Mars Bar

New Deals 13-06 (Summus Proelium)

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For a few long seconds, I just sat there, frozen from confusion. Pack saw two guys standing there talking to Blackjack. But I saw my parents. Was I being affected by some kind of power that made me see things differently? No. That didn’t make sense, did it? No one in here knew enough about me to make me see my family members over there. Plus, if it was some kind of ‘see people you know’ power or something, Pack wouldn’t just be seeing two random guys. 

Okay, so it wasn’t that. My flash of panic that someone in here knew about my identity and my family and was fucking with me only lasted a brief moment before I got it under control. There was another explanation, one that didn’t involve all my secrets suddenly being out, thank God.

“Dude.” Pack sounded confused and maybe a little exasperated. “Are you okay over there?” 

Was I okay? Hah. Not really, considering the way my heart had just been trying to claw its way out of my chest so it could escape. “Sorry,” I quickly muttered, resisting the urge to stare at Blackjack and the people who were either my parents or looked exactly like them. “It’s been a long day.” And from the looks of it, getting longer by the minute. Wait, all days got longer by the minute. Fuck, I knew what I meant. “You were talking about those… guys.”

Guys, she saw guys. It had to be a power of some kind, right? My parents–wait, was that how they hid their identities? By appearing as different people to others–but why would I see them for who they were? Was I immune to the power or something? Why would I be–hold on…

“Like I said,” Pack was in the middle of replying in a low voice, “they came in to talk to Blackjack. I didn’t hear a lot before they went into the other room, but I heard a name. Tate.” 

That made me do a double-take, looking at her while seeing my mother and father still in the middle of what seemed to be an intense conversation. “Tate? You definitely heard that?” 

“Yeah, as in the name of that kid you were talking to Way about,” she confirmed. “What was it–Andy? Tate, that was right, wasn’t it?” For a brief moment, she sounded uncertain. 

“Anthony,” I corrected in a much lower voice. I still wasn’t comfortable here like this. “Anthony Tate, yeah. So those two came in and talked to your boss, and they said something about Tate.”

“I told you,” she reiterated, “I didn’t hear much. They went into the other room pretty quick. I heard something about Tate, and then something about someone’s father being dead.”

Blinking a couple times, I echoed, “Someone’s father being dead? Whose?” 

Snorting, Pack retorted, “The fuck should I know? I wasn’t exactly in a position to ask for clarification, dude. They said something about someone’s father being dead–oh, I kind of got the impression this wasn’t something new. The way they said it, he’s been dead for awhile.” 

Someone’s father had been dead for awhile. Biting my lip, I tried to sound as casual as possible. “Which one of them said it? What’d they say, exactly? I mean, as much as you can remember.”   

The other girl took a moment, clearly focused on recalling as best as she could. “The guy with the red hair said, ‘The Tate situation was supposed to be over and done with. We put it behind us.’ Then Blackjack said, ‘At least the father’s dead.’ Wait. Wait, did he say ‘the father’ or ‘your father?’ Shit. Now that I think about it, I’m not sure. He either said ‘At least the father’s dead’ or ‘At least your father’s dead.’ Then they went into the other room.” 

Sinking back in my seat, I thought about that for a few seconds. The Tate situation, my parents were annoyed because something about it was coming back to bother them after they thought it was handled. But what? Was it something about Paige? Paige had been erased from my memory around the same time that Anthony was, and I’d heard her talking about how whatever she was doing had something to do with him. She’d specifically said that my mom and dad had no idea where she came from or why she was doing… whatever she was doing because they hadn’t thought about the name Anthony Tate in years. So of course they were connected, but how much of that did my parents know? Was this whole conversation about the Tate situation not being over because of Paige, or because of something else? What prompted that? 

“You sure you’re okay?” Pack was asking, her voice clearly uncertain as she absently scratched one of her lizards. “Do you know those guys over there or something?” 

Boy, talk about being simultaneously very wrong and very right. For a moment, brief as it was, I almost considered telling her about how I wasn’t seeing those two the way she was. But that would’ve led to her asking who I was actually seeing. And even if I just described them instead of saying they were my parents, she’d definitely start looking into those details. And if that led her to who they really were… well, was that really bad? Did I think it was bad because it would put her in danger, or because it would put my family in danger? Which one was I really bothered more by? God damn it, what was wrong with me? 

Finally, after shaking myself, I nodded. “I’ll be fine. And no, I’ve never seen those two guys.” Hell, those words were the literal truth, I had most certainly never seen the two guys she was talking about, not even when I looked right at the two who were supposed to be them. 

And yet it was still a lie. A lie that made me feel like shit after saying it. Pack was a villain, but she’d also been my friend. She’d helped me, had gone out of her way to come save me from Pencil. She had put her lizards in danger to help me, and how was I paying her back? 

Fuck. This whole thing was just so complicated. Too god damn complicated. I had no idea how to make it better. I couldn’t tell her the truth. Not… not yet, right? But no matter how many times I said ‘not yet,’ it was becoming increasingly obvious that I was going to have to make that kind of leap at some point. Once I did, it would be a leap I couldn’t take back. And it felt like the longer I waited, the harder the fall after that leap was going to be. 

I couldn’t see her face, of course, but I had the feeling that Pack was squinting at me uncertainly. After a moment of that, she shook her head. “Well, keep an eye out for them. Sounds like they’re connected to this Anthony Tate thing you’ve been looking into. And…” She hesitated before offering a shrug. “And that other thing you were talking about.” Apparently even Pack didn’t actually want to mention the Ministry out loud right here in the casino. 

“I’ll see what I can find out,” I promised, before adding, “Thanks, Pack. Seriously, I know this whole thing is hard for you after everything La Casa’s done.” 

“Yeah, well, I’m not doing anything against La Casa,” she insisted firmly. “Just looking out for my own interests on top of that. I wanna get to the bottom of this whole thing. I–” In mid-sentence, she glanced over before squinting. “And there they go.” 

Sure enough, my parents and Blackjack were walking away together, heading for one of the exits. Not the one I had come through, of course. 

After we both watched the trio head off, Pack turned back to me. “Right, so, about this whole Trevithick thing. You want help getting Braintrust to play nice.” 

“I want to make sure they know that pushing any harder is going to end up being more of a pain than it’s worth,” I confirmed. “I know we can’t get away with telling them to fuck off completely. Not like that. But giving them something so they feel like they’re walking away the winners, while making sure they know they can’t get anything more than that without a bigger fight? That sounds doable. I mean, with help, yeah.” 

Pack was quiet for another few seconds, before she gave a short nod. “I like the kid. Not just gonna sit around and let her be exploited. So yeah, I’ve got your back. Just tell me when and where so we can make an impression.” 

Thanking her, I added, “Speaking of making an impression, you’ve gotta tell me. What does the new lizard turn into?” 

“Scatters?” There was sly amusement to the girl’s voice. “Oh, I’m not telling you yet. 

“You’ll just have to wait and find out.”

*****

I couldn’t just leave Wren out of the situation entirely, much as I might’ve liked to. That wasn’t fair to her, given the fact that the whole thing was about Braintrust wanting to use her talents in one way or another. She deserved to know what was going on and be included in this situation.

So, Pack and I went there next. Actually, we called to arrange a meeting the next day, but Fred said the kid tended to work through the night and sleep in the mornings (being home-schooled through the afternoon). So, we headed over right then. To keep things subtle and avoid drawing attention to the girl, we used her car (or at least, a car that La Casa allowed her to use), with heavily tinted windows, heading for Wren’s shop. 

The girl herself met us on the main shop floor, literally (with the help of her little winged jetpack thing) throwing herself clear from the elevator to the entrance to half-crash into the girl beside me for a tight hug while squealing, “Pack! You’re okay! Hi! Are the lizards okay?! Can I see ‘em? Are they sleeping? Can I pet ‘em? Are they hungry? Can I feed ‘em? Did you really get a new one? Is it a boy or a girl? Did you bring her? Wait, did you eat already? Are you hungry? We could get pizza. For us, not for the lizards. But I have crickets and worms and stuff for them just in case! Hey, maybe they could put those on a pizza!” 

The words all came in a rush, blurted out as soon as Wren thought of them, without any pause to allow Pack to actually respond. And through it all, she clung tightly to the other girl as if she was a long-lost best friend who had only just returned. It reminded me of the fact that these two had bonded for days while Pack stayed around Wren when the whole situation with the vials was going on. Pack wasn’t some criminal to Wren. She was a friend. 

Then again, she wasn’t some criminal to me either. It was a lot more complicated than that. More complicated than even she knew, really. I didn’t exactly have that much right to judge her given who my family was and the fact that I still hadn’t told anyone about it. Yeah, it was dangerous, but it was also… fuck. It was complicated. All of it was just so complicated. 

Shaking that off for the moment, I watched as Pack introduced Scatters to Wren, who basically lost her mind over the adorable little neon gecko. Pack pulled the rest of her lizards out of their cage and carried them to the nearby table, where they ate from the assortment of reptile-appropriate food that the Tech-Touched girl had provided. Wren, of course, asked the same thing I had, about what Scatters turned into. Again, Pack deferred for the moment, promising to show both of us after we talked to the girl about what we had to talk about. 

And then we did just that. Well, after asking for Fred (he’d been up in the apartment area) to come down so we could talk to both of them together. I laid out everything that happened with Braintrust, how they had approached me, their offer/request/demand, and why I thought it was for the best to appease them at the moment to avoid any problems. I promised that I was going to look into dealing with their group for good, but that that was a long ways off and I didn’t want Wren or Fred to become targets in the meantime. 

“I’m not making anything for them,” the nine-year-old blonde insisted flatly, folding her arms stubbornly across her chest while setting her chin. “They’ll hurt people with it. And I’m not helping them fix their own stuff.” 

“Yeah,” I replied with a glance toward Fred. “That’s kinda what I assumed. Which leaves the option of paying taxes to them for operating in the city. Pack and me are gonna go over there, find them, and let them know that they’ll get a small bit out of whatever you sell, and that’s it.” 

“But you can’t just beat them up and arrest them?” Wren sounded confused, staring at me with those wide sea-green eyes. “They’re bad guys, they do really bad… err…” She trailed off, glancing toward Pack as though only just realizing that the other girl was technically a villain.

Pack, for her part, sounded a little amused as she casually drawled, “Everyone’s got their reasons for doing stuff. And everyone’s got friends that do bad things sometimes. These guys aren’t your friends, and they’re demanding you give them money or toys to hurt people with.” 

“Yeah, what she said.” I agreed, before adding, “And I’m pretty sure I’m not ready to take on a whole gang of Touched-Tech-Enhanced supercriminals yet.” My fingers tapped the side of my helmet. “Not that I haven’t pissed off plenty of them already, but it feels like I should pace myself.” I did not point out that I didn’t want Wren and Fred to be targets. It felt like the younger girl wouldn’t take that very well. I wasn’t sure if she’d insist she could take care of herself, or be upset that I wasn’t fighting the bad guys just to protect her, or what. But I was pretty sure framing it as me having too much to take on right then without adding yet another gang of pissed off supervillains would play better with her.

From the way Fred looked at me, he understood the rest of what I wasn’t saying. The man offered me what was obviously a thankful nod, but let his niece do most of the talking. 

It worked. Wren still clearly didn’t like the idea of appeasing the bad guys, for sure. But she accepted that it wasn’t a fight we needed right now and that the best way to handle it was to hand money to them so they’d go away. At least until we were ready. She did, however, insist that she was going to work on ideas to deal with Braintrust while also reiterating that she was never going to build anything for them, no matter what. That was her firm line in the sand. 

After that was settled, Pack took Scatters and transformed the tiny, colorful lizard into her alternate form. Which, as it turned out, was an equally colorful large reindeer. Seriously, this thing was metallic blue along most of the body, its legs were darker blue, it had a black stripe running down the sides to offset the two blues, and its head and antlers were bright green. 

Wren lost her mind all over again, grabbing onto and hugging the incredibly beautiful reindeer-lizard while cooing about how adorable she was. 

Pack informed us that they were working on a saddle for Scatters, after helping Fred pick Wren up and set her on the animal’s back. The young inventor held on tight, squealing happily as Scatters took her for a short, slow trot around the inside of the shop. She was having the time of her life. Which made me wonder how much she’d love it if the lizard-deer could go out on the street and let loose. 

Someday, I told myself, I’m gonna show that kid how to have a really good time, without a bunch of stupid supervillain bullshit getting in the way.

Pack interrupted my thoughts about that by raising her voice to ask, “Hey, Wren, you think my new friend is cool, has Paintball over there shown you his new paint thing yet?” 

“New paint thing?” Wren, still perched atop the neon lizard-deer, echoed curiously while looking over at me. Fred, standing a bit out of the way, also looked interested. 

So, I showed them how the pink paint worked. That was as much of a hit as Scatters was, especially once I showed Wren how she could stretch her limbs out while they were pink. She thought that was the funniest thing in the world, and kept having Fred hold her hand in place while she ran the other way to pull her arm as far out as she could. 

Watching the kid goofing off like that while occasionally redoing the pink paint again, or shooting some random object she pointed out with it, I found my thoughts shifting back to what I’d seen at the casino. My parents except not my parents. They had been at the casino in some kind of… power-enhanced disguise? Except whose power? Maybe it was a Tech-Touched device. Right, that made sense. Some kind of… umm…illusion-generator that somehow didn’t work on our own family? Maybe so that they could keep track of each other and still see each other for who they–wait. 

Was that why I’d seen Simon out without any kind of mask or anything on? Was that why he’d been going around apparently without anything to protect his identity, because he was using one of those illusion devices? That made sense too. I’d wondered before about just why my brother could go around without a mask or anything to hide his face. If he was using that illusion tech, it would explain a lot. Even if it didn’t explain exactly where those illusion devices came from. At the very least, it made sense that my family would have access to them. 

Which might also explain how my father could be in two places at once, come to think of it. It could help explain how he could operate as Silversmith and appear as himself at the same function, if they used that illusion tech on someone else to look like him. That was probably part of it. 

“Hey, kid.” That was Fred, watching me curiously from nearby while Pack and Wren whispered about something over by Scatters. “You okay? Seemed kinda… lost there for a minute.” 

Forcing all those thoughts away for the time being, I made myself nod. “Oh, yeah. I’m good. I just found a couple pieces to a puzzle I’ve been working on for a long time.” 

Of course, this illusion thing meant it would be even harder for me to prove my family were the bad guys even if I found someone I could safely point that out to. What was I supposed to do, point at someone who, to everyone else looked like some random guy, and insist he was my mother? Somehow, I didn’t think that would go very well. To say nothing of all the other illusion-tricks they could pull. 

It was something, at least. As I’d told Fred, it was a couple more pieces to this puzzle. It didn’t solve the entire problem, but at least it answered a couple questions for me. True, none of those answers were to the question of what I was supposed to do with everything I knew. But hey, at least I was making progress. 

While lost in those thoughts, my normal phone buzzed in my pocket. Knowing that I had to check in case it was my parents so they didn’t send out a search party, I made sure no one was paying attention before tugging it out. It was an e-mail, and I almost put it away again before doing a double-take. The e-mail was an invitation to a birthday party on Saturday, just a few days away. That wasn’t that odd, considering how many birthdays and other things I got invited to regularly. The odd part was that it was for Paige. 

Now why the hell would Paige Banners invite me to her birthday party? 

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New Deals 13-05 (Summus Proelium)

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In case you missed it, there was a commissioned interlude focusing on a certain very special termite colony posted yesterday. If you haven’t seen it, you might want to use the Previous Chapter button above. 

I’d seen casinos in person before. Not that I’d actually stepped inside them, of course. But my family and I had stayed at hotels where casinos were, and I’d seen the rooms themselves from a distance. This one, though, was far different from those glimpses I’d had of the public versions. Emerging from the elevator, I didn’t see a massive, wide-open area full of bright, colorful slot machines loudly clanging and chiming everywhere. I didn’t see neon lights, scantily-clad women walking around with trays of snacks and drinks, or… anything I typically associated with an idea of what a casino floor looked like from my own experiences and movies. 

Instead, I mostly saw an enormous circular room, big enough to hold a full-size basketball game in. Directly in the middle of that circular room was an equally circular bar that took up maybe one-fourth of the space. There were a bunch of people sitting at the bar, and others serving them from behind it. Or within, rather, given the fact it was a circle. Either way, most of them, employees and guests alike, were wearing masks of various kinds. It wasn’t one hundred percent or anything. I did see a couple people’s faces. And some of the masks were clearly more elaborate or expensive than others. But elaborate or cheap, most people wore something that in some way obscured their identities, just as Paige had said. 

The bar itself seemed to be made entirely of glass in a way that was clearly deliberately meant to resemble ice. It was ‘frosted over’ in places, had actual buckets of ice sitting out with bottles resting in them, and so on. As if the whole thing had been carved out of a frozen block.  

The floor under my feet resembled ice-like glass as well. It was like stepping onto a skating rink, except not slippery at all. Actually, there was a tiny bit of bounce to the floor, making it soft to walk on despite its appearance. And it wasn’t just the floor that maintained that appearance. The walls, the decorations, the soft blue lighting that filled the room, it was all winter themed. 

Meanwhile, in the area immediately surrounding the bar, there were tables where people were quietly playing cards. On the far side of the room, opposite where I had come in, there were the games like roulette and craps. You had to go up a very short flight of about three steps to a vaguely raised area to reach those tables, and there was some kind of guard or bouncer posted next to the steps. What he was there for, I wasn’t exactly sure. But he was definitely a big guy, and it looked like he had a visible gun attached to his hip. So they weren’t screwing around. Like the rest of the people in here, the bouncer over there wore a mask. His was shaped like a bull’s head, with actual horns. He looked like a modern minotaur armed with a Glock or something.

Finally, there were doors scattered around the entire outside edge of the large room, even some up on the raised area where the roulette and craps tables were. Most of the doors had keypads next to them, as well as some kind of intercom. Some were labeled with numbers and names I didn’t know the meaning of, like ‘Starfall’ or ‘Viridescent.’ It was that latter door that I saw Paige pass through, giving me one last look and wave before it closed after her. 

Other doors were more simply named with obvious meanings like, ‘Slots Room 1’ or ‘Karaoke Room 3.’ I didn’t really need to think much about those ones, obviously. 

Curious, I checked the maps and GPS thing that Wren had included in my helmet display. As expected, they were offline. People like me weren’t allowed to know where this place was. 

Just as I managed to take all of that in, a voice from one side drew my attention. “Ahh, Mr. Paintball.” It was a man in a well-tailored suit, wearing a white, form-fitting mask against his face with only his mouth exposed. Even his eyes seemed to be covered, though he could clearly see through it. He was approaching me briskly, his voice quick, yet polite. “Such a pleasure to have you take a look at our establishment. I trust you have been informed of the rules here.” 

“No fighting, no trying to unmask people, no acting like you know them if they haven’t introduced themselves to you, mind your own business, basically?” I offered with a shrug. “I got the rundown, yeah.” And unless I missed my guess, this guy had probably already heard everything that had happened outside from Tell. 

“Very good, sir,” the white-masked man politely replied with a slight nod. “We take such rules quite seriously here, I assure you. That is how we remain in business. I am called Chips. Was there anyone you wished to meet, a game you might like to try? Rest assured, we also have rooms full of the finest and most advanced… ahhh… ‘video games’ if you would like to rent time by the hour.” 

Before I could say anything to that, Pack approached from around one of the nearby tables with a quick, “I’ve got it, Chips. Thanks. Paintball just needed to settle a little bet we made while all that was going on with the boss’s kid.” She had Riddles perched on one shoulder (in lizard form), but her other pets weren’t in view.   

“Very good, Miss Pack,” came the crisp response. “Please do let someone know if you require anything further. It would be our pleasure to provide for someone who was so instrumental in the protection of our princess.” 

He pivoted on one heel then, striding away. Watching him go, I lowered my voice. “So what did you want to show me? Please tell me it’s not the sick game room you rented out.” 

Instead of answering right away, Pack glanced around before turning. “This way, walk with me.” Turning, she headed around the edge of the room, counter-clockwise. Riddles, on her shoulder, turned a bit as though making sure I was following. 

So, I did. Picking up the pace to catch up with her, I spoke up. “Look at all the people around here. You wouldn’t know it was… wait, what time is it? I’ve lost track. It’s been a busy night.”

On the way, I saw some people look up from their games or drinks. They didn’t pay too much attention, given that was apparently against the rules. But my appearance obviously made them curious. Yeah, I had no idea what they were making of the fact that I was here. How well known was the fact that I had helped Blackjack with his daughter?

“It’s about one in the morning,” came the response, before Pack gestured to a table in a darker area far from any of the games. Her lizards were all spread out over the surface, happily crawling over one another as well as eating and drinking from bowls that had been laid out for them. Except… 

“Hey,” I spoke up, pointing to a tiny (seriously, it was about the length of her finger) lizard with a neon blue body and bright green head. “That one’s new.” 

