Paintball

Schooling 24-07 (Summus Proelium)

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We didn’t end up running into any problems during that quick little patrol. Probably because almost everyone who would have caused trouble was still recuperating after the massive brawl from yesterday. That or, in the case of the Scions, they were apparently spending their time running God knew how many potential recruit candidates through the initiation test or… whatever it was they were doing. What it came down to was that there were more psychopaths out there besides Jennica competing to cause the most chaos and trouble in order to impress Pencil and Cup. The very thought of that brought bile to my throat, as did the positively cheerful thought of what else might happen before this audition bullshit was over. 

But, we didn’t run into any of that, or any other trouble. Which meant I was able to get home and get a solid six hours of sleep. And considering I hadn’t actually done that much physical exertion, since most of that had been inside the virtual reality, that meant I was rested long before my alarm was due to go off in the morning. Feeling restless, I left a note for Izzy and took a quick breakfast in the kitchen before heading out for what I told the staff members I passed was a run. It really was a run, of course. I just left out the fact that I would be changing into my costume and running across rooftops in the city, with my actual clothes in a backpack over my shoulder. 

It was pretty different being out here early in the morning. Well, early as far as I was concerned. It was not quite seven o’clock yet as I bounced my way from a traffic light to run along the side of an office building. My feet pounding against the brick was the most prevalent sound I could hear that early, aside from a few cars in the distance and birds calling out to one another. 

And then there was the bird who called out to me. “Ah, Paintball!” 

It was Lucent, of course, coming down from above as I stopped short at the edge of a rooftop. He landed smoothly on a nearby antenna and regarded me. “A fine morning to you, lad. Though I do hope this means you have thoroughly slept and are now out for a brisk early jog,” he announced. “Rather than the far more worrying option, that you have been out this entire time.” 

My head shook quickly. “Hey, don’t worry, Pops. I’ve definitely been asleep. I actually got more sleep all in a row last night than I have lately.” I paused to consider my words before adding, “Which isn’t really all that much, I guess. Still, I can’t sleep anymore.”

His head tilted sideways to consider me briefly before offering an understanding, “Let me guess, you’ve become accustomed to less sleep overall, and also spread out. You sleep a few hours at night, and then nap in the afternoon. Now you’ve done that enough that your body is accustomed to it. I’m told that happens to most Touched who operate that way.” 

Confirming that with a short nod, I asked, “What about you? I mean, did you get enough sleep? I heard you guys had it pretty rough the day before yesterday. Did uhh, did you get enough sleep?” 

Again, he regarded me. His expression seemed quizzical, but I couldn’t tell if that was just the ordinary raven look. After a moment, he replied, “Yes, it was a bit rough for everyone, it seems. I know you’ve heard this already, but I wished to offer my own apologies for being unable to respond to your request for aid until the situation had already been handled.” He paused then before adding, with a voice that was clearly amused and lightly teasing, “That is quite certainly not the sort of example I wished to give to any son of mine.” 

Painting a grinning smiley face across my helmet in orange paint, I gave him a thumbs up. “Don’t worry, I know you had your own problems to deal with. I’m just glad everyone got through it more or less intact.” With that, I glanced away, erasing the smile. A soft sigh escaped me. “But something tells me things are gonna get worse before they get better. Deicide’s really pissed off right now, isn’t she?” 

“She is not very happy, I’m certain,” Lucent agreed, turning his head to look out over the city around us. “I fear things will be escalating now, as soon as she and the others have regrouped. She will not allow that sort of betrayal to stand for long.” 

“Why did they betray her?” I found myself asking. “I mean, why would those guys think they could get away with switching sides like that? And to Oscuro of all groups. They’re not even Hispanic. I mean, I don’t care about that, but Oscuro is supposed to. Err, yeah, they made an exception for Grandstand. But, you know, considering she left them high and dry to go after her own vendetta, I would think they’d be less likely to make an exception like that again.” 

“Ah, we do have an answer to that, actually.” Lucent actually perked up a little at that, as though happy to be able to solve something for me. “According to intelligence our people on the street have been able to pick up, It seems that Juice, Janus, and Devil’s Due will not actually be joining Oscuro. In truth, Cuélebre has been traveling outside of the city, looking for new Touched members to recruit. He found another gang willing to come to the city themselves, whom he apparently does not mind sharing some territory with. They have their own Touched, several of whom were Hispanic and interested in joining his gang. But their own group desired a trade, so their strength wouldn’t be diminished.” 

Blinking a couple times as I absorbed that, I slowly offered, “Oh. So he recruits a few non-Hispanic Touched, then immediately trades them to this new gang so they’ll send their own Hispanic Touched to–is this fucking baseball or something? They’re trading players now?” 

Lucent chuckled softly, which was an odd sound to hear coming from a raven. “You might be surprised to learn how relatively common that sort of thing is, to be honest.” Again, his head tilted to look back at me with that seemingly quizzical expression. “Though perhaps not, as I hear you have done your own recruiting to fill up a brand new team of your own, as this Avant-Guard.” 

“Yeah,” I confirmed while giving him a thumbs up. “I mean, everyone kept telling me I shouldn’t go around by myself, so now I’m not. Errr, not as much. I have friends.” 

The TONI raven gave me what I swore was a bright smile. “And I am quite glad to hear that. Still, please ensure that you are all careful. Particularly considering what is happening in the city lately, and how those troubles are bound to escalate. There is a training facility at the Seraphs headquarters, and I have already been assured that you and your team will be welcome there.” 

No matter how much I trusted my ‘bird-dad,’ I wasn’t just going to give away exactly what we were doing with our own training. Maybe that was stupid and unnecessary, but I felt like it was best to keep that to myself. At least for now. Still, no matter how much mental training we were getting inside the VR place, we did need physical training. So, I gave a quick nod. “That sounds cool. I think we’ll probably take you up on that. Just don’t be surprised if your own members start complaining about a couple of us monopolizing your equipment. Poise and Style really want to make sure they whip us into shape.” 

“In that case,” he informed me, “I would like to meet them so that I might shake their hands for such forward thinking. And I do hope you are taking their suggestions seriously.” 

“Oh, believe me, we are.” Thinking about what we had started the night before, I added, “We’ve been working on that, but they’ll be glad to know there’s a real place we can go with some actual equipment and all that.” 

“Equipment and skilled trainers,” Lucent added, a bit pointedly. “People prepared to ensure that you and your team are ready should worse come to worst, powers or no. Which, I believe is a point of contention among some out there. There is some question of whether most of your group have any powers at all. From witness accounts and footage of that baseball field event, many are debating about the… Poise and Style you called them? Some believe they could not possibly move the way they do without some sort of gift, while others call it training or even the effect of Touched-Tech equipment. Which you would have access to, of course.”

I could tell he was gently fishing for information, probably curious about how much help I had on the actual powers front. Still, all I offered was a shrug. “They can take care of themselves.” If I wasn’t going to tell him about the virtual reality training room, I sure as hell wasn’t going to tell him that those two were actually Biolems. Trust him or not, it was best to keep that to myself.

I could tell that he wanted to say something more about that, but he let it go and simply glanced up toward the sky before remarking, “I think perhaps it might be time that you made your way toward school? You wouldn’t want to be late, of course.” 

Again, I gave him a thumbs up. “Sure thing, Pops. Don’t you worry, I’ll be sitting right in class, learning all my Reading, Writing, and Arithmetic. And all the rest. Just try to keep the city in one piece while I’m busy with that, deal?” 

“Deal,” he agreed with another soft chuckle. Then he regarded me seriously. “Be very careful out there, my boy. You have accomplished quite a lot in a short time span. And a great deal of that has involved making enemies. I am very glad that you have friends to aid you, but still, keep your eyes open. If you need outside aid, do not let the delay you experienced when it came to that zombie attack dissuade you from reaching out. We are all more than willing to lend a hand. Or a wing, as the case may be.” 

Promising that I would be careful and definitely reach out if I needed to, I took off running once more. I still had plenty of time before school, which didn’t start until eight-fifteen. But I wasn’t going to tell Lucent that. The public schools started closer to seven-forty-five, and between that and the difference in the middle school starting time, I didn’t want to say anything to him that might allow the Touched bird to narrow down where I went to school. 

Eesh, was I just being super-paranoid again? Like, too much so? I was almost certain he was trustworthy. But then, I couldn’t really trust my own family when it came down to it, so maybe that made sense. Either way, I didn’t feel comfortable exposing that much. Not even to my ‘bird-dad.’ 

I did make my way gradually in that direction, through a winding, looping route. I had already made sure Jefferson would know I wasn’t going to be home for him to drive, so that he only had to take Izzy. The run across the city gave me time to clear my head and really think through everything that had been happening lately. And, of course, stretching myself like that felt good. 

Eventually, I made it close to the school while still having about half an hour before classes were supposed to start. I had already eaten breakfast at home, but that run had still made me work up an appetite, so I was going to head in and grab something from the cafeteria.

However, just as I landed on the roof of a building near the school and was about to shrug off my backpack so I could change real quick, I spotted something out of the corner of my eye. Paranoid as I was at that point, I dropped down low and leaned over to peer that way. There was an unlabeled door at the end of an alley far below. The building itself was just some sort of currently unused place for dental offices and the like, nothing special. But as I stared that way, I could see none other than Jae and that boy, Damarko, making their way out of it. The room behind them looked dark and rather empty, so what would they have been–oh. Right, yeah, okay then. Go, Jae. Now I was very certain that the two of them had some sort of thing going on. Why else would they have been holed up in some dark, unused room before school? Clearly, I didn’t know Jae nearly as well as I’d thought I did. But hey, at least she had someone. Even if she apparently wasn’t ready to share that fact with anyone else just yet. Either way, good for her. Damarko was definitely a catch, though I was a little worried about how her adopted step-mother would react to the whole thing, since he apparently didn’t go to the ‘rich kids school.’ Was that why Jae was keeping it a secret? Boy, was that an uncomfortable thought. 

Still, I was about to dismiss that and leave the two alone so I could change and get into school. None of that was really any of my business when you got down to it, and my stomach was starting to grumble even louder after that run. However, just as I was pulling back, something else caught my attention. There was an older guy coming out of the alley as well. He wasn’t coming out of that room the other two had emerged from, but from further back in, around the dumpsters. And he looked rather disheveled and dirty, as though he had been hanging out in the trash or something. His attention was laser-focused on the two ahead of him. That by itself would have been curious, but it turned to outright alarming when I saw him pull a pistol from his jacket pocket. What the hell?

Obviously, I didn’t wait to see what he was planning on doing with that. The moment I saw the gun, I launched myself off that roof and plummeted that way. On my way down, I shot a line of red from the gun to the nearby wall and activated it so the weapon was ripped from his grip. Before he could react to that, I painted orange on myself and a tiny bit on him as well, so he wouldn’t be killed as I slammed into him from above. We both went down, the man cursing out loud in surprise and probably a little pain despite the paint. 

Despite his obvious surprise, the man wasn’t completely done. I felt him squirm around and kick under me, the hard blow pushing me away. I rolled on the sidewalk and snapped my gaze up just in time to see him pull a dangerous-looking switchblade knife from his pocket, snap it open, and lunge at me with a scream. A flash of the training Paige and Sierra had put us through the day before went through my head, as I quickly jerked aside so the blade went past me, while snapping my hand out to smack the weapon out of his grip. It clattered along the ground nearby even as the man fell on top of me. He was still screaming in rage. Apparently he was very unhappy about me interrupting his attack on a couple of innocent teenagers. 

Yeah, I was starting to think there was something wrong with this guy. With effort, I managed to shove myself out from under him while he was rearing back for a punch and hit his chest with a bit of red paint. Another shot went to the nearby wall, then I ducked down so he could be yanked off me and sent flying that way.

