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Interlude 22B – Meanwhile On Breakwater (Summus Proelium)

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The drone passing over the island known as Breakwater was silent, while its physical appearance was masked by the thick clouds. Clouds which threatened rain, but had not amounted to more than a few drops just yet. Yet before the day was out, it would certainly become a deluge. Being an island in the middle of the ocean, rain was not exactly an uncommon occurrence. Its inhabitants had long-since learned to recognize the signs that a particularly strong storm was coming and seek shelter. From their various caves, holes, and more man-made shelters, these people who would have been (and once were) considered some of the most dangerous supervillains in the world would watch the rain when it came. For most, it was a welcome sight each time, as it meant they would have more fresh water collecting in the various tarps and bins they had set up for such a purpose. More water meant they could be more active, and even meant they could eat more food. Digesting food properly required water. When there was less water, even when they had food, it was dangerous to eat. They would dehydrate faster if they ate food without having enough water. Having as much as possible was important, and it wasn’t always possible to get to the island’s main river, or the various smaller streams that led off from it. 

There were three ready-sources of potable water on the island, if someone didn’t want to go through the process of making the sea water drinkable. One was the river that ran through the center of the island. But the river, and the streams leading off from it, were often dangerous. Even if one avoided passing through claimed territory, there were those who hunted one another along its banks. After all, the people of this island had not been sentenced here for their ability to be nice to one another and get along. While the island was thirty-six miles long and sixteen miles wide, the river was only about nine miles in length, originating just north of the center, and angling southwest. Those nine miles were heavily protected either by various established and fortified camps of prisoners who had agreed to work together under the often dictatorial fist of their strongest and/or most dangerous member, or by rogue loners who ambushed anyone foolish enough to come into their view and look vulnerable. They had been removed from society for being monsters who killed, tortured, and destroyed lives. They didn’t all stop and become better people simply because their only possible targets were others like them. 

The second source of decent water was the rain, like that which would soon be pouring heavily onto the island, ensuring that even those who stayed far from the dangerous river would survive. Even if they had to slurp from the heavy leaves the rain left soaked through, they could keep going. 

And the last real source was the supply drops, where large crates of not only water, but also food, medicine, and even entertainment were sent to the island. There were two different kinds of these drops. The first sent the supplies to the same location every time, regular drops that could be depended on. Like the easily-defensible spots of the river, the areas each of these drops were made had almost immediately become encircled and fiercely defended by the largest gangs of Breakwater prisoners. Though ‘largest’ wasn’t saying much, given no gang on Breakwater had more than twenty members. They simply could not get along beyond that. Larger groups inevitably broke apart as their personalities clashed. 

In any case, these smaller groups sometimes did work out. They formed camps around where these drops were. The boundaries of these camps constantly fluctuated, as the various gangs fought to bring and keep as many of the steady supply drops within their territory as possible. Especially any supply drop within a near enough distance to the river for a gang to control both. Those were the single most dangerous parts of the island, as small-scale wars often broke out for control of them. A lot of blood had been shed in the name of holding onto the most coveted areas.

But the second type of drop was far more interesting in some ways. Rather than being sent to the same location every time, these drops were random. The crates would simply be sent down first, then have their locations broadcast over the island’s speaker system so that everyone would know where to go find them. 

Why did they do that? Because the people behind the island enjoyed mixing things up and seeing their prisoners fight one another. Which was why the crates with the most entertainment and extras beyond the bare necessities were often these random drops. The people behind Breakwater had long-since found that the island’s inhabitants would fight the hardest for these extras. The prisoners saw water and basic food as possible to get in other places. They had fish, they had animals, they had ways of feeding themselves and drinking, even if it wasn’t the best and wasn’t easy. Books, though? Pillows and blankets? Batteries for their music devices and new music itself? Even cards and board games, and other ways of making the days go by. Those were what worked best to encourage the prisoners to go out and run into one another. They were what the people would most often fight and even sometimes kill for. So those were what was often put into the randomized drops. Even then, they often weren’t really random. They were deliberately chosen in ways that would push so-called interesting groups or individuals together in order to create intriguing or exciting situations. 

After all, it was important that the prisoners entertain their eternal watchers. 

“You’re sending out a drop now, in this weather?” 

The question came not from one of the island’s prisoners, and not even from the island itself. Rather, it came from a man standing in the hatchway of a small room located on a large military ship several miles away. His dark blond hair was cut short on the sides, though the top was a bit of a mop of curls. At a glance, he would have been guessed to be in his late thirties.

Meanwhile, the man he was addressing appeared to be ten years younger, with black hair that was worn somewhat long, just past his ears. This one sat at a console, watching several monitors in front of him as the drone he had launched passed over the island they and those like them were charged with watching over. 

“I’m sending those Stars a little help,” the man at the console replied. “They’ve survived this long, it’s about time they got something.” 

From the doorway, the other man made a noise in the back of his throat. “You know what the orders were, Colin.”

“Yeah,” Colin confirmed. “They can’t get off the island because finding out people can be sent there would make everyone paranoid. And because this is our biggest ratings boost since this whole show started. I get it, Lyle.”

“Do you?” Lyle stepped into the room, shaking his head. “All three of the Earths that we broadcast this Vile Island reality shit to have reported record numbers. Having those two on that island with all those people looking for them is gold to the Board. They are seeing cartoonish levels of dollar signs, my man. Before this happened, they were talking about doing some other big stunts to spice things up. I even heard a couple of them talking about possibly letting the people on this world watch the show.” 

Colin gave him a brief, disbelieving look. “This world? There’s no way that would fly. We’d get shut down so fast the Boards’ heads would spin if the people of this world knew the ultimate island prison was a goddamn supervillain Truman Show mixed with one of those battle royale flicks. Has the Board lost their minds, or did they just forget that that’s the whole damn reason we broadcast to other worlds? Worlds where they know no version of Baldur exists so they can’t rat us out to this version, I might add. If they’re so paranoid about being caught they won’t even broadcast to a world where another version of Baldur exists, how the fuck were they going to broadcast it here?” 

“You got me, man,” Lyle replied with a shrug. “All I know is they were talking about it. But since those two showed up, it’s all about them. They want to see more. They want the prisoners to keep chasing them, keep fighting them. And it’s not just views. People have been betting on this shit. On how long they last, on which of them will die first, how many they’ll take out with them, whether they’ll find a way off, all of it. And since the Board owns all of the official betting sites, they take a cut. I think they’re getting visions of Scrooge McDuck’s money bin. So trust me, if anything threatens that, they’ll come down on us like a hammer the size of this ship. If they even get a whiff that we’re about to fuck up their bottom line, they will shove the fist of God up our asses and rip our colons out the hard way.” 

“Relax,” Colin retorted, “I’m not threatening their bottom line. Everything in the drop is kosher.  Nothing in there that isn’t approved by the Board themselves. You know how hard it is to sneak something new into those crates. Everything has to be approved sixteen different times. All I did was give them some extra supplies to keep going, and send it near their last known location.” 

Lyle watched him for a moment. “Let me guess,” he slowly put in while tugging a chair out to sit next to the other man at the console, “you’re not announcing the drop over the PA.” 

“Rules are rules,” Colin pointed out, “I have to announce it. Except I always get the grid mixed up. Is this area six-eleven or eleven-six? Oh well, I suppose if it turns out to be the wrong announcement, I can always correct it later.”  

“After all the prisoners are sent in the wrong direction,” Lyle murmured with a very faint smirk. “So those girls you like can get everything out of it and move on.” 

Colin turned back to the monitors then, watching as the drone targeted the area for its drop. “Maybe I can’t help those two get off the island, or tell anyone what’s going on so they can get them out of there. But I can damn sure give them a little bit of a fighting chance to keep going. Especially after they’ve made it this far on their own. You got a problem with that?” 

There was a very brief pause before Lyle offered him a sly smile. “Nah. I’ve got money riding on them getting out of this.” 

******

Irelyn Banners had not had a very good week, to say the least. Since the moment she and Trivial had ended up on this island, they had been fighting to survive. The best of the people here wanted to kill them. The worst… well, she’d rather not focus on that. There were cannibals and truly horrific monsters among the Breakwater inhabitants. Being evil was a requirement to be sentenced to this place. The population was one hundred percent hardened supervillains. 

Or rather, ninety-nine point nine percent. She and Trivial had thrown off that perfect score slightly. 

The two of them had been moving around a lot, staying away from the gangs as much as possible. As confident as she was in her own abilities, and Hazel’s, they couldn’t stand up to all of these monsters at once. And if there was one thing that gave the assholes reason to work together, it was hunting for a common enemy. So, Irelyn and Hazel kept moving, finding various safe places to stay for a day at the most before moving on. 

At first, Irelyn had not expected to be on the island that long. Surely as soon as someone behind the multitude of cameras watching the place saw who they were, there would be an extraction. But as the hours and days went on, she very soon realized that there would be no help coming. The people behind those cameras didn’t want to admit what had happened. If they let the public know that a couple of Star-Touched had been sent by some third party to this place, there would be panic about others being sent there. Or about people who were supposed to be here being transported off of it. There would be a huge mess for the people in charge, a potential shake-up of the whole system. 

So, Irelyn and Hazel were on their own. How they were going to get off this place was… a question for later. Right now, they were focused on surviving. And on hoping that their teammates would raise enough of a fuss for a real investigation into their whereabouts to happen. 

She still cursed the fact that she had dropped her phone back when they first arrived. They’d run into trouble almost immediately after realizing where they were, and in the ensuing fight, she’d lost the cell. Now it was who the hell knew where. Not that it would’ve helped that much anyway, given this island very obviously had no cell service, and no way to charge it. As evidenced by Hazel’s phone. But still, it would have been nice. 

Just what the hell was going on that whoever was behind Paige’s… entire situation had ended up transporting them to Breakwater? Irelyn had no idea, but she knew who did. That Albert Elcott guy, the one who had posed as the agent who had processed Paige’s adoption, and two others that same year. The man who had built the portal machine that transported himself as well as Irelyn and Hazel to this island to begin with. He had answers. If they could find him, if they could get him to talk, they would find out the truth. 

Unfortunately, finding him was hard when they couldn’t even go anywhere without being hunted by the assortment of psychopaths who had been forced to make this island their home. The two of them were working on that. Right now, their best plan was to find a way to make it look as though they had either died or been taken off the island so that the search for them would fade. Once they didn’t have so many people scouring this place for them, they could start their own search for Albert. He was here somewhere on the island. And whoever he had been trying to help get off the island with that teleporter would have the real answers. If they found Albert, they would find the truth about what was going on with Paige. 

But first, they had to survive. Which had led them here. At one point this had been a decent-sized stream, if not a full on river. But other prisoners had diverted the water with a dam in order to direct it to their own base years ago. Now it was a dry creek bed, about twelve feet across and two or three feet deep, like a ditch running through the ground for two miles or so. Sitting in the center of that creek bed right then was the latest cargo drop, a bright red metal crate six feet across on all sides. The parachute it had used to land safely lay nearby, connected via an assortment of cords. 

The intercom had lied. Though she had only been here a short time, Irelyn had quickly realized how the grid system worked, and where they were. Whoever was doing the announcement of the drop had inverted the numbers. Whether that was intentional or no–it was intentional. She had to believe that. The fact that the drop had come practically right on top of them, yet the gangs who would have been after it were sent in a completely wrong direction couldn’t have been a coincidence. The people in charge may have decided not to help them get off that island, but someone out there was deliberately sending them supplies. 

Unfortunately, it still wouldn’t be as simple as just walking up and taking them. They weren’t the only ones who had noticed the actual physical drop. Even as Irelyn crouched on the outstretched limb of a tree that hung over the dry creek bed, she could see two men approaching the crate. One was about six and a half feet tall, wearing a pair of ratty old jeans that were falling apart and a black tank top. The exposed parts of his brown skin were covered in dozens of small, crescent shaped white markings that ran across his upper chest, down his arms, across his face, and so forth. The other man was a few inches under six feet, with short blond hair and clothes roughly similar to his companion. They approached the crate, keeping a wary eye out for anyone trying to intercept their prize. 

It was now or never. Waiting until the two men had their attention focused on opening the crate, Irelyn (or Flea as she was in-costume) gathered herself before leaping that way. From her crouched position a good thirty feet away, she lunged straight to the men in a single bound. The taller man spun that way, but her foot collided with his chest and sent him flying backward six or seven feet before he fell to his back and skidded through the dirt even further. 

“Haha, two for one!” the man’s partner crowed while pivoting to face her. His hands began to glow brightly red. “We get a supply drop all to ourselves and a tasty treat to play with.” Even as he said that, a pair of red rings of energy shot out from his extended hands, flying straight at Flea.

Meanwhile, behind her, the man she had knocked down was picking himself up as his hand literally ripped one of the white crescent shapes from his own skin. As it was pried up, the mark transformed into a fully three dimensional shape, extending and growing into what amounted to a boomerang. Just as his partner let loose with those two ring blasts, the second man hurled that boomerang. Rather than fly straight at her however, the thing took off like a miniature drone of its own, flying up and to one side as tiny yet very dangerous and rapid laser blasts shot from it. 

With a snap of one hand, Flea sent a sword flying up and to the side, cutting through the ‘drone’ and sending it crashing to the ground. At the same time, she gave what was for her a very slight hop, carrying herself six feet to one side as the rings of energy shot through the space she had been in a moment earlier. The man fired several more times in rapid succession, but Flea was never where he expected her to be. Her quick hops carried her back and forth as he grew increasingly frustrated, firing those rings faster and faster. 

Then, as quickly as if a switch had been flicked, the man passed out. He collapsed abruptly, hitting the ground already snoring. Through those rapid few seconds, Flea had been using her stamina draining power, until he was so tired within even that brief amount of time that he literally fell unconscious while standing up and actively fighting. His body hit the ground and he started to snore. 