Pack pulled out a chair, sitting down before kicking the leg of another for me to join her. She put her hand down close to the lizard in question, letting it run up her fingers. Then she lifted her opposite hand, watching as the beautiful thing jumped almost a foot to reach it. “This is Scatters. She’s new, yeah.” 

Taking the offered seat, I smiled behind my helmet, leaning a bit closer. “She’s really pretty.” 

“Believe me, she knows,” Pack drawled, setting the lizard back on the table near a bowl of water. “She’s a daredevil and a show-off.” Shaking her head, she focused on me, her voice low. “Okay, so my thing I can’t really show you yet. People came to talk to Blackjack.” 

“Wait.” I quickly put in. “Should we be saying anything? I mean with–” 

“It’s okay,” she interrupted. “No surveillance allowed in the casino. And trust me, I know how fucking weird that is. They have ways of checking for cheaters, but they don’t allow cameras, bugs, or any kind of recording devices. It’s the only way this place attracts the clientele it does, and they have lots of people come in to make sure it stays that way. No one wants to have any chance that things they say in here, or even just the fact that they were here, could get out. See those things up near the ceiling?” She gestured to what looked like loudspeakers positioned throughout the room. “They stop your phone from working, any GPS you have, cameras, audio recording equipment, whatever. None of that stuff works in here, even for us. And I had Eits check, just to be completely sure. If it ever got out that La Casa did keep any kind of surveillance here, this place would be completely dead. And everyone else in the city would probably unite to attack us.” 

“What about people with eavesdropping powers?” I pointed out quickly. “Enhanced hearing, that kind of thing.” Even if they couldn’t record what we were saying, I really didn’t want to take the chance of anyone even hearing it. There was too much at stake, too many ways someone having the slightest idea of what we were doing could totally fuck all of us over, evidence or no.

“Stand up,” Pack urged, gesturing for me to move. “Take a step over there and look at me.” 

Uncertain, I did so, rising from the chair and taking a few steps away. Again, I could see a few people glance over, some clearly more interested than they actually wanted to show. I was a young boy (as far as they knew) Star-Touched sitting in this secret casino. Obviously, they were a bit curious. Which, again, made me wonder just what they thought was really happening here.

Either way, I took those few steps away before looking at Pack. She pointedly reached up, lifting the black, featureless mask enough (revealing dark skin) that I could see her mouth open as she started to speak. And I heard… nothing. Her mouth was moving, but no sound was coming out. Or– she beckoned for me to come closer. So I did, and she held up a hand to stop me, reaching up to take my arm. Mouth still moving, she pulled me forward and down to be within a foot of her. Instantly, I heard her reciting some monologue speech. It sounded like it was from a play or a movie or something. Whatever it was, she was reciting it carefully. After another word, she gave me a push backward by the arm. The second my head was a few inches further away, the sound disappeared. Her mouth kept moving, but I heard absolutely nothing. 

Pack repeated that a couple times, pulling me forward to hear, then pushing me back to demonstrate that the sound disappeared. Finally, she gestured for me to sit down, tugging her mask back down over her mouth as she explained, “Touched-Tech attached to the tables. Makes it impossible to hear things if you’re not invited to the meeting. No eavesdropping allowed. Again, that’s how this place can function as a place for secret meetings, dude. You think we’re the only ones who would be in deep shit if our secrets got out? This whole world revolves around secrets. Nobody would trust La Casa’s casino as a place to have their meetings at if there was any chance, any chance those secrets might get out. Like I said, they have independents and people from other gangs show up to inspect the place. Blackjack isn’t gonna risk giving up the money all these people bring in just to catch a random secret or two before people figure things out and we all become public enemy number one.” 

She had a point. I knew that. Everything she said made complete logical sense. Still, I didn’t like it. It was too risky. Which maybe made me too paranoid. All the stuff Pack told me about how protected everyone’s privacy was in this place, and I still didn’t trust it. Because the real problem was, the second I trusted something like that and was wrong was the second everything fell apart. I couldn’t take that kind of risk, not with something like that. The thought of any of these bad guys, even Blackjack, finding out who my parents were was just… bad. Very bad. 

So, I wasn’t going to say anything too dangerous, just in case. But I supposed the bit about Wren wasn’t the worst possible thing for anyone to overhear if the privacy measures failed or whatever. With that in mind, I explained everything that had happened with Cavalcade and Glitch, how Braintrust wanted Wren to start paying her way in one form or another. Though I still used the kid’s chosen Touched name instead of her real one. I also made a point of not outright talking about how this was obviously related to the Ministry tax thing, but the implications between my words were obvious enough that I could tell the other girl picked up on it. 

When I was done, Pack gave a long series of muttered curses. “Those guys are pretty arrogant fucks, huh? I don’t suppose just going in there and beating their asses is an option.” 

“I don’t think I’m quite ready to challenge a gang like that, even if you helped,” I murmured dryly. “Kinda got a lot going on as it is. Besides, they’d be after Trevithick, not me. And I can’t be there to help her twenty-four seven. I don’t wanna put her under that kind of pressure.” 

Shrugging then, I added, “I mean, sure, working on getting rid of Braintrust is a noble goal and all. Probably more noble than you care about. But that’s a long term thing. Short term, keeping them happy and away from Trevithick is the best way to go.” 

“She’s not gonna make stuff for them,” Pack observed quietly, leaning back in her seat as she watched me for a moment. “All the time I spent with that kid during that whole thing… yeah, she’ll never go for that part. She is not gonna make toys for the evil, terrible supervillains.” I had a feeling her eyes were rolling a bit as she over-stressed those last few words pointedly. 

“You’re right,” I agreed. “She won’t make stuff for them and she won’t consult on any of their projects. That’s just… that’s not her. I–well, maybe she would. If she thought it would help us, if she thought her uncle or one of us was in danger, she might do what they said just to protect them. But it would… it would hurt her. She’d hate it. She’d–I don’t want to do that to her.”

“So what are you gonna do?” Pack asked curiously, fingers idly brushing the head of Mars Bar.

“I think the best thing to do is to tell her about the tax part, about paying them out of money that she makes selling her stuff,” I carefully answered. “I can help a bit.” I could help more than a bit, but I didn’t want to be too cavalier about the money I had access to. It felt like that might be a bit risky as far as maintaining my secret identity went. “But the point is, it’ll take time to set all that up. Meaning I need to make sure the Braintrust people understand they’re only getting a little bit and that it’ll be awhile before they start seeing any of it. And that if they start playing hardball, it won’t go well for them.”

“You want backup for that,” Pack realized. “You want someone to help you make sure Glitch and her people know if they pick a fight with the kid over this whole thing, they’ll be biting off a bigger piece than they think.” 

I nodded once. “Yeah. They’re playing relatively nice now, but the… implications were pretty obvious. I want them to know there’s a bigger fight than they might think if they try to push too hard, too fast. They’ll get something out of it, but they have to back off until Trevithick’s damn good and ready.” Even as I said that, a sigh escaped me. “I’m a shitty Star-Touched, huh? Look where I am. Look what I’m doing. I’m talking about getting some innocent–I’m talking about getting Trevithick to pay taxes to a fucking supervillain gang instead of just fighting them.”

“You’re talking about not throwing her under the bus to satisfy your ego,” came Pack’s retort. “You already said taking them down or whatever is a long term goal. Which is pretty damn ambitious on its own, for the record. But keeping them off Trevithick’s back for now, that’s not a bad thing. Like you said, you can’t be there twenty-four se–wait, here we go.” 

Before I could ask what that last bit meant, she urged, “Don’t look up too fast or too obviously. Use your helmet to cover it, just turn your eyes as much as you can. Like I said before, some people came to talk to Blackjack. They were in one of the private rooms over there. Very carefully, just turn your eyes to look a bit to the left, that way.” 

Uncertain, I did so. And immediately almost fell out of my chair. Because she was right, Blackjack was there. And he was standing with my parents. They were just… there. No masks or anything. Standing right in the open. 

I was so shocked in that moment, that they would be so brazen, that I didn’t say anything for a second. And with my helmet, that meant Pack couldn’t see my reaction. Which turned out to be a good thing, as she noted, “I just wish I knew who they were.” 

Wait. Wished she knew who they were? My parents were… kind of famous, especially around Detroit. It was possible she might not recognize them, but… “You don’t know who they are?” I asked carefully, trying to keep my voice even instead of letting it shake. My gaze was locked onto my parents, who were deep in conversation with Blackjack. 

“Nah,” came the response. “Do you? They seemed important when they showed up, but I’ve never seen them before.” She chuckled then. “Too bad we can’t take a picture and put it out there like, ‘Does anyone recognize these two guys?’” 

My head started to nod, then I stopped. “Two guys?” 

“Uhh, yeah, dude.” Pack sounded slightly confused. “Those two men standing right over there with Blackjack. The tall guy with the black crewcut and the red-haired guy next to him.” 

Was… was she blind? Neither of my parents had red hair, and my mother certainly wasn’t a guy. Unlike me, she could never have been mistaken for a boy. She had long black hair, while my father’s hair was dark blond with just a bit of distinguishing gray to it. They… they didn’t look a single bit like what she was describing. And yet, they were very clearly the only people standing there talking to Blackjack. 

So why the fuck was I seeing my parents talking to him, while Pack saw two entirely different people?

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Interlude 12A – Pack (Summus Proelium)

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For those of you who only read Summus Proelium and may have missed the note posted at the start of the previous Heretical Edge chapter, there was a special commissioned interlude for Summus Proelium, focusing on Armistice, posted on Sunday. If you happened to miss that, you can see it by clicking here

“I’m sorry, what was that about school?” Dani Kalvers demanded while carrying her cage full of lizards through the La Casa homebase (The The House Homebase, heee, that never got old) alongside a man in his late twenties with skin as dark as hers, along with a stylish mustache and short hair. He looked like a young, very fit Lando Calrissian. In Touched life, he wore a black bodysuit with emerald green highlights, a dashing cape that was very dark, almost black green on the outside and a silky emerald on the inside, along with black gloves, boots, and a full head-covering black helmet that conformed tightly to his face, with a charmingly smiling expression etched into it in the same green as the inside of his cape. Right now, however, he was dressed much more simply, in dark jeans and a button-up red shirt. 

He was publicly known as Hardway, a Touched with the power to manipulate the inertia and motion of anything within six feet, including himself. To those who knew him in regular life, he was Isaiah Coleman, an insurance salesman with remarkable numbers (very remarkable, considering how often he left his actual job for Touched business), a wife, and a three-year-old son. 

Smirking a little at Dani’s reaction, the currently unmasked Fell-Touched glanced toward her. “What, you didn’t think you’d go forever without having some kind of schooling, did you? Come now, Blackjack wants productive, useful people. Your powers make you that to start with, but you need a real education to reach your actual potential. Not to mention,” he added pointedly, “if we’re going to put you into one of our La Casa businesses for your cover, you’ll need to have actually had the education to do that job. It’s not exactly hard to apply, but it has to look right to outsiders. You don’t want the feds working out exactly who all of us are just because they see a high school dropout managing a six figure salary with no apparent income, right?” 

For a moment, Dani stopped in the corridor to squint at him. She, like him, was currently in civilian clothes. “This feels like a trick question,” she announced, while easily holding the cage of lizards with one hand. The cage itself was a gift from Blackjack. It was Touched-tech, somehow much lighter than it should be even with all her lizards happily lazing around inside it. Made it easier to move around with her little friends, anyway. Apparently Blackjack was working on procuring something even better for her, though she wasn’t sure what that could be. 

“It’s not a trick question,” Isaiah assured her with a chuckle. “Believe me, you gotta play the game right if you don’t want a whole team of Fedstars breathing down your neck.” Fedstar, of course, was the (often used disparagingly) slang term for any government-aligned Star-Touched. “They look for stuff like that. You can be comfortable. Hell, they can even know that you’re probably connected to criminal stuff. But you need plausible deniability. You need a job, you need an education. La Casa’s gonna make sure you get both. Only thing you’ve got to do is put in the work for the education part.” 

“Because Blackjack wants smart people working for him, people who can do more than just hit things, yada yada, yeah, I get it.” Dani exhaled, trying not to think about everything Paintball had told her about how the whole Detroit Touched scene really worked. Blurting out a question about that probably wouldn’t end very well. At the very least, she’d be expected to explain how she knew any of that stuff. And that would be betraying Paintball, something that kid didn’t deserve.

Besides, she really wanted to find out for herself exactly how this worked, how much money was being taken away from her to pay these ‘Ministry’ people, and what she could do about it. 

Not that she was one hundred percent against the idea of something like the Ministry, but she didn’t appreciate it being a secret. And she didn’t appreciate not having a choice of how much of her money went to pad their coffers. Nor did she appreciate being the one out there taking risks while they apparently were content to just rake in the money that she earned. It was bullshit. If there was going to be something like this Ministry, things needed to be more fair and shit. 

Either way, the point was that she definitely wasn’t going to bring it up here and now. Not until she knew more and had actual leverage to pull. She cared about her teammates here in La Casa. Most of them seemed pretty cool, and she had no idea how much any given member knew about the Ministry. Maybe some of them would be just as annoyed about their income being taxed to shit. Hell, maybe all of this could be solved easily. But Dani wasn’t going to take any risks until she had some solid info, and firsthand knowledge of what the fuck was going on.

“Great, then we’re on the same page,” Isaiah announced, flashing her a quick, toothy grin that probably would’ve been charming if she’d had any interest in the male sex. He turned, starting to walk again. “Blackjack’s asked me to be your advisor for this thing. Which means getting you enrolled in a school where you can advance as much as we think you’re capable of. And believe me, we think you’re capable of a lot. We’ll fake your previous transcripts, that won’t be hard. You’ll just have to finish out this year as a junior, be a senior next year, and we’ll make sure you end up at a decent in-city university with a light schedule. You’ll have the remaining high school time to decide what you’d like your cover-career to be. Feel free to think outside the box. If you want, I’ll help you go over some possibilities.” 

“But the point right now,” Dani put in, “is that you want me to go back to high school. High school.” 

“Pshhh, just sign up for a private school,” Isaiah shot back easily. “You’d be amazed at the difference between that and the public cesspool. Go play at being a rich girl in some private academy with a bunch of naive spoiled kids and take them for all you can get. We’ll make up something about your dad being a reclusive rich designer or something. Or maybe it’s your grandparents and they live off in Europe or something. Whatever you want. We’ll go flip through some options as soon as you’re done with your session.” 

“My session,” Dani echoed, exhaling long and slow, with a slight grimace. “Right. Are you sure about this whole thing?” 

The answer was another grin. “You’ll be fine, trust me. All you’ve gotta do is hang out with the kid for a couple hours. She’s been asking about your lizards forever. Just let her see them, teach her their names, how to play with them or whatever. You’ll be great.” 

Yeah, Dani was supposed to sit with the boss’s kid and entertain her for awhile. Apparently the girl had actually specifically asked for her a few times. Which was… weird, wasn’t it? It seemed weird. Either way, part of Dani wondered if Blackjack was specifically trusting her with his daughter because she’d spent time with that Wren kid. 

Actually, come to think of it, how weird would it be for Wren and Melissa to get to know each other? Melissa had all kinds of trouble moving around very easily with her disease (which they were thankfully dealing with now that they had all the vials), and Wren was all about movement. Could she like, build the other kid an armored suit or something? Huh. 

Wait, was that why Blackjack was cool with her being around his daughter now? That opportunity-sense of his, did it… was he just… could it have told him that she could help with all that? And if she could, she would, right? Wren seemed like the kind of person who would absolutely help Melissa if it was possible. And Blackjack would definitely pay. But would that get her too involved in the Fell-Touched side of things? She’d been okay with helping to save Melissa’s life, how would she feel about making something for her? And how did Dani herself feel about it? Was she okay with getting that kid more deeply involved in stuff she might not want to? Even if she was good with helping Melissa, that might open the door to other things. If people found out she had supplied Blackjack with something, even if it was for his daughter, it might… people on either side of the line might react in different ways to that. It might force Wren to make different choices. It might… 

Well, fuck. Suddenly, this whole thing seemed a lot more complicated. And this time, it wasn’t even Paintball’s fault.  

********

An hour or so later, Dani sat on the floor of Melissa’s hospital-like room. The pale nine-year-old with light brown hair wore a pair of  loose drawstring white pants with dueling knights all over them, and a light blue tee shirt that had her name across the front in sparkly letters. She was, at the moment, holding one of the lizards gently in both hands, being very careful with him. “So this one is Mars Bar, and he’s a iguana who turns into a big, strong grizzly bear, right?” 

Dani watched Mars Bar with a small smile. “Yup. He’s not even full-grown yet. I’m gonna have to find another way to carry him around when he gets bigger. Your dad said he’s working on that.” 

On that note, she tapped the floor next to another lizard, before reaching up to scratch under his chin. “So who’s this one?” She flattened her hand, letting the creature in question crawl up her arm to meet one of his companions who was already on her shoulder. 

Melissa, in turn, pointed first to the one Dani had indicated, then the other. “That’s Tuesday the gecko, and that’s Riddles the bearded dragon. They’re a monkey and an eagle. And the chameleon over there is Twinkletoes, he can turn into a gorilla. And…” She looked around for a moment, squinting thoughtfully. “Oh! There she is. Holiday’s a skink, and she turns into a panther.” She carefully set Mars Bar down while gently petting along his side, clearly enthralled. 

“You’ve met my friends,” Dani pointed out before gesturing to the two stuffed animals who sat nearby. One was a stuffed bear with a trenchcoat and deerstalker hat, holding a magnifying glass, while the other was a smaller pink crocodile on a cloth skateboard. “Who’re yours?” 

Quickly, the younger girl picked up the pair, one in each hand. “This is Inspector Guillotine the detective. He’s trying to be a better person cuz of Cassidy.” She pointed to the crocodile. “That’s her. She was a witness so he has to protect her, but she keeps getting in trouble so Inspector Guillotine helps her. And she helps him care about people. Which is hard for him, because his archenemy, Paws Lynch, killed his own sister. She was the inspector’s wife! So he got really sad for a long time, but Cassidy helped him feel better.” 

“Huh.” Carefully, Dani took Cassidy the crocodile, turning her over curiously. “Paws Lynch and Inspector Guillotine? Those are awesome names. And Cassidy Crocodile? That’s a pretty cool one too.” 

“Aunt Ellen came up with it,” the kid informed her. “She said it was a good name for a daredevil.” 

“Good name, huh?” Dani blinked up then. “Is that like… the name of a daredevil or something? Something Cassidy or Cassidy something?” 

Melissa shrugged, clearly uncertain. “I dunno, but it’s still a good name.” Changing the subject, she eagerly asked, “How many lizards can you use your power on? Could you make like… a whole army of lizard-animals?”  

“I’m not sure,” Dani admitted with a shrug. She watched the assorted creatures for a moment. “I mean, definitely not an army. I just… I feel like there’s a limit. I’m not sure exactly how it works yet, and I don’t know how I know that. It’s just like… instinct, I guess?” She grimaced a little. “I should experiment some more. Been a little busy.” 

Leaning in a little conspiratorially, Melissa whispered, “You wanna experiment right now?” 

The question made Dani blink uncertainly, squinting at the younger kid. “Experiment right now? Sorry, I don’t have any spare lizards to work with and my power can only give any lizard one alternate form. All these guys have their other forms. So, you know, I can’t use it on them.” 

To her surprise, Melissa nodded. “I know.  But you could use it if you had another lizard, right?” Slyly, she got up and moved over to the far side of her bed. Dani had already noticed that the girl always moved very slowly and carefully. She stepped gingerly, clearly afraid of how easily her bones could break if too much pressure was put on them. The medicine she’d been taking was supposed to fix her, and it was working. But it would take time to repair the damage that the disease had done. And even after that, it would take longer for the girl to get over the psychological pressure of what her body had been put through for literally years. 

It was bullshit, and if Blackjack hadn’t been a criminal mastermind Fell-Touched, he never would have been able to save his daughter. Rot Bone was a horrific, fucked up disease, and this totally innocent kid would’ve died in one of the worst ways Dani could possibly imagine if her father wasn’t a criminal who could pull up the kind of resources it took to help her. 

That was what Dani wanted. She wanted to never have to worry about money again. Not just for herself, but for any future family and friends she had. She wanted to create a legacy, the kind the real rich and powerful had. She wanted to have the kind of power that people like the Evans or the Banners had. They had so fucking much power even without being Touched, just because they were rich. All her life, Dani had been looked down on, for being black, for being a girl, for being gay, for being poor, for having a mother who didn’t really care what happened to her and a dad who had died when she was still a kid, even younger than Melissa. She was just the poor little black girl who liked girls. 

