Silversmith

New Deals 13-09 (Summus Proelium)

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Things mostly calmed down pretty quickly after that. The Star-Touched adults had managed to regroup a bit and sent a couple of their people to help the Minority. By that point, the warring gangs had basically separated and gone to their respective corners, so to speak. So it was just a bit of cleanup.

The other Fell-Touched, like Janus, had managed to escape. But we kept hold of Suckshot and Landlock, eventually seeing them both hauled into the back of two separate special armored containment vans. 

Through most of that cleanup, I worked with Raindrop. I had the feeling that the people around us assumed we were about the same age. Actually, come to think of it, maybe she was an incredibly small sixteen-year-old too. Wouldn’t that have been just perfect?

Either way, she was pretty fun to hang out with once things calmed down a bit. She didn’t say a lot, but the things she did say tended to be insightful or just funny in a very simple, straightforward way. I would say something and she’d have a one or two word response, in a totally serious tone, that made me snicker. For whatever reason, it felt like I knew her a lot better than I did. We’d only just really met, and yet I couldn’t shake the feeling like we’d interacted a lot more. It was weird. But then, maybe she was just one of those people who made friends easily. 

While we were doing that, I noticed some of the cops and reporters in the distance talking. I couldn’t make out most of what they were saying, but I did hear both of our names come up and saw some of them pointing our way. They were clearly talking about the fact that Raindrop and I were working together, but what… what were they saying? And why were some of them taking pictures? 

Eventually, That-A-Way approached and asked to speak to me privately. We stepped out of the way, over by a corner of the theater building while both of us watched the assortment of cops, reporters, and other Touched milling around. 

“Thanks,” Way murmured quietly. “You know, for showing up. You really helped turn things around.” She glanced toward me, lowering her voice even more. “I heard a few of those gang guys talking. This whole thing, it’s just a skirmish. Just the opening salvo. Apparently things are going to get a lot more heavy pretty soon. They’re going to war with each other.” 

Grimacing, I shook my head. ”If this was just a few opening shots, I don’t want to see what their idea of a full war is.”

“Neither do I,” she agreed, “but I have a feeling that we don’t really have a choice. This whole thing is gonna escalate really fast. And more civilians are going to be caught in the crossfire.” 

There was another brief pause while she clearly thought about her next words before quietly asking, “Those people you were talking about, shouldn’t they keep this kind of thing shut down? Seems like having a bunch of pissed off gang members at war with each other would be bad for business. If they really have that much control over every criminal in the city, shouldn’t they snap their fingers and make these guys back down? I mean, if there’s going to be one benefit to a group like that, you’d think it would be them stopping all-out war like this.”

Yeah, she had a point. I had no idea just how much my parents knew about this situation. But I refused to believe they were clueless. From everything I had seen, there was no way the gangs here would do something like this without at least mentioning it to my family, to the Ministry. Which meant they had to have at least partially approved this sort of thing. But why? What did they get out of it? Was it just not worth the hassle of trying to contain these guys constantly? Did they have to let them get their aggression out now and then before things blew up too much to control at all? I had no idea how that worked. 

With a sigh, I shook my head. “I dunno. But something tells me that if we want to find out how all this works, we need to get into that place. The sooner the better. There’s got to be some answers in there.”

Of course, there was also the possibility that those answers would lead toward my family. But that was a bridge I would cross when we came to it. I still had no idea exactly what I was going to do if and when Way and Pack, the people I had brought into this, found out that the Ministry was led by the Evans. I just… didn’t know. 

Way was looking at me again. “We have to come up with a plan and get in there,” she murmured quietly. “I’m pretty sure you’re right. That’s where we’re going to find answers. That’s where we’re going to…” She trailed off, grimacing for a moment before finding her voice once more. “It’s where we’re going to find out more about who we can’t trust.” There was a somewhat dark grimness to her voice, and it made me think for a moment about what all of this must have been like for her. She didn’t know who on her own team she could trust. She didn’t know which of her mentors she could look up to. What was it like from her side? Especially considering I wasn’t telling her everything I knew, a fact she was no doubt totally aware of. 

