Summus Proelium

Showdown 7-04 (Summus Proelium)

Previous Chapter

Okay. Okay. So, what was my current situation? Well, I was inside a grocery store with a few random customers and employees. Pack and her lizards were outside, working on shifting into a more combat-capable force. Also outside were a combined force of Oscuro and Ninety-Niners, who had apparently banded together in an attempt to hurt Blackjack and the rest of La Casa. Meanwhile, the bulk of the La Casa people were under attack by more of those combined forces to keep them busy. Which would also undoubtedly draw the attention of any authorities and Star-Touched who were out to keep them busy as well, so the guys here would have… privacy. 

I’d just finished my terse explanation to That-A-Way and was waiting for her to say something when the line suddenly went dead. Blinking at it, I saw there was no signal. Someone out there was using a jammer, just like the Scion people had back during the party. What the hell, did they start handing out those things as prizes in cereal boxes or something? 

Abruptly, the phone buzzed in my hand with a call coming through, despite having no signal. It surprised me so much that I almost dropped the damn thing, and actually gasped. The ID on the screen said it was Wren, so I answered it. “Wren? How are you calling me, there’s–” 

“No signal, I know,” she interrupted. “I had to use the signal booster I built into the suit Ashton’s wearing. It’ll only work within a few feet, so don’t get too far away yet, okay? Plus I’m not sure how long it’ll last before that jammer overloads it. Are you…” 

“I’m fine, so far,” I replied, looking to Ashton himself. He was standing there, looking torn between fear and delight. Fear at what might happen to him, of course (particularly given the fact he was frozen), along with delight because he thought we wouldn’t get away with the last vial now. “But those guys are gonna start coming inside any minute, as soon as they’ve got this place surrounded. And call me crazy, but I’m pretty sure they’re not here to pick up milk and bread.” 

“Crap, crap, crap!” Wren blurted. “I should’ve put that teleport marker on the suit so I could pull you guys out! I meant to, I did, but I was so excited that it was done, and we wanted to get–” 

“It’s okay, Wren,” I interrupted while dragging Ashton with me toward the end of the aisle. I peeked out. The front of the store looked clear. None of the bad guys had come in yet. But I kept watching. I needed to get out there, but first things first. “What about the car? Can you, I dunno, use any kind of security feature to keep those guys out of it, just in case? One of the vials is still in there.” 

“I can drive the car out with remote control,” she quickly informed me. “But I’m not–” 

“Do it. Take the car and the vial out of here, Wren. Keep it safe. Pack and I can handle this and keep these guys busy until That-A-Way brings reinforcements. We’ve got it, I promise. But I have to go now. There’s other people in this store, and those guys are gonna break in any second. We’ll deal with this. You focus on getting that car out of here with the vial, okay?”

Reluctantly, she agreed, making me promise to be careful. I did so before disconnecting,  hoping that everything I’d just said wouldn’t end up being wrong. Because despite all my assurances to try to keep the other girl calm, I had no idea what was going to happen here. Pack and her friends were still outside, and there was no way of knowing how long it would take That-A-Way to get anyone here. For the moment, Ashton and I were basically alone in this building, aside from all the innocent people those guys would plow through in order to get to us.

Just as I tucked the phone and vial deep in my pocket, zipping it shut, one of the store employees came into view. “Uh, hey, something’s going on outside.” 

And here it went. Glancing to Ashton, I hesitated before dragging him back a few feet down the aisle out of sight. Then I simply told him, “Hang out here.” As if he had a choice, given the suit wouldn’t let him move. But at least I didn’t have to worry about him running off. The suit worked as well for that as stay-down cuffs would have.

Quickly turning to the store guy, I walked that way while asking, “Those guys outside, the gangs, what’re they doing now?” Reaching the end of the aisle, I peeked toward the front doors once more. Nothing. Aside from several customers and employees standing there staring out at something. 

His head shook quickly. “Nothing, not yet. They’re just standing out there, but they’ve got guns and… and there’s Touched with them. But there’s two different gangs, and they’re not fighting.” 

“Yeah, cuz we’re a more popular target right now,” I muttered, before looking back to him. “Look, grab those people there, and anyone else you can find, somewhere safe to hide for awhile, like the manager’s office or something. Lock the doors and stay there until the cops come. Go!” 

It must’ve been the costume or something, but the guy actually listened. He ran off toward the front, saying something to those people, who quickly followed him. Meanwhile, I looked down at myself, summoning more drawings in various colors to the suit. Over the next brief handful of seconds, the images appeared. Images of two guys fighting with swords across my torso, with mountains in the background and a bird flying through the sky overhead. A coiled snake wrapped around a spear decorated my left leg, while a man with a javelin riding a motorcycle took up the right one. My arms were covered in multicolored flames and lightning bolts. Every image had multiple colors involved, multiple paints I could activate when the time came. An entire involved mural of images stretching across my suit. 

By that point, I had walked all the way to the front of the store, where the civilians had been watching from. Sure enough, through the doors I could see a bunch of vehicles out in the lot, blocking the way through. Dozens of gang members stood out there, mostly normal guys armed with guns, but with several Touched mixed in. When the group saw me, they stiffened a bit and a few said something to one another. A couple brought their guns up. Other than that, none of them moved or tried to come after me. They seemed to be waiting for something, or someone.

Pack was probably lying low for the moment, waiting for a good chance to show herself. Letting out a breath, I took a few slow steps that way, watching the guys outside as they stared at me. The door whooshed open when I was close enough, and I stopped there, lifting my chin while watching for anyone who looked like they were about to shoot. My heart was trying to beat its way out of my chest, and I had to focus for a moment to stop my voice from shaking too much.

“Hey guys, you think you could have your tailgate party somewhere else? I don’t think this store really appreciates you blocking their entrance that much. Kinda scares off the customers.” 

Two figures stepped forward, one guy and one girl. The man was instantly recognizable with his red trench coat and welding mask. Coverfire, the guy who had come to Wren’s place before. The woman was another obvious Touched that I recognized from news reports. She wore a costume that consisted of a gray bodysuit with black armor panels and a black metal mask covering the bottom half of her face. She was part of the Ninety-Niners, named Ringside. As I understood it, she was a super-strong and tough Touched (A Brawn-Touched, as Flea had taught me) with a twist. Basically, her power allowed her to summon these glowing red rings and throw them. If they hit a person, they would be teleported close to Ringside herself, and both she and the target would be surrounded by a domed forcefield cage of sorts. Within the forcefield cage, Ringside’s own strength depended on how much of their own powers she allowed her opponent to have. She could weaken their powers, remove them, or leave them the same. The weaker or more non-existent they were, the less strength she had. If she left them with all their powers, she would stay at full-strength too, and for her, that was enough to bench press a small car. But even with people who were much stronger than she was, locking them in the ‘ring’ with her and cancelling all their powers meant they couldn’t rely on any of it. 

Ringside was part of the Ninety-Niners. So I supposed these two were representing each of their groups. Two groups that, as far as I knew, didn’t exactly get along all that well. Unfortunately, I probably wasn’t lucky enough for them to start fighting each other right now. 

“Seems to me you keep ending up in this kind of situation,” Coverfire informed me flatly, his voice somewhat muffled by the welder’s mask. “Should we bother telling you to surrender?” 

“I’d do it if I was you, kid,” Ringside put in. “Otherwise, soon as the bosses show up, you’ll wish you had. Cuz I don’t think their leader’s gonna be in the mood to play around.” 

Their bosses. That’s why these guys hadn’t charged in yet. They were waiting for their respective leaders to arrive. Hell, the gangs probably didn’t trust each other enough to start something without Cuélebre and Sandon (the Ninety-Niner leader) around. Though I had no doubt that if I tried to leave, they’d get over that really quick. For the moment, they were content to stand out there and just make sure I didn’t go anywhere. But when their leaders showed up…

Swallowing at the thought of just how pissed off Cuélebre was at me, I forced myself to reply, “You know, if it’s milk you guys are after, I’m pretty sure they’re having a great sale at the place just three blocks down. But you better hurry before it’s all gone. You know how crazy everyone in this town gets over milk sales.” The fuck was I even talking about?

“The fuck are you even talking about?” Coverfire demanded. 

“Language,” Ringside snapped primly. “There’s no need to be crude.” To me, she added, “Tell you what, you surrender to me and I’ll make sure that these goons and their psychotic master don’t tear you apart. I’ll even go one step further and promise that when we get what we want, you can go completely free. Scout’s honor.”

Growling angrily at that, Coverfire glared at her. “We have a deal, remember?”

She gave a short nod, dark eyes flicking to him as she calmly replied, “Our deal is to work together to hurt Blackjack and La Casa. Personally, I don’t have anything against this kid. Not yet, anyway. Besides, watching him make your boss chase him all over town for nothing was pretty funny.”

Coverfire flared up his force field briefly at that, but didn’t make a move toward her. I had an idea to maybe try saying something that could make them argue some more or even fight, but before I could, the automatic door suddenly closed between us. A second later, the metal security shield came down. 

For a second, I just stared at it, wondering what the hell was going on. I could hear the guys shouting on the other side that some dinky little metal door wouldn’t stop them, just before a voice came over the intercom system. 

“Paintball, get to the security office. Hurry, I’m pretty sure we don’t have much time.”

It was Eits. Oh God, it was Eits! Spinning on my heel, I ran back through the store, looking around until I saw a sign pointing to the employees area. Booking it that way, I saw Holiday pop her head out of a doorway and look at me, so I headed there. 

Sure enough, Eits was there along with Pack and her animals. They were all in the rather large  security office, and as soon as I entered, Eits turned from the computer screen to stare at me. “Whoa, you fancied up your costume. That’s a pretty cool— wait, that’s all your paint stuff, isn’t it?”

I stared at the boy. “How did you get here so fast? Hell, how did all of you get in the store?”

Pack answered. “I texted him as soon as we saw the bitch in the sky. We’re, uh, let’s just say we’re not too far away from his place.”

Eits gave a short nod. “I made it over here and messed with the lights on a couple cars in the back to distract the guys back there long enough for the lizard gang to deal with them so we could get in through the loading dock.”

Brightening at that, I asked, “Great, so we can get everyone out that way?”

He winced, gesturing to the nearby security screen where I could see a view of the back lot. It was full of bad guys. “Turns out they had reinforcements. A lot of them. We just managed to get inside. And now we’re stuck here with you.” As soon as he said it, the boy instantly began fumbling over his words, “I mean, not that being anywhere with you feels like being stuck, or like it sucks, or… I mean, that wasn’t—”

Raising a hand to stop him, I interrupted. “Believe me, dude, being offended is basically the last thing on my mind right now. What about all the customers and employees?”

“Manager’s office,” Pack replied. “They all locked themselves in there. It’s kind of cramped, but I don’t think they’ll go anywhere anytime soon.” She looked to me then. “What about That-A-Way? You were trying to call her, right? Tell me she’s got cavalry on the way.”

“I dunno,” I admitted. “We got cut off before she could say anything after I told her what was going on. Hopefully. But either way, it could take them some time to get here, especially if all those guys are really causing so much trouble in the city. And our friends right outside are just waiting for Cuélebre and Sandon to show up.”

Pack cursed. “Right, so the only reason they haven’t come in yet is because they’ve got two of the biggest of the big guns heading here to finish the job themselves. And we can’t go anywhere because they’re all standing guard. At least the car took off with the other vial. That had to be the kid, right?”

Confirming that, I exhaled. “So, we’re stuck in here, waiting to see who shows up first, our help or theirs. And call me crazy, but that’s not exactly a bet that I’m super eager to make. Not when losing means facing down a giant demon dragon thing with lightning powers.”

Pack shook her head. “Unless you’ve got a teleporter in your pocket no one bothered to tell me about, what else can we do? Make a run at them wherever there’s the least amount of Touched, break through the line, and run for it?” 

Eits grimaced. “I uhh, don’t think that’ll work. I’ve been watching these guys on the cameras and they are amped and ready to go. No way we break through one line before the rest dogpile on top. Not without some kind of distraction.” 

Thinking quickly, I replied, “Then we distract them, by getting them to come in here after us.” They both stared at me like I’d lost my mind, while I pushed on. “We get them to come in before their leaders get here. We get them to break the line and try to catch us in the store. Then we get out, and we make sure they know we got out so they chase us and leave the people here alone.”

“Fantastic, as long as the random civilians will be safe while we’ve got half the members of two different gangs chasing us,” Pack muttered darkly. “If you don’t stop making me do heroic shit, I’m gonna get hives.”

Eits looked back and forth between us briefly before asking, “How do we get them to come in here and break their little line before their leaders show up? Cuz I don’t think we’ve got much time.”

I was about to confess that I wasn’t really sure, when a figure abruptly stepped through the nearby wall. Everyone spun that way, Pack snapping a new shotgun up while Eits also produced a pistol. The lizard creatures were up and moving too. 

“Wait, wait!” I blurted, belatedly recognizing the figure. It was Syndicate, leader of the Minority. Or one of his four bodies, anyway. 

He turned solid once it was clear no one was going to shoot him. Or maul him, in the case of the animals. His voice was tense. “Way said you needed help.” He glanced to Pack. “And that you helped at the hospital. She didn’t say anything about him though.”

“He’s helping and we need him,” I said flatly. “Are you guys really…”

He nodded. “We’re set up outside, just beyond the lot. Most of us, anyway.”

Pack asked, “Why isn’t That-A-Way popping in here? No offense, she’s just a lot nicer to look at than you. And, you know, she could just teleport us all right on out of here, problem solved.”

