Pack

Equal And Opposite 21-09 (Summus Proelium)

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A/N – Two quick things! First, there was a non-canon for this story posted yesterday for EVERYONE to read, focused on Joyride vs the Minority, right here. And second, if you only read this story rather than Heretical Edge, there is an important note in my comment at the end of this chapter concerning updates to Patreon bonuses and goals. If you do support these stories or have any interest whatsoever in doing so to help ensure they are as good as they can possibly be (and help get every reader even more of those stories), it would be fantastic if you could read that comment after you finish the chapter. If you do read Heretical Edge and have already seen that comment/update, there’s nothing new there.

So, that Andy guy and I stepped away to a small hallway just outside the main room. It led to some offices or something, and while we could still hear people going nuts through the closed door, it was at least quiet enough that we could talk without shouting to make ourselves heard. For a few minutes, I talked to him about having a Tech-Touched friend who was looking to get into selling stuff and how we wanted to make sure she wasn’t giving away her location that easily. He made it clear that he had a pipeline of people who could move the stuff and sell it if it was any good, including himself. So, I told him I’d talk to Trevithick and set up a meeting if she wanted to, or just continue to be the go-between if she didn’t. He seemed pretty stoked about either option, to be honest. Especially when I asked for his phone number and an address where I could maybe find him later. He fumbled a bit, but eventually gave me a card with a business office listed on it, quickly letting me know that he shared it with a couple other people but all I had to do was ask for him and someone would track him down. Or call the number on the back, day or night. He stressed that part, making it clear I could call him any time I wanted. 

After promising that I would be in touch, and that he should be ready to move product as soon as Trevithick had something done, I made my way back out onto the main floor while stowing the card he had given me. Alloy was waiting by the door, apparently preferring to let me handle that part while she simply watched more of the convention. Which was fair, given how much there was to see. 

When I emerged, she glanced my way and tilted her head curiously. “So how’d it go, Mr. Businessman? Are we gonna be rich and powerful?” 

“Well, you’ve got the powerful part down already,” I pointed out. “As for rich, let’s hope for successful to start out. Gotta build contacts, make it clear we can deliver what we promise, that sort of thing. Being Touched will help somewhat, but if you screw up early on or overhype it, people’ll just end up turning on you as fast as they turned to you. Better if we build a solid ground network and improve it from there. This guy’s got his own contacts, if we can get some stuff into his hands and let him sell it, we’ll have a better chance at laying a foundation that–what?” I blinked that way, realizing she had been staring at me intently for most of that. 

Quickly, Alloy shook her head. “Uh, nothing. I mean, you’re just really into this stuff. You know a lot about it for a–you know, middle schooler. No offense. Err, I guess that would be more offensive to everyone else. You just–never mind.” 

Blushing a little bit despite myself, and glad that I had the helmet to cover it, I shrugged helplessly. “It’s really not a big deal. I just read a few paragraphs out of a book in the library. You know, after we talked about doing something like this with Trev the other day.” What else was I supposed to say, that I had heard my father talking about business stuff and what sort of problems startups ran into since I was a little kid sitting on his knee? And then I’d just follow up by telling her exactly who my father was. That would sure go over well. 

Okay, I thought that sarcastically in my head, but really, I did need to tell her the truth at some point. Just not right at the moment. There was way too much to deal with as it was. I wasn’t ready to get into that whole thing, even if it would help the whole feeling of awkwardness around her thinking I was a kid. 

Yes, yes, there were several good reasons to tell her everything. Another large one being that she deserved to know if we were going to work together. Soon, I told myself. It would have to be soon. Even if I couldn’t make myself get into it right now, it would come up eventually. It had to. And better that it be on my own terms. Just… yeah. 

Shaking all that off, I gestured for her to come with me. “Where’d the other three go?” 

Stepping up beside me, she raised a hand to point. “That Fragile girl–boy that’s a weird way to phrase it–she wanted to check out something called a dimensional-phase room. Which, for the record, sounds completely amazing, and we are so going over there. You’re lucky I lost the paper rock scissors game for who had to stay and wait for you.” 

I pointedly adopted an exaggerated huffy voice. “And here I thought you were just being a loyal partner.” 

“Partner shmartner,” she shot back, “did you hear what I said about dimensional-phase room? Sorry, but if it comes down to a choice between you and one of those, you’re gonna lose.” She seemed to consider those words briefly before amending, “I mean, unless it’s a villainous dimensional-phase room. Then… well, how villainous are we talking, on a scale from say, rob an ATM to murdering innocent children… a four and under, you’d probably lose out too.” 

Before I could even start to try to respond to that, someone dressed like Boulderdash began to approach us. It was a pretty good costume too, with clear effort put into small foam rocks over most of the body, and a big shell over the back that was probably fiberglass or something. For the head, they had a black and gray ski mask to match the rest of the body, with painted goggles to mimic his large eyes. They were a little bit short for the real thing, but still. 

The Boulderdash person slipped through the crowd, walking up before stopping right there in front of us. Their voice was muffled. “Here to see all your adoring fans, huh?” 

Confused, I exchanged a glance with Alloy before turning back that way. “Uhh, do we–” 

Before I could say anything else, ‘Boulderdash’ reached up to the shell on their back, opening a little slot on it so I could see a familiar face peering out at me. A familiar lizard face. It was Mars Bar. I swore he smiled as soon as he saw me, giving me an iguana grin. 

“Wha–” Giving a quick double-take at that, I snapped my attention back to the figure herself while demanding, “What the hell are you doing?” 

In a voice that was still muffled yet suddenly recognizable, Pack teased, “Well, I had to wear a costume that allowed me to get my little buddies in. You really think I’m going to come here and not let them see all this cool stuff? They’d never forgive me.” 

Giving the girl a look, I retorted, “Believe it or not, it’s not the lizards’ presence here I’m concerned about. I mean, okay it is, but they’re only here because you are so why are you–what’s–are you guys–” 

“He’s freaking out, isn’t he?” That particular question came from Lucent. Or rather, a giant version of him, a person in a raven costume, who stepped over to join us. “I told you he’d freak out.” 

“If you’re one of her lizards that she’s somehow given full speech capability to, I swear to God,” I managed, shooting a look back and forth between them before the voice struck me. “Wait, Broadway?!” I hissed that name, of course, not that it was strictly necessary. It wasn’t like anyone was eavesdropping. Actually, I was pretty sure I could have screamed, ‘Two real life members of La Casa are right here’ and no one would’ve heard me or paid attention. Not with how nuts and loud everything was around us. 

“Aww, he recognized me!” Broadway was clearly beaming under her costume, shooting a look toward her criminal teammate. “Wait, did he get me faster than he got you? Does that mean he likes me more?” 

“Dude.” It was Alloy’s turn to hiss at me. “How many members of La Casa are you friends with?” 

Once again, I was glad that my costume choices left my flushed face undetectable. Yes, that was clearly the biggest benefit, rather than stopping anyone from knowing who I was in the first place. With that filling my mind, I coughed. “We’re not exactly–I mean– that is…” Okay, I gave up on that, turning to face the other two. “Wait, are we about to have a problem?” I said that while trying very hard not to pointedly look at the several cameras around the room. I had no doubt that there was some advanced security in here including audio. Not that they would necessarily just happen to be paying attention to us, but still. 

Pack, however, shook her head as she interpreted my meaning. “Don’t worry, we’ve got it under control. Some of their surveillance equipment is just having a little bit of a hiccup now and then. Nothing too dramatic, just enough to make sure they can’t hear us. Or a few other places, just so it’s harder to narrow down where it’s coming from.” 

“Their surveillance is having issues and they’re not like, evacuating the building?” Alloy questioned. She too seemed to barely resist the urge to literally look at the cameras. 

“Like she said,” Broadway put in, “it’s just audio. And maybe a bit with not allowing them to zoom in, blurring a few cameras here and there, that sort of thing. They’re not gonna evacuate the building for that. Especially when they can stand right there and see that nothing’s going wrong. Besides, with all the amateur Touched-Tech all over the place in here, they’ve gotta expect it.” 

“On that note,” I questioned, “What’re you guys doing here?” 

“He keeps asking me that,” Pack informed Broadway in a clearly put-on confused tone. “It’s like he thinks we’re not supposed to want to go to places and have fun or something.” 

“Okay, I think my question is, are you here to have fun or here to have fun?” I managed with a somewhat weak voice. “I mean, you did just point out that there’s lots of… toys around here.”  

“Pshh, now he thinks we’re here to rob the place.” Pack was clearly rolling her eyes. “Honestly, if we were, we wouldn’t announce ourselves to a couple Boy Scouts. I mean–” She looked toward Alloy and gestured. “Not Boy–you know what I mean.” 

“They let girls in now anyway,” Alloy informed her with a shrug. “And what are you doing here if you’re not being nefarious? Which, for the record, is a very fun word.” 

“Having fun, without the nefarious part,” Broadway replied a bit primly. “And yeah, totally a fun word. But seriously, dude, look around. We’re not like, supervillains twenty-four/seven/fifty-two. We have time off.” With that, she gestured around us. “This place is sweet. We came in to have fun. Sweet, innocent, totally legal fun.”

“Sweet, innocent, totally legal fun that requires you to use security jamming tech?” I pointed out. 

Broadway, in turn, giggled. “We’re not using it all the time. We just have it in case things go wrong and we need to skedaddle, you know? And in this case, to come over and say hi without being eavesdropped on. And without you guys getting in trouble for not immediately starting in on the whole ‘halt evil-doers’ business. So slow your roll. Or, you know, whatever the right term would be.” That last part came in a distracted tone as her head (still covered in the raven mask) turned to follow a large man dressed up as The Hyperborean, a seven-foot-tall muscular guy made of ice who wore bermuda shorts, a Hawaiian shirt, and sunglasses. This guy didn’t quite match the real Hyperborean in height or muscle, but it was pretty close. And the costume he wore over himself resembled ice pretty well. 

“See, now she’s distracted.” Shaking her head, Pack nudged her partner. “Like she said, we’re here to have fun, not cause trouble. Scout’s honor. And as your partner there said, we can actually join them now, so it’s all kosher. I mean, I’m not Jewish either, but you get the point.”

Before I could find my voice to respond to that, That-A-Way approached with Raindrop and Fragile, the three of them holding several light green balls. The (currently) blonde girl was already speaking. “Okay, so they let us take a couple extra–uh?” She had just noticed the other two. 

Clearing my throat, I nudged Peyton and slipped a twenty dollar bill in her hand. “Hey, there’s souvenir hats over there, why don’t you take our new friend to get one?” 

“Super-subtle, I don’t suspect anything weird at all,” Fragile announced, giving me a thumbs-up before pivoting on her heel to walk that way with Alloy. 

“Aww, man, that’s a great costume,” Pack abruptly announced, giving Way a pointed look. “You look just like the real Way, only even more attractive and smart.” 

“Uhh,” Way managed to repeat her previous noise. 

Broadway, in that raven costume, was looking after the departing Fragile as she noted, “Hey if she’s hanging out with you, she must be that new chick, right? That was a nice entrance she had up there. Should’ve seen the look on those rich fucks’ faces. It was a hoot.” 

“Uhhhhhhhh!” Way’s gaze snapped to me, her eyes wide. 

“God damn it,” I muttered before waving my hands back and forth. My voice was as low as it could be while still being audible to them. “It’s Pack and Broadway.” 

Even as I finished saying that, Pack was opening up the little slot in her costume shell. That time, it was Tuesday the Gecko who was looking out at us, joined quickly by Scatters the Neon Day Gecko. Both of them seemed to brighten when they saw Way, who had turned that wide-eyed stare at them. 

“You–what–how–why–” Her brain was clearly stuck, as she couldn’t put a full sentence together and had resorted to simply pointing. 

“They’re not here to cause trouble,” I finally put in while shaking my head. “I mean, obviously they’re here to cause us some mental trouble, and having a lot of fun with it, but other than that…” 

Looking back and forth between them as she processed all of that, Amber opened and shut her mouth a couple times before focusing on Pack. “Can I talk to you for a minute?” She hissed those words while her eyes darted toward Broadway a couple times. 

The other girl agreed, and they stepped out of the way. Which left me standing there with Raindrop on one side and Broadway on the other. Which was just the most comfortable and excellent position to be in. But at least–nope, I wasn’t even going to think about hypothetical ways it could get more uncomfortable. That just seemed like a recipe for disaster. 

While all those thoughts were running through my head, Broadway gave Raindrop a thumbs up. “Hey, while we’ve got the chance, great job the other day with that whole dropping the tarp from that hardware store on us? I swear, you almost got me.” 

“Um, are you… complimenting me for almost arresting you?” Izzy sounded understandably confused. 

“I mean, sure?” Broadway shrugged as much as the bird costume allowed her to. “We do illegal stuff, you try to stop us. If you manage it, good for you. It’s not personal, dude. And like I said, it was a cool move. I’ll be ready for it next time, but you uhh, you keep me on my toes. It’s cool.”

Izzy clearly had no idea how to respond to that, but eventually settled on a weak, “Um, thanks.” Then she thought about it for another moment before adding, “I uh, I don’t suppose you’d like to give me some advice?” 

“To catch me, my friends, or bad guys I don’t care about?” Broadway shot back with clear amusement. “Because something tells me the last one would still lead to the first two. Unless you want to hand over a written statement that you’ll never try to catch me again. And, quite frankly, I like the whole cat and mouse thing, so not even then. But, I’ll tell you one thing. I don’t know what happened to you recently, but you’re a hell of a lot cooler than you used to be. I mean, you’re more confident, you look like you stick up for yourself more, you’re even answering questions on the news sometimes. You used to be this quiet little wallflower who always looked like you were afraid the person who was asking you questions was gonna hit you with the microphone. I mean, I don’t ahh, I’m not trying to be insulting or whatever. I don’t mean it in a bad way. I mean, I do, but only in the sense that you’re not like that–and it’s fine to be like that if you’re not comfortable with–fuck.” 

For a brief handful of seconds, she was quiet, as though considering her words. Then she gave a short, decisive nod. “What I mean is, whatever changed in your life recently to make you more confident, it’s a good thing. You’re a lot more fun this way, and a lot harder to get away from. So whoever or whatever was making you all meek and stuff before, I’m glad you’re in a better situation now.” She paused, clearly ran those words over in her head, and then nodded once more. “That’s it.” 

I almost said something, but decided it was a bad idea. Not only because I wasn’t supposed to have that close of a relationship with Raindrop, but also because she could speak for herself just fine. Which, come to think of it, was Broadway’s entire point. 

So, I stayed quiet. Izzy, however, straightened up a bit. “Thanks, I um, I guess. But just so you know, I’m still going to try to catch you, even if you are nice to me.”  

“If I thought anything less, I wouldn’t have said anything,” the other girl informed her casually. “And who knows, you keep pulling out tricks like that tarp and you might just do it.” She didn’t sound worried about the possibility, yet it wasn’t as though she was dismissing it entirely or being insulting. She simply wasn’t worried about what would happen if she was caught. 

By that point, Pack and Way had finished their conversation and came back. Amber cleared her throat. “Let’s just say, you guys… don’t start anything and we’ll all just pretend we don’t know anything about each other.” She gave a quick glance toward the girl in her Boulderdash costume before adding, “Please don’t make me regret trusting you when you say you’re not here to do anything bad.”

“Promise,” Pack solemnly replied. “We are absolutely here for casual fun and nothing else. Legal casual fun,” she added quickly after giving that a second of thought. “You know what they say. Be gay, do crime. And you’re already halfway there.” With what was very clearly a wink that was hidden behind her costume, she took Broadway by the hand and they started off. 

Shortly after that, Alloy and Fragile approached once more. The latter had a quite snazzy-looking red top hat, which she was practicing flipping around in her hands, along her arms, and up to her head. She was surprisingly good at it. Once they arrived, she looked to me and brightly announced, “If you have any more friends around here that you don’t want me to hear you talk to, they’re selling these really cool belts at the booth next to the hat one.” 

Flushing a little, I mumbled something about keeping that in mind, before thanking her for playing along. Then I added, “What’s with those things you guys came back with, anyway?” My hands gestured to the light green balls she, Amber, and Izzy still had. 

“They’re for the phase room,” Amber explained. “They’ve got a lot of people waiting to go in, so they do it by colored balls. When these light up, it’s our turn. We got a couple for you guys too.” She passed them over toward Peyton and me. “Seriously, we’ve gotta try it. It’s all set up like a normal living room and kitchen, but they can phase you while you’re in there. You know, make you intangible. So you can walk around and wave your hands through stuff.” 

For a brief second, I just stared at her. “Dude, you can already do that by yourself. Why do you need to wait around and go in a special room for it?” 

“Pfft, I can do that while going one direction,” she retorted. “I always wondered what it’d be like to be able to use my power anywhere I wanted. Believe me, if they had a ‘teleport room’ or a ‘be super fast’ room, I’d try those too.” 

By that point, it was time to go over to where those guys were taking the photograph of all the people dressed up like Alloy and me. I felt a little weird about actually being in the picture, but then, it was also pretty fun to think that nobody there knew. 

It also turned out the guy who thought he could get the real us to sign the photo once it was blown up to giant-size was Richard Mornes, the guy from Ten Towers who was in charge of coordinating with law enforcement, recruiting people from the Minority, that sort of thing. I wasn’t sure if he recognized me while we were doing the picture, but as soon as one of the other Paintballs asked if he was sure he could get me to sign it, the man glanced my way. His eyebrow rose before he replied, “Yeah, I’m pretty sure he’ll be interested.” 

Shortly after we were done with that, the balls lit up. As soon as she saw that, Fragile seemed to light up herself. “Oooh, come on, come on, let’s go check out the phasing room!” 

Before we could head that way, however, my attention was drawn to one side, as none other than Silversmith approached. Okay, to be fair, there had been like fourteen Silversmiths, all varying levels of believable. But something told me this was the real thing. This was really my dad. 

“Ahem, sorry for interrupting,” he spoke while I did my best not to react to his presence. “I’ll let you guys get right back to enjoying the rest of the convention down here in just a second.” 

“Uh, so, there’s nothing wrong?” Amber asked, obviously worried about the whole Pack and Broadway situation. 

“Nope,” my father confirmed. “Nothing at all. Actually, you guys can go ahead.” His attention turned from her, sliding over the others and settling on me. 

“Paintball, you mind having a little chat for a minute?” 

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Kith And Kin 20-10 (Summus Proelium)

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I was in for a bit of a surprise when I made it to the alley (really it was more of the space between one half-finished office building and an old self-service car wash that barely got any use) where I was supposed to be meeting Amber, Izzy, and the others. Two surprises, actually, named Murphy and Roald. They were both standing next to a dumpster with the others, and were the only two besides Fred not wearing any sort of mask. As I dropped down from the roof to land casually on my feet (thanks to orange soles), both looked up from the ground they had been intently staring at. No one had been talking, aside from Amber and Pack, who were in a whispered conversation until I arrived. 

Focusing on Murphy and Roald first, I stepped that way after catching myself. “Wha–you guys–” 

“Don’t say it,” Murphy interrupted. Her eyes were bloodshot and had dark circles under them, voice sounding hoarse and strained. “Don’t say we don’t need to be here.” She opened her mouth, then stopped as the only thing that escaped her was an almost keening sound for a moment before she caught herself. Visibly swallowing, she tried again. “I need to be here.” 

How was I supposed to argue with that? Instead, I simply asked, “No masks?” 

They both shrugged, Murphy asking, “What difference does it make? Not like they couldn’t figure out who we were if they actually put the slightest effort into it. If we’re gonna work at the pawn shop, they could all just… you know, walk in and shop there.” Belatedly, she added, a bit darkly, “Besides, what’s Pack over there gonna do, tell all her supervillain friends how to track us down and steal our three-dollar lamp and fifty-dollar television?” 

For her part, Pack offered a casual, “I asked Blackjack and he said the market for fifth-hand goods held together with duct tape and prayers dried up last week. So I guess their stuff is safe.” With a glance toward those two, she added a belated, “I mean, fuck. Sorry. I didn’t mean to make it sound like–I mean–” 

“Don’t worry about it.” That was Murphy, her voice flat. “I don’t care if you think our shit is shit. I care if you’re gonna help drag the secrets out of these motherfuckers so we can find the guy.” 

“That I can definitely do,” Pack agreed. “Luciano’s a worthless fuckbag. And he definitely doesn’t deserve to ride off into the sunset after that shit he pulled. I’m in for bringing him down.” Looking at me, she added, “And not for betraying people.” 

My head gave a quick nod. “I didn’t think you were. Just… wanted to make sure they were comfortable with this. It’s not just about you. It’s about showing their faces to everyone here.”  

Clearing his throat, Roald spoke up finally. “We couldn’t sit around the apartment anymore. My sister’s taking care of all the big picture stuff, so we just…” He trailed off, though it was obvious that he was going to say something about feeling useless. Instead, he finished with, “… decided it’d be a good thing for you guys to have people who can stand around and play lookout, or go over to the mall itself. And trying to do all that while constantly putting ski masks on whenever you guys come out or we go in was, you know, more trouble than it’s worth.” He offered a weak shrug. “We’re not important enough to disguise.” 

Oh boy was there ever a lot I wanted to say to that. But I wasn’t sure where to start, or what good it would do. Still, I felt like I needed to say something. It was just that everything that came to mind felt wrong, trite, or worse. In the end, all I managed to say was, “Any time you guys need to leave to… to focus on other things, do it. And if you need anything–” 

“I’ll tell you what we need,” Murphy put in. “We need to do something about those fuckers who let–who helped Luciano escape. And we need to find out where they sent him. Both of which we do by getting inside that fucking base. Which isn’t gonna happen by standing around here.” 

Alloy, standing behind the two with her arms folded tightly as though trying to restrain herself from doing… something (probably punching the nearest wall), spoke up. “Yeah, we all wanna contribute. See?” Her head nodded over to several of her marbles as they transformed into a shovel, a drill, and a pick-axe. “Even these guys. We’re raring to go.” 

Fred, who had instinctively put his hands over Wren’s… helmet where her ears would have been every time Murphy cursed, spoke up. “We’ll be heading back to the shop to get to work on the tech stuff. Okay, she’ll get to work on the tech stuff and I’ll hold stuff. But the kid wanted to be a part of this whole… thing.” He waved a hand around as though encompassing all of us. 

Bobbing her head quickly, Wren added, “It’s important! But don’t worry, I already have ideas about how to make some stuff to protect you guys. But seeing you together, it helps me, uhh, visualize, and visualizing is important.” With a heavy sigh, she mumbled, “I wish I could ask Lion for advice.” Even as she said that, however, the girl was already holding up both hands. “I won’t, I won’t, I swear. I won’t talk about it at all. I won’t say a word.” She mimed zipping her lips, running fingers across the front of the helmet. “I know how to keep secrets.” 

“We’re all gonna have to be the biggest secret-keepers in the world,” I pointed out, glancing around at everyone. “If we don’t want the Ministry to figure out what’s going on.” 