Grunting, I popped to my feet behind the man. Before he could react, and before the paint could wear off, I fished a pair of ordinary handcuffs from my pocket and got them around his wrists. He was still shouting and cursing while I painted my arms purple and pushed him to the ground, but most of the fight seemed to have gone out of him. Mostly he was just rambling about how I had to let him go, the monsters had to die, or something to that effect. He wasn’t making much sense, and the fact that he was basically foaming at the mouth made me doubt he was in the best frame of mind to explain anything. Even discounting the whole ‘about to shoot a couple random teenagers’ thing. 

And speaking of those random teenagers, I looked up from getting the man on the ground just in time to see Jae and Damarko standing there staring at us. Right, shit, I had to be careful here. I couldn’t let Jae know who I was. I had to pretend I didn’t really know her at all, except for–

“Hey, you’re the girl from the grocery store, right?” Snapping my fingers, I pointed that way. “Yeah, hey, you okay? I think this guy was uhh… trying to mug you or something?” I didn’t really need to fake the confusion in my voice at that point. What was this guy’s endgame? These two had to be just targets of opportunity, right? So why was he so pissed off right now? He’d stopped verbally ranting, and was just laying there. But I could feel the rage vibrating through him. Man, this guy really wasn’t healthy. 

Jae and Damarko exchanged glances, an unspoken conversation passing between them. I was pretty sure they were feeling guilty about having done their… whatever that was in the room over there. But I sure as hell wasn’t going to bring that up. And neither did that. Instead, Damarko offered a hesitant, “Uh, thanks, Paintball. Lucky you were there.” 

“I couldn’t sleep,” I offered with a shrug. “Been out for a run. But what about this guy? You two know him?” When they shook their heads, I grimaced. “Guess you were just in the wrong place at the wrong time. But hey, you should go ahead. I’ll tell the cops what happened here and wait for them to show up.” 

For just a moment, it looked like they were both going to argue about that. Jae actually spoke up, though her voice was quiet and uncertain. “Are you sure… you don’t need help?” 

I shrugged, rising so I could keep one foot on the man. “It’s cool, I’ve got this.” I had to stop myself from making my voice unnaturally deep in response to talking to someone who actually knew me. The voice-changer itself was already doing the heavy lifting on that front. “You guys don’t wanna be late. Don’t worry, I’ll make sure this guy isn’t gonna go after anyone else anytime soon.”

Again, it looked like they were going to say something. But they both stopped themselves, aside from offering very sincere thanks. Damarko added something about needing to get my autograph, so I touched his shirt and put ‘Save you anytime you need – Paintball’ across it. Which he seemed to get a kick out of. 

With that, the two of them headed off, though they looked back several times and were holding an intense conversation on their way. Meanwhile, I reported the attack and capture via the Doephone app, before sighing as I looked down at the now-quiet man. 

“Dude, you totally owe me breakfast for this shit.” 

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Schooling 24-03 (Summus Proelium)

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Obviously, I had been through a lot of ridiculous things since I’d Touched the orb that one night a couple months ago. It was pretty hard by this point to say that any single moment definitively topped all others as far as standing out went. But I was going to have to admit, standing on a rooftop in the middle of the night, giving our made-up story about how my friends and I had been robbed by a group that was actually us to a bear and raccoon who shared the same space and kept taking turns being physically present? Yeah, that was going up near the top of the list, at the very least. 

And, to be quite frank, it was probably pretty up there as far as being terrified went. So I had to hide that reaction as much as I could. I was standing here lying to what was apparently not only one (or two) of the Ministry’s highest ranking people given they had the title of Minister, but one of them was probably capable of smacking my head clean off my shoulders. Yes, I had orange paint and all that, but still. Standing in front of a nine-foot tall bear, even if he was in an incredibly-tailored suit, while lying my ass off about something as important to the Ministry as who had robbed them… it wasn’t exactly my idea of a fun time. 

Still, at least we had planned out exactly what we were going to say about this. We’d known that there would come a time when we had to tell the story, and that we might not all get to tell it together. If they asked us separately without any warning, we wanted to have our story straight. This way, whichever of us they talked to would say the same thing. 

In short, the story we’d come up with, which I relayed to my alternatingly bear-raccoon interrogators, was that our group kept some supplies for Trevithick’s work hidden in a few old sheds around the city. Sheds which we had rigged with alarms and other protection to keep the equipment safe. One day, we had been talking and practicing outside one of those sheds when we heard something moving inside. Opening it up, we found three black-masked figures starting to pull boxes over to a hole they’d made in the floor. We were, quite understandably, surprised to see someone there. So they managed to throw some sort of flash bang thing before we could react. We chased them through the tunnel after recovering, but it simply led all the way to a large drainage ditch a couple blocks over, where we’d lost them. 

“But at least they only made off with a couple boxes worth of stuff,” I finished with a shrug. “And we put cameras in our storage places now, believe me.” 

Price, the raccoon, was perched on top of one of those small metal smokestack things, rubbing his paws together thoughtfully as he regarded me. “I don’t suppose you can show us where this other tunnel is so we can check for any other evidence?” 

Looking right back at him, I replied, “I don’t suppose you can show me where your tunnel is?” As he lifted his chin in reaction, I added, “I mean, that’s why you showed up like this to ask these questions, right? These people broke into some place that was important to you, and now you’re looking for any clues that could help you track them down. But something tells me you don’t want to let the sharing thing go both ways.”  

There was a brief pause as he seemed to consider my words, before hopping down as the smoke and light burst appeared. The bear, Fisher, was back. “You’re ahh, you’re right, we don’t have the authority or permission to take you to that place. But we did hope that–” 

“Look,” I interrupted before I could talk myself out of interrupting a bear, “I get it. I know why you all want to stop these people. I mean, I may not know the whole story, but something tells me your whole secret gang doesn’t really like the idea of another secret gang horning in on your territory. Trust me when I say you guys have a better chance of catching them than we do. But if, by some chance, we do happen to get them first, we’ll be sending them to prison, not to you people. Don’t take that the wrong way, it’s just… yeah.” It was important that I stick that bit about sending them to prison in there. It implied that I didn’t know they could get to any prisoner quite easily, and I really wanted to obfuscate just how much I knew about the Ministry. Or just let them think I was that naive. 

“We did get off on the wrong foot, didn’t we?” Fisher noted while giving me a curious glance. He stepped backward, hunching down a bit. I had the feeling he was intentionally trying not to intimidate me. “We heard our introduction to you was Squire carrying out an execution.” 

Squire. That name immediately leapt out to me, for more than one reason. First, he was obviously talking about my brother. That was Simon’s name in the Ministry, Squire? And second, I’d heard that name recently anyway. Back when we had been working out where Luciano was, Murphy had read a bit about how they were sending Squire instead of Plan Z to take care of something else, because Plan Z was busy. Simon was Squire. 

Absorbing all of that, I focused on the large bear in front of me, who was still doing his best to look unimposing. “You mean when I wandered into the wrong place at the wrong time, saw two people get shot in the heads, and then this Squire guy ordered his friends to kill me for being there? I’d say that was more than one wrong foot. That was at least a wrong leg.” 

Fisher gave a slight nod, slumping down to a seated position there on the roof in front of me. “Yes, very regrettable. We wish that had gone differently. If you like, we can answer questions, such as what exactly it was that you walked into that night.”

Questions? Oh boy, yeah, I had a lot of those. And yet, “How would I know you’re telling the truth? I mean, I hate to sound like a broken record, but again, don’t take that the wrong way. If you’re gonna say those two people were pedophile rapists who got what was coming to them, I have no way of knowing if that’s true or not.” 

With a poof of light and smoke, Price was back. “You’re right,” he agreed. “You got no reason to believe anything we say. And we’re obviously not about to be best friends here. Still, like we said before, we wanted to thank you for putting all that aside when it came to this zombie situation. Who knows, maybe someday we’ll be able to laugh about all this tension.” 

“Maybe,” I allowed with a little shrug. There was no sense in being needlessly hostile. Not only did I really want to avoid a fight right now, but I needed the Ministry to continue seeing me as not a threat. They knew that I knew a bit about them, and that I wasn’t on their side. But as of right now, they also saw that I was willing to ask for their help, and I hadn’t tried to go to the cops or anything. I wasn’t an immediate problem they had to deal with, which meant I could potentially be an asset at some point in the future. I wanted them to keep thinking that. On the other hand, I was pretty sure they would be suspicious if I was too easy on them. 

To that end, I added, “I don’t suppose you’d be willing to let me take this Squire guy to the cops so he can tell them the whole story about why he killed those people. You know, as part of laughing about everything in the future, once they accept his story and give him a pat on the back for doing such a service to the community?” My head tilted one way, then the other. “No? Worth a shot.” 

There was a snort from the small raccoon, before he replied, “Sorry, that probably won’t happen. Not unless Squire… let’s say, screws up very badly.” 

Yeah, there was a lot I was tempted to say about that too, but about ninety-eight percent of it would’ve given away far too much about who I was. So, I simply shrugged once more. “In that case, I should probably get out of here. I mean, it’s been pretty cool, talking to a bear and raccoon at all, let alone a bear and raccoon who keep switching places. I feel like it’d be fun to hang out sometime. Maybe go see a movie. But right now, I’m basically asleep on my feet. Seriously, remember that whole ‘saving a stadium full of people from a bunch of fiery zombie monsters’ thing? You were there to see how awesome we were. But being awesome takes energy, so I need to go home.” 

With a slight chuckle, Price waved a paw, which gave me a nice look at his claws and reminded me that just because he wasn’t as big as his partner didn’t mean he couldn’t still be dangerous. “Sure thing, kid. And might I just say, you took talking to a raccoon and bear who keep swapping places better than a lot of people might’ve.” 

Speaking dryly, I replied, “Well, you did make it clear that my first impulse to hug you was a bad idea, and my second impulse to ask for a selfie probably wasn’t much better. You don’t seem like the type of guys who want to have your picture out there, considering I would’ve heard about you otherwise.” 

Fisher returned, swapping places with Price before giving me a short nod. “Those are some good instincts. Maybe they’ll take you a long way. But ahh, as far as hugs go, I will note that I am much more open to the concept than my partner.” 

My mouth opened, before I paused, looking him up and down. Then I shrugged, “Mmmmaybe we should hold off on the hug until a second meeting. But there’s something…. else that could be cool.” With that, I told him what I was thinking. 

Absorbing the request, Fisher made what sounded like a low chuckle. “You are an odd and fascinating boy, Paintball. And yes, perhaps we’ll see you again sometime. We know we can’t tell you not to tell any of your friends about us, if you’ve said anything about the Ministry already…” He trailed off, as though waiting briefly to see if I would react at all. When I didn’t, he just carried on. “But just know that if word gets out about us, or anything else, we know how to track it back. So be careful. And that goes for everything else you know about our group. Discretion is the better part of valor, and valor keeps everyone happy.”

Promising the bear that I would keep that in mind, I added, “About that request?” 

His eyes widened just a little. “You were serious about–ah… well yes, I believe we can accommodate that, if you are certain.” With that, he extended one arm, waiting expectantly. 

Some part of my brain was asking if I was crazy, rather vehemently. I ignored that part (it was used to that), and stepped that way. Pausing, I pointed and coated both of his arms with purple paint before turning around. Fisher reached down, and I felt his enormous paws close around either side of my waist. Without any apparent effort whatsoever, he hoisted me up in the air. “You are certain about this.” 

In response, I gave him a thumbs up while activating the paint I’d given him. “Let’s light this candle!” 

There was a brief pause, before Fisher leaned back, holding me out over his head, almost horizontal to the ground. Then he snapped upright with a roar, and hurled me out over the city. Between his natural bear strength, the Touched-based increase I was pretty sure he already had, and the boost I’d given him, I was sent flying over the rooftops with a loud scream that was half-terror and half-exhilaration escaped me. Several seconds in, and the scream turned to a laugh. I was sailing past several buildings, tumbling head over heels through the air. I was dizzy, in the middle of some terrifying mixture of flying and falling, and it was absolutely amazing. 

