few more specifics about her own day. We had all very clearly been busy, to say the least. 

And something told me that between me needing to take lessons from Manakel’s ghost, Asenath getting closer to finding out who was responsible for her father’s lost memories, the whole Whisper situation with Zeke being up here now, whatever Kushiel was doing, the need to save Gaia, and the whole rebellion in general, things weren’t going to get boring anytime soon. 

But hey, if they did, I always had that private detective gig to fall back on. 

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Schooling 24-09 (Summus Proelium)

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A/N – as a reminder, this chapter takes place slightly before the events of the recent Commissioned Interlude. And if you haven’t read that, which came out a couple days ago, you can find it right here

Through the rest of the free period and all of lunch, Amber and Paige helped me run through a bunch of tests with my various paints. They wanted to help me get firm numbers on exactly how the paints affected things. Or at least as firm as we could manage. Which basically meant writing a lot of things down while using varying amounts of paint. And measuring a lot. 

First, however, they tested my ability to navigate a dark room. Paige brought in some chairs and the two of them blindfolded me while moving the chairs to various positions. I was able to navigate my way through the room from chair to chair perfectly. Somehow I knew exactly where they were. On the other hand, I had no idea where Paige and Amber themselves were. If they were in my way, I would bump right into them without any clue. My extra-special navigation sense only extended to objects and things like plants, not to people. And, apparently, not to the clothes they were wearing or anything. Furniture, walls, that sort of thing I could sense just fine. I had no idea why it worked that way, but it did. We tried multiple variations of that with the same results. I could sense my way through perfect darkness as long as there wasn’t a person blocking me. Paige also borrowed a couple frogs from the biology room, with basically the same result. I couldn’t sense them. I could sense the flowers Amber set up, but not people or animals. 

Both of them also wanted to test my aiming ability. Under Paige’s direction, I put multiple targets on the wall of varying sizes. Then I marked lines on the floor at different distances that she measured out. No matter how far back I moved or how small the target was, I was able to hit dead center with shots of my paint. Then Paige handed me a baseball, and I did the exact same thing. I could chuck the ball from the far side of the room, roughly thirty meters away, and hit a target the size of a dime. I could do the same thing with that blindfold on, as long as I looked at the target first and had the image of it in my head. Nor did anything change when Paige had me try with a paintball (hah) gun. I could still hit every target just fine with little effort.

“Okay, that’s not fair,” Amber noted while shaking her head. “Super accuracy and navigating in the dark would be like… main powers for some people. For you it’s just extra.” 

“Yeah, but I still don’t get to teleport or phase through walls,” I retorted. “So you’re ahead of me on that. Plus your super speed is a lot faster than mine. And I’m pretty sure your invulnerability tops my orange toughness.” 

We teased each other a little more like that before getting to the actual paint testing. Starting with purple, since that was relatively easy to measure. Basically, Paige brought us over to that bench press and we tested how much each of us could lift without any help at all. In my case, it was… not great. But in my defense, I was small and–yeah. I could do like forty-five pounds. Which felt pretty sad, but that wasn’t anything new. There was a reason I’d gotten into skating and running rather than something like the hammer toss or discus throw.

Amber was a bit better than me on that front, getting up to about eighty pounds. Then there was Paige, who, without any help at all, was able to lift five hundred pounds. The bench press, which she had brought in before I even arrived, was one of the special Touched-Tech variety. Rather than have a bunch of heavy discs on it that had to be moved on and off, the bar itself simply increased its own apparent weight (really just how much it resisted being lifted up from the resting position) based on what you input into the little display thing on the side. This one could go all the way up to about eight thousand pounds of resistance, though you had to input a special code to go that high and basically promise that you were Touched and had a Touched spotter. 

Once we had a baseline for how much we could lift, I started with the paint. Rather than just painting our hands or anything like that, Paige had all of us measure ourselves and then worked out how much of our bodies I would need to paint to do five percent of the body, then ten percent, and so on. She had me mark lines on our bodies with a different paint color, starting from our feet and going up. Then all I had to do was fill in that amount and activate it while we were lifting. 

After a lot of testing, we found that, at least in the smaller amounts, it didn’t really matter how much paint someone had on them. Anywhere up to about ten percent did the same thing. Namely, it tripled someone’s strength. So I went from being able to lift forty five pounds to being able to lift a hundred and thirty-five. Over that, the strength increase went up more for every ten percent of the body that was covered. At twenty percent of coverage, strength was increased by four times, thirty percent increased it by five times, forty by six, fifty by seven, sixty by eight, and so on. It continued that way all the way up to full body coverage strength, which increased strength by twelve times. With basically my full body covered in paint except for my eyes and mouth, I could lift five hundred and forty pounds. 

All of which also meant that Amber went from lifting eighty pounds to lifting nine hundred and sixty, and Paige increased from five hundred to six thousand. Which was a bit more impressive than Amber and me. 

So after testing all three of us multiple times, that was what we came out with. From a tiny bit all the way up to ten percent coverage, it was a flat three times increase. Adding more increased that all the way up to a twelve times increase for full body coverage. That was a good enough test for me to call it definitive, though Paige wanted me to try it on the others eventually so we’d have more data points. I was also pretty sure she drooled a little when she said ‘data points.’ Which was kinda weird, to be honest. 

In any case, from there we tested speed by running from one end of the room to the other. We did that a few times without any paint in order to get a baseline. The distance was, according to Paige, exactly thirty meters, or slightly over the length of a professional basketball court by a few feet. We ran from one end to the other, then back again, which was about sixty meters. That time, I actually beat Amber. She was able to run that distance in nine seconds, while I made it in eight. In my case, that was a speed of seven point five meters per second. Paige, of course, beat both of us with a six second run, or ten meters per second. She was really fast when she wanted to be. 

Again, we did the same ‘add paint five percent at a time’ thing. Every percent of our bodies I covered in paint increased our speed by two percent. So, with half of our bodies covered, our speed was increased by one hundred percent, making us twice as fast. I was able to make the run in four seconds, boosting my speed to fifteen meters per second. Amber did it in about four and a half seconds, raising her speed from six point six to thirteen point two meters per second. Then there was Paige, whose time dropped from six seconds to three. She was doing twenty meters per second. 

Once I covered our entire bodies in green paint, our speed was increased by two hundred percent. Which dropped my sixty meter run time down to about two point six seconds, or twenty-two point five meters per second. Amber got down to about three seconds, and Paige could now run it in two seconds, given her speed increased from ten meters per second with no paint, to thirty meters per second with her entire body covered. 

Of course, I was also able to simply paint a green line on the floor and speed people up that way. I’d already tested that once when I first got my powers, and had clocked myself at about a thirty mile per hour run that way. That was a speed of thirteen point four meters per second, or just slightly under how fast I was with half my body painted. 

The results were basically the same in this case. Our sixty meters was just under four percent of a mile. With the green line down and active, I was able to run the sixty meters in just about four point five seconds, as opposed to my four second time while half-covered. The other two got similar results, so I was willing to go out on a limb and estimate that running on a green line was roughly equivalent to having half our bodies covered. Close enough, anyway. 

Then there was the yellow paint, which we tested the same way. And the effect of that was about the same as the green, only in reverse. In other words, half our bodies being covered lowered our speed to about fifty percent of what it should have been. I went from being able to run sixty meters in eight seconds, to needing sixteen seconds. Or it would have, if my paint lasted that long. Paige took how far I’d gotten in that ten seconds and extrapolated from there. She did the same thing with the full coverage. There appeared to be a hard cut-off of ten percent of normal speed with full coverage. When I was running flat-out, or trying to, I was actually only able to move about three quarters of a meter per second. After the full ten seconds of the effect, I had only moved a bit under eight meters. Ten seconds to run twenty-five feet. At that rate, it would’ve taken me almost a minute and a half to run the full sixty meters. If, again, my paint lasted that long or I kept renewing it. 

Again, the other two had similar results, and yellow paint on the floor was roughly equivalent to having fifty percent of our bodies covered. 

And it wasn’t just personal speed that was slowed. Everything slowed down. Or sped up, depending on the paint color. We timed how long it took various objects to fall without any paint, with green paint, and with yellow paint. Again, all that seemed to matter was what percentage of the object was covered. If it was completely covered, even if the object was small, it got one hundred percent of the effect. Dropping a coin completely covered in yellow paint made it fall at ten percent of its normal speed. 

Of course, those were the relatively easy colors to test. Strength increase, speed increase, and speed decrease. We knocked those ones out of the park. We still had orange toughness, red pulling, blue pushing, black silencing, white light, and the pink…. bouncy/stretchy bit. Those were going to require a bit more creativity.

For multiple reasons, they were going to have to wait. Not only did we need more equipment for testing those, but we were also out of time. Both our free and lunch periods were about over, and none of us wanted to deal with having to explain ourselves for skipping class. Not to mention the attention all three of us doing it would attract. Besides, Paige said she had some ideas for testing the red and blue paints, but we were going to have to go somewhere else to do it. Still, it was nice to have some actual numbers to go with some of my paint. The fact that they definitely increased things by a percentage rather than a set amount was… very interesting. It made me wonder how much I could end up helping someone who already had significantly enhanced strength or speed. 

Before we left, however, Amber asked, “And you’re absolutely sure you don’t have any other colors you haven’t found? Pink was the last one?” 

My head bobbed. “I’ve tried every color I can think of, and nothing else comes out. That’s it. Red, blue, green, purple, yellow, orange, pink, black, and white. I can adjust the shades of them and all that, especially when I’m making instant-pictures. But it doesn’t change the effect. Light purple does the same as dark purple as long as it’s covering the same amount. Surface area is all that matters, not shade.” 

“But where does the navigation-sense come in?” the dark-haired girl demanded. “I mean, I have the ability to sense what direction I’m facing or moving because that’s tied directly into my power. I can even understand why you have the artistic power. That’s linked to the whole making paint thing, sort of. Like, you can subconsciously sense and control exactly where the colors are going, to the point of making perfect pictures. I guess that makes sense. But how are you sensing where objects are in the darkness?” 

“Are you sensing colors?” Paige asked. “I mean, maybe it is basically the same thing. If you can make perfect images because you control exactly where the colors are going that perfectly, maybe you can sense colors in the environment. Colors you’re not even responsible for making.” 

I shrugged helplessly. “If that’s true, how come I can’t sense the colors on your shirt, or the color of your eyes, or anything like that. Remember, my navigation sense poops out completely when it comes to living things. Or anything you’re wearing, anything in your pockets, and so on. If it’s on you or connected to you, I can’t sense it. And that’s a lot of colors to just be blind to if this is right.” 

“Maybe that’s just a weakness you have,” Amber offered. “Your power doesn’t work on living beings or up to a certain distance around their bodies.” 

“It works on plants though,” Paige put in. “You used it to get around the dark forest when we were… you know.”

I nodded. “Right, so it’s just animals that block it. Wait, hang on, is that the source of my aiming power too? I mean, if I’m subconsciously sensing where colors are and all that, maybe I’m just sensing exactly how to get one color to another. The color of the ball to the color on the wall, or whatever. Or the specific part of that color. I dunno. Shapes, colors, all that. Maybe that’s it? Is it as simple as just ‘my ability to create images is so good it extends all the way to knowing where every color and thus every object in the environment around me is, and exactly how to move one color slash object to another?’”

We needed to get to class, but Paige had me do one more test for that. Namely, I threw a tennis ball at both of them while they were standing still and also while they were moving. Including while they were moving with green paint speed boost. My aim was good, especially for the standing still part, but not nearly as perfect as it was for non-animal targets. I was generally able to hit them, just not very specific parts of them if they were moving too quickly. 

“Okay, so I think you guys are right,” Paige finally decided. “Somehow, you have some sort of ‘shape and color’ sense or whatever. That’s allowing you to navigate and aim things, as well as draw perfectly. It seems to get disrupted a bit by animals. But it still works somewhat even then, since you can hit us. I think you just have a hard time consciously using it that way. It works enough for you to make one color hit another, like when you throw the ball, but not specifically enough to hit a certain part of that color. The whole animal slash human thing disrupts your sense, for some reason.” 

I was still thinking about that, and what it meant as we carefully left our secret room (or the Ministry’s secret room, rather) and made our way back to the regular school area. 

Honestly, I knew that Paige had thrown herself into this so firmly specifically to distract herself from worrying about Irelyn. But that was okay, it was past time for me to actually understand how all my powers worked. If I was going to get better at all this, I needed to understand exactly what I could do. Especially when it came to things like my navigation sense and accuracy, which were apparently derived from the same thing, if our theory was right. 

So yes, Paige was obviously worried. And I was sure Sierra was as well. But hopefully, we would be onto the next stage of the rescue plan by the time school was over. Assuming nothing went wrong, Wren should have the location tracker thing ready by then, and we could use that to find out exactly where Breakwater was, then use that to make them get Irelyn and Trivial off the island. 

But of course, tracking down the location of the world’s most secure and dangerous supervillain prison, and then forcing the leaders of that prison to do what we wanted them to was hardly the most dangerous thing on my agenda today.

After all, I still had to go over to Arleigh’s for dinner. 

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Interlude 19D – Cyber Defense (Heretical Edge 2)

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In the wake of Kushiel’s words, there was no hesitation, no moment of shock. The people she was gloating at were too well-trained for that, and none of them needed to have things spelled out even more than they already were in that moment. The whole group knew just how bad it would be to let someone like Kushiel and her… entourage take off with an assortment of incredibly powerful, giant cyberforms. Whatever she intended to do with them couldn’t be positive for basically anyone on the planet. Especially considering she was apparently working for Tartarus itself. And while the idea of a somehow sapient and evil alternate universe was still a lot to wrap their heads around, stopping Kushiel was not. That part basically went without saying. 

Less time than a blink passed from Kushiel’s announcement, before the others were moving. Tristan was first, launching himself off the ground. In the same motion, his own cyberform snake dropped from his arm, shifting to form a narrow sort-of  board under his feet with the cannon part aimed backward. It let off a blast of energy, propelling itself into the air with the blond boy balanced on top. His hand snapped out, as three feather-like metal darts rose from his wrist. As the rocket-propelled robot snake hurled him upward toward the nearest of the dragon robots, Tristan launched those three darts from his wrist. They shot unerringly that way, his inherited accuracy powers ensuring that all three struck the young Seosten boy with short black hair and incredibly pale skin who was perched on top of the mech. 

Or they would have, had the Seosten boy not just as abruptly snapped his head to the side to avoid the dart aimed for his forehead, twisted his body sideways to avoid the one aimed for his stomach, and used two fingers to snatch the one aimed for his chest out of midair. The dart disintegrated in his hand a moment later, before he could do anything more than give it a curious look. 

At the same time, Vanessa had launched herself upward as well. In her case, she didn’t rely on a cyberform partner to carry her upward. Instead, the blonde girl transformed into a raven, expertly guiding her small, black bird form through a sudden hail of gunfire that came from the second of the dragon mechs. A minigun that had popped up next to the Seosten girl there, a figure with long brown hair tied into a tight braid, and a very slim, almost anorexic-looking form. The large gun popped out of her own stolen ride’s shoulder, took aim seemingly of its own volition, and opened fire on the incoming bird. But its bullets came nowhere near Vanessa, who spun and barrel-rolled her way through the incoming fire like the most incredible ace pilot who had ever taken the controls of a plane. Where Tristan had used their mother’s perfect accuracy to send those darts at his own opponent, Vanessa used Sariel’s perfect control and understanding of her own body and its position to carry herself through the smallest of openings between incoming gunfire. She instinctively knew exactly where and how to position herself to make it safely through what should have been an impossible wave of bullets. 

Meanwhile, as the Moon siblings were busy finding their own ways up toward the dragon mechs, the other set of twins in the lot weren’t standing still. Sarah and Sands ran together, side by side. Two of the other mechs had already opened up on them with a barrage of lasers, which instantly chewed up the pavement around the pair, but they kept moving. As she snapped her rifle up with one hand, Sarah held the other one out with a bullet between two fingers, all while still running. No conversation or explanation was needed. Her sister immediately put her own hand against the offered bullet and vanished, using her object-possession ability to put herself into the thing. In the next moment, Sarah had shoved the bullet into her gun, diving into a forward roll to avoid another volley of destructive shots from hovering mechs. As she came to one knee, the girl took aim and fired. The bullet she had just loaded shot that way in an instant, heading straight for the head of the two cyberforms who had been taking careful aim at her. One would be distracted in just a moment. Unfortunately, the other, under the command of a green-haired girl crouched by its neck, was still right on top of the human girl, and began to chase her across the lot with a barrage of lasers as she ran.  

Naturally, the dragon mech that Sarah had shot that single small bullet toward initially ignored the projectile. But it couldn’t ignore Sands as she popped out of that bullet right in front of it. Especially when she went from being a five-foot nothing girl, to abruptly being thirty feet tall. Now, Sands was the same height as the mech. Her boosted threat became even more evident as her fist slammed into its head. Between her own strength and the force from being shot as a bullet, the impact knocked the dragon mech backward through the air, allowing Sands to grab onto the thing and ride it straight to the ground. It crashed hard into the pavement, sending up a shower of broken concrete. The Seosten teen who had been riding the thing, a male figure with white hair that was cut very short and a muscular build, leapt clear with a shout of annoyance, flipping over in the air before landing on Sands’ outstretched arm. Immediately, he snapped his hand down, clearly intending to possess her. 

“Yeah,” the giant Sands informed him as he reacted with confusion when nothing happened. “Good luck with that.” With that, she swung her arm sideways to throw her unwanted passenger off. He was sent flying, yet recovered in midair, producing a small pistol which he opened fire with. Several quick laser shots cut through even Sands’ incredible durability in her giant form, forcing the girl to stop short so the rest of the barrage would bounce off. 

In that same moment, Tristan leapt from Bobbi-Bobbi and landed neatly on the shoulder of the dragon mech he had been aiming for. His cyberform shifted itself once more, splitting in half as it jumped back over to attach itself to the boy’s arms, like protective gauntlets. Which was just in time, as his own opponent, the black-haired boy, ignited one of the Seosten laser swords and lashed out with it. Tristan caught the glowing energy blade against his own gauntlet, which glowed faintly with a short-range forcefield. There was a loud crack of power as blade met gauntlet, before Tristan pivoted on one foot to bring himself away from the luxensis (energy sword). His right hand snapped up, before a set of long, werejaguar claws emerged. Those claws were already dangerous enough, but they became immediately more so as the boy activated an entirely different power. This one superheated the claws, turning them bright red just as he lashed out with them. In that same moment, Tristan used his Seosten-inherited boost, pushing his speed and strength several times higher. 

The Seosten boy boosted as well, avoiding the strike… mostly. His head snapped backward, though the claws still cut along his cheek, leaving five long marks down the side of it. His luxensis blade swept upward, clearly intending to cut his opponent’s extended arm off. But Tristan was faster, abruptly shrinking several feet in height, which instantly yanked his arm away from the incoming blade. Just as quickly, he not only regained that height, but increased it further. He first went from being just under six feet tall, down to about three feet, then just as quickly grew to eight feet while driving his knee forward. It caught the Seosten in the chest, knocking him backward several steps before the other boy managed to catch himself just shy of falling from the dragon mech’s head. 

