Janus

New Deals 13-07 (Summus Proelium)

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It wasn’t a mistake, apparently. My name was written out and everything. Paige was inviting me to her birthday party. Or her (adopted) parents were making her. Or this was some kind of elaborate trap. Actually, the fact that I genuinely wasn’t sure if it was a standard mean girl school teenage bullshit trap or something more nefarious involving her supervillain father (not that I had any room to judge as far as that went) kind of said something about how my life was. 

So which was it? Assuming this whole thing was intentional, was Paige playing her bitchy shtick again, waiting for me to either come so she could pull something or not come so she could tell everyone what a snob I was? Or was it something worse she and her father had cooked up?

Complicating everything, of course, was the fact that I’d found out we used to be friends. Which was still something that I couldn’t wrap my head around, no matter how many times I thought about it. Paige Banners and I were friends at some point? The same girl who had been… who had made so much of my school life… who had… how were we friends? Why was she apparently so different now? It couldn’t just be memory loss, right? What was going on? 

In any case, two days (really a day and a half) after getting the invitation, I still didn’t know exactly what that was all about. Unfortunately, I didn’t have much of a choice about going. Apparently Paige’s family (or the people who had apparently adopted her?) had also sent the invitation to my parents, making it an official sort of thing, and my mother had said that I needed to put in an appearance to avoid upsetting the Banners. It was a rich people thing. My family was rich, the Banners were rich, we had to play nice in some respects. I didn’t have to stay for long, but I had to at least show up. 

In any case, now it was Friday, which meant two things. First, we were supposed to have dinner with that reporter guy who was up from Los Angeles. And second, I was going out that night to meet with those two from before, Murphy and Roald. I actually had a plan for that bit, at least. I’d talked with Wren and she said she could use their help putting some stuff together. Extra hands and all that. 

So, that at least was something I could start them on. Honestly, I was just glad I’d come up with an answer to one of the questions I’d been thinking about the past couple days, even if it was the simplest one. As for the whole birthday thing and the wider Paige situation… yeah, I had nothing. My brain kept saying that at least I could use this chance to find out more. It was the best opportunity I’d been offered to get close to Paige (a thought that would have made me dry heave not long ago) without it being obvious that I was investigating her. She’d invited me, after all, whatever the reason. I could use that, maybe. 

To distract myself from all those confusing thoughts (as well as the fact that I had every reason to be suspicious about this party), I was taking a trip through the city as Paintball about an hour after school. Not really looking for anything in particular, just running and skating through the rooftops and across buildings to clear my head. I was going to have to head home for dinner eventually, but that wouldn’t be for another couple hours. We weren’t eating until seven, which gave me plenty of time to take a good run and hopefully get my brain on straight before it twisted itself into knots. 

Yeah, clearing my mind was obviously going super-well, given how much I was still thinking about that whole thing. Urgh. Giving my head a hard shake, I focused on where I actually was. The answer, in that case, was ‘skating along the very edge of a roof, using green paint for speed as I raced toward the far end.’ The building was a good twenty stories high, leaving the view immediately to my left fairly… precarious, to say the least. I ignored that, staring straight ahead as the wheels of my skates glided easily along the roof. The green paint meant I was ‘gliding’ at about forty miles an hour, so the far end was coming up pretty fast. That steep drop loomed. 

Spraying blue paint at the very edge of the roof just in time, I activated it, crouching at the last second before I was launched up and forward with a loud scream of adrenaline. Fuck, fuck! Say whatever about the stress of my whole situation, but I loved this part of my powers. It was so incredibly freeing. I literally hurled myself out into open air twenty stories up. If I fell, if I fucked up, if my powers dropped for whatever reason, if I made any real mistake, the consequences would have been catastrophic. It was terrifying but also so… so amazing. I loved it. I loved my powers, and how I could use them. 

Flipping over high in the air, I twisted my body until my feet were pointed sideways toward the side of the building I was flying at. The momentum from my launch carried me clear across the street that was so far below, until I hit that wall. Instantly, the pace-skates that Wren had put together shifted gravity so that being sideways against that building was the same as being right-side up for me. I didn’t even slow down, ‘landing’ hard against the wall before immediately continuing to skate, that time along the wall. My skates made clickety-clack sounds as they passed through the grooves of the bricks, almost calming in a way. Especially if you didn’t think about how high up you were. It helped. All of this was helping me feel better. 

Before reaching the edge of that wall, I retracted my skates with a quick command and simply ran the last few steps while focusing on the purple stars I’d previously set up along my legs. Activating them for the strength boost, I threw myself sideways off the wall. At the same time, I turned my entire arm and hand bright pink and heaved it out as hard as I could while activating that paint as well. My arm, suddenly rubberized, actually stretched a good ten feet out to catch hold of the ledge of another building. Between the purple and pink paint, I was able to grab the ledge and swing myself over that way, letting out another loud whoop of joy at the rush. 

Releasing the ledge as I managed to swing myself over, I cancelled the pink paint so my arm snapped back to normal. Now I was diving through the air feet-first, at an angle toward the side of a much lower building, only a few stories tall. 

Pointing my hands that way, I shot a spray of pink paint, activating both that and the orange sun image I already had on my back. The instant before I would have hit the pink paint, I deactivated it, shifting the pink to its secondary effect of making the target very springy for those brief few seconds. Which was all the time I needed before my feet collided with the wall, visibly denting it inward a bit before it snapped back to the way it had been to launch me back up and toward the opposite side of the street. 

Flipping over through that, I hit the wall of another building a couple stories up and glanced down to see a few people taking pictures from below, or even waving. A few called, asking for autographs, or even for a ‘ride’ through the city.   

I waved back, crouching a bit to slap my hand against the wall. The logo I’d made up for ‘signing’ things back at the Ten Towers headquarters appeared. Black oval with ‘Paintball’ written in white cursive letters, along with a rainbow spray of all the other colors from one side to the other. I made the logo large enough to see before throwing myself back into a run once more. I’d let the people down there have some time to take pictures of the logo before dismissing it so some poor guy didn’t have to scrub it clean. 

Yeah, that stuff seemed pretty silly and even arrogant if I thought about it too much, but I’d heard about how important it was to keep a good public image. I really didn’t have it in me to drop down there and talk to people while I was still trying to clear my head. But I could, at least, give them that little logo thing to show I wasn’t ignoring them. Besides, playing things up like that was fun. And I had to admit, the cheers as I ran along the wall before using blue paint to launch myself up and away were pretty amazing to hear. 

Just as I landed on the edge of another roof, the Touched-business phone buzzed in my pocket. Glancing down to see the people gathering up under the logo I’d painted to take pictures, I pulled the phone out and glanced down. It was the number That-A-Way had given me. 

“Hey, you busy?!” she immediately blurted the second that I answered. It sounded like she was out of breath. “Cuz we could use a little help over here!” 

Well, that got my attention. Quickly straightening, I asked, “Help over where, with what?” Tempting as it was to add a snarky comment about how she better not be asking me to help her move, I restrained the impulse. This sounded serious. She was definitely in the middle of something big, given the shouts and other sounds I could vaguely hear in the background. 

There was a brief pause while That-A-Way clearly dealt with something else, before she responded. “Fox Theatre on Woodward! Near downtown. You know where–what the fuck am I saying–the baseball stadium! We’re at the baseball stadium! There’s some big fight going on between the–Rain, get down! Some big fight going on between the Niners and the Eights. They’ve got the big guns a couple blocks north, but we’re catching the edge of it and could use a little–” There was a sudden loud pair of gunshots that cut off her words, and my heart leapt into my stomach until her voice came back midway through a sentence, “–of shit! Paintball?” 

“I’m on my way!” I blurted quickly, wanting the other girl to focus on what she was doing. “I’ll be right there, I’m just–I’m coming, just a few minutes out!” With that, I dismissed the logo on the building nearby before running to the edge of the roof I was on, launching myself upward. Fox Theatre on Woodward. That was the same street where the library that I’d eavesdropped on Paige’s conversation with her father was on, but a couple miles further south. And That-A-Way was right, it was also directly next to Whitaker-Trammell Field, the massive domed baseball stadium (for the Detroit Tigers) my father had helped fund the creation of to replace the former Comerica Park about ten years earlier.

In any case, I really was only a few minutes away. At least the way I traveled. Staying atop the buildings, I raced toward the theater as quickly as possible. My skates seemed to barely touch down before I launched myself again, urging myself to fucking move already. It didn’t matter how fast I was going. It didn’t matter that I was hurtling myself recklessly through the air while barely paying attention to my surroundings. It felt too slow. Go, go, I had to get there. If something happened to That-A-Way, or any of the others, because I was too slow to help… I couldn’t let that happen. I had to get there right god damn now. 

