Fork

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 kicking 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 kicked 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 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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Alliances 6-07 (Summus Proelium)

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That-A-Way spoke without looking at me, her focus and her taser pointed toward Pack. “Paints, why is this bad guy talking to you like you guys are friends?”

Pack, for her part, put a hand on Twinkletoes’ arm. “Paintball, how about you tell Captain Hero that we have bigger problems to deal with right now?”

Quickly, I spoke up while stepping between them, flinching a bit as the slight pain from the part of my leg where the quill had hit me made itself known. “Stop it, both of you. Way, she’s right, there’s higher priorities right now, like saving those kids. She might be a criminal, but there’s a difference between her kind of criminal and the Scions’ kind. She steals shit, she doesn’t kill kids. Keep it in perspective.”

There was a brief pause before That-A-Way gave a short nod and lowered her weapon. “Right, I guess you’ve got a point. Big difference between her and those guys. But I still have a lot of questions… which can wait until this is over, except for one. Why are you here?”

Pack’s head turned fractionally as though she was glancing to me before answering. “Short version, my friends and I were watching the party from another roof. We saw what went down and then saw your boy over there heading out. Took us a while to catch up without bringing down World War Three on our heads. Had to be all sneaky like, but figured wherever he was going, there’d be trouble and he might need help. You know, because he has a tendency to find trouble.”

The other girl glanced toward me while I was trying to decide if I should be offended or not. Her head gave a short nod. “I guess he does. I don’t know if we can really trust you that far or not, but he’s right about there being a difference between La Casa and the Scions. And we’re really short on help right now, so… truce until this is over?”

Pack gave a short nod. “Sure, truce until this is over.”

Exhaling in a bit of relief, though I knew I’d have a lot to talk about if we made it through this, I asked, “I’m guessing you couldn’t contact anybody either?“ 

“Nope,” she confirmed. “Phone and radio are both out. Looks like we’re on our own, for the time being.” Her chin lifted it to indicate the guys we had taken down. “Not that that seems to be slowing you too much.”

That-A-Way still looked like she was uncomfortable and uncertain about this whole situation, but pushed past it. Tersely and quickly, she explained everything we knew, ending with, “So these guys weren’t able to finish setting up the bomb, but the ones downstairs are gonna be expecting them back any minute to… deal with the hostages. And if they think for a second that something happened…”

Pack’s body kind of recoiled a little. “They’ll do the job themselves to make sure it gets done. Yeah, that’d be bad. So, we’ve got to go down and deal with them before they decide to start shooting. Got it.”

While they were talking, I had walked around a bit to work out the pain in my leg. It wasn’t too bad to begin with, but still. Pacing a bit, I’d gone over to the area those guys had been dragging the electrical cords to. Following it around a corner, I looked in a small nearby room before gulping at what I saw. “Guys… I found the bomb.”

It was a huge, complicated looking thing, taking up most of the room with half a dozen barrels of something or another all attached via cords to a laptop-looking device set into an open briefcase. The screen on the computer was asking for two different passwords, along with some technical jargon I couldn’t follow. 

Boy, I wished Eits was here. Even if this thing was protected the way he said Tech-Touched stuff tended to be, he’d still have a better chance of doing something with it than any of us did. 

The other two had joined me by then, both making noises that clearly indicated they didn’t like it anymore than I did. Pack shook her head. “I don’t even want to go in the room with that thing, let alone touch it. That’s some bad juju.”

The three of us collectively backed away from the room, and I asked, “What if someone comes to find it and we miss them? Can we do anything to make sure they don’t set it off?”

That-A-Way grimaced, shaking her head. “I’m okay with computers, but nothing like that. I wouldn’t know what wire to pull, whether it would do any good, or just make it blow up right now.”

Pack muttered, “We’ve covered some basic bomb defusal stuff in the La Casa school of villainy, but nothing like this.” She turned then, adding, “On the other hand, we can at least leave someone to watch over it. Holiday!”

Around the corner came her panther-lizard, stopping in front of the suddenly very still That-A-Way to lean up and purr while rubbing against her briefly. There was a slight, tense pause before the girl reached down to gingerly pat the top of the animal’s head. 

“See that?” Pack announced, “we’re all friends. Holiday, stay right here. See that room? No one goes in there but us, got it? You don’t let anybody go in there unless I say.”

Holiday seemed to get the idea, making a loud growling sound before moving to curl up in front of the door where she could watch the approaches from both sides. 

“We–um, are you sure she…” That-A-Way started, sounding hesitant. 

“She gets it,” Pack informed her. “Trust–okay, maybe trust me is the wrong thing to say. But I’m telling you, she’ll stay here and do her job.” 

The other girl fidgeted briefly, glancing to the animal. But there wasn’t much else to be said, considering we didn’t have a choice. It was leave Holiday here or leave one of us here, and that just couldn’t happen. There weren’t enough of us. So, in the end, she just nodded, with a quiet, “Okay.”  

That done, the three of us moved back to the main nurses station. Twinkletoes was still waiting there, and had been joined by Mars Bar the bear and Tuesday the monkey. Riddles glided in as we approached, landing on the desk before giving a soft squawk. 

That-A-Way took a moment to look around at this menagerie. I could tell she was really thinking about the situation she had gotten into. But if she had any doubts, she shoved them down, clearing her throat. “Okay, so between… us, we’ve got to save those hostages downstairs before the Scions start getting nasty. Err, even more nasty. And we have no idea how many are down there, or exactly where they are, does that about sum it up?”

