Melissa Abbot

Interlude 19B – Melissa Abbot (Summus Proelium)

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No sooner had Melissa asked her pseudo-uncle what the orb floating behind him was, than she noticed that he wasn’t moving anymore. Frozen in mid-turn, his mouth open to say something, the man could havse been a statue in one of those wax museums she had always wanted to walk through. Some part of her acknowledged the strangeness of that, but the majority of her attention was entirely centered on the curious ball with glowing hieroglyphics. She knew what this was. She did, right? The thought was there at the back of her mind, but, just like her worry about Uncle Isaiah, it wouldn’t come into her head. Every reaction, every thought, everything else was being pushed down, except for her curiosity about the orb itself. It was so interesting, that nothing else seemed to matter. Not even her own memories about what this thing was. Finally, her hand crossed the rest of the distance, pressing against the side of the orb.  

And then, for the first time in almost as long as she could remember, Melissa wasn’t in her room. She stood in what appeared to be a completely empty landscape. The whole world around her was a dull gray, featureless place, surrounded by thick fog. There was nothing to see, and yet, it was one of the most joyous moments of her life. She was somewhere other than her room. She was standing in a new place, a strange and empty, yet delightful place. 

And yes, she did know what this was. She had read so many stories and watched so many interviews about what finding one of these orbs was like, that the fact that she had not recognized it at first was baffling. It had to be an effect of the orb itself, the nine-year-old reasoned. The orbs obviously did something to make people who saw them not think about what they actually were. Or something. 

Even as that thought came to mind, the girl realized she had started to walk. She wasn’t using her crutches, and yet she was walking just fine. It didn’t hurt. She didn’t feel that familiar ache in her bones from putting her weight on her leg. Looking down at her own feet with a choked noise of mixed confusion and delight, she thought about how her father had always looked when he watched her while believing she was asleep. 

The moment that thought came to mind, she saw an image of her father standing in a doorway appear in the fog ahead of her. She saw the pain in his eyes, and the blazing anger behind them. Anger that he never willingly allowed her to see, but which she knew was there anyway. 

She saw her own bed, the vials that were so important to her continued survival, other members of La Casa who had come and gone from her room, even her stuffed animals. All those images and more played through the fog as she walked. The images came faster and faster, finally bringing the girl to a halt as their rapid appearance made her dizzy. She stopped, eyes wide as she centered her gaze straight ahead, to where the rush of images was the brightest. 

Abruptly, the kaleidoscope stopped, revealing a single image. It was the orb that she had just touched. That picture, hovering in the fog in front of her, became the only thing she could focus on, the only thing she could think about. Everything else fell away. Nothing mattered. Not her illness, not her father, not her stories. Nothing else but that orb. It was her entire universe for those few seconds. 

And then… she heard the voice. The voice others had talked about. That single, female voice speaking two words. 

“Summus Proelium.” 

With those two words echoing their way through her mind, Melissa reeled backward, only to find herself in the real world once more. She was still seated on the floor, but quickly rose to her feet reflexively, stumbling back a step. 

Uncle Isaiah was moving again. His gaze snapped around. “What ball? What are you–” Then he looked at her, and his eyes went wide. A strangled noise of shock escaped the man as he jerked himself upright so quickly he nearly fell over. “The fuck?!” 

“Hey now,” Melissa’s father chastised as he came through the door carrying a tray of food. “I didn’t think I was going to have to ask you of all people to watch your language around my–” Abruptly, he stopped talking, having just in that moment looked up from the tray. His eyes found their way to Melissa, and the tray fell from his hands. The food and bowls scattered across the floor, but the man didn’t pay attention to any of that. All he could do was stare at her, mouth open. A couple of times it looked as though he was trying to say something, but no sound emerged. All he could do was stand there and stare. Which, given who her father was and how much he had been through, was starting to scare the girl. 

“U-Uncle Isaiah?” she blurted. “Daddy? What–what’s wrong? What?” In that moment, the girl caught a glimpse of something in the nearby wall-mounted mirror. Her gaze snapped that way, only to finally see herself the way her father and Isaiah did.

At first she didn’t see anything at all. It was as though she was invisible. But then she looked a little closer and realized the truth. She wasn’t invisible. Not exactly. 

Her skin was gone. Or rather, transformed, along with the rest of her body. She appeared to be made of glass. Her face, hair, hands, legs, all of her. Even the clothes she wore had turned to glass. An intricately carved statue of it. Or of ice. It was so detailed, she could see her own expression staring back at her in the mirror. Her glass eyebrows rose, her glass mouth fell open, she could see her glass tongue. There were no internal organs to see. Her body was close to transparent, as it was possible to see straight through her to the other side. 

As soon as she saw herself, the girl let out a squeal of surprise and jerked backward. She tripped over her own feet and fell. With a terrifying crash, her body shattered into hundreds of little pieces of glass that scattered across the floor. 

And… and it didn’t hurt at all. Even as the sound of her father’s scream filled the room, Melissa could see him from hundreds of different angles. She saw the way he came rushing in, still in mid-scream. She saw and heard it from every shard of glass she had shattered into. It was… it was so strange. It felt weird, and yet completely normal at the same time. She could simultaneously see from every piece of glass, allowing a view of her father’s front and sides as he stopped right over where her body had been standing. Somehow… somehow she could see it all at the same time and it wasn’t confusing. 

I wish I wasn’t broken. Then I could tell my Daddy I’m okay. 

The moments that thought came to her mind, Melissa felt the individual pieces of herself rise off the ground. A gasp escaped both men in the room as the shards all floated into the air around them. They came together, spinning into a tornado. Through it all, the girl found herself thinking of her own form, the way she was supposed to be. And then the tornado stopped, and she was back. She was herself again, fully intact, as though nothing had happened. Well, as though she hadn’t fallen and broken apart, anyway. 

“Daddy!” the girl blurted, even as her father let out a choked sob and grabbed her. He was as gentle as always, pulling her close carefully into what was, for them, a tight hug. 

“Melissa. Melissa, baby, what happened? What–how did–what–” 

So, she explained about how she had seen the orb behind Isaiah and reached out to touch it. “There were all th-the holograms and stuff like people said. Like you, and Uncle Isaiah, and the others, and the bed, and Inspector Guillotine, all of it, all of them. They were all there, and I saw them, and then the orb was there, and it said the words, and then I was back here. And I was like this.” Frowning uncertainly, she looked down at her own hand. Still made of glass. Her entire body was made of glass. In gaining powers, she had gone from a girl whose bones could shatter easily, to someone entirely made of glass. She could shatter even more easily now. And yet… and yet it didn’t matter. She had shattered. She had broken apart into hundreds of pieces from something as simple as falling. And then she had just come right back together again as though nothing had happened. Just like that, she was fine. 

“Dad?” she finally managed, looking back up to find her father staring at her, still having not let go. 

“I don’t think I need the medicine anymore.” 

*******

“Are you sure it’s okay, Daddy?” 

Several hours later, after a lot of talking and even more experimentation, Melissa and her father stood in one of many large garages owned by La Casa. A dozen different vehicles, of wildly different makes, models, and colors, filled the space around them. 

She was out of her room. She was standing in the garage with her father. She had been walking through the facility all day long. That, in and of itself, was nearly as big of a deal, as far as Melissa was concerned, as her newfound powers themselves. She wasn’t stuck in bed. She wasn’t trapped in that room. She could leave, walk around, talk to people. 

Not that she ended up talking to many of them. Not yet, anyway. Her father didn’t want many to know what was going on with her for the time being. He simply ordered everyone out of any place she wanted to walk into. He had entire floors cleared so that she could move through them, looking at everything. For the first time in as long as the girl could remember, she wasn’t a prisoner of the disease that she had been infected with. She was free. 

Walking without her crutches. Seeing things with her own eyes. Even touching them. And yes, she could still feel things. She wasn’t exactly sure how that worked, but it did. When she touched something, she could feel it just as though she was touching it with her old body. Except she didn’t feel pain. Shattering apart the way she had, while it had felt strange, hadn’t actually hurt. She could touch her father’s skin and know that it ‘felt like skin’, but when she touched fire (her own experiment, much to her father’s abrupt protest), it hadn’t burned her. She felt slightly warm, but there was no pain. 

On the other hand, while she had retained her ability to see, hear, and feel (without pain), her senses of smell and taste were completely gone. She had stood in a kitchen full of baking desserts, and out by the dumpsters. Neither smelled like anything to her. She had attempted to eat one of those aforementioned desserts, but it… only resulted in a mess. She couldn’t eat or drink. And it hadn’t tasted like anything. She had her glass tongue, but no ability to taste. 

With a fond smile at her question as they stood together in the garage, her father gave a short nod. “Have at it, Smelly. Let’s see what you can do, huh?” Now that he had been assured that she wasn’t hurt by any of this, the man was just as excited and intrigued as his daughter was by what she was capable of. There were, of course, other considerations and worries to come. But for now, he wanted to see what these powers actually meant. The fact that he used that teasing nickname (born of a combination of Small and Melly, for Melissa), proved how much he had relaxed since first walking in that room to see his daughter fall and break apart. Now assured that she was safe, he wanted to see what these powers meant. 

To that end, Melissa took a deep breath (still uncertain as to how much that mattered),  before spreading her arms out wide. With a grunt, she slammed them together. In that motion, she clapped hard enough that both hands shattered into dozens of pieces. Again, it didn’t hurt. But it did leave her with her hands and a decent portion of her forearms missing, ending in jagged stumps. In any other situation, that would have been horrifying, but Melissa knew better by now. 

Just as before, she could see through all her individual shards. But now she was simultaneously seeing through her ‘eyes’ and through the different shards. As they lay on the floor scattered around her, she could see herself looking down at them. She could see her father too, and the cars that filled the garage. She could see through every shard at the same time. 

But it was more than that. As the shards lifted themselves from the floor, Melissa could control and manipulate all of them separately. They were all her, all capable of being moved around independently, controlled by Melissa despite the impossibility of focusing on so many different things at once. She could manipulate, move, see through, and experience things through every shard as easily as she could within her own body. 

