Holiday

Commissioned Interlude 1 – That-A-Way and Pack (Summus Proelium)

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The following is a commissioned interlude, not part of the normal schedule. The next regular chapter will come out tomorrow as always. 

As his semi rumbled to a stop in the back of a nearly empty truckstop on the edge of Detroit, Aaron Jessup shut down the vehicle while letting out a loud yawn. Giving his head a firm shake to wake himself up, the man thought he caught sight of something out of the corner of his eye, toward the passenger side of his truck. Snapping his gaze that way, however, he saw nothing more than the edge of the lot with the still-busy freeway beyond. He’d thought there was a shadow moving closer, but clearly, he was just so tired that his eyes were playing tricks on him.

Shaking that off, the man opened the door of his truck and started to step down. Just as his left foot touched the ground, however, with his right still on the step and his arm holding the bar, he felt something press up against his crotch. The sensation, naturally, made him stop suddenly.

“Good instincts,” the man heard from below him. Slowly and gingerly, he lowered his gaze before finding out what was pushing against his groin. Seeing it, however, did not make the man feel any better. It was a gun. The barrel of a sawed-off shotgun, to be specific. The weapon was held against him by a figure laying on their back half-under the truck. Even without the gun, the figure themselves would have been terrifying to behold in that situation. She wore a leather jacket that started out black at the bottom before gradually becoming green toward the top. The hood of the jacket was up to cover her hair, and she wore a featureless black mask with no mouth or eye holes, turning the area where her face should have been into a dark void. 

“Believe it or not, I really don’t want to shoot you,” the girl’s voice informed Aaron quietly while he stared where her eyes should be. “It’s not my idea of a good time. And I know it’s not yours. So we’re all gonna play nice and you’ll be just fine. I’ll get what I want, then you can call the cops and report the loss to your company and their insurance. Nod your head and say okay.” 

After the briefest of pauses, during which he felt that gun barrel push just a bit more against his most precious part, Aaron finally gave a quick nod. His voice sounded a little choked up. “Okay.” 

“Good,” the girl replied. “And my friend doesn’t want to hurt you either, unless you make him.” 

“Him?” Aaron echoed, only to hear the passenger door of his truck open before someone climbed in that side. Someone quite large and heavy, given the way the truck shuddered. 

“I’m gonna need you to not scream, not try to escape, not make any sudden moves,” the girl on the ground informed him in a very patient, yet commanding voice. “If you cooperate, he won’t hurt you, I promise. Just get back up in your seat and buckle up. Remember, no matter how much he freaks you out, he will not hurt you if you follow instructions. Can you do that for me?” 

Not trusting his voice at first, the man nodded weakly before managing a soft, “Y-yeah.” He very gingerly moved, pulling himself back up into the truck and away from that gun. Only once he had safely settled in the seat did the man glance over to see who was in the truck with him.

It was a monster. Literally. The enormous thing, taking up most of that side of the front seat, looked like a gorilla with lizard-like scales instead of fur. It was giving him a broad, toothy smile, one hand raised in a wave of greeting as though all of this was a perfectly normal thing. 

Whether he stayed still because he remembered the order from the girl to not move or scream no matter what he saw, or because he was frozen in terror, Aaron couldn’t rightly say. All he knew was that he was completely frozen in place, staring in shock at the figure beside him. 

“Good,” the masked girl praised while picking herself up. She put the gun away, apparently content that her monstrous companion would keep him in line. “But what else did I say?” 

It took the man a moment, before he very shakily reached out to catch hold of his seatbelt. Without taking his eyes off the thing beside him, he fumbled with it a bit before buckling up. 

Rather than speak again, the girl simply closed the driver’s side door, patted it briefly, then disappeared as she walked around the front before climbing in the open passenger door. Through it all, Aaron simply stared at the scaled gorilla, unable to take his eyes off it. 

“Okay,” the girl announced after climbing in, perching on her… pet’s lap, and closing the door. “Let’s get out of here. I’ll tell you where to go. Like I said, be nice and cooperate and you’ll get out of this without a single scratch, I promise. Oh, I’m Pack, by the way. Given your Maryland licence plates, I’m pretty sure you don’t spend much time around Detroit. 

“So… what do you think of the city so far?” 

*******

With the truck safely parked in the backlot of an old, unused hardware store, Pack watched as Twinkletoes and Mars Bar unloaded the electronics equipment from the back of the truck and transferred it into a waiting van. The truck’s driver was sitting on a nearby curb, being watched by Holiday now. The man showed no interest in trying to run away or fight back. Which was good, because Pack meant what she had said. As long as he cooperated, he’d be fine. Blackjack wanted this guy’s cargo, but there was no reason to be an evil cunt about it. 

However, things apparently just couldn’t go completely smoothly no matter how cooperative the driver was being. That much became clear as, just when Pack was about to offer the man a bottle of water, a warning screech came from up in the sky where Riddles was flying cover. 

Instantly upon hearing the warning, Pack spun. She’d taught her bird-lizard specific calls to give based on what the warning was. This one meant that a threat was coming from behind her. In mid-motion, the girl had the shotgun in her hand, extending it in time to see the threat appear right in front of her, snatch the gun from her hand, and toss it aside to clatter on the ground. 

“Well,” she announced to the newcomer. “That was rude. Not even a hey, good to see you?”

“We’re not on the same side this time, Pack,” That-A-Way informed her sharply. She had just teleported into place after hearing the warning cry from Riddles that told her she’d been spotted. “I told you I’d have to take you down if I saw you out doing bad shit again, no matter what we went through before. So what exactly do you call this?” She waved a hand to where Mars Bar and Twinkletoes had stopped moving boxes from the truck to the van and now stood watching.  

“Uh…” Pack considered that for a moment before offering, “Some early Christmas shopping?” 

Despite herself, and despite spending the past few seconds before making this confrontation telling herself to be firm and take no excuses or nonsense during this, That-A-Way wanted to smile. The answer was so absurd, and came out with such false earnestness, that a snicker almost escaped her. That was why confronting Pack right now was so dangerous. Not because the girl herself was so terrible, but because… because she wasn’t. Because That-A-Way actually liked the time they’d spent together the two times they’d been forced into being allies. 

She should have called in back-up. She knew that. Given her feelings and history, her first action as soon as she saw what was going on should have been to call in one of the other Minority who could help deal with this. But she’d frozen, torn between calling in help or… not. And through that hesitation, Riddles had spotted Way, forcing her hand. Now she was here, standing in front of Pack after disarming her and trying to tell herself that the other girl was just any other villain. She was robbing this truck driver. No matter how much That-A-Way enjoyed talking to her, she was a villain who needed to be taken down and brought in. 

“You’re right,” Pack agreed casually. “We’re definitely not on the same side. But wouldn’t it be fun if we were?” The tone of her voice implied the wink that couldn’t be seen through the mask. “Seriously, come on. I know you’re not some stuffy boring old hall monitor. You and me, we could have some crazy times out here. We don’t need to fight.”

“Are you insane?” That-A-Way demanded, voice rising a bit defensively despite herself. “In case it escaped you, I’m not a supervillain. And I’m definitely not going to hurt people.” 

Pack’s response to that was a simple shrug. “Who said anything about hurting people? Does that guy over there look hurt? Do you really think losing a few boxes of equipment like this is gonna hurt that big ass multi-billion dollar company? Trust me, they’ve got all this covered.”  

Slowly, That-A-Way shook her head. “Look, I’m telling you, we can do this the nice way. I’ll arrest you, take you in, then you sit in jail. Neither of us has to throw a punch. Maybe they’ll let you switch sides, Pack. You and your friends here, they could do some real good, instead of stealing things and hurting people. And you are hurting them, no matter what you think.” 

There was a brief pause then, as Pack seemed to consider. But in the end, the suggestion was apparently not what she was thinking through. Instead, she offered, “Tell you what. I’ll tell my buddies here to stay back and not intervene. Which means I won’t be using my powers. You don’t use yours. If you can take me down like that, no powers on either side, then we’ll all surrender and you can take us in. How’s that sound?”

“You’re serious?” That-A-Way blurted with a frown. “You want me to fight you without either of us using powers, and if I win, you and all your friends here will just surrender peacefully.” 

“Well,” Pack pointed out slyly, “we’ll have just fought, so I’m not sure how much you could call it peacefully. But other than that… yeah. You and me, right here, no powers. Think you can hand-” 

In mid-sentence, Pack was interrupted as That-A-Way took a swing at her face. She jerked back, twisting with a laugh. “See?” she blurted in mid-pivot as the fist went right past her nose, “you would make a pretty good villain with underhanded sneak attacks like that.” 

She quickly snapped an arm down to deflect the other incoming fist, before twisting once more so That-A-Way’s kick hit the side of her hip. It still hurt, but not as much as it might have. Before the next attack could come, however, she continued her pivot, putting her back toward That-A-Way as her elbow lashed out to hit the other girl in the face.

The impact made the blonde stumble a bit, but That-A-Way recovered quickly, both hands snapping up to catch Pack’s swinging arm as it came in for a hard punch. Gripping tightly to keep the girl in place, she lashed out with a kick toward her opponent’s side and was rewarded with a grunt of pain as she connected. But the leather jacket was clearly padded for protection.

Through all of this, the menagerie of lizard-creatures watched with a mixture of confusion and curiosity. That same curiosity was reflected in the face of Aaron the truck driver, as he too watched all of this. Together, they all stared as their owner and the girl she had previously worked with (and who had actually saved Holiday’s life) went after one another in a wild brawl.  

Taking the kick on her side while her extended arm was held by both of That-A-Way’s hands, Pack grunted before stepping in close, her free hand snapping out to slam the heel of it into the other girl’s shoulder. The blow was enough to loosen the grip Way had on her other arm, and Pack twisted free, pivoting in and around before driving her knee up into the girl’s stomach. 

Or at least, that was the plan. In practice, her opponent managed to catch her rising knee with one hand before slamming her arm into Pack’s face with a somewhat-wild swing. Pack did, however, manage to put a fist into the side of the elbow of That-A-Way’s arm that was holding her knee, knocking away her grip. 

Both girls yelped in pain, stumbling back away from each other for a moment. It had been a wild handful of seconds, with both landing a few blows but neither actually getting very far. They each moved, pacing in a slow circle around one another while watching for an opening as the breathed hard in and out. 

“Hey,” Pack announced with a slow pant, “I guess you Minority guys must learn how to fight without your powers after all. Kudos.” Her voice adopted a teasing tone once more. “I don’t suppose there’s any chance you could tell me what parts of that class you weren’t so good at?” 

“Nice try,” Way snorted before doing a quick step-in, feinting a kick while using her opposite hand to catch hold of Pack’s wrist. She quickly pivoted in and around, shoving the villain girl’s hand up behind her back before putting her other arm around Pack’s neck. “I was pretty good at grappling, I’ll tell you that much.” 

“Well yeah,” Pack agreed with a grimace, arm pinned behind her back as it was, “who wouldn’t want to let you practice on them? Have you seen yourself?” Using That-A-Way’s brief distraction at those words, she stomped down on the girl’s foot, then twisted her arm free before pivoting to punch at her stomach. Her fist, as expected, was knocked aside. But she was free, and both girls stumbled away once more. 

Their fight continued that way for another minute, neither gaining any real advantage as they avoided any use of their powers (which, in Pack’s case, simply consisted of repeating her order for the lizard-creatures to stay out of the way no matter what happened). Blows were exchanged between them, each taking a few bruises and bumps that they would feel through the rest of the night and into the next day. This whole thing was clearly more than a simple sparring match, yet also somehow less than an actual fight. They bantered, they teased each other, they… talked, to an extent. They were simultaneously taking it seriously and yet not. It was an impossible situation for either to explain. All the two girls knew was that… it was fun. They both wanted to win, that was for sure. Yet they also… didn’t terribly mind the idea of the other winning either. 

Finally, That-A-Way managed to slip behind Pack while the other girl was stumbling forward, off-balance. Before she could recover, Way lashed out with a kick into her back that launched her up against the back of the nearby truck with a yelp. It was the best opening Way had had through all of this, and she took advantage by grabbing the stay-down cuffs from her hip and lunging that way. She brought one cuff in toward Pack’s wrist even as the girl hit the truck. 

But Pack recovered faster than Way had expected. At the last possible second, she snatched her hand down, pivoting to catch the incoming handcuff. A quick twist of the metal and That-A-Way felt it snap around her own wrist. The other cuff was just as quickly attached to the handle of the truck’s rear door. Way lashed out with her free hand, but Pack stumbled backward just in time, panting heavily. 

“Whew,” the girl managed with a cough, “that was close.” 

Turning to face her, hand still cuffed to the truck, That-A-Way shook her head. “You still don’t have to be a thief, you know. You can stop this any time. It’s your choice.” 

“But I’m so good at it,” Pack replied easily. “And besides, what would I do otherwise? Be a hero?” 

“You could if you wanted to,” Way pointed out with narrowed eyes. “You and your friends over there could help a lot of people.” 

“See, I can help people without being a hero,” Pack retorted, though her voice was light. “But I don’t have to do it at the beck and call of a system designed to make the rich richer and smash the poor under its treads. What do you think I do when I see someone being hurt? I mean really hurt by real bad guys. There’s a difference between what I do and what they do.”

“You want to change the system and make people’s lives better?” Way blurted a bit incredulously. “Then do it inside the system! You want Star-Touched to really help people who need it? Be a Star-Touched and help people who need it!” 

There was a brief pause before Pack stepped closer. “You still see everything as being that black and white? Things aren’t that simple, babe. Though I will admit,” she added carefully while stripping off one of her gloves to reveal a dark-skinned hand that she gently touched against Way’s pale cheek. “Black and white does make a pretty good combination at times.” The words came in a soft voice, both girls staring at one another for a long few seconds. 

Abruptly, Pack stepped back, casually adding, “One, we both know you can teleport out of that cuff any time you want to.” 

Even as she said those words, That-A-Way was disappearing from the cuff. She reappeared a few feet away, mouth open to interrupt in one last plea for the other girl to just surrender. 

But Pack continued. “–And two, I just gave the stand-down order for Holiday to stop guarding her prisoner. Which means…” 

With a loud, somehow delighted and friendly rather than terrifying, snarl, Holiday the panther-lizard lunged out of the shadows to knock That-A-Way to the ground. They landed heavily, Holiday frantically licking all over her face and nuzzling up against her while the girl squealed in surprise. 

“She wants to say hello,” Pack finished with a small smirk. She let that go on for a few seconds before reaching down to take hold of Holiday, pulling her back. The two stood over the Minority hero, Pack offering a shrug. “Hey, you interrupted when we were only halfway done, so I guess we can call it a tie.” 

That-A-Way started to say something, only to look over from her prone position to see the van start up and drive off. “You weren’t alone…” 

“Never said I was,” Pack pointed out. “Don’t worry, Broadway’s cool. She would’ve held to the deal I made and let you take me in. Maybe you can meet her next time.” 

“Next time,” Way assured her, “I’m going to bring you in.” 

Walking backward away from the girl, Pack casually replied, “Maybe I’ll let you cuff me then! Could be fun!” 

She turned then, sprinting away while accompanied by her animals, leaving That-A-Way laying on the ground. As the girl watched the menagerie and their leader disappear into the darkness, her comm beeped. 

“That-A-Way?” Wobble’s voice came, “you okay? What’s going on?” 

Touching the comm in her ear to activate it, Way answered, “I’ve got the truck and the driver. Thief took off in a van, but I managed to interrupt before they took everything they wanted.” 

“Any bad guys to bring in?” her teammate asked. 

“… No. No bad guys this time. She got away.” 

“Shit,” Wobble muttered through the comm. “Eh, don’t worry. There’s always next time.” 