Meanwhile, the sword that she had tossed to cut through the small drone had been caught in midair, as Trivial appeared. Turning invisible for three seconds and teleporting one foot at a time might not have sounded like much, but it added up to a lot very quickly when she was coming up from behind the crescent-marked man. Especially when her ability to float several inches off the ground meant he never heard her footsteps. She had run up to a spot almost directly behind him, then turned invisible, taking a few more steps past the man before teleporting that single foot at the last moment to grab the sword. By the time he actually saw her, Trivial had spun back that way, putting the blade right up to his throat. “Touch another of those crescents and I’ll carve a new one that you can’t rip off.” 

The man glowered that way, though he didn’t move. “You think you stand a chance on this island? You should give up now and ask for protection. Or maybe beg for it. Yeah, I like that idea. How about the two of you… sorta… tell me how… far… the dragon… kicked the… ehhhh….”

Trailing off like that after starting to speak exhaustion-inspired randomness, the man’s eyes rolled into the back of his head as he collapsed not far from where his partner had fallen. 

“I do like when they rant or monologue,” Irelyn noted. “Makes it so much easier to put them to sleep. And it makes them say funny shit like that when it kicks in.” Glancing to the other woman, she added, “Are we good?” 

“We’re good,” Hazel confirmed. “Just help me pull them up next to each other.” 

So they did, putting the two men side by side. Hazel knelt between them, putting one hand on each man’s forehead. “Remember, I only get to erase one minute worth of memory per person, per day, and I forget everything that happened in that minute too.” With that, she focused, then abruptly sank back with a gasp. “What–wha?” Her gaze snapped around quickly before realizing where she was, and the two unconscious figures lying on either side of her. “Oh. I guess we won?” 

“We won,” the other woman confirmed. “And within the sixty seconds too, so if we move these guys somewhere else before they wake up, they won’t have any memory of seeing us, or what happened here.” 

The two of them were interrupted by the sound of slow clapping. As their eyes snapped toward the source, a heavy-set pale-skinned man with long red hair and eyes that were jet black with no visible whites stepped into view from the treeline. “Oh, excellent. Excellent indeed. Now I don’t have to share.” 

As Irelyn took a step that way, he held up one hand. “Bup bup. I assure you, I have seen more than sixty seconds of this situation. And even had I not, a word from me and every person on this island hears my voice. You come toward me, and I will ensure they all know where you are.” With those words, the man rubbed his hands together as his eyes turned from black to white, and both women felt the uncomfortable sensation as though their own hands were rubbing together. When he touched his neck while his eyes remained white, they felt a hand on their own necks. Not only could the man share his voice with the entire island, he could make anyone he wanted to within his line of sight experience the exact sensations either he himself, or anyone else within the same area, experienced. 

“Now,” the man continued. “We can come to an arrangement of course, one that does not necessitate that I share my bounty with anyone else.” 

“You’re not getting a damn thing,” Trivial informed him. 

Her words made the man chuckle low, his eyes shifting back from white to black as he ceased focusing on his power for the moment. “No? Because from where I’m standing, you both have very few choices. You could take me prisoner, but I’m too far away right now for your little sleepy power to work, so you’d have to get to me before I can speak the words that would summon every nasty fiend on this island right here. I promise, you can’t fight all of them. And even if you did manage to take me prisoner, I’d get the word out eventually. It seems to me your only chance is to do what you’re told, or try to kill me. But you’re just a couple of superheroes, you’re too good and pure and perfectly innocent to do what–”

In mid-sentence, the man was abruptly cut off. As was his head, which went tumbling off into the bushes. He’d never had a single moment of warning before Flea, in one instantaneous lunge, had put herself right in front of him, slicing through his neck in a blindingly-quick slash. 

“I carry swords for fuck’s sake,” she informed his body as it fell one way, his head rolling off in a different direction. “Did you think I don’t know how to be lethal if I have to?” She looked down at his fallen form, murmuring, “You know who that was?” 

Hazel nodded. “Sharealike. He kidnapped four girls and three boys over a two year period before he was imprisoned here. Most of them didn’t survive. The one who did is going to be traumatized for the rest of her life. Then he killed another thirteen people in one mass terror attack at a grocery store. When the police searched his apartment, they found his girlfriend. The one he killed when she tried to call the cops after she found out who he really was, just before the grocery store incident.” 

“Yup,” Flea confirmed. “So if his fucking ghost thinks I’m going to lose any sleep over him being dead,  he can think again.” 

With that, she gave a sharp flick of the blade and sent the blood away before looking over to her companion. “Are we clear?” 

Cocking her head to the side, Hazel listened with her slightly enhanced senses. She wasn’t exactly able to hear a fly land on a leaf, but it was the best they had. After a moment, she nodded. “I think so, but we should hurry up and get away from this place. Those flipped coordinates are only gonna confuse people for so long.” 

“Right,” Irelyn agreed, hopping away from the body, back toward the crate. “Let’s see what we’ve got in here. 

“And hope it gives us what we need to hole up until this heat dies down, so we can go find Albert and smack some fucking answers out of him.” 

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Interlude 21A – An Unexpected Detour (Summus Proelium)

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“Thanks a lot, keep the tip.” With those words, Irelyn Banners (dressed as a civilian rather than as her costumed identity of Flea) stepped back into the fairly cramped motel room with a box of piping hot pizza. Kicking the door shut behind her, the brunette woman with her hair kept in a loose ponytail held the treat up in one hand so her companion could see it. “Here we go, the real dinner of champions.”  

From the other side of the room, Hazel Ruthers (better known to the public as Trivial) raised an eyebrow. Outside of her own costume, Hazel had straight black hair that fell only a couple inches above her shoulders, with fairly dark skin to indicate her mixed-race status. She had a two-liter bottle of soda in one hand and was using it to fill a couple of plastic cups provided by the motel. “Could we really be considered champions when ordering pizza is basically the height of what we’ve been able to accomplish the entire time we’ve been down here? I don’t want to say we’re bad at our jobs or anything, but we’ve been here for days and have nothing to show for it. At this point, after all the people we’ve talked to, I’m not convinced your sister even exists, let alone that she’s ever been here. Are you sure she wasn’t just the result of some manic and incredibly elaborate fever dream you had?” 

Snorting at the question, Irelyn set the pizza down on the nearby bed (one of two in the room they were sharing) before grabbing a paper plate. “You do realize that you’ve met her before, right?” She was already loading up the plate with several pieces, which she handed over that way. “Multiple times, actually. We went and got lunch together a few months ago.” 

“Maybe we were both having elaborate fever dreams,” Hazel retorted while taking the offered plate. She traded it by handing over a cup of soda before taking a seat on the end of her own bed. “I can’t rule that out. But come on, seriously, if your sister was anywhere around here, someone we talked to would have seen her. We’ve got nothing. I mean, nothing here anyway. Maybe she made that call and left immediately? Or maybe she found a way to bounce the signal. All you’ve got that says she was here is that phone call Bryson tracked down to this place, right? It could be faked.” 

Heaving a sigh, Irelyn took the cup and sat down to get her own plate of pizza. “By that standard, the whole thing could have been faked. Even her being the one talking. God knows, Dad has pissed off enough powerful people. I wouldn’t put it past some of them to–but they don’t know what I am. She was clearly stopping me from exposing my identity to whoever was sitting there listening, and–” Cutting herself off, she blanched. “Yeah, maybe they were threatening her or something. I don’t know. I was hoping we’d get some easy answers just by tracking her down, but you’re right. She’s obviously not here. Unless she’s a lot better at hiding than I think she is, someone around here would’ve seen her.” 

Scooting over to the edge of her bed, Hazel spoke gently. “Well, there is some good news about all that, you know?” She took a bite of the pizza, waiting for the other woman to look toward her expectantly before explaining. “If they went through all the trouble of making a phone call or whatever to send you down here, it means your family is probably still alive. I mean, if they were just gonna… umm, you know, just gonna kill them, they wouldn’t go through all that to distract you. They wanted you distracted and out of the way, and sending you all the way down here to Florida probably means it’s something elaborate and time-consuming. And the more time-consuming it is, the better chance your family is still okay.” Having said all that, she visibly grimaced. “I know that’s not exactly the best news in the universe, but–” 

“But it’s something,” Irelyn agreed, her voice coming with another heavy sigh. “I know what you mean. Obviously they had a reason to distract me. There’s no point in sending me on a wild goose chase if they were just going to kill them and dump the bodies. There’s… something else going on. Something I don’t know anything about, that’s just–fuck. I don’t know.” She set the plate down before throwing up her hands helplessly. “If this really is a dead-end, then I’ve got nothing. At least with that phone call I had a lead. But if she’s not here, if my parents and sister aren’t–I mean… they could be anywhere.” 

“Hey now.” Reaching out, Hazel put a hand on the other woman’s arm. “I don’t come bearing only problems, I’ve also got solutions.” Belatedly, she amended, “Okay, maybe not exactly solutions. But at least clues, or hints, or… another idea. I’ve got something we can check.” 

Irelyn arched an eyebrow that way. “You’ve been looking into other things too, haven’t you?” 

“Well, the same thing, your missing family,” Hazel pointed out. “Just different avenues for finding them. I mean–okay so I started looking into where your sister came from. You know, where your family adopted her from. I know, you think this is all about your dad pissing someone off, but I figured it might be a good idea to look at your sister’s past too, since you weren’t. Sorry if that was, like, overstepping or whatever. I just, you know, thought it was worth it.”  

“You don’t need to apologize, Hazel,” Irelyn assured her. “I was laser-focused on it being some guy from my dad’s business. If that’s wrong–well then it’s wrong. But are you saying you actually found out something about Paige?” The very thought that this whole situation could have come from her adopted sister’s past instead of someone that their father had pissed off was enough to make her reel inwardly. But she wasn’t going to dismiss the prospect. Not now that they had already spent all this time looking for Paige here in Florida to no avail. She was ready to pursue any lead at all, as long as it actually led somewhere.

Hazel hesitated before giving a very slight nod. “Yes and no. I mean, I found out some stuff, including a lot of dead ends. Like, for example, the group your dad adopted her from doesn’t exist. They never existed.”  

That made Irelyn do a quick double-take. “Wait, what do you mean they never existed?” 

“I mean that group was never a real adoption agency,” Hazel informed her. “As far as I can tell, the agent your father worked with to secure the adoption isn’t real. Well, obviously he’s real, but the name is fake. The name of the group is fake, and even–” She grimaced while passing on the news. “Even the name of the doctor who supposedly delivered Paige as a baby is fake. It’s all fake, Irelyn. There is no such doctor who ever worked in that hospital. There was no adoption agency by that name, no doctor, no nothing. The agent never did any adoptions before that one. As far as I can tell, every single name on the official records about where Paige came from, aside from that one adoption agent, is completely made up. The rest of them aren’t real people. The judge, the lawyers, all of them. They don’t exist. Or at least, they used fake identities for this whole thing. Which itself is pretty fucked up, you know?” 

By the time she finished all that, Irelyn was staring at her, having completely forgotten about the pizza. “You’re telling me that almost everyone behind my sister’s adoption and–and her entire life before we got her was completely made up? How is that even possible? I mean, why would–did my Dad–of course he knew.” Her head shook rapidly. “He had to know. Maybe he went through some illegal channels to adopt her. But why? Why would he need to do that? It’s not like there aren’t plenty of perfectly legal adoption services out there. I don’t–oh my God.” Her eyes had widened dramatically. “You think my father had Paige kidnapped from someone?” The very thought was enough to make her physically recoil. Irelyn had plenty of problems with her father, but she’d always seen him as generally a decent person, for what he was. And if not decent, at least not the type to have a child kidnapped like that. She had plenty of issues with the man, but he wasn’t that sort of person, was he? The fact that she had to seriously ask herself that made bile rise in her throat. She felt physically ill. “You think he had her kidnapped and… and got some schmuck adoption agent to make it look legitimate? But wait, why would he do that? If the rest of the identities are fake, what was the point of having a legitimate adoption agent?”

There was a brief pause before the other woman answered. “I don’t think this person was a legitimate adoption agent, Irelyn. Like I said, he never did any adoptions before that one, before Paige. He’s a real person, but there’s no record of him ever existing before Paige’s adoption. And the agency he was supposed to work for doesn’t exist, it never has. So this guy came out of nowhere, no background, no real history. I think he was mostly used to make the adoption look good for anyone your parents talked to. You know, so their friends or business people could see a real live person discussing the adoption with them.” 

Irelyn was still visibly reeling from all that. Her mouth opened and shut a couple times before she managed a weak, “But… but would my parents really…” 

“I don’t know,” Hazel hesitantly replied. “I don’t know enough to say what your father knew about the situation or–but I mean, obviously he had to know some of it. There’s no way he didn’t realize that a lot of this information was bogus. He’s not an idiot. He’s a lot of things, sure, but not that stupid. He had to know that the adoption agency wasn’t real. Maybe he thought there was a legitimate reason, or… I don’t know. Maybe there was a legitimate reason, Irelyn. We don’t know enough to say for sure. All we can say is that all that information is fake.” 

Absorbing all of that, Irelyn shook her head. “So, basically, all we know is that we don’t know anything. We’re right back to where we started from. If none of that information is real, then… then we’ve got nothing to go off of. Which means if this is about Paige’s own history instead of something my dad did, they could be literally anywhere.” 

Hazel offered a very slight smile while rubbing a hand over the back of her neck. “I wouldn’t say we’ve got nothing, exactly. I umm, I might’ve asked Bryson to check for anything he could find about those names. You know, whether they ever popped up again in relation to adoptions or anything like that. Especially the agent, the only guy who actually existed, even if everything about him was fake.” 

Irelyn’s gaze was intense as she stared that way. “Please tell me he actually found something useful.” She needed some actual good news.

Hazel, thankfully, gave her a nod. “Yeah, he found something. Turns out that guy, ahh Albert Elcott, he did two more adoptions that same year. It’s definitely the same guy too, not just the name. The signature matches the one on your paperwork. Both of the other adoptions were in Salt Lake City.” 

