Cuélebre

Showdown 7-07 (Summus Proelium)

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Coming down on the roof of the next building, I stumbled and almost fell. It was actually Eits, recovering a bit from his surprise, who caught me. “Paintball, why’d you bring me wi–” 

“Sedans!” I blurted. “Red sedans! Take over every red sedan you can find that doesn’t have anyone in it and bring them with us!” Even as I said it, my hand caught his and I started running, painting my legs green while using my other hand to shoot more green at the boy himself to speed both of us up. We ran together, racing to the other side of the roof. “Cuélebre and his people are after a red sedan, send in more to confuse them! Catch up with the right one and mix them up. Shell game, make them lose track of which is the right one! And keep running!”

We hit the edge of that roof, and I used blue paint to launch both of us upward. I could see Cuélebre in the distance. He wasn’t that far away yet. Faster. I had to be faster. We had to be faster. Because if we didn’t stop this, not only would Cuélebre get the vial in that car in addition to the one he already had, he’d also find out where Wren was hiding. 

I had to get his attention. I had to get him focused on me. And I knew just how to do that. But we had to get close enough. As Eits and I landed on the next roof over and kept running, I held my free arm out and shot a line of red paint ahead of us. A second later, I took my other hand from the boy’s, wrapped my arm around his waist, and let the paint yank us forward. 

We repeated that several times, the motions coming so rapidly I could barely think about them. Activating green paint that was already on my costume to keep moving as fast as possible, blue paint for jumps, red paint to yank us forward, repeat. Repeat, repeat. Everything was a blur, as I raced toward Cuélebre. He may have been literally flying, but we might as well have been. For that short time, I don’t think we spent more than a handful of seconds actually on the ground. Errr, roofs. And to his credit, Eits didn’t barf. I was pretty sure that was mostly because the majority of his attention was on sending his mites out to grab various nearby cars as we passed them, but still. 

There, there! Cuélebre was just ahead of us and slightly above. His attention was focused ahead and down, scanning the street as he hovered there for the moment, clearly intent on spotting the car. Any second now, he was going to dive, grab the sedan, and be out of there. No, no, no, I had to do something! 

Too late, his form started to invert as prepared himself to dive. The car was in sight. He was going for it. He was going to have it. We couldn’t stop him. We couldn’t–

Then I saw it. A sudden freezing in his body language. I couldn’t see his face, but I knew there would be a look of confusion. And in the distance, I saw cars. Sedans. Red sedans. They were coming in from every other street. Eits had captured them, was bringing them along and sending the cars in to distract and disorient Cuélebre. Soon, the real car was surrounded by other, similar-looking cars. The whole street was flooded with over a dozen red sedans. 

It was enough to make Cuélebre freeze in confusion for a second. And that was all I needed. “Keep going!” I blurted to Eits, painting him orange for protection before running forward with him. I leapt, dropping Eits down to land sprawled out on the roof of one of his cars. He’d be fine.

As for me, I hurled myself upward, shooting a line of red paint right at the small vial still clutched in Cuélebre’s massive hand. The paint struck the vial, yanking it out of his grip as he made a sound of surprise. It flew into my waiting grasp, while I flew by just underneath the giant demon-man. 

“Yoink!” I shouted at him, my terror mixing with my glee. Clutching the vial, I hit the next roof over, rolling and spinning to come up on one knee and one foot, facing back the way I had come. 

Cuélebre was there, staring at me in flat disbelief mixed with clearly mounting rage. 

“Hey, buddy,” I blurted, “don’t you know it’s rude to take things that don’t belong to you? I think you need a time-out!” With that, I sent a wave of white paint that hit his face before he could react, activating it for a blinding flash of light that left him reeling with a deafening roar of fury that shook the air and left me wishing I could call a timeout to piss my pants. 

Instead, I used the brief moment that gave me to spin away and run. Escape. I had to lead Cuélebre away and escape. Pissed as he was right now, he’d be right on my tail. And I was pretty sure he wouldn’t stop at exchanging a few ugly words. 

I ran, fleeing as fast as I could while activating paint on myself to keep going. All I could think about was the next step, the next jump, the next second of flying wildly through the air. Part of me expected to feel a lightning bolt go through me any instant. But no, he wanted the vial. He needed the vial, and wouldn’t risk destroying it, no matter how angry he was about me taking it from him. 

At least, that’s what I hoped. 

Sure enough, there was another roar, and chancing a quick glance back showed Cuélebre already hurling himself my way. He was closing the distance terrifyingly quickly, and I launched myself off the edge of the roof with a reflexive yelp of fear. 

That time, instead of aiming for the next roof, I saw an open window partway up on an apartment building. There was a man standing there smoking and leaning out. He looked up at the last second, saw me flying toward him, and jerked backward, dropping the cigarette. 