Every shard of herself floated into the air, as she saw everything through all of them at once. Somehow, it didn’t overwhelm the girl, though she knew it should have. It just… worked. 

With a thought, she sent the shards flying through the garage. A few went to each vehicle, hitting the windshield or windows. And as she held those shattered pieces of herself against the glass, Melissa felt a sort of… warmth. It was hard to explain it further than that, though she had tried when her father asked before, back when she had first done this with one of the mirrors inside. That feeling of warmth spread out from the shards she was controlling, through the windshield and windows, even through the mirrors on the vehicles that some of her shards had pressed themselves against. 

The warmth spread and, after a few long seconds, she felt it. Control. She felt her control spread from the pieces of herself, out to the glass of the vehicles. Once she felt it, the little girl spoke a single word. 

“Come.” 

And with that, every window, every windshield, every mirror in the garage abruptly shattered as the glass broke itself into thousands of pieces, tearing its way free. Whether it was tempered or not didn’t matter. None of the specifics mattered. The glass broke apart into those thousands of shards, all of them flying over to form up around her. The glass that had been part of her flew to where the stumps were and reformed, turning back into her arms and hands. Again, as though nothing had happened. Meanwhile, the rest of the glass continued to float there, awaiting her commands. 

She couldn’t see and feel through all of these pieces, not instantly at least. With a thought and focus, however, she could pick a collection of shards to see through, just as she saw through her own pieces. Sensing things through her own glass was automatic, but pushing her senses into other glass she was controlling took a bit more effort. 

Focusing intently on the glass shards in front of her, Melissa watched as they obeyed her silent order by swirling into a tornado, just like when her own body had been reforming back in her room. The shards spun faster and faster, until it became impossible to make out individual pieces. 

Then they stopped, and the glass wasn’t individual shards anymore. Every bit of glass from those dozen vehicles had joined together into an incredibly life-like recreation of a full-sized triceratops. At a thought from Melissa, the triceratops turned to look at them. And at another thought, she could see through its eyes. She could simultaneously look at her creation and look back at herself staring at it. With another silent command, the triceratops gave what looked like a little bow. 

“Daddy… I made a dinosaur,” she whispered, almost afraid that if she spoke too loudly, it would shatter this dream and she would wake up back in her bed. 

“Yes,” the man murmured, stepping over to put his hand against it curiously. “So you did. It’s amazing, Smelly Melly. Can you still see through it?” 

“Uh huh,” she confirmed. “If I think about it and try. Wait.” Another few seconds of thought made the triceratops shatter apart into all those little pieces of glass once more. Just as quickly, they formed into three separate tornadoes that time. When the tornadoes cleared, there were three smaller animals standing there. One was a bear, another was a wolf, and the third was a miniature dragon, about the size of the bear, with a pair of long wings along its back and long claw-like talons that looked as though they could easily rip and tear through flesh. 

Once the three animals were formed, Melissa focused. She found that she could control all of them to do what she wanted at once, though she was only capable of seeing through the eyes of one at a time. The others would obey her silent commands to the best of their ability, and in the absence of direct supervision, would simply continue attempting to follow her last order. She set the wolf to pacing in a circle around the garage, and it continued to do that even after she turned her focus to the other two. The bear was left lumbering forwards and backwards from one wall to the opposite, reaching up with one paw to pat the structure each time. When her focus turned away from it, the bear continued to do that. 

Finally, the dragon was sent flying up to the ceiling, where it hovered and looked down at them. Seeing herself through its eyes, Melissa giggled a little. Delight filled her voice. “Daddy, I can make them move. Do you see?” 

“I see,” the man confirmed with pride, his hands moving to squeeze her shoulders a bit. “They’re amazing, baby. You’re amazing.” Despite his words, and the fact that he did seem to mean them, there was a slight hesitation to his voice. 

“Daddy?” Curious, Melissa turned her head to look up at him. The glass-dragon did the same, automatically. “What’s wrong? Did… did I do something bad?” 

“No, no, baby,” he quickly assured her. “You didn’t do anything wrong. Never. You’re my angel.” Going down on one knee, he looked her in the eyes. “I was just thinking about how different things are now, and about how you’ll never exactly be… able to go out in public. You wanted to do so many different things, Mel. You wanted to see the world. You wanted to go skateboarding. You wanted to do all that stuff.” 

She, in turn, smiled at him. He needed to see her smile, she was pretty sure. “I can do a lot of that stuff, Daddy. Now it doesn’t matter if I break, because I can just come right back together again. It doesn’t hurt. And I can still go see things if I’m careful. It’s just that now instead of being careful not to break, I have to be careful so people don’t see what I look like. Maybe I could wear a disguise, or–” 

“Melissa,” her father interrupted suddenly, his eyes widening with surprise. “Look at yourself.” 

She did so, directing the hovering glass-dragon’s eyes back to her. And she saw… well, she didn’t look normal, exactly. Her body was still clearly made of glass when she looked close. But there was color to it. Her pale skin color had returned, her eyes were back to being the right pale green, the long, slender strands of glass that made up her ‘hair’ had turned light brown to mimic the real thing. Even the glass that made up her clothes had shifted to what they should look like. 

With the added color, she looked akin to a particularly realistic porcelain doll. When one peered close enough, they could tell that something was off. Her skin, clothes, eyes, all of it was just not quite right. Yet from a distance, it would probably pass a casual glance. Especially if she wore regular, real clothes on top. 

Realizing all of this, Melissa found herself beaming. “See, Daddy? I really can go out and look around with you, and do stuff. But you know what?” 

“What’s that?” Her father asked, running his hand over her head. 

The answer came as she turned her gaze to stare at him. “There’s rules. You made them up yourself. 

“So now we gotta think of a gambling sorta word-name that’s got something to do with glass.” 

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Patreon Snippets 22B (Summus Proelium)

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Elena and Sterling

As the door into the private hotel suite swung open, Elena Evans glanced up from the chair where she was sitting on the other side of the front living room. Two spoken words made the television pause in the middle of a news broadcast, freezing the reporter’s face while she was explaining exactly what had happened to expose the true identities of Pencil and Cup. Or at least, what was publicly known. Elena, however, had a much better source, who was coming in the room at that very moment. And a more pressing concern in that instant.

“Is she alright?” the woman asked, rising from the seat.  

Sterling, closing the door after him, gave her an immediate nod. “Izzy’s fine,” he assured her. “I spoke to her a bit as Silversmith. She’s not hurt or anything. She and Amber played the cavalry for Paintball and that new one, Alloy. Turns out they were smart enough not to all go in at once.” 

Darkly, Elena noted, “Yet not smart enough to pull in more help before investigating something like the Scions.” Taking a breath before letting it out to calm herself, the woman reached down to pick up a glass of wine, taking a sip from it before pursing her lips thoughtfully. “I know we decided it was best to leave the boy alone so long as he does not cause direct problems. But now he has taken Izzy into that sort of situation. However well-meaning he may be, he still helped put her in danger. What would we do if he had put Cassidy in that situation?”

With a grimace, Sterling shook his head. “That’s immaterial, because she would never be in a situation like that. She’s not a part of all this. Which, remember, was intentional. She gets to have a normal life for as long as possible before we involve her.” 

Elena took another sip of the wine while gazing steadily at him. “That’s not the point. If she was pulled into that sort of danger, the very first thing you would do is have a talk with that boy about responsibilities and being careful. And what can happen if he’s not.” She held up the hand that wasn’t holding the wine glass. “I’m not saying go after him too hard. I’m just saying maybe have a chat with him. Make sure he knows just how badly this could have gone and that the next time he has important information that could lead to that sort of danger, he needs to involve others. Adult others, who have the experience and resources to deal with it. And while you’re at it, maybe you should talk to Amber as well. She really should have known to involve someone else as soon as the Scions were mentioned.” 

“You’re right, but I’ll give it a few days,” Sterling replied. “Right now everything that we want to say to them is already playing through their heads. Believe me, I could hear it in their voices. Give it time to calm down a little bit. Let them work their way through all the what-ifs. Then I’ll talk to them and make sure it sticks. If we push too hard, too fast, it will just make them defensive. Let their own imaginations be the bad guys first.” 

With a very small smile, Elena set the glass down and stepped over to wrap her arms around him. “You have learned a lot over the years,” she informed her husband fondly, running her hands up his back. “Is that from running our business, or raising a couple of children?”  

“I think the correct answer is yes,” he replied with a chuckle as his arms closed around her. He held his wife close and rocked back and forth with her for a moment, both of them instinctively moving to the imagined sound of the song that had played during their first dance as a married couple. It was also the first one they had danced to while dating. Their song was “Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now” by the band Starship. It was their thing, because their first date, all those years ago, had been… rather different. Elena’s father had sent goons after her to find out who she was breaking away to see, and if he had known that it was one of his very own junior accountants, Sterling never would have survived the night. The two of them had been forced to hide out in the attic of some old woman for hours while the men scoured the streets. There had been a television and ancient VCR up there, along with a single video tape, for the original Mannequin film. Thus, that had been their first real date, sitting in an attic, watching a VHS recording of a movie that was already over a decade old at that point on a small television. And it was still one of the best memories either of them had. 

After a few long moments of that, Elena quietly spoke up. “I don’t want anything to happen to Izzy. That girl deserves… she deserves everything. If they’d been taken by those psychopaths…” She trailed off then, though the tension was evident in her body language. 

Sterling, in turn, held her closer. “I’ll talk to them,” he promised in a gentle voice, “and make sure they know that there are people they can call for help in situations like that. If not me, then others. They did call Flea afterward, so there’s already a connection with her. As long as they talk to someone, we should find out.” He leaned back, putting both hands on her shoulders. “She’s okay, Elena. Izzy’s fine. She’s a tough kid, you know that. We both do. She’ll be okay. And if she gets close to Paintball, that’s one more in that we have with the kid when the time comes to actually do something about that whole situation.”

“Izzy’s safety comes first, before any of that,” Elena reminded him pointedly. “She’s been through too much for us to put her in deliberate danger.” 

