Hardway

Interlude 19B – Melissa Abbot (Summus Proelium)

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No sooner had Melissa asked her pseudo-uncle what the orb floating behind him was, than she noticed that he wasn’t moving anymore. Frozen in mid-turn, his mouth open to say something, the man could havse been a statue in one of those wax museums she had always wanted to walk through. Some part of her acknowledged the strangeness of that, but the majority of her attention was entirely centered on the curious ball with glowing hieroglyphics. She knew what this was. She did, right? The thought was there at the back of her mind, but, just like her worry about Uncle Isaiah, it wouldn’t come into her head. Every reaction, every thought, everything else was being pushed down, except for her curiosity about the orb itself. It was so interesting, that nothing else seemed to matter. Not even her own memories about what this thing was. Finally, her hand crossed the rest of the distance, pressing against the side of the orb.  

And then, for the first time in almost as long as she could remember, Melissa wasn’t in her room. She stood in what appeared to be a completely empty landscape. The whole world around her was a dull gray, featureless place, surrounded by thick fog. There was nothing to see, and yet, it was one of the most joyous moments of her life. She was somewhere other than her room. She was standing in a new place, a strange and empty, yet delightful place. 

And yes, she did know what this was. She had read so many stories and watched so many interviews about what finding one of these orbs was like, that the fact that she had not recognized it at first was baffling. It had to be an effect of the orb itself, the nine-year-old reasoned. The orbs obviously did something to make people who saw them not think about what they actually were. Or something. 

Even as that thought came to mind, the girl realized she had started to walk. She wasn’t using her crutches, and yet she was walking just fine. It didn’t hurt. She didn’t feel that familiar ache in her bones from putting her weight on her leg. Looking down at her own feet with a choked noise of mixed confusion and delight, she thought about how her father had always looked when he watched her while believing she was asleep. 

The moment that thought came to mind, she saw an image of her father standing in a doorway appear in the fog ahead of her. She saw the pain in his eyes, and the blazing anger behind them. Anger that he never willingly allowed her to see, but which she knew was there anyway. 

She saw her own bed, the vials that were so important to her continued survival, other members of La Casa who had come and gone from her room, even her stuffed animals. All those images and more played through the fog as she walked. The images came faster and faster, finally bringing the girl to a halt as their rapid appearance made her dizzy. She stopped, eyes wide as she centered her gaze straight ahead, to where the rush of images was the brightest. 

Abruptly, the kaleidoscope stopped, revealing a single image. It was the orb that she had just touched. That picture, hovering in the fog in front of her, became the only thing she could focus on, the only thing she could think about. Everything else fell away. Nothing mattered. Not her illness, not her father, not her stories. Nothing else but that orb. It was her entire universe for those few seconds. 

And then… she heard the voice. The voice others had talked about. That single, female voice speaking two words. 

“Summus Proelium.” 

With those two words echoing their way through her mind, Melissa reeled backward, only to find herself in the real world once more. She was still seated on the floor, but quickly rose to her feet reflexively, stumbling back a step. 

Uncle Isaiah was moving again. His gaze snapped around. “What ball? What are you–” Then he looked at her, and his eyes went wide. A strangled noise of shock escaped the man as he jerked himself upright so quickly he nearly fell over. “The fuck?!” 

“Hey now,” Melissa’s father chastised as he came through the door carrying a tray of food. “I didn’t think I was going to have to ask you of all people to watch your language around my–” Abruptly, he stopped talking, having just in that moment looked up from the tray. His eyes found their way to Melissa, and the tray fell from his hands. The food and bowls scattered across the floor, but the man didn’t pay attention to any of that. All he could do was stare at her, mouth open. A couple of times it looked as though he was trying to say something, but no sound emerged. All he could do was stand there and stare. Which, given who her father was and how much he had been through, was starting to scare the girl. 

“U-Uncle Isaiah?” she blurted. “Daddy? What–what’s wrong? What?” In that moment, the girl caught a glimpse of something in the nearby wall-mounted mirror. Her gaze snapped that way, only to finally see herself the way her father and Isaiah did.

At first she didn’t see anything at all. It was as though she was invisible. But then she looked a little closer and realized the truth. She wasn’t invisible. Not exactly. 