“Yeah,” Amber murmured in a soft voice, staring through the darkness where the other girl had disappeared. 

“There’s always next time.”

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Interlude 7A – Pack and That-A-Way

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With a flash of light and a pair of yelps, two figures appeared in the air in the middle of a large corridor and fell to the floor in a heap. They were tangled up there for a moment, lying on that hard stone floor. Each of them was equally disoriented and confused, almost violently pulling away from each other and scrambling backwards with their guards up as they stared wide-eyed at one another. 

“Pack?!” That-A-Way blurted out loud, her voice high-pitched and clearly completely lost in that moment. 

Pack’s own voice was just as baffled. “Way? What… what the fuck is— where the hell are we?!” Even as she said it, the girl was scrambling to her feet, looking up and down the hall. “Is… is this a fucking prison?”

It was. The hall they were in was lined with cells on each side. They were small, simple affairs with iron bars covering the front of a tiny room that had the metal frame of a cot bolted to the floor and a sink next to a toilet. Dozens of cells, visible as they looked up and down the hall, were the same. Heavy and clearly reinforced metal doors lay at either end. 

“Well fuck this,” Pack announced, already heading for one of the doors. “I don’t know what the fuck this is, but I’m leaving. You coming, Minority chick?”

After a brief moment of confused staring, That-A-Way jolted a bit, eyes widening. “Wait, I know what this is. I’ve heard of this guy, he’s newish.” She shot a look to the other girl, who had stopped to look at her. “Jailtime. He calls himself Jailtime. This whole prison, it’s… it’s in some isolated place… or completely created by his power or… or something. Anyway, he touches you and brings you here and you have to find your way to the exit. Then you get teleported back to where you were.”

Pack stared at her for a moment. “Are you serious? The hell kind of power is that? Just teleport people to one location and wait for them to leave?”

That-A-Way shrugged. “I think there’s more to it, but I can’t remember. Like I said, he’s really new. The Ninety-Niners pretty much just picked him up.”

Cursing under her breath, Pack tilted her head back to stare at the ceiling before muttering, “What’s with those guys and Touched who take you somewhere against your will like that? They’ve got Ringside too. And I’m counting Longhaul.”

Distractedly shaking her head, the other girl replied, “Maybe they put out a really specific want ad. All I know is we have to get out of here and back to help the others. So come on.” Even as she said it, the girl was heading past Pack to the nearby door. She was trying not to think about everything that could have already gone wrong back there while they were talking.

Pack exhaled, glancing around once more before following. “Can you just teleport us out the quick way?”

That-A-Way’s head shook. “I have no idea where we are, what this place looks like, what might be around, or anything. I need to have some vague idea of where I’m going if we don’t want to end up inside a wall or something. If it even works at all.” With that, she reached out to put her hand on the other girl’s arm. “But this way is south, so we can just walk right through…” While saying it, she turned herself and Pack intangible and went right through the door. 

Or she tried to. Despite the fact that the two of them were definitely intangible, the door held firm and they walked right into it with a pair of surprised grunts. 

Laughter erupted from behind them, and both reeled back while turning to find the guy who had brought them here. Jailtime, wearing his cliché black and white striped prison uniform with the number placard and simple mask, was doubled over laughing to himself. “Oh man, that was amazing! That was totally worth being quiet and letting you stupid bitches ramble for so long. Can you do that again, because I didn’t have my camera ready and you two really owe me for putting up with listening to you. Come on, maybe if you run at it really fast, you can get through! Give it the old college try! I mean, I know you’re both too dumb to ever go to college, but let’s just pretend. It’ll be great. I promise to clap.”

Glancing to each other silently, both girls suddenly threw themselves that way. It was north, so That-A-Way teleported past the guy to appear behind him, turning to grab him. At the same time, Pack launched herself into a tackle. 

Jailtime turned to smoke, floating into the nearby wall and disappearing just in time for the two girls to collide with one another. They went to the floor in a heap again, while his laughter filled the hall.

Pulling away from the other girl, Pack angrily lashed out with a foot, kicking the wall where the smoke had gone. “Get out here and fight, you fucking coward!”

His disembodied voice filled the hall. “Now why would I do that when we’re having so much fun this way? Well, I’m having fun anyway, and that’s what really matters, isn’t it? But if you bimbos really want someone to fight, never say I’m not accommodating to guests.”

Both girls stood up warily then, just as the heavy doors to either end of the prison hall opened and several large figures stepped through. They looked like prisoners, only featureless ones. They were men with no faces, only the vague shape on their bald heads where a face would be. No noses, no eyes, no mouth. They clearly weren’t real people. But their fists were real, as were the chains and knives that several clutched as they approached. Or, they were at least real enough to hurt, and neither Pack nor That-A-Way had any desire to see just how real they could be. 

Without missing a beat, Way grabbed the girl beside her, teleporting both of them behind the group to the north. As they arrived, Pack already had her shotgun out, and pumped a heavy beanbag round right into one of their backs, before turning the barrel slightly to shoot again into the next one. Both hit the floor from the force of the impact at such close range. 

That-A-Way, meanwhile, shoved her taser into the neck of a third one. It did nothing, the being just turning to smack the weapon from her hand before punching at her face. But she was facing south, so the girl went intangible to let the fist pass through her. Then she pivoted around him, facing east to activate her invulnerability while lashing out with as hard of a punch as she could manage. She didn’t have superstrength, but the invulnerability meant she could hit a lot harder without hurting herself. Her fist slammed into that featureless face, staggering the figure. 

Before it could recover, she slipped around the opposite side of him, activating her super speed as she grabbed the simulacrum by the arm and waist. With a grunt, she spun, using her speed to hurl the figure to the ground near the door. “Pack!” She blurted out loud, even as the figure was starting to pick itself up, barely dazed. If it was even possible to actually daze these obvious automatons. 

Pack didn’t need an explanation. Hopping over the outstretched arms of one of the figures she put on the floor, the girl raised her shotgun once more. A pull of the trigger sent the next heavy round right into the non-face of the figure Way had tossed. The shot completely caved in the front of the head, and the figure reeled backwards and fell. His body prevented the door from closing. Both girls lunged that way, throwing themselves through it just as the body disappeared and the door slammed shut behind them with a heavy clang. 

Out of that first hallway, the girls were now in a narrower one with no cells. It curved out and around, the corridor continuing out of sight. Behind them, the door was starting to open again as the sound of rapidly approaching footsteps from those things grew louder. 

Grabbing Pack’s hand, That-A-Way teleported to the end of the curve, as far ahead as she could see. The hall continued that way, a wide curve arcing away from the place they had just left. It was still generally north, so she teleported a couple more times, each as far as she could see. It would give them a little bit of a head start, assuming their captor didn’t just create new ones or teleport the ones he had around or something. 

At the end of the widely curved hall was a large set of bars, a heavy gate. Beyond that was a fairly small area followed by another barred gate that blocked an equally small room with a door. 

“Like an airlock,” Pack realized. “They open the gate on one side, make sure only the people that are supposed to go through get into that small area, close the gate on that side, then open the other gate.”

“Yeah,” the other girl agreed before heading that way. “Well, good thing we’re not waiting for anyone to let us through.”

The steady sound of many approaching footsteps from the direction they had come propelled That-A-Way to take Pack by the hand once more and teleport through both sets of gates to reach the room on the far side. Just as they arrived, however, that entire space was flooded with arcs of electricity. Both girls jerked away from each other with pained yelps before falling. They lay on the floor for a moment, dazed and out of it. Both knew they had to move, but the brief shock of electricity left them unable to focus even as the footsteps drew nearer. The by-then familiar sound of mocking laughter accompanied the footsteps. 

The gates opened, letting the faceless figures move through toward the prone girls. However, just as the nearest one extended its hand toward Pack’s masked face, there was a squeal of fury from above. All of the figures turned that way, as a grate on the ceiling came popping open and a small, scaled figure dropped through to land on the head of the automaton that had been reaching out. 

It was Tuesday. The monkey-lizard wasn’t that big, but was quite strong for his size and was currently motivated by the blinding rage he felt on behalf of his owner. Making his paws into fists and putting them together, he brought them down in a sledge hammer blow against the top of the automaton’s head.  It caved in, and the figure collapsed just as Tuesday ripped the arms from its sockets and use them to bash in the heads of the next two while dropping to the ground. They staggered back, and the others hesitated while the monkey lizard bared his teeth and chest, swinging both of the broken automaton’s arms menacingly. 

That-A-Way, by that point, had recovered enough to sit up and grab one of the arms from Tuesday. He hissed in surprise, but stopped upon seeing who it was, even as the girl stumbled to her feet and turned intangible while lunging toward a metal coil sticking out from the wall that was already starting to spark with electricity. She shoved the intangible arm through the coil and released it, hopping back as the arm solidified, destroying the coil and stopping that electricity. 

“Tuesday?!” Pack blurted. “How are—never mind.” Even as she dismissed it, the girl was snapping her shotgun up to pull the trigger twice more, knocking a couple automatons away to fall against their companions as she scrambled up. “We’ve gotta go!” Even as she said it, the girl lunged at the gate and shoved it closed, trying to hold it in place while not letting the automatons grab hold of her.

“Love to,” Way retorted while yanking fruitlessly at the heavy door. “But I can’t teleport through this without knowing what’s on the other side, and—”

“Through the vent!” Pack interrupted, still struggling to keep the gate shut while the automatons pushed against it. “Go up!” 

Tuesday went first, leaping straight back up through the open grate he had appeared from. That-A-Way, meanwhile, grabbed Pack by the arm and turned to put herself behind the girl, hands on her shoulders as the two instantly crouched together, dropping almost prone in order to fit within the space they were about to occupy. Behind them, the gate banged open as the automatons barged through. But both girls disappeared, teleporting up into the shaft through the tiny opening that Way could see.

There was almost no room up there, but the girls scrambled quickly along with Tuesday, moving through the shaft even as the metal under their hands and knees grew warmer by the second. Jailtime was retaliating against their narrow escape by heating up the shaft. It was already painful, making all three of them yelp a bit while scrambling toward the nearest next grate. 

Tuesday was in the lead, making pained yipping noises as he banged his fist down hard against the grate to slam it open before dropping through into the room below. The two girls were right behind him, cursing and yelping the whole way as they all fell into an undignified, but at least survivable pile. 

Now they were in a cafeteria of some kind, simple metal tables filling the room. At one end was the line of counters where food was handed out with a doorway into the kitchen. The other end of the room was the exit. An exit which was already open, as automaton figures pushed their way in.

“These motherfuckers don’t give up, do they?” Pack demanded while quickly reloading her shotgun with shells pulled from within her costume. Tuesday had climbed up to hang from her back while hissing at the intruders angrily. 

Just as the three braced themselves to deal with yet another attack from their relentless pursuers, there was a loud roar. A figure on all fours leapt over the kitchen counter, raced past the trio, and threw itself at the automatons. The initial collision completely broke one apart, before a hard swipe of one large paw took the head off another that had stumbled. 

“Holiday!” Pack blurted happily, already running that way to fire a shot at one of the automatons who was trying to grab the lizard-panther. Tuesday leapt off her shoulders to collide with another one. 

“I am so glad I saved that beautiful freaking lizard,” Way announced while using her super speed to dash that way, colliding bodily with one of the automatons with enough force to send it flying back against the wall. 

Together, with a lot of help from the vicious Holiday, the group demolished the automatons to the point where they could no longer function. Pieces of the things lay around them while they all slumped a bit and panted. 

Unfortunately, only a few seconds passed before Jailtime’s annoyed voice filled the cafeteria. “Fine, you wanna play rough? Let’s play rough.”

With those words, the sound of twisting, grinding metal filled the room. The girls looked that way to see the tables contorting and twisting themselves, reshaping into metal figures, each with four long bladed arms and six legs. On top of that, the figures began to glow bright red from the waist up, including those arms and blades. They were clearly incredibly hot, and were rapidly approaching, skittering spider-like on their half-dozen legs. On the way, faces appeared on the half-formed heads, just enough for mouths to gape open, revealing lines of jagged metal teeth. 

“Nope, nope, nope!” Pack announced, already pivoting to run for the exit. “Fuck that, not doing it, let’s go!”

The door slammed shut on them, but almost immediately collapsed inward as another figure burst through from the other side and loomed in front of them with a roar. 

“Mars Bar!” That-A-Way blurted. In that moment, she was as happy to see the enormous bear-lizard as she had been to see Holiday. “Pack, how are your—”

“Hell if I know!” the other girl interrupted. “But I’m not gonna fucking question it, let’s just get the hell out of here. I’m done playing this bastard‘s game. Go!”

Mars Bar stepped back, while the group joined him in the hall. There, they ran as Pack called, “You guys know where the others are?” Because if this many of her creatures were in the prison, the remaining two would be.

Her question was seemingly answered by a loud screech just as they reached a four-way corridor. That-A-Way pointed left, toward the sight of sunlight and freedom. “Exit!”

“Riddles!” Pack had already turned the opposite way, toward the direction of the screech. “Go, I’m not leaving my friends!” She and the rest of her creatures ran toward the screeching sound, leaving the other girl standing there for a moment. 

After only the slightest hesitation, That-A-Way launched herself after the others, racing to catch up. Together, they burst into an obvious visitation room, where Riddles was flying back-and-forth over the tables, avoiding dozens of pens, knives, balls, plates, and any number of other small objects that were being flung through the air at her by an invisible force. 

“Riddles, let’s go!” Holding the door open as she called to the bird lizard, Pack watched as the flying creature dove between several more flying objects before reaching the entrance. She slammed the door shut just as a handful of knives collided with it, before turning. Riddles had landed on Mars Bar’s head. “Okay, now–”

A sudden, incredibly violent and powerful force slammed into all of them. They were flung down the hallway and collided with the far wall before falling forward to the ground. As Pack looked up, she saw that Riddles, Mars Bar, Tuesday, and Holiday were all back in their regular lizard forms, having apparently been hit hard enough to knock them right back to normal. They all squeaked and scrambled over to her, climbing up the girl’s arms. She and That-A-Way picked themselves up, just as Jailtime appeared in front of them. 

“Okay,” the guy snarled, “that’s just about enough of that! Apparently it’s time to really scare you bitches. Maybe if…” He trailed off at the sound of Pack chuckling. “Why are you laughing?”

“Why?” she echoed. “Because when we were running through that hall back there, I found another friend. One that you missed.”

“What are y—” That was as far as the guy got before the nearby door was suddenly ripped off its hinges, seemed to hoist itself through the air, and slammed into the guy so hard he was knocked into the opposite wall with a squeal. He turned into smoke and dissolved back into that wall, just has the slightly bent door dropped to the floor and Twinkletoes appeared. 

All around them, the prison seemed to shake with rage, the walls and floor grew hot, and more automatons emerged from various rooms, all of them bent on vengeance.

“Twinkletoes,” That-A-Way blurted, “Jump on your mama with the others!”

The gorillizard understood, jumping that way while shrinking back into his normal lizard form to land in Pack’s outstretched hands. In the next second, while the floor under their feet grew too hot to stand on, That-A-Way wrapped her arms around the other girl and focused on the exit she had seen when they first got to that four-way intersection. The exit to the north. 

They teleported. Suddenly, That-A-Way and Pack, with the lizards clinging all over the latter, were right in front of the door. Sunlight and blue sky were in front of them. The two girls looked to one another briefly as an outraged bellow filled the burning hot prison behind them. 

Without wasting another second, they lunged for the doors and burst through together. The sweet sensation of open air washed over them for a moment. 

Then they were gone, leaving the prison, wherever it really was, behind. 