Actually, I really wasn’t paying that much actual attention to my surroundings. I was running along the side of buildings, jumping across billboards, popping my skates out to glide across the very edge of roofs, all while going way too fast to be judging all of this manually. It was like when I was navigating through those trees in the middle of the night. I just… knew where to go. 

Not something to worry about right then. Another example of my weird extra sense or whatever, but I didn’t have time to focus on it. The Minority. That-A-Way. I had to get there to help. Any other weirdness could wait until later. 

On the plus side, it didn’t actually take that long for me to get where I was going. And it took an even shorter amount of time for me to hear some of what was going on. There was gunfire, blaring horns and squealing tires from cars still trying to get away from being in the middle of it, screaming, and more. So much more. I was heading straight into a storm of chaos and violence. And, from the sound of what That-A-Way had said, this was just the edge of things. Just how bad was it further north, where the so-called ‘big guns’ were fighting? 

Pretty bad, clearly. But I had to focus on helping these guys. First, however, I had to see what was going on. My eyes scanned the street below frantically as I came to a stop at the edge of an office building across the street from the theater itself. Below me was the spot where the smaller Columbia street crossed Woodward. Columbia led straight through a couple large parking lots directly in front of the stadium. 

But baseball wasn’t the point. The real point were those two parking lots and the theater across Columbia street. There were people down there, spread all through the street, partially in the theater itself from the look of things, and in those parking lots. It was a mix of police, Prev gang members, Touched gang members, and the Minority. Not to mention a handful of civilians who were cowering on the ground, unable to get out of the line of fire. 

Judging from my quick look, what Way had said made sense. There were definitely two different gangs down there, a mix of Ninety-Niners and Easy Eights. It looked like some kind of massive fight had broken out, the cops intervened and were quickly outgunned, and now the Minority were trying to help. But they too were outnumbered. Luckily, the two gangs seemed more interested in fighting each other than in actually causing damage to the Star-Touched or police.

There. Janus (Uncle Friendly and Mister Harmful) were standing at the edge of the nearest parking lot. They’d made their hands and arms massive, and were currently using them to lash out at the nearby Whamline. But the Minority guy kept launching energy coils that exploded to knock the incoming hands out of the way. He couldn’t do more than that, fighting a defensive battle, because there were two civilians huddled on the ground right behind him. Whamline was covering them, repeatedly knocking Janus’ hands out of the way. But with every grasp, the conjoined men kept getting closer to getting hold of him. They were using the fact that Whamline had to protect the prone civilians against him, almost like they were playing a game. Like a cat with a mouse. They were wearing him down. 

Using one shot of blue paint to launch myself that way, then another on top of the traffic light in the middle of the intersection, I flipped over in the air before shooting a spray of pink toward the tall lamp post about ten feet away from Janus, coating it as much as possible. Just before crashing into that same post (activating a bit of orange on one arm to avoid knocking the wind out of myself), I cancelled the pink paint while blurting, “I know you’re into this villain thing, but–” My full body hit the post, bending it all the way over in half before I threw myself off it to the side. “–I really think you should see the light!” As I said those last words, the lamp post snapped all the way upright and then continued over in the opposite direction, like flicking one of those springy doorstop things. The top of the lamp literally slammed into the top of their joined heads. “Up close and personal-like,” I finished from my crouched position, watching the men reel backward. Or forward, in Uncle Friendly’s case. Not that he looked all that friendly right then. They both seemed fairly annoyed with me, even as the lamp post snapped back to its normal position. But hey, at least I had their attention. 

Green paint, green paint, green paint! Activating the wide emerald wings I’d put on my back, I used the enhanced speed to barely avoid the truck-sized fist that Janus basically launched at me. Hurling myself upward and over, I landed on his extended wrist as that hand shot by right under me, shooting yellow down at that to slow them just a little. At the same time, I threw myself in a sideways flip, hitting the underside of their other arm, which was raised slightly higher, running along that with my gravity-defying boots.  

A few steps in and Janus clearly knew where I was, as the arm lifted up before abruptly slamming toward the ground. They were trying to squish me like a fly. And they might’ve managed it, if I hadn’t used that shot of yellow to slow them slightly. As it was, I barely managed to toss myself at the ground and away from the descending arm, tucking into a forward roll that carried me just out of the way as it slammed into the ground so hard I nearly lost my balance. 

Fortunately, the fact that I’d managed to get their attention so well wasn’t all bad news. It also meant that Whamline was able to regroup. Mister Harmful shouted a cursed warning, but it was too late, as the Minority Touched sent out four quick energy coils, which wrapped around Janus by all four limbs before quickly hurling him out of the way and across to the far side of the lot. 

“Go help Way and Rain!” he blurted at me, pointing to the theater across the street. “They’re inside, with hostages! I’ve got these guys!” 

My head snapped that way. I could see where the doors of the theater had been broken down entirely. That-A-Way and Raindrop were in there with bad guys and innocent civilians, apparently. Without pausing to think at all, I threw myself into a sprint that way, ignoring the screamed threat from Mister Harmful. He didn’t matter. Neither did his conjoined partner. The only thing that mattered was getting to That-A-Way and Raindrop. 

And hoping I wasn’t too late. 

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Alliances 6-01 (Summus Proelium)

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Something flicked hard against my helmet, snapping me awake with a gasp. I tried to sit up to take stock, but a hand was holding me down. A very big hand. 

My eyes opened, only to see the smiling face of Uncle Friendly staring down at me. He had enlarged his hand to take up most of my torso, easily holding me in place. “There we are,” the man announced. “You’re awake now.” 

“Good!” The snarled word came from the back of his head, where Mister Harmful’s face was. “If he’s awake, let’s get on to the fun part. We owe this little bastard.”

Oh… okay, this was bad. This was really bad. I couldn’t even tell where I was, aside from the fact that it was some room somewhere. I’d been knocked out long enough that we were no longer out on the street. We could have been anywhere. I… what was I supposed to do now? 

Besides be afraid, because I was acing that part. 

I started to shift a bit, but Uncle Friendly tightened his grip painfully, drawing a gasp from me. His voice was still polite and calm. “I see one bit of paint and I’m afraid I’ll just have to snap every rib you have. Then I’ll take those ribs and start jamming them through random bits of your body. And we really don’t want that, do we?”

“We don’t?” his other self retorted. “I thought that was the Plan A.”

Uncle Friendly gave a soft chuckle. “Forgive my eager counterpart. He finds it difficult to forgive and forget. I’m afraid you very much annoyed him, and he’s quite looking forward to hurting you. Let’s try not to let it come to that. You and I, we can work this out peacefully, I believe.”

For a moment, I was silent, mind swimming as I thought to think of anything. That, and I needed a few seconds to collect myself so my voice would do more than whimper. Finally, all I could do was manage a weak, “So, is talking allowed?”

That smile of his brightened. “Of course it is! We can talk about a lot of things. But there’s one thing I’d rather focus on first. I think you know.”

Despite everything, a dozen potential smartass retorts popped into my head. But honestly, I… I was afraid. Yeah, maybe it was stupid and a real hero would’ve been cool and collected. But me? I was just scared, even if I didn’t want to show it. Could I put blue paint on myself to knock the man away for me? Probably. But could I do it fast enough that he couldn’t do a hell of a lot of damage to me first? I didn’t know. And this really wasn’t the best time to test it. I wasn’t even sure I could activate orange paint quickly enough to protect me from his retaliation. Except maybe I could put it on my back. If I put it on my back, I could hide it from him and—

“Now, now.” Friendly whacked a finger in front of my face. “You’re thinking. This isn’t something you need to think about. You know exactly what we need from you, don’t you?”

Face hidden behind my helmet and mask, I hesitated for just a second before replying, “You think I can tell you where Ashton Austin is.”

“You see?” Friendly gave a cheerful laugh. “We’re doing so well. You’re great at this. Except for one thing. We know you can tell us where the guy is. And the inventor girl. Both of them. You can tell us where they are, and we’ll all be civilized about this.”

They wanted Wren too? That made me focus more than anything else had. Slowly, I nodded. “Yeah. I guess. There’s just one problem. See, you keep insinuating about all the bad things you’re going to do to me if I don’t do what you want. Which could be a great motivator, don’t get me wrong. But like you said, there’s a little girl involved. Two, actually. And if I tell you what I know, I’ll be sentencing one to death, and the other to whatever painful things you already have in mind for me. If you think I’d be okay with that, that I’d help kill one girl and condemn another to being your slave so you can torture her into building you weapons to kill even more people… then you’re even dumber than that two-headed freak show act makes you look.”

