Lucent

Hostile Witness 18-02 (Summus Proelium)

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Going to classes with Amber that day was weird, after everything I knew now. But then, it was obviously weird for her too. I kept seeing her glance over at me, catching me looking at her. Not that we actually said that much to each other all day long. And when we did talk, it was while Jae was around at lunch. So we didn’t exactly get into anything important. Which was just as well. Talking about secret stuff at school was probably a bad idea anyway. We had to be careful. 

We did, at least, take a couple of minutes out in the yard behind the school between classes to have a quick conversation about what was going on. Apparently she had already talked to Pack, and we were going to deal with that whole Amanda situation tomorrow. I wanted to hope it would be a simple in and out thing where we got her to tell us what she knew, but I wasn’t counting on it. We were going to have a plan just in case everything went sideways. After all, when it came to anything involving Pencil and the Scions, it was almost certainly best just to assume that things were going to end with screaming, terror, and probably a lot of fire. And that was probably if things were going relatively well. 

I also exchanged a few texts on my second phone with Peyton herself, setting up a time to meet up and talk. She couldn’t do anything immediately after school, thanks to some sort of plans with her mother that she couldn’t get out of. Not that I would have wanted her to try anyway. She needed to make things seem as normal as possible for the clearly very protective woman. 

So, we were going to meet up around eight in the evening instead. The next day was Saturday, so there wouldn’t be as much of a push for her to be home early. We could find a private place and… and talk. Yeah, I wasn’t going to give her my full identity just yet. But she deserved to know the truth about the Ministry, and about why I couldn’t let myself join up with any of the established teams. She deserved to know what we were dealing with, and to decide if she wanted to back off entirely. She still had that choice. Peyton could just walk away from this whole thing without too much trouble. 

Yet, I found myself hoping she didn’t. Yeah, it was selfish, but I couldn’t help it. Just the fact that she had been right there watching my back inside that whole computer simulation thing had helped a lot. Yeah, Pack and That-A-Way had been there too, and that was even more helpful. But Peyton was… Peyton was a partner. I barely knew her, yet what I did know was that she was really brave, not to mention competent. It was… it was good to have her around. 

Still, if finding out the full truth, or at least as much as I could tell her, about the Ministry made her want to jump out of the pool and walk away, I wasn’t going to stop her. I wouldn’t try to talk her out of it. Mostly because if I had been in her situation, I wasn’t sure I wouldn’t want to walk away from the whole thing. It was a hell of a lot to deal with. This was my family, my problem. I had to be involved. She didn’t. She could be safe. So if she wanted out, she deserved that much. 

Either way, I would deal with all that later, after actually telling the girl what was going on. For the moment, it was the end of the school day and I had something else to deal with. Namely, going over to the Seraph place so I could actually finish up my chores there. After all, it was probably a good idea for me to get that done before they decided I was trying to skip out on the work. I wasn’t sure what they’d do if they had to chase me down and get more stern about it, but it was a situation I wanted to avoid in general. 

Still, I didn’t go straight over there. Instead, I took the ride home with Jefferson and Izzy, spending about an hour there to make things look as normal as possible. Also, homework. Yeah, I still had that to deal with too. I was pretty sure my parents would have a few questions if I started getting straight F’s in all my classes. It wouldn’t do much to help me keep my extracurricular activities secret. So I spent an hour doing as much of that as I could, setting a little bit aside to cram on later that night before bed. Then I called my mother as Jefferson had said she wanted, having a conversation with her about how school went, what I was planning to do that night (at least, the version I was willing to tell her), and about what they were doing (at least, the version she was willing to tell me). Yeah, we were a completely normal family, alright. 

Once that little charade was over with, I took the time to have a little snack in the dining room with Izzy, the two of us chatting about utterly meaningless stuff to give the impression we had nothing better to worry about. Yeah, another charade. If I’d had any spare time, I might’ve signed up for the drama club, because I was getting to be a pretty good little actress. 

Finally, I made a point of telling Izzy, within earshot of a couple housecleaners passing by, that I was going out with a few friends and would be back in a few hours. We made a show of making sure she would text me if she needed anything, before I headed out. Of course Izzy knew what I was really doing, but we had to cover our bases in case (okay, when) my parents asked the staff what the two of us had been up to while they were gone.

Taking an Uber to a small strip mall that was about a mile from the Seraph headquarters,  I stopped in a nearby alley behind one of the shops and changed into my costume. From there, I painted my way across the remaining distance, taking the time to wave at a few people who called out when I was passing by. I even left the logo I’d made up while at Ten Towers (the black oval with Paintball written in white intricate cursive letters and a rainbow spray of all the other colors from one side to the other) in a couple places for them to take pictures of. They seemed to like that a lot, especially if they could get photos of me moving in front of the logo.

At some point, I had asked myself why I did this sort of thing. I mean, obviously it was kind of fun to be liked and cheered on, and it helped me push negative thoughts away. But there was another, more important reason I did it. If worse came to worst and my parents started to use the Ministry against ‘Paintball’, they might try to shift public opinion and make me look bad. I wanted to get ahead of that by making sure as many people as possible actually liked me.  

Was that selfish or… or wrong? Was it manipulative? Yeah, maybe. Probably. But I only had so many ways of protecting myself against the sort of things the Ministry could do to make me look bad. I had to stay ahead of that sort of thing. Besides, I wasn’t exactly… lying or whatever. I really did enjoy having fun by showing off for these people. Actually, that was probably the biggest thing connecting Cassidy Evans to Paintball. I had always loved to show off for an audience while doing my tricks on my board or blades, when I’d done gymnastics, or even that brief, single semester of cheerleading back in junior high. 

The point was, I liked attention and I liked showing off. But I did have a valid, strategic reason for wanting to make people like having Paintball around. Anything to make it harder for the Ministry to cast me as a bad guy or a threat. Not that I expected to be completely immune if they decided to really come after me, but every little thing helped. 

In any case, I made it to the front gate of the headquarters and found Matthew Orens on duty. After greeting the man, I slipped off my backpack and dug inside until I found the (already laminated) papers on which I had drawn the pictures and text for his son’s storybook. The two of us had worked out what the general story should be and how to insert Josh (his son) into it. The man had a few specific details he had wanted to be included that would make his kid feel like he was really the person in the book. Phrases he liked to say, a pet turtle that needed to be seen, that sort of thing. Basically, I had made a thirty page story about Josh and his turtle (named Kiwi) going on an adventure through time using a magical skateboard that took them to various parts of history. 

