Pack

Commissioned Interlude 12 – Amber and Dani/That-A-Way and Pack (Summus Proelium)

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The following is a special commissioned interlude that is not part of the main schedule. It IS canon, but takes place shortly after where the story is right now.

Standing at her locker at the end of a long day of school, Amber O’Connell stared down at her phone, but she wasn’t really paying attention to it. Her actual focus lay on listening to what several students just down the hall were saying. One, a boy named Ricardo Esteban, had been going on for the past few minutes about some party that he and his parents were going to the next evening. A costume party, with a Touched theme. You didn’t have to show up as any specific Touched, though that would probably get you more points in the contest. Ricardo was bragging about the Hefesto (a Spanish Tech-Touched hero) costume his parents had gotten personally commissioned for him, and how it was going to blow everyone else’s out of the water. 

Amber, naturally, didn’t care about any costume contest. She was, however, laser-focused on something else the boy had said in the course of bragging to his audience. Well, two things, actually. First, there were no phones allowed on the floor. You had to check them with your coats. Something about the hosts not wanting people to be distracted. And second, a man named Derek Meyers was going to be attending the party. Ricardo had name-dropped him as one of his parents’ personal guests for the evening. Of course, the whole ‘name-dropping’ thing had only worked once he explained to his friends exactly who Derek Meyers was. And even then they hadn’t cared all that much. After all, why would they find it so fascinating that some random detective on the Detroit police force was a friend of Ricardo’s parents? Even hearing about the litany of impressive arrests the man had made didn’t really sway them that much. Sure, it was kind of cool and all, but they wanted to hear more about the costume. 

In most cases, Amber would’ve been in about the same boat. Why would she care if one detective or another wanted to go to a party? Yet this one mattered. This specific name was one she had read about for over a year now, and had been intently researching ever since she had found out about the existence of the Ministry. He was connected to them, she just knew it. Obviously, the Ministry had police in their pockets, and Amber was convinced that Detective Derek Meyers was one such asset. 

He had been the lead investigator on her father’s case, the man responsible for determining what had actually happened to her dad. And, as far as Amber could determine, all the evidence had gone through him. If there was a cover-up, if the Ministry had given her father’s killer a free pass, it almost certainly had to have come from Derek Meyers. He had hidden one piece of evidence or another, had intentionally ignored something important, had done something to make sure the investigation didn’t find the actual culprit. She knew he had to have done something. A random person just stealing a car, hitting her father, and getting away without leaving any fingerprints or hair or anything they could use to find him? Especially these days? It didn’t make any sense. There had to have been something, which meant someone had hidden it. Meyers was her biggest suspect, since he’d had the most control over the investigation. 

And now he was going to be at that party, distracted by all those people, with his phone stowed away in a back room. She would never get a better chance than this to look at his contacts, his messages, all of it. Even if he didn’t actually keep records of what he had done on her father’s case on it (and she would’ve been very surprised if he did), she could find something connecting him to the Ministry. And from there, she could… well, she didn’t know, exactly. Find a way to make him tell the truth without giving away who she was? That part was shaky, at best. 

But the fact was, she couldn’t just give up on it. She’d figure out the details later. For now, she just had to get that information. She had to get proof that he worked for the Ministry, then she’d work her way through an actual plan of what to do with that. She’d take his phone, get the battery out of it, then take it over to ask that Wren girl to help her get into it. Or maybe someone else. The point was, getting the phone was the important part. 

“We should go to that thing.” 

The voice made Amber jump a bit. She’d been so intently focused on thinking her way through this rather haphazard plan (it was more of a goal), that she hadn’t noticed Dani come up behind her. Turning that way, she blinked a couple times. “What?” 

Arching an eyebrow, the black girl nodded past her toward the group nearby. “That party thing he’s talking about. We should go to it. I mean, why not? My aunt says I’m supposed to ‘spend time with the class of people I’ve been brought into,’ whatever that means. Me going to this party will score major brownie points. And if I’m going with you, it won’t even be that bad.” 

Amber felt a slight flush cross her neck and cheeks, but most of her attention was on the idea itself. Of course she wanted to go to this party, that was her entire plan. Well, that and getting into that back room. She’d had no idea of exactly how to invite herself into that group to go, and knew that attending by herself would probably stand out. Sure, it wouldn’t be hard to get an invitation, but just showing up alone would have made people wonder about her. It would have made people notice her, and she didn’t want that. But this? Dani had just come up out of nowhere and offered her the perfect cover and excuse. Amber practically could have kissed her. 

Okay, now she really was blushing. Clearing her throat, the girl offered a shrug while managing to keep her voice as casual as possible. “You asking me out on a date or something?” 

“Don’t start planning the wedding already, O’Connell,” Dani teased. “I just thought it’d be fun. If you don’t wanna do it, I’ll see if that Melody girl has anything going on.” 

Shaking her head while doing her best to not sound too eager about the whole situation, Amber replied, “Nah, I’ll go. Sounds like it could be fun, I guess. It’s better than going by myself, that’s for sure.” She took a moment to glance at the other girl, judging her reaction before adding, “Are you sure you don’t have anything else going on? I mean, a girl like you has to have a pretty full schedule.”

Dani, in turn, smirked just a little. “I think I can clear my calendar for it.” She grimaced then, as though something had just occurred to her. “They’re gonna want us to dress up, aren’t they? You going in costume?”

Oh boy, did that question have implications that Dani couldn’t possibly have known. Resisting the urge to cough at that, Amber tilted her head as though considering it. “I mean, I guess I could throw something together. Maybe I can find something simple at the mall.” No way in hell would she go as her actual Touched identity, of course. While very vaguely tempting in a dangerous sort of way, it was an incredibly bad idea. Even if she went with her own hair color and everything rather than turning it blonde, she would still look far too close to the real thing. Thanks to, well, literally being the real thing. She needed to keep as much distance between Amber O’Connell and That-A-Way as she could. Letting anyone’s thoughts drift toward connecting the two was a recipe for disaster. Though, granted, this whole idea was also a disaster recipe, she could at least do her best not to make it even worse. She would find a costume that was both simple and very different from her real secret identity. 

With that in mind, the two of them talked for another couple of minutes about what they were going to do, before promising to text each other more plans for the next evening. They agreed to keep their costumes a secret so the other person could be surprised when they met up for the party. Then they separated, with Amber walking away from her locker while smiling to herself about how she had ended up with the perfect cover to hide her true intentions for being at that party. 

She had no idea that, as Dani watched her go, the other girl was thinking the exact same thing. 

*******

“I thought you were into that Minority chick.” Several hours later, KD made that comment while she and Dani were looking through an assortment of costumes in an old shop. Outside of her Touched identity as Broadway, KD was a pale girl with bright blue hair tied into pigtails. She stood barely five feet tall, another thing separating her from her costumed self, given the Broadway suit boosted her height a fair bit. With all that in mind, it was doubtful that anyone would ever connect her to the La Casa Touched. 

The two girls were keeping their voices low, though it didn’t really matter considering the elderly lady who ran the place was engrossed in watching television at the front counter. “You know, the one you keep flirting with.”

Dani, flipping through several possible outfits hanging on the rack, replied easily. “Sure, she’s great. But I can’t exactly ask her to go with me like this, can I? And I definitely can’t ask her to go with me as Pack. I think she might have a few questions about what I’m actually doing there, and she might get all goody two-shoes about it. 

KD scoffed under her breath. “Come on, it’s not like you’re going there just to steal things. You have legitimate business in that place.” She lowered her voice even more, pointedly adding, “Jennica business.” 

Giving up on finding what she wanted on that particular rack, Dani nodded at her friend. “Yeah, but I’m not sure Way would see the good side of stealing your sister’s social worker’s keys so we can get into her office and find Jennica’s file to figure out if there’s anything in there about where she might hide. That’s a lot of stealing and breaking and entering for someone on the Minority.” She paused a little before adding a bit more quietly, “And I’m not sure I want to get her involved in that.” 

KD put a hand on her arm. “You’re worried about Jennica hurting her, aren’t you?” 

With a sigh, Dani moved to the next rack to check through the clothes there. “She’s already got enough to deal with. I don’t want to throw her into Jennica’s sights. I know she’s trained and all that, just–” She hesitated before giving a soft sigh. “If she did get involved in this whole thing and then got hurt, I’d feel like shit. I already feel like shit because Jennica’s your sister and you–fuck. You know what I mean.” 

“Yeah,” KD murmured. “It’s pretty screwed up. I guess I can’t blame you for not wanting to get her involved.” She looked that way, adding, “But you’re okay getting this other girl involved?” 

Dropping the suit she had been examining back onto the hook, Dani looked at her intently. “She’s not going to be involved. The two of us are gonna go and hang out a little bit there, then I’ll disappear for awhile to get what we need before finding her again. She’ll never know anything was going on. It’s just gonna be a nice, normal, ordinary date. Nothing weird.” 

Raising an eyebrow at the declaration, KD shrugged. “Sure, babe. If you say so. I’ve just got one question. She was at the top of your list to take with you to this thing, so you obviously like this girl too. But which one do you like more, the one who knows you as Pack, or the one who knows you as Dani?” 

The question was met with silence, as Dani frowned. Who did she like more? It was an impossible thing to answer. That-A-Way knew one side of her, but Amber knew another side. She knew Way liked her, in plenty of ways, even if she didn’t approve of all the things Pack did. But then, Amber had no idea she was a criminal. She knew Dani the girl from school, not Pack. Amber or That-A-Way, That-A-Way or Amber? One girl knew her costumed self, one knew her civilian self. 

“You know,” she finally muttered, “It’s too bad I can’t find a way to squish them together.

“I’m pretty sure that would be my perfect girl.” 

*******

It was five o’clock the next evening when Amber and Dani met just in front of the school. That wasn’t where the party was being held, but it was an easy place for the two of them to join up before heading that way. The two of them looked each other up and down for a moment, taking in their costumes. 

Dani, for her part, had settled on wearing what amounted to Caishen’s costume. Black boots with dark gold pants that had black lines running up them, along with a dark purple scalemail-like shirt, and a gold leather coat. The real Caishen had a hard metal black helmet with glowing purple lenses over the eyes, though Dani’s was clearly plastic. Decent plastic, but still. The costume looked expensive, if not incredibly so. There was even a bluetooth device built into the helmet for phone calls.

Amber, meanwhile, wore dark green pants with what looked somewhat like fish scales running down them, with a gold-scaled long sleeve shirt and a simple pair of goggles. It was a cheap version of a costume belonging to Freedive, a water-based Star-Touched from California. Her costume came complete with tall metal-looking boots that were close approximations of the real thing. Not that she had really cared all that much about being accurate, but there was another reason she’d wanted to have the boots. 

Giving a low whistle, Dani added a thumbs up. “Boy, am I glad I didn’t go with that Melody girl.” 

Feeling her blush deepen, Amber waved that off. “Yeah, yeah, you look great too. So, are we heading over there, or would you rather just stand here and stare at each other a little longer?” Even as the words left her she was regretting saying them. She’d meant it to sound teasing, but now that she’d actually gotten it out…

From the way Dani leaned back on her heels, it was obvious she was trying to decide exactly how to react. There was amusement in her voice as she looked the other girl up and down briefly. “Well, to tell you the truth, I’d be just fine with another couple hours of this. But, I suppose we should probably head over there. Don’t wanna make the poor people at the party miss out on all of this.” She waved her hand down herself and then over toward Amber. “That’d be a real crime.” With that, she turned to gesture toward the car she had driven up in, given her date had been dropped off by an Uber. “Your carriage for the evening, milady?” 

Smiling just a little, Amber gave a little bow before stepping that way. She still hoped she would be able to get into that back room and find the detective’s phone. But even if she couldn’t, this date might not be a waste after all. 

Dani, watching the other girl get in the car, had quite similar thoughts. She closed the passenger side door, glanced to the sky while thinking about the other things she needed to do that night, then walked around the other side to get in the driver’s seat. 

Whatever came next, one thing was for sure. This was going to be a date she would remember for a long time. 

*****

The party itself was actually being held at a local hotel, in one of the large banquet halls. After parking in the underground lot, the two of them made their way up the elevator before following the posted signs to the room in question. Not that they really needed signs, considering there was a small flood of other people in costumes heading that way. It wasn’t hard to figure out where to go. 

There was a man standing by the entrance to the banquet room. Like all the other serving staff at his event, he wore a crisp white coat, blue pants, and a blue mask that covered most of his face. He was the person responsible for checking invitations. As expected, neither of the girls had had a hard time getting one. They presented them, waited for the man to scan the invitation with his handheld device to make sure they were real, then waved them in. On their way past, they heard the man informing people behind them that if they needed masks or other costume pieces, they would be provided for them. 

The door didn’t open straight into the banquet room itself. Instead, there was a small entryway with a desk to one side where the coat and phone check woman sat. She took Amber and Dani’s devices, put them in small boxes with their names, then took them into the room behind her before giving them a couple receipts. Both girls watched that intently, neither noticing the attention of the other. 

In any case, once they had their receipts for their stowed phones, the two headed through the next door into the actual banquet hall. This was where the party was, where they would be spending most of their time for the next few hours. 

And boy was it an impressive room in that regard. Or rather, three rooms. The banquet hall, such as it was called, was three enormous chambers linked together through several doorways at either end. The room they entered first was the central chamber, shaped like a half-circle with the door they had just come through at the center of the flat line, while the curved side opposite them was taken up with a stage where a live band was playing. Most of the rest of the room consisted of a dance floor for couples, along with tables to sit and rest to either side. There was a series of enormous floor-to-ceiling curtains against the walls, either to muffle how much sound reached beyond the room, or for some decorative purpose. Perhaps both. A full-service bar waited to the right, while the tables of punch and other nonalcoholic drinks were to the left. 

The door on that left side led into a quieter room where people could sit at an assortment of circular tables to have real food and listen to the music being piped in from this room, while the door on the opposite side led to a room with card tables, billiards, and more. Only adults were allowed to gamble at these things, of course. But Amber and Dani could wander through and watch if they wanted to.

“What a place, huh?” Amber finally remarked, after the two of them had taken all that in for a few long seconds. 

“Oh, it’s definitely a place,” Dani agreed, before grabbing the other girl’s hand. “Come on, let’s show these rich old fogeys how to really dance.” 

She had a job to do, of course. But that would come later, once things had settled in, and everyone who was going to attend the party was here. Then the coat and phone-check girl would sit down and relax, giving Dani a chance to get in there and find what she was actually there for. 

But at the moment, this was a perfectly fine way to spend the next hour or so. 

It felt a little surreal for Amber to be dancing out on a floor full of people dressed up in costumes of other Touched, including several examples of her teammates and mentors. To say nothing of how it felt when she saw a couple people who were dressed up like her. Well, her Touched identity anyway. Seeing someone who looked just like That-A-Way was… weird. It was like going through one of those weird movie plots where the person meets themselves in order to have some grand realization or something. Only in this case, the other versions of herself had no idea she even existed. Which was, in some ways, even more weird. 

On the other hand, she didn’t have much time to think about that. Not with her particular dance partner. Dani was very intense, and clearly didn’t care about attracting attention. It was fun, but it was also exhausting. Amber was very glad for her years of cheerleading practice, followed by over a year of work with the Minority. The two of them danced together, ignoring everyone around them save for the slightest effort to avoid running into anyone. But for the most part, Amber and Dani’s full awareness was focused on one another, and how they were moving. The music in the air, the excitement, the rush of motion, of being the center of one another’s attention, it… it was a lot. But it was also good. It was fun. It was… nice. 

She did, however, pay attention to the doors where everyone was coming in. So, she noticed when Detective Derek Meyers made his way in. The man wasn’t hard to spot, even in costume. He was tall and somewhat heavyset, with long red hair that was currently tied back in a ponytail. He wore a simple costume of a black suit with a green coat and a domino mask. Amber wasn’t sure who he was dressed up as, or if it actually was anyone in particular. But either way, he was here. Which meant his phone was here. 

Dani, meanwhile, already knew her own target was here. She’d actually passed the woman in question on her way in. The social worker whose keys she needed to borrow was working the front phone-coat check alongside a couple other people. Dani had handed the woman her phone (well, one of them anyway) and even told her to have a nice evening. 

Finally, in a break between songs, the two of them make their way off the dance floor. There were a few scattered bits of applause from people nearby who had apparently been taken in by the display. But for the most part, the space filled up again quickly, as the others went back to dancing. Dani and Amber stepped over by the refreshments table, each taking a glass of punch while looking around at the people surrounding them. 

“Boy,” Dani remarked, “you rich people sure know how to party.” 

Rolling her eyes, Amber retorted, “You know, from everything you’ve said about your great-aunt, I’m pretty sure you’re richer than I am.” 

“Not me,” Dani pointed out, “my aunt. I’m just sort of taking advantage of her assets or whatever. Not like it’s my money.” 

Gesturing at that, Amber replied, “I mean, then you’re basically the same as ninety-nine percent of the ‘rich’ kids at that school. They’re all there on their family’s money too.” 

Mouth opening behind her plastic helmet, Dani paused to consider before giving a nod of acceptance. “You know, that’s fair. But that doesn’t stop a lot of them from acting like they personally made that money with their own sweat and blood. Not that most of them would have any idea what it’s like to sweat.”

Snorting to spite herself, Amber glanced around the room to take in all the costumes once more before speaking up. “You know, I think I need to visit the little rich girl’s room. Would you mind seeing what they have on the menu tonight? I bet it’s something decent.”  

Dani, who had been trying to think of how she was going to separate herself from the other girl to do what she needed to do, tried not to sound relieved. “Oh, yeah, I guess I could do that. If you don’t need company.” 

“I think I can manage,” Amber replied dryly. “Don’t worry, I’ll find you. Your costume stands out.” 

“So does yours, babe,” Dani shot back while pointedly looking her up and down. “But then, you don’t need a costume to stand out.” 

Amber quickly turned away to hide her blush while making her way through the crowd. She still really wanted to get into that coatroom to find the phone so she could figure out exactly how much that detective guy knew, but she actually was having a good time so far. A small part of the girl wondered if she should just put that plan out of her mind and focus on having a good time with her date. But even as that thought came to mind, she saw her father’s face and felt a wave of guilt wash over her for even entertaining it. His murder still wasn’t solved, the person responsible for his death was running around free. There was no way she could let that go. No, it didn’t matter how much fun she was having with Dani. She had to get in there and find out if Derek Meyers knew anything he wasn’t putting in the official report. 

To that end, she made her way to the restroom as promised, stepping into the stall at the end of the room before locking it behind her. Crouching to make sure she was alone in this place, she carefully stepped out of the metal boots, revealing dark slippers, before positioning the boots so that anyone glancing under the stall would think someone’s feet were there. It would do for the short time she planned on being away, in any case. But now she had to move quickly, before Dani started to wonder where she was. 

Pushing both of her gold-scaled sleeves upward, Amber watched as the shirt itself lost the scales and turned black. The sleeves easily pushed all the way up to the shoulders, seeming to vanish in the process so her arms were left bare. A touch of the belt buckle turned her dark green pants black as well. From there, she simply tugged the That-A-Way mask out of her pocket and exchanged the goggles for it. The mask would change her hair color, facial features, and voice. If anyone did see her snooping around, she would make an excuse about investigating something. The most important part was that she definitely didn’t want to get caught using That-A-Way’s powers while wearing a costume as Amber O’Connell. Her plan was to not be seen at all, but better safe than sorry. 

Amber had actually come into this place a few hours earlier while people were still setting up to look around and to get the lay of the rooms so she would know exactly where to go. Now, she turned to face the wall behind her. The coat room where she would find that cell phone was to the north from this spot. Which meant her teleportation was in play. 

Focusing on the far rear corner of the room in question, which she had seen while innocently looking around earlier, Amber instantly vanished from the restroom stall, and reappeared in that dark area. Rows and rows of coats and shelves full of locked phone boxes lay around her, and she could hear muffled voices from the people up front. It was late enough by this point that there weren’t many people arriving to have their stuff put away, yet too early for others to start leaving. Which was the point, of course. Amber knew she had to be careful about the timing here. And, well, careful about everything else as well. 

Taking her extra phone out after peeking to make sure the door leading up front was shut, Amber turned the light on dim and began to check all the names on the cell phone lock boxes as she searched for the one she needed. Meyers, Meyers, where was the one labeled Meyers? Come on, she had to look faster. 

Unfortunately, she’d barely started to look before a sound made Amber’s gaze snap toward the door. The knob was turning. Fuck, someone was coming in! Quickly, she ducked back behind the furthest shelf. Hopefully, they would just toss another box or phone into the room and then leave again. She really had to get done with this and go find Dani. 

******

Dani, meanwhile, had also checked this place out earlier. But she had not focused on the restrooms or their relative position. Instead, she made her way into the game room, where people were sitting around playing cards or pool. The din of conversation, clinking glasses, and the clack of balls bouncing around the felt table top was incredibly familiar for the girl given she spent so much time in La Casa’s base. But still, she couldn’t let that lull her into a false sense of security. What she was doing here was very dangerous, and she had to get in and out quickly before anyone noticed. And, with any luck, before Amber started wondering where she had gone. 

So, walking through the dimly lit room, Dani moved to the far corner. There were more heavy, floor-to-ceiling curtains here as well, and she glanced around to make sure she wasn’t being watched before slipping behind one of them. Once she was safely out of sight behind the curtain, Dani quickly stripped the gold coat off and flipped it inside out. The interior of the coat was white. When she pulled it on and zipped the thing up, it matched the jackets the staff of this place were wearing, at least close enough for casual inspection. 

From there, the girl ran her hands down her gold pants until she found the small buttons on either side of her pockets. At a touch, the pants shifted until they were blue, also matching the wait staff uniform. It hadn’t been hard to get color-changing clothes in that costume shop. It was, after all, one of the best-selling Touched-Tech clothing in the city. Especially with Paintball around. The only real difficult part had been getting the woman they bought the costume from to understand that they didn’t want a bunch of random colors or wild designs like most people who were trying to imitate the boy in question. They just wanted simple gold to blue. 

Once her clothes were properly changed, Dani plucked the helmet off and hid it there behind the curtain. She couldn’t put that in her pocket, but it should be fine here for a few minutes. Then she took a mask from her pocket. At a touch of the button on the side, it expanded outward to match the ones the staff were wearing. Now, as she stepped out from behind the curtain, she would look (at least to most who didn’t inspect her too closely), like she was just another servant there to help the party go smoothly. 

As she expected, the uniform practically made her invisible. Which wasn’t as good as if Grandstand had just come in here with her own power to make people not pay attention to her, but apparently she had her own thing to deal with. Besides, there could have been various bits of electronic security that would identify an extra person who wasn’t supposed to be there. 

And, of course, Dani still wasn’t sure she trusted the woman. Better that she or KD do this part, and she’d had an easy way in. 

Speaking of having an easy way in, the girl made her way through the crowd to the front desk in the main room. Everyone else ignored her, even the other servers. The two women in charge of the coat and phone check barely glanced her way as she walked over holding a phone up. “Someone missed theirs, got another box?” 

Taking the time to absently pass one of the lock boxes her way, the woman in charge, who happened to be the very woman whose keys Dani needed, mumbled something about making sure she put the right name on it, then went back to the conversation she was having with her partner. Just in case, Dani carefully wrote out a name on the side, but she was pretty sure she could’ve completely ignored that part and the chicks wouldn’t have noticed. A moment later, she slipped past them and walked right through the door to ‘put the box away.’ Given how distracted they were, she would have all the time she needed to find where Sue Pascal, the woman right outside, had hung her coat. The coat she apparently always kept her keys inside of. 