Unfortunately, Tristan couldn’t follow up with that, considering just as he took a step forward in his enlarged form with the intention of punting the other boy from the mech, a multi-barreled gun similar to the one that had just attempted to shoot down his sister popped into view partway down this dragon cyberform’s back, took aim, and opened fire. He was forced to shrink back to his normal size while throwing himself into a sideways dive, catching himself on his hand before shoving his body up and over the next wave of bullets. Just like Vanessa, he expertly avoided every incoming shot, but the very act of dodging carried him further away from his opponent and allowed the Seosten boy to regain his footing. 

For a moment, while the turret was adjusting its aim, both boys stood on opposite sides of the giant cyberform’s back. Then Tristan launched himself into a sprint that way. At the same time, his hand snapped upward, producing a small sheet of plastic just a few inches across. There was a pre-prepared rune there, which glowed pale red as he pushed the last bit of power needed into it to activate the spell that had been engraved on the thing. An instant later, several small beams of energy shot from the rune to hit the base of all those gun barrels. They were immediately severed as the metal-transfer spell took those small pieces that connected the barrels to the turret and transferred them several feet away. The turret was rendered useless as its barrels dropped and clanged loudly along the metal body before falling toward the ground. 

In the midst of all that, Columbus vanished from the spot he’d been standing on and reappeared directly behind the third male Seosten, aboard his own dragon mech. This one had yellowish-blond hair, worn down to his shoulders in luxurious locks. Between that and his well-built form, the boy reminded Columbus of one of those old romance novel models he’d seen on his adopted mother’s bookshelf. 

It was a fleeting thought in the heat of the moment, as he let off a blast of energy from his goggles. This was not a beam of concussive force. Instead, his goggles were set to project what looked like a wide burst of static electricity, which would slow his opponents movements dramatically. It was a recent upgrade he’d built, this being his first time using it in a real-world combat scenario. And, just like in testing, the blast did its job, forcing the Seosten teen to move at a tenth of his normal speed as he started to turn around while bringing his weapon up. 

Unfortunately, the mech’s attached weaponry wasn’t similarly slowed. Before Columbus could take advantage of the opening, a pair of barrels popped out of the metallic dragon’s neck and sent twin bursts of lightning his way. The boy was forced to pivot that way, bringing his arm up. As he did, a shield of amber resin appeared there, catching the electrical blasts. 

By that point, even slowed as he was, the Seosten teenager was able to use his own boost in order to get his speed up to something resembling normal. He finished pivoting around, his glowing luxensis blade snapping outward toward Columbus’s neck as the other boy stood with his side to him, blocking the incoming lightning shots on his resin-covered arm. 

But Columbus was ready for that. His other hand came up, palm extended as he created a forcefield about two feet across, just enough to catch the incoming blade and deflect it with a loud crack of energy as blinding sparks went flying in every direction. 

With the five young Heretics busy facing five of the seven mechs, that left two more. Including the largest, the fifty-foot cyberform dragon that had been one of Harrison Fredericks’ most powerful and advanced creations. One of, because his strongest creation was already glaring up that way. Galahad sighted in on his ‘big brother’ (in a manner of speaking), and the golden blonde-haired Seosten female who stood atop him. She was clearly the oldest of the group, her ponytail swaying in the breeze as the dark-skinned girl stared down at the others. Her mouth opened, and Galahad heard her voice as she shouted, “You know the job! Prove Mother’s faith has not been misplaced!” Even as she said that, the girl proved her control over the cyberform by making the metal shields covering one of its weapon sets slide out of the way. A half dozen one-foot-wide holes appeared, before the nose of a rocket poked out of each, the rumble announcing they were about to be launched.

Even as he saw that, Galahad bent at the knee before hurling himself upward. In mid-jump, his large metal body immediately began to transform. He did not, however, turn into a truck as he normally would have while out on the road. Instead, his parts shifted and twisted around until he appeared to be a VTOL Harrier attack jet. The parts of him that amounted to the ‘trailer’ for his truck form remained on the ground, turning into a surface-to-air missile platform that could provide covering fire for his jet-self. 

Vanessa, by that point, had shifted back to her human form as she landed on the shoulder of the mech she had been aiming for. The thin, brunette Seosten waiting for her gave a very slight smirk and nod before graciously gesturing. “Would you like a moment to catch your breath after such an impressive display?” 

Vanessa hesitated, but the girl’s words didn’t seem to be sarcastic. After she had sent the barrage of gunfire at the incoming bird, she really did want to give her a moment to prepare herself now that she’d actually made it. Her gaze flicked from one hovering cyberform to the other, just in time to see the giant Sands take hers to the ground. “You could just stop,” she tried, having to at least give that a shot. “Kushiel is evil, you guys don’t–” 

“Do you want to sit down for a second and catch your breath, or not?” the thin Seosten girl interrupted, eyes narrowing. It was clear that she wouldn’t listen. 

“No,” Vanessa finally replied, whip snapping out to one side. “I’m good.” As the end of her weapon snapped against the air, it left a whitish rune hovering seemingly on nothing. An instant later, the rune activated, sending a blast of wind that way.

Despite offering the other girl a break, her opponent was prepared for an attack. Before the wind blast could knock her off her perch, she dove forward, boosting herself so she could move even faster. She came up in a roll, foot lashing out to catch Vanessa in the stomach. Or she would have, had the blonde Heretic not brought her own arm slamming downward. In mid-motion, Vanessa transformed into her enormous werebear form. Her now much stronger paw casually slapped the other girl’s leg aside, throwing her clear off the mech in the process. Vanessa had known that her opponent would dive forward to avoid the wind, and had planned for that. 

That, however, wasn’t the end of it. Before she had fallen more than a couple feet, the Seosten caught herself on seemingly nothing. She stood in the air, as the empty space under her feet seemed to shimmer a little bit. Before Vanessa could see what was actually happening, the other girl threw herself back onto the mech, facing the huge bear with a reckless grin. “Now this,” she announced, “this is how I prove myself.” With that, she lashed out with one hand from several feet away. Despite the distance between them, Vanessa felt hardened air cut through her thick fur and muscles, a deep wound appearing along her side as she reeled backward. 

Was it magic? That didn’t make sense. As far as she could tell, this girl hadn’t activated any spell or anything. And she wasn’t using a weapon. She just had the ability to harden air like that. Enough to stand on, and to make those blades. But that would mean–

While Vanessa was having her realization, Sarah had taken aim through one of her scope-portals. Rather than focusing on the green-haired girl atop the dragon mech that was still chasing her across the lot with its flurry of shots, the portal she had created appeared inside the machine’s cockpit. Her body ran almost on autopilot, zigzagging across the parking lot as the enormous cyberform tracked her movement, sending dozens of deadly lasers downward. Each blast burned a hole through the pavement, while narrowly missing the girl herself. 

Then it was Sarah’s turn. Her portal was ready, as she pivoted back the way she had come, dropping into a prone position with her rifle held out. The next volley of lasers tore up the ground right where she had been heading. Before the mech could adjust its aim, she fired a single shot. Her own bullet emerged into the cockpit of the machine, struck the main controls, and then exploded dramatically. The metal dragon reeled backward before starting to pitch sideways. The green-haired Seosten girl atop it was forced to throw herself out of the way as it collapsed. Yet, as she fell, something exploded next to Sarah. She threw herself to the side, just in time to see a geyser of water from the pipe that had burst. The spray caught the falling Seosten girl, seeming to solidify somewhat under her, just enough to slow her fall so she could land gracefully. 

She controlled water. No spell, no magic, no technology. She had simply done it instinctively. But…

Galahad, by that point, had reached his own target. Still in his jet form, he shot right past the largest of the dragon mechs, before immediately transforming back to the humanoid shape. Though smaller without his trailer attachment, he was still a good fifteen feet in height, allowing him to catch hold of the fifty-foot tall dragon mech’s back and shoulders. The Seosten girl with the golden hair spun toward him, hand rising. But before she could do anything, Galahad extended half a dozen cables from his arm into the machine’s back. In an instant, he had regained control of the thing, and all the onboard weapons she had been about to direct at him abruptly turned to focus on her. She, in turn, cursed under her breath before an explosion appeared where she had been. An explosion neither Galahad nor the mech he had just regained control of had created. And the girl had vanished from that spot.

At the same time, the final mech, with the blue-haired boy on it, was taking aim at where Galahad was perched. But before it could fire, his other half made its presence known. The trailer-turned-artillery platform he had left on the ground opened up, sending three enormous laser blasts and a single powerful rocket arcing upward. Each shot struck home, sending the less advanced dragon reeling through the air as the boy fought to regain control. Then there was yet another explosion that Galahad wasn’t responsible for, as the golden-haired girl appeared next to the boy, followed by a third blast as they both vanished from that spot.

Soon, there was a rapid series of explosions all around the battlefield. The force of them threw the Heretics to the ground, while their opponents were casually picked up and carried along with the teleporting golden-haired girl.

Finally, they all picked themselves up and stood together, facing the other group as the Seosten teens appeared on the ground, the explosion that carried them there sending a shockwave through the ground. 

Vanessa was the first to speak, staring that way. “Wh-who are you?” 

It was the golden-haired girl who spoke, holding her hand up as a tiny series of repeating explosions, barely large enough to be seen, appeared in staccato bursts in her palm. “Why exactly should we tell you anything?” 

“She’s Aureus,” the thin brunette with the braid put in, giving their leader a glance. “I’m Fuscus. That’s Caeruleus, Candidus, Lūteus, Viridis, and Āter.” In turn, she had nodded toward the blue-haired male, the white-haired, muscular male, the blond romance cover male, the green-haired girl, and the pale, black-haired boy. 

“Gold, brown, blue, white, yellow, green, and black?” Sands blurted. “You’re named after Latin colors that happen to match your hair? Let me guess, the uncreative bitch over there–” 

Don’t talk about our mother that way,” Lūteus snapped. The almost-achingly handsome boy brought his hand up. As he did so, a two-foot wide, three-foot tall section of pavement next to him rose out of the ground and  formed a larger fist shape. 

Columbus shook his head quickly as they took that in. “Wait, you’re children from the Olympus. Your parents were—“

“Our mother is Kushiel,” Aureus, the golden-haired girl, interrupted. “She gave us everything, and we’ll make sure she gets everything she wants in exchange.” 

Tristan started to shrug. “Yeah, well if you want to help her now, you’ll have to–” He cut himself off, having turned a bit to look at where Kushiel should’ve been inside her forcefield cage. But there was no one there. He gave a double-take, blurting, “Where the hell did she go?” 

The group took that in before spinning back to the Seosten, as Viridis, the green-haired girl, winked and offered a sly, “I believe the term is, gotcha.”

With that, Aureus raised her hand, and another explosion enveloped the Seosten. Everyone was knocked backward, only to find the spot completely empty as the explosion cleared. Columbus was looking around, counting the mechs. “They’re all here,” he announced. “They didn’t get away with any of them.” 

“No,” Galahad agreed, his voice grim. “But they weren’t trying to. I’m afraid while we were all distracted, Kushiel escaped her cage and left with the biggest prize of all. 

“She has Fredericks.” 

Previous Chapter / Next Chapter

Commissioned Interlude 12 – Amber and Dani/That-A-Way and Pack (Summus Proelium)

Previous Chapter / Next Chapter

The following is a special commissioned interlude that is not part of the main schedule. It IS canon, but takes place shortly after where the story is right now.

Standing at her locker at the end of a long day of school, Amber O’Connell stared down at her phone, but she wasn’t really paying attention to it. Her actual focus lay on listening to what several students just down the hall were saying. One, a boy named Ricardo Esteban, had been going on for the past few minutes about some party that he and his parents were going to the next evening. A costume party, with a Touched theme. You didn’t have to show up as any specific Touched, though that would probably get you more points in the contest. Ricardo was bragging about the Hefesto (a Spanish Tech-Touched hero) costume his parents had gotten personally commissioned for him, and how it was going to blow everyone else’s out of the water. 

Amber, naturally, didn’t care about any costume contest. She was, however, laser-focused on something else the boy had said in the course of bragging to his audience. Well, two things, actually. First, there were no phones allowed on the floor. You had to check them with your coats. Something about the hosts not wanting people to be distracted. And second, a man named Derek Meyers was going to be attending the party. Ricardo had name-dropped him as one of his parents’ personal guests for the evening. Of course, the whole ‘name-dropping’ thing had only worked once he explained to his friends exactly who Derek Meyers was. And even then they hadn’t cared all that much. After all, why would they find it so fascinating that some random detective on the Detroit police force was a friend of Ricardo’s parents? Even hearing about the litany of impressive arrests the man had made didn’t really sway them that much. Sure, it was kind of cool and all, but they wanted to hear more about the costume. 

In most cases, Amber would’ve been in about the same boat. Why would she care if one detective or another wanted to go to a party? Yet this one mattered. This specific name was one she had read about for over a year now, and had been intently researching ever since she had found out about the existence of the Ministry. He was connected to them, she just knew it. Obviously, the Ministry had police in their pockets, and Amber was convinced that Detective Derek Meyers was one such asset. 

He had been the lead investigator on her father’s case, the man responsible for determining what had actually happened to her dad. And, as far as Amber could determine, all the evidence had gone through him. If there was a cover-up, if the Ministry had given her father’s killer a free pass, it almost certainly had to have come from Derek Meyers. He had hidden one piece of evidence or another, had intentionally ignored something important, had done something to make sure the investigation didn’t find the actual culprit. She knew he had to have done something. A random person just stealing a car, hitting her father, and getting away without leaving any fingerprints or hair or anything they could use to find him? Especially these days? It didn’t make any sense. There had to have been something, which meant someone had hidden it. Meyers was her biggest suspect, since he’d had the most control over the investigation. 

And now he was going to be at that party, distracted by all those people, with his phone stowed away in a back room. She would never get a better chance than this to look at his contacts, his messages, all of it. Even if he didn’t actually keep records of what he had done on her father’s case on it (and she would’ve been very surprised if he did), she could find something connecting him to the Ministry. And from there, she could… well, she didn’t know, exactly. Find a way to make him tell the truth without giving away who she was? That part was shaky, at best. 

But the fact was, she couldn’t just give up on it. She’d figure out the details later. For now, she just had to get that information. She had to get proof that he worked for the Ministry, then she’d work her way through an actual plan of what to do with that. She’d take his phone, get the battery out of it, then take it over to ask that Wren girl to help her get into it. Or maybe someone else. The point was, getting the phone was the important part. 

“We should go to that thing.” 

The voice made Amber jump a bit. She’d been so intently focused on thinking her way through this rather haphazard plan (it was more of a goal), that she hadn’t noticed Dani come up behind her. Turning that way, she blinked a couple times. “What?” 

Arching an eyebrow, the black girl nodded past her toward the group nearby. “That party thing he’s talking about. We should go to it. I mean, why not? My aunt says I’m supposed to ‘spend time with the class of people I’ve been brought into,’ whatever that means. Me going to this party will score major brownie points. And if I’m going with you, it won’t even be that bad.” 

Amber felt a slight flush cross her neck and cheeks, but most of her attention was on the idea itself. Of course she wanted to go to this party, that was her entire plan. Well, that and getting into that back room. She’d had no idea of exactly how to invite herself into that group to go, and knew that attending by herself would probably stand out. Sure, it wouldn’t be hard to get an invitation, but just showing up alone would have made people wonder about her. It would have made people notice her, and she didn’t want that. But this? Dani had just come up out of nowhere and offered her the perfect cover and excuse. Amber practically could have kissed her. 

Okay, now she really was blushing. Clearing her throat, the girl offered a shrug while managing to keep her voice as casual as possible. “You asking me out on a date or something?” 

“Don’t start planning the wedding already, O’Connell,” Dani teased. “I just thought it’d be fun. If you don’t wanna do it, I’ll see if that Melody girl has anything going on.” 

Shaking her head while doing her best to not sound too eager about the whole situation, Amber replied, “Nah, I’ll go. Sounds like it could be fun, I guess. It’s better than going by myself, that’s for sure.” She took a moment to glance at the other girl, judging her reaction before adding, “Are you sure you don’t have anything else going on? I mean, a girl like you has to have a pretty full schedule.”

Dani, in turn, smirked just a little. “I think I can clear my calendar for it.” She grimaced then, as though something had just occurred to her. “They’re gonna want us to dress up, aren’t they? You going in costume?”

Oh boy, did that question have implications that Dani couldn’t possibly have known. Resisting the urge to cough at that, Amber tilted her head as though considering it. “I mean, I guess I could throw something together. Maybe I can find something simple at the mall.” No way in hell would she go as her actual Touched identity, of course. While very vaguely tempting in a dangerous sort of way, it was an incredibly bad idea. Even if she went with her own hair color and everything rather than turning it blonde, she would still look far too close to the real thing. Thanks to, well, literally being the real thing. She needed to keep as much distance between Amber O’Connell and That-A-Way as she could. Letting anyone’s thoughts drift toward connecting the two was a recipe for disaster. Though, granted, this whole idea was also a disaster recipe, she could at least do her best not to make it even worse. She would find a costume that was both simple and very different from her real secret identity. 

With that in mind, the two of them talked for another couple of minutes about what they were going to do, before promising to text each other more plans for the next evening. They agreed to keep their costumes a secret so the other person could be surprised when they met up for the party. Then they separated, with Amber walking away from her locker while smiling to herself about how she had ended up with the perfect cover to hide her true intentions for being at that party. 

She had no idea that, as Dani watched her go, the other girl was thinking the exact same thing. 

*******

“I thought you were into that Minority chick.” Several hours later, KD made that comment while she and Dani were looking through an assortment of costumes in an old shop. Outside of her Touched identity as Broadway, KD was a pale girl with bright blue hair tied into pigtails. She stood barely five feet tall, another thing separating her from her costumed self, given the Broadway suit boosted her height a fair bit. With all that in mind, it was doubtful that anyone would ever connect her to the La Casa Touched. 

The two girls were keeping their voices low, though it didn’t really matter considering the elderly lady who ran the place was engrossed in watching television at the front counter. “You know, the one you keep flirting with.”

Dani, flipping through several possible outfits hanging on the rack, replied easily. “Sure, she’s great. But I can’t exactly ask her to go with me like this, can I? And I definitely can’t ask her to go with me as Pack. I think she might have a few questions about what I’m actually doing there, and she might get all goody two-shoes about it. 

KD scoffed under her breath. “Come on, it’s not like you’re going there just to steal things. You have legitimate business in that place.” She lowered her voice even more, pointedly adding, “Jennica business.” 