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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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Showdown 7-05 (Summus Proelium)

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Apparently the Minority communications worked despite the jammer. Probably because they were all within the same area the jammer was affecting or something. Either way, the Syndicate with us was able to talk with the rest of his team outside, including his other selves. They coordinated what was about to happen, doing so with what amounted to a thirty second explanation. And given that we were about to have Cuélebre and Sandon dropped on our heads, even that felt like too long. We needed to get the hell out of here right freaking now.

First, I had to go grab Ashton. Vaguely tempting as it might’ve been to leave him here, I wasn’t going to do that. Instead, I moved up to where I’d left him in the ice cream aisle. He was… uhh, yeah, definitely losing his mind. When he saw me, his wild eyes focused and he shouted something that was muffled by the currently transparent visor. 

“Let me guess,” I dryly replied, “you need to scratch your nose like a son of a bitch.” Even as I said it, my hand was pulling the remote out and I quickly hit a couple buttons on it that Wren had told me about. “There, you can move now. But before you try running away, there’s a couple things you should know. First, there’s a whole bunch of guys out there from two different gangs who would love to torture you if you can’t convince them that you don’t have what they want. Or just for fun, because you wasted their time. Not to mention the fact that one of those gangs is the one whose people you used to piss off La Casa in the first place. And second, you definitely can’t get that suit off without Wren’s help, which means that anytime I hit the recall button, you’ll come marching right back to me anyway. I’m not going to unmute you, because we really don’t have time for any more bullshit. But I’m not leaving you here either, so come on.”

There was the briefest of hesitations, before he seemed to deflate a little bit and moved to follow me. I led him to the back of the store quickly, while giving him a brief explanation of what we were going to do. If he had any input on the plan, his facial expression and body language didn’t really depict it. Not to mention the fact that after all the times that he had said he was fine with a little girl dying for his revenge, I wasn’t really interested in his strategy ideas anyway. 

The two of us reached the back storeroom, passing a bunch of heavily-laden shelves before finding the others. As soon as we came into view, Pack put a hand on Mars Bar and pointed to Ashton. “See him? He stays with you. If he tries to go anywhere else besides with you until I say otherwise, rip one of his arms off and try beating him with it.”

While the bearguana growled, Syndicate cleared his throat. “Can we avoid openly discussing criminal acts like torture for a little while? I know I said we’d catch you guys another time, but you really shouldn’t go out of your way to make me regret that. And who are you anyway?”

“He’s on vocal timeout,” I replied. “But this is Ashton Austin, the guy behind that bank robbery that you guys have all been looking for. When this is over, you can have him. So, you see? You’re not getting out of this totally empty-handed after all.”

He looked back-and-forth between us briefly before simply noting, “If we get out of it. And if we do, we’re gonna have a lot more questions for you.”

“If we do, I’ll see about answering them.” With that, I looked over to the nearby closed loading dock doors. “So, are we doing this, or what?”

Syndicate nodded. “Remember the plan. All we need to do is get everyone to That-A-Way and she’ll teleport us out of here. We don’t need to stay and fight. We don’t need to win anything. We just need to get out. And we need them to know we’re gone so they leave everyone in the store alone. We make a break for it, go through any forces we need to, and teleport away. That’s it.”

Eits gave him a thumbs up. “Yeah, trust me chief, some of us aren’t interested in fighting at all. Running away sounds pretty good.”

For a second, it looked as though Syndicate was going to say something about that, before he just shook his head and asked, “Anything else?”

I quickly spoke up. “Yeah, this.” Raising my hands, I shot some orange paint at everyone in turn, including the lizard creatures. Two at a time (one with each hand), I hit everyone with a circle of the paint. “There, as soon as I activate this, which I will once we get out there, you’ll be tougher for about ten seconds. Bulletproof tough. And here.” For good measure, I added a spot of green paint to everyone as well. “Now you’ll all be faster too. Again, just for ten seconds. You’ll be faster and tougher than they expect. Just use it to get to That-A-Way.”

“Dude,” Eits intoned in what sounded embarrassingly like awe. “Support classes kick ass.”

Flushing under the helmet, I shook my head. “It’s no big deal, really. If we had more time, I’d do more, but we’re sort of pressed right now.”

Syndicate looked like he might say something to that, but in the end he just snorted and used his com. “We good out there? Okay. Other me going on three, the rest of us hold until he’s got their attention at the front. One, two, three.”

Even knowing it was coming, I didn’t hear anything at first. I was listening for the reaction and there was nothing. Which made sense, we wouldn’t get anything overt until he made them think he was—

Aaaand the gunfire started. Suddenly we could hear all those guns coming from out front. It was like someone had unleashed a swarm of monsters from hell. And those monsters were really pissed off. 

“Wait,” Syndicate cautioned, holding up a hand. “Wait for it. Wait for them to really commit to it. He’s in the store. Now they’re trying to break through that security shield. They’re breaking it, and… and they’re in! They’re moving through the front! Go, go!” 

We went. Eits had control of the security system, and he instantly opened the sealed doors. As planned, he opened all of them, the big rolling doors on all of the loading docks, and the regular-sized doors as well. They all opened as one, and we booked it through the loading door furthest to the left. We weren’t going to take the time to go through one of the regular doors. This way, we could all flood out and run for it. Hopefully, that way this would be less of a shooting gallery for the guys facing us. 

The second the doors were up and we were moving, I hung back just enough to let the others get ahead of me, and activated the orange and green paint I had to put over everyone. Suddenly, we were all moving even faster than our fear and adrenaline had been managing to make us move already. Which, honestly, was saying something. 

It was safe to say that the guys out back were pretty surprised by our appearance. They had been looking around toward the sides at the sound of gunfire from the front, when we suddenly came pouring out of the now open door right in front of them. Only a few of the many who were there managed to start firing immediately. And for that, the orange paint did its job. I saw several of the others take a couple hits that did little more than sting them thanks to the paint. Mars Bar by himself, probably thanks to his size and sheer intimidation factor, was hit a good six or seven times in those first couple seconds. He barely reacted, aside from opening his mouth to give a loud, pants-wetting roar while slamming into three guys at once. They went flying like bowling pins, while a fourth guy tried to open up on the bear with a shotgun. But Mars simply snatched it out of his hand, crumbling the gun like it was made of tissue paper with one paw, before grabbing him in the other and sending the man flying a good twenty or thirty feet with a dispassionate shove that way. 

Holiday grabbed a guy’s leg and ran off with him, dragging the poor bastard along with her as he screamed. Two other guys tried to shoot at her, but Tuesday and Twinkletoes wrecked them pretty thoroughly on their way past. One was walloped in the back of the head by a nearly invisible gorilla-lizard, while the other took a small, yet really dangerous monkey-lizard fist to the privates. The former was left completely unconscious, while the latter just really wished that he was. 

The first thing I did upon emerging and taking all this in was shoot a spray of blue paint as wide as I could make it around the feet of the group in front of us. Activating it sent them flying in every direction with a collection of screams. Which worked nicely to clear the path of the guys that Mars hadn’t already trampled through. 

Ashton was just behind the bear, apparently having taken Pack’s warning to heart. Or maybe he really didn’t want to be left to deal with all the angry Ninety-Niners after he’d used them in his revenge scheme and figured being behind the giant beast was his best shot. Either way, he was sticking really close to Mars Bar. 

Two guys with guns popped up toward the right. Both were taken down by Syndicate with a quick flurry of motion that I couldn’t even follow that left them on the ground, disarmed. On the opposite side, a guy who popped up with a rifle raised was literally run over by a car that came screaming through the lot, accompanied by the familiar sound of one of Eits’ mites cackling. The car proceeded to spin around, hitting another guy with its tail end during the skid. 

Just ahead, on the far side of the small rear lot where they had been able to crouch out of sight, That-A-Way appeared with another Syndicate, Whamline, Wobble, and Carousel. Not Raindrop though. Maybe she had the night off. Those five, however, were right there, and the path to them was clear for the moment, thanks in large part to the blue paint flinging the vast majority of people out of the way. Unfortunately, just as they came into view and I had a second to think this might be easy after all, there was a blinding flash of light. It faded quickly, but what didn’t fade was the new group of combined Oscuro and Ninety-Niner troops that had suddenly appeared. Long Haul. That had to be Long Haul, the Ninety-Niner Touched teleporter. He’d just dumped a bunch more problems right in front of us. 

Get to That-A-Way. Get everyone to That-A-Way. That’s all we had to do. Two guys who had recovered from their paint-assisted trip were picking themselves and their guns up and turning our way. I sprayed blue again, this time at my own feet, to launch myself up and forward. Twisting in the air just as the pair finished rising and turning, I passed by over their heads. One arm pointed down and one pointed up and back, I sprayed red paint from both. The first hit both men, while the other hit the back of the store we’d just left. Activating it sent them flying up and toward it with a couple screams, just as I landed in a crouch behind where they had been. 

Only then did the green paint run out. And we were almost there. Eits was just reaching the spot where I was, while his mite-controlled car ran down yet another guy that was coming around the corner of the building. I hit him with another bit of green to help him keep moving. “Go, go!” I blurted, hitting as many of our side as I could with orange paint to keep them safe while scanning the lot. Ashton was right there with Mars Bar. The Syndicates who were out here were fine, working together to disable a couple more guys who didn’t even know what hit them. More people were shooting, but the orange paint was doing its job. It meant we could focus on moving instead of fighting. Move instead of fight, that was the entire point.

Most of the people Long Haul had sent in after us were dealing with the Minority. There was a rush of motion and fighting I couldn’t even follow. One of the new arrivals took deliberate aim at me, but I dropped to the ground just before he fired, throwing my hand out to send a shot of white paint onto his arm. Activating it to blind the guy, I used blue paint to launch myself that way, shifting purple onto my arms as I slammed into him to take the guy to the ground. A quick smack to the face knocked him out of the fight. 

But that was just one guy. What had started as a quick run to That-A-Way was quickly devolving into total chaos. I could see the girl herself, trying to help Wobble, Whamline, and Carousel.

Another flash of white announced the arrival of more bad guys. One was directly behind me, and I spun that way just in time to duck the bat he was swinging at my head. A quick shot of yellow at his chest, accompanied by activating part of the green I’d already prepared on the portrait across my uniform meant that he was suddenly a lot slower, while I was a lot faster. And, thanks to a bit of purple that I also activated, stronger. My hand snatched the bat from his grip in mid-swing, tearing it away from him while my foot lashed out to kick his leg. It was enough to make him start to stumble, before I drove the bat into his stomach and put him fully on the ground. 

Damn it, damn it, just get to That-A-Way! This shouldn’t be that hard, right? We’d cleared the way, we had the advantage of surprise and a distraction up front. All we had to do was get everyone across the parking lot to meet up with her and she could teleport us the hell away. And it was close. Pack and her animals were all-but there, crashing right into the back of the group of newcomers with Ashton on their heels. Eits was using his borrowed car as his own bodyguard to clear a path. We were almost there. Almost there! 

Which, of course, was the moment that something dropped from above. A lithe figure with great eagle-like wings slammed down behind That-A-Way. Yahui, the Oscuro woman who mixed and matched various animal parts. Apparently she’d decided to throw herself into the fight instead of just watching. 

In addition to the eagle wings, she also had a scorpion tail, which lashed out toward That-A-Way. But it went straight through the Minority girl, who was moving south and was therefore intangible. Unfortunately, that didn’t help Wobble, who was smacked by the tail moving sideways and thrown to the ground. And given he stood six and a half feet tall, that tail had to be pretty damn strong to knock him down that easily. Yahui tried to follow up by driving the blade of the tail down into him, but Wobble snapped his hand up and I saw a distortion in the air as he sent a wave of vibrations into the tail that knocked it out of the way. That was followed by two of Whamline’s energy ropes, which wrapped around her arms, flinging her into the air before exploding with a burst of kinetic energy that flung her senseless to the ground somewhere off on the other side of the lot. She was down. 

Carousel, meanwhile, had managed to disarm basically all the guys in our path, yanking the guns from their hands as she passed close to them. She also had two cars (miniaturized by her power) floating in orbit around her, which she sent flying at them. The cars regained their full size just in time to crash into the group, scattering everyone that remained. 

Clear, we were clear! 

“Go!” I blurted, sending a wide spray of red paint at all the bad guys I could see, before activating it so they were all slammed into one another, crashing into one big heap. Long Haul? Where was Long Haul? I hadn’t seen him at all, aside from the troops he kept sending in. But whatever, he didn’t matter, we just had to get the hell out of here. That’s all, we just had to go!

“Grab on!” That-A-Way was blurting. There, we were there. Everyone was there. We’d made it. The bad guys behind us were still picking themselves up, and we… everyone… yes, everyone was here, even Pack’s creatures. We all grabbed any part of each other we could, my left hand finding Eits’, while my right was grabbed by Ashton. The latter looked at me sharply, fear and relief in his eyes. I knew the feeling. But at least we were…

Nothing happened. That-A-Way was there, we were all holding onto each other and her, but… nothing happened. She frowned. “Wait, hold on. I–” 

“Did you truly think it would be that easy?” The voice. It was familiar. It was terrifyingly familiar. Cuélebre. He came floating down out of the air on his wings, gliding in to land with disconcerting grace considering his enormous fifteen-foot size. “Did you think I wouldn’t have prepared for a teleportation escape after the way you insulted and embarrassed me last time?” He made a tutting sound, while more of the Ninety-Niners and Oscuro troops, both of the Prev and Touched varieties, appeared on all sides of our suddenly surrounded group. 

Before I could move, before any of us could move, that bladed tail lashed out. I had time to yelp, just before it cut straight through my pocket. The vial and my phone fell out. I grabbed the latter, but the vial was caught on Cuélebre’s tail and smacked right into his waiting hand.

“No, no, no,” the giant demon taunted with the vial held gingerly between two massive fingers.  “You’re not leaving this time. We have too much to talk about.” 

“Talk about?” another voice echoed, and everyone spun in place to find Blackjack, surrounded by an assortment of his own people (Touched and Prevs alike). 

“I think we’re pretty much done talking.” 

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Showdown 7-04 (Summus Proelium)

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Okay. Okay. So, what was my current situation? Well, I was inside a grocery store with a few random customers and employees. Pack and her lizards were outside, working on shifting into a more combat-capable force. Also outside were a combined force of Oscuro and Ninety-Niners, who had apparently banded together in an attempt to hurt Blackjack and the rest of La Casa. Meanwhile, the bulk of the La Casa people were under attack by more of those combined forces to keep them busy. Which would also undoubtedly draw the attention of any authorities and Star-Touched who were out to keep them busy as well, so the guys here would have… privacy. 

I’d just finished my terse explanation to That-A-Way and was waiting for her to say something when the line suddenly went dead. Blinking at it, I saw there was no signal. Someone out there was using a jammer, just like the Scion people had back during the party. What the hell, did they start handing out those things as prizes in cereal boxes or something? 

Abruptly, the phone buzzed in my hand with a call coming through, despite having no signal. It surprised me so much that I almost dropped the damn thing, and actually gasped. The ID on the screen said it was Wren, so I answered it. “Wren? How are you calling me, there’s–” 

“No signal, I know,” she interrupted. “I had to use the signal booster I built into the suit Ashton’s wearing. It’ll only work within a few feet, so don’t get too far away yet, okay? Plus I’m not sure how long it’ll last before that jammer overloads it. Are you…” 

“I’m fine, so far,” I replied, looking to Ashton himself. He was standing there, looking torn between fear and delight. Fear at what might happen to him, of course (particularly given the fact he was frozen), along with delight because he thought we wouldn’t get away with the last vial now. “But those guys are gonna start coming inside any minute, as soon as they’ve got this place surrounded. And call me crazy, but I’m pretty sure they’re not here to pick up milk and bread.” 