Pack raised a hand. “I dunno how many might be wandering around, but there’s twelve guys in the room with your hostages, and they’re in the main cafeteria on the first floor.” As we stared at her, she explained, “I had Twinkles check it out before we made it up here, and he tapped out the numbers for me. Figured it might be useful.”

That-A-Way looked genuinely impressed, quickly nodding with a smile before she clamped down on it. “Hey, that’s pretty coo–I mean… right, okay, thanks. Well, twelve guys. Not sure how many are Prevs and how many are Touched, but still useful.” To me, she added, “Think we can handle twelve guys without ending up with a bunch of dead people?” 

“Between the…” I glanced over toward Riddles, Mars Bar, Tuesday, and Twinkletoes. “… seven of us, I hope so.” 

Pack put out her arm, letting Tuesday clamber up to hang off her shoulders. “We just need a plan. Preferably a quick and brilliant one.” 

“Yeah,” I agreed. “A plan that won’t end up getting everyone killed or the hospital blown up. And it might not be brilliant or anything, but… I think I have something. We just need Fork’s help.”

They both stared at me for a moment. Actually, I was pretty sure the lizard-creatures were staring at me too. That-A-Way found her voice first. “In what possible reality would that psychopath ever actually help us stop his friends from killing everyone here?” 

Behind the mask and helmet, I smiled despite the situation. “Oh, we just need to find the right things to say to him. 

“Or rather, the right things to make him say.” 

*******

Two guys stood guard by the doorway leading into the cafeteria. Both were armed with submachine guns, and were very much on alert. So much so, that they jerked upright and pointed their weapons toward the figure who came into view around the distant corner, only easing up slightly when they recognized him as Fork. 

“Hey, cocksuckers!” the porcupine-like figure called out while raising a hand to beckon them. “Get over here!” 

The two looked to each other, shrugged, and then came at a trot. One of them asked, “The hell’s going on? Erica have trouble hooking up the big boom?” He laughed darkly then. “Told the boss we should’ve brought Bass in for this. He was always better at the–what the fuck?” 

Yeah, by that point, the two men had gotten close enough to see that Fork wasn’t exactly there of his own volition. His eyes were closed, his unconscious body held in place by the mostly-invisible figure of Twinkletoes, who had also been the one to puppet his arm, making it wave for them. Meanwhile, his voice had actually come from my phone, taped to his chest after I had recorded him upstairs ranting at us for awhile until we had the words we wanted him to say. It actually hadn’t been that hard, given how much he’d ranted without much prompting before we finally knocked him out. Or rather, Tuesday had. Turned out, that little monkey-lizard packed a pretty good right hook. 

Before the men could react to what they saw, I stepped out and hit both of them with a sound-muting shot of black paint. Their mouths opened to shout, even as they brought those guns of theirs up. But I wasn’t alone. That-A-Way appeared behind them, shoving her taser into the man on the left. The one on the right had his weapon torn away by a diving Riddles, just before Pack put herself in front of him with that sawed-off shotgun pointed into his face. 

He surrendered, and we quickly taped up both of those guys up. 

Then the others shoved them into a side-room while I stood watch, making sure none of the guys in the cafeteria came to see what was going on. 

Right, two down, ten to go. Ten that we knew of, anyway. Unfortunately, they probably wouldn’t be nearly as easy, considering the whole hostage thing. We were going to have to be really careful about this. 

So it was a good thing that we had a plan. The first part of which was to see what was going on in there. To that end, I quickly and quietly made my way across the open lobby, looking around with mounting paranoia as I went before finally stopping by the doors. Carefully, I chanced a quick peek inside, through the crack in the doors. No one was in immediate view, just circular tables with chairs stacked on top of them. Taking another breath, I slowly opened the door just enough to see better. 

There they were. Dozens of children and early teens of various ages, some lying motionless on gurneys while others were on chairs, the floor, or simply standing. There were half a dozen nurses and a couple doctors as well, all of them together in the far corner of the cafeteria. Spread through the room were about eight normal Scion thugs, all of them armed similarly to the guys we had just taken down. 

And there was a Fell-Touched. Near the hostages stood a somewhat short man, just five-foot seven or so. He was fairly thin too, a wiry build. His ‘costume’ consisted of gray jeans quite thoroughly splattered with blood stains, a dark green sweatshirt with the hood up, and a black cloth mask that covered the bottom half of his face, with what looked like sunglasses over his eyes. 

He was called Box. Basically, he could create these small orbs in his hands. When he threw them, the orbs would break apart upon impact with something, only to be replaced by earth, fire, air, or water in a shape and size (from smaller than the orb had been all the way up to something the size of a car) determined when he made the orbs. So he could throw an orb and have it break apart to create a ten-foot long boulder, or a wading-pool sized rush of water, or… whatever. 

I didn’t see anyone else as I crouched there and watched for a few seconds. By then, the others were approaching. They had found what we needed, an empty gurney. Quickly, I took one last look to make sure things looked as calm as they could be in there, then climbed onto it. I laid down, tucking my legs up under me to leave room for That-A-Way, who put herself right there, her head resting against my legs. 

Pack put the sheet over us, arranging it a bit before whispering, “Okay, you’re good. Ready?” 

That-A-Way and I murmured agreement, and the next thing I knew, we were moving. I lifted the sheet a bit to peek out, seeing Fork there. But like before, he was still unconscious, with the mostly-invisible Twinkletoes holding onto his arms to keep his hands apparently on the gurney so that it would look like he was pushing it. The doors opened, and I carefully held my phone (which I had taken back) out so I could see the screen, listening intently.

