Paintball

Pink 12-06 (Summus Proelium)

Previous Chapter

After reaching the Seraph base, I paid a brief visit with Matt Orens, the guard whose son I had agreed to make a storybook for. I let him know that I was still working on that after a bit of an interruption, but that I would get it to him as soon as possible. He said he understood how busy Touched could get, and that I should take my time to make sure it was good rather than rush it just to get it to him sooner. He wanted a good present for his son, not something haphazard. So, I promised to make sure it was as good as possible before excusing myself to head inside. 

Tricia Peppernickle, the elderly lady who had been behind the desk of the administrative building, wasn’t there. Actually, it didn’t look like anyone was behind the desk when I entered. 

“One moment, please!” a male voice called through one of the open doorways nearby. As I glanced that way, the voice added, “Apologies, I shall be prepared to assist you forthwith!” 

“Oh umm.” I shrugged. “It’s okay, take your time. It’s not urgent or anything.” Right, I was only there to help clean up a mess to work off my own crime, and also to secretly snoop around to find out the meaning of that file number that had secretly been written on those toys in Bobby’s cabin. Nothing all that important. Also, forthwith? Who the heck used language like ‘forthwith’? 

As promised, it didn’t take long for the voice in the other room to finish up whatever he was doing. I heard a filing cabinet slide closed, then there was a rush of sound that made me look that way in time to see a small black shape come flying out of there in a flurry of rapidly flapping wings that made me jump back in surprise, a soft gasp escaping me. 

The shape landed on the counter, and I realized what was going on. Duh. It was Lucent, the Touched-Raven who was part of the Seraph. He’d been a normal bird before, just as any Touched-Human, he’d touched one of those special orbs. Any animal who became Touched automatically got human-level intelligence along with their powers. The level of that intelligence seemed to vary somewhat both randomly and based on the animal itself (as did their resulting personalities). In Lucent’s case, from what I’d heard, he was very intelligent. Probably as a result of being part of a species that was pretty fucking smart to begin with. 

It was the first time I’d seen him up close, given he tended to try to avoid the cameras. He looked like a normal (though quite handsome as far as they went) raven with sleek black feathers and a piercing dark gaze as he perched there on the counter and stared at me. A small anklet was attached to one of his feet, and he had what looked like a sort of white… sheath over his beak, with a couple lights on it. As he stared at me, the lights glowed a bit while that same voice emerged from a couple small speakers at the end of the beak sheath. “Aha! You are the hero known as Paintball, yes? It is a fine pleasure and honor to converse with you at last!” 

Everything that came out of him sounded so… excited. He seemed genuinely happy and enthusiastic. It was pretty charming, and I found myself smiling immediately behind my helmet. “Oh, uhh, hi. Lucent, can I–is it okay if I call you Lucent?” I asked a bit awkwardly, unsure of how this sort of thing was supposed to go. Was it rude that I kept staring at him like this? Probably. But come on, he was a talking (even if the Tech-device was doing that part) bird! 

“I quite hope you will, Sir Paintball!” came the crowed (ravened?) response. Somehow, I could almost see the amusement in those dark eyes as the bird gave a sharp, human-like nod. “It is, after all, my name. ‘Twould be quite the inconvenience to have to recall some other moniker to respond to for every person who wished to call my attention.” There was a brief, clearly thoughtful pause before he added, “Though I have been referred to by a good number of far less dignified monikers before and after my ascension, I prefer this one by a substantial margin, I must say.” 

Quickly nodding, I promised, “Oh, I wouldn’t call you anything bad or–I mean, yeah, Lucent. It’s Lucent, got it. Um.” Hesitating, I reached out carefully, raising my hand and extending a single finger toward him, trying to somehow make it look like the offered shake I intended it as and not just like I was pointing at him. Which wasn’t easy. “It’s nice to meet you, sir.” 

The raven’s head tilted sideways, then I heard a sound that I belatedly realized was a soft chuckle. He leaned forward, beak parting to take my finger gently in it. I felt very slight pressure as he bobbed down once before releasing my finger. “Quite!” came the enthusiastic agreement, punctuated by an actual cawing sound directly from the bird rather than the beak device. “I’ve heard such impressive things for a new young hero such as yourself. You have already become a true inspiration in such a short time, particularly to still-maturing hatchlings.” 

Finding myself blushing under the raven’s praise, I shrugged helplessly. “It’s not a big deal. Plus, you know, I did sort of break the law and temporarily steal from you guys. That’s why I’m here.” 

“A small crime for the greater good,” Lucent assured me. “While you should certainly be prepared to make your token payment for it, your intentions were sound and just. I, for one, thank you for the work you did to save that child’s life, regardless of her father’s actions and choices.” 

“Oh, umm… thanks.” Shifting on my feet awkwardly, I asked, “Are you sure I didn’t pull you away from anything important? I just came to do some more of that whole working off my crimes thing.” Honestly, I was torn right then. I really did need to get in there and find that file. But talking to an intelligent bird was also pretty damn cool. I had a lot of questions about bird things and how wild animals worked, but all of them sounded way too personal to get into right away. 

From the way his head tilted the opposite direction from before, I had a feeling Lucent was quite aware of all the questions I wanted to ask. He assured me, “Oh, I’ve done quite enough in there for now. Come, I shall escort you. Ah, that is, if you don’t mind my presence on your arm?” 

After a brief hesitation, I belatedly realized what he meant, and quickly held my arm out, elbow turned to offer a perch for him to land on. “Oh! Yeah, sure.” I tried to sound casual about the whole thing, while inwardly squealing about the handsome and brilliant raven, and how awesome this entire situation was turning out to be. Seriously, I was talking to a freaking raven! An intelligent raven, who was charming and noble and everything. There were some definite upsides to this entire Touched situation, that was for sure. 

With a quick hop and one brief flap, Lucent landed on my outstretched arm. “Tally-ho!” he called before his head turned to look at me. “Ahem, apologies, Sir Paintball. I occasionally excite myself.” He said it with a hint of amusement and self-deprecation. “It is quite thrilling to meet new people whom I have immediate respect for.” 

Shaking my head, I hurriedly assured him while turning to walk, “Oh, it’s really not a big deal. Really. It’s just cool to meet someone like you. I mean a bird that–” And then, in my distraction through all that, I accidentally walked almost directly into the side of the open doorway I’d been trying to pass through. It wasn’t hard or anything, just a bit of a bump. But it was right on my injured side, and still enough to make me yelp, doubling over a bit as my hand quickly moved to grab my ribs. It was the same arm that I’d been using to hold Lucent, forcing him to fly up and away to land on top of the open door. Oww, oww. For a second, I didn’t even think about anything else. I couldn’t think about anything else. The only thing I could focus on was the rush of pain through my side. I hadn’t braced myself for that or anything. God damn it, ow. 

It passed fairly soon. But not soon enough. When I lowered my hand and blinked up to the top of the door, Lucent announced, “Sir Paintball, I have requested the presence of medical personnel. Please take a seat there until they arrive to look you over.” His head bobbed to indicate the nearby chairs. 

“What?” I blinked that way before hurriedly shaking my head. “Oh, no, it’s okay. I’m okay. I mean I’ve already seen a doctor with my family. My ribs got hurt, but it’ll be fine.”

Those piercing, dark eyes seemed to stare through me as Lucent flatly asked, “And are your parents aware of your clandestine heroic activities? Do they know precisely how you were injured, by what, and if there may be additional complications due to it?” 

Hidden behind the helmet and mask, my mouth fell open, then shut, as a blush creeped across my face. “Um. Not exactly,” I admitted weakly, staring at the dark bird perched above my head.

Lucent gave a quick nod, a firm caw escaping him before the lights on the beak-cover flashed along with his voice. “As I suspected. And even if the injury has been adequately looked after despite the vast chasm between what that poor physician knows and the truth, you are still out and about in your Touched identity. Best to have it taken care of right now, before something happens to exacerbate it.” 

“Taken care o–” Belatedly, I blurted, “Patchwork! I–she said I could pay for healing and she’d do it. How…” I felt like slapping my own forehead through the helmet, but that didn’t seem like a good idea. Especially given the way the pain in my side kept flaring up with every small motion I made. “How’d I forget about that?” Seriously, it had entirely slipped my mind that I could have called her for help. Hell, I might’ve been able to get her to fix me up before I even went home the other night. Though, on the other hand, being injured had sold my story about what happened, and might’ve stopped my parents from throwing a harsher punishment at me. Hmm.

Before the bird could respond to that, a Latino guy in a blue medic uniform with short sleeves and intricate arm tattoos came through the other door, the one leading outside that I had entered through. “Alrighty, what do we have here?” He gave a winning smile before gesturing. “Hey there, Paintball. Heard there was some kinda medical alert up here?” 

Oh. At that moment, the thought occurred to me that I might not want some guy I didn’t know feeling up my side to check how my ribs were. I didn’t exactly have the world’s largest chest, to say the least. As plenty of people at school, including Paige, had always been more than happy to remind me. As evidenced by my ability to pose as a boy wearing these coveralls. But I wasn’t totally flat either, and if some guy started pushing his hand against my stomach and side, pushing the costume flat against my–right. Yeah. That was probably a bad idea for my secret. 

Somewhat awkwardly, I stammered, “O-oh, no, it’s okay. I um, I had a doctor look at it before, but I forgot about Patchwork. She said I could pay her to fix me up sometimes and I don’t–um, I don’t mind doing that. You know, if she’s not busy. Or I could just wait. No big, I mean I made it here, and I really doubt I’m gonna suddenly get into a big fight or something in the middle of Seraph headquarters, right? Haha… ha…” Trailing off, I squirmed a little, telling myself to shut it.

From the look that the medic guy and Lucent exchanged, they definitely noticed something strange about how I was acting. Which was totally strange, because I’d been so cool and smooth about the whole thing. How ever did they pick up on my super-subtle reaction? 

Still, the medic didn’t push things when I was obviously uncomfortable. He did introduce himself as Max, asked me what happened (I told him a bad guy hit me with some kind of Tech weapon) and said that Patchwork was on her way up. He asked how it felt, if I was having trouble breathing or had been having such trouble earlier, where exactly it hurt, what the doctor who had looked at me had said, and so on. But he didn’t touch me, and stayed perfectly respectful. I had a feeling these guys were accustomed to dealing with people with plenty of secrets and/or trauma. 

It didn’t take long for Patchwork to arrive. As before, she came through one of the interior doors, dressed, as always, in her costume of a black mesh shirt over green chest armor, black leather pants, motorcycle boots, and a green visor that covered the upper half of her face. Her hair was still short, spiky, and green. 

“The fuck, man?” she demanded upon seeing me. “You go and get yourself busted up already? What, were you just waiting for an excuse to go a few rounds with Cuélebre or something?” As soon as she said it, the woman smacked her own forehead. “The fuck am I saying, you went after that cocksucker twice before we even met. I must’ve been outta my goddamn mind when I offered to play hero bandaid for you.” Despite her words, she was clearly teasing. At least, I was pretty sure she was teasing. Mostly. 

“Sorry,” I mumbled, flushing a bit. “I didn’t mean to get hurt, trust me. And I can totally pay you. Or wait if you’re busy, or–” 

“Shut the fuck up,” she interrupted. “Don’t you know how hard it is to bitch about having to do my job when you’re so fucking ‘nice’ about it? Takes all the fun out of the situation.” 

Blinking a couple times, I hesitantly asked, “You… have fun yelling at people about healing them?” 

The toothy grin she gave me was almost feral. “Everyone’s gotta get their jollies somehow.” Sobering, the woman added, a touch more quietly, “I see plenty of bad shit out there, kid. Fucking with people like you, the ones who don’t have half their body ripped open, that’s how I keep going. Like I said, everyone’s got their own ways. But seriously, don’t be such a fucking martyr about it, kid. Someone’s giving you shit you don’t deserve, you throw right back at ‘em. You got hurt being a hero, out there helping people. Someone like me starts giving you shit, don’t be a meek little bitch about it, tell that piece of shit to fuck off.” She punctuated those last two words by smacking the back of her right hand against her left palm hard enough to make the sound echo through the room. “Get it?” 

“I think you just called yourself a piece of shit,” I pointed out a bit mildly before nodding. “But uh, other than that, sure. Got it. Stand up for myself.” 

“Damn straight.” Stepping over to me then, Patchwork asked what was wrong. When I told her, she touched my side. I tensed a bit, but her hand was fairly low. After feeling the injury gently, she agreed with Dr. Roev, but said she could fix it easily. Which she did, simply by calling Max the medic over. Touching one hand against his chest, she copied the healed state of his ribs, then touched my side once more and transferred it to mine. 