Just before I would have splatted against the side of a building, I managed to right myself, using orange paint on my legs, and a shot of blue against the wall so I could simply bounce off it, maintaining my momentum through another couple jumps and a shot of red that sent me sailing freely over the next roof. Fuck, fuck, fuuuuuuuuuck this was fast! 

I wanted to do it again. But I had a feeling they wouldn’t be there if I went back. So, I let my speed gradually slow so I could get my bearings once more.  

What did it mean, exactly, that Ministers Gray had shown themselves to me? Was it just that they were testing how I would react and whether word of their existence would leak out? Obviously, just like Fisher had said, if they showed themselves to me and then rumors of a bear-raccoon joint TONI started going around town, it wouldn’t be hard to figure out what happened. But was that the only reason they made a point of letting me see and talk to them, or was there something else? Were they trying to make me think there could be trust between us or something? I… I didn’t know. 

What I did know was that I needed to get home and sleep, before I ended up crashing right into a wall or falling off the edge of a roof. Though to be fair, either one would result in me not being conscious anymore. Which was sort of like sleeping. 

But hey, at least I probably wouldn’t have to worry about being turned into a murder-zombie if that happened. So we had accomplished something today. 

******

The next morning was Thursday, May 14th. When I’d gotten home the night before, Izzy had already been asleep in her bed. I took just enough time to check on her, then crashed into my own bed and slept until the alarm went off for school. Then I dragged myself through the shower and was just getting dressed in my room when the intercom buzzed to let me know she was out there. So, I let her in and the two of us took a few minutes to talk about what had happened the night before. She’d had just as much excitement as me, given the whole Cuélebre situation. 

“So now he’s pissed at you too?” I asked while nudging her as we sat on the edge of my bed. “You know you didn’t have to do that just to be like me, right? Actually, imitating me in general is just a bad idea all around.” 

Audibly snorting, the other girl lightly kicked my leg. “I wasn’t imitating you. He was gonna hurt Whamline, so I had to spray him down. You know, as a distraction.” After a brief pause, she grimaced. “But uhh, yeah, I don’t think he likes me very much right now.” That said, she turned my way and poked me in the arm harder than she had kicked me. “What about Broadway’s sister? She’s still out there, and she’s gonna be even more mad at you than Cuélebre is at… uh, both of us?” Squirming a bit, Izzy added, “Plus, she wants to get into the Scions, and they hate you too.” 

“Pretty sure they hate both of us,” I pointed out mildly, even as my face twisted a bit. “But yeah, she’s probably gonna be a problem. We know she’s out there now though, and so do the good guys. And the Ministry. It’s gonna be hard for her to show her face out there very much. Not that that solves the problem or anything, just… yeah, we’ll keep our eyes open. And uhh, keep watching for bears and raccoons.” 

She blinked at that, then stared and listened with an open mouth while I explained about meeting the Ministers Gray. When I was done, she took a moment to make sure I wasn’t pulling her leg, then sank back a bit, absorbing all of it. Finally, she murmured a soft. “Wow.” 

My head bobbed. “Wow about sums it up, yeah. I guess they want to see what I do with that sort of information. It’s definitely a test, and… I think also a sort of threat. But we can handle tests and threats, right? 

“Right,” she agreed before pushing herself up. “But you know what’s gonna be an even bigger threat if we don’t move?” 

“Jefferson,” I confirmed, hopping up after her. “Yeah, you’re right. We better get down there, or he’ll kill us before Jennica even has the chance to try.” 

So, the two of us had a quick breakfast before joining Jefferson for the drive to our schools. We talked about ordinary girl stuff on the way, to the point that I was pretty sure poor Jefferson’s ears practically started to bleed. Which I felt a little bad for, but hey, anything to make sure he’d report that there was absolutely nothing interesting going on with us. 

In any case, I eventually found myself at school, where I took a waiting Amber for a walk around the back field for her turn with the whole catching up thing. She apologized for not being able to get there, and for not even being around when the rest of the Star-Touched showed up. 

“They took us straight to the clubhouse, then had our parents pick us up,” she was saying while we studied some graffiti on the side of one of the football goalposts. “I mean, they promised your situation was already taken care of, but I still… you know.” 

“I know,” I confirmed. “It’s okay. I mean, like I said to your…” Briefly, I made a point of looking at my phone. “Seventeen text messages, we’re good. We were safe.” 

Her gaze met mine as she bumped her fist into my shoulder. “Sure, if you count adding another pissed off enemy to your ongoing list as being safe.” She tried to make it sound teasing before visibly sobering. “Look, just be careful, okay?” 

“Oh, don’t worry,” I assured the girl, “I wouldn’t wanna be eaten by a bear.” Letting that hang for a moment as she stared at me trying to figure out if that was some sort of strange figure of speech, I finally snorted and explained the situation. Which meant I was treated to my second ‘person staring open-mouthed at me while trying to figure out if I was screwing with them’ of the past hour. 

Finally, Amber rocked backward on her heels. “Oh. I mean… oh. Wow. Well, either they’re sharing information with you because they don’t think you’re a problem…” 

“Or because they’re planning on making sure I’m not,” I finished, feeling a slightly queasy sensation run through me before pushing that aside. “Yeah, but I’m pretty sure it’s that first one.” 

Amber sighed. “I hope so. You’ve got enough people angry at you as it is.” 

“You know, people keep saying that,” I pointed out. “But the way I see it, if I get enough people pissed at me, when they do make a move, they’ll all run into each other, start a fight, and then I can escape unscathed. Like those cartoons where the whole group dog-piles the guy and he just crawls out from under the dust cloud and walks away.” My eyebrows waggled pointedly while she stared at me. “No?” 

“You should probably go back to the drawing board and come up with a better plan,” Amber replied flatly. Her mouth opened to add something else, before looking past my shoulder as she adjusted to call out, “Hey, Jae, what’s up?” 

Sure enough, Jae was approaching. She had on a wide-brimmed hat as well as sunglasses, and was clearly wearing sunscreen to protect her delicate skin. And even then, I was pretty sure she wouldn’t stay outside for very long. She also stayed silent until she was right next to us, before finally offering a slight smile our way while speaking softly. “Morning. Would…” She hesitated, clearly wanting to ask something but apparently uncomfortable with it. 

“What is it, Jae?” Amber prompted. “It’s okay, you can tell us. Unless you wanna just talk to one of us?” She glanced to me, looking slightly uncertain. Or possibly uncomfortable. 

“Oh yeah, sure. Sorry.” Holding up both hands to assure them it was okay, I started to say I would see them inside. For all I knew, Jae wanted to talk to Amber about stuff involving her being That-A-Way and didn’t realize that I already knew that. Hell, I didn’t know if Jae knew that. It was a weird situation. The two of them were friends, but that didn’t mean she definitely knew, and even if she did, I didn’t necessarily want her to know that I knew because that could lead to figuring out who I was, and then–yeah. It was a whole thing. 

Before I could head off, however, Jae quickly spoke up. “I–uh, actually I was… wondering if you both could take notes for me today. I have a… doctor’s appointment. I mean, Amber in the classes we have and… and Cassidy in the classes we have that I don’t have with Amber. I–that is–”

“Sure thing,” I assured her before she could fumble on with that. “No problem. Doctor’s appointment, huh? Everything cool?” 

“Yeah,” she confirmed while glancing out toward the parking lot. “Dad just wants me to get a check-up since he’s back in town. He was just working on some movie with this contagion outbreak, and… it made him paranoid. So Kella’s gonna drive me over there.” 

I rarely heard Jae say much, so this was practically a whole speech by her standards. Which made me once again think she must’ve been feeling awkward about the whole Amber being That-A-Way thing. But that wasn’t a discussion I could get into right then, so I just let it go and promised again to take notes for her. Amber did the same, and then Jae headed off. 

“She knows, doesn’t she?” I started quietly after watching the girl leave. 

Amber seemed to jump a bit, turning back my way. “Huh?” 

“About you being Touched, I mean,” I clarified. “Err, sorry, I probably shouldn’t have said anything. It’s just, that was a little awkward right there, like she wanted to say something but didn’t. Or… something.” 

There was a brief pause before Amber gave a slight nod. “Uh, yeah. She knows. But she doesn’t know anything about you.” 

“Yeah, that’s probably why it was awkward,” I noted, shaking my head before starting to walk to the school building itself. “This whole situation is just weird sometimes, you know?” 

Muttering something about me having no idea, the other girl followed. The two of us were just heading inside, when I glanced toward the parking lot. There, I saw Jae getting into the passenger seat of some random car. At first, I thought it was her stepmother giving her that ride she was talking about, but the driver was a man. One that I belatedly recognized. 

Okay, so if Jae’s stepmother was supposed to be taking her to the doctor, why was she getting into a car with that Damarko Myers guy? Wait, hold on…

Did… did Jae have a secret boyfriend? 

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Schooling 24-02 (Summus Proelium)

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Once we made our way out of there and over to the van that, as promised, was waiting, the driver took us back into the city. We had the man drop us off a few blocks away from the shop, and thanked him for the lift. Then, once he drove off, we moved into the nearby alley and all of us practically collapsed against the nearby walls to look at each other. The drive had been a nice chance to sit for a bit, but we hadn’t really relaxed there, not with that guy around.

“Man,” Murphy announced while slumping down to sit on the ground, “I feel like I could sleep for a week. And my hand won’t stop shaking. Is that normal?” 

Sitting next to her, Roald shook his head. “My hands are just fine, but my knee won’t stop moving. See?” He gestured as his leg bounced erratically. “Seriously, it’s like I’m exhausted, but I sort of feel like I want to run a marathon. I could close my eyes and fall asleep right here, or my brain could keep me up all night. My body’s ready to fall apart, but…” 

“It’s adrenaline,” Paige advised him. “That’ll wear off. You’ll want to get back home and in your bed before that happens. Otherwise you really might end up sleeping in an alley. And that’s not as fun as it sounds, believe me.” 

With a nod, Peyton put in, “Yeah, and speaking of sleeping in an alley, if I don’t get home, my mom is really gonna freak out.” She looked over at Murphy and Roald. “I’ll give you guys a ride if you want.”

They agreed with that, and we arranged to meet and talk about things the next day. Then those three headed off together, while I focused on Sierra and Paige. “Well,” I started, “at least we stopped that whole thing. I mean, sure, that evil chick is still running around out there trying to impress the Scions, but this whole thing could’ve been a hell of a lot worse.”  

The two of them exchanged glances before Sierra spoke up. “Yeah, it sure could’ve.” Turning back toward me, she added, “Which is why we decided something on the way back here.”

“You decided something?” I asked while looking back-and-forth between them. “I didn’t think you guys even said a single word to each other that whole drive.” 

“We didn’t have to physically talk,” Paige informed me. “Remember, we have Wi-Fi. We set up our own private chat server and talked there. We can add you guys in, so you can join the chat room on your phone or computer. That way, we can all stay in contact.” 

“Wait hold on,” I interrupted, “is that whole ‘we have Wi-Fi’ thing a joke? Because I’m pretty sure that’s not the most secure thing for you guys to be talking about private stuff on. Especially if it was Wi-Fi inside a government van.” 

“Yes and no,” Sierra informed me. “It’s not a joke because we really can connect to Wi-Fi if we want to. But we also have our own private network. Trust me when I say, it’s secure. The version we were using in the van is short-range, line of sight communication. The signal went from me to her and back again. On top of that, it’s all encrypted. They’d have to literally be one of us to understand it. We’ll have to fix up your devices so they can connect to it, and when you do, you won’t exactly find a bunch of fun websites. But at least we’ll all be able to use our little chat room to stay in contact.” 

“Okay, right, cool.” Nodding slowly, I murmured, “So you’ve got this secure little chat room for just the two of you, and you’re gonna let us into your clubhouse so we can all keep up with each other in a way that doesn’t involve normal texting.” 