“Yo!” someone’s voice called out. “Whatcha got there? Found a straggler?” 

Quickly, my finger tapped one of the recordings on the screen. From the phone came Fork’s voice. “Gonna be sorry–” Then I stopped it before he could finish saying ‘you fucked with us.’ My finger hit a different recording, making his voice add, “Stupid cocksucker.” 

Twinkletoes, holding Fork, pushed us all the way over to where the hostages were, trying to not-so-obviously steer away from anyone who might be close enough to see that their teammate was unconscious. On the way, one of the other guys called out, “What’s going on with the bomb? We good?” 

I’d been expecting someone to ask something like that, so my finger was already poised to hit another button. I did so quickly, and Fork’s voice replied, “Fucking fantastic, bitch.” 

We reached the spot where the hostages were. I felt That-A-Way’s hand squeeze my leg once, a question. I put my hand down against hers and squeezed once in return, telling her to wait. We were good so far. Just had to hold on a few more seconds without…

“Hey,” a suddenly close voice blurted, “what the hell is going on?” 

Shit. The next thing I knew, the man was crying out as Twinkletoes grabbed and threw him across the room. So much for taking our time. The jig was up. 

Throwing myself off the gurney along with the sheet, I hit the floor in a crouch, taking in what was happening. All those guys were looking at us incredulously, including the hostages. As the two nearest men reacted by snapping their guns up, I shot a wave of red paint to them and to the ceiling, hauling them up toward it with a pair of screams. 

“Now, boys,” I blurted reflexively, “I know healthcare costs suck, but is taking a bunch of pediatricians hostages until they fix your ouchie really the answer?” 

They were all focused on me. Well, me and Twinkletoes, who had just grabbed the now-empty gurney (That-A-Way had slipped off of it) to throw at Box, who hit it with an orb that turned to stone in order to stop the thing in mid-flight. Their attention on the two of us meant they were taken by surprise yet again when Pack stepped through the doorway on the other side of the room, opening up with two quick blasts from her shotgun (she’d assured That-A-Way and me that it was filled with beanbag rounds) that took the two guys nearest to her in the chests, putting them on the ground with a series of wheezing coughs. 

Mars Bar, Tuesday, and Riddles were right there with her, all of the lizard-creatures spreading out to attack the Scion creeps, who were suddenly caught on both sides. I saw Box wind up to throw another orb, just before the bearguana slammed into him. Unfortunately, he managed to break the orb, summoning a short, powerful gust of wind that threw Mars Bar to the side. 

Quickly using more shots of red paint against the tables and a few of the other guys, I sent those tables colliding into them just before they could open fire. But there were still more, and Box was getting up. 

“You got ‘em?!” I called over my shoulder, not wanting to throw myself fully into what was turning into a tornado of violence just yet. Not until I knew the hostages were safe. 

“Good!” That-A-Way’s voice snapped back. “Everyone hold on!” 

When I chanced a quick look that way, she was standing right in the middle of the hostages. In those few seconds, she’d gotten all the conscious and mobile staff and kids to gather around her, grabbing some part of her body or one another. Others were holding the various bed-bound patients, forming one large group.

“Okay, guys,” That-A-Way started with a grimace as she glanced toward the nearby window. The north-facing window. “If I pass out, someone catch me.” 

Then they were gone. That-A-Way and all the hostages. They disappeared, as she teleported them out of the building. They were safe… well, safer than they had been in here anyway. Which meant we could actually fight without worrying about getting them caught in the crossfire. 

Unfortunately, just as I spun back to the chaos to do that, I found myself almost face-to-face with another Fell-Touched. She wore a white cloak, bodysuit, and mask covering the bottom half of her face. Her gaze met mine, and I knew her. 

Cup. I knew her, and I knew I had to–

“What would a genie do if you said, ‘I wish you wouldn’t grant this wish?’” 

What… would a genie do… what… why would… but if you wished for them not to grant a wish… why wouldn’t… could they… what if…

Standing there, I frowned, trying to work my way through the question. I knew this. I could answer this. I just needed a second. I didn’t care about the fight going on. I didn’t care that we had just rescued the hostages, or that there was still a bomb in the building. 

And I didn’t care that Cup was raising a pistol, taking careful aim.

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Alliances 6-06 (Summus Proelium)

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That-A-Way and I were both staring at each other in shock for a second after that. I would’ve covered my mouth, but the helmet was in the way. The other girl had a hand over hers, leaning closer to whisper, “They’re going to kill everyone down there. We have to hurry.” 

“We have to be careful,” I whispered back. “They’re setting up those bombs. If we go after the kids first, it might alert these guys up here so they make this whole place go boom.” 

“And if we go after these guys,” she pointed out while looking over to the corridor the way the guys had gone, “their friends downstairs might hear something and start killing the kids anyway.” 

I hesitated, heart pounding its way out of my chest. What was I doing? This was stupid. I was stupid. Why was I here? I was just going to end up getting a bunch of innocent kids–

No. Stop. Stop thinking like that. I was here because I could be here. Because they’d die we weren’t. Without That-A-Way and me here, the kids would die either way. We had to do something, because if we didn’t… yeah. Terrifying as it was, we had to do something. 

Shaking off all those thoughts, I forced myself to focus, whispering, “We… what should we…”

“These guys,” the other girl announced firmly. “We should deal with these guys… quietly. It won’t mean anything if we save those kids downstairs just in time to be blown up. If we stop these guys without alerting the people downstairs, we might be able to actually pull this off.” She was clearly doing her best to sound confident about that. 

