Cup

Patreon Snippets 22B (Summus Proelium)

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Elena and Sterling

As the door into the private hotel suite swung open, Elena Evans glanced up from the chair where she was sitting on the other side of the front living room. Two spoken words made the television pause in the middle of a news broadcast, freezing the reporter’s face while she was explaining exactly what had happened to expose the true identities of Pencil and Cup. Or at least, what was publicly known. Elena, however, had a much better source, who was coming in the room at that very moment. And a more pressing concern in that instant.

“Is she alright?” the woman asked, rising from the seat.  

Sterling, closing the door after him, gave her an immediate nod. “Izzy’s fine,” he assured her. “I spoke to her a bit as Silversmith. She’s not hurt or anything. She and Amber played the cavalry for Paintball and that new one, Alloy. Turns out they were smart enough not to all go in at once.” 

Darkly, Elena noted, “Yet not smart enough to pull in more help before investigating something like the Scions.” Taking a breath before letting it out to calm herself, the woman reached down to pick up a glass of wine, taking a sip from it before pursing her lips thoughtfully. “I know we decided it was best to leave the boy alone so long as he does not cause direct problems. But now he has taken Izzy into that sort of situation. However well-meaning he may be, he still helped put her in danger. What would we do if he had put Cassidy in that situation?”

With a grimace, Sterling shook his head. “That’s immaterial, because she would never be in a situation like that. She’s not a part of all this. Which, remember, was intentional. She gets to have a normal life for as long as possible before we involve her.” 

Elena took another sip of the wine while gazing steadily at him. “That’s not the point. If she was pulled into that sort of danger, the very first thing you would do is have a talk with that boy about responsibilities and being careful. And what can happen if he’s not.” She held up the hand that wasn’t holding the wine glass. “I’m not saying go after him too hard. I’m just saying maybe have a chat with him. Make sure he knows just how badly this could have gone and that the next time he has important information that could lead to that sort of danger, he needs to involve others. Adult others, who have the experience and resources to deal with it. And while you’re at it, maybe you should talk to Amber as well. She really should have known to involve someone else as soon as the Scions were mentioned.” 

“You’re right, but I’ll give it a few days,” Sterling replied. “Right now everything that we want to say to them is already playing through their heads. Believe me, I could hear it in their voices. Give it time to calm down a little bit. Let them work their way through all the what-ifs. Then I’ll talk to them and make sure it sticks. If we push too hard, too fast, it will just make them defensive. Let their own imaginations be the bad guys first.” 

With a very small smile, Elena set the glass down and stepped over to wrap her arms around him. “You have learned a lot over the years,” she informed her husband fondly, running her hands up his back. “Is that from running our business, or raising a couple of children?”  

“I think the correct answer is yes,” he replied with a chuckle as his arms closed around her. He held his wife close and rocked back and forth with her for a moment, both of them instinctively moving to the imagined sound of the song that had played during their first dance as a married couple. It was also the first one they had danced to while dating. Their song was “Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now” by the band Starship. It was their thing, because their first date, all those years ago, had been… rather different. Elena’s father had sent goons after her to find out who she was breaking away to see, and if he had known that it was one of his very own junior accountants, Sterling never would have survived the night. The two of them had been forced to hide out in the attic of some old woman for hours while the men scoured the streets. There had been a television and ancient VCR up there, along with a single video tape, for the original Mannequin film. Thus, that had been their first real date, sitting in an attic, watching a VHS recording of a movie that was already over a decade old at that point on a small television. And it was still one of the best memories either of them had. 

After a few long moments of that, Elena quietly spoke up. “I don’t want anything to happen to Izzy. That girl deserves… she deserves everything. If they’d been taken by those psychopaths…” She trailed off then, though the tension was evident in her body language. 

Sterling, in turn, held her closer. “I’ll talk to them,” he promised in a gentle voice, “and make sure they know that there are people they can call for help in situations like that. If not me, then others. They did call Flea afterward, so there’s already a connection with her. As long as they talk to someone, we should find out.” He leaned back, putting both hands on her shoulders. “She’s okay, Elena. Izzy’s fine. She’s a tough kid, you know that. We both do. She’ll be okay. And if she gets close to Paintball, that’s one more in that we have with the kid when the time comes to actually do something about that whole situation.”

“Izzy’s safety comes first, before any of that,” Elena reminded him pointedly. “She’s been through too much for us to put her in deliberate danger.” 

“No deliberate danger,” Sterling agreed. “She’s too important for that. She and Cassidy both. They’ve been getting closer, you know. Always hanging out together in that game room. Selena said she saw them sleeping together in Cassidy’s bed the other morning.” 

The words made Elena smile. “Good,” she murmured, “I’m glad they’re getting along. Those two…” She exhaled thoughtfully, turning a bit to pick up her wine glass once more. “Perhaps we can tell them the truth together, explain it all to them when the time comes. Izzy is already involved in the… Touched side of things. It won’t be as hard to tell her why our way keeps the situation from spiraling too far out of control. She’s seen how terrible things can be.” 

“Maybe.” With that word, Sterling fell silent, thinking for a moment before his head shook. “Either way, in the meantime, it’s best we encourage those two to be as close as possible. Maybe she’ll be comfortable telling Cassidy about her… extracurricular activities soon.” 

“Perhaps we should encourage that, gently,” Elena noted. “She may confide things with Cassidy then, including any future possible danger. And you know how Cassidy is. 

“If she knows something, she’ll tell us.” 

******

Cup and Pencil

The newscaster’s voice was interrupted mid-speech by the sound of an enraged scream. That was immediately followed by a loud crash as a heavy lamp was hurled into the television, destroying both as the flat screen fell onto its back with a shower of broken glass. 

“Would it make you feel better if we did that to the annoying twat herself?” Pencil asked curiously, as he lounged in a recliner on the other side of the room. It was meant to be a reading corner, as this place had, at one point, been a fairly popular bookstore. But it had been closed for over a year (thanks to the mysterious death of the owner, who had dared to say something annoying), and was only one of several private and secure hideouts that the Scions had set up long ago. Now, most of the books were gone, though the shelves remained. It was on one of those that the television had been placed. 

There was a small apartment area in the back of the building where the former owner had lived, and the Scions had installed a heavy-duty freezer down in the basement. Between what was in there, and the pantry they had been sure to stock up, there were enough supplies in this place for up to ten people to live comfortably for as long as six months, without stepping foot outside. Things weren’t that bad, nowhere near. Most of the Scions’ identities were still secure, and there were always disguises for those who weren’t. But if the time came and they really had to go underground until the heat died off, it wouldn’t be a problem. At least, not as far as being fed went. 

Pivoting to face her brother as she stood, panting from the anger that still filled her even after taking it out on the news broadcast that had been reporting about their identities, Amanda retorted, “The reporter? You know, fun as that would be, since I never liked that sanctimonious cunt, I’ve got a few better targets in mind.”  

“I’m sure you do,” Nick agreed, pushing himself up from his chair. “And yet, I’m afraid they’ll be a little out of our reach for the moment. But don’t worry, I’ll make sure you have a few appetizers as a warm-up while we wait for a good opening. After all, you don’t want to be so angry that you let the poor dears go and die on us too early. You know how disappointed you were after we grabbed your old English teacher and you got too excited. You had two weeks of fun activities planned and then you just cut her throat the second she recognized you. We can do better than that. Work out your frustration on smaller fish. Then, when we have the real deal in front of us, you can have a lot more fun.” 

Stepping over that way, he took his sister’s hands and tugged her close for a long, lingering kiss. “Now, babe, why don’t you tell me exactly what happened, from the top.” He had waited until now, aside from getting the basics so that he would know how bad it was, because he wanted to give her time to calm down slightly. But he didn’t want to wait too long. 

A brief glower crossed the young woman’s face before she caught herself and sighed. “Fine. But I want you to hold me while I do. Otherwise I’ll just get worked up again and break another TV.” 

“We’ve got plenty,” Nick assured her. Still, he tugged the girl with him back over to the recliner and sat down while pulling Amanda onto his lap. “There we go. Now tell Saint Nick all about what you want for Christmas. And what happened back at the apartment.” 

“I want a paring knife and those kids strapped down to a table,” Amanda snarled before shifting against him with another sigh as she pushed on. “As for what happened, we got so fucking close to having those fucking shits. They were right…” She grimaced, forcing her anger down before it got the better of her. With some effort, she pushed through the whole story of what had happened from the moment those three had appeared on her balcony. Nick was quiet and didn’t interrupt, allowing her to go off on just a couple tangents about what she wanted to do before gently squeezing her leg as a reminder to stay on task. 

Once she had finally finished, Nick reached up to brush his hand through her hair gently. His voice was quiet. “Well, you know you really should have called in help immediately, and left with the brats as soon as you had them secure. There’s a reason we had Scions stationed so close.” 

“I know, I know,” the girl sulked. “I should have called in the others and then those other fucks wouldn’t have been able to get out so easily. Maybe we could have held on to at least one of them then.” Her voice was mournful, regretting the loss of that opportunity. “Can you imagine how much fun we’d be having right now with that Paintboy, or his new sidekick? Ooh, imagine sending pieces of her to him. Just think about his face.” A giggle escaped her, as she excited herself with the thought. 

“Such a loss,” Nick agreed. “But we’ll have our moment with them. We just have to be patient.” 

“Buuuut Nick, being patient is boring,” Amanda lamented while curling up against him with her arms around his neck. “You must have plans for something fun we can do, right?” The words came in a quiet, thoroughly distracting purr. 

A slight chuckle escaped him while he leaned back and tilted her chin up so he could kiss her once more. “You know I can’t really deny you things when you use that voice. But we do need to be careful. People know our faces right now, babe. We can’t walk around like we used to. Not yet, anyway. I’ve got some plans for that.”

“Oooh!” Shifting playfully, Amanda ran her fingers up along his cheek. “I knew you’d have something. Tell me, tell me, tell me. I wanna know all about them.” 

“Later,” he promised while catching her hand and squeezing it. “There’s still a few things to take care of. And we need to stay off the radar for a while. Paintball and those other shits get a pass for now. But their moment will come, sooner or later. You’ll get your chance with the paring knife.”

Tugging her over to lay her head back on his shoulder, the man added pointedly. “But in the meantime, why don’t we order delivery?” 

Curious, Amanda asked, “You want food right now?” 

“Actually,” he replied, “I was thinking of sending one of the boys out to grab that reporter. 

“After all, you never liked that sanctimonious cunt.” 

******* 

Melissa (Blackjack’s daughter) 

“There, drill there, use the drill there!” Sitting on the floor in Melissa Abbot’s bed/hospital room, Isaiah Coleman pointed at the screen while gesturing emphatically. In public, the man (who could have been mistaken for a young Lando Calrissian in his late twenties) was known as the Fell-Touched Hardway. But at the moment, he was dressed very casually, simply sitting on a pillow while excitedly blurting, “You can’t miss the chest, it’s got the extra component. We need that to fix the cannon on the ship so we can blow the living fudge out of that pirate lady.” 

In one life, the man was an insurance salesman with a wife and a son who was three years old. In his other life, he was one of the most versatile and effective Touched in the city (his power allowed him to manipulate motion and inertia of both himself and anything within six feet). But right now? Right now he was simply excitedly calling out directions for the room’s other occupant. The person who actually lived here. 

Melissa, meanwhile, clutched the controller in both hands, her gaze intent on the large monitor. Cassidy Inawhile (the stuffed pink crocodile on a skateboard) and Inspector Guillotine (the detective bear in the trenchcoat and deerstalker hat) sat in front of her where she had positioned them. “I know, I know!” she called out, twisting her entire body to the side while rapidly pressing buttons as she fought to deal with the enemies on-screen fast enough to use the drill properly without being interrupted. She was a slender, slight girl, a bit too small for her age of nine thanks to years of growing up while affected by the terrible Rot Bone disease. Though incredibly lucky in the sense that she had survived the disease far longer than anyone else with that level of infection, it had still hurt her growth. She looked more like a seven-year-old than her actual age, and (assuming she continued to survive), that would follow her into the future. She would always be smaller than her peers. Her light brown hair was worn in a loose braid, and the girl was dressed in a set of black sweatpants with gold lightning bolts across them, and a white tank top that had an anthropomorphic blue unicorn strumming an electric guitar. 

“I got it, I got it, I got it…” the girl chanted, her words more hope than declaration. The last enemy on the screen was being a real pain, and if her character died here, they’d have to go through a lot to find their way back to this spot. She bit her lip and hit the dodge button, gasping as a shot came close. “You do it!” she blurted as her finger found the pause. “I can’t, I can’t kill him!” 

“You can,” came the immediate response from Isaiah as he shifted his weight a bit but made no move to actually take the controller. “You’ve got this. That punk’s nothing. Not anymore. You can chew him up and spit him out for breakfast.” 

With a giggle, the girl looked that way. “You spit out your breakfast, Uncle Isaiah? That’s weird.” 

Glancing that way, the man offered her a wink. “It’s possible I mixed my metaphors.” After a brief pause, he asked, “You know what a metaphor is?”  

She, in turn, gave a short nod. “Uh huh. I read a lot,” Melissa murmured while glancing toward the nearby bed. It was a bed she had spent many, many hours of every day in, to avoid stressing her bones. She read a lot and also wrote a lot. She made up stories and told them to her father, and to anyone else who would listen. In a way, she both loved and hated that bed. It was comfort and safety, and she was so happy to still be alive. She knew how lucky she was. Even at her young age, circumstances demanded that she mature to the point of understanding what this disease meant, and how incredible her survival was. She had known what death meant for years. The bed meant she was safe. And yet, the bed was also symbolic of the fact that she had never been able to go anywhere else. She couldn’t go out of the room, she couldn’t run around and play with other kids, definitely couldn’t go to school, couldn’t really live like so many others did so casually every day. 

As much as Melissa lived her life through reading and through writing her own stories, that couldn’t entirely replace everything she wanted to do. The stories allowed her some level of escape, as did these video games. But there was only so much they could do. The girl who dreamed of flying could hardly take an unaided step too quickly without risking a fractured ankle or leg.

Seeing where she was looking, Isaiah quietly asked, “So, how are you doing lately, kid? How’s that medicine working out for you? Helping get you back to where you were?” 

After a brief hesitation, the girl gave a very short nod. “It helps,” she murmured softly. “I can walk with my crutches a little bit now. Just around the room. Dad doesn’t want me to go any further.” 

“He’s just looking out for you,” Isaiah assured her. “You know that, right?”  

Once more, her head bobbed. “I know. But I think I make him sad. Sometimes when he thinks I’m asleep, he’ll stand in the doorway over there and watch me for a long time. I think he misses my mom. But he doesn’t want to talk about her. He never wants to talk about her.” 

Swallowing hard as a flood out of his own memories passed through his mind, Isaiah forced himself to respond. “You’re wrong about that, kid. You definitely don’t make him sad. I don’t think I’ve ever seen the boss happier than when he’s with you.” 

Meeting his gaze intently for a few long seconds, Melissa slowly replied, “I’m gonna get better, you know. I’m going to be able to walk out with my crutches, and then without them. I’m going to walk and then run all the way outside. I’m gonna jump on a trampoline. I’m gonna go skateboarding, like Cassidy.” She indicated the stuffed toy by her leg. “This bone stuff, it’s gonna lose. I’m gonna kick its butt. And then I’m coming for the world’s butt.” 

With a small smile, Isaiah reached out to very gently brush her hair. “I’m gonna hold you to that, kid. Pretty sure we’ll all hold you to it. Now how about we start with beating this guy right–” 

“Uncle Isaiah, what’s that?” Melissa abruptly interrupted, raising a hand to point past him. 

“What’s what?” He started to turn that way. 

She, meanwhile, leaned up and reached past him, toward something hovering directly behind the man. “That. 

“The glowing ball thingie.” 

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Hostile Witness 18-10 (Summus Proelium)

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Well, so much for being free and clear. Just when I’d actually dared to think that we had gotten away from that whole… situation with the Scions, everything immediately blew up again. We were being chased in the van and shot at. Cup was there, along with who knew how many others. Way was stuck driving, not daring to slow down at all, and Raindrop kept peeking out the back window, calling out warnings whenever it looked like they were about to fire. Her warnings made Way spin the wheel one way or the other, sending the van skidding across the road. 

Sometimes, she couldn’t avoid the shots. Either there wasn’t room or time. But that was where Alloy came in. She had her marbles flying along behind the van, alternately transforming into various walls or shields to block the hits that Way couldn’t evade. Alloy couldn’t see enough to direct them for that, of course. But they were doing a pretty good job on their own just from the instructions to ‘protect the van.’ Which raised even more questions about how independent they were, not that I was going to get into that right now.

Either way, between Raindrop calling out when to evade, and Alloy’s marbles shielding the shots that she couldn’t get away from, we were avoiding the worst of what the Scions were throwing at us. But I had no idea how long that could continue. If we didn’t do something else fast, something was going to get through. Worse, if Way lost control of the van and we had to face the Scions in a straight fight…  yeah, I didn’t see that ending well. Especially considering the fact that three of us were still mostly paralyzed.  

Speaking of which, we were desperately trying to speed along our recovery so we could actually help. We could fairly regularly move our fingers, hands, and toes, but it was still not enough. Well, not unless the Scions wanted to settle this whole thing with a good old-fashioned thumb wrestling match. I was pretty sure I could win one of those. But then again, something told me Cup would find a way to cheat even at that, and I’d end up without a thumb at all. 

Oh, and we couldn’t call for help either. Yeah, we’d tried that, and the calls weren’t going through anymore. Not since I’d hung up with Deicide. Clearly, Cup was using something to block it. Probably her own invention, since she was apparently a fucking Tech-touched! 

“Hold on!” Way called back once more, just before the van jolted violently. It felt like we were running over the pockmarked dirt along the side of the road itself. The whole vehicle threatened to spin out of control, but she managed to keep it going mostly straight, cursing out loud. “Fucking– Box is back there, he keeps making rock walls appear in front of us!” 

Box, right. He was the guy who made those glowing orbs and could throw them before they turned into variously shaped and sized portions of fire, wind, water, or, in this case, earth. So at least two of the Fell-Touched for the Scions were back in that car chasing us. And I didn’t think we were lucky enough for them to be the only ones. Especially not today. Nothing was lucky about today. Well, unless we actually managed to get out of here with that information about Cup and Pencil’s true identities, and her real power. That would be pretty lucky.

Even as I had that thought, my arm rose. Slowly and a bit jerkily, but it rose right up in front of my face. Move. I could move even more than before. The paralyzation was wearing off faster. “Come on, come on,” I murmured to myself, bending and unbending the arm. It felt like an extreme version of having a limb ‘fall asleep.’ The numbness was incredibly weird. 

Come to think of it, I suddenly realized that I wasn’t completely helpless here, numbness be damned. Pushing my hand against the floor beneath me, I focused on spreading green paint through the vehicle. I couldn’t paint the whole thing, of course. I didn’t have enough paint or the right position. But I could help a bit. I could contribute, damn it. 

“Tell me when you need a green speed boost!” I shouted toward the front while slowly shaking out my other arm. From this position, I couldn’t see where we were on the road, what was ahead of us, or anything else. I was going to have to rely on Way for all that. 

Thankfully, she realized what I was talking about immediately. “Not yet!” the girl called. “Wait… wait…” She spun the wheel once more, the metal and wheels both squealing in protest. “Now!” 

So, I triggered the boost right then. Immediately, the van lurched to about twice its usual speed. I could hear the squealing of the tires as we shot forward, pulling a decent bit ahead of the car behind us. It gave our group a little bit of very desperately needed breathing room. 

Unfortunately, it was still just a van, and the Scion car was faster. Whether that was simply a normal fact, or one helped by Cup tinkering with their car, I had no idea. Either way, they were still hot on our heels. I boosted the van now and then, but there was only so much I could do. There was only so much any of us could do. We were still a long distance from the rest of the city and from any help. Unless Deicide happened to pass us on her way to the petting zoo, and again, we weren’t that lucky. No, we were on our own here. We just… had to survive. 

“Way!” Raindrop called. “Go straight for three seconds when I say!” She was peering out the small window, one hand on the handle. After a moment, she called, “Left!” Way spun the wheel that direction, and I caught the barest glimpse of a glowing energy beam shoot past the window on the right side as Cup took another shot. It was so close, the van shook from whatever kinetic force the beam was carrying with it. Which was fucking weird to begin with. 

The instant the shot went past, Raindrop shouted, “Hold steady!” She glared out that back window, focusing while pointing with her free hand. I heard the rush of water go flying that way, before the girl cursed. Which was still strange to hear coming from her. She quickly jerked back while blurting, “Right!” Which sent the van sliding across the road that direction just in time to miss another shot. 

“Shield,” Raindrop informed us while still clutching the side of the van to keep herself upright. “They’ve got some kind of forcefield around the car, I can’t… I can’t get it wet! I can’t move it, I can’t do anything!” Her voice was frantic, clearly freaking out a bit. Not that I could blame her. We were all freaking out. There had to be a way out of here, had to be a way to escape from those psycho fucks. God damn it, why wouldn’t my arms move properly so I could do something?! Straining as hard as I could, I managed to make them bend a little faster. The paralyzation was wearing off, but not nearly quickly enough. The most I could do was keep randomly speeding the van up, which helped a bit, but wasn’t enough to keep us away from those assholes for long. It didn’t even help us pull far enough away to make a phone call, damn it! 