I started to agree with her, that we would get into that secret mall base as soon as possible. But before I could say more than a couple words, someone approached. It was, in no uncertain terms, the worst person I could think of to potentially overhear what we were talking about. Yeah, my dad, as Silversmith. He approached, offering each of us a nod while speaking up. “It seems we owe you another debt of gratitude, Paintball.” His hand extended toward me. “Thanks for stepping in and helping out today. Not sure how this would have gone without you.” 

Desperately fighting back the impulse to give any suspicious reaction whatsoever, I forced myself to accept the offered hand while shaking my head. “Way asked for help. I wasn’t just going to tell her to jump off a bridge.”  

He chuckled lightly, an encouraging sound that almost made me smile. How did he do that? How did he disarm me so easily when I knew who he was and what he did? Was it just because he was my dad? No, it had to be more than that. He was just that good at talking to people. He was just that good at convincing them that he was a friend, someone they could trust and confide in. It was scary seeing it from this side of things. 

While I was still fighting those reactions in my head, Dad put his hand on That-A-Way’s shoulder, squeezing slightly. “We owe just as much congratulations and thanks to you. Knowing when to call for help is important. Not trying to go at it alone, not showboating and getting people killed in the process, that’s what makes for a real hero. You did great today. All of you did.” 

“People still got hurt,” Way quietly pointed out. “Some still died. We didn’t save everyone.” 

Dad gave a short nod of agreement, as a long, heavy sigh escaped him. It sounded like he bore  the weight of each and every one of those injuries and deaths on his shoulders. Which was funny (in a totally not funny at all way), because I was pretty sure he really did bear the weight of them. He let it happen. He let this war get started. The Ministry allowed it. So yeah, the weight of it should have been on his shoulders. But he was still standing, and I was going to bet somehow getting even richer off of this whole thing. Yeah, I wasn’t exactly sure how, but the only thing I could think of that would make the Ministry allow something like this was if they were somehow making more money from it than if they hadn’t. Money or power, one or the other. Or both. I wasn’t sure of the specifics, not yet. But I did know that my father and mother had given the go-ahead for all of this to happen. They allowed it, so they were responsible. 

“You’re right,” Dad spoke up. For a crazy, horrifying second, I thought he had somehow read my thoughts. Then I realized he was responding to the girl beside me. “We didn’t save everyone. But you can’t always. All you can do is try. Put the effort in. Save everyone you can. Because, and I want both of you to listen to this right now, it isn’t about how many you fail to save. It’s about how many would have died if you weren’t there at all. And believe me, there would have been a lot more people hurt or even dead today if the two of you weren’t here. All those people in that theater, you saved them. You and Raindrop.” 

He said the last bit while stepping aside a bit and gesturing for the girl in question to join us. Which she did, moving up between Way and me while staring at my dad, at Silversmith. I couldn’t see her face, of course, hidden as it was behind that faceplate. But from the way she held her head, her body language, and everything else, I had the distinct impression that she basically hero-worshiped him. I had no idea what was going on there, but it was pretty obvious that she really looked up to him. Again, not surprising, considering how well my dad played the role of champion for the masses. He should have won an Oscar or two by now. Still, it made me feel sick in my stomach. Actually, the thought that he was fooling Raindrop in particular seemed to raise my hackles more than it really should have. I barely knew the kid. Maybe it was just because she was a kid? Maybe it reminded me of how much I had looked up to Silversmith before I knew the truth. 

Either way, Dad held his arm out, pantomiming looking at a watch. “Unfortunately, no matter how impressive you guys are, I have a feeling none of you can quite stop time just yet. And since everything seems calm enough now, I should get going. There’s going to be a lot of paperwork about all this. Be glad you guys only have to deal with a bit of that. And hey, you even get to avoid most of the reporters.”

Reporters… Oh damn, right, that dinner with the guy from the Times. It was getting close. No wonder Dad was making his excuses to leave. He congratulated us again, then offered to walk That-A-Way and Raindrop back to their base with the rest of their team. Way declined, saying she’d catch up after talking to me for a minute, claiming she still had to thank me herself. 

So, Raindrop headed off with him by herself. And I tried to figure out why the sight of her walking with my evil dad made me want to throw myself after them to stop it. Well, besides the obvious reasons. There was something else making it hit me more than I thought it should have. 