Paige straightened while looking down the alley as she confirmed, “That’s about the size of it. Obviously, when you guys use it, you’ll be going through the regular internet. But it’ll still be secure. A hell of a lot more secure than ordinary phone texting, anyway. Add that into using phones your parents don’t know about and that’s about as safe as we can be. We’ll make sure the program we add to your stuff looks like something innocent, and wipes anything incriminating if anyone pokes at it.”

“Right, sounds good to me,” I managed. Hell if I knew anything about the details. If they said it would be safe, I believed them. Which was an odd feeling coming from the whole Paige direction. But I shoved that thought out of my mind and asked, “So, what was this decision you guys were talking about before we got off on that little tangent?” 

Once more, the two of them exchanged glances before turning back to me. Paige started, “Like you said, that situation could’ve gone a lot worse. And there’s going to be more like it. Jennica is still out there. She’s trying to hook up with the Scions, who don’t really like you very much. So they won’t like any of us very much. To say nothing of all the other bad guys out there.”

“Including our father,” Sierra put in. “We still have to get Irelyn and that Trivial chick out of there.” 

“Exactly,” Paige agreed. “But if we’re– that is if you’re all going to survive all that, you need real training. Or you’re just gonna die.” 

“Don’t get us wrong,” Sierra put in, “with your powers, you’re pretty awesome. And, you know, it’s obvious you’ve had a little self-defense practice. You know how to punch someone. But you need more than that. A lot more. And so do the others. I just started to like you guys a little bit, so I’d rather not watch you get murdered. You’re all a lot more fragile than we are. And we can’t exactly go shoving the lot of you into more biolem orbs and bodies… yet.” 

“So,” Paige finished while I was giving Sierra a double-take, “we’re going to start teaching all of you how to fight. Really fight, I mean. We’re going to train you so that you’re not completely helpless without your powers.” 

Sierra coughed. “Well, let’s be honest, you’d still be in pretty bad shape without any power. I mean, come on, look at us, you and me. We’re like five foot nothing and, what, a hundred pounds? If I didn’t have enhanced biolem-strength, I’m not completely sure my foot wouldn’t snap off if I kicked a ball.”  

Grimacing, I retorted, “It’s not that bad. But yeah, you’ve got a point. I mean, about us needing to train. Do you really think you two can help with that?” 

Paige gestured pointedly. “We might as well put what Pittman programmed into us to good use. And the very best use I can think of for it is teaching all of you how to survive long enough to kick his ass and get Irelyn and Trivial off that island.” With a shrug, she added, “Besides,  with the way you make a habit of pissing people off in this city, you need all the survival training you can get. And so does anyone who’s planning on spending time with you.” 

My mouth opened as I raised a finger, before pausing. “I… yeah, okay, that’s fair. So, sure, that sounds like a plan to me. Or a goal, at least. If you guys want to designate yourselves our official trainers or whatever, feel free. You’re right about us needing all the help we can get. Seems like everything out there is getting more dangerous, not less. And you’re not the only ones who don’t want to see anything happen to anyone else in this team now that we just started to–uh, be a team.” 

“We’ll work something up,” Paige informed me. “But right now, you should get some rest. Do you want help getting home?” 

My head shook. “No, that’s cool. I’ll be fine. You guys head back to the shop.” She had been staying there with Sierra, even though they were both mobile and in separate bodies now. 

“Actually,” the girl who was my doppelganger under that mask informed me, “we’re gonna head to the Banners’ house, considering no one’s there right now. Not even any staff. And since the Ministry already interrogated Paige–” 

That made me do an almost violent double-take, while reflexively painting half a dozen question marks across my chest and helmet. “I’m sorry, the Ministry did what?” 

Sierra gave a look toward Paige, her voice reproachful. “I thought you said you were going to tell her.”

“I was,” Paige confirmed, “but then we got a little busy. The zombie baseball apocalypse was distracting.” Looking at me, she insisted, “It wasn’t a big deal. One of their agents talked to me earlier today, before we met up for all this. He wanted to know where I’ve been, and if I knew anything about Irelyn’s disappearance. I told him my dad was paranoid about something and took my mother and me on a bunch of increasingly stupid retreats. And I said that I finally convinced him to let me come home so I could go back to school, but when I got here, Irelyn had already left to go find us. I don’t know where they are now, and I don’t know where she is either.” 

Absorbing all that quietly, I finally asked the most important question, “Do you think he believed you?” 

Paige considered, though I was absolutely certain it was something she’d already thought about a lot. “If I didn’t, I would have brought it up sooner. They’re covering their bases. They know I was adopted by the Banners, and that I disappeared with them, then two of the local Star-Touched, one of whom happens to be the daughter the Banners bought me to replace after she pissed them off, disappeared too. Between that and me knowing about the Ministry, I would’ve thought something was wrong if they didn’t have a discussion with me. Mostly they wanted to know if Aaron Banners knew anything about them. So I told them I was pretty sure that’s not why he’s paranoid, and that he said something about business competitors and maybe Japan, or China or something. I kept it vague enough.” 

“Besides,” Sierra put in, “they’ve got other things to worry about right now.” 

“Right, our break-in secret is conveniently distracting them from peering too hard at our other secrets.” Snorting at that, I added, “Speaking of which, we need to decide what gang to hit next as our other-selves. Err, our other-other-selves. You know what I mean. If we’re gonna keep up the facade about there being some other group out there robbing them, we need to do it again.” 

“We’ll workshop that,” Paige agreed before flatly adding, “later. Right now, you really need to sleep. You’re swaying a lot more than you think you are right now.” 

She had a point, as much as I hated to admit it. It felt like there were still a dozen things I should be doing right then, but I really was incredibly tired after everything that had happened. So, with a heavy sigh, I nodded. “Fine, fine, I’ll head home and get some sleep. Just promise me that you guys are going to be careful.” 

Sierra coughed again and smirked at me after taking the mask off. “I’m not gonna get caught by your parents, trust me. It’s all cool, twin.” Her head tilted as she looked at Paige, then back to me. “Have you guys ever thought about how weird it is that I’m technically the twin of both of you in different ways?” 

Staring right back at her, I replied dryly, “Believe me, it’s come to mind.”

With that, I left the two of them and began to race-paint my way across the city. The chaos had thoroughly died down by the time we got back here in the van, as the gangs had all gone back to their own respective corners to lick their wounds and reassess their current situations. So, I had the city pretty much to myself. It was after curfew, and the emergency services were busy cleaning up various messes, or just recuperating themselves. I saw a few faces in windows waving or calling out greetings at me as I passed, so I waved back. One guy leaned out a nearby window entirely and shouted my name. Well, my Touched name anyway. When I stopped and looked, he waved a baseball bat while cupping his other hand against his mouth to shout, “Could you sign this!? Come on, I wanna give it to my kid!”

Well, what was I supposed to say to that? I launched myself that way and planted my knees against the wall next to his window after landing. “Hey there! What’s your name? And your kid’s name?” 

The man, a blonde guy in his forties with a neatly trimmed beard, beamed cheerfully. “Name’s Kyle. My son’s name is Edgar. Yeah, I know, but it was his mom‘s choice. She named him after her great uncle. Tried to go with Eddie, but the kid insists it’s Edgar. He’s nine. Just starting Little League.” 

Taking the bat as he offered it to me, I touched the side and instantly inscribed the words, ‘Hey Edgar, hope you smash a homerun so hard the bat breaks and I have to sign another one – Paintball.’ It took up most of the length of one side. 

Grinning as he saw what I had written, Kyle thanked me profusely and asked if I minded if he took a quick picture so he could prove it was real to his son. I agreed, and he leaned back in the window while holding the phone up so he could take a picture of us together. 

With that done, I gave him a thumbs up before launching myself away from the wall once more. As I was flying through the air, he called after me, “Oh, shit, thanks for what your new team did at that ballgame! I meant to say that!” 

Laughing, I turned over in the air to wave at him, using yellow paint to slow myself for that long. Then I landed on a lamppost and immediately used blue to hurl myself upward once more. The adrenaline was running low. I needed to get home, fall into my bed, and just die for awhile. 

Which, of course, was the thought that I had just as another figure caught my eye. This one was waving too, as I launched myself over another building. But it was waving from the roof, rather than from a window. And that wasn’t the only odd thing about it. The waiting figure wore a nice suit that looked like it belonged at one of those fancy millionaire dinner parties my parents liked to go to. It definitely wasn’t the suit of a man who would normally have been standing on top of an old used tire shop. Oh, then there was the fact that the man wasn’t a man at all. It was a bear. A literal bear, as in the furry animal, stood on its hind legs, wearing a perfectly tailored suit, waving at me. 

Okay, either I had been dosed with something, I was even more tired than I thought I was, to the point of being delirious, or that was a TONI. Wait, a bear in a suit. I’d thought I saw a bear in a suit back at the stadium! Wait a minute, was this… was this someone new? I wasn’t sure. I’d definitely never heard of a bear TONI in Detroit. But either way, it certainly got my attention. Especially since it meant I hadn’t been seeing things back when all that was going on. 

So, making sure I had enough paint on me to protect myself and get out of there if something went wrong, I used a shot of red to yank myself down that way. Landing smoothly, I straightened up and stared at the bear. Yeah, nothing had changed. From up close, that suit looked even more expensive. I’d seen a lot of fancy clothing in my time, even if I didn’t tend to wear much of it myself. I’d been in the sort of stores where these suits were sold, and I knew this one was top of the line. I wouldn’t have been surprised if it had its own Touched-Tech enhancements for protection. Those expensive ones tended to have bullet-proofing and even fire-protection, that sort of thing. 

And this wasn’t just any bear. He was enormous, standing what had to be nine feet tall and impressively built, a fact that was apparent even under that suit. He looked like he could take my head off with a casual swat. 

After looking the bear up and down briefly, I hesitantly started by raising my hand in a wave. “Uh, hello? Did I… did I see you earlier? Back at the stadium. I thought I saw… but then…” 

“Ah, good evening, Paintball,” the bear replied. His voice seemed to literally come from him, rather than an electric translator. Which wasn’t always the case. Some TONIs could speak normally, others couldn’t. “Do you mind if we call you that?” 

“Uh, to be honest, I’m still not sure I’m conscious right now and didn’t just plow into a building to give myself a concussion,” I informed him with a shrug. “But sure, I guess. If this is real, you should probably call me the same thing as everyone else.” 

The bear smiled, and it took me a moment to realize that he was trying to reassure me rather than be intimidating. Those teeth were very sharp. “Don’t worry, “ he rumbled politely, “you’re not in a coma and you’re not dreaming. Or hallucinating. And yes, to answer your question, we were at the stadium earlier, attempting to provide what aid we could given the circumstances. I am called Fisher. We are Minister Gray.” 

Okay, that made me do a double-take. “Wait, Minister? As in–” 

“Part of the Ministry, yes,” came the response, while he held up both paws. “But please, relax yourself, we are not here with any ill-intention. Rather, we wish to offer our thanks for your aid in maintaining relative peace within the city.”

Regardless of his words, I reflexively took a step back and glanced around. “Okay, you keep saying we, but I only see one of you. Wait, sorry, are you–” 

“We are not plural,” the bear informed me. “Not in the way you are thinking, anyway. But–ah, it is a bit complicated. Please, this is not a threat or an attack, though it will be a bit of a surprise.” 

Even as I opened my mouth to question that, there was a sudden burst of smoke right where the bear was, along with a glowing pyramid shape right in the center. I jumped backwards and brought my hands up despite his warning, but the smoke cleared to reveal that the bear was gone. Then a voice spoke up sharply. “Hey, down here.” 

My gaze lowered promptly, until I saw a raccoon. Just like the bear, he was in a clearly-tailored suit. And yes, it looked completely goddamn adorable. The bear had been intimidating, but seeing this little raccoon in a suit made me want to pick him up and squeeze him. 

“Don’t even think about it, kid,” the raccoon snapped, clearly interpreting my body language. “No hugging me, no picking me up. The name’s Price. Like my partner was saying, we’re Minister Gray. The short version is we Touched together, now we share space and take turns being on the outside. You don’t get to know any more than that.” 

