Equal And Opposite 21-07 (Summus Proelium)

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Dad’s speech didn’t go on for very long. Which made sense, he was kind of an expert at reading a room and knowing just how much to talk. This audience consisted of a bunch of people who were all important in their own rights, and were also waiting to eat. If he had gone on too much, he would’ve annoyed them. So, he just propped up their egos a bit with a few words about how special they were and how wonderful it was that they gave so much back to the city. And, of course, a bit about how vital the Seraph’s work was when it came to protecting the hospitals. Soothe the sense of self-importance the rich people in this place had by talking about how the city was only doing as well as it was because of them, and then make it clear (in a subtle, encouraging way) that the Seraphs and other Star-Touched teams were largely responsible for keeping the city safe so the investments these people put into it could pan out.

He said all that in very few words, while somehow making it sound and look as though he was talking to each person individually. He didn’t call anyone by name, but he met people’s gazes and gave that… that special smile that made it seem like he knew everything about you, like you were both sharing some sort of private moment even though there were plenty of other people around. The room was full of men and women who were accustomed to being the most important people around, yet my father’s speech, short as it was, made them feel it in a totally different way. And he did it while actually being the richest person in the room himself. 

I had seen my father’s speeches before, but never exactly like this. Not from this perspective, and not… not knowing what I knew. It made the whole thing even more impressive somehow. My father wasn’t just obscenely rich, he was also one of the most powerful Touched in the country and ran an organization that controlled all crime in one of that country’s biggest cities. He was, inarguably, the most powerful man in the room. But no one would know that just from listening to the way he spoke just then. He made everyone else seem important without putting anyone down. He built people up, he–yeah. No wonder my dad was such a successful businessman.

In any case, the point was that he didn’t talk for too long. Soon, there were waiters going around asking what people wanted to eat, while the band started up in the background. A few couples started to dance, but mostly people got ready for food. Especially at this table. Not that we saw very much of each other. As the waiters began to spread out and take people’s orders, privacy screens rose around us. There was the main privacy screen, a square that rose up around the table blocking any of the other people from seeing us, while remaining transparent from our side so that we could see others. Then there were also the individual privacy screens that rose up around each of our spots so we couldn’t see each other and could eat without giving away our identities. They were like the ones back at Caishen’s place, extending back a bit off the table on either side. You could put the screen back down if you wanted to, or combine them so that the people immediately surrounding you who knew your identity already were included. Obviously, I left mine up. Then again, I also didn’t remove the mask entirely. I just slid the front of the helmet up and pulled the mask high enough to uncover my mouth so I could eat. 

Call me paranoid, but I wasn’t going to take that sort of risk around here. Not with my parents and undoubtedly plenty of their minions in the room. And that wasn’t even counting anyone else who might have interest in finding out people’s real identities. 

Beside me, Peyton didn’t totally uncover herself either. She looked around a bit and considered, before simply reshaping the helmet around her face so that her mouth could be seen. Then she leaned closer to me while whispering, “They aren’t gonna serve food with like fifteen different forks and then tar and feather us for not knowing which one goes with the salad, are they?” 

“Oh, don’t worry,” Dynamic spoke up from where she was sitting, hidden behind her own screen, “we’ve been going to plenty more of these than you and we still don’t know which fork goes with what. But the secret is, they’re all too afraid of us to actually speak up and say anything about it.” 

Clearing her throat a bit, Brumal put in, “I believe the more important thing is that they can’t see how you’re eating, so there’s no complaint to make. But either way, don’t worry about it.” Her voice softened slightly, as I saw just enough of the top of her head to know that she was looking toward Alloy and me. “No one who matters is going to give you a hard time about what utensils you use.” 

“And if they try,” Amber put in, “just tell them where to shove it.” 

“Please don’t tell the financial backers to shove anything into any place,” Brumal pleaded, her head turning to give a look toward That-A-Way. “They are not that hard to ignore without causing a scene, believe me.” 

By that point, the waitress had arrived at our table (standing far enough back that she wouldn’t be able to see anyone’s face over the screens) and listed what was available. She proceeded to take everyone’s order, and even spent a minute explaining what different foods were past the fancy names for the benefit of the others. And technically mine too, since I wasn’t supposed to know what they were either. I tried to play as clueless as possible, asking easy questions. 

Once everything was ordered and the waitress had stepped away, the conversation turned toward the gang war. It seemed like everyone sitting there had a particular story to tell about something bad that had happened through it. They had saved plenty of people, of course. But there were others who had died or at least been injured, had their property destroyed, and so on. Every Touched sitting at that table had a story about watching someone lose, if not their life, then things that mattered deeply to them. 