I went right through the open window hands first in a diving position, rolling as I hit the floor. “Stay down, stay down!” I blurted, already back up on my feet and running. Through the kitchen, the living room, a short hallway, I hit the front door, practically crashed through it while taking barely enough time to twist the knob, and found myself in the main hall of the building, apartment doors lining the walls along both sides. Without thinking about it, I spun to the right, toward the tall window at the end of the corridor. My hand snapped down, grabbing hold of a fire extinguisher, and I activated a spot of purple on what remained of my formerly intricate painted image. With a grunt, I hurled the extinguisher at the window, sending it through with a crash. 

Cuélebre would hear it. He would know where I was. But I wanted him to. The last thing I wanted was to be responsible for was him tearing his way through these people’s apartments trying to get me. I wanted him to know that I wasn’t in the building anymore. 

Sure enough, even as I threw myself out the broken window and used a shot of red paint to yank myself toward a billboard in the distance, I could hear a rush of motion overhead. Cuélebre. He was diving toward me, so at the last second I cancelled the paint, spinning over on my back in mid-dive. Falling through the open air toward the hard street below, I forced myself to ignore just how very dead I would be if I hit it. Instead, I focused on the giant demon man coming after me. A shot of green, yes green, paint hit him while I activated yellow paint on myself. 

My fall slowed, even as Cuélebre’s descent dramatically sped up. He shot past just barely ahead of me, his grasping hand missing while he blurted a violent curse. An instant later, he crashed into the street, sending up a huge spray of dirt, rocks, and concrete and knocking over a couple lamp posts. 

Meanwhile, I used a new shot of red paint to yank my (now much slower-falling) body over to that billboard from before. Landing on it, I had time to glance down, seeing Cuélebre dragging himself out of the rather substantial crater he’d made in the middle of the street. Water was spraying from a broken hydrant, and I could see people fleeing down the sidewalks. But he wasn’t paying them any mind. Not that he was calm or collected. If anything, he was even more pissed off than before. But he didn’t care about the people running away from him. No, he was looking right up at me, eyes smoldering with hatred and promised retribution. 

Right, time to leave. Really, really time to leave. 

Spinning to throw myself off the billboard, I hit the next roof over already running. A new shot of green paint at my feet pushed my speed back up, as I sprinted flat-out for the edge of the building with Cuélebre’s angry bellow filling the air behind me. One step after another, vial clutched tightly in one hand while my ears listened intently to the rushing wind sound of the giant monster flapping his wings and launching himself upward after me with another shouted threat. 

And here we went again. Me being chased through the city by a monster who could easily rip me apart if he managed to get hold of me. Was this getting repetitive yet? Because my heart didn’t think so, considering the way it was beating so hard it felt like it might jump out of my chest and take off without me. 

Cuélebre dove. I leapt off the edge of the building, spiraling into a dive just as he landed right where I had just been. His massive hand lashed out, narrowly missing me as I plummeted toward the ground. Activating a bit of orange paint on my back, I forced myself to keep falling. Cuélebre had hurled himself down after me, but I was pretty sure he wouldn’t fall for the same trick twice. That was okay, I had a different trick in mind. 

The ground rushed up at me. Every instinct I had said to bail out. But I let myself keep falling, arms extended as if I was diving into water. Above and behind me was Cuélebre, just waiting for me to try to yank myself in any direction. He knew I’d have to, or I’d hit the ground. I had about five seconds from the time I leapt off the roof until… well, until it would be too late. With three seconds left, I pointed with my hand and fired off a spray of red paint. Just as Cuélebre expected. Only I wasn’t pulling myself anywhere. Instead, I shot the paint at a parked car. A thought brought the car off the ground, making the literal car come flying up toward me. Toward my red glove.

Two seconds left. I cut the connection with the car, but it kept coming, its momentum bringing it upward. The car was spinning end over end as it came, and I timed a shot of blue paint to hit the roof. It made one more full revolution just before impact. My outstretched hands hit the blue spot I’d made (the orange paint I’d activated earlier protecting me from breaking every bone in them as well as my arms), and I was instantly rocketed backwards and up. 

Flying backwards, I shot right between Cuélebre’s arms as the man made a noise of surprise. An instant later, the car completed its next revolution and slammed into him. The sound of crunching metal and exploding glass filled the air, as well as an actual yelp of pain from the man. Apparently flying what amounted to face-first into a car didn’t do him any favors. Particularly after having flown face-first into the ground just before that. 

But he wasn’t anywhere near down. A fact he made abundantly clear by lashing his tail up and back at me just as I was passing. I managed to snap my free hand out, catching hold of the tail while activating a spot of purple on my arm. My momentum made me spin around the tail like it was a pole in gymnastics, and I very nearly lost my grip. But I managed to hang on, spinning myself all the way around before releasing the tail to drop onto the flailing man’s back. Bending my knees like I was a surfer riding a very large, very unstable board, I found words blurting their way out of my mouth. “We keep meeting like this. Maybe we should schedule a nice dinner instead. It sounds less painful for you.” 

