Lucent

Winging It 19-06 (Summus Proelium)

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A/N – You can find the newest Summus Proelium non-canon, released over the past weekend, available for ALL readers right here.

Well, so much for an easy training day with my bird-dad. First I had joined up with him and Carousel to stop what was supposed to be a simple bank robbery, only for that to turn out to be far more complicated than it appeared when we had to follow more of the bad guys down a super-efficiently built tunnel underground. And because it obviously wasn’t enough that they would just be a few ambitious thugs with a tunnel-digging gun or something, it turned out that they (or the one who had escaped) had led us straight to Sandon and more of the Ninety-Niners. Who were now completely surrounding the three of us with their weapons raised and ready, because of course they were. This whole situation was just going truly swimmingly.

Even while we were absorbing all that and taking in the situation, one of the men sputtered about how we’d chased them all the way through the tunnel, how he barely escaped, and so on. He kept urging the rest of his gang to shoot us. My eyes centered on him, only to find a figure in brown pants, boots, a long brown jacket over a black shirt, and a brown helmet that left his lower face exposed while thick goggles covered his eyes. Oh yeah, and his hands were encased in heavy gauntlets with long metal claws on them, sort of like badger paws. He kept pointing those claws at us while stammering about how they all needed to do something. 

Yeah, I was getting the sneakiest suspicion that the men had not been using Touched-Tech to dig that tunnel. I had never seen or heard of this guy before, so he was clearly a new player. Or maybe he had come over from somewhere else. Either way, he was Touched himself in some way. Though whether digging was his power, or if he was Tech-Touched and the gauntlets were his invention, I wasn’t sure. There was too much we didn’t know. Which wasn’t great, since everything I had read and seen said going up against Touched whose powers you knew nothing about was a bad idea. 

“Undermine, shut up for a minute,” Sandon snapped, silencing the man instantly without even looking at him. Her gaze was locked on the rest of us as we stood there (well, Carousel and I stood there, while Lucent perched on my helmet). She seemed to be considering for a moment, even as the rest of her men kept their weapons pointed at us. They were clearly just waiting for the order to start firing. But wouldn’t do so without their boss’s direct orders. Lucky us. 

Even more lucky for us, one of the other men to one side tossed some kind of silver ball into the hole behind us. My gaze snapped that way just in time to see the ball give a popping sound before expanding into a concrete plug that completely sealed up the hole, blocking it.

Well, that was just great. So much for any plan involving jumping right back into the tunnel. Damn bad guys and their ability to look ahead and anticipate the most patently obvious things. 

My eyes drifted back from the digger guy (Undermine, apparently, which seemed like an odd name to give a subordinate) to Sandon herself. She looked the same as the last time I had been around her, back during the big fight for the vials. She had a modernized, sort of science fiction-ish suit of armor with a lion’s pelt attached to the back. There was no actual real head connected to it. Instead, Sandon’s helmet/mask was lion-shaped to function as the head of the pelt, with the open mouth surrounding a black-tinted visor. The visor itself even had metal teeth along the edges, to really sell the effect. Beyond that, I couldn’t see any details about what she looked like. I certainly couldn’t see the bones that were attached to the inside of her armor, built into it. Every bone she touched gave her the strength of the person that bone belonged to. And since she made a point of getting pieces of bone from every person with enhanced strength that she could find… yeah. Sandon was literally one of the strongest Touched in… well, the state for sure. And she was pretty up there in the national rankings. 

“You’re very annoying, you know that?” the woman informed us with a flat voice. While speaking, she rubbed at the visor where her forehead would be. “This was supposed to be a simple in-and-out. Make it look like a normal bank robbery on the outside while our new friend Undermine here takes a few men in to grab everything we need out of the vault. Wars are expensive, especially a war against people like Blackjack with his damn near unlimited funding. My people have mouths to feed. Wouldn’t even have hurt anyone, really. But then you three had to go charging in and complicate the whole fucking business.” 

“Ahem, language, please,” Lucent put in, his voice slightly chiding. “Just because we happen to be on opposite sides of this issue is no excuse for creating such a hostile verbal environment for the youth. We should, after all, strive to show them a better example than that.” 

I couldn’t see her expression through the black visor, but from the way Sandon stared in silence at him for a moment, I had the feeling she was trying to decide if he had completely lost his mind. Which was fair, considering I had the same thought. I truly had no idea what he was thinking, or why he thought chastising the woman for her language was a good idea. Then I realized he wasn’t actually that crazy. He was stalling, buying time. Not to mention distracting Sandon and throwing her off. 

“Yeah,” the woman finally muttered darkly while giving a look toward her crew, “I’ll be sure to watch my language while we decide exactly how fu–pardon, screwed the three of you are.”  That, of course, prompted a round of the derisive chuckles from the men, who were still pointing weapons at us, clearly itching to start this fight. They were watching for the moment either their boss gave the signal, or one of us made a move. I had the feeling that if I were to so much as lift my hand, they would instantly start shooting before I could give a thumbs up. 

“Are we though?” That was Carousel, her voice piping up into the silence that had followed those chuckles. She made a point of looking around, like she was searching for the bags that had been left in the tunnel beneath us. “Where’s your dough? This has been quite the show, but your funds are still low.” With an exaggerated shrug, she finished, “Perhaps there is mining equipment you can borrow. Like a dozer, trencher, or backhoe.” 

Before Sandon could respond to that, the Undermine guy blurted, “Fuck your rhymes, the second we’re done with you, I’ll open up the hole again and go right back down there to get the bags and my buddies. You got nothing we can’t deal with.” 

“Undermine,” Sandon half-snarled, “I told you to shut your mouth. Don’t make me say it a third time.” Her gaze snapped that way, the implication clear. She waited until the man gave a short, contrite nod before turning back to us. “Never let it be said that I can’t be reasoned with. I will give the three of you this one chance to walk away. Leave, and allow us to collect our spoils.” 

That prompted a low round of grumbling from the men who were pointing their weapons at us and clearly wanted a fight, but the woman that silenced that with a sharp look. Her words were flat. “Let’s just say I have bigger fish to fry than you. So take the offer. Turn around and walk away. Or fly, whatever you choose. Take the mulligan and try this whole fighting thing another time. Believe me, there will be plenty of chances for it.” Her chin rose as she focused on Lucent. “You know it’s a good offer, bird. You’ve got two kids here with you and I have you surrounded. We have weapons, I’m stronger than any of you, and you don’t know what Undermine is capable of. Walking away and fighting another day is the best offer you’re going to get.” 

Yeah, I couldn’t say that she was exactly wrong about that. I had been spending these tense moments painting the inside of my costume as much as I could. Between that and the paint that had already been there, if a fight started, I would be at least mostly protected for a bit. And Carousel still had some paint I could activate if it came down to it. We weren’t nearly as flat-footed as it might have appeared, even if this wasn’t the best circumstance. If a fight started, we wouldn’t be instantly taken apart. And yet, Sandon made some good points. She was stronger than any of us. My purple paint at its best probably couldn’t do much against her. And she had Undermine, who could–well, who knew what he could do besides dig a tunnel. Which by itself could be pretty nasty, if he could use that to, like, put the holes directly under us while we were standing there or something. Again, we had no idea what he was capable of. Which was all before you even brought in all the extra armed troops she had with her. Troops who were just waiting to open fire. Yeah, this whole situation was pretty… dangerous was a good word. It was pretty dangerous, preparation be damned. We might win a fight, but it wasn’t guaranteed by any stretch of the imagination. 

And yet, if we walked away, we’d just be leaving them to take off with everything they’d taken out of that vault, and the other members of their gang we had left down there. It felt wrong to just let them win like that. Walking away without even trying to stop them? Yeah, the thought made my stomach roll a bit. But then, so did the idea of starting a fight right now. There were no good options, and it was clear that Sandon knew that. She wasn’t directing her men to attack or anything. She was waiting, giving the three of us a few seconds to really consider everything. Which itself made me wonder. Was she just as hesitant about being able to easily win a fight too? Or was she really just trying to save effort and resources by giving us a chance to walk away? She was, after all, in the middle of a war against two different Fell-Gangs. And probably had to pay my family for the privilege of conducting it. No wonder she needed more funds. 

Finally, I managed to find my voice. “I don’t suppose you’d be willing to be the ones who walked away from this and let us take those stolen things back where they belong?” Looking back and forth between the troops and their leader, I offered a shrug. “No? Just checking.”  

Sandon took a step closer to me. I felt Lucent ready himself on my helmet, a sound of what I interpreted as a warning to the woman escaping him. She stopped, holding up both hands placatingly. “Easy, bird. No one’s starting anything. Not yet, anyway.” She focused on me then, voice lowering a bit dangerously. “You’ve had some success over the past couple of months, kid. Don’t let it go to your head. Hell, you helping expose Pencil and Cup? That’s some good stuff. They’re fu–pardon, freaking psychopaths. No one likes those two, or their sycophants. I enjoyed you pulling the rug out from under them. That’s one of the reasons I’m willing to let you walk away. But don’t push your luck.” Her gaze moved over all three of us as she very pointedly added, “All of you, turn around and walk, before I change my mind. You don’t want to see what happens if I decide you’re being too annoying.”

Carousel’s voice immediately filled the air on the heels of Sandon’s words. “They say the better part of valor is discretion. Leaving may cause some depression. But it is my greatest impression our soundest move is egression.” 

“Sure,” Sandon agreed with a small, humorless chuckle. “However the poet girl wants to put it. But any minute now one of your do-gooder friends is going to show up. Then everything gets complicated again. So let’s say you have ten–five seconds to make up your minds. Four, three-” 

“Ahem,” Lucent put in, “Your point is made. Come, little ones, we shall find our way out of this place and leave our friends here to… conduct their business. There will be other moments, other confrontations.” He was clearly staring at Sandon, who gave him a simple nod. I wondered how much history there was between them, because it seemed like there was at least something. Especially given the tone she used whenever she called him ‘bird.’ She clearly didn’t like him. And yet, she was still willing to let him, and the rest of us, walk away from this. 

That was exactly what we did. We left, walking backward to keep the troops in sight for as long as possible, just in case one of them decided to try something after all. But though it was clear that they were pretty unhappy about it, none of them made a move. Not with Sandon right there. They were obviously far too afraid of her to risk doing something stupid right then. 

As for the three of us, we didn’t say anything until we had stepped backward into an alley on the far side of the parking lot, getting out of their sight. Immediately, I pivoted toward Carousel, while Lucent flew off my head and toward the nearby roof. Reaching out, I took the other girl’s hand and launched us upward with a mix of blue and red paint. We reached the top of the building, and I released Carousel while blurting, “Are you sure we can’t take them? They’re right there, we can still–” 

“Easy, lad,” Lucent cautioned while landing on a nearby bit of machinery sticking out of the roof. “There is nothing embarrassing about walking away to fight another day. There will be other moments, better moments. You need more training before you’re ready to go up against someone like Sandon in a straight fight. As it is, she would demolish you in such a confrontation. Don’t forget, she is capable of holding her own in a fight against Cuélebre, and your success against that man hinged on running away from him.” 

Remembering what it had been like to catch just a portion of the lightning bolt he had summoned, and how terrifying it had been to run away from him to begin with, I gave a reluctant nod. “Yeah, I know. But… but they’re over there and they’re going to get that money back. Or whatever they stole from the vault. They’ll get the people we left down there, all of it. We might as well not have even been there if they just get away with all of it.” It was probably childish, but still. I didn’t like the idea of just letting them walk away with everything they stole. 

“Perhaps this is the best lesson you could have learned today,” Lucent considered, his gaze on me. “Oft times it is better to take the hit to your pride or sense of justice, if it means avoiding needless conflict that can only result in more problems. Twas nothing to be truly gained by engaging with Sandon and her people right then. What they have stolen may be recovered in other ways, at other times. And if it is not, all that has been lost is material goods. But if we were to fight that woman directly and lose… such could be disastrous in many ways.” 

Exhaling, I gave a slow, reluctant nod. “Yeah, okay, you’re right. But still, we could stop them if we had more help. Where is everybody? What’s taking them so long to show up? I mean, you told them what was going on, right? You’ve got that tracker thing on you, so they should’ve made it here by now.” I wasn’t trying to be judgy or anything, but seriously, we should’ve had help back there. We’d kept Sandon talking long enough for other members of the Seraphs or Minority/Conservators to show up. But there had been nothing. What was up with that? 