Peyton and I glanced toward one another. I had lowered the screen between the two of us, since I still had most of my face covered anyway. Our eyes met, and I could see how troubled she was. It probably reflected back from my own gaze to her. We were both thinking about the Ministry, and how they could stop this war if they really wanted to. And about Pack. Yes, she was right about the fact that she couldn’t do anything to stop the war, but she also helped participate in it. Even if she personally avoided hurting innocent people, how much did her teammates? How much–urgh. Between her and Eits, I felt very uncomfortable about the whole situation. Hell, even Broadway. From what I’d seen of the girl, I liked her. That was my biggest problem with this whole situation. So many of the people I would have thought I was adamantly against were more likable than they should have been. It was my problem with my family, with Blackjack and the rest of La Casa, even with Deicide. 

It was all just so complicated. If only they could all be more like Cuélebre. At least I could be pretty sure that he didn’t have some special backstory that would make me sympathize with him or anything. Although, now that I actually thought that, it would probably turn out that his entire criminal Empire was built up to take care of a hospital full of injured orphan puppies or something.

Okay, yeah, that wasn’t very likely. But still, I was starting to think that everyone had their own understandable reasons for being involved in bad stuff. Well, except for the Scions. I was pretty sure there was no amount of tragic backstory or mitigating circumstances that could come close to excusing the things they had done. 

By that point, the waitress was coming back with a tray of drinks. As she approached, the privacy shield extended up and over our heads making it totally cover the table so she couldn’t see anyone’s face. Which made me wonder briefly how she would put the drinks down without dropping them, but maybe there was some sort of… thing? Curious, I stood a bit and looked down. Sure enough, the table was visible. The screen specifically only scrambled the appearances of people within it. Looking at the table itself was a bit like looking through an actual window screen. A bit distorted, but still plenty visible. But when I looked over at Peyton, her face (with the helmet still covering most of it anyway) was incredibly blurry and smudged. 

“Is everything alright?” A familiar voice spoke up nearby, and my head snapped that way. Immediately, I realized two things. First, this was not the same waitress who had taken our order. The one who would come with the drinks was different. And second, I knew her. Actually, I knew her fairly well, considering I saw her practically every day. 

Christiana Diaz. The thin, young Latina woman who worked as one of Chef Claudio’s assistants. I’d recognize her anywhere, considering one of the things we had in common was our height. She was only an inch taller than my five foot zero. And that wasn’t the end of our similarities. Christiana had the same ‘look younger than she really was’ thing I did, given she was actually twenty-two but looked more like she was in her late teens. She wore her hair short on the sides with a mop of curls on top. 

So, I recognized her instantly. A rush of thoughts went through my mind, and it took basically everything I had not to blurt her name in surprise. Boy would that have been hard to explain. But somehow, I managed to shove the reaction down and simply put all my surprise into a gasp before giving a sharp exhale that turned into as much of a laugh as I could manage. “Oh! Damn, sorry. You uhh, you sure you’re not a ninja? You kinda snuck up there.” 

There was a very brief pause before Christiana giggled and shook her head. “No, no, sorry. It’s my fault. I keep saying I should put some little bells on this outfit.” With a wink, she added, “Can I help you with anything, sir?” 

The lower half of my face was exposed. She could see my mouth. Did she know my face well enough to recognize me from not? No, of course not. That was ridiculous. And yet, I almost couldn’t stop myself from reaching up to pull the mask down. That would have been even more suspicious, of course. But it was still almost impossibly tempting. 

Shoving that impulse down as hard as I could, I gave a quick shake of my head. “Nah, nah.  It’s all good. I was just seeing how the–you know, what the screen–what it looked like.” I was babbling, and I was saying too much. I needed to stop talking. The more things I said, the more likely she would figure out who I really was. I had to give her as little to work with as possible. So, my mouth snapped shut after saying all that. Then I reached out. “Oh, uh, I’ll take ours.” 

There was a brief pause before Christiana nodded, carefully turning the tray and extending it so I could take the glasses meant for Alloy and me. Mumbling a thanks, I sat down and gave my partner her drink. 

Peyton, of course, was staring at me. “Are you okay?” she asked in a whisper that was barely audible. “You seemed a little… uhh, not.” 

Taking a gulp of my drink, I quickly shook my head. “It’s fine, I’m fine. It’s just … different being in a place like this, you know?” 

That seemed to do the trick. The other girl achieved a sigh while nodding almost frantically. “Believe me, I know what you mean. It’s so weird being here with all these rich people who wouldn’t even notice if they ran over me in the street.” 

Amber made a noise in the back of her throat, and I winced at Peyton’s choice of words. But I couldn’t exactly explain why it was the wrong thing to say. Instead, I simply replied in a low voice, “Some of them would notice.” 

That started even more discussion around the table, centered around celebrities and rich people they had worked with, saved, or whatever. It was a mix of horror stories and nice ones, even a couple bits about celebrities who I thought would be real pains in the ass ending up actually sounding pretty cool. Which didn’t exactly prove they were nice to everyone, given who these people were, but still. 