Taking a moment to process that, Irelyn slowly replied, “Salt Lake City? Does that have any sort of relevance?” 

“Not exactly,” came the response, “But get this. Those three adoptions, Paige and the other two, were the last–the only ones this guy ever did, before he retired… at age thirty-four.”  

Irelyn gave a double-take at that, squinting. “He retired at thirty-four?” 

With a nod, Hazel explained, “Apparently he ‘inherited’ a small fortune from some dead great-aunt or something. Enough to buy a big house in some small town south of Salt Lake and live without working for the rest of his life. I mean, he’s not in some giant mansion or anything, but he’s comfortable. And it gets more interesting than that.” 

“More interesting?” Irelyn shifted a bit on the bed. “I dunno, it’s already pretty up there.” 

Smirking a bit, Hazel continued. “Those other two adoptions he did, the birth parents’ signatures are different names, but they’re all in the same handwriting. At least, according to the experts Bryson asked. Two different experts looked at the handwriting and they said all six signatures from all six different birth parents for the three kids were written by the same person. They were trying to disguise it, but these guys were pretty sure.” 

That… was a lot. Irelyn had to take another minute to think her way through it. “Okay, so what we know is that the agency my parents worked with to adopt Paige was fake. The agent who worked with them obviously changed his identity before then, because there are no records of him anywhere before that. The doctors and nurses back at the hospital who originally delivered Paige as a baby don’t exist. Her birth parents don’t exist. And the one person in this entire situation, besides Paige, who does actually exist, the agent who facilitated the adoption, bought a house and retired that same year after two more adoptions. And all three of the adoptions were signed off by the same person posing as all six birth parents.” 

“Yeah, that pretty much sums it up,” Hazel confirmed. “It’s all pretty weird, huh?” 

“Pretty weird…” Irelyn echoed a bit blankly, gazing off into the distance. “Yeah, I’d say so. But you know what we’re gonna do now?”

“Go see this guy in Utah?” Hazel guessed. 

“Go see this guy in Utah,” Irelyn confirmed. “So what’s the name of this town he lives in, anyway?” 

*******

“Actually, it’s pronounced Tooele,” the friendly waiter who had been serving Hazel and Irelyn lunch politely informed them. “Too-ill-uh. Too-ill-uh, not tool or toollie. Yeah, I know how it looks, but here we are.” 

“Damn,” Hazel lamented. “I guess neither of us wins that bet. Thanks though. And hey, this is a nice place.” 

Beaming, the man thanked them for stopping by, gave the pair a last refill of iced tea, then stepped away to handle a couple newly arriving customers. Which left the two women to look at one another in silence for a moment. 

Irelyn spoke first, keeping her voice low despite the fact there was no one nearby the back corner booth they had requested. “So, this town has about forty thousand people. You know how big Detroit is right now? Two point five million people.” 

“I think it’s cozy,” Hazel noted, glancing around. “I mean, I’d get bored pretty quick, but it’d be a nice place to visit sometimes. I can see why our strange friend decided to retire here. That money he got probably wouldn’t give him a very nice life for long in a place like Detroit. It’s too expensive. But here?” She gestured around. “Cost of living can’t be that high. It’s quiet, peaceful, people probably leave him alone.” 

“Something tells me it’s not just that,” Irelyn flatly replied. “Come on, I’ll tell you about it on the way.” She took a final gulp of her iced tea before getting up to leave, tossing a twenty dollar bill on the table for a tip on the way out. It had been good food, and good service. 

Once they were outside the so-named Chubby’s Cafe, the pair headed for their rented car. Irelyn drove, checking the GPS on her phone before heading for the house their target lived in. They had thought about showing the picture they’d taken off his (quite barren and ignored) Facebook page to the waiter in there, but given the size of the town, they didn’t want to accidentally tip the man off ahead of time. This seemed like the sort of place where a lot of people knew one another. 

“So, what’s got you suspicious now?” Hazel asked. “I mean, besides this entire thing.”  

“You know how this Albert Elcott guy bought a fair-sized house to retire?” Irelyn started. “Well, see, I took a look at the property records around him, and it turns out he owns the houses on either side too. They’re owned through a shell company, and he has people going in and out every year. Different renters, probably paid off to keep quiet about anything he’s doing. Or, you know, anything they hear.”

Giving a low whistle, Hazel shook her head. “So you think he’s up to something else after all, besides just living the good life.” 

Irelyn confirmed, “Yeah, I definitely think there’s a reason he doesn’t want real neighbors who might snoop in on what he’s doing in that house. Owning those other two homes gives him a buffer to do whatever he wants without prying eyes. And there’s more than that. I found several deliveries of… pretty high tech stuff. He tried to split it up with different companies, months or even years apart, even having it delivered to one of those other two houses sometimes. But trust me, whatever he’s doing, it involves building something pretty advanced. And now I really want to know what it is.” 

“So you wanna go in like this, or suit up?” Hazel’s question came as she glanced out the window at the houses around them. “You think this town even has any Touched?” 

“Not on the record they don’t,” Irelyn replied. “The nearest Touched teams are up in Salt Lake, thirty miles north. And they’re mostly still dealing with the fallout from that Collision Point between Hollow and Grote. Pretty sure they wouldn’t be down here. Which is another reason this place is probably good for whatever that Elcott guy’s working on.” She paused to consider then before adding, “Let’s suit up. It’s a little risky, but I don’t want to take the chance of letting this guy get away just because we couldn’t go all out to catch him.” 

So, the two of them parked the car in an alley they found near the neighborhood in question, changing into their costumes before driving the rest of the way. It was barely afternoon in the middle of the week, so they didn’t expect many people to be around. Still, rather than park in front of the house, they stopped a few doors down. The neighborhood itself looked like any suburban street, with perfectly maintained green lawns, lush bushes and trees, everything neatly arranged and quiet. The place felt eerie and strange to Irelyn, for all its complete bland normality. 

Still, there was nothing else to do beyond walk up to the door and get some answers. So, that was what they did. The two stepped out, glanced around once more, and then strode that way. There was no one in sight, but they wanted to get into that house before someone happened to glance outside and raise questions. 

“We just gonna knock on the door?” Hazel (or Trivial when in costume) asked, her eyes scanning carefully for any threats. 

Irelyn considered, even as they got to the chain link fence surrounding the property. “You know, I think we’ll go right inside, and–” Abruptly, she stopped talking, as the door of the house opened. They saw a brief glimpse of the man that they were after, a short and wiry figure with stringy black hair and a ruddy complexion. But as soon as he saw them, the man’s eyes widened dramatically and he abruptly jumped back inside and slammed the door. 

“Hard way it is, then!” Flea snapped, hopping right over the fence and all the way to the porch in a single motion. Her foot reared back before kicking the door off its hinges. It was reinforced, but that didn’t matter when it came to her leg-strength. The door snapped open and fell to the floor with a loud clatter in the small entranceway. She heard footsteps running down some stairs to her left, and sprinted that way, passing through the short corridor to find an open door to the basement. 

With Trivial right behind her, Flea pursued their quarry, calling out, “Albert, stop! We need to talk to you! We’re not here to–” 

She cut herself off, as they had reached the bottom of the stairs. The basement was unfinished, a simple cement floor and walls, totally open save for a complicated-looking machine in the middle. It was about ten feet wide, reaching almost to the ceiling, consisting of a wild assortment of pipes, sheets of metal, glowing lights, tubes with various liquids in them, spinning wheels, and more. 

“What… the hell?” Trivial managed, her gaze moving from the weird machine to the man himself. “Hey! We need to talk to you!” 

“No, no, no, no, you can’t be here. It was ready, it was finally ready, why are you here?!” Albert demanded. He was standing in front of the machine, head shaking violently. “I did everything he said. I did everything right. How did you–why would you–no, no! You can’t be here!” 

“Albert, hang on.” Irelyn held a hand up cautiously. “Who are you talking about? We’re not here to hurt you. Do you know who we are?” 

The man wrapped his arms around himself with a slightly crazed giggle. “It doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter. I did my part. I did what I was supposed to do. I was always Plan B. Just Plan B. But then I was Plan A. I was supposed to have more time, and then I didn’t, but I still fixed it. I followed all his instructions and I made it work! It needs more tests. I was supposed to test it. One more month. One more month to perfect it, just to make sure. But you had to come. You had to fuck it all up and come! So oh well, no more tests. No more perfection. We have to do it now.” 

“Albert, get away from that–” Irelyn started. But before she could say more, the man abruptly snapped his hand out, smacking a button on the side of the machine. She and Trivial both launched themselves that way, but their vision was overtaken by a blinding flash of light even as a sense of weightlessness filled them. It felt like they were floating for a few seconds, before the light faded and the ground rushed up under them. They both fell onto dirt, grass, and pebbles. 

With a grunt, Irelyn looked up just in time to see that Albert guy vanish through the trees. Trees? Yes, there was a forest around them. They had… teleported? Frowning, she lunged to her feet. 

Trivial was right behind her, blurting, “Where the hell are we?” 

“I dunno, but he does,” Flea replied. She was already rushing toward the trees where Albert had disappeared. Only to stop short a few seconds later, as she came through them and found herself on the edge of a cliff. There was no sign of Albert, but far below was a rocky beach next to a tumultuous ocean. On that beach was an assortment of people all gathered around several fires, apparently cooking food. Some had very obvious physical changes, such as visible spikes, horns, one who looked like an eight foot tall living tree, and another who was more like an anthropomorphic caterpillar. 

“Wait, are those… are those Touched down there?” Trivial demanded, staring that way. 

“Yes,” Flea confirmed, her throat suddenly dry. “I know where we are. Trivial, we… we’re both dressed up as well-known Star-Touched. 

“And we’re standing on Breakwater.” 

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Patreon Snippets 23 (Summus Proelium)

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The following is the 23rd edition of Patreon Snippets (or at least the Summus Proelium-related ones). Each month, every Patreon supporter who donates at least ten dollars per month is able to request at least five hundred words toward any subject they would like to see written about (within reason), join their idea to others to make it longer, or hold it for future installments. Thanks go to them, as well as to all supporters, and to all readers. Remember, as little as 5 dollars per month gets you every single chapter one day early. In addition, donators get to vote on end-of-arc interludes, non-canon chapters, and have discounts for commissions. And hey, don’t forget that everyone, Patron or not, can join us in the Discord channel right here

Shortly Before 20-06

He was definitely being watched. Ryder Towling knew that much even as he stepped out of his car, parked in front of the Fosters’ house. Of course, he could have said as much before ever coming into Sherwood territory. Everyone knew how the gang operated. Feeling eyes on him as he closed his door and walked around to open the back was hardly surprising. It took a lot of effort for him to resist the urge to look around. The hair on the back of his neck stood up as he grabbed his satchel from the backseat, hoisted it over his shoulder, and closed the door. 

Yes, there were definitely plenty of eyes on him. Which was why he had to be very careful not to let anyone know the real reason he was here. Or anything about his other identity. Something told him that if the Sherwood people found out that he had any connection to another gang, let alone that he was Eits, someone who primarily used their hated technology, they wouldn’t be too happy. He might not even get a chance to explain the situation. 

And even if he did get that chance, what would he say? Was he supposed to tell them that he had been repaying a favor to a secret organization that had helped him… become who he really was inside, and had actually kept information they probably didn’t want him to have? Information which revealed that Cup and Pencil were desperately trying to find someone who had been adopted years earlier. Someone who now lived in Sherwood territory, in this house. Errol Fosters. 

The Fosters themselves shouldn’t even have been living in this area. The family was rich specifically thanks to a business involving transporting technology. Ryder had no idea how they managed to convince the Sherwood people to leave them alone. It was one of many questions he had about this whole situation. Some of which he might even be able to get answers to. 

As he walked away from his car and approached the front door, the boy asked himself for about the thousandth time why he didn’t just go to Blackjack, explain everything he knew, and ask for help. Seriously, what was he doing here? He wasn’t a fighter. He was a behind-the-scenes sort of guy. And he sure as hell wasn’t some sort of secret agent James Bond type. If he ran into trouble here, deep in another gang’s territory, what was he going to do?

It was stupid. Not asking for help was stupid, the whole thing was stupid. Yet something made him stop every time he thought about going to Blackjack. He had no idea what that whole situation was, how close his boss was to the people who had helped him. For fuck’s sake, they had helped him, so he didn’t even know for certain why he wasn’t going straight to them with this, or just letting them handle it. He just… he couldn’t explain it. He owed them so much, but he wasn’t blind to possible problems. 

He needed to find out more about what was going on, why the Scions wanted to find this kid so much, why his family was living here of all places given what they did for a living, what–all of it. He just had to be careful and find out as much as possible before he made any real decisions. Because once he told anyone about what he knew, there would be no going back. 

With that thought firmly in mind, the boy reached out to push the doorbell. Here went nothing. If this whole thing went wrong, he was totally going to tell himself that he had said so. 

He only had to wait a few seconds after pressing the button for the bell before hearing the sound of several deadbolts and chains being unlocked. Finally, the door was pulled open, and he found himself looking at a beautiful, tall blonde girl who was probably incredibly popular at her school. She wasn’t exactly his type, but he could tell at a glance that the girl was accustomed to being ogled. More than accustomed, she expected it, pausing there with the door open and a knowing smirk on her face. “Hey there,” she greeted him, looking the boy up and down. “Arleigh Fosters. You my new college prep buddy?” 

Yes, this was how he had decided to get into the house and find out more about Errol. Searching through posts from the family online, he had found out that they were looking for a tutor, and a little bit of electronic trickery thanks to his little Mites meant that he was given the job. He still wasn’t sure how he was going to go from working with the girl to learning exactly what was going on with Errol, but at least this gave him a foot in the door. He had even gone through the trouble of making some fake business cards for his supposed services, as well as giving himself a mixture of reviews online. Most good, a few middling based on personality differences, even a couple bad ones. He’d wanted it to look as realistic as possible. 

