Summus Proelium

Project Owl 14-03 (Summus Proelium)

Previous Chapter

You have to die. 

Coming awake after fading into darkness with words like that ringing in my ears wasn’t exactly a fun experience. Wait, scratch that. What the fuck was I saying? Waking up at all after hearing words like that as the darkness had claimed me was a remarkably fun experience. If I was awake, I was alive, considering actual full-on ghosts didn’t really exist. 

Also, I had a headache. I kind of doubted that people in any kind of afterlife had headaches. Unless–well, on the other hand…

Right, focus, Cassidy. I was alive, awake, and my eyes were open. At least, I thought they were open. It didn’t make much of a difference, because everything around me was dark. I didn’t feel any pressure against my face or anything, so it wasn’t a blindfold. And I wasn’t handcuffed or tied up in any way. I was just lying on a floor. A cold cement floor, from the feel of it. 

For a few seconds, I just laid there, listening. I was trying to figure out if I could tell anything else about where I was or if anyone was in here with me. But there was nothing. The room was completely silent and completely dark. I didn’t know if there was someone else in here, or if there were cameras with night vision, or anything. So, no using powers just yet. Especially since I had no idea what I would use said powers on even if I had actually wanted to reveal them. 

Okay, this was getting me nowhere. If there was someone in here, they weren’t going to say anything. And lying here wasn’t accomplishing anything or getting me any more information. I had to move. Carefully, I put my hands down against the cement floor, starting to push myself up. I made it to a sitting position, then got my feet under me to stand. But in mid-motion, the lights came on with a suddenness that made me yelp out loud, almost falling over again. 

Wait, no. Not lights. One light. Specifically, a television. It was a large flatscreen mounted on the nearby wall. But the illumination from the screen coming to life allowed me to see more of the room I was in. Not that there was much to see. It looked like an empty unfinished basement room, about fifteen feet by twenty feet. So, pretty small. The floor was concrete, as expected, and so were the walls. In the far corner there was some kind of heavy metal door. 

“Cassidy.” 

The sound of Paige’s voice made my gaze snap back to the television. She was there, on the screen. She looked… bad. Well, no, she looked perfect, as always. Physically, there was nothing wrong or different about her. She was just as much the pristine cheerleader princess as always. But there was something… something else wrong, something deeper that I couldn’t really define. Maybe it was in her eyes. She looked tired and worn out. Definitely stressed. 

“I know you must be very confused right now,” she continued. “I wish I could be there myself to tell you what’s going on, to tell you all of it. But I can’t. I just–” For a moment, it looked as though the other girl was going to say something else, before she finally just shook her head. “I can’t be there. This recording, this video, is going to have to do. It’s linked to a motion sensor that should only go off once you’re sitting up, so… unless I really screwed up, hopefully you’re actually awake when it starts playing. Otherwise, this–” Seeming to realize that she was getting off-topic, she visibly shook herself and focused. “But there’s one thing you need to know, one thing I wish I could’ve said before.” 

Those words were followed by a long, silent pause as Paige apparently took the time to collect herself. I saw her swallow hard, barely keeping herself somewhat together. “I’m sorry. I’m sorry for everything I said to you before, for everything I–for everything that happened between us. My father–my real father, not the man you know, he… well, he didn’t give me a choice. I never wanted to hurt you. I never wanted to say the things that I said, or–or do any of that. You were my–” Again, she stopped, heaving a long, heavy sigh before looking down. It took her a few more seconds to collect herself like that, staring at the floor. From the background of the video, it looked like she’d recorded it in this same room. She might as well have been standing in front of me. 

No, because if she was standing in front of me, I could have shaken her violently and demanded she actually give me some fucking answers. Or at least said ‘what the fuck’ to her in person. That would’ve been nice. 

Eventually, Paige looked back up. If anything, her gaze looked even more haunted. “Let’s just say you and I have a very complicated history, Cassidy Evans. Even more complicated than you know. My father wanted me to hurt you. He didn’t give me a choice. I know that’s hard to understand, I know it’s not a real–that I’m not explaining what you really need to know. But I can’t be sure this recording won’t end up with the wrong people, no matter how careful I am. So there are things I can’t say.” 

Taking in a long breath before letting it out, she continued. “There are few things I can say. Things that I know you have no reason to believe. Especially after the past few years and everything that I’ve said and done. All I can say is please just… just listen for a few minutes, because everything I’m about to tell you is one hundred percent true.  

“First, your best friend when you were young was a boy named Anthony Tate. You were going to his birthday party five years ago, when you found his entire family and their household staff murdered. You saw Anthony himself killed right in front of you. The men who did it worked for your grandfather, your mother’s father. He was angry at your parents and sent those men to kill Anthony’s family and to abduct you. But your bodyguard, a man named Robert Parson, saved you. He killed them, and your dad killed your grandfather.” 

Paige trailed off like that, apparently giving the words time to sink in. And I was definitely reeling. Her explanation made sense, so far. It fit everything I knew, and definitely filled in some blanks. Was it the truth? She’d said it was, but…. right, just listen. I’d sort out how I felt about it and whether I believed the whole thing once she was done.

“The thing you need to know, Cassidy,” Paige continued eventually, “the thing you need to believe even if you don’t believe anything else, is that  your parents love you. Never doubt that. They’ve made mistakes. They’ve screwed up, made choices in trying to protect you that might have done more damage. But it was never out of malice. They love you, Cassie. They saw you were hurt and they wanted to take that hurt away.” 

If I hadn’t been able to piece some of what had happened with Anthony Tate together before, this whole thing would’ve left me reeling even more than I already was. Hell, if I didn’t know about my family’s real situation, I would’ve been even more lost. At least I had a head start on understanding some of this, and I still desperately needed to sit down. 

Almost like she was ripping off a Band-Aid, Paige continued. “Your parents had a special Touched use his power to erase that traumatic event from your memory, Cassidy. They did it because they love you, and you were in pain. They shouldn’t have. They should have let you get better, should have let you get through it. But they didn’t want you to feel all that pain. When your best friend died, when he was murdered by someone working for your grandfather, they didn’t want you to be stuck with that memory. So they had it erased. Not because they were hiding some dirty family secret from you. Not because they didn’t trust you. Because they wanted to help you. Right or wrong, good or bad, they wanted to take your pain away.” 

Wanted to take my pain away. My parents had wanted to make me stop hurting after I’d seen my best friend murdered in front of me, along with the bodies of all his family and house staff, so they’d had my memory erased. Was that true? Was that the only reason they had Tomas’s father do his thing? 

And what about the rest of it? Anthony and his family were killed because my grandfather was pissed at my parents? Was he really capable of that? Was–what was I saying, my parents were capable of doing plenty of evil things. They had to get it from somewhere, right? Or was that just a dumb way of thinking? I didn’t–fuck, I had no idea. 

Paige had stopped talking on the video, as though giving me time to process all of that. Then she continued. “Your parents…” Trailing off, she looked uncertain of how to proceed or how much to say. Finally, a heavy sigh escaped her. “There’s a lot you need to know about your parents, Cassidy. But I know you have no reason to believe anything I’d say to you about them. Not after everything that’s happened over the past few years. I’d say trust me, but… that would be stupid. So, I’m just going to say it and you can decide how much you believe.” 

And then she told me about the Ministry. Basic stuff, really, most of which I’d already worked out or realized on my own. She told me my parents ran the organization, that they kept crime in Detroit to what they considered a reasonable (and profitable) level, and that they had contacts inside most of the Star and Fell organizations in the city. And, after telling me that what she was about to say would hit me really hard so I should sit down or brace myself, she ‘revealed’ that my father was Silversmith. While, of course, telling me that she knew I probably wouldn’t believe it. 

Beyond all that, Paige also explained that the backbone of the Ministry had evolved from a criminal organization run by my grandfather. Detroit’s version of the Mafia. My parents had stolen the organization out from under him somehow, kicked him and his loyalists out of the city, and gradually reworked it into what it was today. The fact that my grandfather’s group had strong contacts and allies in the police force and government (not to mention the amount of powerful people they could blackmail) was what gave Mom and Dad the headstart they needed to put their spies in place on so many Star-Touched groups. They basically took the city’s criminal mob, complete with all that organization’s influence over corrupt law enforcement, and twisted it into this whole ‘control or manipulate all supervillain and most superhero actions in the city’ thing. 

Yeah, it was a lot to take in even while knowing what I did. I couldn’t even imagine how I might’ve reacted if this had all been completely new to me. Would I have stood there through all of these claims? Would I have shouted back denials at the television? Would I have ignored her completely, or even tried to break the screen? Would I have tried to leave, or just ignored her? Would I have–wait, my phone. 

While listening to the recording continue, I dug in my pockets. My phones were there, but there was no signal. Of course. I had the feeling that, whatever else was going on, Paige didn’t want me leaving this place, or calling for help. Particularly considering I might’ve called my parents before she explained everything. And certainly before I would’ve believed her if I hadn’t already known the truth. 

Paige pushed on. “The point is, your grandfather was pissed about being kicked out of his own organization, his own city, by his daughter and her husband. So he brought his loyalists in and they attacked your best friend’s birthday party. They killed Anthony in front of you, and your bodyguard barely got you out. He was almost killed by your grandfather, who wanted to abduct you, before your father showed up and killed him. Then they had your memory erased to protect you. That was the end of it… or so your parents thought. 

“You see, my father was working with Anthony’s. They were working on… on a huge project, one that was supposed to change the world. It’s called Project Owl. When your grandfather had Anthony’s father killed, it ruined Project Owl, my father’s life work. He blamed–blames your parents for it. He tried to get back at them by having your brother abducted and… and altered so that he would kill his sister… you. Then Simon would have revealed the whole truth about the Ministry to the public, and while your parents were occupied with all of that, my father would have taken their resources and used them to finish Project Owl. 

“But I couldn’t let that happen. Because when your parents erased Anthony and his death from your memory, they erased me too. You and I–we were friends too. And Anthony. All three of us. You were-” She stopped, clearly choked up a bit before managing to catch herself. “You were both my friends. But it was a secret. Your parents didn’t know about me, so they didn’t know they were erasing me. You forgot about me. But I didn’t forget about you, and I couldn’t let my father do that. So I… I called your bodyguard, Robert Parson. He was still too injured to do much back then, but he made some calls. He made sure my father ended up arrested and sent to Breakwater. Because he’s… he’s Touched, Cassidy. He’s a Tech-Touched, but his focus is on working with bodies, working on living things, biological things. He’s–” She stopped, considering for a moment before shaking her head. “The point is, they sent him to Breakwater, and that was supposed to be the end of it too, just like your parents thought before.”

Again, there was a brief pause, before the girl made a face. “But… but I didn’t realize that my father had contingencies. I can’t… really get into them right now. All that matters is that he can control me. He can make me do exactly what he says, even if I don’t want to. I have to follow the letter of his orders, even through intermediaries. And he used that intermediary to order me to go with the Banners. He sold me to them, and ordered me to spend a few years being a total cunt to you. He wanted to establish years of bad blood, of arguing, of… of us being rivals, I guess. Because when I turned seventeen, when I was old enough to be sent to Breakwater too, I was supposed to kill you myself and, when the authorities came after me, make it look like I was Tech-Touched, using the equipment he left. Then I’d be sent to the island, but… but it wouldn’t stop me. When they sent me to Breakwater, I would be able to break my father out and he would go back to his plan to use your parents’ organization to finish his project, while they were too busy mourning you to defend themselves.

“Like I said, I had to follow his orders to the letter. He ordered me not to warn you or anyone about this until it was over. He ordered me to treat you like shit, to start fights with you, to insult you, to do everything I could to make the two of us fighting be realistic. He–there were a lot of orders, Cassidy. Most importantly, he ordered me to kill you on my seventeenth birthday. He ordered me to invite you here, and to kill you in a roomful of people. So I did.” 

Well, that part was a bit confusing, yeah. I just stared at the screen as she continued. “I followed the letter of his orders. The gas I pumped into you was enough to kill you. You died, Cassidy. And I did it in a room full of people. But I had the lights go out so they didn’t see what happened. My father never said the lights had to be on, only that there had to be a lot of people in the room when it happened. And he said you had to die, but he never said you had to stay dead. So, when everyone was still reacting, I took your body through a secret door and gave you the antidote. You were dead for about one minute. That was enough to fulfill my father’s orders.” 

Glancing away for a moment on-screen, Paige seemed to gather herself. “But he still has people who will kill you if they find out you’re alive. So I can’t–you have to stay there. I used this…” With that, Paige pointed some kind of remote at the camera she’d been using to record this whole thing. As she clicked it… I appeared in her place. It was some kind of video editing overlay on the screen or something, but it looked and sounded completely realistic. It looked like me. Suddenly, Paige wasn’t the one on-screen, I was. It was only a view from the waist up at that point, which helped with the height problem. 

“Hey, guys,” my voice said, “that was pretty fucking crazy, huh? Listen, I… I can’t deal with this. Paige is just–she’s too much. So when the lights went out, I sort of… I took off. I just need to clear my head. Could you make sure Izzy’s okay and that she gets home? Thanks. And–and sorry. I just had to get out of there. I’ll explain later, I promise.” 

Paige clicked the image thing off, returning to herself. “I spoofed your phone number and video called Amber like that. So, you shouldn’t get in too much trouble or anything, I hope. I just–stay there, Cassidy. The room’s set to unlock and let you out in two hours. That should be long enough for me to do what I have to do to make sure you stay safe. 

“I’m sorry, Cassie. I’m sorry about everything. I wish we could’ve stayed friends. But I was never… I was never meant to have friends. As for everything I’ve told you about your family, you can decide to do whatever you want with that information. Believe it, don’t, look into it yourself, just… be careful, please. I wanted you to know the truth. You deserve the truth. I can’t tell you how to react, whether to believe me or not, who to talk to about it. I can’t tell you anything like that. All I could give you was the facts. The rest is up to you. Because I–I can’t be there. I want to, but I can’t. I’m going to take out every single one of my father’s agents here. I’m going to kill everyone he could use to hurt you or your family. And then… and then I’m going to kill myself, so he can never use me to hurt you either.

“By the time that door unlocks and lets you out, my father’s people will all be dead, and so will I. 

“Goodbye, Cassie.”

Previous Chapter

Project Owl 14-02 (Summus Proelium)

Previous Chapter / Next Chapter

“I think they might want us to go that way.” 

Tomas’s dry words came as our large assortment of teenagers made our way into the front foyer of Paige’s house, behind the birthday girl herself, just to find the grand room with its sweeping staircase and priceless artwork, filled with servants. There were maids blocking various doorways, what looked like a gardener standing in front of an antique grandfather clock as though to stop anyone from getting near it, a cook standing in front of those stairs, and so on. A dozen or so of the Banners’ staff stood in key positions to stop any of our group from wandering off or touching something they shouldn’t. And all of them were pointing toward the only doorway that wasn’t blocked. 

Yeah, most of them were smiling (or at least trying to), but it was still really damn creepy. Actually, it was probably even creepier with the smiles. They almost looked like robots, standing there guarding everything deemed valuable or important from the scary teenagers. Boy, I was glad my family didn’t live like that. Did Paige have to worry about being glared at by random staff for getting near a painting or a statue, or was this just for us? 

Okay, thinking back on the things I’d seen my classmates do (and that I’d done myself), this was fair. A huge group of teenagers in one area like this–yeah. It made total sense to make sure things didn’t… go wrong. Especially given how we could egg each other on into doing very stupid things. Which I could say with a considerable amount of authority, considering I was very often the one who was egged on to do those stupid things. But hey, they’d already had that Slip ‘N Slide set up in the school hallway. What was I supposed to do, say I couldn’t make it from one end to the other? 

Wait, that was another thing that ended with me being soaked while someone screamed at me. Huh. Maybe Izzy had a point. 

Shaking off those thoughts, I let myself be pulled along with the rest of the group as we moved through the doorway, finding ourselves in another hall, then a T-junction of corridors before making it to a door leading to what turned out to be the back patio. This was where the party was supposed to be, apparently, given all the balloons, decorations, tables laden with treats and presents, and so on. The nearby pool, a huge, horseshoe-shaped thing, even had ‘Happy Birthday Paige’ written above it in colorful Tech-Touched hologram lights from nearby projectors. In the distance, on the far side of the grounds, some kind of outdoor stage had been set up with curtains raised around it.

The moment we were out here, everyone spread out a bit. Paige had moved to the edge of the pool, pivoting back to face us with that smile that I’d seen her use on teachers and other adults for so many years. It was a smile that could instantly dissolve into a vindictive scowl the moment their backs were turned and I was the only one who could see her. I’d long-since learned not to trust it. And today was no different. Seeing that smile made a slight shiver run through me.  Whatever Paige was up to, I definitely wasn’t going to turn my back to her anytime soon. Otherwise I’d be likely to get a dagger shoved in it. Metaphorically, of course.

“How’re we doing today, Dynasties?!” the blonde called, her voice filling the area without even needing a microphone (her time as a cheerleader had done wonders for her ability to project). Dynasty, somehow, was the name of our school’s mascot. Yeah. We were the Cadillac Dynasties. And some of my classmates wondered why we were considered spoiled and privileged. That was a real mystery. 

And speaking of being spoiled and privileged, Paige waited until the resulting enthusiastic cheers died down before continuing. “In a couple hours, we’ll have some pizza and wings, then cake and ice cream! And after that… well, then I get my presents.” She said it casually, with a confident, yet charming and somehow self-deprecating smile that made most people chuckle.

“But after I’ve been thoroughly impressed and bribed by all the goodies you’ve brought,” she continued easily, “then we’ll all go inside to my family’s private theater, where you are all invited to watch the new Lou Devereux movie, not due out in public until next week!” 

Yeah, that definitely got cheers. I heard a lot of excited murmurs, words about how cool this was, how they knew Paige would have something good planned, and so on. Beside me, Tomas patted my back slightly, while Izzy actually touched my hand gently. I had a feeling she could tell I was uncomfortable, whatever I did to try to hide that. 

Paige was already continuing. She had adopted a clearly put-on, confused tone. “Except, there’s a problem, isn’t there? I mean, we’re not eating for a couple hours, and the movie is after that. So, what are we going to do in the meantime? It’d be boring if we just sat around, huh?” Her head tilted back and forth as though she was thinking about it, before perking up. “I know! Parties have music, right? So we should have some music.” 

The blonde raised her voice even more then, practically shouting. “Hey, boys! Think you could give us some music?!” 