“No deliberate danger,” Sterling agreed. “She’s too important for that. She and Cassidy both. They’ve been getting closer, you know. Always hanging out together in that game room. Selena said she saw them sleeping together in Cassidy’s bed the other morning.” 

The words made Elena smile. “Good,” she murmured, “I’m glad they’re getting along. Those two…” She exhaled thoughtfully, turning a bit to pick up her wine glass once more. “Perhaps we can tell them the truth together, explain it all to them when the time comes. Izzy is already involved in the… Touched side of things. It won’t be as hard to tell her why our way keeps the situation from spiraling too far out of control. She’s seen how terrible things can be.” 

“Maybe.” With that word, Sterling fell silent, thinking for a moment before his head shook. “Either way, in the meantime, it’s best we encourage those two to be as close as possible. Maybe she’ll be comfortable telling Cassidy about her… extracurricular activities soon.” 

“Perhaps we should encourage that, gently,” Elena noted. “She may confide things with Cassidy then, including any future possible danger. And you know how Cassidy is. 

“If she knows something, she’ll tell us.” 

******

Cup and Pencil

The newscaster’s voice was interrupted mid-speech by the sound of an enraged scream. That was immediately followed by a loud crash as a heavy lamp was hurled into the television, destroying both as the flat screen fell onto its back with a shower of broken glass. 

“Would it make you feel better if we did that to the annoying twat herself?” Pencil asked curiously, as he lounged in a recliner on the other side of the room. It was meant to be a reading corner, as this place had, at one point, been a fairly popular bookstore. But it had been closed for over a year (thanks to the mysterious death of the owner, who had dared to say something annoying), and was only one of several private and secure hideouts that the Scions had set up long ago. Now, most of the books were gone, though the shelves remained. It was on one of those that the television had been placed. 

There was a small apartment area in the back of the building where the former owner had lived, and the Scions had installed a heavy-duty freezer down in the basement. Between what was in there, and the pantry they had been sure to stock up, there were enough supplies in this place for up to ten people to live comfortably for as long as six months, without stepping foot outside. Things weren’t that bad, nowhere near. Most of the Scions’ identities were still secure, and there were always disguises for those who weren’t. But if the time came and they really had to go underground until the heat died off, it wouldn’t be a problem. At least, not as far as being fed went. 

Pivoting to face her brother as she stood, panting from the anger that still filled her even after taking it out on the news broadcast that had been reporting about their identities, Amanda retorted, “The reporter? You know, fun as that would be, since I never liked that sanctimonious cunt, I’ve got a few better targets in mind.”  

“I’m sure you do,” Nick agreed, pushing himself up from his chair. “And yet, I’m afraid they’ll be a little out of our reach for the moment. But don’t worry, I’ll make sure you have a few appetizers as a warm-up while we wait for a good opening. After all, you don’t want to be so angry that you let the poor dears go and die on us too early. You know how disappointed you were after we grabbed your old English teacher and you got too excited. You had two weeks of fun activities planned and then you just cut her throat the second she recognized you. We can do better than that. Work out your frustration on smaller fish. Then, when we have the real deal in front of us, you can have a lot more fun.” 

Stepping over that way, he took his sister’s hands and tugged her close for a long, lingering kiss. “Now, babe, why don’t you tell me exactly what happened, from the top.” He had waited until now, aside from getting the basics so that he would know how bad it was, because he wanted to give her time to calm down slightly. But he didn’t want to wait too long. 

A brief glower crossed the young woman’s face before she caught herself and sighed. “Fine. But I want you to hold me while I do. Otherwise I’ll just get worked up again and break another TV.” 

“We’ve got plenty,” Nick assured her. Still, he tugged the girl with him back over to the recliner and sat down while pulling Amanda onto his lap. “There we go. Now tell Saint Nick all about what you want for Christmas. And what happened back at the apartment.” 

“I want a paring knife and those kids strapped down to a table,” Amanda snarled before shifting against him with another sigh as she pushed on. “As for what happened, we got so fucking close to having those fucking shits. They were right…” She grimaced, forcing her anger down before it got the better of her. With some effort, she pushed through the whole story of what had happened from the moment those three had appeared on her balcony. Nick was quiet and didn’t interrupt, allowing her to go off on just a couple tangents about what she wanted to do before gently squeezing her leg as a reminder to stay on task. 

Once she had finally finished, Nick reached up to brush his hand through her hair gently. His voice was quiet. “Well, you know you really should have called in help immediately, and left with the brats as soon as you had them secure. There’s a reason we had Scions stationed so close.” 

“I know, I know,” the girl sulked. “I should have called in the others and then those other fucks wouldn’t have been able to get out so easily. Maybe we could have held on to at least one of them then.” Her voice was mournful, regretting the loss of that opportunity. “Can you imagine how much fun we’d be having right now with that Paintboy, or his new sidekick? Ooh, imagine sending pieces of her to him. Just think about his face.” A giggle escaped her, as she excited herself with the thought. 

“Such a loss,” Nick agreed. “But we’ll have our moment with them. We just have to be patient.” 

“Buuuut Nick, being patient is boring,” Amanda lamented while curling up against him with her arms around his neck. “You must have plans for something fun we can do, right?” The words came in a quiet, thoroughly distracting purr. 

A slight chuckle escaped him while he leaned back and tilted her chin up so he could kiss her once more. “You know I can’t really deny you things when you use that voice. But we do need to be careful. People know our faces right now, babe. We can’t walk around like we used to. Not yet, anyway. I’ve got some plans for that.”

“Oooh!” Shifting playfully, Amanda ran her fingers up along his cheek. “I knew you’d have something. Tell me, tell me, tell me. I wanna know all about them.” 

“Later,” he promised while catching her hand and squeezing it. “There’s still a few things to take care of. And we need to stay off the radar for a while. Paintball and those other shits get a pass for now. But their moment will come, sooner or later. You’ll get your chance with the paring knife.”

Tugging her over to lay her head back on his shoulder, the man added pointedly. “But in the meantime, why don’t we order delivery?” 

Curious, Amanda asked, “You want food right now?” 

“Actually,” he replied, “I was thinking of sending one of the boys out to grab that reporter. 

“After all, you never liked that sanctimonious cunt.” 

******* 

Melissa (Blackjack’s daughter) 

“There, drill there, use the drill there!” Sitting on the floor in Melissa Abbot’s bed/hospital room, Isaiah Coleman pointed at the screen while gesturing emphatically. In public, the man (who could have been mistaken for a young Lando Calrissian in his late twenties) was known as the Fell-Touched Hardway. But at the moment, he was dressed very casually, simply sitting on a pillow while excitedly blurting, “You can’t miss the chest, it’s got the extra component. We need that to fix the cannon on the ship so we can blow the living fudge out of that pirate lady.” 

In one life, the man was an insurance salesman with a wife and a son who was three years old. In his other life, he was one of the most versatile and effective Touched in the city (his power allowed him to manipulate motion and inertia of both himself and anything within six feet). But right now? Right now he was simply excitedly calling out directions for the room’s other occupant. The person who actually lived here. 

Melissa, meanwhile, clutched the controller in both hands, her gaze intent on the large monitor. Cassidy Inawhile (the stuffed pink crocodile on a skateboard) and Inspector Guillotine (the detective bear in the trenchcoat and deerstalker hat) sat in front of her where she had positioned them. “I know, I know!” she called out, twisting her entire body to the side while rapidly pressing buttons as she fought to deal with the enemies on-screen fast enough to use the drill properly without being interrupted. She was a slender, slight girl, a bit too small for her age of nine thanks to years of growing up while affected by the terrible Rot Bone disease. Though incredibly lucky in the sense that she had survived the disease far longer than anyone else with that level of infection, it had still hurt her growth. She looked more like a seven-year-old than her actual age, and (assuming she continued to survive), that would follow her into the future. She would always be smaller than her peers. Her light brown hair was worn in a loose braid, and the girl was dressed in a set of black sweatpants with gold lightning bolts across them, and a white tank top that had an anthropomorphic blue unicorn strumming an electric guitar. 

“I got it, I got it, I got it…” the girl chanted, her words more hope than declaration. The last enemy on the screen was being a real pain, and if her character died here, they’d have to go through a lot to find their way back to this spot. She bit her lip and hit the dodge button, gasping as a shot came close. “You do it!” she blurted as her finger found the pause. “I can’t, I can’t kill him!” 

“You can,” came the immediate response from Isaiah as he shifted his weight a bit but made no move to actually take the controller. “You’ve got this. That punk’s nothing. Not anymore. You can chew him up and spit him out for breakfast.” 

With a giggle, the girl looked that way. “You spit out your breakfast, Uncle Isaiah? That’s weird.” 

Glancing that way, the man offered her a wink. “It’s possible I mixed my metaphors.” After a brief pause, he asked, “You know what a metaphor is?”  

She, in turn, gave a short nod. “Uh huh. I read a lot,” Melissa murmured while glancing toward the nearby bed. It was a bed she had spent many, many hours of every day in, to avoid stressing her bones. She read a lot and also wrote a lot. She made up stories and told them to her father, and to anyone else who would listen. In a way, she both loved and hated that bed. It was comfort and safety, and she was so happy to still be alive. She knew how lucky she was. Even at her young age, circumstances demanded that she mature to the point of understanding what this disease meant, and how incredible her survival was. She had known what death meant for years. The bed meant she was safe. And yet, the bed was also symbolic of the fact that she had never been able to go anywhere else. She couldn’t go out of the room, she couldn’t run around and play with other kids, definitely couldn’t go to school, couldn’t really live like so many others did so casually every day. 

As much as Melissa lived her life through reading and through writing her own stories, that couldn’t entirely replace everything she wanted to do. The stories allowed her some level of escape, as did these video games. But there was only so much they could do. The girl who dreamed of flying could hardly take an unaided step too quickly without risking a fractured ankle or leg.

Seeing where she was looking, Isaiah quietly asked, “So, how are you doing lately, kid? How’s that medicine working out for you? Helping get you back to where you were?” 

