Blackjack

New Deals 13-05 (Summus Proelium)

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In case you missed it, there was a commissioned interlude focusing on a certain very special termite colony posted yesterday. If you haven’t seen it, you might want to use the Previous Chapter button above. 

I’d seen casinos in person before. Not that I’d actually stepped inside them, of course. But my family and I had stayed at hotels where casinos were, and I’d seen the rooms themselves from a distance. This one, though, was far different from those glimpses I’d had of the public versions. Emerging from the elevator, I didn’t see a massive, wide-open area full of bright, colorful slot machines loudly clanging and chiming everywhere. I didn’t see neon lights, scantily-clad women walking around with trays of snacks and drinks, or… anything I typically associated with an idea of what a casino floor looked like from my own experiences and movies. 

Instead, I mostly saw an enormous circular room, big enough to hold a full-size basketball game in. Directly in the middle of that circular room was an equally circular bar that took up maybe one-fourth of the space. There were a bunch of people sitting at the bar, and others serving them from behind it. Or within, rather, given the fact it was a circle. Either way, most of them, employees and guests alike, were wearing masks of various kinds. It wasn’t one hundred percent or anything. I did see a couple people’s faces. And some of the masks were clearly more elaborate or expensive than others. But elaborate or cheap, most people wore something that in some way obscured their identities, just as Paige had said. 

The bar itself seemed to be made entirely of glass in a way that was clearly deliberately meant to resemble ice. It was ‘frosted over’ in places, had actual buckets of ice sitting out with bottles resting in them, and so on. As if the whole thing had been carved out of a frozen block.  

The floor under my feet resembled ice-like glass as well. It was like stepping onto a skating rink, except not slippery at all. Actually, there was a tiny bit of bounce to the floor, making it soft to walk on despite its appearance. And it wasn’t just the floor that maintained that appearance. The walls, the decorations, the soft blue lighting that filled the room, it was all winter themed. 

Meanwhile, in the area immediately surrounding the bar, there were tables where people were quietly playing cards. On the far side of the room, opposite where I had come in, there were the games like roulette and craps. You had to go up a very short flight of about three steps to a vaguely raised area to reach those tables, and there was some kind of guard or bouncer posted next to the steps. What he was there for, I wasn’t exactly sure. But he was definitely a big guy, and it looked like he had a visible gun attached to his hip. So they weren’t screwing around. Like the rest of the people in here, the bouncer over there wore a mask. His was shaped like a bull’s head, with actual horns. He looked like a modern minotaur armed with a Glock or something.

Finally, there were doors scattered around the entire outside edge of the large room, even some up on the raised area where the roulette and craps tables were. Most of the doors had keypads next to them, as well as some kind of intercom. Some were labeled with numbers and names I didn’t know the meaning of, like ‘Starfall’ or ‘Viridescent.’ It was that latter door that I saw Paige pass through, giving me one last look and wave before it closed after her. 

Other doors were more simply named with obvious meanings like, ‘Slots Room 1’ or ‘Karaoke Room 3.’ I didn’t really need to think much about those ones, obviously. 

Curious, I checked the maps and GPS thing that Wren had included in my helmet display. As expected, they were offline. People like me weren’t allowed to know where this place was. 

Just as I managed to take all of that in, a voice from one side drew my attention. “Ahh, Mr. Paintball.” It was a man in a well-tailored suit, wearing a white, form-fitting mask against his face with only his mouth exposed. Even his eyes seemed to be covered, though he could clearly see through it. He was approaching me briskly, his voice quick, yet polite. “Such a pleasure to have you take a look at our establishment. I trust you have been informed of the rules here.” 

“No fighting, no trying to unmask people, no acting like you know them if they haven’t introduced themselves to you, mind your own business, basically?” I offered with a shrug. “I got the rundown, yeah.” And unless I missed my guess, this guy had probably already heard everything that had happened outside from Tell. 

“Very good, sir,” the white-masked man politely replied with a slight nod. “We take such rules quite seriously here, I assure you. That is how we remain in business. I am called Chips. Was there anyone you wished to meet, a game you might like to try? Rest assured, we also have rooms full of the finest and most advanced… ahhh… ‘video games’ if you would like to rent time by the hour.” 

Before I could say anything to that, Pack approached from around one of the nearby tables with a quick, “I’ve got it, Chips. Thanks. Paintball just needed to settle a little bet we made while all that was going on with the boss’s kid.” She had Riddles perched on one shoulder (in lizard form), but her other pets weren’t in view.   

“Very good, Miss Pack,” came the crisp response. “Please do let someone know if you require anything further. It would be our pleasure to provide for someone who was so instrumental in the protection of our princess.” 

He pivoted on one heel then, striding away. Watching him go, I lowered my voice. “So what did you want to show me? Please tell me it’s not the sick game room you rented out.” 

Instead of answering right away, Pack glanced around before turning. “This way, walk with me.” Turning, she headed around the edge of the room, counter-clockwise. Riddles, on her shoulder, turned a bit as though making sure I was following. 

So, I did. Picking up the pace to catch up with her, I spoke up. “Look at all the people around here. You wouldn’t know it was… wait, what time is it? I’ve lost track. It’s been a busy night.”

On the way, I saw some people look up from their games or drinks. They didn’t pay too much attention, given that was apparently against the rules. But my appearance obviously made them curious. Yeah, I had no idea what they were making of the fact that I was here. How well known was the fact that I had helped Blackjack with his daughter?

“It’s about one in the morning,” came the response, before Pack gestured to a table in a darker area far from any of the games. Her lizards were all spread out over the surface, happily crawling over one another as well as eating and drinking from bowls that had been laid out for them. Except… 

“Hey,” I spoke up, pointing to a tiny (seriously, it was about the length of her finger) lizard with a neon blue body and bright green head. “That one’s new.” 

Pack pulled out a chair, sitting down before kicking the leg of another for me to join her. She put her hand down close to the lizard in question, letting it run up her fingers. Then she lifted her opposite hand, watching as the beautiful thing jumped almost a foot to reach it. “This is Scatters. She’s new, yeah.” 

Taking the offered seat, I smiled behind my helmet, leaning a bit closer. “She’s really pretty.” 

“Believe me, she knows,” Pack drawled, setting the lizard back on the table near a bowl of water. “She’s a daredevil and a show-off.” Shaking her head, she focused on me, her voice low. “Okay, so my thing I can’t really show you yet. People came to talk to Blackjack.” 

“Wait.” I quickly put in. “Should we be saying anything? I mean with–” 

“It’s okay,” she interrupted. “No surveillance allowed in the casino. And trust me, I know how fucking weird that is. They have ways of checking for cheaters, but they don’t allow cameras, bugs, or any kind of recording devices. It’s the only way this place attracts the clientele it does, and they have lots of people come in to make sure it stays that way. No one wants to have any chance that things they say in here, or even just the fact that they were here, could get out. See those things up near the ceiling?” She gestured to what looked like loudspeakers positioned throughout the room. “They stop your phone from working, any GPS you have, cameras, audio recording equipment, whatever. None of that stuff works in here, even for us. And I had Eits check, just to be completely sure. If it ever got out that La Casa did keep any kind of surveillance here, this place would be completely dead. And everyone else in the city would probably unite to attack us.” 

“What about people with eavesdropping powers?” I pointed out quickly. “Enhanced hearing, that kind of thing.” Even if they couldn’t record what we were saying, I really didn’t want to take the chance of anyone even hearing it. There was too much at stake, too many ways someone having the slightest idea of what we were doing could totally fuck all of us over, evidence or no.

“Stand up,” Pack urged, gesturing for me to move. “Take a step over there and look at me.” 

Uncertain, I did so, rising from the chair and taking a few steps away. Again, I could see a few people glance over, some clearly more interested than they actually wanted to show. I was a young boy (as far as they knew) Star-Touched sitting in this secret casino. Obviously, they were a bit curious. Which, again, made me wonder just what they thought was really happening here.

Either way, I took those few steps away before looking at Pack. She pointedly reached up, lifting the black, featureless mask enough (revealing dark skin) that I could see her mouth open as she started to speak. And I heard… nothing. Her mouth was moving, but no sound was coming out. Or– she beckoned for me to come closer. So I did, and she held up a hand to stop me, reaching up to take my arm. Mouth still moving, she pulled me forward and down to be within a foot of her. Instantly, I heard her reciting some monologue speech. It sounded like it was from a play or a movie or something. Whatever it was, she was reciting it carefully. After another word, she gave me a push backward by the arm. The second my head was a few inches further away, the sound disappeared. Her mouth kept moving, but I heard absolutely nothing. 

Pack repeated that a couple times, pulling me forward to hear, then pushing me back to demonstrate that the sound disappeared. Finally, she gestured for me to sit down, tugging her mask back down over her mouth as she explained, “Touched-Tech attached to the tables. Makes it impossible to hear things if you’re not invited to the meeting. No eavesdropping allowed. Again, that’s how this place can function as a place for secret meetings, dude. You think we’re the only ones who would be in deep shit if our secrets got out? This whole world revolves around secrets. Nobody would trust La Casa’s casino as a place to have their meetings at if there was any chance, any chance those secrets might get out. Like I said, they have independents and people from other gangs show up to inspect the place. Blackjack isn’t gonna risk giving up the money all these people bring in just to catch a random secret or two before people figure things out and we all become public enemy number one.” 

She had a point. I knew that. Everything she said made complete logical sense. Still, I didn’t like it. It was too risky. Which maybe made me too paranoid. All the stuff Pack told me about how protected everyone’s privacy was in this place, and I still didn’t trust it. Because the real problem was, the second I trusted something like that and was wrong was the second everything fell apart. I couldn’t take that kind of risk, not with something like that. The thought of any of these bad guys, even Blackjack, finding out who my parents were was just… bad. Very bad. 

So, I wasn’t going to say anything too dangerous, just in case. But I supposed the bit about Wren wasn’t the worst possible thing for anyone to overhear if the privacy measures failed or whatever. With that in mind, I explained everything that had happened with Cavalcade and Glitch, how Braintrust wanted Wren to start paying her way in one form or another. Though I still used the kid’s chosen Touched name instead of her real one. I also made a point of not outright talking about how this was obviously related to the Ministry tax thing, but the implications between my words were obvious enough that I could tell the other girl picked up on it. 

When I was done, Pack gave a long series of muttered curses. “Those guys are pretty arrogant fucks, huh? I don’t suppose just going in there and beating their asses is an option.” 

“I don’t think I’m quite ready to challenge a gang like that, even if you helped,” I murmured dryly. “Kinda got a lot going on as it is. Besides, they’d be after Trevithick, not me. And I can’t be there to help her twenty-four seven. I don’t wanna put her under that kind of pressure.” 

Shrugging then, I added, “I mean, sure, working on getting rid of Braintrust is a noble goal and all. Probably more noble than you care about. But that’s a long term thing. Short term, keeping them happy and away from Trevithick is the best way to go.” 

“She’s not gonna make stuff for them,” Pack observed quietly, leaning back in her seat as she watched me for a moment. “All the time I spent with that kid during that whole thing… yeah, she’ll never go for that part. She is not gonna make toys for the evil, terrible supervillains.” I had a feeling her eyes were rolling a bit as she over-stressed those last few words pointedly. 

“You’re right,” I agreed. “She won’t make stuff for them and she won’t consult on any of their projects. That’s just… that’s not her. I–well, maybe she would. If she thought it would help us, if she thought her uncle or one of us was in danger, she might do what they said just to protect them. But it would… it would hurt her. She’d hate it. She’d–I don’t want to do that to her.”

“So what are you gonna do?” Pack asked curiously, fingers idly brushing the head of Mars Bar.

“I think the best thing to do is to tell her about the tax part, about paying them out of money that she makes selling her stuff,” I carefully answered. “I can help a bit.” I could help more than a bit, but I didn’t want to be too cavalier about the money I had access to. It felt like that might be a bit risky as far as maintaining my secret identity went. “But the point is, it’ll take time to set all that up. Meaning I need to make sure the Braintrust people understand they’re only getting a little bit and that it’ll be awhile before they start seeing any of it. And that if they start playing hardball, it won’t go well for them.”

“You want backup for that,” Pack realized. “You want someone to help you make sure Glitch and her people know if they pick a fight with the kid over this whole thing, they’ll be biting off a bigger piece than they think.” 

I nodded once. “Yeah. They’re playing relatively nice now, but the… implications were pretty obvious. I want them to know there’s a bigger fight than they might think if they try to push too hard, too fast. They’ll get something out of it, but they have to back off until Trevithick’s damn good and ready.” Even as I said that, a sigh escaped me. “I’m a shitty Star-Touched, huh? Look where I am. Look what I’m doing. I’m talking about getting some innocent–I’m talking about getting Trevithick to pay taxes to a fucking supervillain gang instead of just fighting them.”

“You’re talking about not throwing her under the bus to satisfy your ego,” came Pack’s retort. “You already said taking them down or whatever is a long term goal. Which is pretty damn ambitious on its own, for the record. But keeping them off Trevithick’s back for now, that’s not a bad thing. Like you said, you can’t be there twenty-four se–wait, here we go.” 

Before I could ask what that last bit meant, she urged, “Don’t look up too fast or too obviously. Use your helmet to cover it, just turn your eyes as much as you can. Like I said before, some people came to talk to Blackjack. They were in one of the private rooms over there. Very carefully, just turn your eyes to look a bit to the left, that way.” 

Uncertain, I did so. And immediately almost fell out of my chair. Because she was right, Blackjack was there. And he was standing with my parents. They were just… there. No masks or anything. Standing right in the open. 

I was so shocked in that moment, that they would be so brazen, that I didn’t say anything for a second. And with my helmet, that meant Pack couldn’t see my reaction. Which turned out to be a good thing, as she noted, “I just wish I knew who they were.” 

Wait. Wished she knew who they were? My parents were… kind of famous, especially around Detroit. It was possible she might not recognize them, but… “You don’t know who they are?” I asked carefully, trying to keep my voice even instead of letting it shake. My gaze was locked onto my parents, who were deep in conversation with Blackjack. 

“Nah,” came the response. “Do you? They seemed important when they showed up, but I’ve never seen them before.” She chuckled then. “Too bad we can’t take a picture and put it out there like, ‘Does anyone recognize these two guys?’” 

My head started to nod, then I stopped. “Two guys?” 

“Uhh, yeah, dude.” Pack sounded slightly confused. “Those two men standing right over there with Blackjack. The tall guy with the black crewcut and the red-haired guy next to him.” 

Was… was she blind? Neither of my parents had red hair, and my mother certainly wasn’t a guy. Unlike me, she could never have been mistaken for a boy. She had long black hair, while my father’s hair was dark blond with just a bit of distinguishing gray to it. They… they didn’t look a single bit like what she was describing. And yet, they were very clearly the only people standing there talking to Blackjack. 

So why the fuck was I seeing my parents talking to him, while Pack saw two entirely different people?

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Interlude 11A – Deicide (Summus Proelium)

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For years by this point, Austen Deleon had had one main goal in her life. There were other, smaller goals, of course. Primarily revolving around gaining more power and never being helpless again. But throughout all of that there had been one above all the others. That goal was to see her father, the man who had abandoned her mother and herself when she was a baby, dead. The same man who had eventually become Cuélebre, leader of the Oscuro Fell-gang. 

If he had been some normal man, Austen would have killed him already. It was his abandonment that had even led her mother to become mired and trapped in that evil cult of religious whack jobs. What her mother had become, what Austen herself had been put through before getting her powers, all of it, every bit of it, was because of him. She would see him dead no matter what that took. The fact that he was so powerful, both in himself and in the army that he controlled, didn’t matter. Not in the long run. It made things more difficult, but she would still kill him, someday. She just had to be smarter about it, more patient. 

Part of being patient meant playing her role not only as the leader of the Easy Eights gang in the form of Deicide, but also as a low-ranking young pickpocket member of Oscuro itself. As far as anyone there was concerned, Austen was just a teenager with no powers who hung around and contributed by stealing things here and there and occasionally providing information she heard. 

Some of that information was actually good, and had led to Oscuro hitting a couple decent scores. Nothing that would have stood out too much. Nothing that would have drawn the eye of her true father. She didn’t want to rock the boat, or make him pay attention to her until it was far too late. She simply provided just enough information that would make her an established and fairly trusted member of the gang’s lower levels. She fit in there. She was one of them, as far as they were concerned. 

They had no idea what her true intentions were. No idea that she spent night after night imagining the light finally leaving her father’s eyes as she paid him back for destroying her mother, leaving her the broken shell of a woman who barely acknowledged Austen’s existence now that she had literally killed the man Laia herself had seen as a god, as the God. 

Most of the time, Austen’s mother hated her now. There were a few times here and there when Laia would speak to her normally if the girl visited. But for the most part, she and the rest of her cultist… ‘friends’ saw Austen as what amounted to the antichrist, or something to that effect. They didn’t attack her or anything. They were too terrified of her to do that. Or, more to the point, afraid of the demon that protected her. 

Yeah. Austen’s mother and the others were convinced that it had been some kind of demon controlling those books and papers that had possessed Austen herself and killed their leader. None of them actually knew much about what was going on in the rest of the world. They didn’t know that anyone called Deicide even existed. They lived on their farm, hated outsiders, and waited for their true God to be reborn. 

It was really sad, and part of Austen still wanted to simply grab her mother and drag her out of there. She had hoped that with the death of that religious fuckjob, Laia would wake up. But she hadn’t. If anything, her mother and those around her had actually doubled down on their insane beliefs. That this was all a test, that there was no way the demon who had ‘possessed’ Austen could possibly have actually killed their leader for good. They believed he would be back, and that as long as they were faithful, ignored the outside world, and kept his home clean and prepared, they would be saved from his righteous vengeance when he finally appeared and struck down the unfaithful and yadda yadda.

Austen knew her mother was too far gone now. She knew that at best, the woman needed professional help. Help that Austen herself couldn’t hope to provide, or force on her. But she still hoped, somewhere deep in herself, that killing the man who had abandoned the two of them might somehow wake Laia up so she could be Austen’s mom again. 

She missed her mother. She loathed the men who had destroyed her. Both the man who had called himself ‘Jesus’ and the one who now called himself Cuélebre. One of them had paid the ultimate price already, and the other… the other would get what was coming to him.  

Toward that end, Austen had decided that it was time to put a plan in motion thanks to Cuélebre’s recent mistake. Specifically, his decision to team up with the Ninety-Niners in attacking La Casa while Blackjack was desperately trying to save his own daughter. Doing that, pushing the La Casa leader that far while he was focused on finding the vials that would save his child’s life, gave Austen the opening she’d always wanted. An opening to make an ally who could help her destroy Oscuro, and leave her father vulnerable. 

It was that immediate goal of turning Blackjack into the ally she needed to finally kill her father that had led Austen to where she currently was. Specifically, in an apartment next to a window overlooking an alley. The window was cracked open, allowing the girl to peek out through the darkness to see the white figure of her paper-formed armor far below. To outsiders, it would appear as though Deicide was standing in that alley. But the armor itself was almost completely empty, save for a camera positioned inside its ‘head’ that was transmitting its image to a monitor in the room, and its audio to a single earbud she wore. As she had many other times, Austen would control the empty ‘costume’ remotely, using her power to manipulate the paper armor and make it seem as though someone was actually inside it. There were also three other cameras set up nearby. One was inside the nearby dumpster and pointed behind the armor to see the mouth of the alley. Another was hidden in a higher window opposite the one where Austen hid, pointed down to get a bird’s-eye view of things. The last one was high up on a nearby taller building and pointed down to take in the roofs of the buildings on either side of the alley. All four cameras, counting the one inside the suit, sent their views to separate sections of the monitor that Austen was watching. Between those and her own in-person view from this window, she could keep track of everything that was happening. 