After reading through it and examining all the pictures I’d made, Orens looked up to me. “Two things. First, I’ve got a guy who can bind these pages into a real book cover. Think you could stop by in a couple days to put a picture on that? Josh’s birthday is next Wednesday.” 

My head bobbed quickly. “Yeah, of course. I’ll come back before then and help finish it up. Uh, is it okay though? What was the second thing?” 

“The second thing,” Orens informed me, “is that this is good. Really good. A kid with his turtle time traveling with a skateboard? You should think about working on your writing to make it a little better. Take some extra classes or something when you get into high school. I mean, it’s good, the basic story is great. You just need a little technical help. Anyway, the point is, having a job that’s easy to make your own hours for is good for people like you once you get older and can’t rely on your parents anymore. And being a writer, from what I hear, that’s a pretty good choice. Practice for a while and you could probably make a living with stuff like this.” He waved the papers demonstrably. “Kids’ll probably love it. Just keep it in mind. Hell, if you published as Paintball, you’d get a lot of readers just from the novelty of reading a book drawn and written by a Star-Touched. And they have a whole system set up for keeping your identity secret in those cases.” 

Flushing just a little, I nodded. “Uh, thanks. Really, thanks. I’ll keep that in mind.” With that, I started to move around him to head for the gate. 

“Hey, don’t you want to get paid?” the man asked, reaching for his wallet. 

“Uh, nah, why don’t you wait til we finish up,” I replied quickly. “Once I put the pictures and stuff on the cover, then you can pay me.” Part of me wanted to say that he didn’t need to pay anything at all, but I had a feeling he was too proud for that. Besides, it probably wouldn’t do great things for my secret identity to act like I didn’t need money like that. And I could always hand the cash over to Wren for building the business we were trying to get off the ground. After all, he was right about one specific thing. I couldn’t just rely on my parents forever. 

Making my way back to the building where I’d been working, I took a moment to talk to Tricia Peppernickle, the elderly lady I’d met before, who was back behind the desk. Of course, she insisted I take another handful of hard candy from the bowl on her desk, and talked about a couple of her grandkids for a minute before sending me on through. 

From there, I headed past the security lasers using the pass code I’d been given, back to the room where I’d already been working. It looked like someone else had come through and done a little work on it as well while I was gone. But there was still plenty to do, so I got back to it. I had to move broken furniture out to the freight elevator, then go down with it and leave the stuff in a pile on the loading dock at the bottom. I did, of course, have a few reflexive questions about why there was a loading dock several levels below ground level. But I’d heard rumors about a large, truck-sized tunnel leading away from the Seraph HQ. Looking at the enormous rolling metal door at one end of the loading dock, I figured the rumor must be right. They had an underground tunnel leading somewhere that a truck could drive through. That made me wonder where it came out and which vehicles used it.

Unfortunately, I couldn’t really ask. Mostly because I was pretty sure they wouldn’t answer that sort of question, and it might look a little suspicious to be asking where their secret tunnel went. Especially considering I was here in the first place because I’d helped steal from them. Yes, it was for a good cause, and they knew that. But still. Trying to get details about that sort of thing almost certainly wouldn’t go over that well. 

So, I just relegated that to a bit of curiosity that wouldn’t pay off anytime soon and kept working. I had to finish up with the last of the debris, then stack the remaining folders in the filing cabinets I had already put back into place in the other room. When that much was done, I headed out to the hall to find the phone Patchwork had pointed out the other day and dialed zero before asking the woman who answered on the other end to send Bernard out for help patching the holes in the walls.

Bernard, as it turned out, was a middle-aged black guy with a cybernetic eye that was a bit distracting. He was pretty cool about it though, popping the little metal orb out and showing me what it looked like. There were tiny wires that attached themselves to the eye socket when it was inserted, in order to send the visual input to his brain. He claimed that taking it in and out didn’t hurt at all, but I was still a little creeped out by the idea. Still, it was really cool for him. Apparently one of the Seraph Tech-Touched in another state had made it in exchange for some sort of special work Bernard had done for them. 

He brought the stuff to start patching the holes, and the two of us spent forty-five minutes or so to get that all done. He even told me some stories about being a support member of the Seraphs  while we were doing that. Apparently, his wife had been one of the early Touched members of a Seraph squad over in Chicago (where he’d gotten the cybernetic eye), before being killed while helping to deal with a Collision Point. I expressed sympathy, and he looked sad for a moment before assuring me that it had been over twenty years by this point. Which actually just made things worse, because it made me think about how young of a couple they must have been when she was killed. Yeah, Abyssals were pretty awful. 

Eventually, we had the holes patched, and I used my power to paint the walls the way he said they should be. Meanwhile, Bernard stood by with his arms folded and gave a low whistle. “Boy,” he remarked as I finished with one wall, “you make this a hell of a lot easier than doing it the old-fashioned way. You say this stuff won’t disappear or whatever? It’s permanent?” 

My head bobbed a bit. “As far as I know, it should stay as long as I don’t activate it for my power. And I don’t really see any scenario where I’d need to activate the paint inside this specific room. Or you can scrub it off with paint remover, or, you know, whatever.” I shrugged a little. “Point is, it should stay like normal paint on the wall as long as you want it there.” 

Giving me a thumbs up, the man slowly looked around the room with a smile. “You did good work here, kid. If this hero thing doesn’t work out, maybe you could get a job as a contractor.” 

Snorting, I casually replied, “That’s the second suggestion of a mundane job I’ve gotten in the past couple hours. Should I take that as a hint that my hero stuff is slacking?” 

He laughed out loud at that, shaking his head. “Not a chance. From what I’ve seen on the news and the YouTube, you’re pretty damn effective for a kid. Hell, even for an adult. Anyway, like I said, good work. I think you can consider your debt repaid.” Abruptly, he snapped his fingers. “Oh, shit, except there was one more thing Patches and Hallowed wanted you for once this was done. You should probably head up and ask Tricia at the desk to ring them up for you. And hey, thanks for this, kid. I know you sorta had to do it but still. You really saved me and my squad a lot of work.” 