Syndicate shook his head. “She and the others came in from the wrong direction. This place is south of them, she can’t teleport, or use speed. She was going to try to work her way far enough around and down, but I told her to wait, because I wanted to see what was going on in here myself. And on the way in, I heard a couple of the guys out there saying that Cuélebre and Sandon should both be here in ten minutes. So, more explanations can come later. I also heard you talking just now about luring them in and then booking it. You think they’d break ranks if they thought the thing they were after was about to disappear? It’s those supersoldier vials, right? You’re trying to stop the war on the streets from getting worse by getting them back for Blackjack. I get it, whatever. The point is, we make them think they’re about to lose their chance. They didn’t see me when I came in, but if they saw another of me come running, especially if I pretended to say something in my comm about getting the vials…”

“They’d chase you in,” I realized. 

He nodded. “I can have the other me come in through the front entrance. The others are around the back. Soon as the guys out front break ranks and chase the other me in, my team outside and everyone in here all hit the ones in the back from both sides and book it. With the guys out front already coming into the building, there’ll be confusion all over the place about what’s happening. At least for a few seconds. Should be enough chaos to get everyone to Way so she can teleport. Then we’ll be gone, and they won’t have any reason to stick around here, so the civvies’ll be safe.”

“I’m surprised you’re not insisting that we stand here and fight the bad guys,” Pack observed.

“Two gangs including their leaders are about to descend on this spot,” Syndicate reminded her. “Having a fight here would be stupid both for us, because they’re a lot stronger than the group we can put together, and for the civilians in this store who would be caught in the crossfire. The smartest thing to do is get the thing they want out of the store, make sure they know it’s not here anymore, and get away.” 

Eits, who had been silent up to that point, raised a hand. “Uh, just one thing. Once we get out of here, we get to leave.” He gestured to himself, Pack, and the lizards. 

“Yeah, don’t worry,” Syndicate assured him with a note of sarcasm, “I’m sure we’ll catch you another time. But right now, we don’t have much left before the situation gets a hell of a lot worse. So, are we doing it or what?”

Glancing to the others until they nodded, I turned back to the boy. “Okay then. 

“Let’s do it.”

Previous Chapter

Showdown 7-03 (Summus Proelium)

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We waited until after dark to go out with Ashton. That was just the easiest way to avoid as many issues as possible with people seeing what we were doing. Of course, we tested it on him first, getting him into the suit (against his will) and getting him to walk to various places in the room by asking him to think about the couch, or the television, or his cell, that kind of thing. He wasn’t happy, which he made very vocally clear in the course of cursing us out. Especially once it became apparent that the suit actually worked and that he couldn’t stop himself from walking to the thing we used the control box to tell him to think about. The suit wasn’t fast or anything. He kind of walked at what felt like a snail’s pace, though that was at least partly my impatience. 

In any case, it worked. After that, we just sort of hung out until well after dark, when things had settled down as much as possible. We didn’t want to wait too long (not that we were running out of time just yet, it was just very hard to sit still and be patient when we were so close), so as soon as we felt like it was late enough, we started suiting Ashton up again (we’d taken it off him while waiting so there would be less chance of him being able to damage it somehow). It took me using purple paint along with both Pack and Fred to get it on the guy without hurting either him or the suit itself too much. Tempting as it might’ve been to be rougher, we couldn’t do that.

Finally, I pushed his leg down into the thing while Fred zipped it up in the back. Once the suit part, which still looked like thick thermal underwear, was securely on him, I nodded to Wren. She pushed a button on the control box, and I heard the snapping sound as dozens of tiny needle-like wires poked through his skin to find his nerves and muscles. It sounded awful the first time I saw it, but Wren had promised that it would only feel like a series of little pinches for him. She’d even put her own arm in the suit and let it clamp down on her to show that it wasn’t that bad, and all she’d done is gasp a little when it happened. I’d tried it then, and she was right. It wasn’t super-fun or anything, but it definitely wasn’t like getting dozens of shots. You could barely feel the wires. The suit did some kind of numbing process when it poked you. So yeah, there was absolutely a series of pinches all the way through the suit, but nothing that bad. 

Not that that stopped Ashton from bellowing and cursing like we’d literally set him on fire, of course. He jerked, struggling to free himself while ranting about how we were torturing him and what kind of hero did I think I was. He also did a whole chorus about how my helping Blackjack meant I was just as much of a villain and that every person he killed or helped kill in the future would be my fault because I encouraged him by saving his daughter and yada yada yada. 

“Dude,” I reminded him once the suit was attached and linked up with him, “I told you before, you have no high ground here, none. You want to let an innocent little girl die just to hurt her dad. That is the opposite of the high ground. You’re under water, down in the Marianas trench.” 

“And what about all the people it could save?” the man all-but spat at me. “If Blackjack loses his nerve, if losing his kid makes him think about all the other people he’s hurt, what if that makes him stop being an evil piece of shit, huh? What about all the people that might survive if he stops being a villain? Isn’t that worth losing one little kid if it saves a bunch of others? What–” 

Whatever he was going to say next was cut off, as Fred of all people punched him in the face. His head rocked backward with an audible yelp, and I saw blood coming from his nose. He also had a bit of a bruise under his eye. Fred, meanwhile, was rubbing his hand and wincing. “Shit, ow,” he mumbled, walking over to the bathroom to run some water over his knuckles. 

Pack and I looked at each other before shrugging. I looked to Ashton. “You had that coming. Now shut up, before someone else loses their temper and hits you. I can’t promise it won’t be me.” Reaching down for a box of tissues on the nearby table, I used a few to wipe off his face as gingerly as possible. Yeah, he was a dick, but I knew what had driven him to be like this. Even if I didn’t agree, I could still somewhat sympathize with how losing his friend had broken him. 

Pack and I put the helmet on him, securing it in place. Again, Wren hit the button on the control box, and there was a snapping sound as the helmet linked into his brain. The bit inside the helmet was the most important part, the one we’d taken from the Seraphs. Ahem, the one we’d borrowed from the Seraphs and would absolutely be returning once this was over. Yeah. 

Fred came back, looking embarrassed by his outburst. “You about ready to take this jackass out and finish this so we can all move on?” He muttered the words, clearly about as done with this whole situation as I was. We had to get those vials and then turn Ashton in to the police for everything he’d done. I still didn’t know how Blackjack was going to handle Ashton being in police custody. After the guy endangered his daughter, could he possibly just let him sit in prison?

I had my doubts. But I would just make sure to warn the authorities that Blackjack would want to kill him. After that… well, I’d warn them, that was all I could do. 

“We’re ready,” I announced, holding out a hand for the control box. Wren passed it over, and I smiled at her for a second before remembering that she couldn’t actually see the smile. Nor could she see the subsequent blush, as I quickly spoke aloud. “Thanks. You guys gonna monitor things back here?” 

Wren’s head bobbed up and down quickly, and she held up a cell phone. “Stay in contact, Paintball. Tell us everything that’s going on.” 

“Soon as we get started,” I assured her before nodding to Pack. “Okay, let’s do this.” With that, the two of us guided Ashton up and out of the basement. He couldn’t just go on his own for a couple reasons. First, we definitely didn’t trust him with knowing where this place was. There was too big of a chance of him ending up talking to a bad guy about it. So, his helmet was also currently blinding him. That made it somewhat harder for us to expect him to be able to walk anywhere. Plus, the suit wouldn’t actually let him move very well on his own. It severely limited his range of motion so he couldn’t just run off or attack us. 

Similar to the special staydown cuffs, however, if other people were guiding him, he could move slowly. So I led him up the stairs, announcing each step on the way so he wouldn’t trip, while Pack followed behind to help with that. 

On the way up, the man kept talking. His voice, muffled by the helmet, alternated between pleading and threatening. I really don’t think he expected us to take it this far. But what else were we supposed to do? I refused to let a kid die just so he could stick it to Blackjack. If that meant strong-arming him to this extent to force him into showing us where the vials were hidden, so be it. Yeah, it made me a bit uncomfortable. But I’d take feeling uncomfortable over letting a kid die just so he could spite someone he hated. How justified that hate happened to be was irrelevant when it came to letting a child die, period. To paraphrase a certain cop show I’d seen before, having a cool motive to murder was still murder.

To give us some peace and quiet without Ashton bitching the whole time (and also to make sure he didn’t try to play any games with alerting passersby or claiming we were abducting him, Wren had included a mute function in the helmet. It wouldn’t let any sound escape. I enabled that, silencing the man before we reached the parking lot. 

Once there, Pack and I looked around, making sure the lot was still empty before I murmured, “I guess keeping where Wren’s place is secret from you kind of went down the tubes awhile ago. But still, I hope–” 

“I’m not going to go blabbing about it,” she informed me flatly. “I like the kid too, Paintball. Blackjack isn’t in the habit of forcing anyone, let alone kids and even further Tech-Touched, to work for him. It’s a seriously bad idea on several levels. But even if he was, like I said, I like the kid. She’s safe, okay?” 

“Okay.” I felt like I could trust Pack by that point. Especially when it came to something like that. She might’ve been okay with stealing from people, but hurting kids was totally beyond her level of villain. And, for that matter, I thought she was probably right about Blackjack. 

Letting it go at that, I asked, “Got your friends?” 

“In the car.” She nodded toward the nearby red sedan that Wren had apparently fixed up for her to use. The lizards were in there, apparently. I saw the one I recognized as Riddles the bearded dragon sitting up on the dash, staring at me through the window. I waved, before the other girl and I guided Ashton that way. It took a few seconds to get him situated in the back seat, then I took the front passenger side (Riddles dropped down into my lap and I scratched her head), while Pack took the driver’s side. A moment later, we were pulling away. 

The spot we drove to wasn’t too far away, but we did drive for a longer time than we needed to. In order to throw off any chance of Ashton being able to figure out where Wren’s place was, Pack took a few random turns, drove in circles a bit, doubled back, went through a few parking lots, stopped in the middle of an open street (when no one was behind us) as if waiting for a stop sign or traffic light that didn’t exist, and so on. When we finally stopped, it was technically only a few blocks from where we’d started, but we took about ten minutes or so to get there. 

Pulling Ashton out of the car, I disabled the blinding effect and let his visor turn clear once more. His eyes were wide as they darted around, taking in his new location. We were in the parking lot of a self-serve car wash. Actually, at the moment we were actually in the car wash. It was a good way of being out of sight for the moment. 

Pack and I put a long coat on him to cover up the suit. Then I nodded to her. “Right, I’ll keep you updated,” I promised, looking over at our guide for the evening. “Let’s do it.” 

She got back in the car, already calling Wren. A moment later, my own phone buzzed, and I accepted the conference call. I already had the phone linked to the mic I was using to alter my voice, so that was all set. “Wren, you good back there?” 

“Trevithick,” she informed me. Before I could ask what the hell that meant, the girl amended, “My name. You should call me Trevithick. If everyone else gets a cool codename, I do too.” 

Blinking at that, I looked over to Pack, who shrugged at me. “Err, sure. Does the word mean something, or…” 

There was a giggle from the other end of the line, before she explained, “Trevithick was the name of the guy who created the steam locomotive. He basically invented the train. Plus, it’s a funny name. And he was really cool. He said that people called him insane and that he deserved to hang for what he created, but that even if that was the only reward he ever got from the public, he’d still be satisfied by the pleasure and pride he felt just from knowing that his invention would push everything forward so much. He said no matter how poor he might end up being, no one could take away the honor he felt at being useful.” 

“Wow.” I blinked again, that time from being impressed rather than confused. “Okay then, Trevithick it is. You ready back there?” 

“All good,” she assured us. “Right, Fred? He nodded. He has chicken in his mouth, so he can’t talk. I don’t think I was supposed to say that. Oh, right, just, uhh, keep telling us what’s going on.” 

Snickering despite myself, I nodded to Pack, then looked to Ashton. “Right, dude, here we go. See, walking all over town with you would take too long. So we’re going to shortcut this whole thing.” To that end, I first told him exactly where we were, the address and a description of the area just in case he wasn’t that great with directions. Once he knew the location, I took the control box, hitting the button. “Now, think of where the nearest vial is.”

He was clearly struggling not to. But it was no use. Wren did good work, and he immediately turned to start walking out of the car wash. I gave Pack a thumbs up, heading after the guy while she got back in the car. “Okay,” I announced for both her and Wren over the phone, “he’s heading… south on Rosa Parks. Making the jump.” 

Using the control box, I told Ashton to stop. Then I put one arm around him, gave myself a bit of extra strength with purple paint, and used my other hand to shoot a spray of red paint off toward the roof of a building across the street. With a grunt, I let it yank both of us up that way. Once we were in almost there, I cancelled the paint before shooting another bit toward a metal bit that stuck up further onto the roof and let that yank us the rest of the way.

After landing, I did the same thing across the next couple rooftops, going about six blocks that way while keeping the others updated. Once I saw a decent, mostly empty parking lot behind an old apartment building, I brought us down. Then I used the control box and told Ashton exactly where we were before repeating the order to think about the same vial he’d been focused on before. 

Again, he began walking immediately. And again, he clearly wasn’t happy about it. But I was done pleading with him to do the right thing. So, we were doing it this way. 

I kept doing that, narrowing down just where this first vial was by going several blocks at a time, setting him down, and seeing where he started walking next. At one point, we overshot, because he started walking back the way we’d come from. Which narrowed it down even more. It was like playing hot and cold, sort of. 

Eventually, we ended up in front of an old coin operated twenty-four hour laundromat. There was no one inside, so Pack pulled in and we had Ashton lead us right in. He went to one of the machines before I stopped him. Then Pack and I searched around the thing for a couple minutes until she found the vial duct taped to the back of it, up underneath a bit. 

“Another one down,” she announced, holding it up with what sounded like a grin behind her featureless black mask. “Blackjack has two, this makes three. We’re halfway there.” 

