Juice

Exhibition 25-08 (Summus Proelium)

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Inessa’s brother was a Tech-Touched? And a villain?! And he was on Breakwater?! 

I… I didn’t know any of that. 

While I was still reeling from the words, Inessa hissed, “I am not going with you.” She was picking herself up from the grass where she’d stumbled. “As I have told everyone else, I will die before I allow you to use me to open that vault.” 

Open a vault? Wait, what?

Praxis continued. “I hate to be rude, especially to someone I’ve enjoyed watching as much as you. But yes, you are. The only way into that vault of his is with his DNA. Which you have. So you’re coming with us. And we’re gonna have ourselves an early Christmas.” 

“We would have waited until after your little show so this wasn’t so public.” That was the voice of Fogwalker. The Touched Lynx was stalking closer as he continued. “But it turns out you’ve been a busy beaver. What is it, one more test before you shut down your connection to that vault?” 

Praxis made a show of exhaling in relief. “Good thing we got here in time! How rude would it have been if you and your friend managed to finish your little experiments? Then nobody would be able to get into that vault.” 

Inessa’s head was shaking wildly. “That’s the point! Nobody should be able to use those weapons!” 

Wait… wait… my mind was spinning out. But still, pieces were clicking into place. Inessa also had a connection to a thing full of dangerous stuff that would only open for her DNA, just like Errol with that safe that the Scions had. In this case, her brother’s vault. But she was trying to do something to make it so she couldn’t open the vault anymore, and they were almost successful. That was why she was being put up at the Foster’s house. Whether she knew or not, I had no idea. But that was it. She was here so they could find out more about those experiments or something. They probably wanted to remove Errol’s connection to the safe so he couldn’t be used to open it. 

That was… that was positive, right? If they were going through all this rather than just killing him, that was good. It meant my family weren’t the type to just execute a little kid like that. 

Even as I had that thought, my brain pointed out that they might also want to use that research to transfer control of the safe so they could control all the people Overseer had made puppets out of. I didn’t even know if that was possible, but it still occurred to me. Was I just being too cynical? 

I had no idea, and it honestly didn’t matter right this second. What mattered was making sure these guys didn’t manage to kidnap Inessa and make her open that other vault, wherever it was. We could deal with the rest of that later.

To that end, I realized that I was no longer feeling the invisible pressure against my chest. I had been lowered to the ground and was just standing there against the tree. Praxis’s telekinesis power had faded. But we weren’t exactly home free. She had her arm with that concussive force bracelet pointed my way, and Fogwalker had moved right up to one side of me, ready to pounce if I moved. 

When I looked around once more, desperate to find help, I realized why no one had come to us yet. Fogwalker had created clouds of darkness all around us. We were basically in the eye of the storm, a small pocket area that was open. I had no idea how far his fog stretched, but it was enough to stop anyone from finding where we were any time soon.

Okay, so I had to deal with this myself. With two (or three depending on how you were counting) different powerful Fell-Touched watching my every move, I had to get Inessa out of here before they used her to open that vault and get a bunch of apparently incredibly dangerous weapons. Great, just fantastic. One wrong move and this whole thing was going to blow up in my face. 

In that second, Praxis was replaced with Theory, pointing his gun my way while using his other hand to dig inside that lab coat. He produced a bracelet of some kind and tossed it toward Inessa. “Put that on so we can get out of here, unless you want to see your little savior’s brains get blown out the back of that helmet. This thing was turned low before. It’s not anymore.” 

Okay, Okay, think about this. What was I going to do? Inessa was fumbling with the bracelet. I had no idea what it was actually going to do, but clearly if she put it on, this was over. If I was going to stop this, I had to do something right now. Especially considering Theory was out now and was probably setting up a new power for Praxis that would fuck us all over even more. 

Through the past few seconds, I had been painting new designs on the inside of my costume. I was pretty sure these two were watching for any paint, but they were too new to realize I could put it on the inside instead of just the outside. They thought they had me covered just by watching my front and back, and I was going to use that assumption against them. It was my only shot.

I could see the look on Inessa’s face as she glanced at me. She didn’t want to put on the bracelet, and certainly didn’t want to let these guys get into the vault with her brother’s weapons. But she also didn’t want to let me get my brains blown out, which I appreciated. Still, as she moved to put the thing on her wrist, I knew I was out of time. I had to do this now. 

Praying that I had the right idea about my new combined paint tricks, I had made one of my arms and both legs a mix of purple and pink. That was on the skin and the inside of my clothing. Meanwhile, I had orange and green designs across most of the rest of my body. I activated all of it at once, and instantly lashed out with both hands. My right hand went down and back toward Fogwalker, and as my palm hit the lynx’s face, I activated the blue and green circle I had put there. Instantly, he was launched away from me, flying off like I’d shot him from a cannon, his yowl filling the air. At the same time, my other arm (the one that was painted pink and purple) snapped forward, extending in the process. The pink part of the paint made it stretchy, and the purple meant I was strong enough to make it snap outward like that just by making a throwing motion. The arm stretched a good fifteen feet, clear across the distance between Theory and me. He fired off a shot, but with the green paint active, I had time to shove myself upward. That was where the purple and pink paint on my legs came in. Suddenly, it was like I was standing on stilts. My legs extended a good ten feet into the air. They would’ve been way too thin to support my weight like that, given how much they were pulled like taffy in the process. But the purple meant I could stand like that. 

The shot blew a hole in the tree right between my now-extended legs. At the same moment, I managed to catch hold of that gun with my extended hand and ripped it out of his grasp. My voice rose to a shout, directed toward Inessa. “Don’t put it on!” 

Fogwalker was recovering, and I saw the darkness start to close in around me. Meanwhile, Theory had vanished and was replaced with Praxis. They were ready to use whatever power he gave her, and I was pretty sure I didn’t want to know what it was.

Taking three green-speed boosted steps forward on my ridiculously long legs (seriously, I was a good thirteen to fourteen feet tall by that point and felt like a giant for the first time in my life) I grabbed Inessa around the waist with one arm, which wrapped around her like a tentacle or something. Yeah, it was weird, but I didn’t have time to apologize. Even as Praxis was turning my way, hand rising to point, I activated the blue-mixed-with-green circles I had put on the bottom of my shoes. Instantly, I was launched upward with Inessa in tow.  Something, an energy blast or whatever, passed through the area where I had just been. But we were already rocketing into the air. We went into the dark cloud and my vision was cut off entirely, but that didn’t matter. I knew exactly where we were. I could sense a huge tree about a hundred feet or so to my left, and hit that with a red shot of paint, using another bit on my glove and wrist to yank both of us in that direction. 

A second later, we were out of the fog. The sunlight returned with almost painful suddenness, and I saw the tree ahead of us. Canceling the red paint so we wouldn’t be pulled directly into it, I was about to look for another spot to yank us toward when I caught a glimpse of Alloy flying in from the side. Quickly, I canceled the rest of my paint, except for the orange, and added a bit to Inessa while my arm went back to normal. And yes, it was a weird sensation when it unwrapped itself from around her. The two of us fell right into the large bowl that Alloy made out of a couple of her marbles. She came up right beside us on her board, blurting, “What the hell is going on?”

I was already pushing myself up. “Take her! Get her out of here, just go somewhere safe and out of sight until you hear from me. Out of the park, wherever, just get her gone!”

Thankfully, the other girl didn’t question that. She muttered an apology for any jostling to Inessa and then took off with her even as I launched myself out of the bowl. My paint was almost gone by that point, but I used just a little bit of orange to protect myself as I landed back on the ground. A quick glance over my shoulder showed Alloy flying out of the park with Inessa. 

That was the good news. The bad news was that just then I caught sight of a man stepping out of the bushes nearby. It was a man I recognized immediately. He had the same sleek red suit over a black silk shirt, the same red leather boots, and the same red and gold mask. The mask of a devil, for Devil’s Due.  

I tried to react quickly enough to send a shot of black paint at the guy, but he was ready and spoke first. “Hey, hang on a second, I’m not here to fight.”

His words made me hesitate. I really should mute him, but maybe it’d be better to listen. There’d been so much fighting already, and if he didn’t want to continue that, what was the harm in hearing him out?

I could hear the smile in the man’s voice as he continued. “Good, that’s good. We all want this fighting to stop, right? And the best way to do that is if we have what we want. We get to leave with the girl and nobody else has to get hurt. That lets everyone be happy, and that’s a good thing, isn’t it?” He waited until I gave a little nod before going on. “Which means the best way to make everyone happy is for you to call your friend back and tell her to bring Inessa. Then we’ll leave with her and you can stay here with everyone else and make sure they’re okay.”

Sure, right, that made sense. I did want the fighting to stop, and that sounded like the best way to do it. So, I reached for my phone so I could call Peyton. In just a moment, this would all be over. It was a thought that made me smile under my mask and helmet. 

Fortunately, before I could actually do more than get the phone in my hand, another figure came running up. A hand smacked the phone out of my hand, while a strangely calm voice pointedly announced, “You don’t want to do that.”

It was Skip, the Ten Towers Touched. She was there in her usual dark blue-black bodysuit with intricate runic-like lines running through it, covered partially by a short-sleeved white robe with a hood that covered the top half of her head, and a black cloth mask that covered the bottom half of her face while leaving just enough of her eyes exposed to show Asian features. 

After knocking the phone out of my hand and saying that, she kept walking toward the man in front of us. Seeing her coming, Devil’s Due quickly spoke up. “Hey now, we can all get along. Don’t you want to be friends too?” 

“Not particularly,” she informed him flatly, just before her foot lashed out in a kick that took the man in the stomach. As he doubled over, she caught his arm and was just about to put a pair of handcuffs on him. But at the last second, her gaze moved to look off to the side. An instant later, a blast of lightning shot out, almost nailing the girl. But she had already vanished from that spot, reappearing right next to me again. 

Right, Skip. She could skip any effect on herself, including Devil’s Due’s power, and skip back along to any physical location she had been in the past twenty-four hours. The understanding struck me just as the last of that dick’s power wore off and I was back to thinking for myself again. Just in time to see the source of that lightning blast. It was Juice, of course. He was running our way, and looked pretty profoundly pissed off. Janus were with him, Mister Harmful facing us. And if Juice looked pissed off, hoo boy did Harmful put that to shame. 

Quickly, I did what I should’ve done in the first place and hit Devil’s Due with a shot of black paint to shut him up. No way did I want to go through that again. Sadly, I didn’t have a paint color that could so easily deal with Janus and Juice. On the plus side, it might be just Skip and me facing down three Fell-Touched, but at least I’d been standing here long enough that my paint had refilled. So I was going into this with a full tank. Still, we were going to have to do this the hard way. 

Or were we? Even as the other two approached, I abruptly realized that we really didn’t have to stand here and fight them. Skip could leave at any time, and I could outrun these guys. Unfortunately, no sooner had that thought occurred to me, than the prospect of escaping became much harder. Fogwalker and Theory appeared behind us, coming out of the bushes. Now we had three guys ahead and two behind. Skip might’ve been able to teleport, but I didn’t like my own odds of being able to avoid all of them, especially when Theory could let out Praxis at any moment with whatever power they wanted.

”Okay,” Theory was saying as they closed in to encircle us. “Let’s try this again. Where is Inessa? Believe me when I say you don’t want to give us a reason to break the answer out of you. Even if my new friend over there would really enjoy it.” His head nodded toward Janus. “One last chance, kid. Give it up. The two of you are surrounded and the girl there can only teleport herself.”

“Watch it,” Fogwalker snarled, “he’s a tricky one. Don’t get too close.” 

While I was still trying to think of a way out of this, Skip spoke in that same calm and measured voice. “You are wrong about something.”

“What,” Juice snapped, “you gonna say you can teleport other people after all?” Despite his dismissive words, I could hear the worry behind them. He really was concerned about that being a possibility. 

Skip’s head shook easily. “No, you are right about that. What you were wrong about was when you said two of us.“

They (and I, honestly) were still processing that, as another voice spoke up. “Yes, maybe you should count again.” 

It was Caishen, Skip’s sister and the leader of the local Ten Towers team. She came into view, with Stick next to her. Soon, they were joined by Bunglebotch, Linesight, and Ephemera. All of them were spread out to surround this group, and all looked fresh. We’d been fighting for a while now, but the Ten Towers Star-Touched had clearly just arrived, and they looked ready to make up for lost time. 

At that moment, I saw Theory look to one side. My mouth opened to shout a warning, just as he disappeared. He was replaced with Praxis. But rather than fight, she extended her arms to either side and snapped, “This is a lost cause.” And with that, she and her partners all started to glow brightly. Before anyone could move, they vanished. Teleportation. Theory had given her teleportation. And now they were gone. They left. Which meant it was over. Thank fuck, it was over. Part of me wanted to sag with relief, but I still didn’t know what was going on with the others. Not only my team, but the Minority too. Last I knew, the latter had been fighting Banneret and a bunch of Prevs. Were they okay? Was Izzy alright? 

With those thoughts rushing through my mind, Caishen, who had taken a step toward the bad guys just as they disappeared, stopped short. She stared at the spot where Praxis had been, then turned to look toward her sister and me. “Okay then. 

“Can someone please tell me what exactly is going on here?” 

