Cassidy Evans

Enkindle 23-12 (Summus Proelium)

Previous Chapter

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

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

Enkindle 23-08 (Summus Proelium)

Previous Chapter / Next Chapter

My parents had really freaked out about the invasion of their base. How did I know that? Because the next morning, Tuesday, my mother informed Izzy and I while we were eating breakfast that there would not be a family dinner that night. Considering we’d even had it for the most part while they were out of town and only able to appear via video chat, that was pretty big. Though, of course, she didn’t tell us why. She just said that something had come up at the office and they were going to be very busy with that. 

So yeah, canceling family dinner was a big deal. I did my best to seem genuinely surprised and curious in a normal way without looking like I was pushing to see what sort of answer she would come up with. I had to make my reaction come off as completely clueless, yet with the right balance of teenaged not caring that much but being accustomed to the dinners happening. 

Honestly, I really shouldn’t have bothered. My mother was so distracted that I don’t think she heard half of what I said. She just accepted that I was mildly curious about what was going on, gave me some excuse about being busy, then went back to talking on the phone using what was obviously careful language to avoid saying anything dangerous in front of me. I was pretty sure I could have said something like, ‘hope you catch the people who broke into your mall base and stole everything that wasn’t nailed down,’ and there would only be like a twenty percent chance of her actually processing what I was saying properly. 

But, of course, tempting as that was, I resisted the urge. Mom left after giving both Izzy and me a hug, promising to make it up to us later. Then she was out the door and on her way downtown. I exchanged a look with the younger girl beside me, but neither of us said anything about it. Well, actually we did. But we kept our comments limited to what we would have said if we didn’t know the truth. I was absolutely certain that anything we said in here would be heard by someone we didn’t want to hear it. So we played our role as clueless teenagers. 

We also wouldn’t be getting a ride from Jefferson that morning. He was fully occupied helping my parents out, which had to be doing a number on his dislike of schedule changes. And that all by itself told me how big of a deal this was for them. This whole situation was obviously all hands on deck. It made me feel anxious for the fact that we couldn’t eavesdrop on what they were saying. I had no idea how much information they actually had right now, or what they would be able to find out over the next few days. I was pretty sure we hadn’t left anything that could expose us, but not knowing for sure what they were doing made me nervous. 

It was sort of like the opposite of the situation we’d been in before. They’d had no idea we were even a thing, let alone what we were planning. Now they did know about us, at least in general terms, and we had no way of finding out how much they would be able to figure out. It was our turn to not know what they were planning. 

But, we were just going to have to suck that up and move on. We had other things to deal with right now. Mainly the fact that we were supposed to go out as a group later tonight and meet with Glitch. I had no idea how that was going to go, and it was making me nervous. But I knew it was the right thing. The others finally knew the truth about me, and we could work together properly. It was the right time for us to make an appearance as a team. Doing so by meeting with Glitch and letting her know what we were going to do about the whole Tech-Touched tax thing was just… well, as good of a moment as any. 

I had also told Izzy and Amber late the night before about what happened, both with the Luciano thing and later at the shop. They knew about the zombie-man, and that the others were aware of my identity and all that. Though I promised them I hadn’t given away their own identities. I wasn’t sure exactly how long those could remain secret if they kept working with our fledgling group, but it was up to them to decide what to do about it. 

In any case, both Izzy and Amber thought I’d done the right thing by telling the others who I was, given how much trust they’d earned. We were in this whole thing together now. We were a team, and they had deserved to know the truth about me and my connection to the Ministry. 

Eventually, the two of us finished our breakfast. I’d already called for an Uber, and it pulled up outside the house as we made our way there. We weren’t going to be skipping school today. Distracted as my parents were, I really didn’t want to give them any reason whatsoever to think something might be up with me. Sure, connecting the base invasion with me skipping school would be a huge stretch, but still. We needed them not focused on us at all. Thus, not giving them any reason to even think about us. 

Besides, after the insanity of the past couple of days, and what was coming up soon, I needed the break of just going to school and being normal for a few hours. Was it weird that I saw sitting in class listening to teachers and doing work as a break from my extracurriculars? Yeah, probably. But hey, I’d never claimed to be normal. 

I was dropped off at my school first, and I made sure the driver was paid with a substantial tip before sending him on to drop off Izzy at her own school. Then I turned to face the school itself and took a deep breath. Time to go inside and pretend to be a completely normal teenager for a few hours. 

“You’re not fooling anyone, you know.” 

The words made me turn abruptly, just in time to see that Dani girl approach from the direction of the student parking lot. Blinking a couple times, I found my voice finally. “Eh, what?” 

Stopping there, she raised an eyebrow at me before gesturing at the departing Uber. “You really think people will buy this whole ‘oh I have to be driven around in a normal car like everyone else, I totally don’t have a personal private rocket ship and teleportation technology I can use to go anywhere I want’ business?” She winked then, giving a pointed and overly dramatic sigh. “I mean, it’s either believe that you have access to all that and are trying to hide it, or that you actually are stuck driving around in a wheeled car like the rest of us schlubs.” 

A very tiny smirk found its way to my face as I offered a shrug. “I mean, when it comes down to it, whether I have to use a normal car to hide my vast technological sci-fi toys or don’t have access to that at all, the end-result is the same, isn’t it?” 

Dani, in turn, shook her head. “It’s not the same at all. If you had access to that stuff, you could cruise around in a spaceship on your off days. I mean, for all we know, you’re out there flying to new planets and hobnobbing with alien diplomats on the weekend.” 

Dramatically raising my finger to my lips, I gave her a sharp, “Shhh. If everyone hears about that, they’ll all want a ride to Alpha Centauri. Believe me, political relations are already tenuous enough without adding a bunch of extra galavanting teenagers who want to cruise the galaxy.” 

With a laugh, the other girl retorted, “Oh yeah, and everything I’ve heard about you makes you the perfect diplomatic representative for humanity. No way would you ever do something dramatic on a dare that made the aliens panic.” 

“I’ll have you know, I am on my best behavior whenever I’m on an alien world.” With a grin, I added, “That’s why I act up around here, to get it out of my system.” 

“Oh, is that why?” Amber put in while joining us. “Sorry, what was that about aliens?” 

With a shrug, Dani replied, “Just working out exactly what our local richest teenager in the state likes to do in her off-hours.” 

Amber looked me over as though appraising for a moment. “Last time I checked, it was a lot of putting herself in physical peril, right? Skiing down death-trap mountains, skating off skyscrapers downtown, bungee jumping into the Grand Canyon?” 

“Sometimes all in the same day!” I chirped with a broad smile. “Play your cards right and maybe I’ll bring both of you along sometime. We might even take the rocket ship.” 

Dani gave me a thumbs up. “Sounds good, just let me know when and where. Hope I get to wrestle an alien.” With that, she glanced at her phone and said something about needing to talk to someone before class. Then she headed off, leaving me standing there with Amber.  

“You good?” the other girl asked after we watched her walk away. 

Nodding a little, I replied, “Yeah, I’m okay. Still kind of coming to terms with the fact that the others know the truth now. Like… it kind of freaks me out a bit, you know?” 

“You mean because now there’s five extra people who know exactly who you are and who your parents are?” Amber put in before exhaling. “Yeah, that’s pretty big. You’ve been keeping this secret for a long time now. I mean, relatively speaking for how big it is and how much you’ve been doing. And now it’s sort of out of your hands. You can’t control what they do with it. If they fuck up and give away your secret, you can’t undo it. You just… have to trust them. It’s scary, huh?” 

Swallowing hard, I murmured, “Absolutely terrifying. The more people who know about me, the bigger chance of this getting out. You’re right, I can’t control them. I can’t be there every minute of every day. I have no idea what they’re doing right now. I mean, I trust them, or I wouldn’t have told them the truth. It was the right thing to do. But still, it just… it’s a lot. And I keep having waking daymares about one of them saying the wrong thing at the wrong time and…” I shuddered. 

Her hand patted me on the back. “Don’t worry, I get it. Believe me, I know it’s a big deal. But you’re right, it was the right thing to do. If you guys are going to be a real team and work together, they needed to know what they were dealing with. The whole story. Especially if Luciano’s turned into some superpowered zombie monster. That seems like a problem that’s gonna get worse before it gets better.” 

“Well, Paige was supposed to be siccing the Ministry on him,” I pointed out quietly, glancing around to make sure no one was anywhere nearby. “Which could kind of be a two birds with one stone situation if it distracts them from focusing on us. But I guess we’ll see what happens.” 

“Yeah,” Amber agreed, “You could say the same thing about this whole situation. We just have to see how it goes. But whatever happens, just remember you’re not alone. You’ve got people you can trust.”  

Nodding slowly, I took a breath before starting to head for the building. There was no sense in being late to class. “Sure,” I murmured on the way. “I just hope that we can find a way to help Trivial and Flea.

“Because as much danger as we might be in right now, I’m pretty sure they’re in a lot worse.” 

******

School that day passed through a time distortion that made it simultaneously take forever and yet finish in the blink of an eye. While I was sitting in every class, I couldn’t stop looking at the clock, which seemed frozen every time I glanced that way. Given what I had to do that evening, I was anxious to be done with all this. But when the final bell rang and it was time to leave, it somehow felt like I’d barely spent any time there at all. Brains were weird sometimes.

I was at my locker when Dani approached alongside San Francisco. The latter spoke up. “Yo, we’re gonna go catch a movie, you wanna come? It’s that special fifteen year anniversary release of Duskrunners. You know they’re counting ticket sales to decide if they’re finally gonna do a second one.”

“Yeah,” Dani put in, “I haven’t seen it yet, but San here keeps saying I should’ve been there at the first release.” 

Raising an eyebrow, I pointed out, “San wasn’t there at the first release. Or if he was, he wouldn’t remember. He would’ve been two.” 

“All the more reason for us to go to this one and get the movie the sequel it deserves,” San insisted. “Come on, I promise, seeing that movie on the big screen is gonna blow your mind. When I went the first time–” 

“First time?” I interrupted. “You mean you already went to see it in the theater?” 

“Opening night, dude,” he retorted. “It’s been out since last Friday, and I’ve seen it three times. Today’s lucky number four. Even with the curfew, which didn’t make that easy. But I need reinforcements, just in case my tickets aren’t getting the job done. Plus, you know, maybe if you really like the movie, you can poke your dad about throwing some funding toward the sequel.” He waggled his eyebrows at me pointedly. 

Snorting despite myself, I gestured. “I’ve sorta got plans today, but I promise I’ll look at my calendar and see when I can get free for a couple hours.” I wouldn’t have minded going to see a movie that day, especially one San was so excited about. But I’d already promised Wren that I would come by and talk some more about funding for the shop, some toys she wanted to try out, and how that night was going to go when we went to talk to Glitch. She was pretty nervous about the whole thing, understandably. 

“Gotta make it at least three hours,” San informed me. “Gonna need extra time after the movie so we can talk all about the tie-in comics and books and about what’s canon and not canon. It gets a little confusing sometimes.”

“Can’t wait,” I dryly replied before glancing toward Dani. She had been watching me curiously the whole time. “Maybe you can help him narrow down how to explain this stuff to a clueless newcomer. Or just tell me to run if it’s impossible.” 

With a visible smirk, the other girl shrugged. “Hey, if it’s impossible and I have to sit through it, I’d be more likely to tie you down so you have to suffer too. Sure you’re too busy today though? Cuz I could do with some reinforcements. And if there were two of us, we could tie him down if it gets too bad.” 

Snickering a little after giving San a look as though I was considering the ‘tying him up’ part, I finally shook my head. “Like I said, sorry. I’ll try to get some free time soon so we can see just how cool this fifteen-year-old movie actually is and how much it holds up. But hey, let me know how it goes. At the very least, so I’ll know if I need to cut and run whenever I see San here again.” 

“Pfft.” Dani gave me a pointed look. “Trust me, babe, even if it’s terrible, I’m definitely going to talk it up just so you can suffer as much as me.” 

San made a sharp harumphing sound, straightening as he looked back and forth between both of us. “I’m telling you guys, it’s not gonna be bad. It’s awesome, and you’re both gonna love it whenever you get to see it.” Muttering something under his breath about how he still couldn’t believe that we hadn’t seen it at any point in the past fifteen years, he shook that off before gesturing toward the nearby doors. “But if we’re gonna get there in time to get decent seats and snacks, we gotta go.” 