A sudden pain filled my chest, as the man clamped down. It only lasted for a second, before he released me to spend his torso around so I was facing Mister Harmful. There was a sadistic grin on the second man’s face, and he raised his free hand while clamping down once more with the other. “Oh, I am so glad you said that. You’re mine now, you little cocksucker. I’ll show you just what a mistake you made.”

This was it. I had to get out of here right now, while I still had the—

“Stop.” The simple, yet commanding voice came from someone beyond Janus. Harmful sighed, making a face at me, while Friendly spoke. “At ease, Cav. We’re just getting a few answers. As long as the boy cooperates, he won’t suffer any permanent damage. But I’m afraid he needs to be convinced of the seriousness of the situation and our… enthusiasm.”

The voice, which I now recognized as female, spoke again. “Your boss wants to see him now. You know, upright and walking? As opposed to whatever condition he’d be in when you two finished up.”

Keeping their hand on my chest warningly, the conjoined pair slowly moved out of the way so I could see who they were speaking to. It was a rather voluptuous woman a couple inches under six feet. She wore a dark red bodysuit with black swirly lines randomly patterned across it, with black gloves and boots. Her face was covered by a large, oversized set of red goggles with some kind of breathing apparatus attached over her mouth and nose, like a gas mask. 

The woman saw me looking and chuckled briefly. “Good morning, little boy. Like what you see?”

With that, she was suddenly kneeling in front of me. Along with about five other versions of herself all lined up behind her all the way back to where she had started. A couple seconds later, all of them aside from the one kneeling in front of me disappeared, starting with the one furthest back and quickly making its way all the way up to her as they each in turn popped out of existence. 

I knew her. Or of her. This was Cavalcade. Her power was essentially a mixture of superspeed and duplication. Basically, she moved really fast in any direction by creating a duplicate of herself, then that version created another duplicate, and so on. She did this so quickly that it seemed to be super speed. Each duplicate only lasted a couple seconds before disappearing, so when she was running around, you’d see a trail of about twenty or thirty versions of her. I’d seen videos of her using it to surround a target and attack them from all sides at once. It was… pretty cool. 

And she also wasn’t a member of the Easy Eights. At least, not the last I’d heard. Cavalcade was a Sell-Touched, a mercenary, sometimes working for the bad guys, sometimes for the good guys. She went where the money was, like Lastword and Two-Step. 

Apparently the Easy Eights were currently paying her, because here she was, patting my arm reassuringly. “Don’t you worry. I’ll take you away from the big bad freakshow. But first…” She held up something I knew quite well. It was a pair of the stay-down cuffs. Which I really shouldn’t have been surprised that they had access to, yet made me wince inwardly nonetheless. 

She chuckled softly. “Yeah, he knows what they are. Come, turn over, let’s get you ready to see the lady throwing buckets of cash at me.”

The woman who was paying her. Deicide. She wanted to take me to see Deicide. Oh, this was bad. This was really bad. What was I supposed to do? I had to get out of here, but how? I still didn’t know where I was, aside from the fact that I could now see we were in a cement room that was probably intended to be a holding cell of some kind. That’s what they were using it for, anyway. A large metal door was over in the direction she had come from. But how could I get past Janus and Cavalcade? And even if I did manage that, I had no idea where that door led. Nor did I know how many threats might lay beyond it. I could maybe take them by surprise and get out to the hall, but then what? There could be anyone there. And this woman had super speed, of a sort. What in the living hell was I supposed to do now?

My musings were interrupted by a growl from Harmful. “She told you to do something, you little brat. Don’t make me—”

The woman held up a hand to stop him. “It’s okay, he’s just making sure there’s not an easy way to escape.” Her attention turned back to me then, tone curious. “So, are you satisfied or do we have to do this the hard way?” She didn’t sound threatening at all, more genuinely interested in what I was going to do. And totally casual, of course. It’s not like she really saw me as a threat given the situation. 

It almost would’ve been worth it to punch her, just to see how she reacted. But on the other hand, I really didn’t want to be left here with Janus. Plus, even with the cuffs on, if I got out of here, I could see what lay beyond this cell. There could be an opening. 

So, with an inward sigh, I turned over to present my wrists behind my back. Boy, did this ever suck. I was definitely not going to talk about this in any potential memoirs. 

Did people still write memoirs? 

The cuffs secured my hands behind my back, and the woman stood up with a gesture. “Come on, let’s go. You know how these things work, so stay right with me. You try to run off and you’ll regret it, I promise. And not just because of the cuffs.”

Friendly gave me a little wave, promising that we’d see each other soon. Then the woman led me out of the door. Beyond lay a slightly larger room that looked pretty similar. There were a couple armed thugs there, sitting at a table playing cards. They looked up as we came in, one of them coming to some form of attention. The other leaned back to get a better look at Cavalcade’s backside as we passed through. She ignored them entirely, taking me to the opposite door. There, we were met by a guy who at first glance looked like any other gangbanger. Really, he had baggy jeans with a chain hanging from them, a couple layers of shirts, and a leather jacket, all with nasty sayings on them. The only thing that gave him away as being Touched was the green helmet he wore. It was a full head and face covering thing, made of some kind of metal with clasps on either side. The front of the helmet was an engraved face of a laughing man, and the eyes were covered by sunglasses. 

This, I knew, was Sockinit. Yeah. Unlike my escort, he was one of the official Easy Eight Touched, one of their eight lieutenants, like Skadi and Janus. His power allowed him to dampen or cancel any number of things. He could mute voices or other sounds, stop chemical reactions from occurring, disable electricity, even slow or stop someone’s powers from functioning properly for awhile if he focused long enough on them. 

“Yo, Cav,” Sockinit drawled as we approached the door, “I was thinking–” 

“Don’t,” the woman interrupted. “Because every time you think, you say something stupid that makes me kick your ass, and it turns into a whole thing.” 

She brushed past him, pulling me with her while the man was still reacting to her words. We exited into what was obviously a warehouse. There were people moving crates around, a forklift nearby being loaded up, and a supervisor with a tablet, directing everyone about where to go. I could see the boxes were labeled with both serial numbers and the names of the eight lieutenants in the gang, including the guy we had just passed. 

My escort led me through the maze of shelves and crates. I glanced up as subtly as possible a couple times, looking for a skylight or something. But it was just a blank metal ceiling. Of course, it wouldn’t be that easy. What was I thinking? 

I was thinking that I desperately needed to get out of here, before the situation got even worse than it already had. Unfortunately, I seriously had no idea how to do that. It wasn’t like I could do anything useful like teleport.

Unless the pink paint did that. But I wasn’t going to count myself as that lucky. Plus it hadn’t done anything like that before, so why would it start now? 

Cavalcade led me to a back office. A couple guards there looked up as we approached. These were more alert than the other ones had been, and one turned to open the door behind them while the other gave a nod of greeting. 

“Go on then,” my escort prompted while giving me a little push. “She wants to see you, and the cuffs are keyed to her too. And don’t embarrass me, kid, I kinda like this job. Pays pretty well.”

Right, okay. This is it. Did I have any ideas about how to get out of here without seeing the Easy Eight leader? Did I have a way to escape without walking into that room, with these guards in front of me, Cavalcade behind, and a warehouse full of enemies, while wearing these handcuffs that would slam me to the ground as soon as I tried to leave?

No. No, I did not. So I had no choice. Closing my eyes briefly, I exhaled before walking through the door. 

Entering the office, I saw Deicide immediately. As usual, she looked like a tall, paper-covered female knight. Or like a statue made of paper. Either way, she stood in the corner of the room, near a large wall-mounted television that was currently dark. As I came in, her head turned toward me, and a handful of books floated off the nearby desk. One of them opened up, pages turning rapidly until it stopped, as a disembodied voice read a word on the page. “Hello—” A second book had already been flipping through its pages, stopping at another point to add, “Paintball.”

Yeah, that was really freaky. And, speaking objectively, pretty cool. As far as I knew, no one understood why she didn’t just speak for herself. There were rumors that she was actually mute, or that she just did it for intimidation. Either way, this was how she communicated. 

We faced each other for a moment before I nodded. “I’d wave, but…” I shrugged my shoulders pointedly to indicate the handcuffs. “Of course, you could always take them off. Then I’ll do all the waving you like.”

The floating books flipped through pages rapidly, words coming basically as quickly as a single person talking normally. “On your way out the door, I suppose? You’re fun, kid. I hope nobody has to hurt you too much.”

It was a reminder that made me swallow a little, lifting my chin. “Like I told your pit bull in the other room, I’m not sentencing one kid to being tortured by you people until she builds whatever you want, and another one to die from some disease just so you can take her medicine and—”

In mid-sentence, I was interrupted as the figure in front of me held up a small, familiar object. The books flipped through pages before announcing, “This medicine?”