Flushing a little behind the mask and helmet, I assured him that it was no big deal, then headed out to follow his suggestion. Tricia promptly made the call, speaking with whoever was on the other end for a minute before disconnecting. “Okay, sweetie,” she addressed me, “have a seat over there for a minute and they’ll be right with you.” 

So, I did. For about ten minutes, I sat idly, checking out magazines from the table nearby and alternately chatting with the woman herself. She had a lot of stories about what it was like to do her job, and loved to tell them. It was pretty sweet, honestly. 

In the end, it was Hallowed himself who showed up. He still looked incredibly intimidating, with his glowing golden armor, expansive metal wings, and an enormous sword attached to his back. Enormous even then, but I knew it could get even bigger (larger than the man himself even) when he deployed it. 

Thankfully, he seemed to be in a good mood. Not that I could really see his face through the helmet, but there was a smile in his voice as he greeted me. “Paintball, good to see you again. Glad to hear you finished up. Bernard tells me you did a good job.” 

Okay, part of me reflexively wanted to ask when he had spoken to Bernard, given I’d needed to have Tricia call to tell him I was ready. But that was clearly at least part of what that ten minute wait had been about. He’d probably just called the man up to find out how I did and to make sure I was really done.

So, shaking that off, I simply nodded. “Oh, uh, well thank him for me. I couldn’t’ve finished up without his help. Paint I can do, but I’ve never really patched holes before.” Abruptly, a grin found its way to my face. “And I didn’t even have Patchwork to help.” 

Hallowed gave a soft chuckle, and I heard Tricia snicker behind me. Before he could say anything else, the door slid open behind him and a small black form came flying through to land on the man’s shoulder. “Have I missed the opportunity to extend the invitation myself?” 

“Invitation?” I echoed before catching myself. Quickly, I waved. “Hi, Dad!” 

That, of course, prompted another round of chuckles, especially when Lucent greeted me in kind. “I pray you are endeavoring to make your family proud, my boy.” 

Thinking briefly about what would really make my family proud, I grimaced and pushed those thoughts aside before forcing a casual, “Oh, you know, I’m doing my best, Pops. You’ve really got to take me out one of these days and show me how to be a real hero.” 

The dark-eyed raven gave me an intense, clearly curious look before he spoke up. “Yes, I do believe that would be quite an interesting and rewarding excursion. If you truly wish such a thing.” 

“Oh, uhh…” I’d been kidding, of course, but now I nodded. “Sure, I mean, at some point. It’d be cool to get some real tips from someone like you.” 

“Excellent,” came the cheerful response. “And I shall introduce you to a friend of mine along the way while she is in town. Shall we say… Sunday? You may call to let us know what a good specific time would be.”

Really fast, but I was pretty curious to know what it would be like to go around the city with him. To say nothing of how fun it would be to fuel those rumors about our relationship. Besides, I also wanted to know who this friend of his was. So, I nodded in agreement. “Sure, do I just call the main desk and ask for you or something?” 

He confirmed that, before Hallowed cleared his throat. “That sounds like a good idea. And speaking of invitations…” 

“What–oh, right.” I flushed a little. “Sorry, sir, you had one more thing you wanted me to do to make up for that whole… yeah, that thing?” 

His head shook. “I would say your debt is paid by now. This is more about an invitation, as I said. You see, we’re having a bit of a party next weekend with a lot of important guests visiting. There’s a dinner and a whole round of speeches. We would like you to attend as one of our guests. I promise, you won’t have to give a speech and we always protect everyone’s identities. But it would be very nice to have you here, perhaps answering a few questions. And your new partner, of course. Does she have a name?” 

“Alloy,” I informed him, my mind spinning already. “And uhh, yeah, I think we can come. I’ll make sure she’s okay with it. But you really want us to come to your fancy party? I don’t think I have a tuxedo version of my costume. Oooh, but maybe I could paint it to look right.” 

Chuckling, the man assured me, “I think you’ll be just fine as you are. When you come over on Sunday, we’ll arrange the details. Just find out if this… Alloy is going to come with you. It’s next Saturday, around eight pm. The food will be worth it, even if you have to sit through some boring speeches to get to that. And hopefully, not all of them will be boring.

“After all, Sterling Evans is supposed to be making one of them. And I hear he’s pretty good at keeping things interesting.” 

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Patreon Snippets 16B (Summus Proelium)

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That-A-Way’s First Experiments With Her Powers, Just Over One Year Ago 

“Okay, what the hell?!” Amber O’Connell blurted in the privacy of her own bedroom, while the speakers from her computer blared out music from Spotify to ensure her mother wouldn’t hear what she was up to. She was standing by the door, staring very intently at a spot by the closet directly across from her. “Work! Come on, you did it before! What the fuck, did I get a defective orb or something?” 

The Summus Proelium sphere. That’s what it was. That was the thing that had appeared earlier that day, while Amber was losing her mind over the realization that all the work she’d put into finding the person who had killed her father in a hit-and-run was useless because the car had been stolen. So the owner wasn’t responsible. It was a total dead-end. She had been… not dealing with that very well, when the sphere appeared in front of her. She’d touched it, seen visions of herself, her dad… her poor dad. She saw the car that had hit him, the man she thought was responsible, she saw everything she’d done to track him down, all for nothing. 

Then she’d come out of it, stumbled forward, and in an instant, she had been a hundred yards away. She’d teleported. She had absolutely, totally teleported! 

But now she couldn’t. She was standing here, where no one could see her, and her power just wouldn’t work. Was that it? Had her power been something like, ‘teleport one time?’ What bullshit was that?! How was she going to find her father’s killer if her powers didn’t even work? 

Annoyed, Amber stalked forward while throwing both hands up in the air. How was she supposed to use a superpower that wouldn’t listen to her?! Was teleporting hard? She’d focused on it as much as she could for the past five minutes, but nothing happened. Not even a flicker. Why didn’t it work?! In frustration, she brought both fists against her closet door. 

And her hands went right through it. Through it as in through it, as if the door wasn’t there at all. The door was still intact, but her hands were… were like ghost-hands. Wait. Eyes wide, the dark-haired girl slowly extended both arms, sticking them further through the closet. 