“It pisses you off too, doesn’t it?” Way spoke quietly with a glance toward me. “Seeing the way everyone loves him. Especially Rain.” She sighed, turning my way fully, as though to put her back to that whole thing. “I know you said you can’t say everything you know, but you made it pretty clear that he’s one of the ones that can’t be trusted. You said especially don’t tell him anything. So yeah, I’m pretty sure he’s one of your big conspiracy people. But he’s such… I mean…” She exhaled, slumping over a bit. “Fuck.”

“Yeah,” I agreed, “fuck. Trust me, I know. It’s a whole thing. But you’re doing a good job of hiding it.”

She snorted at that. “You just couldn’t hear all the nasty thoughts I was having when he was here.” 

“Yeah, and neither could he,” I pointed out. “Look, we’ll get answers, okay? We just can’t rush it. They already know that I know some of what they’re up to. They just don’t know how much. Not even close. But they know that I know some of it. So we have to be careful.”

Way paused, then chuckled. “You know, the way you act about all this, sometimes I forget you’re younger than me. You seem a lot older than you should be.”

Shit, getting her off the train of thought was probably a good idea. But I wasn’t sure exactly what to say. So, I just shrugged. ”I’ve had to grow up quick lately. But if I don’t get out of here now, I’m going to end up grounded. Then we’ll see how grown up I am.”

With that, I excused myself and took off, using a shot of red paint to a nearby building to hoist myself out of there. Right, I hadn’t really been exaggerating that much. If I missed this dinner, Mom would never let me hear the end of it. She’d made it clear that it was important that we present ourselves as a family tonight. Which gave me a lot of other thoughts I felt like saying, but kept to myself for obvious reasons.

As I raced home, I did my best to push those thoughts out of my head. This guy was an award-winning investigative reporter. It would probably be a bad thing if I gave him a reason to be suspicious of my family. For him as well as us. He may have been a big shot, but I was pretty sure my parents wouldn’t hesitate to have him killed if it came down to protecting themselves and the family. And I was also willing to bet that my family’s resources trumped whatever he could come up with. 

It had, of course, occurred to me to try talking to the guy about everything. I had the random, crazy impulse to just spill my guts to him and have everything out in the open. He was a reporter, after all. But again, that would be stupid. He’d never be able to publish an article like that, not with the contacts my parents had. The only real option to get it out before they erased it would have been some kind of online thing, but that would probably be dismissed as a conspiracy theory. Even if I was involved, I’d just be the rebellious kid. There was no doubt in my mind that my family could quash the whole thing. Hell, it wasn’t as though it would be anything all that new. People claimed enormous criminal conspiracies against the rich and famous all the time. A lot of it was even true. And this was one of those times. But it would be dismissed like all those others. No, if… when I went public about all this, it had to be perfect. I would only get a single shot at that kind of thing. I would only be able to take my family by surprise once. It was going to have to be a silver bullet situation. Proof. I needed proof of everything, and I needed to understand exactly how the organization worked, who was a part of it, who could be trusted and who couldn’t. I needed all of it.

Of course, the other big reason for not telling this Chambers guy the truth? For all I knew, he was on my family’s payroll. Yeah, he was all the way down in LA, but did that really mean anything? After all, Mr. Jackson had been in the UK for a long time. And it really would be within my family’s interest to have one of the best investigative reporters from one of the biggest news outlets on their side.

No, clearly for a lot of reasons, I couldn’t open up now. Not to anybody, let alone a reporter who may or may not be working for my parents on the down low. 

Shoving those thoughts out of my head firmly, I focused on getting home. That meant changing clothes in a public restroom at the edge of a park and taking an Uber the rest of the way. I was cutting it fairly close, considering I still needed to shower and all. But at least I wasn’t late. 

Paying the driver after he stopped in front of the gate, I hopped out, grabbed my bag, and headed in. On the way past, I greeted the guard waiting there, who teasingly informed me that I’d better hurry. 

Mom and Dad were in the front foyer as I passed through the door. Mom stepped over, looking like she was going to embrace me, but thought better of it. She was already dressed up for dinner and wrinkled her nose a little at how sweaty I was. So sue me, running across the city was a bit of a work out, even with powers. 

She settled on gently touching the side of my face. “I’m glad you made it, Principessa. Thank you for remembering. Now please, go and get cleaned up. We will be eating in thirty minutes.”

“Yeah, kid,” Dad spoke up, “and see if you can help Izzy with whatever she needs? She should just be about done getting cleaned up herself. The clothes she helped pick out are on her bed.”