It had taken a good bit of research to figure out exactly what sort of security they were dealing with, and how to bypass it. The agency took privacy very seriously, and the only way to enter that office (without getting a whole lot more help than they wanted to ask for), was to actually physically have the key. It wasn’t just a bit of metal, it had a special piece of electronic something or other in it that would both get them through the door and prevent various alarms from going off. Alarms which would, in turn, transfer and wipe the very information they were trying to get. 

Again, they took privacy very seriously. These were the type of people who arranged adoptions for the very rich, and very private. 

But give her just a minute in here, and she would find the coat and the keys. She already had a fake one ready to exchange it for, which would give them plenty of time to get in the office, find what they needed, and get out again before Sue even noticed anything was wrong when she went in the next day. 

*******

Even as the other girl came into the room to start looking around, Amber was silently cursing. She couldn’t see the person very well in the dimly lit room, but it was obvious that she was looking for something. Did someone come back to ask for their stuff back already? Never mind, never mind. This couldn’t take that long. And this was a large party. If Dani wondered where she’d been, she would just tell her she’d gotten lost and they must’ve missed each other. 

Unfortunately, things didn’t get any easier or less complicated. Just as she saw the shadowy figure start to lift up a coat that had been hung in one corner, there was another sound, this one coming from the far side of the room. It sounded like a low creak. As she, and the girl in the corner, both turned that way, one of the shelves there literally slid aside. Seeing that, Amber shoved herself even more firmly back into the corner. Weirdly, she could see the other figure duck down as well, clearly hiding. 

Well, maybe not so weirdly. If she was a staff member for this place, seeing someone come in through a hidden door would probably make her hide too. At least long enough to see what was going on. 

********

Dani was cursing under her breath as she hid behind one of the shelves, squinting out between a couple boxes at the sight of the male figure coming into the room. A secret door? What the hell? If she’d known there was a secret door, she wouldn’t have gone through all this trouble. And what was this guy doing? 

What he was doing, apparently, was talking on the phone. His voice was low. “Yeah, he said they’re all in position. Trust me, we are definitely gonna make an impression. Give it another hour, and this place won’t be more than a memory.” He chuckled then. “A very hot memory.” 

Oh, what the hell? Was this asshole planning an attack on this place or something? What did he mean by something or someone being in position? Was he with one of the other gangs? This definitely wasn’t a La Casa job. It didn’t fit anything like what Blackjack would do with that ‘hot memory’ comment, and she would’ve heard about it. 

Sure enough, the man kept talking. “All ten of them. Yeah, he said they’re hidden real good. In the walls and floor.  I’m just gonna finish up here, then I’ll get out of this place before it goes boom.” 

Okay, no, Dani couldn’t let this happen. She might’ve been a thief, but she sure as hell wasn’t just going to let this piece of shit blow up a building full of people. Even as she had that thought, the girl reached down into her pocket and started to straighten up. Her fingers found Holiday in her tiny skink form, while she focused on her power. 

*****

Bombs?! Fucking seriously? Before the man had even finished saying those words about the place ‘going boom,’ Amber was already using her phone to text the Minority base for help. Or she tried to. The message went undelivered, and she managed to glance down at her phone, just to see that she had no service. Great, just great. Obviously, this guy was blocking calls beyond his own phone, or something. Well, all she had to do was get that phone. And, if it meant hitting him a few times, she was good with that. 

With another thought, she vanished from where she was, and reappeared behind the man, already pivoting. Facing south like this would make her intangible, which she planned to take advantage of by making him jump through her. So, she quickly began to blurt, “Hey ass—” 

But in that moment, something else showed up right in front of the man. He started to turn at her words, yet the thing that jumped out of the shadows demanded his attention much more thoroughly and immediately. it crashed into the man and both of them went straight through Amber, making her spin that way as the man yelped out loud, his phone dropping from his hand. 

In a panic about what the hell had just happened, Amber started to grab for the shadowy monster that had just tackled the man, only to stop short, hiss-blurting, “Holiday?!” 

Sure enough, the panther-lizard pivoted, front paws still firmly holding the man down, before leaning up to purr and lick at Amber’s face. 

“Way?” That was Pack herself, coming out of the shadowy corner. That was the girl Amber had seen coming to the room. She was dressed up like one of the servants, with the same blue mask covering her face. That had to be how she got into the party. “What’re you doing here?” 

“I– I had something I had to do,” she found herself stammering, only to catch herself. “Wait, what are you doing here? You–wait.” This wasn’t the time. It really wasn’t the time. Instead, she dove to the floor and grabbed the man’s phone. Dammit, it had gone to the lock screen, and needed a code. Quickly, she moved to the man and grabbed his hair. “What’s the code for your phone?! How do I call out? Where are the bombs?” She spoke to Pack without looking that way. “Pull the fire alarm, get these people out!” 

The man, a guy in his late forties with short blonde hair and a thin mustache, gave a little chuckle. “I wouldn’t do that if I was you. Unless you want my buddy outside to trigger those bombs as soon as he sees people take off.” His eyes narrowed at them. “People start leaving, he’ll set them off. He gets any sign that the cell blocker is disabled, he’ll set them off. He hears or sees cops or Touched start coming, he’ll set them off. So, ya know…” He sneered. “Maybe you two should just run for it. Two of you, one that can teleport? I bet you can get out in time.” 

Amber wanted to ask who this guy was, why he was doing this, who his partner was, and plenty of other things, but none of that seemed to matter at the moment. The most important– the only important thing right then, was taking care of the bombs themselves. So, grabbing the man’s collar, she held it tightly while demanding, “Where are they? How do we disable them?” When he simply scowled at her, she leaned back and spoke flatly. “Pack, would you tell Holiday to bite one of his fingers off?” 

The man started to scoff, only for his eyes to widen as Pack gestured and the lizard-panther grabbed his hand in her teeth. “Okay okay! Look, the passcode for the phone is four four two one, but it won’t help you get your friends involved. It can only call my partner outside, that’s it. I don’t even know where he set up, just somewhere he could see the entrance. But if you unlock the phone, open the ‘find boom’ app right there and it’ll detect the bombs. The–fuck, the person who made the bombs gave us that shit to control them if we had to. You get close enough with the phone and you can disable them, okay? Just tell this thing not to bite my fucking fingers off, fuck!”

“Why don’t you just tell us where they are?” Pack demanded, putting a hand on Holiday’s back while the lizard kept the man’s hand between her teeth threateningly. 

The man hissed before sighing. “I dunno, okay? I paid someone else to put them in cuz I couldn’t get them through security. He works with the security team. You’ve just gotta track them down yourselves. Ten bombs, you got…. fifty-two minutes. You can make that work, right?”

“You better hope we can,” Amber informed him, already reaching out to grab a nearby scarf from a hanging coat. “Cuz if we go up in flames, you’ll be right there with us.” With that, she tied the man’s hands, gagged him with another scarf, and hauled him back to the corner of the room. Seriously? Bombs? There were fucking bombs in here? How–what–no. No, she couldn’t panic. She couldn’t freak out. Not right now. Later. She could freak out later. Right now she had to stop the bombs and save all these people. And… and she couldn’t do it alone.

With that in mind, Amber straightened and looked at Pack. “Look, I don’t know why you’re here, or what you were here to steal, but I don’t care. Would you please help me find these bombs?” If the guy who had brought these bombs in worked with security, there was no way she could even contact them to do something. Whoever he was, he’d hear about it and set off the bombs. She couldn’t contact the authorities, couldn’t even get help from anyone in here. It was up to her and the La Casa Touched who… who she felt very complicated about. 

“Like you had to ask.” Pack had already picked up the man’s phone, taking a cord from her pocket. “Blackjack gave me this for… something else, but it should work. Here.” She plugged the cord into that phone, then into her own before waiting a moment. There was a ding, and she yanked the cord out. “Okay, now I’ve got the same app our friend there was talking about. So we split up, find all ten bombs, and disable them without causing a panic, right?” Even as she said that, the girl had already started to shrink Holiday back into her normal form, catching the skink to put into her pocket. 

Amber hesitated, then gave a quick nod, looking down at her own phone. “Right, and we’ve got forty-nine minutes to do it. So we better hurry.” There were a lot of other things she wanted to say at that moment, but she settled on, “Thanks. And be careful.” 

“Forty-nine minutes to find ten bombs?” Pack waved that off. “We can do it. 

“At least, I really hope we can.” 

******

After leaving That-A-Way for the moment, Pack made her way out of the coatroom and hesitated. Part of her wanted to start warning people immediately. But that wouldn’t do any good. It would just start a panic and make everyone run for the exits, which would make the guy outside set off the bombs. No, she had to find and disarm them with this little phone app thing. So, she began moving through the crowd, glancing down at the screen in the palm of her hand. Unfortunately, within twenty seconds, three different people had asked her to do different things for them. It was the uniform. They thought she worked here, which was just going to make this whole thing take even more time. Time she didn’t have. So, the girl went back to those curtains and switched to her first costume. Now at least she would blend in with the rest of the guests.

She had no idea why That-A-Way was here to begin with, or why she had been hiding in that room. Or, for that matter, why she wasn’t dressed as herself aside from the mask. She was dressed all in black, like some sort of… well, thief. 

It raised a lot of questions, but she wasn’t going to get answers to any of them just yet. The bombs were more important. Fortunately, this app thing didn’t seem hard to use. As far as she could tell, any time she got near one of the bombs, it would light up with a red circle in the middle of the screen. Then all she had to do was get close enough for it to turn green, and she could press ‘detonate’ or ‘disarm.’ It really was a bomb app for dummies. There was even a little number ten in the top right corner to tell her how many were left. Why it didn’t just have a single button to disarm all the bombs at once from anywhere… well, that would’ve been too easy, wouldn’t it? 

There, the light was flickering. She had to move closer to the–

“Dani?” 

Oh shit, it was Amber. Quickly hiding the phone up her sleeve, Dani turned that way. Sure enough, her date had just emerged from the crowd. “Oh, hey. There you are. I was… looking for you.” Fuck, she wanted to warn the girl to get out, but… but… fuck. She just had to disarm the bombs. There was no way to warn her, not in a way she’d understand. 

******

Shit! Of course Dani had to be right here, the way the bomb detector was telling her to go. Amber cursed inwardly. Could she find a way to tell the other girl she should take off? No. No, even if she could make her leave casually, that might still make the guy outside get antsy enough to set off the bombs. And… and… fuck. Okay, she just had to play it cool. Just had to keep moving and disarm the bombs without letting Dani know what was going on. 

Forcing a smile to her face while adjusting the goggles she had put on after changing into the old costume since she hadn’t wanted to draw anyone’s attention by wearing the mixed That-A-Way and blatant thief outfit, Amber shrugged. “Oh, well it’s a big place. Big crowd. Come on, let’s uh, take a walk so we’re out of the way.” Yeah, that didn’t make much sense, but she had to keep moving. To her relief, Dani didn’t question it. The two of them began to move through the sea of people. Every once in awhile, Amber managed to glance down at the phone she had hidden partway up her sleeve. They were getting closer. It was flickering…. there, it was green. Her thumb quickly moved to hit the disarm button, and she let out a silent sigh of relief when the number in the corner switched from ten to nine.

“Uhh, so, having a good time?” 

*******

Nine? That-A-Way must’ve disabled this one. Quickly turning, Dani scanned the rest of the room. Was the other girl anywhere in sight? She had to be, but would she still look like she had in the coat room, or–

Shaking that off, she forced a casual shrug, trying her best not to sound like there were nine more bombs she was trying to disarm before they killed her and everyone else in the building. “Sure, I guess. You know, the dip’s pretty great.” What the hell was she even saying? She was distracted, trying to subtly glance at her phone to see where she should try to maneuver the other girl to next. 

“Oh, really?” Amber sounded genuinely intrigued, weirdly. “I haven’t seen any yet. Ahhh, you wanna grab some?” 

Thank God, a ready-made excuse. Jumping on that, Dani nodded. “Sure, I’ll get the dip and find you. Uhh, keep heading that way.” She gestured toward the gambling room before starting to slip away. Right, now all she had to do was–

***** 

Keep looking for those bombs. With Dani out of the way, Amber could search for the next one without worrying about the other girl seeing her constantly checking a phone she wasn’t even supposed to have at the moment. 

Thankfully, it wasn’t hard to find the second one. Within two minutes of making her way through the crowd, she had already gotten the green light and disabled it. Reaching up to stick an earbud in, she used her own phone rather than the piece of shit bomber guy’s to call Pack so they could check in. Outside calls were still jammed, but within the same general area they could use what amounted to a short-range radio signal. 

The phone rang three times before the La Casa Touched picked up. “Hang on… There.” On the asshole’s phone, Amber saw the number tick down to seven, even as Pack spoke. “Three down?” 

There was something about the other girl’s voice, but Amber couldn’t focus on it. She started walking while checking the phone again. “Yeah, and I think I’m getting close to another one. We’ve got thirty-eight minutes to find seven more.” 

“Yeah, yeah, I’ve got the timer going too,” Pack replied. “Look, assuming we get through this, you’ve gotta tell me–wait a minute.” 

There was a pause, before the number on the phone ticked down to six. Amber heard a hiss of triumph from the other end of the line. “Fuck yeah,” Pack murmured. “Another one down. When we get through this, you’ve gotta tell me what you were doing in there.” 

“Sure, right after you tell me what you were doing,” Amber shot back, before giving a polite smile to the man who glanced her way curiously. “And how much it’s being fenced for.” 

******

Scoffing as she made her way down one side of the refreshments table, Dani spoke smoothly into the bluetooth built into her plastic Caishen helmet while keeping her voice low enough not to carry to others in the crowd. “Babe, I’ll have you know, I’m here for… okay, not entirely legitimate reasons, but pretty good ones. We’re still looking for Jennica, okay?” 

There was a brief pause before That-A-Way sighed. “Fuck, I’m sorry. I shouldn’t just assume, I just–” 

“Don’t worry about it,” Dani promptly interrupted. The light was flashing again, very faintly, so she tried going one way, only for it to stop flashing. Wrong direction. Turning back the other way, she kept moving. “I’m a thief and there’s a bunch of rich people here. I don’t blame you for… you know, adding two and two.” 

Okay, okay, just a bit further this way and… shit, not that way. Turning slightly, she started to move forward only to run into two heavyset guys loudly talking to one another. When gesturing for them to step aside didn’t work, Dani made a point of shoving her way through them, ignoring the annoyed curses that prompted. She didn’t have time to worry about them. Six more bombs, they had to disarm six more. And then maybe she could try to salvage the rest of her actual mission and this date with Amber. 

Oh shit, speaking of Amber, there she–

*****

“Hey!” Trying not to sound surprised as she quickly disabled the bluetooth in her ear and tugged it out in one smooth motion, Amber stepped up to where she had just seen Dani. “Uhh, no luck with the dip?” God, she was a dip. There wasn’t time for this. Why didn’t she just tell the girl to… to… what? What could she tell her? Nothing, there was no way to explain it, and no time to try. 

“Yeah, the guy with the tray must’ve moved,” Dani replied, turning a bit to look around. “I swear he was right here, but uhh. Wait, I think he’s over there. You stay right here, I’ll get it.”

“Oh, right, yeah.” Already thinking of an excuse she could have for not staying right there, Amber gestured. “M-must be pretty good dip if you’re chasing this guy down for it.” God damn it, why did she say that? Was she trying to make the other girl give up on finding it? What the hell was wrong with her? 

Sure enough, just as she had been afraid of, Dani hesitated and turned back to her. “Look, I’m not trying to avoid you or anything. I mean–” 

“It’s okay,” Amber quickly put in, trying not to think of the ticking clock. Half an hour for six bombs, she could do that. With Pack’s help, she could do it. Fuck, had the other girl already found another one? She couldn’t look at the phone to check. “I promise, it’s all good. We don’t have to be attached at the hip to be here together, right?” 

“Right.” Giving her a thumbs up, Dani seemed to be smiling behind that helmet. “Lemme chase this guy down, then we can dance again or something.” With that, she disappeared into the crowd once more. 

*****

As she moved away from Amber, Dani touched the button on her helmet to unmute her call. “You find any more yet?” Her gaze glanced down to the phone, only to see it still said five out of ten, after she’d managed to disable the fifth one surreptitiously while talking to Amber. 

“Not yet,” came the response after a moment. “I’m uh, I’m looking, one second. Think I’ve got another one right–” And then the number ticked down to four. Dani could hear the relief in the other girl’s voice, tinted as it was with continued worry about the rest. “Six down. We’ve still got time.” 

“Yeah, we’ve got time,” Dani agreed, following the intermittent flashing light in the app to track down the next one. “But… if we run out, what–” 

“We won’t run out,” came the immediate response. “Four more, we can do this. Just… just keep looking. And–” There was a brief hesitation. “And thanks.” 

“Not like I want to see a bunch of innocent people… you know.” Dani didn’t want to say that out loud, even if she was pretty sure no one was close enough to hear, or understand. “Just keep looking, we’ve got thirty minutes to find four more.” 

So, they continued to search the rooms, following the flashing light on the app. Dani found another relatively soon, then That-A-Way found two more over the next fifteen minutes. With about ten left on the clock, they only had one bomb to find. Unfortunately, that one proved to be the problem. Time was ticking away, and there was no sign of it. That little number ‘one’ continued to flash in the corner of the screen, while the minutes rapidly vanished. 

“Where the fuck is this thing?” Dani had stopped worrying about what Amber was going to think. She’d think about how to apologize to the other girl for seemingly ditching her once she made sure everyone survived the next few minutes. 

“We can’t do this,” came Way’s response over the phone. “We’ve gotta take the chance to start teleporting these people out.” 

“There’s no way,” Dani immediately put in. “Look, even when this whole thing started, you couldn’t have–hang on. Wait.” There had been a very faint flicker from the app. She stopped, turning until it flickered again. Looking up, she saw a stairwell access door and muttered a curse. “It’s upstairs, I got it.” Quickly, without even bothering to look around to see if anyone was looking, she moved through the door and began to run up the steps, looking at the phone the whole time. The flickering light was getting brighter. Just a bit more, a bit closer, and she’d be able to–

As she passed a stairwell, someone, a dark shape, stepped out of the corner to one side. Before Dani could finish registering what was going on, a taser was shoved into her side and triggered. She cried out, as the linoleum came up and smacked her. Fuck, fuck, her body wouldn’t cooperate. She could feel Holiday squirm out from under her, but she had to focus to make the lizard grow. 

A man in a security uniform stood over her. “Knew someone was disarming those fucking bombs,” he snarled, holding that taser in one hand and a pistol in the other. “Should’ve known it was a hero wannabe.” 

A hero wannabe? Oh, this guy was so dead. Snarling, Dani rolled over, trying to force her body to stop twitching so much. “Y-you wanna see–” 

“Uh uh,” he interrupted. The guy was tall, several inches over six feet. His skin was dark, with a shaven head. “You move again, I’ll put a bullet in your head. I don’t think that plastic helmet’ll save you, whoever you are. Now–” 

Behind them and down the stairs a bit, the door banged open, as someone came through. The figure stopped short abruptly, clearly staring that way. “What–” 

****

“–the fuck?” Amber had heard Pack cry out, and ran for the stairs access. Now she stood there, seeing the man standing in front of a fallen figure she couldn’t see very well up on the next stairwell. It was Pack, it had to be. She was lying on the floor with this piece of shit standing over her with… with a gun. Immediately, Amber forgot about everything else. She forgot about hiding her identity, about… about all of it. “Get the fuck away from her.” 

“Oh, you think you can tell me what to do, bitch?” The man snapped those words testily, already raising the pistol. “You think you matter? You think she matters? Lemme show you how much she matters.” His finger started to pull the trigger. 

No. No! Amber wouldn’t let that happen. Only one thought filled her mind. She was facing west. Instantly, she hurled herself that way. The whole world slowed down, as her super speed kicked in. She was up the stairs before the man had finished pulling the trigger. She dove, catching hold of the girl lying there. The impact carried both of them in a slide across the floor of the stairwell. 

The gun was silenced, but she still heard the ping of the bullet ricocheting off the linoleum. Before the man could adjust his aim, Holiday was suddenly full-sized, roaring as she leapt that way to tackle him down the stairs. 

On top of Pack but not looking at her, Amber scrambled around, her gaze snapping that way. Holiday had the man down. His gun was already several feet away from him, as the panther-lizard kept the man’s throat in her mouth without biting down. He, in turn, was remaining very still. 

But as soon as she saw that that was in hand, Amber looked at her phone. She was talking to Pack, not caring about the fact that she wasn’t in costume. She wasn’t even thinking about that. The clock was ticking down to almost one minute. Yet the light was green. With a sigh of relief, she hit the disarm button, not daring to breathe until the one flickered and then switched to zero. 

“We did it,” she murmured. “Holy shit, we did it.” 

“Uhhh yeah,” came the response from the figure under her, the figure she had used her superspeed to save. It was Pack, of course. But her voice…. her voice was…

Slowly, Amber turned her head to look at the figure in the slightly dented plastic Caishen helmet, voice catching in her throat. Her thoughts… stopped. No… wait… could… could…

Raising her hand, the pinned figure pushed the helmet aside to reveal Dani’s face staring up at her. 

“Holy shit pretty much sums it up.” 

Previous Chapter / Next Chapter

Interlude 23A – Broadway (Summus Proelium)

Previous Chapter / Next Chapter

A/N – Hey people! The non-canon for this story is out for everyone to read right here!

As she left the Star-Touched people, who would hopefully make sure her brother’s monsters didn’t kill anyone, KD Rafferty sprinted toward the door labeled for employees of the ballpark. Pack and her lizards were right next to her, a reassuring presence. Unlike the woman ahead of them. Why was Grandstand here? She said she only wanted to talk to Jason about finding someone else, but KD didn’t completely trust her. Yes, she didn’t have to present herself to them, and she certainly didn’t have to make it easier for them to reach the ballpark. She’d obviously heard enough while eavesdropping to know where they were heading, and could’ve gone ahead of them. But still, KD didn’t know exactly what the woman was up to, and when it came to her family, that made her anxious. 

Then again, she didn’t know what Jason was up to either. Could he really be trying to get himself into the Scions? That didn’t sound like him, at all. But was she just viewing him through rose-tinted glasses? She hadn’t spent that much time with him for awhile now. Maybe he really had changed that much. Or maybe he’d always been like that. She didn’t want to believe it, but she had seen way too many stories about people having no idea that their sibling, or son, or neighbor was an evil piece of shit to say that it was impossible. And, well, given the company she tended to keep, she had some first-hand experience when it came to seeing evil pieces of shit.

Whatever, the best way to find out the truth was to get to Jason and make him tell them. If he really had gone this far, if he was willing to attack a stadium full of people, she was done holding back. She hadn’t wanted to expose her identity to him. But if that was what it took to really get through to her brother and get answers, then she would do that. She’d gotten into the whole criminal thing to make money and have some fun. To say nothing of attacking what she saw as an unjust, entirely corrupt system that benefited only the rich. But she sure as hell didn’t want to kill innocent people. This whole thing was going entirely too far. Whatever it took, whatever she had to do, she would get through to him. She would stop him from hurting anyone else, even if that meant revealing her true identity and pleading with him to stop. He would listen to her then, right? There was no way he would be that far gone.

With those troubled thoughts filling her mind, the girl reached the base of the cement stairs leading up to a higher walkway where the staff offices and whatnot were. Grandstand was almost all the way up them, but KD pointed past her while triggering a burst of sound from her gauntlet. With a thought, her body transformed and traveled along those soundwaves, reappearing instantly at the top of the stairs. To KD, it felt a lot like surfing a very unstable wave. A wave that was going out in every direction. She just sort of forced herself to go one way along it. The act of teleporting that way had made her feel sick and woozy afterward for awhile, until she grew accustomed to it. Even now, however, traveling too far that way could leave her feeling wobbly.