This was a lot for me to take in. My mouth opened and shut a couple times as I fought to work my way through the confusion before I managed, “Wait, you were at the–I mean of course you were at the stadium too, but Alloy saw you!” 

“She sure did,” Price the Raccoon retorted, “cuz I wanted her to. How else were you supposed to find those hostages in time?” 

Absorbing that, I fumbled for a response before landing on, “You guys are part of the Ministry?” Yeah, it was dumb, but I had to say something

“That’s right, and we came to thank you for putting aside any differences of opinion you might have with us. Getting that girl to call for help was the right thing to do,” he informed me. “The situation back at that ballpark could’ve been an outright massacre. But you accepted help from people others would call villains, and you requested help from us. That showed both initiative and forward thinking. It shows we might need to reevaluate a few things about you.” 

“I uhh… well, thanks, I guess.” What the hell was I supposed to say to that? “But you could’ve sent that message with someone who wouldn’t attract this much attention. Don’t take this the wrong way, but something tells me you’re not just here to say thank you. I don’t think you would’ve revealed yourself if that was it.” 

The raccoon smiled, showing his own teeth. “Well, no, not exactly. But that was at the top of the list. We also hear you’ve experienced a bit of a break-in from a set of masked… intruders. We’d like you to tell us exactly what happened, in detail.” 

“Oh, uh, right.” We had mentioned that to Glitch, of course, as part of maintaining our cover and making it look like Avant-Guard and the black-masked people who broke into the Ministry were different people. “That might take awhile.” 

“It’s quite alright,” came the response. “We’ve got all the time in the world.” 

“And we’re not going anywhere until we hear that story.” 

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Schooling 24-01 (Summus Proelium)

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So, as it had turned out, the entire situation was even more complicated than we already thought it was. What had been an incredibly thin hope that Jason wasn’t responsible for his own actions and was being framed somehow ended up being the truth. But that didn’t help Broadway that much, because their foster sister was the person who framed him. And she had done it specifically because she was actually trying out to join the fucking Scions herself. Broadway had gone from feeling sick about her brother being that kind of psycho malicious piece of shit, to feeling sick about it being her sister instead. Again, not much of an upgrade. 

On the other hand, the zombies had all fallen apart as soon as that Jennica girl had stopped controlling Jason and fled. Which at least meant we didn’t have to deal with them. But, of course, that still left the boy himself. And a whole lot of explanations to give to the authorities. 

Broadway and Pack left with Grandstand as soon as the cops and other Star-Touched started showing up. I couldn’t blame any of them for not wanting to stick around. If Broadway wanted to keep her identity secret, she couldn’t really explain what she was doing here. She did, however, make me promise that I would give the authorities the whole story about what really happened with Jason so he wouldn’t end up being blamed for everything. It was pretty obvious that she had considered taking him with her, but in the end, decided against it. It was a better idea for us to explain things so he wouldn’t have to go on the run for the rest of his life, hopefully. But then again, if he had his evil sister still trying to use his power… Yeah, that was complicated. 

As it turned out, Caishen had finally shown up, along with like half the Star-Touched in Detroit. Including my father, as Silversmith, of course. It may have taken them a while to get our messages and have time to do something about it, but now they were here. Too bad it was too late to matter. 

Still, it led to our whole team standing in front of Silversmith, Caishen, and Brumal in one of the executive offices. Meanwhile the rest of the authorities were going over this place with a fine tooth comb just to make sure there were no more surprises left behind. Jason, still unconscious from the drug he’d been injected with, was lying on the floor nearby with someone’s jacket set under his head as a pillow. 

“Okay,” Silversmith started while looking right at me, “let me see if I’ve got this right. That boy over there really does have the power to animate dead things and give them fire powers. He really did create and control the zombies we saw. But he wasn’t actually responsible for what he did because his adopted sister also has powers, one of which allows her to control anyone she hits with one of her stone things, which she has attached to rings on her hand. She’s the one who wants to join the Scions, and part of her initiation, or test, or…  whatever you might want to call it, was framing her brother for all of this.”

Glancing to the others before turning my attention back to my father, I gave a short nod. “That’s right, sir. Like I said, we were desperate for help, so I reached out to Pack since I, you know, helped them before with–”

Before I could finish, Brumal spoke up. “You helped save his daughter. An understandable goal, but what’s this about you having her phone number?”

“I didn’t really expect it to work,” I replied. “I figured they would’ve disconnected that number by now. And no, I’m not giving it to you.” I saw the way they looked at each other at that, and quickly pressed on. “Come on, you know what would happen if I did. You wouldn’t be able to get anything out of it anyway, and they wouldn’t trust me again. Which would be bad if something like this happened.”

“They are criminals,” Caishen pointed out mildly. She didn’t really sound upset about any of this, more curious about how I would react to her words. 

“Yeah, I know,” I replied. “But there’s criminals and then there’s criminals. As evidenced right here. We asked for help stopping an atrocity here, and they helped. We couldn’t have found that guy and saved all the people in the stadium without them. Pack and Broadway came to help make sure there wasn’t a complete massacre here.”

Brumal sounded curious. “And you say Grandstand was just tagging along and you didn’t even know about it?”

I coughed before shrugging. There was no reason not to tell the full truth on that front. “She said she’s trying to find someone who killed a friend of hers, and she thinks that one of the people who was trying out for the Scions is that person. I guess she thought Jason could give her more information. You know, since they’re both supposedly trying out. Now she’s after that Jennica girl.”

There was a moment of silence as the three adults turned to look at one another. Only belatedly did I realize they weren’t just looking. They were conferring with some sort of Touched-Tech that was silencing their voices so we couldn’t hear, but they could. Convenient, that. 

Once more, I looked at the rest of the group. They were clearly exhausted. I knew I sure was. But this whole thing could’ve ended up a lot worse. It had been sheer luck that Peyton had started to follow me when I followed Riddles, and another bit of luck that I had decided not to push the issue to send her back. And her randomly spotting what she thought was a raccoon but turned out to be a dog, leading us to the room where those managers were tied up so they could tell us about Jennica and how she had to have line of sight to use her powers… yeah, we had gotten lucky. A bit too lucky, honestly. It felt like that dog had led us there, but I couldn’t think of who would have been responsible for that. 

In any case, all of that led to us being able to set our trap to catch Jennica. Which, even if it hadn’t lasted, was probably the only reason the situation had ended as well as it did. Not that her getting away was great, but still. Now we knew she was a threat, and had an idea of what she could do for the most part. And boy was it a lot. She had kind of struck gold when it came to powers. If she did end up joining the Scions, we would all be in deep trouble. As bad as she already was all by herself, I had no doubt that Pencil could put her to even worse things. We had to find her and make sure that didn’t happen. 

Well, in this case, I supposed that would be up to Grandstand and Broadway, and maybe Pack if she helped out. And who was I kidding? Of course she was going to help out. 

Shaking that off, I looked back to the trio of adults just as Silversmith spoke again. “Right, first of all, apologies are in order. While we had no way of knowing that this would happen just as everything in the city… ahh, went wrong, we did fail in one major way.” 

“That’s right,” Brumal put in, “we didn’t provide you with an authorization code. It’s a phrase you can speak to a 911 operator, or anyone like that, to prove that you are who you say you are. All sanctioned teams have them, and Paintball should have had it a long time ago. We dropped the ball there.” 

Caishen made a noise in the back of her throat. “I should have pressed the issue before. I never thought everything would happen at once, and I should have anticipated it.” She heaved a long sigh before looking at my father. “You’re going to rectify that now?” 

He gave a firm nod. “Of course.” Looking straight at me once more, he added, “Your code is going to be ‘pandas are always green.’ That’s the first letters from Paintball And Avant-Guard. PAAG. Pandas Are Always Green.” He repeated that again before having us repeat it as well. 

“Memorize it, and make sure you always know what it is. Test each other on it. From now on, if any of you contact the authorities, even if you’re not in costume, you can use that code.”  

Roald raised his hand until they were all looking at him. He sounded incredibly nervous to have all that attention from three of the most powerful and important Touched in the city focused on him, but forced out the words, “Um, does that mean that every 911 operator is going to know that code and not just think we’re saying gibberish things at them?”  

It was Brumal who answered. “Not exactly. When we program that into the system, saying those words over a phone line will automatically transfer you to someone who does know what’s going on. Then you can tell that person what you need and what’s wrong, and they’ll take you seriously.” 

Dad gave a short nod. “And if you say them in person, the officer’s own radio will alert him that a Star-Touched pass phrase has been used, and that he needs to take you seriously.” 

I could tell that Paige wanted to say something then, as did Sierra. But they were being quiet for the moment. I wasn’t sure exactly how it would go if they started drilling these guys with more questions, but it was probably a good idea for us to get through this as fast as possible. If nothing else, the sooner we got out of this place, the sooner we could all fall over. So, I turned back to my dad while carefully replying, “Thanks for that.” 

“As I said, we should’ve done it before,” he replied. “But at this point, I’d say your team has more than earned it. That and a lot more. All those people who were stuck in the stadium today are alive because you acted. And yes, you worked with villains to do it, but sometimes that’s what we have to do. Just like when they volunteer to help at a Collision Point. They receive temporary amnesty during that sort of encounter. I’d say the same thing could easily apply here. You had no other recourse.” 

“Does that mean we’re not going to jail?” Murphy sounded like she was only half-kidding. I was pretty sure she expected to get in trouble, even after all we’d done. Maybe even because of what we’d done. She’d muttered something earlier about how the authorities would probably be pissed about being shown up and blame us for it. 

Brumal gave an incredulous chuckle. “Kid, after what you guys did here, we’re the ones who should be in trouble, and you should be getting medals. Believe me, no one’s going to hold working with those three against you. Especially not when it ended up with these results.” She paused then before clearly grimacing at a private thought. “No one who matters, anyway.” 

Before I could respond to that, Paige raised her hand to point at Jason. “What’s going to happen to him now?” 

The others looked that way as well, before Silversmith replied, “He won’t be charged with what happened. There are provisions in the law for being controlled in some way by Touched powers when you commit a crime. But he’s not going to be able to go home either. Even if that girl decides to leave him alone, which I doubt, it’s pretty obvious that Pencil would see him as a resource. So he’ll need to go somewhere else.” 

I blinked a couple times before asking, “Are you going to put him in witness protection or something?” 

Caishen nodded. “Something like that. Don’t worry, he’ll be safe. We know how to make someone disappear.” 

Boy, oh boy, could I have said a lot of things to that. But, I kept my mouth shut. I still wasn’t sure if she was connected to the Ministry or not, so I had no idea if she knew just how good they really were at making people disappear. Dad misinterpreted my moment of silence, giving a soft chuckle once more. “Okay, I think you’ve had enough excitement for one day, all of you. Now, what was that code again?” 

We repeated it back to him, and he nodded. “I’ll be testing you once in a while. But right now, I’ve got some very confused and upset people to talk to.” He glanced at Caishen and added, “You wanted to talk to them yourself?” 

She confirmed that, then the three of them had another silent conversation before my father created a silver stretcher under Jason and lifted him up with it so it could float behind them as they walked out, leaving just Caishen standing there. When the door closed, she exhaled long and hard. “I know it was said before, but I am truly sorry that I wasn’t able to answer your call. And that it took so long to get your messages. After everything I said to you about not going off on your own, and then I gave you no choice but to do just that.” 

I shrugged a bit awkwardly. “It’s not like you were maliciously ignoring us or anything. You had to deal with what was happening in the city.” 

Alloy immediately raised her hand. “And, about that, what actually did happen in the city? What’s going on back there?” 

So, after taking a deep breath, the woman told us what had been keeping everyone so busy. And boy had we missed a lot. Apparently Oscuro and the Ninety-Niners, whose alliance had been starting to fall apart, called a truce again and launched a full-scale attack against the Easy Eights in an attempt to split their territory down the middle. Except not really, because the Easy Eights had actually agreed to a truce with the Ninety-Niners. Which the latter had agreed to because they were angry at Oscuro for various not-very-well explained reasons. 