Fuck that. Dani wanted more out of life. She was going to own penthouses, convertibles, go on vacations to islands. She wanted every fucking thing that those cocksuckers always told her she couldn’t have for one reason or another. She didn’t just want to be comfortable. She wanted ‘fuck you money.’ She wanted to have so much cash people couldn’t dismiss her anymore.  

Pulled out of her thoughts by the sight of the small cage that Melissa pulled out, Dani leaned over to squint at the tiny, yet incredibly beautiful lizard inside. “Whoa.” 

“It’s a neon day gecko!” Melissa exclaimed, moving back over carefully before setting the small glass cage down between them. The creature inside was only about three inches long, but had been named incredibly well. The head was a bright green, while most of the body and tail was a metallic neon blue. the legs were slightly darker blue, and there was a long black stripe running down either side of the creature. 

“Holy crap, dude.” Dani leaned in closer, staring at the creature. “I’ve heard of these guys, but I’ve never seen one up close. He’s gorgeous.” 

“She,” Melissa corrected. “And yeah, she’s amazing, huh? I umm, I don’t really use my allowance for much, so I asked my dad if we could get you a new lizard since you umm… you know, helped get my medicine. I wanted to say thanks.” 

Swallowing hard, Dani glanced to her. This was the real reason she’d been asked to come and ‘babysit’ for awhile, she realized. It was because Melissa had wanted to give her this present. Which… yeah, she really didn’t know what to say for a moment, before eventually settling on, “Thanks. Thanks a lot.” 

There was a brief moment of discomfort before Melissa hurriedly offered, “Why don’t you take her out? They’re really friendly and fun, the lizard guy Dad brought in said so. And… maybe you can decide what kind of new animal to make?” She was blushing a bit, clearly embarrassed. “I kinda… sorta… wanna see?” 

Snorting, Dani nodded in agreement while opening up the cage to let the colorful lizard out into her palm. “Sure, it’s the least I can do. Let’s see. First, she needs a name. Can’t have powers without a name. What do you think?” 

Blinking at her, Melissa stammered, “But your lizards all have awesome names. I can’t think up a good name like you.” 

“You came up with Inspector Guillotine and Paws Lynch,” Dani reminded the girl. “You can definitely help with this one.” 

The two went back and forth on several possibilities, before both of them agreed on one that Melissa had come up with. Holding up the tiny, colorful lizard in one hand, Dani stared at her. “That’s right, your name is Scatters.” She looked to the rest of her lizards, all of whom had gathered to watch the newcomer. “See, Scatters? This is your family. Guys, this is Scatters. She’s gonna be our new friend. And what kind of friend…” She squinted curiously at the tiny, colorful creature. “I bet you’d like to be bigger, huh? Big enough to… hmm… Oooh, I’ve got an idea.” 

For ten minutes or so, she sat there, focusing her power on the tiny lizard. It took that long to make the full connection, to establish the creature’s alternate form. Partway through, she had to set the gradually growing neon gecko down and step back with Melissa, most of her attention still taken up with making her power work. 

Then it was done. Dani, Melissa, and the other lizards were suddenly sharing the room with a much larger figure. Where once had been a three-inch-long neon day gecko now stood a full-sized reindeer, albeit one with very reptilian features. The neon blue, scale-covered body remained, somehow even brighter and more striking in this form. The head was the same sharp green, as were the antlers. That black stripe ran down the animal’s side, and her legs were a darker blue, right down to the even slightly darker hooves. 

“Now that,” Dani announced while resting an arm gently over Melissa’s shoulders, “is what I’ve been needing. Someone I can ride on.

“So how hard do you think it’ll be to get a saddle that’s the right size, with little carrying pouches for the rest of these guys?”

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Pink 12-09 (Summus Proelium)

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The three of us talked a bit more, getting a fairly rough plan of what we might do to get into that secret base. We had ideas, though there were a few blank spots we’d have to fill in later. It was something, at least. And thankfully, having these two onboard meant that I had people to bounce thoughts off of other than myself, people who could point out flaws in any idea I had, and who could come up with their own. Not coming up with the entire plan entirely by myself was a real treat. Almost as much of one as not carrying out the entire plan alone would be. 

And yet, I was still alone, wasn’t I? On the big stuff. There were still things I wasn’t telling them about, things I couldn’t tell them about. They had no idea who I was, that my own parents ran the secret criminal conspiracy I’d clued them in on, that… that… a lot. There was a lot they didn’t know, and that I couldn’t share. Not yet. Maybe someday? Maybe–fuck. Or maybe I was just keeping it to myself out of habit or paranoia or something. Should I tell them who I really was? Should I tell them everything? They knew enough to really get in trouble now, so what exactly was the point of holding back on those few very key details? Was there a real reason? 

Yes. Because once I told them all of my secrets, there was no going back. There wasn’t really any going back now, of course. But telling them about the Ministry was a different kind of vulnerable than telling them about me. Showing them who I was, who my family was… that would be something I could never actually walk back, a box I could never close. It would leave me personally vulnerable in a way I wasn’t just by telling them about the Ministry existing. 

Did that mean I was a coward, because I didn’t want to expose myself like that? Was I just a scared little girl, was I protecting my family, was I… was I… what? What was I? Was my refusal to tell them the truth about everything good or bad? What was the right decision? When was the right time to tell them about who I was? How far did this have to go before I told the full truth? How much did they have to do to prove they were on my side? What did I want from them, exactly? How many times was I going to run these questions through my head. 

Fuck! I didn’t know. I just didn’t know, and I was terrified of making the wrong choice. Which was actually a big reason why I didn’t tell them about me. Because that would be making the choice to do so. A choice I could never change. So I just… didn’t. Somehow, in my head, not telling them spared me from making that choice. At least for the moment. But it was coming. I knew that much. At some point, I was going to have to reveal who I really was and how much I was really connected to this Ministry. 

How would they react to that? I… I didn’t know. I was afraid to think about it. 

Either way, I wouldn’t have to deal with it right now. At the moment, Pack and I were standing alone just outside the storage place, in a dark alley untouched by any of the distant streetlights. That-A-Way had just excused herself, saying she had to get back to her patrol before any of the people on her side noticed anything wrong. She’d paused before leaving, looking at Pack and me for a few long seconds. It seemed like she had been about to say something. But, in the end, she just muttered something about meeting us later to ‘deal with all this’ before teleporting away. 

For a moment, Pack was quiet. The only sound in the alley came from the lizards in the cage crawling around. Finally, she spoke up. “If you don’t have any damsels in distress to save, Eits wants to talk to you too.” 

“What?” I blinked, turning that way. “How’s umm… how is he–” 

“He’s doing better,” she informed me. “Not perfect. We’ve got our own access to special healers, but it’s not an immediate thing. He should be back to normal in another day or two. But he’s up and around. And, like I said, he wants to talk to you. In private. If you’re up to it.”

My head bobbed hurriedly, as I blurted, “Sure, yeah! I mean, of course. If he’s up to it. I just–I didn’t want to push him, or you, or… or the whole situation. I just–I wanna tell him how–” 

Pack interrupted with a raised hand. “Not me,” she said simply. “Whatever you wanna say to him, you can say to him. Just uhh, let’s keep this Ministry stuff to ourselves for now, huh? He’s already gotten pretty hurt once recently. Plus, he umm… he owes Blackjack a lot for helping him transition and all that. I’d rather not make him choose between loyalties right this second. Maybe later, but right now it’s just a bad idea. Let him recover, at the very least.” 

I swallowed hard, thinking about how much trouble Eits might’ve gotten into if my parents thought he was onto them. “Yeah.” My voice was quiet. “I don’t want him to get hurt again either.” She was right, the last thing Eits needed at this moment was to get in trouble again. Even if using his help to break through the security in the mall base would–no. No. The Scions already hurt him really bad once. If something happened to him and it was because of my parents, I’d… I’d… I didn’t know what I’d do. But I wasn’t taking that chance. Not right now. 

With that much agreed between us, Pack and I left the alley. She had a car parked nearby that the two of us slipped into. From there, it was a short drive to some old, beat-up parking lot behind a self-serve car wash. She’d texted while we were on the way, but Eits hadn’t arrived yet. 

Instead, the two of us sat in the car, watching the mostly-empty road as we listened to the lizards in their cage once more. That time, I was the one who found my voice first. “This whole situation is pretty screwed up, huh?” 

Gazing sidelong at me, Pack was quiet before slowly replying, “Something tells me I don’t know the half of how screwed up it is from your point of view.” She shrugged elaborately. “You’re holding stuff back. I get that. There’s parts of this you’re not ready to share. And from what you have shared, there’s probably a good reason for that. Just…” Hesitating, Pack obviously took the time to consider her words. “Just try not to let it bite all of us in the ass, huh?” 

“I’ll do my best,” I promised. What else could I say? I wasn’t going to deny that I still had secrets, or that they could be dangerous, or anything like that. She and I both knew how stupid that would be. But I meant what I said. I would do my best not to let things get even worse. 

Before the other girl could respond, headlights drew our attention to the entrance of the lot, where a gray sedan pulled in. The lights flickered twice, then once before the car pulled up alongside us. I saw Eits sitting in the driver’s seat, though he didn’t seem to be actively holding the wheel or anything. Must’ve been using one of his mites. 

“Go ahead,” Pack urged with a gesture. “He said he wanted to talk in private. And Paintball…” She paused briefly, looking toward me in silence as though she couldn’t decide exactly what to say. Finally, she settled on, “Thanks for trusting me with this. I know I gave you shit about what happened to him, but… but I know you were doing the best you could. It wasn’t your fault.” 

Awkwardly thanking her, and promising that we would get to the bottom of the whole thing, I stepped out of her car and moved to get in the passenger side of the other. Closing the door after myself, I hesitated before looking over to the boy in the driver’s seat. My voice was quiet, and obviously a little strained. “Hey.” 

Eits shifted in his seat to look my way. There was the slightest grunt of discomfort. Soft as it was, I still cringed at the thought that even moving that much hurt at all. “Hey yourself,” he replied. Belatedly, the boy added, “Pack wasn’t giving you too much shit, was she?” 

“I’d deserve it if she did,” I insisted. “I never should’ve asked you to get involved in something that–” 

His hand rose to stop me. “Paintball, stop. If it wasn’t important, you wouldn’t have asked. Hell, if it wasn’t important, those assholes wouldn’t have jumped me. And they wouldn’t have abducted you. I just–fuck, Paints, they’re the Scions. Of course they’re into some really bad shit. But you…” He raised his gaze to mine, staring at me. The diagonal black and gold bands that ran across his face to serve as his mask did nothing to hide the intensity in his eyes. “You didn’t know the Scions were involved before.” 

Quickly, I shook my head. “No. No, of course not. I swear, I didn’t know they were involved. I didn’t know it’d be that dangerous. I mean, I knew it was important or I wouldn’t’ve asked. But if I knew the Scions had anything to do with it, I swear I would’ve warned you. If I asked you at all. I would’ve made sure you had backup, and… and, you know. I would’ve done more.” 

“I know you would’ve,” Eits assured me. He hesitated before adding, “Did you find what you needed at the cabin? Pack said you went back in for a minute after all that.”

Oh God. How much should I say? For a moment, I sat there, frozen by indecision. But… look at what he’d already gone through. I’d already promised Pack we wouldn’t involve him in the rest of this just yet. But I could at least talk about what I’d found a little bit, right? He deserved that, after what he’d been through to get me as far as I was. 

“I found a few toys,” I carefully answered. “They had a code on them that glowed in the dark. The code was to a folder in Seraph HQ, and when I looked at that, I found a bit… more about what I’ve been looking for.” 

That made Eits give a quick doubletake. “Err, how exactly did you look at a folder in Seraph headquarters? You been making friends in high places over there too?” 

Oh, wait, shit. Fuck. He didn’t know about that whole thing. Freezing, I stared at him guiltily from behind my mask and helmet. “Um.” Wow, good thing he couldn’t see my expression. “It umm, I guess it sort of…” Squirming there in the seat, I managed a weak, slow, “They sort of… found out about the program you put on the computer in that shipping company and Hallowed was waiting after I returned the item, so we made a deal for me to do a little work for them in exchange for ‘borrowing’ their equipment?” 

For a moment, Eits just stared at me. His uncovered mouth fell open, a slow, quiet sound of disbelief escaping him. Finally, he managed, “And you didn’t tell me?! I–Paintball, that was my fault! I should’ve–that–I didn’t put everything I could’ve to–I figured a trucking company wouldn’t have–that–you should’ve told me! I was involved in that too.” 

“I know! They know, I mean–” Flushing deeply, I insisted, “It’s okay. I mean–yes, yes I should’ve told you. But it’s over. I’m working it off and they were pretty understanding about the whole thing.” 

Still, Eits shook his head. “Damn it, Paints, if I’d known they were onto that, I would’ve helped you another…” Exhaling, he pointed to me. “You’ve gotta stop trying to do all of this by yourself. I don’t know the half of what you’re up to, but I know it’s big. I know it’s important, and that you’re keeping a hell of a lot to yourself. I’m also pretty sure you’ve told Pack part of it too, a different part than you’ve told me. And I know you’re doing all of it like that because you’re afraid of something even worse happening than me getting a little beat up. But for fuck’s sake, if it’s that big of a deal, you can’t do it alone.” 

I froze, not saying anything. What could I say? I didn’t want to lie to him, but I couldn’t tell him anything more than I already had. Not right then. It was a bad idea even if I hadn’t promised Pack that I wouldn’t get him deeper involved until he fully recovered. 

For a long few seconds, the two of us just stared at each other like that. Eventually, Eits sighed, slumping back a little. “Paintball, we both know you’ve got secrets. Big ones. And you’re obviously keeping them for a reason. Just… just don’t try to do everything all by yourself. Find someone you can trust, even if it’s just to talk to. Even if it’s not me or Pack or anyone, find someone you can unload with. Does anyone beyond me even know that you’re… you know.” 

“A girl?” My head shook, voice quiet as I glanced out the window. “No. You’re literally the only person besides me who even knows that much.” Quickly, I snapped my gaze to him once more, blurting, “And you can’t–” 

“I’m not telling anyone,” Eits insisted firmly. “I already promised I wouldn’t. Your secret is safe with me, I swear, Paintball. That wasn’t my point. Just… you just need someone to talk to. Someone you can trust to just… just vent about all this to. Believe me, as someone who had a hell of a lot of my own venting to do about my situation, it really helps. And bottling it up, trying to handle all of it just by yourself? That’s gonna make things worse. Please. Find someone you can unload this stuff on before it boils up too much, okay? Just try.” 

What was I supposed to say to that? I couldn’t tell him why I didn’t trust anyone with the stuff I knew, or why I didn’t want to burden the people I did at least mostly trust with the whole story. I couldn’t tell him that I still wasn’t sure whether I was protecting other people or my family by keeping it to myself, or what any of that meant to me. It was just too much for me to ‘unload’ like he was saying. 

But I couldn’t refuse either. So, throat dry, I nodded. “I’ll work on it.” That was all I could manage. 

Belatedly, I changed the subject. “Hey, we figured out what my pink paint does!” Yeah, it was an obvious attempt to talk about something less uncomfortable, but still. I really did want to share it. 

From the sound of his voice, Eits was just as aware of what I was doing, but he was curious too. “You did?” 

“Yeah, with a bit of help,” I confirmed. “Uhh, watch.” Carefully, I pointed to the steering wheel and covered about four inches of the top right side with pink. As Eits watched, I reached out, activating the paint before grabbing hold and stretching it up and back to myself. That part of the steering wheel stretched like chewing gum, while the boy beside me made a noise of surprise. 

Letting it go, I watched as it stayed perfectly in place, stretched out like that. It was easily stretched and molded, yet when I released it, the painted thing remained solidly where it was. 

I showed Eits a few more things with it while he watched, obviously enthralled. And while doing so, I realized something else. When I had a nonliving object painted and let the paint run out on its own, it would simply stay where it was, like that bit with the steering wheel. 

But, if I disabled the paint ahead of time, if I focused on turning it off, the object didn’t immediately go back to its normal state. Instead, for just a few extra seconds, it turned sort of… loose-rubbery, for lack of a better word. Like a rubber band. I could pull it out, let go, and it would snap back to where it was when I first turned the paint off. It was only for like three seconds or so. But the point was, I could paint something, disable the paint, yank it out, then it would snap back to the position it was in when I disabled the paint once I stopped holding it back. Again, like a rubberband. 

“Wait, wait, wait.” Quickly, I scrambled out of the car. Pack was still sitting over in hers, apparently involved with her lizards. She looked up and over as I climbed up on Eits’ sedan, even as the boy himself asked what I was doing. 

“Check this out!” I blurted, before spraying the pavement with pink. Instantly, I dismissed the paint and then jumped. As my feet hit the ground, it literally bent under the force of my impact, then snapped back to where it was, launching me several feet into the air. Trampoline. It was like a trampoline. It wasn’t quite the same kind of launch I got from blue paint, but still. It was cool. It was really fucking cool. 

Pack came over to see what the hell I was doing. When I explained, she brought the lizards. Then we let them play, bouncing off the ground and into the air. They seemed to enjoy it, especially when Eits stepped out of the car and stood in a third spot as we all bounced them back and forth. I kept reapplying and dismissing the paint whenever needed, and the three of us played bounce the lizards off the trampoline ground. Pack, of course, made sure her little friends weren’t scared or anything. They seemed to understand what was going on. Which made me feel even more confused about how exactly her power worked and what it did to them. 

Either way, the three of us were laughing throughout all of that. For a few minutes, I forgot everything else. I stopped worrying about that whole stupid situation and just had goofy fun with the two Fell-Touched. I even forgot they were technically villains. We just goofed off with Pack’s lizards, finding things to bounce them off of. I used orange paint to keep them safe from being hurt, and we just… forgot everything else. 

Eventually, the other two had to leave. I thanked them both again, promising Eits that I would think about what he’d said. As I was walking away, however, he called out before coming over to join me. He was moving slower than normal, and wincing a little, but at least he was moving. 

Once the two of us were a bit away from Pack, who studiously paid attention to getting her lizards back in the car, Eits lowered his voice. “I meant to say something before, about that Paige Banners girl.” 

“You said you couldn’t get any more info about her without physical access to the adoption records,” I replied, shaking my head. “I don’t want you doing anything like that. I’ll deal with it myself.” I hadn’t even told him about finding out that Paige was found by those Ten Tower people, or the dead bodies that had been around her. 

“Well, too late,” he retorted. “I already got something for you. It’s not much, but… here.” With that, Eits produced a piece of paper with a name written on it. “Turns out that Paige girl has some kind of history with Ten Towers. Not sure what it was, but one of the Ten Towers Prev troops who was involved in all that sort of went rogue a couple years ago. He’s working as grunt muscle for the Ninety-Niners now. Maybe you can get something out of him about what he saw back then?” He shrugged helplessly. “Sorry, it’s the best I could do.” 

“That’s–” Swallowing, I took the note. “Thanks. But just… just get better, okay?” 

As soon as he promised he would take it easy, I took a running start, spraying blue at the ground in front of me. As my feet hit it, I was launched up and forward. In mid-flight, I sprayed a pink circle into the middle of the billboard I had launched myself toward. Twisting in the air, I activated and immediately disabled the pink, just before my feet hit it. That spot of the billboard bent inward dramatically, bowing in like a trampoline being pushed to its limit. Then it snapped back to normal, hurling me even higher into the air and over the roof of a building. 

Yeah, I had a lot to deal with. But Pack and That-A-Way were going to help. They knew some of it. I had… something approaching friends, even if none of them knew the whole story. And, just as importantly, I knew how to use the pink paint now. I knew how to use all of my powers, I had allies who were ready to help with the whole Ministry thing, and I had a new lead for figuring out Paige’s whole deal.  

Maybe, just maybe, I was finally going to get somewhere with all this. 

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Ready 11-05 (Summus Proelium)

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To their credit, Pack and That-A-Way didn’t expect me to start talking immediately. They even waited when I asked them to while I went inside and grabbed those toys that I’d seen before. I wasn’t sure why they gave me such a strong emotional reaction, but I did know that I wanted them. So I put the toys in my pocket, then started out of the cabin before pausing. Turning my eyes away from the broken doorway, through which I could see the others waiting, I looked back over the room. Given everything I’d heard and figured out about Robert–Bobby, I had to assume he wasn’t stupid enough to leave clues about where he could be going when he clearly knew there were some really nasty people after him. When he’d cleared out of this place, even as quick as it had to have been, he wouldn’t have left anything behind that could point to where he was going. Still, just taking off like this without looking closer felt wrong. But we didn’t have a choice. Skip was only going to keep Pencil busy for so long, and if he and his equally psycho sister came back while we were still here, we’d be in the same position we’d been in before. It was time to get the hell out of here. 

