Fred Donovan

Enkindle 23-10 (Summus Proelium)

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“She’s crazy, right?” Murphy asked a short while later, as we all sat on a roof together far away from that pizza shop and any of Braintrust. “Paintball, that lady’s gotta be loco in the heado.” 

“Did you just say loco in the heado?” Paige (or Poise now as she was still in-costume) echoed, head tilting that way as she dropped down with her back to a brick chimney.

Sierra (Style) stood on the opposite side of the roof, arms folded. The way her red leather coat flapped a bit in the breeze while that matching tactical combat helmet was framed against the city skyline behind her made the girl look cooler than I ever could. It must’ve been the way she stood. Even that was cool.  “You know the Spanish word for brain is cerebro, right?” 

After dropping her offer, Glitch had simply handed over a card with a phone number on it and told us to call her with an answer in a couple days. Of course, I had promptly painted the number from the card onto my arm and then tossed the card into the nearest trash can. No way was I going to risk carrying around something that the literal leader of a bunch of Tech-Touched villains had given me. Maybe it had a tracker in it, or a recorder, or maybe it was completely innocent. Either way, I wasn’t going to take that chance. Especially not for a phone number.

Alloy did a quick double-take at Style’s words. “Wait, really? You mean the cool name that Professor X dude gave his super telepathy machine in the comics was literally just the Spanish word for brain? That seems kind of lame. I thought they made up a cool word based off cerebrum.”

“I mean, they did make up a cool word based off cerebrum,” Roald pointed out. “It’s just that the ‘they’ in this case is the ancient Spanish people.”  

Murphy threw her hands up, making a noise of disbelief. “The point, people!” She turned to me. “That crazy lady back there can’t actually be serious with this. She can’t think that’ll work.” 

I offered a clueless shrug. “I don’t think she’s crazy. Not like that. She knows how to use Tech-Touched. And, obviously, how to make a profit off them. Probably because–hold on. Trev?” 

Before saying anything else, I turned to Trevithick. She was standing by herself, clearly deep in thought. When I addressed her, she jolted a little, looking my way before realizing what I was getting at. “Oh! Oh, right, yeah. Hang on a sec.” From a slot in her belt, she pulled a small pen-shaped device, taking a moment to wave it over all of us like security at the airport used to do before they upgraded the system to simply alert if you were carrying any weapons anywhere inside the building itself. They didn’t rely on metal detectors anymore. The system was a lot more advanced, and the scanners were hidden throughout the airport.

In any case, this wasn’t a metal detector either. After Wren had scanned all of us, she clicked her little device a couple times before shaking her head. “Nothing new. No hidden trackers.” 

The device was actually part of her ongoing attempt to get a proper working teleporter. It was meant to scan someone from head to toe to get a one-hundred percent accurate and detailed picture of their body and clothing. It wouldn’t show her their face under a mask or anything like that, just give her a microscopically-detailed… map, essentially, of their current form. Every bump in their shoes, every lace, every imperfection in armor, every button in a shirt, every tiny crack in a glass watch face, the exact contours of a pair of tiny diamond earrings, everything. It scanned and stored a perfect map of your body and clothes together. And since we’d had her scan us just before meeting with Glitch, it would have told her if absolutely anything had been added to us in that time, as the before and after pictures would have been different. 

Not that I really expected the woman to try to get away with putting a bug on one of us, but again, I wasn’t going to take any chances. Just like with the card. Maybe I was getting to be a little better about sharing with my team, but Glitch definitely wasn’t part of that. 

Once I was as sure as I could be that it was safe, I continued my thought. “She knows how to make a very good profit because she has to give part of it to my parents. I don’t think she would’ve suggested this if she didn’t think it was possible.” Pausing, I looked back to Wren. “Which, I guess makes the question, do you think it’s possible?”

She didn’t answer at first, seeming to be lost in thought again. Finally, after we all watched her for a few seconds, she looked at me. “Um, I think so. I mean, it wouldn’t be easy. And I need to look at her prototypes more.” She nodded to the other corner of the roof, where she’d left the bag with the gloves in it. Gloves which we had also obviously gone over with a fine-tooth comb for any bugs. But I expected something to be on them even less than I expected something to be on one of us. Glitch wasn’t stupid. She’d have to know that we would have our own Tech-Touched scour every millimeter of those things. Spying on us like that wasn’t worth the risk. Well, okay, it actually was. It was totally worth the risk. The stuff they could have found out about what we knew… The idea was terrifying. But she didn’t know that. 

Wren continued. “I could only do that with help. But she offered help. But she’s a bad guy. But the things she wants me to do would really help people. But she’d probably find a way to use it for bad things too, even if I do put safeties in it. But people use good things for bad stuff all the time, and it doesn’t erase the good stuff those things do. But if someone hurts people with it, that’ll be my fault. But if we don’t give her what she wants, she might ask for something worse, or start a fight. And I don’t want you guys to get hurt. But–” 

“Wren.” I stepped over that way, putting my hands on her shoulders. “It’s okay. Whatever you decide to do, we’re with you. I mean, I’m with you.” Frowning to myself for the presumption, I turned to look over my shoulder.

“Oh, of course we’re with her!” Murphy blurted. “Come on, man, what do you take us for?” 

“Right,” Paige confirmed. “It’s her choice. Whatever she decides to do about it. We could try to negotiate a single payoff, but something tells me that once Glitch gets an idea in her head about how to make an ongoing profit, it’s not easy to make her give that up. Something like this would be revolutionary. And she’s even offering to let you keep seventy percent. Which should tell you something. She thinks it’s worth so much that she can profit enough off thirty percent, even counting what she has to give to the Ministry.” 

“To your parents,” Alloy put in, with a glance my way. “Which is still really fuuudging weird to think about, for the record.” She caught herself with the curse, giving Wren a sidelong look before turning back to me. “So I guess, in a way, you’d be benefiting from some of that thirty percent too.” 

Grimacing behind my helmet, I shook my head. “I mean at this point it’s like emptying a few dozen dump trucks of water into Lake Erie. Yeah, it’s a lot of water when it’s in the trucks, but once you empty them into the lake, you never–” Stopping short, I blanched, raising my gaze to find Wren, Peyton, Murphy, and Roald staring at me. Paige and Sierra were looking away. “Uhh heh… hehe… I guess I was sorta, kinda just talking about dump trucks full of money not being a big deal.” 

“Because you already have a Lake Erie of money,” Peyton noted. “Yeah.”

I shook my head. “My parents have a Lake Erie of money. I’ve benefited from it, sure. But it’s theirs.” 

“So it’s a lake of money you can swim in,” Murphy replied while moving over to plop herself on the edge of a metal air conditioning duct running along the roof next to me. “The point is, Alloy’s right, that’s weird to think about.” She squinted at me curiously. “What is it like, being one of the richest teenagers in the country?” 

Coughing, I shook my head. “Let’s not get into that. I just–I just don’t want you guys to think of me that way. I’m still just Paintball.” 

I couldn’t see Murphy’s face behind the ski mask, but her body language said she wanted to say something about that. She stopped herself, however, and just replied, “So, Glitch thinks this idea is such a winner that she can get all the moolah she wants and what she has to pay the Ministry off just thirty percent? Kinda weird that she didn’t try for fifty-fifty, isn’t it?” 

“She probably assumes that by offering seventy percent to us, she’ll look magnanimous.” That was Poise, bringing her legs up to her chest as she continued to sit against the brick chimney. “We’re more likely to think she’s being nice.” 

“And,” Sierra added, “that if we think at all about the money, we’ll have dollar signs in our eyes. With, of course, the added benefit that this is all for saving lives.” 

Murphy was looking down at her phone. I saw her google the definition of magnanimous before muttering, “I knew it.” Then she put it away and gestured along with what Sierra had been saying. “Yeah, she offered the big life saving invention idea so it wouldn’t make us feel like we were giving her weapons or anything she could, you know, use to hurt people.” 

“Except she still could,” Wren pointed out flatly while shifting her weight and fidgeting uncertainly. “Even if the stuff itself isn’t turned bad, you said it yourself. She’d still make money off it. A lot of money. And then she’d use that money to hurt people.” 

“Or maybe she’d retire,” I pointed out before wincing. “Yeah, probably not. But it’s okay, Wren. You think about it and whatever you decide, we’ll go with. If we need to come up with a plan to make her back off and–” 

“No.” Wren’s head shook quickly. “No, I don’t wanna make anybody fight those guys. I mean, they’re bad guys so you’re gonna have to and all that, sure. What I mean is, I don’t wanna make it, umm… personal or anything. You–I mean we already have umm, you know, enough to do.” She focused on Paige and Sierra. “We’ve gotta save your sister! And Flea and Trivial too!” She took a deep breath, letting it out before slowly continuing. “I’ll do it. I’ll help build those things. But only after I work on the thing to help track Breakwater!” 

“We’ll tell her you’ve got projects you need to finish before you get started on anything else,” I agreed. “She can’t possibly object too much to that. She has to know that Tech-Touched have their own things to do, and she just sprang this on you.” Thinking about that briefly, I gave a decisive nod. “Yeah, we’ll just tell her that we’ll work on that but she has to wait a couple weeks.” Belatedly, I focused on the girl herself. “Err, I say we. We’ll help, any way we can. But it’s up to you. Do you want to try that?” 

She didn’t answer at first, going silent again for a few seconds before murmuring, “I said I wouldn’t build anything for supervillains. But… I guess this isn’t actually for them? She’s gonna get money out of it, but we were gonna give them money anyway. I…” She squirmed on her feet, making a cute little uncertain noise in the back of her throat before finally nodding. “Okay, okay. I’ll figure out how to work on it. Um, you know, after we do the other thing.” 

Obviously, I felt a pang of regret and annoyance at myself for not being able to simply tell Glitch to go shove it. But the others were right, there was so much going on already that we really couldn’t deal with a straight up fight on our own against Braintrust. After all, they hadn’t gotten a reputation for driving other Tech-Touched either out of the city or under their heel for nothing. If we were going to fight them, it was going to need to involve all of us and our full attention. And at the moment, the majority of that attention had to be focused on saving Irelyn and Trivial. Not to mention figuring out what the hell was going on with Luciano. Our plates were absolutely full. Picking a fight with Braintrust just wasn’t in the cards, and we all knew it. 

“We’ll wait though,” I finally spoke up after all of us had gone quiet for a few seconds following Wren’s decision. “She gave us a couple days, and I’d rather stretch that out as long as possible. Then we’ll tell her you need time to open up enough of your project space to work on something new.” 

“You should start with a month,” Paige put in. “Let her negotiate you down to a couple weeks or so. It’ll make her feel like she won something even though it’s what you wanted in the first place.” 