Oh my God. The relief was instantaneous. I almost cried. Only when the pain was gone did I fully realize just how much it had lowkey been omnipresent. Sure, it had only actively and consciously hurt when I moved too fast, twisted around, or whatever. But there had been a constant low-ache that made it impossible to be fully comfortable no matter what I was doing. Now, that was gone. I felt totally normal again. 

“Holy shit,” I blurted, “I could kiss you.” 

“Try it, and I’ll triple your fucking fee,” came the snapped retort, followed belatedly by, “… make that quadruple.” 

“Ouch.” I managed. 

“Now, now,” Lucent piped up, “be nice to the poor lad, Lady Patch.” 

“Told you before, bird, I ain’t no lady.” Squinting up at the intelligent corvid briefly, Patchwork then turned her attention back to me. “Back to my payment. You ahhh… shit, you got twenty bucks, kid? Cool if you need to get back to–” 

I immediately unzipped one of the coverall pockets, dug around inside to find the wad of cash there, carefully extracted a single bill from what I’d brought along for getting a new phone and costume pieces (without showing just how much was in there), and handed it over. “Wouldn’t want you to have to come break my legs for not paying. Then I’d have to pay you even more for healing them.” 

For a moment, the woman squinted at me. Then she gave a short, sharp laugh before shaking her head. “You’re okay, kid. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got other shit to do.” 

She left, taking Max with her. After that, Lucent hopped from the door to my offered arm once more, and we walked together down the hall. I input the guest code that Patchwork had given me, thanked Lucent for the escort (and for talking to me), then got to work in the room once more. 

Or at least, I started to work. I did that just long enough to make sure I was really being left alone for the time being. Then I took a moment to quickly and quietly look through the large stacks of files and folders I’d already put together before that were waiting to go into the cabinets.

Okay, so first I had to locate a folder with a name ending with that original Ten (Three at the time) towers symbol. Right before that would be a four. And the first four digits were either six, two, three, nine, or three, nine, six, two. One of the toys had had a six and a two on it, the other had had a three and a nine. So that was what I needed. A folder with those five digits, in one of those two potential orders, followed by the Three Towers symbol. 

Granted, there was always the possibility that I’d run into both of those. But somehow I doubted it. And if I did, I’d just figure out through context which one was right. Hopefully. 

It wasn’t an issue, as it turned out. After about forty minutes of looking (mixed with actually doing the job I was supposed to be doing), I found the folder in question, with Six-Two-Three-Nine-Four, followed by the symbol. As soon as I found it, a sound of excitement escaped me, before I hurriedly glanced around. Nothing. No one was here. Sobering, I took a moment to collect myself before opening the folder to see what the hell Bobby had left that secret code for. 

The folder was fairly thin. There wasn’t much in there. It looked like a medical file for an incident five years earlier. The patient was a Jane Doe, an estimated twelve-year-old girl who was brought into Seraph medical by a couple Ten Towers Star-Touched for immediate care. According to the handwritten notes in the file, the girl was found unresponsive next to three dead bodies in an alley. She was alive and conscious, but in some kind of vegetative state, likely a result of trauma. The doctor noted that within ten minutes of her arrival, she apparently snapped out of the state… sort of. Apparently she kept repeating two sentences over and over again, one with two words, the other with four words. 

The first sentence was ‘Find Cassidy.’ 

The second was ‘Cassidy will help me.’ 

Staring at the words on the file, I felt a chill run through me. Cassidy. Me. There was no question. None. With a shaking hand, I turned the paper to look behind it. Nothing. Wait, no, there was a photograph, like a Polaroid or whatever. It was stuck to the back of the paper. Gingerly, I tugged the photo away and looked at it. The picture was of the patient who had repeatedly begged these doctors to ‘find Cassidy’ and that ‘Cassidy will help me.’ And the girl in that picture was instantly recognizable, even if she was several years younger than she was now. 

Paige. 

It was Paige.

Previous Chapter

Pink 12-05 (Summus Proelium)

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I had a dozen texts and three voicemails from Wren once I tore my replacement phone out of its plastic packaging, set it up, and downloaded my old Touched phone data to it. Mostly they were a three-to-one mix of her being terrified of what had happened to me and her wanting to show me the stuff she’d been working on. Apparently she and Fred had already started moving stuff back to the old shop, and she had some spiffy new defenses she wanted me to see. 

So, I called her up to let the girl know I was on the way and that I was fine. Fine enough, at least, that she really didn’t need to know how sore I felt or how much my ribs hurt if I turned too fast or bent over. Yeah, I wasn’t going to make her even more worried. She was a kid, and was still trying to put her own life together. No way was I going to put something like that on her. 

Wren hurriedly informed me that she and Fred were at the old store right then, and I promised I’d be there soon. After that, it was just a matter of getting another ride over to that general area, using a random roof to (somewhat awkwardly) change into my costume (sans the helmet, which was still back with the damn Scions), then heading over to the pawn shop itself. On the way, I kept a sharp lookout for anything out of the ordinary. Yeah, people weren’t after the vials anymore and most knew that attacking a Tech-Touched on their own turf was a bad idea. Not to mention the fact that very few should have any idea a Tech-Touched lived there. But still, the whole idea made me nervous. I really wanted to tell Wren to give it up. Except this was her dad’s store. There was no way she would just walk away from it, no matter what the potential danger was. Getting her to create defenses was the best I could hope for. Well, that and hoping that if things were actually bad, Fred would insist they leave. 

Stepping through the front door, I found the main floor of the shop looking about the same as it had the first time I was there. It was, of course, still an enormous open space about as wide as the school gym, with dozens of shelves scattered around that were filled with all sorts of seemingly random stuff, while the central third of the space was several feet lower than the rest, with various built-in steps leading down into that pit area. 

The same four glass counters formed the same rectangle around the space where the clerk worked. As I entered, both Wren and Fred were there, busy talking about something. The moment the bell dinged, Wren blurted my name (well, Paintball at least), slid off the counter she’d been perched on, and dashed my way. Two steps into it, the wings popped out of her metal backpack thing and she glided the rest of the way before landing right in front of me. Then I was being hugged tightly. Luckily, I saw it coming and popped an orange circle onto my back for defense so I wouldn’t crumple from the force of it. As it was, I had to grit my teeth tightly, managing a weak, “Hey, Wren. Sounds like you’ve been pretty busy lately, huh?”

Pulling back a bit, the little blonde nine-year-old squinted up at me, very obviously annoyed. “Pretty busy? Pretty busy? You go off and almost get yourself killed and all you have to say about it is that I’ve been busy?!” She gave a loud huff, folding her arms. “You’re in trouble.” Despite her words, it was obvious that it took a lot for her to sound as stern as she did. The kid was trying as hard as she could to be serious and let me know just how upset she was without too much squeeing and hugging. 

Still, I knew she was right, and had to wince at how much I’d obviously upset her. “Sorry. I guess Pack let you know what was going on then?” Obviously, just being scolded by That-A-Way and Pack herself hadn’t been enough. I had to have Wren and her puppy eyes sicced on me too.  

“I was trying to call you and you never answered,” she informed me in a sad voice, head shaking. “So I asked Pack if you were okay and she told me what happened.” Again, the girl squinted at me. “She said you got in trouble cuz you said you had help but you didn’t.” 

“That’s… about the size of it,” I confirmed while cringing a little bit. “I definitely learned my lesson, believe me. I won’t do something like that again. If I say I have help, I’ll have help.” 

“Good.” That was Fred, as the man approached. “Cuz I really don’t wanna have another night of sitting up with the kid until someone actually bothers to let us know that you’re okay.” 

“My phone was broken,” I mumbled helplessly. “And I had my own parents to–I’m sorry. I’m sorry I made you worry, Wren. I’m sorry I made both of you worry. But seriously, I’m okay. And I really want to see what you’ve been doing over here. Are you sure it’s safe to be in this place?” 

“Don’t worry,” Fred informed me, “I told the kid we couldn’t come back here until she had a fool-proof way of getting us out if anything went wrong.” As he said that, the man waved a hand, showing me the watch attached to his wrist. “It’s a teleporter linking this place to the other shop. Something happens, just push the face in and say the command. Then poof, we’re not here.” 

Wren showed me her own watch, nodding eagerly. “And I’m working on one for you! That way if you get caught again, you can just teleport away.” Squinting pointedly, the kid added, “I’ll hurry and make it faster, cuz you get in trouble a lot.” 

She wasn’t wrong, but I still made a huffing noise. I would’ve stuck my tongue out at her, given my lack of a helmet, but that seemed a bit childish at the moment. “Just make sure you guys are safe here first. You can really teleport out as soon as anything happens?”

Her head bobbed up and down quickly. “Uh huh! And there’s another defense too, you wanna see?” Even as the girl said that, I could see the mix of eagerness and mischievousness in her eyes. Apparently, whatever she wanted to show me was really funny. 

Glancing to Fred briefly, I waited until he gave a subtle nod before agreeing. “Okay, let’s see.” 

With an excited squeaking sound, Wren cleared her throat before loudly declaring, “Intruder defense Alpha-Zero-One engage, ninety percent.” 

As soon as she said that, I heard a weird… humming sound. It filled the room, and I started to look around. But then a blur went rushing past me. It was Wren. She went from standing in front of me, to the door behind me, to the counter, back to one of the other shelves, then back to me, then to a shelf on the far side of the room all in just a brief few seconds. 

The same thing happened with Fred, as he vanished into the elevator leading upstairs, then came back, then checked on something at the register, then came to me with something in his hands all before I could so much as raise my hand. He held it up, and I belatedly realized it was an analog clock. As I stared at it, the second hand spun rapidly. In the brief four seconds or so that I watched, about three minutes passed. 

Finally, I saw Wren open her mouth. The sounds she made came out in a rush so fast they didn’t sound like words. At least at first. But finally, humming sound stopped and I heard the tail end of her saying, “– and restore to default security measures.” 

Things were back to normal. My gaze snapped around quickly, as I blurted, “Wren, are you screwing around with time stuff?! Are we–we’re not–you didn’t–” 

With a giggle, the younger girl shook her head. “No, see, there wasn’t any time travel or anything. I mean, not like you’re thinking. The defense system targets intruders and makes them slower. Everything else was moving at normal speed. You were just moving and thinking really, really slow so everything around you seemed really fast. See, you were in there for fifteen minutes and to you, it was only about thirteen seconds. That way, if anyone comes in who isn’t supposed to be here and we turn on the defense, we have time to do basically anything. Even call for help if we need to.” 

As she finished explaining all that, Wren stared at me eagerly, eyes shining with delight as she blurted, “Isn’t that cool?!” 

I didn’t even have to exaggerate my agreement as my head bobbed. “It’s totally cool, Wren. You outdid yourself with this. Nonlethal and super-effective. How long can it keep going like that?” 

Squirming a little, the girl admitted, “Only about twenty seconds or so of slow-time. But we’re working on getting the time up and cutting the energy use. And that’s almost half an hour real-time, which is plenty for us to do a lot of things while any intruders are basically frozen, you know? Even if it’s just leaving.” 

“You’re right, a lot can happen in half an hour.” I gave her a thumbs up that made her grin happily before asking, “So teleporters to escape and this slow-down effect as soon as intruders get in. Can that be automatic or do you have to actually give the command like you did just now?” 

It was Fred who answered. “Either-or. Kid set it so we can set it off manually, or tie it to an alarm for whenever the shop’s not open. As long as no one else but us is supposed to be here, if anyone does show up, it slows them down and lets us know what’s going on.” 

“And there’s gonna be more!” Wren insisted. She was bouncing up and down with excitement. Which, considering her jetpack wings were still out, actually sent her up above my head, then back to the floor with each bounce. It was enough to make me snicker a bit before containing myself. Meanwhile, she was still explaining. “I’ve got ideas about Flingbeams, they’re–err, wait, I’m not gonna say it yet cuz they might change. Also they’re a surprise. But they’re gonna be cool! No one’s gonna break Dad’s store again. I mean, not without being hurt a lot and stuff.” 

“As long as you’re safe,” I agreed, glancing to Fred before adding, “I don’t think you being here is exactly common knowledge or anything, but you should still be careful. Especially with Braintrust out there and interested. If anything seems fishy, you jump out of here and worry about details later, okay? Call me, call Pack, call whoever you need to for help.” 

“Don’t have to tell me twice to look after our skins,” Fred assured me. The man gave a very slight self-deprecating smile. “Seriously though, what the kid said before, that goes for me too. You’ve done… right by us, even when I didn’t really deserve it. Don’t go getting yourself in hot water like that without help of your own. You uhhh…” He coughed, sounding self-conscious suddenly. “You’re a good one, so don’t be an idiot and get killed.” Belatedly, the man added, “Who’d bankroll the kid’s business without you, huh?” He sounded more comfortable then. 