With that rush of anger, I suddenly realized that I was sitting up. Alloy and Pack both managed to turn their heads my way, but I was the one in a seated position. Clearly Cup had overestimated how long her paralyzing ray would work. “I can move,” I murmured, before my eyes widened. “I can move.” Everything was still numb, of course. but I was mobile. Definitely not in the right shape to start a fight with the guys chasing us, and yet the thrill of adrenaline from realizing I could move had brought something else to mind. I knew where we were. I knew where we were. And that meant–

Twisting over onto my hands and knees, I crawled to the back, next to Raindrop. There, I crouched by the door and braced myself. “Way!” I called up, “get ready to shift to the passenger side!” 

“What?!” she shouted back at me. “Why the hell would I–” 

But I was already moving. Shoving the back door open, I saw the car racing up from behind us. Sure enough, Cup and Box were there, along with a handful of other Scion lackeys. My hand extended, shooting a burst of yellow paint at the road just as we passed, before activating it. The Scion car abruptly slowed to half its normal speed, and I immediately swung myself out, using red paint to yank myself up against the side of the van while calling for Raindrop to shut the door. 

There I was, crouched sideways against the van, as we raced at like seventy miles an hour along the road. Another quick shot of red yanked me to the front, and I opened the driver’s side door while blurting, “Over, over!” 

To her credit, That-A-Way did exactly that, throwing herself into the passenger seat while I landed where she had been, my foot finding its way to the accelerator before we slowed much. “What’re you doing?!” the other girl shouted while quickly belting herself in.

“Tell me the thirteen-year-old isn’t driving,” Pack snapped from the back. “I said, tell me the thirteen-year-old isn’t driving!” 

“Okay,” I replied, glancing at the screen on the dash that showed a view behind us through a camera on the bumper, “the thirteen-year-old isn’t driving. 

“He’s flying.” 

With that, I abruptly spun the wheel hard to the right with one hand while touching the edge of the dash with my other. An orange arrow appeared there, extending out over the hood. I activated it just as the van hit a small incline on the side of the road and, with the engine roaring, went airborne a good six or seven feet, slamming into and through a tree that was in its way. Behind me and beside me, I could hear the others screaming. 

The van was now running perpendicular to the street, racing across the wilderness. Scattered trees surrounded us, and I twisted the wheel sharply once to avoid a big one. It came close enough that the branches scraped loudly along the passenger side. Behind us, I could see the Scion car coming right back into view. 

“Paintball, get back on the road!” Way shouted. “Get back on the road, get back on the road!” 

“Road?” I quoted, “Where we’re going, we don’t need roads.” 

“We need roads!” That was Alloy, her voice a frantic scream. “We definitely need roads!” 

But I wasn’t listening. Instead, I reached up, clipping the seatbelt into place. The van was cruising along the weed-filled ground, bouncing violently from each slight dip and bump. In the rear camera, the Scions were coming up fast. Once in awhile, they fired off a shot that was intercepted by one of the marbles keeping pace with us. 

“Paintball,” Way managed with a tight, worried voice, “I don’t know where you think you’re goaaaaaaahhhhh!” The scream was because we had just hit a bush, passing straight through it before the van dropped like… three feet to crash hard on a dirt path that had been packed hard by thousands of tires running over it. 

“Hah!” I crowed, twisting the wheel sharply to the left to send the van twisting ninety-degrees that way, narrowly avoiding a heavy boulder that had been directly ahead of us. “I knew this was the right area!” 

Suddenly, the van was driving along a narrow ‘road’ (such as it was), with thick trees and rocks lining both sides. It was barely wide enough for the van, and full of dips and hills. We were on a dirt bike track that ran through the forest out here. I’d gone riding a bunch of times. Even broke my arm once. 

Hopefully this time went better. 

Of course, this wasn’t an ordinary, circular track. The whole thing ran for miles and miles throughout the wilderness, with multiple ways to go, several figure eights, intersections where you had to choose which direction to take, even a couple parts where the track was raised into a bridge that ran over one of the lower parts. It was basically the best dirt bike track in the entire state

On the other hand, it was built for dirt bikes, not for a van (or the car following us). The poor vehicle was taking a definite pounding as I floored the gas and sent the van flying along the track, gaining air repeatedly with each hill I launched it over, before coming down hard and violently shaking everyone around. The only reason it stayed together as much as it did was the orange marks I kept repeatedly painting along it whenever possible. 

Way was saying something, the others were shouting from the back, and I ignored all of it. My focus was on pushing the van as hard and as fast as it would go. We were flying along the track, straight toward a T-intersection. Ahead, past the edge of that intersection, was an enormous tree that would have turned the van into a pile of scrap parts if we hit it. At the last second, with Way screaming in my ear, I snapped the wheel to the left while activating just a bit of yellow paint that I had sent through the vehicle. It slowed us enough to make that turn, skidding to the left. Instantly, I threw the wheel to the right, sending the van sliding along the sudden opposite turn that came within a few dozen feet of the intersection. 

Behind us, the Scion car had to skid to a complete stop, backing up and then turning to get back on track. It was clearly faster and more maneuverable than we were. So, if we were going to lose them, I was just going to have to get creative. 

Getting creative, in this case, meant flooring the accelerator and trusting the mix of my memory, reflexes, and that weird, unexplained extra sense I had to get us through the track without completely destroying the van and killing all of us in the process. 

So, that’s what I did. I let myself go and just… trusted. The van’s engine screamed as I sent the vehicle rocketing down the track. There was a curve to the left coming up. I knew it. I couldn’t see it, but I knew it. At the exact right moment, I twisted the wheel. Left–now right, sharp right. Straight for four seconds, jerk the wheel right to avoid the deep pothole in the dirt, clip the trees there, it’s alright they don’t have any big branches. Left or straight here, but go straight because the left went to a dead end. Tree on the ground, veer left and boost to hit that little dirt ramp enough to clear it. Not fast enough. Green paint, boost now! Ignore the screams as the van went airborne. Orange paint for protection, then a hard right once the van hit the ground–no, count to two first, then turn. Slam! One… two–turn! Count to four then shift to the left enough to avoid the sharp boulder sticking out of the nearby overhang. Can’t turn sooner or you’ll hit the deep ditch on that side. One, two, three, four–twist left! 

Drive straight three seconds, turn left again. Four more seconds, twist right. Accelerate as hard as possible and use the green boost for a dirt ramp up ahead, then twist left. Right, right, straight, left, straight, right, straight, left, straightrightrightstraightleftstraightrightstraight!

Though all that, the Scion car kept falling further and further behind. I was pretty sure I could hear Cup screaming in rage, as she fired off a few useless shots that came nowhere near us, but did manage to knock down some trees. We were pulling ahead. But that wouldn’t last. As soon as we were back in open ground, they would catch up. Their car was more sustainably faster. I could boost for short periods, but they had the speed to catch us. We couldn’t just drive in circles along this track forever. We had to do something else. 

Luckily, I had a plan for that. 

“Alloy!” I called toward the back even as I followed my power’s direction and snapped the wheel to the right to send the van in a long skid, applying the brakes at the exact right moment. “Can you combine your marbles into one big shield against the back of the van to take a handful of shots so we can go straight for a bit?!” 

There was a brief pause before the other girl replied in a tight voice, “Yeah, but I don’t know how long they’ll last that way! Whatever she’s shooting at us, it’s got a lot of freaking power!” 

“Doesn’t have to be long,” I insisted. “Just do it when I tell you. Rain, when she does that, soak our car.” 

“Our car?” Raindrop echoed, clearly confused about what I was planning. Thankfully, she trusted me, belatedly calling out an agreement.   

Hands gripping the wheel tightly, I focused on taking us through three more sharp, sudden turns. “Soak the whole van, all of it. And when I tell you… make us float for as long as you can. Just keep us from falling, okay? Keep the van in the air.” Even while saying that, I kept one hand on the dashboard and focused on spreading as much green paint as I could, mixed with just enough orange to hopefully hold the thing together when it had to. I was really draining the bottom of the barrel with this one. I was pretty sure I’d be tapped out after this. At least for a minute or two. And that was basically an eternity in a situation like this. But that was okay. We were going to need the speed, and it was now or never. 

“Alloy, be ready to shield. Raindrop, soak and float on my mark!”  

Then, with a sharp right turn, we hit the straightaway. “Shield, Alloy! Full shield!” I shouted as we bounced along. “Just hold them off for a few seconds! Raindrop, soak it, soak the whole thing and be ready!” 

The other two followed my instructions. Summoned water soaked the whole vehicle thoroughly, like driving through a monsoon.  Behind us, I could hear the shots from our insistent friends rebounding off the marble shields as they immediately took advantage of the straight line of sight they finally had. 

“Can’t take very much more of that shit!” Alloy shouted a bit tensely after five or six of the blasts had struck her shield. “Whatever that bitch is shooting at us, it’s really fucking strong!”

“Just a little further!” I insisted, flooring the pedal as hard as I could. Still, I didn’t activate the green paint. Not yet. Even without the boost, we were careening down that incredibly narrow dirt track. Branches from trees on either side were scraping along the edge of the van, and smacking the windows as we shot down the path. Behind us, the Scions were clearly keeping pace, given the sound of gunfire and the repeated bangs from their car bouncing through the holes. At least they were having just as rough of a ride as we were. Not that that was too much of a consolation, given the whole situation, but still. 

Just when I thought I might have underestimated how far we needed to go, I saw the target up ahead. In that instant, I triggered all the green paint I’d managed to put over the van, and we rocketed forward. The ride, of course, got even bumpier. We had been going a good sixty miles an hour down that track. Now we were going over a hundred. The van’s body, shocks, every part of it screamed in protest. I was pretty sure the rest of us were screaming too. The others and me. I gripped the wheel so tight I felt like it was going to snap off in my hands. Still, I kept it steady, fighting the van’s attempts to jerk from one side to the other. With shots from the Scions still rebounding off the shields or flying off to either side, we were fucking flying down that path. Metaphorically, of course. 

And then it suddenly wasn’t as metaphorical. With one last scream toward the others to hang on, I sent the van right through the spot I had been pointing us toward. We hit a bit of dirt at the end there, and suddenly we were airborne. Like before with the ramps, but this was no ramp. No, I had just launched the van off the edge of a fucking cliff. The ground was a good hundred feet or so below us.  

“Rain, float, float, keep us up!” I screamed as soon as we hit the apex of the jump. 

I could hear the grunt of effort from the younger girl as she did just that, focusing on keeping the van in the air with the gravity part of her power while we continued to shoot forward. Glancing through the nearby window, I saw a ravine far, far below us with barely a trickle of water running through it. Beside me, Way made a weak little whimpering sound as she looked out her own side. 

It only lasted for five or six seconds, but those felt like an eternity. Then I called back, “Lower us down, down!” At the same time, I activated the orange paint to keep the whole van from falling apart around us on impact.

The van dropped a bit, gradually of course. A moment later, there was a violent jolt as we hit the ground once more. Or rather, as we hit the road once more. An actual road, with pavement and everything. Yeah, almost directly opposite that corner of the dirt track, there was the highway we had been driving on before. It curved around a hill at this point, with that sharp dropoff to one side that was blocked by a heavy metal guard rail. Some sort-of friends and I used to bike up to that little spot and sit there watching cars around that slow curve. A couple guys had made morbid comments about what it would be like if a car missed that turn, slammed through the guard rail, and went off into the ravine below. Which was why it had stuck in my head. 

As soon as the van hit the road, I twisted the wheel and pumped the brakes, making the tires squeal horribly as we left a bunch of rubber across the road. The vehicle spun out of control, going around once, twice, then a third time before finally skidding to a halt. 

A few brief seconds of silence followed while all of us went through a mental checklist to make sure we were in one piece before Pack found her voice. “What… the fuck… was that?” 

“That,” I informed them while using a violently shaking hand to shift the van back into drive and pull away once more, “was us getting the hell away from those guys. It’s like a fifteen minute drive the old fashioned way, just to get from the overlook to where we are now.” 

While the others coped with that, I picked up speed. The van was shuddering a bit, clearly not in the best of shape. But it kept going. 

“So, uhh, what do you guys say we wait til the coast is clear, then go back and do it again?” I offered, half-jokingly. Okay, maybe a quarter-jokingly. “You know, when we can enjoy it.” 

A slight pain filled my shoulder as Way punched me there. 

“Ow,” I muttered, “you could’ve just said no thanks, you know.” With that, I exhaled long and low. “Is everyone okay? We all in one piece?” 

Over the next couple of minutes, everyone agreed that they were okay and were starting to be able to move. I held the steering wheel tight and let out another shaky breath. “Okay, okay. We’re okay.” Saying it out loud helped me convince myself that it was true. After the terror of the past few minutes, which itself had been preceded by a few minutes of calm that had followed another long stretch of terror when we had found out the truth about Amanda, part of me was expecting another rush of adrenaline-filled panic any moment now. What was next, Cup and her people showing up in a fucking homemade helicopter? Hell, it didn’t even have to be homemade. For all we knew, they could steal one. 

But no, things stayed quiet. And within another couple minutes, we had driven far enough to see busier traffic on the freeway just ahead. The on-ramp was just waiting for us. 

“Paintball,” Way spoke up from the passenger side, her eyes on me. “Can you use any more paint? We need a disguise, just in case.” 

It took me a few seconds, but I managed to pull the van off to the side and stopped for a minute. Way hopped out and came around to the driver’s side to help me down on shaky, uncertain feet, and I got my first good look at the exterior of the van. It was pretty trashed. There were dents and scrapes in it from the rocks and trees, the paint job was basically destroyed, the wheels weren’t going to last much longer, it was… yeah. 

Still, I managed to paint the whole thing red, sort of covering up the damage of it and making it a different color just in case Cup or any of the other Scions had sent word ahead to watch for us. It wasn’t much, but it would maybe help a little. 

“Are we good?” That was Alloy, the girl standing behind us, hand pressed against the side of the van. “Please tell me we’re good. I don’t think I can… umm, I don’t want to do any of that again anytime soon.” She was trying to play it off lightly, but I could hear the trepidation in her voice. She was scared, obviously. And who could blame her?

“We’re good,” Way confirmed. “Come on, let’s get back on the freeway. I’ll call Flea and we can tell her what happened. Or, you know, our version of it. Oh, and I’ll drive this time.” 

“Go for it,” I replied, my voice cracking just a little as I made my way toward the back once more. “I think I… I need to lay down for a minute.”  

She moved back to the front to drive, even as Pack shakily stepped down and started up to the passenger seat. Meanwhile, I looked to Alloy, swallowing hard. There was a lot I wanted to say to her, a lot I just… didn’t know how to say or if I even should. In the end, all I managed was a somewhat weak, “Thanks for being here. You–if it wasn’t for your help, we… umm…” 

Shaking her head before putting out a hand to grab my shoulder so I would stop talking, Alloy interrupted, “That was pretty fucking scary, Paintball. It wasn’t just me. It was–none of us would’ve made it without the others. If That-A-Way wasn’t there, or Pack, or Raindrop, any of them, if any of us weren’t there, the others wouldn’t’ve made it. We’d be… they’d be…” She swallowed hard, clearly thinking about being back with Cup, given the woman’s reputation. 

Yeah, it was probably a bad idea to dwell on those thoughts. Quickly, I gave her a little push toward the back door of the van. “Come on, let’s get out of here and back to civilization.” 

“Yeah!” shouted Pack from the front, “let’s go before we have to have another chase scene! Everyone knows having two of those right next to each other is super-redundant and boring.” 

“Well,” I managed to retort in a flat voice, “the last thing we want to do is be boring. Heaven forbid. Guess we better get going.” 

So, the two of us climbed up into the back once more to join the thoroughly exhausted Raindrop. We shut the door, and Way began to drive again. In a moment, we were in the midst of freeway traffic, while she made the call to Flea and, in as few words as possible, told her a bit of what was going on and that we needed to meet her along the way. Needless to say, she had a lot of questions. But she agreed to talk about it in person, which… yeah, that was gonna be fun. 

Once we arranged a place to meet (at a nearby old motel along the freeway that was undergoing renovations), Way disconnected the call, before pulling off at the next exit. We weren’t quite to the motel itself yet, but close enough. She parked behind a fast food joint, near a large drainage ditch. There, the rest of us hopped out, leaving Pack in the van with her lizards. 

“Right, wish I could say it’s been fun,” the girl informed us after shifting over into the driver’s seat, “but, you know.” She coughed pointedly. “I’m gonna tell Blackjack what happened. And the truth about those fucks.” 

“Good,” I informed her, still a bit wobbly on my legs. But hey, at least I could actually (mostly) stand. “The more people who know, the better. Hunt those evil fucks down.” 

She gave me a thumbs up, shuddered a little, then began to drive away. From the way the van was protesting, I was pretty sure it wouldn’t get much further. Hopefully at least enough to get the other girl somewhere safe. 

Which left me standing in the parking lot with That-A-Way, Raindrop, and Alloy. “Right,” I announced, clapping my hands together once before nearly falling over. “Let’s go meet Flea then. 

“I can’t wait to explain this whole thing.” 

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Hostile Witness 18-08 (Summus Proelium)

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I couldn’t move. Whatever we had just been hit with, it paralyzed us. All I could do was lay there.

Okay, to take stock, this… could have been going better. I had spent so much time focusing on being afraid that talking to this Amanda girl would somehow attract Pencil’s attention, from him seeing her as a potential loose end, that it hadn’t even occurred to me to ever think that she could be an actual threat. And I sure as hell had never expected anything like this. 

Amanda was Cup. The girl we had come to talk to, the one who had been a potential lead to a way of stopping Pencil, was his sister–wait. That meant the guy who was supposed to be in Alaska, Nick, he was… he was… oh. God damn it, why did I never even think about that? 

Well, obviously, because there was a video of Pencil himself with the young Amanda and Nick tied up while he manipulated their parents into killing each other. Deicide had shown it to Alloy and me, though she stopped it just before the gunshots. What–how would that even–what? 

A giggle interrupted my racing thoughts. My attention was dragged right back to Aman–Cup herself, as she straightened while still standing over me. “Isn’t this fun? You came back! And you brought friends this time.” Her gaze moved to look over toward Pack and Alloy, before pausing. “Hold up.” Moving that way a few steps, she leaned closer to my new partner for a moment before audibly sighing while straightening back up, her voice full of annoyance. “Great, it knocked that one unconscious. I thought it was supposed to just paralyze!” She paused, then gave a little giggle. “Ohhh right, yeah that makes sense. Never mind, we’re all good. I mean, I’m good. You’re all still kinda fucked.”  

Alloy was unconscious? I supposed that explained why her marbles weren’t going psycho attacking Cup right now. But damn it! I was supposed to keep her safe. I’d–this was first thing we were doing together  in the real world, and it had all been fucked up this badly. She was unconscious and paralyzed in the home of one of the leaders of the fucking Scions of Typhon, for fucks sake. I screwed up. I screwed up badly, and if we couldn’t get out of here, Alloy would… no. Don’t think about that. I couldn’t think about that. If I did, I’d spiral into a hopeless nightmare. I had to think.

After her little giggle fit, Cup shrugged. “Oh well, two out of three staying conscious ain’t bad. And we can still play.” 

“You wanna play, cunt?” the La Casa girl countered in a growl while still laying motionless. “How about Connect Four? I’ll shove every single one of those plastic discs up your–” 

“Not on the first date, silly!” Cup interrupted, tutting while giving Pack a light, almost playful kick with her foot. “Besides, I have much more fun plans in mind than a dumb board game. I’ll just have to do most of the physical stuff myself, since that paralyzing ray won’t wear off for awhile. And, you know, that new best friend of yours is still asleep. Gotta do something about that…”

Through the bluetooth in my helmet, I heard That-A-Way. “Paintball, we’re on our way in!” 

Right, right, because we hadn’t actually been completely stupid about this whole thing. We had backup. Backup that would come in and help deal with Cup before she had time to call Pencil or any of the other Scions. She was too busy gloating in front of us to even think about moving fast. And why not? As far as she knew, she had all of us trapped here. We’d even told her that no one else knew we were there when we came in. She was in no rush. She wasn’t even…

“No!” I suddenly blurted out loud as a thought jumped to mind. “Don’t… don’t come any closer.”  

Tilting her head, Cup stared down at me. “Aww,” she all-but-purred, “is the little hero boy scared now that he’s back here?” She squatted down close to me, tapping the visor of my helmet. “Don’t you worry one little bit. Auntie Cup’s gonna take excellent care of you, yes she is.” 

“Paintball,” That-A-Way’s voice came through the earbud again, “if you were trying to tell us to wait, say something that ends with the word ‘Scion.’ And you better have a damn good reason.” 

I did. At least, I hoped I did. Taking a breath, I stared up at Cup’s eager face. At least, the part I could still see with that white mask covering the lower half. God, how had I completely failed to realize that the girl we had been talking to was her? Seriously, now it was obvious while looking at her eyes. Sure, she was pretty good at pretending to have all her marbles, but I should’ve recognized her. I should’ve paid more attention. I should’ve been more on top of things.  