“Unfortunately,” Lucent replied, “It seems that all active patrols from various teams were too far away from the situation to step in. And they were… otherwise engaged in their own problems at the time. A case of poor luck and timing. Or generous luck, on the Ninety-Niners’ parts, one may suppose.” 

Right, generous luck called, ‘they probably paid off my parents to keep anyone who could stop them away.’ Because that was a thing the Ministry did. It was one of the main reasons they existed. Criminals paid them extra fees to push patrols away from what they were targeting. I knew that from that bit I’d overheard between my brother and that guy just outside the mall base. Obviously that was what had actually happened here. Not that I could explain it to the other two. Even if the idea of just blurting out the whole thing did jump into my head. 

While I was pushing that thought out of my head, Carousel spoke up. “I’ve sent a message of my own. Though she may show up alone, Way will be among us soon. Best she not come to high noon.” 

Right, yeah, Amber was on her way and it was probably a good thing that she wouldn’t be walking into a full-on duel. Especially if she was by herself. My mouth opened to agree with that, only to stop as I hesitated and blinked at the other girl. “Come to think of it, if there wasn’t any patrols nearby, how did you happen to show up?” I knew that wasn’t the sort of oversight my family would have made. If they had been paid to move patrols away from the bank, Carousel really shouldn’t have been anywhere near the place. At least, not officially. 

Sure enough, she shrugged. “I was not on any sort of patrol. In truth, I was out for a stroll. I saw you passing overhead, and though it could have been misread, it seemed you needed aid. Thus from my path, I strayed.” 

“Someday,” I retorted while pointing at her, “I’m going to find a way to make you say something that doesn’t rhyme. Maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow, but your poetry reckoning is coming.” 

I could feel the smile on her face as she casually replied, “You are not the first to make such a claim. Truly, I enjoy that sort of game. Yet I must disclaim, lest annoyance grow aflame, that it is not truly a fair fight. After all, with words I am quite erudite.” 

Opening and shutting my mouth a couple times, I leaned closer to Lucent and murmured, “I think I’m in over my head.” 

The exchange prompted a chuckle from the raven TONI, before he cleared his throat. “In any case, neither of you should feel poorly about what transpired. As I said, it is always better to walk away and find a better avenue for attack, than to let stubbornness force you into an uneven conflict. We walked into that without knowing who was on the other end of the tunnel. Facing one as powerful and dangerous as Sandon without any plan, while surrounded by her people and with an unknown Touched in play on her side? There was no shame in backing out of that conflict. That is what you should truly take away from this. Never be afraid to admit you are not prepared for something. Better to leave and try again another time, from a better direction, than insist on fighting right at the moment.”

He definitely had a point, as much as it has made my stomach twist itself to just walk away from that after everything we had done to try to stop them from getting away. Which made another thought come to me, as I looked at Carousel. “What about those cuffs? Are you gonna get in trouble for uhh, losing them?” I had no doubt that Sandon had a way to break them. Even if it only amounted to literally doing so. Those particular cuffs weren’t the ones rated for that level of enhanced strength. They would keep a certain amount down, but she was far beyond that. 

“When I present the whole story,” the other girl informed me, “of how they left my inventory, I’m sure they’ll understand why I have fewer cuffs on hand.” 

I was about to say something to that, when there was a whistle from nearby. The three of us turned, in time to see That-A-Way on the opposite roof. She was clearly warning us before just showing up, just in case we were still a bit tense (which was fair). As soon as we looked that way, she vanished from that roof and appeared next to us. 

“So,” the girl started while looking around. 

“What’d I miss?” 

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Winging It 19-05 (Summus Proelium)

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Two things happened right after I said the thing about the rotten egg. First, Lucent totally snaked any chance I had of beating him by simply dropping straight through the hole, wings tucked tight to his sides as he dove before catching himself in the air within the vault itself, calling up that the coast was clear. And second, I looked at the girl next to me and realized, “Oh yeah, you’d probably like some help getting down there, huh?” 

“Thanks so much, but no,” came her melodic reply, “I’ll see you below.” With that, three nearby desk chairs came flying over to her, shrinking down before entering a tight orbit around the girl in miniature form. Then she simply hopped down through the hole, shooting one chair at a time downward, allowing it to grow to its normal size just long enough to step on before bringing it back into her orbit in mini-form. She slowed her fall repeatedly that way. The chair would be falling downward, but when she used her power to pull it back up into her orbit, there was a brief instant where it was still full-sized and traveling upward. That gave Carousel a chance to repeatedly land on chairs that were coming upward rather than falling downward, slowing her fall enough to drop through the hole in the vault ceiling and land smoothly within. 

“Okily dokily,” I managed, shaking my head before painting my legs orange as I dropped through the hole. “I guess I’m the rotten egg then.” 

I fell through the hole into the vault, and caught myself right on the edge of the hole at the bottom, which led deeper underground. Perched there and looking down, I could see the way it immediately curved into a tunnel leading out from the bank. The tunnel was tall and wide enough, once it went down and leveled out, for a full grown man of slightly over average size to walk through it. 

Meanwhile, a quick glance around showed that the vault had been ransacked. There were dozens of metal doors leading to separate boxes within the vault. Most of them had been broken open. Whatever contents had been inside them was gone. 

Carousel spoke up, voice curious. “Those responsible here were quite creative, though I doubt their friends are appreciative.” 

I nodded, already moving to peer down into the tunnel. “Yeah, I’m gonna guess they used those guys as a distraction. Probably hired them or something.” Looking up then, I added, “So, are we going after them, or what?” Even as I said that, my hand moved up to activate the lights on the side of my helmet. Yeah, I had literal headlights thanks to Wren’s forethought. I needed to thank that kid, yet again. 

The answer, of course, was that we were going after them. Especially since I had demonstrated that I had light. The three of us dropped into the hole. Lucent perched on top of my helmet so he wouldn’t have to keep trying to fly in the narrow, enclosed tunnel. 

I was in the lead ahead of Carousel, thanks to those headlights. Together, with my bird-dad on my helmet, we trotted down the tunnel. I wanted to run faster, but Lucent insisted we be more careful. We didn’t know what was going to be ahead of us, so we took it one step at a time. 

“Won’t they know they have to hurry?” Carousel pressed in a whisper. “With that hole, they’d need to worry.”

“They won’t know that it has been found so soon,” Lucent informed us, his voice equally quiet. “Before he was rendered unconscious, one of the uncouth men back there said something about covering the hole. I believe they intended to seal up the tunnel behind them in some way. Thus, I believe once they are a short distance away, the gentlemen will slow their retreat.”

I nodded before adding, “Besides, they’re carrying all the crap they got out of the vault back there. That’s got to slow them down a bit, right?”

We all silently hoped I was correct about that while picking up the pace a little bit. Not outright running, but still moving faster. I dimmed the lights on my helmet down to just barely enough to see where we were going, not wanting to give the guys ahead of us too much warning. 

I had to say this much, whatever (or whoever) these guys were using to carve out their tunnel, it was really effective. This place was solid, and really long. I had been expecting it to take us barely outside of the bank property, but the tunnel just kept going. We had to have traveled at least a couple city blocks by this point. Was it just their attempt to get out of range of any police search above ground? 

At least we had oxygen. Every once in awhile, we would find a narrow hole leading upward at an angle. They were just wide enough to allow air into the tunnel, and probably looked like snake holes or something from the surface. So apparently these guys didn’t want to suffocate either.  

Either way, we kept going. I was getting to the point of wondering if they were going to go all the way out of town or something, when we all abruptly heard voices ahead. Instantly, I turned off the headlights entirely, as we stopped to listen intently. It sounded like they were arguing about which way to go. A couple of the voices were saying that it was time to turn right, going by some sort of device they were using. They insisted that the thing, whatever it was, wanted them to make the turn. Meanwhile, several other voices argued that the thing was wrong and they still needed to go another hundred yards or so. The argument was getting pretty heated. Knowing how narrow the tunnel was, I could picture the five (or more) men in a line somewhere ahead of us. This was going to be complicated. After all, they probably had guns. And, come to think of it, they had something that could casually dig out hundreds of feet of dirt and rock. I didn’t want to think about what something like that could do to a person it was turned onto. And I wasn’t sure if my paint would protect against that. Not to mention, there wasn’t much down here for Carousel to work with, beyond the three desk chairs she’d pulled with us and whatever the men themselves had. 

Lucent’s voice was a barely audible whisper, hopefully not carrying far enough for the arguing group further down the tunnel to hear anything. “Allow me to proceed first and set several of my stationery companions in the place. While I am gone, Paintball, you should prepare yourself and Carousel with as many applications of paint enhancements as you can. If you have anything you may use to prepare flash effects with your white paint, that would be advisable as well.” 

He paused very briefly then before adding, “I understand that this likely feels unnecessary, given we are almost certainly only facing a handful of what you would call Prevs, men without powers. But I assure you, even the most mundane of people can get a lucky shot with a gun, particularly when potential Touched-Tech is added into the equation. It is always best to proceed with more care and planning rather than less. Prepare for a fight and force your opponents to operate on your terms, not theirs. Better to be too ready rather than not ready enough.” 

With that, he hopped off my helmet and glided ahead. At least, I assumed he did. With the light off, I couldn’t actually see, well, anything. It was completely pitch-black down here. Which was another reason I was pretty sure we weren’t close enough for the arguing men to hear us, considering we couldn’t see any light source they were using. They were just talking really loud. And why not? As far as they knew, they had no reason to be quiet. Which was a mistake we were hopefully going to make them choke on. 

Before I could wonder how I was going to paint Carousel when I couldn’t see her, the girl put a hand on my shoulder. Apparently she had had the same thought and already solved it. And, judging from the sensation of something spinning past above my head, she’d raised the orbit of the miniaturized chairs so they wouldn’t crash into me. 

I spent the next few moments carefully painting orange, purple, and green spots over both of our costumes, covering every bit of space that I could. All of which went fine except for when I got to her jester’s mask. When I went to touch that, she caught my wrist. Her grip wasn’t painful, but it was firm. Dark as it was, I imagined I could almost actually see the mask itself as she stared at me. Then, with a grunt, she released my wrist and quietly murmured, “Sorry, I guess I dislike being grabbed. Though it’s not as bad as being stabbed.”

I had a weird feeling there was more to it than that, but I couldn’t exactly ask her right then. Hell, I didn’t know how I would ever actually ask. But for the moment at least, we had to focus. 

So, I set that bit of strangeness aside and went back to putting on the paint. The whole time, I kept my ears open just in case the guys out there noticed Lucent setting up his statues. But their arguing continued unabated. Apparently a few of them didn’t exactly believe the device they were using was infallible, while the other two trusted it implicitly. I wondered why they weren’t just outvoted, but apparently this group didn’t work off democracy rules. Or maybe there was someone else on their side we weren’t hearing? Hell, maybe they were just better-armed. Whatever the reason, the arguing went on. Which was fine, because it gave us time to set things up. I finished putting the paint on both of us before Carousel made each chair grow and set it in front of me so I could add a bit of white to them. They could be our flash bombs.

By that point, the arguing seemed to have finally come to a conclusion. They were going to turn right. Apparently those two had been more persuasive. Or just more stubborn. Whatever the reason, they were already starting to work on that. We could both hear a faint humming sound, accompanied by what sort of sounded like steam hissing. It was clearly whatever they had been using to make this tunnel, because the sound gradually started to get further away. They were moving on.

The next thing we knew, Lucent was giving a very soft throat-clearing to announce himself before flap-hopping up to land on my helmet once more. His voice was quiet. “Now is the time, I believe. Carousel, draw them into following you by stealing what they have stolen. There is a short tunnel beyond their new turn, where they began to move on before coming back to that spot. Paintball and I shall move there and prepare to engage them from behind when they reenter this part of the tunnel. Draw them into a chase, then Paintball should use the blinding bombs he has hopefully created?”

I nodded. “She’s got the chairs painted with it.” To Carousel, I added, “As soon as you’re ready to toss them once the guys are in the main tunnel, just shout something about bats. As soon as I hear that, I’ll activate the paint and everyone should close their eyes for a second.” Even while saying that, I kept listening to the sound of the men and their humming-hissing tunneling device. They were moving pretty quickly, as far as tunneling went. Still close enough to hear, but we had to do this right now. 