Her skin was gone. Or rather, transformed, along with the rest of her body. She appeared to be made of glass. Her face, hair, hands, legs, all of her. Even the clothes she wore had turned to glass. An intricately carved statue of it. Or of ice. It was so detailed, she could see her own expression staring back at her in the mirror. Her glass eyebrows rose, her glass mouth fell open, she could see her glass tongue. There were no internal organs to see. Her body was close to transparent, as it was possible to see straight through her to the other side. 

As soon as she saw herself, the girl let out a squeal of surprise and jerked backward. She tripped over her own feet and fell. With a terrifying crash, her body shattered into hundreds of little pieces of glass that scattered across the floor. 

And… and it didn’t hurt at all. Even as the sound of her father’s scream filled the room, Melissa could see him from hundreds of different angles. She saw the way he came rushing in, still in mid-scream. She saw and heard it from every shard of glass she had shattered into. It was… it was so strange. It felt weird, and yet completely normal at the same time. She could simultaneously see from every piece of glass, allowing a view of her father’s front and sides as he stopped right over where her body had been standing. Somehow… somehow she could see it all at the same time and it wasn’t confusing. 

I wish I wasn’t broken. Then I could tell my Daddy I’m okay. 

The moments that thought came to her mind, Melissa felt the individual pieces of herself rise off the ground. A gasp escaped both men in the room as the shards all floated into the air around them. They came together, spinning into a tornado. Through it all, the girl found herself thinking of her own form, the way she was supposed to be. And then the tornado stopped, and she was back. She was herself again, fully intact, as though nothing had happened. Well, as though she hadn’t fallen and broken apart, anyway. 

“Daddy!” the girl blurted, even as her father let out a choked sob and grabbed her. He was as gentle as always, pulling her close carefully into what was, for them, a tight hug. 

“Melissa. Melissa, baby, what happened? What–how did–what–” 

So, she explained about how she had seen the orb behind Isaiah and reached out to touch it. “There were all th-the holograms and stuff like people said. Like you, and Uncle Isaiah, and the others, and the bed, and Inspector Guillotine, all of it, all of them. They were all there, and I saw them, and then the orb was there, and it said the words, and then I was back here. And I was like this.” Frowning uncertainly, she looked down at her own hand. Still made of glass. Her entire body was made of glass. In gaining powers, she had gone from a girl whose bones could shatter easily, to someone entirely made of glass. She could shatter even more easily now. And yet… and yet it didn’t matter. She had shattered. She had broken apart into hundreds of pieces from something as simple as falling. And then she had just come right back together again as though nothing had happened. Just like that, she was fine. 

“Dad?” she finally managed, looking back up to find her father staring at her, still having not let go. 

“I don’t think I need the medicine anymore.” 

*******

“Are you sure it’s okay, Daddy?” 

Several hours later, after a lot of talking and even more experimentation, Melissa and her father stood in one of many large garages owned by La Casa. A dozen different vehicles, of wildly different makes, models, and colors, filled the space around them. 

She was out of her room. She was standing in the garage with her father. She had been walking through the facility all day long. That, in and of itself, was nearly as big of a deal, as far as Melissa was concerned, as her newfound powers themselves. She wasn’t stuck in bed. She wasn’t trapped in that room. She could leave, walk around, talk to people. 

Not that she ended up talking to many of them. Not yet, anyway. Her father didn’t want many to know what was going on with her for the time being. He simply ordered everyone out of any place she wanted to walk into. He had entire floors cleared so that she could move through them, looking at everything. For the first time in as long as the girl could remember, she wasn’t a prisoner of the disease that she had been infected with. She was free. 

Walking without her crutches. Seeing things with her own eyes. Even touching them. And yes, she could still feel things. She wasn’t exactly sure how that worked, but it did. When she touched something, she could feel it just as though she was touching it with her old body. Except she didn’t feel pain. Shattering apart the way she had, while it had felt strange, hadn’t actually hurt. She could touch her father’s skin and know that it ‘felt like skin’, but when she touched fire (her own experiment, much to her father’s abrupt protest), it hadn’t burned her. She felt slightly warm, but there was no pain. 

On the other hand, while she had retained her ability to see, hear, and feel (without pain), her senses of smell and taste were completely gone. She had stood in a kitchen full of baking desserts, and out by the dumpsters. Neither smelled like anything to her. She had attempted to eat one of those aforementioned desserts, but it… only resulted in a mess. She couldn’t eat or drink. And it hadn’t tasted like anything. She had her glass tongue, but no ability to taste. 