Forcing those thoughts away, I quickly spoke up. “So you’re really part of the Scions.” 

“God damn it,” Way snapped, clearly upset about the whole situation. Which, fair. “This better be a real plan. If you’re just trying to play noble sacrifice or something, I’m going to kill you. We’ll wait for a minute, but you need to make it clear what the hell you’re doing or we’re coming in. And when you do want us to come in, end a sentence with the word nuts.”   

Cup, meanwhile, chuckled a little while shaking her head. “Still catching up with that, huh?” She gave me a kick that wasn’t nearly as gentle as the one she had given Pack. “Poor boy. You know, I haven’t forgotten about that whole nasty business at the cabin. You and your…” She turned, giving Pack herself a second kick, this one as hard as mine. “… friends hurt me! Threatened me, made poor Pencil all mad too. Oh, but he’s gonna be really happy when I bring you to him. Think I’ll find a big red bow and stick it right on your head. Won’t that be great? And wait til I tell him how you came strolling right in. Ain’t that the funniest shit?” 

Okay, okay, I had to be careful with this if the plan that had jumped into my head was going to work. This was incredibly dangerous, and maybe stupid. But it was the best chance we had to actually get somewhere with the whole Scions thing. Yeah, there was still a chance of doing some real damage to them, and not just from knowing Cup’s identity. Given how many stolen Touched-Tech toys Pencil had, and the fact that Cup had already demonstrated having this place wired with stolen tech that was able to paralyze us? I had no doubt that she had a way to teleport out of this place to safety the second Raindrop and Way got here. She certainly had methods of escaping, so we couldn’t even count on catching her with help from those two. Especially not while Pack and I were paralyzed and Alloy was unconscious. No, if those two burst in, at best they’d just be able to make her flee. Then we’d be back to square one. Which, to be fair, was a hell of a lot better than being at square ‘captured by the Scions,’ but still. 

To that end, I took a moment to collect my thoughts before speaking again. “That was some pretty good acting back there. I really felt sorry for you.” I was careful to keep my tone a mix between forced lightness and fearful. I wanted Cup to see me as terrified but trying to hide it. Shockingly, that wasn’t a hard thing to pull off, given the actual situation we were in.

“Paintball,” Pack snapped in my direction, “I really don’t ask for that much, but could you pretty please refrain from complimenting the evil fucking psychopath who wants to torture and kill us?”  

“Aww, you really liked that, huh?” Cup was ignoring Pack, her gaze focused on me. “And see, I didn’t even expect to see you today. Pulled that whole performance out of nowhere, just like that. Can you believe I lost the lead in the school play to Bethany Dane? Not that she had much of a chance to enjoy it.” Her tone with those words sent a terrible shiver down my spine. 

“Actually,” I made myself reply, “I wasn’t talking about today. I mean, really, kudos there too. No, I was talking about the video. The one of you and… what was his name, again? Your brother. I mean, his real name. Nick? Right, Nick. I was talking about the video where you and Nick were all terrified because your parents were about to be killed. Err, sorry, were about to kill each other. You two seriously looked scared. I really thought you were innocent victims. That’s the performance that really should’ve gotten you the lead over that Bethany Dane chick.” 

There was a brief pause while the girl seemed to be considering my words. I held my breath, waiting to see if she bought into it. Then, she chuckled lightly. “It should’ve, huh? That was the role of a lifetime. I mean seriously, how many people get to pretend they’re sad that their parents just had to shoot each other because they thought they were saving them?”

“You’re completely fucked up,” Pack put in from where she was still lying on the floor. “And honestly, I’m not sure if I mean you or the idiot over there trying to butter you up!”   

She sounded completely pissed, but I knew Pack fairly well by now. I was pretty sure she’d already figured out that I actually had a real reason for all this. She knew I had a plan, and was backing me up on it by being openly antagonistic. The bad cop to my good cop, so to speak. 

Casually, Cup remarked, “Oh, don’t worry. I know exactly what he’s doing.” My stomach clenched, before she went on. “He’s hoping if I talk long enough, that paralyzing ray will wear off and you can all escape. But it doesn’t really matter. See, it’ll take another… oh, hour or so? Unless I use the counter ray. But you know, I really don’t see myself doing that anytime soon.” 

Oh man, she’d figured out my cunning plan to trick her into talking long enough for the paralyzing beam to wear off so we could escape. What was I going to do now? Woe is m–oh right, that wasn’t my actual plan. But cool for her for thinking she’d caught on. 

Still, I made myself hesitate a little as though her words actually had an effect before pushing on. “But seriously, how? I mean, did your brother just kill the real Pencil and steal his identity?” 

There, that ought to do it. 

“Kill the real Pencil and steal his identity?” Cup’s voice radiated annoyance. Yup, my words had done the job. “Are you that fucking stupid? Of course we didn’t–I mean… kid, he is the real Pencil. The one and only truly original. That guy was just a stupid patsy, he was dead before he ever left the house, like five minutes after the camera stopped rolling.” 

“W-wait.” Again, it wasn’t hard to inject fear into my voice. I had the subtlest impression that she got off on scaring people, so she’d react better to that than fake awe or respect. Trying to play up to her ego wouldn’t work, but pretending everything she said scared the crap out of me? Well, I wasn’t really pretending so much, but either way, that was how I could make her talk. “You mean you guys didn’t just… wa-wait, I thought you were just… just so broken after what he did that you turned bad then. Like, he made you bad?” Yeah, saying it like that sounded ridiculously childish, but again, that seemed like the best way to get the crazy bitch talking. 

“Made us bad?” Cup’s taunting laugh was enough to make my teeth grind a bit. “Oh, you sweet, sweet little boy. No, no, no. We pulled him in, hired him. He was an actor, little puppy. Just a dumb wannabe like so many others. A poser. He played his role just the way we scripted it.” 

“Oh come on,” Pack put in, clearly getting all the way into her role as the bad cop of this whole thing. “You expect us to believe a couple teenagers did all that? Who was your boss? Who’s the one who really put all of it together and recruited you? I wanna know who the real power is.” 

From the corner of my eye, I could barely make out Cup’s form as she moved to stand over Pack. Her voice was dangerous. “Is that right, lizard girl? You want to know who the real power is? I think we can accommodate that. Give me five minutes, you’ll know who has the power.” 

Okay maybe that was a little too far. Cup was clearly right on the edge. We didn’t want her to immediately call Pencil or the others, but if she started… getting involved like she clearly wanted to do with Pack right now, that would be bad too. Quickly, I blurted, “It was the powers, right?” Feeling Cup’s gaze on me, I continued. “Some people think they can make you evil. That must’ve been what happened to you guys. We can get you help, there’s some doctors who think they can reverse the psychological effect of the sphere and make you normal ag–” 

That did the trick. A little too well, actually, as there was an abrupt rush of movement before her foot collided with my stomach. Thankfully, I’d painted a bit of orange on the inside of my costume, so I barely felt it. Still, I gave her the yelp of pain she was clearly itching for. 

“Now you listen to me, you little fuck,” Cup snapped. “Nothing changed us. Nothing made Nick and me what we are. We’re in control. We did all that before we even had powers. That’s right, we didn’t get powers until right after that happened. Those little spheres showed up and gave us these gifts because they were so impressed. They knew we deserved them after what we managed to do. Just think about that for a second.” Her foot came down on my stomach, not hard but just sort of resting there with a little force. “We talked our own parents into killing each other, and we did it through a fucking proxy. We talked a moron sucker into playing the big bad role on camera so everyone would think he was responsible and feel sorry for us, got him to talk our parents into killing each other, and then killed him ourselves. Myself. I did it. Now everyone thinks Pencil is the guy who did all that. You know who’s not a suspect and will never be? His first poor, innocent victims. That’s what we pulled off. That’s why the orbs came and gave us our rewards. Because they wanted to see what else we could do. They were proud of us.” 

Oh boy, was there an awful lot I wanted to say to that. But I stuck to my original plan and simply replied (in a voice that was still shaky from the terror I wanted her to hear), “Th-the orbs gave you power as a reward? I–I don’t… Is that why they gave Pencil such a bigger reward than they gave you? Because all that stuff was his idea and he’s the one in charge?”  

There was a very slight pause before Cup crouched over me. Her gaze seemed to bore through the visor and straight into my eyes as she very dangerously murmured, “Excuse me?”

Right, I had to be careful about this. Hesitating slightly, I offered her a confused, “I mean, because he’s invincible. He’s like, completely invincible to everything and you… uhh, you make people freeze for a couple seconds?” Yes, I was deliberately downplaying it. I figured with any luck, I could maybe get her to tell us any weaknesses Pencil might have just to counter my claim that he was completely invincible. Measured against her own power, complete invincibility to everything seemed wildly unfair, and I figured that would twist her buttons a little. Maybe just enough to get the girl to retort that Pencil wasn’t actually totally invincible. Sure, it was a longshot, but it was the best chance we had of getting real information while we were here. 

Cup gave a low chuckle of amusement while roughly tapping my visor a few times. “You think that’s all I do? Boy, you really are as stupid as the others, aren’t you?”  

“What?” Pack put in, “you gonna try to say that making someone stop to think about whatever ridiculous nonsense question you make up is better than literal invulnerability? Face it, babe, you’re a far distant second behind the kind of power your brother has. Hell, not even that. You guys recruit some good powers. Maybe you’re like… third or fourth? Seriously, it’s not even close. With his power, it’s like he’s Superman, and you’re… just that bad guy with the stilts.” 

There was a low growl from the crazy girl before she retorted, “First of all, you’re mixing comic universes. Superman’s DC and Stiltman is Marvel. Get it right. And second…” She trailed off, tapping my visor a couple times indecisively before straightening. “I’ve got some news for you.”

Wait, was this actually about to work? Was she about to tell us something secret about Pencil’s power? The whole thing had been such a crazy reach, and yet, it sure sounded like that. 

But no. The next words out of the girl’s mouth weren’t some big secret about Pencil. Actually, it wasn’t about him at all. Instead, she picked up that remote she had been using earlier, the one that triggered the paralyzing ray. “You think my power just makes your brain freeze up? It lets me borrow your brain, stupid.” She tapped the remote pointedly against my visor. “I ask you a stupid, nonsensical question and while you’re stuck trying to figure it out, I get these ideas. Ideas like this thing.” She waved the remote in my face. “I know how to build things, anything I want. But I only get inspired when I get to borrow other people’s brains for it. I use my power, their brains lock up, and I get ideas for my inventions. Different people give ideas of different… flavors. That’s what’s so fun about this. The paralyzing ray? You gave me that idea. I used my power on you back at the hospital and it made me think about a big colorful beam that could make things stop moving. That’s what Pencil used on you at the cabin. Then I built an upgraded version here in my home sweet home that lasts longer and hits everyone I want instead of just one person. Once I mix the portable version and the more effective one together, it’s gonna be useful as hell.”  

Okay, that was unexpected. I’d set this whole thing up to find out a secret about Pencil’s power, and ended up getting a secret about Cup’s. What the fuck? Her power was–wait a second. 

“That’s how you guys have all those Touched-Tech things,” I blurted in surprise. “Everyone thinks you just steal them from others all over the place, but you build them yourself?” 

She offered a smirk my way. “Well, some of them. We steal enough that those Techie geeks whine about it, which makes everyone assume that all the toys we have come from that.” 

Before I had time to even start processing that, there was a soft groan from nearby. Alloy. “What–” she started before giving a yelp. “I can’t move! What the–why–hey!” 

“Oh, sorry, babe.” Cup teasingly called over that way. “Pencil only really cares about punishing these two. We don’t actually need an extra.” Her hand moved to push something on the remote. In that second, a gold marble flew out of nowhere, transforming into a baseball bat before slamming into the girl. She was sent colliding into the wall. But not before she managed to hit the button. It wasn’t another paralyzing ray. Instead, three different very lethal-looking gun turret things dropped into view from the ceiling. 

“You’re nuts!” I screamed, just as the guns sighted in on Alloy. They made loud humming sounds as they began to charge up to fire some sort of beam that way. 

But That-A-Way was faster. She appeared along with Raindrop right in the middle of the room. While Cup was jolting to her feet and spinning to face the new arrivals, Rain hit her with a massive wave of water powerful enough to send the evil bitch right back into the floor with a squeal of surprise. More importantly, the tidal wave washed across the ceiling, and with a grunt, the younger girl made the entire roof of the building tear itself off. Yes, the entire roof. It ripped its way upward with a scream of protesting metal and a shower of sparks and bits of debris before flying off through the air, taking the turrets with it just as they opened fire. 

By that point, two more turrets had popped out of the floor and were swiveling around to take aim. Fortunately, Way had used that time to throw herself down across the three of us. Her foot touched my waist, she was laying over Pack, and had stretched out her hand just enough for her fingers to brush Alloy’s arm. Raindrop fell backwards on top of her, and I heard Cup scream something in a blind rage. 

Then Way activated her power once more, and we were gone.

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Hostile Witness 18-07 (Summus Proelium)

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A/N – There was a commissioned interlude posted for Heretical Edge over the weekend. If you read that story and have not seen the chapter, you can see it right here

A sense of relief washed over me once Amanda agreed to let us come inside. I had really expected that to be harder, after everything she’d been through. I figured she’d be pretty paranoid about anyone unexpected showing up, let alone a few Touched. Then again, maybe she’d had enough good experiences with Star-Touched helping her since that horrible night that she was okay with us. I wasn’t sure, but either way, at least she actually let us into her place.

On the other hand, she definitely wasn’t interested in anyone else getting inside. That much was made clear when Amanda immediately shut the door as soon as we were through, and took the time to set the lock and alarm once more. Which… made me feel a little funny in my stomach. I couldn’t explain it, but the moment that girl locked and keyed the alarm, I felt a little jittery. It was probably just because of the whole situation. Anything that had to do with Pencil and the Scions made me antsy, for obvious reasons. Especially considering how pissed off he would be if he found out we were trying to find out about any weaknesses or vulnerabilities he might have. 

“Nice uhh, crowded place you’ve got here,” Pack noted after a moment of looking around the room, stuffed as it was with boxes, stacks of magazines and books, scissors, glue, clocks, and more. “You ever think about renting a storage unit for some of this stuff?” She added that bit while turning back to the girl in question. “I mean, just so you have more room around here.” 

“I like it this way,” Amanda informed us in a quiet, uncertain voice. “I know where everything is.”  She squirmed a bit uncomfortably before adding, “And I don’t trust storage places. People can break into those. Here, I–at least I’ll know if someone breaks in. They don’t let you put alarms or extra security on storage units. And it’s super-easy to get through one of their dumb padlocks.” 

Pack, clearly grinning behind that mask, gave her a pair of thumbs up. “Yeah, that’s probably safer. My people and me, we break into those places all the time. You’re right, security sucks unless you go with something really high end. Even then, really. This one time, my buddy Eits, he–” 

“That’s okay,” I quickly put in, before this whole conversation could devolve into even more of an ongoing list of things I really didn’t want to hear about. “I think we all get the point. Besides, we’re not really here to talk about where, uh, Miss Sanvers decides to keep her belongings.” 

“But why are you guys here together?” Amanda slowly asked, looking back and forth between Pack and me, her attention flicking toward Alloy for a brief moment, but mainly staying on the two of us. “I mean, you’re a good guy, and you’re a bad guy. Uh, bad girl, whatever. You’re a villain.” Her tone wasn’t accusatory at all, more curious about the situation than anything else.  

Alloy was being silent, probably an attack of nerves given how new to all this she was. And Pack was probably the wrong person to defend herself. So I spoke up. “Yeah, she’s a villain. But more of a jolly thief sort of villain instead of the…” Suddenly, I didn’t want to finish that sentence. Not after what I knew this girl had been through. It felt too much like I was making light of it. 

Amanda finished it instead, her tone flat. “Not the kill everyone you know and laugh about it sort, like him.” She didn’t have to be any more specific than that. We all knew who she meant.  

“Yeah,” I murmured under my breath before shaking off the deeply uncomfortable feeling that had tried to creep over me yet again. “More than one kind of villain, and her kind is nothing like his. Let’s just say we’re all interested in getting rid of that piece of shit before he hurts any more people. If we can, we’ll make sure they stick him in a deep, dark hole in the middle of Breakwater, where he can’t ever get out. He can rot there forever like the rabid worm he is.” 

For a brief second, there was a strange look on the older girl’s face. I couldn’t really describe it, nor did I understand what it meant. It was sort of an almost feral expression, and my best guess was that she was thinking about all the terrible things she wanted to happen to the guy who had hurt her family so much, who had torn them apart and destroyed their lives. Thinking about it that way, the expression made sense. Of course she wanted to rip his heart out. That was what that look had put in my head, the feeling that this girl was desperate to tear someone apart. 

Thinking about what she had been through and had to be feeling was making me really uncomfortable. So, I cleared my throat before pushing on. Uncertain as I was about this whole situation, it was important. Far too important to let a little thing like a heavy feeling in my stomach stop me. “Sorry, maybe we should start from the beginning. You already know who we are, but still. I’m Paintball. That’s Alloy and Pack. And yeah, we’re here to find out anything you know about Pencil, anything you might not have shared with the authorities already.” 

“The word is you might be holding something back,” Alloy put in, stepping over to put herself behind me and slightly to the side. “Either because you’re afraid of what he’ll do if he finds out you umm, you actually do know anything important and tell anyone about it, or…” 

“Or that you don’t want the official by-the-book hero types to know because you’re afraid they’ll screw it up,” Pack finished for her. “Which, yeah, totally fair. I mean, have you seen some of those guys? Anyway, that’s where I come in, to let you know this definitely isn’t by-the-book.” 

Amanda started to say something, before stopping herself. She seemed to consider briefly, then turned to walk through the nearby doorway. “Come on, the kitchen’s a little less crowded than this place. You can sit down, while we talk about what a suicidally stupid idea this is.”   

So, the three of us looked at each other and offered a collection of shrugs before following. I’d known from the start that this was going to be awkward, but even this was more than I’d expected. It was going… well, in some ways it was going better than I’d imagined. She wasn’t yelling at us, or refusing to talk, or breaking down because we’d brought up those tragic memories. On the surface, it was going okay. And yet, there was still something. I felt strange, uncomfortable, even… not quite afraid, really. Tense. I still felt tense, and it wasn’t going away.

Well duh, of course I felt tense. Who wouldn’t in a situation like this? We were asking a girl who had been horrifically traumatized to throw herself into the lion’s den again and paint a target on her back by telling us secrets that she didn’t even feel comfortable telling the Conservators. 

The kitchen was slightly less crowded, if only because everything was piled on the counters rather than the floor or table. There were a bunch of boxes in there too, all of them labeled things like ‘dishes’ or ‘towels.’ One big one in the corner of the room had ‘microwaves’ written on it. There was barely space on the counter to cook anything. Even the stove was covered. 

But the table was clear (completely empty, actually), and surrounded by four chairs. We all sat down, the three of us on one side of the table and Amanda on the other. 

“So,” I started once everyone was settled, “you were going to tell us how stupid we were?” 

Before she could respond to that, Alloy spoke up. “I know you. I’ve seen you before. I knew I had, but it was–you were at my school. You and… your brother?”

Amanda offered a very faint smile. “Yeah, we visit the schools sometimes to give motivational… talks or whatever.” She shrugged listlessly. “He’s more into it than me. You know, when he’s in town. I don’t really…. do much by myself.” A slight frown touched her face before the girl sighed, folding her arms protectively against her stomach. “You always think it’ll go away, you know? It’s been years. It should’ve gone away by now. It should feel better.” She swallowed hard. “But it doesn’t. It doesn’t get any better. You just learn to live with it.” 

There was a moment of silence before she gave us a very shaky smile. “Sorry. I’m really sorry. I’m usually better in the schools about telling kids how they can move on, seriously. I just–I wasn’t expecting to talk to anyone today. Let alone, you know, people like you. And I definitely wasn’t expecting to talk about…” She took in a long breath before letting it out. “Him.”  

Yeah, now I definitely felt bad about being here. As if I hadn’t already. Looking down at the table, I heaved a long sigh before raising my gaze to hers. She was staring at me with an expression I couldn’t interpret. When our eyes met, she offered me a small, clearly humorless smile. “You know what I mean, don’t you?” Her voice was emotionless. “You’ve talked to him. I can tell.” 

“Yeah,” I confirmed while doing my best not to think about what being around Pencil and Cup had been like. I still woke up in a cold sweat sometimes from dreaming about being taken by the two of them for their revenge. Even closing my eyes right now, I could picture that psycho staring at me from behind that cloth sack mask. It made a thick lump form in my throat while a cold chill washed over me. I had to swallow hard before pushing myself to my feet. It felt too uncomfortable to sit anymore. Like I was trapped. I felt trapped in here, which was crazy. 

“We know your history with him,” Pack spoke up, taking heat off of me for a moment so I could pull myself together. “You and your family were some of his first victims, before anyone even knew he was Touched. Hell, you guys might’ve even been the first, before he knew what he was capable of. Before he had a solid lock on how his power works, or how it doesn’t work.”