I nodded once, keeping my voice low. “So how do we do that?” 

Looking a bit relieved that I was going along with it, That-A-Way turned. “First, let’s catch up with them and figure out what to do from there after we see what we’re dealing with. Just… remember, we’ve gotta make sure they don’t alert the people downstairs.” She was grimacing at the thought of what would happen otherwise. 

So, the two of us quickly, yet silently (with the help of some black paint in conjunction with That-A-Way’s intangibility), worked our way back through all the rooms to catch up with the bad guys. They had stopped at one of the nurse stations. As the two of us peeked out of the nearest room, we actually saw them for the first time, and I let out a very low breath. 

Two of the Scion people were ordinary thugs. Those were the ones dragging some kind of electrical wire from an outlet under the nurse’s desk out to the main hall. So they were normal guys. Well, one girl and one guy. Still, simple enough. Which was a thought that actually made me stop for a second to shake my head over. Dealing with armed psychopaths trying to arm a bomb to destroy a hospital so they could get back to murdering sick kids was simple? What happened to my life? 

Unfortunately, the other guy, clearly supervising them, was a Fell-Touched. I recognized him immediately. It would have been pretty hard not to. His name was Fork, and he was basically an anthropomorphic porcupine. He stood about five-foot-eight, with a visibly rodent-like face, very fine gray-black fur, and long, sharp dagger quills sticking out of his back from the top of his head all the way down to his waist. At any point, he could shoot those quills out (they grew back quickly) and mentally direct them to attack people. If I remembered right, the quills could also explode. For obvious reasons, he didn’t really tend to bother with any kind of costume. More likely, he had some way of disguising himself when he didn’t want attention. 

Either way, he was the problem that we had to deal with. And he wasn’t going to go down as easily as his two minions would. Which was going to be an issue. One we had to figure out very quickly, because I didn’t think it was going to take these guys long to set up that bomb. 

After staring at that group for a couple seconds that felt like longer, That-A-Way pulled me back by the sleeve so we were out of sight. Crouching there, she put her face very close to my helmet and whispered almost silently, “How long can your black paint make things quiet?”

Instead of responding verbally, I pointed at the floor and shot a bit of black paint out to make the words, ‘About ten secs’ appear. It was easier than trying to talk and risking being noticed. 

She nodded and whispered again. “I have speed going straight at them. If you can paint them and keep them quiet for that long, I think we can handle them together. Don’t forget that radio they’ve got sitting on the desk, just in case.” With what was clearly meant to be an encouraging smile, she put her hand on my shoulder. “It’s gonna be okay. You ready for this?”

Again, I didn’t respond verbally. Instead, I gave her a somewhat shaky thumbs up. Honestly, I had no idea if I was ready for this. But that didn’t actually matter. Those kids did. We had to save them. That was all there was to it. We would save the kids, no matter how scared I was. 

That-A-Way offered me a slight smile, and I honestly wasn’t sure if it was a good thing or a bad thing that I could tell she was probably almost as scared as I was about fucking this up. Together, the two of us moved back to the doorway. Fork was there, supervising (which in this case meant bitching angrily about how slow they were moving) the two guys as he stood with his back to us. Normally that would be a good thing, but in this case it just meant that those dangerous quills of his were aimed directly at us. This was going to be fun, I could already tell. 

Putting a hand out onto That-A-Way’s arm, I painted a long green stripe from her shoulder to her wrist. Next to that, I placed an orange stripe, then a purple one. Speed (to add onto the speed she would already have), toughness, and strength. That done, I made sure she noticed what I was doing before silently holding up three fingers, two fingers, one…

As my last finger went down, my other hand quickly snapped up. With a silent prayer that this didn’t go wrong, I shot a spray of black paint all across the group including the radio on the counter, activating both that and all the paint on the girl beside me even as all three of the men were taken by surprise, abruptly jerking (silently) when the paint sprayed its way over them. 

That-A-Way blew right past me, a blur of motion that ducked under the four quills that had already shot out of Fork’s back. The quills were coming my way, probably by accident more than anything given he hadn’t turned around yet, and I quickly dove forward and down to let them pass over me into the room behind. By that point, the other girl had slammed into the first of the two normal thugs, the guy. With the added strength I had given her, she picked him up, turned, and threw him into the nearby wall. The female Scion started to react, but That-A-Way had a pair of cuffs on her just before she could do anything, which activated instantly and yanked her to the floor. 

She turned to face Fork then, who had recovered enough from his surprise to make a half dozen more quills pop out to hover around him. From the way he paused and his body language, I was pretty sure he was trying to say something. But the black paint hadn’t worn off. Instead, he just made a forward gesture with one hand, sending those quills at the girl. I went to scramble to my feet to help, but at the last instant, I heard a whistling sound and ducked in time to barely (mostly) avoid the return of the quills that had gone back into the other room. One of them cut my arm, drawing a slight bit of blood despite the costume. It also clearly warned the guy I was there, because the quills that just passed me spun around in the air to face me once more. 

Meanwhile, between the orange paint and the fact that I was pretty sure her invulnerability had activated given she was now facing the opposite way from her superspeed (I was getting the hang of keeping track of which direction created which power), the four quills that had shot toward That-A-Way did nothing to her, even when they exploded. And in another bit of good news, it seemed that the silencing effect of the black paint even applied to body parts (or other things) that were sent away from the original target, because of the explosions made no sound. 

But that was probably about to wear off, and I still had these quills to deal with. I saw Fork glance very quickly over his shoulder as though judging where I was before sending them at me like a trio of very angry, very large wasps. Wasps that would explode, so… worse.