With an added promise (or threat) to make sure I made it to the movie next time, Dani headed out with him. I watched them go, then turned back to my locker while my head shook with amusement. At some point I really was going to have to go see that. San wasn’t the type of person to just let that go. And the last thing I wanted was for him to start wondering why I was so busy all the time. And hey, if I did like it, maybe I really could push my parents toward helping to fund a sequel. 

After all, if they were going to profit so much off a criminal enterprise, they could at least make people happy with it. 

*****

“Speaking of profiting off a criminal enterprise,” I muttered under my breath awhile later, once I’d made it to Wren’s shop. 

“What?” the girl herself asked, popping up from behind a counter where she had been digging through a pile of what looked like random junk. 

Coughing, I shook my head. “Nothing, never mind. I just–I’m glad I get to help get this place running properly.” I had my helmet and mask off since everything was closed up, which was a really odd feeling. Standing here with my face exposed while the rest of me was in costume, it felt… well, it almost felt like I was naked, honestly. It was weird and uncomfortable. I felt exposed. Which was the point, really. Everyone here knew who I really was. I just… wasn’t accustomed to that. 

Coming down the stairs with an armload of supplies, Paige flatly put in, “We don’t have to get this place running to pay Glitch, you know. Cassidy and I can both help with that. In more than one way.” 

Wren, however, shook her head. Her chin was set stubbornly. “If she wants money from me, it’s gonna be from my stuff. I mean–uhh…” She paused, frowning uncertainly. “I guess you’re already paying to help get us off the ground and all, but that’s… uhh, different? I think… somehow. Sorta.” 

“Don’t worry,” I assured her, “we get it. And you won’t have to give them stuff forever. We’re gonna deal with the whole thing eventually. Just… probably not a good idea to make too many enemies right now. Especially not when they obviously know about the shop.” Saying that made me shift a little uncomfortably. 

Then I looked over at Paige, trying to change the subject for a moment while we still could. “Did you get to talk to the Ministry about Luciano?” 

“Yeah,” she confirmed. “I mean, I left an anonymous message about him, and the stuff you guys saw. I don’t know how seriously they’ll take it, but hopefully they’ll at least look into it.” 

A grimace found its way to my face. “Yeah, well, we’ll see. Maybe when they start getting other reports about him, they’ll do something. Cuz I kinda doubt he’s the type to lay low and not draw attention to himself. But you know that ‘drawing attention’ thing is probably gonna involve hurting people. Or… or killing them.”

“I’m working on something to trap him too!” Wren quickly put in. “Something he can’t burn his way out of, or whatever he did to escape from the dumpster.” She frowned thoughtfully. “You said he didn’t burn out of that one, right?”  

“Yup.” The memory made me frown as well. “Still have no idea how he managed that, unless he got teleportation powers too. Which is patently unfair. And speaking of an unfair situation,” I looked back to Paige once more. “What about school? Are they uhh, bringing up stuff about your parents being gone?” 

Paige started to shake her head, but it was Sierra who answered, on her way down the stairs behind the other girl. “As far as the school and his company’s concerned, Mr. and Mrs. Banners are on an extended retreat still. They’ve called in a few times to let people know they’re still alive, thanks to voice changers and Paigey baby’s memories of how he talks to people.” 

“Don’t call me Paigey baby,” the other girl retorted, before focusing on me. “But yeah, like she said, everyone still thinks the Banners are just being eccentric rich people on safari or whatever. The company’s still making money without his help, so there’s not too much concern yet. But that won’t last forever. And… I do want to find out what happened to them. Even if they did buy me to replace the daughter they threw out. Plus we have to get Irelyn off that island. Not to mention Flea and Trivial.” 

She was saying it that way in front of Wren rather than give away that Flea was Irelyn, I knew. It was a trick that only worked because everyone thought Flea herself was Asian, and Trivial hadn’t been in the city long enough. Not to mention she was too young. Those were the only reasons the others hadn’t figured out that Irelyn was one of those two. 

And yeah, it felt awkward and kind of bad to lie like that still. But again, it wasn’t our place to expose Irelyn’s identity. I just hoped that when and if it came up later, the others would understand. They’d been more than understanding so far. 

“We will,” I found myself assuring her after that moment of silence. “We’ll find out what happened to all the Banners. I mean, we’ve still got that blackmailing the Breakwater people plan, right?” 

Wren’s head bobbed rapidly. “Uh huh! I’m building the thing to track where the island is so you can tell them to get them off it or else.” She paused briefly. “Uh, does that make us sound like the bad guys?” 

Smiling a bit, I reached out to squeeze her shoulder. “Don’t worry, we are definitely still the good guys around here. They’re the ones not getting a couple superheroes off their prison island because they don’t want bad publicity. I promise, we’re still solidly on the right side of this.

“And speaking of being on the right side of things, let’s finish putting this stuff together so we can go pay a gang of supervillains to leave us alone.” 

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Enkindle 23-07 (Summus Proelium)

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A/N – There will be a very long commissioned interlude for Heretical Edge posted a bit later today, outside of the normal schedule. This is today’s normal chapter.

Needless to say, there were some surprised looks when I pulled the mask off and dropped it onto the nearby table. Surprised looks from everyone, really, though for different reasons. Sierra and Paige looked surprised that I had actually done it, while the other five were clearly shocked at what they actually saw. Not instantly, of course. There was confusion first, about what the hell I was doing or what my point was. Then I could see as they realized what they were looking at. 

“Wait–” Roald started. His gaze snapped from me over to Sierra and back again, mouth opening and shutting. He was clearly trying to put the whole thing together, though his brain seemed to have short-circuited somewhat. Which was fair, given the circumstances. 

The others weren’t faring any better, for the most part. Murphy kept pointing at Sierra and then back to me while making confused noises in the back of her throat. It was part-choke, part-whine, and part-stammer. Fred was just gaping silently, and Peyton had actually sat down heavily in the chair behind her with an audible thunk followed by a squeak as the force of her falling into it slid the chair backward along the floor. 

Wren was the first to actually find her voice, wings carrying her up near the ceiling in her sudden excitement and confusion. She hovered there, calling down, “Paintball! You’re Sierra! Wait, no, the other way! Sierra, you’re Paintball! Wait, wait–” 

Sierra gave a very slight smirk, gesturing idly with one hand. “No, you pretty much nailed it. This body was built from Paintball’s DNA. Not that our dad knows that. I mean, he doesn’t know she’s Paintball.”

“She?!” That word was what Murphy jumped on, grabbing it like a drowning person being thrown a lifeline. She was pointing at me once more. “You’re a she! You’re she! She’s–you–not he, she, that’s a she, you’re–that is–I don’t–girl! Girl!” It was like that word was all she could manage to keep repeating. 

Looking down at the floor for a moment as I fought back a deep blush, I finally cleared my throat. “I uhh, yeah, That’s about the size of it. Yes–wait.” My voice was still that of a boy, which really confused everything. So, I reached up and took the Bluetooth device out of my ear, hitting the button to turn it off before speaking again with my normal voice while fidgeting with the device in my hand. “Yes, I’m a girl. Yeah, I’ve been lying to everyone about that. Well, almost everyone. I–” Squirming a bit uncomfortably as they all stared at me, I muttered, “I’m sorry.” 

“You mean you’ve been a girl this whole time?!” Peyton blurted, her eyes widening dramatically. She pushed herself back up from the same chair she had just dropped into. 

“Well I didn’t just change,” I managed reflexively before flushing even more. “I mean yes, this is me. This is who I’ve always been. It was easier to hide my identity by pretending to be a boy.” Even as I said those words, the awkwardness felt worse. Not just because I was telling them about how much I had lied, but also because this was me as myself rather than hiding behind the identity of Paintball. I hadn’t fully realized up until that point how much the mask and helmet had allowed me to pretend to be another person. Which was really weird given the actual situation. The anonymity of being Paintball rather than Cassidy really had affected me more than I thought. Revealing myself like this, talking to them as myself rather than through the mask, helmet, and voice changer made me feel a lot more vulnerable. Especially because it was happening all at once. I was exposing myself to all five of them, rather than having separate discussions the way I’d planned originally. This whole thing was a lot. 

But if I thought it was a lot for me, it had to be pretty heavy for them too. And they didn’t even know the half of it yet. If they thought their minds were blown now…

Clearing my throat, I straightened up to look at all of them. They had fallen silent for the moment, just staring at me while absorbing what I’d said. So, I continued. “Like I said, I pretended to be a boy because it’s easier to hide my identity that way. Especially because it means I can pretend to be younger than I really am. And it’s important that I hide who I am. I mean, even more important than it would be for most people.” 

“Who are you?” That was Peyton, sputtering a bit as she added, “I mean, why would Paige and Sierra’s dad have a special body made that looks like you?! He didn’t make it because you’re Paintball, they said he doesn’t even know that you’re Paintball. And besides, it would have been made a long time ago, right? So the only reason he’d make a body that looks like you is if he had some kind of history with you before, but what kind of history could it be? I mean, who are you to him? Who are you at all? What–wait–” 

She started to continue along those lines, while the others began to sputter questions too, making things difficult to keep track of. It was starting to spiral. But I held up both hands to hold them off. “It’s okay, guys, I’m going to explain, I promise. Maybe I should’ve explained the whole thing before, but… but I was nervous. I mean–sorry. I’m sorry. I’m sorry I lied to you guys for so long. But there’s a reason I’m so… I’m sorry. Just let me explain, please?” 

They all stared at me for another moment before Peyton showed up from her chair and nodded. Her voice cracked just a little. “It’s okay, Paintball. Or… or whoever you are. You can tell us the truth. We’re listening.” 

Her words were met with an assortment of nods from the others, even Paige and Sierra, who were staying in the background and being quiet through most of this. I’d actually gotten through the initial bombshell of showing my face and revealing that I was a girl, and now they were ready for me to actually explain the situation. Which, of course, would involve several more bombshells. But whatever, there was no turning back now, so here went nothing. And given the situation, I decided that I might as well start with a big one 

“My name is Cassidy,” I informed them, my own voice faltering just a bit before I forced myself to continue. “Cassidy Evans.” 

Yeah, that sure got a reaction. Everyone did even have more of a double-take than they had when I first revealed my face. Fred managed an incredulous, “Cassidy Evans? As in the daughter of–was in the–I pointed a gun at Cassidy Evans?!” His voice rose to an almost amusing shrill shriek with that exclamation. I could see and hear the reaction across his face and in his words. “You’re like, the richest, most important kid in town and I just–and I was–oh God.” It was his turn to sit down heavily in the nearest chair, clearly playing through what could have happened in his head. “If I shot you, if you–if your parents–” It sounded like he was about to be sick, his face pale.  

“It’s okay,” I assured him. “You didn’t know. I mean– wait, what am I saying, of course it wasn’t okay. You were kind of being a jerk at the time. But whatever, my point is this doesn’t make it worse. Or it does, but not for the reason you–never mind. You’re right though, it would’ve been bad if you shot me and my parents found out, because–” 

“It’s them, isn’t it?” That was Peyton. “They’re the ones behind this whole Ministry thing. They’re the ones in charge. That’s how you know for a fact that it isn’t Caishen, and why you’ve been so obsessed with hiding your identity. That’s why it’s so important that everyone thinks you’re a boy, a younger boy even. Because if anyone would recognize you as a girl, it’s your parents. And you really don’t want them to, because they’re the ones you’re trying to stop.”  

Taking a deep breath, I nodded that way. “Yeah, you pretty much nailed it. I found out the truth about my family the same time I got my powers, a couple months ago.” 

From there, I went on to explain the situation from the start. They all fell silent and watched while I started with hiding inside the car that night. Well, mostly silent. They did have a bit of an exclamation when I mentioned that I was hiding in one of the cars in our garage. But that quieted down soon enough, mostly because they wanted to hear the whole story. 

So, I told them. I explained about what I’d seen that night, about Touching the orb, getting my powers and using them accidentally for the first time, about hiding under the dumpster, hearing my brother, then eavesdropping on my mother and him at home, going out that first night in my makeshift costume and finding out my dad was Silversmith, and so on. I told them about the whole thing, the full story about what I had been through over the last couple of months. It was a lot to get through, especially given the way they were staring at me. 

I did leave out a couple of things, of course. I didn’t tell them about Raindrop being Izzy and living with me, or about That-A-Way being Amber. Those weren’t my secrets to tell, so I had to leave them out. Those two weren’t here to say it was okay. If they wanted to reveal themselves later, that was up to them. I wasn’t going to force the issue. This was enough for now. 