Behind her, the bedroom door started to open while her mother called, “Amber, what’ve I said about blaring your music so–” 

Spinning, Amber lunged that way with a gasp. And, in the next instant, she was there. She was right next to the door. Teleport. She had teleported again. Also, her hands were solid, a fact she found out quite suddenly as she banged into the door to stop her mother from barging in. “Sorry, Mom!” she blurted. “I’ll turn it down.” No way was she going to explain all of this right now. 

After a quick back-and-forth where Amber promised to gather her laundry and bring it down, her mother left. With a sigh, the girl shoved the door shut once more and turned. “Okay, teleport. Since you’re working again, let’s go.” Once more, she focused on the spot by the closet. 

Nothing. Again. A long, heavy groan of frustration left her. “What?! Why–what the hell?” 

Okay, wait. With a thoughtful frown, Amber walked forward toward the closet, still trying to focus on her power. Her hand rose and extended, until she walked right into the closet door… and passed through it. Her hand was in the closet, sticking through the door like it wasn’t there. 

She couldn’t teleport from the entrance of her room to the closet, but she could… turn intangible? And if she went from her closet to the bedroom entrance… Amber looked that way and focused again. 

There. She was right there, by the bedroom door. She’d teleported across the length of her room with a thought. So what the fuck? Why could she do it in one direction but not another? What sense did that make? And why was she intangible going the other way? What? 

Turning back toward the closet, Amber focused once more. She thought about using her power and stepped forward while slowly putting her hand out toward the end of her bed. And just like that, she was intangible again. Her hand passed through the foot of the bed like it wasn’t there. 

Okay… she turned to look at the bedroom door, only to yelp as her hand abruptly jerked away on its own. It had gone back to being solid and automatically snapped away from the bed it had still been inside of just because she turned–wait. Just because she turned to face the other way. 

A thought sent her from the bed over to the entrance to her room. Teleport. Turning back the other way and focusing on her power, she was intangible (a fact that was proven as she waved her hand out to the side and made it pass through a shelf full of trophies and pictures). 

Right. She could teleport, but only when going one specific direction? Was the direction from her bedroom door to her closet the same way she’d been facing when she’d teleported the first time? It had to be, right? And facing the other way, toward her bedroom entrance, she was intangible. But why? Why did she have one power facing one way and a different power facing the other way? Gluegirl (the hot super chick on the New York Conservators that Amber’d had a crush on basically since she’d figured out she liked girls) didn’t have to worry about things like what direction she was facing. 

Wait, more importantly, did it work in other directions? Did she have teleportation through a hundred and eighty degrees  and intangibility through the other hundred and eighty? Curious, Amber stepped to the middle of the room, facing the closet. She did an about-face, turning to her right at exactly the midpoint between the closet and doorway. Taking a breath, she focused again on using her power. The problem, of course, being that she wasn’t exactly sure what the power was. Would it just be teleportation or intangibility again? Curious, she put a hand out toward her desk. Nope, solid. Definitely solid. Then she focused on staring intently at the spot by the window. Teleport… teleport… nothing. Right, so she didn’t just have the two powers. There had to be something else, but how was she supposed to guess what it was? 

With an annoyed sigh, the girl took a step toward the window. And suddenly, she was slamming face-first into the window. She hadn’t teleported. No. She had actually moved through the entire space to get there, she’d just done it incredibly quickly. So quickly that she’d actually crashed into the window and bounced off it with a yelp. 

Hold on, hold on! Scrambling to her feet, Amber turned to the door, thinking hard about the hallway outside her room. 

She was there. She’d faced the bedroom entrance, thought about it, and was suddenly on the far side of the door, in the hallway. 

Oh fuck, that was really stupid. If her mother had been standing there, what–shit. She’d been so intent on testing this out that she hadn’t even thought about that. Luckily, however, her mother had gone back downstairs. Amber was alone in the hall. 

Turning to face the same way she’d been going when she’d bounced off her window, Amber hesitated just for a second before launching herself into a sprint. Once again, she was incredibly fast, crossed the entire distance, past her parents’ bedroom, the sewing room, and the upstairs bathroom all in an instant before bouncing off the wall at the far end. She yelped, falling on her rear at the top of the stairs. 

“Amber?” Her mother called from below. “What’re you doing up there?” 

“Nothing, Mom!” the girl blurted, hurriedly picking herself up. “It’s fine, I’m fine, I’m just–” Under her breath, she finished, “–a fucking superhero.” 

Wait, wait. What about the other way? Looking back the way she had come, Amber thought about it. Intangibility when she was facing her closet. Teleportation when she was facing the entrance to her bedroom. Superspeed when going toward the stairs at this end of the hall. But what about going back the other way? 

Well, shit. After another five minutes of focusing and walking back and forth, she still had no idea. She had a sense of something happening. There was just a feeling she got somewhere in the pit of her stomach when her power was working. It was there when she was fast, when she teleported, and when she turned intangible. And it was definitely there when she was facing the other way. But as to what it actually did? No clue. None. She definitely couldn’t fly. And how weird would that be anyway, being able to fly but only in one direction? Probably only slightly weirder than only being able to teleport or run superfast in one direction, come to think of it. 

Either way, she had no idea what moving that direction did. Which was just dumb. How many Touched got powers and couldn’t even figure out what one of them did? 

With a sigh after failing for another ten minutes at deciphering the power, she headed downstairs. She’d been smelling cookies for awhile. Getting some sugar and chocolate, that would help her think about how to figure this out, right? 

Seeing her mother down the hall in the laundry, Amber called, “Hey, is it okay if I grab a couple of those cookies?!” The whole time, she kept focusing on her power, trying to see if anything would happen. 

“Is it okay if you what?” Her mother prompted without turning around as she sorted the clothes. 

“Please,” Amber added, restraining the urge to roll her eyes. 

“Yes, take a few,” came the answer. “But leave enough for the Moensens, I’m taking some over there in a couple minutes!” 

“Kay!” With that, Amber moved into the kitchen. There, the cookie sheet was on top of the stove. Full of delicious, delicious chocolate chip scrumptiousness. Reaching out, she tapped the metal pan once to check the heat before picking it up and turning with it to grab a plate so she could slide the cookies she wanted right off onto it. 

Fucking owww! The second that Amber turned toward the island counter, the metal tray in her hand abruptly turned burning hot, and she yelped while dropping the pan. 