Giving up on finding what she wanted on that particular rack, Dani nodded at her friend. “Yeah, but I’m not sure Way would see the good side of stealing your sister’s social worker’s keys so we can get into her office and find Jennica’s file to figure out if there’s anything in there about where she might hide. That’s a lot of stealing and breaking and entering for someone on the Minority.” She paused a little before adding a bit more quietly, “And I’m not sure I want to get her involved in that.” 

KD put a hand on her arm. “You’re worried about Jennica hurting her, aren’t you?” 

With a sigh, Dani moved to the next rack to check through the clothes there. “She’s already got enough to deal with. I don’t want to throw her into Jennica’s sights. I know she’s trained and all that, just–” She hesitated before giving a soft sigh. “If she did get involved in this whole thing and then got hurt, I’d feel like shit. I already feel like shit because Jennica’s your sister and you–fuck. You know what I mean.” 

“Yeah,” KD murmured. “It’s pretty screwed up. I guess I can’t blame you for not wanting to get her involved.” She looked that way, adding, “But you’re okay getting this other girl involved?” 

Dropping the suit she had been examining back onto the hook, Dani looked at her intently. “She’s not going to be involved. The two of us are gonna go and hang out a little bit there, then I’ll disappear for awhile to get what we need before finding her again. She’ll never know anything was going on. It’s just gonna be a nice, normal, ordinary date. Nothing weird.” 

Raising an eyebrow at the declaration, KD shrugged. “Sure, babe. If you say so. I’ve just got one question. She was at the top of your list to take with you to this thing, so you obviously like this girl too. But which one do you like more, the one who knows you as Pack, or the one who knows you as Dani?” 

The question was met with silence, as Dani frowned. Who did she like more? It was an impossible thing to answer. That-A-Way knew one side of her, but Amber knew another side. She knew Way liked her, in plenty of ways, even if she didn’t approve of all the things Pack did. But then, Amber had no idea she was a criminal. She knew Dani the girl from school, not Pack. Amber or That-A-Way, That-A-Way or Amber? One girl knew her costumed self, one knew her civilian self. 

“You know,” she finally muttered, “It’s too bad I can’t find a way to squish them together.

“I’m pretty sure that would be my perfect girl.” 

*******

It was five o’clock the next evening when Amber and Dani met just in front of the school. That wasn’t where the party was being held, but it was an easy place for the two of them to join up before heading that way. The two of them looked each other up and down for a moment, taking in their costumes. 

Dani, for her part, had settled on wearing what amounted to Caishen’s costume. Black boots with dark gold pants that had black lines running up them, along with a dark purple scalemail-like shirt, and a gold leather coat. The real Caishen had a hard metal black helmet with glowing purple lenses over the eyes, though Dani’s was clearly plastic. Decent plastic, but still. The costume looked expensive, if not incredibly so. There was even a bluetooth device built into the helmet for phone calls.

Amber, meanwhile, wore dark green pants with what looked somewhat like fish scales running down them, with a gold-scaled long sleeve shirt and a simple pair of goggles. It was a cheap version of a costume belonging to Freedive, a water-based Star-Touched from California. Her costume came complete with tall metal-looking boots that were close approximations of the real thing. Not that she had really cared all that much about being accurate, but there was another reason she’d wanted to have the boots. 

Giving a low whistle, Dani added a thumbs up. “Boy, am I glad I didn’t go with that Melody girl.” 

Feeling her blush deepen, Amber waved that off. “Yeah, yeah, you look great too. So, are we heading over there, or would you rather just stand here and stare at each other a little longer?” Even as the words left her she was regretting saying them. She’d meant it to sound teasing, but now that she’d actually gotten it out…

From the way Dani leaned back on her heels, it was obvious she was trying to decide exactly how to react. There was amusement in her voice as she looked the other girl up and down briefly. “Well, to tell you the truth, I’d be just fine with another couple hours of this. But, I suppose we should probably head over there. Don’t wanna make the poor people at the party miss out on all of this.” She waved her hand down herself and then over toward Amber. “That’d be a real crime.” With that, she turned to gesture toward the car she had driven up in, given her date had been dropped off by an Uber. “Your carriage for the evening, milady?” 

Smiling just a little, Amber gave a little bow before stepping that way. She still hoped she would be able to get into that back room and find the detective’s phone. But even if she couldn’t, this date might not be a waste after all. 

Dani, watching the other girl get in the car, had quite similar thoughts. She closed the passenger side door, glanced to the sky while thinking about the other things she needed to do that night, then walked around the other side to get in the driver’s seat. 

Whatever came next, one thing was for sure. This was going to be a date she would remember for a long time. 

*****

The party itself was actually being held at a local hotel, in one of the large banquet halls. After parking in the underground lot, the two of them made their way up the elevator before following the posted signs to the room in question. Not that they really needed signs, considering there was a small flood of other people in costumes heading that way. It wasn’t hard to figure out where to go. 

There was a man standing by the entrance to the banquet room. Like all the other serving staff at his event, he wore a crisp white coat, blue pants, and a blue mask that covered most of his face. He was the person responsible for checking invitations. As expected, neither of the girls had had a hard time getting one. They presented them, waited for the man to scan the invitation with his handheld device to make sure they were real, then waved them in. On their way past, they heard the man informing people behind them that if they needed masks or other costume pieces, they would be provided for them. 

The door didn’t open straight into the banquet room itself. Instead, there was a small entryway with a desk to one side where the coat and phone check woman sat. She took Amber and Dani’s devices, put them in small boxes with their names, then took them into the room behind her before giving them a couple receipts. Both girls watched that intently, neither noticing the attention of the other. 

In any case, once they had their receipts for their stowed phones, the two headed through the next door into the actual banquet hall. This was where the party was, where they would be spending most of their time for the next few hours. 

And boy was it an impressive room in that regard. Or rather, three rooms. The banquet hall, such as it was called, was three enormous chambers linked together through several doorways at either end. The room they entered first was the central chamber, shaped like a half-circle with the door they had just come through at the center of the flat line, while the curved side opposite them was taken up with a stage where a live band was playing. Most of the rest of the room consisted of a dance floor for couples, along with tables to sit and rest to either side. There was a series of enormous floor-to-ceiling curtains against the walls, either to muffle how much sound reached beyond the room, or for some decorative purpose. Perhaps both. A full-service bar waited to the right, while the tables of punch and other nonalcoholic drinks were to the left. 

The door on that left side led into a quieter room where people could sit at an assortment of circular tables to have real food and listen to the music being piped in from this room, while the door on the opposite side led to a room with card tables, billiards, and more. Only adults were allowed to gamble at these things, of course. But Amber and Dani could wander through and watch if they wanted to.

“What a place, huh?” Amber finally remarked, after the two of them had taken all that in for a few long seconds. 

“Oh, it’s definitely a place,” Dani agreed, before grabbing the other girl’s hand. “Come on, let’s show these rich old fogeys how to really dance.” 

She had a job to do, of course. But that would come later, once things had settled in, and everyone who was going to attend the party was here. Then the coat and phone-check girl would sit down and relax, giving Dani a chance to get in there and find what she was actually there for. 

But at the moment, this was a perfectly fine way to spend the next hour or so. 

It felt a little surreal for Amber to be dancing out on a floor full of people dressed up in costumes of other Touched, including several examples of her teammates and mentors. To say nothing of how it felt when she saw a couple people who were dressed up like her. Well, her Touched identity anyway. Seeing someone who looked just like That-A-Way was… weird. It was like going through one of those weird movie plots where the person meets themselves in order to have some grand realization or something. Only in this case, the other versions of herself had no idea she even existed. Which was, in some ways, even more weird. 

On the other hand, she didn’t have much time to think about that. Not with her particular dance partner. Dani was very intense, and clearly didn’t care about attracting attention. It was fun, but it was also exhausting. Amber was very glad for her years of cheerleading practice, followed by over a year of work with the Minority. The two of them danced together, ignoring everyone around them save for the slightest effort to avoid running into anyone. But for the most part, Amber and Dani’s full awareness was focused on one another, and how they were moving. The music in the air, the excitement, the rush of motion, of being the center of one another’s attention, it… it was a lot. But it was also good. It was fun. It was… nice. 

She did, however, pay attention to the doors where everyone was coming in. So, she noticed when Detective Derek Meyers made his way in. The man wasn’t hard to spot, even in costume. He was tall and somewhat heavyset, with long red hair that was currently tied back in a ponytail. He wore a simple costume of a black suit with a green coat and a domino mask. Amber wasn’t sure who he was dressed up as, or if it actually was anyone in particular. But either way, he was here. Which meant his phone was here. 

Dani, meanwhile, already knew her own target was here. She’d actually passed the woman in question on her way in. The social worker whose keys she needed to borrow was working the front phone-coat check alongside a couple other people. Dani had handed the woman her phone (well, one of them anyway) and even told her to have a nice evening. 

Finally, in a break between songs, the two of them make their way off the dance floor. There were a few scattered bits of applause from people nearby who had apparently been taken in by the display. But for the most part, the space filled up again quickly, as the others went back to dancing. Dani and Amber stepped over by the refreshments table, each taking a glass of punch while looking around at the people surrounding them. 

“Boy,” Dani remarked, “you rich people sure know how to party.” 

Rolling her eyes, Amber retorted, “You know, from everything you’ve said about your great-aunt, I’m pretty sure you’re richer than I am.” 

“Not me,” Dani pointed out, “my aunt. I’m just sort of taking advantage of her assets or whatever. Not like it’s my money.” 

Gesturing at that, Amber replied, “I mean, then you’re basically the same as ninety-nine percent of the ‘rich’ kids at that school. They’re all there on their family’s money too.” 

Mouth opening behind her plastic helmet, Dani paused to consider before giving a nod of acceptance. “You know, that’s fair. But that doesn’t stop a lot of them from acting like they personally made that money with their own sweat and blood. Not that most of them would have any idea what it’s like to sweat.”

Snorting to spite herself, Amber glanced around the room to take in all the costumes once more before speaking up. “You know, I think I need to visit the little rich girl’s room. Would you mind seeing what they have on the menu tonight? I bet it’s something decent.”  

Dani, who had been trying to think of how she was going to separate herself from the other girl to do what she needed to do, tried not to sound relieved. “Oh, yeah, I guess I could do that. If you don’t need company.” 

“I think I can manage,” Amber replied dryly. “Don’t worry, I’ll find you. Your costume stands out.” 

“So does yours, babe,” Dani shot back while pointedly looking her up and down. “But then, you don’t need a costume to stand out.” 

Amber quickly turned away to hide her blush while making her way through the crowd. She still really wanted to get into that coatroom to find the phone so she could figure out exactly how much that detective guy knew, but she actually was having a good time so far. A small part of the girl wondered if she should just put that plan out of her mind and focus on having a good time with her date. But even as that thought came to mind, she saw her father’s face and felt a wave of guilt wash over her for even entertaining it. His murder still wasn’t solved, the person responsible for his death was running around free. There was no way she could let that go. No, it didn’t matter how much fun she was having with Dani. She had to get in there and find out if Derek Meyers knew anything he wasn’t putting in the official report. 

To that end, she made her way to the restroom as promised, stepping into the stall at the end of the room before locking it behind her. Crouching to make sure she was alone in this place, she carefully stepped out of the metal boots, revealing dark slippers, before positioning the boots so that anyone glancing under the stall would think someone’s feet were there. It would do for the short time she planned on being away, in any case. But now she had to move quickly, before Dani started to wonder where she was. 

Pushing both of her gold-scaled sleeves upward, Amber watched as the shirt itself lost the scales and turned black. The sleeves easily pushed all the way up to the shoulders, seeming to vanish in the process so her arms were left bare. A touch of the belt buckle turned her dark green pants black as well. From there, she simply tugged the That-A-Way mask out of her pocket and exchanged the goggles for it. The mask would change her hair color, facial features, and voice. If anyone did see her snooping around, she would make an excuse about investigating something. The most important part was that she definitely didn’t want to get caught using That-A-Way’s powers while wearing a costume as Amber O’Connell. Her plan was to not be seen at all, but better safe than sorry. 

Amber had actually come into this place a few hours earlier while people were still setting up to look around and to get the lay of the rooms so she would know exactly where to go. Now, she turned to face the wall behind her. The coat room where she would find that cell phone was to the north from this spot. Which meant her teleportation was in play. 

Focusing on the far rear corner of the room in question, which she had seen while innocently looking around earlier, Amber instantly vanished from the restroom stall, and reappeared in that dark area. Rows and rows of coats and shelves full of locked phone boxes lay around her, and she could hear muffled voices from the people up front. It was late enough by this point that there weren’t many people arriving to have their stuff put away, yet too early for others to start leaving. Which was the point, of course. Amber knew she had to be careful about the timing here. And, well, careful about everything else as well. 

Taking her extra phone out after peeking to make sure the door leading up front was shut, Amber turned the light on dim and began to check all the names on the cell phone lock boxes as she searched for the one she needed. Meyers, Meyers, where was the one labeled Meyers? Come on, she had to look faster. 

Unfortunately, she’d barely started to look before a sound made Amber’s gaze snap toward the door. The knob was turning. Fuck, someone was coming in! Quickly, she ducked back behind the furthest shelf. Hopefully, they would just toss another box or phone into the room and then leave again. She really had to get done with this and go find Dani. 

******

Dani, meanwhile, had also checked this place out earlier. But she had not focused on the restrooms or their relative position. Instead, she made her way into the game room, where people were sitting around playing cards or pool. The din of conversation, clinking glasses, and the clack of balls bouncing around the felt table top was incredibly familiar for the girl given she spent so much time in La Casa’s base. But still, she couldn’t let that lull her into a false sense of security. What she was doing here was very dangerous, and she had to get in and out quickly before anyone noticed. And, with any luck, before Amber started wondering where she had gone. 

So, walking through the dimly lit room, Dani moved to the far corner. There were more heavy, floor-to-ceiling curtains here as well, and she glanced around to make sure she wasn’t being watched before slipping behind one of them. Once she was safely out of sight behind the curtain, Dani quickly stripped the gold coat off and flipped it inside out. The interior of the coat was white. When she pulled it on and zipped the thing up, it matched the jackets the staff of this place were wearing, at least close enough for casual inspection. 

From there, the girl ran her hands down her gold pants until she found the small buttons on either side of her pockets. At a touch, the pants shifted until they were blue, also matching the wait staff uniform. It hadn’t been hard to get color-changing clothes in that costume shop. It was, after all, one of the best-selling Touched-Tech clothing in the city. Especially with Paintball around. The only real difficult part had been getting the woman they bought the costume from to understand that they didn’t want a bunch of random colors or wild designs like most people who were trying to imitate the boy in question. They just wanted simple gold to blue. 

Once her clothes were properly changed, Dani plucked the helmet off and hid it there behind the curtain. She couldn’t put that in her pocket, but it should be fine here for a few minutes. Then she took a mask from her pocket. At a touch of the button on the side, it expanded outward to match the ones the staff were wearing. Now, as she stepped out from behind the curtain, she would look (at least to most who didn’t inspect her too closely), like she was just another servant there to help the party go smoothly. 

As she expected, the uniform practically made her invisible. Which wasn’t as good as if Grandstand had just come in here with her own power to make people not pay attention to her, but apparently she had her own thing to deal with. Besides, there could have been various bits of electronic security that would identify an extra person who wasn’t supposed to be there. 

And, of course, Dani still wasn’t sure she trusted the woman. Better that she or KD do this part, and she’d had an easy way in. 

Speaking of having an easy way in, the girl made her way through the crowd to the front desk in the main room. Everyone else ignored her, even the other servers. The two women in charge of the coat and phone check barely glanced her way as she walked over holding a phone up. “Someone missed theirs, got another box?” 

Taking the time to absently pass one of the lock boxes her way, the woman in charge, who happened to be the very woman whose keys Dani needed, mumbled something about making sure she put the right name on it, then went back to the conversation she was having with her partner. Just in case, Dani carefully wrote out a name on the side, but she was pretty sure she could’ve completely ignored that part and the chicks wouldn’t have noticed. A moment later, she slipped past them and walked right through the door to ‘put the box away.’ Given how distracted they were, she would have all the time she needed to find where Sue Pascal, the woman right outside, had hung her coat. The coat she apparently always kept her keys inside of. 

It had taken a good bit of research to figure out exactly what sort of security they were dealing with, and how to bypass it. The agency took privacy very seriously, and the only way to enter that office (without getting a whole lot more help than they wanted to ask for), was to actually physically have the key. It wasn’t just a bit of metal, it had a special piece of electronic something or other in it that would both get them through the door and prevent various alarms from going off. Alarms which would, in turn, transfer and wipe the very information they were trying to get. 

Again, they took privacy very seriously. These were the type of people who arranged adoptions for the very rich, and very private. 

But give her just a minute in here, and she would find the coat and the keys. She already had a fake one ready to exchange it for, which would give them plenty of time to get in the office, find what they needed, and get out again before Sue even noticed anything was wrong when she went in the next day. 

*******

Even as the other girl came into the room to start looking around, Amber was silently cursing. She couldn’t see the person very well in the dimly lit room, but it was obvious that she was looking for something. Did someone come back to ask for their stuff back already? Never mind, never mind. This couldn’t take that long. And this was a large party. If Dani wondered where she’d been, she would just tell her she’d gotten lost and they must’ve missed each other. 

Unfortunately, things didn’t get any easier or less complicated. Just as she saw the shadowy figure start to lift up a coat that had been hung in one corner, there was another sound, this one coming from the far side of the room. It sounded like a low creak. As she, and the girl in the corner, both turned that way, one of the shelves there literally slid aside. Seeing that, Amber shoved herself even more firmly back into the corner. Weirdly, she could see the other figure duck down as well, clearly hiding. 

Well, maybe not so weirdly. If she was a staff member for this place, seeing someone come in through a hidden door would probably make her hide too. At least long enough to see what was going on. 

********

Dani was cursing under her breath as she hid behind one of the shelves, squinting out between a couple boxes at the sight of the male figure coming into the room. A secret door? What the hell? If she’d known there was a secret door, she wouldn’t have gone through all this trouble. And what was this guy doing? 

What he was doing, apparently, was talking on the phone. His voice was low. “Yeah, he said they’re all in position. Trust me, we are definitely gonna make an impression. Give it another hour, and this place won’t be more than a memory.” He chuckled then. “A very hot memory.” 

Oh, what the hell? Was this asshole planning an attack on this place or something? What did he mean by something or someone being in position? Was he with one of the other gangs? This definitely wasn’t a La Casa job. It didn’t fit anything like what Blackjack would do with that ‘hot memory’ comment, and she would’ve heard about it. 

Sure enough, the man kept talking. “All ten of them. Yeah, he said they’re hidden real good. In the walls and floor.  I’m just gonna finish up here, then I’ll get out of this place before it goes boom.” 

Okay, no, Dani couldn’t let this happen. She might’ve been a thief, but she sure as hell wasn’t just going to let this piece of shit blow up a building full of people. Even as she had that thought, the girl reached down into her pocket and started to straighten up. Her fingers found Holiday in her tiny skink form, while she focused on her power. 