I was already nodding that way. “Right, yeah, good plan. Uh, but I guess in the meantime, we really don’t have anything we can–” 

And that was when Wren’s phone rang. It was a bright chirping sound, like a bird singing. No, it was literally a bird singing. I realized that belatedly, as the girl tugged it out of her costume and held the thing to her ear. “Hi, Uncle Fred! Sorry, I know I said we’d call as soon as we were done so you could come pick us up, but we were still talking about–huh? Oh. Wait, what?” 

She was quiet for a few seconds, clearly listening as the man said something on the other end. The rest of us looked at one another and shrugged until Wren quickly blurted, “Really?! I knew that was a good idea! Oh, uh, tell the others, Uncle Fred.” With that, she put him on speaker phone and held it out so we could hear. 

There was a brief pause before the man cleared his throat on the other end. “Uh, well, I was just sitting here and the scanner the kid set up to monitor police and emergency traffic for certain words or phrases popped up with a bunch of stuff going on about a zombie and fire, right here in town.” 

Well, that sure made me straighten up. I was on my feet in an instant, my eyes widening behind the helmet and mask. “Wait, what? Here in town? You mean Luciano…” I trailed off, grimacing. “He made it here already.” 

“Yeah, but it’s a little confusing,” came the response over the phone. “There’s a bunch of different conflicting reports about where he is, what he’s doing, that sort of thing. Guy moves fast, and he’s just… causing a bunch of bullsh-crap chaos everywhere he goes.” 

I thought about that for a moment. “If he’s pissed at the Ministry, maybe he wants to cause that chaos. Maybe that’s the point. They try to keep things as neat and orderly as possible. They have their rules. If he’s going against that, maybe his whole point is to cause a lot of terror and confusion.” 

“Well he’s sure managing that,” Fred replied. “There’s reports coming in from all over the city. But as soon as someone gets there, he’s gone already. There’s no rhyme or reason to it. He attacked a real estate office on the north side of town, then a Wendy’s about six blocks east five minutes later, then a bookstore five miles south ten minutes later. It was quiet for fifteen minutes, then he hit an art gallery just two blocks east of the bookstore. Now it’s been quiet again for–wait, hang on.” 

We were put on hold for a few more seconds while my mind reeled. What the hell? Well, I knew what the hell. I’d said what the hell. He was causing a bunch of chaos with no pattern, almost certainly as a way of getting back at the Ministry. But they weren’t the ones who were really going to be suffering. It was the people he was targeting, the people whose misery he was throwing in the Ministry’s faces. 

Fuck. Fuck, we had to stop this. 

My mouth opened to say something to that effect, when Fred came back on the line. “There’s another one. He’s hitting a convenience store about–hang on… a mile north of where you are.” 

He gave the address, and I was already turning. “I’m on my way.” My foot rose, then I froze. “I mean…” Pausing, I looked back to the others. “I don’t wanna say–” 

“Oh, shut up,” Sierra blurted. “Of course we’ve got your back. Don’t be an idiot.” 

“Now hang on there,” Fred started, “I don’t want–” 

“Sorry, Uncle Fred, gotta be a superhero!” With that, Wren clicked off the phone and faced us. “So c’mon, what’re we waiting for? Let’s go kick his butt.” 

There wasn’t time to have a whole discussion about it right then and there. Not considering Luciano could disappear again any minute. So, I shot a spray of green paint from both hands, covering everyone as much as I could before pivoting back to the edge of the roof. “Okay then.

“Let’s go stop a zombie.” 

******

“Ahhhh!” Murphy yelled out while hitting the blue paint I had shot in front of her. It propelled the girl across the gap between the building rooftops we had been running across. It wasn’t the first or longest gap I’d shot her and the others over, nor was it the widest. But she screamed every time, as did Roald. I was pretty sure hers was about seventy-five percent joy and twenty-five percent terror, while Roald’s was closer to fifty-fifty. Either way, they insisted on continuing along with it. 

Roald hit the paint a second later, even as Murphy was landing on the far building, the orange paint I’d given her helping the girl avoid breaking any bones in the process. Meanwhile, Paige and Sierra hit the second blue puddle I’d put down, one after the other. They both launched themselves that way, rolling as they hit the far roof before popping right back to their feet. 

Rather than using either puddle, I just made blue paint appear on the bottom of my boots as I hit the edge of the roof, launching myself that way. Above me and to one side, Wren was flying with her dragonfly-like wings, while Alloy flew on her hoverboard above and to the other side. Both of them were calling out which way we should go to reach good jumping points to get from roof to roof. Beyond that, we were following my directions. Or rather, the directions the helmet was giving me when I used the map function Wren had provided in the heads-up display. It showed me just how to get to the spot where Luciano was supposedly still causing trouble, if what Fred had said when Wren checked in with him a moment earlier was right. 

There we were, running and jumping from roof to roof, using blue, green, and red paint as much as I could manage just so we could get there as fast as possible, praying we weren’t too late. Poise and Style being full of… poise and style. They were doing this as though they’d done it their entire lives, like Olympic-level athletes. Hell, they barely needed the paint boosts, which really helped given how fast I would’ve run out if I had to use it for everyone. Calvin and Hobbes, meanwhile, clearly weren’t nearly as skilled. But they were doing their best, and they weren’t bad. Probably from a lifetime of running through dangerous neighborhoods and away from people who saw them as easy marks. Their method of getting around was just a bit less polished. 

With Trevithick flying along one side of me and Alloy along the other, we brought up the rear so I could hit people and spots with paint whenever needed. Wren and Peyton both helped with that, calling down to me to point out the right spots. It worked pretty well, once we got the system down a couple buildings in. By this point, we were basically a well-oiled machine with it. 

Once I joined them on that roof, my skates skidded to a stop. This was it. On the other side of this building was the parking lot connecting to the convenience store. I could hear screaming, along with a weird guttural howling sound. Oh, and fire. I heard fire too. 

Together, we raced to the far side of the roof, ready to jump down there and stop this guy. Then we all stopped short. Because we saw the guy. Except it wasn’t the guy. That is, it wasn’t Luciano. Standing down there in the middle of the parking lot, in front of a couple cowering civilians who were trying to take cover behind a bench in front of the store, was a man who looked nothing like Luciano. He was white, for one thing. He looked like a random beach bum, with long blonde hair, tanned skin, board shorts, and no shirt. Which gave us a good view of the dozen holes in his chest and stomach. Some were only partial holes, while others ran all the way through, showing daylight on the other side. It was like he’d been hit with a shotgun blast of pellets. 

It wasn’t Luciano. But he was still clearly dead, still had obvious death-wounds, and was still moving despite that. Oh, and he had the same fire power, given the way his teeth were visibly glowing. To say nothing of the way he grabbed the bench the people were cowering behind and made it start melting. He wasn’t Luciano, but he was in the same condition.

So… who the fuck was this? 

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Enkindle 23-07 (Summus Proelium)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Probably not,” I agreed. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“So you’re going?” Paige asked. 

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

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

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Enkindle 23-06 (Summus Proelium)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“And about my parents.” 

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Enkindle 23-05 (Summus Proelium)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What did I miss?” 

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Enkindle 23-04 (Summus Proelium)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Enkindle 23-03 (Summus Proelium)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What…” I frowned. “What is that?” 

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

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

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

“What the fuck does that mean?”  

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Enkindle 23-02 (Summus Proelium)

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To my relief, the others did not immediately recognize the newly-dubbed Sierra as looking like me. The real me, that was. In the back of my mind, I sent a silent thanks that I had never really been a focus of paparazzi or whatever. I didn’t know how much of that was the fact that I didn’t fit what they would want to show as a daughter of Elena Evans, and how much was my parents keeping me sheltered from it. But either way, it helped me out right now. I could only imagine what sort of explanations we would have had to give otherwise. 

Maybe the truth. I was going to tell them the truth anyway, so why not now? It was a question I couldn’t quite answer, even to myself. th

Murphy, Roald, and Peyton were all circling Sierra, looking her up and down. Peyton gave a low whistle. “Damn, you really do look completely–I mean…” She looked back and forth between her and Paige. “I guess saying you look real is pretty bad, isn’t it? Cuz, like, you are real.”

Paige snorted at that. “Yeah, we’re real. Flesh and blood body, just like you. Well, not just like.” 

“More like a new and improved us,” Murphy murmured, before flushing a bit. “I mean, I didn’t–” She seemed to squirm a little bit as though embarrassed. “You both look great, but what I meant was the whole strength and speed stuff. Wait, do you have that same–you know.” She gestured a bit vaguely toward Sierra. “Improvements, I mean. Are you like a super-soldier like Paige?” 

A very slight smirk crossed the other girl’s face. And yes, seeing a look like that on my own face was still weird. The whole thing was weird. Every time I looked at her, I had another startling moment of realizing I was staring at my own face. It threw me off, to say the least. That smirk stayed as she inclined her chin a bit. “Like her? I’m pretty sure I could kick her ass.” 

Paige started to respond to that, and I quickly spoke up. “Why don’t we save finding that out for later? I’m just glad Rai–I mean Sierra has a body now, so we can move on to the next problem.” 

Roald made a noise deep in his throat, folding his arms across his chest before hesitantly asking, “You mean we don’t get to just be glad we got out of that whole thing alive and relax for awhile? She um, she has a body now, and it’s gonna take awhile to look through all that stuff, right? You don’t… you don’t want to go out and do something like that again already…”

Murphy’s hand slapped his back. “I think what he means is, we just did a lot of pissing some really powerful people off. And while all of that was fun, and they have that and a hell of a lot more coming–” Her face twisted a bit as thoughts of her brother clearly filled her mind briefly before she pushed them away. “–we probably don’t wanna push too hard, too fast. They’re gonna be on guard now. Even more on guard than usual. They’re gonna be watching for us. So maybe we should chill out.”

“He didn’t mean anything to do with the Ministry,” Paige informed them with a glance my way. “This is about my–our father.” The correction came as she met Sierra’s gaze briefly. “And the fact that he’s got…” She hesitated slightly, clearly deciding how much to actually say before starting over. “The fact that he’s got two Star-Touched trapped on that prison island with him. With them. With all those prisoners.” 

That made everyone else besides Sierra and me do a double-take. It was almost funny. Wren flew right up in the air, wings lifting her into a hovering motion so she was several feet off the ground. “Wait, wait, what?! He’s got Star-Touched on Breakwater?” 

“How did that happen?” Peyton demanded. “And how do you know about it?” 