“That’s why we’re here,” I finally managed, folding my arms as I stood behind Pack’s chair. “Because we think you might have seen something that night. Something he didn’t know he should be careful about because he was so new to the whole thing. And… and we’re really sorry to bring up those memories. What happened to your family, it was…” I fought the urge to shudder at the thought, meeting her intense gaze as she seemed to stare right through me. “It was awful. And he’s hurt so many more people since then, killed so many more people.” 

It was Amanda’s turn to pop up from the table, the chair falling to the floor behind her as she stared at me with a mixture of anger and frustration on her face. “And you think that’s my fault? You think I wouldn’t’ve stopped him if I could? You think I know something I haven’t told the cops already? That this piece of shit killed my fucking pare–no, made my parents kill each other, but I’m holding back some super-secret special weakness of his just because–what, because I don’t want him to get caught? Oh, maybe you think I’m laughing at it, is that it? Do you think that I think all those people getting hurt and dying is funny?! Is that what you’re getting at? You think I’m laughing about them dying?!” Her voice had risen to the point of near-hysteria by that point, eyes wild as she practically shouted her way through the whole retort.    

“No!” That was Alloy, who quickly stood up to put herself next to me as if ready to jump in for protection. “That’s not what he’s saying, just–just hold on. No one’s saying that, Miss Sanvers.”

“She’s right,” I carefully managed, holding both hands up. Obviously, this was a very touchy subject. Not that I could blame Amanda for feeling reflexively defensive about the whole thing. If it was me and I had been through that with my brother and parents? I… yeah, I definitely would’ve been pretty upset if someone came up to me and seemed to be implying that I didn’t do everything I possibly could to bring their murderer to justice. No wonder she was angry. 

With all that running through my head, I kept my hands raised and didn’t break eye contact with Amanda. “I know us being here and bringing this stuff up again isn’t easy. I know the– I know it’s fucked up for us even to bring up this possibility at all. It’s not that we think you wouldn’t have helped the cops already if you could. It’s more that… that you might’ve been afraid to tell them something that would make Pencil come after you again. Which, trust me, everyone understands. Maybe even something that you thought of later. The people we talked to, they think you might know something that you’ve been waiting for the right time to share. That’s why we’re here. Because we’re not the cops. We’re not the Conservators or the Minority. We want him stopped, whatever it takes. Even working with Fell-Touched.” I gestured toward Pack demonstrably. “But I promise, no one thinks you don’t want him arrested, Miss Sanvers.” 

“Amanda,” she corrected, seeming to visibly deflate with a heavy sigh. Folding her arms protectively against herself, the older girl slumped against the nearby counter. “Just call me Amanda, all of you. And I know. I know that’s not what you were saying. I didn’t mean t–I just…” Her eyes closed tightly and I saw a single tear slowly leak down one side of her face. “Every time someone brings up what happened back then, I can’t think straight. I want–I hate him. I hate him so much. It scares me sometimes, how much I want him to suffer after what he did. He took my mom and dad away. He made them–he was going to-” She cut herself off with a shudder before opening her eyes to look at us, her gaze sweeping over Pack, Alloy, and me. “If we’d stopped him that night, if Nick and me actually could’ve remembered something back then that helped the cops catch him, all those other people would still be alive.” 

She looked away from us staring through the nearby window in silence for a few long seconds. Then the girl swallowed, setting her shoulders as though preparing to say something very difficult. “And we did.” She turned back to us with a nervous expression, making it very clear that she was afraid to even be saying what was about to come out. “We did see something. I mean we found something. Later, after the cops and everyone all left, we found a… a wallet just sort of laying under a chair. We… we realized it was his. It had a bunch of different IDs in it and everything, but it was a lead. It had his face. I didn’t really look at it very much, I was… I was scared to, after everything. But Nick did. He looked at that monster’s face for hours.”   

“You know what he looks like?” Pack’s voice was flat. “You and your brother know what Pencil really looks like? Why didn’t you tell anyone about that, so they could identify him? If your brother stared at it for so long, he really could’ve helped catch the guy a long time ago.”  

“Was it because you were afraid of what might happen if Pencil found out you identified him?” I asked very quietly, afraid that all of this would set the girl off again. “If he even thinks you might be able to tell the authorities what he really looks like…” A shiver ran through me as I thought about how the psycho undoubtedly would have reacted to a threat like that. 

“That’s why he hasn’t come after you,” Alloy realized with a soft gasp. “Because he thinks if you did find his wallet and all those IDs with his picture, you would’ve told the cops already. But you didn’t, so he thinks you never found it. Or maybe he thinks he dropped it somewhere else.” 

“Is that it?” I carefully asked, watching Amanda’s reaction. “You guys found his wallet and didn’t tell anyone because you were afraid of what he’d do if he found out you identified him?” I tried to keep all judgment out of my voice, because I had no idea how I would’ve acted in that situation. Part of me was angry that she and her brother hadn’t done more to stop this, but I knew firsthand how terrifying Pencil could be. Actually, they knew a lot better than I did. I didn’t have nearly as bad of an experience as Amanda and her brother had. But just from what I’d read and seen for myself, I could understand the two of them being too afraid to paint a target on their backs, no matter how much they wanted Pencil to go down. It was a horrific situation all the way through. Being afraid of making that piece of shit angry was completely reasonable. 

Amanda, however, corrected me. “We did tell, once. We told… someone who was investigating it. We told him exactly what you guys are asking. But he just–he told us it wasn’t his job to get involved with something that dangerous, and if we knew what was good for us, we’d back off. And he… he took the wallet. He kept it himself, as like… insurance or something. If you want to know what Pencil looks like, you have to find that guy.” 

“Who was he?” I asked, glancing briefly toward the others. Yeah, this wasn’t all that surprising. Pencil was dangerous, whoever took the wallet from them might’ve, in some way, thought he was saving Amanda and her brother. Or maybe he was just a dick. He could’ve sold the wallet back to Pencil himself. Hell, I knew for a fact that the authorities weren’t always trustworthy. 

Either way, tracking him down and finding out what he did with it would be–

“Parson,” Amanda promptly informed us. “His name is Robert Parson.” 

The other two reacted immediately, though quite differently. Pack looked over at me, while Alloy promptly echoed the name. “Robert Parson. So I guess we just have to find this guy, and–” 

“No.” The word escaped me before I even knew I was talking. My head was shaking suddenly. “No, that’s not right.” I had no idea exactly how I was so certain at that moment. I did remember the guy enough to know that I had liked him as a kid. Even before you added in the whole saving my life part that Paige had informed me of. I had liked him back then, yet even that didn’t fully explain why I was so dead certain that he never would’ve done what she was saying. But I was. Which could only mean one thing, which I blurted unthinkingly. “You’re lying. He didn’t do that, he didn’t take the wallet. You’re lying about that. You’re… you’re lying.” 

“Huh?” That was Alloy, blinking over at me in obvious confusion. “What do you mean? Aren’t we–” 

She was interrupted, however, by Amanda, who offered a casual little shrug. Her expression had turned to a sly, cocky smile. “Oh well,” she all-but purred, “it was worth a shot.” 

Yeah, I didn’t have a danger sense (clearly), but if I did have one, it would’ve been screaming its head off. Alloy and Pack obviously both realized something was wrong too. Unfortunately, before any of us could do anything, Amanda held up her hand. There was a remote in it, and she pushed the button. Instantly, the three of us were blinded by a bright flash that seemed to come from every corner of the room. At the same time, I felt a wave of nausea that made me fall to my knees, then onto my side. Nearby, I heard thumps from the other two. I tried to fight my way through it, but the whole room was spinning. There was a dull ringing in my ears, and it felt like I was going to throw up in my helmet. 

My vision was swimming, going in and out for a moment even as I caught a glimpse of Amanda standing over me. She was staring at me with an intensely creepy, soulless smile while producing a deceptively simple-looking white cloth mask. She touched it to her face, and the thing automatically attached itself and stayed there. 

“Now,” Cup informed us. 

“I guess it’s safe to say I have a few questions of my own.” 

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Interlude 11B – Robert and Pencil (Summus Proelium)

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Four Years Ago

With the steady sound of tires gliding across uneven pavement, a wheelchair rolled across the dark, empty parking lot toward the front of the member’s only warehouse store. Its occupant, Robert Parson, was incredibly tall when standing. At his full height, the dark-skinned man was a solidly built six feet, eight inches. Which meant that even seated as he was now, he cut quite an impressive figure, and his eye level remained higher than many even when they were standing.

The wheelchair wasn’t electric. Nor was it one of those Tech-Touched brain-operated models. No, it was an old-school, manual chair, propelled by Robert’s own heavily-muscled arms as he pushed the wheels to guide himself right up the ramp and to the front doors of the store. 

Despite being automatic doors, they were locked and didn’t open. As he sat in that wheelchair, Robert considered those stubbornly motionless doors for a moment before slowly leaning up. His hand stretched out, and he gave three firm, loud knocks against the metal part of the door. The sound rang out around him and he could hear it within the store itself through the glass.  

Instantly, the beam of a powerful flashlight appeared from inside, pointed right at his eyes. It came quickly enough that Robert had no doubt the person on the other side of it, hidden in the dark recesses just beyond the store’s entrance area, had been watching him the whole time, waiting for the man to announce himself like that. He also had no doubt that there was some kind of gun on the other side of that light as well, if he had tried to break in quietly.

For a moment, nothing else happened. There was silence, while that blinding light was shone directly into his eyes. Finally, the light dimmed slightly, and a figure appeared in front of it. The figure moved to stand in front of the door, staring at Robert. Then the seated man heard a quiet chuckle, before a hand reached out to touch a control on one side of the door. It finally slid open with a hiss, as the man within stepped aside with a grand gesture for the new arrival to enter. 

With a single push against the wheels, Robert sent the chair into the store, then made the chair turn to face the figure who had let him in. Finally, he was able to look the other man in the face.

Well, sort of. The man wore a mask, a sackcloth bag of sorts that left his eyes and mouth exposed. Beyond that, he wore a brown tweed suit that didn’t fit properly, with black gloves. In one of those gloves, the man held a heavy-duty pistol. It was already pointed at Robert. “So you’re the guy they sent in, huh? Took you fucking long enough to get here,” he complained. “What’d they do, have the cash flown in from Chicago? 

“You call yourself Pencil, right?” Robert prompted, ignoring both the complaint and the gun leveled right at his face. “That’s what people keep saying anyway. Pencil, the invincible. Or is it Pencil, the immune?”

The response from the other man was a snicker. “Tell you the truth, I prefer Pencil the humble and charming,” he drawled with obvious amusement before giving a vague wave of his free hand, the gun never wavering from its target, “but for now, we’ll go with the most important title: Pencil, the man in charge. And I’ve gotta say, when I told the Krights to send just one guy who wouldn’t make me nervous, I wasn’t expecting them to embrace the goal so much. I mean, a wheelchair? They send in a guy in a wheelchair? Now that is commitment to the cause.” 

He trailed off, lifting his chin thoughtfully. “Course, if you weren’t in that chair, big guy like you might be a bit more of a concern. But I suppose I don’t have anything to worry about, long as you’re stuck there.” Pausing, he added in a curious tone, “So which is it? You trying to trick me, or do you really need that thing? Come on, you can tell me. We can be friends and sort this out.” 

Robert spoke flatly, his words gruff as he watched the man’s reaction. “Spine injury. Paraplegic.” From everything he’d already heard, he was positive that this ‘Pencil’ wasn’t nearly as old as others thought he was. No, he wasn’t a man at all. Not in the sense of being an adult. He was a teenager. Robert was pegging him at somewhere between sixteen and seventeen, though he’d be more confident if that mask wasn’t there. Of course, a lot of things would be different without the mask, and the power that it symbolized. 

“Shit, really?” Pencil shook his head. “That sucks, man. Unless–” His free hand snapped down, a small blade somehow appearing in his grip as he stabbed it into Robert’s thigh while pushing the pistol right up against his chin expectantly. “–you’re fucking lying!” 

A brief pause followed, while he stared into Robert’s eyes, waiting for a reaction to the pain of the blade in his leg. When none came, he slowly chuckled, before straightening. The knife came free. “Well! Okay then, I guess we’re all good, huh? Glad to see we’re on the same page.” 

With that, he pivoted and started to walk. His hand moved to grab a nearby roll of gauze, which he tossed over his shoulder to the seated man. “Might wanna wrap that up, big guy.” 

The fact that this Pencil, a freak who had started playing his psychotic games through the city a few months earlier, had had gauze ready and waiting, showed that he’d always been prepared to stab whoever came through that door. Probably as a way of making a point about who was in control of the situation. Robert considered that, adding it to what he knew about this kid while pressing the gauze pad against the wound in his leg. It auto-bonded, the sides sticking to his jeans while the middle part sealed itself to the actual wound. At least that meant he wouldn’t get blood all over the chair. 

Once that was done, he gave a shove to the wheels to send himself after the waiting Pencil. “The kid,” he said flatly, “where is he?”

“See, here’s the thing,” Pencil retorted, “I’m pretty sure I demanded money in exchange for the kid. And call me crazy, but I’m just not seeing how you can keep a million dollars stashed in your pockets. What’re you doing, sitting on it? Please tell me you’re not sitting on it. Cuz this whole business venture here is just gonna seem like it’s not worth it if my money’s got your butt on it.”

In response, Robert held up one hand, then used two fingers to carefully reach into his pocket while the other man watched him intently. Slowly, he withdrew a leather bag and gave it a light toss that way. “There’s half.” 

Catching the bag, Pencil curiously opened it, pouring out a handful of diamonds with a low whistle. 

“That’s five hundred thousand worth right there,” Robert informed him. “There’s an identical bag in my other pocket. You get that after I get the boy. Then we all get out of here.” 

“Well, well, how wonderfully shiny.” Shoving the bag of diamonds in his own pocket, Pencil gave a grand gesture. “In that case, let’s not dilly dally. I’m sure the Krights want their boy back.” Clicking his heels together, he started walking deeper into the store. “And what do I call you, for being such a fine, upstanding mediator in all this?” 

“Just a man doing a favor,” Robert informed him simply, rolling after the psychotic superpowered killer. “You said no Stars, no Shields. I’m neither.” 

Giving what was obviously an amused grin over his shoulder as they moved together through the store, Pencil cracked, “Yeah, I suppose I would’ve heard about the amazing paraplegic man if you were Touched, eh?” Snickering to himself, he finally put a hand out to stop Robert. “Right here’s good.” Raising his voice, Pencil called, “Hey kid! Step out into sight, would ya?!” 

While Robert watched intently, a fourteen-year-old boy with brown hair hesitantly stepped out of one of the aisles ahead of them, maybe sixty feet away. He was gagged, and both of his wrists were handcuffed to a chain, which itself was wrapped around the thick metal pole holding up the shelves of that aisle. 

“There’s the kid, just like I promised,” Pencil announced. “Owen Kright, ready and waiting to go right back to his precious mommy and daddy. And this,” he held up a key, “goes to those cuffs. I’ll trade you for that other bag of yours, then I’ll run on out of here while you go unlock the kid. Everyone ends up happy. And, more importantly, not dead.” An obvious grin stretched across his face, visible through the hole in the mask. “What do you say, pal?” 

“What do I say…?” For a moment, Robert looked at the handcuffed, gagged boy. There was obvious terror in his eyes, even from this distance. The kid was scared shitless. It reminded Robert of another, younger child who had been frightened like that, just a year earlier. A kid who still meant an awful lot to him, even if he wasn’t her bodyguard anymore.

Finally, he looked back to the masked man and met those eyes, peering at him through the jagged holes. His voice was even as he replied, “I think you’ve been breaking the rules of this city for too long, and it’s about time that someone shows you there are consequences to that.”  

Pencil’s immediate reaction was a slightly lifted chin, his gaze regarding the other man with renewed interest. “Oooh, what city rules am I breaking? Is it the kidnapping? The ransom demand? Wait, no, shit, I’ve got it. It must be the eight store employees laying in pieces in the back room over there, isn’t it?” Adopting a chagrined tone, he lamented, “I always forget about the ‘don’t chop people up and strew their bodies over the back room’ rule.” A toothy smile appeared through the hole in the mask. “One of these days, that’s gonna get me in trouble.” 

“One of these days,” Robert agreed in a dry voice, before adding, “And you broke the rules of the Ministry. That’s a bad idea.” 

“The Ministry, the Ministry, all I keep hearing about every time I try to have a little fun is the Ministry.” Pencil’s head shook with annoyance. “What’s the point of being a bad guy if you follow all these little rules, hmm? Which one was this, no kidnapping teenagers after Labor Day? Wait, is Labor Day the one in the spring or the fall? Fuck, I always mix that one up with Memorial Day. Wait, Memorial Day is Maymorial Day. May. May, I was right the first time. No kidnapping after Labor Day?” 

“Some of these rich people,” Robert informed him, “they pay what you’d call a special tax. Makes their kids safe from the Fells in the city. Because the Fells, like you, know that the second they break the rules and go after one of those protected kids, that’s when the Ministry steps in. You broke that rule. That kid over there, the Krights pay their taxes. He’s protected. You should’ve left him alone. Now, I’ve been asked to step in.” 

Clapping his hands together once with a sound of put-on fear, Pencil replied in a terribly shaking voice. “Ohh no, Paraplegic Man is gonna punish me for not playing by some asinine rules. Whatever will I do?” Snickering to himself, he leaned over a bit while taunting, “Would it help you be more intimidating if I got a little closer to that chair you’re stuck in?” 

It was Robert’s turn to offer a very faint, humorless smile. His voice was a quiet, barely audible murmur, “Now, who said I was stuck in it?” 

The moment those words reached Pencil and he started to react, Robert’s hand lashed out as he rose from the seat. He grabbed the Fell-Touched by the collar of his suit and bodily yanked him over. Before he knew what was happening, Pencil was shoved into the wheelchair while a pair of heavy shackles were yanked from Robert’s pockets and latched over the psychopath’s wrists to trap him there. It happened so quickly and smoothly that Pencil was already seated and cuffed to the chair by the time he was actually able to react to the sudden motion. Belatedly, his foot lashed out to kick at the larger man, but Robert had already stepped backward. His movement was no more hindered from the old spinal injury (which had already been addressed by the finest medical experts and equipment that money could buy) than it was by the knife stab that he had intentionally shown no reaction to in order to carry on the ruse.

Jerking against the shackles, Pencil gave a loud laugh that sounded more annoyed than amused. “Oh, you think something like this is gonna hold me, big man?” Despite his words, the psychopath couldn’t move from that spot. The chair was suddenly much more rooted to the floor than it had been, and refused to budge. 

“Nope,” Robert replied with a slight headshake. “Probably not for long. Not with all those Tech toys you’ve been stealing. I figure one of the first things you did was grab something that could get you out of a tight spot. Something to teleport away, something to phase out of those cuffs, probably both. And other bullshit tricks, more than I could shake a really big stick at. But before you do anything drastic, tell me, you hear a click when you sat in that thing?” 

The masked boy’s head slowly tilted, while he considered the question. “If you’re saying there’s a mine in this chair, we need to have a chat about how my power works.” 

“Not a mine in the chair, no,” Robert agreed. “That wouldn’t accomplish shit. but you know how you bitched about how long it took me to get here? I could’ve made it sooner, but you see, something occurred to me before I ever came to this place. You’re not just in it for the ransom.” 

Clearly still annoyed, yet curious about where the man was going with that (and confident beyond the point of arrogance that he couldn’t be hurt thanks to his power), Pencil managed to shift a bit until he was almost lounging in the wheelchair despite being cuffed to it. “I’m not?” Another toothy smile appeared. “This sounds like a fun theory you’ve cooked up. Do tell.” He obviously wasn’t worried about actually being trapped, given his prepared defenses against similar scenarios. 

“See,” Robert informed him, “all that stuff I said a minute ago about the whole rules about not targeting rich people’s kids? You knew that already. You chose that kid over there for a reason. It wasn’t random. It wasn’t an accident. You chose that kid because you knew it would get the Ministry’s attention. Because you wanted that kid’s parents to run to the Ministry and get them involved. You like to play magician, Pencil. You like to play ‘look over here’ while your little assistant does the real trick behind the curtain.” 

“And what assistant d–” Pencil started. 

Robert interrupted with, “Seven-Three-Eight-Five Abalone Drive West. Suite Thirty-Six.” 

For the first time, Pencil did a double-take of genuine surprise, blurting, “How do you–” 

“You’ve been looking for those records for a long time, haven’t you?” Robert asked, shaking his head. “Two different kidnappings, a hostage crisis at a grocery store, and a bar brawl that escalated into mass murder, all in under two months. And during each and every one of those events, where you stayed longer than you had to, a different office that holds adoption records was broken into by a young woman who was just… so distracting. Four different offices. But they were all the wrong ones. They didn’t have the records the two of you were looking for, did they? They didn’t have the records of what happened to the baby that Collette and Shane Elbrecht gave away. Collette and Shane Elbrecht,” he added thoughtfully, “two of your first victims, from almost a year ago.” 