That was it. It was a vial, just like the one  I had gotten from Ashton. They were basically identical. my mouth fell open, and I just stared for a moment. “You… you have the—”

“Just one,” the floating books informed me while Deicide tucked the vial away somewhere on herself while continuing to speak through her books. “Let’s just say, Cuélebre’s men found it. As I understand, the Ashton boy hid it somewhere in the inventor girl’s shop. They turned the place upside down, but this was the only one. And I ensured that it made its way here.”

There was a brief pause then, while I continued to stare and shock, before she mused, “He didn’t tell you about that yet, did he? So he’s still being cagey about where the rest of them are.”

I started to say something, but she held up a hand, her books continuing. “Let’s settle a few things right now. First, if I wanted to take the location of your friend, I could. Along with any other secret you might have.” 

Before I could object, she made a gesture toward the corner of the room, where someone I hadn’t noticed before was sitting. As my gaze moved that way, the man stood up, coming more into view. He wore a sleek red suit over a black silk shirt, with red leather boots and a full face-covering devil mask that was a mix of black and gold. 

“Hi there,” he spoke in a silky-smooth voice. “Would you mind telling me what you had for dinner last night?” 

Oh. Well, I could do that. Dinner? That didn’t give anything away. “Lamb chops with garlic-rosemary sauce and roasted potatoes.” 

“Oooh, must’ve been a special occasion,” the devil-faced man replied. “How about telling me the first letter of the name of the street your house is on, then walk over to that table over there, pick up that knife, and cut off your left index finger?” 

Hey, that was totally reasonable. He wasn’t asking about Wren or Ashton. “N,” I promptly answered, while moving to the table. Putting my back to it, I fumbled a bit before finding the knife, then somewhat awkwardly tried to line it up with my other hand. . 

“Okay, stop right there,” the man ordered. “That’s enough.” 

I stopped, wondering what I’d done wrong. Did he want me to take off a different finger? I’d heard him right, hadn’t I? It was–

Fuck! Jerking backward, I dropped the knife. It clattered to the table, then to the floor while I stumbled and cursed in shock. What–how was–that guy had…

“You see?” Deicide announced through her books after giving a dismissive wave of her hand for the man to leave, which he did with a salute toward me. “He may dislike direct confrontation, but Devil’s Due is still quite useful. It would be a very simple matter for me to extract all the information you’re trying to hide, if I really wanted to. Given five minutes, I would know all of your secrets. And that’s not counting the… less easy methods a few of my people would like to use.” 

She let that sink in for a moment, before continuing. “Despite what you may think of me, I don’t want Blackjack’s daughter to die. Nor do I want to torture your little friend. Oddly enough, hurting a genius inventor and then depending on her to build something I would subsequently use feels like a bad idea. 

“So no, I don’t want to hurt either girl. Nor do I want to hurt you. I want favors. Three, actually. One from you, for ensuring you get out of this place without further… damage. One from that girl for letting her brand new friend go. And one from Blackjack, in exchange for the vial that I have. Three favors, three wishes. Think of yourselves as a three-headed Genie.”

I hesitated for a second before asking, “How do you know we’ll actually do anything for you after this?

There was a slight chuckle from the actual figure rather than from any book, but it sounded kind of weird. Almost more high-pitched than it should? Before I could dwell on that too much, her books replied, “Blackjack is a man of his word, to a fault. If he swears he will do something for me, within reason, he will. As for you and the girl, well, let’s just say I doubt this will be the last time that the two of us are face-to-face. And I assume you would rather not be on my very bad side. After all, even enemies can be cordial and owe one another. That’s the way the world works.”

“I won’t hurt anyone,” I informed her. “That would kind of defeat the purpose of this deal.”

Her head bowed a bit. “Of course it would. And if I wanted people hurt, I have no shortage of people willing to do that. You’re impressive, kid, but I have enough leg-breakers. No, I promise you any favor I ask will not knowingly kill anyone at all, nor will it hurt anyone who doesn’t have it coming by your own moral standard, and within the bounds of the same. There, are you happy now?”

I hesitated again, thinking quickly. “I can’t speak for Wren. I’m not in charge of her.”

“Just ensure that she knows exactly why you were freed,” came the response. “And make it clear that the same deal applies. Whatever I ask her to build will not directly kill anyone. I am asking for favors, not trying to convert either of you to the dark side of the Force.”

“I can’t make any promises except for myself,” I replied, “but on my part, you have a deal.” What else could I do? By some miracle, maybe I could get out of here. But I doubted it. And I certainly couldn’t get that vial off of her first. No, despite myself, this was the best solution. Owing a favor to any bad guy seemed really wrong. But then, I was already working to save the daughter of one. So this situation was weird to begin with. And she had promised that it wouldn’t be killing anyone or anything like that. I still felt like I was going to regret this somehow, but didn’t have another choice. 

“Excellent,” the books replied for her. “Then I will have Cavalcade take you somewhere, remove the cuffs, and drop you off. She’ll also exchange phone numbers with you. When that number calls, answer. Give it to the others as well. And tell Blackjack the sooner he calls me, the sooner we can work out a deal for him getting this vial back. Which, as I understand, will give him another full month with his daughter. 

“It’s been nice talking to you, Paintball. I hope this is the beginning of a long and mutually beneficial relationship.

“Or at the very least, that I don’t have to have you killed the next time we meet.”

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Collectors 5-06 (Summus Proelium)

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Stopping next to the door leading into the band room after school was over, I listened for a moment. Sure enough, the sound of the guitar portion of The Who’s ‘My Generation’ came from within. Smiling a little to myself, I took a breath before giving the door a little push as I stepped in. 

He was there. Tomas Jackson. He looked… basically like I remembered, though a couple inches taller. He had naturally pale skin that had always made him look almost like a vampire or something, coupled with eyes that were a piercing dark green, and dark blonde, almost brown hair that was worn down to his shoulders. His build was fairly slender, though his arms had filled out somewhat since I’d seen him last. As always (whenever he could get away with it by not being specifically in class), he wore a leather jacket with the name of some British punk band on it instead of his actual school uniform jacket. 

Mostly faced away from me, his attention seemingly focused entirely on the guitar he was strumming, Tomas nonetheless stopped once I had fully entered. He turned to glance over his shoulder, giving me an easy smile as my name slipped from his lips. “Cassidy Evans.” 

“Hi, Tomas,” I managed. My heart was beating hard, despite the fact that our relationship was supposed to be over. But we’d broken up out of necessity. He’d had to leave. Being boyfriend and girlfriend from across an ocean might’ve seemed romantic in some respects, but we’d both known it was a bad idea. So we broke up. I’d… well, I hadn’t exactly moved on, considering I didn’t have another boyfriend after him. But we’d definitely gone our separate ways. 

But he was here now. And seeing him brought back all those old feelings. Stupid as it might’ve been, part of me just wanted to go kiss him right then. I remembered kissing him, what it was like. I remembered the feeling of Tomas actually finding me attractive, and how much it helped me deal with the people who kept calling me a boy. I remembered that feeling. I missed it. 

And yet, I also didn’t want to look like a desperate idiot. Shoving those thoughts and feelings down, I did my best to look and sound as casual as possible. “Someone told me you were back. Figured you’d come check this place out again. You ahh, you spent a lot of time here before.” 

“We both did,” he reminded me, giving a brief strum to the guitar before setting it aside as he moved to sit down on the nearby carpeted step that led onto the small stage. “You ahh, you wanna sit down? I was hoping you’d show up. Missed you in class this morning.” 

“I had a doctor’s appointment,” I murmured under my breath before moving to join him on the stair, perching myself at the opposite side of it (so maybe four feet away). Part of me wondered if I should sit closer, then I rethought. Unfortunately, once I finally did sit down, I suddenly reconsidered. Would he take it as an insult that I didn’t sit closer? Was he hoping I would? Was I hoping that he hoped I would? Did I–was I–what in the hell was I even thinking right then? 

Of course, Tomas didn’t look like he even noticed. He just gave me a brief look and smile as he pulled out his phone. “You remember what I said I’d do?” Holding up the phone, he showed me a picture of himself standing in front of the London Eye, holding a green balloon with a face drawn on it. Under the face was a name. Cassidy. 

“Oh, my God! You total dick!” Shoving him with a laugh, I blurted, “I told you not to use a balloon for that because of the whole ‘airhead’ thing, remember!?” 

Grinning back at me, he replied, “Yeah, see, that just made me want to use a balloon even more.” Ignoring my sputtering, he started flipping through more pictures, showing me how he had taken the Cassidy balloon to every conceivable British tourist trap. “And here’s the airhead at Big Ben. Here we are at the Tower Bridge, at Buckingham. I wasn’t gonna do that one, but you know, balloon you insisted. Then we have the London Dungeon. Almost left you there.” 