“And we’re getting the rest tonight,” I murmured with a glance toward Ashton. “See, we can do this just like we got that one. Or you can make the whole thing easier by just telling us where the rest are. Then we can be done with this. You hurt Blackjack, man. You scared him. Give it up now.” 

I unmuted him, and he stared at me for a few long seconds. His mouth stayed closed, but his lips kept moving, like he was working himself up to reply. But in the end, after waiting through it, all he said was, “Fuck you.” 

“He said no, didn’t he?” Wren’s voice asked through the phone. 

Sighing, I nodded. “Yeah, he said no. So, we keep going.” 

And we did. For the next couple hours, I took Ashton all around the freaking city just to get two more. He’d hidden the vials as far as he could while staying within Detroit, it seemed. They were all in out-of-the-way spots that he could easily get to at any time of day. 

Finally, we only had to get the last one. Pack had one of the vials in the car jockey box and the other in her hand, toying with it curiously, as we stopped in front of what was apparently the last place. It was a supermarket, one open twenty-four hours. Apparently the last vial was in there somewhere. Pack and I looked at each other while standing at the back of the lot next to the car. “We could wait until no one’s there,” I pointed out. “It’s not that busy now. We hold off for like an hour, it’ll be empty except a few employees. Then me and our buddy here can go in and grab it.” 

She started to nod, then looked past me and cursed. “Motherfucker. Isn’t that–shit!” 

“What?” I blurted, confused. “What–” Reflexively, I whipped that way, just in time to see movement in the sky across the street. A figure there was flying away out of sight, carried on enormous wings. “The hell was–” 

“Yahui,” Pack replied shortly, already shoving the vial she had into her pocket before yanking out a different phone from the one we were using to keep in contact with Wren. “It was Yahui. She was watching us. Probably been following us for awhile.” 

Yahui. That was one of Cuélebre’s people, one of Oscuro. She had the ability to manifest basically any animal part on herself at any point, mixing and matching as much as she wanted to and gaining the abilities related to those particular animal parts. If she was following us, she could have seen or heard anything depending on what animal eyes and ears she was manifesting at the time. This was bad. This was really bad. 

“Go!” Pack gave me a shove. “I’m calling in reinforcements. Go get the vial.” 

“I’m coming!” Wren called through the phone. 

“No!” Quickly, I shook my head, using the control box to order Ashton to go to the vial before addressing Wren again. “Stay there, we’ll get this and get out of here. Just wait. We’re almost done.” 

Rather than let Ashton stall by walking, I grabbed him and painted us right up to the store. A guy coming out stopped and stared, while I shoved Ashton through. “Sorry, sir,” I blurted, “but I really suggest you get out of here, fast!” That was called over my shoulder while I dragged Ashton through the front of the store, pausing just long enough to see where he started moving before dragging him again. 

We attracted attention. Because of course we did. But I managed to get to the ice cream aisle, finding the vial itself hidden way in the back, taped up under the top shelf. Yanking it out, I felt a surge of triumph. 

Then I heard Pack through the phone. “Problems,” she informed me. “More problems. A bunch of Oscuro vans just pulled up. I barely got out of sight. I’m working on getting my pals in fighting shape.” 

“How long til your other friends get here?” I asked. 

“That’s another part of the problems,” came the terse response. “Double Down says one of our main safe houses just got attacked by other Oscuro troops, right out of the blue. Oscuro troops and Ninety-Niners, working together. And… yeah, some Ninety-Niners just showed up outside here. They’re talking in the lot. Definitely working together. And… shit. There’s people in the back too. They’ve got you cut off and pinned in there. And–” 

“And your people are busy,” I finished, thinking fast. “Hold on. I’ll call back, just wait.” Disconnecting, I quickly fumbled through my coveralls until I found the card That-A-Way had given me, frantically dialing the number on it. 

“It’s That-A-Way,” the by-now familiar voice greeted me a couple rings later. “I always love saying th–” 

“This is Paintball,” I quickly interrupted. “Our old trucy ally and me, we’re at the Huey’s on Park West. Oscuro and the Ninety-Niners are about to come in guns blazing to get the stuff Blackjack’s been tearing apart the city looking for. So, you know, I don’t know if you’re busy or anything, but a little help would be great.

“And, uhhh, you probably better hurry.” 

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Showdown 7-02 (Summus Proelium)

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“I’m really sorry,” Izzy was saying about fifteen minutes later as I walked with her through the house. The kid looked like she was trying to disappear into the too-large hooded sweatshirt she was wearing, her voice a quiet mumble. “I didn’t mean to barge into your home and take over.” 

Blinking sidelong at her, I shook my head. “Trust me, you’re not taking over anything. We could put up a whole football team here and not run out of room. And I’m including the coaches and support staff in that.” With a wink, I added, “Seriously, it’s no big deal. I just, um, are you okay?” 

The answer really seemed like no, though she just offered me a clearly self-conscious shrug while murmuring an almost inaudible, “I’m fine.” There was no conviction behind her words. Whatever else she might be, the girl was not a very good liar. Something was wrong, but I had no idea how to ask what exactly.

Seriously, how did I bring up, ‘So is my family putting you up because they killed your parents in their supervillain personas or something?’ It was hard to carefully segue into something like that. 

All my parents had said was that there were some private issues involving Izzy’s family and that the authorities had asked if we could put her up in the safety of our place for a bit while it was sorted out. And that Simon and I were not to let anyone know there was anyone new living with us. We were strictly ordered to stay quiet about Izzy. Dad had also made it clear that I shouldn’t push too far or be very nosey about it. Which, of course, just made me even more curious. 

“Technically, there are nine bedrooms,” I informed the girl while walking up the stairs. “But that’s pretty misleading, because almost every bedroom has a couple other rooms attached to it. My rooms are up here on the third floor, east wing. There’s the main bedroom where I sleep, the bathroom attached to it, a playroom right across the hall, a study room next to the playroom, and this other room next to the bathroom that isn’t really used for anything. I’m not sure what it was supposed to be for, but it’s empty. That’s the room Dad said they were bringing in a bed to.” 

As I explained that much, we passed my own bedroom, and I had a moment of paralyzed indecision. Would showing her my room come off as showing off when she clearly wasn’t accustomed to anything like that? Would not showing her come off as if I wanted to keep her out? I had no idea what to do about it or how to be a good tour guide of my own home. 

My parents’ home, I reminded myself. I’d done nothing to earn a place in this house. And, given I had some vague idea of how we’d gotten it, I was pretty sure I didn’t want to do anything to earn a place in it. That was why I’d started up with the idea of investing the money I had both from my (rather absurd) allowance and savings into Wren’s business. At least then, even if the source of the money was still bad, it would be going to a good cause. And I wouldn’t have to feel quite as bad about the money that came out of it. It might help me become a little more self-sufficient. Which… I had a feeling might be important at some point in the future. 

Finally, I decided that ignoring it and acting like I didn’t want her in there or seeing it was worse, even if barely. So, I pushed open the door and gestured. “This is my room. You can come in any time I’m not, you know, sleeping or changing or whatever.” I wasn’t worried about her finding my costume or anything, considering I already had to be careful not to let Jania or one of the other maids find it. When I was at home, the costume was hidden in a bag under a couple floorboards I had pried up with the help of some purple paint. The floorboards were themselves under a big heavy mirror in my (enormous) closet, which I also had to use purple paint to even move out of the way so I could get my costume out. The odds of Izzy accidentally finding it were… okay, I wasn’t going to tempt the universe by thinking anything else. But still, it was pretty safe. 

I showed the girl through my room, then over to the ‘playroom’ so I could show her how to work the remote for the TV and game systems if she wanted. After that, I took her through the bathroom and showed her the whirlpool tub and separate shower before continuing on to the far door. “And your room,” I announced while tugging it open. “It’s ahhh… there’s not much.” 

Sure enough, the room was still empty. It was about half the size of my bedroom, which still left it pretty good sized, as far as I knew. My bedroom was a little smaller than one of my classrooms at school. So yeah, pretty big. 

“Oh.” Izzy’s voice was small and quiet, the girl slowly stepping into the room to look around in obvious awe. “It’s… it’s….” 

“It’s kinda empty, I know,” I managed as she trailed off. “But like my dad said, they’re bringing in a bed right now. And we’ll get some… I…” Pausing, I stared at her. The girl was looking away from me, arms crossed over her stomach as if it hurt. A single tear had fallen partway down her cheek, though from the look of the wetness in her eyes, there were a lot more she was holding back.

“I… um, I know we don’t know each other,” I started a bit awkwardly and uncertainly. “But if there’s anything you want to… I don’t know, talk about or even just have someone listen. I can do that.” Boy did it sound dumb and condescending coming out of my mouth. I had no idea what else to say, though. What was going on? Who was this girl? Why was she here? What happened? I had all these questions, but no way to ask them. At least, not without being rude. And seeing this girl standing there, valiantly trying not to cry as she stared at a blank wall, made the idea of being even a little bit rude to her seem utterly repugnant.

There was a brief pause as Izzy just stared at that wall before she slowly turned her head to glance at me. For a second, I thought she might actually say something important. It looked like she wanted to. But in the end, the girl just gave a short shake of her head, mumbling, “Thanks.” 

Right, she had absolutely no reason to actually trust me. Before I could say anything, the sound of heavy footsteps approaching made me poke my head out the doorway. Sure enough, a couple workers (they normally did gardening stuff outside, I was pretty sure) were headed this way carrying the empty bed frame. Still, even empty, it was a pretty big frame. These guys were strong. 

Stepping back, I motioned for Izzy and the two of us moved so the guys could haul the frame into the room on its side (it barely fit through the doorway, which said something about how big the doorway was considering the frame wasn’t exactly small). They brought it in, set the bed down near the far wall, then went out to grab the mattress and box springs. Meanwhile, I looked to the other girl. “Hey, you wanna get some ice cream while they do that?” 

She seemed to perk up a little bit, before an obvious flash of guilt and uncertainty crossed her face. There was a brief hesitation before she seemed to set her chin, giving a slight nod. I had no idea what had been going through her mind just then, and pushing felt wrong. So, I just led her out, waving to the men and calling a thank you to them (Izzy did the same) before heading back down to the kitchen. There, I showed her where the ice cream was kept. There were eight different flavors kept in gallon buckets, along with the toppings. We made a couple sundaes before going to sit at the table in the smaller dining room, the one that only sat ten people. The two of us sat next to each other, eating our ice cream in silence for a minute before I spoke up. “You see that button over there? That’s the intercom to the kitchen. You press that and you can ask the cooks for food during the day. There’s someone in there from about six in the morning until about eight at night. If you don’t know what’s available, there’s a menu on the wall there next to it. They update it once every couple weeks. And if you want something special, they’ll usually get it for you if you ask nicely. 

The girl was just staring at me, spoon with mostly-melted ice cream halfway to her lips. “You order food in your own house like a restaurant?” Her voice was a hushed whisper, clearly baffled. 

Blushing self-consciously, I offered her a helpless shrug. “I–um, I guess so? Sorry, it’s weird, huh?” 

“A little weird,” the girl agreed, before she too blushed deeply. “I mean, not that you’re wrong or… or…” Sighing, she looked at her bowl while offering a mumbled, “I don’t know what’s right or wrong anymore.” 

That sounded like a potential opening to ask her what had happened to bring her here. But before I could, Simon came in. “Hey, munchkin and guest munchkin,” he started, taking a chair out and turning it around to sit in the wrong way. “You get all sorted out?” 

“They’re putting the bed in,” I answered when it was obvious that Izzy was hesitating. “We’ll have to get more stuff tomorrow when the stores are open. I–” Pausing, I glanced to the girl beside me. “Do you have… uhh, more clothes or anything?” 

It was the wrong thing to say. I saw her cringe, head dropping a bit before she offered a weak, “Not really.” 

“We will have more clothes brought tomorrow.” That was Mom, coming into the room briskly before gently touching Izzy’s shoulder. I saw the girl flinch before the hand was quickly removed, and Mom continued. “They will have everything you need, and you may pick from as many styles as you like. For the time being…” Lifting a bag in her other hand, she extended it to Izzy. “I had Sterling run a quick errand. You should find something in here that will fit for you to sleep in this evening and another to wear tomorrow.” 

There was a little more back and forth, but it was obvious that Izzy was tired and kind of… lost. She didn’t want to talk very much. So, I took our bowls back to the kitchen when we were done, sprayed them out in one of the sinks, and headed back upstairs with her. Gesturing once we were up there, I offered, “You can use the shower first. And don’t worry about taking all the hot water or anything, you could run the shower all day long and be fine.” With a little smile of encouragement (I hoped it was encouraging anyway), I added, “Or you could use the tub. Whichever you want. I could show you how to set up the jets. They’re pretty great.” 

Again, I saw a tiny smile start to appear before she cringed, clearly at the thought of actually smiling. Whatever had happened, it really messed this kid up. I wanted to ask her about it, especially if my parents were involved. But all I could do was tell her that I was there if she wanted to talk, which I’d done already. Saying anything further would be pushing things. 

So, I just left her to use the shower or bath and walked into my own room, taking the time to close the connecting door into the bathroom before heading over to fall into my bed face first. 

What the hell was going on? Who was this girl, why was she here, and why were my parents taking care of her? It was like she was in some kind of witness protection program or something. Hell, for a second, I’d thought she might be Blackjack’s daughter. But I was pretty sure she wasn’t. For one thing, she didn’t seem sick at all. Sad and alone, yes, but not sick. 

The point was, I had a lot of questions. And no real way of getting answers without pushing the girl in the next room far more than was probably safe or polite. But hey, at least I would be going out to get those vials tomorrow. That would, hopefully, finish up at least one of the problems I was dealing with.  

I just had to hope that nothing went wrong. Because I was pretty sure things were going to get even more busy around here than I could imagine. 