With that, and as Paige pointed, the curtains around the stage in the distance suddenly dropped. Everyone turned that way to see a band already there in position. And this wasn’t just any band. No, of course not. This was–

“Zenith Renaissance?!” one of the other party guests blurted, her words quickly taken up by others. Because yes, the internationally famous Zenith Renaissance, a band that regularly sold out world tours and whose albums were some of the hottest releases of the past few years, was right there on the stage. And they were already starting to play one of their main songs. Which, of course, drew screams of delight from everyone around me as a bunch suddenly rushed that way to get closer to the stage. A stage that was, naturally, suddenly protected by several big guys in labeled security shirts. 

“How the fuck did she keep this a secret?” San Francisco blurted from a bit behind me, his tone utterly amazed. “And how did her parents convince these guys to play a private concert for a couple hundred people at best?” 

Quietly, I murmured, “You’d be surprised at how good she is at keeping secrets.” Then I quickly shook that off and added, “And money, probably. A lot of money. Probably flew them straight out here from wherever they’re touring right now.” Belatedly, I added, “Come to think of it, where are her parents?” There’d yet to be any sign of them. Paige and the household staff were the only ones we’d seen. 

Most of our classmates had already rushed to be in front of the stage. Even Amber and Jae headed that way to get a good spot, the former calling back that they’d save space for us. But Tomas was still there with Izzy and me, offering a shrug. “Probably busy. Not like they need to be down here. And from what my mum said,” he added in a somewhat quieter voice, “they don’t spend a lot of time with Paige to begin with.” 

That made me do a quick, confused double-take. “Wait, since when does your mom have anything to do with Paige or her parents?” 

That earned another shrug from the boy, who started to walk that way to join the others while answering. “They’ve been golfing together a couple times since we got back! And they do brunch.” 

Okay, now I really wanted to know more about all that. Especially given the fact that Tomas’s father had only recently tried to kill Paige to shut her up. Now his mother was friends with her adopted–uuuurgggh, this was all too goddamn confusing. 

The sound of someone clearing their throat drew my attention behind me, as I belatedly realized that Izzy and I were the only ones still standing away from the stage. Well, Izzy, me, and Paige. Yeah. She was the one clearing her throat, gazing at me with an unreadable expression. I couldn’t tell if she looked sad or smug. 

For a moment, Paige and I just stared at each other, before she casually drawled, “That can go on the table with the others.” Her head nodded toward the present that was still clutched in one of my hands. “Or in the trash if you want to spare one of the maids the time it’ll take to put it there themselves. Either way, I’m sure it’ll end up where it belongs.” A brief pause, then, “I’m sure a lot of things will end up where they belong today.” 

“Hey!” That was Izzy. “When someone brings you a present, you’re supposed to say thank you.” 

Paige, for her part, looked a little amused. “Aww, Cassidy, look. You finally found someone shorter than you to hang around with. Tell the truth, which elementary school is she from?”

“The one where they teach basic manners,” Izzy immediately shot back, surprising me a bit. “You obviously wouldn’t know it.”  

For a brief moment, Paige just stood there without saying anything. Finally, she chuckled and pivoted to walk away with a deceptively casual, “Good to see you’ve got someone to fight your battles for you, Cassie. Not like you’re any good at it yourself. Maybe try someone who’s old enough to stay up past eight o’clock next time?” 

She kept going, heading to join all her devoted fans (who were really fans now that she was giving them a private concert and advance movie screening) even as the music started up. They greeted her with a cheer, of course. Yeah, she owned this party. 

Izzy, meanwhile, looked at me. “Is she really always like that?” 

My mouth opened to confirm it, before I stopped, pausing as an important realization struck me. “No,” I murmured in surprise. “She isn’t always like that.” Quickly, I corrected myself. “I mean, yes, she’s always a bitch to me. That’s not new. But she’s usually nice to other people. Look at what she’s like with all those guys. Amber and Tomas both even said that Paige is cool to everyone except me. So…” Squinting uncertainly, I looked to the girl beside me. “Why would she act like that to you? She’s always more diplomatic with other people, or just uses them defending me as a way of turning it around on an insult to me, like she did at the end with that whole thing about me not fighting my own battles. But she insulted you. She made fun of you being short and young. That doesn’t–she doesn’t do that. Why would she do that now?” 

Izzy offered an uncertain shrug. “Because she knows I’m staying with you, maybe?” 

“Maybe,” I allowed, though it didn’t sound right. There was something off about this entire situation, but I couldn’t put my finger on it. Something was wrong here. Seriously, where were Paige’s adopted parents? Shouldn’t they at least make an appearance?

Speaking tentatively, Izzy asked, “Do you want to drop off the present and leave? You’ve made an appearance like your parents wanted.” 

Part of me just wanted to do just that, wanted to take off right then and say screw this whole thing. But I couldn’t. Not when this was my best chance to actually find out the truth about the whole Paige situation. This mystery had been going on long enough, and now that I was actually here in her house, I wasn’t giving that up. Something big was going on here, and I couldn’t just walk away from it. 

So, I shook my head, offering the younger girl what I hoped was a reassuring smile. “Not gonna let her being a bitch chase me away from a party. Even if it is hers and even if she’s being more of a bitch than usual. Come on, let’s drop off the gift then go see if Amber and Jae managed to save us a spot.” 

*******

We watched the concert. Outside of the fact that it was in Paige’s backyard and I still didn’t know what the hell was going on with her, it was pretty great. Especially once I let myself give up on the idea of trying to sneak into Paige’s house during the whole thing. There were way too many people around, with various house staff members standing by every entrance. I had the feeling they were there to make sure none of the guests went on an unauthorized tour. Which was exactly what I wanted to do, but not for the reasons they might have expected. 

Or maybe it was for the reasons they expected. For all I knew, the entire house staff was in on this whole thing and knew what Paige was up to. Maybe they were just there to stop a bunch of teenagers from making a mess or stealing things. Or maybe they were there to make sure that whatever was going on went off without a hitch. 

If something was going on. I still didn’t have any proof of that, and it felt like I was crazy for thinking there was. Yet there was that tickle in the back of my brain that just wouldn’t go away. Something was happening, something big. Paige was throwing this party and had invited all these people, including me, for a reason. But… why? What was her deal? 

I still didn’t have any better ideas and wasn’t any closer to answers by the time we all ate pizza, followed by cake and ice cream. It was served out on a large buffet table where you could take anything you wanted. Izzy gorged herself. Obviously, she didn’t exactly feel guilty about taking all the food she could possibly want from Paige after that whole confrontation. 

After that, Paige opened her presents. She oohed and awed dramatically over each one, making a big deal about thanking the person who gave it. Well, except for mine, of course. She opened the one from Izzy and me, producing a couple premium seating tickets to a play that was all-but impossible to get into for most people. It was a play I knew she wanted to see, because I’d heard her talking to a couple friends about it back at school. But because it was from me, she simply held them up, announced what they were, and said a simple, “Thanks so much.” Without naming me, of course. But everyone knew. 

Then it was time to head in to see this movie. I probably could’ve taken off by now. I’d more than made an appearance. But I just… I had to see this through. Something was keeping me here, some thought that this was too important for me to just give up and head home. The answers to what the hell Paige’s deal was were here somewhere, and this was my best chance to get them. 

Once more, as we made our way through the house to the Banners’ private movie theater, there were staff members standing around to make sure nobody wandered off. Good lord, I’d thought this would be a chance for me to sneak away and search the house, but that just wasn’t gonna happen. Not with all the eagle-eyed and attentive maids and such who were bound and determined to watch every step we took. It felt like if someone had so much as taken a wrong turn down a different hallway, a SWAT team would’ve descended on them. I probably would’ve had more luck searching this place by coming in the middle of a school day or something. Because this was just insane. 

But I was here now, and maybe things would calm down during the movie. Yeah. Once everyone got settled in and it was dark, I’d slip out to ‘use the bathroom’, then manage to get myself lost. That felt like my best chance. For now, I’d just wait for the movie to start and everyone to get engrossed in it. 

Unfortunately, the movie wasn’t the first thing on Paige’s mind, apparently. Once everyone was seated in the private theater (there were just barely enough seats for the entire crowd with a couple left over), she moved front and center with her hands up. “You guys all having a good time?!” 

The answer, of course, was a resounding roar of approval from most people, and I watched as Paige… well, seemed to ignore it. Most of the time she would have basked, but now it felt like she was just going through the motions. The look on her face, it wasn’t–it was wrong. It was the wrong expression for this kind of thing, even if she was really good at hiding it. There was something…

Belatedly, I realized Paige was still talking while I was trying to decipher her expression and mood. Something about giving presents to everyone who came–right. Yeah, she was going to gift a present to each and every person here, one at a time. There was a table full of colorful gift bags beside her, and she proceeded to start calling every person up, one at a time, to get their present for being a ‘wonderful guest.’ 

The gifts were either a new phone, new smart watch, or new ipad, depending on what Paige had determined each person needed or would want more. And yeah, everyone went nuts. A few people hugged her after getting their gift, before heading to their seat. 

Honestly, I expected her to skip over me. Expected it so much I almost didn’t hear her when she said my name. So she said it again. “Cassie Evans.” 

She was looking at me. They were all looking at me. Fuck. Pushing myself up while asking myself what the hell her game was, I headed to the front. Cassie. She called me Cassie. Paige never did that. It was always Cassidy. Cassie was way too familiar and friendly. And she’d called me that earlier, hadn’t she? With Izzy. Why…? 

Reaching the front, I squinted at the girl, almost silently daring her to pull something now in front of everyone. She, in turn, offered me a faint… kind of sad smile. Sad? Why was she sad? 

“I want you to know,” Paige informed me, loudly enough for everyone to hear, “I think you earned this a long time ago.” With that, she turned to pick up yet another small gift bag, this one with my name on it. She held it up, and I saw her hand dip into the bag, eyes rising to meet mine with an expression of… fear…? 

A sudden, terrifying bang filled the room. It sounded like a gunshot. Instantly, the lights went out. The whole area was suddenly pitch black and everyone started screaming, even as something was shoved against my face. A mask? No, like an oxygen mask. It was an oxygen mask, except it wasn’t pumping oxygen. It was–it smelled sweet, it smelled–

My knees went weak. I collapsed forward, caught by Paige in the darkness even as my consciousness started to fade. I felt sick, I felt wrong, everything was… everything was…

“I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” Paige’s voice whispered in my ear as she slumped to the floor with my falling body. Her voice, her apology, was the last thing I heard. “You have to die. I don’t have a choice.

“You have to die.”

Previous Chapter / Next Chapter

Project Owl 14-01 and Patreon Snippets 17B (Summus Proelium)

Previous Chapter / Next Chapter

The single requested snippet for Summus Proelium this month follows the end of this regular chapter. Thank you very much to the patron who requested it! 

The morning started out like most others did these days. In other words, it started by me being woken up by Jania Estrada, our elderly-yet-eternally-energetic maid from Panama, turning on the vacuum cleaner a few feet away from the bed I was snoring on. As usual, the sudden loud noise sent me tumbling out of bed with a yelp, which made Jania’s cheerful laugh overwhelm the sound of the machine itself. She wasn’t malicious about it, of course. Jania was one of the nicest people I knew. But she had a job to do and I tended to sleep in on non-school days, for reasons that should have been fairly obvious (not that I could give them to her). She wasn’t waking me up for the hell of it, even if my reaction did give her some amusement. She did other work upstairs and waited as long as she could before Olivia, our head housekeeper, would have had harsh words for her tardiness. 

Still, whether by choice or not, Jania did find waking me up with the vacuum and my subsequent reactions to be ever-so-amusing. Sometimes I managed to wake up first, but others, like now, she would put the vacuum close enough to give me a minor heart attack when it flipped on. 

Lying in a heap on the floor, I turned my head just enough to stare at the gray-haired woman who was currently giving an entirely-too-innocent expression while vacuuming back and forth. “Oh, Miss Evans!” Her mock surprise wasn’t the least bit convincing, and she obviously knew it. “I did not see you there. Were you not downstairs already eating?” Her head tilted, and then she made a sound of put-on realization. “Oh, that must have been Miss Amor who was at the table.”  

With a groan, I rolled backward and managed to pull myself to my feet somewhat awkwardly. “Yeah, sure,” I retorted, “simple mistake. We look so much alike.” Picking up one of my pillows, I chucked it lightly at her. She, of course, smoothly ducked without paying much attention. For an old lady, she was pretty spry and had good reflexes to go along with her good mood and sense of humor. 

Checking the time, I grimaced. It was almost eleven o’clock. God, I really had needed sleep. Worse, Paige’s party was supposed to start at two, so that was only three hours away. Urgh. Once again, I considered just pleading off. But not only was there that whole ‘keeping up appearances for the family’ thing, I also really wanted to know what the hell was going on with her, and this was basically my best (if not only) chance to find out. 

As far as the first bit went, I did wonder just what my parents were thinking about all this. They knew that Paige knew at least something about their business, that she had enough information to make them back off and leave her alone. Yet they still wanted me to go to this party. Was I some kind of unwitting spy? Were they going to ask me all kinds of things about her when it was all over? Was this just their way of getting someone in Paige’s house? Were they using the whole party thing as a way to find out how much Paige really knew, as some kind of test or… something? I had no idea. All I knew was that my mother said that it would be rude for our family to turn down an invitation from her family, but that I was free to leave once I’d made an appearance. Which was an offer I still wasn’t sure if I’d take or not. Sure, I was wary of going, but once I was there, it made sense to stick around and see what happened. Again, it wasn’t as though this kind of opportunity came around a lot. 

Still, with only three hours to go, all sorts of doubts and insecurities were popping up in my head. Anything could go wrong over there. And by that, I meant anything. Paige could be planning some kind of humiliating, nasty attack against me, or this could end up being some big Touched/Ministry-related thing. Or it could be nothing at all, just both sides (her and my parents) feeling each other out to see what the other would do. 

It was fucking complicated, and I had no idea how it was all going to play out. What I did know was that I was hungry, and that at least was something I could take care of immediately. Well, almost immediately. First, I headed into the bathroom, took a nice, hot shower, then dressed before heading downstairs. 

The others were obviously long-since done with breakfast by then, with Dad already off to some meeting, Mom having a conversation in the front hall with some florist or dressmaker or something who had stopped by (I wasn’t sure, as I kept hearing both words about flowers and fabric), and Simon paused on his way out the door of the kitchen as I was going in just long enough to give me a noogie before he headed for the garage. 

Izzy was still sitting there, looking at the comic strips in the newspaper. After ordering food at the intercom, I took a seat next to her. “How’s Garfield today?” 

“Fat and lazy,” she replied, looking over at me. “Are you really going to go see that girl’s birthday? Isn’t she, umm… not very nice?” 

Yeah, I may have said a thing or two about Paige while Izzy and I were playing video games before. Plus, she’d seen her back at Amber’s own party. Grimacing, I shook my head. “Don’t really have much of a choice. It’s a whole ‘rich people’ thing. Her family’s rich, mine is rich, we have to play nice at times like this. According to Mom, it wasn’t even Paige who wanted to invite me. It was more ‘her family inviting our family’, with me as the proxy.” Rolling my eyes, I added, “Fun, huh?” 

“Super,” came the simple response, before Izzy turned a bit more to face me directly. “Your umm, your mom asked if I wanted to go, cuz there’s supposed to be a lot of different kids there, even my age. It’s a whole thing. The Banners invited half the people in the city, it seems like. But I… I told her I wasn’t sure if you wanted company. Or, you know… some kid tagging along.” 

That made me do a double-take, blinking at her. “Wasn’t sure I wanted–sure, Izzy. I mean, I’ll take all the back-up I can get. And you’re not just some kid, you’re–” Realizing I had no idea how to finish that sentence, I settled on doubling down with, “You’re not just some kid. Besides, if Paige is awful, I’ll just retreat to the tweens area and hang out with you.” 

“You don’t think that’ll just give her more ammo about you being too young?” Izzy pointed out, clearly trying to sound diplomatic about the whole thing. 

I, in turn, shrugged. “It’s not like she needs any excuse. I’m not gonna live my life by what might give Paige Banners a way to make fun of me. She’ll do that regardless. I’d rather have fun. And if I’ve got to make an appearance there, I’d rather have someone else to hang out with, like you.” 

“And Amber and Jae,” the other girl pointed out. “They’ll be there too, right?” 

“Right, yeah, them too.” I gave a slow nod before giving her a quick wink. “You guys really hit it off before, huh?” 

A brief, vaguely odd look crossed the girl’s face before vanishing. It could’ve been my imagination. Either way, she gave a quick nod. “Uh huh, they’re nice.” The curt answer was followed up by a curious, “What’s a birthday party for the rich like?” 

“Oh, you’ll see,” I informed her with a cough. “It’s always different, and I haven’t exactly been invited to many of Paige’s, so I don’t know what she does.” Or did I? At some point, I’d clearly been close enough to Paige to know a lot more about her than I did now. Did I visit for her birthday? Had I–

“Cassidy?” Izzy’s voice interrupted, as she touched my arm. “Are you okay?” 

“Oh, uhh, yeah, sorry.” Flushing despite myself, I nodded. “I’m fine. The point is, birthdays are extravagant. But then, I’m pretty sure you’ve figured out a lot of things around here are extravagant by now.” 

Even as I said that, the kitchen door opened and Christiana, one of Chef Claudio’s assistants, emerged with the tray holding my breakfast. After thanking her for setting it in front of me, I quickly dug into it, while glancing at the girl next to me, “So, you’re gonna come, right?” 

“Um, okay.” Izzy still sounded unsure about the whole thing, but gave me a little nod. “If you want me to.” 

Honestly, I really wasn’t sure how all this was going to go down. Would having Izzy there put her in danger? I’d basically figured out and accepted by that point that my parents didn’t mean her any harm, whatever reason they had for her being here. But taking her out to where Paige’s house was, when I wasn’t sure why I had even been invited? Was it stupid? 

Maybe. But there would be a lot of people there, as Izzy herself had noted. No one was going to pull something obvious with so many witnesses and bodyguards around. 

Right? 

********

“Holy shit, Evans, you actually showed up?” 

Izzy and I had just been dropped off in the front drive of the Banners mansion. Like my family’s place, the ‘driveway’ was long enough to have several school buses park along it. There weren’t exactly school buses parked there now, though there were several cars all letting out an assortment of teenagers. Most looked pretty damn impressed by the massive house in front of them. 

That obviously surprised exclamation had come from a short (well, taller than me but only by about four inches or so), vaguely heavyset black guy with glasses and an ever-present red baseball cap worn backwards. San Francisco Cavers. Yeah, his first name was San and his middle name was Francisco. His parents really thought they were clever, I supposed. 

“Hey, San,” I greeted him. He’d gone by Frank (as in San Francisco) for awhile back in junior high before deciding he hated that worse than just San. “What’s up?” 