Movement in the camera watching the roofs drew her attention that way in time to see five figures moving closer. Three were simply ordinary Prev members of La Casa, armored and heavily armed non-Touched troops who took up a position at the edge of the roof. The other two were Cardsharp, the Touched who could alter the physical properties of herself or anything she touched, and Double Down, the guy who stored any kinetic force that hit him and turned it to his own use. 

None of the five approached any closer than the edge of the roof. They took up their positions and waited, clearly ready to jump in if something went wrong in the next few minutes. Austen considered for a moment, but decided to do nothing to indicate that she knew they were there. She did, however, make the armor that was supposed to be her shift its weight a bit, glancing around now and then to make it seem more realistic. Not that she was planning on doing anything untoward right now. This meeting was far too important. But she also didn’t want anyone to realize that she wasn’t necessarily always in the armor they were talking to. 

On the roof, Cardsharp waited a full minute before taking out her phone and saying something to it. As soon as she did, headlights appeared down the street, visible in the view of the camera hidden in the dumpster. A car that had been parked started up, pulling to the mouth of the alley. Austen turned the Deicide armor to look that way, just as a man stepped out of the backseat of that car. A man who wore a perfectly tailored suit of black slacks, a black shirt, dark bolo tie with a red gem at the collar, intensely polished black leather shoes, gold gloves, and a white duster coat. He also wore a black helmet with a gold mask, on which was the etched shape of a face. 

Blackjack. Leader of La Casa, and the man she was waiting for. He glanced briefly one way, then the other down the street before approaching a few steps. “Deicide,” the man greeted her simply, “a little bird informed me that you wanted to have a bit of a chat. And that it would be worth my while.” He paused briefly before adding pointedly, “Should I ask where your lieutenants are?” 

In response, Austen focused on making several books that had been sitting atop the nearby dumpster fly up to surround her ‘costume.’ The pages of the books flipped rapidly, landing on pages to highlight specific words or sentences, which were then spoken aloud in a feminine voice that seemed to come from everywhere at once. The books flipped fast enough that the words came with little pause between them, about as fast as a normal person talking (if punctuated by the sound of flipping pages). “Should I, in turn, ask where your own reinforcements are waiting? Or should we proceed with the reason for this meeting, absent further posturing or unimportant queries?”

For a moment, Blackjack didn’t respond. He seemed to be studying her, his gaze intent on the paper mask behind which lay the camera that Austen was using to watch him. Finally, he gave a very slight nod. “I am curious as to what you could possibly have called this meeting for, I must admit. Is this related to that favor I owe you, by any chance?” 

In response, Austen made the empty armor fold its arms, the books flipping rapidly to project her answer. “First, congratulations are in order for your successful retrieval of your property.” 

She couldn’t see his face (not the real one, anyway) behind the one etched onto the golden mask. But Austen could hear the smile in his voice even through the earbud. “It hasn’t escaped my notice that your organization was absent from any attempt to retrieve that property for yourselves,” he noted. “And as I said, I do still owe you for the return of that single vial. If this is about monetary compensation…” Even as he said it, his voice made it clear that he was very doubtful about that. 

“It is not about monetary compensation,” Austen confirmed. Of course the man knew that, but they still had to play the game, still had to do that little dance. “The favor I ask will actually be as helpful for you as it is for me. So it should not be a hard thing to agree with.” 

If Blackjack had any idea what she was going to ask, the man didn’t show it. He simply stood silent, watching and waiting for her to go on. He was as patient as a rock, apparently content to wait as long as it took. Nor did he do anything to acknowledge or note the presence of his people on the roof, who were waiting and watching as well. Austen had no doubt there were others her cameras had not yet picked up, probably keeping an eye out for her own troops. 

She continued. “Your true enemies now, the ones who fought so hard to keep you from your property or to steal it for themselves, are Oscuro and the Ninety-Niners. And they know that they are your biggest targets now. They have formed a pact to defend one another from any of your incursions. Either are very strong on their own. Together, they represent too much of a threat for you to exact the vengeance you deserve.” 

“And if I understand your intentions here,” Blackjack casually noted, “You believe that if our two organizations were to… ally as theirs have, we would be more of a match for them.” He paused pointedly, letting his moment of silence fill the air before continuing, “Some would say that I seem to come out entirely ahead in such an agreement, particularly considering I already owe you for the return of my property. Here you’re offering to ally your group with mine, allowing me to exact payment from those who have wronged me. Where, precisely, does what you get out of this potential alliance come in?” 

Obviously, Austen couldn’t and wouldn’t exactly tell the man that killing Cuélebre was all the payment she needed. Beyond not wanting to give that much of her own secrets away, the rest of the Easy Eights would never stand for it. They hated Oscuro and their leader as well and always had, ever since his power forced the eight separate, smaller gangs to band together for survival in the first place. But they also had their own goals, and wanted their own rewards. All of Austen’s troops (none of whom knew they actually worked for a sixteen-year-old girl) were ready to fight Oscuro, but only if they would actually get something out of it. She was their leader, but asking them to fight for nothing wouldn’t exactly turn out well. 

To that end, the girl replied through her books, “In exchange for assisting you in exacting your revenge upon the Ninety-Niners and Oscuro, my people will receive control of all the property and territory stolen from them when Cuélebre began expanding his gang, as well as half of the property our groups attain from the Ninety-Niners. In addition, you will pay all taxes to the Ministry that arise from this endeavor. And sign a Ministry-backed non-hostility agreement for two years.” 

That last bit was a separate service the Ministry provided. Groups or individuals who signed one of their non-hostility contracts were agreeing that neither of them would attack or do anything to hinder or hurt the other. If they did, the offending person or party would face punishment from the Ministry themselves that included both monetary sanctions as well as possible expulsion from the city. It had happened before. One did not make an agreement with the Ministry and then break that agreement. There was a reason they could enforce their taxes and still keep themselves so private. No one knew just how many Touched they employed, or what the limits of their influence over law enforcement was. But the answer to  both questions was simply, ‘enough.’ They had enough Touched and enough control over the cops, the judges, even the Star-Touched teams themselves, to make life incredibly difficult for anyone who crossed them. 

If it came down to it, the Ministry would invoke what they referred to as Plan Z, a powerful and mysterious Touched assassin who literally went by the name of Z. Her power apparently gave her the ability to not only become intangible, like a ghost, but also allowed her to delay the effects of everything she did while in that state. Anything this Plan Z did while intangible, from kicking a rock to shoving a door, to punching a person in the face, could have a physical effect at some later point. And she was somehow able to produce simple weapons in this state, like bows and blades.

This… Z could turn intangible, create a bow and arrow out of literally nothing, and shoot that same intangible, nearly invisible arrow through someone without any sign that anything had happened. After that, within a certain amount of time (no one knew how long, exactly), the assassin could choose to make the effect tangible, and the person she had shot (or stabbed if close enough), would suffer exactly as though they had truly been shot through with an arrow, or stabbed.

There was a reason the Ministry wasn’t challenged beyond their deep well of information and contacts within the law enforcement and Star-Touched side of things. That was one example of the forces they could put against someone who annoyed them and broke their rules too much. Which meant that breaking a non-hostility agreement after signing it would be tantamount to suicide. 

After she finished that proposal, Austen watched and waited. She didn’t expect it to be agreed to just that easily. And sure enough, Blackjack shook his head with a soft chuckle. “I owe you a favor,” he agreed, “and your aid would be appreciated. But neither extend quite that far, I’m afraid.” 

Letting that settle briefly, the man continued, “For your aid, keeping the property which previously belonged to your people is fair. And it only makes logical sense that we would sign a non-aggression pact before embarking on this sort of alliance. Those are both perfectly acceptable conditions. But as for the rest… we will share the Ministry taxes evenly. After all, this is a venture from both of our organizations. And my people will retain control of all property seized from the Ninety-Niners, as well as half of the remaining Oscuro property that was not previously owned by any gang now affiliated with the Easy Eights.” 

That was essentially the counter-proposal Austen had expected. Still, she couldn’t just agree to it. Instead, she made the paper armor lift its head as though considering that before responding through the books, “Even split of taxes, your group gets half the property taken from the Ninety-Niners, not all of it. Splitting half of the unclaimed Oscuro property is… acceptable.” 

“Half of everything, hmm?” Blackjack made a show of considering that as much as she had made a show of considering his previous offer. “Half of everything aside from the property that already belonged to your people before Oscuro’s drastic expansion.” He watched the armor, waiting until Austen made it give a single, silent nod before offering his hand. “Agreed. Your favor is paid back in allowing your people to take all of their previously stolen property. And the rest is a simple alliance. We eliminate our enemies together, with a contract to avoid any violence between our groups for two years.” 

They shook hands. Or at least, Blackjack shook hands with the empty paper armor, Austen’s power making it feel as sturdy as steel. Then they agreed to meet the next evening in order to sign a contract with the Ministry, who would remain neutral throughout the upcoming events, aside from upholding that contract. 

Once it was over, La Casa’s leader moved to step back into his car, which pulled away and disappeared into the night without any further issues. Austen then watched the roof, as the Touched and Prev troops there silently withdrew as soon as their leader was safely away. 

Then it was done with. She’d made an alliance with a gang powerful enough to help her own gang deal with her father and his own alliance. The next step of her plan to finally see the man who had abandoned her and her mother was finally in motion. 

Soon, oh so very soon, Cuélebre would finally get everything that was coming to him. And Austen couldn’t wait to make sure he knew just who had made him pay for it.

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Patreon Snippets 12B (Summus Proelium)

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Thanks once again to all $10+ Patrons. These are the two snippets that were requested for Summus Proelium. 

Standing outside his daughter’s private hospital room in their own home, Blackjack… or rather, Eric Abbot as he was known to those close to him, put a hand on the door and looked through the window. He stared at the little girl in the bed as she wrote intently in the notebook propped up against her knees. Several stuffed animals were gathered along the side of the bed as though listening while she dictated what she was writing. Her story was accompanied by grand gestures that kept interrupting her own writing. Once she apparently wrote something that she found so amusing she actually started laughing, the sound carrying through the door. It was a sight that made Eric smile, while a long, heavy shudder ran through him at the brief thought of what could have been.

For so long now, he had been terrified that his beautiful, amazing little girl would never grow up, that she would never be able to see all the things he wanted so desperately to show her. Every day when he saw how wonderful, brilliant, and effortlessly charming his child was, Eric despaired of what would happen to her without the medicine she needed. It had driven him to greater and greater heights of anger and frustration. But he never let her see it. He would not scare his little girl like that. Not when there was already so much for her to be afraid of.  

But she knew. She always knew just how upset he was. And often, it had seemed as though she was taking care of him more than the other way around. She was so strong, so brave. Disease be damned, she was one of the most amazing people he knew. Yes, he was biased. But she truly was remarkable, to handle all of this as well as she did. It inspired him more than he could ever articulate. His daughter was his everything, and if the worst had happened, if he had truly lost her…

Stepping into the room, the man looked to the two doctors who were working in the corner. Greeting them by name briefly, he asked the pair to step outside for a few minutes. Only once they were gone and he had locked the door, did Eric let his guard down a little bit and allow himself to let go of some of the rigid control with which he held himself. He felt his eyes grow a little wet as he stepped over and spoke up. “Hey, Smelly,” he greeted his daughter, a teasing nickname that was a combination of Small and Melly (for Melissa) 

“Hi, Daddy!” Melissa piped up, looking at him eagerly. Every day, Eric was amazed and humbled by his daughter’s resilience and ability to cope with this terrible situation. Sometimes it seemed as though she had been in the hospital forever, trapped in this room with her brittle bones. Bones that would have snapped from very little pressure. Bones that, without Worthy’s medicine, would have rotted away and disintegrated into a poison that would kill her. 

They’d stopped the disease from getting worse for quite a while, but they still couldn’t push things. Her bones were so fragile, and would continue being fragile until further into the treatment, that there was no way to let her live a normal life right now. They couldn’t risk allowing Melissa to run outside, play with others, or do… anything a little girl should have been able to do. She escaped through her writing into worlds of grand adventure and dashing heroes. In her stories, she could be anything, do anything. She could create universes worth of excitement that made her long days and nights spent in that single bed more tolerable.  

Sitting down on the chair that he pulled closer, Eric picked up the girl’s newest stuffed animal, the pink crocodile with the cloth skateboard attached to its feet that Sterling and Elena (or Uncle Stan and Aunt Ellen, as she knew them) had convinced her to name after their own daughter, Cassidy. 

For a moment, he just turned the toy over in his hands, staring down at it while his fingers shook. He had to take a breath and steady himself. It was so strange. He could order men to their death, could look someone like Cuélebre right in the eyes without flinching. He could stand down any threat. But the emotions he felt as he sat here with his daughter could be his undoing. He felt a shudder run through him once more as his eyes closed and a few more tears fell. 

“Daddy.” There was a small hand on his arm, and Eric opened his eyes to see that his daughter had shuffled over a bit to be next to him. She was staring at him with a wide, understanding gaze that seemed far more wise than her tender years. “If I have to stay sick, it’s okay. Please don’t be sad. I don’t want you to be sad.” 

He couldn’t speak. He couldn’t even swallow past the hard lump that formed in his throat. Rising from his own chair, the man moved over and sat on the bed, gathering the girl up into his lap and hugging her gently to his chest. “My girl,” he murmured in a voice filled with wonder and amazement at the simple truth of that statement. “You’re my baby girl. My brave little girl.” 

Kissing the top of her head tenderly, Eric finally shook his head. “I’m not sad, Smelly Melly. I’m not sad at all. I’m happy.” Swallowing, he added, “I’m happier than I’ve been for a long time.”  

Leaning her head back, Melissa gently poked at his face, her expression curious. “But you’re crying, Daddy. You aren’t supposed to cry when you’re happy. Did you get broken?” 

The question made him chuckle a little despite himself, and the man nodded once. “Maybe I did get a little broken. But you won’t be. You–” Once more, the words caught in his throat, and he had to give a light chuckle of bafflement at the absurdity of his emotions. Maybe Melissa was right, maybe he really was broken. The years of being terrified for his daughter’s life, of working so hard to keep her safe from this horrific disease, had taken its toll. Especially the past few weeks, as he dealt with the mounting desperation and panic at the possibility of losing her for real. 

“Baby, we found it,” he finally managed. His hand gently touched her face, fingers tenderly brushing along the girl’s cheek. “We found your medicine. We found all of it. You’re going to be okay. We’ve got your medicine here, right here in the house. Where it should have been the whole time. We’ve got all of it, Smelly. Every last bit.” With each word, his voice cracked with a bit more emotion, while he watched the expression on his daughter’s face. 

She was staring wide-eyed at him. Her mouth opened and shut a couple times before she managed a weak, “So I can get better?” Her voice was tentative, making it clear how hesitant she was to express even that much hope. Which he could hardly blame her for after everything that had happened. “Really better?” 

His head gave a short, jerky nod as a small, emotional laugh escaped him. It was a laugh born not of amusement, but of uncontained emotion that had to escape in that moment. “Yes, baby girl. Yes, you’re going to be okay. You’re going to have your medicine and you’ll get better just like Dr. Worthy said. You’re going to be just fine. You’re going to be safe. You’re gonna be strong, and you’re gonna grow up, and… and you’ll be okay.” 

Once the last word escaped him, Eric found himself unable to say anything else. The tears had started in earnest as soon as he saw them appear in his daughter’s eyes. He pulled her closer and the two hugged, father and daughter clinging to one another against the storm of emotion that swept through each of them. 

It took both a few minutes to collect themselves enough to speak again. Once he could finally find his voice, Eric leaned back and smiled at his daughter a bit shakily. “See, maybe you’re broken too.” 

“I’ll be broken if I can stay with you, Daddy,” Melissa informed him. Which was enough to make the man lose himself in another tight embrace with the beautiful, amazing little girl who made everything he had ever done in his life worth it just to be there with her. Nothing else in the world mattered. Nothing. Just being right there with her. 

“No, sweet thing,” the man finally managed. “You won’t be broken. You’ll be amazing. You’ll be a writer, a real writer. You’ll travel and see all the amazing things you’ve ever wanted to see. You’ll do everything you want to do, because you’re going to be okay. You’re going to be fine, my baby girl.”  

The two of them sat together like that for another minute before Melissa sniffed once and quietly announced, “I miss Dr. Worthy, Daddy.” Her voice was hesitant, and she glanced up guiltily, as though she felt bad about bringing up a sad moment right then, at a time in which they were supposed to be happy. 

Eric, however, gave a short nod. “I know, baby. I miss him too. I sure wish he could be here right now. I wish he could see just how much you’re going to grow up. But you know what we have to do to make up for him being gone?” 

The girl’s head shook slowly. “Nuh uh. What, Daddy?” Even as she said the words, she clung to him a little tighter, needing the reassurance of his physical presence to prove to herself that she wasn’t dreaming. 

“Live,” Eric informed her with a little poke to her nose that made the girl giggle. “You make Dr. Worthy’s work worth it by living the biggest, best life you can, okay, Smelly? You were the last big thing he worked on. So when you’re better, you’re gonna go out there and be whatever you want to be. You’re gonna live. That’s what you can do for Dr. Worthy. You’ll be out there telling your stories to everyone in the world.” 

“Can I tell you a story right now, Daddy?” she asked quickly, reaching out to pick up the nearest notebook, which he could see was filled with her neat, careful handwriting. “I made up a new one last night.” 

“Of course, you know I love your stories,” he assured her before settling up against the headboard of the bed. Letting his daughter adjust herself until she was comfortably resting against him, the man put an arm around her and listened while she began to read her newest story. Maybe it would have been strange to some people that she was the one who read him a story rather than the other way around. But he didn’t care. This was what his girl wanted. 

Fairly soon, it was clear that all the excitement had worn her out, and he could hear the mounting tiredness in her voice as she pushed on to get through the story. Eventually, he held the notebook and turned the pages for her while she laid back against his chest and simply read the words. Even that eventually trailed off into more and more silence between the words as her eyes would close for a few seconds, open again to read the first few words her gaze found, then close once more. 

Then she was asleep. For a while, Eric simply sat there with her, tenderly stroking the girl’s hair as he whispered soothing words to ensure she knew, even in her unconscious state, that she was safe and that he would never let anything bad happen. The thought of losing her, of being so helpless to protect his little girl…

Realizing he needed to get up before he ended up waking Melissa, Eric very carefully extracted himself and straightened. He took a moment to gently lay her on the pillow and put the blanket over her before standing up. It was okay, he had to remind himself. She was safe and she was going to stay that way. 

Quietly ordering the computer to lower the lighting, he walked out of the room. Closing the door behind him, the man was met by a friend that he’d known for exactly as long as he had known Samuel Worthy. Elarc Sorn, the former mercenary for Braintrust who had been convinced in that meeting three years earlier to switch sides, stood with a cell phone in one hand. 

“Reports are in,” he informed his boss after having waited patiently for him to be ready. “We lost a few people. Six dead, another eight arrested at the scenes. About thirty or forty thousand dollars worth of damages to a couple of our sites. Don’t have to reclaim anything cuz they backed off as soon as word got out that the vials were off the market.” 

“They were a distraction-force,” Eric replied flatly. “They never intended to hold our territory, only do enough damage to force us to split our resources to handle it. And to sow discord among our people if I didn’t address the situation properly, make them see me putting them in danger to protect my own daughter.” 

Sorn nodded once. “That does seem to have been the goal, sir. But they didn’t do nearly as much damage as they could have.” 