Snorting, I gestured vaguely. “Silly me, I can’t die without making sure Wren’s Nest becomes the best tech shop in the city. Maybe one of you could write a note so I could give it to the next person who tries to stab or shoot me?” 

My reward for that was a poke in the stomach from Wren (luckily she didn’t jab higher or I might’ve yelped), as she countered, “What about a new helmet instead? Pack said yours got lost or something, and you don’t have a replacement yet.” Her hand waved toward my simple mask. “You weren’t gonna go get into another fight without something to protect your head, were you?” There was definite recrimination in her voice at that idea.

Quickly, I raised both hands while shaking my head. “Nope, no, ma’am. I just didn’t wanna make you wait anymore. I was gonna go get a new helmet after this, before I… umm, do the next thing on my list.” After defusing that quickly, I blinked before adding, “Wait, new helmet?” 

“It’s not super, super special like the boots,” she lamented. “I didn’t have time to do that much with all the stuff I was making for the shop. But it’s still something! And I’m totally gonna improve it later, in different versions, I swear.” With that, she turned and launched herself into the air and clear across the room, soaring over a dozen random shelves to reach the far side of the central counter, where she started digging through a few different bags. 

While she was gone, Fred glanced to me. His voice was quiet. “You seen a doctor about those ribs?” When I shot him a quick, surprised glance, he snorted. “You’re good at hiding things from the kid. But I saw how you reacted when she hugged you, and that poke. I’m not gonna scare her, just… you saw someone who could take care of it, right? If not, I think I can–” 

“I saw someone,” I hurriedly assured him. “A doctor, I mean. It’s–it’s a long story, one I can’t get into. But he looked at me and… and it’ll be okay.” Belatedly, I added, “Um, thanks. You know, for caring.” I knew the whole thing sounded awkward. It felt awkward. Still, it was the best I could do. 

Before Fred could respond to that, Wren was back. She had, as promised, a helmet in her hands. It looked almost identical to my last one, with the front part that could be pushed up out of the way while still leaving the secondary visor in place across my eyes. This helmet, however, had what looked like two small headlights built into either side of it, facing forward. It also had a little speaker grill bit built into the front (the part that could be pushed up out of the way when I opened the helmet). 

Wren quickly explained while handing the helmet over. “See the volume thing on the left side? You can push that up to project your voice really loud. You know, if you need to shout over people or call out to someone. It’s like a megaphone. And the lights are for when it’s dark and you don’t want to use the night vision.” 

Raising an eyebrow (which was dumb considering she couldn’t see it anyway), I asked, “Night vision?”  

The kid’s head bobbed up and down so fast I thought it might fall off. “Uh huh! Of course there’s night vision, what kinda amateur do you thi–never mind.” Giggling despite herself, she informed me, “there’s night vision and thermal vision, you just have to say ‘night vision engage or night vision disengage’ or ‘thermal vision engage and disengage’ while you’re wearing it. You can whisper it too. Or touch that button there right next to the main visor for three seconds, then let it go for night vision and five seconds then let it go for thermal vision. Then touch it again to go back to normal.” 

Turning the helmet over in both hands, I smiled like an idiot before managing, “Wren, that’s really cool. I didn’t–I mean I don’t–I mean thanks.” 

It was her turn to blush a bit, squirming in the air (she was hovering about a foot off the ground) before hurriedly explaining, “That’s not all. There’s one more thing. Put the helmet on and pull the front down.” 

So, I did as she asked. The helmet fit snugly in place, and I slid the front part down, making it lock in place before giving her a thumbs up. “All good so far.” 

“Okay!” With clear excitement, Wren explained, “Now say, ‘Map me, then give an address or a request, like ‘nearest McDonalds.’” 

Considering that briefly, I settled on, “Map me the Henry Ford Museum.” 

As soon as I said that, a few images appeared on the visor in front of my face. At the bottom, which I could only read by focusing my eyes that way, were the words Henry Ford Museum and an address. In the top right corner of the visor was an arrow pointing me in the right direction, along with a thing telling me how many kilometers away I was. 

Wren pushed on quickly. “The arrow appears on the side you need to turn to, or right at the top if you just need to go forward. You can say ‘dim map’ to make it go away so you can focus, then ‘raise map’ to bring back the same thing without asking directions again. Or you can say ‘end map’ to turn it off completely.” 

“Wren, this is…” Swallowing hard, I leaned over to hug the girl as tightly as I dared. “Thanks. This is awesome. Seriously. Between this and the shoes, you’re really decking me out.” 

With a clearly self-conscious giggle, Wren insisted, “It’s nothing big. I can do better. I will do better. You know, with more time, and… and everything. I’ll make it better.” 

“This is enough for now, I swear.” Smiling, I nudged the girl while releasing her. “Really, take care of your shop and all that. You’re just… you’re awesome. Thanks.” 

After that, I stuck around for another twenty minutes or so, just hanging out and making sure Wren knew how grateful I was. And, of course, reassuring her that I really was okay. With a promise to check in soon, I excused myself. It was time to go visit the Seraph base and hopefully find out just what the hell was in that file once and for all.

And hey, with this fancy new helmet, at least I wouldn’t get lost. 

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Ready 11-06 (Summus Proelium)

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We met up with Skip and Broadway shortly after that, so I promised Pack and That-A-Way that I would talk to them about the whole mall thing later. I was tired, sore, mentally exhausted, and really just wanted to crawl into my bed and sleep for about a million years. But I was also terrified about what was going to happen when I got home. It was late, and my phones completely didn’t work so I had no idea if my parents had noticed me being gone for so long. If they’d been trying to get hold of me, if they’d panicked and called the cops… this could get complicated. And I was so done with everything right then, I was afraid of what I might say. 

The car that Skip showed up in was actually a van. Apparently she’d damaged the Scions’ car enough to leave it undriveable and then abandoned them. Given his immunity to practically anything, there was no way that she could keep Pencil contained long enough to try to call in the authorities. Especially with Cup there and the possibility that they had called in other Scion reinforcements at some point in all of that. The best thing to do was to get out of there while we could. None of us wanted to take the risk of Pencil getting the upper hand again. He’d almost managed it even with all of us there and Skip’s own selective immunities. 

Besides, I was just… again, exhausted. Falling into my seat in the van, I let my head rest against the window while listening to That-A-Way telling Skip what road to take to get out of there, and to Broadway saying something about how she would watch for anyone behind us. 

The next thing I knew, the side door of the van was being slid open and we were in a brightly lit area. I jerked awake, heart thudding its way through a Lars Ulrich drum solo while I looked around wildly, instant panic making me imagine any number of horrible scenarios just then. 

That-A-Way was right there, hand on my arm while she quickly assured me, “It’s okay. It’s alright, Paintball. Hey.” Moving a bit, she gestured to show me that we were just in some kind of illuminated parking garage. “We’re back in Detroit, it’s okay. You’re safe.” Pausing to look at me, the other girl looked for a moment like she was going to say something important. In the end, however, she just carefully asked, “Are you okay? You were… you were shifting around a lot.”

Flinching at the thought of what I could have mumbled, considering the state I was in, I gave a short nod. It took a second to come down off my panic-high, but I finally found my voice. “Y-yeah, I’m good. I’m fine. I mean I’m not fine, but I’ll get over it. You…” Biting my lip, I looked to her. “You guys really saved me. I would’ve been dead without you. I would have died.” Just saying that out loud, even now that I was safe and totally out of that situation, made my heart beat faster while my throat went dry. The memory of Pencil pointing that weapon at me… I shook a bit, shoving the thought down into the basement of my mind before locking the door.

That-A-Way gave me what I knew was a practiced reassuring smile, the kind she used for making civilians feel better about a situation without scaring them. “I’m just glad we were there,” she informed me, before her eyes narrowed. “And as soon as you feel better, I’m hitting you again. Don’t you ever do that, got it? I will not be used as an excuse to let you go off on your own and get yourself killed. If you do, I’ll find a way to bring you back just to kick your ass.” 

Quickly, I held up both hands in surrender. “I know, I know. It was stupid. In my defense, I had no idea that the Scions were involved at all. I wouldn’t have–yeah, I know. It was still stupid. I’m sorry. I just didn’t want anyone else to get hurt because of me. I didn’t want to be–ow.” The last bit was because That-A-Way put her hand out to flick my forehead with one finger. It hurt. 

“Just don’t do it again,” she flatly insisted. “You need help, ask for it. That’s why I gave you my number in the first place.” Pausing briefly, the girl added in a slightly more subdued voice. “Seriously, Paintball, I’m glad you’re okay. I don’t know what…” She shook her head. “Just don’t be that stupid anymore. I really don’t want to find out you got yourself killed after all this. Especially if that thing you were talking about…” Stopping herself, she gestured. “Come on, let’s go.” 

Sliding out of the van after her, I looked around. We were, sure enough, in one of the parking garages downtown. I could see Skip off in the distance, wearing a backpack over one shoulder and talking to what looked like a security guard while Pack and Broadway stood off the other way next to the former’s cage full of lizards. As soon as Pack saw me get out of the van, she approached, leaving her teammate with the cage. “Good,” she started, “you’re awake. So what are we gonna do about everything you said?” Lowering her voice to being barely audible, she added, “Cuz I don’t know about Compass-Power here, but I really wanna know more. Especially if it involves my team.”

“And my team,” That-A-Way agreed, arms folded. “But we can’t really talk about it right now.” 

“Yeah, there’s not time,” I pointed out after stifling a yawn. “My parents are already–” Cutting that off quickly, I blanched before settling on, “I’ll meet both of you later this week, I promise. Just let me recover from all this and we’ll talk about what I know. We’ll figure something out. Especially about that… thing I mentioned with the mall.” Saying those last few words mostly under my breath, I gestured. “But seriously, like I said, don’t tell anyone.” I looked to That-A-Way. “No one on your team, none of the adult heroes. Not even the leaders. Not Caishen, not Brumal, and especially not Silversmith.” 

That-A-Way was squinting at me. “What do you mean, ‘especially not Silversmith?’ He’s not… no.” 

I met her gaze intently. “I’ll explain more later, I swear. Just… just don’t do anything you can’t take back. Telling anyone about this is gonna open a box that none of us can close again. The more people who know about it, the worse it’ll be. Later we can figure out who to trust, but right now, just…. don’t.” 

“And especially not Silversmith,” That-A-Way repeated pointedly, her gaze still locked on me. 

“Yeah,” I murmured, “especially not Silversmith. Like I said, I’ll tell you more later. I just can’t deal with this right now. Don’t talk to anyone about it. Please. This is just a lot to put out there right now.” Looking to Pack, I added, “Check on Eits for me? Make sure he’s still getting better. And I’m sorry about… about everything.” 

Pack promised to do so, before Skip approached. The Ten Towers Touched spoke in that same eerily calm voice of hers that actually helped calm me down, all things considered. “Steven won’t tell anyone we were here. I trust him to be discreet, he has been very helpful before.” Looking to me, she added, “How are your injuries? Will you be able to make it home?” 

Everything hurt, that was for sure. But the fact that I was alive and in one piece right then after everything that happened was honestly such a freaking miracle that it felt like I could’ve danced home. Okay, not really. Ow. Still, I’d get home. I didn’t really have much of a choice, even if the idea of trying to explain to my parents where I’d been was terrifying. “I’ll make it,” I confirmed. 

We said a few more things. I thanked all of them for going the extra however-many-miles to save my stupid life from Pencil. Then I left them. We all separated, and I headed out of the parking garage and out onto the street. Honestly, right then the last thing that I wanted to do was start jumping and running around. But I had to get back home, and first I needed to get to the place I’d stored my clothes on the way over to see Pack and Eits in the first place. 

Despite what I’d said about being okay, I was limping as I left the garage. Fuck. Shit. That hurt. Everything hurt. Getting knocked out by whatever that dart had been was bad enough, but the chase through the woods, getting hit with whatever that gun had been? That was rough. If I hadn’t had my orange paint on when that gun hit me the first time, what kind of shape would I be in now? Would I even be alive? I definitely wouldn’t be walking like this. 

Then again, the only reason I was even still here at all was because of Pack and the others. The four of them had gone out of their way to save my life. The fact that Pack and That-A-Way had put aside any differences they had to save me was enough on its own, but I barely knew Skip. I’d exchanged a few words with her, that was it. And I didn’t know Broadway at all. She was there because of Pack, of course. But still. The four of them had totally saved my ass. Without them, I wouldn’t be alive. I’d be dead. Dead. The thought kept reverberating throughout my mind while I used a bit of red paint to yank myself up to a roof so I could get out of sight. 

