Summus Proelium

Pursuit 4-04 (Summus Proelium)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I looked like a mouse he might step on. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Oh. Right. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I wasn’t dead! 

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

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

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

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

“Hah!” 

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Pursuit 4-03 (Summus Proelium)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Right, this is going well. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What–what did that…” I started. 

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

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

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

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

And Touched. There were obvious Touched with them.

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

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Pursuit 4-02 (Summus Proelium)

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It was probably a good thing that family dinner night meant I couldn’t run out right then to check out my new lead, because there was a decision I had to make. Mostly about whether I should go there as myself or in costume. I wasn’t sure which would be better. If I went as myself it would be more subtle and I could just look around a little bit before possibly going back later as Paintball. 

On the other hand, if this place really was working with Ashton, going as myself might be dangerous, even if they were a shop of some kind. Or maybe they would somehow recognize me later from my height and build as the person who was just in there asking questions? I wasn’t sure. I was pretty much winging all of this. 

So, I thought about it through all of the time leading up to dinner, and most of the way through that, before finally deciding to go with going as myself to start. Leaving the house, I summoned an Uber (that time it wasn’t Adrian, obviously) and had it drop me off a few blocks away from the address I’d found when I looked up this place online. 

And now I was here. With my costume in my backpack, which was slung over one shoulder, I stood in front of a three-story brick building nestled between an ice cream shop and a pet store. This place didn’t really look like anything, aside from a small wooden sign hanging just above the glass door reading, ‘Wren’s Nest.’

Well, this was definitely the place. Ashton had called these people right after he barely escaped being caught by Blackjack’s men. Now I just had to go in there and see if I could figure out why. Good luck to me, I guessed. 

There was a bell above the door that dinged as I stepped through. The place definitely looked like a pawn shop, as far as I’d seen them on TV. It was a wide-open room about as large as the school gymnasium, only perfectly square. The ceiling was about fifteen feet up, with tall shelves lining every spot of wall aside from the door where I entered, and a pair of metal doors straight across on the far side of the room that looked like an elevator. 

More shelves of varying sizes were scattered everywhere throughout the room with no apparent rhyme or reason. They were all different heights and angled randomly. Roughly a third of the room toward the middle was lower than the rest, sunken in several feet. There were several stairs leading down into this lower pit area that wrapped all the way around it. In the middle of that pit were four glass counters set in a rectangle, with a guy who looked like he was probably the salesman, or clerk, or whatever behind them, in the middle of the rectangle. He had a TV on the counter facing him, and he was arguing with some guy on the other side of the counter. The guy’s back was to me, but it definitely wasn’t Ashton. Not unless he’d lost his hair, turned black, and gained about a hundred pounds. 

If either the customer or clerk had noticed me enter, neither gave any sign of it. They just continued arguing. So I started slowly walking through the room, letting my eyes pass over the shelves. It just looked like a random assortment of junk. There was no rhyme or reason to it. I saw action figures lumped in with tin cans, GameBoys or other handhelds, and kitchen utensils. I saw a microwave missing the door, with a clock stuck inside of it. On one shelf was a single spray bottle of what had been Formula 409, except someone had taped a piece of paper over the label and written a series of numbers on it. Below the numbers was a scribbled note reading, ‘Never ever use on tomato sauce. Ever.’ That last word was underlined three times. 

On and on it went. Every shelf throughout this large room was like that, as far as I could see. Moving around one of them, I looked at another with a pile of small handheld vacuums stacked up on it. The vacuums all seemed to be labeled as well, with post-it notes that had a single letter followed by a single number scrawled on them. 

“Ahem.” 

The voice made me jump a bit, and I turned to see the clerk standing behind me. From the corner of my eye, I caught a glimpse of his customer leaving through the front door. 

My eyes focused on the guy in front of me as I turned. He was about six feet tall, and maybe forty-five or fifty years old, with black greasy hair that was slicked back. He was mostly thin in the arms and legs, but had a pronounced potbelly. When he spoke, I could see teeth that were pretty yellowed from smoking, which explained the breath. “Just so you know, kid, you get any ideas about shoving anything into that bag of yours, and I’ll break your fingers. Then I’ll call the cops. You got it?”

His voice was familiar. It was the guy who answered the phone before. Of that I had no doubt. But why is he the guy that Ashton had been talking to? I wasn’t sure. And I couldn’t exactly ask him.

Instead, I gave the man a thumbs up. “No worries. I’m just looking around a little bit. Um.” Hesitating, I asked, “What kind of place is this? Like, a junk shop?”

The man sneered at me. “You in the habit of walking in places when you don’t even know what they are? And then calling it junk?”

“Sorry,” I murmured. “I wasn’t trying to be rude. I thought junk shop was the right word. This stuff all seems pretty random. People buy it?”

The man made a non-committal noise before turning to walk away with a muttered, “They buy what they need.”

I had no idea what that was supposed to mean, and I hesitated briefly, unsure if I should follow him or look around a bit more. In the end, I did a bit of both, gradually making my way toward the counter that he was returning to, while also looking around a bit at more of the junk. Err, stuff. 

As I stopped to look at what seemed to be a lawnmower with an actual motorcycle engine attached to it, a small brown box of sorts sitting next to the television on the glass counter made a chiming sound. The guy gave me one last glance before reaching out to hit a button on it. His voice was gruff. “Yeah?”

The voice that came through what was apparently an intercom there was basically the polar opposite of his. It sounded young and feminine, with a bright chirping tone. “Fred! I need three metal balls, four inches in diameter. Oh, and I need a wooden broom, six ziplock bags, four tin cans, twelve feet of CAT5 cable, two standard light bulbs, and one of those radio alarm clocks with the digital display on the front, please! Thank you!”

“Yeah, Wren,” the man grunted after hitting the button again. “I’ll bring that right up.”

As he released the button and stepped away, I piped up, “So there is a Wren.”

Giving me a look that clearly showed he’d forgotten I was even there, the man pointed to the door. “We’re closed. Come back another time.”

I was obviously super curious, but I wasn’t going to push things. Nodding to the man, I waved before heading out. I felt his eyes on me the whole time until I stepped through the door. As soon as it had closed behind me, I heard a loud electronic click. I was willing to bet that if I tried the door again, it wouldn’t open. 

Right, there was an actual Wren, and she was clearly upstairs somewhere. If anyone was going to know why Ashton had called, it was probably her. Her name was on the building, after all. 

Unfortunately, there was no way Fred, as his name apparently was, would ever let me talk to her. Nor would I be able to explain to either of them why some teenage girl wanted to find the guy. 

So, I was going to have to go at this a different way. Namely by changing into the costume in my bag and sneaking in. I’d either find the information I needed, or talk to this Wren in person. 

Either way, first I had to find a place to change. It ended up being an alley (I was getting to be quite the connoisseur of those) a couple streets over. Stashing my clothes in my bag and hiding it under a bit of machinery on a roof, I jumped over several buildings before making my way to the one closest to my target. It was the roof of the pet store, which was only two stories tall, so the roof of the place in question was another floor higher. 

There were windows along the building, but they all looked barred. I wasn’t sure my purple paint could raise my strength enough to rip one of those bars out. Besides, that would take way too long. I needed to find a faster, easier way in. 

Then I saw it. In the top left corner of the building was a window that was open. There were curtains there that were drifting slightly in the breeze. That was my entrance. I just had to be careful. Really careful. 

Looking around briefly to make sure I wasn’t being watched, I straightened up, extended my hand, and used a burst of red paint to yank myself over beside that window. On the way, I put a bit of black paint both on myself, and on the wall I was about to hit, to keep things silent. 

Hitting the wall just under the open window soundlessly, I stopped there and listened. Music. I could hear James Brown singing about feeling ‘so good’ coming through the window. It sounded like it was coming from another room in this place, not the one this window was attached to. From the room itself, I couldn’t really hear anything. 

Slowly and cautiously, I peeked up over the edge of the window and looked inside. It looked like a bathroom. There was a tub right below me, and a sink next to it. A blue robe hung on a hook on the open door, and through that opening, I could see a hallway. Sure enough, the music was coming from out there somewhere. 

For a moment, I hesitated. This was technically breaking and entering. Or at least entering. I didn’t know that there was any kind of crime going on, or that these guys definitely had something to do with Ashton.  

