Summus Proelium

Alliances 6-02 (Summus Proelium)

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So, on the plus side, I now knew where one of the missing vials was. And to get it, all I had to do was promise a favor to one of the biggest supervillains in the city. 

Well, that’s what I had to do. There was also the matter of the favors from Wren and Blackjack. The former had agreed basically as soon as she learned what the deal was. She wanted to help anyway she could, after her stuff had been used to steal the vials in the first place. I had caught the guilty look on Fred’s face at that point. Good, he should feel guilty, even if he didn’t know how badly this whole thing would go. 

As far as people who didn’t feel guilty went, I had a thought briefly about informing Ashton that the vial he’d left in the shop had been found and accounted for, but decided against it. There was a chance that, for whatever reason, holding that information back might pay off in the long run. And telling him wouldn’t accomplish anything aside from letting me feel smug for a few seconds. So, just in case, I said nothing about it to him and asked the others to do the same. He was probably counting on us not being able to get the vial away from Cuélebre, and I preferred he just go on thinking that. 

Blackjack, for his part, had barely paused when the offer was brought to his attention. He agreed basically immediately, simply saying that he would rather negotiate with Deicide than Cuélebre, which… yeah. I was basically totally with him on that. She seemed infinitely more reasonable than the demon-dragon guy who had almost killed me. Even if I couldn’t shake the feeling that there was something off about her. I wasn’t sure what it was, but I was sure that she was at least a better person to have this kind of deal with than Cuélebre, as far as incredibly powerful and dangerous super villains went. 

And geez, how many of those was I going to come face-to-face with in a short time anyway? I was basically working my way through the list of the who’s who of the Detroit Fell-Touched underworld. 

In any case, after everything that had happened, once I finished letting Wren and Blackjack know what was going on, I was beat. It had been a very long couple of hours, and the ‘rest’ I’d gotten while knocked unconscious hadn’t exactly been all that restful. So, even though it was still fairly early in the evening, I had gone home to crash, basically passing out immediately.

That lasted for all of about four hours. Then I was wide-awake in what amounted to the middle of the night. Seriously, this whole hero thing wasn’t going to kill me through violence, it was going to do it through fucking with my sleep cycle. 

After the scare I’d had with getting captured and very nearly tortured, maybe I should have stayed home. Hell, that was the main reason I couldn’t go back to sleep. Tired as I had been, I’d jolted awake from some nightmare that vanished the second my eyes opened. But I knew if I closed them again, it would be back. I’d tried to watch a movie for a while, but I couldn’t focus on it. I just ended up looking around my enormous room with all my stuff and thinking about how it had come to be. That made me feel guilty. There were people out there on the streets who needed help. Who was I to sit here in my gigantic bed watching my enormous television? Was being scared because I’d gotten knocked out and almost really hurt that much of an excuse? No.

So, I’d gotten up and snuck out of the house. Now, I was back in costume, working my way through the city. There wasn’t actually much real crime going on that I could see. But I found another way to help. Or at least assuage my guilt a little bit, depending on how cynical one wanted to be. 

Basically, I took a couple hundred dollars or so into an all-night grocery store and bought a bunch of sandwiches, chips, and other things. Boy had that been an interesting time, seeing the few people in there staring at me in costume as I made my way through the aisles.  To say nothing of the look on the clerk’s face when I checked out. He kept asking if I was going to some kind of party or cosplay thing. I tried to keep things vague while still being polite, and he seemed to understand. Though I could tell he still had a lot of questions. 

Taking the supplies in a few large bags, I made my way through the streets, handing them out to the homeless people I saw. Everyone got a sandwich, a bag of chips, a bottle of water, some basic toiletries like soap, toothpaste/brush, deodorant, and disposable razors. That kind of thing. 

It wasn’t much. I wasn’t going to solve homelessness in an evening with a couple hundred dollars. I knew that. But it might help a few people, or at least make them feel a little better about themselves for a bit. Maybe I could do more later. Maybe I’d think of something else that wouldn’t attract too much attention. For now, this was all I could think of, and it kept me busy.

Not everyone was all that openly appreciative, of course. I did receive plenty of gratitude, probably more than I deserved. But there were also others who simply snatched what I gave to them and cursed me for looking down on them. A couple even refused, one man spitting at me. It wasn’t that many, and far from any kind of representative sample. But they existed, and I didn’t really hold it against them too much. Being cursed out even as my gifts were being accepted wasn’t that bad. I had no real idea about the kind of things these people went through, so I wasn’t going to judge them for being a bit nasty.

No, the ones who really bothered me were those who were very clearly not able to take care of themselves. The ones who were not all there in the head, who needed to be in some kind of care facility. Those were the ones who messed me up. I wanted to do more for them. I wanted to take them into a hospital, or something. I wanted to scream at passersby that these people were their fellow human beings who needed help, and why the hell were they just walking past the guy laying in the gutter muttering to himself? 

But I couldn’t do any of that. It wouldn’t have accomplished anything. I just gave them what I could, told myself I would find a way to do more, and kept going.

Blankets. Coats. That’s what I needed to get. Blankets and coats. Jackets. Pillows. Things that could make them a little more comfortable. 

Then I saw it, police cars and crime scene tape all around some convenience store. There were people watching from the sidelines as a lot of body bags started to be carried out to waiting vans. From the looks of it, there were over a dozen bodies. Through the glass windows of the store, I could see a couple uniformed cops standing by Dynamic and RePete, of the Conservators. Dynamic was a speedster who could temporarily drain superpowers from people she ran near and use the energy she gained from that to form lasers, shields, or weapons. As for RePete, people thought he was some kind of short-term precog for awhile. But apparently, his actual power had something to do with going back in time just a couple of seconds. There were some kind of limitations to it, but they weren’t exactly open about advertising exactly how it worked. All I knew was that from an outside point of view, he seemed to simply know when something was going to happen right before it did. 

From the corner of my eye, I saw a man in a jogging suit step over to me. He was frowning, head shaking as he gestured toward the building. “Hey, when the fuck are you Star-Touched types gonna do something about this shit, huh?”

“What happened?“ I asked quietly, afraid of what kind of answer I’d get considering how many bodies were being taken out. 

“The Scions,” another man answered. “Mostly Pencil, but somebody said there might have been a couple others around.”

Pencil. Of all the Fell-Touched in the city, he was the one who freaked people out the most. Others might have been more out right powerful or able to do more widespread damage, but Pencil was just… wrong. As far as anyone could tell, his only motivation, and by extension, the motivation of his Scions, was to worship the Abyssal named Typhon, and cause as much chaos and misery  as possible. Sometimes they stole things from their crime scenes, while other times stuff that was incredibly valuable and just sitting there would be left alone. Sometimes they targeted big events full of rich people and other times they would attack a single house or even some random person on the street for no apparent reason. Sometimes they would go weeks or even a month or so without doing anything, and other times their attacks would come several times in the same day. Their creed apparently was to make everyone know that anyone could be a victim. They spread chaos, that was it. 

They were all monsters, and Pencil was the worst. I had no trouble believing he was responsible for all the dead bodies in that store. He wasn’t the worst or most dangerous Fell-Touched in the world. The ‘honor’ of both those titles went to a woman called Casura. 

But still, Casura wasn’t here in Detroit. Pencil was (when he wasn’t somewhere else in the general area). And he had to be stopped, these guys were right about that. But the problem was, nobody knew how to do that. The guy had been shot dozens if not hundreds of times, set on fire, hit with God only knew how many different kinds of Touched attacks, stabbed, left in an exploding building, dropped off several other tall buildings, and more I was definitely forgetting about. Nothing stuck. The guy was invincible, or something.  He been captured a couple times and restrained, but that never got very far before his minions set upon the person who caught them. They were always there in the background, pretending to be part of the crowd. Any time you dealt with Pencil, you had to assume that some of the people in the crowd of onlookers that he was playing up to would actually be members of the Scions. 

Realizing that the men who had approached me were still waiting for an answer, I hesitated before shaking my head. “I… I’m sorry. I wish I knew how we could stop him. He can’t just keep getting away with this.”

“Yeah,” the guy in the jogging suit snapped, “he can’t. So I say again, what are you people going to do about it? Stand here with your thumbs up your ass not doing a damn thing while that guy goes around and—”

“I’m very sorry that we got here too late.”

The words came from behind me, and all three of us turned. I was pretty sure we all had matching looks of astonishment, though for very different reasons. 

It was my dad. Well, it was Silversmith, all gleaming metal as he continued. “Let’s not blame the kid here for not being able to magically do the thing we adults should have been able to take care of. I understand your frustration, sir, I truly do. I promise you, we are not going to let this or any of his other crimes stand. We will bring him in and he will face justice. True justice. ”

Neither of the men who had approached me seemed to want to argue with him. I could see the frustration on their faces, but they said nothing while backing off. As they moved away, my father’s head turned until he was looking right at me. “You okay?”

In my short career as a superhero, I had already had a few chances to be glad that I wore a helmet. Never more so than right then. It meant that he couldn’t see my expression at all. Not even the little bit he might’ve been able to make out with just the normal mask. He couldn’t see anything. 

Staring at him for a moment, my mind remained totally blank. Luckily, I was pretty sure he was accustomed to that kind of reaction from people who first met him. It would definitely make sense that I seemed starstruck, right? 

A sudden thought occurred to me, and I made a motion up toward my helmet. I was trying to make it look as though I was reflexively moving to adjust glasses on my face before the helmet got in the way.  Hopefully, my father would add the idea that the person under the helmet wore glasses to his mental image of them. Of me. Making it look as casual as possible, I stopped when my fingers hit the visor before giving a quick, nervous nod. That part I didn’t have to fake.

“Y-yes, sir.” Oh God, I very nearly called him Dad. Seriously, it was right on the tip of my tongue. How bad would that have been? Even with my voice changer, that probably would have given the game away. How stupid did I have to be to—

“Don’t let them bother you,” Dad advised, with a nod toward the guys who had backed off. “They’re just… afraid and frustrated. They want all this to stop. They think we should be able to take this guy down, and frankly, they’re right. We should have brought him in by now. Everyone he kills is…” His voice cracked a little there, before he seemed to realize where he was, letting out a breath. “Sorry, it gets to everyone sometimes, so you don’t have to feel like there’s something wrong with you or anything.”

He extended a hand to me. “Anyway, I’ve heard a lot about you, but it’s nice to finally formally meet. Pretty sure you know the name’s Silversmith, but a lot of people just call me Smith, and that’s fine. Ahh…”

He trailed off, and I realized what he was waiting for. He was still holding his hand out. With a start, I took it and squeezed. I was shaking my father’s hand. Would he somehow suddenly realize the truth? Did he know me well enough to know what my hand felt like even through a glove? Some paranoid part of me thought he did. I was expecting him to suddenly say my name, expecting him to figure it out any second. 

“Paintball,” I abruptly blurted, as if to introduce myself. Part of it was me wanting to shove that name into his head instead of my real name, just in case some psychic part of him was building up. 

“Paintball,” my father echoed as though testing the name. He released my hand with a nod. “Like I said, I’ve already heard a lot of good things about you. You’re making a name for yourself pretty quick. It’s impressive. Especially that showing against Cuélebre. You even saved those civilian onlookers. Nice job.”

My throat went dry, and I had to swallow hard. “I’m just trying to help people.” And figure out exactly how your criminal empire operates in the process, so I can do something about it

“Well,” Dad replied, “You’re certainly doing that. But nobody can fix everything, especially by themselves.” With those words, he looked over toward the convenience store all the bodies had been brought out of. “Everyone needs help, even if they are some kind of prodigy.”

Seriously, when he said that, despite everything, I felt a sudden, strong rush of pride. My father was a supervillain, but he was still my father, and he called me a prodigy.

How fucked up were my priorities?

“I’ve heard,” Dad pressed on, “that you’re not interested in joining the Minority. I… I do wish you might reconsider that. As well as you’ve been doing, it’s like I said, everyone needs help sometimes. You could really get in trouble out there without backup, without a team. And I’d hate to see anything happen to you, kid. With monsters like Pencil out there…” He sighed low and regretfully, shaking his head. “Just give it a little more thought, okay? I know the team would love to have you around. Especially That-A-Way. She thinks you’d really fit in.”

What was I supposed to say to that? It would look super suspicious if I just flat out denied him again. He might start looking into why I didn’t want to be part of their team. So, I forced myself to give a very short nod. “I’ll think about it, sir. I just… need to do this on my own for now.”

He seemed to watch me for a few long seconds then, before giving a short nod. “I can respect that, just so long as you think about it. Anytime you change your mind, or just want some advice, you know where to go. You’ve got that number, right?” When I nodded, he gestured. “I’ve got to head back in there and see if there’s anything else we can do. You should probably head on out of here. The bad guy’s gone, for now anyway.”

“I… yeah.” Trying not to let myself sound as freaked out as I actually was about being so close to my father while he was about to go back into a scene like the one that had to be in that store, I waved vaguely. “I’ll ummm, I’ll get out of your way.”

Stepping back, I watched for another moment as my dad turned and headed back into the shop. Glancing around, I closed my eyes and slumped a little, trembling despite myself before forcing my feet to turn and carry me away from that place, away from all of that death and misery. 

I had made it. I’d gotten through my first face-to-face, of sorts, meeting with my father in costume. And, as far as I could tell, he didn’t suspect anything like the truth. That was a good thing, right? My supervillain father didn’t know that I knew who he was. That was absolutely, definitely a good thing. 

So why did I feel so bad?

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Alliances 6-01 (Summus Proelium)

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Something flicked hard against my helmet, snapping me awake with a gasp. I tried to sit up to take stock, but a hand was holding me down. A very big hand. 