After a brief pause to judge the silent masked boy’s reaction, Robert continued. “But they weren’t random either, were they? You stole something out of their house. A box, one you want to get into pretty badly. But you didn’t realize it was DNA-locked until after you killed them. Can’t break into it without destroying whatever’s inside. And you can’t use a dead person to open it. You need a living relative to open that box. And you’re so desperate to get whatever’s inside, when you found out those two gave away a baby years back, you just had to get the files to find out where they ended up.” 

Obviously taken aback by how much the strange man knew, Pencil managed, “You put a lot together on your way over here, old man.” 

“Didn’t just put it together on my way over,” Robert informed him, reaching into his jacket pocket before withdrawing a manila folder with some papers, which he opened to show the masked figure a brief glimpse of. “I stopped at the office and grabbed the file before your girl could get there. Deleted the computer file too, just in case. Which makes this the only copy left.” He waved the folder idly. “I’d wager she’s still looking through all those boxes as we speak.” 

Eyes zeroing in on the file, Pencil slowly announced, “You know what, heh. Good show. But you give me that file and I’ll let you walk out of here with the kid and the gems. All I want is that file. Hell, you hand it over and we could all be friends.” 

“Friends, huh?” Robert appeared to consider that for a moment. Then he shook his head. “Nah.” With that, the man produced a lighter, holding it up to the folder. In seconds, the papers within were engulfed in flames. 

“You fucking cocksucker!” The scream of rage tore its way out of Pencil’s throat, before he blurted an obvious command word for stolen Touched-Tech, “Sideslip!” For an instant, it worked. The masked figure was abruptly standing a few feet away from the wheelchair, no longer handcuffed. But in the next instant, he was engulfed in white flames, before abruptly disappearing entirely with a scream of surprise. 

Turning on his heel while dropping the remnants of the file to the floor as they turned to ash, Robert walked to where Owen Kright was, reaching out to take the gag off the boy. 

“Wha–what just–what’d you do?!” Owen blurted, eyes wide with shock. 

“Didn’t give him diamonds, I’ll tell you that much,” Robert replied. “Serclin Stones, named after the guy who makes them. They… react volatilely to any kind of Travel powers. Even Tech-Touched-based ones. Makes them explode and screw with the Travel power that set them off. That guy could be anywhere in the state right now.” 

“But,” the boy stammered, “what was the click when he sat in the chair? You said it wasn’t a mine, but… but what was it?”

“What, that?” Robert showed the boy a small smile. “Nothing. There was no click. But he wasn’t about to admit he didn’t hear it when I implied there was one, and it made him shut up trying to figure it out long enough for me to get through what I needed to do.

“Now come on, let’s get you out of here. I’ve got a guy named Kent who’d like to have a quick word with you before you go back to your parents.” 

*******

Two hours later, fifteen-year-old Amanda Sanvers, known to the public as Cup, sat in the back of a diner, watching a couple late night news talking heads blather on about the latest Collision Point. Apparently some idiots actually worshiped those Abyssal monsters. 

She glanced over as her beloved brother made his way to the booth and slumped down in it. His voice was dark. “It was right there. We almost had it.” 

“He read the file,” Amanda assured him gently, hand moving over to squeeze Nick’s arm. “We just need to get info out of him. We’ll find out where that kid was adopted off to, and open the box. We just gotta be a little patient.” 

“What we need,” Nick informed her, “is some more help. This two person act thing isn’t cutting it. We need some more lackeys. We need partners. The Ministry, all these other gangs, even the heroes, they’ve all got gangs. We need a team. But not a boring one. We need a bunch of really fucked up people we can use for cannon fodder and entertainment, babe. But where are we gonna find people like that?” 

Lifting her chin, Amanda nodded to the television. “How about right there?” 

He looked that way, coughing once. “Typhon? Sweetness, I’m good, but I’m not ‘talk an Abyssal  into doing our bidding’ good.” 

It was Amanda’s turn to grin. “Not the Abyssal. All those dumbass fucks they’ve got lined up to worship him. Those stupid fucking Abyssal cults. They seem good for a laugh.”

For a moment, Nick didn’t respond. He watched the news going on about the people who were obsessed with the Abyssals in general, and the one called Typhon in particular. Finally, he chuckled low. “My sweet, sweet sister. 

“Sometimes, you have the most amazing ideas.”

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Ready 11-04 (Summus Proelium)

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Laying on the floor of Bobby’s cabin, still paralyzed by whatever that thing was that Pencil hit me with, all I could do was watch helplessly as the man looked at That-A-Way, standing over me, and Pack at the door with Mars Bar towering behind her. Holiday the panther-lizard was there too, somewhat between all of us with the paralyzing gun held in her teeth as she snarled angrily. 

No, no, no. What was going to happen now? Why were they here? How did they find us? I knew I should have been grateful to see them, and a big part of me was. Okay, most of me was. But another part was terrified that something bad would happen to the two of them. Paralyzed as I was, I was helpless to do anything to help, which was beyond terrifying. And it wasn’t like Pencil was just some bad guy. He was one of the nastiest Fell-Touched I’d ever heard of. He was immune to basically anything anyone could do. What the hell was going to happen here? How would they actually stop him, considering that entire experienced hero teams had set out to do that and failed, some dying in the attempt?   

That was what scared me the most. It wasn’t suffering and dying right here with Pencil enacting his revenge for hurting his sister. It was being forced to see him do that exact same thing to Pack and That-A-Way. Because they were only here to help me. If they died, it would be because of me. Because I couldn’t handle my own problems. Because I was weak. 

For his part, Pencil didn’t exactly look all that concerned. His gaze took in the panther-lizard  who had stolen his weapon, before moving to look at the others. I could practically see the thoughtful expression on the face behind the mask. When he spoke, his voice was curious. “Now, what exactly could have made the three of you such close friends that you’d come all the way out here like this?” He raised a fist to his chin, contemplating. “Oh, was it really that bit at the hospital? Was it? I’m really gonna blush if it turns out I’ve inspired the brand new besties bond you’ve all got.” After a second, the man added in a conspiratorial tone, “Really, don’t tell me you two see your pal here as a little brother. Because trust me, we all know where that goes. Him in love with both of you and you not seeing him that way because you’re just such good friends. And no one wants to live through that kind of cliche. It’s 2020, let’s try to move past triangles, people.” 

As Pencil said those words, the rage that had been clear in his voice when he had come after me a moment earlier for hurting Cup had been replaced by what sounded like genuine amusement at this new situation. It was like being hit with something this unexpected, instead of pissing him off, actually intrigued him. Apparently he just enjoyed being surprised that much. So much that he forgot about that whole being pissed at me for Cup thing. In any case, whatever was going through his mind right then, I was pretty sure that none of us wanted to know about it. 

“Here’s what’s gonna happen,” Pack informed him. Her words were punctuated by matching growls from Mars Bar and Holiday. “I’m going to step out of the way to that side of the door. My big buddy here is gonna step the other way.  Then you are going to walk out of this building and get the hell out of here before this gets any worse. Everyone walks away to fight another day.” 

“Or,” That-A-Way put in, “you can push it and see if being immune to damage helps you very much when it comes to a giant grizzly-lizard sitting on your psychotic fucking ass until the authorities get here. After all,” she added, shifting her weight a little, “We don’t actually have to hurt you. We just have to stop you from leaving. I’m pretty sure you don’t have super-strength.”  

For a moment, the monster in the mask said nothing. He simply glanced back and forth at all of us, adopting a thoughtful posture before eventually speaking up. “That is a very fine point you raise, young lady. A very fine point indeed. You’re probably right, I’d be… hard-pressed to budge your personal Yogi over there, if push came to shove.” He gave a tip of an imaginary hat toward Mars Bar. “And yet, I find myself with one very important question. While your bear is sitting on in this hypothetical scenario, what… precisely would your invisible gorilla-lizard be doing?” Even as he said that, the man was abruptly pivoting on one foot with a snapped, “Let’s ask him.” 

With those words, Pencil’s hand snapped out. A knife leapt from his sleeve before being driven into what looked like thin air. Thin air that drew a thick line of blood and a squeal of pain. 

“Twinkletoes!” Blurting that name, Pack threw herself that way while the formerly invisible figure appeared, a deep gash through his side as he collapsed to the floor, moaning. How had Pencil known he was there? Was it just a guess? How had he known exactly where to aim the knife? 

As Pack lunged to the fallen Twinkletoes’ side, Mars Bar and Holiday leapt to the defense of their partner. With a cabin-shaking roar, the bear went after Pencil like a runaway freight train, while Holiday tossed the gun aside and added her own roar while lunging from the other side.  

Far from being intimidated however, Pencil simply pivoted once more. His foot lashed out in what looked like an awkward, gangly kick. Seriously, I thought he was about to fall over. It was like a clown kicking someone, all wild flailing and no coordination. But despite that, there must have been decent force and skill hidden behind the deceptive appearance, because Holiday was immediately sent crashing to the floor with a yelp from the impact against her nose. 

At the same time, his hand, with the already-bloodied knife held tightly, lashed out and backward. It cut through part of Mars Bar’s descending arm and drew even more blood than the first swipe had drawn from Twinkletoes. Wherever he had hit the lizard-bear must have been important, because the roar turned to a pained squeal and that massive arm fell uselessly against the power-mutated animal’s side, as if the limb was as paralyzed as I actually was. 

The bear’s arm being out of the way gave Pencil room to duck and twist, throwing himself behind the suddenly-stumbling creature. His every motion looked goofy and awkward. It looked like he should fall flat on his face any moment. But I was already certain all of it was an act. He was like a clown or something, his motions purposefully intended to look goofy and uncoordinated while actually being very precise. He clearly had an incredible amount of athletic and combat skill. He was just hiding it behind what looked like bumbling actions. 

Just as that thought came to me, That-A-Way sprang to the aid of the others. Or, she tried to. Suddenly teleporting almost directly behind him and to one side, she produced her stun baton and swung it. Pencil, however, was not taken by surprise. He doubled over backward, almost like he was going through an extreme limbo contest. Laughter, mocking and derisive, erupted from the man as the baton passed just over his head. At the same time, he pressed some kind of hidden button on the knife. Instantly, a cloud of dark red gas shot from a hole at the edge of the knife hilt, right next to the blade itself. The gas went straight into That-A-Way’s face, and she stumbled, squealing and coughing while the baton fell from her grip. Pencil, still bent over backward, caught the falling baton in his free hand, hurling it with what looked like contemptuous ease toward Pack, who was just looking up from Twinkletoes. She took the baton to her chest, yelping and collapsing on top of her gorilla-lizard from the burst of electricity. 

No, no, no! This was exactly what I’d been terrified of. Everything was going wrong. Pack was twitching and yelping on top of the already-injured Twinkletoes. Mars Bar was stumbling, one arm useless. Holiday was still picking herself off the floor. That-A-Way was down, coughing and sputtering while flailing blindly from whatever that gas had done. Everything was going wrong and it was all my fault. They were here because of me, here to help me, and I was too paralyzed to actually do anything to help them. Move, I ordered myself. Move right fucking now!

It didn’t help. Straining as hard as I could, I still couldn’t push past the effect of that stupid weapon. They were going to die, they were going to die and it would be my fault. Damn it, damn it! 

Then, just as my panic and terror hit the breaking point, something totally unexpected happened. The sudden blaring of a car horn from outside filled the air, stopping Pencil in mid-step. At the same time, bright headlights abruptly flared to life, shining in through the window.  

As the sound of the horn was fading, a familiar figure in a black-blue bodysuit with an attached short-sleeved white robe and hood appeared in the doorway. Skip. She stood there, regarding the whole situation seemingly impassively for a moment before addressing Pencil flatly. “By all reports, you are protective of the one called Cup. If so, there is a situation outside that you will be interested in resolving. Unless those reports are wrong, in which case…” Trailing off, she looked to us, then to Pencil before simply turning her back to him to walk out of the doorway and away from the cabin. 

In that moment, I was pretty sure Pencil completely forgot the rest of us even existed. He went through the door an instant after Skip disappeared, fairly sprinting that way. Because Skip was right. For all his murderous psychotic evil bullshit, he actually genuinely cared about Cup. His sister… his lover… whatever she was, he cared about her. I knew that first-hand. 

I also knew that if he had the chance, he would skin every single one of us alive and watch us spend hours screaming for even insinuating that she could be in danger. This could blow up in all of our faces really easily. 

Pack was back on her feet, hand already outstretched to grab That-A-Way and pull her up. She had Twinkletoes and Mars Bar (newly returned to their normal, uninjured lizard forms) on either shoulder, while Holiday stood guard at the door. Both of the girls were looking at me with obvious worry written through their body language. 

And then, then my constant attempts to start moving finally paid off. My fingers twitched, and a sharp gasp of air escaped me as I jerked upright with a suddenly violent cough. The paralyzing effect was gone. I could move again. 

Just in time for That-A-Way to kick me none-too-gently in the leg with a muttered, “Idiot.” Then she turned to run for the broken doorway. 

Pack, meanwhile, grabbed my hand to haul me up. “What she said. But I’ll wait and kick you after we get out of this.” 

Quickly, I joined them and the three of us ran out to the porch in time to see Pencil standing about thirty feet away. The man was brightly illuminated by the headlights of a car. Standing next to the car was a figure in dark purple body armor with speakers along the sides and a helmet with a wide V-shaped visor that had multi-colored lines flickering across it. 

Broadway. It was Broadway, another one of Pack and Eits’ teammates.

Just as we made it to the porch, the headlights turned off and the light inside the car flipped on. That revealed Skip, sitting in the driver’s seat. More important was the figure sitting next to her in the passenger seat, bound and gagged. Cup. 

As soon as he saw her, Pencil took a step that way. But he stopped at a sudden blaring of the car horn when Skip used her free hand to hit it while simultaneously extending a hand through the open window with some kind of large container. She gave it a toss, and it came tumbling across the dirt to land near Pencil. Immediately, I recognized both the look and the smell. Gasoline. It was a mostly-empty gasoline can. 

Broadway gave a kick then, sending another can tumbling over to join the first. “Heya, Fuckface. You see Cup there? The eeeentire inside of that car is totally drenched in that gasoline. You give her any reason to, any reason at all, and Skip is gonna use that lighter she’s got to flame on. Then she’ll drive away. Cuz, you know, the fire won’t affect her. But it’ll sure as hell affect Cup. So she’ll light her on fire and then she’ll drive away. We’ll see how far she gets down the road before the car explodes. Are you a fast runner? Maybe you can get to her before she suffers too much. Maybe you could even do something about the flames. But here’s the thing. Even if you do save her, your lady friend there still gets to suffer horrifically first. Maybe she dies, maybe she doesn’t. But she definitely suffers. And the longer it takes you to get to her, the longer she suffers, the more likely she dies.” 

She bent, picking up the end of a rope that was lying there before tossing it over to the man. “So here’s what’s gonna happen. The other end of that rope is tied to the back of the car. Skip’s gonna pull out and start driving slowly down the road. You’re gonna hold the rope and follow until you’re all past the gate. Then she’ll teleport back up here and you can get the lady out of the car. You try to come after any of us first, Cup goes fwoom. You try to get closer to the car than the length of that rope, Cup goes fwoom. You pull anything, Cup goes fwoom. And maybe you can take all of us down. You are magically immune to everything, after all. Maybe we can’t take you. But what you’ve gotta ask yourself is, just how much would Cup suffer in the meantime? Would she even survive? What kinda shape would she be in? Take the rope, follow the car all the way down to the gate. Or push things right now and see how the girl there likes being a superhero for once. Specifically, the Human Torch.”

For a moment, Pencil didn’t say anything or move. He seemed to be studying Broadway as though gauging how serious she was, how likely it was that she and Skip would actually follow through on that threat. I was staring at them too. Jesus Christ, that was hardcore. Not that it was exactly surprising, given the kind of people Pencil and Cup were. If you were going to threaten them, you had to go for the gold. And I was pretty sure the threat being specifically against Cup was the only thing that made the man take it at all seriously. He cared about her. She might be the only thing in the world he did care about. But still. I had to ask myself if they’d really do it. Which, I supposed, was the exact same thing Pencil was asking himself at that point. 

Finally, he turned to look straight at me. His hand rose, giving what looked like a casual wave. But I knew there was far more behind it. He would never let this go, not for any of us. I’d directly pissed him off more than once now. I’d hurt his sister. And now the others had threatened her life, had threatened to kill her in a gruesome, horrific way. All of us had made this personal to him, and he was not going to forget or forgive that. This might be put on pause now, but it wasn’t over. 

“So long, kid,” Pencil announced while the eyes behind that mask practically bore a hole straight through me. “I’ll catch you later.” And boy did those words have a hell of a lot more meaning behind them than that phrase normally did. 

With that, the man stooped, grabbing the rope. Immediately, the car started up and Skip pulled it around slowly to point it back toward the road before heading out at just high enough speed that Pencil had to lightly jog to keep up. While we all watched in silence, the car and attached psychopath both gradually vanished down the road out of sight. 

Finally, once the car and Pencil were gone, Broadway exhaled audibly and slumped over. “Hoooly shit, dude. Tell you one thing, I am super-fucking glad that didn’t go wrong. I mean, yeah, it still could. But I think we might actually pull this off. Thanks for playing distraction in there while we set things up.” She turned to me then, waving. “Hey there, nice to finally meet you, Paintball.” 

“I–” I started to say something, before blanching. Pivoting away from them, I sprinted several feet before collapsing to my knees by some bushes. My hand pried up the mask enough to let me throw up. It all came out in a rush, while Broadway made disconcerted sounds in the background. To their credit, the others all stayed away while my mask was up. All they saw was my back. 

Finally, it was done. My whole body was sore and I was still a bit woozy. Plus my throat hurt from hurling. But there was nothing left for me in my stomach. Awkwardly, I tugged the mask down with one hand, making sure the hidden mic was still in place before pushing myself up and turning. 

That-A-Way and Pack were standing there, arms folded as they looked at me. Broadway was on the other side of the clearing, watching the road. 

“Are you okay?” That-A-Way asked a bit pensively. “Seriously, are you…” 

“I’m okay,” I managed, biting my lip. “I mean, I… they didn’t do anything that bad. He was saving it for later.” 

“Good,” Pack put in, sounding relieved, like a sudden weight had lifted from her shoulders. Then she added, “I’d say a lot more, but it’s time to get out of here. We’re supposed to meet Skip on a little service road down the other side of the forest, that way.” She pointed off behind the cabin. “There’s another car parked there waiting for us.” 

“It’s a bit of a hike,” That-A-Way noted. “But it shouldn’t be hard. 

“And on the way, you can explain just what the hell is going on.” 

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Ready 11-03 (Summus Proelium)

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I was in trouble. Yeah, that was a fucking understatement. I was on the far side of a fence, not even out of earshot from a pissed-off Pencil and two of his psychotic Prev minions. At my feet was a dazed, barely conscious Cup, and all around me was a nearly pitch-black forest. To top it all off, my hands were cuffed behind my back, making this whole thing even more complicated than it already was. And if Pencil caught me again, I was pretty sure him just straight up killing me was the best I could hope for. More likely, he’d make me scream for a few hours first. 

That wasn’t just speculation either. It was, in general, the gist of the threats I could hear coming from the fence area in between Pencil ordering his man to finish disabling the electricity and alarm. That was why he didn’t just ignore the shock himself, given that it wouldn’t actually hurt him, I realized. He didn’t want to set off the alarm, because… because he didn’t want to alert Robert that we were here? Was he really actually afraid of what Rob–never mind. Seconds. I had seconds before those three would be right on top of me. 

Using one finger, I turned slightly to shoot a bit of black paint at Cup, just in case. The last thing I needed right then was her managing to orient herself enough to use her power on me. If she did that, I was basically dead. I wouldn’t snap out of it before Pencil managed to catch up. 

There was no time to do anything else. I couldn’t even try to get my hands in front of myself. It would have taken too many of the precious seconds I didn’t actually have. Pencil was already vaulting the fence. I could hear it rattling. Quickly, I turned, activating another small portion of purple paint on me before lashing out with a kick to Cup’s face. She stopped her silent groaning and fell flat. Unconscious, for the moment at least. Stooping, I grabbed her hands and gripped them tightly. Casting a quick look over my shoulder, I saw Pencil dropping off the fence and turning to sprint our way. He probably couldn’t really see us from there, not with the shadows of the trees added to what was already a pretty dark night. Still, he was coming straight for us, with the two minions right behind. I had to move, now!  

Silencing myself as well, I took off running while dragging the unconscious Cup behind me on her stomach. With the purple paint, I barely felt her weight. And as long as she was with me, conscious or not, the cuffs wouldn’t force me to the ground. I could do this. It was awkward as hell, running while literally dragging a full grown woman behind me with my hands cuffed like that. But what else was I going to do, let Pencil catch up and do any of the horrific things he had in mind? Running blind through the dark forest while dragging Cup was the only option I had. 

Except it wasn’t… really like running blind, was it? Because just like my last time traveling through the woods at night, I wasn’t stumbling nearly as much as I should have been. Sure, it was a bit unwieldy, running with Cup like this. But it definitely wasn’t as bad as I would’ve thought it would be. I instinctively knew when to duck from branches I couldn’t actually see. I gave a little hop now and then, passing right over thick roots or low bushes that would have sent me sprawling. Most people running through a nearly pitch-black forest in the middle of the night with their hands cuffed behind their backs probably would have eaten dirt within a few seconds. But I just… didn’t. I knew where and how to move to avoid hitting anything, even though there was no way I could have seen any of it in time. Particularly given I was running flat out, with a good portion of my attention centered on listening to the sound of pursuit. It was just… instinct of some kind? 