The cookies and pan were falling. But they were doing so incredibly slowly. Speed. Her speed, she was facing the right way to have speed, and it had kicked in. In a rush, Amber forgot her burned hand, quickly grabbing a nearby oven mitt from the island. She had time to slide it onto her hand, grab the pan, and quickly right it while catching all the falling cookies before any could hit the floor. 

That done, the girl turned back to the stove and set the pan down once more before staring at it with wide eyes. Hot. It had suddenly turned hot as soon as she wasn’t facing this way. Did that… did that mean…? 

She reached out without thinking about her power. She’d been focusing on it the whole time she’d been in the kitchen, so intent on trying to figure out what the power actually did while facing that way, that she hadn’t even thought about using it while picking up the pan. 

Fuck! Hot! Without focusing on her power, the tray was too hot to touch. But then she focused on it once more, getting that feeling in the pit of her stomach. And once again, the tray wasn’t hot at all. Did… did that mean her power when facing this way was ‘immunity from heat?’ 

No, wait. Hold on. Glancing over her shoulder to make sure her mother wasn’t around, Amber reached out to grab a knife from the nearby drawer. Taking a breath and letting it out slowly, she once more focused on her power while touching the knife to her own arm. Gently at first, but with gradually increasing pressure. 

It worked. Or rather, it didn’t work. The knife wouldn’t cut her. 

She’d figured it out! Invulnerability. She had teleportation when moving one way, intangibility the opposite way from that, superspeed when moving a third direction, and she was invulnerable when moving the opposite way from that. Four different powers when moving in four different directions! She finally had it! Holy shit, she had superpowers and she knew how to use them! 

“Oh fuck,” Amber managed, while staring at the tray full of rescued cookies. 

“What the hell am I gonna name myself?” 

 

********

 

Lucent 

 

As the sun set, and the streetlights began to glow, a single dark-colored bird perched atop one of those lamps. There were identical bird figures atop the roof of the nearby pharmacy building, on the edge of a railing across the street, atop another streetlamp a block away, and on the ladder of a fire escape in the alley between the pharmacy and the building next to it. 

None of those other figures moved. But the first, the one atop the light directly in front of the pharmacy itself, cocked his head to the side, studying the doors below, then the street in either direction. From the perspective of anyone down there, he would be almost invisible in that position, perched above the light. 

That near-invisibility grew even stronger as the dark raven’s feathers abruptly shifted color. What were once black turned a silvery-gray to blend in with the lamppost. At the same time, the motionless bird figures shifted to match the color of their surroundings as well. Then there was peace, the only sound being that of the cars passing by below and a few pedestrians hurrying to their own vehicles to get home. 

That relative calm was interrupted by the sound of a voice cackling, “Hehe, hey Luci, heard you’re a proud papa now.” 

The voice was only audible through the tiny earpiece, hidden under his feathers, that Lucent wore stuck gently but firmly in the hole. The earpiece conveyed sound through the various communication networks the Touched raven was linked to. In this case, it was a personal channel, one that he and other Touched animals throughout the country were a part of. Some of them were more active talkers than others, some used a text-to-speech program to talk, and some didn’t say anything at all. They simply listened. Lucent understood those last ones. They found it hard to find the right thing to say, but still wanted to be a part of the Touched-animal chat room to stave off the loneliness that came with being part of the few non-human intelligent creatures on the planet. Touched animals of any kind were rare to begin with, so any individual would at best have a few others of their species. Some had none at all, and lived their lives as the only member of their kind with intelligent thought. 

The one teasing him through the com, in that moment, was a member of that last type. His name was Postal, and he was an alligator living in Florida. The only Touched alligator that was known to exist. Beyond his enhanced intelligence, Postal’s powers allowed him to mark any target he was looking at. As long as he continued looking at that target, any non-melee attack that Postal was aware of could be redirected to it rather than to its intended destination. This included gunshots, ranged powers, even such simple things as thrown balls. In addition, Postal could mark a single target that any ranged attack would veer away from. This he didn’t need to constantly look at, but the effect would fade if the marked target left his general area. 

“You have been reading the Sphere… forum again, I presume?” Lucent calmly replied, pitching his voice to be quite low. The pause in the middle came as he took a breath. He wasn’t wearing the device on his beak that often projected his words. As a raven, one of the few animals in the world who could physically speak human language without extra technical aid, Lucent didn’t actually need such a device all the time. But it made extended conversations easier, as given his small size, he lacked much lung capacity for speaking long sentences without taking a break to breathe. 

In this case, however, he’d wanted to blend in and look like any other bird for anyone who had been watching him approach this place. There were rumors that one of the Fell-gangs was going to make a move on the pharmacy he was perched outside of, and Lucent was determined not to let another shipment of much-needed medical supplies disappear. The other bird-like figures perched around the street were part of his own power. Essentially, they were statues whose heads could move to look around. Lucent could shift his own vision at any point to see through their eyes in order to watch more of the surrounding area. In any combat situation, the statues could also project concussive blasts from one eye and lasers from the other. 

“Sure have,” Postal confirmed that he had been reading Sphere. “How come you never told me you had a bouncy bundle of joy in the world, huh? Really bouncy, from the sound of it.”

For a moment, Lucent didn’t respond. He was watching a pair of figures at the far end of the street, half-hidden in a doorway. He’d thought they might have been suspicious, just standing there in the shadows. Then he realized they were rather involved with one another, physically

“Well now,” he abruptly replied while instinctively puffing himself up a bit, “‘Twould hardly be… appropriate to put such a… son in the spotlight before he… was properly raised, would it?” Again, he had to pause now and then to take a breath. 

That raised a few comments from other Tonis (TOuched Nonhuman Individual) in the chat, including Lion, the Tech-Touched mouse from Seattle who designed elaborate defensive structures. She’d been too busy with a recent project and had no idea what they were talking about. So, in a way that made it clear he was leaning into the obvious joke, Lucent explained the ongoing theory amongst those in the Detroit section of the Sphere forum that the newest (very human) Star-Touched was secretly Lucent’s own son. 

After more teasing back and forth, there was a soft chime followed by the sound of Lion saying her name, an alert that she was inviting him to a private chat. He accepted after taking another look around to ensure the area around the building was still clear. 

