Calvin (Summus Proelium)

Enkindle 23-17 (Summus Proelium)

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The nearest zombie, a heavyset woman with a big hole in her stomach, lunged at one of the baseball players who was struggling to reach the hole in the fence I’d made. Before she could reach him, I activated orange angelic wings on my back for protection while using a blue puddle to launch myself that way. Inverting in the air, I slammed both feet into her shoulders. The impact was barely enough to make her stagger slightly, and felt like I had crashed into a brick wall. Still, it made her stop chasing that guy so he could escape. Rebounding off her, I flipped in the air and landed in a crouch, shooting a bit of red paint at her knee. At the same time, I hit a nearby folding chair one of the security guards had been using with another shot. She came charging my way that time and grabbed for me with her arms, just as I let the chair fly into her legs. It crumpled under the impact, and immediately melted partway, but still managed to knock her off her feet. 

Now the panic was really setting in. There was screaming from all around me as people bolted for the exits and tried to climb over each other to reach them. I launched myself upward with blue paint once more while giving a sharp whistle. To my relief, Alloy was actually paying attention and one of her marbles came up under me, shifting into a platform for me to land on. My hands pointed straight down, hitting the bit under my feet with red paint before I glanced to where she was hovering and made a quick motion with one hand as I threw myself off it and pointed toward the female zombie. A new stream of red paint hit the woman in the head and shoulders. 

Once again, Peyton understood. The platform flipped over so the bit I had painted was faced down, just as I activated the paint. The woman was yanked upward, slamming full force into that platform. Which transformed into a hand to close around her before she could fall, quickly spinning around several times before opening to send the zombie woman flying off to crash into the outfield, as far from people as we could manage. 

Meanwhile, I had dropped back to the ground just in time for one of the other zombie creatures to throw itself off the stands to crash down toward me. Seeing it coming from the corner of my eye, I activated green, purple, and orange stars along my sides while throwing myself sideways, just as the thing landed right where I had been. Shoving myself up before it could recover, I caught its wrist and yanked hard, ignoring the heat that I could feel even through the orange protection. With the added strength and speed boost, I managed to spin with the zombie and hurl it headlong into the nearest wall before the thing could recover. It wouldn’t stop the monster, of course. But this wasn’t about stopping them, it was about slowing them down long enough for all their potential victims to get out of this place safely. 

Speaking of which, I saw a group of people running for one of the exits. They were about to trample right over a couple older women who were struggling to move that way on walkers. Before anything terrible could happen, I used a pair of purple thumbs up symbols on my chest for strength, while painting both of my arms (sleeves and actual body alike) pink. With a grunt, I heaved as hard as my enhanced strength could manage. Between that and the pink stretchy power, my arms extended a good fifteen feet (getting narrower along the way, like taffy being stretched out), just far enough for me to catch hold of the two elderly women. A quick shot of orange from both hands ensured I wouldn’t break anything in them as I yanked the pair away from the stampeding group just in time. 

The two women were still trying to figure out what had just happened, as they looked at my stretched-out arms and yelped in surprise. 

“Sorry!” I called out while using my hands to yank them up to their feet. “But you really need to go now!” With those words, I snapped my right, extended arm sideways like a whip, using a bit of orange on my own back for protection just as my fist collided with the jaw of a zombie who had been clambering that way. It barely made an impact on the thing, but it still looked surprised that I had punched it from a distance. 

“Yeah,” I called out while my arms shlurped back to their normal length, “I’ve got some tricks, you wanna see another one?” As the zombie howled and came charging at me, I shot a quick line of pink paint along the ground. It stomped right through that line, and thus through the painted ground itself as I activated it. Like stomping into wet cement. Soon, it was buried up to its waist in the ground, and let out a horrible scream before slamming its fists down. Just as the thing did that, I deactivated the pink paint. Since I stopped it early, the paint became incredibly bouncy at the exact moment that the monster’s fists slammed into it. The ground instantly indented a good three feet under the force of that blow, and the zombie had an almost cartoonish look of surprise and confusion just before the ground snapped back into place, launching that monster far into the sky. It was like he’d been shot out of a cannon. 

Knowing that still wouldn’t get rid of the damn thing permanently, I glanced around quickly. To one side, I saw a guy on the ground with his arms up, trying to shield himself from a zombie who was lunging at him. Meanwhile, to the other side, there was a small group of children who were being shielded by a different man as he faced down another charging zombie. Without taking the time to even think about it, I activated a couple spots of green to speed myself up, while snapping my arms out to either side. A shot of red paint went from one hand to the guy who was cowering on the ground before I just as quickly adjusted my aim to hit a spot at my feet and activated both. He was immediately yanked away from the lunging monster just before it would have grabbed him, and pulled over to crash into the grass next to me with a yelp. At the same time, I shot a blue square onto the ground directly in front of the man who was protecting those kids. As that zombie ran over the square, he was launched upwards. Before he could come down again, Alloy turned one of her marbles into a large baseball bat and slammed it into him to knock the zombie out of the way. 

Throughout that, I caught glimpses of the others. Poise and Style were getting people to the nearest exits, and stopping any fights before they really got started. They moved deftly through the crowd, ducking and weaving like it was all some perfectly choreographed dance as they made sure no one ran into any zombies. Calvin and Hobbes, meanwhile, were still taking turns with the teleporter powers to get people closer to the exits. 

Then I saw something… weird that couldn’t be right. For just a second, up near the far back area behind the third base bleachers, I thought I saw a… bear. A large, heavy-set and furry bear. But that wasn’t all. This bear was wearing a suit. I could’ve sworn it was there, just in the corner of my eye as I was scanning. But as the sight registered in my brain and my eyes snapped back to that spot, there was nothing there. 

Oookay, this whole situation was making me a little nuts, that was for sure. 

Pushing that aside, I spun back toward the elderly women who were still trying to reach the exit. “Hi,” I greeted them quickly. “Sorry, I know this is probably gonna suck for any vertigo and nausea, but I promise I won’t let you get hurt.” With that said, I renewed the orange paint I’d given them before. Then I quickly caught hold of the first woman before using purple circles on my arms and blue stars on the bottom of my shoes so I could pick her up and launch myself all the way up and over the fence. She gave a loud cry of surprise, just as we came down on the other side. 

“Sorry, sorry!” I blurted before quickly launching myself back the other way. A moment later, I returned with her friend. They were both now out on the field. “The parking lot’s that way!” I called out, pointing them in the right direction. From there, I went right back into the stadium. There were still a lot more people to get out of there. 

As I landed back in the field, Alloy whistled for my attention and pointed toward a few people in the upper stands who were struggling to stay away from one of the zombies as it barged right through the bleachers toward them. She already had a couple of her marbles working together to lift another group over the fence, while two more appeared in front of me to create a narrow set of stairs with a platform at the top. Immediately, I ran up them and launched myself off with a bit of blue on my shoes to reach the upper deck just behind the rampaging zombie there. He was about three rows from the trapped group, who looked like they were seriously considering just jumping off the edge and taking their chances with the fall. 

So, that was exactly what I told them to do. Spraying all six people there with the line of orange, I activated it while shouting, “Jump! I swear, you’ll be fine! Just jump right now, the paint will protect you!” 

In response to my voice, the zombie spun toward me and howled once more while lashing out with one hand. I managed to throw myself backward out of the way to avoid it, while the group I’d hit with that paint followed my instructions. Some were more eager than others, but all of them threw themselves over the side of the railing and dropped down to safety below. Relative safety, anyway. I had to hope that they would keep running once they were down there. But for now, I had my own problems. Namely, I was out of paint for the moment. I’d felt it coming, but had been too distracted to pay much attention. I’d used all my paint and what I already had on myself. Now I had to wait for it to recharge while this zombie was coming after me. Quickly, I shoved myself to my feet and popped the wheels out of my shoes so I could pivot away from him and skate out of the way. I heard him stumbling after me, burning his way through those metal bleachers. Apparently I had pissed him off. But hey, at least he wasn’t following those innocent people over the railing. I was pretty sure he could survive that fall too. 

Well, not survive, per se. Continue being animated? Whatever, I was glad he was chasing me instead of them. 

At least, that was what I told myself as I frantically hopped onto one of the bleachers and skated along it while glancing over my shoulder to see the zombie rapidly catching up. I still had to wait even longer to get my paint back, so I pushed myself to move faster, skating along those metal bleachers before one of Alloy’s marbles flew past me. It transformed into a short ramp leading up to the wall of one of the fancy luxury suites where people like my family would watch the game in the equivalent of a hotel room. Like the place where my dad had taken us to watch the races. 

Immediately, I skated up the ramp, before allowing the gravity-boots to keep me rooted to the wall so I could skate all the way up it to the roof. That didn’t require my paint, at least. And from the sound of things, it made the zombie chasing me pretty mad. 

Right, from here I had a decent view of what was going on. Most of the stadium had been emptied by now. That was the good news. The bad news was that there were still a dozen zombies, and our group was rapidly becoming their focus. Both because of the shrinking number of other targets, and because we had pissed them off. Or pissed off the guy who was controlling them. I still wasn’t sure exactly how that worked and how much autonomy they had. Either way, the point remained the same. Lots of dangerous monsters were focused on coming after us in particular now that we had spoiled their… fun. And there was still no sign that the others had managed to track Jason down yet. 

Just as I was taking all that in, a shout from below caught my attention. Calvin was there, looking right up at me while raising one of those high-tech Wren rifles that he’d had over his shoulder. In the next instant, I heard something behind me and spun just in time to see the zombie who had been chasing me coalescing out of a cloud of ashes. Right, they could teleport. Fortunately, even as that thought, accompanied by a jolt of shock, was filling my mind, a bolt of energy from Calvin’s rifle struck the zombie and sent him flying backward off the roof with a howl. 

“Thanks!” I called out while throwing myself off the roof. There was another zombie below me, but I managed to land several feet past it, coming down on the bleachers once more before letting my momentum carry me along on my wheels while the zombie swiped at me uselessly. Fuck, fuck, paint, please! I needed more paint right– From the corner of my eye, I saw one of the monsters down by the visiting team dugout. There was a ballboy there, huddled in the corner behind a rack of baseball bats, while the zombie stalked toward him. It seemed to be savoring the boy’s terror. 

No, no, no! A rush of panic filled me as I stuck my hand out that way, my mind a mix of silent cursing and prayer. Please, please have been long enough, please just–there! Red paint appeared and shot from my hand, hitting the space just above the dugout. With a thought, I put orange on myself while letting the red yank me that way. Just as the zombie was reaching out toward the last bit of equipment keeping him from the cowering ballboy, I slammed into him feet-first. The impact knocked the zombie back several steps with a confused grunt. Before it could recover, I reached out, caught hold of the boy’s wrist, and yanked him up with a little help from a purple fist on my shoulder. “Kudos on the loyalty,” I blurted, “but I don’t think anyone would blame you for leaving the game right now!” With that, I used blue paint on my shoes to launch both of us away from the dugout just as the zombie was recovering. In midair, another bit of red yanked us toward the exit that Calvin and Hobbes were trying to keep clear with multiple shots from their rifles to knock back any zombies who approached. Landing a bit awkwardly and almost falling over in the process with the boy (he was only a couple inches shorter than me), I gave him a little push toward the open gate. “Make like you’re trying to steal home for the World Series win!” 

He ran for it, and I spun back to put myself between Calvin and Hobbes while they continued aiming and shooting at any zombie who tried to approach. The problem was that the shots might have knocked the things back a few steps, or even a good ten feet on a solid hit, but they weren’t actually stopping them. They just kept coming. “What about the thing Trevithick did to lift that one guy up?!” I called out while activating a couple green handprints I still had on the back of their costumes so they could shoot faster. 

“We could do that!” Calvin agreed while taking aim to shoot at one of the zombies who was trying to run at us from up on the bleachers. 

“But we’d only be able to hold one of them at a time!” Hobbes added, taking a knee so she could shoot at another one coming up on the other side. “Two if we both did it! Then the rest could do whatever they wanted!” 

Thinking quickly, I replied, “Time it! One of you lift them up, then let them go just as the other shoots. If you hit them when they’re off the ground, they’ll probably fly further. They won’t be able to brace themselves or anything! And, wait, can you move them while they’re caught?!” 

Murphy realized what I was getting at immediately. I could hear the smile in her voice. “Damn straight! Ro–Calvin, get ready!” With that, she flicked a switch on the rifle she was using, before taking aim as one of the zombies came charging toward us once more. A blast of energy erupted from the gun, wrapping itself around the animated corpse before lifting the thing off the ground. From there, she gave a hard yank on the gun, hauling it around as the energy line dragged the zombie like a tether until it was right in front of another running zombie. “And… fire!” Even as she called that out, the girl took her finger off the trigger to release the energy tether. 

At the same time, Calvin pulled his own trigger. The blast of energy from his gun shot out, slamming into the dangling zombie before it could finish falling. It was sent soaring backward, slamming into the one coming up from behind it so both of them went crashing into the dirt a good twenty feet back. 

As those two set to work using their newfound joint tactic, my eyes were already snapping around the field, searching for any more problems. Okay, well, they didn’t have to look far to see problems. There were still a bunch of zombies running around. But I was looking for the worst, most immediate ones. Something that had to be taken care of right now. At the same time, I was inwardly cursing the fact that there was still no sign of Riddles. What was taking so long for them to find this guy?!

Even as that thought filled my head, I saw it. Or rather, her. Riddles flew up into view from one of the covered areas in the upper stands, where the concession stands were. As soon as she came into view, I blurted, “Fuck, finally!” To the others, I shouted, “Keep getting people out, I’ve gotta go help them!” 

With that, I launched myself up that way, using red paint to land in the stands. Riddles flew down and circled me with a shriek, and I gave a quick nod. “You got it, buddy! Let’s go!” 

Before moving, however, I turned back to check the others. Alloy was working with Poise and Style, the three of them keeping a ramp that Peyton had created clear so more people could run up and over it to cross the fence. Seeing me looking that way, Poise waved a hand wildly. “Go! Get that son of a bitch, we’ve got this!” 

Right, they had it. They could deal with this. I just… Shoving my insecurities down, I turned back to see Riddles passing through an open door leading into the staff area. I had to do this. The others could handle getting the rest of the people out. What mattered now was finding Pack, Broadway, and Grandstand… and helping them deal with this guy before his monsters killed anyone else. With that thought in mind, I painted green lightning stripes on my legs for speed, and ran straight for the open door. 

Whatever came next, it was time to end this. 

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Enkindle 23-16 (Summus Proelium)

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Needless to say, we were all a bit surprised to find Grandstand suddenly standing in front of us. Or, more to the point, crouched on top of the van. Giving a double-take while the others reacted around me, I found myself blurting, “You’re the reason the cops never tried to pull us over!” Wait, she had been crouched on the roof the entire time we had been driving up here, at those speeds? What the hell was this chick doing? Why would she have been following us like that? Why was she here at all? 

Under her Zorro-like bandana mask, the woman smiled faintly while hopping down to land on the pavement next to the van. “Worked that out quick, didn’t you? You’re welcome. Now, like I said, are we gonna go in there and be heroes, or what?”

Poise, stepping slightly in front of me, spoke up sharply. “What are you doing here? Last I checked, you and Cuélebre were on the outs, but I don’t think that means you suddenly decided to switch sides out of the goodness of your heart.”

“Better question,” Pack abruptly put in while holding that shotgun of hers. She hadn’t gone as far as to point it at her, but the point was made. “Why were you following us close enough to find out what we’re doing?” 

“My business is personal,” the woman shot back. “But, just to ease this along since I’m pretty sure we don’t have time for a lot of arguments, let’s just say I wasn’t following you. Or, well, I was only following you recently. I’ve been tracking down the guy you’re after right now. You know, the one responsible for those zombie attacks, like the one that’s about to happen right in there. I need to talk to him. He has information about the guy I’m really looking for. I’ll help you stop him, then I get to talk to him until he tells me what I need.” 

While the rest of us were absorbing that, Broadway stared at the woman, voice dark and clearly suspicious. “What exactly do you want to talk to him about?”

“Relax, it’s not about your secret identity,” Grandstand retorted while visibly rolling her eyes. “I’m gonna be really honest here and say I very seriously couldn’t care less about that. This is a hell of a lot more important. And yeah, I know, my old gang and your gang aren’t exactly friends right now. Big whoop. I’m here for bigger fish. Like the kid over there said, I’m not at the top of Cuélebre’s best friends list at the moment, so picking a fight with some kids over your secret identities or whatever isn’t even on the first ten pages of my to-do list. My real friend, a close friend, was murdered. And the guy in there knows something about who did it.” 

Broadway made a noise before starting with, “If you think–” 

“Relax, Soundwave,” Grandstand interrupted, “It wasn’t him, so I’m not out for revenge. If I was, none of you would’ve ever known I was here. He’s not the guy who killed my friend, but he’s got information I need about who it really was. Now that’s all I’m gonna say about it. I figured since I caught a ride with you guys, and I only know where he is thanks to you, I owe you some sort of explanation. But that’s enough. I’m going in there to find him before he takes off again. If you all want help making sure a bunch of innocent people don’t die, you’ll get over yourselves and come along.” With that, she started to move to the entrance.

Calvin’s head shook while our whole group looked at one another uncertainly, the boy hesitating before managing a confused, “What’re we supposed to do? She’s a bad guy, right?” 

I shrugged, with a glance toward Pack and Broadway. “Not like she’ll be the first villain we’re working with. And she’s right, people in there are going to get hurt or die the longer we stand out here and debate about it.” A funny feeling ran down my spine, but I shook it off and turned to run toward the stadium. On the way, I fumbled with my phone and used the redial to call Caishen yet again. I left another message to say that we were there and that we needed help. What else was I supposed to do? Yes, she had told us not to go after whoever was responsible for the zombies alone, but we couldn’t just let this happen without trying to stop it. We weren’t hiding the fact that we’d found him. We’d called everyone we possibly could. They were all busy. The only option besides going in there was to just let it happen. And I didn’t care if she got mad at us or not, I wasn’t going to do that. Dangerous or not, we weren’t just going to let a bunch of people die. If it turned out she thought we should… well, then the Michigan heroes were a lot worse than I thought. 

There was, of course, one more thing I could do. Slowing my run, I turned toward Paige and lowered my voice. “Call the Ministry as yourself real quick. Tell them Paintball called you and told you what was going on, and asked you to tell them they need to do something. They know that I know something about them anyway, and that you have their number. But can you do it without them tracking your phone as coming from right here?”

Paige, absorbing that, gave a short nod. “I’ll forward the call from another phone back in the city.” With that, she set to work doing just that, while I started running once more. Maybe it was dumb to call in the Ministry and ask them for help, but I was seriously desperate. They wanted to keep crime under control, and something told me Jason hadn’t received their permission to do this. 

“Glad to see it didn’t take long for you to come to your senses,” Grandstand informed me as we approached the gate. Unsurprisingly, the man who was standing there looked a little surprised at the sight of what was coming toward him. He was staring at all of us, but mostly at the woman beside me. I saw his hand move to the radio on his belt, only to stop short as his eyes abruptly shifted toward me, hand dropping away from the belt as though he’d never reached for it to begin with. “Hey, sorry, costume night’s not til next week. I don’t know who screwed that up, but hey, you all look pretty g–holy shit what the fuck?!” That last bit came as he caught sight of Holiday and Mars Bar, who were already partway shifted into their large forms. 

Oh, and he paid absolutely no attention to Grandstand as the woman simply walked right past him. Obviously, she had used her power. On the other hand, she did pause to wait for us, while making an impatient ‘hurry up’ gesture with her hand. Whether it was because she genuinely wanted to help, or because she thought she had a better chance of finding this Jason guy with Broadway and Pack, I wasn’t sure. A voice whispered in the back of my ear that it might be less about thinking Broadway could help find him, and more about thinking she could use Broadway as a hostage against him if he found out she was his sister. 

Then again, would he even care about that? Could someone who was trying to show off for the Scions give a shit about his sister being in danger? I had no idea. But then again, I couldn’t even fathom having a brother who would try to show off for the Scions in the first place. Yeah, my brother had clearly killed people, but there was a pretty vast gulf between that and auditioning to hang out with Pencil, Cup, and their gang.