“Oh sure!” Pack called from below. “She’s got super speed and you can teleport, just let me walk!” 

“Don’t walk!” KD called back. “Keep running!” 

“Besides,” Grandstand idly added, “I only have as much speed as there are people to make ignore me. And since I’m trying to stay with you two, that doesn’t really leave a lot to work with.” 

Even as she said that, a couple people poked their heads out of a doorway down the hall, one calling, “Hey, what’s going on down there?!” 

“Well,” Grandstand announced, “That’ll do.” And with that, she took off running faster than she had been moving before, even as the two people shifted their gazes away from her entirely, having forgotten her existence. 

Which left those two people staring at the La Casa Touched, quickly realizing that this wasn’t some sort of game. The man fumbled, yanking his phone from his pocket. “I–I–I’ll call the cops!” he blurted in a voice that shook a bit too much, KD thought. For fuck’s sake, they weren’t monsters. It wasn’t like La Casa went around killing people willy nilly at the slightest provocation. 

Eh, then again, most people probably didn’t have a lot of interaction with Fell-Touched. Certainly not enough to really get into the differences between different groups. As far as this guy was concerned, they were all just villains. So, she pushed that thought aside and simply started running again while calling out, “Please do, I’m sure you’ve got the address! The heroes downstairs probably need the help!” 

“She’s not kidding,” Pack added while running along behind her, “they really do need help down there, and you should probably all evacuate as fast as you can. Good luck!” Her own words were echoed by a series of yips and growls from the menagerie of lizard-animals trailing behind in a ridiculous parade. They seemed to be expressing much of the same general point. 

“Okay,” KD announced as they ran together, “he’s obviously not in that room. So what do we do, just check all the rest of them one at a time?” 

In response, Grandstand pivoted and lashed out with her foot. As she did so, KD felt her attention suddenly riveted to the woman. She really was beautiful, and pretty damn cool all things consi–fuck! The woman released her power just as her foot managed to kick in the door, having obviously pulled not only KD’s attention, but that of Pack and all her lizards too, giving herself enough of a strength boost to knock the door off its hinges. 

“Would you warn us before you do that?!” Dani blurted. “It’s disorienting!” 

In response, Grandstand simply turned away from the open doorway. “Not in there. And just consider this a blanket warning ahead of time, I’m going to keep using my power to kick these doors in, because we don’t have time to be polite. Unless you’ve forgotten that this place is about to be crawling with a bunch of evil fire zombies, or you don’t want to find this guy before he manages to get a bunch of innocent people killed by the aforementioned evil fire zombies.”

Before either of them could respond to that, they heard Paintball’s voice over the game announcement system, loudly calling for everyone to evacuate. Which was a good reminder of just how little time they probably had at this point if they were going to make sure Jason didn’t kill anyone.

Dani and KD looked at one another briefly, their eyes meeting (despite the fact that one of them was wearing a featureless black mask and the other had a visor over her face) before they both turned back to the other woman and spoke as one. “Use your power all you want.” 

So, Grandstand did just that. Together, the three of them ran down the hall, kicking doors in and telling anyone they saw that they should get the hell out of the building. Granted, most of the people they were warning thought that that the trio were robbing the place or something, but whatever got the point across. As long as they got out of there, that was all that really mattered.

And yet, there was still no sign of Jason. KD had taken to asking everyone if they saw if there was someone who fit his description, a tall, lanky guy with long dirty blond hair and a tattoo of a rose on his neck. Or anyone wearing a mask or otherwise looking shifty. Which ended up getting the girl an awful lot of strange looks, given the circumstances. 

Whatever, she didn’t care. All that mattered was finding him before he did something he could never take back. She’d even be fine with him going to prison for what he’d done so far, as long as they could stop him from doing something even worse. She desperately wanted to stop her brother from being sent to Breakwater, if that was at all possible. Unleashing a horde of monster zombies on a minor league baseball game? That wasn’t something the authorities would overlook. It wasn’t just having fun, messing with people, stealing from the rich, it wasn’t any of that. 

It was terrorizing, and possibly murdering, innocent people. If he really was that far gone, if he wanted to join the Scions and murder people like that, then… then KD would push him into Breakwater herself. Even as a part of her still clung to the idea that this was all a misunderstanding, or he was being used somehow, or… or any number of increasingly desperate and unlikely explanations, she had already firmly told herself that fact in a small, quiet part of her brain. If Jason was responsible for this, he had to be stopped. And he had to be put away. 

And yet, there was still no sign of him. They reached the end of the private office area, and had found little more than a dozen or so now-terrified employees, who were hopefully evacuating while flooding the emergency network so the authorities might actually do something. Through a doorway at the end of that hall, there was another stairwell leading back down, or a walkway that would take them across to an area where the private executive boxes for the rich fans sat. 

A mixture of staff and those rich fans were milling about in the corridor, talking loudly to one another about what was going on down on the field and why Paintball was here. Before Broadway and the others could do anything, or even be noticed, someone screamed from inside one of the rooms. The cry was echoed by another, and soon more people were streaming out from the private boxes while shouting about monsters and zombies. So, apparently Jason‘s little friends had made their entrance. At least they didn’t look stupid for trying to evacuate people now. 

The crowd turned to run right to the stairwell, only to stop short when they saw the Fell-Touched standing there. KD could see the people putting two and two together. In this case four wasn’t actually the right answer, but still. A few cried out while everyone spun to run the other way, even as she opened her mouth to blurt, “Hey, no, we’re not…” A groan escaped her. “Oh never mind. Whatever, run that way then.” Under her breath, she muttered, “We are so getting blamed for this.” 

Grandstand was already moving to the first door while casually noting, “Having a reputation has its upsides and downsides.” She kicked the door in, glanced around, and shook her head. “Fuck, this is taking too long. Can’t we search this place faster? Send your little friends there, lizard girl. They could spread out and hit every room a hell of a lot more efficiently than the three of us.” 

Pack looked like she was about to argue, then thought better of it and shrugged before stepping aside as she sent the lizards out to check every room ahead of them. Which was… well, quite a sight. Watching reptilian hybrid versions of an eagle, bear, gorilla, panther, monkey, and reindeer split up to kick in doors was pretty surreal. 

As they kept moving behind the scattered lizards, Grandstand turned to glance at Broadway. “Where the hell is he? You know him, right?”

“I have no idea!” KD blurted. “Obviously, I don’t know very much about him after all. Not if he’s the type of person who could do something like–” In mid-sentence, she was interrupted by the sudden appearance of one of the zombies. He was a heavy Latino man with dyed blond dreadlocks, and an obvious bullet hole in the middle of his head. He came slamming his way out of a door leading into what looked like a custodial supply closet, snarling as he saw them. 

Before he could do anything, Broadway pointed and sent a burst of sound that way while converting herself to follow it. Surfing that wave right past the man in her sound form, she reappeared behind him and pivoted to bring both hands up, unleashing a narrow burst of high-pitched music from her gauntlets. As soon as the sound was in the air, she caught it with her power and both magnified and narrowed the sound even more. She had used this to punch holes through concrete before. Normally, of course, she toned it down for human beings. She wasn’t a killer and had no desire to permanently cripple people. But this was different. This guy was already dead. He was a corpse who just needed to be taken apart. She had no need to hold back. 

And yet, despite the fact that those twin bursts of sound would have shattered concrete blocks in front of them, they did barely anything to the zombie. He staggered slightly, before pivoting with stunning speed. His hand flashed out to smack Broadway, but before he could make contact, there was a roar from the other side. Mars Bar came in out of nowhere and slammed into the man, knocking him sideways into the wall. The lizard bear howled in pain immediately, staggering back with visible burns all over his body. Pack shouted out in dismay, before quickly ordering Twinkle Toes to back off before the lizard-gorilla could come to his friend’s aid. In the same moment, she raised that shotgun and fired a beanbag around into the zombie’s face. The force made his head rock backwards, but did very little else. 

Abruptly, however, the air was filled with several more gunshots. These came from the two pistols that Grandstand had produced, which she repeatedly fired while advancing that way. Each shot made the zombie’s head rock backwards again, but he still wouldn’t fall.

Stopping Holiday from charging in, Pack reloaded the shotgun with a couple more shells, then took aim once more. Before she could fire, Broadway shouted, “Just knock him down, he doesn’t matter! He’s just delaying us!” Even as she said that, the girl charged up her gauntlets to unleash an even louder burst of sound. “Both of you hit his knees!” 

To her relief, the other two didn’t argue. They quickly readjusted their aim, Pack calling left so they wouldn’t both hit the same spot. An instant later, she unloaded the shotgun into that knee, while Grandstand hit the other with both of her pistols. 

At nearly the exact same time, as soon as she heard those shots, Broadway unleashed the sound burst from her gauntlets. The guns were much quieter than they should have been, thanks to Touched-Tech, but she still caught hold of that sound as well, just to add as much as possible to her power. This time, she didn’t narrow the force nearly as much. She wasn’t interested in cutting through the zombie. Instead, she kept it just about as wide as his body and magnified it as much as she could. It slammed into the already-dead figure like a freight train, just as his legs were knocked out from under him by the shots. Unable to brace himself as the blast of sound-powered force slammed into him, he was sent flying down the corridor. 

Without wasting another second, the three of them spun to the supply closet the zombie had come out of. Broadway was there first, poking her head in and looking around. There. A ladder that had clearly been pulled away from somewhere else led upward through a hole that had been burned into the ceiling. 

Either way, that was where he was. So, she looked up, pointing so she could send a burst of sound through the hole and teleport herself that way. No way was she going to wait around to use the ladder. Not when Jason was about to make the worst mistake of his life.

Reforming herself in what turned out to be some sort of enormous attic type storage space that had to be as wide and long as the entire building’s structure, she spotted the boy in question almost immediately. No, not boy. He was an adult. Older than she was, certainly, and adult enough that the authorities would have no problem sentencing him to Breakwater for this. He was on the far side of this wide open attic area (what was this for?), yet incredibly easy to spot. Because there was nothing else up here. It was just a wide open space with nothing in it. Nothing except for Jason himself. He was standing over by a narrow window that overlooked the field, staring down that way with his back to her. As soon as she had taken that in, however, he spun, and she saw his face. 

It was him. It was her brother. He had lightly tanned skin from spending a lot of time outside, was well-muscled thanks to all the yardwork he tended to do for extra cash, and had long dirty-blond hair pulled into a simple ponytail. He had no shirt on, and her attention was immediately drawn to several polished stones that seemed to be attached to the boy’s skin. The largest one, a red, gleaming, almost flat ruby, sat in the middle of his chest. It was about four inches across and looked incredibly smooth. There were also two blue ones up by his shoulders that were about half the size, and a couple of equally-sized green ones on either side of his stomach, just above his hips. An amber-colored stone that was smaller than all the rest sat right over his navel. Finally, there was a black one just under his throat. All of the stones were glowing faintly. 

He also wore glasses, which he was staring at her through while pointing what turned out to be a weird-looking pistol. It wasn’t an ordinary gun, that was for sure. 

“I got no problem with La Casa or any of you,” he was saying, his voice cracking a little. “But if you don’t back the fuck off down that ladder, I will.” 

“Jason,” KD blurted, “you have to stop this!” 

“I don’t exactly have–wait,” he interrupted himself, “how the fuck do you know my name?” 

Right, he wouldn’t recognize her. Not only was it impossible to see her face through the helmet, the armor she wore boosted her height by several inches. He’d never guess who she really was. Which had been a large part of the point of wearing this sort of costume, so no one would recognize her. But now… now what was she supposed to do? 

“Jason,” she started hesitantly. “We–” 

That, however, was as far as she got before the older boy abruptly crumpled to the floor. Suddenly, Grandstand was standing behind him, having clearly injected him with something from the syringe she was just putting away. 

“Jason!” KD blurted, before her gaze snapped that way. “What the hell did–” 

“Oh, sure,” Grandstand retorted, “I was really just going to stand around and let you have a moment with him or whatever while his monsters were out there killing people. We can both chat with him once we get him out of here and somewhere that he can’t attack us with his zombies.” 

“Uh,” Pack started before KD could respond to that, “speaking of his zombies, they aren’t falling down.” She had climbed up by then and was standing over by the window, staring at the field. “They’re still running around out there. Why aren’t they falling down? He’s unconscious.” 

“Does it have something to do with those… gems?” Pack asked, squinting that way. “What the fuck are those?” 

“No fucking idea, maybe if someone hadn’t knocked him out, we could’ve asked him. And maybe he has to actively make the zombies stop?” Broadway pointed out. “So, wake him up.” 

“That uhh, that might be a problem,” Grandstand admitted. “He’ll be out for hours thanks to this stuff.” She was looking at the syringe. “I really thought him going unconscious would stop the zombies. Isn’t that usually how it works?” 

“Fuck!” Pack snapped her gaze to her bird-lizard. “Riddles, go get Paintball! Lead him up here, we’ve gotta figure out what the fuck we’re supposed to do now! 

“If we can’t make those zombies stop without waiting for this guy to wake up, we’re in trouble.” 

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Enkindle 23-16 (Summus Proelium)

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Needless to say, we were all a bit surprised to find Grandstand suddenly standing in front of us. Or, more to the point, crouched on top of the van. Giving a double-take while the others reacted around me, I found myself blurting, “You’re the reason the cops never tried to pull us over!” Wait, she had been crouched on the roof the entire time we had been driving up here, at those speeds? What the hell was this chick doing? Why would she have been following us like that? Why was she here at all? 

Under her Zorro-like bandana mask, the woman smiled faintly while hopping down to land on the pavement next to the van. “Worked that out quick, didn’t you? You’re welcome. Now, like I said, are we gonna go in there and be heroes, or what?”

Poise, stepping slightly in front of me, spoke up sharply. “What are you doing here? Last I checked, you and Cuélebre were on the outs, but I don’t think that means you suddenly decided to switch sides out of the goodness of your heart.”

“Better question,” Pack abruptly put in while holding that shotgun of hers. She hadn’t gone as far as to point it at her, but the point was made. “Why were you following us close enough to find out what we’re doing?” 

“My business is personal,” the woman shot back. “But, just to ease this along since I’m pretty sure we don’t have time for a lot of arguments, let’s just say I wasn’t following you. Or, well, I was only following you recently. I’ve been tracking down the guy you’re after right now. You know, the one responsible for those zombie attacks, like the one that’s about to happen right in there. I need to talk to him. He has information about the guy I’m really looking for. I’ll help you stop him, then I get to talk to him until he tells me what I need.” 

While the rest of us were absorbing that, Broadway stared at the woman, voice dark and clearly suspicious. “What exactly do you want to talk to him about?”

“Relax, it’s not about your secret identity,” Grandstand retorted while visibly rolling her eyes. “I’m gonna be really honest here and say I very seriously couldn’t care less about that. This is a hell of a lot more important. And yeah, I know, my old gang and your gang aren’t exactly friends right now. Big whoop. I’m here for bigger fish. Like the kid over there said, I’m not at the top of Cuélebre’s best friends list at the moment, so picking a fight with some kids over your secret identities or whatever isn’t even on the first ten pages of my to-do list. My real friend, a close friend, was murdered. And the guy in there knows something about who did it.” 

Broadway made a noise before starting with, “If you think–” 

“Relax, Soundwave,” Grandstand interrupted, “It wasn’t him, so I’m not out for revenge. If I was, none of you would’ve ever known I was here. He’s not the guy who killed my friend, but he’s got information I need about who it really was. Now that’s all I’m gonna say about it. I figured since I caught a ride with you guys, and I only know where he is thanks to you, I owe you some sort of explanation. But that’s enough. I’m going in there to find him before he takes off again. If you all want help making sure a bunch of innocent people don’t die, you’ll get over yourselves and come along.” With that, she started to move to the entrance.

Calvin’s head shook while our whole group looked at one another uncertainly, the boy hesitating before managing a confused, “What’re we supposed to do? She’s a bad guy, right?” 

I shrugged, with a glance toward Pack and Broadway. “Not like she’ll be the first villain we’re working with. And she’s right, people in there are going to get hurt or die the longer we stand out here and debate about it.” A funny feeling ran down my spine, but I shook it off and turned to run toward the stadium. On the way, I fumbled with my phone and used the redial to call Caishen yet again. I left another message to say that we were there and that we needed help. What else was I supposed to do? Yes, she had told us not to go after whoever was responsible for the zombies alone, but we couldn’t just let this happen without trying to stop it. We weren’t hiding the fact that we’d found him. We’d called everyone we possibly could. They were all busy. The only option besides going in there was to just let it happen. And I didn’t care if she got mad at us or not, I wasn’t going to do that. Dangerous or not, we weren’t just going to let a bunch of people die. If it turned out she thought we should… well, then the Michigan heroes were a lot worse than I thought. 

There was, of course, one more thing I could do. Slowing my run, I turned toward Paige and lowered my voice. “Call the Ministry as yourself real quick. Tell them Paintball called you and told you what was going on, and asked you to tell them they need to do something. They know that I know something about them anyway, and that you have their number. But can you do it without them tracking your phone as coming from right here?”

Paige, absorbing that, gave a short nod. “I’ll forward the call from another phone back in the city.” With that, she set to work doing just that, while I started running once more. Maybe it was dumb to call in the Ministry and ask them for help, but I was seriously desperate. They wanted to keep crime under control, and something told me Jason hadn’t received their permission to do this. 

“Glad to see it didn’t take long for you to come to your senses,” Grandstand informed me as we approached the gate. Unsurprisingly, the man who was standing there looked a little surprised at the sight of what was coming toward him. He was staring at all of us, but mostly at the woman beside me. I saw his hand move to the radio on his belt, only to stop short as his eyes abruptly shifted toward me, hand dropping away from the belt as though he’d never reached for it to begin with. “Hey, sorry, costume night’s not til next week. I don’t know who screwed that up, but hey, you all look pretty g–holy shit what the fuck?!” That last bit came as he caught sight of Holiday and Mars Bar, who were already partway shifted into their large forms. 

Oh, and he paid absolutely no attention to Grandstand as the woman simply walked right past him. Obviously, she had used her power. On the other hand, she did pause to wait for us, while making an impatient ‘hurry up’ gesture with her hand. Whether it was because she genuinely wanted to help, or because she thought she had a better chance of finding this Jason guy with Broadway and Pack, I wasn’t sure. A voice whispered in the back of my ear that it might be less about thinking Broadway could help find him, and more about thinking she could use Broadway as a hostage against him if he found out she was his sister. 

Then again, would he even care about that? Could someone who was trying to show off for the Scions give a shit about his sister being in danger? I had no idea. But then again, I couldn’t even fathom having a brother who would try to show off for the Scions in the first place. Yeah, my brother had clearly killed people, but there was a pretty vast gulf between that and auditioning to hang out with Pencil, Cup, and their gang.

Ignoring the gate guide for just a moment, I turned to the two La Casa Touched. “You guys go find him. Have Riddles let us know if you track him down. We’ll get everyone out of here. Just… be careful.” With that, I turned back to the guy, who looked even more confused. He’d grabbed his radio from his belt again and was fumbling with it. As it fell from his hand, I shot red paint at it and at that hand, making it jump back into his grip as he made a noise of surprise. 

“Dude,” I quickly put in, “the zombie-monsters over in Detroit, you heard about them? The guy who’s been controlling them is here. As in he’s in this stadium, not just the city. He’s gonna attack this place any minute. You need to start evacuating people right now.” As his eyes widened in shock about what I was saying, I grabbed his wrist and shoved the radio up to his ear. “Call it in! Open every gate, every door. Let everyone out, right now! Set off the fire alarms, whatever you need to do, just get everyone to move!”

That was all I could take the time to say. Leaving the man stammering in confusion, I ran past him and into the entrance area of the stadium. The others were right behind me. Grandstand gave me an evaluating look briefly before nodding as she pivoted to run toward an area labeled for employees. On the way, she called back, “Your pal‘s gonna want to have a good view of the stadium and privacy! Probably upstairs somewhere!” 

Broadway and Pack were right behind her, along with the assortment of lizards, who were growing by the moment. I barely paid any attention to that, however. My focus was on several guards who were jogging up from around the other corner. As they approached and tried to tell us we had to leave and that this whole thing wasn’t funny, I snapped a hand up to shoot green paint over the rest of our little group. Seeing me actually do that brought the guards up short as they realized this either wasn’t a costumed prank, or it was a really good one. 

“Zombie bad guy from Detroit’s attacking this place, you gotta get everyone out!” I blurted while already activating the green paint to run past them. “You guys get down to the field and help people get to the exits! Watch for zombies!” I called over my shoulder just as we reached the top row of bleachers. The people there, watching the game below, jerked in surprise at the sight of me. Though most, again, didn’t realize I was the real thing. Not yet, anyway. But they would pretty soon. 

Stopping short, my gaze scanned the field, then the bleachers, then up into the higher areas. Nothing untoward. The place seemed completely normal. If we were wrong about this, if he’d changed his mind and we were sounding the alarm for no reason–no. We definitely couldn’t take that risk. Even if we ended up looking paranoid and stupid, it didn’t matter. 

To the people around me, who were staring in even more confusion about whether this was some sort of presentation, I added, “Unless you guys wanna be trampled, you need to get out right now. Run! Get the hell out of the stadium! It’s not a game, it’s an attack, so go! Just spread the word and get the fuck out of here right now!” With that, I pointed my hand toward the announcers booth. It was above the bleachers by the first base line, while we were above home plate. A line of red paint went flying from my hand, making the nearby audience gasp as they realized I wasn’t a fake. That gasp became a cry of surprise that spread throughout the audience as I triggered the paint and launched myself over their heads, across all those bleachers, and all the way to the raised booth. 

“Korey Rikers, the second baseman, coming to–what the fuck?!” That was the announcer himself, his shock broadcast all over the stadium and over the radio as I hit the window next to him. I could see the skinny guy with his big droopy mustache holding a hotdog in one hand, which slowly fell to the desk, dripping ketchup and mustard over the keyboard sitting there as he stared at me wide eyed. The man turned to a guy next to him and half-covered the mic while hissing a question about whether this was some sort of promotional stunt. Despite the covered mic, his words were still picked up and broadcast, and I could see more people looking up to where I was and pointing. If I’d wanted everyone’s attention, I was sure getting it. Now I just had to do something useful with that.

To that end, before the stunned announcer could recover, I planted my knees against that window (staying in place thanks to the gravity defying boots), painted a bit of the glass pink, and punched through it. As the man gave another curse of surprise, I apologized before grabbing the mic from his hands. “Everyone get out of the stadium right now!” I blurted into it while squeezing the button so my voice was projected. “There’s a bad guy who wants to hurt everyone here, you need to get out of your seats and get to the parking lot! And then keep going! Just get out of here! Find an exit and get out!” Yes, it wasn’t perfect. There was a good chance we would cause a panic. But what choice did we have? We needed to get everyone out as fast as possible. The second Jason saw us or realized people were starting to leave, he would unleash his monsters. There was no time to be subtle about it. Besides, we could watch for anyone being trampled or suffocated. We–we had to do it this way. 

Okay, the truth was, maybe someone more experienced would’ve had a better idea of how to do this. Maybe there were twenty different better ways. But I had to do something right then. I didn’t have time to stop and think about it. 