On the other hand, why else would he have called them right then? At the very least, they had to know something about him. And this was about saving a little girl. Not to mention stopping the rapidly building gang war from turning the streets bloody. 

Mind made up, I carefully and quietly pulled myself through the window, dropping down into the tub before stopping once again to listen. Just the music. It had moved on to Queen’s Don’t Stop Me Now. Whoever this Wren was, I couldn’t really fault her taste in music. 

Slipping out of the tub, I quietly made my way across the bathroom, crouching on the side of the open door before peering out. There was a hallway there. The place just looked like an ordinary house or an apartment or whatever. Clearly Wren lived here, on the third floor of the building. 

The music was coming from down the hall on the left, so I peeked out to the right first and saw a couple closed doors. The floor of the hallway was carpeted in bright blue, while the walls were white. Or at least, they had been white. I could see random notes, some scrawled on post-its and others written on the wall itself. There were math equations, reminders about picking things up from the store, even what looked like a list of characters from old cartoons. Some of the random notes had arrows drawn to one another connecting them, though I couldn’t see how they were related. Like, there was a list of fruits, with a long squiggly arrow connecting it to some kind of math equation that made my head hurt just looking at it.

Taking a breath, I crept my way out of the bathroom and further down the hall to the left, where the music was coming from. Just ahead and to the right was a set of stairs leading down, and to the left was an open door leading into what looked like a storage room that was filled with just as random of stuff as the shelves downstairs. 

Moving on, I found a huge bedroom that was basically packed with toys along every spare inch save for a spot right in the middle where a waterbed with Transformers sheets and blankets jumbled up on it. On the nightstand next to the bed sat several more action figures, posed atop a physics book. 

Yeah, this just kept getting weirder. Shaking my head, I kept going, staying low, crouched, and quiet. I had to find this girl.  

Before I could go any further, however, I heard that Fred guy’s voice, calling back something about ice cream from the far end of the hall. The door there started to open, so I quickly threw myself into the bedroom I had just been looking at. 

Footsteps were approaching, and I slipped beside the open door, listening as the man walked past. I could hear the clomp of his feet going down the stairs a moment later. He was gone, for now at least. Which gave me a chance to see this Wren for myself. 

Hurrying down the hall as quietly as I could, I moved straight to the door at the end that Fred had come through. The music was back, as Billy Idol’s Rebel Yell filled the corridor. The man had left the door open a little bit, so I could crouch there and peek through. 

It looked like a garage, complete with a sedan in the middle of the cement floor, which raised all kinds of questions in my head. Starting with, how the hell did they get a car up here on the third floor? 

It was more than a garage, I realized after peeking around a bit more. There was vehicle maintenance stuff in there, but there was also carpentry stuff, a table full of half-built computers, another one with medical supplies scattered around it. There was even a long table to one side with a full on train set complete with miniature town and landscape. The train was chugging away, going in circles. The centerpiece of the train set was a volcano, with a radio sitting half in it. That was the source of the music. 

Right, there was a lot of stuff in here. But where was the girl I was looking for? Seeing nobody and no sign of her after looking around for a minute, I finally had no choice but to slowly step into the room. I kept glancing around, wary of some kind of ambush as I took a few steps into the large room. Fred had just come out of here. So where the hell was—

“Hi!”

The loud, startling voice came from behind me as the music abruptly cut out, leaving the room silent save for that single word and my resulting yelp. I spun around, hands up defensively, only to find nothing there. 

Then I looked up. There, hovering just above and in front of me, was a girl. At first, I thought she had dragonfly wings. Then I realized that the wings were just attach to the metal harness she was wearing. She also wore a tool belt laden with equipment, held a screwdriver in one hand and a wrench in the other, and had one of those miner helmets with the light on her head. 

Oh, and she was a kid. Like, maybe nine years old at most. She had blonde hair that stuck out wildly in every direction, and her bright green eyes were wide with curiosity and innocence as she hovered there in the air, dragonfly-wings beating soundlessly to keep her in the air. 

While I stood there and stared open-mouthed, the girl dropped to the floor. Her wings retracted back into the harness, and she dropped the tools into her belt before extending a hand. “I’m Wren,” she chirped. “What’s your name?”

“I… um… you’re Wren?” was all I could manage. 

She blinked, head tilting as she looked at me. “You mean you came through my bathroom window and you didn’t even know what I looked like?”

That made me reel even more. “You knew I was there?”

In reply, the girl plucked a remote from her belt and pointed it to the side. She clicked it, and I saw part of the wall turn into a video screen that showed security camera footage of this whole place, including everywhere I had been. Oh. 

“Don’t worry,” Wren assured me, “I didn’t tell Fred. He gets growly sometimes, and it’s fun to have a new person to talk to. So, what’s your name? Are you a superhero? Wait, are you a super villain?” She said the latter bit a little carefully, eyes squinting at me while taking a step back.

Quickly, I shook my head. “I’m not a villain. I’m… I’m Paintball. And I’m looking for a guy that I think you did some work for? He’s the bad guy.” It was more complicated than that, of course, but I wanted to keep it simple. 

The girl’s head shook. “Nuh uh, I don’t do work for bad guys. See?” Her hand raised a point, and I turned to look at a banner that had been painted on the wall. Sure enough, it read, ‘We Never Work For Bad Guys.’

Well, I could hardly argue with a banner as straight into the point as that. Clearing my throat, I looked back to the kid. “You probably didn’t know he was a bad guy. But he stole some medicine from a little girl and she’s going to die if we don’t get it back. His name is Ashton.” Quickly, I described the man, adding that he had to use some kind of stun grenade, and that he’d called this place right afterward to have an extended conversation. 

When I was done, the girl snapped her fingers. “Ohhhhh, he’s the guy who came in a few weeks ago and wanted something to break through a bank vault.” Then she shook her head. “But we didn’t give him anything. I told him we don’t do that and he left.” Sounding thoughtful, the girl added, “He wasn’t very happy. He kept trying to pay more.” Her voice turned firm. “But we have standards. We don’t work for bad guys.”

She sounded pretty serious about it, and I hesitated before starting to ask, “Fred, you… is he… I mean—”

The girl blinked at me. “Is Fred what?”

“He’s asking,” the man himself announced from the doorway where he was standing with a heavy, complicated looking high-tech rifle pointed at me, “if I made a deal with the guy behind your back.

“Spoiler alert, I did.”

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Pursuit 4-01 (Summus Proelium)

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“You know, you’re really lucky you don’t have any actual responsibilities,” my brother announced the next afternoon as the two of us stood on one of the balconies overlooking our massive grounds behind the house. The place was basically too big to even see all of from where we were standing. Our property extended off over the hill and down into a small forested area with a stream running through it. Let’s just say that when I had read the Harry Potter books, I basically pictured the grounds as my own backyard. Actually, the school itself wasn’t that far off from my house, come to think of it. Which probably gave me a somewhat different view of good old Harry’s upgrade from cupboard to castle than most people had.

Glancing sidelong toward Simon, I resisted the urge to punch him, though it was close. “I have responsibilities,” I informed him stiffly.

Like finding those stolen vials for Blackjack before his daughter dies and he takes his grief out on the entire city, I added silently.

Yeah, that new little responsibility had been weighing on me all night long, ever since the La Casa leader had his men drive me back into the city. I got them to let me out in the back lot of one of the public libraries, since that wouldn’t give them any indication of who I was. Then I’d spent a solid half hour making sure I wasn’t being followed and that there were no tracking devices on me (as far as I could tell). In the latter case, I didn’t actually trust my own ability to find any minute trackers that might have been placed on me, so I had gone as far as dunking my entire body in a fountain (after taking out my voice changer of course) to soak myself and hopefully drown any electronics that might have been placed before finally heading home (soaking wet and cold) to crash. It might not have been necessary, but I was paranoid.

Then I’d tossed and turned for hours before finally getting to sleep. It was a good thing today was Sunday.

Simon just chuckled at me. “Oh, of course, make sure you get to class on time, do some homework, such a hard responsibilities. How do you ever manage to keep up with it all?”

There was so much I could have said to him right then that would have blown his mind. It almost felt like it would’ve been worth it. But I bit back the initial retort that came to mind, settling on just shrugging at him. “Everyone’s got their own stuff.”