Once I had finished explaining everything that I could, including the whole bit about my history with Paige, who Anthony was and what had happened to my memory, and so on, I finally took a drink from the can of soda that Paige had offered me partway through that. “So,” I announced hesitantly after swallowing hard, “that’s the truth. That’s who I am and why I’ve been lying. Like I said, I had to hide my identity from my parents. They’ve got people everywhere, and I didn’t know who to trust. I still don’t, really. Except for you guys. You guys have earned that. So have Way and Raindrop, but they already know who I am.” 

“They do?” Murphy managed. “They already–wait so you know who they are?” 

Grimacing a little, I hesitated before nodding. “But I can’t tell you, because–” 

“That’s okay,” Peyton immediately put in. “Don’t uhh, don’t worry. We get it. Right?” She pointedly looked to the others, who all agreed. “You don’t have to expose their secrets just because you’re telling us yours. You–you’re really…” She rocked back on her heels, head shaking. “Holy shit, Paintball, this is pretty big.” 

Wren, who had come down from the ceiling by then, landed near me. She was biting her lip as she looked me up and down before starting hesitantly. “But… you’re still Paintball, right?” 

My head bobbed quickly as I met her gaze. “Yes. Yes, of course it’s still me. I’m still me. I’ve always been me, just a different me than you thought. Sort of different. I’m just older and a different gender than you thought, that’s all. The rest of it is still just me.” 

“That’s all?” Peyton echoed. “That’s a pretty big difference. I mean, in some ways.” She grimaced a little, taking a breath. “Sorry, I don’t–I’m not saying it’s–yeah. I get it. I think we all get why you lied about that even after you told us the other stuff. It’s a pretty big thing to get into. And you already dropped some pretty major bombs before.”

Murphy nodded. “Yeah, for sure. We totally get why you did it, but it’s still a lot to take in, you know? Like, I’ve been thinking of you one way this entire time, and the truth is completely different. You’re older than we are. You’re a girl. You–it’s–fuck, dude. Like I said, it’s a lot.” 

Everyone was quiet for a moment before Roald spoke up. “Plus, you’re not just a girl and older, you’re Cassidy Evans. The Cassidy Evans. Which, for the record, you don’t look anything like I expected. When people talk about Cassidy Evans, I always picture like, you know…” He trailed off before turning to gesture toward Paige without saying anything. 

Swallowing, I did my best not to make too much of a face. “Yeah, I get that a lot, trust me. My mom said I should take it as a good thing in some ways. The fact that people don’t really know what I look like means I don’t get mobbed out on the street. I guess she sort of has a point.”  

“Wait, hold on, are you sure that is what you look like?” That was Murphy, straightening up suddenly as she stared at me intently. “You said your family has a way of putting illusions over people, right? Are you sure they’re not doing it to you so that you and everyone else see this?” 

My mouth opened and shut a couple times before shaking my head. “First, I don’t think it works that way. I’m pretty sure the people that have illusions on them are using some sort of Touched-Tech for it, and I don’t have anything like that on me. If they were casting a hologram over me or something, I think it would have to come from something I had with me all the time. It’s not like I have a bracelet or something that I’m always wearing. And if it was somehow projecting the effect from somewhere to everywhere I go, they would have figured out who I really was by now.” 

“Plus the idea of them having some sort of machine that can project illusions over people anywhere in the city, and even out of the city, is pretty goddamn terrifying,” Peyton noted. “So personally, I’d rather believe they’re not quite that ridiculously powerful.”  

“Yeah, that too,” I agreed. Taking a breath, I started to say something else, before Sierra spoke up first. 

“Anyway, there’s definitely no illusion going on with her, because that one knew her five years ago.” She gestured to Paige. “And there hasn’t been a real change.” Turning back to me, she offered a shrug. “Sorry, not to be insulting or anything. I mean, you’ve gotten a bit bigger and all. And you–” 

Flushing deeply, I quickly cut her off. “I get it, yeah. I haven’t changed.” To the others, I added, “That was my second point. Not the Paige thing, but the whole bit about me from the past. There are pictures and videos of me throughout the whole time I’ve been growing up and there’s never a big shift in what I look like. Even if they had the ability to do something like that, I don’t think they’d carry it on for this long. That would just be cruel, and my parents are a lot of things, maybe even sometimes cruel to other people, but not to me. And yeah, I know how that sounds. I really do. But seriously. They’re not complete monsters. This whole thing would be–it’d be easier if they were. They’ve done a lot of bad things, but they’ve also done a lot of good things. My dad is literally Silversmith. He’s saved a lot of people.” 

“And he’s let a lot of other people get hurt and die,” Murphy pointed out. Her voice didn’t really sound accusatory, however. If anything, she sounded sympathetic. “Believe me, I know what it’s like to have a family member who does bad things sometimes but also does a lot of good.” 

Oh. Right, yeah she would understand that, wouldn’t she? It was a reminder that made me flinch a bit before I found my voice. “About that–” 

“I know,” she interrupted. “Your parents are the ones who made the call to help that piece of shit escape the city in the first place.” Her face twisted a bit as she clearly went through an assortment of emotions as far as that was concerned. “Trust me, I’ve been thinking about that this whole time. I’ve been thinking about it a lot. But I’m pretty sure they’re also the one who had him end up in the garbage. Probably cuz he made too much noise for them or something. You know, they stuck to the letter of their deal to get him out of the city and then shot him in the head or something. But he survived somehow and got powers. Or just managed to live with a bullet in the head long enough for one of those orbs to find him. And really, who could’ve predicted that?” 

Despite her words, I could still see anger in her expression and hear it in her voice. It was mostly undirected anger. She wanted Luciano dead, and the people who had helped him escape justice were the same ones who had apparently tried to make that happen. Yet they had failed at that, and now he was more dangerous than ever. Yeah, I could see how that entire situation would give her very conflicted feelings. If my family had just left it alone and let us take him in… fuck. yeah. She wasn’t the only one who had conflicted feelings.  

“We still don’t even know why he went nuts and started this whole thing in the first place,” Peyton pointed out. “Like you said, he started freaking out and causing trouble before he even had to get out of the city. That’s why he had to–” 

“Oscuro,” I blurted. “The cop from the other day outside the laundromat, he told me Luciano owed money to Oscuro. I guess maybe having Cuélebre breathing down your neck could motivate someone to go after all that money.” 

“What’re you gonna do about him?” Fred asked after we had all gone silent for a few seconds considering that realization. “Luciano that is, not Cuélebre. I mean, they’re both–” He stopped, shaking his head. “Point is, he’s still out there and he’s gonna keep hurting people, right? So what’re… uhh, we gonna do? Not that this whole thing about Paintball isn’t fascinating and all, trust me. I’m pretty freaked out myself. But seriously, he’s still out there.”

Everyone looked at me for a moment, and I hesitated while an assortment of thoughts ran through my head. Eventually, I exhaled before starting with, “First, I think we should let the Ministry know what happened, at least as much as we can without giving ourselves away. They don’t want him to be a problem any more than we do. If we’re right about them being the ones who tried to kill him, then they’ll want him stopped too. And they have a lot more resources than we do.” 

“Do you want to stop your family?” Murphy asked, her eyes on me. “Sorry, not to totally change the subject–for very long I mean, but really. Do you want to break up the Ministry?” 

Once again, my mouth opened and shut. I closed my eyes and grimaced a little before opening them as I looked at her. “I don’t know exactly what I want. That’s the biggest problem here, at least from my end. I know I don’t want things to stay the way they are. Yes, my family has done some good things, but they’ve also done some bad things. I believe they think they’re making the city better by only allowing some crime and all that. But… but they’re also making it worse in other ways. It’s like–” Cutting myself off, I tried to put my thoughts into words. “They might be stopping the city from being as bad as it could be, but they’re also stopping it from being as good as it could be. They’re keeping it static. People are still suffering. There’s still homeless, still people being shot and dying in the street, there’s still… there’s still stuff we could fix. I don’t believe there can be a place where there’s absolutely no crime and no suffering at all, but I sure as hell believe it can be better than this. I believe that the Ministry puts profit first, even if they also do some good. And I want to change that. But I can’t as long as it exists the way it does right now. I want to make things better.” 

The others were silent for a moment after I finished saying that, until Wren finally grabbed both of my hands and squeezed them. “We’re all gonna help! We’re gonna help make things better, right?” 

That was met with mixed agreement, before Paige made a point of clearing her throat. “I can… I can contact the Ministry. Anonymously, I mean. I have a phone number for them. I can give them a quick rundown of what happened so they can start looking for him before he… hopefully before he hurts too many people.” 

“Before he kills too many people, she means,” Sierra put in. “And yeah, probably best that you keep it anonymous, because I don’t think they’d listen to the group that just broke into their base.”

“Probably not,” I agreed. 

I started to say something else about that, but was interrupted as the phone in the store rang. Everyone looked that way as Fred grimaced and muttered an apology before answering it. He listened for a second, then looked over and held the phone out to me. “It’s for you, Paintball.” 

I started to take it, only to quickly turn the voice changer back on at a pointed nudge from Paige. Making sure it was working, I took the phone and answered, “Who is this?” 

“Fabulist,” came the response from a male voice. “You know why I’m calling.” 

“Glitch wants an answer about the Touched-Tech tax thing,” I guessed. 

“Exactly,” he confirmed. “It’s been a lot longer than two weeks, since we got a little… busy. But she’s ready now. And she wants to talk in person again. She’ll meet you at the old pizza place where you met before. You know where that is?” 

Thinking about that briefly, I replied, “Yeah, I remember where it is. We’ll be there. When?” 

“Tomorrow evening,” was the answer. “Make it around this time. And don’t make us wait for too long.” 

He hung up then, so I did the same. Everyone was staring at me as I explained what that was. 

“So you’re going?” Paige asked. 

“We are,” I confirmed, looking over the others. “We’re all finally on the same page. No pun intended.” I added that with a glance toward the blonde girl before continuing. “You guys know the truth. You know what’s really going on. So I’m not going to this meeting alone. If you–if you’re still with me, I think we should go as a team. All of us together, finally.

“Time for everyone to meet the full Avant-Guard.” 

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Enkindle 23-06 (Summus Proelium)

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So, we had a lot to talk about on the drive back to Detroit. Part of me wanted to stay and keep looking through that apartment, or even hunt for Luciano himself. But it was too dangerous. Not just because the man could ambush us again, but also because I was pretty sure the distant sirens we heard were thanks to someone calling the cops about the disturbance. No way did we want to stick around and try to explain what was going on, especially given I wasn’t dressed up like Paintball. It would raise far too many questions. And potentially expose too much to my parents. Overall, being found there by the authorities was a terrible idea in general. 

Not that we were able to come up with many answers on the ride. After telling Fred about what had happened, he was even more freaked out and confused than we had been. And that was a pretty high bar to start with. None of us understood exactly what all that had been about, aside from guessing that Luciano had Touched. But what the fuck kind of Touch had it been? He was dead, like, he had a bullet hole in the center of his forehead. But he was still moving around and acting like it didn’t bother him. Plus, he regenerated from everything we did, was incredibly strong and pretty fast, and he gave off that heat. Especially from his glowing teeth. It just–the whole thing was–he had powers. That much was clear. But the rest of it, the fact that he seemed to be a living, mobile corpse? That was new. And incredibly fucked up. 

Once we got back to the pawn shop, we talked to Wren and Paige about it too. And that didn’t help either. Paige beat herself up a bit about not coming with us, but Sierra and I both told her to knock it off. We’d gotten out of there just fine. Well, relatively speaking. 

Then there was Peyton, who had apparently snuck out of her room and came back to the shop to wait for us once her mother got home from the hospital and went to bed. Hearing our story, she clearly felt even worse than Paige did that she hadn’t come with. “I’m sorry, guys. I should’ve–” 

“You shouldn’t have done anything different,” I insisted. “Your mom needed your help. What about her friend, is she–” 

“She’s fine,” Peyton replied immediately. “I mean, she’ll be okay. She just tripped on the steps and broke her leg. Nothing nefarious or, uh, Touched-related.” Even as she said that, I could tell that some part of her mind had been entertaining the paranoid notion that the Ministry had somehow attacked her mother’s friend to get at her. Obviously they wouldn’t need to be that circumspect about it. If they knew she was involved with the break-in at their base, they would have been a lot more direct than breaking her mother’s friend’s leg. Still, I couldn’t blame her for having the thought. Hell, I had too, for just a very brief second before dismissing it. 