*****

Bombs?! Fucking seriously? Before the man had even finished saying those words about the place ‘going boom,’ Amber was already using her phone to text the Minority base for help. Or she tried to. The message went undelivered, and she managed to glance down at her phone, just to see that she had no service. Great, just great. Obviously, this guy was blocking calls beyond his own phone, or something. Well, all she had to do was get that phone. And, if it meant hitting him a few times, she was good with that. 

With another thought, she vanished from where she was, and reappeared behind the man, already pivoting. Facing south like this would make her intangible, which she planned to take advantage of by making him jump through her. So, she quickly began to blurt, “Hey ass—” 

But in that moment, something else showed up right in front of the man. He started to turn at her words, yet the thing that jumped out of the shadows demanded his attention much more thoroughly and immediately. it crashed into the man and both of them went straight through Amber, making her spin that way as the man yelped out loud, his phone dropping from his hand. 

In a panic about what the hell had just happened, Amber started to grab for the shadowy monster that had just tackled the man, only to stop short, hiss-blurting, “Holiday?!” 

Sure enough, the panther-lizard pivoted, front paws still firmly holding the man down, before leaning up to purr and lick at Amber’s face. 

“Way?” That was Pack herself, coming out of the shadowy corner. That was the girl Amber had seen coming to the room. She was dressed up like one of the servants, with the same blue mask covering her face. That had to be how she got into the party. “What’re you doing here?” 

“I– I had something I had to do,” she found herself stammering, only to catch herself. “Wait, what are you doing here? You–wait.” This wasn’t the time. It really wasn’t the time. Instead, she dove to the floor and grabbed the man’s phone. Dammit, it had gone to the lock screen, and needed a code. Quickly, she moved to the man and grabbed his hair. “What’s the code for your phone?! How do I call out? Where are the bombs?” She spoke to Pack without looking that way. “Pull the fire alarm, get these people out!” 

The man, a guy in his late forties with short blonde hair and a thin mustache, gave a little chuckle. “I wouldn’t do that if I was you. Unless you want my buddy outside to trigger those bombs as soon as he sees people take off.” His eyes narrowed at them. “People start leaving, he’ll set them off. He gets any sign that the cell blocker is disabled, he’ll set them off. He hears or sees cops or Touched start coming, he’ll set them off. So, ya know…” He sneered. “Maybe you two should just run for it. Two of you, one that can teleport? I bet you can get out in time.” 

Amber wanted to ask who this guy was, why he was doing this, who his partner was, and plenty of other things, but none of that seemed to matter at the moment. The most important– the only important thing right then, was taking care of the bombs themselves. So, grabbing the man’s collar, she held it tightly while demanding, “Where are they? How do we disable them?” When he simply scowled at her, she leaned back and spoke flatly. “Pack, would you tell Holiday to bite one of his fingers off?” 

The man started to scoff, only for his eyes to widen as Pack gestured and the lizard-panther grabbed his hand in her teeth. “Okay okay! Look, the passcode for the phone is four four two one, but it won’t help you get your friends involved. It can only call my partner outside, that’s it. I don’t even know where he set up, just somewhere he could see the entrance. But if you unlock the phone, open the ‘find boom’ app right there and it’ll detect the bombs. The–fuck, the person who made the bombs gave us that shit to control them if we had to. You get close enough with the phone and you can disable them, okay? Just tell this thing not to bite my fucking fingers off, fuck!”

“Why don’t you just tell us where they are?” Pack demanded, putting a hand on Holiday’s back while the lizard kept the man’s hand between her teeth threateningly. 

The man hissed before sighing. “I dunno, okay? I paid someone else to put them in cuz I couldn’t get them through security. He works with the security team. You’ve just gotta track them down yourselves. Ten bombs, you got…. fifty-two minutes. You can make that work, right?”

“You better hope we can,” Amber informed him, already reaching out to grab a nearby scarf from a hanging coat. “Cuz if we go up in flames, you’ll be right there with us.” With that, she tied the man’s hands, gagged him with another scarf, and hauled him back to the corner of the room. Seriously? Bombs? There were fucking bombs in here? How–what–no. No, she couldn’t panic. She couldn’t freak out. Not right now. Later. She could freak out later. Right now she had to stop the bombs and save all these people. And… and she couldn’t do it alone.

With that in mind, Amber straightened and looked at Pack. “Look, I don’t know why you’re here, or what you were here to steal, but I don’t care. Would you please help me find these bombs?” If the guy who had brought these bombs in worked with security, there was no way she could even contact them to do something. Whoever he was, he’d hear about it and set off the bombs. She couldn’t contact the authorities, couldn’t even get help from anyone in here. It was up to her and the La Casa Touched who… who she felt very complicated about. 

“Like you had to ask.” Pack had already picked up the man’s phone, taking a cord from her pocket. “Blackjack gave me this for… something else, but it should work. Here.” She plugged the cord into that phone, then into her own before waiting a moment. There was a ding, and she yanked the cord out. “Okay, now I’ve got the same app our friend there was talking about. So we split up, find all ten bombs, and disable them without causing a panic, right?” Even as she said that, the girl had already started to shrink Holiday back into her normal form, catching the skink to put into her pocket. 

Amber hesitated, then gave a quick nod, looking down at her own phone. “Right, and we’ve got forty-nine minutes to do it. So we better hurry.” There were a lot of other things she wanted to say at that moment, but she settled on, “Thanks. And be careful.” 

“Forty-nine minutes to find ten bombs?” Pack waved that off. “We can do it. 

“At least, I really hope we can.” 

******

After leaving That-A-Way for the moment, Pack made her way out of the coatroom and hesitated. Part of her wanted to start warning people immediately. But that wouldn’t do any good. It would just start a panic and make everyone run for the exits, which would make the guy outside set off the bombs. No, she had to find and disarm them with this little phone app thing. So, she began moving through the crowd, glancing down at the screen in the palm of her hand. Unfortunately, within twenty seconds, three different people had asked her to do different things for them. It was the uniform. They thought she worked here, which was just going to make this whole thing take even more time. Time she didn’t have. So, the girl went back to those curtains and switched to her first costume. Now at least she would blend in with the rest of the guests.

She had no idea why That-A-Way was here to begin with, or why she had been hiding in that room. Or, for that matter, why she wasn’t dressed as herself aside from the mask. She was dressed all in black, like some sort of… well, thief. 

It raised a lot of questions, but she wasn’t going to get answers to any of them just yet. The bombs were more important. Fortunately, this app thing didn’t seem hard to use. As far as she could tell, any time she got near one of the bombs, it would light up with a red circle in the middle of the screen. Then all she had to do was get close enough for it to turn green, and she could press ‘detonate’ or ‘disarm.’ It really was a bomb app for dummies. There was even a little number ten in the top right corner to tell her how many were left. Why it didn’t just have a single button to disarm all the bombs at once from anywhere… well, that would’ve been too easy, wouldn’t it? 

There, the light was flickering. She had to move closer to the–

“Dani?” 

Oh shit, it was Amber. Quickly hiding the phone up her sleeve, Dani turned that way. Sure enough, her date had just emerged from the crowd. “Oh, hey. There you are. I was… looking for you.” Fuck, she wanted to warn the girl to get out, but… but… fuck. She just had to disarm the bombs. There was no way to warn her, not in a way she’d understand. 

******

Shit! Of course Dani had to be right here, the way the bomb detector was telling her to go. Amber cursed inwardly. Could she find a way to tell the other girl she should take off? No. No, even if she could make her leave casually, that might still make the guy outside get antsy enough to set off the bombs. And… and… fuck. Okay, she just had to play it cool. Just had to keep moving and disarm the bombs without letting Dani know what was going on. 

Forcing a smile to her face while adjusting the goggles she had put on after changing into the old costume since she hadn’t wanted to draw anyone’s attention by wearing the mixed That-A-Way and blatant thief outfit, Amber shrugged. “Oh, well it’s a big place. Big crowd. Come on, let’s uh, take a walk so we’re out of the way.” Yeah, that didn’t make much sense, but she had to keep moving. To her relief, Dani didn’t question it. The two of them began to move through the sea of people. Every once in awhile, Amber managed to glance down at the phone she had hidden partway up her sleeve. They were getting closer. It was flickering…. there, it was green. Her thumb quickly moved to hit the disarm button, and she let out a silent sigh of relief when the number in the corner switched from ten to nine.

“Uhh, so, having a good time?” 

*******

Nine? That-A-Way must’ve disabled this one. Quickly turning, Dani scanned the rest of the room. Was the other girl anywhere in sight? She had to be, but would she still look like she had in the coat room, or–

Shaking that off, she forced a casual shrug, trying her best not to sound like there were nine more bombs she was trying to disarm before they killed her and everyone else in the building. “Sure, I guess. You know, the dip’s pretty great.” What the hell was she even saying? She was distracted, trying to subtly glance at her phone to see where she should try to maneuver the other girl to next. 

“Oh, really?” Amber sounded genuinely intrigued, weirdly. “I haven’t seen any yet. Ahhh, you wanna grab some?” 

Thank God, a ready-made excuse. Jumping on that, Dani nodded. “Sure, I’ll get the dip and find you. Uhh, keep heading that way.” She gestured toward the gambling room before starting to slip away. Right, now all she had to do was–

***** 

Keep looking for those bombs. With Dani out of the way, Amber could search for the next one without worrying about the other girl seeing her constantly checking a phone she wasn’t even supposed to have at the moment. 

Thankfully, it wasn’t hard to find the second one. Within two minutes of making her way through the crowd, she had already gotten the green light and disabled it. Reaching up to stick an earbud in, she used her own phone rather than the piece of shit bomber guy’s to call Pack so they could check in. Outside calls were still jammed, but within the same general area they could use what amounted to a short-range radio signal. 

The phone rang three times before the La Casa Touched picked up. “Hang on… There.” On the asshole’s phone, Amber saw the number tick down to seven, even as Pack spoke. “Three down?” 

There was something about the other girl’s voice, but Amber couldn’t focus on it. She started walking while checking the phone again. “Yeah, and I think I’m getting close to another one. We’ve got thirty-eight minutes to find seven more.” 

“Yeah, yeah, I’ve got the timer going too,” Pack replied. “Look, assuming we get through this, you’ve gotta tell me–wait a minute.” 

There was a pause, before the number on the phone ticked down to six. Amber heard a hiss of triumph from the other end of the line. “Fuck yeah,” Pack murmured. “Another one down. When we get through this, you’ve gotta tell me what you were doing in there.” 

“Sure, right after you tell me what you were doing,” Amber shot back, before giving a polite smile to the man who glanced her way curiously. “And how much it’s being fenced for.” 

******

Scoffing as she made her way down one side of the refreshments table, Dani spoke smoothly into the bluetooth built into her plastic Caishen helmet while keeping her voice low enough not to carry to others in the crowd. “Babe, I’ll have you know, I’m here for… okay, not entirely legitimate reasons, but pretty good ones. We’re still looking for Jennica, okay?” 

There was a brief pause before That-A-Way sighed. “Fuck, I’m sorry. I shouldn’t just assume, I just–” 

“Don’t worry about it,” Dani promptly interrupted. The light was flashing again, very faintly, so she tried going one way, only for it to stop flashing. Wrong direction. Turning back the other way, she kept moving. “I’m a thief and there’s a bunch of rich people here. I don’t blame you for… you know, adding two and two.” 

Okay, okay, just a bit further this way and… shit, not that way. Turning slightly, she started to move forward only to run into two heavyset guys loudly talking to one another. When gesturing for them to step aside didn’t work, Dani made a point of shoving her way through them, ignoring the annoyed curses that prompted. She didn’t have time to worry about them. Six more bombs, they had to disarm six more. And then maybe she could try to salvage the rest of her actual mission and this date with Amber. 

Oh shit, speaking of Amber, there she–

*****

“Hey!” Trying not to sound surprised as she quickly disabled the bluetooth in her ear and tugged it out in one smooth motion, Amber stepped up to where she had just seen Dani. “Uhh, no luck with the dip?” God, she was a dip. There wasn’t time for this. Why didn’t she just tell the girl to… to… what? What could she tell her? Nothing, there was no way to explain it, and no time to try. 

“Yeah, the guy with the tray must’ve moved,” Dani replied, turning a bit to look around. “I swear he was right here, but uhh. Wait, I think he’s over there. You stay right here, I’ll get it.”

“Oh, right, yeah.” Already thinking of an excuse she could have for not staying right there, Amber gestured. “M-must be pretty good dip if you’re chasing this guy down for it.” God damn it, why did she say that? Was she trying to make the other girl give up on finding it? What the hell was wrong with her? 

Sure enough, just as she had been afraid of, Dani hesitated and turned back to her. “Look, I’m not trying to avoid you or anything. I mean–” 

“It’s okay,” Amber quickly put in, trying not to think of the ticking clock. Half an hour for six bombs, she could do that. With Pack’s help, she could do it. Fuck, had the other girl already found another one? She couldn’t look at the phone to check. “I promise, it’s all good. We don’t have to be attached at the hip to be here together, right?” 

“Right.” Giving her a thumbs up, Dani seemed to be smiling behind that helmet. “Lemme chase this guy down, then we can dance again or something.” With that, she disappeared into the crowd once more. 

*****

As she moved away from Amber, Dani touched the button on her helmet to unmute her call. “You find any more yet?” Her gaze glanced down to the phone, only to see it still said five out of ten, after she’d managed to disable the fifth one surreptitiously while talking to Amber. 

“Not yet,” came the response after a moment. “I’m uh, I’m looking, one second. Think I’ve got another one right–” And then the number ticked down to four. Dani could hear the relief in the other girl’s voice, tinted as it was with continued worry about the rest. “Six down. We’ve still got time.” 

“Yeah, we’ve got time,” Dani agreed, following the intermittent flashing light in the app to track down the next one. “But… if we run out, what–” 

“We won’t run out,” came the immediate response. “Four more, we can do this. Just… just keep looking. And–” There was a brief hesitation. “And thanks.” 

“Not like I want to see a bunch of innocent people… you know.” Dani didn’t want to say that out loud, even if she was pretty sure no one was close enough to hear, or understand. “Just keep looking, we’ve got thirty minutes to find four more.” 

So, they continued to search the rooms, following the flashing light on the app. Dani found another relatively soon, then That-A-Way found two more over the next fifteen minutes. With about ten left on the clock, they only had one bomb to find. Unfortunately, that one proved to be the problem. Time was ticking away, and there was no sign of it. That little number ‘one’ continued to flash in the corner of the screen, while the minutes rapidly vanished. 

“Where the fuck is this thing?” Dani had stopped worrying about what Amber was going to think. She’d think about how to apologize to the other girl for seemingly ditching her once she made sure everyone survived the next few minutes. 

“We can’t do this,” came Way’s response over the phone. “We’ve gotta take the chance to start teleporting these people out.” 

“There’s no way,” Dani immediately put in. “Look, even when this whole thing started, you couldn’t have–hang on. Wait.” There had been a very faint flicker from the app. She stopped, turning until it flickered again. Looking up, she saw a stairwell access door and muttered a curse. “It’s upstairs, I got it.” Quickly, without even bothering to look around to see if anyone was looking, she moved through the door and began to run up the steps, looking at the phone the whole time. The flickering light was getting brighter. Just a bit more, a bit closer, and she’d be able to–

As she passed a stairwell, someone, a dark shape, stepped out of the corner to one side. Before Dani could finish registering what was going on, a taser was shoved into her side and triggered. She cried out, as the linoleum came up and smacked her. Fuck, fuck, her body wouldn’t cooperate. She could feel Holiday squirm out from under her, but she had to focus to make the lizard grow. 

A man in a security uniform stood over her. “Knew someone was disarming those fucking bombs,” he snarled, holding that taser in one hand and a pistol in the other. “Should’ve known it was a hero wannabe.” 

A hero wannabe? Oh, this guy was so dead. Snarling, Dani rolled over, trying to force her body to stop twitching so much. “Y-you wanna see–” 

“Uh uh,” he interrupted. The guy was tall, several inches over six feet. His skin was dark, with a shaven head. “You move again, I’ll put a bullet in your head. I don’t think that plastic helmet’ll save you, whoever you are. Now–” 

Behind them and down the stairs a bit, the door banged open, as someone came through. The figure stopped short abruptly, clearly staring that way. “What–” 

****

“–the fuck?” Amber had heard Pack cry out, and ran for the stairs access. Now she stood there, seeing the man standing in front of a fallen figure she couldn’t see very well up on the next stairwell. It was Pack, it had to be. She was lying on the floor with this piece of shit standing over her with… with a gun. Immediately, Amber forgot about everything else. She forgot about hiding her identity, about… about all of it. “Get the fuck away from her.” 

“Oh, you think you can tell me what to do, bitch?” The man snapped those words testily, already raising the pistol. “You think you matter? You think she matters? Lemme show you how much she matters.” His finger started to pull the trigger. 

No. No! Amber wouldn’t let that happen. Only one thought filled her mind. She was facing west. Instantly, she hurled herself that way. The whole world slowed down, as her super speed kicked in. She was up the stairs before the man had finished pulling the trigger. She dove, catching hold of the girl lying there. The impact carried both of them in a slide across the floor of the stairwell. 

The gun was silenced, but she still heard the ping of the bullet ricocheting off the linoleum. Before the man could adjust his aim, Holiday was suddenly full-sized, roaring as she leapt that way to tackle him down the stairs. 

On top of Pack but not looking at her, Amber scrambled around, her gaze snapping that way. Holiday had the man down. His gun was already several feet away from him, as the panther-lizard kept the man’s throat in her mouth without biting down. He, in turn, was remaining very still. 

But as soon as she saw that that was in hand, Amber looked at her phone. She was talking to Pack, not caring about the fact that she wasn’t in costume. She wasn’t even thinking about that. The clock was ticking down to almost one minute. Yet the light was green. With a sigh of relief, she hit the disarm button, not daring to breathe until the one flickered and then switched to zero. 

“We did it,” she murmured. “Holy shit, we did it.” 

“Uhhh yeah,” came the response from the figure under her, the figure she had used her superspeed to save. It was Pack, of course. But her voice…. her voice was…

Slowly, Amber turned her head to look at the figure in the slightly dented plastic Caishen helmet, voice catching in her throat. Her thoughts… stopped. No… wait… could… could…

Raising her hand, the pinned figure pushed the helmet aside to reveal Dani’s face staring up at her. 

“Holy shit pretty much sums it up.” 

Previous Chapter / Next Chapter

Schooling 24-08 (Summus Proelium)

Previous Chapter / Next Chapter

The cops who showed up to take the would-be mugger into custody were a bit more intense about the questioning than I thought they might be as they asked me what had happened and exactly what I saw. At first I was a little confused about that, then I realized it probably had to do with where we were. The school for rich, untouchable kids (like me) was right over there. Hell, he had been trying to mug one of those kids in particular when it came to Jae. And Damarko might not have gone to our school, but some part of me hoped these cops would be upset about another teenager being targeted anyway. And even if not, it still made sense that they’d take this a bit more seriously with how close we were to the school. 

