For years by this point, Austen Deleon had had one main goal in her life. There were other, smaller goals, of course. Primarily revolving around gaining more power and never being helpless again. But throughout all of that there had been one above all the others. That goal was to see her father, the man who had abandoned her mother and herself when she was a baby, dead. The same man who had eventually become Cuélebre, leader of the Oscuro Fell-gang.
If he had been some normal man, Austen would have killed him already. It was his abandonment that had even led her mother to become mired and trapped in that evil cult of religious whack jobs. What her mother had become, what Austen herself had been put through before getting her powers, all of it, every bit of it, was because of him. She would see him dead no matter what that took. The fact that he was so powerful, both in himself and in the army that he controlled, didn’t matter. Not in the long run. It made things more difficult, but she would still kill him, someday. She just had to be smarter about it, more patient.
Part of being patient meant playing her role not only as the leader of the Easy Eights gang in the form of Deicide, but also as a low-ranking young pickpocket member of Oscuro itself. As far as anyone there was concerned, Austen was just a teenager with no powers who hung around and contributed by stealing things here and there and occasionally providing information she heard.
Some of that information was actually good, and had led to Oscuro hitting a couple decent scores. Nothing that would have stood out too much. Nothing that would have drawn the eye of her true father. She didn’t want to rock the boat, or make him pay attention to her until it was far too late. She simply provided just enough information that would make her an established and fairly trusted member of the gang’s lower levels. She fit in there. She was one of them, as far as they were concerned.
They had no idea what her true intentions were. No idea that she spent night after night imagining the light finally leaving her father’s eyes as she paid him back for destroying her mother, leaving her the broken shell of a woman who barely acknowledged Austen’s existence now that she had literally killed the man Laia herself had seen as a god, as the God.
Most of the time, Austen’s mother hated her now. There were a few times here and there when Laia would speak to her normally if the girl visited. But for the most part, she and the rest of her cultist… ‘friends’ saw Austen as what amounted to the antichrist, or something to that effect. They didn’t attack her or anything. They were too terrified of her to do that. Or, more to the point, afraid of the demon that protected her.
Yeah. Austen’s mother and the others were convinced that it had been some kind of demon controlling those books and papers that had possessed Austen herself and killed their leader. None of them actually knew much about what was going on in the rest of the world. They didn’t know that anyone called Deicide even existed. They lived on their farm, hated outsiders, and waited for their true God to be reborn.
It was really sad, and part of Austen still wanted to simply grab her mother and drag her out of there. She had hoped that with the death of that religious fuckjob, Laia would wake up. But she hadn’t. If anything, her mother and those around her had actually doubled down on their insane beliefs. That this was all a test, that there was no way the demon who had ‘possessed’ Austen could possibly have actually killed their leader for good. They believed he would be back, and that as long as they were faithful, ignored the outside world, and kept his home clean and prepared, they would be saved from his righteous vengeance when he finally appeared and struck down the unfaithful and yadda yadda.
Austen knew her mother was too far gone now. She knew that at best, the woman needed professional help. Help that Austen herself couldn’t hope to provide, or force on her. But she still hoped, somewhere deep in herself, that killing the man who had abandoned the two of them might somehow wake Laia up so she could be Austen’s mom again.
She missed her mother. She loathed the men who had destroyed her. Both the man who had called himself ‘Jesus’ and the one who now called himself Cuélebre. One of them had paid the ultimate price already, and the other… the other would get what was coming to him.
Toward that end, Austen had decided that it was time to put a plan in motion thanks to Cuélebre’s recent mistake. Specifically, his decision to team up with the Ninety-Niners in attacking La Casa while Blackjack was desperately trying to save his own daughter. Doing that, pushing the La Casa leader that far while he was focused on finding the vials that would save his child’s life, gave Austen the opening she’d always wanted. An opening to make an ally who could help her destroy Oscuro, and leave her father vulnerable.
It was that immediate goal of turning Blackjack into the ally she needed to finally kill her father that had led Austen to where she currently was. Specifically, in an apartment next to a window overlooking an alley. The window was cracked open, allowing the girl to peek out through the darkness to see the white figure of her paper-formed armor far below. To outsiders, it would appear as though Deicide was standing in that alley. But the armor itself was almost completely empty, save for a camera positioned inside its ‘head’ that was transmitting its image to a monitor in the room, and its audio to a single earbud she wore. As she had many other times, Austen would control the empty ‘costume’ remotely, using her power to manipulate the paper armor and make it seem as though someone was actually inside it. There were also three other cameras set up nearby. One was inside the nearby dumpster and pointed behind the armor to see the mouth of the alley. Another was hidden in a higher window opposite the one where Austen hid, pointed down to get a bird’s-eye view of things. The last one was high up on a nearby taller building and pointed down to take in the roofs of the buildings on either side of the alley. All four cameras, counting the one inside the suit, sent their views to separate sections of the monitor that Austen was watching. Between those and her own in-person view from this window, she could keep track of everything that was happening.