******

Right, it was the next day. Which meant it was finally time to use that suit to find the rest of the vials, so Blackjack’s daughter could be safe and I could be done with all of that. Or at least, it would be time, once I got through the actual school part of the day. Being the first school day after everything that had happened at the Reformation Ball, I didn’t dare skip it. No matter how much I wanted to. And I really wanted to. But skipping school at this point, even after calling in an excuse, felt like courting trouble. No, I had to be patient, even if it was excruciating. 

At least I managed to be somewhat distracted by the fact that Jae, Amber and I were finishing up the last of our project. We would be presenting it the next day, so hopefully we were ready. We’d done as much work as we could, even if I felt a bit guilty about being so distracted. School was important, and I didn’t want to let down my project partners. It was just… yeah. Lots of things going on. But I was pretty sure it was okay. We’d finished writing up the report, and tomorrow we would present it to the class. And by then, with any luck, I’d be done with Blackjack’s thing as well because his daughter would have all her medicine. 

Fingers crossed, anyway. I’d been literally doing that all day, every time I thought about what I was going to be doing after school. I was doing it then, as I walked out of the building. Which was when the phone that I used for Touched stuff buzzed. I’d kept it on me all day just in case there was a problem with the suit. But when I dug it out quickly, fumbling a bit, the message wasn’t from Wren or Fred. Or even Pack. Instead, it was a picture from Eits, of that baseball that he’d taken back from his asshole father set up in a glass box on a fireplace mantle. Under the box was a metal plaque with words etched into it, reading, ‘The Third Ball My Parents Never Wanted Me To Have.’ 

Snorting despite myself, I almost tripped. With a smile, I sent back, ‘You should e-mail that to them.’ 

A moment later, he started typing. I was walking slow down the front walk, glancing up to make sure I didn’t bump into anyone. Then the message came in. ‘E-mail hell, I’m putting a copy in their mailbox.’ 

Sending back a laughing emoticon, I blinked up just in time to see Jae and Amber standing out on the sidewalk next to the student parking lot. They were talking to some black guy I didn’t recognize. He was tall and thin, wearing a red sweatshirt and some ratty old jeans. When I got nearer, Amber glanced to me before saying, “With her.” 

“With her what?” I piped up. “What’d I do?” 

It was Jae who answered, after giving Amber a brief look. “Our project.” 

“Right, yeah.” Amber’s head was bobbing as she gestured to the boy. “We were just telling Damarko here why I can’t blow off school tomorrow. The project. Oh and uhh, Cassidy, this is Damarko Myers. Damarko, this is Cassidy Evans. Of that Evans. Careful, she could probably buy your house with what she finds in her couch cushions.” 

Flushing despite myself, I shook my head. “We’re not that rich, knock it off.” Then I extended a hand to the boy. “You don’t go here, I take it?” 

He shook my hand with a smile showing a row of perfect white teeth. “Nah,” Damarko replied casually, “Amber and I did some work together over the summer, so we’re kind of friends. You know, as long as I drive her wherever she needs to go.” He was clearly teasing, adding an easy, “And Jae’s here because she makes it so much easier to deal with Amber.” 

“You’re a jerk, you know that?” Amber informed him, huffing a little before glancing to the girl beside her. “Jae, tell him he’s a jerk.” 

Jae, however, was looking at me. The Albino girl asked, “Are you okay?” 

For a second, I almost told them about Izzy and how confusing it was to have someone else living in my house. But I stopped myself. No one was supposed to know she was there. Instead, I just nodded. “Oh, you mean… with the… the party thing.” They all stared at me, clearly interested and worried. I tried to shrug it off. “Like I said earlier, I mostly just hid in the bathroom down in the suite the whole time. I didn’t… I saw a couple of them from behind and then hid.” 

“Smart,” Damarko noted. He glanced to Amber and Jae, the former of whom asked, “So we’re okay for tomorrow?” 

“Yup,” I confirmed. “We’re all good. I’ll be here and we can do our thing. And get an A, damn it.” 

“Hell yeah, we will,” Amber agreed. “After all the work we’ve put into that damn thing, we better get an A.” Belatedly, she added, “Seriously, you need a ride home, Cass? Cuz trust me, Damarko doesn’t have aaaaaaaanything better to do. Like, at all. Ever.” 

“You know,” the boy retorted, “at some point, I will have something better to do. Then you’ll be sorry.” 

“Yeah,” she agreed with a sly smile, “sorry for whoever you’re busy with.” 

Shaking my head at them, I replied, “Nah, I’m good. Got some stuff to do. You guys take care. See you tomorrow.” 

I turned, and as I walked away, the three started talking again. Glancing over my shoulder, I saw Jae looking at me before she turned back to the others. What were they talking about? Why had my name really come up? Because something told me it wasn’t just the project. And it wasn’t about the party thing either, because we’d already talked about that earlier that day. It was something else. Or maybe the past couple weeks had simply left me utterly paranoid. 

Yeah, it was probably just that. And now I had to stop obsessing over something trivial like what three random teenagers were talking about. Because it was time to go meet up with Wren and Pack, and finish this whole vial business once and for all. 

And hope that we didn’t have to pry the vials out of the hands of any more supervillains.

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Showdown 7-01 (Summus Proelium)

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“Okay, that’s it!” Wren chirped a couple hours later while straightening up and dusting her hands off. “It’s all done.” Her tone was one of excitement and a bit of nervousness. “At least, I think so.” 

She and I, along with Fred and Pack, were standing in the middle of the lab, surrounding a mannequin wearing what looked like a set of slightly thick thermal underwear with a motorcycle helmet. The helmet itself wasn’t too unlike mine, though it was more basic. Plus, mine didn’t have all those wires coming out the inside of it that made it look really god damn creepy. 

Fred poked the suit curiously while asking, “So this thing is gonna control our friend in there?” 

Shifting from foot to foot, Wren hesitated. “Um, sort of. When we use the control box and ask him to think about where something is, like those vials, the suit will read the place he’s thinking about and translate that into movement. It only reads the thoughts connected to the question when you use the control box, so he can’t just start thinking about something else and take us to like… McDonalds for lunch or whatever. But even when he takes us to a place, we might have to keep looking around that spot for exactly where they are. I’m not sure how close it’ll be.” 

With a nod, I looked to the Tech-Touched girl. “Sounds good, except for the ‘we’ part. We don’t know where he hid these things, but it could be dangerous. Especially with people still looking for him. I think you and Fred should stay here tomorrow.” When her mouth opened to object, I quickly added, “Trust me, Wren, you’ve done more than enough. Seriously. All this wouldn’t have been possible without you. You had the idea, you built this thing, you did it. You’ve done enough. Let me take Happypants out tomorrow and find these vials to finish it up.” 

“There’s still a ‘we’ in that,” Pack pointed out, watching me with her arms folded. “Remember, this is my boss’s daughter we’re talking about. I’m going with you and taking the vials back to him when we get them.” Her voice made it clear she wasn’t taking no for an answer.

“Right, see?” I gestured to Wren. “I’ll have backup. And we’ll stay in contact with you guys back here just in case something happens.” Voice softening, I put a hand on her arm. “Wren, it’s okay. Like I said, you’ve done enough. You didn’t really have anything to make up for to begin with, because you’re not the one who sold those things to Ashton. And… and Fred didn’t know what he was going to do with them.” Saying that with a brief glance to the man in question, I added, “You guys wait here tomorrow, okay? I swear, we’ll finish this and then we can all celebrate.”  

Still looking a bit discomfited, Wren hesitated before giving a slow, reluctant nod. “Okay, I guess. We’ll stay here. But you better keep your phone on, and if something happens, we’re gonna come help.” Standing there, fists on her hips, the girl stared as if daring me to object to that.  

Knowing that was the best I was going to get, I nodded. “Great. But uhh, should we test it before tomorrow? Actually, come to think of it, is there a reason we’re waiting until tomorrow? I mean, it’s late enough now that we shouldn’t attract too much attention. And it might take more than one day to actually get to all the vials if he separated them too much.” I didn’t know that he had, since he still wasn’t exactly cooperating. But finding out that he’d left that one vial in Wren’s shop had made me nervous that the rest were all scattered in different places. That would suck. 

Unfortunately, Wren shook her head. “The suit still has to charge,” she informed me. “It won’t be ready until tomorrow. I mean, it’s all put together and everything, but now it needs power.” She indicated the cord running from the mannequin to the outlet. “I couldn’t start charging it until it was all put together. I… sorry.” Her foot kicked the floor as she looked abashed. 

“No, sorry, it’s okay,” I quickly assured her. “We said we’d do it tomorrow and that’s fine. I was just thinking we could get it started early. One day shouldn’t make a big difference. Especially since Blackjack… got that new vial from Deicide?” I looked toward Pack for confirmation of that. 

“Yeah,” she replied, “he’s got it. I mean, he’s still not extending the deadline or anything, but he’s got it. And we’ve got time before it’s up anyway. Tonight, tomorrow, it’s all good. Still got days.” 

“Right, yeah.” Nodding, I looked back to Wren. “That’s cool, because I was also kind of hoping we could talk about something else, anyway. Something a little more… uhh… after this whole thing.” Finishing that slowly and hesitantly, I glanced toward Pack, suddenly feeling awkward. 

“Yeah, yeah, I get it.” The La Casa Touched waved her hand dismissively. “Can’t have the big, bad villain hearing all about your future plans. I’ll go check on the prisoner and make sure he’s ready for his big debut tomorrow. You have your little pow wow and call me when it’s over.”  

She went over and entered the room that was functioning as Ashton’s cell, closing the door after herself. Meanwhile, Wren and Fred both looked to me with a mix of confusion and expectation. 

Taking a second to collect my thoughts (I’d been going over this in my head for awhile), I finally exhaled and nodded decisively. “Okay, so I was thinking about what was going on with you guys. You know, the bit about how you need money. Probably even more now that Cuélebre’s people got into your old shop and trashed it. I don’t know if you’re planning on going back there or what. Personally, I’d really suggest not, at least for now, because those assholes know a Tech-Touched lives there. So if you go back and they find out about it, you’ll probably be dealing with people coming after you like… constantly. I’m sorry, it’s just… they will. You’re a kid and they’ll think they can like… mold you or whatever. They’ll think they can force you to do whatever they want, so they’ll keep trying to grab you. Or grab Fred to make you do it.” 

For his part, Fred looked like he was about to say something, then just sighed and nodded. “She’s right, I really screwed the pooch with this one, kid. They know you’re out there now, and they’ll keep trying to come after you. We can’t go back to the old place anytime soon.” 

“But it’s Dad’s shop,” Wren protested, her eyes wide as she looked back and forth between us. “We can’t just abandon Dad’s shop. We have to go back and clean it up. We have to open it again. Dad wouldn’t just let it stay closed. He built it. We can’t just… just abandon it forever.” 

“No one’s saying abandon it forever,” I assured her quickly. “Just… don’t go back until you’ve got good defenses, enough to make sure people can’t just waltz in and hurt you or Fred. Trust me, I’ve heard lots of people say that the one place you don’t want to attack a Tech-Touched is their own home. But you don’t have the resources or funds yet to build up the place to be that protected.” Pausing briefly, I glanced away to ask myself if I really wanted to do this. Of course, the answer was yes. I needed to do this. It was the best chance I had, and also the best chance Wren had. 

“So I want to help. But… I also want your help. See, I have some money, and I thought if I sort of… invested in you, it could help both of us. I give you money to buy supplies and design things, then we both profit when you sell them.” Quickly, before she could object, I added, “Just the ones you choose to sell. The things that are safe. Hell, it could even be stuff that people bring to you to fix. You repair it, charge for it, we make money and put it toward getting you built up as much as you need to be to get back to your shop safely. Or whatever you decide to do.” 

Slowly, Wren pointed out, “We could build stuff for you too. A better costume, tools, and stuff like that.” Seeming to suddenly realize that what she’d said might’ve been insulting, she hurriedly added, “Not that your costume is bad or anything. I just mean, umm, you know, it’d be… better?” 

Smiling despite myself, I held up a hand. “It’s okay, I get it. Yeah, I was kinda hoping we could work out something like that. You’re an amazing inventor, Wren. You just need some cash to build your business a bit so you can really make some cool stuff. I can help with that. I could invest right now, help you get off the ground, then we both profit later. Literally, with money, and figuratively, with cool new toys and a base that you can actually protect. So, what do you think?” 

Wren was staring at me, shifting from foot self-consciously. “You really want to give money to me to build stuff? What… what if it goes wrong? What if no one wants to buy anything I build? What if I can’t get customers? What if I mess it up and you lose all your money? What if I–” 

Quickly, I interrupted, holding up both hands. “Hey, hey. First of all, you’re an amazing inventor, Wren, like I already said. It’ll be fine. And even if it takes awhile to get off the ground, I won’t really be in any worse shape than I already am. Neither will you. It’ll be okay, trust me.” 

Fred was the next to speak, sounding like he wasn’t sure he should even say anything. “How–I mean… okay, I’m not asking for actual specifics or anything here, but seriously, how do you have ‘investing’ money? You helped buy all the shit for that suit over there, and you still have cash to spend? What, did your great-grandmother recently leave you a fortune or something?” 

I’d been thinking a lot about how to answer that question, because I knew it would come up at some point. Some part of me had considered just telling them the truth. At this point, I knew I could trust them. Or… Wren at least. And despite his mistake, I was pretty sure Fred had learned his lesson and wouldn’t do something stupid. But not positive. Plus, I didn’t want to put that kind of target or responsibility on them. They had enough to deal with as it was. 