That and I was pretty sure my parents probably had some special rule when it came to anything happening here. I wouldn’t have been at all surprised if the report had set off some sort of alert for them to send in people loyal to the Ministry. And that had to be a stressful report to make.

In any case, they took my explanation and then strongly encouraged me to go to school, making it clear that being Star-Touched, even one with a sanctioned team like my own was becoming, wasn’t an excuse not to attend. There were still truancy rules and all that, after all. I gave them some joke about my first period teacher being a lot scarier than Cuélebre, then took off. 

Of course, I could’ve said that my school was literally right across the street, but there was no way in hell I was gonna give them that much information. While I might not have loved being mistaken for a middle school-aged boy in my civilian life, it was entirely too useful to just throw away like that. Besides, as impossible as it was for them to identify who they thought was one random thirteen year old guy in Detroit, ‘teen person who attends the richest, most exclusive school in the city while only being this tall’ would narrow it down a lot more. 

So, I had to play it up as though it was going to be a long trip to get to class on time. Then I simply made sure no one was following me and took a quick round-about trip to come up to the school from the far side. Between that and waiting for the cops to show up and then telling them the whole story in the first place, that half hour I’d had turned into only having about five minutes before class started. Which, to be fair, the cops had probably only shown up fast enough for me to have any time before class because of the whole ‘school for rich kids’ thing. If this had taken place in a different zip code, I’d probably still be sitting around waiting for them by the time lunch rolled around. 

Obviously, there was one person in particular I was trying to look for while making my way through the halls. And I spotted her standing next to Amber and a couple other people, having a clearly animated conversation. Well, the others were animated. Jae was still very much closed in on herself and only answering their questions in a quiet voice with a couple words. It looked like Amber was doing most of the talking. I made it close enough to hear what was actually being said just in time for her to announce, “And you know Ms. Mesters wouldn’t accept that as an excuse. She’d probably try to put the cops themselves in detention.” 

“Who’s going to detention?” I asked, forcing myself not to look too interested. For just a second, I also reflexively tried not to look as tired as I was, thanks to paint-skating my way in a great big circle as fast as I could just to avoid letting the police realize I was going to the same school I had made a point of heading away from. But honestly, if these guys saw me pant a few times and realized all of that from it, they deserved to figure out the truth, because damn.

“Dude,” one of the guys informed me. “Jae was nearly killed.” It was Mike Phillin. He was a tall, lanky blond who liked to wear open flannel shirts over Looney Tunes tees, and cargo shorts. In fact, I’d never seen him wearing anything else. Even the few times we’d gone to the pool, he didn’t dress out to swim.  

Amber made a point of cutting in. “She wasn’t nearly killed, some guy just tried to mug her and our friend Damarko across the street. Probably thought he could score a better haul from rich kids.” Her eyes glanced toward me as she added. “But Paintball showed up. Right, Jae?” 

Jae, for her part, gave a short nod. She mostly looked like she didn’t want to be there at all, especially not while being the subject of attention for so many people. “It wasn’t a big deal,” she replied quietly. “We were just in the wrong place at the wrong time, and Paintball was in the right place at the right time.”

“You got saved by a superhero, dude,” one of the other guys put in. “You gotta admit, that’s pretty damn cool.” With a heavy sigh, he lamented, “I wish I could get saved by a superhero.” 

“Keep screwing around with Angie and you’re gonna need a superhero to save you from Dustin,” Mike informed him. “You see the way he was looking at you earlier?” 

“We’re all gonna need superheroes,” I quickly pointed out, “if we don’t get to class.” 

One of the girls who was standing around near the back of the group made a show of rolling her eyes. “Oh please, you’re Cassidy Evans. What’re they gonna do, put you in detention with only one person fanning you with a palm leaf instead of two? Make you use an amateur personal masseuse instead of a professional? Serve ice spring water with one lime instead of–” 

“We get it, Lucy,” Amber retorted. “Now how about we go to class so we don’t all end up finding out how terrible one palm leaf, amateur personal masseuse detention actually is?” 

Thankfully, everyone dispersed at that point. I walked along with Jae and Amber, glancing that way. “Seriously, there really was a mugger and all that? Are you okay?” 

Her head bobbed a little, as she murmured, “I’m fine. It wasn’t a big deal. We didn’t even know anything was wrong until Paintball had it under control.” 

“Yeah,” Amber confirmed, “apparently the guy never got anywhere near them.” She paused briefly before adding, “I just hope Paintball made it to school on time. From what I’ve heard, cops look the other way for a lot of stuff Star-Touched do, but skipping class isn’t one of them. You know, unless it’s a big emergency or something.”

“Rutherford’s near here,” I pointed out with a shrug, naming the middle school we’d gone to before. It was also the one Izzy was attending. “Maybe he goes there.” 

Jae murmured an agreement with that, before splitting off to head into class. Which left Amber and me standing there. The other girl gave me a brief look, keeping her voice low enough that I could barely hear her. “Thanks for jumping in back there. Lucky you were around.” 

Blushing just a bit, I shrugged and kept my own voice low as well. “Like she said, it really wasn’t a big deal. Just some guy trying to hit a couple rich high school kids for cash. I’m pretty sure he was homeless and desperate. And now he’s in jail, so he won’t hurt anyone else.” Even as I said that, part of me wondered if I should follow up on it. If the guy was so hard-up he was trying to rob high school students in the middle of the day–okay early morning, but still. If he was that desperate, maybe I should go see if I could help him somehow. 

Yeah. The more I thought about that, the more it sounded like the right idea. I was going to find out what was up with that guy, and if I could do anything useful. I wasn’t even sure how to go about that at the moment, and yet I wanted to try. 

For now, however, we had class. So I set the thought aside and headed in. Time to put all the Touched-related thoughts on the back burner for a few hours. 

********

Though, apparently, not nearly as many hours as I’d thought. Just before my study hall-lunch combination break, I got a text on my phone from Amber, asking me to meet her and Paige near the north-east stairwell instead of heading for the cafeteria. She added a bit a few seconds later promising to have food for me. 

So, slipping away from the others when the time came, I made my way to the area in question. Sure enough, Amber was there, though I didn’t see Paige. As I approached, the dark-haired girl offered me a wrapped cheeseburger from a nearby fast food place, and gestured over her shoulder. “Come on, it’s this way.”  

“It?” I echoed while unwrapping the burger. “What’s ‘it?’ And where’s Paige?”

Rather than answer immediately, Amber led me down the hall. We went around the corner by a back stairwell, to a spot I’d never really paid much attention to before. There wasn’t much space there, and from the rest of the hall, it just looked like the corridor ended at the stairwell. You had to get really close to even see that there was a narrow area there. And a door. It was unlabeled, and had one of those keypad locks. 

“Paige checked the cameras,” Amber assured me. “None of them point back here, and she disabled the lock and alarm.” With that, she reached out to pull the door open, gesturing for me to go ahead. 

So, I stepped through the doorway and into near pitch-blackness. Reflexively adjusting myself for the steep set of cement stairs beyond, I descended a couple steps before pausing. “Huh.” 

“You knew the steps were there, didn’t you?” Amber put in from behind me. A moment later, her finger flicked a switch, making a dangling light bulb come on to illuminate the stairs themselves. “Never been here before and you were stepping into darkness, and you still knew there were steps like that.”  

Looking down the stairs toward the still pretty dark room below, I grimaced. “That was some way to test my navigation ability.” Absently, I took a bite of the burger. It was pretty good. It had extra pickles on it, which I hadn’t even realized Amber knew I liked. Belatedly, I realized it was probably Paige who had gotten it. Paige, who knew what I liked from those memories that I no longer had. It was a thought that made me swallow hard.

“Don’t worry,” Amber informed me, “I was ready to catch you if it didn’t kick in. Super speed, remember?”

Together, we went down the stairs to what turned out to be a large, open cement area. More lights came on once we were there, so I could see better. It looked like an unfinished basement, though quite a bit larger. This place must’ve taken up as much space as several classrooms above us. I could see a few boxes in one corner, along with a bench press and a couple other random things.

Paige, who was standing by the light switch, stepped away from it and nodded at me. “We thought it’d be better to talk out of sight so all the gossipers wouldn’t wonder why we aren’t at each other‘s throat‘s all of a sudden.” 

“Which,” Amber put in, “we do need to do something about. Something tells me neither of you want to go back to the way things were.” When we both nodded firmly, she shrugged. “So, we’ll figure out something. Just maybe not immediately.” 

Turning in a circle, I looked around the strangely empty cement room. “What even is this place?” 

“It was supposed to be a storage area,” Paige informed me. “At least, that’s what the blueprints said. But there’s something else that wasn’t on the blueprints.” With those cryptic words, she gestured at me. “I think you can figure it out?” 

My brow furrowed as I stared at her before slowly walking forward. I moved to the middle of the room, then turned in a circle again. They were both watching me expectantly as I frowned and tried to focus. After a moment of that, I spoke quietly. “Turn the lights off again.” Paige and Amber shrugged at one another before the former did just that, finger flicking the switch. We were cast into darkness once more aside from very dim light coming from the stairs. 

Taking a couple steps to one side, I paused, then turned and took a few steps the other way. My hand rose and then I pivoted thirty degrees before walking forward. Stopping after a few more steps, I put my hand against the wall I had stopped in front of and announced, “There’s something behind this.”

The lights came back on, as the two girls stepped up on either side of me. They looked at each other again before Amber nodded. “Yeah, you’re right. Show her.” 

Paige reached out to the wall, or rather, to a slight indent on it. Her finger found something there, and there was a click before the wall slid smoothly aside to reveal a tunnel beyond. 

Staring that way, I turned back to them. “The Ministry put this in, didn’t they?” 

Paige nodded once. “Yeah, we think so. From what I can figure out, it’s there to evacuate their important children, or to bring people in if they need to.”

Amber added, “They made it look like a storage room on the blueprints, but they don’t actually use it for that. If anyone happens to find this place, it’s just an unused room. But it’s big enough to bring some pretty heavy forces in if they need to.” 

My breath left me in a sharp exhale before I squinted at both of them. “Are you guys sure we’re not being recorded or anything right now?” 

“I promise,” Paige assured me, “I checked everything very thoroughly. They had a few alarms, but no active security. This place isn’t that important to them. I mean, the tunnel is, but even that’s not a dealbreaker. if push came to shove, this is a rich kids school and it would make sense for them to have an evacuation tunnel. It’s not like its existence reveals anything about the Ministry themselves. I checked where it goes, and it just leads to an empty lot a few blocks away. It being found would be annoying for them, but not that bad.” 

Absorbing all that, I stared down that dimly lit tunnel for another moment. “My parents really are ready for trouble, aren’t they?” 

“In a lot of ways,” Paige confirmed. “But not all of them. We just have to be careful.” She paused then, and I had the impression that she was going to say one thing before changing her mind. Instead, she asked, “You were out in costume this morning?” 

I shrugged before turning away. “Could you close that thing? I don’t feel comfortable with it open like that. And yeah, I needed to go for a run and clear my head. Turns out to be a good thing, at least as far as Jae and that Damarko guy are concerned.” 

Amber cleared her throat before nodding. “Yeah, trust me, Jae’s glad you were there. That could’ve gotten messy. The guy seemed pretty desperate, from what they said.”

Paige sighed, leaning against the wall after closing it once more. “I wonder if that’s thanks to this whole gang war thing. I mean, maybe the guy got driven out of his normal area, or someone he cares about is in the hospital, or something.” 

Since they were thinking about that sort of thing too, I told them about my plan to check in on him later. To my relief, neither of them thought it was a stupid idea. Amber even offered to come with me.

Putting that thought aside, I looked back-and-forth between them. “But, something tells me we didn’t come down here just so Paige could ask me about stuff she could’ve texted me for. And, as fun as it was, I don’t think it was just to check if my super-special navigation sense would save me from falling down the stairs.” 

“That was important though,” Paige pointed out mildly. “Think about it, you found a hidden room just by focusing. You had no idea it was there and you still found it.” 

“I mean,” I pointed out, “I had some idea there was something here from what you said. But yeah, finding out like that was kind of weird. And cool, right?”

“Very cool,” Amber agreed. “But it proves you’ve got skills you’re not really using that well. Skills that you could be honing or learning about.” 

“That’s why we’re down here,” Paige explained. “We have the virtual reality place for combat training, and will do exercises with everyone else. But right here, right now, we want to do some tests.”

Amber put in, “You’ve been doing this for a couple months, so you’ve got a pretty good basic foundation for what you’re doing. Now, it’s time to understand some of the finer details.” 

Raising an eyebrow, I asked, “Are you guys sure you’re not just making fun of me because it took me so long to figure out what the pink paint does?” 

Paige chuckled slightly. “Maybe a little bit, but this really is important. You only get better when you really understand your power. We need to get some hard numbers, measure things, figure out exactly how this navigation and aiming power works, see what amount of paint causes how much effect. We need to see how strong you can be, how fast, how much weight the paint can pull or project with the red and blue, all of it. We need to figure it out.” 

“And it’s probably going to take more than one lunch period,” Amber pointed out. “So why don’t we get down to business?”

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Interlude 19C – Cyber Attack (Heretical Edge 2)

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Sitting on the floor of an enormous, airplane hanger-sized laboratory (one of many in the space belonging beneath the Capitol One Arena in Washington DC), Columbus balanced his personal cyberform, Amethyst, in his lap. The robotic porcupine-armadillo made a soft chirping sound as he tinkered in one of her open compartments with a screwdriver and pen light. Testing one of the wires, he spoke up absently. “Could you hand me that box of one-inch star button head screws on the table over there?” 

“Sure thing,” came the loud, rumbling voice as the huge robotic figure crouched behind him turned a bit. Even kneeling as he was, Galahad barely fit within the space, often brushing his head against the ceiling if he sat up too quickly. An understandable issue for a thirty-foot tall blue-silver robot who could transform into a full-sized semi-truck and trailer. Of course, in most cases, he could have simply transferred his consciousness into his much smaller humanoid form, but that was busy being tinkered with by the lab’s actual owner, Harrison Fredericks. 

The man himself, responsible for the initial creation of the cyberforms that had become so useful to Heretics all over the world, was in the far corner of the lab working on that. Columbus and Galahad both doubted the distracted man had any idea they were still there, let alone that he had other visitors outside in the parking lot. He was quite occupied with his work.

Easily reaching from one side of the lab to the other, Galahad very carefully pinched the desired box between two of his fingers. His hand massively dwarfed the box of screws, yet he was delicate enough to pick it up, move his arm over, and set it down next to the boy. He had a lot of practice being careful with his large hands and great strength. Between that and the incredible work Fredericks did to begin with, he could have picked up a living mouse without harming it. Well, aside from the heart attack the poor thing certainly would have suffered. 

“Your friends are still waiting, you know,” he gently reminded the boy. 

“Almost done,” Columbus promised. “I just need to run a couple quick diagnostics and–” He had looked up and turned a bit to glanced toward a corner of the ceiling, the lenses of the goggles on his face glowing slightly as he activated the x-ray vision to see out to where Vanessa and the others had been playing an impromptu soccer game on the pavement above while they waited for him to join them for a trip to the movies. What he saw instead, however, made Columbus drop the screwdriver and penlight, bolting to his feet. “Oh shit! What the hell’s wrong with the alarms?”

“Alarms?” Galahad echoed, head tilting. “I see nothing wrong. Your friends are playing–wait.” He paused before making a noise of disbelief. “The security footage is fake. Harry!” That booming voice flooded the hangar, drawing even the distracted scientist from his work. “We have trouble.” 

“Trouble?” Fredericks dropped his tools, vanishing from where he was standing before reappearing next to Columbus. He was a remarkably short man, standing only four feet, one inch tall. His dark red hair was short, and he had a goatee that was neatly trimmed. Aside from a pair of unnaturally green eyes, his other distinguishing feature was an arm that was very clearly cybernetic. “What sort of trouble?” 

“The dangerous sort,” Columbus informed him, still staring through the ceiling even as he stopped himself from instantly transporting out there to help the others. Better to make sure Fredericks knew what was going on before this whole situation got completely out of hand. Including one incredibly important point. 

“Kushiel’s here.” 

******

Several Minutes Earlier

With a thump as the soccer ball bounced off his head, Tristan Moon watched it bounce between two small trash cans that they had set up to be a goal and pumped his fist in the air. “Ha,” he crowed, “three to two, we are so pulling ahead of you guys.” 

This side of the parking lot of the Capital One arena was essentially empty, given there were no games or events going on anytime soon. Despite that, in most cases, the security guards would have insisted several teenagers playing ball in it should leave. But those security guards were being magically charmed to ignore the group, thanks to one of many safety measures Fredericks had installed along the property. 

“Maybe by definition,” Tristan’s sister retorted to his teasing. Vanessa had her long, typically loose blonde hair tied back out of the way in a ponytail. “Three to two isn’t exactly an insurmountable lead, you know.” 

Grinning, Tristan waved that off. “You’re just jealous that we didn’t go with sibling pairs.” 

“That would’ve been cliche,” Sands pointed out as she pointed toward the ball. A blue glowing outline surrounded it, and the thing went in an exact reverse of its previous trajectory, as if it was being rewound. It was a new power she had picked up during a recent trip, when a group of Alters they had been escorting to a safehouse were unexpectedly ambushed by a trio of religious fanatics, cultists for one of the many supposed world-destroying entities that were said to live in the Earth’s core or some such. Either way, they were dead now and Sands had picked up this ability to reverse the motions of any non-living object, up to about fifty pounds, for up to thirty seconds. 

“Much as I would love to be on a team with my sister,” she added with a nod to Sarah, who stood behind Tristan, “we do have to mix things up a bit.” She left out the fact that she knew Sarah wanted to team up with Tristan, given the two of them had started going out together a few months back. It was still relatively new, and they were taking things slow. But still, Sands was happy for her sister. Even if she did have to resist the urge to take Tristan aside and warn him about what would happen if he hurt her. Tempting as that was, it wasn’t her place to play that sort of game. Sarah could take care of herself. She didn’t need her twin sister threatening her boyfriend. Even if there was a bit of uncertainty about what was going on between him and that Nereid girl, Dexamene. She had come all the way back from the future and across the universe. Yes, it was to help Flick get back to the present, and save Elisabet, but still. She was Tristan’s best friend, and maybe more than that? No one was sure, possibly not even the two of them. But whatever was going on there, Sarah, Tristan, and Dex could handle it between themselves. They didn’t need her help. 

Especially not when Sands herself didn’t exactly have any luck in the romance department. A fact that made the short (the twins were barely five feet tall) brunette give a soft inward sigh before reaching out to catch the ball as it began to make its way past her and back toward Tristan on its reverse trajectory. “Besides,” she added aloud, “hitting the ball with your head shouldn’t be allowed. I mean, it’s so hard.” To demonstrate, she reached out as though to rap her knuckles against his temple, before the boy drew back with a laugh. 