Recovering from the brief second of being stunned by taking a car to the face, Cuélebre snarled a dark, “I’ll bring you dinner in the hospital, boy.” He said the last word like it was an insult, his tail already lashing in from the side in a clear attempt to knock me off his back (and likely into his waiting hand). But before it could hit, I flipped up and over, shooting a bit of yellow paint down to slow him while speeding myself up once more with green. That way, he didn’t completely leave me behind. His tail had barely cleared the spot just under me as I came down, landing on his back once more. A shot of red paint at the blade of the tail and another toward the man’s own back just as I cancelled the yellow jerked the tail that way and made the man literally stab himself. 

“Chess game in the park, maybe?!” I blurted over the sound of his enraged bellow. While he was still recovering, yanking the blade of his tail free, I shot three more lines of red paint at the ground, and one at the man’s back. Then I hurled myself off him while shouting over my shoulder, “Call me, we’ll set something up!” 

With that, I activated the paint. The man was yanked downward partway before stopping. Landing on the edge of a window balcony, I could see his enormous muscles straining, the man spitting curses and threats. He was managing to keep himself in the air against the pull of the paint, but only just. 

Ten seconds, I had ten seconds where he’d be held or at least slowed down. I had to use them. One more shot of red paint took me to the next roof, and I activated my skates, landing easily on the wheels before pushing off. Green paint, green paint, green paint! I used it, launching myself across that roof as fast as I could go. Cuélebre’s pants-browning scream did a lot to make me forget about how tired I was, as I clutched the vial in my hand and pushed myself to keep moving.

Hitting the edge of the roof, I heard another bellow from Cuélebre. And then the first lightning bolt struck. It came from the sky, slamming into the roof about a dozen feet away from me. The power of it was enough to almost throw me forward, even as the resulting boom deafened me. 

But Cuélebre wasn’t done. A second strike came an instant later, followed by a third. Each one progressively closer. The man couldn’t even see me yet, he was just hurling lightning in the direction he’d seen me go. He had completely lost his goddamn mind

With a yelp, I threw myself off the roof. There wasn’t even time to make any blue paint or anything. I just had to leap, an instant before the next lightning strike hit the spot right where I had just been. It was an almost perfect shot from a guy who couldn’t even see me! 

I was falling through the air, windmilling and screaming. A quick thought, almost entirely reflex, brought my hand up to point across the street. From the corner of my eye, I could see the fire escape in an alley between the two buildings. Red paint, please, please…

It went off, and I was yanked that way. Yanked that way… just as yet another bolt of lightning struck. This one came so close all I saw was a blinding light. Pain engulfed my body, as a scream tore its way out of my throat. At some point, I had instinctively activated every bit of orange left on my costume. But it still hurt. Oh God, did it ever hurt. 

Everything came in a bit of a blurry, dazed rush then. I felt the air rushing past me. I felt myself hit the fire escape, slip off it, fall to land on top of the dumpster below, then roll off it to land on the ground. Barely conscious, I rolled over. It took absolutely everything I had, but the sound of Cuélebre approaching spurred me to move through the pain, through the desperate need to fall unconscious. I pushed myself and rolled under that dumpster. My helmet fell off in the process.

The demon man landed a moment later, hitting the street beyond before a chuckle escaped him. “No more wisecracks, little boy?” he demanded. “Why don’t you come out and invite me to dinner again?” 

He didn’t know where I was. But he did know that I was somewhere in the area, and hurt. It wouldn’t take him long to narrow down the possibilities. I had to do something. I had to… to move… to… think. But my vision kept fading in and out, and the thought of moving made me whimper mostly silently. Everything hurt. 

Then I heard it. Not Cuélebre. Another voice. 

“I think you’ve done enough damage for one night.” 

Silversmith. It was Silversmith. My dad. His voice was different from how I knew him, of course. But it was him. Turning my head a little, I could see the silver-armored man appear right in front of the giant demon, facing him down. 

A month earlier, I would have been elated. That was Silversmith, my favorite hero in the whole world. And he was, knowingly or not, saving my life. Saving me. It would have been one of the most amazing moments in my life. 

Now… now I knew the truth. I knew Silversmith was my father, and that he killed people. So mostly… mostly I was just confused about how I was supposed to feel right now. Confused, tired, sore, and trying very hard to stay conscious. 

“I am not in the mood, Hero-Man,” Cuélebre growled in a dismissive voice. Even as he said it, I saw the slight spark on his tail appear. Then a bolt of lightning, aimed straight at my father, tore down from the sky. 

It was intercepted by a large silver shield that appeared in the air. A similar (though smaller) shield appeared on my dad’s arm, along with a sword in his other hand as he calmly informed the Oscuro leader, “You’re about to be in a worse one.”