Whatever, I wasn’t going to question it. I didn’t have time to question it. All I knew was that I had to keep moving. The sound of Pencil’s pursuit faded somewhat as I gained ground on him, but I could still hear the psycho and his two minions not too far behind. All three had flashlights they were shining around, the beams flickering wildly back and forth as they searched for me. 

Briefly, I worried about one of them opening fire before realizing that they wouldn’t risk hitting Cup. They still hadn’t been able to get a good look at me and were simply following the trail I left in my wild flight. So maybe it was time to do something to make following me a bit harder. 

First, I renewed my own purple paint once more before using my grip on Cup’s hands to put a bit more black paint on her. Keeping her silent was just as important as anything else right now, and I didn’t trust her not to wake up at some point in this and immediately use her power to put an end to my escape. As long as I could stop her from talking, she’d be a hell of a lot more manageable. I just wished I’d had the time and materials to actually tie her up, or do… anything other than dragging her along by the hands. 

Fortunately, for now, she was still knocked out. But I kept the black paint going just in case. Then, keeping my grip on her hands, I moved one finger to point at a tree we were passing and shot a spray of white paint at it. While continuing to run, I put a whole line of white paint down, trying to judge when I only had a small amount of paint left. Then I stopped spraying, but kept running. Behind me, the sound of the three thoroughly pissed off pursuers grew louder from my hesitation. They were close. Too damn close. If I waited any longer, they’d be right on top of me. Then I’d either be dead, or just wish very badly that I was. 

But the worst thing about all of this? I missed running through the dark forest with Paige. At least she hadn’t been dead weight who would also have tried to kill me if she was awake. That was how far I’d fallen. I missed Paige Banners. What in the seventeen hells was my life? 

At least I didn’t panic. I focused on the sound of the men running. I judged where they were, all while also sprinting through the dark woods. How? How could I run like this, drag this unconscious girl behind me, navigate a totally unfamiliar forest in the middle of the night while also listening to my pursuers and accurately judging exactly where they were in those same unfamiliar woods? How? 

It was ridiculous. I shouldn’t have been able to. But I did. I knew, without question, exactly when the men reached the spot where I had left that line of white paint. Which meant I knew exactly when to trigger it. 

I’d left enough paint right there that, as it activated, that whole area of the forest briefly lit up. It was incredibly bright. Knowing it was coming, I had closed my eyes just in case and was faced away. But I still saw a bit of the flash. Being right on top of it would have been utterly blinding.  Which, given the sudden new litany of screaming curses coming from back there, it really was. And it was more than a flash, actually. The light continued on for a full ten seconds, making it even harder for my pursuers to see where they were going. 

But that was just step one of plan ‘lose these assholes.’ The second the flash triggered, I also painted the boots on my feet bright blue and triggered the last of the purple paint that I had prepared on the inside of my costume. With the added strength, I leapt as hard as I could, triggering the blue paint on my way down. The impact from the jump against that blue paint rocketed me up and forward. With Cup held tightly, I went flying through the trees, breaking through a handful of branches on the way. Coming down, my feet landed for an instant. But the blue paint on my boots was still active, so I was launched upward again and kept flying. 

For the next ten seconds, I kept essentially bouncing my way through the forest. Each blue-and-purple-paint assisted leap carried me a huge distance, while my weird and unexplained subconscious knowledge of where all the trees and such were meant I could safely make those leaps without slamming headfirst into an obstacle. In the brief time that my pursuers would have been blinded, I put as much distance between us as possible. It would be a lot harder for them to track me accurately with so much space between landings. They couldn’t easily track my footprints when those footprints were at least sixty feet apart. 

Finally, I had to stop. Partly because I felt Cup starting to shift in my grip. She was waking up. So I dropped both of us down, releasing the bitch before hitting her with more black paint. Then I pivoted to face her. 

Yeah, she was awake. She wasn’t happy or fully coherent, but she was awake. Her eyes blinked at me blearily, barely visible through the moonlight that cut through the trees. Even with the white mask covering the bottom of her face, I could tell she was trying to speak, only to freeze when no sound came out. Even as dark as it was, I could see the hatred and anger in her sudden glare. Yup, she was becoming more coherent by the second, and was definitely pissed off. 

But guess what, I wasn’t exactly thrilled about this whole situation either. Given the choice, I would’ve left her there. But the cuffs meant that I didn’t have that choice. Instead, I had to keep dragging her around with me. 

Or did I? Wait a second. Thinking quickly, I pivoted and used my cuffed hands to shoot a bunch of red paint over the other girl. She flailed, and was already shoving herself to her feet when I pivoted back the other way, shooting one bit of red toward the nearby tree. As Cup made it up, hand grabbing for something in her costume, I triggered the paint while diving out of the way. With a silent yelp, she was hauled through the air, slamming face-first into the tree. Oops not oops. 

Of course, the thing Cup had been grabbing was a gun. It fell to the ground as she was yanked through the air. I heard the thump of it landing and saw the outline of it right at my feet. Quickly, I kicked it off out of sight before moving to the psycho currently held tight against the tree. She was struggling, and I heard her voice start to cut in just in time for me to hit her with a quick shot of black paint. 

Ten seconds. I had ten seconds before the red paint would release her. Which meant I couldn’t exactly be gentle or careful about this. Instead, I shoved my back right up against hers, pinning her even more fully against the wood. My cuffed hands frantically felt up her pants for pockets while I found myself muttering, “Sorry, sorry, I know you’re a fucking psycho, but sorry.” One by one, I shoved my hands into her pockets, searching them as quickly as I could while trying to ignore the unfortunate… positioning and circumstances. 

Gum, a notebook, a pen, a switchblade, no key, no key! Damn it, please don’t say it fucking fell out while she was being dragged back there. If it was lying somewhere in the woods, I was screwed. 

Finally, shoving one hand inside her back pocket (and really trying to ignore how awkward that was), I found it. The key. It was there. My fingers closed around it, and I jerked away from her, half-stumbling before pivoting back to face her. Unlocking the cuffs behind my own back wasn’t exactly easy, but I had a trick. Namely, I brushed my finger over the cuffs until I found the keyhole. Then I shot a tiny dot of red paint into that keyhole. With my other hand, I found the tip of the key, painting that red as well. 

With that done, I just activated the tiny dots of red paint on both, and the key was immediately yanked straight into the hole. I pivoted, grasping for it with my fingers. Just as I got hold of it, Cup fell backward off the tree. The red paint had worn off, which meant the black had definitely–

“How many–” 

That was as far as I let her get. Still holding the key with two fingers, I lashed out as hard as I could, kicking Cup in the back. It was enough to stop her from talking, knocking her forward into the tree with a yelp. Using the bare couple of seconds that gained me, I twisted the key. The cuffs popped open, and I let them fall to the ground with a clatter before quickly shooting black paint at Cup once more. That shut her up again, just as she was trying to talk. 

The black paint did not, however, stop her from turning and diving at me. I went down hard with the older, bigger girl on top of me, landing on my back while her fist slammed into my chin. Her eyes were wild in the moonlight, her fist colliding with my face so hard I almost saw more stars in front of me than were visible in the sky through the trees. Fuck, I missed my helmet.

Then she hit me a third time, and ended up regretting it. Because I didn’t have my helmet, but I did have orange paint. That time, her fist didn’t hurt me at all, while she made a flinching motion. Adding purple paint, I shoved her off me, lashing out with a kick into her stomach that doubled the crazy bitch over. Before she could recover, I quickly kicked out again to knock her legs out from under her. It was Cup’s turn to fall on her back. 

It was also her turn to wear those handcuffs. Before she could recover, I grabbed the cuffs from the ground, linking them around her wrists. They clicked into place, just as a flashlight beam swept nearby. My gaze snapped over that way, and I saw them. My pursuers were coming fast. I didn’t have time to do anything else. But hopefully dealing with Cup would slow them down. 

“Later,” I whispered, patting her on the back before tucking the key in my pocket. Then I painted the outside of my costume completely black, activated the silencing power, and took off running. A bit of green on my shoes lent a bit of speed, letting me haul ass away from that spot. 

Go, go! My hands were free and I didn’t have to lug Cup around anymore. Plus, they wouldn’t be able to get her out of there very easily without the key that I was carrying. This was my chance to get to the cabin ahead of them and warn Robert. I just had to keep fucking moving!

So, I did. With my hands freed, I was able to move much faster, using a mixture of blue and red paint to bounce and yank myself from tree to tree, with added green for speed. Ignoring the darkness entirely, I practically flew through the unfamiliar woods. Cabin. I needed to find that cabin, but how? The road. Look for the road. But even that didn’t help too much. The road could be anywhere, considering how I’d blindly fled through the forest with Cup earlier. I had no idea where I was now in relation to that road even before adding in how much it could have wound its way through the forest. 

In the end, I realized I was being stupid. Height. I needed height. At the next tree, I yanked myself to the top, dropped blue paint on the final sturdy branch, and launched upward over the canopy to get a better view of things. 

There. Lights. There were very clear house lights off in the distance. That had to be it. Dark as the forest was, those lights stood out like a beacon. Instantly, I yanked myself to the next tree over and full-on raced that way. I had to get there ahead of the Scions. No matter what happened, no matter what it took, I had to warn Bobby! 

The cabin really was isolated in the middle of nowhere. It was a two-story affair that looked like it had come straight out of some storybook, with a perfectly cut and stacked woodpile on the porch beside the front door, a path leading down to the nearby stream, a cozy little handmade swing, the works. The road went right up to the lot, and I could see fresh tire tracks, but no vehicle. 

Hurriedly, I red-painted myself all the way across the clearing to the front door, knocking on it rapidly while calling, “Mr. Parson! Mr. Parson!” Looking over my shoulder, I muttered a curse and then used purple paint to shove the door in. “I’m on your side! You’re in danger, you–” 

Then I stepped in, and saw no one there. The interior of the cabin was pretty simple, and open enough that it was clear no one was there. There was the main room with a bed in one corner to the left and a living area to the right, with a television, computer on a desk, and an attached kitchenette. Across from the entrance was the bathroom, the door open to reveal that it was as devoid of occupants as the rest of the place. 

He wasn’t here. No one was here. But the lights were on. And there were fresh tire tracks. Quickly, I turned to leave. Then I saw it. A shelf on the wall next to the door, where you might drop your keys, wallet, or whatever was in your pockets. There were no keys on the shelf. Instead, I saw three small objects. Two were toy planes, one an air force jet fighter while the other had started out its life that way but had been painted bright pink with little purple lightning bolts on the wings, and an additional pair of wings that were glued to the bottom of the first. Beside both toy planes was a small action figure. 

I stopped breathing when I saw the toys. My hand covered my mouth and I felt like throwing up. I didn’t know why. I couldn’t… understand why. What was wrong with me? What was wrong with me?! Staring at those toys, my breathing grew louder, more labored. It felt like something was sitting on my chest, like… like I couldn’t breathe. It felt like… I was… cold. I was so cold. I was scared. Why? Why was I so scared? I was even more afraid, in that moment of looking at those toys, than I had been out in those woods. It was a panic attack. I couldn’t breathe, I couldn’t–couldn’t–

The sound of someone at the door snapped my attention that way. I saw the sackcloth mask. I saw the raised gun. I covered the chest part of my costume in orange paint. 

It didn’t help that much. Whatever that weapon was, it hit me with some kind of invisible force that launched me off the ground. It felt like being kicked in the chest by a horse, even with my orange paint. I was sent flying, crashing hard into the wall before falling to the ground. 

I couldn’t move. I couldn’t–my hands wouldn’t–

Pencil kicked me hard in the side, then again to knock me onto my back. He was standing over me, his powerful weapon (it looked like a futuristic shotgun with a spiral-shaped barrel) pointed down at me. “Hurts, doesn’t it?” His words were taunting. “Don’t worry, you’ll be able to move again in a couple minutes.” 

I saw the way his eyes narrowed. “Course, you hurt Cup. So you won’t live long enough for that to matter. And this time, kid, no tricks. No games. You hurt my little sister. You hurt my Cup. No one does that.” 

That was all he said. That was all he was going to say. He was through playing games, through hamming things up. Through playing, in general. He was just going to pull the trigger… and end me, while I lay completely paralyzed at his feet. After everything I did to escape, after everything I’d done… period, I was helpless. I was trapped. I was alone. 

I was going to d–

And then the window just above my head exploded. A dark shape went flying over me with a terrifying roar, colliding with the weapon in Pencil’s hands before tearing it from his grip. The shape continued on past, sliding across the cabin before whirling back to face us while snarling. 

Holiday. It was the lizard-panther, Holiday. 

In the next second, an explosion of debris was accompanied by a deafening roar, as Mars Bar announced his presence by slamming his way through the front door. 

Just as suddenly, a figure appeared over me. “Hey, asshole!” That-A-Way snapped. 

Pack, next to the towering lizard-bear at the front door, finished with, “Get the fuck away from our friend.”

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Ready 11-02 (Summus Proelium)

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I had no more chances to escape my captors while being escorted out of their bunker than I’d had the whole time in it. Less, actually, considering they put a bag over my head and cinched it in place. Now I was blind and handcuffed, and being guided down the hall by Cup while her brother (whom she apparently enjoyed making out with?!) and Fork trailed behind. There was no way I was going to get away from them just then. We passed through several hallways and, given the way the sound changed, also a few larger rooms. I could hear other voices now and then, some laughing or congratulating their boss, others muttering insults and threats at me. 

It was… it was terrifying. Yeah, I was supposed to be brave. I was supposed to be a Star-Touched, some bright symbol or whatever, who didn’t let this kind of thing scare them. But… I was. I was scared. My body was shaking enough as we walked that I knew they could see it. I had to fight not to let my terrified tears leak too much and blind me. How pathetic was that? How pathetic would it be to have to ask the psychotic supervillain monsters to let me please wipe the baby tears out of my eyes? Damn it, damn it, what the fuck was wrong with me? I was supposed to be brave. I was supposed to be… I was supposed to be better than this.

But I wasn’t, and I couldn’t find a way out. I was forced to just stumble along blindly while I was led to what was apparently an underground garage of some kind. I felt myself brush past a few different cars before being pulled to a stop. One of the doors was opened, and I was not-so-gently pushed inside. As I fell in, Cup shoved my legs the rest of the way. Then the bag was pulled off my head to reveal the fact that I was now in the back seat of an SUV, on the floor. From my prone position, I could see a couple random guys step up into the middle seat. They weren’t wearing masks or anything, but honestly, I probably couldn’t have picked them out of a lineup later anyway. They just looked like random, average guys I would have passed on the street without a second thought. They could’ve been clerks at the corner gas station or accountants. Anything, really. Which made the fact that they clearly worked for Pencil and worshiped the Abyssal Typhon even more disturbing. These guys weren’t polite enough to tattoo ‘sick freak obsessed with literal monsters’ across their foreheads, unfortunately. 

Cup hopped up in the back with me, stepping on my leg in the process before her heel went back to kick me in the side. Then she plopped down on the seat, a pistol held idly in one hand. “Try anything,” she informed me, “and I’ll shoot the next five people we pass on the street.” 

“You can’t go anywhere with the cuffs on,” Pencil reminded me. “So don’t try to get cute.” Then he shut the door before moving around to the driver’s side. Fork was apparently not coming. It was just the three of us heading out on this particular trip. Well, the three of us and the two random guys in the middle seat. But no Fork or other Fell-Touched, apparently. How lucky for me. Now I only had to find a way to escape my stay-down cuffs and deal with two of the worst supervillains in the city, along with a couple of their cannon fodder. Where was the challenge? 

Yeah, I wasn’t even convincing myself. I was in really deep shit. Really deep. Marianas trench deep. And I had no idea what I could possibly do to get out of it. None. I was in worse trouble than… yeah, this was the worst trouble I’d ever been in. Because I was pretty sure this time wasn’t going to end with these guys just trading my freedom for a favor, like Deicide. Laying there on the floor of the car, with Cup sitting just above me, I was genuinely afraid that… that I wouldn’t get out of this in one piece, or at all. And if I didn’t, what would happen to my parents, my family? Would they just keep being evil and… and hurting people? What would happen to Wren, or Izzy? Especially Izzy. She was stuck in that house with my evil family. And if I wasn’t there, if I couldn’t be there to help if she got in trouble, what would happen to her then? What if Izzy found out what I had and she had no one to help her, just like I had no one right now? 

I was scared. And everything running through my mind about what could happen to the people I cared about if I didn’t come back made that fear even worse. It was all I could do not to cry like a pathetic little baby as I lay there, frozen in terror as the vehicle started up, the engine coming to life with a steady rumble. And from the brief look that Cup gave me, I could tell she heard the very slight noise that I made while holding back those tears and was pretty amused by it. 

Okay, Cassidy, I told myself. Yes, this is bad. This is… this is really bad. But here’s the thing, if you do nothing, these people will kill you. They will torture and kill you, probably in the worst way possible. Either that or they’ll try to use that torture to turn you to their side, to break you. So what are you going to do? Lay there and cry about how unfair all this is, about how scared you are? Or are you going to get it together and start thinking of a way out of this? Stop sniffling and start thinking of actual solutions. Because nobody is out there. Nobody is coming for you. 

The problem was, easy as it might’ve been to think that to myself, it didn’t actually solve anything more than crying about it would have. I was still stuck here, trapped by a group of psychopaths with no apparent way out of it. My powers couldn’t get me out with these cuffs on. I still had them, but the paint wouldn’t be able to launch me out of this car and away from the Scions. If I got too far away from Cup, I’d be yanked down to the ground by too much force for the red, purple, or blue paints to counter. Besides, even if I could get away, Cup had promised she would shoot several people in retaliation. Could I really condemn them to die like that? 

No. I couldn’t just escape. I had to stop them… somehow. Think. I just had to think. And ignore the fact that Cup was staring at me with what I could only imagine was open and contemptuous amusement behind that mask of hers. She knew. She knew I was trying to think of a way out of this, and she found it funny. Of course she did. She and Pencil were like psychotic little kids tormenting a bug they had found by the side of the road. She clearly wanted me to pay, not only for helping to stop them from doing too much damage to that children’s hospital before, but also because I had physically hurt her. She wanted me to suffer, which meant dragging this out. 

The sound of the Monster Mash song interrupted my thoughts. It was coming from Cup, who took a phone from her pocket and answered with, “What’s up, buttercup?” There was a brief pause as she listened for a moment before murmuring a few acknowledgments. Then she looked toward the front. “Shovel says a couple Touched showed up at the old bitch’s house. Looked like that Compasscunt from the Little League Of Charity Scouts or whatever the fuck they call themselves, and Blackjack’s newest girls, Soundwave and the one with the lizards.” 

That-A-Way, Pack, and… um… the sound girl. I hadn’t actually met or seen her in person yet, and I couldn’t remember her name just then. What were they doing? It was obvious that the ‘old bitch’s house’ was the one I’d been captured at. And clearly just as obvious what those guys were doing. They were looking for me. Pack had obviously found a way to contact That-A-Way, found out I’d lied, and they’d gone there themselves, only to be too late. 

“Well, obviously our friend in the back there kept up with his old buddies from the hospital. How sweet. Shovel have any trouble with them?” Pencil asked idly from the front, his attention clearly more on other things.

“Hold on.” Cup listened for a second before muttering a curse. Then she answered. “Nope, he took off when the annoying invincible cunt from Ten Towers showed up. Skipper or whatever.” 

“Skip,” Pencil corrected, sounding slightly more interested. “You’re saying there were people from three different groups, villains and heroes alike, all just… together at that house? The Minority girl and the one with the lizards are one thing, they worked together before. Maybe even this Broadway, assuming she’s partners or friends with the Lizard. But what was someone from Ten Towers doing there?” From his tone, I could tell that the next words were directed at me. “You been making even more friends there, buddy?” 

I didn’t respond, of course. What was I going to say to the asshole? Besides, I was still trying to figure out why Skip was there myself. I’d run into her earlier, of course. But so what? Why would she be at the house? It didn’t make sense. Maybe she was friends with That-A-Way? But even that was weird and didn’t seem right. I couldn’t figure it out, even if I had wanted to answer. 

“Playing the strong, silent type, huh?” There was a chuckle in Pencil’s voice. “Well, just keep in mind, they won’t find you. The toy we used to kill the signal in your phone and anything else you’ve got on you isn’t a half-measure. See, we’ve found over the years that people keep trying to make it harder and harder for a good kidnapper to make a living. You’ve got duplicate phones, tracking devices in the clothes, embedded in the shoes, under the skin… some people are just really fucking averse to being abducted for some reason, you know? Anyway, short of full-body exploratory surgery every goddamn time we want to hold someone for awhile, the best choice is our signal killer. Your phone and any other tracking device you might have on you just in case of… well, in case of something like this, are all permanently offline. But hey, I bet you could still play Candy Crush on that thing. That’s something, huh? Am I a nice guy or what? I mean, until I cut your thumbs off. Hey, what do you think would be worse, losing both thumbs or one eye?” 