“Lucent?” came the always hesitant, nervous voice of Lion. “I ahh, I know you joke about it. But how’re you doing with this whole son thing? I know you… that boy you used to be with in that theater, before you were Touched…” 

“Bradley,” Lucent managed, as a wave of pain washed over him. Bradley was the son of the man who had actually ‘owned’ Lucent before he gained his intelligence and powers. It was Bradley who cared for Lucent the most, who ensured he was fed and played with him. The two had been nearly inseparable for a couple years, living in an old, yet well-loved theater where Lucent had originally learned to speak by mimicking the old medieval-style language spoken in the plays the theater’s owner (and Bradley’s father) was so fond of. 

The boy had been about the same age that this Paintball must be, when tragedy had struck. Tragedy that resulted in the destruction of the theater, the deaths of many people including poor Bradley, and Lucent gaining his new powers and intelligence (and later, a new name, as he felt the old him had died back then with his best friend Bradley). 

“Ohhh, oh, I’m sorry,” Lion lamented. “I shouldn’t have brought it up. I’m so sorry. I just–I wasn’t sure how you were–I wanted to–” 

“Tis quite understandable… dear miss,” Lucent quickly assured her. Nervous and skittish as Lion was, particularly about reaching out to people, he didn’t want to make the tiny mouse feel bad. “Little as I know this… Paintball, I do believe he… is a fine and upstanding young… man whom my Bradley would… have gotten along quite well with. He’s a strong, smart… creative lad. Being seen as… in any way responsible for that… even as mere jest… is a fine honor and one I… look on with pride.” 

There was a brief pause, before Lion tentatively asked, “You’re sure you’re okay with it?” 

“Aye,” Lucent confirmed. “Lad’s a true hero. And I hardly fault… others their fun. My only concern is for… the boy himself, and his feelings. But from all evidence… he would find it as amusing as I.” 

“Maybe you two should find a way to play into the joke,” came the mouse’s quiet suggestion. 

“Mayhaps we shall,” Lucent agreed, before going silent as a dark sedan approached the building. It turned down the nearby alley, and he shifted his vision to the statue he had parked on the fire escape there to watch as men in masks began to step out of the car once it had come to a stop. 

“Ah, pardon me, milady,” he informed his conversation partner while pushing himself off the lamppost, taking to the air on silent wings. 

“Duty calls.” 

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Pink 12-06 (Summus Proelium)

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After reaching the Seraph base, I paid a brief visit with Matt Orens, the guard whose son I had agreed to make a storybook for. I let him know that I was still working on that after a bit of an interruption, but that I would get it to him as soon as possible. He said he understood how busy Touched could get, and that I should take my time to make sure it was good rather than rush it just to get it to him sooner. He wanted a good present for his son, not something haphazard. So, I promised to make sure it was as good as possible before excusing myself to head inside. 

Tricia Peppernickle, the elderly lady who had been behind the desk of the administrative building, wasn’t there. Actually, it didn’t look like anyone was behind the desk when I entered. 

“One moment, please!” a male voice called through one of the open doorways nearby. As I glanced that way, the voice added, “Apologies, I shall be prepared to assist you forthwith!” 

“Oh umm.” I shrugged. “It’s okay, take your time. It’s not urgent or anything.” Right, I was only there to help clean up a mess to work off my own crime, and also to secretly snoop around to find out the meaning of that file number that had secretly been written on those toys in Bobby’s cabin. Nothing all that important. Also, forthwith? Who the heck used language like ‘forthwith’? 

As promised, it didn’t take long for the voice in the other room to finish up whatever he was doing. I heard a filing cabinet slide closed, then there was a rush of sound that made me look that way in time to see a small black shape come flying out of there in a flurry of rapidly flapping wings that made me jump back in surprise, a soft gasp escaping me. 

The shape landed on the counter, and I realized what was going on. Duh. It was Lucent, the Touched-Raven who was part of the Seraph. He’d been a normal bird before, just as any Touched-Human, he’d touched one of those special orbs. Any animal who became Touched automatically got human-level intelligence along with their powers. The level of that intelligence seemed to vary somewhat both randomly and based on the animal itself (as did their resulting personalities). In Lucent’s case, from what I’d heard, he was very intelligent. Probably as a result of being part of a species that was pretty fucking smart to begin with. 

It was the first time I’d seen him up close, given he tended to try to avoid the cameras. He looked like a normal (though quite handsome as far as they went) raven with sleek black feathers and a piercing dark gaze as he perched there on the counter and stared at me. A small anklet was attached to one of his feet, and he had what looked like a sort of white… sheath over his beak, with a couple lights on it. As he stared at me, the lights glowed a bit while that same voice emerged from a couple small speakers at the end of the beak sheath. “Aha! You are the hero known as Paintball, yes? It is a fine pleasure and honor to converse with you at last!” 

Everything that came out of him sounded so… excited. He seemed genuinely happy and enthusiastic. It was pretty charming, and I found myself smiling immediately behind my helmet. “Oh, uhh, hi. Lucent, can I–is it okay if I call you Lucent?” I asked a bit awkwardly, unsure of how this sort of thing was supposed to go. Was it rude that I kept staring at him like this? Probably. But come on, he was a talking (even if the Tech-device was doing that part) bird! 

“I quite hope you will, Sir Paintball!” came the crowed (ravened?) response. Somehow, I could almost see the amusement in those dark eyes as the bird gave a sharp, human-like nod. “It is, after all, my name. ‘Twould be quite the inconvenience to have to recall some other moniker to respond to for every person who wished to call my attention.” There was a brief, clearly thoughtful pause before he added, “Though I have been referred to by a good number of far less dignified monikers before and after my ascension, I prefer this one by a substantial margin, I must say.” 

Quickly nodding, I promised, “Oh, I wouldn’t call you anything bad or–I mean, yeah, Lucent. It’s Lucent, got it. Um.” Hesitating, I reached out carefully, raising my hand and extending a single finger toward him, trying to somehow make it look like the offered shake I intended it as and not just like I was pointing at him. Which wasn’t easy. “It’s nice to meet you, sir.” 

The raven’s head tilted sideways, then I heard a sound that I belatedly realized was a soft chuckle. He leaned forward, beak parting to take my finger gently in it. I felt very slight pressure as he bobbed down once before releasing my finger. “Quite!” came the enthusiastic agreement, punctuated by an actual cawing sound directly from the bird rather than the beak device. “I’ve heard such impressive things for a new young hero such as yourself. You have already become a true inspiration in such a short time, particularly to still-maturing hatchlings.” 

