Paintball

Center Of Attention 26-08 (Summus Proelium)

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Giving Murphy and Roald a second to catch their breath, Paige and I turned to Sierra. She offered a shrug. “They did pretty well, all things considered. Kept a couple of those guys off my back.”

“What’s going on upstairs?” I asked tensely while looking around at the fallen figures. Before they could recover too much and cause more problems, I started red-painting their weapons, radios, and equipment belts over to where we were, making a small pile. “Please tell me they have stuff under control by now.” 

Paige shook her head. “We have no idea. Most of the cameras have been destroyed already. The only ones left are outside and a couple in this stairwell here. So we can tell you if anyone’s coming, but that’s about it.”

The answer made me grimace and curse a few times under my breath. Now, what were we supposed to do? Should we just sit tight like we’d been told? What if they sent more people down here to find out what had happened to their friends? Would it be better to wait here and meet them? Well, obviously, yes. We could prepare this area. Better than if we went looking for them. But on the other hand, what if there were people up there being hurt right now? What if people died while we were sitting around down here doing nothing? 

Sierra moved over to the nearest guy, and began to drag him by his ankle while he was still groaning in pain. “Oh shush, you big baby. I didn’t hit you that hard. Just be glad I didn’t get to bring my new taser cane. Then you’d really have something to whine about.” With that, she unceremoniously kicked open the door into the room across from where we had left Banneret with Peyton and Wren, shoving him inside.

Page and I quickly started to help, and soon we had all of them shoved into that room. Sierra shut the door and locked it, leaving those guys in there. It wasn’t perfect, obviously. But it would hold them for a minute. And hopefully we’d hear if they started trying to break out.

“Okay,” I started, “so now we have a whole pile of weapons here, and we’ll know if they start coming down the stairs. But we have no idea what’s going on up there in the rest of the courthouse. We’ve gotta find some way to check on things.” 

“I can help!” That was Wren, coming out of the other room. She bounced up and down a little while, reaching into her pocket before producing a tiny thing that I had to lean closer to see. It looked like a bumblebee made of metal, like some sort of tiny ornament, or something. 

“It’s a drone!” the girl announced proudly, as we all stared. “See?” She touched the top of its head, and the thing floated up in the air. Then she turned her phone around to show us the screen, where we could see our own faces from the view of the drone itself. “It can fly around and show us what’s going on! I was building it to help with security at the shop. Cuz Uncle Fred said we needed more cameras and the ones that just sit there and don’t do anything are boring.” 

“Kid’s got a point,” Sierra agreed. “Bee cam is much more interesting than boring old do-nothing cameras. Plus, you wouldn’t be able to send one of those upstairs to snoop around.”

Nodding slowly, I painted a smiley face on the front of my helmet. “Good job, Trev. Why don’t you send your little buddy up there and we’ll see if the good guys have this under control yet.” 

She did just that, while Peyton stood in the doorway of the other room so she could watch while also keeping an eye on the still-cursing Banneret. Together, we all stared at Wren’s phone while she controlled the bee with it, sending the thing up the stairs. 

“Why isn’t there an elevator to come down here, anyway?” Peyton demanded with her arms folded. “Isn’t that like, the law or something? You’d think a courthouse of all places would have to be accessible to the handicapped.”

“There is an elevator,” Paige informed her. “It’s just hidden over by the western wall that way, near the stairs. You can sort of see the seam where the doors are. I guess they only let certain people use it, or only open it when someone comes in who needs it.” 

“But why is it hidden in the first place?” I pointed out. “What’s the point of hiding an elevator?” 

“Dude, this whole underground place isn’t supposed to be here at all,” Sierra reminded me. “The lawyers who get brought down here have to be blindfolded first so they don’t know where it is, and the entrance is labeled as a supply closet.” 

Right, no wonder Banneret and her people had thought they found a secret exit when they started coming down those stairs. And, actually, they had. I kind of doubted that big metal security door would have stopped them forever. So if we hadn’t been here, they eventually could have gone all the way down the tunnel to that house, where we still had no idea what was going on with Officer Metts and the others. Part of me wanted to pink-paint my way through the vault door and run down that way to check on them, but there wasn’t time. They were probably fine and just locked down this place to stop anyone from escaping that way. Which I would obviously mess up by doing just that. 

Either way, by that point, the bee drone had flown all the way to the top of the stairs, where it found the aforementioned empty ‘supply closet.’ Wren carefully sent it through the open doorway, peeking first one direction, then the next. It was in a very large open corridor somewhere on the ground floor of the courthouse. To the right was the front rotunda with the welcome desk (where no one was sitting at the moment), while the corridor went on to the left past an assortment of doors into various offices. It looked like there was another corridor past the rotunda leading to even more doors, with a sign above the entrance to it listing various courtroom locations. From here, we couldn’t see any signs of people, aside from the fact that several doors had clearly been kicked in, and there were random bits of debris lying around. 

Wait, scratch that, there was a sign of people. Namely, the gunfire. It came from the rotunda area abruptly, making me jump. The sound was followed by a view of three armed guys backing up into frame from where they had apparently been right by the front windows of the building. They were pointing their guns outward, one of them shouting, “Yeah, you want your precious legal eagles to stay alive, keep the fuck back!” 

Okay great, so now we knew they had hostages, and they were using them. No wonder the authorities hadn’t stormed this place yet. But that made our whole situation even more complicated. What were we supposed to do now? Obviously, rushing up there when they could kill innocent people was a bad idea, to say the least. But should we just sit tight and wait like the people outside were apparently doing? I really wished we still had all the cameras so we really knew what was going on everywhere in the building, but at least there was Wren’s little bee drone. We just had to be patient and watch.

Wren asked where she should send the thing next, and I thought about it for a moment while the others looked at me expectantly. Finally, I gestured. “Send it higher up so we can get a better view of everything going on. Then I guess we should check out the court rooms on the far side of the front area. They probably put everyone in one place so it’s easier to keep an eye on them, and one of those places is probably the best for that.”

Murphy sighed. “Why don’t they just make a run for it? They’ve gotta know the longer this goes on, the more screwed they are, you know? It’s not like they’ll actually be able to negotiate their way out of this. What’re they gonna do, demand a fleet of helicopters?”

“That’s what our friends down here were dealing with,” I replied. “They were looking for a secret way out. I’m not sure if they actually knew where the tunnel went or that the cops probably know about it, or even how they had any idea it could be here. But that’s definitely what they were doing.”

Paige nodded. “And they’re probably not the only ones. Believe me, this isn’t the only tunnel this place has, and there’s plenty of rumors about them and where they might be. Some more secret than others.”

By that time, the drone had reached the ceiling and gave us a good view of what turned out to be seven guys spread out in the rotunda. They were staying mostly behind cover and keeping a close eye on whoever was outside. I had no doubt that they had more guys at the other entrances, but this was the main one. All of the men were armed, and clearly had radios on so they could warn everyone else in their little gang. I didn’t see any of the Fell-Touched, but there was no doubt they were somewhere around here. I didn’t believe Banneret would be the only one to come on this rescue mission of theirs. And knowing those guys were around somewhere, but not exactly where they were or what they were up to made me nervous.

Shaking that thought off for the moment, I continued to stare at the screen while the drone flew over all those guys’ heads. Their focus was centered on the front windows, so none of them even thought of looking up, even if that would have helped. Given the size of the drone, they might not have noticed it even then. 

The doors leading into the various court rooms were all closed, aside from one. A man with some sort of automatic rifle slung over his shoulder was standing there playing lookout. So, that was obviously where Wren sent the drone. 

We had to be more careful with this. The man was actually watching the hallway at least part of the time, though he turned to glance inside at what I presumed were the hostages now and then. Considering he didn’t have his eyes on them all the time, I doubted he was the only guard. Not to mention the fact that he occasionally seemed to mumble something under his breath as though talking to somebody nearby. We had to get the drone low enough to make it into the room without actually letting him see it, and without flying directly into the view of whoever he was talking to on the other side.

To that end, Wren carefully made the drone land on top of the doorjamb just over the guy’s head.  From that position, we could see his balding spot, and finally hear what he was saying. Basically, he was annoyed that the others hadn’t checked in yet, and wanted to know how long they were supposed to stand around and wait. He also mentioned that he wasn’t sure whether he trusted their new Fell-Touched yet. Apparently Mister Harmful had said something to him that was rude or whatever and he didn’t appreciate it.

After that, we heard another voice, female this time, say that she didn’t care how rude any of them were, because moving to this city was the best thing she’d done. She had some sort of excellent sign-up bonus for agreeing to come here with ‘Gregory,’ whom I was taking to be her son through context. Apparently she’d even been set up with a decent cover job. 

Working extremely carefully, Wren moved the drone to the corner of the doorway and made it peek down. Thankfully, we didn’t have the extremely horrible luck of the woman staring right at the thing. Her back was to the other man as she watched what was very clearly a large group of hostages. The woman had blonde hair that was mostly buzzed. Aside from a ponytail-sized bit on one side that was long enough to fall to her shoulders. She also had a tattoo of something on the back of her neck that I couldn’t really make out but looked like a flower with something in it. Like her partner, she had a gun slung over her shoulder.

As for the hostages, it looked like there were a couple hundred of them, a mix of court employees, disarmed police officers, lawyers, even defendants. They were all sitting down in the audience area of the courtroom.  We couldn’t see the whole area, and everything was upside down from this point of view, making us tilt our heads around to try to make sense of it. Paige and I even managed to slightly bang our heads together in the process, making the other girl flush as she murmured an apology. 

Wren made the bug slip fully into the room, inverted itself, and fly up toward the ceiling once more. Now we could make everything out better, and see that there were a couple more armed thugs spread throughout the room. And perched up in the judge’s seat was Fogwalker. He was probably there so that if any of the hostages tried to make a run for it, he could fill the place in his power and make it impossible for anyone aside from their own people to see what was going on. Which would probably also work if any authorities tried to break in. Before they could actually handle everything, the place would be dark, and any number of the hostages could be killed. Come to think of it, the cops and Stars outside probably knew that. I was pretty sure these guys had made that much clear to them. It made sense that they would want those people to know what a bad idea it was to try to break in here and stop this by force.

Or maybe I was just overthinking it. Either way, we knew where at least these hostages and one of the Fell-Touched were. Now we just had to figure out what to do about that, if anything. We had already dealt with one group that came down here. Was it a good idea to just sit tight now or not?

While I was still trying to decide the best move, a voice came over the radios on both of their hips. I hadn’t heard it much, but still recognized it as Theory. “Has anyone heard from Banneret? She’s not picking up on our channel.”

The rest of us exchanged quick looks before Sierra pivoted and grabbed one of the radios from the pile of equipment on the floor. Holding it up, she spoke in a perfect imitation of Banneret’s voice. “Yeah, well, maybe you should try being on the right channel. It was supposed to be one zero four nine.”

There was a brief pause before the man’s voice came back with a sigh. “No, it was one three one five. How the hell did you get the wrong one?” 

“Whatever, why’re you bothering me right now?” Sierra replied as Banneret once more. “Don’t we all have jobs to do?” 

“Yeah,” came the response, “and I’ve gotta make sure you’re actually doing yours. So, what the hell’s going on down there? Did you find that tunnel or what? Part A of the plan is pointless if we don’t get enough attention with Part B. For that, we need the tunnel. Or we won’t have time for part C.” 

Injecting annoyance into her voice, Sierra retorted, “Yeah, we found it. And the chupapollas blocked it off. They sealed the tunnel with some sorta vault door. We’re working on it.” 

I had no idea what that word she’d said meant, or why she was saying it right now while trying to pose as Banneret. But I also couldn’t ask. Paige, clearly interpreting my body language, put a hand on my shoulder and nodded reassuringly. 

And boy, how much had my life changed when Paige Banners could do anything that reassured me? 

Fortunately, Theory didn’t seem to object or question that particular phrasing. He simply replied, “Hold there, I’ll send a couple down with one of the laser cutters we brought for Part C. They’ll get through it. Looks like the Stars are still regrouping outside, but you know how their type is. They’ll decide to breach sooner or later. I’d rather be onto the next phase by the time that happens.”

I tensed up a bit, but Sierra only hesitated for a second before replying, “Yeah whatever. Give my guys enough time and they’d find a way through this. But sure, if you’re worried about a few Stars, go ahead and send your little toy down here. Or maybe I’ll grab one of those hostages and try using their head as a battering ram.” 

The response was a little chuckle before the man signed off. Meanwhile, on the screen, the two guards in the courtroom were bantering with each other about which lawyer or judge they might send downstairs as a living battering ram if it came down to it. 

“What’s a chupapolla?” Peyton asked. “And how’d you know to say that?” 

“Let’s just say it’s a bad word,” Paige put in. “And we heard her use it twice while we were listening over the security cameras, so it was a safe call. But now they’re sending a couple guys with a big laser down, so what do we do?” 

“We let them bring it, then we take it from them,” I replied slowly, looking toward the stairs once more. “I think we can–” 

“Uh, Paintball!” That was Trevithick, blurting the words out fearfully as she pointed at the screen where the bee drone was still monitoring the courtroom. “Look!” 

We all did, just in time to see one of the hostages, a red-haired guy in a fancy suit, lying on the ground with one of the other Prev bad guys standing over him. The thug was breathing hard, a slight bruise forming under his eye, while the hostage’s nose looked like it was broken. Something had just happened. 

“You think you’re tough, huh?!” The Prev gang member snapped, aiming his gun at the man on the floor. “Cheap-shotting piece of shit, let’s see how tough you are with–” 

“No.” That was Fogwalker, jumping down from the judge’s stand to perch on the nearby railing. “You shoot him, he doesn’t learn anything. Neither does anyone else who wants to be a hero.” He looked around the room, a small smirk seeming to cross his feline face. “No, if you wanna really teach them a lesson, you hurt the ones they care about.” 

With that, he nodded to the blonde woman from before, who reached down and tugged a wallet out of the fallen man’s pocket. Opening it up, she held it out for the TONI to see while flipping through it. Fogwalker almost purred. “Nice pictures? These your kids? Oooh and a wife too. Excellent.” 

The man started to respond, but the blonde woman put a foot on his throat while taking out her radio. Tuning to some other channel, she held the radio out for her boss. The lynx immediately began to speak again. “Amos, Terrence, you guys still cruising out there? Need you to make a quick stop.” His head turned once more to look at the license his subordinate was holding up for him, reading off the address for Amos and Terrence. 

“Head over there right now and kill everyone you find in that house. Then burn it down.”

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Center Of Attention 26-07 (Summus Proelium)

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According to Sierra and Paige, we had a dozen members of the Trendscendents coming our way. Fortunately, almost all of them were the ordinary Prev-type soldiers. There were eleven of those, though heavily-armed and ready for trouble, and only one of the Touched. That was the good news, such as it was. The bad news was that the single Touched who was coming was Banneret, and she had already taken the time to put some boosts on her people. So even though they might not have had any powers of their own, they were still enhanced by hers. Which was just great.

But hey, if she could boost her friends, I could boost mine. Over the next few seconds, I quickly put plenty of paint on everyone as we got ready for what was about to happen.

The other bit of good news was that it didn’t sound like these guys actually knew what they were about to walk into. They were just checking every corner of the building and had found this basement. So they were exploring it. Paige said it seemed like they thought this might be a secret escape tunnel they could use to get out of here without running into any cops or Stars.

Boy were they in for a surprise. 

To get ready for their arrival, I silenced the door just in case before letting Paige go ahead and force it open. That would undoubtedly set off alarms, but I didn’t think anyone cared by that point. We were able to see out through the open doorway toward a room across from us that was probably identical to this one, aside from the fact that that door was already open. 

Oh, and there was one very important thing that hadn’t been here before. Covering the entire width of the corridor just past these rooms, was a heavy steel vault-like door. It was blocking the way down the tunnel toward the safe house we had come in through. 

“Security measure,” Paige noted quietly. “The authorities don’t want anyone getting out that way. Or starting a fight with the people in the house.”

Right, of course they’d have something like that. But could the good guys come in that way? I pondered that before shaking it off for the moment. The point was that there was no one in that other room across the hall from us. At least, there wasn’t anyone in it, until Calvin, Hobbes, and Style darted that way. The three of them crouched down behind the door on that side of the hall. 

What the hell was I doing? Murphy and Roald didn’t even have their Wren-tech guns with them. Fuck, why didn’t I put them in my special bag before we came in here? What was I thinking? That this place was safe and we wouldn’t need them? How stupid was I? And now I was actually going to let them try to fight these guys without those Touched-Tech weapons? This was stupid. Not to mention Wren. She was here too, and involving her seemed practically inexcusable.

And yet, what other choice did we have? There was no way in hell these people would listen if we just told them we weren’t fighting today. We had absolutely already pissed them off plenty at the park when we interrupted their mission. When they saw us here, and they would definitely check the rooms, there would be trouble. We just had to be as ready for that as we could.

But still, I could keep Wren as far out of the fight as possible. Which I did by telling her to stay in the corner of the room out of the way until her moment came. She kept trying to apologize for not having one thing or another ready yet, including more of the bags like I had or some system she was working on to instantly transport weapons and equipment around. Obviously, we all told her not to worry about it. She was already doing more than enough as it was, and she would still have a part to play in this situation. But I was pretty sure she still felt guilty. 

Boy, good thing I didn’t know anything about what that felt like.

After giving Trevithick one last glance to make sure she was safely out of the way and ready to do her thing when the time came, I left Poise and Alloy crouched by the first door and stepped out into the hall. It was about twelve feet wide, with a fifteen foot ceiling. The tunnel we’d come through to get here was fifty feet to my right, past more doors, and the open doorway leading to the stairs the gang members were already stampeding down was thirty feet to the left. 