So, I headed out, telling the others I was ready to go. Broadway was already gone, apparently making her way through the woods first to give us a little privacy and also to make sure their rendezvous point was clear of any problems. If she ran into trouble, she’d make enough noise to let us know. 

And with that, we started moving quickly through the forest. Pack’s lizard animals were all around us for potential protection and warning, Riddles keeping an eye on things from up above just in case. It was dark enough that the other two were using flashlights they had apparently brought with them.

After a few minutes of walking, Pack was the first to break the silence, her voice pointed and clearly angry. “So, now that you’re safe and all that, which I’m really glad about, for the record, I’m going to go ahead and call you a stupid fucking jackass, okay? And if you ever pull something stupid like that again, I swear I’ll kick your ass myself. You and me, we’ll throw down and I’ll beat your ass cuz I fight dirty. Never, ever fucking do anything like that again, you got it?” 

I cringed through her words. Because she had every right to be angry. Going off by myself had probably been stupid. But what other choice did I really have? I couldn’t tell them everything. I just couldn’t. My family was… it was too complicated, and involving them that directly would just be dangerous. They didn’t deserve to have the weight of all this on their shoulders. At least until I knew more about how my family’s business worked, until I had some idea of how to stop them, I couldn’t offload that responsibility onto other people. And I definitely couldn’t tell them the whole story. That would involve letting them know who I really was, and that… was a bad idea.

But maybe I could tell them some of it. They deserved to know some, at the very least. Hell, they deserved to know all of it, the whole thing. But I just… couldn’t. That was a box I would never be able to close again once I opened it, a Pandora’s Box that was full of all sorts of dangerous evils that would escape if I wasn’t careful to keep the thing shut absolutely tight. 

Some of it, however… I could explain some of it, the bits that might lead them in the right direction. Exhaling, I started with, “I–thank you. Thanks, guys. Both of you, and Broadway. And Skip too. I don’t know how she got involved, but if it wasn’t for you, I’d be dead. I–I’d be dead. No question. You saved my life. I owe you guys. I owe you–” The words stopped as I choked a little before getting myself under control. “I owe you everything. Definitely more than I can give you right now.

“But… but I can tell you something. First, I want… I need you to trust me. I need you guys to promise to keep this all secret. All of it. You can’t tell your teammates.” I looked to Pack, then That-A-Way. “You can’t tell Blackjack, and you can’t tell the heroes you work with. No one. You can’t tell anyone. Not a single person.” 

I saw the way both of them exchanged looks, That-A-Way speaking first. “Excuse me? Okay, I know doing this job can make anyone really paranoid, but seriously? Why wouldn’t you want me to tell the Star-Touched about any of this? I mean, sure, Pack works for bad guys. I can see that, but–” Cutting herself off, she looked over to see the girl in question clearly squinting at her through her featureless black mask. “Oh, stop, you know what I mean. You work with a lot of bad people. Sure, Blackjack has his reputation for keeping his word or whatever, but that doesn’t make him a good person.” 

“Yeah,” Pack retorted, “and a lot of psychopathic jackasses who get off on legally stomping on people who can’t fight back join up with law enforcement to get their kicks. Having a badge, or whatever equivalent you people get doesn’t automatically make you a moral paragon.” 

“It’s not about any of that!” I blurted, trying to stop this whole thing from being totally derailed. “I just–it’s personal and I’m hoping you’ll be able to know the whole thing soon enough. But for now, just promise me you’ll keep everything about this secret, please.” I tried to stress just how important it was both in my voice (as much as the changer still attached to my ear would convey it) and my stare.  

Again, the two of them exchanged looks. I couldn’t tell what either of them were thinking, or what they were communicating to each other in those looks. But whatever it was, they both seemed to come to the same decision, turning to me with the lights aimed roughly toward one another so I could see them better. 

“Okay,” Pack started. “I won’t talk to Blackjack or the others about it. Unless it turns into something I have to talk about. If this starts affecting my people, I’m not gonna lie to them.” 

That-A-Way nodded. “I don’t like it, but if it means helping you when you’ve got someone like Pencil pissed off at you? Yeah, fine. Unless it turns into something that we need help with, or like… people are going to die if we don’t call in the big guns, I’ll keep it between us.” Her voice softened then. “Come on, Paintball, you almost died back there. You need help. Stop being so stubborn and stupid about this.” 

“Ah, little tip, superhero?” Pack put in. “People rarely react well to being called stupid.” 

“It’s okay,” I quickly interrupted. “I know what she meant. And she’s right, running off on my own like that after I… well, implied to you that I was going to ask for help was really stupid. I didn’t know the Scions were involved, but it was still stupid.” 

“And that’s another thing,” That-A-Way pointed out. “If the Scions are involved, do you really think we can keep this quiet? More to the point, do you really think it’s not just as stupid to keep it quiet? If they kill more people just because we didn’t say anything…” 

“You can definitely tell people then,” I immediately agreed. “The second we see Pencil or the other Scions again and they get involved, you can absolutely call in all the help you guys have to stop them. No question. Just… I…” 

Pack stopped walking then. Stepping in front of me, she turned the flashlight so that it was aimed up between us. “What?” the girl demanded. “Damn it, Paintball, you ask Eits for some kind of favor that makes some guys beat the living shit out of him. Those guys turn out to be working for Pencil. Then you lie to me–and don’t you fucking hedge about what you specifically said, you lied and you know it. You lied to me about getting help from Minority-girl over there just so I’d let you run off on your own, got yourself captured and nearly killed by that fucking psycho, and you’re still fucking holding off on us? If we’d caught up with you a minute later, a minute fucking later, you’d be dead! You would be dead, Paintball. So knock it off. Yeah, if we can keep this secret, we will. If it’s the best way. But you need to start talking. You need to explain what the hell is going on, what that cabin was, why the Scions are involved, what that fucking address was supposed to be for, and everything else you can possibly fucking explain about this situation. Because I, for one, am tired of being left in the dark about all this.” 

“What she said,” That-A-Way put in immediately, “only pretend I said it a little more eloquently and nicely. Right now I’m too mad at you for nearly getting yourself killed to think that straight.” 

“I know you guys are upset. You deserve to be,” I admitted a bit weakly. “I just… this is harder than you know. I can’t…” Biting my lip under the mask, I thought about it briefly. “I’ll tell you some of it. I can’t… tell you all of it. I just can’t. Not yet. But I’ll tell you as much as I can.” 

“I still can’t believe you want to keep secrets after…” Trailing off as she clearly realized just how little headway she was going to make, That-A-Way settled on simply waving a hand vaguely. “Yeah, yeah. If it’s so important that you can’t talk about everything even after all that… I guess we’ll have to take your word for it. So what can you tell us? How did you get involved in something that involved the Scions, exactly? Can you explain enough about that, at least?” 

“I’ll try,” I muttered. The truth. They deserved at least as much of the truth as I could manage, as much as I could give them. To that end, I slowly announced, “It started the night I got my powers. When it happened, I was… I saw these guys… execute a couple people in a motel.” 

Both of the other girls (and Holiday, who was pacing around us) gave a short doubletake. “I’m sorry,” That-A-Way started in disbelief, “you saw what happen? Are you… you’re serious now.”

“Super serious,” I confirmed before gesturing. “Come on, we should keep walking. Anyway, the guys saw me, sort of. They didn’t get a good look before I ran away. While I was hiding from them, I got my powers. Then I was… hiding while I heard them talking. I found out they worked for something called the Ministry.” I was mixing around the details of when I found out what to leave out my family’s direct connection. I had to do that, for now at least. As I said the name, my gaze snapped from one girl to the other, looking for a hint of recognition in either of them. I saw none. Neither That-A-Way nor Pack seemed to have the slightest clue what that was.

“What, like some kind of cult thing?” the lizard girl demanded while her hand went out to rub along Twinkletoes’s side. The lizard-gorilla seemed fine now after shrinking down and then being returned to his large size once more. The same went for Mars Bar. Something about Pack using her power on them again healed the damage that had been done. Which was a relief. 

Shaking my head, I kept walking in silence for a few seconds before forcing the next words out. This was one of the hardest things I’d ever had to do, just getting myself to say what I needed to say. Pack and That-A-Way may have both been on opposite sides of the law, but they’d put that aside to come and save me. They deserved to know about this. “Look, I know you’re both going to think I’m crazy. I know. But I need you to listen. What I’ve heard about this Ministry, it’s… they’ve got their fingers in both sides. Star-Touched and Fell-Touched. It’s like they work behind the scenes. They’ve got people working for villain groups and people on the heroes’ side too.” 

Pack looked at me like she was about to say something, but That-A-Way spoke first, blurting a quick and very baffled, “Bad guys working for the heroes? How hard did Pencil hit you, again?”  

“Oh, yeah,” Pack put in, “that’s bound to make the poor guy want to keep talking about something that he was clearly reluctant to even start on in the first place. Act like he’s crazy.” 

“That’s not what I–” That-A-Way snapped defensively before catching herself. “Damn it, I wasn’t…” She trailed off, sighing. “Sorry. I guess we should at least hear you out.” Even as she said it, however, the girl still sounded reluctant and defensive. Which I couldn’t blame her for. 

“I know, I get it,” I quickly assured both of them. “It’s a lot to throw on you guys and expect you to believe any of it instead of just thinking I’m a raving lunatic. Why do you think I didn’t want to actually tell you? Because I know it sounds like crazy bullshit. But seriously. The way they were talking, and other things I’ve heard since then… that’s why I didn’t want to join the Minority.” 

“Because you thought we worked for these… Ministry people?” That-A-Way was staring at me, almost walking into a tree before Pack reached out, caught her arm, and tugged her away from it. She gave the other girl a quick look, a nod of thanks, then stared at me once more. “Really?” 

“I didn’t know any of you,” I pointed out. “And I still don’t know most of you. I mean, look at it this way. Pretend the Ministry is real and you don’t have any doubts. Just for sake of argument. Pretend there really is this secret organization that has agents on all sides, people who report to them. Do you really think they’d put people on the heroes’ side who couldn’t blend in well?” 

That-A-Way briefly looked like she wanted to argue with that, but stopped herself. Instead, she was quiet for a minute, walking through the woods with us like she was lost in thought. Finally, I saw her head give a tiny nod. “Okay, I’ll… pretend and go with that, I guess. If this Ministry thing worked like you said, they’d be good at putting people in under cover. Maybe even people who really thought they were doing the right thing by reporting stuff to this secret group. Hell, they might not even know that this Ministry works for both sides. Maybe they think they’re reporting to a secret group of Star-Touched people, you know? Like Internal Affairs or something.” 

“You mean an even more secret group of heroes inside the group of heroes.” Pack snorted. “Yeah, that sounds about right. If a group like Paintball’s talking about existed, they could totally make some do-gooders think they were part of the super-special secret club like that.” 

I nodded slowly. “Yeah, that’s kinda what I mean. Anyway, like I said, this Ministry has people on both sides. From what I can tell, they run some kind of protection racket or something. You know, letting bad guys operate in the city in exchange for part of the money they take in from jobs. I heard them talking about getting the patrol routes for different Star-Touched teams for a higher percentage take, and direct intervention, whatever that entails, in exchange for even more. I’m pretty sure they have at least one person on every hero team to give out patrol routes, hero’s schedules, other things like that. And more on the police force, the court system, all those things. They’ve been around for a long time, you guys. Like I said, they’ve got their fingers in everything. They run things behind the scenes, and they’re really not happy that I know anything about them at all. Except they’re not sure how much I know, if anything.”

“So if what you’re saying–” Pack corrected herself, “If you’re right about what you think, then Blackjack’s gotta know about this, right?” 

“Sure, it sounds like all the big Fell-Touched players in the city know about it,” I confirmed. “They work within the system the Ministry created. I’d be fall down shocked if Blackjack wasn’t totally aware of the whole thing. But he’s not gonna tell a brand new member of his group that kind of secret.” 

“I’m still not sure about this,” That-A-Way admitted. “But I’ll keep going along the hypothetical ‘this is all true’ route for now. That said, what does that have to do with Pencil and the Scions? Or that cabin?” 

This was the big one. Even bigger than getting them to believe the bit about the Ministry. I had to be careful how I explained this. “I followed some of those Ministry guys the other day when they kidnapped a girl and tried to kill her. Apparently she had some kind of secret information or proof about the Ministry or something. Anyway, I saved her and she ran away. Then I found her later and listened to her talking to… umm… someone on the phone. She called him her dad, but…” I shook that off. “Anyway, the point is, there was something about the girl and her dad wanting revenge against the Ministry for someone named Anthony Tate. I looked into it. He’s a kid who used to live here, then moved to Texas and died in a car crash. Supposedly.” Ohhh this was getting so close to secrets I really shouldn’t talk about. The thought made me cringe inwardly. 

That-A-Way spoke up into the brief silence. “Okay, wait, wait. Who’s this girl? And that Anthony Tate, who’s that?” 

“LIke I said, a kid who used to live here before he supposedly died in a car crash with his parents in Texas.” I offered a shrug. “I don’t know how he was connected to that girl… umm, Paige Banners.” 

That-A-Way dropped her flashlight and tripped over a rock, cursing as she almost fell. It took her a moment to scramble across the ground to find the light. “What–who?” 

“Paige Banners,” I repeated. “She’s the girl I saved, I found out her name later. That’s one of the names I had Eits look into,” I admitted to Pack. “I thought her dad lived here, but apparently she’s like… adopted or something? I don’t know. Point is, she was on the phone with someone she called her father, and they were talking about getting revenge for that kid dying or… something. Anyway, Eits looked into it, found out this guy Robert Parson was a bodyguard or something. He was in the car with the Tates too, but he survived. So we were looking for his address. That’s the address you got from him, the one those assholes wanted. I guess Pencil and his people got the address from Eits’ phone, cuz they got to that place too.” 

“But what did they want with this guy?” That-A-Way demanded. She sounded like she really needed to sit down. Which was another thing I could definitely sympathize with. 

“I guess he pissed Pencil off somehow,” I replied, shrugging once more. “I really don’t know the details. All I know is Pencil wants this guy dead, so he’s in hiding. Which means I can’t get answers out of him about this Ministry, or Anthony Tate, or this Paige girl.” 

That-A-Way was silent for a few long seconds, staring ahead as though deep in thought. Finally, she exhaled long and loud. “This is a lot to take in, dude. I don’t–” She cut herself off from whatever she had been about to say, correcting it to, “I’m not sure what to… say, you know? If I’ve got this right, you’re claiming that there’s a secret underground group that manipulates heroes and villains everywhere in the city, and that this random schoolgirl, whatever her name–” 

“Paige Banners,” I reminded her. 

“Right, Paige Banners,” she nodded. “This Paige Banners and her dad, who isn’t the dad who lives here in town with her because she’s adopted or something, are coming up with some secret plan to attack and hurt the Ministry as payback for this Anthony Tate dying. You looked into Anthony Tate, found this Robert Parson guy, went to his address, and got jumped by Pencil, who is also after him?” 

“And the Scions also beat the shit out of Eits to get that address,” Pack quickly put in. 

“Yeah, and Eits got hurt,” That-A-Way acknowledged, turning to shine her light at me. “Is that about it?” Her voice was a bit dull from the shock of taking all of this in. 

“Ummm…” I winced. “Did I mention that it sounded like that girl’s real dad is in Breakwater?” 

“Breakwater,” That-A-Way echoed. “The inescapable supervillain prison. He’s just… calling out of that.” She stopped walking, putting one hand against her face with a long, heavy sigh. 

“This is kinda why I didn’t want to dump all this on you guys,” I managed a bit weakly. 

“I get that,” she murmured, finally moving her hand to look at me. “Look, I don’t know how much of this is true–okay, hold on. What I mean is, I believe you believe what you’re saying, but I don’t know how much power this Ministry actually has. But, I’ll keep quiet about it for now. I want to… investigate it for myself, okay? I’ll do it quietly, I swear. I won’t bring up the actual name or anything. I just want to find out more.” 

“Same,” Pack agreed. “I’m morbidly curious about these people. Especially if part of my money is going to them.” 

After a moment of hesitation, I slowly offered, “Well, if you guys really want to find out more about this group for yourselves…

“I know a pretty interesting secret about the mall.” 

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Ready 11-04 (Summus Proelium)

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Laying on the floor of Bobby’s cabin, still paralyzed by whatever that thing was that Pencil hit me with, all I could do was watch helplessly as the man looked at That-A-Way, standing over me, and Pack at the door with Mars Bar towering behind her. Holiday the panther-lizard was there too, somewhat between all of us with the paralyzing gun held in her teeth as she snarled angrily. 

No, no, no. What was going to happen now? Why were they here? How did they find us? I knew I should have been grateful to see them, and a big part of me was. Okay, most of me was. But another part was terrified that something bad would happen to the two of them. Paralyzed as I was, I was helpless to do anything to help, which was beyond terrifying. And it wasn’t like Pencil was just some bad guy. He was one of the nastiest Fell-Touched I’d ever heard of. He was immune to basically anything anyone could do. What the hell was going to happen here? How would they actually stop him, considering that entire experienced hero teams had set out to do that and failed, some dying in the attempt?   

That was what scared me the most. It wasn’t suffering and dying right here with Pencil enacting his revenge for hurting his sister. It was being forced to see him do that exact same thing to Pack and That-A-Way. Because they were only here to help me. If they died, it would be because of me. Because I couldn’t handle my own problems. Because I was weak. 

For his part, Pencil didn’t exactly look all that concerned. His gaze took in the panther-lizard  who had stolen his weapon, before moving to look at the others. I could practically see the thoughtful expression on the face behind the mask. When he spoke, his voice was curious. “Now, what exactly could have made the three of you such close friends that you’d come all the way out here like this?” He raised a fist to his chin, contemplating. “Oh, was it really that bit at the hospital? Was it? I’m really gonna blush if it turns out I’ve inspired the brand new besties bond you’ve all got.” After a second, the man added in a conspiratorial tone, “Really, don’t tell me you two see your pal here as a little brother. Because trust me, we all know where that goes. Him in love with both of you and you not seeing him that way because you’re just such good friends. And no one wants to live through that kind of cliche. It’s 2020, let’s try to move past triangles, people.” 

As Pencil said those words, the rage that had been clear in his voice when he had come after me a moment earlier for hurting Cup had been replaced by what sounded like genuine amusement at this new situation. It was like being hit with something this unexpected, instead of pissing him off, actually intrigued him. Apparently he just enjoyed being surprised that much. So much that he forgot about that whole being pissed at me for Cup thing. In any case, whatever was going through his mind right then, I was pretty sure that none of us wanted to know about it. 

“Here’s what’s gonna happen,” Pack informed him. Her words were punctuated by matching growls from Mars Bar and Holiday. “I’m going to step out of the way to that side of the door. My big buddy here is gonna step the other way.  Then you are going to walk out of this building and get the hell out of here before this gets any worse. Everyone walks away to fight another day.” 

“Or,” That-A-Way put in, “you can push it and see if being immune to damage helps you very much when it comes to a giant grizzly-lizard sitting on your psychotic fucking ass until the authorities get here. After all,” she added, shifting her weight a little, “We don’t actually have to hurt you. We just have to stop you from leaving. I’m pretty sure you don’t have super-strength.”  

For a moment, the monster in the mask said nothing. He simply glanced back and forth at all of us, adopting a thoughtful posture before eventually speaking up. “That is a very fine point you raise, young lady. A very fine point indeed. You’re probably right, I’d be… hard-pressed to budge your personal Yogi over there, if push came to shove.” He gave a tip of an imaginary hat toward Mars Bar. “And yet, I find myself with one very important question. While your bear is sitting on in this hypothetical scenario, what… precisely would your invisible gorilla-lizard be doing?” Even as he said that, the man was abruptly pivoting on one foot with a snapped, “Let’s ask him.” 

With those words, Pencil’s hand snapped out. A knife leapt from his sleeve before being driven into what looked like thin air. Thin air that drew a thick line of blood and a squeal of pain. 

“Twinkletoes!” Blurting that name, Pack threw herself that way while the formerly invisible figure appeared, a deep gash through his side as he collapsed to the floor, moaning. How had Pencil known he was there? Was it just a guess? How had he known exactly where to aim the knife? 

As Pack lunged to the fallen Twinkletoes’ side, Mars Bar and Holiday leapt to the defense of their partner. With a cabin-shaking roar, the bear went after Pencil like a runaway freight train, while Holiday tossed the gun aside and added her own roar while lunging from the other side.  

Far from being intimidated however, Pencil simply pivoted once more. His foot lashed out in what looked like an awkward, gangly kick. Seriously, I thought he was about to fall over. It was like a clown kicking someone, all wild flailing and no coordination. But despite that, there must have been decent force and skill hidden behind the deceptive appearance, because Holiday was immediately sent crashing to the floor with a yelp from the impact against her nose. 