With a fond smile at her question as they stood together in the garage, her father gave a short nod. “Have at it, Smelly. Let’s see what you can do, huh?” Now that he had been assured that she wasn’t hurt by any of this, the man was just as excited and intrigued as his daughter was by what she was capable of. There were, of course, other considerations and worries to come. But for now, he wanted to see what these powers actually meant. The fact that he used that teasing nickname (born of a combination of Small and Melly, for Melissa), proved how much he had relaxed since first walking in that room to see his daughter fall and break apart. Now assured that she was safe, he wanted to see what these powers meant. 

To that end, Melissa took a deep breath (still uncertain as to how much that mattered),  before spreading her arms out wide. With a grunt, she slammed them together. In that motion, she clapped hard enough that both hands shattered into dozens of pieces. Again, it didn’t hurt. But it did leave her with her hands and a decent portion of her forearms missing, ending in jagged stumps. In any other situation, that would have been horrifying, but Melissa knew better by now. 

Just as before, she could see through all her individual shards. But now she was simultaneously seeing through her ‘eyes’ and through the different shards. As they lay on the floor scattered around her, she could see herself looking down at them. She could see her father too, and the cars that filled the garage. She could see through every shard at the same time. 

But it was more than that. As the shards lifted themselves from the floor, Melissa could control and manipulate all of them separately. They were all her, all capable of being moved around independently, controlled by Melissa despite the impossibility of focusing on so many different things at once. She could manipulate, move, see through, and experience things through every shard as easily as she could within her own body. 

Every shard of herself floated into the air, as she saw everything through all of them at once. Somehow, it didn’t overwhelm the girl, though she knew it should have. It just… worked. 

With a thought, she sent the shards flying through the garage. A few went to each vehicle, hitting the windshield or windows. And as she held those shattered pieces of herself against the glass, Melissa felt a sort of… warmth. It was hard to explain it further than that, though she had tried when her father asked before, back when she had first done this with one of the mirrors inside. That feeling of warmth spread out from the shards she was controlling, through the windshield and windows, even through the mirrors on the vehicles that some of her shards had pressed themselves against. 

The warmth spread and, after a few long seconds, she felt it. Control. She felt her control spread from the pieces of herself, out to the glass of the vehicles. Once she felt it, the little girl spoke a single word. 

“Come.” 

And with that, every window, every windshield, every mirror in the garage abruptly shattered as the glass broke itself into thousands of pieces, tearing its way free. Whether it was tempered or not didn’t matter. None of the specifics mattered. The glass broke apart into those thousands of shards, all of them flying over to form up around her. The glass that had been part of her flew to where the stumps were and reformed, turning back into her arms and hands. Again, as though nothing had happened. Meanwhile, the rest of the glass continued to float there, awaiting her commands. 

She couldn’t see and feel through all of these pieces, not instantly at least. With a thought and focus, however, she could pick a collection of shards to see through, just as she saw through her own pieces. Sensing things through her own glass was automatic, but pushing her senses into other glass she was controlling took a bit more effort. 

Focusing intently on the glass shards in front of her, Melissa watched as they obeyed her silent order by swirling into a tornado, just like when her own body had been reforming back in her room. The shards spun faster and faster, until it became impossible to make out individual pieces. 

Then they stopped, and the glass wasn’t individual shards anymore. Every bit of glass from those dozen vehicles had joined together into an incredibly life-like recreation of a full-sized triceratops. At a thought from Melissa, the triceratops turned to look at them. And at another thought, she could see through its eyes. She could simultaneously look at her creation and look back at herself staring at it. With another silent command, the triceratops gave what looked like a little bow. 

“Daddy… I made a dinosaur,” she whispered, almost afraid that if she spoke too loudly, it would shatter this dream and she would wake up back in her bed. 

“Yes,” the man murmured, stepping over to put his hand against it curiously. “So you did. It’s amazing, Smelly Melly. Can you still see through it?” 

“Uh huh,” she confirmed. “If I think about it and try. Wait.” Another few seconds of thought made the triceratops shatter apart into all those little pieces of glass once more. Just as quickly, they formed into three separate tornadoes that time. When the tornadoes cleared, there were three smaller animals standing there. One was a bear, another was a wolf, and the third was a miniature dragon, about the size of the bear, with a pair of long wings along its back and long claw-like talons that looked as though they could easily rip and tear through flesh. 