At least people were listening. The group who had been close enough to hear me tell them what was about to happen before I painted my way up here had already cleared out and were running out the same way we had come in. Which left an opening for others below them in the stands to pick themselves up and start running. Meanwhile, the guards had actually listened and spread the word. I could see other entrances being hauled open, the people there shouting for more of the audience to get out those ways. 

The rest of the team were busy getting everyone moving. Calvin and Hobbes were helping by using the teleportation power. Hobbes was all the way over on the far side of the field where there was a gate that was usually only opened to allow cars to drive onto the field. It was open now, thanks to one of the guards there. With Murphy by the gate, Calvin got everyone he could in the lower stands to grab onto him, and teleported them over there. Then Murphy started to run. They were splitting up how much work they each had to do by taking turns with which one of them ran to collect people and which one stood by the gate to catch their breath. 

Meanwhile, Poise and Style were in the middle of the stands, on opposite sides of the stadium, directing everyone about which way to go. The two of them were making sure no single exit was overwhelmed with people. And anyone who tried to shove their way through quickly found themselves grabbed and pulled out of the way so others could get past. Sierra and Paige seemed to be everywhere at once, slipping through the crowd easily to find the potential troublemakers before anything bad could happen. 

Then there was Alloy. She was above the crowd, hovering in her armor. Apparently she’d started to get the hang of using just that to keep herself in the air without a board under her feet. That or she felt like she needed every other marble she possibly had for other things. Either way, those other marbles were turned into various walls and ramps to lead the audience one way or another. Whenever one exit area started to get too full, she noticed from her elevated position and used one of her marbles to block that way off, directing people down a lesser-occupied route. 

Spotting a group of players mixed with employees and some of the audience being pushed to one side out onto the field, I used a mix of blue and red paint to throw myself that way. “Hey, coming through!” I called out to announce my arrival before landing near the group. Quickly, as they looked at me and started to blurt questions, I painted a pink door onto the nearby wall, before lashing out with a purple-powered foot to kick through it. I had to kick a couple times, but I finally knocked out enough of the pink door shape to reveal the open, weed-filled lot behind the field. “Go!” I blurted. “Run and keep running. Just trust me, go!” Even as I said that, my gaze snapped around the field and up into the stands. There were still a lot of people, but the place was getting emptier by the moment. We were actually doing this. We were going to get these people–

And then it happened. A loud, terrifying shriek filled the air, as a man appeared on top of the announcer’s booth where I had just been. And not just any man. A clearly dead one. The top third of his head was gone, leaving some of his brain visible. His arms were twisted around the wrong way, and he forced them back into position with a series of audible snaps, while all of us stood there and watched in horror. Then, he tilted his head back and gave a terrible howl that was half-banshee and half-wolf. It echoed around the field, before being answered by another howl. Then another one. And another. 

They were everywhere. Two of them burst out of the restroom up behind the third base stands. Another one came crawling out from under the outfield fence. The visiting team dugout had one that came through the locker room area, chasing two people who had been going out that way. More were in the stands. We’d gotten some of the people out before Jason reacted, but not nearly enough. And now these monsters were here. Not just one or two. There had to be a dozen of the things, at least. 

This sick piece of shit wanted to put on a show for the Scions, and he was going to do it by slaughtering as many innocent people in this place as he could. Unless we stopped him. But we had barely been able to handle one of these things before with all of us working together. What the hell were we supposed to do about twelve of them all spread out, and with a bunch of civilians in the way?

Whatever it was, we were going to have to figure it out soon. Because, with another chorus of horrifying howls, the zombies attacked.

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Enkindle 23-15 (Summus Proelium)

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We had to get to that stadium before those zombies attacked all the innocent people there. But more importantly, we had to make sure other people got there. All that mattered was stopping what was about to happen. And we needed help to do that. Unfortunately, none of us were having much luck on that front. Pack had called Broadway to tell her what was going on, and though the other girl was, to put it mildly, reluctant to believe that her foster brother would be that deranged and psychotic, she did agree that something bad was going to happen. So they both tried contacting Blackjack or anyone else in La Casa. But there was some sort of attack happening right then and they couldn’t get through to anyone important. 

Meanwhile, Paige made an anonymous call to both the Seraphs and the Spartans. And I, of course, called Ten Towers the way I’d promised Caishen I would. I even called her personal number that she had given me. But again, it was hard to reach anyone who would listen. I even made a third call to leave a message with Lucent, only to be told that he was out in the field right then and would get back to me as soon as he could. I wasn’t sure people were actually taking us as seriously as we wanted them to. Probably unhelped by the fact that we were pretty frantic and not in the mood to patiently explain. 

For my part, I did manage to get hold of That-A-Way, but she and the other Minority members, including Raindrop, were in the middle of helping the Conservators with some sort of big shootout involving Cuélebre and other members of Oscuro. It seemed like the entire city had decided to blow up at this exact moment. Well, to be fair, it had been blowing up for a while. There was a reason for the curfew intended to curtail the gang war, after all. But still, it really didn’t help us right now.

“Hold on!” Pack shouted while sending the van she had borrowed skidding around the corner.  The rest of us would’ve been thrown around wildly if it wasn’t for the seatbelts we had hastily buckled. “How long do we have until the game starts?!” She asked that while bringing the van to a brakes-squealing halt next to an alley just long enough for Broadway to jump in the front passenger seat next to her. 

Hobbes was pressed up into a corner, quickly checking her phone. “Uh, right now. It’s starting right now. But he won’t necessarily unleash his monsters first thing, right?” She was clearly trying to inject a bit of hopefulness into her voice. 

Even as she said that, we nearly rear-ended a couple cars that were blocking the road ahead at a stoplight. With a blurted curse, Pack jerked the wheel to send the van up over the curb. We ran through a wooden display selling vegetables, and all of us winced at the sound of thumps along the roof as an assortment of cabbages and wood bounced along it, along with the sound of the man running the stand shouting in dismay. One particularly loud thump made me wince.

Then, with a new set of bumps as the van dropped off another curb, we were back on the street. As soon as we went around the next corner, heading for the freeway entrance, Alloy called out to me, “The stadium! We can call them, tell them to evacuate the place.” 

So, that was exactly what I tried next. While half-listening to Broadway and Pack having a whispered yet intense discussion, I looked up the number for the stadium and called them. Unfortunately, the person who answered didn’t take me seriously. He laughed off my attempt at a ‘prank’ and when I tried to explain a bit more, hung up on me. I tried that number again and got no answer before calling the other number attached to the stadium. That time a woman answered and instead of laughing when I tried to warn her, she cursed me out and threatened to call the police. I was in the midst of yelling at her that she had to call the police when she hung up as well. This was going swimmingly. Fuck, fuck! 

“Style?” I asked, looking toward Sierra in hope that she had had more luck. 

“Called local 911 over there and told them the situation,” she replied, voice sounding tense. “They took me about as seriously as you might expect. Told me they’d ‘send an officer over to check it out.’ We’ll be lucky if they do that much.” 

“Fuck!” I blurted out loud. “Okay, okay, we can still get there and slow this whole thing down. Way knows the gist about what’s going on and she’ll get people there as soon as they can get away from that whole Cuelebre thing. We’ve left messages with everyone. As soon as they get a free moment, they’ll check them, and send people. We’ll get there. We can get there.” I repeated that, trying to convince myself before looking toward the front. “ I know asking for your help is a lot, and–” 

“Oh shut up!” Pack snapped. “Like we’re not gonna stop a bunch of monsters from slaughtering a stadium full of innocent people. That’s not even a question, Paintball.” 

Broadway hesitated before shifting around in her seat to look at me. “Besides that, I have to find out if my brother is really responsible for this. He could’ve been manipulated, or that evidence could’ve been planted, or… I don’t know. If he’s not responsible for this, if it’s not really his choice, I want to prove that before it’s too late. But if he is…” She trailed off before squaring her shoulders. “If he is then I want to stop him too.” 

Paige was looking straight at her, voice flat. “So if it comes down to it, you’ll side against him.” 

Broadway shot her a clearly dark glare. “If it’s a question of siding against him or letting him kill a bunch of innocent people, yes, I’m siding against him. I’m not a fucking psychopath.” Again, she paused before turning back to face the front once more while slumping back in her seat with a muttered, “Then again, I didn’t think he was either.” 

Oh boy could I really not blame her for that sort of reaction. It made me think back to exactly how I had felt when I found out the truth about my own brother. I thought about how it felt to be hiding under that dumpster when I heard his voice that night. No wonder she was having a hard time with this. And I definitely couldn’t blame her for wanting to find out if the whole thing was a mistake or whatever. I definitely would’ve preferred to learn that my family was being framed, and they at least weren’t about to be responsible for intentionally slaughtering a stadium full of innocent people just to impress the fucking Scions. 

“Whoever is actually responsible, we’ll stop them. If it’s him… we’ll deal with that. If he’s being used somehow, we’ll… do something about that too,” I assured her as firmly as I could while looking out the window as Pack sent the van hurling as fast as possible through the streets. I didn’t even care if we ended up attracting the police at that point, because they could help. We needed someone to pay attention. 

Of course, because I actually wanted the cops to pay attention to us, there were none to be found anywhere. Apparently the entire fucking department was also busy with other things just like every Star-Touched we tried to call, because the streets were practically empty. Which did help us get to the freeway even faster, but still.

Alloy looked up from her (disposable pay-as-you go) phone then, muttering a curse. “I tried that number Glitch gave us, but they’re not answering either.” 

“They will, someone will,” I mumbled, bouncing a little in my seat anxiously. “Someone will check their messages, or Way will get out of that fight and send someone. We’ll have some help. They’ll be there. Someone’ll be there.” Yes, I was trying to convince myself, and no it wasn’t working very well. 

“Hey,” Calvin started, “Maybe you could try Tweeting about it? You know, use the hashtags for the team and the stadium and say there’s an emergency and everyone needs to get out of there right now.” 

“If the tweets even gain any traction, they could start a panic,” Paige pointed out carefully. “Everyone stampeding for the exit at the same time wouldn’t help, especially when no one’s there to help.” 

“If those zombies attack, there’ll be a panic anyway,” I replied. But she wasn’t wrong. Alerting people to get out of there wouldn’t help if they all freaked out and hurt each other in a desperate attempt to escape. It would be like hearing a gunshot or shouting bomb in a crowded theater. People would be trampled. But what were we supposed to do, in that case? Roald was right, it was a chance to maybe get the people in the stadium to see our warning. We couldn’t just ignore that. Yet I was frozen for a moment between the fear of what would happen if we sent a warning and people were killed in the ensuing panic, or if we didn’t send a warning and people died because we didn’t get to the stadium fast enough. 

“Paintball,” Paige spoke up, getting my attention. “If he’s monitoring social media around the stadium and the game–” 

“Right,” I realized, “if he’s paying attention, and he probably is, he’ll see any warning we send long before it spreads to the rest of the people. He’ll know we’re onto him and start the attack immediately.” Pausing, I amended, “Or whoever is behind this.” 

“He’s doing it,” Broadway muttered. “I just don’t know if he’s responsible for it. I don’t know if he’s really choosing this, or if they’re manipulating him.” Her voice made it clear which she was hoping for. “And you’re right. If you put out a general warning, he’ll see.” 

So, painful as it was, I couldn’t send that warning. It was one thing to contact the authorities, or try to tell the people in charge of the stadium to start an evacuation immediately, but hoping that a public message will get through to the crowd at all, let alone be listened to, before he noticed it and acted? No. No, we had to at least get there first. Please, damn it, let us get there before he started the attack. 

Instead, I swallowed hard before focusing on Calvin. “Watch Twitter stuff around the stadium, or any news, or anything. Just… just tell us if there’s an emergency, or if anyone starts talking about monsters. Or–you know.” 

For his part, the boy met my gaze before giving a short nod. “I’ll watch for it,” he murmured, voice catching slightly before he looked down at his phone once more. 

Right, so at least we had someone to tell us if we ended up being too late. Clenching my hand tightly, I looked back to the front, my voice tense. “Pack, I hate to be the little kid in the back of the car during a road trip, but are we there yet?” I was trying to simultaneously lighten the mood a little bit while also pressing the urgency. Not that she really needed to be reminded. I knew that. I just felt helpless, sitting here in the van hoping those things weren’t already attacking people. With every second that passed, I kept expecting Calvin to abruptly blurt out that it was too late. 

“Doing my best,” the girl informed me while her hands clutched the steering wheel tightly. She clearly had the pedal all the way to the floor as we were sent practically flying down the freeway while weaving in and out of traffic. There hadn’t been many other cars in the city itself, given the whole curfew situation. But there were people driving out of the city. So we kept running into pockets of traffic. Not that that stopped Pack. She just drove around them, even going up onto the shoulders without a second thought. Again, if our insane driving attracted cops, good. 

But it didn’t. We weren’t really attracting much attention at all, come to think of it. A few people honked, but not nearly as much as I might’ve thought. We were, for the most part, entirely ignored. Maybe with the gang war going on, everyone was afraid to pay too much attention to a van acting this erratic. But hey, with any luck, maybe they were calling the cops. I didn’t care if we had to lead a procession of a dozen police cars and a helicopter all the way there for refusing to pull over. Wait, scratch not caring, I hoped that happened. 

Unfortunately, we still seemed to be experiencing some sort of weird situation where nobody was paying attention to us. Aside from those relatively few honks as we cut around people, we didn’t have any problems. Including no cops showing up. Probably because they would’ve been helpful, and we couldn’t have that, could we? 

Rocking back-and-forth in my seat while silently urging the van to go faster didn’t help. Fortunately, putting my hands against the side and painting the thing green did actually contribute. And given we were being ignored by the other cars, it was even more helpful. Soon, the van was practically flying along the side of the freeway, zooming past everyone else as though they were standing still. 

“Once we get there, you guys get into the stadium and start evacuating people,” Pack was saying while keeping her hands tight on the wheel. “They won’t listen to Broadway and me, and seeing us with you will just complicate things. So we’ll go look for Jason.“

Broadway was nodding. “Whether it’s just him or somebody else has him, they’ll be somewhere that they can watch what happens. I just–” she stopped, clearly considering her next words before speaking a little more clearly. “I just hope we can find him before anything… before he does something we can’t stop.” 

Her words made me swallow hard. Yeah, I definitely knew how she was feeling. Well, at least to an extent. I really had no idea how I would feel if my brother was out there trying to impress the Scions. But still, the whole thing made me sympathize with her. She was a villain, sure, but just like so many other situations I had found myself in since getting my powers since that night, the whole thing wasn’t that cut and dry. She was worried about her brother, yet still willing to stop him if he really was this far gone. It just… maybe it made me think about what I would do if I was face to face with my own brother and he was about to do something like this. 

I would stop him, that was for sure. If he was trying to kill this many people–if he was trying to kill any innocent people, I would stop him. I just… had no idea where we would go from that point.  Which, I was pretty sure, was exactly what Broadway was thinking about. Would she reveal her identity to him in order to make him stop? Would that even work? I supposed it depended on how far gone he really was, and on whether this was all actually his choice or not. 

All I really knew in that moment was that I was glad I wasn’t her. I had enough family issues to deal with. 

Pushing those thoughts out of my head, I spoke up. “The second we go in there and start to tell people to get the hell out, he’s going to unleash his monsters.”

Paige nodded once from where she was sitting. “But at least we’ll be in there to get their attention.” 

“And then what?” Murphy demanded. “What are we supposed to do? I dunno if you were paying attention before, but we could barely handle one of them, and this sounds like he’s planning to unleash more than that.”

“We focus on making exits and safe paths for people to get out,” I put in. “I know it’s not gonna be easy, and they’ll still panic. But at least when we’re right there, we can help. Alloy, I want you to use your marbles to make platforms and shields and stuff to get people out of the way. Maybe even just pick them up and carry them out of there whenever you can.”

She started to protest that she needed to help with the zombies, but I cut her off. “You’ve got the best chance of protecting and shielding people. Focus on that, okay? Once there’s enough people out that the rest of them can run without trampling each other, you can jump in and help us. But we really need to protect everyone in that stadium. We need you to do that.” 

She hesitated before giving a short nod. “Just be careful, okay?”

“We’re gonna do our best,” I replied with a somewhat shaky thumbs up. I was terrified about what was about to happen. Murphy was right, we had barely been able to do anything to one zombie at a time. How bad was this going to go when there was a whole group of them right in front of a bunch of panicking civilians? This could be horrific. But what else were we supposed to do? We didn’t have any better options. We’d already tried to contact everyone else who could help and they were either busy or weren’t listening. Just while we were sitting there discussing all this, I had left six messages on the emergency system of the Doephone app, and I still had no idea how long it would take someone with authority to pay attention. There was no one else. We had to get in there and do this ourselves. And hope that we could get lucky with Broadway talking her brother down.

With that in mind, I turned to Pack. “Maybe if he’s unconscious, it’ll stop the zombies. So if he doesn’t listen as soon as you guys get to him…” 

“Yeah,” she replied, “he’s going to turn them off, one way or another.” To Broadway, she started to add, “Sorry–” 

“No,” the other girl interrupted. “You’re right. If he doesn’t listen and call it off as soon as we get to him, just… knock him out. Yeah, he’s my brother, but I’m not letting him get away with this.”

Finally, even as she said that, we were pulling into the rather full parking lot of the stadium. Pack drove past all the other cars, straight up to the sidewalk ramp leading to the ticket stand and entrance before bringing the van to a screeching halt. The doors flew open and we all hopped out. I pivoted to tell everyone something about getting inside, when I simply stopped short. There was a figure crouched on the roof of the van, where she had clearly been through most of the ride. 

“Hey there,” Grandstand greeted me with a wave. “So, we gonna go be heroes or what?” 

Previous Chapter / Next Chapter

Enkindle 23-14 (Summus Proelium)

Previous Chapter / Next Chapter

Of course, the first step toward stopping Broadway‘s foster brother from the whole zombie thing was to find out if he actually was the person behind all of it. Granted, from what she had told us, it seemed pretty obvious. But, to be fair, it wasn’t completely impossible that his power was limited to small animals or something and this was someone with a stronger version. Yeah, I knew how that sounded, but I didn’t want to completely dismiss anything just yet.

Besides, even if it was him, maybe someone else was forcing him into it or something. We really had no idea about all that beyond the fact that he apparently had this power that looked an awful lot like what we had been dealing with. I certainly wasn’t going to hand him over to the authorities, and therefore the Ministry, without at least finding out more for myself about how much he was responsible for. 

So, we had to investigate. Which meant going to that house to check things out. Of course, that did leave the question of whether we were butting up against Caishen’s rule about calling in help before confronting the person behind this. But we weren’t planning on even physically seeing him. We were going to check it out while he wasn’t there. I wanted to at least find out as much as we could before calling in the cavalry. Again, if this wasn’t his fault, I didn’t want to sic the Ministry on him. And we knew the moment we called in for help, the Ministry would know about it.

According to Broadway, despite the fact that he was older than she was, he still lived with their foster parents, technically. Though apparently he had moved out to the separate standing garage, treating it like an apartment. Which at least meant that we wouldn’t have to break into the house itself. Given what we had heard, that would have been fairly impossible to do without being seen by someone. There was no time when the entire place was empty, at least no time that could be counted on to be that way for longer than five minutes. 

For her part, Broadway said she would help us by inviting her brother to dinner at her cover apartment to get him out of that garage so we could get in there and look around without worrying about him finding us unexpectedly. We were just going to have to be both quick and quiet about it considering there would be people in the nearby house just a few feet away. A lot of people, given what we had heard. Apparently there were no less than nine foster kids in that place, ranging in age from about two all the way to twenty. Well, the twenty-year-old was Jason. The next eldest, still living in the house itself, was a sixteen-year-old girl named Molly. 

We also didn’t have a lot of time to waste, considering how much damage the zombies had already been doing around the city. They had stopped for now, but still. At this rate, I was afraid that things would escalate completely out of control if we let it go on much longer. We had to find out if Jason was responsible for this, and stop him if he was. 

So, we were going in there the very next day. Broadway convinced her brother to go with her, and we made our way to the lumberyard just down the street from the house in question. We wouldn’t all be going inside. Even with Wren being back at the shop doing her own work, having that many people trying to sneak through a garage would just be asking to end up getting caught. Instead, it would be Paige, Roald, Pack, and me. Pack was going in because Broadway was her friend and she insisted on being involved. Paige knew how to find hidden things and was pretty sneaky on her own. And as for Roald… well, he was going just in case someone started to come into the garage. Murphy would be waiting on the far side of the road, visible through a window in the garage. If someone started to come in, we would all grab onto Roald while he used the teleportation tech in the suit to get us all the way out to where Murphy was instantly. Hopefully without being seen by anyone. 

“You sure you’re gonna be okay in there?” Peyton asked a bit tentatively while she watched me. “If this is the right place and one of those things pops out at you guys, or breaks in while you’re there and you can’t get away…” 

“That’s why you guys are waiting right here,” I pointed out gently, nodding to her and Sierra. “You guys and Murphy too. She’ll be able to see what’s going on and we’ll be in contact over the phone. You’re backup. If we run into trouble, the three of you can come to the rescue.” 

She sighed a little before giving a short nod. “Yeah, I know. You’re right. If something goes wrong, we’ll be ready. But still, be careful, okay?” She had told me before that it was going to take awhile before she stopped thinking of me as a little brother or something, and I heard that same general idea in her words, and in the small smile as she made the helmet over her face shift apart so I could see it. “Don’t go getting yourself killed now.” 

Smirking despite myself, I gestured. “I’ll do my best. Besides, I don’t think the others are all that eager to be eaten by zombies either.” 

“Not particularly,” Pack agreed flatly. She stood there with her arms folded around Mars Bar, holding the iguana to her chest. Twinkletoes, in his ordinary chameleon form, perched on her shoulder. “So are we gonna get in there and find out what’s really going on, or just stand around out here talking about it?” 

“Yeah, yeah, we’re going,” I assured her before painting myself completely black. Then I pointed at Paige and did the same to her costume, followed by Roald and finally Pack herself. Once we were all thoroughly dark, Pack put her lizards back in her bag (or rather, the cage connected to the bag) and we set out. There was a narrow alley leading behind the houses from the lumberyard. On the way, I activated small bits of the black paint I’d put on everyone. That was a new thing I’d figured out I could do, activate just a portion of a much larger amount of paint. All I needed was to silence our footsteps on the gravel, which was pretty quiet already. Adding in just the small amount of black paint I was using and we were able to walk over all that loose gravel without making a single sound. 

That helped deal with being heard, and from there we just had to take it easy and watch for any lights on from people who might be standing on their back porches or in windows. But nothing jumped out as we carefully and quietly snuck through that alley and right up to the gate behind the house in question. It had a heavy-duty padlock on it, but a quick squirt of pink paint allowed me to pull the thing apart. Then I simply shot another bit of black paint at the hinges of the gate to make sure it wouldn’t squeak while it was pushed open so the others could head through. Once they were in, I pulled the gate shut and replaced the lock, using pink paint again to ensure it was back the way it should be. 

We watched the house carefully while going in. The gate was far enough away through a wide backyard that we wouldn’t easily be seen by people just passing by windows. The garage itself was straight ahead of us and slightly to the left, while the house was further away and to the right. There was a small sandbox full of toys to one side that we carefully stepped around while moving to the far side of the garage where we wouldn’t be seen. Aside from that, a tall wooden fence to our left blocked vision from the house next door, and the garage itself would stop anyone in this home from spotting us. So far so good, but we weren’t out of the woods yet. This whole thing could blow up in our faces pretty easily if we weren’t careful. 