“Crap, crap, crap!” Wren blurted. “I should’ve put that teleport marker on the suit so I could pull you guys out! I meant to, I did, but I was so excited that it was done, and we wanted to get–” 

“It’s okay, Wren,” I interrupted while dragging Ashton with me toward the end of the aisle. I peeked out. The front of the store looked clear. None of the bad guys had come in yet. But I kept watching. I needed to get out there, but first things first. “What about the car? Can you, I dunno, use any kind of security feature to keep those guys out of it, just in case? One of the vials is still in there.” 

“I can drive the car out with remote control,” she quickly informed me. “But I’m not–” 

“Do it. Take the car and the vial out of here, Wren. Keep it safe. Pack and I can handle this and keep these guys busy until That-A-Way brings reinforcements. We’ve got it, I promise. But I have to go now. There’s other people in this store, and those guys are gonna break in any second. We’ll deal with this. You focus on getting that car out of here with the vial, okay?”

Reluctantly, she agreed, making me promise to be careful. I did so before disconnecting,  hoping that everything I’d just said wouldn’t end up being wrong. Because despite all my assurances to try to keep the other girl calm, I had no idea what was going to happen here. Pack and her friends were still outside, and there was no way of knowing how long it would take That-A-Way to get anyone here. For the moment, Ashton and I were basically alone in this building, aside from all the innocent people those guys would plow through in order to get to us.

Just as I tucked the phone and vial deep in my pocket, zipping it shut, one of the store employees came into view. “Uh, hey, something’s going on outside.” 

And here it went. Glancing to Ashton, I hesitated before dragging him back a few feet down the aisle out of sight. Then I simply told him, “Hang out here.” As if he had a choice, given the suit wouldn’t let him move. But at least I didn’t have to worry about him running off. The suit worked as well for that as stay-down cuffs would have.

Quickly turning to the store guy, I walked that way while asking, “Those guys outside, the gangs, what’re they doing now?” Reaching the end of the aisle, I peeked toward the front doors once more. Nothing. Aside from several customers and employees standing there staring out at something. 

His head shook quickly. “Nothing, not yet. They’re just standing out there, but they’ve got guns and… and there’s Touched with them. But there’s two different gangs, and they’re not fighting.” 

“Yeah, cuz we’re a more popular target right now,” I muttered, before looking back to him. “Look, grab those people there, and anyone else you can find, somewhere safe to hide for awhile, like the manager’s office or something. Lock the doors and stay there until the cops come. Go!” 

It must’ve been the costume or something, but the guy actually listened. He ran off toward the front, saying something to those people, who quickly followed him. Meanwhile, I looked down at myself, summoning more drawings in various colors to the suit. Over the next brief handful of seconds, the images appeared. Images of two guys fighting with swords across my torso, with mountains in the background and a bird flying through the sky overhead. A coiled snake wrapped around a spear decorated my left leg, while a man with a javelin riding a motorcycle took up the right one. My arms were covered in multicolored flames and lightning bolts. Every image had multiple colors involved, multiple paints I could activate when the time came. An entire involved mural of images stretching across my suit. 

By that point, I had walked all the way to the front of the store, where the civilians had been watching from. Sure enough, through the doors I could see a bunch of vehicles out in the lot, blocking the way through. Dozens of gang members stood out there, mostly normal guys armed with guns, but with several Touched mixed in. When the group saw me, they stiffened a bit and a few said something to one another. A couple brought their guns up. Other than that, none of them moved or tried to come after me. They seemed to be waiting for something, or someone.

Pack was probably lying low for the moment, waiting for a good chance to show herself. Letting out a breath, I took a few slow steps that way, watching the guys outside as they stared at me. The door whooshed open when I was close enough, and I stopped there, lifting my chin while watching for anyone who looked like they were about to shoot. My heart was trying to beat its way out of my chest, and I had to focus for a moment to stop my voice from shaking too much.

“Hey guys, you think you could have your tailgate party somewhere else? I don’t think this store really appreciates you blocking their entrance that much. Kinda scares off the customers.” 

Two figures stepped forward, one guy and one girl. The man was instantly recognizable with his red trench coat and welding mask. Coverfire, the guy who had come to Wren’s place before. The woman was another obvious Touched that I recognized from news reports. She wore a costume that consisted of a gray bodysuit with black armor panels and a black metal mask covering the bottom half of her face. She was part of the Ninety-Niners, named Ringside. As I understood it, she was a super-strong and tough Touched (A Brawn-Touched, as Flea had taught me) with a twist. Basically, her power allowed her to summon these glowing red rings and throw them. If they hit a person, they would be teleported close to Ringside herself, and both she and the target would be surrounded by a domed forcefield cage of sorts. Within the forcefield cage, Ringside’s own strength depended on how much of their own powers she allowed her opponent to have. She could weaken their powers, remove them, or leave them the same. The weaker or more non-existent they were, the less strength she had. If she left them with all their powers, she would stay at full-strength too, and for her, that was enough to bench press a small car. But even with people who were much stronger than she was, locking them in the ‘ring’ with her and cancelling all their powers meant they couldn’t rely on any of it. 

Ringside was part of the Ninety-Niners. So I supposed these two were representing each of their groups. Two groups that, as far as I knew, didn’t exactly get along all that well. Unfortunately, I probably wasn’t lucky enough for them to start fighting each other right now. 

“Seems to me you keep ending up in this kind of situation,” Coverfire informed me flatly, his voice somewhat muffled by the welder’s mask. “Should we bother telling you to surrender?” 

“I’d do it if I was you, kid,” Ringside put in. “Otherwise, soon as the bosses show up, you’ll wish you had. Cuz I don’t think their leader’s gonna be in the mood to play around.” 

Their bosses. That’s why these guys hadn’t charged in yet. They were waiting for their respective leaders to arrive. Hell, the gangs probably didn’t trust each other enough to start something without Cuélebre and Sandon (the Ninety-Niner leader) around. Though I had no doubt that if I tried to leave, they’d get over that really quick. For the moment, they were content to stand out there and just make sure I didn’t go anywhere. But when their leaders showed up…

Swallowing at the thought of just how pissed off Cuélebre was at me, I forced myself to reply, “You know, if it’s milk you guys are after, I’m pretty sure they’re having a great sale at the place just three blocks down. But you better hurry before it’s all gone. You know how crazy everyone in this town gets over milk sales.” The fuck was I even talking about?

“The fuck are you even talking about?” Coverfire demanded. 

“Language,” Ringside snapped primly. “There’s no need to be crude.” To me, she added, “Tell you what, you surrender to me and I’ll make sure that these goons and their psychotic master don’t tear you apart. I’ll even go one step further and promise that when we get what we want, you can go completely free. Scout’s honor.”

Growling angrily at that, Coverfire glared at her. “We have a deal, remember?”

She gave a short nod, dark eyes flicking to him as she calmly replied, “Our deal is to work together to hurt Blackjack and La Casa. Personally, I don’t have anything against this kid. Not yet, anyway. Besides, watching him make your boss chase him all over town for nothing was pretty funny.”

Coverfire flared up his force field briefly at that, but didn’t make a move toward her. I had an idea to maybe try saying something that could make them argue some more or even fight, but before I could, the automatic door suddenly closed between us. A second later, the metal security shield came down. 

For a second, I just stared at it, wondering what the hell was going on. I could hear the guys shouting on the other side that some dinky little metal door wouldn’t stop them, just before a voice came over the intercom system. 

“Paintball, get to the security office. Hurry, I’m pretty sure we don’t have much time.”

It was Eits. Oh God, it was Eits! Spinning on my heel, I ran back through the store, looking around until I saw a sign pointing to the employees area. Booking it that way, I saw Holiday pop her head out of a doorway and look at me, so I headed there. 

Sure enough, Eits was there along with Pack and her animals. They were all in the rather large  security office, and as soon as I entered, Eits turned from the computer screen to stare at me. “Whoa, you fancied up your costume. That’s a pretty cool— wait, that’s all your paint stuff, isn’t it?”

I stared at the boy. “How did you get here so fast? Hell, how did all of you get in the store?”

Pack answered. “I texted him as soon as we saw the bitch in the sky. We’re, uh, let’s just say we’re not too far away from his place.”

Eits gave a short nod. “I made it over here and messed with the lights on a couple cars in the back to distract the guys back there long enough for the lizard gang to deal with them so we could get in through the loading dock.”

Brightening at that, I asked, “Great, so we can get everyone out that way?”

He winced, gesturing to the nearby security screen where I could see a view of the back lot. It was full of bad guys. “Turns out they had reinforcements. A lot of them. We just managed to get inside. And now we’re stuck here with you.” As soon as he said it, the boy instantly began fumbling over his words, “I mean, not that being anywhere with you feels like being stuck, or like it sucks, or… I mean, that wasn’t—”

Raising a hand to stop him, I interrupted. “Believe me, dude, being offended is basically the last thing on my mind right now. What about all the customers and employees?”

“Manager’s office,” Pack replied. “They all locked themselves in there. It’s kind of cramped, but I don’t think they’ll go anywhere anytime soon.” She looked to me then. “What about That-A-Way? You were trying to call her, right? Tell me she’s got cavalry on the way.”

“I dunno,” I admitted. “We got cut off before she could say anything after I told her what was going on. Hopefully. But either way, it could take them some time to get here, especially if all those guys are really causing so much trouble in the city. And our friends right outside are just waiting for Cuélebre and Sandon to show up.”

Pack cursed. “Right, so the only reason they haven’t come in yet is because they’ve got two of the biggest of the big guns heading here to finish the job themselves. And we can’t go anywhere because they’re all standing guard. At least the car took off with the other vial. That had to be the kid, right?”

Confirming that, I exhaled. “So, we’re stuck in here, waiting to see who shows up first, our help or theirs. And call me crazy, but that’s not exactly a bet that I’m super eager to make. Not when losing means facing down a giant demon dragon thing with lightning powers.”

Pack shook her head. “Unless you’ve got a teleporter in your pocket no one bothered to tell me about, what else can we do? Make a run at them wherever there’s the least amount of Touched, break through the line, and run for it?” 

Eits grimaced. “I uhh, don’t think that’ll work. I’ve been watching these guys on the cameras and they are amped and ready to go. No way we break through one line before the rest dogpile on top. Not without some kind of distraction.” 

Thinking quickly, I replied, “Then we distract them, by getting them to come in here after us.” They both stared at me like I’d lost my mind, while I pushed on. “We get them to come in before their leaders get here. We get them to break the line and try to catch us in the store. Then we get out, and we make sure they know we got out so they chase us and leave the people here alone.”

“Fantastic, as long as the random civilians will be safe while we’ve got half the members of two different gangs chasing us,” Pack muttered darkly. “If you don’t stop making me do heroic shit, I’m gonna get hives.”

Eits looked back and forth between us briefly before asking, “How do we get them to come in here and break their little line before their leaders show up? Cuz I don’t think we’ve got much time.”

I was about to confess that I wasn’t really sure, when a figure abruptly stepped through the nearby wall. Everyone spun that way, Pack snapping a new shotgun up while Eits also produced a pistol. The lizard creatures were up and moving too. 

“Wait, wait!” I blurted, belatedly recognizing the figure. It was Syndicate, leader of the Minority. Or one of his four bodies, anyway. 

He turned solid once it was clear no one was going to shoot him. Or maul him, in the case of the animals. His voice was tense. “Way said you needed help.” He glanced to Pack. “And that you helped at the hospital. She didn’t say anything about him though.”

“He’s helping and we need him,” I said flatly. “Are you guys really…”

He nodded. “We’re set up outside, just beyond the lot. Most of us, anyway.”

Pack asked, “Why isn’t That-A-Way popping in here? No offense, she’s just a lot nicer to look at than you. And, you know, she could just teleport us all right on out of here, problem solved.”

Syndicate shook his head. “She and the others came in from the wrong direction. This place is south of them, she can’t teleport, or use speed. She was going to try to work her way far enough around and down, but I told her to wait, because I wanted to see what was going on in here myself. And on the way in, I heard a couple of the guys out there saying that Cuélebre and Sandon should both be here in ten minutes. So, more explanations can come later. I also heard you talking just now about luring them in and then booking it. You think they’d break ranks if they thought the thing they were after was about to disappear? It’s those supersoldier vials, right? You’re trying to stop the war on the streets from getting worse by getting them back for Blackjack. I get it, whatever. The point is, we make them think they’re about to lose their chance. They didn’t see me when I came in, but if they saw another of me come running, especially if I pretended to say something in my comm about getting the vials…”

“They’d chase you in,” I realized. 

He nodded. “I can have the other me come in through the front entrance. The others are around the back. Soon as the guys out front break ranks and chase the other me in, my team outside and everyone in here all hit the ones in the back from both sides and book it. With the guys out front already coming into the building, there’ll be confusion all over the place about what’s happening. At least for a few seconds. Should be enough chaos to get everyone to Way so she can teleport. Then we’ll be gone, and they won’t have any reason to stick around here, so the civvies’ll be safe.”

“I’m surprised you’re not insisting that we stand here and fight the bad guys,” Pack observed.

“Two gangs including their leaders are about to descend on this spot,” Syndicate reminded her. “Having a fight here would be stupid both for us, because they’re a lot stronger than the group we can put together, and for the civilians in this store who would be caught in the crossfire. The smartest thing to do is get the thing they want out of the store, make sure they know it’s not here anymore, and get away.” 

Eits, who had been silent up to that point, raised a hand. “Uh, just one thing. Once we get out of here, we get to leave.” He gestured to himself, Pack, and the lizards. 

“Yeah, don’t worry,” Syndicate assured him with a note of sarcasm, “I’m sure we’ll catch you another time. But right now, we don’t have much left before the situation gets a hell of a lot worse. So, are we doing it or what?”

Glancing to the others until they nodded, I turned back to the boy. “Okay then. 

“Let’s do it.”

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Alliances 6-08 (Summus Proelium)

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Please note, if you read Heretical Edge, there was a special commissioned chapter posted yesterday. If you have not seen that and would like to, go ahead and click right here

A riddle almost killed me. And, ironically, a riddle also saved me. Or rather, Riddles. 

Yeah, the lizard-bird came flying out of nowhere, slamming right into Cup’s face and clawing at her with a deafening screech. The impact knocked backwards, throwing off her aim just enough so that the bullet, as she pulled the trigger, went flying a few inches to the right of my head. It passed through the wall, leaving a neat hole there. Which was a hell of a lot better than the neat hole it would’ve left in my head. 

Even then, it took a couple seconds for the question she’d asked to stop commanding all of my attention. I finally physically jerked as my mind came back to the actual situation in time to see Riddles beating her wings against Cup’s face just as her beak bit down hard on the girl’s hand, drawing a shriek of surprise and pain from her. 

Realizing just how close I’d come to death in that instant, I almost fell to my knees and sobbed. Actually, pretty much the only thing that stopped me from doing just that (and probably curling up into a ball for awhile) was the sight of Cup’s other hand reaching up to grab the lizard-bird by the neck. Quickly, I shot a bit of red paint out to Riddles’ back, yanking her to my raised arm, where she clung tightly. “Hey buddy,” I started while taking two steps forward, painting my arm purple.”Thanks for the–” My fist lashed out, punching Cup in the face while she was still recovering. “–assist!” 

It may have looked like cloth, but that mask around the bottom half of Cup’s face had to be armored in some way, because it didn’t give nearly as much as it should have considering the force I was punching her with. It felt like hitting a pretty solid wall. Which made sense, considering how many people probably tried shooting her in the face for everything she was responsible for. Still, she was knocked to the floor with a new cry of pain, and I saw blood. Two bits of blood, actually. One from her nose and another on her hand where Riddles bit her. Even better, the gun went sliding across the floor away from her, ending up under a pile of overturned chairs. 