Flushing deeply, I kicked his ankle with my foot. “You’re a jerk, Tomas. I can’t believe you even took all these pictures. What, just in case you came back someday?”

“Okay, actually, I did this like… the day we left to come here,” he confessed with a snicker. “Once I knew we were coming back.” 

“So how long are you back for, anyway?” I asked, trying not to sound too much like I was prying. “And wait, you only found out you were coming here right before you came? Was your dad keeping it a secret, or…” 

“Apparently it was a last second thing,” Tomas informed me. “Something about the last ambassador having some kind of conflict. As for how long we’re saying, the assignment’s supposed to keep him here at least until next Christmas. So… most of a year, I guess? Not sure what’s coming after that. But hey,” he added with a shrug, “it means I get to be here for  awhile, so I’m dead chuffed, you know?” 

Winking at me, Tomas flicked through a couple more pictures on his phone before asking, “So what’ve you been up to, Miss Cassidy Evans? Jumped off any tall buildings lately?” 

The words made me do a quick double-take despite myself as I blurted, “Wh-what?” 

Raising an eyebrow, the boy clarified. “Remember, we were watching the video of those pillocks jumping off those buildings with the parachutes and wingsuits? I said it was stupid as fuck and you said you wanted to do it someday. So, you still think it’s something you want to do?” 

It was stupid, but I almost told him the truth. Seriously, next to my family, Tomas had been basically one of my favorite people for a long time. I’d confessed a lot of things to him that I hadn’t told anyone else, not even my family. Add other things we’d done and… well, experimented with… yeah, I really trusted him. It was so easy to fall into this natural rhythm. It felt like he’d never left. If I could actually talk to someone I knew as well as Tomas about this… maybe it would help. 

Or maybe it would just get him in trouble. What if he tried to tell his father the truth about my parents, thinking that his dad’s diplomatic connections could do something? What if something bad happened, either to him or his father. Or… my family. How did I feel about either of those? 

“Cassidy?” Tomas asked gently, a slight frown touching his forehead as he watched me with obvious concern. “Sorry, I–are you alright? You… you look kind of–” 

Quickly, I nodded. “I’m fine. I–I just wasn’t expecting to see you today. It’s kinda surprising.” 

Pushing on from that, I told him a bit of the… innocent stuff that I could say. I kept it casual, still uncertain of how much I should confide in him. I’d trusted him for a long time. But then, I trusted my family too, and look where that ended up. If I couldn’t trust my mom and dad, was there anyone I actually could? 

“Oh, and I started doing this.” Reaching into my bag, I took out my notebook. I’d been experimenting ever since lunch, drawing everything that popped into my head. I had sketch after sketch of monsters, people skateboarding, a ninja with a sword running along the top of a fighter jet that itself was shooting at some kind of giant flying squid… yeah. And they all looked good. Like, really good. I just pictured the image in my head and my hand automatically transferred it to the paper, like I was xeroxing it straight from my brain to the page. 

“Good holy shite, Cassidy,” Tomas blurted, taking the notebook as I extended it. His eyes were wide. “When did you start drawing? This… this is really you? No fooling?” 

“No fooling,” I replied, already blushing despite myself. “I uhh, I just started messing around with it and… and I guess I’m pretty good?” 

“Pretty good?” he echoed, using the notebook to swat me lightly. “This is professional stuff, you daft girl. You taking art classes? Cuz you should be.” 

“I, umm… not yet.” How could I explain that I’d only just found out I could draw like that this morning? Or that it was probably some kind of side effect that came from the superpower involving paint. That was… a whole other deep conversation. “I haven’t really put too much thought into it as more than a hobby.” Mostly because it had only even been that for a couple hours by this point. 

“You need to do more with this,” Tomas urged me, gesturing to the artwork. “Really. Hell, maybe I’ll contract you to do the art for my band when–.” 

“You have a–” I started. 

“–when I actually get a new band,” he finished with a self-depreciating snort. 

We smiled at each other for a moment. I was about to say something else, when my eyes happened to glance down toward the phone in his hand. There was a really hot guy on his lock screen. It wasn’t Tomas. This one had short black hair and blue eyes. Seeing him there, I asked curiously, “Hey, who’s that guy?” 

“Hmm? Oh, I meant to change that.” Tomas shrugged. “That’s Charlie. He’s uhh, he was my boyfriend for awhile.” 

That made me do a double-take, my eyes snapping from the phone (though I couldn’t see the picture anymore) up to him. “I’m sorry, your what?” 

He wasn’t looking at me. His attention was on the phone screen, a fond look in his eyes. “Yeah, I ahhh…” Blinking up at me, Tomas winced. “No, sorry. I know what you’re thinking, Cassidy, but I’m not gay. I’m bi. Kinda figured it out like… six months ago. I like girls and boys. And believe me, I like you for all kinds of girl-related reasons.” 

“The people here literally teased you about being gay for dating me,” I pointed out. “Just like they did Peter Fauning the year before that. And now you’re saying that you actually are into guys? I mean, that’s not–it’s not a problem or… or it’s just not a… it’s not any of my… I mean..” My stammering cut off as I sighed. “I don’t know. I’m sorry. I’m being stupid.” 

“Cassidy, you are not being stupid,” Tomas assured me. “I don’t–ahh, I don’t blame you for having feelings about it. You’re right, those morons did say a lot of stupid shite. I don’t pay it any more mind now than I did then. I like you cuz I like you. Boy, girl, it doesn’t rightly matter. But ahhh, that said, I know that you’ll need time. It’s easy for me to say it doesn’t matter to me, but you’re different. It matters to you, and that part of it matters to me.”

Wincing a little, I managed a weak, “Damn it, Tomas, you’re making it really hard to be a drama queen about this.” 

He gave me one of his patented perfect smiles then, shrugging one shoulder. “If it makes you feel any better, we can pretend I said something stupid so you get to storm off. I’ll even do the dramatic, ‘Cassidy, wait, I’m sorry!’ and you can slam the door right in my face.” 

“Right in your face?” I echoed, pretending to consider it. 

“Boom, right there,” he agreed, pantomiming with his hand. “So what do you say? Shall we put on our dramatic faces?” 

“I think I’m good without the drama,” I informed him with a little shudder. Despite our little banter right then, however, I still hesitated. “But… I do need a little time to think about everything.” 

He nodded once. “I thought you might. Just know that whatever people say, I like you for you, Cassidy Evans. You think through everything you need to. My number’s the same. Give me a ring when you feel like it.” 

I couldn’t help it. Leaning in, I gave him a hug, holding on for just a moment before pushing myself up. “I… I’ll talk to you later, Tomas. I’m glad you’re back and that you’re… doing okay.” Feeling suddenly even more awkward, confused, and out of my depth, I fumbled my way to the door and slipped out. 

I felt like an idiot. An overly emotional idiot. Yes, being with Tomas last year had done wonders for my confidence, the fact that he found me attractive and didn’t think of me as a prepubescent boy had been huge. So finding out that he was attracted to both boys and girls was… it was… 

It should have been nothing. I shouldn’t care. He still liked me for me, so why did I have to make a big deal out of it? 

Emotions were stupid. I needed some kind of distraction. 

*******

“He’s ours, you son of a bitch!” a guy in a red jacket with a black claw mark design across the back of it blurted. Arrayed around him, other guys (and a few girls) dressed similarly echoed the sentiment. All of them backed up the words by pointedly brandishing the guns and knives they were holding.

An equal number of people faced them, holding weapons of their own and looking not the least bit intimidated by their opponents. One of those snarled, “He came into our turf, cocksuckers. You come into our turf, you’re ours. Just like him.” 

The two opposing groups were Fell-gang members, of course, though none were Touched, as far as I could tell. The first, led by the guy in the red jacket at the front, were members of the Easy Eights. These ones in particular were under one of the other lieutenants, not my old friend(s) Janus. Easy Eights, eight gangs, eight lieutenants. Going by the claw mark designs on their clothing, their particular leader was the woman known as Skadi, a Fell-Touched focused on hunting and wild animals. The group facing them, meanwhile, were more members of the Ninety-Niners. Between them, the object of their argument, was some random guy cowering on the ground with his arms over his head. 

“We fucking chased him out here,” one of the Skadi-gang members snapped. “We found him, we chased him, he’s ours. That reward is ours. You get in the way, we’ll put you down like dogs.” 

This was getting out of hand really fast. Any second now, these idiots were going to start shooting at each other. From my perch on the edge of the building where I had been watching this, I carefully aimed both hands before shooting off a spray of red paint from each. Quickly, I adjusted my aim so that the paint went over all of their guns. I tried to get any knives too, but mostly it was the guns. 