At the same time, his hand, with the already-bloodied knife held tightly, lashed out and backward. It cut through part of Mars Bar’s descending arm and drew even more blood than the first swipe had drawn from Twinkletoes. Wherever he had hit the lizard-bear must have been important, because the roar turned to a pained squeal and that massive arm fell uselessly against the power-mutated animal’s side, as if the limb was as paralyzed as I actually was. 

The bear’s arm being out of the way gave Pencil room to duck and twist, throwing himself behind the suddenly-stumbling creature. His every motion looked goofy and awkward. It looked like he should fall flat on his face any moment. But I was already certain all of it was an act. He was like a clown or something, his motions purposefully intended to look goofy and uncoordinated while actually being very precise. He clearly had an incredible amount of athletic and combat skill. He was just hiding it behind what looked like bumbling actions. 

Just as that thought came to me, That-A-Way sprang to the aid of the others. Or, she tried to. Suddenly teleporting almost directly behind him and to one side, she produced her stun baton and swung it. Pencil, however, was not taken by surprise. He doubled over backward, almost like he was going through an extreme limbo contest. Laughter, mocking and derisive, erupted from the man as the baton passed just over his head. At the same time, he pressed some kind of hidden button on the knife. Instantly, a cloud of dark red gas shot from a hole at the edge of the knife hilt, right next to the blade itself. The gas went straight into That-A-Way’s face, and she stumbled, squealing and coughing while the baton fell from her grip. Pencil, still bent over backward, caught the falling baton in his free hand, hurling it with what looked like contemptuous ease toward Pack, who was just looking up from Twinkletoes. She took the baton to her chest, yelping and collapsing on top of her gorilla-lizard from the burst of electricity. 

No, no, no! This was exactly what I’d been terrified of. Everything was going wrong. Pack was twitching and yelping on top of the already-injured Twinkletoes. Mars Bar was stumbling, one arm useless. Holiday was still picking herself off the floor. That-A-Way was down, coughing and sputtering while flailing blindly from whatever that gas had done. Everything was going wrong and it was all my fault. They were here because of me, here to help me, and I was too paralyzed to actually do anything to help them. Move, I ordered myself. Move right fucking now!

It didn’t help. Straining as hard as I could, I still couldn’t push past the effect of that stupid weapon. They were going to die, they were going to die and it would be my fault. Damn it, damn it! 

Then, just as my panic and terror hit the breaking point, something totally unexpected happened. The sudden blaring of a car horn from outside filled the air, stopping Pencil in mid-step. At the same time, bright headlights abruptly flared to life, shining in through the window.  

As the sound of the horn was fading, a familiar figure in a black-blue bodysuit with an attached short-sleeved white robe and hood appeared in the doorway. Skip. She stood there, regarding the whole situation seemingly impassively for a moment before addressing Pencil flatly. “By all reports, you are protective of the one called Cup. If so, there is a situation outside that you will be interested in resolving. Unless those reports are wrong, in which case…” Trailing off, she looked to us, then to Pencil before simply turning her back to him to walk out of the doorway and away from the cabin. 

In that moment, I was pretty sure Pencil completely forgot the rest of us even existed. He went through the door an instant after Skip disappeared, fairly sprinting that way. Because Skip was right. For all his murderous psychotic evil bullshit, he actually genuinely cared about Cup. His sister… his lover… whatever she was, he cared about her. I knew that first-hand. 

I also knew that if he had the chance, he would skin every single one of us alive and watch us spend hours screaming for even insinuating that she could be in danger. This could blow up in all of our faces really easily. 

Pack was back on her feet, hand already outstretched to grab That-A-Way and pull her up. She had Twinkletoes and Mars Bar (newly returned to their normal, uninjured lizard forms) on either shoulder, while Holiday stood guard at the door. Both of the girls were looking at me with obvious worry written through their body language. 

And then, then my constant attempts to start moving finally paid off. My fingers twitched, and a sharp gasp of air escaped me as I jerked upright with a suddenly violent cough. The paralyzing effect was gone. I could move again. 

Just in time for That-A-Way to kick me none-too-gently in the leg with a muttered, “Idiot.” Then she turned to run for the broken doorway. 

Pack, meanwhile, grabbed my hand to haul me up. “What she said. But I’ll wait and kick you after we get out of this.” 

Quickly, I joined them and the three of us ran out to the porch in time to see Pencil standing about thirty feet away. The man was brightly illuminated by the headlights of a car. Standing next to the car was a figure in dark purple body armor with speakers along the sides and a helmet with a wide V-shaped visor that had multi-colored lines flickering across it. 

Broadway. It was Broadway, another one of Pack and Eits’ teammates.

Just as we made it to the porch, the headlights turned off and the light inside the car flipped on. That revealed Skip, sitting in the driver’s seat. More important was the figure sitting next to her in the passenger seat, bound and gagged. Cup. 

As soon as he saw her, Pencil took a step that way. But he stopped at a sudden blaring of the car horn when Skip used her free hand to hit it while simultaneously extending a hand through the open window with some kind of large container. She gave it a toss, and it came tumbling across the dirt to land near Pencil. Immediately, I recognized both the look and the smell. Gasoline. It was a mostly-empty gasoline can. 

Broadway gave a kick then, sending another can tumbling over to join the first. “Heya, Fuckface. You see Cup there? The eeeentire inside of that car is totally drenched in that gasoline. You give her any reason to, any reason at all, and Skip is gonna use that lighter she’s got to flame on. Then she’ll drive away. Cuz, you know, the fire won’t affect her. But it’ll sure as hell affect Cup. So she’ll light her on fire and then she’ll drive away. We’ll see how far she gets down the road before the car explodes. Are you a fast runner? Maybe you can get to her before she suffers too much. Maybe you could even do something about the flames. But here’s the thing. Even if you do save her, your lady friend there still gets to suffer horrifically first. Maybe she dies, maybe she doesn’t. But she definitely suffers. And the longer it takes you to get to her, the longer she suffers, the more likely she dies.” 

She bent, picking up the end of a rope that was lying there before tossing it over to the man. “So here’s what’s gonna happen. The other end of that rope is tied to the back of the car. Skip’s gonna pull out and start driving slowly down the road. You’re gonna hold the rope and follow until you’re all past the gate. Then she’ll teleport back up here and you can get the lady out of the car. You try to come after any of us first, Cup goes fwoom. You try to get closer to the car than the length of that rope, Cup goes fwoom. You pull anything, Cup goes fwoom. And maybe you can take all of us down. You are magically immune to everything, after all. Maybe we can’t take you. But what you’ve gotta ask yourself is, just how much would Cup suffer in the meantime? Would she even survive? What kinda shape would she be in? Take the rope, follow the car all the way down to the gate. Or push things right now and see how the girl there likes being a superhero for once. Specifically, the Human Torch.”

For a moment, Pencil didn’t say anything or move. He seemed to be studying Broadway as though gauging how serious she was, how likely it was that she and Skip would actually follow through on that threat. I was staring at them too. Jesus Christ, that was hardcore. Not that it was exactly surprising, given the kind of people Pencil and Cup were. If you were going to threaten them, you had to go for the gold. And I was pretty sure the threat being specifically against Cup was the only thing that made the man take it at all seriously. He cared about her. She might be the only thing in the world he did care about. But still. I had to ask myself if they’d really do it. Which, I supposed, was the exact same thing Pencil was asking himself at that point. 

Finally, he turned to look straight at me. His hand rose, giving what looked like a casual wave. But I knew there was far more behind it. He would never let this go, not for any of us. I’d directly pissed him off more than once now. I’d hurt his sister. And now the others had threatened her life, had threatened to kill her in a gruesome, horrific way. All of us had made this personal to him, and he was not going to forget or forgive that. This might be put on pause now, but it wasn’t over. 

“So long, kid,” Pencil announced while the eyes behind that mask practically bore a hole straight through me. “I’ll catch you later.” And boy did those words have a hell of a lot more meaning behind them than that phrase normally did. 

With that, the man stooped, grabbing the rope. Immediately, the car started up and Skip pulled it around slowly to point it back toward the road before heading out just high enough speed that Pencil had to lightly jog to keep up. While we all watched in silence, the car and attached psychopath both gradually vanished down the road out of sight. 

Finally, once the car and Pencil were gone, Broadway exhaled audibly and slumped over. “Hoooly shit, dude. Tell you one thing, I am super-fucking glad that didn’t go wrong. I mean, yeah, it still could. But I think we might actually pull this off. Thanks for playing distraction in there while we set things up.” She turned to me then, waving. “Hey there, nice to finally meet you, Paintball.” 

“I–” I started to say something, before blanching. Pivoting away from them, I sprinted several feet before collapsing to my knees by some bushes. My hand pried up the mask enough to let me throw up. It all came out in a rush, while Broadway made disconcerted sounds in the background. To their credit, the others all stayed away while my mask was up. All they saw was my back. 

Finally, it was done. My whole body was sore and I was still a bit woozy. Plus my throat hurt from hurling. But there was nothing left for me in my stomach. Awkwardly, I tugged the mask down with one hand, making sure the hidden mic was still in place before pushing myself up and turning. 

That-A-Way and Pack were standing there, arms folded as they looked at me. Broadway was on the other side of the clearing, watching the road. 

“Are you okay?” That-A-Way asked a bit pensively. “Seriously, are you…” 

“I’m okay,” I managed, biting my lip. “I mean, I… they didn’t do anything that bad. He was saving it for later.” 

“Good,” Pack put in, sounding relieved, like a sudden weight had lifted from her shoulders. Then she added, “I’d say a lot more, but it’s time to get out of here. We’re supposed to meet Skip on a little service road down the other side of the forest, that way.” She pointed off behind the cabin. “There’s another car parked there waiting for us.” 

“It’s a bit of a hike,” That-A-Way noted. “But it shouldn’t be hard. 

“And on the way, you can explain just what the hell is going on.” 

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Ready 11-03 (Summus Proelium)

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I was in trouble. Yeah, that was a fucking understatement. I was on the far side of a fence, not even out of earshot from a pissed-off Pencil and two of his psychotic Prev minions. At my feet was a dazed, barely conscious Cup, and all around me was a nearly pitch-black forest. To top it all off, my hands were cuffed behind my back, making this whole thing even more complicated than it already was. And if Pencil caught me again, I was pretty sure him just straight up killing me was the best I could hope for. More likely, he’d make me scream for a few hours first. 

That wasn’t just speculation either. It was, in general, the gist of the threats I could hear coming from the fence area in between Pencil ordering his man to finish disabling the electricity and alarm. That was why he didn’t just ignore the shock himself, given that it wouldn’t actually hurt him, I realized. He didn’t want to set off the alarm, because… because he didn’t want to alert Robert that we were here? Was he really actually afraid of what Rob–never mind. Seconds. I had seconds before those three would be right on top of me. 

Using one finger, I turned slightly to shoot a bit of black paint at Cup, just in case. The last thing I needed right then was her managing to orient herself enough to use her power on me. If she did that, I was basically dead. I wouldn’t snap out of it before Pencil managed to catch up. 

There was no time to do anything else. I couldn’t even try to get my hands in front of myself. It would have taken too many of the precious seconds I didn’t actually have. Pencil was already vaulting the fence. I could hear it rattling. Quickly, I turned, activating another small portion of purple paint on me before lashing out with a kick to Cup’s face. She stopped her silent groaning and fell flat. Unconscious, for the moment at least. Stooping, I grabbed her hands and gripped them tightly. Casting a quick look over my shoulder, I saw Pencil dropping off the fence and turning to sprint our way. He probably couldn’t really see us from there, not with the shadows of the trees added to what was already a pretty dark night. Still, he was coming straight for us, with the two minions right behind. I had to move, now!  

Silencing myself as well, I took off running while dragging the unconscious Cup behind me on her stomach. With the purple paint, I barely felt her weight. And as long as she was with me, conscious or not, the cuffs wouldn’t force me to the ground. I could do this. It was awkward as hell, running while literally dragging a full grown woman behind me with my hands cuffed like that. But what else was I going to do, let Pencil catch up and do any of the horrific things he had in mind? Running blind through the dark forest while dragging Cup was the only option I had. 

Except it wasn’t… really like running blind, was it? Because just like my last time traveling through the woods at night, I wasn’t stumbling nearly as much as I should have been. Sure, it was a bit unwieldy, running with Cup like this. But it definitely wasn’t as bad as I would’ve thought it would be. I instinctively knew when to duck from branches I couldn’t actually see. I gave a little hop now and then, passing right over thick roots or low bushes that would have sent me sprawling. Most people running through a nearly pitch-black forest in the middle of the night with their hands cuffed behind their backs probably would have eaten dirt within a few seconds. But I just… didn’t. I knew where and how to move to avoid hitting anything, even though there was no way I could have seen any of it in time. Particularly given I was running flat out, with a good portion of my attention centered on listening to the sound of pursuit. It was just… instinct of some kind? 

Whatever, I wasn’t going to question it. I didn’t have time to question it. All I knew was that I had to keep moving. The sound of Pencil’s pursuit faded somewhat as I gained ground on him, but I could still hear the psycho and his two minions not too far behind. All three had flashlights they were shining around, the beams flickering wildly back and forth as they searched for me. 

Briefly, I worried about one of them opening fire before realizing that they wouldn’t risk hitting Cup. They still hadn’t been able to get a good look at me and were simply following the trail I left in my wild flight. So maybe it was time to do something to make following me a bit harder. 

First, I renewed my own purple paint once more before using my grip on Cup’s hands to put a bit more black paint on her. Keeping her silent was just as important as anything else right now, and I didn’t trust her not to wake up at some point in this and immediately use her power to put an end to my escape. As long as I could stop her from talking, she’d be a hell of a lot more manageable. I just wished I’d had the time and materials to actually tie her up, or do… anything other than dragging her along by the hands. 

Fortunately, for now, she was still knocked out. But I kept the black paint going just in case. Then, keeping my grip on her hands, I moved one finger to point at a tree we were passing and shot a spray of white paint at it. While continuing to run, I put a whole line of white paint down, trying to judge when I only had a small amount of paint left. Then I stopped spraying, but kept running. Behind me, the sound of the three thoroughly pissed off pursuers grew louder from my hesitation. They were close. Too damn close. If I waited any longer, they’d be right on top of me. Then I’d either be dead, or just wish very badly that I was. 

But the worst thing about all of this? I missed running through the dark forest with Paige. At least she hadn’t been dead weight who would also have tried to kill me if she was awake. That was how far I’d fallen. I missed Paige Banners. What in the seventeen hells was my life? 

At least I didn’t panic. I focused on the sound of the men running. I judged where they were, all while also sprinting through the dark woods. How? How could I run like this, drag this unconscious girl behind me, navigate a totally unfamiliar forest in the middle of the night while also listening to my pursuers and accurately judging exactly where they were in those same unfamiliar woods? How? 

It was ridiculous. I shouldn’t have been able to. But I did. I knew, without question, exactly when the men reached the spot where I had left that line of white paint. Which meant I knew exactly when to trigger it. 

I’d left enough paint right there that, as it activated, that whole area of the forest briefly lit up. It was incredibly bright. Knowing it was coming, I had closed my eyes just in case and was faced away. But I still saw a bit of the flash. Being right on top of it would have been utterly blinding.  Which, given the sudden new litany of screaming curses coming from back there, it really was. And it was more than a flash, actually. The light continued on for a full ten seconds, making it even harder for my pursuers to see where they were going. 

But that was just step one of plan ‘lose these assholes.’ The second the flash triggered, I also painted the boots on my feet bright blue and triggered the last of the purple paint that I had prepared on the inside of my costume. With the added strength, I leapt as hard as I could, triggering the blue paint on my way down. The impact from the jump against that blue paint rocketed me up and forward. With Cup held tightly, I went flying through the trees, breaking through a handful of branches on the way. Coming down, my feet landed for an instant. But the blue paint on my boots was still active, so I was launched upward again and kept flying. 

For the next ten seconds, I kept essentially bouncing my way through the forest. Each blue-and-purple-paint assisted leap carried me a huge distance, while my weird and unexplained subconscious knowledge of where all the trees and such were meant I could safely make those leaps without slamming headfirst into an obstacle. In the brief time that my pursuers would have been blinded, I put as much distance between us as possible. It would be a lot harder for them to track me accurately with so much space between landings. They couldn’t easily track my footprints when those footprints were at least sixty feet apart. 

Finally, I had to stop. Partly because I felt Cup starting to shift in my grip. She was waking up. So I dropped both of us down, releasing the bitch before hitting her with more black paint. Then I pivoted to face her. 

Yeah, she was awake. She wasn’t happy or fully coherent, but she was awake. Her eyes blinked at me blearily, barely visible through the moonlight that cut through the trees. Even with the white mask covering the bottom of her face, I could tell she was trying to speak, only to freeze when no sound came out. Even as dark as it was, I could see the hatred and anger in her sudden glare. Yup, she was becoming more coherent by the second, and was definitely pissed off. 

But guess what, I wasn’t exactly thrilled about this whole situation either. Given the choice, I would’ve left her there. But the cuffs meant that I didn’t have that choice. Instead, I had to keep dragging her around with me. 

Or did I? Wait a second. Thinking quickly, I pivoted and used my cuffed hands to shoot a bunch of red paint over the other girl. She flailed, and was already shoving herself to her feet when I pivoted back the other way, shooting one bit of red toward the nearby tree. As Cup made it up, hand grabbing for something in her costume, I triggered the paint while diving out of the way. With a silent yelp, she was hauled through the air, slamming face-first into the tree. Oops not oops. 

Of course, the thing Cup had been grabbing was a gun. It fell to the ground as she was yanked through the air. I heard the thump of it landing and saw the outline of it right at my feet. Quickly, I kicked it off out of sight before moving to the psycho currently held tight against the tree. She was struggling, and I heard her voice start to cut in just in time for me to hit her with a quick shot of black paint. 

Ten seconds. I had ten seconds before the red paint would release her. Which meant I couldn’t exactly be gentle or careful about this. Instead, I shoved my back right up against hers, pinning her even more fully against the wood. My cuffed hands frantically felt up her pants for pockets while I found myself muttering, “Sorry, sorry, I know you’re a fucking psycho, but sorry.” One by one, I shoved my hands into her pockets, searching them as quickly as I could while trying to ignore the unfortunate… positioning and circumstances. 

Gum, a notebook, a pen, a switchblade, no key, no key! Damn it, please don’t say it fucking fell out while she was being dragged back there. If it was lying somewhere in the woods, I was screwed. 

Finally, shoving one hand inside her back pocket (and really trying to ignore how awkward that was), I found it. The key. It was there. My fingers closed around it, and I jerked away from her, half-stumbling before pivoting back to face her. Unlocking the cuffs behind my own back wasn’t exactly easy, but I had a trick. Namely, I brushed my finger over the cuffs until I found the keyhole. Then I shot a tiny dot of red paint into that keyhole. With my other hand, I found the tip of the key, painting that red as well. 

With that done, I just activated the tiny dots of red paint on both, and the key was immediately yanked straight into the hole. I pivoted, grasping for it with my fingers. Just as I got hold of it, Cup fell backward off the tree. The red paint had worn off, which meant the black had definitely–

“How many–” 

That was as far as I let her get. Still holding the key with two fingers, I lashed out as hard as I could, kicking Cup in the back. It was enough to stop her from talking, knocking her forward into the tree with a yelp. Using the bare couple of seconds that gained me, I twisted the key. The cuffs popped open, and I let them fall to the ground with a clatter before quickly shooting black paint at Cup once more. That shut her up again, just as she was trying to talk. 

The black paint did not, however, stop her from turning and diving at me. I went down hard with the older, bigger girl on top of me, landing on my back while her fist slammed into my chin. Her eyes were wild in the moonlight, her fist colliding with my face so hard I almost saw more stars in front of me than were visible in the sky through the trees. Fuck, I missed my helmet.

Then she hit me a third time, and ended up regretting it. Because I didn’t have my helmet, but I did have orange paint. That time, her fist didn’t hurt me at all, while she made a flinching motion. Adding purple paint, I shoved her off me, lashing out with a kick into her stomach that doubled the crazy bitch over. Before she could recover, I quickly kicked out again to knock her legs out from under her. It was Cup’s turn to fall on her back. 

It was also her turn to wear those handcuffs. Before she could recover, I grabbed the cuffs from the ground, linking them around her wrists. They clicked into place, just as a flashlight beam swept nearby. My gaze snapped over that way, and I saw them. My pursuers were coming fast. I didn’t have time to do anything else. But hopefully dealing with Cup would slow them down. 

“Later,” I whispered, patting her on the back before tucking the key in my pocket. Then I painted the outside of my costume completely black, activated the silencing power, and took off running. A bit of green on my shoes lent a bit of speed, letting me haul ass away from that spot. 

Go, go! My hands were free and I didn’t have to lug Cup around anymore. Plus, they wouldn’t be able to get her out of there very easily without the key that I was carrying. This was my chance to get to the cabin ahead of them and warn Robert. I just had to keep fucking moving!