Paige took a breath before explaining, “The Banners–the people who adopted… who bought me, they have an older daughter, a real daughter, who was estranged from them. When they went missing–err, when we went missing, she started looking for them. I guess Trivial was a friend of hers, because she convinced her to help look. Trivial got Flea, from the Conservators, to help too. When we found out that there were Star-Touched looking for me, we were afraid they’d tip off the Ministry. Or even that they were Ministry. So we made them think I was in Florida. You know, using a phone that made it look like that was where I was calling from.” 

Wren abruptly spoke up. “You were calling the umm, Trivial with that?” 

“Not at first,” Paige replied. “But when I wouldn’t tell Irelyn where I was, she uhh, thought making me talk to a Star-Touched would help. Obviously it didn’t change anything, but they kept trying.” 

This was all uncomfortable, obviously. I didn’t like the idea of lying to these guys. But then again, it was about protecting Irelyn’s secret identity. Awkward as the whole situation was, it would have been even worse to go blabbing that when it wasn’t our secret to tell. There was no simple answer here. We could either betray their trust by lying about the whole Irelyn/Flea situation, or betray Irelyn by exposing her identity to a lot of people she didn’t know anything about. I just had to hope that if this came out in the future, they would understand why we hadn’t told them the truth. Actually, I had to hope that they were cool with an awful lot of ‘not the whole truth.’  

I shook those thoughts off while Paige finished with a simple, “We thought it’d be safe enough down there, that they couldn’t get in trouble that far away from what was actually going on.” 

“You also sent them away from the city when this whole gang war is going on,” Roald pointed out. He didn’t exactly sound completely recriminating, but he didn’t not sound that way either. It was somewhere in the middle. “They could have done a lot of good here for people.” 

Wincing visibly, Paige nodded. “You’re right. We didn’t think they’d be gone for this long, honest. We assumed they’d go down for a few days and then come back. We didn’t expect anything like this.”  

“Stupid us, apparently,” Sierra put in. “Cuz they managed to get Pittman’s attention somehow and he had them… uh, we dunno what or how exactly, but they ended up on Breakwater. He has the phone they were using to communicate with Paige. Irelyn gave them the number. I guess she thought they might have more luck convincing her to tell them where she was.”

Peyton was looking back and forth between all of us, marbles orbiting agitatedly around her head while she was clearly thinking intently. “Okay, so this Banners woman was looking for you and her missing parents and she got a couple of Star-Touched involved. Does she know they ended up on Breakwater?” 

“We’re pretty sure she’s there too,” I found myself saying, picturing the hole I was digging getting deeper with each word. Though technically that was the absolute literal truth. We were pretty sure Irelyn was there. “Flea and Trivial went with her as back-up and now…” I grimaced. Fuck, it was so easy for this to go wrong and fall apart. The moment they didn’t see Irelyn with Flea and Trivial, it was–fuck. That was a problem to figure out later. We were doing the best we could not to give away her secret identity, but that could only go so far. 

“So there’s a Prev trapped on that island too?” Murphy blurted. “How’re they keeping her safe?” 

Paige shifted her weight a little, her tone flat. “She’s fully capable. Her father was training her to take over his security division before they had a falling out. She’s had more– she can take care of herself in a fight. With those two backing her up–or her backing them up–whatever, she can help.” 

I really almost had to admire Paige’s ability to lie in that moment. She really sounded like she was sticking up for Irelyn being able to keep up with a couple Star-Touched, as if offended by the insinuation that she would drag them down. 

Peyton started to say something else before stopping as a noise of confusion escaped her. “Wait, hold the phone, why isn’t this all over the news? If there were a couple heroes and some ordinary person trapped on that place, wouldn’t it be front-page material? We’d be seeing it on television, there’d be top pinned posts about it on Sphere, on Reddit, everywhere. And trust me, it’s not there. No one’s talking about anything like this. Not even rumors.” 

Grimacing behind my helmet, I shifted my weight uncomfortably before nodding. “That’s why we think they’re keeping it secret. The people on Breakwater, I mean. I don’t think they want anyone to know that there’s even a chance of good people ending up there. Because if people knew it was possible for someone to be transported onto Breakwater–” 

“They’d realize there must be a way to transport off of it,” Murphy finished, sounding disgusted. “And we can’t have that. Gotta keep up the fucking illusion of perfect security so there’s not mass panic in the streets or whatever the fuck they’re scared of. Even if it means abandoning those three–wait, do you think they’ve told the people here? Do you think their teammates know what happened to them? I guess they wouldn’t tell anyone that Irelyn chick knows, but the other two?” 

My head shook. “I don’t think the people in charge of that place would be able to keep it a secret if the Star-Touched here knew about it.” Pausing to consider, I added, “I mean, maybe one or two know, like the leaders? But I don’t… I don’t think even them. Honestly, I’m pretty sure that if even the Ministry knew about it, they’d be doing something to get the word out. Remember, their whole thing depends on balance. It’s not just about giving the villains a free ride. They need to have the power on the good side to shut down anyone who steps out of line. Losing two really good Star-Touched at any point, but especially right now, isn’t exactly conducive to that.”

“Besides,” Sierra put in, “Pittman’s their enemy. They’d want to get the word out and put a stop to it just to make sure that there was no chance of him getting off that place.” 

Peyton was nodding slowly, her voice thoughtful. “I mean, that’s a good point, right? Like, there’s no reason they’d be helping to keep this secret. Safe to say they don’t know anything about it.” 

Roald snorted. “Yeah, well, maybe we should tell them so they can do our work for us.” 

My mouth opened, before I stopped and grimaced behind the helmet. “I know you meant that sarcastically, but part of me wants to know if that’s something we could do. I mean, think about it. They’ve got a hell of a lot more resources than we do. And like we said, they’ve got every reason to want to shut him down and save Flea and Trivial.” 

“Has Irelyn been reported missing?” Peyton asked, her golden helmet tilting my way. “I mean, I doubt she took this much time off work. Her–wait, what does she do for work?” 

Paige was the one who answered. “She’s a security consultant for a few different tech companies. Trains their staff, works with a couple mercenary groups, that sort of thing. Freelance, so she doesn’t have anyone to report to. They might’ve noticed she hasn’t been answering calls, but what are they gonna say? Hell, they’d probably think she’s on some assignment for a different company.” 

Clearing my throat, I quickly spoke up. “The point is, it’s pretty doubtful that either the people she works with, or Flea and Trivial’s teammates, know how bad their situation is. Maybe they’ve noticed them missing, but even then it’s not like they’d jump straight to ‘they’re trapped on Breakwater,’ you know? No matter what they think happened, they’re probably keeping it quiet to avoid a panic.” 

“They might be blaming the Scions,” Roald pointed out with an audible grimace. “Maybe they think those guys grabbed them and are planning some big event.” 

“Please don’t even give me any reason to picture that,” Alloy groaned. “Cuz now I’m just wondering what those guys are actually planning for their big revenge come-back.” 

My head shook quickly. “Let’s not think about that right now. We’ve got enough problems to deal with. We just need to focus on how we get those people off of Breakwater.”

“Maybe you should let the Ministry know,” Fred put in. He was sitting over in the corner with a copy of the newspaper and a cup of coffee, shrugging when we looked at him. “Like you said, they’ve got the resources you–we don’t, right? And they’d want to convince the authorities to get those three out of there. You get them to put pressure in the right places, maybe the people in charge of the island just step in and pull them out. Could be that easy.” He paused, frowning at his cup. “Yeah, I know, it sounded wrong as soon as I heard it.” 

“I’m not sure how we can let them know what’s going on without becoming even more of a target ourselves,” I carefully murmured, thinking about it for a moment. “Or how we could get them to believe it. I mean, maybe we could get them to think that the people who hit them last night worked for him and lead them to it that way? But I don’t know how we could do that, exactly. It seems pretty… easy to screw up.” 

Wren was practically vibrating as fast as her wings while hovering in the air. “I think I can find out where the island is.” When everyone looked at her, she quickly added, “When you use the phone to talk to that mean guy. I think I can build something to track the signal to the source. Would that help? I mean, um, if you know exactly where the island is, maybe you could trade that to the people in charge and say something like, ‘you wanna keep that whole location a secret, so maybe you should get our friends out and it’ll stay that way.’”

That made me stare even more, my mouth opening and shutting a couple times. Of all the people who might have suggested literally blackmailing the authorities into getting Flea and Trivial off that island, I never would have expected it to be Wren. 

Apparently everyone else was just as surprised, because the girl found the whole group staring at her. Slowly, she lowered herself back to the floor, wings continuing to beat for a few more seconds before slowly fluttering to a stop. “What?” she asked weakly, looking back and forth between all of us. “Was it a bad idea?” 

I was the first to answer, my head shaking quickly. “No, not a bad idea. A surprising one for sure, and definitely a dangerous one too. Blackmailing the government into doing what we want them to do, even if it’s the right thing, could get a target put on our backs. Especially with something as big as the location of their super-inescapable prison.”

Paige spoke slowly. “He’s right about that. Believe me, just trying to force them to do what we want in the first place would be enough to make them look at us in a, let’s say not favorable light. Add in the part where it involves the secret location of the supervillain prison that every government in the Armistice alliance uses and…” She grimaced a bit. 

“But it’s still a good idea,” Sierra put in flatly. Her tone has made it clear that she was practically daring us to disagree, which would obviously mean coming up with a better plan of our own. “Think about it, it’s not like we can get over there ourselves. Even once we know where the island is, that place is so well defended that we’d get blown to smithereens before we got anywhere near it. Unless the kid’s ready to upgrade the odds of her teleportation system from a fifty percent chance of successfully moving a few blocks to a one hundred percent chance of moving all the way across the continent and over the ocean.” 

Wren visibly blanched at that, head shaking slowly. “Um, I’d rather risk blackmailing the government. Wait, does that make us bad guys?” 

“We’re saving a couple Star-Touched, and another good woman, from real bad guys,” Peyton reminded her. “That gives us a little wiggle room on the good or evil chart, doesn’t it?” 

“Yes,” I confirmed. “A little wiggle room. But let’s be careful with that, because I’m pretty sure we’ve been wiggling a fair bit already. Um. Wren, maybe you could work on creating that tracking system so we can call Pittman and get his location? Then we can decide what to do from there. I mean, it’s not like having the location automatically means we have to blackmail the government people, right? If anyone else can come up with a better plan, feel free.” 

“One that helps Trivial, Flea, and Irelyn as soon as possible,” Paige put in. “They might be good at what they do, but they’re stuck out there on an island full of the worst of the worst. Nobody’s good enough to survive in that place forever. And it’s our fault that they’re stuck out there to begin with.” 

A nagging voice in the back of my head was saying that everyone trying to think of a better solution might have more luck if they knew the full, correct situation. They were operating under the assumption that Flea and Irelyn were two separate people. That could very easily come back to bite us in the ass. But again, until we had permission from the woman herself, we couldn’t just go around blabbing her identity to everyone here. We were doing the best we could with a shitty situation. 