Before they could hit me, I activated the green angel wings on my back to speed myself up. Then I raised one hand and lowered the other, shooting red paint from both. At the same time, I also activated the blue paint that was already on my shoes. It hurled me up toward the ceiling, which I planted my feet against after flipping over in the air. Below me, the flying quills (now painted red from my hasty spray) were just about to adjust to come up after me, when I activated the paint both on them and on the floor. All three were yanked at the ground an instant before they exploded. Again, silently. 

Unfortunately, that silently part didn’t last, because I heard Fork suddenly blurt, “—in your ass with a drill!” Which, looking beyond the obvious horrible things brought on by a comment like that, also meant that the paint had worn off. Which was just fantastic, really. 

By that point, I had fallen back to the floor, landing on my hands and knees. Just as Fork realized that he wasn’t muted anymore and made a dive for the radio, I hit him with another shot of black paint. At the same time, That-A-Way crashed into him. Except the paint on her had worn off too, so she mostly just bounced off. She was still invulnerable thanks to her positioning, which came in handy as the guy backhanded her (or tried to) and ended up silently cursing as his hand bounced off like a bat hitting a wall. 

His other hand was still trying to grab the radio, but I used red paint to yank it away and to my already-red glove before tossing it aside. A second later, I had to throw myself right after it, as another trio of explosive quills shot toward me. I leapt to avoid one, diving over the nearby janitor’s cart just as another crashed into it. Both exploded safely away from me, scattering debris and tools from the cart across the floor. 

Unfortunately, I wasn’t quite fast enough to avoid the third. Just as I rolled on the floor, a sudden sharp stabbing sensation in the back of my leg made me yelp. Reflexively, I triggered both the orange shield and green leg armor my knight-image had. Sped up, I snatched the quill out just as it exploded in my hand. Ouch. Yeah, even with the orange paint, it still stung. If it had been left in my leg when it went off, I really didn’t want to think about what would’ve happened. 

On the plus side, That-A-Way was keeping the guy busy while I got myself sorted out so he couldn’t take advantage of me being on the floor. On the negative side, he seemed to have gotten the idea of her power (or maybe they had briefings about that kind of thing, I wasn’t sure what the Scions of Typhon did/how much they prepared). Either way, he suddenly grabbed her around both shoulders and spun to put her on the other side of him. Now her invulnerability didn’t apply. Her super speed had kicked back in, but before she could take advantage of that, he put a fist into her face that knocked her to the ground with a cry. I could see another pair of cuffs on the ground nearby where they had fallen when Fork apparently knocked them from That-A-Way’s hands rather than let her cuff him. Because he was inconsiderate like that. 

Adding to the bad things list: when I scrambled to my feet, a sharp pain from the (bleeding) wound in my leg made me stagger with a yelp, and the guy who had been thrown into the wall was slowly picking himself up. Oh, and he was yanking his gun out in the process. Yeah, this whole thing was going just swimmingly. What the hell were we thinking? 

Thankfully, That-A-Way noticed the guy too, and he happened to be to the right of her, which put him to the north as she was facing west for her speed. And north meant she could teleport, which she did, appearing beside the guy in time to yank the gun from his hand while her other hand produced that taser of hers, which she jammed into his neck until he collapsed. 

Moving north the way she had meant that Fork was to the south of her. So, as she turned to face both him and the half dozen explosive quills he shot at her, That-A-Way was intangible. The quills shot right through her to hit the wall beyond, just above where the other guy fell. They exploded, not that that did any damage to her either. It did, however, rain debris from the wall down on the collapsed guy. And the explosions may have hurt him too, I couldn’t tell from there. 

My leg (and hand, from the explosion) still hurt, and the second round of silencing paint was about to run out. Plus, I suddenly had another trio of explosive quills shooting at me, courtesy of the jackass himself. With a grunt, I activated both the green and purple lines on my legs and threw myself forward. Sprinting toward the incoming dart-like quills, I dove at the last second. Sped-up by the green paint, I was able to go just under the incoming darts. In mid-dive, I shot red paint from both outstretched hands. One spray hit Fork in the leg, while the other hit a nearby heavy bench meant for people to wait on. As I rolled from the dive, the paint activated and the bench went flying across the room to crash into the man from the side. He went down hard with the bench technically under him, still attached to his legs. The heavy bench was on its side, leaving Fork unable to get his feet under himself very easily.  

But he wasn’t done yet, of course. The guy was already getting ready to shoot more quills. I was pretty much done with that nonsense, however. The green paint was still active, carrying me all the way out of my dive and back to my feet to reach the man. And the purple paint meant that when I punched him an instant later, he really felt it. Hell, I felt it. His rodent-like head jerked backward as he yelped out loud, but I didn’t care. I hit him again, and again, just to make sure he didn’t shoot any more God damn explosive quills at us. 

That-A-Way pulled me back. “Whoa, whoa, I think you got him,” she informed me. “Grab those cuffs, would you?” She gestured to the ones on the floor. Nearby, I could see the woman who had been cuffed when all this started. She was unconscious, apparently a target of the taser still crackling in the other girl’s hand. 

I grabbed the loose cuffs, handing them over. She took them, attaching the cuffs to Fork while he still lay there with a black eye and bloody nose. He was groaning a little, clearly dazed but not quite totally unconscious. 

“What about his quills?” I asked, a bit tensely. He might’ve been held in place by the cuffs, but his main weapons weren’t, and they hurt. 

