Cardsharp

Showdown 7-08 (Summus Proelium)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

*******

 

Patreon Snippet – Izzy

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I’ve got you.”

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Showdown 7-06 (Summus Proelium)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Three months ago

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

“Ma’am, I’m going to need you to—”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

******

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cardsharp smiled easily. “What can I say?

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

*******

One week later

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Call me Dani.”

******

Present Day

“Dani!”

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

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

“Oof,” Dani muttered, “hey, KD.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“La Casa’s about to go to war.”

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