Poise

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?!

Previous Chapter

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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Schooling 24-01 (Summus Proelium)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“We’re sorta superheroes.” 

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Enkindle 23-17 (Summus Proelium)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Whatever came next, it was time to end this. 

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Enkindle 23-16 (Summus Proelium)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Enkindle 23-15 (Summus Proelium)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Enkindle 23-14 (Summus Proelium)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Previous Chapter / Next Chapter

Enkindle 23-13 (Summus Proelium)

Previous Chapter / Next Chapter

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Enkindle 23-12 (Summus Proelium)

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

“What the fuck was that?!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“How’re your days going?” 

******

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I’m pretty sure it’s my brother.” 

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