Honestly, once I got past my surprise of being served by Christiana (she also brought our food), and the fact that my parents were on the other side of the room, it was… nice. I was able to just sit there and listen to more experienced Touched tell stories and exchange inside jokes. Sure, I didn’t get all their references, but they tried to explain it as much as they could. And even aside from that, it was just cool to sit and listen to these guys talk about fights they’d been in, people they had saved, villains they fought, it was… it was actually one of the first times I really felt like a part of this community.  

That wasn’t exactly a good thing, of course. I wasn’t a part of their community. I couldn’t be. I couldn’t trust all of them. For all I knew, half the people at this table worked for the Ministry in one way or another, even if they didn’t really know it. No matter how welcoming they seemed, I couldn’t let myself forget that fact. I could talk with them, even work with them, but I couldn’t entirely trust every single one of them. And that meant I couldn’t entirely trust any of the people here aside from Peyton. 

Well, and aside from Amber and Izzy, of course. They were a different story, and I was incredibly lucky that I had them as a connection to the Minority. For a brief moment, I tried to think of how this whole situation would have played out if I didn’t know who those two really were. It wasn’t a very fun thought. Actually, come to think of it, I might have been too paranoid to even come if I didn’t have those two helping. 

In any case, I was silent through most of the rest of the meal, content to simply sit there and listen as the others went on. And from the looks that Peyton gave me once in awhile,  she was enjoying herself too. We both sat there listening to the stories, feeling a bit like we had been given a backstage pass or something. Which was weird, given we were technically, like, one of the bands, to stretch the analogy. But still, it was just different somehow. Sitting here, listening to the far-more-experienced people trade war stories, made the whole thing more real. 

It helped that the food was pretty good. Or, if you listened to Peyton go on, it was completely amazing. She finished off her entire plate, and then a second one when Christiana came by to ask if anyone wanted more. It honestly just tasted like the food we had at home, but then, I supposed that made sense. If Christiana was here, maybe Claudio was too. He had, after all, been the head chef of a five star restaurant before my parents snatched him up. 

As dinner was winding down, we had another speech to sit through, but this one I didn’t mind too much. It was Radiant, standing right up there on stage to talk about how important Detroit and its Touched-Tech factories were to the nation at large, and how proud everyone here should be about how much the city had been turned around in the past couple of decades. It was no secret that Detroit hadn’t been in the best of shape before the whole Touched thing came around, but now we were one of the strongest, most economically sound cities in the country. Not to mention one of the fastest growing, to an absurd degree. The people who had come to the city and invested in that growth had a lot to do with that, and most of them were sitting in this room. Radiant basically told them to give themselves a pat on the back for that. 

At least, that’s how it started. And clearly it was where the rich people in the room expected it to stay. But before long, the woman shifted her focus a bit. She went from talking about these important, wealthy people giving so much to the city to talking about the city itself, and the people in it. And almost before anyone realized the subject had changed at all, suddenly Radiant was talking about how the people in the city were the ones who really changed it. The people here had benefited a lot, and their influx of money helped give the place the jumpstart it needed. But no amount of money-fueled jumpstarts would have accomplished anything if it wasn’t for the people who lived here, the ones out on the street doing the work every day. 

It was kind of amazing to sit there and watch, because it wasn’t that she insulted or demeaned the rich people in the room. No, she propped them up just fine. She gave them their dues. But she also pulled other people up, putting them on an equal level with the millionaires and billionaires (and even the Touched) in this room. She lifted everyone up, noting the importance of each contribution. She wasn’t denouncing the rich people while making some stand for the little guy. She had started by propping up the people in this room, making it that much harder for them to disagree or be offended when she brought the rest of the population up to the same level. 

Leaning a bit closer to Peyton without taking my eyes off the woman on stage, I whispered, “If I was the type of person to be interested in someone older than me, I might be in love.”

“Oh, believe me,” she replied in a hushed voice, also without looking away from Radiant, “you’re not the only one.”

With a chuckle, Wobble spoke up. “Sorry, you guys. We’re pretty sure she’s already spoken for.” 

Amber was nodding. “We’re not sure by who, but we’ve seen her with a wedding ring. So, you know, you’re kind of late for that train.” After a brief pause, she added, “And I don’t think you meet the age requirement.” 

After Peyton and I both made a show of snapping our fingers in disappointment, our attention turned back to the woman in question as we listened to the rest of her spiel. She made it clear through all of it that the people in this room needed to keep contributing to the overall benefit of the city if they wanted it to continue to thrive, pointing out the forces that were already trying to drag it down. She talked about how Star-Touched chose to use our powers to help people, and that those with resources like these people possessed had the same responsibility. And yet, it wasn’t like she was shaming them or anything. The way she phrased it made it sound as though she was proud of the opportunity these people had, going on a bit about how they could have everything they wanted while still contributing to raising the standard of living for everyone in the city. 