Somehow, I was pretty sure that asking him if ordering people to be murdered and working out deals with the Easy Eight gangs were the extent of his responsibilities or if there were more I should know about wouldn’t go over that well. But it still would’ve been funny to see his face. For a few seconds anyway.

Giving me a little push with his elbow, Simon laughed. “Oh, don’t worry about it. I’m just giving you shit, Booster. It’s good that you don’t have to deal with too much. You’re gonna have to worry about enough stuff when you get older. No reason to be in a rush. Be happy you’re still…”

He paused then, looking very briefly troubled, a short expression of uncertainty crossing his face. Even if I hadn’t known at least some of the truth, that would have stood out. He looked, maybe not sad, but at least… somewhat regretful? Maybe scared. Or lost. Or like someone who was in way over their head. Or all of the above. Either way, it flashed across his face for just a moment.

“Are you okay?” I found myself asking. Not that I actually expected him to open up with the truth, but I was curious about what he might actually say. Especially in that moment where he looked somewhat vulnerable.

He didn’t answer at first. Instead, Simon just turned to look out over the grounds. His lips pursed a bit and he reached out to set a hand on my shoulder, squeezing it. And for just the slightest instant, I had the absurdly paranoid thought that he was going to shove me off the balcony. But of course, he just squeezed my shoulder and replied, “Sure, I’m fine. Why wouldn’t I be? We live a charmed life, you know? Everything’s just fine and peachy keen.”

Hesitating slightly, I looked up to him. “Simon, you know if there’s something you want to talk about… we can—”

His fist hit my shoulder, just enough to sting. “Told you” he retorted, “it’s fine. I’m fine. Don’t be such a little girl.”

“I could stand on stilts if you want me to stop being so little,” I offered. “But I kind of like the girl part, so you’re stuck with that.” Lowering my voice, I added as masculinely as possible, “I could pretend for a little bit if it makes you feel better.”

The saddest thing about all of this was that it was only with Simon that I could feel comfortable making these kind of jokes. Most of the time I was so busy making sure people knew I actually was a girl that I’d never say something like that.

Or maybe pretending to be a boy in costume was making me more comfortable with it too. Either way, I felt a brief wave of incredible depression at the thought that one of the only people in the world whom I felt comfortable with joking about looking like a boy with was only unaware that I was the one he had nearly had killed because he thought I was a boy. There was some kind of joke in there somewhere, but I didn’t feel like finding it. This just sucked.

Apparently it was my turn for something to show on my face, because Simon looked to me and frowned. “Are you okay? You look like someone just bought you a puppy and then strangled it in front of you.”

Grimacing, I shot a look at him. “Morbid. Too morbid.”

Before I could actually answer his question, however, the sliding glass door opened and we both looked back to see Mom stepping through. She smiled beautifully at us, a radiant expression that immediately made me feel loved and protected. Damn, she was good.

“I do enjoy seeing my children spending time together without being shamed into it,” Mom announced lightly, leaning in to give Simon a quick peck on the cheek before whispering something in his ear that took a few seconds to get through. She leaned back then, giving him a nod of what looked like encouragement before gesturing. “Before dinner, please.”

Giving me a brief glance, Simon nodded. “Yeah,” he grunted, “I’ll get right on that. He turned then, heading back into the house without saying anything else to me.

Even knowing that the best I would get was a lie, I turned to Mom and asked, “What does Simon have to do?” Despite the odds against getting a real answer, it probably would have been weird if I didn’t ask, after something like that.

Sure enough, Mom just shook her head at me. “Nothing for you to worry about, dear. Now come, let me look at my little Principessa.” She stepped closer, putting her hands on my shoulders while smiling down at me. Her gaze met mine and I felt like melting against her. She was my mom. I wanted to trust her so much. Everything in me was saying that I should just grab onto my mother and tell her everything. It was so hard not to. It took a physical effort to keep my face as blank as possible. It was hard. It was so damn hard.

Mom held me like that for a few long seconds before leaning in to kiss my forehead. She ruffled my hair and then stepped back. “Come, let’s take a walk in the garden and talk.”

“Talk?” I echoed despite myself.

She gave me an easy wink. “Never fear, whatever personal secrets you have are safe. You’re not in trouble. I only wish to speak with you about good things.”

Reminding myself to act like a normal teenager, I quickly put in, “Oh, you mean we’re talking about the car I’m getting when I pass Drivers Ed?”

Mom just chuckled softly at me. “That’s your father’s department, dear. Let’s go.” With that, she turned to walk back inside. I followed, as I was expected to. She didn’t even look back to see if I was, simply knowing that I would. That was the kind of power my mother held over everyone.

We walked through the house, down the stairs, and out into the back yard. Mom led me to one of several elaborate flower gardens we had out there, and we began a stroll between the dazzling display of colors from all the blossoms.

We had been walking in silence for a minute before my mother finally spoke up once more. “You are sixteen years old now, Cassidy. You are nearly an adult. And that comes with additional privileges as well as responsibilities.” She glanced toward me then with a half smile. “Some could be considered both privilege and responsibility.”

My throat felt dry, a lump forming in it. What was this about? Was she going to tell me about the real family business? Was I about to be inducted into their criminal empire? Was she actually going to tell me the truth? How was I supposed to react? What was I supposed to do? Why were we out here in the garden?

“The Reformation Ball,” Mom announced, yanking my attention back to her.

“Huh?” I blurted, blankly. “What about it?”  The Reformation Ball was some big wig party that the leaders of the city had been throwing alongside the rich and powerful movers and shakers for the past couple decades, ever since things in Detroit started to be turned around by the emergence of Touched. It was a huge deal, which all the most important people in the city attended, including the Star-Touched teams. All of them sent at least a representative. But that didn’t have anything to do with me. I was too young to have anything to do with the— Wait a minute.

Mom must have seen the light bulb go on above my head, because she gave one nod. “Yes, you are sixteen. Your father and I believe you are old enough to participate and be seen. We would like you to attend. It is next Saturday and your father would like to make a present out of a dress for you. You will have to attend a fitting Tuesday evening. May I count on your attendance?”

My mind was reeling. I had just gone from thinking she might be opening up about all the bad things they were doing and how I should react to that, to being told that they thought I was adult enough to attend one of their most important dinner parties. How was I supposed to react? What was the appropriate level of excitement? Should I be excited? Should I be disappointed that I had to go to some party? I had completely lost all perspective or sense of balance.

In the end, I covered it as best as I could, after standing there in silence for a few seconds, by stepping over to tightly hug my mother. Maybe she would think my silence was because I was too choked up to say anything?

It seemed to work well enough, because Mom returned the embrace, brushing her hand up through my hair before holding my head against her chest as she murmured my name tenderly. That basically made me cry for real, and I clutched her tighter. God, why did this have to be so hard?

“I’ll be there,” I finally managed quietly. I would. I had to be. If they were starting to open up to me a little, maybe I could find out more about what my family was really up to and how they were involved in the Fell-Touched scene.

Also, I really wanted to know how they were going to pull off having both my father and Silversmith at this dinner.

******

Of course, first there was a much more pressing problem I had to deal with. Namely, finding those vials. Which meant finding Ashton. There wasn’t much time, and I didn’t have much in the way of ideas. I had tracked the guy down once, but he was back in the wind. How was I supposed to find him again? Especially if, despite being driven from his first hideout, he still hadn’t been found by one of the many, many people out beating the bushes for him.

I had only one idea, and it involved going back to the place where I had found him in the first place. In my costume later that day, I found myself back in front of that building. Blackjack’s men had definitely given it a thorough search after the cops who had been called to the disturbance had left, but they hadn’t found anything as far as I knew. So what made me think I would have any better luck than they had?

Blind optimism, mostly.

I hopped over the fence once more and made my way around to the right window. Glancing around to make sure no one seemed to be watching, I used red paint to yank myself up to the window and slipped inside. There, I looked around the dining room. The place was a complete disaster area. Whatever the stun grenade thing hadn’t destroyed, Blackjack’s people (or maybe the cops) had finished off. Everything had been torn out of all the cupboards, the fridge, the drawers, all of it. Things were scattered everywhere in the kitchen, and moving beyond that, I saw that the rest of the place was no better. They had cut open chairs, ripped up the couch, slashed the mattress on both sides, all of it. They’d torn apart the whole place. It looked as though a small tornado had struck the apartment, thanks to the men who had been looking for those vials.