Basically, it meant that Cuélebre and his gang had attempted to drive deep into enemy territory, only to be ambushed not only by the people they were attacking and the gang that was supposed to be on their side, but also by a large portion of La Casa, as Blackjack wasn’t about to give up the opportunity to get revenge on at least one of the gangs who pissed him off by trying to take advantage of his dying daughter situation. 

All of that would have been complicated enough, but then things apparently had gotten worse. Three of the Easy Eight lieutenants, Juice, Janus (Uncle Friendly and Mister Harmful), and Devil’s Due, switched sides to join Oscuro. And they took a decent portion of their own people with them. Which meant that suddenly instead of being three gangs against one, it was two and a half gangs against one and a half. Which obviously wasn’t enough to completely change things, but it wasn’t good either. Especially given the fact that Devil’s Due had announced his betrayal by using his power (the one that allowed him to focus on someone and make anything he said sound completely reasonable) to tell Sockinit to use his power to fuck with the guns and powers on their own side. It was hard to win a fight when your guns randomly wouldn’t fire, or your powers suddenly stopped working. Not to mention someone had apparently set off some sort of teleportation bomb that sent Deicide halfway across the state, if the reports of her vanishing from the battlefield and then randomly showing up in Grand Rapids were accurate.

And on top of everything else, Braintrust had attacked some science lab on the far side of the city, apparently taking advantage of the already stressed system. It sounded like the only gang who hadn’t started or participated in World War Three the night before was Sherwood. And I honestly didn’t trust that they wouldn’t feel left out and decide to blow some stuff up themselves pretty soon. After all, the day wasn’t over just yet.

“Holy shit,” Murphy finally managed once the story was done. “No wonder you guys were busy.” 

Caishen coughed. “Yes, well, that happens sometimes. As it stands now, the fighting seems to have run its course. We’ll have to see how the territory changes go, but it seems that Oscuro has not only managed to gain three new Touched to replace the two they’ve lost recently in Handler and Grandstand, but also drove the Easy Eights to retreat. We have no idea how that squares with Oscuro’s rule of only allowing Hispanic gang members, but they already made an exception for Grandstand, so… who knows.” 

She offered a shrug to go with her uncertain words before continuing. “The civil war that those three lieutenants splitting off caused screwed up the rest of their people pretty badly. They never did manage to rally. Seems whoever was left to take control after Deicide was teleported away decided backing off after that happened was the best call. Which left La Casa and the Ninety-Niners facing Cuélebre and his new, bigger gang. That was a mess. But it seems to have calmed down for the moment. Now, who the hell knows what’s going to happen over the next few days? If I had to guess, I’d say the Easy Eights–or should that be Easy Fives? Either way, they’ll probably lose half their territory and about that many of their people by the time it all shakes out.” 

“I’m surprised Blackjack agreed to a truce with the Ninety-Niners to begin with,” I murmured. “He was as pissed at them as he was at Oscuro, last I knew.” 

“Apparently Sandon apologized for what happened with his daughter,” Caishen informed us. “She wanted to end the fighting. That’s what our people were able to piece together, anyway. And as part of that, she agreed to monetary compensation as well as a deal with Blood Covenant.” 

That made me do a double-take. “Blood Covenant? They’re here?” 

“One of their representatives was,” came the flat reply. “As we said, today was very eventful.” 

The others were all reacting with just as much surprise as me. Which was understandable, given what we’d just heard. Blood Covenant was an international Sell-Touched organization. Their leader and founder was a man named Solon, whose power was… well, the blood covenant. Essentially, his blood itself had power. Whenever someone wrote something using that blood, Solon was able to tell from that point forward if that person ever violated what they wrote. If they wrote that they would jump three times every morning at precisely eight am, and three years later they didn’t jump right then, Solon would know. He didn’t even have to be there for his power to be used that way. It just required his blood. 

Yeah, it was a weird power. And there were several other things he could do with his blood. But either way, it had allowed him to create one of the largest and most successful Sell-Touched organizations in the world. His people knew that anyone who signed up with them couldn’t turn around and backstab them without Solon knowing about it. They tended to send representatives with vials of his blood to write up short contracts for this sort of thing. If you violated your agreement, you’d end up with a Blood Covenant detachment showing up to express their displeasure. 

“What was the contract she signed?” Paige asked, clearly just as curious as I was. If not more. 

“We don’t know,” Caishen informed us. “Not exactly. But it sounds like it was enough to make Blackjack agree to a truce with her and the rest of the Ninety-Niners. Probably something about working together and never trying to fuck him over again. Pardon me, screw him over again.” She shook her head. “It’s been a long day. And now I feel that yours should be over. All of you head home. You’ve done far more than enough. We’ll contact you again later. And thank you. Thank all of you for making sure this wasn’t a hell of a lot worse than it ended up being. There’s a van on the east side of the parking lot that will take you anywhere you’d like to go back in the city.”

So, we left. Together, our little group made our way out of the stadium. Before we could look for that van, however, a certain noise caught our attention. It was some sort of roar. All of us snapped upright and turned, only to find ourselves facing a mob of people. They were being held back by police tape and uniformed officers, but as soon as they spotted us, the shouting began. 

No, not shouting. Cheering. The people were applauding, screaming, waving their hands, clapping… They were cheering. They were thanking us, all of us. 

“Guys,” I found myself murmuring dully as we all just stood flatfooted staring at the enormous crowd of cheering onlookers, “I think it just hit me. 

“We’re sorta superheroes.” 

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Interlude 23B – Grandstand (Summus Proelium)

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Okay, this certainly hadn’t gone the way Setrea expected it to. Yes, she had known that simply injecting her stolen knock-out drug into the obviously evil boy without waiting for his sister to talk him down would be controversial. But she certainly hadn’t expected it to make the overall situation worse. Why wouldn’t his zombies fall down when he wasn’t around to actively control them? Wasn’t that how it worked with everything else? Why would his suddenly be completely different?

All those thoughts and more ran through her mind while Broadway was kneeling in front of her brother’s body, shaking him almost violently while shouting for him to wake up. But Setrea already knew that wouldn’t do any good. The drug she had injected him with was too potent. That was the point, after all. He was supposed to stay asleep. And now… well, now they had an even bigger problem than before. If there was no way to wake him up and make him shut off the zombies, this place was going to turn into a massacre.

Pack had turned away from the window, looking straight at Grandstand herself. “We have to do something. Paintball’s team is getting as many of those people out as they can, but they can’t really stop those monsters for very long. If they can all teleport and just keep running under Jason’s ‘kill everything in sight’ orders, this… this could be really bad.” She paused briefly before adding, a bit pointedly, “That is, if you’re not just about to run away.” 

“It’s my fault those things are still a problem,” Setrea shot back immediately. “I might not have the rock solid moral standing that a thief from La Casa has, but I’m not about to walk away from a bunch of innocent people being slaughtered, either. We all have our lines.” 

“I don’t really care what your line is,” Broadway put in abruptly, looking up from the boy as she finally gave up on waking him.  “All I care about is stopping those things before my brother ends up being responsible for a fucking massacre.” 

“What about those gems attached to him?” Setrea asked pointedly, staring at the four-inch-wide ruby in the middle of his chest, as well as the smaller black, two blue, two green, and one amber-colored stones under his throat and against his shoulders, hips, and over his navel, respectively. “What if those are keeping the zombies going or… something?” 

“I tried to take them off,” Broadway started. “But they wouldn’t bu–” She was cut off abruptly, as the red stone began to glow. In the same moment, the boy’s hand snapped up to close around her throat tightly. Recoiling and choking a bit, Broadway blurted a weak, “Stop! What–thought–thought you said he’d–” She abruptly teleported to one side, before slumping over to hold her own throat. “Thought you said he’d be unconscious for hours!” 

Before Grandstand could reply, she felt something fly through the air at her from behind. Several somethings, in fact. Spinning that way, she ducked and twisted, forcing two of the objects to miss her, though the third hit her arm and stayed there. It was an amber stone, like the one attached to Jason’s stomach. It stayed locked against her arm, even as she went to grab it. Yanking hard accomplished nothing aside from pulling painfully on her own skin. 

“Oh, he is,” a voice spoke up. A figure stood there, near the hole they had all climbed up through. She was clearly female, in her mid-teens and wearing what looked like a long red raincoat and a black cloth mask that left her mouth and chin exposed, along with dark goggles. She raised a hand to point at them, and Grandstand could see five different rings there, one on each finger. The ring on her thumb had a yellow/amber stone on it, the one on her index finger was blue, then red, then green, and finally a black one sat on her pinkie. It was the red one that glowed then, which was matched by another glow from the red stone on Jason’s chest. 

“But that doesn’t mean he’s useless,” the girl half-snarled. With that, her hand snapped to one side, and Jason abruptly lunged to his feet before throwing himself at Pack. The La Casa Touched was taken by surprise, falling sideways with the boy on top of her. Her lizard-animals rushed to intercede, but were cut off as the fire-zombie from downstairs abruptly appeared in a rush of flames and ash, forcing them to recoil. 

Grandstand, for her part, immediately focused on Manifesting Alistae in order to push everyone’s attention away from her so she could deal with this little girl quickly and decisively. Yet, even as she tried that, the woman felt a sudden rush of intense pain in her head that made her double over with a yelp. The amber stone that had attached itself to her arm and refused to be removed was glowing. 

“Yeah, I wouldn’t try that if I was you.” There was obvious amusement in the girl’s voice. She showed her hand, where the matching ring was also gleaming brightly. “Try to use your powers without my permission, and bad things happen. That’s what my yellow stones do. It’s pretty fun, huh? I mean, for me. Who really cares about you, honestly?”

Pack was still struggling under the taller, stronger boy as he tried to choke her. The lizards were trying to spread out to get around the zombie so they could get to her, but weren’t having much luck. And Grandstand apparently couldn’t use her power with the damn stone attached to her arm. Well, power or no power, she wasn’t helpless. Immediately, she brought one of her pistols up and took aim. In another second, she would end thi– 

“Jennica?!” The shout made Setrea stop, as Broadway pointed at the other girl. “Is–is that you?” 

The name made the girl in question start a bit, clearly taken by surprise. Gaze snapping that way, she blurted, “Wh–do I know you? Wait… what?” For the first time since she had revealed herself, the figure seemed taken aback and uncertain. “Who the fuck are you?” 

Pivoting, Broadway sent a blast of concentrated sound toward Pack and Jason. It struck the boy, knocking him off her while giving Pack a chance to roll out of the way. Instantly, her gorilla-lizard positioned himself in front of her, snarling at the zombie, Jason himself, and the masked girl who was apparently behind all this. Jennica. Whoever that was. 

“Fuck it,” Setrea muttered, taking aim once more. Whatever was going on here, they could figure it out once she made sure this girl wasn’t a threat.

Jennica, however, abruptly snapped without looking at her, “I wouldn’t do that if I was you. See the black stones?” At those words, the one just under Jason’s throat began to glow with a purplish light as he stood half-slumped with his eyes closed, like a robot or something that had been turned off. There was also another one attached to Pack’s arm, where Jennica had apparently thrown it at the same time as when she had hit Grandstand with the yellow one. 

“Any injury you try to inflict on me, happens to everyone with those stones instead,” the girl informed them snidely. “So go ahead, shoot me. See if I care.” 