“He’s right,” That-A-Way agreed, before gesturing in the direction of the mall. “This isn’t a simple, quick thing. Even with help, it’s gonna take days, even weeks of digging to make this tunnel, considering we have to be so careful about doing it while also doing all the other stuff we have to do. We don’t rush. We don’t screw it up. Cuz we won’t get a second chance if they even get a hint about what we’re doing. As soon as they do, as soon as they even have a reason to start checking around, we’re screwed. Our main advantage here is them being complacent. So, as much as we all want to get to the part where we break through to the base, let’s try not to get in a rush and end up captured and exposed.” 

Pack grunted. “Yeah, that doesn’t sound like my idea of a good time. But I still don’t want to spend months doing this thing, and the longer we take the more chance of something going wrong anyway. So let’s get busy, huh?”  

“Well that’d be a completely new situation for me,” I muttered without thinking. As the others all looked at me, I found myself flushing under the helmet and mask. “You know, the ‘get busy’ thing. I mean. Because I’m always busy, and I have a to-do list the size of a–never mind.” Waving them off, I quickly changed the motion into urging them to move. “Let’s get insi–wait, Pack?” Before we all went running out into the open, I looked to her. Sure, the alley was only a short distance across what amounted to a dirt road (used for construction crews)  leading to the unfinished motel across from the mall, but still. There was always the slim chance that someone could be nearby, and given how close we were to that Ministry base, we were going to have to be really careful.

She, in turn, took a moment to lean out and look up at the sky before turning back to me. “Coast is clear. Riddles doesn’t see anything.” 

Taking the opportunity, we all ran across the dirt road, trying to be quick and low. It was only about a twenty yard dash to get from the alley to the cover of the construction site, which itself was down in what amounted to a pit lower than the level of the road. Once at the edge, there was a dirt slope we kind of half-slid down (aside from Alloy, who rode one of her marbles in board-form) about fifteen feet to the ground level. We could’ve followed the road around and into the lot, but that would have taken us into plain view of the nearby busy street, which would’ve defeated the purpose of being stealthy right then. 

Once we were all down and hidden from the back by the raised dirt, and from the front by the half-finished building itself, I spoke up. “Okay so most of the time when we come out here, we’ll make sure it’s after dark.” 

Way gave a quick nod, before focusing on me as she put in, “And never come out here alone, anybody. Sure, we all wanna get this done as soon as we can, but digging by yourself isn’t a good idea. You need at least one lookout.” 

Alloy raised a hand. “Hey, uhh, sorta speaking of lookout, how exactly are we gonna make sure no one finds this tunnel in the days or weeks it’s gonna take to dig far enough? I mean, sure, the construction isn’t active right now, but can we count on that lasting? And besides, there could be inspections, or just people who come up and screw around. If any of them find a big long tunnel leading toward the mall, they might, you know, say something.” 

“We’ll hide it,” I immediately answered. “We’re not gonna, like, start the tunnel right in the middle of the main office or whatever. We’ll find an out-of-the-way room, dig a hole down, and then cover it up whenever we’re done. We need to dig down first anyway to make sure we’re close to the level of the secret base itself. So we go down, widen it out a bit so we have some space to work with, then start tunneling over. And whenever we’re not digging, we’ll make sure it’s hidden.” 

By that point, we found our way to the building itself. The place was in varying stages of completion, with the main office and the nearest rooms to it being basically done except for paint and moving furniture in, while some of the rooms further away were little more than framework. We chose one of the near-completed rooms so we would be as hidden as possible. There was a wooden pallet just outside, and we looked around before finding a handful of heavy bags of cement mix. And Roald found a ratty old rug. That seemed like as good as anything for hiding the hole. Whenever we weren’t digging, we would put the rug over it, pull the pallet over top of that, then put the cement bags on top of the pallet. As long as we just did all that in a corner, it would hopefully stop anyone from finding our hole. At least accidentally. Assuming we could get this done before construction started again. If we didn’t, that was a whole new bag of worms. 

But we’d deal with that when and if the time came. For now, we had a plan. After finding the spot we wanted to start in, and gathering the stuff to cover the hole when it was made, we all met up once more in that room. 

Wren, hovering up off the floor on her dragonfly wings, was already cheerfully insisting, “This place is great! It’s perfect, you can dig down and over, you can see if anyone’s coming, but you’re out of the way.” 

“She’s right, you can see the main road from here,” Way was saying, as she stood over by a window (there was no glass in it) and pointed. “Right down that way is where the dirt road leading up here starts, so you should be able to see if any cars start heading this way.” 

“And over there,” Pack put in from the doorway, “You can see clear over the whole site. That way goes to the slope we came down, and that way is… pretty wide open.” She glanced to Murphy and Roald. “If one of you, or whoever’s standing guard, sits here by the door and the other sits over there by the charming and lovely That-A-Way’s window, you should be able to give us a heads-up if anyone heads this direction.” 

“Sure, whatever,” Murphy replied simply, glancing away from everyone as she muttered, “As long as we contribute. Standing guard, digging holes, kicking mother–” She caught herself, eyes shifting toward Wren before amending, “Kicking people who deserve it in the junk. Whatever.” 

“You’ll help,” I agreed. “You all will. You…” Hesitating, I swallowed, completely overwhelmed as I glanced around for a moment to take all this in. “Thanks, guys. I didn’t expect to have all this help when I came up with the plan before. It’s–you’re…thanks.” Yeah, it felt awkward. I had no idea how to say what I was feeling right then. Hell, I didn’t even know how to describe what I was feeling. Seeing these guys, realizing they were actually… helping, that they all wanted to do something about the Ministry (even if it was for varying reasons), it was big. It meant more than I could say. 

Thankfully, Izzy seemed to realize that I was floundering, and spoke up. “We should see how well the digging thing works. And the dirt plan.” 

“Dirt plan?” Roald echoed before giving a quick double-take. “Wait, what are you gonna do with all the dirt? I mean, you’re digging a tunnel all the way to the mall, that’s… a lot of dirt.” 

“Thankfully,” Amber replied, “we actually do have a plan for that part, like Raindrop said. We’ll put the dirt in buckets, then she’ll use water to make them weightless and float them up out of the hole to dump in one of the dirt piles that’s already out there from the construction work. Which means she’ll be focused on that, while Paintball has to be down there to do the whole pink thing.” 

“I can do both,” Alloy put in. “Whatever’s helpful. My little friends can be shovels, axes, buckets to carry dirt, and probably more things I can’t think of right now. And they can dig without anyone holding them.” 

My head was bobbing a bit. “I think the best thing for your friends to do, besides giving us a break on the digging sometimes, is to turn into scoops that can pull the dirt out of the way and carry it over to the buckets. And possibly even be buckets themselves. I mean, you and Raindrop can work out the specifics with each other. I’m pretty sure you can both carry out dirt and rocks faster than we can dig. We’ll figure out a system as we go.” 

“Yeah, and speaking of breaks and a system,” Pack noted, “we can trade off and on.” She glanced over to Murphy and Roald. “Me and Rose, we’ll switch back and forth with you minions between standing watch and doing the digging part. It’ll go faster that way. One pair gets tired of digging, the other pair switches in. If you think you’re good for that.” 

“I’m good for whatever helps find Luciano,” Murphy informed her. “I’ll dig twenty tunnels if that’s what it takes. Whatever. Let’s just get this show on the road.” 

Clearing his throat, Fred spoke up. “Yeah, I think that’s our cue. We’ll head back to the shop so the kid can get to work with her designs or whatever.”

Those two headed off, quickly followed by Pack, who went to get the van with the supplies she had picked up, and Amber, who went to get the supplies that she and Izzy had bought. Which left me standing in the half-finished motel room with Alloy, Raindrop, Murphy, and Roald. The four of us just looked at each other in silence for a moment, before I cleared my throat and moved over to the spot we had picked out for the hole. “Okay, so let’s see how this works. Here.” Extending my hand, I painted a pink circle onto the floor, about three feet wide. Then I stepped back and gestured for Alloy to go ahead. 

She, in turn, waved a couple of her marbles that way. They transformed into a pair of shovels, then shoved their way down into the pink floor. The effect of my paint extended down about ten inches, so they were able to easily pull up big pieces of the floor and some of the dirt beneath, all of it like… thick foam or playdough. Very easy to rip away in solid chunks. Well, solid chunks for about five more seconds, before it turned back into a mix of dirt and broken pieces of cement. 

“How often do you think you can do that before you have to take a break to recharge?” Raindrop asked, stepping over to look at the hole. “For the actual tunnel, I mean.” 

Without thinking about it, I crouched down to run my hand over the dirt. “If I’m only doing that, and say the tunnel is… let’s say six feet high and four feet wide… I’ll probably need to take about sixty seconds to refill around every… maybe fourth time? Depends on how quick we are about digging into it and pulling the dirt out of the way. Probably get more efficient as we go. You know, work out a rhythm. Maybe we can get to the point of timing our speed so I don’t have to actually stop completely.”

Roald spoke up, his voice curious. “How do you know how much paint you have?” 

“I–” My mouth opened, before I stopped, head tilting. “I didn’t used to. It was more of a whole, ‘shit I’ve used a lot of paint recently, I’m about to run out.’ But now I can just… sort of sense it a bit? I know when I’m low.  I guess I’ve just gotten better at estimating after using it for awhile?” 

“Powers get better as you use them,” Raindrop informed us. “Sometimes that comes as ‘make them stronger’ and sometimes it’s things like knowing how much paint you have. When I started, I couldn’t umm, I couldn’t summon water. I mean, I could pull it and move it and stuff, but I couldn’t summon it from somewhere else.”

“Is that what you do?” That was Alloy. “I always wondered why you weren’t like, solving people’s water problems all over the place. You don’t make it out of nothing?” 

Raindrop shook her head. “Nuh uh. It’s pulled from other water sources. We did a test awhile back. The water I… ‘make’ gets pulled from places like one of the lakes or rivers around here. Whichever one is closest. It’s like… it’s like I can sense water in the air, you know? Humidity, I guess. And I can umm… feel all the way through that humidity to big sources of water, and then I just… think about it and put the big sources of water where the humidity right in front of me is.” Frowning, she sighed. “I guess that doesn’t make sense. But I can’t think of a better way to explain it.”

“You did just fine,” I assured her. “I mean, it makes about as much sense as a lot of powers do. They get pretty weird. Teleporting water to yourself through the connection of humidity in the air is about as good of an explanation as any.” 

By that point, Roald spoke up from the window where he had been idly watching. “They’re coming.” 

He was right. A couple minutes later, both Pack’s van and a truck that Way had apparently borrowed from someone were parked close to the room, the backs opened up so we could all carry the tools, lights, chains, and other supplies inside. 

“Okay, I think we should focus on digging down and widening it out at the bottom enough to stick all this stuff down there,” I murmured. “You know, so we don’t just have all this sitting here in plain sight. I don’t think anyone will come through the area tonight, but just in case.” 

So, we got started on that. And as we did, I took another look out through the window. The mall was visible in the distance. From here, it looked like way too much distance. It was definitely too far for me to do this by myself. I never would’ve gotten anywhere near the place. 

But I wasn’t by myself. Not anymore. I had people I could talk to, people who knew varying amounts of the truth. I had Amber and Izzy, who knew all of it. And I had Pack, Murphy, Roald, Alloy, even Wren and Fred. I had all of them here to help. 

I had… friends. 

I had a team.

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Kith And Kin 20-08 (Summus Proelium)

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Needless to say, the next day at school was awkward. I kept wanting to talk to Tomas, but had no idea how to start with all that. I needed to ask about Maki, clearly. Tomas was my best chance to actually find out what was going on with that situation, yet the whole thing was just… so complicated. Seriously, even if Tomas had no connection to the Ministry and didn’t know anything about them, which I was seriously doubting, how was I supposed to press him for information about his new boyfriend without looking like I was jealous or something? 

And yes, being mistaken as being jealous was basically at the bottom of the list of priorities, but still. I couldn’t just start pressing Tomas for answers without likely looking at least somewhat suspicious. I had to be careful and delicate about the whole thing. Which wasn’t helped by the fact that every time I started to think about going up to the boy and talking to him, a lump formed in my throat and I felt like I was going to throw up. Not really because of the new boyfriend thing, but because of my increasing thoughts that he was somehow involved in the Ministry stuff. It sucked, but I couldn’t make my brain shut up with its paranoia that Tomas had only been dating me to keep an eye on me or something. Just the thought that any part of our relationship had been a product of my parents’ meddling was awful. 

To that end, it wasn’t until I was walking out of school at the end of the day and I saw him ahead of me that I finally actually did something. Taking a deep breath, I picked up the pace to move alongside the boy. He glanced my way and smiled, making my heart clench in on itself. “Hey there, Cassie,” Tomas greeted me with a completely unfair wink. “Fancy meeting you here.” 

Snorting, I replied, “Yeah, I know, it’s weird, huh?” It wasn’t the best segue, but I continued with, “And let me guess, you’re running off to spend time with your mysterious new boyfriend?” 

The words made Tomas almost double over, snorting with amusement. “Dude, Maki is a lot of things, but mysterious? Nah, he’s basically an open book.” Glancing my way once more, he slyly added, “But then, you probably know a lot about him, after getting ice cream over there.” 

“You know about that?!” I blurted unthinkingly, before flushing deeply. “I mean, of course you do. Dad’s kinda–and he was–and we were–” My blush was even worse. “I swear I didn’t know who he was when Dad said we should go there. I wasn’t trying to check up on your–I mean I wasn’t–I mean–” 

Snickering at my reaction, Tomas patted my back. “Easy, easy there. I know, but it was worth seeing your expression. God, Cass, at some point you’re gonna have to get more of a poker face. You gotta figure out how to hide things a little better, you know?” 

The fact that I managed to keep a mostly straight face in response to that proved him wrong. Well, not exactly a straight face. I covered my reaction by exaggeratedly rolling my eyes and giving him a goofy expression. Was it cheating to deliberately have such an over-the-top reaction that there was no way to pick out the subtleties of it? Whatever, it was enough to hide how I really felt, and that was what mattered. “Yeah,” I managed, “I’ll get right on that. Maybe my dad can show me how he bluffs people at work.” Despite everything, I made sure to keep an eye on the boy’s expression when I mentioned my father’s work. But either he didn’t know anything, or he was really good at the poker face thing he had just been talking about. Whatever it was, he didn’t give any reaction that I could read. 

“Anyway, Maki’s cool,” he went on with a shrug. “We really should hang out sometime when he’s not at work. I think you’d like him.” His voice softened a little as he rubbed the back of his neck a bit awkwardly. “But, you know, if that’s too–I mean…” 

“Sounds good,” I made myself say. No matter how I felt about it, having this open invitation to talk directly to the boy again and possibly find out more about what was going on with his (or her/their) situation with the Ministry was too important to pass up. My family would have no reason to wonder why I was spending time with Maki if it came through Tomas. “We’ll hang out sometime. I’ll umm… yeah, just lemme know. I’ve got stuff to do today, so I suppose you’re free to spend time with your boyfriend by yourself.” With those teasing words, I nudged his shoulder. By that point, we had reached the front of the school and I saw Jefferson there with the car. “Text me about it!” 

Tomas agreed casually, as I started heading off. Before I could reach Jefferson, however, someone else fell into step beside me. It was that new girl, Dani. She was already speaking casually. “Heard you like skating. Actually, I heard you’re pretty good at it.”  

“Huh? Oh, yeah.” My head bobbed quickly. “I guess. I do it enough, anyway. Why?” 

She offered me a shrug. “Oh, you know, I’m just trying to put something together. A bunch of us are hanging out at that skatepark on Grand River sometime this weekend. Still working out the details. But somebody said if I want to get a lot of people there, you’re the one to talk to.” 

That made me stop and blink at her. “People don’t care where I go,” I replied with confusion. “Why would me being there have anything to do with how many people show up?” 

Dani shrugged. “I dunno, babe. I think it has something to do with people wanting to see what crazy stunts they can get you to do or something. Whatever, the point is, it could be pretty cool. I’m ahh, not a bad skater myself. Be kinda fun to see what Miss Rich Girl can really do.” 

Snorting despite myself, I replied, “Yeah, maybe. Give me a text whenever you figure out when it’s actually supposed to be, and I’ll see what’s going on.” I gave her the number of my regular phone, before waving as I headed off to join Jefferson at the car. 

“Was that something important?” he asked once I got in the back. 

“Just an invitation to hang out sometime, I guess,” I replied with a shrug, leaning back in the seat. “Sorry for taking a couple minutes, I should’ve told her I’d talk later.” 

There was a brief moment of silence from the front seat, before Jefferson turned a bit to face me. He wasn’t an especially tall man. Actually, everything about him was unassuming. He had a very plain, pale face, thin glasses, and average cut dark blond hair. He didn’t stand out in a crowd. Hell, he barely stood out all by himself. 

“Miss Evans,” he began after that brief pause, “I am aware of my reputation for preferring punctuality. It is one I encourage. But I do not fault you a moment after school to speak with your peers. Time is allotted for that before we pick up Miss Amor. There is a marked difference between lagging behind in the morning and being late for school than there is in taking a few minutes to speak with your… friends when classes are over. Do not… feel that you must apologize for that. It is never my intention to force you to abandon all social niceties to placate my desire for haste.” 

That was all he said. And honestly, it might have been the most words I’d heard him say in a single go the entire time I’d known him. I was still sitting there in silent surprise as he turned back around and began to pull the car away from the curb. I had no idea what to say to that. Finally, I managed a somewhat weak and awkward, “Thanks.” 

From there, we picked up Izzy and headed home. It had been tempting to simply say that we didn’t need a ride so I could go straight to working on that whole tunnel thing finally, but I didn’t want to give my parents any reason whatsoever to think anything was up. They had just gotten home the day before, so I was going to play things as cool as possible. We would go home, make an appearance for my mother, and then make our exit with an excuse about hanging out somewhere. That was the best way to handle this, no matter how much I just wanted to jump into it. 

On the way, I talked to Izzy about completely innocuous things. Mostly about how her school stuff was going. Apparently, she was settling into classes pretty well. She said that she’d already made some friends there, which didn’t really surprise me considering how cool she was. It was just too bad her mother didn’t give her the chance to show her that. 

With effort, I pushed that thought out of my head and focused on keeping things casual. Even disregarding the whole secrecy thing, pretty much the last thing Izzy needed was me bringing up her mother right then. Or any time, really.

Soon, we made it home, and the two of us were met at the front door by my mother. She’d had snacks prepared by the kitchen and wanted to sit with us out in one of the gardens. There, she talked to both of us about how our days went, and her own as well. At least, as much as she was actually willing to tell us. Obviously, she didn’t get into any of the Ministry stuff. Though I had to admit, that would have been a good way of completely shocking me into giving something away if she ever wanted to. As far as Tomas’s earlier mention of poker faces went, I definitely wouldn’t be able to keep a straight face through my mother just randomly starting to talk about this stuff. 

Actually, that was something to think about. At some point, my parents probably were going to want to start telling me about this stuff. I wasn’t sure when, but it would happen. And what was I going to do when they did? How was I going to react? How was I going to pretend that I didn’t know what they were talking about? How much could I think about any of that without making my reaction seem rehearsed? Would it be a long time from now? God, would it be soon? How much of the whole Paintball situation would have changed by then? 

Of course, I had to force myself to focus mainly on actually carrying on a real conversation so my mother didn’t get suspicious. Thankfully, she was a busy woman and couldn’t sit with us for too long. We were only out there for about twenty minutes or so before she got a call and had to excuse herself. Which left Izzy and me sitting together out at the table, surrounded by gorgeous and exotic flowers, with a small fountain burbling away next to us. 

Clearing my throat, I glanced to her. Just in case Mom had anything nearby that might overhear us, I simply said, “Hey, you wanna go hang out at the mall?” 

“Sure,” she replied easily, pushing herself up. “We could probably get food there too, huh?” 

Making a show of snickering, again just in case, I nodded. “Yeah, we can do that. Come on.” I was already pulling my phone from my pocket to text the kitchen staff so they’d know not to worry about dinner for the two of us, then I ordered an Uber. 

Soon, we were close to the alley that led to Wren’s shop. The two of us found an isolated area to change into our costumes out of sight, and then quickly made our way to the store itself. It was really Izzy’s first time there, but we had both agreed that the time had come to stop tiptoeing around this whole thing. I’d called ahead to make sure Wren was okay with me bringing Raindrop. Given the loud squeal of excitement that came through the phone, I was assuming she was fine with it. 

Someone was waiting for us by the back door as we approached. Seeing her, I immediately reflexively took a step back, only to belatedly realize it was Alloy. She wore a new set of armor made out of her black and purple marbles. This one had a purple base body-suit-like structure that ran from her toes all the way up over her head in a ski-mask sort of thing. It was fairly thin. Meanwhile, the black marble had turned into armored plating around her chest, knees, hands, and across her face. 

“Wha–oh, jeeze, hey, warn me next time you’re dressed up in something new,” I managed after that initial reaction. Beside me, Raindrop had tensed up as well, only to turn slightly to blink at me. 

Alloy, for her part, made a chastised sound and stammered, “Ahh, sorry. Sorry, I forgot I wasn’t–I mean I was–I mean… sorry.” Seeing the other girl with me, she quickly stepped forward and extended her hand. “Hi again! I mean, hey. Nice to see you without the, you know, whole life and death Scion situation going on.” Belatedly, she seemed to realize just how different she looked in her new armor and stammered a quick, “Oh, it’s me! It’s Peeeaaaaayntball’s assistant. Partner. Friend. Sidekick. Alloy. I’m still Alloy, just a new costume. I like to switch it up.” In a quieter voice, she half-hissed, “I have your action figure.” 

It was clearly Raindrop’s turn to blush, though it was hidden behind her reflective mask. “Uh, hi.” She accepted the other girl’s hand and shook it somewhat awkwardly, as if uncertain how to go about this whole thing in meeting another Touched who was also apparently a super-fan. “I’m umm, uh, glad you’re okay.” 

Shaking my head at the two of them, I looked to Alloy and quietly asked, “How’s Hobbes doing?” 

She gave a heavy sigh and offered a weak shrug. “She’s still with Calvin and his family. They’re taking care of funeral arrangements and… and all that. Or trying to. Do you have any idea how expensive something like that is if you don’t want them to just dig a hole in the woods somewhere and drop them in? Seriously, it’s like ten thousand dollars. They’re setting up a crowdfunding thing, but you know, who really cares enough about him to help with that? People don’t even know him. All they know is–” She stopped, clenching her fists. From behind her, the other marbles rose up into view, contorting themselves into boxing gloves as though they wanted to hit something too. “Never mind. People suck. It all sucks. There’s some other fundraising going on and they’ll get part of it, I just–I wanna do more, but I can’t. I can’t do anything. I can’t help her. I can’t help any of them.”

Reaching out, I put my hand on her shoulder and squeezed it. “People will help,” I insisted. “Don’t worry, they’ll get the money they need for the funeral.” Even if I had to make sure it happened myself. I couldn’t do much to help Murphy with her pain and loss, but I could damn sure get the money for the funeral and all that. 

Izzy and I exchanged brief knowing looks, just before another figure appeared nearby. It was That-A-Way. She popped into view near the wall before turning to us. “Hey. I guess I’m not late, huh?” 

My head shook. “Nope, you’re right on time. And you definitely beat–” 

Before I could finish that sentence, a loud squawk interrupted. We all looked over to see Riddles fly down from above, landing on a nearby dumpster. She squawked at us again, clearly informing everyone that we should wait.