“Ryder Towling,” he confirmed, extending a hand reflexively even while berating himself for the gesture inwardly. “It’s uhh, nice to meet you.” 

Gazing briefly at his hand as though trying to decide how to react, Arleigh finally offered a very faint, somewhat amused smile before reaching out to gently squeeze it. She didn’t exactly shake his hand as much as… grasp the back of it briefly, but at least she didn’t leave him hanging entirely. 

With that, she pivoted and beckoned. “Come on in. Dad’s back in his office, and my little brother hasn’t gotten home yet. My big brother… who the fuck cares, he’s not here, that’s what matters. Are you hungry? Carol’s probably still in the kitchen.” Without waiting for a response, she raised her voice to call, “Carol, bring some snacks up to my room! Something fun!” 

“Ah, it’s okay, I–” Stopping himself from objecting too much, Ryder shifted his focus to the other thing the girl had said. “Your room? I mean, you want to go up there to study?” 

Giving him a light, clearly teasing glance, Arleigh replied, “Don’t worry, we’ll leave the door open. For now.” With that, she pivoted, flicking her hair over her shoulder as she walked to the nearby stairs and began to ascend. The way she walked made it clear that she wanted him to watch her. This was a girl accustomed to having everyone in a room be attracted to her. More than that, she encouraged it. Which… was kind of cool for her, actually. He wasn’t interested, at least not beyond the obvious biological sense. But still, he wasn’t going to fault her for owning it. She seemed, well, certainly not modest in any sense of the word, but sociable enough so far. 

Shaking off those thoughts, he followed her up the stairs. Spending several long seconds trying to think of a casual way to bring it up, he finally settled on a simple, “So you’ve got two brothers, huh?” 

“That’s right,” the girl replied without looking back. “One younger, one older.” She paused by an open door and gestured. “That’s Errol’s room. My little brother. He should be home soon, but you know, if he bugs us too much I’ll just throw shit at him until he leaves. It’s usually not hard to make him fuck off. Micah’s the one that’s the real pain in the ass.” 

They had reached what was obviously her bedroom by that point, as the door was shut and had a big whiteboard hung on it with the words, ‘Stay The Fuck Out Micah’ written on it. Before opening the door, Arleigh spoke clearly. “Xanah, disable the alarm on my door, code Eulogy Kermit Piggy Grover.” 

After a brief pause, a female voice coming from a nearby speaker acknowledged, “Alarm disabled, Miss Fosters. Have a pleasant afternoon.” 

“You put an alarm on your door?” Ryder asked, raising an eyebrow. 

With a snort, the girl pulled it open. “Like I said, Micah’s a pain in the ass. And I mean that with a capital P and A. I can’t give him any opening.” 

This all felt… like a very awkward and strange house to live in. But Ryder pushed those thoughts aside for the moment, following the girl into her quite large bedroom. He was pretty sure the place was bigger than his whole apartment, actually. She had her own bathroom, accessible only through this room, with what looked like a full whirlpool tub inside, and a separate enclosed shower. The bed itself, on the opposite side of the room from the entrance to the bathroom, was big enough for about six people to sleep on, yet it didn’t even take up half the room. 

Looking around briefly, he finally stepped over to where the desk with her computer was. There were already a couple chairs there. “But you ahh, you don’t think your other brother’s such a pain?” 

Shrugging, Arleigh replied, “He’s little, I can kick his ass. I mean, I can kick Micah’s ass too, sometimes. It just–” She stopped, seeming to consider her words once more before simply finishing with, “Micah can go fuck himself. Errol’s not bad. Annoying sometimes, but… you know, not a big deal.”

Looking to a picture on the wall, Ryder stepped that way. “This them?” He focused on the younger boy in the photo, who looked nothing like the other two. He was little and scrawny, with glasses and a very awkward appearance. 

“Yeah, that’s my brothers,” Arleigh confirmed with a dismissive roll of her eyes. “But come on, you’re not here to tutor them, remember? Micah’s already in college and Errol’s like, really smart anyway. He’ll be fine.” 

Turning away from the picture, Ryder started to step over that way, when a sight through the nearby window made him pause. “Someone just pulled in.” 

“What?” Arleigh jumped to her feet, moving next to him to look out. “If Micah’s back already, I swear–oh. Hey, that’s Cassidy.” 

“Uh, Cassidy?” Ryder looked again. There was a small girl behind the wheel of the car. From that distance, she looked pretty, in a way much more understated than Arleigh’s in-your-face hotness. Her hair was cut short on one side and long on the other, with pink-tinted bangs. Standing at the window, he found himself staring intently that way before noticing the older man sitting next to her, and the two kids in the backseat. Including a very familiar sight. The boy whose picture he had just been looking at, and who was the very reason he was here. 

“Cassidy Evans, she’s the one driving, next to her dad,” Arleigh announced, already pivoting to head for the door. “And that’s Errol in the back. Come on, let’s say hi. We can get to the tutoring thing in a minute.” 

Well, that was strange. She was really eager to run downstairs and greet this Cassidy. Even as he followed her, Ryder asked himself why that would be. Did she have a crush on the girl or something? 

Forget it, that didn’t matter. Whatever her deal with the Evans girl was–wait, that Evans girl? The realization struck him suddenly, making the boy stop briefly. He had… never thought that–okay he hadn’t really put a lot of thought into what Sterling and Elena Evans’ daughter would look like, but from that brief glimpse he’d gotten, that wasn’t it. She… wow. 

Shaking that off, he told himself to focus on being pleasant and getting through this whole thing. Then he could try to push for more information about Errol, maybe even talk to the boy himself a bit if an opportunity presented itself. 

After all, he was here for answers, and he probably wouldn’t get any by focusing on Cassidy Evans. 

*************

Immediately After 20-09

As the video call from her adopted little sister ended, Irelyn found herself staring at the phone in her hand. A wide assortment of thoughts were running through her mind, many of them involving a lot of curse words. Of course, the very first thing she did was hit the button to call the girl back, ready to launch into a diatribe about what exactly Paige thought she was doing. Unfortunately, though unsurprisingly, there was no response. The call went to an automatic voicemail after a few rings, and Irelyn left… not quite (anywhere near) the full list of things she wanted to say in that moment, but enough to make it clear that she needed Paige to call her back immediately. 

Not that she expected that to work, of course. Paige was incredibly stubborn when she wanted to be. So, Irelyn turned away from the grocery store she had been about to walk into, thoughts of preparing dinner that evening completely gone in the moment. She called a different number while striding toward her car, sticking the bluetooth device in her ear to talk as the person on the other end picked up. “Hazel? Yeah, listen, can you get hold of your brother for me? I need him to trace a phone number. Yes, I could go through the official system, but I don’t want to for this. And you both owe me for making those introductions. Yeah, you guys love it here and you know it. Right, here’s the number. Thanks, let me know what he comes up with.” 

Reading it off for the girl, Irelyn got into her car and started it up before realizing that she had no idea where she was driving. She had been in such a rush to move somewhere and feel like she was accomplishing something after that frustrating call from her sister that she had briefly forgotten that she had nowhere to move to just yet. 

Instead of pulling out and driving aimlessly, she took a moment to replay everything that had been said on the phone. Then she paused, a frown touching her face. Paige had stopped her from bringing up the fact that she was Touched, that she was a member of the Conservators. Irelyn had been about to remind the girl that she had experience with this sort of danger specifically because of that, but Paige had spoken up quickly to cut her off. 

Someone else was there with her. Someone had been with Paige and the other girl hadn’t wanted them to overhear Irelyn give away her secret identity. But who? And why hadn’t Paige said anything about someone else listening in? Why–was she captured? Was she being held prisoner? Fuck. Fuck, fuck. That made sense. Of course, that was why she had refused to say anything more. They probably heard about Irelyn asking around and had forced Paige to make that call, likely at gunpoint. This was all bad, so bad. Unless she was jumping to conclusions. It was possible, possible, that there had simply been someone there who wasn’t a threat, but whom Paige didn’t want to hear about Irelyn’s secret. She had to find out more. 

It wasn’t long before Hazel called back, her voice coming through the car’s speaker system that time. 

“Okay, Bryson says this thing’s coming from Florida. Down just a little north of Miami. You wanna tell us what this is all about? Or do we have to play twenty questions? Is it a person? I bet it’s a person. My second guess is animal.” 

Frowning inwardly, Irelyn muttered, “Florida, who do they know in Florida?” The answer, of course, was a lot of people. Her parents were rich and had contacts all over the place. But maybe the Miami part could narrow it down a little. Finally, she shook off those thoughts and focused on what the girl on the phone was saying. “I don’t know exactly. My parents and little sister disappeared a little while ago. And now Paige called me to say they were looking into one of Dad’s businesses, but they got in trouble somehow and she was going to get them out of it.” 

There was a brief pause at that before Hazel replied, “Uh, is your sister some sort of super-ninja secret agent or something? Wait, is she–” 

“She’s not Touched,” Irelyn assured her. “And she’s not–I mean she knows self-defense, Dad made sure of that. So did I. But she’s not–no. I don’t know what she’s thinking. But I have to find her, and our parents, before something terrible happens. There’s something going on around here, and I’m pretty sure Paige knows all about it. She’s the one I need to get answers from.” 

“Well, let Bryson keep working at this on our end,” Hazel tentatively replied. She sounded uncertain, yet curious. “He says there are a few weird things about that signal, like they were trying to mask it or something. But he’s pretty good with this stuff, so he can probably work it out eventually. I’ll make him keep digging a little deeper, let you know what we find out. If anything.” 

“Hazel Ruthers, you and your brother be careful,” Irelyn cautioned. 

“Ew, don’t use my full name, it makes you sound like my mother,” the girl on the other end retorted. “And the last thing I need is to be reminded of my mother. It ruins the mood.” 

Snorting, Irelyn shot back, “Right, right, sorry. Consider me chastised. And… do me a favor, keep all of this off the official record on your end too? Don’t take it to your boss just yet. I don’t know why, it just feels like the right thing to do. I’ve got a weird feeling about all this.” 

“You always have a weird feeling,” Hazel lightly teased before sobering a bit to add, “Seriously, we’ll keep it on the downlow, sure. It’s the least we can do. Well, that and help you find your family. Give Bry a little more time to pick through this thing and see what’s so weird about it, then we’ll get back to you.”

After agreeing with that, Irelyn disconnected before heaving a sigh. She still had no idea what to do about this. Well, she did. The call had come from Florida. She could go there and look around in person. Was that the right thing to do? There was a war going on right here in Detroit, yet her sister and parents… Fuck, what was the right call here? If something happened to her family because she stayed here, she wouldn’t be able to forgive herself. But on the other hand, if she left and this war kicked into even higher gear and people died because she wasn’t around…

Cursing once more under her breath, Irelyn reached out to hit the button on her dash to call Silversmith. Once he picked up several rings later, she tersely spoke, explaining a bit about the situation as succinctly as possible while trying to keep any emotion out of her voice. She didn’t want him to think she wasn’t being professional about this whole thing. Mostly she simply said that her parents and sister had gone off the grid and she needed to go check on them. 

Once she finished, there was a brief pause before the man replied, “I’m sorry to hear about your family, Flea. Of course you can take the time out to go down and look for them. I have a few contacts in the Conservators down there who can help out.” 

“What about the–” she started to bring up the gang war. 

“Don’t worry about us,” he assured her. “Finding your parents and your sister is the important thing right now. Make sure they’re safe. If I need to, I’ll call in some help up here to fill in for you. We’ll be fine, I promise. You head to the airport right–wait, no. I’m going to call in some favors and get you a rapid-transit. Head for–here.” He paused briefly before reading off an address. “Go there, I’ll have a teleporter meet you in twenty minutes or so. They’ll take you straight to Miami where you can meet with the Conservators and get the ball rolling to figure out where your parents and sister went.” 

Still taking a bit aback by the man’s quick reaction to all of this, Irelyn finally found her voice. “Right, thanks, Smith. I’ll get this done, find them, and get back here as soon as possible.” 

“Don’t worry about us,” the man insisted. “Take care of your family. And let me know if you need anything else while you’re down there. We’ll be ready to back you up if we need to. That’s what a team is for.”  

After hesitantly agreeing and thanking the man, Irelyn disconnected once more and began heading for the address. She set the car into autodrive before rolling her seat back to change into her costume. The whole time, a multitude of thoughts were running through her head about what she would find in Florida when she got there. What had her father gotten himself involved in now? And why was Paige so insistent on dealing with it herself? There was something incredibly suspicious about the whole situation, even if she couldn’t quite put her finger on it. 

Whatever this was, whatever was really going on, she was going to find out the truth. And then she and Paige were going to have a long talk about not running off on her own. 

Florida though? Really? Why the hell did it have to be Florida

A few minutes later, she pulled up in front of what looked like a disused warehouse. Parking her car, Irelyn stepped out, now fully-clad in her costume as she looked around. Catching a glimpse of a man waving toward her from the doorway, she strode that way. 

The man stood just under seven feet tall, heavily muscled under a black bodysuit with a silver cloak and hood. His face was covered by a dark red metal mask with holographic white numbers displayed across the front. Currently, the numbers simply read zero point zero zero. 

“Snapback?” Flea, now that she was in costume, asked. “He called you over from Chicago?” 

“I don’t mind,” came the surprisingly gentle and cheerful response given the man’s size and build. “Good luck finding your family though. You let me know if you need anything, yeah?” 

Agreeing, Flea reached out to take the man’s hand. Immediately, she felt the air twist around them. It was a disturbing sensation, making her stomach flip over. The view around her distorted to the point that it hurt to look at it, and she closed her eyes before the nausea would have taken over. 