Okay, well this was getting more complicated by the second. Apparently Jason wasn’t responsible for this whole thing. He was being… what, controlled by the stones that were attached to him? Stones that came from this girl, Jennica. Setrea couldn’t activate either of her Manifestations through the blinding pain that came when she tried, and any attempt to actually hurt this girl would just be passed off to Jason and Pack. In short, the whole situation was a fucking mess. Worse, she was still no closer to being able to interrogate whichever of these two knew something about the other person who was vying for a spot on the Scions. Setrea might have preferred not to let a bunch of innocent people get slaughtered for nothing, but her main goal here was to find out who murdered Jolene. So far, she knew it was someone who was trying to get in with Pencil and Cup, and that those two were running some sort of contest. The person behind the fire-zombies was another part of it, and they had to have interacted with the other person. The person she was really after. She didn’t care if that ended up being Jason, this Jennica girl, or some third suddenly-revealed mastermind. Whoever it was, she was getting some damned answers out of them. One way or another. 

“It’s pretty cool, isn’t it?” the girl was gloating. “Anything that gets hit with a black stone takes all the damage that was supposed to hit me. You get a yellow stone, you don’t get to use your powers without a fuckload of pain. Red stone, I get to control you. Wanna know what the blue and green stones do? Keep pushing me and you’ll find out.” 

“Jennica,” Broadway was saying while taking a step that way, “you need to stop. What the hell are you trying to do? What did you do to your brother?” 

“My brother?” the other girl gave a short, barked laugh. “Obviously, you don’t know me very well after all. He’s not my brother, he’s just some guy who lived with the same family I lived with. He’s nobody. Except for my ticket into the big leagues. The Scions wanna see someone do something special? How do you think you’re going to react when I pull off a massacre like this and manage to blame someone else for it? It’s perfect, and there’s no way any other dipshit’s gonna top it.” 

Other dipshit. Setrea instantly zeroed in on that. This girl knew something about her competition. She could tell her something about who he really was. 

“You really think we’re just gonna let you do that?” Pack demanded while clearly keeping a wary eye on the zombie, who was just standing there as though awaiting new instructions. “I don’t care who you think you are, you don’t get to murder a stadium full of people just to show off for a bunch of other psychopaths. And Jason can’t take the blame when we tell people it was you.” 

“Well darn,” Jennica sarcastically lamented while kicking at the floor, “if you’re gonna ruin my fun like that, I guess I’ve got no choice…” She looked up then, a smile spreading across the exposed lower portion of her face. “I’ll just have to kill all of you.” 

In that instant, the amber stone on Jason’s chest glowed, as two more clouds of ashes suddenly flew into the room. They reformed quickly into a couple more fire-zombies, one of which threw itself toward Broadway, while the other went toward Setrea. 

So, sure, things weren’t great. She couldn’t use her power, and she doubted this thing would care about being shot. None of them had cared that much before, and they probably weren’t going to start now. Worse, shooting the bitch herself would apparently only end in hurting her own… well, allies was a bit of a strong word, but still. They were working together, and Setrea didn’t really like the idea of hurting them. Especially when there was no guarantee that it would accomplish anything. Now there were three zombies, a girl who couldn’t be hurt, and the innocent guy she was apparently puppeting somehow. Who, for the record, was unconscious and had no chance of fighting back for himself.

In short, things could have been better. 

An instant later, just as Setrea was taking aim at the knee of the zombie who was coming for her, in an attempt to at least slow it down, a small form rocketed up out of the hole leading downstairs and planted itself against the ceiling. Or rather, himself.

“Hi, guys!” Paintball announced, seemingly cheerfully, while standing upside down. The zombies, the puppeted Jason, and Jennica had all stopped short to look that way reflexively. “Sorry it took me so long to get up here, you would not believe the traffic. Oh, and the part where I had to stop and listen to your evil plan so I knew what was going on.” He added that with a thumbs up toward Jennica, which was accompanied by a purple thumbs up that appeared in the middle of his chest. Upside down so it could be seen properly, of course. Which was followed by a slightly awkward moment as the boy slowly turned his hand around so that his thumb would be pointed up as well. 

For her part, the evil little girl giggled. It came off sounding more than a little unhinged. “Oh, goody, it’s you. You think you’re really funny, huh? You know how fast I’ll get accepted by Pencil if I bring you in so they can play with you? They might make me second-in-command.”

“Jennica!” Broadway blurted, still keeping one hand raised toward the zombie who had been coming toward her, just in case he started moving again.  “Would you stop and look at what you’re doing?! Why would you want to join the Scions? Why would you want to hurt your brother and blame him for–for this?! What the fuck is wrong with you?!”

Clearly glaring that way, the girl snarled, “Okay, I don’t know why you think saying my name like we’re supposed to be friends will suddenly make me see the light and turn this whole thing into a great big Care Bear hug pile or something, but knock it off. I don’t know you. I don’t care about you. I don’t care about any of you. I’ve been treated like shit from the moment I was born. My parents didn’t want me, nobody wanted me. Well, you know what? I don’t want them either. You? These other people, the idiot up on the ceiling, every fucking person in this stadium? You can all go to hell. It’s time for me to get mine. Fuck all of you.” 

Before Setrea, Broadway, or anyone else could respond to that, Paintball piped up. “Yeah, that’s about what I figured.” He clearly used blue paint on his shoes, springing himself forward and over the girl’s head before landing in front of her. “I wish you weren’t evil. We could’ve teamed up, you know? Come on, think about it. You’ve got all those different color rings connected to those different stones you throw around? And they all do something different based on the color? Yellow, blue, red, green, black. You’re even using most of the same colors I do, it would’ve been perfect. We could’ve had so much fun together.” 

“Ehhhh,” Jennica drawled out, “I think we can still have fun together.” With that, she brought her hand up. A red stone appeared in the air, clearly projected out of the matching ring on her hand even as she sent it flying right at Paintball. 

An assortment of shouted warnings went out, even as Paintball himself dove sideways. The stone corrected to follow him, but Setrea was already acting. Pistol extended, she fired once, nailing the stone in mid-air and shattering it just before the thing would have caught up with the boy. 

Unfortunately, no sooner had she done that, then her entire body exploded in pain, making her drop the gun and double over with cry. She dimly heard Jennica taunting her by saying something about being able to control the amber stone manually too, then caught the sound of Paintball saying something. 

The pain abruptly stopped, as Jennica turned to the boy. “I’m sorry, what did you say? The screaming was a little distracting.” 

From where he was lying on the floor, Paintball repeated, “I said, that’s far enough. I only needed you to take a couple steps forward.” Just as the girl was clearly processing that, he gave a loud, sharp whistle.

Instantly, something slammed up through the floor directly below Jennica’s feet. The floor itself broke away instantly, giving Setrea and the others enough of a glimpse of the underside of it (what would have been the ceiling of the room below) to see that it had clearly been painted pink. They also saw what had broken through using that pink circle. It was a narrow, six foot tall ruby and silver box, which had captured the girl inside, cutting her off from sight. They could hear the girl, screaming at them as she pounded the sides of the box. 

“Boy,” Alloy announced while rising into the room behind it, “she’s pleasant, isn’t she?” 

The two partners exchanged a high five, all while Jason and the zombies remained completely still. Paintball, turning away from Alloy, explained, “We found the room where she locked up a couple of the park managers.” 

Nodding, Alloy added, “Would you believe we only found them because I thought I saw a raccoon waving at me? Anyway, the guys in there said that it seemed like she could only activate the stones she was looking at. So, in there, she can’t look at any of them.” 

The pounding and shouting from inside the box abruptly stopped, before Jennica’s voice called, “Maybe I can’t see, but I can still hear. And that’s not quite right.  Remember the green ring? It lets me go aaaanywhere one of my other green stones is. In other words–”

In the midst of that spiel, Setrea had already snapped her pistol up. She fired twice in rapid succession before the girl could say anything else. Each shot skimmed either side of the unconscious boy who stood at attention, shattering the green stones there. The shots drew blood, but not that much. Mostly she simply grazed the boy. Even Broadway, who started to shout out in shock and anger when she saw Setrea pointing the gun that way, stopped short and stared. 

“Damn,” Paintball put in, “you’re a good shot.” 

A slight pause followed that, before Jennica let out a loud, frustrated scream. Then there was a sudden flash of bright green light from within the box. When no other sound followed, Alloy opened a hole in it, then transformed the box back into two marbles, revealing nothing inside. Jennica had teleported away somewhere. She was gone. And with that, the various colored stones all vanished from Setrea, Jason, and the others, while Jason himself collapsed back to the floor like a puppet whose strings had been cut. He was still unconscious. 

“I uhh, guess that means she’s gone?” Pack managed, while touching one of her lizards protectively. “She must’ve had another green stone somewhere else.” 

“Fuck!” Setrea blurted, spinning to punch a nearby wall hard enough to bruise her hand. “Damn it! She was my best shot! She was my best fucking shot to find out who the Scions’ other contest recruit is! I have to find that piece of shit!” 

Broadway, who had fallen to her knees next to her brother to check on him, spoke up. “I’ll help you.” She looked up, meeting Setrea’s gaze. “I’ll help you find her and this guy you’re looking for. You help me stop her from joining the Scions, and I’ll do whatever it takes to make sure we find the guy you need too.”   

Just as Grandstand was about to respond to that, the sound of many police sirens, accompanied by several helicopters, filled the air. She glanced sideways toward the window, seeing several Star-Touched already starting to fill the stadium below. “Fine,” Setrea agreed. “But first, we should get out of here. 

“Something tells me those guys won’t be in the mood to hear us say we were trying to help.” 

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Enkindle 23-17 (Summus Proelium)

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The nearest zombie, a heavyset woman with a big hole in her stomach, lunged at one of the baseball players who was struggling to reach the hole in the fence I’d made. Before she could reach him, I activated orange angelic wings on my back for protection while using a blue puddle to launch myself that way. Inverting in the air, I slammed both feet into her shoulders. The impact was barely enough to make her stagger slightly, and felt like I had crashed into a brick wall. Still, it made her stop chasing that guy so he could escape. Rebounding off her, I flipped in the air and landed in a crouch, shooting a bit of red paint at her knee. At the same time, I hit a nearby folding chair one of the security guards had been using with another shot. She came charging my way that time and grabbed for me with her arms, just as I let the chair fly into her legs. It crumpled under the impact, and immediately melted partway, but still managed to knock her off her feet. 

Now the panic was really setting in. There was screaming from all around me as people bolted for the exits and tried to climb over each other to reach them. I launched myself upward with blue paint once more while giving a sharp whistle. To my relief, Alloy was actually paying attention and one of her marbles came up under me, shifting into a platform for me to land on. My hands pointed straight down, hitting the bit under my feet with red paint before I glanced to where she was hovering and made a quick motion with one hand as I threw myself off it and pointed toward the female zombie. A new stream of red paint hit the woman in the head and shoulders. 

Once again, Peyton understood. The platform flipped over so the bit I had painted was faced down, just as I activated the paint. The woman was yanked upward, slamming full force into that platform. Which transformed into a hand to close around her before she could fall, quickly spinning around several times before opening to send the zombie woman flying off to crash into the outfield, as far from people as we could manage. 

Meanwhile, I had dropped back to the ground just in time for one of the other zombie creatures to throw itself off the stands to crash down toward me. Seeing it coming from the corner of my eye, I activated green, purple, and orange stars along my sides while throwing myself sideways, just as the thing landed right where I had been. Shoving myself up before it could recover, I caught its wrist and yanked hard, ignoring the heat that I could feel even through the orange protection. With the added strength and speed boost, I managed to spin with the zombie and hurl it headlong into the nearest wall before the thing could recover. It wouldn’t stop the monster, of course. But this wasn’t about stopping them, it was about slowing them down long enough for all their potential victims to get out of this place safely. 

Speaking of which, I saw a group of people running for one of the exits. They were about to trample right over a couple older women who were struggling to move that way on walkers. Before anything terrible could happen, I used a pair of purple thumbs up symbols on my chest for strength, while painting both of my arms (sleeves and actual body alike) pink. With a grunt, I heaved as hard as my enhanced strength could manage. Between that and the pink stretchy power, my arms extended a good fifteen feet (getting narrower along the way, like taffy being stretched out), just far enough for me to catch hold of the two elderly women. A quick shot of orange from both hands ensured I wouldn’t break anything in them as I yanked the pair away from the stampeding group just in time. 