Wren was nodding almost frantically. “I’ll work on it. I’ll build it. I mean, I’ve got the design in my head already, but we might need to get a few things. They’ve probably got blockers–I mean they’ve definitely got blockers. Things to stop stuff like exactly what we’re gonna do. But I think I know how to get past them. I–uhh, gotta draw!” Even as she finished saying that, Fred was handing over a tablet with a stylus, and she quickly moved to a corner of the room to start sketching designs. 

After watching her for a second, I turned back to the others. “Well, that’ll keep her busy for a while. I guess there’s nothing else we can do for those three right now, so maybe we should start going over the stuff we found? Sorry, I mean the stuff we stole. Wren says the tracking stuff is all gone, right, Fred?” 

“Yeah, it’s all taken care of,” he confirmed. “The kid promises that everything over there is safe.” He gestured to a table on the other side of the room, where our bags were spread out. “There were a lot of trackers on it, but we got rid of them. Nobody’s gonna find that stuff here.” 

So, we all went over to find our own bags and started to sort through what we had stolen. First, I took those vials from the front pocket and unwrapped them from the towel before frowning thoughtfully. There were five vials in total, one blue, two purple, one brownish-black, and one a bright amber. There were labels on the vials, but it wasn’t like they had easy-to-understand names and explanations. Each label had four numbers and three letters on it. Such as, on the blue one, 9F2X7P0. The two purple ones looked identical, and the codes on them were close but not the same. One was 8D1J4N1 and the other was 8D1J4N8. Did that mean they came from the same batch? I had no idea. And I certainly wasn’t going to do anything stupid like uncork them and smell or touch the stuff without having a better idea of what it was. 

Hopefully there would be information in the files we’d taken, something we could use to decode the labels. For the moment, I carefully set them aside on the folded towel and turned my attention to the assortment of papers I had yanked off the wall back in that place. They had been taped up near the vials, so maybe they had something I could use? 

Unfortunately, the papers were no help. At least, not yet. They had the same sort of code written on them. Until we found the key for it, we still couldn’t decipher what any of it meant.

While I was focused on that, Pack arrived at the back door. Fred let her in, and she came with her lizards all over her shoulders, arms, and head. “I tell you, these guys must’ve been pretty upset about being left behind, because–what?” She had stopped in mid-sentence, staring at Sierra, who had just looked up. “What the hell are– err… oh.” Seeming to catch herself abruptly, the masked girl pointed. “That’s the body you found for Raige?” 

“Sierra now,” the girl in question corrected. “Sierra Nevada.” 

“Sierra Nevada,” Pack echoed thoughtfully, still staring at her. I couldn’t read her expression through that completely blank mask, but she sounded… odd. “Well, it’s good to meet you, Sierra. 

“Very good to meet you indeed.” 

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Dig In 22-13 (Summus Proelium)

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So, we made our way back to the shop. We were careful, of course. First, Peyton and I took the time to each find a private area to change into our actual costumes. Amber had grabbed the bag with the costumes in it just before teleporting us out of the van. Naturally, the most important part of that point was that I was able to take the damn bra thing off. I resisted the urge to hurl it as far as I could, but only barely. I really hoped that nothing would come up in the future forcing me to wear it.  

Now I was back in my costume and far more comfortable. I was the right height, the right… shape, and everything felt a hell of a lot better, even if we weren’t out of the woods yet. I was just plain happier like this. 

Alloy and I basically just had to do the exact same thing we had done to get to the motel in the first place, only in reverse. Now we were heading back to the shop, and it was even more crucial that the others not be seen. It would have been bad enough to deal with cops or other Touched seeing them dressed up like that before. Now… now it would be a lot worse. 

Thankfully, the Ministry was still busy scouring the lake and area along the shore for us. I had no doubt that the search would widen soon enough, but we would be safe in the shop by then, and everyone would be out of the incriminating suits. Or so I kept telling myself throughout the entire very tense affair of oh-so-slowly working our way through the city. We couldn’t afford a single screw-up now. We had to get back there and get rid of all the evidence before anyone, particularly anyone who might work for or talk to the Ministry, saw us. 

Yeah, it was a bit nerve-wracking. But, despite having several near heart attacks on the way there and time and space doing their level best to stretch the whole thing out into an eternity, we finally made it. We were back in the alley behind the shop, and as far as we could tell, no one had seen us. It probably would have been impossible, or at least a lot harder, to do it that way before the curfew was put in place, so I did have to thank the authorities for that. Maybe I would send them a nice card or something. 

Fred opened the back door, giving us a nod. “We had cameras set up the last couple blocks, watching you. There’s no one on your tail. Come on.” He stepped aside then, holding the door for us to go in while his eyes carefully and suspiciously scanned the alley despite his own words. Apparently after the mistake he had made with that whole Ashton situation, he was being a lot more careful in general. Or maybe my paranoia was rubbing off on the people around me. Either way, I wasn’t going to object. He was Wren’s guardian, and there would be people who wanted to use her skills for their own ends. 

Speaking of which, I was going to have to give Glitch an answer about that whole situation soon. She had said she would send someone in two weeks, but it had been longer than that without a word. I assumed that had something to do with the whole war escalating thing. Maybe they were busy helping my parents work out nasty new toys to play with or something. Whatever the case, I knew that it was only a temporary delay. Soon enough, she would send someone to get our answer about what Wren was going to do. We’d talked about it of course, and… well, I just hoped we knew what we were doing. 

But right now, I had to focus on this particular situation. We all slipped through the doorway, before Fred closed it after us. I felt a sudden rush of relief wash over me in that moment. Tension that I hadn’t even realized I was holding in myself rushed out in a heavy sigh. We were safe. Well, maybe not completely safe from everything. The Ministry would be looking for whoever had stolen from them. They would be turning over every stone they could, and would go over that van with a fine-toothed comb. Thankfully, there was nothing for them to find. The van wasn’t registered to any of us, or connected to us in any way. Pack had stolen it from a place that rented them out for people to move furniture, and none of us had touched anything in it with our bare hands. We didn’t touch anything and we didn’t leave anything. They wouldn’t find any leads there. 

So, they would look, but they wouldn’t find us. Not right now, anyway. We had time. We had space to breathe and think. And to find out what we’d actually taken from them. 

Of course, first we all had to survive an attack of a completely different kind. The moment we came into the main shop area, I was suddenly hit straight on by a (literal) flying tackle-hug as Wren zoomed across the open space on her wings to crash into me. “You made it!” 

Staggering backward, I laughed. It was a laugh of relief, which felt really good right then. So did the hug itself, actually. I closed my arms around the girl and nodded. “Yup, we sure did. In and out just like that.” Even as I said those words, my voice cracked a little. I still couldn’t believe it had worked. And despite the fact that most of me was celebrating, there was a small but not insignificant part of me that was convinced that Ministry bad guys were about to crash through the windows while my brother and dad blew the door down and came storming in. It was… not a fun thing to imagine. 

Wren didn’t hug me for long, quickly moving on to the others. As she did, I stepped back and glanced toward Fred. “Good driving back there,” I informed him quietly. “Looked like a real wipeout. I’m sure they’ll have their suspicions, maybe even enough to be sure once they investigate and don’t find us anywhere. But still, you sold it in that moment.” 

Folding his arms, the man gave a short, thoughtful nod. “That’s the important part, isn’t it?” he mused. “If they don’t know exactly what happened, it’ll slow down their search. Even if they know you intentionally went into the water, they’ll look for diving equipment and extend the search area to find places further along where you could’ve come up. It’ll confuse them, muddy the waters, so to speak.” He gave a soft grunt of amusement at his own joke. 

“Every little bit helps,” I confirmed before letting out a breath. “Thanks for being around to help with all this. We definitely couldn’t do it without you. I mean, certainly not without Wren, but you too. I…” Biting my lip behind the mask and helmet, I hesitated briefly, wondering if I was overstepping. “I know you… you’ve felt shitty about what happened before.” 

“It was a stupid mistake,” he replied flatly, not looking at me. “I should’ve paid more attention to what that idiot wanted to do with that stuff, to exactly what he was going to steal. He just said he was going to rob a bank and–shit.” Shaking his head, he muttered something I didn’t catch under his breath. Then he sighed heavily. “Sorry I treated you the way I did when you showed up. You know, with the whole pointing a gun at you thing. That was out of line. It was–I’m glad you found us. Glad you… did all that.” 

I knew what he was saying. He was horrified at the very thought that he might have been even indirectly responsible for the death of a child. If we hadn’t found those vials and gotten them back to Blackjack in time… yeah, I didn’t really want to think about it either. I’d never met his daughter, but no kid deserved to die. Especially like that. 

I was spared from having to find some way of responding to that when Pack abruptly spoke up. “Okay, well, it’s been real fun basking in the glory of pulling something like that off, but can we get the next part of this show on the road?” She had all of her lizards out on the counter and was brushing her fingers over them tenderly, clearly apologizing for leaving them behind. 

Paige cleared her throat, straightening up with a slight grimace that told me she and Raige were having their own discussion inside her head. “Yeah, we, for two, would like to see what we pulled out of that place and if it was anything useful.” 

Her face shifted just a bit before Raige added, “And it had damn well better be after all that.” 

Of course, we couldn’t just open up the bags and dig through them just yet. There was way too big of a chance that the Ministry had put tracking devices on their hard drives. Right now, the special bags that Wren had provided were bouncing any potential signal all over the country.  But we weren’t going to take the risk of pulling anything out until there was no chance of us being tracked back here. Which meant that Wren had to take the bags into a specially prepared large metal crate she already had set up in a corner of the room. It was just large enough for her to sit inside with her tools and the stuff we’d grabbed, and did basically the same thing as the bags themselves while giving her room to work. Which meant the rest of us stood around and talked about what we had just done while she got busy. Anxious as we were to see what we had managed to grab, none of us wanted to take any risks. We had gotten through this so far without giving away who we were, and this was no time to start getting reckless. Slow and steady, one bit at a time. We’d done our part, now it was time for Wren to do hers. 

Okay, that wasn’t even in the least bit accurate. Wren had done more than her part so far. As I’d said to Fred, we would have been pretty screwed without her the entire way through this. The very thought of having to try to get into that place by myself, or even just without her, was basically inconceivable. I… maybe could have done it. At least, I could have dug the tunnel, but damn would it have taken a lot more time. Making everything pink and digging it out like that myself, I probably would have taken another month just to get there. Let alone having to go in alone. I either would’ve gotten caught, or I would’ve had to use my powers openly. Which would’ve let my parents know that Paintball was onto them, and that would have been a whole other–yeah. If I didn’t have these guys here to help, all of them, I would have been screwed. 