It was more than a little impressive, made even more so for how relatively short it was. She didn’t talk for very long before simply promising that she would be keeping an eye on things here to see how California could incorporate the incredible ideas that they came up with, and bring some of those ideas…. and the people involved, to projects in her own state. 

So there it was, the biggest crux of her speech. She wasn’t just praising these people for the work they could do here, she was essentially saying that she would be keeping an eye on the city and the people she liked would get her recommendation for all-new projects in California. How much money would that be worth? A lot, to say the least. Without actually shaming anyone, Radiant told these people that she expected them to look after the regular population, and that those who did would be rewarded with enormous new contracts. 

As she left the stage and the music picked up, we watched more couples move to the dance floor. Including my parents. I was focused on staring at them while trying not to look like I was staring at them, when Amber reached over to touch my hand through the privacy screen. “Hey,” she started, “you wanna go down with us to check out the convention floor? I’ve gotta see if there’s more people dressed up as you or Whamline. 

“And it better be you, or I owe him fifty bucks.” 

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Commissioned Interlude 3 – Armistice (Summus Proelium)

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Columbus, Nebraska. County seat of Platte County, with a population of just under twenty-five thousand. Back in the thirties, a thirty-five mile canal project diverting water from the nearby Loup River had been used to supply two hydroelectric stations, one near Columbus itself and one near Monroe, fourteen miles away. In order to find a market for their electricity and thus make the incredibly expensive project profitable, they spent years issuing revenue bonds to purchase private power companies. This eventually led, by 1949, to Nebraska becoming the only state in the Union that used only public power with no private electrical utilities. 

Columbus itself was an average town in Midwest America. It ran off an economy that was mostly centered around either agriculture (as so much in Nebraska was) or manufacturing, given the easily available hydroelectric power, which attracted plenty of industrial companies to the area.

But at the moment, none of that deep, rich history mattered. The lives of those twenty-five thousand residents had, in the early morning hours of the day, been upended in a way they would never entirely recover from. Because at roughly ten minutes past seven, Columbus, Nebraska had become the latest location of a Collision Point. 

The event actually began several miles north of town, at a gas station along Highway 81. Witnesses later would be unable to recall specific details that would have allowed the identities of the two people who transformed into their Abyssal-forms after meeting to be exposed. Cameras likewise would find their footage erased. Both the memory loss and damage to video recordings were standard at Collision Points, but would still be no less frustrating to investigators trying desperately to identify the participants and thus stop these events. 

Yet, what was known was that two people at the gas station had run into one another who never should have met. Each was secretly an Abyssal, a human who transformed into a monster the moment they made physical contact with another like them. The three types of Abyssals acted differently in human form, of course. Hidden had no idea what they were and went about their lives clueless to their nature, Wanderers traveled constantly and appeared to be mentally ill/barely cognizant, and Stalkers knew exactly what they were and actively sought out Collision Points, often even murdering people in their own human forms. And yet, different as the three categories were before transforming, once in their monster states all had only one goal: to annihilate their counterpart. No matter what type of person the Abyssal was in their human state, transforming turned them into violently murderous creatures who cared only about destroying one another, and killing or breaking everything that got between them and that goal.

For just under an hour, the Abyssals had been tearing into one another. Several local Touched teams (almost all of whom were actually based in Lincoln seventy-five miles away and had had to find various quick travel methods of getting to Columbus) had tried to intervene, but they were quickly overwhelmed and had resorted mostly to evacuation efforts. None of the Touched stationed in the state were up to the task of handling something of this magnitude. 

But that was about to change. Because, at the so-called Sock Pond, located on the south-west corner of town, part of the water right at the edge of the pond, next to the embankment, began to glow unnaturally blue. A moment later, the water in that spot quickly began rising to create a fifteen-foot across, one-foot wide, and nine-foot high waterfall. A waterfall that, seconds after its creation, froze. The falling, still-glowing water went completely still. Then, through that glowing, motionless vertical water, eight figures emerged to step up onto the embankment before spreading out. They were Armistice, the international team consisting of some of the strongest Star-Touched in the world.

Baldur, the team leader from Germany, wasted no time before lifting off the ground to hover fifteen feet up so they could take in what they were dealing with. At the moment, their body was male, though given the nature of their power (shifting bodies between hundreds of alternate selves, each with their own set of powers and a mixture of male and female sex) that changed often. Their costume at that particular moment (it changed with the body) consisted of a skintight white bodysuit and boots each with dark green piping, and a simple green helmet with a white visor that covered their entire head. 

Seconds later, the rest of the team were raised into the air beside Baldur. His power, in this body, allowed him to create and adjust invisible walls and floors, including these rising platforms that lifted himself and the rest of Armistice so they could see the Abyssals in the distance. 