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Exhibition 25-04 (Summus Proelium)

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Well, assuming my intention had been to piss off a whole group of people who could kill me, then mission highly successful. All of the guys with guns who had been standing guard over the hostages immediately turned their weapons my way and opened fire. At the same time, Juice sent a blast of electricity into the area he clearly thought their gunfire would send me dodging into. But I had been pretty sure that was exactly what would happen. So, instead of throwing myself into that open space, and therefore right into the lightning, I trusted my orange paint to keep me alive. It still wasn’t fun, considering being hit by all those bullets felt like being in a hailstorm. I would definitely have a few bruises. But they didn’t penetrate, and that was the important part.

In the midst of all that gunfire, my hand touched the lamp post I was perched on. All the way down the length of it, the lamp turned pink. They noticed just as Juice’s lightning bolt went flying off a bit to my left. Before they could react, I hopped backwards, quickly activating and disabling the paint at the same moment to turn the lamp post into a springy surface. My hands caught the end of it, yanking it backwards and down with me. The pole bent all the way over, like in the cartoons when they pull a springy tree. And just like in those cartoons, when I released the pole, it snapped all the way back up and over in the opposite direction, slamming down into two of the gunmen before they could react. They were knocked sprawling down into the pit with the hostages, guns cluttering along the cement. Meanwhile, the pole snapped back upright as if nothing had happened.

Janus, by that point, were sending a massive fist the size of a Volkswagen right at the spot where I had landed. From that and the large amount of cursing they were doing, I was starting to think they didn’t like me very much.

I wanted to use yellow paint to slow the fist down, and the rest of them by extension. But I was pretty sure I was running very low on available paint at that moment, after all of it I’d used while quietly taking down those other guys coupled with turning that entire pole pink just now. I had to wait for a few seconds. Instead, I activated another couple spots of green along my legs and ran forward. Just before the fist would’ve collided with me, I activated a couple blue stars on the bottom of my shoes. It launched me upward into a flip before I came down on the men’s enormous arm. They were still reacting to that while I raced along it. “Hey guys, I think I really–” My knee slammed into one of their faces. The Mr. Harmful one, as it happened. “–kneed you!”

My momentum, combined with the fact that I had activated a picture of two crossed purple baseball bats along my arms, were enough to snap their head backwards despite their enhanced strength. I didn’t think it actually did that much damage, but still. Their right arm was still extended and shrinking back down, but the left snapped upward to grab me by the head. Before they could do that, I threw myself backwards, planting both shoes against Harmful’s face to launch away from them. “If I’m too close, I’ll put a couple feet between us!”

Juice had pivoted by that point, taking aim at me once more as I went into the air. However, before he could hit me with his second lightning blast, I pointed with both hands. One shot of red hit his extended wrist, while the other hit Janus in the shoulder. I could tell that would be the last of my paint for now, but it was enough to yank the man’s arm down just as he unleashed that blast. The lightning slammed into Janus, drawing a pained and furious cry from both of them. They stumbled backward and down onto one knee, clearly needing a moment to pull themselves together.

Juice, on the other hand, didn’t need a moment. And he was pretty damn pissed off by that point, as was the one remaining guy with his gun. That guy came charging forward, pulling the weapon up as he shouted something about me being a little son of a bitch. He opened fire, but despite all the stuff that had already happened, the ten seconds of my orange paint protection still wasn’t up yet. Three or four bullets rebounded off my helmet even as I grabbed a piece of broken cement off the ground. It was about the size of a ping-pong ball, and I pushed it against my palm while raising my hand. Before the guy knew what was happening, I activated the blue circle that was already on my glove there. The rock was launched out of my hand and smacked right into the middle of his forehead. He dropped his gun and staggered with a cry.

Meanwhile, Juice had abandoned trying to hit me with electricity. Or maybe he only had so many shots he could use in a limited time. Either way, he was running at me. And that was kind of terrifying, considering his powers didn’t just let him use electricity for lightning blasts. He also used it to make himself stronger and faster. I saw a shower of sparks from the same lamp post I had used before as he sucked the energy out of it and came running right at me like a runaway freight train. He was a huge, muscular black guy all on his own, and now he was empowered to the point that he could probably literally run right through me as if I was a squirrel and he was a truck. And my paint reserves weren’t ready to do anything yet. Fortunately, I had prepared for all this, and still had an assortment of paint scattered across my body. And, as it happened, on things other than my body. 

So, tempting as it was to stay crouched there and stare at the incoming man like a deer in headlights as he reared back his fist, I pulled out those two rocks I had painted green and white earlier. Holding them tightly, I waited as he ran, telling myself to hold off until the last second. Finally, just before he would’ve been on top of me, I activated two more small spots of blue paint on my heels. Thanks to the position my feet were in, I was sent backwards and up slightly, as the man let out a screaming curse and swung at the spot where I had just been. At the same time, I threw both of those rocks up toward his face. The second I activated them, the white paint I had covered them in went off in a quick, incredibly bright flash. 

Wait, what? That was actually a lot stronger than I’d expected, or seen up to that point. Every other time I used the white paint, it just made objects glow. My thought had been to throw white glowing rocks into his eyes to maybe distract him or whatever. The green paint had been to make them fly faster, but… Actually, come to think of it, the rocks didn’t continue to glow afterwards. It was like they had expended the full effect of the paint at once. Had I somehow put the entire ten seconds worth of light into that single flash? Wait, when I put the green in there, the two colors sort of ran together. Did the green imbue its speed into the white to make the effect faster, but more powerful? Was that something it could do?

All those thoughts jumped into my head as I came down back on the ground and rolled along the cement. Juice was bellowing loudly as he reeled and waved his hands in front of his face. Yeah, he had been at least temporarily blinded. Which was better than I had expected this to go. I was really—

A giant hand wrapped around me from behind, hoisting me off the ground while squeezing tight enough to hurt. 

Oh, right, there was still that other problem. 

Janus, who had apparently recovered, were taking themselves off the ground while holding me even tighter. If they squeezed any more, I was pretty sure something would start to break. Uncle Friendly was the one facing me, but he didn’t look all that friendly in that moment. They stepped closer, maintaining their grip while I grunted in pain. His voice came in a low snarl, teeth clenched. “Now, see, you just can’t leave well enough alone, can you? You really think you’re enough to rescue all those people by yourself, you stupid little shit?”

Grunting a little as he kept squeezing, I took a moment to force the words out. “You might be right about me being a… uggnn…. stupid… little shit. Maybe that’s why I’m confused right now. Since you’re, ugggnnn… so much smarter than me, could you maybe answer one little question?” Pausing just a bit, I made the next words come out pointedly, while they leaned a bit closer to hear me better. “Rescue what people?” 

The skating pit was to their left, out of sight of both of them. With a confused noise, Mister Harmful turned their head so he could see it… and realized that the pit was empty, save for the two disarmed and thoroughly pummeled thugs I had knocked into it. Throughout the past few moments, while I was playing distraction, the hostages had all clambered out the opposite side and were running off across the park. 

While they were distracted by that, I activated my secret weapon, the thing I had prepared ahead of time for something just like this (yeah, I was expecting them to grab me at some point). I had painted my entire body under the suit pink. I activated that paint now, and the force of their hand squeezing me instantly made my body squirt down both of their grasp. It was a very weird sensation, to say the least. My head inside the helmet stayed intact, but the rest of me was basically like an old tube of toothpaste. Well, more like my body was the toothpaste itself and my costume was the tube. Either way, I went schlooping down out of Janus’s hand, landing on the ground under the massive fist while deactivating the pink paint. Since I had done so before the ten seconds was up, my body was instantly very bouncy, so I managed to spring backward away from them as they brought that hand slamming down into the spot where I had just been with a loud curse.

Oh yeah, and Juice had recovered from that temporary blindness by that point. So they were all up and pissed at me. Which was… fun? I really hadn’t thought much further than this. Carefully and quietly taking care of all the wandering thugs and then distracting the big guys long enough for the hostages to escape was basically my plan. Except now I was stuck here facing a couple very pissed off and powerful Fell-Touched, who probably wanted to play table tennis with my head. And I was pretty sure I still wasn’t quite ready to start using new paint yet. This uhh, this could be a problem. 

“Hey guys?” I started a little weakly after standing up. “I don’t suppose you’d be interested in a lit-aaahh!” That last bit came as the two figures launched themselves at me. I activated the last bit of green paint I had, before launching myself forward in a roll that carried me just underneath their outstretched hands. I was pretty sure the only thing that saved me in that moment was that none of them expected me to move toward them rather than away. Janus had actually been extending their arms, anticipating my retreat. The fact that I moved forward into that diving roll between them caught everyone involved (even me, to an extent considering the terrified screaming some small part of my consciousness was doing) off guard. Before they could recover, I kept going, popping my skates out as I dove down into the pit. My wheels caught the cement ramp partway, and I went rolling halfway up the embankment on the opposite side. 

From the corner of my eyes, I could see Mister Harmful facing me, even as he sent one of their gigantic fists my way, their arm extending a good thirty feet in the process. Just before it would have collided with my very fragile body, I leapt off that side of the concrete embankment, landing sideways on the railing of one of the short bridges people could use to walk over the pit. My skates grinded along that railing while I shouted, “Can we talk about this?!” 

Judging from the lightning blast that Juice sent my way, which I barely managed to dodge by dropping off the railing back into the pit, the answer was no. They really did not want to talk. Though maybe they just wanted me to not be able to talk, or breathe for that matter. 

I, on the other hand, quite enjoyed my ability to do both of those things. So I breathed a sigh of relief at the feeling of my paint returning. The tanks were refilled. And none too soon either, as I was barely able to send a shot of red against the cement half-pipe in the distance to pull myself off that spot just before the Janus jerks crashed down right there. They tried to grab my foot, extending their arm after me, but I twisted around in midair and shot a burst of yellow right into their incoming hand. It slowed them down enough that I was able to land. Or rather, hit the cement and rebound off it. Because I’d put blue paint on my shoes right before impact, so it simply launched me upwards and back the way I’d come. 

A thought occurred in that instant, as I went flying back toward Janus, feet-first. Lifting my head, I quickly extended both arms to point toward them. One fired off a shot of red, while the other hit them with green. Both shots of paint hit the same spot simultaneously. Like before, with the rocks, the two colors sort of melded together in a swirl pattern. At the same time, I made the same green-red swirl pattern on the bottom of my shoes, activating all of it together. 

Okay, holy fuck. The world was suddenly a blur as I was hurled that way. The green paint definitely sped up the pull from the red. I went from being yanked in that direction to being shot like a bullet. It also made the red paint immediately vanish, but still. The momentum was already there. I barely had time to start to scream while activating an orange elephant symbol on my back. 

Uncle Friendly, the one who had been facing me, made the faintest noise of disbelief before both of my feet collided with his face. All that momentum I’d built up, from yanking myself one way with red paint, then rebounding backward and up with blue, and finally speeding myself up with that weird green-red combined pull, every last bit of it went into that impact. Even with the orange protection I had, I could still feel it. And they definitely felt it. Janus hit the ground, blood flying from Friendly’s nose and mouth. Not that I had much of a chance to notice, as I landed in an awkward rolling tumble, falling end over end along the concrete before coming to a sprawled heap. 

Boy was I glad for the orange paint. Not to mention my helmet and knee and elbow pads. That definitely hurt. But hey, I had managed to put Janus down, and they weren’t moving very much. Which gave me a chance to just lay there for a second, eyes wide behind my mask and helmet. Holy shit. Holy shit, that was something new. Green made the other paints work faster but also wore them out immediately. That was–

Oh shit there was still– A large orange hammer appeared on my chest and reactivated my protection just before a blast of electricity slammed into me. It felt like getting a nasty static shock after rubbing my sock-covered feet on the carpet and grabbing a doorknob. Not fun, but definitely not the kind of damage Juice had clearly been going for. Unfortunately, it was still enough to stun me for a moment. Which gave him a chance to grab me off the ground by the throat, still channeling more electricity into me.

Spasming as he held me off the ground and squeezed tighter, I tried to grab his hand to pry his fingers off my throat, to no avail. I was pretty sure that even if I painted my entire body purple, it wouldn’t beat his strength. But maybe if I used the new green-boosted-purple? Unfortunately, with the continued shocks running through me, I couldn’t actually focus enough to paint myself properly. Every time I tried to do so, another shock hit me. It still wasn’t doing nearly as much damage as it should have, but the jolt was enough to stop my concentration. 

This could be really bad. I only had a few more seconds of protection before he’d be able to do some real damage. I had to focus, had to force myself to push past the shocks and get… myself… 

“Hey, jerk!” A voice shouted those two words from the side. As Juice turned his head that way, he was hit in the face by a firehose-like concentrated blast of water. The force, suddenness, and (I was guessing) coldness of it made even him recoil reflexively. His grip on me loosened, just as someone appeared next to me. I felt hands grab my shoulders before I was suddenly a good twenty feet away. Twenty feet north, of course. 

“You okay?” Amber, now dressed as That-A-Way, asked as we both pivoted back in time for me to see Izzy, also in her own costume as Raindrop, facing Juice. He’d recovered from the initial shock from that blast of water, and was trying to hit her with an electrical shock. But she had half a dozen park benches and chairs from the audience floating between herself and him, and whenever the man tried to blast her, it was intercepted by one of those obstacles. 

Oh yeah, and Juice’s situation was further complicated by the fact that he was floating up off the ground. Izzy had reversed his gravity, or removed it, or whatever the term was. He was going up, anyway. 