Dead. Without them, I would have been dead. Pencil would have killed me. Everything I’d done, and absolutely none of it would have mattered anymore because I’d just be… gone forever. I was only alive because other people had come to save me. People who I still didn’t trust with all my secrets. Or even most of them. 

Was I resisting telling anyone the truth about myself and my family to protect them, or to protect myself? Or worse, to protect my family. Was I so against letting anyone know what my family was because I was still keeping their secrets? What I somehow instinctively still siding with my family even as I outwardly sided against them?

Those thoughts bothered me as I walked across the roof. My hand was rubbing my chest where I had been hit. One of my ribs felt really bad, making me flinch and wince when I touched that spot. It did, at least, distract me from all those troubling thoughts about my motivations. 

Taking a breath, I used blue paint to launch myself out toward the next building. And I instantly regretted it. A shooting rush of pain went through my side and leg, and I basically ended up falling in a heap on the next roof, sprawling out gracelessly before curling into a ball with a groan of pain. Owwww.  

Right, this might have been worse than I thought. I really needed to get home, but running and jumping just wasn’t going to cut it. So, instead, I just used red paint to pull myself from roof to roof and orange paint to ensure that I didn’t land too roughly. Even simple landings that I never would have used the orange paint for any other time needed it. I was basically limping from roof to roof just to get to the spot where I had hidden my clothes. That was all I needed. I would change clothes and then call for an Uber. 

Wait. Call. My phones were both busted as far as getting a signal went. Sighing hard when that thought popped into my head as I hit another roof, I stumbled and half bent over. Nausea welled up in me and I had to fight the urge to throw up or pass out. Or both. After catching my breath, I took out both phones to check them again. Sure enough, still no signal. I was in the middle of town and yet there was no signal. Pencil had definitely not been exaggerating about what his little toy had done. 

Okay, still not the end of the world. I would change clothes and then use the phone at a gas station or something. I’d get a ride home and come up with some kind of excuse for how late I was if it came down to it. Considering it was about four in the morning at that point, I was relatively terrified about how my parents would react if they actually knew I wasn’t in bed. 

At least I had a couple people to help me with the mall problem. I’d had no idea how I was going to get into that secret underground place to find anything else out by myself. But with That-A-Way and Pack, maybe we could actually pull it off. And maybe I would actually manage to think of how much I could tell them. I’d already taken several huge risks with all that and they had come through every time. Pack had come to save me even when she was mad about Eits. She risked her life and the lives of her beloved lizards to save me. That-A-Way had willingly worked with villains to come help me. At what point was I just going to trust them with all of this, with the whole story? What was wrong with me? Part of it, of course, was genuinely wanting to protect them from the things my family could do. But by this point, how much of that was just an excuse? And who was I protecting more, them or my family? I was kind of afraid of what the answer to that actually was. 

Finally, I reached my hidden bag and looked around to make sure things looked clear before starting to change. And damn was that just the worst clothes changing experience of my life. Everything hurt so much. Just lifting my leg to put it into the hole of my jeans made me practically whimper. It felt like I was contorting myself into a pretzel simply by pushing my arms through the sleeves of my shirt and jacket. And I had to do it quickly, because the absolute cherry on the top of this shit day would have been someone spotting me standing on the roof in my underwear and bra. 

Hiding the bag with my costume once more, because I sure as hell wasn’t going to risk taking it home when I didn’t know what the situation there was, I got myself to the ground. After managing that without dying somehow, I did one thing with my personal phone to help sell any story I came up with before walking out to look for a phone to use. Thankfully, the guy in the nearby gas station didn’t raise too much of a fuss, and I was able to call a taxi. Then, while waiting for it, I noticed a guy skating past. An idea popped into my head, so I quickly flagged him down before offering him a hundred bucks for the board and another fifty for his helmet. He took it and, once he was gone, I stepped into the alley and slammed the board against the wall a couple times until I managed to almost snap one set of wheels off. I hit the helmet a few times too. 

Giving the driver instructions to an address a short distance away from my house, I slumped into the seat and exhaled while trying to think of a story I could tell that might actually help. 

Once again, I fell asleep almost immediately. The next thing I knew, the driver in front was clearing his throat and trying to politely wake me up. When my eyes opened, he nodded. “All set.” Pausing then, he added, “You sure you’re okay, kid? You look like someone threw you into a blender.”

Somehow, I managed a slight smile while paying him. “Just need to sleep.”

He gave me a thumbs up while I was getting out. “Well, you get on home and take a nap, son.”

Son. Yeah. Because that was really what I needed right then. Mumbling something but I didn’t even follow myself, I shut the door and shoved my hands into the jacket pockets before walking off. Son. Boy. God dammit. Yes, I had much worse problems than that. That was basically a pebble in my shoe compared to everything else. And yet, it hit me at just the wrong time. I was tired and sore and so much else had happened. Dropping my head as I shuffled along, I forced back the tears. No, they weren’t tears from what he had said. I’d been mistaken for a boy plenty of times. So many people thought I was a rather pretty thirteen or fourteen-year-old boy instead of a sixteen-year-old girl that it should not even have registered anymore.  

No, the tears were mostly about everything. Getting captured, nearly dying, seeing that picture and realizing that the dead boy had obviously been a friend of mine, all of it. Even the fact that I’d clearly missed Bobby by just minutes and now had no idea where else he could be contributed. All of it contributed, until I could barely keep the tears shoved down where they belong. God dammit, I was a girl, but I wasn’t some little baby. I was not going to start sobbing again. Not now. I was going to suck it the fuck up and keep going. 

On the plus side, I was very quickly distracted from any thought of crying. On the negative side, that distraction came because I turned the corner and saw both of my parents standing out on the front walk past the security gate. There was a uniformed police officer and several people in suits standing with them. All of them were in the midst of a really intense conversation.

A brief thought popped into my head that I should try to eavesdrop. But I just stood there, too tired and sore to do anything else by that point aside from dropping the skateboard and helmet off to the side on the grass. Spying could come later. 

Mom was the first to see me. She glanced away from the man she was clearly giving orders to, spotted me, and let out a loud, startled gasp. I saw the men turn, hands going quickly to what were obviously their weapons, while my dad looked up as well.

Then they moved, and just like that, both of my parents were right in front of me. Dad had me wrapped in a tight embrace that he immediately released when I yelped. Mom, who looked as though she was about to pull me to her, came up short at that, her eyes widening. “Cassidy?” As she said my name, her hand went out to gently touch my face with trembling fingers. It was like she was convincing herself I was really there. Dad had one hand on the side of my head, I could see his chin quivering a little before he got himself under control. It was clear that both of them were barely holding themselves in any sort of order. And the only reason they hadn’t already crushed me was that quick yelp when Dad had tried the first time. 

“Cassie,” Dad started then, his voice cracking a bit. Are you okay? What happened? Where have you been? You never came home after dinner, and… and you didn’t answer your phone.”

“Yes, Cassidy,” Mom agreed, looking as though she was torn between hugging me until I couldn’t breathe or choking me to achieve the latter effect immediately.

“What happened to you?”

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Ready 11-05 (Summus Proelium)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Paige Banners,” I reminded her. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Ready 11-04 (Summus Proelium)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Ready 11-03 (Summus Proelium)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“How many–” 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I was going to d–

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

Holiday. It was the lizard-panther, Holiday. 

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

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

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

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Ready 11-02 (Summus Proelium)

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I had no more chances to escape my captors while being escorted out of their bunker than I’d had the whole time in it. Less, actually, considering they put a bag over my head and cinched it in place. Now I was blind and handcuffed, and being guided down the hall by Cup while her brother (whom she apparently enjoyed making out with?!) and Fork trailed behind. There was no way I was going to get away from them just then. We passed through several hallways and, given the way the sound changed, also a few larger rooms. I could hear other voices now and then, some laughing or congratulating their boss, others muttering insults and threats at me. 

It was… it was terrifying. Yeah, I was supposed to be brave. I was supposed to be a Star-Touched, some bright symbol or whatever, who didn’t let this kind of thing scare them. But… I was. I was scared. My body was shaking enough as we walked that I knew they could see it. I had to fight not to let my terrified tears leak too much and blind me. How pathetic was that? How pathetic would it be to have to ask the psychotic supervillain monsters to let me please wipe the baby tears out of my eyes? Damn it, damn it, what the fuck was wrong with me? I was supposed to be brave. I was supposed to be… I was supposed to be better than this.

But I wasn’t, and I couldn’t find a way out. I was forced to just stumble along blindly while I was led to what was apparently an underground garage of some kind. I felt myself brush past a few different cars before being pulled to a stop. One of the doors was opened, and I was not-so-gently pushed inside. As I fell in, Cup shoved my legs the rest of the way. Then the bag was pulled off my head to reveal the fact that I was now in the back seat of an SUV, on the floor. From my prone position, I could see a couple random guys step up into the middle seat. They weren’t wearing masks or anything, but honestly, I probably couldn’t have picked them out of a lineup later anyway. They just looked like random, average guys I would have passed on the street without a second thought. They could’ve been clerks at the corner gas station or accountants. Anything, really. Which made the fact that they clearly worked for Pencil and worshiped the Abyssal Typhon even more disturbing. These guys weren’t polite enough to tattoo ‘sick freak obsessed with literal monsters’ across their foreheads, unfortunately. 

Cup hopped up in the back with me, stepping on my leg in the process before her heel went back to kick me in the side. Then she plopped down on the seat, a pistol held idly in one hand. “Try anything,” she informed me, “and I’ll shoot the next five people we pass on the street.” 

“You can’t go anywhere with the cuffs on,” Pencil reminded me. “So don’t try to get cute.” Then he shut the door before moving around to the driver’s side. Fork was apparently not coming. It was just the three of us heading out on this particular trip. Well, the three of us and the two random guys in the middle seat. But no Fork or other Fell-Touched, apparently. How lucky for me. Now I only had to find a way to escape my stay-down cuffs and deal with two of the worst supervillains in the city, along with a couple of their cannon fodder. Where was the challenge? 

Yeah, I wasn’t even convincing myself. I was in really deep shit. Really deep. Marianas trench deep. And I had no idea what I could possibly do to get out of it. None. I was in worse trouble than… yeah, this was the worst trouble I’d ever been in. Because I was pretty sure this time wasn’t going to end with these guys just trading my freedom for a favor, like Deicide. Laying there on the floor of the car, with Cup sitting just above me, I was genuinely afraid that… that I wouldn’t get out of this in one piece, or at all. And if I didn’t, what would happen to my parents, my family? Would they just keep being evil and… and hurting people? What would happen to Wren, or Izzy? Especially Izzy. She was stuck in that house with my evil family. And if I wasn’t there, if I couldn’t be there to help if she got in trouble, what would happen to her then? What if Izzy found out what I had and she had no one to help her, just like I had no one right now? 

I was scared. And everything running through my mind about what could happen to the people I cared about if I didn’t come back made that fear even worse. It was all I could do not to cry like a pathetic little baby as I lay there, frozen in terror as the vehicle started up, the engine coming to life with a steady rumble. And from the brief look that Cup gave me, I could tell she heard the very slight noise that I made while holding back those tears and was pretty amused by it. 

Okay, Cassidy, I told myself. Yes, this is bad. This is… this is really bad. But here’s the thing, if you do nothing, these people will kill you. They will torture and kill you, probably in the worst way possible. Either that or they’ll try to use that torture to turn you to their side, to break you. So what are you going to do? Lay there and cry about how unfair all this is, about how scared you are? Or are you going to get it together and start thinking of a way out of this? Stop sniffling and start thinking of actual solutions. Because nobody is out there. Nobody is coming for you. 

The problem was, easy as it might’ve been to think that to myself, it didn’t actually solve anything more than crying about it would have. I was still stuck here, trapped by a group of psychopaths with no apparent way out of it. My powers couldn’t get me out with these cuffs on. I still had them, but the paint wouldn’t be able to launch me out of this car and away from the Scions. If I got too far away from Cup, I’d be yanked down to the ground by too much force for the red, purple, or blue paints to counter. Besides, even if I could get away, Cup had promised she would shoot several people in retaliation. Could I really condemn them to die like that? 

No. I couldn’t just escape. I had to stop them… somehow. Think. I just had to think. And ignore the fact that Cup was staring at me with what I could only imagine was open and contemptuous amusement behind that mask of hers. She knew. She knew I was trying to think of a way out of this, and she found it funny. Of course she did. She and Pencil were like psychotic little kids tormenting a bug they had found by the side of the road. She clearly wanted me to pay, not only for helping to stop them from doing too much damage to that children’s hospital before, but also because I had physically hurt her. She wanted me to suffer, which meant dragging this out. 