We didn’t have to wait long. Within the next thirty seconds, a van came into view through the alley. It rolled to a stop, before Pack stepped out. She had her lizard backpack with her. “Fancy seeing you guys again. Think we can avoid a running gunfight with the Scions this time?” As she spoke, Riddles flew down to land on the backpack itself, perching there while giving a watchful look all around. 

“Let’s hope so,” I muttered. “We’ve got enough to deal with. Now come on, let’s get in there.” With a look around at the rest of the group, I exhaled before reaching out to grab the door. One by one, the other four filed inside before I brought up the rear and let the door close behind me. 

We had been in the shop for approximately two and a half seconds before a loud squeal of excitement filled the air. Wren–or Trevithick, as she was in the same costume she’d worn when Lion had visited, the black bodysuit with bright pink armored panels over her arms, legs, and chest, with a black helmet and pink visor. Her rapidly-moving dragonfly wings were buzzing as she flew straight down from the ceiling to land right in front of Raindrop, talking a mile a minute. “Ohhh you’re here you’re really here I can’t believe you’re really here and you made it and it’s really you and you’re so cool I watched you on the news forever well really only a few times cuz the news is boring but you’re not boring you’re awesome and I saw you fight that mean Janus guy and the other guy with the big hammer but you said I don’t think so and made it float away and you hit him with a tidal wave and I have a hat with your name on it but I couldn’t find it and Uncle Fred said it might be at the other shop but we didn’t have time to go over there and I have a backpack too and that’s over there and it’s got your picture on it that’s why I said I had a backpack and I made a birthday cake I mean Uncle Fred did but I helped and it had all the Minority on it and you were my favorite piece and–” 

Coughing, I quickly stepped in and put a hand on the brilliant little girl’s shoulder. “She’s pretty awesome, yeah. You both are. Raindrop, this is the awesome Trevithick. Trevithick, this is the awesome Raindrop. It’s about time we all started working together to deal with the real problems around here. Which means getting everyone on the same page. Almost everyone else is already. Just uhh…” I hesitated, then looked to Wren. “Where’s Fred? I need to talk to both of you about something important. That’s why we’re all here together. It’s why I brought Raindrop too.” 

“Did someone say–oh.” That was Fred himself, coming out of the doorway leading to the stairs. As he saw everyone, the man came up short. I saw his Adam’s apple bob as he gulped before stepping forward. “Ah, well, I guess it’s ahh, yeah. You’re all here.” 

Introducing Raindrop to him, and vice versa, I gestured. “Would you and Trevithick mind sitting down?” After a brief hesitation to gather myself, I added, “There’s some really important stuff we need to talk about. Secret stuff that you need to know. It’s time.” 

Fred and Alloy gathered a few chairs and everyone took a seat. Everyone except me, anyway. For my part, I stood in front of them and let out a long breath before focusing on Fred himself. “I don’t mean to single you out. I’m sorry for that, for this. But I have to, right now, in front of everyone. You know what you did before was a mistake. But what I’m about to tell you and Trevithick is a lot bigger than anything else. It’s… it’s big, and you could f–screw over all of us, everyone, if you wanted to after I tell you about it.” 

Fred, for his part, was quiet for a moment. He saw everyone looking at him, but didn’t react. He stared at the floor, then shifted his weight to meet my gaze. “I’m not that guy anymore.” His voice was firm. “I–I did–what I did before, trying to get money the cheap way, the illegal way, that’s not–I won’t do that again. I don’t know how to promise that any better than–than just saying it. I give you my word, I swear. I won’t screw you over.” 

I had to believe him. If this whole thing was going to go on, he needed to know the truth. They both did. We needed Wren’s help going forward. Which meant getting everyone on as close to the same page as possible. Scary as the whole prospect was, it was time. The encounter with Simon and that whole situation had convinced me of that much. 

So, after taking one more deep breath to brace myself, I launched into the whole thing. The others piped up now and then to give their own perspective, but mostly it was me. I explained what the Ministry was, and how much control they really had over everything. And I explained how that related to what had happened to Murphy’s brother and those other people who had died. 

By the time I was done, Fred had stood up and was pacing back and forth, listening while covering his face with his hands. Once in a while, he muttered something about how much sense that all made. But mostly he was quiet. 

Wren, meanwhile, absorbed it all in silence, aside from shifting a bit in her seat now and then or asking a clarifying question. She seemed far more mature in those moments than her actual age and appearance would have suggested. 

Finally, in the end, she asked, “What… what are we gonna do about it?” 

“What are we going to do?” I echoed, glancing to the others. “We have a plan. I mean, not a full plan. But a start. We have an idea of how to get into one of the Ministry’s bases, to get more information. That’s where we’re going to get our friend upstairs the info we need to find her a new body. And it’s where we’re going to find out as much as we can about how they operate and any more of their secrets we can get a hold of. That much we can do. But if we’re going ahead with this, if we’re actually going to go up against the Ministry, we… I need help. We all do. I know it’s a lot to put on you, Trevithick.” 

“Wren.” She pulled off the helmet, facing the others. “I’m Wren. And… and yeah. Yes. I wanna help.” With that declaration, she straightened up, fists clenched. “They hurt Hobbes. If… if you think you can find out where that bad guy went by breaking into their secret base, then I’m gonna help.”  

Giving one short nod, I replied, “And you, Fred?” 

He, in turn, continued to face away from me for a few seconds before turning to face us. “I can’t do much. Just watch over Wren there, really. Maybe drive a car if you need it. Be an innocuous face. Fetch things. But if that helps–whatever you need. I’m… I’m in. I’m in for whatever this is, wherever it goes.” 

“Good,” I managed after a moment. 

“Then let’s talk about what we need to get this tunnel started.” 

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Kith And Kin 20-04 (Summus Proelium)

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I didn’t start immediately. Mostly because I figured this whole story would be told to Roald anyway, so it was probably for the best that I just tell him at the same time. Besides, Murphy was obviously still broken up, barely keeping herself in any shape to listen. She needed her best friend. So, I gave the boy a call and asked him to meet us right here. Yeah, it was maybe a little risky to not move away from the spot where we’d fought Simon and Luciano, but I was pretty sure neither of them had any intention of coming back here anytime soon. 

We did hear sirens approaching, and I checked to see that they were headed into the lot over by the laundromat. I  probably needed to go over there and explain what happened, or at least some of it. But I wasn’t going to leave Murphy alone right now. Not in the state that she was in. While waiting for Roald to show up, I took a seat next to her once more and put an arm around the girl again. She was sitting with her knees drawn up to her chest, head lowered as her shoulders shook. Her eyes were closed, and she didn’t say anything during the time we were sitting there. She just cried mostly silently to herself. She didn’t return the half-embrace, but nor did she pull away from me. It was clear that she was too lost in her grief to want to talk, and I had no idea what to say anyway. So, the two of us sat in silence. Which really told me all I needed to know about how broken Murphy was right then, given she hadn’t really pushed hard for me to immediately explain what the hell I had just been talking about. 

Simon. God damn it, Simon. Why did you have to help that guy escape? He was a murdering piece of shit, and you knew that. Even as the angry thoughts flashed through my mind, I knew the answer. He helped the guy escape because Luciano paid for protection. This was the Ministry. They helped bad guys get away with crimes if they paid their taxes. And the people left behind with no justice were like Murphy. My family helped those pieces of shit get away, and people like this girl in tears next to me were just expected to suck it up. The thought was making me angrier by the second, and I had to close my eyes to let out a long breath so I could keep it under control. I had to keep it under control if I was actually going to explain the situation to these two. And I had to tell them now. After what had just happened, I couldn’t keep it away from them anymore. There was no way. Murphy deserved to know the truth. And if this situation was going to continue at all, they both deserved to know what the Ministry really was. 

It didn’t take long for Roald to show up. And he wasn’t alone. Apparently at some point in the intervening time, he had managed to get hold of Alloy, and she snuck out of her own home. The two of them came flying in on one of the marble hoverboards, landing nearby. Immediately, Roald went to sit on the other side of Murphy, and I let her go so she could lean on him. 

“What… what happened?” Alloy asked tensely while I stood up. “Did you…” 

“He got away,” I murmured under my breath. Nope, the anger I felt about that whole situation hadn’t dissipated at all in the time we’d been waiting. Saying those words still made me want to turn around and punch a hole in the nearby wall, without help from the pink paint. And scream. I really felt like screaming. But I kept it together. I had to. 

Alloy reeled back a bit from the news, even though she had to be expecting it. I supposed she’d been hoping for the best. Her head shook. “Is there any way we could still find him? I mean if we start right now, we could–” 

“He knows something.” That was Murphy. She had pushed herself to her feet as well, pointing at me. “He knows something about what happened. He said he’d explain. There was some guy here, and Luciano said he’d paid for help. He was a Sell-Touched or… or something. But he wasn’t–he helped that fucker–” Her voice broke at that point, even as Roald caught her arm to steady her. “That guy helped that fucker get away. Paintball said he knew what was going on. He said he’d explain what is really going on in this city. Whatever that means.” 

“You’re ready to tell them the truth?” Peyton asked quietly, rocking back a bit on her heels. She sounded surprised. 

“What–you know something about it?” Roald looked to the girl, then back to me. “What’s going on?” 

Now all three of them were looking at me expectantly. Peyton because she knew what was coming, and the other two because they didn’t. Oh boy, I really had to get into this again. I had to tell Murphy and Roald the truth. Or at least, part of it. I knew what was the right thing to do. It was the only thing to do. But that didn’t make it any easier to start talking. A part of me was screaming that I was opening up too much already. Izzy and Amber knew the whole truth, all of it. To say nothing of Paige and Raige. And Peyton knew about the Ministry. The secret was spreading too much. And now I was going to talk about the Ministry part with these two? A whole parade of ‘what ifs’ went through my mind in those long few seconds.

Finally, I forced all of it down and focused on Murphy. I thought about how I would feel if I was in her situation and had no idea what had just happened. That was all it took. With those thoughts in mind, I exhaled and then started to talk. 

Over the next few minutes, I explained what the Ministry was, and how they operated. I talked about how they had infiltrated every single Touched group in the city to one extent or another, as well as all law enforcement, the courts, everyone in power. 

“It’s not everyone, it’s not even necessarily people like the mayor or anything like that,” I explained. “It could just be, say, the mayor’s secretary or something. Someone who can get information in and out, that sort of thing. They have ins everywhere, on both sides. And like I said, the bad guys pay them for permission to operate in the city. Like this whole gang war that’s going on right now, they paid for permission to do that. Both sides, I think. I mean, I’m not sure on how that works exactly, but I’m pretty sure the Ministry is refereeing the whole thing. Or whatever. The point is, they’re the ones in charge of the city.” I looked to Murphy. “That’s what Luciano meant before. He made his payments, so they stepped in and helped him escape when he got in trouble.” 

“Believe me,” Peyton put in, “I was pretty freaked out too. It might be a little hard to believe at f–” 

“They helped that piece of shit get away?” That was Murphy, interrupting as she stared at me. Her voice cracked just a little. “You’re saying he paid them some cash and now they’re gonna help him get away with it? What part of that is supposed to be hard to believe? He has money and he spends it to get away with everything, even murder. That’s not hard to believe, it’s just every other fucking day.” Her voice practically oozed bitterness. 

My mouth opened to tell her that I understood, but I stopped myself just in time. Because I really didn’t understand. That would have been one of the worst possible things I could ever say. I would never really understand what it was like to live like these guys did. And I sure as hell didn’t understand what it was like to have my brother killed right in front of me. So I didn’t say that. Instead, I took a deep breath before starting with, “He’s not getting away. Not forever. We’ll find him, I swear. Whatever it takes, we will find that fucker and bring him down.” 

“And how are we supposed to do that?” Roald was the one asking that time. “You said these Ministry guys basically control, or like, influence every group in the city, right? Including the cops. So how are we supposed to find out where he is? And even if we find him, how are we supposed to get anyone to arrest him? You know, without immediately ‘losing’ him and all the evidence or whatever.” 

“Maybe he shouldn’t get to go to prison,” Murphy retorted a bit sharply. “Maybe that’s a privilege he threw away when he killed a bunch of people. You know, people like my brother.” For the most part, there was pure rage in her voice. But at the last bit, when she said the word brother, it broke a little bit. The grief was tearing her up. 

It would have been pointless to start an argument right then with her about what we would do with the guy. So, instead, I simply answered both of them with, “We’ll figure out how to handle him when we get a bit closer to that. As for finding him, we need to figure out where the Ministry sent him. We need to get a look at their files. And as it happens, we’re actually working on a way to get into one of their bases already.” Quickly and succinctly, I explained the bit about the secret base under the mall.

By the time I was done, Murphy was nodding, her mouth very tight. Her hand had caught hold of Roald’s arm, squeezing firm enough that I saw him wince just a little. She could barely speak through the emotions she was holding back. “We’ll find him. We’ll find him? You won’t let him get away?” There was a clear desperation to her voice. She needed me to promise her that. 

“Yes,” I replied firmly, meeting her gaze. “I swear, Murphy. I promise on… on everything. We’ll find him. We’ll track him down. He is not going to get away. We won’t let him.” 

She held my gaze for a long few seconds after that, our eyes locking even though she was looking at me through the helmet visor. I saw her throat move as she swallowed a few times, struggling to speak. Finally, she managed a weak, barely audible, “Okay.” 

That was it. She didn’t say anything else after that. She didn’t need to. She had my promise, and I was going to keep it. Instead of speaking, the girl turned away and clutched her stomach, falling back to her knees there on the pavement. Her whole body shook heavily once, a full-on shudder before I heard the tears start again.

Roald was right there, crouching beside her as he said something too quiet for me to hear. Peyton, meanwhile, looked back and forth between us, clearly torn about what she should be doing.

“Stay here with them,” I told her. “Actually, when you can, you guys should probably leave, just in case someone comes back to check this place out. But just be with them. I need to go over there and tell the cops… you know, some of it.” I still wasn’t sure exactly what I was going to say, but I knew I needed to explain at least part of what had happened. Even if it did make me feel like I was abandoning Murphy. But the truth was, she had Roald. He could help her more than I could. And I was pretty sure she had even bonded with Peyton a good bit already. 

Either way, what she had needed from me was the promise that the man who killed her brother wouldn’t get away. I’d given her that, and planned on following through. 

But in the meantime, there was nothing I could do for the girl, as much as I wanted to. I needed to leave her alone for now. No, not alone. I needed to leave her with the people who could actually be there for her. 

Shaking off that thought, I told Peyton to text me with updates and let me know what was going on. And to tell me where they ended up going so I could meet them later. Then I pivoted and used red paint to yank myself up to the nearby roof. 

Time to go find out how much the cops knew. 

*******

The answer, as it turned out, was both a lot and a little. They knew who had been in that laundromat and what he had been up to the rest of the night. But they weren’t sure what had gone down at the building itself. Their best guess, one of the uniformed guys told me, was that one of the other small gangs had gotten pissed and came after Luciano and his people in retaliation for one of his hits that night. Which, I supposed, was fairly close to the truth. And better than the full thing, given I really didn’t want them to know anything about Murphy. 

The only actual witnesses they had were a couple members of the gang themselves who hadn’t managed to flee before the authorities showed up. Apparently they were telling a story about being ambushed by several armed and masked figures, saying nothing about her being a teenager. I wasn’t sure whether they genuinely believed that, given how quickly Murphy had been moving around, or if they were lying to save their pride. Either way, it was another thing that protected the girl. 

I’d had a little time while crossing the street and listening to what they said happened to figure out what to say. I didn’t want to outright lie, but then again, I had no idea how much of what I said would go straight to the Ministry. Or how much they would share with Luciano, given what good terms they were on with him, considering the man paid his bills and all.  And the absolute last thing I wanted to do was say anything that would lead back to Murphy. 

So, what I ended up telling them was that I had seen some sort of confrontation between Luciano’s group and another going down, and one of my associates, whose identity I had to keep secret, had gone to get a closer look. Unfortunately, ‘he’ (another layer of protection for Murphy) had been seen and all hell broke loose. From there, I mostly told the rest of the story, except I didn’t mention anything about Simon or the Ministry, of course. I told them that we followed Luciano through the tunnel, tussled with him ‘and one of his men’ at the far end of it, and then they got away. 

The police officer taking my statement didn’t really question any of it. I had the feeling this was all just commonplace for him. Especially right now with the whole gang war going on. Sure enough, he finally sighed and shook his head. “You see, this is what happens when we get these big gangs going to war with each other. They call in debts from the smaller gangs, make threats, and these guys get desperate enough to do shit like multiple hits in one night.” 

That made me do a double-take. “Wait, you mean this guy was getting money to pay somebody else.” 

The cop, a slender Latino guy with a thin mustache and narrow eyes, who had introduced himself as Officer Sandro, nodded. “Pretty much. In this case, seems like Luciano owed Oscuro a bunch of cash. Think of these guys as like a uhh… subsidiary of that bigger gang. He owed Cuélebre a bunch of cash, and since this war is pretty expensive, Cuélebre called in the debt. Seems he made quite an impression on Luciano,  because the guy went around calling in every tab he had. Made a big show of it too. Shot some people who didn’t owe him as much, just to make sure the ones who owed him a lot got the message.” 

That made me reel back on my heels, bile in my throat. Fuck, Luciano wasn’t even that interested in the money that Murphy’s brother had owed him. He was using the guy to send a message to the bigger fish. God… damn it. How was I supposed to tell the girl that? She deserved to know the whole truth, but this was going to destroy her even more. Her brother’s debt and death wasn’t even a big deal to Luciano, aside from a means of intimidating other people. 

One thing was for sure, I was even more determined than ever to bring that piece of shit down. I didn’t care how much protection he paid for from my family, he was going to get what was coming to him. 

In any case, I thanked Officer Sandro and promised to let the authorities know if I found out anything else about Luciano or his group. Sandro, in turn, told me that I should have my ‘associate’ submit a report. They could be covered by the Touched anonymity thing too, but they still needed to explain what had happened from their point of view. That was going to be more complicated, obviously. And include a lot more half-truths or outright lies in order to protect Murphy’s identity. Because no way was I going to expose who she was to my family, or their organization. That was just asking for a lot more trouble. 

Still, I promised to see what I could do and then took my leave. I walked away from the cop cars and was about to text Peyton, when a sharp whistle caught my attention. Looking that way, I saw a familiar figure standing in a nearby alley, half-shrouded in shadows. Pack. She was waving one arm, beckoning me over. 

So, after glancing around to make sure no one was looking, I jogged that way. As soon as I approached, Pack stepped back further out of sight. But I could see Riddles perched on the top of the fire escape, keeping an eye on things. 

“Paintball,” Pack started once I entered the alley. “What the hell is going on?” 

“You wanna know what’s going on?” I caught myself, forcing the anger down. Lashing out wouldn’t accomplish anything. Instead, I took a deep breath and let it out before explaining from the top. I told her about what happened to Murphy and Roald earlier on the bus, then about Tyson being murdered, and finally everything that went down over at the laundromat. Finally, I pointed out, “So I guess what I’m saying is that this big war your boss is pushing made Cuélebre call in debts, which made Luciano call in debts, which got people killed. Including my friend’s brother.” 

Pack rocked backward a bit. Her hand moved to touch the side of Twinkletoes, the only other lizard she had out of their backpack cage and transformed other than Riddles. She processed that, exhaling before focusing on me. “It’s more complicated than that, and you know it. They tried to get Blackjack’s daughter killed. She’s a little kid, Paintball. She didn’t deserve to suffer, and those guys were all fine with letting her die if it would hurt her dad. It’s fucked up that your friend’s brother was killed. Seriously, I’m sorry. I–it’s… “ She sighed, head shaking. “I really am sorry. But Cuélebre kills people all the time. So do his lieutenants and other underlings. You can think we’re all the same, but Blackjack doesn’t target families like that. And he sure as hell doesn’t do drive-by shootings on civilians. We have standards.” 

“I know it’s not directly your fault, or his,” I replied slowly. “I just–this war is hurting people. And it seems like it’s just getting worse by the day. Not to mention, now the Ministry is helping that piece of shit get away with everything, just because he paid his taxes for them.” 

“So what are we going to do about it?” Pack asked. 

Catching that she had said ‘we,’ I gave her a brief look while she stared at me, before nodding once in appreciation. “Same plan as before. We need to find out where they took that fucker.  Which means getting into their files in the base under the mall. Now Calvin and Hobbes are in on it. So they’ll be helping with the tunnel.” 

“Sounds good to me,” she replied easily. “You ready to get started on that…” Checking her phone for the time to find that it was well-past midnight, she finished, “Later today?” 

The question made me realize I really couldn’t, so my head shook. “I can’t today. I have… commitments.” Namely, my parents were going to be home and they would want me around. “Besides, Hobbes is going to need some time. I don’t–tomorrow. We’ll start on the tunnel tomorrow.” 

“I’ll be there,” Pack replied. “Just give me a ring when we’re meeting up. And Paintball, whatever happens, I’m all-in for taking this Luciano fucker down when it comes to it.” 

“Good,” I murmured. 

“Between all of us, we’ll make sure this son of a bitch gets what’s coming to him.” 

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Hostile Witness 18-10 (Summus Proelium)

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Well, so much for being free and clear. Just when I’d actually dared to think that we had gotten away from that whole… situation with the Scions, everything immediately blew up again. We were being chased in the van and shot at. Cup was there, along with who knew how many others. Way was stuck driving, not daring to slow down at all, and Raindrop kept peeking out the back window, calling out warnings whenever it looked like they were about to fire. Her warnings made Way spin the wheel one way or the other, sending the van skidding across the road. 

Sometimes, she couldn’t avoid the shots. Either there wasn’t room or time. But that was where Alloy came in. She had her marbles flying along behind the van, alternately transforming into various walls or shields to block the hits that Way couldn’t evade. Alloy couldn’t see enough to direct them for that, of course. But they were doing a pretty good job on their own just from the instructions to ‘protect the van.’ Which raised even more questions about how independent they were, not that I was going to get into that right now.

Either way, between Raindrop calling out when to evade, and Alloy’s marbles shielding the shots that she couldn’t get away from, we were avoiding the worst of what the Scions were throwing at us. But I had no idea how long that could continue. If we didn’t do something else fast, something was going to get through. Worse, if Way lost control of the van and we had to face the Scions in a straight fight…  yeah, I didn’t see that ending well. Especially considering the fact that three of us were still mostly paralyzed.  

Speaking of which, we were desperately trying to speed along our recovery so we could actually help. We could fairly regularly move our fingers, hands, and toes, but it was still not enough. Well, not unless the Scions wanted to settle this whole thing with a good old-fashioned thumb wrestling match. I was pretty sure I could win one of those. But then again, something told me Cup would find a way to cheat even at that, and I’d end up without a thumb at all. 

Oh, and we couldn’t call for help either. Yeah, we’d tried that, and the calls weren’t going through anymore. Not since I’d hung up with Deicide. Clearly, Cup was using something to block it. Probably her own invention, since she was apparently a fucking Tech-touched! 