Shaking off the last of the lingering effects of being repeatedly shocked, I started to nod. But before I could say anything, Amber pivoted so she was facing east, while putting herself in front of me. At that moment, Juice shot off another electrical blast, this one in our direction. But Amber was invulnerable in that position, and blocked me from getting hit. 

“You little fucks!” the man was shouting while still shooting off one blast after another. “You think you’re hot shit?! You think making me float up here is gonna accomplish anything?! You got no clue, you fucking neurodivergents!” 

Except he definitely did not call us neurodivergent. The word he used started with R and should have resulted in whoever his mother was washing his mouth out with about seventeen bars of soap. 

We didn’t have soap. But Izzy had water, and she used it to spray him down thoroughly once more, while he recoiled and spun in the air. Before he could recover from that, she called, “Why do you guys always forget the second half of my name? It’s Rain–

“–drop.” And with that, Izzy must have dramatically increased the amount of gravity on Juice, because he wasn’t floating anymore. He went slamming hard into the cement with enough force to crack it all around him. Even with his enhanced strength, he was out. 

Looking from his unconscious form over to the still-barely moving Janus, I slumped in relief. “Thank God. I am so glad you guys managed to… uh… wait, how did you… you know, change?” I kept my voice low. 

Amber, also whispering, replied, “Wobble brought the costumes. He and the others are on the other side of the park, with the rest of your team. There’s more of these guys and a bunch of their lackeys, looking for that Inessa chick. They’re tearing the place apart.” 

“I am so confused,” I admitted, already starting to move. If the others were still in the middle of a fight, I wanted to be there. “Why the hell are they after some random celebrity skater?!” 

Izzy joined us in running that way, while Amber shook her head and replied, “You know what, dude?

“That’s a really good question!” 

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Exhibition 25-02 (Summus Proelium)

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Thankfully, the curfew had been relaxed somewhat. Now we were able to stay out until nine pm without getting in trouble. I wanted to think that that was because the streets were safer now, but honestly it was probably the product of a lot of people and businesses complaining about losing money by having to shut down so early. There was no way Deicide was going to let this gang war end like that, and between that and this whole Scions business, I had absolutely no doubt that things would get a whole lot worse before they got better. But for now, there was nothing any of us could do about it. Besides, it wasn’t like we didn’t have our own situations to deal with.

And speaking of situations to deal with, Paige and Sierra weren’t done editing those pictures to their satisfaction by the time the evening rolled around. So, after sending them a text to let me know if they wanted to meet up later to look at their work (not that I would’ve been able to contribute anything more than an encouraging thumbs up), I went to the park with Izzy. The two of us left without letting my parents know where we were going, mostly because none of them, Simon included, had been home at all the whole day. They were busy, apparently. Something told me it had to do with the attempted attacks on Fragile as well as Carousel and Syndicate. Which, good, the Ministry ought to do something about that. Or maybe it had something to do with whoever had planted those bombs at the party Amber went to. She’d told me about that too, though it felt like she had been leaving something out. 

Either way, we were here now. I had my board with me, because there was no way I would be able to resist the urge to get some of my own skating in either before or after watching the master. And I definitely wasn’t alone with that. As Izzy and I walked through the park toward the main attraction, I could see at least half the onlookers had boards of their own. 

There was also a stand near the road selling both full boards as well as separate wheels, trucks (the metal t-shaped piece that goes on the bottom to keep the wheels attached), and decks. Most were the usual tourist trap garbage marked up to get suckers. But there were a few good ones in there. We stopped and I looked over the selection to help Izzy find a board that would work for her to start out. I had her take a couple options out to roll along the pavement to see which one felt the most natural. Once she settled on something, I picked up the board to look at it. The deck was pretty cool. The centerpiece was a dark-haired angel, with one of her intricately-detailed feathery wings spread out over the bottom half of the board, while she held a gleaming sword out over the top half. 

Izzy tried to pay for it, but I stopped her. It was my idea for her to try this out, so I gave the guy a couple hundred for the board, plus another hundred for the protective gear, and we started to walk away. Just as we were turning, however, I heard a guy nearby snort, “Stupid chicks, man.” 

Looking that way, I saw a guy about an inch or two under six feet, with a thin blond goatee and long hair. He looked to be maybe two years older than me, and was wearing a black tank top with dark baggy shorts. A couple other guys were around him. 

“What?” I asked, unable to stop myself. 

Looking me up and down, the guy gave a soft, derisive laugh before shaking his head. “Nothing. You go have fun pretending you know anything about real skating. I’m sure your TikTok fans think you’re totally cool.” 

I blinked a couple times. “Dude, what the fuck are you talking about?” 

The guy had started to turn back to say something to his friends, and now seemed annoyed that I had asked any follow-up questions. He gave me a dirty look. “Look, all you babes are the same. You see Inessa getting famous cuz she’s like the one fucking chick in a million who knows which side of the skateboard goes on the ground, and you want in on it. You roll around on a board for a few minutes, do some slick editing to make it look like you’re not total ass, and put it online so all the simps out there can drool all over it and throw donations at you for doing jack squat.” 

Absorbing that for a moment, I retorted, “Well, when it comes to things that are total ass you are probably the expert.”

“Oh fuck off, kid,” he shot back. “What’re you, like thirteen? Mommy bought you a skateboard instead of an Easy Bake Oven and now you think you’re cool? Every little bit of space we guys have, girls think they have to barge in and take over. How’d you like it if we started barging into your spaces?” 

The words blurted out of me before I even thought about it. “If our spaces includes the shower, I think everyone stuck in your immediate vicinity would be A-Okay with you spending some time there.” 

Yeah, the guy didn’t like that. He snapped, “Why don’t you come back and talk again once you figure out if you’re a guy or a girl.” 

That… that made me rock backward on my heels, confusion flooding me. Wait, he didn’t know about–wait. “What?” I managed, feeling Izzy touch my back. 

His hand waved, gesturing to my head. “Long hair on one side, short hair on the other. Are you a girl or a guy? At least in a few years once you grow more than bumps there you won’t be able to pretend anymore.” 

His words, especially as he gestured toward my chest, made his buddies snicker. I was already balling up my fist and starting to move, when Izzy caught my arm somewhat subtly, stepping next to me. “We should go,” she murmured before adding, “Looks like you scared him enough already.” That was added with a not-so-subtle gesture downward. 

“Scared? Who’s sca–what?” The guy looked down, his eyes widening as he saw the large wet spot across the front of his shorts that Izzy had just surreptitiously put there while everyone was distracted. His hands moved to cover it, even as the others around him, including his buddies, started laughing. “That’s not–fuck–shut up, I didn’t piss my–fuck you!” 

Izzy and I both used that opening to leave, even as the guy’s words about me choosing to be male or female played through my head. He was an asshole and a moron, obviously, so I should’ve just ignored him. There were always going to be people like that. It didn’t… it didn’t mean anything.

“Thanks,” I murmured toward Izzy. 

She hesitated, then just squeezed my hand. “He had it coming.”

Thankfully, I was quickly distracted as we slipped through the crowd by the sound of a gasp going up around us. It made my whole body tense as my gaze jerked around to see what was wrong. My brain immediately leapt to all sorts of possibilities. Including the not-so-terrible thought that the guy back there had just spontaneously combusted. 

In this case, however, there was no threat. Instead, I saw Inessa emerge from the crowd. Seeing her, my heart leapt. God, she was so cool. Even now, walking through the crowd full of people staring at her, she was cool. And the way she grinned when she saw me was just… god, what was wrong with me? Was it weird that I just wanted to stand there and giggle like an idiot when she smiled at me like that? 

Well it definitely would’ve been weird if I didn’t say something pretty quick. So, I forced myself to take a step that way while speaking up. “Hey, Inessa. This is Izzy, my sister.” I gestured that way before adding, “We were just getting her a board.” 

“Izzy, hey!” Inessa stepped over to join us. “You mind if I take a look?” 

Wordlessly handing it over, the younger girl looked at me. Her mouth opened like she was going to say something, but then she stopped and just stared. The look she was giving me made me think I had done something weird. Maybe she just noticed how I was acting around Inessa. Stupid fangirl instincts. Yeah, she definitely noticed something. But what was I supposed to do? It was Inessa Sidorov! I couldn’t just ignore that! I couldn’t–I–it was Inessa Sidorov!

Speaking of whom, the woman in question finished looking over the board and then started to talk to Izzy herself about how to take care of it, how she should start learning about riding, and all that stuff. There had to be a couple hundred people standing around, craning to look at her, but Inessa was solely focused on talking to Izzy about learning how to skate properly. It was like Izzy was the only person in the world for her right then. She even convinced the younger girl to give her her phone number so she could call and check in. Then she talked to me for a minute, sharing a couple jokes with both of us (and the crowd) about the first time she started to learn how to skate in her own backyard back in Ukraine and how stupid she had been for not wearing protective gear until she broke her wrist. Then she took it seriously. She made Izzy promise to wear all the right equipment every time she did anything on the board. And got me to double-promise to make sure we both did. 

After that, she made sure we had the tickets to get into the ‘backstage’ tent, then headed off into the crowd once more, talking to someone else she had met. The group moved with her, since the people, thankfully, still didn’t know who I was. I had a lot of problems with what my parents were and what they did, but the fact that I was able to be anonymous in this crowd still meant a lot. Looking at the way everyone followed Inessa around, at how famous she was amongst other skaters and all that, it was just… it made me think about how different my life would’ve been if my parents didn’t make sure I could live my life as normally as possible. 

Finally shaking my head, I turned to ask Izzy if she wanted to get a drink, only to stop as she was still staring at me. Outside of the distraction when Inessa had been talking directly to her, I didn’t think she had stopped staring. But I didn’t understand why. She’d been looking at me weirdly for the past few minutes, basically ever since I introduced her to Inessa. But all I’d said was–

Oh. 

Eyes widening a bit, I blurted, “Uh, right, sister. I said you were my sister. I mean–I’m–that wasn’t–I wasn’t trying to assume you–I mean I know you really aren’t sure if you–I–” 

“It’s okay,” she interrupted, though she sounded a bit confused. “You weren’t… trying to pressure me or anything, I get it. You just said it. Like you weren’t even thinking about that.” 

My head shook quickly. “Yeah, I definitely wasn’t thinking, you’re right on that one. I just–I don’t wanna push you or anything. I was distracted because it’s Inessa Sidorov and I wanted to introduce you guys and–uhh, yeah.” My face was a bit flushed. “Are you okay?” 

Thankfully, now that she’d had a moment to recover from what had obviously been a surprise, Izzy seemed more amused by my reaction than anything else. She smiled just a little before nodding. “It’s okay, Cassie. You just… I wasn’t… it was new.” 

Part of me thought I shouldn’t push things, but the impulsive part took over and asked, “New, but maybe not terrible?” 

There was the slightest moment of hesitation as Izzy considered that before she smiled once more and agreed, “New, but not terrible.” She leaned closer, lowering her voice. “You really like her, huh?” 

“Inessa?” I felt my blush deepen while shifting on my feet. “She’s been my hero basically forever. I mean, the non-Touched hero.” My face darkened a little. “Let’s hope this one turns out better than my favorite Touched hero did.” I had told her about the whole Silversmith thing and how much I’d liked him before finding out the truth. It was still a bit of a painful thought. Especially when I considered the Silversmith sheets and pillowcases I’d had, and the action figures, and the–yeah. Boy, how had my dad really felt when I’d asked for all that stuff as a kid? 

Izzy seemed to read the expression on my face and changed the subject to talk about the board she had just done. Together, we walked over to one of the open skating areas and I walked her through a little bit of early practice. Before we were done there, Amber joined us. She wasn’t a huge skater herself, but she did know a few things. Together, the three of us messed around by one of the ramps. I showed them a couple simple tricks, they acted like it was a much bigger deal than it actually was and made a show of cheering just to make me blush even more, that sort of thing. It was fun. It was… nice, and it had nothing to do with any Touched stuff. I could almost pretend I was a normal person again for a few minutes. 

Okay, that wasn’t right. I didn’t want to be normal. I had no desire to be average. I loved my powers. I loved the freedom they offered, the… I loved being Paintball. But the stuff about my family, the stress over what they were and what they did, that part wasn’t exactly fun. It was nice to just shove that out of my head for a little while and focus on something normal and dumb. Even with people like that jackass back there, who really deserved a good kick in the–fuck, no, I was pushing that out of my mind and focusing on fun things. 

Of course, that couldn’t last forever. Though in this case, the reminder of my other life wasn’t exactly the worst. It came in the form of Ryder. I caught a glimpse of the boy standing off to the side, next to a much worse reminder of everything, Arleigh. He didn’t exactly look comfortable being there, and hadn’t noticed me yet. Instead, his focus seemed to be on Errol, who had just come into view through the crowd holding a couple corndogs, one of which he offered to the older boy.

Seeing Ryder had reminded me of what happened the night before, and the fact that he now knew who I was. Seeing Errol, on the other hand, reminded me of the whole Scions situation. My family had to know Errol was the one Pencil and Cup were looking for, right? So how many of the people around us were secretly guarding him? 

Aaand so much for not thinking about my family situation. That had been a pleasant few minutes. 

Still, I shook that off as best as I could. There was nothing to be done about it right now, and assuming my family did have people watching him, they might wonder why I was staring that way so intently when I was supposed to be here relaxing and having fun. So, I forced my gaze away and walked with Izzy and Amber toward the tent. Halfway there, we were met by Dani, who emerged from the crowd before stopping as she noticed the girl beside me. “Oh, hey… guys.” 