So, instead of telling the whole story, I just shrugged. “Yeah, let’s just say I inherited some cash recently and leave it at that for now.” It was a lie, of course. But a… relatively minor one. It made me feel bad, yet it also protected Wren from getting a target on her back if she knew who I really was. There was a voice telling me that she could still have a target on her back for not knowing who I was, but I wasn’t sure there was actually a really good answer to this. Later I might tell them more. But for now, I was… being cautious about the whole thing. Maybe too cautious, but as far as I was concerned, that was better than not being cautious enough. This was dangerous. 

“So,” I settled on, “I’ve got money to invest and I’d like to do it with you. Partly because it means I’d have an excuse to hang out here more after we’re done with this, and that sounds cool. And because like you said, you could make me a new costume, or pieces of it. Hell, I’m pretty sure I could use anything you put together.” Tapping the side of my helmet, I added, “This thing’s already getting banged up from me being thrown around so much. An upgrade would be cool.” 

Wren’s head bobbed up and down quickly, the girl looking eager by that point. “Oh! Yeah, yeah, for sure. That… I could…” She trailed off, eyes looking off into the distance. I was pretty sure there were ideas already rushing through her head about the kind of upgrades and toys she could work on. Her hands were fidgeting like she wanted to write something down, and without saying anything, Fred slipped a pen and a small notebook into them. She turned to scribble on it.

“She’ll be busy for a few minutes,” the man informed me, sounding both amused and proud. Then he focused on me. “Are you serious about this whole investment thing? It’s a pretty big word for someone that–I mean..” Seeming to realize he had just walked off a verbal cliff, he tried desperately to cartoon run across empty air to get back onto the safety of solid ground. “Not that you’re ‘just a kid’ or anything, but… I mean, money’s money and all that, and you’re doing plenty of dangerous stuff pretty much by yourself already. It’s just, I wasn’t…” He made a helpless gesture, looking to me for help. Or at least for an excuse to stop talking.  

So, I gave him one. “Yeah, I get it, don’t worry. And yeah, I know what I’m doing. At least, I’m pretty sure. Can’t be any worse than trying to get investment from people you don’t know anything about, right? I can put in some cash to start, help you guys get going. And you don’t have to rely on a bank loan or anything. Or outside investors who, like I said, you don’t know.” 

“We don’t know much about you either,” he pointed out mildly before nodding. “But more than we’d know strangers. Plus the kid likes you. Which says a lot. Yeah, I mean, if you want to do something like that, I don’t see why not. It’s kinda hard to have any sort of enforceable contract without knowing everyone’s identity, but…” 

Wren spoke up then. “We don’t need a contract. We promise we’ll use your money to build stuff for you or stuff to sell and share the profit. Fifty-fifty.” 

Smiling despite myself at the brief look that crossed Fred’s face, I offered, “How about we go with sixty-forty in your favor? You’re already the ones building and selling the stuff. Not to mention the fact that I already profit from you building and fixing things for me. Plus you’ll have to pay for stuff like electricity, the property tax, any other incidentals, stuff like that. I’ll help with that too anytime you need, but you know, you should still be prepared for it with the extra.” 

“The hell kind of kid are you?” Fred demanded, squinting at me. 

“The kind who knows that having a business costs money, especially when you’re getting started,” I replied coolly. “So let’s do it like that. Sixty-forty for you guys, and we make up the difference with equipment maintenance. Does that… you know, sound fair?” 

Wren spoke up quickly. “Uh huh! This is gonna be so cool!” Suddenly, she was hugging me. “We’re gonna be superhero partners, Paintball! I’ll be like your Q! Which isn’t really a superhero thing, but still!” Giddily, she bounced up and down a bit, still holding on tight. 

Restraining the giggle that tried to sneak out, I returned the embrace. “Except for the part where you’re cooler than Q, yeah, just like that. But really, we can talk about the specifics later, after we deal with this whole thing. I just wanted to find out if you guys were interested. I’ll work on putting some money together and we’ll see where we can go with it, cool?” 

They agreed, and Fred went to retrieve Pack. Honestly, she hadn’t really needed to leave, but I wasn’t sure where all that would go at the time and wanted to be safe. For both our sakes. 

“So,” the girl started as soon as she was back in the room, “you guys work out how to split your profits from Paintball’s investment?” In response to all of us staring at her, she turned to look to her lizards in their cage, her tone teasing. “See? They think I’m dumb.” 

Flushing (and glad they couldn’t see it), I started to say that we definitely didn’t think she was dumb. But in mid-sentence, my phone buzzed. Holding up a finger, I pulled it out to look at the text. It was from Mom, asking if I could come home soon because she and Dad had something to talk about. Something to talk about? We’d already had dinner and everything hours earlier before they went to their meeting. What could they want to talk about? 

Realizing there was really only one way to find out (and trying in vain to clamp down on all my paranoia surrounding it), I excused myself with the promise to come back the next evening so we could finally get those vials. Then I headed out. 

The whole way back, as I made my way to another part of the city away from where the bookshop was (just in case), I kept asking myself why my parents might want me to come home to ‘talk.’ My paranoia about the whole thing was just getting worse, and continued doing so while changing clothes, summoning an Uber, and throughout the ride. The logical part of me was almost positive that it didn’t have anything to do with my extracurricular activities. The problem with that was the almost part. 

Still, I told myself it was fine. I couldn’t panic every time my parents said my name. I’d die of a heart attack inside of the week. 

Paying the driver after being dropped off at the gate, I put in my code and headed inside as it creaked open. A minute later, I went through the front door, starting to text my mother to let them know I was there. But both Mom and Dad were already in the front foyer, seemingly waiting. That… did nothing to calm my nerves, to be honest. 

“Oh, uhhh… what’s up?” I tried to sound casual. It probably didn’t work. 

The two of them exchanged glances, doing one of their ‘silent conversations’ that, at this point, I wasn’t sure weren’t actual conversations. Who knew what kind of tech they had access to, or what other powers my dad might have as Silversmith that he didn’t advertise. 

Either way, it only lasted for a moment before Mom turned back to me. “Cassidy,” she started carefully, “your father and I understand that what we’re going to ask of you might be difficult…” 

Oh God, were they about to tell me what they were really doing, who Dad really was? Wait, why would it be about asking me something? What? 

Mom continued and I forced myself to focus. “But we’re hoping you might… open your rooms for a little while, and… accept a… house guest.” 

I stared at her, confused. My head tilted. “Uhhh… wait, what?” 

“It’s okay,” my dad called, raising his voice enough to make it clear he wasn’t talking to me. “You can come in.” 

Still clueless, I looked over as a small Latina girl slowly came in through one of the other doors. She looked even more lost than I felt, slowly shuffling her way over near my parents while staring at the floor. She peeked up once, met my gaze, then quickly looked down again. 

“Cassidy,” Mom started, “this is Izzy. 

“She’s going to be staying with us for a little while.” 

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Interlude 6B – Cuelebre (Summus Proelium)

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The room had the appearance of an old Japanese dojo, with soft lighting, padded floor and fusuma, or rectangular wall panels. A pair of illuminated fountains at either front corner of the room provided gentle, soothing sounds of water steadily falling. Between and slightly before them knelt a figure whose meditative pose, with his legs crossed beneath him and hands lightly held to the sides, was at odds with the sheer menace of his physical appearance. This did not look like any ordinary man. When standing, he was a solid fifteen feet, his blue-purple skin appearing rough, while his demonic wings and long bladed tail completed the monstrous impression. Even sitting now, as he was, the figure still towered above most men. 

A soft, yet still intrusive chime interrupted the peaceful air within the room. It was followed momentarily by a second chime. The first indicated that his attention was requested. The second following it was the sign that it was too important to wait. A third chime would indicate an immediate emergency, such as an attack or something that couldn’t wait even thirty seconds. 

Hearing no third chime, and thus understanding that this was important but not an immediate overwhelming threat, the kneeling, meditating figure exhaled slowly. Then he opened his eyes and looked to the single object that stood between the two fountains: a mirror. It was enormous, standing clear to the ceiling of this twenty-foot high room and stretching eight feet wide. The sides of the mirror were decorated by various gothic figurines as knights and gargoyles. Within the reflective surface of the massive mirror, he saw himself as the rest of the world did. But looking further, gazing into his own eyes, he saw the man they would never actually know. He saw the man before the power. 

Danilo Taca. It was a name that the man known as Cuélebre hadn’t gone by for quite some time. Given his extensive physical changes, having much of a secret identity wasn’t really in the cards. He relied on his subordinates to do such ordinary, day-to-day things as shopping or making any appearance in public where intimidation or outright violence wasn’t desired.

Some of those who were similarly physically altered, he knew, were capable of transitioning their forms between the more mutated version and something that would more easily blend in. For whatever reason, he lacked that ability. Since the day he had touched the glowing orb and gone from being just another Latino guy being hounded by his parole officer on one side and his dealer on the other to… what he was now, he had been this fifteen-foot tall demon. A demon with more strength and power than almost any in the city. There was a reason he had been mistaken for being an Abyssal for awhile. Very little could actually stand up to him. 

It was almost funny, the way being turned into what he was now had entirely solved his addiction issues. For so much of his life, Danilo Taca had been addicted to a pharmacy’s assortment of the usual suspects. Anything he could snort, smoke, or inject. He’d gone through all the normal cycles of trying to get clean, being out of it for awhile, then inevitably falling back into old habits. He even had a kid out there somewhere, one he’d made with an old girlfriend during one of his clean times. He’d told himself back then that he’d stay clean for his girls. But… well, his willpower back then wasn’t exactly the greatest. He’d stumbled and, when one was talking about that kind of lifestyle, a stumble meant one fell directly off a cliff. 

So he’d fallen off the cliff and eventually ended up hiding out in the back of a crackhouse, waiting for the day either his parole officer or the dealer he’d stolen from to bribe the parole office the first time managed to find him. The cops had raided the house, and he’d managed to escape through a basement window only to have a couple of the damn dogs start chasing him. With cops shouting, someone shooting back in the house, dogs barking and nipping at his heels, Danilo had, through sheer adrenaline, hurled himself up and over the fence at the back of the yard. Falling on his back in the alley there with sirens wailing and the sound of more cops coming his way, he’d opened his eyes to see the orb floating above his head. He’d touched it, and… among all the other changes, his addiction issues were gone. Sure, he still kind of missed the great way his old vices made him feel at times, but… the physical urge, the feeling of being sick without them… they were gone. He hadn’t touched any of it since that day. 

Still, despite the many advantages his size and power granted, there were times when Cuélebre regretted being unable to pass as an average person the way others could. There were no times when he was ever just Danilo anymore. He was Cuélebre now and forever. 

But there was no sense in dwelling on such things. Picking himself up, the naked giant reached out to pluck his specially designed and tailored pants from the nearby shelf, tugging them on. Leaving his chest bare, he moved to the sliding door and used a single claw to push it aside. Beyond was a much heavier steel vault-like door with a spinning lever, which he cranked three times before pushing it open with a grunt. Strong as he was, he made it a point that his inner sanctum would be difficult for almost anyone to penetrate. The heavy door was a part of that. 

The second the vault door had been pushed open, the meditative peace of his sanctum was filled with blasting, piercing hard rock music that reverberated through the large hallway. It was coming from the nightclub and bar that lay directly above. That club served as one of several public fronts for the Oscuro gang within their territory. The corridors he now stood in (as well as his actual sanctum) were actually heavily refurbished alcohol smuggler tunnels from back during the days of prohibition. The bootlegger who’d had the tunnels built originally had designed them large enough to drive a truck through to reach the basement of his illegal bar at one end. The other end of the tunnel, meanwhile, came out several blocks away through an ordinary-looking storm drain. Cuélebre had paid a hefty fee to have the tunnels shored up, put new entrances in leading to various buildings in the neighborhood for his people to get in and out of, and added a few defenses and security here and there in addition to rooms that would fit his size. It’d cost a pretty penny, but being safe (not to mention comfortable) was worth it.

Stepping out of his personal meditation chamber, he was immediately addressed by a woman in what appeared to be a circus ringmaster outfit, with a long red tailcoat fashioned so that the front only covered the top third of her torso. The front-center part of the ‘coat’ (such as it could be called one) was black with several rows of silver buttons. Beneath the tailcoat she wore a matching red vest that covered more of her upper body, leaving only the space from her navel to her waist bare. Black pants, dark gloves, a black top hat resting atop braided blonde hair, and a black, Zorro-like bandanna mask completed the look. She wore a whip on one hip and a pistol on the other. 

This was Grandstand. She had an assortment of powers. One allowed her to command the attention of anyone who could hear her voice, forcing them to focus on her and forget about anything else going on around them, though pain or injury would snap them out of it. She was equally capable of shunting attention away from herself and onto something else, allowing her to essentially disappear unless she took some direct action against them, breaking the effect. While the first power was in use, she would gain strength and durability for each person paying attention to her. While the latter was in effect, she would gain speed for each person whose attention was being drawn away from her. And she was capable of using both at the same time, forcing some to pay attention to her while the attention of others was diverted, allowing her to mix and match an assortment of strength and speed while controlling who noticed her. Beyond that, Grandstand always possessed an enhanced sense of timing and balance, as well as a constant awareness of how many people were looking at her. 

“There’s been a problem,” she informed Cuélebre curtly as soon as he emerged, standing a few feet away with her hands clasped behind her back. “It’s Handler.” 

Pausing, Cuélebre took a moment to consider his response before carefully guessing, “His secret project, the one he said was coming to fruition tonight. Something went wrong.”

With a nod, Grandstand replied, “Very wrong, sir. You aren’t going to like this. And neither is the Ministry. This falls directly under something they would have had to give permission for. And they wouldn’t have given it for this.” 

Starting to walk down the large, refurbished tunnel, Cuélebre ordered, “Let me worry about the Ministry. They may control the city, but my people are mine to judge. Tell me what happened.”  