Judging from the sound of those footsteps and voices, the bad guys were almost here. They would be within view any second. So, I activated black paint to silence myself while running that direction. On the way, I leaned down and trailed my finger along the floor, leaving large blue lettering with yellow outlines, feeding the latter into the former. 

Once I was three-quarters of the way there, I straightened up and used red paint to yank myself up to the ceiling right above the entrance from the stairwell. Thanks to my special boots, I was able to crouch against the wall there indefinitely. Just as our soon-to-be guests were coming around the final turn in the stairs, I covered the floor under me with more blue and yellow paint, making a semicircle shape that time, as though it was an intentional design on the floor. Then I glanced back at the letters I had drawn along the floor on my way. From here, they read ‘Proceed With Caution’ one letter at a time, with the P starting right at the edge of the semicircle I had just made, and the N just in front of the doors where the rest of my team were waiting. 

Then I waited. From here, I couldn’t see the others, just the doors that were slightly open with the darkened rooms beyond to make it look like there was no one down here. For a second, I glanced at the big steel vault door and wondered what was going on with Officer Metts and the others over there. 

Then I didn’t have time to wonder anymore. Because the bad guys were here. The first couple Prev troops came through carefully, weapons raised as they looked around them. But they didn’t look up. Nor did they seem to wonder about the blue and yellow tiles they were walking on. Really, they had this whole thing coming. 

I didn’t hit them right away though. I let them keep coming. One of them called over his shoulder while continuing through, “More office shit! Probably stick the peons down here to do research or something for the judges.” Belatedly, he added, “But there’s a vault door here too! Think we found that tunnel!” That set off a chorus of cheers amongst the others in the group, and I heard a few mutters about winning some sort of bet with some other group as more of them continued on through the doorway and began to move down that hall toward the door to check it out. 

Through all that, I waited as patiently as possible. I couldn’t make a move yet. The last thing I wanted to do was go too soon and end up with half these guys still in the stairwell where they could use the doorway for cover and start shooting. I had to wait until they all came through, even if it was incredibly nerve racking to just crouch here and hope no one thought to look up. 

Nine people were through, ten, a few had moved to the sides, off the area I had painted to check the corners of the room. Hell, they were so close to seeing me out of the corner of their eyes, but their focus was on the walls themselves, searching for, I supposed, any cops hiding within the completely open and clearly empty space there. 

Okay, to be fair, that wasn’t completely impossible with Touched-Tech and stuff. But still, you’d think they would–

“Oh shit!” 

Ah, there it was. One of the men who stepped over toward the corner of the hall had turned back to say something to his buddies, which gave him a clear view of me, crouched above them. His hand was already rising to point, which was better than if he had lifted the gun in his other hand. But either way, the time for waiting was over. 

By that point, all eleven of the Prev troops had come fully into the hall, with four of them already off the paint I had put down. The other seven were still at least partway on one of the letters or the semicircle. Including Banneret, who had just stepped through. Her head snapped straight up to look at me, following the line of sight of her minion. 

“Hi!” I called cheerfully, waving that way even as all those guns immediately started to swing up toward me. In that instant, I activated the paint. Instantly, those seven guys plus Banneret were launched off the floor. Only, of course, they were launched slowly. It kept them in the air longer while also slowing their movements down to about half speed right as they were trying to bring their weapons in line with me.  

Unfortunately, that left a couple problems. First, the guys who weren’t on the paint obviously weren’t affected at all. And second, there was Banneret. Oh sure, she was slowly rising through the air, right toward me, actually. But she also had about a dozen guns floating around her, and those were all suddenly pointed my way just as they opened fire. 

Or at least, they were pointed where I had been a second earlier. I’d already activated green paint on my shoes, catapulting myself off the wall and away from the incoming bullets. On the way, I managed to blurt, “Lemme guess, you’re having trouble with this escape room too!” 

While still flying down the corridor thanks to that paint, I pointed back the way I’d come with both hands, sending a shot of red from one and a shot of purple from the other. Both hit Banneret. Flipping over, I landed on the floor near the vault door, skidding backwards a bit on the tile from my momentum. At the same time, I held my hand up, revealing the purple-red combination paint on my glove as I activated both that and the same mix I’d hit Banneret with. She had still been floating, but now she was immediately yanked toward me. The purple boosted the strength of the red’s pull, yanking her straight toward me until I canceled both that and the yellow-blue effect, allowing her to drop just a few feet away from me. 

She probably would’ve liked to lunge at me right then. But the second her feet touched the floor, two things happened. Or rather, two doors opened, the ones on either side of her, where the others were. Alloy and Poise came out of the left door, facing the still-recovering Banneret. Meanwhile, Calvin, Hobbes, and Style came through the other door. But they didn’t turn our way. Instead, they immediately pivoted to head back down the corridor toward where I had left the rest of those guys. The second I laid eyes on those three, I activated the orange, purple, and green paints I had given them. 

As soon as they had taken just a couple steps that way, Alloy made her white, gold, and black marbles combine together into a literal wall. It wasn’t very thick, but it covered the entire space from floor to ceiling and out to either wall. The silver marble transformed into a large hammer and hovered there in front of her, while she continued to use the purple and bronze marbles as her suit (it made her look like a ninja, with purple as the base and bronze padding). 

Poise, right beside her, had produced two knives from somewhere and had one held out the normal way while the other was backwards. Both were raised and ready for any move the Fell-Touched woman made. 

And just like that, we had cut her off from basically all of her resources and aid. The guns she had put under her control and her minions were both back on the other side of the wall, where she couldn’t see to direct them, and they couldn’t get through to help her. That was the whole point of this plan: ambush them before they knew what was happening, then drag the main threat and force multiplier down here, separating her from everyone she had empowered and the weapons she was controlling.

This was the major reason I felt so guilty about the Murphy and Roald situation. They barely had any training and no special guns, and I was sending them into the other side of the hall with a bunch of armed and pissed off bad guys, who were going to be rather intent on going through them and finding a way past this wall. The biggest advantage they had was Style, who was almost certainly enough of a badass to handle ordinary guys. But those weren’t ordinary guys, they had been boosted by Banneret and we didn’t know if she needed line of sight to keep those boosts active once they were placed. 

I just had to hope that between Style and the boosts I had given my people, the trio could deal with those guys for a bit. Banneret was the one we really had to deal with, and right now while she was cut off like this was our best (possibly only) chance. 

All of that, and my associated doubts had been playing through my mind ever since we came up with the plan. But now we were in the thick of it, and I shoved them down hard while addressing the woman right in front of me. “Yeah see, like I said, we’ve been trying to beat this escape room for practically the full hour now, but the puzzles are ridiculous. I swear, you practically need a law degree to figure this place out.” My voice adopted an even more cheerful tone. “You wanna team up?” 

Apparently, the answer was no, because the woman extended her arms to either side, pointing toward Paige and Peyton with one and me with the other. A very slight humming sound was the only other warning we had before a pair of concussive blasts, like the ones from the bracelets and guns that Theory and Praxis used, shot out. 

Thankfully, we didn’t need much of a warning. Honestly, at this point, if an obvious bad guy like that pointed at you, it was probably a good idea to hit the dirt just in case. Who knew what sort of power or tech they had? 

In my case, I used renewed blue paint on my shoes to launch myself upward toward the ceiling so the blast could pass by underneath me. Paige and Peyton, meanwhile, dove to either side and let it go between them. It hit the marble wall, which held, fortunately. But we couldn’t let her do too much of that or we’d risk losing the biggest advantage we’d been able to set up with this ambush. 

Even as I bounced off the ceiling, I was sending two shots of paint toward the woman. One was red, which I used to pull myself toward her, while the other was yellow to slow her down so she couldn’t easily grab me and use her power to make me slower or weaker or whatever. There was an advantage to being able to debuff from a range. Inverting in the air, I managed to slam both feet into her shoulders, knocking the woman over to land hard on her back. Going down with her, I rolled over Banneret’s head. Her hands grasped for me, but the yellow paint slowed her down just enough that I was able to get out of her reach. 

Meanwhile, Poise took advantage of the woman’s extended hands as she tried to grab me, throwing those two knives with expert precision. Each cut through something on Banneret’s armored wrists, sending a spray of sparks out. The weapons she had just used to send those concussive blasts at us. She wouldn’t be doing that again any time soon. 

While she was still reacting to that (which involved sputtered cursing), Alloy sent her remaining marble, the silver one, flying that way in its hammer form. The woman flinched just slightly, but Peyton wasn’t hitting her with it. Instead, the marble transformed into a pair of shackles, attaching themselves to Banneret’s wrists while her arms were still extended over her head as she lay on her back from me knocking her over. 

As soon as her wrists were secured, the marble-shackles hoisted her up. At the same time, Poise grabbed her feet. Then she and the marble worked together to quickly carry the struggling, cursing, wildly threatening woman straight through the open doorway into the room where we had been having our whole meeting not so long ago. 

Trevithick was there waiting. The second the other two got Banneret into the room, she ran up with her flightpack held in both hands. The marble-shackles hoisted the woman upright while Poise released her legs. But before she could get her feet under herself and react properly, Wren stuck the pack up against her back. It latched on immediately, the wings extending to fly her up halfway to the ceiling. 

And now she was stuck like that. The flightpack kept her off the floor so she couldn’t get any leverage or go anywhere because it would only listen to Wren’s orders. And the silver marble in its shackles form kept the woman’s hands extended outward so she couldn’t reach around to touch the flightpack and control it. 

We’d done it. The crazy plan worked. We had separated Banneret from her troops and put her in a position where she couldn’t use her power on anything. Now we just had to hope the others had–

Oh shit, the others! All of us had the same thought, exchanging glances. “Watch her!” I shouted toward Wren and Alloy. Sure, we believed she was safe now, but we weren’t taking stupid chances. They would keep an eye on the woman. Meanwhile, Poise and I sprinted out of the room and raced for the marble wall, which split apart so we could pass through as Alloy poked her head out to watch us go. 

The two of us made it to the other end of the hall just in time to see Style hurl what appeared to be the last of the Prev troops into the wall hard enough to make him bounce off it and fall to the floor with a groan of pain. Nor was he the only one making that sound. All eleven of them were lying in various states of ‘I have no desire to do anything aside from lay here and contemplate my life choices.’ 

Calvin and Hobbes were down too, but not in pain. They both just seemed exhausted, lying side by side on their backs where they had apparently slumped down to breathe hard. When they saw us arrive, both looked up, Murphy speaking through several long, deep breaths. “So… are… we winning?

“And if so… can we call for a five minute timeout?” 

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Center Of Attention 26-06 (Summus Proelium)

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A/N – There was a non-canon for this story (sort of, it’s a pretty big crossover with the setting of Heretical Edge) posted a few days ago right here

When we got to the neighborhood near the courthouse, I showed the others where the right building was. According to Paige, several of the other nearby houses and buildings were either empty, or used as anonymous safe houses, homes for people with the authority to know about this place, that sort of thing. And they had cops whose job it was to ensure no one was lurking around for too long. As well as a few other measures, all of which was meant to make it even harder for anyone to notice the Touched who went in and out of the place. 

I was pretty sure that also meant the small camera above the door was unnecessary, given how many other people we undoubtedly had watching us the entire time we were in the neighborhood. But it was probably mostly for show. Or to give the person at the door somewhere to look when whoever was inside spoke to them over the intercom if they didn’t open it immediately. 

Either way, I showed everyone how to get to the building, then reached out and knocked. “Okay everybody, wave and try not to look like Fell-Touched impersonators.” I informed them before raising my hand to do just that for the camera. I even painted a big smiley face on my helmet. There was a slight pause before the door opened, revealing my old friend, Officer Metts, the guy I’d met the first time I came here to drop off the detainment paperwork for that whole Ashton situation. Upon seeing me, the man raised an eyebrow. “My, you’ve been busy, haven’t you?” 

“Yeah well,” I replied, “I figured out there’s less work to do when I have more people to help.”

“Not to mention more targets for the enemies to shoot at,” Style put in. She casually evaded my attempt to step on her foot while adding, “I’m surprised he doesn’t make us wear bullseye costumes, really.” 

Trevithick, wearing that costume consisting of the black bodysuit, bright pink armored panels over the chest, arms, and legs, and a matching black helmet with pink visor, bounced up and down excitedly. “I could make matching costumes like that!” Her voice made it decidedly unclear if she was kidding or not.

Flushing a bit behind the helmet and mask, I shook my head, “Uh, thanks, I think we’ll find another way to show team unity.” To Style, I added, “And sure, because I definitely don’t make a big enough target of myself as it is. That’s me, always keeping my head down and avoiding any trouble.”

Snorting at us, Officer Metts gestured. “Okay, I still need your leader here to demonstrate his power so we can prove it’s really him. Then he takes responsibility for the rest of you being who you say you are. It’s faster than making all of you demonstrate, and I’m pretty sure you aren’t all Touched anyway.” He added that last bit slyly, clearly curious if we’d confirm or deny anything. 

Of course, we did nothing of the sort. I demonstrated my power, and Alloy showed off her transforming marbles as well just to add to the evidence. The officer accepted that and stepped aside so we could go in. Soon, we were led through the building and down the stairs to the tunnel. Officer Metts waved and then headed back upstairs while we went through the tunnel to meet the guy at the other end, who let us into the basement of the courthouse.

From there, we sat in a few different rooms, being moved around into different combinations as well as sitting by ourselves now and then, all while giving depositions about everything that had happened throughout the past little while. We had already planned out exactly how to talk about that stuff, as well as what we weren’t going to talk about. I knew it was incredibly unlikely that they would suddenly start asking about the Ministry or the Breakwater situation. The idea that my parents would ambush us with something like that wasn’t completely impossible, however, so we had practiced what to do if anything like that happened. The only person I was maybe a little worried about was Wren, just because she was so young. I’d already told her what to do if they pushed her too hard while she was by herself. She was just supposed to shut down and tell them that she wanted Poise or me to be with her. She had that right. Technically we all had the right to leave or refuse to answer whenever we wanted. But as an obvious child, they were on even stricter rules with her. As a Touched involved in this sort of thing, she could voluntarily come in and discuss these things. But the moment she said she didn’t want to talk about it anymore, or that she wanted one of her older teammates to be there, they had to acquiesce. 

But nothing like that happened. The whole thing went pretty smoothly, aside from a couple defense lawyers who pressed us on a few different points. They didn’t really seem to get anywhere, however, and it was all done before long. I had the impression that most of the people involved were just going through the motions and wanted to get done with it as soon as possible. They also kept checking their phones as well as whispering to one another in the hallways. I heard Flea and Trivial’s names come up a couple times, so it was obvious what they were distracted by. There didn’t seem to be any news yet. They, like the rest of us, were simply hanging on the edge of their seats, waiting to see what happened. 

Everything seemed completely fine to me, even somewhat boring, really. Until we started to leave the main conference room. After the last bit of testimony, there was a sudden, sharp, chiming sound that made me jump. The armed bailiff guy held up a hand and asked us to wait a minute, adding that something was going on in the courthouse. Then he escorted the two lawyers, stenographer, and judge out into the hall. The door shut behind them, and we all looked at one another as the alarm went quiet. Obviously, I had the sudden, somewhat paranoid thought that this was some sort of trick. Maybe my parents really were trying something after all. This did seem a little bit obvious, but honestly, it wouldn’t be that hard. The only people we knew had heard that alarm besides ourselves were two lawyers and a few court people. It wouldn’t have been hard for the Ministry to have those few people in their pockets.

Still, I didn’t actually think it was them. It didn’t seem right. But I didn’t say anything. At least not until Paige and Sierra both turned back to us and nodded. “We’re good,” Paige announced. “The security system here is just going to think we’re standing around talking about what that alarm could be.” 

“It’s not the cheapest system in the world,” Sierra added idly. “I mean, I don’t think I would’ve been able to get through it on my own with the primitive-ass hardware my new orb is made of.” 

Rolling her eyes, Paige put in, “Oh stop complaining. It’s not that far behind. You’re more advanced than any of Dad’s other work. It’s pretty obvious that body was one of the last things he put together. Besides, I’m sure Trevithick could–” 

“Nuh uh.” That was Wren, head shaking rapidly. “I’m not gonna mess with those things until you guys find an intact one, or like, several so I can mess around with them without, uh, you know…” She shifted uncomfortably. “Without breaking you. I want some orbs I can play with and take apart so I can see how they work.” 

“Thanks, kid,” Sierra replied while giving her a thumbs up. “Glad to hear you don’t wanna break me. If we can find some more of dear old Dad’s toys for you to tinker with, maybe we’ll see if you can make any improvements.” 

Wincing a bit, I raised a hand. “I know you guys say it’s safe and all that, but can we just not talk about any of that stuff while we’re in this place, please? Now what’s going on out there?” 

Murphy, standing near the door, offered a shrug. “I can’t hear a damn thing out there. Pretty sure they made this place soundproof on purpose. Probably every room down here, just so they can gossip in the hall and not let the rest of us hear any of it. Assholes.” 

Paige shook her head, focusing on me as she explained, “It looks like there’s some sort of attack going on in the courthouse. Some of those guys you helped catch at the park the other day, they’re here for arraignments and their gang showed up to rescue them.” 

That made me do a double-take. “Wait, you mean like, Janus and the rest of that group? Wait, what the hell does that gang call themselves anyway? I forgot to ask when we were all punching each other in the face.” 

“Trendscendents.” That was Roald, actually. He shrugged when we looked that way. “You know, like transcendence and trend put together. I was, um, you know, curious after all that. They were called the Trendscendents in their old city and I guess they kept the name after moving here.” 