My eyes opened, only to see the smiling face of Uncle Friendly staring down at me. He had enlarged his hand to take up most of my torso, easily holding me in place. “There we are,” the man announced. “You’re awake now.” 

“Good!” The snarled word came from the back of his head, where Mister Harmful’s face was. “If he’s awake, let’s get on to the fun part. We owe this little bastard.”

Oh… okay, this was bad. This was really bad. I couldn’t even tell where I was, aside from the fact that it was some room somewhere. I’d been knocked out long enough that we were no longer out on the street. We could have been anywhere. I… what was I supposed to do now? 

Besides be afraid, because I was acing that part. 

I started to shift a bit, but Uncle Friendly tightened his grip painfully, drawing a gasp from me. His voice was still polite and calm. “I see one bit of paint and I’m afraid I’ll just have to snap every rib you have. Then I’ll take those ribs and start jamming them through random bits of your body. And we really don’t want that, do we?”

“We don’t?” his other self retorted. “I thought that was the Plan A.”

Uncle Friendly gave a soft chuckle. “Forgive my eager counterpart. He finds it difficult to forgive and forget. I’m afraid you very much annoyed him, and he’s quite looking forward to hurting you. Let’s try not to let it come to that. You and I, we can work this out peacefully, I believe.”

For a moment, I was silent, mind swimming as I thought to think of anything. That, and I needed a few seconds to collect myself so my voice would do more than whimper. Finally, all I could do was manage a weak, “So, is talking allowed?”

That smile of his brightened. “Of course it is! We can talk about a lot of things. But there’s one thing I’d rather focus on first. I think you know.”

Despite everything, a dozen potential smartass retorts popped into my head. But honestly, I… I was afraid. Yeah, maybe it was stupid and a real hero would’ve been cool and collected. But me? I was just scared, even if I didn’t want to show it. Could I put blue paint on myself to knock the man away for me? Probably. But could I do it fast enough that he couldn’t do a hell of a lot of damage to me first? I didn’t know. And this really wasn’t the best time to test it. I wasn’t even sure I could activate orange paint quickly enough to protect me from his retaliation. Except maybe I could put it on my back. If I put it on my back, I could hide it from him and—

“Now, now.” Friendly whacked a finger in front of my face. “You’re thinking. This isn’t something you need to think about. You know exactly what we need from you, don’t you?”

Face hidden behind my helmet and mask, I hesitated for just a second before replying, “You think I can tell you where Ashton Austin is.”

“You see?” Friendly gave a cheerful laugh. “We’re doing so well. You’re great at this. Except for one thing. We know you can tell us where the guy is. And the inventor girl. Both of them. You can tell us where they are, and we’ll all be civilized about this.”

They wanted Wren too? That made me focus more than anything else had. Slowly, I nodded. “Yeah. I guess. There’s just one problem. See, you keep insinuating about all the bad things you’re going to do to me if I don’t do what you want. Which could be a great motivator, don’t get me wrong. But like you said, there’s a little girl involved. Two, actually. And if I tell you what I know, I’ll be sentencing one to death, and the other to whatever painful things you already have in mind for me. If you think I’d be okay with that, that I’d help kill one girl and condemn another to being your slave so you can torture her into building you weapons to kill even more people… then you’re even dumber than that two-headed freak show act makes you look.”

A sudden pain filled my chest, as the man clamped down. It only lasted for a second, before he released me to spend his torso around so I was facing Mister Harmful. There was a sadistic grin on the second man’s face, and he raised his free hand while clamping down once more with the other. “Oh, I am so glad you said that. You’re mine now, you little cocksucker. I’ll show you just what a mistake you made.”

This was it. I had to get out of here right now, while I still had the—

“Stop.” The simple, yet commanding voice came from someone beyond Janus. Harmful sighed, making a face at me, while Friendly spoke. “At ease, Cav. We’re just getting a few answers. As long as the boy cooperates, he won’t suffer any permanent damage. But I’m afraid he needs to be convinced of the seriousness of the situation and our… enthusiasm.”

The voice, which I now recognized as female, spoke again. “Your boss wants to see him now. You know, upright and walking? As opposed to whatever condition he’d be in when you two finished up.”

Keeping their hand on my chest warningly, the conjoined pair slowly moved out of the way so I could see who they were speaking to. It was a rather voluptuous woman a couple inches under six feet. She wore a dark red bodysuit with black swirly lines randomly patterned across it, with black gloves and boots. Her face was covered by a large, oversized set of red goggles with some kind of breathing apparatus attached over her mouth and nose, like a gas mask. 

The woman saw me looking and chuckled briefly. “Good morning, little boy. Like what you see?”

With that, she was suddenly kneeling in front of me. Along with about five other versions of herself all lined up behind her all the way back to where she had started. A couple seconds later, all of them aside from the one kneeling in front of me disappeared, starting with the one furthest back and quickly making its way all the way up to her as they each in turn popped out of existence. 

I knew her. Or of her. This was Cavalcade. Her power was essentially a mixture of superspeed and duplication. Basically, she moved really fast in any direction by creating a duplicate of herself, then that version created another duplicate, and so on. She did this so quickly that it seemed to be super speed. Each duplicate only lasted a couple seconds before disappearing, so when she was running around, you’d see a trail of about twenty or thirty versions of her. I’d seen videos of her using it to surround a target and attack them from all sides at once. It was… pretty cool. 

And she also wasn’t a member of the Easy Eights. At least, not the last I’d heard. Cavalcade was a Sell-Touched, a mercenary, sometimes working for the bad guys, sometimes for the good guys. She went where the money was, like Lastword and Two-Step. 

Apparently the Easy Eights were currently paying her, because here she was, patting my arm reassuringly. “Don’t you worry. I’ll take you away from the big bad freakshow. But first…” She held up something I knew quite well. It was a pair of the stay-down cuffs. Which I really shouldn’t have been surprised that they had access to, yet made me wince inwardly nonetheless. 

She chuckled softly. “Yeah, he knows what they are. Come, turn over, let’s get you ready to see the lady throwing buckets of cash at me.”

The woman who was paying her. Deicide. She wanted to take me to see Deicide. Oh, this was bad. This was really bad. What was I supposed to do? I had to get out of here, but how? I still didn’t know where I was, aside from the fact that I could now see we were in a cement room that was probably intended to be a holding cell of some kind. That’s what they were using it for, anyway. A large metal door was over in the direction she had come from. But how could I get past Janus and Cavalcade? And even if I did manage that, I had no idea where that door led. Nor did I know how many threats might lay beyond it. I could maybe take them by surprise and get out to the hall, but then what? There could be anyone there. And this woman had super speed, of a sort. What in the living hell was I supposed to do now?

My musings were interrupted by a growl from Harmful. “She told you to do something, you little brat. Don’t make me—”

The woman held up a hand to stop him. “It’s okay, he’s just making sure there’s not an easy way to escape.” Her attention turned back to me then, tone curious. “So, are you satisfied or do we have to do this the hard way?” She didn’t sound threatening at all, more genuinely interested in what I was going to do. And totally casual, of course. It’s not like she really saw me as a threat given the situation. 

It almost would’ve been worth it to punch her, just to see how she reacted. But on the other hand, I really didn’t want to be left here with Janus. Plus, even with the cuffs on, if I got out of here, I could see what lay beyond this cell. There could be an opening. 

So, with an inward sigh, I turned over to present my wrists behind my back. Boy, did this ever suck. I was definitely not going to talk about this in any potential memoirs. 

Did people still write memoirs? 

The cuffs secured my hands behind my back, and the woman stood up with a gesture. “Come on, let’s go. You know how these things work, so stay right with me. You try to run off and you’ll regret it, I promise. And not just because of the cuffs.”

Friendly gave me a little wave, promising that we’d see each other soon. Then the woman led me out of the door. Beyond lay a slightly larger room that looked pretty similar. There were a couple armed thugs there, sitting at a table playing cards. They looked up as we came in, one of them coming to some form of attention. The other leaned back to get a better look at Cavalcade’s backside as we passed through. She ignored them entirely, taking me to the opposite door. There, we were met by a guy who at first glance looked like any other gangbanger. Really, he had baggy jeans with a chain hanging from them, a couple layers of shirts, and a leather jacket, all with nasty sayings on them. The only thing that gave him away as being Touched was the green helmet he wore. It was a full head and face covering thing, made of some kind of metal with clasps on either side. The front of the helmet was an engraved face of a laughing man, and the eyes were covered by sunglasses. 

This, I knew, was Sockinit. Yeah. Unlike my escort, he was one of the official Easy Eight Touched, one of their eight lieutenants, like Skadi and Janus. His power allowed him to dampen or cancel any number of things. He could mute voices or other sounds, stop chemical reactions from occurring, disable electricity, even slow or stop someone’s powers from functioning properly for awhile if he focused long enough on them. 

“Yo, Cav,” Sockinit drawled as we approached the door, “I was thinking–” 

“Don’t,” the woman interrupted. “Because every time you think, you say something stupid that makes me kick your ass, and it turns into a whole thing.” 

She brushed past him, pulling me with her while the man was still reacting to her words. We exited into what was obviously a warehouse. There were people moving crates around, a forklift nearby being loaded up, and a supervisor with a tablet, directing everyone about where to go. I could see the boxes were labeled with both serial numbers and the names of the eight lieutenants in the gang, including the guy we had just passed. 

My escort led me through the maze of shelves and crates. I glanced up as subtly as possible a couple times, looking for a skylight or something. But it was just a blank metal ceiling. Of course, it wouldn’t be that easy. What was I thinking? 

I was thinking that I desperately needed to get out of here, before the situation got even worse than it already had. Unfortunately, I seriously had no idea how to do that. It wasn’t like I could do anything useful like teleport.

Unless the pink paint did that. But I wasn’t going to count myself as that lucky. Plus it hadn’t done anything like that before, so why would it start now? 

Cavalcade led me to a back office. A couple guards there looked up as we approached. These were more alert than the other ones had been, and one turned to open the door behind them while the other gave a nod of greeting. 

“Go on then,” my escort prompted while giving me a little push. “She wants to see you, and the cuffs are keyed to her too. And don’t embarrass me, kid, I kinda like this job. Pays pretty well.”

Right, okay. This is it. Did I have any ideas about how to get out of here without seeing the Easy Eight leader? Did I have a way to escape without walking into that room, with these guards in front of me, Cavalcade behind, and a warehouse full of enemies, while wearing these handcuffs that would slam me to the ground as soon as I tried to leave?

No. No, I did not. So I had no choice. Closing my eyes briefly, I exhaled before walking through the door. 

Entering the office, I saw Deicide immediately. As usual, she looked like a tall, paper-covered female knight. Or like a statue made of paper. Either way, she stood in the corner of the room, near a large wall-mounted television that was currently dark. As I came in, her head turned toward me, and a handful of books floated off the nearby desk. One of them opened up, pages turning rapidly until it stopped, as a disembodied voice read a word on the page. “Hello—” A second book had already been flipping through its pages, stopping at another point to add, “Paintball.”

Yeah, that was really freaky. And, speaking objectively, pretty cool. As far as I knew, no one understood why she didn’t just speak for herself. There were rumors that she was actually mute, or that she just did it for intimidation. Either way, this was how she communicated. 

We faced each other for a moment before I nodded. “I’d wave, but…” I shrugged my shoulders pointedly to indicate the handcuffs. “Of course, you could always take them off. Then I’ll do all the waving you like.”

The floating books flipped through pages rapidly, words coming basically as quickly as a single person talking normally. “On your way out the door, I suppose? You’re fun, kid. I hope nobody has to hurt you too much.”

It was a reminder that made me swallow a little, lifting my chin. “Like I told your pit bull in the other room, I’m not sentencing one kid to being tortured by you people until she builds whatever you want, and another one to die from some disease just so you can take her medicine and—”

In mid-sentence, I was interrupted as the figure in front of me held up a small, familiar object. The books flipped through pages before announcing, “This medicine?”

That was it. It was a vial, just like the one  I had gotten from Ashton. They were basically identical. my mouth fell open, and I just stared for a moment. “You… you have the—”

“Just one,” the floating books informed me while Deicide tucked the vial away somewhere on herself while continuing to speak through her books. “Let’s just say, Cuélebre’s men found it. As I understand, the Ashton boy hid it somewhere in the inventor girl’s shop. They turned the place upside down, but this was the only one. And I ensured that it made its way here.”

There was a brief pause then, while I continued to stare and shock, before she mused, “He didn’t tell you about that yet, did he? So he’s still being cagey about where the rest of them are.”

I started to say something, but she held up a hand, her books continuing. “Let’s settle a few things right now. First, if I wanted to take the location of your friend, I could. Along with any other secret you might have.” 

Before I could object, she made a gesture toward the corner of the room, where someone I hadn’t noticed before was sitting. As my gaze moved that way, the man stood up, coming more into view. He wore a sleek red suit over a black silk shirt, with red leather boots and a full face-covering devil mask that was a mix of black and gold. 

“Hi there,” he spoke in a silky-smooth voice. “Would you mind telling me what you had for dinner last night?” 

Oh. Well, I could do that. Dinner? That didn’t give anything away. “Lamb chops with garlic-rosemary sauce and roasted potatoes.” 

“Oooh, must’ve been a special occasion,” the devil-faced man replied. “How about telling me the first letter of the name of the street your house is on, then walk over to that table over there, pick up that knife, and cut off your left index finger?” 

Hey, that was totally reasonable. He wasn’t asking about Wren or Ashton. “N,” I promptly answered, while moving to the table. Putting my back to it, I fumbled a bit before finding the knife, then somewhat awkwardly tried to line it up with my other hand. . 

“Okay, stop right there,” the man ordered. “That’s enough.” 