Still not wanting to give away our presence with a light, I reached out to grab the other girl by the hand, whispering for her to come with me. Then I began to move completely blindly down the tunnel. It kept winding seemingly randomly back and forth, like whoever had made the tunnel had been drunk or something. But I moved just as quickly through the pitch-black tunnel as I had through the forest the other day. Soon, I was practically outright sprinting after activating a bit of black paint I had already put on both my feet and Carousel’s so the men ahead of us wouldn’t hear anything. For her part, the other girl seemed briefly surprised as I immediately began to move so quickly through the pitch-black tunnel while pulling her by the hand. But she didn’t resist, and soon the two of us were catching up to where the men were, our approach completely silent. 

They certainly weren’t being silent, though. With each step, the sound of the thieves bitching at each other (or just friendly ribbing, it was hard to tell) got louder, and soon we could see their lights in the distance. The glow illuminated where they had turned, playing off the corner of that new tunnel. Between their own voices and that of whatever they were using to tunnel, they probably would have had a hard time hearing me moving closer to begin with. Add in the black paint silencing our footsteps and they didn’t have the slightest chance. 

Stopping on one side of the second tunnel entrance, I listened briefly before peeking. They were about sixty feet down. I could see all five men huddled up close in a narrow, single-file line. It was impossible to see what they were using to make the actual tunnel, but it looked like the person at the head of the line was holding something up, which was sending off… vibrations or something. That was the source of the humming sound. The dirt and rock ahead of him was gradually disintegrating. That was the source of the steam-like hissing sound. The other four men were carrying very large duffle bags over their shoulders and clearly full backpacks. The spoils of their vault-heist, clearly. 

The main point was that none of them were looking this way. So I turned back to Carousel, squeezing her hand before leaning in very close to whisper, “I’ll make my headlights flash very dimly as soon as we’re in position. That’s when you go. As soon as I see you move, I’ll give you some orange protection and green speed, just in case.” 

Even with the very dim light from the nearby men, I couldn’t really see her face very well. Not that I would’ve been able to see it anyway, given the mask (and that still somehow creeped me out a little bit). But she squeezed my hand in what I assumed was agreement. So I released her, renewed the black paint on myself, and gave one last peek to make sure no one was looking back toward the tunnel entrance before dashing silently across it to the other side. There was no cry of alarm, or reaction at all, so they hadn’t noticed. 

Lucent was right, of course. There was a short tunnel continuing onward this way that went back maybe fifteen feet. Just enough for me to get fully out of sight. Apparently the men had started to continue on before the two who wanted to turn had gone back a bit. 

“You are very good at operating in darkness,” Lucent whispered to me from his perch on my head. “Does your helmet afford you special vision?” He was probably confused as to why I would have both visible lights and some form of dark vision in my helmet. 

Hesitating slightly, I shook my head. Now wasn’t the right time to get into talking about my weird, secondary navigation power. It was more subtle here than in the forest, since there weren’t a bunch of trees and boulders to run into. But I had still felt its influence helping me avoid tripping while dashing through the tunnel. Not to mention somehow knowing where every curve in the winding tunnel was. Maybe I should ask him sometime, given how much he probably knew about testing powers and such. Later though, we were kind of occupied at the moment. 

Crouching down here, I felt something by my foot. My hand reached out and I found one of Lucent’s statues. Clearly, he had made it over here before and set up his little friends already.  I wasn’t sure where the rest were, but I had no doubt they were lined up perfectly to hit these guys once they were in position. 

Here went nothing. Reaching up, I turned the lights on my helmet up just barely enough to be visible, an incredibly faint glow that hopefully wouldn’t give the men in the other tunnel any warning. Then I turned it back off after a brief second and scrunched myself even tighter into the rear wall of the tunnel, willing myself to be as invisible as possible. 

Just as I was self-consciously wondering if I should use the light again just in case the other girl had not seen it, Carousel made her move. I caught a glimpse of her form moving before she entered the other tunnel. In that moment, I activated two spots of orange stars I had left on her shoulders. 

Abruptly, the girl’s sing-song voice called out loudly. “I don’t think you should have those! Stealing is wrong, as every kid knows.” 

Her words were accompanied by several gasps and curses. Those same curses returned even louder as several of the bags the men had been carrying went flying back to where Carousel was, just before she dashed back into the other tunnel, out of their sight. 

“Fucking–what’re you waiting for, get her!” One of the men shouted. “Get that shit back, god damn it!” That was accompanied by confused words from the others about how she had followed them, whether there were others, and so on. But they didn’t take the time to really think about that, being too intent on getting their stolen stuff back. Instead, they fell for the trap, running right out to chase after Carousel without even glancing in the direction of where Lucent and I were. Oh, and they definitely had guns, already raising them up as they came into view. 

Just as they entered the tunnel and turned, Carousel shouted, “A hearty congrats, you’re blind as bats!” 

In the illumination from the men’s lights (they had them attached to their heads), I could see two different white-painted chairs go flying at them. Immediately, I activated the paint, sending out a blinding flash that made the men stagger backward while crying out in surprise. They fired off a few shots, but Carousel was still protected by the last couple seconds of the orange paint, even if they had gotten lucky enough to hit her. And the guns were mostly-silenced, so none of us were deafened in this narrow tunnel. Which was definitely a plus. 

With the men staggering and half-blind, Lucent made all of his statues (there were a half-dozen of them) spread throughout this section of tunnel open up with concussive blasts. Then I activated the purple, green, and orange paint on both myself and Carousel before the two of us really went to work. 

These guys? Yeah, they really didn’t stand a chance. Hit from both sides, blinded, struck repeatedly by concussive blasts from little bird statues they couldn’t even see, and so on? They collapsed like one of those cheap tents I had seen in the movies. 

Within what seemed like seconds, we had all the men on their stomachs, their weapons taken away while their wrists were either secured by a couple more stay-down cuffs that Carousel had left, or simply tied with strips torn from the straps of the backpacks and duffle bags they themselves had carried. They weren’t going anywhere. 

Unfortunately, that was when the three of us collectively realized that we didn’t have all of them.  There had been five men in that tunnel. But we only had four of them. With my headlights on, I looked toward Lucent and Carousel, all of us clearly having the same thought. Then we spun and raced to that side tunnel. It wasn’t any deeper, and for a second I was afraid the man had somehow gotten around us and disappeared back the way we came. Then Carousel pointed upward, and I saw the hole in the corner of the ceiling. The guy didn’t go further in, he went up with the tunneling machine, making a shaft upward. Which raised the question of how he actually climbed it, but we were going to ask him once we caught up. 

“What do we do about those guys?” I asked, quickly looking back toward where we had left the other four trussed up. The two with stay-down cuffs wouldn’t be going anywhere, of course. But the other two were simply tied at the wrists and ankles with straps. 

“We shall return for them,” Lucent declared. “For the time being, best to see where our remaining quarry has gone.” Belatedly, he added, “I shall leave two of my statues present, to… warn them should they attempt to flee. And should all else fail, the tracker I carry will bring allies to this place.” 

Okay, yeah, that worked. Looking toward Carousel, I quickly announced, “I’ll get up there, then yank you up with me as soon as I’m high enough. Here, raise your arms, hands upward, palms out.” As she did that, I painted both her hands red. “Be ready to be yanked,” I warned.  

With that, I painted blue under my feet and activated it to send myself flying upward into the chimney-like shaft. The gravity-boots kicked, sticking me against the wall of the shaft before I started crawling upward, staring ahead. In the distance, I could see what looked like sunlight, and crawled faster. Just a bit more, just a little bit further…

There. The end of the shaft was right in view. Focusing downward, I slapped red paint against the wall just under my feet, before triggering both that and the paint I had left on Carousel’s hands. Instantly, she was yanked upward, flying up the tunnel before catching herself against the walls of the shaft. Lucent was perched on her shoulder, curled in close to avoid being squished. 

“Okay guys,” I murmured, “here goes nothing.” 

With that, I flung myself up out of the shaft, activating a bit of orange paint once more, just in case. Carousel and Lucent were right behind me, as we landed in…  the middle of a parking lot? 

Oh yeah, and there was both good news and bad news. The good news was that we’d found the guy we were after. 

The bad news was that he wasn’t alone, and we were surrounded by what appeared to be over a dozen armed troops, all pointing their weapons at us. 

“Well now,” a voice announced as a figure came to the head of the group. It was Sandon, leader of the Ninety-Niners. And these were her people. 

“Ain’t this a kick in the pants.” 

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Winging It 19-04 (Summus Proelium)

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Right, so there was some sort of bank robbery going on, and I was supposed to help stop it alongside Lucent and Carousel. Talk about an eclectic group, huh? One independent Star-Touched alongside one of the Minority, and a TONI from the Seraphs. The three of us were going to go in there and stop this bank robbery. It sounded like the setup for a weird joke. 

I said as much to the other two while we were quickly planning what to do, and Carousel immediately replied, “As we give them a poke, they’ll think it’s a joke. But they’ll see their mistake, when in jail they awake. I don’t have my team, but this…” She gestured around in a circle to indicate the three of us. “Helps my esteem.”

“I could not have said it better myself,” Lucent announced. “At least, not without a thesaurus or a rhyming dictionary. Bravo, my dear. But for now, I believe our best way forward is to carefully prepare the field out here. Paintball, would you mind quietly laying several spots of your wonderful yellow paint onto the vehicle down there without alerting anyone within? In case they flee, it would be good to be able to slow them down. Meanwhile, I shall fly closer and get a look at what is happening within, before preparing to hasten their retreat. Carousel, position yourself there, on the narrow section of roof just above the exit where they are sure to pass under you. Be ready to remove their weapons as they come within range, to prevent any unfortunate incidents as they endeavor to make their escape. And perhaps a… bouncy section of sorts on the way to the car?” He looked at me then. “As well as anything else you can think of to slow them down or disrupt their escape. Once everything is in place, I shall see about driving them out toward the two of you, safely away from any civilians within the bank.”

“A sign of when to commence,” Carousel noted, “would make a good sort of sense.” 

“Yeah, what she said,” I agreed. “Should we give you a signal or something when we’re ready?” 

Lucent gave a short, sharp nod, before looking at the spot of the roof next to me. A moment later, a statue copy of the raven appeared there, perched right on the edge. “I shall watch through my friend here,” the TONI announced. “Once you are both prepared for the men inside to be driven toward you, raise both hands in the, ahh, I believe it is referred to as the touchdown position. But be sure you are ready.”

“Right, prepping the battlefield,” I agreed. “Or, you know, hopefully not an actual battle. A small, simple skirmishfield.” Squinting then, I turned to Lucent before remembering that he couldn’t see my expression. So I painted a squinting emoticon-face across my helmet. “Just answer me one thing. Is this bank owned by La Casa? Because the last time someone robbed a La Casa bank, it set something off, and I’d really rather not go through that again.”

I could hear the faint amusement in the bird’s voice as he replied, “I assure you, as far as I am aware, the bank is not owned or operated by any Fell-Touched.” 

“The other sort of knaves,” Carousel murmured, “who turn poor to slaves from birth to graves.” 

“Someday,” I informed her, “I’m going to figure out why you do that.” It obviously wasn’t a priority right that second with the actual bank robbery going on, but seriously. I had no idea how she pulled out those rhymes so easily and quickly. Or why she did so in the first place. She stuck to it very firmly. I didn’t recall ever hearing the girl talk without rhyming. In most cases, I’d say that would be a detriment for team communication, but it didn’t seem to slow her down at all. 

Carousel, in turn, simply stared at me with that broadly smiling jester’s mask. I had no idea if the girl behind it was actually smiling or not, but I had the feeling she was. 

“A mystery to be pondered another time, I fear,” Lucent reminded us. “Be swift in your preparations, I shall endeavor to drive the foes your way once you raise the sign.” With that, he took off, flying around to the front of the building. 

Okay, yeah, time to focus. We needed to get down there and set things up before those guys came out on their own. Trying to play catch-up with them already outside would be a huge pain.

Looking over to the Minority girl, I offered, “Want a lift? It’ll probably be a bit quicker and more subtle. Not that your way isn’t super cool, believe me.” She had been making the bench and other things revolve around her in miniature form (they were about the size of matchbooks) the whole time we were standing there. Which I supposed meant she didn’t have to focus on them at all once they were in place. Again, pretty cool. But I had a feeling the guys waiting in the car below might notice her unique way of getting across the gap to the other building. This whole plan of ours wouldn’t work nearly as well if they had advance warning. It could devolve into a real clusterfuck pretty quick if we weren’t careful. The best advantage we had here (well, besides our powers) was the element of surprise. It’d be pretty dumb to throw that away before the fight even started. 