Yeah, I wasn’t going to rise to that bait. I just stayed silent and looked at Cup. She looked back at me, shoulders shaking just a little with silent laughter. It was clear that she was endlessly amused by her brother’s antics. Which made precisely one of us. Or three, I supposed, given the two other guys who were apparently just fine and dandy working for fucking psychopaths. 

When I refused to respond, Pencil just continued. “No opinion? Eh, I guess I’ll take it as it comes. Honestly, I’m leaning toward the eye thing. All that jumping and running around you keep doing, how hard do you think it’d be with shitty depth perception? Honestly, that seriously might be worth letting you go afterward, just to see you hopping around slamming into things, falling off buildings, shit like that. Fucking great. But see, that gets to my whole deal with this. Killing you? That’s amateur hour. There’s no point. Some guy catches you off-guard with a fucking pistol can kill you. No. No, that’s too easy. That’s too… boring. What someone like you needs, what you deserve, is to be broken. And you mark my words, Mr. Paintball, when we’re through this little road trip, I’ll be able to turn my full and undivided attention to you. 

“And you will be broken when I’m done.” 

Once her brother was done talking, Cup stared at me intently for a few seconds. Whatever she was looking for she must have found, because she looked toward the front where I assumed Pencil was watching and gave him a slight nod. Without my helmet, she could probably see the genuine fear in my eyes through the simple ski mask. Try as I might, I couldn’t suppress it. I couldn’t entirely shove down the terror of what might happen, what would happen if I didn’t find a way out of this. I’d seen the news reports. I’d read the articles, heard… heard witnesses that the Scions had intentionally released to carry their stories to the public. Pencil was right, there was no one to help me. I was on my own. And if I didn’t escape, if I didn’t get out of this on my own, then I was going to suffer and probably die on my own. Or suffer so much I gave up my friends and family. Wren. If I told them about Wren, how they could find and twist her…

No. No, no, no. I had to get out of this. I had to get out of this. I wouldn’t let that happen. Please.

Okay, think. I had to think. Laying on my back there on the floor, I closed my eyes, hoping Cup would assume I was consumed with terror and leave me alone. I just had to think. 

It was late. I had no idea how long I’d been knocked out before, because I’d stupidly not paid attention to the time when I tried to call for help only to find no signal. So it could be ten at night, two in the morning, or anything else. All I knew was that it was dark through the windows of the SUV, save for the glimpses of passing headlights and streetlamps. And because I couldn’t check my phone, I had no idea if my parents were in the middle of a full-scale meltdown about me being missing, or if they hadn’t even noticed yet. Mark that as something to deal with if the time came. That was, if I got out of this alive. 

Which led to the whole escaping part. Yeah. Okay, so what did I have? I could use my powers, but that wouldn’t help much. Purple paint couldn’t make me strong enough to break cuffs that had been designed to hold much stronger Touched than me. Green paint could make me fast, but the second I got too far away from Cup, I’d just be yanked to the ground. Same for red pulling me away from them, or blue launching me. Whatever I did, a second later I’d be yanked down and my ‘escape’ would be over and done with. So… so what the fuck could I do? 

I knew where Lake Victoria was. It was about an hour and a half or so from Detroit. I had that long to think of a plan, a way to get out of this and not end up under Pencil’s undivided attention.

So stop panicking, stop being a sniveling little baby, and think. Focus. I could get out of this. I had to get out of this. Hour and a half, brain. You’ve got an hour and a half to think of a genius escape plan.  

Please don’t let me down. 

*****

When the SUV pulled to a stop along a gravel road, it was still dark outside. My eyes turned slightly to look at the window next to Cup’s head, as I listened to Pencil telling the two men in the middle seat to get out and look around. Once they did so, he addressed my babysitter. “Baby sis, you ready for a little hike?” 

“Can’t we just drive up there?” the girl retorted, her foot idly kicking against my stomach. “Look, the road keeps going up through that gate. How far do we have to walk?” 

“Couple miles, according to the map,” came the response. “And we can’t drive it. Knowing the old man, he’ll hear the car engine and see the lights. After all we’ve gone through to find this cocksucker, you really wanna give him a chance to escape? We’ll hoof it in through the forest.” 

From her reaction, I could tell that Cup wasn’t happy about that. But she didn’t argue. Instead, she just gave me a harder kick, practically stomping on my stomach before opening the door. Her hand grabbed my ankle and yanked, while I scrambled to push myself up awkwardly. I basically half-fell out of the vehicle, then completely fell as she gave me a kick in the back of the leg. 

We were in the middle of nowhere. To the left, I could see water in the far distance. Lake Victoria, I assumed. To the right was a forested area. The gravel road we were on stretched back into the darkness and continued up through a simple metal gate that stretched across it.

Cup was standing over me, while the two random thugs were spread out. One was examining the gate while the other ran some kind of scanner over the fence before calling back that it was electrified. Pencil was just getting out, adjusting the mask that I was pretty sure he’d had off the whole time we were driving. 

It was now or never. These guys wouldn’t be this distracted again. In a second, they’d remember to pay more attention to me. It was time to enact my genius plan. 

So, I kicked Cup in the leg. More to the point, I activated the purple paint I’d prepared earlier on the inside of my costume leg, powered it, and lashed out with as hard of a kick as I could manage. At the same time, I turned a bit so that the hands behind my back were pointed at her, and shot a bit of silencing black at her chest, to muffle her scream as she started to fall. And to stop the bitch from using her power, of course.  

As Cup fell, I continued my roll so that my cuffed hands were pointed back toward the truck and the gate that one of the men was still inspecting. A shot of red at each sent the SUV flying that way, narrowly missing Pencil, who dropped into a roll to avoid it.

Meanwhile, that one bit of purple was far from the only paint I’d prepared for this. I had a whole fucking art gallery going on inside my costume, and in that moment, I used green to speed myself up and orange for the defense. I was on my feet, standing over the fallen Cup with my back to her as she held her leg and screamed silently. 

Pencil was coming back to his feet, already out of his roll with his pistol raised. He fired twice, both shots hitting my chest. They stung, but otherwise I was fine. Fine enough to pivot, lashing out with my still-enhanced strength to kick Cup right in the face while she was still on the ground. My foot hit her hard enough to knock the bitch onto her back. 

I kept pivoting. Pencil had fired three more times while running toward me. One shot missed, the other two hit me. Again, they stung without actually damaging me too much. But it was definitely starting to hurt. Time to go!

Standing over the prone Cup while facing the incoming Pencil, I shot red down at her, matching it with my gloved hand. She was jerked upward, and I caught her arm. 

Pencil knew. He bellowed a threat, a warning, a promise, all three. I ignored him. Using my free hand, I shot blue paint at the ground between us and lunged at it while hauling the dazed and barely conscious Cup along for the ride. My feet hit the paint as I activated it, launching me and Cup high into the air, my momentum carrying us forward. 

We flew over the fence, joined together by the red paint as we came crashing down in the middle of a group of trees some distance beyond. It wasn’t a pretty landing. We fell together, rolling along the ground in a tangled jumble. I took one of Cup’s elbows to the face and I was pretty sure she wasn’t even trying. 

In the end, when the dust settled, the two of us were lying in the dirt next to a bush. I could hear Pencil screaming after me, promising everything he was going to do if I didn’t let his sister go. 

So there I was, barely out of Pencil’s sight, in the middle of nowhere. My hands were still cuffed behind my back, and the only way I could keep moving was by dragging Cup along with me. Because that was the secret. I couldn’t run away from Cup without being yanked to the ground, but as long as she was with me when I escaped, willingly or not, the cuffs wouldn’t activate. And thanks to the black paint, she couldn’t use the command word to activate them manually. 

Now all I had to do was stay away from a totally enraged Pencil and his goons, find my way through this completely dark forest in the middle of nowhere, and stop the bad guys from killing Robert Parsons, all while dragging Queen Psycho along with my hands literally tied behind my back. 

Genius plan indeed. 

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Ready 11-01 (Summus Proelium)

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I had no idea how much time had passed when I eventually snapped awake. There was no slow waking process, no chance to pretend I was still out of it. There was just a sudden rush of panicked adrenaline, as if I’d had a nightmare. Then I was sitting up, eyes wide as I practically hyperventilated while looking around wildly to see where I was. The memory of Pencil’s sack-cloth covered face staring intently at me as I passed out was fresh in my panicked mind. 

He wasn’t in front of me anymore. I also wasn’t in that backyard. The room around me was fairly small, just nine feet by nine feet square, and empty. The floor, ceiling, and all four walls were made of cement. There was a heavy metal door straight ahead from where I was sitting, with one of those sliding window hatch things that someone outside could open to look in. 

Um. This was bad. I was just gonna go ahead and say this was really bad. The Scions of Typhon, and Pencil in particular, were evil fucking psychopaths at the best of times, to anyone. But they had reason to be particularly annoyed with me. This… yeah, this was very fucking bad. 

My helmet was missing, I realized belatedly. But I still had on my mask and the rest of my costume. The worry that I hadn’t always had my mask on blared in the back of my head, but there was literally nothing I could do about that right now. I had to find a way out of this place. 

Wait, my phones! Quickly, I checked my pockets. They were there. So was the photo that I’d taken out of that car, but I ignored that for the moment. Instead, I pulled my Touched phone out and looked at it. No signal. Of course, why would Pencil and his people be stupid enough to leave me in a position where I could simply call for help? This wasn’t exactly their first kidnapping. 

Okay, I had to find a way out of this. I had to. The Scions were not the kind of people who would just let me go. This was going to get a hell of a lot worse really quick if I didn’t get out of here. No one was coming to help me. No one knew where I was. I’d stubbornly insisted on dealing with this myself, while lying to Pack that I would ask That-A-Way for help. So neither of them knew I was in trouble, or where I might be even if they did figure that out. I was on my own. 

How was I supposed to escape from a cement room? The purple paint made me strong, but not that strong. The red paint might be able to yank the steel door off its hinges, maybe. Or at least bend it enough for me to squeeze out. But if it did, what was on the other side? I could not deal with the entire team of Scions, Touched and Prev alike, all by myself, right in the middle of wherever they’d taken me. That wasn’t gonna happen.

But did I have a choice besides trying? What else was I going to do, sit here and wait for Pencil to get to the part where he tortured me for funsies? Plead with them to pretty please let me go? Yeah, like that would be useful for anything other than possibly making them laugh a little bit. 

Getting to my feet, I ignored the mounting panic, the confusion over that whole picture with the Anthony kid and me, my guilt over getting Eits hurt and then lying to Pack about contacting That-A-Way, and everything else. The only thing that mattered right now was getting out of here.

To that end, I focused on that metal door. Using the red paint to tear it free, with help from purple paint for strength as I yanked on it, was my best chance. I didn’t see any cameras or anything, so I might be able to pull this off and take whoever was outside by surprise if I managed to get the door free before they could react to the sound. Wait, sound. Duh. Black paint. Okay, I would silence the door and the wall around it just to be on the safe side. Then I’d tear it free and deal with whatever was waiting for me. It wouldn’t be easy, but it was better than sitting here waiting.

Or… the sliding viewing hatch thing could move aside, revealing a pair of eyes staring in at me. There was a lingering pause as the eyes took me in for a moment, then the hatch slid closed and I heard the muffled sound of a voice calling out to someone else, “Hey, he’s awake!”  

He. The person called me a he. That was good, right? It showed that my whole disguise wasn’t blown or anything. I was basically trying to latch onto anything remotely positive in that moment. 

While I was still trying to orient myself from having my hypothetical escape attempt aborted so quickly, there was the sound of several heavy locks disengaging on the other side of the door. Really heavy locks, it seemed like. With a couple more dull thunks of metal settling into place, the door was hauled open. It pulled outward, revealing a figure standing in a dimly lit stone hallway. 

“If Santa’s reindeer staged a coup, who would their leader be?” 

Wait, what–Santa’s reindeer were… right, Dasher and Dancer, Prancer and Vixen, Comet and Cupid, and Donner and Blitzen. I’d always thought of the ones in front as the leaders, but would that be Blitzen? That sounded right, he was the last one mentioned so he was like the leader, right? Or would that be Rudolph? No, Rudolph was added last so there was no way he’d be the leader of a coup. Would he even be involved in a coup, or would he be too loyal to Santa to–

My hands were cuffed behind my back. Snapping out of my brief daze, I saw Cup, of course. She was in her white cloak, bodysuit, and the matching mask that covered the bottom half of her face while leaving the upper half, including brilliantly gleaming blue eyes, revealed. I saw a hint of dark hair mostly hidden within the hood as she winked at me. “Hiya, Colorboy. Is it my turn to break your arm?” Her tone was intentionally, almost mockingly light, but there was an underlying anger there. Yeah, she was definitely holding a grudge.

Cup continued. “Those are stay-down cuffs, for the record. So don’t think you can just attack us and run off. You won’t get very far.” Her eyes watched mine intently, before laughing at whatever she saw there. 

Another figure appeared in the doorway just beyond the psycho girl. It was Fork, the living porcupine guy with the explosive quills. He gave me a hateful glare before clearing his throat. 

“Yeah, yeah,” Cup snapped without looking that way. Her eyes rolled as she spoke in a stage-whisper. “People are so impatient, am I right?” Without waiting for me to answer, she added, “Oh well, ready to join the party upstairs?” As if I had the slightest hint of a choice. “Pencil really wants to talk to you. And he’s even more impatient sometimes than Pokey there.”

Things had been bad before. Now they were worse. I had stay-down cuffs on, so even if I managed to get away from these two, I wouldn’t get very far. The cuffs would just yank me to the ground, and they were made to keep people a hell of a lot stronger than I was right where they were. Plus, with Cup and Fork here, not to mention whoever else happened to be near… yeah, I wasn’t going anywhere. Not yet, anyway. I was going to have to just go along with things and look for an opening. And try to keep myself from panicking too much. I had to shove the rising terror down, because it wasn’t helpful right now. I had to push it away and keep my eyes open. Bad as this was, something would happen. That, or I’d just make it happen. 

As soon as I came to the decision not to try to fight right now, Cup immediately spoke. “And there it is. He knows better.” Somehow, she’d apparently read all of that in my eyes. Probably because she was very accustomed to dealing with people who felt hopeless and realized how totally screwed they were. 

Stepping aside, the white-clad psychopath gestured for Fork to lead the way. “Let’s get him upstairs, before brother dearest has a conniption. You know how he loves his dramatic moments.” 

Brother… wait, Pencil was her brother? Was that a secret? I felt like that was a secret. Which didn’t say much about their intentions for me, not that that was much of a surprise. Still, no wonder Anchovy had said that Pencil would be mad at me for hurting Cup. She was his sister.

We seemed to be in some kind of underground bunker, from what I could tell as we moved through the narrow corridor beyond the room that had been my cell. The whole time I desperately watched for an escape opportunity, but there just… wasn’t anything. Fork was ahead of me, Cup behind me, and there were various armed guards along the way who definitely weren’t just going to let me run off even if I could have escaped my cuffs. And that was the biggest problem anyway. Nothing I could do would let me go anywhere with these damn cuffs on. The second I tried to leave Cup’s range, I would simply be yanked to the floor. Damn it! Fuck, fuck, how could I be so stupid? I was still stupid, even after getting Eits hurt by asking him to help me. What was I supposed to do now? There had to be something, right? There… there had to be something…

But there wasn’t. Or at least, not one that I could think of before we turned left at a T-junction in the corridors, went through three different heavy steel doors in succession with a short six foot hallway between each, and emerged into… an apartment? Yeah, it looked like an ordinary old, fairly middle of the road apartment living room with an attached kitchenette in the middle of this bomb shelter, bunker, whatever it was. 

Pencil was there, watching tv in a recliner while wearing a bathrobe over his regular costume, sackcloth mask and all. He held a tumbler of whiskey or something, swishing it around thoughtfully without looking up as we entered. His focus seemed to be on the television nearby, where someone on the news was reporting about some kind of fight between the state heroes known as the Spartans, and the Ninety-Niners. 

Neither Cup nor Fork spoke or did anything to attract the man’s attention. Not that they needed to, considering the sound the door made when it was opening. He knew we were there, but ignored us while watching the screen, still swishing that whiskey around thoughtfully. Through it all, I was frantically trying to think if there was anything I could do, anything at all. 

Finally, the man picked up the remote, muted the television, and addressed me without looking. “Do you know why we let you keep your phone and anything else you have on you? Do you know why you still have your costume and mask? Aside from…” He gestured vaguely toward the nearby table, where I could see my helmet sitting. 

“Um.” I paused before guessing, “Because you really like a challenge?” 

There was a slight chuckle at that, from both him and Cup. Fork was silent. Pencil finally stood from his chair, shrugging out of the robe before letting it fall as he stepped my way. Stopping in front of me, the man tilted his head, staring at me through the holes in that simple sack of a mask. “No, because it’s not a challenge. I’m sure you already tried calling for help, to no avail. You’re alone here, surrounded by people who… I promise, would very much like to kill you after making sure you suffer so goddamn much. And you have no way of escaping, let alone posing any sort of threat.

“You have your mask because, while I could have taken it away from you, it will be so much more fun when you give it to me yourself. Taking something from someone? Any buffoon with a knife can do that. Making you give it up yourself? Making you give me your mask, tell me your name, your age, the names of your family, your friends? Making you do all of that in the desperate hope of sparing yourself some… small measure of pain, that’s just… that is the real power. I could take everything from you in a single moment. But that’s like playing a game with all the cheat codes on. It’s fun for about five minutes, but you don’t get the real experience, you know what I mean? No, the real joy is in stretching things out, in truly earning that submission. You are going to give that mask to me yourself, along with everything else I ask for. And that is far more fun than simply taking it from you like some sort of thug.” 

It took me a second to find my voice. I was supposed to be brave and basically spit in the face of danger, but it was hard to find a witty retort in that moment. I was terrified. I knew what the Scions of Typhon did to their victims. I knew just how sadistic they could be. Trapped here, alone, surrounded by several of the most dangerous, monstrous pieces of shit in the country? Yeah, a quick, pithy retort didn’t come immediately to mind. 

But I also didn’t want them to know just how easily they could get to me. So I finally found my voice, the only response that came to mind being to basically echo his words with as much disbelief as I could manage. “You think you can hurt me enough to make me just tell you who I am and sic you on all my friends and family?” 

Somehow, I resisted the urge to tell him that he might be surprised at just how hard taking on my family would end up being. I was going to say nothing that might give him a hint about my situation, or anything about me. 

“I think,” Pencil replied, stressing that word in a sort-of mocking way, “that you’re very new to this, but you’ve had some early success. I think you’re a very special person, and that I’m going to have a lot of fun, maybe the most fun I’ve had in a long time, breaking that down.” I could see his smile through the hole in the mask. “I think making someone watch you kill the people they care about is a pretty good time. But convincing them to tell you who to target? Making them press that metaphorical button themselves and ask you to please spare them a little pain by hurting someone else? That’s how you really break them. Everyone thinks they’ll be strong, that they’d never betray someone they love. But you know what? Most people do, given enough incentive. How much is enough for you? I guess we’ll find out.” 

“Do we get to play with him now?” Cup asked, her tone pleading. “I was soooo good!” She stepped around me and embraced him tightly, rubbing up against him. “Please let me play with him now. Throw a treat to your little sister!” 

Well, that was kind of an odd thing for a sister to do to her bro–

Then she tugged her mask down a bit (faced mostly away from me so I still couldn’t see her face) and kissed him. Like, full on the mouth. Not just a peck either, it was far more than that. They were… um, yeah, busy like that for a few long seconds. 

What. The. Fuck. 

Was this the torture starting? I felt like this was the torture starting. 

Finally, the man pulled back, rubbing Cup’s shoulders, back, and then, ahhh… lower in a still-very-very-very-not-brotherly way before focusing on me. “Not yet,” he said flatly. “First, I want to see if he’ll answer one question.” His tone darkened. “How do you know Robert Parson? See, he’s been a reeeeeeal pain in the ass. Took me a long time to find his name, even longer to get any kind of lead on him. Then I find out some kid’s out there looking for the same name. Turns out he’s got an address of Robert Parson’s mother. Dead for a year now, rest her soul. So, I sent a couple friends out to convince the kid to give up the goods. They get interrupted, but manage to take his phone. We get the address off that, show up to look for clues about where Parson himself could be, and who do we find there? You. Little old you. 

“So you tell me, kid. Do you know where he is? Because that could spare you a lot of trouble, I promise. Hell, I might even be convinced to let you scoot along on your own, nice and healthy. I may be annoyed with you, but Robert Parson is one that I’m willing to dismiss an awful lot of grudges for. Everything I just said a minute ago about all the things I could put you through, and I’d just let that go in exchange for telling me where that son of a bitch is.” 

Well, that one I could answer honestly. “I’m looking for him too,” I replied simply. “The… the boy your pieces of shit attacked was finding an address for me.” I couldn’t keep the anger about that out of my voice, and I didn’t really try. 

There was a smile from the man. “Is that right? Now why, exactly, would you be looking for Robert Parson?” 