Whether his name was cool or weird, San was a friend. Sort of. Mostly he was a ‘hang out at school or go do something dangerous and crazy afterward’ sort of buddy. Not that we’d exactly hung out any time recently. Mostly because I hadn’t hung out with… any of my school friends. How could I? Either I’d be putting innocent people in danger by being around them, or I’d be spending time with people who were planted by my parents to keep an eye on me. Any of my ‘friends’ at school could’ve been secretly reporting to my parents. Or collateral damage if something happened to me. 

Paranoid? Sure, definitely, no question. But didn’t I have reason to be? Yeah, I’d avoided most of my school friends since that night. It hadn’t been all that hard, given how much I’d tended to keep them at a distance anyway. For… reasons I was starting to understand, with this whole Anthony Tate thing. He’d been a really close friend and he died. Whatever happened back then had obviously been traumatizing enough that my parents erased it from my memory. But I had a feeling that some of it had stuck around. Between that and Paige apparently being erased and–

Actually, was it possible that… if Paige and I had been friends, even if she was also somehow erased from my memory, when she’d showed up again and acted like such a bitch to me, I’d subconsciously taken that as some kind of betrayal? Could that have helped my whole… avoiding close friendships thing too? 

Huh. 

San was shaking his head. “What’s up? What’s up is I’m surprised you came. I mean, it ain’t like you and Princess Peach in there are all that close.” 

Grimacing, I nodded. “Yeah, well, it’s a family sort of thing. You know, gotta keep up appearances.” 

With that, I started to introduce Izzy as a girl who was staying with us for awhile, just as Tomas approached. Of course he was there too, speaking of people whom I still didn’t know if I could trust at all or not. I wanted to, naturally. But I kept flipping back and forth between just how involved he was with his father. The fact that he’d been my boyfriend for awhile after Mr. Jackson erased my memory back in the day… yeah, it made me uncomfortable. But Tomas was just so… decent, so cool. He made me feel like I was special. 

Then again, so had my parents. And look at that whole situation. 

Pushing those thoughts aside, I focused as Tomas was saying, “You know Cass isn’t going to let someone being a hellbeast stop her from doing anything.” His hand patted my back as he added, “I mean, come on, this is the same girl who, according to some very interesting stories people were telling the other day, jumped into Maggie DeLeano’s pool from the roof just because someone said she was too chicken to do it from the balcony. She didn’t just beat the dare, she upped the ante. And freaked out Mr. DeLeano when he saw her fall past the window, so he came out and started yelling.” 

“You did?” That was Izzy, staring at me with wide eyes. “Wait, how big was the DeLeano house?” Clearly, she was trying to figure out just what level of crazy I actually was. 

“Just a few stories, no big deal,” I insisted. “They have a deep pool too. Trust me, it was nothing.” 

“Nothing?” Tomas chuckled, giving me a look. “From what I heard, no one else was ready to go jumping off after her.” 

“That’s because they’re all sissies,” I pointed out mildly, poking him in the chest. “And so are you.” 

“Sissy and proud of it, ma’am,” he replied with a grin that made my heart twist itself into knots. Even now, even with everything I knew and all the things about that whole situation that terrified me, Tomas could make my knees shake and my mouth go dry with a single look. How was that fair? 

With some effort, I shoved all those thoughts away before looking at San. “Anyway, can we stop telling Izzy all about the dumb things I used to do when I was young and stupid?” 

Lowering his head, the boy stared at me over the top of his glasses, looking entirely unimpressed. “Dude, it was like…. four months ago.” 

“Four month–” Izzy looked at her fingers, doing the mental math. “Wasn’t it still winter then?” 

“Pshh, their pool was heated,” I pointed out, as if that actually solved anything. Still, my face flushed a little. “And yeah, four months ago. Like I said, young and dumb. I wasn’t even sixteen yet. Totally not worth ever bringing up again.”

“What’s not worth bringing up again?” Amber, approaching with Jae (who was heavily done up in a hat, sunscreen, and dark shades to protect her sensitive albino skin), asked. She exchanged a fist bump with San, while looking toward me. “You sure you wanna be here?” 

Despite myself, I rolled my eyes. “Come on, guys. I didn’t accidentally have the driver drop us off here thinking it was the mall. And I didn’t bring this for my health.” From my pocket, I produced a small, red-wrapped present to wave at them. “Believe me, if it was my choice, I’d rather be almost anywhere else. But her family and mine just–we have to play nice.” 

Quietly, Jae pointed out, “Her too.” 

“Right, that should mean she plays nice too, especially with all these people here,” Amber agreed. “But shouldn’t we go in to find out? What’s everyone standing outside like this for anyway?” By that point, there had to be over a hundred teenagers out here, all talking in small groups or pairs. 

San shrugged, looking around at the rest of the mingling groups. “One of the butlers was out here before. He said something about the party being prepared and that we’ve all gotta wait.” 

Tomas gave a short nod of confirmation. “Yeah, and he didn’t look too happy about all the people out here either. Pretty sure if it was up to him, he’d turn the hose on all of us.”

That, of course, was the perfect opening for San to start talking about the time I’d managed to get Mrs. Kormish to turn her hose on me after one too many times running through her backyard to get the balls that ended up back there. Her yard was right on the edge of the park where I took my skates and board to use the ramps and rails, and some of the guys played baseball on the nearby diamond. I didn’t really play, but every time a ball went in mean old Mrs. Kormish’s yard, the boys all looked to me to go get it. Apparently I was the only one who wasn’t chicken, given how much she yelled at and threatened anyone who got near her grass. 

Anyway, one time I’d gone too close to her back porch, and she came running out from the side of the house (apparently she’d been working in the flower garden there), spraying me with the hose and screaming bloody murder. That was a fun time. 

Izzy was squinting at me. “How come so many of your stories end with ‘and then I got soaked while someone screamed at me?’” 

San laughed. “Oh, kid, you think that’s bad, you should’ve heard about the time we out on the beach, and–” 

He was interrupted (and I was spared hearing that story again), by the arrival of Paige herself. Several people quickly spoke up, pointing her out as the birthday girl stood at the front door. Her gaze swept over the crowd and… I swore she looked right at me. Our gazes locked, holding steady for a solid couple of seconds before she spoke up. 

“You came.” 

Me? Was–was she talking to–

By that point, her gaze had swept on, taking in everyone with a very faint smile. Whatever had been there on her face earlier was gone now. It had been replaced by a polite smile, that of a gracious host. “Thank you all. I’m sorry for keeping you waiting. But believe me, it’s going to be worth it. Come on inside.” She turned, gesturing as two maids there opened the large front doors, holding them wide for everyone to follow as Paige herself walked back into her house. 

“Let’s get this party started.”

********

Patreon Snippets – Raindrop

“Does this hurt?” With that question, the paramedic who stood in front of Raindrop gently turned her arm, testing the range of motion. “You said a brick clipped it right here? Or was it higher?”

It had been a few minutes since the fight with Suckshot and Landlock. Izzy was still standing in the theater, though no longer up on the stage. Still in full-costume, of course, the girl was holding her arm out absently for the medic to check over while her gaze remained centered on the spot where Paintball was waving off a medic of his own, insisting he was fine. 

Realizing belatedly that she had been asked a question, Izzy flushed under her mirrored faceplate and quickly turned her attention back. “Huh? Oh-um, no, it’s just a little sore. Um, bruised, I guess?” Her gloved hand moved to gingerly touch the spot where she had been clipped by the brick before Paintball showed up. Before Paintball helped save them. Helped save her

She was blushing again. Forcing herself to focus once more, she listened as the medic finished up with making sure she wasn’t injured even worse, and told her what to do if she did find that it was more than a bruise. 

Finally, he left. Paintball, meanwhile, had already started to head for the exit after seeing that the authorities had Suckshot and Landlock in hand. After giving a quick glance around herself to make sure she wasn’t ignoring anyone, Izzy jogged after, catching up with the boy. For a second, she hesitated. What was she going to say? The first thing that sprang to mind was to ask how he was already so good at this stuff when he’d just started out a short time ago and wasn’t working with a group. He was her age. Her age, but he did all this stuff alone, or even came to help when they needed it even though he wasn’t part of their team.

And that was another question Izzy wanted to ask. Why? Why didn’t he want to work with them? Actually, it was pretty obvious that he was just fine working with them, as long as it wasn’t official. So… so what was his deal? 

Ugh, he was so mysterious. He came out of nowhere, was super-good at this stuff even if he made mistakes, and he just… he just helped. She’d even heard that he was giving out sandwiches and stuff to the homeless. Again, what was his deal

But she couldn’t bring herself to ask any of that. It was too confrontational, too direct. And after everything he’d done, after the way he’d jumped in and–

Blushing again. Good mask. Very good mask. Izzy had never been so thankful for–

“After you.” Paintball was holding the door open leading out to the street. Holding the door and waiting for her expectantly. 

“Thanks,” Izzy quickly piped up before starting to move through. The minor voice changer she used, just enough to make it so people wouldn’t be able to put her voice online to figure out who she was, picked up the squeak in her words, making the girl blush even more as she quickly stepped through the doorway. Then she turned back, facing Paintball. “Um. Thanks for all of that, I mean. Thanks for helping.”

For a second, Paintball seemed to be confused. “Thanks–oh. Uh, no problem. It’s what we do, right?” 

“Right,” Izzy agreed hurriedly, bobbing her head. It was just what they did. Never mind that Paintball managed to be funny and cool about it while not having a team with him or anything. Never mind any of that. Stop thinking about that. Yeah. 

Clearly, whatever else Paintball was, he was not telepathic. Because he gave no indication that he had any hint of anything Izzy was thinking. Instead, his helmeted head turned as he took in the sight of various cops rounding up mostly-injured and only slightly resisting gang members all around them. “I guess we should help clean up a bit, huh?”  

Once again, Izzy found herself nodding. Right, they should help clean up. She and Paintball should help. 

Her blush was going to burn through the mirrored faceplate, she just knew it. 

Previous Chapter / Next Chapter

Interlude 13B – Paige’s Preparations (Summus Proelium)

Previous Chapter / Next Chapter

A sleek, elegant-looking sports car slowed at the road construction cones that blocked off the quiet, otherwise empty street. The orange lights atop the ‘detour’ sign flashed repeatedly in the darkness of the post-midnight hour, illuminating an arrow pointing toward a nearby alley. A sign next to the alley itself insisted that it would lead around the construction. For a moment, the driver seemed to be considering their options, before putting the car into reverse, pulling back a few feet, and then following the ‘detour’ instructions by pulling ahead into the alley. 

Only once the car had made it halfway down the alley did its headlights actually reveal the truth. There was a wall at the opposite end, with no way of actually getting through. Nor was there room in the alley to turn the car around. There was barely room to open both doors. 

Just as that became clear, a large van pulled backward into the open alleyway, blocking the exit. Immediately, the back door of the van opened, and four men wearing red and black masks and dark jackets with various years written across the back and (in smaller lettering) over the front pocket, emerged. The years were all different, but each was 1999 or earlier. Of course, because these were members of the Ninety-Niners gang, those who only allowed members who had either lived (or had family who lived) in the city prior to the year 2000. They tended to boast of how long each of their families had lived in Detroit. The further back you could trace your family connection to the city, the higher you were regarded and the easier it was to be promoted. 

Each of the four Ninety-Niner men who hopped out of the back of the van carried a gun. Two had pistols, while two had shotguns. They split into pairs, one of each weapon type, and advanced. Two moved to the driver’s side, while the other pair moved up on the passenger side. All four glanced toward the license plate on the car. It was an out-of-state plate, of course. That was what had made this particular vehicle such an attractive target. Fucking outstaters coming to their city, reaping the benefits of what people whose families had actually lived there had earned? Hell no, not anymore. The Ninety-Niners were going to make damn sure that didn’t happen. Especially with some rich, spoiled cocksucker who thought they could come here in their fancy sports car. Detroit was for Motor City natives, not some Johnny-come-lately.

The driver of the car hadn’t moved once the men emerged. They kept sharp eyes on the reverse lights while raising their weapons, making it clear if the person tried to reverse into them, they’d be hit by a hail of gunfire. But the driver gave no indication of doing anything of the sort. They simply sat there, as though waiting for the gunmen to approach. 

Reaching the back of the car, the two pairs of masked figures briefly exchanged glances before starting around. The two by the passenger side carefully used small lights attached to their weapons to check for anyone crouched or laying in the back on that side, but found it empty. The car’s only occupant was the driver, whom they could now see was a blonde female. 

The two on the driver’s side glanced at each other once more. Then the one with the pistol, who was in the lead, tapped his weapon lightly against the roof of the car. “Open the door,” he ordered. “Put your hands out first, then step out slowly. Do it now and you won’t get hurt. We want your car and any money you’ve got on you, that’s it. After that, you can run off, call the cops, report to your insurance, whatever. Not like some rich cunt like you can’t afford it.”

There was no response to his words, only the very faint sound of whimpering. The blonde girl’s head was down, and it sounded like she was crying, obviously in shock. She gave no indication that she had even heard what he said, seeming lost in her own terror. 

Great, it was going to be one of these. People who screamed and cursed them were one thing, but the criers were really annoying. Grimacing behind his mask, the man sighed and steadied himself before knocking a bit louder with the butt of his gun. “Hey!” He raised his voice. “You hear me? Just get out of the car and you’ll be fine. I–” He cast an annoyed look back to his partner before leaning down to be even with her open window. “Look, just fucking cooperate and we’re not gonna hurt you or anything.” 

“I know,” Paige Banners replied, no hint of emotion in her voice. As the man reacted to that, eyes widening, her hand snapped out through the open window. She caught hold of his jacket and yanked hard, slamming the man’s forehead against the top of the car. Twice in rapid succession, she repeated the same move, shoving the man back and then slamming his head against the car, all before any of the others could react. His arm with the pistol came up, and she caught it with her free hand, yanking his dazed and barely conscious body partway into the car in order to force his own hand to point toward the opposite side as she made his finger pull the trigger, shooting the pistol-armed man who stood by the passenger door. Silenced as it was, the weapon made almost no sound. They hadn’t wanted to attract police or Touched attention if this went wrong. Which it was, but not in a way they could ever have imagined. 

The first man’s partner with the shotgun was trying to get a clear aim, but Paige was using his buddy as a personal shield, blocking his view. Smoothly, she stripped the pistol from the man’s grip, lying backward across the seats with him on top of her as she pointed the weapon backward, firing a single shot that hit the other man on the passenger side right between the eyes. He dropped, his own shotgun clattering to the ground. 

Finally, the man with the shotgun on the driver’s side took quick aim, desperately trying to get a shot at the girl herself. Before he could see anything other than his own buddy’s flailing body, however, Paige released said buddy’s jacket. Her now-free hand snapped up and flicked to the side, prompting a small silver dagger to jump into her palm from her sleeve. Another quick snap of her wrist sent the blade through the open window, where it rebounded off the nearby brick wall before stabbing itself firmly into the back of the remaining man’s neck. 

He collapsed to the ground, gun clattering loudly. Finally, Paige used her foot to kick her door open, emerging as the barely conscious figure of the first man fell to his knees on the alley floor when she pushed him out of the car with her. He jerked just a little bit while making a sound. It could have been a curse, a protest, a plea, she didn’t care. The hand with the gun she had taken from him simply pointed that way and she shot him through the side of the head, leaving his body to collapse. 

Everything had transpired in the span of just a few seconds. Short enough that the driver of the van barely had a moment to realize just how terrible things had suddenly become. As Paige looked that way, the van shifted into drive as the driver panickedly began to flee. Rather than chase him, however, she pivoted toward the door of the nearby building. The van started to tear out of the alley, while Paige fired a single shot from her borrowed pistol at the doorknob before shoving her shoulder into it. The door opened, and she sprinted through the closed and empty shop, vaulting over a couple tables and counters on her way to the front. 

She reached the main door, firing another shot that shattered the glass so she could leap through it, just as the van came out of the alley and around the corner. The driver barely had time to notice the figure emerging into view before she sent one more shot into the side of his head. The van kept going for another twenty feet or so before coming to a slow stop as the now-dead driver slumped over.

Looking one way then the other up and down the street, Paige checked for anyone paying attention. But the Ninety-Niners had chosen their ambush spot for a reason. There was no one around. Satisfied, she walked to the van, yanking the door open before pulling the dead driver out. Letting the body fall to the ground, she examined him critically, turning him over with her foot. 

“Between the five of you,” the girl muttered darkly under her breath. “I sure hope one has clothes that actually fit me. 

“Otherwise this really was a waste of time.” 

*******

An hour later, the Ninety-Niners van pulled through another alley and stopped at the rear entrance into a laundromat. Paige, dressed in the clothes, jacket, and mask of one of the men she had killed (which did actually fit, to her relief), parked the van, turned it off, and stepped out with a shotgun held loosely in one hand. 

A whistle from the doorway drew her attention to the similarly-dressed gang member who had previously been hidden out of sight. “Yo, you by yourself tonight?” 

When Paige spoke, her voice came out sounding far deeper than it did naturally, matching that of the man the clothes had actually belonged to. “Lost a fucking bet. They get to grab food at Dino’s, I get to bring this shit over.” 

“Hah, figures.” The man pushed his way away from the door and moved to the back of the van. “Let’s get it over with. You get a good haul, at least?” 

Paige, in turn, waited until the man yanked open the rear door of the van and was confronted with the sight of his five dead fellow gang members. Just as he started to react to that, she drove the butt of the shotgun into the back of his head, knocking him senseless. Casually, the girl shoved him up into the van, grabbed the keys out of his pocket, and shut the doors once more while muttering, “Mostly trash.” 

With that, she headed for the door of the laundromat, unlocking it with the keys she had grabbed before stepping inside a short hallway. As she passed through the doorway, she heard a simple beep. To most people, it wouldn’t have meant anything. But Paige knew that the single beep was the sound of the Ninety-Niners’ security system verifying that the jacket and mask she wore contained the hidden microchips tagging her as one of their own members. If it had detected her entering without those microchips, the alarm would have sounded immediately. 

Straight ahead the hall opened up into the main room where the machines were, while a single door to the right was labeled ‘restroom’ and a door to the left read ‘staff only.’ The sound of a loud television and a man chuckling came from that latter door. 

For a moment, Paige simply stood and listened, head cocked to the side. Two people. There were two people in that room. And, from the sound of things, one further off in the main room, doing something with the machines. There was an occasional bang and curse as he was apparently having trouble with his work. Three guys upstairs. More downstairs, she was sure. 