After a brief hesitation, the girl gave a very short nod. “It helps,” she murmured softly. “I can walk with my crutches a little bit now. Just around the room. Dad doesn’t want me to go any further.” 

“He’s just looking out for you,” Isaiah assured her. “You know that, right?”  

Once more, her head bobbed. “I know. But I think I make him sad. Sometimes when he thinks I’m asleep, he’ll stand in the doorway over there and watch me for a long time. I think he misses my mom. But he doesn’t want to talk about her. He never wants to talk about her.” 

Swallowing hard as a flood out of his own memories passed through his mind, Isaiah forced himself to respond. “You’re wrong about that, kid. You definitely don’t make him sad. I don’t think I’ve ever seen the boss happier than when he’s with you.” 

Meeting his gaze intently for a few long seconds, Melissa slowly replied, “I’m gonna get better, you know. I’m going to be able to walk out with my crutches, and then without them. I’m going to walk and then run all the way outside. I’m gonna jump on a trampoline. I’m gonna go skateboarding, like Cassidy.” She indicated the stuffed toy by her leg. “This bone stuff, it’s gonna lose. I’m gonna kick its butt. And then I’m coming for the world’s butt.” 

With a small smile, Isaiah reached out to very gently brush her hair. “I’m gonna hold you to that, kid. Pretty sure we’ll all hold you to it. Now how about we start with beating this guy right–” 

“Uncle Isaiah, what’s that?” Melissa abruptly interrupted, raising a hand to point past him. 

“What’s what?” He started to turn that way. 

She, meanwhile, leaned up and reached past him, toward something hovering directly behind the man. “That. 

“The glowing ball thingie.” 

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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 ipat 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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Patreon Snippets 12B (Summus Proelium)

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Thanks once again to all $10+ Patrons. These are the two snippets that were requested for Summus Proelium. 

Standing outside his daughter’s private hospital room in their own home, Blackjack… or rather, Eric Abbot as he was known to those close to him, put a hand on the door and looked through the window. He stared at the little girl in the bed as she wrote intently in the notebook propped up against her knees. Several stuffed animals were gathered along the side of the bed as though listening while she dictated what she was writing. Her story was accompanied by grand gestures that kept interrupting her own writing. Once she apparently wrote something that she found so amusing she actually started laughing, the sound carrying through the door. It was a sight that made Eric smile, while a long, heavy shudder ran through him at the brief thought of what could have been.

For so long now, he had been terrified that his beautiful, amazing little girl would never grow up, that she would never be able to see all the things he wanted so desperately to show her. Every day when he saw how wonderful, brilliant, and effortlessly charming his child was, Eric despaired of what would happen to her without the medicine she needed. It had driven him to greater and greater heights of anger and frustration. But he never let her see it. He would not scare his little girl like that. Not when there was already so much for her to be afraid of.  

But she knew. She always knew just how upset he was. And often, it had seemed as though she was taking care of him more than the other way around. She was so strong, so brave. Disease be damned, she was one of the most amazing people he knew. Yes, he was biased. But she truly was remarkable, to handle all of this as well as she did. It inspired him more than he could ever articulate. His daughter was his everything, and if the worst had happened, if he had truly lost her…

Stepping into the room, the man looked to the two doctors who were working in the corner. Greeting them by name briefly, he asked the pair to step outside for a few minutes. Only once they were gone and he had locked the door, did Eric let his guard down a little bit and allow himself to let go of some of the rigid control with which he held himself. He felt his eyes grow a little wet as he stepped over and spoke up. “Hey, Smelly,” he greeted his daughter, a teasing nickname that was a combination of Small and Melly (for Melissa) 

“Hi, Daddy!” Melissa piped up, looking at him eagerly. Every day, Eric was amazed and humbled by his daughter’s resilience and ability to cope with this terrible situation. Sometimes it seemed as though she had been in the hospital forever, trapped in this room with her brittle bones. Bones that would have snapped from very little pressure. Bones that, without Worthy’s medicine, would have rotted away and disintegrated into a poison that would kill her. 

They’d stopped the disease from getting worse for quite a while, but they still couldn’t push things. Her bones were so fragile, and would continue being fragile until further into the treatment, that there was no way to let her live a normal life right now. They couldn’t risk allowing Melissa to run outside, play with others, or do… anything a little girl should have been able to do. She escaped through her writing into worlds of grand adventure and dashing heroes. In her stories, she could be anything, do anything. She could create universes worth of excitement that made her long days and nights spent in that single bed more tolerable.  

Sitting down on the chair that he pulled closer, Eric picked up the girl’s newest stuffed animal, the pink crocodile with the cloth skateboard attached to its feet that Sterling and Elena (or Uncle Stan and Aunt Ellen, as she knew them) had convinced her to name after their own daughter, Cassidy. 

For a moment, he just turned the toy over in his hands, staring down at it while his fingers shook. He had to take a breath and steady himself. It was so strange. He could order men to their death, could look someone like Cuélebre right in the eyes without flinching. He could stand down any threat. But the emotions he felt as he sat here with his daughter could be his undoing. He felt a shudder run through him once more as his eyes closed and a few more tears fell. 

“Daddy.” There was a small hand on his arm, and Eric opened his eyes to see that his daughter had shuffled over a bit to be next to him. She was staring at him with a wide, understanding gaze that seemed far more wise than her tender years. “If I have to stay sick, it’s okay. Please don’t be sad. I don’t want you to be sad.” 

He couldn’t speak. He couldn’t even swallow past the hard lump that formed in his throat. Rising from his own chair, the man moved over and sat on the bed, gathering the girl up into his lap and hugging her gently to his chest. “My girl,” he murmured in a voice filled with wonder and amazement at the simple truth of that statement. “You’re my baby girl. My brave little girl.” 

Kissing the top of her head tenderly, Eric finally shook his head. “I’m not sad, Smelly Melly. I’m not sad at all. I’m happy.” Swallowing, he added, “I’m happier than I’ve been for a long time.”  

Leaning her head back, Melissa gently poked at his face, her expression curious. “But you’re crying, Daddy. You aren’t supposed to cry when you’re happy. Did you get broken?” 

The question made him chuckle a little despite himself, and the man nodded once. “Maybe I did get a little broken. But you won’t be. You–” Once more, the words caught in his throat, and he had to give a light chuckle of bafflement at the absurdity of his emotions. Maybe Melissa was right, maybe he really was broken. The years of being terrified for his daughter’s life, of working so hard to keep her safe from this horrific disease, had taken its toll. Especially the past few weeks, as he dealt with the mounting desperation and panic at the possibility of losing her for real. 

“Baby, we found it,” he finally managed. His hand gently touched her face, fingers tenderly brushing along the girl’s cheek. “We found your medicine. We found all of it. You’re going to be okay. We’ve got your medicine here, right here in the house. Where it should have been the whole time. We’ve got all of it, Smelly. Every last bit.” With each word, his voice cracked with a bit more emotion, while he watched the expression on his daughter’s face. 

She was staring wide-eyed at him. Her mouth opened and shut a couple times before she managed a weak, “So I can get better?” Her voice was tentative, making it clear how hesitant she was to express even that much hope. Which he could hardly blame her for after everything that had happened. “Really better?” 

His head gave a short, jerky nod as a small, emotional laugh escaped him. It was a laugh born not of amusement, but of uncontained emotion that had to escape in that moment. “Yes, baby girl. Yes, you’re going to be okay. You’re going to have your medicine and you’ll get better just like Dr. Worthy said. You’re going to be just fine. You’re going to be safe. You’re gonna be strong, and you’re gonna grow up, and… and you’ll be okay.” 

Once the last word escaped him, Eric found himself unable to say anything else. The tears had started in earnest as soon as he saw them appear in his daughter’s eyes. He pulled her closer and the two hugged, father and daughter clinging to one another against the storm of emotion that swept through each of them. 

It took both a few minutes to collect themselves enough to speak again. Once he could finally find his voice, Eric leaned back and smiled at his daughter a bit shakily. “See, maybe you’re broken too.” 

“I’ll be broken if I can stay with you, Daddy,” Melissa informed him. Which was enough to make the man lose himself in another tight embrace with the beautiful, amazing little girl who made everything he had ever done in his life worth it just to be there with her. Nothing else in the world mattered. Nothing. Just being right there with her. 

“No, sweet thing,” the man finally managed. “You won’t be broken. You’ll be amazing. You’ll be a writer, a real writer. You’ll travel and see all the amazing things you’ve ever wanted to see. You’ll do everything you want to do, because you’re going to be okay. You’re going to be fine, my baby girl.”  

The two of them sat together like that for another minute before Melissa sniffed once and quietly announced, “I miss Dr. Worthy, Daddy.” Her voice was hesitant, and she glanced up guiltily, as though she felt bad about bringing up a sad moment right then, at a time in which they were supposed to be happy. 

Eric, however, gave a short nod. “I know, baby. I miss him too. I sure wish he could be here right now. I wish he could see just how much you’re going to grow up. But you know what we have to do to make up for him being gone?” 

The girl’s head shook slowly. “Nuh uh. What, Daddy?” Even as she said the words, she clung to him a little tighter, needing the reassurance of his physical presence to prove to herself that she wasn’t dreaming. 

“Live,” Eric informed her with a little poke to her nose that made the girl giggle. “You make Dr. Worthy’s work worth it by living the biggest, best life you can, okay, Smelly? You were the last big thing he worked on. So when you’re better, you’re gonna go out there and be whatever you want to be. You’re gonna live. That’s what you can do for Dr. Worthy. You’ll be out there telling your stories to everyone in the world.” 

“Can I tell you a story right now, Daddy?” she asked quickly, reaching out to pick up the nearest notebook, which he could see was filled with her neat, careful handwriting. “I made up a new one last night.” 

“Of course, you know I love your stories,” he assured her before settling up against the headboard of the bed. Letting his daughter adjust herself until she was comfortably resting against him, the man put an arm around her and listened while she began to read her newest story. Maybe it would have been strange to some people that she was the one who read him a story rather than the other way around. But he didn’t care. This was what his girl wanted. 