“Well that’s good,” Roald started, before visibly blanching. “I mean, not good that your mom’s friend broke her leg. Just–” He winced, gesturing a little with both hands as though trying to explain with sign language what his mouth couldn’t put into words. “You know what I mean.” 

Peyton gave a very slight, almost imperceptible smirk. “I know.” She nudged him. “It’s cool. You guys are the ones who ended up almost dying out there. I should apologize to you.” 

“Nobody should apologize to anybody,” I immediately put in, before amending, “I mean, there’s a lot of people who need to apologize–nobody here needs to apologize about going or not going anywhere. We all did what we needed to do. And we got out of there without losing any people or any limbs. It wasn’t pretty, but we made it.” 

“So what do you think happened to Luciano?” That was Wren. She was hovering several feet off the floor, wings beating the air rapidly like a dragonfly while ‘sitting’ cross-legged. “Did he really turn into a zombie?”

“There’s no such thing as zombies,” Paige informed her simply. 

“Says the walking artificial biological construct puppeted by a robot ball that’s been stuffed with a copy of a girl’s brain,” Sierra pointed out with a snort. She was squinting that way, which was still weird to see coming from my own face now that she’d taken the mask off. It was like staring into a mirror. Or a photograph, given I wasn’t making that expression at the moment. Except she had blonde hair and–it was weird. It was just plain weird, even now that I’d had a whole day to get used to it. 

Okay, yeah, it was just possible that this would take longer than one day to actually ‘get used to.’ 

“And yeah,” Sierra continued, “that applies to me too. I’m just saying, weirder things than zombies have happened in this world. And nobody knows what exactly those orbs are capable of. Err, the Summus Proelium orbs, not our orbs.” 

“Too many orbs,” Peyton complained. “Couldn’t your dad have made your computer selves out of, I dunno, pyramid shapes?” 

“Sure, we’ll add that to the list of reasons we need to smack the shit out of him,” Sierra replied. “It’s already a long list, but I’m not gonna object to another excuse to put my fist through his teeth.”

Clearing my throat, I looked toward Wren. “We don’t know what happened to Luciano. My only guess is that he somehow Touched right as he was dying, and it kept him alive. I know-um, people can survive being shot in the head. Maybe whoever thought they killed him dumped the body and he managed to stay alive long enough for an orb to show up and it… the powers it gave him are keeping him functional? I don’t know why it’s healing everything except that bullet hole, but maybe it considers that to be the normal state of his body or something.” 

“But who killed him?” Roald hesitantly asked, sounding even more confused than I felt. “Or tried to, I mean. Was it the Ministry? Why would they go to all the trouble of getting him out of town, just to turn around and execute him?” 

“Maybe they wanted to follow the letter of their agreement,” Paige pointed out. “He paid them to get him out of town, so they did. Then they killed him for making a mess of things and attracting attention. Think about it, they rely on keeping things quiet and calm. Things already aren’t quiet and calm, but he made it worse. He went out and started shooting a bunch of people, and something tells me he didn’t have their permission for that. They were probably a little annoyed. Especially since he wasn’t supposed to know anything about them.” 

That made me blink. “He wasn’t supposed to know about them?” 

“Yeah, it was in there.” She nodded toward one of the hard drives. “Luciano was never on their actual payroll. One of their other… agents gave him the number to call if he was in trouble. From the notes someone added to it, the leaders weren’t happy about that. Sounds like the cop who gave him the number was supposed to get a talking to about it.” 

Absorbing that, I rocked back on my heels thoughtfully. “So Luciano wasn’t even supposed to know about them. But some cop he knew gave him the number and he called for help getting out of town. They gave him the price, and he paid it. But why was he so desperate to get that money in the first place? I mean, think about it. What’s the order of events here? He went nuts trying to collect money and that got him in trouble so he had to leave town. But he used the money he collected while going nuts to pay for his passage. So why’d he need to get it in the first place? What happened to make him decide he had to blow up his whole life here, collect everything he was owed in one night, piss off the whole city, and bounce?” 

“You mean something had to have happened before he went nuts and started shooting people,” Murphy put in, her voice sounding thick with emotion. “Before he shot my brother.”

Grimacing despite myself, I nodded. “Exactly. What happened to make him decide he had to go that far? He pissed everyone off and had to skip town because of all the commotion he made. But what made him decide he had to make that commotion to begin with? Obviously he decided he had to leave town before all that. Trying to collect what everyone owed him, and shooting the people who didn’t pay up, was about getting as much money as he could in one day. So what made him so desperate to get out of town in the first place?” 

“If the Ministry knows,” Paige replied, “it wasn’t in any of the notes that we stole. At least not that I can find. From the sound of things, they were barely aware of him until he called for assistance. But we do know that he made the call before he started going around shooting people. He called them, they named their price for getting him out, and then he got the money they asked for by… by doing all that.” 

“Why didn’t he just leave the normal way?” Fred demanded. The man was staring at us in disbelief and confusion. “I mean, the whole reason he had to get the Ministry to help him escape in the first place was because of all the heat on him. But he only had that heat because of what he did to get the money to pay the Ministry to get him out–what?” 

My mouth opened, then shut as I frowned. “Yeah, you’re right. That doesn’t make sense. There had to be some reason besides the chaos he made that night for why he had to get out of town fast and couldn’t just leave the normal way. Maybe he had some other people watching him, or… something? I dunno. But there had to be something, and apparently the Ministry didn’t know about it. Yet it was enough to make him that desperate to leave.” 

“Maybe we need to look into that too,” Paige murmured thoughtfully. “There has to be a reason, and it might be related to his situation now. Or maybe it’ll tell us what he’s planning to do. If he’s got power now, if he can’t be killed, he might show up in town to find whoever made him so desperate to leave in the first place. You know, for revenge.” 

Sierra glanced to me, her voice flat. “Or he might want revenge against the Ministry themselves. If they were the ones responsible for his–his not-death, or whatever.” She made a face, sighing heavily. “This whole thing is confusing. Too bad we couldn’t get answers out of Luciano himself.” 

“We can,” Murphy put in sharply, “as soon as we find that piece–” She hesitated, glancing toward Wren. 

“That piece of shit,” Wren herself promptly put in. “It’s okay. I’m not a baby, and he’s earned being called a bad word. Right, Uncle Fred?” 

With a faint cough, Fred himself hesitated only slightly before shrugging. “Yeah, sure. No soap for anyone’s mouth. Let’s just try not to make too much of a habit out of it.” Even as the man said that, I could see the look of disbelief crossing his face. Clearly, he didn’t consider himself the sort of person to make a big deal out of cursing. At least, not until he had found himself in the position of caretaker for a little girl like Wren. 

Peyton spoke up after we had all exchanged glances. “We have to find the guy and trap him somehow, but then what? And how do we trap him to begin with? You said he melted through everything you tried to hold him with, and even once you put the dumpster on him, he just…” 

“He disappeared,” Roald finished flatly. “No hole in the dumpster, or the ground, or anything. He just vanished.” 

“Which means he’ll be even harder to trap than if he just had the burning power,” I confirmed. “We don’t even know how he disappeared. Can he teleport? Or–or whatever. I dunno. We don’t know anything about it. Which is just fantastic, really. Because we didn’t already have enough problems with the whole burning living zombie who regenerates from everything you throw at him part. He’s gotta be Houdini too.” 

“Don’t forget about how he killed more people when he ripped their throats out,” Sierra noted, hoisting herself up to perch on the edge of one of the counters. “I mean he was already a murderer before, but still. There’s a difference between shooting someone with a gun and… that.” She grimaced just a bit at the thought. 

Murphy straightened a little, her voice quiet. “Either way, they end up dead. He’s killed a lot of people, including my brother. So we have to catch him somehow. We have to stop him.”

“Maybe we should tell the Ministry,” Peyton mused. When everyone looked at her, she shrugged. “What? I don’t mean we walk up, tell them who we are, and ask for help. I mean anonymously. If they’re the ones who had him executed–or tried to, he’ll be after them too. So they should want to put a stop to him. He knows too much and he’s too dangerous. Plus, they’ve got a lot more resources than we do, obviously. Why not point them at him and let those people deal with it? Like Roald was saying about telling them about the whole Pittman situation.” 

I felt funny about that suggestion, for several reasons. But I shook it off and replied, “I’m not sure how we get the information to them quietly, without letting them know who we are or how we found out. An anonymous tip, but to where? Wait, there’s probably phone numbers in those notes we stole, right?” 

“Plenty of them,” Paige confirmed. “Shouldn’t be hard to make an anonymous call. Just have to decide what exactly to tell them.” 

“And while we’re at it, we should tell the actual authorities too,” I pointed out. “Again, anonymously. We can let them know what we saw him do, what he’s capable of, as much as possible without giving away our actual identities. I don’t want him to take the whole city by surprise. I mean… they won’t have a lot of reason to believe we aren’t lunatics making stuff up, but still. We have to say something about it.” 

Paige gave a heavy sigh. “It wouldn’t be a problem if we’d been able to put him down in the first place. I–I’m sorry I wasn’t there.” 

“I was,” Sierra reminded her. “And trust me, you wouldn’t have been able to do that much more than I did.” 

With a wince, Paige replied, “I wasn’t trying to say that I could–I just–I’m sorry I wasn’t there. If anything had happened to you, or Paintball, or any of you–” 

“It would’ve happened to you too,” Sierra finished firmly. “You wouldn’t have been any better prepared to face that guy, believe me. Besides,” she added while munching on a cookie that Wren had been holding out to her, “your job was to go through those hard drives. We did our part–okay we didn’t exactly solve the issue, but still. What’d you find out?” 

Paige hesitated, making it clear that she thought we should keep talking about the Luciano thing. But it was equally clear that we couldn’t really do anything about it right then. And the other stuff was important too. So, she exhaled and gave a short nod. “Right, yeah there was interesting stuff. A lot of it we’ll have to take a little bit at a time, like names and accounting numbers. There’s a list of people in the government who pay or do favors for them, but it’s not clear just how much those people know. Most of them are really… compartmentalized. Like a terrorist cell. They only know their immediate supervisor, and usually they have no idea just how big the whole thing is. They all think the organization is a lot smaller than the whole city. Hell, a lot of them just think they’re giving information, money, or whatever to a single guy who happens to have something over on them. Blackmail, a paycheck, whatever. 

“For most of these people, it’s not like they go clock in every day and get a paycheck from ‘The Ministry.’ They do their ordinary jobs, I mean, some not so ordinary, but still. They do their jobs as a policeman, or an accountant in the mayor’s office, or as a guard in the prison, or whatever. Then a phone rings and a voice tells them to do something. Which they do, and then they get an envelope with some money in it. And then they don’t hear from the voice until they need to do something else. That’s the biggest part of the Ministry, just low-level… contractors, for lack of a better term. They do a job they’re told to do, and get paid for that moment. And most of them don’t even know what that piece amounts to. They’re a small part of the puzzle. Open a door at the right time, lock a gate at the wrong time, pass a list of names along, names they sometimes don’t know anything about. They don’t have the full puzzle, so they can’t figure out what’s actually going on. Some are being blackmailed or threatened to make them stay in line and accept their money quietly. Others are just in it willingly. Either way, they don’t know the full extent of any of it.”

With that, Paige perched herself against the nearby counter, shaking her head. “However the Ministry set this up, they managed to keep almost every piece of the organization separate and mostly clueless about the others.” She glanced to me briefly, our eyes meeting before she went on. “The ones they don’t trust are watched over by ones they trust slightly more, and so on up the ranks. Everyone is watching each other, and they never know which of their superiors or even subordinates are part of it, or being paid to keep an eye on them. Sometimes the Ministry pays one of them to keep an eye on someone who isn’t connected to the organization at all, just to confuse them and make them question whether that person knows something.” 

“That sounds like it could get really fu–freaking complicated,” Murphy pointed out, correcting herself with a glance toward Wren while shaking her head. “How do they keep track of everything?” 

“They do have people who know the truth, or most of it,” Paige replied. “It’s just that the full organization is mostly made up of people who only know little bits and pieces. The leaders are really careful about how much information gets out there.” 