“Got an idea for that,” she assured me. “Quick, help me get him up and over there.” 

Together, the two of us hauled the dazed man up, rushing him over toward a nearby supply closet. We basically dumped him inside. By that point, his eyes had started to focus, and when his mouth opened, I saw a few missing teeth from where I had hit him. 

Before he could shout or anything, That-A-Way grabbed a nearby roll of duct tape and wrapped it around his snout-like mouth. Then she held her taser up to his face and made it crackle. “Hey, hey! Look.” Her hand moved to grab his face, and she turned it to show him all the cleaning supplies stacked up on the nearby shelf. “Paintball and I, we’re gonna leave you in here with the door shut. You could try using your quills to blow your way out, but A: those cuffs still won’t let you go anywhere, and B: you could blow open those chemicals, and who knows what would happen? We’ll leave a few bottles right by the door too, just in case. You understand?” 

Glaring hatefully, he gave a nod and grunt. 

“Good.” That-A-Way straightened, then pulled off another strip of duct tape. “And in case you get any ideas, we’ll just blind you too. Stay here, don’t move, don’t throw any explosive quills around, and you’ll be fine.” She finished putting the tape over his eyes, doubling it before stepping back. “There we go.” 

True to her word, we grabbed a few bottles of cleaner and put them down by the door as well as around the small space, so he wouldn’t know where he could safely send any quills. That was the best we could do to keep him quiet and contained. Two regular guys down, along with one Fell-Touched. And the bomb hadn’t gone off. Bonus. 

“You think we’re okay?” I asked tentatively while stepping away from the closed storage closet holding Fork. 

“Okay?” she retorted. “Between the two of us, dude, I think we’re–” 

“I think you’re fucking dead, that’s what I think!” The voice came from the left side, and we both spun that way in time to see another of the Prev (non-Touched) Scions with a shotgun. He was already taking aim, already…

Already falling to the floor, as something that glistened in the air behind him swung hard. The man collapsed, hitting the ground while the shimmering thing… the very familiar shimmering thing, stepped over him and decloaked, revealing…

“Twinkletoes!” I blurted despite myself. 

“Hey there,” Pack, stepping around her Chameleon-Gorilla, casually waved. “Heard there was a party going on. 

“And you know how me and my buddies hate to miss a party.”  

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Alliances 6-05 (Summus Proelium)

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Oh God. Oh no. No, no, no. Please, no. This couldn’t be happening. Hanging there from the ledge, I almost made a sound of disbelief, only to stop at the last second as the sound of footsteps on the roof nearby made me quickly jerk back down under the overhang. I heard the man above, probably one of the armed thugs, stop just over me. From the sound of things, he was leaning over to look down. But the overhang hid me just enough. Still, I used the black paint silencing power on my helmet to make sure I wouldn’t make any sound. Just in case. 

My feet found purchase on the nearby decorative ledge so that I didn’t have to hang the whole time, and I glanced down. The party on the grounds had been interrupted too. I could see soldier-types down there, keeping everyone herded together. There were a lot of cops and Star-Touched there as well, but also a lot of hostages. And they’d probably been told about the children’s hospital too. Even more problems. Even more hostages. All the powers and guns arranged in this place and no one could do anything because if they made a move, all those kids would die. Because Pencil and his people… this wasn’t an idle threat. He would do it. 

What was I supposed to do? What the hell was I supposed to do?! Yeah, they didn’t know that I was here, but I wasn’t exactly John God Damn McClane. Besides, the very second Pencil thought someone might be beating him here, he’d just go ahead and kill all those kids. 

Kids. I had to save the kids, which meant getting over to the hospital. As soon as at least they were out of immediate danger, the people here could fight back. That was… that had to be it. In any case, it was the only thing I could think of. Get to the hospital and save the kids. 

Of course, first I had to get there. Which meant going from where I was, aaaaaaaaaall the way across the street to the hospital without being seen by any of these guys who were probably very much on guard for any hero types that might try to interfere. Which should be… fun. 

Perched there, I listened for sounds coming from above me while watching the ground far below intently. No one was looking up. Their attention was very much centered on the people pointing guns at them, in the case of the hostages, and on the hostages, in the case of the people pointing guns. They were all very thoroughly occupied. So that was a bonus, at least. 

As soon as I heard the guy standing above me turn and walk away, I restored the black paint to my helmet to make sure I was completely covered, before using a bit of blue paint against the ledge my feet were on to fling myself out into open air. Even as I began to plummet, my eyes snapped toward one of the rapidly approaching power lines. My hand extended, shooting off a bit of red paint toward furthest utility pole I could hit. It was further down than I was, pulling me toward the ground even faster. But it was also clear out by the street, beyond the hotel grounds, so I was also yanked forward. By the time I was halfway to the ground, I’d also almost reached the sidewalk. Cancelling the power, I shot another bit of red to a billboard across the street and yanked myself that way before dropping onto it and falling flat. 

I laid there, breathing hard while listening intently, just in case. Behind the mask and helmet, my mouth was moving rapidly as I prayed that I hadn’t been seen. There hadn’t been time to make absolutely sure while I was in mid-leap/fall. Not only was I sort of occupied at the time, but I also knew that I couldn’t be slow about this. I couldn’t be patient and methodical, because if I knew anything about Pencil’s reputation, he was just as likely (if not more so) to kill all the children as soon as he had what he wanted instead of letting them go. If he even waited that long. He was incredibly unpredictable, and fully capable of murdering a bunch of kids. Sometimes he would follow his word, other times… well, he wouldn’t. There was no way to tell what he might do as soon as all those rich people up there gave him what he wanted. 