As the red paint sprayed over their weapons, the gang members all blurted out curses of surprise and confusion. Their gazes were already snapping my way for the source of the paint, even as I activated all of it, yanking all of the guns out of their hands and toward each other to collide before crashing into one big pile. 

By that point, even as a couple of the guys tried to lunge for the weapons, I had already hopped down to land on the sidewalk in front of them. “Hey, don’t do that.” The two who were scrambling that way each got hit with a spot of blue paint at their feet to send them flying. “No guns until after you eat all your vegetables and clean up your bedrooms.” 

“Hey, it’s that Paintball shit!” One of the guys blurted, pointing his knife at me. “The hell you want? This guy right here, he’s our fucking bounty. Blackjack wants him and we’re gonna fleece that motherfucker dry.” 

“Ahh, good luck with that,” I replied with as casual a shrug as I could manage given the situation, “cuz that’s not Ashton Austin. Hey, you. Your name Ashton Austin?” 

“N-no!” the man squeaked out, clearly terrified. “My name’s Tony Bastmer, these guys just started yelling and chasing me, so I ran away!” Now that he was looking up at me, I could see where they might make the mistake. He and Ashton were similar enough that that might have been related. 

“Course he’s gonna say that!” one of the Ninety-Niners snapped. “He’d be an idiot to admit who he is. Look at him. That’s the guy.” 

“You got some kind of ID?” I pressed, watching all of them looking back and forth between me and the guy on the ground. 

“Oh like that fucking matters,” another guy retorted even as the one on the ground gave a frantic nod. “Of course he’ll have a fake ID. How stupid do you think we–” 

“What’s going on here?” A new voice spoke up then, as a female figure emerged from the alley nearby. She gave me a passing glance, and I recognized her immediately. Skadi, the Easy Eight lieutenant over the group with the red jackets. She was a lithe woman with white tiger-print pants that tightly hugged her legs, black combat boots, a black leather jacket with the emblem of a tiger’s face on the front of it and that familiar claw mark on the back (both in red), and a hard metal mask over the front of her face with holes in it for her eyes and mouth. The mask itself was silver, with a tiger’s face emblazoned on it in red. Well, tiger for now. I happened to know that the woman could change the image on the mask at any point, between various predatory animals. 

Changing her mask image wasn’t her power. That was just some kind of tech thing. Skadi’s actual power had something to do with anticipating the actions, choices, and whatnot of anyone whose blood she… well… tasted. Yeah. She also had some other things like metal claws and maybe some kind of strength, speed, and other general enhancements. But mostly it was that whole ‘taste someone’s blood and then be able to predict what they do and just generally know things about them’ thing. 

Seeing one of their enemy’s Touched arrive made the handful of Ninety-Niners even less eager to pursue this. Several of them were already taking off, a couple more trying to seem strong but clearly ready to join their companions at any second. 

“We got that Ashton guy,” one of the Easy Eight guys claimed, gesturing to the whimpering man. “Then this asshole shows up and says it’s not him.” 

Without saying anything, Skadi glanced to me, then stepped over to the man. I tensed as she held up a hand, producing a metal claw from the dark glove she wore. But the woman wasn’t attacking anyone. She poked the man in the arm, watching me the whole time as she took a bit of his blood and touched it to her lips for a taste. 

“He’s right,” the woman murmured while still staring at me. “It’s not him. Let the man go.” 

There was a collection of mutters of disbelief and annoyance, but they did. The Ninety-Niners didn’t pursue him either, as the man took off running. 

“Right,” I started, “now that we’ve resolved that peacefully–” 

“You, on the other hand…” Skadi interrupted, “you clearly know more than you should. I wouldn’t be surprised if you know exactly where our missing man is right now. And even if you don’t, there are others who would like a conversation with you.” 

Too late, I realized that the woman had been glancing somewhat past me at the last bit of that. I tried turning, but something grabbed me first. Something… huge. A hand as big as I was. Suddenly, I was yanked around, given a brief glimpse of Mister Harmful’s face as he snarled at me, before his giant hand abruptly slammed me face first into the wall of the building. 

Everything went dark. 

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Interlude 3B – Deicide (Summus Proelium)

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Three Years Ago

Her name was Austen. Not her last name. Her last name was Deleon. Austen Deleon. Yeah.

The girl’s mother had named her in honor of Jane Austen, her favorite author. When asked why she hadn’t simply named her daughter Jane in that case, or Jane Austen Deleon, she had simply replied that Jane was such a common name, it wouldn’t draw any attention. A girl named Austen, however, that would grab people’s interest. No one would forget a girl named Austen.

The then-infant’s opinion on the subject of such attention was not consulted.

There was also no input on a name from the father, as he had been some guy who made a lot of promises, got her mother pregnant, and then took off. He’d abandoned them before she was even born.

Growing up in the streets of Detroit, Austen had split most of her time between holing up in the library where she could lose herself in the worlds of her favorite authors (of whom Jane Austen was decidedly not one), and running scam and con games on unsuspecting tourists and people new to the city. Very few suspected that the brown-eyed, dark-haired, innocent-looking little angel child was going to take the money they handed her for a tour or photograph and take off with it. Fewer suspected any of her more involved and complicated cons.

Indeed, from the age of six to eleven, Austen had racked up both quite a reputation as a con artist, thief, pickpocket, etcetera, and quite the haul of loot to go with it. She hardly ever spent any of the money she managed to get out of people, preferring to hide it in her ‘safe place.’ It was intended as a college fund, because Austen had every intention of going to university, even if she had to save up enough money to flat-out pay her way in.

Unfortunately, it was when she was eleven that Austen’s mother found Jesus. Literally, in her case, as a man who called himself Jesus The Saint managed to hook Laia and many other poor, desperate people from the Detroit streets, convincing them that he was truly the man himself reborn. Laia had taken her daughter with her as they joined Jesus and the rest of the ‘flock’ in his compound almost fifty miles away from the city where Austen had grown up.

For two years, Austen had lived in that hellhole. The Church of the Lamb, as ‘Jesus’ called his cult, did not allow any contact with the outside world, or nearly any technology in general. Even so much as a flashlight or digital watch was forbidden. Punishments were plentiful, in the name of ‘making the flock worthy’, and multiple hours per day were devoted toward studying both the scriptures as well as Jesus’s own (often rambling and barely coherent) writings on subjects ranging from the uncountable sins of the world all the way down to his opinion of various sports teams. Included, of course, were the list of celebrities and historical figures who were going to hell, though the list might as well have simply said ‘all of them.’

It was, in short, a thoroughly exhausting and demoralizing place to spend any time at all, let alone two years of one’s life in the midst of being a teenager.

Now, at the age of thirteen, Austen sat in what was called the ‘Cusp of Hell.’ It was, in short, a box about six feet high, and three feet in every other direction that in the middle of the courtyard of the compound. Heat lamps were arranged around the box to raise the temperature to near-unlivable conditions, and those who were being punished were left inside, often long enough to nearly kill them.

Authorities had come to check on the conditions here a number of times. None ever amounted to anything good, either because they were straight-up paid off (she had seen that happen with her own eyes), or, in some cases, because they were ‘gifted’ with an evening of entertainment by one of the flock. Her mother had been used that way several times, always rambling on about what a gift and pleasure it was to serve her divine purpose for the Lord. Even Austen herself had been eyed, young as she was. But Jesus held off, saying that she would not be ‘ripe’ until the age of fourteen. One more year.

She didn’t plan on being here at that point.

Austen had spent more time in the Cusp of Hell than anyone else in the flock, a fact that brought her mother untold shame. Not that the girl herself cared. Well, not that much. Seeing the way her mother looked at her did hurt, but she had long since given up any hope of snapping the woman out of the absurd spell that Jesus had cast over her. She loved her mother, but she had not liked her in a very long time.

This current stint in the box was a result of being caught listening to music. Austen had found an old MP3 player and headphones, and had been listening to it while pulling weeds in the garden. For such horror as deliberately subjecting the ears of her immortal soul to the devil’s tongue (as Jesus called all music that was not religious hymns), she had been thoroughly flogged and then tossed here into the box where she was left for hours. Once in awhile, a small cup of water was brought by one of the ‘holy sisters.’ It was just enough to keep her alive.

Lying on her side, curled up as she couldn’t lie flat out within the three foot space, Austen stared at the dirt ground in front of her. The box had glass windows in it that could be opened or closed, but at the moment they were shut. She was left in blistering hot darkness, with no idea of what time it was or how long she had been here. The ache in her body from the crack of Jesus’ rod had finally dulled somewhat, only flaring up if she moved too quickly. Which wasn’t a problem inside the box, small and unintended mercy though that may have been.