Once the three animals were formed, Melissa focused. She found that she could control all of them to do what she wanted at once, though she was only capable of seeing through the eyes of one at a time. The others would obey her silent commands to the best of their ability, and in the absence of direct supervision, would simply continue attempting to follow her last order. She set the wolf to pacing in a circle around the garage, and it continued to do that even after she turned her focus to the other two. The bear was left lumbering forwards and backwards from one wall to the opposite, reaching up with one paw to pat the structure each time. When her focus turned away from it, the bear continued to do that. 

Finally, the dragon was sent flying up to the ceiling, where it hovered and looked down at them. Seeing herself through its eyes, Melissa giggled a little. Delight filled her voice. “Daddy, I can make them move. Do you see?” 

“I see,” the man confirmed with pride, his hands moving to squeeze her shoulders a bit. “They’re amazing, baby. You’re amazing.” Despite his words, and the fact that he did seem to mean them, there was a slight hesitation to his voice. 

“Daddy?” Curious, Melissa turned her head to look up at him. The glass-dragon did the same, automatically. “What’s wrong? Did… did I do something bad?” 

“No, no, baby,” he quickly assured her. “You didn’t do anything wrong. Never. You’re my angel.” Going down on one knee, he looked her in the eyes. “I was just thinking about how different things are now, and about how you’ll never exactly be… able to go out in public. You wanted to do so many different things, Mel. You wanted to see the world. You wanted to go skateboarding. You wanted to do all that stuff.” 

She, in turn, smiled at him. He needed to see her smile, she was pretty sure. “I can do a lot of that stuff, Daddy. Now it doesn’t matter if I break, because I can just come right back together again. It doesn’t hurt. And I can still go see things if I’m careful. It’s just that now instead of being careful not to break, I have to be careful so people don’t see what I look like. Maybe I could wear a disguise, or–” 

“Melissa,” her father interrupted suddenly, his eyes widening with surprise. “Look at yourself.” 

She did so, directing the hovering glass-dragon’s eyes back to her. And she saw… well, she didn’t look normal, exactly. Her body was still clearly made of glass when she looked close. But there was color to it. Her pale skin color had returned, her eyes were back to being the right pale green, the long, slender strands of glass that made up her ‘hair’ had turned light brown to mimic the real thing. Even the glass that made up her clothes had shifted to what they should look like. 

With the added color, she looked akin to a particularly realistic porcelain doll. When one peered close enough, they could tell that something was off. Her skin, clothes, eyes, all of it was just not quite right. Yet from a distance, it would probably pass a casual glance. Especially if she wore regular, real clothes on top. 

Realizing all of this, Melissa found herself beaming. “See, Daddy? I really can go out and look around with you, and do stuff. But you know what?” 

“What’s that?” Her father asked, running his hand over her head. 

The answer came as she turned her gaze to stare at him. “There’s rules. You made them up yourself. 

“So now we gotta think of a gambling sorta word-name that’s got something to do with glass.” 

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Patreon Snippets 22B (Summus Proelium)

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Elena and Sterling

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

******

Cup and Pencil

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

******* 

Melissa (Blackjack’s daughter) 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“The glowing ball thingie.” 

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Showdown 7-06 (Summus Proelium)

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That saying ‘all hell broke loose’ didn’t apply here. Not because violence didn’t erupt, but because those words in that order utterly failed to really portray just how much violence erupted and just how quickly. Hell didn’t break loose, it was a meteor that suddenly and apocalyptically slammed into the Earth. Followed by several more meteors that came slamming in behind the first because they just couldn’t stand to miss all the fun.  

Honestly, the best analogy I had for it was one time when I had needed to ask Simon something a few years back. I’d gone into his room to find him lying on his bed with his headphones on. Next to the door was his wall-to-wall sound system, so I’d just reached out and hit a button with the headphone symbol on it. Pretty dumb, I know. It turned off the headphones, and suddenly the entire room had been flooded with screaming, earsplitting metal music. It had, with the touch of a button, shifted all that music from being pumped through his headphones to being pumped through the dozen different high-end speakers he had scattered throughout all of his rooms. My ears had practically been ringing for days after that little mistake. 