“That is a stupid fucking name,” Sierra noted. “But fine, whatever. The Trendscendents are attacking the courthouse to save the rest of their people. And yeah, that means the Touched people too, if you’re that eager for round two.” 

“I don’t think it matters how eager I am,” I pointed out while gesturing to the door. “Something tells me that thing isn’t exactly gonna be easy to open if we tried. And if the court house is under attack, they probably wouldn’t react that well to us breaking out of here, even if we’re trying to help.” 

Peyton started to say something, but Paige interrupted. “That bailiff is coming back, maybe he’ll ask for help.” 

Sure enough, after another second or two, the door opened and the uniformed guy stepped in. “Ah, apologies, we’re having a bit of a situation in the courthouse.” 

“We–” Catching myself before I would have given too much away, I amended what I had been about to say. “We can help get people out if there’s a fire or something.” 

Wren caught on immediately and piped up, “Yeah, we’re really good at saving people like that! I mean, theoretically, you know? Fires, floods, gas leaks, or if there’s some old guy who won’t shut up and thinks everyone wants to hear his opinion about something that doesn’t actually affect him. Those guys are the worst.”

As I was giving the younger girl a look for that odd, seemingly rehearsed statement, Murphy and Sierra both snickered a little behind me. Oh, of course it was them. When had they planned that

The man paused briefly before shaking his head. “I don’t wanna just leave you in the dark. It’s not a fire, or a flood, or… anything like that. There’s some people attacking the courthouse. And yeah, I’m sure you’d love to help. But it’s against protocol. Y’all need to stay here and wait. We’ve got plenty of help already as it is, with more on the way. There’s just… security measures to keep in mind.” He visibly grimaced. “Might not be what you wanna hear, but it’s the rules. You stay in this place and wait for the all-clear. I’ll come back and check on ya soon enough.” 

Before any of us could say anything, he offered another apology and stepped out, pushing the door closed behind him. It wasn’t surprising, obviously, but still. The idea that there were bad guys right upstairs in the rest of the courthouse and we were just supposed to sit here and wait was… uncomfortable, to say the least. Especially when those bad guys were the very people we had all just helped fight a few days earlier. 

“Can you see what’s going on up there?” I quickly asked Paige as soon as she gave the signal that they had once again stopped the security system from observing and recording us. “How bad is it?” I was really hoping that this whole thing was already all-but over and that the bad guys would be handled without anyone else getting hurt. I didn’t actually believe that was possible, but I still hoped. 

Unsurprisingly, however, Paige shook her head. “We don’t have the full picture. They keep destroying the cameras up there or just blocking them. But from what I can see, it’s nowhere near being under control yet.” 

“That’s for sure,” Sierra added. “I mean don’t get me wrong, looks like they’ve got some solid Touched-Tech defenses up there, but things are still pretty wild. If you were seeing what we’re seeing, uhh, well you’d probably want to find a way out of this room to get up there even more than you already do.” 

“They had to know this was a possibility, right?” That was Peyton. “I mean, the courthouse has to be one of the biggest targets every day, let alone when they’ve got a bunch of gang members here who just got picked up a couple days ago. You’d think they’d have extra security. Like, some big guns just to make sure everything went smoothly. Unless they–wait this is the Ministry again, isn’t it?”

Everyone looked at me, and I grimaced behind my costume. I still didn’t want to talk about this stuff here. But Paige insisted it was safe. They couldn’t overhear us on the security system. Which, to be fair, if she had been wrong about that, we all would’ve been fucked back when she and Amber took me down into that special room in the school’s basement to train. If Paige said she had control of the system and no one could use it to spy on us, I had to take her word for it. Even if it did make me incredibly uncomfortable. And I still wasn’t going to say anything that could potentially give away my identity. 

All of that ran through my head before I nodded. “You’re probably right. I mean, they did make a deal with this gang to help them with that Inessa situation. Setting up a scenario where they could break out the ones who got captured doing that is… probably fair, as far as they’re concerned.”

Even as I said that, I was straining to listen, trying to hear some evidence of what was apparently an intense fight going on. But Murphy was right, we couldn’t pick up anything beyond the door. They had gone through a lot of trouble to make this place soundproof. Honestly, a big part of that was probably for the opposite reason. They didn’t want people in the hall to be able to hear depositions being given by people with secret identities. Then again, there were multiple rooms like this, so maybe it was just as much about making sure people in one of them couldn’t overhear what was being said in one of the others. 

Whatever the reasoning, it did its job, and we were stuck here waiting in silence. Well, most of us were. Paige and Sierra could keep track of what was going on, and for a moment I envied them. Then I thought about the father they had to deal with and decided I didn’t envy them anymore. My own family situation was weird and complicated enough, but at least I knew my parents loved me. 

None of that mattered right now, however. What mattered was dealing with what was happening upstairs. According to our resident two Biolems, every Touched member of that gang (the… Trendscendents) was here. They were all fighting up there while we just sat here. Damn it, why couldn’t that bailiff just let us out so we could help? Protocol or not, damn that, and damn the rules, we could be in there, helping to make sure those guys didn’t escape. After all, we were a big part of the reason they had been arrested in the first place. Yes, yes, we weren’t cleared through their security measures and could end up being targeted by them too. Logically, I knew all that. But it didn’t help me feel any less anxious and annoyed about this whole thing.

Pushing all that out of my mind, with some effort, I focused on what we could affect right now. Namely, planning what to do if that fight made it all the way down here. Rules or not, if those guys came to this room and picked a fight, we were going to show them one. Unfortunately, I couldn’t decide if I actually wanted that to happen so I’d have an excuse to get involved or not. 

So, we talked quickly about what the Touched on their side were capable of, how their Prev troops seemed to act the other day at the park, and how we could possibly counter them. Unfortunately, there wasn’t a lot to say on that point. We hadn’t had time to create any big new strategies or countermeasures. Give Wren equipment, tools, and time, and I was sure she could come up with something good. But it had only been a couple days since we first found out half these people existed. We needed more time to put something real together. At the very least, however, we could talk it out a bit. Besides, it gave us something to focus on besides just waiting for Paige and Sierra to tell us whether the situation was resolved or if we had trouble coming our way. 

In the midst of that, however, Sierra cocked her head to the side. “Well that’s odd,” she murmured. “Isn’t it?” 

Paige frowned. “Yeah, definitely weird.” 

“What?” Murphy blurted. “What’s so weird? Is Janus wearing a tutu? Please tell me Janus is wearing a tutu. Are wearing? I’m not sure what the right word would be. But tell me a tutu is involved.” 

“Please stop saying tutu,” I pleaded before focusing on the Biolem girls. “But she’s right, what’s happening?” 

The two of them glanced at one another before Paige answered. “The Trendscendents aren’t the only Fell-Touched here right now. We only caught a glimpse of them before they broke the camera, but it looks like Pack and Broadway are here too, with a couple others I didn’t recognize. Just kids in ski masks. Whatever they’re doing here, they were headed for one of the archive rooms, with the paper files.” 

That news made me blink in confusion. “Wait, what’re they doing–” 

As I was in the midst of questioning that, the lights in the room went out. We were plunged into darkness. Just as Sierra put in, “Uh, I don’t know how to tell you guys this, but we’ve got bad guys coming our way after all. 

“Things are about to get pretty violent.” 

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Center Of Attention 26-04 (Summus Proelium)

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Sierra wasn’t kidding. When Paige showed up, after a quick run-through of everything that had happened with my parents (if it was really them), she insisted we find a place to start testing my paint combination powers. We couldn’t really go back to the secret room in the school without drawing attention, so we went down to the store’s unfinished basement. Half of it was taken up by stacks of boxes that Wren swore she still needed to go through at some point, but the other half was basically an open room with cement floor and walls. It would work for some testing. 

Before getting into that, however, I focused on Paige. Sierra was down here too, along with Wren and Peyton. Fred was upstairs to deal with any customers who came in, though he made us promise to tell him what we found out, and show him anything ‘neat.’ Of course I told him that would take a while since everything I did was neat. 

Now, facing Paige, I asked, “Do you think my parents believed everything you were saying?”

She, in turn, shrugged. “Probably not all of it. At the very least they knew I was holding some things back and not telling them the whole story. The real question is whether they believed enough of it. And yeah, I think they did. At the very least, they don’t think I’m an immediate threat. I actually think they believe I could be useful.” 

That made me blink. “Useful? Because you could lead them to this mysterious group who contacted you for this whole thing?” 

She nodded. “That and because they want to recruit me.” 

Needless to say, that made me choke a little, while Sierra snickered in the background at my reaction. Finally, I stared at Paige. “You think my parents want to recruit you into the Ministry?” 

“Well they don’t want to recruit me to plan your birthday party next January,” she informed me with a tiny smile. “But yeah, they know I can lie to them. They know I’ve got some skill in manipulation and infiltration, since I stole those documents and managed to get away from them. You know, with Paintball’s help. They don’t know everything, not even a quarter of it. They definitely don’t know what I really am. But they know enough to think I could possibly make a decent early recruit. I wouldn’t be surprised if they reach out soon enough and try to make an offer. After waiting what they deem an appropriate amount of time from when they tried to kill me.” 

That was… yeah, that was a lot to take in. She had a point, of course. Naturally my parents would be looking for anyone they could recruit with the skills they needed. And even if they didn’t know anywhere close to the real story, Paige had demonstrated that sort of skill and she already knew about the Ministry. From what she’d told me about how she’d handled that whole situation, they probably also believed she was still malleable enough to be guided and trained the way they might want. 

So yeah, it made sense. But it still left me uncertain about exactly how I felt about that. I was worried about what would happen if my family paid too much attention to Paige (not that it was easy to avoid that given the whole Irelyn thing, to say nothing of them already knowing about her having Ministry information), and about everything that could come crashing down because of that if one of us said the wrong thing. And beyond that, I knew my family was aware that I didn’t really get along with Paige, to say the least. What would they do about that? Try to get us to work through our issues? That was an image that made me blanch. My family, trying to counsel Paige and me on how to get along so we could work together within their criminal enterprise.

Well we had been trying to figure out how we could get away with Paige and me hanging out without attracting suspicion. Wouldn’t it be convenient if my parents worked toward explaining that completely on their own? 

Yeah, that was going to be a whole thing, if it came up. Which would probably also mean that they would at least move closer to telling me what was going on. And boy oh boy was I looking forward to that just ever so much. I couldn’t wait to go through that and try to figure out how to react. If I said the wrong thing once they did reveal the Ministry to me, would they just erase my memory of the whole situation again? Would I know if they did? I still had no idea how to tell when that happened, or if there was any way to defend against it if you weren’t a Biolem like Paige. That Kent guy hadn’t seemed completely and utterly shocked beyond all belief by the fact that his power hadn’t worked on her, so maybe there was a way to resist? I wasn’t sure, nor did I know how we could go about testing it.

Shaking all that off for the moment, I focused on the issue at hand. “Well, if they do try to recruit you, make sure to hold out for a decent salary and benefits. You know my family can afford it.” 

Paige, who actually seemed a little nervous about how I would react to that, offered me a quick smile. “Yeah, for sure. I know what I’m worth, can’t take any lowball offers.” 

“I’d take a lowball offer,” Peyton put in while raising her hand. “But only because I’m pretty sure you guys have no real concept about what anything costs, so their idea of a lowball offer might just pay my entire way through university.” 

We all snickered at that, even Wren. It helped ease the mood a little, which was nice. Then we got into the actual testing. I had already shown them what I could do when it came to the paint combinations I used at the park, but now it was time to get into seeing what else I could do, and how exactly the combinations worked.

Clearly, whatever effect the main paint possessed remained the center of any combination, and was simply twisted or adjusted by the color I fed into it. When I’d added green to white, it sped up the effect and made the entire ten seconds worth of light go off in an instant, creating a blinding flash grenade. And when I had added green to red, it made the whole pulling thing happen much faster. I had been hauled incredibly quickly toward Uncle Friendly when I did that before. We tested it with a couple empty boxes down in the basement now, just to see for sure. Paige used a stopwatch app on her phone, and made me experiment with adding different amounts of red and green. In the end, it turned out that the more green I added into it, the faster the pulling happened. But the more red I used, the heavier the object that could be moved. And beyond that, the more green I added, the less time the red would pull and hold for. Adding too much green would move things very quickly, yet also detracted from the normal ten seconds that the pull should have lasted for normally, similar to the whole green with white thing. It was a balancing act. Beyond that, I also couldn’t feed more paint into something than the original color had. Any image I made had to be made of at least fifty-one percent of the base color and only up to forty-nine percent of whatever was fed into it. Which made sense, given it was supposed to be the base color, so if there was more of the other, it wouldn’t really make sense.

Anyway, it seemed like that same ‘speed up’ principle applied to green being added to other colors. Like when I had fed green paint into that blue circle to launch Fogwalker away from me at incredibly high speed. The green made the effect faster and stronger, but at the cost of lasting for less time. But how would that translate into powers that weren’t so easily ‘sped up?’ 

Under Paige’s direction, we tried orange with that. But of course, we needed a baseline for how much orange protected on its own. We used cardboard boxes, which Paige and Sierra took turns hitting, because they could be certain to use the exact same amount of force every time, and at regular intervals. Or they could simply apply a steady amount of pressure to the box the entire time the paint was active, so we knew exactly when the defense wore off. All of which meant we could get useful data. And the way Paige said ‘useful data’ was a little weird. Like me when I was talking about an awesome ramp. 

Between that system and a bit of ‘how much do you feel this poke, how about this one’ we were able to figure out that, by itself, the orange paint protected against something like ninety percent of the damage that would have been done, even at the smallest, most basic amount of paint. As long as it was a notable amount to begin with (more than just a speck of paint, it had to be something real), roughly ninety percent of the damage done would be negated. That increased by one percent for every added ten percent of the item in question that I covered with orange, up to a max of ninety-eight percent. Whatever I did, two percent of the damage would always get through. 

Once we had that baseline, we tried green mixed into orange, because we were all curious about what that would do. How would speeding up ‘being invulnerable’ actually help at all? 

As it turned out, the answer was closer to the white paint. Adding green into the orange made the invulnerability stronger for a shorter time. After a bit of testing, it seemed like for roughly every ten percent of a total image that was taken up with green instead of orange, the amount of time the defense lasted for was dropped by two seconds, but the amount of protection it provided was raised by two percent. 

Due to the limit of only making up to about forty-nine percent of an image green instead of orange, that meant I could, at most, raise the total protection ten percent. And doing so would decrease the orange defensive time from ten seconds down to essentially nothing, just a brief one second at most burst of protection. But that was where it got interesting. Because unlike orange paint by itself, which could only get up to ninety-eight percent protection no matter how much I added, with the maximum amount of green mixed in, that level of protection could get up to one hundred percent. Sure, it only lasted for an instant, but it would completely protect me or anyone else from all damage if I timed it right. 

Again, there was a balance to be struck with how much of the base paint I used versus how much of the other color I added into it. It wouldn’t be useful or practical all the time, but in a few specific cases… yeah, I could do something with that. 

Once we did that, Peyton brought up the question of what purple added to orange would do. If green already made the paint stronger at the cost of making it last for a shorter amount of time, what would the paint that was meant for increasing strength do?

The answer ended up being that it still raised the amount of defense, and without shortening the amount of time the orange paint lasted. But it only raised it by one percent for every ten percent of purple that was added to the orange, so it reached a max of ninety-five percent protection. That, of course, was something I could reach with just orange by itself. So maybe not every single paint combination was useful. I just had to find the ones that worked the best. Which was exactly what we were doing here. Paige wanted me to be prepared for whatever happened. 

Well, that and she was really anxious about what was going on with Irelyn and needed to distract herself. 

To that end, I looked toward Peyton. “You wanna see what happens with black and green?”

She gave me a look at that. “You mean do I want to be your guinea pig so you can hit me with that combination and see if anything weird happens?”

Grinning at her I gave a thumbs up. “See, you’re already on top of things. That’s the best partner slash lab rat.”

She rolled her eyes, but acquiesced. We had her start reading aloud from a random book that was in one of the boxes down here, while I put black paint across her back along with a strip of green and fed the latter into the former. Then we all watched while I activated it. 

“Andwhenwewalkedupthehilltherewereelevensoldiersin—“ The words all came out of the other girl in a nearly completely indecipherable rush that sounded like one of the cartoon Chipmunks talking very quickly. She stopped short after that, eyes widening as she looked back at us. Then she took a breath and tried again. But again, the words came out all together and high-pitched like that. She was visibly trying to slow her voice down, but it wouldn’t work. Not until the paint had worn off. 

Bouncing up and down, which in her case involved using her wing pack to reach the ceiling, Wren blurted, ”Ooh, I wanna try, I wanna try! Please can I try?!”

Of course I let her. We tried that a couple more times to the same result. It didn’t make the person physically faster, it just forced them to speak very quickly and somewhat squeakily. Anything that was affected by the paint would produce any sound much faster than it normally would have. I wasn’t exactly sure when or how that would be useful, but at least we knew what it did.

Then there was green with yellow, which brought anyone who was affected by it to a complete halt, expending the yellow’s entire charge, but only for that instant. It would stop someone, then immediately wear off. I could definitely see where that would be useful, and filed it away.

Green with purple was the same idea. It wore off immediately, but gave a very momentary incredible burst of strength. 

Then there was pink. If that one did anything, we couldn’t figure it out. Then again, it was hard to say what making something affected by pink faster could even look like. Suffice to say, it wasn’t terribly interesting at the moment. 