The sound of the Monster Mash song interrupted my thoughts. It was coming from Cup, who took a phone from her pocket and answered with, “What’s up, buttercup?” There was a brief pause as she listened for a moment before murmuring a few acknowledgments. Then she looked toward the front. “Shovel says a couple Touched showed up at the old bitch’s house. Looked like that Compasscunt from the Little League Of Charity Scouts or whatever the fuck they call themselves, and Blackjack’s newest girls, Soundwave and the one with the lizards.” 

That-A-Way, Pack, and… um… the sound girl. I hadn’t actually met or seen her in person yet, and I couldn’t remember her name just then. What were they doing? It was obvious that the ‘old bitch’s house’ was the one I’d been captured at. And clearly just as obvious what those guys were doing. They were looking for me. Pack had obviously found a way to contact That-A-Way, found out I’d lied, and they’d gone there themselves, only to be too late. 

“Well, obviously our friend in the back there kept up with his old buddies from the hospital. How sweet. Shovel have any trouble with them?” Pencil asked idly from the front, his attention clearly more on other things.

“Hold on.” Cup listened for a second before muttering a curse. Then she answered. “Nope, he took off when the annoying invincible cunt from Ten Towers showed up. Skipper or whatever.” 

“Skip,” Pencil corrected, sounding slightly more interested. “You’re saying there were people from three different groups, villains and heroes alike, all just… together at that house? The Minority girl and the one with the lizards are one thing, they worked together before. Maybe even this Broadway, assuming she’s partners or friends with the Lizard. But what was someone from Ten Towers doing there?” From his tone, I could tell that the next words were directed at me. “You been making even more friends there, buddy?” 

I didn’t respond, of course. What was I going to say to the asshole? Besides, I was still trying to figure out why Skip was there myself. I’d run into her earlier, of course. But so what? Why would she be at the house? It didn’t make sense. Maybe she was friends with That-A-Way? But even that was weird and didn’t seem right. I couldn’t figure it out, even if I had wanted to answer. 

“Playing the strong, silent type, huh?” There was a chuckle in Pencil’s voice. “Well, just keep in mind, they won’t find you. The toy we used to kill the signal in your phone and anything else you’ve got on you isn’t a half-measure. See, we’ve found over the years that people keep trying to make it harder and harder for a good kidnapper to make a living. You’ve got duplicate phones, tracking devices in the clothes, embedded in the shoes, under the skin… some people are just really fucking averse to being abducted for some reason, you know? Anyway, short of full-body exploratory surgery every goddamn time we want to hold someone for awhile, the best choice is our signal killer. Your phone and any other tracking device you might have on you just in case of… well, in case of something like this, are all permanently offline. But hey, I bet you could still play Candy Crush on that thing. That’s something, huh? Am I a nice guy or what? I mean, until I cut your thumbs off. Hey, what do you think would be worse, losing both thumbs or one eye?” 

Yeah, I wasn’t going to rise to that bait. I just stayed silent and looked at Cup. She looked back at me, shoulders shaking just a little with silent laughter. It was clear that she was endlessly amused by her brother’s antics. Which made precisely one of us. Or three, I supposed, given the two other guys who were apparently just fine and dandy working for fucking psychopaths. 

When I refused to respond, Pencil just continued. “No opinion? Eh, I guess I’ll take it as it comes. Honestly, I’m leaning toward the eye thing. All that jumping and running around you keep doing, how hard do you think it’d be with shitty depth perception? Honestly, that seriously might be worth letting you go afterward, just to see you hopping around slamming into things, falling off buildings, shit like that. Fucking great. But see, that gets to my whole deal with this. Killing you? That’s amateur hour. There’s no point. Some guy catches you off-guard with a fucking pistol can kill you. No. No, that’s too easy. That’s too… boring. What someone like you needs, what you deserve, is to be broken. And you mark my words, Mr. Paintball, when we’re through this little road trip, I’ll be able to turn my full and undivided attention to you. 

“And you will be broken when I’m done.” 

Once her brother was done talking, Cup stared at me intently for a few seconds. Whatever she was looking for she must have found, because she looked toward the front where I assumed Pencil was watching and gave him a slight nod. Without my helmet, she could probably see the genuine fear in my eyes through the simple ski mask. Try as I might, I couldn’t suppress it. I couldn’t entirely shove down the terror of what might happen, what would happen if I didn’t find a way out of this. I’d seen the news reports. I’d read the articles, heard… heard witnesses that the Scions had intentionally released to carry their stories to the public. Pencil was right, there was no one to help me. I was on my own. And if I didn’t escape, if I didn’t get out of this on my own, then I was going to suffer and probably die on my own. Or suffer so much I gave up my friends and family. Wren. If I told them about Wren, how they could find and twist her…

No. No, no, no. I had to get out of this. I had to get out of this. I wouldn’t let that happen. Please.

Okay, think. I had to think. Laying on my back there on the floor, I closed my eyes, hoping Cup would assume I was consumed with terror and leave me alone. I just had to think. 

It was late. I had no idea how long I’d been knocked out before, because I’d stupidly not paid attention to the time when I tried to call for help only to find no signal. So it could be ten at night, two in the morning, or anything else. All I knew was that it was dark through the windows of the SUV, save for the glimpses of passing headlights and streetlamps. And because I couldn’t check my phone, I had no idea if my parents were in the middle of a full-scale meltdown about me being missing, or if they hadn’t even noticed yet. Mark that as something to deal with if the time came. That was, if I got out of this alive. 

Which led to the whole escaping part. Yeah. Okay, so what did I have? I could use my powers, but that wouldn’t help much. Purple paint couldn’t make me strong enough to break cuffs that had been designed to hold much stronger Touched than me. Green paint could make me fast, but the second I got too far away from Cup, I’d just be yanked to the ground. Same for red pulling me away from them, or blue launching me. Whatever I did, a second later I’d be yanked down and my ‘escape’ would be over and done with. So… so what the fuck could I do? 

I knew where Lake Victoria was. It was about an hour and a half or so from Detroit. I had that long to think of a plan, a way to get out of this and not end up under Pencil’s undivided attention.

So stop panicking, stop being a sniveling little baby, and think. Focus. I could get out of this. I had to get out of this. Hour and a half, brain. You’ve got an hour and a half to think of a genius escape plan.  

Please don’t let me down. 

*****

When the SUV pulled to a stop along a gravel road, it was still dark outside. My eyes turned slightly to look at the window next to Cup’s head, as I listened to Pencil telling the two men in the middle seat to get out and look around. Once they did so, he addressed my babysitter. “Baby sis, you ready for a little hike?” 

“Can’t we just drive up there?” the girl retorted, her foot idly kicking against my stomach. “Look, the road keeps going up through that gate. How far do we have to walk?” 

“Couple miles, according to the map,” came the response. “And we can’t drive it. Knowing the old man, he’ll hear the car engine and see the lights. After all we’ve gone through to find this cocksucker, you really wanna give him a chance to escape? We’ll hoof it in through the forest.” 

From her reaction, I could tell that Cup wasn’t happy about that. But she didn’t argue. Instead, she just gave me a harder kick, practically stomping on my stomach before opening the door. Her hand grabbed my ankle and yanked, while I scrambled to push myself up awkwardly. I basically half-fell out of the vehicle, then completely fell as she gave me a kick in the back of the leg. 

We were in the middle of nowhere. To the left, I could see water in the far distance. Lake Victoria, I assumed. To the right was a forested area. The gravel road we were on stretched back into the darkness and continued up through a simple metal gate that stretched across it.

Cup was standing over me, while the two random thugs were spread out. One was examining the gate while the other ran some kind of scanner over the fence before calling back that it was electrified. Pencil was just getting out, adjusting the mask that I was pretty sure he’d had off the whole time we were driving. 

It was now or never. These guys wouldn’t be this distracted again. In a second, they’d remember to pay more attention to me. It was time to enact my genius plan. 

So, I kicked Cup in the leg. More to the point, I activated the purple paint I’d prepared earlier on the inside of my costume leg, powered it, and lashed out with as hard of a kick as I could manage. At the same time, I turned a bit so that the hands behind my back were pointed at her, and shot a bit of silencing black at her chest, to muffle her scream as she started to fall. And to stop the bitch from using her power, of course.  

As Cup fell, I continued my roll so that my cuffed hands were pointed back toward the truck and the gate that one of the men was still inspecting. A shot of red at each sent the SUV flying that way, narrowly missing Pencil, who dropped into a roll to avoid it.

Meanwhile, that one bit of purple was far from the only paint I’d prepared for this. I had a whole fucking art gallery going on inside my costume, and in that moment, I used green to speed myself up and orange for the defense. I was on my feet, standing over the fallen Cup with my back to her as she held her leg and screamed silently. 

Pencil was coming back to his feet, already out of his roll with his pistol raised. He fired twice, both shots hitting my chest. They stung, but otherwise I was fine. Fine enough to pivot, lashing out with my still-enhanced strength to kick Cup right in the face while she was still on the ground. My foot hit her hard enough to knock the bitch onto her back. 

I kept pivoting. Pencil had fired three more times while running toward me. One shot missed, the other two hit me. Again, they stung without actually damaging me too much. But it was definitely starting to hurt. Time to go!

Standing over the prone Cup while facing the incoming Pencil, I shot red down at her, matching it with my gloved hand. She was jerked upward, and I caught her arm. 

Pencil knew. He bellowed a threat, a warning, a promise, all three. I ignored him. Using my free hand, I shot blue paint at the ground between us and lunged at it while hauling the dazed and barely conscious Cup along for the ride. My feet hit the paint as I activated it, launching me and Cup high into the air, my momentum carrying us forward. 

We flew over the fence, joined together by the red paint as we came crashing down in the middle of a group of trees some distance beyond. It wasn’t a pretty landing. We fell together, rolling along the ground in a tangled jumble. I took one of Cup’s elbows to the face and I was pretty sure she wasn’t even trying. 

In the end, when the dust settled, the two of us were lying in the dirt next to a bush. I could hear Pencil screaming after me, promising everything he was going to do if I didn’t let his sister go. 

So there I was, barely out of Pencil’s sight, in the middle of nowhere. My hands were still cuffed behind my back, and the only way I could keep moving was by dragging Cup along with me. Because that was the secret. I couldn’t run away from Cup without being yanked to the ground, but as long as she was with me when I escaped, willingly or not, the cuffs wouldn’t activate. And thanks to the black paint, she couldn’t use the command word to activate them manually. 

Now all I had to do was stay away from a totally enraged Pencil and his goons, find my way through this completely dark forest in the middle of nowhere, and stop the bad guys from killing Robert Parsons, all while dragging Queen Psycho along with my hands literally tied behind my back. 

Genius plan indeed. 

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Ready 11-01 (Summus Proelium)

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I had no idea how much time had passed when I eventually snapped awake. There was no slow waking process, no chance to pretend I was still out of it. There was just a sudden rush of panicked adrenaline, as if I’d had a nightmare. Then I was sitting up, eyes wide as I practically hyperventilated while looking around wildly to see where I was. The memory of Pencil’s sack-cloth covered face staring intently at me as I passed out was fresh in my panicked mind. 

He wasn’t in front of me anymore. I also wasn’t in that backyard. The room around me was fairly small, just nine feet by nine feet square, and empty. The floor, ceiling, and all four walls were made of cement. There was a heavy metal door straight ahead from where I was sitting, with one of those sliding window hatch things that someone outside could open to look in. 

Um. This was bad. I was just gonna go ahead and say this was really bad. The Scions of Typhon, and Pencil in particular, were evil fucking psychopaths at the best of times, to anyone. But they had reason to be particularly annoyed with me. This… yeah, this was very fucking bad. 

My helmet was missing, I realized belatedly. But I still had on my mask and the rest of my costume. The worry that I hadn’t always had my mask on blared in the back of my head, but there was literally nothing I could do about that right now. I had to find a way out of this place. 

Wait, my phones! Quickly, I checked my pockets. They were there. So was the photo that I’d taken out of that car, but I ignored that for the moment. Instead, I pulled my Touched phone out and looked at it. No signal. Of course, why would Pencil and his people be stupid enough to leave me in a position where I could simply call for help? This wasn’t exactly their first kidnapping. 

Okay, I had to find a way out of this. I had to. The Scions were not the kind of people who would just let me go. This was going to get a hell of a lot worse really quick if I didn’t get out of here. No one was coming to help me. No one knew where I was. I’d stubbornly insisted on dealing with this myself, while lying to Pack that I would ask That-A-Way for help. So neither of them knew I was in trouble, or where I might be even if they did figure that out. I was on my own. 

How was I supposed to escape from a cement room? The purple paint made me strong, but not that strong. The red paint might be able to yank the steel door off its hinges, maybe. Or at least bend it enough for me to squeeze out. But if it did, what was on the other side? I could not deal with the entire team of Scions, Touched and Prev alike, all by myself, right in the middle of wherever they’d taken me. That wasn’t gonna happen.