So, I did. With my hands freed, I was able to move much faster, using a mixture of blue and red paint to bounce and yank myself from tree to tree, with added green for speed. Ignoring the darkness entirely, I practically flew through the unfamiliar woods. Cabin. I needed to find that cabin, but how? The road. Look for the road. But even that didn’t help too much. The road could be anywhere, considering how I’d blindly fled through the forest with Cup earlier. I had no idea where I was now in relation to that road even before adding in how much it could have wound its way through the forest. 

In the end, I realized I was being stupid. Height. I needed height. At the next tree, I yanked myself to the top, dropped blue paint on the final sturdy branch, and launched upward over the canopy to get a better view of things. 

There. Lights. There were very clear house lights off in the distance. That had to be it. Dark as the forest was, those lights stood out like a beacon. Instantly, I yanked myself to the next tree over and full-on raced that way. I had to get there ahead of the Scions. No matter what happened, no matter what it took, I had to warn Bobby! 

The cabin really was isolated in the middle of nowhere. It was a two-story affair that looked like it had come straight out of some storybook, with a perfectly cut and stacked woodpile on the porch beside the front door, a path leading down to the nearby stream, a cozy little handmade swing, the works. The road went right up to the lot, and I could see fresh tire tracks, but no vehicle. 

Hurriedly, I red-painted myself all the way across the clearing to the front door, knocking on it rapidly while calling, “Mr. Parson! Mr. Parson!” Looking over my shoulder, I muttered a curse and then used purple paint to shove the door in. “I’m on your side! You’re in danger, you–” 

Then I stepped in, and saw no one there. The interior of the cabin was pretty simple, and open enough that it was clear no one was there. There was the main room with a bed in one corner to the left and a living area to the right, with a television, computer on a desk, and an attached kitchenette. Across from the entrance was the bathroom, the door open to reveal that it was as devoid of occupants as the rest of the place. 

He wasn’t here. No one was here. But the lights were on. And there were fresh tire tracks. Quickly, I turned to leave. Then I saw it. A shelf on the wall next to the door, where you might drop your keys, wallet, or whatever was in your pockets. There were no keys on the shelf. Instead, I saw three small objects. Two were toy planes, one an air force jet fighter while the other had started out its life that way but had been painted bright pink with little purple lightning bolts on the wings, and an additional pair of wings that were glued to the bottom of the first. Beside both toy planes was a small action figure. 

I stopped breathing when I saw the toys. My hand covered my mouth and I felt like throwing up. I didn’t know why. I couldn’t… understand why. What was wrong with me? What was wrong with me?! Staring at those toys, my breathing grew louder, more labored. It felt like something was sitting on my chest, like… like I couldn’t breathe. It felt like… I was… cold. I was so cold. I was scared. Why? Why was I so scared? I was even more afraid, in that moment of looking at those toys, than I had been out in those woods. It was a panic attack. I couldn’t breathe, I couldn’t–couldn’t–

The sound of someone at the door snapped my attention that way. I saw the sackcloth mask. I saw the raised gun. I covered the chest part of my costume in orange paint. 

It didn’t help that much. Whatever that weapon was, it hit me with some kind of invisible force that launched me off the ground. It felt like being kicked in the chest by a horse, even with my orange paint. I was sent flying, crashing hard into the wall before falling to the ground. 

I couldn’t move. I couldn’t–my hands wouldn’t–

Pencil kicked me hard in the side, then again to knock me onto my back. He was standing over me, his powerful weapon (it looked like a futuristic shotgun with a spiral-shaped barrel) pointed down at me. “Hurts, doesn’t it?” His words were taunting. “Don’t worry, you’ll be able to move again in a couple minutes.” 

I saw the way his eyes narrowed. “Course, you hurt Cup. So you won’t live long enough for that to matter. And this time, kid, no tricks. No games. You hurt my little sister. You hurt my Cup. No one does that.” 

That was all he said. That was all he was going to say. He was through playing games, through hamming things up. Through playing, in general. He was just going to pull the trigger… and end me, while I lay completely paralyzed at his feet. After everything I did to escape, after everything I’d done… period, I was helpless. I was trapped. I was alone. 

I was going to d–

And then the window just above my head exploded. A dark shape went flying over me with a terrifying roar, colliding with the weapon in Pencil’s hands before tearing it from his grip. The shape continued on past, sliding across the cabin before whirling back to face us while snarling. 

Holiday. It was the lizard-panther, Holiday. 

In the next second, an explosion of debris was accompanied by a deafening roar, as Mars Bar announced his presence by slamming his way through the front door. 

Just as suddenly, a figure appeared over me. “Hey, asshole!” That-A-Way snapped. 

Pack, next to the towering lizard-bear at the front door, finished with, “Get the fuck away from our friend.”

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Interlude 10A – That-A-Way (Summus Proelium)

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Please note, for those who read Heretical Edge, there was a commissioned interlude posted yesterday. If you haven’t read that, you might want to do so by clicking here.

Boring, boring, boring. The night was so freaking boring. Amber had been on patrol for what felt like half a day by that point (it was only two hours), and literally nothing of any note had happened. She was strolling along the sidewalk, making herself visible for people so they knew there was a Star-Touched in the area (according to Silversmith, that was a big part of the entire job), and generally just associating with the civilians. Which was fine. It was totally fine. It was part of the job. But… but she was so bored. She wanted to cut through the next alley and just see what she could find somewhere off her assigned patrol pattern. But that was a bad idea. Silversmith tended to get a bit annoyed if you deviated off a path when he specifically gave you one. He didn’t always, of course. A lot of the time you could simply patrol a given section of the city however you wanted. But when he did assign a full path, you had better stay on it. 

And here she was, walking the path that Silversmith had assigned, with nothing happening. Seriously, she was about to fall asleep on her feet. Not from exhaustion, but from sheer boredom. The most exciting thing that had happened was a few people wanting to take pictures with her, and even that wasn’t often because the authorities tried to make it clear that official Star-Touched on patrols were to be left alone to do their jobs. So mostly people just took pictures of her from afar, which was fucking creepy as all hell, seriously what the living fuck. 

Creeps aside, Amber was about ready to call in and ask if there was literally anything going on that she could help with. Even if it was as simple as getting an old lady’s cat out of a tree. She was that desperate for something to do beyond walking down the street while studiously ignoring people with cell phones out filming her. Because if she didn’t find something to do, she was seriously going to consider chucking a rock or two at a few of the creepiest ones. Actually, she might do that anyway. It sounded like a good idea. 

Then she saw it. Up and to the left, on the roof of a dry cleaners, stood a figure in dark-purple armor with speaker system vents all over it. Broadway. That was Broadway, from La Casa. Amber had never met her in person (even if she’d come close during that… thing with Pack the other day), but she did recognize her from the briefings they’d gotten. She was pretty distinctive.

In any case, fuck yeah, something to do! And she was even standing to the north, which was just perfect. Grinning at the fact that she was finally being freed from her mind-numbing boredom, Amber instantly teleported herself right up to the side of the other girl, hand lashing out to catch hold of her arm as she positioned herself facing east to activate her invulnerability. 

Broadway was already gone. She’d used her own teleportation power to esca–no, she was right there at the other end of the roof! Before the girl could counter-attack, That-A-Way threw herself that way in a superfast sprint. Broadway’s fault for setting herself up to the west.  

A sudden blast of deafening sound focused solely on her made the girl stumble, falling to one knee as her hands covered her ears. Oh shit, that was loud! She could barely think through it. Focus, focus! She’d teleport out of the way, circle around and come up behind–

The sound stopped. Blearly, Amber blinked up to see Broadway holding both hands out. Just as she started to dive out of the way of whatever was about to hit her, however, the sound of the other girl’s voice reached her. “–not here to fight, dude! Just hold up a second, jeez!” 

Okay, it was true that Amber hadn’t seen Broadway actually do anything wrong. But still, she was a wanted criminal and all that. And… and she was friends with Pack. Yeah. Amber knew the two were teammates. She knew from Pack’s rambling back when they had… um… fought that Broadway had been the one driving that van. So maybe she sort of… overreacted. Maybe her own boredom wasn’t the only reason she’d lunged to attack. It was slightly possible that seeing Broadway there had reminded her of that whole thing with Pack and her guilt over… 

Over what? She hadn’t let Pack escape. She hadn’t. She’d tried to bring her in, had even fought her. So why did she feel guilty about it? Why did she feel so guilty that seeing Broadway here had made her feel like she had to prove she hadn’t let Pack go on purpose by grabbing her teammate? How did that even make sense? And why the fuck was this so complicated anyway? 

Pushing herself up, Way watched the Fell-Touched warily, ready for any kind of trick. This had to be a trick, right? Her eyes narrowed, glancing around briefly just in case something was coming at her from another direction. Nothing. They were alone on the roof. “What do you want?” 

“Me?” Broadway shrugged elaborately, clearly overly-emphasizing the motion so that it would carry through the armor she wore. “I don’t want anything really. I was just looking for the bastards who attacked… never mind. Point is, I saw you on patrol and thought my buddy might want to know you were around. Turns out she wants to talk to you pretty bad though.” With that, she held up a flip phone, offering it that way. “She said to tell you it’s about Paintball.” 

The reflexive denial that had been on Amber’s lips, the immediate refusal to talk to Pack and risk everything that would come with that, died. Paintball. Fuck. “What did you people do to him?” she demanded, ignoring just how little sense that made. They were the bad guys, the bad guys. She had to force herself to keep thinking of them that way, no matter what. Which, again, might have resulted in a little overcompensation. 

“Seriously?” Broadway was clearly just as aware of the ridiculousness of that assumption. “Here, dude.” She underhand tossed the phone without arguing further about that. “Talk to her.” 

Amber considered tossing the phone away. Damn it, she was Star-Touched and they were Fell-Touched! If anyone found out she was having some kind of casual conversation with them, let alone that when she and Pack had fought she had… that she might have… that…

Fuck. Snapping the phone open, she brought it to her ear and demanded, “What’s going on with Paintball?” 

Pack’s answer came immediately. “You tell me. What the hell are you doing? Why didn’t you go help him? You can’t be done already. Don’t tell me you left him out there on his own.”

Okay, now Amber was even more confused. She blinked over at Broadway, who stood still, watching her with what seemed like curiosity even though it was hard to read through the armor. “Uhh… what? I haven’t talked to Paintball lately. What are you going on about?” 

There was a brief silent pause, followed by a full litany of cursing. Amber was pretty sure there were some bad words in there from several other languages. It went on for a few long seconds before Pack finally snapped, “–fucking idiot!” 

“Excuse me?” Way demanded reflexively. 

“Not you!” the voice on the phone blurted. “Paintball! He’s a fucking god damn idiot! He fucking lied to me just to–who the fuck knows why! He lied to me! He said he was going to call you for help! That’s the only reason I let him go by himself, because he wasn’t–god damn it!” 

“Calm down,” That-A-Way ordered, her mind swimming. “Okay, just wait a minute. What was he going to call me about? You let him go where by himself? And why did you have anything to say about it anyway? He doesn’t work for you. He–” 

“Never mind that!” Pack interrupted. “Look, we–I don’t know what the hell is going on, not exactly. But Paintball asked Eits to do some research for him. Yeah, I don’t know why. Eits found some address and got jumped for it. Someone beat the shit out of him. I got Paintball here and gave him the address. He said he was going to call you for back-up to check it out! Now he’s been gone for over an hour and I find out he never even called you!” 

Taking in all that, Amber felt a rush of nausea and confusion wash over her. What the hell was Paintball having a bad guy look up for him? And why had he gone off on his own after telling Pack he would ask for help? And why hadn’t he checked in again? 

“Where is he?” she finally demanded. “Where did you send him? I’ll check it out myself.” 

“Not by yourself you won’t,” came the retort. “Broadway has the address. Follow her, I’ll meet you there. We’ll find out what the fuck is going on, even if I have to smack Paintball until he stops being so secretive.” 

Amber considered arguing. But Pack had already hung up. So that conversation was over. With a sigh, she looked at Broadway. Several options bounced back and forth through her mind, but there was really only one possibility. She couldn’t just abandon Paintball. And it would take too long to try to explain the situation to her own people. “Fine,” she muttered. 

“Lead the way.” 

*******

It was some small, ordinary house in the middle of an ordinary neighborhood. Well, maybe not actually that small. But still, it was just a house. Given that the state it was in, Amber would have said it was empty, but a dog was sitting in the fenced-off and heavily overgrown front yard and didn’t seem to be starving or anything. It was just sitting there, watching people pass by.  

At the moment, Amber was standing at the end of the street in a clump of trees just above a drainage ditch. Broadway and Pack (who had the cage with her lizards sitting nearby) were standing a few feet away, all three of them watching that house as they had been for the past minute. 

“So, I don’t get it,” Broadway finally piped up. “Why’re we standing around like this? Are we going to go bust in there and check this place out, or what? Paintball’s like, a friend to you guys, right? If he’s in trouble, that’s the first place to start. He could be hurt or something in there.”  

Way gave the Fell-Touched a brief squint. “We–” she amended belatedly. “I don’t just go breaking into people’s homes like that. We don’t know if he’s in there at all. We don’t even know if he made it or not. Anything could have happened. We don’t have a warrant or probable cause or anything to justify busting in someone’s private home just because we’re worried. Especially since I’m off my patrol route and haven’t reported in about this. You know, for obvious reasons.” 

“Oh,” Pack replied casually, “well that’s easy to deal with. Just close your eyes for a minute.” As she said it, the girl was already starting to move that way, stopping to pick up the cage on the way. “Luckily, I brought my universal lockpick. Didn’t I, Marsy? You wanna smash a door in?” 

Quickly, Amber moved and grabbed the other girl by the arm. “Stop! You can’t just break in there either. It’s broad daylight and anyone could be watching. Do you have any idea what you could-”  

Pack snatched her arm free, somehow managing to scowl at That-A-Way despite the completely blank mask that covered her face. “No, do you have any idea what could be happening to Paintball in there while we just stand here? Did you hear the part about how some assholes practically beat Eits into a coma just for looking for this place and not telling them the address? Whatever’s going on here, whatever it is, it’s really fucking important. Don’t you care about what could’ve happened to Paintball and why he just completely disappeared?”

Wincing at that, Amber nodded. “Of course I care! I’m here, aren’t I? I mean, I really shouldn’t be, but…” She sighed, shaking that off. She made her choice and would deal with the consequences if it came to it. That said, she wasn’t going to be stupid about the whole thing and just burst right in. “But we have to do this right. Not only because we–I could get in trouble, but because if there are bad guys in there, waltzing right in could be just as bad as doing nothing.” 

“Moving girl’s got a point,” Broadway put in, giving That-A-Way a thumbs up. “Bad guys or good guys, we’re all pretty screwed if we walk into the same trap that caught Paintball. I mean, not that we know he walked into a trap. But let’s be real, he probably walked into a trap.” 

Finally relenting, Pack glanced to the cage at her feet. “Fine, Riddles and Twinkletoes can scout the place out from above and close in. They can check what the place looks like up close, see if anyone’s in there through the windows. But we do this fast.” 

Amber agreed, stepping back and watching as Pack brought the two lizards to their larger forms and sent them off to do their job. As they took off, one flying and one invisible, she asked, “How many times have you tried calling him?” Even then, Amber was taking the phone from her own pocket and hitting the option to try calling Paintball himself for about the fifth time since she’d heard about this. As with the first four, it went straight to the generic voicemail. 

“Half a dozen,” Pack replied flatly. “After that, there didn’t seem to be a point. We know something’s wrong. Either something in that place attacked him, or he got jumped on the way here.” She looked over to Way, adding pointedly, “Either way, I’m getting in that house to find out what the fuck is going on.” 

There was something in her voice, a… guilt? Amber wasn’t sure, but it sounded like the other girl was blaming herself for the whole situation. She found herself pointing out, “Look, Pack, you know Paintball isn’t your responsibility or anything. He’s not on your team or–” 

Pack quickly interrupted. “Fuck that. I should have known that he was going to feel guilty about the whole thing with Eits. I should have figured out that he was lying and that he’d go off by himself to try to make sure no one else got hurt or some shit. I should’ve known, but I was just…” She was clearly scowling, arms folded across her stomach as she looked away. “I was upset. I was mad that he got Eits involved, even though it wasn’t his…” A long sigh came. “I was mad. I was stupid. He was stupid. We were all stupid. And now Paintball’s in trouble.”

By that point, Riddles was swooping in to land on a nearby tree. Pack looked that way, and Amber resisted the urge to demand to know if they were actually communicating. 

Finally, the other girl looked to her and Broadway. “The house seems empty. And it looks like no one’s lived there for months. There’s cobwebs, dust everywhere, the lot.”  

“That… doesn’t make sense,” Broadway pointed out, bouncing a bit as if impatient and tired of standing still. “What about the pupper out front?” 

“Yeah…” Amber squinted that way, forgetting who she was with in that moment as she pushed off to walk to the house. Something really weird was going on. “I think we need to check out that dog.” Now the whole thing was even more suspicious. What the hell was going on? 

The neighborhood was pretty quiet, so the three reached the gate of the house without running into anyone. As they stood there, the dog perked its head up and panted while looking at them. 

“Hey, boy… or girl,” Amber coaxed, hoping the animal wouldn’t be too put off by their costumes (especially Broadway’s heavy armor). “Who’s a good whatever-sex-you-are? You are. You are. C’mere…” She put her hand through the gate and the dog gave a happy little wag while getting up to move that way. 

Suddenly, there was a sharp whistling sound as something shot past Amber and the others. It was a small stone, which rebounded off the dog’s snout, making it jerk back with a reflexive snarl. 

Spinning that way, her guard up as she snatched the taser-baton from her side, That-A-Way stared at… “Skip?” It was the girl from Ten Towers, standing there in the white short-sleeved robe and hood that covered a blue-black bodysuit, her lower face covered by a black cloth mask. She had just hurled the stone past the three Touched to hit the animal.

“Not a dog,” she said simply, in that matter-of-fact, eerily calm way she had. Amber had seen and fought alongside the girl several times and she’d never seen her raise her voice or seem emotional in any way. “Get back now.” Her tone was about as urgent as it ever got.  

Even as Skip said that, Amber felt movement behind her. She spun, activating her power to teleport to the north while grabbing Pack. Broadway teleported backward at the same time. 

They barely avoided the mouth of the dog. A mouth that was now a hell of a lot bigger than it had been. Large enough to have swallowed Amber whole if given a chance. 

“The fuck?!” the girl blurted, stumbling a little. Even as she said that, the dog’s head (because that was the only part of it that had grown) resumed its normal size. It snarled at them before abruptly spitting some kind of nasty-looking greenish-brown mucus stuff at the ground. The mucus spread out to cover a space about two feet wide, before the dog… dove… into the mucus. Literally, it dove into the gooey, gross stuff, disappearing as if it was jumping into a pool of water. A moment later, the mucus faded into the ground, leaving them staring at nothing. 

“I’m sorry,” Amber managed while scrambling to the fence. “But what the fuckity fucking fuck?!” 

“Uhh, what she said,” Broadway agreed, sounding like she was about to be sick. “What the hell was that?” 

“I don’t know,” Skip calmly informed them. “But it was playing lookout for the people who abducted Paintball.” 

“What?!” Pack snapped, suddenly moving that way. “You saw something happen? Who–what–where?” 

Without responding to the girl directly, Skip turned her head slightly, looking at That-A-Way. “You work with villains?” She didn’t sound judgmental. She barely sounded curious. 

“It’s a long story,” Way informed her. “Really long. But we’re looking for Paintball, if you–” 

“He said a friend of his was hurt and needed help,” Skip replied flatly. “I saw him after that and thought he might be in trouble. I was busy, but after I was done, I looked for him. That brought me here. I don’t come out here very often, so my closest marker was a few streets over and I had to come look for him. I got here in time to see people put him in a car, but I was too far away to see who they were. They wore long coats.” 

“God damn it!” Pack blurted. “I knew that idiot was in trouble! And now we have no fucking idea where he is!” 

“You would have an idea,” Skip calmly informed her without a trace of recrimination in her voice, “if you allowed me to finish speaking.” 

“What?” Pack demanded. “You said you didn’t see who they were and you weren’t close enough to do anything about it.” 

Skip gave a simple nod. “True. But I did see the license plate before they left and sent it to Ten Towers support. I waited, and was on the phone with them when you arrived. I witnessed the so-called dog shift itself into a larger form in an attempt to ambush the invisible figure you sent to investigate the house, but you approached first and interrupted, forcing the creature to resume its passive form in an attempt to shift the ambush to you instead. Thus, I thought it prudent to interrupt.” 

“You said you were on the phone with your support team?” Amber managed, pushing her way past all that. 