On the far side of the room, I could see Pack and the rest of her menagerie (apart from Holiday, who was still upstairs) busy trying to deal with Box and the remaining Scion troops who weren’t already down. Pack was favoring one arm, holding it cradled to her side while directing Mars Bar and Twinkletoes, who were doing the majority of the damage. Tuesday kept popping in from the sides to hit the troops while they were trying to focus on the obvious threats. Even as I glanced that way, I could see him rip a good chunk of flesh out of one man’s arm with his teeth, sending him to the ground with a scream of agony. Good. He tried to blow up sick little kids. 

Cup had scrambled up to her knees by then, and was starting to say something. She was cut off, however, as my quick shot of black paint hit the psycho bitch right in her chest, instantly muting any sound. “Yeah,” I snapped, “I think I’ve heard just about enough out of you, thanks.” 

Then there was a new problem. The gun that Cup had been holding was gone, yes. It was still somewhere under that pile of chairs. Unfortunately, as it turned out, that wasn’t the only gun she was carrying. I know, right? Psycho evil cult supervillains, who expects them to carry two guns? 

Yeah, I might still need some experience with this. Either way, she produced that second gun. And while she couldn’t actually talk, her eyes, burning with hatred as she brought it into line with me, screamed everything that needed to be said. She was going to kill me, and enjoy doing it. 

Or, well, try. Because even as she pulled that trigger, I had already activated the orange circles along the sides of my torso that I’d put there before we came in this room. The first bullet simply bounced off my chest. It stung pretty bad, and would definitely leave a bit of a welt. But that was all. The subsequent two shots that she fired off quickly also stung, drawing a gasp from me. Then I was there, painting my arm purple once more as I tore the pistol from her grip. My other hand caught hold of her arm, and jerked her up and over. With a grunt, I deliberately twisted that arm until I felt something break. Just like when I’d hit her mask, it took a lot more force than it should’ve. Her costume was definitely armored. But not enough to stop me from snapping at least something, before I threw her face-first into the nearby wall. She collided hard with it and fell, sprawling out on the floor where she lay still, visibly breathing but not doing much else. 

Just to be on the safe side, I shot another bit of black paint to keep her silent. Gliding over my head, Riddles made a screeching noise at her fallen form.

By the time it was clear that she was staying down, I was already spinning to run and help Pack. Unfortunately, as I did so, my feet went out from under me, and I ended up sprawling across the ground with a yelp. 

“Hey, asshole,” a new voice snapped, and I looked that way from my fallen position to see another figure approaching. He wore a parody of a superhero costume. It was basically red footie pajamas (which was a real bold fashion choice) with a white, hand-drawn image of a tiny fish on the chest. A blue blanket of some kind was attached to the shoulders like a child’s idea of a cape, and he wore a simple black domino mask over his face. His hair was red and spiky. 

This was Anchovy. And as absurd as he looked, his power, as I understood it, was still a pain in the ass. Despite making himself look like some goofy, toddler parody of a hero like Superman, his gift wasn’t exactly superstrength and flight. No, he ruined things. Or actions. Basically, if he focused on a person, things they did tended to go wrong. They might choke on a bit of food they were eating, sprain their ankle kicking someone, accidentally jerk the wheel when driving and run someone over, or whatever. The list went on. The point was, he focused on someone and actions they took had negative results. Meanwhile, physical objects he focused on would fall apart or break or whatever. Guns jammed, walls simply crumbled as if they were much older than they were, computers broke down, so on and so forth. He focused on people or items and bad things happened. Such as me falling flat on my face just from turning around. Jackass.

“Boss is gonna be pretty pissed with you for hurting Cup,” Anchovy informed me while taking a pistol of his own from the belt around his one-piece pajamas (Fuck, how could I take him seriously like that, even with a gun? This wasn’t fair.), which he pointed my way. “But when I tell him I put a bullet in your brain, maybe he’ll get over it.” 

Quickly throwing myself to the side, I snapped my hand up to shoot a wad of red paint that hit his gun. Unfortunately, his power must’ve kicked in then, because when I yanked the gun away from him, it missed my hand entirely and smacked me right in the visor of my helmet. At least it didn’t hit my face, thanks to said helmet, but I was still very briefly stunned, jerking backward reflexively. Which was enough time for Anchovy to cross the distance between us and tackle me. I landed hard on my back with the man on me. He’d produced a knife from somewhere, which he was trying to shove into my ribs while holding me down with his other hand. 

But Riddles was there, diving in to grab the knife out of the man’s grasp before he could shiv me (was it still called shiving even with a normal knife?) and carrying it away with a hard flap of her wings. Of course, that brought Anchovy’s attention to her, and the lizard-bird abruptly flew straight into an overturned chair before falling to the floor. Which left Anchovy free to produce a second knife, preparing to shove it as deep into my gut as he wanted. 

I, however, didn’t really like that plan. At all. And he’d taken his focus off me for that brief moment, so I used it by painting my legs purple and kicking out hard. The guy was sent into the air and backward to slam high up into the wall with a loud blurted curse. As he started to fall, I hit him in the face with a wad of white paint, triggering it instantly to leave him blinded just before he hit the floor hard enough to make him yelp. 

Hoping that not being able to see me would mean he couldn’t use his power on me, I lunged that way. Throwing myself onto the man, I used refreshed purple paint to rip the blanket-cape from his shoulders, then tore it in half before wrapping the first bit tightly around his head while he was still recovering. He cursed and spat at me, but I managed to shove the man over onto his stomach, using the other half of the cape to tie his hands behind his back. 

Okay, okay, he was down. He was secure, for the moment at least. Jerking myself up from him, I stumbled a little in my rush. Gaze snapping over toward Cup just in case, I found her still lying motionless. Totally out of it and in no position to fight, thank God. 

Right, Cup was down. Anchovy was down. Box… my gaze snapped that way in time to see the man himself lying very still on the floor. Twinkletoes had his arms held out above his head, while Mars Bar was crouched over him, mouth open to growl very dangerously directly into his face, those enormous teeth like rows of daggers. Yeah, the guy wasn’t interested in moving. 

Correction, he was very interested in moving. He just wasn’t stupid enough to try it.

The rest of the thugs seemed to be down for the count too, or just staying very still to avoid attracting attention. Looking around the room, I didn’t see any more threats. They were down. They were done. We… we actually pulled it off. Holy shit, we actually pulled it off! 

“Riddles, watch these guys,” Pack ordered her bird-lizard, who had recovered by then. “If anyone tries to move, rip their eyes out with your beak.” She waited for a confirming squawk before turning to me, panting heavily. Her shotgun lay nearby, bent at an angle that told me she’d used it to hit something pretty hard. “This hero shit is for the birds,” she informed me, still cradling her arm with a wince. “Fuck.” 

Before I could say anything to that, That-A-Way came through the door. “Aww, and here I was hoping you’d enjoy this so much that you’d switch sides. Cooome on, being celebrated and cheered instead of hated and run from is a lot more fun.” She came up, glancing around the room while adding, “Plus there’s the whole ‘not being arrested’ perk. Here.” With that, the girl tossed a couple pairs of stay-down cuffs to me. “Let’s make sure the Touched assholes don’t get ideas.’ 

Catching the cuffs, I moved to where Cup was still laying sprawled out. “Cover me?” I asked Pack. “Pretty sure she can only affect one person at a time with that power of hers.” 

She came, producing a small pistol in place of that broken shotgun with her uninjured hand. Tuesday came with, growling low and baring his teeth. As we neared the fallen woman, she shifted a bit, then yelped out loud as the monkey-lizard literally jumped on her back. 

“Yeah,” I muttered, “that’s what I thought, faker.” Reaching down, I quickly cuffed the woman, making sure they were tight. “We should probably gag her or something, just in case.” 

“Let’s go with ‘or something’, Pack announced. “Tuesday, if she makes a peep, punch her in the back of the head until she stops moving. Riddles, if she says anything to Tuesday, rip her throat out.” To me, she added, “Her power’s good at distracting, but shit at doing actual damage.” 

From the way Cup lifted her head and glowered at that, she wasn’t happy with the assessment. Too bad. I looked away from her in time to see That-A-Way finish cuffing Box while Mars Bar and Twinkletoes reluctantly moved out of the way. Anchovy was still bound and blinded by his own blanket cape. 

“Wow, I… I think we actually pulled it off,” I murmured incredulously, looking around the room one more time. “What about the hostages?” 

“Safe and sound,” That-A-Way replied easily. Her mouth opened to say something else, but she was interrupted. 

“Oooh, what kinda sound?” The voice came from the nearby doorway, and we all spun that way to find a figure coming into view. A figure who wore a tweed suit and a sackcloth mask with a long blond wig attached to it. 

“Was it sorta like… ‘garrggggnnnlllurggull?’” Pencil asked. “Cuz that’s basically the sound they were making a few seconds ago when I left ‘em. It was pretty hilarious.” 

Wait… Oh no. Oh no, no, no…

“Wha-what?” That-A-Way blurted, her eyes widening as she snapped her taser up to point at him. “No, we… I… I left them somewhere safe.” 

There was a brief inhale from the masked psychopath as he rocked his head back and forth as though debating before shaking it. “Yeeeeeah, not so much, Cupcake. I mean, don’t get me wrong, I didn’t kill the kids because… well, nature’s already doing that for me and how am I supposed to compete with something that makes ‘em that miserable for so long and then kills ‘em anyway? Actually, that’s a bad question, I could totally do it better, but I was in a bit of a hurry. And that whole hurrying thing is why I didn’t kill all of the adults. Just cut a throat or two, disemboweled a couple more, and basically left the survivors up to their ears in blood, entrails, and psychological trauma. Oh, and the fact that I got to do that right after you told them they were safe and then left? That was probably my favorite part. Thank you for that, really. I’ll send you a fruit basket or so–” 

In mid-sentence, he was suddenly interrupted as That-A-Way appeared beside him, shoving the taser in his stomach with a scream while lashing out with her other hand to punch him. At the same time, Pack snapped that pistol of hers up and fired off several shots, and Mars Bar hurled himself that way with a roar. 

The taser did nothing. Nor did the punch. Or the bullets from the gun. Even as I was telling myself to move, trying to lunge in to help, Pencil snatched the taser from the other girl while driving his knee into her stomach. She doubled over, and he pivoted, catching hold of her neck to throw her into the incoming Mars Bar, who plowed into the girl while struggling to slow himself. That-A-Way hit the ground and rolled with a cry of pain. Mars, meanwhile, was suddenly hit with some kind of green cloud that exploded in his face. The big bear roared in agony and dove to the floor, rubbing his snout on the tile to get whatever it was off. 

Still pivoting to come all the way back around, Pencil threw that taser at Pack. It hit her with a sharp, visible jolt of electricity, and she hit the floor as well. 

Covering my legs with green paint for speed, I threw a puddle of blue at the floor by Pencil’s feet just as he focused on me. It launched him upward, and I had the satisfaction of hearing a surprised yelp from the man. Then I hit him with red paint while he was still flailing in the air, while also hitting the furthest wall with the same color. Activating both sent him flying across the room to slam hard into that wall. 

It did nothing. He fell to the floor, and that seemed to do nothing as well, of course. Nor was he actually hurt when the invisible Twinkletoes yanked him off the ground and spun to slam him into that same wall again

Nothing hurt him. Nothing. We could do this all day and it wouldn’t matter. But trap him? Contain him? Maybe we could do that.

“Hold him!” I blurted at Twinkletoes while scrambling that way. I still had one of those sets of cuffs. “Just hold onto him!” 

The gorilla-lizard tried. He really did. But Pencil managed to get a hand into his pocket, throwing some kind of pellet up and back. It exploded in the animal’s face, creating a another small cloud of green smoke similar to the one that had hit Mars Bar. This one that left Twinkletoes staggering and moaning in pain, releasing the man. 

I was there, painting my arms purple for strength as I tried to grab onto him. I couldn’t hurt him, but I could hold him long enough to cuff him. 

Or not. He smoothly evaded as I tried to grab him. Worse, he laughed at me. Spinning on one heel like we were dancing as I lunged that way, he also ducked under the shot of red paint I sent at his face. The next thing I knew, his hand was on my shoulder, his foot hit my ankle, and the floor came rushing up to smack me in the visor. 

“Probably a good idea to wear a helmet in this line of work,” he commended. Before I could move, his foot came down on my wrist, pushing against it enough to send a sharp shock of pain all the way up my arm, making it really hard to focus on anything else. “Too bad y–” 

It had taken me a second, but I managed to concentrate enough to paint my wrist blue. Pencil was launched away from me, and I quickly rolled over on my back as he came down by a pile of chairs. My arm (the one that wasn’t currently throbbing) snapped up to shoot red at him, but he threw one of those chairs in the way, making it catch that instead. 

“Hey, Dingaling!” a female voice blurted, and my gaze reflexively snapped that way in time to see Cup, standing up and no longer cuffed (how the hell had she managed that?!) as she called, “Is a dragonfly a dragon to a fly or a fly to a dragon?” 

Is… wait, no hold on. I was fine, I could totally answer this. I could. This was easy. It was a dragon that… hold on. Wait…

In the background, I vaguely noticed Cup and Pencil both heading for the exit. Fork had gotten back to his feet to join them, but they’d had to leave Box and Anchovy behind. Still, they wouldn’t get away. I could catch up. I just had to finish this question. It was…

“Paintball!” A hand smacked me across the helmet, as Pack popped up into my field of view. “What are you doing?! What–are you–” 

Snapping out of it, I waved both hands frantically, ignoring the burst of pain. “Stop them, stop them!” 

That-A-Way was already back on her feet, and we, along with the lizard-beasts (Twinkletoes and Mars Bar had recovered) went running after the pair. We crashed through the exit of the hospital and out onto the front walkway to find… nothing. They were gone. 

“Yooo hooo!” 

Or not. We spun, stumbling a bit in our rush before looking up toward the roof of a low, one-story building at the edge of the lot straight ahead. Pencil, Fork, and Cup were there, the first waving a cell phone in one hand. 

“You know, fucking with my bomb upstairs was really rude!” Pencil called down. “Made it so much weaker than it should’ve been. Now I can’t knock the whole building down and teach those kids about the fleeting futility of life. Though I did get to slit their doctors’ throats right in front of them, so maybe they’ll work it out on their own!” 

“Teleport?” I quickly asked That-A-Way. 

Her head shook, voice cracking a bit. “They’re south of us, I… I can be intangible at him, but… but…” 

Reaching out to grab her arm so I could launch at least the two of us that way, if not Pack and her animals, I stopped abruptly as Pencil held that phone up. 

“Oh well,” he announced, “if I can’t take down a whole hospital, at least I can take out one floor.” 

“No!” That-A-Way shouted, suddenly disappearing from my side just as Pencil hit the button on his phone. There was a second delay, before…

BOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOM!!!

With a terrifying, deafening crash that blew out all the windows of the floor high above, the bomb went off. The force of it set off dozens of car alarms, and shards of glass and other debris rained down on us from above. I caught a brief glimpse of the Scions disappearing from the roof, while Pack and I both staggered, along with her animals. 

Her animals, that was, except for…

“Holiday!!!” Pack screamed in horror and panic, her head tilted back to stare up at the burning, totally destroyed hospital floor in shock and horror. The flames were spreading rapidly. Maybe the rest of the hospital could be saved if the firefighters got there quick enough, but anything on that floor would have been completely annihilated by the blast. 

Screaming Holiday’s name again, Pack went to run back into the hospital. Quickly, I grabbed her wrist. She spun, screaming in my face about getting the hell away from her while lashing out with a kick that took me in the stomach. I staggered, and she shoved me away from her before spinning back that way, intent on running into the hospital. 