“They did enough,” Eric informed him. “We’ll respond in kind.” As he spoke, the man reached for the phone in his jacket pocket. Instead, he found something else. The skateboarding pink crocodile. Somehow, the stuffed toy had ended up in his pocket. Probably courtesy of his daughter wanting to share something with him. For a moment, he gazed at the creature. Cassidy. Cassidy the Crocodile. 

Somehow, his thoughts turned to the boy who had been so responsible for making this night possible. Paintball. Whoever the boy was under that mask, he was very clearly going to be important going forward. Important not only to Eric and his people, but others as well. There was more going on there, Eric knew. While his power wasn’t telling him exactly what, he knew there was something big just lurking under the surface. Something tantalizingly close. 

Exhaling, he absently put the toy away while looking back to his subordinate. “For now, let people recover. They’ve all done enough. Make sure compensation goes to the families of those we lost, and get our legal representation for the ones who were picked up. I want them out as soon as possible, and I want them eager to jump back into things. We need everyone we can get.” 

Walking down the hall, he spoke in a low, dangerous voice. “Oscuro and the Ninety-Niners think the war is over. 

“But it’s just beginning.” 

*******

The front doors of the Evans mansion closed behind Izzy, Damarko, Amber, and Jae as the four of them walked out together after watching the movie in that giant home theater. No one said anything until they reached Damarko’s car. Then Amber turned, glanced around briefly, before taking a knee and embracing Izzy. “How’re you really doing?” 

Izzy’s eyes closed, as she told herself not to stiffen up, and definitely not to push Amber away. She knew the other girl meant well. She was trying to help, trying to make her feel safer. But being touched like that, it just… she wasn’t sure how she felt about it. Not after…

Shaking that off, she gave a quick squeeze in return before stepping back in a way that she hoped wouldn’t make Amber feel bad or anything. There was a lump in her throat as she spoke with a quiet, “I could be a lot worse.” 

“A lot worse as in, ‘could be enslaved by some Fell-Gang assholes?’” Damarko asked, “Or a lot worse as in, ‘could have to stay somewhere other than the biggest house in the whole city?’” Without looking, he caught the elbow that Amber tried to shove at him before adding, “She knows I’m just trying to lighten the mood.” Pausing then, he added, “You do know that, right?” 

“Uh huh,” Izzy confirmed, glancing to Jae. “You’re really different like this, you know?” 

It was like a switch had been flipped. The quiet, demure and barely responsive Jae straightened, raised her head, and smiled. At one point, Izzy had seen the old Superman movies with Christopher Reeve, and the way Jae switched from the persona she put on in public to the way she was now or as Carousel reminded her of him going between Clark Kent and Superman in the same scene. It was that much of an immediate and thorough switch. 

“I’d rather not be the same,” the Albino Asian girl replied, “in case the flame of my fame puts my name to acclaim and this dame is fair game to shame, claim, or maim.” 

“In other words, she’d rather be really different between her civvie self and her Touched self so no one recognizes her and causes problems. And see, I told you guys she holds all of that in at school and can’t help blurting out the rhymes as soon as she gets a chance,” Amber noted before focusing on Izzy. “So, you’re really okay right now? What’s… umm… you know, what’s it like living here?” 

“What’s Cassidy like, she means,” Damarko put in. “Is she this really spoiled rich girl in private? Does she like, have servants bring her towers of ice cream the size of your head?” He blinked at Amber and Jae. “What? I’m not blaming her. I would totally do that if my family owned half the city.” 

“She doesn’t notice,” Izzy quickly piped up. She waited until they were looking at her, then shrugged. “Cassidy. She doesn’t notice that she’s rich. Not really. Not… like… like that. It’s like… her family having so much money is like most people having legs.” 

Amber frowned. “Uh… what?” 

Trying to put her thoughts (she’d had them over the past couple days all jumbled up) into some kind of order, Izzy carefully explained, “I mean, a umm… a normal person with working legs, right? They walk around all day, and if they see someone who can’t walk, they feel bad for them and maybe think about how they might be able to help. Or they feel like… how much better they have it. But most of the time, they don’t really think about it. They don’t think about how good their legs are when they get up and walk to the kitchen. That’s what Cassidy is like with money. She’s not bad because she doesn’t think about how rich she is. When she sees someone without money, she tries to help them. But most of the time, she’s just… a person with working legs. She has money, it doesn’t… register, or whatever unless it’s really pointed out. Someone with legs isn’t bad just because they don’t think about how useful that is most of the time. It’s just their life. Having so much money is her life.” 

“Do you like her?” That was Damarko, getting straight to the point. “I mean, do you think she’s cool?” 

For a brief moment, Izzy considered the question. “I don’t… know her very much,” she carefully answered. “I know she’s keeping secrets. I think she might have a boyfriend or something that she doesn’t want her mom and dad to know about. But… yeah. Yeah, she’s pretty cool. And she’s funny. I… she’s not anything like how I expected the Evans’ daughter to be.” 

“Yeah, you can say that again,” Amber agreed with a snort. “But seriously, we knew she was cool. Good project partner anyway, and that absolutely translates into other things. So if shit goes down out here, she will totally have your back.” 

Blinking, Izzy carefully pointed out, “I don’t… think she’d be able to help very much if any bad guys showed up. And hey, you guys never said you were friends with the richest girl in town.”

“I meant have your back as in she’d stand behind you,” came the grinning retort. “Which is the safest place to be, cuz you’re Izzy God Damn Amor.” With a wink, Amber added, “And we weren’t really that close until Mr. Dorn teamed us up for that school thing a few weeks ago.” She hesitated as though considering something about that before shaking it off. “Anyway, enough about Cassie. While we’re here, there’s something else we should talk about.

“Paintball. What’s that guy’s deal?” 

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Showdown 7-09 (Summus Proelium)

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Citing exhaustion after everything that had happened, which wasn’t exactly a stretch, I let Eits drive me back to the store where all that fighting had happened. The two of us sat in that car, staying quiet for the first part of the drive before he looked to me. “You believe me when I say I won’t tell anybody about you, right?”

I shrugged a bit. “I don’t really have much of a choice, do I? My black paint only lasts ten seconds, and I can’t exactly follow you around constantly reapplying it just to keep you quiet.”

He gave me a brief look, coughing once. “Why do I feel like you actually considered that for a second back there?”

Flashing under the mask, I retorted, “I was panicking, sue me. My identity is kind of sensitive.” With that, I turned a bit to stare at him. “So when you promise you won’t tell anybody, you really have to not tell anybody. I mean it. Not even Pack. Nobody. Don’t even write it down. It could… it could get both of us in deep trouble.”

Because I was pretty sure if my parents found out who I was and even suspected that I knew about them, they’d work to shut up anyone else who might know. That included anyone who had found out any hints of my identity. They wouldn’t take chances.

Eits looked uncertain for a moment, but finally nodded. “I’m not sure what you mean by that, but I think I’ll just take your word for it. Like I said, I’m not going to tell anybody about you. And I won’t write it down or anything. I’ll even try not to dream about it if that helps. No promises on that front though, subconscious Eits kind of has a mind of his own.”

Another moment of silence passed before he offered, “I guess we both know more about each other than we intended, huh? Funny how that works when you’re not even trying.”

I nodded. “I haven’t done anything to try to find out who you are from that whole baseball thing. Now, I guess we both sort of have power over each other. We don’t look into each other‘s pasts or identities, right?”

“Right,” he agreed readily. “Just… I swear this isn’t me trying to pry, but when you talk about how dangerous it would be if anybody found out who you were, it doesn’t sound like you’re talking in general. You’re afraid of someone specific. So, I just want to ask… are you okay? Sorry, you don’t have to talk about it. I just… yeah, if you need anything or whatever…”

Blinking in a bit of a surprise, I quickly shook my head. “I’m okay. I mean, you’re not wrong about it being dangerous, but it’ll be fine.” Pausing, I added a somewhat awkward, “Thanks. But you know what? This is going to make having to come after you once we’re on opposite sides again really awkward.”

He shrugged. “Like we said, you have ways of finding out who I am if I go too far looking into you, or give away any of your secrets. Besides, I am fully prepared to cool my heels in a cell if you grab me doing something bad. It’s not like Blackjack won’t get me out.” 

He paused then, head tilting. “Err, did that sound like I was taunting you? Cuz I wasn’t trying to taunt you. It’s just… uhh, yeah. La Casa look after their own. Blackjack has these strict rules about how much force we’re allowed to use if we’re actually caught, depending on by who, the situation, and everything else. The point is, we play nice and spend a little time in jail if we have to until the others resolve the situation.”

“So what you’re saying is,” I started slowly, “you’re not going to start screaming about me being a girl the second I catch you breaking into someone’s system and lock you down for the cops.”

He gave me a serious look then. “Like I said, your secret is safe with me. I’m not gonna tell anybody. I mean, I wouldn’t exactly be happy about it, but I trust Blackjack. Besides, if you catch me breaking in somewhere, I deserve to be caught.”

Snorting at that, I retorted, “Pretty big words for someone who had to call me for help to get him off a roof, dude.”

He was clearly blushing a little while waving that off with his hand. “A crazy fluke. Totally not gonna happen again.” Sobering a bit then, the boy looked to me once more. “You and me, we’re good. I know the risks of what I’m doing, and I’m ready for the consequences if they come. You catch me fair and square, I’m not gonna say anything. I swear. But you do have to catch me first.”

Hesitating, I took a breath before pointing out, “You could always just stop being a bad guy. Seriously, you seem really cool. It’d be a lot easier to avoid any problems if you weren’t stealing things anymore.”

He sounded honestly regretful while replying, “Sorry. I owe Blackjack, not to mention the rest of La Casa.  Without them, I’d… let’s just say I’d be in much worse shape.” Shrugging, he added, “Besides, I hate to tell you this, but stealing things is kind of a rush. Beating security systems, finding a way around the guards, even dealing with Star-Touched like you. Some of the other Fell take it way too seriously, or they’re just fucking monsters. Me, I just want to see if I can do it. And, like I said, I owe Blackjack more than I could ever describe.”

There was a lot I wanted to say to that, but I wasn’t sure how to phrase it. I also kind of wanted to ask the boy if he knew anything about a secret group who were paid by villains for the right to operate in the city. He was probably one of my best ways of getting more information about my family’s organization. But I couldn’t bring that up yet. I didn’t want to endanger him if he went looking for information, and I still wasn’t exactly positive about how much I should tell him anyway. I wouldn’t be able to unring that bell once I brought it up, and I was pretty sure he would be able to figure out that there was a connection between me talking about how dangerous it was if someone found out too much about me, and this random mysterious shadowy organization. He could put two and two together. 

So, I just stayed quiet as we pulled into the back lot behind the store. There were a lot of people there. Mainly I saw La Casa troops of both the Touched and Prev variety grouped up on one side, and the four Minority people on the other. There was obvious tension in the area, and I hoped things didn’t boil over. Quickly getting out of the car with a last look back toward Eits, I moved to Carousel and the others. “They’re not back yet?”

Syndicate (or the one of him who was standing there) spoke up. “No. According to those guys, this Jailtime asshole takes you into his own private prison and you have to find your way out.” He paused before muttering under his breath, “Way better get out of there.” 

Unable to help myself, I asked, “So where’s Raindrop? I figured she’d be with you guys, or at least show up by now.”

Syndicate quietly answered, “She’s… on vacation. She needed a break.”

Okay, there was definitely something more to that, but before I could think about it too much, Carousel looked to me. “Seems like you went many miles. Tell us you got the vials. All the danger this has fraught, it’d suck to be for naught.”

Wobble nodded, the huge guy looking to me. “She’s right,” he rumbled in a deep voice, “if we went through all this and those vials are still out there…”

“Almost,” I assured them. “We’ve got all but one of them. And that last one… well, it’s with Pack and That-A-Way.” Looking back to the spot where the two had disappeared, I quietly added, “So I guess that’s another reason to hope they make it out.”

Whamline spoke up. “You’re a pretty hard little guy to figure out, you know? You’re obviously trying to help people, but you’re also on friendly terms with villains like Blackjack and Pack. Not to mention that Eits guy. You’re not a villain, but you say you don’t want to join us either. So what’s the deal? Do we have cooties or something?”

Turning away from where he had been staring at the La Casa people, Syndicate agreed. “Yeah, we’ve been trying to figure out why you’re so adamant about staying on your own. I mean, you’ve seen how dangerous it is out there. Look at your helmet. That was Cuélebre, right? He nearly killed you. And let me guess, you still don’t want to join.”

Blanching a bit out their interrogation, I gave a quick shake of my head while holding the broken helmet tighter. “I’m sorry, guys. I’m just not a team player right now. You’re right, I’m not a bad guy. I just want to help people. But I have my own way of doing it. I don’t mind helping out, I just can’t join up with you.

“And I was helping Blackjack save his daughter. That’s it. I don’t agree with the guy or anything. I just don’t think his kid should pay for what Blackjack does. I get why Ashton is pissed at him. But he took it too far.”

The four of them exchanged looks, a silent conversation of some kind passing between them before Syndicate looked back to me. “I guess that’s fair enough for now. But we’ve still got a lot of questions. Sorry, I’m just pretty sure there’s still something more behind your whole situation than you’re saying.”

Inwardly, I blanched while trying not to show any reaction in my body language. How could I just tell them to leave well enough alone without piquing their curiosity even more? If I acted like it was a big deal and tried to warn them, they’d definitely dig deeper. And that could be really bad for everyone, considering my supervillain/hero father was basically their boss. 

So, I just did my best to shrug it off, deliberately changing the subject. “Are you guys gonna be okay after all this? I mean, you were technically fighting alongside La Casa tonight too.”

Carousel was the one who replied. “They’ll just have to let us explain. With that kind of danger, we couldn’t abstain.”

“What she said, only less rhymey,” Syndicate agreed. “At least for tonight, the truce was the best way to go. Two other gangs to fight, nobody’s going to blame us for not jumping straight into fighting La Casa too. And like you said, in this case it was about saving a little girl. Even if she was the daughter of a supervillain.”

Everyone stopped talking then, because the car with Blackjack himself had shown up. He stepped out of it, glanced over to us, and then said something to his men. After a brief back and forth, he approached, watching our reactions before speaking. “I owe all of you a debt of gratitude for what you’ve done tonight, and the risks you took to secure my daughter’s medicine.”

Wobble quickly asked, “Don’t suppose we could all trade in those debts of gratitude and get you to turn yourself in?” After a brief pause, he shrugged. “It was worth a shot.”

Chuckling in what sounded like genuine amusement, Blackjack nodded. “It certainly was. But no, I’m afraid tonight will not be the time you manage to talk a Fell-gang leader into surrendering. Given what I’ve seen of you all, however, I would hardly be surprised to see you manage it at some point. I’ll even wish you luck, given how my own organization could profit from such an event.”

He was still nervous. I could tell that much just from watching the man. He was trying to play things off, but there was a certain tenseness to him. Probably because he was so close to finally saving his daughter. There was only one vial left, and he could do absolutely nothing about getting it back. He just had to stand here and wait to see if… no, when Pack and That-A-Way got out of there. They had the last vial, and his daughter wouldn’t be safe until they were here. But he could do nothing to influence it and clearly felt completely helpless. I knew the feeling. 

Before anyone else could say anything, there was a rush of motion from above and to the side, I quickly looked that way with the others, just in time to see Flea come leaping down to land between the Minority Touched (as well as me) and Blackjack. She was joined a second later by another female figure in a purple and white skin tight suit with a helmet not too dissimilar from mine. Dynamic, the Conservator speedster who could temporarily drain the powers from people she ran past in order to create energy constructs. She came skidding to a stop beside the other woman, both of them standing with their attention fully centered on Blackjack. 

“Problem here?” Flea asked flatly, her voice full of warning. She had a sword in one hand, though she hadn’t actually raised it. The tip was pointed at the ground. But her intent was clear. 

Syndicate quickly spoke up. “It’s okay. Nothing’s changed since we reported in a few minutes ago. We’re still waiting for That-A-Way.”

Blackjack gave a slight nod. If he was at all intimidated or worried about the two adult Star-Touched, he gave no sign of it. I even saw him suddenly wave his hand back to motion for his own men to stay away. His voice was as calm as possible given the situation. “Your protege is correct. We have all held to a truce this evening to focus on more important matters. I hope that can be maintained through these last few minutes.”

Flea made a noise of curiosity. “Few minutes? The way I understood it, we have no way of knowing when our people will get out of that prison. Unless you’re privy to something the rest of us aren’t?”

She was trying to find out if his words had anything to do with his power, I realized. No one knew exactly how it worked, or how much information the guy could get. 

From the way he chuckled, the La Casa leader was just as aware of what she was doing. He bowed his head, seemingly in acknowledgment and approval of it before replying, “Let’s just say I have a certain level of optimism. Assuming our disagreements can wait until later?”

Dynamic spoke up, her voice bright and cheerful. “Oooh, by disagreements, you mean the fact that you’re a super villain who keeps robbing and hurting people and we’re supposed to take you to prison? Those disagreements?” She gave him a clearly embellished thumbs up. “Sure, we can wait to bring you to justice. It’s not like you’re suddenly going to disappear. Though, you know, that would probably be the best super villain move ever. Just completely vanish so no one ever finds you? I wonder if—” 

She stopped as Flea nudged her. I didn’t know a lot about Dynamic, except for the fact that she was the youngest member of the Conservators. She’d been part of the Minority only a year earlier. Not our Minority, but the one in the Utah/Wyoming area. On graduation, she’d been picked up by none other than Silversmith himself. 

Did that definitely make her one of the bad guys, or was I just being paranoid? Dad would obviously want good Star-Touched in the city, or he wouldn’t have anything to threaten people who didn’t pay up with. But was she just a good recruit to have, or actually part of the shadow organization? Having a loyal person on the Conservators besides himself, and one who could actually drain people’s powers at that, would be really useful for him.

“Paintball?” With a start, I realized that Flea had been trying to get my attention. When I looked that way, she gestured to the broken helmet in my hand. “Are you okay?”

“I…” Pausing, I swallowed before nodding. The brief memory flash of that lightning made my throat dry. I was really trying to focus on anything other than that. “I’m fine,” I claimed in a voice that I was proud to say was only shaking a little bit. “I just need a shower and a nap.”

With an audible giggle, Dynamic blurted, “Tell me about it, little dude. After all the shit that’s been going around tonight, I could use a spa day.” She didn’t seem nearly as tense as Flea was for standing in front of Blackjack. A sign that she was part of my parents’ organization after all, or just her personality? I wished I knew for sure. 

Belatedly, I looked to the two Conservator Star-Touched. “I… I saw Silversmith fighting Cuélebre. Is he–I mean, are they still–” God, how stupid was this? My dad was an actual secret supervillain and I was still worried about his safety. What was wrong with me? 

For her part, Flea simply offered me a short nod, clearly having no idea what was behind my question. “He’s fine. Cuélebre escaped, but I promise, Smith made him regret coming out tonight.” 

With that, she turned her attention to the La Casa leader. “It sounds like you treated these guys right.” She nodded to the Minority and me. “So thanks. Still, I have to say, this truce only lasts until you get that vial and get out of here. We see you again tonight, this whole thing is gonna go differently, got it?” 

Blackjack started to respond, but before he could say anything, there was a sudden flash of light nearby. Everyone’s eyes snapped there, as the light began to resolve into a figure. Or two figures. That-A-Way and Pack. The latter had all her lizards clinging to her arms and shoulders. 

As everyone stared, both girls staggered and stumbled a bit. They looked pretty haggard, worn out, and generally like they’d been through a lot. Finally, they looked up to find everyone watching. 

“Oh, hey, boss.” Pack’s words were light, though she was clearly barely able to keep standing. “Special delivery?”

Then she held up the final vial. The last one. She held it out, letting her employer take it from her with a somewhat shaking hand. Clutching it, he turned and nodded to someone. A moment later, Ashton was brought out and sent stumbling to me. 