“Yes,” Skip confirmed. “They have traced the car through several street cameras to a warehouse on the far side of town. If you would like, I can take you there.” 

“Oh, we definitely like,” Pack retorted. 

“Take us to this warehouse. Because whoever abducted Paintball is about to get a really goddamn rude awakening.” 

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Interlude 9A – Breakwater and Patreon Snippets 13B (Summus Proelium)

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The island was thirty-six miles long and sixteen miles wide. None of its inhabitants knew exactly where it was located, other than somewhere in the Pacific Ocean. Its exact location was a tightly guarded mystery that only a few were actually cleared to know, and there were even multiple false locations and leads put out into the public to muddy the waters. Tech-Touched devices cloaked the island from most satellite detection, and no civilian flights went anywhere near it. 

On the island itself, dozens of buried or otherwise hidden emitters blocked any teleportation or other Travel-Touched powers from being able to carry their users any further than roughly one hundred yards into the ocean. Not that they would want to go further than that, as each of the inhabitants carried somewhere inside them a device that would explode and kill them should they leave the range of those emitters or do anything to hinder them. It was a catch-22. The emitters projected a signal preventing Travel-Touched powers from allowing them to escape, but also prevented their surgically implanted explosives from detonating. A third layer of protection in the system was that the implanted explosives continually projected their own, separate signal to the emitters. If that was disrupted, such as by the removal (or attempted removal) of the device, the emitters would project a debilitating sonic disruption until back-up forces could arrive and secure the offender. 

So, teleporting off the island was impossible because of the emitters. Disrupting the emitters was impossible because of the signal they sent to the implanted explosives. And tampering with the implanted explosives was impossible because of the signal they sent to the emitters. One would have to simultaneously, down to the second, disrupt every emitter within a particular range (which would involve actually finding all of the emitters whose signal overlapped your location, and being willing to risk your life that you were right) and disable the implanted explosive. You would need one person to disable each emitter in range of you at the exact same time that you disabled your implant. And any number of those who did so would die in the process as soon as the emitters were disabled, if no still-active emitters happened to be near them to prevent their bombs from exploding. 

And, of course, simply building a boat and sailing away was not an option when your body would incinerate the moment you weren’t within a football field’s length of the island. 

Many may have considered these measures to be inhumane and overkill. But this was not just any island. It was a prison. And its inhabitants of the island were not just any prisoners. They were the worst, most dangerous and irredeemable Fell-Touched in the world. In certain countries they might have been executed, given the choice. But the international community as a whole frowned on capital punishment. And so this compromise was struck. If those most dangerous Fell-Touched could be captured, they were brought here to be taken out of society’s hands and left to fend for themselves. In some ways it was almost a death sentence in and of itself, given the violence on the island. But putting them there allowed governments to at least say that they did not execute them. While, of course, ensuring that they would die if they ever tried to escape, before they could pose a threat to innocents. 

There was only one official rule on the island, as far as the jailers who left their prisoners on it were concerned. And that one rule was that you never left the island. That was all. Other than that, those who lived on the island were left to their own devices. Some formed small encampments to protect one another or to conduct quick attack raids against others. Some lived entirely on their own. People were split by various divisions including nationality, languages spoken, personal beliefs and prejudices, and many other possibilities. No group on the island was more than roughly twenty people in size. The egos and powers of the people who had been put here could not abide playing nice with more people than that. Larger groups always fractured and split, or simply disintegrated as members attacked and backstabbed one another.

The authorities did not leave the island’s inhabitants completely without any aid, of course. There were food and other supply drops weekly, both to regular designated locations, and to randomized spots whose location was announced through the island’s intercom system after the drop was made. Those lucky enough to be closest to these randomized drops could move quickly to grab the provided supplies before other prisoners beat them to it. Sometimes those extra drops were truly randomized, while other times they were intended to give a boost to a group who either needed it or whom the guard who chose that spot wanted to see thrive (or simply survive). 

Yes, some of those who monitored the island treated it as what amounted to a reality show for violent supervillains, a game where they could watch the worst of society battle it out with one another. Those people weren’t the majority of those put in a monitoring position, but they did exist. And they took advantage of their position at times to advance their preferred gang. 

Others, of course, held a deep vendetta against one imprisoned villain or another, or even entire groups of them. These tended to direct extra supplies away from those criminals and toward the ones who would attack them. Those types tended to be rooted out by psychological testing earlier on and removed from their positions, but they still existed as well here and there. 

In all, the island was a very violent and unpredictable place, not only because of its inhabitants but also because of the monitors. People died often, and the average life expectancy wasn’t great. But those were considered acceptable conditions for a place that kept these dangerous psychopaths from using their Touched powers to endanger and terrorize more innocent people.

The Fell-Touched who came here were monsters. Monsters dumped in with monsters to fight and kill one another so that society didn’t have to deal with them anymore. Such was a fact of life on the island known across the world by various names, but in English as Breakwater. 

At this particular moment, it was nighttime. The island was cloaked in darkness save for spots of light created by various fires, torches, and Touched powers. One spot of light in particular came from a large bonfire in the middle of a clearing directly above a waterfall. Around that bonfire sat six figures, each watching the flames in contemplative silence, and a seventh figure who stood a few feet away looking over the falls to watch the water crash down far below.  

The first of the seven figures was a relatively small man (when standing, he reached about five feet, three inches in height), his skin covered in tiny, extremely sharp needle-like spikes that varied randomly in color between black, purple, and gold. His eyes were slightly oversized and contained two separate pupils within each, one red and the other blue. He called himself Pinprick, with the ability to launch and regrow the needles that covered his body. Each color needle possessed a different power. Black took control of things they struck, be that people, animals, or objects. Purple exploded into clouds of damaging acid. Finally, the gold needles did nothing to inanimate objects, but made living beings struck by them intensely ill while feeding that life force back to Pinprick himself to grant him a form of regeneration. 

The real trick to his gift was that any living being struck by at least three needles in short succession would, in turn, find their own skin covered in them for up to ten seconds before they would explode needles in every direction. One of his favorite things, back in the real world, had been to enter a large crowd of people, launch his needles into a large crowd, and watch the ensuing chaos and more and more people who were struck by at least three of them grew needles of their own to launch everywhere, and the entire situation escalated exponentially. It was positively hilarious, and the memory of those days was still enough to make him laugh now and then. 

To Pinprick’s left sat a much taller figure than the first man. So tall, in fact, that even sitting as he was on the ground, the man’s head was still higher than most people were while fully upright. When standing, the man was nearly nine and a half feet. He was also quite thin, for all his height, his skin a very pale and clearly unnatural white. Even more unnaturally, he had no visible face on the front of his head. No eyes, no mouth, no nose. Where his face should have been was nothing but blank skin. Adding the fact that he had no hair, only a bald head that showed off more of that paper-white skin, and the effect was quite eerie indeed. 

This was the villain known as Quell. How he could see, no one knew. And Quell himself wasn’t saying. His own gift allowed him, first of all, to absorb and reuse all sound within his earshot. Any sounds he heard could be retained and then replayed at any point, emanating outward from any part of his body he chose. He could also manipulate those replayed sounds, making them louder or quieter, changing the specific tone or even the voice used for words, and so on. 

Beyond simply absorbing sounds, as his name implied, Quell could also silence them. At will, he could project a field that rendered an entire area silent, sound incapable of existing within it. 

And more than that, the man was also capable of both absorbing and muting other things within his area, such as fire, electricity, emotions, and more. Or even Touched powers themselves. By simply turning toward and focusing on what he wanted to affect, be that a flickering flame, a bolt of lightning, a person with powers, or anything else, Quell could make the effects and powers disappear, dousing flame, erasing lightning, taking energy from an electrical device, or even making a Touched incapable of actively using their abilities so long as he was focused on them. Further, any effect that directly struck him would be absorbed so that he could, in turn, use it himself once. 

Quell was an extremely dangerous man, to say the least, who communicated primarily by stringing together the absorbed voices of others (he was capable of reusing sounds though not powers or effects) to form the sentences he wanted. For example, if he meant to say the sentence, ‘I took a long walk to the store for some milk’, ‘I took’, ‘a long walk’ ‘to the store’ ‘for some’ and ‘milk’ might all have been said by different voices and in different tones. 

Completing the group around the fire were a dark-skinned man in his late twenties with long black hair tied into braids, an Asian woman in her sixties with angular features and pale eyes, a red-haired and heavy-set white man clearly late in his fifties but quite fit, and a quite beautiful brunette with intensely, even unnaturally, blue eyes who didn’t seem to be fully out of her teens. 

The black man’s Touched name (no other identifiers tended to matter in this place) was Watchdog. The Asian woman was known as, somewhat strangely, Diesel. The red-haired man was called Rupture. Which left the young girl. Despite looking quite out of place against the rest of the group, she, perhaps more than most on the island, had earned her place there. Calling herself Zeal, her power allowed her to induce murderous, bindingly passionate emotions and loyalty for either herself or any given person or object. People affected by her power would fight and kill one another to protect it, to possess it, to take it for themselves, or to obey its commands. When multiple people were affected, she was able to share the skills and talents of any of those people amongst any others. The same went for any Touched powers they possessed, though those powers were often weakened by being shared. And she had used that gift quite a lot, amassing what amounted to an entire cult of obsessed followers who could and did kill for her before she was fifteen. 

The others in their small group had made it clear that if she used her power to control them outside of planned defensive measures, they would make her spend months begging for death. She, in turn, had let them know that anyone who touched her without her permission would find themselves targeted by the negative aspect of her power. A person or object affected in that way would find themselves not loved and desired, but loathed. Anyone who saw them would do anything in their power to utterly and completely destroy such a person or object. 

All of which left a single man, the one standing by the waterfall.  

Using a stick to gently poke the tinfoil wrapped package that was set close to the fire so that it would cook the food inside, Pinprick glanced toward Quell, nudging him slightly. “Hey, man, you got any more of that chocolate left from before? I’ll trade you a flavor tablet for two squares.” 

There was a pause before the answer of, “One tablet, one square. Orange, not lime,” was said in the voices of three separate people. “Two squares for root beer flavor. Three for real coffee.” 

“Yeah right,” Pinprick retorted. “If I had real coffee, I’d be taking your whole bar. Fine, I’ve got an orange tablet here.” He produced the wrapped candy-shaped thing, which would dissolve in a glass of water and grant its flavor. “Just need some fucking candy, they’re stingy with that shit.” 

After the two made the trade, Pinprick addressed the man who was still standing apart from the group. “What about you, big guy? You got any chocolate with you? Hell, you might’ve just joined up with us, but you’ve definitely been on this hellhole for awhile. How long’s it been?” 

Without turning around, the man replied, “Four years and seven months.”

Watchdog gave a low whistle at that. “Shit, Prick’s right, you’ve gotta have all sorts of stashes around this place, surviving that long. You gonna share with the rest of us?” 

“I’ll do better than that,” the man replied, turning at last to face them. He appeared to be in his early forties, with tanned skin faintly lined by age and stress, blonde hair with slight gray around the temples, and brown eyes. “Far better than giving you a few measly treats that would be gone in moments.” 

“I don’t know, I like my chocolate,” Rupture replied with a low chuckle. “I’d watch what you promise, lest you disappoint us. Don’t care how long you’ve been on this island, if I get disappointed, you won’t get much further.” 

“Now, be nice,” Diesel ordered, her gentle tone as at odds with her name as her appearance. The elderly Asian woman was quite polite and, to the extent that she was capable, enforced that politeness in her companions. But when a fight broke out, she was capable of doing untold damage.

Clearing his throat, Pinprick asked, “This got anything to do with why you keep going off on your own for days at a time before moseying on back here? You setting up some kind of surprise party for your new friends? Come on, you can share with us, we’re all buddies, right?”

“A surprise party, of sorts,” the man confirmed. “But not for you.” Pausing, he amended, “Let’s say you’re part of the party. If you’re patient.”

Watchdog muttered, “You’re pretty secretive, you know that? I don’t know if I like secrets.” 

“Hey, don’t worry, puppy,” Zeal put in teasingly, “I’m sure our new friend isn’t just leading us on. He’s sincere, aren’t you?” She turned her slightly pouting gaze to the man by the waterfall. “I really don’t want to be disappointed again. People are always disappointing me.” 

“Stop it,” the man ordered. “I’m not interested in you.” 

“You’re lying,” Zeal declared, stretching out to make a point of her considerable bust and athletic figure. “Everyone’s interested in me. Unless you’re gay, and you’re definitely not gay. You talked about having a kid the other day. I heard you.” 

Quell ‘spoke’ then, the words coming from a dozen different sources all put together to form the sentence he wanted. “She’s right. You did mention having a child. Or children. Sometimes you say child, sometimes you say children. Which is it?” 

Instead of answering the question directly, the man replied, “You’re right, I’ve been here for awhile. Long enough that I’m almost ready to put my plan into action. My… daughter, she’s just about old enough. Three more weeks.” 

“Old enough for what?” Rupture asked. “And I’ll thank you all to note how much I resisted making my own suggestions.” 

“You don’t get credit when you point it out,” Pinprick informed him before focusing on the standing man. “Seriously though, what’re you talking about? What’s your daughter almost old enough for?” 

“Almost old enough to be sent here,” was the response. “And when she is, Paige will make certain they put her on an express plane to this island.” 

The response to his claim was a flat, silent stare from all of his companions for several long seconds. Finally, Diesel gently pointed out, “Ah, honey, we don’t see how that actually helps anything here. Why would you want your child to be sent to this place, let alone plan for it?” 

“Yeah,” Watchdog put in, “and how the living fuck does your crotchspawn being tossed in this fucking hellhole with the rest of us actually help? I think you’ve lost your goddamn mind.” 

Stepping away from the waterfall finally, the man moved over to take his seat next to the fire. He didn’t answer the question at first, choosing instead to stare into the flames. Eventually, after the others had exchanged confused glances, he spoke. “Because when she gets here, this entire island will stop being a prison. Everyone on it, everyone, will be able to leave. We will all escape.” 

The response to his claim was mostly incredulous chuckling and outright laughter, yet he remained resolute. Finally, Pinprick managed, “Okay, okay, let me get this straight. Your kid is just waiting to be old enough that they’ll bring her here. That’s, what, seventeen at a minimum if the offense is bad enough to try her as an adult? And you think that, just because she gets here, this whole prison is gonna shut down? All the defenses they’ve got are just gonna turn off or whatever and we’ll all be free? Just like that?” 

“Something like that,” the man replied simply. “The point is, we’ll all be able to leave. You all can do what you want when it happens. Cause chaos, keep all the heroes busy and occupied. That’s why I’m here. That’s what all this has been about. A long-term plan. When it comes, when she gets here… unleashing every monster on this island into the rest of the world will give me the opening I need.”

There was another brief exchange of looks then before Diesel gently asked, “The opening you need to do what, dear?” 

Staring into the flames, the man answered in a voice that was so quiet, his companions had to lean in to hear him properly. “The opening I need to destroy the Detroit Ministry.” 

“Those fucks who run everything over there?” Watchdog blurted. “The hell makes you think you can pull off what no one else has? I mean, besides the fact that you’re crazy enough to think bringing your kid here is gonna somehow free everyone on this island. How are you gonna take down the Ministry? They’re always ready for anything people try to pull.” 

“They won’t be ready for this,” the other man murmured. “They’ll be too busy grieving.” 

With a curious look, Diesel asked, “Why will they be grieving?” 

He offered the group a casual shrug. “Because in three weeks, when my Paige turns seventeen, she’s going to kill the person she’s spent years establishing a history of hatred and abuse toward, the one person the Ministry’s leaders can’t live without. 

“Their daughter.”

 

******

 

Patreon Snippets 13B 

 

Aaron Jessup and Silversmith

 

“She really asked what you thought of the city after taking you prisoner in your own truck?” 

Hearing that question, Aaron Jessup exhaled slowly. He had been staring down at his own dirt-encrusted work boots, thinking about the last time he’d bought a new pair. They looked old and grungy against the pleasant light blue carpeting of the interview room in this Conservator outpost in downtown Detroit. The room itself was clearly meant to put people at ease, with comfortable seating, soft lightning, rounded edges on all the tables, and several windows looking out into the main lobby along with two large, open doors at either end. The doors and windows could be closed for a more private discussion, or for those who might be afraid of being seen. But when set like this, the intention was obviously to make people not feel trapped. With the wide windows and two large doors, they wouldn’t feel quite so penned in. 

It definitely wasn’t an interrogation room, that was for sure. As a truck driver who had driven routes all over the states for a good sixteen years, Aaron had been in both kinds. He preferred this version. 

Finally, he looked over to the man who had asked the question. He was Silversmith, man of gleaming metal armor and a sterling reputation. The leader of the local Conservator (or Federal-level Star-Touched) group was one of the most well-known Touched not only in the state, but the entire country. Jessup had never met the man before, but he knew plenty about him. The guy was one of the good ones. He could be trusted. 

“Yeah,” Aaron confirmed with a nod. “Asked me what I thought of your city while she had her big lizard gorilla thing ready to smack me into next week if I didn’t behave.” 

Eyeing Aaron briefly, as though judging how he was feeling, Silversmith gave a light chuckle while shaking his head. “That girl’s still pretty new around here, but she’s already something else.” 

“You almost sound like you admire her,” Aaron pointed out. Part of him felt… almost offended by that, but not quite. He’d been robbed before, by people who were a hell of a lot more nasty about it than that girl had been. Lizard monsters or not, it paid to have some perspective. And when you still had a scar on your left shoulder and your right hip from jumpy assholes with guns who thought you weren’t giving them what they wanted fast enough, you tended to appreciate the more professional thieves. Not that he wouldn’t like to see her behind bars for that shit. 

“Admire her?” the silver-armored hero echoed before shaking his head. “No, I wouldn’t say admire. But given some of the monsters that come scurrying out of the shadows to terrorize the people of this city, this lizard girl’s a damned peach in comparison.” 

“Like that Pencil guy,” Aaron murmured. He knew about the Scions of Typhon. Who didn’t? They, and those like them, were psychopaths beyond all description. The stories that made it into the national news about that son of a bitch…

“Like Pencil,” Silversmith agreed with a heavy sigh, glancing toward the other man. “Or any of his freaks. Believe me, as much as I wish you could have made it through our city without a problem like this, it could’ve been worse. Your cargo’s all CIF insured, right?” He pronounced it ‘kif.’ It stood for Cooperative International Funding, a pool put together by most of the first world countries drawn mostly from taxes on Tech-Touched devices and manufacturing, as well as merchandise sales for Star-Touched teams and similar things. Everything went into that pool and was used to rebuild after Collision Points and other very damaging Touched Events. Companies and even individuals who paid to be CIF insured sent funds into the pool as well, in order to be covered if and when they themselves were victims of Touched crimes. 

“Yeah, that’s all covered,” Jessup confirmed. Getting robbed wouldn’t be on his neck, at least. 

“Good.” With a brief pause, Silversmith looked to him. “I wanted to ask you something else. In your report to the first officers on the scene, you said that the Minority member That-A-Way ‘sort of’ fought your attacker. Why do you say ‘sort of?’” 

“Ehhhh…” Grimacing, Aaron shook his head. “Look, I don’t want to get the girl in trouble or anything. She did her job, a job she shouldn’t have to have at her age. She’s a good one in my book.” 

“She is a good one,” Silversmith agreed, his tone easy and casual. “I’m not asking you to tattle on her, Mr. Jessup. I think That-A-Way is one of our finest young Star-Touched and an incredible young woman in her own right. But given the age situation of the Minority and how careful we need to be with protecting and guiding them, if there is an issue, it’s better for me to know about it now before it becomes a problem. We need to know if our teenagers need a break for their own mental health, or if they need to be kept away from certain threats for their own safety.” 

After a long pause, Aaron gave a long, heavy sigh. “Well, best as I could see from where I was… she and that Pack girl did seem to be… uhh… maybe… flirting a little bit? Don’t get me wrong, she still fought her, but it was like… neither of ‘em were really up for hurting each other. And they were just… yeah, flirting a bit.” He grimaced once more. “Just don’t give the kid a hard time about it?” 

He could hear the easy smile in Silversmith’s voice. “Trust me, Mr. Jessup, this isn’t the first time we’ve had an issue of young, still-maturing Touched developing feelings for people on the other side. You were right to tell me about this. And don’t you worry, we know how to handle it. 

“Everything will be just fine.”

****** 

 

Pack and Broadway 

 

An unlabeled white van pulled up to the mouth of an alley, idling there as the window rolled down. 

“Hey, sweet thing!” called a voice from within the van. “You need a lift?”

Rolling her eyes behind her mask, Pack abandoned the shadows and moved to the van. Holiday, Twinkletoes, and Mars Bar followed suit. As she approached, the side-door of the van slid open, held by Tuesday, the lizard-monkey chittering at them in a voice that seemed to be an order to hurry up. Their traveling cage sat next to him. 