And with a popping noise, they were abruptly standing elsewhere. As her eyes opened, she found herself still grasping the man’s hand, as they stood in the middle of an alley. The beach was visible in the distance, and the ocean beyond that. 

“Miami Conservator base is about two blocks north,” her ‘lift’ informed the woman. The zero point zero zero previously displayed across the front of his red metal mask had changed to one thousand, three hundred and ninety six. “Thought you might want to get your bearings a little bit before heading that way to check in. But ahh, this is a pretty big jump so you might want to let go before I snap you back with me.”

Snapback was well-named. Essentially, he was capable of transporting himself to any location he had a decent understanding of, no matter how far away. But he could only stay in that location for a limited time. The further the distance, the shorter his time there. When he released his grip on the second location, the man instantly returned to his starting point and gained a brief moment of total invulnerability, as well as a level of super strength depending on how far away he had transported and how long he held it for. Like a stretched rubber band. The strength and invulnerability only lasted a couple of seconds, but it allowed him to hit someone or something with utterly devastating force simply by making a jump to somewhere very far away, holding the teleport for a few seconds until he could stand it no longer, then transporting back and lashing out. He could smack ordinary people around incredibly effectively just by teleporting several miles away and then ‘snapping back’ to swat them. Even better, if he wanted to, the man could expend his temporary strength in a single concussive blast from his hands rather than a physical blow, if his target had moved. 

Alternatively, he could choose to ‘snap’ the connection entirely and stay in the location he had teleported to. Doing that would send a concussive wave out at both his starting and ending locations, though he could choose exactly how to divide that force, giving his starting location the brunt of it and the ending point only a minimal amount, vice versa, or anywhere in between. When he was making a long trip and trying to stay there, the man had to find starting and ending areas that wouldn’t be damaged in the process. 

Thanking the man for the lift, Flea watched him vanish with a rush of expanding air that made a popping sound, before turning. Florida. Time to go visit the local Convervators, and–

“So,” a voice abruptly interrupted. “We heading out?” 

Jumping a bit, Flea pivoted, finding herself facing a familiar figure in a costume consisting of what looked like purple scalemail body armor over her chest, a black hooded cloak, purple metal helmet with black visor, and tan pants over dark brown boots.

Hazel?” she blurted. “What the hell are you doing here? I just–I told you to help your brother look for–how did you–” 

“Hey, you’re not the only one who can call in teleport assistance when you need to,” the other girl retorted. “I’ve still got friends from my old Minority squad in Nebraska. And I had time-off to take. I told you, I wanna help. 

“And hey, don’t call me by my real name. It’s not Hazel Ruthers while we’re in costume. 

“It’s Trivial.” 

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Kith And Kin 20-09 (Summus Proelium)

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A/N – The new Summus Proelium non-canon, continuing the story of Flea and Cassidy running into each other during the events of Project Owl and then teaming up with Paige, can be found and read by EVERYONE right here

We didn’t go immediately, of course. There were still a few things that needed to be done. First of all, we needed shovels, pickaxes, that sort of thing. Sure, once we got closer to the base itself, we were going to have to be a lot more careful and quiet (likely using my black paint as much as possible), but at least early on, we could use ordinary tools to move faster. Wren initially said she was going to look into putting together some sort of quiet debris mover/digging device, but I told her that she should focus on ways to protect everyone once we eventually got through to the base, so we didn’t have to use our powers quite as much. Protective equipment, especially for those who didn’t have any powers like Murphy and Roald, was the priority. For the moment, we could just dig the old-fashioned way. Well, as ‘old-fashioned’ as it could get while I was literally using pink paint to make the dirt and rocks easy to move. 

Yeah, I was trying to psych myself up. This was going to be long, hard work. Even I knew that much, inexperienced as I was. It was going to take us a long time to dig a tunnel all the pway through to the mall. But it was the best plan we had. There wasn’t really a better option, aside from the crazy thought I’d had about finding a way to bribe or trick Undermine into digging the tunnel for us. But somehow, I didn’t think that would work out very well. 

So, Fred and Pack were both going to get tools. Separately, that was. They both had their own ideas about where to get the stuff we needed. Alloy ended up going with Fred to help carry stuff. Meanwhile, Amber and Izzy were going to get other supplies. Lights so we could see what we were doing down there, chains to hang them off of through the tunnel once it got going, a generator for those lights, and anything else they could think of. Not all of it was super necessary right at this second, given how long it was going to take to actually get far enough into the tunnel for it to be relevant, but still. Better to have it. 

Meanwhile, I went upstairs to see Paige and Raige. After everything else that had happened, I still needed to get answers from them about what was going on with her sister. Their sister? I wasn’t sure. The point was, I needed to find out more about how to deal with the Irelyn situation.

So, I grabbed the control box thing, sending the word ‘aardvark’ as Raige had requested. Then I sat back and waited for a few minutes, gazing out the nearby window while thinking about everything that was going on. Fortunately, I didn’t have to be left to my own thoughts for very long before Paige’s voice abruptly spoke up. “Paintball?” 

Quickly, I shoved everything else out of my mind and turned that way. “Paige?”

Just as before, her eyes were still closed. She was just lying there, completely motionless on the couch aside from moving her mouth to speak. “Yeah,” she replied flatly. “It’s me. And her. Both of us.” 

Immediately, her mouth moved again, and I knew it was Raige this time. “We both want to know what’s going on. Had any more encounters with the Banners’ real daughter?”

Reflexively, I started to insist that Paige was their real daughter too if they had adopted her. Then I rethought. I had no idea what sort of relationship they’d had. They’d literally bought her, so maybe I shouldn’t insist that she was their daughter. Maybe I should just leave it alone for now. Instead, I replied, “No, I haven’t seen her since that one time. But I did hear at…” Pausing, I looked around a bit to make sure we were still alone, then sat next to her (them) and lowered my voice. “I heard she’s been at the school asking about you. Trying to find out if anyone there knows where you or your parents went. I’m pretty sure she’s doing the same at their offices or whatever. She’s talking to anyone who might know anything.” Swallowing, I quietly murmured, “She’s not just going to let this go.” 

There was no response from either of them for a few seconds. But I could see her mouth open and shut a couple times without any sound, as though she was repeatedly starting to say something before stopping. Finally, Paige very hesitantly spoke with a somewhat weak, “But I’m not her sister. I never was. Everything she did was just playing a role, like they did. She came around once in awhile and took me to dinner or a show, but it didn’t really mean anything.” 

Biting my lip, I offered a hesitant, “Maybe it meant more to her than you thought?” 

“No,” came the quick response, almost too quick. Like she was telling herself the same thing and had to quickly quash it before her hopes rose too much. “No, she’s probably just looking for her parents. That’s… the important thing, finding out where her parents are.” 

Before I could even say anything to that, she spoke again. Or rather, her voice spoke again. It was Raige this time. “That’s bullshit and you know it. They disowned her, threw her out because she wouldn’t be their obedient little puppet, the thing they were literally gonna turn us into. Yeah, she might try to find out what happened to them, cuz that’s just the sort of person she is. But going to the school, asking people like… Paintball over there about it? That’s for you. She’s looking for you, cuz she like… gives a flying fuck about you or something.” 

“I think she’s right,” I put in. “Seriously, Paige, that was the impression I got. She wants to find you because she’s worried that something bad happened. I mean, I think she’s worried about her parents, of course, at least somewhat. But it’s you too. Or you mainly. I dunno. The point is, she’s not gonna let it go. She’s going to keep looking and asking around. And even if she doesn’t find out the truth, if she keeps pushing…” 

“She might get into something dangerous,” Paige finished for me, voice grim. “She can–” There was a pause as she considered her next words. “She can take care of herself, but she doesn’t know what she’s walking into. She could turn over the wrong stone and find a snake under it.” 

Hesitating, I quietly asked, “What do you want me to do?” God, this whole situation was so weird. I was trying to help Paige Banners, who was really one of my oldest friends, after having spent years as the girl who treated me like shit because her Tech-Touched father forced her to in a long-term plan to get himself out of Breakwater and take down my parents’ supervillain organi–yeah. If I sat there and thought about it for too long, my head was going to explode. 

Paige was already answering. “I don’t know. I don’t–we have to make her slow down and…” She paused. “I have to talk to her. I have to call her, video chat, something she can look at and hear me and let me… tell her… something.” 

“What?” Raige put in. “You really think I’m just going to hand over control of the body so you can make a video call and then shove me down into a dark pit? The second I hand you that much control, you’ll make me disappear.” 

“No, I won’t,” Paige insisted. Which, yeah, it was really weird to sit here and watch what appeared from the outside to be a girl literally arguing with herself. If I didn’t actually know better already, I might have thought she was doing a skit or something. “I’m–you don’t want anything bad to happen to Irelyn either. I know you don’t. We–we both know how it could go, what sort of trouble she could get into. She–we have to stop her.” 

“Yeah, we. We have to stop her,” came the response immediately. 

“But we can’t both control the body at the same time. We can barely manage this much,” Paige insisted. “We have to let one of us talk to her. Otherwise we’re going to screw something up and she’ll notice something’s wrong. Which is just going to make things worse.” 

They were both silent for a few seconds then. It felt like I should say something, but I had no idea what. This felt like something they were going to have to work out with each other while I just sat there and listened. It made the whole thing pretty awkward. 

Finally, Paige spoke. “Raige, listen. I’m saying this in front of Paintball so… he hears it too. I am not going to abandon you. I’m not going to shove you away. I’m not going to make you disappear. Let me talk to Irelyn and try to calm her down. Then I’ll let go of the body until they bring us a second one for you. I swear to you. I swear on…” There was a brief pause before, “I swear on Anthony. I swear on our memories of Anthony, I will not try to get rid of you and I will not shove you away. Let me help Irelyn so she doesn’t get in trouble, please. Then we can go back to this.” 

Her words were met with silence, while I felt a twisting in my stomach when Anthony’s name was brought up. I still didn’t actually have my memories of him, but that didn’t stop my emotions entirely just based on what I did know. Which… really raised the question of how bad this would be if I ever did get my memories of him back fully. Hell, just seeing his house–or rather, a virtual replica of it, had hit me really hard back when we went into Paige’s computer. So if I ever got my actual memories back, it was… it wasn’t going to be fun. And yet, I wanted them. They were my memories. I knew it was going to hurt, that it was going to suck. I knew it would be incredibly painful. But he was my friend. I wanted… I wanted to remember him. I wanted the pain. Because it was mine. Was that selfish? Was it dumb? Was it stupid to want the pain of losing my best friend back just because it was mine

Finally, I was drawn out of my own thoughts when Raige spoke up. “Okay, fine. I’ll give you the time to talk to her. But don’t make me regret it. I seem to recall the last person I trusted and tried to help immediately tried to erase me.” Her voice was hard, but I could hear a bit of vulnerability behind it too. She really had been loyal to their father. She thought he cared about her because she was… because she was doing what he wanted. She had been all-in on his side, and he destroyed that. No wonder she was hesitant to actually trust anyone else right now, no matter what we said.

Paige spoke then. “It’s a deal. But we need to come up with a good excuse that will make her back off until we can… until we get you a body.” Something in the way she paused there made me think she had been about to suggest that they meet her in person, but she stopped. Whether that was because she didn’t believe the other girl would go for that after how reluctant she was to even allow a few minutes for a video call, or because she was afraid of meeting Irelyn face-to-face like that, I wasn’t sure. Maybe a bit of both. 

Realizing they were waiting for me to say something on the whole ‘how to explain things to Irelyn’ front, I coughed. “Uhh, I’m not sure. You guys know her better than I do. Wait, would it be better to try to tell her that you’re completely okay and just busy with something, or to send her on a wild goose chase for a few days?” 

There was a brief pause before Paige asked, “What sort of wild goose chase?” 

Oh boy. Wincing, I offered a helpless shrug before remembering that her eyes were closed. They couldn’t see me. So, I spoke up. “I don’t know. Just something that can take her out of the city for a few days so she isn’t poking the hornets’ nest too much. You know, convince her to go look somewhere else where she won’t get in trouble. Though…” I sighed. “It’s gonna take longer than a few days to actually get into that base so we can find your new body. And I’m pretty sure there’s nothing we could say that would send her somewhere for a couple weeks.” 

“No,” Raige put in. “But maybe we can convince her that Paige is somewhere else for those couple weeks, looking into something else. Come on, the whole point is that we want her to stop digging around here, right? If she thinks Paige is hundreds or thousands of miles away, then she’s got no reason to keep poking around Detroit.” 

“Keep it vague,” Paige added thoughtfully. “Maybe give her a reason to start trying to figure out exactly where I am, so she puts all her energy into that instead of pushing over potential snake-rocks here. But it has to be enough of a push to make her focus on it, without being an obvious trick. Irelyn isn’t stupid. And…” There was another pause before she admitted somewhat more quietly, “And I don’t want to lie to her too much. But it’s too dangerous to let her keep digging around here. Between our father and your parents, it’s… we have to distract her.” 

“Fair enough,” I agreed. “But what exactly do we say to give her that distraction? What’s gonna make her think you’re somewhere else but not know exactly where? It has to be something pretty convincing, you know?”

None of us had an immediate answer to that. We sat there in silence, trying to think of the exact right thing. If we screwed this up, we’d just be putting Irelyn in even more danger. And while I was sure she was plenty capable for who she was, this was the Touched sort of danger. Not something she was exactly prepared for. 

Raige started to speak up slowly, obviously still considering. “What if we tell her that you think her parents got into something dangerous. They disappeared, but you think you can find them.” 

“And,” Paige took over (how I could tell the difference between them that easily when it was the same mouth speaking, I wasn’t sure), “we promise to keep checking in, but refuse to tell her exactly where we are because it’s too dangerous. We could set up a whole thing of… a whole story of trying to find our–no. No, that’s lying to her. It’s lying too much.” 