This was insane. How was I going to find anything in here that those guys had missed? But it was my only lead. It was the only chance I had, aside from just blindly wandering the streets while looking for this guy. And that didn’t seem to be working very well for anyone else. No, this was what I had, and I needed to do something with it. Hence my one idea.

Placing myself in the same position he had been standing in, I faced the spot where I had been before, when he triggered the blast. From there, I turned on one heel, pantomiming running to the door. There, I pulled it open and stepped into the hallway where the stairs were. Across the way was the door of the opposite apartment, and straight down the stairs I could see the front door. The door where he would have known Blackjack’s men were coming. Would he really have risked running down the stairs where he could have been intercepted by someone who knew who he was? Did that really sound like the exit strategy of the guy who had pulled all this off so far? I didn’t think so.

Instead of going down the stairs, I stepped over to the next apartment and knocked. Waiting a moment, I knocked again when there was no answer. Finally, the door was pulled open and I saw a short, heavyset and balding man peek out. He stopped when he saw me, the chain on the door keeping it mostly shut. “What are you supposed to be?”

“Paintball,” I answered simply before adding a blunt, “Is he still here?”

The man didn’t try to play dumb. He sighed, lowering his gaze for a moment before shutting the door to take the chain off. Opening it once more, he gestured for me to enter. “He left, pretty soon after those guys did. I— listen, we don’t want any part of this.” His voice was shaking a bit as he led me into the living room where a woman who was obviously his wife was sitting with a young girl, barely five at a guess, on her lap.

The man waved off his wife from asking questions, looking at me. “That guy came in here with a gun. He pointed it at my little girl, and he told us to be quiet. He told us to tell them that there was no one else here. So that’s what we did. That’s all we did. We kept quiet and we let him stay until those guys left. That’s it. We’re not involved in this.”

“I understand,” I assured him. “I’m not here to cause any trouble, I promise. But there’s another little girl who is going to die if we don’t find him. He’s put her life in danger too, so I have to find him. Do you know anything else? Did he say anything while he was here about where he might be going? Anything at all?”

The parents exchanged glances, before the woman looked to me, voice cracking. “He said if we told the police or the La Casa people anything, he’d come back and kill all of us.”

“I’m not the police,” I reminded them. “And I don’t work for La Casa. I just want to stop all of this and make sure no one else dies.”

They exchanged another look before the father reached out, picked up a phone from the hook, and tossed it to me. “He made a phone call. We didn’t hear what he said, but it was a long conversation. Sounded pretty intense. It was the third to last call on there.”

Catching the phone, I checked through the outgoing call section, finding the right number. Then I took my own cell phone, the cheap throwaway one I had picked up, and put the number into that before hitting send. I wasn’t going to make the call from their number again.

It took three rings before a gruff voice answered, “Wren’s Nest Pawn. Hello?”

Thinking quickly, I asked, “Yeah, could I get a large pepperoni with extra cheese and—”

“Dude,” the man on the other end interrupted, “electronics shop, not pizza. You’ve got the wrong number.” That was followed by a click as the man disconnected the call, hanging up on me.

Looking down at my phone, I smiled to myself behind the helmet. Wren’s Nest Pawn, huh?

I officially had another lead.

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Interlude 3B – Deicide (Summus Proelium)

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Three Years Ago

Her name was Austen. Not her last name. Her last name was Deleon. Austen Deleon. Yeah.

The girl’s mother had named her in honor of Jane Austen, her favorite author. When asked why she hadn’t simply named her daughter Jane in that case, or Jane Austen Deleon, she had simply replied that Jane was such a common name, it wouldn’t draw any attention. A girl named Austen, however, that would grab people’s interest. No one would forget a girl named Austen.

The then-infant’s opinion on the subject of such attention was not consulted.

There was also no input on a name from the father, as he had been some guy who made a lot of promises, got her mother pregnant, and then took off. He’d abandoned them before she was even born.

Growing up in the streets of Detroit, Austen had split most of her time between holing up in the library where she could lose herself in the worlds of her favorite authors (of whom Jane Austen was decidedly not one), and running scam and con games on unsuspecting tourists and people new to the city. Very few suspected that the brown-eyed, dark-haired, innocent-looking little angel child was going to take the money they handed her for a tour or photograph and take off with it. Fewer suspected any of her more involved and complicated cons.

Indeed, from the age of six to eleven, Austen had racked up both quite a reputation as a con artist, thief, pickpocket, etcetera, and quite the haul of loot to go with it. She hardly ever spent any of the money she managed to get out of people, preferring to hide it in her ‘safe place.’ It was intended as a college fund, because Austen had every intention of going to university, even if she had to save up enough money to flat-out pay her way in.

Unfortunately, it was when she was eleven that Austen’s mother found Jesus. Literally, in her case, as a man who called himself Jesus The Saint managed to hook Laia and many other poor, desperate people from the Detroit streets, convincing them that he was truly the man himself reborn. Laia had taken her daughter with her as they joined Jesus and the rest of the ‘flock’ in his compound almost fifty miles away from the city where Austen had grown up.

For two years, Austen had lived in that hellhole. The Church of the Lamb, as ‘Jesus’ called his cult, did not allow any contact with the outside world, or nearly any technology in general. Even so much as a flashlight or digital watch was forbidden. Punishments were plentiful, in the name of ‘making the flock worthy’, and multiple hours per day were devoted toward studying both the scriptures as well as Jesus’s own (often rambling and barely coherent) writings on subjects ranging from the uncountable sins of the world all the way down to his opinion of various sports teams. Included, of course, were the list of celebrities and historical figures who were going to hell, though the list might as well have simply said ‘all of them.’

It was, in short, a thoroughly exhausting and demoralizing place to spend any time at all, let alone two years of one’s life in the midst of being a teenager.

Now, at the age of thirteen, Austen sat in what was called the ‘Cusp of Hell.’ It was, in short, a box about six feet high, and three feet in every other direction that in the middle of the courtyard of the compound. Heat lamps were arranged around the box to raise the temperature to near-unlivable conditions, and those who were being punished were left inside, often long enough to nearly kill them.

Authorities had come to check on the conditions here a number of times. None ever amounted to anything good, either because they were straight-up paid off (she had seen that happen with her own eyes), or, in some cases, because they were ‘gifted’ with an evening of entertainment by one of the flock. Her mother had been used that way several times, always rambling on about what a gift and pleasure it was to serve her divine purpose for the Lord. Even Austen herself had been eyed, young as she was. But Jesus held off, saying that she would not be ‘ripe’ until the age of fourteen. One more year.

She didn’t plan on being here at that point.

Austen had spent more time in the Cusp of Hell than anyone else in the flock, a fact that brought her mother untold shame. Not that the girl herself cared. Well, not that much. Seeing the way her mother looked at her did hurt, but she had long since given up any hope of snapping the woman out of the absurd spell that Jesus had cast over her. She loved her mother, but she had not liked her in a very long time.

This current stint in the box was a result of being caught listening to music. Austen had found an old MP3 player and headphones, and had been listening to it while pulling weeds in the garden. For such horror as deliberately subjecting the ears of her immortal soul to the devil’s tongue (as Jesus called all music that was not religious hymns), she had been thoroughly flogged and then tossed here into the box where she was left for hours. Once in awhile, a small cup of water was brought by one of the ‘holy sisters.’ It was just enough to keep her alive.

Lying on her side, curled up as she couldn’t lie flat out within the three foot space, Austen stared at the dirt ground in front of her. The box had glass windows in it that could be opened or closed, but at the moment they were shut. She was left in blistering hot darkness, with no idea of what time it was or how long she had been here. The ache in her body from the crack of Jesus’ rod had finally dulled somewhat, only flaring up if she moved too quickly. Which wasn’t a problem inside the box, small and unintended mercy though that may have been.

She was hungry. She had been hungry for quite awhile, and now it was almost excruciating. Her stomach hurt, as she clutched it with one hand, mind drifting back to better times. Times before her mother had met this psycho and fallen under his sway. She had long-since stopped asking herself how her mother could allow this to happen. Any answer that came was never satisfying.