So, I had to get in that hospital and help those kids. That was all there was to it. 

Finally reasonably certain no one had seen me, I picked myself up a bit and crawled over to the edge of the billboard. Crouching there, I watched the hospital below. There were plenty of cars in the lot, but no one visible. No one, that was, aside from the guy by the doors holding a rifle. He wasn’t looking at me, thank God. His attention was on the hotel across the street. A lookout, no doubt. If anything happened, he’d probably contact the people inside. Then the slaughter would start. A slaughter that I couldn’t let happen. 

But I had no idea if he was in constant contact with people, or what would happen if they called for him and he didn’t answer. So, no taking him down. Not yet, anyway. I had to find out where the kids were and… and… do something. Do what, exactly I didn’t know. But… something. 

Wait, my phone. Quickly, I checked to see if I could call for help. But there was still no signal. Either they were using a jammer of some kind over the whole block or neighborhood or whatever, or they’d done something to the cell towers. Or… I wasn’t sure, exactly. The point was, there was still no way for me to text or call anyone. Which was juuuust fantastic. 

Then something bounced off my shoulder. At first I thought it was hail or something, but that wasn’t it. Blinking down in time to see a small pebble laying there just before another bounced off my helmet, I quickly snapped my gaze around, searching… there. Crouched on top of one of the nearby utility poles was That-A-Way. She waved, then disappeared, reappearing directly behind me. “Hey,” she whispered. “Sorry, didn’t want to pop up behind you without warning.” 

“Uh, probably a good idea,” I whispered back. We probably didn’t need to whisper, given how far away we were from the hospital. But still, it felt right. “How’d you get away?” 

“Oh, you mean from up there?” She gestured back that way, reminding me that as far as she knew, I wasn’t up on that roof. So I should probably stay vague about it. “Yeah, I was sort of… in the bathroom.” She made a face. “I really wanted to tell you about some cool spy shit I did, but that was it. I was using the toilet when they showed up. I– wait.” She frowned then, looking to me. “Are you… uhh, do you know who’s up there? What this is all about?” 

Luckily, I’d spent the past few seconds quickly thinking up an explanation. “I was watching the party from that building over there.” My hand waved in a vague direction. “I saw Pencil show up and then dropped closer in time to hear… umm, what he said about the kids in the hospital.” 

The other girl nodded. “Right, so you’re about as caught up as I am. And anyone else that knows anything about it is over there. Which means this is basically up to you and me.” 

“What about Syndicate?” I pressed. “He could just switch to a different body, right? I mean, make another version of himself solid or… something. Wait, where are all his selves?” 

I could see her flinch. “Yeah, about that… one of him is on the roof, another is in the dining hall, and a third is down on the grounds. One at each of the three parties. The fourth one is at the Minority base. I’m pretty sure he’s rounding people up, but it’ll still take time to get here.”

“Time we might not–scratch that, definitely don’t have,” I murmured. “Fantastic.” 

She nodded. “Yup. Like I said, looks like it’s you and me. Or… me.” Her expression even behind that domino mask turned concerned. “If you don’t want to be… if you don’t want this kind of responsibility, I get it. I wouldn’t want to… I don’t want to make you… I–this is awkward.” 

“I’m in,” I insisted, swallowing back the sudden lump that had formed in my throat at the thought of what we were doing, what I was agreeing to. If we fucked this up, even just a little bit, a lot of innocent people would die. A lot of innocent children would die. This was even worse than Blackjack’s daughter. The only thing that allowed me to push past the paralyzing terror of what would happen if I fucked up was the even greater terror of what would happen if I did nothing at all. 

I actually thought That-A-Way looked relieved when I said that, and realized she was probably just as scared about fucking up this whole thing as I was. Somehow, that made me feel better. 

“Okay,” she murmured. “So we have to get in there, deal with those guys, and free the hostages. Without letting them know what’s going on. We can do that, right?” 

“Uh, between the two of us, you’re the professional hero,” I pointed out quietly after giving her a brief look. “I’m the amateur. You’re the one who’s supposed to reassure me.” 

“Right.” Nodding, That-A-Way gave me a thumbs up. “We’ll be fine. We’ve got this.” Her head turned to look at the hospital once more. “We start on the top floor and make our way down. Quickly, but carefully and methodically to make sure we’re not leaving any problems behind us. We deal with the guys in there if we can, or identify the threats if they’re beyond what we can handle, so the cavalry knows what they’re dealing with and where the problems are. Good?” 

“Good,” I agreed, trying to sound like I wasn’t about to pee myself. “I guess you can teleport over there?” The hospital was north of the billboard where we were crouching. 

She nodded. “I’ll teleport us up to the top floor, far east end over there. That gives me the whole hallway to move west through with my speed to check to make sure we’re clear.” 

That sounded like the best plan we were going to get. And honestly, I was mostly just glad that I wasn’t by myself here. As scary as this whole thing felt like, at least I had an actual official member of the Minority with me. She had a lot more experience than I did. Which might help explain why I felt more comfortable with the blonde girl so quickly, even though this was only the second time I’d ever even talked to her. And the first hadn’t exactly been under calm conditions. It was kind of funny how quickly I felt at ease with her, given all that.

“Hold on,” I started, giving a quick glance down to the guy in front of the hospital doors to make sure he hadn’t noticed us. It was clear, so I focused on my suit. First, I cancelled the black paint so I could work from the base white. Then I started by making black outlines of the images I wanted, like line art, filling in the lines with the colors as I went. 