Rather than open the door to the office where the two men were watching television, she simply produced a small, matchbook sized silver box and pressed it against the doorjamb. It stuck in place, remaining there while giving a soft, barely audible beep to confirm it had been armed. That done, Paige walked swiftly and silently past the door, heading for the main room. The man working there had his back to her as he leaned over one of the washing machines, fiddling with it. Paige, in turn, moved right up behind him. He sensed her presence at the last second and started to turn, but she caught the back of his neck and shoulders with both hands and forcefully slammed his forehead down into the top of the washing machine twice. Then she shoved his dazed form down, lashing out with a kick that put him down. 

She paused, listening just in case. But there was no movement from the office. They obviously believed the bangs they had heard were simply more examples of their companion’s annoyance with his work. 

Satisfied, Paige stooped to grab a badge off the man’s belt and moved to an unlabeled door on the far side of the room. It was barely visible, intentionally positioned and painted to blend into the wall. If you weren’t looking right at it, and sometimes even then, you’d have no idea it was there. At most, anyone who didn’t know what it was would think the door led to a small supply closet or something. 

But Paige knew better. She had spent months researching to know better. It had taken that long to work out what she needed for her plan to succeed, and to find out where it actually was. 

There was no obvious place to put the badge that she had taken from the unconscious man’s belt, which was also intentional. But Paige, again, knew what to do. She held the badge up against what appeared to be a simple stain on the wall next to the door. After a couple seconds, there was a click, and she hauled the door open with her other hand, keeping the shotgun tucked under one arm. 

Stairs lay beyond, which the girl quickly started down. So close now. She was so close. Just a little more and she’d have what she so desperately needed. 

A man emerged from a door at the bottom of the stairs, looking up at her in clear surprise. “Hey, what’s going on? Is something–” 

Paige shot him. There was no time to waste, no way she was going to risk losing out on her goal when she was so close. The shotgun blast took the man directly in the chest, making him collapse to the floor while Paige hopped over him, landing in the doorway he had come out of. It was a sterile lab, where the Ninety-Niners mixed their drugs. A dozen men and women in plastic cleanroom suits jerked upward from their work at the tables, but Paige simply held the shotgun up, watching as they jerked their hands in the air and went still. 

Drugs lined the tables, and the people clearly expected her to take them. But she ignored those. Instead, keeping the shotgun raised and trained that way, Paige made her way across the room to another door. Just as she reached it, a man came rushing out, pistol in hand. He would have fired, but Paige had already reacted. Even as the door was still opening, before the man had actually emerged, she snapped her free hand out, producing one of her knives before throwing it. The blade whistled through the air, driving itself into the man’s throat the instant he came into view. He never had a chance to so much as fire a shot before he was already falling. 

That prompted a lot of screaming, with one man from the cleansuit brigade bolting toward the stairs. Paige let him go, and the rest followed suit, scrambling to escape. 

She didn’t care. They didn’t matter. All that mattered was in that room. She stepped over the dead body, entering what looked like a small storage area filled with the supplies and equipment the people in the main room needed to put the drugs together to be sold. 

There. In one corner of the small room was a locked metal cage, about four feet high and four feet wide. Paige murmured a word of thanks under her breath before crouching. Her hand found the padlock, and she gripped it tightly and took a breath before yanking hard. It took a couple tries, but the lock finally snapped, and she tossed it aside before opening the cage. 

There. A small green and silver tank, just like one that would hold oxygen, sat there alongside several more just like it. But this one didn’t have oxygen. Technically, the Ninety-Niners used small portions of it in some of their drugs. But that wasn’t why Paige needed it. She had… a different use in mind. 

Grabbing the tank, the girl straightened and turned. She quickly made her way across the main basement room and up the stairs. Emerging into the laundromat itself, she found the main door hanging open where the workers had all fled. To the left, she saw the hallway she had come in through. The door to the manager’s office was open, and the two men who had been watching television inside lay slumped on the ground where the device she’d attached to the doorway had left them when they triggered it on their way out. 

Satisfied that there were no more surprises, Paige pivoted and walked out through the open front door. More Ninety-Niners would be on their way shortly, but she would be long gone by the time they got there. They would have no way of finding who had ambushed their men, infiltrated their facility, and stolen their equipment. 

Quickly moving down the street, Paige found her way to a small parking lot beside a diner. The car she had left there earlier, before any of this started, was still waiting. Opening the back door, she carefully stowed the stolen tank, then stripped out of the jacket and mask, tossing them into the nearby dumpster so she couldn’t be tracked. 

That done, the blonde girl gave one last look around, then stepped down into the anonymous sedan, started it up, and pulled away. In the rearview mirror, she saw three vans full of Ninety-Niners come screaming up to the laundromat before dozens of armed men went storming inside. 

But they were too late. Paige had what she needed. She was ready for her birthday party. 

She was ready to deal with Cassidy. 

Previous Chapter / Next Chapter

Interlude 13A – Paige and Her Father (Summus Proelium)

Previous Chapter / Next Chapter

Seven Years Ago

“Project Owl, day seven hundred and thirty two.” Speaking into the portable voice recorder that he held in one hand, a man frowned thoughtfully. He was a Caucasian male with dark blond hair and brown eyes, in his mid-thirties. A white lab coat and dark, heavily stained red apron were worn loosely over his clothes, and he sat in a room that might have been large were it not entirely filled by heavy metal tables piled high with a mixture of mechanical devices and tools. Not to mention the large human cadaver lying on a metal dissection table on the far side of the area, next to an industrial-sized sink. The chest of the body had been opened up, with several organs sitting next to it. Tubes and wires connected the heart and lungs both to the body itself and to a nearby machine, which had a small screen displaying a continuous line of computer code. 

The slight frown on the seated man’s face held until he thought of the next thing to say. “Paige is getting better every day. She’s going to surpass my best estimate months ahead of schedule. At this rate, we’ll be able to move on to phase three before Christmas.” Another pause, then a murmured, “Julie would’ve wanted it that way. And with help from the Tates, we’ll have the funding we need. As soon as Paige is ready to show what she can do, what these… enhancements can do.” He trailed off briefly, eyes turning slightly to look at the wired-up organs next to the corpse across the room as those last few words left his mouth in a murmur. After that, the man pushed himself up from the wooden stool he’d been perched on and stepped over, hand brushing over the heart just enough to assure himself that it was still occasionally beating. Softly and slowly, but beating nonetheless. A very slight smile touched his face. It was an expression of accomplishment, of satisfaction at hard work being rewarded with results. “We’ll change the world, Julie. With help from the Tates and the Evans, we’ll make everything better.” There was a hoarseness to his voice, born of long-buried emotion that the man didn’t dare allow himself to express in that moment for fear of the damage he might do to the valuable materials around him in a fit of anger. It would not be the first time, but he had learned his lesson after losing hours of work. 

Clearing his throat after that momentary pause, the man spoke again for the recorder. “I have another meeting with Russell Tate tomorrow. I’ll take Paige with me and show him how far she’s progressed since he saw her last. If he can convince Sterling and Elena to front the other half of the funding, we’ll never have to worry about working in such… sparse conditions again.” 

“Dad?” The voice came from the small blonde girl who stood just inside the doorway of the lab wearing dark blue pajamas. In one hand, she held a well-worn and clearly loved book full of Calvin and Hobbes comic strips clutched tight against her chest, while the other hand rubbed sleepily at one of her eyes. “I had a bad dream. Can I have some water, please?” 

“It wasn’t a bad dream,” the man replied simply, casting a brief look that way. “You were just–” He sighed, shaking his head while muttering something under his breath. Then he stepped over that way. The girl raised her hands as though to be picked up, but he stepped past her without noticing or paying attention. “Come on, let’s get you back to bed. It’s a big day tomorrow.” 

Rather than following immediately, the small girl leaned up on her toes to stare at the partially dissected cadaver on the nearby table. Her face twisted a bit before she pivoted to trot along after her father, bare feet slapping against the tile floor. On the way, Paige raised the comic strip collection, finding one section in particular. “Dad, dad, listen. Calvin thinks bats are bugs, and–” 

“Bats aren’t bugs,” her father retorted without even glancing that way, his voice making it clear that he hadn’t really been listening to the context of what she was saying. “You know better than that. What’s the scientific name for them?” 

“No, no, I know.” Head bobbing up and down, Paige hurriedly tried to explain. “But he doesn’t. It’s just–” 

They had reached the kitchen by then, and the man flipped on the light before stepping to the nearby fridge. “Scientific name for bats, Paige. You know this.” 

With a soft sigh, the girl closed the book upon the realization that her father didn’t care about what she was actually saying. “Chiroptera. It means ‘hand-wing’ in Greek.” As she answered, Paige yawned once more, adding a somewhat mumbled, “They used to be sub-ordered into megachiroptera and microchiroptera, but now they’re grouped as Yinpterochiroptera and Yangochiroptera.” The words came automatically, with Paige clearly barely paying attention.

“Good,” the man noted, while his voice made it clear he didn’t care all that much aside from registering the factual correctness of her words. He took a glass down from the cabinet, then pushed it against the water dispenser in the fridge to fill it before handing the glass to her. “Have a drink, then it’s back to bed. You know how important tomorrow is, don’t you?” 

Taking a sip of the cool water while holding the glass in both hands (the collection of comic strips was tucked under one arm), the young girl slowly nodded. “Yes, Dad. We get to meet Mr. Tate tomorrow. Will we meet Mr. Evans too?” She knew the latter was the fish that her father really wanted to land. The Tates were rich, but with the resources that the Evans could bring to Project Owl, everything her father had been working toward for so long would come true. 

The man’s head shook. “No,” he murmured. “Not yet. Russell knows the broad strokes of the plan, but we have to convince him it’s possible before he takes it to his friend.” His eyes focused on her, narrowing. “Which is why you need to go to bed, so you can do your job tomorrow and impress him.” 

Paige murmured an agreement, before finishing her water and putting the glass into the nearby sink. Then she turned back to face the man with a somewhat uncertain look. “You said the Tates and the Evans have kids like me, right?” 

The man’s response to that was a low chuckle that expressed the sheer absurdity of such an idea. “No, not like you. There is no one else in the world like you, Paige. No one at all… yet.” An anticipatory smile touched his face briefly before he shook that off and focused. “Now, sleep.” 

******

Two Years Later/Five Years Ago

After a quick series of beeps as a code was entered in a control panel, followed by an affirmative chime, the thick metal door into the structure that served as both the man’s lab and his makeshift home opened with a whoosh of air. Immediately beyond the heavy door was a set of metal stairs, which Paige descended quickly, taking them two at a time. “Dad! Dad!” 

Hitting the bottom of the stairs, the girl had reached a long hallway with an arched ceiling, the walls all made of the same thick metal as the door above. Which made sense, given the amount of damage this bunker had been designed to guard against. Its owner was not an incautious man, in most respects. To the left were the labs and testing chambers, while the living areas, such as the kitchen she’d had her drink of water in that night a couple years earlier, were to the right. 

“Where did you go?” The demand came from her father, as he appeared in one of the lab doorways. Dark circles had formed under his eyes in the past few days, ever since the massacre at the Tates house. “I told you to be here waiting for me, not to go wandering off.” 

“I wasn’t wandering, Dad,” Paige insisted, taking the few steps that way to stand in front of him. “Listen, I had to help Cassie. I–” 

“Cassie? Who–what?” Her father interrupted, a sudden frown crossing his face. “Who is Cassie? Who have you been talking to? You know you’re supposed to be subtle, invisible. You’re not supposed to stand out. If anyone finds out the truth about you, about–”

“It’s okay, she won’t tell anybody!” Paige hurriedly insisted. “That’s what I’m trying to tell you, Dad. Just listen for a second, okay?  She’s my friend, Cassie’s my friend! She–they–” 

Abruptly, her father’s hands cupped either side of her face, forcing her to look at him and nowhere else. “Paige,” he snapped sharply, his voice dangerous. “Tell me what happened. What did you do? What do you mean, you have a friend? Who is this Cassie? You know we can’t trust anyone. You know that. Especially now, especially after–” He muttered a curse, releasing the girl’s face while turning to step away, his fist hitting the nearby wall. “It’s the Evans and their family bullshit! All them. We were so close, we were so close. Russell and me, we were going to–he was–” He sighed, pressing his forehead against the wall he had struck. “Russell. He was our friend, Paige. He was our friend and he was going to help make everything better. Everything. If it wasn’t for the Evans dragging their family bullshit into this, if it wasn’t for…” Trailing off, he closed his eyes, shaking his head with a murmured, “I’m sorry, Russell. I’m sorry I wasn’t there. Fuck.” 

For a moment, it looked as though the man had entirely forgotten Paige. But eventually, he straightened a bit, voice hollow and quiet. “We’ll make them pay. The Evans and everyone like them. We’ll make them understand what they’ve lost. We’ll tear everything they have away from them, burn it down, and build something better. Something that works.” 

With those words, the man took in a long, deep breath before letting it out slowly. He was a bit calmer now, a bit more in control, though the dark circles from lack of sleep remained, of course. “You can’t endanger that by talking to people, Paige. Everything we’ve worked for, it’s almost gone. You and me, we’re going to break the Evans. We’re going to break the entire goddamn system.” 

Carefully, Paige pointed out, “I thought you wanted them to fund your work, so you could–” 

“Yes, yes,” the man interrupted. “That was the plan. The Evans and the Tates, with both families, we could have changed the world. We’ll still change it. But not with the Evans. Not with them. It’s their fault Russell and Gloria are gone. Their family, their—their evil bullshit drama! Everyone else suffers but them. Everyone else gets plowed under the ground, just like Julie. You really think I’m going to hand this kind of power to them? No. No, no. We’re going to make them pay for what happened to the Tates, for what their kind does to everyone else in the world. We’re going to put them in the ground, and then we’ll make everything better without them.” 

Smiling in satisfaction at that declaration, the man seemed to abruptly remember what had started the entire conversation. “Cassie. Who is Cassie? Who have you been talking to?” 

For a very brief moment, Paige hesitated, the answer on the edge of her lips. But the anger in her father’s voice, the way he talked about breaking the Evans. She had come running in to tell him that they had to help Cassidy, after she’d witnessed that man in the other girl’s bedroom erase her memory. She’d hidden in Cassidy’s closet, watching as her friend’s memories of Anthony (and of Paige herself) were wiped away. After escaping the house, she’d come here, hoping that her father would help her save her friend. 

Now she saw what a mistake that was. She saw just how much his hatred of the entire Evans family had grown. He had been friends with Russell Tate for a long time. Now the Tates were dead, and her father needed someone to blame. He’d chosen to blame the Evans simply because it had been Mrs. Evans’ father and the remnants of his old criminal gang (the majority of which Sterling and Elena themselves had taken over) who had murdered the Tates. 

In her father’s mind, his friend Russell would still be alive if the Evans hadn’t allowed their ‘family drama’ to go that far. If they had stopped Jacopo Russo, Elena’s father, before, it never would have happened. Now he would never accept that it wasn’t their fault.

So, the girl did something that should have been impossible. She lied to her father. “She’s this homeless lady by the laundromat,” she answered simply, after a hesitation that had lasted only for a second as all those thoughts ran through her mind. “Remember you said I could go for walks if I didn’t attract attention? The laundromat is across the street from the park, and I see that woman by the bench outside a lot. So I started giving her part of my sandwich, and she told me her name’s Cassie Bawneworth. She thinks I’m Jenny Ferguson.” 

“You said you had to help her?” the man pointed out curiously, raising an eyebrow. 

“Her dog,” Paige lied again. “He got off his leash so she needed help getting him back. Because she doesn’t run very well anymore. You know, because she’s old.” 

Apparently satisfied, her father clearly dismissed the story from his mind entirely with a simple, “Well, you’re going to be too busy to play those kinds of games now.” 

“What are we going to do, Dad?” Paige asked, after a very slight hesitation. She knew that talking her father out of his revenge wouldn’t work. She knew how obsessed he could be, how much he had cared about not only the project in general and all the good he was certain it could do, but about his friend as well. The Tates being murdered hadn’t just hurt the project that he had put his entire soul into for so many years, but also hurt him personally. No, not just hurt. Destroyed. He meant it when he said that Russell was his friend. A friend who had done so much for him, who had been there through the beginnings of the project and had been ready to push everything to the next level. And now all of that anger, for the death of his friend and what could very well be the death of his years-long dream of making the world a better place, was being put onto the entire Evans family. Nothing she said would dissuade him from that.

Chuckling softly at her question, the man straightened. “What are we going to do?” he echoed, voice sounding somehow dangerous. “The Evans have two children. We’re going to take the older one, the… boy, was it? Yes. The boy. We’ll take the boy. And when I’m done with him, he will be…” He trailed off once more, words turning to a simple chuckle of dark amusement. “Well, he’ll be better than he was. And more obedient. He will do what I tell him to, just as you do. And with that…” The man’s face set, the anger, outrage, grief, and sheer agony from the death of his friend blazing through his hard eyes and his dark words. “With that, he will kill his sister. The older Evans boy will kill his sister, then confess. Not only to that, to everything. He’ll tell everyone, the whole world, that his sister was going to tell the police about this… Ministry of theirs. He’ll tell them that he tried to stop her, that they struggled and he killed her. And now he’s so upset, he has to tell the truth about everything. He’ll go on national television to expose the truth. Yes. One of the Evans’ children will kill the other, and then expose all of their dirty little secrets to the entire world.”

On a roll by that point, the man pivoted on one heel, walking back toward the lab he had come out of. “And when the Ministry lies exposed and ruined, with so much attention on the Evans and their allies, what remains will need leadership. We will step into that void. You and I, Paige, will take up their resources and use them to complete Project Owl. The Evans will be in no emotional condition to retaliate, not with the loss of their daughter at the hands of their son, and the revelation of their secrets to the world. Every eye in America will be on them, and more beyond.” 

He stopped in the doorway, looking back toward her. “We will make this world better, Paige. Just as we planned. But only once the stench of the Evans and their people is removed from it. We’ll scrub them away, and build something better than they could ever dream of.” 

Swallowing slightly, the blonde girl straightened and gave her father a very faint nod. “Yes, Dad.” 

From there, she watched as he disappeared into the lab once more, to map out his plan in full. Already, the man was muttering to himself about how to grab the boy, how long they would have to work undisturbed before any alarm was raised, and what sort of supplies he would need to stock up on to make certain everything was ready. 

For almost a full two minutes after her father vanished from sight, Paige stood there. Her eyes stared unseeingly, her attention and thoughts elsewhere as she fought through so many decisions. Cassidy didn’t remember her. She had no idea who Paige was. 

But Paige remembered her.

Eyes finally focusing, the girl turned. She strode past several doors to reach her father’s office before stepping inside. Glancing back to check the corridor, she listened to the sound of the man talking to himself in the lab, before stepping over to the desk. The phone. She picked it up, hitting a series of numbers from memory. 