Those thoughts and more were running through my head as the others were loudly discussing just how crazy everything in that base had been. Murphy, Roald, and Peyton were going on about the guy they’d had to fight inside one of the other rooms, while the latter girl’s marbles spun wildly around her head. They were clearly as worked up and excited as she was, and possibly feeling a little agitated about the fact that they hadn’t been able to help in that place. If they could feel agitated, I still wasn’t sure how that whole thing worked. But in either case, whether it was the marbles or Peyton’s own subconscious, they were definitely energetic now, spinning around her head like a colorful halo or something. 

Glancing at her phone, Pack gave a soft grunt of annoyance. “Fuck. I gotta go. Getting a bit late and I’ve got a meeting with the boss before school in the morning.” 

“A meeting?” Amber’s gaze moved that way, clearly worried. And possibly curious. 

With an audible snort, Pack gestured casually. “Don’t worry, babe, the meeting was scheduled yesterday. Just a thing with me and a couple others about a job we need to do this week. A crime job.” She was clearly teasing the other girl. “But I promise, it’s the fun sort of crime.” 

Sighing, Amber waved a hand around the room. “You realize you’re talking about doing crime in a room full of Star-Touched, right? You’re literally admitting that you’re planning to do something illegal and expect us not to do anything about it.” 

“Oh, you can do something about it,” the other girl slyly replied. “Feel free to show up whenever you get the call and try to stop us. It’d be fun to play cops and robbers. Maybe one of us can tie the oth–” 

With an almost violent cough and vigorous clearing of her throat, Amber interrupted. “Didn’t you say you had to go? Meeting, school, all that?” 

Pack was clearly grinning behind that full face-covering mask as she gave a thumbs up. “Yup. But remember, I get to see the information you guys pull out of that stuff too. Don’t cheat me on this. I earned it.” 

We all promised to keep her informed about what we found, before the girl headed out with her lizards. Once she was gone, Murphy and Roald noted that they really should get home too. Obviously they couldn’t go by themselves, not with the curfew up. So Fred took them in his sedan, where they would hide under some blankets. He had an ID that identified him as a delivery driver for a local bakery, and if anyone stopped him he would just say that he was on his way to work a bit early to fill in. Assuming they called the place, the supervisor there was a friend of Fred’s and would cover for him. We’d thought about using that cover to get everyone to the motel earlier, but dismissed it both because we didn’t want anyone to take note of Fred being anywhere near the motel right before that whole thing went down, and because hiding all of us was a lot harder than just hiding Murphy and Roald. 

Finally, Peyton reluctantly admitted that she should probably start heading back home too, given her mother would freak out if she didn’t wake up in time to go to school. And besides, she had a test in the morning. So, after also making us promise to let her know what we found, she took off. 

Which left me there with Izzy, Amber, and Paige/Raige while we all waited for Wren to get done identifying and disabling the tracking devices. We talked a bit more, and had a snack of chips and cookies while watching the news for any word about what had happened. The only mention was something about a gang-related car chase that had ended with one of the cars involved driving into the lake. Of course, they identified the chopper as being part of the police force. And hell, for all we knew it really was. I would not have been at the least bit surprised to hear that it was an actual police helicopter that had been chasing us with that light. It gave them the perfect cover, anyway. And it wasn’t like my family having those sort of contacts and resources would be surprising. 

Eventually, Fred returned and whistled long and low while shaking his head as he saw what we were watching. “These people really have their fingers dug into fucking everything in this city, don’t they? They didn’t have any warning that you were going to be in there, and they still just snapped their fingers and summoned up a helicopter to chase after you. And just like that, it was a police chopper. Now they get to control the whole damn narrative. It’s just that quick, that easy. They say the word and the media reports what they’re told to.” 

“Helps when they have people in the police and the media,” I pointed out quietly. “Plus, we didn’t exactly give the news much of a reason to doubt that story. It makes sense that what happened right there would be a gang fight. And that it would disappear pretty quick. I mean, look at what’s happening in the rest of the city. As far as everyone else is concerned, it was just one more little event. Barely even worth reporting on, in the grand scheme of things.” 

Fred has started to say something, but before he could, the crate slid open and Wren emerged.  Her always-wild blond hair was sticking out in even more directions than normal, and she gave herself a shake, almost like a dog. Then she flashed us a broad smile and held up a plastic bag full of what looked like the remains of several small computer chips. They had been smashed into lots of tiny pieces. “All good now,” she informed brightly. “They can’t track these things anymore, and the last signal they got made it look like they were in Oklahoma. And there weren’t any tracking devices on the filters or papers, just the hard drives. It’s safe to look at the stuff now. Oooh, cookies!” With that, her wings extended and she literally flew over to the counter to grab a chocolate chip treat in each hand before smooshing them together into her mouth. “Mmmphh. Ur ruv oorrkiesh.” 

“Wren, don’t talk with your mouth full,” Fred advised. “And try to stick to one cookie at a time, kid.” Even as he said that, the man was shaking his head as he poured a glass of milk for her and handed it over, smiling as she drank greedily. “Good job though.” 

Reaching down to pick up the bag of broken tracking devices she had dropped in her rush, I examined it and smiled. “Definitely a good job. I’m pretty sure the Ministry is pissed off right now.” I had to pause then, imagining my parents being angry. It made me feel weird in my stomach, but I shook that off. Now really wasn’t the time to focus on that. We had to look through that stuff. It was getting pretty late, but still. I couldn’t leave yet. Not when we knew that Irelyn and Trivial were in some sort of horrible danger. There wasn’t time to waste. 

So, Amber, Izzy, and I took the papers and split them up to look through while Paige plugged herself into one hard drive after another. There was a lot of information here, too much to really take in with the time we had. Mostly we were just looking for the addresses of Pittman’s labs at the moment. There would be time later to take a full inventory of all the information once we had dealt with the most pressing matter. 

So, I was simply scanning through pages, looking for certain words like Pittman himself, or laboratory, or robots, biolems, anything about biological experimentation, and so on. I saw several things that made me want to go back and read more, but not right at the moment. Pittman. I had to focus on Pittman. 

Finally, after a few minutes of that, Amber abruptly spoke up. “Hang on, wait, I think I’ve got something.” As we all turned it to look that way, she held up a stapled-together stack of papers, flipped to somewhere in the middle. “Right here, it looks like an inventory of places where they could set up a lab to work on something called Project Carpenter, whatever that is.” 

“At least it’s not Project Owl,” I murmured before adding, “I take it the list has some interesting places?” 

“You could say that,” she replied before pointing to one part of the page. “This part here, there’s four addresses and  it says, ‘Acquired from B.P. Equipment on-site, inventory needed.’ B.P. That could be–” 

“Benjamin Pittman,” Paige interrupted. “That would make sense. We’ve got something here too. It’s not the addresses, but I think it’s codes to get through the doors. They changed the locks, obviously.” 

“You guys aren’t going out there now, are you?” That was Fred, frowning. “It’s already late.” 

“And as soon as they find out what we stole,” I pointed out, “they’ll start locking things down. They might not know exactly what we were after, but I don’t want to take that chance.” Belatedly, I grimaced to myself. “I mean, I don’t want to speak for any of you–” 

“No,” Amber interrupted, “you’re right, we need to get over there while we can. They’ll be busy scouring that base and van for any clues, or trying to track us by the lake.” 

The others nodded in agreement, Raige taking the time to point out that Irelyn needed help right now. So, I exhaled. “Right, okay then. Hope you guys don’t mind putting those suits back on just in case there are cameras in those places. 

“Looks like we’ve got one more job to do tonight.”  

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Dig In 22-09 (Summus Proelium)

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So there we were, all gathered in the main area of Wren’s pawn shop. There was Alloy, Pack, That-A-Way, Raindrop, Roald, Murphy, Paige/Raige as a last-minute addition, and me. Wren and Fred were here too, of course. But they would be staying at the shop, ready to go with our ‘everything’s fucked’ emergency escape plan if it came down to it. Unfortunately, that basically amounted to Wren using a half-finished cobbled-together teleporter that she wasn’t confident in. We would all be carrying the markers that were supposed to allow it to grab and move us to a safe location. But again, it was unfinished. Wren had given me a few details about what could have gone wrong the one time she teleported me, back when I had been chased by Cuélebre, and I was seriously still debating on whether it would have been safer to stick with fighting him. Suffice to say, we really didn’t want to have to try this one until she decided it was one hundred percent safe. But we didn’t have time to wait for that, especially not now. 

“So ahh, maybe I should have brought this up when you came up with your genius plan,” Raige (obviously) announced after introductions had officially been made back and forth to everyone, “but how exactly are you planning on making it so they don’t realize a bunch of kids and teens just screwed them over?” Her hand gestured toward Raindrop and then to me, before she nodded to Murphy and Roald. “Like those two over there, or those two there. I mean, none of us actually look like full-grown adults, but seriously. Having a few people who look that young feels like a bit more information than you want them to have. Especially when their computers can compare the heights of probably all their top suspects, and something tells me Paintball might fall somewhere on that list given the history you have with them. Just saying.” 

Before the rest of us could respond to that, Murphy asked, “Okay, sorry, I just need to ask. Is the person talking now the super-scary but ultra-hot cyborg girl, or the ultra-scary and ultra-hot cyborg girl?” 

There was a brief pause as their head tilted before Raige spoke again. “Paige would like you to know she’s offended that you don’t find her ultra-scary too, and that if you knew her better, you’d understand that’s a terrible way of differentiating us. You could say nice one or mean one, but that’s not exactly accurate either. Let’s stick with names, hmm? That seems easy enough.” 

“Sure,” I confirmed. “Totally simple to just stick with names. So, to answer your question, Raige… ahh, Wren, you got the things?” 

With a broad grin, Wren held up a pair of boots. “Yup! Err, I’ve got these ones.” She tossed them to me before gesturing. “Uncle Fred?”

He, in turn, reached down to pick up a cardboard box and carried it over to the middle of the room. “They’ve got lifts in ‘em,” the man explained to Raige (and Paige). “Just enough to add about four inches of height for all these guys. They’ve been practicing with them for awhile.” 

“We had the same thought you did,” I murmured while holding the boots against my chest. “It’s not the perfect solution, but it should at least confuse things a bit. If they don’t see anyone my–err, you know, Paintball’s height in this group, and I don’t use my powers in a way they can see, it’ll really muddy the waters about who attacked their base. Which means we really need to get in and out without too many problems so I don’t have to use my powers in an obvious way.”