“Hold on!” Way called back once more, just before the van jolted violently. It felt like we were running over the pockmarked dirt along the side of the road itself. The whole vehicle threatened to spin out of control, but she managed to keep it going mostly straight, cursing out loud. “Fucking– Box is back there, he keeps making rock walls appear in front of us!” 

Box, right. He was the guy who made those glowing orbs and could throw them before they turned into variously shaped and sized portions of fire, wind, water, or, in this case, earth. So at least two of the Fell-Touched for the Scions were back in that car chasing us. And I didn’t think we were lucky enough for them to be the only ones. Especially not today. Nothing was lucky about today. Well, unless we actually managed to get out of here with that information about Cup and Pencil’s true identities, and her real power. That would be pretty lucky.

Even as I had that thought, my arm rose. Slowly and a bit jerkily, but it rose right up in front of my face. Move. I could move even more than before. The paralyzation was wearing off faster. “Come on, come on,” I murmured to myself, bending and unbending the arm. It felt like an extreme version of having a limb ‘fall asleep.’ The numbness was incredibly weird. 

Come to think of it, I suddenly realized that I wasn’t completely helpless here, numbness be damned. Pushing my hand against the floor beneath me, I focused on spreading green paint through the vehicle. I couldn’t paint the whole thing, of course. I didn’t have enough paint or the right position. But I could help a bit. I could contribute, damn it. 

“Tell me when you need a green speed boost!” I shouted toward the front while slowly shaking out my other arm. From this position, I couldn’t see where we were on the road, what was ahead of us, or anything else. I was going to have to rely on Way for all that. 

Thankfully, she realized what I was talking about immediately. “Not yet!” the girl called. “Wait… wait…” She spun the wheel once more, the metal and wheels both squealing in protest. “Now!” 

So, I triggered the boost right then. Immediately, the van lurched to about twice its usual speed. I could hear the squealing of the tires as we shot forward, pulling a decent bit ahead of the car behind us. It gave our group a little bit of very desperately needed breathing room. 

Unfortunately, it was still just a van, and the Scion car was faster. Whether that was simply a normal fact, or one helped by Cup tinkering with their car, I had no idea. Either way, they were still hot on our heels. I boosted the van now and then, but there was only so much I could do. There was only so much any of us could do. We were still a long distance from the rest of the city and from any help. Unless Deicide happened to pass us on her way to the petting zoo, and again, we weren’t that lucky. No, we were on our own here. We just… had to survive. 

“Way!” Raindrop called. “Go straight for three seconds when I say!” She was peering out the small window, one hand on the handle. After a moment, she called, “Left!” Way spun the wheel that direction, and I caught the barest glimpse of a glowing energy beam shoot past the window on the right side as Cup took another shot. It was so close, the van shook from whatever kinetic force the beam was carrying with it. Which was fucking weird to begin with. 

The instant the shot went past, Raindrop shouted, “Hold steady!” She glared out that back window, focusing while pointing with her free hand. I heard the rush of water go flying that way, before the girl cursed. Which was still strange to hear coming from her. She quickly jerked back while blurting, “Right!” Which sent the van sliding across the road that direction just in time to miss another shot. 

“Shield,” Raindrop informed us while still clutching the side of the van to keep herself upright. “They’ve got some kind of forcefield around the car, I can’t… I can’t get it wet! I can’t move it, I can’t do anything!” Her voice was frantic, clearly freaking out a bit. Not that I could blame her. We were all freaking out. There had to be a way out of here, had to be a way to escape from those psycho fucks. God damn it, why wouldn’t my arms move properly so I could do something?! Straining as hard as I could, I managed to make them bend a little faster. The paralyzation was wearing off, but not nearly quickly enough. The most I could do was keep randomly speeding the van up, which helped a bit, but wasn’t enough to keep us away from those assholes for long. It didn’t even help us pull far enough away to make a phone call, damn it! 

With that rush of anger, I suddenly realized that I was sitting up. Alloy and Pack both managed to turn their heads my way, but I was the one in a seated position. Clearly Cup had overestimated how long her paralyzing ray would work. “I can move,” I murmured, before my eyes widened. “I can move.” Everything was still numb, of course. but I was mobile. Definitely not in the right shape to start a fight with the guys chasing us, and yet the thrill of adrenaline from realizing I could move had brought something else to mind. I knew where we were. I knew where we were. And that meant–

Twisting over onto my hands and knees, I crawled to the back, next to Raindrop. There, I crouched by the door and braced myself. “Way!” I called up, “get ready to shift to the passenger side!” 

“What?!” she shouted back at me. “Why the hell would I–” 

But I was already moving. Shoving the back door open, I saw the car racing up from behind us. Sure enough, Cup and Box were there, along with a handful of other Scion lackeys. My hand extended, shooting a burst of yellow paint at the road just as we passed, before activating it. The Scion car abruptly slowed to half its normal speed, and I immediately swung myself out, using red paint to yank myself up against the side of the van while calling for Raindrop to shut the door. 

There I was, crouched sideways against the van, as we raced at like seventy miles an hour along the road. Another quick shot of red yanked me to the front, and I opened the driver’s side door while blurting, “Over, over!” 

To her credit, That-A-Way did exactly that, throwing herself into the passenger seat while I landed where she had been, my foot finding its way to the accelerator before we slowed much. “What’re you doing?!” the other girl shouted while quickly belting herself in.

“Tell me the thirteen-year-old isn’t driving,” Pack snapped from the back. “I said, tell me the thirteen-year-old isn’t driving!” 

“Okay,” I replied, glancing at the screen on the dash that showed a view behind us through a camera on the bumper, “the thirteen-year-old isn’t driving. 

“He’s flying.” 

With that, I abruptly spun the wheel hard to the right with one hand while touching the edge of the dash with my other. An orange arrow appeared there, extending out over the hood. I activated it just as the van hit a small incline on the side of the road and, with the engine roaring, went airborne a good six or seven feet, slamming into and through a tree that was in its way. Behind me and beside me, I could hear the others screaming. 

The van was now running perpendicular to the street, racing across the wilderness. Scattered trees surrounded us, and I twisted the wheel sharply once to avoid a big one. It came close enough that the branches scraped loudly along the passenger side. Behind us, I could see the Scion car coming right back into view. 

“Paintball, get back on the road!” Way shouted. “Get back on the road, get back on the road!” 

“Road?” I quoted, “Where we’re going, we don’t need roads.” 

“We need roads!” That was Alloy, her voice a frantic scream. “We definitely need roads!” 

But I wasn’t listening. Instead, I reached up, clipping the seatbelt into place. The van was cruising along the weed-filled ground, bouncing violently from each slight dip and bump. In the rear camera, the Scions were coming up fast. Once in awhile, they fired off a shot that was intercepted by one of the marbles keeping pace with us. 

“Paintball,” Way managed with a tight, worried voice, “I don’t know where you think you’re goaaaaaaahhhhh!” The scream was because we had just hit a bush, passing straight through it before the van dropped like… three feet to crash hard on a dirt path that had been packed hard by thousands of tires running over it. 

“Hah!” I crowed, twisting the wheel sharply to the left to send the van twisting ninety-degrees that way, narrowly avoiding a heavy boulder that had been directly ahead of us. “I knew this was the right area!” 

Suddenly, the van was driving along a narrow ‘road’ (such as it was), with thick trees and rocks lining both sides. It was barely wide enough for the van, and full of dips and hills. We were on a dirt bike track that ran through the forest out here. I’d gone riding a bunch of times. Even broke my arm once. 

Hopefully this time went better. 

Of course, this wasn’t an ordinary, circular track. The whole thing ran for miles and miles throughout the wilderness, with multiple ways to go, several figure eights, intersections where you had to choose which direction to take, even a couple parts where the track was raised into a bridge that ran over one of the lower parts. It was basically the best dirt bike track in the entire state

On the other hand, it was built for dirt bikes, not for a van (or the car following us). The poor vehicle was taking a definite pounding as I floored the gas and sent the van flying along the track, gaining air repeatedly with each hill I launched it over, before coming down hard and violently shaking everyone around. The only reason it stayed together as much as it did was the orange marks I kept repeatedly painting along it whenever possible. 

Way was saying something, the others were shouting from the back, and I ignored all of it. My focus was on pushing the van as hard and as fast as it would go. We were flying along the track, straight toward a T-intersection. Ahead, past the edge of that intersection, was an enormous tree that would have turned the van into a pile of scrap parts if we hit it. At the last second, with Way screaming in my ear, I snapped the wheel to the left while activating just a bit of yellow paint that I had sent through the vehicle. It slowed us enough to make that turn, skidding to the left. Instantly, I threw the wheel to the right, sending the van sliding along the sudden opposite turn that came within a few dozen feet of the intersection. 

Behind us, the Scion car had to skid to a complete stop, backing up and then turning to get back on track. It was clearly faster and more maneuverable than we were. So, if we were going to lose them, I was just going to have to get creative. 

Getting creative, in this case, meant flooring the accelerator and trusting the mix of my memory, reflexes, and that weird, unexplained extra sense I had to get us through the track without completely destroying the van and killing all of us in the process. 

So, that’s what I did. I let myself go and just… trusted. The van’s engine screamed as I sent the vehicle rocketing down the track. There was a curve to the left coming up. I knew it. I couldn’t see it, but I knew it. At the exact right moment, I twisted the wheel. Left–now right, sharp right. Straight for four seconds, jerk the wheel right to avoid the deep pothole in the dirt, clip the trees there, it’s alright they don’t have any big branches. Left or straight here, but go straight because the left went to a dead end. Tree on the ground, veer left and boost to hit that little dirt ramp enough to clear it. Not fast enough. Green paint, boost now! Ignore the screams as the van went airborne. Orange paint for protection, then a hard right once the van hit the ground–no, count to two first, then turn. Slam! One… two–turn! Count to four then shift to the left enough to avoid the sharp boulder sticking out of the nearby overhang. Can’t turn sooner or you’ll hit the deep ditch on that side. One, two, three, four–twist left! 

Drive straight three seconds, turn left again. Four more seconds, twist right. Accelerate as hard as possible and use the green boost for a dirt ramp up ahead, then twist left. Right, right, straight, left, straight, right, straight, left, straightrightrightstraightleftstraightrightstraight!

Though all that, the Scion car kept falling further and further behind. I was pretty sure I could hear Cup screaming in rage, as she fired off a few useless shots that came nowhere near us, but did manage to knock down some trees. We were pulling ahead. But that wouldn’t last. As soon as we were back in open ground, they would catch up. Their car was more sustainably faster. I could boost for short periods, but they had the speed to catch us. We couldn’t just drive in circles along this track forever. We had to do something else. 

Luckily, I had a plan for that. 

“Alloy!” I called toward the back even as I followed my power’s direction and snapped the wheel to the right to send the van in a long skid, applying the brakes at the exact right moment. “Can you combine your marbles into one big shield against the back of the van to take a handful of shots so we can go straight for a bit?!” 

There was a brief pause before the other girl replied in a tight voice, “Yeah, but I don’t know how long they’ll last that way! Whatever she’s shooting at us, it’s got a lot of freaking power!” 

“Doesn’t have to be long,” I insisted. “Just do it when I tell you. Rain, when she does that, soak our car.” 

“Our car?” Raindrop echoed, clearly confused about what I was planning. Thankfully, she trusted me, belatedly calling out an agreement.   

Hands gripping the wheel tightly, I focused on taking us through three more sharp, sudden turns. “Soak the whole van, all of it. And when I tell you… make us float for as long as you can. Just keep us from falling, okay? Keep the van in the air.” Even while saying that, I kept one hand on the dashboard and focused on spreading as much green paint as I could, mixed with just enough orange to hopefully hold the thing together when it had to. I was really draining the bottom of the barrel with this one. I was pretty sure I’d be tapped out after this. At least for a minute or two. And that was basically an eternity in a situation like this. But that was okay. We were going to need the speed, and it was now or never. 

“Alloy, be ready to shield. Raindrop, soak and float on my mark!”  

Then, with a sharp right turn, we hit the straightaway. “Shield, Alloy! Full shield!” I shouted as we bounced along. “Just hold them off for a few seconds! Raindrop, soak it, soak the whole thing and be ready!” 

The other two followed my instructions. Summoned water soaked the whole vehicle thoroughly, like driving through a monsoon.  Behind us, I could hear the shots from our insistent friends rebounding off the marble shields as they immediately took advantage of the straight line of sight they finally had. 

“Can’t take very much more of that shit!” Alloy shouted a bit tensely after five or six of the blasts had struck her shield. “Whatever that bitch is shooting at us, it’s really fucking strong!”

“Just a little further!” I insisted, flooring the pedal as hard as I could. Still, I didn’t activate the green paint. Not yet. Even without the boost, we were careening down that incredibly narrow dirt track. Branches from trees on either side were scraping along the edge of the van, and smacking the windows as we shot down the path. Behind us, the Scions were clearly keeping pace, given the sound of gunfire and the repeated bangs from their car bouncing through the holes. At least they were having just as rough of a ride as we were. Not that that was too much of a consolation, given the whole situation, but still. 

Just when I thought I might have underestimated how far we needed to go, I saw the target up ahead. In that instant, I triggered all the green paint I’d managed to put over the van, and we rocketed forward. The ride, of course, got even bumpier. We had been going a good sixty miles an hour down that track. Now we were going over a hundred. The van’s body, shocks, every part of it screamed in protest. I was pretty sure the rest of us were screaming too. The others and me. I gripped the wheel so tight I felt like it was going to snap off in my hands. Still, I kept it steady, fighting the van’s attempts to jerk from one side to the other. With shots from the Scions still rebounding off the shields or flying off to either side, we were fucking flying down that path. Metaphorically, of course. 

And then it suddenly wasn’t as metaphorical. With one last scream toward the others to hang on, I sent the van right through the spot I had been pointing us toward. We hit a bit of dirt at the end there, and suddenly we were airborne. Like before with the ramps, but this was no ramp. No, I had just launched the van off the edge of a fucking cliff. The ground was a good hundred feet or so below us.  

“Rain, float, float, keep us up!” I screamed as soon as we hit the apex of the jump. 

I could hear the grunt of effort from the younger girl as she did just that, focusing on keeping the van in the air with the gravity part of her power while we continued to shoot forward. Glancing through the nearby window, I saw a ravine far, far below us with barely a trickle of water running through it. Beside me, Way made a weak little whimpering sound as she looked out her own side. 

It only lasted for five or six seconds, but those felt like an eternity. Then I called back, “Lower us down, down!” At the same time, I activated the orange paint to keep the whole van from falling apart around us on impact.

The van dropped a bit, gradually of course. A moment later, there was a violent jolt as we hit the ground once more. Or rather, as we hit the road once more. An actual road, with pavement and everything. Yeah, almost directly opposite that corner of the dirt track, there was the highway we had been driving on before. It curved around a hill at this point, with that sharp dropoff to one side that was blocked by a heavy metal guard rail. Some sort-of friends and I used to bike up to that little spot and sit there watching cars around that slow curve. A couple guys had made morbid comments about what it would be like if a car missed that turn, slammed through the guard rail, and went off into the ravine below. Which was why it had stuck in my head. 

As soon as the van hit the road, I twisted the wheel and pumped the brakes, making the tires squeal horribly as we left a bunch of rubber across the road. The vehicle spun out of control, going around once, twice, then a third time before finally skidding to a halt. 

A few brief seconds of silence followed while all of us went through a mental checklist to make sure we were in one piece before Pack found her voice. “What… the fuck… was that?” 

“That,” I informed them while using a violently shaking hand to shift the van back into drive and pull away once more, “was us getting the hell away from those guys. It’s like a fifteen minute drive the old fashioned way, just to get from the overlook to where we are now.” 

While the others coped with that, I picked up speed. The van was shuddering a bit, clearly not in the best of shape. But it kept going. 

“So, uhh, what do you guys say we wait til the coast is clear, then go back and do it again?” I offered, half-jokingly. Okay, maybe a quarter-jokingly. “You know, when we can enjoy it.” 

A slight pain filled my shoulder as Way punched me there. 

“Ow,” I muttered, “you could’ve just said no thanks, you know.” With that, I exhaled long and low. “Is everyone okay? We all in one piece?” 

Over the next couple of minutes, everyone agreed that they were okay and were starting to be able to move. I held the steering wheel tight and let out another shaky breath. “Okay, okay. We’re okay.” Saying it out loud helped me convince myself that it was true. After the terror of the past few minutes, which itself had been preceded by a few minutes of calm that had followed another long stretch of terror when we had found out the truth about Amanda, part of me was expecting another rush of adrenaline-filled panic any moment now. What was next, Cup and her people showing up in a fucking homemade helicopter? Hell, it didn’t even have to be homemade. For all we knew, they could steal one. 

But no, things stayed quiet. And within another couple minutes, we had driven far enough to see busier traffic on the freeway just ahead. The on-ramp was just waiting for us. 

“Paintball,” Way spoke up from the passenger side, her eyes on me. “Can you use any more paint? We need a disguise, just in case.” 

It took me a few seconds, but I managed to pull the van off to the side and stopped for a minute. Way hopped out and came around to the driver’s side to help me down on shaky, uncertain feet, and I got my first good look at the exterior of the van. It was pretty trashed. There were dents and scrapes in it from the rocks and trees, the paint job was basically destroyed, the wheels weren’t going to last much longer, it was… yeah. 

Still, I managed to paint the whole thing red, sort of covering up the damage of it and making it a different color just in case Cup or any of the other Scions had sent word ahead to watch for us. It wasn’t much, but it would maybe help a little. 

“Are we good?” That was Alloy, the girl standing behind us, hand pressed against the side of the van. “Please tell me we’re good. I don’t think I can… umm, I don’t want to do any of that again anytime soon.” She was trying to play it off lightly, but I could hear the trepidation in her voice. She was scared, obviously. And who could blame her?

“We’re good,” Way confirmed. “Come on, let’s get back on the freeway. I’ll call Flea and we can tell her what happened. Or, you know, our version of it. Oh, and I’ll drive this time.” 

“Go for it,” I replied, my voice cracking just a little as I made my way toward the back once more. “I think I… I need to lay down for a minute.”  

She moved back to the front to drive, even as Pack shakily stepped down and started up to the passenger seat. Meanwhile, I looked to Alloy, swallowing hard. There was a lot I wanted to say to her, a lot I just… didn’t know how to say or if I even should. In the end, all I managed was a somewhat weak, “Thanks for being here. You–if it wasn’t for your help, we… umm…” 

Shaking her head before putting out a hand to grab my shoulder so I would stop talking, Alloy interrupted, “That was pretty fucking scary, Paintball. It wasn’t just me. It was–none of us would’ve made it without the others. If That-A-Way wasn’t there, or Pack, or Raindrop, any of them, if any of us weren’t there, the others wouldn’t’ve made it. We’d be… they’d be…” She swallowed hard, clearly thinking about being back with Cup, given the woman’s reputation. 

Yeah, it was probably a bad idea to dwell on those thoughts. Quickly, I gave her a little push toward the back door of the van. “Come on, let’s get out of here and back to civilization.” 

“Yeah!” shouted Pack from the front, “let’s go before we have to have another chase scene! Everyone knows having two of those right next to each other is super-redundant and boring.” 

“Well,” I managed to retort in a flat voice, “the last thing we want to do is be boring. Heaven forbid. Guess we better get going.” 

So, the two of us climbed up into the back once more to join the thoroughly exhausted Raindrop. We shut the door, and Way began to drive again. In a moment, we were in the midst of freeway traffic, while she made the call to Flea and, in as few words as possible, told her a bit of what was going on and that we needed to meet her along the way. Needless to say, she had a lot of questions. But she agreed to talk about it in person, which… yeah, that was gonna be fun. 

Once we arranged a place to meet (at a nearby old motel along the freeway that was undergoing renovations), Way disconnected the call, before pulling off at the next exit. We weren’t quite to the motel itself yet, but close enough. She parked behind a fast food joint, near a large drainage ditch. There, the rest of us hopped out, leaving Pack in the van with her lizards. 

“Right, wish I could say it’s been fun,” the girl informed us after shifting over into the driver’s seat, “but, you know.” She coughed pointedly. “I’m gonna tell Blackjack what happened. And the truth about those fucks.” 

“Good,” I informed her, still a bit wobbly on my legs. But hey, at least I could actually (mostly) stand. “The more people who know, the better. Hunt those evil fucks down.” 

She gave me a thumbs up, shuddered a little, then began to drive away. From the way the van was protesting, I was pretty sure it wouldn’t get much further. Hopefully at least enough to get the other girl somewhere safe. 

Which left me standing in the parking lot with That-A-Way, Raindrop, and Alloy. “Right,” I announced, clapping my hands together once before nearly falling over. “Let’s go meet Flea then. 

“I can’t wait to explain this whole thing.” 

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Hostile Witness 18-09 And Patreon Snippets 21 (Summus Proelium)

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“Wh-what happened?!” Alloy was blurting, clearly in the midst of some level of panic attack. Completely understandable, given the situation she woke up in. “Who–where did–why can’t I–” 

I was on my back still, but now I was staring up at trees, and felt a few rocks poking into my back as I lay in the dirt somewhere outside of the petting zoo. Out. Out. We were out. We were safe and fine. Okay, well, not exactly fine just yet, considering I still couldn’t move. And from the sound of Alloy grunting and Pack cursing, neither could they. Which wasn’t surprising, considering it hadn’t been anywhere near the hour that Cup had said it would take for the effects of the ray to wear off. Assuming she had even been telling the truth. 

“Alloy, it’s okay!” I called over to her. “We’re out, we’re… safeish. Amanda was Cup–is Cup. But we’re out now. All three of us are paralyzed, but she said it would wear off in like an hour.” 

“An hour?!” Somehow, Alloy wasn’t too reassured. “Wait…” Abruptly, I saw her rise to a standing position. But it wasn’t like she stood up, it was more like she floated upward and set herself on her feet. And then abruptly fell down again with a yelp. “Damn it! I’m all… woozy. I think it’s making my marbles woozy too. Can’t focus on staying upright. It’s all dizzy and weird. Like trying to play a video game that keeps inverting the controls.” 

Oh yeah, her armor was made out of her marbles, and they could move. But apparently she was still affected enough that it wasn’t working very well. Which… was that what Cup had been referring to when she said that Alloy being knocked out made sense? 

“It’ll be okay,” I tried to promise. “It’ll wear off.”  

“Right, cuz the psycho supervillain said so,” she retorted, “and why are we taking her word for it?” 

“We don’t have a choice right now.” That was Way, her voice tight. “We still need to get out of here before that bitch calls in reinforcements.” Kneeling between us, she looked over to Raindrop. “Stay here with them. Keep an eye out for anyone, I’m gonna go grab the van.” 

“Hold on!” Pack blurted. “You can’t go back around there by yourself! What the hell do you–” 

“Pack, stop.” Way’s voice was firm. “We don’t have a lot of options right now. This should be far enough away that she can’t find you. But I have to get the van before they do. I’ll be right back.” 

I didn’t like that. I really didn’t like it at all. But it was like she said, we didn’t have much choice. Pack, however, apparently had other ideas. “Get my backpack off and put my hand in it.” 

That-A-Way only hesitated slightly before following her instructions. Lifting Pack up carefully to get the ‘empty’ pack off her, she unzipped it and placed the other girl’s hand inside. “Okay?”