She agreed, so I painted my arm purple and put it around her. She held onto me a bit awkwardly given our height discrepancy, and I silently hoped she didn’t notice anything she shouldn’t. Not that I had much for her to notice, but still. After checking to see what her orbiting items did (they expanded their revolution to encircle both of us), I used a blue puddle to launch high into the air to get above the field of view for the guys below, then red painted us over to the other roof. On the way down, I shot a black owl symbol at the bricks and tiles just before we landed there, our arrival completely silent. There was even a pigeon perched nearby that didn’t react to our landing. Though it did happen to turn its head a second later and launch itself into the air as soon as it saw us so close. I think we gave the poor thing a little pigeon heart attack.

From this position, on the narrow section of roof just above the door, we could see the car a bit better. Sure enough, there were two guys sitting in it. The driver had one hand on the wheel while his other was resting out the open window with a cigarette in it. The other guy was in the front passenger seat, tapping a pistol against the roof rhythmically with the music they were listening to. They both had ski masks on, but other than that they seemed pretty casual about the whole thing. Well, beyond the fact that they were looking around a lot. They just weren’t looking up. Which seemed like a pretty big oversight in a city like this. Or really any city, these days. Not that I was going to complain about their mistake.  

Either way, the point was, they weren’t paying enough attention to notice our arrival. Carousel and I took a moment to make sure of that, peeking over the edge and watching them carefully until it was clear they had no clue we were there. Then the two of us exchanged nods before I got to work. With Carousel watching my back, I leaned out and pointed, sending a shot of paint toward the car. But it wasn’t yellow. Not that first shot. Instead, I hit the car with a bit of black. I figured it would be better to make only one audible shot, activate the silencing effect, and then hit the car with as many spots of yellow as I could. Not that my paint was exactly loud to begin with, especially considering the music they were listening to. But still, better safe than sorry. 

I lined the roof of the car with yellow circles and triangles, as well as a bit on the tires. Then I rethought things a little and put some red on the tires as well, before adding a couple matching spots against the wall nearby. Finally, I put down the blue bit on the sidewalk right below the exit door, painting that whole square. It was a toss-up whether they’d even notice in what would probably be a rush to get out, but at that point it wouldn’t really matter. 

“If you had to,” I whispered, “could you pick up that car?” 

“Not with it occupied,” she whispered right back. “It’s something I’ve tried. But when it comes to something alive, my gift just does not thrive.” 

“Right, can’t use your power on the car when they’re inside it, but if they get out, you could take it away from them.” Keeping that in mind, I gave the area one more quick once-over before looking to her. “I think we’re ready.” When she gave me a thumbs up, I focused on the bird statue I could see staring down at us, raising both arms in the touch-down sign. After a moment of that, the bird turned its head to focus on the car. Which I supposed meant he’d seen me. 

Sure enough, within a few seconds, we started hearing sounds from within the bank. It started with a surprised shouted curse, then a single gunshot. As soon as I heard it, my heart jumped into my throat. But I trusted Lucent to know what he was doing, particularly in a situation like this. After all, he’d been doing the whole Star-Touched thing a lot longer than me. And longer than Carousel, come to think of it. Still, the two of us exchanged glances, and while I couldn’t see the other girl’s face through that jaunty, garishly painted jester’s mask, I had the feeling that she was worried too. But we stayed put, just as planned. 

Meanwhile, the guys in the car were cursing as well. I heard one of them ask what ‘those dumbasses’ were doing, and that they weren’t supposed to use the guns. That prompted a brief argument about whether one of them should go inside to check, but neither wanted to be the one to get out of the car, just in case the other took off without them. From that brief exchange, I had the feeling these guys neither knew nor trusted each other very much. Which begged the question of why they were robbing a bank together, unless they were hired by a third party?  There wasn’t time to think much about that. Nor was there time for the guys in the car to stop arguing, before the door directly below Carousel and me burst open, and three guys came running out. The one in the lead was shouting something about ‘that fucking bird’ in between screaming for the driver to get them out of there. Meanwhile, the two behind were pivoting to shoot back into the bank with their own guns. All three carried large black garbage sacks that had been stuffed full with what seemed to be cash. 

Immediately, Carousel and I went to work. I activated the blue paint, launching the three men into the air with a collection of screams. On their way up, the girl beside me used her own power, yanking the bags of money and guns out of their hands before bringing them, miniaturized, into her orbit alongside the bench, chair, and trash can. The air around her was getting a bit crowded. 

Just as I had that thought, it became slightly less crowded as she sent the trash can flying into one of the men in midair, nailing him while he was falling. He landed on the ground with a groan, lying under the can before shoving it off. 

Meanwhile, the other two had sprawled out on the ground. Both scrambled up to run for the car, but it was already starting to take off. With a squeal of tires, the driver started to peel out. Which, of course, was when I activated several spots of the yellow paint, slowing the thing down. The timing worked out just right so that the guys outside, scrambling in a rush to jump at the car, ended up bouncing right off it as its speed abruptly and unexpectedly halved. They both collided with the trunk and rolled off it to either side with a pair of curse-yelps. 

Taking a quick step forward, I launched myself with a bit of blue on my shoes. Flipping over in the air, I landed in front of the car and waved before scolding, “Now did you walk out of there without even listening to the spiel about special interest rates for one of their credit cards? You know how hard they work on those things.” 

The driver and his companion looked at each other, then floored the gas once more. Which might’ve been bad, considering even slowed by half, being hit by a car would’ve hurt. But at that exact same instant, I activated the red paint I’d put on the front left and rear left wheels, sending the whole vehicle sliding sideways to slam against the wall of the bank. 

By that point, the three guys on the ground had picked themselves up. But one of them immediately went down again as a concussive energy blast from one of the bird statue’s eyes slammed into him from way up on the other roof. The other two whirled toward me while yanking what looked like knives (really?) from their belts, only to be hit from the side by a full-sized park bench shot at them by Carousel. They all went down hard, groaning in pain as the bench tumbled away to land on its side. At the same time, the knives they had pulled were yanked away, shrinking to join the spinning objects surrounding the girl as she advanced toward them. 

Meanwhile, I caught a glimpse of the guy in the passenger side of the wrecked car shoving his way out with his own gun raised. Instantly, I activated blue paint I had reapplied to my shoes and sent myself up and backwards, flipping over in the air before landing on the roof of the vehicle. “Hey!” I blurted, falling onto my side and lashing out with one foot while activating an intricately detailed purple fist across my left shoulder. “This is a no-items brawl!” The kick collided with the gun, knocking it out of the man’s hand and sending it flying away. “Tournament rules! Three stock, no items, stage hazards and smash meter off!” 

The man shouted an emphatic curse that also included the words ‘shoot him’, so I flipped up and over once more, landing in front of him in time to see the other guy (in the driver’s seat) pointing his gun upward where I had just been. “Okay,” I acquiesced, “maybe one Smash.” With that, still empowered by the purple paint for another second or two, I slammed both palms into the passenger’s chest to knock him back into the car and against the other guy. As he rocked forward once more, I reared back and kicked the door to slam it shut on him. “Or two!” 

Then I dropped and rolled under the car, as both men bellowed in rage before shoving the door open once more and throwing themselves out after me, very intent on making me pay. They turned and looked down to see my head sticking out from under the car, staring up at them. I painted a broad smiling face on my helmet. “That thing I said about no stage hazards? I might’ve lied about that too.” The smiley face turned into a red arrow, pointing behind them. They reflexively turned their heads to look, just before Carousel’s trash can slammed into them, knocking both men forward against the car with a pair of screamed curses. Potty mouths, honestly.  

By then, I had pushed myself out from under the car, pivoting on one foot to shoot a bit of pink paint against the side of the vehicle from either hand before the two men could push themselves away from it. Then I reached out, shoved both hands into the pink paint, and used that to tear the metal outward, bending it over from both sides to wrap around the men. By the time they started to push away from the car, the men were thoroughly trapped, with half the passenger side of the car wrapped around them. 

With that done, I spun back toward the rest of the scene. But it was already over. Carousel had finished up with cuffing the last of those guys, with a little help from the Lucent statue to keep them from fighting back too much. She straightened up from them and brushed her glove hands off before looking toward me. “The foes are detained, their bounty regained.” As she said that last part, the girl indicated the trash bags sitting nearby, full of cash. “But where is our mentor? Still through that door.” Her gaze was clearly on the rear entrance of the bank. 

“Hey, that’s right, he never came out.” Frowning, I looked briefly toward the bird statue in the distance. I really had my doubts that he would have simply left us to wrap things up here with only a little help from that thing if he’d had any choice. And the fact that he had only meant one thing. 

“There’s something going on inside,” I blurted, before abruptly rushing that way. The guys out here could wait. The two at the car were securely trapped against it by the metal of the vehicle itself, and the rest of them were held by those stay-down cuffs. They weren’t going anywhere. 

Carousel was right behind me after giving her own brief look around, as though to assure herself the bad guys were contained. The two of us paused right at the open exit door rather than barging straight in. I was really tempted to keep rushing through, but that would have been stupid. Worried as I was about Lucent at that moment, getting ourselves in trouble by bursting into a potentially bad situation wasn’t going to help anything. 

So, we stopped on either side of the doorway, peering in. There was a short, very utilitarian-looking hallway beyond. This obviously wasn’t in the customer area of the bank. The floor was simple linoleum that had been very thoroughly scrubbed with lemon-scented cleaner, with wooden doors along the right side of the corridor with names and positions stenciled onto black bars across the middle, interrupted by two doors labeled for male and female restrooms. Straight ahead at the end of the hall was another door that had ‘Customer Zone – Remember Our P’s And Q’s – Polite, Personable, Quiet, Qourteous’ written on a sign. Which was–wow. 

Shaking off my reaction to that, I gave the other girl a thumbs up before heading in. The two of us moved quickly, but quietly.  Whatever had stopped Lucent from joining us, we didn’t want it to know we were coming. 

In the end, however, all our precautions turned out to be pointless. We peeked through with the door there to find Lucent simply perched on top of a desk in the middle of the main lobby, staring at something. His head turned as we stepped in, and he called out, “Ah, there you are. Apologies, there were a few more in the lobby here that had to be dealt with, and by then you were finished with those who fled. My kingdom for duplicates that could actually move closer to you. Alas, tis not to be.” He heaved a sigh before turning back to stare at something behind the desk. “Come, look here.” 

Carousel and I exchanged brief, silent looks before heading that way. We walked around the big desk to see what he was looking at. On the way, I noticed a couple more unconscious figures with the same ski masks, still lying where Lucent had obviously hit them. 

“It’s a hole,” Carousel announced once we saw what was behind the desk, “but the men took a stroll.”  

Sure enough, there was a wide hole right there in the middle of the tile floor. It cut straight down into what turned out to be a vault room in the basement (including going through the thick walls surrounding that), then even further through the floor in that

“Indeed,” Lucent confirmed. “Though what the men you captured took seems to be a paltry sum compared to what was contained within that vault. I believe what we are witnessing is two robberies in one. The first, those men, were a distraction, allowing our tunnelers time to bore straight through, take what they wanted and escape.” 

“Do you think they’ve already gotten away?” I asked. 

“Only one way to find out,” he informed me, head cocking to the side briefly before turning back to focus on the hole. “Their hostages are in the conference room down that hall. With the authorities on their way, they should be safe. 

“Which leaves us to pursue our quarry,” Carousel noted, “and discover the truth of this story.”   

“Well what are we waiting for?” I quickly put in. 

“Last one in the hole’s a rotten egg.” 

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Winging It 19-03 (Summus Proelium)

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A/N – Apologies for the mix-up and technically doubling up on chapters here. I did post a commissioned interlude over the weekend for Heretical Edge (which can be found right here), and in doing so managed to confuse myself about which story needed the regular update, so this chapter was sent to early patrons yesterday. To make up for that and ensure everything stays fair and even, this chapter will be out today, and then there will be a Heretical Edge chapter on Wednesday and Friday. I do hope you all enjoy this regardless.

So, I left Lion with Wren and the others so the Tech-Touched could compare notes, or whatever they were going to do. Part of me wished that I could stay there and hear all the things they were going to talk about, but I was sure most of it, if not all, would fly right over my head. Touched-Tech was fun, but man was it complicated. I had no idea how Wren kept herself focused long enough to do that stuff. Better if I sated my curiosity by asking for a summary later.