While we were at it, we also checked what would happen when I added purple paint to a couple other colors. It made red paint able to pull larger, heavier things and do more damage if they collided. It also made the glow from the white paint notably brighter. And it made both green and yellow stronger with their respective powers. Not as dramatic of an increase as green gave yellow, or purple for that matter, but it also didn’t wear off immediately. It was simply a boost.  

After the green with black incident, we naturally checked purple with black. How would it make muting things stronger? 

As it turned out, adding purple to black made the muting affect extend outward a bit from the thing that was painted. For every ten percent of a picture that I made purple, the effect extended in a two feet diameter circle. Again, only up to just under half of a picture could be the second color. So at most, I could make a circle that was ten feet in diameter where no sound could emerge. Now that would be very useful. 

We knew from my whole artificial stilts and whip-arms trick at the park that adding purple into pink made the stretchy bits stronger. But if going the other way around and adding pink to purple did anything, we couldn’t figure it out right then.

That was about as far as we got before I called a halt to the testing. It was already starting to get late, and I wanted to take a lap around the city to stretch my legs and check in on things. After all, we were supposed to be helping people, not just playing with my paint combinations.

Paige and Sierra stayed to help Wren get some other work done, but promised to join us if we found anything big. Meanwhile, Peyton and I took to the streets. We didn’t exactly find a big fight, but as we were making our way across the rooftops, I spotted what I initially thought was some sort of gang gathering in a field near a freeway overpass. It turned out to be a bunch of homeless people all camping out. As we watched them from a nearby building, I felt my stomach twist itself over. This, this was how we should have been helping the city. 

So, that was exactly what we did. Similar to that time when I had been by myself, the two of us went to a nearby store and bought a couple carts full of supplies. Which was going to attract attention, but it wasn’t like I could go there without my costume. If this situation got out and my parents checked the cameras of the store to see me buying a bunch of stuff that Paintball eventually gave the people out there, they might just be able to do the math.

And yes, there were still people in the store. It was barely before curfew, which had been extended to ten pm. Again, not out of any real connection to how dangerous it was, but because people couldn’t stand to be locked in that early. 

In any case, we attracted attention, and the two of us tried to play it off and joke around with the crowd as best as we could.

I bought every premade sandwich the store had, along with a dozen loaves of bread and peanut butter with honey. Then I bought various boxes of cookies, crackers, cans with easy pull-tops that had fruit or meat inside, anything I could find while we went through the store with a couple different grocery carts.

Needless to say, people wanted to know what we were doing. One even jokingly asked if we had turned to a life of crime and we’re going to steal all this stuff. So we just told them that we’d gotten anonymous donations so we were going to provide food for the homeless. A few people scoffed at that, but others actually donated money of their own, which I really wanted to tell them not to bother with, but had no idea how to do so. I couldn’t exactly tell them I was actually paying for all this myself without risking my identity.

By the time we left the store, we didn’t just have money donations. There were also a dozen other people with their own carts full of not just food, but other supplies. They went to the back of the store and got sleeping bags and blankets, as well as flashlights and lanterns. Seeing that, I bought a bunch of clothing that could be passed around as well. 

Together, our small army made our way back to that freeway overpass a couple blocks over. Peyton and I helped distribute everything, and hung out with the people there for a while. It was… interesting, considering how many wild stories the people had. Not that it was all fun and games. They definitely needed every bit of help they could get, but they were doing their best. And hopefully this stuff would help. 

When I asked one of the guys there if they were worried about the cops making them disperse or chasing them off, he informed me that the land they were on was owned by ‘those Evans people’ and that they… my family… had designated it and about half a dozen other places throughout the city as a safe place for them to set up homeless camps. They also had a few shelters and a couple apartment buildings set up to be temporary homes for people who were trying to get work and needed a place to get back on their feet while they waited for a solid paycheck. So they did help put roofs over peoples’ heads, but also had these bits of land where anyone could sleep without being harassed by the police. Apparently this was one of the newest places like that. Others had port-a-potties and a few other needed amenities. 

So my family did… all that. Yeah, I had a lot of thinking to do. Not that that was anything new. 

Eventually, the two of us slipped away and left together. We were back on that first building where we had seen them before, as I spoke in a low voice. “Sorry we didn’t get into any cool, dramatic superpowered showdowns.” 

Peyton, in turn, shrugged. “Meh. This was fine. In fact, it kind of feels like we should make this a regular thing, you know?”

Watching the people in the distance, I smiled to myself behind the mask and helmet. “You know what? I think you’re right. 

“This should definitely be a regular thing.”

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Exhibition 25-09 (Summus Proelium)

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Before we got into any of that, I told Caishen and the others that I had to check on my team. Not to mention make sure Inessa was okay. They informed me that the Spartans had already arrived and helped either chase off or capture all the other guys. Poise, Style, Hobbes, and Calvin were being interviewed at the moment, as were the Minority people. Which also made me want to go rescue them from that, of course. But it wasn’t nearly as good of an excuse. So, I had to deal with this first. Or rather, we did, since a quick call to Alloy had her bring Inessa back so she could help. Peyton also confirmed that the others were okay. 

Between both of us (once she was back), Inessa and I explained everything as best as we could. The other girl did most of the ‘why’ explanation, since she was the one who could get into the whole story about the vault and her brother. Mostly I just told Caishen and the others about what I had done, though I left out the part about working with Eits. Considering how much he helped with making sure I could free the hostages, it probably would’ve been fine, but I didn’t want the Ten Towers people to know that he had my phone number and had been connected to me through that for so long. It just felt like a bad idea to give them that sort of information. Especially when I still wasn’t sure who on their team might be connected to the Ministry. I just had to give them as little information as possible, without looking like I was holding back information. Which was a delicate balancing act.

Once we were done explaining that whole thing, Caishen let out a long breath. “Okay, I think it’s obvious that we need to cancel the rest of this exhibition.” She spoke up over Inessa’s objections. “Everyone is scattered and most of them went home or to the police already anyway. And if the gangs here know about your situation, these guys might not be the only ones who come after you.” She paused to consider for a moment before adding, “How long until you finish that experiment?”

“Not long,” came the answer. “I am certain that it will be done within the week.” A small smile played across her face. “I have been waiting for this weight to be lifted for some time. This attack was not the first of its kind. It will be nice to not have to think about that.” She paused, a visible grimace crossing her face. “Though I can never forget what sort of person my brother turned out to be.” 

Ohhh boy. Yeah, I wanted to say something to that, but what? How was I supposed to respond? I couldn’t even tell her about my own brother and he at least hadn’t been responsible for making what were apparently a bunch of dangerous super weapons that got him sent to Breakwater. And now, not only did she have to deal with having a brother like that, but also had random nasty pieces of shit trying to use her to open that vault so they could kill more people. How could I possibly respond to that in any meaningful way? 

While I was still trying to figure that out, Caishen continued. “Do you really think you can turn off your ability to open that vault?”

“Yeah,” Bunglebotch put in, “isn’t that sort of thing impossible? I mean, it’s your DNA. How exactly do you alter your DNA without changing who you are? Messing with that sort of thing just uhh, seems dangerous? And by seems dangerous, I mean incredibly, stupidly dangerous.” Quickly, she added, “Not that you’re stupid. I mean–yeah, I mean, just… you know.” 

“Eloquently put, Bungle,” Stick dryly murmured before focusing on the girl next to me. “Landmines of speaking indelicately aside, my friend there is right about it seeming dangerous. Are you certain you know what this scientist of yours is doing?“

“Yeah,” Alloy piped up from where she had been standing quietly in the background, “they’re not about to turn you into a frog-person or something, are they?” When everyone looked at her, she shrank back a bit reflexively while one of her marbles turned into a shield and attached itself to her arm protectively.

Inessa nodded. “It is… it is fine, it’s not really changing my DNA. It is more…” She paused as though considering how to explain properly. “It’s more like adding a little something to it which disguises my DNA whenever it’s read by something like the vault scanner. When it detects me being scanned that way, it throws some added… stuff in there, which makes it look as though I am not the right one after all. That’s… that’s the layman’s version that was explained to me anyway. I am afraid a more technical explanation would have to be given by my friend, and I am not ready to give up their identity. Though I could give you a phone number to call.” 

“Yeah, please do,” Caishen agreed. “I’m not sure I could understand a ‘more technical’ explanation, but it’d still be nice to have.” She looked toward me then. “I think everyone owes you a real debt, Paintball. Whatever weapons might be in that secret vault, I’m pretty sure we don’t want those guys to have them.” 

Ephemera, who was in a male form at the moment (they shifted into new bodies constantly, with the only constant being their very simple costume of red pants, red shoes, white turtleneck, and white ski mask), spoke up. “Yeah, dude, that was awesome. We only saw a little bit on the security cameras when we were gearing up to get over here, but seriously.” They gave me a thumbs up. “You really kicked ass out there. With and without your team.”

“Ahem,” Linesight put in, “I believe what my teammate means is simply that we’re glad you’re safe, and that you managed to help the civilians around here.”   

Blushing a little under the mask and helmet, I offered a helpless shrug. “No big deal. I mean, I just happened to be around, and what was I supposed to do, let those guys hurt people? I didn’t even know what was going on, not really. I was just…” Trailing off, I kicked the ground lightly. “I was just in the right place at the right time. And anyway, we would’ve been caught if it wasn’t for Skip.” Quickly looking toward the girl, I added, “Thanks for jumping in like that. I don’t think I could’ve gotten out of that without you. Devil’s Due was about to make me call Alloy back when you jumped in.” Under my breath, I muttered, “Next time I see that guy I’m gonna punch him so hard he’ll never wanna tell me to do anything again.” 

Skip, in turn, simply spoke in that same flat voice that made it unclear what she was feeling. “I’m glad I was able to help. But as you said, it was simply a matter of being in the right place at the right time. I was scanning the park for the source of the disturbance and was about to move on to where your team was fighting when someone told me where you were.” 

That made Caishen look at her. “Someone told you? One of the civilians?” 

Her head shook. “I have no idea. The voice came from one of the loudspeakers meant for announcing events through the park. I could make out no details about it, but they told me where you were and that Devil’s Due was going to make you do something terrible.” 

At first I was confused. Then I realized, Eits. Our call had disconnected when he left, but apparently he was back. Or maybe he’d simply kept control of the cameras or something. Either way, he’d sent help as soon as I was in trouble. It was a thought that made me blush even more, and I was yet again glad that these guys couldn’t see that reaction. 

“A mysterious helper,” Caishen mused before focusing on me. “Any idea who that could be?” 

Oh boy, how was I supposed to answer that? A few dozen increasingly stupid possibilities ran through my head in the next second, before I simply replied, “I might, but I’m not sure. And it’s kind of a personal thing anyway.” 

To my relief, the woman accepted that, though she did look like she wanted to dig deeper. She resisted the urge, however, and simply moved on. So, I did a little more talking with them about what happened. There wasn’t much else to say, but I did make sure Inessa was okay yet again before heading out. Caishen reminded me to make an official report when I did my periodic check-in with the cops, and noted that I should probably take my entire team with me, since they hadn’t done that part yet. 

Finally, Inessa gave me a hug (leaving me standing there staring blankly and trying not to giggle like an idiot), before Alloy and I headed off together. The Ten Towers people were going to take over the job of keeping Inessa safe until she could finish that whole vault removal thing. Which was good, since I was pretty sure they’d do a much better job than I could have at that moment. After everything that had happened, I was so tired I could barely stand upright, let alone get involved in another fight. All I wanted to do was fall down and sleep for a bit, though that wouldn’t happen for awhile. 

At the last second, as Alloy started to lift us off together on one of her marble boards, I turned back and called toward Caishen, “Oh! There’s a guy in the port-a-potties over there! You uhh… you might wanna get him out of there before the dude dies from the smell. 

“I really don’t want to get in trouble with violating the Geneva Conventions or something.” 

*****

Unfortunately, I barely had time to check in with the others for a few minutes near one of the side exits from the park. I had just made sure everyone was okay, and thanked them for showing up, when I got a text on my phone from Eits. Glancing at it, I saw the message, ‘Arleigh and brothers looking for you. Seem really worried. You might want to have an excuse ready for where you were.’ 

Yeah, that made me do a double-take. They were looking for me? Why? What– okay, no time to think about that. If they looked too hard and started wondering how I’d disappeared so effectively… fuck. That could be bad. 

“Sorry, gotta go play at being me for awhile,” I interrupted while Paige was starting to talk about Banneret. “The Cassidy me, I mean. I uhh, thanks again, guys. Seriously. I would’ve been pretty screwed without you. And so would Inessa.” 

“Yeah, and we definitely wouldn’t want anything bad to happen to your idol,” Sierra replied a bit slyly, looking me up and down. “Did you get her autograph? Or give her yours?” 

“I–that’s not–” I was blushing even more, waving that off with both hands. “Never mind, I’ve gotta go. I’ll check in with you guys as soon as I don’t have a bunch of people wondering where the hell I am.” With that, I extended my arm to use a bit of paint to pull myself to a roof where I could change. But then I paused and glanced back toward Paige. “Oh, and I’ll have to tell you about how I was combining paint colors to get new effects.” 

The blonde girl started to nod absently before her gaze snapped toward me as she actually processed what I’d said properly. “Wait, you did what? Paintball, you did what?! Damn it, Paintball!” 

But I was already gone, leaving the others behind for the moment as I sent myself flying across the street, over several parked police cars and an ambulance. A few random civilians scattered around shouted up at me, and I waved but didn’t slow down. Now was not the time to get caught up with something else. 

Instead, I made sure I was out of sight before hurriedly summoning my normal clothes back in the back. I did a quick change, glanced around once more, then lowered myself to the ground in the alley. Finally, I took my civilian phone out and looked at it. Oh, right, about twenty-seven missed calls and texts. Fantastic. 

Scanning through them, I saw that three different calls were from my parents, along with a text. Another call was from Simon, and the rest were all from Arleigh. She sounded increasingly frantic to know where I was and that I was okay, which might have been sweet if it wasn’t Arleigh. Obviously something was going on. I really didn’t believe she cared about me enough to check in that many times. Why would she be that upset at the idea of me being hurt?

Shaking that off, I quickly called my mother back. As the call went through, I took a deep breath and composed myself. Or rather, uncomposed myself. Was that even a word? I sure wasn’t decomposing. Either way, I jumped up and down a few times and shook my head back and forth. Time to play this up. 

It only rang once before my mother’s voice immediately came through as the call connected. “Cassidy? Cassidy, are you alright?” She didn’t sound completely freaked out or anything, but there was a definite uncertainty and worry in her voice. Weirdly, I felt a flash of guilt about making her upset. That was stupid, right? She had helped hurt plenty of other people much worse than just being worried about me for a few minutes. And yet, the feeling was there anyway. Stupid unreasonable and illogical feelings. 

“I’m okay! I’m fine, Mom!” I was talking too loudly, intentionally making myself sound even more upset and confused than I was. After all, this was supposed to be one of the first times I’d been in any sort of situation like this. The first time since I’d hid in the bathroom at the hotel to avoid the Scion troops back. I injected embarrassment and confusion into my voice. “I saw those guys show up while I was getting nachos, so I hid under one of the cars in the parking lot. But I dropped my phone when I was… when I was…” I swallowed hard, giving it a three count before quietly finishing, “When I was running away. I dropped my phone and I couldn’t get to it. There were guys all around and I didn’t want to–I mean I was trying to–I mean–” 

“Shh, it’s alright.” Mom sounded relieved. “It’s okay, principessa, you did just fine. Have you spoken to the police yet? Your father will be there soon. Where are you?” 

“I’m… I’m gonna talk to the cops in a second. I’ll be near the skate entrance,” I informed her, already walking that way. “Mom, my battery’s getting really low. I’ll talk to Dad as soon as he gets here. I’m okay. I’m fine.” Even as I said that, I made sure to sound like I was anxious and jumpy, but not enough to make her even more worried. I needed my mother to be convinced I was fine, but not suspicious about how fine I actually was. 

Boy was this a hard tightrope to walk. So I just told my mother I loved her and would see her soon, then disconnected. By that point, I had reached the park. There were cops all around, but they were focused on getting the bad guys I had tied down all loaded into cars to be taken in. No one paid much attention to me as I looked around before spotting Ryder standing by himself. He saw me at the same time and made a point of lifting his phone to his ear, then nodded to one side. Following the direction he was indicating with my gaze, I finally found Arleigh. She was with her dad, standing off by themselves away from everyone else. From the look of things, they were deep in conversation. 

So, I took my Paintball phone out, holding it to my ear after glancing around once. Immediately, I could hear voices. Arleigh and her father’s voices. 

“–told you, I tried to find her,” the girl was saying.

In the distance, I could see Trey Fosters hold up a hand with a single finger raised. “One job, Arleigh. In this whole operation we gave you one single job. When everything went down, you were supposed to make Cassidy Evans see you protect her. You were supposed to be the one who kept her safe. I thought you could handle that much, at least. Everyone else was doing the important things. The Ministry has their agents in place now. They can do their jobs. The Sidorov girl’s worried now. She’ll accept protection. Their protection. So we can find out exactly how this DNA-lock removal works and get it off your little brother. Everyone else succeeded at their parts in this despite unexpected interference.” 

Wait, hold on, was that what this entire thing was about? I found myself rocking back on my heels a little bit and that revelation. The Ministry had approved this entire thing just so they could get some guards close enough to Inessa to figure out how she was getting rid of her own ability to open her brother’s vault, so they could do the same with Errol? That was… that was…

I didn’t have time to think about what that was. Arleigh’s voice suddenly filled my ear through the phone. “There she is!” 

Oh, me. She had spotted me. Quickly putting the phone away, I looked around as though I had just heard a hint of her raised voice in the distance. Finally ‘spotting’ her as she shouted my name, I waved a bit awkwardly and took a few steps that way. 