“Fait chier,” the Frenchman known as Gevaudan blurted. He wore little in the way of costume. Little in the way of anything, actually. His only clothes consisted of simple black pants. His identity was concealed not by any mask, but by the fact that he looked like a stereotypical werewolf, standing slightly over eight feet tall, with long, heavily muscled limbs, fur-covered skin, and a canine snout with a mouth that was full of sharp teeth. “It is Maricoxi.” 

The name Maricoxi had been borrowed from the term for large, ape-like mythological creatures in South America. Their version of the Yeti or Bigfoot, essentially. Yet the Abyssal known as Maricoxi was far worse than any of those legends. He stood forty feet tall, an enormous figure covered in shaggy gray-brown fur, with enough strength to pulverize a tank with a swat of one hand. Worse, however, were what were called his spawn. Essentially, Maricoxi was capable of making any number of duplicates of himself. The spawn could be any size, from his full height all the way down to normal human size. But they could only exist while attached to Maricoxi himself, vanishing within a moment of breaking physical contact. They could be attached to any part of his body by any part of their body, though they were usually attached by their backs or feet. 

The Abyssal generally went through fights creating hundreds of these spawn, of all sizes, all over his body at various times. He could extend his arm and create a full-sized duplicate of himself, attached by the foot, that could punch something over fifty feet away from where Maricoxi himself was standing. The only limitation, again, was that they had to be attached to the original’s body in some way, and could not be taller than his own forty feet. At any given moment, there could be one full-sized spawn attached to his back to attack things behind him, two half-sized spawn attached to the outside of either leg, dozens of smaller, more human-sized spawn along his feet to tear apart people on the ground who tried to get close to him, and more of varying sizes along his arms and hands to extend his reach. He could stick his arm close to a building and sprout ten spawn along it that would tear the wall apart with their bare hands, grabbing people within before ripping into them, sadistically devouring any human they could catch, apparently feeding the energy of the dead to their creator to make him even stronger.

He was, in two words, incredibly dangerous. One of the worst Stalker Abyssals in North America, Maricoxi would have been bad enough on his own. Yet, somehow, things were even worse than that. Because he had managed to find another Stalker to fight. 

The second Stalker Abyssal was known as Backahast, a corruption of the Swedish Bäckhästen. Like the myth it had originated from, Backahast looked, from a distance, like a beautiful, majestic white horse with a gray-ish mane. Though the fact that he was twenty feet tall at the shoulder might’ve given a hint that something was odd. Worse, unlike the rest of his body, Backahast’s head was that of a skeleton horse, showing nothing but bone, with purple-silver smoke curling within the eye sockets and around its somehow sneering mouth. 

It was that purplish smoke that was the real danger. Backahast was capable of projecting the smoke in a large cloud away from himself. Anyone who found themselves caught in the cloud would be heavily compelled to go close and touch the giant horse. And if they failed to stop themselves or be stopped, actually touching the creature? Then their skeletons would be under his control, and would rip their way free of the still-living fleshy parts of the body, killing them in the process in order to join the rapidly growing skeleton army. An army of animated bones that could meld into one another to form much larger figures if need be, and often became a giant humanoid skeleton that acted as Backahast’s ‘rider.’ 

Both Stalker-Abyssals were terrifyingly dangerous on their own. Put together in a fight to the death, they were so much worse. Dozens of structures at the edge of town had already been leveled beneath their feet. Backahast had managed to compel enough people to touch him that he had a full-sized skeleton rider atop his back, and a small army of thirty or so twelve-foot tall skeletons arrayed around the front of him, grappling with Maricoxi’s own various attached spawn, while the ‘rider’ himself fought the main giant ape-man from atop his perch. The horse’s skeleton-head snapped and bit at one of the smaller spawn attached to Maricoxi’s chest, tearing an entire body free before it dissolved in his mouth. 

As the team took in what they were going to have to deal with, Baldur quickly blurted orders. They spoke in English, which the team all spoke even more fluently since they had been implanted with Touched-Tech devices that instantly taught each of them twenty different languages, a way of aiding with their ability to operate worldwide. 

“Kuruseida, Adlivun, Radiant, focus on Bäckahästen.” They used the proper Swedish pronunciation. “Curupira and Rip, stop anyone else from getting close and focus on evacuation. Big Ben, Gevaudan, and I will take Maricoxi.” 

“How long until we have reinforcements?” Rip, the dark-skinned Australian woman in her late twenties asked. She was the one who had brought them through the water-portal. Her dark hair was worn in a long, tight braid, and her costume consisted of what looked like a surfer’s wetsuit, mostly metallic red with a bit of black trim that included a stylized R in the upper right side. The top half of her face was covered by red-lensed SCUBA goggles that left her eyes entirely invisible. Only her exposed hands and the lower half of her face gave away the fact that she was black. 