It was over. Blackjack finally had what he needed to save his daughter. After all that, we’d actually pulled it off. 

And you know what, whether Dynamic was a secret bad guy or not, she was absolutely right about one thing. 

A spa day sounded really fucking good right about now.

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Showdown 7-08 and Patreon Snippet – Izzy (Summus Proelium)

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There was a buzzing of panic in the back of my head that wouldn’t go away. My mouth opened and closed a couple times as I stood there, face still covered by the mask while the broken helmet was held tightly in one hand. The buzzing turned audible as I managed a low, “Uhhhhh…. n-no, I—”

And that was when my panicking brain had the incredibly genius idea to make Eits stop talking by shooting black paint at him. I didn’t even know what that was supposed to accomplish other than keeping him silent for a few seconds. What was I going to do, follow him around forever constantly shooting black paint at him so he couldn’t tell anybody? What was my endgame there?

From the look on what I could see of his face after he tried and failed to say something, Eits was just as dubious as to the long term validity of this plan as I was. He stared at me, arms spreading apart in a ‘really?’ gesture that made me blush. 

Finally, I canceled the paint and stammered, “Look, you can’t— I mean, don’t… I’m not… you—”

His hands raised while he shook his head quickly. “Stop, just stop. I’m not telling anybody. Are you kidding me? After you helped me get my ball back and all that? You saved my ass. I’m not gonna throw you under the bus, geez. I was just surprised, that’s all. I just…” Trailing off, his head tilted to the side. “Blackjack’s coming. Gimme your phone. That’s what you’re using to change your voice, right? Let me see, quick.”

I didn’t have much of a choice, so I passed the phone that way. He took a quick glance at the damaged device while pulling another phone from his pocket. I saw one of his mites jump into my phone, then slip over to the other one. Then Eits past the new phone to me. “Plug it into your mic, hurry.”

Without wasting time asking questions, I paired the new phone with my microphone (that was what was actually changing my voice, it just needed the phone for the software part to work properly) and tried talking. “Hello, hello. Good?” It worked. My voice sounded like it should have again. My mic had kept the same settings. 

And just in time, because a nondescript blue car screeched to a halt a short distance away. Blackjack and a couple of his armed people stepped out. The man himself looked around briefly before his eyes centered on the two of us. And you know what? I had to give him credit, because despite how terrified for his daughter the man had to be, the first words out of his mouth were, “Are you two okay?” Belatedly, he ordered his men to spread out and watch for trouble. 

Eits was quiet, so I spoke up. “Cuélebre’s gone. I… um, lost him, I guess. But I got this back.” Holding my hand up, I showed the man the vial held tightly in it. 

As soon as it appeared, I saw a load of tension, though not nearly all of it, slip from his shoulders. He exhaled and stepped that way, reaching out for the vial. I let him take it, and only once it was secure in his own pocket did the man speak. “The others?” 

“Pack has one with her, and my… my friend has the other in the car,” I replied, hesitantly looking toward Eits. “Which is…” 

“I lost track of it,” he admitted. “But so did everyone else. I was kind of focused on leading all the others away, and on finding you after that whole lightning thing. I’m pretty sure they got the car out of sight.”

I had no idea what he was thinking, what his opinion was about what he had just found out about me. And there wasn’t exactly time to ask at the moment. Instead, I said, “I’ll find out. Just…” Then I paused, realizing a problem. I couldn’t call Wren without the number in my phone. But the real phone was broken.

“You should call them,” Eits urged,  giving me a brief, yet significant look. Clearly, that mite of his had copied all the number data out of the old phone. So it was probably a good thing that I wasn’t keeping deeply personal information in it. That phone was intended as my Touched thing, so I kept my personal stuff off it.

Sure enough, when I opened the phone, I found the right number in the contacts. Giving Eits a slight nod, I hit it and brought the phone to my ear. I could see Blackjack standing there, watching me like a hawk with tension still visible in him. It was clear that he would not relax until he had every vial. And after seeing how far his rivals were willing to go to get the things for themselves, I really couldn’t blame him. 

The phone rang a couple times before Wren answered. “Hello? Who—”

“It’s Paintball,” I cut her off. “I’m okay. I got one of the vials back from Cuélebre, but there’s one still on the car. Please tell me you still have the car.”

There was a burst of noise from the other side, as the younger girl clearly turned to tell someone else, no doubt Fred, that I was the one on the phone. Then she was back. “Paintball! Why are you— never mind. Yes, we’ve got the car! There were a bunch of bad guys, and then there were a bunch of other red cars and I think they were trying to help. But there were still lots of bad guys trying to stop us— I mean the car— so I hid it behind a building and I don’t think anybody knows where it is. But they keep driving past looking for it and I don’t know who’s bad or good anymore. Where’s Pack? She’s not answering her phone either. What—”

Wincing, I quickly interrupted. “I’m working on it. Just keep it there and I’ll come get them. And hey, thanks. That was some really good driving. Just hang on a second.”

With that, I muted the phone and looked over to Blackjack. “We’ve got it. The next vial’s in the car and I can go get it. But what about Pack and That-A-Way? They were both taken by that weird prisoner guy, and Pack’s got the last vial. Plus, I mean… I know the Minority aren’t exactly on your Christmas card list, but—”

It was my turn to be interrupted, as the man spoke. “I owe the girl no particular ill will. Particularly given the current situation. Intentional or not, she’s helped me secure these vials. And as far as that goes…” He exhaled. “The boy calls himself Jailtime. From what I understand, there are two aspects to his power. The first allows him to selectively cancel movement-based powers, such as teleportation, within an area.” 

“Which is why That-A-Way couldn’t teleport,” I murmured. 

“Correct,” he confirmed. “The second use of his power allows him to take anyone he’s touching to some kind of abandoned prison somewhere. The boy has some kind of power over the prison to create simulacrum beings and to control things within the prison itself, everything except the people he brings in. If you can get to the exit, you get transported back to where you left from. Other than that, we have no idea where this prison is. Or if it’s even a true physical place that can be reached.”

“So we just have to wait until they manage to get out of there by themselves?” I winced after saying it. “I mean, at least Pack has her animals and… I… I guess we just… oh God, I hope they’re okay.”

“As do I,” the man agreed quietly, and I knew it wasn’t just because he wanted that last vial, even if that was a big part of it. Hell, I knew it had to be taking everything he had not to scream at me to just get the vial in the car, but Blackjack controlled himself. His voice was mostly calm. “But in the meantime…”

“I’ll go get the next vial right now,” I assured him before pausing. “But uhh, maybe I shouldn’t go the fun way with Cuélebre still pretty pissed off out there.”

Eits promptly took the hint, speaking up. “I’ll drive him over to grab the vials. Then we’ll come right back.”

I could see the objection in Blackjack’s body language. He didn’t want to let me out of his sight until he had all the vials, particularly if I was about to go grab one. But he relented with a slight nod. “Go. I need to check in with my people, but I’m not leaving this spot. Get them and come back.” His words did not invite discussion or disagreement, only obedience. 

I let it go. The guy was stressed. I mean, he was also a supervillain with a horde of minions at his beck and call who was clearly accustomed to giving any orders he wanted. But in this case, he was also understandably stressed. The fact that he hadn’t snapped at me and was even willing to let me leave his sight to get the next vial for him said a lot more about his patience and control than anything else. I wasn’t going to childishly demand he say please or anything stupid like that. 

Instead, I just looked over to Eits. “Car?”

No sooner had I said it, than a station wagon pulled up to the curb. The boy gestured to it before looking to his boss. “We’ll be right back. What about the other attacks?”

“Distractions,” Blackjack replied. “Hit and run techniques meant to keep us busy. They did the same thing across the city to occupy the Star-Touched. I’m checking in on our other people now, just to be sure. You grab those vials, then we’ll secure them and all of this will be over.” His gaze flicked over to me as he added, “And I will owe you more than I can ever repay.”

Rather than respond to that, I stepped down into the station wagon. Only when Eits had gotten in the other side and pulled away from the curb did it occur to me to weakly ask, “Oh God, this is stolen, isn’t it?” 

“Borrowed for the emergency,” he corrected. “As soon as we’re done, I’ll fill it with gas and put it right back where we found it. Scout’s honor.”

I probably should’ve said something else to that, but all I could think about was what he now knew. I fell silent, chancing a glance that way. He was looking at me rather than the road. Then again, he wasn’t actually physically driving anyway. One of his mites was, so Eits didn’t need to watch the road. 

The two of us stared at each other for a minute, as I rested the broken helmet in my lap. It was obvious that neither of us really knew what to say. But we had to say something.

In a minute, anyway. Right then, I remembered Wren and quickly unmuted the phone. “Okay, heading for the car. Where is it, exactly?”

She gave directions, and I passed them to Eits before letting the girl know that we would be showing up in a station wagon so she wouldn’t freak out when she saw it on the car’s cameras. I stayed on the line with her the whole way just in case something happened. And, of course, because it gave me an excuse not to get into the inevitable awkward conversation with Eits. 

It also gave me a chance to explain what was going on with Pack. Wren, of course, wasn’t exactly happy about the fact that we couldn’t do anything but wait. I couldn’t blame her for that, considering how annoyed I was by it. Yet there was nothing else for it. We just had to be patient and hope the two of them (plus the lizard buddies) could get out of that prison without our help. 

Finally, we pulled up around the back of the building in question. The car was waiting there, and I had Eits wait while I went over, opened the door, and reached in. There it was, the vial. We had the vial, meaning there was only one more out there. The one Pack had. Please, let her and That-A-Way get away from that Jailtime guy.

Clutching the vial from the car, I looked up to the sky and murmured a silent prayer before  bringing the phone back to my ear. “Got it. Pack’s got the last one, as soon as she… Wren, you… you did great. Seriously, this wouldn’t have happened without you. That girl survives all this, it’s totally because of you.”

Promising to let her know the second I found out anything else, I disconnected, reaching the car just as something else occurred to me. Eyes widening behind my mask, I grabbed the door and got in while blurting, “Wait, what about Ashton? I just left him back there when we took off after Cuélebre.”

“I guess Blackjack’s probably got him,” the boy replied before physically wincing. “I really don’t see that ending well for him after what he did.”

And I would have to do something about that. Going silent for a moment, I waited before glancing to Eits. “I guess you probably have a lot of questions, huh?”

He hesitated before shrugging. “It’s pretty self-explanatory, actually. Maybe not specifics or anything, but posing as the gender you’re not makes it harder to identify you later. It’s a pretty good—” In mid-sentence, he suddenly stopped, making a kind of adorable horrified noise. “Errr, did I just do to you what people kept doing to me? I mean, are we both… are you…”

My head shook as I quickly assured him, “No, no, I’m not trying to transition or anything. It’s really just a disguise.” Belatedly, I hit the button to deactivate the voice thing and spoke normally. “I guess you could probably take offense to that, huh?”

His response was another shrug. “Not really. It’s a disguise, you’re not mocking anything. Context kinda matters. I just… I mean… I guess I’m still just a little surprised. Okay, a lot surprised. It’s a pretty good way of hiding your identity though, if you’re the kind of girl with a body type that can pass for a boy and oh my God I just realized I said that out loud.” The last bit came all in a rush as he lowered his head to bang it against the steering wheel, making me glad again that he wasn’t driving the normal way. 

My face flushed under the mask, but it wasn’t as bad as it could have been. There were a lot of people who could have said something like that and basically ruined my night. Or, they could have a while ago before my priorities got pretty reorganized. Still, the reminder that at best I looked like a girl who had not made it very far through puberty sent an embarrassed twinge through me. At least it could be worse. 

“Sorry,” Eits was saying. “I’m really not trying to pry into your identity or anything, I swear. But how long are you going to be able to pull this charade off? I mean, once you get a little older, people might notice… changes.”

It was worse! It was worse, definitely worse. Oh God!

My face went bright red, feeling warm under the mask as I dropped my head into my hands and groaned. “I’m not a kid.”

“Oh,” Eits started, “I wasn’t trying to say you—”

“I’m not a kid,” I interrupted. “Let’s just say I’m closer to college than middle school. The puberty fairy’s already made it pretty clear that her ideal look for me is ‘vampire turned when she was thirteen.’ At my sixteenth birthday party, we celebrated that I finally crossed five feet. I—” Then I stopped myself, realizing that for all he’d talked about not prying into my identity, I probably still shouldn’t hand him so much information like that. I probably should have stopped talking sooner, but I was just so flustered. And it had been a long night. 

Eits was looking my way, waiting for me to fall silent before he spoke. “Sorry. That was a really dumb assumption and a stupid thing for me to say. I was trying to help things and… well, yeah. You see how that turned out. Look, it doesn’t matter if you’re a boy or a girl under that costume. what matters is who you are, right? And who you are is the guy—sorry, girl who really helped me out of a jam, and accepted who I am pretty much instantly. You’re the girl who risked her life to save the daughter of a supervillain, and who is going back there right now to talk to said supervillain about not hurting the guy who almost killed his daughter, about letting the guy go without taking his revenge. So personally, I think you’re pretty brave, cool, funny, and accepting. Those are the things you can change. Anyone gives you shit about the things you can’t, fuck ‘em.”

Before I could stop myself, the words blurted their way out of my mouth. “I’m not entirely sure ‘fuck ‘em’ is really the best way to handle my body image issues.”

Before Eits could really recover from his reaction to that, the car stopped right back where we had started. As promised, Blackjack was there. He’d been joined by more of his troops, including Cardsharp. When I got out of the car (taking a second to make sure my voice changer was on again), the La Casa leader’s gaze snapped to me, and everyone seemed to freeze. 

At first, I didn’t say anything. I simply steeled myself and looked to him. “Pack’s got the last vial.” I held up the one that I had retrieved. “As soon as she gets away from Jailtime, you’ll have everything you need to save your daughter.” 

A bit of weight seemed to slip from the man’s shoulders, as he murmured, “Pack…” Looking to one of his men, he ordered, “Make absolutely sure that spot is clear and safe when they show up. And–” He glanced to me before adding, “Let That-A-Way go unharmed, along with the rest of her team. The truce stays so long as they don’t attack any of our people.” 

His man acknowledged that and moved away while speaking into a phone, and I started again. “You have Ashton. You also said that if I got you the vials, you’d owe me a favor.” Stepping over, I extended the one I had to him before adding, “I’ve helped you find them. Assuming Pack gets out of there okay, I want two favors.”

Only once he had the vial in his hand and confirmed it looked right did the man speak. “Two favors?” 

From the way his voice cracked, he would have granted fifty. But I wasn’t going to get greedy. Instead, I nodded once. “Yeah, two. First, I want you to let me take Ashton to the cops, and then you leave him alone. He’s grieving for his friend and he did stupid things. He was wrong and he was psycho, no matter what his reasoning was. No tragic backstory gives him the right to do what he tried to do. But let him go to prison for it.”

Without giving any indication of how he felt about that, Blackjack simply asked, “The second?”

“You put up a bounty of three million dollars,” I reminded him. “I decided I want you to follow through. Only send it to the children’s hospital that was just attacked by the Scions. All of it except one hundred thousand. I’m going to use that to help people in another way.” Namely as seed money to dump into Wren without my parents noticing any large sums disappearing. 

“Three million to the children’s hospital,” Blackjack echoed, his voice clearly carefully even. “One hundred thousand to you. And let you take Mr. Austin to the authorities. Is that all?” 

“That’s it,” I confirmed. “I know with Pack having the last vial, that means you already have what you want, but everyone says you’re a man of your word, so–” 

“Done,” the man interrupted. “The hospital will receive the full reward, with a small compensation of a hundred thousand going to your… efforts. And you… may take Mr. Austin.” The last bit was clearly the hardest for him to say, anger still turning his words brittle. “But should he remind me of his existence again…” 

“I know.” It was the best I could have hoped for. Hell, for all I knew, he’d just wait for Ashton to be in prison and then have him killed. But I’d try to make sure the authorities knew how much danger he was in. Other than that… well, it could’ve been worse. 

Blackjack interrupted my thoughts. “Now, we need to go and wait for the missing girls to return.”

I nodded quickly. Because I was going to be there when Pack and That-A-Way got out of that weird prison thing Jailtime had apparently sent them to. Not to mention check on the rest of the Minority who had shown up to help, if they were still around. And I was pretty sure Eits and I weren’t done talking about… about what he had found out. We’d managed a lot. Blackjack’s daughter was… well, almost safe. But I wasn’t going to celebrate just yet. Not until I knew for sure that Pack and That-A-Way had made it back with that last vial. Then the girl would be okay. She’d have all her medicine. Once that was assured, I’d have to actually take Ashton to the authorities, let them know what was going on and… and… everything. All of that, of course, assumed that Pack returned with the vial. After all this, it was down to her and That-A-Way to bring that last one back. 

Yeah, as long as this night had already been and as much as we’d accomplished, this night still wasn’t over yet. 

 

*******

 

Patreon Snippet – Izzy

 

The tiny, somewhat huddled figure ran through the dark alley before reaching a heavy green dumpster. There, she looked around quickly, while the sound of approaching footsteps grew louder. The young girl looked over her shoulder, seeing bouncing lights draw nearer to the mouth of the alley. Then she turned back, eyes settling on something in particular before she gave a small nod of decision. 

A few seconds later, two flashlight beams lit up the area where the girl had just been, revealing empty space. The source of the lights, two men holding them next to their pistols, grew brighter as the pair advanced into the alley. Their voices were hushed. “You see anything?” one man asked. 

“Nothing,” the next murmured, slowly panning his light over the collection of garbage around the dumpster, across a few old wooden pallets, and onto a moldy mattress against the opposite wall. “You sure the kid came this way?” 

“That’s what they said,” came the response, as the first man advanced cautiously closer to the dumpster. “Paola saw her in the rearview, crossing the street over on Beckards, but they couldn’t turn around in time to catch up. She was heading this way.” 

The second man kicked the mattress, leaning over to check in the space between it and the wall before shaking his head. “We gotta grab this maldita puta before she gets her powers back, or before she finds a working phone and fucks all of us over. You know how screwed we are if that kid gets away and tells anyone?”

Advancing toward the dumpster, the first man peeked around it to the spot where the girl had ducked earlier. His gun was raised and ready, but he found nothing but a smell from abandoned rotten food on the ground that made him gag a bit. “Uuuuggghh, tell me about it,” he muttered under his breath while leaning back and turning his head a little to press his nose against his shoulder for relief. 

After recovering a bit, the man took a step back to be out of easy reach before taking a knee to peer under the dumpster. His light illuminated the small space there, and he saw… nothing. Rising, he cast his light across the tall wooden fence at the back of the alley. “Shit, man, there’s nothing here. Maybe she got over that somehow?” 

“Or maybe she never came down here,” his partner replied with a shrug. “Whatever, let’s check in. Maybe someone else picked up the trail.” He gave one last look around with his light before turning to leave the alley. “Come on, smells like shit back here.” 

The two of them left the alley, muttering to each other. A few seconds after they were gone, the moldy mattress shifted, jerked against the ground, and then a hand emerged from the far side of it. Izzy Amor hauled herself out of the mattress. She had spotted a hole in one side of it and had managed to tear it open enough to shove herself inside. It wasn’t that hard, given how much of the interior of it was missing. There, she had curled into a tight ball in a space barely large enough to hold her small form, using her hands to keep the hole in the mattress closed while the men talked. She’d thought she had been caught when the man kicked the mattress, but all he’d done was shift it a bit to look behind it. 