Movement in the camera watching the roofs drew her attention that way in time to see five figures moving closer. Three were simply ordinary Prev members of La Casa, armored and heavily armed non-Touched troops who took up a position at the edge of the roof. The other two were Cardsharp, the Touched who could alter the physical properties of herself or anything she touched, and Double Down, the guy who stored any kinetic force that hit him and turned it to his own use.
None of the five approached any closer than the edge of the roof. They took up their positions and waited, clearly ready to jump in if something went wrong in the next few minutes. Austen considered for a moment, but decided to do nothing to indicate that she knew they were there. She did, however, make the armor that was supposed to be her shift its weight a bit, glancing around now and then to make it seem more realistic. Not that she was planning on doing anything untoward right now. This meeting was far too important. But she also didn’t want anyone to realize that she wasn’t necessarily always in the armor they were talking to.
On the roof, Cardsharp waited a full minute before taking out her phone and saying something to it. As soon as she did, headlights appeared down the street, visible in the view of the camera hidden in the dumpster. A car that had been parked started up, pulling to the mouth of the alley. Austen turned the Deicide armor to look that way, just as a man stepped out of the backseat of that car. A man who wore a perfectly tailored suit of black slacks, a black shirt, dark bolo tie with a red gem at the collar, intensely polished black leather shoes, gold gloves, and a white duster coat. He also wore a black helmet with a gold mask, on which was the etched shape of a face.
Blackjack. Leader of La Casa, and the man she was waiting for. He glanced briefly one way, then the other down the street before approaching a few steps. “Deicide,” the man greeted her simply, “a little bird informed me that you wanted to have a bit of a chat. And that it would be worth my while.” He paused briefly before adding pointedly, “Should I ask where your lieutenants are?”
In response, Austen focused on making several books that had been sitting atop the nearby dumpster fly up to surround her ‘costume.’ The pages of the books flipped rapidly, landing on pages to highlight specific words or sentences, which were then spoken aloud in a feminine voice that seemed to come from everywhere at once. The books flipped fast enough that the words came with little pause between them, about as fast as a normal person talking (if punctuated by the sound of flipping pages). “Should I, in turn, ask where your own reinforcements are waiting? Or should we proceed with the reason for this meeting, absent further posturing or unimportant queries?”
For a moment, Blackjack didn’t respond. He seemed to be studying her, his gaze intent on the paper mask behind which lay the camera that Austen was using to watch him. Finally, he gave a very slight nod. “I am curious as to what you could possibly have called this meeting for, I must admit. Is this related to that favor I owe you, by any chance?”
In response, Austen made the empty armor fold its arms, the books flipping rapidly to project her answer. “First, congratulations are in order for your successful retrieval of your property.”
She couldn’t see his face (not the real one, anyway) behind the one etched onto the golden mask. But Austen could hear the smile in his voice even through the earbud. “It hasn’t escaped my notice that your organization was absent from any attempt to retrieve that property for yourselves,” he noted. “And as I said, I do still owe you for the return of that single vial. If this is about monetary compensation…” Even as he said it, his voice made it clear that he was very doubtful about that.
“It is not about monetary compensation,” Austen confirmed. Of course the man knew that, but they still had to play the game, still had to do that little dance. “The favor I ask will actually be as helpful for you as it is for me. So it should not be a hard thing to agree with.”
If Blackjack had any idea what she was going to ask, the man didn’t show it. He simply stood silent, watching and waiting for her to go on. He was as patient as a rock, apparently content to wait as long as it took. Nor did he do anything to acknowledge or note the presence of his people on the roof, who were waiting and watching as well. Austen had no doubt there were others her cameras had not yet picked up, probably keeping an eye out for her own troops.
She continued. “Your true enemies now, the ones who fought so hard to keep you from your property or to steal it for themselves, are Oscuro and the Ninety-Niners. And they know that they are your biggest targets now. They have formed a pact to defend one another from any of your incursions. Either are very strong on their own. Together, they represent too much of a threat for you to exact the vengeance you deserve.”
“And if I understand your intentions here,” Blackjack casually noted, “You believe that if our two organizations were to… ally as theirs have, we would be more of a match for them.” He paused pointedly, letting his moment of silence fill the air before continuing, “Some would say that I seem to come out entirely ahead in such an agreement, particularly considering I already owe you for the return of my property. Here you’re offering to ally your group with mine, allowing me to exact payment from those who have wronged me. Where, precisely, does what you get out of this potential alliance come in?”