Besides, it wasn’t as though I was going to be bored. I had my own incredibly cool thing to do today. Namely, spend more time with Lucent. Which, jokes about my parentage aside, I really did think he was awesome. Seriously, the guy was a talking raven superhero. Silversmith might’ve been my favorite Star-Touched before I knew the truth about my dad, but Lucent had always been pretty high up on the list as well. He was just really cool, and offering to give me pointers and just generally being willing to spend time with me was… yeah, it meant a lot. Enough that I kept ignoring the repeated insistent whispering warnings in the back of my head about how wary I should be and that I should stay away from people like that. Yes, it was very unlikely that he was secretly linked to my parents, but still. It wasn’t impossible, and they could be using him to poke at ‘Paintball’ and get information. I had to be very careful about all this. 

All of that was fresh in my mind, having a duel with the part of me that just thought this whole thing was awesome, as I landed lightly on the roof of the grocery store where we had arranged to meet. Looking around, I didn’t see him, but figured he would be around shortly since I had already sent a text message that I was on my way. Being a bird, of course, he couldn’t carry a phone around with him. But I had been assured that any messages sent to that number would be relayed to him, and messages sent back were at the very least dictated by him. 

Sitting with my back to the nearby air conditioning unit, I took out my phone to see a few messages. The first was from Lucent himself, letting me know that he would be there soon. Meanwhile, the other two were from Peyton and Amber. First, my new partner said she had to help her mother with some stuff at the store and other errands before heading over to Wren’s. And also that if I let Lion leave before she could meet her, she would punch me very hard. 

The message from Amber (well technically from That-A-Way since she sent it from her Touched phone to mine), on the other hand, was all about how she had something she wanted to talk to me about. Apparently that wasn’t an emergency or anything, but she thought it was important to share whenever I had a chance. With an added bit about how she was supposed to go on patrol with Syndicate this evening, and she’d let me know how that went. I had the sneakiest suspicion that it was really hard for her to hold in talking about all the stuff that had been dumped on her. She needed someone to talk to about it, someone to unload on. 

“Jae! Jae, come on!”  

Speaking of people that Amber should have been able to talk to, the voice calling from below snapped me out of my drifting thoughts by calling that name. Carefully, I slid over and peeked down below. A woman was standing in front of the store entrance, looking back impatiently into the shop. “We don’t have all day for this, not if we want to welcome your father back properly.” 

It had to be a different Jae, right? That wasn’t–but no, even as I had that thought, the girl in question emerged into view. It was her. She was wearing a light raincoat with the hood up, and what I was pretty sure were sunglasses from the very slight bit I managed to see. All to protect herself from the bright, glaring rays of the warm sun. Oh, and she was carrying several heavy grocery bags full of what sort of looked like party supplies and treats. 

It was hard to hear her response from here, given how quietly the other girl spoke. But it must have been an apology, because the woman beside her (a very artificially bleached-blonde woman with what seemed like more plastic surgeries than sense) smiled and squeezed her shoulder (her own arms, I noticed, were almost empty aside from a couple bags in her other hand). “I know, I know, I’m sorry. I’m just overly-excited about your father coming home. We have to make it special for him, you know? He goes to so many exotic places, we have to make him enjoy being home too. You don’t want him to find more excuses to stay away, do you?”

I had always known that Jae was adopted. Her and all her siblings had been taken in from different families and situations, by a semi-famous television actress and a successful director-producer. But eventually, the woman who had actually taken Jae and the others in had passed away, and their father had remarried. To this lady, apparently. Plus, I was pretty sure her adopted siblings had all moved out by now. Did that mean that Jae spent most of her time living alone in that house with only this woman? Eesh, no wonder she spent time with Amber. 

Speaking of which, too bad the person Amber talked to about all her feelings couldn’t be Jae. They seemed like pretty good friends when we were at school. Then again, I knew a fair bit about having school friends without letting them actually get close to me. Hell, I wasn’t even sure the other girl actually knew about Amber being Touched in the first place, let alone all this extra stuff. That was one of those personal questions I didn’t feel comfortable asking about. No matter how curious I was, it just wasn’t fair to put Amber in that position.

In any case, Jae’s stepmother (adopted stepmother?) didn’t seem like the best person to spend time with. Especially considering she seemed to be treating the girl more like a pack mule than a daughter. She was barely carrying any bags, while Jae was loaded down with them. And she wondered why the other girl was moving slower. It wasn’t actually wicked stepmother vibes, but more like… thoughtless. That was the impression I got while watching the two interact below me. She wasn’t actively, intentionally bad. She was just… she wasn’t a mother, that was for sure. As I watched the two head out toward a car, it felt more like the woman saw Jae and herself as peers, as if they were both students and she was the rich, popular girl who could get the unpopular, smart girl Jae to do her work for her by being ‘nice.’ I wasn’t sure why that was the analogy that jumped into my head, but once I had the thought, it solidified pretty quickly. 

I was about to turn back to watch for Lucent, when something at the corner of my eye caught my attention. A car was coming around the corner of the parking lot aisle close to where Jae and her stepmother were walking, turning in their direction. The driver and passenger were turned around in their seats, focusing on something in the back of the car while coming smoothly around the corner without even looking. The car wasn’t exactly speeding, but it was still going too fast for the two down there to get out of the way in time. In a second, they would both be hit by it. Unless…

Activating two purple stars that I had already put on my ankles, I launched myself outward, twisting in the air while pointing down to shoot yellow paint at the car from one hand and red paint at Jae and her stepmother with the other. The yellow paint I activated immediately, slowing it down. The two women were just reacting to being hit by the red paint, as I twisted slightly more in mid-leap, sending another shot of red to hit a parked car nearby. Instantly, I activated both red bits, yanking the two of them off their feet and sending them flying over several yards before they hit the parked car, stumbling against it just as the yellow-slowed vehicle went through the spot where they had just been walking. The car slowed (this time naturally rather than from paint), the driver seeming to realize belatedly what had almost happened, then suddenly accelerated as he panicked and took off. 

Landing on the top of a nearby light pole by that point, I stared after the car briefly before focusing on the people below me as I called down, “Boy, Sunday drivers, huh? You guys okay?” 

“Oh my God, oh my God.” The woman was patting herself down, looking at Jae. “Are you okay? Did it hit you, are you–” She was still checking herself over with one hand while reaching out to pat the other girl down as well. Which, for all I could say about her not treating Jae like a daughter, at least she expressed concern for her after something like that.

Jae had been staring at me, but shook it off and quietly informed the woman that she was fine. Then she turned to look at the pavement behind them, where their bags of groceries had been dropped, scattered, and run over. 

Seeing that, I grimaced and hopped down, landing smoothly nearby. “Sorry about that, I couldn’t really figure out how to get you and the bags out of the way easily.” 

“Sorry?” the woman shook her head. “Don’t you apologize young man. You saved our lives!” Her voice squeaked a bit, the shock still clearly high in her system. “That–that–if you hadn’t–thank you. We can buy more stuff, we can buy more of it. But you–if you weren’t here… may I hug you?” She was trembling a little. 

“Uhh…” That was as much as I managed to get out before she did just that, embracing me tightly while repeatedly stammering her gratitude. Behind her, Jae stood awkwardly, shifting from foot to foot while giving me a hesitant nod. 

“Oh! Oh, how stupid of me.” Quickly releasing me from the embrace, the woman stepped back. “Ahem, I’m Kella Song. Yes, that Kella Song, from Seven’s Company. I can sign anything you like. And this is Jae Baek, my ahhh… stepdaughter.” Clearly, the word daughter had stuck in her throat. She could barely get it out, sounding like she was saying a dirty word. Not because she had anything against the girl herself, I realized. But because she was still clinging to the one bit of success she’d had in her career while acting. Yeah, I remembered Seven’s Company. Not that I’d seen more than a couple episodes, but I did know enough to realize the woman in front of me had been in her mid-teens at the time, and had barely been out of high school when it went off the air. That was her big claim to success, a show that had been done with for what had to be fifteen or sixteen years by now. She desperately wanted to hold on to what she had been back then, and acknowledging the fact that she was taking care of a daughter, even a stepdaughter, who was the same age she had been back when her career had seemed ready to skyrocket… yeah, that had to be hard, especially for someone like her.  

All those realizations had flashed through my mind while Jae awkwardly thanked me for being there. My mouth opened to tell both of them that it was no big deal, when we were interrupted by the sound of a voice calling out from the doorway. “My God, are you alright?!”

It was the manager of the store. He came rushing out, apologizing repeatedly for what had happened in his parking lot despite the fact that it definitely wasn’t his fault. The man was tall and stocky, with salt and pepper hair and a ruddy complexion. He introduced himself as Carl, thanking me over and over for being there, and offering to call the cops for Jae and Kella. 

Maybe it was bad, but I sort of expected Jae’s stepmother to lambaste the man or try to take advantage of the situation in some way. Instead, she told him they were fine and that he shouldn’t worry about it. Still, the man insisted on replacing the groceries that had been broken and scattered when the bags fell everywhere. He and Kella started inside to deal with that, apparently having forgotten that Jae was still standing there amidst the mess. 

“Uh, here, I’ll help you pick those up,” I announced, starting to collect the stuff out of the street. A few of the things had already been completely smashed from cars pulling through, though most of the vehicles pulled around. 

“Oh, you… don’t have to…” Trailing off, Jae hesitated before stooping to pick the stuff up too. One of the cart collector employees jogged over, and soon we’d picked up everything that had fallen. Most of it went in a nearby trash can, while a few things were able to be taken back inside. As the guy thanked us for the help and headed in with that, I looked to the girl beside me. Belatedly, I had to remind myself that I wasn’t supposed to know her, and cleared my throat. “Ahh, you okay then… Miss?” 

Her head bobbed quickly, voice soft. “Thank you.” Visibly hesitating, she finally added, even more quietly, “What were you doing here? Is… there a bad guy around?”

“Huh? Oh, no.” I shook my head while wondering yet again how much she knew about Amber. If she knew that her friend was That-A-Way, did she think that the other girl might be around here somewhere? “I was just, uh, you know, hanging out. You uhh…” I hesitated, stuck on thinking about what she might know already. 

“It’s okay,” she interrupted my musing to gently inform me, “you can ask.” 

Wait, what? Did she know what I was thinking somehow? Could she–how did… “Ask?” I blankly echoed, just to have actually said something while she was staring at me. 

“I’m albino,” came the response as she gestured to her own pale complexion and very light hair. “Albino Asian. I know it’s weird.” Her voice was a flat mutter, making it clear that she was just repeating what she heard all the time. I knew she heard it all the time, because I had been there many of those times. 

Oh. Oh crap, while I was trying to decide if she knew about Amber, she thought I was staring at her because of the–oh. Damn it. Quickly, I shook my head. “No, no, I mean, that’s not what I was–I mean I wasn’t–that’s not–it’s not weird. It’s different. It’s not–it’s no big deal.” Great, Cassidy, fantastic. Totally and completely smooth. You’re not biffing this interaction at all. 

The other girl raised an eyebrow, her dubious expression clear, though she seemed grateful that I wasn’t being completely hostile. Probably just figured I was more accidentally rude rather than outright antagonistic. 

Before either of us could say anything else, however, a crowd of people started to approach. They had been gradually gathering by the doors of the store, apparently trying to figure out if I was the real thing or just some normal person cosplaying. Which, for the record, was an option that still blew my mind. There were much better people than me to dress up as. 

Either way, they approached and started to ask for autographs, when a dark shadow flew down out of the sky and landed on the nearby metal bar along the side of the shopping cart corral. It was Lucent, and his presence only made people gather around us faster. They might have thought I was cool, but he was on a completely different level. Which was fair, considering he was a talking raven with superpowers. I couldn’t really compete with that. 

Unfortunately, he wasn’t there for a social call. Or even just to see what I was doing rather than waiting for him on the roof. Instead, the bird looked straight to me. “Pardon the interruption, fine people! Paintball, might I request your assistance? The car that narrowly avoided such a terrible calamity moments ago appears to be part of a… situation down the street.” 

“A situ–yeah. Sorry, guys, we’ll see you another time!” Waving to the crowd before looking at Jae, I added, “I’m glad you’re okay. And hey, good luck at your dad’s welcome home party.” With that, I used blue paint to launch myself upward, Lucent flying after me. The crowd called out an assortment of things, holding up their phones to take pictures and video. But I was mostly focused on my new companion. “What’s going on?” I managed while landing on the roof of the store with my wheels out to glide along it, not wanting to give up any momentum. 