Fairly soon, it was clear that all the excitement had worn her out, and he could hear the mounting tiredness in her voice as she pushed on to get through the story. Eventually, he held the notebook and turned the pages for her while she laid back against his chest and simply read the words. Even that eventually trailed off into more and more silence between the words as her eyes would close for a few seconds, open again to read the first few words her gaze found, then close once more. 

Then she was asleep. For a while, Eric simply sat there with her, tenderly stroking the girl’s hair as he whispered soothing words to ensure she knew, even in her unconscious state, that she was safe and that he would never let anything bad happen. The thought of losing her, of being so helpless to protect his little girl…

Realizing he needed to get up before he ended up waking Melissa, Eric very carefully extracted himself and straightened. He took a moment to gently lay her on the pillow and put the blanket over her before standing up. It was okay, he had to remind himself. She was safe and she was going to stay that way. 

Quietly ordering the computer to lower the lighting, he walked out of the room. Closing the door behind him, the man was met by a friend that he’d known for exactly as long as he had known Samuel Worthy. Elarc Sorn, the former mercenary for Braintrust who had been convinced in that meeting three years earlier to switch sides, stood with a cell phone in one hand. 

“Reports are in,” he informed his boss after having waited patiently for him to be ready. “We lost a few people. Six dead, another eight arrested at the scenes. About thirty or forty thousand dollars worth of damages to a couple of our sites. Don’t have to reclaim anything cuz they backed off as soon as word got out that the vials were off the market.” 

“They were a distraction-force,” Eric replied flatly. “They never intended to hold our territory, only do enough damage to force us to split our resources to handle it. And to sow discord among our people if I didn’t address the situation properly, make them see me putting them in danger to protect my own daughter.” 

Sorn nodded once. “That does seem to have been the goal, sir. But they didn’t do nearly as much damage as they could have.” 

“They did enough,” Eric informed him. “We’ll respond in kind.” As he spoke, the man reached for the phone in his jacket pocket. Instead, he found something else. The skateboarding pink crocodile. Somehow, the stuffed toy had ended up in his pocket. Probably courtesy of his daughter wanting to share something with him. For a moment, he gazed at the creature. Cassidy. Cassidy the Crocodile. 

Somehow, his thoughts turned to the boy who had been so responsible for making this night possible. Paintball. Whoever the boy was under that mask, he was very clearly going to be important going forward. Important not only to Eric and his people, but others as well. There was more going on there, Eric knew. While his power wasn’t telling him exactly what, he knew there was something big just lurking under the surface. Something tantalizingly close. 

Exhaling, he absently put the toy away while looking back to his subordinate. “For now, let people recover. They’ve all done enough. Make sure compensation goes to the families of those we lost, and get our legal representation for the ones who were picked up. I want them out as soon as possible, and I want them eager to jump back into things. We need everyone we can get.” 

Walking down the hall, he spoke in a low, dangerous voice. “Oscuro and the Ninety-Niners think the war is over. 

“But it’s just beginning.” 

*******

The front doors of the Evans mansion closed behind Izzy, Damarko, Amber, and Jae as the four of them walked out together after watching the movie in that giant home theater. No one said anything until they reached Damarko’s car. Then Amber turned, glanced around briefly, before taking a knee and embracing Izzy. “How’re you really doing?” 

Izzy’s eyes closed, as she told herself not to stiffen up, and definitely not to push Amber away. She knew the other girl meant well. She was trying to help, trying to make her feel safer. But being touched like that, it just… she wasn’t sure how she felt about it. Not after…

Shaking that off, she gave a quick squeeze in return before stepping back in a way that she hoped wouldn’t make Amber feel bad or anything. There was a lump in her throat as she spoke with a quiet, “I could be a lot worse.” 

“A lot worse as in, ‘could be enslaved by some Fell-Gang assholes?’” Damarko asked, “Or a lot worse as in, ‘could have to stay somewhere other than the biggest house in the whole city?’” Without looking, he caught the elbow that Amber tried to shove at him before adding, “She knows I’m just trying to lighten the mood.” Pausing then, he added, “You do know that, right?” 

“Uh huh,” Izzy confirmed, glancing to Jae. “You’re really different like this, you know?” 

It was like a switch had been flipped. The quiet, demure and barely responsive Jae straightened, raised her head, and smiled. At one point, Izzy had seen the old Superman movies with Christopher Reeve, and the way Jae switched from the persona she put on in public to the way she was now or as Carousel reminded her of him going between Clark Kent and Superman in the same scene. It was that much of an immediate and thorough switch. 

“I’d rather not be the same,” the Albino Asian girl replied, “in case the flame of my fame puts my name to acclaim and this dame is fair game to shame, claim, or maim.” 

“In other words, she’d rather be really different between her civvie self and her Touched self so no one recognizes her and causes problems. And see, I told you guys she holds all of that in at school and can’t help blurting out the rhymes as soon as she gets a chance,” Amber noted before focusing on Izzy. “So, you’re really okay right now? What’s… umm… you know, what’s it like living here?” 

“What’s Cassidy like, she means,” Damarko put in. “Is she this really spoiled rich girl in private? Does she like, have servants bring her towers of ice cream the size of your head?” He blinked at Amber and Jae. “What? I’m not blaming her. I would totally do that if my family owned half the city.” 

“She doesn’t notice,” Izzy quickly piped up. She waited until they were looking at her, then shrugged. “Cassidy. She doesn’t notice that she’s rich. Not really. Not… like… like that. It’s like… her family having so much money is like most people having legs.” 

Amber frowned. “Uh… what?” 

Trying to put her thoughts (she’d had them over the past couple days all jumbled up) into some kind of order, Izzy carefully explained, “I mean, a umm… a normal person with working legs, right? They walk around all day, and if they see someone who can’t walk, they feel bad for them and maybe think about how they might be able to help. Or they feel like… how much better they have it. But most of the time, they don’t really think about it. They don’t think about how good their legs are when they get up and walk to the kitchen. That’s what Cassidy is like with money. She’s not bad because she doesn’t think about how rich she is. When she sees someone without money, she tries to help them. But most of the time, she’s just… a person with working legs. She has money, it doesn’t… register, or whatever unless it’s really pointed out. Someone with legs isn’t bad just because they don’t think about how useful that is most of the time. It’s just their life. Having so much money is her life.” 

“Do you like her?” That was Damarko, getting straight to the point. “I mean, do you think she’s cool?” 

For a brief moment, Izzy considered the question. “I don’t… know her very much,” she carefully answered. “I know she’s keeping secrets. I think she might have a boyfriend or something that she doesn’t want her mom and dad to know about. But… yeah. Yeah, she’s pretty cool. And she’s funny. I… she’s not anything like how I expected the Evans’ daughter to be.” 

“Yeah, you can say that again,” Amber agreed with a snort. “But seriously, we knew she was cool. Good project partner anyway, and that absolutely translates into other things. So if shit goes down out here, she will totally have your back.” 

Blinking, Izzy carefully pointed out, “I don’t… think she’d be able to help very much if any bad guys showed up. And hey, you guys never said you were friends with the richest girl in town.”

“I meant have your back as in she’d stand behind you,” came the grinning retort. “Which is the safest place to be, cuz you’re Izzy God Damn Amor.” With a wink, Amber added, “And we weren’t really that close until Mr. Dorn teamed us up for that school thing a few weeks ago.” She hesitated as though considering something about that before shaking it off. “Anyway, enough about Cassie. While we’re here, there’s something else we should talk about.

“Paintball. What’s that guy’s deal?” 

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Interlude 4B – Sterling, Elena, and Blackjack (Summus Proelium)

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“I find it quite rich,” the man known as Blackjack slowly announced, “if you pardon the phrasing, that you ask me to be patient with my child’s life on the line.” He wore no costume at the moment, his handsome, if worn by worry, face revealed in this private space as he pointedly turned to look toward Elena and Sterling Evans. He met their gazes for a long moment before continuing in a low voice that fairly shook with barely restrained emotion. “Because, as I believe we all know, if it were either of your children’s lives on the line, the streets of this city would already run red with blood as its buildings burned. You would not show the restraint you ask for.” 

The three of them stood in a room that might have passed as a personal library, given the shelves of books, plush leather chairs, and an old grandfather clock in the corner. A single, large window took up almost an entire wall, and it was in front of that window that the group stood. The window overlooked a large hospital room far below, giving high overlooking view of the place where the man’s daughter lay being tended to and cared for by several physicians. 

Exchanging brief glances, Sterling and Elena each conveyed an entire conversation’s worth of thoughts in only a moment before the latter spoke up gently. “You’re quite right, Eric. Were it Simon or Cassidy in such condition, we wouldn’t have this kind of restraint. And,” she continued even as his mouth opened, “your daughter is just as important as our children. But we would hope that our allies would be there to tell us that acting impulsively would not get what we want.” 

“Are we allies, then?” Eric asked the two with a raised eyebrow. “Or are you simply here to ensure that you aren’t in danger of losing a major source of funds? Without the taxes paid by La Casa in exchange for operating in your city, just how much would your income fall?” 

“Not enough to be worth more than Melissa’s life,” Sterling answered, his head nodding toward the young girl visible through the window in the room below. “Eric, we wouldn’t be where we are today without your help. If you didn’t provide that gun, if you hadn’t–” He stopped, swallowing as memories from so long ago came swirling back through his head before he pushed them aside. Those were memories for another day. Right now, there were more important matters to handle. 

To that end, Sterling breathed out before continuing. “I know that we have grown… apart to an extent over the years. We don’t spend all that much time socializing anymore. But at one time we were close friends. I remember that, and I wouldn’t put our profits over Melissa’s life any more than I would put them over my own children’s. La Casa’s debts are not an issue right now.”

Eric’s mouth opened to retort, but he stopped himself. His own frustrations and feelings of helplessness at seeing the condition of his daughter was coloring his reaction to the Evans’, he knew that. Knowing it didn’t exactly help that much, but it let him stop and breathe for a moment. Finally, he started again. “You know that Cuélebre and the other gangs are doing everything they can to find Worthy’s vials as we speak. And they aren’t going to give them back.” 