Kicking her way free of the dirty, disgusting mattress, Izzy crouched there. Her arms folded tightly around herself as she stared toward the mouth of the alley. The girl’s face was still stained wet from tears, but she forced them back while slowly rising to her feet. There were people yelling back and forth to each other, beams of light occasionally flicking past the alley. They were out there, looking for her. She had no phone, no communicator, no costume, and she couldn’t use her powers without horrific pain. Not yet, anyway. That Handler guy’s power hadn’t worn off. 

Six more blocks. The nearest entrance to the Minority base, using one of the dozen or so spread across the city (entrances which all accessed the same building thanks to the Ten Towers Tech-Touched known as Switchshift), was six blocks away. Six blocks. She could get there. She… she could…

Mom. The thought wormed its way into Izzy’s mind, and she cringed as those same tears threatened to overwhelm her once more. Mom. Mama. Her mother… her mother had sold her, had literally sold her to the bad guys to be tortured and trained into… into…

Covering her mouth with a hand, Izzy restrained the horrified sob of anguish and grief. Bottling up those feelings, she pushed herself to her feet and carefully made her way to the wooden fence. With actual time now, she climbed up and over it, dropping into the alley on the opposite side before quickly crouching in the corner as an Oscuro car drove slowly past, more men leaning out the windows, scanning the streets for her. 

Six blocks. She could make it six more blocks. Taking a breath, the temporarily powerless girl made her way swiftly to the end of the alley and looked around. The Oscuro car was turning the corner, while two men at the opposite end of the street walked around the other way. She had an opening, and took it, darting out and running to the next alley over. 

Six more blocks. Stay low, stay quiet, keep moving. 

And don’t think about Mama. Push it down. Shove it down. Focus. 

She almost made it. Almost. Just as Izzy was crossing the last street, eyes centered on the building she needed to get to, there was a sudden screech of tires as a dark sedan came screaming up to block her path. Several Oscuro troops were inside, pointing their guns at her as the driver (whose side she was facing) snarled, “Hey kid, going somewhere?” 

Stumbling back, her eyes darted around, but there was nowhere to go. She was out in the open. They were pointing guns at her, she… she… had to use her power. The very idea made her nauseous. Not just because of the pain, which had… probably worn off by now, but because she was exhausted. She’d used it so much all night long to put out the fires at the hospital. She was tired, she was sore, she’d been up for too long, had used her power too much, and now… now she had to use it again. She had to, even if the thought of even trying to summon up more of it made her want to curl into a ball and throw up. 

“Aww,” the driver with his sawed-off shotgun pointed at her taunted, “what’s the matter? Is the little bitch gonna cry cuz we–” 

In mid-sentence, a giant silver hand, bigger than the sedan itself, burst out of the ground at the front of the car. A second appeared at the back. The two hands took the front and rear of the vehicle between giant fingers and ripped it apart with a scream of tearing metal. The inhabitants were dumped to the ground, crying out and cursing. One man tried to shoot at Izzy, but the two hands had already broken apart, reforming into a single wall between the girl and her attackers. 

A figure dropped from the building above before landing lightly on his feet. He straightened up, and Silversmith stood there, just beside the wall he had created. “Gentlemen,” he started flatly, “throw down your guns, and–” 

Several of the men opened fire. The bullets did nothing to the Conservator leader’s gleaming metal armor. They didn’t penetrate, but nor did they ricochet away. Ricochets would have potentially endangered other people. Instead, as the bullets struck the strange, Touched-summoned metal, it rippled slightly, almost like water. Tiny tendrils of liquid-metal encompassed each bullet where it struck, holding onto it to arrest its momentum before letting it go so the bullet would fall harmlessly to the ground. It all happened in a millisecond, impossible to see with the naked eye. Each bullet would start to penetrate the liquid-like spot of armor, get caught by the miniscule tendrils, and was then pushed out to fall onto the pavement in a shower of metal. To the naked eye, it looked like the bullets were hitting the man and simply falling to his feet. 

“Okay,” Silversmith said simply as the men interrupted his attempt to offer them a chance to surrender. His hand gave a dismissive wave, instantly sending a dozen small balls of liquid metal at them. The first six orbs reshaped into blades, solidifying just in time to cut through the weapons the half-dozen men were holding. Their guns were sliced in half, falling uselessly to the ground. Just behind those, the remaining six metal balls of metallic liquid formed into handcuffs. They snapped around each man’s wrists at once before hoisting them off the ground. With a collection of screams, the six Oscuro troops were hurled backward by the cuffs and suspended ten feet off the ground by their wrists against the wall of the nearby building. 

He turned to Izzy then, his voice softening. “Are you–” 

Izzy threw herself at him. Her arms went around his waist, and she clung to the man, unable to hold back the blinding, inescapable tears that poured from her eyes as she openly sobbed. Her body shook violently, while she tightened her grip. She was awash in an ocean of grief, and the man was her only life preserver. 

“Shhh,” Silversmith murmured, sinking to one knee before taking the girl into his arms. “It’s okay. You’re safe. 

“I’ve got you.”

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Showdown 7-06 (Summus Proelium)

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That saying ‘all hell broke loose’ didn’t apply here. Not because violence didn’t erupt, but because those words in that order utterly failed to really portray just how much violence erupted and just how quickly. Hell didn’t break loose, it was a meteor that suddenly and apocalyptically slammed into the Earth. Followed by several more meteors that came slamming in behind the first because they just couldn’t stand to miss all the fun.  

Honestly, the best analogy I had for it was one time when I had needed to ask Simon something a few years back. I’d gone into his room to find him lying on his bed with his headphones on. Next to the door was his wall-to-wall sound system, so I’d just reached out and hit a button with the headphone symbol on it. Pretty dumb, I know. It turned off the headphones, and suddenly the entire room had been flooded with screaming, earsplitting metal music. It had, with the touch of a button, shifted all that music from being pumped through his headphones to being pumped through the dozen different high-end speakers he had scattered throughout all of his rooms. My ears had practically been ringing for days after that little mistake. 

That’s what this was like. Not that it had been exactly peaceful before, but when the Ninety-Niner and Oscuro troops had surrounded Pack (and her pack), Eits, That-A-Way, Syndicate, Whamline, Wobble, Carousel, and me, the violence had at least paused. Mostly because we really hadn’t stood the slightest ghost of a chance in that position, against those kind of numbers. But now that Blackjack and more of La Casa had, in turn, surrounded the Oscuro and Ninety-Niners, everything just sort of exploded. Violently. 

For me, ‘violence exploded’ was pretty apt, considering basically the same instant everyone started fighting, just as I dropped my phone back in the pocket that hadn’t been cut open, something hit me. It was Cuélebre’s tail. I saw it coming from the corner of my eye, just in time to activate a bit of the orange within the image I’d painted across my costume. Even then, the tail still struck me with enough force that I was lifted clear off the ground and sent hurtling through the air with a belated scream. Flailing, I failed to actually right myself properly before colliding with a dumpster near the corner of the loading dock behind the store. The orange paint meant I didn’t end up with any broken bones (or worse), but I was still dazed, slumping to the asphalt with a low groan as my vision went a little blurry for a moment. 

The fighting, of course, didn’t stop for me. Gunshots and more filled the air, even as I groggily lifted my head to stare in that direction, trying to blink the daze away. Two Ninety-Niner thugs with shotguns were hoisted off their feet, slammed into one another, and hurled away in opposite directions by a couple of Whamline’s coils. Those same coils exploded in front of Coverfire, the concussive force knocking him away from That-A-Way while he was still trying to grab her. An instant later, there was a sharp whistling sound and a narrow distortion in the air slammed into Whamline. It was Silbón, a guy from Oscuro with a dark wide-brimmed hat over a dark gray face mask that left his mouth exposed and ragged clothes. 

Silbón was joined by a couple Oscuro thugs firing guns. They were set upon by Twinkletoes and Holiday. One of the Syndicates was on the ground. Another was shot at several times, but the bullets went through his semi-translucent body. The guy who shot at him was hit by one of those electric shopping carts directed by one of Eits’ mites (going faster than I thought those carts were capable of), just before one of the La Casa troops dove into him, both thugs rolling across the ground as they each fought for leverage against the other. 

Violence. Fighting. More than I could possibly hope to follow. Double Down, Blackjack, Cardsharp, and another member of La Casa named Hardway (a guy who manipulated inertia and motion of himself or things around him) were fighting Cuélebre and Sandon. The latter wore a modernized suit of armor with a lion’s pelt over the back, its fake ‘head’ functioning as her helmet and mask. They were all fighting in a jumble of motion and violence. Everyone was. It was all blurred movements, gunshots, powers flying off, the roar of animals and screams of both anger and pain. By the time I dragged myself off the ground, half the people there were down for one reason or another. Some would be down for much longer than others, but either way, the violence was taking its toll. This was too many people with too many powers and weapons in too close of quarters. Even as I took a step that way, my eyes caught sight of Pack and That-A-Way, bumping up against each other just as a figure loomed up behind them. It was another teenager, though definitely not part of the Minority. He wore the completely cliche ‘inmate’ outfit of a black and white striped prison suit with a black burglar mask and one of those prisoner numbers written across the front of the striped shirt. I had… no idea what his powers were. But before either That-A-Way or Pack could react, his hands grabbed each of them by the shoulders and all three disappeared. The ‘prisoner’ guy as well as both girls vanished. 

No! No, no, no! Where were they?! What– then I realized that Pack’s creatures must have been linked to her or something, because all of them disappeared a second later too. Hopefully, whatever prisoner boy had been doing, he hadn’t planned on that. 

But I didn’t have time to think about it. I didn’t have time to think about anything. Suddenly, just as I saw the group vanish in front of my eyes, a guy grabbed me from behind. It was just some random Ninety-Niner thug. I smelled awful alcohol breath as he yanked me off my feet with an arm around my waist, his other hand groping down my side toward the unruined pocket as he snarled, “Okay, kid, where’s the other vials, huh?! Where are they?!” 

That was what it took. Up to that point, since the moment Cuélebre’s tail had knocked me thirty feet into the dumpster, everything had taken on a bit of a dreamlike quality. My ears had been ringing, and I’d just sort of been staring at all this fighting in a daze for the past few seconds, as if I wasn’t really there. It was like I was watching all of this on television rather than interacting with it. But this guy grabbing me, that was enough to snap me out of all that and make me remember that I was actually involved.

As the guy groped over my leg looking for my pocket, I quickly turned that part of my pants blue and activated it, sending his hand snapping up and back. At the same time, I drove my helmeted head backward into his face. The combination of both made him drop me with a yelp, and I turned while landing, sending a shot of red paint into his chest while my left glove turned red as well. Activating both yanked him toward me, just as my other hand turned purple and decked the guy. He hit the ground and didn’t move. 

Another guy was coming for me, but I painted my legs green and my feet purple, using that to leap up and over him, twisting in the air before coming down right on top of his shoulders. He collapsed under my weight, and as we both fell to the ground, I snapped my hand to the side, shooting a spray of yellow paint at a group of bad guys who were going after Wobble and Carousel. They suddenly slowed dramatically, giving those two a chance to deal with them while I rolled forward off the guy I had just dropped onto. 

Unfortunately, that put me right at the feet of the Oscuro Touched with the wide-brimmed hat. Silbón. His power involved whistling, of course. Basically, any time he was whistling, he was almost entirely immune to damage. He would absorb that damage, and could then expel it through a whistle. When he did, his whistle would take on the same traits as the damage he had absorbed. He could whistle to absorb bullets, whistle again to absorb lightning, and whistle a third time to absorb fire. After that, he could, at any point, use the kinetic force of the bullets, the electricity from the lightning, or the heat from the fire in his whistles. Using a damage type spent the charge of absorbing it, but he tended to have absorbed a lot. 

Just as I ended up basically half-sprawled in front of the man, staring up at his black mask under that wide hat, he pursed his lips. Eyes widening, I slapped my hand against his foot and put black paint there. 

No sound came. I’d muted him. He had a moment to somehow look surprised despite me only being able to see his lips before I twisted around and drove my foot up between his legs with a bit of purple-paint boost. Then he wasn’t interested in trying to whistle anymore. But I still kicked him a couple more times just to be sure. 

Scrambling back to my feet, I snapped my gaze over to the fighting. It was… uhh… wow. Chaotic. Still. A couple random thugs were coming for me, but I blue-launched myself up and back, flipping in the air to land on the edge of the metal awning over the loading bay. Activating a bit more orange meant that the bullets they shot up at me just made me stagger a bit before I managed to yank their guns away with a shot of red. Before they could react to that, I took a few steps back out of their line of sight, tossing the pistols away to either side. And then I sort of… doubled over and tried not to hyperventilate while hugging myself. The shouting and screaming coming from everywhere, being shot at, nearly being hit by Silbón, all of it just… just… it was too much. It was too fucking much. And what about Pack and That-A-Way?! Were they okay? What was going on? Where were they? What could I do? What–

Nothing. I couldn’t do anything for them, not at the moment. I just had to hope they were okay, and focus on what was going on right here, right now. I could do this. I had to do this. I couldn’t abandon them down there. I had to help get that vial back. 

That settled, I took a deep breath before running forward, using a mixture of purple and blue paint to launch myself into the air. Between the two, I was sent really high and really far. Sailing over the battlefield, I helped out the best way I could. Namely, I first used yellow paint to slow my own descent, then used all the time I had while passing over the fighting to hit bad guys with more yellow paint and good guys with a mixture of green, purple, and orange. Mostly green and orange, as I couldn’t expect them to suddenly know that they were strong. But being faster and tougher would help regardless. As would their opponents suddenly being much slower. 

It helped so much that, by the time I landed on the far side of the lot, dropping into a roll, most of the random Ninety-Niner and Oscuro Prevs were down. Between the four Syndicates, Wobble, Whamline, and the La Casa people, they dealt with their unpowered opponents neatly. Unfortunately, that didn’t solve the issue of the guys who did have powers. Especially Sandon and Cuélebre. And that situation had gotten worse, as I saw Hardway off on the far side of the field trapped inside Ringside’s bubble. The two of them were fighting sans any powers as Ringside had apparently elected to remove Hardway’s at the expense of her own, and both were really good at that. They would be busy for awhile. 

Meanwhile, the remaining three La Casa people were fighting the leadership of the two rival gangs. Blackjack’s power wasn’t exactly suited to straight up and prolonged confrontation, but he had Double Down and Cardsharp for that. And they were definitely earning their keep. 

As far as Sandon went, the Ninety-Niners’ leader had been around long enough that her powers were pretty well known. They revolved around bones. Yeah. Basically, touching a bone gave her access to all of that person’s strength and general toughness. If they were a Touched with enhanced strength, it gave her a portion of that as well. Of course, touching bones from multiple different people gave her each of their strength together. And the inside of her suit was apparently completely lined with little pieces of bone. She was one of the straight-up strongest people in the city just because whenever someone with super strength showed up, she made a point of hunting them down and taking a piece of bone from them if possible. Which was eeeuuuggh.  

So yeah, between Sandon and Cuélebre, there was a lot of strength on the bad guy’s side. Double Down’s ability to absorb any kinetic force that hit him and Cardsharp’s power to alter her own physical properties to make herself tougher helped deal with that somewhat, but they couldn’t actually hurt the bastards enough to put them down. The best they could do was let Double Down absorb enough kinetic force to send right back at the Oscuro and Ninety-Niner leaders, while Blackjack used his own power to watch for the right moment and target. I kept seeing him randomly using a pistol to shoot at Cuélebre’s tail for some reason. Then I noticed that every time the tail was struck, a bit of electricity shot off of it. Like it was fizzling. 

Was Cuélebre’s tail how he summoned lightning? And was Blackjack shooting it to disrupt his attempts to do so every time? Was that why he hadn’t just fried everyone already? 

Well, that and the fact that he didn’t know where the other vials were, beyond the one in his hand. That was probably why he wasn’t just throwing lightning around everywhere, beyond Blackjack stopping him from using calculated strikes. Hell, maybe that was why Blackjack was able to stop him, because it took more time for him to carefully aim or something. Enough time for Blackjack to hit that spot of his tail. 

Whatever the answer, I was just glad we weren’t fried. Because we already had enough problems. As I crouched there, trying to present as small a target as possible while watching for an opening in the midst of their busy fight, I saw it. The vial was still in Cuélebre’s hand while he was fighting. It was right there. 

Unfortunately, just as I prepared myself to try and take it from him with a careful application of red paint, there was another interruption. This one came in the form of a figure who appeared in the middle of their fight. He was a tall guy in a dark red hood and cloak over a white bodysuit with a collar that extended up over the lower half of his face. Longhaul. That was Longhaul. 

The second he appeared, the man used his power to send Blackjack, Double Down, and Cardsharp to the far side of the parking lot, while looking at his leader. “They found the car that took off, it’s on the far side of Campus Martius Park. Still no driver.” 

Wren. She was remote driving the thing to get it out of here. 

Sandon was already looking to Cuélebre, who smiled. He was looking right at me. He read my body language. “The vials. That’s where they are.” 

Blackjack was coming. So were the others. But Cuélebre bellowed a deafening, “Do it!” At the same time, his wings came slamming down, as he launched himself upward. 

And then a woman’s voice called, “Ladies and gentlemen!” At that, my eyes, as well as basically all of those attached to anyone on our side in the immediate area, snapped over to see a woman in a sexified version of a ringmaster’s outfit sitting there on a motorcycle. Where had she come from? It was Grandstand, Cuélebre’s second-in-command. Even as everyone looked that way, she smiled. “Follow the leader.” Then the motorcycle kicked into motion, peeling out and swerving around before tearing out of the lot. 

After her. We had to go after her. Everyone else was already rushing that way, leaping into action to catch up with the woman. But just as I went to follow, intent on using green and red paint to catch up and maybe stop her, a hand grabbed my arm and yanked me back. It was Eits. He shook me violently, yelling something about Cuélebre at me. But who cared about Cuélebre when–wait. 

Grandstand’s power faded a second later as Eits shook me violently once more. I snapped out of it in time to see everyone else disappearing as they took off after her. After the distraction. 

“Cuélebre!” Eits shouted at me. “He’s getting away, what do we do?!” 

“How did you–” Then I realized it was probably the fact that his focus had been split between his own mind and all of his mites. That had saved him from Grandstand’s power. And there wasn’t time to worry about it anyway. 

“Close your eyes,” I blurted, grabbing onto Eits. He had time to yelp before I launched both of us into the air through a combination of blue paint at our feet and a red paint yank at the nearby building. We went up and over the roof, while I informed the boy currently holding on for dear life, “There’s a demon trying to catch a car, and we’ve gotta catch him first.”

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Showdown 7-05 (Summus Proelium)

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Apparently the Minority communications worked despite the jammer. Probably because they were all within the same area the jammer was affecting or something. Either way, the Syndicate with us was able to talk with the rest of his team outside, including his other selves. They coordinated what was about to happen, doing so with what amounted to a thirty second explanation. And given that we were about to have Cuélebre and Sandon dropped on our heads, even that felt like too long. We needed to get the hell out of here right freaking now.

First, I had to go grab Ashton. Vaguely tempting as it might’ve been to leave him here, I wasn’t going to do that. Instead, I moved up to where I’d left him in the ice cream aisle. He was… uhh, yeah, definitely losing his mind. When he saw me, his wild eyes focused and he shouted something that was muffled by the currently transparent visor. 

“Let me guess,” I dryly replied, “you need to scratch your nose like a son of a bitch.” Even as I said it, my hand was pulling the remote out and I quickly hit a couple buttons on it that Wren had told me about. “There, you can move now. But before you try running away, there’s a couple things you should know. First, there’s a whole bunch of guys out there from two different gangs who would love to torture you if you can’t convince them that you don’t have what they want. Or just for fun, because you wasted their time. Not to mention the fact that one of those gangs is the one whose people you used to piss off La Casa in the first place. And second, you definitely can’t get that suit off without Wren’s help, which means that anytime I hit the recall button, you’ll come marching right back to me anyway. I’m not going to unmute you, because we really don’t have time for any more bullshit. But I’m not leaving you here either, so come on.”