Ignoring the gate guide for just a moment, I turned to the two La Casa Touched. “You guys go find him. Have Riddles let us know if you track him down. We’ll get everyone out of here. Just… be careful.” With that, I turned back to the guy, who looked even more confused. He’d grabbed his radio from his belt again and was fumbling with it. As it fell from his hand, I shot red paint at it and at that hand, making it jump back into his grip as he made a noise of surprise. 

“Dude,” I quickly put in, “the zombie-monsters over in Detroit, you heard about them? The guy who’s been controlling them is here. As in he’s in this stadium, not just the city. He’s gonna attack this place any minute. You need to start evacuating people right now.” As his eyes widened in shock about what I was saying, I grabbed his wrist and shoved the radio up to his ear. “Call it in! Open every gate, every door. Let everyone out, right now! Set off the fire alarms, whatever you need to do, just get everyone to move!”

That was all I could take the time to say. Leaving the man stammering in confusion, I ran past him and into the entrance area of the stadium. The others were right behind me. Grandstand gave me an evaluating look briefly before nodding as she pivoted to run toward an area labeled for employees. On the way, she called back, “Your pal‘s gonna want to have a good view of the stadium and privacy! Probably upstairs somewhere!” 

Broadway and Pack were right behind her, along with the assortment of lizards, who were growing by the moment. I barely paid any attention to that, however. My focus was on several guards who were jogging up from around the other corner. As they approached and tried to tell us we had to leave and that this whole thing wasn’t funny, I snapped a hand up to shoot green paint over the rest of our little group. Seeing me actually do that brought the guards up short as they realized this either wasn’t a costumed prank, or it was a really good one. 

“Zombie bad guy from Detroit’s attacking this place, you gotta get everyone out!” I blurted while already activating the green paint to run past them. “You guys get down to the field and help people get to the exits! Watch for zombies!” I called over my shoulder just as we reached the top row of bleachers. The people there, watching the game below, jerked in surprise at the sight of me. Though most, again, didn’t realize I was the real thing. Not yet, anyway. But they would pretty soon. 

Stopping short, my gaze scanned the field, then the bleachers, then up into the higher areas. Nothing untoward. The place seemed completely normal. If we were wrong about this, if he’d changed his mind and we were sounding the alarm for no reason–no. We definitely couldn’t take that risk. Even if we ended up looking paranoid and stupid, it didn’t matter. 

To the people around me, who were staring in even more confusion about whether this was some sort of presentation, I added, “Unless you guys wanna be trampled, you need to get out right now. Run! Get the hell out of the stadium! It’s not a game, it’s an attack, so go! Just spread the word and get the fuck out of here right now!” With that, I pointed my hand toward the announcers booth. It was above the bleachers by the first base line, while we were above home plate. A line of red paint went flying from my hand, making the nearby audience gasp as they realized I wasn’t a fake. That gasp became a cry of surprise that spread throughout the audience as I triggered the paint and launched myself over their heads, across all those bleachers, and all the way to the raised booth. 

“Korey Rikers, the second baseman, coming to–what the fuck?!” That was the announcer himself, his shock broadcast all over the stadium and over the radio as I hit the window next to him. I could see the skinny guy with his big droopy mustache holding a hotdog in one hand, which slowly fell to the desk, dripping ketchup and mustard over the keyboard sitting there as he stared at me wide eyed. The man turned to a guy next to him and half-covered the mic while hissing a question about whether this was some sort of promotional stunt. Despite the covered mic, his words were still picked up and broadcast, and I could see more people looking up to where I was and pointing. If I’d wanted everyone’s attention, I was sure getting it. Now I just had to do something useful with that.

To that end, before the stunned announcer could recover, I planted my knees against that window (staying in place thanks to the gravity defying boots), painted a bit of the glass pink, and punched through it. As the man gave another curse of surprise, I apologized before grabbing the mic from his hands. “Everyone get out of the stadium right now!” I blurted into it while squeezing the button so my voice was projected. “There’s a bad guy who wants to hurt everyone here, you need to get out of your seats and get to the parking lot! And then keep going! Just get out of here! Find an exit and get out!” Yes, it wasn’t perfect. There was a good chance we would cause a panic. But what choice did we have? We needed to get everyone out as fast as possible. The second Jason saw us or realized people were starting to leave, he would unleash his monsters. There was no time to be subtle about it. Besides, we could watch for anyone being trampled or suffocated. We–we had to do it this way. 

Okay, the truth was, maybe someone more experienced would’ve had a better idea of how to do this. Maybe there were twenty different better ways. But I had to do something right then. I didn’t have time to stop and think about it. 

At least people were listening. The group who had been close enough to hear me tell them what was about to happen before I painted my way up here had already cleared out and were running out the same way we had come in. Which left an opening for others below them in the stands to pick themselves up and start running. Meanwhile, the guards had actually listened and spread the word. I could see other entrances being hauled open, the people there shouting for more of the audience to get out those ways. 

The rest of the team were busy getting everyone moving. Calvin and Hobbes were helping by using the teleportation power. Hobbes was all the way over on the far side of the field where there was a gate that was usually only opened to allow cars to drive onto the field. It was open now, thanks to one of the guards there. With Murphy by the gate, Calvin got everyone he could in the lower stands to grab onto him, and teleported them over there. Then Murphy started to run. They were splitting up how much work they each had to do by taking turns with which one of them ran to collect people and which one stood by the gate to catch their breath. 

Meanwhile, Poise and Style were in the middle of the stands, on opposite sides of the stadium, directing everyone about which way to go. The two of them were making sure no single exit was overwhelmed with people. And anyone who tried to shove their way through quickly found themselves grabbed and pulled out of the way so others could get past. Sierra and Paige seemed to be everywhere at once, slipping through the crowd easily to find the potential troublemakers before anything bad could happen. 

Then there was Alloy. She was above the crowd, hovering in her armor. Apparently she’d started to get the hang of using just that to keep herself in the air without a board under her feet. That or she felt like she needed every other marble she possibly had for other things. Either way, those other marbles were turned into various walls and ramps to lead the audience one way or another. Whenever one exit area started to get too full, she noticed from her elevated position and used one of her marbles to block that way off, directing people down a lesser-occupied route. 

Spotting a group of players mixed with employees and some of the audience being pushed to one side out onto the field, I used a mix of blue and red paint to throw myself that way. “Hey, coming through!” I called out to announce my arrival before landing near the group. Quickly, as they looked at me and started to blurt questions, I painted a pink door onto the nearby wall, before lashing out with a purple-powered foot to kick through it. I had to kick a couple times, but I finally knocked out enough of the pink door shape to reveal the open, weed-filled lot behind the field. “Go!” I blurted. “Run and keep running. Just trust me, go!” Even as I said that, my gaze snapped around the field and up into the stands. There were still a lot of people, but the place was getting emptier by the moment. We were actually doing this. We were going to get these people–

And then it happened. A loud, terrifying shriek filled the air, as a man appeared on top of the announcer’s booth where I had just been. And not just any man. A clearly dead one. The top third of his head was gone, leaving some of his brain visible. His arms were twisted around the wrong way, and he forced them back into position with a series of audible snaps, while all of us stood there and watched in horror. Then, he tilted his head back and gave a terrible howl that was half-banshee and half-wolf. It echoed around the field, before being answered by another howl. Then another one. And another. 

They were everywhere. Two of them burst out of the restroom up behind the third base stands. Another one came crawling out from under the outfield fence. The visiting team dugout had one that came through the locker room area, chasing two people who had been going out that way. More were in the stands. We’d gotten some of the people out before Jason reacted, but not nearly enough. And now these monsters were here. Not just one or two. There had to be a dozen of the things, at least. 

This sick piece of shit wanted to put on a show for the Scions, and he was going to do it by slaughtering as many innocent people in this place as he could. Unless we stopped him. But we had barely been able to handle one of these things before with all of us working together. What the hell were we supposed to do about twelve of them all spread out, and with a bunch of civilians in the way?

Whatever it was, we were going to have to figure it out soon. Because, with another chorus of horrifying howls, the zombies attacked.

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Enkindle 23-15 (Summus Proelium)

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We had to get to that stadium before those zombies attacked all the innocent people there. But more importantly, we had to make sure other people got there. All that mattered was stopping what was about to happen. And we needed help to do that. Unfortunately, none of us were having much luck on that front. Pack had called Broadway to tell her what was going on, and though the other girl was, to put it mildly, reluctant to believe that her foster brother would be that deranged and psychotic, she did agree that something bad was going to happen. So they both tried contacting Blackjack or anyone else in La Casa. But there was some sort of attack happening right then and they couldn’t get through to anyone important. 

Meanwhile, Paige made an anonymous call to both the Seraphs and the Spartans. And I, of course, called Ten Towers the way I’d promised Caishen I would. I even called her personal number that she had given me. But again, it was hard to reach anyone who would listen. I even made a third call to leave a message with Lucent, only to be told that he was out in the field right then and would get back to me as soon as he could. I wasn’t sure people were actually taking us as seriously as we wanted them to. Probably unhelped by the fact that we were pretty frantic and not in the mood to patiently explain. 

For my part, I did manage to get hold of That-A-Way, but she and the other Minority members, including Raindrop, were in the middle of helping the Conservators with some sort of big shootout involving Cuélebre and other members of Oscuro. It seemed like the entire city had decided to blow up at this exact moment. Well, to be fair, it had been blowing up for a while. There was a reason for the curfew intended to curtail the gang war, after all. But still, it really didn’t help us right now.

“Hold on!” Pack shouted while sending the van she had borrowed skidding around the corner.  The rest of us would’ve been thrown around wildly if it wasn’t for the seatbelts we had hastily buckled. “How long do we have until the game starts?!” She asked that while bringing the van to a brakes-squealing halt next to an alley just long enough for Broadway to jump in the front passenger seat next to her. 

Hobbes was pressed up into a corner, quickly checking her phone. “Uh, right now. It’s starting right now. But he won’t necessarily unleash his monsters first thing, right?” She was clearly trying to inject a bit of hopefulness into her voice. 

Even as she said that, we nearly rear-ended a couple cars that were blocking the road ahead at a stoplight. With a blurted curse, Pack jerked the wheel to send the van up over the curb. We ran through a wooden display selling vegetables, and all of us winced at the sound of thumps along the roof as an assortment of cabbages and wood bounced along it, along with the sound of the man running the stand shouting in dismay. One particularly loud thump made me wince.

Then, with a new set of bumps as the van dropped off another curb, we were back on the street. As soon as we went around the next corner, heading for the freeway entrance, Alloy called out to me, “The stadium! We can call them, tell them to evacuate the place.” 

So, that was exactly what I tried next. While half-listening to Broadway and Pack having a whispered yet intense discussion, I looked up the number for the stadium and called them. Unfortunately, the person who answered didn’t take me seriously. He laughed off my attempt at a ‘prank’ and when I tried to explain a bit more, hung up on me. I tried that number again and got no answer before calling the other number attached to the stadium. That time a woman answered and instead of laughing when I tried to warn her, she cursed me out and threatened to call the police. I was in the midst of yelling at her that she had to call the police when she hung up as well. This was going swimmingly. Fuck, fuck! 

“Style?” I asked, looking toward Sierra in hope that she had had more luck. 

“Called local 911 over there and told them the situation,” she replied, voice sounding tense. “They took me about as seriously as you might expect. Told me they’d ‘send an officer over to check it out.’ We’ll be lucky if they do that much.” 

“Fuck!” I blurted out loud. “Okay, okay, we can still get there and slow this whole thing down. Way knows the gist about what’s going on and she’ll get people there as soon as they can get away from that whole Cuelebre thing. We’ve left messages with everyone. As soon as they get a free moment, they’ll check them, and send people. We’ll get there. We can get there.” I repeated that, trying to convince myself before looking toward the front. “ I know asking for your help is a lot, and–” 

“Oh shut up!” Pack snapped. “Like we’re not gonna stop a bunch of monsters from slaughtering a stadium full of innocent people. That’s not even a question, Paintball.” 

Broadway hesitated before shifting around in her seat to look at me. “Besides that, I have to find out if my brother is really responsible for this. He could’ve been manipulated, or that evidence could’ve been planted, or… I don’t know. If he’s not responsible for this, if it’s not really his choice, I want to prove that before it’s too late. But if he is…” She trailed off before squaring her shoulders. “If he is then I want to stop him too.” 

Paige was looking straight at her, voice flat. “So if it comes down to it, you’ll side against him.” 

Broadway shot her a clearly dark glare. “If it’s a question of siding against him or letting him kill a bunch of innocent people, yes, I’m siding against him. I’m not a fucking psychopath.” Again, she paused before turning back to face the front once more while slumping back in her seat with a muttered, “Then again, I didn’t think he was either.” 

Oh boy could I really not blame her for that sort of reaction. It made me think back to exactly how I had felt when I found out the truth about my own brother. I thought about how it felt to be hiding under that dumpster when I heard his voice that night. No wonder she was having a hard time with this. And I definitely couldn’t blame her for wanting to find out if the whole thing was a mistake or whatever. I definitely would’ve preferred to learn that my family was being framed, and they at least weren’t about to be responsible for intentionally slaughtering a stadium full of innocent people just to impress the fucking Scions. 

“Whoever is actually responsible, we’ll stop them. If it’s him… we’ll deal with that. If he’s being used somehow, we’ll… do something about that too,” I assured her as firmly as I could while looking out the window as Pack sent the van hurling as fast as possible through the streets. I didn’t even care if we ended up attracting the police at that point, because they could help. We needed someone to pay attention. 

Of course, because I actually wanted the cops to pay attention to us, there were none to be found anywhere. Apparently the entire fucking department was also busy with other things just like every Star-Touched we tried to call, because the streets were practically empty. Which did help us get to the freeway even faster, but still.

Alloy looked up from her (disposable pay-as-you go) phone then, muttering a curse. “I tried that number Glitch gave us, but they’re not answering either.” 

“They will, someone will,” I mumbled, bouncing a little in my seat anxiously. “Someone will check their messages, or Way will get out of that fight and send someone. We’ll have some help. They’ll be there. Someone’ll be there.” Yes, I was trying to convince myself, and no it wasn’t working very well. 

“Hey,” Calvin started, “Maybe you could try Tweeting about it? You know, use the hashtags for the team and the stadium and say there’s an emergency and everyone needs to get out of there right now.” 

“If the tweets even gain any traction, they could start a panic,” Paige pointed out carefully. “Everyone stampeding for the exit at the same time wouldn’t help, especially when no one’s there to help.” 

“If those zombies attack, there’ll be a panic anyway,” I replied. But she wasn’t wrong. Alerting people to get out of there wouldn’t help if they all freaked out and hurt each other in a desperate attempt to escape. It would be like hearing a gunshot or shouting bomb in a crowded theater. People would be trampled. But what were we supposed to do, in that case? Roald was right, it was a chance to maybe get the people in the stadium to see our warning. We couldn’t just ignore that. Yet I was frozen for a moment between the fear of what would happen if we sent a warning and people were killed in the ensuing panic, or if we didn’t send a warning and people died because we didn’t get to the stadium fast enough. 

“Paintball,” Paige spoke up, getting my attention. “If he’s monitoring social media around the stadium and the game–” 

“Right,” I realized, “if he’s paying attention, and he probably is, he’ll see any warning we send long before it spreads to the rest of the people. He’ll know we’re onto him and start the attack immediately.” Pausing, I amended, “Or whoever is behind this.” 

“He’s doing it,” Broadway muttered. “I just don’t know if he’s responsible for it. I don’t know if he’s really choosing this, or if they’re manipulating him.” Her voice made it clear which she was hoping for. “And you’re right. If you put out a general warning, he’ll see.” 

So, painful as it was, I couldn’t send that warning. It was one thing to contact the authorities, or try to tell the people in charge of the stadium to start an evacuation immediately, but hoping that a public message will get through to the crowd at all, let alone be listened to, before he noticed it and acted? No. No, we had to at least get there first. Please, damn it, let us get there before he started the attack. 

Instead, I swallowed hard before focusing on Calvin. “Watch Twitter stuff around the stadium, or any news, or anything. Just… just tell us if there’s an emergency, or if anyone starts talking about monsters. Or–you know.” 

For his part, the boy met my gaze before giving a short nod. “I’ll watch for it,” he murmured, voice catching slightly before he looked down at his phone once more. 

Right, so at least we had someone to tell us if we ended up being too late. Clenching my hand tightly, I looked back to the front, my voice tense. “Pack, I hate to be the little kid in the back of the car during a road trip, but are we there yet?” I was trying to simultaneously lighten the mood a little bit while also pressing the urgency. Not that she really needed to be reminded. I knew that. I just felt helpless, sitting here in the van hoping those things weren’t already attacking people. With every second that passed, I kept expecting Calvin to abruptly blurt out that it was too late. 

“Doing my best,” the girl informed me while her hands clutched the steering wheel tightly. She clearly had the pedal all the way to the floor as we were sent practically flying down the freeway while weaving in and out of traffic. There hadn’t been many other cars in the city itself, given the whole curfew situation. But there were people driving out of the city. So we kept running into pockets of traffic. Not that that stopped Pack. She just drove around them, even going up onto the shoulders without a second thought. Again, if our insane driving attracted cops, good. 

But it didn’t. We weren’t really attracting much attention at all, come to think of it. A few people honked, but not nearly as much as I might’ve thought. We were, for the most part, entirely ignored. Maybe with the gang war going on, everyone was afraid to pay too much attention to a van acting this erratic. But hey, with any luck, maybe they were calling the cops. I didn’t care if we had to lead a procession of a dozen police cars and a helicopter all the way there for refusing to pull over. Wait, scratch not caring, I hoped that happened. 

Unfortunately, we still seemed to be experiencing some sort of weird situation where nobody was paying attention to us. Aside from those relatively few honks as we cut around people, we didn’t have any problems. Including no cops showing up. Probably because they would’ve been helpful, and we couldn’t have that, could we? 

Rocking back-and-forth in my seat while silently urging the van to go faster didn’t help. Fortunately, putting my hands against the side and painting the thing green did actually contribute. And given we were being ignored by the other cars, it was even more helpful. Soon, the van was practically flying along the side of the freeway, zooming past everyone else as though they were standing still. 

“Once we get there, you guys get into the stadium and start evacuating people,” Pack was saying while keeping her hands tight on the wheel. “They won’t listen to Broadway and me, and seeing us with you will just complicate things. So we’ll go look for Jason.“

Broadway was nodding. “Whether it’s just him or somebody else has him, they’ll be somewhere that they can watch what happens. I just–” she stopped, clearly considering her next words before speaking a little more clearly. “I just hope we can find him before anything… before he does something we can’t stop.” 

Her words made me swallow hard. Yeah, I definitely knew how she was feeling. Well, at least to an extent. I really had no idea how I would feel if my brother was out there trying to impress the Scions. But still, the whole thing made me sympathize with her. She was a villain, sure, but just like so many other situations I had found myself in since getting my powers since that night, the whole thing wasn’t that cut and dry. She was worried about her brother, yet still willing to stop him if he really was this far gone. It just… maybe it made me think about what I would do if I was face to face with my own brother and he was about to do something like this. 

I would stop him, that was for sure. If he was trying to kill this many people–if he was trying to kill any innocent people, I would stop him. I just… had no idea where we would go from that point.  Which, I was pretty sure, was exactly what Broadway was thinking about. Would she reveal her identity to him in order to make him stop? Would that even work? I supposed it depended on how far gone he really was, and on whether this was all actually his choice or not. 

All I really knew in that moment was that I was glad I wasn’t her. I had enough family issues to deal with. 

Pushing those thoughts out of my head, I spoke up. “The second we go in there and start to tell people to get the hell out, he’s going to unleash his monsters.”

Paige nodded once from where she was sitting. “But at least we’ll be in there to get their attention.” 

“And then what?” Murphy demanded. “What are we supposed to do? I dunno if you were paying attention before, but we could barely handle one of them, and this sounds like he’s planning to unleash more than that.”

“We focus on making exits and safe paths for people to get out,” I put in. “I know it’s not gonna be easy, and they’ll still panic. But at least when we’re right there, we can help. Alloy, I want you to use your marbles to make platforms and shields and stuff to get people out of the way. Maybe even just pick them up and carry them out of there whenever you can.”

She started to protest that she needed to help with the zombies, but I cut her off. “You’ve got the best chance of protecting and shielding people. Focus on that, okay? Once there’s enough people out that the rest of them can run without trampling each other, you can jump in and help us. But we really need to protect everyone in that stadium. We need you to do that.” 