“We have expressed to them how much better it would be for everyone involved if they return any of the medicine they happen to come across,” Sterling assured him before immediately adding, “And yes, we know they aren’t likely to listen. But we also made certain that some of their underlings heard as well. It’s possible that one of them might come seeking a reward.” 

Elena spoke then, in a gentle voice. “Eric, we put everything else on pause to come here and focus on helping Melissa. She’s what matters now, nothing else. We aren’t working on anything else this week aside from getting your daughter the help she needs. Sterling has an entire wing of Seraph Hills working on potential delaying actions to stretch this out. They’ll find something.” 

“I promised her mother I would keep her safe,” Eric murmured, putting a hand up against the glass window as he stared down at his daughter. “I promised her that Melissa would be okay.” He sighed, lowering his head before asking, “You truly think that the Seraphs can figure something out that soon?” His voice cracked just a little as he looked over to the pair. “She’s running out of time. And I swear, if we don’t find something in the next day or so, I am going–” 

In mid-sentence, there was a knock at the door. Eric paused, looking to his companions. Elena immediately made a simple gesture with one hand. In response, both she and her husband were sheathed in a holographic illusion disguising them as two completely different people, unremarkable in every way. No one would be able to pick them out of any random crowd. 

“Come,” Eric called, once his two guests were sufficiently disguised. 

At his words, the door opened and a costumed figure stepped in. The newcomer wore a black, ruffled silk shirt with dark gold piping, pants that were also dark gold to match that piping, and a mask that consisted of two diagonal bands, one black and one gold, that each covered one side of his face and the opposite eye while leaving his mouth uncovered. The boy, who looked like he was still in high school, held a phone in one hand and started to say something before pausing at the sight of the unknown people in the corner. 

“Eits,” Eric, in full Blackjack mode, spoke. “Never mind my guests. What is it?” 

“Oh, uhh,” the boy cleared his throat before focusing. “It’s the new girl, Da–I mean Pack, sir. She says that they–that she’s with that Paintball guy and they have one of the vials. And–” 

Before he could get any further, Blackjack was already there, taking the phone from his hand. “Pack,” he said sharply, “what do you have?” He wanted to hear it straight from her. 

As the man spoke quietly and quickly with his subordinate, his voice rising and falling a bit through the short, but intense conversation, Elena and Sterling looked to one another. The latter leaned closer to his wife’s ear, whispering a soft, “That boy is either extraordinarily lucky, or has some manner of access or aspect to his power that we don’t understand yet.” 

“Perhaps all three,” Elena pondered, patting her husband’s arm. “We will, eventually. No one operates in our city for long without our understanding everything we need to know about them.” 

“Not exactly true,” Sterling pointed out. “There are those we have no control over. Deicide has never opened up to us. Not to any real extent beyond paying her dues. And Pencil–” 

“Pencil,” Elena snapped, “is a complete psychopath. His entire group is bad enough. Honestly, worshipping one of the Abyssal? But Pencil… he takes it to an extreme. He needs to be put down like the rabid dog he is. The world would be better without him. Certainly more stable.” 

Sterling agreed easily. “You’re not wrong, love. The man is a monster. But that just adds to my point. We don’t control everyone in this city. Despite our best efforts.” He said the latter bit with a small smile, gently squeezing her hand against his own arm. “Some slip through the cracks.” 

“Paintball is a lone figure, some little boy playing hero,” Elena assured him. “He’s doing some good work, which is fine in the short term. Particularly now, if he’s truly found any of those vials. But we need to know more about him. We need to be ready in case any… pressure needs to be applied in the future. I don’t like having wildcards out there that we know nothing about. Particularly wildcards that have become this effective this quickly. It’s… potentially concerning.” 

Their conversation was interrupted then, as Blackjack dismissed Eits before looking to the pair, raising an eyebrow as he announced, “You’re talking about the Paintball kid? Well, he just found the guy who stole my daughter’s medicine.” 

Husband and wife gave each other brief, sharp looks, Elena dismissing the holographic illusion before Sterling spoke. “Truly? That’s quite remarkable. How did the boy pull something like that off when no one else has managed it?” 

“Apparently,” Eric replied, “he tracked down the person responsible for… unknowingly… providing some of the material that allowed this Ashton boy to rob the bank to begin with. When informed of the situation, this person assisted in tracking Ashton down. They have him now, along with one of Worthy’s vials.” 

“One?” Elena echoed in a pointedly curious voice. “They don’t have all of them?” 

“Not yet,” the man answered softly, his tone making it clear just how hard of a time he was having remaining as calm as he portrayed himself as being. “Apparently they are… working on getting the location of the rest out of Mr. Austin.”

“You’re not having him brought in to get those vials yourself?” Sterling asked. “One way or another?” His words made it quite obvious just how he would go about such a thing. 

“Oh, believe me,” Eric assured his old friend, “when the time comes, Ashton and I will be having a very long and very final conversation. But… for the time being, I see no need to ignore Paintball’s request that I show restraint. We have one vial, which will be returned shortly. That buys another month of time. Paintball has requested two weeks to get the rest of the vials out of Ashton without my… involvement.” He gave the two a sharp look. “I gave him ten days.” 

Before he could say anything else, the phone (which he had kept after dismissing Eits) buzzed. The man checked it before answering with a simple, “Blackjack.” He paused, listening briefly before replying, “Understood.” Disconnecting the call with a flick of his thumb, he pressed a couple more buttons before holding it back to his ear. After a moment, his call was apparently answered, because he spoke rapidly. “Public library on Woodward. Meet the Paintball boy there in the back alley. Take what he gives you and bring it straight here. Be subtle. Be invisible. Do not lose it, or allow anything to damage it. Your life for that vial. Do you understand? Then go.” 

Once he disconnected that call, Sterling spoke up. “Someone you trust implicitly?” 

“As much as I trust anyone in this life,” Blackjack replied simply. “They’ll bring the vial. Melissa will have another month of safety, and be one step closer to being freed from this disease.” He stepped closer to the window once more, putting his hand against the glass as he stared down at his child, voice cracking just a little. “I’ll give Paintball the ten days he asked for. He’s earned that much, being the one who found Mr. Austin and the first vial to begin with. I trust that he will find the rest.” 

******

Some time later, the vial had been delivered. Eric stood holding it carefully between two fingers, marveling at just how unimportant and simple the contents looked when his daughter’s life depended so thoroughly on it. Behind him, Sterling and Elena watched silently.

“One month,” he murmured under his breath. “This vial, this… simple vial will keep her alive for another month. A few more like it, and the disease will be gone forever.” Slowly, his hand closed fully around the vial, and he exhaled a bit shakily before speaking again. “Would you like to come with me? I’m sure Melissa would like to see you.” 

A brief smile touched Elena’s face, as her head bowed a bit. “Of course. We’d like to see her too.” Her hand gave a brief gesture, summoning a different pair of holographic disguises. These were less unremarkable than the previous ones, portraying her as an attractive blonde woman in her late thirties with piercing blue eyes, and her husband as a silver-haired slightly older man of quite distinguished looks not far from Eric’s own, actually. The two could have been brothers. Which, in this case, was the entire point. 

Together, the three descended the stairs just outside the observation area, entering the other room through a pair of sealed doors. As they did so, a small, yet excited voice called out from the bed in the middle of the room, “Daddy!” 

Dismissing the doctors for a couple minutes, Eric stepped over to smile at his daughter. The tiny, pale brunette, leaned up for a hug, which her father provided. Gently, of course. Though the Rot Bone disease had been held at bay, preventing her bones from disintegrating into a lethal poison, they were still fragile. He didn’t dare squeeze as firmly as he so desperately wanted to. 

“Here, Lissa,” the man gently urged while straightening. “You have visitors.” 

Seeing the two behind him, the young girl’s face brightened. ‘Uncle Stan! Aunt Ellen!” Soon, she was exchanging gentle embraces with the two she knew as her father’s often-distant brother and his wife. “Did you see what Dad brought?” Reaching under her blanket, she pulled out a stuffed bear. It was dark red with a white snout and white bits on the end of its paws, wearing a brown trenchcoat and Sherlock Holmes Deerstalker hat. In one of its hands was a magnifying glass. 

“His name is Inspector Guillotine,” Melissa explained. “Inspector Garrote Guillotine. He’s the best detective in the world, but he has a tortured soul over all the bad guys that he had to kill. Except for Paws Lynch. That’s his archenemy and brother-in-law. Lynch killed his own sister, Inspector Guillotine’s wife, and the inspector’s spent the past three years trying to find him.”

With a smile, Sterling (or Uncle Stan) gently took the trenchcoat-clad bear to examine him. “Wow, that’s an interesting story you’ve got for this little guy.” 

“He’s dangerous,” Melissa informed him. “He drinks too much since his wife died, and he doesn’t have anyone to talk to. But that’s okay, cuz he’s gonna meet her.” From under the blanket, the girl tugged a different stuffed animal. This one was much smaller, about half the size of the bear. It was a little pink crocodile with a cloth skateboard attached to its feet. 

“She’s gonna teach Inspector Guillotine how to love someone again,” Melissa explained. “Cuz she’s a witness to a murder, and he has to protect her. But she gets into trouble a lot.” She frowned a little. “I dunno what to name her though.” Looking up to them, the girl asked, “Do you know any good names?” 

“Well,” ‘Aunt Ellen’ replied while gently taking the stuffed, skateboard-riding crocodile. “Let’s see. A little daredevil, gets into trouble, teaches the gruff old guy how to love again…” Turning it over in her hands, she looked back to the girl. “How about Cassidy?” 

“Cassidy?” Melissa echoed, taking the toy back as she considered for a moment. “Hmm… okay. Okay, she can be Cassidy. Cassidy and Inspector Garrote Guillotine.” 

“She writes stories,” Eric quietly explained, gesturing to the stack of notebooks on a nearby table. “So many stories. She’s going to publish them, as soon as she gets better. Isn’t that right, Smelly?” Smelly, of course, was short for ‘Small Melly’, a joke between the two. Her father was the only person in the world Melissa tolerated the teasing nickname from. 