“Hard and oblong, that’s my head alright,” he replied easily. “Now are you guys gonna take the ball out so we can steal it from you and rack up another point, or what?” 

Before the others could say anything, Sarah held a hand out while speaking up. “Wait, look.” Her sister and the other two turned to see where she was pointing. On the sidelines of their impromptu ‘field’ in the parking lot, Tristan’s cyberform snake, Bobbi-Bobbi, had been curled up to watch them. Now she lay stretched out on her side, twitching a little. Nearby, one of the many cyberforms that Fredricks allowed to roam the property, a monkey robot called Tipsy, was also laying on her side with the same occasional twitch. 

“Something’s wrong,” Sarah announced, even as Tristan took off running that way. 

“Bobbi?” he called, dropping to his knees next to the snake robot. “What–” In the next instant, his hand lashed out. The bracelet on his wrist glowed brightly, producing a blue-white set of flames over his fist as the boy punched the partially transparent figure who had emerged from beneath the pavement and was halfway-into his robotic partner. “Ghost!” he shouted as his empowered fist collided with the spirit’s face. 

Unfortunately, while he had been quick enough to stop the ghost, who had been pushing its way into Bobbi-Bobbi, Tristan wasn’t able to catch the one next to Tipsy. It disappeared into the monkey robot, and an instant later, he had to throw himself backwards to avoid being kicked in the face as the cyberform abruptly shoved its hand against the ground and kicked out of him with its two long legs. Blades had emerged from Tipsy’s feet, narrowly avoiding cutting the boy’s throat. 

“Tristan!” Vanessa shouted. Before she could move that way, however, an owl and falcon cyberform who had been flying overhead dropped into view. The owl shifted into a helmet form, hovering in midair as its goggle-like eyes blasted a concussive wave of force that slammed into the blonde girl, as well as Sarah. The two were sent flying a good twelve feet before tumbling along the ground. Sands was struck as well, but she had activated the power that allowed her to remain completely motionless and protected no matter how much force she was hit with. Up to a certain level, of course, but the owl didn’t surpass that. 

She was already bringing her mace out to swing at the cyberform itself before it could blast them again, but the falcon had transformed itself into a two-bladed sword, one end swinging out toward her throat. The girl was forced to stop short, going still so her power would kick in again and force the blade to bounce off. 

Tristan, by that point, had rolled back to his feet with Bobbi-Bobbi in her cannon form on his arm. He extended it, letting off a quick shot toward the falcon-blade, while his foot lashed out to kick Tipsy as she leapt at him. “What the hell?! Since when can ghosts possess cyberforms?!” 

“Well,” an unexpected (and entirely unwanted) voice announced from nearby, “I suppose since I gave them a bit of an upgrade?” Kushiel’s own ghost hovered next to a parked car, regarding them with a mixture of contempt and amusement at their confusion. “Stand still for a moment, and you’ll see just how much of one.” 

“Kushiel?” Vanessa blurted while she and Sarah picked themselves up. Her whip was already out and ready, scanning the air for more attackers coming from that way. Distracting as Kushiel’s appearance was, it felt just like the woman to show herself just so another possessed cyberform could hit them unexpectedly. She was far from the type to fight fair. “What are you doing here?” Even as she said that, the girl’s free hand was grabbing for the emergency alert coin in her pocket that would bring a full set of reinforcements. 

Sarah, meanwhile, brought her rifle up, but stopped herself from pulling the trigger. Tempting as it was to shoot Kushiel with as many ghost-fire empowered bullets as she could, it would’ve been pointless. The woman would just pass the damage off to one of the others. Denny had already informed them that she still had that power, even after death. A fact she had apparently demonstrated quite thoroughly when the people at the Auberge had sought to interfere with her attempts to find Mordred’s sword, Clarent. She’d failed then, and the sword was now in the hands of Joselyn Chambers. So what was she doing here now? 

“Try to call for help if you like,” Kushiel informed Vanessa without apparent care, knowing exactly what the girl was doing with the hand in her pocket. “It won’t do you any good. Not anymore.” She sounded oddly casual, given her usual personality and anger. Which, to be honest, was a lot more troubling than if she had shown up in full righteous fury mode. Kushiel being calm meant she was confident, and none of them were comfortable thinking about why that was. 

Sure enough, Vanessa felt something blocking the spell that would have called her mother and others to their location. “What– you’re stopping it.” 

“Very good, abomination,” Kushiel tauntingly retorted, giving a soft clap while staring daggers through the girl. Despite her calm demeanor, it was the hatred in those eyes that truly gave away the woman’s feelings. “Your ability to state the patently obvious truly does mark you as the genius they all say you are.” 

“Genius, no,” Vanessa informed her simply. “Prepared, yes.” With that, she touched a different coin in her pocket and triggered the spell there. Instantly, the backpack she had brought with them, discarded along the side of their playing field, flipped over. The flap on it opened, seemingly by itself, before three steel balls, each about two inches across, burst out. The trio of balls flew into view and hovered in a triangular formation around the ghost woman before projecting a glowing semi-transparent blue pyramid around her. 

Arching an eyebrow, Kushiel reached out to tap the glowing wall. “A ghost capture field, hmm? And I see your mother helped you add in a bit of anti-Tartarus tech as well. It’s not quite enough to block my power entirely, but it’s certainly… muffling it a bit, I suppose. I can feel the energy it’s giving off, making it harder for me to reach for my gift. I didn’t know that was possible.” The fact that she was, even now, speaking calmly made the hair on every one of their necks stand up. Something was even more wrong than they already knew. 

“It’s not, for living creatures,” Vanessa replied flatly. “You’re a ghost. You’re different. Your connection to Tartarus is stronger, but the one into this world, the physical world, isn’t. We can trap you that way, block you that way.” 

“For a time, perhaps,” Kushiel acknowledged, sounding unconcerned. “Still, it is a remarkable effort. You and your mother have been busy little bees. But you and I both know this is a prototype. It will not hold for very long.” Her hand brushed the wall testingly. “No, not long at all.”  

Her calm demeanor in the face of being trapped was even more worrying. As was the fact that half a dozen more cyberforms of various types had begun surrounding the four young Heretics. They were all obviously possessed, but none attacked. Not yet, anyway. 

Sands, Sarah, Tristan, and Vanessa had all moved closer together by that point. Not right next to each other, as they all needed room. But close enough to watch each other’s backs. Tristan spoke up for his sister. “Doesn’t have to hold you for long. We’ll have help here soon.” 

“Sooner than you think,” Columbus, appearing nearby, announced. He was facing Kushiel as well, Amethyst perched on his shoulder to hiss at the ghost woman. “Don’t worry, Fredericks is working on a way to expel our unwanted guests from the cyberforms,” he informed the others. “It won’t take long.” 

“Oh dear!” With mock concern, Kushiel put her hands to her mouth. “I suppose I’d better hurry then. Friends, would you mind?” At her words, three of the possessed cyberforms, the owl, falcon, and a small bluejay, turned their attention toward the balls projecting the pyramid that was currently containing her. Meanwhile, the others, including Tipsy, turned their attention to the five Heretics. 

And yet, before either group could carry out their attacks, a large figure came flying down out of the sky. Galahad, still in his thirty-foot tall robot form, crashed onto the pavement after launching himself through the air. His hand lashed out, smacking half a dozen of the other cyberforms out of the way to send them tumbling across the ground. “Sorry, buddies,” he announced, “the big guy’ll fix you up as soon as we get rid of your hitchhikers.” 

Even now, Kushiel showed no particular annoyance as her plan to have several of her ghost-possessed, unwilling partners break her out of the temporary prison. In fact, she simply chuckled at the side of the giant robot figure smacking them aside. To his words, she offered a slight shrug. “Doing that may be harder than your friend suspects. And you may have even less time than you think to make it happen.” 

“What do you want?” Sands demanded, taking a step that way. As one of the possessed cyberforms made a move toward her, she quickly threw a wall up into its path with a swing of her mace. But her eyes never left Kushiel’s. “Why are you here? Too much of a coward to face your daughter or Flick again, so you thought we’d be easier targets?” 

Through all of this, Kushiel had shown herself to be unnaturally, unusually calm. Yet it was the mention of Theia that made her drop that facade, even if only a little bit. Her eyes blazed with even more anger than had already been smoldering there, as she half-spat, “The thing I spawned will meet her fate in time. As for the would-be Necromancer child, she is still no threat to me. That much should have been clear after our last meeting.” 

“I dunno,” Tristan remarked, “Flick has a way of surprising people like you. And by people like you, I mean evil, irredeemable pieces of shit. Just ask Fossor.” 

“She doesn’t have to ask anyone,” Galahad put in. “She isn’t leaving this place. Not after–” He stopped in mid-sentence, head turning toward a nearby section of the parking lot. “What…” 

“Ah yes,” Kushiel remarked, as everyone’s attention shifted that way. The dull rumble that Galahad detected was soon audible to all of them. “As I was saying, I did not show myself to all of you in order to begin carrying out my plan.” 

With that, the ground exploded outward in a violent shower of rock and pavement, as a dark-green, fifty-foot tall dragon cyberform tore its way out of the ground and flew upward with a terrifying roar. It was followed by another, slightly different one, and another. Soon, seven cyberform dragons were in view, all of them spreading out to surround the group. As they hovered there, a figure appeared on top of each of the seven dragons. These were not ghosts, but living Seosten. Young Seosten, by the look of them. They couldn’t have been older than twenty or so, which made them look only about fifteen by human standards. Four boys, three girls, all dressed in gold and black versions of the Seosten bodysuit. Black with gold piping for the girls, the reverse for the boys.  

“I showed myself,” Kushiel finished, “because my true children, born of the lab you helped destroy, have already succeeded.” 

To be continued next chapter

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Schooling 24-07 (Summus Proelium)

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We didn’t end up running into any problems during that quick little patrol. Probably because almost everyone who would have caused trouble was still recuperating after the massive brawl from yesterday. That or, in the case of the Scions, they were apparently spending their time running God knew how many potential recruit candidates through the initiation test or… whatever it was they were doing. What it came down to was that there were more psychopaths out there besides Jennica competing to cause the most chaos and trouble in order to impress Pencil and Cup. The very thought of that brought bile to my throat, as did the positively cheerful thought of what else might happen before this audition bullshit was over. 

But, we didn’t run into any of that, or any other trouble. Which meant I was able to get home and get a solid six hours of sleep. And considering I hadn’t actually done that much physical exertion, since most of that had been inside the virtual reality, that meant I was rested long before my alarm was due to go off in the morning. Feeling restless, I left a note for Izzy and took a quick breakfast in the kitchen before heading out for what I told the staff members I passed was a run. It really was a run, of course. I just left out the fact that I would be changing into my costume and running across rooftops in the city, with my actual clothes in a backpack over my shoulder. 

It was pretty different being out here early in the morning. Well, early as far as I was concerned. It was not quite seven o’clock yet as I bounced my way from a traffic light to run along the side of an office building. My feet pounding against the brick was the most prevalent sound I could hear that early, aside from a few cars in the distance and birds calling out to one another. 

And then there was the bird who called out to me. “Ah, Paintball!” 

It was Lucent, of course, coming down from above as I stopped short at the edge of a rooftop. He landed smoothly on a nearby antenna and regarded me. “A fine morning to you, lad. Though I do hope this means you have thoroughly slept and are now out for a brisk early jog,” he announced. “Rather than the far more worrying option, that you have been out this entire time.” 

My head shook quickly. “Hey, don’t worry, Pops. I’ve definitely been asleep. I actually got more sleep all in a row last night than I have lately.” I paused to consider my words before adding, “Which isn’t really all that much, I guess. Still, I can’t sleep anymore.”

His head tilted sideways to consider me briefly before offering an understanding, “Let me guess, you’ve become accustomed to less sleep overall, and also spread out. You sleep a few hours at night, and then nap in the afternoon. Now you’ve done that enough that your body is accustomed to it. I’m told that happens to most Touched who operate that way.” 

Confirming that with a short nod, I asked, “What about you? I mean, did you get enough sleep? I heard you guys had it pretty rough the day before yesterday. Did uhh, did you get enough sleep?” 

Again, he regarded me. His expression seemed quizzical, but I couldn’t tell if that was just the ordinary raven look. After a moment, he replied, “Yes, it was a bit rough for everyone, it seems. I know you’ve heard this already, but I wished to offer my own apologies for being unable to respond to your request for aid until the situation had already been handled.” He paused then before adding, with a voice that was clearly amused and lightly teasing, “That is quite certainly not the sort of example I wished to give to any son of mine.” 

Painting a grinning smiley face across my helmet in orange paint, I gave him a thumbs up. “Don’t worry, I know you had your own problems to deal with. I’m just glad everyone got through it more or less intact.” With that, I glanced away, erasing the smile. A soft sigh escaped me. “But something tells me things are gonna get worse before they get better. Deicide’s really pissed off right now, isn’t she?” 

“She is not very happy, I’m certain,” Lucent agreed, turning his head to look out over the city around us. “I fear things will be escalating now, as soon as she and the others have regrouped. She will not allow that sort of betrayal to stand for long.” 

“Why did they betray her?” I found myself asking. “I mean, why would those guys think they could get away with switching sides like that? And to Oscuro of all groups. They’re not even Hispanic. I mean, I don’t care about that, but Oscuro is supposed to. Err, yeah, they made an exception for Grandstand. But, you know, considering she left them high and dry to go after her own vendetta, I would think they’d be less likely to make an exception like that again.” 

“Ah, we do have an answer to that, actually.” Lucent actually perked up a little at that, as though happy to be able to solve something for me. “According to intelligence our people on the street have been able to pick up, It seems that Juice, Janus, and Devil’s Due will not actually be joining Oscuro. In truth, Cuélebre has been traveling outside of the city, looking for new Touched members to recruit. He found another gang willing to come to the city themselves, whom he apparently does not mind sharing some territory with. They have their own Touched, several of whom were Hispanic and interested in joining his gang. But their own group desired a trade, so their strength wouldn’t be diminished.” 

Blinking a couple times as I absorbed that, I slowly offered, “Oh. So he recruits a few non-Hispanic Touched, then immediately trades them to this new gang so they’ll send their own Hispanic Touched to–is this fucking baseball or something? They’re trading players now?” 

Lucent chuckled softly, which was an odd sound to hear coming from a raven. “You might be surprised to learn how relatively common that sort of thing is, to be honest.” Again, his head tilted to look back at me with that seemingly quizzical expression. “Though perhaps not, as I hear you have done your own recruiting to fill up a brand new team of your own, as this Avant-Guard.” 

“Yeah,” I confirmed while giving him a thumbs up. “I mean, everyone kept telling me I shouldn’t go around by myself, so now I’m not. Errr, not as much. I have friends.” 

The TONI raven gave me what I swore was a bright smile. “And I am quite glad to hear that. Still, please ensure that you are all careful. Particularly considering what is happening in the city lately, and how those troubles are bound to escalate. There is a training facility at the Seraphs headquarters, and I have already been assured that you and your team will be welcome there.” 

No matter how much I trusted my ‘bird-dad,’ I wasn’t just going to give away exactly what we were doing with our own training. Maybe that was stupid and unnecessary, but I felt like it was best to keep that to myself. At least for now. Still, no matter how much mental training we were getting inside the VR place, we did need physical training. So, I gave a quick nod. “That sounds cool. I think we’ll probably take you up on that. Just don’t be surprised if your own members start complaining about a couple of us monopolizing your equipment. Poise and Style really want to make sure they whip us into shape.” 

“In that case,” he informed me, “I would like to meet them so that I might shake their hands for such forward thinking. And I do hope you are taking their suggestions seriously.” 

“Oh, believe me, we are.” Thinking about what we had started the night before, I added, “We’ve been working on that, but they’ll be glad to know there’s a real place we can go with some actual equipment and all that.” 

“Equipment and skilled trainers,” Lucent added, a bit pointedly. “People prepared to ensure that you and your team are ready should worse come to worst, powers or no. Which, I believe is a point of contention among some out there. There is some question of whether most of your group have any powers at all. From witness accounts and footage of that baseball field event, many are debating about the… Poise and Style you called them? Some believe they could not possibly move the way they do without some sort of gift, while others call it training or even the effect of Touched-Tech equipment. Which you would have access to, of course.”

I could tell he was gently fishing for information, probably curious about how much help I had on the actual powers front. Still, all I offered was a shrug. “They can take care of themselves.” If I wasn’t going to tell him about the virtual reality training room, I sure as hell wasn’t going to tell him that those two were actually Biolems. Trust him or not, it was best to keep that to myself.

I could tell that he wanted to say something more about that, but he let it go and simply glanced up toward the sky before remarking, “I think perhaps it might be time that you made your way toward school? You wouldn’t want to be late, of course.” 

Again, I gave him a thumbs up. “Sure thing, Pops. Don’t you worry, I’ll be sitting right in class, learning all my Reading, Writing, and Arithmetic. And all the rest. Just try to keep the city in one piece while I’m busy with that, deal?” 

“Deal,” he agreed with another soft chuckle. Then he regarded me seriously. “Be very careful out there, my boy. You have accomplished quite a lot in a short time span. And a great deal of that has involved making enemies. I am very glad that you have friends to aid you, but still, keep your eyes open. If you need outside aid, do not let the delay you experienced when it came to that zombie attack dissuade you from reaching out. We are all more than willing to lend a hand. Or a wing, as the case may be.” 

Promising that I would be careful and definitely reach out if I needed to, I took off running once more. I still had plenty of time before school, which didn’t start until eight-fifteen. But I wasn’t going to tell Lucent that. The public schools started closer to seven-forty-five, and between that and the difference in the middle school starting time, I didn’t want to say anything to him that might allow the Touched bird to narrow down where I went to school. 

Eesh, was I just being super-paranoid again? Like, too much so? I was almost certain he was trustworthy. But then, I couldn’t really trust my own family when it came down to it, so maybe that made sense. Either way, I didn’t feel comfortable exposing that much. Not even to my ‘bird-dad.’ 

I did make my way gradually in that direction, through a winding, looping route. I had already made sure Jefferson would know I wasn’t going to be home for him to drive, so that he only had to take Izzy. The run across the city gave me time to clear my head and really think through everything that had been happening lately. And, of course, stretching myself like that felt good. 

Eventually, I made it close to the school while still having about half an hour before classes were supposed to start. I had already eaten breakfast at home, but that run had still made me work up an appetite, so I was going to head in and grab something from the cafeteria.

However, just as I landed on the roof of a building near the school and was about to shrug off my backpack so I could change real quick, I spotted something out of the corner of my eye. Paranoid as I was at that point, I dropped down low and leaned over to peer that way. There was an unlabeled door at the end of an alley far below. The building itself was just some sort of currently unused place for dental offices and the like, nothing special. But as I stared that way, I could see none other than Jae and that boy, Damarko, making their way out of it. The room behind them looked dark and rather empty, so what would they have been–oh. Right, yeah, okay then. Go, Jae. Now I was very certain that the two of them had some sort of thing going on. Why else would they have been holed up in some dark, unused room before school? Clearly, I didn’t know Jae nearly as well as I’d thought I did. But hey, at least she had someone. Even if she apparently wasn’t ready to share that fact with anyone else just yet. Either way, good for her. Damarko was definitely a catch, though I was a little worried about how her adopted step-mother would react to the whole thing, since he apparently didn’t go to the ‘rich kids school.’ Was that why Jae was keeping it a secret? Boy, was that an uncomfortable thought. 