That’s what this was like. Not that it had been exactly peaceful before, but when the Ninety-Niner and Oscuro troops had surrounded Pack (and her pack), Eits, That-A-Way, Syndicate, Whamline, Wobble, Carousel, and me, the violence had at least paused. Mostly because we really hadn’t stood the slightest ghost of a chance in that position, against those kind of numbers. But now that Blackjack and more of La Casa had, in turn, surrounded the Oscuro and Ninety-Niners, everything just sort of exploded. Violently. 

For me, ‘violence exploded’ was pretty apt, considering basically the same instant everyone started fighting, just as I dropped my phone back in the pocket that hadn’t been cut open, something hit me. It was Cuélebre’s tail. I saw it coming from the corner of my eye, just in time to activate a bit of the orange within the image I’d painted across my costume. Even then, the tail still struck me with enough force that I was lifted clear off the ground and sent hurtling through the air with a belated scream. Flailing, I failed to actually right myself properly before colliding with a dumpster near the corner of the loading dock behind the store. The orange paint meant I didn’t end up with any broken bones (or worse), but I was still dazed, slumping to the asphalt with a low groan as my vision went a little blurry for a moment. 

The fighting, of course, didn’t stop for me. Gunshots and more filled the air, even as I groggily lifted my head to stare in that direction, trying to blink the daze away. Two Ninety-Niner thugs with shotguns were hoisted off their feet, slammed into one another, and hurled away in opposite directions by a couple of Whamline’s coils. Those same coils exploded in front of Coverfire, the concussive force knocking him away from That-A-Way while he was still trying to grab her. An instant later, there was a sharp whistling sound and a narrow distortion in the air slammed into Whamline. It was Silbón, a guy from Oscuro with a dark wide-brimmed hat over a dark gray face mask that left his mouth exposed and ragged clothes. 

Silbón was joined by a couple Oscuro thugs firing guns. They were set upon by Twinkletoes and Holiday. One of the Syndicates was on the ground. Another was shot at several times, but the bullets went through his semi-translucent body. The guy who shot at him was hit by one of those electric shopping carts directed by one of Eits’ mites (going faster than I thought those carts were capable of), just before one of the La Casa troops dove into him, both thugs rolling across the ground as they each fought for leverage against the other. 

Violence. Fighting. More than I could possibly hope to follow. Double Down, Blackjack, Cardsharp, and another member of La Casa named Hardway (a guy who manipulated inertia and motion of himself or things around him) were fighting Cuélebre and Sandon. The latter wore a modernized suit of armor with a lion’s pelt over the back, its fake ‘head’ functioning as her helmet and mask. They were all fighting in a jumble of motion and violence. Everyone was. It was all blurred movements, gunshots, powers flying off, the roar of animals and screams of both anger and pain. By the time I dragged myself off the ground, half the people there were down for one reason or another. Some would be down for much longer than others, but either way, the violence was taking its toll. This was too many people with too many powers and weapons in too close of quarters. Even as I took a step that way, my eyes caught sight of Pack and That-A-Way, bumping up against each other just as a figure loomed up behind them. It was another teenager, though definitely not part of the Minority. He wore the completely cliche ‘inmate’ outfit of a black and white striped prison suit with a black burglar mask and one of those prisoner numbers written across the front of the striped shirt. I had… no idea what his powers were. But before either That-A-Way or Pack could react, his hands grabbed each of them by the shoulders and all three disappeared. The ‘prisoner’ guy as well as both girls vanished. 

No! No, no, no! Where were they?! What– then I realized that Pack’s creatures must have been linked to her or something, because all of them disappeared a second later too. Hopefully, whatever prisoner boy had been doing, he hadn’t planned on that. 

But I didn’t have time to think about it. I didn’t have time to think about anything. Suddenly, just as I saw the group vanish in front of my eyes, a guy grabbed me from behind. It was just some random Ninety-Niner thug. I smelled awful alcohol breath as he yanked me off my feet with an arm around my waist, his other hand groping down my side toward the unruined pocket as he snarled, “Okay, kid, where’s the other vials, huh?! Where are they?!” 

That was what it took. Up to that point, since the moment Cuélebre’s tail had knocked me thirty feet into the dumpster, everything had taken on a bit of a dreamlike quality. My ears had been ringing, and I’d just sort of been staring at all this fighting in a daze for the past few seconds, as if I wasn’t really there. It was like I was watching all of this on television rather than interacting with it. But this guy grabbing me, that was enough to snap me out of all that and make me remember that I was actually involved.