She hesitated before giving a short nod. “Just be careful, okay?”

“We’re gonna do our best,” I replied with a somewhat shaky thumbs up. I was terrified about what was about to happen. Murphy was right, we had barely been able to do anything to one zombie at a time. How bad was this going to go when there was a whole group of them right in front of a bunch of panicking civilians? This could be horrific. But what else were we supposed to do? We didn’t have any better options. We’d already tried to contact everyone else who could help and they were either busy or weren’t listening. Just while we were sitting there discussing all this, I had left six messages on the emergency system of the Doephone app, and I still had no idea how long it would take someone with authority to pay attention. There was no one else. We had to get in there and do this ourselves. And hope that we could get lucky with Broadway talking her brother down.

With that in mind, I turned to Pack. “Maybe if he’s unconscious, it’ll stop the zombies. So if he doesn’t listen as soon as you guys get to him…” 

“Yeah,” she replied, “he’s going to turn them off, one way or another.” To Broadway, she started to add, “Sorry–” 

“No,” the other girl interrupted. “You’re right. If he doesn’t listen and call it off as soon as we get to him, just… knock him out. Yeah, he’s my brother, but I’m not letting him get away with this.”

Finally, even as she said that, we were pulling into the rather full parking lot of the stadium. Pack drove past all the other cars, straight up to the sidewalk ramp leading to the ticket stand and entrance before bringing the van to a screeching halt. The doors flew open and we all hopped out. I pivoted to tell everyone something about getting inside, when I simply stopped short. There was a figure crouched on the roof of the van, where she had clearly been through most of the ride. 

“Hey there,” Grandstand greeted me with a wave. “So, we gonna go be heroes or what?” 

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Enkindle 23-14 (Summus Proelium)

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Of course, the first step toward stopping Broadway‘s foster brother from the whole zombie thing was to find out if he actually was the person behind all of it. Granted, from what she had told us, it seemed pretty obvious. But, to be fair, it wasn’t completely impossible that his power was limited to small animals or something and this was someone with a stronger version. Yeah, I knew how that sounded, but I didn’t want to completely dismiss anything just yet.

Besides, even if it was him, maybe someone else was forcing him into it or something. We really had no idea about all that beyond the fact that he apparently had this power that looked an awful lot like what we had been dealing with. I certainly wasn’t going to hand him over to the authorities, and therefore the Ministry, without at least finding out more for myself about how much he was responsible for. 

So, we had to investigate. Which meant going to that house to check things out. Of course, that did leave the question of whether we were butting up against Caishen’s rule about calling in help before confronting the person behind this. But we weren’t planning on even physically seeing him. We were going to check it out while he wasn’t there. I wanted to at least find out as much as we could before calling in the cavalry. Again, if this wasn’t his fault, I didn’t want to sic the Ministry on him. And we knew the moment we called in for help, the Ministry would know about it.

According to Broadway, despite the fact that he was older than she was, he still lived with their foster parents, technically. Though apparently he had moved out to the separate standing garage, treating it like an apartment. Which at least meant that we wouldn’t have to break into the house itself. Given what we had heard, that would have been fairly impossible to do without being seen by someone. There was no time when the entire place was empty, at least no time that could be counted on to be that way for longer than five minutes. 

For her part, Broadway said she would help us by inviting her brother to dinner at her cover apartment to get him out of that garage so we could get in there and look around without worrying about him finding us unexpectedly. We were just going to have to be both quick and quiet about it considering there would be people in the nearby house just a few feet away. A lot of people, given what we had heard. Apparently there were no less than nine foster kids in that place, ranging in age from about two all the way to twenty. Well, the twenty-year-old was Jason. The next eldest, still living in the house itself, was a sixteen-year-old girl named Molly. 

We also didn’t have a lot of time to waste, considering how much damage the zombies had already been doing around the city. They had stopped for now, but still. At this rate, I was afraid that things would escalate completely out of control if we let it go on much longer. We had to find out if Jason was responsible for this, and stop him if he was. 

So, we were going in there the very next day. Broadway convinced her brother to go with her, and we made our way to the lumberyard just down the street from the house in question. We wouldn’t all be going inside. Even with Wren being back at the shop doing her own work, having that many people trying to sneak through a garage would just be asking to end up getting caught. Instead, it would be Paige, Roald, Pack, and me. Pack was going in because Broadway was her friend and she insisted on being involved. Paige knew how to find hidden things and was pretty sneaky on her own. And as for Roald… well, he was going just in case someone started to come into the garage. Murphy would be waiting on the far side of the road, visible through a window in the garage. If someone started to come in, we would all grab onto Roald while he used the teleportation tech in the suit to get us all the way out to where Murphy was instantly. Hopefully without being seen by anyone. 

“You sure you’re gonna be okay in there?” Peyton asked a bit tentatively while she watched me. “If this is the right place and one of those things pops out at you guys, or breaks in while you’re there and you can’t get away…” 

“That’s why you guys are waiting right here,” I pointed out gently, nodding to her and Sierra. “You guys and Murphy too. She’ll be able to see what’s going on and we’ll be in contact over the phone. You’re backup. If we run into trouble, the three of you can come to the rescue.” 

She sighed a little before giving a short nod. “Yeah, I know. You’re right. If something goes wrong, we’ll be ready. But still, be careful, okay?” She had told me before that it was going to take awhile before she stopped thinking of me as a little brother or something, and I heard that same general idea in her words, and in the small smile as she made the helmet over her face shift apart so I could see it. “Don’t go getting yourself killed now.” 

Smirking despite myself, I gestured. “I’ll do my best. Besides, I don’t think the others are all that eager to be eaten by zombies either.” 

“Not particularly,” Pack agreed flatly. She stood there with her arms folded around Mars Bar, holding the iguana to her chest. Twinkletoes, in his ordinary chameleon form, perched on her shoulder. “So are we gonna get in there and find out what’s really going on, or just stand around out here talking about it?” 

“Yeah, yeah, we’re going,” I assured her before painting myself completely black. Then I pointed at Paige and did the same to her costume, followed by Roald and finally Pack herself. Once we were all thoroughly dark, Pack put her lizards back in her bag (or rather, the cage connected to the bag) and we set out. There was a narrow alley leading behind the houses from the lumberyard. On the way, I activated small bits of the black paint I’d put on everyone. That was a new thing I’d figured out I could do, activate just a portion of a much larger amount of paint. All I needed was to silence our footsteps on the gravel, which was pretty quiet already. Adding in just the small amount of black paint I was using and we were able to walk over all that loose gravel without making a single sound. 

That helped deal with being heard, and from there we just had to take it easy and watch for any lights on from people who might be standing on their back porches or in windows. But nothing jumped out as we carefully and quietly snuck through that alley and right up to the gate behind the house in question. It had a heavy-duty padlock on it, but a quick squirt of pink paint allowed me to pull the thing apart. Then I simply shot another bit of black paint at the hinges of the gate to make sure it wouldn’t squeak while it was pushed open so the others could head through. Once they were in, I pulled the gate shut and replaced the lock, using pink paint again to ensure it was back the way it should be. 

We watched the house carefully while going in. The gate was far enough away through a wide backyard that we wouldn’t easily be seen by people just passing by windows. The garage itself was straight ahead of us and slightly to the left, while the house was further away and to the right. There was a small sandbox full of toys to one side that we carefully stepped around while moving to the far side of the garage where we wouldn’t be seen. Aside from that, a tall wooden fence to our left blocked vision from the house next door, and the garage itself would stop anyone in this home from spotting us. So far so good, but we weren’t out of the woods yet. This whole thing could blow up in our faces pretty easily if we weren’t careful. 

With that in mind, I checked the small window on this side of the garage. It was just like Broadway had described. The window didn’t close completely, given how old and relatively ramshackle the place was. There was a tiny crack between the window itself and the structure of the building. Not large enough to use as a way of getting inside, but that was okay. Leaning down, I peered through the window. The garage was basically one open room with a bed and den area on one end, a sort-of pseudo-kitchen to the left near where this window was, a makeshift bathroom with a shower curtain-type pull around for some degree of privacy, and a small living ‘room’ right near the entrance. I could see all the way through it from this window, including both the big rolling door and the regular entrance. It was the latter I focused on, specifically the deadbolt. 

“Okay,” I murmured, “here goes nothing.” 

With that, I painted my hand and part of my arm pink. Which, with effort, I managed to shove through that narrow crack. It was a pretty disconcerting process, particularly considering I knew I had to be quick. Forcing my hand through the crack was like pushing Play-Doh through one of those rolling mill machines. It came out almost flat on the other side. But I ignored the weirdness of it, twisting my hand up and around once it was on the other side of the window so I could point toward the deadbolt on the far side of the room. A moment later, a shot of red paint sailed across the open space and hit the tiny latch perfectly. One more shot put a bit of red just to the side of it. Quickly, I yanked my hand back out before the pink paint could run out while activating the red. In turn, the bolt was pulled down, unlocking the door. 

“Okay,” I announced while pushing myself back up, “we’re good.”

Yes, we could have just used pink paint to make a hole in the wall big enough to go through, but that would’ve been a lot to clean up without letting Jason know we’d been there. We were trying to be subtle. 

Roald leaned in to stare at that before giving me a look. “Seriously,” he asked in a whisper, “how do you do that? You hit that thing in one try, from across the whole length of the garage and with your hand literally flattened and pushed through that little crack.” 

“I know, right?” That was Murphy speaking through the bluetooth device in my ear. We all had them right now, and were in a conference call on our phones so we could stay in contact with the others. “He’s got insane fucking aim and just acts like it’s normal.” 

“He clearly has that as part of his power set,” Paige flatly replied. Not only were they both saying ‘he’ because Pack was here, but also because we had agreed that I would continue to be referred to as a boy while I was in costume. It would help stop anyone from screwing up and giving away my secret if they continued to be in that habit. It was probably a little confusing for them, but it was the best we could do. 

Speaking of which, maybe someday I would need to tell Pack the truth too. She was basically the only… sort-of member of our little group who didn’t know by now. But she also wasn’t a full part of Avant-Guard. She was still a Fell-Touched, albeit falling into a sort of gray area. I told myself I didn’t want to put her in the position of knowing that much about me and not telling her boss anything, but I wasn’t sure how much of that was simply justifying it. The truth was that I really didn’t want to think that there were even more people out there whom I couldn’t control who knew my secret. 

In any case, I shrugged at them. “I guess that makes sense, but I don’t know why super-aim would come along with paint powers. To say nothing about the whole navigating in darkness thing.” When the three of them all looked at me, I waved it off. “This is really not the time to get into it. I promise, we can do all the testing you want later. Come on, let’s see if we can find anything.” With that, I walked around to the edge of the garage, peeked to make sure we still looked clear, then quickly and silently made my way to the now-unlocked door and slipped inside. The others were right behind me before I tugged the door closed. 

Right, now we were in here, hopefully without having attracted any attention so we could search the place and not deal with some cops showing up. That would end up being a bit hard to explain. Especially with Pack here. It would be a whole thing. So, better to just avoid the whole situation. Thankfully, the only windows facing the house were covered in black-out curtains. Probably because Jason didn’t want snoopy foster parents or siblings to see what he was doing out here. Which worked in our favor, though we still weren’t going to turn a bunch of lamps on. Instead, we all took out our phones and dialed the flashlight apps down low. Just enough to see what we were doing as we spread out to search. 

I honestly wasn’t sure what we expected to find, but it could’ve been anything. Trophies from the zombies he’d made? Their wallets or whatever with photographs we could use to identify them? Maybe a manifesto about everything he was doing and why, or even an audio recording of him detailing his master plan? Okay, maybe those were asking for a bit much, but hey, you never knew. Maybe we would get extraordinarily lucky. It could happen. 

For my part, I went all the way to the back of the garage and started looking around the area where he slept. I carefully checked under his pillows, taking note of how they were positioned so I could put them back properly just in case, before ducking down to peer under the bed itself. The light from my phone panned over the floor down there, revealing a lot of empty fast food cartons and such, not to mention dirty magazines. Those I rather reluctantly picked up, turned over, and rifled through to see if anything fell out. Nothing, aside from a few cards to order more dirty magazines. 

“Who gets those things anymore?” Pack demanded as she looked over from looking through one of his dressers and saw what I was holding. “Hasn’t he ever heard of internet porn?” 

“The family monitors internet access,” Paige put in from the other side of the garage. “They have child locks on most adult websites. Those are probably his way of compensating for that when–” 

“Okay, can we please change the subject?” I hurriedly interrupted. “Something tells me none of this will ever be relevant for what we’re actually supposed to be doing here.” 

“Hold on, how do you know the thing about monitoring internet access?” That question came from Alloy, still waiting back at the lumberyard. “And the childlock.” 

“We have wireless internet access,” Sierra informed her, sounding amused. “She can see all the connections from there.” 

Pushing their conversation out of my mind, I shoved the magazines back under the bed where I had found them. In the process of arranging them where I was pretty sure they’d been, I noticed something else. A small box was shoved up into the space between the wooden board of the bedframe and the box springs. Squinting that way, I reached out to tug the thing out, then turned and put my back to the bed with the box in my lap so I could examine it. The box was about eight inches long and six inches wide, along with being several inches deep. There was a clasp on the front, which had a keyhole. I set the thing down, ignoring the lock. Instead, I painted the top pink and used my fingers to pry a hole into it that way. Inside the box was a small folded stack of papers, along with what looked like a debit card that had the name Jordan Johnson on it, and a driver’s license. The picture matched the one of Jason that we had been shown by Broadway before coming over here, but the name was also Jordan Johnson. Opening the folded papers, I found a birth certificate and other things identifying him as, yet again, Jordan Johnson. Frowning, I called the others over to show them what I was looking at. 

Roald shook his head. “So, ahh, he’s got fake identification and a debit card? Does that mean he’s gonna run away or something? Is he getting ready to disappear if he gets caught?” 

Paige examined the ID and paperwork. “This is all professional grade,” she remarked. “It’s not something he got off the street for a hundred bucks. This looks real. Someone with some actual skill, and probably access to the DMV system did this. So how does some nobody foster kid, no offense, get it? Does he just happen to know somebody that good or that well-connected? And why does he have it?” 

“It takes a while to get something like that anyway,” Pack put in. “Trust me, I’ve had a set done myself. And if it takes Blackjack a couple weeks to get that quality of work, then I’m pretty sure almost nobody else could do it faster. Maybe the Ministry themselves, just because of the connections they have, but I think we’re operating under the assumption that he’s not working for the Ministry?”

I paused to consider that. “I mean, it wouldn’t really make sense if he was. We’re pretty sure they’re the ones who had Luciano killed. And now he’s been brought back as a weird zombie thing attacking people. Plus, he was just sort of found in the alley. I don’t think they would’ve left him there if they did bring him back to life. What would be the point of having him kill those couple kids who happened to find him? It doesn’t make any sense coming from them. I don’t see any profit in it. And it sure as hell isn’t making the area more stable.” 

Paige agreed with a nod. “Right, it doesn’t make sense. So I’m pretty sure the fake ID had to be planned and set up awhile ago, before we started seeing these zombies. This isn’t a situation where things got out of control and he just went out to pick up a fake ID to run away with at the spur of the moment. He had a professional make these. A professional who either owed him a huge favor, or one he paid a lot of money to.” 

“She’s right,” Sierra’s voice put in, “If that fake ID stuff is really that good, it’s not something this guy could just go down to the street corner and pay some random guy for.”

 I looked down at the papers again and flipped through them. It wasn’t just a birth certificate and other identification stuff, I realized. At the end of the stack was a bit of lined paper that had been torn out of a notebook. The name ‘N Kent St’ was scrawled across the middle of the page in pen, along with a phone number. Under that, the number 9,412 was written and underlined with a smiley face next to it. 

“Is that the guy who made the fake ID and the amount he paid for it?” Roald guessed. “N Kent St. kinda sounds like a name. Or a street? It could be N Kent Saint or N Kent Street. Maybe it’s an address. Nine Four One Two North Kent Street?” 

Of course, I immediately thought of Kent Jackson, Tomas’s dad. He had memory powers. What did he have to do with this? Aloud, I murmured, “There’s a guy who works for the Ministry. He can… erase memories. His name’s Kent. But that’s his first name, not his last. And there’s no N involved in the name. I don’t know an N Kent. And certainly not a Saint. I guess it could be him, but I’ve never heard him called by that… I dunno. This still doesn’t sound like the Ministry. Unless Kent’s been freelancing?” Even that didn’t sound right. “It could be a coincidence on the name… Anyway, what would he be paying Kent for? Yeah, look up that address.”

“Already did,” Sierra informed us over the phone. “There is no 9412 North Kent Street anywhere in Michigan. It’s gotta be a price and name or something. The amount he paid for that new identity?”   

“Pretty high price for this sort of thing,” Paige murmured. “I mean, you can get a passable fake identity for about fifteen hundred bucks. If he paid over nine thousand… well, it’d explain the quality. And there’s probably more to it. Maybe it included transportation to a new place or something. Safe passage out of the city if things fall apart and probably some sort of established place somewhere else. Unless the Ministry Kent is involved and he’s being paid to adjust memories? But you’re right, I dunno what the N could stand for.” 

“Keep looking around,” I urged while spreading the papers, fake ID, and debit card out to take pictures of them with my phone. I wanted to keep a record of everything we found without letting Jason himself realize we knew anything about it. As soon as I had all of it in my phone, I folded the papers and stuff back up, put them in the box, then used my pink paint to fix the lid so it was basically as good as new. Finally, I put the thing back where I’d found it and went to lift the mattress so I could see if there was anything there. Sure enough, I certainly found something. And it wasn’t just more papers. Right there between the mattress and box springs was a nine millimeter pistol and a box of ammunition. Grimacing at the sight, I started to tell the others about it, when Roald called out for us to look at something else.

Setting the mattress down, I moved over to where he was in the ‘kitchen’ area. Roald was holding a piece of paper he’d dug out of the trash. Printed across it were the words, ‘One or two aren’t going to impress us. You want to join our club, make a real splash. I hear opening night could be a real homerun.’ It wasn’t signed, at least not with names. But there were two pictures where a signature would be. The picture of a number two pencil, and one of a mug. Or rather–

“Cup,” Pack snarled. “Pencil and Cup.” 

“Wait, wait!” I suddenly blurted, eyes widening behind my helmet. “N Kent St, it’s not North Kent Street, or anything to do with Kent. It’s New Kent Stadium. The minor league baseball place. It was named Old Kent Park back in the nineties, then LMCU Park in 2000, back when it was in Comstock like two hundred miles from here. But last year they moved the team closer and went back to calling it Kent. Only it’s New Kent Stadium instead of Old Kent Park. It’s just, like, twenty miles outside the city now. Pai–Poise, what’s the–” 

Paige was already ahead of me. “The seating capacity for New Kent Stadium is nine thousand, four hundred, and twelve. And opening night is today.”

“Pack!” I snapped, turning that way. “You’ve gotta call Broadway and tell her–” 

“Too late,” she informed me, holding a phone in her hand. “I just got a text from her. She says Jason was going to the restroom and disappeared. She has no idea where he is.” 

“I think we know where he’s going though,” I found myself muttering. “He wants to impress the Scions. 

“And he’s gonna do it by unleashing his zombies on that stadium.”  

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Enkindle 23-13 (Summus Proelium)

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Well, needless to say, that caused a bit of an uproar through the group. Everyone else was blurting questions at the two La Casa Touched in what turned into a confused mess that was completely impossible to decipher. Meanwhile, my eyes kept flicking between Broadway and Pack as my mouth opened and shut several times in a helpless attempt to somehow telepathically understand what the hell the girl was talking about. Neither method, shouting questions over one another or silently standing there attempting a mind probe, actually accomplished anything, of course. I was pretty sure the only thing we managed to do was slow down getting an actual explanation.

Finally, I whistled to make everyone stop talking over one another. They all turned to look at me while I held my hands up and let the silence hold for a moment. Once I was certain that I had everyone’s attention and no one was going to start blurting questions over each other again, I lowered my hands and focused on the two La Casa Touched. “Okay, would you mind explaining exactly what you’re talking about? What do you mean, you think your brother is responsible for these zombie… things?”

It still felt weird to say ‘zombie’ out loud and be entirely serious, but there wasn’t a better word for them. And considering everything else about the world, maybe it was dumb for me to feel weird about that. Honestly, what was so utterly inconceivable about a power that could puppet dead bodies, or whatever was actually going on? Was it just the concept of a… a dead body being used like that? Was that what my brain refused to accept? 

