Handler

Interlude 6B – Cuelebre (Summus Proelium)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Sir?” Luis asked, blinking up. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Interlude 6A – Raindrop (Summus Proelium)

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It was almost two o’clock in the morning when a small, clearly very young girl in a hooded windbreaker walked through an alley beside a fast food joint. Izzy Amor, publically known as Raindrop, was practically dead on her feet. She was so tired by that point that she could barely keep her eyes open as she all-but stumbled down the alley. She had just spent the past several hours helping to clear up the fires at the hospital, and then hanging around while the bomb squad people made sure there were no more explosives that might go off. There weren’t, but the bomb guys had to be really thorough, which meant Izzy and the others sat around for hours.

Now that it was all over, Izzy was pretty sure she wouldn’t be able to even summon a little rain cloud in her hand. Just the idea of using her power any time soon made the twelve-year old feel kind of nauseous. All she wanted to do was get home, fall into bed, and sleep for a whole day. 

Reaching the end of the alley, the girl stepped out onto the sidewalk and looked both ways. There was no sign of anyone, aside from a sedan at the end of the street going the other way. Taking the phone from her pocket, she checked the messages. The most recent conversation showed the short, clearly terse, ‘Coming’. It was sent fifteen minutes earlier. Home was a ten minute drive away, so counting time to get dressed, her ride would be here any minute. 

A smile touched the girl’s face at the thought of getting home. She might take a shower before crashing, just to get the smell of smoke and stuff off. But mostly, just sleeping sounded great. 

With a yawn, she put her back against the wall of the nearby building and watched the corner her ride would be coming from. Headlights appeared, and she perked up. But they belonged to a jeep that drove straight past. After another minute, the girl yawned and slowly sank down to sit against the wall. Her eyes glanced briefly to the phone to make sure there wasn’t another message, before returning to watch the nearby intersection. Any minute now. Any minute. 

The sudden blaring of a horn along with a nearby light snapped Izzy awake. She jerked up right from where she had slumped over, staring with wide eyes until her gaze centered on the van waiting in front of her with the door open. The driver, her mother, hit the horn again and made an impatient gesture while shouting, “Stop wasting time and get in! Some of us have to work!”

Scrambling to her feet, Izzy took a brief second to glance at the phone in her hand. Forty-five minutes had passed since she sat down, an hour since her mother had said she was on her way. Quickly, she shoved the phone in her pocket and moved over to climb into the van. Before she had the door shut, they were moving, pulling away from the curb with a squeal of tires. 

Mariana Amor wore a jacket over her nightgown, grumbling to herself as they blew through a red light. “This is garbage, you understand? Garbage. These people have you out at all hours and they can’t even bring you home afterward? It’s disrespectful. Completely disrespectful. You know why they do it? Because they don’t respect you. They think they can walk all over you, walk all over us. It’s what they do. They use you for your power and they will throw you away as soon as you’re not useful enough. You know that? You tell me you know that, Isidora.”

“But Madre,” Izzy protested a bit weakly, “they’re still busy making sure everyone’s safe at the hotel and the hospital. They’re gonna be busy all night, but they said it was okay for me to leave because I was tired. And they said I could wait for a ride, but your message said that you were on the way, so I said they didn’t have to do anything. I thought you’d be here soon.”   

Her mother gave the girl a sharp look. “Don’t you put it back on me, niñita. I told you, I have to work in the morning. You know, that thing that puts real food on the table for both of us? Besides, I was a little tired when you called and I didn’t want to have an accident falling asleep at the wheel. You don’t want your mother to have an accident and die, do you?” 

“No, Madre,” Izzy murmured quietly, shaking her head. She turned a bit to look out at the passing buildings as they drove, not wanting to rile her mother up any more than she was. 

It didn’t really work. For the next seven minutes, Izzy sat in silence and listened as her mother ranted about how disrespectful the people behind the Minority were, how they treated her like a disposable asset, how they didn’t care what happened to her or what kind of trouble they put her family through as long as they had access to her power. And so on and so on. Occasionally, she would tell Izzy to agree with her to make sure the girl was listening, but mostly she just went on.

Finally, they parked in the covered parking lot next to their condominium and headed up the stairs. Izzy trudged along, yawning once more as they reached the front door. Her mother fumbled with the keys in the dim light from the nearby porch lamp, still cursing under her breath about how late it was and how little sleep she was going to end up getting before work. 

Eventually, her mother found the right key and unlocked the door. Izzy stepped through, unzipping her jacket while visions of her warm, comfy bed danced through her mind. Maybe the shower would wait until morning, because at this rate, she’d fall asleep in there and that would–

“Oh good, you’re finally home.” The sudden words interrupted Izzy’s thoughts, and she blinked up to see a strange man standing in the doorway to the kitchen. He wore one of those old bird-like plague doctor masks, along with a dark red apron over a black bodysuit. 