When the person on the other end of the line answered, Paige spoke in a voice that was far different from her own, sounding more male than female. “Robert Parson? No, you don’t know who this is.

“But there’s someone you need to know about.” 

Previous Chapter / Next Chapter

New Deals 13-11 (Summus Proelium)

Previous Chapter / Next Chapter

A/N: The first non-canon chapters for both of my stories were posted over the weekend on Patreon. They will not be posted here on the site but they are free and available for everyone to read over there. They were originally posted on Saturday for Patrons of any level, before being released for everyone 24 hours later. If you’d like, you can read the Heretical Edge chapter by going right here and the Summus Proelium chapter by going right here. Both will open in a new tab. Thanks!

Taking a nap helped. I was getting pretty good at splitting my sleep and having a few hours in the afternoon or evening sometime, going out late at night, and then getting a few more hours before getting up for school. Was that what all the Touched did? For that matter, how did my dad pull off being so busy all the time? Yeah, he didn’t exactly have a nine to five job or anything. But he still had tons of meetings to attend and had to put in appearances as well as his civilian self and as Silversmith. Was all of that explained just by him having another employee use one of those illusion machines or whatever it was to pose as him in public? That couldn’t always be it. He had to actually play both roles himself a good chunk of the time.

Yeah, even with that explanation, I was pretty sure my dad only slept a few hours a night. Especially when you added in him being present in my life to be a father and just the general family stuff. He was like a machine. Was that just from having a lot of practice or something? 

Either way, I was back out in the city after checking on Izzy. This time, I left a note on my pillow for her saying I needed air and that I would be back, along with a reminder that she could text or call me if she needed something. 

It was getting close to midnight by the time I made my way near the gas station where this whole thing with my new delinquent friends had started. That was when I told them to meet me, so I put myself at the edge of one of the buildings, painted myself black to blend in, and watched carefully for them to show up. 

I actually had to wait longer than expected. It wasn’t until almost ten minutes after midnight before something drew my attention toward the edge of the building I had told them to meet me behind. Two teenagers, sans masks, came jogging around the corner. They were clearly out of breath and sweating. 

The girl, obviously Murphy, had brown hair that was cut very short, with skin that was just dark enough to make me figure one of her parents was black and the other white. There was also something weird about her face, but I couldn’t tell what from the roof. 

Wow, ‘something weird about her face.’ When I put it like that, it sounded bad. But seriously, she had like a tattoo or something. I couldn’t see that well even with the nearby street light. 

Roald, meanwhile, was a pale boy with very light blond hair. He was trying to say something to his friend, gesturing to some kind of small bag or something he was holding. 

Murphy, however, waved him off before turning in a quick circle and she raised her voice to call, “Hey, we’re here! Don’t be a fucking dick about punctuation, we made it!”

Yup, it was definitely them. Shaking my head, I used a bit of orange for protection before stepping off the edge of the roof and dropping those couple stories. I landed neatly right to the side of them, and both jumped in obvious surprise. “Punctuality. No masks tonight?”

“Fuck!” Murphy blurted while raising her hands defensively before she saw who it was. “Like you said, it’s not like it’ll be hard for you to figure out what ‘Murphy and Roald’ looked like. And did you really have to scare the shit out of us like that?” she demanded. 

But her words weren’t what I was paying attention to. Instead, my gaze was on her face. Now I could see what I thought was a tattoo. It wasn’t. She had a cut on her face, just to the side of her left eye and stretching up into her hairline. And not just a little scrape either. This was big. It had been leaking a decent amount of blood down onto her cheek, blood that had partly dried into the mark I’d seen. The cut itself was partly covered by a couple small bandaids, but they clearly weren’t all that adequate. Especially since they didn’t actually cover the whole thing. 

“Jesus Christ,” I found myself blurting. “What happened to you?”

It was Roald who answered. “Tyson.” He stepped over, and I finally saw that the thing he’d been trying to get the girl to pay attention to was a first aid kit. “Her brother.” 

“Never mind that,” the girl herself snapped while trying to wave him off. “The point is, we’re here. So don’t go knocking on doors looking for us or anything. That’s kind of the last fucking thing we need right now.”

Opening and then shutting my mouth, I took a second to put my thoughts together before looking at the boy. “You got cleaning wipes in that kit?” When he nodded, I held my hand out and he passed a couple to me. “Hold still,” I told the girl before carefully reaching up to wash some of the blood from her face. She grimaced and muttered complaints, but didn’t move. 

Once that was done, I looked around before pointing. “Come on, over there.” I was gesturing toward the park across the street where I knew there were a couple public restrooms.

The other two seemed uncertain and confused, but followed as I led them that way. Once we were in the restroom, I told her to stand in front of the mirror so she could see herself. Then I stripped my gloves off, set them aside, and scrubbed my hands really well with soap.

“What’re you, a doctor now?” Murphy demanded.  But she didn’t really object. From the faces she was making, I was pretty sure that cut hurt.

“No, but I can help a bit before we see a real doctor,” I replied. “Hold still, again.” With that, I carefully wiped more of the blood away before very gingerly taking the almost useless bandaids away. They basically slid right off, so soaked through with blood were they. 

From there, I had the girl lean over the sink so I could wash the wound. That prompted more hissing and cursing, but I promised it would be okay and tried my best to be gentle. Carefully, I cleaned it, then took a cloth from that little first aid kit, applied a little antiseptic, and told her to hold it against the cut. 

It probably wasn’t exactly right. I’d had first aid training a while back, and I’d had plenty of cuts treated myself. But it was the best I could do right now. 

That done, I took out my business phone and texted Pack, asking if she could give me the current address of the criminal doctor who had treated Eits. I added that it was for a friend, who probably needed stitches. 

By the time I finished sending that message, both Murphy and Roald were staring at me, the former still holding the cloth against the cut. 

“The hell’s your deal?” she blurted. “I thought you wanted us to come show up and do some work for you.”

I nodded. “And I’d prefer you not pass out or die from blood loss or an infection or something in the process. Now— hang on.” I had to interrupt myself, because the response from Pack came. She included a phone number and told me to call it. Apparently the number was to some kind of roaming ambulance that served Touched, including Fells, in the field. It would work for these purposes. There was an added bit about how she wanted to hear more about this injured friend later. 

Calling that number, I told the gruff voice who answered what the problem was and told him where we were. There was a brief pause before the same gruff voice said they’d be in the parking lot in a few minutes and to watch for a red van. 

Once that was done, I focused on the other two once more. “Okay, seriously. What the hell happened? How did you get a cut like that? It was from your brother?”

From the glare that the girl shot toward her friend, I had the feeling that she hadn’t wanted him to say that much. Her voice was a mumble. “It’s not a big deal. He was just ticked off because I wouldn’t take a package for him. Told him I was busy.”

“Drugs.” That was Roald. “He knew we were going out, so he wanted her to carry some drugs to his friend a few streets over.”

Murphy snarled, “Yeah, if by friend you mean fellow meth-head. I told him before, I’m not touching any of that shit, not even to take it somewhere. Usually he lets it go.” With a small wince, she adjusted the cloth against her head. “Guess he was in a bad mood tonight.”

That made me stare at her for a few seconds. “Your big brother wanted you to take some meth to his friend and when you said no he cut you like that?” Fuck, my brother worked for a literal supervillain conspiracy and he treated me better than that. 

Murphy waved that off. “Look, you don’t have to worry about any of that shit. That’s my problem. Who the hell did you call?” 

Not wanting to push her too hard, I simply explained that it was a special ambulance with paramedics who would give her some stitches right here without needing to go to the hospital or anything. She wouldn’t have to talk to anyone about where the cut came from, even if I personally thought she should. 

It didn’t exactly help to calm her down, though. Instead, she blurted, “Are you fucking kidding me? What part of us stealing food from a gas station makes you think we can afford some motherfucking stitches? Who do you think we are, the goddamn Evans family?!”

Uhhhh… better not answer that. Raising both hands, I shook my head. “Don’t worry about it. I’ve got this. You guys are going to do some work for me, right? So I need you in good shape. Just chill out, okay? Relax. Let the paramedic look at that cut and see what you actually need.”

Murphy looked reluctant, but mumbled something I took as both agreement and gratitude. Then she squinted at me. “You can’t go after my brother. It’s not his fault. His stupid ass piece of shit friend got him hooked on the garbage and he can’t control himself. He gets crazy.”

For a moment, I didn’t say anything. Then I quietly asked, “Is the fact that he can’t control himself going to make it better the next time he decides to carve up your face? What if he decides to cut something more vital? What if he cuts somebody else, or worse, and all three of us have to live with knowing we could have stopped him before it got that far? Saying he can’t control himself isn’t a reason for why you shouldn’t turn him in. It’s a reason for why you absolutely should. Not because you don’t care about him. Because you do.”

“Kid’s got a point, Murph,” Roald noted hesitantly. “Ty’s not gonna get off that shit all on his own.”

Murphy scowled. “Yeah? So we turn them in and then what? They throw him in prison with a bunch of other druggies and hardened fuck-ups, he gets hooked even more, then he gets out and can’t get a job, so he does more bad shit, gets thrown back in prison again, and the merry-go-round of eternal bullshit continues forever until he’s dead. Did you or the kid ever think of that?”

I tried to smother my annoyance at being called kid by people about my same age with the satisfaction that my disguise was working. My mouth opened to say something, though what, I wasn’t exactly sure. Either way, I was saved from having to by headlights. As promised, a large red camper van was pulling in.

The medic guys were dressed more like janitors. I wasn’t sure what kind of medical expertise they actually had, but they did seem to know what they were doing. They looked at the cut on Murphy‘s face, cleaned and sanitized it a bit more professionally, and gave her a few stitches. 

I’d heard from some people about how getting stitches used to involve needles and stuff. I supposed that’s where the term came from. Nowadays, it simply involved pressing what looked like a white cloth firmly against the wound for several seconds and then peeling it away to reveal that the wound had been closed with a special, temporary sealant. Judging from the faces and sounds coming from Murphy, it still managed to sting as much as it had the last time I had gone through it. Still, it was quick and easy. 

“How much do we owe you?” I asked once it was done. 

The man who had done most of the work and examination, a thin Latino, offered a shrug. “Whatever you think is fair. We survive off donations. Just keep in mind, stiffing us is a good way to make us not show up when you ask for it. And if we don’t make enough to keep going, this whole service disappears.”

I still didn’t want to draw too much attention, so I simply gave the man a couple hundred dollars while thanking him again. They both informed Murphy that the sealant would go away by itself in about a week, and that her cut should be better by then with barely a scar.

Then they took off for another call they received, leaving the three of us standing there at the edge of the lot next to the park. 

“Just think a little bit about what I said, okay?” I asked while looking at the girl once the medics were gone. “I won’t push again right now, but seriously. Think about it.”

With a bit of obvious reluctance, she promised to do so before changing the subject by asking, “So what’s the job we’re supposed to do for you, Mr. Superhero?”

Over the next few minutes, I told them about Wren. I explained that she was a young Tech-Touched who needed more hands in her shop to help with everything, from putting basic equipment together, to carrying boxes around, to cleaning up, to just helping to run the shop in general. 

“That sounds like a job, not like… charity or whatever,” Roald pointed out. 

I nodded. “That’s because it is basically a job. And it’s one you’ll keep if you don’t screw around. You help get the shop off the ground and you’ll be paid. Part of your payment for working is going to go to helping other people who need it, until you work off a full thousand dollars. That’s the two hundred I gave you before, plus five hundred for the door that I gave to the shop owner, rounded up.”

Murphy was staring at me intently. “Dude, you want us to work off a thousand bucks?”

I nodded. “Like I said, it won’t all be taken at once. You’ll still be paid, it’ll just be part of your wages. You work in the shop, do everything you’re told, and you’ll be paid. Part of that payment will be taken and sent to other people who need it, to charity. Then once you’re done, you can either quit, or you can stick around and keep working. If you stick around and keep working, you’ll start being paid the full amount. As long as you help out and make yourselves useful, you can keep doing the job and keep being paid.”

Roald was shaking his head in confusion. “The only thing you know about us is that we tried to rob a gas station for snack food. Why would you try to hire us to work for some super techy place?”

For a moment, I didn’t answer. I just considered him in silence before slowly replying, “Because I think there are a lot of people who do bad things just because they don’t have any other choice. Not all of them, obviously. There’s a lot of awful people who do it for fun, just because they can. But there’s others who start small, like you guys with the gas station, and then get worse. They build up. I can’t give everyone on the edge like that the chance they need. But I can give it to you. I can give it to both of you.”

Looking back and forth between the two of them, I added a bit pointedly, “Maybe you’ll just go on and start doing worse crimes anyway. Maybe this won’t make any difference at all. But, if you do go on to be real thieves, if a couple years pass and you’re just as bad as all those other gang people out there, you won’t be able to say that it’s because no one ever gave you a chance. I’m giving you a chance right here, right now. I don’t care where your families come from, I don’t care who they are. I don’t care what kind of education you have, or what your neighborhoods are like. I don’t care what you’ve had to do up to this point. The jobs are yours. Once you work off the charity part, the rest is up to you.”

After that, I told them a bit more about the jobs. Specifically, that they should meet me Tuesday afternoon to go meet their new boss. I left out how young she was, figuring I’d let that be a surprise. I also told them not to meet here, but instead gave them an address a few blocks away from the shop itself. 

After that, I looked at Murphy. “You shouldn’t go home tonight. Not with your brother like that.”

She shrugged. “I’ll stay with Roald til things cool down. Not like it’s the first time.”

Not the first time… A sigh escaped me. “Think about what I said, okay? Your brother’s not going to get better just because you don’t want to get him in trouble.”

She squinted at me, but gave a short, silent nod. So, I sent them on their way, after exchanging my Touched phone number for both of theirs. I told them to let me know if anything else happened or changed. 

Then they left together. Right, so that was dealt with. And now, well, honestly, I was about to go right back to bed. I had a feeling I was going to need all the rest I could get before tomorrow came around. Because then it would be Saturday. Time for Paige’s birthday. The one I had been invited to for some reason.

Boy, I just couldn’t wait.

Previous Chapter / Next Chapter

New Deals 13-10 (Summus Proelium)

Previous Chapter / Next Chapter

Izzy needed help getting ready. She was nervous about going to dinner with this reporter guy, obviously afraid that she was going to say or do something to embarrass my parents. I tried to reassure her while helping the girl get dressed and put her hair up, but I wasn’t sure how much good it did. That probably wasn’t helped by the fact that the poor kid seemed pretty tired. She kept yawning while we were getting our hair taken care of in the bathroom. Watching her open mouth in the mirror for the third time, I gently asked, “Are you still having nightmares?” 

Immediately, the poor kid flinched, mouth snapping shut as she looked down at the sink before shaking her head. “Not as much,” she murmured quietly. “It’s getting better.” 

“It’s okay, either way,” I hurriedly assured her. “I just mean, you know, if you need umm… anything.” This was really awkward and I finally shrugged helplessly. “Whatever I can do.” 

What I really wanted to do, of course, was tell her that she should talk to me about what was actually going on, what had happened to traumatize her, why my parents were putting her up, what… all of it. I wanted to know what her whole deal was, if I was right about at least one of her parents being a supervillain or what. I was really leaning heavily on that assumption, but I couldn’t be positive. Not without more information, but I was pretty sure pushing her would backfire. 

So, instead, I just helped her get ready and the two of us started out. On the way to the stairs, Izzy glanced at me. “Have you ever met these people? Your mom is, um, really intense about making a good impression.” Clearly afraid she had said something wrong, the girl quickly amended, “I mean, she didn’t do anything bad, or–or say anything, it was just–she’s umm…” 

“Intense, yeah.” Giving the poor kid a small smile (while inwardly lamenting that we were basically the same size) I assured her, “Don’t worry, I get it. She gets it too. And no, we haven’t met this reporter guy, or his family. Mom just always gets really into these kinds of dinner plans, especially when it’s someone who could hurt the family name, like… well, like a fancy reporter.”

Silently, I thought again about what kind of impression I could make on this guy if I wanted to make that kind of insane, family-ending leap. But how stupid would that be? If this guy was on my parents’ payroll, he wouldn’t do anything useful or helpful at all. And if he wasn’t, they’d kill him, and probably his family too, before they could even get up from the table. Either way, I wouldn’t accomplish anything at all other than blowing the fact that I knew the truth. Which would put both Izzy and me in danger. I didn’t believe for a second that I could take my dad in a fight if it came right down to it. Either physically or emotionally, come to think of it. I had no idea what would happen, but it would be bad. Nothing good could possibly come from taking that leap right now. 

Mentally pushing that aside, I reached out to touch the other girl lightly on the arm. “It’ll be okay. Trust me, we just have to play nice through dinner, be polite and all that. Then, after dessert, Mom will excuse us so they can talk business. We’ll probably have to entertain their kids, and I’m not sure how old they are. Either way, it’s bound to be more exciting than listening to the adults blab on and on, you know?” 

And boy, what I wouldn’t give to go back to a time when I actually believed that, when I really didn’t want to know everything my parents were talking about. Well, no. Even as I had that thought, I realized it was wrong. I didn’t actually want to go back to a time when I was completely clueless. I’d like to slide into a time when it was the truth, if that had been an actual option. But I did not want to be ignorant about what my family was really up to. I wanted my parents to stop being supervillains, yet I didn’t want to forget that they actually were. Complicated as this entire situation was, I would always choose to know the truth and move on from that, not erase my memories. 

The truth was a painful thing to stand on, but lies crumbled under your feet. 

Simon was waiting at the bottom of the stairs, all dressed up as well. He grinned at the two of us as we descended. “Well, well, someone looks all fancy and nice now. Oh, and I guess you’ll do in a pinch too, Booster.” He reached out to poke me in the forehead, laughing as I swatted his hand away before turning. “Come on, they got here a little early, so everyone’s in the dining room already.” Glancing over his shoulder, he teased, “Guess it was my job to make sure you didn’t go skateboarding into the room or something equally likely to make Mom’s head explode.” 

Scoffing at him, I retorted, “As if that’s the only way I could be embarrassing at this dinner. Please, give me a second and I’ll come up with something really good.” It was nothing but light banter, the kind my brother and I would have had at any time. But it brought a hard lump to my throat and a deep knot to my stomach. It hurt. It hurt because I could tease back and forth with him like this while knowing what he was really capable of, what he had really done. Hell, I didn’t even actually know all the things he had done, not for certain. I just knew some of what he was capable of. Even that was enough to make a shudder run through me at the thought. 