Light appeared. Which, given the fact that the box was still very much closed, was rather unexpected. With a gasp of confusion, the girl’s eyes opened as she snapped upright, staring at the source of the sudden illumination.

It was a glowing orb, slightly bigger than a softball. The orb, and the light it cast, was blue with white hieroglyphic-like symbols alternately appearing and disappearing across its surface.

For a moment, the girl simply sat there, staring in rapt fascination at the orb. It drew her like a moth to flame, as her hand very slowly rose toward it. She hesitated briefly like that, with her hand right near the thing. Then she moved it the last inch or so, settling her palm against the warm surface.

She saw the empty, featureless world that lay within or beyond the orb. She walked through the deep, foreboding fog and saw the images drawn from her own life within it. She saw her mother, the people she had conned, the other cultists, and Jesus himself, his long black beard and heavily tanned skin filling the last fog-born image as his hand with the cane lashed out one last time to send a jolt of pain across her back before she had been thrown into the box.

“Summus Proelium.”

She heard the phrase in a soft, feminine voice. Those two simple words filled her mind, seeming to echo through it even as the fog world vanished, and Austen found herself back in the box.

~~~233-044-2121~~~

~~~Eggs, butter, ramen, bread~~~

~~~Let all who live in the land tremble, for the day of the Lord is coming. It is close at hand— a day of darkness and gloom, a day of clouds and blackness. Like dawn spreading across the mountains, a large and mighty army comes,such as never was in ancient times nor ever will be in ages to come. And in these words, we may look for what will descend upon this people: For as surely as the men who dwell upon it shall suffer for the sins of those who~~~

More and more words filled the girl’s mind. She didn’t hear them or see them. She simply knew them. Those words and more came flooding into her as if she had always known them, as if she was remembering them. Those and more kept coming. Hymns, bible verses, scrawled speeches with words crossed out, phone numbers, lists, more and more. It was almost too much, and she put both hands to her head, crying out, “Stop!”

It stopped. The flood of words halted. But something else remained. It was a… sense. She could feel… something. Some things. She could feel things beyond her sight. Things where the words were. She could feel them, could sense the shape of them. Lots of them. One actually quite close, right outside the–

With a loud clang, the lock on the box was released, and the door was opened. One of the holy sisters stood there, bible in hand while staring at Austen with a look of severe disapproval. Her tone was sharp. “The savior will see you now, young sinner. Come, and pray to him.”

Austen didn’t move. Her attention remained riveted to the book in the woman’s hand. She could… feel it. She could sense the shape of it even if she closed her eyes. It was almost, though not quite, like having it in her hands. At a thought, the words within the bible sprang to mind, almost-but-not-quite like remembering them. She could have remembered a lot of it anyway, after the past couple of years. But this wasn’t that. The words written within the book were filling her mind, and she would have known them even if she had never read it before.

“Ah,” the woman smirked while holding the bible. “You see the good book, yes? To stare upon it with such reverence, perhaps your time within the Cusp of Hell has awakened your spirit. You thirst for–”

With a thought, Austen lifted her chin. The book abruptly tore itself from the woman’s grasp, flying up to smack her in the chin hard enough to snap her mouth shut in mid-sentence. Even as the woman reeled backward from that, Austen gave a sharp gesture with one hand, and the book obeyed her unspoken wish, smacking the woman across the face hard enough to crack her jaw and send her to the floor with a loud cry of pain.

Two more sisters and a brother came running at the sound of the cry. They came into the main courtyard, the women empty-handed while the man held a rake from the work he had been doing. First, they stared at the woman on the ground, and at Austen standing over her. Then, their gazes moved up to take in the bible floating in the air. Seeing that, the two women immediately began to pray aloud. The man, meanwhile, blurted something about the devil and raced straight for Austen, swinging the rake like a club.

A thought, an urge, an impulse filled the girl’s mind. In response, the floating bible tore itself apart. Hundreds of separate pages flooded the air, glowing slightly before a handful went flying at the charging man. Six pages, glowing brightly, sliced straight through various parts of the rake that he was swinging, making it fall apart into useless pieces.

Still, he kept coming, swinging his fist rather than his abandoned bits of wood. With a scream that was half-meaningless word and half-prayer, he swung hard for the girl’s face.

A single piece of paper, a single page torn from the bible, flew into his path. It stopped there, and as his fist collided with it, the man might as well have been punching a solid steel wall. The bones of his hand shattered, and he screamed in pain while collapsing to his knees.

Seeing the women fall to their knees and pray while the man simply cradled his ruined hand and sobbed, Austen slowly stepped past them all. The pages of the bible flew behind her, then arranged themselves on all sides of the girl as if forming an honor guard as she walked from the courtyard to the door of the main building.

It was locked, as part of Jesus’s rules were that all buildings were to be locked at all times. That way, only people allowed keys of each building could freely go in and out, while others would have to ask permission. It was part of his standard power play, and a way of reminding his flock that they were dependent on those above them. Only he held all of the keys, of course.

Austen didn’t ask permission. Instead, she focused. Beyond the doors, she could feel paper, loose pages, entire books spread throughout the building. With a single thought, she could not only feel every piece of paper in the place, she knew everything that was written on it. Passwords, little notes, lists, the entire plot of books flooded into her mind. Now that she knew it was coming, she could sort through it, could let the flow of information simply cascade past her into a pool at her feet. If she wanted, the girl could reach down to take from the pool, lifting out any information she needed. Otherwise, it was simply memories in the background of her mind.

Instead, she focused on the papers and books themselves. At a thought, she could feel hundreds of them leap from the shelves, desks, even ripping their way from the pockets they were held in. They flew through the air, colliding with one another. She could feel them crash through no-doubt confused onlookers, jerking free of any attempts to hold them as they soared through the halls toward the front of the building where she stood.

Stepping out of the way at the last second, Austen allowed the tornado of books and papers to slam into the doors from the other side. The doors didn’t simply slam open, they were literally torn from their hinges and sent flying as the glowing bibles, hymnals, novels, notebooks, and even loose bits of paper crashed in and through them. Beyond, Austen could see the main foyer of the ‘church’, where people had gathered to stare in shock and fear. As a collection of prayers against evil filled the air, she crossed the threshold, stepping into the front area with the books and papers still fluttering around her.

“De-demon! Devil’s whore!” one of the men shouted at the thirteen-year-old girl who stood there. He brandished a metal fireplace poker he had grabbed from somewhere and ran for her, blurting a prayer and a curse almost simultaneously.

Thousands of pieces of paper tore their way free of the dozens of books, flying to join up with more loose pages. In an instant, the papers formed into what looked like a six foot long origami tiger. It collided with the man in mid-lunge, taking him to the ground.

At the same time, more bits of paper cut and folded themselves into the shape of a single word, each letter roughly a foot and a half in height. The single word was, in all capital letters, ‘ROAR.’ And it did. The word glowed brightly as the sound of a terrifying roar actually filled the entire front area, echoing throughout the building.

With the man who had tried to attack her pinned to the ground and currently sobbing, Austen turned her attention to the rest of the group who were (most unknowingly as they were simply staring in shock and confusion) blocking her way forward. The ‘ROAR’’ tore itself apart, more papers flying in to join those ones as they formed the word ‘MOVE.’ Once again, at a thought, the sound of a booming voice saying that single word filled the front area. It was the voice of thunder, and all obeyed, scrambling out of her path as Austen continued on. The paper tiger gave one last dirty look toward the man it had taken to the ground before trotting after her.

On through the church the girl marched. Most who moved to intercede were scared off by the tiger. Others were knocked aside by flying books, pinned to the wall or literally bludgeoned into unconsciousness. A general alarm had been raised, but no one seemed to know exactly what was happening, aside from the cries of ‘demon’ and such.

Finally, she reached the doors that led into the office of the man who called himself Jesus. Taking a breath, Austen pointed. Obediently, six different books slammed into each door, knocking them open and allowing her to step through.