That said, I hesitated before adding, “And speaking of not using my powers in an obvious way…” Reaching into the backpack on the table in front of me, I started pulling out tee-shirts and tossing them to the others. “You all need to wear these under the rest of your clothes when we go in there.” Every shirt had an assortment of colored shapes across them. Several of each type. There were orange suns, green leaves, and purple mushrooms. Three different colors, three different shapes, all arranged in three rows across the front and three across the back. I had taken the time to prep the shirts ahead of time while sitting at home.
“I’ve been practicing,” I noted, mostly for Paige and Raige’s benefit. “As long as I know one of my bits of paint is there, and exactly what it looks like, I can activate it through other clothes when I’m looking at it. Not through a wall or anything, but still. It’s something. These are all completely the same. So I can look and remember exactly what the orange sun looks like to make all of you temporarily really tough, or strong, or fast. Or all three at once. Probably that last one. I can do it six times for each of you, and they last about ten seconds each time. That’s sixty full seconds for all of us to have full boosts without me obviously using my powers.” 

“And you won’t have to use them constantly!” Wren quickly put in. “There’s the suits too. Err, I mean, okay, I couldn’t give all of you suits as cool as the prototypes Hobbes and Calvin have. But we do have the normal ones.” 

“Normal, she says.” Fred huffed a bit. “They ain’t just boring old mundane suits. Kid traded the design for those wings of hers to some Tech-Touched in Texas for a shipment of these. Just got ‘em in yesterday. They’re supposed to adjust to your body size and all that. They’ll cushion any impact you take. Won’t make a bullet feel like a love tap, but it’ll make it survivable. Probably. From what the guy said, it’ll still feel like getting kicked pretty hard, so you don’t want to stand there and dare them to shoot you.” 

“Cushion impact, but no teleporting,” Wren put in. “And the cushion bit isn’t as protective as the total momentum-stop on the suits Calvin and Hobbes have. But, uhh, it actually works constantly instead of draining a bunch of power every time, so…” Her face twisted a little bit guiltily and self-consciously 

“Sounds amazing, kid,” Pack put in. “Can’t believe you gave your wing designs to some other tech, but I guess you got your money’s worth. Err, you know what I mean. Your blueprint’s worth? Whatever.” 

Way spoke up then. “So we have the lift shoes to throw off our height, the colored shirts from Paintball so he can give us temporary boosts, and these suits you were talking about for some extra protection. Plus these.” From her own bag, she produced several batons with tasers on the end, along with a couple gun versions. “Police-issue. I… borrowed them from one of the deployment trucks when they sent it in for repairs after Suckshot yanked it off the road.” Before Pack could say whatever she had obviously been about to, the girl pointedly added, “And I want them all back when we’re done. So try not to drop them or anything. Just… just be careful, okay? Everyone be careful in general.”  

“Good advice,” Raige noted casually. “And I guess it’s not bad as far as hiding your identities goes. Not perfect, but eh. You don’t exactly have the time, resources, or ruthlessness you need to make it perfect. And I don’t want to sit around waiting for my new body until you get every single duck in a row. So we’ll go with the ducks you’ve got. But hey, at least you’ll have one of us with you. And believe me when I say that’s quite the upgrade.” 

I quickly spoke up. “She’s not wrong. And we can use all the help we can get. Which–are we forgetting anything?” 

“Not exactly forgetting,” Pack put in, “But circling back to that whole hiding who we are thing, I did have another thought. Especially when it comes to you.” She focused my way. 

“Me?” Blinking a couple times at that, I glanced to the others, who all shrugged, before looking back to her. “What about me?” 

“I was thinking about it, and I came up with the perfect plan,” Pack informed me with no small amount of pride. She paused briefly to let the anticipation grow, before dramatically announcing, “You should pretend to be a girl.” 

Okay, well, apparently it was not quite yet possible for me to literally die of shock. Although I did audibly choke and stumble a little, my eyes widening dramatically behind the helmet as I stared that way in total bewilderment. “I–wha–not–what–tha–yo-I-wha–” 

Quickly, That-A-Way moved over to slap my back a couple times, laughing pretty convincingly. “Whoa, hey there. No one’s questioning your manliness, buddy. I know how you guys are sensitive about that sort of thing.” She hit my back again, harder that time, while clearing her throat a bit pointedly. “You okay?” 

Thank God I had Amber in my corner to help cover. It gave me a second to collect myself. And with her help, my reaction made it look like a teen boy who didn’t like the idea of pretending to be a girl, instead of the truth, which… was a hell of a lot more complicated.

The point was, I absorbed the nuclear bomb that Pack had set off in the room and came out  relatively unscathed. Coughing once, I managed to look that way and found my voice. “Sorry, did you say I should pretend to be a girl? I don’t even–what would that–huh?” Right, totally smooth recovery. But again, at least she had suggested something that my fake teen boy-self reacting that way to made complete sense.  

With a snort of amusement that seemed to prove she really did buy that reasoning, Pack replied, “Look, I know it’s not going to be your most favorite thing ever, but being a girl isn’t the worst thing in the world, dude. I’m just saying, if everyone who sees you in there, or on video, thinks you’re a girl, there’s no way they’ll connect that you to Paintball, you know? Which means they’ll be even less likely to connect it to the rest of us.” 

Oh boy was there a lot that came to mind when she said that. Even when I filtered out all the curse words and stammering in my head, there was still a fair amount. A glance toward Raindrop revealed the girl standing completely still, not giving anything away. Nor were Raige or Amber, thankfully. All of them kept my secret perfectly. Probably better than I was. So, I pushed down my initial thoughts and simply asked, “Um, how exactly do you think we should do that? Err, if we did. I don’t think we can just put a skirt on the outside of one of these suits, so unless you’ve got a better–”  

“I have a better thing than that,” Pack interrupted. With that, she reached into her own bag and pulled something out before tossing it to me. 

It was a bra. I realized that even as I caught the thing in both hands. But more than that, the cups of the bra were stuffed, or padded, or whatever. It was clearly made so a guy could wear the bra and look like he had breasts. 

“This… this is…” I stared down at the thing in my hand, trying to find words. My stomach was rolling. There was absolutely no way that Pack could have known what a sensitive issue, in more than one way, this whole thing was. She didn’t know that I really was a girl pretending to be a boy, and she definitely didn’t know how sensitive I was about the fact that I didn’t exactly fill out a dress the way most guys wanted. Again, I wasn’t flat or anything. But well, this stuffed bra definitely had me beat rather handily. Which was a bit depressing all on its own. Again though, Pack didn’t know anything about that. She was just trying to help by offering what was, to her, a pretty good idea about concealing my identity. She wasn’t mocking me, she wasn’t messing with me, she wasn’t intentionally pushing my buttons. She was helping. 

Knowing all that helped me shove my reactions down. This was about hiding who I was, and whether I was really a girl or a boy wasn’t the point. There was absolutely no one way that my parents or anyone who worked for them would look at someone wearing this fucking thing and think it was either Paintball or their daughter. Pack was right, this was the best way to go.

Not that knowing that made it that much easier to resist throwing the thing into the nearest trash can as fast as I could, but it still helped. So I bit my lip and looked up again. Everyone was watching me. I could tell they were all curious about what I was going to say. Izzy, Raige, and Amber for one reason, and Murphy, Roald, Pack, Wren, and Fred for basically the complete opposite reason. They were all waiting to see what I would do. 

I wanted to say no. I wanted to dismiss the idea and say that it wasn’t necessary. After all, I would already be wearing completely different clothes, covering my face, not using my powers in any way that the Ministry would see, and even changing my height. I wanted to tell Pack that wearing this, that ‘pretending’ to be a girl was overkill. But the fact was, there was no such thing as overkill when it came to hiding our identities. My parents and the people who worked for them could not have any clues about who we really were. We had to throw them off as much as we could, because if they started coming after us directly, we would have no chance of winning. Not right now, at least. We needed more information, more details about their capabilities, their weaknesses, their–everything, all of it. Which was the whole reason we were breaking into the base so we could take enough stuff to hopefully know more. But to do that, to get away with it, I needed to be willing to do something that made my entire insides want to shrivel up and blow away in the wind. I couldn’t be selfish right now. I had to go with the hard choice. 

So, with a heavy sigh, I found myself nodding reluctantly. My voice sounded just a little hollow with the first word before I cleared my throat. “Okay–I guess you’ve got a point. As long as it means they don’t have any reason to suspect me, this has gotta be worth it.” 

While Amber gave me an understanding look, Pack pulled another stuffed bra from her bag. “I ahh, got one for the other pipsqueak over there too.” Her head nodded toward Raindrop. “Figured it’s not quite as big of a deal as it is for Paintball since you, you know, actually are a girl. But still, you’re not exactly–making you look different is better.” 

Izzy was clearly reluctant (even if not nearly as reluctant as me), but she finally agreed to the plan too. The bra that Pack gave her was just enough to make the fact that she was female more obvious even on-camera through the suits that we would be wearing. 

Actually, this whole thing was almost a good thing for another reason. I had been planning on wearing a jacket or a vest over my infiltration suit to hide the fact that–well, again, I wasn’t completely flat. Usually the coveralls I wore as the base of my costume were loose enough in that particular area to hide that. But I was going to have to cover it with a jacket when wearing these suits. Except now I didn’t have to. So… yay? 

In any case, the actual new suits turned out to basically look like a cross between a thief and a ninja. There was a basic layer of a black bodysuit that looked like a top and bottom set of pajamas, along with a vest that cinched across the chest for added protection (which probably would have covered my not-a-boyness well enough already), and what looked like a ski mask with black goggle-like lenses over the eyes. There was extra hidden padding in there to protect our heads. Finally, there were deceptively thin-looking gloves that were still quite protective and would hide our fingerprints. Between all that and the raised boots, we would look decidedly different than we usually did. Which, of course, was the point.  

The others changed in the shop, giving me a chance to see what the suits looked like, but Alloy and I stayed in our usual costumes. Given how sensitive this whole thing was, everyone getting caught by the authorities out in the streets dressed up like thieves or ninjas or whatever would kind of screw our entire night (and probably a lot more than that). Fortunately, we had a plan for that, even with the curfew in place. The plan was named Amber. Or That-A-Way. Wren’s shop was just south enough from the mall that she could teleport the group a bit at a time, from one roof to the next. The group, that was, aside from Wren and Fred, who would be staying at the shop, and Alloy and me, who had our own part to play. That was why the two of us were in full-costume instead of the suits, scouting ahead to make sure the way was clear. We texted back and forth to That-A-Way to let her know when it was safe to bring everyone over to the next spot, rather than shouting or using any lights or anything. Any cops or Star-Touched who saw us didn’t say or do anything about it, other than to wave and thank us for the help now and then. We would make sure each spot was safe, and then Amber teleported herself and the rest of the group there, disguised in those dark suits. 