Clearing her throat, Amber shifted her weight. I could hear the uncertainty in her voice. “Hey, Dani. What’s uhh…” She coughed, again sounding strange. “What’s going on?” 

Yeah, something had definitely happened between the two of them. Maybe they kissed and now it was all awkward? That was the only thing I could think of. It definitely made sense, considering the way they kept flipping between avoiding eye contact, then seeking it out, then avoiding it. Between that and the fact that they’d clearly started to develop a thing for each other since Dani joined the school, it made sense. 

Of course, I also knew about the other complication to this situation. Pack. Pack obviously had a thing for That-A-Way. She’d made that abundantly clear. So no wonder Amber was confused about the whole thing. She probably felt guilty about having a thing for Dani too. Dani was the safe option, since she wasn’t an active criminal. But having feelings for Dani made Amber feel guilty about having feelings for Pack, and vice versa. That had to be hard to sort out. 

Boy, wasn’t it good that I didn’t have any problems like that? I might’ve had every other possible complication on the planet, but my love life was just completely nonexistent. Go me. 

It turned out that Dani had a backstage pass too, so the four of us made our way into the tent. There were refreshments, coffee, iced tea, and other stuff laid out along a table, as well as comfortable chairs to sit in facing the skating area where Inessa would be giving her show. And if that wasn’t enough, there were huge television monitors to either side providing footage from people on the sidelines, and a couple drones. So you could see the whole show from multiple angles instead of just what was right in front of you. 

Inessa was back here too, joking around with one of the event organizers. She was making a point of talking up all the dangerous tricks she was going to do, including a lot of hand gestures to show off spins and flips. I could almost see the terror in his face as he thought about what would happen if Inessa Sidorov got hurt during an event he had helped put together. Then they were joined by, of all people, Richard Mornes, the guy from Ten Towers who had given me the tour. Which, I supposed made sense. They probably had a good bit invested in this event, now that I thought about it.

Mornes was clearly easing the event guy’s nerves, while also joking back and forth with Inessa. He was good at his job, that much was obvious. He was wearing a different Hawaiian shirt than I’d seen him in before. This one was purple with yellow suns and black palm trees. 

Turning away from that whole thing, I joined the others in finding our seats, putting my skateboard on the floor so I could rest my feet on it to stop the thing from rolling away. Then I turned to Izzy, Dani, and Amber and started to regale them with one of my earliest memories of watching Inessa’s videos back when I was seven years old. It basically involved scrolling through YouTube on my tablet while laying inside a blanket fort on the outside patio, looking for something fun to watch. 

“It was funny,” I was saying, “cuz when I first saw the video list, I wasn’t even gonna click on it, but then…” I trailed off, my voice going silent. But my brain wasn’t. I knew what I was about to say. The words that had been on the tip of my tongue. ‘But then he told me to look at them.’ 

He. Anthony. The name wasn’t there, not inside that particular memory anyway. It wasn’t that specific. But I knew it had to be him. I had a fuzzy memory of a boy who had been laying with me inside that blanket fort reaching out to poke at the screen, insisting I should check out the video I had been about to scroll past. I saw his hand, heard his voice. I heard myself joke that he just didn’t want me to look at another rollercoaster video. My head, in my own memory, turned to say something else to him. I saw his face starting to come into view. 

Suddenly, I was doubled over in real life. A sharp, shocking rush of pain was filling my head as I groaned aloud and clutched it. Izzy and Amber were both saying something, but I couldn’t hear them. All I could focus on was the blinding pain that left me almost whimpering. 

It was gone as soon as it arrived. I found myself blinking a few times before looking up. Izzy and Amber were there, the latter kneeling on the ground right in front of me. Dani was looking over from her own seat, seeming just as concerned, and there were a few other people paying attention. 

“I–I’m fine, sorry.” Shaking my head, I swallowed. “I just need to get some air. Maybe some water. You want some water?” Even as they asked questions, I pushed myself up, waving off the concern. “Just a little migraine, it’s gone now. I’ll get some water and be right back.” To demonstrate that I was fine, I did a quick little spin with my arms out. None of them looked all that convinced, but I waved them off again and headed out of the tent. What was I supposed to say, that every time I started to get memories of Anthony back, my head felt like it was going to explode? 

Well, I could’ve told Amber and Izzy, but Dani was right there and she wasn’t involved in any of this. Plus someone else might’ve overheard. So that would have to wait. Instead, I took a short walk, passing the regular refreshments table inside the VIP tent to instead walk out to one of the vendor trailers near the parking lot. There, I stood in line, got a tray with a few bottled waters and a large plate of nachos for all of us to share, then started to head back. No way did I wanna be late for the actual show, headache or no headache. 

Unfortunately, I was only about halfway back to the VIP tent, making my way through the crowd, when a frantic shout from the sidelines made my gaze whip that way. I was just in time to see an enormous pair of hands, each bigger than the semi-trailer they were covering, lift that trailer into the air and hurl the thing toward a group of assembled onlookers. The people scattered in every direction while the trailer slammed into the ground there and went tumbling side-over-side. 

“We didn’t get our invitation!” the Uncle Friendly side of Janus shouted as their massive arms went back to normal size. The literal two-faced man (men?) stood there, accompanied by the large black man I was going to guess was Juice, given the electricity he was projecting into a ball between his hands. He was wearing a different costume than I was used to. This one was mostly black armor, with several gold lightning bolt-like designs randomly across it, and a metal bullet-shaped helmet with gold lenses over his eyes. 

“Yeah,” Juice was saying, even as a couple dozen other guys with a mix of guns, chains, and knives spread out from behind them. “But don’t worry about entertaining us. 

“We know how to make our own fun.” 

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Building Connections 16-03 (Summus Proelium)

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Time, time. I needed time for my paint to come back so that I wasn’t essentially a helpless little girl facing a bunch of armed men anymore. But I also needed to make sure I kept their attention long enough for that to happen without the group noticing the other girl over by their prisoners. 

“Hey, asshole!” The sudden shout from Juice himself made me jump, but it was coming from the front while I was already back near the stock room with several rows of shelving units in the way. “Think you’re getting outta here?!” he continued in a loud, echoing bellow. “Think again! We got this fucking place surrounded! Out back and up top. It’s all covered. You ain’t going nowhere!” 

Oh boy, oh boy was it hard not to call out a retort pointing out his double-negative. I had to bite my tongue, because he was so begging for it. Apparently a consequence of dealing with all my confusion and insecurities in the middle of horrible, traumatic danger by using insults and bad jokes was that it was hard to turn that impulse off when using it was a really bad idea. 

When he was met with no response (barely), Juice gave an audible growl. I heard a blast of his electricity shoot out somewhere, though it came nowhere near where I was, currently ducked behind the last row of shoe shelves. His voice was dripping with annoyance and the promise of violence. If not to me, then to others. “Get your asses moving. Drag that arrogant little brat out here.” 

Right, so… apparently I wasn’t going to have to work very hard at the ‘keep their attention on me’ plan. In fact, I was gonna go right ahead and give myself a stunning A-Plus on that assignment.

But now what? The men were starting to move through the store, smacking shoes and boxes off the shelves, spreading out so they could cover every row, and methodically working their way toward me. The area I was in at the moment was the kid’s section right before the stockroom. There were two rows of half-sized shelves sticking out perpendicular to the wall, creating a sort-of miniature boxed in area that was all kid shoes. I was currently ducked down behind the last of those shelves to stay out of sight. The stockroom door was only a few feet away, but it was in plain sight of one of the rows that I could hear one of those guys making their way down. 

Okay, my paint only needed a short time to recharge. Like a minute or two? Had it been a minute or two yet? It had to be, right? Fuck. Fuck. I had to wait as long as possible, let my tank have as much time as it could to recharge or refill or whatever the hell it did. Unfortunately, the men were almost to my spot, and I had a feeling they were starting to realize that it was the most likely place for me to be, because all of them were moving faster. Before, they had been taking the time to knock boxes around, leaning up to peer on top of the shelves, and just basically being thorough. Now, however, I heard footsteps approaching quickly, along with dangerous muttering. In a second, they were going to be right on top of me. They could peer over the half-sized shelf or come around the corner there. Then I’d really be a sitting duck. I had a few seconds at best.

Ready or not, it was time to do this. Quickly, I grabbed the nearest thing that could possibly be anything resembling a weapon. It was a Brannock Device (one of those metal measuring things you put your foot into and adjust to tell you what size shoes you should wear). With the thing in my hand, I focused. To my immeasurable relief, it turned orange. Paint was back on the menu! 

Instantly, I put the image of a large purple stick-figure man kicking someone across the front of my costume, and an orange bull head on the back. But I didn’t activate them just yet. First, I waited and listened to the sound of rapidly approaching footsteps. At the last possible instant, I activated all that paint both on myself and the Brannock Device, as my hand lashed forward. With a grunt, I hurled the metal measuring thing like a tomahawk or something, chucking it as hard as I could right at the space where one of the men was just coming into view. Just as it left my hand, I left a spot of red on one end of the thing while pivoting to face upward.

The hurled metal device, spinning through the air, slammed into the face of the first guy just as he came around the corner with his gun raised. Between the orange paint keeping it intact and the strength boost from the purple paint on me, the thing hit him hard enough that he immediately collapsed with a strangled cry, hand snapping up to his suddenly-bleeding face. 

By that point, I had just started to see the head of the man right by the half-shelf I was hiding behind. My hand, still outstretched, summoned the measuring device back by activating the red paint on it and on my glove. It flew right into my grip just as the man in question leaned over, his gaze reflexively looking to where the other guy had just fallen. That head, covered in a dark ski mask, presented the perfect target for me to crack with my makeshift weapon. There was a cry from the man as he fell out of sight, gun going off to shoot a hole through one of the shelves. 

Two down. Or at least hurt enough that they weren’t going to jump right back up immediately. Unfortunately, I could already hear what sounded like half a dozen more running for this spot. Not to mention the fact that Juice was still at the front. 

But I still had over half my time for the already-active paint, and I wasn’t about to waste it. Shooting red paint toward the ceiling above the nearest aisle, I used it to pull myself up and over that way. Immediately, the guy there snapped his gaze up and started to shout while raising his gun. But I released the red paint, dropping down to crash into him first. We collided, my momentum knocking the man to the ground before I lashed out with a quick, somewhat-awkward backhand. It wasn’t pretty or skilled, but with the purple strength, that didn’t matter. The guy’s head snapped back as he groaned in pain and went limp under me. 

With maybe a couple seconds left on my current paint, at best, I pivoted to put my feet against the row of shelves, then shoved as hard as my enhanced strength would let me. There was a loud, protesting groan, then a violent snapping sound as the shelf broke. It tipped over sideways, collapsing into the next aisle over. As it went down, the shelf hit the one next to it, knocking that one over, and so on like dominoes. I could hear yelps and curses from the guys in each aisle. 

“God damn it, you useless motherfuckers!” I heard Juice shout from the front even as he started to move, finally coming fully into the store himself. “Can’t you do one goddamn thing right?!” 

Taking a breath, I used blue paint to launch myself up to the ceiling, inverting so the shoes would hold me there, in plain sight. “Hey, don’t blame them, a good manager takes responsibility for his employees!” 

With a snarl, the big guy lashed out, sending a bolt of lightning. But I was already moving before I’d even finished saying that, throwing myself sideways along the ceiling (which was more like a floor for me at the moment, thanks to Wren’s work). I was also still talking, blurting out a quick, “Maybe you guys just need a team-building exercise!”

Another bolt of lightning came my way. Also, a large rack of sports shoes, which the man hurled with his other hand while bellowing about what he was going to do when he put his hands on me. Honestly, none of it sounded very pleasant. 

But again, I was quicker, launching myself straight down toward the floor. Or rather, toward one of the overturned shelves, just as the electricity and hurled metal rack hit the spot where I had been. Shoes rained down all around me, while the rack itself landed in a crumpled heap a bit to the side. 

“Seriously,” I called while quickly scrambling on my hands and knees over the rows of shelves, “I hear those retreats do a lot of good for building rapport between boss and employees!” Putting blue paint under my feet while still scrambling, I launched myself forward and up, shooting another puddle of blue at the wall ahead of me just as yet another blast of electricity hit where I had just been. Hitting that blue spot, I rebounded backwards off it to fly over Juice’s head, landing in a roll behind him as he spun back toward me. But just before he could try to hit me from point-blank range, I snapped a quick, “How ‘bout we start with a trust fall?” 

With that, I activated the red paint I’d stuck to his back while flying over him, as well as one of the bits of red I’d left on the shelving unit I’d been scrambling over. Instead of pulling the shelf to him, however, I sent him flying backward, yanked up and over to crash down onto his back against the shelf. 

“I think it’ll really lift your stocks!” I shouted, while activating the other bit of red paint I’d left on the shelf he was lying on, as well as its matching spot on the ceiling. The shelf flew upward, slamming full-force into the ceiling with the man lying on it. 

Right, now the rest of his men in here were starting to pull themselves out. Plus, I could hear crashing and banging in the ceiling above where the guy was pinned, while chunks of the shelving unit started snapping and falling. He was breaking out, and it definitely wasn’t going to take long. These shelves weren’t exactly built to contain a guy like that. Not to mention the fact that he sounded seriously pissed off. Between this guy and Janus, I was just racking up friends on the Easy Eights. With my luck, they’d find Cuélebre and the whole group would form a club dedicated to making my whole existence a living hell. Because that was just how these things seemed to work. 