As the guy groped over my leg looking for my pocket, I quickly turned that part of my pants blue and activated it, sending his hand snapping up and back. At the same time, I drove my helmeted head backward into his face. The combination of both made him drop me with a yelp, and I turned while landing, sending a shot of red paint into his chest while my left glove turned red as well. Activating both yanked him toward me, just as my other hand turned purple and decked the guy. He hit the ground and didn’t move. 

Another guy was coming for me, but I painted my legs green and my feet purple, using that to leap up and over him, twisting in the air before coming down right on top of his shoulders. He collapsed under my weight, and as we both fell to the ground, I snapped my hand to the side, shooting a spray of yellow paint at a group of bad guys who were going after Wobble and Carousel. They suddenly slowed dramatically, giving those two a chance to deal with them while I rolled forward off the guy I had just dropped onto. 

Unfortunately, that put me right at the feet of the Oscuro Touched with the wide-brimmed hat. Silbón. His power involved whistling, of course. Basically, any time he was whistling, he was almost entirely immune to damage. He would absorb that damage, and could then expel it through a whistle. When he did, his whistle would take on the same traits as the damage he had absorbed. He could whistle to absorb bullets, whistle again to absorb lightning, and whistle a third time to absorb fire. After that, he could, at any point, use the kinetic force of the bullets, the electricity from the lightning, or the heat from the fire in his whistles. Using a damage type spent the charge of absorbing it, but he tended to have absorbed a lot. 

Just as I ended up basically half-sprawled in front of the man, staring up at his black mask under that wide hat, he pursed his lips. Eyes widening, I slapped my hand against his foot and put black paint there. 

No sound came. I’d muted him. He had a moment to somehow look surprised despite me only being able to see his lips before I twisted around and drove my foot up between his legs with a bit of purple-paint boost. Then he wasn’t interested in trying to whistle anymore. But I still kicked him a couple more times just to be sure. 

Scrambling back to my feet, I snapped my gaze over to the fighting. It was… uhh… wow. Chaotic. Still. A couple random thugs were coming for me, but I blue-launched myself up and back, flipping in the air to land on the edge of the metal awning over the loading bay. Activating a bit more orange meant that the bullets they shot up at me just made me stagger a bit before I managed to yank their guns away with a shot of red. Before they could react to that, I took a few steps back out of their line of sight, tossing the pistols away to either side. And then I sort of… doubled over and tried not to hyperventilate while hugging myself. The shouting and screaming coming from everywhere, being shot at, nearly being hit by Silbón, all of it just… just… it was too much. It was too fucking much. And what about Pack and That-A-Way?! Were they okay? What was going on? Where were they? What could I do? What–

Nothing. I couldn’t do anything for them, not at the moment. I just had to hope they were okay, and focus on what was going on right here, right now. I could do this. I had to do this. I couldn’t abandon them down there. I had to help get that vial back. 

That settled, I took a deep breath before running forward, using a mixture of purple and blue paint to launch myself into the air. Between the two, I was sent really high and really far. Sailing over the battlefield, I helped out the best way I could. Namely, I first used yellow paint to slow my own descent, then used all the time I had while passing over the fighting to hit bad guys with more yellow paint and good guys with a mixture of green, purple, and orange. Mostly green and orange, as I couldn’t expect them to suddenly know that they were strong. But being faster and tougher would help regardless. As would their opponents suddenly being much slower. 

It helped so much that, by the time I landed on the far side of the lot, dropping into a roll, most of the random Ninety-Niner and Oscuro Prevs were down. Between the four Syndicates, Wobble, Whamline, and the La Casa people, they dealt with their unpowered opponents neatly. Unfortunately, that didn’t solve the issue of the guys who did have powers. Especially Sandon and Cuélebre. And that situation had gotten worse, as I saw Hardway off on the far side of the field trapped inside Ringside’s bubble. The two of them were fighting sans any powers as Ringside had apparently elected to remove Hardway’s at the expense of her own, and both were really good at that. They would be busy for awhile. 

Meanwhile, the remaining three La Casa people were fighting the leadership of the two rival gangs. Blackjack’s power wasn’t exactly suited to straight up and prolonged confrontation, but he had Double Down and Cardsharp for that. And they were definitely earning their keep. 