Obviously, Austen couldn’t and wouldn’t exactly tell the man that killing Cuélebre was all the payment she needed. Beyond not wanting to give that much of her own secrets away, the rest of the Easy Eights would never stand for it. They hated Oscuro and their leader as well and always had, ever since his power forced the eight separate, smaller gangs to band together for survival in the first place. But they also had their own goals, and wanted their own rewards. All of Austen’s troops (none of whom knew they actually worked for a sixteen-year-old girl) were ready to fight Oscuro, but only if they would actually get something out of it. She was their leader, but asking them to fight for nothing wouldn’t exactly turn out well.
To that end, the girl replied through her books, “In exchange for assisting you in exacting your revenge upon the Ninety-Niners and Oscuro, my people will receive control of all the property and territory stolen from them when Cuélebre began expanding his gang, as well as half of the property our groups attain from the Ninety-Niners. In addition, you will pay all taxes to the Ministry that arise from this endeavor. And sign a Ministry-backed non-hostility agreement for two years.”
That last bit was a separate service the Ministry provided. Groups or individuals who signed one of their non-hostility contracts were agreeing that neither of them would attack or do anything to hinder or hurt the other. If they did, the offending person or party would face punishment from the Ministry themselves that included both monetary sanctions as well as possible expulsion from the city. It had happened before. One did not make an agreement with the Ministry and then break that agreement. There was a reason they could enforce their taxes and still keep themselves so private. No one knew just how many Touched they employed, or what the limits of their influence over law enforcement was. But the answer to both questions was simply, ‘enough.’ They had enough Touched and enough control over the cops, the judges, even the Star-Touched teams themselves, to make life incredibly difficult for anyone who crossed them.
If it came down to it, the Ministry would invoke what they referred to as Plan Z, a powerful and mysterious Touched assassin who literally went by the name of Z. Her power apparently gave her the ability to not only become intangible, like a ghost, but also allowed her to delay the effects of everything she did while in that state. Anything this Plan Z did while intangible, from kicking a rock to shoving a door, to punching a person in the face, could have a physical effect at some later point. And she was somehow able to produce simple weapons in this state, like bows and blades.
This… Z could turn intangible, create a bow and arrow out of literally nothing, and shoot that same intangible, nearly invisible arrow through someone without any sign that anything had happened. After that, within a certain amount of time (no one knew how long, exactly), the assassin could choose to make the effect tangible, and the person she had shot (or stabbed if close enough), would suffer exactly as though they had truly been shot through with an arrow, or stabbed.
There was a reason the Ministry wasn’t challenged beyond their deep well of information and contacts within the law enforcement and Star-Touched side of things. That was one example of the forces they could put against someone who annoyed them and broke their rules too much. Which meant that breaking a non-hostility agreement after signing it would be tantamount to suicide.
After she finished that proposal, Austen watched and waited. She didn’t expect it to be agreed to just that easily. And sure enough, Blackjack shook his head with a soft chuckle. “I owe you a favor,” he agreed, “and your aid would be appreciated. But neither extend quite that far, I’m afraid.”
Letting that settle briefly, the man continued, “For your aid, keeping the property which previously belonged to your people is fair. And it only makes logical sense that we would sign a non-aggression pact before embarking on this sort of alliance. Those are both perfectly acceptable conditions. But as for the rest… we will share the Ministry taxes evenly. After all, this is a venture from both of our organizations. And my people will retain control of all property seized from the Ninety-Niners, as well as half of the remaining Oscuro property that was not previously owned by any gang now affiliated with the Easy Eights.”
That was essentially the counter-proposal Austen had expected. Still, she couldn’t just agree to it. Instead, she made the paper armor lift its head as though considering that before responding through the books, “Even split of taxes, your group gets half the property taken from the Ninety-Niners, not all of it. Splitting half of the unclaimed Oscuro property is… acceptable.”
“Half of everything, hmm?” Blackjack made a show of considering that as much as she had made a show of considering his previous offer. “Half of everything aside from the property that already belonged to your people before Oscuro’s drastic expansion.” He watched the armor, waiting until Austen made it give a single, silent nod before offering his hand. “Agreed. Your favor is paid back in allowing your people to take all of their previously stolen property. And the rest is a simple alliance. We eliminate our enemies together, with a contract to avoid any violence between our groups for two years.”
They shook hands. Or at least, Blackjack shook hands with the empty paper armor, Austen’s power making it feel as sturdy as steel. Then they agreed to meet the next evening in order to sign a contract with the Ministry, who would remain neutral throughout the upcoming events, aside from upholding that contract.
Once it was over, La Casa’s leader moved to step back into his car, which pulled away and disappeared into the night without any further issues. Austen then watched the roof, as the Touched and Prev troops there silently withdrew as soon as their leader was safely away.
Then it was done with. She’d made an alliance with a gang powerful enough to help her own gang deal with her father and his own alliance. The next step of her plan to finally see the man who had abandoned her and her mother was finally in motion.
Soon, oh so very soon, Cuélebre would finally get everything that was coming to him. And Austen couldn’t wait to make sure he knew just who had made him pay for it.