Finding myself blushing under the raven’s praise, I shrugged helplessly. “It’s not a big deal. Plus, you know, I did sort of break the law and temporarily steal from you guys. That’s why I’m here.” 

“A small crime for the greater good,” Lucent assured me. “While you should certainly be prepared to make your token payment for it, your intentions were sound and just. I, for one, thank you for the work you did to save that child’s life, regardless of her father’s actions and choices.” 

“Oh, umm… thanks.” Shifting on my feet awkwardly, I asked, “Are you sure I didn’t pull you away from anything important? I just came to do some more of that whole working off my crimes thing.” Honestly, I was torn right then. I really did need to get in there and find that file. But talking to an intelligent bird was also pretty damn cool. I had a lot of questions about bird things and how wild animals worked, but all of them sounded way too personal to get into right away. 

From the way his head tilted the opposite direction from before, I had a feeling Lucent was quite aware of all the questions I wanted to ask. He assured me, “Oh, I’ve done quite enough in there for now. Come, I shall escort you. Ah, that is, if you don’t mind my presence on your arm?” 

After a brief hesitation, I belatedly realized what he meant, and quickly held my arm out, elbow turned to offer a perch for him to land on. “Oh! Yeah, sure.” I tried to sound casual about the whole thing, while inwardly squealing about the handsome and brilliant raven, and how awesome this entire situation was turning out to be. Seriously, I was talking to a freaking raven! An intelligent raven, who was charming and noble and everything. There were some definite upsides to this entire Touched situation, that was for sure. 

With a quick hop and one brief flap, Lucent landed on my outstretched arm. “Tally-ho!” he called before his head turned to look at me. “Ahem, apologies, Sir Paintball. I occasionally excite myself.” He said it with a hint of amusement and self-deprecation. “It is quite thrilling to meet new people whom I have immediate respect for.” 

Shaking my head, I hurriedly assured him while turning to walk, “Oh, it’s really not a big deal. Really. It’s just cool to meet someone like you. I mean a bird that–” And then, in my distraction through all that, I accidentally walked almost directly into the side of the open doorway I’d been trying to pass through. It wasn’t hard or anything, just a bit of a bump. But it was right on my injured side, and still enough to make me yelp, doubling over a bit as my hand quickly moved to grab my ribs. It was the same arm that I’d been using to hold Lucent, forcing him to fly up and away to land on top of the open door. Oww, oww. For a second, I didn’t even think about anything else. I couldn’t think about anything else. The only thing I could focus on was the rush of pain through my side. I hadn’t braced myself for that or anything. God damn it, ow. 

It passed fairly soon. But not soon enough. When I lowered my hand and blinked up to the top of the door, Lucent announced, “Sir Paintball, I have requested the presence of medical personnel. Please take a seat there until they arrive to look you over.” His head bobbed to indicate the nearby chairs. 

“What?” I blinked that way before hurriedly shaking my head. “Oh, no, it’s okay. I’m okay. I mean I’ve already seen a doctor with my family. My ribs got hurt, but it’ll be fine.”

Those piercing, dark eyes seemed to stare through me as Lucent flatly asked, “And are your parents aware of your clandestine heroic activities? Do they know precisely how you were injured, by what, and if there may be additional complications due to it?” 

Hidden behind the helmet and mask, my mouth fell open, then shut, as a blush creeped across my face. “Um. Not exactly,” I admitted weakly, staring at the dark bird perched above my head.

Lucent gave a quick nod, a firm caw escaping him before the lights on the beak-cover flashed along with his voice. “As I suspected. And even if the injury has been adequately looked after despite the vast chasm between what that poor physician knows and the truth, you are still out and about in your Touched identity. Best to have it taken care of right now, before something happens to exacerbate it.” 

“Taken care o–” Belatedly, I blurted, “Patchwork! I–she said I could pay for healing and she’d do it. How…” I felt like slapping my own forehead through the helmet, but that didn’t seem like a good idea. Especially given the way the pain in my side kept flaring up with every small motion I made. “How’d I forget about that?” Seriously, it had entirely slipped my mind that I could have called her for help. Hell, I might’ve been able to get her to fix me up before I even went home the other night. Though, on the other hand, being injured had sold my story about what happened, and might’ve stopped my parents from throwing a harsher punishment at me. Hmm.

Before the bird could respond to that, a Latino guy in a blue medic uniform with short sleeves and intricate arm tattoos came through the other door, the one leading outside that I had entered through. “Alrighty, what do we have here?” He gave a winning smile before gesturing. “Hey there, Paintball. Heard there was some kinda medical alert up here?” 

Oh. At that moment, the thought occurred to me that I might not want some guy I didn’t know feeling up my side to check how my ribs were. I didn’t exactly have the world’s largest chest, to say the least. As plenty of people at school, including Paige, had always been more than happy to remind me. As evidenced by my ability to pose as a boy wearing these coveralls. But I wasn’t totally flat either, and if some guy started pushing his hand against my stomach and side, pushing the costume flat against my–right. Yeah. That was probably a bad idea for my secret. 

Somewhat awkwardly, I stammered, “O-oh, no, it’s okay. I um, I had a doctor look at it before, but I forgot about Patchwork. She said I could pay her to fix me up sometimes and I don’t–um, I don’t mind doing that. You know, if she’s not busy. Or I could just wait. No big, I mean I made it here, and I really doubt I’m gonna suddenly get into a big fight or something in the middle of Seraph headquarters, right? Haha… ha…” Trailing off, I squirmed a little, telling myself to shut it.

From the look that the medic guy and Lucent exchanged, they definitely noticed something strange about how I was acting. Which was totally strange, because I’d been so cool and smooth about the whole thing. How ever did they pick up on my super-subtle reaction? 

Still, the medic didn’t push things when I was obviously uncomfortable. He did introduce himself as Max, asked me what happened (I told him a bad guy hit me with some kind of Tech weapon) and said that Patchwork was on her way up. He asked how it felt, if I was having trouble breathing or had been having such trouble earlier, where exactly it hurt, what the doctor who had looked at me had said, and so on. But he didn’t touch me, and stayed perfectly respectful. I had a feeling these guys were accustomed to dealing with people with plenty of secrets and/or trauma. 