Before Broadway could respond, Pack spoke up first. “We should probably start from the beginning. I mean, she should. But I get the feeling this place isn’t the best for a good, probably long, private conversation. You know, right out here in the open.” She turned, pointing. “There’s a rooftop greenhouse over there, three buildings east. We can be out of sight, and really talk.” 

Before I could say anything to that, Paige stepped closer and focused on the girl, her eyes clearly narrowing behind that red visor. “Is that really why you want to go over there? You just want to have a private conversation without anyone waiting for us?” The suspicion in her voice was palpable. 

“Dude, I have no idea who you even are.” That was Broadway, gesturing. “We came to talk to Paintball. So if you don’t want to go have that talk, feel free to stay here.” She looked back to me then, waving both arms. “Since when is your group so big anyway? I thought you were a solo act. Well, you know, solo plus your partner. Dynamic Duo. Point is, I thought you were more of a Batman and Robin thing, not a whole team situation. Though, come to think of it, he’s always had a lot bigger group than he pretended to have anyway. For a loner, his assortment of partners and sidekicks is basically a small army. I am vengeance, I am the night, I fight my eternal war against crime alone. Aside from Alfred, Robin, Red Robin, Nightwing, Batgirl, Oracle, Spoiler, Red Hood, Blue Bird, Signal, Huntress sometimes, Catwoman, Batwing, Batwoman, Commissioner Gordon…” 

I could tell that both Paige and Sierra were about to respond to that, and would probably end up making this whole situation spiral quickly out of control. I couldn’t blame them for being suspicious, of course. Not with everything that was going on, and their entire… everything. Still, I quickly stepped in, clearing my throat. “Ahem, Broadway, Pack, this is Poise and that’s Style. You should know Alloy, of course. Over there we have Calvin and Hobbes. And, of course–” 

“Hi! I’m Wr–Trevithick!” Wren chirped, flying in closer so she could study them more intently. “That’s cool armor, Miss Broadway. Do you know who made it? Can I talk to them? Is–” 

“I ahh, I’ll see if Blackjack wants to share that info,” Broadway put in, a little awkwardly. “Look, it’s great to meet you and all, really. Can’t wait for us to have a real ‘get to know you’ fight scene. But this whole brother making zombies thing really is important. If you don’t want to help, or if you think we’re just screwing with you, we can just go–”

“No, it’s okay,” I quickly put in. Without looking at the others, I gestured towards the roof Pack had indicated. “Go ahead, we’ll be right over. Just give us a second to talk, alright? I promise, we’ll be there in a minute.” I was focusing on Pack rather than Broadway, silently urging her to give us time to talk the whole thing through instead of pushing this confrontation. 

Thankfully, she gave me a very slight, almost imperceptible nod. Given her entire face was obscured by that featureless black mask, it was even harder to read that sort of motion, but I got the gist of it. Her head seemed to shift toward Sierra briefly, but I couldn’t tell why. She sure didn’t say anything to the other girl. Instead, she pivoted and gave a low whistle. From behind the same brick structure sticking out of the roof that Broadway had been standing behind before making her appearance, Scatters emerged in full reindeer form. She came closer, glowing proudly neon as Pack swung a leg up over her. Once the girl had mounted her pet, she focused on us. “Yeah, we’ll be over there, so don’t keep us waiting too long, huh?” 

With that, Scatters literally leapt right from where she was standing. She didn’t even take a running start, instead just jumping from right there. She landed on the next roof over, before another jump put her on the second roof, then the third. Just like that, she was by the greenhouse. 

“Yeah, dudes, it’s kind of important,” Broadway informed us, before pointing that way without actually looking. Her gaze stayed on us as I heard a low boom, before the girl vanished and reappeared over there. Right, soundwave teleportation. That was probably pretty useful. 

Turning away from that, I focused on the others before letting out a long, low breath. “Well,” I offered while painting a smiley face across my helmet, “at least it sounds like we’re about to get some answers?” After getting that out, I shrugged. “Look, I know it might seem a little suspicious and convenient, but I really don’t think Pack is the sort of person to lead us into a trap like that. If this was something to do with the Ministry or anything like that, she would’ve given us a signal. Besides, if the Ministry knew enough to set up a trap for us, they’d know enough not to use Pack to do it.” 

“Or maybe Pack is exactly who they’d use,” Paige pointed out flatly. “Because she’s sort of part of the group, and someone you’d trust. Especially if they turned her and made threats to make her lead us right where they want us.” She let that hang in the air for a moment before shaking her head. “But no, I think you’re right. It’s not a trap. I just had to test her. Besides, if nothing else, if she does turn later we now have a baseline for how she reacts to being questioned.” 

“Dude,” Murphy put in, “if I haven’t said it before, I’m really glad you’re on our side. You’re kinda scary.” 

Snorting despite myself, I pushed back the multitude of things I could’ve said to that. Instead, I gave a short nod. “Right, well, if nothing else, at least we’re on the same page about Pack being on the level. Which means they really do think that Broadway’s brother is behind this…” 

“Can we go over there now?” Peyton put in, literally squirming on her feet. “Cuz I really wanna know more about that, and we’re only gonna find out by actually talking to her, you know?” 

“Right, yeah, you’ve got a point,” I agreed. “We can stand here and speculate all day, or we can just go talk to her and get answers that way. So, everyone okay with going over there?” 

There was a general murmur of agreement, so we all headed over to the other roof. A minute later, we were all gathered in front of the greenhouse. I could see the other two waiting inside, and gave the rest of the group a quick look, whispering for everyone to be nice. Then I opened the door and stepped inside. It was obvious that this greenhouse wasn’t exactly in regular use at the moment, given the lack of actual living plants, but it would give us a little bit of privacy so random onlookers wouldn’t necessarily see a group of Star-Touched talking to Fell-Touched as though we were all friends. I had a feeling that wasn’t really something I wanted to explain to the general public. The whole situation was complicated, to say the least. 

Pack, who was scratching Scatters under the chin, looked over as we came inside. “You made it, are you sure you don’t want to frisk us for weapons?” 

“You have a knife right there, a sawed-off shotgun under your jacket, and some sort of taser thing in the sleeve of the jacket,” Sierra pointed out casually. “It wouldn’t take much frisking.” 

“Yeah,” the other girl shot right back while pointedly stretching, “but maybe I’d enjoy it.” 

Okay yeah, it turned out there actually were still brand-new ways for me to be weirded out by the whole Sierra looking like me thing. Somehow, I resisted most of the reaction, fighting back the blush that crossed my face while thanking the fact that I had a mask and helmet covering it. Instead, I waved a hand. “Before you jump too far into your weird flirting thing with someone new, can we hear the story about what’s going on?” My gaze focused on Broadway, who was standing silently by one of the empty tables that should’ve had plants on it. “You were saying something about your brother. Is he part of La Casa too?” 

Her gaze turned to me, staring through that high-tech helmet. The multi-colored lines bounced across the V-shaped visor over her face with each word. “By which, you mean is this whole zombie thing one of Blackjack’s plots, maybe something to do with fighting this war that got out of control?” She let that hang briefly before shaking her head. “Blackjack doesn’t know about it.” 

“That’s why we came to you guys,” Pack put in. “We need help dealing with this, and we’re pretty sure Blackjack’s first idea would be to kill him. Especially after all the trouble he’s caused.” 

“Ehh, just hold on and let me start from the beginning,” Broadway quickly insisted.  She focused on us then, shifting a bit indecisively before sighing. “Okay, first of all, the guy we’re talking about isn’t actually my biological brother. But he is. I mean, he’s my foster brother. We grew up in the same family, since I was four and he was seven. Trust me, I’ve known him basically my whole life. He’s my brother in every way that matters, and I’m not gonna let–” She stopped herself from whatever she had been about to say, making a noise deep in her throat before pushing on. “He’s never been the sort of person to really think things through that well.” 

It looked like Paige was going to say something, before Sierra nudged her and whispered something. While they were busy with that, I asked, “Are you still close with him? I mean, do you still live at that house in between being a supervillain for Blackjack?” 

Giving me a brief look, Broadway shook her head. The lights danced across the visor once more as she replied, “No. I mean I still visit, but as far as any of them know, I just emancipated myself from Carl and Lanie, our foster parents, and I’ve got a minimum wage job and a shitty apartment.” She paused then before muttering, “I hope you people realize the risk I’m telling you about–” Even before she’d finished that sentence, however, she was correcting herself. “No, shit, sorry. I’m asking for your help, it’s not–fuck. Look, I’m not good at this sort of thing, okay? I’m pretty sure there’s no way for me to tell you what you need to know to deal with this without exposing enough for you to figure out who I am. I’m sort of–you know, I’m trusting you with this. And yeah, I know I’m also asking for a huge favor. I’m asking you to do something about my brother without killing him like Blackjack would. I get that. I just-” She sighed. “Please keep everything you learn about me to yourselves, okay? Pack said we could trust you and I just–really don’t have any other choice. You’re the best shot I’ve got at making sure he doesn’t hurt anyone else and doesn’t get… fuck. God damn it.” She sighed, putting both hands against her visor. “I’m sorry. I know stopping him is more important.” 

Exchanging a look with Pack, I shook my head before starting, “We’re here. We’re listening. We’re not about to go running to the authorities with your name and address. Look, if your brother is the one responsible for this, he’s been killing people. He needs to be in prison. Prison, not dead. That’s not–I mean… we’ll help. He’s a lot more dangerous than you are. It’s like Pack keeps saying, you guys steal stuff. We’ll try to stop you from doing that in the middle of the act, but it’s nothing compared to these zombies or whatever they are. So, you have my word. We will not give your information to anyone else and we won’t use it to try to catch or expose you. If your brother is the one responsible for this, we need to stop him. Like you said, that’s a hell of a lot more important than anything you’ve been stealing for Blackjack. We’re not gonna take what you say now and use it against you later. We just want to stop the zombies.  Please, tell us what you know.” 

Pack put a hand on the other girl’s shoulder, leaning over to whisper something softly to her. There was a brief pause then, before Broadway murmured something back and then focused on the rest of us. “Okay. You’re right. I mean, of course you’re right. I just freaked out for a second there. I–right, starting from the beginning.” She took another breath and then did just that. 

“My brother’s name is Jason. He’s always had a bit of a temper, and he’s always been angry about being a foster kid. Not angry at Carl and Lanie, that is. Mad at his birth parents. And mad at society. He got in fights at school a lot, but he also stuck up for people, you know? He didn’t bully people or whatever, he’d get in trouble for beating up the kids that were bullying others. And sometimes he’d take it too far. It was hard for him to control his temper. He didn’t really have a filter either. He’d say stuff you shouldn’t say to a teacher. If he thought the teacher was being a jackass, he’d come right out and say that. Like I said, it got him in trouble a lot, and he got expelled from a couple schools before getting sent to this private academy. I mean, they called it a private academy but it was more like a military school. Except one that you’d go home at night from. They were just really strict about wearing a uniform and discipline and whatever. Anyway, it seemed like Jason did okay there. Maybe because of the discipline thing, or maybe because they didn’t tolerate other kids picking on each other. Whatever, he didn’t have a lot of… opportunities to get in fights. Or maybe he just got better at hiding them, I dunno.” 

She audibly exhaled then before pushing on. “About three months ago, I was visiting for dinner. I stayed until like eight o’clock, then I left. But a few hours later, I realized I left my keys to my apartment. The real apartment, not the shitty one they think I have. So I went back to get them. It was late and I didn’t want to explain what I was doing, so I was just gonna sneak inside the same way I used to sneak in and out when I lived there. Not like Molly and Jennica, err, my foster sisters, would’ve said anything about it. They’re cool. All I had to do was climb this tree outside and go across the branch.” 

“You didn’t just telepo–” Roald started before catching himself. “Oh, right, sisters.” 

“Exactly,” she confirmed with a look that way. “If they were awake, I couldn’t risk them seeing me just appear out of nowhere. So I had to do it the old-fashioned way. Which was kinda fun. At least, that part of it was.”

Again, she went quiet for a few seconds before making herself continue. “I got up the tree pretty easily. But when I was going across the branch, I heard… something. It was coming from the garden area, which–okay so the tree I was climbing up was in the backyard. The garden is along the right-hand wall of the house from there, just out of sight from where I was. But the sounds were like… weird. So I wanted to check it out. You know, just in case it was someone trying to break in or whatever. Stupid choice on their part, right? Instead of climbing in my old window, I went across the roof and stayed low. I just sort of poked my head over the edge to look down at the garden.” 

Her hand opened and shut, gaze looking off into the distance while she was clearly remembering what she had seen. “Jason was down there. He was digging up these little boxes. They were like eight inches long and six inches wide. There were six of them. He took them up out of the ground and he was taking these bodies out. Rat bodies, mouse bodies, squirrel bodies, that sort of thing. I couldn’t really see perfectly from where I was, but they were definitely rodents. He had their bodies, their dead bodies, all laid out in the dirt in front of him. Then he touched them, and they started to move around. I mean, there was this… okay so when he touched them, their bodies glowed like, red-orange for a couple seconds. Then they started to move around. They followed his fingers like he was puppeting them, and they also followed his orders. Like, he said go to the tree, and they went to the tree. He was laughing about it, like he was having fun.” 

“Okay,” Murphy put in, “no offense, but that sounds really motherfucking creepy.” 

There was a very brief pause as Broadway seemed to be considering how to respond before she gave a short nod. “No, yeah, totally. It was creepy as hell, believe me. You think it’s bad right now, try being there in the moment. Anyway, I watched him for a while, but he wasn’t really doing anything too bad with it. I mean, yeah, he was puppeting rotting corpses, and that’s pretty screwed up. But that’s it, he was just sort of playing with them right there. It was like he was testing his power. And yeah, it was obviously a power. The point is, he controlled them and he made them do stuff. Including burning sticks. He put sticks in front of them and they put their paws up against them and just melted right through. Then he like, made them disintegrate and reappear on the other side of the garden. Their bodies turned into ashes, then just came back together.” 

My mouth opened and shut before I managed a weak, “Just like the zombies back there. Heat, disintegrating and–I mean we didn’t see them reforming but that makes sense. It all sounds just like what we saw.” 

“I know, right?” Broadway replied while focusing on me. “It sounds just like what’s happening all over the city. Anyway, I just left him alone after that. I mean, I sort of tried to bring up the idea about how it would be to have powers a few times when we were visiting, but he never took the bait. And as far as I could tell he wasn’t hurting anyone. I didn’t know how to actually ask him about it, because I was pretty sure that would bring up me having powers, which I haven’t exactly told any of my family about. The whole thing is just awkward. So I told myself I’d just keep an eye out and see what happened. I figured he’d either pick a gang or a… hero team to join at some point, or maybe he’d just be a mercenary. Whatever, I wasn’t gonna force him into anything. And I never saw him playing with his… rat corpses again. But then this started happening.” 

“Which you didn’t expect,” Paige put in. 

Broadway gave her a brief look. “Yeah, I definitely didn’t expect any of this. That’s for sure. Anyway, the point is, I need you guys to look into this and stop him without… you know, letting him know who tipped you off. Stealing shit is one thing, but if he’s killing people, he–I want to know what’s really going on. If someone’s holding something over him to make him do this shit or–or whatever. 

“So please, figure out what my brother’s gotten himself into and stop him. If he’s being manipulated or controlled or whatever, get him out of it. If he’s responsible for all this, put him in prison. You do that, and I’ll owe you.” 

“If he’s really the one behind the zombies, whatever the reason, we want to stop him anyway,” I pointed out. 

“So let’s talk about how exactly we’re supposed to do that.” 

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Enkindle 23-12 (Summus Proelium)

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With the body–or man–or whatever he was completely gone, we all just stood there staring at the spot where the last of the ashes had blown away. Three or four full seconds of complete silence passed, where you probably could’ve heard a pin drop. And then that silence was interrupted, rather abruptly, by a distant voice shouting from the rooftop. 

“What the fuck was that?!”

It was Murphy, of course. Or Hobbes. She was standing there next to Roald/Calvin, both of them staring past us at the spot where the man had been. Her voice came again, but it was quieter. She was saying something about what happened to the guy. I could guess the gist of it. But I certainly didn’t have any answers for her. I was too busy asking the exact same questions.

Wren, landing beside me, spoke in a far quieter, more subdued voice. “Did… did he just die?” 

“No,” Peyton immediately answered, before catching herself. “I mean, I don’t think so? I mean, he looked like he was already–but we didn’t actually–I mean…” Her head shook helplessly as she looked around at the rest of us. “What just happened?” 

Finally, I found my voice. “I don’t know,” I murmured. “But it was nothing we did. I mean, we caught him. We had him. And then he just…” 

“Disintegrated,” Paige put in flatly. “Whether that was some form of teleportation or just suicide, I have no idea. But the latter seems a little bit dramatic given the circumstances.” 

“The other dude disappeared like that too,” Sierra pointed out. “I mean, that has to be it, right? He was out of our sight in that dumpster and when we took it off, he was just gone. Like this. It has to be the same thing. So did they both burn up forever and… I mean did they just–I… huh.” 

My head nodded slowly as a grimace crossed my face. “Yeah, huh is about right. Part of me really wants to freak out right now, but the other part is too confused to do any freaking. Whatever all that was, it was really screwed up. This whole situation is screwed up.” Even as I said that, I was turning to where Murphy and Roald were, extending a hand to send a shot of orange paint that way before calling out, “It’s safe, you can bring them down!” 

Murphy, who took the bulk of the paint, immediately hopped down. She landed fairly smoothly on the ground below, then stood still and waited while Roald got the two people who had been hiding behind the bench before they rescued them. They held onto him, while he snapped his fingers and pointed at Murphy, teleporting down to her with passengers in tow. The two civilians were staring at the spot where that guy had disappeared with as much shock and confusion as I was feeling right then. Maybe even more, considering some of us had already encountered something like that.  

Speaking of which, I forced my gaze away from that spot and focused on the two people he had been attacking. Making my voice as calm as possible, I spoke up. “Um, did either of you know that guy? Do you know who he was, or what the hell that was about?” 

Rather than answer right away, the woman of the pair, a dark-skinned girl in her early to mid twenties with long braided hair, quickly blurted, “Y-you saved us. Oh my God, you saved us. You all-you all–Dash was gonna–” With that, she promptly turned and bent over at the knees to throw up in the nearby ditch. 

“Dash,” Paige jumped on. “His name is Dash?” 

The man, a Latino around the same age as his companion, gave a quick, almost frantic nod. “Fuck, yeah, that’s him. Dash Cooper. He was–we were–he died, okay? We were at a party a couple weeks ago. We were driving home and he had a little too much in his system, so he totaled it against a stoplight. He was dead, totally and completely dead. We buried that motherfucker. We fucking buried him, dude! There was a funeral a-a-and he was dead!” 

The woman straightened up, spitting once before giving a shaky nod of agreement. “We were just out here picking up some food, and then… then h-he popped up out of nowhere and started like… fucking repeating our words, echoing what we were saying. Only it sounded like us, like our voices in his mouth! He was like–he was mocking us and trying to… fuck, fuck, fuck!” 

Okay, yeah, this was getting more disturbing by the moment. This was definitely the same sort of thing as the other zombie. But what did that say about the Luciano version? Were there really two zombie guys with heat powers and–fuck, I had no idea. Nothing. None of this made any sense. How could there be two dead guys who both happened to get the same power to keep them in a half-alive state? It had to be something else, the coincidence was too absurd otherwise. There had to be some other person doing this, right? This was all–the whole thing was just–what? We had more information now than before, but none of it helped. In fact, it made the whole situation even more confusing. 

“I-is he like… dead and gone now?” The man looked between all of us as he asked that. “I mean, he’s not… he’s not coming back, right? He fucking disintegrated.” 

“He was dead before and came back, Carlos!” the girl blurted those words while almost hyperventilating. “What the fuck’s gonna stop him from coming back again?! I don’t know what the hell happened, why he–what–” She looked straight to me, pleading desperately, “Just fucking tell me, what the hell is going on?” 

Swallowing hard, I shook my head. “We don’t know, exactly. I’m sorry, I wish we did. I’m pretty sure he’s not gone forever though. Whatever this is, that seems too… easy.” I was grimacing even as I said that. Part of me wanted to tell them that he wasn’t the only one, but I was afraid that they would get interviewed by people working for the Ministry, which could potentially lead to my parents learning that Paintball and company had encountered this zombie thing before. Which could lead to them realizing that we were the same people who encountered Luciano earlier, and that… yeah, it could potentially give them too much information. So I kept quiet about that. 