“There is a bank at the end of the street,” Lucent informed me while gliding just overhead. “I had intended to give the driver of that vehicle a good scolding. But it appears they are waiting in the back for companions within who are engaged in, shall we say, an illicit withdrawal. Others have been alerted, yet are too far away or occupied with other situations. Tis not exactly the training I had intended for today, yet if you are amenable to a… I believe the correct term is ‘team-up?’” 

Well, that was a surprise. The car that had almost run over Jae and Kella was involved in a bank robbery? No wonder the driver was distracted and didn’t bother to stop. Though actually, come to think of it, shouldn’t that make them drive a lot more carefully so they wouldn’t attract attention? Maybe this was a bad getaway driver. 

Either way, we reached the end of the building and I used red paint on the one next door to yank myself that way. I could see the bank in question on the corner while flying through the air. There didn’t seem to be anything hinky going on from the outside. Not yet, anyway. But I trusted Lucent to know what he was talking about. He could probably see through the windows better than I could. The building itself was a three-story red brick thing, with a narrow one lane drive-through connected to the alley, and a small parking lot that wrapped around the opposite side and into the back. And sure enough, as I launched myself through the air to land on the roof of the building directly next to the bank, I could see the car from before idling right by the marked employee exit, pointed toward the next street over. They were clearly ready to bolt out of there. 

Crouching down on the edge of the roof and peering that way, I hesitated before asking, “Okay, so how do you want to play this?” Lucent had a lot more experience and seniority in the whole Star-Touched situation. I was going to follow his lead. Especially when it came to something like an actual ongoing bank robbery. 

He, in turn, landed next to me and cocked his head a bit, looking between the car and the bank. “‘Twould be best to have some measure of what is happening inside before leaping to actions that may endanger civilians. Perhaps–ah, assistance.” 

He was looking back the way we had come, and I turned to see a familiar figure. Carousel, from the Minority. She wore the same full gold, silver, and purple robe and hood, with a matching jester’s mask. Oh, and she was crossing the street in the air from the other roof, like I had. But rather than having paint pull her, she was using her own power. In this case, she had what appeared to be a park bench, a chair, and a garbage can. They were pulled in by her power, miniaturized to spin around her in orbit. She would jump, make one of the objects resume its normal size just long enough to land on it, jump off it while shrinking it back down and making the thing spin around her again, return the next object to its normal size, land on that before jumping off it, and repeat. She did that all the way through the air from the other roof to this one, crossing high above the street before landing smoothly. 

“Dude,” I managed, “you would be amazing at playing the floor is lava.” 

“I heard you were stopping a robbery,” she replied, “Not one to engage in snobbery, I thought an alliance was due. To turn a pair into few.” 

“Excellent,” Lucent agreed. “I had thought it would be only the two of us. Yes, we would quite welcome your assistance, Carousel. Your aid is as welcome as your delightful balladry. Now come…

“Let us discuss how to safely detain these scoundrels.” 

Previous Chapter / Next Chapter

Winging It 19-02 (Summus Proelium)

Previous Chapter / Next Chapter

As I had told Izzy, I wasn’t planning on going over to Wren’s place until after my whole thing with Lucent. But how could I possibly say no to Lion’s request to meet the girl? Well, okay, maybe Wren wouldn’t want to, and then I would say no. But something told me she wouldn’t.

Indeed, as I used my phone to call the girl in question and raised the subject, her answering squeal of joy made me flinch and wish that I could pull the Bluetooth thing away from my ear. It ahh, went on for a few seconds. Somewhere in the background, I heard the others quickly and repeatedly asking what was wrong. Oh, and they were also pleading with her to come down, so I could only imagine she had used her wing pack thing to fly up by the ceiling in her excitement.

“Trevithick!” I managed to cut in, glancing toward Lucent and Lion. From the way they both had their heads cocked as they looked toward me, I had the feeling they could hear at least part of that squeal and were amused. “Hey, if you really don’t want to meet her–” I started to tease. 

“No, no, no!” the kid immediately blurted. “I do! Yes, please! Bring her over! It’ll be great, it’ll be fun, are you serious? Is she really coming? It’s really the real Lion and she’ll come over?” 

Before I could respond to that, I heard a rather panicked Fred demand to know where Paintball had gotten a lion and why the hell I thought bringing it over there was a good idea. And that no, very firm no, absolutely no, she could not keep the lion. Also, was I/Paintball ‘completely nuts?’

Leaving Wren to explain the situation to her uncle for a moment, I looked at the two TONIs and cleared my throat before giving them a thumbs up. “I uh, think it’ll be okay. She’s really excited to meet you.” 

“And I to meet her,” Lion quickly assured me, tiny head bobbing up and down before jerking a bit to the side to watch as a car drove past in the distance. She turned just as sharply to look upward, and I glanced that way to see a bird flying past. The moment it had moved on and was no longer an immediate danger, her nose twitched and she snapped her head yet again, looking toward the gate nearby as a man walked out, heading down the sidewalk. 

Watching all that drove home just how vulnerable she must feel. She was even more intelligent than most humans, yet Lion was trapped in a body small and vulnerable enough that, without the armor she wore and her inventions for protection, a small human child could have killed her with a single kick. No wonder she was so nervous. And that didn’t even count all the actual predators out there who would have eaten her in an instant, without any regard for the things she could design and build. She had a mouse’s fearful instinct combined with a very intelligent understanding of just how vulnerable she could be. That must have been utterly terrifying. 

By that point, Wren had returned to the phone, her voice high with excitement as she urgently insisted that everything was fine and we should bring Lion over right now because she had so many things she wanted to ask about, and show her, and and and it went on. Yeah, she was basically losing her mind like a total fangirl at the very concept of meeting the mouse TONI. 

“Okay, okay,” I managed once I could get a word in edgewise. “But Trevithick, this is important. Do you want me to bring her to your shop directly, or do you want to meet her somewhere private?” I didn’t say it out loud, but I knew both she and the two in front of me would know what I was really asking. Which was, did she want Lion (and possibly Lucent) to know where her shop was and who she was, or did she want to keep her identity and place completely secret from them.  

In response, there was a pause. It told me that the kid was actually taking the question seriously, despite her excitement. I could picture her standing there, thoughtfully chewing her lip as she weighed the options back and forth a bit. “Hang on,” she finally replied. Then I heard her start a murmured conversation some distance away from the phone, talking to her uncle about it. And possibly to the others as well. Honestly, I was just glad she hadn’t dismissed the potential concern out of hand. Especially considering I still wasn’t completely positive that we could absolutely trust Lucent without question. Oh, I was pretty sure he was safe and all, but I wasn’t going to translate pretty sure into total certainty. Not when it came to something like my parents. 

Finally, the younger girl’s voice came back. “I want to ask her for ideas about protecting this place, so she should probably know where it is.” Unlike moments earlier, she was speaking calmly and rationally. It was clear she had put real thought into the answer. “It’ll be okay. ButI’mtotallywearingarealcostume!” The last bit came flooding out in a rush of words, followed by a lamenting squeal about how she had to find something good. 

Hoping that she was right about this being okay, I promised to be there soon, then disconnected and looked to the others “Well, guess it’s fine. You get to meet my friend, Trevithick. But umm, keep everything you find out to yourselves, please?” I wasn’t sure how to ask Lucent not to go as well. Despite the voice whispering in the back of my head that I can’t be certain he wasn’t compromised by the Ministry, I just couldn’t find the right words without being completely suspicious and rude. 

Fortunately, it turned out I didn’t have to find any words. Lucent himself gave what was the best bird-approximation of a bow. “I believe the invitation was for Lady Lion herself. Far be it from me to overstep. Perhaps you should take our exceptional friend here to meet this Trevithick, then meet me in some neutral location for our own training session while they converse?”

A swell of relief ran through me while I gave a quick nod. “Oh, sure. Yeah, I can do that.” Of course, then the relief turned into uncertainty as I looked down at Lion. “Um, do you mind if I carry you, or… umm…” Yeah, given how justifiably nervous she was, this was pretty awkward.  

Lion, for her part, turned a bit. “Jared, could you come out here, please?” 

Jared? Blinking uncertainly, I turned. Lion must have been speaking through a communicator or something, because it took a minute before the gate opened and a man emerged. Not that I would have noticed him if he hadn’t been the only person coming into view. In a crowd, he would have basically vanished completely. He looked completely ordinary and average in every conceivable way. He wasn’t short, and he wasn’t tall. He had dark hair with an unremarkable cut, his clothes were clean and might as well have been made by a company named Boring. He wore glasses, but they were so mundane that you would be forgiven for forgetting he had them at all five minutes after he walked away. The man seemed genetically predisposed to fade into the background of any situation, and everything he wore completely facilitated that. If I had seen this man in a crowd of people, I would have completely forgotten his existence a moment after they passed. Which, I was absolutely certain, was the intention. 

Stopping in front of us, the man offered a faint, polite smile. “Good morning,” he greeted me. 

“O-oh, umm, Paintball, this is ahh, my friend Jared,” Lion introduced us, raising one paw to gesture back and forth. “Jared, this ahh, this is Paintball. You uh, remember from the videos.”  

Videos? Oh God. As a pink flush of embarrassment crossed my hidden face, Jared gave a short nod and smiled at me. “You gave that demon guy a pretty good run across the city. Gave Lion and me a laugh, let me tell you.” 

Still blushing, I managed a casual shrug. “Yeah, well, I sorta had to run away, considering I wasn’t really in the mood to let him dribble me off the ground and toss me in a dumpster. My name is Paintball, not basketball.” 

“He could do it too,” Jared agreed with a grimace. “Glad you got away. And made him look like a fool in the process. But I hope you’re being careful.” 

My head bobbed. “Believe me, I have a lot to be careful about, it’s not just him.” 

“Indeed,” Lucent put in, “You have proven yourself quite adept at a great many things. But perhaps none as much as your proclivity for making enemies very quickly. The Scions and their admirers will not simply go quietly into the night. You must remain vigilant, and aware of your surroundings. I–” He paused before shaking his little bird head. “I will not attempt to insist that you join a larger group, particularly not now that you have gone so far as to attract others to your side and given yourselves a name. But please, be as careful as possible. And do not hesitate to ask others for help should you need it. I, for one, will always stand ready to swoop in and lend a wing, so to speak.” His dark eyes seemed to stare straight through my visor. “All parental jokes aside, I will be there the moment you request it. You have more than earned that aid. Please, you are enough of a hero as it is. Should the need arise, ask for help.” 

Feeling embarrassed and uncertain under the intense scrutiny, I squirmed a bit on my feet before mumbling an agreement. Then I turned back to Lion, as the little mouse carefully asked Jared to take off the backpack he was wearing. As a testament to how utterly mundane the man and his clothing were, I hadn’t even noticed he had one. But there it was. He carefully took the thing off. It was very simple-looking, a brown and white bag with what looked like a cheap padlock and several zippers across it. At a glance, the bag didn’t look any different than what you’d see on any of a thousand different backs walking through an average high school. But something told me it was much more unique than that.  

Sure enough, Lion explained that the bag was a home away from home. It held screens and microphones she could watch and communicate through, and was shielded in general against damage. Plus, there was a mouse-sized holdout bunker in the bottom that was capable of standing up against an incredible amount of damage if things got really bad. 

“Oh, you want me to wear that while we go visit Trevithick?” I realized. 

Her little mouse head bobbed quickly, voice emerging from the speakers built into her armor. “If you wouldn’t mind? I don’t umm, ahhh, think it would be very comfortable in your pocket.” 

Jared spoke up then. “You’ll have to wear this too.” He extended a hand, showing me a small pin. It looked just like a little silver eagle or hawk, with black beads for eyes. Except they weren’t beads. They were the lens for a camera. Jared explained that if I clipped it to the front of my costume, Lion would be able to see what I could. She could also see behind me through cameras in the bag, but this was her way of keeping an eye on what was going on in front of us. 

So, I carefully put the pin on, and Jared helped the mouse into the bag. We made sure it was all working and she could see and communicate with me properly before Lucent promised to talk to Lion later, and reiterated that he would see me somewhere else after I dropped off Lion. We settled on the roof of a grocery store we both knew about, and my bird-dad went flying off. 