God, he really had no idea that I had just been talking to him a short time earlier. Hell, he didn’t look like he’d been out doing anything at all. I was sweaty and all that from rushing home. My hair was a mess from being under the helmet and mask.  But Dad? He was perfectly put together. Not a single hair was out of place and it looked as though the biggest workout he’d had in the past couple hours was pushing a few papers. 

Shoving that thought aside, I promised that Izzy and I would be right down. Then I headed up the stairs two steps at a time. Yeah, I’d go get cleaned up so we could get this whole thing over with.

Time to meet Lincoln Chambers and his family.

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Interlude 9A – Breakwater and Patreon Snippets 13B (Summus Proelium)

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The island was thirty-six miles long and sixteen miles wide. None of its inhabitants knew exactly where it was located, other than somewhere in the Pacific Ocean. Its exact location was a tightly guarded mystery that only a few were actually cleared to know, and there were even multiple false locations and leads put out into the public to muddy the waters. Tech-Touched devices cloaked the island from most satellite detection, and no civilian flights went anywhere near it. 

On the island itself, dozens of buried or otherwise hidden emitters blocked any teleportation or other Travel-Touched powers from being able to carry their users any further than roughly one hundred yards into the ocean. Not that they would want to go further than that, as each of the inhabitants carried somewhere inside them a device that would explode and kill them should they leave the range of those emitters or do anything to hinder them. It was a catch-22. The emitters projected a signal preventing Travel-Touched powers from allowing them to escape, but also prevented their surgically implanted explosives from detonating. A third layer of protection in the system was that the implanted explosives continually projected their own, separate signal to the emitters. If that was disrupted, such as by the removal (or attempted removal) of the device, the emitters would project a debilitating sonic disruption until back-up forces could arrive and secure the offender. 

So, teleporting off the island was impossible because of the emitters. Disrupting the emitters was impossible because of the signal they sent to the implanted explosives. And tampering with the implanted explosives was impossible because of the signal they sent to the emitters. One would have to simultaneously, down to the second, disrupt every emitter within a particular range (which would involve actually finding all of the emitters whose signal overlapped your location, and being willing to risk your life that you were right) and disable the implanted explosive. You would need one person to disable each emitter in range of you at the exact same time that you disabled your implant. And any number of those who did so would die in the process as soon as the emitters were disabled, if no still-active emitters happened to be near them to prevent their bombs from exploding. 

And, of course, simply building a boat and sailing away was not an option when your body would incinerate the moment you weren’t within a football field’s length of the island. 

Many may have considered these measures to be inhumane and overkill. But this was not just any island. It was a prison. And its inhabitants of the island were not just any prisoners. They were the worst, most dangerous and irredeemable Fell-Touched in the world. In certain countries they might have been executed, given the choice. But the international community as a whole frowned on capital punishment. And so this compromise was struck. If those most dangerous Fell-Touched could be captured, they were brought here to be taken out of society’s hands and left to fend for themselves. In some ways it was almost a death sentence in and of itself, given the violence on the island. But putting them there allowed governments to at least say that they did not execute them. While, of course, ensuring that they would die if they ever tried to escape, before they could pose a threat to innocents. 

There was only one official rule on the island, as far as the jailers who left their prisoners on it were concerned. And that one rule was that you never left the island. That was all. Other than that, those who lived on the island were left to their own devices. Some formed small encampments to protect one another or to conduct quick attack raids against others. Some lived entirely on their own. People were split by various divisions including nationality, languages spoken, personal beliefs and prejudices, and many other possibilities. No group on the island was more than roughly twenty people in size. The egos and powers of the people who had been put here could not abide playing nice with more people than that. Larger groups always fractured and split, or simply disintegrated as members attacked and backstabbed one another.

The authorities did not leave the island’s inhabitants completely without any aid, of course. There were food and other supply drops weekly, both to regular designated locations, and to randomized spots whose location was announced through the island’s intercom system after the drop was made. Those lucky enough to be closest to these randomized drops could move quickly to grab the provided supplies before other prisoners beat them to it. Sometimes those extra drops were truly randomized, while other times they were intended to give a boost to a group who either needed it or whom the guard who chose that spot wanted to see thrive (or simply survive). 