Roald cleared his throat, speaking up hesitantly. “Uh, what about those leaders? Is there anything about them? Like… who they are? That’s probably pretty important information.” 

Murphy was nodding rapidly. “Hey, yeah. Who runs this group? They’ve gotta be important. Like, the police commissioner or one of the Star-Touched leaders. Oh, what about Caishen? She’s all about making money off Touched stuff. Hell, Ten Towers would be the perfect organization, right? They’re already, like… you know, set up for all that. They’re an established group of super-rich companies, they have the infrastructure, the contacts, she has reason to go into all those places without raising anyone’s suspicion, she can go back and forth between the corporate world, the government people, and even the cops without anyone batting an eye.” Even as she spoke, the girl’s words started getting louder and faster as she grew more and more into the idea. “That’s gotta be it, right? That’s how they–” 

“It’s not her,” I quickly put in, not wanting her to go barking too far up that particular tree. Fred, Wren, Peyton, and Roald had all started to look pretty convinced through that, while Sierra and Paige had glanced toward me. 

“What?” Murphy blinked, before frowning slightly. “How do you know it’s not her?” 

I froze, my mouth opening while no actual sound came out. I had been planning to–okay I had been trying to plan how to talk to them all separately, Peyton first. But this… “You guys all–you’ve done more than I ever could have expected. And some of you almost died tonight thanks to whatever Luciano is now. I–you helped break into the Ministry base, you’ve kept that secret, you–you’ve done more than enough. More than you should’ve had to do before I told you the truth.”

“The truth about what?” Peyton asked, glancing from me to Murphy and Roald, then back again. 

No more stalling. No more excuses. It was… it was past time. “The truth about me,” I replied, straightening up as I reached for the ski mask I was still wearing. “About who I really am. 

“And about my parents.” 

Previous Chapter / Next Chapter

Enkindle 23-05 (Summus Proelium)

Previous Chapter / Next Chapter

My hand slapped Sierra on the back as the two of us dropped like stones toward the hard cement below. In the instant before we hit, I painted orange on both of us so we wouldn’t break anything from the several-story drop. Well, to be fair Sierra’s body was enhanced so it was possible she could take a drop like that. I wasn’t sure how far that extended, how strong she actually was. But either way, a bit of orange paint would make certain of it. And she wouldn’t be too stunned from the landing to act quickly. 

All of that flashed through my mind in the roughly two seconds it took for us to hit the ground. We each landed in a crouch, but Sierra launched herself out of it instantly. It was like her body had barely touched pavement before she was abruptly airborne once more. Only this time, she was hurtling forward instead of down. As the shadowy figure hunched over the prone Roald and Murphy, Sierra crashed into him. He started to fall forward, but she caught his shoulder and arm, pivoting to throw the man over into the wall of the building a good eight or nine feet away. He crashed into it upside down with enough force to make several of the bricks crack slightly under the impact. And yet, he didn’t seem too stunned by it, dropping back to the ground and rising to his full standing position with a literal growl, like he was some sort of animal. His face was still mostly hidden in shadow, though I could see enough to recognize that it was definitely Luciano. But he was covered in what at a glance to be a mixture of dirt and dried blood. It functioned almost like a mask itself, working together with the shadows to make it even harder to pick out his individual features. Until he smiled. His teeth were gleaming white, and almost too perfect. They literally seemed to glow. While most of his face and body appeared to radiate shadows, his teeth projected soft light. It drew all attention to his mouth, almost making it seem like the Cheshire Cat from Alice in Wonderland, when he would make only his wide grin appear. Oh, and he smelled like a sewer. Or like the pile of garbage he had apparently been lying in. Which was just fantastic really, it added so much to the experience.  

A series of quick thoughts flew through my mind in that moment, as Sierra and I both faced off against him. First, something was absolutely and definitely wrong with this guy. This wasn’t the same guy I had seen before, back at his laundromat. This was… this was something wrong, something bad. I had no idea what happened to him, but he was different now. And not in a good way. 

We had to deal with this, and we had to do it quickly and quietly before we attracted too much attention. And I couldn’t use my actual powers too openly, or anyone who did happen to look out their window while it was going on would be able to connect this identity to Paintball. Or Luciano himself would realize and say something. Which would tell my parents–well, not everything, but still entirely too much. We had to deal with this, and we had to do it without exposing too much.

While I was in the midst of those thoughts, Murphy and Roald clambered to their feet. As soon as she was up, Murphy started to lunge at Luciano, but Roald stopped her, grabbing his friend by the shoulders. “No, wait!” 

My own hands quickly grabbed both of them as well, trying to stop the two from going anywhere near that thing. I was going to tell them to stay back, but before I could say anything, something… interrupted. 

“No, wait!” The echo came from Luciano himself, sounding like a mixture of Roald’s own voice and a cackling monster. Roald’s voice had been a cry of alarm, this was mocking, more laughter than scream. Then it came again. “No, wait!” He took a step closer, emerging a bit from the shadow of the building. “No, wait!” Each repetition sounded more and more like Roald. The first had been half his voice and half something else, but each time the words came, they sounded even more like a perfect copy. Which was somehow even worse.

And speaking of worse, finally, we could see the man’s face fully. As I’d thought, it was caked in dirt and blood. Then there was the bullethole. Yeah, a single bullethole centered in the middle of his forehead. It wasn’t makeup. It wasn’t artificial. It was a bullet hole, and we could literally see through it to the wall behind him. The bullet had gone all the way through his head and out the other side. The man in front of us was dead. Or he should have been. Or… or…

“Oh my God.” That was Murphy, her eyes wide as she stared that way with her own face still covered by the mask. “What the fuck?” 

It was clear that the man had intentionally allowed us to see his face like that. As we reacted, he opened his mouth in another broad smile. His teeth were definitely glowing, and I could actually feel a wave of heat coming off them now that he was closer. They weren’t just giving off light, there was actual power there. I could literally see his lips starting to burn a bit from it, like a marshmallow left in the fire too long. They healed within seconds, before burning up again. It was a cycle of his lips and the surrounding skin being burned by his teeth and then regenerating somehow. Which made another thought flash through my mind. If his lips were being affected like that, what was happening to the inside of his mouth and throat? Was it going through the same cycle of being burned and healing? And could he feel all of it? What–what–

In the next moment, there was movement beside me, and something went flying through the air. Abruptly, the handle of a knife was sticking out of Luciano’s forehead, directly next to the bullethole. The blade itself was deeply embedded in his skull. Sierra. Sierra had thrown the knife. 

Before I could even think about how to react to that, the man reached up and yanked the knife out. It came with a sickening squelching sound, like… like cutting into a cantaloupe. Finally, it was free, and the man held the four-inch blade up, seeming to examine it briefly. Then his eyes rose to stare at us, while he bit into the weapon. The blade melted under his teeth, snapping apart and coming free from the handle. It was like a man eating taffy. 

“Well,” Sierra muttered, “it was worth a shot.” And with that, she took two quick steps before throwing herself that way, diving under his suddenly-swinging hand to roll past him before snapping her leg out to kick the back of his knees. He barely stumbled, already reaching down to grab the back of her head. 

But I hadn’t exactly been standing there idle. With my hands on Murphy and Roald, I had been taking the time to put some paint over both of them as well as myself. My fingers were tucked just inside the back of their shirts so I could put the paint on the inside where it would be hidden. Then, even as the man went to grab Sierra’s head, I was moving. Activating the green, orange, and purple paint on all three of us, I launched myself that way with a scream. Hopefully it would catch the man’s attention, slow him down even just for an instant. 

It worked. Well, sort of. It did stop the man from grabbing Sierra, his attention turning to me instead. On the other hand, his uhh, well, hand lashed out to smack me. It came up faster than I could react, and hit me hard enough to send my body flying sideways to crash into the windshield of a car hard enough to send spiderweb cracks through it. Even with my orange paint, it still hurt. But hey, at least I had his attention, which was a good thing? 

Dazed as I was, some part of me still realized that he had already smacked Murphy and Roald away and was lunging in my direction. So I shoved my foot down and managed to kick myself off the hood of the car, falling off the side of it just as he landed against the front and slammed his two fists down right where I had been a second earlier. The blow caved in the hood entirely, and a burst of white-hot flames flew off in either direction, nearly singeing the top of my head as I fell onto the pavement. 

Making matters worse (as if they needed any help with that) was the fact that the stuffed bra kept getting in my way. Even just then, as I had been lunging after the man or rolling off the car, it interfered. It made me feel off-balance. It was–fuck. It was just wrong. I couldn’t work properly with this fucking thing in my way. And I was starting to feel like being slowed down or thrown off, even a little bit, was a very bad idea right now. 

I was rolling backward to pick myself up as Luciano rose. The two arms he had used to slam into the hood were really fucked up. The skin and most of the muscle had been burnt away, revealing clearly horrifically cracked bones underneath. Bones which stitched themselves together before the muscle and then skin returned in those brief couple of seconds while I was watching. But it didn’t return as normal, fresh skin. The Latino man’s skin was pale and rotting, like a dead man. Even after regenerating, it still made him look like a corpse. Because, as far as I could tell, that’s what he was. But he was a mobile corpse. Like a zombie, or… or… 

Fucked up. That’s what he was. He was severely fucked up. 

Refreshing the paint on myself and triggering another set that I had put on Murphy and Roald, I quickly threw myself onto the roof of the car, landing next to the man. Before he could do anything, I caught hold of his hair with one hand and the back of his neck with the other, using all the considerable strength I had in that moment to slam his head as hard as I could into the windshield. If he could regenerate from everything else, including the knife that had been thrown through his head, I wasn’t worried about doing too much damage just then. 

Besides, I was still trying to figure out if he was even alive or not. With that bullet hole, and the damage he’d ignored already, it… it wasn’t looking good on that front. But what the hell was the alternative? What the hell had happened to Luciano? 

One thing that certainly wasn’t happening to him was any real damage from me slamming his head as hard as I could into the windshield. The window itself cracked under the blow, but he seemed fine. Or as fine as someone who looked like a walking corpse could seem. 

Sierra was right there, catching him by his shoulders as he jerked himself free of my grasp. With one foot, I kicked the already-ajar driver’s side door open, so she could slam his head through that window. His arm tried to reach up to grab her, but I grabbed it and yanked the arm through the window and out a bit so it was right where the door needed to go when it closed. 

Which Murphy and Roald took advantage of, slamming into the door with their shoulders so the door slammed shut on his arm. It snapped audibly, bending in the wrong direction to the point of nearly falling off entirely. It was disgusting and horrifying to see. 

And yet, Luciano gave no real reaction to it. Well, aside from the fact that he shoved himself backward. Murphy and Roald were knocked to the ground and barely managed to roll away from his stomping feet, while Sierra was sent flying over to crash into a different car a few feet away. Meanwhile, his shattered arm still had enough strength in it to send me flying in the opposite direction with a single vicious shake as I was clinging to his wrist. 

A moment later, all the damage was undone. All of it we had inflicted anyway. His arm was back to looking like it always had, the exposed bones sealed up once more as it snapped back into the proper direction with an audible pop. His face had a little more fresh blood to go with all the dried bits, but the wounds from being shoved through multiple windows had all been healed. He looked, well, still dead. But nothing we had done stuck at all. Through that whole bit, we hadn’t accomplished anything. I was starting to worry that I would have no choice but to openly use my powers. Which would just complicate everything even more. But what choice did I have? If it came down to that or letting this… guy hurt anyone else, I knew what I had to do. 

Luciano was facing me at the moment. Sierra had picked herself up, grabbing a nearby broken pipe from the ground while standing directly behind him. Murphy and Roald were to one side, both barely managing to get up after he had so-casually smacked them down even with the boost I’d given them. They looked like they wanted to jump in but weren’t exactly sure how to accomplish anything. Not after what he had just shrugged off. We had to find some way of keeping him down, but how?  

“Anyone got any ideas?” I called, trying to stop myself from freaking out too much. I’d seen a lot in the past couple months, but facing off against what I was becoming rapidly convinced was an actual dead guy like this? That was a bit much. And if I was having an issue, I can’t imagine what was going through Murphy’s mind. 