Feeling a hand on my shoulder, I turned it to find Jared looking at me intently. “You be careful with her,” he warned. “The bag’s protected, but don’t go chasing problems while she’s there.”  

Before I could respond, the mouse’s projected voice came through speakers in the bag. “It’s ahh, okay, Jared. I’m sure um, Paintball will be ahh very cautious about running after trouble. Um, right?” Her voice took on a slight note of worry, probably considering my reputation in that moment.

Coughing under Jared’s intense stare, I weakly protested, “Oh, come on, I’m sure I can go five minutes without chasing after horrible bad guys or tripping over a bunch of crazy violence.” 

“Um, if it’s only five minutes,” Lion’s voice piped up once more, “maybe we should, ahh, hurry?” 

Jared warned me again not to go crazy, and I gave him a thumbs up before carefully adjusting the bag on my back. Cinching it tight, I spoke up. “Let me know if I need to slow down or anything. And uhh, I’ll avoid doing any flips.” With that, I raised a hand to shoot a blob of red paint toward the corner of nearby street light, and launched myself upward through a mix of that and blue paint under my feet, releasing the red on my way up so that I shot past it and used another red shot on the roof of a building across the street. Then we were flying that way. 

Landing on the roof in a jog, I asked, “How’re you doing in there? Everything okay? I can slow down if you want, or just take it easy on the jolts.” We were approaching the edge of the roof, but I slowed down to give her time to respond before the next jump. 

To my relief, she immediately chirped, “It’s quite alright, Mr. Paintball. The ahh bunker bag was built to dampen inertia and umm, compensate for sudden motion. You would have to move much faster than that to have any sort of problem. But umm, just in case, this–” There was a loud ringing sound, like an old telephone.  “–means please stop, there’s a problem.” 

Holding my hand in front of the pin-camera, I gave her a thumbs up. “That’ll definitely get my attention. Right, in that case, hold on. Or, you know, brace yourself.” 

With that, I pushed off from where I had stopped a few feet from the edge of the roof. Painting my legs green, I use the burst of speed to get there in an instant before activating purple circles on my arms. Using the boosted strength, I launched myself out into open air, windmilling a bit  before sending another shot of red at the side of the next building. I let it pull me that way, twisting a bit so that I landed feet-first against the wall, the gravity boots keeping me in place. Then I ran along that wall a few steps before using the voice code to make the wheels of my skates pop out. As we rolled toward the edge of the building, completely sideways, I called back, “Hope you’re ready back there, Miss Lion. 

“Cuz we’re about to have some fun.” 

*******

I didn’t go too nuts, of course. I kept my promise to avoid flips, for one thing. There might have been inertial dampeners in the bag, but I wasn’t sure how well they would stand up to going completely upside down. And I definitely didn’t want to test it with Lion in there. That felt like a really bad idea. Or at least a good way of ending up with an incredibly dizzy mouse. 

But I did make some long jumps and showed off a little, making sure Lion was okay after each one. She seemed to be enjoying herself, so I played it up a little more as we got closer to Wren’s place. Something told me she probably didn’t get out like this that often, so I wanted to make the whole thing memorable for her. Preferably without making her sick. 

Taking a moment at the end to make sure no one was close, I made my way through the alley leading up to the back of the shop while telling Lion that we were almost there. “Before you meet Trevithick,” I started, “there’s something about her that I should probably tell you ab–” 

“Paintball!” The back door of the shop was already open as we approached, and Wren came flying out. Literally flying, with her wing pack. As promised, she was wearing a costume… of sorts. It consisted of a sleek black bodysuit with bright pink armored panels along her arms, legs, and chest, and matching black helmet, covering her entire head and face. A pink-tinted visor ran across her eyes. 

She flew right up in the air at eye-level, and grabbed my shoulders, staring at me through that pink visor. “Didja bring her, is she here? You weren’t fibbing, were you? She’s really coming?” Her gaze was darting around excitedly, like a kid anticipating Santa’s arrival. Which, for a Tech-Touched like Wren, being able to talk to someone like Lion probably was a lot like Santa. I had a feeling there weren’t too many people the kid could talk shop with. 

Laughing a little despite myself, I nodded. “First of all, you really threw that together in ten minutes? And it’s okay, she’s here. Lion, this is Trevithick.” 

There was a very brief pause before Lion’s voice emerged, “It is ahh, a pleasure to meet you. Quite a pleasure. May umm, may we go inside so that it can be face to face?” 

Realizing she was in the bag, Wren gave a delighted squeal. She spun three-hundred-and-sixty degrees, all the way around in the air. Then she did it again, only that time it was a full forward vertical flip rather than a simple sideways spin. “Come on, come on!” Inverting in midair, she flew right back through the open doorway while calling back for us to follow her. 

Clearing my throat, I managed, “Like I was gonna say, she’s young. But really effective.” 

“I-umm, I believe you,” came the response. “From everything I’ve ahh, heard, her age is no detriment to her skill. She is the uhh, one who built the forced movement suit?” 

Right, of course she would know about that. Lion probably had contacts within all the Star-Touched groups to have learned about what we did with Ashton. Plus, she was clearly friendly with Lucent from the Seraphs, and they knew plenty because I’d ‘borrowed’ a piece of their technology for the suit. 

So, I nodded while heading to the door, not wanting to make Wren wait so long that she spontaneously combusted or something. Only belatedly did I realize that nodding was dumb, because Lion couldn’t see my head movements. Flushing a little inwardly while silently thanking the fact that no one had seen that, I spoke up. “Yeah, that’s her. She’s umm, she’s done a lot.” 

For a brief moment, I actually considered asking for her advice about Paige. But I wasn’t sure that was a good idea. Not that she wasn’t trustworthy, probably. But it really wasn’t my place to go exposing Paige like that to someone she didn’t even know. After all, with my secrets, how would I feel if one of the others took it upon themselves to tell someone else about them? Even if they thought the person could help, I’d still feel pretty shitty about it. 

So no, unless Paige said it was okay, I wasn’t going to get into all that with her. It wasn’t my place to make that sort of decision. Besides, I still needed to ask her what the deal with her older sister was. 

By the time I shook that thought off, we’d entered through the back door. Immediately, I saw Wren hovering over by one of the tables full of junk, clutching the side of it with both hands while literally vibrating in midair. She was hovering there, staring without moving any closer. Because, I realized, she was literally holding onto the table to stop herself from lunging my way and demanding once more to meet Lion. 

Oh yeah, and the others were there too. Fred stood in the background, watching with a wary, uncertain expression. He wore no costume at all, of course. Meanwhile, Murphy and Roald stood on either side of him. In their case, my two…. helpers wore their ski masks. Apparently they weren’t on board with exposing their identities to Lion. Which was fair. Not that it would be impossible for the little mouse to figure out if she actually investigated Wren’s shop at all, but still. 

Apparently Peyton wasn’t here yet. If she was smart (smarter than me, at least) she’d be using this chance to sleep in and relax.

Rather than torture Wren any further, I stepped over to the nearest table and slipped the backpack off. As I put the thing down, a little slot in the front opened and the guest of honor hesitantly poked her nose out. She snipped cautiously once, twice, then stepped into view. Her small head was darting around rapidly, looking almost panicked as she took everything in. By contrast with her rapid motions, her voice was actually fairly calm (at least as calm as she seemed to ever sound). “Ah, hello. It is uhh, my pleasure to meet another… ahhh… Tech-Touched such as you, Miss.” 

A rush of fear ran through me that Wren was going to squeal or scream and lunge that way, terrifying the poor mouse. But she actually seemed to understand what a bad idea that was. I saw her physically take a breath, then lower herself back to the ground before taking a few careful steps closer. “H-hi, Miss Lion.” Oh, and she sounded nervous, rubbing the back of her new helmet and squirming. “I’m… umm, I’m Wren. It’s really nice to meet you. Oh, that’s Uncle Fred.” She gestured that way. “And those are… uhhh…” She trailed off, as both she and I realized we weren’t sure what to call the other two if we weren’t giving away their names. 

Murphy, however, was on top of it. She gestured to her friend. “That’s Calvin. I’m Hobbes. Don’t mind us, we just clean up around here. Umm, Miss Talking Brilliant Mouse Lady.” Much as she was still trying to keep her cool and sound disinterested, I could tell it was all Murphy (or Hobbes) could do not to have a little squealing fit of her own. 

While Lion politely thanked everyone for greeting her, I heard Roald quietly hiss, “Calvin and Hobbes?” to Murphy. 

“Look,” she hissed right back, “that was what jumped into my head. It was that or Yogi and Boo Boo. And guess who would’ve been Boo Boo.” 

Smirking a little despite myself, I turned my attention back to Lion and Wren. “So, you guys cool to talk some shop here while I run around for awhile?” 

“Oh, oh yes.” Lion assured me. “I ahh, I believe we will be quite fine in your absence. 

“There is quite a lot I would like to speak with Miss Wren about.” 

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Winging It 19-01 (Summus Proelium)

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“Do you think Peyton’s okay?” Izzy asked the next morning while the two of us were sitting up on the roof overlooking the grounds. We both had our knees drawn to our chests while we ate a couple bowls of cereal and enjoyed the fact that we weren’t in immediate life-threatening danger. And, even though it had been most of a day since all that happened, I enjoyed the whole actually being able to move thing. Yeah, being paralyzed really wasn’t fun. 

After letting Flea know about everything yesterday (or at least as much as we could say), we had contacted Caishen too so she knew what was going on and what we had found out. Then the rest of us simply let the adult teams do their thing. We’d done quite enough by that point. And quite frankly, we all needed a break. That-A-Way and Raindrop had to go back to the Minority base to give a full, official report. And Peyton had definitely wanted to go home, shower, and recover from all that. I took a run with her across the city first, both of us stretching our legs and just making sure we could move properly, before I let her head home. Then I did the same thing, which had led to like an hour-long hot bath that I had fallen asleep in, followed by an actual nap in my bed. Then dinner, a rush of getting weekend homework done, some goofing off with Izzy once she showed up, and more sleeping. Yeah, I was exhausted, right down to my bones. 

Now I’d slept enough. God, I’d needed that though. More than I’d even known. 

It was Sunday, so most of the first staff had the day off. There were still a few weekend workers around, including one of Claudio’s peers, since he and his two assistants (Ethan and Christiana) would be gone all day. And honestly, it had practically been a fight between my parents and Claudio to get the chef to let someone else work the kitchen so he could have the day off. He had a thing against people, as he put it, bumbling around his space, fondling his instruments (that’s what he called it), and making a mess. If he’d had his way, he would’ve worked every single day. But Mom and Dad insisted he have a day off. Granted, that day off changed frequently, but he was keeping to the letter of the rule if he took one day off per week.  

In the end, he’d only even agreed to that much when they allowed him to choose his substitute. Which had amounted to going around every five-star restaurant within the entire state and making them audition for him until he found someone he was satisfied could handle coming in one day per week to work the kitchen without totally destroying it. And yes, he still wasn’t all that happy about the idea. He cursed and made threats every time someone brought up the idea of his taking two days off. Cooking was Claudio’s life. It was what made him happy. For him, it wasn’t a job, it was what he loved. 

Chewing and swallowing the cereal in my mouth, I offered a shrug. “Peyton? Yeah, I think she’s okay. I hope so. I just… I wish we could have eased her into things a little better instead of making her deal with… all that.” A grimace found its way to my face. Yeah, that definitely hadn’t been easy. But we got out of it. “We would’ve been in a lot more trouble without her.” 

“She knows that, right?” Izzy shifted a bit to look at me. “I mean, she should already, but you told her how helpful she was? You know, so she doesn’t umm, start thinking she didn’t help.” 

My head nodded vigorously. “Oh, believe me, I spent like the entire run across the city after we left you guys making sure she knew just how grateful I was that she came with us. Seriously. I think I embarrassed her a little bit.” A snort of amusement escaped me at the memory of Peyton stammering that it was no big deal, before it turned into a lump in my throat. “Still, I wish she didn’t have to be involved in all that. She’s been doing this like, what, a week and she’s already been involved with going into Paige’s brain to deal with that, plus now she’s made personal enemies out of Cup and Pencil? She’s not even getting the chance to build up at all. We just sort of picked her up and threw her in the deep end.” 

Izzy shook her head, taking another bite of cereal and swallowing before she spoke. “You didn’t throw her into anything. You didn’t throw me into anything either. Or Way, or… or Pack. We make our own decisions, and we decided to help. It’s not your responsibility to keep everyone out of danger, Cassie.” After a brief moment, she added, “Besides, it’s not like you had the chance to wade around the shallow end for a long time either. Like, your very first thing with any of this was finding out… you know.” She gestured around us. “Where all this comes from.” 