Yes, some of those who monitored the island treated it as what amounted to a reality show for violent supervillains, a game where they could watch the worst of society battle it out with one another. Those people weren’t the majority of those put in a monitoring position, but they did exist. And they took advantage of their position at times to advance their preferred gang. 

Others, of course, held a deep vendetta against one imprisoned villain or another, or even entire groups of them. These tended to direct extra supplies away from those criminals and toward the ones who would attack them. Those types tended to be rooted out by psychological testing earlier on and removed from their positions, but they still existed as well here and there. 

In all, the island was a very violent and unpredictable place, not only because of its inhabitants but also because of the monitors. People died often, and the average life expectancy wasn’t great. But those were considered acceptable conditions for a place that kept these dangerous psychopaths from using their Touched powers to endanger and terrorize more innocent people.

The Fell-Touched who came here were monsters. Monsters dumped in with monsters to fight and kill one another so that society didn’t have to deal with them anymore. Such was a fact of life on the island known across the world by various names, but in English as Breakwater. 

At this particular moment, it was nighttime. The island was cloaked in darkness save for spots of light created by various fires, torches, and Touched powers. One spot of light in particular came from a large bonfire in the middle of a clearing directly above a waterfall. Around that bonfire sat six figures, each watching the flames in contemplative silence, and a seventh figure who stood a few feet away looking over the falls to watch the water crash down far below.  

The first of the seven figures was a relatively small man (when standing, he reached about five feet, three inches in height), his skin covered in tiny, extremely sharp needle-like spikes that varied randomly in color between black, purple, and gold. His eyes were slightly oversized and contained two separate pupils within each, one red and the other blue. He called himself Pinprick, with the ability to launch and regrow the needles that covered his body. Each color needle possessed a different power. Black took control of things they struck, be that people, animals, or objects. Purple exploded into clouds of damaging acid. Finally, the gold needles did nothing to inanimate objects, but made living beings struck by them intensely ill while feeding that life force back to Pinprick himself to grant him a form of regeneration. 

The real trick to his gift was that any living being struck by at least three needles in short succession would, in turn, find their own skin covered in them for up to ten seconds before they would explode needles in every direction. One of his favorite things, back in the real world, had been to enter a large crowd of people, launch his needles into a large crowd, and watch the ensuing chaos and more and more people who were struck by at least three of them grew needles of their own to launch everywhere, and the entire situation escalated exponentially. It was positively hilarious, and the memory of those days was still enough to make him laugh now and then. 

To Pinprick’s left sat a much taller figure than the first man. So tall, in fact, that even sitting as he was on the ground, the man’s head was still higher than most people were while fully upright. When standing, the man was nearly nine and a half feet. He was also quite thin, for all his height, his skin a very pale and clearly unnatural white. Even more unnaturally, he had no visible face on the front of his head. No eyes, no mouth, no nose. Where his face should have been was nothing but blank skin. Adding the fact that he had no hair, only a bald head that showed off more of that paper-white skin, and the effect was quite eerie indeed. 

This was the villain known as Quell. How he could see, no one knew. And Quell himself wasn’t saying. His own gift allowed him, first of all, to absorb and reuse all sound within his earshot. Any sounds he heard could be retained and then replayed at any point, emanating outward from any part of his body he chose. He could also manipulate those replayed sounds, making them louder or quieter, changing the specific tone or even the voice used for words, and so on. 

Beyond simply absorbing sounds, as his name implied, Quell could also silence them. At will, he could project a field that rendered an entire area silent, sound incapable of existing within it. 

And more than that, the man was also capable of both absorbing and muting other things within his area, such as fire, electricity, emotions, and more. Or even Touched powers themselves. By simply turning toward and focusing on what he wanted to affect, be that a flickering flame, a bolt of lightning, a person with powers, or anything else, Quell could make the effects and powers disappear, dousing flame, erasing lightning, taking energy from an electrical device, or even making a Touched incapable of actively using their abilities so long as he was focused on them. Further, any effect that directly struck him would be absorbed so that he could, in turn, use it himself once. 

Quell was an extremely dangerous man, to say the least, who communicated primarily by stringing together the absorbed voices of others (he was capable of reusing sounds though not powers or effects) to form the sentences he wanted. For example, if he meant to say the sentence, ‘I took a long walk to the store for some milk’, ‘I took’, ‘a long walk’ ‘to the store’ ‘for some’ and ‘milk’ might all have been said by different voices and in different tones. 