Before I could say anything to that, Fork suddenly looked up from the phone he’d been studying. “Boss,” he started, “they’ve got something. Guy sent a letter from some place near Lake Victoria, north-east of Lansing. Contents were burned or tossed, but they found enough of the envelope in the back of the fireplace to make out the address.” 

That slow, Cheshire smile that showed off Pencil’s teeth appeared, as he murmured, “Really, now? Lake Victoria. What’s that, couple hours from here?” Abruptly, the man gave a sharp whistle and swatted Cup on her backside. “Go warm up the car, babe.” 

While she slinked off to do just that, he looked to me and curiously asked, “Tell me something, kid. What kind of snacks do you like? 

“Cuz we’re going on a car ride.”

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Alliances 6-08 (Summus Proelium)

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Please note, if you read Heretical Edge, there was a special commissioned chapter posted yesterday. If you have not seen that and would like to, go ahead and click right here

A riddle almost killed me. And, ironically, a riddle also saved me. Or rather, Riddles. 

Yeah, the lizard-bird came flying out of nowhere, slamming right into Cup’s face and clawing at her with a deafening screech. The impact knocked backwards, throwing off her aim just enough so that the bullet, as she pulled the trigger, went flying a few inches to the right of my head. It passed through the wall, leaving a neat hole there. Which was a hell of a lot better than the neat hole it would’ve left in my head. 

Even then, it took a couple seconds for the question she’d asked to stop commanding all of my attention. I finally physically jerked as my mind came back to the actual situation in time to see Riddles beating her wings against Cup’s face just as her beak bit down hard on the girl’s hand, drawing a shriek of surprise and pain from her. 

Realizing just how close I’d come to death in that instant, I almost fell to my knees and sobbed. Actually, pretty much the only thing that stopped me from doing just that (and probably curling up into a ball for awhile) was the sight of Cup’s other hand reaching up to grab the lizard-bird by the neck. Quickly, I shot a bit of red paint out to Riddles’ back, yanking her to my raised arm, where she clung tightly. “Hey buddy,” I started while taking two steps forward, painting my arm purple.”Thanks for the–” My fist lashed out, punching Cup in the face while she was still recovering. “–assist!” 

It may have looked like cloth, but that mask around the bottom half of Cup’s face had to be armored in some way, because it didn’t give nearly as much as it should have considering the force I was punching her with. It felt like hitting a pretty solid wall. Which made sense, considering how many people probably tried shooting her in the face for everything she was responsible for. Still, she was knocked to the floor with a new cry of pain, and I saw blood. Two bits of blood, actually. One from her nose and another on her hand where Riddles bit her. Even better, the gun went sliding across the floor away from her, ending up under a pile of overturned chairs. 

On the far side of the room, I could see Pack and the rest of her menagerie (apart from Holiday, who was still upstairs) busy trying to deal with Box and the remaining Scion troops who weren’t already down. Pack was favoring one arm, holding it cradled to her side while directing Mars Bar and Twinkletoes, who were doing the majority of the damage. Tuesday kept popping in from the sides to hit the troops while they were trying to focus on the obvious threats. Even as I glanced that way, I could see him rip a good chunk of flesh out of one man’s arm with his teeth, sending him to the ground with a scream of agony. Good. He tried to blow up sick little kids. 

Cup had scrambled up to her knees by then, and was starting to say something. She was cut off, however, as my quick shot of black paint hit the psycho bitch right in her chest, instantly muting any sound. “Yeah,” I snapped, “I think I’ve heard just about enough out of you, thanks.” 

Then there was a new problem. The gun that Cup had been holding was gone, yes. It was still somewhere under that pile of chairs. Unfortunately, as it turned out, that wasn’t the only gun she was carrying. I know, right? Psycho evil cult supervillains, who expects them to carry two guns? 

Yeah, I might still need some experience with this. Either way, she produced that second gun. And while she couldn’t actually talk, her eyes, burning with hatred as she brought it into line with me, screamed everything that needed to be said. She was going to kill me, and enjoy doing it. 

Or, well, try. Because even as she pulled that trigger, I had already activated the orange circles along the sides of my torso that I’d put there before we came in this room. The first bullet simply bounced off my chest. It stung pretty bad, and would definitely leave a bit of a welt. But that was all. The subsequent two shots that she fired off quickly also stung, drawing a gasp from me. Then I was there, painting my arm purple once more as I tore the pistol from her grip. My other hand caught hold of her arm, and jerked her up and over. With a grunt, I deliberately twisted that arm until I felt something break. Just like when I’d hit her mask, it took a lot more force than it should’ve. Her costume was definitely armored. But not enough to stop me from snapping at least something, before I threw her face-first into the nearby wall. She collided hard with it and fell, sprawling out on the floor where she lay still, visibly breathing but not doing much else. 

Just to be on the safe side, I shot another bit of black paint to keep her silent. Gliding over my head, Riddles made a screeching noise at her fallen form.

By the time it was clear that she was staying down, I was already spinning to run and help Pack. Unfortunately, as I did so, my feet went out from under me, and I ended up sprawling across the ground with a yelp. 

“Hey, asshole,” a new voice snapped, and I looked that way from my fallen position to see another figure approaching. He wore a parody of a superhero costume. It was basically red footie pajamas (which was a real bold fashion choice) with a white, hand-drawn image of a tiny fish on the chest. A blue blanket of some kind was attached to the shoulders like a child’s idea of a cape, and he wore a simple black domino mask over his face. His hair was red and spiky. 

This was Anchovy. And as absurd as he looked, his power, as I understood it, was still a pain in the ass. Despite making himself look like some goofy, toddler parody of a hero like Superman, his gift wasn’t exactly superstrength and flight. No, he ruined things. Or actions. Basically, if he focused on a person, things they did tended to go wrong. They might choke on a bit of food they were eating, sprain their ankle kicking someone, accidentally jerk the wheel when driving and run someone over, or whatever. The list went on. The point was, he focused on someone and actions they took had negative results. Meanwhile, physical objects he focused on would fall apart or break or whatever. Guns jammed, walls simply crumbled as if they were much older than they were, computers broke down, so on and so forth. He focused on people or items and bad things happened. Such as me falling flat on my face just from turning around. Jackass.

“Boss is gonna be pretty pissed with you for hurting Cup,” Anchovy informed me while taking a pistol of his own from the belt around his one-piece pajamas (Fuck, how could I take him seriously like that, even with a gun? This wasn’t fair.), which he pointed my way. “But when I tell him I put a bullet in your brain, maybe he’ll get over it.” 

Quickly throwing myself to the side, I snapped my hand up to shoot a wad of red paint that hit his gun. Unfortunately, his power must’ve kicked in then, because when I yanked the gun away from him, it missed my hand entirely and smacked me right in the visor of my helmet. At least it didn’t hit my face, thanks to said helmet, but I was still very briefly stunned, jerking backward reflexively. Which was enough time for Anchovy to cross the distance between us and tackle me. I landed hard on my back with the man on me. He’d produced a knife from somewhere, which he was trying to shove into my ribs while holding me down with his other hand. 

But Riddles was there, diving in to grab the knife out of the man’s grasp before he could shiv me (was it still called shiving even with a normal knife?) and carrying it away with a hard flap of her wings. Of course, that brought Anchovy’s attention to her, and the lizard-bird abruptly flew straight into an overturned chair before falling to the floor. Which left Anchovy free to produce a second knife, preparing to shove it as deep into my gut as he wanted. 

I, however, didn’t really like that plan. At all. And he’d taken his focus off me for that brief moment, so I used it by painting my legs purple and kicking out hard. The guy was sent into the air and backward to slam high up into the wall with a loud blurted curse. As he started to fall, I hit him in the face with a wad of white paint, triggering it instantly to leave him blinded just before he hit the floor hard enough to make him yelp. 

Hoping that not being able to see me would mean he couldn’t use his power on me, I lunged that way. Throwing myself onto the man, I used refreshed purple paint to rip the blanket-cape from his shoulders, then tore it in half before wrapping the first bit tightly around his head while he was still recovering. He cursed and spat at me, but I managed to shove the man over onto his stomach, using the other half of the cape to tie his hands behind his back. 

Okay, okay, he was down. He was secure, for the moment at least. Jerking myself up from him, I stumbled a little in my rush. Gaze snapping over toward Cup just in case, I found her still lying motionless. Totally out of it and in no position to fight, thank God. 

Right, Cup was down. Anchovy was down. Box… my gaze snapped that way in time to see the man himself lying very still on the floor. Twinkletoes had his arms held out above his head, while Mars Bar was crouched over him, mouth open to growl very dangerously directly into his face, those enormous teeth like rows of daggers. Yeah, the guy wasn’t interested in moving. 

Correction, he was very interested in moving. He just wasn’t stupid enough to try it.

The rest of the thugs seemed to be down for the count too, or just staying very still to avoid attracting attention. Looking around the room, I didn’t see any more threats. They were down. They were done. We… we actually pulled it off. Holy shit, we actually pulled it off! 

“Riddles, watch these guys,” Pack ordered her bird-lizard, who had recovered by then. “If anyone tries to move, rip their eyes out with your beak.” She waited for a confirming squawk before turning to me, panting heavily. Her shotgun lay nearby, bent at an angle that told me she’d used it to hit something pretty hard. “This hero shit is for the birds,” she informed me, still cradling her arm with a wince. “Fuck.” 

Before I could say anything to that, That-A-Way came through the door. “Aww, and here I was hoping you’d enjoy this so much that you’d switch sides. Cooome on, being celebrated and cheered instead of hated and run from is a lot more fun.” She came up, glancing around the room while adding, “Plus there’s the whole ‘not being arrested’ perk. Here.” With that, the girl tossed a couple pairs of stay-down cuffs to me. “Let’s make sure the Touched assholes don’t get ideas.’ 

Catching the cuffs, I moved to where Cup was still laying sprawled out. “Cover me?” I asked Pack. “Pretty sure she can only affect one person at a time with that power of hers.” 

She came, producing a small pistol in place of that broken shotgun with her uninjured hand. Tuesday came with, growling low and baring his teeth. As we neared the fallen woman, she shifted a bit, then yelped out loud as the monkey-lizard literally jumped on her back. 

“Yeah,” I muttered, “that’s what I thought, faker.” Reaching down, I quickly cuffed the woman, making sure they were tight. “We should probably gag her or something, just in case.” 

“Let’s go with ‘or something’, Pack announced. “Tuesday, if she makes a peep, punch her in the back of the head until she stops moving. Riddles, if she says anything to Tuesday, rip her throat out.” To me, she added, “Her power’s good at distracting, but shit at doing actual damage.” 

From the way Cup lifted her head and glowered at that, she wasn’t happy with the assessment. Too bad. I looked away from her in time to see That-A-Way finish cuffing Box while Mars Bar and Twinkletoes reluctantly moved out of the way. Anchovy was still bound and blinded by his own blanket cape. 

“Wow, I… I think we actually pulled it off,” I murmured incredulously, looking around the room one more time. “What about the hostages?” 

“Safe and sound,” That-A-Way replied easily. Her mouth opened to say something else, but she was interrupted. 

“Oooh, what kinda sound?” The voice came from the nearby doorway, and we all spun that way to find a figure coming into view. A figure who wore a tweed suit and a sackcloth mask with a long blond wig attached to it. 

“Was it sorta like… ‘garrggggnnnlllurggull?’” Pencil asked. “Cuz that’s basically the sound they were making a few seconds ago when I left ‘em. It was pretty hilarious.” 

Wait… Oh no. Oh no, no, no…

“Wha-what?” That-A-Way blurted, her eyes widening as she snapped her taser up to point at him. “No, we… I… I left them somewhere safe.” 

There was a brief inhale from the masked psychopath as he rocked his head back and forth as though debating before shaking it. “Yeeeeeah, not so much, Cupcake. I mean, don’t get me wrong, I didn’t kill the kids because… well, nature’s already doing that for me and how am I supposed to compete with something that makes ‘em that miserable for so long and then kills ‘em anyway? Actually, that’s a bad question, I could totally do it better, but I was in a bit of a hurry. And that whole hurrying thing is why I didn’t kill all of the adults. Just cut a throat or two, disemboweled a couple more, and basically left the survivors up to their ears in blood, entrails, and psychological trauma. Oh, and the fact that I got to do that right after you told them they were safe and then left? That was probably my favorite part. Thank you for that, really. I’ll send you a fruit basket or so–” 

In mid-sentence, he was suddenly interrupted as That-A-Way appeared beside him, shoving the taser in his stomach with a scream while lashing out with her other hand to punch him. At the same time, Pack snapped that pistol of hers up and fired off several shots, and Mars Bar hurled himself that way with a roar. 

The taser did nothing. Nor did the punch. Or the bullets from the gun. Even as I was telling myself to move, trying to lunge in to help, Pencil snatched the taser from the other girl while driving his knee into her stomach. She doubled over, and he pivoted, catching hold of her neck to throw her into the incoming Mars Bar, who plowed into the girl while struggling to slow himself. That-A-Way hit the ground and rolled with a cry of pain. Mars, meanwhile, was suddenly hit with some kind of green cloud that exploded in his face. The big bear roared in agony and dove to the floor, rubbing his snout on the tile to get whatever it was off. 

Still pivoting to come all the way back around, Pencil threw that taser at Pack. It hit her with a sharp, visible jolt of electricity, and she hit the floor as well. 

Covering my legs with green paint for speed, I threw a puddle of blue at the floor by Pencil’s feet just as he focused on me. It launched him upward, and I had the satisfaction of hearing a surprised yelp from the man. Then I hit him with red paint while he was still flailing in the air, while also hitting the furthest wall with the same color. Activating both sent him flying across the room to slam hard into that wall. 

It did nothing. He fell to the floor, and that seemed to do nothing as well, of course. Nor was he actually hurt when the invisible Twinkletoes yanked him off the ground and spun to slam him into that same wall again

Nothing hurt him. Nothing. We could do this all day and it wouldn’t matter. But trap him? Contain him? Maybe we could do that.

“Hold him!” I blurted at Twinkletoes while scrambling that way. I still had one of those sets of cuffs. “Just hold onto him!” 

The gorilla-lizard tried. He really did. But Pencil managed to get a hand into his pocket, throwing some kind of pellet up and back. It exploded in the animal’s face, creating a another small cloud of green smoke similar to the one that had hit Mars Bar. This one that left Twinkletoes staggering and moaning in pain, releasing the man. 

I was there, painting my arms purple for strength as I tried to grab onto him. I couldn’t hurt him, but I could hold him long enough to cuff him. 

Or not. He smoothly evaded as I tried to grab him. Worse, he laughed at me. Spinning on one heel like we were dancing as I lunged that way, he also ducked under the shot of red paint I sent at his face. The next thing I knew, his hand was on my shoulder, his foot hit my ankle, and the floor came rushing up to smack me in the visor. 

“Probably a good idea to wear a helmet in this line of work,” he commended. Before I could move, his foot came down on my wrist, pushing against it enough to send a sharp shock of pain all the way up my arm, making it really hard to focus on anything else. “Too bad y–” 

It had taken me a second, but I managed to concentrate enough to paint my wrist blue. Pencil was launched away from me, and I quickly rolled over on my back as he came down by a pile of chairs. My arm (the one that wasn’t currently throbbing) snapped up to shoot red at him, but he threw one of those chairs in the way, making it catch that instead. 

“Hey, Dingaling!” a female voice blurted, and my gaze reflexively snapped that way in time to see Cup, standing up and no longer cuffed (how the hell had she managed that?!) as she called, “Is a dragonfly a dragon to a fly or a fly to a dragon?” 

Is… wait, no hold on. I was fine, I could totally answer this. I could. This was easy. It was a dragon that… hold on. Wait…

In the background, I vaguely noticed Cup and Pencil both heading for the exit. Fork had gotten back to his feet to join them, but they’d had to leave Box and Anchovy behind. Still, they wouldn’t get away. I could catch up. I just had to finish this question. It was…

“Paintball!” A hand smacked me across the helmet, as Pack popped up into my field of view. “What are you doing?! What–are you–” 

Snapping out of it, I waved both hands frantically, ignoring the burst of pain. “Stop them, stop them!” 

That-A-Way was already back on her feet, and we, along with the lizard-beasts (Twinkletoes and Mars Bar had recovered) went running after the pair. We crashed through the exit of the hospital and out onto the front walkway to find… nothing. They were gone. 

“Yooo hooo!” 

Or not. We spun, stumbling a bit in our rush before looking up toward the roof of a low, one-story building at the edge of the lot straight ahead. Pencil, Fork, and Cup were there, the first waving a cell phone in one hand. 

“You know, fucking with my bomb upstairs was really rude!” Pencil called down. “Made it so much weaker than it should’ve been. Now I can’t knock the whole building down and teach those kids about the fleeting futility of life. Though I did get to slit their doctors’ throats right in front of them, so maybe they’ll work it out on their own!” 

“Teleport?” I quickly asked That-A-Way. 

Her head shook, voice cracking a bit. “They’re south of us, I… I can be intangible at him, but… but…” 

Reaching out to grab her arm so I could launch at least the two of us that way, if not Pack and her animals, I stopped abruptly as Pencil held that phone up. 

“Oh well,” he announced, “if I can’t take down a whole hospital, at least I can take out one floor.” 

“No!” That-A-Way shouted, suddenly disappearing from my side just as Pencil hit the button on his phone. There was a second delay, before…

BOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOM!!!

With a terrifying, deafening crash that blew out all the windows of the floor high above, the bomb went off. The force of it set off dozens of car alarms, and shards of glass and other debris rained down on us from above. I caught a brief glimpse of the Scions disappearing from the roof, while Pack and I both staggered, along with her animals. 

Her animals, that was, except for…

“Holiday!!!” Pack screamed in horror and panic, her head tilted back to stare up at the burning, totally destroyed hospital floor in shock and horror. The flames were spreading rapidly. Maybe the rest of the hospital could be saved if the firefighters got there quick enough, but anything on that floor would have been completely annihilated by the blast. 

Screaming Holiday’s name again, Pack went to run back into the hospital. Quickly, I grabbed her wrist. She spun, screaming in my face about getting the hell away from her while lashing out with a kick that took me in the stomach. I staggered, and she shoved me away from her before spinning back that way, intent on running into the hospital. 

Then she stopped, as two figures emerged from the smoke. One human and one very much not. 

“Hey,” That-A-Way managed after coughing a few times. Her hand came down on Holiday’s head. “Sorry, managed to teleport up and then out with her, but we had to walk back. You guys o–” 

She was stopped then, as Pack threw herself that way. “Thank you!” the girl blurted, embracing That-A-Way tightly while basically outright sobbing. “Thank you, thank you, thank you. You saved her. You saved Holiday. Thank you. Thank you.” She just kept repeating that, clearly openly crying before releasing the Minority girl so she could fall to her knees and hug Holiday just as tightly. If anything, she was crying even more. 

Sirens. I looked to the street and saw fire trucks, police cars, SWAT vans, ambulances, and more. They were all screaming their way up to both the hotel and this hospital. There were Touched flying around in the air above, and appearing on the streets. 

“Go,” That-A-Way snapped quickly toward Pack. “Get your animals and go, before you get arrested in all of this.” Then she looked to me, voice cracking. “H-he really did it. He killed four of the people I left with those kids. T-two doctors, a n-nurse, and an orderly. I don’t… I don’t know what–I was trying to… I… I…” 

“I’m sorry,” I managed weakly, knowing it was inadequate. Pathetically so. What was I supposed to say? What could I say? People were dead. We hadn’t saved all of them, not from that… that piece of shit. It wasn’t our fault. It was his. Pencil’s. That psycho fuck. He killed them, just because he couldn’t stand to let us save all of them. He killed them for no reason. Murdered them just… just to murder them. Just to make sure we didn’t save everyone. 

“Hey.” Pack spoke instead, standing there surrounded by her animals even as the fire trucks reached the edge of the hospital lot. “I… I’m sorry about what happened to those guys. But don’t umm… don’t blame yourself.” She sniffed, hand clutching Holiday’s neck. “You got them out, you got those kids out, and a lot more of ‘em would’ve died if you hadn’t done that. You… did the right thing. You did the best you could.” 

It looked like she wanted to say something more, just from the girl’s body language. But in the end, she turned and fled with her lizard-creatures, while the fire fighters were approaching with their hoses. 

“I–I’m going back to the kids,” That-A-Way stammered. “There’s people there with them already, but… but I… I have to…” She shook her head then, looking to me. “Are you…”

“I’m fine,” I replied. “I’m good, but do you want some he–” 

She was gone, teleporting away. Which left me standing there on the front grass of the hospital while firefighters raced past me to focus on the flames burning high above, trying to stop them from spreading. I saw a small figure in a blue bodysuit with silver panels floating above them. Raindrop, the youngest of the Minority. She was sending water through the shattered windows as well, clearly directing it through the building to the worst of the fire. Even as I watched for those few seconds, she had doused most of the flames almost by herself, directing thousands of gallons of water through the place with just a wave of her hand. 

Good. Good. They had this handled. And with Pencil gone, the situation back over at the hotel was definitely under control. Things were–

Wait. Oh. Oh shit. Things were under control. The hostage situation was over. 

My family would be looking for me.

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