I stopped, wondering what I’d done wrong. Did he want me to take off a different finger? I’d heard him right, hadn’t I? It was–

Fuck! Jerking backward, I dropped the knife. It clattered to the table, then to the floor while I stumbled and cursed in shock. What–how was–that guy had…

“You see?” Deicide announced through her books after giving a dismissive wave of her hand for the man to leave, which he did with a salute toward me. “He may dislike direct confrontation, but Devil’s Due is still quite useful. It would be a very simple matter for me to extract all the information you’re trying to hide, if I really wanted to. Given five minutes, I would know all of your secrets. And that’s not counting the… less easy methods a few of my people would like to use.” 

She let that sink in for a moment, before continuing. “Despite what you may think of me, I don’t want Blackjack’s daughter to die. Nor do I want to torture your little friend. Oddly enough, hurting a genius inventor and then depending on her to build something I would subsequently use feels like a bad idea. 

“So no, I don’t want to hurt either girl. Nor do I want to hurt you. I want favors. Three, actually. One from you, for ensuring you get out of this place without further… damage. One from that girl for letting her brand new friend go. And one from Blackjack, in exchange for the vial that I have. Three favors, three wishes. Think of yourselves as a three-headed Genie.”

I hesitated for a second before asking, “How do you know we’ll actually do anything for you after this?

There was a slight chuckle from the actual figure rather than from any book, but it sounded kind of weird. Almost more high-pitched than it should? Before I could dwell on that too much, her books replied, “Blackjack is a man of his word, to a fault. If he swears he will do something for me, within reason, he will. As for you and the girl, well, let’s just say I doubt this will be the last time that the two of us are face-to-face. And I assume you would rather not be on my very bad side. After all, even enemies can be cordial and owe one another. That’s the way the world works.”

“I won’t hurt anyone,” I informed her. “That would kind of defeat the purpose of this deal.”

Her head bowed a bit. “Of course it would. And if I wanted people hurt, I have no shortage of people willing to do that. You’re impressive, kid, but I have enough leg-breakers. No, I promise you any favor I ask will not knowingly kill anyone at all, nor will it hurt anyone who doesn’t have it coming by your own moral standard, and within the bounds of the same. There, are you happy now?”

I hesitated again, thinking quickly. “I can’t speak for Wren. I’m not in charge of her.”

“Just ensure that she knows exactly why you were freed,” came the response. “And make it clear that the same deal applies. Whatever I ask her to build will not directly kill anyone. I am asking for favors, not trying to convert either of you to the dark side of the Force.”

“I can’t make any promises except for myself,” I replied, “but on my part, you have a deal.” What else could I do? By some miracle, maybe I could get out of here. But I doubted it. And I certainly couldn’t get that vial off of her first. No, despite myself, this was the best solution. Owing a favor to any bad guy seemed really wrong. But then, I was already working to save the daughter of one. So this situation was weird to begin with. And she had promised that it wouldn’t be killing anyone or anything like that. I still felt like I was going to regret this somehow, but didn’t have another choice. 

“Excellent,” the books replied for her. “Then I will have Cavalcade take you somewhere, remove the cuffs, and drop you off. She’ll also exchange phone numbers with you. When that number calls, answer. Give it to the others as well. And tell Blackjack the sooner he calls me, the sooner we can work out a deal for him getting this vial back. Which, as I understand, will give him another full month with his daughter. 

“It’s been nice talking to you, Paintball. I hope this is the beginning of a long and mutually beneficial relationship.

“Or at the very least, that I don’t have to have you killed the next time we meet.”

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Interlude 5B – Lost Memories

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Five Years Ago

“Remember, Miss Evans, thank your host and be gracious,” Robert Parson, chauffeur for the Evans family, reminded his charge while opening the back door of the dark sedan. 

Eleven-year old Cassidy, dark hair cut into a short pixie style, didn’t so much step out of the backseat as lunge out of it… hands first. Landing on those hands, she gave a loud squeal while almost tipping over entirely the other way until Robert, well-accustomed to these shenanigans, casually caught her legs with one arm. 

She stood on her hands like that, upside down with her legs against the driver’s ready-arm. “Good catch, Bobby!” the girl chirped with a bright smile, turning her head to peer up at him.

“Honestly, Miss Evans,” the dark-skinned, well groomed man murmured. He was tall enough to be a power forward for the NBA, standing six feet, eight inches. Yet his manner with her was always gentle, and he was as well-dressed and spoken as anyone Cassidy had met among her parents’ hoity toity rich friends. “Must we cause a scene? This is hardly conduct becoming of a woman of your station and inheritance.” 

With a grunt, Cassidy flipped herself back over the other way, landing only slightly awkwardly on her knees before pushing up to her feet once more. Her bright smile never wavered. “That’s why I didn’t wear a skirt, Bobby. Well… that and the last time I did someone asked if I was a crossdresser.” Saying those words made the girl frown a little, looking away before she focused once more, shrugging. “Besides, I had to test your reflexes, you know. Gotta know if you can protect me.” She said it in an offhand way, the dismissive tone of youth who believe themselves invincible and don’t actually understand that while they may be floating on the surface of a very calm ocean, danger still lurked deep beneath those gentle waves. Despite their wealth and prominence, she’d never really believed there was anything for her family to be protected from. 

Robert shook his head, reaching out to put one hand on the girl’s short hair. “Miss Evans,” he began in a low voice that was not quite a whisper. “Such tests are unnecessary. You know that you are safe with me.” There was a calm, genuine affection in his words and gaze. Robert cared for the Evans’ youngest child as though she was his own. There was a reason, after all, that she was the only living person in the known world who was allowed to call him Bobby. 

Her head bobbed quickly. “Yup!” With a wink, she turned and reached back into the car to pull out a gift wrapped in bright silver and violet paper. It was… a bit of a mess, given her insistence on wrapping the present herself. “I think I’ve got it from here. Thanks for the ride!” 

With that, Cassidy bounded off across the long driveway. The place wasn’t nearly as big as her own house, but it was still pretty impressive. The driveway was a half-circle with an entrance and exit at two separate gates, while a tall fountain surrounded by flowers took up the middle. The house itself was about half the size of the one owned by her family, which still put it well above average. Her friend Anthony lived here, and it was his eleventh birthday. 

Reaching the front door, Cassidy went to ring the bell, only to notice that the door was open a crack. That was a little weird, but maybe they were just still bringing stuff in and out for the party. With a shrug, she pushed it open and stepped through, letting the door close behind her. 

“Hello?” Cassidy called, pausing a bit. Huh. Usually one of the maids would have come by now. Maybe they were really busy. And she was actually pretty early. She’d wanted to have a chance to talk to Anthony so they could come up with a plan to escape the party later and play some games in his rooms. It wasn’t like the party guests would miss the pair, considering most of them would be his parents’ friends, not his. Anthony didn’t actually have many friends. Just her, mostly. He was homeschooled by tutors, and the two of them had been all-but inseparable every day since her father had brought Cassidy along to meet his business associate’s son a couple years earlier. 

The party was supposed to be out back, so she started that way. Someone would know what was going on, and where she should put her gift. 

It took a minute for the girl to make her way through the enormous house. Even as often as she’d been over, it was still easy to get lost in the maze of rooms and corridors to reach the correct sliding door leading onto the back patio. It was attached to the (oddly empty and dark) dining room, and Cassidy had to set the present down on the nearby table to push the sliding glass door open. As soon as she did so, the girl heard voices. Oh, good! People were out here. She had started to worry. 

Turning to pick up the present with both arms, she started to head through the opening, before looking up. As she did so, the girl abruptly froze half-in and half-out of the house. The haphazardly-wrapped gift fell to the ground, forgotten in an instant at the sight in front of her. 

Bodies. Three of them lay sprawled out along the patio in various positions, clearly left where they had fallen. Blood… so much blood… coated the ground around and between them, a sticky pool of it. Two of them were faced away from the door, but one, the body of Anthony’s family’s longtime butler, was staring sightlessly straight at Cassidy. His mouth was open with mute horror, frozen in death that way as his gaze seemed to stare directly through the girl. 

Two more bodies lay further on past the first three, draped over lawn chairs. Beyond them was the pool, where yet another body floated. And beside it stood two men with guns. Before them lay a body that some barely cognizant part of Cassidy’s brain vaguely registered as Anthony’s mother. Dead. Dead, just like the others. All of them were dead. 

Except Anthony. The boy himself was sobbing over his mother’s body, clinging to her while he begged… for something. For her to come back, for them to stop shooting everyone, for his own life. His words were a jumble of terror and grief, a desperate wailing almost animal-like. 

As Cassidy stood there, frozen in shock, one of the men offered the boy a shrug. “Sorry, kid,” he muttered in a dispassionate voice. “Nothing personal, this ain’t about you.” 

With that, he raised the gun, pulling the trigger. The sound of the gunshot, muffled though it was, still echoed across the porch. It was met, in turn, by the horrified scream of an eleven-year-old girl who had just seen her best friend murdered right in front of her, as his body collapsed.

“Fuck!” the second man blurted, spinning that way, “where the fuck did that one co–” 

“It’s the kid!” The first guy waved the gun with the hand, bellowing, “Grab her, fucking grab her!” 

With a choked sob, Cassidy turned to flee. But her foot caught on the present she had dropped, and she fell to the floor in the dining room. The next thing she knew, a hand was yanking her up by the hair and arm. As she shrieked and struggled, the man hauled her around back to the porch. “Fucking bitch!” His hand lashed out to smack her across the face, and she hit the ground once more with a cry. He spat at her, snarling, “Your daddy thinks he can run us out of town? Let’s see how tough he thinks he is when he gets his little girl’s finger in the ma–” 

A new gunshot filled the air, echoing through the house. The man who had been ranting pitched forward, hitting the ground beside the still-screaming Cassidy. Nearby, the other man had been on his way over, only to jerk in surprise as his partner was shot. He had his own gun about halfway up before Robert came through the doorway, pistol raised to shoot him through the center of his forehead. He pitched over backward, while Robert smoothly leaned down to haul the sobbing girl up with one arm. “Hands over your ears,” he ordered. “Hands!” 

She obeyed, throwing her hands over her ears and dropping her face against his shoulder while her entire body shook with unrestrained tears. Holding her easily with one arm, Robert went back through the house. As he did so, more intruders appeared. A man popped into the doorway ahead of them with a raised submachine gun, only to be shot three times before he could move. His slumping body was kicked aside as Robert stepped through to the next room, calmly firing three more times, twice at a man who appeared in a doorway to the right, and once at yet another one who came from the stairs above and to the left.   

Taking three quick steps toward the doorway where the man there had fallen, Robert lashed out with his foot, catching the door with his foot. It slammed on the wrist of another man who was just coming through, making him drop his gun. Robert fired once through the door, aimed low to catch the man right in the knee. He collapsed, his head appearing in time to receive a second bullet that put his body on the ground beside the other man’s. 

Ducking back out of the way as a handful of shots came from that same hallway that the two men had tried to come through, Robert waited for a two count, then moved across the half-open doorway, pivoting to put his back to the opening in order to shield Cassidy with his body. Instantly, several more shots rang out. One clipped the man’s arm, drawing a grunt from him before he made it to the opposite side. Pointing the pistol through the doorway, he fired twice without looking, and was rewarded with a yelp and the sound of a man falling. 

The sound of running footsteps on the stairs announced the arrival of yet another attacker. This one lunged into view, submachine gun raised as he dove off the stairs to reach the landing. He was shot through the head in mid-dive, his body crashing through a display of glass figurines. 

Turning quickly, Robert strode onward through the room. As the door to his right was kicked open, he lashed out to slam his pistol into the face of the man that came through, hitting him viciously three times in rapid succession even as the man was falling. The one who came through just behind him was shot through the knee, just Robert’s gun clicked on empty. He slumped down with a scream of pain, while Robert pivoted to hurl his pistol into the face of another man who had come running in from the direction of the back patio where they had just been. In the same motion as his own weapon left his hand, the driver and bodyguard stripped the pistol from the hand of the attacker he had just shot through the knee while the man was trying to aim up at him. He turned it, shooting the kneeling man through the side of the head before taking a quick, almost contemptuously casual shot at the man on the other side of the room who was still recovering from having a pistol thrown at him. The shot took him between the eyes, and he dropped. 

With Cassidy still draped against his shoulder, supported by one arm, Robert made his way through the rest of the house. More men came, a small army having been sent into this mansion to kill everyone present and, apparently, abduct his eleven-year-old charge. But a small army wasn’t enough, as the man put down everyone who dared show themselves, shooting his way out of the building and back to the front driveway. Through it all, he was shot twice more in equally non-vital places. One grazed his right leg and another went through his left side. None did more than slightly slow the man.  

His own last shot (from his third acquired pistol) took down a man with a shotgun who had been running toward the front door from a van that had pulled up behind their car. Without breaking stride, Robert tossed the pistol away, hooking his foot under the shotgun to kick it up into his grip. One-handed, he aimed the shotgun at the van, blowing away the driver just as he tried to scramble out. He fired the second shot as the side door of the van began to slide open, taking the man who tried to lunge free in the face. 

Shotgun emptied, Robert tossed it aside and kept moving. The back door of the sedan was already open, so he all but threw Cassidy into it. She landed hard on the seat, eyes opening just in time to shriek in terror as she looked past him. 

Two more shots hit the man in the back before he could react. Pivoting, he took a third shot in the stomach, making that six bullets the man had taken in only a few minutes. He collapsed to the ground, while an older man with silver-white hair came into view, pistol still in hand. 

“Well now,” the elderly figure muttered, “my son-in-law does hire good help, I’ll give him that.” Shaking his head, he leaned down to look into the car at Cassidy, who was frozen in terror, mouth simply repeating ‘Bobby, Bobby, Bobby’ in silent desperation, her mind all-but broken. 