Cuélebre struck, lunging forward to swipe at my father. But just as he moved (thus negating his own invulnerability power that kicked in when he stood still), something slammed into him from behind. It was a truck. No, it was one of Silversmith’s constructs made to look like a truck. Either way, the shiny metal thing crashed into Cuélebre, just as Dad ducked and turned in one smooth motion. The giant demon man bellowed as he was hurled over Silversmith’s head and sent flying down the street and out of my line of sight. 

The form of the truck broke apart an instant after impact, turning back into its default liquid metal form. Like a big ball of floating mercury, or the T1000 Terminator.  

Silversmith, my dad, was already throwing himself up and backward. He crashed into his own liquid metal ball before stopping there as the stuff hardened and shaped itself around him. Soon, it didn’t look like a floating ball of liquid or a truck anymore. It had turned into what amounted to a battlesuit, armor as large as Cuélebre was. Silversmith was inside it. 

Another bolt of lightning came, but the large shield that had blocked it the first time had already spun through the air to catch against Dad’s new armor’s arm, and he caught the bolt easily. Then he pushed off, disappearing from sight as he chased after his giant opponent. 

They were gone. They were both gone. I was… I was safe? Safe, right. Sure. Safe here in my hiding place.  

I was hiding again. Just as I had on that first night, back when I had found out about my brother, about my family. After everything that had happened, there I was, lying under a dumpster and hiding again. 

It was too much. With the immediate danger gone, all I could do was lay there listening to the fighting between Cuélebre and my father as it faded into the distance. My eyes blinked a few times, straining to keep myself awake. I had to keep going, I had to… to use this chance to get out of here before something happened. Stay awake… Stay awake, damn it, stay…

I passed out.

****** 

“Paintball!” 

The voice dragged me back to consciousness. As my eyes blinked blearily open, I felt every muscle in my body protest even that movement. Groaning, I turned my head, reaching down to pull the helmet up with one hand before shoving it onto my head. Unfortunately, the view was… distorted, cracked. 

The visor of the helmet. It was shattered in a couple places. As I pushed myself out from under the dumpster with another groan, my hand moved to push the helmet off once more. Something was in my other hand. I looked down. The vial. It was still there, still intact by some miracle. I’d held onto it through all of that. 

“Paintball!” It was Eits, frantically calling my name as he came around the corner. When he saw me, he made a noise of relief. “Oh God, there you are! Are you okay? I was following in one of the cars. I saw you go down somewhere over here but I couldn’t get close until Silversmith chased the big guy off. He–he’s gone now. They’re gone. But you… are you…” 

“I’m okay,” I muttered, shaking off the lingering daze as much as I could. It hurt, everything hurt. And my ears were still ringing. But I was alive. “I’m okay, and I’ve got the vial. It’s–” Blinking up at the boy to find him staring at me in what looked like total shock, I hesitated. “What… what’s wrong? I–” 

Wait. Wait. What was wrong with my voice? It was– wait. My free hand found my phone. It was heavily damaged, the screen partially crushed, with random lines and colors across the cracked screen. Which meant my voice changer was gone. Which meant–

“Oh my God,” Eits stammered. 

“You’re a girl!”

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Showdown 7-06 (Summus Proelium)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Showdown 7-05 (Summus Proelium)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Clear, we were clear! 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Interlude 6B – Cuelebre (Summus Proelium)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Sir?” Luis asked, blinking up. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Pursuit 4-04 (Summus Proelium)

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Spinning back to the other two, I blurted, “Okay, all those guys have either powers or guns or both. The point is, we need to get out of here. Like, now now. Is that remote gonna help us leave?” As I was speaking, I made three separate lines of green paint, running from my ankle up to my waist, appear on my right leg. A second later, I did the same on my left leg with purple paint. I didn’t power it, I just made it appear. 

One of the guys I had handcuffed called out, “Or you could fucking surrender, hijo de puta! Maybe Cuélebre’ll actually let you keep one of your lungs!”

Fred stared at the man for a moment, while Wren started running back toward her lab. “This way!” With a grunt, the man turned back to follow his niece. I was right behind him. 

Just as we reached the spot where the stairs were, a hail of gunfire greeted us from below, making all three of us duck back away from them. Apparently the first group had made it through the doors down there and were already shooting. Which seemed like a really stupid way to get information out of any of us, but what did I know?

Someone down there must have agreed with me, however, because I heard frantic shouting to stop shooting. Then a new voice called up, “Hey! You give us the guy, or the thing he stole from that bank. Either way, then we leave you alone! You got it? That’s a good deal, right?”

I had a real bad feeling that they weren’t going to listen if we just told them we didn’t have either of those. I also saw Fred’s mouth opening to say so, so I shot a small glob of black paint to silence him before whispering, “The only reason they’re not rushing up those stairs right now and shooting all of us is because they think we might have what they want. Let’s not give them a reason to doubt that.” 

Raising my voice then, I called, “These things are worth a lot! You think we’re just gonna let you take them?” As I said those words, three triangles appeared on my left arm, along with three circles, and three stars. The triangles were orange, the circles purple, and the stars green. 