Still, I was about to dismiss that and leave the two alone so I could change and get into school. None of that was really any of my business when you got down to it, and my stomach was starting to grumble even louder after that run. However, just as I was pulling back, something else caught my attention. There was an older guy coming out of the alley as well. He wasn’t coming out of that room the other two had emerged from, but from further back in, around the dumpsters. And he looked rather disheveled and dirty, as though he had been hanging out in the trash or something. His attention was laser-focused on the two ahead of him. That by itself would have been curious, but it turned to outright alarming when I saw him pull a pistol from his jacket pocket. What the hell?

Obviously, I didn’t wait to see what he was planning on doing with that. The moment I saw the gun, I launched myself off that roof and plummeted that way. On my way down, I shot a line of red from the gun to the nearby wall and activated it so the weapon was ripped from his grip. Before he could react to that, I painted orange on myself and a tiny bit on him as well, so he wouldn’t be killed as I slammed into him from above. We both went down, the man cursing out loud in surprise and probably a little pain despite the paint. 

Despite his obvious surprise, the man wasn’t completely done. I felt him squirm around and kick under me, the hard blow pushing me away. I rolled on the sidewalk and snapped my gaze up just in time to see him pull a dangerous-looking switchblade knife from his pocket, snap it open, and lunge at me with a scream. A flash of the training Paige and Sierra had put us through the day before went through my head, as I quickly jerked aside so the blade went past me, while snapping my hand out to smack the weapon out of his grip. It clattered along the ground nearby even as the man fell on top of me. He was still screaming in rage. Apparently he was very unhappy about me interrupting his attack on a couple of innocent teenagers. 

Yeah, I was starting to think there was something wrong with this guy. With effort, I managed to shove myself out from under him while he was rearing back for a punch and hit his chest with a bit of red paint. Another shot went to the nearby wall, then I ducked down so he could be yanked off me and sent flying that way.

Grunting, I popped to my feet behind the man. Before he could react, and before the paint could wear off, I fished a pair of ordinary handcuffs from my pocket and got them around his wrists. He was still shouting and cursing while I painted my arms purple and pushed him to the ground, but most of the fight seemed to have gone out of him. Mostly he was just rambling about how I had to let him go, the monsters had to die, or something to that effect. He wasn’t making much sense, and the fact that he was basically foaming at the mouth made me doubt he was in the best frame of mind to explain anything. Even discounting the whole ‘about to shoot a couple random teenagers’ thing. 

And speaking of those random teenagers, I looked up from getting the man on the ground just in time to see Jae and Damarko standing there staring at us. Right, shit, I had to be careful here. I couldn’t let Jae know who I was. I had to pretend I didn’t really know her at all, except for–

“Hey, you’re the girl from the grocery store, right?” Snapping my fingers, I pointed that way. “Yeah, hey, you okay? I think this guy was uhh… trying to mug you or something?” I didn’t really need to fake the confusion in my voice at that point. What was this guy’s endgame? These two had to be just targets of opportunity, right? So why was he so pissed off right now? He’d stopped verbally ranting, and was just laying there. But I could feel the rage vibrating through him. Man, this guy really wasn’t healthy. 

Jae and Damarko exchanged glances, an unspoken conversation passing between them. I was pretty sure they were feeling guilty about having done their… whatever that was in the room over there. But I sure as hell wasn’t going to bring that up. And neither did that. Instead, Damarko offered a hesitant, “Uh, thanks, Paintball. Lucky you were there.” 

“I couldn’t sleep,” I offered with a shrug. “Been out for a run. But what about this guy? You two know him?” When they shook their heads, I grimaced. “Guess you were just in the wrong place at the wrong time. But hey, you should go ahead. I’ll tell the cops what happened here and wait for them to show up.” 

For just a moment, it looked like they were both going to argue about that. Jae actually spoke up, though her voice was quiet and uncertain. “Are you sure… you don’t need help?” 

I shrugged, rising so I could keep one foot on the man. “It’s cool, I’ve got this.” I had to stop myself from making my voice unnaturally deep in response to talking to someone who actually knew me. The voice-changer itself was already doing the heavy lifting on that front. “You guys don’t wanna be late. Don’t worry, I’ll make sure this guy isn’t gonna go after anyone else anytime soon.”

Again, it looked like they were going to say something. But they both stopped themselves, aside from offering very sincere thanks. Damarko added something about needing to get my autograph, so I touched his shirt and put ‘Save you anytime you need – Paintball’ across it. Which he seemed to get a kick out of. 

With that, the two of them headed off, though they looked back several times and were holding an intense conversation on their way. Meanwhile, I reported the attack and capture via the Doephone app, before sighing as I looked down at the now-quiet man. 

“Dude, you totally owe me breakfast for this shit.” 

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Interlude 19B – Rescuing Zeke (Heretical Edge 2)

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Invidia was quick, to say the least. With Avalon, Aylen, Rebecca, Shiloh, Erin, Miranda, Eiji, Cameron, and Nevada already reacting to her appearance, the Whisper-possessed ghost instantly vanished from where she was. She reappeared directly in front of them, taking the time to give Avalon a sly, taunting smirk just as one of Cameron’s twin short swords lashed out. The blade was already glowing from a triggered ghost-fire enchantment, proving the former mentor of Vanessa, Tristan, and Erin’s team had come prepared. And yet, her blade struck nothing but empty air, as Invidia twisted sideways to avoid it. The move was relaxed, almost contemptuously so, as she shifted just enough to make the blade whiff past her. In the same motion, her hand snapped out with a deceptively casual look. The impact was anything but casual, however, as her hand slammed into Miranda’s chest with enough force to send the girl flying out the window with a violent and loud shattering of glass. 

In the next instant, Rebecca fired a blast of pulsing energy from a wrist-mounted gun of some sort, Eiji sent a burst of electricity from his hands that way, and Avalon activated her own gauntlet to produce an energy blade that would cut through ghosts. All three of their attacks, despite their close proximity to one another and the lack of warning, were reflexively situated to avoid hitting either one another or any of the others. They had trained far too much to make that sort of mistake. And yet, none of their attacks hit their actual target either. Somehow, the ghost woman moved too quickly for any of them to land a blow. The next thing they knew, she had caught hold of Shiloh by the arm and back of the neck and threw her out the window that Miranda had already gone through. Meanwhile, her foot snapped out to slam into Eiji’s stomach hard enough that he was knocked to the ground despite his size and strength. Another half second passed while Invidia spun toward Rebecca. But before she could make another move, a small green ball was tossed into her. It stopped in the middle of her ethereal form and began to glow. The ghost woman made a motion as though to move forward, only to stop short with a grunt. The ball was holding her in place. Her gaze snapped over to Nevada, who stood with her arm outstretched. In her other hand, the blonde woman held a pistol. “Everybody get down,” the former teacher  ordered while taking aim. The students all dove to either side at her words. 

Seeing a small pistol pointed at her, Invidia smirked despite the fact that she had been trapped in place. “Is that really the best you can do?” 

Meeting her gaze evenly, Nevada slyly replied,”Nope.” With that, she flipped the gun around so it was upside down in her hand. A flick of a button on the side immediately made the gun rapidly grow and transform itself. The barrel extended and separated out into several larger versions, while the sides of the gun opened to reveal pocket dimension space within where more and more pieces extended out and snapped into place. Within a few seconds, the small pistol had transformed into an absolutely enormous gatling gun that was literally larger than Nevada herself. She had to hold it by the main grip as well as an extra handle partway down the giant barrel. Invidia had just enough time for her eyes to widen as the barrels began to glow with ghost fire energy before thousands of bullets were flying her way. Bullets which were fully capable of harming ghosts. 

Invidia took several dozen of those hits, holes appearing in her form as she recoiled and hissed before managing to break the hold of the ball. It blew apart and she instantly vanished, clearly needing to regroup. Immediately, Nevada snapped toward Avalon. “Get out there and check on those two, then get those other Whispers away from Zeke. Yeah, I know, but do it. Rebecca, go with her. The rest of you watch for our new friend, because I don’t think she’s done being a pain in the ass yet.” The whole time she was speaking, Nevada had been doing something with an enchanted stone she pulled from her pocket, which disintegrated into ashes once she activated it. 

Avalon didn’t need to be told twice. While a part of her really wanted to stay behind and deal with Invidia, given the history she had with the host of the woman she was possessing, she knew better than to argue. This was too important. Without wasting another second, she pivoted and raced to that window before diving through. Rebecca was right behind her, and the two of them fell to the ground below. It was only a couple story drop, practically nothing for them by that point. They both landed smoothly next to Miranda and Shiloh, who had already picked themselves up. The four of them saw Zeke as he held his shield in front of himself. The shield was glowing with energy as he used it to deflect one of the ghost’s hands as it tried to grab him. A second ghost was coming at the boy from the right-hand side, while a third and fourth came up from behind, and a fifth was coming from his left. His free hand produced a flash of light that made the ghost to the right recoil reflexively, while he twisted away from the grasping hands of the ghosts behind him, and turned his head to look straight at the one coming up on his left. His eyes produced a pair of blueish-white beams of energy, which cut through that ghost and made it vanish. 

Which would have been all well and good, except that four more ghosts had appeared in that time and were grabbing for his arms. They all managed to catch him, but before they could solidify their grip, Avalon had produced her lizard cyberform, Porthos, and shifted him into his pistol form. She had, of course, already upgraded him to produce ghost-fire shots on command. Between having known multiple necromancers as enemies and being aware of the Whispers in general, not being prepared for something like this would have been absurd. Her first shot caught one of the ghosts in the side of the head, which wasn’t enough to destroy it, but made it recoil and let go of Zeke. Her next three shots hit each of the other ghosts, drawing their attention in rapid succession. 

Rebecca, by that point, had switched from using her wrist-mounted gun to produce her enormous cannon from that backpack she wore instead. As the nearest ghost focused on Avalon when she shot him once more, Rebecca opened up with that cannon. A positively massive blast of energy erupted that way, catching not only the one Avalon had just shot for a second time, but two others in its radius as well. All three of the ghosts were blown apart. 

“Takes awhile to recharge up to that level again, so you guys better do something!” the small girl blurted while shifting back to her wrist blaster to shoot one of the other ghosts who was flying at her. 

Shiloh held her wrist computer up and hit a couple buttons on the holographic display. And she did so, a beam of silver energy shot from that, to a nearby parked car. The engine on the car started up, before the entire thing was sheathed in the familiar ghost-fire as it abruptly drove forward to crash through two more Whisper-ghosts, dissolving them. 

“Yeah,” Shiloh called toward Avalon while directing the car toward the largest cluster of the ghosts, “you’re not the only one who prepped for more necromancer bullshit!” 

Miranda, meanwhile, was running toward Zeke. One of the ghosts went to grab her, and she smacked it away with her own glowing shield. The motion created six energy duplicates of her weapon, all of which slammed into the ghost, one after the other to drive it further back. When Miranda reached the boy, she blurted, “You need to get the hell out of here, right now!” 

He, in turn, snapped, “What the hell do you think you’re doing? I’ve got this, traitor!”  

By that point, Avalon and the other two had joined them. “Let me guess,” Avalon announced, “you’re hearing voices in your head. Voices that won’t shut up. It’s them, the Whispers, and you have no protection against them. You need to get the hell out of here right now.” 

From the way the boy flinched when she brought up the voices, everyone knew she was right. Still, he sneered, “What’s the matter, your girlfriend decided to come after me on her own and you didn’t like that?” 

Avalon blinked once before staring that way. “Do you think Flick’s behind this?” 

“Gee, let me think,” he retorted, “she’s some big hotshot necromancer and these are a bunch of ghosts who randomly decided they hate me in particular. Let me do the math on that one.” 

Miranda and Avalon exchange looks, both rolling their eyes. But it was Shiloh who spoke first. “Don’t be an idiot, she already told you what these things are. They can whisper in your head and take control of you if you don’t get the hell out of here right now. Use your evacuation thing, you gotta have one.” 

Rebecca added, “Have you noticed all your backup is gone?” 

While they were all saying that, the Whisper ghosts had regrouped and were surrounding them. Avalon could hear fighting going on in the building they had just come from, and silently wished Nevada and the others luck against Invidia. Right now, they had other things to focus on. 

Zeke, for his part, seemed to take a moment to consider what they were saying. He kept a tight grip on his shield, gaze snapping around very distrustingly. He clearly didn’t like any of them, to say the least. But, in the end, he admitted, “I tried, it didn’t work. They’re blocking it or something. But you probably already knew that,” he quickly added, as though he couldn’t stand not to suggest that they still could have something to do with this. 

By that point, the ghosts had begun charging in once more. Rebecca kept firing shots from her wrist blaster, while Miranda sent some more energy copies of her shield flying out to collide with them, and Avalon used Porthos.

“We have to get him out of here,” Avalon ordered. 

“On it,” Shiloh called. With that, she directed the car she had taken over to come screaming up in front of them, before the door opened. “Get in!” she shouted at Zeke. 

He, in turn, scoffed. “What the hell makes you think I’m just gonna –” 

Before he could say anything else, Avalon grabbed the back of his neck with her free hand and bodily threw him into the backseat of the car while firing three more shots in rapid succession. Then she lunged to jump on top of the car before firing yet another shot at the ghost who was trying to come from that side. Miranda jumped onto the trunk, while Rebecca and Shiloh threw themselves into the front seat of the car. And with that, the tires squealed loudly as the car took off. 

“I can’t keep the ghost-fire charge going all the time!” Shiloh shouted while her fingers danced over the controls on her wrist computer. The car went squealing around a corner, while the Whisper ghosts chased after them. 

Leaning back a bit to steady herself as she was nearly launched off the top of the car, Avalon focused on a power she had picked up by killing that Heretic back on the prison world. Her feet were immediately rooted to the metal there. As long as she didn’t want to move, almost nothing could make her. Between that and her own balance, she was able to keep herself upright and aim her pistol at the ghosts as they gave chase after the group. No matter how fast the car went, the Whispers were right behind them. Grunting, Avalon pulled the trigger several times, sending glowing bullets that way. At the same time, she dug in her pocket for a teleportation stone and looked at it before shaking her head. Crouching so she would be closer to the windows, she fired again while shouting, “Transport stones are down for us too! We’ve got to get further away!” 

Miranda, ahead of Avalon in her spot down on the trunk, shouted a warning as the pursuing ghosts sent… some sort of collective energy blast their way. It was as wide as the car itself, and looked a bit like weird glowing ectoplasm with lightning dancing through it. Whatever it was, being hit by it felt like a very bad idea. Thankfully, Shiloh reacted to the shout and sent the car into a sharp turn toward a nearby alley. They had been passing bystanders in other cars and on the sidewalks the whole time, without any of them noticing anything aside from the fact that they were speeding, of course. But now, as the car went screaming past several vehicles to cut them off, there were a few annoyed honks. As well as a scream as one of the pedestrians had to throw themselves backwards to avoid the oncoming car. Another person wasn’t fast enough on their own, but before the car could run them over, Rebecca leaned out the front passenger seat and thrust her hand that way. A glowing blue replica of her hand, several times larger, caught the person and pushed them out the way just as the car passed through the spot they had been and made it into the alley. In the next instant, the ghost energy blast hit the wall of the building they had just passed, and a ten-foot-wide section of that corner immediately crumbled into dust to reveal the interior. 

Seeing that, Miranda exchanged a quick look with Avalon above and behind her before turning her head slightly to shout, “We really, really don’t want to get hit by that thing!” 

From his own spot in the backseat, Zeke had picked himself up and demanded, “Would you people let me the hell out already?! Do you think I’m about to let you kidnap m–” 

“Shut the fuck up,” Avalon ordered without any preamble. “I don’t know why those Whispers are so intent on getting you, but we’re not about to let it happen.” The damn things were enough of a threat as it was without having control of a Heretic, even a young and incredibly annoying one like him. Besides, something told her this was more important than the Whispers simply trying to grab any random Heretic. There were too many of them here and they were too intent on their mission. Invidia was involved, and had sent what had to be over a dozen of their people after this one boy. Maybe she was just missing something or overthinking it, but it felt like there was more to the whole situation. 

And speaking of the Whispers not giving up, there they were. The alley was suddenly full of them as the ghosts chased after the car. “Can we jump yet?!” Rebecca shouted while leaning out the passenger side so she could fire a couple shots toward their pursuers. “Please tell me we can jump!” 

Checking her teleport stone again, Avalon grimaced, then fired two more shots at a couple ghosts who were getting too close.  “No! We need to go further!” 

Miranda made a noise in the back of her throat before launching three energy-duplicate shields to slow down the approaching ghosts. “Just how big is their teleportation blocker?! And can I just say, I wish Flick was here!” 

By then, they reached the end of the long alley, and the car narrowly avoided crashing into a passing box truck, which spun out of the way while the driver leaned on his horn. “You’re not the only one,” Avalon half-muttered. Then something else occurred to her and the girl’s eyes widened slightly before she turned a bit to shout toward the front of the car, “Check Zeke! He might have something on him that’s blocking the transport spells!” 

“What the hell are you talking about?!” Zeke’s voice shouted back. “I don’t have anything li– hey get the fuck off me!” 

Rebecca had jumped into the backseat with him and was checking over the boy. Despite his reflexive struggle, she shouted in his face for him to knock it off unless he wanted to be possessed and enslaved by those things that were chasing them. That was enough to make him stop, and he finally started helping her by patting himself down, looking for anything out of the ordinary.

While that was going on, Shiloh sent the car weaving back-and-forth across the entire road, moving between other cars going both directions as she used all six lanes, three on each side, to keep the car away from the ghosts chasing them. Avalon kept shooting, while Miranda used her shield replicas to help hold off their pursuers, given they couldn’t pass directly through the energy constructs and had to go around. It slowed them just enough. 

Unfortunately, it was at that moment that the ghosts sent another massive ectoplasm blast of power at them. The thing was twice as large as the last one, and seemed even more dangerous with the lightning crackling inside it. It sheared right through an oncoming van, turning half of it into dust. Worse, when Shiloh sent the car to the far side of the road, the energy adjusted course to follow. And it was catching up quickly. Seeing that, Avalon shouted, “Miranda, you’ve gotta make the biggest shield you can!” 

In response, the other girl dropped onto her backside, leaning against the rear window while lifting her arm up. A new shield-shaped energy construct appeared, projected from the physical one on her arm. This one remained attached to its parent, growing larger and larger by the second. Soon, it covered the entire back half of the vehicle, large enough that Avalon could have ducked behind it to use as a wall. 