Simon didn’t notice, of course. By that point we had reached the doors to the dining room, and he stepped up, pulled the door open, and grandly gestured for the two of us to enter. “Presenting the princesses of the kingdom!” he announced in a loud voice, “Miss Izzy and Miss Cassidy.” 

Rolling my eyes at him, I gently took the other girl’s hand and stepped through into the dining room. We were still using the smaller one, with the table that sat ten (rather than the full-sized room suitable for thirty people), but for once we would actually be using the whole thing. Almost, anyway. There were supposed to be nine of us, between both my parents, Simon, Izzy, Lincoln Chambers, his wife, their twins, and me. 

Immediately after stepping into the room, I saw Mom and Dad sitting at their usual spots, with Dad at the end chair and Mom to his right. Simon’s chair was next to Dad, while mine was next to Mom. Izzy would sit next to me. 

But this time, of course, there were other people here. The first of whom drew my attention immediately. It looked like an old mountain man or lumberjack had wandered into our house. Seriously, he was a huge guy, taller than Dad, with long hair and a very thick beard. It looked like he should be galavanting around with a big blue ox or something. Was this the reporter? 

Apparently so, because the man turned to us and smiled. Any intimidation I might have felt at his initial appearance disappeared as I saw how gentle his eyes were. I didn’t know how else to explain it other than he looked kind and intelligent. Wow, no wonder he was such a good reporter. He was big enough to intimidate the people he needed to, and yet somehow immediately made me feel like I could trust him with that single look.

I couldn’t, of course, for all the reasons I’d already thought of. But still, that was really effective. If he really was on my parents’ payroll, they’d done an excellent job when they recruited him.  

Dad was already standing up. “Ah, Lincoln, this is my daughter, Cassidy. And this is the girl I told you about, Izzy Amor. Girls, this is Lincoln Chambers, and his wife, Joselyn.” 

My eyes moved then, finally looking away from the enormous figure to see the smaller woman seated next to him. She was blonde, with her hair cut short, and a slim yet athletic build. Her eyes seemed to evaluate me quickly, looking me up and down as though assessing… something, before she smiled. Just like her husband, it looked incredibly genuine and inviting. 

“Hello, Cassidy, Izzy,” Mrs. Chambers greeted us, rising immediately to extend her hand. “It’s nice to finally meet you. I feel as though half of my husband’s articles about your father have been little details about his son and daughter.” To Izzy, she added, “And then we end up visiting at the perfect time to meet you too.” 

The two of us shook her hand, then her husband’s, before the latter gestured. “And, lest we forget about our own kids long enough for them to make a break for the nearest pizza place…” 

My attention was drawn to the twins. A boy and a girl. They looked to be between Izzy and me in age, maybe fourteen or so. The boy had blond hair like his mother, thought it was kind of spiked up with what had to be a lot of gel. His sister’s hair was more like their father’s, dark and full, falling a little past her shoulders. 

“Cassidy, Izzy,” Mrs. Chambers announced, “this is Zed and Lexi. Kids, come say hi.” 

What followed, of course, was the always awkward forced meeting between teenagers in front of their parents. It was obvious that none of us really knew what to say, but I tried to push past that by telling them we could go check out the game room once dinner was over. That usually did the trick as far as breaking the ice went. This time was no different, though it was Lexi who seemed more interested in the games. Zed, on the other hand, asked about the full-sized basketball court he’d heard about. Which Simon took great joy in confirming the existence of and promised to take him to check out while ‘the girls played with the kid games.’ 

Leaning closer to Lexi, I stage-whispered, “He’s just jealous because he can’t beat Izzy or me in any of those ‘kid games’ no matter how much he tries.”

“And you can’t beat Izzy yourself,” Simon shot back pointedly. 

We bantered a little bit more, before sitting down to have dinner. Lexi, who was seated across from Izzy, started asking both of us if we’d ever played the competitive mode of one of those online first-person shooter/survival games. We hadn’t, but apparently she was really into it. She went on for a little bit about how she really wanted to join this tournament but they only allowed people who were at least sixteen. Apparently, she was afraid that the game would be out of style by that point. But she was still practicing all the time. Aaaalll the time, according to her mother’s teasing interjection. 

So yeah, between us talking about games, Simon and Zed having their whole sports discussion, and our parents talking back and forth from one end of the table to the other about other things, the dinner actually went pretty quickly. It was delicious, of course. My parents wouldn’t have stood for anything less in this kind of situation. But even disregarding that, Chef Claudio, Ethan, and Christiana had outdone themselves. They’d really pulled out all the stops, making me wonder just how much Mom and Dad had impressed on them how important this dinner was. 

Either way, we had dessert and then our parents dismissed us for the time being. They needed to talk about their own things. Simon took Zed off to check out all the gym stuff, while Izzy and I headed upstairs to play some games with Lexi. 

The girl wasn’t exactly exaggerating about training to join a professional e-sports team. She really was that good. I couldn’t touch her if my life had depended on it. Izzy had more luck, but even she only managed to win one out of every three games or so. 

Eventually, I told the other two that I was going to step out for some air for a minute, and that I’d bring back some drinks. I left them in the middle of their latest, even more intense match and headed into the hall. Being around my family like this, seeing the Chambers and having no idea if they were actually this nice and just being used by my family, or if they were secretly part of this whole thing… it was too much. I had to step outside, had to clear my head. 

In this case, going outside just meant walking to the end of the hallway and stepping out onto one of the many balconies overlooking the grounds. Letting the cooler evening air wash over me, I put my hands on the railing and leaned over to glance down before exhaling long and hard. So many thoughts, worries, and questions were running through my head, and I didn’t have a real answer for any of them. Honestly, what I wanted to do in that moment was fall into my bed and sleep for a good long while. Maybe a month or so. Not that it would help, though. I’d still have the same problems to deal with whenever I finally woke up. Closing my eyes and waiting, astonishingly, wasn’t going to make everything better. 

Hearing someone behind me, I turned to see Mr. Chambers stepping up to the sliding door. He offered me a smile, tapping the side of the door as though knocking. “Hey, mind if I join you for a minute? Your dad took a phone call and the women are busy.” 

“Oh, uhh, no, go ahead, sir.” Stepping back to give him room to step out onto the balcony, I asked, “How’s your trip so far? Getting any good stories?” 

“Working on it,” was his casual response, before the man put his own hands on the railing with an added, “Very nice place your family has here. You’re probably too young to really remember, but Detroit… it used to be a lot worse.” 

“Yeah, I’ve… you’re right,” I confirmed, “I’m too young, I never knew that Detroit. But we’ve learned about it in class, and some older people talk about what the city used to be like.” 

That earned me a raised eyebrow from the man, as he turned slightly. “You listen to older people? What kind of kid are you?” 

Flushing a little at that, I shrugged. “The kind who likes getting better than failing grades in history class and who doesn’t want my mom to throw a shoe at me for ignoring people.” 

Mr. Chambers chuckled, though it was almost more of a groan. “Don’t tell me that hard times Detroit is something you learn about in History. It makes me feel old, and that’s not fair. My own kids do that to me enough as it is.” 

“Okay,” I found myself teasing, “it was totally in current events class.” 

“Better.” With a small smile, the man looked at me a bit more seriously. “Your dad tells me you’re really into a lot of this extreme sport stuff.” When I nodded, he grimaced. “See, I’m safe with Lexi. The most dangerous thing she’s aiming toward is carpal tunnel. But I don’t know what I’d do if Zed was into that stuff instead of his precious basketball.” He winked at me, adding, “Guess that means you’ve got a pretty cool dad.”

A lot of thoughts running through my head at that point. But I pushed them all down, with some effort, and simply offered the man a small smile that I hoped looked genuine enough. “Don’t worry, he gets a little crazy at some of the risks I take too.”

“Oh yeah? Are you the one that’s the bad influence around here?” Mr. Chambers teased before adding, “Believe me, I don’t need the kids adding more gray hairs to my head. Their mother does that plenty enough on her own working for the LAPD.”

That made me do a quick double take, looking at the man suddenly. “Your wife’s a cop?”

“Why,” Mr. Chambers retorted, “you got active warrants?” He grinned at that before watching me, squinting very slightly. “You okay?”

Now I had even more thoughts running through my head. If his wife was a cop, did that make it more or less likely that they were working for my parents? Or that one of them was. Could she be working for them without him knowing? Or the other way around? What did it mean?

Somehow, I forced all of that down and focused on shrugging at the man. “Sure, I was just wondering how you could worry about one of your kids getting into extreme sports when your wife has a job like that. Seems like you’d be inoculated against it.”

There was a very brief pause where I felt like the man was examining me more thoroughly. Then he seemed to shake away whatever he’d been thinking and chuckled. “Yeah, you’d think so. Guess I’m just a worrywart.”

“Well, while you’re warting,” I very hesitantly asked, “do you ever worry about something happening to your kids because of what you and your wife do? I mean, with all the criminals you piss off.” 

That, obviously, made the man give a doubletake. “Well, damn, Miss Evans,” he managed, “you don’t go for the easy, weather and traffic-type questions, do you?” 

Blanching a bit, I shook my head. “Sorry. You don’t have to answer. It’s just… my parents don’t do anything dangerous like that and even I get worried about them, like when they go on long trips. It sounds like you and your wife do some dangerous things.” 

For a moment, Mr. Chambers just looked at me. It seemed like he was sorting through his thoughts and also trying to decide just how real to be. Finally, the man exhaled. “Believe me, we take precautions. But when it comes down to it, we help people. People who wouldn’t have that help. We look at our kids and yeah, it scares us to think about something happening to them. But it also makes us think about all the other kids out there who don’t have someone looking out for them, and all the parents who can’t. We’re lucky. A lot of people aren’t. Every time I worry about what might happen to my children or wife, it reminds me of all the stuff that has happened to other children and wives. Stuff that won’t get dragged into the light if someone doesn’t do the dragging.” 

“He’s right.” That was Joselyn Chambers, his wife. She stood in the doorway to the balcony, offering me a small, yet genuine smile. “Sorry, I didn’t mean to eavesdrop. I was just looking to see where my husband wandered off to.” Focusing on me after reaching up to affectionately rub the man’s shoulder, she added, “We do worry about our children, just as yours do when they have to leave you to go on their business trips. Or even just when they send you off to school in the morning. Watching you walk out there while they know the kind of things that can happen, even with all their money and protection… I promise, it’s one of the hardest things in the world. And seeking out so many of those terrible things, seeing them with our own eyes? It’s terrifying. But we can’t leave it alone. Because leaving it alone wouldn’t make it better. When you see that someone is in danger, turning your back and walking away doesn’t solve anything. Turning off the light so you don’t have to watch only gives evil the ability to work in the dark. I didn’t become a cop to put my family in danger. I did it because that danger exists, regardless of what or where I am. It’ll always be there, lurking in the shadows. So you take away the shadows. You turn on the lights. You expose the evil. You face it. And you deal with it.” 

A long, silent moment passed then, before Mr. Chambers coughed. “Little heavy for the sixteen-year-old, babe.” 

Blinking twice, with a look that made it seem as though she had forgotten just who she was talking to, Mrs. Chambers gave a short nod. “Ah, sorry. Got lost in my own head there.” Offering me a slightly self-conscious smile, she amended, “The point is, we’re working to make the world better for our kids. Just like yours are.” 

“Well,” I murmured while turning to look away, staring up at the sky while her words about exposing evil rang through my head. “Not just like…” Belatedly, I added, “My dad’s not a reporter. And my mom is definitely not a cop.” 

The three of us stayed out there for another minute or two, just watching the grounds. Then Dad came to find them so they could finish their conversation, and I headed down to get the drinks I had promised the others.

Before long, this whole thing would be over and I would take a little nap before heading out to meet Murphy and Roald so I could tell them about working for Wren. 

Wait, did that technically make them minions? Was… was I press-ganging a couple desperate teenagers into being my minions?

I might be a worse hero than I thought. 

Previous Chapter / Next Chapter

New Deals 13-09 (Summus Proelium)

Previous Chapter / Next Chapter

Things mostly calmed down pretty quickly after that. The Star-Touched adults had managed to regroup a bit and sent a couple of their people to help the Minority. By that point, the warring gangs had basically separated and gone to their respective corners, so to speak. So it was just a bit of cleanup.

The other Fell-Touched, like Janus, had managed to escape. But we kept hold of Suckshot and Landlock, eventually seeing them both hauled into the back of two separate special armored containment vans. 

Through most of that cleanup, I worked with Raindrop. I had the feeling that the people around us assumed we were about the same age. Actually, come to think of it, maybe she was an incredibly small sixteen-year-old too. Wouldn’t that have been just perfect?

Either way, she was pretty fun to hang out with once things calmed down a bit. She didn’t say a lot, but the things she did say tended to be insightful or just funny in a very simple, straightforward way. I would say something and she’d have a one or two word response, in a totally serious tone, that made me snicker. For whatever reason, it felt like I knew her a lot better than I did. We’d only just really met, and yet I couldn’t shake the feeling like we’d interacted a lot more. It was weird. But then, maybe she was just one of those people who made friends easily. 

While we were doing that, I noticed some of the cops and reporters in the distance talking. I couldn’t make out most of what they were saying, but I did hear both of our names come up and saw some of them pointing our way. They were clearly talking about the fact that Raindrop and I were working together, but what… what were they saying? And why were some of them taking pictures? 

Eventually, That-A-Way approached and asked to speak to me privately. We stepped out of the way, over by a corner of the theater building while both of us watched the assortment of cops, reporters, and other Touched milling around. 

“Thanks,” Way murmured quietly. “You know, for showing up. You really helped turn things around.” She glanced toward me, lowering her voice even more. “I heard a few of those gang guys talking. This whole thing, it’s just a skirmish. Just the opening salvo. Apparently things are going to get a lot more heavy pretty soon. They’re going to war with each other.” 

Grimacing, I shook my head. ”If this was just a few opening shots, I don’t want to see what their idea of a full war is.”

“Neither do I,” she agreed, “but I have a feeling that we don’t really have a choice. This whole thing is gonna escalate really fast. And more civilians are going to be caught in the crossfire.” 

There was another brief pause while she clearly thought about her next words before quietly asking, “Those people you were talking about, shouldn’t they keep this kind of thing shut down? Seems like having a bunch of pissed off gang members at war with each other would be bad for business. If they really have that much control over every criminal in the city, shouldn’t they snap their fingers and make these guys back down? I mean, if there’s going to be one benefit to a group like that, you’d think it would be them stopping all-out war like this.”

Yeah, she had a point. I had no idea just how much my parents knew about this situation. But I refused to believe they were clueless. From everything I had seen, there was no way the gangs here would do something like this without at least mentioning it to my family, to the Ministry. Which meant they had to have at least partially approved this sort of thing. But why? What did they get out of it? Was it just not worth the hassle of trying to contain these guys constantly? Did they have to let them get their aggression out now and then before things blew up too much to control at all? I had no idea how that worked. 

With a sigh, I shook my head. “I dunno. But something tells me that if we want to find out how all this works, we need to get into that place. The sooner the better. There’s got to be some answers in there.”

Of course, there was also the possibility that those answers would lead toward my family. But that was a bridge I would cross when we came to it. I still had no idea exactly what I was going to do if and when Way and Pack, the people I had brought into this, found out that the Ministry was led by the Evans. I just… didn’t know. 

Way was looking at me again. “We have to come up with a plan and get in there,” she murmured quietly. “I’m pretty sure you’re right. That’s where we’re going to find answers. That’s where we’re going to…” She trailed off, grimacing for a moment before finding her voice once more. “It’s where we’re going to find out more about who we can’t trust.” There was a somewhat dark grimness to her voice, and it made me think for a moment about what all of this must have been like for her. She didn’t know who on her own team she could trust. She didn’t know which of her mentors she could look up to. What was it like from her side? Especially considering I wasn’t telling her everything I knew, a fact she was no doubt totally aware of. 

I started to agree with her, that we would get into that secret mall base as soon as possible. But before I could say more than a couple words, someone approached. It was, in no uncertain terms, the worst person I could think of to potentially overhear what we were talking about. Yeah, my dad, as Silversmith. He approached, offering each of us a nod while speaking up. “It seems we owe you another debt of gratitude, Paintball.” His hand extended toward me. “Thanks for stepping in and helping out today. Not sure how this would have gone without you.” 

Desperately fighting back the impulse to give any suspicious reaction whatsoever, I forced myself to accept the offered hand while shaking my head. “Way asked for help. I wasn’t just going to tell her to jump off a bridge.”  

He chuckled lightly, an encouraging sound that almost made me smile. How did he do that? How did he disarm me so easily when I knew who he was and what he did? Was it just because he was my dad? No, it had to be more than that. He was just that good at talking to people. He was just that good at convincing them that he was a friend, someone they could trust and confide in. It was scary seeing it from this side of things. 

While I was still fighting those reactions in my head, Dad put his hand on That-A-Way’s shoulder, squeezing slightly. “We owe just as much congratulations and thanks to you. Knowing when to call for help is important. Not trying to go at it alone, not showboating and getting people killed in the process, that’s what makes for a real hero. You did great today. All of you did.” 

“People still got hurt,” Way quietly pointed out. “Some still died. We didn’t save everyone.” 

Dad gave a short nod of agreement, as a long, heavy sigh escaped him. It sounded like he bore  the weight of each and every one of those injuries and deaths on his shoulders. Which was funny (in a totally not funny at all way), because I was pretty sure he really did bear the weight of them. He let it happen. He let this war get started. The Ministry allowed it. So yeah, the weight of it should have been on his shoulders. But he was still standing, and I was going to bet somehow getting even richer off of this whole thing. Yeah, I wasn’t exactly sure how, but the only thing I could think of that would make the Ministry allow something like this was if they were somehow making more money from it than if they hadn’t. Money or power, one or the other. Or both. I wasn’t sure of the specifics, not yet. But I did know that my father and mother had given the go-ahead for all of this to happen. They allowed it, so they were responsible. 

“You’re right,” Dad spoke up. For a crazy, horrifying second, I thought he had somehow read my thoughts. Then I realized he was responding to the girl beside me. “We didn’t save everyone. But you can’t always. All you can do is try. Put the effort in. Save everyone you can. Because, and I want both of you to listen to this right now, it isn’t about how many you fail to save. It’s about how many would have died if you weren’t there at all. And believe me, there would have been a lot more people hurt or even dead today if the two of you weren’t here. All those people in that theater, you saved them. You and Raindrop.” 