Before I could reach them, however, my dad was there. He came racing across the grass, taking just a second to shout a greeting toward Mr. Fosters before taking a knee in front of me. The next thing I knew, he was pulling me up against his chest in a tight embrace. “Cassidy, oh, Cassidy. You’re alright.” 

“Yeah, I… I’m okay, Dad,” I managed, returning the hug after a second. “I’m just really confused right now. But… but wait.

“Where’s Izzy?”  

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Exhibition 25-08 (Summus Proelium)

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Inessa’s brother was a Tech-Touched? And a villain?! And he was on Breakwater?! 

I… I didn’t know any of that. 

While I was still reeling from the words, Inessa hissed, “I am not going with you.” She was picking herself up from the grass where she’d stumbled. “As I have told everyone else, I will die before I allow you to use me to open that vault.” 

Open a vault? Wait, what?

Praxis continued. “I hate to be rude, especially to someone I’ve enjoyed watching as much as you. But yes, you are. The only way into that vault of his is with his DNA. Which you have. So you’re coming with us. And we’re gonna have ourselves an early Christmas.” 

“We would have waited until after your little show so this wasn’t so public.” That was the voice of Fogwalker. The Touched Lynx was stalking closer as he continued. “But it turns out you’ve been a busy beaver. What is it, one more test before you shut down your connection to that vault?” 

Praxis made a show of exhaling in relief. “Good thing we got here in time! How rude would it have been if you and your friend managed to finish your little experiments? Then nobody would be able to get into that vault.” 

Inessa’s head was shaking wildly. “That’s the point! Nobody should be able to use those weapons!” 

Wait… wait… my mind was spinning out. But still, pieces were clicking into place. Inessa also had a connection to a thing full of dangerous stuff that would only open for her DNA, just like Errol with that safe that the Scions had. In this case, her brother’s vault. But she was trying to do something to make it so she couldn’t open the vault anymore, and they were almost successful. That was why she was being put up at the Foster’s house. Whether she knew or not, I had no idea. But that was it. She was here so they could find out more about those experiments or something. They probably wanted to remove Errol’s connection to the safe so he couldn’t be used to open it. 

That was… that was positive, right? If they were going through all this rather than just killing him, that was good. It meant my family weren’t the type to just execute a little kid like that. 

Even as I had that thought, my brain pointed out that they might also want to use that research to transfer control of the safe so they could control all the people Overseer had made puppets out of. I didn’t even know if that was possible, but it still occurred to me. Was I just being too cynical? 

I had no idea, and it honestly didn’t matter right this second. What mattered was making sure these guys didn’t manage to kidnap Inessa and make her open that other vault, wherever it was. We could deal with the rest of that later.

To that end, I realized that I was no longer feeling the invisible pressure against my chest. I had been lowered to the ground and was just standing there against the tree. Praxis’s telekinesis power had faded. But we weren’t exactly home free. She had her arm with that concussive force bracelet pointed my way, and Fogwalker had moved right up to one side of me, ready to pounce if I moved. 

When I looked around once more, desperate to find help, I realized why no one had come to us yet. Fogwalker had created clouds of darkness all around us. We were basically in the eye of the storm, a small pocket area that was open. I had no idea how far his fog stretched, but it was enough to stop anyone from finding where we were any time soon.

Okay, so I had to deal with this myself. With two (or three depending on how you were counting) different powerful Fell-Touched watching my every move, I had to get Inessa out of here before they used her to open that vault and get a bunch of apparently incredibly dangerous weapons. Great, just fantastic. One wrong move and this whole thing was going to blow up in my face. 

In that second, Praxis was replaced with Theory, pointing his gun my way while using his other hand to dig inside that lab coat. He produced a bracelet of some kind and tossed it toward Inessa. “Put that on so we can get out of here, unless you want to see your little savior’s brains get blown out the back of that helmet. This thing was turned low before. It’s not anymore.” 

Okay, Okay, think about this. What was I going to do? Inessa was fumbling with the bracelet. I had no idea what it was actually going to do, but clearly if she put it on, this was over. If I was going to stop this, I had to do something right now. Especially considering Theory was out now and was probably setting up a new power for Praxis that would fuck us all over even more. 

Through the past few seconds, I had been painting new designs on the inside of my costume. I was pretty sure these two were watching for any paint, but they were too new to realize I could put it on the inside instead of just the outside. They thought they had me covered just by watching my front and back, and I was going to use that assumption against them. It was my only shot.

I could see the look on Inessa’s face as she glanced at me. She didn’t want to put on the bracelet, and certainly didn’t want to let these guys get into the vault with her brother’s weapons. But she also didn’t want to let me get my brains blown out, which I appreciated. Still, as she moved to put the thing on her wrist, I knew I was out of time. I had to do this now. 

Praying that I had the right idea about my new combined paint tricks, I had made one of my arms and both legs a mix of purple and pink. That was on the skin and the inside of my clothing. Meanwhile, I had orange and green designs across most of the rest of my body. I activated all of it at once, and instantly lashed out with both hands. My right hand went down and back toward Fogwalker, and as my palm hit the lynx’s face, I activated the blue and green circle I had put there. Instantly, he was launched away from me, flying off like I’d shot him from a cannon, his yowl filling the air. At the same time, my other arm (the one that was painted pink and purple) snapped forward, extending in the process. The pink part of the paint made it stretchy, and the purple meant I was strong enough to make it snap outward like that just by making a throwing motion. The arm stretched a good fifteen feet, clear across the distance between Theory and me. He fired off a shot, but with the green paint active, I had time to shove myself upward. That was where the purple and pink paint on my legs came in. Suddenly, it was like I was standing on stilts. My legs extended a good ten feet into the air. They would’ve been way too thin to support my weight like that, given how much they were pulled like taffy in the process. But the purple meant I could stand like that. 

The shot blew a hole in the tree right between my now-extended legs. At the same moment, I managed to catch hold of that gun with my extended hand and ripped it out of his grasp. My voice rose to a shout, directed toward Inessa. “Don’t put it on!” 

Fogwalker was recovering, and I saw the darkness start to close in around me. Meanwhile, Theory had vanished and was replaced with Praxis. They were ready to use whatever power he gave her, and I was pretty sure I didn’t want to know what it was.

Taking three green-speed boosted steps forward on my ridiculously long legs (seriously, I was a good thirteen to fourteen feet tall by that point and felt like a giant for the first time in my life) I grabbed Inessa around the waist with one arm, which wrapped around her like a tentacle or something. Yeah, it was weird, but I didn’t have time to apologize. Even as Praxis was turning my way, hand rising to point, I activated the blue-mixed-with-green circles I had put on the bottom of my shoes. Instantly, I was launched upward with Inessa in tow.  Something, an energy blast or whatever, passed through the area where I had just been. But we were already rocketing into the air. We went into the dark cloud and my vision was cut off entirely, but that didn’t matter. I knew exactly where we were. I could sense a huge tree about a hundred feet or so to my left, and hit that with a red shot of paint, using another bit on my glove and wrist to yank both of us in that direction. 

A second later, we were out of the fog. The sunlight returned with almost painful suddenness, and I saw the tree ahead of us. Canceling the red paint so we wouldn’t be pulled directly into it, I was about to look for another spot to yank us toward when I caught a glimpse of Alloy flying in from the side. Quickly, I canceled the rest of my paint, except for the orange, and added a bit to Inessa while my arm went back to normal. And yes, it was a weird sensation when it unwrapped itself from around her. The two of us fell right into the large bowl that Alloy made out of a couple of her marbles. She came up right beside us on her board, blurting, “What the hell is going on?”

I was already pushing myself up. “Take her! Get her out of here, just go somewhere safe and out of sight until you hear from me. Out of the park, wherever, just get her gone!”

Thankfully, the other girl didn’t question that. She muttered an apology for any jostling to Inessa and then took off with her even as I launched myself out of the bowl. My paint was almost gone by that point, but I used just a little bit of orange to protect myself as I landed back on the ground. A quick glance over my shoulder showed Alloy flying out of the park with Inessa. 

That was the good news. The bad news was that just then I caught sight of a man stepping out of the bushes nearby. It was a man I recognized immediately. He had the same sleek red suit over a black silk shirt, the same red leather boots, and the same red and gold mask. The mask of a devil, for Devil’s Due.  

I tried to react quickly enough to send a shot of black paint at the guy, but he was ready and spoke first. “Hey, hang on a second, I’m not here to fight.”

His words made me hesitate. I really should mute him, but maybe it’d be better to listen. There’d been so much fighting already, and if he didn’t want to continue that, what was the harm in hearing him out?

I could hear the smile in the man’s voice as he continued. “Good, that’s good. We all want this fighting to stop, right? And the best way to do that is if we have what we want. We get to leave with the girl and nobody else has to get hurt. That lets everyone be happy, and that’s a good thing, isn’t it?” He waited until I gave a little nod before going on. “Which means the best way to make everyone happy is for you to call your friend back and tell her to bring Inessa. Then we’ll leave with her and you can stay here with everyone else and make sure they’re okay.”

Sure, right, that made sense. I did want the fighting to stop, and that sounded like the best way to do it. So, I reached for my phone so I could call Peyton. In just a moment, this would all be over. It was a thought that made me smile under my mask and helmet. 

Fortunately, before I could actually do more than get the phone in my hand, another figure came running up. A hand smacked the phone out of my hand, while a strangely calm voice pointedly announced, “You don’t want to do that.”

It was Skip, the Ten Towers Touched. She was there in her usual dark blue-black bodysuit with intricate runic-like lines running through it, covered partially by a short-sleeved white robe with a hood that covered the top half of her head, and a black cloth mask that covered the bottom half of her face while leaving just enough of her eyes exposed to show Asian features. 

After knocking the phone out of my hand and saying that, she kept walking toward the man in front of us. Seeing her coming, Devil’s Due quickly spoke up. “Hey now, we can all get along. Don’t you want to be friends too?” 

“Not particularly,” she informed him flatly, just before her foot lashed out in a kick that took the man in the stomach. As he doubled over, she caught his arm and was just about to put a pair of handcuffs on him. But at the last second, her gaze moved to look off to the side. An instant later, a blast of lightning shot out, almost nailing the girl. But she had already vanished from that spot, reappearing right next to me again. 

Right, Skip. She could skip any effect on herself, including Devil’s Due’s power, and skip back along to any physical location she had been in the past twenty-four hours. The understanding struck me just as the last of that dick’s power wore off and I was back to thinking for myself again. Just in time to see the source of that lightning blast. It was Juice, of course. He was running our way, and looked pretty profoundly pissed off. Janus were with him, Mister Harmful facing us. And if Juice looked pissed off, hoo boy did Harmful put that to shame. 

Quickly, I did what I should’ve done in the first place and hit Devil’s Due with a shot of black paint to shut him up. No way did I want to go through that again. Sadly, I didn’t have a paint color that could so easily deal with Janus and Juice. On the plus side, it might be just Skip and me facing down three Fell-Touched, but at least I’d been standing here long enough that my paint had refilled. So I was going into this with a full tank. Still, we were going to have to do this the hard way. 

Or were we? Even as the other two approached, I abruptly realized that we really didn’t have to stand here and fight them. Skip could leave at any time, and I could outrun these guys. Unfortunately, no sooner had that thought occurred to me, than the prospect of escaping became much harder. Fogwalker and Theory appeared behind us, coming out of the bushes. Now we had three guys ahead and two behind. Skip might’ve been able to teleport, but I didn’t like my own odds of being able to avoid all of them, especially when Theory could let out Praxis at any moment with whatever power they wanted.

”Okay,” Theory was saying as they closed in to encircle us. “Let’s try this again. Where is Inessa? Believe me when I say you don’t want to give us a reason to break the answer out of you. Even if my new friend over there would really enjoy it.” His head nodded toward Janus. “One last chance, kid. Give it up. The two of you are surrounded and the girl there can only teleport herself.”

“Watch it,” Fogwalker snarled, “he’s a tricky one. Don’t get too close.” 

While I was still trying to think of a way out of this, Skip spoke in that same calm and measured voice. “You are wrong about something.”

“What,” Juice snapped, “you gonna say you can teleport other people after all?” Despite his dismissive words, I could hear the worry behind them. He really was concerned about that being a possibility. 

Skip’s head shook easily. “No, you are right about that. What you were wrong about was when you said two of us.“

They (and I, honestly) were still processing that, as another voice spoke up. “Yes, maybe you should count again.” 

It was Caishen, Skip’s sister and the leader of the local Ten Towers team. She came into view, with Stick next to her. Soon, they were joined by Bunglebotch, Linesight, and Ephemera. All of them were spread out to surround this group, and all looked fresh. We’d been fighting for a while now, but the Ten Towers Star-Touched had clearly just arrived, and they looked ready to make up for lost time. 

At that moment, I saw Theory look to one side. My mouth opened to shout a warning, just as he disappeared. He was replaced with Praxis. But rather than fight, she extended her arms to either side and snapped, “This is a lost cause.” And with that, she and her partners all started to glow brightly. Before anyone could move, they vanished. Teleportation. Theory had given her teleportation. And now they were gone. They left. Which meant it was over. Thank fuck, it was over. Part of me wanted to sag with relief, but I still didn’t know what was going on with the others. Not only my team, but the Minority too. Last I knew, the latter had been fighting Banneret and a bunch of Prevs. Were they okay? Was Izzy alright? 

With those thoughts rushing through my mind, Caishen, who had taken a step toward the bad guys just as they disappeared, stopped short. She stared at the spot where Praxis had been, then turned to look toward her sister and me. “Okay then. 

“Can someone please tell me what exactly is going on here?” 

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Exhibition 25-07 (Summus Proelium)

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I was trying very hard not to think about the fact that I was leaving Izzy, Amber, and the others behind to fight a bunch of bad guys who were boosted by Banneret. They could handle it, right? I wasn’t going to come back later and find out that–

Fuck, stop it. Stop thinking about that. There was nothing else that we could do. The other bad guys were still after Inessa for whatever reason (and boy was I going to ask questions about that as soon as the opportunity presented itself). We couldn’t just leave her high and dry, so we’d had to split up. It was the best–only choice we’d had. 

And yet, none of those thoughts stopped me from worrying while gripping the handle on the marble-board tightly. Peyton was sending it as fast as she could across the park, toward the west exit. On the way, I did my best to distract myself by giving the others a quick rundown about what Fogwalker and Theory/Praxis’s deals were. Obviously, on the latter all I could do was say ‘try to stop them when Theory is out,’ which wasn’t much. I just felt repeated waves of confusion and trepidation about this whole thing. Why were they so intent on grabbing Inessa? This wasn’t just an ordinary kidnapping of a celebrity, was it? There were much better targets than her. As much as she might’ve been my hero, I knew she was relatively minor as far as that went. And this wasn’t just a small operation. They had at least five Touched here along with all these Prev troops. It would’ve been completely insane for all of this to just be for kidnapping one minor-to-moderate celebrity. So what the hell was actually going on? I still had no idea.

None of the others were any closer to an answer either. At least not in the brief time we had while soaring just above the trees, our eyes frantically scanning for any sign of our quarry. We were just going to have to deal with this first before finding out why it was happening. And seriously, where the hell were these guys?! They had been just ahead of us before. But obviously, Praxis was back out with another transportation power. Did that mean we were too late? Did they already have–fuck, no. That wasn’t helpful either. Just keep looking, they had to be somewhere around–

“There!” It was Calvin, the boy shifting his weight a bit as he continued gripping the handle with one hand so he could point off to the left side with the other. “Over by the tennis courts!” 

He was right. Even as my gaze snapped that way, I could see another group of those Prev thugs swarming over the courts, which were set next to one of the large restrooms. The full brick and mortar building type in this case, rather than the line of port-a-potties that had been over by the skating area. There was a sidewalk leading out of the restrooms and over to the courts, before it split off to head back deeper into the park or over the lot where several cars were parked. 

For a second, I didn’t see Theory, Praxis, or Fogwalker. Or any sign of the latter’s power. Then there was a loud bang, just as we flew far enough to see the front of the restroom. Praxis was there, having just ripped one of the apparently locked metal doors off. It crumpled in her grip before she tossed it over her shoulder and barged inside, shouting something I couldn’t make out. Fuck, fuck, was Inessa in there? Were they about to take her? 

Not on my watch. Without wasting another second, I blurted for the others to follow while hitting them with a quick spray of orange just in case. Then I dove over the side of the board, using a bit of blue at the last second to launch myself out and forward. I could see my target ahead, a skylight in the top of the building. There were two, one for each restroom. I was aiming for the one on the side Praxis had just gone into. And I wasn’t satisfied with my normal falling speed. Instead, I shot two bits of red to either side of the skylight and activated those along with red spots on my boots. Just as I started being yanked that way, I also activated a pair of long green lightning bolts along most of my legs. Between the green boost, the red yanking me that way, and my normal falling speed, I rocketed toward that building. At the last second, I canceled the red pull and tucked my arms against my chest while using an orange dumbbell symbol across my chest and a matching one taking up most of my back to make sure I didn’t go splat.

Please don’t die, please don’t die, please don’t die! 

Was I talking to myself or Inessa? I had no idea, but the advice was probably good for both of us.

An instant later, I hit the window and the glass shattered underneath the impact. If I hadn’t been protected by the orange paint, I would’ve been cut to ribbons. Not that it would’ve mattered, because if I didn’t have the orange paint, I would’ve died about a nanosecond later once I hit the floor of the restroom. It was cement, which cracked a bit under the force of my landing. 