She did, and he immediately regretted his previous words. Stopping in the tunnel, he dropped his head and heaved a long sigh. “He should have told me what he was planning. I could have told him that it was stupid. I could have told him to leave it alone. Or negotiated to pass the information to the Ministry so they could handle it, making them owe us a favor. As it is…” He exhaled, turning to punch the wall with his massive fist with a sharp curse. As reinforced as it was (for just this very reason), the blow still left a visible dent and spiderweb cracks. He stood there, fist against the wall as he continued in a flat voice, containing his anger beyond that single outward expression. “As it is, we’ll be lucky to get out of this without substantial losses, monetary and otherwise. Correction, we won’t get out of it without substantial monetary losses. We’ll be lucky if that’s all it is.”  

Some might have been surprised to hear the way a former lowlife thug, who had spent his life in and out of prison and never graduated high school, turned giant monster spoke. But the truth was, Cuélebre had done more studying and learning since his transformation than he ever did before it. After realizing that he no longer felt those old addictions, he’d worked to improve himself as many other ways as possible. His body was about as strong as it could ever get, so he’d worked to exercise his mind. Not being able to go out in public helped with that. He couldn’t waste time going to bars, stadiums, arenas, or anything else where people would see him. His free time, for quite some time, had been taken up by learning more than he ever had at school. He’d had college professors brought to him and paid to teach him. By his count, he’d actually learned enough to have both earned his GED and at least one Master’s Degree over the past three years or so. Hell, he’d even considered reaching out to find that kid of his and her mother a few times, but had dismissed the urge. There was no reason to drag them into this kind of life. 

Not that it mattered. Learning was a way of passing the time, a way of reminding himself that he was more than his outward appearance, and a way of ensuring that he knew more than others might expect. He’d figured out long ago that he could run Oscuro as an iron-fisted thug and keep it going for awhile, but that if he really wanted to achieve anything, he needed to be more than that. His people, generally, respected him more for that. 

And then one of them went and did something this utterly idiotic, and made him want to revert to a far less mature mindset. He had to take a minute to collect himself before sighing. There was no sense in waiting any longer. “Where is he?” 

Pointing to the nearest vault-like door (there were many spread along the tunnel), Grandstand replied, “He’s waiting for you above, in the back of the club.” 

Without responding, Cuélebre reached out and opened the vault door. It led into a large basement room. As with all of the rooms beneath the Oscuro holdings, the basement had been refurbished and updated to suit his size. This one appeared to be a living room, though one where everything within it was scaled up, with much larger chairs, dressers, a desk, even a television with a remote intended for use by his massive hands. Stepping in, he moved to the enormous, specially made plush leather chair in the corner and sat. His tail went through the convenient hole, idly dragging back and forth along the floor as he waved a hand. “Bring him down.” 

Obediently, Grandstand moved to the heavy metal ladder against the far wall and pressed the button against it. There was a buzz as the intercom activated. “He’s ready, come down.” 

A moment later, the circular hatch at the top of the room was hauled open, and Handler climbed down the ladder. Out of his costume, the man was a thin, balding figure named Luis, with an intricate patchwork of religious tattoos on his left arm depicting the life of Jesus. 

Hopping off the ladder, Luis turned to Cuélebre. “So, I suppose you heard that–” 

“Stop,” Cuélebre ordered, holding up a hand. As his subordinate fell silent, he exhaled long and slow, watching him as several thoughts ran through his mind. Finally, he said, “You don’t know where the girl is.” 

“No,” Luis admitted. “We have people looking, but to be honest… I don’t think we’ll find her in time.” He said it quietly, but definitively, standing straight as he awaited the judgment of a man who could cut his head from his shoulders with a simple flick of his tail. “I made a mistake. I should have brought the girl to a secure facility before letting her wake up. I was… eager to begin. It would have been an incredible gain for–” 

“Stop,” Cuélebre repeated, watching as the other man’s mouth obediently snapped shut. Again, he watched the man in silence for a few moments. His eyes glanced toward Grandstand, who was standing quietly in the corner, before flicking back to Luis. With a sigh, he came to a decision. “You need to get out of town.” 

“Sir?” Luis asked, blinking up. 

“The authorities will want your head,” Cuélebre informed him. “We need to get you out of town before they start looking. You can lie low up north. Keep your head down, take a vacation. We’ll bring you back in a few months, maybe longer.” He paused before adding, “And I will be taking from your accounts to pay the Ministry for the complications.” 

It was clear that the other man didn’t like that, but he accepted it with a bow of his head. “Of course. Whatever’s needed. I’ll pack my things.” 

“Do that,” Cuélebre nodded with a dismissive wave. “Be ready to go in fifteen minutes.”

As Luis climbed the ladder once more and the hatch closed, Grandstand looked to him. “Sir–” 

“Get the Ministry on the phone,” Cuélebre interrupted, his tone resigned. “They’ll be expecting the call.” 

He waited then, while the woman used her own phone. Once she had them on the line, a couple button pushes transferred it to the oversized phone sitting on the nearby table. As it buzzed, he let it do so for a second or two before slowly picking it up. “This is Cuélebre.” 

“Minister White,” came the response. It was the woman, the female leader of the Ministry, the secret organization who kept the criminal underground of Detroit in line. She and Minister Gold were the secretive heads of the organization. They held more power than anyone really knew, with deep access into almost every Touched organization in the city. Anyone who pulled a job within the city owed the Ministry a tax, and they always collected. They had ways of either keeping the attention of the authorities away from you, or directing them your way. For a price, they could ensure that a job had a much higher chance of not being interrupted. The Ministry ran things in Detroit, and as far as Cuélebre knew, none of the authorities had the slightest clue they even existed beyond the occasional dismissed whisper. Most in his own organization, aside from Grandstand, were utterly unaware of them. 

“Minister,” Cuélebre started once it was clear the woman wouldn’t say anything else just yet. “I assume you’re aware of the situation.” 

After a brief pause, she confirmed, “We’ve taken steps to contain it. But we require an explanation.” 

“Handler worked on his own initiative,” Cuélebre informed her. “I was aware that he had a secret project, which he believed would be a great boon for Oscuro. I was unaware that he had designs on a member of the Minority, let alone the youngest. He intended to surprise me with… a gift. Had I known, you would have been informed so that the girl’s mother, who came to us to begin with, could be dealt with sufficiently.” And if that had happened, they would have been having a much different conversation. A conversation where the Ministry would owe him, rather than the other way around. God damn it, Luis. 

His words were greeted by silence for a few seconds, before Minister White spoke again. “I see. You are aware that there must be repercussions for this. The authorities will raze your territory to the ground to find someone who attacked the youngest Minority member in her own home. Let alone one who threatened to enslave her through torture. They have to. An example must be set, or no one will trust the Minority program.” 

“I know,” Cuélebre confirmed, his voice dark. His hand gripped the phone tightly. This was the part he had known would come since the moment Grandstand had told him about the situation. “I am prepared to make things right. First, one million dollars to your organization for the trouble all of this has caused.” 

“A fair start,” Minister White replied simply. “But hardly what will calm things down and ensure your organization doesn’t become the target of a full-city sweep the likes of which even you could not survive. The Star-Touched will be enraged by this act, Cuélebre. They will be united in coming after you, and none of the other gangs will intervene. They won’t want to draw that kind of heat to themselves. You’ll be alone out there, if something isn’t done to appease the authorities.”

Cuélebre’s response was a gruff, “I know.” He took a breath, steadying himself while turning a look toward Grandstand. The nearby woman was watching him with an impassive look, having taken off the mask as she played with it in her hands. Watching her briefly, Cuélebre continued. “You want him.” 

“We want to contain the situation,” came Minister White’s response. “You know the only thing that will do that.” 

“Of course I do,” he grunted, reminding himself not to throw the phone against the wall. “This will slow our income.” 

“We will take that into account,” Minister White assured him. “You have always paid your dues for the territory you hold. We understand that this will affect what you are able to tithe, and will of course allow for it. We may be able to point to a few future jobs that will bolster your coffers to make up the slack. But we must know, will this affect your actual organization?” 

“You mean are half my people about to suddenly change their minds about who they’re loyal to if I lose access to Handler?” Cuélebre snorted. “No. I’m not a fool. Handler has been useful for the growth of Oscuro, but not that directly. I’m not stupid enough to keep people close to me who were only obedient through torture. I used him to raise my army through training his… subjects and selling them to organizations outside of the city in exchange for cash or in trade for one of their own Touched. None of my people were his subjects.” He paused before amending, “None of the Touched, in any case. Like I said, it’ll slow income, it won’t cripple us.” 

“You may wish to warn those you have done business with, in that case,” the woman noted. “As I assume you are prepared to make the necessary arrangements to bring this under control.” 

Again, Cuélebre paused, looking over to the wall for a long moment before giving a low growl. “Yes. I’ll give you the address where Handler will be. You provide it to your contacts and have the authorities pick him up. But when they do–” 

“When they do,” Minister White smoothly assured him, “the heat will fade. Or, more accurately, it will be directed to the courts. He will be made an example of. I have no doubt that he will end up in Breakwater for what he’s done. And there will be a great deal of scrutiny. Anyone within your organization who is arrested at any point in the future will likely have a strong legal defense that they were taken by Handler, and it will be difficult to prove otherwise. Though I believe the confusion and uncertainty that raises will be more of a boon for your people than a hindrance.” 

“Small compensation for a grand mistake,” Cuélebre muttered before straightening. He gave the Minister the address she would need, exchanged a few more words, and dropped the phone back onto its hook. Turning, he cursed before putting his fist against the wall. 

Through gritted teeth, the giant, demonic man ordered, “Contact anyone we sold a Touched to in the past year. Let them know there may be issues and that they should be prepared to contain the subjects themselves, and that we will provide a certain level of refund if such problems are severe. And get me in contact with Sandon.” 

“The Ninety-Niners leader?” Grandstand inclined her chin curiously. “Do they have–” 

“No,” he interrupted. “They don’t have Handled subjects. I wouldn’t provide such a resource to any of our direct rivals. But they have made certain… offers of an alliance in pursuit of these vials that Blackjack wants so desperately. I’ve refused before now, but we may need the kind of boost such an alliance could provide. With their aid, we can sell the vials either to someone outside of the city, or to Blackjack himself. As desperate as he seems to be, he’ll pay any price for it. That could help recoup our losses from this disaster, even if we have to split it with Sandon and her people.” 

“This… Paintball,” Grandstand began carefully, “he seems to have the best lead on the vials, from what we know. He certainly has Ashton Austin, or knows where he is.” 

Cuélebre was silent for a few long seconds, thinking about the embarrassment he’d felt at chasing that boy all over the city, only to have him disappear at the last second. But this was more important than any embarrassment. “Then have our people watch for him,” he ordered. “Don’t attack. Don’t make themselves known until the vials are in sight. I want eyes everywhere watching for that boy to go gallivanting around with his paint. When he makes a move, our people will be ready. 

“He can do all the work to find the vials, and then we’ll take them from him.”

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Interlude 6A – Raindrop (Summus Proelium)

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It was almost two o’clock in the morning when a small, clearly very young girl in a hooded windbreaker walked through an alley beside a fast food joint. Izzy Amor, publically known as Raindrop, was practically dead on her feet. She was so tired by that point that she could barely keep her eyes open as she all-but stumbled down the alley. She had just spent the past several hours helping to clear up the fires at the hospital, and then hanging around while the bomb squad people made sure there were no more explosives that might go off. There weren’t, but the bomb guys had to be really thorough, which meant Izzy and the others sat around for hours.

Now that it was all over, Izzy was pretty sure she wouldn’t be able to even summon a little rain cloud in her hand. Just the idea of using her power any time soon made the twelve-year old feel kind of nauseous. All she wanted to do was get home, fall into bed, and sleep for a whole day. 

Reaching the end of the alley, the girl stepped out onto the sidewalk and looked both ways. There was no sign of anyone, aside from a sedan at the end of the street going the other way. Taking the phone from her pocket, she checked the messages. The most recent conversation showed the short, clearly terse, ‘Coming’. It was sent fifteen minutes earlier. Home was a ten minute drive away, so counting time to get dressed, her ride would be here any minute. 

A smile touched the girl’s face at the thought of getting home. She might take a shower before crashing, just to get the smell of smoke and stuff off. But mostly, just sleeping sounded great. 

With a yawn, she put her back against the wall of the nearby building and watched the corner her ride would be coming from. Headlights appeared, and she perked up. But they belonged to a jeep that drove straight past. After another minute, the girl yawned and slowly sank down to sit against the wall. Her eyes glanced briefly to the phone to make sure there wasn’t another message, before returning to watch the nearby intersection. Any minute now. Any minute. 

The sudden blaring of a horn along with a nearby light snapped Izzy awake. She jerked up right from where she had slumped over, staring with wide eyes until her gaze centered on the van waiting in front of her with the door open. The driver, her mother, hit the horn again and made an impatient gesture while shouting, “Stop wasting time and get in! Some of us have to work!”

Scrambling to her feet, Izzy took a brief second to glance at the phone in her hand. Forty-five minutes had passed since she sat down, an hour since her mother had said she was on her way. Quickly, she shoved the phone in her pocket and moved over to climb into the van. Before she had the door shut, they were moving, pulling away from the curb with a squeal of tires. 

Mariana Amor wore a jacket over her nightgown, grumbling to herself as they blew through a red light. “This is garbage, you understand? Garbage. These people have you out at all hours and they can’t even bring you home afterward? It’s disrespectful. Completely disrespectful. You know why they do it? Because they don’t respect you. They think they can walk all over you, walk all over us. It’s what they do. They use you for your power and they will throw you away as soon as you’re not useful enough. You know that? You tell me you know that, Isidora.”