“Hiya, kid,” the man announced. “Let’s get out of here. You can get to know your old Grandpa Jacopo.” 

He started to reach in toward the girl, just as a gleaming silver blade was suddenly driven through his back to erupt through the front of his chest. The man choked, looking down sharply as the end of the blade formed two solid pieces to hold itself in him while being pulled back. The old man was hauled away from the car and dumped to the ground. 

And Cassidy saw her father. Her father… dressed up like Silversmith, sans helmet. Her daddy, standing there with a bloody mercury-like blade extending from his arm. Her father, glaring at the man on the ground. His voice shook with rage that felt as though it could bring down the nearby house. “You… son of a bitch!” 

The man on the ground laughed, choking on his own blood. “Really think you could kick me out of town forever, son-in-law? This is my town! She’s my daughter! It’s my organization! You’re a fucking glorified accountant! I built all of this, I own it! It’s mine!”

In response, Cassidy’s father simply shook his head. His voice was dark. “Not anymore.” With that, his hand lashed out, forming a new blade that took the old man’s head off at the neck, sending it bouncing along the driveway to the nearby flower garden. 

The next thing Cassidy knew, she was in her father’s arms, sobbing and babbling about dead people, about Bobby, about him being Silversmith. It was all a jumble, the terror and horrific realization of everything she had seen falling together to form one terrible memory. 

“Sorry… Mr. Evans,” Robert managed, having pulled his thoroughly bleeding form to a sitting position. “Tried to get her out.” 

“You did,” Sterling assured the man. “You did everything. We owe you everything. Just sit still. The ambulance is coming. It’s coming. You’re going to be okay, I promise. I swear, we’ll take care of you for the rest of your life. You saved my baby girl. Anything you ever need is yours. Anything.

“We’ll never forget this.” 

*******

“And she won’t remember any of it? You’re certain?” 

Elena Evans, standing beside her husband, was addressing the man in front of them. He was a pale figure with dark-blond hair wearing a neatly pressed white suit. His eyes were dark green. 

“Yes,” the man replied simply, in a distinct British accent. “I do know what I’m doing, Mrs. Evans. The girl will remember none of what happened that day. She will remember the boy as barely an acquaintance, who moved away before perishing in a car accident on the other side of the country. His being homeschooled is a bonus, in that regard.” 

“She barely speaks,” Elena murmured, the worry clear in her voice. “She hasn’t eaten in… in days. This… this thing, it wasn’t… she can’t find out like this. It’s destroyed her. She isn’t… she isn’t talking to us. She just keeps whispering about people dying, about… about her friend. She is not… Cassidy anymore.” 

“As I said,” the man repeated, “she will not remember any of it. What about your man on the scene?” 

Sterling grimaced. “Robert survived, thankfully. But the doctors don’t think he’ll walk again. Anything he does do will take years of physical therapy and surgeries.” 

“He’ll have it,” Elena announced firmly. “After what he did, he will have everything he needs for as long as he lives. Nothing is out of the question. Find a healer willing to work with him, use one of our Braintrust contacts, whatever it takes. That man saved our daughter. He did his job above and beyond the call of duty. We will not forget that.” 

“A sound policy,” their guest agreed. “Now if you’ll excuse me, I have my own job to do.” Nodding to them both, he stepped through the nearby doorway to Cassidy’s room. 

The girl herself sat on a chair, staring at the mirror. She didn’t look up when he entered, nor did she speak. 

“Hi,” the man greeted her. “My name is Jackson. Kent Jackson. I have a son about your age, back over in London. His name is Tomas. What’s yours?” 

Silence. 

“Well,” Kent murmured, “I’m sorry to hear about what happened to your friend and his family. Luckily, you won’t have to think about that for much longer.” With that, he stepped over, raising his hand toward her. But just as his fingers brushed her hair, the girl shrieked. She smacked hand away, screaming out loud as she scrambled to her feet, lashing out to kick him in the leg. 

“Leave me alone! Leave me alone! Leave me alone!!!” she screamed out loud. 

Grimacing, Kent grabbed the girl by the arms. As she shrieked and fought, he hauled her off the floor, throwing the girl roughly down on her bed even as one of her hands dragged deep fingernail marks down his arm. “Stop! Stop it!” he blurted, head shaking while she scrambled, kicking and hissing like a wild cat.  

“Damn it, stop! I’m helping you, daft child!” Kent shook the girl, just as he was yanked off of her by Sterling, who put his fist in the man’s stomach to double him over. He staggered, choking out words about needing to do his job. 

“Help her.” Elena’s voice was firm, as she sat on the bed with her daughter. She reached out, but Cassidy drew back, pulling herself into a tight, whimpering ball. “Help her, not terrify her more.” 

Straightening, Kent adjusted his suit with a cough. “The girl is frightened because of the very event I’m working to take away. Give me a moment with her, and it will no longer be a problem.” He gave both of her parents a look, then exhaled while stepping over. 

“Now, let’s try this again, shall we?” 

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Interlude 5A – Pencil (Summus Proelium)

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Four years ago

“You’re not special, you know.“

The words were addressed to a family of four (a mother and father with a teenaged child of each sex), who were sitting bound and gagged on a couch in an innocuous-looking living room. They were a very all-American suburbanite-looking family. The father’s formerly thick, dark hair had passed the midpoint of balding and he was a bit saggy around the gut, though his bright blue eyes remained fiercely intelligent and sharp. Beside him, the man’s wife retained much of the beauty of her not-so-recent youth, with long blonde hair that only needed a bit of help retaining its color and shine thanks to quite wonderful genes. Her own eyes were dark, and were currently filled with tears. 

Their teenage children, meanwhile, each quite resembled their opposite-sex parent. The girl had long dark hair like her father’s had been some time before, with eyes whose brilliant blue matched his with the added youthful spirit. A spirit which, at the moment, seemed entirely broken by terror. And her slightly older brother was very clearly his mother’s son, with hair that might have been much shorter than hers, but was no less blond. His eyes too were as dark as hers, his rage and helplessness seeming to mask a revulsion and terror that was indescribable. 

All four were staring at a man in an ill-fitting brown tweed suit who stood nearby. He wore a sackcloth bag over his head as a mask with holes cut in it for his eyes and mouth. A wig of long, luxurious blond hair had been attached to the bag-mask, making him look quite normal from the back. 

The source of the family’s terror, beyond their imprisonment, was visible on the recliner chair beside their couch. An uncle who had been visiting, and who had thought to rebel against this intruder when he arrived, lay in that chair gutted from waist to throat, his insides spilling out as his dead horrified gaze seemed to stare accusingly at his family. 

Tears fell freely from the four as they fought not to look at the body. Both teenagers had been sick over themselves and the smell from it was competing with that of the body. They kept their attention rigidly locked on the man in front of them as he casually flipped a bloody knife between his fingers. 

“Everyone wants to think they’re special,” the man continued. “Especially victims. And you, uh, you’re pretty victimy. People like you, they want to think that something’s happening for a reason, that they were chosen for some… purpose.” 

He paused then, head cocked as though considering. “Actually it’s the survivors who really like to think that you’re special. They need you to have done something to deserve this. Or at least something to draw the attention of whatever made it happen. They need a cause-and-effect, because otherwise it could happen to anyone. It could happen to them. And, well, that’s just too terrifying a thought to consider.”

He stepped over, stopping in front of the mother. Her eyes widened with terror while her husband made repeated grunting sounds, trying to draw their attacker’s attention. 

Slowly, those eyes in the sack mask turned a bit to look toward the father. A low, raspy chuckle escaped the man as he spoke again. “Like I said, everyone thinks they’re special. They’re not. You’re not. Do you know why you’re here? Do you know why I’m here, why I chose you? It’s because I flipped through the phonebook and landed on an address. This house is where my finger stopped. Random, huh?”

He offered them a shrug, his gaze moving back to the mother. “But here’s the thing about randomness. It can go both ways. If I wanted to be truly random, couldn’t I just turn around and walk out that door right now?” He gave another raspy chuckle as their eyes moved hopefully to the front entrance. “Yeah, I could do that. I could leave. And then maybe I’ll find you again in a year, or maybe I’ll wait until the girl over there has a munchkin of her own and then take the kid.” His hand waved idly toward the fourteen-year-old girl, causing a muffled scream of outrage from her parents. 

“I could do a hell of a lot of things,” the man continued with a casual, musing tone. “But you know what sounds like a lot of fun? A game.“ 

With that, he reached out quickly, grabbing the mother by the arm before yanking her up. His knife was pointed toward the father to keep him docile while the masked man wrestled the mother up and over, making her straddle her husband. Humming, the man used the knife to cut the mother’s bonds, but kept it close to her side to prevent her from moving very much. He then took hold of one of her hands, extending it toward her husband. A cord was produced next, with a loop at either end. The man looped one end around her wrist, before looping the other end around the father’s neck. It kept her hand close to his throat. 

That done, the masked man lifted her husband‘s hand and repeated much the same to put his hand near her throat. Then he bound their opposite arms together to keep them locked that way. Husband and wife were now tied together, hands close to each other’s necks. 

Next, the man produced a pair of small revolvers. There was a collection of muffled shouting, but he spoke over it. “Now, now, let’s all hear what the rules of the game are before we start interrupting. Don’t be rude.” He made a show out of ejecting all of the shells from each revolver except for one in each. Then the man carefully placed one of the revolvers in each of the parents’ hands that were tied close to their partner’s neck before using a roll of duct tape to secure them in place, making sure they couldn’t move the barrels anywhere else. 

“Okay then,” the man announced, “we’re off to the races. The question we’re asking here today is which kid do you love the most? See, at least one of these kids has a fighting chance of walking out of here, if not both. If Daddy shoots Mommy, then his beautiful baby girl gets to leave completely untouched. If Mommy shoots Daddy, then their bright-eyed, bushy-tailed boy gets to survive. Maybe he’ll write a book about it. And, well, I suppose if both Mommy and Daddy shoot each other, the kids win the grand prize. Which is sort of a lifetime of nightmares and thousands in therapy bills. But hey, they’ll be alive. Which is more than I could say for the contestants.”

Turning, the man pointed to a camera that had been set up on a tripod in the corner and had been recording throughout his explanation. “And if you can, try to spray some of the blood toward our friends in the future audience. That’ll really give it a nice, visceral feel for the inevitable TV movie and true crime episode about this little hiccup in your lives. I mean, I’d say regular movie because, let’s face it, I’m pretty damn good at this. But I just don’t think you’re that important.”

He let them consider that for a brief moment before adding, “And just to make it interesting, let’s say that if neither of you have shot each other by the time that cuckoo clock over there goes off, I’ll just kill one of the kids myself. We’ll make it an Eenie Meenie situation.”

A handful of seconds passed as the man looked toward the clock before turning back to them with a small smile. “Would this be more or less nerve-racking if you could actually see that clock and had any idea how close it was to going off? I’m genuinely curious. Always looking to make these little visits better, you know? I thought of having comment cards, but I just don’t feel like you’d be honest. Oh, whoops, you’re probably trying to decide how much you love your kids right now, right? Well, I’ll let you get back to it, for the next… well…” He glanced toward the clock before offering them a shrug. “However long you have.”

Mother and father fought uselessly against their bonds for a few seconds, pleading through their gags for mercy while their eyes snapped back and forth between each other and the clock, whose face they couldn’t see. In the background, the masked man made a soft ticking sounds with clear amusement, occasionally glancing toward the camera while making pantomime gestures as if to ask, `Can you believe it’s taking them this long?’

The mother and father looked toward their bound and gagged children, a keening sound of desperation escaping the mother before she snapped her eyes back to her husband. A brief moment of silent communication passed between them and both slumped a little as they came to a mutual decision. 

“Ohhh, ladies and gentlemen and tied up offspring currently sitting on the couch,” the man started, “ I believe we have a—“

Two terrifyingly loud bangs filled the room as mother and father shot one another in the head, spraying blood and brain matter in every direction. The echoes of the shots were followed by barely muffled screams from both teenagers. Wails and sobs flooded from the pair to form a distinct soundtrack of horror against the grisly sight. Their violent, wretched grief, painfully visible on the camera for a moment, was blocked then as the masked man knelt in front of it. 

“Well, I guess that’s it for today. But don’t worry, we’ll see each other again. Maybe some of you sooner than you think.” With a wave of one hand, he used the other to reach out and turn off the camera. 

“Holy shit!” The new voice filled the room as soon as the camera was off, as the teenage boy lunged to his feet, his ‘bonds’ falling as he ripped the gag from his mouth. “Holy shit! That was amazing! That was so fucking cool! Wasn’t it, Manda?” 

He turned a bit, seeing his sister on the couch, still staring at their parents’ bodies. “Amanda?”

With a loud, gleeful squeal, the fifteen-year-old girl spat the gag in her mouth out and sprang just as energetically to her feet, fake bonds falling to the floor while she threw her arms around her sixteen-year-old brother. “Nick, Nick, that was so great! Did you see the look on their faces before they did it?! Oh, that was incredible. That was the most beautiful thing ever! That was amazing!” 

She continued to hug her brother tightly for a few seconds before turning to kick her mother’s lifeless leg. “Who doesn’t get a new phone now, bitch?!”

Nick tugged her back by the shoulder, barely sparing their parents a glance. “Come on, Manders, our little scene here looks pretty good, and the video’ll help. But we need to call the cops soon or it’ll look suspicious.”

The girl wound herself up to spit on their parents before Nick covered her mouth. “It’d look pretty weird to find your saliva on their bodies. Just saying.”