He said the last bit while stepping aside a bit and gesturing for the girl in question to join us. Which she did, moving up between Way and me while staring at my dad, at Silversmith. I couldn’t see her face, of course, hidden as it was behind that faceplate. But from the way she held her head, her body language, and everything else, I had the distinct impression that she basically hero-worshiped him. I had no idea what was going on there, but it was pretty obvious that she really looked up to him. Again, not surprising, considering how well my dad played the role of champion for the masses. He should have won an Oscar or two by now. Still, it made me feel sick in my stomach. Actually, the thought that he was fooling Raindrop in particular seemed to raise my hackles more than it really should have. I barely knew the kid. Maybe it was just because she was a kid? Maybe it reminded me of how much I had looked up to Silversmith before I knew the truth. 

Either way, Dad held his arm out, pantomiming looking at a watch. “Unfortunately, no matter how impressive you guys are, I have a feeling none of you can quite stop time just yet. And since everything seems calm enough now, I should get going. There’s going to be a lot of paperwork about all this. Be glad you guys only have to deal with a bit of that. And hey, you even get to avoid most of the reporters.”

Reporters… Oh damn, right, that dinner with the guy from the Times. It was getting close. No wonder Dad was making his excuses to leave. He congratulated us again, then offered to walk That-A-Way and Raindrop back to their base with the rest of their team. Way declined, saying she’d catch up after talking to me for a minute, claiming she still had to thank me herself. 

So, Raindrop headed off with him by herself. And I tried to figure out why the sight of her walking with my evil dad made me want to throw myself after them to stop it. Well, besides the obvious reasons. There was something else making it hit me more than I thought it should have. 

“It pisses you off too, doesn’t it?” Way spoke quietly with a glance toward me. “Seeing the way everyone loves him. Especially Rain.” She sighed, turning my way fully, as though to put her back to that whole thing. “I know you said you can’t say everything you know, but you made it pretty clear that he’s one of the ones that can’t be trusted. You said especially don’t tell him anything. So yeah, I’m pretty sure he’s one of your big conspiracy people. But he’s such… I mean…” She exhaled, slumping over a bit. “Fuck.”

“Yeah,” I agreed, “fuck. Trust me, I know. It’s a whole thing. But you’re doing a good job of hiding it.”

She snorted at that. “You just couldn’t hear all the nasty thoughts I was having when he was here.” 

“Yeah, and neither could he,” I pointed out. “Look, we’ll get answers, okay? We just can’t rush it. They already know that I know some of what they’re up to. They just don’t know how much. Not even close. But they know that I know some of it. So we have to be careful.”

Way paused, then chuckled. “You know, the way you act about all this, sometimes I forget you’re younger than me. You seem a lot older than you should be.”

Shit, getting her off the train of thought was probably a good idea. But I wasn’t sure exactly what to say. So, I just shrugged. ”I’ve had to grow up quick lately. But if I don’t get out of here now, I’m going to end up grounded. Then we’ll see how grown up I am.”

With that, I excused myself and took off, using a shot of red paint to a nearby building to hoist myself out of there. Right, I hadn’t really been exaggerating that much. If I missed this dinner, Mom would never let me hear the end of it. She’d made it clear that it was important that we present ourselves as a family tonight. Which gave me a lot of other thoughts I felt like saying, but kept to myself for obvious reasons.

As I raced home, I did my best to push those thoughts out of my head. This guy was an award-winning investigative reporter. It would probably be a bad thing if I gave him a reason to be suspicious of my family. For him as well as us. He may have been a big shot, but I was pretty sure my parents wouldn’t hesitate to have him killed if it came down to protecting themselves and the family. And I was also willing to bet that my family’s resources trumped whatever he could come up with. 

It had, of course, occurred to me to try talking to the guy about everything. I had the random, crazy impulse to just spill my guts to him and have everything out in the open. He was a reporter, after all. But again, that would be stupid. He’d never be able to publish an article like that, not with the contacts my parents had. The only real option to get it out before they erased it would have been some kind of online thing, but that would probably be dismissed as a conspiracy theory. Even if I was involved, I’d just be the rebellious kid. There was no doubt in my mind that my family could quash the whole thing. Hell, it wasn’t as though it would be anything all that new. People claimed enormous criminal conspiracies against the rich and famous all the time. A lot of it was even true. And this was one of those times. But it would be dismissed like all those others. No, if… when I went public about all this, it had to be perfect. I would only get a single shot at that kind of thing. I would only be able to take my family by surprise once. It was going to have to be a silver bullet situation. Proof. I needed proof of everything, and I needed to understand exactly how the organization worked, who was a part of it, who could be trusted and who couldn’t. I needed all of it.

Of course, the other big reason for not telling this Chambers guy the truth? For all I knew, he was on my family’s payroll. Yeah, he was all the way down in LA, but did that really mean anything? After all, Mr. Jackson had been in the UK for a long time. And it really would be within my family’s interest to have one of the best investigative reporters from one of the biggest news outlets on their side.

No, clearly for a lot of reasons, I couldn’t open up now. Not to anybody, let alone a reporter who may or may not be working for my parents on the down low. 

Shoving those thoughts out of my head firmly, I focused on getting home. That meant changing clothes in a public restroom at the edge of a park and taking an Uber the rest of the way. I was cutting it fairly close, considering I still needed to shower and all. But at least I wasn’t late. 

Paying the driver after he stopped in front of the gate, I hopped out, grabbed my bag, and headed in. On the way past, I greeted the guard waiting there, who teasingly informed me that I’d better hurry. 

Mom and Dad were in the front foyer as I passed through the door. Mom stepped over, looking like she was going to embrace me, but thought better of it. She was already dressed up for dinner and wrinkled her nose a little at how sweaty I was. So sue me, running across the city was a bit of a work out, even with powers. 

She settled on gently touching the side of my face. “I’m glad you made it, Principessa. Thank you for remembering. Now please, go and get cleaned up. We will be eating in thirty minutes.”

“Yeah, kid,” Dad spoke up, “and see if you can help Izzy with whatever she needs? She should just be about done getting cleaned up herself. The clothes she helped pick out are on her bed.”

God, he really had no idea that I had just been talking to him a short time earlier. Hell, he didn’t look like he’d been out doing anything at all. I was sweaty and all that from rushing home. My hair was a mess from being under the helmet and mask.  But Dad? He was perfectly put together. Not a single hair was out of place and it looked as though the biggest workout he’d had in the past couple hours was pushing a few papers. 

Shoving that thought aside, I promised that Izzy and I would be right down. Then I headed up the stairs two steps at a time. Yeah, I’d go get cleaned up so we could get this whole thing over with.

Time to meet Lincoln Chambers and his family.

Previous Chapter / Next Chapter

New Deals 13-08 (Summus Proelium)

Previous Chapter / Next Chapter

A/N: There was a commissioned interlude focusing on the Touched-Bees of Eastland, Oregon posted yesterday. If you haven’t read that yet, you might want to use the previous chapter button above. Thanks!

Also, if you’d like to see what the actual place that Cassidy is going through in this chapter looks like, check my author comment in the replies after the chapter.

When the Fox Theatre was built and opened almost a hundred years ago, in 1928, it had been the biggest, most impressive theater in the city with over five thousand seats. It had basically been the anchor of an entire chain of theaters owned by Fox, and a stunning wonder for everyone at the time. Over the following decades, it gradually fell into decline until it was restored in the late 80’s. Then it was upgraded and given a fresh life once more about ten years ago, around the same time that the baseball stadium across the street had been rebuilt. 

A lot of money had gone into restoring and upgrading this entire area of the city. Hell, a lot of money had gone into restoring the entire city in general. Yeah, I was fully aware that for quite some time through the end of the last century, the city had been spiraling down a hole. But I’d always experienced a Detroit that was on the rise, or even a full-on leader in development and manufacturing. We had one of the strongest economies in the world, and had for the past decade or so, with plenty of Touched who flocked here to build or benefit from Tech-devices. They couldn’t build neighborhoods fast enough for the people who wanted to move to this place. Even with the crime, even with the violence in the streets, you could still be successful here. 

But how much of that success was directly connected to the things my parents did? My family were villains, they helped criminals do bad things, helped them steal from and hurt people. That was completely true. And yet, it was also completely true that the city was better now than it had been for decades before Touched powers appeared. Would the city have been even better than it already was without this ‘Ministry’ directing things? Or would it be worse? Had they been responsible for pulling enough manufacturing and such back here? Or would there be as much growth and not as much crime if they weren’t stirring the pot? How much good had they done, and how did it weigh against the bad they’d done? And did any of that actually matter, morally?

All those thoughts and more kept playing through my head the entire time that I was moving toward the broken-in doors of the theater (covering my costume with various paint colors the entire way). But I shoved them down, with some effort, focusing on the real problem. That-A-Way and Raindrop were trapped in there, with civilians and bad guys. Beyond that, I had no idea what I was getting into, only that those two needed help. 

The lobby of the theater was fucking gaudy as hell. Seriously, the ceiling towered like fifty feet over my head, sloping upward with slanted golden walls on either side, brilliant red and gold pillars lined both sides of the massive room, with golden lamps hanging down to illuminate everything, and plush red carpets covered the floor. I’d heard people refer to its style as ‘part-Egyptian, part-Hindu, and part-Babylonian.’ It was a lot, to say the least. 

More important than the loud design choices was the fact that I wasn’t alone in the lobby. The second I entered, two guys dressed as Easy Eights gang members and three dressed as Ninety-Niners all whirled my way. One of the Easy Eights guys tackled the nearest Ninety-Niner, starting to wail on him with the butt of his pistol before the guy managed to get an arm up and the two struggled together. 

But I couldn’t exactly intervene with either of them, because the remaining three guys (one Easy Eights and two Ninety-Niners) apparently decided that I was the bigger threat. All three opened fire, even as I activated the picture of an orange shield I’d painted onto my chest before coming in here. At the same time, I triggered a pair of green swirly lines along my legs and hurled myself into an upward flip, using red paint shot toward one of the pillars to lift myself higher even as most of the shots passed by under me. A few struck home, but the orange paint reduced the bullets to a mere stinging annoyance. 

In mid-leap, as the red paint attached to my gloves and to the nearby pillar yanked me that way, I cut it off, flipping over in the air while hitting the pillar with blue. The second my feet hit it, I was launched straight down toward the men like I was being shot out of a cannon. 

They tried to react in time to shoot me again, but couldn’t adjust their aim fast enough. Between the green paint speeding me up and the blue sending me hurtling straight at them from above, the three guys were basically sitting ducks. And my orange paint was still active, so I just stuck both arms out, crashing into two of the men full-on. They hit the ground together with me on top of one, wind knocked out of them both. 

The third guy was whipping around to shoot (which probably would’ve hurt more from that range), but I managed to throw myself on my side and lash out with a foot to kick at his leg while boosting myself with the small purple stegosaurus shape I’d put on one side of my left arm. It wasn’t a huge increase to my strength, but it was enough that the solid kick knocked the man’s legs out from under him, dumping him onto his back with a cry. 

Rolling backward and rising to both knees, I saw the two men I’d knocked down both scrambling to grab their guns off the floor while still trying to suck in air. Even now, they were going to try to shoot me. Or possibly each other. I really wasn’t sure which. But it didn’t matter. Quickly, I hit the weapons with red paint, yanking them to my gloves before tossing them to either side with a blurted, “You’ll shoot your eye out, Ralphie!” 

While they were trying to react to that, I planted blue paint under my knees while pushing off, launching myself up and forward over all their heads. On the way past, I flipped over, hitting all five men (including the two who were still struggling with one another) with a wide spray of red paint from both hands. Then I landed in a roll before bringing myself to a stop. 

Covered in red paint, the five men all started to move at me as one massive rush. But, they came up short as I used white and a little bit of black paint to color in a bright, toothy grin across the front of my helmet. Unnecessary, but hey. Then I pointed both hands upward, drawing their attention toward the ceiling so far above. A ceiling where I had also taken the time to shoot more red paint. 

The curses started before I even activated the paint, morphing to screams as the five men were hurtled upward. I let it carry them about halfway there before cancelling the paint. Their momentum brought them even higher, nearly to the ceiling itself before gravity kicked in. Then they were screaming for an entirely different reason, as they fell toward the hard floor below. 

I couldn’t just let them hit the ground, not from that height. Forty-plus feet wasn’t exactly jumping out of an airplane, but it could still potentially kill them. And as much as I felt like they deserved a few broken bones for putting uninvolved, innocent civilians in danger with their stupid fucking gangwar, that was too much. And it wasn’t my place to decide something like that anyway. 

So, before the screaming, flailing men hit the ground, I hit them with a spray of orange paint. Just enough that the fall still hurt, still left bruises and maybe a bit worse than that, without being lethal. They laid there, sprawled out and panting (along with a few whimpers). None looked like they were in any mood to fight right then. Or even move, really. 

I didn’t have time to play with them anymore. Damn it, damn it, I couldn’t have just moved past them and left them to shoot me in the back (even this felt like a risk, justifiable as it was), but still, it felt like I was wasting time. Running onward through the lobby, I called back, “Why don’t you guys take five, we’ll pick up from the top later!” On the way, I thought to hit each of their scattered weapons with small shots of red paint, yanking them to me before dumping the pistols in a garbage can I was passing. It wasn’t perfect. None of this was. But at least the guns were out of sight and the guys behind me were too busy getting over pissing themselves to worry about fighting right at that moment. It was the best I could do with the time I had.

If the lobby of the theater was crazy opulent, the main room with the stage was completely fucking absurd. There were fake stained glass windows that could be lit up or darkened at any point, and could have the actual design changed to match the mood of the play. There was gold everywhere, several tiers of seats, all of which were incredibly plush (and really easy to fall asleep in if you were a bored eleven-year-old who was dragged to the theater by your parents). There were more pillars, an incredibly beautiful vaulted ceiling, the works. The place was, again, large enough to seat over five thousand people. For some kind of reference, I’d asked someone before and they said a modern public movie theater sat between two hundred and three hundred people in a single screening room. 

So yeah, the place was fucking enormous. And, as promised, there were people in here. The moment I passed through one of the entrance doors, I could see a group of civilians huddled together ahead and to the right, cowering between some seats. It looked like there were several dozen at first glance, but I wasn’t sure because of how they were crouched down. 

Of more immediate importance was the reason they were all cowering. Namely, all the bad guys that were everywhere. Seriously, I saw a mix of Ninety-Niner and Easy Eights Prev thugs spread throughout the entire room. They were clustered up in small groups, but those groups were all over the place. They were brawling with weapons, a few had guns they were trying to bring in to play, and none seemed to care about the civilians they were endangering. Hell, I could see a few innocent people who weren’t with the main huddled group. Instead, they ducked where they were, hands over their heads as they tried to stay low. 

It was all-out chaos in the seating area, a brawl that was tearing this place apart. I could see where several of the opulent ‘windows’ and hanging lights had been destroyed, places where seats were torn out, and more blood than I wanted to think about.

Then there was the stage itself, straight down and across from where I entered. The enormous stage was where That-A-Way and Raindrop were. And they weren’t alone. Landlock, a short guy (just about five feet, four inches tall) who wore dark green and brown body armor with a football player’s helmet over a simple black face mask, was there. He was one of the Easy Eights, like Janus outside. His power basically made a fifty-foot diameter circle of ground or floor under his feet transform to stone wherever he went. It would change back as he moved away from that spot, but while he was standing there, it would be rock. No matter what hit him, he couldn’t be knocked outside of his circle, and he could make a bunch of rock constructs within it. 

The Ninety-Niner Touched he was trying to fight, meanwhile, was Suckshot. Yeah. While Landlock wore the football helmet, Suckshot was basically dressed like a hockey player, with that Touched name written on the back. His powers allowed him to create these black orb things about the size of a volleyball in front of his hands that could yank things (or people) toward them. Once they were close enough to touch the orbs, he could then launch them away at high speed. The orbs were also some kind of pocket dimension thing that he could store objects in as long as they were smaller than the orb. He kept objects in there and used them as ammo to shoot at people. 

And in the middle of all this, between those two, were That-A-Way and Raindrop. Way had both arms wrapped around her younger teammate, with her back to Landlock. Apparently her invulnerability power was active, because in the second that I watched, the Fell-Touched Made two large rocks float up out of the floor and fly at them, only for the rocks to shatter against her back. 

At the same time, Raindrop had one hand extended toward Suckshot. She was sending a torrent of water his way, a sideways downpour that would’ve allowed the kid to manipulate his gravity if she could get him wet. But he was sucking up all the water with his own power, making it disappear into his orbs. It was a stalemate. 

Well, not anymore. Taking a running start, I shot blue paint down to launch myself up and forward, catapulting over the line of seats. In mid-air, I shot red paint high over the stage to pull myself that way, before sending a few more small shots of red toward the brawling thugs below. I didn’t get anywhere near all of them, but I did hit a few. Mostly I tried to focus on the ones who were holding guns, nailing the weapons themselves with a bit of red before extending my hand back the way I’d come to hit the door with one more shot. Linking all of those together, I activated them and the guns (as well as a couple other weapons) were yanked out of the thugs’ hands. 

It wasn’t much, but it was something. Mostly I was hoping that if the Touched were dealt with, the rest of the guys would follow suit quickly, or at least retreat. 

And speaking of dealing with them, I flipped over in the air after canceling the red mark I was being yanked toward. Upside down as I passed over the stage, I shot two bursts of white paint, one at each of them. Unfortunately, the paint that was going toward Suckshot was, well, sucked right into one of his little black hole orbs. Fuck. I really should’ve known that would happen.

But the other spot of paint struck home, hitting the spot of Landlock’s chest right under his chin. Instantly, I activated it, sending a blinding flare right into his eyes that made the man stagger backward, the large boulder he’d been forming falling apart before he could launch it. 

Activating a bit of orange near my left leg on the hip, I finished flipping over and landed a short distance away from where the two Minority were. “Heard you all might need an understudy if this performance is gonna go on,” I blurted as everyone stopped what they were doing and snapped a glance toward me. At the same time, I hit Way with orange paint from one hand and purple from the other, before Suckshot could recover from my sudden appearance and start using his power again. Activating both, I snapped, “Get ‘em!”

The direction she’d been facing toward Suckshot in keeping her back to Landlock for protection had given her invulnerability. The opposite direction must have been super speed, because she pivoted away from Raindrop and, in a blur of motion, was suddenly directly in front of the man who had been launching boulders at them, punching him across the face with her enhanced strength. He had some measure of that himself, but the punch was still enough to put him on the stone-turned floor. 

For the next ten seconds, That-A-Way had the extra strength and toughness which, added to her own super speed, would let her deal with that guy. 

That left Raindrop and me to handle Suckshot. And I had the feeling that the suck part of that was going to be pretty apt. Whether it was my paint or her water, he could suck all of it up if it came anywhere near him. 

Just as I had that thought, the two of us were nearly taken out just like that as a handful of literal bricks shot out of those black orbs, straight at our heads. Fuck! 