“But Madre,” Izzy protested a bit weakly, “they’re still busy making sure everyone’s safe at the hotel and the hospital. They’re gonna be busy all night, but they said it was okay for me to leave because I was tired. And they said I could wait for a ride, but your message said that you were on the way, so I said they didn’t have to do anything. I thought you’d be here soon.”   

Her mother gave the girl a sharp look. “Don’t you put it back on me, niñita. I told you, I have to work in the morning. You know, that thing that puts real food on the table for both of us? Besides, I was a little tired when you called and I didn’t want to have an accident falling asleep at the wheel. You don’t want your mother to have an accident and die, do you?” 

“No, Madre,” Izzy murmured quietly, shaking her head. She turned a bit to look out at the passing buildings as they drove, not wanting to rile her mother up any more than she was. 

It didn’t really work. For the next seven minutes, Izzy sat in silence and listened as her mother ranted about how disrespectful the people behind the Minority were, how they treated her like a disposable asset, how they didn’t care what happened to her or what kind of trouble they put her family through as long as they had access to her power. And so on and so on. Occasionally, she would tell Izzy to agree with her to make sure the girl was listening, but mostly she just went on.

Finally, they parked in the covered parking lot next to their condominium and headed up the stairs. Izzy trudged along, yawning once more as they reached the front door. Her mother fumbled with the keys in the dim light from the nearby porch lamp, still cursing under her breath about how late it was and how little sleep she was going to end up getting before work. 

Eventually, her mother found the right key and unlocked the door. Izzy stepped through, unzipping her jacket while visions of her warm, comfy bed danced through her mind. Maybe the shower would wait until morning, because at this rate, she’d fall asleep in there and that would–

“Oh good, you’re finally home.” The sudden words interrupted Izzy’s thoughts, and she blinked up to see a strange man standing in the doorway to the kitchen. He wore one of those old bird-like plague doctor masks, along with a dark red apron over a black bodysuit. 

The sight of the man suddenly made Izzy forget all about being tired. Her hands snapped up, a ball of water forming between them before she even thought about the fact that she was giving away that she had powers. None of that mattered, except for protecting herself and her mother. 

Unfortunately, the ball of water had barely formed between her hands before a sudden, intense pain exploded in the back of the girl’s head. Izzy collapsed to the floor, sprawling out as her vision wavered in and out. Black spots had appeared, and she blearily looked up to see her mother standing there with a heavy, now-cracked figurine in one hand. “Sorry, baby,” she started while Izzy’s vision swam and began to fade. It took another second for consciousness to completely flee, enough time to leave her with her mother’s words echoing through her head.
“But this whole thing just isn’t working out anymore.” 

*******

With a sudden start, Izzy snapped awake. She tried to sit up as her eyes opened, only to find that neither helped. From what the girl could tell, she was tied to a chair, with a blindfold on. Some kind of heavy plastic ball was in her mouth, stopping her from saying anything. She did, however, make a noise of confusion, shifting in the chair while jerking a bit against the bonds. 

“Ah,” a man’s voice spoke, “she’s awake. Let’s see then…” There were fingers against her head, and she flinched at the rush of pain that shot through it from the blow she’d taken to the head. A blow from… from… her own mother? But why? Why would her mother hit her like that?

The blindfold came off, and Izzy found herself staring into that plague doctor mask, as the man studied her from behind the mirrored lenses in the eyes, leaving the girl staring at her own reflection when she tried to meet his gaze. She saw herself, bound to a heavy metal chair in her own kitchen, ball gag in her mouth. Her eyes were wild and looked almost crazed, leaving her even more stunned at the sight of it than she had already been. 

“There, see?” That was her mother’s voice, speaking up from the doorway. As Izzy’s eyes snapped that way, she saw the woman come into view. “The kid’s just fine. You can do your… whatever you’re going to do, after I get paid. So come on then, give it over before I change my mind about this whole thing and find someone who might offer a little bit more.” 

Instead of responding to her, the plague doctor looked at Izzy, head tilting a little. “You look confused, dear,” he murmured. “Let me spell it out for you. My name is Handler. I work for the man you know as Cuélebre. Your mother sold you to him, and I’m here to get you ready. That’s why it took time for her to come pick you up. We were… coming to a final arrangement.” 

Staring in shock and confusion, the words echoing through her head as she stared at her mother, Izzy shouted into the gag, her words swallowed up by it. At the same time, she jerked in the chair, a ball of water forming in front of her. But the instant it did, the man called Handler put a finger against her hand, and Izzy’s muffled words turned to a scream of agony. Pain, the likes of which she’d never known, exploded throughout her entire young body as the water fell apart.

“Hey!” her mother blurted, “I told you, not until you pay me. Money, you cheap bastard.” 

“In a moment,” the man assured her before turning his attention back to Izzy. “We have to make sure we all understand each other. So go ahead,” he urged, stepping away from the girl once her muffled scream had faded, hands up to show he wasn’t going to stop her. “Try that again.” 

The ball of water had barely begun to form that time before the shock of agony was back, bringing a renewed scream to the gagged young girl while her mother simply looked away. 

“I touch you,” the man informed her, “and mark a certain action as wrong. Actions such as using your power. Or raising your voice. Or disobeying an order from certain people. You do the action, you get punished. For now, the punishment my touch instills will only last for a few minutes. But with enough training and repeated sessions, anything you ever do that is against what Cuélebre requires or allows will bring that same pain for weeks, months, years at a time without needing to be refreshed. Eventually, I won’t need to renew it at all. And by then, you won’t need the pain anyway. You’ll simply do as you are told. Now then, remember that I have instilled a punishment for raising your voice. So no shouting. Let’s see if we’re on the same page.” He reached out, carefully unlatching the ball gag before pulling it away from her mouth. 

“M-Madre!” Izzy blurted, tears suddenly flooding her eyes. “Madre, it’s not true! Say it’s a trick! No, you wouldn’t do this! You can’t do this!” All thought of being tired had fled the girl, replaced by a feeling of loss and betrayal the likes of which she might never actually understand. 

Her mother spared a glance for her, pausing before stepping over. “Look, Izzy, it’s nothing personal. I just… I never wanted to be a mother. I never wanted to be a normal mother, let alone one for a… a superhero. I didn’t want it. I still don’t. I’m not… I’m not strong like you are, Izzy. Whatever happens, I know you can handle it. Yes, they’ll hurt you. But you’re a big girl. You’re a strong girl. You’ll be okay. And me… I… I’ll start a new life somewhere else. You’ll get over it.”

She’d… she’d get over it? Her mother had… her mother had sold her identity and her to a monster who wanted to torture her into obedience and she would just… get over it? Izzy stared, mouth open as tears continued to fall silently. She could find no words, could find no thought. Her mother… her mother didn’t care about her. She sold her. She was… she was going to leave her in this man’s hands so he could do… do whatever he wanted. Why? Why? Her body trembled, shaking against the bonds that held her to the heavy metal chair. Her voice was weak, marked by fear and confusion that made her ashamed of herself. “Madre… Mama, please…” 

“Don’t,” her mother snapped. “Don’t start that. I just–I can’t handle you. I don’t deserve to have to deal with any of this. I told you, I didn’t ask to be a mother, especially after your father left. I’m not cut out for it and you–you’re worth more like this. Do what the man says and you’ll be fine.” With that, she turned to Handler, voice snapping, “You have her and she’s secure. Money, now.” 

A new ball of water formed, reflexively summoned by the sobbing, pleading girl. It popped, as a renewed scream of agony exploded from her mouth. She’d barely gotten the first sound out before the gag was unceremoniously shoved back in. With it secure, muffling yet another scream as she struggled to use her power, Handler turned his back to the girl, apparently dismissing her from his mind as he produced a cell phone and extended it to her mother. 

“As agreed, five hundred thousand dollars for one moldable, powerful young Touched. As you can see, it’s been sent to the offshore account you specified. Are you satisfied?” 

The look of eager greed on her mother’s face as she stared at the phone screen made Izzy stop pleading and struggling against the gag. It was that, more than the woman’s cold words or the entire situation, which convinced her of just how real this was. Her mother didn’t care about her. She was selling her to be tortured and running away with the money. There was no sense in begging, no sense in pleading with her mother to change her mind, because she wouldn’t. Her mother wasn’t just okay with her being sold to Cuélebre, she was eager to leave with her money. There was no guilt in her face, nothing to indicate that she cared at all. 

Begging was useless. Being scared, sad, none of it would help. So Izzy stopped doing any of that. 

And started getting angry. 

Both her mother and the ‘Handler’ man had turned away from her. They were talking to each other while walking out of the kitchen. Izzy could hear them moving to the front door, her mother saying something about getting the money out of town before anyone found out what she’d done. Through it all, listening to her voice, she felt that… anger… that sense of betrayal. And with it came agony beyond anything she had ever thought possible, pain she couldn’t hope to describe. It suffused her entire being, her body arching up against the bonds as her dull, horrific scream of anguish, muffled only by the heavy gag, gradually filled the room.

The front door closed, and those footsteps steadily returned, as Handler came back. “Now then,” the man was already saying, “we’ll start your real training back at a more private place, but… we…” He trailed off, head tilting upward toward the rapid, steady thrum of water against the roof of the condo. “Is it raining? I–” His gaze dropped, staring at the bound young girl. She was pale, face stricken by the torture of what she was putting herself through. Sweat soaked through every pore, eyes tightly closed while she gave a low, tormented sob of misery.

Then her eyes opened, staring at the man while the rain hammering against the condo suddenly grew louder. It sounded like a deluge of water had suddenly opened up. It hammered the windows, the rain coming down so hard and fast that the entire building literally shook under the force of it. 

“Oh,” Handler managed to get out, “shi–” 

That was as far as he got, before Izzy arched her back, bonds barely holding her to the chair. The gag did almost nothing to muffle her deafening scream, as the condo literally ripped its way out of the ground. Her other power, the one that allowed her to control gravity on anything that was wet, tore the building up into the air. They went up a good ten feet or so before the building tipped over entirely. Handler’s words turned to a surprised shout, as the lights faded, plunging the condo into darkness. Cabinets had flown open, furniture, dishes, and more flying through the rooms. The last sight Handler had of the girl, she had directed water onto herself before flying, chair and all, through an open window just before the entire building slammed upside down into the ground. 

The wreckage of the condo littered the street, looking like a small, personal tornado had lifted it up, torn it apart, and thrown it back down again. Izzy found herself staring at it from where her power had dropped her when she could no longer handle any more pain. The drop had been enough to bend the chair somewhat, so she could slip her way free. Now, she stood, staring at the wreckage while tears fell freely from her face. Tears that would not slow, or fade, for a long time.

Some of the rubble shifted a bit, and she saw Handler pushing himself out of it while lights on the front porches of nearby houses turned on. People were starting to come out, even as the masked man climbed up. He was joined almost immediately by several other Oscuro soldiers who came running from the nearby car where they had obviously been waiting to transport her. 

Her mother’s van was already gone. 

The Oscuro people were looking around for her, weapons raised. They hadn’t spotted Izzy from where she was crouched by a fence a couple houses down. But they would soon. And she still couldn’t use her power without more pain. It had nearly killed her to do what she did. 

She couldn’t fight them. Not like this. Not physically, and not emotionally. So, the twelve-year old did the only thing she could in that moment. 

She turned and ran away.

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Alliances 6-09 (Summus Proelium)

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Run, run, run! I had to get back to the hotel before my family figured out I had been gone. They were going to be freaking out as it was, and if they realized I wasn’t anywhere in the hotel, the whole damn city would shut down. I’d never be able to explain it. I had to get in there and convince them that I hadn’t gone anywhere, before my whole situation got a hell of a lot worse than it already was. 

In a blind rush, I made it to the top of the hospital while the firefighters and Raindrop were still working. From there, I made it through the next roof over and went through a quick loop to reach the back side of the hotel. It was hard, considering everyone was on high alert. I could see people all over the grounds, cops and Touched alike. It was chaos down there. Police lights, both the red and blue flashing kind and the bright spotlight variety, were so prevalent they made the parking lot almost as bright as day. 

Somehow, perhaps by a miracle I’d earned for saving those kids or something, I made it back to the balcony of the hotel. There was a spotlight coming my way, so the second I was down, I dropped and flattened myself against the floor of the balcony while the light swept by just above my head.

Landing also reminded me of the pain in both my leg and wrist. I was pretty sure the wrist wasn’t actually broken or anything. Or even sprained. It was just bruised where Pencil had stepped on it. My leg, however, had that cut in it from Fork’s quill. And my parents would undoubtedly notice both. How was I going to explain those

Wait, I knew how. Scrambling to my feet, I painted myself green for speed and rushed through the bedroom of the suite just in time to hear someone shout my name muffledly. It was coming from out in the hotel corridor, and I could see the door handle jiggle a bit. My name was shouted again, and that time I recognized my father’s voice. It sounded like he was fumbling for the key. 

Still sped up, I stretched one hand out toward the dress I’d left on the floor and shot red paint at it. At the same time, I lunged for the nearby desk. As the dress was summoned to my red glove, my other hand yanked the drawer there open and found the fancy letter opener with the hotel’s name engraved on it. 

There was an affirmative beep from the door just then, as my dad managed to get the key card in. At the last second, I threw myself sideways into the connected bathroom and yanked the door shut, locking it. 

I was still sped up, but I had to change clothes. Looking down at my arms, I painted those green. Not the suit, my actual arms. With the added speed, I stripped out of the costume probably faster than anyone had ever change clothes in the history of the universe. I could hear the door opening out in the main room, my dad‘s voice louder and clearer then as he called for me. 

Ignoring it for the moment, I grabbed the dress and yanked it on haphazardly. It was rumpled and wrinkled to hell, but that was the least of my worries. 