While a loud burst of murmuring started from the people below, I thought quickly before looking back the way we had come. Using red paint, I pulled two of the discarded guns to me, catching them in either hand.

“Do you even know how to use those?” Fred hissed, clutching his own weapon. 

From below, the guy who had spoken before called up, “You know, you’re in a bad position! But maybe we can work something out! Say, you walk out with a cool hundred grand!”

Shaking my head to Fred’s question, I focused on painting the guns in my hand white while calling back, “Hundred grand out of three million isn’t much of a share!”

While they were reacting to that below, I looked to the others. “On the count of three, run for it. One… two…”

I threw both guns over the edge of the stairs them, letting them fall a bit before triggering the paint. There was a sudden bright flash and screams from the men who were blinded. 

“Three!” I blurted, already scrambling to my feet to run across the opening. Guns were going off, but we were already past the opening and on our way into the lab.

The second we were through, Wren blurted some kind of code, and a heavy steel door fell into place. Hopefully that would buy us a little bit of time, though I had no idea how many of the Oscuro Touched had shown up. I was racking my brain, trying to remember what powers we had to deal with. But it was hard to think through all the panic. 

Wren was moving toward one of the tables of random junk, digging through it for something. Meanwhile, Fred looked to me. “You really think you can get us away from these assholes even if we get out of the building?”

For a second, I was quiet before nodding. “If we can get to the roof, I think I can get us to another building. Then we can go from there. But I don’t see what we’re supposed to be doing in this—”

“Got ‘em!” Wren blurted. We both looked that way to see her triumphantly holding up a pack of batteries. She took four out and shoved them into the remote I’d gotten for her, then hit a button on it. As she did so, part of the roof above us immediately began to retract. It slid aside, revealing open sky. 

“I like to see the stars sometimes,” the girl explained with a shrug before gesturing to the opening. “Are you guys coming, or what?” Even as she spoke, her dragonfly-like wings popped out of that harness once more and she hovered up off the floor. “Come on!” Her hand snapped out to grab a backpack that she had apparently thrown some things into before rising. 

“Kid,” Fred started, “how the hell am I supposed t—”

By that point, I had finished filling some of the blank space between the lines I’d made earlier with new purple, and sprayed a circle of blue under our feet. In the middle of the man’s sentence, I wrapped my arms around him, then triggered that purple bit and the blue on the floor all at once as I leapt. Between the new strength in my legs, and the boost from the blue circle, I completely cleared the hole in the roof, while Fred screamed in my ear. Really should’ve hit him with black paint again.

Landing easily on the roof, I let the man go. He stumbled to his knees and panted as Wren hovered nearby on her mechanical wings. 

Meanwhile, below us, there was a sudden commotion. I looked down through the hole in time to see the heavy steel door melt into slag. One of the Oscuro Touched came through, accompanied by several foot soldiers. I recognized the guy immediately, thanks to his long red leather trench coat and matching welding mask. His name was Coverfire, and his powers allowed him to sheath himself in a very close force field that was immune to most damage and also so hot it could basically melt through anything. 

Coverfire looked up through the hole in the roof and started to shout something, just as Wren hit the button to make it close once more. “Kay!” She chirped while gripping that backpack with one hand. “We can leave now.”

Right. Quickly, I sprayed a line of blue paint down near the edge of the roof. “Fred and I are going to jump off that circle there. It should get us to the next roof. From there, we can drop down and run. Wren, can your uhhh, wing… things keep up with that?” At her quick nod, I breathed out. “Okay, then let’s do it.”

“Wait, wait,” Fred blurted, “are you sure this is gonna work?” His eyes were wide with panic. 

Shrugging at him, I pointed to the spot of roof where the hatch was. It was already glowing red. Somehow, Coverfire was able to get high enough to start melting through it. I didn’t know how, since I was pretty sure he couldn’t fly, but I wasn’t going to question it. “You could always stay and talk it out with them.”

Grimacing, the man spun toward the blue circle and ran for it. I was right behind him, with Wren flying alongside us. I caught up easily, and we jumped on the blue circle just as I activated it, using that to launch ourselves over to the next building. 

We came down on the roof. Fred basically crashed into a heap, rolling with his fall as he cursed the whole way. Meanwhile, I painted my feet orange and landed easily in a crouch. While straightening up, I painted a sort of… comet shape on my chest. It was mostly orange, with a bit of black as an outline, along with purple and green flames trailing behind it.

We’d made it. We were off the first building. Now all we had to do was get down off the other side out of sight before they got people up on the roof, and then—

Fred suddenly started cursing extensively, and I quickly looked that way to see him peering off the edge of the roof near the shop we had just left. Moving that way, I looked down. 

Unfortunately, I didn’t have to look that far to see what he was staring at. The figure below was about half the height of the two-story building we were standing on. Fifteen feet tall, with enormous bat-like wings, dark blue-violet skin, and a long bladed tail, he was instantly recognizable. 