The sight of the man suddenly made Izzy forget all about being tired. Her hands snapped up, a ball of water forming between them before she even thought about the fact that she was giving away that she had powers. None of that mattered, except for protecting herself and her mother. 

Unfortunately, the ball of water had barely formed between her hands before a sudden, intense pain exploded in the back of the girl’s head. Izzy collapsed to the floor, sprawling out as her vision wavered in and out. Black spots had appeared, and she blearily looked up to see her mother standing there with a heavy, now-cracked figurine in one hand. “Sorry, baby,” she started while Izzy’s vision swam and began to fade. It took another second for consciousness to completely flee, enough time to leave her with her mother’s words echoing through her head.
“But this whole thing just isn’t working out anymore.” 

*******

With a sudden start, Izzy snapped awake. She tried to sit up as her eyes opened, only to find that neither helped. From what the girl could tell, she was tied to a chair, with a blindfold on. Some kind of heavy plastic ball was in her mouth, stopping her from saying anything. She did, however, make a noise of confusion, shifting in the chair while jerking a bit against the bonds. 

“Ah,” a man’s voice spoke, “she’s awake. Let’s see then…” There were fingers against her head, and she flinched at the rush of pain that shot through it from the blow she’d taken to the head. A blow from… from… her own mother? But why? Why would her mother hit her like that?

The blindfold came off, and Izzy found herself staring into that plague doctor mask, as the man studied her from behind the mirrored lenses in the eyes, leaving the girl staring at her own reflection when she tried to meet his gaze. She saw herself, bound to a heavy metal chair in her own kitchen, ball gag in her mouth. Her eyes were wild and looked almost crazed, leaving her even more stunned at the sight of it than she had already been. 

“There, see?” That was her mother’s voice, speaking up from the doorway. As Izzy’s eyes snapped that way, she saw the woman come into view. “The kid’s just fine. You can do your… whatever you’re going to do, after I get paid. So come on then, give it over before I change my mind about this whole thing and find someone who might offer a little bit more.” 

Instead of responding to her, the plague doctor looked at Izzy, head tilting a little. “You look confused, dear,” he murmured. “Let me spell it out for you. My name is Handler. I work for the man you know as Cuélebre. Your mother sold you to him, and I’m here to get you ready. That’s why it took time for her to come pick you up. We were… coming to a final arrangement.” 

Staring in shock and confusion, the words echoing through her head as she stared at her mother, Izzy shouted into the gag, her words swallowed up by it. At the same time, she jerked in the chair, a ball of water forming in front of her. But the instant it did, the man called Handler put a finger against her hand, and Izzy’s muffled words turned to a scream of agony. Pain, the likes of which she’d never known, exploded throughout her entire young body as the water fell apart.

“Hey!” her mother blurted, “I told you, not until you pay me. Money, you cheap bastard.” 

“In a moment,” the man assured her before turning his attention back to Izzy. “We have to make sure we all understand each other. So go ahead,” he urged, stepping away from the girl once her muffled scream had faded, hands up to show he wasn’t going to stop her. “Try that again.” 

The ball of water had barely begun to form that time before the shock of agony was back, bringing a renewed scream to the gagged young girl while her mother simply looked away. 

“I touch you,” the man informed her, “and mark a certain action as wrong. Actions such as using your power. Or raising your voice. Or disobeying an order from certain people. You do the action, you get punished. For now, the punishment my touch instills will only last for a few minutes. But with enough training and repeated sessions, anything you ever do that is against what Cuélebre requires or allows will bring that same pain for weeks, months, years at a time without needing to be refreshed. Eventually, I won’t need to renew it at all. And by then, you won’t need the pain anyway. You’ll simply do as you are told. Now then, remember that I have instilled a punishment for raising your voice. So no shouting. Let’s see if we’re on the same page.” He reached out, carefully unlatching the ball gag before pulling it away from her mouth. 

“M-Madre!” Izzy blurted, tears suddenly flooding her eyes. “Madre, it’s not true! Say it’s a trick! No, you wouldn’t do this! You can’t do this!” All thought of being tired had fled the girl, replaced by a feeling of loss and betrayal the likes of which she might never actually understand. 

Her mother spared a glance for her, pausing before stepping over. “Look, Izzy, it’s nothing personal. I just… I never wanted to be a mother. I never wanted to be a normal mother, let alone one for a… a superhero. I didn’t want it. I still don’t. I’m not… I’m not strong like you are, Izzy. Whatever happens, I know you can handle it. Yes, they’ll hurt you. But you’re a big girl. You’re a strong girl. You’ll be okay. And me… I… I’ll start a new life somewhere else. You’ll get over it.”