Then she stopped, as two figures emerged from the smoke. One human and one very much not. 

“Hey,” That-A-Way managed after coughing a few times. Her hand came down on Holiday’s head. “Sorry, managed to teleport up and then out with her, but we had to walk back. You guys o–” 

She was stopped then, as Pack threw herself that way. “Thank you!” the girl blurted, embracing That-A-Way tightly while basically outright sobbing. “Thank you, thank you, thank you. You saved her. You saved Holiday. Thank you. Thank you.” She just kept repeating that, clearly openly crying before releasing the Minority girl so she could fall to her knees and hug Holiday just as tightly. If anything, she was crying even more. 

Sirens. I looked to the street and saw fire trucks, police cars, SWAT vans, ambulances, and more. They were all screaming their way up to both the hotel and this hospital. There were Touched flying around in the air above, and appearing on the streets. 

“Go,” That-A-Way snapped quickly toward Pack. “Get your animals and go, before you get arrested in all of this.” Then she looked to me, voice cracking. “H-he really did it. He killed four of the people I left with those kids. T-two doctors, a n-nurse, and an orderly. I don’t… I don’t know what–I was trying to… I… I…” 

“I’m sorry,” I managed weakly, knowing it was inadequate. Pathetically so. What was I supposed to say? What could I say? People were dead. We hadn’t saved all of them, not from that… that piece of shit. It wasn’t our fault. It was his. Pencil’s. That psycho fuck. He killed them, just because he couldn’t stand to let us save all of them. He killed them for no reason. Murdered them just… just to murder them. Just to make sure we didn’t save everyone. 

“Hey.” Pack spoke instead, standing there surrounded by her animals even as the fire trucks reached the edge of the hospital lot. “I… I’m sorry about what happened to those guys. But don’t umm… don’t blame yourself.” She sniffed, hand clutching Holiday’s neck. “You got them out, you got those kids out, and a lot more of ‘em would’ve died if you hadn’t done that. You… did the right thing. You did the best you could.” 

It looked like she wanted to say something more, just from the girl’s body language. But in the end, she turned and fled with her lizard-creatures, while the fire fighters were approaching with their hoses. 

“I–I’m going back to the kids,” That-A-Way stammered. “There’s people there with them already, but… but I… I have to…” She shook her head then, looking to me. “Are you…”

“I’m fine,” I replied. “I’m good, but do you want some he–” 

She was gone, teleporting away. Which left me standing there on the front grass of the hospital while firefighters raced past me to focus on the flames burning high above, trying to stop them from spreading. I saw a small figure in a blue bodysuit with silver panels floating above them. Raindrop, the youngest of the Minority. She was sending water through the shattered windows as well, clearly directing it through the building to the worst of the fire. Even as I watched for those few seconds, she had doused most of the flames almost by herself, directing thousands of gallons of water through the place with just a wave of her hand. 

Good. Good. They had this handled. And with Pencil gone, the situation back over at the hotel was definitely under control. Things were–

Wait. Oh. Oh shit. Things were under control. The hostage situation was over. 

My family would be looking for me.

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Alliances 6-07 (Summus Proelium)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*******

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cup. I knew her, and I knew I had to–

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

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

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

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

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Collectors 5-05 (Summus Proelium)

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“You sure this plan of yours is gonna work?” 

It was the next morning. I had gone to school for the first couple periods before taking off. With a call from ‘my dad’, of course, thanks to my voice changer. As far as the school was concerned, I had a doctor’s appointment and would be back to school as soon as it was over. Which gave me time to (hopefully) get this component that Wren needed away from the delivery truck so she could finish that little project. 

Looking over to where Pack was leaning against the wall in the alley we were hiding out in, I shrugged. “If I was sure it was going to work, it’d be a memory, not a plan. But it’s the best we’ve got. Unless you’ve had any better ideas about how to get that thing off the truck?” As I spoke, my eyes glanced to the side, where Mars Bar the iguana-bear and Holiday the panther-skink were waiting as well. Tuesday, the gecko-monkey, was sitting on top of a nearby dumpster, playing with… I didn’t know what he was playing with. Nor did I want to know.  

Expression hidden behind her full face mask, Pack shrugged. “I’ve been thinking about it, but nope. You’re right, this pretty much seems like our best shot. If you’re absolutely positive that you don’t want to just call in Blackjack to deal with it. I’m pretty sure he could get that thing.” 

“And I’m pretty sure he wouldn’t really care all that much about who got hurt in the process,” I reminded her pointedly. “We can do this without help, and without sending in an army of thugs to stampede over that poor driver. Scaring him just a little bit maybe, but not hurting him.” 

Once again, she shrugged. “If you say so. Still think you’re overcomplicating this, but I guess it’s your show.” As she said that, the girl glanced up to the roof of the building where the lizard-bird Riddles was perched and had just made a soft cawing noise. “Right then, that truck’s on its way. Just turned onto our street, so we’ve got about twenty seconds. You ready for this?” 

“Guess I better be,” I replied before cracking my neck from one side, then the other. Bouncing up and down on my heels a couple times, I breathed out. “Okay, let’s do it. Just… you know.” 

She nodded once. “Yup. Okay, Mars, carefully, just like we practiced.” Giving a quick glance up to her bird for the exact timing, the girl finally made a gesture with her hand. “Now!” 

And just like that, the enormous bear-lizard picked me up from behind. I tried to brace myself, but even knowing it was coming, it was still terrifying. Holding me up above his head, the grizzard gave a deafening, pants-wetting roar before hurling me out of the alley. 

With a yelp, I went flying end over end through the air. From the corner of my eye, I could see the Tauros truck almost directly under me. The driver was even leaning forward, craning his neck while already slamming on the brakes. The squeal of the tires on the street filled the air, and I shot a bit of red paint down to yank myself straight at the hood of the truck before landing in a crouch on it. The paint held me in place even as the truck jerked to a sudden, wild halt. 

“What the hell!?” I heard the driver shouting, even as he started to open the door, standing up and leaning out to stare at me with wide eyes. “What do you think you’re–” 

His words were cut off then, as he caught a glimpse of movement from the alley I had just been thrown out of. Looking that way, he very clearly saw Mars Bar and Holiday charging, because he made a noise of shock and started to sit back down so he could close his door. But I was faster, throwing myself off the hood to ground just past the driver before shooting red paint at him to yank him toward my suddenly red gloves with a shouted, “Get down!” 

The man collided with me and we went tumbling, just before Riddles swooped through the open door of his truck with a loud screech. At the same time, Mars Bar shouldered his way past the truck, bumping it hard with another roar. Boy was he hamming this whole thing up.

At least, I hoped he was hamming it up. Pack had insisted the grizzard completely understood that this was all fake, and I was praying she was right about that. This would suck otherwise. 

Coming to a stop, I made sure to end up on top of the poor driver. He grunted under the impact, and I blurted a quick, “Sorry, sorry! Stay down!” Patting his side, I rolled off the man before shooting off a wide spray of red paint toward the charging Holiday and Mars Bar. Activating it yanked the two into one another. It wasn’t all that hard, and definitely less than they could actually take. But the two animals still gave loud howls of pain and surprise before falling in opposite directions. Apparently they thought this was the time for their Oscar reels. 

“Hey!” The shout came from Pack herself, as the girl came running with a bat in her hand. Seeing her, I reached down to wrap an arm around the driver, coloring part of myself purple before using a shot of red paint to yank us up to the roof of a nearby fast food joint. There I carefully set him down. “You okay?” I quickly asked, glancing between him and the others. 

The man’s eyes were wide as he stared at me from his seated position. “I–I don’t know! What–” 

“Hold that thought,” I blurted. “One sec, gotta deal with this.” With that, I leapt off the building, throwing myself into a lunge aided by a bit of blue paint that sent me flying at Pack. The two of us collided, sprawling end over end. Her bat fell away, and she swung at me with her right fist, actually connecting, though not that hard. I still made a point of staggering before grabbing onto her and giving a sharp whistle toward Mars Bar, Riddles, and Holiday. “Hey, you guys like your owner? Well, come get her then!” That said, I used more red paint to yank myself toward the same alley we had emerged from, with the trio of lizard-animals charging after us. 

Landing in the alley, I checked to make sure no one was watching. We’d already planned out exactly where to leave the driver so that he wouldn’t have line of sight either to the back of the truck or the inside of the alley here. And I’d moved the dumpster from the side of the building itself so that he couldn’t easily climb down. For a moment at least, he was stuck up there.

“We good?” I quickly asked Pack after setting her down. My three ‘pursuers’ came lumbering into the alley as well, slowing as soon as they were out of sight of the street. 

In response, she glanced to the side. “Twinkletoes?” 

At her words, the gorilla-chameleon appeared, complete with a little metal collar around his neck that had a cell phone hooked into it. He grunted, reaching down to the side of the dumpster before picking up a crate with the Seraph Hills logo on it. It looked pretty similar to the one Eits and I had taken from the Tauros building the night before, though maybe slightly larger. 

I hoped it was the right one. Eits had given Pack that collar to put on Twinkletoes. The  cell phone in the collar had a little camera on the front that was supposed to have scanned the serial numbers attached to the crates on the truck and chime when it scanned the right one. Supposedly, Twinkletoes would have made his way invisibly onto the truck, moved around until the thing gave him a pleasant chime, then took the box that prompted it, leaving all the other ones. That was the idea, anyway. Like with the others and our play-fighting, Pack insisted he understood the explanation, and the few test runs we’d done with other boxes had seemed to work out. So… here was hoping. 

Pack was already stepping that way. She picked up the crate, checked the serial number against a piece of paper that she’d written it on, then gave me a thumbs up. “We’re good.” 

Exhaling the breath I hadn’t even been aware that I was holding, I returned the gesture before starting to move. “Keep Riddles out of sight,” I reminded her, not wanting the driver to see the bird-lizard that had ‘almost gotten him’ hanging around. That’d probably be suspicious. 

I took off then, not out of the mouth of the alley we’d just come through, but past Twinkletoes and Pack, to the opposite street. There, I used red paint to pull myself up to the next building over, right on the corner, took a running start, and launched myself with blue paint out over the street with the parked truck. There were cars backed up there, and a few that were pulling around. This wasn’t a busy street (we’d intentionally chosen it that way), but it had been parked there for a couple minutes by that point.

Coming down on the roof of the fast food place, I startled the driver, who jerked reflexively from where he’d been talking on his phone. Apparently he’d called for help. When he saw me, the man settled. “Yeah, yeah the paint kid’s right here. Guess you don’t need the ladder after all.” 

He disconnected, and I offered a weak, “Sorry about that. Are you… are you okay?” 

“Fine, I guess,” the man replied in a voice that was still just a little shaky. Thankfully, he seemed unhurt. “What happened to–uhh…” 

“Pack,” I replied. “One of La Casa. And she got away. I didn’t want to leave you here too long. Should’ve figured you had a phone.” Kicking the roof, I injected embarrassment into my voice while squirming with feigned self-consciousness. “Guess I should’ve kept chasing her.”

“Shit,” the man muttered. “I hope she didn’t take off with any of my shipment. God damn it, you have any idea what kind of paperwork is inv–” He stopped then, wincing. “I mean, sorry. Sorry, kid, you were great out there. Didn’t mean to sound ungrateful. Thanks for your work.” 

Oh boy, did I ever feel guilty right then. It would’ve been easier if he was a jerk, or at least dismissive. Swallowing, I nodded and reached out to him. “Here, I’ll help you get down, then make sure no one bothers you while you look through your shipment. I didn’t see her get near it, so it’s probably fine. But ahh, I’ll wait until you look through it. That’s the least I can do.” 

After all, I didn’t add, I kinda have to stick around to make sure our little ruse really worked. 

Helping the man down, I walked with him back to his truck. There was a uniformed cop there, already writing out a ticket. When he saw us approaching, the officer stopped. “You the driver?” 

We explained the situation, and the cop agreed not to ticket the guy (another potential problem off my conscience), and stuck around while he went into the back of the truck to check his load. 

Meanwhile, the cop and I stood outside the truck and waited. His name was Officer Lensroy, and because I so needed another reason to feel guilty about this, he was really nice. He asked me questions about being chased by Cuélebre, and seemed genuinely interested. He even made a few jokes. All of which made it harder and harder to stand there and lie to both him and the driver. But I had to. For Blackjack’s daughter, I had to. I’d make sure everything worked out. 

I hoped. 

Finally, the driver stepped down. “Looks good,” he announced with a voice of relief. “Never saw that girl go anywhere near the truck, and neither did ahh, Paintball was it?” When I nodded, he continued. “Neither did Paintball. And my handy little scanner here says every box is accounted for.” He waved the small device in his hand. 

I suppressed the urge to openly sigh in relief. It had worked. Twinkletoes managed to switch our box with the one that was already on the truck, and Eits’ little delayed magic with the computer system set the serial number on our box as the one that was supposed to be on the truck. Perfect. 

Congratulating the man on his truck being safe, I made my farewells. As I started to leave, Officer Lensroy called out, “Hey, one second!” 

A million things went through my mind just then, as I slowly turned my gaze back to him, waiting. No way was I going to say something potentially incriminating in that moment. 

The cop smiled at me. “Whoever you are, you run back to school now, you hear? Ain’t no emergency going on, and that lizard girl, wherever she is, ain’t causing trouble at the moment. Get on back to your classes. Hero or not, don’t you go making me call the truant officer.” 

Flushing a little, I saluted the man. “Yes, sir.” And I meant it. I would be going back to class. 

Just as soon as I made sure Wren had everything she needed to start building that suit. 

*******

It was the right piece. With that and what I picked up from the junkyard guy, Wren had what she needed. So now she was busy working. Pack and Fred were going to be running any physical errands she needed done over the day, and I would check in later. Hopefully, there wouldn’t be any unexpected problems. 

It was only after I’d left that I realized I hadn’t actually asked Pack what her school situation was like. Which probably made me worse at this whole hero thing than Officer Lensroy. 

In any case, for the moment, I was back in class. Or rather, lunch. As we had fairly often over the past little while, Jae, Amber, and I were eating while talking about our project. 

That was the idea, anyway. Mostly we gossiped, joked, and basically just hung out. We did work on the project too, of course. It was just… not as much time or effort as we spent talking. 

“So Cass,” Amber was saying as she stirred her pasta salad idly, “you must be happy about Tomas, right?” 

I blinked at her blankly, idly doodling with a colored pencil in my notebook. “Happy about Tomas?” 

“You know, Tomas Jackson?” she prompted. “That diplomat’s kid from–” 

“From London,” I finished for her, nodding as I absently picked up a different colored pencil and sketched a bit more. “Yeah, I know who you mean. But why would I be happy about him? He went home last year.” 

“You mean you don’t–” Stopping, Amber blinked toward the silent Jae, then back to me. “He’s back, Cassidy. He was in my first class this morning. You didn’t know that? I–” Realizing what she’d said then, the girl flushed. “I mean–sorry, I guess he just hasn’t had a chance to–” 

“It’s fine,” I assured her. “I–we broke it off when he went back to London anyway. I haven’t even exchanged more than a couple e-mails and texts since then. And I was at the doctor’s earlier. Maybe I would’ve run into him then.” I shrugged, thinking about that. “He really moved back here?” 

She nodded. “Something about his dad getting another assignment, right, Jae?” 

“That’s what he said,” the Albino girl confirmed quietly. She was watching me with a thoughtful, somewhat curious expression. About what, I couldn’t say. 

“Yeah,” Amber decided, nodding. “I’m sure he’ll come find you, he probably just has the other lunch period. So, you know, be ready for that.” She gave me an easy smile, eyes glancing down before widening. “Holy crap, dude.” 