She was hungry. She had been hungry for quite awhile, and now it was almost excruciating. Her stomach hurt, as she clutched it with one hand, mind drifting back to better times. Times before her mother had met this psycho and fallen under his sway. She had long-since stopped asking herself how her mother could allow this to happen. Any answer that came was never satisfying.

Light appeared. Which, given the fact that the box was still very much closed, was rather unexpected. With a gasp of confusion, the girl’s eyes opened as she snapped upright, staring at the source of the sudden illumination.

It was a glowing orb, slightly bigger than a softball. The orb, and the light it cast, was blue with white hieroglyphic-like symbols alternately appearing and disappearing across its surface.

For a moment, the girl simply sat there, staring in rapt fascination at the orb. It drew her like a moth to flame, as her hand very slowly rose toward it. She hesitated briefly like that, with her hand right near the thing. Then she moved it the last inch or so, settling her palm against the warm surface.

She saw the empty, featureless world that lay within or beyond the orb. She walked through the deep, foreboding fog and saw the images drawn from her own life within it. She saw her mother, the people she had conned, the other cultists, and Jesus himself, his long black beard and heavily tanned skin filling the last fog-born image as his hand with the cane lashed out one last time to send a jolt of pain across her back before she had been thrown into the box.

“Summus Proelium.”

She heard the phrase in a soft, feminine voice. Those two simple words filled her mind, seeming to echo through it even as the fog world vanished, and Austen found herself back in the box.

~~~233-044-2121~~~