“Twinkletoes, here boy!” Pack called, waiting until she apparently felt the little chameleon against her paralyzed hand. “Okay, boy. You know what to do. You remember, we practiced this. You can do it. Just like back in the parking lot. Okay… now go, get out of the cage!” 

“Uh.” Raindrop started to speak up before hesitating. “Are you doing what I think you’re doing?” 

“He’s transformed,” Pack replied. “And… just get us to the road. He’ll drive the van down it. At least I think he will. We practiced it for awhile just in case of an emergency. He should be able to follow the road, but I’m not exactly sure how good he is at getting out of the way of other drivers, and I know he doesn’t understand road signs or… yeah, we should get back to the road and keep an eye out. This could get a little messy. Or a lot messy.” 

I had seen a lot of weird things since becoming a Touched, but the idea that there was about to be a lizard-gorilla hybrid creature driving a van down the road kind of… reached its way up into the top ten. But again, we didn’t have a lot of options. Pack was clearly desperate to make sure Way didn’t have to go near the petting zoo by herself, and that idea didn’t appeal to me either. 

Now all we had to do was get to the road. Which actually ended up being fairly easy, since Alloy transformed her floating marbles into a couple fancy stretchers for Pack and me. Then she simply used those plus her own armor to make our group float that way. Raindrop and That-A-Way played escorts, keeping their eyes out for any Scion activity, just in case. We had no idea how long it would take Cup to call in reinforcements and whether they’d even go out into the surrounding area searching for us. But it felt better to be safe rather than sorry. We had to get out of there. 

Thankfully, it wasn’t that far to the road. Way could’ve teleported us, but we would’ve been much further north in the process. This was fine. Or at least, I kept telling myself it was. Really, my mind was still spinning wildly from everything we had just found out. Cup. Amanda was Cup. Which meant her brother Nick was Pencil. And something told me he wasn’t actually in Alaska. 

“You know he’s going to be even more pissed at all of us now.” Way practically read my mind while we were moving toward the road. “We know too much about him, and the rest of their group. And we hit his sister again. They’re gonna be targeting us any chance they get.” 

“They’ll move her first,” I pointed out. “They don’t know how long it’ll take us to get reinforcements, so they’ll focus on getting her and all her stuff out of there.” 

“Speaking of which, shouldn’t we be calling in those reinforcements right about now?” Alloy put in. “And who are we calling anyway, the… uhh, ones who call themselves actual heroes or the woman we were supposed to be doing this whole thing for in the first place?” 

It really was a good question. We were supposed to let Deicide know what was going on so she could go after Pencil. And I was damn sure she’d want to know about this. But on the other hand, it was also the biggest lead that anyone in the Star-Touched society could possibly have. We had uncovered the identity of Pencil and Cup. That was huge. The authorities could probably do a lot to try to track those two down from knowing who they really were, though I was sure they both knew how to disappear. It was something, a way of potentially stopping them from killing more people, if they were too busy keeping away from the authorities. 

“Both,” I abruptly answered. “We’ll let Deicide know what we found out, but we’ll contact the Conservators too. Flea. We’ll contact Flea. And Caishen. We’ll let them both know, let them come check this place out with the cavalry. The more people who know the truth about Pencil and Cup, the better chance of someone tracking them down. Maybe they’ll go on the run.” 

If she could have moved, I was sure that Pack would have turned to stare at me with an incredibly dubious look. “You don’t really believe that shit, do you? Seriously, come on.” 

I sighed heavily. “I don’t know. But every little bit helps. Like I said, the more people we have going after them, the better off everyone’s going to be. Someone might get lucky. And yes, I know it’s unlikely. But even the slightest chance that someone could maybe stop them is better than nothing. Plus, if they’re busy staying out of reach from the big guns, that’s less time they have to put into making innocent people suffer. It’s not much, but it’s all we’ve got right now.” 

By that point, our strange little convoy of stretchers and floating armor had reached the road. We stayed low, just on the edge of the treeline in case one of the Scions happened along. Then we waited. 

It wasn’t long before we heard a horn blaring, coming from up the road. Raindrop and Way looked at each other, then leaned out of the trees to stare that way. For about the eighty-seven thousandth time, I wished I could move to see for myself. The sound of the blaring horn got louder, joined by another, then a third. A car that was driving past in the opposite direction joined the chorus a moment later, and I saw it swerve off to the other side of the road. 

“Alloy?” I put in over the sound of the horns. “Could you–” 

She immediately lifted the stretchers and turned them to face the road so we could see. And what a sight it was. The van was heading toward us, swerving in and out of both sides of the street like some sort of incredibly drunk fat man. It wasn’t moving all that fast for a vehicle, barely reaching fifteen miles an hour. But the way it was swerving back and forth, every vehicle from every direction had to get out of the way. Not that there were that many, but still. The few who were there pulled off the road and honked, or just shouted out their windows. 

Raindrop quietly spoke up while she and Way both looked pointedly toward Pack. “I don’t think Twinkletoes should try to get his driver’s license anytime soon.”  

“You kidding?” the La Casa girl shot right back, “He’s doing better than a lot of the useless pieces of shit I’ve seen on the road back in the city. Look, he’s even signaling. Uh, sort of.” 

She was right, particularly about the sort of part. Somehow, Twinkletoes kept flipping the turn signals on and off randomly. It had no connection with which way the car was going, but still. He also kept turning the windshield wipers on and off. I had the feeling he was just randomly hitting things in there. Honestly, we were lucky he had his foot on the pedal and was keeping the van on the road, even if it was taking up the entire road in the process. He was a lizard in a partial gorilla body, so I was going to give the extent of his driving skills a break based on the fact that they existed at all. I had really had no idea that Pack could possibly make her lizards do something like this. It raised even more questions about how smart they were, or how well they could be trained. Questions that were obviously going to have to wait until later. After all, we had slightly more pressing things to deal with right now. 

Pack had Alloy lift her stretcher out into view so the incoming Twinkletoes could see her. He immediately stopped and managed to get his driver’s side door open. Not that we saw much. He was invisible, after all. Yeah, that was another thing throughout all of this. The van had been driving wildly down the road while apparently having no driver. We just saw the door pop open once the van was near enough, and a moment later the gorilla-lizard revealed himself by popping up right in front of Pack while making worried grunting sounds that were kind of adorable and endearing. He kept gesturing to her, then to the van while making those anxious gorilla noises. I honestly wasn’t sure if he was more terrified about what he had just done, or about what was wrong with his owner. Probably some mixture of both, really. 

Oh yeah, and meanwhile, the van was still moving. Yep, the lizard hadn’t actually stopped it at all, let alone put the thing in park. He just opened the door and hopped out. The thing was still heading down the road, already past us and continuing on, coasting entirely off momentum. 

“I’m on it!” Way blurted, her figure turning into a blur as she raced out of my sight. I heard the van door close a second later, and then the thing started backing up toward us once more. She parked it right nearby, then hopped out. She and Raindrop opened the backdoors, letting Alloy guide herself and the stretchers into the rear compartment. As soon as we (including Twinkletoes) were in, Way shut the door, hopped in the front, and started to drive off. No way were we going to sit around here talking about things. We need to get somewhere safe. 

Raindrop, meanwhile, stayed in the back with us. As Way was driving, I asked the younger girl to get my phone out of my pocket and use the number for Deicide that I had recorded in it. The phone was still connected through my Bluetooth, so I heard it ring in my ear a few times before the woman’s voice answered. Rather, that same booming feminine voice that was clearly being projected from the books she had nearby. Yeah, she still wasn’t talking in her own voice, even on the phone. So she was doing this whole thing on speaker? I still wasn’t sure why she talked like that. Was she incapable of speaking the normal way? Like, was she mute or something? 

Either way, the voice came through my earbud. “Do you have something for me, Paintball?” 

“Oh boy, do I ever,” I managed as my eyes reflexively rolled. “First of all, your intelligence is the fucking worst, lady. Also, the fucking best. Both, at the same time. I’m not sure how you pulled that off, but seriously.” Yes, I knew it wasn’t her fault, at all. But I had to say something.  

There was a brief pause at my words before her projected voice replied, “Pardon me?” 

So, I explained the situation. Very succinctly, I told her about Amanda’s real identity, what had almost happened, and what Amanda’s real power was. Yeah, that last one felt like something that some people might’ve kept a secret or only told the authorities. But fuck it. It was just like I had said, the more people who knew the truth, the more chance there was of actually stopping these guys. It was obvious that one of the biggest reasons Cup and Pencil had managed to stay off the trail of the authorities for so long was because they had no idea that Cup herself was the one building a lot of their Touched-Tech toys. Hell, knowing about that, maybe we could actually convince Braintrust to go after her for not doing her part to contribute to them the way they insisted all Tech-Touched do. Or even convince Sherwood to target them in retaliation for Cup building the devices in the first place, since they hated technology so much.  

Yeah, getting Sherwood and Braintrust to actually work together against the same target. Boy, wouldn’t that be pretty wild. But if any people could inspire such incredibly different enemies to be on the same side, it was definitely Pencil and Cup. Those two never played by any rules. Even the Ministry would obviously be fine with shutting them down. I had no doubt that my parents wanted the entire Scions organization taken out. 

By the time I finished explaining what had happened, my fingers were starting to twitch just a little. It wasn’t much, but I could feel them respond ever so slightly to my desperate orders for them to move. The paralyzation was gradually starting to wear off, though I was pretty sure it would still take awhile for me to be able to do more than make the ends of my fingers bend. 

Deicide was quiet for a moment after I finished. Finally, her voice returned. “That is surprising.”

Right, so apparently another of her superpowers was incredible understatements. “Yeah, tell me about it. You asked us to find this Amanda chick and tell you what she knows. We found her and… well, I think you can safely say we told you what she knows. Deal’s done, we’re even.” 

“Yes,” came the response immediately. “Your favor is repaid in full. You have done more than I could have expected.” There was a brief pause before she added, “I am… very sorry for sending you into that danger, Paintball. It was never my intention. If I had had the slightest inkling that you would have run into that sort of trouble, I never would have made that the favor.”  

She obviously didn’t have to apologize. But I appreciated it anyway. Taking a breath while coaxing my fingers to wiggle a little more, I replied, “Thanks. We’re safe enough now, anyway. And umm, and we’re calling the authorities too. They need to know the truth about those two.”

Part of me expected the woman to argue against that. Instead, she replied, “Give me the address. I can be there before the authorities. I’ll do my own examination and leave before they get there. I can…” She hesitated. “I can find out everything I need without moving anything.”   

Part of me felt slightly uncomfortable about that, but on the other hand, it wasn’t like I could object to sending a bad guy there, considering I was going to be doing the same thing when we contacted the Conservators. Okay, okay, I didn’t actually know that any of them beyond my own dad were actually bad. But still, the whole situation was incredibly gray. I might as well let Deicide do her own investigation on top of the one the authorities would do. 

With that in mind, I gave her the exact address about where she could find the petting zoo with Amanda’s apartment. That earned me a look from Raindrop, but she remained silent. 

“Got it,” Deicide replied. “I will be there shortly. You may feel free to contact the authorities. And Paintball… thank you.” 

If I could have shrugged, I would have. “Yeah, well, we might be really different people, but I think we can all agree, ‘fuck those two and their little gang in particular.’”

“Indeed,” she confirmed before adding, “though someday you may find that we are not quite as different as you believe.” There was something important behind those words, but I couldn’t read enough into what it was before she simply finished with, “I will see you another time, Paintball. With any luck, it will not be on the battlefield. I would hate to be faced with you.” 

Well, that was a little surprising. I expected her to say something like she would be sad to have to kill me. Before I could respond to her actual words, she disconnected the call. I was officially done with my favor to Deicide. 

Even better than that, when I finished telling the others that it was done, I was able to close my hand into a fist and then open it again. I could also make my toes twitch. The paralyzation was definitely wearing off. Which, thank God Cup had actually been telling the truth about that. There’d been a small nightmare working in the back of my head about it being either permanent, or needing some kind of exterior cure to turn it off. But, thankfully, it really was temporary. 

“So what now?” Alloy put in. I could barely see enough of her hand from this position to tell that she was doing the same thing as me, closing and opening a fist. “We call in the authorities and tell them where to descend to rain righteous legal hell on that place and look for clues?” 

“How do we explain what we were doing there?” Way put in carefully.  

I had been thinking about that this whole time, and finally exhaled heavily. “I think the best thing we can do is just say that Alloy and me were investigating something independently, and we called you for help, Way. You were out with Raindrop, so you guys came to see what was going on.” 

“Without calling anyone else?” Raindrop put in. “If we were going anywhere near the Scions–” 

“We didn’t know it was actually the Scions,” Alloy pointed out. “None of us did.” 

I agreed quickly. “That’s a good point. It’s the truth. We really didn’t know they were going to be there, only that it was a lead that might not pan out at all. We just tell the truth, as far as that goes. We looked into it and called you guys for help talking to who we thought was just a normal witness just in case she might respond better to someone from the official hero teams.”

Way hesitated slightly before shifting around in the front seat to look back at us through the window while still driving. “Yeah, I think we can deal with that. How’re you guys doing with that whole moving thing?” 

In answer, I slowly moved my head from the left, then to the right. It was almost painfully stiff, but I managed it. “Getting there. Call Flea and get the Conservators there. I’ll get hold of Ten Towers as soon as I can move my hand a little more.” 

“Yeah, I’ll–” Way started, just before the van abruptly jerked violently, almost skidding sideways off the road. All of us in the back were thrown to the floor. 

“Dude, what the hell?!” Pack blurted. 

Way was looking at the side mirror, her voice tight. “Hang on, guys. That was some sort of–” She suddenly spun the wheel, sending the van to the left just as a high pitched whine of something shooting past us on the right filled the air. “It’s Cup! And some others. They’re in a car and–” She spun the wheel back the opposite way to avoid another shot. 

Right, apparently we weren’t quite done with that whole escaping from the Scions thing. But hey, maybe if I was lucky, I’d manage to get myself fully unparalyzed before they killed all of us. 

Patreon Snippets 21

Arleigh

January 16th, two months before the start of the story. 

“Hey!” Arleigh Fosters pushed her way through a crowd that had gathered around the bottom of the long cement staircase in the outside courtyard of Cadillac Preparatory School. “Move, damn it.” There were too many people in the way, making the tall blonde growl under her breath in frustration. She grabbed the nearest guy by the elbow, making him turn to her. “What the hell is going on? Someone said Cassidy Evans was out here.” And god, she better be. If Arleigh had to go back home yet again and tell her dad she hadn’t had any luck getting close to the Evans kid…

The guy shrugged and nodded. “Sure, she’s right over there.” He stepped aside a bit, raising a hand to point over at the top of the long set of cement steps. 

The sound of wheels clacking rapidly across the cracks between concrete squares grew louder, as Arleigh looked that way just in time to see the girl in question. Cassidy Evans, daughter of the richest and most powerful (in more than one way) people in Michigan, reached the top of the stairs on her skateboard before grunting as she jumped the board up and turned so that it landed sideways on the metal railing running down the middle of the steps. With that, arms held high above her head, she rode the board all the way down to the bottom, jumped it before the very end, flipped the board over three hundred and sixty degrees in the air, then landed smoothly on the wheels before rolling to a stop. As the assembled students who had been watching cheered, she stepped off the board and popped it up into her hand before grinning as she took a bow. 

“Thank you, thank you,” the obscenely wealthy girl called out before focusing on one guy in particular, a senior who had been watching with folded arms. She held a hand out. “From the entrance all the way down the walk and off the railing. Isn’t that what you said would prove I wasn’t a poser? Now uhh, I think we bet something, didn’t we? Right, right, for me, it was a hundred bucks. For you, it was… what was it again?”  

“You know what, Evans?” The guy was practically baring his teeth as he snarled, “You’re just lucky you–” 

Taking that as her cue, Arleigh immediately stepped that way, putting one arm around the other girl as if they were BFFs. “Hey now, if you made a bet, you better honor it,” she informed the boy while wagging a finger at him. “You wouldn’t wanna be known as a welcher, would you?” 

The boy looked as though he wanted to argue, but finally just sighed and reached into his pocket before pulling out a pair of tickets, thrusting them out. “Fucking take ’em, whatever.” 

As he stalked off and the crowd started to disperse, Arleigh saw that the tickets Cassidy had taken hold of were for a concert the next night. Pretty good seats too. Perfect. This was perfect. If she went to a concert with the Evans girl, her dad would stop being such an asshole about making friends with her. 

“Oh hey, if you’re going to that concert, I could–” 

Cassidy, however, was already slipping out from under the arm that Arleigh had slung over her shoulders. “Nah,” she dismissively replied, holding the tickets out to some other girl, a sophomore. “Val’s the one who won them, Greg just convinced her he’d date her if she went to the concert with him.” 

The girl in question gave a relieved nod as she clutched the tickets to her chest. “But as soon as I let him hold them ‘for safe keeping’, he broke up with me and pretended he didn’t know anything about it. When I pushed it, he said they were payment for… looking at my ugly face.” She cringed. “I couldn’t tell my dad, he’d think I was just so stupid.” 

Arleigh’s mouth opened to tell the girl she was stupid for falling for something like that. But Val spoke again, addressing Cassidy. “Hey, maybe we could go together, since I don’t have anyone else to use this ticket for?” 

Stupid or not, the girl had just given her the opening she needed, and Arleigh immediately took it. “Yeah, I can get a ticket too and we could all go together. I could drive, so you don’t have to arrange anything. We could even go to dinner first.” Perfect, this whole thing was pe–

“No thanks,” Cassidy infuriatingly replied with a shrug. “Hey, you two should go together. Have fun.” She turned without another word, heading off with the skateboard tucked under one arm. 

God damn it! Arleigh fumed, watching the girl leave. Beside her, Val started to say something about arranging a place to meet tomorrow, but the older girl simply turned to stalk away without another word. Then she pivoted back, grabbed one of the tickets, and replied, “Five o’clock, front of the school right over there. Don’t be late.” 

Then she stalked off, ticket in hand. What the fuck was wrong with Evans? She was friendly enough, she stuck up for people she could have been much more popular than she was, even before you counted the whole rich thing. And she was… popular enough as far as school went. Some people liked her, some didn’t. She just… she had school ‘friends.’ As far as Arleigh had been able to figure out in the past several months since her father had started on this whole ‘make friends with the Evans girl’ kick, Cassidy didn’t have anyone from school who was actually close to her. She hung out in groups, she went to games and movies and stuff with other people, but there was no one she actually confided in or spent time with alone. 

“What the fuck is her problem?” Arleigh muttered to herself while mentally rehearsing what she was going to say to her father. 

Needless to say… she was going to be glad to get out of the house tomorrow night. 

*********

Plan Z

Jania Estrada, the sixty-six-year-old Panamanian woman who had worked as a maid in the Evans household for eighteen years, was humming to herself while running the vacuum back and forth across the carpet in one of the dens downstairs. More accurately, she was humming along with music playing through a single earbud. The music, humming, and vacuuming all stopped when a single buzz from the phone in her pocket informed the woman that she had a message. She turned off the vacuum and checked what had been sent to her, reading the message twice before leaving the vacuum where it was, pivoting to walk out of the room. Exchanging greetings with a couple other staff members, she made her way to the kitchen, where Chef Claudio and his two assistants were preparing lunch for the employees.

The moment she stepped into the room, the three of them looked up. Claudio started to say something about when their food would be ready, but Jania pointed to one of his assistants. “Christiana,” she announced while holding up her phone. “Mrs. Evans would like to have a few things picked up from the grocery store.” 

Christiana Diaz, a quite thin, young Latina woman with dark hair that was cut very short on the sides with a mop of curls on top, set down the knife she had been chopping with and politely excused herself before heading to the door. The two of them stepped away together, leaving the sounds of Claudio and Ethan picking up the pace in chopping vegetables. 

“Aunt Jania,” Christiana started once they were alone in the corridor. “What is it?” 

Seeing the two walk side-by-side, it was easy to notice the family resemblance in their faces, specifically their eyes and around their always-smiling mouths. Christiana was smaller than her aunt, standing only an inch over five feet. That, combined with her general youthful looks and hairstyle, made her appear to be closer to the end of her teens, rather than the twenty-seven she actually was. Or the twenty-two the rest of the household believed her to be, in her job as Claudio’s assistant.  

Not that that was her only job within the Evans household. 

In response to the question, Jania held up the phone for her to see. Indeed, it was a message from Elena Evans, asking her to send Christiana to the store to pick up a list of items. Anyone who glanced at the message would see nothing untoward about it. Certainly, they wouldn’t see the code buried in the list. Christiana, however, read the code as well as she read plain English. Or Spanish, for that matter. Her finger traced over a few key points, making certain she had translated it correctly. Then she took her aunt’s phone and sent back an answering response. To an outside observer, it would appear to be simply querying what prices were acceptable and if specific substitutes were okay, just in case. In actuality, the response included a separate code, which essentially repeated the gist of the assignment so that Elena could inform her if she had translated incorrectly or misunderstood anything. 

But no, as usual, she was spot on. The confirmation came back a moment later, and Christiana nodded to her aunt, passing the phone back to her. “Tell Claudio I’ll be back as soon as I run the errand,” she remarked, before turning on her heel, heading for the side door that led to the small employee parking lot, hidden out of sight from the front of the house for aesthetics.

Fifteen minutes later, Christiana parked a car in the underground lot of an office building. It wasn’t her car, but rather one she had borrowed from a grocery store several blocks away. No one would see her own car anywhere near this building. Rather than step out immediately, she took out her own phone, texting a totally different number from the one that Elena had used to contact Aunt Jania. Mrs. Evans’ rules. They divided these instructions and responses between multiple phones to make it even harder for anything to be traced back or decoded. The message she sent simply read, ‘You awake?’ After a few seconds, Elena sent back an emoji of a man in a business suit. Which was the last confirmation. Unless Elena sent a message to stop her, it was time to go. 

Tucking the phone away, Christiana focused for a moment. Her body shifted, transforming into a dark, mist-like shadow. Looking straight at her in this form, people would see only a pitch-black humanoid shape with a simplified face that would be impossible to recognize as anyone specific. She was clearly female, yet that was the only specific feature that could be determined. 

Stepping out of the car without opening the door, simply passing through the solid material, Christiana looked up while focusing once more. Her humanoid form shifted slightly, becoming even more of a shadow than a person, a human-sized bit of darkness. A moment later her shadow-form flew through the ceiling and into the building proper. She was in a corner of the main lobby, yet no one noticed. Anyone who looked that way would only see a notably darker section of the room, as if something nearby was casting a dark shadow there. And these people were too busy rushing back and forth to the elevators or the street to notice something like that. 

After making certain she hadn’t been noticed, Christiana moved even closer to the far corner of the lobby and continued her way upward. Floating higher, she passed through the ceiling and into what turned out to be a restroom on the second floor. Yet she didn’t stop there. One by one, she passed floor after floor, counting them to herself as she went. Finally, on the eleventh floor, she stopped. This too was a restroom, and she made her way forward through it, a barely visible shadow fog heading for the door. It opened just as she reached it, her dark figure hidden behind the door itself as a man walked right past on his way to the urinal. 