With that in mind, I checked the small window on this side of the garage. It was just like Broadway had described. The window didn’t close completely, given how old and relatively ramshackle the place was. There was a tiny crack between the window itself and the structure of the building. Not large enough to use as a way of getting inside, but that was okay. Leaning down, I peered through the window. The garage was basically one open room with a bed and den area on one end, a sort-of pseudo-kitchen to the left near where this window was, a makeshift bathroom with a shower curtain-type pull around for some degree of privacy, and a small living ‘room’ right near the entrance. I could see all the way through it from this window, including both the big rolling door and the regular entrance. It was the latter I focused on, specifically the deadbolt. 

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

With that, I painted my hand and part of my arm pink. Which, with effort, I managed to shove through that narrow crack. It was a pretty disconcerting process, particularly considering I knew I had to be quick. Forcing my hand through the crack was like pushing Play-Doh through one of those rolling mill machines. It came out almost flat on the other side. But I ignored the weirdness of it, twisting my hand up and around once it was on the other side of the window so I could point toward the deadbolt on the far side of the room. A moment later, a shot of red paint sailed across the open space and hit the tiny latch perfectly. One more shot put a bit of red just to the side of it. Quickly, I yanked my hand back out before the pink paint could run out while activating the red. In turn, the bolt was pulled down, unlocking the door. 

“Okay,” I announced while pushing myself back up, “we’re good.”

Yes, we could have just used pink paint to make a hole in the wall big enough to go through, but that would’ve been a lot to clean up without letting Jason know we’d been there. We were trying to be subtle. 

Roald leaned in to stare at that before giving me a look. “Seriously,” he asked in a whisper, “how do you do that? You hit that thing in one try, from across the whole length of the garage and with your hand literally flattened and pushed through that little crack.” 

“I know, right?” That was Murphy speaking through the bluetooth device in my ear. We all had them right now, and were in a conference call on our phones so we could stay in contact with the others. “He’s got insane fucking aim and just acts like it’s normal.” 

“He clearly has that as part of his power set,” Paige flatly replied. Not only were they both saying ‘he’ because Pack was here, but also because we had agreed that I would continue to be referred to as a boy while I was in costume. It would help stop anyone from screwing up and giving away my secret if they continued to be in that habit. It was probably a little confusing for them, but it was the best we could do. 

Speaking of which, maybe someday I would need to tell Pack the truth too. She was basically the only… sort-of member of our little group who didn’t know by now. But she also wasn’t a full part of Avant-Guard. She was still a Fell-Touched, albeit falling into a sort of gray area. I told myself I didn’t want to put her in the position of knowing that much about me and not telling her boss anything, but I wasn’t sure how much of that was simply justifying it. The truth was that I really didn’t want to think that there were even more people out there whom I couldn’t control who knew my secret. 

In any case, I shrugged at them. “I guess that makes sense, but I don’t know why super-aim would come along with paint powers. To say nothing about the whole navigating in darkness thing.” When the three of them all looked at me, I waved it off. “This is really not the time to get into it. I promise, we can do all the testing you want later. Come on, let’s see if we can find anything.” With that, I walked around to the edge of the garage, peeked to make sure we still looked clear, then quickly and silently made my way to the now-unlocked door and slipped inside. The others were right behind me before I tugged the door closed. 

Right, now we were in here, hopefully without having attracted any attention so we could search the place and not deal with some cops showing up. That would end up being a bit hard to explain. Especially with Pack here. It would be a whole thing. So, better to just avoid the whole situation. Thankfully, the only windows facing the house were covered in black-out curtains. Probably because Jason didn’t want snoopy foster parents or siblings to see what he was doing out here. Which worked in our favor, though we still weren’t going to turn a bunch of lamps on. Instead, we all took out our phones and dialed the flashlight apps down low. Just enough to see what we were doing as we spread out to search. 

I honestly wasn’t sure what we expected to find, but it could’ve been anything. Trophies from the zombies he’d made? Their wallets or whatever with photographs we could use to identify them? Maybe a manifesto about everything he was doing and why, or even an audio recording of him detailing his master plan? Okay, maybe those were asking for a bit much, but hey, you never knew. Maybe we would get extraordinarily lucky. It could happen. 

For my part, I went all the way to the back of the garage and started looking around the area where he slept. I carefully checked under his pillows, taking note of how they were positioned so I could put them back properly just in case, before ducking down to peer under the bed itself. The light from my phone panned over the floor down there, revealing a lot of empty fast food cartons and such, not to mention dirty magazines. Those I rather reluctantly picked up, turned over, and rifled through to see if anything fell out. Nothing, aside from a few cards to order more dirty magazines. 

“Who gets those things anymore?” Pack demanded as she looked over from looking through one of his dressers and saw what I was holding. “Hasn’t he ever heard of internet porn?” 

“The family monitors internet access,” Paige put in from the other side of the garage. “They have child locks on most adult websites. Those are probably his way of compensating for that when–” 

“Okay, can we please change the subject?” I hurriedly interrupted. “Something tells me none of this will ever be relevant for what we’re actually supposed to be doing here.” 

“Hold on, how do you know the thing about monitoring internet access?” That question came from Alloy, still waiting back at the lumberyard. “And the childlock.” 

“We have wireless internet access,” Sierra informed her, sounding amused. “She can see all the connections from there.” 

Pushing their conversation out of my mind, I shoved the magazines back under the bed where I had found them. In the process of arranging them where I was pretty sure they’d been, I noticed something else. A small box was shoved up into the space between the wooden board of the bedframe and the box springs. Squinting that way, I reached out to tug the thing out, then turned and put my back to the bed with the box in my lap so I could examine it. The box was about eight inches long and six inches wide, along with being several inches deep. There was a clasp on the front, which had a keyhole. I set the thing down, ignoring the lock. Instead, I painted the top pink and used my fingers to pry a hole into it that way. Inside the box was a small folded stack of papers, along with what looked like a debit card that had the name Jordan Johnson on it, and a driver’s license. The picture matched the one of Jason that we had been shown by Broadway before coming over here, but the name was also Jordan Johnson. Opening the folded papers, I found a birth certificate and other things identifying him as, yet again, Jordan Johnson. Frowning, I called the others over to show them what I was looking at. 

Roald shook his head. “So, ahh, he’s got fake identification and a debit card? Does that mean he’s gonna run away or something? Is he getting ready to disappear if he gets caught?” 

Paige examined the ID and paperwork. “This is all professional grade,” she remarked. “It’s not something he got off the street for a hundred bucks. This looks real. Someone with some actual skill, and probably access to the DMV system did this. So how does some nobody foster kid, no offense, get it? Does he just happen to know somebody that good or that well-connected? And why does he have it?” 

“It takes a while to get something like that anyway,” Pack put in. “Trust me, I’ve had a set done myself. And if it takes Blackjack a couple weeks to get that quality of work, then I’m pretty sure almost nobody else could do it faster. Maybe the Ministry themselves, just because of the connections they have, but I think we’re operating under the assumption that he’s not working for the Ministry?”

I paused to consider that. “I mean, it wouldn’t really make sense if he was. We’re pretty sure they’re the ones who had Luciano killed. And now he’s been brought back as a weird zombie thing attacking people. Plus, he was just sort of found in the alley. I don’t think they would’ve left him there if they did bring him back to life. What would be the point of having him kill those couple kids who happened to find him? It doesn’t make any sense coming from them. I don’t see any profit in it. And it sure as hell isn’t making the area more stable.” 

Paige agreed with a nod. “Right, it doesn’t make sense. So I’m pretty sure the fake ID had to be planned and set up awhile ago, before we started seeing these zombies. This isn’t a situation where things got out of control and he just went out to pick up a fake ID to run away with at the spur of the moment. He had a professional make these. A professional who either owed him a huge favor, or one he paid a lot of money to.” 

“She’s right,” Sierra’s voice put in, “If that fake ID stuff is really that good, it’s not something this guy could just go down to the street corner and pay some random guy for.”

 I looked down at the papers again and flipped through them. It wasn’t just a birth certificate and other identification stuff, I realized. At the end of the stack was a bit of lined paper that had been torn out of a notebook. The name ‘N Kent St’ was scrawled across the middle of the page in pen, along with a phone number. Under that, the number 9,412 was written and underlined with a smiley face next to it. 

“Is that the guy who made the fake ID and the amount he paid for it?” Roald guessed. “N Kent St. kinda sounds like a name. Or a street? It could be N Kent Saint or N Kent Street. Maybe it’s an address. Nine Four One Two North Kent Street?” 

Of course, I immediately thought of Kent Jackson, Tomas’s dad. He had memory powers. What did he have to do with this? Aloud, I murmured, “There’s a guy who works for the Ministry. He can… erase memories. His name’s Kent. But that’s his first name, not his last. And there’s no N involved in the name. I don’t know an N Kent. And certainly not a Saint. I guess it could be him, but I’ve never heard him called by that… I dunno. This still doesn’t sound like the Ministry. Unless Kent’s been freelancing?” Even that didn’t sound right. “It could be a coincidence on the name… Anyway, what would he be paying Kent for? Yeah, look up that address.”

“Already did,” Sierra informed us over the phone. “There is no 9412 North Kent Street anywhere in Michigan. It’s gotta be a price and name or something. The amount he paid for that new identity?”   

“Pretty high price for this sort of thing,” Paige murmured. “I mean, you can get a passable fake identity for about fifteen hundred bucks. If he paid over nine thousand… well, it’d explain the quality. And there’s probably more to it. Maybe it included transportation to a new place or something. Safe passage out of the city if things fall apart and probably some sort of established place somewhere else. Unless the Ministry Kent is involved and he’s being paid to adjust memories? But you’re right, I dunno what the N could stand for.” 

“Keep looking around,” I urged while spreading the papers, fake ID, and debit card out to take pictures of them with my phone. I wanted to keep a record of everything we found without letting Jason himself realize we knew anything about it. As soon as I had all of it in my phone, I folded the papers and stuff back up, put them in the box, then used my pink paint to fix the lid so it was basically as good as new. Finally, I put the thing back where I’d found it and went to lift the mattress so I could see if there was anything there. Sure enough, I certainly found something. And it wasn’t just more papers. Right there between the mattress and box springs was a nine millimeter pistol and a box of ammunition. Grimacing at the sight, I started to tell the others about it, when Roald called out for us to look at something else.

Setting the mattress down, I moved over to where he was in the ‘kitchen’ area. Roald was holding a piece of paper he’d dug out of the trash. Printed across it were the words, ‘One or two aren’t going to impress us. You want to join our club, make a real splash. I hear opening night could be a real homerun.’ It wasn’t signed, at least not with names. But there were two pictures where a signature would be. The picture of a number two pencil, and one of a mug. Or rather–

“Cup,” Pack snarled. “Pencil and Cup.” 

“Wait, wait!” I suddenly blurted, eyes widening behind my helmet. “N Kent St, it’s not North Kent Street, or anything to do with Kent. It’s New Kent Stadium. The minor league baseball place. It was named Old Kent Park back in the nineties, then LMCU Park in 2000, back when it was in Comstock like two hundred miles from here. But last year they moved the team closer and went back to calling it Kent. Only it’s New Kent Stadium instead of Old Kent Park. It’s just, like, twenty miles outside the city now. Pai–Poise, what’s the–” 

Paige was already ahead of me. “The seating capacity for New Kent Stadium is nine thousand, four hundred, and twelve. And opening night is today.”

“Pack!” I snapped, turning that way. “You’ve gotta call Broadway and tell her–” 

“Too late,” she informed me, holding a phone in her hand. “I just got a text from her. She says Jason was going to the restroom and disappeared. She has no idea where he is.” 

“I think we know where he’s going though,” I found myself muttering. “He wants to impress the Scions. 

“And he’s gonna do it by unleashing his zombies on that stadium.”  

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Enkindle 23-13 (Summus Proelium)

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Well, needless to say, that caused a bit of an uproar through the group. Everyone else was blurting questions at the two La Casa Touched in what turned into a confused mess that was completely impossible to decipher. Meanwhile, my eyes kept flicking between Broadway and Pack as my mouth opened and shut several times in a helpless attempt to somehow telepathically understand what the hell the girl was talking about. Neither method, shouting questions over one another or silently standing there attempting a mind probe, actually accomplished anything, of course. I was pretty sure the only thing we managed to do was slow down getting an actual explanation.

Finally, I whistled to make everyone stop talking over one another. They all turned to look at me while I held my hands up and let the silence hold for a moment. Once I was certain that I had everyone’s attention and no one was going to start blurting questions over each other again, I lowered my hands and focused on the two La Casa Touched. “Okay, would you mind explaining exactly what you’re talking about? What do you mean, you think your brother is responsible for these zombie… things?”

It still felt weird to say ‘zombie’ out loud and be entirely serious, but there wasn’t a better word for them. And considering everything else about the world, maybe it was dumb for me to feel weird about that. Honestly, what was so utterly inconceivable about a power that could puppet dead bodies, or whatever was actually going on? Was it just the concept of a… a dead body being used like that? Was that what my brain refused to accept? 

Before Broadway could respond, Pack spoke up first. “We should probably start from the beginning. I mean, she should. But I get the feeling this place isn’t the best for a good, probably long, private conversation. You know, right out here in the open.” She turned, pointing. “There’s a rooftop greenhouse over there, three buildings east. We can be out of sight, and really talk.” 

Before I could say anything to that, Paige stepped closer and focused on the girl, her eyes clearly narrowing behind that red visor. “Is that really why you want to go over there? You just want to have a private conversation without anyone waiting for us?” The suspicion in her voice was palpable. 

“Dude, I have no idea who you even are.” That was Broadway, gesturing. “We came to talk to Paintball. So if you don’t want to go have that talk, feel free to stay here.” She looked back to me then, waving both arms. “Since when is your group so big anyway? I thought you were a solo act. Well, you know, solo plus your partner. Dynamic Duo. Point is, I thought you were more of a Batman and Robin thing, not a whole team situation. Though, come to think of it, he’s always had a lot bigger group than he pretended to have anyway. For a loner, his assortment of partners and sidekicks is basically a small army. I am vengeance, I am the night, I fight my eternal war against crime alone. Aside from Alfred, Robin, Red Robin, Nightwing, Batgirl, Oracle, Spoiler, Red Hood, Blue Bird, Signal, Huntress sometimes, Catwoman, Batwing, Batwoman, Commissioner Gordon…” 

I could tell that both Paige and Sierra were about to respond to that, and would probably end up making this whole situation spiral quickly out of control. I couldn’t blame them for being suspicious, of course. Not with everything that was going on, and their entire… everything. Still, I quickly stepped in, clearing my throat. “Ahem, Broadway, Pack, this is Poise and that’s Style. You should know Alloy, of course. Over there we have Calvin and Hobbes. And, of course–” 

“Hi! I’m Wr–Trevithick!” Wren chirped, flying in closer so she could study them more intently. “That’s cool armor, Miss Broadway. Do you know who made it? Can I talk to them? Is–” 

“I ahh, I’ll see if Blackjack wants to share that info,” Broadway put in, a little awkwardly. “Look, it’s great to meet you and all, really. Can’t wait for us to have a real ‘get to know you’ fight scene. But this whole brother making zombies thing really is important. If you don’t want to help, or if you think we’re just screwing with you, we can just go–”

“No, it’s okay,” I quickly put in. Without looking at the others, I gestured towards the roof Pack had indicated. “Go ahead, we’ll be right over. Just give us a second to talk, alright? I promise, we’ll be there in a minute.” I was focusing on Pack rather than Broadway, silently urging her to give us time to talk the whole thing through instead of pushing this confrontation. 

Thankfully, she gave me a very slight, almost imperceptible nod. Given her entire face was obscured by that featureless black mask, it was even harder to read that sort of motion, but I got the gist of it. Her head seemed to shift toward Sierra briefly, but I couldn’t tell why. She sure didn’t say anything to the other girl. Instead, she pivoted and gave a low whistle. From behind the same brick structure sticking out of the roof that Broadway had been standing behind before making her appearance, Scatters emerged in full reindeer form. She came closer, glowing proudly neon as Pack swung a leg up over her. Once the girl had mounted her pet, she focused on us. “Yeah, we’ll be over there, so don’t keep us waiting too long, huh?” 

With that, Scatters literally leapt right from where she was standing. She didn’t even take a running start, instead just jumping from right there. She landed on the next roof over, before another jump put her on the second roof, then the third. Just like that, she was by the greenhouse. 

“Yeah, dudes, it’s kind of important,” Broadway informed us, before pointing that way without actually looking. Her gaze stayed on us as I heard a low boom, before the girl vanished and reappeared over there. Right, soundwave teleportation. That was probably pretty useful. 

Turning away from that, I focused on the others before letting out a long, low breath. “Well,” I offered while painting a smiley face across my helmet, “at least it sounds like we’re about to get some answers?” After getting that out, I shrugged. “Look, I know it might seem a little suspicious and convenient, but I really don’t think Pack is the sort of person to lead us into a trap like that. If this was something to do with the Ministry or anything like that, she would’ve given us a signal. Besides, if the Ministry knew enough to set up a trap for us, they’d know enough not to use Pack to do it.” 

“Or maybe Pack is exactly who they’d use,” Paige pointed out flatly. “Because she’s sort of part of the group, and someone you’d trust. Especially if they turned her and made threats to make her lead us right where they want us.” She let that hang in the air for a moment before shaking her head. “But no, I think you’re right. It’s not a trap. I just had to test her. Besides, if nothing else, if she does turn later we now have a baseline for how she reacts to being questioned.” 

“Dude,” Murphy put in, “if I haven’t said it before, I’m really glad you’re on our side. You’re kinda scary.” 

Snorting despite myself, I pushed back the multitude of things I could’ve said to that. Instead, I gave a short nod. “Right, well, if nothing else, at least we’re on the same page about Pack being on the level. Which means they really do think that Broadway’s brother is behind this…” 

“Can we go over there now?” Peyton put in, literally squirming on her feet. “Cuz I really wanna know more about that, and we’re only gonna find out by actually talking to her, you know?” 

“Right, yeah, you’ve got a point,” I agreed. “We can stand here and speculate all day, or we can just go talk to her and get answers that way. So, everyone okay with going over there?” 

There was a general murmur of agreement, so we all headed over to the other roof. A minute later, we were all gathered in front of the greenhouse. I could see the other two waiting inside, and gave the rest of the group a quick look, whispering for everyone to be nice. Then I opened the door and stepped inside. It was obvious that this greenhouse wasn’t exactly in regular use at the moment, given the lack of actual living plants, but it would give us a little bit of privacy so random onlookers wouldn’t necessarily see a group of Star-Touched talking to Fell-Touched as though we were all friends. I had a feeling that wasn’t really something I wanted to explain to the general public. The whole situation was complicated, to say the least. 

Pack, who was scratching Scatters under the chin, looked over as we came inside. “You made it, are you sure you don’t want to frisk us for weapons?” 

“You have a knife right there, a sawed-off shotgun under your jacket, and some sort of taser thing in the sleeve of the jacket,” Sierra pointed out casually. “It wouldn’t take much frisking.” 

“Yeah,” the other girl shot right back while pointedly stretching, “but maybe I’d enjoy it.” 

Okay yeah, it turned out there actually were still brand-new ways for me to be weirded out by the whole Sierra looking like me thing. Somehow, I resisted most of the reaction, fighting back the blush that crossed my face while thanking the fact that I had a mask and helmet covering it. Instead, I waved a hand. “Before you jump too far into your weird flirting thing with someone new, can we hear the story about what’s going on?” My gaze focused on Broadway, who was standing silently by one of the empty tables that should’ve had plants on it. “You were saying something about your brother. Is he part of La Casa too?” 

Her gaze turned to me, staring through that high-tech helmet. The multi-colored lines bounced across the V-shaped visor over her face with each word. “By which, you mean is this whole zombie thing one of Blackjack’s plots, maybe something to do with fighting this war that got out of control?” She let that hang briefly before shaking her head. “Blackjack doesn’t know about it.” 

“That’s why we came to you guys,” Pack put in. “We need help dealing with this, and we’re pretty sure Blackjack’s first idea would be to kill him. Especially after all the trouble he’s caused.” 

“Ehh, just hold on and let me start from the beginning,” Broadway quickly insisted.  She focused on us then, shifting a bit indecisively before sighing. “Okay, first of all, the guy we’re talking about isn’t actually my biological brother. But he is. I mean, he’s my foster brother. We grew up in the same family, since I was four and he was seven. Trust me, I’ve known him basically my whole life. He’s my brother in every way that matters, and I’m not gonna let–” She stopped herself from whatever she had been about to say, making a noise deep in her throat before pushing on. “He’s never been the sort of person to really think things through that well.” 

It looked like Paige was going to say something, before Sierra nudged her and whispered something. While they were busy with that, I asked, “Are you still close with him? I mean, do you still live at that house in between being a supervillain for Blackjack?” 

Giving me a brief look, Broadway shook her head. The lights danced across the visor once more as she replied, “No. I mean I still visit, but as far as any of them know, I just emancipated myself from Carl and Lanie, our foster parents, and I’ve got a minimum wage job and a shitty apartment.” She paused then before muttering, “I hope you people realize the risk I’m telling you about–” Even before she’d finished that sentence, however, she was correcting herself. “No, shit, sorry. I’m asking for your help, it’s not–fuck. Look, I’m not good at this sort of thing, okay? I’m pretty sure there’s no way for me to tell you what you need to know to deal with this without exposing enough for you to figure out who I am. I’m sort of–you know, I’m trusting you with this. And yeah, I know I’m also asking for a huge favor. I’m asking you to do something about my brother without killing him like Blackjack would. I get that. I just-” She sighed. “Please keep everything you learn about me to yourselves, okay? Pack said we could trust you and I just–really don’t have any other choice. You’re the best shot I’ve got at making sure he doesn’t hurt anyone else and doesn’t get… fuck. God damn it.” She sighed, putting both hands against her visor. “I’m sorry. I know stopping him is more important.” 

Exchanging a look with Pack, I shook my head before starting, “We’re here. We’re listening. We’re not about to go running to the authorities with your name and address. Look, if your brother is the one responsible for this, he’s been killing people. He needs to be in prison. Prison, not dead. That’s not–I mean… we’ll help. He’s a lot more dangerous than you are. It’s like Pack keeps saying, you guys steal stuff. We’ll try to stop you from doing that in the middle of the act, but it’s nothing compared to these zombies or whatever they are. So, you have my word. We will not give your information to anyone else and we won’t use it to try to catch or expose you. If your brother is the one responsible for this, we need to stop him. Like you said, that’s a hell of a lot more important than anything you’ve been stealing for Blackjack. We’re not gonna take what you say now and use it against you later. We just want to stop the zombies.  Please, tell us what you know.” 

Pack put a hand on the other girl’s shoulder, leaning over to whisper something softly to her. There was a brief pause then, before Broadway murmured something back and then focused on the rest of us. “Okay. You’re right. I mean, of course you’re right. I just freaked out for a second there. I–right, starting from the beginning.” She took another breath and then did just that. 

“My brother’s name is Jason. He’s always had a bit of a temper, and he’s always been angry about being a foster kid. Not angry at Carl and Lanie, that is. Mad at his birth parents. And mad at society. He got in fights at school a lot, but he also stuck up for people, you know? He didn’t bully people or whatever, he’d get in trouble for beating up the kids that were bullying others. And sometimes he’d take it too far. It was hard for him to control his temper. He didn’t really have a filter either. He’d say stuff you shouldn’t say to a teacher. If he thought the teacher was being a jackass, he’d come right out and say that. Like I said, it got him in trouble a lot, and he got expelled from a couple schools before getting sent to this private academy. I mean, they called it a private academy but it was more like a military school. Except one that you’d go home at night from. They were just really strict about wearing a uniform and discipline and whatever. Anyway, it seemed like Jason did okay there. Maybe because of the discipline thing, or maybe because they didn’t tolerate other kids picking on each other. Whatever, he didn’t have a lot of… opportunities to get in fights. Or maybe he just got better at hiding them, I dunno.” 