The two turned away from their parents, walking past their dead uncle without a glance or care before stopping in front of the masked man, who had stood there watching the whole time. 

“Good job,” Nick congratulated, “you sounded perfect.”

Reaching up, the man pulled off his mask, revealing a fairly normal looking pale man with red hair. “Shucks, all I did was follow your script. That was pretty fucked up, man, I ain’t gonna lie.”

Nick shrugged. “It’ll convince the investigators that our parents’ deaths were absolutely not our fault. So the inheritance and life insurance should pay right out. Hell, we’ll probably get donations from concerned citizens who just want to help us get past the grief.” He chuckled then, before reaching into his pocket to pull out a bundle of wrapped hundred dollar bills, which he handed over to the man. “Five thousand, just as promised. The remaining forty-five will be after we get paid. You know how it is.”

Amanda was already standing over next to a nearby door. She’d opened it to reveal stairs leading down. “Come on, you’ve got to go out through the cellar so the neighbors don’t tell the cops which way you went. There’s a trap door near the bushes at the edge of the fence.”

Nick nodded, heading that way first. “Yeah, I’ll show you how to get past the junk.” He patted his sister on the head before clomping down the stairs, with the other man descending after him. 

Reaching the bottom, the man paused at the crinkling sound as he stepped off the last stair and looked down. “Hey, why is there plastic on the—”

That was as far as the man got before Amanda, using the greater heights of standing on the stair above him, suddenly leapt on the man with a banshee shriek and drove a knife into the side of his throat. He screamed, the sound turning into a gurgling mess as he collapsed to the floor with Amanda on his back, cackling madly. The man choked and died there on the plastic wrap as the girl whispered sweet nothings in his ear. 

Finally, he was dead, and Amanda rose to reveal the plastic apron she had put on to protect her own clothes from his blood. “See?” she directed toward her brother, “Told you I could do it.”

Nick gave his sister a high-five before they rolled the body up in the plastic. He took the time to pick up the wig-covered mask that the man had dropped, looking at it for a moment before tucking the thing away. Together, they dragged the body in the plastic across the entire basement, past mounds of boxes and random junk until they reached the far corner, where a dresser stood. Brother and sister moved the dresser, revealing a hole that had already been prepared. In that hole was an old freezer. The two of them dumped the body into the freezer, added the mask and Amanda’s apron and knife before closing the lid, then dragged the dresser back over to cover the hole. Working quickly, they took a minute to stack random junk all around the dresser, making it look like no one had gone over there in quite some time. Once a bike with one wheel was shifted in front of the pile, the two of them ran back up the basement stairs to re-join their murdered family members. 

“Ready?” Nick asked his sister. Getting a quick nod from her, he reached out to pick up the phone, dialing 911. It rang twice before being answered, and he immediately began to sob about how they needed help, while Amanda provided a chorus of tears and pleading in the background. 

Soon, the sound of sirens filled the air, while brother and sister looked to one another. “Nick,” Amanda murmured with delight, “that was so amazing! We have to do that again.”

The boy chuckled. “Well, it’d be pretty hard to do that again. That was kind of a one-time thing. But don’t worry. We will definitely find ways to entertain ourselves.”

With a grin, Amanda started to respond. Then she paused, head tilting as she stared past him. “Hey, Nick…

“What’re those glowing orb things?”

********

Present Day

“So that’s how my sister and I got our powers and got rid of our parents at the same time.”

Nick, or Pencil as he was now known by the world at large, stood in the middle of the convenience store, surrounded by kneeling, sobbing figures. The now twenty-year-old wore the same sackcloth mask with blonde wig that he’d had their parents’ killer wear four years earlier, having retrieved it from the freezer before he and Amanda disposed of the body. 

Smiling under the mask, Nick gestured to the kneeling people. “Thanks for letting me get all that off my chest. I don’t know why, but I really felt the need to talk about it with somebody lately. And it’s not really the kind of story you tell the therapist. I mean yeah, sis and I are super-motivational speakers. You should see the way we get worked up in all the schools about overcoming adversity and shit. It’s just… I don’t think they’d accept this particular nugget. But let’s be honest, you guys aren’t gonna tell anybody. You’ll be dead.”

His words brought a renewed round of sobbing from the group of employees and customers, before one tried to lunge to his feet in a desperate bid to either escape or attack. 

Unfortunately, the man barely stood before Nick casually buried a knife in his stomach. The man choked, looking down at all the blood with a whimper. 

“There there,” Nick murmured. He withdrew the knife from the man’s stomach, turned it around, and placed it in his hand. The man was slumping against him, whining as he closed his fingers around the knife.

“You wanna try it?” Nick offered. “I know, I know. You’ve heard all about how nothing can kill me. But go ahead, give it a try. Maybe you’ll get lucky.”

There was a brief pause, before the man rammed the knife into Nick’s stomach. Nothing happened. The knife passed in and out of his body with no apparent effect. No blood was drawn, and no wound was left behind. 

“Well, that’s unlucky,” Nick murmured. “Why don’t we try again?” With that, he waved his hand, and the wound in the stomach of the man he had stabbed was abruptly healed. There was no damage whatsoever, as the guy gasped in surprise while straightening up. 

Covering his mouth in mock surprise, Nick then explained, “Yeah, see, I’m not actually completely invulnerable. The truth is, everything I do to someone else, I become completely immune to. But it only works three times for every time I do it to someone else. And it’s super specific. Like, a stab in the arm won’t protect me from a stab in the head. Or if I set someone on fire, the only parts of me that are protected from burning are the parts of them that burned. So I tend to be pretty thorough.”

With a sudden curse, the other man tried to cut Nick’s throat. Again, nothing happened. 

Nick, with a roll of his eyes, drove a knee into the man’s groin, dropping him to the ground. “Dude, do you have any idea how often I’ve stabbed people in the throat? Yeah, I’m only protected three times per. But I’ve stacked like… pffft, hundreds by this point. It’s pretty ridiculous.”

Stepping over the man, he continued, addressing both him and the rest of the kneeling, crying people. “You’re wondering how I healed you, right? That’s the kicker. See, every time I do something to someone else, I get three slots of immunity from that thing. But I can spend one of those slots to heal anybody else from that specific thing. Yeah,” he laughed, “Probably one of the best healers in the country is a goddamn Abyssal-worshiping serial killer. Isn’t that just profoundly fucked up?”

Getting no real response from the terrified group, he sighed. “You people are no fun. Oh well, let’s—”

He was interrupted by the chime of the front door of the shop, as a uniformed police officer burst in with his gun raised. “Get your hands up! Get them up!”

Rather than comply, Nick simply turned to watch. Just as the police officer started to shout again, Amanda casually stepped out from behind a nearby shelf. Cup, as she was now known by their naming rules of using completely mundane objects for their ‘supervillain’ titles, wore a white bodysuit with a matching white cloak and hood. Her white mask was cloth, covering the lower half of her face. Pure white, the color of innocence. She thought it was funny. 

Stepping by the startled cop, she spoke up casually. “If a balloon floats up in the air, will it float down under water?”

The cop turned his pistol to her with a gasp. Then he stopped, his mouth moving as he repeated the question under his breath. A frown furrowed his brow and he repeated it again louder. His shoulders slumped, as the gun lowered. 

This was Amanda/Cup’s power. She could ask any nonsensical question, and a person’s entire focus and attention would be completely taken up with trying to answer it. They would become obsessed with the question for a short time, depending on just how absurd it was. The more ridiculous, the longer they would be distracted.

Cup plucked the gun from the cop’s hand, checked it, then shot the man in the face. He collapsed while everyone in the store screamed. 

With a sigh, Pencil regarded his sister. “Really? Now we have to hurry, and I can’t enjoy myself.”

Shrugging, Cup replied, “The rest of the Scions are waiting for us anyway, dude. It’s time to pray to Typhon.” It was a thing neither of them actually believed in, actually ‘praying’ to some poor fucked up loser who ended up turning into a monster. But it freaked people out, and they thought that was hilarious. Plus, most of the other Scions actually went for that stuff, so the siblings played it up. 

Checking his watch, Nick blinked. “Huh. Guess you’re right. Time really flies, huh? Oh well.” He turned back to the gathered group with a bright smile. “So…” he started while reaching out to pick up a jar with warning labels plastered all over it out of a nearby bag. 

“Which one of you wants to add to my acid immunity?”

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Collectors 5-06 (Summus Proelium)

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Stopping next to the door leading into the band room after school was over, I listened for a moment. Sure enough, the sound of the guitar portion of The Who’s ‘My Generation’ came from within. Smiling a little to myself, I took a breath before giving the door a little push as I stepped in. 

He was there. Tomas Jackson. He looked… basically like I remembered, though a couple inches taller. He had naturally pale skin that had always made him look almost like a vampire or something, coupled with eyes that were a piercing dark green, and dark blonde, almost brown hair that was worn down to his shoulders. His build was fairly slender, though his arms had filled out somewhat since I’d seen him last. As always (whenever he could get away with it by not being specifically in class), he wore a leather jacket with the name of some British punk band on it instead of his actual school uniform jacket. 

Mostly faced away from me, his attention seemingly focused entirely on the guitar he was strumming, Tomas nonetheless stopped once I had fully entered. He turned to glance over his shoulder, giving me an easy smile as my name slipped from his lips. “Cassidy Evans.” 

“Hi, Tomas,” I managed. My heart was beating hard, despite the fact that our relationship was supposed to be over. But we’d broken up out of necessity. He’d had to leave. Being boyfriend and girlfriend from across an ocean might’ve seemed romantic in some respects, but we’d both known it was a bad idea. So we broke up. I’d… well, I hadn’t exactly moved on, considering I didn’t have another boyfriend after him. But we’d definitely gone our separate ways. 

But he was here now. And seeing him brought back all those old feelings. Stupid as it might’ve been, part of me just wanted to go kiss him right then. I remembered kissing him, what it was like. I remembered the feeling of Tomas actually finding me attractive, and how much it helped me deal with the people who kept calling me a boy. I remembered that feeling. I missed it. 

And yet, I also didn’t want to look like a desperate idiot. Shoving those thoughts and feelings down, I did my best to look and sound as casual as possible. “Someone told me you were back. Figured you’d come check this place out again. You ahh, you spent a lot of time here before.” 

“We both did,” he reminded me, giving a brief strum to the guitar before setting it aside as he moved to sit down on the nearby carpeted step that led onto the small stage. “You ahh, you wanna sit down? I was hoping you’d show up. Missed you in class this morning.” 

“I had a doctor’s appointment,” I murmured under my breath before moving to join him on the stair, perching myself at the opposite side of it (so maybe four feet away). Part of me wondered if I should sit closer, then I rethought. Unfortunately, once I finally did sit down, I suddenly reconsidered. Would he take it as an insult that I didn’t sit closer? Was he hoping I would? Was I hoping that he hoped I would? Did I–was I–what in the hell was I even thinking right then? 

Of course, Tomas didn’t look like he even noticed. He just gave me a brief look and smile as he pulled out his phone. “You remember what I said I’d do?” Holding up the phone, he showed me a picture of himself standing in front of the London Eye, holding a green balloon with a face drawn on it. Under the face was a name. Cassidy. 

“Oh, my God! You total dick!” Shoving him with a laugh, I blurted, “I told you not to use a balloon for that because of the whole ‘airhead’ thing, remember!?” 

Grinning back at me, he replied, “Yeah, see, that just made me want to use a balloon even more.” Ignoring my sputtering, he started flipping through more pictures, showing me how he had taken the Cassidy balloon to every conceivable British tourist trap. “And here’s the airhead at Big Ben. Here we are at the Tower Bridge, at Buckingham. I wasn’t gonna do that one, but you know, balloon you insisted. Then we have the London Dungeon. Almost left you there.” 

Flushing deeply, I kicked his ankle with my foot. “You’re a jerk, Tomas. I can’t believe you even took all these pictures. What, just in case you came back someday?”

“Okay, actually, I did this like… the day we left to come here,” he confessed with a snicker. “Once I knew we were coming back.” 

“So how long are you back for, anyway?” I asked, trying not to sound too much like I was prying. “And wait, you only found out you were coming here right before you came? Was your dad keeping it a secret, or…” 

“Apparently it was a last second thing,” Tomas informed me. “Something about the last ambassador having some kind of conflict. As for how long we’re saying, the assignment’s supposed to keep him here at least until next Christmas. So… most of a year, I guess? Not sure what’s coming after that. But hey,” he added with a shrug, “it means I get to be here for  awhile, so I’m dead chuffed, you know?” 

Winking at me, Tomas flicked through a couple more pictures on his phone before asking, “So what’ve you been up to, Miss Cassidy Evans? Jumped off any tall buildings lately?” 

The words made me do a quick double-take despite myself as I blurted, “Wh-what?” 

Raising an eyebrow, the boy clarified. “Remember, we were watching the video of those pillocks jumping off those buildings with the parachutes and wingsuits? I said it was stupid as fuck and you said you wanted to do it someday. So, you still think it’s something you want to do?” 

It was stupid, but I almost told him the truth. Seriously, next to my family, Tomas had been basically one of my favorite people for a long time. I’d confessed a lot of things to him that I hadn’t told anyone else, not even my family. Add other things we’d done and… well, experimented with… yeah, I really trusted him. It was so easy to fall into this natural rhythm. It felt like he’d never left. If I could actually talk to someone I knew as well as Tomas about this… maybe it would help. 

Or maybe it would just get him in trouble. What if he tried to tell his father the truth about my parents, thinking that his dad’s diplomatic connections could do something? What if something bad happened, either to him or his father. Or… my family. How did I feel about either of those? 