Cuélebre. It was Cuélebre, the leader of Oscuro. And he was looking right at me, a slow smile appearing on his enormous face. 

I didn’t stop to think. My hand snapped out and I grabbed the backpack out of Wren’s hands while blurting, “I’ll get it back to you, get outta here!”

With those words, I leapt off the side of the building while hauling the bag onto my shoulder. Painting my feet orange once more at the last instant, I landed on the ground just a short distance away from Cuélebre. Then I looked up. 

Ohhhh God. Oh fuck. Oh shit, shit, shit. He was even bigger from this angle. He was fucking gigantic. He was an enormous demon, watching me with a wry smirk on his face, which itself was clearly recognizable as a Latino man, even if it was purplish-blue. He was a fifteen foot tall, hugely muscular winged demon standing at his full, impressive height. Meanwhile, even when I was standing up, I barely topped five feet. And I wasn’t standing, I’d landed in a crouch. 

I looked like a mouse he might step on. 

“Well,” the man announced with obvious amusement, “this does save me the few seconds it would take to chase you down. I wasn’t expecting you to be this cooperative.” 

Strangely, for a man whose entire thing was to create a gang consisting only of Latino members, Cuélebre spoke with literally no accent. If I had closed my eyes, I could have believed that I was hearing any old white guy talking. And I dearly, dearly wanted to close my eyes. 

Instead, I rose to my much less-than-impressive height, squared my shoulders, and looked up at the man. “Your friend in there wanted to rip me off. A hundred thousand off of three million after all the work I’ve put into finding these— those vials? Why don’t you make a better offer and maybe I’ll tell you where they are?”

For a moment, the giant figure in front of me stared as though finding it difficult to believe I was that stupid. Behind him, some of his foot soldiers chuckled, saying some things in Spanish. 

“Well,” Cuélebre slowly drawled, “we could stand here and negotiate. Or you could hand over that bag.”

Making myself look at it quickly and, I hoped, expressing guilt in my body language and voice, I blurted, “What do you want my bag for?”

The smirk grew, and his tail suddenly flashed forward, stopping right in front of me as though waiting for me to place the bag on the bladed tip. “Call it a hunch.”

Shifting from one foot to the other, I hesitantly replied, “Well, I… I suppose… if you want the bag…”

My hands snapped up and back over my head, pointing to the roof of the building across the street while I finished with, “You can come get it!”

Before he or the others could react, the red paint I had just shot and connected to my red gloves yanked me up and backwards. I heard the man shout a curse as I was hauled across the street, spinning over in the air to face that way. 

Hearing gunfire and shouting behind me, I released the red paint and tucked my legs to overshoot the roof. Landing in a sprint, I raced for the opposite edge of the roof while painting the blank space on my legs green to speed myself up. 

Chancing a peek over my shoulder as I reached the edge of the roof, I saw Cuélebre as he hurled himself into the air, his wings beating down hard. He could fly. He was going to catch up with me pretty damn quick if I didn’t hurry the hell up. 

Hitting the edge of the roof, I leapt, snapping my hand out and shooting a glob of red paint at a billboard in the distance to yank myself that way. Behind me, I could hear my terrifying pursuer’s wings beating the air. Faster, Cassidy, go faster!

Landing on top of the billboard, I ran along it while Cuélebre shouted for me to stop. He was soaring over the roof I had just left, as I turned my feet purple for a bit of a boost and leapt from the billboard to another roof a short distance below. In mid-air, I spoke the code to make my skates pop out, landing smoothly right on the raised brick lip at the edge of the roof before rolling along it. 

Everything had started too quick for me to really think about what I was doing. My only thought had been to get this guy away from Wren and Fred. And now? Well, now I was basically running in a blind panic. If he caught me, and even worse, if he found out I didn’t really have the vials but had purposely tricked him into thinking I did so he would chase me? I really didn’t want to think about what he would do. Didn’t want to think about it at all

Less thinking, more running, skating, jumping, and fleeing. 

Hitting the edge of the new roof just as Cuélebre came down hard right behind me with enough force to shake the building, I shot a bit of blue paint right at the corner, launching myself upward and forward right before the man’s giant hand swept through the air where I had just been.

“Have you thought about working for my school?!” I half-frantically called back to him while landing against the wall of a taller building, using red paint on my right hand and right foot to hold myself there with a quick glance that way. “They could really use you as a truant officer!” 

Why was I trying to piss him off even more? The guy was already mad enough and definitely following me. I let out an almost cartoon-like meep as the giant demon-figure hurled himself off the last roof toward me, and used a line of red to yank myself away, back to the next roof over.

I landed on my wheels, activated one of the green lines on my legs. This is what they were for. I–well, I hadn’t known that I’d be running from fucking Cuélebre, but having paint made in advance had seemed like a good idea after what happened back in the shop. And it was sure coming in handy now. 