Speaking of Murphy, Luciano–or whatever this thing should have been called, spoke up with her voice. Her voice, but my words. “Anyone got any ideas?” Then he spoke in Roald’s voice. “Anyone got any ideas?” That repeated for Sierra’s voice, then mine. He made each of our voices ask if we had any ideas. Then he laughed. Only it didn’t sound much like laughter. It sounded like the grinding noise a garbage truck made. His shoulders shook, and he made that horrible ‘laugh’ while continuing to stare right at me. And then, all at once and with no warning, the laughter stopped. He went completely and utterly silent. He made no sound, and no move. He was as still as a statue. Or a corpse, aside from the fact that he was standing up. 

In that moment, Sierra apparently had an idea called ‘hit him in the back with the pipe.’ She was already lunging that way, pipe swinging. Her movement was almost impossibly fast. Even without a boost from me, she was still incredibly quick, the pipe giving a sharp whistle as it swung fast enough through the air to put even the strongest major league baseball hitter to shame. And then… she missed. The pipe went flying out of her hands, sailing right past the man to embed itself deep in the ground. The jaggedly sharp metal end stuck out and up, like a–

Oh. She didn’t miss. That realization came to me just as Sierra dodged his grasping, already-burning hands when he tried to grab for her. Then she flipped herself up and backwards, feet lashing out to kick into the man’s chest in the process. She used that to throw herself further back while propelling him in the opposite direction. 

The other two had picked up on things as well, and both leapt to grab his arms, even as I activated another round of paint for the three of us and threw myself that way. Still stumbling from the kick, he made another garbage truck laughter sound as I caught hold of his shoulders. Not that holding on to him was a very good idea, given it felt almost like holding a hot stove. I was pretty sure that if we hadn’t been protected by the orange paint in that second, all three of us would have had our clothes and possibly skin melted right off. Which was just such a lovely thought, really. 

There were three of us, all enhanced by some purple paint, and yet we could still barely hold onto him. Murphy had his left arm, Roald his right, and I was grabbing his shoulders. And he was still too strong. Thinking quickly, I put yellow paint on his back. He wouldn’t see it, and neither would anyone who happened to be looking out their window. It slowed him down, made it harder for him to actually exert force. Between that and the three of us with our enhanced strength, we managed to pull him backward one step after another until he was closer to the broken metal pipe that was sticking out of the ground. 

Sierra took a running start, giving herself room to build up momentum. From a few feet away,  she launched herself at the man. He smiled that bright, literally glowing smile, and I felt the heat from it. His grin was bright enough to light up the parking lot around us, almost blindingly so. In the next instant, Sierra crashed into him. She hit the man full-force in the chest just as I shoved down on his shoulders and the other two did the same with his arms. 

He went down hard, impaling himself through the stomach with that pipe. Not that we expected that to last long after everything we had already seen, but at that moment, he was pinned like a butterfly in a collector’s case. 

“Dumpster!” Sierra blurted. She was already lunging sideways toward one that was sitting against the nearby wall. 

Without even questioning it, given the time constraints I knew we were working under, I followed suit. Murphy and Roald were close enough that I was able to grab hold of them, giving another boost. Then the four of us yanked the dumpster over. It was entirely too heavy for us to pick up, even with four of us using boosted strength. But it was also on wheels, so we pulled it and did manage to tip the thing upside down. An avalanche of trash came falling out, even as we hoisted the thing up and over, covering Luciano. My last glimpse of him was the man grabbing the metal pipe sticking out the front of his stomach and making it melt under his grip. So yeah, something told me this dumpster wasn’t going to last very long. But then, we didn’t have a lot of options here. It would give us a second to regroup at the very least. We had to find some way of keeping him down. But how? I didn’t bring any cuffs, and even if I had, he could just melt through them. Ropes, chains, we had nothing, and anything we might have had would be useless to keep him contained for long. What the hell were we supposed to do? He healed from everything we hit him with, and he could burn through anything we tried to hold him with. 

The four of us grouped up once more, and I gave the others, including Sierra this time, a few more shots of paint boosts. Whatever came next, I wanted to be ready. Together, we watched the dumpster,  ready to move the instant he showed himself.

And yet, nothing happened. For several long, tense seconds, we stared at that dumpster. My heart was racing, and I felt my stomach twisting itself around in anticipation of the terrible thing that was about to show itself. But… there was nothing. The silence dragged on until Sierra and I glanced at each other. Together, we took a couple of cautious steps that way and tapped the side of the dumpster. There was no response, no nothing. So, the four of us exchanged looks before shrugging. I triggered some of the paint, and we carefully pushed the dumpster over before jumping back. 

It was empty. Well, there was trash on the ground, but that was it. There was no sign of Luciano at all. No hole, no… nothing. He was just gone. He had managed to completely vanish into thin air. 

While we stood there and stared at the empty spot where he should have been, Fred pulled up with the car. “Hey, we getting out of here or what?” He paused as we turned to stare at him. “What?

“What did I miss?” 

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Enkindle 23-04 (Summus Proelium)

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There was no immediate answer to my question. At least, none waiting to jump out at us as we sat in the car and talked about it. My head kept flashing to Luciano being a zombie, but that was absurd, right? Sure, Bokor, over on the Detroit Conservators, used what they called zombies, but they weren’t really. He just created duplicates of people he could see and used them as minions. Gloam, one of the Seraphs, was also able to create duplicates of anyone standing in one of the areas of darkness she made and put them in one of her areas of light. But again, they weren’t zombies. Not the ‘climb out of a trash pile and try to eat people’ sort of zombies. So… so… what then? What the fuck was going on? What had happened to Luciano? Why was he lying in that garbage? Why was–what–what? My mind was spinning out pretty thoroughly.

“We need to figure out why he came here,” I finally managed to get out, shoving the confusion into a corner of my mind for the moment. “Which, I guess means getting into that apartment. Or just knocking on the door. Or…” I frowned, shaking my head. “We should scope the place out first. It’s–what time is it?” I managed to dig my phone out, blinking at it. “Almost ten. Okay, let’s find a place to park and wait about an hour, then we’ll see what we can find in there. If someone is living there and they’re a friend of Luciano’s, I’d prefer to take them by surprise rather than just politely knock on their door.” After a slight pause, I grimaced before quietly adding, “I’d kind of like to not have a repeat of the Cup thing. Especially since Way isn’t here this time.” 

Nobody else had any better idea of what to do other than wait for a bit, so Fred drove around the block until we found an old fast food place with a spot next to the dumpster so it was out of sight of the main road and we could still see the apartment building itself in the distance. We parked there, Fred and Sierra went inside the restaurant to bring back food, and then we sat in the car eating and watching the building. I had no idea what we expected to see, but none of us wanted to take our eyes off the place. 

I spent most of that time quietly thinking while listening to the others talk. Well, mostly Murphy and Sierra. The two of them were having a–call it spirited debate about different types of zombies and other monsters. Sierra insisted that even though she was only going off of what Paige remembered, having fast-moving zombies in something was complete sacrilege and destroyed the entire point of what they were supposed to be. Murphy thought having a few fast-moving ones shook things up and stopped people from getting complacent and bored. To which Sierra informed her that if you were bored in a zombie movie it was clearly made wrong. Murphy firmly agreed, but added that that was exactly why adding in fast zombies was the right way to go. And from there it just went back around in another circle. 

I tuned them out for the most part, focusing on eating and watching that building as I tried to think of what could possibly have happened to explain the new Luciano situation. But I had nothing. Through that entire hour, the only things that came to mind were ridiculous explanations I had to dismiss. He wasn’t really a zombie. They didn’t exist. So… what then?

I didn’t know, but hopefully we were going to find out by talking to whoever was in that apartment. Or possibly just by searching the place if it was empty. Either way, a glance toward my phone confirmed it was time. The streets were dark and quiet, with very light rain. Good for keeping people out of the way, hopefully. The last thing I wanted to d–okay one of the last things I wanted to do was run into some random onlooker who thought we were thieves. 

“I’ll check the place out with Sierra first,” I started while pushing the back door open. Before Murphy could voice her obvious objection, I pressed on. “We’ll just see if the place looks empty or if someone’s there. As soon as we know what’s going on and have it… handled, we’ll call you guys in. Wait til you see a flash of light right over there on the edge of the roof. If you see one, it means come over. If you see two, it means come fast, we need help. And if you see three, it means get the hell out of here and don’t look back.” Rather than focusing on Murphy and Roald, I looked at Fred himself. “Okay?” 

He met my gaze before giving a short nod. Then he added, “But uhh, you might wanna turn on that voice changer before you do any talking to anyone else. Just gotta say, hearing your voice coming out of what looks like a girl is… it’s pretty fucking weird.” 

Oh, he had absolutely no idea how weird the situation was. Coughing at the thought, I thanked him and switched my voice changer over from making me sound like a boy to making me sound like a different girl. Then I took a brief moment to inwardly marvel at just how weird my entire life was. And something told me it wouldn’t be getting more normal any time soon. Which was an easy assumption to make considering I was currently trying to find out the truth behind a supposed zombie with the help of a cyborg girl whose body happened to be an identical copy of my own. Add in the fact that she was mentally a twin/copy of a girl who had apparently been one of my best friends before spending years as my worst enemy after my memory was wiped because my mafia-boss grandfather–yeah. It was safe to say that this weirdness wasn’t clearing up anytime soon. 

Still, I pushed that out of my mind and tried to focus on the task at hand. Together, Sierra and I made our way across the parking lot to a drainage ditch that ran under the street, through a raised bridge area. Anything to stay out of sight. The two of us were wearing dark clothes and with any luck, nobody would be paying too much attention right now anyway. But just in case, we would probably need to be as quick as possible before cops showed up. Being chased through the streets of this suburb by cops wasn’t a situation that I wanted to get into, to say the least. 

The large drainage ditch led all the way around to the back area of the building in question.  Sierra and I were able to poke our heads up and look across the small, yet crowded parking lot. We wanted apartment 3C, which was obviously on the third of four floors, and from the layout that Roald had brought up on an apartment rental listing, unit C would be near the far left side, one off from the edge of the building. We had basically been able to see the windows from the car, and no lights had been visible. It was the same story up close. I could see heavy blinds, with no illumination coming through. Unfortunately, the fact that the blinds were that heavy meant not seeing light didn’t necessarily equate to no one being home. We were going to have to get closer for that. 

Fortunately, there was a small porch/patio surrounding each apartment. They weren’t very large, barely big enough for a couple chairs and a barbecue on some of them. Or a potted plant. Whatever, they were clearly only meant to allow someone to sit out on the very optimistically titled ‘deck’ and watch the cars on the street below. Probably raised the price of the apartment itself significantly too, having a cupboard-sized patio attached. Not that I had any idea what the price of an apartment like that was. Or any apartment, really. I had no frame of reference for that. Though I was willing to bet that the bedroom I lived in was significantly more expensive. 

Shaking that off, I focused on the roof of the building. It looked clear. So did all the windows, with their tightly closed blinds. It seemed like the people around here were mostly keeping it to themselves. Which might explain why Luciano had wanted to stay there, given how much trouble he was in back in Detroit. 

I would have painted us straight to the patio in question. Unfortunately, the apartment right next to it was one of the few with its lights on and the blinds up, so I didn’t want to take the risk of going right past them. We needed to get around that place first. 

“Here,” I whispered toward the girl beside me. It was easier to ignore just how similar to me she looked while she was wearing that ski mask. “We need to run across the lot to the middle. Stay low behind these cars. Once we’re close enough, I’ll paint us up to that roof and we can drop down to the patio as soon as it looks clear.” 

There was a brief pause before the girl murmured in agreement. I adjusted the weird and uncomfortable bra, then we set off in a half-crouch. The two of us used the vehicles in the lot as cover, quickly making our way to that center point, where a small, narrow median with a couple very sick-looking bushes waited. We crouched behind those bushes, glancing to the left at the empty road, then up to the building itself. There was absolutely nothing to see. It all looked clear. Some of the lights in the various apartments were on, but other than the one that was directly in our way, their shades were drawn as well. There was no one visible, no one who might notice us as far as I could tell. It was now or never if we were going to search that place. 

This whole situation actually reminded me of when I had been searching for Ashton. Ending up in his apartment had… well it hadn’t gone that well, obviously. And yet, it kind of had. I’d had my face-to-face meeting with Blackjack, which eventually led to saving his daughter and making friends with Pack. It–yeah. Maybe it just went to show that you never knew how a situation was going to play out. Still, I was going to keep hoping that this one wouldn’t end with meeting another Fell-Touched leader. Somehow, I didn’t see that going so well. 