“Do we have a choice?” Raige insisted. “I mean, it’s a lie to stop her from getting herself between the rock of Daddy dearest and the hard place of the Ministry. Neither of them would hesitate to get rid of her if she was a problem, and you know it. If she keeps poking around like she is, she’s going to say the wrong thing to the wrong person and they’ll put a stop to it. Either permanently, or by fucking with her memories. They could go as far as making her forget about any feelings she might have for you enti–”

Abruptly, the mouth stopped moving, contorting slightly as Paige yanked control back to interrupt. “No, we won’t let that happen. Okay. We can lie to her, as long as it keeps her out of their crosshairs. Just… let me think of the best thing to say. I mean, let… us think.” 

So, the three of us sat there for a while longer, batting ideas back and forth as we planned out exactly what to say. Eventually, I went downstairs and asked Wren if she still had one of those untraceable phones, like the one Fred had sold to Ashton. When I explained the general idea of why we needed it, she went digging in a box and found an upgraded version. Apparently this one was supposed to make it look like your call was coming from anywhere you wanted. Something about moving the signal or whatever. The point was, it would look completely convincing if Irelyn tried to have it traced. 

Thanking the girl, I went back upstairs and we talked a little bit more about exactly what would be said. Then it was time. We couldn’t delay any longer. Any minute now, Irelyn might ask the wrong question to the wrong person and see the wrong reaction. It could be bad. 

Instead of moving immediately when I held out the phone, however, Paige was silent and still. Belatedly, I realized she and Raige were having their own private conversation, one that I wasn’t privy to. That was fair. I had felt a bit like an eavesdropper earlier. So, I just sat there and waited. They had their own issues to work through. Obviously, Raige still wasn’t eager to let go of the death grip she had on stopping Paige from controlling the body. Not even for a few minutes. She had been burned so hard by their father that even a little bit of trust was almost impossible now. She was still afraid that Paige was going to use that control to shove her into a hole for good. And could I really blame her for having those worries after everything Paige had–no. No, that wasn’t her. She had no choice. Paige had only acted that way toward me because of her father. I had to keep telling myself that. And yet, that by itself proved my point. After Raige had been burned so hard by the man she had clearly trusted the most, no wonder she was hesitant to trust the girl she had literally been sent to replace. Yeah, that was a whole thing. 

Finally, Paige’s eyes opened. She met my gaze while slowly pushing herself into a sitting position. “We’re ready.” 

Handing over the phone, I murmured, “Good luck.” Then I stood back and watched. 

Paige held the phone in one hand, taking a breath before letting it out as she brushed her finger over the screen a couple times to select where she wanted the call to appear to be coming from. Florida, in this case. Then she dialed the number for the video call as I made sure that neither I, nor any windows could be seen from the camera’s point of view. It would have been pretty bad to go through all of this trouble of pretending Paige was somewhere else, only to have her sitting right in front of a window showing the Detroit skyline. 

The phone rang a couple times before I heard Irelyn’s voice answer. “Hey, what–Paige!” She sounded completely shocked. Which was fair. 

“Hey, Irelyn,” Paige replied tiredly. “Heard you’ve been looking for us. I mean, your parents.” 

“And you. I–where are you? Paige, what’s going on?” the woman demanded. “Are you okay? What–” 

“I’m fine. I mean, I…” There was a brief pause before Paige pushed on. “I’m sorry I didn’t tell you before, but there’s something going on. Your parents were… they were looking into something in one of your father’s businesses somewhere in–” Cutting herself off with a very convincing look of nervousness, she shook her head. “I can’t–I don’t want to–” 

“Paige, you know who I am. You know what I do,” Irelyn put in. “If you’re in some sort of trouble, I can help. I mean, I’m–” 

“It’s okay!” the other girl blurted quickly. “I mean, it’s not–you should focus on what you’re doing. I don’t know what’s going on with your parents, but I’m pretty sure they got in over their heads.” 

“Your parents too, Paige,” Irelyn insisted. “And what do you mean, in over their heads? What business were they looking into? Where are you? Where are they?” 

“I’m sorry, I–I can’t say anything else,” Paige informed her, stumbling a bit over the words. “I’ll call you later, I promise. Just… I’ll find your parents, okay? I’ll find out what happened and call you.” 

With that, she disconnected the call and sat back with a heavy sigh. It wasn’t much at all, but then, we had decided that not saying very much was the right way to go. Now if Irelyn traced that call, she’d get a result of somewhere in Florida. Which, quite intentionally, was nowhere near Detroit. So, with any luck, she would start poking around there instead of here. 

“Are you okay?” I finally managed to ask after a few moments of silence. 

Paige, in answer, slowly laid back on the couch. Her hand moved toward mine, and I accepted it. Squeezing firmly, she looked to me. “Find Raige a body, please. And be careful, okay?” 

“We will,” I promised, returning the squeeze before straightening up once more. “We’ll get you both in your own bodies.” 

With that, I said goodbye to both of them, released her hand, and turned to walk out of the room. On the way, my phone buzzed. It was Amber, who spoke as soon as I answered. “We’ve got the stuff on our end, how’s it going over there?” 

Glancing back toward Paige’s motionless form, I replied, “We’re good. And…” Checking the texts on my phone, I confirmed, “The others have their stuff. So I guess I’ll meet you guys over by the mall. 

“Time to start digging.” 

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Interlude 18A – Flea (Summus Proelium)

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Irelyn Banners was having a very frustrating day. She had set several hours aside to track down the actual location of her parents and adopted sister, and none of her attempts were panning out. As far as anyone in authority was concerned, her family had simply gone on vacation over in Europe. After all, it wasn’t as though Aaron and Constance Banners going off on a retreat without much in the way of notice was exactly unusual. They did it all the time. If anything, the fact that they had supposedly taken Paige with them was the only part that stood out at all. 

Unfortunately, ‘my parents are being too nice to their adopted daughter’ wasn’t the sort of slam dunk proof the cops, or even other Star-Touched groups, were looking for. Especially when it was coming from someone who had been disowned by those same parents. She just looked like someone was jealous, even if that was wildly incorrect. But she could see why they would come to that conclusion, unfortunately. 

She could potentially have forced the issue by appearing as Flea and telling the authorities to look into it, but that would mean potentially exposing her identity to far more people than she was comfortable with. The bar to become a member of the police force was far too low for Irelyn to risk handing out that sort of information willy-nilly. To say nothing of how easily one of the local Fell-gangs could bribe them. No, worried as she was, that would be a bad idea. 

So, she was looking into the situation herself, without police help. Or official help, anyway. She still had contacts in the force who didn’t mind doing her a favor or two without asking too many questions. Unfortunately, none of that was actually leading anywhere. The only thing she had been able to confirm was that her parents’ private plane did take off with a flight plan for London on Paige’s birthday. It had not returned, and the exact number of passengers wasn’t clear. After that single point, there was nothing. Her parents and sister had gone completely off the grid, as far as she could tell. At least, from here. She was seriously getting to the point of requesting a sabbatical from her duties on the Conservators in order to take her own trip over there. She would start at the plane itself and find something about where the hell they had gone. 

Maybe she was overreacting to this whole situation. But Irelyn couldn’t shake the feeling that something very bad was going on. She needed to know they were all okay. Yes, she had her problems with her parents. Especially her father, demanding as he was. His reaction to her choosing to forge her own path rather than stay on as his dutiful daughter and use her powers in their own private security company had been to disown her entirely and go adopt a new daughter altogether, one he clearly felt that he could forge into the proper puppet he wanted.

Irelyn didn’t blame Paige for that, of course. There was… there was a lot she had always wanted to say to her adopted sister, but it never really came out right. She had the feeling that Paige thought she was, at the very best, just going through the motions. Or worse, that she actually blamed Paige for the way her–their parents had turned their backs on Irelyn. Which could not have been further from the truth. She really wanted to explain that, wanted to get Paige to understand that not only did she not blame her for any of what happened between her and their parents, but that she would be there for her if she ever needed to talk about her own situation. She wanted Paige to know that she wasn’t alone, that she could talk to her if she needed to, considering Irelyn knew exactly what it was like to be put under the kind of pressure Aaron Banners was capable of. 

Unfortunately, she was pretty sure that every attempt she had made at such bonding had been interpreted as attempts to remind Paige that she had been their parents’ daughter first. Her intention, of course, had been to make sure the younger girl knew that Irelyn sympathized with any problems she might have, and was there if she wanted to talk. But she couldn’t shake the feeling that Paige had instead taken it as some sort of, ‘I was their daughter first, not you’ warning. Which was a big part of why Irelyn had wanted to take the girl out for her birthday to begin with. She wanted to set the record straight. Now that Paige was seventeen and almost a senior in high school, it was more important than ever that she understand that she didn’t have to be the person their father wanted her to be, that she could make her own choices. More than anything, Irelyn wanted the girl to know that she didn’t have to be an obedient little puppet. 

In any case, all of that came down to the fact that they were far from the best examples of a family. But she still needed to know that they were okay. If all of this was for nothing and the three of them really had gone on a private vacation to celebrate Paige’s birthday, then so be it. But she needed to know for certain. And so far, nothing she found out was actually adding up. 

At the moment, she was just leaving the tower of the private airfield where her family’s plane had taken off from with them (supposedly) aboard, when her phone buzzed. She glanced to it, seeing That-A-Way’s name pop up. Huh. What could that girl need? As far as Irelyn knew, she wasn’t on duty at the moment. Still, it could have been important, so she stopped beside her car and lifted the phone to her ear. “Yes?” Her phone was already programmed to alter her voice appropriately whenever she was speaking to someone from her Touched contacts, or simply by pressing a button. 

“Flea,” came the quick, clearly somewhat uncertain response. “Um, oh boy. We need to talk.” 

Immediately setting aside her personal feelings about finding her family at the sound of the younger girl’s voice, Irelyn opened the door of her car and got in. “Way, what’s wrong? Are you in trouble?” 

“Just got out of it, actually,” Way informed her. “At least, out of the worst of it.” With that, she gave an incredibly brief explanation of what she, Raindrop, and that independent Star-Touched, Paintball (and his new partner), had been up to. A very brief, pseudo-explanation. Apparently they’d located the actual home of Cup, exposed her secret identity and that of Pencil himself, narrowly escaped being captured or killed for that, and were on their way back into the city. 

There was clearly a hell of a lot more to that whole story. That-A-Way had ‘explained’ in as few words as possible, just enough to make sure Flea understood the gravity of what was going on. And boy did she ever. All thoughts of finding her missing family fled for the moment, as she considered just how the Scions of Typhon would react to their leaders’ identities being exposed. They would not be happy, to say the very least. And they would act fast to disappear and destroy every single potential link to wherever they might go. To say nothing of what they would do to any civilians who might even consider accidentally being in their way. 

As soon as she understood what was happening, and just what was at stake, Irelyn immediately gave the other girl an address to meet at so they could talk in person. But not before she took the address of where Cup was supposed to live. Which was apparently some petting zoo ten miles outside of town. The moment she knew that much, Irelyn told Way to meet her at an old motel that was being worked on, and disconnected. Then she started her car and peeled out while making a call of her own. That one was to Silversmith. He was on a hiatus for the week, something to do with personal matters. But this was more important than a vacation. 

On her way out of the parking lot, while listening to the phone ring, Irelyn pressed the button under the dash that made the flashing red and blue lights appear around her car’s regular headlights, as well as an actual siren. It made her vehicle look like an unmarked police cruiser, which was very useful for getting places faster. She even had identification referring to herself as such if she were ever pulled over, and would be listed within the official police database for anyone looking her up. All benefits of being part of the Conservators. And, of course, one of the reasons she was capable of investigating her parents’ disappearance with any degree of success at all rather than being laughed out of the room. She may not have been able to call in official police assistance, but she could use her own false connection to them in order to get some answers. 

And right now, she could use it to force traffic out of the way so that she could get to that motel as fast as possible. Even if she did have to lean on the horn to convince some asshole in a truck to take the siren seriously. “Come on,” Irelyn muttered in annoyance as the phone rang again. “Pick up. Pick up, pick up, pick up.” 

Finally, Silversmith did just that. There was a click and she heard his voice speak calmly. “What’s wrong?” Just like that, he knew something had happened. 

“Smith, you need to organize a group to check out this petting zoo,” Irelyn immediately informed him. Using even fewer words than That-A-Way had, she informed him of what those four had been up to, and what they had found out. “You need to get a team out there to stop the Scions from destroying everything. You know what they’ll do to any civilians in the way. And be ready for Touched-Tech defenses.” 

Smith didn’t even question any of it. Instead, he immediately agreed, “I’ll have a group there ASAP. I take it you’re meeting with our little friends to get more information?” 

“Yeah,” Irelyn confirmed while taking a sharp turn through an intersection, cutting off a couple annoyed drivers in the process. “I’ll be there in six minutes, and let you know about any other relevant details.” 

“Good,” he replied simply. “Make sure they’re all okay, and check them for traps or tricks the Scions might’ve left, just in case. Silversmith out.” 

With that, the man disconnected, leaving Irelyn driving as fast as possible toward the motel. She just hoped he and the group he pulled together could get to Cup’s place before the Scions wiped the place off the map. And that she could get some real information out of the trio she was going to meet. Because to be quite honest, she didn’t believe for a second that there wasn’t more to that story. They had not tripped over the true identity of the Scion leadership by accident. Something else was definitely going on, and she was going to get to the bottom of it.

On the way, while practically flooring the pedal, Irelyn reached out to open the nearby compartment between the driver and passenger seats. There was an affirmative beep as the pad there read her fingerprints before the thing opened. Nestled inside was what appeared to be a single piece of her costume, the metal, samurai-like mask with mandible protrusions in the front. With a quick glance around to assure herself no one was close enough to her vehicle to see through the already-heavily tinted windows, Irelyn touched the mask to her face. As she did so, the mask extended with a series of rapid clicks and the sound of sliding metal. Soon, it had transformed into a full samurai helmet, covering her head entirely. Once it was in place, she glanced instinctively toward the rear view mirror. As always, the distinct look of Asian eyes visible between the top of the plate covering the bottom three-quarters of her face, and the helmet itself, was a little surprising. The truth was, Irelyn was only about a quarter-Asian. Her mother’s mother was Japanese. Irelyn herself bore almost no physical resemblance, having taken heavily after her father in appearance (and her mother didn’t look all that like her own mother to begin with). At a glance, very little about the woman’s appearance gave any hint of her heritage. But with the rest of her face covered and only her eyes visible, the slight Asian features were isolated and exaggerated enough that anyone looking at her would picture someone very different under the costume. 

