So, as it had turned out, the entire situation was even more complicated than we already thought it was. What had been an incredibly thin hope that Jason wasn’t responsible for his own actions and was being framed somehow ended up being the truth. But that didn’t help Broadway that much, because their foster sister was the person who framed him. And she had done it specifically because she was actually trying out to join the fucking Scions herself. Broadway had gone from feeling sick about her brother being that kind of psycho malicious piece of shit, to feeling sick about it being her sister instead. Again, not much of an upgrade.
On the other hand, the zombies had all fallen apart as soon as that Jennica girl had stopped controlling Jason and fled. Which at least meant we didn’t have to deal with them. But, of course, that still left the boy himself. And a whole lot of explanations to give to the authorities.
Broadway and Pack left with Grandstand as soon as the cops and other Star-Touched started showing up. I couldn’t blame any of them for not wanting to stick around. If Broadway wanted to keep her identity secret, she couldn’t really explain what she was doing here. She did, however, make me promise that I would give the authorities the whole story about what really happened with Jason so he wouldn’t end up being blamed for everything. It was pretty obvious that she had considered taking him with her, but in the end, decided against it. It was a better idea for us to explain things so he wouldn’t have to go on the run for the rest of his life, hopefully. But then again, if he had his evil sister still trying to use his power… Yeah, that was complicated.
As it turned out, Caishen had finally shown up, along with like half the Star-Touched in Detroit. Including my father, as Silversmith, of course. It may have taken them a while to get our messages and have time to do something about it, but now they were here. Too bad it was too late to matter.
Still, it led to our whole team standing in front of Silversmith, Caishen, and Brumal in one of the executive offices. Meanwhile the rest of the authorities were going over this place with a fine tooth comb just to make sure there were no more surprises left behind. Jason, still unconscious from the drug he’d been injected with, was lying on the floor nearby with someone’s jacket set under his head as a pillow.
“Okay,” Silversmith started while looking right at me, “let me see if I’ve got this right. That boy over there really does have the power to animate dead things and give them fire powers. He really did create and control the zombies we saw. But he wasn’t actually responsible for what he did because his adopted sister also has powers, one of which allows her to control anyone she hits with one of her stone things, which she has attached to rings on her hand. She’s the one who wants to join the Scions, and part of her initiation, or test, or… whatever you might want to call it, was framing her brother for all of this.”
Glancing to the others before turning my attention back to my father, I gave a short nod. “That’s right, sir. Like I said, we were desperate for help, so I reached out to Pack since I, you know, helped them before with–”
Before I could finish, Brumal spoke up. “You helped save his daughter. An understandable goal, but what’s this about you having her phone number?”
“I didn’t really expect it to work,” I replied. “I figured they would’ve disconnected that number by now. And no, I’m not giving it to you.” I saw the way they looked at each other at that, and quickly pressed on. “Come on, you know what would happen if I did. You wouldn’t be able to get anything out of it anyway, and they wouldn’t trust me again. Which would be bad if something like this happened.”
“They are criminals,” Caishen pointed out mildly. She didn’t really sound upset about any of this, more curious about how I would react to her words.
“Yeah, I know,” I replied. “But there’s criminals and then there’s criminals. As evidenced right here. We asked for help stopping an atrocity here, and they helped. We couldn’t have found that guy and saved all the people in the stadium without them. Pack and Broadway came to help make sure there wasn’t a complete massacre here.”
Brumal sounded curious. “And you say Grandstand was just tagging along and you didn’t even know about it?”
I coughed before shrugging. There was no reason not to tell the full truth on that front. “She said she’s trying to find someone who killed a friend of hers, and she thinks that one of the people who was trying out for the Scions is that person. I guess she thought Jason could give her more information. You know, since they’re both supposedly trying out. Now she’s after that Jennica girl.”
There was a moment of silence as the three adults turned to look at one another. Only belatedly did I realize they weren’t just looking. They were conferring with some sort of Touched-Tech that was silencing their voices so we couldn’t hear, but they could. Convenient, that.