Christiana walked through the door as it closed, looking both ways in the corridor. People rushed every which way, calling out requests or questions from their cubicles while phones rang and managers worked to keep it all organized. They paid no attention to the dark shadow moving through the room. She was intangible, practically invisible, and they were distracted. 

On her way, however, she heard one man in particular snarling some very untoward things toward his clearly junior, female employee. The poor girl sat huddled in her seat, drawn in on herself while the man hissed hateful things about how terrible she was at her job as well as how useless she was in plenty of other aspects of life. He also made sure to mention at least three times that he was about to have a very important meeting with a couple of the vice presidents and if this girl knew what was good for her, she’d get him those files right now. Listening to him for only a few seconds, Christiana could tell exactly what he was. She knew his type far too well. Lording his power and authority over others, he knew the girl he was attacking here had self-confidence issues and reveled in his ability to make her miserable. 

Her job could wait for a moment. Turning to face the man, a simple shadow against the wall of the cubicle, she reared back before giving him a hard shove as hard as she could. 

He gave no reaction, of course, as her intangible hands passed through him. That was, he gave no reaction yet. Turning, Christiana stepped out of direct sight, waiting for the man to lead her back to his own small office along one side of the room. While he stopped in the doorway to say something to another middle manager, Christiana found the mug of coffee on his desk and gave it a simple push with one finger near the top. Again, there was no physical response, as her finger simply passed through. Then she swept her arm across the desk, through all the little knick knacks, before shoving both hands into the computer monitor. Finally, she turned and kicked the trash can next to the desk as hard as she could, aiming for the doorway. As always, none of these actions had any effect.  

By that point, the man had moved into the office and took a seat at his desk, clearly antsy as he waited for that important meeting. He kept glancing up at the doorway, leg bouncing anxiously. 

Standing in the corner of the room where her shadow shape would be all-but entirely invisible, Christiana watched as well. She saw the way the man’s eyes lit up when two older guys in much nicer suits began to approach. This was it, his meeting. He reached down, taking up his mug for one last sip. 

And that was when Christiana set to work. Focusing on the mug, she triggered the action she had used on it. When she had shoved her finger against the brim, nothing had happened. Now the mug reacted to that previous action, tipping over while he was sipping in order to spill all across the front of his shirt. 

While the man yelped and cursed at that, she triggered the response to her arm sweeping across the desk. All those little bits and pieces, the mug of pens, the stapler, the pristine and polished nameplate, everything went flying off to the side. A second later, she triggered the action on the computer monitor, sending that off to slam into the wall with a crash. 

By that point, the man had bolted upright, his eyes wide. “What the fuck?!” He shouted those words just as the two higher-ups came into the doorway. And in that moment, Christiana triggered both the shove into the man’s back and the kick against the trash can. Simultaneously, the man staggered forward while the can itself was sent flying over, literally smacking into one of their heads. 

And then it was done. The man was left standing there beside his desk where he had stumbled, monitor broken against the nearby wall, random junk from his desk scattered across the floor, while his trash can had just hit one of his bosses in the face. From the fresh stain on his shirt, it would appear to those men as though he had spilled his own coffee and violently overreacted. Even the stumble forward from being pushed combined with the flying trash can looked like he had lunged that way to kick it.

With a small smirk, Christiana stepped backward through the wall into another office, leaving the man to explain that whole situation while the yelling started. 

Satisfied with her own moment of justice, she moved through several more offices, finding the one she was looking for. A heavyset, very tall man sat at the desk there, reading through a few files. Christiana took the time to ensure that this was the right man, before holding one hand out as she stood behind him. A thought made a knife appear, while she solidified herself into a more humanoid form. Then she gave a low whistle. 

The man jolted, turning to face her. As soon as he did, Christiana stabbed the knife into his throat. He yelped, jerking backward before falling to the floor. But, of course, the knife had done nothing. Not yet, anyway. 

“Do you know who I am?” she asked, standing there over the suddenly terrified man while he clutched his perfectly-fine throat. 

“Y-you… you work for them. Z. They call you Z,” he stammered. 

“Plan Z, to be completely accurate,” she informed him. “Then you know how this works. They’ve asked you for the files twice. This is the third time. The last time. You have one hour. Deliver the files, then they will call me and tell me to call it off. If I don’t get that call by that point, I will trigger the effect. Your throat will be slit. If you go to the cops, I will trigger the effect. If you tell anyone, I will trigger the effect. No one else can save you, no one else can stop it. Nobody. If I trigger that knife I just put in your throat, you will die. Deliver the files and you’ll be fine. You have fifty-eight minutes now. Do you understand?” 

He tried to plead with her, and she simply repeated, “Do you understand? Fifty-seven minutes and forty seconds. If I was you, I would hurry.” 

That was all it took. The man lunged to his feet, blubbering a bit as he bolted for the door while saying something about getting the files out of storage. Christiana watched him go, then simply turned and stepped through the nearby wall, floating down along the outside of the building before reaching the street. There, she made her way back to her own car where it was parked several blocks away, resumed her normal form, and took out a different phone out of the glove box to text to yet a third phone number, ‘Got the tickets, you still wanna go to the game?’ 

‘Let me check with the old lady’ came the response. 

And there it was. Christiana only had to wait now. If the response came back affirmative, that the supposed person at the other end of the line was allowed to go to the game, it meant their target had delivered the files as instructed and she could cancel the knife attack. But if it came back negative, that the ‘old lady’ had denied them, it meant he had not followed instructions. In which case… he wouldn’t be making any other decisions again. 

Reaching out, Christiana turned on the car to listen to music. 

And then she waited. 

Previous Chapter / Next Chapter

Hostile Witness 18-08 (Summus Proelium)

Previous Chapter / Next Chapter

I couldn’t move. Whatever we had just been hit with, it paralyzed us. All I could do was lay there.

Okay, to take stock, this… could have been going better. I had spent so much time focusing on being afraid that talking to this Amanda girl would somehow attract Pencil’s attention, from him seeing her as a potential loose end, that it hadn’t even occurred to me to ever think that she could be an actual threat. And I sure as hell had never expected anything like this. 

Amanda was Cup. The girl we had come to talk to, the one who had been a potential lead to a way of stopping Pencil, was his sister–wait. That meant the guy who was supposed to be in Alaska, Nick, he was… he was… oh. God damn it, why did I never even think about that? 

Well, obviously, because there was a video of Pencil himself with the young Amanda and Nick tied up while he manipulated their parents into killing each other. Deicide had shown it to Alloy and me, though she stopped it just before the gunshots. What–how would that even–what? 

A giggle interrupted my racing thoughts. My attention was dragged right back to Aman–Cup herself, as she straightened while still standing over me. “Isn’t this fun? You came back! And you brought friends this time.” Her gaze moved to look over toward Pack and Alloy, before pausing. “Hold up.” Moving that way a few steps, she leaned closer to my new partner for a moment before audibly sighing while straightening back up, her voice full of annoyance. “Great, it knocked that one unconscious. I thought it was supposed to just paralyze!” She paused, then gave a little giggle. “Ohhh right, yeah that makes sense. Never mind, we’re all good. I mean, I’m good. You’re all still kinda fucked.”  

Alloy was unconscious? I supposed that explained why her marbles weren’t going psycho attacking Cup right now. But damn it! I was supposed to keep her safe. I’d–this was first thing we were doing together  in the real world, and it had all been fucked up this badly. She was unconscious and paralyzed in the home of one of the leaders of the fucking Scions of Typhon, for fucks sake. I screwed up. I screwed up badly, and if we couldn’t get out of here, Alloy would… no. Don’t think about that. I couldn’t think about that. If I did, I’d spiral into a hopeless nightmare. I had to think.

After her little giggle fit, Cup shrugged. “Oh well, two out of three staying conscious ain’t bad. And we can still play.” 

“You wanna play, cunt?” the La Casa girl countered in a growl while still laying motionless. “How about Connect Four? I’ll shove every single one of those plastic discs up your–” 

“Not on the first date, silly!” Cup interrupted, tutting while giving Pack a light, almost playful kick with her foot. “Besides, I have much more fun plans in mind than a dumb board game. I’ll just have to do most of the physical stuff myself, since that paralyzing ray won’t wear off for awhile. And, you know, that new best friend of yours is still asleep. Gotta do something about that…”

Through the bluetooth in my helmet, I heard That-A-Way. “Paintball, we’re on our way in!” 

Right, right, because we hadn’t actually been completely stupid about this whole thing. We had backup. Backup that would come in and help deal with Cup before she had time to call Pencil or any of the other Scions. She was too busy gloating in front of us to even think about moving fast. And why not? As far as she knew, she had all of us trapped here. We’d even told her that no one else knew we were there when we came in. She was in no rush. She wasn’t even…

“No!” I suddenly blurted out loud as a thought jumped to mind. “Don’t… don’t come any closer.”  

Tilting her head, Cup stared down at me. “Aww,” she all-but-purred, “is the little hero boy scared now that he’s back here?” She squatted down close to me, tapping the visor of my helmet. “Don’t you worry one little bit. Auntie Cup’s gonna take excellent care of you, yes she is.” 

“Paintball,” That-A-Way’s voice came through the earbud again, “if you were trying to tell us to wait, say something that ends with the word ‘Scion.’ And you better have a damn good reason.” 

I did. At least, I hoped I did. Taking a breath, I stared up at Cup’s eager face. At least, the part I could still see with that white mask covering the lower half. God, how had I completely failed to realize that the girl we had been talking to was her? Seriously, now it was obvious while looking at her eyes. Sure, she was pretty good at pretending to have all her marbles, but I should’ve recognized her. I should’ve paid more attention. I should’ve been more on top of things.  

Forcing those thoughts away, I quickly spoke up. “So you’re really part of the Scions.” 

“God damn it,” Way snapped, clearly upset about the whole situation. Which, fair. “This better be a real plan. If you’re just trying to play noble sacrifice or something, I’m going to kill you. We’ll wait for a minute, but you need to make it clear what the hell you’re doing or we’re coming in. And when you do want us to come in, end a sentence with the word nuts.”   

Cup, meanwhile, chuckled a little while shaking her head. “Still catching up with that, huh?” She gave me a kick that wasn’t nearly as gentle as the one she had given Pack. “Poor boy. You know, I haven’t forgotten about that whole nasty business at the cabin. You and your…” She turned, giving Pack herself a second kick, this one as hard as mine. “… friends hurt me! Threatened me, made poor Pencil all mad too. Oh, but he’s gonna be really happy when I bring you to him. Think I’ll find a big red bow and stick it right on your head. Won’t that be great? And wait til I tell him how you came strolling right in. Ain’t that the funniest shit?” 

Okay, okay, I had to be careful with this if the plan that had jumped into my head was going to work. This was incredibly dangerous, and maybe stupid. But it was the best chance we had to actually get somewhere with the whole Scions thing. Yeah, there was still a chance of doing some real damage to them, and not just from knowing Cup’s identity. Given how many stolen Touched-Tech toys Pencil had, and the fact that Cup had already demonstrated having this place wired with stolen tech that was able to paralyze us? I had no doubt that she had a way to teleport out of this place to safety the second Raindrop and Way got here. She certainly had methods of escaping, so we couldn’t even count on catching her with help from those two. Especially not while Pack and I were paralyzed and Alloy was unconscious. No, if those two burst in, at best they’d just be able to make her flee. Then we’d be back to square one. Which, to be fair, was a hell of a lot better than being at square ‘captured by the Scions,’ but still. 

To that end, I took a moment to collect my thoughts before speaking again. “That was some pretty good acting back there. I really felt sorry for you.” I was careful to keep my tone a mix between forced lightness and fearful. I wanted Cup to see me as terrified but trying to hide it. Shockingly, that wasn’t a hard thing to pull off, given the actual situation we were in.

“Paintball,” Pack snapped in my direction, “I really don’t ask for that much, but could you pretty please refrain from complimenting the evil fucking psychopath who wants to torture and kill us?”  

“Aww, you really liked that, huh?” Cup was ignoring Pack, her gaze focused on me. “And see, I didn’t even expect to see you today. Pulled that whole performance out of nowhere, just like that. Can you believe I lost the lead in the school play to Bethany Dane? Not that she had much of a chance to enjoy it.” Her tone with those words sent a terrible shiver down my spine. 

“Actually,” I made myself reply, “I wasn’t talking about today. I mean, really, kudos there too. No, I was talking about the video. The one of you and… what was his name, again? Your brother. I mean, his real name. Nick? Right, Nick. I was talking about the video where you and Nick were all terrified because your parents were about to be killed. Err, sorry, were about to kill each other. You two seriously looked scared. I really thought you were innocent victims. That’s the performance that really should’ve gotten you the lead over that Bethany Dane chick.” 

There was a brief pause while the girl seemed to be considering my words. I held my breath, waiting to see if she bought into it. Then, she chuckled lightly. “It should’ve, huh? That was the role of a lifetime. I mean seriously, how many people get to pretend they’re sad that their parents just had to shoot each other because they thought they were saving them?”

“You’re completely fucked up,” Pack put in from where she was still lying on the floor. “And honestly, I’m not sure if I mean you or the idiot over there trying to butter you up!”   

She sounded completely pissed, but I knew Pack fairly well by now. I was pretty sure she’d already figured out that I actually had a real reason for all this. She knew I had a plan, and was backing me up on it by being openly antagonistic. The bad cop to my good cop, so to speak. 

Casually, Cup remarked, “Oh, don’t worry. I know exactly what he’s doing.” My stomach clenched, before she went on. “He’s hoping if I talk long enough, that paralyzing ray will wear off and you can all escape. But it doesn’t really matter. See, it’ll take another… oh, hour or so? Unless I use the counter ray. But you know, I really don’t see myself doing that anytime soon.” 

Oh man, she’d figured out my cunning plan to trick her into talking long enough for the paralyzing beam to wear off so we could escape. What was I going to do now? Woe is m–oh right, that wasn’t my actual plan. But cool for her for thinking she’d caught on. 

Still, I made myself hesitate a little as though her words actually had an effect before pushing on. “But seriously, how? I mean, did your brother just kill the real Pencil and steal his identity?” 

There, that ought to do it. 

“Kill the real Pencil and steal his identity?” Cup’s voice radiated annoyance. Yup, my words had done the job. “Are you that fucking stupid? Of course we didn’t–I mean… kid, he is the real Pencil. The one and only truly original. That guy was just a stupid patsy, he was dead before he ever left the house, like five minutes after the camera stopped rolling.” 

“W-wait.” Again, it wasn’t hard to inject fear into my voice. I had the subtlest impression that she got off on scaring people, so she’d react better to that than fake awe or respect. Trying to play up to her ego wouldn’t work, but pretending everything she said scared the crap out of me? Well, I wasn’t really pretending so much, but either way, that was how I could make her talk. “You mean you guys didn’t just… wa-wait, I thought you were just… just so broken after what he did that you turned bad then. Like, he made you bad?” Yeah, saying it like that sounded ridiculously childish, but again, that seemed like the best way to get the crazy bitch talking. 

“Made us bad?” Cup’s taunting laugh was enough to make my teeth grind a bit. “Oh, you sweet, sweet little boy. No, no, no. We pulled him in, hired him. He was an actor, little puppy. Just a dumb wannabe like so many others. A poser. He played his role just the way we scripted it.” 

“Oh come on,” Pack put in, clearly getting all the way into her role as the bad cop of this whole thing. “You expect us to believe a couple teenagers did all that? Who was your boss? Who’s the one who really put all of it together and recruited you? I wanna know who the real power is.” 

From the corner of my eye, I could barely make out Cup’s form as she moved to stand over Pack. Her voice was dangerous. “Is that right, lizard girl? You want to know who the real power is? I think we can accommodate that. Give me five minutes, you’ll know who has the power.” 

Okay maybe that was a little too far. Cup was clearly right on the edge. We didn’t want her to immediately call Pencil or the others, but if she started… getting involved like she clearly wanted to do with Pack right now, that would be bad too. Quickly, I blurted, “It was the powers, right?” Feeling Cup’s gaze on me, I continued. “Some people think they can make you evil. That must’ve been what happened to you guys. We can get you help, there’s some doctors who think they can reverse the psychological effect of the sphere and make you normal ag–” 

That did the trick. A little too well, actually, as there was an abrupt rush of movement before her foot collided with my stomach. Thankfully, I’d painted a bit of orange on the inside of my costume, so I barely felt it. Still, I gave her the yelp of pain she was clearly itching for. 

“Now you listen to me, you little fuck,” Cup snapped. “Nothing changed us. Nothing made Nick and me what we are. We’re in control. We did all that before we even had powers. That’s right, we didn’t get powers until right after that happened. Those little spheres showed up and gave us these gifts because they were so impressed. They knew we deserved them after what we managed to do. Just think about that for a second.” Her foot came down on my stomach, not hard but just sort of resting there with a little force. “We talked our own parents into killing each other, and we did it through a fucking proxy. We talked a moron sucker into playing the big bad role on camera so everyone would think he was responsible and feel sorry for us, got him to talk our parents into killing each other, and then killed him ourselves. Myself. I did it. Now everyone thinks Pencil is the guy who did all that. You know who’s not a suspect and will never be? His first poor, innocent victims. That’s what we pulled off. That’s why the orbs came and gave us our rewards. Because they wanted to see what else we could do. They were proud of us.” 

Oh boy, was there an awful lot I wanted to say to that. But I stuck to my original plan and simply replied (in a voice that was still shaky from the terror I wanted her to hear), “Th-the orbs gave you power as a reward? I–I don’t… Is that why they gave Pencil such a bigger reward than they gave you? Because all that stuff was his idea and he’s the one in charge?”  

There was a very slight pause before Cup crouched over me. Her gaze seemed to bore through the visor and straight into my eyes as she very dangerously murmured, “Excuse me?”

Right, I had to be careful about this. Hesitating slightly, I offered her a confused, “I mean, because he’s invincible. He’s like, completely invincible to everything and you… uhh, you make people freeze for a couple seconds?” Yes, I was deliberately downplaying it. I figured with any luck, I could maybe get her to tell us any weaknesses Pencil might have just to counter my claim that he was completely invincible. Measured against her own power, complete invincibility to everything seemed wildly unfair, and I figured that would twist her buttons a little. Maybe just enough to get the girl to retort that Pencil wasn’t actually totally invincible. Sure, it was a longshot, but it was the best chance we had of getting real information while we were here. 

Cup gave a low chuckle of amusement while roughly tapping my visor a few times. “You think that’s all I do? Boy, you really are as stupid as the others, aren’t you?”  

“What?” Pack put in, “you gonna try to say that making someone stop to think about whatever ridiculous nonsense question you make up is better than literal invulnerability? Face it, babe, you’re a far distant second behind the kind of power your brother has. Hell, not even that. You guys recruit some good powers. Maybe you’re like… third or fourth? Seriously, it’s not even close. With his power, it’s like he’s Superman, and you’re… just that bad guy with the stilts.” 

There was a low growl from the crazy girl before she retorted, “First of all, you’re mixing comic universes. Superman’s DC and Stiltman is Marvel. Get it right. And second…” She trailed off, tapping my visor a couple times indecisively before straightening. “I’ve got some news for you.”

Wait, was this actually about to work? Was she about to tell us something secret about Pencil’s power? The whole thing had been such a crazy reach, and yet, it sure sounded like that. 

But no. The next words out of the girl’s mouth weren’t some big secret about Pencil. Actually, it wasn’t about him at all. Instead, she picked up that remote she had been using earlier, the one that triggered the paralyzing ray. “You think my power just makes your brain freeze up? It lets me borrow your brain, stupid.” She tapped the remote pointedly against my visor. “I ask you a stupid, nonsensical question and while you’re stuck trying to figure it out, I get these ideas. Ideas like this thing.” She waved the remote in my face. “I know how to build things, anything I want. But I only get inspired when I get to borrow other people’s brains for it. I use my power, their brains lock up, and I get ideas for my inventions. Different people give ideas of different… flavors. That’s what’s so fun about this. The paralyzing ray? You gave me that idea. I used my power on you back at the hospital and it made me think about a big colorful beam that could make things stop moving. That’s what Pencil used on you at the cabin. Then I built an upgraded version here in my home sweet home that lasts longer and hits everyone I want instead of just one person. Once I mix the portable version and the more effective one together, it’s gonna be useful as hell.”  

Okay, that was unexpected. I’d set this whole thing up to find out a secret about Pencil’s power, and ended up getting a secret about Cup’s. What the fuck? Her power was–wait a second. 

“That’s how you guys have all those Touched-Tech things,” I blurted in surprise. “Everyone thinks you just steal them from others all over the place, but you build them yourself?” 

She offered a smirk my way. “Well, some of them. We steal enough that those Techie geeks whine about it, which makes everyone assume that all the toys we have come from that.” 

Before I had time to even start processing that, there was a soft groan from nearby. Alloy. “What–” she started before giving a yelp. “I can’t move! What the–why–hey!” 

“Oh, sorry, babe.” Cup teasingly called over that way. “Pencil only really cares about punishing these two. We don’t actually need an extra.” Her hand moved to push something on the remote. In that second, a gold marble flew out of nowhere, transforming into a baseball bat before slamming into the girl. She was sent colliding into the wall. But not before she managed to hit the button. It wasn’t another paralyzing ray. Instead, three different very lethal-looking gun turret things dropped into view from the ceiling. 

“You’re nuts!” I screamed, just as the guns sighted in on Alloy. They made loud humming sounds as they began to charge up to fire some sort of beam that way. 

But That-A-Way was faster. She appeared along with Raindrop right in the middle of the room. While Cup was jolting to her feet and spinning to face the new arrivals, Rain hit her with a massive wave of water powerful enough to send the evil bitch right back into the floor with a squeal of surprise. More importantly, the tidal wave washed across the ceiling, and with a grunt, the younger girl made the entire roof of the building tear itself off. Yes, the entire roof. It ripped its way upward with a scream of protesting metal and a shower of sparks and bits of debris before flying off through the air, taking the turrets with it just as they opened fire. 

By that point, two more turrets had popped out of the floor and were swiveling around to take aim. Fortunately, Way had used that time to throw herself down across the three of us. Her foot touched my waist, she was laying over Pack, and had stretched out her hand just enough for her fingers to brush Alloy’s arm. Raindrop fell backwards on top of her, and I heard Cup scream something in a blind rage. 

Then Way activated her power once more, and we were gone.

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Hostile Witness 18-07 (Summus Proelium)

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A/N – There was a commissioned interlude posted for Heretical Edge over the weekend. If you read that story and have not seen the chapter, you can see it right here

A sense of relief washed over me once Amanda agreed to let us come inside. I had really expected that to be harder, after everything she’d been through. I figured she’d be pretty paranoid about anyone unexpected showing up, let alone a few Touched. Then again, maybe she’d had enough good experiences with Star-Touched helping her since that horrible night that she was okay with us. I wasn’t sure, but either way, at least she actually let us into her place.

On the other hand, she definitely wasn’t interested in anyone else getting inside. That much was made clear when Amanda immediately shut the door as soon as we were through, and took the time to set the lock and alarm once more. Which… made me feel a little funny in my stomach. I couldn’t explain it, but the moment that girl locked and keyed the alarm, I felt a little jittery. It was probably just because of the whole situation. Anything that had to do with Pencil and the Scions made me antsy, for obvious reasons. Especially considering how pissed off he would be if he found out we were trying to find out about any weaknesses or vulnerabilities he might have. 