Radiant, the blonde, short-haired American woman wearing a full black bodysuit covered in star-like patterns and a glowing silver metal mask across the bottom half of her face answered. “There’s a gang war going on in Missouri. It’s been pretty bad, so a lot of forces were pulled that way. It’s going to take time to get anyone else active. There were a couple smaller teams that tried to help, but they had to withdraw. They weren’t ready for anything like this. And the police and national guard don’t want to get within sight of Backahast.” 

“So we’ll hold them off until enough reinforcements manage to get here,” Baldur announced firmly. “Or until they stop fighting. One way or another.” They lowered the group back to the ground, announcing, “You all have your assignments. Let’s get to work.” 

With that, their body transformed. Instead of being male, they became a female version of themself. This version wore a bright red and black suit of armor, with a long, flowing black cloak and a red featureless metal mask that looked like solid glass but was much stronger over the front of their face. The second their new body manifested, flames sprouted up around the figure and they took off in a shot toward the clashing monsters. 

Big Ben, the British (of course) Star-Touched ran after his leader. With each step, he grew larger, until he reached his full forty-foot height, closing the distance quickly. His own costume, which grew with him, was dark blue, almost black pants, a long, equally dark trench coat worn over red scale mail-like body armor on his chest, red leather gloves and boots, and a black metal helmet with a red visor. 

Right behind those two was the wolf-man Gevaudan. Rather than run, he used his other power. Because Gevaudan was far more than just a shapeshifting werewolf. He was also capable of summoning and controlling prehistoric creatures. Generally, it was easier for him to do so with mammals. But that wasn’t a rule. In this case, he created a full-sized tyrannosaurus rex, clambering to its back before directing the twenty-foot tall dinosaur to run after his leader and teammate. On the way, Gevaudan summoned several sabertooth tigers, a ten-ton Steppe Mammoth, and a twenty-foot-long, four-ton, rhino-like (save for its long, shaggy fur) Elasmotherium. 

Together, those three (and Gevaudan’s rapidly summoned army of creatures) tore off to attack the giant ape-man and all his attached spawn. At the same time, Radiant had already shifted into her glowing energy-body and was flying off to get closer to the horse-like Backahast. Close behind her was Adlivun, the Canadian hero who wore blue-white body armor that looked like thick glass but was strong enough to take a grenade blast without cracking. His power allowed him to create a ghost-like duplicate of any person he had touched, including himself. He could maintain up to thirty of these ‘ghosts’ at any given time, all of which possessed the power to manipulate and summon ice and cold. 

Two of his ghosts were using their ice creation powers right then to form a frozen platform-slide, which Adlivun himself rode, knees bent like a surfer, after the flying Radiant. 

Meanwhile, the Japanese heroine Kuruseida also took a running start. The not quite yet twenty year old girl had stylized her own costume to look like one of the Sentai she loved so much, a white-and-blue figure with a black visor and a belt lined with pouches. It was one of those pouches that Kuruseida reached into, producing three small coins. One was red, the other two white. All three had different symbols on them. As she ran, Kuruseida shoved her thumb against the center of the red coin and hurled it in front of herself, then did the same with each of the white coins. 

The red coin flipped through the air before exploding outward. The coin itself was destroyed, but where it had been a moment earlier, a full-sized metal surfboard had appeared. The ‘surfboard’ was able to hover in place or fly at speeds approaching a hundred miles per hour. Which it did the second its creator leapt to land on it, heading after the other two. At the same time, the other two coins that Kuroseida had thrown burst apart to reveal a pair of futuristic-looking pistols. She caught one in each hand and opened fire on the horse-like Abyssal they were heading for. After those first few shots, she dropped the pistols toward the front of her board, where a hole opened up to catch them in a storage space much larger than should have fit within the thin space of the board itself. From that same opening rose a full-sized mounted laser cannon, which locked into place just before she grabbed the handle, sighted in, and unleashed a blue-white beam from the cannon with enough destructive force to have pulverized its way through several feet of solid steel. Kuroseida aimed the turret carefully, keeping the ongoing destructive beam centered on the suddenly-furious horse Abyssal while taking a wide berth around it on her board. 

Her attack was quickly joined by a blast of cold from three of Adlivun’s ghosts, freezing ten skeletons instantly. As they were turned to ice, Radiant flew past their line. A couple stragglers on the edges tried to throw their bone-weapons at her, but she simply turned herself intangible, allowing the hurled makeshift weapons to pass through her harmlessly while she focused on Backahast. The American woman wasn’t capable of firing energy blasts as many would have thought given the fact she transformed her entire body into energy. Instead, she produced short-lived duplicates of herself, which flew very quickly at her target and punched them a couple times before exploding. She put that to use, sending six duplicates at the reeling, roaring Abyssal while he was still reacting to the beam from Kuroseida’s cannon. They exploded, sending a shower of bones from nearby skeletons flying everywhere. Shards of bone which, unfortunately, quickly coalesced into a single large figure which launched into a counter-offensive.