“Cassidy?” Tomas asked gently, a slight frown touching his forehead as he watched me with obvious concern. “Sorry, I–are you alright? You… you look kind of–” 

Quickly, I nodded. “I’m fine. I–I just wasn’t expecting to see you today. It’s kinda surprising.” 

Pushing on from that, I told him a bit of the… innocent stuff that I could say. I kept it casual, still uncertain of how much I should confide in him. I’d trusted him for a long time. But then, I trusted my family too, and look where that ended up. If I couldn’t trust my mom and dad, was there anyone I actually could? 

“Oh, and I started doing this.” Reaching into my bag, I took out my notebook. I’d been experimenting ever since lunch, drawing everything that popped into my head. I had sketch after sketch of monsters, people skateboarding, a ninja with a sword running along the top of a fighter jet that itself was shooting at some kind of giant flying squid… yeah. And they all looked good. Like, really good. I just pictured the image in my head and my hand automatically transferred it to the paper, like I was xeroxing it straight from my brain to the page. 

“Good holy shite, Cassidy,” Tomas blurted, taking the notebook as I extended it. His eyes were wide. “When did you start drawing? This… this is really you? No fooling?” 

“No fooling,” I replied, already blushing despite myself. “I uhh, I just started messing around with it and… and I guess I’m pretty good?” 

“Pretty good?” he echoed, using the notebook to swat me lightly. “This is professional stuff, you daft girl. You taking art classes? Cuz you should be.” 

“I, umm… not yet.” How could I explain that I’d only just found out I could draw like that this morning? Or that it was probably some kind of side effect that came from the superpower involving paint. That was… a whole other deep conversation. “I haven’t really put too much thought into it as more than a hobby.” Mostly because it had only even been that for a couple hours by this point. 

“You need to do more with this,” Tomas urged me, gesturing to the artwork. “Really. Hell, maybe I’ll contract you to do the art for my band when–.” 

“You have a–” I started. 

“–when I actually get a new band,” he finished with a self-depreciating snort. 

We smiled at each other for a moment. I was about to say something else, when my eyes happened to glance down toward the phone in his hand. There was a really hot guy on his lock screen. It wasn’t Tomas. This one had short black hair and blue eyes. Seeing him there, I asked curiously, “Hey, who’s that guy?” 

“Hmm? Oh, I meant to change that.” Tomas shrugged. “That’s Charlie. He’s uhh, he was my boyfriend for awhile.” 

That made me do a double-take, my eyes snapping from the phone (though I couldn’t see the picture anymore) up to him. “I’m sorry, your what?” 

He wasn’t looking at me. His attention was on the phone screen, a fond look in his eyes. “Yeah, I ahhh…” Blinking up at me, Tomas winced. “No, sorry. I know what you’re thinking, Cassidy, but I’m not gay. I’m bi. Kinda figured it out like… six months ago. I like girls and boys. And believe me, I like you for all kinds of girl-related reasons.” 

“The people here literally teased you about being gay for dating me,” I pointed out. “Just like they did Peter Fauning the year before that. And now you’re saying that you actually are into guys? I mean, that’s not–it’s not a problem or… or it’s just not a… it’s not any of my… I mean..” My stammering cut off as I sighed. “I don’t know. I’m sorry. I’m being stupid.” 

“Cassidy, you are not being stupid,” Tomas assured me. “I don’t–ahh, I don’t blame you for having feelings about it. You’re right, those morons did say a lot of stupid shite. I don’t pay it any more mind now than I did then. I like you cuz I like you. Boy, girl, it doesn’t rightly matter. But ahhh, that said, I know that you’ll need time. It’s easy for me to say it doesn’t matter to me, but you’re different. It matters to you, and that part of it matters to me.”

Wincing a little, I managed a weak, “Damn it, Tomas, you’re making it really hard to be a drama queen about this.” 

He gave me one of his patented perfect smiles then, shrugging one shoulder. “If it makes you feel any better, we can pretend I said something stupid so you get to storm off. I’ll even do the dramatic, ‘Cassidy, wait, I’m sorry!’ and you can slam the door right in my face.” 

“Right in your face?” I echoed, pretending to consider it. 

“Boom, right there,” he agreed, pantomiming with his hand. “So what do you say? Shall we put on our dramatic faces?” 

“I think I’m good without the drama,” I informed him with a little shudder. Despite our little banter right then, however, I still hesitated. “But… I do need a little time to think about everything.” 

He nodded once. “I thought you might. Just know that whatever people say, I like you for you, Cassidy Evans. You think through everything you need to. My number’s the same. Give me a ring when you feel like it.” 

I couldn’t help it. Leaning in, I gave him a hug, holding on for just a moment before pushing myself up. “I… I’ll talk to you later, Tomas. I’m glad you’re back and that you’re… doing okay.” Feeling suddenly even more awkward, confused, and out of my depth, I fumbled my way to the door and slipped out. 

I felt like an idiot. An overly emotional idiot. Yes, being with Tomas last year had done wonders for my confidence, the fact that he found me attractive and didn’t think of me as a prepubescent boy had been huge. So finding out that he was attracted to both boys and girls was… it was… 

It should have been nothing. I shouldn’t care. He still liked me for me, so why did I have to make a big deal out of it? 

Emotions were stupid. I needed some kind of distraction. 

*******

“He’s ours, you son of a bitch!” a guy in a red jacket with a black claw mark design across the back of it blurted. Arrayed around him, other guys (and a few girls) dressed similarly echoed the sentiment. All of them backed up the words by pointedly brandishing the guns and knives they were holding.

An equal number of people faced them, holding weapons of their own and looking not the least bit intimidated by their opponents. One of those snarled, “He came into our turf, cocksuckers. You come into our turf, you’re ours. Just like him.” 

The two opposing groups were Fell-gang members, of course, though none were Touched, as far as I could tell. The first, led by the guy in the red jacket at the front, were members of the Easy Eights. These ones in particular were under one of the other lieutenants, not my old friend(s) Janus. Easy Eights, eight gangs, eight lieutenants. Going by the claw mark designs on their clothing, their particular leader was the woman known as Skadi, a Fell-Touched focused on hunting and wild animals. The group facing them, meanwhile, were more members of the Ninety-Niners. Between them, the object of their argument, was some random guy cowering on the ground with his arms over his head. 

“We fucking chased him out here,” one of the Skadi-gang members snapped. “We found him, we chased him, he’s ours. That reward is ours. You get in the way, we’ll put you down like dogs.” 

This was getting out of hand really fast. Any second now, these idiots were going to start shooting at each other. From my perch on the edge of the building where I had been watching this, I carefully aimed both hands before shooting off a spray of red paint from each. Quickly, I adjusted my aim so that the paint went over all of their guns. I tried to get any knives too, but mostly it was the guns. 

As the red paint sprayed over their weapons, the gang members all blurted out curses of surprise and confusion. Their gazes were already snapping my way for the source of the paint, even as I activated all of it, yanking all of the guns out of their hands and toward each other to collide before crashing into one big pile. 

By that point, even as a couple of the guys tried to lunge for the weapons, I had already hopped down to land on the sidewalk in front of them. “Hey, don’t do that.” The two who were scrambling that way each got hit with a spot of blue paint at their feet to send them flying. “No guns until after you eat all your vegetables and clean up your bedrooms.” 

“Hey, it’s that Paintball shit!” One of the guys blurted, pointing his knife at me. “The hell you want? This guy right here, he’s our fucking bounty. Blackjack wants him and we’re gonna fleece that motherfucker dry.” 

“Ahh, good luck with that,” I replied with as casual a shrug as I could manage given the situation, “cuz that’s not Ashton Austin. Hey, you. Your name Ashton Austin?” 

“N-no!” the man squeaked out, clearly terrified. “My name’s Tony Bastmer, these guys just started yelling and chasing me, so I ran away!” Now that he was looking up at me, I could see where they might make the mistake. He and Ashton were similar enough that that might have been related. 

“Course he’s gonna say that!” one of the Ninety-Niners snapped. “He’d be an idiot to admit who he is. Look at him. That’s the guy.” 

“You got some kind of ID?” I pressed, watching all of them looking back and forth between me and the guy on the ground. 

“Oh like that fucking matters,” another guy retorted even as the one on the ground gave a frantic nod. “Of course he’ll have a fake ID. How stupid do you think we–” 

“What’s going on here?” A new voice spoke up then, as a female figure emerged from the alley nearby. She gave me a passing glance, and I recognized her immediately. Skadi, the Easy Eight lieutenant over the group with the red jackets. She was a lithe woman with white tiger-print pants that tightly hugged her legs, black combat boots, a black leather jacket with the emblem of a tiger’s face on the front of it and that familiar claw mark on the back (both in red), and a hard metal mask over the front of her face with holes in it for her eyes and mouth. The mask itself was silver, with a tiger’s face emblazoned on it in red. Well, tiger for now. I happened to know that the woman could change the image on the mask at any point, between various predatory animals. 

Changing her mask image wasn’t her power. That was just some kind of tech thing. Skadi’s actual power had something to do with anticipating the actions, choices, and whatnot of anyone whose blood she… well… tasted. Yeah. She also had some other things like metal claws and maybe some kind of strength, speed, and other general enhancements. But mostly it was that whole ‘taste someone’s blood and then be able to predict what they do and just generally know things about them’ thing. 

Seeing one of their enemy’s Touched arrive made the handful of Ninety-Niners even less eager to pursue this. Several of them were already taking off, a couple more trying to seem strong but clearly ready to join their companions at any second. 

“We got that Ashton guy,” one of the Easy Eight guys claimed, gesturing to the whimpering man. “Then this asshole shows up and says it’s not him.” 

Without saying anything, Skadi glanced to me, then stepped over to the man. I tensed as she held up a hand, producing a metal claw from the dark glove she wore. But the woman wasn’t attacking anyone. She poked the man in the arm, watching me the whole time as she took a bit of his blood and touched it to her lips for a taste. 

“He’s right,” the woman murmured while still staring at me. “It’s not him. Let the man go.” 

There was a collection of mutters of disbelief and annoyance, but they did. The Ninety-Niners didn’t pursue him either, as the man took off running. 

“Right,” I started, “now that we’ve resolved that peacefully–” 

“You, on the other hand…” Skadi interrupted, “you clearly know more than you should. I wouldn’t be surprised if you know exactly where our missing man is right now. And even if you don’t, there are others who would like a conversation with you.” 

Too late, I realized that the woman had been glancing somewhat past me at the last bit of that. I tried turning, but something grabbed me first. Something… huge. A hand as big as I was. Suddenly, I was yanked around, given a brief glimpse of Mister Harmful’s face as he snarled at me, before his giant hand abruptly slammed me face first into the wall of the building. 

Everything went dark. 

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Collectors 5-05 (Summus Proelium)

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“You sure this plan of yours is gonna work?” 

It was the next morning. I had gone to school for the first couple periods before taking off. With a call from ‘my dad’, of course, thanks to my voice changer. As far as the school was concerned, I had a doctor’s appointment and would be back to school as soon as it was over. Which gave me time to (hopefully) get this component that Wren needed away from the delivery truck so she could finish that little project. 

Looking over to where Pack was leaning against the wall in the alley we were hiding out in, I shrugged. “If I was sure it was going to work, it’d be a memory, not a plan. But it’s the best we’ve got. Unless you’ve had any better ideas about how to get that thing off the truck?” As I spoke, my eyes glanced to the side, where Mars Bar the iguana-bear and Holiday the panther-skink were waiting as well. Tuesday, the gecko-monkey, was sitting on top of a nearby dumpster, playing with… I didn’t know what he was playing with. Nor did I want to know.  

Expression hidden behind her full face mask, Pack shrugged. “I’ve been thinking about it, but nope. You’re right, this pretty much seems like our best shot. If you’re absolutely positive that you don’t want to just call in Blackjack to deal with it. I’m pretty sure he could get that thing.” 

“And I’m pretty sure he wouldn’t really care all that much about who got hurt in the process,” I reminded her pointedly. “We can do this without help, and without sending in an army of thugs to stampede over that poor driver. Scaring him just a little bit maybe, but not hurting him.” 

Once again, she shrugged. “If you say so. Still think you’re overcomplicating this, but I guess it’s your show.” As she said that, the girl glanced up to the roof of the building where the lizard-bird Riddles was perched and had just made a soft cawing noise. “Right then, that truck’s on its way. Just turned onto our street, so we’ve got about twenty seconds. You ready for this?” 

“Guess I better be,” I replied before cracking my neck from one side, then the other. Bouncing up and down on my heels a couple times, I breathed out. “Okay, let’s do it. Just… you know.” 

She nodded once. “Yup. Okay, Mars, carefully, just like we practiced.” Giving a quick glance up to her bird for the exact timing, the girl finally made a gesture with her hand. “Now!” 

And just like that, the enormous bear-lizard picked me up from behind. I tried to brace myself, but even knowing it was coming, it was still terrifying. Holding me up above his head, the grizzard gave a deafening, pants-wetting roar before hurling me out of the alley. 

With a yelp, I went flying end over end through the air. From the corner of my eye, I could see the Tauros truck almost directly under me. The driver was even leaning forward, craning his neck while already slamming on the brakes. The squeal of the tires on the street filled the air, and I shot a bit of red paint down to yank myself straight at the hood of the truck before landing in a crouch on it. The paint held me in place even as the truck jerked to a sudden, wild halt. 

“What the hell!?” I heard the driver shouting, even as he started to open the door, standing up and leaning out to stare at me with wide eyes. “What do you think you’re–” 

His words were cut off then, as he caught a glimpse of movement from the alley I had just been thrown out of. Looking that way, he very clearly saw Mars Bar and Holiday charging, because he made a noise of shock and started to sit back down so he could close his door. But I was faster, throwing myself off the hood to ground just past the driver before shooting red paint at him to yank him toward my suddenly red gloves with a shouted, “Get down!” 