~~~Eggs, butter, ramen, bread~~~

~~~Let all who live in the land tremble, for the day of the Lord is coming. It is close at hand— a day of darkness and gloom, a day of clouds and blackness. Like dawn spreading across the mountains, a large and mighty army comes,such as never was in ancient times nor ever will be in ages to come. And in these words, we may look for what will descend upon this people: For as surely as the men who dwell upon it shall suffer for the sins of those who~~~

More and more words filled the girl’s mind. She didn’t hear them or see them. She simply knew them. Those words and more came flooding into her as if she had always known them, as if she was remembering them. Those and more kept coming. Hymns, bible verses, scrawled speeches with words crossed out, phone numbers, lists, more and more. It was almost too much, and she put both hands to her head, crying out, “Stop!”

It stopped. The flood of words halted. But something else remained. It was a… sense. She could feel… something. Some things. She could feel things beyond her sight. Things where the words were. She could feel them, could sense the shape of them. Lots of them. One actually quite close, right outside the–

With a loud clang, the lock on the box was released, and the door was opened. One of the holy sisters stood there, bible in hand while staring at Austen with a look of severe disapproval. Her tone was sharp. “The savior will see you now, young sinner. Come, and pray to him.”

Austen didn’t move. Her attention remained riveted to the book in the woman’s hand. She could… feel it. She could sense the shape of it even if she closed her eyes. It was almost, though not quite, like having it in her hands. At a thought, the words within the bible sprang to mind, almost-but-not-quite like remembering them. She could have remembered a lot of it anyway, after the past couple of years. But this wasn’t that. The words written within the book were filling her mind, and she would have known them even if she had never read it before.

“Ah,” the woman smirked while holding the bible. “You see the good book, yes? To stare upon it with such reverence, perhaps your time within the Cusp of Hell has awakened your spirit. You thirst for–”

With a thought, Austen lifted her chin. The book abruptly tore itself from the woman’s grasp, flying up to smack her in the chin hard enough to snap her mouth shut in mid-sentence. Even as the woman reeled backward from that, Austen gave a sharp gesture with one hand, and the book obeyed her unspoken wish, smacking the woman across the face hard enough to crack her jaw and send her to the floor with a loud cry of pain.

Two more sisters and a brother came running at the sound of the cry. They came into the main courtyard, the women empty-handed while the man held a rake from the work he had been doing. First, they stared at the woman on the ground, and at Austen standing over her. Then, their gazes moved up to take in the bible floating in the air. Seeing that, the two women immediately began to pray aloud. The man, meanwhile, blurted something about the devil and raced straight for Austen, swinging the rake like a club.

A thought, an urge, an impulse filled the girl’s mind. In response, the floating bible tore itself apart. Hundreds of separate pages flooded the air, glowing slightly before a handful went flying at the charging man. Six pages, glowing brightly, sliced straight through various parts of the rake that he was swinging, making it fall apart into useless pieces.

Still, he kept coming, swinging his fist rather than his abandoned bits of wood. With a scream that was half-meaningless word and half-prayer, he swung hard for the girl’s face.

A single piece of paper, a single page torn from the bible, flew into his path. It stopped there, and as his fist collided with it, the man might as well have been punching a solid steel wall. The bones of his hand shattered, and he screamed in pain while collapsing to his knees.

Seeing the women fall to their knees and pray while the man simply cradled his ruined hand and sobbed, Austen slowly stepped past them all. The pages of the bible flew behind her, then arranged themselves on all sides of the girl as if forming an honor guard as she walked from the courtyard to the door of the main building.

It was locked, as part of Jesus’s rules were that all buildings were to be locked at all times. That way, only people allowed keys of each building could freely go in and out, while others would have to ask permission. It was part of his standard power play, and a way of reminding his flock that they were dependent on those above them. Only he held all of the keys, of course.

Austen didn’t ask permission. Instead, she focused. Beyond the doors, she could feel paper, loose pages, entire books spread throughout the building. With a single thought, she could not only feel every piece of paper in the place, she knew everything that was written on it. Passwords, little notes, lists, the entire plot of books flooded into her mind. Now that she knew it was coming, she could sort through it, could let the flow of information simply cascade past her into a pool at her feet. If she wanted, the girl could reach down to take from the pool, lifting out any information she needed. Otherwise, it was simply memories in the background of her mind.

Instead, she focused on the papers and books themselves. At a thought, she could feel hundreds of them leap from the shelves, desks, even ripping their way from the pockets they were held in. They flew through the air, colliding with one another. She could feel them crash through no-doubt confused onlookers, jerking free of any attempts to hold them as they soared through the halls toward the front of the building where she stood.

Stepping out of the way at the last second, Austen allowed the tornado of books and papers to slam into the doors from the other side. The doors didn’t simply slam open, they were literally torn from their hinges and sent flying as the glowing bibles, hymnals, novels, notebooks, and even loose bits of paper crashed in and through them. Beyond, Austen could see the main foyer of the ‘church’, where people had gathered to stare in shock and fear. As a collection of prayers against evil filled the air, she crossed the threshold, stepping into the front area with the books and papers still fluttering around her.

“De-demon! Devil’s whore!” one of the men shouted at the thirteen-year-old girl who stood there. He brandished a metal fireplace poker he had grabbed from somewhere and ran for her, blurting a prayer and a curse almost simultaneously.

Thousands of pieces of paper tore their way free of the dozens of books, flying to join up with more loose pages. In an instant, the papers formed into what looked like a six foot long origami tiger. It collided with the man in mid-lunge, taking him to the ground.

At the same time, more bits of paper cut and folded themselves into the shape of a single word, each letter roughly a foot and a half in height. The single word was, in all capital letters, ‘ROAR.’ And it did. The word glowed brightly as the sound of a terrifying roar actually filled the entire front area, echoing throughout the building.

With the man who had tried to attack her pinned to the ground and currently sobbing, Austen turned her attention to the rest of the group who were (most unknowingly as they were simply staring in shock and confusion) blocking her way forward. The ‘ROAR’’ tore itself apart, more papers flying in to join those ones as they formed the word ‘MOVE.’ Once again, at a thought, the sound of a booming voice saying that single word filled the front area. It was the voice of thunder, and all obeyed, scrambling out of her path as Austen continued on. The paper tiger gave one last dirty look toward the man it had taken to the ground before trotting after her.

On through the church the girl marched. Most who moved to intercede were scared off by the tiger. Others were knocked aside by flying books, pinned to the wall or literally bludgeoned into unconsciousness. A general alarm had been raised, but no one seemed to know exactly what was happening, aside from the cries of ‘demon’ and such.

Finally, she reached the doors that led into the office of the man who called himself Jesus. Taking a breath, Austen pointed. Obediently, six different books slammed into each door, knocking them open and allowing her to step through.

He was there. Standing behind his desk with a pistol pointed at her head, the cult leader demanded in a booming voice of his own, “Stand down, demonspawn! Release your hold on this child and begone from this realm. You are so commanded by the Father and the Son, the God of this world in mortal flesh come once again. Flee to the hells from whence ye came!”

Without waiting for a response, he pulled the trigger, shooting at the girl who stood in his doorway. But Austen was expecting that. She knew him. A piece of paper had already moved to intercede, glowing in the process. That single sheet, torn from a notebook, floated between them as the bullet rebounded. The ricochet narrowly missed the man himself, embedding itself in the nearby wall.

“Hi, Jesus,” Austen started, almost conversationally. “That wasn’t very Good Samaritan of you.”

The man fired again, lower this time. But again, papers had already moved between them. That ricochet did hit him, glancing off his shoulder and drawing a cry of shocked pain from the man as he stumbled backward while rambling about how she had given herself to the devil.

“This is your book?” As she spoke, Austen made one of the bibles float up into the air in front of herself. At a thought, all of the pages tore themselves free. Over a thousand bits of paper filled the air. With a flurry of tearing and folding sounds each joined with several others to shape themselves into small daggers. In the end, over a hundred of those paper knives floated there.

“If this is your book,” the girl continued, while the psycho cult leader who called himself Jesus fired several more desperate shots, all of which were blocked, “you should take it back.”

With those words, and a single urge, she sent every paper dagger, more than a hundred, flying at the man. He screamed, threw the gun, tried to dodge, all to no avail. From his head to his feet, the man was struck through by glowing paper knives. In the end, he fell, his body filled with the very pages of the book he delusionally claimed to have been such a key part of.

It should have been harder. It should have hit her more. He was dead. He was dead… because of her. She murdered someone. It should have made her cry, shouldn’t it? Even as bad as he was, it should have meant… more.

It didn’t. Seeing his body there, thinking about what he had done to her mother’s mind and to the minds of everyone here, thinking about how he used them and would have used her, about how she had been struck, imprisoned, enslaved over these past two years, Austen felt nothing for the man.

Was she a sociopath too?

Turning on her heel, the thirteen-year old girl stepped from the room. Her mother was there, staring open-mouthed. “Austen…” she whispered in a barely audible voice full of despair and horror. “What… what did you do?”

Lifting her chin, the girl replied simply, “What did I do, Mom?

“I killed God.”

*******

Three months later.

 

The street gangs were meeting. Well, those who hadn’t already been destroyed to the point of nonexistence, absorbed by one of the larger gangs, or, in the case of Latinos, taken in by Oscuro. Their new leader, Cuélebre, had made a point of expanding the formerly small group exponentially, exploding its growth and power faster than anyone could react. And now, the smaller gangs were left scrambling, struggling to even survive, let alone thrive, against the might of Cuélebre.

So, they were meeting here in this abandoned warehouse on the outskirts of town in a desperate, probably pointless attempt to come to terms with an alliance. For two hours, the leaders of the eight gangs who had survived to this point bickered about who would lead them, what the terms would be, who would own what territory, and how they would stand against Oscuro.

It was in the midst of these loud, shouted arguments that Austen strode. But not as herself. Over the past month, she had grown to understand more of her power. Currently, her body was literally covered by thousands upon thousands of bits of paper. Pages torn from novels, from journals, from phone and text books, and more surrounded her. They had formed into the shape of a suit of feminine armor, complete with a bust that the thirteen-year-old could only wish she would someday have. Beyond that, the armor also made her look taller than she actually was. Her actual feet ended somewhere above the armor’s knees, while her hands fell much short of the supposed gloves. Her head was covered by more paper in the shape of a stylized medieval helmet, and she carried an enormous paper sword across her back.

The much smaller young girl essentially piloted the suit of paper armor shaped in the form of an adult female knight.

As she came into view, the eight gang leaders and their assorted entourage spun toward her. Mr. Harmful, leader of the Fifth Street Broodwalkers alongside his sort-of conjoined twin Uncle Friendly, snapped his hand out her way. It grew to the size of a large dresser to slap her out of the way while the man snapped, “Who’re you supposed to be, Captain Library?” Around him, the other leaders were readying their own gifts, while others produced guns. Lots of guns.

Seeing the attacks coming, Austen simply braced herself. The blow from Mr. Harmful’s giant fist struck her side… and stopped. Her paper armor glowed, as she focused simply on not moving. The paper went exactly where she wanted it to, and did not go when she didn’t want it to. It stayed in place, taking the blow as if it was a gentle tap.

A glowing energy harpoon, along with a dozen bullets, a simple laser, and two concussive bolts of force, struck her. None penetrated her paper armor. None so much as left a single mark.

Still not speaking a single word, Austen drew the giant sword from her back. Sweeping it across the room in a sharp gesture. In reality, she was simply commanding all the bits of paper to move to make it look as though she had drawn and swung the weapon. As she did so, dozens of pages flew from the sword.

Before the men knew what was happening, the papers had wrapped around their necks, around their wrists, and around their ankles. Each of the men, leaders and lackeys alike, were ripped from the ground and suspended above it while their airways were constricted by the glowing pages surrounding and constricting their throats.

This was the best way to open. Making a big show. Demonstrating her strength. Austen had spent the past several months planning her entrance, practicing with her power, and most of all, absorbing books. She walked through libraries, through colleges, through military surplus stores, law schools, everywhere there were books. She had absorbed knowledge of strategy, tactics, diplomacy, laws, and every bit of detail of the past near-twenty years of Touched activity. Later, she would prove to these people that she could guide them.

Right now, she had to prove that she could crush them. Or they would never listen long enough to get to the part that was good for them.

And they would obviously never listen to a child. Hence this disguise. Which was also why she didn’t speak. Instead, several books flew up along either side of her. Each book opened to a different page, as words on that page glowed, and were read aloud by a booming feminine voice.

“This meeting was to determine how you would survive against the one who calls himself Cuélebre.” She had prepared for that one, bringing along a book of mythology to have the name ready.

More pages flipped, more words were highlighted, as the voice continued. “You want to know which of you stands a chance against him. The answer is none of you. If you try to stand against him and his people, they will crush you.”

She loosened the grip of the paper around their throats enough for one of the gang leaders to demand, “And what, you think you can do better so you’re just gonna march in here and demand we all kiss the ring? We don’t even know you, bitch.”

“You’re right,” Austen made the books say, “You don’t know me. But no. I don’t expect you to put me in charge. I expect you to allow me to help you.”

With that, she let all of them go, bringing the dozens of pages back to float at her side. “Give me one month to prove that I can help you outmaneuver Oscuro and stop Cuélebre from killing you all.” Her head turned toward one of the other gang leaders, the electricity manipulator and super-strong man known as Juice. “Your territory is on the front lines of this war. Give me one month with your men to prove I can help you. When I do, you will sponsor my leadership of this alliance. And then you can all stop arguing about which of you should be in charge.”

Juice, a heavy-set black man, lifted his chin. “Oh, you think so, huh? Well, tell you what. How about we just go ahead and throw you out there to fight Oscuro, then laugh when your paper-ass gets lit up?” He lifted his chin. “Whatchoo call yourself anyway?”

“If I fail,” Austen replied through her collection of books, “it will be of no great loss to you. As for my name, what can kill a god but knowledge? What is knowledge but words? And what is the word for the death of a god?”

“Deicide,” one of the assembled group slowly answered, looking dubious.

“Yes,” her assortment of papers confirmed, “that is the word. But you need not use it until I have proven that it’s apt. For the moment, simply calling me Papercut will do. I will earn the name, as I will earn your loyalty and trust. But now, I believe the time for discussion is over. Oscuro knows of your meeting here. Your territory, Juice, is about to be under assault. If you’d like to stop it, we and your men should go now.”

“Wait,” Juice demanded, “how the hell do you know that?”

“Perhaps you’ll know in time,” she replied. “But for now, the clock is ticking. Would you rather discuss it, or protect what is yours?”

The man only hesitated slightly before turning on his heel, whistling for his men to follow as he made for the exit.

There was, of course, no way that Austen would even tell the men the truth about how she knew the attack was coming. There was no way she would tell them what she had also spent the past three months doing, just as there was no way she could reveal her actual self to them. Because seeing her, they would see that she was Latina. They would see that she could have been taken by Oscuro herself.

And she had been. For the past two months, Austen had worked for the Oscuro gang as a simple street runner, pick pocket, con artist, thief, and anything else she could do. She had made herself useful, though she kept her powers completely secret. As far as everyone in Oscuro knew, she was nothing more than a helpful little kid. It allowed her to see and hear things she shouldn’t, such as what was going to happen tonight.

Two months spent doing that. The first of the past three had been spent searching for her father, for the man who had conned her mother into loving him, got her pregnant, then abandoned them. She had a general idea of the kind of trouble he’d gotten back then, including one specific vandalism incident. Absorbing police files, personal notes, information from the college her mother had been attending at the time, and more, and she had actually accomplished her goal. She had found the one responsible for her birth and for putting the first crack in her mother’s soul that eventually led to what she became.  

And in time, the man who now called himself Cuélebre would pay for all of it.

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