But, oh well. I would have to deal with that later. Right now, I shot several quick bursts of red at the remaining shelving units and one spot at the floor right in front of the doorway. Seeing several of the men scrambling toward me and shouting, I pivoted and threw myself through that doorway while activating all the paint. Instantly, I heard a cacophony of bangs and crashes as the shelves all flew to block the door I had just gone through. Hopefully, I hit a couple guys in the process. But right now all I cared about was slowing them down for a few seconds. Even if they just went through the back door, it was still something. Every little bit helped.

For the moment, I pivoted, coming face-to-face with a bad guy who looked completely surprised to see me there. He was just coming around the corner of the shop, through a narrow path that ran between the buildings. His gun was held loosely at one side, and he started to bring it up belatedly. But I reacted faster, quickly lunging that way while painting purple on my gloves and activating it so I could rip the gun from his grasp, then simply shove the guy hard in the chest. He hit the ground and I jumped over him. There wasn’t time for any of this. Hurling the pistol as far as I could to the side, I sprinted back toward where the prisoners had been. 

Had been being the thankfully operative words, because all I saw as I reached that point were two of the Easy Eight thugs laying on the ground, groaning in pain. The civilians were all gone. Well, mostly gone. Looking up, I saw a few of them disappearing off across the street or rounding the corners of the other buildings. The point was, they had escaped. Thank God.

Or rather, thank whoever the girl in the armor was. Because she was clearly the one who–

“Paintball!” Speaking of whom, the girl herself suddenly jumped out from behind the overturned cart where she had apparently been hiding. “Are you okay? What happened in th–” 

Abruptly, the girl was interrupted by a loud crack of thunder and power as the front of the shoe store was blasted apart by a burst of lightning. The enraged Juice came into view, head snapping our way immediately as a violent curse erupted from him. Yeah, he was not happy. 

“Oh, you know,” I managed, reaching out to grab the girl with both hands while turning my shoes blue to launch both of us upward. “Just did a little browsing!” As we rocketed upward, the next shot of lightning passed right where we had been. I aimed for the roof of the nearest shop, and we came down there, tumbling just past an air conditioning unit with a pair of yelps. 

Lying there on my side, I looked over to where the other girl was sprawled. Somehow, the helmet had stayed in place. But just as my mouth opened to say something, I heard a bellow from below. Eyes widening, I blurted, “Move!” and shoved her away. Then I quickly rolled the opposite direction, scrambling to get out of the way. 

It was just in time, as Juice landed right where we had been. His hands lashed out to grab both of us, but he missed by inches. “You wanna fuck up my night, huh, assholes?! This whole thing would have been smooth. Use the civvies to keep the cops back long enough to bust up everything the fucking Niners have in this place, then let ‘em go. They would’ve been fine. But no! No, of course not. You stupid fucks have to jump in and play hero so you can ruin everything!”

On my feet, I quickly spoke up to draw his attention and ire. “Sounds like you’re having a bad night. We could always call it a draw. You go home, we go home, all of us just rethink our lives and choices? What do you think?” 

Apparently he thought ‘zap’, because the man pivoted to throw a bolt of electricity at me with a snarl. I’d already anticipated, and activated a pair of green wings on my back. They made me fast enough to dive out of the way. Unfortunately, I wasn’t quick enough to dodge the second bolt that he sent right to where I was diving, having anticipated the move.

It was only a brief hit, a graze really. But it was enough. The electricity hit me, and drew a sharp cry of pain. Suddenly, my whole body seized up. I hit the ground and spasmed. In the background, I heard a girl’s voice shout, “Get away from him!” Then there was a grunt of surprise, and a large shape was flung over me. Opening my eyes, I saw… well, first I saw a bunch of static on the screen where my heads-up display was supposed to go. But it cleared up a second later. More importantly, Juice was on the ground, while an enormous silver, bronze, violet, and black battering ram was hovering in the air just in front of him. It was about as big as a car, the colors spread throughout it in a tie-dye pattern. The armored girl was standing back a bit, arms outstretched. Her armor no longer had black in it, and looked a bit thinner. The purple cloak was gone too. Wait, purple cloak was gone, black part of the armor was gone, and now the previous silver and bronze transforming marbles had been joined by those two specific colors? Right, duh, the armor was made up of the same marbles as the weapons. Yeah, that made sense. Not like she’d had time to go grab a costume in the ten seconds since she’d gotten her powers. Convenient, really. Also explained how her helmet had stayed on before. 

In any case, apparently both of those marbles that had been a part of her armor and the cloak had helped form the massive battering ram that hit Juice hard enough to knock him clear across the roof and left him lying there looking dazed. Which was just fine with me, because I was still feeling pretty dazed too. 

Armored girl, however, wasn’t dazed. She was more along the lines of pissed off. Her hands swept out to either side. With that motion, the battering ram split apart too. It broke into two half-sized pieces. One was black and purple, the other silver and bronze. Those two pieces instantly shaped themselves into a pair of enormous glowing boxing gloves of those respective colors. Each was about the same size as the big guy himself. Then, as the girl slammed her own fists together with a loud, ringing metal clang from her armored gauntlets colliding, the huge, glowing boxing gloves did the same, slamming into one another. Or rather, into either side of Juice. They collided with the big guy hard enough just as he was picking himself up that he fell right back down again, actually bleeding and bruised. 

Immediately, the girl made a quick twisting motion with her hands. The two boxing gloves actually scooped up the man and held him tight, cupped around him. Then she pivoted, making a wide throwing gesture. As she did so, the cupped gloves flew up a good thirty feet and forward another twenty before abruptly disappearing. But Juice’s momentum didn’t disappear. The man was sent flying clear off into the distance, sailing over at least two different buildings before crashing down somewhere a couple blocks away. 

As it turned out, the giant gloves didn’t disappear. They simply turned back into four colored marbles, all of which flew back to hover around the girl herself like obedient puppies waiting to be praised. 

Looking down, I murmured under my breath, “Test, test…” Then I breathed a sigh of relief. My voice changer was still working after being shocked. I hadn’t been hit nearly as hard as Cuélebre had with his own lightning. 

“What?” the other girl was asking as she turned to me. Already, I saw the white from her helmet had sort of half-melted down into the rest of the armor as though to reinforce it. 

“Nothing,” I quickly replied, shaking my head. “But–dude, that was amazing. What–how did–wow.” 

“Ummm, I…” Trailing off, the girl squirmed on her feet. “I think–” Just then, she was interrupted by the sound of loud sirens and the sight of a dozen cop cars roaring up. Seeing that, she blurted, “Oh God! I’ve gotta get out of here!” 

“What?” I blinked that way. “Are you like… wanted, or–” 

“No!” she interrupted, sounding panicked. “It’s my mom!

“If she finds out about this, she won’t let me out of the house for a year!”

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Building Connections 16-02 (Summus Proelium)

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By the time I caught up with the Easy Eight trucks, they had reached what was apparently their destination. It was an outdoor shopping center, where one of the trucks had already plowed its way through a statue in front of the fountain. All of the vehicles were spread out along the road and sidewalk in front of the shopping center, clearly being used as barricades to help stop the people within from easily escaping. They couldn’t block off everything, but they did their best. 

Landing on the roof of one of the buildings, I took a second to process what I was seeing. Down below, a bunch of the Easy Eight troops were busy rounding up customers and employees alike. They were moving them to a specific area in the middle of the open walkway between shops. Some of the civilians were struggling more than others, but it didn’t do them any good. Easy or hard, all of them were taken to join that crowd, tied with what looked like ordinary zip-cuffs, and made to sit on the ground. Just how rough the thugs were with their respective prisoners seemed to vary a lot, though at least it looked like they were treating the elderly a bit more gently. There were a few benches nearby and anyone who genuinely looked old was being allowed to sit there with their hands zip-tied in front of them rather than behind. So at least there was that. Not that it made these Easy Eight guys heroes, but they weren’t the ‘push a helpless elderly person to the ground’ level of scum. They still had some vague level of decency. 

Beyond just waiting to see what the general scene looked like before I threw myself into it like an idiot, I was also trying to get an idea of where Juice might be. He was obviously the biggest threat. I couldn’t do anything to the other guys until I knew where he was. I had to hit him first, had to make sure he couldn’t jump me from behind or whatever, cuz between his strength (I’d seen reports of him hoisting a truck over his head) and his electricity powers, that would be bad. 

Unfortunately, I couldn’t see the guy anywhere. As I stayed low and quickly scanned the whole scene, he didn’t appear. I was pretty sure it would have been hard to miss a guy his size, wearing that helmet and gauntlets. But he wasn’t anywhere. Not out here, at least. Did that mean he was in one of the shops? There was no way he would’ve taken off already, right? 

Even as I was wondering all of that, and trying to figure out what I was going to do to track him down before this all got too out of control, there was a blast of what sounded like thunder coming from directly below me. My gaze snapped to the roof under my feet, and I managed a snapped, “Well, that doesn’t sound good,” before the air was filled with sound again. That time, it was the sound of tearing metal and shattering glass, also from below me but slightly ahead. 

A figure was hurled through the window just under me. I barely caught a glimpse of bright metal–armor of some sort? Whatever it was, the shape went flying through the window, screaming the whole way before sprawling out onto the ground before I could even think of moving. They were holding a bat and a whip, but even as my gaze took that in, I saw both weapons shift and transform to… marbles? They looked like marbles. What the hell? 

Now I had a better look at the figure. They were female, that much was clear. Not to mention young. My age maybe? Either way, she wore a gold chestplate with black highlights, while the rest of the armor across her arms and legs was the opposite, black with gold highlights. She also wore a white helmet and a purple cloak. The whole armor set, including the cloak, gleamed and shone brilliantly with what seemed like some kind of minor inner glow. They were a knight in shining armor, quite literally. 

While I was still trying to process all of that, there was a much louder crash below me. Juice. Hey, I found him. The huge man had hurled himself through the wall and landed easily a little bit away from the metal-armored figure. I heard his voice even from the roof. “Still ticking, huh?” He chuckled, sounding awful and evil as he slammed his electricity-covered fist into his other palm. “Good, let’s have some fun.” 

Right, so… I supposed it wasn’t hard to figure out which side the armored girl was on. Whether she was part of the Ninety-Niners or not, I wasn’t sure. I’d never seen or heard of her before. 

But now, all that really mattered was the fact that she was in trouble. Juice wasn’t exactly going to take it easy on her. His tone of voice, the way he smacked his palm eagerly, made that much clear. This guy was going to do some real damage to the armored girl if I let him. 

Thankfully, he was also intently focused on her. He had no idea I was even here, which would give me one free hit. I just had to make sure it counted. A single free shot while he was distracted. 

To that end, I checked the path between the front of the shopping center and where Juice was straightening up. Just a few Easy Eight thugs, watching with what appeared to be amusement. Oh, they’d be super-amused soon. Quickly, I shot a wide blotch of red paint against the hood of the nearest of their trucks. With my other hand, I hit Juice with a blotch of red on his raised arm even as he was pointing toward the frantically-protesting armored girl, who was lying there frozen from apparent terror. 

Apparently he noticed the paint hitting him, because Juice blinked down at the red mark. “What–” 

That was all he had time to say before I activated the paint. Instantly, the truck tore itself off the ground and went tumbling end over end, crashing its way through those few thugs (who dove to either side with a collection of curses). But Juice couldn’t dodge. Even as the man started to dive away, the truck adjusted its trajectory. I heard a brief, belated curse (or maybe it was a threat) escape the Easy Eight lieutenant just before the truck slammed full-force into him. He was sent crashing to the ground within the wreckage. From the sound and look of it, the truck actually took the worst of that collision. But it still helped, because it put the guy on the ground at least for a moment. 

It was a moment that I put to good use. Namely, by extending a hand to shoot red paint at the still-motionless girl on the ground. She gave a yelp as I activated it, launching her up off the pavement and toward where I was standing. My hand caught hers and I pulled her onto the roof beside me. “I take it these guys weren’t part of the entertainment for tonight?” 

“Paintball!” the girl blurted out loud. I could see her eyes through the small, open slits in the helmet. They were wide with what looked like a mixture of confusion, shock, and fear. “Y-you saved–” She seemed to cut herself off, making a noise in the back of her throat as though unsure of what to say. Then her eyes shifted slightly to the side, and widened even more as she blurted, “Down!” 

With that, she grabbed my arm, yanking herself and me both flat against the roof even as a blast of lightning went flying over our heads. It was accompanied by a bellow of anger. Apparently Juice was up. I’d really been hoping getting hit by a truck would keep him down a few seconds longer. 

Unfortunately, there wasn’t time to focus on that. Because Juice’s super-strength extended to his legs. He leapt, landing hard in the middle of the roof before pivoting to face the two of us. I could hear the snarl in his voice. “Paintball. Who’s your new friend?” 

“Uh.” I blinked that way while scrambling to my feet, hauling the girl herself up after me. “You don’t know her either, huh?” 

My words were met with a low chuckle. “Doesn’t matter. Deicide might have reasons for playing nice, but they don’t extend to me. You threw yourself into this. And me? I think you’re pretty fucking annoying.” 

Grabbing the girl beside me by the shoulder, I adopted a scandalized tone. “Dude, I think he’s trying to say he won’t join the Paintball fanclub! But we already have posters and hats and bye!” With that last word, just as Juice extended his hand to shoot a blast of lightning at us, I shoved the startled armored girl off the edge of the roof, activating the orange paint I’d put there when I grabbed her arm. At the same time, I fell backward myself and activated a bit of orange on my back. 