He was there. Standing behind his desk with a pistol pointed at her head, the cult leader demanded in a booming voice of his own, “Stand down, demonspawn! Release your hold on this child and begone from this realm. You are so commanded by the Father and the Son, the God of this world in mortal flesh come once again. Flee to the hells from whence ye came!”

Without waiting for a response, he pulled the trigger, shooting at the girl who stood in his doorway. But Austen was expecting that. She knew him. A piece of paper had already moved to intercede, glowing in the process. That single sheet, torn from a notebook, floated between them as the bullet rebounded. The ricochet narrowly missed the man himself, embedding itself in the nearby wall.

“Hi, Jesus,” Austen started, almost conversationally. “That wasn’t very Good Samaritan of you.”

The man fired again, lower this time. But again, papers had already moved between them. That ricochet did hit him, glancing off his shoulder and drawing a cry of shocked pain from the man as he stumbled backward while rambling about how she had given herself to the devil.

“This is your book?” As she spoke, Austen made one of the bibles float up into the air in front of herself. At a thought, all of the pages tore themselves free. Over a thousand bits of paper filled the air. With a flurry of tearing and folding sounds each joined with several others to shape themselves into small daggers. In the end, over a hundred of those paper knives floated there.

“If this is your book,” the girl continued, while the psycho cult leader who called himself Jesus fired several more desperate shots, all of which were blocked, “you should take it back.”

With those words, and a single urge, she sent every paper dagger, more than a hundred, flying at the man. He screamed, threw the gun, tried to dodge, all to no avail. From his head to his feet, the man was struck through by glowing paper knives. In the end, he fell, his body filled with the very pages of the book he delusionally claimed to have been such a key part of.

It should have been harder. It should have hit her more. He was dead. He was dead… because of her. She murdered someone. It should have made her cry, shouldn’t it? Even as bad as he was, it should have meant… more.

It didn’t. Seeing his body there, thinking about what he had done to her mother’s mind and to the minds of everyone here, thinking about how he used them and would have used her, about how she had been struck, imprisoned, enslaved over these past two years, Austen felt nothing for the man.

Was she a sociopath too?

Turning on her heel, the thirteen-year old girl stepped from the room. Her mother was there, staring open-mouthed. “Austen…” she whispered in a barely audible voice full of despair and horror. “What… what did you do?”

Lifting her chin, the girl replied simply, “What did I do, Mom?

“I killed God.”

*******

Three months later.

 

The street gangs were meeting. Well, those who hadn’t already been destroyed to the point of nonexistence, absorbed by one of the larger gangs, or, in the case of Latinos, taken in by Oscuro. Their new leader, Cuélebre, had made a point of expanding the formerly small group exponentially, exploding its growth and power faster than anyone could react. And now, the smaller gangs were left scrambling, struggling to even survive, let alone thrive, against the might of Cuélebre.

So, they were meeting here in this abandoned warehouse on the outskirts of town in a desperate, probably pointless attempt to come to terms with an alliance. For two hours, the leaders of the eight gangs who had survived to this point bickered about who would lead them, what the terms would be, who would own what territory, and how they would stand against Oscuro.

It was in the midst of these loud, shouted arguments that Austen strode. But not as herself. Over the past month, she had grown to understand more of her power. Currently, her body was literally covered by thousands upon thousands of bits of paper. Pages torn from novels, from journals, from phone and text books, and more surrounded her. They had formed into the shape of a suit of feminine armor, complete with a bust that the thirteen-year-old could only wish she would someday have. Beyond that, the armor also made her look taller than she actually was. Her actual feet ended somewhere above the armor’s knees, while her hands fell much short of the supposed gloves. Her head was covered by more paper in the shape of a stylized medieval helmet, and she carried an enormous paper sword across her back.

The much smaller young girl essentially piloted the suit of paper armor shaped in the form of an adult female knight.

As she came into view, the eight gang leaders and their assorted entourage spun toward her. Mr. Harmful, leader of the Fifth Street Broodwalkers alongside his sort-of conjoined twin Uncle Friendly, snapped his hand out her way. It grew to the size of a large dresser to slap her out of the way while the man snapped, “Who’re you supposed to be, Captain Library?” Around him, the other leaders were readying their own gifts, while others produced guns. Lots of guns.

Seeing the attacks coming, Austen simply braced herself. The blow from Mr. Harmful’s giant fist struck her side… and stopped. Her paper armor glowed, as she focused simply on not moving. The paper went exactly where she wanted it to, and did not go when she didn’t want it to. It stayed in place, taking the blow as if it was a gentle tap.

A glowing energy harpoon, along with a dozen bullets, a simple laser, and two concussive bolts of force, struck her. None penetrated her paper armor. None so much as left a single mark.

Still not speaking a single word, Austen drew the giant sword from her back. Sweeping it across the room in a sharp gesture. In reality, she was simply commanding all the bits of paper to move to make it look as though she had drawn and swung the weapon. As she did so, dozens of pages flew from the sword.

Before the men knew what was happening, the papers had wrapped around their necks, around their wrists, and around their ankles. Each of the men, leaders and lackeys alike, were ripped from the ground and suspended above it while their airways were constricted by the glowing pages surrounding and constricting their throats.

This was the best way to open. Making a big show. Demonstrating her strength. Austen had spent the past several months planning her entrance, practicing with her power, and most of all, absorbing books. She walked through libraries, through colleges, through military surplus stores, law schools, everywhere there were books. She had absorbed knowledge of strategy, tactics, diplomacy, laws, and every bit of detail of the past near-twenty years of Touched activity. Later, she would prove to these people that she could guide them.

Right now, she had to prove that she could crush them. Or they would never listen long enough to get to the part that was good for them.

And they would obviously never listen to a child. Hence this disguise. Which was also why she didn’t speak. Instead, several books flew up along either side of her. Each book opened to a different page, as words on that page glowed, and were read aloud by a booming feminine voice.

“This meeting was to determine how you would survive against the one who calls himself Cuélebre.” She had prepared for that one, bringing along a book of mythology to have the name ready.

More pages flipped, more words were highlighted, as the voice continued. “You want to know which of you stands a chance against him. The answer is none of you. If you try to stand against him and his people, they will crush you.”

She loosened the grip of the paper around their throats enough for one of the gang leaders to demand, “And what, you think you can do better so you’re just gonna march in here and demand we all kiss the ring? We don’t even know you, bitch.”

“You’re right,” Austen made the books say, “You don’t know me. But no. I don’t expect you to put me in charge. I expect you to allow me to help you.”

With that, she let all of them go, bringing the dozens of pages back to float at her side. “Give me one month to prove that I can help you outmaneuver Oscuro and stop Cuélebre from killing you all.” Her head turned toward one of the other gang leaders, the electricity manipulator and super-strong man known as Juice. “Your territory is on the front lines of this war. Give me one month with your men to prove I can help you. When I do, you will sponsor my leadership of this alliance. And then you can all stop arguing about which of you should be in charge.”

Juice, a heavy-set black man, lifted his chin. “Oh, you think so, huh? Well, tell you what. How about we just go ahead and throw you out there to fight Oscuro, then laugh when your paper-ass gets lit up?” He lifted his chin. “Whatchoo call yourself anyway?”

“If I fail,” Austen replied through her collection of books, “it will be of no great loss to you. As for my name, what can kill a god but knowledge? What is knowledge but words? And what is the word for the death of a god?”

“Deicide,” one of the assembled group slowly answered, looking dubious.

“Yes,” her assortment of papers confirmed, “that is the word. But you need not use it until I have proven that it’s apt. For the moment, simply calling me Papercut will do. I will earn the name, as I will earn your loyalty and trust. But now, I believe the time for discussion is over. Oscuro knows of your meeting here. Your territory, Juice, is about to be under assault. If you’d like to stop it, we and your men should go now.”

“Wait,” Juice demanded, “how the hell do you know that?”

“Perhaps you’ll know in time,” she replied. “But for now, the clock is ticking. Would you rather discuss it, or protect what is yours?”

The man only hesitated slightly before turning on his heel, whistling for his men to follow as he made for the exit.