One by one, Pack reached out, touched one of her menagerie to shrink them back into their normal lizard forms, and placed them in the cage. Riddles flew down from where she had been playing lookout and returned to being a bearded dragon. Tuesday was last, and she tickled under his chin before putting him back to his ordinary gecko shape. Setting him in the cage, she closed it up, then slid the back door shut and moved around to get into the front passenger door.  

KD was in the driver’s seat. Or rather, Broadway as she was known in the field. She wore what amounted to a power-suit, metal armor that boosted her height by a few inches (useful for disguising her identity) and enhanced her strength and speed to the point of lifting about six hundred pounds and running forty miles per hour. The suit was dark purple to the point of being almost black, with what looked like narrow white vents all along both arms, down both legs, and in the chest and back. They weren’t vents, however. They were speaker-systems that could blast sound at ear-splitting decibels all on their own, even before KD’s own power to manipulate and enhance sound itself came into play. Without the suit, she could clap her hands, then magnify and direct the result until it punched through a concrete block. She could do that to any sound in her vicinity. She could also disperse herself into soundwaves in order to avoid attacks. And if she used her power to focus sound toward one area (similar to what she would do when narrowing it for a sonic attack), then turned herself into sound and jumped into the wave she had just created while it was moving, she could reappear at the target. Basically, she teleported along her own manipulated and directed blasts of sound. And there were other tricks she could do with sound beyond straight up damage or teleporting. 

She could do all that without the suit. With it, her power was enhanced to incredible levels. Instead of punching through concrete, she could magnify the sound that came from the suit’s speakers to the point of being able to damage or even destroy a military tank or other armored vehicle. 

The helmet of the suit was also dark purple, with three white vertical speaker-vents along either side. They were positioned where her ears would be and angled toward the front. Over the face part was a wide V-shaped visor. Whenever Broadway spoke, bright multi-colored lines bounced across the surface of the visor roughly in rhythm with her words. Like a speaker system with the lights in front that pulsed along with the music it played. 

Once Pack was inside, she shut the door and Broadway pulled away from the curb. The van made it through the maze of side-streets before approaching the freeway. Only once they were heading up the ramp did KD remove the helmet and set it aside, exposing her pale skin and bright blue-dyed hair fashioned into pigtails. Dani took her own hood down and pulled the black, featureless mask off her face to reveal her dark skin with short, spiky hair that was mostly black aside from the bright white-dyed tips. 

Both girls grinned at one another before fist-bumping as the van joined the rest of the traffic on the freeway.  “Could’ve gone worse,” KD chirped. “Got half the stuff.” 

“Could’ve gone better too,” Dani retorted, leaning back in the seat a little to watch the cars around them thoughtfully. “We could’ve gotten all of it.” 

“Yeah, true,” KD agreed easily, drumming her fingers along the steering wheel to some tune in her head. “Still, half isn’t bad considering that Touched girl showed up.” Trailing off meaningfully, she added, “Speeeeaaaking of which…” 

“Nothing to speaking of which about,” Dani insisted, feeling a slight flush cross her face as she turned to look out the passenger window. Boy, those lights in the city sure were interesting. 

There was a slight giggle from behind her, before KD spoke again. “That was the girl you were trapped in Jailtime’s funhouse with, right?” 

After a brief pause, Dani nodded. “Uhh, yeah, That-A-Way, that’s right.” 

“And the girl who helped at the hospital,” KD pressed. “The one who saved Holiday.” 

There was another brief pause from Dani, then a slightly more quiet, “Yup.” 

“Ah,” KD murmured. Her voice sounded totally noncommittal and barely interested. “Kay.” 

Several long moments of nothing further happened, while the van traveled down the freeway. When she was met with so much silence, Dani very hesitantly turned to peek over her shoulder at her companion. 

KD was grinning brightly, staring that way. As soon as Dani turned to glance at her, she blurted cheerfully, “You like her!”

Blush deepening, Dani flailed a little. “What–nooo, no, come on, don’t be stupid. She’s one of the good guys, she’s a hero and stuff. She wants to arrest me, remember? What do you think that whole fight back there was about?” 

“Oh yeah,” KD deadpanned, “she really looked like she was totally dead set on locking you up forever and throwing away the key. However will you survive the dreadful wounds she inflicted?” 

Making a face at her friend, Dani retorted, “The point is, she’s Star-Touched. I’m Fell-Touched. Good guy, bad guy. Not really conducive to a relationship. Even if I did like her.” 

“People can change sides, you know,” KD pointed out. “This stuff isn’t set in stone.” 

Dani gave her a sharp look. “I’m not joining the Team Good Samaritan just because I think That-A-Way is hot. I mean, don’t get me wrong, she totally is. But I’m not changing my whole life over it. I made my choice about being who I am.” 

“Who said anything about you joining them?” KD replied. “It can work the other way too.” 

“Something tells me that girl is not interested in joining our side any more than I am in joining her side,” Dani muttered.  

KD nodded in agreement, her tone thoughtful. “Maybe not yet. But you know what? 

“I’m pretty sure whatever’s going on between you two is just getting started.”

Previous Chapter                             Next Chapter

Commissioned Interlude 1 – That-A-Way and Pack (Summus Proelium)

Previous Chapter                                         Next Chapter

The following is a commissioned interlude, not part of the normal schedule. The next regular chapter will come out tomorrow as always. 

As his semi rumbled to a stop in the back of a nearly empty truckstop on the edge of Detroit, Aaron Jessup shut down the vehicle while letting out a loud yawn. Giving his head a firm shake to wake himself up, the man thought he caught sight of something out of the corner of his eye, toward the passenger side of his truck. Snapping his gaze that way, however, he saw nothing more than the edge of the lot with the still-busy freeway beyond. He’d thought there was a shadow moving closer, but clearly, he was just so tired that his eyes were playing tricks on him.

Shaking that off, the man opened the door of his truck and started to step down. Just as his left foot touched the ground, however, with his right still on the step and his arm holding the bar, he felt something press up against his crotch. The sensation, naturally, made him stop suddenly.

“Good instincts,” the man heard from below him. Slowly and gingerly, he lowered his gaze before finding out what was pushing against his groin. Seeing it, however, did not make the man feel any better. It was a gun. The barrel of a sawed-off shotgun, to be specific. The weapon was held against him by a figure laying on their back half-under the truck. Even without the gun, the figure themselves would have been terrifying to behold in that situation. She wore a leather jacket that started out black at the bottom before gradually becoming green toward the top. The hood of the jacket was up to cover her hair, and she wore a featureless black mask with no mouth or eye holes, turning the area where her face should have been into a dark void. 

“Believe it or not, I really don’t want to shoot you,” the girl’s voice informed Aaron quietly while he stared where her eyes should be. “It’s not my idea of a good time. And I know it’s not yours. So we’re all gonna play nice and you’ll be just fine. I’ll get what I want, then you can call the cops and report the loss to your company and their insurance. Nod your head and say okay.” 

After the briefest of pauses, during which he felt that gun barrel push just a bit more against his most precious part, Aaron finally gave a quick nod. His voice sounded a little choked up. “Okay.” 

“Good,” the girl replied. “And my friend doesn’t want to hurt you either, unless you make him.” 

“Him?” Aaron echoed, only to hear the passenger door of his truck open before someone climbed in that side. Someone quite large and heavy, given the way the truck shuddered. 

“I’m gonna need you to not scream, not try to escape, not make any sudden moves,” the girl on the ground informed him in a very patient, yet commanding voice. “If you cooperate, he won’t hurt you, I promise. Just get back up in your seat and buckle up. Remember, no matter how much he freaks you out, he will not hurt you if you follow instructions. Can you do that for me?” 

Not trusting his voice at first, the man nodded weakly before managing a soft, “Y-yeah.” He very gingerly moved, pulling himself back up into the truck and away from that gun. Only once he had safely settled in the seat did the man glance over to see who was in the truck with him.

It was a monster. Literally. The enormous thing, taking up most of that side of the front seat, looked like a gorilla with lizard-like scales instead of fur. It was giving him a broad, toothy smile, one hand raised in a wave of greeting as though all of this was a perfectly normal thing. 

Whether he stayed still because he remembered the order from the girl to not move or scream no matter what he saw, or because he was frozen in terror, Aaron couldn’t rightly say. All he knew was that he was completely frozen in place, staring in shock at the figure beside him. 

“Good,” the masked girl praised while picking herself up. She put the gun away, apparently content that her monstrous companion would keep him in line. “But what else did I say?” 

It took the man a moment, before he very shakily reached out to catch hold of his seatbelt. Without taking his eyes off the thing beside him, he fumbled with it a bit before buckling up. 

Rather than speak again, the girl simply closed the driver’s side door, patted it briefly, then disappeared as she walked around the front before climbing in the open passenger door. Through it all, Aaron simply stared at the scaled gorilla, unable to take his eyes off it. 

“Okay,” the girl announced after climbing in, perching on her… pet’s lap, and closing the door. “Let’s get out of here. I’ll tell you where to go. Like I said, be nice and cooperate and you’ll get out of this without a single scratch, I promise. Oh, I’m Pack, by the way. Given your Maryland licence plates, I’m pretty sure you don’t spend much time around Detroit. 

“So… what do you think of the city so far?” 

*******

With the truck safely parked in the backlot of an old, unused hardware store, Pack watched as Twinkletoes and Mars Bar unloaded the electronics equipment from the back of the truck and transferred it into a waiting van. The truck’s driver was sitting on a nearby curb, being watched by Holiday now. The man showed no interest in trying to run away or fight back. Which was good, because Pack meant what she had said. As long as he cooperated, he’d be fine. Blackjack wanted this guy’s cargo, but there was no reason to be an evil cunt about it. 

However, things apparently just couldn’t go completely smoothly no matter how cooperative the driver was being. That much became clear as, just when Pack was about to offer the man a bottle of water, a warning screech came from up in the sky where Riddles was flying cover. 

Instantly upon hearing the warning, Pack spun. She’d taught her bird-lizard specific calls to give based on what the warning was. This one meant that a threat was coming from behind her. In mid-motion, the girl had the shotgun in her hand, extending it in time to see the threat appear right in front of her, snatch the gun from her hand, and toss it aside to clatter on the ground. 

“Well,” she announced to the newcomer. “That was rude. Not even a hey, good to see you?”

“We’re not on the same side this time, Pack,” That-A-Way informed her sharply. She had just teleported into place after hearing the warning cry from Riddles that told her she’d been spotted. “I told you I’d have to take you down if I saw you out doing bad shit again, no matter what we went through before. So what exactly do you call this?” She waved a hand to where Mars Bar and Twinkletoes had stopped moving boxes from the truck to the van and now stood watching.  

“Uh…” Pack considered that for a moment before offering, “Some early Christmas shopping?” 

Despite herself, and despite spending the past few seconds before making this confrontation telling herself to be firm and take no excuses or nonsense during this, That-A-Way wanted to smile. The answer was so absurd, and came out with such false earnestness, that a snicker almost escaped her. That was why confronting Pack right now was so dangerous. Not because the girl herself was so terrible, but because… because she wasn’t. Because That-A-Way actually liked the time they’d spent together the two times they’d been forced into being allies. 

She should have called in back-up. She knew that. Given her feelings and history, her first action as soon as she saw what was going on should have been to call in one of the other Minority who could help deal with this. But she’d frozen, torn between calling in help or… not. And through that hesitation, Riddles had spotted Way, forcing her hand. Now she was here, standing in front of Pack after disarming her and trying to tell herself that the other girl was just any other villain. She was robbing this truck driver. No matter how much That-A-Way enjoyed talking to her, she was a villain who needed to be taken down and brought in. 

“You’re right,” Pack agreed casually. “We’re definitely not on the same side. But wouldn’t it be fun if we were?” The tone of her voice implied the wink that couldn’t be seen through the mask. “Seriously, come on. I know you’re not some stuffy boring old hall monitor. You and me, we could have some crazy times out here. We don’t need to fight.”

“Are you insane?” That-A-Way demanded, voice rising a bit defensively despite herself. “In case it escaped you, I’m not a supervillain. And I’m definitely not going to hurt people.” 

Pack’s response to that was a simple shrug. “Who said anything about hurting people? Does that guy over there look hurt? Do you really think losing a few boxes of equipment like this is gonna hurt that big ass multi-billion dollar company? Trust me, they’ve got all this covered.”  

Slowly, That-A-Way shook her head. “Look, I’m telling you, we can do this the nice way. I’ll arrest you, take you in, then you sit in jail. Neither of us has to throw a punch. Maybe they’ll let you switch sides, Pack. You and your friends here, they could do some real good, instead of stealing things and hurting people. And you are hurting them, no matter what you think.” 

There was a brief pause then, as Pack seemed to consider. But in the end, the suggestion was apparently not what she was thinking through. Instead, she offered, “Tell you what. I’ll tell my buddies here to stay back and not intervene. Which means I won’t be using my powers. You don’t use yours. If you can take me down like that, no powers on either side, then we’ll all surrender and you can take us in. How’s that sound?”

“You’re serious?” That-A-Way blurted with a frown. “You want me to fight you without either of us using powers, and if I win, you and all your friends here will just surrender peacefully.” 

“Well,” Pack pointed out slyly, “we’ll have just fought, so I’m not sure how much you could call it peacefully. But other than that… yeah. You and me, right here, no powers. Think you can hand-” 

In mid-sentence, Pack was interrupted as That-A-Way took a swing at her face. She jerked back, twisting with a laugh. “See?” she blurted in mid-pivot as the fist went right past her nose, “you would make a pretty good villain with underhanded sneak attacks like that.” 

She quickly snapped an arm down to deflect the other incoming fist, before twisting once more so That-A-Way’s kick hit the side of her hip. It still hurt, but not as much as it might have. Before the next attack could come, however, she continued her pivot, putting her back toward That-A-Way as her elbow lashed out to hit the other girl in the face.

The impact made the blonde stumble a bit, but That-A-Way recovered quickly, both hands snapping up to catch Pack’s swinging arm as it came in for a hard punch. Gripping tightly to keep the girl in place, she lashed out with a kick toward her opponent’s side and was rewarded with a grunt of pain as she connected. But the leather jacket was clearly padded for protection.

Through all of this, the menagerie of lizard-creatures watched with a mixture of confusion and curiosity. That same curiosity was reflected in the face of Aaron the truck driver, as he too watched all of this. Together, they all stared as their owner and the girl she had previously worked with (and who had actually saved Holiday’s life) went after one another in a wild brawl.  

Taking the kick on her side while her extended arm was held by both of That-A-Way’s hands, Pack grunted before stepping in close, her free hand snapping out to slam the heel of it into the other girl’s shoulder. The blow was enough to loosen the grip Way had on her other arm, and Pack twisted free, pivoting in and around before driving her knee up into the girl’s stomach. 

Or at least, that was the plan. In practice, her opponent managed to catch her rising knee with one hand before slamming her arm into Pack’s face with a somewhat-wild swing. Pack did, however, manage to put a fist into the side of the elbow of That-A-Way’s arm that was holding her knee, knocking away her grip. 

Both girls yelped in pain, stumbling back away from each other for a moment. It had been a wild handful of seconds, with both landing a few blows but neither actually getting very far. They each moved, pacing in a slow circle around one another while watching for an opening as the breathed hard in and out. 

“Hey,” Pack announced with a slow pant, “I guess you Minority guys must learn how to fight without your powers after all. Kudos.” Her voice adopted a teasing tone once more. “I don’t suppose there’s any chance you could tell me what parts of that class you weren’t so good at?” 

“Nice try,” Way snorted before doing a quick step-in, feinting a kick while using her opposite hand to catch hold of Pack’s wrist. She quickly pivoted in and around, shoving the villain girl’s hand up behind her back before putting her other arm around Pack’s neck. “I was pretty good at grappling, I’ll tell you that much.” 

“Well yeah,” Pack agreed with a grimace, arm pinned behind her back as it was, “who wouldn’t want to let you practice on them? Have you seen yourself?” Using That-A-Way’s brief distraction at those words, she stomped down on the girl’s foot, then twisted her arm free before pivoting to punch at her stomach. Her fist, as expected, was knocked aside. But she was free, and both girls stumbled away once more. 

Their fight continued that way for another minute, neither gaining any real advantage as they avoided any use of their powers (which, in Pack’s case, simply consisted of repeating her order for the lizard-creatures to stay out of the way no matter what happened). Blows were exchanged between them, each taking a few bruises and bumps that they would feel through the rest of the night and into the next day. This whole thing was clearly more than a simple sparring match, yet also somehow less than an actual fight. They bantered, they teased each other, they… talked, to an extent. They were simultaneously taking it seriously and yet not. It was an impossible situation for either to explain. All the two girls knew was that… it was fun. They both wanted to win, that was for sure. Yet they also… didn’t terribly mind the idea of the other winning either. 

Finally, That-A-Way managed to slip behind Pack while the other girl was stumbling forward, off-balance. Before she could recover, Way lashed out with a kick into her back that launched her up against the back of the nearby truck with a yelp. It was the best opening Way had had through all of this, and she took advantage by grabbing the stay-down cuffs from her hip and lunging that way. She brought one cuff in toward Pack’s wrist even as the girl hit the truck. 

But Pack recovered faster than Way had expected. At the last possible second, she snatched her hand down, pivoting to catch the incoming handcuff. A quick twist of the metal and That-A-Way felt it snap around her own wrist. The other cuff was just as quickly attached to the handle of the truck’s rear door. Way lashed out with her free hand, but Pack stumbled backward just in time, panting heavily. 

“Whew,” the girl managed with a cough, “that was close.” 

Turning to face her, hand still cuffed to the truck, That-A-Way shook her head. “You still don’t have to be a thief, you know. You can stop this any time. It’s your choice.” 

“But I’m so good at it,” Pack replied easily. “And besides, what would I do otherwise? Be a hero?” 

“You could if you wanted to,” Way pointed out with narrowed eyes. “You and your friends over there could help a lot of people.” 

“See, I can help people without being a hero,” Pack retorted, though her voice was light. “But I don’t have to do it at the beck and call of a system designed to make the richer richer and smash the poor under its treads. What do you think I do when I see someone being hurt? I mean really hurt by real bad guys. There’s a difference between what I do and what they do.”

“You want to change the system and make people’s lives better?” Way blurted a bit incredulously. “Then do it inside the system! You want Star-Touched to really help people who need it? Be a Star-Touched and help people who need it!” 

There was a brief pause before Pack stepped closer. “You still see everything as being that black and white? Things aren’t that simple, babe. Though I will admit,” she added carefully while stripping off one of her gloves to reveal a dark-skinned hand that she gently touched against Way’s pale cheek. “Black and white does make a pretty good combination at times.” The words came in a soft voice, both girls staring at one another for a long few seconds. 

Abruptly, Pack stepped back, casually adding, “One, we both know you can teleport out of that cuff any time you want to.” 

Even as she said those words, That-A-Way was disappearing from the cuff. She reappeared a few feet away, mouth open to interrupt in one last plea for the other girl to just surrender. 

But Pack continued. “–And two, I just gave the stand-down order for Holiday to stop guarding her prisoner. Which means…” 

With a loud, somehow delighted and friendly rather than terrifying, snarl, Holiday the panther-lizard lunged out of the shadows to knock That-A-Way to the ground. They landed heavily, Holiday frantically licking all over her face and nuzzling up against her while the girl squealed in surprise. 

“She wants to say hello,” Pack finished with a small smirk. She let that go on for a few seconds before reaching down to take hold of Holiday, pulling her back. The two stood over the Minority hero, Pack offering a shrug. “Hey, you interrupted when we were only halfway done, so I guess we can call it a tie.” 

That-A-Way started to say something, only to look over from her prone position to see the van start up and drive off. “You weren’t alone…” 

“Never said I was,” Pack pointed out. “Don’t worry, Broadway’s cool. She would’ve held to the deal I made and let you take me in. Maybe you can meet her next time.” 

“Next time,” Way assured her, “I’m going to bring you in.” 

Walking backward away from the girl, Pack casually replied, “Maybe I’ll let you cuff me then! Could be fun!” 

She turned then, sprinting away while accompanied by her animals, leaving That-A-Way laying on the ground. As the girl watched the menagerie and their leader disappear into the darkness, her comm beeped. 

“That-A-Way?” Wobble’s voice came, “you okay? What’s going on?” 

Touching the comm in her ear to activate it, Way answered, “I’ve got the truck and the driver. Thief took off in a van, but I managed to interrupt before they took everything they wanted.” 

“Any bad guys to bring in?” her teammate asked. 

“… No. No bad guys this time. She got away.” 

“Shit,” Wobble muttered through the comm. “Eh, don’t worry. There’s always next time.” 

“Yeah,” Amber murmured in a soft voice, staring through the darkness where the other girl had disappeared. 

“There’s always next time.”

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