Once more, I looked at the rest of the group. They were clearly exhausted. I knew I sure was. But this whole thing could’ve ended up a lot worse. It had been sheer luck that Peyton had started to follow me when I followed Riddles, and another bit of luck that I had decided not to push the issue to send her back. And her randomly spotting what she thought was a raccoon but turned out to be a dog, leading us to the room where those managers were tied up so they could tell us about Jennica and how she had to have line of sight to use her powers… yeah, we had gotten lucky. A bit too lucky, honestly. It felt like that dog had led us there, but I couldn’t think of who would have been responsible for that.
In any case, all of that led to us being able to set our trap to catch Jennica. Which, even if it hadn’t lasted, was probably the only reason the situation had ended as well as it did. Not that her getting away was great, but still. Now we knew she was a threat, and had an idea of what she could do for the most part. And boy was it a lot. She had kind of struck gold when it came to powers. If she did end up joining the Scions, we would all be in deep trouble. As bad as she already was all by herself, I had no doubt that Pencil could put her to even worse things. We had to find her and make sure that didn’t happen.
Well, in this case, I supposed that would be up to Grandstand and Broadway, and maybe Pack if she helped out. And who was I kidding? Of course she was going to help out.
Shaking that off, I looked back to the trio of adults just as Silversmith spoke again. “Right, first of all, apologies are in order. While we had no way of knowing that this would happen just as everything in the city… ahh, went wrong, we did fail in one major way.”
“That’s right,” Brumal put in, “we didn’t provide you with an authorization code. It’s a phrase you can speak to a 911 operator, or anyone like that, to prove that you are who you say you are. All sanctioned teams have them, and Paintball should have had it a long time ago. We dropped the ball there.”
Caishen made a noise in the back of her throat. “I should have pressed the issue before. I never thought everything would happen at once, and I should have anticipated it.” She heaved a long sigh before looking at my father. “You’re going to rectify that now?”
He gave a firm nod. “Of course.” Looking straight at me once more, he added, “Your code is going to be ‘pandas are always green.’ That’s the first letters from Paintball And Avant-Guard. PAAG. Pandas Are Always Green.” He repeated that again before having us repeat it as well.
“Memorize it, and make sure you always know what it is. Test each other on it. From now on, if any of you contact the authorities, even if you’re not in costume, you can use that code.”
Roald raised his hand until they were all looking at him. He sounded incredibly nervous to have all that attention from three of the most powerful and important Touched in the city focused on him, but forced out the words, “Um, does that mean that every 911 operator is going to know that code and not just think we’re saying gibberish things at them?”
It was Brumal who answered. “Not exactly. When we program that into the system, saying those words over a phone line will automatically transfer you to someone who does know what’s going on. Then you can tell that person what you need and what’s wrong, and they’ll take you seriously.”
Dad gave a short nod. “And if you say them in person, the officer’s own radio will alert him that a Star-Touched pass phrase has been used, and that he needs to take you seriously.”
I could tell that Paige wanted to say something then, as did Sierra. But they were being quiet for the moment. I wasn’t sure exactly how it would go if they started drilling these guys with more questions, but it was probably a good idea for us to get through this as fast as possible. If nothing else, the sooner we got out of this place, the sooner we could all fall over. So, I turned back to my dad while carefully replying, “Thanks for that.”
“As I said, we should’ve done it before,” he replied. “But at this point, I’d say your team has more than earned it. That and a lot more. All those people who were stuck in the stadium today are alive because you acted. And yes, you worked with villains to do it, but sometimes that’s what we have to do. Just like when they volunteer to help at a Collision Point. They receive temporary amnesty during that sort of encounter. I’d say the same thing could easily apply here. You had no other recourse.”
“Does that mean we’re not going to jail?” Murphy sounded like she was only half-kidding. I was pretty sure she expected to get in trouble, even after all we’d done. Maybe even because of what we’d done. She’d muttered something earlier about how the authorities would probably be pissed about being shown up and blame us for it.