The bathroom doorknob jiggled, then there was a loud bang against it as my father shouted my name once more. He sounded frantic, maybe even close to tears. 

But there was one more thing I had to do. Putting black paint over my chest to silence my yelp, I used the letter opener to stab into the dress and my leg right where the wound was. I tried to be careful, but it had to look right. Even if it did make me cry out (silently thanks to the paint) and stagger.  

Dad banged on the door again, sounding like he was about to knock it down. Marshaling myself, I started to say something. Then I caught myself and yanked the helmet and mask off. It would’ve been pretty bad if my voice was still changed. Saved from making that kind of fatal mistake, I made myself sound afraid. It wasn’t honestly that hard. “Wh-who’s there?” That gave me time to yank open the cupboard under the sink, shoving the costume in there. 

There was a brief pause, and I heard my dad take a shaky breath. “Sweetie, it’s Dad. It’s okay. You can come out.”

Checking myself in the mirror, I belatedly yanked the gloves off and stashed them under the sink as well. Then I smoothed the dress down as much as I could before hesitantly stepping over by the door. Slowly, I cracked it open, peeking out with the letter opener held tightly in one hand. When I saw my father standing there, I pulled it the rest of the way. 

He was on me immediately, picking me up from the floor while crushing me against his chest. My dad hugged me tightly, so much so that it was hard to breathe. He murmured my name a couple times, voice cracking a little bit in the process. 

“Dad,” I managed to get out a bit weakly, my exhaustion from everything that it happened, including my rush to get back here, helping me sound even more out of it and afraid. “What happened? There were men with guns and they were in the hallway so I hid. I’m sorry, I was just hiding and I didn’t do anything and my phone didn’t work and—”

“Shhh, shhhh, it’s okay.” Dad still held me crushed against his chest, shuddering a little bit as he held me. “You’re safe now. They are gone, it’s over. You’re safe. You’re safe.” It sounded as though he was talking to himself as much as to me. 

I started to say something else, but was interrupted by the sound of someone else coming into the room. It was my mother. She practically flew through the doorway, eyes wild until she spotted the two of us. My name fell from her trembling lips as she came our way. Dad set me down just in time for her to scoop me up, pulling me into a new tight hug. “You’re okay, you’re safe.” She too was clearly telling herself that as much as me. Then she looked down, giving a soft gasp. “You’re bleeding!” 

Dad had clearly just noticed that too, his eyes snapping to the letter opener in my hand. “What did–” 

Flinching, I stepped back, ducking my head as if I was embarrassed. “I… I saw those guys so I took the letter opener in case they came in. It was all I could think of. But I… when I went to hide in the bathroom, I slipped and… and fell. I guess I sort of… cut myself? I might’ve sprained my wrist a little too.” 

“Let me see.” Dad already had something in his hand. It was a safe-seal bandage, one of the professional variety, meaning it had medical gel on it that would prevent infection and help the wound heal faster. He took a knee, and I lifted the dress enough for him to carefully put the bandage on my leg. It looked like a large white patch, which sealed to the skin as soon as he pressed it firmly against the wound. I could immediately feel the very slight sting, followed by a soothing cool gel. The bandage would come off on its own sometime the next day, and would either need to be replaced by another or not, depending on how bad the wound was. 

“Th-thanks, Dad,” I managed. “But… but I think I ruined the dress too. I was hiding and laying on the floor after that and it’s all bloody from the stupid knife thing and I was all curled up and I know you’re not supposed to do that, but I was afraid. And I was trying to call somebody, but the phone didn’t work and I was—”

Head shaking quickly, Mom stepped over to pull me into another hug before looking down at me. “I do not care about the stupid dress.” Her hand moved to cup my cheek tenderly, tears in her eyes. “You are safe, Principessa. You are safe, that’s all I care about. You are safe. I was afraid that… I was afraid. You are okay. The men who came, they didn’t…”

“They didn’t see me,” I confirmed. “I saw them in the hallway, so I shut the door. But then I was afraid they’d come in, so I took the letter opener and hid in the bathroom. I didn’t know what to do. I didn’t hear what was going on, I wasn’t… I mean…”

She shushed me again, pulling me into another hug with her trembling arms. “You are safe. That’s all that matters.”

Simon had made it to the room by then, hearing my explanation. He too came over to hug me, without even making any kind of smartass remark. He actually looked worried, his hug genuine and firm. “Lucky you,” he managed after a few seconds of that. “Missed all the excitement. Even if you did manage to hurt yourself anyway.” Okay, maybe he couldn’t avoid every smartass remark. It was probably genetic. 

“I… I don’t want anything more exciting than that,” I murmured before stepping back to smooth the wrinkled and bloody dress down. “But what happened? Who were those guys? They look like soldiers or something, but… not.”

Dad shook his head. “Definitely not soldiers. It was…” He and Mom exchanged brief looks, some kind of silent conversation going on between them before he continued. “It was the Scions. But it’s okay. They’re gone now. They’re all gone, I promise. We’re safe.”

“Th-the Scions?” I made my voice whimper weakly. “Are you sure they’re gone? What if they come back? What if they’re still around? What if—”

Mom quieted me with another embrace, promising that all the danger was gone and that there were police and Star-Touched all over the place. Dad took me by the hand and led me out to the balcony to look down, showing me all the cops down there while telling me all about the heroes who had shown up and were scouring every inch of the hotel. “The Scions aren’t stupid enough to stick around with all this here,” he murmured. “They’re gone by now, I promise. They’re gone.”

Somehow, I stopped myself from pointing out that there had been plenty of cops and Star-Touched around when Pencil first showed up with his fanatics. It didn’t feel like that would actually accomplish anything useful. 

Instead, managing a little nod, I turned a bit to look over at the hospital. The fire was out by then, but there were still fire trucks and police. Raising my hand, I pointed. “Oh my God, what happened over there? Are they okay? That’s the kids hospital. What happened?”

Dad assured me that things were handled over there too, that from what he heard, no kids had been killed. “The fire was contained to one floor that was already evacuated. It’s okay. It could’ve been a lot worse. A lot worse.” He repeated that in a quiet, somewhat shaky voice while putting both hands on my shoulders with a gentle squeeze. He was clearly still convincing himself I was really there and I hadn’t been hurt. 

“The Scions are monsters,” I murmured before turning to look at him with wide eyes. “What about Pencil? He had to be here too, right? Did they catch him?” I was still curious about how he had gotten off the roof of this place and all the way over to the hospital. 

Dad sighed. “They took down the one pretending to be Pencil. Or being forced to pretend.”

Blinking at that, my head tilted. “Forced to pretend?”

With a grimace, Dad explained. “Someone who looked like him was on the roof, someone with his costume. He was going on the way Pencil does. But when it all went down, someone tackled him and it turned out he was just some innocent civilian under that mask. He was gagged and had a speaker system rigged up under his suit so the real Pencil could talk through it. And a bomb collar to make sure he did what he was told. They just managed to disable the thing in time.”

Mom cursed in Italian quietly before adding, “He probably thought it would be amusing if someone took a shot at the man and ended up killing an innocent civilian.”

“They would have killed more than that,” Dad pointed out. “That collar was linked to his life signs too. If he died, he would’ve blown and taken off a good chunk of the roof in the process.”

“Sterling,” Mom chastised, “that is enough. We don’t need to scare her any further.” To me, she added, “The point is, they did not find the real Pencil.”

“Of course not,” Simon muttered from the doorway onto the balcony. “Why would they do something useful like that? They oughta grab that motherfucker, bury him in concrete, and drop the whole slab into the Marianas Trench. Just be done with it. Go be invulnerable thirty-five thousand feet below sea level, dickface.”

The fact that Mom didn’t reprimand his language said more to me about how shaken up she was about this whole thing than basically anything else could have. Instead, she stepped up behind him from within the room, looking to me. “Your father and I need to take care of a few things. Can you stay right here in this room and not go anywhere until we get back? Simon can stay with you, if you need someone.”

I started to respond to that, but there was a knock against the still open doorway out in the main hall. Tomas was there, raising a hand. “Uh, I could stay if she wants. Sorry, I was coming to check on Cassidy and… I guess I interrupted.”

“It’s okay,” I quickly put in. “I’ll stay with Tomas. We’ll  just stay here in the room. We won’t go anywhere, I promise. Trust me, I… I’m not really in the mood to go wander around. And I’d be limping anyway.” Considering everything I had just been through, it was an easy promise to make. I wasn’t interested in doing anything else for a long time. And at least this way it would be Tomas staying with me. I knew he didn’t have any kind of involvement with my family’s criminal empire. Unless they had some kind of London branch, which was just me being ridiculously paranoid. 

My parents exchanged looks once more before Mom stepped out to gently kiss my forehead. “The phones are working again,” she murmured, “so if you need anything, anything at all… just call one of us, okay?”

Once I promised to do so, she, Dad, and Simon headed out to do… whatever they were going to do. I was left standing there in front of Tomas, feeling awkward. 

“So,” the boy started hesitantly, “I guess this was all a stupid game for those guys. They were just trying to get money and stuff out of all the rich people here,  threatening those kids at the hospital for it. Pretty fucked up, huh?” 

“Fucked up?” I echoed before nodding as I stepped into the room and moved to sit down on the nearby couch. “Yeah, I’d say it was really fucked up. 

“Then again, that’s kind of the Scions in a nutshell.”

*****

Things were busy through the rest of the night and most of the next day. I stayed at home, making sure my parents understood I was safe and that, as far as they knew, I had never been in any direct danger. They insisted on checking the cut in my leg, and put a fresh safe-seal bandage on it after calling in the family doctor to make sure it wasn’t infected or anything. I held my breath through the examination, but she didn’t say anything out of the ordinary. The cut I’d made with the letter opener clearly covered up the puncture wound from the quill, so the pain had been worth it. And my wrist wasn’t actually sprained, though there was still some soreness to it. 

In the end, my family thought I had hidden in that bathroom and never saw anything more of the bad guys than their backs. If they’d had the slightest clue of just how close I’d come to being killed last night, regardless of the being Touched part, they probably would have locked me into my room and not let me leave until I was in my mid-twenties. 

As it was, I waited until evening when I knew they were at some kind of big meeting for all the rich and powerful players who had been there last night before I went anywhere. Once I finally felt safe getting out of that house for awhile, I changed clothes into my costume and made a beeline for Wren’s place. 

Reaching the parking lot in front of the bookstore, I saw Fred hosing down some kind of sedan. When he saw me, the man twisted the nozzle to shut down the water before speaking. “Hey, you okay? Lizard girl said you ran into that Scion shit down at the party last night.”

Nodding, I replied, “Yeah, I’m good. Thanks mostly to her. She’s pretty cool. You know, for a villain.”

“For a villain,” he echoed quietly, frowning for a moment before heaving a sigh as he looked to me. “Hey, listen. I just wanted to say that I’m sorry about before. Sorry for how I treated you and for helping that crazy asshole. I didn’t know what he was going to do with that stuff, but it’s not an excuse. I should’ve asked more questions, I shouldn’t have gotten involved. Shouldn’t have sold the kid’s stuff like that. It was wrong, and I was an asshole. So… yeah, I’m sorry.”

Blinking at that, I gave a short nod. “It’s okay. You’re working on fixing it. I’m pretty sure that’s what matters.”

“Hell yeah, we’re working on it,” he confirmed. “Speaking of which, the kid’s downstairs. You should go talk to her.”

So, I did, heading in and down. Reaching the lab, the first thing I saw was Pack. She was sitting over on the couch, legs held up to her chest in a pretty casual posture for someone in a costume. Her attention was focused solely on the phone in her hands. When I entered, she looked up and waved the phone at me. “Hey, you know what? Your friend That-A-Way is pretty cute. I see why you like playing hero with her around.”

Flushing under the helmet, I started to say that I hadn’t noticed, only to stop myself. Would a boy have noticed? Hmm. 

Shaking that off, I decided to change the subject by asking, “Is Holiday okay then?”

She nodded, pointing to the cage where all the lizards were curled up asleep in their natural forms. “Yup, giving them a break today. They put in a lot of work back there.”

“So did you,” I pointed out. “And you didn’t have to, so… thanks. Seriously, I’m pretty sure a lot of those kids would’ve died without you last night. Actually, I know they would have. Without you, there’d be a bunch of dead children in that place. And they would’ve lost a lot more of the hospital with that bomb. Seriously, you were awesome.”

The full black mask hid her expression, but I had the idea she was blushing a bit. “No big deal. I’m not some monster who’s going to let a bunch of little kids die. But it’s over. Let’s talk about the important stuff, like, for example, do you have That-A-Way’s number, or what? You know, so I can thank her for saving Holiday.”

Hesitating briefly, I carefully replied, “I better make sure it’s okay with her before letting you have it, you know? I mean, you guys are still on opposite sides. Unless you wanna join the Minority so you can see her again?”

She laughed, shaking her head. “Nice try, kid. Hey, if the Minority’s so amazing and all, why aren’t you joining them? Last time I checked, you actually were trying to play hero. And they’re kind of the big thing for teen heroes, right? You get training, support, friends, all that stuff you should be interested in. So what’s with the whole keeping them at arm’s length thing?”

Thankfully, I was spared from having to respond to that very good question by Wren, who popped her head up from the pile of junk she had been buried in, waving excitedly. “Paintball! Hiya. Good timing, we just need a little more help and poof, here you are. I got through some of this faster than I thought I would.”

“Faster?” I echoed. “Does that mean…?”

Her head bobbed quickly. “It’s almost done. Like, really close. We just need to do a couple more things, and I think you can help finish it up. With a little luck, it’ll be ready by tomorrow. And then we’ll be able to use the suit and find those vials.”

“Well then,” I replied with a smile. “What are we waiting for?

“Let’s get to work.”

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