With the helmet on, Irelyn checked the road once more. She was two minutes from the on-ramp that would lead to the motel. A quick tap of a button on the steering column put the car into auto-drive, allowing it to follow the road toward her selected destination in the GPS. At the same time, the driver’s seat slid backward while the rear seat folded up. It gave Irelyn room to grab the rest of her costume from a hidden compartment in the floor and change clothes. 

Once she was dressed properly, the seat slid forward once more, and the woman took the wheel, turning the car to head through a nearby alley. The moment it was out of sight from the street, she touched a different control under the dash. This one shifted the car’s color from red to black, deactivated the lights, and changed the licence plate. Between those changes and a couple other minor cosmetic ones, it was a very different-looking vehicle that came out the other side of the L-shaped alley. From there, she pointed the car toward the onramp and made her way those last couple minutes toward the motel, taking that exit and sending the car practically screaming through the empty (save for a few construction vehicles and a lot of safety cones) parking lot. 

Stopping the car, the newly-dressed Flea stepped out and looked around. Her eyes were immediately drawn to an arrow that had been graffitied on the wall of the nearby building. It was big and blue, with the quite well-done image of her own helmet next to it just to make sure she noticed. The arrow pointed toward a space between the main office structure and one of the buildings with the various suites. There were vending machines and a narrow pathway with a gate. Next to the gate was a sign, indicating it was the way to the pool. 

Her eyes narrowed, but she could hardly fault them for being careful, given the situation. Still, she wasn’t allergic to being careful either. Rather than walk through the gate, Flea took a step before leaping upward. The lunge carried her to the top of the four-story building, before she paced along the edge of the roof looking down. 

Abruptly, the woman had to stop, finding herself face to face with what appeared to be a bronze sword floating in midair right in front of her. 

“Stop! Stop, stop, stop!” The frantic voice came from above, and Flea glanced that way to see a figure come gliding in on top of a literal silver surfboard. A part of her wondered if that was intentional, but she set it aside to focus on the figure itself. Or herself, rather. The girl gliding down on the flying board wore metallic purple armor with white across the arms and up into a full helmet. It was a different look than either of the costumes that girl had been reported as wearing before, but it was obvious who she was. 

“I’m sorry, he was just trying to protect me–us,” the girl hurriedly babbled, even as the bronze sword went floating over to her. It was joined by a black mace and a gold shield. 

“You’re Paintball’s new friend,” Flea noted coolly. “Different look today?” 

“Alloy,” the girl informed her before stammering, “a-and umm, sort of. I’m playing lookout and we thought maybe if I looked different anyone the Scions had out looking for us might not immediately recognize me, you know?” She was clearly blushing underneath that helmet, adding, “I know it’s not likely, but every little bit helps.” 

“Yes,” Flea agreed, “every little bit helps. And I’m glad you were on the ball.” Her eyes glanced toward the floating bronze sword before she added, “As was your friend there.” 

Was it just her imagination, or did that sword find a way to preen? 

Shaking that off, the woman focused on the situation. “Where are the others? Are they–” 

“We’re fine.” Way herself had suddenly appeared next to them, one hand on Paintball’s arm and the other on Raindrop’s as she brought the younger boy and girl with. “We’re all fine. Mostly.” 

Forgetting everything else for a moment, Flea stepped that way and put one hand on Way’s shoulder and the other on Raindrop’s. “You’re safe? You’re not hurt?” Her head turned slightly to look toward Paintball and Alloy. “You’re all safe?” 

There was a series of nods from all of them. Even in costume, they looked exhausted and like… well, like they had just discovered Cup and Pencil’s true identities and barely escaped with their lives. They were clearly jumpy, turning to look sharply at the sound of a semi passing on the distant freeway. 

“Good,” Flea informed them. “I’m glad you’re safe, that you’re not hurt.” She squeezed That-A-Way and Raindrop’s shoulders, wanting to embrace them but unsure of how that would be taken. Instead, she let them go and took one step back while clearing her throat pointedly. Her gaze slid over each of the group in turn, making sure they were all paying attention. “Now tell me exactly what happened back there. I need to know the full story.” 

“Um, not to object about that,” Paintball tentatively put in, “but are you sure you don’t want to, you know, go check out the petting zoo itself?” 

“Silversmith and some others are doing that,” Flea informed him. The boy seemed to recoil a bit at that news, and she immediately assured him, “They’ll be fine. Smith knows how to be careful. They won’t go blundering into any Touched-Tech traps or anything. Believe me, they’re the best group for the job.” 

That said, she turned her attention  back to the rest of the group. “But, I still need to know exactly what happened with all of you. Cup and the others aren’t stupid enough to hang around there. Our best chance at tracking them down is to hope our people got there soon enough to pick through any evidence that was left behind. And give their identities to all law enforcement so it’s harder for them to hide anywhere. Which is happening right now. But in the meantime, I need to know what happened, and how you ended up in that situation.” 

Paintball did most of the talking. He told her about the deal he had made with Deicide of all people, in order to get the vial back to save Blackjack’s child. Flea had… opinions about that, but she could hardly fault him for being willing to do risky things and make deals with bad people to save a child. 

In any case, the boy went on to tell Flea all about how the deal had been to find this Amanda girl as a witness to one of Pencil’s first murders, with the idea that she might know more about him. And boy did she ever. When Paintball and Alloy (accompanied by That-A-Way and Raindrop for backup) had tracked down Amanda, she turned out to be Cup herself. Not only that, but she revealed the truth about her power, that she was the one who kept building those Touched-Tech toys for Pencil. And, in fact, that it was one of those very toys that allowed her to paralyze Paintball and Alloy while they were talking to her, before That-A-Way and Raindrop interceded, grabbed them, and escaped in a van they had borrowed. Well, started to escape. That had led to a rousing car chase. 

“And here we are,” Paintball finally finished. “So what’s going to happen with Cup now?” 

“Now, we’ll do our best to track her and her brother down,” Flea replied simply. “Knowing who they really are under those masks, having their true identities, faces, all that, it’s…” She exhaled. “It’s a pretty damn big break. To say nothing of finding out what her real power is. They’ve managed to keep that secret for a long time. It’s a big deal. But you were all still incredibly reckless. Do you have any idea what those psychopaths would’ve done if you didn’t–if they managed to–” Her voice rose. “Don’t ever do that again, do you understand? Not just you two,” she noted with a glance to Way and Raindrop before turning her attention to Paintball and Alloy. “But you two as well. You might not be part of the Minority, but I can damn well make your life difficult if you keep running around doing dangerous things like that. And pulling these two into it.” 

Raindrop started to say something, but Flea raised a hand to stop her. “I get it. I do. You all did something incredibly important today. But it was also incredibly dangerous, and if it had gone wrong, you all could’ve–” She cut herself off, taking a deep breath to avoid going into a long rant that wouldn’t have helped anything. “Just call for help next time. Adult help. If you’d taken one of us with you, there might–we might have been able to…” God, she didn’t want to say that. If she told them taking an adult with them might’ve led to Cup being arrested, they’d blame themselves for any further deaths. Biting her tongue, Flea simply ended with, “Be smart about it, okay?” 

Raindrop hesitantly asked, “Are they going to tell everyone who Cup and Pencil really are? I mean, everyone?” 

“We’ll be informing every registered Star-Touched team in the state immediately,” Flea confirmed. “They’ll be on the lookout. And certain higher levels of law enforcement as well. As for the rest…” She paused before explaining. “That’s up to a judge. How much of a Fell-Touched’s identity is revealed to the public in a situation like this is determined by a judge at the time, based on a lot of factors. The danger they pose, the potential for rehabilitation, extenuating circumstances, any previous aid they’ve been, and so on. In this case, I think it’s safe to say everyone will know who they are by the end of the day. But it’s not our place to make that decision.” 

That all said, Flea added, “Now, I want all four of you to go home. You’ve done your part. I mean it, if I see you out working again today, I will find a way to slap you into a private detention cell for the rest of the night. Go get some rest. 

“God knows, you’ve earned it.” 

Previous Chapter / Next Chapter

Hostile Witness 18-03 (Summus Proelium)

Previous Chapter / Next Chapter

So yeah, apparently I was supposed to be attending a party where my dad was going to be giving a speech. Attending a party as Paintball, that was. I’d attended plenty of events where my dad was speaking when I was just myself, of course. But now I was supposed to sit there, play nice, and pretend I was totally oblivious while he went on some long spiel in front of a whole crowd. I couldn’t show any reaction to the things he would be saying. Worse, what if they asked me questions about it? What if they wanted to ask how the new young Star-Touched in Detroit felt about all the wonderful things the city’s richest family was doing to improve everyone’s lives?

I also couldn’t back out now. It would probably look a little suspicious if I had been okay with going to this thing right up until they mentioned my father’s name. Even if they didn’t have any connection to the Ministry, that would probably make them curious enough to poke around. And the last thing I wanted was anyone ‘poking around’ when it came to my family. Besides, just because they might not have a connection to the Ministry didn’t mean that anyone they asked about my reaction wouldn’t. Yeah, that whole thing could get really complicated, really fast. 

And there was more than that, of course. I wouldn’t be the only one there. So would Alloy,  assuming she agreed to go. For a brief second, I had actually considered just not sharing the invitation with her, to avoid that entire situation. But honestly, I’d seen way too many TV shows where someone had tried something like that and it backfired in their face the moment someone else asked the person why they’d refused the invitation they didn’t even know existed. Just because I couldn’t think of anyone right now who would say anything like that to her didn’t mean it wouldn’t happen. And the last thing I wanted to do was create some sort of trust problem between the two of us just because of a stupid mistake on my part. I had enough issues already. Enough things I wasn’t sharing. So yeah, I was going to have to tell the other girl about the invitation and probably deal with her being there too.  

Speaking of Peyton, it was finally time for me to go meet up with her, after catching a quick bit of dinner at a nearby Chinese place. I changed back into my civilian clothes to do that, of course. Fun as it might have been to be recognized and continue that whole ‘building public opinion of Paintball so my parents couldn’t easily tear it down’ thing, I needed a quiet place to think about what I was going to say to the girl who had thrown herself so thoroughly into being my partner. 

The restaurant had been just what I needed, at least as far as privacy went. I’d managed to get myself seated in a rear, quiet corner by saying I really needed to read for a school project while slipping the hostess a twenty dollar bill. From there, I ate some really good food and spent the next forty-five minutes trying to settle on exactly what I would tell Peyton when we met up.

Unfortunately, while the food was incredible, my brain wouldn’t cooperate. Even now, as I started to leave the restaurant and move toward the alley where I could change, I honestly had no idea what I was going to say, or how far I would go with my explanation. All I could do was play it by ear. At the very least, I would tell her about the Ministry, and in general terms how I had found out about them. But I kept going back and forth on whether I should reveal my identity to her. We were supposed to be friends and partners. Plus, some of that Band-Aid had already been torn off by the fact that Amber and Izzy knew about me. It felt somewhat easier to trust someone else with that. And yet, I couldn’t shake the feeling that I still barely knew Peyton. I wasn’t sure how she would react to this whole thing, so maybe it was better to just give her the general information about the Ministry and see how that went before telling her anything else? 

I was so involved with my own thoughts about that whole thing that I almost walked right into someone as I came out of the restaurant while they were starting to walk in. Only the fact that they blurted my name snapped me back to the real world in time to come up short. 

It was Arleigh Fosters. If Paige hadn’t existed, Arleigh would’ve been our school’s resident rich, hot blonde cheerleader type. Even though she wasn’t actually a cheerleader, she still had that same look and all. And the same stereotypical meanness. Not to mention racist, given the things I’d heard the girl say at school. All in all, Arleigh was not a pleasant person to be with. 

And yet, there was a pretty major difference between her and Paige in that she’d always been nice to me. She never insulted me, and always acted like we were… if not friends, at least friendly. Which kind of made me feel gross, to be honest. She tried to slide herself into my life whenever the chance arose, and basically laughed off any retort I made as though I was kidding. As horrible as she was to Jae (after deciding that the other girl had been trying to steal her now ex-boyfriend just because said boyfriend commented on Jae being cute), she was overly pleasant to me, because of who my family was. It was sickening. 

Actually, now that I knew more about the Paige situation, she and Arleigh really were opposites. Paige was a bitch to my face, but had been secretly trying to help because she cared about me while being incapable of showing it. Meanwhile, Arleigh was nice to my face because she wanted to have that connection to me–or rather, to my family. But she was obviously a nasty snake who didn’t give a shit about me or anyone who wasn’t herself. 

Sure enough, as soon as she saw me recognize her, the girl put on a bright smile. “I knew it was you. Hey there, Cassidy. I don’t think you’ve met my brothers, have you?” 

That made me notice the two guys on either side of the girl. The guy to her right was clearly older, probably around Simon’s age. He was also blond like Simon. But taller. He was several inches over six feet and very well-built. Almost distractingly so, damn. He looked movie-star nice. 

Meanwhile, the boy on the other side of Arleigh was… very different. About the only similarity connecting him to his siblings was the fact that he was blond. But, unlike their perfectly cared for thousand dollar haircuts, the mop atop this kid’s (he looked like he was twelve or thirteen) head was stringy and unkempt, sticking out every which way. He was skinny enough to almost look unhealthy, and wore glasses. Yeah, if he hadn’t been standing right there, and possibly if I hadn’t outright been told about their relation, I wouldn’t have connected this kid to Arleigh Fosters. 