Meanwhile, the last two members of the team were left to focus on evacuation. Rip had shifted into her liquid-form and was sliding through the town on a jet of water, raising portals in every pond, stream, or pool she could find. She was even summoning water to blast the tops off of fire hydrants to create more portals. They wouldn’t last forever without her focus, but each would last for a few minutes, and she continually swung back and forth through the streets, renewing portals for huddled citizens to escape through. 

Her partner in the endeavor, Curupira, was a black man from Brazil. He wore black body armor, a dark red hood and cloak, and a demonic red and white face mask that left him the member of the team with the least PR-friendly look. It was a look that he magnified with his own power of illusions, allowing the man to make shadows and flames appear around him, make his cloak appear far more sinister and voluminous as it ominously billowed, turn his voice into something that sounded like it was coming from the depths of hell itself, and more. He could do a lot more with his power of illusions, but primarily he used it to supplement his incredible combat skills, which themselves were heightened by enhanced strength, speed, reflexes, and stamina putting him just above what a peak human was capable of. 

At that particular moment, however, Curupira was using his illusions in a different way than he was generally accustomed to. From the roof of the building he had grappled himself to, the man used his illusion-power to create images of people urging the actual citizens of the town to run through the water portals Rip was creating. He ran, leaping from roof to roof (the town was small, so most of the buildings were no higher than a couple stories at best, but it still helped him see what was going on and where people were) while pushing his illusions through every street and alley around him, calling out for the people to flee to safety through the portals. 

By that point, Big Ben, Gevaudan (with his small army of prehistoric creatures), and the currently fire-using and feminine-figured Baldur had arrived in front of Maricoxi. The giant ape-man had been using a nearly three-quarter-sized spawn attached to one arm to sweep aside the nearest group of skeletons before the ten-ton Steppe Mammoth slammed into the side of the spawn. The impact tore the thirty-foot tall furry duplicate from the arm it was attached to, causing it to vanish in a spray of blood while the Mammoth trumpeted. Several more slightly smaller spawn appeared where the large one had been, each engaged by Gevaudan’s tigers and massive woolly rhino. Gevaudan himself shifted even more into his beastial shape, almost entirely wolf-like save for the fact that he was on two legs, before throwing himself at the figure just as ferociously as his prehistoric allies. 

Big Ben, just as tall as the original, full-sized Maricoxi, slammed his fist into the side of the ape-man’s shaggy head with as much force as he could muster. It barely made the Abyssal blink, before two ten-foot tall (if they had been standing on the ground) spawn sprouted from the figure’s furry shoulders and grabbed onto his extended arm, clawing and biting at him. 

Baldur, hovering twenty feet back, watched their companions engage the dangerous monster. They glanced back quickly, assessing how the other three were doing with their own opponent, and how well Curupira and Rip were proceeding with the evacuation. Only once they had a clear view of things did they engage for themselves. 

In this case, ‘engage’ meant holding both hands out while hovering there in the air with flames flickering around them, and sending forth a massive torrent of fire. The flames, from an outsider’s perspective, seemed to engulf the entire forty-foot tall Abyssal and everyone attacking him. And yet, there was so much more going on. Because in every single spot where one of Baldur’s allies (including the summoned prehistoric creatures) was, the fire avoided them. The flames and the heat they gave off were under so much tight control that they would lick within inches of Big Ben, Gevaudan, and the others without causing them so much as the slightest bit of discomfort. It even adjusted to their own movements, maintaining those pockets of safety wherever they were. 

The effect of the flames on Maricoxi, on the other hand, was far different. Dozens of his sprouted spawn all over his body were entirely vaporized by the heat in the matter of a few brief seconds. The Abyssal himself was far stronger than his creations, yet even he was affected. Most of the fur was burned away, leaving red-and-black charred skin, making the giant monster look far more alien, with patches of smoldering fur here and there, and the awful stench of so many instantly cremated spawn.

Yet even then, the monster was far from done. He tore a finger from his own hand, hurling it at the hovering figure who had so harmed him. In mid-flight, the torn-off finger sprouted a full-sized spawn (the finger itself was attached to this duplicate’s foot), which flew straight at Baldur. An instant before the giant ape-figure would have crashed into them, Baldur’s body shifted once more. Now they were a thinner version of their male-self, one wearing flowing golden robes and a crown with a simple metal domino mask. Their hand snapped up, catching the incoming duplicated monster in a glowing red-gold bubble, which promptly shrank to the size of a baseball, compressing the figure within into a gooey paste that quickly disappeared save for what was left of the finger. 

In that short time, Maricoxi had regenerated his hurled finger as well as a large portion of the fur that had been burned away, bellowing a challenge as he sprouted more spawn of various sizes all over his body and leapt to engage this distraction so that he could return to his primary goal: the other Abyssal. 