She’d… she’d get over it? Her mother had… her mother had sold her identity and her to a monster who wanted to torture her into obedience and she would just… get over it? Izzy stared, mouth open as tears continued to fall silently. She could find no words, could find no thought. Her mother… her mother didn’t care about her. She sold her. She was… she was going to leave her in this man’s hands so he could do… do whatever he wanted. Why? Why? Her body trembled, shaking against the bonds that held her to the heavy metal chair. Her voice was weak, marked by fear and confusion that made her ashamed of herself. “Madre… Mama, please…” 

“Don’t,” her mother snapped. “Don’t start that. I just–I can’t handle you. I don’t deserve to have to deal with any of this. I told you, I didn’t ask to be a mother, especially after your father left. I’m not cut out for it and you–you’re worth more like this. Do what the man says and you’ll be fine.” With that, she turned to Handler, voice snapping, “You have her and she’s secure. Money, now.” 

A new ball of water formed, reflexively summoned by the sobbing, pleading girl. It popped, as a renewed scream of agony exploded from her mouth. She’d barely gotten the first sound out before the gag was unceremoniously shoved back in. With it secure, muffling yet another scream as she struggled to use her power, Handler turned his back to the girl, apparently dismissing her from his mind as he produced a cell phone and extended it to her mother. 

“As agreed, five hundred thousand dollars for one moldable, powerful young Touched. As you can see, it’s been sent to the offshore account you specified. Are you satisfied?” 

The look of eager greed on her mother’s face as she stared at the phone screen made Izzy stop pleading and struggling against the gag. It was that, more than the woman’s cold words or the entire situation, which convinced her of just how real this was. Her mother didn’t care about her. She was selling her to be tortured and running away with the money. There was no sense in begging, no sense in pleading with her mother to change her mind, because she wouldn’t. Her mother wasn’t just okay with her being sold to Cuélebre, she was eager to leave with her money. There was no guilt in her face, nothing to indicate that she cared at all. 

Begging was useless. Being scared, sad, none of it would help. So Izzy stopped doing any of that. 

And started getting angry. 

Both her mother and the ‘Handler’ man had turned away from her. They were talking to each other while walking out of the kitchen. Izzy could hear them moving to the front door, her mother saying something about getting the money out of town before anyone found out what she’d done. Through it all, listening to her voice, she felt that… anger… that sense of betrayal. And with it came agony beyond anything she had ever thought possible, pain she couldn’t hope to describe. It suffused her entire being, her body arching up against the bonds as her dull, horrific scream of anguish, muffled only by the heavy gag, gradually filled the room.

The front door closed, and those footsteps steadily returned, as Handler came back. “Now then,” the man was already saying, “we’ll start your real training back at a more private place, but… we…” He trailed off, head tilting upward toward the rapid, steady thrum of water against the roof of the condo. “Is it raining? I–” His gaze dropped, staring at the bound young girl. She was pale, face stricken by the torture of what she was putting herself through. Sweat soaked through every pore, eyes tightly closed while she gave a low, tormented sob of misery.

Then her eyes opened, staring at the man while the rain hammering against the condo suddenly grew louder. It sounded like a deluge of water had suddenly opened up. It hammered the windows, the rain coming down so hard and fast that the entire building literally shook under the force of it. 

“Oh,” Handler managed to get out, “shi–” 

That was as far as he got, before Izzy arched her back, bonds barely holding her to the chair. The gag did almost nothing to muffle her deafening scream, as the condo literally ripped its way out of the ground. Her other power, the one that allowed her to control gravity on anything that was wet, tore the building up into the air. They went up a good ten feet or so before the building tipped over entirely. Handler’s words turned to a surprised shout, as the lights faded, plunging the condo into darkness. Cabinets had flown open, furniture, dishes, and more flying through the rooms. The last sight Handler had of the girl, she had directed water onto herself before flying, chair and all, through an open window just before the entire building slammed upside down into the ground. 

The wreckage of the condo littered the street, looking like a small, personal tornado had lifted it up, torn it apart, and thrown it back down again. Izzy found herself staring at it from where her power had dropped her when she could no longer handle any more pain. The drop had been enough to bend the chair somewhat, so she could slip her way free. Now, she stood, staring at the wreckage while tears fell freely from her face. Tears that would not slow, or fade, for a long time.

Some of the rubble shifted a bit, and she saw Handler pushing himself out of it while lights on the front porches of nearby houses turned on. People were starting to come out, even as the masked man climbed up. He was joined almost immediately by several other Oscuro soldiers who came running from the nearby car where they had obviously been waiting to transport her. 

Her mother’s van was already gone. 

The Oscuro people were looking around for her, weapons raised. They hadn’t spotted Izzy from where she was crouched by a fence a couple houses down. But they would soon. And she still couldn’t use her power without more pain. It had nearly killed her to do what she did. 

She couldn’t fight them. Not like this. Not physically, and not emotionally. So, the twelve-year old did the only thing she could in that moment. 

She turned and ran away.

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