There was the briefest of hesitations, before he seemed to deflate a little bit and moved to follow me. I led him to the back of the store quickly, while giving him a brief explanation of what we were going to do. If he had any input on the plan, his facial expression and body language didn’t really depict it. Not to mention the fact that after all the times that he had said he was fine with a little girl dying for his revenge, I wasn’t really interested in his strategy ideas anyway. 

The two of us reached the back storeroom, passing a bunch of heavily-laden shelves before finding the others. As soon as we came into view, Pack put a hand on Mars Bar and pointed to Ashton. “See him? He stays with you. If he tries to go anywhere else besides with you until I say otherwise, rip one of his arms off and try beating him with it.”

While the bearguana growled, Syndicate cleared his throat. “Can we avoid openly discussing criminal acts like torture for a little while? I know I said we’d catch you guys another time, but you really shouldn’t go out of your way to make me regret that. And who are you anyway?”

“He’s on vocal timeout,” I replied. “But this is Ashton Austin, the guy behind that bank robbery that you guys have all been looking for. When this is over, you can have him. So, you see? You’re not getting out of this totally empty-handed after all.”

He looked back-and-forth between us briefly before simply noting, “If we get out of it. And if we do, we’re gonna have a lot more questions for you.”

“If we do, I’ll see about answering them.” With that, I looked over to the nearby closed loading dock doors. “So, are we doing this, or what?”

Syndicate nodded. “Remember the plan. All we need to do is get everyone to That-A-Way and she’ll teleport us out of here. We don’t need to stay and fight. We don’t need to win anything. We just need to get out. And we need them to know we’re gone so they leave everyone in the store alone. We make a break for it, go through any forces we need to, and teleport away. That’s it.”

Eits gave him a thumbs up. “Yeah, trust me chief, some of us aren’t interested in fighting at all. Running away sounds pretty good.”

For a second, it looked as though Syndicate was going to say something about that, before he just shook his head and asked, “Anything else?”

I quickly spoke up. “Yeah, this.” Raising my hands, I shot some orange paint at everyone in turn, including the lizard creatures. Two at a time (one with each hand), I hit everyone with a circle of the paint. “There, as soon as I activate this, which I will once we get out there, you’ll be tougher for about ten seconds. Bulletproof tough. And here.” For good measure, I added a spot of green paint to everyone as well. “Now you’ll all be faster too. Again, just for ten seconds. You’ll be faster and tougher than they expect. Just use it to get to That-A-Way.”

“Dude,” Eits intoned in what sounded embarrassingly like awe. “Support classes kick ass.”

Flushing under the helmet, I shook my head. “It’s no big deal, really. If we had more time, I’d do more, but we’re sort of pressed right now.”

Syndicate looked like he might say something to that, but in the end he just snorted and used his com. “We good out there? Okay. Other me going on three, the rest of us hold until he’s got their attention at the front. One, two, three.”

Even knowing it was coming, I didn’t hear anything at first. I was listening for the reaction and there was nothing. Which made sense, we wouldn’t get anything overt until he made them think he was—

Aaaand the gunfire started. Suddenly we could hear all those guns coming from outfront. It was like someone had unleashed a swarm of monsters from hell. And those monsters were really pissed off. 

“Wait,” Syndicate cautioned, holding up a hand. “Wait for it. Wait for them to really commit to it. He’s in the store. Now they’re trying to break through that security shield. They’re breaking it, and… and they’re in! They’re moving through the front! Go, go!” 

We went. Eits had control of the security system, and he instantly opened the sealed doors. As planned, he opened all of them, the big rolling doors on all of the loading docks, and the regular-sized doors as well. They all opened as one, and we booked it through the loading door furthest to the left. We weren’t going to take the time to go through one of the regular doors. This way, we could all flood out and run for it. Hopefully, that way this would be less of a shooting gallery for the guys facing us. 

The second the doors were up and we were moving, I hung back just enough to let the others get ahead of me, and activated the orange and green paint I had to put over everyone. Suddenly, we were all moving even faster than our fear and adrenaline had been managing to make us move already. Which, honestly, was saying something. 

It was safe to say that the guys out back were pretty surprised by our appearance. They had been looking around toward the sides at the sound of gunfire from the front, when we suddenly came pouring out of the now open door right in front of them. Only a few of the many who were there managed to start firing immediately. And for that, the orange paint did its job. I saw several of the others take a couple hits that did little more than sting them thanks to the paint. Mars Bar by himself, probably thanks to his size and sheer intimidation factor, was hit a good six or seven times in those first couple seconds. He barely reacted, aside from opening his mouth to give a loud, pants-wetting roar while slamming into three guys at once. They went flying like bowling pins, while a fourth guy tried to open up on the bear with a shotgun. But Mars simply snatched it out of his hand, crumbling the gun like it was made of tissue paper with one paw, before grabbing him in the other and sending the man flying a good twenty or thirty feet with a dispassionate shove that way. 

Holiday grabbed a guy’s leg and ran off with him, dragging the poor bastard along with her as he screamed. Two other guys tried to shoot at her, but Tuesday and Twinkletoes wrecked them pretty thoroughly on their way past. One was walloped in the back of the head by a nearly invisible gorilla-lizard, while the other took a small, yet really dangerous monkey-lizard fist to the privates. The former was left completely unconscious, while the latter just really wished that he was. 

The first thing I did upon emerging and taking all this in was shoot a spray of blue paint as wide as I could make it around the feet of the group in front of us. Activating it sent them flying in every direction with a collection of screams. Which worked nicely to clear the path of the guys that Mars hadn’t already trampled through. 

Ashton was just behind the bear, apparently having taken Pack’s warning to heart. Or maybe he really didn’t want to be left to deal with all the angry Ninety-Niners after he’d used them in his revenge scheme and figured being behind the giant beast was his best shot. Either way, he was sticking really close to Mars Bar. 

Two guys with guns popped up toward the right. Both were taken down by Syndicate with a quick flurry of motion that I couldn’t even follow that left them on the ground, disarmed. On the opposite side, a guy who popped up with a rifle raised was literally run over by a car that came screaming through the lot, accompanied by the familiar sound of one of Eits’ mites cackling. The car proceeded to spin around, hitting another guy with its tail end during the skid. 

Just ahead, on the far side of the small rear lot where they had been able to crouch out of sight, That-A-Way appeared with another Syndicate, Whamline, Wobble, and Carousel. Not Raindrop though. Maybe she had the night off. Those five, however, were right there, and the path to them was clear for the moment, thanks in large part to the blue paint flinging the vast majority of people out of the way. Unfortunately, just as they came into view and I had a second to think this might be easy after all, there was a blinding flash of light. It faded quickly, but what didn’t fade was the new group of combined Oscuro and Ninety-Niner troops that had suddenly appeared. Long Haul. That had to be Long Haul, the Ninety-Niner Touched teleporter. He’d just dumped a bunch more problems right in front of us. 

Get to That-A-Way. Get everyone to That-A-Way. That’s all we had to do. Two guys who had recovered from their paint-assisted trip were picking themselves and their guns up and turning our way. I sprayed blue again, this time at my own feet, to launch myself up and forward. Twisting in the air just as the pair finished rising and turning, I passed by over their heads. One arm pointed down and one pointed up and back, I sprayed red paint from both. The first hit both men, while the other hit the back of the store we’d just left. Activating it sent them flying up and toward it with a couple screams, just as I landed in a crouch behind where they had been. 

Only then did the green paint run out. And we were almost there. Eits was just reaching the spot where I was, while his mite-controlled car ran down yet another guy that was coming around the corner of the building. I hit him with another bit of green to help him keep moving. “Go, go!” I blurted, hitting as many of our side as I could with orange paint to keep them safe while scanning the lot. Ashton was right there with Mars Bar. The Syndicates who were out here were fine, working together to disable a couple more guys who didn’t even know what hit them. More people were shooting, but the orange paint was doing its job. It meant we could focus on moving instead of fighting. Move instead of fight, that was the entire point.

Most of the people Long Haul had sent in after us were dealing with the Minority. There was a rush of motion and fighting I couldn’t even follow. One of the new arrivals took deliberate aim at me, but I dropped to the ground just before he fired, throwing my hand out to send a shot of white paint onto his arm. Activating it to blind the guy, I used blue paint to launch myself that way, shifting purple onto my arms as I slammed into him to take the guy to the ground. A quick smack to the face knocked him out of the fight. 

But that was just one guy. What had started as a quick run to That-A-Way was quickly devolving into total chaos. I could see the girl herself, trying to help Wobble, Whamline, and Carousel.

Another flash of white announced the arrival of more bad guys. One was directly behind me, and I spun that way just in time to duck the bat he was swinging at my head. A quick shot of yellow at his chest, accompanied by activating part of the green I’d already prepared on the portrait across my uniform meant that he was suddenly a lot slower, while I was a lot faster. And, thanks to a bit of purple that I also activated, stronger. My hand snatched the bat from his grip in mid-swing, tearing it away from him while my foot lashed out to kick his leg. It was enough to make him start to stumble, before I drove the bat into his stomach and put him fully on the ground. 

Damn it, damn it, just get to That-A-Way! This shouldn’t be that hard, right? We’d cleared the way, we had the advantage of surprise and a distraction up front. All we had to do was get everyone across the parking lot to meet up with her and she could teleport us the hell away. And it was close. Pack and her animals were all-but there, crashing right into the back of the group of newcomers with Ashton on their heels. Eits was using his borrowed car as his own bodyguard to clear a path. We were almost there. Almost there! 

Which, of course, was the moment that something dropped from above. A lithe figure with great eagle-like wings slammed down behind That-A-Way. Yahui, the Oscuro woman who mixed and matched various animal parts. Apparently she’d decided to throw herself into the fight instead of just watching. 

In addition to the eagle wings, she also had a scorpion tail, which lashed out toward That-A-Way. But it went straight through the Minority girl, who was moving south and was therefore intangible. Unfortunately, that didn’t help Wobble, who was smacked by the tail moving sideways and thrown to the ground. And given he stood six and a half feet tall, that tail had to be pretty damn strong to knock him down that easily. Yahui tried to follow up by driving the blade of the tail down into him, but Wobble snapped his hand up and I saw a distortion in the air as he sent a wave of vibrations into the tail that knocked it out of the way. That was followed by two of Whamline’s energy ropes, which wrapped around her arms, flinging her into the air before exploding with a burst of kinetic energy that flung her senseless to the ground somewhere off on the other side of the lot. She was down. 

Carousel, meanwhile, had managed to disarm basically all the guys in our path, yanking the guns from their hands as she passed close to them. She also had two cars (miniaturized by her power) floating in orbit around her, which she sent flying at them. The cars regained their full size just in time to crash into the group, scattering everyone that remained. 

Clear, we were clear! 

“Go!” I blurted, sending a wide spray of red paint at all the bad guys I could see, before activating it so they were all slammed into one another, crashing into one big heap. Long Haul? Where was Long Haul? I hadn’t seen him at all, aside from the troops he kept sending in. But whatever, he didn’t matter, we just had to get the hell out of here. That’s all, we just had to go!

“Grab on!” That-A-Way was blurting. There, we were there. Everyone was there. We’d made it. The bad guys behind us were still picking themselves up, and we… everyone… yes, everyone was here, even Pack’s creatures. We all grabbed any part of each other we could, my left hand finding Eits’, while my right was grabbed by Ashton. The latter looked at me sharply, fear and relief in his eyes. I knew the feeling. But at least we were…

Nothing happened. That-A-Way was there, we were all holding onto each other and her, but… nothing happened. She frowned. “Wait, hold on. I–” 

“Did you truly think it would be that easy?” The voice. It was familiar. It was terrifyingly familiar. Cuélebre. He came floating down out of the air on his wings, gliding in to land with disconcerting grace considering his enormous fifteen-foot size. “Did you think I wouldn’t have prepared for a teleportation escape after the way you insulted and embarrassed me last time?” He made a tutting sound, while more of the Ninety-Niners and Oscuro troops, both of the Prev and Touched varieties, appeared on all sides of our suddenly surrounded group. 

Before I could move, before any of us could move, that bladed tail lashed out. I had time to yelp, just before it cut straight through my pocket. The vial and my phone fell out. I grabbed the latter, but the vial was caught on Cuélebre’s tail and smacked right into his waiting hand.

“No, no, no,” the giant demon taunted with the vial held gingerly between two massive fingers.  “You’re not leaving this time. We have too much to talk about.” 

“Talk about?” another voice echoed, and everyone spun in place to find Blackjack, surrounded by an assortment of his own people (Touched and Prevs alike). 

“I think we’re pretty much done talking.” 

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Interlude 4B – Sterling, Elena, and Blackjack (Summus Proelium)

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“I find it quite rich,” the man known as Blackjack slowly announced, “if you pardon the phrasing, that you ask me to be patient with my child’s life on the line.” He wore no costume at the moment, his handsome, if worn by worry, face revealed in this private space as he pointedly turned to look toward Elena and Sterling Evans. He met their gazes for a long moment before continuing in a low voice that fairly shook with barely restrained emotion. “Because, as I believe we all know, if it were either of your children’s lives on the line, the streets of this city would already run red with blood as its buildings burned. You would not show the restraint you ask for.” 

The three of them stood in a room that might have passed as a personal library, given the shelves of books, plush leather chairs, and an old grandfather clock in the corner. A single, large window took up almost an entire wall, and it was in front of that window that the group stood. The window overlooked a large hospital room far below, giving high overlooking view of the place where the man’s daughter lay being tended to and cared for by several physicians. 

Exchanging brief glances, Sterling and Elena each conveyed an entire conversation’s worth of thoughts in only a moment before the latter spoke up gently. “You’re quite right, Eric. Were it Simon or Cassidy in such condition, we wouldn’t have this kind of restraint. And,” she continued even as his mouth opened, “your daughter is just as important as our children. But we would hope that our allies would be there to tell us that acting impulsively would not get what we want.” 

“Are we allies, then?” Eric asked the two with a raised eyebrow. “Or are you simply here to ensure that you aren’t in danger of losing a major source of funds? Without the taxes paid by La Casa in exchange for operating in your city, just how much would your income fall?” 

“Not enough to be worth more than Melissa’s life,” Sterling answered, his head nodding toward the young girl visible through the window in the room below. “Eric, we wouldn’t be where we are today without your help. If you didn’t provide that gun, if you hadn’t–” He stopped, swallowing as memories from so long ago came swirling back through his head before he pushed them aside. Those were memories for another day. Right now, there were more important matters to handle. 

To that end, Sterling breathed out before continuing. “I know that we have grown… apart to an extent over the years. We don’t spend all that much time socializing anymore. But at one time we were close friends. I remember that, and I wouldn’t put our profits over Melissa’s life any more than I would put them over my own children’s. La Casa’s debts are not an issue right now.”

Eric’s mouth opened to retort, but he stopped himself. His own frustrations and feelings of helplessness at seeing the condition of his daughter was coloring his reaction to the Evans’, he knew that. Knowing it didn’t exactly help that much, but it let him stop and breathe for a moment. Finally, he started again. “You know that Cuélebre and the other gangs are doing everything they can to find Worthy’s vials as we speak. And they aren’t going to give them back.” 

“We have expressed to them how much better it would be for everyone involved if they return any of the medicine they happen to come across,” Sterling assured him before immediately adding, “And yes, we know they aren’t likely to listen. But we also made certain that some of their underlings heard as well. It’s possible that one of them might come seeking a reward.” 

Elena spoke then, in a gentle voice. “Eric, we put everything else on pause to come here and focus on helping Melissa. She’s what matters now, nothing else. We aren’t working on anything else this week aside from getting your daughter the help she needs. Sterling has an entire wing of Seraph Hills working on potential delaying actions to stretch this out. They’ll find something.” 

“I promised her mother I would keep her safe,” Eric murmured, putting a hand up against the glass window as he stared down at his daughter. “I promised her that Melissa would be okay.” He sighed, lowering his head before asking, “You truly think that the Seraphs can figure something out that soon?” His voice cracked just a little as he looked over to the pair. “She’s running out of time. And I swear, if we don’t find something in the next day or so, I am going–” 

In mid-sentence, there was a knock at the door. Eric paused, looking to his companions. Elena immediately made a simple gesture with one hand. In response, both she and her husband were sheathed in a holographic illusion disguising them as two completely different people, unremarkable in every way. No one would be able to pick them out of any random crowd. 

“Come,” Eric called, once his two guests were sufficiently disguised. 

At his words, the door opened and a costumed figure stepped in. The newcomer wore a black, ruffled silk shirt with dark gold piping, pants that were also dark gold to match that piping, and a mask that consisted of two diagonal bands, one black and one gold, that each covered one side of his face and the opposite eye while leaving his mouth uncovered. The boy, who looked like he was still in high school, held a phone in one hand and started to say something before pausing at the sight of the unknown people in the corner. 

“Eits,” Eric, in full Blackjack mode, spoke. “Never mind my guests. What is it?” 

“Oh, uhh,” the boy cleared his throat before focusing. “It’s the new girl, Da–I mean Pack, sir. She says that they–that she’s with that Paintball guy and they have one of the vials. And–” 

Before he could get any further, Blackjack was already there, taking the phone from his hand. “Pack,” he said sharply, “what do you have?” He wanted to hear it straight from her. 

As the man spoke quietly and quickly with his subordinate, his voice rising and falling a bit through the short, but intense conversation, Elena and Sterling looked to one another. The latter leaned closer to his wife’s ear, whispering a soft, “That boy is either extraordinarily lucky, or has some manner of access or aspect to his power that we don’t understand yet.” 

“Perhaps all three,” Elena pondered, patting her husband’s arm. “We will, eventually. No one operates in our city for long without our understanding everything we need to know about them.” 

“Not exactly true,” Sterling pointed out. “There are those we have no control over. Deicide has never opened up to us. Not to any real extent beyond paying her dues. And Pencil–” 

“Pencil,” Elena snapped, “is a complete psychopath. His entire group is bad enough. Honestly, worshipping one of the Abyssal? But Pencil… he takes it to an extreme. He needs to be put down like the rabid dog he is. The world would be better without him. Certainly more stable.” 

Sterling agreed easily. “You’re not wrong, love. The man is a monster. But that just adds to my point. We don’t control everyone in this city. Despite our best efforts.” He said the latter bit with a small smile, gently squeezing her hand against his own arm. “Some slip through the cracks.” 

“Paintball is a lone figure, some little boy playing hero,” Elena assured him. “He’s doing some good work, which is fine in the short term. Particularly now, if he’s truly found any of those vials. But we need to know more about him. We need to be ready in case any… pressure needs to be applied in the future. I don’t like having wildcards out there that we know nothing about. Particularly wildcards that have become this effective this quickly. It’s… potentially concerning.” 

Their conversation was interrupted then, as Blackjack dismissed Eits before looking to the pair, raising an eyebrow as he announced, “You’re talking about the Paintball kid? Well, he just found the guy who stole my daughter’s medicine.” 

Husband and wife gave each other brief, sharp looks, Elena dismissing the holographic illusion before Sterling spoke. “Truly? That’s quite remarkable. How did the boy pull something like that off when no one else has managed it?” 

“Apparently,” Eric replied, “he tracked down the person responsible for… unknowingly… providing some of the material that allowed this Ashton boy to rob the bank to begin with. When informed of the situation, this person assisted in tracking Ashton down. They have him now, along with one of Worthy’s vials.” 

“One?” Elena echoed in a pointedly curious voice. “They don’t have all of them?” 