She audibly exhaled then before pushing on. “About three months ago, I was visiting for dinner. I stayed until like eight o’clock, then I left. But a few hours later, I realized I left my keys to my apartment. The real apartment, not the shitty one they think I have. So I went back to get them. It was late and I didn’t want to explain what I was doing, so I was just gonna sneak inside the same way I used to sneak in and out when I lived there. Not like Molly and Jennica, err, my foster sisters, would’ve said anything about it. They’re cool. All I had to do was climb this tree outside and go across the branch.” 

“You didn’t just telepo–” Roald started before catching himself. “Oh, right, sisters.” 

“Exactly,” she confirmed with a look that way. “If they were awake, I couldn’t risk them seeing me just appear out of nowhere. So I had to do it the old-fashioned way. Which was kinda fun. At least, that part of it was.”

Again, she went quiet for a few seconds before making herself continue. “I got up the tree pretty easily. But when I was going across the branch, I heard… something. It was coming from the garden area, which–okay so the tree I was climbing up was in the backyard. The garden is along the right-hand wall of the house from there, just out of sight from where I was. But the sounds were like… weird. So I wanted to check it out. You know, just in case it was someone trying to break in or whatever. Stupid choice on their part, right? Instead of climbing in my old window, I went across the roof and stayed low. I just sort of poked my head over the edge to look down at the garden.” 

Her hand opened and shut, gaze looking off into the distance while she was clearly remembering what she had seen. “Jason was down there. He was digging up these little boxes. They were like eight inches long and six inches wide. There were six of them. He took them up out of the ground and he was taking these bodies out. Rat bodies, mouse bodies, squirrel bodies, that sort of thing. I couldn’t really see perfectly from where I was, but they were definitely rodents. He had their bodies, their dead bodies, all laid out in the dirt in front of him. Then he touched them, and they started to move around. I mean, there was this… okay so when he touched them, their bodies glowed like, red-orange for a couple seconds. Then they started to move around. They followed his fingers like he was puppeting them, and they also followed his orders. Like, he said go to the tree, and they went to the tree. He was laughing about it, like he was having fun.” 

“Okay,” Murphy put in, “no offense, but that sounds really motherfucking creepy.” 

There was a very brief pause as Broadway seemed to be considering how to respond before she gave a short nod. “No, yeah, totally. It was creepy as hell, believe me. You think it’s bad right now, try being there in the moment. Anyway, I watched him for a while, but he wasn’t really doing anything too bad with it. I mean, yeah, he was puppeting rotting corpses, and that’s pretty screwed up. But that’s it, he was just sort of playing with them right there. It was like he was testing his power. And yeah, it was obviously a power. The point is, he controlled them and he made them do stuff. Including burning sticks. He put sticks in front of them and they put their paws up against them and just melted right through. Then he like, made them disintegrate and reappear on the other side of the garden. Their bodies turned into ashes, then just came back together.” 

My mouth opened and shut before I managed a weak, “Just like the zombies back there. Heat, disintegrating and–I mean we didn’t see them reforming but that makes sense. It all sounds just like what we saw.” 

“I know, right?” Broadway replied while focusing on me. “It sounds just like what’s happening all over the city. Anyway, I just left him alone after that. I mean, I sort of tried to bring up the idea about how it would be to have powers a few times when we were visiting, but he never took the bait. And as far as I could tell he wasn’t hurting anyone. I didn’t know how to actually ask him about it, because I was pretty sure that would bring up me having powers, which I haven’t exactly told any of my family about. The whole thing is just awkward. So I told myself I’d just keep an eye out and see what happened. I figured he’d either pick a gang or a… hero team to join at some point, or maybe he’d just be a mercenary. Whatever, I wasn’t gonna force him into anything. And I never saw him playing with his… rat corpses again. But then this started happening.” 

“Which you didn’t expect,” Paige put in. 

Broadway gave her a brief look. “Yeah, I definitely didn’t expect any of this. That’s for sure. Anyway, the point is, I need you guys to look into this and stop him without… you know, letting him know who tipped you off. Stealing shit is one thing, but if he’s killing people, he–I want to know what’s really going on. If someone’s holding something over him to make him do this shit or–or whatever. 

“So please, figure out what my brother’s gotten himself into and stop him. If he’s being manipulated or controlled or whatever, get him out of it. If he’s responsible for all this, put him in prison. You do that, and I’ll owe you.” 

“If he’s really the one behind the zombies, whatever the reason, we want to stop him anyway,” I pointed out. 

“So let’s talk about how exactly we’re supposed to do that.” 

Previous Chapter / Next Chapter

Enkindle 23-12 (Summus Proelium)

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With the body–or man–or whatever he was completely gone, we all just stood there staring at the spot where the last of the ashes had blown away. Three or four full seconds of complete silence passed, where you probably could’ve heard a pin drop. And then that silence was interrupted, rather abruptly, by a distant voice shouting from the rooftop. 

“What the fuck was that?!”

It was Murphy, of course. Or Hobbes. She was standing there next to Roald/Calvin, both of them staring past us at the spot where the man had been. Her voice came again, but it was quieter. She was saying something about what happened to the guy. I could guess the gist of it. But I certainly didn’t have any answers for her. I was too busy asking the exact same questions.

Wren, landing beside me, spoke in a far quieter, more subdued voice. “Did… did he just die?” 

“No,” Peyton immediately answered, before catching herself. “I mean, I don’t think so? I mean, he looked like he was already–but we didn’t actually–I mean…” Her head shook helplessly as she looked around at the rest of us. “What just happened?” 

Finally, I found my voice. “I don’t know,” I murmured. “But it was nothing we did. I mean, we caught him. We had him. And then he just…” 

“Disintegrated,” Paige put in flatly. “Whether that was some form of teleportation or just suicide, I have no idea. But the latter seems a little bit dramatic given the circumstances.” 

“The other dude disappeared like that too,” Sierra pointed out. “I mean, that has to be it, right? He was out of our sight in that dumpster and when we took it off, he was just gone. Like this. It has to be the same thing. So did they both burn up forever and… I mean did they just–I… huh.” 

My head nodded slowly as a grimace crossed my face. “Yeah, huh is about right. Part of me really wants to freak out right now, but the other part is too confused to do any freaking. Whatever all that was, it was really screwed up. This whole situation is screwed up.” Even as I said that, I was turning to where Murphy and Roald were, extending a hand to send a shot of orange paint that way before calling out, “It’s safe, you can bring them down!” 

Murphy, who took the bulk of the paint, immediately hopped down. She landed fairly smoothly on the ground below, then stood still and waited while Roald got the two people who had been hiding behind the bench before they rescued them. They held onto him, while he snapped his fingers and pointed at Murphy, teleporting down to her with passengers in tow. The two civilians were staring at the spot where that guy had disappeared with as much shock and confusion as I was feeling right then. Maybe even more, considering some of us had already encountered something like that.  

Speaking of which, I forced my gaze away from that spot and focused on the two people he had been attacking. Making my voice as calm as possible, I spoke up. “Um, did either of you know that guy? Do you know who he was, or what the hell that was about?” 

Rather than answer right away, the woman of the pair, a dark-skinned girl in her early to mid twenties with long braided hair, quickly blurted, “Y-you saved us. Oh my God, you saved us. You all-you all–Dash was gonna–” With that, she promptly turned and bent over at the knees to throw up in the nearby ditch. 

“Dash,” Paige jumped on. “His name is Dash?” 

The man, a Latino around the same age as his companion, gave a quick, almost frantic nod. “Fuck, yeah, that’s him. Dash Cooper. He was–we were–he died, okay? We were at a party a couple weeks ago. We were driving home and he had a little too much in his system, so he totaled it against a stoplight. He was dead, totally and completely dead. We buried that motherfucker. We fucking buried him, dude! There was a funeral a-a-and he was dead!” 

The woman straightened up, spitting once before giving a shaky nod of agreement. “We were just out here picking up some food, and then… then h-he popped up out of nowhere and started like… fucking repeating our words, echoing what we were saying. Only it sounded like us, like our voices in his mouth! He was like–he was mocking us and trying to… fuck, fuck, fuck!” 

Okay, yeah, this was getting more disturbing by the moment. This was definitely the same sort of thing as the other zombie. But what did that say about the Luciano version? Were there really two zombie guys with heat powers and–fuck, I had no idea. Nothing. None of this made any sense. How could there be two dead guys who both happened to get the same power to keep them in a half-alive state? It had to be something else, the coincidence was too absurd otherwise. There had to be some other person doing this, right? This was all–the whole thing was just–what? We had more information now than before, but none of it helped. In fact, it made the whole situation even more confusing. 

“I-is he like… dead and gone now?” The man looked between all of us as he asked that. “I mean, he’s not… he’s not coming back, right? He fucking disintegrated.” 

“He was dead before and came back, Carlos!” the girl blurted those words while almost hyperventilating. “What the fuck’s gonna stop him from coming back again?! I don’t know what the hell happened, why he–what–” She looked straight to me, pleading desperately, “Just fucking tell me, what the hell is going on?” 

Swallowing hard, I shook my head. “We don’t know, exactly. I’m sorry, I wish we did. I’m pretty sure he’s not gone forever though. Whatever this is, that seems too… easy.” I was grimacing even as I said that. Part of me wanted to tell them that he wasn’t the only one, but I was afraid that they would get interviewed by people working for the Ministry, which could potentially lead to my parents learning that Paintball and company had encountered this zombie thing before. Which could lead to them realizing that we were the same people who encountered Luciano earlier, and that… yeah, it could potentially give them too much information. So I kept quiet about that. 

Before anyone else could say anything, a glimpse of movement from one side made my gaze snap toward one of the surrounding buildings. A figure came running across the rooftop there, before leaping down from the top of the six story building. She landed as lightly on the pavement as if she had just stepped off a curb before straightening up. 

Caishen. It was Caishen, apparently having used her power to reduce the ‘value’ of that fall damage down to being negligible. She stood there in her usual costume of dark purple scale mail armor, a gold leather coat, black boots, and a black helmet with glowing purple lenses over the eyes. The coat itself billowed a bit too perfectly in the breeze, making her look even cooler. I was very tempted to ask if that was some sort of Touched-Tech enhancement, but it felt like the wrong time. 

“Was there another one?” the woman demanded, looking us over. “Another… zombie?” It sounded like she was already regretting even saying that out loud, but couldn’t think of another, better word for it. 

“Another one?” I found myself demanding despite myself, giving her a quick double-take. “What do you mean, another one?” 

Her gaze locked onto me as she flatly replied, “There’s been a few of them all over the city. We’ve been dealing with them, but they keep disappearing.” After saying that, she focused on the two civilians. “Here, you two should go sit down with the medics.” 

I was about to ask what medics she was talking about, but even as the words came to my mouth, an ambulance with its lights on but no siren came around the corner and screeched to a halt. She must’ve been in contact with them or had their location marked inside her helmet or something. Whatever it was, the medics were already out and guiding our two witnesses over to sit down and get looked over. 

Once they were on their way, Caishen focused on us. “Okay, first of all, should I assume that all of you are together?” Her gaze moved over each of us before she added, “This seems new. You’re all–what was it you said your ahh, team was called back at the convention? Avant-Guard with a u?” 

Hopping once, I nodded. “Yeah, this is us. We’re still working out the details and all that. But uhh, you know me, Paintball. You should probably know Alloy. And uhh, this is Trevithick.” 

“Hi!” Wren blurted, hovering up on those wings to be on the same level as Caishen. “Does your daughter really make giant bugs?” 

“She does,” Caishen confirmed, giving her a curious once-over. “Maybe you should visit sometime.” 

While Wren hurriedly agreed to that idea, I gestured to the others. “This is Calvin and Hobbes, and that’s Style and Poise.” The first two waved a bit awkwardly, while Sierra and Paige simply saluted in unison before glancing at one another and making uncomfortable noises in the back of their throats. 

“I suppose those all fit your team name theme, in one way or another,” Caishen mused thoughtfully. Her gaze moved over all of us intently, and I could tell she was filing away every detail. I could also tell that she wanted to ask about powers and such, but for whatever reason decided not to. Instead, she asked, “Are you all okay?” 

“Physically, sure,” I confirmed. “Pretty perfect, really. But mentally? That’s a different story. What the hell was going on with that guy? What do you mean there were others like him? Was he really a zombie? Those guys over there said he was their friend and he died a couple weeks ago. Died and was buried. Then he just popped up a few minutes ago and started going after them, taunting them with their own voices or whatever. So what the hell?”  

“Yeah, dude,” Peyton put in, “I mean, supervillains and stopping robberies and stuff is one thing, but a zombie apocalypse? That’s like, the completely wrong genre. Every time they try to stick zombies into a superhero thing, it’s cash grab nonsense. Or like, an alternate universe. And quite frankly, I really don’t feel like thinking that I’m an alternate version of myself, because those usually get killed for not being important enough to carry a monthly book.” 

My mouth opened and then shut as I stared at the girl for a moment before turning back to Caishen. “Uh, yeah, basically what she said. We’d really like to know what’s actually going on. And, you know, I’m not that eager to be considered a disposable alternate universe version of myself either.” 

“Yes,” Paige agreed simply, her tone sounding completely serious. “We’d all prefer not to be killed off just to prove the situation is serious. So would you please explain how this is not an actual zombie apocalypse? I’m sure we’d all appreciate it. Or just anything you know.”

“Well, ahh, Poise?” Caishen started before continuing when Paige nodded in confirmation. “I wish I could tell all of you exactly what’s going on here. But the fact is, we don’t know the details. We have no idea how this started, where the… people are coming from, or what’s controlling them. It does not seem to be a… ahem, apocalypse, because there are only a few of them. Well, so far, at least.” She held up her hand so we could see her crossed fingers. “They all seem to have the same regenerative and fire-related powers, along with having been dead at one point. Our best guess is that this is a single Touched who has gained the power to reanimate and enhance dead people. How they have memories enough to attack people connected to them or… whatever is still up in the air. But we do believe it’s being done by a single person who has not revealed themselves yet. They may still be testing their power, finding out what they’re truly capable of. Either way, we will track them down. Don’t any of you worry. If you see another attack like this, try to get any civilians out of the way, and delay the… reanimated beings. From what we’ve seen, they have some sort of time limit that they can be active. It seems like they keep going for a relatively short time before… falling apart or needing to rest. So far there’s no information on whether they can come back a second time after falling apart. We need you to keep your eyes open for that too. If you see this same guy back again, let us know, okay? We’re all flying pretty blind right now and could use all the information we can get for how to deal with this.” 

I was nodding quickly even as she finished saying that. “Sure, yeah, if we find out anything else, I will personally let you know. And I guess it goes without saying that if we find out who is actually behind all this…” 

“Report that too,” Caishen confirmed, her gaze locking onto mine. “I mean it. Whoever’s behind this is incredibly dangerous. If you find out anything, and I mean anything at all that could help track them down or identify them, you call. Even if you don’t think it’s that important, even if it’s minor. You have no idea what tiny clue could give the rest of us answers. And you do not, under any circumstances, find out where this person is and go after them alone. Do you hear me? I don’t know what half of you are capable of, but I do know that you’re all really new and very young. So if you find something out, you call it in. If I find out that you’re going after this person by yourselves or knew something you didn’t report, I will make it my mission to ground all of you. And in case you didn’t know, a grounding in Touched life means you will not go out on the streets. Police will not tolerate your actions. I am positive that all of you are technically under age. So you can be grounded if it comes down to it. If you know something, report it so we can all work together to stop this person. Have I made myself clear?” 

Swallowing, I gave a short nod. “Completely crystal. Anything we find out, we’ll let you know. Believe me, none of us have any desire to go after whoever could do something like this all by ourselves. It was bad enough dealing with one zombie. If this person can make several of them all at once…” I made a noise in the back of my throat. “I promise, we’ll let you know if we have something solid.” 

Accepting that with a nod, the woman promised to talk to us some more later, but explained that she had other things to deal with. Mostly revolving around handling all the other zombie appearances. Then she took a moment to hand each of us a card with a number we could call if we found out anything or just wanted to talk, adding that this whole life could be very dangerous and complicated. That was mostly directed to the five of us she had never seen before. Especially Wren. She stressed that she had been serious about having the girl visit her daughter, even if she was several years older, reminding her to call and set something up. 

Something told me that Caishen tried to have any and all of the young Touched visit Lightning Bug whenever she could. Even if there were several years worth of difference in their ages, it wasn’t like there was an abundance of Touched that young. As far as I knew, Lightning Bug was the only one in the entire state who was under the age of eight or nine. And even those were pretty rare. Most Touched were either adults or in their mid-teens at the youngest. Which made me feel a little sad for LB herself. It had to feel weird, being that openly Touched and having no one else her own age like that. To say nothing of the fact that she couldn’t go to normal schools or anything like that. Yeah, she had her family, and everyone at Ten Towers loved her. But… well,  I knew just a little bit about how it could feel isolating to be in a situation similar to that, considering my parents were… who they were. Even discounting the Ministry stuff. Yet I had been incredibly lucky when it came to that. I didn’t fit the physical profile of what the daughter of the richest people in the state should look like, or even act like. I was mostly left alone thanks to that, as well as my family’s efforts to keep me from being a spectacle. I didn’t experience even a quarter of what someone in my position probably normally would have. And yet even then, I knew how weird it could feel. 

For someone like Lightning Bug, who couldn’t hide herself unless she used a hologram creator, whose entire life was built around her powers even though she was only five years old? I couldn’t imagine being in that sort of situation. So yeah, it was no wonder that Caishen clearly tried to have other kids in similar situations come over and visit. She was probably trying to help them as much as her daughter, knowing how they felt. 

And yet, even as those thoughts came through my mind, I also couldn’t help but wonder how much she was getting information for the Ministry. After all, as much sense as all that other stuff made, she could just as easily be using it as an excuse to find out as much as she could for my parents. Just because she wasn’t the one in charge didn’t mean she had no connection to them, after all. We still had to dig through that data we’d stolen to find out if there was anything connecting her to them. At that moment, I made that a priority in my mind. I was going to triple-check everything and see if there was even the slightest sliver connecting her to the Ministry before Wren went over there. 

“Yo, Earth to Paintball!” I was suddenly brought out of my musings when Sierra snapped her fingers in front of my face. “You okay?” 

Jerking a bit, I looked around. They were all staring at me, clearly waiting. “I uhh, yeah, sorry. I was just thinking.” Even as I said that, my gaze caught sight of a couple cops approaching after having secured the area. “Here, you guys should head out. See that roof over there? Head that way. I’ll tell our friends here what happened, then meet you there.” 

“You sure?” Paige asked. “We could all stick around.” 

“No,” I quickly replied while shaking my head. “Don’t worry, I’ll take care of it. I mean, there’s no reason to make all of you sit here and talk to the cops. Go ahead, I’ll be there when it’s over.”  

With varying degrees of reluctance, they headed out, and I took a deep breath before turning to face the officers, raising my hand. “Hey guys,” I started slowly. 

“How’re your days going?” 

******

After leaving the cops about fifteen minutes later once I’d given them all the information I could (and found in turn that there had been five other separate sightings over the past couple hours), I had just red-painted my way up to the nearby roof where I’d sent the others. No sooner had I landed and started to tell them how it went, than something caught my eye. It was Riddles, flying close to me before looping around to head toward a lower building. When I glanced that way, I could see Pack standing there, clearly waiting. 

With a shrug to myself, I pointed her out to the others before giving them some paint protection. Once they were safe, I created a wide blue line to shoot all of us over to the other roof. Landing smoothly, I tried to sound cheerful. “Hey, what’s up? Birdwatching?” Behind and around me, the others landed.

Rather than joke back with me, or even address the rest of the group, Pack spoke flatly. “I need your help. You saw one of those zombie things, right?” 

My head bobbed immediately. “Sure, I–wait, why do you need help with it? Is something wrong? Did you see one of them?” 

Pack didn’t answer at first. Instead, she let out a breath, hand idly scratching Tuesday in his small form on her shoulder. “It’s more than that. It’s–” 

“It’s me.” The new voice came from one side, as Broadway stepped into view. She sounded nervous, not at all the way I’d seen her before. “She wants you to help me. Because I think I know who’s behind these zombies. 

“I’m pretty sure it’s my brother.” 

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Enkindle 23-03 (Summus Proelium)

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A/N – Hey guys, the non-canon for this story was posted over the weekend and can be read by everyone now right here!

For the next hour or so, we worked our way through searching the stuff we had taken from the Ministry base. Amber (as That-A-Way of course) showed up to help out while on a break from patrol duties, and was immediately recruited to scan through a pile of papers. The more the merrier. Or at least, the more the less this mind-numbing job of reading what often looked like gibberish would drag on. 

There was something that appeared to be a key for the code that was written on those papers and the vials, but I wasn’t able to decipher it with a brief once-over. So, I passed it over to Paige, who said she would figure it out and decode what was written on them, but it would take awhile. 

Beyond that, we found some interesting things. First and possibly foremost, there was a ledger that showed how up to date on their payments various gangs were. Not just the Detroit ones, but practically all of the organizations throughout the entire state. Nearly every Fell-Touched group (aside from a couple like the Scions) and even most of the non-Touched gangs were represented in the ledger. If you were a criminal group of more than one person (and even some who were solo), you paid taxes to the Ministry. 

But it went further than that. Because obviously having that many people know about the Ministry would make it impossible to keep even a little bit secret. So the vast majority of criminals who paid their fees had no idea that it was part of a larger organization. The Ministry had lieutenants who acted as though they were the boss of an area, unconnected to anyone else. They made people who acted in their territory pay tribute, then secretly passed everything but their own salary to the higher-ups. And for the most part, even the lieutenants didn’t know how wide-reaching the whole thing was. They were all divided into smaller cells who didn’t know anything about the other groups, and didn’t know that a number of their rivals in an area were actually also working for the Ministry. Some of the lieutenants were gang bosses, while others were actually their right-hand people who were secretly keeping the Ministry up-to-date on what was going on. The operation encompassed the entire state of Michigan, and we had all these names and the explanations of what they were doing. 

It wasn’t all in one spot, of course. It wasn’t like all of this information was conveniently written out for us. We had to piece it together between the ledger and several other pieces, including on a few of the hard drives, which were heavily encrypted and password protected. We would have been shit out of luck if we hadn’t had Paige and Sierra. They were able to use the…wires that extended from their fingers to plug into the hard drives and access them directly. 

As expected, there were none of my family’s real names written down anywhere. Not even in the secret encoded parts of the computers. Which made me slightly relieved, a reaction which instantly made me feel guilty. This was wrong, it was all wrong. It was going to blow up in my face somehow, I just knew it. But right now, I just had to focus on this stuff.  

Murphy was shaking her head, muttering about how none of this would help find Luciano, when she abruptly paused. From the corner of my eye, I saw the girl quickly shuffle back through a few other pages she had been looking at before elbowing Roald beside her. She asked him where something else they had been looking at a moment earlier was, and he dug through a discarded pile before handing it to her. She had two papers, one in each hand, and was looking back and forth between them. “Hey… hey I think I got something about that piece of shit.” 

We all turned our attention that way, as she explained. “Okay so on this page they’re talking about something called Plan Z. I think it’s a group or a person or something. It says Plan Z couldn’t be called on for this other thing they needed, so they should send Squire. Then this other page with the same date mentions that this safe house is ‘now available’ because ‘L’ has been taken by Z and won’t be needing it anymore. That’s right after Luciano got away. Whoever or whatever Plan Z is, they probably escorted this L, Luciano, away from that safehouse and out of Ministry territory.”  