Brumal gave an incredulous chuckle. “Kid, after what you guys did here, we’re the ones who should be in trouble, and you should be getting medals. Believe me, no one’s going to hold working with those three against you. Especially not when it ended up with these results.” She paused then before clearly grimacing at a private thought. “No one who matters, anyway.”
Before I could respond to that, Paige raised her hand to point at Jason. “What’s going to happen to him now?”
The others looked that way as well, before Silversmith replied, “He won’t be charged with what happened. There are provisions in the law for being controlled in some way by Touched powers when you commit a crime. But he’s not going to be able to go home either. Even if that girl decides to leave him alone, which I doubt, it’s pretty obvious that Pencil would see him as a resource. So he’ll need to go somewhere else.”
I blinked a couple times before asking, “Are you going to put him in witness protection or something?”
Caishen nodded. “Something like that. Don’t worry, he’ll be safe. We know how to make someone disappear.”
Boy, oh boy, could I have said a lot of things to that. But, I kept my mouth shut. I still wasn’t sure if she was connected to the Ministry or not, so I had no idea if she knew just how good they really were at making people disappear. Dad misinterpreted my moment of silence, giving a soft chuckle once more. “Okay, I think you’ve had enough excitement for one day, all of you. Now, what was that code again?”
We repeated it back to him, and he nodded. “I’ll be testing you once in a while. But right now, I’ve got some very confused and upset people to talk to.” He glanced at Caishen and added, “You wanted to talk to them yourself?”
She confirmed that, then the three of them had another silent conversation before my father created a silver stretcher under Jason and lifted him up with it so it could float behind them as they walked out, leaving just Caishen standing there. When the door closed, she exhaled long and hard. “I know it was said before, but I am truly sorry that I wasn’t able to answer your call. And that it took so long to get your messages. After everything I said to you about not going off on your own, and then I gave you no choice but to do just that.”
I shrugged a bit awkwardly. “It’s not like you were maliciously ignoring us or anything. You had to deal with what was happening in the city.”
Alloy immediately raised her hand. “And, about that, what actually did happen in the city? What’s going on back there?”
So, after taking a deep breath, the woman told us what had been keeping everyone so busy. And boy had we missed a lot. Apparently Oscuro and the Ninety-Niners, whose alliance had been starting to fall apart, called a truce again and launched a full-scale attack against the Easy Eights in an attempt to split their territory down the middle. Except not really, because the Easy Eights had actually agreed to a truce with the Ninety-Niners. Which the latter had agreed to because they were angry at Oscuro for various not-very-well explained reasons.
Basically, it meant that Cuélebre and his gang had attempted to drive deep into enemy territory, only to be ambushed not only by the people they were attacking and the gang that was supposed to be on their side, but also by a large portion of La Casa, as Blackjack wasn’t about to give up the opportunity to get revenge on at least one of the gangs who pissed him off by trying to take advantage of his dying daughter situation.
All of that would have been complicated enough, but then things apparently had gotten worse. Three of the Easy Eight lieutenants, Juice, Janus (Uncle Friendly and Mister Harmful), and Devil’s Due, switched sides to join Oscuro. And they took a decent portion of their own people with them. Which meant that suddenly instead of being three gangs against one, it was two and a half gangs against one and a half. Which obviously wasn’t enough to completely change things, but it wasn’t good either. Especially given the fact that Devil’s Due had announced his betrayal by using his power (the one that allowed him to focus on someone and make anything he said sound completely reasonable) to tell Sockinit to use his power to fuck with the guns and powers on their own side. It was hard to win a fight when your guns randomly wouldn’t fire, or your powers suddenly stopped working. Not to mention someone had apparently set off some sort of teleportation bomb that sent Deicide halfway across the state, if the reports of her vanishing from the battlefield and then randomly showing up in Grand Rapids were accurate.
And on top of everything else, Braintrust had attacked some science lab on the far side of the city, apparently taking advantage of the already stressed system. It sounded like the only gang who hadn’t started or participated in World War Three the night before was Sherwood. And I honestly didn’t trust that they wouldn’t feel left out and decide to blow some stuff up themselves pretty soon. After all, the day wasn’t over just yet.