The girl herself was gesturing back and forth between first the older guy, then the younger boy. “This is Micah and Errol. Guys, this is Cassidy Evans. She’s cool.” 

Oh boy was I ever so thrilled that someone like Arleigh thought I was cool. Or rather, claimed to think I was cool. I was going to rush right home and write in my diary about how the two of us could be best friends and go to college together and then have families living right next to each other. Because gee golly willickers, I definitely believed that she actually liked me.  

And yes, it took basically everything I had not to say that out loud. Not because I was worried about what the girl thought about me, but it was probably a bad idea to draw attention to myself. With everything that was going on, I didn’t want to give Arleigh any reason to focus on me any more than she already did. I just did not have the time or energy to deal with her when I had so many actual problems that mattered.

So, rather than allow myself the moment of catharsis that telling this girl exactly what I thought of her would give, I simply replied as flatly as possible, “Great to meet you guys, you’ve got good taste in restaurants, have a good time.” The words were mechanical, coming automatically just as they had any time my parents had dragged me to one of their special fundraisers or other functions where I had to play nice and be polite to people I really couldn’t care less about or be more bored by. Then, as now, I just wanted to say as little as possible before getting out of there. To that end, I attempted to simply slip past them and keep going. 

Unfortunately, Arleigh’s older brother, Micah, put a hand on my arm. His voice was casual, though his grip was tight in a way that made it clear that he wasn’t accustomed to being gentle. “Hey, your brother’s Simon, right? Where’s he been lately? We were supposed to have a game the other night with a bunch of guys, and he just sent some lame excuse about business or something. I was on a hot streak too, could’ve taken some of the weight out of his wallet.”  

Managing to pull my arm free from his grip, I shrugged. “Yeah, he and our parents went to New York for some kind of business thing. I don’t know anything else about it.” Glancing away to stare across the parking lot briefly before looking back, I added, “They don’t exactly keep me in the loop about all that stuff. All I know is they had to go. I think Dad’s involving Simon in business more so he can take an official position or something.” I was trying to keep everything I said as casual and uncaring as it would have been if I didn’t know the truth. I had to sound like a teenage girl who didn’t really care what her parents and brother were up to. 

Not that Micah really seemed to be paying attention to my tone. A snort escaped him at the explanation. “Yeah, sure, it doesn’t have anything to do with him wussing out of the game.” 

“Dude,” Arleigh retorted before I could respond, “the guy probably makes like a hundred k a month allowance or some shit. You really think he’s afraid of losing a few thousand to you in a card game?” She focused on me then, eyes rolling as though we were actually sharing some kind of moment in being annoyed by her brother. “He’s just pissy because Dad’s making him save up for a better car on his own. And his idea of ‘get a job’ is fleecing guys at poker.” 

“Hey, don’t mess with what works,” Micah shot back before giving his sister a ‘light’ shove that made her yelp a bit and stumble. Then he actually winked at me. “Speaking of which, how much do you know about cards? Actually, doesn’t really matter, I could totally teach you. You get an allowance from Mommy and Daddy Moneybags too, right? Could be a lot of fun.” He was practically waggling his eyebrows in a way that made me instinctively want to punch him. 

“Uh, no thanks.” I shook my head, starting to move around them once more. “I already said I’d meet somebody else. But good luck on your whole gambling thing, hope that works out for you.” 

“Hey, you girls.” Before I could leave, another voice called out. And good lord, what was with this restaurant doorway attracting people who knew me? 

When I looked toward the source of the voice, however, I realized that she might have known me, but I definitely didn’t know her. At least, I didn’t think I did. She stood only about four inches taller than me, with light brown hair pulled into a loose ponytail. Definitely pretty in a tomboy sort of way, and I was gonna guess she was in her late twenties. She also moved very… smoothly, like a dancer gliding across the pavement. 

“Oh my God, dude,” Arleigh groaned as the woman approached, “I told you, I don’t know where she is.” 

“Don’t know where who is?” I asked, looking back and forth between them. 

“Just checking to make sure you didn’t hear from her,” the woman calmly informed Arleigh, though there was a slight edge to that calmness that told me it could vanish in an instant. Then she turned her attention to me. “Sorry, I’ve got you at a disadvantage. You’re Cassidy Evans. I’m Irelyn. Irelyn Banners. And I’m looking for my sister, Paige.” 

Okay, that made me abruptly choke, my eyes widening despite myself. “Wha-what? Paige doesn’t have a sister.” Wait, was this a trap? Was this that son of a bitch launching a secret attack? Was–

“You might call me the black sheep of the family,” Irelyn replied with a wince. “And from that reaction, I’d say everything I’ve heard about how you and Paige get along was accurate. Sorry, I really don’t know what her deal is. I just–” She exhaled. “I don’t exactly spend a lot of time with her. Never have, since our parents adopted her after I ahhh… left. But I tried to take her out for her birthday and she never picked up the phone. Never responded to texts or e-mails. And she’s not home. The school says our parents took her on a trip, but no one knows where exactly, and there’s no one… actually at the house.” She squinted at me, as though wondering if I had answers. “It’s like they all just disappeared. And no one is answering any calls. The last time anyone saw her, or our parents, for sure was her birthday party.”

Ooookay, this I really didn’t expect. Mentally reeling while trying to hide it, I blinked a few times at all that as if it was new information. “Uhh, really? Maybe it was a uhh, you know, surprise trip to one of those remote places.” 

“Dad doesn’t go offline,” the woman flatly informed me. 

“Yeah, well, we don’t know where she is, dude.” That was Arleigh, putting a hand on my shoulder. “If we did, we’d tell you, okay? Why don’t you go tell the cops or one of the Touched teams about your missing sister? I’m sure they’ll get right on it.” 

Swallowing the thick lump in my throat, I managed, “Do you have a phone number? I mean, can I have your phone number. If I hear anything…” Boy was I going to let Paige have it for not mentioning that she might have a secret big sister poking around wondering where she was. 

Irelyn gave me the number, and I made a note of it before promising to let her know if I heard anything at all about Paige. Meanwhile, Arleigh started to say something else about school, but I was already starting across the sidewalk to the parking lot. On the way, once I was almost to the asphalt, I glanced back to see that Irelyn had gone into the restaurant already. Which left Arleigh and her older brother having a quiet, yet intense-looking whispered conversation in the doorway. Meanwhile, the younger boy was looking at me, just as silent as he had been throughout all that. What was his name? Errol? Yeah, that was it. Like Errol Flynn. But boy did he not seem anything like what I’d heard about that old actor guy. This Errol had been completely quiet through the entire interaction, essentially a fly on the wall while his siblings bulldozed over the whole conversation. Briefly, I wondered how often they completely forgot he was there. 

Right, it didn’t really matter. I had nothing to do with their family dynamics. So, I mentally shrugged that off and kept going. The next time I glanced back, they were gone. Presumably, they’d finally stepped into the restaurant. So, I pushed those thoughts aside and jogged away. Paige had an older sister. How had I never known that? How did she just fail to bring it up? What kind of trouble was this going to be? 

Shoving those thoughts away, I moved over to the alley to change back to my costume, keeping an eye out for anyone paying too much attention to the young teenager slipping off the main street. It was all clear, so I found my hidden spot and changed, sliding my regular, everyday clothes into my backpack. 

From there, I took a running start and red-painted myself up to the roof of another building, giving a loud whoop on the way. Of course, out here, my aim was perfect. I hit the exact part of the roof I’d been trying for. Yeah, there was definitely an aspect of my power that I didn’t understand. Maybe more than one. I had that really good aim, but I was also able to navigate through that dark forest perfectly. And, now that I thought about it, the whole navigation thing affected more than the dark. Could a normal, regular person instinctively find and land on the exact parts of a building, billboard, or even telephone or light pole as easily as I did while racing my way across the city? I hadn’t really focused on that too much before, but seriously. I did this stuff instinctively, as though I’d done it for years. I just reflexively knew how to twist my body to land where I wanted to. Not completely perfectly, of course. But still. It had to be more than simple luck. Especially now that I’d seen how things worked in the virtual reality world. I definitely had some sort of extra mental power that was helping me out with all that. I really needed to test that, see what its limits were and what else I could do with it. 

And hey, now that both Izzy and Amber were on board with this whole thing and knew my secrets, they could help with all that. Especially Amber, come to think of it. She had her own extra navigation mental power, after all. She always knew what compass direction she was facing. So, maybe she could help me figure out how my whole thing worked. Huh, it turned out there were benefits to actually sharing important information with people, who knew? 

In any case, I eventually made it to the parking lot behind a clothing store that was being renovated. This was where I was supposed to meet Peyton, and sure enough, there she was. I landed on the edge of a roof nearby and took a look around first to make sure no one was spying on her. Once I was assured that the coast was clear, I jumped off the roof and used orange paint on my boots to land smoothly a few feet away. 

“Hey, Paintball!” Pivoting my way as I landed, Peyton waved. She was wearing the marble-costume I’d seen that first night, the more knight-like gold and black armor with a white helmet, while the remaining three marbles lazily orbited around her head. “Didja trip over any more huge life-threatening dramatic problems on your way over here?” 

Flushing a little behind the helmet, I waved that off. “Haha, you’re hilarious. And you better hope I didn’t, because me not being super-busy for two seconds is your best chance to actually get some answers about what’s going on.” Sobering slightly then, I mentioned in slightly vague terms about how I’d heard that Paige apparently had a sister no one knew about, who was looking for her.

“Dude, a secret sister–wait, is she part robot too?” Peyton demanded. 

“Not as far as I know,” I murmured thoughtfully before waving it off. “No, no I don’t think so. Anyway, the point is, it’s something else to deal with. But what about you? Are you okay? Everything’s cool between you and your mom?” Her mother was obviously pretty protective, and the last thing I wanted to do was get the other girl in trouble just for helping with my stuff.

Peyton, in turn, shrugged. “It’s okay. But don’t change the subject. You promised you would tell me what’s actually going on around here. I mean, I know it’s gotta be something big just from what I picked up so far, but I need you to fill in the blanks so I can kick my imagination out of the driver’s seat. Cuz quite frankly, it’s trying to take the car off a cliff right now.” 

Yeah, she was definitely nervous about this whole thing. For a brief moment, I wondered if telling her all of this stuff was actually the right thing to do. She was already anxious, and knowing the truth probably wouldn’t fix that. But then, she deserved to know. She’d earned that, and it wasn’t my place to keep her in the dark just because I thought it was for her own good. Much as I often lamented knowing what I did about my family, I wouldn’t want to go back to being in the dark. Not really. And I certainly wouldn’t want someone else to make the decision for me. 

So, taking a breath, I looked around before noticing some cement steps nearby that led up to the back of the store. Beckoning for her to follow, I walked that way and sat down. Once Peyton dropped beside me, I looked out at the lot and began to tell her at least some of the truth. I kept details about my family and my identity out of it for the time being, but gave her a basic rundown of how I’d first encountered the Ministry, what they were and how they worked as far as I could tell. Instead of saying that I’d seen my brother at the mall and followed him in to hear him talk about that whole thing with criminals paying for the right to operate in the city, I just told her I recognized the man from that first night. 

I did feel bad about not telling her the full truth and basically lying by omission, but this was a lot to dump on her already as it was. Once I knew how she would react to this whole thing, I’d get into more details. Assuming this actually worked out, of course. 

“There’s more,” I told her flatly once that was done. “I mean, I’ve sort of skirted around some details. I won’t lie to you about that. There’s a few specifics, even important specifics, that I didn’t mention. It’s just… it’s a lot. I don’t want to lie to you or anything. There’s things I’m not going to tell you yet. Sorry, I really am. I just… I can’t get into that stuff right now. But everything I have told you is the truth. That’s what the Ministry is, and they’re why I’m not joining any teams. They have their fingers in everything, every team on both sides. They control the city.” 

Peyton was silent for a minute, clearly digesting all that. She rocked back and forth there on the step while the three extra marbles went still and motionless around her head, as if they too were thinking about that whole thing. Finally, the girl looked over to me. “So, they do good things and bad things. I mean, yeah, they let a lot of crime happen. But crime’s gonna happen everywhere, no matter what. And look at how much better Detroit’s doing than it was before Touched came along. I had to do a history report about this place in the 90’s, and it wasn’t pretty, Paintball. My mom even showed me some pictures from back then, and the city was… you know, pretty bad. When powers came, this place could’ve turned into a complete warzone. I’ve seen like, journalist people pointing out how easily things could’ve gotten worse instead of better. If this Ministry had anything to do with directing things this long, they can’t be all totally bad, you know?” 

Meeting her gaze, I replied, “Yeah. It’s complicated, I know. They’ve done some good things, and probably even stopped a lot of much worse stuff from happening. But they also kill people. They do bad things too. I just–you know, I have to find out just how much power they have and what they’ve done to consolidate it. They’re the most powerful group in town, and even if they have some good intentions, there’s no one to stop them from going too far.” 

After considering that briefly, Peyton nodded. “Yeah, you’re right. And either way, I’m with you. Seriously, Paintball, you saved me, more than once. And I like working with you. That whole thing in that VR place, that was crazy, but it was also like… the best?” She exhaled. “I know it’s dangerous and terrifying and all that. All of this is. And my mom would kill me if she knew I was anywhere near this stuff. But I wanna be here. I want to help. Just–maybe think about the good stuff these Ministry people have done too. I swear, I’m not ignoring the murder stuff. I’m not. But maybe they can be… you know, fixed?” She added the last bit with a helpless shrug. 

“I dunno,” I murmured. “But at the very least, we’re gonna find out more about them when we break into that secret mall base.” 

“You actually have a plan for that?” the other girl pressed. 

Offering a smile that she wouldn’t be able to see, I cheerfully replied, “Sure do. 

“How do you feel about tunnels?”

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