The two women were still trying to figure out what had just happened, as they looked at my stretched-out arms and yelped in surprise. 

“Sorry!” I called out while using my hands to yank them up to their feet. “But you really need to go now!” With those words, I snapped my right, extended arm sideways like a whip, using a bit of orange on my own back for protection just as my fist collided with the jaw of a zombie who had been clambering that way. It barely made an impact on the thing, but it still looked surprised that I had punched it from a distance. 

“Yeah,” I called out while my arms shlurped back to their normal length, “I’ve got some tricks, you wanna see another one?” As the zombie howled and came charging at me, I shot a quick line of pink paint along the ground. It stomped right through that line, and thus through the painted ground itself as I activated it. Like stomping into wet cement. Soon, it was buried up to its waist in the ground, and let out a horrible scream before slamming its fists down. Just as the thing did that, I deactivated the pink paint. Since I stopped it early, the paint became incredibly bouncy at the exact moment that the monster’s fists slammed into it. The ground instantly indented a good three feet under the force of that blow, and the zombie had an almost cartoonish look of surprise and confusion just before the ground snapped back into place, launching that monster far into the sky. It was like he’d been shot out of a cannon. 

Knowing that still wouldn’t get rid of the damn thing permanently, I glanced around quickly. To one side, I saw a guy on the ground with his arms up, trying to shield himself from a zombie who was lunging at him. Meanwhile, to the other side, there was a small group of children who were being shielded by a different man as he faced down another charging zombie. Without taking the time to even think about it, I activated a couple spots of green to speed myself up, while snapping my arms out to either side. A shot of red paint went from one hand to the guy who was cowering on the ground before I just as quickly adjusted my aim to hit a spot at my feet and activated both. He was immediately yanked away from the lunging monster just before it would have grabbed him, and pulled over to crash into the grass next to me with a yelp. At the same time, I shot a blue square onto the ground directly in front of the man who was protecting those kids. As that zombie ran over the square, he was launched upwards. Before he could come down again, Alloy turned one of her marbles into a large baseball bat and slammed it into him to knock the zombie out of the way. 

Throughout that, I caught glimpses of the others. Poise and Style were getting people to the nearest exits, and stopping any fights before they really got started. They moved deftly through the crowd, ducking and weaving like it was all some perfectly choreographed dance as they made sure no one ran into any zombies. Calvin and Hobbes, meanwhile, were still taking turns with the teleporter powers to get people closer to the exits. 

Then I saw something… weird that couldn’t be right. For just a second, up near the far back area behind the third base bleachers, I thought I saw a… bear. A large, heavy-set and furry bear. But that wasn’t all. This bear was wearing a suit. I could’ve sworn it was there, just in the corner of my eye as I was scanning. But as the sight registered in my brain and my eyes snapped back to that spot, there was nothing there. 

Oookay, this whole situation was making me a little nuts, that was for sure. 

Pushing that aside, I spun back toward the elderly women who were still trying to reach the exit. “Hi,” I greeted them quickly. “Sorry, I know this is probably gonna suck for any vertigo and nausea, but I promise I won’t let you get hurt.” With that said, I renewed the orange paint I’d given them before. Then I quickly caught hold of the first woman before using purple circles on my arms and blue stars on the bottom of my shoes so I could pick her up and launch myself all the way up and over the fence. She gave a loud cry of surprise, just as we came down on the other side. 

“Sorry, sorry!” I blurted before quickly launching myself back the other way. A moment later, I returned with her friend. They were both now out on the field. “The parking lot’s that way!” I called out, pointing them in the right direction. From there, I went right back into the stadium. There were still a lot more people to get out of there. 

As I landed back in the field, Alloy whistled for my attention and pointed toward a few people in the upper stands who were struggling to stay away from one of the zombies as it barged right through the bleachers toward them. She already had a couple of her marbles working together to lift another group over the fence, while two more appeared in front of me to create a narrow set of stairs with a platform at the top. Immediately, I ran up them and launched myself off with a bit of blue on my shoes to reach the upper deck just behind the rampaging zombie there. He was about three rows from the trapped group, who looked like they were seriously considering just jumping off the edge and taking their chances with the fall. 

So, that was exactly what I told them to do. Spraying all six people there with the line of orange, I activated it while shouting, “Jump! I swear, you’ll be fine! Just jump right now, the paint will protect you!” 

In response to my voice, the zombie spun toward me and howled once more while lashing out with one hand. I managed to throw myself backward out of the way to avoid it, while the group I’d hit with that paint followed my instructions. Some were more eager than others, but all of them threw themselves over the side of the railing and dropped down to safety below. Relative safety, anyway. I had to hope that they would keep running once they were down there. But for now, I had my own problems. Namely, I was out of paint for the moment. I’d felt it coming, but had been too distracted to pay much attention. I’d used all my paint and what I already had on myself. Now I had to wait for it to recharge while this zombie was coming after me. Quickly, I shoved myself to my feet and popped the wheels out of my shoes so I could pivot away from him and skate out of the way. I heard him stumbling after me, burning his way through those metal bleachers. Apparently I had pissed him off. But hey, at least he wasn’t following those innocent people over the railing. I was pretty sure he could survive that fall too. 

Well, not survive, per se. Continue being animated? Whatever, I was glad he was chasing me instead of them. 

At least, that was what I told myself as I frantically hopped onto one of the bleachers and skated along it while glancing over my shoulder to see the zombie rapidly catching up. I still had to wait even longer to get my paint back, so I pushed myself to move faster, skating along those metal bleachers before one of Alloy’s marbles flew past me. It transformed into a short ramp leading up to the wall of one of the fancy luxury suites where people like my family would watch the game in the equivalent of a hotel room. Like the place where my dad had taken us to watch the races. 

Immediately, I skated up the ramp, before allowing the gravity-boots to keep me rooted to the wall so I could skate all the way up it to the roof. That didn’t require my paint, at least. And from the sound of things, it made the zombie chasing me pretty mad. 

Right, from here I had a decent view of what was going on. Most of the stadium had been emptied by now. That was the good news. The bad news was that there were still a dozen zombies, and our group was rapidly becoming their focus. Both because of the shrinking number of other targets, and because we had pissed them off. Or pissed off the guy who was controlling them. I still wasn’t sure exactly how that worked and how much autonomy they had. Either way, the point remained the same. Lots of dangerous monsters were focused on coming after us in particular now that we had spoiled their… fun. And there was still no sign that the others had managed to track Jason down yet. 

Just as I was taking all that in, a shout from below caught my attention. Calvin was there, looking right up at me while raising one of those high-tech Wren rifles that he’d had over his shoulder. In the next instant, I heard something behind me and spun just in time to see the zombie who had been chasing me coalescing out of a cloud of ashes. Right, they could teleport. Fortunately, even as that thought, accompanied by a jolt of shock, was filling my mind, a bolt of energy from Calvin’s rifle struck the zombie and sent him flying backward off the roof with a howl. 

“Thanks!” I called out while throwing myself off the roof. There was another zombie below me, but I managed to land several feet past it, coming down on the bleachers once more before letting my momentum carry me along on my wheels while the zombie swiped at me uselessly. Fuck, fuck, paint, please! I needed more paint right– From the corner of my eye, I saw one of the monsters down by the visiting team dugout. There was a ballboy there, huddled in the corner behind a rack of baseball bats, while the zombie stalked toward him. It seemed to be savoring the boy’s terror. 

No, no, no! A rush of panic filled me as I stuck my hand out that way, my mind a mix of silent cursing and prayer. Please, please have been long enough, please just–there! Red paint appeared and shot from my hand, hitting the space just above the dugout. With a thought, I put orange on myself while letting the red yank me that way. Just as the zombie was reaching out toward the last bit of equipment keeping him from the cowering ballboy, I slammed into him feet-first. The impact knocked the zombie back several steps with a confused grunt. Before it could recover, I reached out, caught hold of the boy’s wrist, and yanked him up with a little help from a purple fist on my shoulder. “Kudos on the loyalty,” I blurted, “but I don’t think anyone would blame you for leaving the game right now!” With that, I used blue paint on my shoes to launch both of us away from the dugout just as the zombie was recovering. In midair, another bit of red yanked us toward the exit that Calvin and Hobbes were trying to keep clear with multiple shots from their rifles to knock back any zombies who approached. Landing a bit awkwardly and almost falling over in the process with the boy (he was only a couple inches shorter than me), I gave him a little push toward the open gate. “Make like you’re trying to steal home for the World Series win!” 

He ran for it, and I spun back to put myself between Calvin and Hobbes while they continued aiming and shooting at any zombie who tried to approach. The problem was that the shots might have knocked the things back a few steps, or even a good ten feet on a solid hit, but they weren’t actually stopping them. They just kept coming. “What about the thing Trevithick did to lift that one guy up?!” I called out while activating a couple green handprints I still had on the back of their costumes so they could shoot faster. 

“We could do that!” Calvin agreed while taking aim to shoot at one of the zombies who was trying to run at us from up on the bleachers. 

“But we’d only be able to hold one of them at a time!” Hobbes added, taking a knee so she could shoot at another one coming up on the other side. “Two if we both did it! Then the rest could do whatever they wanted!” 

Thinking quickly, I replied, “Time it! One of you lift them up, then let them go just as the other shoots. If you hit them when they’re off the ground, they’ll probably fly further. They won’t be able to brace themselves or anything! And, wait, can you move them while they’re caught?!” 

Murphy realized what I was getting at immediately. I could hear the smile in her voice. “Damn straight! Ro–Calvin, get ready!” With that, she flicked a switch on the rifle she was using, before taking aim as one of the zombies came charging toward us once more. A blast of energy erupted from the gun, wrapping itself around the animated corpse before lifting the thing off the ground. From there, she gave a hard yank on the gun, hauling it around as the energy line dragged the zombie like a tether until it was right in front of another running zombie. “And… fire!” Even as she called that out, the girl took her finger off the trigger to release the energy tether. 

At the same time, Calvin pulled his own trigger. The blast of energy from his gun shot out, slamming into the dangling zombie before it could finish falling. It was sent soaring backward, slamming into the one coming up from behind it so both of them went crashing into the dirt a good twenty feet back. 

As those two set to work using their newfound joint tactic, my eyes were already snapping around the field, searching for any more problems. Okay, well, they didn’t have to look far to see problems. There were still a bunch of zombies running around. But I was looking for the worst, most immediate ones. Something that had to be taken care of right now. At the same time, I was inwardly cursing the fact that there was still no sign of Riddles. What was taking so long for them to find this guy?!

Even as that thought filled my head, I saw it. Or rather, her. Riddles flew up into view from one of the covered areas in the upper stands, where the concession stands were. As soon as she came into view, I blurted, “Fuck, finally!” To the others, I shouted, “Keep getting people out, I’ve gotta go help them!” 

With that, I launched myself up that way, using red paint to land in the stands. Riddles flew down and circled me with a shriek, and I gave a quick nod. “You got it, buddy! Let’s go!” 

Before moving, however, I turned back to check the others. Alloy was working with Poise and Style, the three of them keeping a ramp that Peyton had created clear so more people could run up and over it to cross the fence. Seeing me looking that way, Poise waved a hand wildly. “Go! Get that son of a bitch, we’ve got this!” 

Right, they had it. They could deal with this. I just… Shoving my insecurities down, I turned back to see Riddles passing through an open door leading into the staff area. I had to do this. The others could handle getting the rest of the people out. What mattered now was finding Pack, Broadway, and Grandstand… and helping them deal with this guy before his monsters killed anyone else. With that thought in mind, I painted green lightning stripes on my legs for speed, and ran straight for the open door. 

Whatever came next, it was time to end this. 

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Enkindle 23-16 (Summus Proelium)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Enkindle 23-15 (Summus Proelium)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Enkindle 23-14 (Summus Proelium)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Enkindle 23-13 (Summus Proelium)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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