“Holy shit,” Murphy finally managed once the story was done. “No wonder you guys were busy.”
Caishen coughed. “Yes, well, that happens sometimes. As it stands now, the fighting seems to have run its course. We’ll have to see how the territory changes go, but it seems that Oscuro has not only managed to gain three new Touched to replace the two they’ve lost recently in Handler and Grandstand, but also drove the Easy Eights to retreat. We have no idea how that squares with Oscuro’s rule of only allowing Hispanic gang members, but they already made an exception for Grandstand, so… who knows.”
She offered a shrug to go with her uncertain words before continuing. “The civil war that those three lieutenants splitting off caused screwed up the rest of their people pretty badly. They never did manage to rally. Seems whoever was left to take control after Deicide was teleported away decided backing off after that happened was the best call. Which left La Casa and the Ninety-Niners facing Cuélebre and his new, bigger gang. That was a mess. But it seems to have calmed down for the moment. Now, who the hell knows what’s going to happen over the next few days? If I had to guess, I’d say the Easy Eights–or should that be Easy Fives? Either way, they’ll probably lose half their territory and about that many of their people by the time it all shakes out.”
“I’m surprised Blackjack agreed to a truce with the Ninety-Niners to begin with,” I murmured. “He was as pissed at them as he was at Oscuro, last I knew.”
“Apparently Sandon apologized for what happened with his daughter,” Caishen informed us. “She wanted to end the fighting. That’s what our people were able to piece together, anyway. And as part of that, she agreed to monetary compensation as well as a deal with Blood Covenant.”
That made me do a double-take. “Blood Covenant? They’re here?”
“One of their representatives was,” came the flat reply. “As we said, today was very eventful.”
The others were all reacting with just as much surprise as me. Which was understandable, given what we’d just heard. Blood Covenant was an international Sell-Touched organization. Their leader and founder was a man named Solon, whose power was… well, the blood covenant. Essentially, his blood itself had power. Whenever someone wrote something using that blood, Solon was able to tell from that point forward if that person ever violated what they wrote. If they wrote that they would jump three times every morning at precisely eight am, and three years later they didn’t jump right then, Solon would know. He didn’t even have to be there for his power to be used that way. It just required his blood.
Yeah, it was a weird power. And there were several other things he could do with his blood. But either way, it had allowed him to create one of the largest and most successful Sell-Touched organizations in the world. His people knew that anyone who signed up with them couldn’t turn around and backstab them without Solon knowing about it. They tended to send representatives with vials of his blood to write up short contracts for this sort of thing. If you violated your agreement, you’d end up with a Blood Covenant detachment showing up to express their displeasure.
“What was the contract she signed?” Paige asked, clearly just as curious as I was. If not more.
“We don’t know,” Caishen informed us. “Not exactly. But it sounds like it was enough to make Blackjack agree to a truce with her and the rest of the Ninety-Niners. Probably something about working together and never trying to fuck him over again. Pardon me, screw him over again.” She shook her head. “It’s been a long day. And now I feel that yours should be over. All of you head home. You’ve done far more than enough. We’ll contact you again later. And thank you. Thank all of you for making sure this wasn’t a hell of a lot worse than it ended up being. There’s a van on the east side of the parking lot that will take you anywhere you’d like to go back in the city.”
So, we left. Together, our little group made our way out of the stadium. Before we could look for that van, however, a certain noise caught our attention. It was some sort of roar. All of us snapped upright and turned, only to find ourselves facing a mob of people. They were being held back by police tape and uniformed officers, but as soon as they spotted us, the shouting began.
No, not shouting. Cheering. The people were applauding, screaming, waving their hands, clapping… They were cheering. They were thanking us, all of us.
“Guys,” I found myself murmuring dully as we all just stood flatfooted staring at the enormous crowd of cheering onlookers, “I think it just hit me.
“We’re sorta superheroes.”