Once I was as certain as I could be that things were clear, I shot a bit of black paint at the roof, then added some to Sierra and myself so nothing would make noise. Then I used red paint to pull the two of us that way. We both hit the edge of the roof silently, keeping ourselves low to avoid showing our profiles to anyone who happened to glance outside from one of the other buildings. It was dark, but not that dark. We needed to get down off the roof and into the apartment in question as quickly as possible. 

The balcony directly below us looked clear. I leaned over and peered at the sliding glass door intently. I could barely make out a dark living room, though the light appeared to be on in the adjacent kitchen. From the sound of things, someone was in there cooking. Which meant they weren’t going to see us if we were quick. First, I sprayed the metal railing there with black paint so it wouldn’t rattle and give us away, before the two of us hopped down. Then I clambered over and lowered myself toward the next balcony down. This was the apartment we wanted. Hanging from the fourth floor railing, I carefully glanced toward the lit-up place next door. Yeah, there were definitely people in that one. None of them were glancing out the glass door, and I was pretty sure it was too bright in there to see us in our dark clothes out here very easily. But still, I didn’t want to screw around and risk that for very long. 

So, I sprayed the railing of this apartment black and activated it before dropping down. Sierra joined me, before the two of us silently clambered over the railing and stayed low on the porch. We were clear so far. I quietly turned toward the sliding door and leaned in close to peer through a corner where the heavy blind didn’t quite cover. Nothing, the whole place was dark. Quietly murmuring that to Sierra, I tried the door just in case. Nope, it was locked. 

Well, I didn’t want to do this, but we didn’t have any other choice if we were going to get in there and see what was going on. We had just come to this area in the first place to find Luciano so Murphy could have some closure. But now there was obviously something pretty bad going on. Even worse than her whole situation. We had to find answers, and the only clue to those answers we had was that he had wanted to come to this apartment. It was this or nothing.

So, I sprayed a black circle just above the door handle. Then I put purple and orange stars across my fist, before punching the circle I’d made. It knocked the glass out there silently, and I was able to carefully reach through to unlock the door from the inside. Listening intently, I slowly slid it open. Nothing untoward came to my ears. I could hear the television in the apartment next door very faintly, as well as some chatter. We would have to stay quiet, but it sounded like no one had noticed our break-in so far. 

We both stepped into the apartment. Like the one right above and the one next door, the patio door led to a living room. It was a tiny place. Definitely smaller than my bedroom. I was pretty sure you could barely fit my actual bed in here. Maybe not even that. Not comfortably, anyway. 

There wasn’t much in the way of furniture in this place. Just a small tv on a card table, an old couch, a recliner that was falling apart, and a half-full bookshelf with DVDs rather than novels. Nearby, I could see the open kitchen with a table that looked older than my parents, a couple wooden chairs, and a counter with a few odds and ends. There was also a short hallway to the right leading to what looked like the bedroom and bathroom. 

Quite frankly, it was downright eerie to be standing here in this dark place after everything I’d heard about Luciano supposedly jumping out of the trash to attack those people. He’d literally ripped two people’s throats out with his teeth! He murdered them, he–yeah. It was a thought that made me shudder. I felt like I was in the middle of some sort of horror movie. I really had no desire to be in here right now, but there was no choice if we were going to get answers. 

First, however, I moved back to the open sliding door and shot a bit of white paint against the railing. Looking both ways to make sure it seemed clear, I triggered the paint so it would light up for a few seconds, then canceled it.   

Turning back around, I found Sierra coming out of the hallway leading to the other rooms. She was shaking her head, voice low. “Nobody’s back there. This place is empty.” After a brief pause, she added, “Maybe whoever lives here is at work, or just out. Not like there’s a curfew up here. Or–” 

“Or maybe nobody lives here and it was just a place for Luciano to lay low,” I put in flatly. My head nodded toward a framed photograph on the wall next to the television. “I’m pretty sure that’s him right there, with some older woman. His mother, or aunt, or someone, maybe?” 

Glancing that way curiously, the biolem girl stepped over to examine the photograph. “Yeah, yeah that’s definitely him. So this place is either his or the woman in the picture’s. But uhh–” She glanced around the sparsely decorated apartment. “This sort of screams ‘guy’s apartment’ to me. A guy who isn’t doing much with it and just wanted a place to stay out of sight for awhile.” 

The two of us stepped closer to the patio so we could watch for the others. While we were waiting, Sierra glanced toward me and paused before speaking softly. “This whole thing is probably pretty fucking weird for you, huh?” 

The question made me snort despite myself before I turned that way and raised an eyebrow she wouldn’t even see. “Pretty fucking weird for me? You mean you looking like that after everything that happened?” A heavy sigh escaped me. “Throughout this entire situation, I didn’t think that the whole bit with Paige and you could get any weirder for me. Finding out my memory was wiped and that I was friends with Paige, and that she was a cyborg and–yeah, I was pretty sure the bar for how weird I could feel about the whole thing couldn’t get any higher. But…” With one hand, I gestured to encompass her new body. “Somehow, we managed to surpass the previous level of weird by entire lightyears. I’m not even going to try to say that this is as weird as it will get, because I just know that somewhere out there, the universe will hear me and get offended.” 

Audibly snickering just a little, Sierra shrugged. “Yeah, you’re probably right. Trust me, it feels weird from this side too. Probably not as weird as it feels for you, but still. Remember, I was supposed to kill you. That was the plan, my program. It was what I was built for. Well, one of the things, anyway. And now, here I am. I’m wearing this body, helping out with your whole thing here, and planning out how to fuck over my… father so I can save an older sister I’ve never met and who literally knows nothing about me. So yeah, it’s pretty weird from over here.” 

We were both silent for a few seconds then, running all that through our heads while watching the lot below. Then she spoke again, her voice even softer that time. “Look, I know from all those Paige memories that you feel like your body isn’t… right, like you aren’t feminine enough.” 

My eyes widened and I choked a bit, head shaking. “Oh boy, is this not a conversation I want to have right now. Or ever, really. But right now especially.” 

“Not a whole conversation,” she assured me. “I just–speaking as someone who didn’t have a body of my own at all until last night, you should always be glad that you’ve got one that works. You’ve got all your fingers and toes, all your limbs, your senses work, you’re in good shape, it’s… yeah. It all works the way it’s supposed to. And…” She hesitated, sounding a bit uncertain for a moment before pushing on. “And speaking of someone who is literally wearing your body right now, you shouldn’t be so hard on yourself. Sure, you’re not like… voluptuous or whatever. But you don’t have to be. Look at how much you hate having that bra on with the… you know. Because it’s not you. This body we’ve got, it’s not bad. It’s yours. It’s ours. It’s–you know what I mean. And believe me when I say, we’re cuter than you think. Not everyone needs some big honking… honkers.”

Coughing as the blush on my face threatened to burn through the mask, I pointed toward a couple of small, dark figures running closer across the parking lot. They were staying low to avoid being seen from the road. “There they are.” Then I paused before putting a hand on Sierra’s arm. My voice was low. “Thanks. I just–thanks.” 

That was all I had time to say before the others were below. Murphy and Roald waited as I leaned out to send paint down to pull them up. But I never got the chance. As I was leaning out, someone came bounding out from behind the nearby parked car. They were… human but kind of loping along like an ape or a dog or–or something. The person literally threw himself at Murphy and Roald, taking them to the ground with a furious snarling sound, like a wild animal. 

Sierra and I exchanged a quick glance, our eyes wide. We knew who that was. I’d gotten just enough of a glimpse to recognize his face before he tackled Murphy and Roald. Luciano. It was Luciano. Together, the two of us launched ourselves off the third floor balcony, plummeting down toward the man. 

I just hoped we would be fast enough to save the other two, before Luciano could add to the count of people he had murdered. 

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Enkindle 23-03 (Summus Proelium)

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A/N – Hey guys, the non-canon for this story was posted over the weekend and can be read by everyone now right here!

For the next hour or so, we worked our way through searching the stuff we had taken from the Ministry base. Amber (as That-A-Way of course) showed up to help out while on a break from patrol duties, and was immediately recruited to scan through a pile of papers. The more the merrier. Or at least, the more the less this mind-numbing job of reading what often looked like gibberish would drag on. 

There was something that appeared to be a key for the code that was written on those papers and the vials, but I wasn’t able to decipher it with a brief once-over. So, I passed it over to Paige, who said she would figure it out and decode what was written on them, but it would take awhile. 

Beyond that, we found some interesting things. First and possibly foremost, there was a ledger that showed how up to date on their payments various gangs were. Not just the Detroit ones, but practically all of the organizations throughout the entire state. Nearly every Fell-Touched group (aside from a couple like the Scions) and even most of the non-Touched gangs were represented in the ledger. If you were a criminal group of more than one person (and even some who were solo), you paid taxes to the Ministry. 

But it went further than that. Because obviously having that many people know about the Ministry would make it impossible to keep even a little bit secret. So the vast majority of criminals who paid their fees had no idea that it was part of a larger organization. The Ministry had lieutenants who acted as though they were the boss of an area, unconnected to anyone else. They made people who acted in their territory pay tribute, then secretly passed everything but their own salary to the higher-ups. And for the most part, even the lieutenants didn’t know how wide-reaching the whole thing was. They were all divided into smaller cells who didn’t know anything about the other groups, and didn’t know that a number of their rivals in an area were actually also working for the Ministry. Some of the lieutenants were gang bosses, while others were actually their right-hand people who were secretly keeping the Ministry up-to-date on what was going on. The operation encompassed the entire state of Michigan, and we had all these names and the explanations of what they were doing. 

It wasn’t all in one spot, of course. It wasn’t like all of this information was conveniently written out for us. We had to piece it together between the ledger and several other pieces, including on a few of the hard drives, which were heavily encrypted and password protected. We would have been shit out of luck if we hadn’t had Paige and Sierra. They were able to use the…wires that extended from their fingers to plug into the hard drives and access them directly. 

As expected, there were none of my family’s real names written down anywhere. Not even in the secret encoded parts of the computers. Which made me slightly relieved, a reaction which instantly made me feel guilty. This was wrong, it was all wrong. It was going to blow up in my face somehow, I just knew it. But right now, I just had to focus on this stuff.  

Murphy was shaking her head, muttering about how none of this would help find Luciano, when she abruptly paused. From the corner of my eye, I saw the girl quickly shuffle back through a few other pages she had been looking at before elbowing Roald beside her. She asked him where something else they had been looking at a moment earlier was, and he dug through a discarded pile before handing it to her. She had two papers, one in each hand, and was looking back and forth between them. “Hey… hey I think I got something about that piece of shit.” 

We all turned our attention that way, as she explained. “Okay so on this page they’re talking about something called Plan Z. I think it’s a group or a person or something. It says Plan Z couldn’t be called on for this other thing they needed, so they should send Squire. Then this other page with the same date mentions that this safe house is ‘now available’ because ‘L’ has been taken by Z and won’t be needing it anymore. That’s right after Luciano got away. Whoever or whatever Plan Z is, they probably escorted this L, Luciano, away from that safehouse and out of Ministry territory.”  

Taking that in, I frowned thoughtfully. “There’s a few other bits in here about a Plan Z. I thought it was like… an actual plan, but you’re right, it sounds more like a person or a group. Maybe a set of Touched they use? I dunno. Sending a group to escort Luciano seems like overkill, but then again, maybe they were nervous about us finding him again.” My shoulders raised in a slight shrug. “Does it say anything about where that Plan Z might’ve taken him?  I doubt he stayed there, but it might give us a place to start from.” 

“Maybe not there, but it does here.” That was Peyton, waving a hand with a small notebook clutched in it. “It’s like a memo or a reminder note or something in the margin. I didn’t think it was important at first, but the page right before it has the same date as those ones, and the memo says, ‘Z pick-up’ and then an address in Pontiac.” 

Right, Pontiac was a city about twenty miles north of Detroit. I absorbed that information. It made sense as a place to take Luciano. Far enough away to be clear of the city without taking up too much of their time.

Pack, who had been sitting at the far end of the table we were all gathered around, made a thoughtful noise in the back of her throat. “So, whoever these Plan Z people are, it sounds like they needed to be picked up after taking Luciano somewhere. Maybe they gave him the vehicle?” She ran two fingers along the top of Tuesday’s head as the gecko sat perched beside the papers she had been looking through, before turning her attention elsewhere. “What do you think, Sierra? Pretty interesting stuff, but then, you must be tired of just sitting around. Being trapped for all that time in a body with someone else, and now you’re completely free. But here you are just playing with paperwork. Don’t you want to get out there and have some fun?” 