Before anyone else could say anything, a glimpse of movement from one side made my gaze snap toward one of the surrounding buildings. A figure came running across the rooftop there, before leaping down from the top of the six story building. She landed as lightly on the pavement as if she had just stepped off a curb before straightening up. 

Caishen. It was Caishen, apparently having used her power to reduce the ‘value’ of that fall damage down to being negligible. She stood there in her usual costume of dark purple scale mail armor, a gold leather coat, black boots, and a black helmet with glowing purple lenses over the eyes. The coat itself billowed a bit too perfectly in the breeze, making her look even cooler. I was very tempted to ask if that was some sort of Touched-Tech enhancement, but it felt like the wrong time. 

“Was there another one?” the woman demanded, looking us over. “Another… zombie?” It sounded like she was already regretting even saying that out loud, but couldn’t think of another, better word for it. 

“Another one?” I found myself demanding despite myself, giving her a quick double-take. “What do you mean, another one?” 

Her gaze locked onto me as she flatly replied, “There’s been a few of them all over the city. We’ve been dealing with them, but they keep disappearing.” After saying that, she focused on the two civilians. “Here, you two should go sit down with the medics.” 

I was about to ask what medics she was talking about, but even as the words came to my mouth, an ambulance with its lights on but no siren came around the corner and screeched to a halt. She must’ve been in contact with them or had their location marked inside her helmet or something. Whatever it was, the medics were already out and guiding our two witnesses over to sit down and get looked over. 

Once they were on their way, Caishen focused on us. “Okay, first of all, should I assume that all of you are together?” Her gaze moved over each of us before she added, “This seems new. You’re all–what was it you said your ahh, team was called back at the convention? Avant-Guard with a u?” 

Hopping once, I nodded. “Yeah, this is us. We’re still working out the details and all that. But uhh, you know me, Paintball. You should probably know Alloy. And uhh, this is Trevithick.” 

“Hi!” Wren blurted, hovering up on those wings to be on the same level as Caishen. “Does your daughter really make giant bugs?” 

“She does,” Caishen confirmed, giving her a curious once-over. “Maybe you should visit sometime.” 

While Wren hurriedly agreed to that idea, I gestured to the others. “This is Calvin and Hobbes, and that’s Style and Poise.” The first two waved a bit awkwardly, while Sierra and Paige simply saluted in unison before glancing at one another and making uncomfortable noises in the back of their throats. 

“I suppose those all fit your team name theme, in one way or another,” Caishen mused thoughtfully. Her gaze moved over all of us intently, and I could tell she was filing away every detail. I could also tell that she wanted to ask about powers and such, but for whatever reason decided not to. Instead, she asked, “Are you all okay?” 

“Physically, sure,” I confirmed. “Pretty perfect, really. But mentally? That’s a different story. What the hell was going on with that guy? What do you mean there were others like him? Was he really a zombie? Those guys over there said he was their friend and he died a couple weeks ago. Died and was buried. Then he just popped up a few minutes ago and started going after them, taunting them with their own voices or whatever. So what the hell?”  

“Yeah, dude,” Peyton put in, “I mean, supervillains and stopping robberies and stuff is one thing, but a zombie apocalypse? That’s like, the completely wrong genre. Every time they try to stick zombies into a superhero thing, it’s cash grab nonsense. Or like, an alternate universe. And quite frankly, I really don’t feel like thinking that I’m an alternate version of myself, because those usually get killed for not being important enough to carry a monthly book.” 

My mouth opened and then shut as I stared at the girl for a moment before turning back to Caishen. “Uh, yeah, basically what she said. We’d really like to know what’s actually going on. And, you know, I’m not that eager to be considered a disposable alternate universe version of myself either.” 

“Yes,” Paige agreed simply, her tone sounding completely serious. “We’d all prefer not to be killed off just to prove the situation is serious. So would you please explain how this is not an actual zombie apocalypse? I’m sure we’d all appreciate it. Or just anything you know.”

“Well, ahh, Poise?” Caishen started before continuing when Paige nodded in confirmation. “I wish I could tell all of you exactly what’s going on here. But the fact is, we don’t know the details. We have no idea how this started, where the… people are coming from, or what’s controlling them. It does not seem to be a… ahem, apocalypse, because there are only a few of them. Well, so far, at least.” She held up her hand so we could see her crossed fingers. “They all seem to have the same regenerative and fire-related powers, along with having been dead at one point. Our best guess is that this is a single Touched who has gained the power to reanimate and enhance dead people. How they have memories enough to attack people connected to them or… whatever is still up in the air. But we do believe it’s being done by a single person who has not revealed themselves yet. They may still be testing their power, finding out what they’re truly capable of. Either way, we will track them down. Don’t any of you worry. If you see another attack like this, try to get any civilians out of the way, and delay the… reanimated beings. From what we’ve seen, they have some sort of time limit that they can be active. It seems like they keep going for a relatively short time before… falling apart or needing to rest. So far there’s no information on whether they can come back a second time after falling apart. We need you to keep your eyes open for that too. If you see this same guy back again, let us know, okay? We’re all flying pretty blind right now and could use all the information we can get for how to deal with this.” 

I was nodding quickly even as she finished saying that. “Sure, yeah, if we find out anything else, I will personally let you know. And I guess it goes without saying that if we find out who is actually behind all this…” 

“Report that too,” Caishen confirmed, her gaze locking onto mine. “I mean it. Whoever’s behind this is incredibly dangerous. If you find out anything, and I mean anything at all that could help track them down or identify them, you call. Even if you don’t think it’s that important, even if it’s minor. You have no idea what tiny clue could give the rest of us answers. And you do not, under any circumstances, find out where this person is and go after them alone. Do you hear me? I don’t know what half of you are capable of, but I do know that you’re all really new and very young. So if you find something out, you call it in. If I find out that you’re going after this person by yourselves or knew something you didn’t report, I will make it my mission to ground all of you. And in case you didn’t know, a grounding in Touched life means you will not go out on the streets. Police will not tolerate your actions. I am positive that all of you are technically under age. So you can be grounded if it comes down to it. If you know something, report it so we can all work together to stop this person. Have I made myself clear?” 

Swallowing, I gave a short nod. “Completely crystal. Anything we find out, we’ll let you know. Believe me, none of us have any desire to go after whoever could do something like this all by ourselves. It was bad enough dealing with one zombie. If this person can make several of them all at once…” I made a noise in the back of my throat. “I promise, we’ll let you know if we have something solid.” 

Accepting that with a nod, the woman promised to talk to us some more later, but explained that she had other things to deal with. Mostly revolving around handling all the other zombie appearances. Then she took a moment to hand each of us a card with a number we could call if we found out anything or just wanted to talk, adding that this whole life could be very dangerous and complicated. That was mostly directed to the five of us she had never seen before. Especially Wren. She stressed that she had been serious about having the girl visit her daughter, even if she was several years older, reminding her to call and set something up. 

Something told me that Caishen tried to have any and all of the young Touched visit Lightning Bug whenever she could. Even if there were several years worth of difference in their ages, it wasn’t like there was an abundance of Touched that young. As far as I knew, Lightning Bug was the only one in the entire state who was under the age of eight or nine. And even those were pretty rare. Most Touched were either adults or in their mid-teens at the youngest. Which made me feel a little sad for LB herself. It had to feel weird, being that openly Touched and having no one else her own age like that. To say nothing of the fact that she couldn’t go to normal schools or anything like that. Yeah, she had her family, and everyone at Ten Towers loved her. But… well,  I knew just a little bit about how it could feel isolating to be in a situation similar to that, considering my parents were… who they were. Even discounting the Ministry stuff. Yet I had been incredibly lucky when it came to that. I didn’t fit the physical profile of what the daughter of the richest people in the state should look like, or even act like. I was mostly left alone thanks to that, as well as my family’s efforts to keep me from being a spectacle. I didn’t experience even a quarter of what someone in my position probably normally would have. And yet even then, I knew how weird it could feel. 

For someone like Lightning Bug, who couldn’t hide herself unless she used a hologram creator, whose entire life was built around her powers even though she was only five years old? I couldn’t imagine being in that sort of situation. So yeah, it was no wonder that Caishen clearly tried to have other kids in similar situations come over and visit. She was probably trying to help them as much as her daughter, knowing how they felt. 

And yet, even as those thoughts came through my mind, I also couldn’t help but wonder how much she was getting information for the Ministry. After all, as much sense as all that other stuff made, she could just as easily be using it as an excuse to find out as much as she could for my parents. Just because she wasn’t the one in charge didn’t mean she had no connection to them, after all. We still had to dig through that data we’d stolen to find out if there was anything connecting her to them. At that moment, I made that a priority in my mind. I was going to triple-check everything and see if there was even the slightest sliver connecting her to the Ministry before Wren went over there. 

“Yo, Earth to Paintball!” I was suddenly brought out of my musings when Sierra snapped her fingers in front of my face. “You okay?” 

Jerking a bit, I looked around. They were all staring at me, clearly waiting. “I uhh, yeah, sorry. I was just thinking.” Even as I said that, my gaze caught sight of a couple cops approaching after having secured the area. “Here, you guys should head out. See that roof over there? Head that way. I’ll tell our friends here what happened, then meet you there.” 

“You sure?” Paige asked. “We could all stick around.” 

“No,” I quickly replied while shaking my head. “Don’t worry, I’ll take care of it. I mean, there’s no reason to make all of you sit here and talk to the cops. Go ahead, I’ll be there when it’s over.”  

With varying degrees of reluctance, they headed out, and I took a deep breath before turning to face the officers, raising my hand. “Hey guys,” I started slowly. 

“How’re your days going?” 

******

After leaving the cops about fifteen minutes later once I’d given them all the information I could (and found in turn that there had been five other separate sightings over the past couple hours), I had just red-painted my way up to the nearby roof where I’d sent the others. No sooner had I landed and started to tell them how it went, than something caught my eye. It was Riddles, flying close to me before looping around to head toward a lower building. When I glanced that way, I could see Pack standing there, clearly waiting. 

With a shrug to myself, I pointed her out to the others before giving them some paint protection. Once they were safe, I created a wide blue line to shoot all of us over to the other roof. Landing smoothly, I tried to sound cheerful. “Hey, what’s up? Birdwatching?” Behind and around me, the others landed.

Rather than joke back with me, or even address the rest of the group, Pack spoke flatly. “I need your help. You saw one of those zombie things, right?” 

My head bobbed immediately. “Sure, I–wait, why do you need help with it? Is something wrong? Did you see one of them?” 

Pack didn’t answer at first. Instead, she let out a breath, hand idly scratching Tuesday in his small form on her shoulder. “It’s more than that. It’s–” 

“It’s me.” The new voice came from one side, as Broadway stepped into view. She sounded nervous, not at all the way I’d seen her before. “She wants you to help me. Because I think I know who’s behind these zombies. 

“I’m pretty sure it’s my brother.” 

Previous Chapter / Next Chapter

Enkindle 23-11 (Summus Proelium)

Previous Chapter / Next Chapter

A/N – Hey people! The non-canon chapter for this month was posted over the weekend! You can find it right here

Yeah, needless to say, this was all very confusing. Even more confusing than the whole situation revolving around Luciano had already been, which was really saying something. Before this, we had been dealing with a man who was supposed to be dead and somehow wasn’t, a corpse with powers. Which I maybe could have explained as him Touching right as he died and getting some weird regeneration or something. Now, suddenly we were dealing with more than one of him? More than one obvious corpse with the same powers? Now, I really had no idea what the hell was going on. Aside from the fact that this guy also looked dead, also had the same powers, and was also trying to hurt or kill people. 

We had to stop him. Whatever else was actually going on remained a mystery, but that much was clear. This guy was attacking people, and we had to put a stop to it. Maybe we’d actually be able to contain this one and find out some real answers. But first, we had to make sure he didn’t hurt anyone else. And judging from the experience we’d had with Luciano, that was going to be easier said than done. But hey, at least this time we had the whole group and I could openly use my powers. Maybe that would make the difference. 

Of course, the very first thing we had to do was get him away from those people he was trying to attack. So, even as the questions of who he was and what was going on flashed through my mind, I was already using a shot of blue paint on my boots to launch myself forward off the edge of the roof. As I passed over the scene below, I shot two wads of red paint, one at the middle of the bench he was busy melting his way through, and the other at the ground behind him. While still in mid-air, I activated both, and the already partially melted bench jerked its way off the ground and slammed into the man, knocking him backward away from those people. 

Unfortunately, there were still other civilians in the area. One of which decided to use that exact moment to run in and try to take a picture of what was going on with his phone, even as I used an orange heart on my back to protect myself from the hard landing. Which was just stupid enough that I was momentarily struck dumb, giving the idiot a double-take. 

Thankfully, the others weren’t waiting around either. Alloy went sailing past just over his head, encasing the moron in a shell made of one of her marbles so she could pick him up and move the suddenly protesting man clear to the far side of the area. 

Meanwhile, Hobbes landed hard. She had used the last moment of the orange paint I’d given her before we arrived and saw what was going on. She shouted something I didn’t catch at the two civilians who had been cowering there, before extending her hand. With obvious confusion, they each grabbed her offered arm. Then she pointed back the way she’d come, to where Calvin was still standing. With a snap of her fingers, she activated the teleportation tech Trevithick had installed in the suits, taking herself and the pair who had grabbed onto her arm back up to the roof and (hopefully) to some measure of safety. 

I had landed directly between the spot where their attacker had been, and where he was now. With a sound that was something halfway between a laugh and a roar, he flung the remains of the bench away, springing back to his feet. Just like Luciano, he gave me a broad smile. And just like Luciano, his teeth were glowing, clearly giving off intense heat. 

He didn’t say anything, of course. The only noise he made was that roar-laugh, as he dropped down to lope toward me, using his hands as well as his feet. It was like he was a gorilla or something, loping rapidly toward me while showing off those bright, burning-hot teeth. 

“I can’t figure out if you’d be a fantastic ad for the dentist, or a terrible one,” I announced, while using another bit of blue paint to launch myself upward in a flip that carried me over his charge. Twisting around before coming down in a crouch behind him, I added, “On the one hand, you’ve got fantastic chompers. On the other hand, I’m pretty sure melting through anything you bite is a no-go for most people. And can you imagine trying to brush them?” 

He was fast, pivoting back toward me with a high-pitched chittering sound before lunging toward where I was. But by that point, Poise and Style had landed, each dropping down on either side of the man now that I had given them the opening. They each caught one of his arms, holding him. Which lasted for about half a second before he jerked his arms together, slamming the pair into one another before flinging them away from him. Both girls went tumbling in opposite directions, clearly dazed from the impact. 

Before he could follow up on that in any way, a beam of orange-gold light shot down from the roof, where Hobbes was holding one of Trevithick’s rifles. When the beam struck the man, it wrapped around him. He was lifted off the ground, flipped over, and slammed down into the concrete with enough force to crack it before the beam faded. 

Activating a series of green lightning bolts on my legs, I raced that way before he could pick himself up. My hands extended, shooting red paint at his arms and legs as well as the ground itself, activating all of it to hold him down for a few seconds. 

At least, that was the plan. Unfortunately, the pavement under him began to melt, taking away the red paint I’d put there. Without the concrete there, there was no paint, and without the paint, there was nothing holding him down. Which I found out the hard way as he sprang up and lashed out with his fist. Luckily, I already had a couple orange stars running up my arms, and managed to activate them just as that punch collided with my chest, sending me windmilling through the air to land hard on my back. 

Yeah, this was clearly going well. Paige and Sierra were still picking themselves up after being slammed together and tossed aside like that, and the special gun Murphy had used barely slowed the guy down at all. He had been slammed into the ground hard enough to break the concrete under him, and it barely drew a reaction. Now I was on the ground too, blinking away a moment of being dazed. 

Abruptly, a hand caught mine and I heard Wren shout something about moving. She had come diving down from the air, catching my hand before using her momentum to drag me several feet in an instant. In that same moment, our new not-friend slammed down onto the ground where I had been. A snarl of obvious frustration escaped him as he had been trying to grab me. Without Trevithick there… yeah, that wouldn’t have been fun. 

Blurting a thanks to her, I flipped back to my feet. Poise and Style were back up as well by that point, the three of us (four with Wren hovering just above me) formed a triangle around the bad guy, while Calvin and Hobbes were still up on the roof. 

Then there was Alloy, who was back from getting the picture-taking moron and a couple other onlookers out of the way. She landed near Style, and we all squared off against this confusing figure. Only a few seconds had passed since I jumped off the building, and now we were all facing off with him. I just hoped this one wouldn’t magically vanish. Or, if he did, that we’d at least see what happened. 

Of course, because this entire situation wasn’t creepy enough as it was, our quarry had to go and make it even worse. Namely, by turning his head all the way around in a full three-hundred-and-sixty degree circle, taking in each of us. It started with a slow creak as his head twisted, followed by a series of incredibly disturbing snaps as he literally broke his own neck to complete the turn. By the time it came back around to facing me, he healed the whole thing once more. He literally broke his own neck repeatedly to turn it all the way around, allowing it to heal afterward. Which was just… yeah. 

“Okay, this guy is not ticking my fuzzy feeling boxes,” I managed while everyone else stared that way. “We can’t let him walk away from this.” 

“You got any bright ideas, buddy?” Style asked, already starting to take a few steps to one side away from Peyton, clearly creating a bit of room between them in case he chose to attack. “Cuz I sort of left my ‘trap metal-melting super-regen zombie monster’ lasso in my other pants.” As she spoke, the girl spun a long piece of metal she’d ripped from the partially demolished bench in one hand. 

Before I could respond to that, the monster in question abruptly spun toward Poise and started to lunge that way. But in mid-motion, he was suddenly brought up short, as a purple, glowing ‘rope’ went flying around the figure and pulled tight against his torso. His arms were yanked to his sides and he jerked to a halt. 

“What can I say?” Alloy called. Her purple marble had formed that rope and was hovering in the air beside her. “You gave me an idea.” 

Of course, the monster immediately pivoted and went to lunge back toward her. But the moment he did, the marble stiffened itself so it was more like a pole than a rope. Despite that, though he was slowed down, our new friend wasn’t completely stopped. He kept moving one step, then another. 

But Alloy wasn’t done either. She added her silver and white marbles in their own lasso/pole versions, both of which grabbed and yanked in different directions. If the purple marble and Alloy herself were at the twelve-o’clock position, the silver and white marbles yanked at him from the four and seven positions. All three lassos pulled at him from different directions to hold his movement. 

Of course, I couldn’t let her do that by herself. As soon as I saw the man trying to strain against them, I showered him in yellow paint. It slowed him down, stopping him from gaining the momentum he needed to break the grip of the marble lassos. We had him. 

At least, for the moment we did. Unfortunately, smoke began to billow off the momentarily-trapped figure’s body, as his skin cracked and peeled, blistering away right in front of us. His clothes melted away almost immediately, which made this whole thing even more upsetting. Now we were dealing with a naked corpse. Which was just… eurgh. I tried not to look down. At the same time, smoke also began to come off the marble lassos. 

“Oh shit, they can’t take a lot of that!” Alloy blurted, already stumbling away from her clearly burning hot purple marble. “Guys, you’ve gotta do something! They’re gonna have to let him go!” 

Right, what exactly were we supposed to do? This guy could melt through anything we tried to contain him with, and I was pretty sure we couldn’t hit him hard enough to make him stay down. Not with his regeneration. For fuck’s sake, he had just repeatedly broken his own neck just to look at all of us in turn. What the hell were we supposed to do about that?

“Keep him busy!” That was Trevithick, hovering near me. Her eyes snapped my way as she added, “I’ve got an idea!” She held a screwdriver in one hand and was pointing up toward Calvin and Hobbes. “But you gotta keep him here for a minute! Maybe three!” Then she was off and flying at top speed that way. 

“Okay, guys, you heard her,” I blurted. “We keep the guy busy for a few minutes. Alloy, let him go!” Even as I said that, I was already pointing my hands that way, shooting a burst of blue paint toward the ground at his feet. “Style, pull!” 