After a little more conversation, Eric produced the vial, holding it gingerly between his fingers. “Okay, Smelly Melly Bug. We’ve got some of your medicine here.” 

The girl squirmed in her bed, staring at it. “Another shot?” Her voice was a weak protest, despite knowing how much she needed it. Shots weren’t fun. Particularly these ones. 

Taking a knee in front of the bed after setting the vial down on the table, Eric took his daughter’s hands. “I know, sweet thing. I know, it sucks. But it’ll make you better.” 

“That’s what you said before,” Melissa protested. “And I felt good. But then there was no more medicine and I got sick again.” 

“Don’t you worry, baby,” Eric assured her. “You’ll get all the medicine you need, I promise. You just have to be my brave, strong girl and take it, okay? You take your medicine here, just one little shot, then we’ll watch a movie and have ice cream tonight.” 

There was a little more good-natured grumbling, but the little girl agreed. Eric called in a doctor to administer the injection. It clearly hurt, given the way the girl hissed and whimpered through it, but she stayed as still as possible. Once it was over, Eric and her ‘aunt and uncle’ all gave her hugs, promising to come back for ice cream and a movie as soon as they finished a little work. 

As the trio stepped out of the room and returned to the observation area, Elena dropped the illusion over herself and Sterling. The pair looked toward their old friend, while he announced, “This Paintball has given my daughter another month. So as I said, I’ll give him those ten days to find the rest of them.” 

“I take it,” Elena began carefully, “you will not be letting this Ashton boy go, regardless of what happens with those vials.” 

“He put my daughter’s life in danger,” Eric stated in a flat, dangerous tone. “He doesn’t get to walk away from that. No. I’ll give him a chance to do the right thing, for this Paintball. When that’s over, once Melissa is safe again, this… Ashton and I will have that conversation. 

“And perhaps his screams will reach back through time, to bring a shudder to the boy at the very moment that he first thinks of bringing harm to my child.” 

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Interlude 2A – Blackjack (Summus Proelium)

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Three Years Ago

A black car, indistinguishable from any other similar luxury sedan, pulled around the corner of the parking garage. Ahead, a dozen men stood in the open space near a couple of lonely cars, while the rest of the spots remained empty. Of those men, ten held odd-looking submachine guns and wore what appeared to be white lab coats over dark body armor. Their outfits signified them as members of the so-called Braintrust, the Fell-Gang focused around inventions and super science.

The remaining two men, meanwhile, were even more clearly members of that gang. The first, a taller man (just under seven feet) and rather heavyset, wore a white surgical mask and what looked like medical scrubs with various scalpels and other tools filling the pockets. His white hair was very long, falling to his shoulders. The man beside him was much shorter, standing just a hair over five and a half feet. His own costume consisted of several pieces of what appeared to  be scavenged robot pieces haphazardly stuck to his body, and a helmet that was straight out of an ancient black and white sci fi movie. It looked like a metal ball with a grill around the entire front like a small car radiator and several antenna sticking out of it in every direction.

The pair, who worked together quite often, were known as Leech and Rotwang, respectively. Just in front of them on the ground sat a silver briefcase with a thumbprint scanner. All of the dozen assembled figures watched the dark sedan without moving or speaking.

For a moment, the car remained motionless as well. Then it rolled forward the rest of the way, approaching to within ten feet or so before the engine was shut off. The sole figure within the car watched the group for a brief handful of seconds, before opening the door to get out. This new arrival was also clearly Touched. He wore a pair of perfectly tailored black slacks, dark leather shoes polished to a gleaming shine, a black shirt with a matching bolo tie that had a red gem sitting right at the collar, and a white duster coat that fell to his ankles. His entire head was covered by a black helmet with an attached golden mask in the shape of a face. Finally, the thin gloves he wore matched the gold mask.

“That’s far enough, Blackjack,” Leech spoke up the moment their guest had stepped out of his car. The tall man nodded to one of the nearby troops. “Go scan it.”

It was impossible to see the newcomer’s face, but his body language expressed something resembling amusement, as he gestured to the car once before starting to put his hands in his pockets.

“Hey!” That was Rotwang, the robotics-focused Fell-Touched pointing. “You–you get your hands out where we can see them.”

Head tilting a little, the man known as Blackjack obediently took his hands from his pockets. He showed them, first his palms and then the back of his hands, like a magician proving he had nothing in them just before a trick. Which did nothing to ease the trepidation of the men watching him, for some reason.

By that point, one of the Braintrust troops had picked up a long, tube-like device the length of a rolling pin, with a bright blue light at one end and buttons at the other. He ran it over the car, moving slowly from the front to the back, then up again on the opposite side. He tensed up a bit while passing close to Blackjack, finishing his work and quickly stepping a bit further away before looking to his bosses. “Nothing. No one else in the car.”

“You did say to come alone,” Blackjack idly reminded them, his body language far more relaxed than the openly armed and more numerous group.

“Yeah,” Leech agreed, “we did. But you know, call me crazy, lots of people do, I just don’t see the leader of La Casa actually going anywhere without back-up. You don’t seem that stupid.”

In response, Blackjack simply lifted his head slightly. “We’re here to do business, gentlemen. It’s a simple transaction. Although…” He turned just a bit to look at the case on the ground. “As technologically-apt as your organization is, I would find it surprising if you were to fit what I came for into something that small.”

Quickly, Rotwang blurted, “We’re not ripping you off. Business transaction, like you said.” He pointed at the case, the robot-like gauntlet on his arm glowing blue as the case floated up from the ground and came to him. “Right in here, we’ve got just what you need. Three doses of super soldier serum. They’ll make any trio of people you want as strong, as fast, as good as any Olympic level athlete, as good as the best special forces soldier out there.”

For the first time, a hint of something other than amusement entered Blackjack’s voice. “That is quite impressive. But it’s not what I came for. It’s not what we agreed to.”

“Yeah, we know,” Leech assured him. “You came for Worth. And he’s here. He’ll walk you through whatever you need to make sure you understand how to use that stuff.  But sorry, he can’t go with you. But like my friend here said, we’re not ripping you off. You asked for Worth’s help in producing one super soldier. We’re giving you enough serum to make three, and not charging you any more than you already agreed to. You’re coming out plenty ahead in this deal.”   

After a very brief pause, the La Casa leader exhaled. “When one comes to an agreement, it is best to stick to that. I didn’t come for three doses of a super soldier serum. I came for Dr. Worthy himself. He and I agreed to the terms of his temporary employment by me. Not for some of his medicine, for the man himself. He will be coming with me. That is what was arranged.”

“Now, see, you’re not listening.” Leech shook his head. “That’s okay. We’ll work this out. Worth!” Raising his voice, he looked over to one of the nearby cars until another man emerged. This one wore no costume, though he was indeed Touched. A personal preference. He was an older man, his head mostly bald with some remaining gray hair. He wore a plaid shirt and jeans.

“Dr. Worthy,” Blackjack greeted the man. “I’m told there’s been some discrepancy in our deal.”

“Ah, well, that is…” Worthy winced a little, glancing to Leech and Rotwang before looking back to the La Casa leader. “My apologies. It seems I may have agreed to your request too hastily. My… work demands that I stay with my current organization. I simply cannot spare the time for a one-on-one situation with you. But, ahh, as they said, the vials in that case will provide everything you’re looking for. Three times what you were looking for, in fact. You wanted me to help you enhance one person. That briefcase will allow you to enhance three.”

Examining his gold-gloved hands for a moment, Blackjack was quiet. The assembled group of Braintrust Touched and troops looked uncertainly to one another until the man finally spoke. “Our arrangement will be fulfilled as originally stated. You will come with me, I will compensate you for your time, and then you will be released to travel wherever you would like to go with your quite substantial payment.” He spoke matter-of-factly, leaving no room for doubt.

Even as he finished speaking, the ten assembled troops all snapped their guns up into position, aiming at him. At the same time, Rotwang pointed at him with his metal gauntlets, which hummed with energy. And Leech took a step back behind his companion, a scalpel appearing in his hand. “Now, now,” the tall scientist announced, “we can all walk out of this without losing anything. You take the case with the serums, we take the money, everyone’s happy…ish. This doesn’t have to get ugly. But if it does, you are at a disadvantage.”

“So it would seem,” the other man replied vaguely, his attention seemingly focused on the case before he lifted his head to slowly look along the line of weapons pointed at him. “But looks can be deceiving.”

“Now don’t you go starting anything,” Leech snapped, clearly trying to sound more confident than he felt. “We outnumber and outgun you. But we don’t want to start a war with La Casa.”

Rather than reply, Blackjack allowed his gaze to sweep over the group once more. Eyes hidden behind his golden mask, he focused on his Touched-gift, his power.

Some Touched out there had what they called a danger-sense. Blackjack, on the other hand, had an opportunity-sense. It would tell him when there was something he could do to achieve his immediate goals, allowing him to pull knowledge seemingly out of nowhere, so long as that knowledge related to his goal at the time. It wasn’t perfect or all-knowing, but it was pretty damn helpful. Such as now, as he looked toward one of the armed men.

Hates being some random thug for a bunch of geeks and nerds, his power informed him. Thinks they’re stupid, but needs the money because he has a family to support and no one will hire him.

His gaze moved on, sweeping a bit further before slowing as it found one of the guns another man was holding.

Hasn’t been maintained properly. Will fatally misfire the next time the trigger is pulled.

Clearing his throat, the man finally spoke up after that long silence. “Three hundred thousand dollars, and permanent employment within my organization.”

“Um.” With a frown, Worthy shook his head. “It’s not the money, I assure you. And even if it was, three hundred thousand is substantially less than we originally–”

“I wasn’t talking to you,” Blackjack informed him. He lifted his gaze once more, looking straight at the first man his power had informed him of. Despite the mask covering his face, their gazes locked. The man understood. He knew.

He moved, quickly jerking his weapon over and shoving it up against the back of Leech’s neck (though as tall as the other man was, he had to lean up to do it). “Nobody move!”

That, of course, prompted every other person to whirl that way, weapons moving off of the La Casa leader to point at their own man.