The reminder made me blanch, swallowing hard before giving a very short nod. “Right, well I don’t have to like it happening to other people too. But yeah, I umm, I think she’ll be okay. I told her to take a couple days off and recover before we do anything else stressful.” 

“You think she will?” Izzy asked, sounding curious as she tapped her spoon thoughtfully against the side of her bowl before taking another bite.   

I shrugged. “I mean, she said something about going to Wren’s to help Murphy and Roald clean up. It’s not a total ‘day off’, but at least it’s not something horribly dangerous. I guess maybe I’ll go over there a bit later too, just to check on Paige and all that. Heh, maybe she’d like to hear about what sort of things I can get up to while she’s not around.” 

“You just want to tell her what you did while she’s still paralyzed and can’t choke you,” Izzy retorted while giving me a pointed look.

Flushing a little, I admitted, “That might be part of it.” A frown found its way to my face then. “God, it’s weird to talk about Paige at all without like… thinking about needing holy water and maybe a priest to make her stay away from me.” It really did do weird things to my stomach. There was so much history there between us. Hell, no wonder her being so… so awful to me for so long had actually affected me as much as it had. If I subconsciously somehow still remembered the fact that we were supposed to be friends, it would have hurt so much more than coming from a stranger. 

Seeming to know exactly where my mind had gone, Izzy reached out to squeeze my arm. “She couldn’t control it,” the girl reminded me. “She didn’t have a choice about any of it.”  

With a sigh, I started to say that I knew she was right, but my Touched-stuff phone buzzed first. Holding the bowl in one hand, I tugged out the phone to look at it. It was not, as I had immediately feared, a message about something terrible happening. Instead, the message was a news alert about Cup and Pencil. I had set this phone to monitor that sort of thing instead of my normal one, just to keep everything in my life as separate as possible. And just in case, I really didn’t want to explain to my parents why I’d set up a news alert for Scion-related stuff. Not that I really expected them to look, nor was it really impossible for me to explain wanting to know what those psychopaths were up to after the whole attack at the hotel and hospital. But still, just… best to keep all that separate so my parents had absolutely no reason to look at me at all. 

“What is it?” Izzy asked, shifting around a bit to be closer. “Is something wrong? Did–” 

“It’s a story about Cup and Pencil,” I replied, turning the phone a bit so she could see the headline while summarizing for her. “They did it. The authorities, I mean. They put out the whole story about who they are. Their real names, their pictures, their backstory and how they faked that whole thing with their murdered parents and the ‘original Pencil.’ All of it. It’s all here. Everything we told the adults. They really put all of it out there.” 

“Oh wow.” Izzy rocked backward a bit, swallowing. “I mean, I know we expected them to, but… but still.” She hesitated before looking at me seriously. “Those guys are gonna be so pissed off.” 

My head bobbed quickly. “They sure are. But at least now they can’t operate as easily as they did before, you know? They’ll have eyes on them everywhere they go under their normal faces. They can’t… can’t… wait…” I had scrolled down by that point, my thumb moving along the screen to find the image of Pencil and Cup’s real faces. Someone had put up an image of the two of them at a school function. I knew Amanda, of course. But this was my first time seeing Nick himself. 

Except it wasn’t my first time seeing him. 

“Cass?” Izzy stared at me, clearly seeing the look on my face. “What’s wrong? Are you okay?” 

With a shaking finger, I pointed at the image on the screen. “I know him. I’ve seen him. I mean obviously I know Pencil. But him. He was… he was…” A shudder ran through me. “Back when I was looking for the vials for Ashton, I umm… I went out one night and saw the umm… the aftermath of one of the Scions’ sick little games at this gas station. A bunch of people died in there, thanks to… thanks to Pencil. I was standing there, and this guy came up in a jogging suit and demanded to know why no one ever stopped Pencil. He was… he was angry because we weren’t doing enough to save people.” 

Izzy’s gaze moved from my own eyes down to the image on the screen, then back again. “Him? It… it was him?” 

My head gave a quick, jerky nod. “Definitely. It was him. He was fucking with us. He was right there, demanding to know why no one ever caught Pencil, and it was him the whole time. It was him and–and we didn’t even–I didn’t even.” My eyes squeezed shut as I resisted the urge to hurl the phone as far away as I could. He had been right there talking to me. How did I just let him walk away after all that? How could I completely fail to see anything wrong with him? He walked right up to me, right up and just started talking. Was I stupid and clueless? I should have noticed that something was wrong. I should have paid more attention to him. There had to have been some sort of giveaway. If I’d just looked at him straight on, thought more about it, done–

“Cassie,” Izzy quietly insisted while setting her bowl down so she could lean over and put her arms around me. “It’s not your fault. Nobody recognized him. How could you? People don’t recognize you in your costume and all that either. That’s like… the point of a costume, you know? It’s the whole point of wearing a disguise. You had no reason to suspect that guy. Come on, you can’t blame yourself for that too.” 

“I know,” I admitted, still shuddering. “But I just–if I had–if we had. I can’t…” Exhaling long and low, I nodded. “I get it. Believe me. I just–he was right there. He was talking to me. It makes my skin crawl.” Belatedly, I added, “My dad was right there too, as Silversmith, I mean. He was there and talked to him too.” How was he feeling right now? Did he even remember that guy showing up and talking to us, or had it just faded into the background for him? How much did he even care about that? 

Okay, that really wasn’t fair. I knew he hated the Scions, especially after what they did at the hospital. Pencil and his gang weren’t under any sort of Ministry control, so he and Mom obviously wanted them taken out as much as anyone else did. I just couldn’t help those instinctive feelings. 

“If he knew, he would have stopped the guy too.” Izzy’s voice was firm. “Your dad might be… umm, not good. But he would have stopped that.” 

With a sigh, I nodded. “You’re right. I know. I know you’re right. Dad’s a lot of things, but he’s not… he’s not like that. They have rules and stuff, we already know that much. I just…” Taking in a long, deep breath before slowly letting it out, I murmured, “I really hope someone stops them now. I don’t care who it is, which side of the law they’re on. I don’t care about any of that as long as they stop those psychopaths.” 

The other girl nodded firmly, and the two of us sat in silence for a few seconds. Then, clearly distracting me from obsessing over that, Izzy asked, “You’ve got that other thing today too, right? Before you can help at Wren’s place.” 

The reminder made me smile just a bit despite myself. “Right, yeah. The other thing. 

“I get to go hang out with Bird-Dad.” 

*******

After leaving the house and making damn sure I was nowhere near it, I made the call to the Seraph’s headquarters and had them transfer me to Lucent so we could set up the exact time to meet. Apparently he wasn’t too busy, because he said he could meet within the hour, and asked if I was still okay with him bringing his friend. I said that was fine (I was curious about who this ‘friend’ of his was and why he thought we should meet), and arranged to be at the front gates as soon as possible.  

Heading over there, I kept my eyes open just in case. I wasn’t really expecting a huge problem, considering how many people had their eyes open for Pencil and Cup. They were probably pretty busy dealing with the fallout from that, but better safe than sorry. We were going to have to be careful, because as soon as those fucks decided to turn from survival and escape to revenge, all of us were going to be right at the top of their list. Which was just peachy. 

Eventually, I made it up there and landed in front of the gate. Matthew Orens was there, and I started to ask if he had the cover for the book, but the man interrupted. “Never mind that right now. You okay, kid? I ahhh, well, everybody heard about what happened. At least, what’s semi-public. And I’ve been around long enough to know that ain’t the whole story. You got those assholes’ real identities, and that can’t have been easy.” 

Blinking a couple times, I replied, “Uh, me being involved wasn’t in the official story.” That was intentional, we didn’t want quite that much attention. The Scions were going to be pissed off enough at us without throwing more fuel on the fire. As far as the regular media was concerned, their real identities had been discovered through the work of police and the Conservators. 

Orens gave me an easy nod. “Yeah, that’s why I said semi-official. Believe me, when you work around this many Touched, things have a way of getting around.” His voice softened a bit as he added, “But seriously, that had to be pretty rough. Glad you got out of it. Everyone okay?”  

“Yeah, we’re okay,” I confirmed, painting a smiley face on the front of my helmet. “I’m just glad they’ve got those guys on the run now. It won’t be as easy for them to walk around on the street. I mean, it won’t solve every problem. And things will probably get worse before they get better. And–damn it, this was supposed to be a positive thing. I should really stop talking.”

With a very light, almost humorless chuckle, the man assured me. “It’s definitely positive, that’s for sure. Still, you be careful out there. Not just for the Scions themselves. They’ve also got fans and wannabes. If they figure out what your involvement was, they’ll try to make a name for themselves by coming after you. You know, impress their heroes to get a spot on the team.” 

Blanching at the thought that there were people who actually wanted to impress those psychopaths, I gave a short nod. “Thanks, we’ll keep our eyes open. But hey, let’s get that book done. You said Josh’s birthday was Wednesday, right? We better finish that up.” 

He already had the pages I’d given him bound properly into a cover, and I took the time to make a cool picture on the front. Then I put a brief description on the back and added the finishing touch to the inside cover, a bit that read, ‘For Josh, from Dad, Paintball, and the rest of Avant-Guard. Happy birthday.’

Reading that bit, Orens raised an eyebrow. “Avant-Guard? You know it’s spelled–”

“Yup,” I quickly assured him. “We ahhh, we’re testing out a new name. What do you think?”

Reading it over again, the man considered. “Oh, it’s definitely unique. Shouldn’t have to worry about it being taken. You know how to sign up to register your team name and membership so the authorities know who they’re dealing with?” 

I didn’t, of course, and the man gave me the name of a website to go to that would walk me through it. Of course, it wouldn’t give any real authority or anything. Nothing more than what being accepted as a Star-Touched already gave. But it was a way of giving the authorities an easy way to check team membership and know who they were working with. 

After I thanked him, the man shook his head and smiled broadly while waving the book. “No, thank you, kid. This is perfect. It’s gonna be great, he’ll love it. And I meant what I said before. You really should look into taking some extra grammar and writing classes so you can do this sort of thing for an extra living. Pretty sure it’d give you all the free time you need so you can set your own hours. Give it a thought, you’ve got a few years.” 

As my face flushed a little bit under the helmet, I thanked him profusely and promised to check in later to see how his son ended up liking his gift. With that, I turned to the gate just in time to hear a voice pipe up from just above me. 

“Sir Orens is correct, my boy. You should be thinking of the future. One never truly understands just how fast time moves until far too much of it has already passed us by.”

Blinking up that way, I brought the big smiley face back and waved. “Hey, Papa! Fancy meeting you here.” 

Hopping down from the fence to land on top of a nearby trash can, Lucent gave me what I swore was a proud bird look. “I’ve heard all about how busy you’ve been, lad. I hope you take Sir Orens’ advice. Not merely his words about planning for the future, but about being careful as well. He is very correct. The fiends will see you and yours as fine targets now. And did I hear you and your allies have settled upon a group identity?” 

So, I told him about the whole Avant-Guard thing. He thought it was amazing, and said so. He even gave some ideas for logos and such, and we spent about five minutes or so just going back and forth on those thoughts before a voice spoke up from near the ground. “Excuse me?” 

Blinking that way, I found myself looking at a familiar, very tiny figure perched there on the ground. My eyes widened a bit and I immediately blurted, “Lion!” Yeah, it was the mouse TONI (TOuched Nonhuman Individual). Pretty hard to mistake a talking mouse in golden armor for anyone else. “Hey, how’re you doing? I didn’t know you were still in town. You–” Blinking from her over to Lucent, I managed, “This is your friend?” 

“That’s right.” Lucent flew down to land next to her. “She wanted to talk to you again. Or rather, she wanted to talk to your friend.” 

“My friend?” I echoed. 

Lion hesitantly took over. “The umm, the person who has been supplying you. We… umm… we think you have a Tech-Touched helping and ahhh, umm, if it isn’t too much of an imposition, I would like to umm… talk to… them? While you and ahh, Lucent here are busy.” 

For a second, I let the thought of that work its way through my brain. Lion and Wren having a conversation, those two collaborating and… and…

A smile found its way to my face, as I translated it into an even broader one painted across my helmet. “You know what? Yeah. 

“I think that sounds like a great idea.”  

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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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