We landed back on the ground, while the lightning shot off into the air above us. But we weren’t exactly in great shape there, considering now we were surrounded by more Easy Eight thugs who had picked themselves up and realized just what was going on. Which meant they were about to open fire, so I quickly painted an orange shield across my chest while reaching out toward the armored girl to do the same. 

Except it turned out I didn’t need to. Because just as four different guys started shooting, the two marble-things I’d seen earlier (the ones that had been weapons before this girl dropped them) abruptly came zipping through the air, transforming into a huge pair of shields that covered the two of us from both sides. One bronze and the other silver. They were shaped like medieval kite shields or whatever. The incoming bullets just bounced off, and I heard one guy squeal as he was hit by a ricochet. 

“Dude, did you do that?!” I quickly demanded, looking over my shoulder to the girl. She stood there, looking completely flatfooted and confused. I could see her wide eyes glancing back and forth in what amounted to a panic. 

“I-I dunno!” she stammered. “There was the orb thing and the voice and–” 

Oh shit. I’d never heard of this girl because she was brand new. No wonder she didn’t seem to have any idea how her power worked. And now the bad guys were closing in, deciding to go with melee weapons. Worse, Juice announced his presence by crashing to the ground, grabbing one of the hovering marble-shields, and tossing it aside with a violent curse before lunging straight at us. 

Instantly, my hand snapped out to grab the new girl, holding tight as I painted blue under our feet and activated it. The two of us were launched upward, just barely escaping the big guy’s grasping arms as I shouted, “No free chiropracty today, thanks!” 

The momentum of being launched sent us up and backward, landing toward the rear of the shopping center and sort-of out of sight behind one of those big stands with a bunch of tee-shirts for sale all over it. Slightly beyond where we were was a railing overlooking a set of stairs leading down to a secondary parking area. Already, those guys were coming, so I turned to the girl. “You need to get down. Just find a corner and stay there, I’ll try to deal with these guys and help the prisoners.” 

“No,” the girl abruptly blurted. “I wanna help. I can help. I mean, I think I can.”

There wasn’t time to argue. Even as my mouth opened, a bolt of lightning tore through the top half of the tee-shirt stand while Juice bellowed for them to drag either us or our carcasses back over there. Between that and the running footsteps–yeah. No time. So, I just spoke as quickly as I could, all in a rushed whisper. “Stay low. I’ll get their attention, you sneak around the side and use those fun toys of yours to free the prisoners and get them out of here. Go, go!” With that, I shoved her away, sending the girl falling over the railing and to the stairs below where she would hopefully be okay and ready to follow instructions. 

Either way, I didn’t have time to worry about it. Because just as I did that, one of the Easy Eight guys came lunging around the side of the half-destroyed cart thing I was hiding behind. He was already shouting, raising the shotgun he was armed with before opening fire at point-blank range. 

All those pellets tore into my chest… and through it, as I’d already painted my torso pink. The shotgun blast literally left dozens of holes in my chest, as the man gaped briefly. 

While he was still stunned, I red-yoinked his shotgun away, painting both my arms purple before lashing out to smack the man across the face with it. He went down with a cry. Then, hearing more guys coming, I pivoted and lashed out with a kick into the destroyed sales stand to send it and all the shirts hanging up over it (whatever was left of them anyway) flying out to slam into the bulk of the group. 

“Hey, Juice!” I called, even as my pink paint wore off (thankfully restoring my torso to pristine shape instead of leaving a bunch of little holes in me). “Is that Sunny-D or plain OJ? You know no one likes the purple stuff!” 

Yeah, that got his attention. As if he needed even more of a push. With a growl, the big guy reached out to grab the remains of the same truck I had hit him with, pivoting to hammer throw it right at me. Immediately, I started to launch myself upward using blue paint. But the instant my feet left the ground, I saw Juice already aiming upward. He knew what I was about to do. He was anticipating it, electricity coiling around his hand and already leaping forth toward the spot where I would be. 

So, I did the only thing I could think of. I shot red paint toward the remains of the incoming truck while both it and I were in midair, and hauled myself that way. A touch of orange shielded me from the impact as I hit the bottom of the spinning truck and stuck there, while green gave me the speed I needed to pull the next part off. The boots Wren had provided kept me firmly planted to the truck while it spun end over end, and I watched as the view in front of me kept changing through those brief seconds. Thanks to my own speed from the green paint, the spinning seemed slower than it really was. I saw Juice, then the ground, then the trashed tee-shirt cart behind, then the sky, then Juice, then the ground, then the tee-shirt cart, then the sky–as Juice came back around, I put blue paint beneath my feet and launched myself that way. 

He was still watching the sky where he expected me to be, his bolt of lightning already leaping from his hand and beginning to tear off toward that open space. From the corner of his eye, he saw me coming and tried to adjust, but I was a missile. A missile that flew right past the superstrong man even as he braced himself for a hit that never came. 

Instead, the instant I hit the ground right behind the man, my hands snapped up and around, touching his legs to turn them yellow. A quick activation left the man slowed to about half-speed. He was already pivoting, but I was gone, flinging myself sideways. Which left him time to see the red mark on the ground that I’d left where I was. 

I had to say this for him, the dude wasn’t an idiot. He knew immediately what was happening, and tried to fling himself aside as I had. But the yellow paint slowed him down just enough that the truck remains, hauled that way by the matching red mark I’d left when I was perched on it as the thing spun end over end, slammed into the big guy once again. 

Even that didn’t keep the guy down for long. As the rest of his men looked like they weren’t sure if they wanted to be the first person I threw a truck at, Juice tore the thing apart, scrambling to his feet with a furious shout. “Grab that stupid piece of shit!” 

Yeah, that motivated them. Even as intimidating as me yoinking a truck at them might’ve been, the group was more afraid of their boss being pissed off. Which, well, was fair. I threw trucks, he tanked being hit by the damn things and tore them in half. 

Still, I definitely had their attention. While Juice and his men came rushing my way, I gave the most sarcastic and condescending wave I could manage, then used red paint to yank myself clear to the far end of the shopping center. Landing in a roll, I tried to put some green paint on for a bit more speed. 

Nothing. Fuck. I was out of paint, and the bad guys were–yeah, they were coming. They were charging, weapons raised. Fortunately, they had no idea I was out of paint for the moment so they didn’t bother shooting at me. Unfortunately, they’d figure it out pretty soon. And even if they didn’t, I couldn’t exactly fight without it. 

Stall. I had to stall until the paint came back. Shoving back the sudden rush of terror, I made my body pivot and hurled myself through the open doorway of one of the shops, falling onto my side in the process. The place was a shoe store, and I quickly scrambled to my feet to rush toward the back even as Juice’s voice filled the air, bellowing for them to tear the fucking place apart and drag me out. 

Right, well… I had their attention. They were definitely focused on me, most of them anyway. I just hoped it was enough for the other girl to free those prisoners and get them out of here. 

Cuz, really, I’d hate to have all this fun for nothing.

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Interlude 15A – Peyton Favors (Summus Proelium)

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A/N- For those who missed the commissioned interlude posted Saturday, there… was a commissioned interlude posted Saturday focusing on Lion! You can find that right here

“Heeeey Mom, this is my hourly check-in to prove I didn’t get kidnapped again. The password is ocelot. Or wait, was that yesterday? No. No, I swear, this isn’t a cry for help. No, no one’s making me say that. I swear, I thought the password was ocelot. What–ostrich! We should’ve gone with ocelot, they’re cooler. No, Mom, still not a secret code for you to call the police.” 

Throughout her conversation with her mother, Peyton Favors strolled through one of Detroit’s outdoor shopping malls, idly checking storefronts to see if anything looked good enough to step inside. The fifteen-year-old redhead checked her own image in the reflection of one window, turning her head this way and that as she studiously watched for any zits that might’ve snuck their way in. Her hands were full of shopping bags, the entire conversation being had through a bluetooth earpiece. Her eyes rolled exaggeratedly at her own reflection as she carefully replied, “Mom, I need you to listen very carefully to the words that are coming out of my mouth. No secret codes, no one has a gun to my head. I have not been kidnapped. Mitchell is gone, the creep got what he deserved. Yes, I know Paintball can’t be around to save me all the time. Believe me, I’m just trying to find something cute for Tanya’s party this weekend. And maybe a couple other things.” She glanced down at the full bags in her hands and made a face at her reflection. “No one is bothering me. I promise, I am absolutely and completely safe. I love you. You’re even more paranoid than Grandma, which is saying something, but I still love you. Bye!” 

Reaching up to hit the button, disconnecting the call, Peyton took the earpiece out and put it in her pocket with a shake of her head. “Urgh, you’d think she was the one thrown into the back of a car by a fucking pedo piece of–” She shook that off abruptly. Dr. Corners, the therapist she’d already seen a couple times since that whole thing went down, had said something about how her mother was overcompensating for not being able to help at all during the kidnapping itself by trying way too hard now. The whole calling in every hour, checking everything she did, using codewords to say whether someone was holding her against her will, it was crazy. Peyton wasn’t sure how much longer she could deal with it. Half the time she was afraid that she would say the wrong thing on a call and her mother would end up sending a SWAT team after her. 

Hell, there’d already been that one bit a few days earlier when Peyton had been at the theater. She’d made the mistake of hissing into the phone that she ‘couldn’t talk now’ before turning it off. They’d only been fifteen minutes into the show when security came barging in and the house lights came on. That had been just about one of the most mortifying moments of her life. Especially considering she’d been that close to telling Sarah Conrad that she thought she was cute. Now that was definitely ruined, after those guards had made it clear whose mother called them in. 

Sigh. Being into both guys and girls was supposed to make it easier to find someone to date. But between the guy she had liked online turning out to be some much older creepy kidnapping pedo loser, and looking like a fucking paranoid freak family in front of Sarah, maybe she was just doomed from the get-go. Byron was ace and he didn’t seem to have any problems with his own relationships. Or maybe he was just a lot better at hiding it and looking like they were fine.

“I don’t care what Mom says,” Peyton informed her own reflection in the window, “it is not easier being a fifteen-year-old. And you know, it’s kinda fucked up that she says that practically in the same breath as the one she uses to give me all these rules because she’s so paranoid that I’m going to somehow magically end up in danger again. Like, we live in Detroit, not the middle of–” 

In mid-sentence, Peyton was abruptly interrupted by the sound of a roaring engine, followed by a loud crash. Spinning that way with a yelp, she stared, mouth agape. 

The outdoor shopping center she had been meandering through was shaped like a large U, with the doors into various shops spaced all along both sides of the curved shape. The middle of the U was essentially a large patio full of stands to buy snacks, sunglasses, cell phones, or even get massages. There was a fountain toward the front of the shopping area, with a statue of some old man holding an umbrella just beside it. 

That statue was the source of the loud crash. Or rather, the enormous pick-up truck that had just slammed into said statue, knocking it over. And it wasn’t alone. Three more huge trucks had come roaring up to block basically the whole road along the front of the shopping center. The backs of all four vehicles were full of thugs wearing a lot of leather and chains, holding bats, pipes, knives, and a few guns. All were hollering and whooping as they leapt from the trucks, landing right in front of dozens of shoppers paralyzed by surprise and confusion. 

“You know the drill, boys!” The voice came from the direction of the truck that had knocked over the statue, as the passenger door opened and a heavyset figure emerged. He was a large black man, standing about six and a half feet tall and very wide. His only concessions to a ‘costume’ of any kind were the sleek-looking blue metal helmet he wore, and a pair of matching metal gauntlets. Beyond that he wore simple street clothes. 

Juice. It was Juice, one of the lieutenants of the Easy Eights. Which were who all these other guys were. The guys who were already spreading out, grabbing people who started trying to run. As the screaming started, the man called over it, “Gather ‘em and shut ‘em up! Torch every building in this fucking lot!” To punctuate his words, the man extended his hands out to both sides and sent a blinding blast of electricity in either direction to slam into a couple storefronts with a loud, terrifying bang. “I want the whole fucking place burned to the ground! Move!” 

Almost as if he had been speaking directly to her, Peyton reacted to that last word. The bags dropped from her hands, even as one of the Easy Eight soldiers approached with his baseball bat raised threateningly. He was saying something, but Peyton didn’t hear. She was too busy pivoting. A scream tore its way from her own throat as she ran, sprinting away from that spot, away from the man who had approached her, away from the Fell-Touched Juice. Away from all of it, screaming the entire time. She ran, not even knowing where she was going. No plan, nothing. 

The sound of a loud curse from the man who had been approaching spurred Peyton to run even faster. She heard other people shouting, heard a couple terrifyingly loud bangs. Gunshots? She didn’t know, she didn’t know! Just run, that was all she could do. Just run. 

Racing past several stores, the girl glanced to the side. In the reflection of the windows, she saw herself. But she also saw the man behind her. He was so close! Oh God, oh god, he was so–he was lunging! 

Seeing the man make that leap, Peyton threw herself to the right, through the open doorway of a storefront. She landed hard on the floor, even as the man who had been chasing her landed on his stomach right where she would have been. His gaze snapped toward her as she lay on her side, and the man snarled while raising that bat. Reflexively, Peyton kicked out, hitting the door where it was propped open and sending it slamming closed just as the hurled bat crashed into the wood with a terrifying bang. 