Taking that in, I frowned thoughtfully. “There’s a few other bits in here about a Plan Z. I thought it was like… an actual plan, but you’re right, it sounds more like a person or a group. Maybe a set of Touched they use? I dunno. Sending a group to escort Luciano seems like overkill, but then again, maybe they were nervous about us finding him again.” My shoulders raised in a slight shrug. “Does it say anything about where that Plan Z might’ve taken him?  I doubt he stayed there, but it might give us a place to start from.” 

“Maybe not there, but it does here.” That was Peyton, waving a hand with a small notebook clutched in it. “It’s like a memo or a reminder note or something in the margin. I didn’t think it was important at first, but the page right before it has the same date as those ones, and the memo says, ‘Z pick-up’ and then an address in Pontiac.” 

Right, Pontiac was a city about twenty miles north of Detroit. I absorbed that information. It made sense as a place to take Luciano. Far enough away to be clear of the city without taking up too much of their time.

Pack, who had been sitting at the far end of the table we were all gathered around, made a thoughtful noise in the back of her throat. “So, whoever these Plan Z people are, it sounds like they needed to be picked up after taking Luciano somewhere. Maybe they gave him the vehicle?” She ran two fingers along the top of Tuesday’s head as the gecko sat perched beside the papers she had been looking through, before turning her attention elsewhere. “What do you think, Sierra? Pretty interesting stuff, but then, you must be tired of just sitting around. Being trapped for all that time in a body with someone else, and now you’re completely free. But here you are just playing with paperwork. Don’t you want to get out there and have some fun?” 

“Please don’t try to recruit her into your villain gang until she at least has time to stretch her legs a bit,” Amber idly requested from where she was sitting basically right next to the La Casa Touched. She didn’t bother to look up from the files she had been scanning. “As far as having a body goes, she’s not even one day old.” 

As for Sierra herself, she offered a shrug. “Yeah, I wanna get out there. But there’s gonna be this nagging voice in the back of my head if I don’t help find Irelyn and those two Touched girls and get them off that island. And believe me, after everything we went through to get me this body, the last thing I want is another nagging voice in my head. I just got the old one to be external.” She gave a quick glance over toward Paige before adding, “So, the sooner we save those three, the sooner I can move on and figure out what my real life is going to be.” 

Clearing my throat a bit, I looked toward the stairs. Wren was up in her main lab, working on that tracer device that was supposed to tell us where exactly Breakwater was. I still wasn’t absolutely sure we would go with the plan to blackmail the people in charge into helping Flea and Trivial, but knowing where the island was would at least be a good place to start from. 

“Well, until we have something else to work with,” I announced, “I think we should check out that address that you guys found. Maybe Luciano isn’t there. I mean, he probably isn’t. But there could be something to tell us where else to look. He might’ve left a clue or something.” 

Murphy was nodding rapidly, shoving herself up from the table so firmly she nearly knocked over the stool she had been sitting on. “Fuck yeah, let’s get out there. I can’t take looking at another piece of paper right now or I’ll scream.”

Standing up, I hesitated. “We need to be quiet and stealthy about it. Whatever that address is, I don’t know if it’s a Ministry place or just somewhere they took Luciano and dropped him off. But whatever it is, if we show up and make a spectacle of ourselves, it’s going to get back to the Ministry. And I’m pretty sure they could put two and two together, considering those files were just stolen from their base yesterday. If the place looks like it’s guarded or whatever, we have to wait. And we don’t let them see us.” 

Paige started to rise, and I focused that way, shaking my head. “You should stay here. Keep working on those harddrives and see if there’s anything else we can use. This isn’t gonna be a fight, we’re just checking the place out and looking around if it seems clear. We need to be subtle right now.” 

“Paintball, subtle?” Pack snorted and gave me a look. “If I asked you to define that word, would you be able to?”  

Flushing a bit under the helmet and mask, I huffed at the girl. “I can be subtle when I want to be, I promise. I was subtle in that base last night.” Before she could say anything, I hurriedly amended, “I mean I was subtle about who I was and my power and—you know what I mean.” Now I was really blushing. “Look, the point is, we’ll just head over there and check the place out.” 

“Uh huh,” Pack gave me a long look. “And how are you going to get there, exactly? You know, to the city twenty miles north of Detroit. Without attracting attention.”

My mouth opened, then I paused before tilting my head. A muttered curse escaped me while Pack snickered. 

“I can’t drive,” Way hesitantly pointed out. “I’ve gotta get back to patrol pretty soon, or they’ll start to wonder where I am. Which we really don’t want.” 

Pack nodded. “And I’ve got–uhh, let’s just call them plans and leave it at that. Gotta do my real job, or the boss might wonder what else I’ve been doing with my time. Which, as Rose over there said, we don’t want.” 

“Yeah,” Way muttered, “wouldn’t want you to get kicked out of your job as a thief.” 

“I could drive,” Sierra idly noted. “I mean, I’d need a car for it, but I could drive.” She offered a somewhat feral smile then, which was weird to see on a face that was so like my own. It made a funny feeling form in my stomach before I pushed it down as she continued. “And hey, if I need to acquire a car for it–” 

“We’re not stealing a car,” I interrupted. This whole situation was already precarious enough without adding something like that in. It wasn’t likely that she would get caught, of course. And even less likely that she would stay caught, but still. The image of Sierra, in a body that looked like a blonde me, getting taken to the police station was just… no. No, we couldn’t risk anything like that. 

“Besides,” Murphy pointed out, “That body looks like you’re younger than we are. That body’s, what, fourteen?” 

“Oh, I dunno,” Pack put in casually, “appearances can be deceiving. Some people look older than they are, other people look younger. You can’t really go off first impression these days.” 

Murphy shrugged at that. “Whatever, the point is any cop who saw her driving would definitely pull you over to check, stolen car or not. She’d stand out. And I thought the whole point of this trip was to blend in and not attract attention.” 

I nodded quickly. “She’s right, we need to be subtle. That means not stealing any cars and not having someone drive who would make the cops do a double-take. So all of us who are wearing masks are out.” 

While we were all looking at each other and trying to figure out where to go from there, Fred grunted. “I’ll drive. Whatever, it’s just a quick recon thing, right? The kid’s gonna be busy upstairs for awhile, and if she needs something, you can take care of it.” He nodded toward Paige before turning his attention to me. “You want subtle, can’t get much more subtle than an old sedan. Long as that’s not a big fancy neighborhood, it’ll fit in just fine. Plus, I’ve got that bakery ID, so I can be out after curfew. Trouble is, I can only take a few of you. We can say you’re helping with loading stuff into the bakery trucks for some extra cash since the place is shorthanded.” 

“Well, Pack and Way are out,” I noted. “Raindrop isn’t here. So I’ll go with Alloy, Hobbes, and Calvin.” I nodded toward Murphy and Roald. “We’ll check it out, see what we can find.” 

“I’ll go with you.” That was Sierra. “Like I said, I really need to get out of here and stretch my legs. Besides, this way if something goes wrong, you’ll have some back-up.” She gave Paige a look. “It’s my turn to be out there. You can keep scanning the hard drives.” 

For a moment, I thought Paige was going to object. But she paused before exhaling. “Be careful.” Her gaze moved over the rest of us as she added, “All of you. Just don’t get involved in some big thing. If there’s trouble, get the hell out of there and come back. Like you said, we don’t want the Ministry to know that you’re involved. This whole house of cards will come down pretty damn quick if they get too many pieces of the puzzle.” 

Amber looked a bit guilty about the fact that she wasn’t going to be able to go with us. Focusing on me, she urged, “She’s right about being careful out there, okay? We caused a big scene last night. The Ministry is going to be on guard and itching for some payback after the bloody nose we gave them. They can’t cover everything, and they won’t know what we were looking for since we grabbed everything we could. But still, just… watch yourselves and don’t attract a bunch of attention. And if something goes wrong, call. I’d rather make an excuse for–I’d rather ditch and figure out how to explain it later so I can come help than have you guys end up in even worse trouble.” 

“We’ll be careful,” I promised. “We’re just going to check the place out and see if there’s anything to find that might tell us where that guy went. From those papers, it sounds like the Ministry took him from their safehouse to that spot. I’m pretty sure that means they just dropped him off, probably in a place he chose. Which would mean they don’t really have any ties to it. But either way, we’ll watch our backs.” Reaching out, I squeezed her shoulder. “But you watch yourself too, okay? Don’t get so distracted worrying about what we’re doing that you get yourself in trouble. There’s still a gang war going on out there.”

Pack made a noise in the back of her throat, before quietly excusing herself. She said something about coming back to check in on what we found later, before heading out to do her… whatever it was La Casa was doing. That whole situation was becoming more complicated by the day, especially given how much I could tell she and Amber liked each other. But it wasn’t my place to say anything. 

Instead, I focused on getting ready to go. With some reluctance, I changed into the other suit, complete with the raised shoes and fake chest. I didn’t want to, but if it came to it, better to be spotted by the Ministry looking like this than as Paintball. There was no sense in taking the risk, even if we weren’t planning on making a big scene. Or so I told myself repeatedly while putting the other suit on in the bathroom before going out to join the others. 

Peyton, Murphy, and Roald wore the same suits as last night as well, while Sierra simply had a ski mask. I had conflicting thoughts about her going out like that. But then again, I had conflicting thoughts about everything involving her. Including the fact that she was wearing a tummy-baring shirt and somehow pulling it off better than I could have even though the body she was using was literally identical to mine. 

So yeah, conflicting thoughts all around. Still, if we got caught and her mask was removed, we… it would be a whole thing anyway. If we got caught to the point that she lost the mask, I would lose mine too. And then we’d really have a situation. 

For the moment, however, I put all of that aside and tried not to focus on the terrible what-ifs. Instead, I headed out to the back lot where Fred’s car was. Unfortunately, just as we were about to head out, Peyton got a call from her mother. Apparently they had a sick friend, and her mother needed her to watch that friend’s kids while she took the woman to the hospital. She obviously felt bad about ducking out, but I assured her it was understandable and that we would be fine. After all, we were just going to poke around, it wouldn’t be that bad. 

She still looked doubtful, but stepped back while I got in the back of the sedan with Murphy and Roald. Sierra got in the front passenger side, not bothering with the mask just yet. 

Starting the car, Fred glanced in the back at us. “Don’t worry, those back windows might look clear, but…” He reached out, hitting something on the dash. “Now they’re tinted from the outside. Nobody can see you back there.” With a proud smile, he tapped the steering wheel. “She might look like an old jalopy, but Wren’s done a lot of tinkering. We get in a chase, whoever’s after us will be in for a big surprise.” 

“Let’s hope there’s no opportunity for you to prove that,” I put in. “At least, not today. But good to know.” 

“Just don’t let Paintball drive if you get into a chase,” Peyton pleaded while standing just outside the car, staring at us as though she was about to change her mind about going to help her mother.

Making a scoffing sound in the back of my throat, I primly pointed out, “I got us out of the last chase pretty well.” 

“You also got my stomach out of my lower torso pretty well,” Peyton shot back. “I’m pretty sure it still hasn’t settled properly.” 

Another huff escaped me. “Wimp. I could totally have driven crazier than that. I took it easy on you.” 

From the front seat, Fred gruffly informed us that he would be the one driving today. And with that, we all waved to Peyton and the others before pulling out onto the street. 

“Now,” our driver announced, “you all might want to sit back and relax for a few minutes, cuz if we’re trying to avoid attention, that means following the speed limit. And I guarantee, there’s gonna be traffic.”

He was right, of course. There was plenty of traffic from people heading home to get back before curfew hit. And just getting out of work in general. Pontiac had grown as well, alongside Detroit as it acted as a suburb for people to live in while working here in the city. At last count, the place had a population of about a hundred and fifty thousand or so. And part of me thought that the entirety of that was on the freeway with us. It made me want to jump out and find my own way to the city. Which would have been a terrible mistake, but still. 

It took over an hour and a half for us to drive the twenty miles from Detroit to Pontiac, which would have been worse if I hadn’t fallen asleep leaning against the window. When the car abruptly stopped, I jolted awake, suddenly feeling panicked about where I was and what was going on. 

“It’s cool,” Murphy assured me. From the sound of the yawn that came with her words, she had actually fallen asleep too. “We’re here.” 

“That’s right,” Fred confirmed, raising his hand to point across the street from where he had parked. “That’s the address. It’s number 3C.”  

I looked that way with the others and we immediately spotted an apartment building with what looked like some sort of memorial out front. There were flowers, wreaths, candles, and similar stuff all stacked up next to the stairs. 

“What…” I frowned. “What is that?” 

“I’ll check it out,” Sierra announced. And before I could say anything, she had the door open and was walking across the street to look at the memorial. There were a couple people standing nearby, and she said something to them before listening to their response. The whole time, I sat with my hands clenched tightly, praying nothing went wrong. 

A minute later, Sierra came back and got in. “It’s a memorial alright,” she announced. “Apparently a couple teenagers were killed by someone the day after that Luciano creep was supposed to have been dropped off. From what the one witness who survived said, they were poking around the dumpster back behind the building and someone attacked them. They ahh, they said it was a monster. Actually they said zombie. He came out of the garbage and screamed at them. The girl got away but her friends were… they weren’t as lucky. Apparently the monster bit them. Ripped their throats out with–” She stopped, grimacing. “It was bad, that’s the point. Real bad. And from the description the girl gave…” 

“Luciano?” I asked, before grimacing when she gave a silent nod. “Fuck. Okay wait, so…. the Ministry brought Luciano here… and the next day a few teenagers found him in the garbage, and when they disturbed him, he attacked and murdered a couple of them? By ripping their throats out with his teeth? And they said he was like a zombie? What–what does…

“What the fuck does that mean?”  

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Enkindle 23-02 (Summus Proelium)

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To my relief, the others did not immediately recognize the newly-dubbed Sierra as looking like me. The real me, that was. In the back of my mind, I sent a silent thanks that I had never really been a focus of paparazzi or whatever. I didn’t know how much of that was the fact that I didn’t fit what they would want to show as a daughter of Elena Evans, and how much was my parents keeping me sheltered from it. But either way, it helped me out right now. I could only imagine what sort of explanations we would have had to give otherwise. 

Maybe the truth. I was going to tell them the truth anyway, so why not now? It was a question I couldn’t quite answer, even to myself. 

Murphy, Roald, and Peyton were all circling Sierra, looking her up and down. Peyton gave a low whistle. “Damn, you really do look completely–I mean…” She looked back and forth between her and Paige. “I guess saying you look real is pretty bad, isn’t it? Cuz, like, you are real.”

Paige snorted at that. “Yeah, we’re real. Flesh and blood body, just like you. Well, not just like.” 

“More like a new and improved us,” Murphy murmured, before flushing a bit. “I mean, I didn’t–” She seemed to squirm a little bit as though embarrassed. “You both look great, but what I meant was the whole strength and speed stuff. Wait, do you have that same–you know.” She gestured a bit vaguely toward Sierra. “Improvements, I mean. Are you like a super-soldier like Paige?” 

A very slight smirk crossed the other girl’s face. And yes, seeing a look like that on my own face was still weird. The whole thing was weird. Every time I looked at her, I had another startling moment of realizing I was staring at my own face. It threw me off, to say the least. That smirk stayed as she inclined her chin a bit. “Like her? I’m pretty sure I could kick her ass.” 

Paige started to respond to that, and I quickly spoke up. “Why don’t we save finding that out for later? I’m just glad Rai–I mean Sierra has a body now, so we can move on to the next problem.” 

Roald made a noise deep in his throat, folding his arms across his chest before hesitantly asking, “You mean we don’t get to just be glad we got out of that whole thing alive and relax for awhile? She um, she has a body now, and it’s gonna take awhile to look through all that stuff, right? You don’t… you don’t want to go out and do something like that again already…”

Murphy’s hand slapped his back. “I think what he means is, we just did a lot of pissing some really powerful people off. And while all of that was fun, and they have that and a hell of a lot more coming–” Her face twisted a bit as thoughts of her brother clearly filled her mind briefly before she pushed them away. “–we probably don’t wanna push too hard, too fast. They’re gonna be on guard now. Even more on guard than usual. They’re gonna be watching for us. So maybe we should chill out.”

“He didn’t mean anything to do with the Ministry,” Paige informed them with a glance my way. “This is about my–our father.” The correction came as she met Sierra’s gaze briefly. “And the fact that he’s got…” She hesitated slightly, clearly deciding how much to actually say before starting over. “The fact that he’s got two Star-Touched trapped on that prison island with him. With them. With all those prisoners.” 

That made everyone else besides Sierra and me do a double-take. It was almost funny. Wren flew right up in the air, wings lifting her into a hovering motion so she was several feet off the ground. “Wait, wait, what?! He’s got Star-Touched on Breakwater?” 

“How did that happen?” Peyton demanded. “And how do you know about it?” 

Paige took a breath before explaining, “The Banners–the people who adopted… who bought me, they have an older daughter, a real daughter, who was estranged from them. When they went missing–err, when we went missing, she started looking for them. I guess Trivial was a friend of hers, because she convinced her to help look. Trivial got Flea, from the Conservators, to help too. When we found out that there were Star-Touched looking for me, we were afraid they’d tip off the Ministry. Or even that they were Ministry. So we made them think I was in Florida. You know, using a phone that made it look like that was where I was calling from.” 

Wren abruptly spoke up. “You were calling the umm, Trivial with that?” 

“Not at first,” Paige replied. “But when I wouldn’t tell Irelyn where I was, she uhh, thought making me talk to a Star-Touched would help. Obviously it didn’t change anything, but they kept trying.” 

This was all uncomfortable, obviously. I didn’t like the idea of lying to these guys. But then again, it was about protecting Irelyn’s secret identity. Awkward as the whole situation was, it would have been even worse to go blabbing that when it wasn’t our secret to tell. There was no simple answer here. We could either betray their trust by lying about the whole Irelyn/Flea situation, or betray Irelyn by exposing her identity to a lot of people she didn’t know anything about. I just had to hope that if this came out in the future, they would understand why we hadn’t told them the truth. Actually, I had to hope that they were cool with an awful lot of ‘not the whole truth.’  

I shook those thoughts off while Paige finished with a simple, “We thought it’d be safe enough down there, that they couldn’t get in trouble that far away from what was actually going on.” 

“You also sent them away from the city when this whole gang war is going on,” Roald pointed out. He didn’t exactly sound completely recriminating, but he didn’t not sound that way either. It was somewhere in the middle. “They could have done a lot of good here for people.” 

Wincing visibly, Paige nodded. “You’re right. We didn’t think they’d be gone for this long, honest. We assumed they’d go down for a few days and then come back. We didn’t expect anything like this.”  

“Stupid us, apparently,” Sierra put in. “Cuz they managed to get Pittman’s attention somehow and he had them… uh, we dunno what or how exactly, but they ended up on Breakwater. He has the phone they were using to communicate with Paige. Irelyn gave them the number. I guess she thought they might have more luck convincing her to tell them where she was.”

Peyton was looking back and forth between all of us, marbles orbiting agitatedly around her head while she was clearly thinking intently. “Okay, so this Banners woman was looking for you and her missing parents and she got a couple of Star-Touched involved. Does she know they ended up on Breakwater?” 

“We’re pretty sure she’s there too,” I found myself saying, picturing the hole I was digging getting deeper with each word. Though technically that was the absolute literal truth. We were pretty sure Irelyn was there. “Flea and Trivial went with her as back-up and now…” I grimaced. Fuck, it was so easy for this to go wrong and fall apart. The moment they didn’t see Irelyn with Flea and Trivial, it was–fuck. That was a problem to figure out later. We were doing the best we could not to give away her secret identity, but that could only go so far. 

“So there’s a Prev trapped on that island too?” Murphy blurted. “How’re they keeping her safe?” 

Paige shifted her weight a little, her tone flat. “She’s fully capable. Her father was training her to take over his security division before they had a falling out. She’s had more– she can take care of herself in a fight. With those two backing her up–or her backing them up–whatever, she can help.” 

I really almost had to admire Paige’s ability to lie in that moment. She really sounded like she was sticking up for Irelyn being able to keep up with a couple Star-Touched, as if offended by the insinuation that she would drag them down. 

Peyton started to say something else before stopping as a noise of confusion escaped her. “Wait, hold the phone, why isn’t this all over the news? If there were a couple heroes and some ordinary person trapped on that place, wouldn’t it be front-page material? We’d be seeing it on television, there’d be top pinned posts about it on Sphere, on Reddit, everywhere. And trust me, it’s not there. No one’s talking about anything like this. Not even rumors.” 

Grimacing behind my helmet, I shifted my weight uncomfortably before nodding. “That’s why we think they’re keeping it secret. The people on Breakwater, I mean. I don’t think they want anyone to know that there’s even a chance of good people ending up there. Because if people knew it was possible for someone to be transported onto Breakwater–” 

“They’d realize there must be a way to transport off of it,” Murphy finished, sounding disgusted. “And we can’t have that. Gotta keep up the fucking illusion of perfect security so there’s not mass panic in the streets or whatever the fuck they’re scared of. Even if it means abandoning those three–wait, do you think they’ve told the people here? Do you think their teammates know what happened to them? I guess they wouldn’t tell anyone that Irelyn chick knows, but the other two?” 

My head shook. “I don’t think the people in charge of that place would be able to keep it a secret if the Star-Touched here knew about it.” Pausing to consider, I added, “I mean, maybe one or two know, like the leaders? But I don’t… I don’t think even them. Honestly, I’m pretty sure that if even the Ministry knew about it, they’d be doing something to get the word out. Remember, their whole thing depends on balance. It’s not just about giving the villains a free ride. They need to have the power on the good side to shut down anyone who steps out of line. Losing two really good Star-Touched at any point, but especially right now, isn’t exactly conducive to that.”

“Besides,” Sierra put in, “Pittman’s their enemy. They’d want to get the word out and put a stop to it just to make sure that there was no chance of him getting off that place.” 

Peyton was nodding slowly, her voice thoughtful. “I mean, that’s a good point, right? Like, there’s no reason they’d be helping to keep this secret. Safe to say they don’t know anything about it.” 

Roald snorted. “Yeah, well, maybe we should tell them so they can do our work for us.” 

My mouth opened, before I stopped and grimaced behind the helmet. “I know you meant that sarcastically, but part of me wants to know if that’s something we could do. I mean, think about it. They’ve got a hell of a lot more resources than we do. And like we said, they’ve got every reason to want to shut him down and save Flea and Trivial.” 

“Has Irelyn been reported missing?” Peyton asked, her golden helmet tilting my way. “I mean, I doubt she took this much time off work. Her–wait, what does she do for work?” 

Paige was the one who answered. “She’s a security consultant for a few different tech companies. Trains their staff, works with a couple mercenary groups, that sort of thing. Freelance, so she doesn’t have anyone to report to. They might’ve noticed she hasn’t been answering calls, but what are they gonna say? Hell, they’d probably think she’s on some assignment for a different company.” 

Clearing my throat, I quickly spoke up. “The point is, it’s pretty doubtful that either the people she works with, or Flea and Trivial’s teammates, know how bad their situation is. Maybe they’ve noticed them missing, but even then it’s not like they’d jump straight to ‘they’re trapped on Breakwater,’ you know? No matter what they think happened, they’re probably keeping it quiet to avoid a panic.” 

“They might be blaming the Scions,” Roald pointed out with an audible grimace. “Maybe they think those guys grabbed them and are planning some big event.” 