There was, of course, no way that Austen would even tell the men the truth about how she knew the attack was coming. There was no way she would tell them what she had also spent the past three months doing, just as there was no way she could reveal her actual self to them. Because seeing her, they would see that she was Latina. They would see that she could have been taken by Oscuro herself.

And she had been. For the past two months, Austen had worked for the Oscuro gang as a simple street runner, pick pocket, con artist, thief, and anything else she could do. She had made herself useful, though she kept her powers completely secret. As far as everyone in Oscuro knew, she was nothing more than a helpful little kid. It allowed her to see and hear things she shouldn’t, such as what was going to happen tonight.

Two months spent doing that. The first of the past three had been spent searching for her father, for the man who had conned her mother into loving him, got her pregnant, then abandoned them. She had a general idea of the kind of trouble he’d gotten back then, including one specific vandalism incident. Absorbing police files, personal notes, information from the college her mother had been attending at the time, and more, and she had actually accomplished her goal. She had found the one responsible for her birth and for putting the first crack in her mother’s soul that eventually led to what she became.  

And in time, the man who now called himself Cuélebre would pay for all of it.

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Interlude 3A – The Girl With The Lizards (Summus Proelium)

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Three months ago

Wearing a dark green ski mask and a black leather jacket with the logo of an alligator on the back, the girl entered the jewelry store shortly before closing time. As she passed through the metal detector, the old security guard sitting at a chair nearby came to his feet, his hand already reaching for his holstered pistol at the sight of the mask.

“Ma’am, I’m going to need you to—”

“Gently,” the masked girl interrupted without looking that way. “He’s an old man, we don’t want to hurt him.”

The elderly guard’s mouth opened to ask what that meant, but before more than a couple sounds had escaped him, something almost but not quite invisible reached out to catch hold of him. The thing blended in with the wall behind the man, the floor under their feet, and the very air itself to the point of being all but impossible to truly see at a glance. One had to look very close to even hope to make out its vague, ill-defined shape.

Whatever it was, the thing behind the guard pulled him back and squeezed just tight enough to make him collapse, lowering the old man gently to the ground, as ordered.

By that point, the handful of customers and staff still in the store had noticed what was going on, and were staring that way. One of the sales people behind the counter began to edge toward what was obviously an alarm button. Before she could get close to it, however, the masked girl called, “Tuesday!”

At that single, unexpected word (particularly considering it was actually Friday), a small shape leapt up from behind the girl. It landed on her shoulder just long enough to launch itself across the room to land on the counter in front of the saleswoman.

It landed there, giving the woman, and everyone else, a good look at it. The thing was shaped mostly like a monkey, a Capuchin monkey, to be exact. It was the right shape, the right size, had a tail, and so forth. However, the similarities ended there. The thing had no fur. It had scales instead, like a lizard. Its face and tail were decidedly lizard-like as well, though the latter retained the monkey tail’s prehensile nature.

The thing opened its mouth to reveal a large collection of sharp teeth, screeching in the woman’s face as she cried out and stumbled backward.

“Good boy, Tuesday,” The girl praised while coming closer. “Now, let’s see how much fun shiny stuff you people can put in a bag for me in the next ninety seconds, huh? Don’t worry, I’m not that picky. Just throw it all in a bag and I’ll be on my way.”

Racing a shaking hand to point at the creature on the counter, the saleswoman whimpered out, “W-what is that thing? Who are you?”

“Damn it!” the masked girl cursed, snapping her fingers. “I knew you were going to ask that! But I still don’t have a good name yet. It’s surprisingly hard to come up with a good name, you know? One that hasn’t been taken, one that isn’t stupid, one that isn’t going to get a bunch of lawyers sicced on me… it’s hard.”

Shaking her head dismissively then, the girl added, “And that’s Tuesday. He’s going to be keeping an eye on you. Just to make sure you’re not tempted to do anything stupid. Just fill the bag with shinies and we’ll be leaving. Nobody has to get hurt, and it’s all insured anyway.”

Spinning on her heel then, back toward the doorway where a man had been slowly edging, the girl raised a hand. “And you don’t wanna go that way! Twinkletoes? Show him why.”

The almost invisible shape moved away from the wall. As it did so, the thing became visible, shedding its camouflage. Like Tuesday, it looked like a cross between a lizard and something much furrier. In this case, the combination appeared to be a chameleon and a gorilla. It had the same massive size and general shape of the latter, and the basic appearance, scales, and face of the former.

The man who had been trying to leave stumbled back, cursing at the sight of it.

“Yup,” the unnamed girl chirped. “As you can see, Twinkletoes is a pretty good bouncer. But he’ll be nice as long as nobody makes a move for the door. Fair enough? Good, now about that bag of shinies…”

******

A few minutes later, the masked girl ran through a nearby alley, laughing giddily with each step. “Oh my God, how fun was that?!” She shook the bag full of jewelry and beamed while reaching up to take off the mask. Doing so revealed a dark-skinned, somewhat busty girl with short hair that had been spiked up. Most of the hair was black, save for the tips, which had been dyed shocking white.

Turning to Tuesday and Twinkletoes, who had been following her (the former riding on the latter), she grinned to them. “Come on, boys, let’s get your sister off lookout duty and—”

In mid-sentence, she was interrupted by a loud screech. The girl snapped her gaze up in time to see something fly down out of the sky, screeching once more before it landed on the edge of the nearby dumpster.

It was another reptile combination. In this case, the thing looked like a bearded dragon lizard that had been crossed with a large golden eagle. The thing really shouldn’t have been able to fly (particularly given the fact that only its wings seemed to have feathers), but managed to somehow. It landed on the dumpster and tilted its head curiously at the girl.

“Oh, there you are.” Smiling, the newly-unmasked thief reached out to rub the eagle-lizard’s face. “Hey there, Riddles. You ready to go home too?”

“Nice friends you’ve got there,” an unexpected voice announced, causing both the girl and all three of her companions to whirl that way.

The woman who stood there at the mouth of the alley was quite obviously Touched. Her costume consisted of sleek white pants with matching boots, a black turtleneck with a purple leather jacket over it, and a full head-covering white mask with dark purple lenses covering the eyes that matched the jacket. A silver briefcase sat beside her.

“Cardsharp?!” the girl blurted while Twinkletoes stepped in front of her with a growl at the woman. “You’re Cardsharp, from the… like… La Casa? What’re you doing here?” Defensively, she added, “You better not be trying to steal my haul.”  By that point, Tuesday had hopped onto Twinkletoes’ shoulder and was adding his own growl, while Riddles spread her wings to make herself bigger and gave a loud screech at the woman from where she was perched on the dumpster.

“Easy there,” Cardsharp murmured, spreading both hands with her palms out. “I didn’t come to fight or cause trouble. But ahhh, that store you just robbed back there? Yeah, it belongs to us. It’s in our territory, and the owners pay a decent amount for protection from… well…” She coughed and gestured to the bag from the store in question.

Blinking down, then back up again, the girl narrowed her eyes. “What, so you came to fight me for it? Came to teach me a lesson?”

“What?” The woman stared at her briefly before shaking her head. “You’ve been reading too many comic books. No. Like I said, I’m not here to fight. First of all, here.” Reaching down, she picked up the briefcase that had been at her side. Unlatching it, she showed her the contents. Cash. It was full of cash. “There should be the exact amount in here as what you would have gotten by selling that stuff, plus a couple thousand. You give back that bag and I’ll give you this case.”

The girl blinked again. “So I rob places you’re trying to protect and you just give me money to give it back?“

Cardsharp chuckled. “That wouldn’t really be a sustainable business model, would it? No, this is a one time deal. If it purposefully happens again, then we’ll have to take other, more unpleasant measures. But hopefully, that won’t be an issue. Because I’m not just offering you a cash payment. I am also offering you a place with our group, with La Casa. See, the boss believes in recruiting and nurturing new talent. And you… well, you look uniquely talented. So take the case. With the cash, you’ll find a card with a phone number on it. You decide to take me up on the offer, call that number and they’ll talk you through coming in for an evaluation and training. But first…” She held her free hand out, gesturing for the bag to be thrown to her.