But it wasn’t enough. The pursuing ectoplasm blast rose up over the shield, picking up speed to get in front of them before starting to come down from the top. Seeing that, both Avalon and Miranda shouted warnings, with the latter starting to lift her massive shield a bit too late. 

Then the ectoplasm was caught by a new shield, a more physical one. Zeke had leaned out the window and thrust his arm up, making his own shield grow in the process until it caught the blast. It did its job, making ectoplasm blast expend itself and fizzle out, though the shield didn’t fare much better. The thing broke apart instantly under the impact, leaving the normal-sized one behind, looking a bit charred and damaged. Zeke hissed with pain and annoyance, head turning until he saw Avalon staring down at him from the roof. There was a brief pause before he muttered, “What, as if I was gonna let that thing kill all of us, me included.” 

Avalon really wasn’t sure the Whispers had any intention of killing Zeke, but now wasn’t the time to get into that. Instead, she shouted, “Rebecca?!” That was all she said. It was all she needed to say. 

“Working on it!” the other girl shouted back from inside the car. She yanked Zeke backwards by the belt, then shoved her hand into one of his pockets while the boy yelped. Finally, Avalon heard her exclaim in relief before blurting, “Got it, got it!” 

“Good!” Avalon retorted. “Now get rid of it!”

Rebecca did just that, hurling the thing out the window. As it flew out, she shot it with a blast from her wrist. The small coin disintegrated. Yet the teleportation stone in Avalon’s hand only flickered a bit. It was waking up, but not fast enough. They had to get further away from the effect the coin had created. It was gone, but the anti-teleportation field hadn’t collapsed yet.

In that instant, she heard Shiloh curse, and Avalon turned to see a line of the Whispers ahead of them. Now they had a group behind and one in front. They had to get further away, but these guys weren’t going to let them. 

Well, they didn’t really have a say in the matter. Shiloh immediately hit something on her wrist, and that glowing ghost-fire reappeared around the vehicle. It had recharged. 

And speaking of recharging, Rebecca pushed herself halfway out of the rear passenger-side window and sat on the edge of it, turning toward the Whispers who were waiting for them. Immediately, her cannon reemerged from the girl’s backpack, extending itself to its full size. In the next instant, she fired another enormous blast. It tore through the Whispers, disintegrating several of them just before the car passed through that spot. Others tried to swarm the car from the sides, but the ghost-fire kept them away, while Avalon and Miranda protected themselves with shot after shot, and shield after shield. 

Soon, they broke through the line, and Avalon finally saw the teleportation stone in her hand light up. “We’re good, go, go, go!” She leaned over just enough to watch as Rebecca ducked back into the car, grabbing onto Zeke as she activated her own emergency exit stone. Then the two of them were gone. Shiloh followed suit, leaving the car driving along on its own toward a concrete wall, while the Whispers continued to give chase, more desperate now with their screeching. 

Exchanging one last look, Miranda and Avalon activated their own stones, and disappeared. 

Instantly, they reappeared back at one of their fallback spots, a small apartment several miles away from the bus station. Zeke was there, scrambling away from the others to put his back against a nearby wall as he blurted, “Okay, now tell me what the fuck those things were!” 

“That’s a long story,” Avalon replied evenly. 

“Yeah, are you sure you want to hear it?” Shiloh put in. “Or are you gonna assume we’re lying?” 

“You’re all just–you just–fuck you,” Zeke managed. “Just tell me what those things are and let me get the hell out of here.” 

“Zeke.” That was a new voice, speaking up from the doorway. They all turned, to see no less than the boy’s mother, Sophronia. She was there alongside Nevada, and immediately passed the others to embrace her son. “You’re safe, the Whispers didn’t take you.” 

“What?!” He blurted the words while leaning back. “You know about them? What the hell is going on?” 

While those two were talking, Avalon looked toward Nevada, who looked bloodied and haggard. “The others?” 

There was a pause before the blonde woman quietly answered, “They… they’ll be okay, with time. They were hurt, Cameron pretty badly, but they’ll live. Invidia’s gone, for now. And pretty pissed off about the whole situation.”

“Mother,” Zeke put in, “can we please get away from these traitors now?” 

Sophronia, however, was silent for a moment. Then she spoke carefully. “Under the circumstances, perhaps it’s best that you stay with the group who have far more defense against the Whispers than we do. If that is alright?” She directed the last bit toward Nevada.

“Of course,” the other woman agreed. “Zeke can stay with us.” 

The collective shout of, “What?!” may have been the first time Avalon and Zeke were both in full agreement. 

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Schooling 24-06 (Summus Proelium)

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The first place we found ourselves in once we had arrived within the virtual reality space just looked like an ordinary dojo. There were mirrors on every wall, and the floor was padded enough to be a little springy under our feet. Only after looking around for a minute did I notice what made this place not just a normal dojo, besides the obvious. There was no door. The whole thing was just this one room. We also appeared wearing simple shorts and tee shirts. Even now, knowing everyone here knew who I was, it still made me reflexively tense up to see myself in clothing that made me being a girl blatantly obvious. 

Okay, not that blatantly. I wasn’t exactly packing melons under my shirt. But still. It was clear that I was a girl, and that by itself was still an odd sensation for me. 

Seeing me looking around, Paige immediately realized what I was thinking and spoke up. “This way there’s no distractions. You know, random cars driving by, pedestrians, other buildings in view, whatever. We don’t need to make anything else except for this place. It means we can put more of our effort and energy toward the actual training. It felt like the best way to do this.”

“That is,” Sierra put in, “if you all think you can focus without feeling claustrophobic just because you’re in a room with no door.” After visibly considering that, she added, “Come to think of it, getting over distractions like that should probably be part of your training anyway, so yeah.” 

Murphy was grimacing as she slowly turned her head to look at every wall. “You know, I probably wouldn’t even have noticed if you guys hadn’t pointed it out.” She exchanged with Roald before adding, “But whatever, what I really want to know is… is this shit for real?!” After blurting that out, she patted down her own face, then poked Roald in both shoulders with a gasp before turning to the nearest wall. She ran that way, bouncing off the mirror before running her hands over it. Then she knelt down and punched the padded floor, staring at everything in complete wonder. “Seriously, is this place for real?!” Her gaze snapped from Paige and Sierra to me and then back again. “We really didn’t just teleport somewhere?” Belatedly, she made a face. “Not that that wouldn’t be fucking cool too, but like, I mean… this whole thing is all in our heads?”

Paige made a waving so-so motion with her hand. “Basically, yeah. The machine is projecting this into your minds from our orb-cores. That’s the really basic version. Anyway, your physical bodies are still out there just sitting in those chairs. But, as you can tell, your brain interprets what you should feel in here into actual sensation.” With that, she reached out to poke the girl in the forehead. “Up to a certain point,” she added quickly. “I mean, if you take too much pain, there’s a certain cut-off where it won’t let you feel it anymore. And you can’t really be physically injured. Otherwise there’s no point to doing this stuff in here instead of out in the real world.” 

Sierra quickly piped up with, “But you’ve got to feel some pain as we do this, or you won’t learn from it. You know what they say, no pain no gain. And we’ve really gotta make you gain a lot if we’re gonna keep helping Cassidy over there get through the shit she gets herself into.” 

Making an exaggerated harrumphing noise under my breath, I pulled myself up to my full (totally pathetic and inconsequential) height and squinted that way. “You know most of–some of–there are parts of that stuff that are absolutely not my fault. Besides, you say that as though you wouldn’t be incredibly bored out of your mind if you didn’t have all this stuff to help all of us deal with.”

Audibly snorting, my doppelgänger retorted, “If I thought you were all being boring, it’d be because you weren’t planning on doing something about dear old dad. And that would mean I’d be out of here so fast your heads would spin. Let’s just keep that in mind, huh? He’s a lying, traitorous piece of shit, and I don’t want my–I don’t want Irelyn or the others anywhere near him. But I know I can’t do this by myself.” She squirmed just a little, the admission of any weakness clearly making her uncomfortable before she pushed on. “I need help. I mean, we do.” Her gaze toward Paige briefly. “As fucking badass as we might be–and the answer to that is very, we still can’t just swim over there and take on everyone ourselves before ripping Dad’s head off and playing soccer with it. We need you people. Not just for the whole photoshopped blackmail plan, but in case we need to do more than that. And the only way you’re going to be able to really help us if shit goes down is with some actual training. You need to learn how to fight. So, are we gonna do this, or what?”

I shrugged despite myself. “You really didn’t have to talk me into it. I know what the stakes are, and yeah, we need some help. Even without this whole thing with Breakwater–which is super-important, don’t get me wrong. But even without that, stuff in the city is just getting more and more dangerous. Sure, I’ve been doing sort-of okay with the basic few self-defense lessons my parents made me get. I mean, that and my powers. But it’ll be nice to have something better to fall back on. Something tells me just expecting to fall back on luck all the time is gonna backfire sooner or later.” 

“Yeah!” Murphy immediately put in. “And some of us don’t have powers to rely on anyway.” 

Peyton, who had been quietly looking around the room while taking in everything we were saying, slowly nodded while turning back to us. There was a small smile on her face, as though she could barely contain herself. “Dude? We’re in a fucking virtual reality. I mean, sure, I was here before. But it wasn’t exactly–I didn’t get a chance to savor it that much. We were sorta busy. And now you’re talking about letting these badass ninja android girls teach us how to fight? I am all-in. All-fucking-in, okay? Let’s do this thing.” 

Smirking despite myself, I gestured to Paige and Sierra. “You heard the girl. We’re, ahem, all-fucking-in.” 

“Good to know,” Paige replied flatly, exchanging a look with her sister before turning back to us. That slowly spreading smile seemed somewhat serpentine. It was a vaguely dangerous look. A look that told me she was going to enjoy putting us through our paces. “In that case, everybody line up right here in the middle of the room. Give yourselves a few feet between each of you. 

“Time to start whipping you people into shape.” 

*******

There weren’t any actual whips involved, of course. Not yet, anyway. Though I was pretty sure Sierra might’ve been tempted. We weren’t even doing anything that intense to start out. Mostly because we started out covering very basic things. Stuff like how to make a fist, how to throw a very normal punch, how to hold your arm, how to position yourself, even how to breathe properly. They spent a decent amount of time just on that last part, teaching us to keep our breathing steady to get enough oxygen in the middle of a fight. It was all stuff I’d heard before, but going over it again didn’t hurt. Besides, the others needed to hear it. We had to get through the basic stuff like that before anyone would be ready to learn more. I was just glad Paige and Sierra weren’t moving too quickly on that. I’d been a little worried that they might jump straight into the advanced training, leaving Roald, Murphy, and Peyton (and let’s be honest, me) completely lost. But no, they were actually pretty good teachers. Which made me wonder if they’d been given programming for that, or just–yeah, I had no idea how that worked. Apparently Pittman had programmed their fighting ability into them, which was just confusing on another level. Did he know how to fight that well? Did he have someone else work on that programming and then add it? Did he just download a bunch of instruction manuals and videos into them? I–eh. It was confusing when I got right down to it. But either way, they knew how to fight and they knew how to teach the rest of us. 

As I had heard before, and as they reiterated when this whole instruction thing started, one of the biggest, most important things to do was to make these motions be instinctive. We needed to be able to do them immediately without thinking about it. We had to see the attack coming, or the opportunity for our own attack, and react instantly. Because, as Sierra put it, the moment we had to stop and think about what we were doing would be the moment we were either maimed or killed. She wasn’t the sort of person to sugarcoat things like that. She made the whole thing very blunt, standing right in front of Roald as she repeated the word killed while poking his chest hard enough to make the boy wince just a bit. 

So, we went through the motions as they taught us, straight from the simplest, most basic movements and positions. Once they had us to the point where we could all stand properly, make fists without looking stupid, and more importantly, without doing it in a way that could have broken our fingers the moment we hit anything, we… did that some more. But in this case, they made a game of it. Basically, they had us stand around talking to each other or watching a television screen they’d put up on the wall, or any number of other distracting things. Randomly and without warning, one of them would shout one of our names and tell us where the threat was coming from, using clock positions. We had to spin that way and get into a decent position to defend ourselves within a certain amount of time before they would set off a loud buzzer and say we were dead. 

They were lenient on how much time they allowed at first, but as the hours wore on, they grew less and less so. Eventually, they got to the point of throwing a ball at us immediately, as soon as they called out the threat. We had to spin that way and react to it, either dodging the attack or blocking before it hit us. In some ways, it was fun. Which, I was pretty sure, was the point. But it was also stressful, and definitely took a lot of practice. We all got hit with plenty of balls, enough that I was glad I wouldn’t be carrying any of these bruises out of this virtual reality with me. We might not have been going totally nuts on how we used this place just yet, but even that was incredibly helpful. Maybe I could’ve explained away any minor injuries from this sort of thing with some story about falling on my skates, but this was just easier in the long run. 

Plus, the fact that we were in virtual reality meant it took a lot longer to get tired. It was still there, in its own way. Learning things and actively using our brains like this wore us out too, but it took much more time. Which meant we could train for a lot longer than we would’ve been able to otherwise. Long enough, in fact, that I finally had to ask how long we had been doing this whole thing. Upon finding out how late it was, I insisted that we had to stop. I wanted to do a quick patrol to make sure nothing in the city was on fire before heading home, and it was already getting late enough that Murphy, Roald, and Peyton might end up with people wondering where they were. 

So, with promises that what we had just done was only the very beginning, we exited the program and found ourselves back in the real world. I groaned while picking myself up from the chair and staggered a bit. Plucking the visor and headphones off, I sighed and shook my head. To one side, Paige and Sierra were pulling themselves out of the machine, while the others were in the same position as me, staggering a few steps one way or the other while shaking off the weird feeling of having not moved at all for hours, despite what our brains thought. 

Fred was there, eating some of the leftover pizza while watching us with a raised eyebrow. “How’d it go with Sensei Morpheuses? Wait, would that be Senseis Morpheus? Morphesei? Wait–” 

Coughing, I gestured. “It’s good. I think ahh–I think this is gonna be a really important advantage. Especially once we get to the point of doing more than learning basic motions.” Before Paige and Sierra could say anything, I quickly added, “Not that that stuff isn’t important. I know, believe me. You have to learn how to walk before you can run. I’m just saying, once we get to the point where we can use that place like a real-world virtual reality training ground, and take advantage of the sort of scenarios we can run through… it’s gonna be big. Yeah, I’m pretty sure some other groups have their own virtual reality training rooms of one sort or another, but I don’t think it’s anything like ours. And, they won’t expect us to have it. Which means they won’t expect us to be able to train like this.” 

“Being underestimated is a big deal,” Peyton chimed in while rubbing the back of her neck. “I really like being underestimated.” With those words, she added a smile that looked almost feral.

“Dude, as useful as you’ve been with those marbles, I don’t think people are gonna underestimate you any time soon,” Murphy pointed out. 

“That’s the point though,” Roald put in. “If everyone thinks she’s reliant on the marbles, they’ll think she depends on them. So they won’t be ready when she can actually fight without them.” 

“Exactly,” I agreed, before turning my attention back to Fred. “What’s going on with Wren? Is she–” 

“Still working on the tracker thingamabob,” he confirmed. “She locked herself up in the room over there so she can work without any distractions. Told me to tell you that she’s gonna be busy with it for the rest of the night and that it’ll be ready by the time you come back from school tomorrow. Assuming you’re planning on coming?” 

My head bobbed. “Yeah, I’ve got–” A grimace found itself to my face. “I’ve got plans for dinner, but I’ll be here first.” Seeing them all stare at me, I sighed before explaining what was going on. 

“Dude,” Murphy put in, “you’re going to dinner to hang out with Inessa Sidorov? What the fuck? I mean like, this is normal for you? God, you’re lucky.” She grunted as Roald nudged her. “Err, yeah, there’s all the other complicated stuff and–yeah, but still!” 

“If I could invite you and have more people on my side, I would, believe me,” I assured her, before grimacing.

Paige, of course, grimaced just as much as me. “You really have to go over to Arleigh’s house? Couldn’t just make an excuse not to?” 

“Like Murphy said, Inessa Sidorov is gonna be there,” I immediately shot back. “If my dad ever found out I gave up the chance to meet her, he’d immediately have my head examined to make sure I didn’t have a mind-controlling slug or a little cybernetic ball inside my head.”

Meeting my gaze, the taller, blonde girl gave a very tiny smirk. “Yeah, that’s true. You always were a little obsessed. I used to think you had a bit of a crush or something.” 

Blushing at that, and at the weird feelings I had from having this sort of casual conversation with someone I had seen as a nasty, vindictive bitch for so long, I mumbled, “She’s just a really good skater. And she’s cool, and she’s got great fashion–shut up. Just shut up, all of you.” 

Ignoring their snickers, I gestured. “I’m gonna head out for that quick patrol, just to see what’s going on. The rest of you should head home.” 

“We’ll go with you,” Paige insisted, gesturing to Sierra and back to herself. “We don’t exactly have people waiting around for us, and I don’t think anyone should be going around on their own right now. I don’t know what Deicide is going to do about that betrayal, and it might take her a few days, but something tells me her retaliation is gonna be pretty loud. Between that and Jennica still being out there…” 

“Right, sure.” Nodding a bit, I glanced to the others. “Speaking of which, you gonna be okay?” 

They confirmed that they would be sticking together on the way back. Peyton would drop the other two off at their apartment before going to her own, which wasn’t that much further away. Especially not the way she traveled. 

So, we talked a little bit more about what we had done and what we were going to do, then separated. I found myself back in costume, mask and helmet firmly in place, while standing on the roof of the shop. Paige and Sierra were stretching a bit behind me, as I looked out over the neighborhood below, and at the much taller skyscrapers in the distance. “Things are gonna get worse before they get better, aren’t they?” I found myself murmuring. 

Paige, stepping up beside me, confirmed, “That’s why we’re doing this training. It’s important. We all have to be better, we have to be ready.” 

“Not just for this whole gang war thing,” Sierra pointed out while stepping up on my other side. “I know we’re all hoping this plan with the edited picture and all that is gonna work. We let everyone know where Irelyn and Trivial are, give Breakwater a way to come out of it looking like they’re not completely incompetent, an excuse that gives them a reason to keep those two alive, and… and then it’ll be over. But in case it’s more complicated than that–” 

“In case, we need to be ready,” I agreed. “And that means we need a lot more training than we’ve already got. You’re right. Don’t worry, we’re with you. Whatever happens, we’ll figure out a way to get Irelyn and Trivial out of there. If it’s not this plan, it’ll be another one. But at least this is a start.” 

Paige gave a short nod of agreement, her own voice soft. “It’s definitely a start. In a lot of ways.” 

For another moment, the three of us stood there together, looking out over the city. Then I cleared my throat. “Well? Let’s go for a run so I can get home and sleep. 

“Something tells me I’m gonna need all the rest I can get if I’m gonna survive visiting Arleigh’s house tomorrow.” 

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