There was a quick, relatively minor situation when Alloy and I actually saw a crime we had to intervene in. Some guy in a simple stocking mask was trying to loot an old pet grooming place. Yeah, I had no idea what he was hoping to find, but the dude was rearing back to throw a cinder block through the window and had an empty backpack with him. I managed to red-paint the block just as he went to hurl it that way, yanking it to a red spot on the street behind him. Then Alloy trapped him in a marble cylinder, until I got down there. He took a swing at me as soon as Alloy released the circular cage, but I used a bit of purple paint across my back to yank him by the arm over to a light post and used a ziptie to secure him to it while he shouted and threatened me. Then I used the Doephone app to contact the authorities to let them know where to pick him up and what his crime was. 

Shortly after that, Alloy and I returned to our planned spot and I let Amber know it was safe. Almost immediately, she appeared nearby with Pack, Izzy, Murphy, Roald, and Paige (she was the one in control right now) all touching her arms or hands. 

As soon as they appeared, everyone looked to me for an explanation about the delay. So I gave a quick rundown, before adding that we needed to get out of there before cops showed up to grab that guy. Not that they could see us from down there, but still. There were helicopters here and there in the sky with their spotlights passing over buildings. We needed to move on. 

So, we did. Bit by bit we made our way to the motel site, and took a minute to make sure it looked safe. No one was around, Wren’s sensors hadn’t picked up anything out of the ordinary around our tunnel, and the nearest patrols didn’t seem to be anywhere near this spot. The coast was clear.

The others headed for the main room while Alloy and I split up so we could go change. But first, I looked to Paige and hesitated. “Your… it feels different to see you standing up and moving around.” 

Paige (or Raige) was the only person here who didn’t have one of the special suits to wear. Wren, of course, hadn’t expected them to be part of this, so she didn’t get a suit for them. Instead, they were wearing a simple pair of jeans, a dark long-sleeved shirt, and a normal ski-mask. The mask itself was pulled up so it was barely covering their hair, acting more like a normal hat at the moment. Both of them had insisted that it was fine that they didn’t have a protective suit. After all, they already had their own advantages. Plus I had at least been able to paint another tee-shirt for her, like the ones the others had. 

“Feels different from this side too,” Paige informed me quietly before pausing. “Raige wants me to say that what she’d like to feel is how different it is to move around in her own damn body, so would we pick up the pace, please. I added the please.” 

Smirking just a little despite myself, I shook my head. “Don’t worry, Raige. We’re on it.” Still, I paused once more before adding, “Do you really think Flea and Trivial are trapped on that island?” 

“It’s the only answer that makes sense,” she pointed out. “Like you said, if Benjamin or his people had them, he’d know more about who Trivial is. But if they were free, they would’ve come back by now. Somehow… somehow they must’ve ended up there. Probably another one of his escape plans. I just–even if he doesn’t have them, that doesn’t mean they’re safe. They’re running around on an island full of the worst supervillains in the world. And that’s the optimistic scenario.” 

Grimacing, I took a second to find my voice. She was right, that was… it was bad. We had to get Raige a body so they could both act independently and then figure out what to do about it. Even if that meant sending messages to somebody about two Star-Touched being trapped on that island. Which raised the question of why people didn’t know about that already, or what–it raised a lot of questions. And I didn’t like any of the hypothetical answers. 

Forcing those thoughts down, I managed a weak, “We’ll figure out what’s going on. We’ll… we’ll find them. Right after we do this part.” 

Paige held up her fist, and I only hesitated for a second before bumping mine against it. I wanted to say something else, but nothing came out. Instead, I heaved a sigh, looked down at the stuffed bra in my hand, and headed for the room where I was going to change. 

If we didn’t get something useful out of this when all was said and done, no amount of being disguised would matter. Because I was probably going to scream so loud my parents would be able to identify my voice from the other side of town. 

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Dig In 22-02 (Summus Proelium)

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Needless to say, Angel Dust wasn’t exactly happy about being tricked into bringing me (and Alloy by extension) straight to the truck that had worked so hard to escape us in the first place. I saw her absorbing that realization for a moment before her shoulders straightened. There was a wave of annoyance coming off the woman, head tilting to glance over her shoulder toward Alloy, then back to me. Her voice was tight. “You think you’re pretty smart, don’t you, boy?” 

In reply, I shrugged. “It’s not about which of us is smarter. It’s about which one managed to trick the other this time. Look at the facts. That trailer is broken. You can’t get it back on the truck. You guys don’t have a chance to get out of here with all that stuff. You should cut your losses and walk away before more authorities show up.” Even after I said that, I was keeping an eye on the Prev thugs from the truck itself as they popped down and gave uncertain looks our way. They were clearly waiting to see what their Touched lieutenant chose to do about this whole thing, not willing to make the first move themselves. 

It was very clear that the woman didn’t want to walk away. What she wanted to do, no doubt, was teach me a lesson. I could see the rainbow-colored dust swirling around her as she took a moment to collect herself, clearly running through the pros and cons of keeping this fight going. But, in the end, her common sense won out over her annoyance. The dust that had been swirling around her like a swarm of angry hornets seemed to vanish into thin air before she spoke in a cool voice. “I suppose we’ll have to give this one to you, kid. But don’t think this is over. We need those supplies, and we’ll get them one way or another. And you…” I could feel her gaze staring at me hard from behind that bronze mask. “Get in the way again and next time I might have to smack you a little harder.” 

“Fair enough,” I managed, trying to sound casual about the whole thing. “Though I don’t suppose it would help to point out that you guys wouldn’t need these supplies so bad if you would just back off this entire gang war thing?” Pausing, I gave her a look before shrugging. “Worth a shot.” 

Surprisingly, Angel Dust gave an audible chuckle before bowing her head in acknowledgment. “Yeah, maybe so. But this is the world we live in. Gotta take it as it comes, not as you wish it would go. Which is the exact attitude that’s stopping me from grabbing you and keeping this whole fight going. You won this round. Next time, maybe it’ll be different. Hell, maybe next time you’ll be the one wishing you never met me.” 

With that, she gave a loud whistle while raising her hand to spin her finger around in the air. “Wrap it up!” Her words were clearly directed toward the uncertain goons waiting nearby for orders. “Let’s roll on out of here before we end up with even more interruptions.” Through all that, she hadn’t taken her gaze off me. And once her men began to retreat, she addressed me one more time. “It was a good trick, kid. You really had me going there. Even kept throwing paint at me so I couldn’t take the time to call ahead to check in. Too bad you didn’t come over to our side. We could’ve had a lot of fun together. But then, from what I’ve heard, you’re more likely to join La Casa if anything.” She considered that briefly before gesturing. “At least we would’ve been allies in this whole thing. That… that might’ve been fun. Now ahh, you and your sidekick might wanna dive out of the way.”

That was all the warning she gave us before a pair of nausea dust clouds went flying out in both directions. The clouds were thick, and came at me so fast I barely had time to throw myself backwards and to the ground in an awkward roll to get out of range. On the far side of the woman, I could hear Alloy curse and yelp as she barely escaped her own cloud. 

Once I finally picked myself up from the ground and managed to orient myself, I saw Alloy hovering up on her board a good fifteen feet in the air and further back than she had been. It looked like she had barely picked herself up too. The colored clouds were gone, and so was Angel Dust herself, and her men. They had all seemingly disappeared, leaving the two of us with the truck and trailer. 

“Well,” I muttered while walking that way and brushing the dirt off my costume, “that was fun.” 

“Sure, fun,” Alloy retorted as she landed, marbles spinning around her. “Tell you what, next time, you can take the puke dust to the face and I’ll chase her down. Deal?” 

Coughing, I offered a shrug. “Personally, I’d prefer it if neither of us had to throw up. That’s, you know, my ideal scenario.” Then I grimaced, adding, “Are you okay? It sounded pretty bad.” 

I could see the way she shuddered at the memory, head shaking. “Well, it wasn’t fun, I’ll tell you that much. But I’ll live. Besides, we won.” With that, she offered her fist to me. 

Bumping my own fist against hers, I nodded. “Yeah, we won. Though I’m pretty sure we also managed to make even more enemies in the process. Well, one more in particular. Angel Dust isn’t going to forget that. She might’ve been smart enough to walk away for now, and… you know, fairly gracious in losing. But she won’t forget it. Next time, she’s going to be a lot more careful. And a lot more intent on winning. So umm, let’s be careful and keep our eyes open, huh? I really don’t feel like being ambushed by her when she decides it’s a good time to prove a point.” 

Alloy agreed, just before both of us turned in time to see a small squad of police cars arriving. They were accompanied by a car with Ten Towers labeling on it, which stopped to allow two of their Touched to step out. The first was Stick, a short man (just five inches taller than me) wearing loose gray pants, a sleeveless black shirt with the faded gray Ten Towers logo, spiked wristbands, combat boots, and a dark bandana mask that covered the lower half of his face. His black hair was worn long, clear to his shoulders. Meanwhile, the other Touched who had just arrived was Bunglebotch. Her own costume looked a lot more professional (and expensive) than his, amounting to a form-fitting black bodysuit with purple highlights over the arms and legs, and a matching purple Ten Towers logo over the front. Her gloves and boots were purple too, and she had a cape with an attached hood that were each black on the outside and purple on the inside. She also wore a black helmet with a large purple visor that went all the way from her chin to just above her eyes. 

Yeah, that was the thing about Bunglebotch. Her costume made her look amazing, one of the coolest costumes in the city as far as I was concerned. But her power was… well, essentially she could do basically any physical action that a human being was capable of, but it would always look goofy, uncoordinated, and accidental. Like an old slapstick movie. Oh, and she could focus on anyone to make them screw up a physical action they were trying to do. It was a whole thing. She was one of the most physically gifted and coordinated Touched in the city, but no matter what she did, she would end up looking goofy and incompetent. Or, well, accidentally competent. I supposed that having one of the coolest-looking costumes in the city was her tradeoff for looking like such a clown whenever she did anything. 

Come to think of it, clown was probably the exact right term. Clowns were really good at being incredibly physically coordinated while making you think they were the exact opposite. Maybe that should’ve been her codename. But then she would’ve had to go with a very different physical look, because no way could someone use the name Clown and dress up the way she did.

In any case, the two Star-Touched approached us, standing there by the trailer, and started to ask what had happened. So, Alloy and I jumped into an explanation about how we had been patrolling together when we saw the Easy Eights goons holding the driver of the truck at gunpoint. We intervened, then Angel Dust had shown up. From there, I went on to talk about the chase that came after Alloy had been… briefly indisposed. She, in turn, talked about getting my message about where to go to find us. Then we summed up with how the whole thing had ended. 