The girl considered briefly. Actually fighting sounded bad, considering what she knew about the woman in front of her. Basically, Cardsharp’s powers allowed her to temporarily alter the physical properties of both herself and anything she was touching or had been touching within the past few seconds. She could make herself weigh almost nothing, or make herself weigh up to about a ton. She could also do the same for an object in her hands, reducing the weight of something by a huge amount, or increasing it. She could make herself extremely bouncy, or could throw a knife and give it the properties of a rubber ball so that it rebounded around a corner before returning its sharpness. Sticky, bouncy, sharp, heavy, light, she did absurd things to her own physical properties and that of the things she held.

No one seemed to know if her unerring, perfect aim with anything she threw was a power, or just skill. Either way, it just added to how dangerous she was. Especially as she had a habit of making something incredibly light so she could throw it easily, then making it incredibly heavy right before impact.

Yeah, she was a great big cheater, and while she seemed to only be able to alter the properties of one thing at a time (including herself), she was still a great pain in the ass for anyone who tried to fight her.

So, after a brief hesitation, the girl tossed the bag that way before noting, “This all sounds pretty official and stuff for some gang of thugs.”

Cardsharp smiled easily. “What can I say?

“That’s just the kind of guy the boss is.”

*******

One week later

 

“The boss is kind of a weird freak,” the girl with the lizard creatures announced. She was wearing the same get-up, with the mask stuffed into a pocket. She was once more addressing Cardsharp, as the two of them stood in a long hallway in front of an unlabeled door. The girl held a cage that had been covered with a blanket in front of her self with both hands.

“Not that he really minds people thinking so,” her sponsor into this whole thing replied, “but what makes you say that?”

“This,” the girl retorted, gesturing at the door in front of them. “You seriously want me to go to some kind of school thing? I thought you saw what kind of badass I was and wanted me to jump on your team.”

With a soft chuckle, Cardsharp shook her head. “You’ve got an intriguing power, one with a lot of potential. You’ve got a lot of potential. But you also have no fucking clue what you’re doing. That’s not an insult. Most people don’t have a fucking clue what they’re doing when they start with all this. The boss knows that. It’s why he set this place up. Everybody goes through training. Everybody. Doesn’t matter if you’re Touched or Prev.”

Prev. That was short for Prevalent, the generally accepted word for ‘normal humans without powers’ or ‘non-Touched.’ It wasn’t exactly insulting, and encompassed the idea that they were the majority while not calling them ‘normal’ as if there was something wrong with people who did have powers (a problem that just calling them human would also have had) The shortened form of ‘Prevs’ was also often seen as another way of saying ‘Previouslies’, as in ‘humans before they had super powers.’

Cardsharp was continuing. “There’s different kinds of training depending on what you are, but everyone gets training of some kind. Think of it as a combination school and boot camp. You’ll go through three months of this before you hit the field.”

For a moment, the girl stared at her as though she had to be joking. “Are you serious? Three months of training before I do anything on the streets?”

The woman nodded once. “That’s the rules. It’s what Blackjack insists on, and it works. Trust me, there’s a reason our people are better than the other guys out there. We are better trained, we’re better armed and equipped, and we know how to work together. Our squads train together, live together, and work together. everyone matters, and that means no one is cannon fodder. Which means we’re not going to send you out on those streets until you actually know what you’re doing.

“So yes, three months of training. Take my word for it, it’s worth it. You’ll never have to go out there alone again. You’ll be part of La Casa, The House. And we take care of our own. Or you can turn around and walk right back out of here, no hard feelings. But this is your only chance, there’s no do-overs. You leave now, you’ll never be invited again. And believe me, you’ll make a hell of a lot more with us than out on your own.”

For a second or two, the girl looked indecisive. She lowered her gaze to the covered cage in her hands, biting her lip before finally looking up. “Okay, we’re in.”

Cardsharp gave her a thumbs up. “Good choice. Now before we go in and meet your classmates, may I assume that you have your friends there? That means they can shrink down again?”

The girl nodded. “They go back and forth. All I have to do is think about it and they’ll change back.”

“Excellent,” Cardsharp replied with a thumbs up. “Now I know their names are Tuesday, Riddles, and Twinkletoes, and that you haven’t chosen a Touched name. But what should we call you?”

There was one more brief pause before she answered. “Danielle Kalvers.

“Call me Dani.”

******

Present Day

“Dani!”

The blurted cry came from Dani’s left as the black girl stepped out of the building that had been her home for the past three months. Turning there on the sidewalk, she barely had time to open her mouth before she was suddenly caught up in a tight hug by a girl several inches shorter than her own five foot five.

It was KD. The super enthusiastic girl was barely over five feet, with pale skin and bright blue hair fashioned into pigtails. She wore sunglasses with little yellow smiley faces on the lenses.

“Oof,” Dani muttered, “hey, KD.”

Bouncing up and down a little, the other girl finally stepped back, grinning broadly. “Can you believe it? We’re graduating! We’re gonna be real supervillains!” She gave an excited squeal then, spinning all the way around on one foot.

Dryly, Dani replied, “I think you might have a little further to go on the whole villain thing.”

KD stuck her tongue out while retorting something incomprehensible. Then she tried again, this time without her tongue out. “Don’t be a grump. It’s time to celebrate! And hey, I even…” As she spoke, the girl pulled off the backpack she was wearing and reached inside. “…got you a present!”

With that announcement, she pulled out a smaller cage with a wide-eyed little lizard in it. “Ta da! It’s a crocodile skink. I wanted to get you a real crocodile, but, you know, not allowed to go do villain things like rob the zoo until after graduation. Do you like her?”

Staring open mouthed, Dani slowly reached out to take the cage, lifting it up so she could see the skink better. “Oh my God, KD, you didn’t have to do that.”

“You’re my friend,” KD replied. “Besides, I haven’t gotten to see you do it with a new one yet. I wasn’t here when you got Mars Bar. Can I see you do it this time? Huh, huh?”

Smirking despite herself at her friend’s excitement, Dani nodded while turning to walk back behind the building. “Sure, come on.”

The complex they were staying at was miles outside of Detroit proper. To the outside world, it was some kind of religious camp or whatever. Dani wasn’t sure. The point was, it was walled off and required about a half hour drive along a rocky dirt road to reach. There were a handful of buildings out here and a garage full of vehicles. The place really was like a whole university or something.

Together, she and KD walked past a group of people training to be La Casa foot soldiers, moving to a more private spot behind the academics building they had just left.

As Dani reached into the cage to take out the skink, KD asked, “So how does it work? I mean, I know you can only choose one other animal to combine them with, and that’s the only other form they get, but how do you choose?”

Clearing her throat, Dani started, “First, she needs a name.” Holding the skink carefully, she considered for a moment before pronouncing, “Holiday. Her name is Holiday.”

“Cuz she’s a present!” KD blurted with a wide smile. “I get it. Okay, so…”

“So now,” Dani finished for her, “I focus on thinking really hard about the animal I want to combine her with.”

“Well,” KD recited, “Twinkletoes is a chameleon combined with a gorilla. Tuesday is a gecko combined with a monkey. Riddles is a bearded dragon combined with an eagle. And Mars Bar is an iguana crossed with a grizzly bear. Which is really freaking scary, for the record. What do you need next?”

Dani considered that. Monkey, gorilla, eagle, and bear. What did she need? “Something big enough to take care of itself, but faster than Twinkletoes or Mars Bar. Like a wolf. Or…” Her smile brightened. “Or a panther.”

Kneeling down on the ground, she set the newly dubbed Holiday in front of herself before putting two fingers on the lizard’s back. As she focused, the skink suddenly went very still, eyes closing as both girl and lizard fell into a kind of trance.

Almost ten minutes passed that way before Dani opened her eyes. As she did so, the girl found herself facing a much different skink.

As she’d wanted, the skink was now combined with a panther. It looked like a cross between the two animals, a reptilian hunting cat without any fur. To many it probably would have looked horrifying and dangerous. But Dani immediately hugged her new friend. “Holiday!”

KD came in for a hug with both of them as well, proclaiming, “That was awesome! I mean, not much happened at first, but then she started growing, and you were all whispering stuff, and then she was growing some more, and then you were both making noises, and then poof! Here she is.”

Rubbing the top of Holiday’s head for a moment, Dani smiled. “Come on, girl.” With a thought, she shifted the creature back into her small lizard form. It took about ten seconds for the panther-reptile to fully shift and shrink back down into her ordinary skink form. Once she had, Dani reach down and picked her up. “Let’s go meet your brothers and sister.”

Before they could go anywhere, however, a figure stepped into view. It was Elarc Sorn, one of their combat instructors.

“Girls,” he announced, “Time to pack your things. It’s all hands on deck.

“La Casa’s about to go to war.”

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