As far as Sandon went, the Ninety-Niners’ leader had been around long enough that her powers were pretty well known. They revolved around bones. Yeah. Basically, touching a bone gave her access to all of that person’s strength and general toughness. If they were a Touched with enhanced strength, it gave her a portion of that as well. Of course, touching bones from multiple different people gave her each of their strength together. And the inside of her suit was apparently completely lined with little pieces of bone. She was one of the straight-up strongest people in the city just because whenever someone with super strength showed up, she made a point of hunting them down and taking a piece of bone from them if possible. Which was eeeuuuggh.  

So yeah, between Sandon and Cuélebre, there was a lot of strength on the bad guy’s side. Double Down’s ability to absorb any kinetic force that hit him and Cardsharp’s power to alter her own physical properties to make herself tougher helped deal with that somewhat, but they couldn’t actually hurt the bastards enough to put them down. The best they could do was let Double Down absorb enough kinetic force to send right back at the Oscuro and Ninety-Niner leaders, while Blackjack used his own power to watch for the right moment and target. I kept seeing him randomly using a pistol to shoot at Cuélebre’s tail for some reason. Then I noticed that every time the tail was struck, a bit of electricity shot off of it. Like it was fizzling. 

Was Cuélebre’s tail how he summoned lightning? And was Blackjack shooting it to disrupt his attempts to do so every time? Was that why he hadn’t just fried everyone already? 

Well, that and the fact that he didn’t know where the other vials were, beyond the one in his hand. That was probably why he wasn’t just throwing lightning around everywhere, beyond Blackjack stopping him from using calculated strikes. Hell, maybe that was why Blackjack was able to stop him, because it took more time for him to carefully aim or something. Enough time for Blackjack to hit that spot of his tail. 

Whatever the answer, I was just glad we weren’t fried. Because we already had enough problems. As I crouched there, trying to present as small a target as possible while watching for an opening in the midst of their busy fight, I saw it. The vial was still in Cuélebre’s hand while he was fighting. It was right there. 

Unfortunately, just as I prepared myself to try and take it from him with a careful application of red paint, there was another interruption. This one came in the form of a figure who appeared in the middle of their fight. He was a tall guy in a dark red hood and cloak over a white bodysuit with a collar that extended up over the lower half of his face. Longhaul. That was Longhaul. 

The second he appeared, the man used his power to send Blackjack, Double Down, and Cardsharp to the far side of the parking lot, while looking at his leader. “They found the car that took off, it’s on the far side of Campus Martius Park. Still no driver.” 

Wren. She was remote driving the thing to get it out of here. 

Sandon was already looking to Cuélebre, who smiled. He was looking right at me. He read my body language. “The vials. That’s where they are.” 

Blackjack was coming. So were the others. But Cuélebre bellowed a deafening, “Do it!” At the same time, his wings came slamming down, as he launched himself upward. 

And then a woman’s voice called, “Ladies and gentlemen!” At that, my eyes, as well as basically all of those attached to anyone on our side in the immediate area, snapped over to see a woman in a sexified version of a ringmaster’s outfit sitting there on a motorcycle. Where had she come from? It was Grandstand, Cuélebre’s second-in-command. Even as everyone looked that way, she smiled. “Follow the leader.” Then the motorcycle kicked into motion, peeling out and swerving around before tearing out of the lot. 

After her. We had to go after her. Everyone else was already rushing that way, leaping into action to catch up with the woman. But just as I went to follow, intent on using green and red paint to catch up and maybe stop her, a hand grabbed my arm and yanked me back. It was Eits. He shook me violently, yelling something about Cuélebre at me. But who cared about Cuélebre when–wait. 

Grandstand’s power faded a second later as Eits shook me violently once more. I snapped out of it in time to see everyone else disappearing as they took off after her. After the distraction. 

“Cuélebre!” Eits shouted at me. “He’s getting away, what do we do?!” 

“How did you–” Then I realized it was probably the fact that his focus had been split between his own mind and all of his mites. That had saved him from Grandstand’s power. And there wasn’t time to worry about it anyway. 

“Close your eyes,” I blurted, grabbing onto Eits. He had time to yelp before I launched both of us into the air through a combination of blue paint at our feet and a red paint yank at the nearby building. We went up and over the roof, while I informed the boy currently holding on for dear life, “There’s a demon trying to catch a car, and we’ve gotta catch him first.”

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