Immediately, Alloy removed the lassos, allowing her marbles to shift back to their natural shape. At the same time, the blue paint launched the figure upward a good ten feet in the air. And Style, who had reacted instantly, hurled that makeshift metal spear of hers right into the man. Between her own strength and his super-heated body, it went through his stomach easily and was already starting to melt. Which told me something about how bad of an idea would be for a normal person to be anywhere near him. 

But I wasn’t an ordinary person. Painting myself half purple and half orange, I put blue under my feet and launched myself that way. Even with half my body covered with my protection-paint, I could still feel the heat as I slammed into the man. My fist collided with his face, snapping his head back so hard I heard another snap. Not that it really mattered, given everything else he’d already recovered so easily from (not to mention how dead he already looked), but still. It made me flinch just a little inwardly. 

What also made me flinch, much more outwardly, was the way his own fists came together to slam into my head in mid-air. I was smacked right down, slamming into the pavement with a yelp. Thankfully, between my paint and my helmet, I was okay. It just sort of stunned me briefly. 

“Paintball!” That was Poise, coming our way. She was ignoring the staggering heat, rushing toward me as I lay at the living corpse’s feet. At the last second, I managed to twist myself around, shooting out a spray of orange that caught her in the chest to give her a bit of added protection just as her fist lashed out to punch the bad guy in the face. 

With a grunt, I threw myself up and away from him before my own paint could run out. The last thing I wanted to do was be anywhere near that guy without protection. Not now that he had clearly cranked up the heat beyond any reasonable level. The metal pole through his stomach had almost entirely melted. It was like taffy, sticking out both sides of his body. Even as I looked that way, the two ends literally snapped off, each falling to the ground. Which left the rest of the melted metal inside his body, but I was pretty sure that wouldn’t slow him down any more than anything else had. 

Meanwhile, Paige hit him three times in rapid succession, her fists moving almost too quick for me to see. Which got even faster as I hit her with a shot of green paint from one hand and purple from the other, allowing the girl to throw herself into a whirlwind of violence, her fists colliding with the man hard enough to actually drive him back a few steps despite his own immense strength. He staggered, but not for long. Even as I was springing back to my feet to rejoin her, his foot lashed out to collide with the other girl’s stomach. She was sent flying into me, both of us crashing down together to roll along the pavement. 

Worse, even as we rolled, all tangled up with each other, I could see the bad guy lunge after us. He clearly intended to land on top, his mouth open to reveal those terrible, burning teeth. No, he didn’t intend to just land on us. He intended to eat us, literally. 

But we weren’t alone. As the man was still in mid-leap, a silver fist the size of a bicycle slammed into him from the side. It hit the monster hard enough to send him flying into a nearby lamp post, bending it over partway from the impact. And then said post started to melt, allowing him to fall through to hit the pavement. Which itself started to melt under him. 

A second large marble hand, this one white and shaped like an open palm, smacked down into the man from overhead. It was like swatting a massive fly. Unfortunately, it didn’t have the same result as smacking a fly, as the man barely grunted under the impact. It didn’t knock him flat, let alone smash him. He took that blow like a champ, before shoving himself back to his feet. 

Which was when Style, literally riding on the purple marble as it was shaped like a flying surfboard, went sailing past him. She wasn’t too close, but still, it was hot enough that I could see her skin start to blister a bit. In that motion, her hands snapped out, sending a pair of small knives that way. Knives which collided with the man’s eyes, burying themselves there. They immediately began to melt, but the damage was done. At least for the moment, he couldn’t see. Given his absurd healing, it wouldn’t last long. But it gave us a little bit of an opening. I just hoped we could actually do something with that. Because quite frankly, this wasn’t going super-well. 

Thankfully, all of that did at least give Paige and me a chance to untangle ourselves and roll away from each other. We popped back to our feet, as I took a moment to hit both of us as well as Sierra with orange protection paint. We had another ten seconds where the heat coming off this son of a bitch wouldn’t instantly cook us alive. And something told me it wouldn’t take much more than that before his eyes would be fully healed. We had to take advantage of this opening while we had it. 

So, I blurted, “Distract him!” Then I dove sideways, putting myself closer but not directly in front of the man, who was wildly swinging in a blind attempt to grab one of us as he staggered our way with a snarl. 

Luckily, Poise, Style, and Alloy were definitely ready to be distractions. The first two lunged that way, hitting the man one after the other with a pair of hard punches to either side of his jaw that rocked his head backward. He tried to grab both of them, but they rolled under and away from his grasping arms. Which was when Alloy shaped her purple marble into a sort of pole with a hook on it, catching onto the back of his neck briefly to yank him forward. Which sent him stumbling right into her path as she hurled herself, feet first, into his chest to knock him backward

Or at least, she intended to knock him backward. Unfortunately, even that full-force collision wasn’t enough to actually make him even lose a step. It was like she’d collided with a brick wall. She bounced right off and would’ve hit the ground right in front of him while he was stomping down, but her marble-formed costume took over and flew sideways with her inside to carry Peyton out of the way of that descending foot. 

By that point, I had managed to pop up behind the man, blurting, “Poise, Style, get his arms!” At the same time, I hit them each with a shot of purple, knowing this guy was too strong for even those two to hold without that. 

They reacted quickly, each grabbing one of those limbs while he swung for them. Thankfully, the orange paint that was still active meant they weren’t immediately burned, but it still clearly wasn’t exactly fun. He was also so strong that even with the added purple paint, they could barely hold him. Between the two, Paige and Sierra managed to twist his arms behind his back. Which was when I hit both arms with pink paint, made sure I had my own purple and orange boosts active, and lunged that way. 

Alloy had figured out what I was doing, and quickly shaped two of her marbles into hooked poles to catch hold of his legs and hold them in place, while a third one hooked around his neck. With the heat he was giving off, they wouldn’t be able to hold him for long. None of them would. But hopefully it would be long enough. 

Between Alloy’s marbles, Paige, and Sierra, they barely managed to hold the guy in place while I grabbed his hands. The instant I did, I could already feel my skin start to burn. Fuck, even with my orange paint, he was giving off so much heat it still hurt. I couldn’t even imagine how bad it would be without the paint. I had to act quickly. His arms and hands were pink, so I activated the paint and yanked hard on his hands. They came like taffy thanks to the paint, and I was able to quickly and efficiently tie them together. Yeah, I literally tied his hands, twisting the fingers around one another in as complicated of knots as I could manage. The whole process made me want to hurl, yet I kept it down, using all the protection time I had to tie up his hands and arms. In the last couple seconds, I yanked harder down, pulling those taffy-like arms toward his legs before wrapping them around those. I had tied his hands together and then tied those around his legs, bending him backward slightly in the process. 

Finally, I stumbled away, shouting for the others to let the man go. In the process, I hit him with another shot of pink paint so his arms wouldn’t untie themselves once the first dose wore off. 

The others released him too and we all stumbled away, while he snarled and yanked at his own arms and legs. This was how we could stop him. At least temporarily. He could melt through anything, but he couldn’t melt through himself. Well, not very effectively, anyway. I was putting his own heat and regeneration against one another. He healed his own melting body faster than he could actually melt his way free of his tied-together limbs. As long as I kept hitting him with more pink paint to keep it up, he couldn’t get anywhere or attack anyone. Not very effectively, anyway. 

Unfortunately, I couldn’t keep it up forever. But even as I opened my mouth to call out that someone else needed to do something because I was almost out of paint, Wren flew over our heads, shouting for everyone to get down. 

So, we did. Alloy, Poise, Style, and I all hit the ground together. In that moment, Calvin and Hobbes opened up with those Touched-Tech guns from the roof. Guns which had apparently been modified by Trevithick, because instead of the beams wrapping around the man and slamming him into the ground, they actually picked him up and held him. The beams stayed mostly steady, crackling with power just a bit as they hauled the figure off the ground and kept him there, suspended a few feet off the melting concrete. 

“Yes!” Wren cheered, hovering there a short distance away as she punched the air triumphantly. “It worked!” 

Which, of course, was the moment that the man in question let his head tilt to the side. I swore he was looking right at me. Or through me. Then his body melted. Literally melted. It burned, boiled, turned to a mix of ooze and ashes right in front of us while the twin beams from those two guns were holding him aloft. 

In the next instant, the ash blew away, the ooze dissipated… and the man was gone. 

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Enkindle 23-10 (Summus Proelium)

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“She’s crazy, right?” Murphy asked a short while later, as we all sat on a roof together far away from that pizza shop and any of Braintrust. “Paintball, that lady’s gotta be loco in the heado.” 

“Did you just say loco in the heado?” Paige (or Poise now as she was still in-costume) echoed, head tilting that way as she dropped down with her back to a brick chimney.

Sierra (Style) stood on the opposite side of the roof, arms folded. The way her red leather coat flapped a bit in the breeze while that matching tactical combat helmet was framed against the city skyline behind her made the girl look cooler than I ever could. It must’ve been the way she stood. Even that was cool.  “You know the Spanish word for brain is cerebro, right?” 

After dropping her offer, Glitch had simply handed over a card with a phone number on it and told us to call her with an answer in a couple days. Of course, I had promptly painted the number from the card onto my arm and then tossed the card into the nearest trash can. No way was I going to risk carrying around something that the literal leader of a bunch of Tech-Touched villains had given me. Maybe it had a tracker in it, or a recorder, or maybe it was completely innocent. Either way, I wasn’t going to take that chance. Especially not for a phone number.

Alloy did a quick double-take at Style’s words. “Wait, really? You mean the cool name that Professor X dude gave his super telepathy machine in the comics was literally just the Spanish word for brain? That seems kind of lame. I thought they made up a cool word based off cerebrum.”

“I mean, they did make up a cool word based off cerebrum,” Roald pointed out. “It’s just that the ‘they’ in this case is the ancient Spanish people.”  

Murphy threw her hands up, making a noise of disbelief. “The point, people!” She turned to me. “That crazy lady back there can’t actually be serious with this. She can’t think that’ll work.” 

I offered a clueless shrug. “I don’t think she’s crazy. Not like that. She knows how to use Tech-Touched. And, obviously, how to make a profit off them. Probably because–hold on. Trev?” 

Before saying anything else, I turned to Trevithick. She was standing by herself, clearly deep in thought. When I addressed her, she jolted a little, looking my way before realizing what I was getting at. “Oh! Oh, right, yeah. Hang on a sec.” From a slot in her belt, she pulled a small pen-shaped device, taking a moment to wave it over all of us like security at the airport used to do before they upgraded the system to simply alert if you were carrying any weapons anywhere inside the building itself. They didn’t rely on metal detectors anymore. The system was a lot more advanced, and the scanners were hidden throughout the airport.

In any case, this wasn’t a metal detector either. After Wren had scanned all of us, she clicked her little device a couple times before shaking her head. “Nothing new. No hidden trackers.” 

The device was actually part of her ongoing attempt to get a proper working teleporter. It was meant to scan someone from head to toe to get a one-hundred percent accurate and detailed picture of their body and clothing. It wouldn’t show her their face under a mask or anything like that, just give her a microscopically-detailed… map, essentially, of their current form. Every bump in their shoes, every lace, every imperfection in armor, every button in a shirt, every tiny crack in a glass watch face, the exact contours of a pair of tiny diamond earrings, everything. It scanned and stored a perfect map of your body and clothes together. And since we’d had her scan us just before meeting with Glitch, it would have told her if absolutely anything had been added to us in that time, as the before and after pictures would have been different. 

Not that I really expected the woman to try to get away with putting a bug on one of us, but again, I wasn’t going to take any chances. Just like with the card. Maybe I was getting to be a little better about sharing with my team, but Glitch definitely wasn’t part of that. 

Once I was as sure as I could be that it was safe, I continued my thought. “She knows how to make a very good profit because she has to give part of it to my parents. I don’t think she would’ve suggested this if she didn’t think it was possible.” Pausing, I looked back to Wren. “Which, I guess makes the question, do you think it’s possible?”

She didn’t answer at first, seeming to be lost in thought again. Finally, after we all watched her for a few seconds, she looked at me. “Um, I think so. I mean, it wouldn’t be easy. And I need to look at her prototypes more.” She nodded to the other corner of the roof, where she’d left the bag with the gloves in it. Gloves which we had also obviously gone over with a fine-tooth comb for any bugs. But I expected something to be on them even less than I expected something to be on one of us. Glitch wasn’t stupid. She’d have to know that we would have our own Tech-Touched scour every millimeter of those things. Spying on us like that wasn’t worth the risk. Well, okay, it actually was. It was totally worth the risk. The stuff they could have found out about what we knew… The idea was terrifying. But she didn’t know that. 

Wren continued. “I could only do that with help. But she offered help. But she’s a bad guy. But the things she wants me to do would really help people. But she’d probably find a way to use it for bad things too, even if I do put safeties in it. But people use good things for bad stuff all the time, and it doesn’t erase the good stuff those things do. But if someone hurts people with it, that’ll be my fault. But if we don’t give her what she wants, she might ask for something worse, or start a fight. And I don’t want you guys to get hurt. But–” 

“Wren.” I stepped over that way, putting my hands on her shoulders. “It’s okay. Whatever you decide to do, we’re with you. I mean, I’m with you.” Frowning to myself for the presumption, I turned to look over my shoulder.

“Oh, of course we’re with her!” Murphy blurted. “Come on, man, what do you take us for?” 

“Right,” Paige confirmed. “It’s her choice. Whatever she decides to do about it. We could try to negotiate a single payoff, but something tells me that once Glitch gets an idea in her head about how to make an ongoing profit, it’s not easy to make her give that up. Something like this would be revolutionary. And she’s even offering to let you keep seventy percent. Which should tell you something. She thinks it’s worth so much that she can profit enough off thirty percent, even counting what she has to give to the Ministry.” 

“To your parents,” Alloy put in, with a glance my way. “Which is still really fuuudging weird to think about, for the record.” She caught herself with the curse, giving Wren a sidelong look before turning back to me. “So I guess, in a way, you’d be benefiting from some of that thirty percent too.” 

Grimacing behind my helmet, I shook my head. “I mean at this point it’s like emptying a few dozen dump trucks of water into Lake Erie. Yeah, it’s a lot of water when it’s in the trucks, but once you empty them into the lake, you never–” Stopping short, I blanched, raising my gaze to find Wren, Peyton, Murphy, and Roald staring at me. Paige and Sierra were looking away. “Uhh heh… hehe… I guess I was sorta, kinda just talking about dump trucks full of money not being a big deal.” 

“Because you already have a Lake Erie of money,” Peyton noted. “Yeah.”

I shook my head. “My parents have a Lake Erie of money. I’ve benefited from it, sure. But it’s theirs.” 

“So it’s a lake of money you can swim in,” Murphy replied while moving over to plop herself on the edge of a metal air conditioning duct running along the roof next to me. “The point is, Alloy’s right, that’s weird to think about.” She squinted at me curiously. “What is it like, being one of the richest teenagers in the country?” 

Coughing, I shook my head. “Let’s not get into that. I just–I just don’t want you guys to think of me that way. I’m still just Paintball.” 

I couldn’t see Murphy’s face behind the ski mask, but her body language said she wanted to say something about that. She stopped herself, however, and just replied, “So, Glitch thinks this idea is such a winner that she can get all the moolah she wants and what she has to pay the Ministry off just thirty percent? Kinda weird that she didn’t try for fifty-fifty, isn’t it?” 

“She probably assumes that by offering seventy percent to us, she’ll look magnanimous.” That was Poise, bringing her legs up to her chest as she continued to sit against the brick chimney. “We’re more likely to think she’s being nice.” 

“And,” Sierra added, “that if we think at all about the money, we’ll have dollar signs in our eyes. With, of course, the added benefit that this is all for saving lives.” 

Murphy was looking down at her phone. I saw her google the definition of magnanimous before muttering, “I knew it.” Then she put it away and gestured along with what Sierra had been saying. “Yeah, she offered the big life saving invention idea so it wouldn’t make us feel like we were giving her weapons or anything she could, you know, use to hurt people.” 

“Except she still could,” Wren pointed out flatly while shifting her weight and fidgeting uncertainly. “Even if the stuff itself isn’t turned bad, you said it yourself. She’d still make money off it. A lot of money. And then she’d use that money to hurt people.” 

“Or maybe she’d retire,” I pointed out before wincing. “Yeah, probably not. But it’s okay, Wren. You think about it and whatever you decide, we’ll go with. If we need to come up with a plan to make her back off and–” 

“No.” Wren’s head shook quickly. “No, I don’t wanna make anybody fight those guys. I mean, they’re bad guys so you’re gonna have to and all that, sure. What I mean is, I don’t wanna make it, umm… personal or anything. You–I mean we already have umm, you know, enough to do.” She focused on Paige and Sierra. “We’ve gotta save your sister! And Flea and Trivial too!” She took a deep breath, letting it out before slowly continuing. “I’ll do it. I’ll help build those things. But only after I work on the thing to help track Breakwater!” 

“We’ll tell her you’ve got projects you need to finish before you get started on anything else,” I agreed. “She can’t possibly object too much to that. She has to know that Tech-Touched have their own things to do, and she just sprang this on you.” Thinking about that briefly, I gave a decisive nod. “Yeah, we’ll just tell her that we’ll work on that but she has to wait a couple weeks.” Belatedly, I focused on the girl herself. “Err, I say we. We’ll help, any way we can. But it’s up to you. Do you want to try that?” 

She didn’t answer at first, going silent again for a few seconds before murmuring, “I said I wouldn’t build anything for supervillains. But… I guess this isn’t actually for them? She’s gonna get money out of it, but we were gonna give them money anyway. I…” She squirmed on her feet, making a cute little uncertain noise in the back of her throat before finally nodding. “Okay, okay. I’ll figure out how to work on it. Um, you know, after we do the other thing.” 

Obviously, I felt a pang of regret and annoyance at myself for not being able to simply tell Glitch to go shove it. But the others were right, there was so much going on already that we really couldn’t deal with a straight up fight on our own against Braintrust. After all, they hadn’t gotten a reputation for driving other Tech-Touched either out of the city or under their heel for nothing. If we were going to fight them, it was going to need to involve all of us and our full attention. And at the moment, the majority of that attention had to be focused on saving Irelyn and Trivial. Not to mention figuring out what the hell was going on with Luciano. Our plates were absolutely full. Picking a fight with Braintrust just wasn’t in the cards, and we all knew it. 

“We’ll wait though,” I finally spoke up after all of us had gone quiet for a few seconds following Wren’s decision. “She gave us a couple days, and I’d rather stretch that out as long as possible. Then we’ll tell her you need time to open up enough of your project space to work on something new.” 

“You should start with a month,” Paige put in. “Let her negotiate you down to a couple weeks or so. It’ll make her feel like she won something even though it’s what you wanted in the first place.” 

I was already nodding that way. “Right, yeah, good plan. Uh, but I guess in the meantime, we really don’t have anything we can–” 

And that was when Wren’s phone rang. It was a bright chirping sound, like a bird singing. No, it was literally a bird singing. I realized that belatedly, as the girl tugged it out of her costume and held the thing to her ear. “Hi, Uncle Fred! Sorry, I know I said we’d call as soon as we were done so you could come pick us up, but we were still talking about–huh? Oh. Wait, what?” 

She was quiet for a few seconds, clearly listening as the man said something on the other end. The rest of us looked at one another and shrugged until Wren quickly blurted, “Really?! I knew that was a good idea! Oh, uh, tell the others, Uncle Fred.” With that, she put him on speaker phone and held it out so we could hear. 

There was a brief pause before the man cleared his throat on the other end. “Uh, well, I was just sitting here and the scanner the kid set up to monitor police and emergency traffic for certain words or phrases popped up with a bunch of stuff going on about a zombie and fire, right here in town.” 

Well, that sure made me straighten up. I was on my feet in an instant, my eyes widening behind the helmet and mask. “Wait, what? Here in town? You mean Luciano…” I trailed off, grimacing. “He made it here already.” 

“Yeah, but it’s a little confusing,” came the response over the phone. “There’s a bunch of different conflicting reports about where he is, what he’s doing, that sort of thing. Guy moves fast, and he’s just… causing a bunch of bullsh-crap chaos everywhere he goes.” 

I thought about that for a moment. “If he’s pissed at the Ministry, maybe he wants to cause that chaos. Maybe that’s the point. They try to keep things as neat and orderly as possible. They have their rules. If he’s going against that, maybe his whole point is to cause a lot of terror and confusion.” 