The man collided with me and we went tumbling, just before Riddles swooped through the open door of his truck with a loud screech. At the same time, Mars Bar shouldered his way past the truck, bumping it hard with another roar. Boy was he hamming this whole thing up.

At least, I hoped he was hamming it up. Pack had insisted the grizzard completely understood that this was all fake, and I was praying she was right about that. This would suck otherwise. 

Coming to a stop, I made sure to end up on top of the poor driver. He grunted under the impact, and I blurted a quick, “Sorry, sorry! Stay down!” Patting his side, I rolled off the man before shooting off a wide spray of red paint toward the charging Holiday and Mars Bar. Activating it yanked the two into one another. It wasn’t all that hard, and definitely less than they could actually take. But the two animals still gave loud howls of pain and surprise before falling in opposite directions. Apparently they thought this was the time for their Oscar reels. 

“Hey!” The shout came from Pack herself, as the girl came running with a bat in her hand. Seeing her, I reached down to wrap an arm around the driver, coloring part of myself purple before using a shot of red paint to yank us up to the roof of a nearby fast food joint. There I carefully set him down. “You okay?” I quickly asked, glancing between him and the others. 

The man’s eyes were wide as he stared at me from his seated position. “I–I don’t know! What–” 

“Hold that thought,” I blurted. “One sec, gotta deal with this.” With that, I leapt off the building, throwing myself into a lunge aided by a bit of blue paint that sent me flying at Pack. The two of us collided, sprawling end over end. Her bat fell away, and she swung at me with her right fist, actually connecting, though not that hard. I still made a point of staggering before grabbing onto her and giving a sharp whistle toward Mars Bar, Riddles, and Holiday. “Hey, you guys like your owner? Well, come get her then!” That said, I used more red paint to yank myself toward the same alley we had emerged from, with the trio of lizard-animals charging after us. 

Landing in the alley, I checked to make sure no one was watching. We’d already planned out exactly where to leave the driver so that he wouldn’t have line of sight either to the back of the truck or the inside of the alley here. And I’d moved the dumpster from the side of the building itself so that he couldn’t easily climb down. For a moment at least, he was stuck up there.

“We good?” I quickly asked Pack after setting her down. My three ‘pursuers’ came lumbering into the alley as well, slowing as soon as they were out of sight of the street. 

In response, she glanced to the side. “Twinkletoes?” 

At her words, the gorilla-chameleon appeared, complete with a little metal collar around his neck that had a cell phone hooked into it. He grunted, reaching down to the side of the dumpster before picking up a crate with the Seraph Hills logo on it. It looked pretty similar to the one Eits and I had taken from the Tauros building the night before, though maybe slightly larger. 

I hoped it was the right one. Eits had given Pack that collar to put on Twinkletoes. The  cell phone in the collar had a little camera on the front that was supposed to have scanned the serial numbers attached to the crates on the truck and chime when it scanned the right one. Supposedly, Twinkletoes would have made his way invisibly onto the truck, moved around until the thing gave him a pleasant chime, then took the box that prompted it, leaving all the other ones. That was the idea, anyway. Like with the others and our play-fighting, Pack insisted he understood the explanation, and the few test runs we’d done with other boxes had seemed to work out. So… here was hoping. 

Pack was already stepping that way. She picked up the crate, checked the serial number against a piece of paper that she’d written it on, then gave me a thumbs up. “We’re good.” 

Exhaling the breath I hadn’t even been aware that I was holding, I returned the gesture before starting to move. “Keep Riddles out of sight,” I reminded her, not wanting the driver to see the bird-lizard that had ‘almost gotten him’ hanging around. That’d probably be suspicious. 

I took off then, not out of the mouth of the alley we’d just come through, but past Twinkletoes and Pack, to the opposite street. There, I used red paint to pull myself up to the next building over, right on the corner, took a running start, and launched myself with blue paint out over the street with the parked truck. There were cars backed up there, and a few that were pulling around. This wasn’t a busy street (we’d intentionally chosen it that way), but it had been parked there for a couple minutes by that point.

Coming down on the roof of the fast food place, I startled the driver, who jerked reflexively from where he’d been talking on his phone. Apparently he’d called for help. When he saw me, the man settled. “Yeah, yeah the paint kid’s right here. Guess you don’t need the ladder after all.” 

He disconnected, and I offered a weak, “Sorry about that. Are you… are you okay?” 

“Fine, I guess,” the man replied in a voice that was still just a little shaky. Thankfully, he seemed unhurt. “What happened to–uhh…” 

“Pack,” I replied. “One of La Casa. And she got away. I didn’t want to leave you here too long. Should’ve figured you had a phone.” Kicking the roof, I injected embarrassment into my voice while squirming with feigned self-consciousness. “Guess I should’ve kept chasing her.”

“Shit,” the man muttered. “I hope she didn’t take off with any of my shipment. God damn it, you have any idea what kind of paperwork is inv–” He stopped then, wincing. “I mean, sorry. Sorry, kid, you were great out there. Didn’t mean to sound ungrateful. Thanks for your work.” 

Oh boy, did I ever feel guilty right then. It would’ve been easier if he was a jerk, or at least dismissive. Swallowing, I nodded and reached out to him. “Here, I’ll help you get down, then make sure no one bothers you while you look through your shipment. I didn’t see her get near it, so it’s probably fine. But ahh, I’ll wait until you look through it. That’s the least I can do.” 

After all, I didn’t add, I kinda have to stick around to make sure our little ruse really worked. 

Helping the man down, I walked with him back to his truck. There was a uniformed cop there, already writing out a ticket. When he saw us approaching, the officer stopped. “You the driver?” 

We explained the situation, and the cop agreed not to ticket the guy (another potential problem off my conscience), and stuck around while he went into the back of the truck to check his load. 

Meanwhile, the cop and I stood outside the truck and waited. His name was Officer Lensroy, and because I so needed another reason to feel guilty about this, he was really nice. He asked me questions about being chased by Cuélebre, and seemed genuinely interested. He even made a few jokes. All of which made it harder and harder to stand there and lie to both him and the driver. But I had to. For Blackjack’s daughter, I had to. I’d make sure everything worked out. 

I hoped. 

Finally, the driver stepped down. “Looks good,” he announced with a voice of relief. “Never saw that girl go anywhere near the truck, and neither did ahh, Paintball was it?” When I nodded, he continued. “Neither did Paintball. And my handy little scanner here says every box is accounted for.” He waved the small device in his hand. 

I suppressed the urge to openly sigh in relief. It had worked. Twinkletoes managed to switch our box with the one that was already on the truck, and Eits’ little delayed magic with the computer system set the serial number on our box as the one that was supposed to be on the truck. Perfect. 

Congratulating the man on his truck being safe, I made my farewells. As I started to leave, Officer Lensroy called out, “Hey, one second!” 

A million things went through my mind just then, as I slowly turned my gaze back to him, waiting. No way was I going to say something potentially incriminating in that moment. 

The cop smiled at me. “Whoever you are, you run back to school now, you hear? Ain’t no emergency going on, and that lizard girl, wherever she is, ain’t causing trouble at the moment. Get on back to your classes. Hero or not, don’t you go making me call the truant officer.” 

Flushing a little, I saluted the man. “Yes, sir.” And I meant it. I would be going back to class. 

Just as soon as I made sure Wren had everything she needed to start building that suit. 

*******

It was the right piece. With that and what I picked up from the junkyard guy, Wren had what she needed. So now she was busy working. Pack and Fred were going to be running any physical errands she needed done over the day, and I would check in later. Hopefully, there wouldn’t be any unexpected problems. 

It was only after I’d left that I realized I hadn’t actually asked Pack what her school situation was like. Which probably made me worse at this whole hero thing than Officer Lensroy. 

In any case, for the moment, I was back in class. Or rather, lunch. As we had fairly often over the past little while, Jae, Amber, and I were eating while talking about our project. 

That was the idea, anyway. Mostly we gossiped, joked, and basically just hung out. We did work on the project too, of course. It was just… not as much time or effort as we spent talking. 

“So Cass,” Amber was saying as she stirred her pasta salad idly, “you must be happy about Tomas, right?” 

I blinked at her blankly, idly doodling with a colored pencil in my notebook. “Happy about Tomas?” 

“You know, Tomas Jackson?” she prompted. “That diplomat’s kid from–” 

“From London,” I finished for her, nodding as I absently picked up a different colored pencil and sketched a bit more. “Yeah, I know who you mean. But why would I be happy about him? He went home last year.” 

“You mean you don’t–” Stopping, Amber blinked toward the silent Jae, then back to me. “He’s back, Cassidy. He was in my first class this morning. You didn’t know that? I–” Realizing what she’d said then, the girl flushed. “I mean–sorry, I guess he just hasn’t had a chance to–” 

“It’s fine,” I assured her. “I–we broke it off when he went back to London anyway. I haven’t even exchanged more than a couple e-mails and texts since then. And I was at the doctor’s earlier. Maybe I would’ve run into him then.” I shrugged, thinking about that. “He really moved back here?” 

She nodded. “Something about his dad getting another assignment, right, Jae?” 

“That’s what he said,” the Albino girl confirmed quietly. She was watching me with a thoughtful, somewhat curious expression. About what, I couldn’t say. 

“Yeah,” Amber decided, nodding. “I’m sure he’ll come find you, he probably just has the other lunch period. So, you know, be ready for that.” She gave me an easy smile, eyes glancing down before widening. “Holy crap, dude.” 

“What?” Blinking the way she was staring, I found myself looking at the doodle in my notebook. 

It wasn’t a doodle. Somehow, while not really paying attention, I had used my colored pencils to draw and color a pretty damn good image of a knight fighting a dragon. 

“What, yourself,” Amber retorted, clearly thinking that I was just being falsely modest. “Can I see?” She waited until I moved my arm before tugging the notebook over. “Holy shit. That’s–when did you learn how to draw like this? That’s really good. That’s like… professional quality.” 

“I…” I hadn’t. I’d never drawn like that in my life. I’d taken no lessons for it or anything. I hadn’t even really been paying attention. So… how? How had I just done that? Was it part of my power? It had to do with like… colors and stuff, was it related? It had to be, right? But… but…

Realizing both the girls were staring at me, I felt the heat rise to my cheeks as I mumbled, “It’s not that big of a deal.” 

“Dude, trust me, this is a big deal.” Amber waved the notebook, sliding it to Jae for her to see better. “Like I said, that’s totally professional quality. Seriously good professional. You could be a comic book artist or–or something. And you did that just sitting here talking? That’s awesome. You’ve gotta show me some other stuff.” 

“I…” Swallowing back my total confusion, I nodded. “I’ll see what I can do.” 

Jae slid the notebook back to me, offering a smile and a quiet, “It’s really good.” 

I stared at the drawing briefly. They were right. It was good. My hand pressed down against it, as I felt that rush of confusion and uncertainty come back. How did I draw like that without even thinking about it? Was ‘super-artist’ really a side effect of my power? Why? 

Between that and the news that Tomas had apparently come back, I had a lot to think about that lunch period. 

And here I’d thought that I was going to be bored for the rest of the day. 

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Collectors 5-04 (Summus Proelium)

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“So, not that I wouldn’t have brought him anyway,” Pack informed me in a slow, deliberate voice, “but why exactly do we need Twinkletoes?” As she spoke, the girl stared at me. Well, I assumed she was staring. That full face-covering black mask made it hard to tell sometimes. 

We were standing in an alley, a couple streets away from the main Taurus repair facility. Pack had her lizards in their cage at her feet, aside from the chameleon (Twinkletoes, apparently), who lay draped over her left shoulder, watching me with a kind of lazy curiosity. 

“That’s for tomorrow,” I replied. “I figured–well, one step at a time. You said you’d bring a hacker?” Pausing, I added a bit plaintively, “Please tell me it isn’t one of the lizards.” Immediately after I said it, my head shook. “Wait, what the hell am I saying? Is it? Because that would be awesome.” 

“It would be, wouldn’t it?” the other girl agreed with what sounded like a grin. Then she sighed. “But no, sorry. He’s on his way. I told him where to meet us, and he should be here any…” There was a brief hesitation as she looked around. “He should be here any… aaaany miiiii…” Sighing, Pack waved her hand. “Never mind, that would’ve been really cool timing. I guess he’ll be–” 

“I’m here!” The voice came abruptly from the opposite end of the alley, as a figure came rushing around the corner. With a splash, their right foot hit a puddle, sending water spraying everywhere as the person cursed, stumbling a bit and almost falling before catching themselves against a nearby dumpster with a very undignified yelp. 

Dark as it was, the nearby streetlight at least gave me a good enough look at the person to make out details once they straightened from the dumpster. It was a guy, who stood about five foot eight or so. Thin, with an obvious costume consisting of dark gold pants (now with wet spots on them from the puddle), black boots, and a black silk shirt with what looked like ruffles on it that had gold piping along the sides. His mask was a pair of criss-crossed diagonal bands across his face, one stretching from the top left of his forehead and going down across his left eye and over his nose and right cheek, while the other did the opposite. One band was gold, the other black. His mouth was left uncovered, and he wore a black derby hat.

Snorting at his arrival, Pack gestured. “We were so close to timing that right, dude. Anyway, here we go. Eits, this is Paintball. Our, you know… friend, for now. Paintball, this is Eits.”  

Blinking at that, I asked curiously, “Eights? Like… six, seven… eight? Crazy eights?” 

The guy cleared his throat, pushing away from the dumpster to extend a hand to me while stepping over. He sounded embarrassed, and I could see the hint of a blush on what little of his face wasn’t covered. “Uh, kind of, but not exactly. It’s E-I-T-S, just pronounced eights.”  