Glancing over my shoulder that time turned out to be a good thing, because Cuélebre was hovering in the air with his tail up, bladed end pointed at me while sparks danced around it. 

Oh shi–I dove sideways, activating a green mark on my leg and one of the orange triangles on my arm. An instant later, a bolt of lightning shot from the end of the man’s tail, slamming into the spot where I had been. He’d clearly toned the shot down from what he was capable of, trying to stun me rather than kill me (I’d seen news footage of a full-power shot from that tail taking out a car). Even then, it blew some of the bricks from the roof away, singing others. 

I was wrong, he hadn’t just been trying to stun me. He’d been trying to blow at least one of my feet off, if not a whole leg. 

Of course, things weren’t done getting worse. Even as I picked myself up from where I’d haphazardly thrown myself into the middle of the roof, I could see sparks dancing out from the impact site where the bolt had hit. It looked like static electricity or something dancing around the rubble there. Then, one by one, the broken pieces of metal, stone, and brick lifted themselves into the air. 

Yeah, because having a lightning doom cannon attached to his tail wasn’t enough. The guy could dial the damage on the shot all the way from ‘blow through a car’ down to ‘stings a little bit,’ and every time one of his shots hit something, it sent out those bits of electricity that gave the man telekinetic-like control of any non-living material they hit. 

So to recap, Cuélebre was a giant demon with flight, vast super-strength, was basically invulnerable, had a lightning cannon for a tail, and could telekinetically control anything said lightning hit and didn’t destroy. I, meanwhile, had… paint. Whoever’s idea it was for me to pick a fight with this guy was an idiot. 

Oh. Right. 

Ducking as two larger bits of debris were hurled at my head, I shot a quick wave of yellow over the rest of the debris, hoping that the slowing effect would keep them off me as I spun to run away. In the process, I activated another line of green paint on my legs as well as one of the green stars on my arm just to boost myself even further. Then I hauled ass, running to the edge of the roof. 

Cuélebre was right above and behind me. I leapt from the roof, using red paint to yank myself to the next building over before skating along the wall. He sent several more shots around me, narrowly missing with each one, mostly thanks to the green paint keeping me going faster than he expected. Each shot blew bits of the building away, adding more to the debris that he kept flinging my way. I had to keep activating the orange triangles to avoid being knocked off the wall. 

From that building, I jumped to the roof of another and kept going. Run, run, run, ruuuuun! 

He was there. He was always there, right on my heels. I raced through the city, leaping from roof to roof, saved from screaming in a blind panic only by the fact that all of my breath was going toward running. If he caught me, if he caught me…

Eventually, I hit the edge of yet another roof. I could see a covered pedestrian bridge in the distance connecting two buildings in the nearby business park. As I ran for it, I’d barely crossed about three quarters of the roof when the whole thing shook under me as Cuélebre landed with a guttural roar that practically made me pee myself for like the seventeenth time in the past ten minutes. I didn’t dare look back. I didn’t need to, considering I could practically feel his breath on my neck. 

I heard and felt him lunge. It was too soon, I wasn’t going to make it. My only chance to avoid being caught and probably killed was…

I jumped. Using the last of the purple lines on my leg, I hurled myself straight up into the air rather than forward. I felt his massive form pass by right under me while I turned in a flip in mid-air, landing in a crouch on his back. His wings beat hard against the air, nearly knocking me off while the man himself let out a grunt of surprise. 

Oh my God, oh my God, oh my God! I was literally riding on the back of one of the most powerful and dangerous Touched in the tri-state area. And from the sound of things, he wasn’t exactly thrilled by that fact. That tail of his was already whipping up and around to smack me off of him. 

Quickly, I shot one glob of red paint at the incoming tail and another glob to the roof. My ten seconds on the purple paint wasn’t up yet, so I hurled myself up off of him while activating the red paint. “No thanks!” I called while his tail was yanked down, “I’ll just get off here!”

In the air, I snapped my hand out and shot another bit of red at the bridge across the lot. Cuélebre was already recovering, snapping his tail away from my paint, breaking the hold it had. The bladed end cut through the air right where I had been an instant before my new paint yanked me away. Giddy from my escape, I yelled back, “Seriously, truant officer, you could wear a cute little vest!”  

Soaring toward the bridge, I tucked my legs up to clear the railing and landed right inside between a couple of startled onlookers. 

“Are you stupid?!” I blurted without thinking. “Run!” 

Both of the men screamed, as a loud crunch filled the air and part of the roof of the bridge dented inward. Cuélebre was here. 

With a shriek of tearing metal, his tail was driven through the roof of the bridge. It narrowly missed everyone before being retracted lightning quick to come down again. That time, it came within a few hairs of splitting one of the men in half. 

Cursing myself (and them, to be honest), I painted part of my arms purple and lunged that way. I managed to catch hold of the tail and held on for dear life with one arm while grabbing onto the nearby railing with the other. “Run!” I repeated to the men who were frozen in terror. 