Laying there on her side, Peyton hyperventilated as she stared at the door. It was only for a second, but that single second felt like an eternity. She heard the man cursing, could see through the window in the door as he started picking himself up. Up. He was getting up. 

Get the fuck up! 

Grabbing the side of the nearby counter, Peyton used it to haul herself up. She could see the man running toward her, toward the door. He was right there, right there. But just beside the door was a bookshelf stuffed with magazines. Even as a surge of terror raced through her, the fifteen-year-old lunged that way, shoving it hard. The shelf fell about halfway over before hitting the opposite wall of the doorway, wedging itself in tight just as the man kicked the door. But the bookshelf held, for the moment at least. 

A screamed threat from the guy as he hit the door again reminded Peyton that she couldn’t just stand there. The shelf was already starting to move under the repeated furious blows. Any second, the man with the bat was going to break in, and she was pretty sure he wasn’t happy with her. He would–he would–he had the bat–he was–

She ran. Pivoting away, Peyton fled through the shop, tears of terror almost blinding her, to the point that she tripped over the edge of another counter, landing hard on her stomach with a yelp. Behind her, she heard a loud crash as the bookshelf was nearly knocked clear out of the doorway. From the sound of multiple voices, he had been joined by more people, all of them working together to shove the door open. There were a couple shouted threats about what they would do if she didn’t stop, punctuated by the sound of a metal pipe hitting the wall. 

Fueled entirely by panic, the girl scrambled back to her feet and kept going. She didn’t dare look back, instead practically diving to the left where, thanks to hours spent wandering through these stores, she knew there was a set of stairs just beside the employee counter. 

The stairs were narrow and steep, but Peyton hardly noticed. Hearing the sound of the men behind her finally managing to breach the shop, their angry shouts growing even louder only spurred her to get up the steps faster. Taking them several at a time, using the railing and wall to boost herself, she struggled not to sob. Crying wasn’t going to do anything. Paintball wouldn’t sit there and cry about it. Sure, he had superpowers and all, but still. He’d actually do something, and he was like… a little kid. Okay, maybe just a couple years younger than Peyton, yet the point remained. He threw himself into life-threatening danger all the time. He’d done so to save her. If he could do that, she could keep running instead of cowering on the stairs blubbering. She wasn’t going to reward Paintball taking the effort to save her from that fucking creep by letting herself be… be whatever these creeps were planning, especially now that they were pissed off. He’d saved her before, but he wasn’t here now. She had to save herself. Somehow.

Only once the girl reached the top of the stairs (she’d always wondered where they actually went) did she realize the problem. Where the fuck was she supposed to go now? She was standing in some kind of storage area, full of boxes and crates for the books that were actually on display below as well as some promotional material, lines of other shelves, and a few old mannequins for some reason. There were windows, but they were all blocked by metal bars. 

She only froze for a brief moment, thoughts of how stupid she was to come up here flooding her mind, before the sound of the men reaching the stairs below spurred Peyton to move. Rushed by blind terror, she fled past the row of mannequins and several stacks of books, throwing herself into one of the corners between two different crates. Huddled there, the girl drew herself back as tight as possible into that small space and prayed something would happen to interrupt the men. Or maybe they’d spread themselves out too much and she could bolt for the stairs to escape? Please, please, she just wanted to go home. 

Home. In a rush, she reached for her phone, only to find her pocket empty. A memory flashed through her head of falling flat on her face downstairs. Her phone and the bluetooth had obviously fallen out then, and she’d been in too much of a panic to actually notice. Fuck, fuck! 

By that point, the men had reached the top of the stairs. There was a moment of quiet murmuring as they clearly had a brief discussion about what to do, before one of the men called, “Hey kid! Look, no one’s gonna do anything rash, aight? We’re just burning down these shops cuz the Niners make a bunch of money out of ‘em. Ain’t got nothing to do with you. Come out, we’ll take you to the rest of the braindead civvies out there, and you can just sit until the cops show up to hold your hand, take your temperature, and give you a nice cup of hot chocolate. What do you say? Come on out, no hard feelings. But ahh, if we have to come in there and drag you out, I can’t promise nothing.” There was a heavy thump of something like a bat or pipe hitting a nearby crate as though to punctuate his words. “Let’s make this easy.” 

It was tempting. Oh God was it ever tempting. But Peyton hesitated. Ducking her head as low as possible, she peeked out and looked, praying that she wasn’t about to be face-to-face with one of the attackers. She saw three men standing right in front of the stairs. The guy who had chased her initially was facing the man who had spoken, hissing something angrily into his ear. That man gave him a short nod, and the guy with the bat started to silently move through the open room, bat raised as he carefully searched. 

“We’ll give you thirty seconds to think about it!’ The man who had been talking, still by the stairs with the other guy, called. “Then we’re coming in there and you won’t like it!” 

Right, thirty seconds. They were totally giving her time to think about it. That’s why the pissed off guy with the bat was already searching. It was a distraction. They wanted her to think she had time to breathe, while that guy made his way through. And when he found her, he’d–he’d…

For just a moment, Peyton’s eyes closed. A shudder of panic ran through her as the tears came. What was she supposed to do? What could she–

Something was in front of her face. Nearly screaming as she opened her eyes, expecting to find the bat pressed to her nose, Peyton instead found herself staring at a small, glowing orb, about the size of a softball. It was blue, with hypnotically glowing hieroglyphics moving across it randomly. 

Oh. 

Oh, that was neat. 

Completely forgetting her entire situation, the girl slowly reached out. Her hand grasped the ball, and she felt… peaceful. She felt like she was safe. 

She wasn’t in the store. She wasn’t… anywhere, really. Peyton stood in some kind of completely empty space. Instead of a floor, there was gray dirt under her feet. It was impossible to make out any details, thanks to the fog that filled the whole area. Not that there seemed to be much to see anyway. It was all just a flat gray wasteland filled with that fog. 

Spinning in a circle, she saw images appear in the fog. She saw herself at the computer, flirting with someone she had thought was her own age. She saw her own look of disgust upon realizing the truth, saw the way she’d cut it off with the pedo fuck. She saw the moment she was kidnapped and thrown into the back of that car by Mitchell and his idiot friends, as well as the moment Paintball had saved her. She saw the intervention by those Braintrust people. She saw all of that, before the images shifted to show her today. It showed her shopping, fleeing, running up to this very point with the men chasing her. 

Finally, the images in the fog shifted to showing her the orb. The very orb she had touched to find herself here. And as that orb filled her vision, a woman’s voice spoke. 

“Summus Proelium.” 

Instantly, the vision vanished. Peyton was suddenly back in the shop. The orb had disappeared, but her open hand wasn’t empty. Instead, six small metal marbles filled her palm. They were sleek and featureless, each a different color. Gold, silver, bronze, purple, black, and white. They felt warm to the touch. 

“Hey!” The furious voice snapped her attention upward, just in time to see the man with the bat standing over her. “I got the bitch! C’mere, you little–” 

The silver marble suddenly flew out of her hand, slamming into the man’s chest. There was a sudden shockwave that knocked over the nearby shelves and crates, as the guy was sent flying a good ten feet to crash against a pile of books with a scream. 

Scrambling to her feet, Peyton saw the man lying there in a heap, groaning. The other two men had been taken completely by surprise, but were already moving her way with a pair of shouts. One–one had a gun. The guy who had been talking pulled out a gun! 

The marbles reacted to her terror immediately. All five that were still in her hand flew out of it. But instead of flying at the men themselves, they surrounded Peyton. The gold and black ones smacked into her chest and began to meld together before expanding. Suddenly, they weren’t marbles anymore. They grew and shaped themselves into a golden chestplate with black highlights, which then expanded down into black armor with gold highlights across her legs and up over her arms.  

Meanwhile, the white marble flew up to her face, seeming to stare at her for an instant before it opened up, expanding like a mouth to swallow her as she screamed. 

No. It didn’t swallow her. It turned itself into a sleek, pristine white helmet, covering her face and head but leaving her eyes exposed. 

All of that happened in the span of a couple seconds. Suddenly, her entire body was encased in armor created by three of the six marbles. The three remaining, purple, silver and bronze, hovered in front of her as though waiting. 

The two guys who had been running at her suddenly stopped, stumbling over their own feet as curses of confusion escaped them. Before she could react, the man with the gun fired a shot. Peyton screamed, stumbling backward… even as the bullet ricocheted harmlessly off the armor. It didn’t feel like anything. 

For an instant, she stared down at the spot of her chest where the bullet had struck, then her gaze snapped up to the source of it. The remaining marbles reacted to her impulse. The bronze transformed itself into a bat not unlike the one she’d nearly been hit with, flying out to crash into the stomach of the man with the gun, then slammed down into his back to knock him to the floor. Simultaneously, the silver marble transformed into a rope, lashing itself around the other man before hurtling him through the air to slam into the first guy who had been knocked through the air just as he started to get up. 

Which left the purple marble. That one transformed into a long, flowing cloth, which lashed out the length of the room to catch all three men in a wide arc, before hurling them bodily into the far wall together with a collection of screams. 

The rope shifted slightly to become a whip as it flew into Peyton’s left hand, while the bat found its way into her right. Finally, the purple cloth–cloak, she realized, affixed itself to her shoulders. Peyton was left standing there over the three men as they groaned in pain and confusion, muttering half-conscious curses. 

“Oh my God,” she whimpered, standing in the newly formed armor with the two weapons in either hand. “Oh my God, oh fuck, oh god. What do I do now?” 

“Well, ain’t this a surprise!” The sudden voice snapped the newly-Touched girl’s gaze toward the stairs, where Juice stood. The huge man could barely fit, but didn’t seem to care about the damage he’d done getting up there. His gaze was centered on her. “Thought this was gonna be a boring cakewalk, but looks like I get to have a little excitement after all.” 

“Wait!” the girl found herself blurting in a panic, “I didn’t–” 

He didn’t wait. Instead, the man used a blast of lightning that slammed into Peyton. It… it didn’t kill her. It hurt, that was for sure. But not nearly as much as it should have. 

Unfortunately, it still served to distract the girl, and before she knew it, the big guy was right in front of her. He hauled her off the ground, snarling. “Pretty tough, eh bitch? Let’s see how tough.” Suddenly, he was spinning, much more graceful than he should have been at his size. Before she knew what was happening, Peyton found herself hurled toward one of the bar-covered windows. She struck it with enough force to break through, flying out into open air. 

Then she dropped. With a scream, the girl fell all the way to the ground in the middle of the open shopping center, landing hard on her chest. The bat and whip dropped from her hands, reforming to their normal marble shapes. 

A terrifyingly loud crash, followed by a thud made her spin over into a half-sitting position, staring as Juice straightened up from his own landing. There was a hole in the wall where he’d leapt through. 

“Still ticking, huh?” A low, dangerous chuckle escaped the man. Electricity played over his fist as he slammed it into his palm. “Good.

“Let’s have some fun.” 

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Interlude 12B – Raindrop (Summus Proelium)

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The first time that Izzy Amor had worn her official Minority costume, she had felt like a little kid playing dress-up. Largely because that was essentially what she had been. Eleven years old at the time, she’d had her powers for only a little over a week. A week since the night she had climbed out her window and onto the roof of their condo in the middle of the night to escape the sound of her mother’s tryst with some man she had never met. Izzy had been wishing for the chance to find her real father. Instead, she found one of the Summus Proelium orbs hovering there. In a daze, feeling like the whole thing was a dream, she had touched the orb. 

The week that followed had passed in a rush. Her mother had negotiated everything about Izzy’s joining the Minority. The rules stated that, young as she was, she had to have specific parental approval to join the team in the field. Usually, people under fourteen, even after being approved to be part of the team, did not participate in field exercises. They focused on training. 

But Izzy’s mother had believed that her daughter would only make a name for herself in order to join one of the good teams if she got started right away. She’d wanted Izzy to stand out, the same way an enthusiastic parent might push their kid too hard to make a name for themselves in their chosen sport in order to attract colleges and pro teams. So, she had signed contracts approving Izzy’s deployment into the field under controlled circumstances. Even with contracts, Izzy still couldn’t go out in costume by herself, of course. You had to be at least sixteen to do solo patrols, and even then you had to earn (and request) the privilege. 

In any case, Izzy had been eleven years old and approved, thanks to her mother, for supervised, team-centered field work. After several days of adjustments and tests, her costume had fit perfectly, yet somehow still felt too big for her. Standing in front of the cameras in that dark blue bodysuit with silver armor panels, a white cloak and hood, and a mirrored faceplate that completely obscured her appearance, Izzy had felt like a fraud. She’d felt as though any minute, one of the reporters was going to laugh at the idea of eleven-year-old Izzy Amor being some kind of hero. The fact they didn’t actually know her name or anything about her hadn’t helped calm her nerves. She had been a little kid playing dress-up with a costume that, by itself, had been more expensive than basically everything she had ever owned all put together. 

She’d gone out with the team over those few months, growing slightly more comfortable with what she could do. The others had helped a lot, keeping her calm, making her feel like part of the team despite her uncertainty and misgivings. Her power was helpful not only in combat situations, but for a lot of other uses. She could put out fires, could lift heavy objects off or away from people by getting them wet and then making them float. She could even help stop some entire fights in their tracks just by bringing an intense torrential downpour of cold water. A lot of the time, people who were soaking wet from heavy rain that kept getting in their eyes stopped wanting to fight. It was especially useful for breaking up random brawls on the street between Prev gang members. 