“Eits,” I repeated, hesitantly shaking his hand. He was a villain, right? These guys were both villains. So why was I shaking hands and being all friendly with–never mind, that was a situation to work out later. Too confusing to worry about right now. “I guess that stands for something?” 

Releasing my hand, the masked guy nodded. “Yeah, it stands for Eye-In-The-Sky. You know, what they call security cameras in places like casinos.” He shrugged then. “Most people guess Crazy Eights like you did though, so I guess it kind of works as a twofer.” 

“Eye-In-The-Sky? So, I guess your power is like… security system based?” I wondered if this was the right thing to be saying. Was it rude to ask people directly what their power was? Was the level of that rudeness magnified or lessened by them also being villains? 

Either way, Eits apparently wasn’t offended, because he easily replied, “Sort of. I make these guys.” With that, he held his hand out, palm up. A moment later, a glowing ghost-like figure appeared on it. The thing was a humanoid figure, maybe five inches tall, blueish-green and faintly glowing. Like, again, a ghost. Leaning closer, I saw that it had four arms, two legs, long ears like a rabbit, and a bright glowing purple eyes. It looked up at me, made a hissing sound, and showed its (rather pronounced and scary-looking) teeth. 

“He’s not an enemy, stop that,” Eits insisted. “Sorry, he can’t actually hurt you or anything. See, no solid body.” His finger brushed through the figure, which I then realized wasn’t standing on his hand, but floating just a bit above it. “They’re just a bit… protective. I call them my Mites. Miniature Invaluable Technology Elves. I know, it needs work. But Mites works for them.”

“Uh, hi.” I waved, feeling a bit awkward before looking up to the guy again. “They’re not solid?” 

His head shook. “Nope. So, you know, they’re about as much help in a fight as I am. Which is to say, not at all. It’s why I got the name Eye-In-The-Sky, because I don’t fight. Too… uncoordinated. But I am good at keeping track of a lot of things at once. Multitasking. It’s kind of a sub-power. And what my Mites lack in firepower, they make up for with… well… here.” 

With that, he turned, rearing back his hand before hurling the Mite like a baseball. The ghostly creature let out a shriek of delight as it flew straight down and out of the alley before hitting a car parked out on the street. A second later, the car turned on, headlights flashing twice before the car pulled away from the curb with a squeal of tires. I swore I heard a loud gremlin-like cackle.

“He’ll be right back and put that thing where he found it,” Eits informed me as I stared at the empty spot where the car had been. “You get the point. They take over computers, machines, anything technological and control it for me. High enough security gives them trouble, but I just send more in to help. Anything from one of the good Tech-Touched out there basically takes my whole crew, so no taking over an entire army of super tech equipment. Plus if they’re good, they tend to install defenses against my kind of intrusion. Still pretty useful though.” 

“You said you keep track of a lot of things at once,” I murmured, fascinated about this whole thing despite myself. “Does that mean you can see through them or… or something?” 

“Basically, yeah,” he confirmed. “I sort of… see through my eyes and theirs at the same time, any time I want to. Then once they take over the computer or camera or whatever, I give it orders through them. They control it, but they’re doing what I ask. It’s a little confusing, but–” 

“But he’ll get the point,” Pack interrupted. “Look, we could go on comparing powers forever. How about we focus on the actual reason we’re here, huh? I mean, we do have a time crunch.” 

By that point, the car had returned, and Eits held his hand out that way. His little Mite thing came flying back, landing against his palm before fading from sight as it was… absorbed back into him or something. Then he nodded. “Right, yeah, sure. Sorry. Pack said you needed someone to help you take over a computer and change the maintenance schedule or something?” 

Quickly, I explained the situation and what I wanted, ending with, “So I figure we can just put the thing we want onto the schedule to be picked up and worked on tomorrow morning, then quietly grab it on the way here. Then we just take it off the schedule so they don’t know it’s missing, do what we need to do, put it back on the schedule, and secretly give it back on the next trip.” 

“Uh, yeah,” the boy agreed, “If we can get close to the computer that does the scheduling, my little guys can fix that much. They could even make it automatically add the thing back onto the schedule at a given time so we don’t have to come back. But how exactly are you going to get it off the truck ‘secretly’ without letting them know they’ve been robbed?” 

“That’s what I keep asking,” Pack pointed out while idly scratching Twinkletoes behind his head.. “He’s being pretty secretive about it, but apparently it involves my little friend here.” 

Flushing a little behind my mask and helmet, I protested, “I’m not being secretive, I’m just focusing on one thing at a time. We have to fix the schedule first. Then we can work on the plan for getting the thing off the truck without hurting anyone.” I stressed that last bit pointedly. 

“He says that like we’re villains or something,” Eits intoned dryly before shrugging. “But sure, I get it. Anything to help Mel–” He grunted as Pack elbowed him. “I mean, Blackjack’s kid.”

“Which means getting into that place,” Pack reminded us with a gesture in the vague direction of the Taurus facility. “And I suppose you want that to be done without hurting anyone too?” 

I nodded. “That would be nice, yes. Quietly and cleanly. I mean, beyond my own preferences, I’m pretty sure our whole plan would be in trouble if they had any reason to run a full scan of their systems or whatever, right?” Eits nodded, and I continued. “Okay, so we sneak in, get to one of their scheduling databases and let your little Mites do their work, then get out.” 

“And how are you planning to do that all secretly?” Pack asked, head tilted as she looked at me.

“Uh, very carefully,” I replied. “But actually, probably easier now if the Mites can take over any of the security systems they can reach. They can deal with security cameras and alarms?” 

Eits nodded. “Sure can, just have to get me close enough and they’ll deal with it. Only problem is that they can’t really get too far unless they’re possessing something like that car over there. They only last a couple seconds away from me without taking control of something. So whatever you want to get them into, I’ve gotta be pretty close to it.” 

“I’ll get you inside,” I promised, stepping over to peek out of the alley at the building in the distance before turning back. “But ahh, it’d probably be easier with just the two of us.” 

Pack shrugged, gesturing to herself, the chameleon on her shoulder, and the four other lizards in the cage at her feet. “Don’t worry, we know when not to be third, fourth, fifth, sixth, seventh, and eighth wheels. I’ll just stay out here with my buddies and play overwatch.”

“And here I didn’t think you even had a computer with you,” I teased despite myself. 

Despite the mask, I could tell her eyes were rolling. “I’ll watch to see what happens and step in if you get in trouble.” Her hand moved to scratch Twinkletoes. “See, the boy thinks he’s a comedian and a superhero. Which one do you think he’s best at?” After a brief pause as though listening, she gave a fake little scandalous gasp. “A plumber? Well, that’s just rude.” 

Snorting at her, I turned on my heel to face Eits. “Come on, the best spot to uhh, jump in from is this building.” My hand patted the wall beside us. “I was scouting it out earlier.” 

Unlocking the cage, Pack withdrew the bearded dragon. “You kids go on. I’ll send Riddles up to fly lookout. Anything happens, he’ll start screeching and we’ll play cavalry.” 

With that, I took Eits by the arms, glancing up to the roof above. “Ready?” 

“Uhhh…” He trailed off uncertainly. “Ready for whaaaaaaaaaaaaaa!” The last bit, of course, came because I had shot blue paint at the ground, caught hold of him once more, and used the paint to shoot the two of us upward. Painting my arm purple to get a good grip on him, I used my other hand to shoot red at the edge of the roof, yanking us that way before letting the paint fade so that the momentum shot us up and over to land in a couple rolls. 

Scrambling over onto my knees, I looked at Eits laying there panting heavily on his back. “Sorry, sorry.” I winced at his reaction. “That sounded less assholey in my head. Are you okay?” 

“Gimme a second,” he murmured, putting a black-gloved hand over his mouth before making a brief dry heaving noise. Then he nodded and slowly sat up. “Yeah. I uhh, sorry, I get a little… motion sick sometimes. But it’s okay, it only happens when I’m in motion.” 

His words made me grimace. “Seriously, I am so sorry about that. I thought it’d be cool.” 

He waved me off, sounding just as embarrassed as I felt. “Like I said, it’s cool. I suppose you don’t meet a lot of supervillains who get motion sick after a single jump.” 

“Can’t say as I meet a lot of supervillains at–” Pausing, I sighed. “You know, now that I think about it, I have met more villains than heroes.” And at least one of the heroes I have met is actually a villain, which probably counts double, I thought to myself silently. 

Shaking that off, I helped Eits to his feet before stepping over to the edge of the roof. “I umm, if you get motion sick, I’m really sorry about this next part.” My hand gestured over to the large billboard in the distance. “We have to jump over there, then go from there…” Slowly, I moved my hand, pointing to the roof of one of three buildings within the Taurus compound. “To there. Then we wait for the security guard to go past before making a run for the garage at the far end of the lot. That’s where they keep the delivery schedules, in the manager’s office. We get in there, you do your thing, and we get out again. Does my saying it all matter-of-factly like this make me sound confident enough to pull it off?” As I spoke, my suit turned solid black. Easier to blend in to the shadows. 

“Uh.” Eits looked at me before giving a thumbs up. “Sure. Does my saying that make it sound like I’m going to avoid throwing up from all that jumping and falling?”

I duplicated his thumbs up. “Sure. Just try to aim away from me, huh? Ready for this?”

He nodded, giving me the okay sign. “Nope. I wanna go home.” 

“Cool,” I replied, “go for it, as soon as we get that schedule set up.” I looked both ways then, making sure the coast was clear before wrapping my arm around his waist. Holding tight with a bit of purple along my sleeve and my pants, I activated it all, lunging out over the street with the boy clinging to me as he yelped. The ground rushed up, but I used red paint to get us the rest of the way to land on top of the billboard. Eits stumbled, but I quickly steadied him. “It’s okay, catch your breath. Halfway there. One more big jump. But uhh, you see that?” 

He looked, as I pointed all the way down at the building near the one we were about to jump to. “The security camera going back and forth? Yeah, I see it. You want something done about it?” 

“I figured we were gonna have to get real creative with hanging off one side,” I replied, “but if you could fix it, that’d be great.” 

He nodded. “Yeah, one of my little friends can deal with it. If you time our…” There was a pause before the boy gulped. “…our landing for when the camera is at the far end of its turn, I can take it over and make it just send back the same view it did for the past few turns. They’ll notice if we take too long though.” 

“Then we won’t take too long,” I assured him. After a brief check to make sure no guards were in sight, I checked the timing of the camera before taking hold of the boy. “Let’s go. Remember, barf away from me.” 

That said, I held him firmly, used my paint, and leapt out. Eits made a noise suggesting that he was restraining a scream, as we flew out and across the rest of the street, passing high over the stone wall and electrified fence before I pulled us straight to the roof of the smaller building far below. 

We landed, scrambling a bit. My eyes snapped up to see the camera starting its way back, but Eits was already on it. Even as he was still gagging a bit, his hand flung that Mite of his across the pathway between buildings, hitting the camera with it. The Mite disappeared, and the camera simply continued moving. 

“It’s cool,” the boy assured me. “They’re not seeing any of this.” 

I started to respond, then quickly yanked him down to lay flat with me on our backs. “Guard,” I whispered. “Stay down.” 

We lay there, being as silent as possible as the security guard made his way past, keys jangling almost in tune with his whistling. As we were waiting, I had a moment to wonder about myself. Exactly what kind of hero was I? What kind of hero broke into a place to set up a high tech robbery? 

The kind of hero that was trying to save a little girl, and who didn’t know who could be trusted, considering her father is both a supervillain and the lead hero in the city. And besides, we were just borrowing the thing. We’d give it back after we were done. There wasn’t time to go through all of this the right way. 

But that didn’t stop me from feeling guilty. 

Realizing the guard was gone, I snapped myself out of my inner debate, rolling over to peer over the edge. The building was only a couple stories tall, so it was easy to help Eits down with a bit of orange and black paint (the latter to keep it silent). From there, we made the run to the garage. He had to deal with two more cameras on the way, and once we were there, used a fourth Mite to mess with the electronic lock and attached alarm so we could get in.  

The garage was pretty dark, and we really didn’t want to turn on a light. So it took some time to find our way past a few trucks, over to the stairs, then up to the manager’s office. There, I waited and played lookout while Eits and his Mite did their work. Every second felt like an eternity, but it actually went fairly quickly and easily. Within about two minutes or so, he had it set up. The bit we needed was on the list to be retrieved in the morning for scheduled maintenance. It would subsequently disappear from the list later, before the truck was scheduled to return for drop-off. 

He’d actually even improved on the plan. There was a box of random supplies and parts sitting around the place. We taped that up and printed out a new shipping label for it with a delivery code. When we took the box out of the truck tomorrow, we would replace it with this one and, thanks to his little hacking job, the computer would switch the model number on the box we were taking with this one. That way, even if the driver knew exactly how many boxes he had, he’d still have the same number. And when he scanned the codes, they’d all come up as the right ones. 

“Take this too.” Eits instructed, handing me a piece of paper with an e-mail and phone number scrawled on it. “I managed to give myself a backdoor into their scheduling system here. Shoot me a text, e-mail, call, whatever, when you need to return the toy. I’ll set it up to be delivered.” 

“Thanks,” I murmured, looking at the paper before stuffing it away. “I guess we should get out of here, huh?” 

He nodded slowly. “I don’t suppose we could use the front gate.” 

“Probably a bad idea if we don’t want to get caught and interrogated,” I reminded him while patting the boy’s shoulder. “Don’t worry, one more trip. And hey, you’ve managed to avoid throwing up so far. If you keep up the record before we’re done, maybe I’ll buy you a pizza.” 

“And if I don’t,” he replied, “I’ll buy you one.” 

In the end… he owed me pizza.

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