Thank fuck, they ran. Cuélebre tried to retract his tail again, but I was still holding on. For a second, anyway. I could feel his strength completely outstripping mine. He was going to rip that tail out of my grip, or rip me in half. Whichever came first.

Or, he was going to punch a hole through the roof with his fist, rip it open and glare down at me. Yeah, that was the one he went with. 

“Uhhhh…” I gave him an awkward nod while still clinging to his tail. “Sup?”

With a snarl, the demonic-man went to grab me. But I reacted quicker, releasing his tail and the railing. The purple paint was done anyway. Falling onto my back in the middle of the bridge as his groping hand narrowly missed me, I threw myself into a backward roll before he could correct his aim. The bag came off my back, but I snatched it up just in time while scrambling to my feet. Then I was running along the bridge, hearing the sound of Cuélebre scrambling along the roof above me while the whole structure shook around us. Every once in awhile, one of his hands would punch through the roof, or his tail would come lashing in from the side. I was running, ducking, rolling, jumping, twisting, doing everything to avoid him. His fingers would nearly catch my head before I rolled under them. His tail would sweep in and I would leap up and over it. He was only missing by millimeters. The end of the bridge leading into the building was close, but so was he. 

“Shit, shit, shit, fuck, shit, fuck!” My stunning verbal skills throughout this leg of my frantic escape were sure to win me an astounding number of grammatical awards. 

But I was there. I was right there, almost into the building. Unfortunately, Cuélebre noticed how close we were too, and leapt ahead. Just before I had a chance to get into the building proper, the enormous demonic figure literally slammed his entire body down through both the roof and floor. The whole end of it broke apart with a terrifying crash, shattering into pieces to leave a gap between the end of the bridge and the building. Cuélebre himself hovered there, glaring at me. Even better, the damage we’d done to the bridge was extensive enough that the whole thing was starting to collapse. With a loud grinding, tearing noise, the structure was swaying. The floor was literally starting to fall out from under me. 

Oh, and there were people far below who were staring up like idiots while the pieces of the bridge slowly began to collapse. The whole thing would fall any second, and they were just standing there. So, this whole thing was just… lovely, really. 

Activating the green comet flames on my shirt to speed myself up, I simultaneously turned the backpack white, with a small red circle, hurling the bag up toward my relentless pursuer. Reflexively, his gaze snapped to it, just as I triggered the blinding flash. He recoiled, buying me a second or two. 

In the meantime, I was falling through the air. Flipping over, I turned my feet red and used a quick shot to attach myself to the side of the building, facing downward toward the two idiot rubberneckers. Perched there, I pointed one arm at them while pointing my other hand a short distance away. Red paint sprayed from both, coating the two and a nearby park bench. As it activated, the onlookers were yanked off their feet and hurled sideways to crash into the bench an instant before the collapsing bridge completely gave up and crashed down right where they had been standing. 

Meanwhile, Cuélebre had recovered already and was grabbing for the bag. But I activated the spot of red I’d left on it while holding a red glove up, and the thing flew right between his hands and into mine.

Yeah, I could’ve just let him have it, but something told me that while it didn’t have the medicine, any Tech-Touched stuff Wren might have in there wouldn’t be good for him to get either. Or she could have family mementos, and I didn’t want to lose those either. 

Before I could move, Cuélebre was there. Hovering right in front of me, his massive hand caught hold of my body. I was suddenly crushed in his grip, while he glared. “That,” he announced as I felt sharp pain spreading, my bones seconds away from collapsing under the force, “is quite enough of that, little boy. You could have done this the easy way. But now, I think I prefer the–” 

He was gone. No, I was gone. I was somewhere else. Suddenly, I wasn’t in his grasp. I was standing in a parking lot somewhere. With a yelp, I stumbled and fell onto my backside. 

“Sorry!” Wren was there, hovering over me with an apologetic look. “It took a few minutes to get to the van, and then we had to set up the teleporter, and wait for you to have the bag back so we could use the beacon in it. Are you okay?” 

Beacon… teleporter… van… I was… I was safe. I was away from the demonic asshole. I wasn’t dead. 

I wasn’t dead! 

“We’re okay?” I asked a bit shakily. “We’re safe? No one’s around?” 

Her head bobbed up and down. “Uh huh. We weren’t followed or anything. No one’s here.” 

“Okay.” Slowly pushing myself up, I murmured, “Excuse me for just a second, okay?” As gracefully and carefully as possible, I stood, stepped away from the girl… and then proceeded to pump my fists in the air, jumping up and down as I cackled madly, laughing so hard I nearly peed myself. 

“Yes, yes, yes! Haaaaaa ha ha! Haaaaa! Take that, you giant demon asshole! What’d you get out of all that, huh? What’d you get out of chasing me? Tired! That’s what you got! 

“Hah!” 

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