“Not yet,” the man answered softly, his tone making it clear just how hard of a time he was having remaining as calm as he portrayed himself as being. “Apparently they are… working on getting the location of the rest out of Mr. Austin.”

“You’re not having him brought in to get those vials yourself?” Sterling asked. “One way or another?” His words made it quite obvious just how he would go about such a thing. 

“Oh, believe me,” Eric assured his old friend, “when the time comes, Ashton and I will be having a very long and very final conversation. But… for the time being, I see no need to ignore Paintball’s request that I show restraint. We have one vial, which will be returned shortly. That buys another month of time. Paintball has requested two weeks to get the rest of the vials out of Ashton without my… involvement.” He gave the two a sharp look. “I gave him ten days.” 

Before he could say anything else, the phone (which he had kept after dismissing Eits) buzzed. The man checked it before answering with a simple, “Blackjack.” He paused, listening briefly before replying, “Understood.” Disconnecting the call with a flick of his thumb, he pressed a couple more buttons before holding it back to his ear. After a moment, his call was apparently answered, because he spoke rapidly. “Public library on Woodward. Meet the Paintball boy there in the back alley. Take what he gives you and bring it straight here. Be subtle. Be invisible. Do not lose it, or allow anything to damage it. Your life for that vial. Do you understand? Then go.” 

Once he disconnected that call, Sterling spoke up. “Someone you trust implicitly?” 

“As much as I trust anyone in this life,” Blackjack replied simply. “They’ll bring the vial. Melissa will have another month of safety, and be one step closer to being freed from this disease.” He stepped closer to the window once more, putting his hand against the glass as he stared down at his child, voice cracking just a little. “I’ll give Paintball the ten days he asked for. He’s earned that much, being the one who found Mr. Austin and the first vial to begin with. I trust that he will find the rest.” 

******

Some time later, the vial had been delivered. Eric stood holding it carefully between two fingers, marveling at just how unimportant and simple the contents looked when his daughter’s life depended so thoroughly on it. Behind him, Sterling and Elena watched silently.

“One month,” he murmured under his breath. “This vial, this… simple vial will keep her alive for another month. A few more like it, and the disease will be gone forever.” Slowly, his hand closed fully around the vial, and he exhaled a bit shakily before speaking again. “Would you like to come with me? I’m sure Melissa would like to see you.” 

A brief smile touched Elena’s face, as her head bowed a bit. “Of course. We’d like to see her too.” Her hand gave a brief gesture, summoning a different pair of holographic disguises. These were less unremarkable than the previous ones, portraying her as an attractive blonde woman in her late thirties with piercing blue eyes, and her husband as a silver-haired slightly older man of quite distinguished looks not far from Eric’s own, actually. The two could have been brothers. Which, in this case, was the entire point. 

Together, the three descended the stairs just outside the observation area, entering the other room through a pair of sealed doors. As they did so, a small, yet excited voice called out from the bed in the middle of the room, “Daddy!” 

Dismissing the doctors for a couple minutes, Eric stepped over to smile at his daughter. The tiny, pale brunette, leaned up for a hug, which her father provided. Gently, of course. Though the Rot Bone disease had been held at bay, preventing her bones from disintegrating into a lethal poison, they were still fragile. He didn’t dare squeeze as firmly as he so desperately wanted to. 

“Here, Lissa,” the man gently urged while straightening. “You have visitors.” 

Seeing the two behind him, the young girl’s face brightened. ‘Uncle Stan! Aunt Ellen!” Soon, she was exchanging gentle embraces with the two she knew as her father’s often-distant brother and his wife. “Did you see what Dad brought?” Reaching under her blanket, she pulled out a stuffed bear. It was dark red with a white snout and white bits on the end of its paws, wearing a brown trenchcoat and Sherlock Holmes Deerstalker hat. In one of its hands was a magnifying glass. 

“His name is Inspector Guillotine,” Melissa explained. “Inspector Garrote Guillotine. He’s the best detective in the world, but he has a tortured soul over all the bad guys that he had to kill. Except for Paws Lynch. That’s his archenemy and brother-in-law. Lynch killed his own sister, Inspector Guillotine’s wife, and the inspector’s spent the past three years trying to find him.”

With a smile, Sterling (or Uncle Stan) gently took the trenchcoat-clad bear to examine him. “Wow, that’s an interesting story you’ve got for this little guy.” 

“He’s dangerous,” Melissa informed him. “He drinks too much since his wife died, and he doesn’t have anyone to talk to. But that’s okay, cuz he’s gonna meet her.” From under the blanket, the girl tugged a different stuffed animal. This one was much smaller, about half the size of the bear. It was a little pink crocodile with a cloth skateboard attached to its feet. 

“She’s gonna teach Inspector Guillotine how to love someone again,” Melissa explained. “Cuz she’s a witness to a murder, and he has to protect her. But she gets into trouble a lot.” She frowned a little. “I dunno what to name her though.” Looking up to them, the girl asked, “Do you know any good names?” 

“Well,” ‘Aunt Ellen’ replied while gently taking the stuffed, skateboard-riding crocodile. “Let’s see. A little daredevil, gets into trouble, teaches the gruff old guy how to love again…” Turning it over in her hands, she looked back to the girl. “How about Cassidy?” 

“Cassidy?” Melissa echoed, taking the toy back as she considered for a moment. “Hmm… okay. Okay, she can be Cassidy. Cassidy and Inspector Garrote Guillotine.” 

“She writes stories,” Eric quietly explained, gesturing to the stack of notebooks on a nearby table. “So many stories. She’s going to publish them, as soon as she gets better. Isn’t that right, Smelly?” Smelly, of course, was short for ‘Small Melly’, a joke between the two. Her father was the only person in the world Melissa tolerated the teasing nickname from. 

After a little more conversation, Eric produced the vial, holding it gingerly between his fingers. “Okay, Smelly Melly Bug. We’ve got some of your medicine here.” 

The girl squirmed in her bed, staring at it. “Another shot?” Her voice was a weak protest, despite knowing how much she needed it. Shots weren’t fun. Particularly these ones. 

Taking a knee in front of the bed after setting the vial down on the table, Eric took his daughter’s hands. “I know, sweet thing. I know, it sucks. But it’ll make you better.” 

“That’s what you said before,” Melissa protested. “And I felt good. But then there was no more medicine and I got sick again.” 

“Don’t you worry, baby,” Eric assured her. “You’ll get all the medicine you need, I promise. You just have to be my brave, strong girl and take it, okay? You take your medicine here, just one little shot, then we’ll watch a movie and have ice cream tonight.” 

There was a little more good-natured grumbling, but the little girl agreed. Eric called in a doctor to administer the injection. It clearly hurt, given the way the girl hissed and whimpered through it, but she stayed as still as possible. Once it was over, Eric and her ‘aunt and uncle’ all gave her hugs, promising to come back for ice cream and a movie as soon as they finished a little work. 

As the trio stepped out of the room and returned to the observation area, Elena dropped the illusion over herself and Sterling. The pair looked toward their old friend, while he announced, “This Paintball has given my daughter another month. So as I said, I’ll give him those ten days to find the rest of them.” 

“I take it,” Elena began carefully, “you will not be letting this Ashton boy go, regardless of what happens with those vials.” 

“He put my daughter’s life in danger,” Eric stated in a flat, dangerous tone. “He doesn’t get to walk away from that. No. I’ll give him a chance to do the right thing, for this Paintball. When that’s over, once Melissa is safe again, this… Ashton and I will have that conversation. 

“And perhaps his screams will reach back through time, to bring a shudder to the boy at the very moment that he first thinks of bringing harm to my child.” 

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Legwork 3-05 (Summus Proelium)

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I was too dazed to put up much of a fight. And there were too many of them anyway. Before I really understood what was happening, my hands were tied behind my back with some kind of cord, and the men basically frog marched me out of the building and into the back of a car.

Double Down got into the back of the car beside me, with one of the other man driving in the front. We pulled away from the curb with a squeal of tires as the sound of police sirens in the distance got closer.

Wincing at the sound of the tires, Double Down leaned forward a bit, putting a hand on the back of the driver’s seat. “Come on, man. We’re trying not to attract attention now.”

What a sigh, he leaned back once more and looked to me. “Good help, am I right?”

For a moment, I just stared at him. My voice was dull. “I wouldn’t know.”

The man cracked his knuckles and glanced out the window as we drove for a few seconds while my mind raced. Then he turned back to me. “First of all, relax a little bit. You’re not being taken to be tortured or killed or anything like that. The boss doesn’t go in for that stuff, even if he is kinda pissed and desperate right now. Especially since you’re a kid. I mean, not a kid but…” He gestured vaguely at me. “You’re not an adult, okay?”

“Two more minutes,” I said flatly.

His head tilted a little curiously as the man watched me. “Two minutes?”

I nodded once. “Two minutes. If you people had held off for two minutes, I could have given you the stuff from the bank. I was right there with him. You coming in distracted me and he set off that… whatever it was.”

“Stun grenade,” Double Down informed me. “And how much do you know about what that guy stole?” He was watching me somewhat suspiciously. Maybe he was thinking that my knowing too much about it could imply that I was working with Ashton or something. After all, they didn’t know what I had been doing in there. And I couldn’t exactly explain that I’d overheard my supervillain parents talking about it.

Taking a quick second to decide how to answer, I settled on, “I met the guy’s brother when some thugs were trying to beat information out of him. I found out Ashton was the one who stole the thing from the bank. I’ve been tracking him down so his brother could be safe again. When we were in the apartment back there, he told me why he stole the vials and what they were for.”

The best part about that story was that it was all true, for the most part anyway. And it didn’t require the bit about my parents to work, which had to make it worth extra points in the keeping secrets Olympics.

Wait, did they have those? Because this was excellent training for future medalling efforts.

Double Down seemed to take it well enough. At the very least, he focused on a different part. “He told you why he stole it, how much he wanted?”

Hesitating slightly, I started carefully, “He’s says he’s going to ask for money.”

“Money is not exactly an object in this case,” the man replied. “So that’s kind of a relief. If he’s willing to sell it, then he can be reasoned w—”

I quickly interrupted. “I don’t think he’s going to give them back. I don’t think he’s ever planning to give them back no matter how much you pay him.”

Staring at me, his brief good cheer gone, the man asked, “Do you want to explain that?”

So, I did. Carefully and simply, I laid out what Ashton had said about his friend who was killed and how he wanted Blackjack to feel the same helplessness he had. I also mentioned how he had reacted when I had guessed that was his plan.

Once I had finished, Double Down turned away. He reached up to scratch the back of his neck while staring out the window. I heard him mutter a soft curse. Then he turned back to me and held out a bag. “Okay, I’m going to need you to put this on. Like I said, you don’t have to worry about any torture or anything like that. You’re going to come in with us once we get where we’re going and talk to the boss. That’s it. Don’t start any trouble in there and you’ll be fine. You’ll be back out playing hero or whatever you want to do in no time.”

Staring at the bag and then add him, I retorted, “I’m really supposed to believe you people are just going to let me go?”

His response first was a shrug. “Like I said, the boss has rules. Think of it as our Geneva Convention. We don’t torture. We don’t try to kill civilians. It’s not unheard of or anything, but we don’t make a point of it. If something happens to you in the middle of a fight, well, that’s one thing. But we’re not in combat now. Not unless you start one. You’re a prisoner. You do what you’re told and we’ll let you go. We see you later in the middle of a fight situation, and that’ll be a different story. But right now, all we want is to have a conversation. We can be civilized like that, don’t you think? Especially considering you already know the stakes we’re dealing with.”

It took me another second, but finally I sighed and nodded, waiting as he put the bag on for me. It was just big enough to fit over the helmet. Pulling it on, I turned my head his way. “How do you know I don’t have some kind of power to see through this? I mean, I don’t. But you kind of have to take my word for that, don’t you?”

“Nanocircuits sewn into the bag,” he replied. “They detect any kind of vision power or anything like that being used and the bag will incinerate the contents.”

He held that just long enough for my brain to seize up before snorting. “Dude, I’m just fucking with you. There’s no nanocircuits. After you put the bag on, I pointed a gun at your face. If you would have reacted, we would’ve known you could see through it.”

“And if I’d have reacted violently!?” I demanded in a voice that squeaked even more through with the voice changer than it really needed to, in my opinion.

There was a brief pause before the man admitted, “Yeah, that might’ve gotten bad. But hey, it’s all good. Now just sit back and relax for a minute. We’ll be there before you know it.”

*******

Apparently ‘before I knew it’ was about ten more minutes of driving. I didn’t know if they were deliberately going further than they needed to in order to throw me off or what. It wasn’t like I could keep track of the turns or anything. I tried, but it got confusing too quickly. That also might’ve been purposeful.

Either way, eventually we stopped in what sounded like an underground parking garage, going by the echoes. I was helped out of the car, then escorted to what was obviously an elevator with the bag still on my head. We rode the elevator up, and partway through, Double Down pulled the bag off and cut the cords binding my hands. He passed them off to the other guy in the elevator with us (I thought it was the driver, but all the minor guys were wearing simple black masks so it was hard to be sure) before looking to me as I glanced around the elevator. It looked like any other elevator in any office building anywhere except for the fact that there was no array of buttons. There was just a single slot for a key, which was filled right now.

“Like I said,” Double Down reminded me, “play nice, answer questions, and we’ll let you go.”

Rather than bother responding verbally, I just gave him a thumbs up. How sarcastic that gesture actually was… well, I’d leave that up to him to interpret. I was busy trying to think of exactly what to say to the La Casa leader.

Blackjack. Nobody was exactly sure what his power was, aside from the fact that he seemed to be very lucky and good at guessing secrets. Which was… worrying, considering my own secrets. They said he wasn’t actually telepathic or anything (though there were some arguments about that). What everyone basically agreed on was that the man could pull information out of seemingly nowhere, and he always seemed to be several steps ahead of everyone else in a fight.

He clearly wasn’t perfect, though. Or Ashton never would have been able to steal the medicine or whatever it was from him.

Shaking that thought off as the elevator came to a stop, I watched the door slide open, revealing what looked like… well, it looked like a nuclear bunker or something. The hall ahead of us was made of thick cement with some kind of metal plates over part of it, leading to a single vault-like door that was standing open. Through it, I could see two guards in their black masks waiting. The room behind them seemed even more secure. Going by the size of the vault door, the walls were at least three feet thick.

“You seriously want me to walk in there?” I demanded, looking to my escort.

“We’re careful,” he informed me in a flat voice. “And thorough. I told you you’d be fine if you just answer questions, and that hasn’t changed. You’ll meet the boss in our secure room, answer some questions and make sure he’s satisfied that you’re telling the truth, then we’ll escort you out. So let’s go. Don’t start something now.”

As unsettling as it might have been to walk into a place as apparently escape-proof as this seemed to be, I didn’t have much of a choice. I could try to fight, but I was pretty sure there were a lot more guards around than I could see. To say nothing of any automated defenses in this place. And I didn’t have the key to use the elevator, nor did I know any other way to get out. Or where to go. Yeah, all of that sounded bad.

My only choice was to keep playing nice and hope that they were telling the truth about letting me go. Or, failing that, watching for a chance to escape when they lowered their guards.

All of which meant walking into that vault room was my best chance. So I did. With a soft sigh, I walked forward, through the small antechamber/hallway, and into the vault. The two guards waiting stepped aside as I approached, allowing me to pass with Double Down and the other unnamed guard right behind me.

The place clearly wasn’t exactly designed with comfort in mind. It was a simple, square room about seventy five feet across. The walls, ceiling, and floor were all that same hard cement with uniform metal plates spaced a foot or so apart. In the middle of the room was a table with a few leather chairs spaced around it. One man sat in the single chair on the opposite side of the table, facing me.

Blackjack. It was him. The man stared as I entered, watching me through that gold face mask he wore. His expression was, obviously, impossible for me to see. But judging from his body language, he was… tense, to say the least.

Behind me, the vault door groaned a bit as it closed with a final, definitive thud. Then I heard half a dozen bolts loudly clang into place. Whatever was going to happen next, I wasn’t going back through that door until they opened it.

I really hoped Double Down was telling the truth about letting me go after I talked to Blackjack. Because otherwise, I had no idea what I was going to do.

I was starting to think I was in a little bit over my head here.

“Mr… Paintball, was it?” As he spoke, Blackjack gestured to the seat straight across from him. “Please, join me. I trust my associate ensured you that you are in no danger here as long as you cooperate?”

For a moment, I just stood there. Then I sighed under my breath before following his instructions, stepping over to sit down. “Call me crazy,” I started, “but I’m pretty sure you already know he did because you were listening in on that entire conversation from the car all the way up through the elevator. Hell, you might’ve been telling him what to say. Something tells me you’re just that kind of person.”

The man inclined his head a little, as if appraising me. Then he simply announced, “Using a voice synthesizer. I assume that means you interact with people in costume who might recognize your voice otherwise.”

Trying to keep the surprise out of my voice, I took a quick second to swallow back every initial reaction I had. After what felt like an eternity but was probably only a couple seconds, I replied, “I said something I figured out about you, so you said something you figured out about me?”

Rather than respond to that directly, Blackjack watched me in somewhat unnerving silence for a moment before speaking carefully. “I know what you said. But I’d like you to tell me all of it again, now, in person. From start to finish, explain how you found Ashton Austin and what happened while you were in his apartment. Any detail at all might help locate him.”

Here went nothing. Taking a deep breath, I explained everything about how I’d rescued Josh the other night and found out about Ashton being his brother. Then I went on to say that I’d been looking for Ashton so that Josh wouldn’t be in danger, and gave my reasoning for the apartments I’d checked, finally leading me to the right place. Then I told him everything about the conversation I’d had with the guy, adding in a tiny detail about him being the one to tell me that it was medicine and who it was intended for.

“Well,” Blackjack informed me, “you are certainly a very resourceful young man, I’ll tell you that much. You believe he had the vials on him?”

My head shook. “I checked him and they weren’t there. But I think they were close. I figure he hid them somewhere safe enough to grab and run for it. I mean, he was smart enough to set up that stun grenade, and probably other traps.”

Pushing himself up from the table, the man turned away. He walked over to the nearby wall, resting his hands against it while leaning over, as though lost in thought. Seeing him, how tense he was despite an obvious attempt to project himself as calm and collected, I would’ve known this was life and death for him even if I wasn’t already aware.

“I know,” the man finally broke the silence, “that you are leaving certain details out or rearranging them. I’m not exactly sure why, but I do… believe that you are simply protecting yourself or avoiding giving away information.” He turned his head, looking to me. “I do not believe that you are hiding details that could help me. But if I am wrong…”

“I’m not,” I quickly put in. “If I knew how to find the medicine, I’d tell you. I mean… you’re a bad guy, but your daughter isn’t. She doesn’t deserve to… she doesn’t deserve to lose her medicine just because you’re a Fell-Touched. Letting her die isn’t just punishment for you being… what you are. I promise, if I could help, I… I would.”

Blackjack’s voice was dark, as he informed me, “I will find this man. And when I do, he should hope with all of his soul that I make him pay for simply endangering my child, and not for…” He didn’t say the rest of the sentence. He didn’t need to. The fear underlying every word was enough.

Looking toward Double Down then, the man nodded. “Give it to him.”

At those words, his subordinate stepped up to me, handing a cheap flip phone over. “There’s one number programmed into it,” he informed me. “You find this guy again, you call the number.”

My hand took the phone, but I shook my head very slightly. “I’m not going to sic your men on him. I’ll get the medicine and then call your people after the cops have him.”

“Young man,” Blackjack spoke in a tired voice, “you say that as though I could not have men take him from any jail the local authorities put him in. I could have him killed or released to be brought to me.” He stepped back over to the table, pushing his chair in with one hand while remaining standing beside it. “But whatever makes you happy, as they say. I want the vials that were stolen from the bank. That’s it. If you return those, the bounty is yours.”