“What?” Blinking the way she was staring, I found myself looking at the doodle in my notebook. 

It wasn’t a doodle. Somehow, while not really paying attention, I had used my colored pencils to draw and color a pretty damn good image of a knight fighting a dragon. 

“What, yourself,” Amber retorted, clearly thinking that I was just being falsely modest. “Can I see?” She waited until I moved my arm before tugging the notebook over. “Holy shit. That’s–when did you learn how to draw like this? That’s really good. That’s like… professional quality.” 

“I…” I hadn’t. I’d never drawn like that in my life. I’d taken no lessons for it or anything. I hadn’t even really been paying attention. So… how? How had I just done that? Was it part of my power? It had to do with like… colors and stuff, was it related? It had to be, right? But… but…

Realizing both the girls were staring at me, I felt the heat rise to my cheeks as I mumbled, “It’s not that big of a deal.” 

“Dude, trust me, this is a big deal.” Amber waved the notebook, sliding it to Jae for her to see better. “Like I said, that’s totally professional quality. Seriously good professional. You could be a comic book artist or–or something. And you did that just sitting here talking? That’s awesome. You’ve gotta show me some other stuff.” 

“I…” Swallowing back my total confusion, I nodded. “I’ll see what I can do.” 

Jae slid the notebook back to me, offering a smile and a quiet, “It’s really good.” 

I stared at the drawing briefly. They were right. It was good. My hand pressed down against it, as I felt that rush of confusion and uncertainty come back. How did I draw like that without even thinking about it? Was ‘super-artist’ really a side effect of my power? Why? 

Between that and the news that Tomas had apparently come back, I had a lot to think about that lunch period. 

And here I’d thought that I was going to be bored for the rest of the day. 

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Pursuit 4-07 (Summus Proelium)

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My orange paint could stand up to a good bit of damage. Unfortunately, I was pretty sure it wouldn’t stand up to eight guys all shooting me at the same time. That seemed slightly out of its range. And I for sure didn’t want to chance it right now. 

On the other hand, I also couldn’t let these guys take Ashton. If I did, it would basically be handing a death sentence to Blackjack’s daughter and probably him as well. Or giving the Ninety-Niners the ability to force La Casa to do anything they said in order to save her life. Either one was unacceptable. 

To buy myself time to think, I did the only thing that came to mind. I snarked. 

“Hey, guys! Good job following the scavenger hunt so far. But, you know, I kinda already claimed this ‘guy named Ashton’ so you’re kind of going to have to go find your own. I’m pretty sure there’s a country club like five blocks that way, and there should be like five of them there.”

The guy who had spoken before raised his pistol a bit to point at my head, making me gulp slightly. “I’ve got a better idea, how about you bounce on out of here and we take our prize?” 

So much for buying time to think. I had to do something, and I had to do it right now. But what? How was I supposed to—

Without warning, two of the guys were suddenly yanked off the ground. They yelped, as a figure became partially visible behind them, holding both up by their necks. The thing holding them wasn’t easy to make out. It seemed to blend in pretty well with the area around it, like some kind of super camouflage. But from what I could see, it didn’t look human. 

With a roar that pretty well cemented the not human bit, the strange figure hurled the two men in opposite directions to collide with either wall of the alley. They fell and didn’t get up again.

Meanwhile, the other six guys all rounded toward the almost invisible figure, their weapons going up. Before they could shoot, however, something dove out of the sky with a loud, terrifying screech. I barely caught a glimpse of the thing as it crashed into one of the men and yanked his gun away. It looked like some kind of lizard with feathered wings. 

Then something rushed past me, I just had time to jerk aside reflexively, my eyes snapping down to see another terrifying shape. This one stood about three feet tall at the shoulder, and looked like a sort of hairless, scaled cat. Or, more to the point, like a tiger with scales instead of fur. 

The men were still reacting to the sudden appearance of the half invisible tall figure and the bird. So they were taken completely by surprise as the hairless cat thing leapt at them from behind, knocking the leader to the ground with a petrifying roar. 

Then it all stopped. The six men who were still conscious were all clumped up in a circle, while the lizard-cat and the half-invisible thing remained on either side of them. The ‘bird’ was perched up on the end of a fire escape, giving a sharp screech while the thugs all looked in every direction in a panic, clearly unsure if they should start shooting or not. 

“You know,” a voice drawled, as a figure (this one actually human) stepped into view from around the corner, “I think they want you to drop your weapons.” She stopped then, giving me a good look at the newcomer. She wore a leather jacket that was black at the bottom, gradually shifting into green toward the top. The jacket had a hood attached to it, which was up, covering her hair, while her face was hidden behind some kind of black full mask that left no apparent holes for her eyes or mouth, making me wonder how well she could see through it. The effect almost made it look like there was nothing but a black void within the hood. The sleeves of the jacket were almost entirely black with a tiny bit of green at the ends to go with the green gloves she wore. Beyond that, she wore black cargo pants and combat boots. A sawed-off shotgun was in her hands. 

“I suggest you do what they want,” the masked and hooded girl informed the group while pointing that sawed-off at the men. “Before they get mad.” 

As if to add emphasis to her words, a much larger figure suddenly loomed up behind her. It looked like… well, like a goddamn enormous grizzly bear. Only, just like the other creatures, it had scales instead of fur, and a sort-of… mohawk. Like an iguana, I realized. It looked like a bear crossed with an iguana. A Bearguana. 

If the men hadn’t already been freaked out, seeing the enormous fuck-off grizzly lizard (Grizzlizard?) rising into view from behind the girl with the shotgun did the trick. There was a sudden clattering of weapons as they quickly put them down, hands rising into the air. 

“Yeah, that’s what I thought,” the new girl noted. I couldn’t see her expression through the dark void that was her blank black mask, but I could hear the smirk in her voice. “Tell you what, you start running and don’t stop until you’ve gone ten blocks, and my friends here won’t eat you. Riddles, keep ‘em honest.” 

In response to her words, the bird-lizard thing leapt from its perch with a loud screech. That was echoed by a roar from the bear-lizard, which sent the men scrambling in a blind panic to pick up their unconscious companions before they fled out of the alley and down the street. In a second, they were out of sight, while the bird-lizard flew after them. 

Slowly, I turned my gaze (and my own thankfully hidden open mouth) to the girl. She stood there, watching me before giving a wave as my eyes found her. “Hiya. Name’s Pack. That the guy?” She nodded past me, to where Ashton was still thankfully trapped by the stay-down cuffs.

Shit. Quickly, I moved to stand between the girl and the prone man. As I stepped that way, the bear-lizard growled. It was joined by another bipedal creature that seemed to come out of nowhere. Belatedly, I realized it was the thing that had been semi-cloaked before. This new creature looked more like a gorilla. One which, as with all the others, had been crossed with a lizard. 

“I–I–thanks,” I somehow managed to stammer past all my confusion. “Thanks for chasing them off. But you still can’t take this guy. I…” Thinking quickly, I offered, “There’s a reward for him. I’ll let you have it if you help me get the stuff he stole back t–” 

“To Blackjack?” Pack cut me off. “Dude, he’s my boss. I work for him.” 

Of all the things she could have said right then (and given how utterly random and strange her sudden appearance had been to begin with, my bar was set pretty high), that was probably the most surprising. I stopped short, head tilting. “You… do? But Pack isn’t– err… wait, you mean Pack as in–”

“As in pack of cards,” she confirmed. “Or pack of animals. See how it works both ways? Seriously, do you? Because it was really hard to come up with a name that actually fit La Casa’s whole gambling term shtick, and I seriously hope it wasn’t too much of a stretch.” 

“Hey, bitch,” Ashton called from where he was trapped, “anyone ever tell you your boss is a murdering bag of jizz?!” 

Rather than respond to the man directly, Pack looked to me. “So yes, that is him.” 

“How… how did you… I mean…” I was trying to come up with the right way to ask the most important question that sprang to mind. 

“Find you?” she finished for me. “I mean, you weren’t exactly subtle. We’ve been searching the city, and Blackjack said that if you looked like you were onto something, we should give you a hand. I saw you, ahh, jump over my head, so I tried to catch up. You’re really fast, you know.”

She nodded past me, to Ashton once more. “If that’s him, we need to get the guy to Blackjack.” 

Unthinkingly, I blurted, “No!” Which was enough to make the tiger-lizard take a step toward me before Pack put a hand up to stop it. “Wait, Holiday.” To me, she spoke more carefully. “Excuse me? Hey, look, if this is about not sharing the reward–” 

It was my turn to interrupt her. “It’s not about that,” I put in quickly. “It’s about…” Sighing, I lowered my voice a bit. “If Blackjack gets him, he’s going to kill him for endangering his daughter. I can’t do that. I can’t just sentence a man to death. Not even that guy. He’s trying to avenge his dead friend.” As she made a noise as though to object, I pushed on quickly. “I’m not saying Blackjack won’t get the medicine. But that’s all he’s getting. I told him that when we… when we spoke. He’ll get the medicine, but not the man.” 

As the girl quietly considered that, another lizard poked his head out from where it had apparently been hiding inside her jacket. This one was a regular-looking gecko, head tilting curiously at me before scrambling up onto her shoulder with a quiet little chirp. 

“You’re right, Tuesday,” Pack murmured before focusing on me. “You get the vials out of that cocksucker and you can mail him to Siberia for all we care. Not like the boss couldn’t get to him wherever he gets sent anyway.” 

“That’s basically what he said,” I muttered under my breath before turning on my heel. Walking over, I picked up the first vial from where it had fallen. Turning the thing over in my hand to make sure it was intact, I stepped over to Ashton and checked through his pockets carefully. Nothing. Well, no vials. He had money, a wallet, a few keys, and some other assorted odds and ends. No more vials. 

“Right,” I started, “you heard the nice lady. Where’s the rest of them? You know, if you want to go to the nice comfy jail cell instead of being taken by the guy whose daughter you put in danger.” 

With a snarl, the guy retorted, “You mean the guy who’s gonna kill me anyway? Him or one of his lackeys. Her maybe, or one of the others. Nah, I’m not important enough to waste a Touched on. He’ll just tell one of his normal old thugs to put a bullet in me, just like they put a bullet in Carlos. That’s what’ll happen, and I’ll be just as dead as he is.”

“Dude,” I snapped, “I’m sorry about your friend. Seriously. But you can’t just let an innocent little girl die because you’re grieving. She didn’t do anything to you. You know what’s going to happen if you let her die? You’ll hurt Blackjack, yeah. But then he’ll take it out on the city, and a hell of a lot more people will die. Do you really want that? Come on. What happened to Carlos was a tragedy. It was. It’s horrible. Don’t make a bunch of other people die in some doomed attempt to settle some kind of vendetta. It won’t help. You won’t feel better. And all the people that die in the war you start will be worse.” 

After saying all that, I crouched there by the man. “So come on. Let’s just be done with all this. You don’t want to let all those people die. You’re better than that. I’m sure Carlos would want you to be better than that. He wouldn’t want you to do this, Ashton. Let’s stop this war before it starts and before a lot of people die. What do you say?” 

Swallowing visibly, the man met my gaze, softly echoing, “What do I say?” For a moment, he was quiet, before lifting his chin, gaze hardening. 

“I say fuck ‘em.” 

His words made my mouth fall open, as I stared at him. “What… you can’t–” 

“Holiday,” Pack started, “why don’t you bite his leg off. See what he thinks then.” 

Immediately, the large lizard-cat thing stalked toward the man while giving a low growl. As it came, Ashton’s gaze shot back to me. “You see? That’s the kind of people he works with.” 

“Dude,” I snapped, “you just said ‘fuck ‘em’ about both a little girl and an entire city full of innocent people. The moral high ground is pretty much Mount Everest to you right now.” 

I did, however, hold up my hand to the nearby girl. “But wait, just wait a second, please.” 

Her face was still entirely hidden, of course. There was nothing visible under that hood save for that black void. But she finally exhaled and spoke a single word of, “Wait.” At that, the lizard-cat stopped just a foot or so from the man, letting out a low, dangerous growl. 

“We have one vial,” I started, once it was clear that Ashton wasn’t about to have his leg gnawed on just yet. “How many are left?” 

“Five,” Pack replied. “There were six in that box. The girl needs all of them.” 

“How long can she last with one of these?” I asked then while holding up the vial. 

There was a brief pause before the girl slowly answered, “A month.” She was clearly looking straight at me. “You’re going to suggest we take the vial and use the month to convince Cheerful here to give up the other five.” Before I could say anything to that, she pointed out, “You know Blackjack could get it out of him a lot faster than you or the cops could.” 

My head shook. “Could he, though? He hates your boss enough that knowing how much it hurts him, he could probably stand a lot.” And I don’t want to think about just what Blackjack would put him through in the process, I thought to myself silently, with a little shudder. 

Flatly, Pack asked, “Do you have a better idea?” She was very clearly staring intently at me, even from behind that featureless mask. Not only that, but all her lizard-creature things were staring at me too, including Riddle, who had returned after making sure the other guys kept running. 

Heaving a long sigh, I looked at the prone, captured man for a moment. “We have the first vial. That… that buys time. What we need is…” I paused before smiling. “What we need is something that can make him tell the truth.” 

I could practically hear her raised eyebrow. “Do you have something like that?” 

“No,” I replied, “but I know a certain inventor that might be able to whip something up, given a little time. And… I’m also pretty sure they can help me keep him contained for awhile.” 

“You mean away from Blackjack,” the girl pointed out. 

I sighed. “And away from the cops.” There was no choice. Not only did I have serious concerns about the actual state of the authorities themselves with my father posing as one of the biggest heroes in the city, but even if they weren’t compromised, I couldn’t see them just handing over that medicine to Blackjack without trying to get something out of him. Like, say, his surrender. As much as I hated to think it, I didn’t trust them not to play games with the girl’s life. Even if they thought it was for the greater good. 

Shaking that off, I continued. “Like I said, he can have the first vial. I’ll tell him… I’ll tell him to give me two weeks to get the rest of the vials out of this guy. Two weeks. That’s half the time this single vial buys us.” Looking over to Pack, I added, “I found the guy in just a couple days, and one of the vials. Your boss can give me two weeks with him to get the rest of them.” 

She didn’t offer an opinion on that. Instead, the girl held a hand out. “I’ll take it to him.” 

I started to hand it over, then stopped. “You know, I don’t actually have any proof that you really work for Blackjack, do I? Not to call you a liar or anything, but you’ve gotta admit, it would be pretty dumb of me to hand this over when I’ve never seen you do anything with La Casa. I’ve never even heard of you before.” 

She coughed, offering a shrug and a muttered, “I’m pretty new.” 

“All the same,” I replied, “I think I’ll give the vial to Blackjack myself, after we get this guy somewhere safe and out of the way.” 

“Fine.” Pack took a step toward me, while both the big bear-lizard and gorilla-lizard things flanked her. With those two on either side of the girl and the predatory cat-thing in front of her, I really didn’t want to piss her off. She stopped there, looking my way while repeating, “Fine. But I’m going with you. I want to see this inventor so I can tell my boss myself that they can pull off this whole ‘getting the truth out of him’ thing. That’s the deal. I go with you, we see this inventor, and then we take that vial to Blackjack. Then I can tell my boss that I did my… you know, due diligence, or… whatever.” 

I couldn’t really argue with that too much, so I instead offered a shrug. “They might have something to say about all that, but let’s find out.” 

Wren had told me before I left her earlier that she wanted to do anything she could to help save that little girl, and that I should call the number she gave me if I needed anything. Praying that she really meant all that (while wondering just how bad this whole ‘illegal imprisonment’ thing was going to look if it got out), I took the phone from my pocket and hit the contact number on it. As it rang, I glanced over to Pack. “Oh, and uhhh… just for the record…

“It’s your turn to wear a bag over your head.”