For another hour, the battle continued that way. The two trios of powerful Star-Touched did everything possible to slow and separate the dueling monsters, while more of the town was destroyed around them. They protected what they could, focusing on keeping places where the citizens had not yet been evacuated intact. 

It was a losing battle, even for a team of Touched as strong as Armistice. Two Stalker Abyssal, little to nothing in the way of assistance from other teams or Prev military thanks to multiple ongoing events in the surrounding states, and a very spread-out population that had to be found and evacuated a few at a time all led to an inevitable conclusion. 

“Withdraw.” Baldur, currently in a male body with cement-control powers that they had used to form a temporary wall, ordered their companions through the communicators they all wore. “Everyone else focus on evacuation. Get everyone out of the town. Everyone. No one left behind. I’ll keep their attention on me.” 

None of the others questioned how their leader was going to accomplish that. Instead, they leapt to follow the orders, rushing through every building, down every street, looking in every corner to find any straggler. With the aid of Gevaudan’s prehistoric animals and Adlivun’s ice-controlling ghosts, they searched closets, cupboards, under and inside cars, behind dumpsters, everywhere that a civilian could have hid in to escape the carnage. 

Baldur, meanwhile, took up a position directly between the giant monsters. They stood atop a pillar of concrete they had summoned from the ground, glancing back and forth as each of the Abyssals ignored everything else and launched themselves at one another. 

Once more, Baldur’s body shifted. Now, they took the form of another female version of themselves, one with green-dyed, punk-styled hair and a purple and white armored bodysuit with a small cannon attached to one arm. Thrusting both hands out as the giant Abyssals careened toward them (and toward one another), Baldur focused on this new power. 

Instantly, the space that the Abyssals were traveling through quadrupled. Space itself warped and twisted on a massive scale, creating several miles worth of area out of nothing. Buildings, the ground, traffic lights, everything was twisted and stretched to fit this warped area, like a picture in a computer paint program that had been stretched and blurred beyond all recognition. 

The Abyssals kept charging, and Baldur kept stretching out the space between them. They ran for miles while getting almost nowhere. Almost nowhere. Yet even Baldur could only stretch the space out so far. For every foot they gained, they ran several miles, but they did gain those feet. Bit by bit, they drew gradually closer. 

Fortunately, Baldur’s teammates used that time to their advantage. They evacuated the entire remaining civilians out of the town, leaving it entirely empty. Only once they were sent word that everyone was out did Baldur drop the space-warping effect, resuming the body they had originally arrived in with the invisible platform powers. Quickly, they used those powers to send themselves up and away just before Maricoxi and Backahast collided, their screams of terrifying fury echoing through the emptied town. 

“Now what?” the young, impetuous Kuruseida demanded from atop her hovering board as the team stayed well away from the clashing titans. 

“Now we catch our breath,” Big Ben advised, having already shrunk back to a more manageable ten feet in height while rubbing his fist. “And hope these two tucker themselves out.” 

“They will destroy most if not all of the town before they are through,” Curupira observed in his cold, analytical voice. “Their battle is too destructive for these small buildings. There will be little left.” 

“The people will be left,” Baldur quietly replied, their attention centered on the giant rampaging monsters. “They’ll survive. And when this is over, they’ll either rebuild, or relocate. Either way, they’ll move on.” 

Muttering a long curse in her own native Japanese, Kuruseida then blurted, “We’re supposed to be the ones who stop these monsters! We’re supposed to be the heroes!” 

“Yes,” Radiant agreed, putting a hand on the slightly younger woman’s shoulder. “But sometimes being the heroes isn’t about glorious victory, or about fighting until the bitter end. Sometimes it’s about cutting your losses and pulling out while you can. It’s just buildings and property out there now. Like Baldur said, people can rebuild those. The government will help. That’s what the fund is for.” 

The fund, as it was simply titled, was money that most of the modern nations of the world paid into. The money came from a mixture of taxes on Touched-related merchandise, publicly available Touched-Tech, and other related sources, and was used to help reconstruct areas damaged or even devastated by Touched battles and Collision Points like this. It would help get the people of Columbus, Nebraska back on their feet.  

But that would come later. For the moment, the assorted eight members of Armistice stood mostly-silent vigil, watching as the Abyssals carried on their battle to the very end. Eventually, the two damaged one another enough that each was forced to vanish, returning to their human forms in some other location far from the actual battlefield, leaving them safely anonymous once more so that they could recharge. 

All that was left in the wake of all that destruction was a ten square miles-wide collection of rubble and dust that had once been a town, and eight heroes who, despite all their power and strength, had been unable to save it. They had saved the people though, had safely evacuated every person they could. The town was gone, but its inhabitants, its people, were alive. 

For today, that was going to have to be enough. 

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