“I don’t care about the bounty,” I informed him quickly. “I care about your daughter getting her medicine. That’s it.”

“All the same,” he replied, “I will owe you.” His head tilted a little, as though something had just occurred to him. “Though if you are… set for funds, I’m sure there will be other ways of paying that debt. Given how you tracked down Mr. Austin to begin with, you would fit in quite well among my people.”

“Sorry,” I replied as airily as I could, “Paintball doesn’t really fit the whole gambling theme. And I just don’t know what I’d change it to. Also, I don’t want to be a bad guy.”

Besides, I added silently, even if I did, I’ve already got what you’d call an ‘in’ with a different group of murderous psychopaths.

“As you wish,” Blackjack replied, sounding every bit the tired, stressed, horrified father rather than the supervillain he was supposed to be.  “Mr… Paintball,” he started slowly then. “I believe you may be just the outsider who can track down this man again. You did it once. Should you do so again, I do not particularly care if you call us, or the authorities first. Secure the medicine and return it to me, and I will owe you a favor with the worth of my… my daughter’s life.”

Holding up the phone, I promised, “If I find him, if I get the vials, they’re yours.” I resisted the urge to point out again how close I’d been to getting the vials to begin with before his men had interrupted. The guy felt bad enough as it was, despite how much he was trying to portray himself as calm and collected.

“One week.” The man’s voice cracked very slightly before he controlled it, looking straight at me from behind that golden mask. “My daughter has one week. Find the vials, and do it within that time. If you do not, I…. I will have no reason to hold back any more. If my daughter dies, I promise you, it will not be one man who pays for her death.

“It will be this entire city.”

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Interlude 2A – Blackjack (Summus Proelium)

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Three Years Ago

A black car, indistinguishable from any other similar luxury sedan, pulled around the corner of the parking garage. Ahead, a dozen men stood in the open space near a couple of lonely cars, while the rest of the spots remained empty. Of those men, ten held odd-looking submachine guns and wore what appeared to be white lab coats over dark body armor. Their outfits signified them as members of the so-called Braintrust, the Fell-Gang focused around inventions and super science.

The remaining two men, meanwhile, were even more clearly members of that gang. The first, a taller man (just under seven feet) and rather heavyset, wore a white surgical mask and what looked like medical scrubs with various scalpels and other tools filling the pockets. His white hair was very long, falling to his shoulders. The man beside him was much shorter, standing just a hair over five and a half feet. His own costume consisted of several pieces of what appeared to  be scavenged robot pieces haphazardly stuck to his body, and a helmet that was straight out of an ancient black and white sci fi movie. It looked like a metal ball with a grill around the entire front like a small car radiator and several antenna sticking out of it in every direction.

The pair, who worked together quite often, were known as Leech and Rotwang, respectively. Just in front of them on the ground sat a silver briefcase with a thumbprint scanner. All of the dozen assembled figures watched the dark sedan without moving or speaking.

For a moment, the car remained motionless as well. Then it rolled forward the rest of the way, approaching to within ten feet or so before the engine was shut off. The sole figure within the car watched the group for a brief handful of seconds, before opening the door to get out. This new arrival was also clearly Touched. He wore a pair of perfectly tailored black slacks, dark leather shoes polished to a gleaming shine, a black shirt with a matching bolo tie that had a red gem sitting right at the collar, and a white duster coat that fell to his ankles. His entire head was covered by a black helmet with an attached golden mask in the shape of a face. Finally, the thin gloves he wore matched the gold mask.

“That’s far enough, Blackjack,” Leech spoke up the moment their guest had stepped out of his car. The tall man nodded to one of the nearby troops. “Go scan it.”

It was impossible to see the newcomer’s face, but his body language expressed something resembling amusement, as he gestured to the car once before starting to put his hands in his pockets.

“Hey!” That was Rotwang, the robotics-focused Fell-Touched pointing. “You–you get your hands out where we can see them.”

Head tilting a little, the man known as Blackjack obediently took his hands from his pockets. He showed them, first his palms and then the back of his hands, like a magician proving he had nothing in them just before a trick. Which did nothing to ease the trepidation of the men watching him, for some reason.

By that point, one of the Braintrust troops had picked up a long, tube-like device the length of a rolling pin, with a bright blue light at one end and buttons at the other. He ran it over the car, moving slowly from the front to the back, then up again on the opposite side. He tensed up a bit while passing close to Blackjack, finishing his work and quickly stepping a bit further away before looking to his bosses. “Nothing. No one else in the car.”

“You did say to come alone,” Blackjack idly reminded them, his body language far more relaxed than the openly armed and more numerous group.

“Yeah,” Leech agreed, “we did. But you know, call me crazy, lots of people do, I just don’t see the leader of La Casa actually going anywhere without back-up. You don’t seem that stupid.”

In response, Blackjack simply lifted his head slightly. “We’re here to do business, gentlemen. It’s a simple transaction. Although…” He turned just a bit to look at the case on the ground. “As technologically-apt as your organization is, I would find it surprising if you were to fit what I came for into something that small.”

Quickly, Rotwang blurted, “We’re not ripping you off. Business transaction, like you said.” He pointed at the case, the robot-like gauntlet on his arm glowing blue as the case floated up from the ground and came to him. “Right in here, we’ve got just what you need. Three doses of super soldier serum. They’ll make any trio of people you want as strong, as fast, as good as any Olympic level athlete, as good as the best special forces soldier out there.”

For the first time, a hint of something other than amusement entered Blackjack’s voice. “That is quite impressive. But it’s not what I came for. It’s not what we agreed to.”

“Yeah, we know,” Leech assured him. “You came for Worth. And he’s here. He’ll walk you through whatever you need to make sure you understand how to use that stuff.  But sorry, he can’t go with you. But like my friend here said, we’re not ripping you off. You asked for Worth’s help in producing one super soldier. We’re giving you enough serum to make three, and not charging you any more than you already agreed to. You’re coming out plenty ahead in this deal.”   

After a very brief pause, the La Casa leader exhaled. “When one comes to an agreement, it is best to stick to that. I didn’t come for three doses of a super soldier serum. I came for Dr. Worthy himself. He and I agreed to the terms of his temporary employment by me. Not for some of his medicine, for the man himself. He will be coming with me. That is what was arranged.”

“Now, see, you’re not listening.” Leech shook his head. “That’s okay. We’ll work this out. Worth!” Raising his voice, he looked over to one of the nearby cars until another man emerged. This one wore no costume, though he was indeed Touched. A personal preference. He was an older man, his head mostly bald with some remaining gray hair. He wore a plaid shirt and jeans.

“Dr. Worthy,” Blackjack greeted the man. “I’m told there’s been some discrepancy in our deal.”

“Ah, well, that is…” Worthy winced a little, glancing to Leech and Rotwang before looking back to the La Casa leader. “My apologies. It seems I may have agreed to your request too hastily. My… work demands that I stay with my current organization. I simply cannot spare the time for a one-on-one situation with you. But, ahh, as they said, the vials in that case will provide everything you’re looking for. Three times what you were looking for, in fact. You wanted me to help you enhance one person. That briefcase will allow you to enhance three.”

Examining his gold-gloved hands for a moment, Blackjack was quiet. The assembled group of Braintrust Touched and troops looked uncertainly to one another until the man finally spoke. “Our arrangement will be fulfilled as originally stated. You will come with me, I will compensate you for your time, and then you will be released to travel wherever you would like to go with your quite substantial payment.” He spoke matter-of-factly, leaving no room for doubt.

Even as he finished speaking, the ten assembled troops all snapped their guns up into position, aiming at him. At the same time, Rotwang pointed at him with his metal gauntlets, which hummed with energy. And Leech took a step back behind his companion, a scalpel appearing in his hand. “Now, now,” the tall scientist announced, “we can all walk out of this without losing anything. You take the case with the serums, we take the money, everyone’s happy…ish. This doesn’t have to get ugly. But if it does, you are at a disadvantage.”

“So it would seem,” the other man replied vaguely, his attention seemingly focused on the case before he lifted his head to slowly look along the line of weapons pointed at him. “But looks can be deceiving.”

“Now don’t you go starting anything,” Leech snapped, clearly trying to sound more confident than he felt. “We outnumber and outgun you. But we don’t want to start a war with La Casa.”

Rather than reply, Blackjack allowed his gaze to sweep over the group once more. Eyes hidden behind his golden mask, he focused on his Touched-gift, his power.

Some Touched out there had what they called a danger-sense. Blackjack, on the other hand, had an opportunity-sense. It would tell him when there was something he could do to achieve his immediate goals, allowing him to pull knowledge seemingly out of nowhere, so long as that knowledge related to his goal at the time. It wasn’t perfect or all-knowing, but it was pretty damn helpful. Such as now, as he looked toward one of the armed men.

Hates being some random thug for a bunch of geeks and nerds, his power informed him. Thinks they’re stupid, but needs the money because he has a family to support and no one will hire him.

His gaze moved on, sweeping a bit further before slowing as it found one of the guns another man was holding.

Hasn’t been maintained properly. Will fatally misfire the next time the trigger is pulled.

Clearing his throat, the man finally spoke up after that long silence. “Three hundred thousand dollars, and permanent employment within my organization.”

“Um.” With a frown, Worthy shook his head. “It’s not the money, I assure you. And even if it was, three hundred thousand is substantially less than we originally–”

“I wasn’t talking to you,” Blackjack informed him. He lifted his gaze once more, looking straight at the first man his power had informed him of. Despite the mask covering his face, their gazes locked. The man understood. He knew.

He moved, quickly jerking his weapon over and shoving it up against the back of Leech’s neck (though as tall as the other man was, he had to lean up to do it). “Nobody move!”

That, of course, prompted every other person to whirl that way, weapons moving off of the La Casa leader to point at their own man.

“You… idiot,” the tall man snarled. “Do you really think we’d give you guns that would work if they were pointed at one of us?”

“No,” his Benedict Arnold retorted. “And I don’t trust this Star Wars shit anyway. That’s why–” With his other hand, he produced a pistol from the inside of his lab coat, using that to point at the man’s head instead. “– I like bringing my own. Now nobody fucking move!”

“You can’t possibly think you’ll get away with this,” Rotwang snapped, torn between looking at Blackjack and looking at the traitorous henchman. “You’re really gonna trust that psycho to pay you?”

“That’s the thing,” the armed man retorted without taking his pistol away from being pointed at Leech’s neck, “This guy doesn’t lie. He makes a deal, he keeps it. That’s the reputation he’s got. He promises something, he’s gonna get it for ya. And call me crazy, but I see more opportunity for advancement in his organization than with a bunch of psychos who call themselves geniuses but are too stupid to just take a government research contract and make millions.”  

Speaking calmly, Blackjack announced, “Now then. Dr. Worthy. If you would please get in the car. And if anyone tries to stop you, my new friend here, Mr…”

“Sorn,” the turncoat supplied. “Elarc Sorn.”

“Sorn,” Blackjack repeated with a nod. “Mr. Sorn here will complete a science experiment of his own, in determining how many bullets can occupy the same space as the good Dr. Leech’s skull.”

Slowly, Worthy did as he was told, moving over to the car before stepping down into the front passenger seat. The entire time, the assembled goons bristled, torn between trying to stop it from happening, and the much more important duty of keeping their employer alive. They also, as he had silently predicted, spread out a bit to surround the car.

Once Worthy was seated in the vehicle, Blackjack addressed Sorn again. “Your turn. You and your tall former employer there have a seat in the back.”

“Now you just hold on with that,” Rotwang snapped. “If you think we’re just gonna let you walk away with my partner, you’ve got another thing coming. Maybe we don’t want to start a war with La Casa, but you sure as hell don’t want a war with the Braintrust either. If the others find out you’ve taken one of our own, you’re gonna have every last one of us coming after you.”

“A horde of utterly unhinged mad scientists and their parade of experiments does not sound like a picnic, no,” the La Casa leader agreed. “Happily, it will not come to that. I’ve no intention of harming Dr. Leech, or taking him any further than the exit of this garage. So long as each of you wait here until he returns.”

Letting that sit for just a brief moment to allow the group to believe it was the only choice on the table and see how unsavory it was, he then added something better for them. “Of course, if you’d like a bit more assurance, perhaps your man there can come with. There is room for three in the back, after all. If you squeeze.”

As expected, Leech preferred that option. The man was far more a doctor than a fighter, even if he was a villainous one. Having a trained and armed guard along as well made him more comfortable with the idea.

Considering the man who was holding a gun on him had also been one of those same trained and armed guards mere moments earlier, perhaps he had yet to truly think that through.

Regardless, the trio moved to the car and slowly, carefully got in while everyone pointed guns at each other. Through it all, Blackjack waited calmly. As the doors closed, he let his gaze sweep over the assembled group of tense, angry faces. In full view of their stares, he took a few steps forward, bending to take up the case from the ground.

“We’ll consider this a bonus to compensate for the hiccups in this transaction.” Straightening, case in one hand, he added, “You’ll find the agreed-upon payment in the trunk of the yellow Toyota there.”

“What–huh?” Turning a bit to look at the car in question behind them, Rotwang shook his head. “How could you possibly have the money waiting here? That car’s been there since we arrived, and we didn’t tell you where the meeting would be until we made it. There’s no way you could have known where to leave the money. You’re making that up.”

Head tilting, Blackjack simply asked, “Am I?”

Staring at him for a moment, the armor-clad man finally waved for one of the men to go check. The guard did so, finding the trunk already popped. As he pulled the door open, the man tugged a black duffle bag from within, unzipped it, and whistled. “Cash, boss. Lots of cash. Looks like all of it.”

How?” Rotwang demanded in disbelief. “How the hell could you know what the meeting point would be before we did, when we set it?”

His smile hidden behind the gold mask, yet fully audible in his voice, Blackjack replied, “Perhaps you should look into being less predictable. It will serve you well in the long run.”

There was no way, of course, that he would spoil the effect by revealing that he’d simply identified two dozen of the most likely places for this sort of meeting to take place, based on territory close to the edge of what Braintrust called their own. All he had to do was look for secluded, protected areas away from prying eyes that could be quickly and temporarily secured, and then have his men deposit identical bags of cash at each one ahead of time. As soon as this one had been identified as the proper location, the others had been quietly retrieved.

It was a bit of work for what amounted to theatrics. But making your potential opponents believe that you could predict their actions with that level was often worth it. Especially if it made them start second-guessing themselves, or wondering if there were (more) traitors in their midst.

That and it was fun seeing the looks on their faces.

Quietly wishing them all a good day, and promising once again to release Leech at the exit to the garage, he moved to take the driver’s seat once more. “Now then, gentlemen. Shall we conclude this?” With those words, he started the car, slowly reversing past the guards before turning and heading for the ramp once more.

“The rest of the Trust isn’t going to be happy about you taking Worth away,” Leech informed him. “He has incredibly sensitive and important work he still needs to do.”

“He will be back eventually,” Blackjack absently assured him. “When he’s done with his new work.” He parked at the exit then, the dark street ahead of them. “I believe this is the stop for you and your escort.”

For a moment, it looked as though Leech was about to say something else. But he seemed to think better, opening his door and extracting himself. His bodyguard followed, standing there with the door open.

“We’ll keep the arrangement,” Leech informed him, as though he had a choice. “Fine. But you know what wasn’t part of the arrangement? Turning one of our own men into a traitor.”

He nodded to the guard beside him, who smirked, lifted his energy-weapon to point at Sorn in the backseat, and pulled the trigger.

The gun promptly exploded in his hand. Because of course Blackjack had ensured that the man who came to escort Leech was the one with the gun that was about to critically misfire. The resulting explosion was small, but it burned both the guard, and Leech beside him. They stumbled back, half-falling.

Blackjack, meanwhile, hit the gas and pulled away with his hired scientist and new employee. “That, I predict, will not go over well back at your base.”

*****

 

A short time later, Worthy stood with Blackjack in what looked like a hospital room, though it was actually deep in the heart of a safe house. Sorn was being briefed by one of the La Casa lieutenants on exactly what would be expected of him as a member of the organization.

“I don’t understand,” the scientist started. “Why are we here? Who’s the… the girl?” He nodded to the small figure lying in the bed, her body filled with tubes as machines beeped steadily through their work of keeping her alive. The tiny, pale girl with light brown hair was dwarfed by all the medical equipment, and couldn’t have been older than five or six.

“This, Dr. Worthy,” Blackjack informed him, “is your patient. My daughter, Melissa. I didn’t hire you to create another soldier for me. I hired you to save my daughter’s life. Her… condition is critical. She has an advanced case of–”

“Rot Bone,” Worthy finished for him, his voice breathless. “She’s suffering from Rot Bone, isn’t she? The worst case I’ve seen in a still-living patient, I would guess.”

There were other names for it, but Rot Bone, as it was most commonly known, was a disease that had been created by a Fell-Touched who went by the same name. There was no known cure, and once infected, the disease essentially did as advertised. It caused the bones within a person’s body to (some more slowly than others) rot away and disintegrate, turning to a poison that gradually killed them.

Rot Bone, the disease creator himself, had already long-since been thrown into the inescapable Breakwater prison. If not, Blackjack would have taken the man apart and made him beg for the honor of saving Melissa’s life. But he was unreachable, making Dr. Worthy the next best candidate.

“Your best work is in enhancing the human body, making one more powerful, stronger, better,” Blackjack reminded the man. “I need you to do that for my daughter. I need you to make her strong enough to survive this. Enhance her.

“Do this, and I will make certain you never lack for anything for the rest of your life.”

*******

Two and a half years later/six months ago.

 

“You’re dying.”

The simple words came from Blackjack, as he sat at a hospital bed, watching the man lying within it. A man who was far more at home on the other side of the bed.

“Yes,” Samuel Worthy confirmed quietly before coughing. “Afraid you can’t hide from the devil forever. We had some fun times though, didn’t we, old friend?” He gave a weak smile, his exposed face pale and drawn. “I had a good run. Gotta say, didn’t expect to spend so long on this one project. Didn’t expect to stay with you through all this.”

Slowly, Blackjack reached up, taking his golden mask down to reveal his own face. He had often been told that he looked like George Clooney in his first days of playing Danny Ocean. Now, however, his expression was far more lost than that famous leading man of such charisma and charm. “I didn’t expect it either, my friend. You saved Melissa’s life. She’s okay now, thanks to you. If I could do anything for you–”

“Don’t,” Worthy interrupted, shaking his head. “I’m done. I’ve done enough with my life. You though… you take care of that girl. She’s a good kid. Deserves every chance she’s got. Took a long time, but these last few treatments should finish stabilizing her.”

“Last few treatments,” Blackjack… or as his family knew him, Eric Abbot, echoed.

“You remember what I said?” Worthy asked while reaching out to grasp his hand weakly. “One syringe per month, every month for the next year. Do that, finish her treatment, and she’ll be okay. The enhancements we’ve done, she’s beaten the disease. But if we don’t stabilize them properly, they’ll fall apart again.”

“One syringe per month for twelve months,” Eric confirmed. “I understand. Thank you. You–what you’ve done for my family… what you mean to Melissa…”

“Just keep that kid safe,” Worthy insisted, before suddenly coughing violently. That went on for a minute, until the man was left lying weak and exhausted, his eyes barely open. “I’m sorry… there’s not time to make more. Twelve… that should be enough. Make sure the… the syringes are kept in a safe place. You… have a safe place, right?”

Taking his friend’s hand and squeezing a little, Eric nodded. “Yes. Don’t worry about that. We’ll keep the syringes safe. I know just where to put them.

“La Casa owns a bank. They can go in a safe deposit box there.”

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