“Well he’s sure managing that,” Fred replied. “There’s reports coming in from all over the city. But as soon as someone gets there, he’s gone already. There’s no rhyme or reason to it. He attacked a real estate office on the north side of town, then a Wendy’s about six blocks east five minutes later, then a bookstore five miles south ten minutes later. It was quiet for fifteen minutes, then he hit an art gallery just two blocks east of the bookstore. Now it’s been quiet again for–wait, hang on.” 

We were put on hold for a few more seconds while my mind reeled. What the hell? Well, I knew what the hell. I’d said what the hell. He was causing a bunch of chaos with no pattern, almost certainly as a way of getting back at the Ministry. But they weren’t the ones who were really going to be suffering. It was the people he was targeting, the people whose misery he was throwing in the Ministry’s faces. 

Fuck. Fuck, we had to stop this. 

My mouth opened to say something to that effect, when Fred came back on the line. “There’s another one. He’s hitting a convenience store about–hang on… a mile north of where you are.” 

He gave the address, and I was already turning. “I’m on my way.” My foot rose, then I froze. “I mean…” Pausing, I looked back to the others. “I don’t wanna say–” 

“Oh, shut up,” Sierra blurted. “Of course we’ve got your back. Don’t be an idiot.” 

“Now hang on there,” Fred started, “I don’t want–” 

“Sorry, Uncle Fred, gotta be a superhero!” With that, Wren clicked off the phone and faced us. “So c’mon, what’re we waiting for? Let’s go kick his butt.” 

There wasn’t time to have a whole discussion about it right then and there. Not considering Luciano could disappear again any minute. So, I shot a spray of green paint from both hands, covering everyone as much as I could before pivoting back to the edge of the roof. “Okay then.

“Let’s go stop a zombie.” 

******

“Ahhhh!” Murphy yelled out while hitting the blue paint I had shot in front of her. It propelled the girl across the gap between the building rooftops we had been running across. It wasn’t the first or longest gap I’d shot her and the others over, nor was it the widest. But she screamed every time, as did Roald. I was pretty sure hers was about seventy-five percent joy and twenty-five percent terror, while Roald’s was closer to fifty-fifty. Either way, they insisted on continuing along with it. 

Roald hit the paint a second later, even as Murphy was landing on the far building, the orange paint I’d given her helping the girl avoid breaking any bones in the process. Meanwhile, Paige and Sierra hit the second blue puddle I’d put down, one after the other. They both launched themselves that way, rolling as they hit the far roof before popping right back to their feet. 

Rather than using either puddle, I just made blue paint appear on the bottom of my boots as I hit the edge of the roof, launching myself that way. Above me and to one side, Wren was flying with her dragonfly-like wings, while Alloy flew on her hoverboard above and to the other side. Both of them were calling out which way we should go to reach good jumping points to get from roof to roof. Beyond that, we were following my directions. Or rather, the directions the helmet was giving me when I used the map function Wren had provided in the heads-up display. It showed me just how to get to the spot where Luciano was supposedly still causing trouble, if what Fred had said when Wren checked in with him a moment earlier was right. 

There we were, running and jumping from roof to roof, using blue, green, and red paint as much as I could manage just so we could get there as fast as possible, praying we weren’t too late. Poise and Style being full of… poise and style. They were doing this as though they’d done it their entire lives, like Olympic-level athletes. Hell, they barely needed the paint boosts, which really helped given how fast I would’ve run out if I had to use it for everyone. Calvin and Hobbes, meanwhile, clearly weren’t nearly as skilled. But they were doing their best, and they weren’t bad. Probably from a lifetime of running through dangerous neighborhoods and away from people who saw them as easy marks. Their method of getting around was just a bit less polished. 

With Trevithick flying along one side of me and Alloy along the other, we brought up the rear so I could hit people and spots with paint whenever needed. Wren and Peyton both helped with that, calling down to me to point out the right spots. It worked pretty well, once we got the system down a couple buildings in. By this point, we were basically a well-oiled machine with it. 

Once I joined them on that roof, my skates skidded to a stop. This was it. On the other side of this building was the parking lot connecting to the convenience store. I could hear screaming, along with a weird guttural howling sound. Oh, and fire. I heard fire too. 

Together, we raced to the far side of the roof, ready to jump down there and stop this guy. Then we all stopped short. Because we saw the guy. Except it wasn’t the guy. That is, it wasn’t Luciano. Standing down there in the middle of the parking lot, in front of a couple cowering civilians who were trying to take cover behind a bench in front of the store, was a man who looked nothing like Luciano. He was white, for one thing. He looked like a random beach bum, with long blonde hair, tanned skin, board shorts, and no shirt. Which gave us a good view of the dozen holes in his chest and stomach. Some were only partial holes, while others ran all the way through, showing daylight on the other side. It was like he’d been hit with a shotgun blast of pellets. 

It wasn’t Luciano. But he was still clearly dead, still had obvious death-wounds, and was still moving despite that. Oh, and he had the same fire power, given the way his teeth were visibly glowing. To say nothing of the way he grabbed the bench the people were cowering behind and made it start melting. He wasn’t Luciano, but he was in the same condition.

So… who the fuck was this? 

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Enkindle 23-09 (Summus Proelium)

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“What’d you do, multiply?” 

The question came from Framework, the Braintrust Tech-Touched who focused on attaching a vast assortment of devices to his own body in a personal power armor/mecha-sort of fashion. Thankfully, he was currently wearing one of the far more subtle versions of the armor and stood only just under seven feet tall, rather than any his larger ones. Those could reach all the way up to twenty feet, and had been seen going toe to toe with Cuélebre. Though even the smaller versions of his armor packed an awful lot of dangerous toys. In the same way that Wren’s ‘movement focused technology’ power could be exploited a lot, Framework could design almost anything as long as it was attached to his body or something he was wearing. 

Oh yeah, and that whole ‘attached to his body’ thing had gone far enough that the man literally had his arms and legs amputated and attached robotic replacements to them. Actually, I was pretty sure he’d had a lot more than just his limbs replaced, but it was hard to know for sure how much of what we saw was replacements and how much was just covering his biological parts. 

Thankfully, either way we weren’t here to fight him, no matter what size his armor was or how much of himself he had replaced. Not unless this whole thing went a lot worse than I was expecting it to. 

“Multiply?” I echoed while letting my head tilt a bit exaggeratedly. Then I turned to look at the others as we all stood in the parking lot of that old pizza place Glitch had wanted to meet at. Besides myself, there was also Alloy of course. The armor she had fashioned her marbles into at the moment consisted of bronze-and-black interwoven chainmail-like leggings and chest, along with a gold helmet and cape. The silver, purple, and white marbles hovered around her in the shapes of a sword, hammer, and spear respectively. 

Beyond Alloy, there was also Roald and Murphy. Or Calvin and Hobbes, rather. They were wearing their own new suits, the ones that allowed them to teleport and create temporary protective shields around themselves. When they had first tried them out, the suits had looked just like ordinary black coveralls with silver wrist and ankle bands. But I had taken the time to change that by painting them almost entirely white, and then covering them in a lot of various colored splatters. They both looked like modern art canvases. Or, more accurately, like someone had just violently shaken half a dozen different paint brushes at them. There were no real shapes there, just various splatters of color. They also wore simple (also white) ski masks along with black goggles to protect their eyes. They were much more on-brand for being connected to my own Paintball identity, and to ‘Avant-Guard’ in general. Each of them also had one of Wren’s special rifles slung over their shoulders. Anyone or anything hit by a shot from one of those weapons would be violently catapulted in a direction set by the person holding it. 

Then there were Paige and Sierra. The two of them were standing together a bit to one side, very slightly separate from the rest of us. A quick trip to the store mixed with stuff Wren had already been working on or had lying around her shop had left them each wearing cargo pants, combat boots, a long-sleeved turtleneck under a lightly armored vest, a long leather coat, and a surplus tactical military-style helmet that covered the whole face and head, with a visor over the eyes. The pants and boots for both of them were black, while the rest of their color schemes were opposite one another. Paige had a red shirt and slightly darker red combat vest under a white leather coat, along with a matching white tactical helmet and red visor. Sierra, meanwhile, had a white shirt and vest under a red leather coat, red helmet, and white visor. Beyond that, obviously, they looked different thanks to Paige being like eight inches taller (well six while Sierra had those lifts) and more… gifted.

Finally, there was the last official member of the team. Wren, or as she preferred to be known to everyone else, Trevithick. She was wearing what was basically the same costume she had used to meet Lion before. It was a black, form-fitting bodysuit with pink armored panels along the chest, legs, and arms, along with a full-covering black helmet and pink visor. She also had the wing-pack, of course, and was currently hovering a foot off the ground. 

That was us, the whole group. At least, those who were actively members of this little team and not just helping out secretly now and then, like Pack, That-A-Way, or Raindrop. For the first time in anything resembling public (as much as a secret meeting with a group of Fell-Touched could be considered public), we were appearing together, in-costume and on the same page. It had felt like the right time, since they all knew the truth about me now.

After taking all that in the way that Framework had to be seeing it, I smiled to myself before turning back toward him. “Yeah, you could say we’ve been multiplying. I thought your boss might like to meet the full Avant-Guard. You know, before we come to an agreement about how this whole arrangement is going to work.” 

The armored man looked us over once more before snorting a bit. “I sure hope you’re not trying to be intimidating, kid. Because I don’t think that would work out well for you. Any of you.” 

“Buddy,” Sierra put in, “If we were going for intimidating, you wouldn’t have to wonder.” 

He regarded her briefly before curiously asking, “So what do you and your nega-twin there call yourselves? I don’t think I’ve seen anything about you before.” 

“She’s Style,” Paige informed him with a nod toward the girl beside her. “I’m Poise.” 

“It fits,” Sierra added. “I do have a lot more style than her. And she is a poser.” 

“Poise,” Paige corrected. “Poise and Pose are two very different words.” 

Clearly grinning beneath her helmet, Sierra cheerfully retorted, “I didn’t say they meant the same thing, I was just calling you a poser.” 

Coughing pointedly, I focused on the man in front of us. “We’re not here to start anything. We just want your boss and everyone else to know what they’re dealing with. That’s all. We came to make the arrangement. So does your boss still want to talk about that stuff?” 

Rather than answer immediately, Framework turned away and murmured something quietly, probably speaking into a communicator of some sort. There was a brief conversation before he looked back to me and gestured to the door into the restaurant. “Sure, go right ahead. But just know that if you do decide to start something, as you put it, it won’t matter how many extra friends you brought along for the ride. This may not be our actual home base, but we’ve had all the time in the world to prep it. And you know what they say, you don’t fuck with a Tech-Touched on territory they’ve had time to prepare.”

Painting a wide smiley face across my helmet like the Cheshire Cat, I replied, “Oh, trust me, we know all about that rule. It’s a good one for everyone to keep in mind.” 

That said, I started to the door, with the others trailing behind. We were a small parade heading into the same place where I had met with Glitch before. 

The woman herself was waiting, sitting casually behind a table as she watched us enter. She wore the same costume as before, with burgundy cargo pants that were covered in pockets, belts, and pouches containing all manner of weapons and tools. She also had a black scale-armored turtleneck and a white leather jacket, along with that familiar metal choker that could change her appearance to anything she wanted, rather than an actual mask. At the moment, she looked like a red-haired woman with deeply tanned skin and unnaturally bright green eyes. 

“Well, well, well,” Glitch drawled as we filed into the room and spread out a bit, “isn’t this interesting. You’ve been recruiting, I see. I thought you were trying to be a solo hero out there.” 

I moved myself straight to the middle of the group, front and center. Trevithick was just barely to my left, while Alloy stood slightly behind me and to the right. Calvin and Hobbes were together a bit further back and to that side, while Sierra and Paige/Style and Poise were together opposite them on the left. 

I had worried about bringing the two of them here, given Glitch’s ability to screw with Touched-Tech. But according to Paige, she had spent about four months awhile back worrying about that herself before picking out enough information about how Glitch’s power worked to realize she was safe. Apparently one of the repeated problems the woman had was with tech that was implanted inside of people. Or other animals. It was like living biological material blocked her ability. So long as they kept their finger wire things firmly inside, she shouldn’t be able to detect them or do anything to screw them up. 

“Oh, I can still do plenty of things by myself,” I informed the Braintrust leader after letting those thoughts run through my mind. “Don’t you worry about that. But I’ve found that it helps to have people watching your back in this town. And we thought it’d be a good idea to let people know what they’re dealing with. After all, we’ve already had to deal with one group trying to steal stuff from us. Don’t suppose you’d know anything about that?” 

She didn’t, of course. Mostly because I was making the whole thing up as part of our own cover story. Her face didn’t give away any reaction at all other than a very slightly raised eyebrow. “Pardon?” 

“A group of people broke into one of the places we’ve been keeping supplies,” I claimed. “Dug a tunnel straight under the shed. Must’ve taken them a week to do it without setting off any of our alarms. If we hadn’t been right outside doing some training, they would’ve gotten away with everything.” 

It was something of a bold claim, of course. A way of creating a bit more separation between us and the group who had broken into the Ministry base. I was positive that Glitch at least would have already heard about it, as my parents probably went to her about anyone who could have dug a tunnel like that. We were also going to have to make a point of having our black-suited selves break into another gang’s territory soon, just to keep up that lie. I had a few thoughts as far as that went, but now wasn’t the time to dwell on it. The point was that acting as though that mysterious other group had stolen things from us as well would hopefully help shield us from suspicion. 

There was a long pause as Glitch stared at me, then glanced to the others before slowly asking, “How long ago was this? And you think it was my group?” 

I offered her a shrug. “Maybe a week? And I dunno. Didn’t look like any established gang to us. Just black suits and ski masks. I thought you might’ve been trying to send a message.” 

“If you were,” Alloy put in, “It wasn’t a very clear one.” 

“I assure you,” Glitch replied, “That group has no connection to me. I’ve heard a bit about them, however. They seem to be attempting to…” She trailed off, making a thoughtful noise in the back of her throat before shaking her head. “Whatever they are attempting to do, they will find themselves put in their place soon enough. Interesting that they chose you as a target as well. A practice run, perhaps.” 

“Practice?” I made myself ask, since I definitely would have if I didn’t already know what she was talking about. “Practice for what?” 

Her response was a mysterious smile. “Never mind about that. I don’t believe you will have to worry about this other group for much longer. Why don’t you introduce me to your assortment of friends?”  

So, I did just that, introducing her to Alloy, Calvin, Hobbes, Style, and Poise in turn. Finally, I took a breath before putting a hand on Wren’s shoulder. “And, the person you’ve actually been wanting to meet this whole time. Trevithick, this is Glitch. Or the face she’s using right now.” 

Hovering a bit higher off the floor, Wren stared at the woman. “You’re the one who wants me to pay you or build things for you so you can hurt people.” 

Eyes focusing on her, Glitch gave a very slight smile. “Fascinating. I suppose my guess that you were a younger girl Paintball was protecting paid off after all. I don’t suppose you’d care to verify whether I was right about being a younger sibling, specifically?” 

“Sorry,” I replied before Wren could, “we prefer to play things a little closer to the vest than that. It’s just safer that way. I’m sure you understand. Unless that’s your real face we’re looking at.” 

With a wink, Glitch pointed out, “It very well could be.” She turned her gaze back to Wren. “Trevithick, was it? I must say, from what little I’ve seen of your work, I’m quite impressed. And yes, we are the group who control Tech-Touched in this city. If you wish to operate here, you must pay the tax. That can either be monetary or in extra work done for us directly. I do leave it up to you, though I believe you have a preference.” 

“Does it matter?” Wren demanded while folding her arms as she hovered there beside me. “If I build things for you, you’ll use them to hurt people. If I pay you, you’ll use that to buy more things to hurt people. Either way, you’re hurting them because of me.” 

The woman absorbed that with a thoughtful expression, tapping her fingers idly along the table. “Yes, I suppose that is true. And yet, it is how things work in this city. Unless you wish your new friends here to get into an extended conflict with my organization, one which we are far better prepared and trained for, it’s in your best interest to… as they say, bite the bullet and follow the rules. And I do hope this wasn’t meant to be a show of force before declaring war.” Her hand gestured to indicate the rest of us. “Because, while intrigued, I am not frightened.” 

“Like Style over there said to your buddy outside,” Hobbes informed her, “There were a lot better ways for us to try to intimidate your crew than just stand here in front of you.”  

Pointing with my thumb, I nodded. “Yeah, that. We’re just here like this to make sure everyone’s on the same page about where we all stand. If you want some sort of tax, maybe you should make sure it’s a fair one. You know, because I don’t think this city needs to have even more fighting going on than it already does. And neither do any of us.” 

Glitch offered me a curious and reevaluating smile. After a moment, she leaned back in her seat and casually remarked, “In other words, you’re showing me that you have more strength than I might have thought you did, and think that I don’t want to start another war while the one between those other gangs is still going on. But what if I feel ignored and want people to start paying attention to me again instead of those guys? Picking a fight with one little Star-Touched and his pet techy would’ve just looked like I was bullying someone. Not nearly enough action to get any of the right attention. But here you’ve just shown me you have a whole gang. So maybe you’re more worth fighting than I would’ve thought. Maybe we bloody each other’s noses, put a couple on each side in the hospital, really give the good folks at home stuff to gossip about. Then I could be right back at the top of the Twitter trends.” 

A couple of the others stiffened around me, but I could tell she wasn’t serious. She was teasing, and also testing my reaction, or our reactions, rather. Poking at us just to see what we would do, what we would say. I had surprised her with a bunch of people she didn’t know anything about, so she was giving a little verbal prod so she could take note of how each of us reacted to it. I had no doubt that she had cameras up and would be thoroughly analyzing everyone’s body language later so she could pick out who might be vulnerable to being taunted into doing something if the time came that we did fight. 

I had my dad to thank for immediately realizing that without even really having to think about it. He’d talked to me a lot about being in business meetings, negotiating with people, that sort of thing. Come to think of it, he had probably been talking about this sort of situation too, even if I hadn’t realized it at the time. To me, I was just listening to my dad tell stories because I liked hearing his voice. But what had it been to him? Was he telling me those stories because he expected me to go into business, or because he expected me to go into the family business? 

I had no idea. It actually distracted me for a moment, as I wondered what my father intended with all that. But now really wasn’t the time, so I pushed the thought down and focused. “Maybe, but I’m pretty sure you won’t do anything like that. You didn’t invite us over here to start a fight, and we didn’t come to provoke one. Like I said, we just wanted to make sure you know what you’re dealing with so you treat us fairly. So you treat her fairly.” I amended myself with a look toward Trevithick. “Not that I’m saying you’d try to get away with pushing around a couple people if she and I came by ourselves, just to get even more work out of her.” 

Of course, that was exactly what I was saying, and everyone in the room knew it. Glitch regarded me for a silent moment before tapping the table thoughtfully. “Yeah, well that’s fair enough, I suppose. Sure, go ahead and keep all your people here. It won’t really make a difference. Like you said, none of us are here to start a fight. In fact, I really don’t think your friend there will object too much to what we’re asking for.” She focused on Trevithick, offering a faint smile. “Something tells me if I asked you to build a weapon, or anything that would hurt people, we’d have a problem, right?”   

“I’ll pay a pe-percentage of what I make off selling in town,” Wren informed her in as firm a voice as she could manage while clearly being incredibly nervous. “But no, I’m not going to build weapons for you. No matter what you say.” She lifted her chin a bit at the end. 

“Tough kid,” Glitch remarked with a slightly more genuine smile. She seemed almost charmed. “Like I said the other day, I don’t like forcing people to build stuff when they don’t want to. It’s a good way to end up in a really bad situation. Especially when I’m a little too busy to stand over your shoulder watching you work all the time. So that’s not my style. And yeah, I could take your money, sure, but I’ve got plenty of that as it is. That’s part of why it’s been so hard these past few weeks, trying to decide exactly what I was going to ask for from you. You’re sort of a unique commodity, kid. And yeah, I know, commodity’s kind of an insulting term. But it’s the best one I can come up with right now. You’re unique, and I don’t really think taking a bit of money from you is the right approach. But right now, I think I’ve finally got an idea.” 

“Well, you’ve certainly talked it up enough,” Style put in glibly. “How about you just explain what you want and we’ll see how long it takes us to get to it.” 

Her words were met with a brief stare from the woman, before Glitch rose from the chair she had been lounging in. “Absolutely. You all might have heard about a little gang war going on, between a few of the other gangs.” 