“Nice uhh, crowded place you’ve got here,” Pack noted after a moment of looking around the room, stuffed as it was with boxes, stacks of magazines and books, scissors, glue, clocks, and more. “You ever think about renting a storage unit for some of this stuff?” She added that bit while turning back to the girl in question. “I mean, just so you have more room around here.” 

“I like it this way,” Amanda informed us in a quiet, uncertain voice. “I know where everything is.”  She squirmed a bit uncomfortably before adding, “And I don’t trust storage places. People can break into those. Here, I–at least I’ll know if someone breaks in. They don’t let you put alarms or extra security on storage units. And it’s super-easy to get through one of their dumb padlocks.” 

Pack, clearly grinning behind that mask, gave her a pair of thumbs up. “Yeah, that’s probably safer. My people and me, we break into those places all the time. You’re right, security sucks unless you go with something really high end. Even then, really. This one time, my buddy Eits, he–” 

“That’s okay,” I quickly put in, before this whole conversation could devolve into even more of an ongoing list of things I really didn’t want to hear about. “I think we all get the point. Besides, we’re not really here to talk about where, uh, Miss Sanvers decides to keep her belongings.” 

“But why are you guys here together?” Amanda slowly asked, looking back and forth between Pack and me, her attention flicking toward Alloy for a brief moment, but mainly staying on the two of us. “I mean, you’re a good guy, and you’re a bad guy. Uh, bad girl, whatever. You’re a villain.” Her tone wasn’t accusatory at all, more curious about the situation than anything else.  

Alloy was being silent, probably an attack of nerves given how new to all this she was. And Pack was probably the wrong person to defend herself. So I spoke up. “Yeah, she’s a villain. But more of a jolly thief sort of villain instead of the…” Suddenly, I didn’t want to finish that sentence. Not after what I knew this girl had been through. It felt too much like I was making light of it. 

Amanda finished it instead, her tone flat. “Not the kill everyone you know and laugh about it sort, like him.” She didn’t have to be any more specific than that. We all knew who she meant.  

“Yeah,” I murmured under my breath before shaking off the deeply uncomfortable feeling that had tried to creep over me yet again. “More than one kind of villain, and her kind is nothing like his. Let’s just say we’re all interested in getting rid of that piece of shit before he hurts any more people. If we can, we’ll make sure they stick him in a deep, dark hole in the middle of Breakwater, where he can’t ever get out. He can rot there forever like the rabid worm he is.” 

For a brief second, there was a strange look on the older girl’s face. I couldn’t really describe it, nor did I understand what it meant. It was sort of an almost feral expression, and my best guess was that she was thinking about all the terrible things she wanted to happen to the guy who had hurt her family so much, who had torn them apart and destroyed their lives. Thinking about it that way, the expression made sense. Of course she wanted to rip his heart out. That was what that look had put in my head, the feeling that this girl was desperate to tear someone apart. 

Thinking about what she had been through and had to be feeling was making me really uncomfortable. So, I cleared my throat before pushing on. Uncertain as I was about this whole situation, it was important. Far too important to let a little thing like a heavy feeling in my stomach stop me. “Sorry, maybe we should start from the beginning. You already know who we are, but still. I’m Paintball. That’s Alloy and Pack. And yeah, we’re here to find out anything you know about Pencil, anything you might not have shared with the authorities already.” 

“The word is you might be holding something back,” Alloy put in, stepping over to put herself behind me and slightly to the side. “Either because you’re afraid of what he’ll do if he finds out you umm, you actually do know anything important and tell anyone about it, or…” 

“Or that you don’t want the official by-the-book hero types to know because you’re afraid they’ll screw it up,” Pack finished for her. “Which, yeah, totally fair. I mean, have you seen some of those guys? Anyway, that’s where I come in, to let you know this definitely isn’t by-the-book.” 

Amanda started to say something, before stopping herself. She seemed to consider briefly, then turned to walk through the nearby doorway. “Come on, the kitchen’s a little less crowded than this place. You can sit down, while we talk about what a suicidally stupid idea this is.”   

So, the three of us looked at each other and offered a collection of shrugs before following. I’d known from the start that this was going to be awkward, but even this was more than I’d expected. It was going… well, in some ways it was going better than I’d imagined. She wasn’t yelling at us, or refusing to talk, or breaking down because we’d brought up those tragic memories. On the surface, it was going okay. And yet, there was still something. I felt strange, uncomfortable, even… not quite afraid, really. Tense. I still felt tense, and it wasn’t going away.

Well duh, of course I felt tense. Who wouldn’t in a situation like this? We were asking a girl who had been horrifically traumatized to throw herself into the lion’s den again and paint a target on her back by telling us secrets that she didn’t even feel comfortable telling the Conservators. 

The kitchen was slightly less crowded, if only because everything was piled on the counters rather than the floor or table. There were a bunch of boxes in there too, all of them labeled things like ‘dishes’ or ‘towels.’ One big one in the corner of the room had ‘microwaves’ written on it. There was barely space on the counter to cook anything. Even the stove was covered. 

But the table was clear (completely empty, actually), and surrounded by four chairs. We all sat down, the three of us on one side of the table and Amanda on the other. 

“So,” I started once everyone was settled, “you were going to tell us how stupid we were?” 

Before she could respond to that, Alloy spoke up. “I know you. I’ve seen you before. I knew I had, but it was–you were at my school. You and… your brother?”

Amanda offered a very faint smile. “Yeah, we visit the schools sometimes to give motivational… talks or whatever.” She shrugged listlessly. “He’s more into it than me. You know, when he’s in town. I don’t really…. do much by myself.” A slight frown touched her face before the girl sighed, folding her arms protectively against her stomach. “You always think it’ll go away, you know? It’s been years. It should’ve gone away by now. It should feel better.” She swallowed hard. “But it doesn’t. It doesn’t get any better. You just learn to live with it.” 

There was a moment of silence before she gave us a very shaky smile. “Sorry. I’m really sorry. I’m usually better in the schools about telling kids how they can move on, seriously. I just–I wasn’t expecting to talk to anyone today. Let alone, you know, people like you. And I definitely wasn’t expecting to talk about…” She took in a long breath before letting it out. “Him.”  

Yeah, now I definitely felt bad about being here. As if I hadn’t already. Looking down at the table, I heaved a long sigh before raising my gaze to hers. She was staring at me with an expression I couldn’t interpret. When our eyes met, she offered me a small, clearly humorless smile. “You know what I mean, don’t you?” Her voice was emotionless. “You’ve talked to him. I can tell.” 

“Yeah,” I confirmed while doing my best not to think about what being around Pencil and Cup had been like. I still woke up in a cold sweat sometimes from dreaming about being taken by the two of them for their revenge. Even closing my eyes right now, I could picture that psycho staring at me from behind that cloth sack mask. It made a thick lump form in my throat while a cold chill washed over me. I had to swallow hard before pushing myself to my feet. It felt too uncomfortable to sit anymore. Like I was trapped. I felt trapped in here, which was crazy. 

“We know your history with him,” Pack spoke up, taking heat off of me for a moment so I could pull myself together. “You and your family were some of his first victims, before anyone even knew he was Touched. Hell, you guys might’ve even been the first, before he knew what he was capable of. Before he had a solid lock on how his power works, or how it doesn’t work.”

“That’s why we’re here,” I finally managed, folding my arms as I stood behind Pack’s chair. “Because we think you might have seen something that night. Something he didn’t know he should be careful about because he was so new to the whole thing. And… and we’re really sorry to bring up those memories. What happened to your family, it was…” I fought the urge to shudder at the thought, meeting her intense gaze as she seemed to stare right through me. “It was awful. And he’s hurt so many more people since then, killed so many more people.” 

It was Amanda’s turn to pop up from the table, the chair falling to the floor behind her as she stared at me with a mixture of anger and frustration on her face. “And you think that’s my fault? You think I wouldn’t’ve stopped him if I could? You think I know something I haven’t told the cops already? That this piece of shit killed my fucking pare–no, made my parents kill each other, but I’m holding back some super-secret special weakness of his just because–what, because I don’t want him to get caught? Oh, maybe you think I’m laughing at it, is that it? Do you think that I think all those people getting hurt and dying is funny?! Is that what you’re getting at? You think I’m laughing about them dying?!” Her voice had risen to the point of near-hysteria by that point, eyes wild as she practically shouted her way through the whole retort.    

“No!” That was Alloy, who quickly stood up to put herself next to me as if ready to jump in for protection. “That’s not what he’s saying, just–just hold on. No one’s saying that, Miss Sanvers.”

“She’s right,” I carefully managed, holding both hands up. Obviously, this was a very touchy subject. Not that I could blame Amanda for feeling reflexively defensive about the whole thing. If it was me and I had been through that with my brother and parents? I… yeah, I definitely would’ve been pretty upset if someone came up to me and seemed to be implying that I didn’t do everything I possibly could to bring their murderer to justice. No wonder she was angry. 

With all that running through my head, I kept my hands raised and didn’t break eye contact with Amanda. “I know us being here and bringing this stuff up again isn’t easy. I know the– I know it’s fucked up for us even to bring up this possibility at all. It’s not that we think you wouldn’t have helped the cops already if you could. It’s more that… that you might’ve been afraid to tell them something that would make Pencil come after you again. Which, trust me, everyone understands. Maybe even something that you thought of later. The people we talked to, they think you might know something that you’ve been waiting for the right time to share. That’s why we’re here. Because we’re not the cops. We’re not the Conservators or the Minority. We want him stopped, whatever it takes. Even working with Fell-Touched.” I gestured toward Pack demonstrably. “But I promise, no one thinks you don’t want him arrested, Miss Sanvers.” 

“Amanda,” she corrected, seeming to visibly deflate with a heavy sigh. Folding her arms protectively against herself, the older girl slumped against the nearby counter. “Just call me Amanda, all of you. And I know. I know that’s not what you were saying. I didn’t mean t–I just…” Her eyes closed tightly and I saw a single tear slowly leak down one side of her face. “Every time someone brings up what happened back then, I can’t think straight. I want–I hate him. I hate him so much. It scares me sometimes, how much I want him to suffer after what he did. He took my mom and dad away. He made them–he was going to-” She cut herself off with a shudder before opening her eyes to look at us, her gaze sweeping over Pack, Alloy, and me. “If we’d stopped him that night, if Nick and me actually could’ve remembered something back then that helped the cops catch him, all those other people would still be alive.” 

She looked away from us staring through the nearby window in silence for a few long seconds. Then the girl swallowed, setting her shoulders as though preparing to say something very difficult. “And we did.” She turned back to us with a nervous expression, making it very clear that she was afraid to even be saying what was about to come out. “We did see something. I mean we found something. Later, after the cops and everyone all left, we found a… a wallet just sort of laying under a chair. We… we realized it was his. It had a bunch of different IDs in it and everything, but it was a lead. It had his face. I didn’t really look at it very much, I was… I was scared to, after everything. But Nick did. He looked at that monster’s face for hours.”   

“You know what he looks like?” Pack’s voice was flat. “You and your brother know what Pencil really looks like? Why didn’t you tell anyone about that, so they could identify him? If your brother stared at it for so long, he really could’ve helped catch the guy a long time ago.”  

“Was it because you were afraid of what might happen if Pencil found out you identified him?” I asked very quietly, afraid that all of this would set the girl off again. “If he even thinks you might be able to tell the authorities what he really looks like…” A shiver ran through me as I thought about how the psycho undoubtedly would have reacted to a threat like that. 

“That’s why he hasn’t come after you,” Alloy realized with a soft gasp. “Because he thinks if you did find his wallet and all those IDs with his picture, you would’ve told the cops already. But you didn’t, so he thinks you never found it. Or maybe he thinks he dropped it somewhere else.” 

“Is that it?” I carefully asked, watching Amanda’s reaction. “You guys found his wallet and didn’t tell anyone because you were afraid of what he’d do if he found out you identified him?” I tried to keep all judgment out of my voice, because I had no idea how I would’ve acted in that situation. Part of me was angry that she and her brother hadn’t done more to stop this, but I knew firsthand how terrifying Pencil could be. Actually, they knew a lot better than I did. I didn’t have nearly as bad of an experience as Amanda and her brother had. But just from what I’d read and seen for myself, I could understand the two of them being too afraid to paint a target on their backs, no matter how much they wanted Pencil to go down. It was a horrific situation all the way through. Being afraid of making that piece of shit angry was completely reasonable. 

Amanda, however, corrected me. “We did tell, once. We told… someone who was investigating it. We told him exactly what you guys are asking. But he just–he told us it wasn’t his job to get involved with something that dangerous, and if we knew what was good for us, we’d back off. And he… he took the wallet. He kept it himself, as like… insurance or something. If you want to know what Pencil looks like, you have to find that guy.” 

“Who was he?” I asked, glancing briefly toward the others. Yeah, this wasn’t all that surprising. Pencil was dangerous, whoever took the wallet from them might’ve, in some way, thought he was saving Amanda and her brother. Or maybe he was just a dick. He could’ve sold the wallet back to Pencil himself. Hell, I knew for a fact that the authorities weren’t always trustworthy. 

Either way, tracking him down and finding out what he did with it would be–

“Parson,” Amanda promptly informed us. “His name is Robert Parson.” 

The other two reacted immediately, though quite differently. Pack looked over at me, while Alloy promptly echoed the name. “Robert Parson. So I guess we just have to find this guy, and–” 

“No.” The word escaped me before I even knew I was talking. My head was shaking suddenly. “No, that’s not right.” I had no idea exactly how I was so certain at that moment. I did remember the guy enough to know that I had liked him as a kid. Even before you added in the whole saving my life part that Paige had informed me of. I had liked him back then, yet even that didn’t fully explain why I was so dead certain that he never would’ve done what she was saying. But I was. Which could only mean one thing, which I blurted unthinkingly. “You’re lying. He didn’t do that, he didn’t take the wallet. You’re lying about that. You’re… you’re lying.” 

“Huh?” That was Alloy, blinking over at me in obvious confusion. “What do you mean? Aren’t we–” 

She was interrupted, however, by Amanda, who offered a casual little shrug. Her expression had turned to a sly, cocky smile. “Oh well,” she all-but purred, “it was worth a shot.” 

Yeah, I didn’t have a danger sense (clearly), but if I did have one, it would’ve been screaming its head off. Alloy and Pack obviously both realized something was wrong too. Unfortunately, before any of us could do anything, Amanda held up her hand. There was a remote in it, and she pushed the button. Instantly, the three of us were blinded by a bright flash that seemed to come from every corner of the room. At the same time, I felt a wave of nausea that made me fall to my knees, then onto my side. Nearby, I heard thumps from the other two. I tried to fight my way through it, but the whole room was spinning. There was a dull ringing in my ears, and it felt like I was going to throw up in my helmet. 

My vision was swimming, going in and out for a moment even as I caught a glimpse of Amanda standing over me. She was staring at me with an intensely creepy, soulless smile while producing a deceptively simple-looking white cloth mask. She touched it to her face, and the thing automatically attached itself and stayed there. 

“Now,” Cup informed us. 

“I guess it’s safe to say I have a few questions of my own.” 

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Hostile Witness 18-06 (Summus Proelium)

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“A petting zoo, seriously? Couldn’t this chick live somewhere that stinks less, like an outhouse?” 

The complaint came from Pack just over three hours later, after we had followed all the leads that we could. Kayla Dugan’s list had had a few that crosswe ed over with the list we had gotten from Deicide, so we checked on those first. But in the end, it had taken every single hint we got from the original list as well as what Kayla and a few other people had been able to give us. 

Not everyone was willing to talk to us, of course. Some slammed the door in our faces, or just claimed they didn’t know anything. Others we weren’t able to track down at all. But a few talked, and a few of those few had actual information. A lot of it was the same as others, but helpful nonetheless. For those few hours, we trekked back and forth across the city, tracking down every lead we could. It involved a lot of waiting, a lot of duplicated names, and a lot of talking.

But, in the end, we had what was supposed to be the address that Amanda Sanvers was currently living at. And yes, it was at a petting zoo. Or, to be precise, an apartment above a petting zoo. According to the information we’d managed to collect, she had been living there for about seven months or so. Honestly, as we sat in the van with the windows open, I couldn’t imagine how she’d lasted more than a week. The smell of the goats, sheep, ponies, pigs, rabbits, and more was just awful. They even had cows and a couple regular sized horses. Seriously, this girl must either have no sense of smell at all, or the apartment was really good at filtering out the scent. 

Just as before, the rest of us were in the back of the van while Pack sat in the front, talking to us through the little window thing. When she made that comment, I replied, “I just hope she doesn’t think seeing all the cute little animals would make Pencil change his mind about doing terrible things. He really doesn’t strike me as the type to stop and coo over the cute little lamb.” 

With a snort from her seat next to That-A-Way, Raindrop darkly pointed out, “Maybe she thinks he’ll be so distracted hurting and killing all the adorable animals, it’ll give her time to escape.” 

“Ew,” Way managed, shaking her head. “Let’s not think about that right now, okay? Whatever her reasoning is, you guys just need to go in there and talk to this girl. Try to get her to open up, convince her to tell you what she knows. Rain and I will be listening the whole time, right?” 

“Right,” I agreed, waving my Touched-business phone in one hand. “I’ll have this thing on and connected to your phone. You guys will be able to hear everything we do. You know, just in case something goes wrong. Which is clearly a ridiculously unlikely scenario.” 

My words were greeted by a unified doubtful, ‘Uhhhh huh’ from literally everyone in the van. Even Alloy. If the lizards in their cage in the front seat had been capable of it, I was pretty sure they would have added to the chorus. I’m sure they were in spirit, anyway. 

“Anyway,” Pack put in, “The three of us go in together. These two stay outside for backup. We get every bit of info this chick’s got, tell her she should probably lay low somewhere else until Pencil’s dealt with just in case he hears about us looking for her, and get out of there. Then we send that info to Deicide and let her handle it. And somewhere in there we find a way to cope with whatever extra problems pop up.” Her gaze turned to me, staring intently through the mask she had put back on. “You know, as ‘unlikely’ as those problems are.” 

“Sounds like a plan,” I confirmed with a slightly exaggerated thumbs up before looking over at my new partner. “Ready to go see what this girl knows?” 

“I’d feel a lot more comfortable if she was connected to one of the other bad guys in town instead of this one,” she informed me, squirming a bit with clear unease. Then she took a visible breath to steady herself, focusing on me. “But yeah. Yeah, I’m ready, I guess.” 

“I’m ready, I guess,” I echoed with a firm nod. “Sounds like as good of a rallying cry as we’re gonna get for this. So let’s head over there.” Looking over to Way and Raindrop, I added, “Just be ready to jump in the second it sounds like something’s wrong, okay?” I may not have been accustomed to having actual backup from people who knew what was going on, but I was definitely going to take advantage when it was right here. 

They agreed, and I took a moment to call Way’s phone. We made sure there was a good connection and that those two could hear everything. Then it was time to stop stalling and go talk to this girl. No matter how crappy I felt at the thought of making her relive what that fucker had done to her family. God, seriously, how shitty was it going to be for us to show up at this girl’s doorstep asking her to risk her whole life just to tell us everything she knew about the psychopath who had tormented and tortured her family, and made her parents kill each other? I just… yeah. No wonder none of us were exactly eager to get down to business. 

But, in the end, this was what we had agreed to do. And it was clearly the right thing. Pencil had to be stopped before he destroyed any more lives. At least this way we weren’t actually facing the man himself. So, Alloy and I slid out the back together before looking around. The petting zoo wasn’t actually in town. Instead, it was off a section of road about ten miles west, and fairly isolated. Probably because nobody wanted to be their neighbors. 

The van was parked in a small area behind a few trees just a couple hundred yards from the fence that surrounded the place in question. And yes, the smell was bad from here. I was seriously considering asking Wren to add a scent filter into the helmet she had made. 

Actually, come to think of it, having some kind of gas filter built into this thing was probably a good idea, smell or no smell. But Wren had a lot to deal with already, and after the lengths she’d already pushed herself to just so she could get that VR machine ready for helping Paige, I was going to back off a bit and let her work on other things for the time being. Still, it was something to keep in mind. 

Pack joined us, and I immediately noticed that she was wearing a small green and black backpack just like one you’d take to school, which was in no way big enough to carry her lizards, or the cage that had been holding them back on the front seat of the van.

“Oh, you like it?” she asked, making a show of modeling for us by spinning in a circle. “Newest gift from the boss. The bag and that cage in there are linked. I reach in here, and I can grab one of my buddies from there. Makes it easier to run around and still have everybody I need.”

After exchanging a brief glance with Alloy, I replied, “Well, good to know he’s got spiffy rewards for you.”

“Employment benefits,” she slyly informed us. “Which, both of you could totally get if–” 

She was abruptly interrupted by a knock on the back of the van from the inside. Then the door popped open and Way called through the crack, “Would you please stop trying to recruit heroes for your villain gang and get on with it!” 

“Don’t worry, babe!” Pack called that way, “No need to be jealous, your offer is still the best one! I made sure to really talk you up when Blackjack went over all the different welcoming packets we could hand out.” 

Snorting despite myself at that and Way’s sputtering reaction, I started to move. “Come on, both of you should probably focus a bit. This is supposed to be important.” 

Through the bluetooth thing in my ear, I heard Way mutter a retort of, “Oh I’m focused, I’m totally focused. Just make her focus.” There was a brief pause before she added a little more quietly, “And be careful. Make sure you’re all careful.” 

“We will,” I murmured, before turning to look at the other two. “Okay guys, I know this mission really stinks, but let’s try to get through it. Just remember, the worst isn’t the pigs and horses, it’s the goats and cows. You might say we’re walking into some real dairy air.” 

I was met with two staring figures, Pack demanding, “Have you got all that out of your system now?” 

Painting a broad smiley face across my helmet, I retorted, “Probably not, but I’ll be good for now.” Yeah, soon, when I got nervous I made jokes. It helped me focus. And right now, I was definitely very nervous. This whole situation was making me incredibly antsy. But I tried to shove all those feelings down, focusing on moving through the wooded area up toward the fence around the petting zoo. Neither the smell, nor my nerves, improved along the way. 

Before long, we reached the fence and could see through it. Where we had come up (quite intentionally) was right near the actual main building, visible through cracks between the tall wooden boards. To the right a bit was a chicken coop, which was doing nothing to help the scent we were all dealing with. And further beyond that was the pen for the goats, and that was clearly giving the chicken coop a run for its money. Yeah, this whole place was farm animal central, and the pens were close enough to the main three-story house that my earlier assessment had to be right. Either the people who lived there really did have no sense of smell, or the building was set up with very good filters. No way could they sleep at night like this. 

There were also a few people scattered around, a couple obvious employees helping take care of the animals, and what looked like two or three different families of tourists wandering around to see and pet anything they could. Not to mention getting pictures with them. 

“Let’s try to get inside the house without being seen,” I murmured quietly. “If we’re really doing our best to make sure Pencil doesn’t find out about this, waltzing right in past a bunch of tourists with cameras seems like it might be a little bit counterproductive to that.”  