“Please don’t even give me any reason to picture that,” Alloy groaned. “Cuz now I’m just wondering what those guys are actually planning for their big revenge come-back.” 

My head shook quickly. “Let’s not think about that right now. We’ve got enough problems to deal with. We just need to focus on how we get those people off of Breakwater.”

“Maybe you should let the Ministry know,” Fred put in. He was sitting over in the corner with a copy of the newspaper and a cup of coffee, shrugging when we looked at him. “Like you said, they’ve got the resources you–we don’t, right? And they’d want to convince the authorities to get those three out of there. You get them to put pressure in the right places, maybe the people in charge of the island just step in and pull them out. Could be that easy.” He paused, frowning at his cup. “Yeah, I know, it sounded wrong as soon as I heard it.” 

“I’m not sure how we can let them know what’s going on without becoming even more of a target ourselves,” I carefully murmured, thinking about it for a moment. “Or how we could get them to believe it. I mean, maybe we could get them to think that the people who hit them last night worked for him and lead them to it that way? But I don’t know how we could do that, exactly. It seems pretty… easy to screw up.” 

Wren was practically vibrating as fast as her wings while hovering in the air. “I think I can find out where the island is.” When everyone looked at her, she quickly added, “When you use the phone to talk to that mean guy. I think I can build something to track the signal to the source. Would that help? I mean, um, if you know exactly where the island is, maybe you could trade that to the people in charge and say something like, ‘you wanna keep that whole location a secret, so maybe you should get our friends out and it’ll stay that way.’”

That made me stare even more, my mouth opening and shutting a couple times. Of all the people who might have suggested literally blackmailing the authorities into getting Flea and Trivial off that island, I never would have expected it to be Wren. 

Apparently everyone else was just as surprised, because the girl found the whole group staring at her. Slowly, she lowered herself back to the floor, wings continuing to beat for a few more seconds before slowly fluttering to a stop. “What?” she asked weakly, looking back and forth between all of us. “Was it a bad idea?” 

I was the first to answer, my head shaking quickly. “No, not a bad idea. A surprising one for sure, and definitely a dangerous one too. Blackmailing the government into doing what we want them to do, even if it’s the right thing, could get a target put on our backs. Especially with something as big as the location of their super-inescapable prison.”

Paige spoke slowly. “He’s right about that. Believe me, just trying to force them to do what we want in the first place would be enough to make them look at us in a, let’s say not favorable light. Add in the part where it involves the secret location of the supervillain prison that every government in the Armistice alliance uses and…” She grimaced a bit. 

“But it’s still a good idea,” Sierra put in flatly. Her tone has made it clear that she was practically daring us to disagree, which would obviously mean coming up with a better plan of our own. “Think about it, it’s not like we can get over there ourselves. Even once we know where the island is, that place is so well defended that we’d get blown to smithereens before we got anywhere near it. Unless the kid’s ready to upgrade the odds of her teleportation system from a fifty percent chance of successfully moving a few blocks to a one hundred percent chance of moving all the way across the continent and over the ocean.” 

Wren visibly blanched at that, head shaking slowly. “Um, I’d rather risk blackmailing the government. Wait, does that make us bad guys?” 

“We’re saving a couple Star-Touched, and another good woman, from real bad guys,” Peyton reminded her. “That gives us a little wiggle room on the good or evil chart, doesn’t it?” 

“Yes,” I confirmed. “A little wiggle room. But let’s be careful with that, because I’m pretty sure we’ve been wiggling a fair bit already. Um. Wren, maybe you could work on creating that tracking system so we can call Pittman and get his location? Then we can decide what to do from there. I mean, it’s not like having the location automatically means we have to blackmail the government people, right? If anyone else can come up with a better plan, feel free.” 

“One that helps Trivial, Flea, and Irelyn as soon as possible,” Paige put in. “They might be good at what they do, but they’re stuck out there on an island full of the worst of the worst. Nobody’s good enough to survive in that place forever. And it’s our fault that they’re stuck out there to begin with.” 

A nagging voice in the back of my head was saying that everyone trying to think of a better solution might have more luck if they knew the full, correct situation. They were operating under the assumption that Flea and Irelyn were two separate people. That could very easily come back to bite us in the ass. But again, until we had permission from the woman herself, we couldn’t just go around blabbing her identity to everyone here. We were doing the best we could with a shitty situation. 

Wren was nodding almost frantically. “I’ll work on it. I’ll build it. I mean, I’ve got the design in my head already, but we might need to get a few things. They’ve probably got blockers–I mean they’ve definitely got blockers. Things to stop stuff like exactly what we’re gonna do. But I think I know how to get past them. I–uhh, gotta draw!” Even as she finished saying that, Fred was handing over a tablet with a stylus, and she quickly moved to a corner of the room to start sketching designs. 

After watching her for a second, I turned back to the others. “Well, that’ll keep her busy for a while. I guess there’s nothing else we can do for those three right now, so maybe we should start going over the stuff we found? Sorry, I mean the stuff we stole. Wren says the tracking stuff is all gone, right, Fred?” 

“Yeah, it’s all taken care of,” he confirmed. “The kid promises that everything over there is safe.” He gestured to a table on the other side of the room, where our bags were spread out. “There were a lot of trackers on it, but we got rid of them. Nobody’s gonna find that stuff here.” 

So, we all went over to find our own bags and started to sort through what we had stolen. First, I took those vials from the front pocket and unwrapped them from the towel before frowning thoughtfully. There were five vials in total, one blue, two purple, one brownish-black, and one a bright amber. There were labels on the vials, but it wasn’t like they had easy-to-understand names and explanations. Each label had four numbers and three letters on it. Such as, on the blue one, 9F2X7P0. The two purple ones looked identical, and the codes on them were close but not the same. One was 8D1J4N1 and the other was 8D1J4N8. Did that mean they came from the same batch? I had no idea. And I certainly wasn’t going to do anything stupid like uncork them and smell or touch the stuff without having a better idea of what it was. 

Hopefully there would be information in the files we’d taken, something we could use to decode the labels. For the moment, I carefully set them aside on the folded towel and turned my attention to the assortment of papers I had yanked off the wall back in that place. They had been taped up near the vials, so maybe they had something I could use? 

Unfortunately, the papers were no help. At least, not yet. They had the same sort of code written on them. Until we found the key for it, we still couldn’t decipher what any of it meant.

While I was focused on that, Pack arrived at the back door. Fred let her in, and she came with her lizards all over her shoulders, arms, and head. “I tell you, these guys must’ve been pretty upset about being left behind, because–what?” She had stopped in mid-sentence, staring at Sierra, who had just looked up. “What the hell are– err… oh.” Seeming to catch herself abruptly, the masked girl pointed. “That’s the body you found for Raige?” 

“Sierra now,” the girl in question corrected. “Sierra Nevada.” 

“Sierra Nevada,” Pack echoed thoughtfully, still staring at her. I couldn’t read her expression through that completely blank mask, but she sounded… odd. “Well, it’s good to meet you, Sierra. 

“Very good to meet you indeed.” 

Previous Chapter / Next Chapter

Dig In 22-04 (Summus Proelium)

Previous Chapter / Next Chapter

A/N – The non-canon for this story was posted over the weekend and can be read by everyone right here

As it turned out, the new curfew did not actually extend to recognized Star-Touched, no matter our age. Which was convenient for Alloy and me, yet made things a bit more complicated for Murphy and Roald. We didn’t want to risk the two of them getting too much attention, especially not this close to when we were going to make the actual… incursion. It really would have been crappy luck to have them get in trouble with the cops right before we were about to go into the Ministry base. And crappy luck was absolutely something we didn’t need to be flirting with right now. There were already enough potential problems without adding even more. 

To that end, we made sure the two of them went home early that night. They weren’t very happy about it, especially not Murphy. She wanted to be there to help with the last finishing touches on the tunnel, given how much getting into that base meant to her. But I managed to convince her that it was better for them to avoid attention right now and be ready to use the tunnel on Sunday night than it was to finish the basic work now. After all, if we were going to pull this off, we couldn’t afford to give the Ministry any advance warning. I had no doubt that they would get reports of literally any situation within a certain radius of the mall. And if they heard about the sister someone who was murdered by a guy they helped escape being picked up for hanging around near their secret base after curfew? That might just draw their attention. Even if they didn’t figure out any specifics, it was still too much of a risk. And the last thing this whole situation needed was more risks. 

After making sure the two of them made it on the last bus back to their apartment, and sending Alloy home to get some sleep as well given how much she had been yawning, I took a circuitous route back around to the construction site. I had to make absolutely sure there was no one following or watching me. Again, avoiding last minute screw-ups. Once I was eventually convinced that it was safe, I got back to the room where our tunnel entrance was. Wren and Fred had both just left as well to avoid any unwanted attention. Which left a few of Pack’s lizards on lookout duty. Twinkletoes was invisible near the edge of the building, making a low groaning sound of greeting when I approached. The groaning turned to what sounded a lot like a purr when I reached up to scratch under his chin. Which, of course, meant that I had to scratch behind Riddles’ head when the eagle-lizard made a harumphing noise from the windowsill nearby.

Quietly telling the two of them to keep watching for any intruders, I made my way inside and over to the hole. Below, I could hear the others talking in low voices, so they clearly weren’t too far away. 

Sure enough, as I made my way down the ladder, I found Pack, Raindrop, and That-A-Way all near the entrance in that widened area we had set up. We had brought some chairs down there to sit in, and there were lights strung all the way around it, connected to a heavy-duty (but silent) generator. Those same lights continued down the tunnel so we could see what we were doing. 

“All good?” Way asked as I stepped off the ladder. “Your buddies there weren’t happy about leaving.” 

“No, they weren’t,” I agreed. “But they’ll be okay. They get it. The whole thing is just really sensitive right now, you know how it is.” My gaze passed over them before I added, “For everyone. But how does it look? Are we good?” 

Pack spoke up, idly waving a small tablet computer. “Scanner’s clear so far.” 

The scanner, as she called it, was a device that Wren had set up. The lights that were strung along the tunnel weren’t just lights. They included sensors that would detect digging in the area. Essentially letting us know if anyone was getting close to our tunnel with one of their own. They also did some other stuff, including acting as countermeasures for anyone taking scans of the ground from up above. There were plenty of different sorts of detectors that could have told anyone using them that there was a large tunnel below their feet. Wren’s devices essentially moved those scans over to a safe (aka still dirt-filled) section of ground so they wouldn’t pick up anything we didn’t want them to. 

That wasn’t the only way the girl had helped either. The tunnel itself was very winding, going down and then up and then twisting, all to avoid any underground pipes and wires, or anything else whose damage or disturbance would have immediately alerted someone that we were there. Wren had another scanner device that penetrated the ground ahead of us, letting our group know exactly where it was safe to dig. As a result, the tunnel was a lot less of a direct line to the mall than we’d originally planned, yet avoiding calling down a maintenance crew leading to cops felt worth it. To say nothing of what would happen if my parents received word that there was anything hinky going on near their secret base. Again, I was pretty damn sure they paid attention to stuff like that. 

So, it was thanks to Wren that this tunnel had any actual hope of succeeding. If we’d been doing this blind, I doubted we would’ve gotten this far. Or at least, we’d have had a lot more problems doing it. And it would have taken a lot longer. All in all, she was the tunnel MVP. 

Not that Izzy fell far behind. With her making huge piles of dirt weightless so they could easily float out of the tunnel, it was kind of a race between the two of them for which was more indispensable. Maybe they could share the trophy when this was over. 

Pushing those thoughts out of my head, I looked to the others and painted a smiley face across the front of my helmet. “So, you guys ready to do one last walk-through before Sunday? You know, just to make sure everything looks right.”

I could hear the amusement in Pack’s voice as she retorted, “You sure you don’t want to go with Hobbes’ plan to have someone sleep in the tunnel until then?”  

Wincing inwardly at the thought of how Murphy would react to that considering I’d vetoed the thought earlier, I shook my head. “Like I said when she brought it up, I’d rather the tunnel get discovered and all our work end up useless than have someone here to get caught along with it. If they find it through the tunnel, having someone here won’t help anything. We’ve got Trevithick’s scanners to let us know if someone shows up. Other than that, having someone stay here would just be more risk. If they find the empty tunnel, all they’ll know is that someone was digging toward their base. Our work will be fucked, but that’s it. But if they find someone here, they can get a hell of a lot more information.”

Pack gave me a long look, shaking her head. “You’re pretty good at this subterfuge stuff for a thirteen-year-old kid. You sure you didn’t grow up with spy parents or something? Your dad James Bond?” She was teasing, but it was clear that she was also curious. 

Coughing, I managed to shake my head and play it off. “Just watch a lot of movies, I guess. Seriously, it’s no big deal. We’ll come back on Sunday and get in there.” 

“And hopefully find something useful,” Izzy put in quietly. “Or several useful things.” 

“Damn straight,” Pack agreed with a nod that way. “Personally, I’m leaning towards the sort of useful that can make sure I’m not getting ripped off in this whole system.” 

Rolling her eyes, Way muttered something amounting to god forbid she just want to do the right thing and fix the system. 

“Hey, babe,” Pack informed her, “I do want to fix the system. But I just happened to think it’s a little more broken than you do, so breaking it down and working outside the system makes more sense to me than making myself a slave to it. Besides, I can make a profit for myself and be successful while still wanting to make the whole thing better for everyone else, you know?” 

Amber met her gaze, carefully asking, “How does stealing from people and breaking things in the city make it better? How does taking part in a gang war that scares people so much they have to set up a curfew like this help fix the system?” 

For a moment, the other girl didn’t respond. It looked as though she was considering how to answer. Finally, she straightened up. “I’m not saying I’m perfect. I can be selfish, sure. And I’m loyal to a guy who isn’t exactly a paragon of justice himself, to say the least. But like I said before, we have our standards. Even if they don’t match yours, they still exist. And…” She paused, shifting on her feet. “And maybe we do break some stuff and steal, but I promise, people who live in our territory don’t exactly suffer. Blackjack wants his… the people who live near us to be loyal. Or at least he doesn’t want to give them reason to snitch or spy. Some gang leaders handle that through fear. And sure, there’s a little bit of that. Just the way the system works. But for the most part, we take care of the Prevs who live around us. Me wanting to profit and succeed in this world doesn’t mean I want a bunch of innocent people to suffer.” 

I could tell that Amber was thinking about that for a minute. This whole thing where she clearly liked Pack while still not being sure about her ethics or whatever was really doing a number on her. I was pretty sure that her dad being killed by some carjacker on a random joyride had really… colored her perception of ‘non-serious crimes’ or whatever one might call it. As had finding out about the whole Ministry situation and her growing worry that they had done something to allow her father’s killer to escape justice. Which, to be fair, wasn’t exactly dissuaded by the fact that now we had literally seen them help Murphy’s brother’s killer escape. It made that whole thing seem even more plausible. 

So, all in all, Amber clearly had to reevaluate a lot of things lately. I was pretty sure that was actually why she was repeatedly pushing Pack about all that, because the things the other girl said made enough sense to Amber that she was reflexively pushing back against them, thanks to how much her entire worldview was being shaken.

And if nothing else, I definitely understood what it was like for one’s worldview to shake.

Finally Amber spoke up. “I know you’re probably tired of me bringing it up. I know you’re tired of defending yourself. You…  you can make your own choices. I just…” She hesitated, clearly considering her words for a moment before finishing with a quiet, “I just feel like it’s really easy to do things that you think aren’t going to hurt anybody. Like rob a bank or steal a car and go on a joyride.” She managed to keep her voice relatively steady at that point. If I hadn’t already known the truth, I might not have caught the emotion there. “But there can be unintended consequences. People can get hurt or even die. It doesn’t mean you meant for it to happen, just… it happens all the time. Someone goes out, does something they think is just for fun and not a big deal, and then they hurt someone, or even kill them. Sometimes you can hurt people, or worse, even when you don’t mean to. And I don’t want you to go through something like that. You’re my– you’re a friend. I don’t want you to take on that sort of guilt, because no matter what you say, I know you’d feel guilty if you hurt someone like that. I’ve been out there, Pack. I’ve seen the survivors of that sort of situation. I’ve seen how they react, the hate they can have for the people responsible for hurting them, even if they weren’t a target. Even if it was an accident. The… the hate that those people feel, I don’t want anybody to feel that way about you. I don’t want to tell you how to live your life or what choices to make. I just want you to never be in that position. I know, maybe that’s dumb.” 

Pack seemed to consider that for a moment before shaking her head. “It’s not dumb, babe. I get it. But you’re right, they’re my choices. All I can say is, I’ll be careful. And if I do ever hurt someone like that, if I ever killed someone, I’d…” She trailed off before shaking her head. “I dunno what I’d do. I can’t predict the future. But I’ll tell you one thing. If that happened, I’d be glad to have someone like you around to help give me some direction and advice. And the kids over there.” She nodded toward Izzy and me. “Who, you know, are probably really hoping we shut up soon.” 

Fighting down the reaction at being called a kid, I made myself shrug. “Don’t worry about it. I just…  yeah, don’t worry about it. You guys can keep talking if you want. I’m gonna walk the tunnel one more time before Sunday, just to make myself feel a little less paranoid.” Pausing, I amended, “You know, before I inevitably end up coming back here tomorrow and walking it ‘one more time’ again.” My hand rubbed the back of my neck self-consciously. “But hey, if I’m lucky, it’ll only be those two times.” Another pause, then my head dropped a bit as I mumbled, “It’ll probably be more than those two times.” 

Izzy reached up to pat my back, her voice quiet yet still somewhat teasing. “But that’s still a no on the sleeping here plan?” 

Blushing under the helmet and mask, I huffed a bit. “I might be paranoid, but I’m not changing my mind about that being a bad idea. Anyway, anyone who wants to embrace the paranoia and walk with me, you’re totally welcome.” With that, I stepped past the others to the tunnel entrance and started to move down it. 

As planned, the tunnel was six feet high. None of us were that tall, so we could technically have gotten away with making it smaller. But we didn’t want to give them any help in narrowing down who we were, so six feet it was. It was also just wide enough for all of us to walk down it single-file with some elbow-room on both sides, or two at a time if we turned sideways and got close. The lights strung along the ceiling gave off just enough of a glow that we weren’t walking completely in darkness, making the whole tunnel pretty creepy. We had used a bit of that concrete from the bags that were piled up on the pallet to cover the hole in the floor of the room above, along with a wooden frame that Fred put together, to build a cement archway around the entrance to the tunnel itself, and in a few more places along the way, in order to brace it.  

Pack and Way (Izzy stayed behind to cover up the hole in the floor if anyone came by) followed as I moved through the winding, twisting tunnel. It went down repeatedly, gradually getting lower and lower through most of its length as we had been working to avoid running into pipes or anything else. Even with Wren’s device letting us know where they were, going deeper had been the best strategy for that.  Even so, the tunnel still wasn’t very straight. Among other things, we had been avoiding what the scanner pointed out as being ‘loose soil’, places where digging might have caused a cave-in despite our precautions. 

Above our heads, cars were passing by on the street. We were deep enough that I could barely hear the rumble, like some sort of dragon or other monster slumbering far away in a cavern. Which only added to the general air of creepiness, of course.  

It was a long tunnel, crossing the entire distance from the motel construction area, passing under the street, and through most of the parking lot of the mall itself. We had been incredibly careful as soon as we’d gotten that far, using Wren’s scanner to show us views of the ground for twenty feet ahead of us at a time before very cautiously maneuvering our way closer to the main building. 

If we had been doing this the old-fashioned way, we almost certainly would have taken months to get this far. But more importantly, we would have been caught. The sort of heavy digging and drilling that would have been necessary would have set off all sorts of seismic activity alerts that I was sure my parents had. Thankfully, with the pink paint, we barely had to pull at the dirt and rock to get it out of there. We weren’t making any more seismic activity than the cars passing by overhead. Probably less. Sure, it would have been faster to combine the pink paint and some heavy-duty equipment. But again, we were trying not to get caught. 

All in all, it had been a lot of long, hard, quiet work. But now we had managed to get the tunnel as close as we could. As I finally finished picking my way through that long, winding underground path, I found myself at the end of it. This spot, which we had widened out a bit more, similar to the entrance area, was where Wren’s scanner had detected metal walls ahead. Twenty feet ahead and fifteen feet down, to be exact. From what the scanner could determine, it was the very corner edge of a wall. It couldn’t tell us much more than that, but it did know what the wall was made out of, and it was far too heavy-duty to be some normal basement room. Not to mention being too deep. Yeah, this was definitely the place. Unless my family was sharing secret underground lair space with some other group. 

Everything seemed fine still, after several minutes of checking the scanner and putting my hand uselessly against the dirt wall. We weren’t going to dig any closer to the base until we were ready to go in, given how easy it would be for them to find the tunnel if it was right up against the wall. Twenty feet away and fifteen feet up was probably still too close for comfort, but that’s where we were. Sunday night we would dig the rest of the way in, get through the wall, and… and then hope that there was useful stuff in the place. 

“We won’t have time to look through everything,” Way pointed out from behind me. “It’s gonna have to be a grab and run. Just get everything we can see, throw it all in bags, and get out again before they bring in reinforcements. We can look through it for anything useful later.” 

Nodding, I murmured, “Yeah, no time for subtlety. Not when we know the sort of resources they probably have. We get in, split up to grab everything in sight. Especially hard drives. Grab all the papers, discs, hard drives, and whatever else we can find, then get the hell out. We don’t want to be in there any longer than absolutely necessary.” 

“Preaching to the choir, buddy,” Pack informed me with clearly put-on casualness. I could tell she was as nervous about all this as I felt. Well, maybe not as nervous. But still. “Get in, grab stuff, get out,” she continued. “And we compare notes about what we got once it’s all safe and we’re not in imminent danger of being disappeared by some super black ops team.” 

There was a bit more discussion about specifics, but eventually we made our way back out of the tunnel and rejoined Izzy, Riddles, and Twinkletoes in the room above. A bit of last-minute discussion followed before everyone split up. Way and Raindrop had their own actual patrol route to do before they ended up drawing attention for taking too long. 

Once they were gone, I looked over to where Pack was standing next to Scatters. The once-tiny lizard had grown into a full reindeer form. She could glow in the dark, but Pack wasn’t having her do that at the moment for obvious reasons. 

“Well, Paintboy,” she started while shifting the backpack (it was still linked to the cage with her other little friends) on her shoulders as she swung a leg up over the deer-lizard and into the saddle she had placed on her, “guess I’ll see you Sunday when we do this thing. Till then, keep it real.” 

With that, she gave a low whistle, and Scatters was gone. Seriously, she jumped thirty feet up and forward from a standing position to land on the roof of a bulldozer, then bounced off that to jump twice more in rapid succession, moving just as far each time. With those quick jumps, she landed against the side of a building, running along it with Pack clinging to her until she reached the roof. 

“Wow,” I murmured, shaking my head in disbelief at the sight. That looked amazing. Someday, I was going to convince Pack to let me give it a shot. 

I was about to head out when my phone buzzed. No, not my phone. Not even my Touched phone. It was the phone I’d taken from Wren’s, the one we’d used to call Irelyn. Blinking down at the unknown name and number, I frowned briefly before realizing that it could be Irelyn. Quickly, I hit the button on my voice changer to make it sound like a random guy, then answered. “Hello?”

“Paige Banners, please,” came a male voice. 

“Uh, sorry, who is this?” Was this a friend of Irelyn’s? Someone else trying to track her down using the number she’d called the woman with? 

There was a brief pause, then the voice came back flatly. “Give Paige the phone. 

“This is her father.” 

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