It didn’t take long for Patchwork to arrive. As before, she came through one of the interior doors, dressed, as always, in her costume of a black mesh shirt over green chest armor, black leather pants, motorcycle boots, and a green visor that covered the upper half of her face. Her hair was still short, spiky, and green. 

“The fuck, man?” she demanded upon seeing me. “You go and get yourself busted up already? What, were you just waiting for an excuse to go a few rounds with Cuélebre or something?” As soon as she said it, the woman smacked her own forehead. “The fuck am I saying, you went after that cocksucker twice before we even met. I must’ve been outta my goddamn mind when I offered to play hero bandaid for you.” Despite her words, she was clearly teasing. At least, I was pretty sure she was teasing. Mostly. 

“Sorry,” I mumbled, flushing a bit. “I didn’t mean to get hurt, trust me. And I can totally pay you. Or wait if you’re busy, or–” 

“Shut the fuck up,” she interrupted. “Don’t you know how hard it is to bitch about having to do my job when you’re so fucking ‘nice’ about it? Takes all the fun out of the situation.” 

Blinking a couple times, I hesitantly asked, “You… have fun yelling at people about healing them?” 

The toothy grin she gave me was almost feral. “Everyone’s gotta get their jollies somehow.” Sobering, the woman added, a touch more quietly, “I see plenty of bad shit out there, kid. Fucking with people like you, the ones who don’t have half their body ripped open, that’s how I keep going. Like I said, everyone’s got their own ways. But seriously, don’t be such a fucking martyr about it, kid. Someone’s giving you shit you don’t deserve, you throw right back at ‘em. You got hurt being a hero, out there helping people. Someone like me starts giving you shit, don’t be a meek little bitch about it, tell that piece of shit to fuck off.” She punctuated those last two words by smacking the back of her right hand against her left palm hard enough to make the sound echo through the room. “Get it?” 

“I think you just called yourself a piece of shit,” I pointed out a bit mildly before nodding. “But uh, other than that, sure. Got it. Stand up for myself.” 

“Damn straight.” Stepping over to me then, Patchwork asked what was wrong. When I told her, she touched my side. I tensed a bit, but her hand was fairly low. After feeling the injury gently, she agreed with Dr. Roev, but said she could fix it easily. Which she did, simply by calling Max the medic over. Touching one hand against his chest, she copied the healed state of his ribs, then touched my side once more and transferred it to mine. 

Oh my God. The relief was instantaneous. I almost cried. Only when the pain was gone did I fully realize just how much it had lowkey been omnipresent. Sure, it had only actively and consciously hurt when I moved too fast, twisted around, or whatever. But there had been a constant low-ache that made it impossible to be fully comfortable no matter what I was doing. Now, that was gone. I felt totally normal again. 

“Holy shit,” I blurted, “I could kiss you.” 

“Try it, and I’ll triple your fucking fee,” came the snapped retort, followed belatedly by, “… make that quadruple.” 

“Ouch,” I managed. 

“Now, now,” Lucent piped up, “be nice to the poor lad, Lady Patch.” 

“Told you before, bird, I ain’t no lady.” Squinting up at the intelligent corvid briefly, Patchwork then turned her attention back to me. “Back to my payment. You ahhh… shit, you got twenty bucks, kid? Cool if you need to get back to–” 

I immediately unzipped one of the coverall pockets, dug around inside to find the wad of cash there, carefully extracted a single bill from what I’d brought along for getting a new phone and costume pieces (without showing just how much was in there), and handed it over. “Wouldn’t want you to have to come break my legs for not paying. Then I’d have to pay you even more for healing them.” 

For a moment, the woman squinted at me. Then she gave a short, sharp laugh before shaking her head. “You’re okay, kid. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got other shit to do.” 

She left, taking Max with her. After that, Lucent hopped from the door to my offered arm once more, and we walked together down the hall. I input the guest code that Patchwork had given me, thanked Lucent for the escort (and for talking to me), then got to work in the room once more. 

Or at least, I started to work. I did that just long enough to make sure I was really being left alone for the time being. Then I took a moment to quickly and quietly look through the large stacks of files and folders I’d already put together before that were waiting to go into the cabinets.

Okay, so first I had to locate a folder with a name ending with that original Ten (Three at the time) towers symbol. Right before that would be a four. And the first four digits were either six, two, three, nine, or three, nine, six, two. One of the toys had had a six and a two on it, the other had had a three and a nine. So that was what I needed. A folder with those five digits, in one of those two potential orders, followed by the Three Towers symbol. 

Granted, there was always the possibility that I’d run into both of those. But somehow I doubted it. And if I did, I’d just figure out through context which one was right. Hopefully. 

It wasn’t an issue, as it turned out. After about forty minutes of looking (mixed with actually doing the job I was supposed to be doing), I found the folder in question, with Six-Two-Three-Nine-Four, followed by the symbol. As soon as I found it, a sound of excitement escaped me, before I hurriedly glanced around. Nothing. No one was here. Sobering, I took a moment to collect myself before opening the folder to see what the hell Bobby had left that secret code for. 

The folder was fairly thin. There wasn’t much in there. It looked like a medical file for an incident five years earlier. The patient was a Jane Doe, an estimated twelve-year-old girl who was brought into Seraph medical by a couple Ten Towers Star-Touched for immediate care. According to the handwritten notes in the file, the girl was found unresponsive next to three dead bodies in an alley. She was alive and conscious, but in some kind of vegetative state, likely a result of trauma. The doctor noted that within ten minutes of her arrival, she apparently snapped out of the state… sort of. Apparently she kept repeating two sentences over and over again, one with two words, the other with four words. 

The first sentence was ‘Find Cassidy.’ 

The second was ‘Cassidy will help me.’ 

Staring at the words on the file, I felt a chill run through me. Cassidy. Me. There was no question. None. With a shaking hand, I turned the paper to look behind it. Nothing. Wait, no, there was a photograph, like a Polaroid or whatever. It was stuck to the back of the paper. Gingerly, I tugged the photo away and looked at it. The picture was of the patient who had repeatedly begged these doctors to ‘find Cassidy’ and that ‘Cassidy will help me.’ And the girl in that picture was instantly recognizable, even if she was several years younger than she was now. 

Paige. 

It was Paige.

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