I didn’t consciously take the time to look around and actively take in anything about the environment other than ‘inside a restroom with a cement floor.’ And yet, I instinctively knew the doorway was six feet ahead of me and one foot to the right, there were four stalls to my left, and a couple urinals to the right, with two sinks to the left of the doorway against the same wall as the stalls. I knew all of that without thinking about it. The information was just there in my head. 

Even as I hit the ground in a crouch (feeling a wave of pain run through my legs despite the paint), I could already see my target ahead of me. Praxis was slower than me for the moment, her gaze still raised as she had reflexively looked up at the sound of the glass shattering. She was starting to lower her head to bring me into her vision, but I was faster. A shot of red paint hit her front, while I sent another one behind me toward the wall. In the next second, she saw me, and raised her hand. But I was already diving forward and down into a roll while activating that red paint. Instantly, the woman was yanked off her feet and went flying over my body as I rolled under her. She slammed into the far wall, cursing up a storm. 

For a brief, happy moment, I thought I had a good ten seconds where the paint would hold her. But no sooner was I back on my feet, than the woman slammed both fists into that wall, punching two holes into it. She was going to rip that part of the wall apart within a couple seconds, and then it wouldn’t be able to hold her. 

Or she would have. To slow that down, I shot the woman with a blotch of yellow paint across her back. She couldn’t move as quickly, so she couldn’t punch as hard. Then I hit the wall itself with orange to protect it. There, that should hold her for–

She wasn’t there anymore. Theory was. But he wasn’t stuck to the wall, because his body hadn’t been hit with paint. Nor was he slowed down, which he demonstrated by immediately spinning toward me with a gun raised, and my green speed boost had worn off right then. Fortunately, I still had another second or two of orange time left for protection. But the thing didn’t fire bullets. Instead, I was hit by a concussive blast that sent me flying through the open doorway. In mid-flight, just as I reached the outside, I managed to activate a yellow parachute design across most of my torso and down my legs. It slowed me down enough that I could flip over in the air, sending red shots toward either side of the doorway, and yank myself back that way. As soon as I was going back the right direction, I canceled the yellow paint to get my speed back. 

Theory had turned back toward the bathroom stalls as I rocketed back into the restroom. I saw him spin back toward me, raising that gun again. But before he could do anything with it, Poise appeared, standing right on the edge of that now-shattered skylight I had gone through. She saw me, saw the man with the gun raised, then dropped down onto him, taking him to the ground under the weight of the impact. A second later, I landed on one knee next to them. 

That should have been the end of it, by all rights. Unfortunately, the second Paige brought the asshole to the floor, he vanished. Praxis was back, but she wasn’t underneath the other girl. Instead, she had reappeared about two feet back, in a standing position. Before Paige or I could react to that, the woman caught hold of both of us, one with each hand, and hurled us forward into what remained of the same wall I had red painted her to a few seconds earlier. We both hit the wall together, and I was really glad I had my helmet. Even then, I was going to be heavily bruised after all this. 

There was a loud clanging sound behind us, and I twisted my head back just in time to see Praxis rip one of the stall doors off. She glanced inside, apparently saw nothing, then pivoted to swing the whole door at the two of us. But Paige had recovered by then too, and both of us dropped to the floor, letting the thing slam into the wall just above our heads. 

By that point, Style had arrived as well. I didn’t know where the others were, but she came through the open doorway behind Praxis while she was still in mid-swing with that door and launched herself into a kick at the woman’s back. It didn’t actually do much. Strong as my doppelganger was in her biolem body, Praxis was currently an order of magnitude stronger. It did, however, draw her attention. The woman spun that way, throwing a punch that was actually quick enough to catch Sierra across the face (or rather, the visor part of the military-style tactical helmet she was wearing). Fortunately for Sierra, the other woman’s super strength had apparently worn off somewhere between the time that Sierra kicked her and when that punch landed. Because her hand just bounced off, and Praxis blurted a sharp, pained curse. 

Paige and I were both back on our feet and turned that way by then, while Sierra went to grab the woman’s arm. But even without active powers, Praxis wasn’t helpless. Her uninjured hand extended, and I caught a glimpse of some sort of silver bracelet on her wrist, just before it sent out a blast of concussive force similar to the one Theory’s gun had hit me with. But Sierra was quick enough to pivot out of the way, so the blast went over her head and took out a chunk of the door frame behind her.

Paige and I both moved to grab the woman’s arms, even as Sierra continued her pivot and came back around to kick her in the stomach. But all of us missed. Primarily because the woman wasn’t there anymore. She was gone and Theory was back. Like before, he didn’t appear in the same spot Praxis had been in, which I hadn’t even known was an option until a few moments earlier, and still felt like cheating. Either way, the man popped into view a bit to Sierra’s left, and already had his gun raised that way. But before he could pull the trigger, Paige had already recovered from missing her attempt to catch Praxis’s arm and instead lashed out with a kick. Her foot hit his wrist, sending his aim off to pulverize one of the other stalls. 

And then I saw her. Inessa was there, crouched in a corner of that now-demolished stall. She had barely avoided having her head taken off by that blast. Theory saw her too and started to turn that way, but both Sierra and Paige jumped over and got to him before he could do anything. Both of their fists collided with his head, dazing the man briefly and hopefully preventing him from switching places for the moment. Together, they caught his arms and shove-threw him out the doorway as hard as they could. 

“Get her out of here!” Paige blurted at me, just as she and Sierra went through the doorway after Theory. 

Wait, yeah, good idea. Pivoting back to where my idol was, I shoved all questions and confusion out of my head (along with the urge to giggle stupidly when I saw her), and just reached out to grab her arms. “Sorry, Miss Sidorov,” I blurted, “but we’ve gotta go!” Before she could respond, I activated purple hammers along both of my arms to help her get up. Then I wrapped my arms around her (stop thinking about that, Cassidy) and planted a blue puddle under our feet. But not just any blue puddle. First I made an empty circle of green, like I had done with the empty circle of yellow earlier. Then I filled it in with blue and allowed the former to feed into the latter. 

Yeah, when I activated that thing, we were rocketed out of the restroom and through the broken skylight. It was a good thing the glass was all gone by that point (crunched into tiny shards under our feet throughout the room below) because we went up through the hole like we had been shot out of a cannon. 

And this time, I wasn’t the only one giving a loud whoop of delight. Inessa’s rang through my ears as we soared high up, reaching a spot maybe ten or twelve feet above the roof of the restroom. Then I activated a yellow parachute ship I had put on both my back and Inessa’s as my arms were wrapped around her. That slowed our fall just enough that I could look around quickly. And I finally saw what was keeping the others busy. Alloy, Calvin, and Hobbes were dealing with those guys we had seen on the tennis courts. Or keeping them occupied, at the very least. Which explained why they hadn’t come rushing to their boss’s aid. 

After taking that in, I used red and orange paint to get Inessa and myself to the ground as far from the courts and restrooms as I could manage. We landed safely in the grass about seventy feet away, both of us dropping into rolls to deal with the momentum before popping back to our feet. She was slightly quicker about it than I was, which really said a lot about how amazing she–

Later, Cassidy. 

Right, we knew where the Prev troops were, and Paige and Sierra were keeping Theory and Praxis busy for the moment. Hopefully they wouldn’t give Theory the time he needed to set up a new power. I still wasn’t sure exactly how she’d kept the super strength for a few more seconds after switching with him that one time, but maybe it gave her a little more time if she ended early or–whatever, there wasn’t time to think about it. Right now, I just had to figure out how to get Inessa out of–

Darkness enveloped me, cutting off my vision almost entirely. I could barely see a few inches in front of my face. And it wasn’t just darkness. It felt like being underwater without actually being wet. The air was literally thick. This cloud that had appeared slowed my motions, slowed everything. It felt like my thoughts were slowed down. 

Oh, right, this would be Fogwalker. I had forgotten about him for just a second. And now the two of us were caught in his power. I grabbed Inessa’s arm, looking around quickly. Not that it helped. I could still sense every object around us. I knew where the trees and bushes were within the vicinity, and even knew exactly where the edge of the restroom building and tennis courts were in the distance. Unfortunately, that didn’t really help me know where the Touched lynx was. And to be honest, the idea of one of those things prowling through this fog toward me really–yeah it wasn’t fun. 

Thinking quickly, I released Inessa, stepping in front of her while covering my upper torso and helmet with a mix of pink and blue paints. The former fed into the latter as I activated them. Then prayed that Fogwalker would make his move soon enough. And asked myself just what sort of insane person hoped that a basically-invisible superpowered lynx would jump at them within the next ten seconds. Why would I do that?

Because it was better than the fucking thing doing it in eleven seconds, that’s why. 

The lynx was so quiet, I didn’t hear it approach until the very last second. A slight rustling on the grass was my only warning. Then the full weight of that oversized cat crashed into me, knocking me backwards and down. And yet, under that impact, my entire pink-blue-painted torso sort of collapsed in on itself. It felt really weird, the way my whole chest seemed to turn into an accordion. And no sooner had Fogwalker hit me, than my torso snapped immediately back to the way it was supposed to be, catapulting Fogwalker away from me. I heard his panicked and confused yowl as the big cat went flying away from me with several times more force than he’d actually hit me with in the first place. In the distance, I could hear him crash into the dirt with another yelp. 

Quickly canceling the paint, I grabbed Inessa’s hand again and started running. Well, as close to running as we could get in this stupid fog. “Come on!” I shouted her way. “Trust me!” 

Thankfully, she didn’t argue, and the two of us were soon ‘sprinting’ (if you could call it that) together through pitch black fog. I directed her around bushes, avoided a few random statues, pulled her away from a tree, and overall just kept running as fast as we could in the fog. We just had to reach the edge of Fogwalker’s power, and then–

We hit open air and sunlight just in time for an invisible force to pick me up and throw me up against the nearest tree. My back hit it hard enough to make me flinch. 

Praxis, of course. She was there, panting heavily while clearly glaring at me. Her hand was extended, using what was obviously a telekinesis power to keep me pinned against the tree. “No… more…” she managed through hard breaths. “She’s coming with us.” 

My eyes were scanning the area around us in a panic, but there was no one else in sight. No one here to help out. Everyone was busy, or hurt, or… or…

“You don’t have to be such a bitch about this. I mean, come on, your brother made a lot of fun toys,” Praxis was saying, her gaze laser-focused on Inessa. “And now all of it’s just sitting there, all sad and alone while he’s stuck on Breakwater.” 

Wait… wait…

What?!

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Exhibition 25-06 (Summus Proelium)

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It would’ve been nice if I could have called a time-out for a few minutes so I could explain everything that was going on, including the new power tricks I had figured out, to my newly-arrived friends. But something told me the bad guys here weren’t exactly likely to accept something like that. Especially not with the Minority people still in the middle of fighting those other two. To say nothing of how many random mooks they had helping them. Thanks to the flurry of chaotic motion, water, random bits of flying glass, and flailing energy coils, I couldn’t see how Fragile, Whamline, Wobble, Raindrop, and That-A-Way’s fight against Banneret and the goons helping her was going. And it was completely impossible to have any idea of what was going on with Carousel and Syndicate with Fogwalker. 

Unfortunately, we couldn’t check on them any more than we could call a time-out. Poise, Style, Calvin, Hobbes, Alloy, and I had our own immediate problem, in the form of Theory and Praxis, and their own thugs. I’d taken several of them down, and Alloy knocked down more with her arrival. But more were showing up, and they did not look happy. 

That wind blast from Praxis had knocked all of us flying, scattering our group across the grass. And even as I scrambled back to my feet, my eyes caught sight of the woman holding one hand out toward where Poise, Hobbes, and I were, while the other was pointed more toward the other three. My mouth opened to blurt a warning, just before twin blasts of wind tore into us. I tried to brace myself, but it didn’t help. Once again, we were picked up and thrown, tumbling end over end under the sustained barrage of wind. On the way, while I was crashing and rolling along the grass, I tried to shoot a bit of red paint toward the woman. Honestly, the mere fact that I could aim at her in the midst of that was pretty crazy. Unfortunately, it didn’t help. My paint was caught by her wind and tossed aside, scattering into useless droplets across the grass behind me. 

Okay, so I couldn’t shoot her with paint. But I could use it on myself. While the wind continued to throw me, I focused on making red paint appear on my hands and knees, then put more of it directly under me on the ground and activated all of it. The paint yanked me down and held me in place against the force of that rushing hurricane-like air. Thanks to the visor of my helmet, I was able to look that way without the wind tearing into my eyes. I could see Praxis focusing even more of her power on me, trying to force me to go flying again. But my paint held firm. To one side, I could see Alloy shielding herself, Calvin, and Style with a low wall made out of a couple of her marbles. Poise and Hobbes, meanwhile, were crouched behind a heavy tree. Even that was bowing sideways against the force of the wind. Most of the leaves were gone, and even a few branches had snapped off to fly away along the grass. I was afraid the whole thing was going to be torn out of the ground any second. 

Fortunately, Praxis’s power didn’t last forever. After those thirty seconds (which honestly seemed like a hell of a lot longer than that in the heat of the moment), the wind died down. She immediately shifted back to Theory, with his lab coat and goggles. Which we would’ve taken advantage of, but the instant that happened, a handful of those armed thugs took up position in front of him and opened fire with an assortment of guns. It happened so smoothly that I was pretty sure they had training and practice with jumping in to cover their boss while he took the time to set up new plans and powers for his partner. Which made sense. Of course they would’ve compensated for that sort of weakness. 

Seeing those goons jumping into position with their weapons raised, I quickly triggered an orange bullseye symbol across my chest, just before those first few bullets hit my arm and shoulder. It stung a bit, but I ignored that and scrambled to my feet. The others were protected by Alloy’s wall and that tree. But we still had to move quickly. Any second now, Theory was going to finish making his ‘plan’ and bring Praxis back out with a new power. The wind had been bad enough, I really didn’t want to think about what other dangerous shit she might come out with now that they were even more pissed off and had seen how we could defend against that wind. I had a feeling that whatever they came out with next would be even more dangerous, and very different.

To stop that, I planted blue under my feet and launched myself forward and up while shouting, “Rebound!” toward Alloy. 

Thanks to all the talks we’d had, she immediately knew what to do, positioning one of her marbles in a flat, wall-like shape in the air above me. It was angled just a bit toward the group of bad guys. Just before hitting it, I sent a new shot of blue that way while inverting myself in the air. My feet hit that spot, and the blue circle launched me off it like I was a ping-pong ball, sending me straight toward the gathered group. They were still trying to adjust to my rapid movements, most of their shots flying past me. 

The plan was for me to crash into Theory and take him down before he could bring out Praxis with new powers. Unfortunately, just before I would’ve hit the man with that flying tackle after rebounding off the marble wall, one of his minions threw himself in the way. I collided with that guy instead, and we went tumbling head over heels. I could hear him yelp and curse in pain. 

Seriously, these guys were both trained enough to immediately cover their bosses weakness, and loyal enough to throw some selves into the path of my flying body? How much were they being paid? Would it seem weird if I asked this guy if I could top it? 

While those thoughts were flying through my mind, I activated a purple unicorn shape on my arm before slamming my elbow into this guy’s face. His head snapped down into the ground, leaving him dazed for the moment. 

Meanwhile, from the corner of one eye, I could see Style driving her foot into the back of one guy‘s knee from behind while he was focused on me. Her hand caught the back of his neck as he started to stumble, and slammed his head forward into another guy’s temple as that one spun to see what was going on. Beside her, Calvin quickly dropped down next to the two fallen figures and snapped a pair of handcuffs on each of them to keep their hands trapped behind their backs. 

By that point, I managed to roll backwards off of the guy who had thrown himself between Theory and me. My foot lashed out to catch his chin as he started to blearily lift his head, putting him back down for the moment. 

Now that I was up and facing the other way, I could see Poise step smoothly between two guys while catching their extended arms as they aimed their weapons my way. Before they could react, she swung their captured arms around so the pistols in their hands slammed into one another’s faces hard enough to make them stagger backward. The guns fell, and Poise caught them in mid-drop, pivoting while firing one shot from each into the two men’s feet. In the exact same motion, as she continued pivoting, her foot came up to kick each of them in the face, one after the other, while they started to collapse from being shot in the foot. 

In the span of about two seconds, these guys had both gone from pointing their weapons at me, to having their arms grabbed, guns slammed into each other’s face, shot in the feet, and then kicked in the face in the exact same spot their own guns had hit. Needless to say, they both hit the ground and didn’t seem that interested in getting back up. 

Alloy and Hobbes were also doing something, but I didn’t have the chance to see what it was. After all, I was still standing in the middle of a large group of bad guys, who were reacting to my arrival by taking quick aim. They weren’t quite aware of what was going on to the guys on the outskirts, and it would take another couple seconds for the others to reach me. Seconds I wouldn’t have before these guys opened fire. 

Luckily, I had a plan for that. I just hoped it would actually work. Even as I was taking in what Paige was doing, I had been painting a new symbol across my chest, of a sword stretching from my waist up to my neck. At the same time, my hands snapped out to send a thin spray of paint at the semi-circle of thugs in front of me. They all recoiled reflexively, likely expecting to be yanked together or sent flying. But this time, it wasn’t red or blue. Each of them was hit, much to their probable confusion, by a tiny bit of the orange paint. It wasn’t much at all, just a thin line across each of them. They were clearly confused, yet didn’t waste time trying to figure it out. Instead, they opened fire. 

And that was their big mistake, because by that point, I had activated the paint I had put on my torso in that sword shape. The blade itself was orange, while the handle was pink. Praying that this would actually work, I had fed the pink power into the orange before immediately canceling it.