“Please don’t try to recruit her into your villain gang until she at least has time to stretch her legs a bit,” Amber idly requested from where she was sitting basically right next to the La Casa Touched. She didn’t bother to look up from the files she had been scanning. “As far as having a body goes, she’s not even one day old.” 

As for Sierra herself, she offered a shrug. “Yeah, I wanna get out there. But there’s gonna be this nagging voice in the back of my head if I don’t help find Irelyn and those two Touched girls and get them off that island. And believe me, after everything we went through to get me this body, the last thing I want is another nagging voice in my head. I just got the old one to be external.” She gave a quick glance over toward Paige before adding, “So, the sooner we save those three, the sooner I can move on and figure out what my real life is going to be.” 

Clearing my throat a bit, I looked toward the stairs. Wren was up in her main lab, working on that tracer device that was supposed to tell us where exactly Breakwater was. I still wasn’t absolutely sure we would go with the plan to blackmail the people in charge into helping Flea and Trivial, but knowing where the island was would at least be a good place to start from. 

“Well, until we have something else to work with,” I announced, “I think we should check out that address that you guys found. Maybe Luciano isn’t there. I mean, he probably isn’t. But there could be something to tell us where else to look. He might’ve left a clue or something.” 

Murphy was nodding rapidly, shoving herself up from the table so firmly she nearly knocked over the stool she had been sitting on. “Fuck yeah, let’s get out there. I can’t take looking at another piece of paper right now or I’ll scream.”

Standing up, I hesitated. “We need to be quiet and stealthy about it. Whatever that address is, I don’t know if it’s a Ministry place or just somewhere they took Luciano and dropped him off. But whatever it is, if we show up and make a spectacle of ourselves, it’s going to get back to the Ministry. And I’m pretty sure they could put two and two together, considering those files were just stolen from their base yesterday. If the place looks like it’s guarded or whatever, we have to wait. And we don’t let them see us.” 

Paige started to rise, and I focused that way, shaking my head. “You should stay here. Keep working on those harddrives and see if there’s anything else we can use. This isn’t gonna be a fight, we’re just checking the place out and looking around if it seems clear. We need to be subtle right now.” 

“Paintball, subtle?” Pack snorted and gave me a look. “If I asked you to define that word, would you be able to?”  

Flushing a bit under the helmet and mask, I huffed at the girl. “I can be subtle when I want to be, I promise. I was subtle in that base last night.” Before she could say anything, I hurriedly amended, “I mean I was subtle about who I was and my power and—you know what I mean.” Now I was really blushing. “Look, the point is, we’ll just head over there and check the place out.” 

“Uh huh,” Pack gave me a long look. “And how are you going to get there, exactly? You know, to the city twenty miles north of Detroit. Without attracting attention.”

My mouth opened, then I paused before tilting my head. A muttered curse escaped me while Pack snickered. 

“I can’t drive,” Way hesitantly pointed out. “I’ve gotta get back to patrol pretty soon, or they’ll start to wonder where I am. Which we really don’t want.” 

Pack nodded. “And I’ve got–uhh, let’s just call them plans and leave it at that. Gotta do my real job, or the boss might wonder what else I’ve been doing with my time. Which, as Rose over there said, we don’t want.” 

“Yeah,” Way muttered, “wouldn’t want you to get kicked out of your job as a thief.” 

“I could drive,” Sierra idly noted. “I mean, I’d need a car for it, but I could drive.” She offered a somewhat feral smile then, which was weird to see on a face that was so like my own. It made a funny feeling form in my stomach before I pushed it down as she continued. “And hey, if I need to acquire a car for it–” 

“We’re not stealing a car,” I interrupted. This whole situation was already precarious enough without adding something like that in. It wasn’t likely that she would get caught, of course. And even less likely that she would stay caught, but still. The image of Sierra, in a body that looked like a blonde me, getting taken to the police station was just… no. No, we couldn’t risk anything like that. 

“Besides,” Murphy pointed out, “That body looks like you’re younger than we are. That body’s, what, fourteen?” 

“Oh, I dunno,” Pack put in casually, “appearances can be deceiving. Some people look older than they are, other people look younger. You can’t really go off first impression these days.” 

Murphy shrugged at that. “Whatever, the point is any cop who saw her driving would definitely pull you over to check, stolen car or not. She’d stand out. And I thought the whole point of this trip was to blend in and not attract attention.” 

I nodded quickly. “She’s right, we need to be subtle. That means not stealing any cars and not having someone drive who would make the cops do a double-take. So all of us who are wearing masks are out.” 

While we were all looking at each other and trying to figure out where to go from there, Fred grunted. “I’ll drive. Whatever, it’s just a quick recon thing, right? The kid’s gonna be busy upstairs for awhile, and if she needs something, you can take care of it.” He nodded toward Paige before turning his attention to me. “You want subtle, can’t get much more subtle than an old sedan. Long as that’s not a big fancy neighborhood, it’ll fit in just fine. Plus, I’ve got that bakery ID, so I can be out after curfew. Trouble is, I can only take a few of you. We can say you’re helping with loading stuff into the bakery trucks for some extra cash since the place is shorthanded.” 

“Well, Pack and Way are out,” I noted. “Raindrop isn’t here. So I’ll go with Alloy, Hobbes, and Calvin.” I nodded toward Murphy and Roald. “We’ll check it out, see what we can find.” 

“I’ll go with you.” That was Sierra. “Like I said, I really need to get out of here and stretch my legs. Besides, this way if something goes wrong, you’ll have some back-up.” She gave Paige a look. “It’s my turn to be out there. You can keep scanning the hard drives.” 

For a moment, I thought Paige was going to object. But she paused before exhaling. “Be careful.” Her gaze moved over the rest of us as she added, “All of you. Just don’t get involved in some big thing. If there’s trouble, get the hell out of there and come back. Like you said, we don’t want the Ministry to know that you’re involved. This whole house of cards will come down pretty damn quick if they get too many pieces of the puzzle.” 

Amber looked a bit guilty about the fact that she wasn’t going to be able to go with us. Focusing on me, she urged, “She’s right about being careful out there, okay? We caused a big scene last night. The Ministry is going to be on guard and itching for some payback after the bloody nose we gave them. They can’t cover everything, and they won’t know what we were looking for since we grabbed everything we could. But still, just… watch yourselves and don’t attract a bunch of attention. And if something goes wrong, call. I’d rather make an excuse for–I’d rather ditch and figure out how to explain it later so I can come help than have you guys end up in even worse trouble.” 

“We’ll be careful,” I promised. “We’re just going to check the place out and see if there’s anything to find that might tell us where that guy went. From those papers, it sounds like the Ministry took him from their safehouse to that spot. I’m pretty sure that means they just dropped him off, probably in a place he chose. Which would mean they don’t really have any ties to it. But either way, we’ll watch our backs.” Reaching out, I squeezed her shoulder. “But you watch yourself too, okay? Don’t get so distracted worrying about what we’re doing that you get yourself in trouble. There’s still a gang war going on out there.”

Pack made a noise in the back of her throat, before quietly excusing herself. She said something about coming back to check in on what we found later, before heading out to do her… whatever it was La Casa was doing. That whole situation was becoming more complicated by the day, especially given how much I could tell she and Amber liked each other. But it wasn’t my place to say anything. 

Instead, I focused on getting ready to go. With some reluctance, I changed into the other suit, complete with the raised shoes and fake chest. I didn’t want to, but if it came to it, better to be spotted by the Ministry looking like this than as Paintball. There was no sense in taking the risk, even if we weren’t planning on making a big scene. Or so I told myself repeatedly while putting the other suit on in the bathroom before going out to join the others. 

Peyton, Murphy, and Roald wore the same suits as last night as well, while Sierra simply had a ski mask. I had conflicting thoughts about her going out like that. But then again, I had conflicting thoughts about everything involving her. Including the fact that she was wearing a tummy-baring shirt and somehow pulling it off better than I could have even though the body she was using was literally identical to mine. 

So yeah, conflicting thoughts all around. Still, if we got caught and her mask was removed, we… it would be a whole thing anyway. If we got caught to the point that she lost the mask, I would lose mine too. And then we’d really have a situation. 

For the moment, however, I put all of that aside and tried not to focus on the terrible what-ifs. Instead, I headed out to the back lot where Fred’s car was. Unfortunately, just as we were about to head out, Peyton got a call from her mother. Apparently they had a sick friend, and her mother needed her to watch that friend’s kids while she took the woman to the hospital. She obviously felt bad about ducking out, but I assured her it was understandable and that we would be fine. After all, we were just going to poke around, it wouldn’t be that bad. 

She still looked doubtful, but stepped back while I got in the back of the sedan with Murphy and Roald. Sierra got in the front passenger side, not bothering with the mask just yet. 

Starting the car, Fred glanced in the back at us. “Don’t worry, those back windows might look clear, but…” He reached out, hitting something on the dash. “Now they’re tinted from the outside. Nobody can see you back there.” With a proud smile, he tapped the steering wheel. “She might look like an old jalopy, but Wren’s done a lot of tinkering. We get in a chase, whoever’s after us will be in for a big surprise.” 

“Let’s hope there’s no opportunity for you to prove that,” I put in. “At least, not today. But good to know.” 

“Just don’t let Paintball drive if you get into a chase,” Peyton pleaded while standing just outside the car, staring at us as though she was about to change her mind about going to help her mother.

Making a scoffing sound in the back of my throat, I primly pointed out, “I got us out of the last chase pretty well.” 

“You also got my stomach out of my lower torso pretty well,” Peyton shot back. “I’m pretty sure it still hasn’t settled properly.” 

Another huff escaped me. “Wimp. I could totally have driven crazier than that. I took it easy on you.” 

From the front seat, Fred gruffly informed us that he would be the one driving today. And with that, we all waved to Peyton and the others before pulling out onto the street. 

“Now,” our driver announced, “you all might want to sit back and relax for a few minutes, cuz if we’re trying to avoid attention, that means following the speed limit. And I guarantee, there’s gonna be traffic.”

He was right, of course. There was plenty of traffic from people heading home to get back before curfew hit. And just getting out of work in general. Pontiac had grown as well, alongside Detroit as it acted as a suburb for people to live in while working here in the city. At last count, the place had a population of about a hundred and fifty thousand or so. And part of me thought that the entirety of that was on the freeway with us. It made me want to jump out and find my own way to the city. Which would have been a terrible mistake, but still. 

It took over an hour and a half for us to drive the twenty miles from Detroit to Pontiac, which would have been worse if I hadn’t fallen asleep leaning against the window. When the car abruptly stopped, I jolted awake, suddenly feeling panicked about where I was and what was going on. 

“It’s cool,” Murphy assured me. From the sound of the yawn that came with her words, she had actually fallen asleep too. “We’re here.” 

“That’s right,” Fred confirmed, raising his hand to point across the street from where he had parked. “That’s the address. It’s number 3C.”  

I looked that way with the others and we immediately spotted an apartment building with what looked like some sort of memorial out front. There were flowers, wreaths, candles, and similar stuff all stacked up next to the stairs. 

“What…” I frowned. “What is that?” 

“I’ll check it out,” Sierra announced. And before I could say anything, she had the door open and was walking across the street to look at the memorial. There were a couple people standing nearby, and she said something to them before listening to their response. The whole time, I sat with my hands clenched tightly, praying nothing went wrong. 

A minute later, Sierra came back and got in. “It’s a memorial alright,” she announced. “Apparently a couple teenagers were killed by someone the day after that Luciano creep was supposed to have been dropped off. From what the one witness who survived said, they were poking around the dumpster back behind the building and someone attacked them. They ahh, they said it was a monster. Actually they said zombie. He came out of the garbage and screamed at them. The girl got away but her friends were… they weren’t as lucky. Apparently the monster bit them. Ripped their throats out with–” She stopped, grimacing. “It was bad, that’s the point. Real bad. And from the description the girl gave…” 

“Luciano?” I asked, before grimacing when she gave a silent nod. “Fuck. Okay wait, so…. the Ministry brought Luciano here… and the next day a few teenagers found him in the garbage, and when they disturbed him, he attacked and murdered a couple of them? By ripping their throats out with his teeth? And they said he was like a zombie? What–what does…

“What the fuck does that mean?”  

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