Stick exchanged a brief look with Bumblebotch, before gesturing for her to go ahead and check the trailer. Then he turned back to us. “Sounds like you did good today. But I wouldn’t take what Dust said lightly. She’s not really one of the hardcore dangerous Fells out there, but she’s not a pushover either. She won’t come find your families and stab you in bed. But she very well might work out a plan to get one over on you in the field.”

I nodded once. “So what you’re saying is that she’s not a psychotic murderer, but she’s still going to want to hurt us within reason. And probably embarrass us. You know, pull out a win that makes herself look good. Restores her rep.” 

Bunglebotch called over while opening the back of the truck. “Yeah, that’s about right! She’s not a wannabe-Scion, but she’s still got an image to uphold. And you embarrassed her today.” Hauling herself up into the truck, she added, “But then, you guys seem pretty good at racking up enemies.” 

Grimacing, I offered a helpless shrug. “So I’ve been told. I guess she’ll have to get in line with everyone else.”

Stick spoke solemnly. “Just hope that that line doesn’t turn into a mob. And know that if you need it, you’ve got as much help as you want.” His hand reached out to settle on my shoulder, squeezing firmly while he glanced between Alloy and me. “You two may not be in any of our teams, But you’re still part of the community. If you need anything, just speak up, any time. You got that?”  

The two of us agreed and then stepped away while the Ten Towers Touched began to take inventory of the truck, and the cops secured the scene. There were some onlookers gathered by that point, though they were staying well enough back. I nudged the girl beside me and we went over there to interact with the crowd. Part of me thought that was weird and maybe self-indulgent. But on the other hand, a bigger part pointed out that I wanted the civilians to be more likely to believe me if things ever came to a head with this whole Ministry thing. If I avoided and ignored the crowds, the moment my family decided to start trying to shift the narrative against Paintball, it would be a lot more likely to work in their favor. But if I could make sure that the public liked our little group, it would be harder for my parents to make us look bad. 

Was that manipulative? Okay, maybe. But it felt like the sort of game that I had to play. It left something of a bad taste in my mouth when I thought about it that way, yet if I ignored it, things would end up being a lot worse. And besides, I really did enjoy talking to people as Paintball, showing off and goofing around–okay, I enjoyed showing off and goofing around as Cassidy too. So I wasn’t exactly suffering when it came to that. Still, I couldn’t shake that slightly awkward feeling at the back of my mind, even if I was getting pretty good at ignoring it. 

I also made a point of telling the people that we were part of a new team called Avant-Guard, even spraying the logo onto the nearby wall, as well as giving a few people who asked for it a version of the logo on their clothes. That proved to be pretty popular and even more people showed up asking for me to paint their shirts or jackets. Not all of them with our team name either. Some just wanted my name, or Alloy’s with an image of her marbles. One person asked if I could do a picture across the back of his jacket that amounted to myself on one side, the roof of a building below, and Cuélebre chasing me on the opposite side. Once I did and they saw how detailed it was, everyone wanted something like that. They all had different images in mind, and it took about twenty minutes for me to get through all of it in between talking to them and letting my paint recharge now and then. I let them know that it could be scrubbed off if they wanted to, but most of them said they would stop by the store to buy this spray stuff that was supposed to seal paint to fabric or something. I wasn’t sure about the details. All I knew was that they wanted to keep my images on their clothes, which was… wow. 

Finally, Alloy and I managed to extract ourselves. She had been entertaining other people by turning her marbles into various things, even allowing some of them to step up on the different shapes for brief rides up and down the street. She managed to hide it pretty well, but I could tell that she was even more overwhelmed than I was. 

So, once we got out of there and landed on a roof a couple streets over, I looked toward the girl and raised an eyebrow. Then I realized she wouldn’t see that, so I painted a face on the front of my helmet with a raised eyebrow there. “You doing okay?” 

Coughing, she gave me a look, retracting most of her helmet so I could see her face. “Am I doing okay? What about you? You uhh, you seemed right at home back there. You sure you’re not a celebrity or something in your real life? Oh my God, are you a child actor? Jason Highward?” 

The guess made me choke, shaking my head quickly. “I promise, I’m not the star of Bending Backwards. Or any other TV star,” I added quickly before she could say anything else. “I’m not a celebrity. I mean, my other self isn’t a celebrity. Not–” I was about to say ‘not really,’ but that felt like the wrong thing to say. So I just settled on, “Not as a civilian. I uhh, I guess I just like attention at school and it translates?” That was basically the truth, so I didn’t feel guilty about saying it. But then I felt guilty all over again for being relieved that I could manipulate the truth like that. It was… complicated, to say the least. 

From the look the other girl was giving me, I had a feeling she thought there was something else to what I was saying, and what I wasn’t saying. But she let it go and simply replied, “At least we managed to save that truck, huh? Even if we did end up making another enemy.” A slight frown crossed her face before she shook it off. “But then, I guess you don’t do this sort of stuff for long without banging heads with the bad guys.” 

“Yeah, that’s pretty easy in my experience,” I admitted. Then I changed the face that I had painted on the front of my helmet to make it smile. “But hey, it’s nice to have someone else to share the bullseye with.”  

Giving me a look, Peyton dryly replied, “Gee, thanks, boss. Glad to be able to help, I guess. And speaking of help, we should probably get over to the Nest.” 

The Nest was Wren’s Nest, of course. The pawn shop. I gave a quick nod. “Right, they’ve been waiting for us. Come on, let’s head over there. Though… you think we should stop and grab some pizza on the way?” 

“You mean bribe them with food so they’re not annoyed about waiting so long for us?” Peyton offered me a very faint, knowing smirk. “But while we’re at it, we better grab some cheesy bread too.” 

“Isn’t that your favorite?” I teased, already turning to walk to the edge of the roof. 

“What can I say?” she shot back. “I’m very annoyed at us and it’s going to take some strong bribery to make me forgive us.” 

********

Eventually, after taking a long route to make sure we weren’t being followed or observed, we made it back to the shop. As we went in the back door, Wren and Fred were already waiting, along with Murphy and Roald. When they saw us, the latter two let out audible sighs of relief, Roald speaking up, “We saw the bit on the news about you chasing Angel Dust.” 

“Yeah, are you okay?” Murphy demanded. “First it looked like she was chasing you, but then you were chasing her. It was weird. What the hell happened?” Glancing toward Wren, she amended. “Heck. What the heck happened?” 

For their part, Wren and Fred simply watched this, clearly just as curious as the other two but content to let them talk. Wren did hover upwards on her wings, basically bouncing excitedly in the air. I could tell that she had her own news to share, but was trying to be good. 

So, the two of us explained what had happened and how it ended. Including the bit about telling everyone about the team name and signing autographs/painting shirts. “Which means,” I finished up, “we should be getting the name out there pretty well by now. So I hope nobody really hated it after all, because it looks like it’s gonna stick.” 

“It’s a cool name!” Wren insisted. Finally unable to hold herself back any longer, she flew forward to hover right in front of us. “But guess what, guess what, guess what! They’re ready to test.” 

“The suits you’ve been working on?” I straightened up a bit. “You’re sure?” 

Murphy immediately piped up, “Seriously, we really get to try them?” 

Wren nodded toward both of us, her head snapping back and forth between Murphy and me. “Uh huh, huh huh! They’re pretty basic right now, but… Uncle Fred?” 

On that cue, the man reached behind himself and brought out two jumpsuits. They looked pretty simple, like mechanics coveralls. Not too dissimilar from my own costume, though these were black. At the wrists and ankles of the jumpsuits there were silver bands, along with a bit of visible circuitry on the inside of the jumpsuits.

As Fred held them out to Murphy and Roald, Wren urged the two to pull them on and zip them up, adding, “I promise I’ll make them look better and stuff in the final version. But I wanted to, you know, let you try them and make sure it worked.” 

“Make sure what worked?” I asked, watching as the pair slipped the jumpsuits on over their clothes. 

“Well, uhh, first, the kinetic decelerator,” she explained. “Uh, guys, take these.” She reached out to a table, taking two pairs of gloves before tossing them that way. “Put them on, then umm, put your hands together like this.” She pushed her hands flat together, like she was praying. 

Shrugging uncertainly, the other two did that. After a second or two, a very faintly audible hum could be heard, and I saw an outline of barely visible energy, like an aura around each of them. 

“Yay!” Wren cheered, then picked up a baseball from the nearby table full of junk. “Watch.” With that, she threw the ball as hard as she could at Roald’s head. The ball got most of the way there before there was a blue-green flash. Then the ball just sort of… stopped and fell to the floor. 

“It’s not a constant thing yet,” Wren explained. “It’d draw way too much power for the little batteries in the pockets. You have to activate it by putting your hands together like that, or by saying ‘shield me,’ and then it’ll work for about thirty seconds. Right now it’s got enough power for about fifteen of those before it has to be recharged. Plus about thirty jumps.” 

“Jumps?” Peyton echoed, sounding just as curious as I felt. 

“Remember that uhh, teleporter?” Wren asked, looking to me. “The one you used before. It was super-dangerous, like, lucky you made it one piece. So I took it apart. But I split it into two things and linked the–here.” Turning back to the other two, she urged, “Uh, Roald, snap your fingers and point at Murphy.” 

The boy did just that, snapping with the gloves. As he did so and pointed, there was a sudden flash, and he was abruptly standing right next to the girl. Both of them yelped, half-falling in surprise. 

Wren, however, cheered. “It worked! When one of you snaps and points at the other, you’ll teleport over to them. Or if you both snap and point at each other, you’ll switch places. You just have to be within line of sight. I umm, haven’t figured out how to make you teleport somewhere else safely yet. I have this idea for these discs, but… but they’re not ready.” 

“Duuuude, that’s amazing!” Murphy gave Roald a shove, telling him to run over to the far side of the shop. Once he was there, she snapped and pointed. With a flash of light, she was suddenly standing next to him. Both of them cheered and leapt up and down a few times. 

“I think they like it,” I murmured with a smile, before looking over at Wren. “You’re pretty amazing yourself, you know that?” 

Visibly blushing, the blonde girl squirmed while still hovering in the air. “I just wanna help.” 

“Oh believe me,” I assured her, “you are definitely helping.” Glancing back to Murphy and Roald, who were testing the ‘switch places’ teleport by snapping and pointing at each other, I added, “Without you, we all would’ve been screwed a long time ago. I couldn’t have saved Blackjack’s daughter without you, and we certainly wouldn’t have been able to help Paige. As for getting into the Ministry base? Yeah, we’d probably be screwed there.

“But with you, we might just have a shot at this whole thing.” 

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