Normally, when I canceled the pink paint early, it made the spot that it was affecting very bouncy. Unfortunately, it only affected the actual spot it was touching, unlike the rest of my paints, which affected a larger area. Like, in this case, the orange paint, which would protect my entire body. But if I could use my newfound ability to combine my paint into new effects…

It worked. The temporary bounciness from the early-canceled pink paint fed into the protection from the orange. As these guys opened fire, their bullets rebounded off me much faster than they would’ve with just the orange protection. They went flying back the way they’d come. And since these guys were directly in their path, they ended up basically shooting themselves. 

That, of course, was why I had hit them with orange paint, so I wouldn’t turn into a killer. I didn’t give them enough to completely protect them, just enough that the bullets wouldn’t slaughter them. It was still obviously like being hit by dozens of baseballs or whatever. Enough that the assembled group in front of me hit the ground, cursing and groaning in pain. They had no idea what had just happened, only that they started to shoot me, and had suddenly been hit by a bunch of stinging pellets that would leave pretty solid bruises and possibly even a few broken bones. But hey, at least I didn’t let them actually take the full damage from being shot?  

I didn’t have time to think too much about that. I was already pivoting to catch sight of Theory so I could take him down. Unfortunately, just as my eyes fell on him, his form shifted again. Now he was gone and Praxis was back, with that same dark blue bodysuit and mask with white chestplate, boots, and eye lenses. Her powers, however, were obviously very different. A fact that was made rather obvious as she extended her arm, with electricity coiling around her finger. She sent it flying toward me, while I flinched reflexively. Thankfully, while the bouncy part of the canceled pink paint had gone away, the actual orange was still active. So I wasn’t completely destroyed by that shot of lightning. It still shocked me a bit, yet I was able to throw myself that way through the crackling line of electricity. 

“Hey!” I blurted while catching her extended wrist. I’d already activated a couple purple dagger shapes along my legs for added strength so I could yank her off balance. “Didn’t you know I already fought an electricity guy a few minutes ago?! You’re supposed to vary things up so the audience doesn’t get bored!” 

She was still trying to shock me, even as I kept hold of her arm. I could feel the electricity pouring into me, making my body spasm and jerk a bit out of my control. But, through sheer force of will, I kept my hands on her while rearing back to kick the woman in the stomach. I just had to hit her hard enough to make her stop trying to electrocute me before my protection wore off. 

Unfortunately, her new powers apparently weren’t limited only to shooting electricity. Just as my foot passed through the spot she had been in, the woman vanished with a burst of lightning and clap of thunder. I stumbled off balance, hearing another burst of thunder a short distance away, somewhere behind me. 

Pivoting quickly, I saw her appear behind Alloy, hitting the girl with a quick shot of electricity that knocked her to the ground, twitching and crying out. 

Poise was right there, already taking aim with one of the pistols she had stripped from those guys. Before she could fire, another burst of electricity shot from the other woman’s finger. Thankfully, Paige managed to throw herself into a sideways roll, letting it go right over her head. Belatedly, I realized that she had been acting as a distraction, giving Style a chance to hit the woman from the side. But just as she would have crashed into her, another lightning bolt appeared and Praxis was gone, leaving Sierra to crash into the ground where she had been an instant earlier. 

That time, she reappeared near Hobbes and tried to grab her, hands crackling with power. But Hobbes reacted faster, hand already extended toward Calvin as she snapped her fingers and activated the suit’s teleportation power. It was Praxis’s turn to have her plans foiled by someone vanishing right in front of her. 

Before anyone else could move, a voice shouted over the sound of fighting, “Praxis!” It was… Fogwalker, who was, as promised, a lynx. A gray-furred lynx with black spots, with some sort of metal collar around its neck. The animal was perched just on the very edge of the cloud of fog he had created. Fog that Carousel and Syndicate were apparently still trapped in. 

“Time to go!” the lynx TONI called toward Praxis. When he spoke again, the voice was clearly coming from the collar itself. Apparently he wasn’t one of those that could speak normally. It always seemed weird that some ended up with the power to talk and others didn’t. Unfortunately, I didn’t have a chance to wonder about that too much, as Fogwalker added, “Target’s near the west exit!” 

Without a word of question or protest, Praxis vanished in another burst of lightning. A couple more followed as she appeared next to Fogwalker before disappearing with him. Then she did the same with Banneret, who was still fighting the others. Her time with that power had to be about to run out, but it didn’t happen before all three of them were gone.

The fog vanished almost immediately, and I could see all four Syndicates alongside Carousel, staggering suddenly as they could finally see where they were. Meanwhile, Whamline, Wobble, Raindrop, and That-A-Way were spinning around to look for where their own opponent had gone. They were also moving slowly and clumsily, practically falling over as though they were very thoroughly drunk. That was obviously thanks to the assortment of those small, flag-like marks over their bodies, courtesy of Banneret. The weapons she had taken over with more of her markings had all hit the ground together the instant she disappeared.

“Hey, what the fuck?!” That was Whamline, almost falling over as the marking slowing him down vanished and he went back to normal speed. “Where’d that bitch go?!” Belatedly, he glanced toward Raindrop and Fragile before sheepishly amending, “Sorry, I mean, what happened?” 

One of the Syndicates managed to orient himself and look back and forth between our group and the rest of their team. “Everybody okay?” 

Alloy, picking herself up from the ground after being hit by that electrical blast, grunted, “Fine, just peachy. Wait, is it over?” 

My head shook quickly. “No!” I shouted despite myself. “They’re still after Inessa Sidorov! And they found her by the west exit!” I was already trying to orient myself that way to start running, even though I wasn’t sure what good it would do. Not with that group being able to teleport. Yet even as that thought filled my mind, I saw the other group. Or rather, Fogwalker and Theory. The two of them were running past a nearby basketball court. They hadn’t teleported all the way to their target after all. Apparently Praxis’s teleportation had been strictly line of sight, and now it would take time for Theory to give his partner another transportation power. Time that we could hopefully take advantage of. Where Banneret was, I had no idea. But there wasn’t time to think about that. Not when Theory could finish charging up new powers for Praxis any moment. 

“There!” I was pointing while starting to move. “We’ve gotta stop them before they can teleport again!” 

The others were already moving to follow me, our combined teams starting to chase after the departing trio. But, of course, there were still the remaining Prev goons, who had pulled themselves together and were moving to intercept us. Worse, now we knew where Banneret was. Namely, right there in the middle of the assorted thugs, several of whom she had already applied boosting powers to. 

“We don’t have time for this!” one of the Syndicates blurted, before looking at me. “Take your team and go, stop those two! We’ll handle these guys.” 

So, we split up. Alloy created another board for our team to hop on top of, before it flew open over the heads of Banneret and her minions. They tried to aim up at us, but the Minority hit them from below, taking their attention and giving us the chance to fly after the other two. 

“Why the hell are they so obsessed with going after this skater chick anyway?!” Murphy shouted from her crouched position as she clung to the handle Peyton had created for us. 

My head shook quickly. “Dude, I’ve got no idea!

“But something tells me we really don’t want it to happen!”

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Exhibition 25-05 (Summus Proelium)

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No answers about why these guys were after Inessa, or where she had disappeared to, presented themselves as Amber, Izzy, and I raced across the park together. Apparently the other main source of fighting was going on near a small baseball field that had been built in the past couple years. There had been a Little League game going on, and the thought of those kids being traumatized and attacked by a bunch of gang members really pissed me off. Seriously, what were these assholes trying to accomplish? Had my family actually approved this? That didn’t make sense. Why would they let something like this happen, no matter how much money was paid? Attacking a Little League game? What the fuck was up with that? 

On the way, I realized that my call with Eits had been disconnected. A surprisingly painful flash of worry shot through me then, but a quick glance at my phone revealed a text from him promising to contact me as soon as he could. He said something about Pack showing up and how they had to do something now that I had Raindrop and That-A-Way for help. And he wished us luck.

It was taking us a minute to get over there. This wasn’t a small park, to say the least. But it did give me a chance to get filled in on what was going on, and what we were running into.

Beyond this whole situation, there had apparently been a flare-up of fighting between some of the Easy Eights (or the Fantastic Fives or whatever they were calling themselves now) and Oscuro near one of the old malls. Neither Deicide or Cuélebre were involved, but things were still pretty heavy, which was what some of the other Star-Touched were dealing with. 

Even worse, it sounded like Jennica had chosen now to make a nuisance of herself as well. She was in one of the police precinct stations, using her control-gems to force several of the cops to attack the others. So my dad and a couple others had to go do something about that. What made it worse was that they apparently had no idea how many of the cops in the station had been affected, or where Jennica herself was at the moment. 

The point was, between those situations and the usual crime around the city, it was taking time for more people to show up here. Which, come to think of it, maybe that was the problem? Maybe my parents expected the hero types to show up and drive these guys off pretty quickly, before there was any real danger, but then this other stuff happened. Hang on, was that the problem? I was completely positive that Jennica didn’t clear any of her criminal activities with the Ministry, so they wouldn’t have known about her plans. And from what Amber and Izzy were saying in those few moments while we were running together, the gang fight by the mall had erupted naturally, just when a few members from each side ran into each other and started a shoving, cursing match. That had escalated into a full brawl including Touched. So yeah, I was definitely willing to bet that this was the only situation that had specific Ministry approval, and likely only because they were supposed to be interrupted and driven off or whatever. 

All those thoughts flashed through my mind in a couple seconds, even as I looked toward the baseball field. Right now, all I could see was a bunch of indistinct shapes, but they were getting larger and more clear with each step. “Tell me what we’re dealing with!” I blurted that with a glance toward Amber. I knew Janus and Juice, along with that Devil’s Due guy, had joined up with a brand new gang from out of town. Well, technically they had been recruited by Cuélebre and then traded to this new gang in exchange for their own Latino Touched. But either way, I had no idea who these other people were. 

Speaking quickly, Amber explained, “Banneret looks like a mix between a medieval knight and a biker! Any inanimate object she touches she can put a mark on that makes that object do what she wants. Any living animal she puts the mark on gets a boost if they’re on her side and a penalty if they’re not. Stronger, weaker, faster, slower, all of it!”  

Izzy explained the next one, “Fogwalker’s a lynx TONI. He makes these clouds that’re like air for his friends, but really thick and hard to move in for other people, like Jello! It’s like moving underwater! I mean, what that’s like for most people.” She added the last bit a little sheepishly. 

Finally, Amber put in, “Theory and Praxis are the last one!” She saw my glance and gestured while we continued running. “They’re like Janus! Two people sharing one body, only there’s just one of them physically present at a time. They shift back and forth!” 

Like Fisher and Price, I realized, though I wouldn’t say that out loud. Not out here right now. 

Amber continued. “Theory’s the guy. When he’s out, he’s planning. He’ll look at a situation, figure out what he wants Praxis to do, then switch with her!” 

“And what can she do?” I called, eyes scanning ahead of us. We were definitely running into a mess. That much was clear. I could see a bunch of people on the ground, though they didn’t look dead. It was like they had hit the ground and were staying there to avoid drawing attention or getting hit. There were also what looked like gang members, armed with a mix of shotguns, pistols, and more melee-oriented weapons, running from group to group. I was pretty sure they were checking their faces. Were they looking for Inessa? 

“Anything!” Amber answered, making my eyes glance that way. Her head was nodding. “Within reason! I mean, within Touched reason! If Theory wants her to lift a bus and throw it, she can do that. If he wants her to fly up to the top of a building, she can do that! If he wants her to teleport, she can do that too! She gets powers based on what he plans, and his plans can only last something like thirty seconds or so before they have to switch back again. Once he’s out, he has to focus and plan out what happens next! The more power he wants to give her, the longer it takes. That’s when they’re vulnerable!” 

“Could he just say, ‘I want you to punch that Abyssal and kill it in one hit’ and give her the power to do that?!” I demanded. “Cuz I gotta tell you, I’m gonna be really pissed off if that’s a thing they could do!” 

“The power isn’t unlimited!” Amber called back. “She can get ‘shot put a tank’ strong, not ‘punch out an Abyssal’ strong! And she can’t just snap her fingers and kill people or anything. We don’t know what sort of limits there are, only that she’s only got about thirty seconds per ‘plan’ and she can’t become a god or anything.” 

Right, well, that was good to know. I would’ve hated to try to go fight someone who could turn into a god. That didn’t exactly sound like my idea of a good time. Then again, even with their so-called ‘limitations,’ I was pretty sure this wouldn’t be easy. 

By that point, I could see Whamline, Wobble, and that new Fragile girl. They were facing off with what had to be Banneret. She really did look like a cross between a knight and a biker, with black leather over most of her body, a gleaming silver chestplate, leg and arm guards, and a helmet that looked like both those things at once. It had sort of a medieval design, but was shaped like a motorcycle helmet. The visor was painted on the front to look like a knight’s helmet visor, but was clearly transparent from the inside. She had half a dozen guns, and twice that many knives, all spinning around her, along with a bunch of other random objects that she had clearly taken over. It was all the three Minority members could do to keep up with her. Fragile was using a bunch of glass shards to intercept the incoming knives, or hit the guns to knock them off course. Between that and Whamline’s coils plus Wobble’s vibration waves, the three of them were barely able to avoid being torn apart.

I couldn’t see Fogwalker the lynx, but I could definitely tell where he was. There was a thick reddish-gray… well fog over on the infield, stretching about from home plate to just a bit past second base, and covering first as well. I could just barely make out third. Whatever was going on inside that fog, we couldn’t see it. But I was willing to bet that that was where at least some of the Syndicates were. Three of them could be intangible at a time. That had to help with moving through that fog, right?  

I was guessing Carousel was in there too, because I couldn’t see her either. But I could see the person who had to be Theory. He was black, and his costume made him look like a scientist, basically. He had a long white lab coat that was just a bit thicker than it should’ve been, making me figure it was armored in some way. Beyond that, he wore heavy combat boots, cargo pants with a lot of pockets (all of which had random tools, notebooks, and other stuff sticking out of them), and a gray and black checkerboard-pattern plaid shirt. His head was bald, and he wore heavy green-tinted goggles over his eyes and a fairly large portion of his face. 

For a second, I couldn’t tell what he was doing. Not from this distance. Then I realized. He was talking on the phone. His focus was on that, as he turned in a circle while gesturing wildly. It looked like he was yelling on the phone. Whatever was happening here, it wasn’t going perfectly. Probably because they still hadn’t found Inessa. 

And seriously, why the fuck did they all want to find Inessa?!

Whatever the reason, an answer wasn’t coming immediately. Especially since Theory noticed us. I could almost see his double-take and the way he cursed, still holding the phone. Then he shouted, and I barely caught the word ‘those guys’ while he gestured our way. 

The thugs who had been going around from civilian to civilian all looked up, before focusing on us. Which meant the good news was that those people weren’t going to be harassed for a bit (or anymore at all, hopefully). The bad news was that now we had trouble, of the ‘lift their guns and start pointing them at us’ variety. 

“You guys go!” I blurted, activating the green and orange paint I had put on Raindrop and That-A-Way while we were running over here. “Help the others with Banneret! I’ll do something about our new friends!” Even as I said that, my eyes were scanning for Alloy or any of the others. The last text I’d gotten said they were coming and would be here soon. I just hoped it was soon enough

There were seven Prev thugs coming our way. Or rather, my way, once Izzy and Amber took off running toward Banneret and the others. Two of the approaching guys had shotguns, one had a long chain with some sort of blade attached to the end, another had a simple knife, two more had bats, and the last one had a pistol. That last guy was already lining up a shot, but I trusted the orange barbells I just activated on both of my arms to protect me from that. Not that I was going to be sitting idle anyway. Even as he was taking aim and starting to pull the trigger, I sent a shot of red paint that way while activating a bit of blue under my feet to send myself upwards. As the red paint hit his chest, I activated a bit of matching red on the bottom of one of my shoes. I was yanked that way in a Kung Fu-style wirework thirty-foot long jump kick that ended with me colliding with the man foot-first. He hit the ground, having only been able to let off a couple shots, which rebounded off my costume like hurled pebbles. 

At the same time, I put both hands out to either side, hitting the two baseball bats that the nearest guys had with red paint. They were already in mid-swing, but the paint yanked them toward one another rather than into the back of my head. The bats slammed into each other, and before the guys could actually let go, I took advantage of them being right next to each other by slapping the ground at their feet to make a blue circle. And this time I tried something else. Thinking about how I’d mixed white and green as well as red and green, I tried something similar here. First I made a quick empty circle of yellow, then I filled it in with blue and sort of… focused on both being connected. Then I activated them at the same time. 

It worked. The two men were launched into the air, but after they reached the first few feet off the ground, their flight slowed dramatically. They were still flying upward, but it was in slow motion. And more than that, they were flying higher than they normally would have. Like twice as high, actually. The entire effect was slowed down but also extended dramatically. It took them longer to reach the normal height, they went up twice as high anyway so that was even longer, and then they had to come back down. Which was also slowed. 

Well, at least they wouldn’t hurt themselves when they landed. And that little show even worked to distract the other guys here. While they looked that way reflexively, I hit the nearby shotgun with a bit of pink right around the middle of the barrel, while simultaneously activating a set of green wings on my back. With that burst of speed, I reached up to twist the barrel around so he couldn’t fire the gun. Not unless he was very stupid, anyway. Unlike when I used the pink paint on living targets, inanimate objects stayed the way I left them. 

Boy, between this and using the pink paint on that lamp post earlier, I really was turning into a cartoon, wasn’t I? 

The man cursed at me and dropped his weapon while trying to grab my arm. At the same time, the other shotgun guy was trying to slam the butt of that weapon into the side of my helmet. I supposed he didn’t feel great about trying to actually shoot me with it while I was so close to his buddies. Which, of course, was one of my main reasons for closing the distance the way I had. 