But did I have a choice besides trying? What else was I going to do, sit here and wait for Pencil to get to the part where he tortured me for funsies? Plead with them to pretty please let me go? Yeah, like that would be useful for anything other than possibly making them laugh a little bit. 

Getting to my feet, I ignored the mounting panic, the confusion over that whole picture with the Anthony kid and me, my guilt over getting Eits hurt and then lying to Pack about contacting That-A-Way, and everything else. The only thing that mattered right now was getting out of here.

To that end, I focused on that metal door. Using the red paint to tear it free, with help from purple paint for strength as I yanked on it, was my best chance. I didn’t see any cameras or anything, so I might be able to pull this off and take whoever was outside by surprise if I managed to get the door free before they could react to the sound. Wait, sound. Duh. Black paint. Okay, I would silence the door and the wall around it just to be on the safe side. Then I’d tear it free and deal with whatever was waiting for me. It wouldn’t be easy, but it was better than sitting here waiting.

Or… the sliding viewing hatch thing could move aside, revealing a pair of eyes staring in at me. There was a lingering pause as the eyes took me in for a moment, then the hatch slid closed and I heard the muffled sound of a voice calling out to someone else, “Hey, he’s awake!”  

He. The person called me a he. That was good, right? It showed that my whole disguise wasn’t blown or anything. I was basically trying to latch onto anything remotely positive in that moment. 

While I was still trying to orient myself from having my hypothetical escape attempt aborted so quickly, there was the sound of several heavy locks disengaging on the other side of the door. Really heavy locks, it seemed like. With a couple more dull thunks of metal settling into place, the door was hauled open. It pulled outward, revealing a figure standing in a dimly lit stone hallway. 

“If Santa’s reindeer staged a coup, who would their leader be?” 

Wait, what–Santa’s reindeer were… right, Dasher and Dancer, Prancer and Vixen, Comet and Cupid, and Donner and Blitzen. I’d always thought of the ones in front as the leaders, but would that be Blitzen? That sounded right, he was the last one mentioned so he was like the leader, right? Or would that be Rudolph? No, Rudolph was added last so there was no way he’d be the leader of a coup. Would he even be involved in a coup, or would he be too loyal to Santa to–

My hands were cuffed behind my back. Snapping out of my brief daze, I saw Cup, of course. She was in her white cloak, bodysuit, and the matching mask that covered the bottom half of her face while leaving the upper half, including brilliantly gleaming blue eyes, revealed. I saw a hint of dark hair mostly hidden within the hood as she winked at me. “Hiya, Colorboy. Is it my turn to break your arm?” Her tone was intentionally, almost mockingly light, but there was an underlying anger there. Yeah, she was definitely holding a grudge.

Cup continued. “Those are stay-down cuffs, for the record. So don’t think you can just attack us and run off. You won’t get very far.” Her eyes watched mine intently, before laughing at whatever she saw there. 

Another figure appeared in the doorway just beyond the psycho girl. It was Fork, the living porcupine guy with the explosive quills. He gave me a hateful glare before clearing his throat. 

“Yeah, yeah,” Cup snapped without looking that way. Her eyes rolled as she spoke in a stage-whisper. “People are so impatient, am I right?” Without waiting for me to answer, she added, “Oh well, ready to join the party upstairs?” As if I had the slightest hint of a choice. “Pencil really wants to talk to you. And he’s even more impatient sometimes than Pokey there.”

Things had been bad before. Now they were worse. I had stay-down cuffs on, so even if I managed to get away from these two, I wouldn’t get very far. The cuffs would just yank me to the ground, and they were made to keep people a hell of a lot stronger than I was right where they were. Plus, with Cup and Fork here, not to mention whoever else happened to be near… yeah, I wasn’t going anywhere. Not yet, anyway. I was going to have to just go along with things and look for an opening. And try to keep myself from panicking too much. I had to shove the rising terror down, because it wasn’t helpful right now. I had to push it away and keep my eyes open. Bad as this was, something would happen. That, or I’d just make it happen. 

As soon as I came to the decision not to try to fight right now, Cup immediately spoke. “And there it is. He knows better.” Somehow, she’d apparently read all of that in my eyes. Probably because she was very accustomed to dealing with people who felt hopeless and realized how totally screwed they were. 

Stepping aside, the white-clad psychopath gestured for Fork to lead the way. “Let’s get him upstairs, before brother dearest has a conniption. You know how he loves his dramatic moments.” 

Brother… wait, Pencil was her brother? Was that a secret? I felt like that was a secret. Which didn’t say much about their intentions for me, not that that was much of a surprise. Still, no wonder Anchovy had said that Pencil would be mad at me for hurting Cup. She was his sister.

We seemed to be in some kind of underground bunker, from what I could tell as we moved through the narrow corridor beyond the room that had been my cell. The whole time I desperately watched for an escape opportunity, but there just… wasn’t anything. Fork was ahead of me, Cup behind me, and there were various armed guards along the way who definitely weren’t just going to let me run off even if I could have escaped my cuffs. And that was the biggest problem anyway. Nothing I could do would let me go anywhere with these damn cuffs on. The second I tried to leave Cup’s range, I would simply be yanked to the floor. Damn it! Fuck, fuck, how could I be so stupid? I was still stupid, even after getting Eits hurt by asking him to help me. What was I supposed to do now? There had to be something, right? There… there had to be something…

But there wasn’t. Or at least, not one that I could think of before we turned left at a T-junction in the corridors, went through three different heavy steel doors in succession with a short six foot hallway between each, and emerged into… an apartment? Yeah, it looked like an ordinary old, fairly middle of the road apartment living room with an attached kitchenette in the middle of this bomb shelter, bunker, whatever it was. 

Pencil was there, watching tv in a recliner while wearing a bathrobe over his regular costume, sackcloth mask and all. He held a tumbler of whiskey or something, swishing it around thoughtfully without looking up as we entered. His focus seemed to be on the television nearby, where someone on the news was reporting about some kind of fight between the state heroes known as the Spartans, and the Ninety-Niners. 

Neither Cup nor Fork spoke or did anything to attract the man’s attention. Not that they needed to, considering the sound the door made when it was opening. He knew we were there, but ignored us while watching the screen, still swishing that whiskey around thoughtfully. Through it all, I was frantically trying to think if there was anything I could do, anything at all. 

Finally, the man picked up the remote, muted the television, and addressed me without looking. “Do you know why we let you keep your phone and anything else you have on you? Do you know why you still have your costume and mask? Aside from…” He gestured vaguely toward the nearby table, where I could see my helmet sitting. 

“Um.” I paused before guessing, “Because you really like a challenge?” 

There was a slight chuckle at that, from both him and Cup. Fork was silent. Pencil finally stood from his chair, shrugging out of the robe before letting it fall as he stepped my way. Stopping in front of me, the man tilted his head, staring at me through the holes in that simple sack of a mask. “No, because it’s not a challenge. I’m sure you already tried calling for help, to no avail. You’re alone here, surrounded by people who… I promise, would very much like to kill you after making sure you suffer so goddamn much. And you have no way of escaping, let alone posing any sort of threat.

“You have your mask because, while I could have taken it away from you, it will be so much more fun when you give it to me yourself. Taking something from someone? Any buffoon with a knife can do that. Making you give it up yourself? Making you give me your mask, tell me your name, your age, the names of your family, your friends? Making you do all of that in the desperate hope of sparing yourself some… small measure of pain, that’s just… that is the real power. I could take everything from you in a single moment. But that’s like playing a game with all the cheat codes on. It’s fun for about five minutes, but you don’t get the real experience, you know what I mean? No, the real joy is in stretching things out, in truly earning that submission. You are going to give that mask to me yourself, along with everything else I ask for. And that is far more fun than simply taking it from you like some sort of thug.” 

It took me a second to find my voice. I was supposed to be brave and basically spit in the face of danger, but it was hard to find a witty retort in that moment. I was terrified. I knew what the Scions of Typhon did to their victims. I knew just how sadistic they could be. Trapped here, alone, surrounded by several of the most dangerous, monstrous pieces of shit in the country? Yeah, a quick, pithy retort didn’t come immediately to mind. 

But I also didn’t want them to know just how easily they could get to me. So I finally found my voice, the only response that came to mind being to basically echo his words with as much disbelief as I could manage. “You think you can hurt me enough to make me just tell you who I am and sic you on all my friends and family?” 

Somehow, I resisted the urge to tell him that he might be surprised at just how hard taking on my family would end up being. I was going to say nothing that might give him a hint about my situation, or anything about me. 

“I think,” Pencil replied, stressing that word in a sort-of mocking way, “that you’re very new to this, but you’ve had some early success. I think you’re a very special person, and that I’m going to have a lot of fun, maybe the most fun I’ve had in a long time, breaking that down.” I could see his smile through the hole in the mask. “I think making someone watch you kill the people they care about is a pretty good time. But convincing them to tell you who to target? Making them press that metaphorical button themselves and ask you to please spare them a little pain by hurting someone else? That’s how you really break them. Everyone thinks they’ll be strong, that they’d never betray someone they love. But you know what? Most people do, given enough incentive. How much is enough for you? I guess we’ll find out.” 

“Do we get to play with him now?” Cup asked, her tone pleading. “I was soooo good!” She stepped around me and embraced him tightly, rubbing up against him. “Please let me play with him now. Throw a treat to your little sister!” 

Well, that was kind of an odd thing for a sister to do to her bro–

Then she tugged her mask down a bit (faced mostly away from me so I still couldn’t see her face) and kissed him. Like, full on the mouth. Not just a peck either, it was far more than that. They were… um, yeah, busy like that for a few long seconds. 

What. The. Fuck. 

Was this the torture starting? I felt like this was the torture starting. 

Finally, the man pulled back, rubbing Cup’s shoulders, back, and then, ahhh… lower in a still-very-very-very-not-brotherly way before focusing on me. “Not yet,” he said flatly. “First, I want to see if he’ll answer one question.” His tone darkened. “How do you know Robert Parson? See, he’s been a reeeeeeal pain in the ass. Took me a long time to find his name, even longer to get any kind of lead on him. Then I find out some kid’s out there looking for the same name. Turns out he’s got an address of Robert Parson’s mother. Dead for a year now, rest her soul. So, I sent a couple friends out to convince the kid to give up the goods. They get interrupted, but manage to take his phone. We get the address off that, show up to look for clues about where Parson himself could be, and who do we find there? You. Little old you. 

“So you tell me, kid. Do you know where he is? Because that could spare you a lot of trouble, I promise. Hell, I might even be convinced to let you scoot along on your own, nice and healthy. I may be annoyed with you, but Robert Parson is one that I’m willing to dismiss an awful lot of grudges for. Everything I just said a minute ago about all the things I could put you through, and I’d just let that go in exchange for telling me where that son of a bitch is.” 

Well, that one I could answer honestly. “I’m looking for him too,” I replied simply. “The… the boy your pieces of shit attacked was finding an address for me.” I couldn’t keep the anger about that out of my voice, and I didn’t really try. 

There was a smile from the man. “Is that right? Now why, exactly, would you be looking for Robert Parson?” 

Before I could say anything to that, Fork suddenly looked up from the phone he’d been studying. “Boss,” he started, “they’ve got something. Guy sent a letter from some place near Lake Victoria, north-east of Lansing. Contents were burned or tossed, but they found enough of the envelope in the back of the fireplace to make out the address.” 

That slow, Cheshire smile that showed off Pencil’s teeth appeared, as he murmured, “Really, now? Lake Victoria. What’s that, couple hours from here?” Abruptly, the man gave a sharp whistle and swatted Cup on her backside. “Go warm up the car, babe.” 

While she slinked off to do just that, he looked to me and curiously asked, “Tell me something, kid. What kind of snacks do you like? 

“Cuz we’re going on a car ride.”

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Fault 10-06 (Summus Proelium)

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I was going to have to handle this myself. I wasn’t going to let anyone else get hurt because of my situation. This whole thing came from my family, so I sure as hell wasn’t going to drag anyone else into it. Seeing poor Eits lying there on that bed in that condition had been the wake-up call that I needed. I couldn’t let other people end up in that same situation just because they wanted to help me. Whatever came next, I would have to sink or swim on my own.  

Maybe it was stupid to go off by myself like that. But at that moment, I wasn’t thinking about the danger to myself. I was just thinking about avoiding putting anyone else I cared about in a hospital bed. The thought of Pack, or That-A-Way, or anyone else being hurt the way that Eits had been just about destroyed me. Hell, the memory of what Eits himself had looked like lying there did that all on its own. So no, I couldn’t involve anyone else in this. Not this time. 