The point was, doing all that made Izzy feel useful. She had still felt as though she didn’t really belong in the expensive, incredibly cool-looking costume she’d been given. After all, she hadn’t done anything to earn her powers. She’d just gone up to hide on the roof away from the sound of her mother having sex with some random guy. The orb came to her and suddenly she had powers she had done nothing to earn. Powers she was pretty sure she didn’t actually deserve. 

But deserve them or not, she’d had them. And, for those few months (during which she had turned twelve years old), she’d gradually started to feel like she might be able to actually be a real part of something. She’d started to feel attached to the team… to her team. She’d even felt as though she might be able to make her mother proud of her, might be able to give her mom the better life that Izzy knew she wanted. Things were looking up. 

Then… then her mother had sold her to Oscuro. Her mother had sold her, had taken money in exchange for her, knowing that Izzy was going to be hurt. Worse than hurt, tortured. Her madre had sold Izzy to be tortured and trained, forced to do bad things for bad people just so she could have money. And not even that much money. The ultimate, indescribable act of betrayal, and her mother had done it for half a million dollars. Five hundred thousand for selling her daughter. 

Now, weeks later, here she was, a guest at the Evans’ obscenely spacious and well-adorned house. Playing video games with their daughter, eating at their kitchen table, sleeping in a bed that, like her Minority costume, was clearly worth more than anything else she had ever owned.  

And again, just like her powers, Izzy had done nothing to earn it. She didn’t deserve any of this, didn’t deserve to be treated like one of Mr. and Mrs. Evans’ children. She was just… Izzy. Why should she be in this virtual palace, being treated like some kind of… of important person? 

She didn’t. She didn’t deserve that. Which was part of what convinced Izzy that she had to go back out again as Raindrop. She didn’t deserve this kind of life at all, but maybe she could at least give some of it back by helping people again. Even if the thought of dressing up in that suit and playing hero made her feel even more like she was just pretending. She could still try. She could put the suit on, go out, and try to help as many people as possible. And if she did that enough, maybe someday she wouldn’t feel like such a fraud. 

That day wasn’t now, however. Izzy stood in costume, staring at herself in the mirror. She was in the bedroom she’d been allowed to use in the Evans’ house. Cassidy was at school, and Simon was off on some kind of family business. Still, the house was busy enough that Izzy had locked the door and stuck a chair up under the knob, just to be on the safe side. The blinds and curtains were also drawn across the windows. She was definitely alone, watching herself in costume while thoughts of her mother ran through her head. The mirrored faceplate stopped Izzy from seeing her own expression, but she already knew what it looked like. Small, pale, nervously biting her lip, her dark hair a mess. Eyes that perpetually looked too wide and too wet. Not brave. Not strong. Not heroic. Just Izzy. 

Abruptly, Izzy’s thoughts were interrupted by the sound of a knock at the door. She jumped, gasping reflexively as her gaze snapped that way in time to hear Mr. Evans call, “Izzy, you okay?” 

Finally breathing (a bit too rapidly), Izzy pulled the hood down and reached behind her head to undo the straps of the face plate, pulling that off as well as she blurted, “Sorry, Mr. Evans! Umm, uhh, is it just you?” The question came out awkwardly, making her flush a bit at the sound of her own voice.

There was a brief pause before the man answered, “Yeah, Izzy, it’s just me. Is everything alright?” 

Stepping over, Izzy undid the lock, pulling the chair away from the door before opening it for him. Both Mr. Evans and his wife knew all about her Touched identity. It was part of them allowing her to stay with them, as they’d had to know what they were getting into. But Silversmith had assured her that he trusted the Evanses and that she would be safe with them. 

Now, she stepped away from the door, in full costume save for the faceplate and hood, the former of which was held under one arm. She was also flushed from embarrassment. “Sorry, Mr. Evans,” she repeated, “I just didn’t want one of your… umm, people to walk in.” 

The man held a hand up to stop her, while stepping through. He closed the door behind him after checking the hall. “It’s okay, Izzy, I promise. You’re fine. Superhero or not, you’re entitled to your privacy, kid, believe me.” He paused before offering her a small smile that she supposed many would have found handsome and charming. “So, you’re about ready to go out there again, huh?” 

Even more self-conscious, she shrugged at the question while ducking her gaze. But something made her take a deep breath before looking back to meet his eyes. “Yes, sir,” she informed the man as steadily as she could. “I’m ready.” 

********

“Wham, Rain, the truck!” Syndicate (Or one of him, anyway) shouted a couple hours later, as his fist slammed into the side of a tatted-up Easy Eights gang member, knocking the guy staggering backward. The Prev lashed out with his knife, but that version of Syndicate turned insubstantial, allowing the blade to pass harmlessly through him. 

At the same time, a second version of the boy, on the opposite side of their opponent, turned solid and lashed out with a kick to the small of the man’s back. He was knocked forward just as the two Syndicates swapped solidity once more so the first could strip the knife from the stumbling man’s hand, tossing it aside. In that second, a third Syndicate took a running leap, turning solid in mid-lunge (as the other two turned ghost-like) in time to crash into the man and take him to the ground. 

Of course, despite her own self-assurances that she was prepared to back out on the streets, Izzy was still under sixteen. Which meant she still had to go out with a group. No solo patrolling. And that was just fine with her. Ready as she might’ve been to ease back into this whole thing and work to earn the things she’d been given (including her powers), Izzy didn’t want to do it alone. A part of her was still afraid of what would happen if she ran into any of the Oscuro people, people who had been ready and willing to abduct her right out of her own home. According to Silversmith, who had visited the Evanses shortly after her arrival there, Cuélebre and most of the gang had been unaware of what Handler was doing. He was, supposedly, working on his own. But that didn’t change much for Izzy, even if it was true. The emotions that came whenever she thought about those people… she was afraid of what she felt in those moments. 

But here, now? She was with her team, all of them. They had all wanted to come out for her first night back on the job. Which was apparently a good thing, as the six of them had managed to stumble across some kind of Easy Eights job. A group of Prev thugs, led by two Fell-Touched known as Juice and Pivotal, had been loading some kind of shipment out of a warehouse and into a couple semi trucks. A night watchman had managed to call out an alert, and Raindrop’s team was close enough to intercede. 

They had shown up in time to catch the gang right before they’d been about to pull out. Now, Carousel, Wobble, and That-A-Way were busy with Juice (a very heavy-set black guy wearing a silver, entirely featureless and smooth helmet that covered his whole head and a black tank top that showed off his arms with their stormcloud and lightning bolt tattoos whose powers allowed him to control electricity and granted him incredible strength), near one of the trucks. 

The other truck, as Syndicate had just pointed out, was rapidly speeding through the lot. It had just turned the corner around the nearest warehouse building when Izzy snapped her gaze that way. Out of sight. 

But not for long. Even as Izzy saw the taillights of the truck disappear, Whamline jogged to her, extending a hand. “Ready, kid?” he blurted, clearly ready to abort and go after the truck by himself if she declined. Because everyone here, all night, had been treating her with child-gloves, acting like she might break the moment anything bad happened. Even Syndicate had very obviously almost declined this whole situation the moment he heard it involved an actual Fell-Gang with powers. Not to mention the fact that, now that they were in the midst of it, the team had been going out of their way to make sure Izzy didn’t even get close to any bad guys. They were trying to help, she knew, surrounding her with as much protection as possible after what happened (they were aware that her mother had tried to sell her to Oscuro), but it wasn’t helpful. She wanted to prove, at least to herself, that she belonged here, not act like a little kid going bowling with the stupid rubber things in the gutters. 

Now, in this moment, Syndicate and Whamline were offering her that chance. In the midst of combat, seeing that truck about to get away, they had both either forgotten or dismissed the whole ‘keep Raindrop away from the action.’ They were giving her a chance to contribute. 

She took it, grabbing Whamline’s hand before he could change his mind. The instant she did so, the older boy extended his other hand, shooting off one of his energy-coils, which caught hold of the roof of the nearby warehouse. A second later, they were being yanked up toward it. 

They’d done this before, mostly in training, but part of Izzy was nervous about actually pulling it off in the field like this. Still, she shoved those doubts away and focused. An orb of water appeared in the air in front of them, soaking the two as they passed through it. And the second they were wet, she cancelled the effects of gravity on them, blurting, “Now!” 

Whamline’s coil disappeared, no longer yanking them toward the roof. Yet, thanks to the lack of gravity, the pair were still hurling up and forwards. Their momentum carried them clear over the roof, passing above the warehouse and to the other side just in time to see the semi-truck below heading for the street. 

There it was. Seeing it down there, Izzy focused on increasing the effect of gravity on herself and her teammate. They dropped like a pair of heavy stones, crashing straight down while she restrained the urge to scream. Trust. Trust herself. She had to trust herself and her partner. 

Whamline sent out two coils as they dropped, which latched onto the back of the truck and hauled them both that way. They were still dropping so fast Izzy’s stomach felt like it was somewhere up around her throat. Still, she waited, waited…

Just in time, at the last possible second before it would have been too late, she cancelled and then reversed the effect of gravity on them. Momentum carried the pair forward, until the reversed gravity worked to negate it. Izzy had practiced this enough that, while there was a slightly painful jerk, it wasn’t too bad. The reversed gravity and Whamline’s coils worked together to catch them almost like a parachute, just as the two landed on top of the speeding truck. 

“You got this?!” Whamline called, using one arm to hold onto Izzy while the other maintained one of his coils to hold them against the truck. 

“Got it!” she confirmed. All her fears, nerves, and everything else seemed to wash away as she focused on her power. Ahead of the speeding truck, a ball of water appeared. It began as an orb that was only a few feet across, but very quickly grew larger. By the time the truck hit it, unable to stop, the ‘bubble’ was almost as large as the truck itself. 

Izzy and Whamline threw themselves flat against the roof of the trailer, just as the truck crashed through the water. The instant it did and soaked itself, Izzy threw every bit of her power into cancelling its gravity. 

It worked. The truck floated up off the ground, leaving the engine screaming and tires spinning uselessly. They couldn’t go anywhere. 

Strong as her power might’ve been, it took effort to make it work over something as big as a truck. More effort than Izzy was capable of keeping up for long. Still, she didn’t have to keep it going. A couple seconds after making the truck lift a few feet off the ground, she increased gravity on the cab part alone. The trailer continued floating, while the truck itself slammed downward, hitting the pavement with enough force to crumple the hood and front-end and shatter the windshield. The truck definitely wasn’t going anywhere anymore. 

The doors of the truck were thrown open, as two figures launched themselves out of either side. One was a random thug with a gun, who landed on his side on the ground, already pointing his pistol up toward them. But Whamline was on top of that, one of his coils smacking the weapon out of the man’s hand while another lifted him up and threw him out of the way. 

The man who dove out of the driver’s side of the truck, however, was Pivotal, a small, thin guy in a green bodysuit with white highlights and a white ski mask. His power allowed him to designate any point of any non-living object as a pivot and make more of that object rotate or revolve around that point. Which he used right then by making a section of the ground rotate upward even as he jumped from the truck, landing on that vertically twisted bit of pavement. 

Izzy sent a geyser of water at the man, but he backflipped away from his raised platform while simultaneously making a larger section pivot upward to block the spray of water. At the same moment, the truck split in half under herself and Whamline as Pivotal obviously designated the spot beneath their feet as a pivot point and bent the trailer to the side away from them. 

They fell, but Izzy lowered gravity, allowing the pair to land lightly, facing the large section of pavement (it was about nine feet high and six feet wide) blocking them from Pivotal. 

Whamline threw three quickly summoned energy coils at the raised ground, making them explode to send a shower of debris in every direction. Izzy was already sending a new wave of water that way, just in time to catch…

Nothing. The area behind the raised ground was empty. No one was there. Pivotal had disappeared. 

“The ground,” Izzy realized a second after she and Whamline had stood there in confusion. She pointed. “He lifted the ground out of the way to get down under it. Now he’s tunnelling… somewhere. He just umm, he just has to rotate sections of ground out of his way, see?” 

“He’s running,” Whamline muttered, looking in every direction. “Shit–I mean…” He coughed, turning in a circle. “Guess you don’t really think about ‘power to rotate things’ being that impressive, but…”

That-A-Way appeared beside them, teleporting into view before looking around. “What–Juice took off, what about you guys?” 

“Ours got away too,” Izzy admitted, folding her arms across her chest while adding an explanation of how Pivotal had escaped. 

“Well, we got most of the Prev thugs.” That was one of the Syndicates, approaching while still in his ghost-form. “And stopped them from escaping with the trucks. The Fell-Touched might’ve escaped, but they didn’t get what they were after. Which… what were they–” 

“Guns,” Carousel called, approaching with a shrunken object revolving around her. She sent it forward and let it resume its full size as an open crate that landed on the ground between them. “Guns by the tons.” 

She was right, Izzy realized. The crate was full of firearms. And all the crates that had fallen out of the split-open trailer nearby also had weapons in them. Guns, shields, ammunition, grenades of all sorts, explosives…

“God damn,” That-A-Way muttered, “what the hell is all this for?” 

“They’re prepping for a war,” Carousel noted, “but to even what score?” 

Syndicate swallowed hard, speaking up. “Let’s call it in and get people here to clean the place up before those guys come back with reinforcements to get all this stuff. But I think you’re right, Carousel. 

“The Easy Eights are getting ready for war.”

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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 sat 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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