But Raindrop was fast too. A swirl of water spraying up to catch the bricks, turning their gravity so they were launched up and over us to careen off into the distance. A metal pipe and another set of bricks joined them a second later. 

Yeah, the suck was definitely strong with this one. Good thing I had an idea. Lowering my voice to a whisper, I addressed the young girl nearby. “Dude, can you soak me, then when I say now, zero my gravity?” 

“Um, okay,” came the quiet, uncertain voice. It tickled something in my brain, but I didn’t have time to think about it.

Instead, I pushed myself forward even as I felt my costume suddenly get really wet. Raising my voice, I shouted at the man, “Hey, Suckface, lemme guess, you’re a Touched vacuum!” 

It definitely worked to get his attention. The man shot another metal pipe at me, but I popped the wheels of my skates out and slid under it, cocking my hand back as though I was going to throw or shoot something at him. Immediately, I felt the pull of his power as he focused it on me. I was yanked off my feet and sent that way, even as he took aim, clearly about to use me being off my feet and helplessly pulled toward him to take one final shot. 

“Now!” I called out while simultaneously activating every bit of green and orange that was still on my costume. 

Instantly, my gravity was zero. Which meant I was suddenly flying toward the man in front of me faster than he expected. Even better, the green paint I’d activated sped me up even more. In that instant, I was careening at the man several times quicker than he was ready for. 

He didn’t have time to correct it. I slammed into him full-bodied, with enough force to knock him clear to the floor, his orbs disappearing as he collapsed under me with a cry of pain and surprise. I, of course, was fine thanks to the orange paint. But it didn’t look like the guy under me was going to be in the mood to move anytime soon. 

Still, I produced a set of the stay-down cuffs I still had, hooking them around his wrists before rolling away. 

Sitting up, I saw That-A-Way doing the same to her guy. They were both down. We had them in hand. 

Even better, seeing their super powered members captured did, in fact, make the rest of the bad guys decide to cut and run. There was a rush toward the exits, the two rival groups still fighting each other as they fled like rats leaving a sinking ship. Meanwhile, the cowering civilians were starting to pick themselves up cautiously. 

Raindrop was in front of me, offering her hand with a blurted, “That was cool!” 

Again, her words made something in the back of my mind flash a bit. But what–never mind, I was just crazy and tired from all that, clearly. 

Taking the offered hand, I stood and breathed out a long sigh of relief while looking at her and That-A-Way. “Well,” I managed in between heavy panting, “if you guys really want, we could stick around and see the show tonight.

“But I hear it really sucks.”

Previous Chapter / Next Chapter

Commissioned Interlude 5 – Eastland, Oregon (Summus Proelium)

Previous Chapter / Next Chapter

A/N: This is a commissioned interlude, connected to the Termite interlude posted a couple weeks ago. The next regular chapter will be posted tomorrow as scheduled.

The town was (for the moment) named Eastland, located about fifty miles southwest of Portland, Oregon and a bit north of McMinnville, the seat of Yamhill County, which Eastland was part of. A little over a year earlier, its population had been around nine thousand and rapidly dropping as older citizens passed away and those who were younger moved on to towns with better prospects. In the thirteen months since, that had ballooned out to about sixteen thousand. Construction projects and new jobs abounded in the area, as multiple companies flocked to build, bringing a flood of people and resources. 

There were plenty who objected to so many changes and new arrivals of course. Many town meetings had been held where new demands and rules for what these incoming companies were allowed to do, where they were allowed to build, what sort of businesses could be there, and more were argued over and either adopted or rejected. For the most part, the town accepted the new arrivals and embraced just how much their town’s fortunes had been reversed. After all, not so long ago, there had been very little in the way of new jobs and steady income. The population had been sliding for years, even decades, with no indication of anything new arriving to stabilize their prospects. Entire families disappeared from the town, heading off to bigger cities. Cities with jobs to offer. 

But then something had arrived. Something that had changed the town and its inhabitants forever, and had triggered this year of mounting prosperity and growth. And that prosperity and growth showed no signs of abating any time soon. Particularly given the town’s full embrace of their new situation, to the extent of already unofficially adopting a new name. A name that would become official once it made its way onto the ballot in the next year. 

Once it did, and passed, Eastland, Oregon would become Honeyland. 

At a small diner in the middle of town, a diner that had stood and been owned by the same family for well over sixty years despite some recent efforts to buy them out, a Latino man in a suit sat on a stool at the counter with the latest copy of the town’s paper held in front of him. He wasn’t from Eastland (or Honeyland, as many had already taken to calling this place), but the man was curious about local events. And besides, he had time to kill before his guide arrived. Humming softly to himself, he glanced over the headlines, his eyes scanning idly across stories about the local high school baseball scores. As he did so, a small insect buzzed near the paper in front of him, and the man absently drew a hand back to swat it away. 

His hand never made it that far. Just as it started to move down, the man’s wrist was caught in an iron grip that was almost, yet not quite, painful. He looked up to see the older, gray-haired guy next to him, who had been engrossed in his own coffee, holding his arm. “Around here,” the elderly man informed him in a low voice that bordered right on the edge of being threatening, “we don’t look kindly on people hurting our friends like that.” 

Hurting their–only then, as he looked back to see the yellow and black insect hovering in front of him, did the Latino newcomer realize what he’d almost done with that unthinking swat. Eyes widening, he shook his head. “Oh–oh, damn. I’m sorry. It wasn’t–I was just–” 

Another hand, belonging to the young, dark-haired waitress behind the counter, was extended to gently pry the old-timer’s grip away. “Thanks, Karl, but I think it’s probably safe to let him go now. You didn’t mean any harm, did you, Mister…?” 

“Deans,” came the easy response. “Agent Deans, Miss, ahhh… Hayley.” As he answered (taking a glance at the nametag she wore) the man flipped open the wallet that sat on the counter in front of him to reveal the FBI badge there. “And no, I didn’t mean any harm. Force of habit, I’m afraid.” 

“You make it a habit to crush people who were just trying to check the baseball scores?” 

The new voice, or rather, voices, came from Deans’ right. He turned toward that way to find not just the single bee he had almost swatted, but a small swarm of them. Fifteen, to be exact. Each of them spoke as one, forming a perfect chorus. “Our deepest apologies in that case. We will make certain to ask your permission next time.” 

For a moment, the only thing the man could do was stare, struggling not to gape open-mouthed. His words finally emerged after a few seconds of that. “I–they’re right, you do talk.” 

“Not in the same way that you do, Agent Deans,” came the fifteen-voiced response. “We are implanted with what you would consider a chip in the back of our thoraxes and connected to our brains. A small, quite powerful speaker extends from the chip and out the underside of our abdomen, producing the sound you can hear.” 

Taking that in, Deans slowly shook his head. “Sorry, I just–I’ve never actually had a face-to-face with insect-Touched. You’re not exactly common, especially with–” Cutting himself off at the thought, he grimaced. “Sorry. I should’ve been paying more attention to what I was doing.” 

Again, fifteen voices spoke as one. “The fault is partly ours, Agent Deans. We forget that not everyone who might happen to be in town is entirely accustomed to our presence. Don’t fear, we will not hold it against you during our tour.” 

“Oh, I’m supposed to meet…” the man trailed off upon realizing the truth. “Ah, you’re who I’m supposed to meet here, aren’t you?” 

Fifteen bees flew down, then up in a perfectly coordinated maneuver that he took to be their version of a nod. “Yes, we are here to answer questions and take you to see the town on behalf of the hive-queen. But you should eat your breakfast before we go. It is the most important meal of the day.”

Sure enough, as the man glanced to the counter, he saw that the toast and eggs he had ordered had been neatly placed in front of him during his distraction. “Oh, thank you, Miss Hayley. And thank you, Karl.” He added with a look toward the man who had stopped him from swatting the bee in the first place. 

From there, he ate his breakfast, including (at the urgent suggestion of both the bees and humans), putting honey on his toast. It was local honey, grown and provided by the very hive that the swarm in front of him were representing. And the moment he did, biting into the honey-covered bread, the man’s eyes closed with a murmur of pleasure. “My God,” he managed after a long moment of simply absorbing the taste, “it’s even better than what you get in the store.” 

Hayley grinned, winking at the bees who hovered nearby. “It’s fresh,” she reminded him. “Right out of the hive, practically. The stuff we send to the stores is pretty great, but nothing compares to what you can get right here. Right, guys?” 

There was an almost melodious buzzing sound that was apparently their version of a chuckle, before those fifteen voices replied together, “We do endeavor to provide excellent honey for our friends and fellow citizens of Eastland. And, of course, an excellent product for others to buy.” 

“How do you do it though?” Agent Deans asked curiously after taking another amazing bite. “I mean, you’re just one hive. No offense at all, but your honey is sold all over the country. They’ve built an entire factory to help process it. You’ve got multiple shipping companies moving in to take it everywhere. How can you possibly produce that much? I looked it up, and a hive should only produce about a hundred pounds a year, maximum. You’ve been producing a lot more than that.” 

That buzzing chuckle came back once more, before the bees assured him, “We will get into all of that and more. For now, enjoy your meal, Agent Deans. When you’re finished, we will take you on a tour, and answer any of your questions that we are able to.” 

They really didn’t have to tell him twice. Deans ate all of the toast, then got seconds to put a bit more of that incredible honey on. He could see exactly why the town’s fortune had turned around so thoroughly, with their ability to ship that stuff all over the country. However they managed to produce so much of it, the fact was that they did produce it. And having that product had been one of the primary catalysts that had begun to bring Eastland (soon to be Honeyland) back to life. It wasn’t the only thing, of course. But it was the first, and arguably the biggest, factor in the town’s new prosperity. It was the main catalyst from which everything else had grown.

Eventually, after finishing and paying for his breakfast, Agent Deans left the diner. The small swarm of bees flew ahead, guiding him out to the street. On the way, he briefly wondered what the flying insects did when someone wasn’t there to open the door. His answer came when they flew, one at a time, through a tiny hole in the wall next to the door itself (he supposed it was there rather than actually in the door so that someone opening it wouldn’t end in tragedy for the bee trying to go through the hole). 

Either way, once out on the streets, the swarm hovered in the air in front of him. That chorus of joined voices asked, “Would you like to take your car, Agent, or walk so that we might show you around? If you are not pressed for time.” 

The man shook his head. “No, I ahh, I’d like to see whatever you can show me. That’s my job, actually. There are a lot of… curious people back at the agency who want to know how all this works.” 

Again, that buzzing chuckle followed by the chorus of, “That is not surprising, Agent Deans. Come, we will tell you what we can. And answer any of your questions. Surely you have many.” 

They began to fly down the sidewalk, with Deans following. Before saying anything else, the man glanced around. There were people, obviously locals, walking everywhere. And more than that, there were other small swarms of bees right alongside them. They were everywhere, working right alongside the humans. He saw one man in a delivery uniform standing outside a van, holding the back door open while a swarm of bees landed on several large boxes that were stacked outside of it. Three or four bees per box landed, then rose into the air again with the boxes coming with them. 

Tactile telekinesis, Deans knew. That was one of the Touched-bees powers. Just by touching something, they could lift incredibly heavy objects (particularly given their relative size and strength) and fly around with them. It was one of the things that allowed the hive to be so helpful to their human allies. Not to mention how much they used it to build their own devices. 

Yes, build their own devices. Because beyond their greatly enhanced intelligence/sapience and the Field-touched power of the tactile telekinesis, the bees were also Tech-Touched. Hence the communication devices that had been implanted in all of them that allowed the bees to talk as they had been. 

From the briefing he’d received before coming here, Agent Deans understood that the bees were specifically focused on creating devices that, as the eggheads had put it, ‘enhanced cooperation and benefited the group as a whole.’ That was their Tech-Touched specialty, as it were. They specialized in designing and building inventions that would help groups work together. So, ‘devices that allowed them to communicate with humans’ definitely fit within that.

“I do have a few questions, actually,” the man managed after trailing after his escorts for a minute as he took in the sight of so many humans and bees working together. “I’m not sure how to ask this without being, ahhh, rude. But the way you all speak together, knowing… uhh, the way your people–insects–the way hives generally–” 

“You wish to know if we are individuals,” came the chorus of responses as one, “or a single hivemind.” From the way they said it, the question was clearly one that they were accustomed to. 

Pausing briefly to watch a handful of bees who seemed to be serving as crossing guards (complete with keeping a hand-held stop sign suspended in the air) to help a group of children cross the street toward an elementary school, Deans slowly nodded. “Yeah. Yeah, sorry, I don’t know how else to put that except, are you individuals, or one big collective?” 

“The answer is yes,” came what seemed to be the teasing response. All fifteen bees flew up directly in front of his face, hovering there for a moment. Then, apparently to make a point, seven of the bees flew to the left, while the remaining eight flew to the right. 

The eight bees to the right, without the seven to the left, continued with, “We are a collective.” 

The seven bees to the left, without the eight to the right, added, “But that collective may be of any size. Even one, though that is rare and frightening.” 

With that, the eight bees split once more, becoming two separate groups of four. The first four announced, “There are three levels of our minds. The small, the large, the whole.” 

The other four further clarified, “The small is our own individual minds. What you would call your own thoughts. They are small, and do not say much on their own. It is lonely in the small mind. We don’t like it.” 

The group of seven then added, “You might think of it as being somewhat asleep. A brain that is half-conscious, and feels… sluggish, or trapped. It is claustrophobic and lonely.” 

“Lonely,” all fifteen bees chorused together as they flew back into one group again, continuing with, “The large mind is us. Any group together may swarm and become a large mind. That is less lonely. We think better, we think stronger, we are more than we are as small. It is the large mind that we use in most interactions.” 

“And the whole mind, that’s what you called the last one, right?” Deans guessed. “That must be the entire hive.” 

Sure enough, the fifteen bees flew up, then down, their version of a nod again. “Correct, Agent Deans,” came the response. “We are always connected to the whole mind. Think of it as your internet, as we all access it and may see and interact with each small and large group as needed no matter how far we are from one another. But it is more than that. It is a personality, the full collection of our small and large minds. The hive-queen directs this whole mind, yet we are all a part of it. This is hard for human individuals to understand, which is not intended as an insult. You simply do not have the proper frame of reference. We as the hive are one mind. We as the large minds are one mind. We as the small minds are one mind. All are true. We are whole and we are pieces. We are one mind fractured into as many parts as necessary to do our work.” 

“I ahhh… I think I understand,” Deans slowly replied after thinking about that for a minute. “I mean, I think I get what you mean in general, even if I don’t have the right frame of reference, as you said. It’s kind of like having one mind that’s really good at multitasking.”

There was a brief pause before the swarm of fifteen carefully agreed, “It is something like that.” 

With that much explained, at least as much as the bees are able to, the group continued onward. Deans was led through the town. He saw even more examples of how the hive and humans were working together. The bees used their telekinesis and their inventions to help their human allies put buildings up quickly and far more easily than the humans could do alone. That was how this town was able to expand so quickly. Houses and other buildings were much easier to build when you had a fleet of flying insects that could land on large materials and fly them exactly where they needed to go. 

Eventually, they came to the main plant where honey was sorted, packaged, and shipped. Watching pallet after pallet of barrels being loaded into the back of several large trucks with the town’s soon-to-be official moniker on the sides, Deans slowly asked, “Okay, what about the honey? You said you’d explain how it’s possible to have so much of it.” 

“The simplest explanation,” the bees informed him, “is that we have created machines which do the same work we would do, but far more efficiently. Flowers are grown within a greenhouse in the center of the facility. Everything from nectar extraction all the way through the rest of the… process is performed by our machines, supervised by parts of the hive. Rather than acting as the individual workers to create very tiny amounts of honey, each of our small and large minds in the factory supervise the production of much larger amounts. That, and the aid of our human allies and friends, allows the level of production that you see.” 

“Well, it’s working for you, whatever the specifics,” Deans murmured. “I heard the FDA reps were impressed by your set-up.” 

Again, that up-down hovering nod. “They visit quite often, to ensure our work remains impeccable. We are told there is some pressure from outside forces to declare the factory unsanitary. But we take great pains to ensure that it is safe at all levels.” 

They were right, Deans knew. With a grimace, he nodded. “Yes, well, there’s a few people out there who don’t exactly like the idea of insect-Touched. Actually, that’s part of–” 

“You wish to speak with the hive about the Merit termites,” the swarm finished for him. “Before the situation escalates further.” 

There was no sense in beating around the bush, so Deans simply nodded. “Yeah, pretty much. The… first contact with the Merit termites didn’t exactly go very well. Not like it did here when you and the people of Eastland started working together. What was that–a kid you talked to first?” 

“Phoebe Burton,” they confirmed. “Nine years old. We prevented her abduction by a stranger, a member of one of the so-called Abyssal cults, and ensured his capture. Her mother and law enforcement were grateful. This eased our introduction to human society and allowed us to set the groundwork for the alliance that exists today.” 

Deans exhaled long and slowly. “Yeah, well, things were different in Merit. A few… overly-excited individuals down there made things a hell of a lot more complicated.” 

“They tried to kill the hive,” his escorts pointed out bluntly. “Townspeople there worked very hard to kill those intelligent termites.” 

“Not all the townspeople,” Deans protested. “Believe me, a lot of them–most of them tried to stop it. Things just got really bad really fast, before anyone realized just how far south it was going. Now we’ve got the military keeping people out and we’ve tried to send some people in to talk, but there’s a lot of… distrust. And from what we’ve been able to see, things in Merit could blow up even worse. The termites are working on their own countermeasures. If we’re not careful, those people who want the full-on war, who want to genocide the hive, are gonna get what they want. But I– some of us thought that it might be easier to communicate with the termites and come to a mutual understanding if we had a go-between that was more on their level.” 

For a moment, there was no response. The bees simply hovered there in front of him. He had the feeling there was some bit of conversation or consideration (probably both) going on, and remained silent rather than interrupt. 

Finally, the bees moved, hovering up a bit closer as they answered together. “Yes, Agent Deans. We believe that would be for the betterment of all, hive and humans alike. Allow us some time to prepare a group of ourselves to send a large mind with you to speak with the termites of Merit. We will invite them to join us here, in the safety of our home-hive, where we all may work together.

The agreement seemed to take a weight from the FBI agent’s shoulders, as he straightened a little bit. “Yeah? Good. Well, thanks. Thanks a lot, seriously. You have no idea how helpful that’ll be.” 

“We believe we do have some idea,” the bees corrected. “We are well-aware of how badly our own introduction and integration to society could have gone. It is our duty and our honor to be able to help others in such a position.

“We only hope that we are not too late to help calm this situation, before it escalates into something far worse.”

Previous Chapter / Next Chapter