So one guy trying to grab my arm and the other trying to hit me with the butt of his shotgun. I certainly wasn’t going to let either of those things happen. Fortunately, I still had the green speed, so I was able to snap my arm out of the first guy’s grasping fingers before using a set of purple dart images across my leg to boost my strength enough to grab his wrist and twist it. He cried out and stumbled, before my foot collided with his knee, making him collapse fully. 

Oh, and the other guy, the one who had been trying to smack me from the side? I did something special for him. First, I made an orange smiley face appear on my helmet, right where he was aiming. The orange face had a blue mouth for a smile, along with blue sunglasses. Blue with orange. I focused on the former feeding into the latter.

In this case, when the butt of the gun hit that paint, I expected to be protected while the man was knocked away. But that wasn’t what happened. Instead, the instant the impact happened, I was fine, but the man himself jerked his head a little with a yelp of surprise, turning to look behind him. It was like someone had smacked him in the– Wait. Oh. 

Right, feeding blue into orange didn’t simply make it repel an object and protect the thing it was on. It protected the thing while also rebounding some of the damage back into the person responsible for it? I was guessing that the amount of damage returned had to do with how much blue I included. Either way, orange paint protected from damage, and blue-infused orange paint sent a portion of that damage back. 

Well, that was sure something. But I didn’t have time to focus on that now. Even as the guy turned his head away from me to see what had popped him, I was lashing out with my elbow into his stomach. It made him double over, before I caught the collar of his shirt and shoved him forward so he crashed into the guy whose leg I had kicked out from under him. They both went down in a tangled heap.

Before I could focus on the others, one of Alloy’s marbles flew in and transformed into a long, wide bar to slam into them. As I went down, my gaze snapped over and up. Sure enough, the girl herself was there, along with Style and Poise on one side of the long, wide board three of her marbles had turned into, and Calvin and Hobbes on the other side. 

They landed next to me, with Peyton asking, “Hey, are we late?”

In that moment, I caught a glimpse of Theory in his mad scientist getup walking our way. In the mid-step, his body transformed. No, he didn’t transform. He switched places with his partner. Now we were facing a woman in a form-fitting dark blue bodysuit that had a white chest plate and white boots. Her face was covered by a blue mask that covered her entire head, with white lenses over her eyes. 

Just as I took that in, the woman extended her hand and a blast of powerful wind erupted from her palm. It caught our entire group, picking us up and throwing us a good ten or fifteen feet. 

As we hit the ground and rolled, I called, ”Nope, I’d say you’re right on time!”

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Exhibition 25-04 (Summus Proelium)

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Well, assuming my intention had been to piss off a whole group of people who could kill me, then mission highly successful. All of the guys with guns who had been standing guard over the hostages immediately turned their weapons my way and opened fire. At the same time, Juice sent a blast of electricity into the area he clearly thought their gunfire would send me dodging into. But I had been pretty sure that was exactly what would happen. So, instead of throwing myself into that open space, and therefore right into the lightning, I trusted my orange paint to keep me alive. It still wasn’t fun, considering being hit by all those bullets felt like being in a hailstorm. I would definitely have a few bruises. But they didn’t penetrate, and that was the important part.

In the midst of all that gunfire, my hand touched the lamp post I was perched on. All the way down the length of it, the lamp turned pink. They noticed just as Juice’s lightning bolt went flying off a bit to my left. Before they could react, I hopped backwards, quickly activating and disabling the paint at the same moment to turn the lamp post into a springy surface. My hands caught the end of it, yanking it backwards and down with me. The pole bent all the way over, like in the cartoons when they pull a springy tree. And just like in those cartoons, when I released the pole, it snapped all the way back up and over in the opposite direction, slamming down into two of the gunmen before they could react. They were knocked sprawling down into the pit with the hostages, guns cluttering along the cement. Meanwhile, the pole snapped back upright as if nothing had happened.

Janus, by that point, were sending a massive fist the size of a Volkswagen right at the spot where I had landed. From that and the large amount of cursing they were doing, I was starting to think they didn’t like me very much.

I wanted to use yellow paint to slow the fist down, and the rest of them by extension. But I was pretty sure I was running very low on available paint at that moment, after all of it I’d used while quietly taking down those other guys coupled with turning that entire pole pink just now. I had to wait for a few seconds. Instead, I activated another couple spots of green along my legs and ran forward. Just before the fist would’ve collided with me, I activated a couple blue stars on the bottom of my shoes. It launched me upward into a flip before I came down on the men’s enormous arm. They were still reacting to that while I raced along it. “Hey guys, I think I really–” My knee slammed into one of their faces. The Mr. Harmful one, as it happened. “–kneed you!”

My momentum, combined with the fact that I had activated a picture of two crossed purple baseball bats along my arms, were enough to snap their head backwards despite their enhanced strength. I didn’t think it actually did that much damage, but still. Their right arm was still extended and shrinking back down, but the left snapped upward to grab me by the head. Before they could do that, I threw myself backwards, planting both shoes against Harmful’s face to launch away from them. “If I’m too close, I’ll put a couple feet between us!”

Juice had pivoted by that point, taking aim at me once more as I went into the air. However, before he could hit me with his second lightning blast, I pointed with both hands. One shot of red hit his extended wrist, while the other hit Janus in the shoulder. I could tell that would be the last of my paint for now, but it was enough to yank the man’s arm down just as he unleashed that blast. The lightning slammed into Janus, drawing a pained and furious cry from both of them. They stumbled backward and down onto one knee, clearly needing a moment to pull themselves together.

Juice, on the other hand, didn’t need a moment. And he was pretty damn pissed off by that point, as was the one remaining guy with his gun. That guy came charging forward, pulling the weapon up as he shouted something about me being a little son of a bitch. He opened fire, but despite all the stuff that had already happened, the ten seconds of my orange paint protection still wasn’t up yet. Three or four bullets rebounded off my helmet even as I grabbed a piece of broken cement off the ground. It was about the size of a ping-pong ball, and I pushed it against my palm while raising my hand. Before the guy knew what was happening, I activated the blue circle that was already on my glove there. The rock was launched out of my hand and smacked right into the middle of his forehead. He dropped his gun and staggered with a cry.

Meanwhile, Juice had abandoned trying to hit me with electricity. Or maybe he only had so many shots he could use in a limited time. Either way, he was running at me. And that was kind of terrifying, considering his powers didn’t just let him use electricity for lightning blasts. He also used it to make himself stronger and faster. I saw a shower of sparks from the same lamp post I had used before as he sucked the energy out of it and came running right at me like a runaway freight train. He was a huge, muscular black guy all on his own, and now he was empowered to the point that he could probably literally run right through me as if I was a squirrel and he was a truck. And my paint reserves weren’t ready to do anything yet. Fortunately, I had prepared for all this, and still had an assortment of paint scattered across my body. And, as it happened, on things other than my body. 

So, tempting as it was to stay crouched there and stare at the incoming man like a deer in headlights as he reared back his fist, I pulled out those two rocks I had painted green and white earlier. Holding them tightly, I waited as he ran, telling myself to hold off until the last second. Finally, just before he would’ve been on top of me, I activated two more small spots of blue paint on my heels. Thanks to the position my feet were in, I was sent backwards and up slightly, as the man let out a screaming curse and swung at the spot where I had just been. At the same time, I threw both of those rocks up toward his face. The second I activated them, the white paint I had covered them in went off in a quick, incredibly bright flash. 

Wait, what? That was actually a lot stronger than I’d expected, or seen up to that point. Every other time I used the white paint, it just made objects glow. My thought had been to throw white glowing rocks into his eyes to maybe distract him or whatever. The green paint had been to make them fly faster, but… Actually, come to think of it, the rocks didn’t continue to glow afterwards. It was like they had expended the full effect of the paint at once. Had I somehow put the entire ten seconds worth of light into that single flash? Wait, when I put the green in there, the two colors sort of ran together. Did the green imbue its speed into the white to make the effect faster, but more powerful? Was that something it could do?

All those thoughts jumped into my head as I came down back on the ground and rolled along the cement. Juice was bellowing loudly as he reeled and waved his hands in front of his face. Yeah, he had been at least temporarily blinded. Which was better than I had expected this to go. I was really—

A giant hand wrapped around me from behind, hoisting me off the ground while squeezing tight enough to hurt. 

Oh, right, there was still that other problem. 

Janus, who had apparently recovered, were taking themselves off the ground while holding me even tighter. If they squeezed any more, I was pretty sure something would start to break. Uncle Friendly was the one facing me, but he didn’t look all that friendly in that moment. They stepped closer, maintaining their grip while I grunted in pain. His voice came in a low snarl, teeth clenched. “Now, see, you just can’t leave well enough alone, can you? You really think you’re enough to rescue all those people by yourself, you stupid little shit?”

Grunting a little as he kept squeezing, I took a moment to force the words out. “You might be right about me being a… uggnn…. stupid… little shit. Maybe that’s why I’m confused right now. Since you’re, ugggnnn… so much smarter than me, could you maybe answer one little question?” Pausing just a bit, I made the next words come out pointedly, while they leaned a bit closer to hear me better. “Rescue what people?” 

The skating pit was to their left, out of sight of both of them. With a confused noise, Mister Harmful turned their head so he could see it… and realized that the pit was empty, save for the two disarmed and thoroughly pummeled thugs I had knocked into it. Throughout the past few moments, while I was playing distraction, the hostages had all clambered out the opposite side and were running off across the park. 

While they were distracted by that, I activated my secret weapon, the thing I had prepared ahead of time for something just like this (yeah, I was expecting them to grab me at some point). I had painted my entire body under the suit pink. I activated that paint now, and the force of their hand squeezing me instantly made my body squirt down both of their grasp. It was a very weird sensation, to say the least. My head inside the helmet stayed intact, but the rest of me was basically like an old tube of toothpaste. Well, more like my body was the toothpaste itself and my costume was the tube. Either way, I went schlooping down out of Janus’s hand, landing on the ground under the massive fist while deactivating the pink paint. Since I had done so before the ten seconds was up, my body was instantly very bouncy, so I managed to spring backward away from them as they brought that hand slamming down into the spot where I had just been with a loud curse.

Oh yeah, and Juice had recovered from that temporary blindness by that point. So they were all up and pissed at me. Which was… fun? I really hadn’t thought much further than this. Carefully and quietly taking care of all the wandering thugs and then distracting the big guys long enough for the hostages to escape was basically my plan. Except now I was stuck here facing a couple very pissed off and powerful Fell-Touched, who probably wanted to play table tennis with my head. And I was pretty sure I still wasn’t quite ready to start using new paint yet. This uhh, this could be a problem. 

“Hey guys?” I started a little weakly after standing up. “I don’t suppose you’d be interested in a lit-aaahh!” That last bit came as the two figures launched themselves at me. I activated the last bit of green paint I had, before launching myself forward in a roll that carried me just underneath their outstretched hands. I was pretty sure the only thing that saved me in that moment was that none of them expected me to move toward them rather than away. Janus had actually been extending their arms, anticipating my retreat. The fact that I moved forward into that diving roll between them caught everyone involved (even me, to an extent considering the terrified screaming some small part of my consciousness was doing) off guard. Before they could recover, I kept going, popping my skates out as I dove down into the pit. My wheels caught the cement ramp partway, and I went rolling halfway up the embankment on the opposite side. 

From the corner of my eyes, I could see Mister Harmful facing me, even as he sent one of their gigantic fists my way, their arm extending a good thirty feet in the process. Just before it would have collided with my very fragile body, I leapt off that side of the concrete embankment, landing sideways on the railing of one of the short bridges people could use to walk over the pit. My skates grinded along that railing while I shouted, “Can we talk about this?!” 

Judging from the lightning blast that Juice sent my way, which I barely managed to dodge by dropping off the railing back into the pit, the answer was no. They really did not want to talk. Though maybe they just wanted me to not be able to talk, or breathe for that matter. 

I, on the other hand, quite enjoyed my ability to do both of those things. So I breathed a sigh of relief at the feeling of my paint returning. The tanks were refilled. And none too soon either, as I was barely able to send a shot of red against the cement half-pipe in the distance to pull myself off that spot just before the Janus jerks crashed down right there. They tried to grab my foot, extending their arm after me, but I twisted around in midair and shot a burst of yellow right into their incoming hand. It slowed them down enough that I was able to land. Or rather, hit the cement and rebound off it. Because I’d put blue paint on my shoes right before impact, so it simply launched me upwards and back the way I’d come. 

A thought occurred in that instant, as I went flying back toward Janus, feet-first. Lifting my head, I quickly extended both arms to point toward them. One fired off a shot of red, while the other hit them with green. Both shots of paint hit the same spot simultaneously. Like before, with the rocks, the two colors sort of melded together in a swirl pattern. At the same time, I made the same green-red swirl pattern on the bottom of my shoes, activating all of it together. 

Okay, holy fuck. The world was suddenly a blur as I was hurled that way. The green paint definitely sped up the pull from the red. I went from being yanked in that direction to being shot like a bullet. It also made the red paint immediately vanish, but still. The momentum was already there. I barely had time to start to scream while activating an orange elephant symbol on my back. 

Uncle Friendly, the one who had been facing me, made the faintest noise of disbelief before both of my feet collided with his face. All that momentum I’d built up, from yanking myself one way with red paint, then rebounding backward and up with blue, and finally speeding myself up with that weird green-red combined pull, every last bit of it went into that impact. Even with the orange protection I had, I could still feel it. And they definitely felt it. Janus hit the ground, blood flying from Friendly’s nose and mouth. Not that I had much of a chance to notice, as I landed in an awkward rolling tumble, falling end over end along the concrete before coming to a sprawled heap. 

Boy was I glad for the orange paint. Not to mention my helmet and knee and elbow pads. That definitely hurt. But hey, I had managed to put Janus down, and they weren’t moving very much. Which gave me a chance to just lay there for a second, eyes wide behind my mask and helmet. Holy shit. Holy shit, that was something new. Green made the other paints work faster but also wore them out immediately. That was–

Oh shit there was still– A large orange hammer appeared on my chest and reactivated my protection just before a blast of electricity slammed into me. It felt like getting a nasty static shock after rubbing my sock-covered feet on the carpet and grabbing a doorknob. Not fun, but definitely not the kind of damage Juice had clearly been going for. Unfortunately, it was still enough to stun me for a moment. Which gave him a chance to grab me off the ground by the throat, still channeling more electricity into me.

Spasming as he held me off the ground and squeezed tighter, I tried to grab his hand to pry his fingers off my throat, to no avail. I was pretty sure that even if I painted my entire body purple, it wouldn’t beat his strength. But maybe if I used the new green-boosted-purple? Unfortunately, with the continued shocks running through me, I couldn’t actually focus enough to paint myself properly. Every time I tried to do so, another shock hit me. It still wasn’t doing nearly as much damage as it should have, but the jolt was enough to stop my concentration. 

This could be really bad. I only had a few more seconds of protection before he’d be able to do some real damage. I had to focus, had to force myself to push past the shocks and get… myself… 

“Hey, jerk!” A voice shouted those two words from the side. As Juice turned his head that way, he was hit in the face by a firehose-like concentrated blast of water. The force, suddenness, and (I was guessing) coldness of it made even him recoil reflexively. His grip on me loosened, just as someone appeared next to me. I felt hands grab my shoulders before I was suddenly a good twenty feet away. Twenty feet north, of course. 

“You okay?” Amber, now dressed as That-A-Way, asked as we both pivoted back in time for me to see Izzy, also in her own costume as Raindrop, facing Juice. He’d recovered from the initial shock from that blast of water, and was trying to hit her with an electrical shock. But she had half a dozen park benches and chairs from the audience floating between herself and him, and whenever the man tried to blast her, it was intercepted by one of those obstacles. 

Oh yeah, and Juice’s situation was further complicated by the fact that he was floating up off the ground. Izzy had reversed his gravity, or removed it, or whatever the term was. He was going up, anyway. 

Shaking off the last of the lingering effects of being repeatedly shocked, I started to nod. But before I could say anything, Amber pivoted so she was facing east, while putting herself in front of me. At that moment, Juice shot off another electrical blast, this one in our direction. But Amber was invulnerable in that position, and blocked me from getting hit. 

“You little fucks!” the man was shouting while still shooting off one blast after another. “You think you’re hot shit?! You think making me float up here is gonna accomplish anything?! You got no clue, you fucking neurodivergents!” 

Except he definitely did not call us neurodivergent. The word he used started with R and should have resulted in whoever his mother was washing his mouth out with about seventeen bars of soap. 

We didn’t have soap. But Izzy had water, and she used it to spray him down thoroughly once more, while he recoiled and spun in the air. Before he could recover from that, she called, “Why do you guys always forget the second half of my name? It’s Rain–

“–drop.” And with that, Izzy must have dramatically increased the amount of gravity on Juice, because he wasn’t floating anymore. He went slamming hard into the cement with enough force to crack it all around him. Even with his enhanced strength, he was out. 

Looking from his unconscious form over to the still-barely moving Janus, I slumped in relief. “Thank God. I am so glad you guys managed to… uh… wait, how did you… you know, change?” I kept my voice low. 

Amber, also whispering, replied, “Wobble brought the costumes. He and the others are on the other side of the park, with the rest of your team. There’s more of these guys and a bunch of their lackeys, looking for that Inessa chick. They’re tearing the place apart.” 

“I am so confused,” I admitted, already starting to move. If the others were still in the middle of a fight, I wanted to be there. “Why the hell are they after some random celebrity skater?!” 

Izzy joined us in running that way, while Amber shook her head and replied, “You know what, dude?

“That’s a really good question!” 

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