“You… idiot,” the tall man snarled. “Do you really think we’d give you guns that would work if they were pointed at one of us?”

“No,” his Benedict Arnold retorted. “And I don’t trust this Star Wars shit anyway. That’s why–” With his other hand, he produced a pistol from the inside of his lab coat, using that to point at the man’s head instead. “– I like bringing my own. Now nobody fucking move!”

“You can’t possibly think you’ll get away with this,” Rotwang snapped, torn between looking at Blackjack and looking at the traitorous henchman. “You’re really gonna trust that psycho to pay you?”

“That’s the thing,” the armed man retorted without taking his pistol away from being pointed at Leech’s neck, “This guy doesn’t lie. He makes a deal, he keeps it. That’s the reputation he’s got. He promises something, he’s gonna get it for ya. And call me crazy, but I see more opportunity for advancement in his organization than with a bunch of psychos who call themselves geniuses but are too stupid to just take a government research contract and make millions.”  

Speaking calmly, Blackjack announced, “Now then. Dr. Worthy. If you would please get in the car. And if anyone tries to stop you, my new friend here, Mr…”

“Sorn,” the turncoat supplied. “Elarc Sorn.”

“Sorn,” Blackjack repeated with a nod. “Mr. Sorn here will complete a science experiment of his own, in determining how many bullets can occupy the same space as the good Dr. Leech’s skull.”

Slowly, Worthy did as he was told, moving over to the car before stepping down into the front passenger seat. The entire time, the assembled goons bristled, torn between trying to stop it from happening, and the much more important duty of keeping their employer alive. They also, as he had silently predicted, spread out a bit to surround the car.

Once Worthy was seated in the vehicle, Blackjack addressed Sorn again. “Your turn. You and your tall former employer there have a seat in the back.”

“Now you just hold on with that,” Rotwang snapped. “If you think we’re just gonna let you walk away with my partner, you’ve got another thing coming. Maybe we don’t want to start a war with La Casa, but you sure as hell don’t want a war with the Braintrust either. If the others find out you’ve taken one of our own, you’re gonna have every last one of us coming after you.”

“A horde of utterly unhinged mad scientists and their parade of experiments does not sound like a picnic, no,” the La Casa leader agreed. “Happily, it will not come to that. I’ve no intention of harming Dr. Leech, or taking him any further than the exit of this garage. So long as each of you wait here until he returns.”

Letting that sit for just a brief moment to allow the group to believe it was the only choice on the table and see how unsavory it was, he then added something better for them. “Of course, if you’d like a bit more assurance, perhaps your man there can come with. There is room for three in the back, after all. If you squeeze.”

As expected, Leech preferred that option. The man was far more a doctor than a fighter, even if he was a villainous one. Having a trained and armed guard along as well made him more comfortable with the idea.

Considering the man who was holding a gun on him had also been one of those same trained and armed guards mere moments earlier, perhaps he had yet to truly think that through.

Regardless, the trio moved to the car and slowly, carefully got in while everyone pointed guns at each other. Through it all, Blackjack waited calmly. As the doors closed, he let his gaze sweep over the assembled group of tense, angry faces. In full view of their stares, he took a few steps forward, bending to take up the case from the ground.

“We’ll consider this a bonus to compensate for the hiccups in this transaction.” Straightening, case in one hand, he added, “You’ll find the agreed-upon payment in the trunk of the yellow Toyota there.”

“What–huh?” Turning a bit to look at the car in question behind them, Rotwang shook his head. “How could you possibly have the money waiting here? That car’s been there since we arrived, and we didn’t tell you where the meeting would be until we made it. There’s no way you could have known where to leave the money. You’re making that up.”

Head tilting, Blackjack simply asked, “Am I?”

Staring at him for a moment, the armor-clad man finally waved for one of the men to go check. The guard did so, finding the trunk already popped. As he pulled the door open, the man tugged a black duffle bag from within, unzipped it, and whistled. “Cash, boss. Lots of cash. Looks like all of it.”

How?” Rotwang demanded in disbelief. “How the hell could you know what the meeting point would be before we did, when we set it?”

His smile hidden behind the gold mask, yet fully audible in his voice, Blackjack replied, “Perhaps you should look into being less predictable. It will serve you well in the long run.”

There was no way, of course, that he would spoil the effect by revealing that he’d simply identified two dozen of the most likely places for this sort of meeting to take place, based on territory close to the edge of what Braintrust called their own. All he had to do was look for secluded, protected areas away from prying eyes that could be quickly and temporarily secured, and then have his men deposit identical bags of cash at each one ahead of time. As soon as this one had been identified as the proper location, the others had been quietly retrieved.

It was a bit of work for what amounted to theatrics. But making your potential opponents believe that you could predict their actions with that level was often worth it. Especially if it made them start second-guessing themselves, or wondering if there were (more) traitors in their midst.

That and it was fun seeing the looks on their faces.

Quietly wishing them all a good day, and promising once again to release Leech at the exit to the garage, he moved to take the driver’s seat once more. “Now then, gentlemen. Shall we conclude this?” With those words, he started the car, slowly reversing past the guards before turning and heading for the ramp once more.

“The rest of the Trust isn’t going to be happy about you taking Worth away,” Leech informed him. “He has incredibly sensitive and important work he still needs to do.”

“He will be back eventually,” Blackjack absently assured him. “When he’s done with his new work.” He parked at the exit then, the dark street ahead of them. “I believe this is the stop for you and your escort.”

For a moment, it looked as though Leech was about to say something else. But he seemed to think better, opening his door and extracting himself. His bodyguard followed, standing there with the door open.

“We’ll keep the arrangement,” Leech informed him, as though he had a choice. “Fine. But you know what wasn’t part of the arrangement? Turning one of our own men into a traitor.”

He nodded to the guard beside him, who smirked, lifted his energy-weapon to point at Sorn in the backseat, and pulled the trigger.

The gun promptly exploded in his hand. Because of course Blackjack had ensured that the man who came to escort Leech was the one with the gun that was about to critically misfire. The resulting explosion was small, but it burned both the guard, and Leech beside him. They stumbled back, half-falling.

Blackjack, meanwhile, hit the gas and pulled away with his hired scientist and new employee. “That, I predict, will not go over well back at your base.”

*****

 

A short time later, Worthy stood with Blackjack in what looked like a hospital room, though it was actually deep in the heart of a safe house. Sorn was being briefed by one of the La Casa lieutenants on exactly what would be expected of him as a member of the organization.

“I don’t understand,” the scientist started. “Why are we here? Who’s the… the girl?” He nodded to the small figure lying in the bed, her body filled with tubes as machines beeped steadily through their work of keeping her alive. The tiny, pale girl with light brown hair was dwarfed by all the medical equipment, and couldn’t have been older than five or six.

“This, Dr. Worthy,” Blackjack informed him, “is your patient. My daughter, Melissa. I didn’t hire you to create another soldier for me. I hired you to save my daughter’s life. Her… condition is critical. She has an advanced case of–”

“Rot Bone,” Worthy finished for him, his voice breathless. “She’s suffering from Rot Bone, isn’t she? The worst case I’ve seen in a still-living patient, I would guess.”

There were other names for it, but Rot Bone, as it was most commonly known, was a disease that had been created by a Fell-Touched who went by the same name. There was no known cure, and once infected, the disease essentially did as advertised. It caused the bones within a person’s body to (some more slowly than others) rot away and disintegrate, turning to a poison that gradually killed them.

Rot Bone, the disease creator himself, had already long-since been thrown into the inescapable Breakwater prison. If not, Blackjack would have taken the man apart and made him beg for the honor of saving Melissa’s life. But he was unreachable, making Dr. Worthy the next best candidate.

“Your best work is in enhancing the human body, making one more powerful, stronger, better,” Blackjack reminded the man. “I need you to do that for my daughter. I need you to make her strong enough to survive this. Enhance her.

“Do this, and I will make certain you never lack for anything for the rest of your life.”

*******

Two and a half years later/six months ago.

 

“You’re dying.”

The simple words came from Blackjack, as he sat at a hospital bed, watching the man lying within it. A man who was far more at home on the other side of the bed.

“Yes,” Samuel Worthy confirmed quietly before coughing. “Afraid you can’t hide from the devil forever. We had some fun times though, didn’t we, old friend?” He gave a weak smile, his exposed face pale and drawn. “I had a good run. Gotta say, didn’t expect to spend so long on this one project. Didn’t expect to stay with you through all this.”

Slowly, Blackjack reached up, taking his golden mask down to reveal his own face. He had often been told that he looked like George Clooney in his first days of playing Danny Ocean. Now, however, his expression was far more lost than that famous leading man of such charisma and charm. “I didn’t expect it either, my friend. You saved Melissa’s life. She’s okay now, thanks to you. If I could do anything for you–”

“Don’t,” Worthy interrupted, shaking his head. “I’m done. I’ve done enough with my life. You though… you take care of that girl. She’s a good kid. Deserves every chance she’s got. Took a long time, but these last few treatments should finish stabilizing her.”

“Last few treatments,” Blackjack… or as his family knew him, Eric Abbot, echoed.

“You remember what I said?” Worthy asked while reaching out to grasp his hand weakly. “One syringe per month, every month for the next year. Do that, finish her treatment, and she’ll be okay. The enhancements we’ve done, she’s beaten the disease. But if we don’t stabilize them properly, they’ll fall apart again.”

“One syringe per month for twelve months,” Eric confirmed. “I understand. Thank you. You–what you’ve done for my family… what you mean to Melissa…”

“Just keep that kid safe,” Worthy insisted, before suddenly coughing violently. That went on for a minute, until the man was left lying weak and exhausted, his eyes barely open. “I’m sorry… there’s not time to make more. Twelve… that should be enough. Make sure the… the syringes are kept in a safe place. You… have a safe place, right?”

Taking his friend’s hand and squeezing a little, Eric nodded. “Yes. Don’t worry about that. We’ll keep the syringes safe. I know just where to put them.

“La Casa owns a bank. They can go in a safe deposit box there.”

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