What I could do was check out the address the boy had apparently found. Which didn’t help me deal with the men who had attacked him, but their time would come later. I promised myself that. No, this had to be the address of Robert Parson, my old driver and sort-of babysitter when I’d been younger. 

And that was just confusing in and of itself. Why would a bunch of guys jump Eits and hurt him that badly just for looking up the address of this guy? According to Pack,  they’d been looking for the same address. So they didn’t have it either. Did that mean they were enemies of my family? Or was Robert himself an enemy now and that was why he’d stopped being my driver? He was involved in some way with the death of that Anthony kid and his parents, because he’d been in the car with them. So… what then? How was he involved? Which side was he on? Were the guys who were looking for him and had attacked Eits on my family’s side? Or were they attacking my family? Had Robert been involved in killing Anthony and his parents, with the car accident as a cover-up? Why was the name Anthony Tate so familiar to me? What the hell was going on? So many questions, and right now the only actual lead I had was this address. 

All those thoughts were rushing through my head in a jumbled mess while I made my way north, toward the address on the paper. A quick double-check had confirmed my first impression. The address was a house just a few blocks northeast of the zoo. I had used my Maps app to get a look at it. The place just looked like an ordinary, if upscale, three-story Victorian house with a detached garage in the corner of the lot. The lawn had looked well cared for in the satellite image, and there was a tall wrought-iron fence around the property. No cars had been in the driveway, but that didn’t mean anything, considering they could be in that garage. Besides, the photo could have been taken at any time. The only thing I really knew for sure was that I didn’t recognize the house itself from any other trip. Of course, given the fact that my memory had apparently been tampered with by Mr. Jackson, that didn’t mean anything either.  

I didn’t go straight to the house, no matter how much my anger and frustration about what had happened to Eits was driving me to be reckless. Instead, I stopped at the nearest office building in the neighborhood, the tallest structure around. Perched on the edge of the roof there, I scanned the neighborhood until I saw the house in question a couple blocks away.  There was still no visible vehicles, and the lawn looked worse than it had in the picture. It needed to be cut pretty badly, there were visible weeds, and the once-thriving flower garden up near the house hadn’t been tended to in what looked like a pretty long time. Despite those signs that it was abandoned, however, someone had to be there. Because there was a dog trotting around the front yard and it didn’t appear to be starving or anything. At least, not from this distance. And I was pretty sure any place that had been left for as long as it would take things to overgrow as much as they were would have had someone pick up the dog by now. No, it seemed like there was someone living there. They just weren’t taking care of the place anymore for whatever reason. Maybe they couldn’t take care of it. Or didn’t care enough now. Whether that someone was Robert Parson or someone who knew where he was, I was going to find out. And I was also definitely going to find out just what he had to do with the people who had attacked Eits. 

Still, I didn’t want to rush into things and end up doing nothing but making things worse. So, I sat there on the edge of that roof and watched the house for what had to be twenty minutes. Every second that passed, I wanted to go right in there. I wanted to do something useful. I wanted to stop closing my eyes and seeing Eits lying there on the bed. I wanted to distract myself from that horrific guilt that kept eating me up inside. But I waited. I watched, just to make absolutely certain that the house was as clear as it could be and that this wasn’t actually some kind of trap. 

Finally, I couldn’t wait anymore. I had to make my move. Taking a breath, I leapt from the roof of the building with the aid of a blue launch puddle. A shot of red toward the chimney of the next house over carried me there, and I landed lightly before throwing myself up once more. A guy walking his dog jerked in surprise as soon as he saw me, and I heard him blurt something (but didn’t catch what he actually said) just before I jumped away. Using a couple more houses to jump off of, I brought myself around toward the enclosed back yard of the address in question. 

It was quiet back here too. Staying low and silent, I watched the windows of the house. Nothing. The backdoor was closed, and there was no sign of anyone inside. I couldn’t hear the dog in the front yard. From what I’d seen when watching this place, the animal was stuck there and couldn’t get around to the back where I was. Hopefully, they wouldn’t smell or hear me and start barking their head off. That would be a good way to end up spoiling the fact that I was here. 

Just like I had from the roof of the other building, I remained still instead of rushing in. Watching the back of the house as patiently as possible given the situation turned out to be the right choice, because after a minute or two, I spotted the camera in the top left corner of the back patio. It was aimed inward, watching the door and windows. Then I spotted another one, aimed out toward the yard. Somehow, I’d managed to put myself far enough into the corner that I was pretty sure it didn’t see me. The way the camera was pointed, it had to take in most of the yard. 

Then I saw another camera. That one was at the corner of the house, pointed up through the space leading to the front yard. And sure enough, there was a fourth one at the other end. 

Right, I didn’t know much about Robert or whoever actually lived here. But I was pretty sure they were just a bit paranoid. Whether that was for good reason or not remained to be seen, though the fact that people had attacked Eits like that trying to get this address made it likely.

Okay, so what now? I needed to get in the house. Or at least talk to the person in there. But could I do that without the whole situation turning into a massive clusterfuck? Should I try to sneak in and check things out, or knock on the door? Should I stand in front of the camera? How would the person or people inside (if anyone was home right now) react if I just showed myself like that and asked to talk? And if they did talk, what would I even say to them? 

That was something I unfortunately hadn’t considered too much. What was I supposed to say had led me here? Could I just say that I’d been looking into Paige Banners, which led me to this Anthony Tate kid, and then to the only survivor of that car accident down in Texas? 

I was frozen like that for the moment, trying to decide what I should actually do. I couldn’t tell the whole truth, that was for damn sure. I also couldn’t let on that I knew… well, anything about this ‘Ministry’ thing. Or at least, not very much. Because if that got back to my family, it was bound to make things a hell of a lot more complicated for me than they already were. 

I had to be subtle, but breaking into this place felt like a good way to make things worse. So, for a moment, I couldn’t pick the best plan. Show myself and ask to talk, or maybe see if I could sneak up and peek in a window without being seen by any of the cameras? 

Fuck it, enough with this sitting around and hesitating. I needed to do something. Maybe it was just because of how helpless, stupid, and guilty I felt about letting Eits get hurt, but I couldn’t be patient. I was going to get some fucking answers. I was about to get up and walk right to the back door to knock on it, when something else caught my eye. That garage was nearby, and the side door was open a few inches to reveal darkness beyond. 

Okay, it was a longshot that there’d be anything interesting in there. But at least it was something. Checking the cameras once more to make sure there was space, I carefully inched my way along the fence until I could make a quick run to the garage, slipping in through the open door.

The place was pretty dark inside, but I could make out a car with the light that was coming in through the dirty windows on the main door at the front. There was a tarp over it, and I only hesitated for a moment before stepping over, reaching out, and pulling the tarp away.

Hey, I knew this car. It was a dark sedan, which didn’t really narrow it down, of course. But I recognized the little plastic coconut and pineapple hanging from the mirror. I’d given those to Robert when I was a little kid, right? I sort-of remembered giving them to him after I won them in some school carnival thing, on the way home. 

This was Robert’s car. Or–well, it was the car he’d driven me around in. I’d thought that would’ve belonged to my parents, but maybe they let him keep it? I wasn’t sure. Either way, this was definitely the car. I wasn’t sure how I was that positive, but I was. This was the car I’d been driven from home to school and back again in for years. 

Lost in my own memories, which were somehow simultaneously vague and specific, I tried the driver’s side door. It opened with a click, making the dome light pop on. I stepped inside, sitting down in the driver’s seat before letting out a low breath. This… Turning my head, I looked in the rearview mirror. 

Through my own memories, I saw Robert’s eyes in the mirror from my normal place in the back seat. I saw myself as a kid, chattering away at the man as he drove me home from school. My backpack was lying beside me with a bunch of books scattered over the seat. I was telling Robert all about the story in one of the books, before excitedly asking if we could stop and pick up–

Ugggnnnnn…. My head hurt. God, where did that come from? One second I was fine, then there was this weird headache that made me double over so much I literally bounced my helmet off the steering wheel. Damn it, oww. What the hell? 

Speaking of the steering wheel, why was I holding onto it so tight? God, ow, I was hurting my own hands from the force of my grip on it. What was wrong with me? Was sitting in this car just bringing up some kind of… memories… My lost memories. That had to be it. Something about being in this car was reminding my subconscious of something, and my body was reacting. 

Shaking it off as much as I could, I reached over to open the glovebox. It popped down, and I found the usual. Gloves, a pair of sunglasses, a couple maintenance and owners manual books, an incredibly old thing of Tic Tacs… nothing useful. Except, as I moved all that out of the way, there was something stuck inside the owner’s manual that fell out and landed on the passenger seat. It was a photograph, which landed facedown. Curious (and basically desperate for something useful), I picked up the photo and turned it over. 

It was me. That was the first thing I realized. There were two people in the picture. One was me, at about age… nine or ten, was my guess. The picture had been taken at the very same zoo that I’d passed on the way here. It was right outside the monkey cage. 

My face, and the realization of where the picture had been taken, were the first things to hit me. Then I saw the rest of it. I was… behind someone else, my chin on the other person’s shoulder while my arms were thrown around him. I was grinning, smiling from ear to ear while basically hanging off the other person. The other…

Boy. It was a boy about the same age as I was in the picture. He had light brown hair, a slight spattering of freckles across his face, brown eyes, and crooked teeth. He was going to have to get braces soon, which he was scared about because he thought–

Uggggghnnn! Dropping the photo, I doubled over once more. Owww, oww! Damn it, my head! What was wrong with my head? Were… were my lost memories about that boy? Is that why seeing his picture made my head hurt so much? Anthony. That kid had to be Anthony, right? That was the only thing that made sense. And he’d been my friend. That was… that had to be it. He was my friend. He had to be, just from looking at that picture. I knew Anthony Tate. Or had known him, before he died. 

I knew the boy well enough for him to be a friend that I was basically hanging off of at the zoo. Robert had a picture of the two of us stuck in the glovebox of his car in this garage. I kept getting a headache every time I focused on him. Yeah, this was my lost memories, the ones my mom had talked about. 

What did my parents do to Anthony? That had to be it, right? It had to be. They did something… something to that boy, and I found out about it. Then they erased my memory so I wouldn’t freak out on them. 

Even as I sat there, thinking about all that, I found myself getting more upset, more angry, at the whole situation. Before I really understood or even thought about what I was doing, the door was open and I was climbing out of the car. My hand grabbed the photo, shoving it safely into one of my pockets before zipping it shut. 

Then I was leaving the garage. Answers. Whatever it took, I was going to get some fucking answers right fucking now. To that end, I was going to walk right up to that back door, knock on it, and find out what Robert knew, about Anthony, about Paige, about the guys who attacked Eits, all of it. I was getting answers, now

At least, that was the plan. But no sooner had I taken a couple steps out into the yard, than a sudden, sharp whistle caught my attention. The whistle was followed by what felt like a bee sting. I gasped, jerking backward just in time to see a dark red dart of some kind sticking out of my arm. It was… it felt…

My vision swam. Stumbling a bit, I fell to one knee, struggling to stay upright. It was a struggle I lost, falling onto my side. Everything was going blurry, as a figure started walking toward me. They were talking. “You know, going through that kid’s phone to find this address was a real bitch. But it has totally paid off.” 

The figure stopped right in front of me, so blurry I could barely focus on them. My vision was fading in and out. Black spots kept appearing, as the person continued while crouching down in front of me, dart gun held loosely in one hand. “After all, I thought I was just going to deal with one long-time pain in the ass.” 

The barrel of the dart gun was playfully tapped against the visor of my helmet, as I finally managed to focus on the person who was talking.

“But it turns out, it’s my lucky day. I get to play with you too,” Pencil finished, in the last brief moment before my vision went completely black. 

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Fault 10-05 (Summus Proelium)

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No, no, no, please no. Oh God, please, no, no. 

That single word of denial, repeated and mixed with other words of emphasis, played through my head in a nonstop loop the entire time I was retrieving my costume and setting out to get to the address that Pack had sent me. As I raced through the city in what amounted to a blind panic, barely paying attention to where I was going, the word ‘no’ echoed in my mind over and over again. 

He was hurt. Eits was hurt really bad. I didn’t know how. I didn’t know who hurt him or what exactly they’d done. But I did know one horrible thing for sure. It was my fault. He was working for me. He was trying to help me, and someone found out. Eits was hurt because of me. According to Pack, it was really bad. Because of me. It was my fault. 

Unfortunately, paint-running through the city like that without paying attention was a bad idea. Which I could’ve already guessed, but was driven even more firmly into me about halfway into my run. Landing on a rooftop the wrong way, I stumbled, slipped, and rolled hard. I nearly went off the edge before two hands suddenly caught my wrist and halted my momentum. 