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Interlude 3A – The Girl With The Lizards (Summus Proelium)

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Three months ago

Wearing a dark green ski mask and a black leather jacket with the logo of an alligator on the back, the girl entered the jewelry store shortly before closing time. As she passed through the metal detector, the old security guard sitting at a chair nearby came to his feet, his hand already reaching for his holstered pistol at the sight of the mask.

“Ma’am, I’m going to need you to—”

“Gently,” the masked girl interrupted without looking that way. “He’s an old man, we don’t want to hurt him.”

The elderly guard’s mouth opened to ask what that meant, but before more than a couple sounds had escaped him, something almost but not quite invisible reached out to catch hold of him. The thing blended in with the wall behind the man, the floor under their feet, and the very air itself to the point of being all but impossible to truly see at a glance. One had to look very close to even hope to make out its vague, ill-defined shape.

Whatever it was, the thing behind the guard pulled him back and squeezed just tight enough to make him collapse, lowering the old man gently to the ground, as ordered.

By that point, the handful of customers and staff still in the store had noticed what was going on, and were staring that way. One of the sales people behind the counter began to edge toward what was obviously an alarm button. Before she could get close to it, however, the masked girl called, “Tuesday!”

At that single, unexpected word (particularly considering it was actually Friday), a small shape leapt up from behind the girl. It landed on her shoulder just long enough to launch itself across the room to land on the counter in front of the saleswoman.

It landed there, giving the woman, and everyone else, a good look at it. The thing was shaped mostly like a monkey, a Capuchin monkey, to be exact. It was the right shape, the right size, had a tail, and so forth. However, the similarities ended there. The thing had no fur. It had scales instead, like a lizard. Its face and tail were decidedly lizard-like as well, though the latter retained the monkey tail’s prehensile nature.

The thing opened its mouth to reveal a large collection of sharp teeth, screeching in the woman’s face as she cried out and stumbled backward.

“Good boy, Tuesday,” The girl praised while coming closer. “Now, let’s see how much fun shiny stuff you people can put in a bag for me in the next ninety seconds, huh? Don’t worry, I’m not that picky. Just throw it all in a bag and I’ll be on my way.”

Racing a shaking hand to point at the creature on the counter, the saleswoman whimpered out, “W-what is that thing? Who are you?”

“Damn it!” the masked girl cursed, snapping her fingers. “I knew you were going to ask that! But I still don’t have a good name yet. It’s surprisingly hard to come up with a good name, you know? One that hasn’t been taken, one that isn’t stupid, one that isn’t going to get a bunch of lawyers sicced on me… it’s hard.”

Shaking her head dismissively then, the girl added, “And that’s Tuesday. He’s going to be keeping an eye on you. Just to make sure you’re not tempted to do anything stupid. Just fill the bag with shinies and we’ll be leaving. Nobody has to get hurt, and it’s all insured anyway.”

Spinning on her heel then, back toward the doorway where a man had been slowly edging, the girl raised a hand. “And you don’t wanna go that way! Twinkletoes? Show him why.”

The almost invisible shape moved away from the wall. As it did so, the thing became visible, shedding its camouflage. Like Tuesday, it looked like a cross between a lizard and something much furrier. In this case, the combination appeared to be a chameleon and a gorilla. It had the same massive size and general shape of the latter, and the basic appearance, scales, and face of the former.

The man who had been trying to leave stumbled back, cursing at the sight of it.

“Yup,” the unnamed girl chirped. “As you can see, Twinkletoes is a pretty good bouncer. But he’ll be nice as long as nobody makes a move for the door. Fair enough? Good, now about that bag of shinies…”

******

A few minutes later, the masked girl ran through a nearby alley, laughing giddily with each step. “Oh my God, how fun was that?!” She shook the bag full of jewelry and beamed while reaching up to take off the mask. Doing so revealed a dark-skinned, somewhat busty girl with short hair that had been spiked up. Most of the hair was black, save for the tips, which had been dyed shocking white.

Turning to Tuesday and Twinkletoes, who had been following her (the former riding on the latter), she grinned to them. “Come on, boys, let’s get your sister off lookout duty and—”

In mid-sentence, she was interrupted by a loud screech. The girl snapped her gaze up in time to see something fly down out of the sky, screeching once more before it landed on the edge of the nearby dumpster.

It was another reptile combination. In this case, the thing looked like a bearded dragon lizard that had been crossed with a large golden eagle. The thing really shouldn’t have been able to fly (particularly given the fact that only its wings seemed to have feathers), but managed to somehow. It landed on the dumpster and tilted its head curiously at the girl.

“Oh, there you are.” Smiling, the newly-unmasked thief reached out to rub the eagle-lizard’s face. “Hey there, Riddles. You ready to go home too?”

“Nice friends you’ve got there,” an unexpected voice announced, causing both the girl and all three of her companions to whirl that way.

The woman who stood there at the mouth of the alley was quite obviously Touched. Her costume consisted of sleek white pants with matching boots, a black turtleneck with a purple leather jacket over it, and a full head-covering white mask with dark purple lenses covering the eyes that matched the jacket. A silver briefcase sat beside her.

“Cardsharp?!” the girl blurted while Twinkletoes stepped in front of her with a growl at the woman. “You’re Cardsharp, from the… like… La Casa? What’re you doing here?” Defensively, she added, “You better not be trying to steal my haul.”  By that point, Tuesday had hopped onto Twinkletoes’ shoulder and was adding his own growl, while Riddles spread her wings to make herself bigger and gave a loud screech at the woman from where she was perched on the dumpster.

“Easy there,” Cardsharp murmured, spreading both hands with her palms out. “I didn’t come to fight or cause trouble. But ahhh, that store you just robbed back there? Yeah, it belongs to us. It’s in our territory, and the owners pay a decent amount for protection from… well…” She coughed and gestured to the bag from the store in question.

Blinking down, then back up again, the girl narrowed her eyes. “What, so you came to fight me for it? Came to teach me a lesson?”

“What?” The woman stared at her briefly before shaking her head. “You’ve been reading too many comic books. No. Like I said, I’m not here to fight. First of all, here.” Reaching down, she picked up the briefcase that had been at her side. Unlatching it, she showed her the contents. Cash. It was full of cash. “There should be the exact amount in here as what you would have gotten by selling that stuff, plus a couple thousand. You give back that bag and I’ll give you this case.”

The girl blinked again. “So I rob places you’re trying to protect and you just give me money to give it back?“

Cardsharp chuckled. “That wouldn’t really be a sustainable business model, would it? No, this is a one time deal. If it purposefully happens again, then we’ll have to take other, more unpleasant measures. But hopefully, that won’t be an issue. Because I’m not just offering you a cash payment. I am also offering you a place with our group, with La Casa. See, the boss believes in recruiting and nurturing new talent. And you… well, you look uniquely talented. So take the case. With the cash, you’ll find a card with a phone number on it. You decide to take me up on the offer, call that number and they’ll talk you through coming in for an evaluation and training. But first…” She held her free hand out, gesturing for the bag to be thrown to her.

The girl considered briefly. Actually fighting sounded bad, considering what she knew about the woman in front of her. Basically, Cardsharp’s powers allowed her to temporarily alter the physical properties of both herself and anything she was touching or had been touching within the past few seconds. She could make herself weigh almost nothing, or make herself weigh up to about a ton. She could also do the same for an object in her hands, reducing the weight of something by a huge amount, or increasing it. She could make herself extremely bouncy, or could throw a knife and give it the properties of a rubber ball so that it rebounded around a corner before returning its sharpness. Sticky, bouncy, sharp, heavy, light, she did absurd things to her own physical properties and that of the things she held.

No one seemed to know if her unerring, perfect aim with anything she threw was a power, or just skill. Either way, it just added to how dangerous she was. Especially as she had a habit of making something incredibly light so she could throw it easily, then making it incredibly heavy right before impact.

Yeah, she was a great big cheater, and while she seemed to only be able to alter the properties of one thing at a time (including herself), she was still a great pain in the ass for anyone who tried to fight her.

So, after a brief hesitation, the girl tossed the bag that way before noting, “This all sounds pretty official and stuff for some gang of thugs.”

Cardsharp smiled easily. “What can I say?

“That’s just the kind of guy the boss is.”

*******

One week later

 

“The boss is kind of a weird freak,” the girl with the lizard creatures announced. She was wearing the same get-up, with the mask stuffed into a pocket. She was once more addressing Cardsharp, as the two of them stood in a long hallway in front of an unlabeled door. The girl held a cage that had been covered with a blanket in front of her self with both hands.

“Not that he really minds people thinking so,” her sponsor into this whole thing replied, “but what makes you say that?”

“This,” the girl retorted, gesturing at the door in front of them. “You seriously want me to go to some kind of school thing? I thought you saw what kind of badass I was and wanted me to jump on your team.”

With a soft chuckle, Cardsharp shook her head. “You’ve got an intriguing power, one with a lot of potential. You’ve got a lot of potential. But you also have no fucking clue what you’re doing. That’s not an insult. Most people don’t have a fucking clue what they’re doing when they start with all this. The boss knows that. It’s why he set this place up. Everybody goes through training. Everybody. Doesn’t matter if you’re Touched or Prev.”

Prev. That was short for Prevalent, the generally accepted word for ‘normal humans without powers’ or ‘non-Touched.’ It wasn’t exactly insulting, and encompassed the idea that they were the majority while not calling them ‘normal’ as if there was something wrong with people who did have powers (a problem that just calling them human would also have had) The shortened form of ‘Prevs’ was also often seen as another way of saying ‘Previouslies’, as in ‘humans before they had super powers.’

Cardsharp was continuing. “There’s different kinds of training depending on what you are, but everyone gets training of some kind. Think of it as a combination school and boot camp. You’ll go through three months of this before you hit the field.”

For a moment, the girl stared at her as though she had to be joking. “Are you serious? Three months of training before I do anything on the streets?”

The woman nodded once. “That’s the rules. It’s what Blackjack insists on, and it works. Trust me, there’s a reason our people are better than the other guys out there. We are better trained, we’re better armed and equipped, and we know how to work together. Our squads train together, live together, and work together. everyone matters, and that means no one is cannon fodder. Which means we’re not going to send you out on those streets until you actually know what you’re doing.

“So yes, three months of training. Take my word for it, it’s worth it. You’ll never have to go out there alone again. You’ll be part of La Casa, The House. And we take care of our own. Or you can turn around and walk right back out of here, no hard feelings. But this is your only chance, there’s no do-overs. You leave now, you’ll never be invited again. And believe me, you’ll make a hell of a lot more with us than out on your own.”

For a second or two, the girl looked indecisive. She lowered her gaze to the covered cage in her hands, biting her lip before finally looking up. “Okay, we’re in.”

Cardsharp gave her a thumbs up. “Good choice. Now before we go in and meet your classmates, may I assume that you have your friends there? That means they can shrink down again?”

The girl nodded. “They go back and forth. All I have to do is think about it and they’ll change back.”

“Excellent,” Cardsharp replied with a thumbs up. “Now I know their names are Tuesday, Riddles, and Twinkletoes, and that you haven’t chosen a Touched name. But what should we call you?”

There was one more brief pause before she answered. “Danielle Kalvers.

“Call me Dani.”

******

Present Day

“Dani!”

The blurted cry came from Dani’s left as the black girl stepped out of the building that had been her home for the past three months. Turning there on the sidewalk, she barely had time to open her mouth before she was suddenly caught up in a tight hug by a girl several inches shorter than her own five foot five.

It was KD. The super enthusiastic girl was barely over five feet, with pale skin and bright blue hair fashioned into pigtails. She wore sunglasses with little yellow smiley faces on the lenses.

“Oof,” Dani muttered, “hey, KD.”

Bouncing up and down a little, the other girl finally stepped back, grinning broadly. “Can you believe it? We’re graduating! We’re gonna be real supervillains!” She gave an excited squeal then, spinning all the way around on one foot.

Dryly, Dani replied, “I think you might have a little further to go on the whole villain thing.”

KD stuck her tongue out while retorting something incomprehensible. Then she tried again, this time without her tongue out. “Don’t be a grump. It’s time to celebrate! And hey, I even…” As she spoke, the girl pulled off the backpack she was wearing and reached inside. “…got you a present!”

With that announcement, she pulled out a smaller cage with a wide-eyed little lizard in it. “Ta da! It’s a crocodile skink. I wanted to get you a real crocodile, but, you know, not allowed to go do villain things like rob the zoo until after graduation. Do you like her?”

Staring open mouthed, Dani slowly reached out to take the cage, lifting it up so she could see the skink better. “Oh my God, KD, you didn’t have to do that.”

“You’re my friend,” KD replied. “Besides, I haven’t gotten to see you do it with a new one yet. I wasn’t here when you got Mars Bar. Can I see you do it this time? Huh, huh?”

Smirking despite herself at her friend’s excitement, Dani nodded while turning to walk back behind the building. “Sure, come on.”

The complex they were staying at was miles outside of Detroit proper. To the outside world, it was some kind of religious camp or whatever. Dani wasn’t sure. The point was, it was walled off and required about a half hour drive along a rocky dirt road to reach. There were a handful of buildings out here and a garage full of vehicles. The place really was like a whole university or something.

Together, she and KD walked past a group of people training to be La Casa foot soldiers, moving to a more private spot behind the academics building they had just left.

As Dani reached into the cage to take out the skink, KD asked, “So how does it work? I mean, I know you can only choose one other animal to combine them with, and that’s the only other form they get, but how do you choose?”

Clearing her throat, Dani started, “First, she needs a name.” Holding the skink carefully, she considered for a moment before pronouncing, “Holiday. Her name is Holiday.”

“Cuz she’s a present!” KD blurted with a wide smile. “I get it. Okay, so…”

“So now,” Dani finished for her, “I focus on thinking really hard about the animal I want to combine her with.”

“Well,” KD recited, “Twinkletoes is a chameleon combined with a gorilla. Tuesday is a gecko combined with a monkey. Riddles is a bearded dragon combined with an eagle. And Mars Bar is an iguana crossed with a grizzly bear. Which is really freaking scary, for the record. What do you need next?”

Dani considered that. Monkey, gorilla, eagle, and bear. What did she need? “Something big enough to take care of itself, but faster than Twinkletoes or Mars Bar. Like a wolf. Or…” Her smile brightened. “Or a panther.”

Kneeling down on the ground, she set the newly dubbed Holiday in front of herself before putting two fingers on the lizard’s back. As she focused, the skink suddenly went very still, eyes closing as both girl and lizard fell into a kind of trance.

Almost ten minutes passed that way before Dani opened her eyes. As she did so, the girl found herself facing a much different skink.

As she’d wanted, the skink was now combined with a panther. It looked like a cross between the two animals, a reptilian hunting cat without any fur. To many it probably would have looked horrifying and dangerous. But Dani immediately hugged her new friend. “Holiday!”

KD came in for a hug with both of them as well, proclaiming, “That was awesome! I mean, not much happened at first, but then she started growing, and you were all whispering stuff, and then she was growing some more, and then you were both making noises, and then poof! Here she is.”

Rubbing the top of Holiday’s head for a moment, Dani smiled. “Come on, girl.” With a thought, she shifted the creature back into her small lizard form. It took about ten seconds for the panther-reptile to fully shift and shrink back down into her ordinary skink form. Once she had, Dani reach down and picked her up. “Let’s go meet your brothers and sister.”

Before they could go anywhere, however, a figure stepped into view. It was Elarc Sorn, one of their combat instructors.

“Girls,” he announced, “Time to pack your things. It’s all hands on deck.

“La Casa’s about to go to war.”

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