“It’s come up once or twice,” I dryly confirmed. “Including like thirty seconds ago when you talked about being afraid Braintrust isn’t getting enough attention right now. Which, for the record, I bet if you just let us arrest your entire group and send you to prison, you’d have all the focus you could ever want. You might even get a book deal out of it.” While saying that, I painted a smiley face across my helmet. 

Glitch pretended to consider that. “Hmm, maybe that could be a decent back-up choice. Of course, to make it realistic, we’d have to put a few of you in the hospital.” She let that stand before continuing. “Or we could just go with my plan.” Her eyes found Trevithick, as she reached down, picked a bag up off the floor, and tossed it to her. “I want you to build these and make them work.” 

Clearly confused, Wren opened the bag and took out a pair of long leather gloves, with bits of electronics hanging off the inside and outside. “What… are they?” 

Glitch leaned against the table, regarding us. “Do you remember that little thing you pulled to get the vials for Blackjack, where you made that guy wear a suit that forced him to walk to where he hid those things?” 

Wren dropped the gloves in the bag, shaking her head quickly. “I’m not building something that will make someone hurt people.” 

“And if that was my intention, we’d have a problem,” Glitch retorted. “Trust me, you can put in all the safety measures you want. That’s not what this is about. What I want you to do is build working gloves that will connect to another person’s brain. Someone far away. Not to hurt people, to help them. See, if there’s one thing this gang war has shown, it’s that we don’t have enough well-trained medical professionals out there who can deal with traumatic situations. There’s a lot of victims out there, and only so many people who can help. And a lot of the ones who do exist can’t get there in time. But imagine every paramedic in the city, every cop, firefighter, anyone like that, carries a pair of these gloves in their vehicle. They find someone suffering from a medical trauma that won’t wait until they get back to the hospital. So they grabbed the gloves and put them on, then they call the hospital itself. Even a hospital in another city, or another state entirely. They find the expert, the expert puts on a helmet, and takes control of their hands. The hands in the gloves, that is. That way, the doctor can do what he needs to do right then and there, just by piloting the hands of the other person. Hell, we make enough of them, and we can sell them to individuals. Imagine if as part of calling 911, you strap on a pair of these gloves and the emergency services link you to an expert surgeon in Los Angeles who can save your poor injured mother before the ambulance even gets the call.

“We could revolutionize the entire emergency medical services world. And all you’d owe us is thirty percent.” 

Previous Chapter / Next Chapter

Winging It 19-02 (Summus Proelium)

Previous Chapter / Next Chapter

As I had told Izzy, I wasn’t planning on going over to Wren’s place until after my whole thing with Lucent. But how could I possibly say no to Lion’s request to meet the girl? Well, okay, maybe Wren wouldn’t want to, and then I would say no. But something told me she wouldn’t.

Indeed, as I used my phone to call the girl in question and raised the subject, her answering squeal of joy made me flinch and wish that I could pull the Bluetooth thing away from my ear. It ahh, went on for a few seconds. Somewhere in the background, I heard the others quickly and repeatedly asking what was wrong. Oh, and they were also pleading with her to come down, so I could only imagine she had used her wing pack thing to fly up by the ceiling in her excitement.

“Trevithick!” I managed to cut in, glancing toward Lucent and Lion. From the way they both had their heads cocked as they looked toward me, I had the feeling they could hear at least part of that squeal and were amused. “Hey, if you really don’t want to meet her–” I started to tease. 

“No, no, no!” the kid immediately blurted. “I do! Yes, please! Bring her over! It’ll be great, it’ll be fun, are you serious? Is she really coming? It’s really the real Lion and she’ll come over?” 

Before I could respond to that, I heard a rather panicked Fred demand to know where Paintball had gotten a lion and why the hell I thought bringing it over there was a good idea. And that no, very firm no, absolutely no, she could not keep the lion. Also, was I/Paintball ‘completely nuts?’

Leaving Wren to explain the situation to her uncle for a moment, I looked at the two TONIs and cleared my throat before giving them a thumbs up. “I uh, think it’ll be okay. She’s really excited to meet you.” 

“And I to meet her,” Lion quickly assured me, tiny head bobbing up and down before jerking a bit to the side to watch as a car drove past in the distance. She turned just as sharply to look upward, and I glanced that way to see a bird flying past. The moment it had moved on and was no longer an immediate danger, her nose twitched and she snapped her head yet again, looking toward the gate nearby as a man walked out, heading down the sidewalk. 

Watching all that drove home just how vulnerable she must feel. She was even more intelligent than most humans, yet Lion was trapped in a body small and vulnerable enough that, without the armor she wore and her inventions for protection, a small human child could have killed her with a single kick. No wonder she was so nervous. And that didn’t even count all the actual predators out there who would have eaten her in an instant, without any regard for the things she could design and build. She had a mouse’s fearful instinct combined with a very intelligent understanding of just how vulnerable she could be. That must have been utterly terrifying. 

By that point, Wren had returned to the phone, her voice high with excitement as she urgently insisted that everything was fine and we should bring Lion over right now because she had so many things she wanted to ask about, and show her, and and and it went on. Yeah, she was basically losing her mind like a total fangirl at the very concept of meeting the mouse TONI. 

“Okay, okay,” I managed once I could get a word in edgewise. “But Trevithick, this is important. Do you want me to bring her to your shop directly, or do you want to meet her somewhere private?” I didn’t say it out loud, but I knew both she and the two in front of me would know what I was really asking. Which was, did she want Lion (and possibly Lucent) to know where her shop was and who she was, or did she want to keep her identity and place completely secret from them.  

In response, there was a pause. It told me that the kid was actually taking the question seriously, despite her excitement. I could picture her standing there, thoughtfully chewing her lip as she weighed the options back and forth a bit. “Hang on,” she finally replied. Then I heard her start a murmured conversation some distance away from the phone, talking to her uncle about it. And possibly to the others as well. Honestly, I was just glad she hadn’t dismissed the potential concern out of hand. Especially considering I still wasn’t completely positive that we could absolutely trust Lucent without question. Oh, I was pretty sure he was safe and all, but I wasn’t going to translate pretty sure into total certainty. Not when it came to something like my parents. 

Finally, the younger girl’s voice came back. “I want to ask her for ideas about protecting this place, so she should probably know where it is.” Unlike moments earlier, she was speaking calmly and rationally. It was clear she had put real thought into the answer. “It’ll be okay. ButI’mtotallywearingarealcostume!” The last bit came flooding out in a rush of words, followed by a lamenting squeal about how she had to find something good. 

Hoping that she was right about this being okay, I promised to be there soon, then disconnected and looked to the others “Well, guess it’s fine. You get to meet my friend, Trevithick. But umm, keep everything you find out to yourselves, please?” I wasn’t sure how to ask Lucent not to go as well. Despite the voice whispering in the back of my head that I can’t be certain he wasn’t compromised by the Ministry, I just couldn’t find the right words without being completely suspicious and rude. 

Fortunately, it turned out I didn’t have to find any words. Lucent himself gave what was the best bird-approximation of a bow. “I believe the invitation was for Lady Lion herself. Far be it from me to overstep. Perhaps you should take our exceptional friend here to meet this Trevithick, then meet me in some neutral location for our own training session while they converse?”

A swell of relief ran through me while I gave a quick nod. “Oh, sure. Yeah, I can do that.” Of course, then the relief turned into uncertainty as I looked down at Lion. “Um, do you mind if I carry you, or… umm…” Yeah, given how justifiably nervous she was, this was pretty awkward.  

Lion, for her part, turned a bit. “Jared, could you come out here, please?” 

Jared? Blinking uncertainly, I turned. Lion must have been speaking through a communicator or something, because it took a minute before the gate opened and a man emerged. Not that I would have noticed him if he hadn’t been the only person coming into view. In a crowd, he would have basically vanished completely. He looked completely ordinary and average in every conceivable way. He wasn’t short, and he wasn’t tall. He had dark hair with an unremarkable cut, his clothes were clean and might as well have been made by a company named Boring. He wore glasses, but they were so mundane that you would be forgiven for forgetting he had them at all five minutes after he walked away. The man seemed genetically predisposed to fade into the background of any situation, and everything he wore completely facilitated that. If I had seen this man in a crowd of people, I would have completely forgotten his existence a moment after they passed. Which, I was absolutely certain, was the intention. 

Stopping in front of us, the man offered a faint, polite smile. “Good morning,” he greeted me. 

“O-oh, umm, Paintball, this is ahh, my friend Jared,” Lion introduced us, raising one paw to gesture back and forth. “Jared, this ahh, this is Paintball. You uh, remember from the videos.”  

Videos? Oh God. As a pink flush of embarrassment crossed my hidden face, Jared gave a short nod and smiled at me. “You gave that demon guy a pretty good run across the city. Gave Lion and me a laugh, let me tell you.” 

Still blushing, I managed a casual shrug. “Yeah, well, I sorta had to run away, considering I wasn’t really in the mood to let him dribble me off the ground and toss me in a dumpster. My name is Paintball, not basketball.” 

“He could do it too,” Jared agreed with a grimace. “Glad you got away. And made him look like a fool in the process. But I hope you’re being careful.” 

My head bobbed. “Believe me, I have a lot to be careful about, it’s not just him.” 

“Indeed,” Lucent put in, “You have proven yourself quite adept at a great many things. But perhaps none as much as your proclivity for making enemies very quickly. The Scions and their admirers will not simply go quietly into the night. You must remain vigilant, and aware of your surroundings. I–” He paused before shaking his little bird head. “I will not attempt to insist that you join a larger group, particularly not now that you have gone so far as to attract others to your side and given yourselves a name. But please, be as careful as possible. And do not hesitate to ask others for help should you need it. I, for one, will always stand ready to swoop in and lend a wing, so to speak.” His dark eyes seemed to stare straight through my visor. “All parental jokes aside, I will be there the moment you request it. You have more than earned that aid. Please, you are enough of a hero as it is. Should the need arise, ask for help.” 

Feeling embarrassed and uncertain under the intense scrutiny, I squirmed a bit on my feet before mumbling an agreement. Then I turned back to Lion, as the little mouse carefully asked Jared to take off the backpack he was wearing. As a testament to how utterly mundane the man and his clothing were, I hadn’t even noticed he had one. But there it was. He carefully took the thing off. It was very simple-looking, a brown and white bag with what looked like a cheap padlock and several zippers across it. At a glance, the bag didn’t look any different than what you’d see on any of a thousand different backs walking through an average high school. But something told me it was much more unique than that.  

Sure enough, Lion explained that the bag was a home away from home. It held screens and microphones she could watch and communicate through, and was shielded in general against damage. Plus, there was a mouse-sized holdout bunker in the bottom that was capable of standing up against an incredible amount of damage if things got really bad. 

“Oh, you want me to wear that while we go visit Trevithick?” I realized. 

Her little mouse head bobbed quickly, voice emerging from the speakers built into her armor. “If you wouldn’t mind? I don’t umm, ahhh, think it would be very comfortable in your pocket.” 

Jared spoke up then. “You’ll have to wear this too.” He extended a hand, showing me a small pin. It looked just like a little silver eagle or hawk, with black beads for eyes. Except they weren’t beads. They were the lens for a camera. Jared explained that if I clipped it to the front of my costume, Lion would be able to see what I could. She could also see behind me through cameras in the bag, but this was her way of keeping an eye on what was going on in front of us. 

So, I carefully put the pin on, and Jared helped the mouse into the bag. We made sure it was all working and she could see and communicate with me properly before Lucent promised to talk to Lion later, and reiterated that he would see me somewhere else after I dropped off Lion. We settled on the roof of a grocery store we both knew about, and my bird-dad went flying off. 

Feeling a hand on my shoulder, I turned it to find Jared looking at me intently. “You be careful with her,” he warned. “The bag’s protected, but don’t go chasing problems while she’s there.”  

Before I could respond, the mouse’s projected voice came through speakers in the bag. “It’s ahh, okay, Jared. I’m sure um, Paintball will be ahh very cautious about running after trouble. Um, right?” Her voice took on a slight note of worry, probably considering my reputation in that moment.

Coughing under Jared’s intense stare, I weakly protested, “Oh, come on, I’m sure I can go five minutes without chasing after horrible bad guys or tripping over a bunch of crazy violence.” 

“Um, if it’s only five minutes,” Lion’s voice piped up once more, “maybe we should, ahh, hurry?” 

Jared warned me again not to go crazy, and I gave him a thumbs up before carefully adjusting the bag on my back. Cinching it tight, I spoke up. “Let me know if I need to slow down or anything. And uhh, I’ll avoid doing any flips.” With that, I raised a hand to shoot a blob of red paint toward the corner of nearby street light, and launched myself upward through a mix of that and blue paint under my feet, releasing the red on my way up so that I shot past it and used another red shot on the roof of a building across the street. Then we were flying that way. 

Landing on the roof in a jog, I asked, “How’re you doing in there? Everything okay? I can slow down if you want, or just take it easy on the jolts.” We were approaching the edge of the roof, but I slowed down to give her time to respond before the next jump. 

To my relief, she immediately chirped, “It’s quite alright, Mr. Paintball. The ahh bunker bag was built to dampen inertia and umm, compensate for sudden motion. You would have to move much faster than that to have any sort of problem. But umm, just in case, this–” There was a loud ringing sound, like an old telephone.  “–means please stop, there’s a problem.” 

Holding my hand in front of the pin-camera, I gave her a thumbs up. “That’ll definitely get my attention. Right, in that case, hold on. Or, you know, brace yourself.” 

With that, I pushed off from where I had stopped a few feet from the edge of the roof. Painting my legs green, I use the burst of speed to get there in an instant before activating purple circles on my arms. Using the boosted strength, I launched myself out into open air, windmilling a bit  before sending another shot of red at the side of the next building. I let it pull me that way, twisting a bit so that I landed feet-first against the wall, the gravity boots keeping me in place. Then I ran along that wall a few steps before using the voice code to make the wheels of my skates pop out. As we rolled toward the edge of the building, completely sideways, I called back, “Hope you’re ready back there, Miss Lion. 

“Cuz we’re about to have some fun.” 

*******

I didn’t go too nuts, of course. I kept my promise to avoid flips, for one thing. There might have been inertial dampeners in the bag, but I wasn’t sure how well they would stand up to going completely upside down. And I definitely didn’t want to test it with Lion in there. That felt like a really bad idea. Or at least a good way of ending up with an incredibly dizzy mouse. 

But I did make some long jumps and showed off a little, making sure Lion was okay after each one. She seemed to be enjoying herself, so I played it up a little more as we got closer to Wren’s place. Something told me she probably didn’t get out like this that often, so I wanted to make the whole thing memorable for her. Preferably without making her sick. 

Taking a moment at the end to make sure no one was close, I made my way through the alley leading up to the back of the shop while telling Lion that we were almost there. “Before you meet Trevithick,” I started, “there’s something about her that I should probably tell you ab–” 

“Paintball!” The back door of the shop was already open as we approached, and Wren came flying out. Literally flying, with her wing pack. As promised, she was wearing a costume… of sorts. It consisted of a sleek black bodysuit with bright pink armored panels along her arms, legs, and chest, and matching black helmet, covering her entire head and face. A pink-tinted visor ran across her eyes. 

She flew right up in the air at eye-level, and grabbed my shoulders, staring at me through that pink visor. “Didja bring her, is she here? You weren’t fibbing, were you? She’s really coming?” Her gaze was darting around excitedly, like a kid anticipating Santa’s arrival. Which, for a Tech-Touched like Wren, being able to talk to someone like Lion probably was a lot like Santa. I had a feeling there weren’t too many people the kid could talk shop with. 

Laughing a little despite myself, I nodded. “First of all, you really threw that together in ten minutes? And it’s okay, she’s here. Lion, this is Trevithick.” 

There was a very brief pause before Lion’s voice emerged, “It is ahh, a pleasure to meet you. Quite a pleasure. May umm, may we go inside so that it can be face to face?” 

Realizing she was in the bag, Wren gave a delighted squeal. She spun three-hundred-and-sixty degrees, all the way around in the air. Then she did it again, only that time it was a full forward vertical flip rather than a simple sideways spin. “Come on, come on!” Inverting in midair, she flew right back through the open doorway while calling back for us to follow her. 

Clearing my throat, I managed, “Like I was gonna say, she’s young. But really effective.” 

“I-umm, I believe you,” came the response. “From everything I’ve ahh, heard, her age is no detriment to her skill. She is the uhh, one who built the forced movement suit?” 

Right, of course she would know about that. Lion probably had contacts within all the Star-Touched groups to have learned about what we did with Ashton. Plus, she was clearly friendly with Lucent from the Seraphs, and they knew plenty because I’d ‘borrowed’ a piece of their technology for the suit. 

So, I nodded while heading to the door, not wanting to make Wren wait so long that she spontaneously combusted or something. Only belatedly did I realize that nodding was dumb, because Lion couldn’t see my head movements. Flushing a little inwardly while silently thanking the fact that no one had seen that, I spoke up. “Yeah, that’s her. She’s umm, she’s done a lot.” 

For a brief moment, I actually considered asking for her advice about Paige. But I wasn’t sure that was a good idea. Not that she wasn’t trustworthy, probably. But it really wasn’t my place to go exposing Paige like that to someone she didn’t even know. After all, with my secrets, how would I feel if one of the others took it upon themselves to tell someone else about them? Even if they thought the person could help, I’d still feel pretty shitty about it. 

So no, unless Paige said it was okay, I wasn’t going to get into all that with her. It wasn’t my place to make that sort of decision. Besides, I still needed to ask her what the deal with her older sister was. 

By the time I shook that thought off, we’d entered through the back door. Immediately, I saw Wren hovering over by one of the tables full of junk, clutching the side of it with both hands while literally vibrating in midair. She was hovering there, staring without moving any closer. Because, I realized, she was literally holding onto the table to stop herself from lunging my way and demanding once more to meet Lion. 

Oh yeah, and the others were there too. Fred stood in the background, watching with a wary, uncertain expression. He wore no costume at all, of course. Meanwhile, Murphy and Roald stood on either side of him. In their case, my two…. helpers wore their ski masks. Apparently they weren’t on board with exposing their identities to Lion. Which was fair. Not that it would be impossible for the little mouse to figure out if she actually investigated Wren’s shop at all, but still. 

Apparently Peyton wasn’t here yet. If she was smart (smarter than me, at least) she’d be using this chance to sleep in and relax.

Rather than torture Wren any further, I stepped over to the nearest table and slipped the backpack off. As I put the thing down, a little slot in the front opened and the guest of honor hesitantly poked her nose out. She snipped cautiously once, twice, then stepped into view. Her small head was darting around rapidly, looking almost panicked as she took everything in. By contrast with her rapid motions, her voice was actually fairly calm (at least as calm as she seemed to ever sound). “Ah, hello. It is uhh, my pleasure to meet another… ahhh… Tech-Touched such as you, Miss.” 

A rush of fear ran through me that Wren was going to squeal or scream and lunge that way, terrifying the poor mouse. But she actually seemed to understand what a bad idea that was. I saw her physically take a breath, then lower herself back to the ground before taking a few careful steps closer. “H-hi, Miss Lion.” Oh, and she sounded nervous, rubbing the back of her new helmet and squirming. “I’m… umm, I’m Wren. It’s really nice to meet you. Oh, that’s Uncle Fred.” She gestured that way. “And those are… uhhh…” She trailed off, as both she and I realized we weren’t sure what to call the other two if we weren’t giving away their names. 

Murphy, however, was on top of it. She gestured to her friend. “That’s Calvin. I’m Hobbes. Don’t mind us, we just clean up around here. Umm, Miss Talking Brilliant Mouse Lady.” Much as she was still trying to keep her cool and sound disinterested, I could tell it was all Murphy (or Hobbes) could do not to have a little squealing fit of her own. 

While Lion politely thanked everyone for greeting her, I heard Roald quietly hiss, “Calvin and Hobbes?” to Murphy. 

“Look,” she hissed right back, “that was what jumped into my head. It was that or Yogi and Boo Boo. And guess who would’ve been Boo Boo.” 

Smirking a little despite myself, I turned my attention back to Lion and Wren. “So, you guys cool to talk some shop here while I run around for awhile?” 

“Oh, oh yes.” Lion assured me. “I ahh, I believe we will be quite fine in your absence. 

“There is quite a lot I would like to speak with Miss Wren about.” 

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