A sharp gasp came as the person who had caught me was nearly yanked off the roof herself. But she managed to stop us both, and I was left with just one leg and a foot dangling over the edge as I lay mostly on my back staring up at the sky and panting as the panicked rush of the last couple of seconds since I’d landed washed over me. Oh God, I needed to throw up. Not that I hadn’t kind of needed to since the moment Pack let me know what was going on, but still. 

In that position, my arm was fully extended as it was held in the grasp of the person who had caught me. First, I saw her hands. They were covered by dark blue, almost black gloves with intricate, almost runic lines that ran up through both sides of the arms and across the palms and back of the gloves themselves. My eyes moved further up, seeing a figure who was probably around my age. The blue-black bodysuit she wore was partially covered by a white short-sleeved robe with an attached hood that mostly hid her dark hair. The bottom half of her face was concealed by a black cloth mask, but I could see enough of the top half to know she was Asian. Her eyes were dark, and in that moment, had widened dramatically. 

I also knew exactly who she was at that first glance, reflexively blurting, “Skip?!” 

Yeah, it was definitely her. I hadn’t had any direct run-ins with the girl until now, but I did know two members of her family. Caishen was her older sister, which made Lightning Bug her niece. Despite being a teenager, she wasn’t part of the Minority, instead sticking with her sister’s Ten Towers team. Which was somewhat rare, but not unheard of. And given what I knew about how much control Silversmith, aka my father, had over the Minority, it was definitely a good thing. 

As soon as I said her name, she released my arm and stepped back. Her voice, when she spoke, was an eerily calm murmur. “You should be careful.” The words were almost, but not quite, emotionless. It was more like she was noting that the weather would be rainy the next day than an actual reprimand. She was stating a simple fact. “You could have been hurt.” 

“I…” The terrible rush of fear about what was happening with Eits came back full force in that moment, along with brand new guilt to layer on top of what was already there. “Right, sorry. I was distracted. I… I’ll be careful. But I ahh, I’ve really gotta go.” Weakly, I gestured. “I’ve got a… umm, a friend, sort of. He’s hurt, and I need to get there just in ca–I need to be there to help.” 

Again, Skip spoke in a simple, emotionless and matter-of-fact voice. “Why are you telling me then? If it’s important, you should go.” Just like before, despite the actual words, I had the sense that she didn’t intend any kind of admonishment. She was simply stating the blatant fact that if I had an important place to be like that, I should already be going there instead of talking to her. 

“Right, uhh, yeah.” Quickly pushing myself up, I swallowed back the tidal rush of feelings that came with the thought of Eits being hurt. “Thanks for your help, I… I’ve gotta go.” 

It felt awkward, but I turned, using red paint to yank myself away from that roof while resolving to be more careful. Upset as I was, it wouldn’t exactly do any good if I managed to put myself into a coma by falling off a building because I wasn’t paying attention to where I was going. 

Continuing on my way, I let myself think briefly about the girl I’d just met. Skip. From what I’d read about her and seen online, her whole deal was… well, skipping things. This came out in two main ways. First, she could ‘skip’ any effect on herself she wanted to. That included everything from skipping the effects of a poison she drank, to skipping the effect of being shot in the head, or even skipping the need to sleep and being instantly rejuvenated. The only thing that was required was that she be aware of the effect and actively use her power on it. Other than that, anything that directly affected her in some way, she could skip. 

The other way her power (and source of her name) manifested was in movement. Whenever the girl wanted, she could instantly appear anywhere she’d been at any point in the previous twenty-four hours. Basically, she could rewind herself, ‘skipping’ backwards and forwards along the history of her own movement. She used it long-range in order to effectively teleport anywhere in the city (and, as I understood it, into other cities across the state), and short-range by constantly changing her exact location in the middle of a fight. Bad guys facing her didn’t just have to deal with a crazy-good fighter (which she was), but also one who could literally instantly disappear and reappear in any location she’d been in at any point throughout that fight.  Between that and being able to make herself immune to any effect she was aware of… yeah, I could see how Fell-Touched would see fighting her as a pain in the ass. And why her sister wanted her right where she was, as part of Ten Towers. 

The plus side of being distracted thinking about Skip instead of obsessing over Eits for the next few minutes was that I was able to reach the address I’d been given without any more issues. I stopped on top of a bakery roof, half-hiding behind the chimney there as I looked down at the place I was supposed to go. It looked like an ordinary house, with nothing special to make it stand out. The driveway had a couple cars in it, with a van parked along the curb. There was a man smoking out front, watching the street with an air like he’d been there for awhile. 

According to Pack’s message, they were expecting me. So, I hesitated just for a moment before taking a running start, and blue painting myself into the air so I could land in front of the man. I made sure to give him some space so that he wouldn’t freak out too much. Even then, he reached for something in his jacket. Probably a gun. But he stopped partway, squinting at me for a moment before stepping aside from the door. His voice was flat, and carried an air of resignation. “You can go inside. Third door on the left. But just so you know, we move all the time. So there’s no point to bringing your hero friends here to start shit later. Cuz we’ll be gone.” 

Yeah, call me crazy, but I had the feeling this guy didn’t much like having a Star-Touched hanging around what was apparently a secret underground field hospital thing for Fell-Touched. I also didn’t want to argue with him or try to reassure the guy. All I wanted was to see what was going on with Eits. So, I nodded and walked past him. Moving through the front door and into what turned out to be the living room of the house, I was greeted by a new man sitting on the nearby couch, who pointed through the room to the same door that the man outside had mentioned. Following both instructions, I walked across the room, heading for that door. 

The door opened as I approached, and Pack appeared. She stared at me through her featureless mask for a moment before beckoning as she stepped inside. I followed, and found myself in what was obviously a converted bedroom. Now it looked like a hospital room. 

Eits was… there. He was there on the bed, and just as promised, he… he looked bad. He wasn’t wearing his mask, But I wouldn’t have recognized him anyway through all the bruising. Pack had not been exaggerating. Whoever attacked Eits had… they hurt him really bad. His nose was broken, his lips were all puffy and bloodied, there was a large bruise along one full side of his face. His eyes were closed, showing signs of being bruised as well, and the rest of his body hadn’t fared much better. It was all… bad. No matter where I looked, some part of him was hurt. It was so bad. My stomach seized up in worse knots just looking at him. 

Pack was speaking quietly behind me. “The doctor’ll be back in a few minutes. He’s stabilized for now and they’ve got him drugged up to sleep. Soon as the doc says he’s good enough to move, they’ll take him to one of Blackjack’s own places. But I thought you’d like to know. I thought you’d like to–” She stopped herself from saying whatever it was she’d been about to say, voice cracking a bit before looking over to me. “He called for help. Broadway and me, we got there and the guys attacking him took off. We didn’t… get a good look, cuz we couldn’t leave him. He was pretty delirious, pretty…” Again, she choked a little, arms folding tightly over her stomach before forcing out, “He was pretty out of it.” 

Hearing her words, I barely processed them. All I could do was stare at Eits in that condition and think about the fact that him being there was my fault. I’d involved him, and now he was hurt because of me. There was a dull roaring in the back of my mind.  

Pack was continuing. “He wanted me to give you this.” In one hand, she held up a folded piece of paper. “It’s an address. He said… he said it’s something you needed, but that those guys who attacked him wanted it. The guys who attacked him, the guys who did that, were trying to get the same address out of him that you wanted. Paintball, what the fuck was Eits doing for you that made a bunch of guys beat him up this badly? They almost killed him! Doc Tanns is pretty sure he’ll be okay now that he’s through the worst of it, but–but… what the fuck is going on?!” Her voice was a fierce stage-whisper, as she clearly stared intently at me. “Don’t you dare fucking blow me off. Do you see him right there? Do you care?” 

Eyes widening, I blurted, “Of course I care!” Quickly lowering my voice, I hissed, “I didn’t know it would–I thought he’d–” My mouth shut and I shook my head. “Pack, I didn’t know he’d be in that much danger. He was just looking up some information for me, I didn’t know it’d–” Cutting myself off once more, I swallowed hard and tried to steady myself. My fault. The whole way over here, I’d repeated it to myself and now that voice was even louder. This was all my fault. All of it. Eits being hurt, lying there in that hospital bed like that was my fault. If he… if he died, that would be my fault too. All of it was my fault. Because I tried to let someone else help me. Because I passed the responsibility of this to someone else. Now he was hurt. Because of me. My fault. 

It took me a few moments to find my voice. Finally, I looked up to the other girl. “I’m sorry. I should have handled this myself. I never should’ve–I was wrong. I shouldn’t have asked Eits to help me. I won’t… I won’t do that again, I swear. Tell him I’m sorry. Please. Just tell him I’m sorry. I’ll take the address. Please. He wanted me to have it. I’ll deal with it. I’ll handle it.” 

She didn’t answer at first. Instead, she looked at the paper in her hand, then turned back to me. Her voice was pained. “That’s not what I meant, Paintball. I didn’t want to make you go–I was just… Look what they did to him. You can’t handle this all on your own!” 

“I don’t have to,” I pointed out. “You know I have an in with the Minority. And if they’re involved, you can’t be. They won’t work with you, Pack. You can stay here with Eits. Someone should be here with him if he wakes up. I’ll take care of the address, and I’ll tell you what happens. I swear, I’ll make them pay for what they did.” 

Pack was staring at me, her fist tight. “You really think you and the Minority people can handle this?” Her voice shook a little. “Paintball, what the hell did you get involved with?” 

“I’ll handle it,” I promised her, swallowing hard. “Stay here with Eits. Please. Just tell him I’m sorry, and that I never should have gotten him involved.” 

“Do you have any idea how pissed Eits would be if I just let you go without help?” Pack demanded. “After what happened…” 

“After what happened, you need to be here with him,” I reiterated. “And like I said, I know That-A-Way. I have her number. I can contact the Minority for help. Stay here. I’ll take care of it.” 

For a few seconds, it looked like Pack wouldn’t agree. She sighed, looking over to a nearby cage where her lizards were all watching us. Finally, she opened her hand and held out the paper. “If you’re going with the Minority, fine. But only because I know it’s not where those cocksuckers who attacked him are. They were looking for the same address, so they’re obviously not there now. But still, they’re involved. They’re connected to whatever this is. So Paintball, whatever happens, if you get to the point of actually fighting those guys… Look right there. Look what they did to Eits. I want to help. Call me, Paintball. You call me and tell me when you find the guys that did this. I don’t know if you’ll find out who they are at that address, or what’s going on. But when you find them, you let me know, got it?” 

“I got it,” I replied quietly, taking the paper. “Be here for Eits. He needs you more than I do right now. I’ll handle this.” 

“You and the Minority,” she reminded me. 

I nodded once. “Like I said, I’ve got the number. And yours. I’ll find out what the address leads to, then let you know if I find the guys responsible for… for that.” I didn’t–couldn’t look at the room where Eits was. “You’ll get your turn with them.” 

With that, I gave one last look toward the injured Eits before pivoting on my heel to leave the house. Clutching the paper in my hand, I moved quickly past the guy in front. He repeated his earlier remark that they’d be gone before I could bring heroes over, and I just muttered something about having more important things to worry about than helping a Star-Touched shut down a private hospital. I wasn’t even sure what I said exactly. The words just came before I thought about them. My focus was elsewhere. Without thinking about it, I used red paint to yank myself up to another building, already running as I landed. My eyes finally glanced down at the address, taking it in.

I knew where this was. Not the exact building, but the neighborhood. It was a place on the north side of town, near the zoo. A pretty nice neighborhood, if I remembered right. Either way, I knew where I was going now. 

For a moment, I slowed near the edge of the roof. My hand felt my phone in my pocket. The Minority. I’d told Pack that I’d be okay because I could contact them for help. 

And I could. But I wouldn’t. I’d never actually promised that I would contact them, only that I could do it. But after what I saw with Eits, and everything I already knew about my family… no. I couldn’t involve them. I couldn’t–wouldn’t let anyone else get hurt because of me. This was my responsibility. Eits getting hurt was my fault, because I tried to let him help. That was a mistake, and I refuse to repeat it. Whatever happened next, I wouldn’t let anyone else suffer because of me. Every time I thought about doing so, I pictured Eits on that hospital bed. Then I pictured it being Pack, or That-A-Way, or one of the other Minority. Or Wren. No. No, I couldn’t… I couldn’t do that. I couldn’t let that happen again. I could never let that happen again. 

So, I wasn’t calling the Minority. I wasn’t calling Wren. I wasn’t calling anyone. Leaving the phone in my pocket, I took a running start and jumped, heading for the address. I would handle this the way I should have in the first place. 

By myself. 

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