“Yeah,” Pack snorted, “maybe just a little. So how exactly do you want to get in there if we’re not attracting attention?” There was a brief pause then before she amended, “You know, that sounded like I was being dismissive of the idea, and I’m definitely not. Not attracting attention that ends up getting all the way to the Scions is a very good thing in general. But still, how?” 

Before I could respond, Alloy pointed a bit to our left. “Over there,” she whispered. “There’s a little gate hidden between some bushes. I think it leads down to a well or something near the stream. It’s next to the toolshed on the inside. The gate’s locked, but we can hop over.”

“Wow,” I remarked, “good eyes. How’d you see all th–wait, did you get actual information from your little marble buddies? Can they scout for you now? See, this is why this whole thing isn’t fair. You get marble buddies and she gets lizard buddies. Where’re my paint buddies?”  

Clearly blushing a bit beneath the Sentai-like helmet she wore, Alloy shook her head. “No, I uhhh, I sort of came here with my mom a few months ago. She was on this kick about spending time together, and that’s cool and all, but I was trying to figure out if this girl liked me or not so I brought her with us. Then Mom was being all weird, so we snuck away to find a place to hide so we could talk. We found that gate and climbed over it. I sorta ripped my pants a little bit.” Waving off that memory, the girl added, “Anyway, we can probably get in right there. It’s hidden enough that if we watch until nobody’s looking, we can go right to the house.” 

Exchanging a glance with Pack, I shrugged. “Good enough for me. Better plan than I could have come up with, that’s for sure. Come on, let’s get over there. Maybe it won’t smell as bad.” 

“It’s like thirty feet away, Paintball,” Pack hissed as we started to move quietly and stealthily along the edge of the fence. “There’s being optimistic and then there’s just being delusional.” 

Through my bluetooth earpiece, I heard Way murmur, “Told you we should’ve stopped long enough to get those scented lip balms to rub under your nose before we came all the way out here. See what happens when you’re in a rush?” 

“You might’ve been right,” I whispered, waving a hand dismissively at the other two when they looked at me curiously. “Feel free to rub that in my face when we’re done with this. But while you’re at it, could you also rub a bouquet of flowers or something in my face too?” 

By that point, we’d reached the little gate that Alloy had mentioned. Sure enough, it was easy to climb over. I used a quick shot of black paint to silence the gate so that it wouldn’t rattle as we did just that. Quickly, the three of us dropped into a crouch in the bushes next to the tool shed. To the right off in the distance, we could see people still walking around with the animals. But this area seemed to be for employees, and none of them were over here. At the moment, it was clear. Well, mostly clear. There was one young couple, maybe in their very early twenties, who were having a conversation and could have seen us if we darted across the space to the house.

Hoping that more people wouldn’t wander over, we crouched there and silently urged the two to hurry up and move on. But they just kept standing there. Finally, I whispered an idea to Alloy, and she nodded before sending her bronze marble flying low to the ground that way, keeping the thing out of sight. It went past the couple, into the nearby pig pen, and sort of… firmly poked one of the pigs there. It was enough to make the pig jerk around and oink loudly, which made the couple turn to see what was going on.  

We immediately took advantage of that, darting quickly across the space to the house. There was a door there, but we didn’t use it. Instead, I shot red paint up toward the balcony of the third floor, where we knew Amanda’s apartment was supposed to be, and let it yank me that way. Behind me, Alloy turned two of her marbles into a flying platform to lift herself and Pack. We got all the way up, dropping down onto the balcony itself before anyone saw us. At least, I hoped we did. At the very least, nobody seemed to react, and a glance down showed everyone acting normal. We’d made it. We were here, right outside the girl’s apartment, without attracting attention. So far, so good. Now if only our luck would actually continue. 

As soon as the three of us were convinced nobody had seen us get up there, we turned our attention to the sliding door. Or, more accurately, through the door. I was ready to quickly try to reassure Amanda that we weren’t a threat if the woman was standing right there, but there was no sign of her. We were looking into a small, cluttered living room that looked like it hadn’t been picked up in months. There were no food containers or anything gross like that, it was just… cluttered. There were blankets and pillows everywhere, a TV tray stand with a bunch of toys scattered across it, random flashlights and other electronics, books, and a few bottles of various types of glue, a bunch of boxes with who-knew-what in them (I could see a stack of magazines practically spilling out of one), and more. It was a mess, with a narrow path leading to the very comfortable-looking armchair seated in front of a fairly decent television. 

“This chick definitely doesn’t care about keeping her place tidy,” Pack murmured. She leaned forward and looked down before coughing. “But she does care about her security.” 

Following her gaze, I saw what she was talking about. There was a very elaborate and advanced-looking alarm attached to the door. If we slid it open, it would go off. And since that was there, I was pretty sure the glass itself was probably alarmed too. To say nothing of the windows and every other entrance. This was going to be complicated. Not that I could blame her at all. If I had gone through what she did, I’d make sure every inch of my home was protected from invasion too. Honestly, I’d be surprised if she didn’t have some Touched-Tech that she’d bought added into the mix. Not to mention guns. Or even Touched-Tech guns. Good ones were expensive as hell, especially to have someone come out and maintain them, but something told me this Amanda girl would see having the extra protection as worth it. 

“What if she’s not home?” Alloy whispered, reminding me of an option we really hadn’t put too much consideration to, somehow. “How long do we sit here waiting for her? Because I’m pretty sure those guys will eventually look up. And the three of us? We don’t really blend in.”

Yeah, she had a point. Grimacing to myself for a moment while thinking intently, I finally shrugged. “I guess the best we can do is knock and see if she responds,” I whispered back. 

So, that was what we did. While the other two kept an eye below just in case, I reached up and gave a light knock against the sliding door. When that prompted no response, I knocked a little louder. Again, there was nothing. So, I knocked one more time, even louder, though hopefully not enough to attract attention from below. It was a hard balance to strike. We wanted the woman inside (if she was there) to hear, but not the people below. 

I was about to suggest that we think of somewhere safer to wait for the woman, such as the roof, when movement from inside caught my attention. I looked that way in time to see the girl in question standing in the doorway between the living room and some other place, staring at us. She was just like the pictures I’d seen in a few of the houses of the people we’d visited, a girl around eighteen or nineteen, with long dark hair and features that most probably would have called gorgeous. Brilliant blue eyes with a sort-of smoldering look, a figure that would’ve made any guy turn his head, all that sort of thing. All the stuff I wasn’t. 

But then again, I hadn’t had my entire family destroyed and torn apart by a psychotic monster. 

I could see the surprise on the girl’s face. She looked visibly taken aback, standing there with her mouth open. So, I reached out to touch the glass and made words appear there, reversed on our side so she could read them. 

‘It’s okay, we’re not here to hurt you. Please, can we come in? It’s safe, we promise.’ 

See her lips move as she read those words. For a moment, her head tilted, as though considering them. There was a momentary strange expression on her face. It almost looked like amusement before she shook it off. Probably just didn’t know how to react to something like three Touched showing up on her balcony asking to come in. 

Finally, the woman moved over by the door. She opened a little pad there and hit a few buttons, before unlocking the door and sliding it open. She looked at us crouched there, quietly asking, “This is about that psycho, isn’t it? You’re here about… him.” The girl shuddered visibly, her gaze a bit haunted. 

I nodded quickly. “We’re really sorry to bother you. We just… we have to ask you a few things. We were careful, we made sure no one saw us come in.” 

“You’re sure?” she pressed. “You’re absolutely positive that nobody else knows you’re here?” 

My head bobbed. “Yeah. It’s safe.” 

“Safe…” she echoed the word, biting her lip before stepping back. “Okay then. 

“Come on in.” 

Previous Chapter / Next Chapter

Hostile Witness 18-05 (Summus Proelium)

Previous Chapter / Next Chapter

So now we were, sort of and tentatively, on the same page. Sort of. Okay, we were at least in the same book, which was something. Sure, Pack and Alloy didn’t know the whole story, but we’d made it clear that we were holding some stuff back. We didn’t lie to them about that. As for what would come later or how much they’d end up knowing before all this was done… I’d take that as it came. For now, at least they knew enough for us to all work together. Not only for finding a way to get into that secret base under the mall, but for checking out this Amanda chick too.  

And yet, as much as I told myself that having more help was a good thing, a not-insubstantial part of me kept screaming that involving other people was a horrible idea. Not because I didn’t trust them, exactly, but because I didn’t trust what might happen. Ignoring the whole situation with my own family for the moment (as if I ever really could), we were trying to get answers that could potentially hurt Pencil.who Yes, I wanted that to happen (oh boy did I ever want it to happen), but if he found out what we were doing, things could get really bad. If that fucking psycho decided he needed to focus on stopping us and really put his mind to it, I had no idea what could happen. 

Yes, I knew I needed help with this. I knew I couldn’t do it by myself, and that having others with me wasn’t a bad thing. I knew it was their choice to be involved. But knowing that and being able to accept it and push away all emotions were two entirely different things. If anything happened to these guys because I brought them along, if Pencil or any of the other Scions got hold of them, I wouldn’t… I didn’t know what I’d do. The very thought of it was enough to make me freeze up. Oh, and practically dry heave from the way my stomach flipped itself over. 

But I had to push all that aside, all those doubts and worries, everything that was turning my stomach in knots. I had to shove it away and focus, because Izzy, Amber, Alloy, and Pack were involved. They were going to help, so what I had to do was focus on making sure we all got through this without giving me anything to feel guilty over. That meant we all had to keep our eyes open and be ready for any problem. If the Scions happened to be keeping an eye on Amanda for whatever reason and saw us talk to her, things could get nasty pretty fast. 

Which, of course, meant that step one of the plan had to be finding a way to sneak into the woman’s home without being seen by anyone. If we were going to avoid attracting the very wrong kind of attention, we had to talk to her without anyone else having any idea we were there. Either any of the Scions themselves, or any of her neighbors who might feel like reporting to him. Yes, we had no real evidence that they did that sort of thing, and no real reason to think he was spying on her to begin with, but as far as Pencil went, we weren’t taking anything for granted. A lot of people died when they did that. So, we were going with the sneaking in thing. 

Or rather, Alloy, Pack, and I were going to be sneaking in. Raindrop and That-A-Way would wait in a safe place, ready to jump in to help if everything went utterly sideways. Our hope (and it was really the best we had) was that if the Scions did show up after all, they wouldn’t expect those two to be back-up. And if it came right down to it, Way would simply use her teleport power to get us all out of there. Hopefully we wouldn’t have to go to that, but it was best to have the option. Better than getting into that situation and ending up trapped, anyway. 

Of course, before we could sneak into Amanda Sanvers’ place, we needed to find out exactly where that place was. Deicide hadn’t actually given us her address. All she had was a list of potential locations and people we could talk to who might know where Amanda was living. So, before we could stealthily talk to the girl herself, we had to stealthily talk to a bunch of others. Yeah, this whole thing could get unbelievably complicated and dangerous really fast. Even more so than it already was. We were going to try to try to get the information for Deicide without sticking our heads into a Scion hornets nest, but I had a lot of twisted feelings in my stomach about how it would actually play out when things really got going. That was okay, though, since my twisted, nervous feelings about this specific situation would probably fit in pretty well with my twisted, nervous feelings about my entire life in general. 

All of which was what had brought us to the back of Pack’s van, staying out of sight while the girl herself drove up front. It was one of those vans with a divider between the front and back, so she could drive with her mask off and we wouldn’t see her face. We could, however, peek out through heavily tinted windows in the back to watch the houses passing by as the other girl drove toward the first house on the list. It was apparently a home in the same neighborhood where Amanda and her brother had lived when their family had been attacked by Pencil toward the very start of his career, long before he’d built the Scions as a group. No one even knew if Cup was around back then. Apparently he broke into this normal family’s house and made the mother and father kill each other to save Amanda and her brother. It was all on video. 

So yeah, it was pretty doubtful that the girl would be living anywhere near the house where all that had happened. But according to the information we’d gotten from Deicide, a woman who had been their babysitter when they were younger lived at this place, and had been in contact with Amanda before for sentimental reasons. We were hoping she still had an address. And, well, that she’d give that address to us, of course. That was another reason we were starting with this address. The woman here knew Amanda and her brother when they were little, so it was doubtful she was some kind of secret contact and spy for Pencil or the Scions. 

“At the risk of sounding like an incredibly impatient ten-year-old on a road trip,” Way spoke up from where she was sitting in the corner while texting intently on her phone, “are we there yet?” 

“Wouldn’t that just be a ten-year-old in general?” I pointed out while glancing that way. “I mean, come on, impatient ten-year-old? You might as well say, ‘wet rain’ or ‘buff football player.’” 

“Or boring football game,” Alloy put in, before holding up both hands defensively when everyone looked at her. “What? It’s true and you know it.” Belatedly, she added in a mumble under her breath, “Soccer’s better anyway. Real football. Talk about running around all the time, not stopping every four freaking seconds to grope each other and make faces.” 

Exchanging a glance with Way and Raindrop, I shrugged at them exaggeratedly. “Don’t look at me, I didn’t know mentioning football was gonna make her go off. I’ll make a note of it though.” That said, I looked back out the window as the van turned. “But yeah, I think we’re pretty close.” 

Sure enough, we’d only gone another block before Pack slid open the little window that divided the front from the back. She’d stuck a piece of cardboard or something in the way to block our view of the space where she was sitting, but there was enough of a crack on the right-hand side to see the passenger seat where the cage full of lizards was sitting, and we could hear as the girl called, “Okay, this is the street! If your friendly neighborhood gang boss isn’t full of shit, it should be right up here on the left. Figured out what you’re doing yet? Because something tells me it’d probably be a bad idea if my friends and me went up and knocked on this lady’s door.” 

Yeah, she probably had a point. If we wanted to convince this lady to tell us what she knew about Amanda, sending a known member of La Casa up there wasn’t the right way to go about it. Granted, they weren’t nearly as bad as the Scions. Not even remotely. But Fell-Touched were Fell-Touched as far as a lot of the general public were concerned. They were the bad guys. I knew that was the way I had thought for most of my life. Obviously, things were a bit more complicated than that. This lady hadn’t had the same kind of experiences though. We needed to put her mind at ease, not make her too paranoid to give us the info we needed. 

“I’ll go in with Alloy,” I announced. “It looked like there was an alley just behind the house. Pull through there, let us out, and we’ll go in the back where the big cedar fence is. Better if it’s the two of us. If you guys,” I nodded toward That-A-Way and Raindrop, “come in with us and she does happen to rat us out to Pencil, he’ll know you’re involved.” With a shrug, I added, “I know, slim chances, but still. No reason to risk anything. Or, in this case, everything.” 

The two Minority Touched didn’t exactly look incredibly happy with that, for obvious reasons. But they also couldn’t really argue against it. After giving each other a brief glance, they nodded. Way pointed at me. “Okay, but just be, you know, subtle? I mean, as subtle as you can be when dressed like that, with your reputation, going to talk to some lady about a girl she used to babysit who might have secret information about the leader of the Scio–look, just be careful.” 

Snorting despite myself, I nodded while giving her a thumbs up. “We’ll keep that in mind.” Then my gaze turned toward my new partner. “You ready to go talk to a lady about a girl?” Pausing as those words worked their way through my own mind, I grimaced. “Yeah, that was supposed to sound all chill and reassuring, but I think I drifted all the way over into totally vague.” 

Alloy, in turn, gave a slight snicker before choking on it. She was obviously (and understandably) nervous about this whole thing, and I had the feeling she was afraid that if she laughed at anything surrounding it, the universe would retaliate by making everything go to hell. I was very well-accustomed with that fear, because I kept pushing it down myself. 

By that point, Pack had found the alley. She told us to text when we needed a pick-up and that they would be close, but not too close. On her word as the van came to a stop, That-A-Way slid the side door open, letting Alloy and me hop out together. The second we were out, the van pulled away smoothly and continued down what turned out to be a slightly narrower alley than I’d expected. It was just wide enough for the van on one side and the two of us beside it with a few inches of clearance before we would run into the wooden fence that surrounded the backyard of the house in question.

Actually, all the houses here had tall fences surrounding the yards. It was one of the reasons I’d felt safe being let out here. People in this neighborhood valued their privacy. Also, I could hear at least three different lawnmowers from distant houses, plus a chainsaw somewhere. 

It always felt strange to me to see houses that were so close together. Yes, I absolutely knew that was normal, the real way ninety-nine percent of people lived. Well, that and apartments of course. Which meant they were stacked even closer together. I was spoiled and given a completely abnormal childhood, growing up the way I had. Still, sometimes (like right now, standing here) I couldn’t help wondering what it would be like to live in a place like this. What if my parents were just… middle to upper-middle class? What if we had a house like this, with a regular-sized backyard, neighbors on either side so close we could throw a ball into their property, a garage with two cars, and Dad did his own yardwork? What would that be like? 

“Uh, Paintball?” Alloy spoke up, breaking me out of being lost in my own thoughts. “You okay? Are we going in there, or what?” She sounded equal parts confused and nervous, glancing around quickly. The marbles surrounding her head were also bouncing anxiously, looking like they were trying to see over fences to check for anyone who might’ve been spying on us. 

Quickly, I shook off all those feelings and gave a quick nod. “Yeah, sorry. I was just–never mind.” It wasn’t like I could explain what I’d been thinking or why. So I just gestured to the fence. “Let’s get in there, and try not to scare the hell out of an innocent lady in the process.” 

The gate was secured with a padlock, and we didn’t want to break anything. So Alloy just made one of her marbles form a small platform to slide under our feet and fly us up and over. On the way, I glanced around. There were people working in their yards, but no one was looking directly at us. Quickly, we hopped down into the backyard. 

The woman we were heading in to see was named Kayla Dugan. According to what we’d been able to find out, she wasn’t married or anything, and lived alone here in the house she’d inherited from her deceased parents. Hopefully she wouldn’t have any guests today, or this could be even more awkward than it was already going to be. 

After taking a second to make sure no one was crying out or drawing attention, Alloy and I jogged across the incredibly tiny backyard (seriously, you could barely play catch back here, let alone an actual ballgame), hopping over a small flower garden to reach the wooden patio. There, I gestured for the other girl to wait and stand back in plain sight before reaching out to knock on the sliding glass door. I could see a kitchen (also tiny) through the glass and hear a television from somewhere else in the house. I tried to knock loud enough to be heard, but without being intimidating or sounding like I was trying to break the door down. It was a pretty fine line to walk. 

It must’ve been loud enough, considering a woman who matched the picture we’d seen poked her head around the side of the doorway. She was in her late twenties and had dark hair with just a hint of a red streak through it. Now, she was peering into the kitchen with a look of confusion. That expression turned to one of shock when she saw me standing there, and she jerked back reflexively. Then she poked her head back, this time with a phone in her hand as she stared, clearly ready to call 911. 

Trying to look nonthreatening, I waved and called out, hoping to be heard through the door. “Hi! Sorry to bother you, can we talk for a minute? Everything’s okay, I promise!” 

There was a moment of understandable hesitation as the woman clearly internally debated. She was holding her phone tightly. Finally, she called out, “Prove you’re really him!” 

Yeah, that was fair. Holding my hand up so she could see, I put my palm against the door and created an instant image there. There was a lawn of green paint, a black mailbox with a red flag thing, a house made of yellow and white, with as many details on the siding and door as I could manage, a black roof with a red chimney (including tiny bits of white lines to outline the bricks), and a giant green dragon with red eyes perched on top of that roof. With a thought, I made the red and orange fire emerge from the dragon’s mouth, before making that disappear, then the dragon itself disappeared, replaced by a man standing where it had been, wearing a green suit. Then I made the man jump down from the roof in a very crude stop-motion thing where I kept making his image disappear, reappear an inch or so away, then repeated that until he was down on the white sidewalk in front of the house. Three more stop-motion bits made the man wave, before he turned to the door of the house and disappeared. 

Finally, I made the whole image vanish. And that was clearly good enough to convince Kayla, because she quickly moved across the kitchen, setting the phone down. She was wearing an aerobics outfit, and between that and the fact that there was visible muscle to her stature, I was reminded that her day job apparently involved being a fitness instructor. Also, she had a towel around her neck. It looked like we had interrupted morning exercise. 

There was a momentary hesitation as she started to reach for the door, before she seemed to give herself a short nod of encouragement. Then she flipped the lock and pulled the sliding door open, stepping back. “Uhh, you–you’re Paintball. You–uhm, what?” Seeing Alloy, her eyes widened even more. “Oh my God.” 

“Oh sure,” I quipped, “I just get ‘oh, you’re Paintball’ and my new buddy here gets ‘oh my God?’” Painting a winking face on the front of my helmet, I gestured. “This is Alloy. Say hi, Alloy.” 

“Hi,” came the response before the other girl stepped up beside me to add, “We’re really sorry to bother you, ma’am.” 

Kayla shook her head, seemingly reflexively. “No, it’s okay. I mean, I think it’s okay. I mean, is it okay? What’s going on? Why–what–huh?” Belatedly, she stepped back. “Come in, come in. Wait, you’re not like, being chased by that big demon guy again, are you?”  

“Trust me, he’s not polite enough to wait to see if you let us in,” I assured her before stepping through the door. “I promise, no one is after us. I mean, obviously there’s some bad guys out there that aren’t too happy, but they’re not here or anywhere close, as far as I know. I’m just gonna shut up about that and move on now.” 

“This is going super-well,” Alloy noted, giving me a double-thumbs up before focusing on the woman. “Don’t worry, Miss Dugan. What he’s trying to say is that we’re not here about anything bad happening right now. It’s more about someone you used to know.” 

“Someone I used to know?” It took Kayla a moment before her eyes widened. “Wait, you don’t mean–” 

Sending silent thanks that way for the assist, I nodded. “Yeah, sorry. It’s about Amanda Sanvers. And technically her brother, though we heard he’s working in Alaska. So mostly it’s about Amanda.” 

“You’re here about–” Kayla abruptly lowered her voice to a whisper, clearly instinctively avoiding saying the name loudly, “–Pencil. You’re here about that sick fuck, aren’t you?” As soon as she realized that, the woman shook her head. “You need to leave that alone. You both need to go stop a car thief or a murderer or something. Stay away from that monster.” 

“Don’t worry,” I tried to reassure her, “We’re not here to go after him ourselves. We’re just collecting information for people who are a lot better qualified.” Sure, I was leaving out that we were collecting it for another villain, but we didn’t really need to get into those details. 

So, I simply tried to carefully explain what we’re doing without mentioning that much. I told her that we needed to find Amanda so she could give us information that might help other people deal with him. 

When I was done, Kayla exhaled, slumping back against the counter. “That–what happened back then, it messed Amanda up. Both her and her brother. Neither of them were the same after that. It was just–they never recovered.” 

“Pencil has that effect on people,” I muttered before looking to her. “That’s why we’re gonna send people who can stop him, Miss Dugan. I promise. We just need to find Amanda. We heard she’s been in contact with you a few times.” 

“I don’t… know exactly where she is,” the woman tentatively replied. “But umm… but maybe I can give you some ideas to check up on that could help. Just… promise you won’t let that son of a bitch anywhere near her again.” 

“Absolutely,” I confirmed as firmly as possible. “You have our word. 

“We’re going to do absolutely everything we can to make sure Amanda never even sees Pencil again.” 

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