Over my chest, I made a knight with a raised shield and sword. The knight’s chest armor and helmet were orange, with a purple sword and orange shield. His leg armor down into his boots was green. Meanwhile, the dragon he was facing was mostly black, with purple highlights, eyes, talons, and a burst of orange and yellow fire that came from its mouth. The wings were green. On my back, I painted the image of a pair of angel wings in green. My legs were green with lines of purple, while my shoes were blue. My arms were covered in what looked like really spiffy purple and green mixed flames, ending with red gloves. In all, it took about ten seconds. 

“Please,” the girl beside me started flatly, “tell me you did not just want to look good for this.” 

“My paint can run out until I let it recharge,” I informed her. “But if I set myself up ahead of time, I don’t have to create as much as we go. The images are just to help me remember what I have and which to activate. Orange for protection, purple for strength, green for speed, and so on.” 

Considering that for a second before nodding acceptingly, she replied, “Okay, just to be clear before we go in there, what else can you do? Orange makes a thing tough, purple makes it strong, green makes it fast…” She looked to me expectantly.

“Yellow makes them slow,” I continued for her. “Blue like… repels things, or makes them bounce. White makes a blinding flash, black silences things so they can’t make any sound. Red pulls toward other red. And uhh…” Shifting as a rush of embarrassment came over me, I admitted, “there’s pink too, but I haven’t figured out what it actually does.” How dumb was that? How many Touched just had random powers like that and had no idea what they did? I really needed to figure that out. 

“Pink, huh?” The girl clearly considered before shaking her head. “Probably not the best time to experiment. But good, because you really had me worried there when I thought you were getting ready for the cameras or something.” She winked at me. “All good now?” 

I nodded. “All good.” I even managed to make sure my voice didn’t squeak too much from terror. 

Putting her hand on my shoulder, That-A-Way murmured, “Okay, here we go. Be ready, just in case. We don’t know who we might run into the second we appear.”

Taking her words to heart, and once again silently thanking whatever power might be out there that I wasn’t alone for this, I focused and tried to prepare myself to be teleported. 

I wasn’t ready. It was still disorienting, suddenly finding myself crouching in a brightly lit corridor that smelled of antiseptic and ammonia. Between the sudden shift in location, the much brighter light, and that smell, I jerked backward and dry heaved, barely stopping myself from yacking. 

Thankfully, the bright side of all this was that we didn’t teleport straight into any bad guys. The corridor looked empty. That-A-Way took the time to look at me just long enough to make sure I was okay before disappearing in a rush of motion. I saw the blur as she took off, checking each door in the hall within a couple seconds before stopping at the end. 

Right, she couldn’t super speed back. West was speed. North was teleportation. East, back this way, was either invulnerability or intangibility. I couldn’t remember which, and neither helped her get back here any faster. So, I picked myself up and quietly jogged that way. She’d already checked all the doors and didn’t find anything, apparently, so I didn’t bother looking. 

Reaching the end of the hall where That-A-Way was, I looked to her expectantly. The two of us were now standing by a nurse’s station. There was another hallway to the left (south), and elevators and a door that led to the stairwell to the right. Ahead was a blank wall. 

“Nobody here,” she whispered. “Better check that hall, but I haven’t heard anything and I’m pretty sure they can’t keep a bunch of sick little kids that quiet. Unless–” In mid-sentence, she stopped talking and blanched. I felt my stomach turn over a bit, paling right alongside her. 

“There’s probably nobody there,” I made myself say. “But we’ll check.” 

So we did. Carefully and methodically despite everything in me screaming that we had to hurry, we checked that hall. It was clear. Which meant we had to go to the next floor. Which we did using the stairs rather than the elevator, for obvious reasons. Very quietly, we descended. 

Okay, this was getting unnerving. There was no one on that floor either. We didn’t look in every single closet or anything, of course. There wasn’t time for that. But we did a quick sweep and didn’t find any groups of sick kids being held by armed thugs. Which would have been a good thing in any situation where we didn’t already know they were there. 

Just as we were about to head down another floor, the ding of the elevator arriving made both of us jerk our heads that way for about… an instant. The doors were opening. Then I felt That-A-Way grab my arm, and we were suddenly in one of the other rooms. A room to the north of where we had been standing, apparently. It was a small patient room, and I could see an empty bed with a small pink rabbit lying next to the pillow. It made my heart seize up, just before the sound of voices and footsteps reached us. That-A-Way and I glanced to each other before quickly dropping down behind the bed. The footsteps got closer, as did the voices. 

“–says we’re really taking in the cash tonight. None of those rich fucks wanna be the one who–” The footsteps and voices had continued out of our earshot. But That-A-Way grabbed my arm, pulling me to the nearby wall to follow them. We were apparently going whichever direction it was that let her turn intangible, because we went right through it into the next room, then on through that wall, keeping pace with the Scions of Typhon as they continued. 

“Stop worrying about how much money we’re gonna get,” a new voice snapped. “The mission comes first. And right now, the mission is to set up those bombs.” 

That made both of us look at each other once more, and I saw her mouth, ‘Bombs?’

“What about the kids downstairs?” a third, this time female, voice asked. “Just gonna let ‘em go up with the hospital when it blows?” 

“Hell nah,” the second voice retorted, and I felt a very brief sense of relief before he went on. “Pencil wants to make damn sure those shits are dead. No heroic rescues or saves. He’s sending a message. We set those bombs to blow, then head back down. 

“And right before we leave, we’ll put those sick fuckstains out of everyone’s misery.” 

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