Completing the group around the fire were a dark-skinned man in his late twenties with long black hair tied into braids, an Asian woman in her sixties with angular features and pale eyes, a red-haired and heavy-set white man clearly late in his fifties but quite fit, and a quite beautiful brunette with intensely, even unnaturally, blue eyes who didn’t seem to be fully out of her teens. 

The black man’s Touched name (no other identifiers tended to matter in this place) was Watchdog. The Asian woman was known as, somewhat strangely, Diesel. The red-haired man was called Rupture. Which left the young girl. Despite looking quite out of place against the rest of the group, she, perhaps more than most on the island, had earned her place there. Calling herself Zeal, her power allowed her to induce murderous, bindingly passionate emotions and loyalty for either herself or any given person or object. People affected by her power would fight and kill one another to protect it, to possess it, to take it for themselves, or to obey its commands. When multiple people were affected, she was able to share the skills and talents of any of those people amongst any others. The same went for any Touched powers they possessed, though those powers were often weakened by being shared. And she had used that gift quite a lot, amassing what amounted to an entire cult of obsessed followers who could and did kill for her before she was fifteen. 

The others in their small group had made it clear that if she used her power to control them outside of planned defensive measures, they would make her spend months begging for death. She, in turn, had let them know that anyone who touched her without her permission would find themselves targeted by the negative aspect of her power. A person or object affected in that way would find themselves not loved and desired, but loathed. Anyone who saw them would do anything in their power to utterly and completely destroy such a person or object. 

All of which left a single man, the one standing by the waterfall.  

Using a stick to gently poke the tinfoil wrapped package that was set close to the fire so that it would cook the food inside, Pinprick glanced toward Quell, nudging him slightly. “Hey, man, you got any more of that chocolate left from before? I’ll trade you a flavor tablet for two squares.” 

There was a pause before the answer of, “One tablet, one square. Orange, not lime,” was said in the voices of three separate people. “Two squares for root beer flavor. Three for real coffee.” 

“Yeah right,” Pinprick retorted. “If I had real coffee, I’d be taking your whole bar. Fine, I’ve got an orange tablet here.” He produced the wrapped candy-shaped thing, which would dissolve in a glass of water and grant its flavor. “Just need some fucking candy, they’re stingy with that shit.” 

After the two made the trade, Pinprick addressed the man who was still standing apart from the group. “What about you, big guy? You got any chocolate with you? Hell, you might’ve just joined up with us, but you’ve definitely been on this hellhole for awhile. How long’s it been?” 

Without turning around, the man replied, “Four years and seven months.”

Watchdog gave a low whistle at that. “Shit, Prick’s right, you’ve gotta have all sorts of stashes around this place, surviving that long. You gonna share with the rest of us?” 

“I’ll do better than that,” the man replied, turning at last to face them. He appeared to be in his early forties, with tanned skin faintly lined by age and stress, blonde hair with slight gray around the temples, and brown eyes. “Far better than giving you a few measly treats that would be gone in moments.” 

“I don’t know, I like my chocolate,” Rupture replied with a low chuckle. “I’d watch what you promise, lest you disappoint us. Don’t care how long you’ve been on this island, if I get disappointed, you won’t get much further.” 

“Now, be nice,” Diesel ordered, her gentle tone as at odds with her name as her appearance. The elderly Asian woman was quite polite and, to the extent that she was capable, enforced that politeness in her companions. But when a fight broke out, she was capable of doing untold damage.

Clearing his throat, Pinprick asked, “This got anything to do with why you keep going off on your own for days at a time before moseying on back here? You setting up some kind of surprise party for your new friends? Come on, you can share with us, we’re all buddies, right?”

“A surprise party, of sorts,” the man confirmed. “But not for you.” Pausing, he amended, “Let’s say you’re part of the party. If you’re patient.”

Watchdog muttered, “You’re pretty secretive, you know that? I don’t know if I like secrets.” 

“Hey, don’t worry, puppy,” Zeal put in teasingly, “I’m sure our new friend isn’t just leading us on. He’s sincere, aren’t you?” She turned her slightly pouting gaze to the man by the waterfall. “I really don’t want to be disappointed again. People are always disappointing me.” 

“Stop it,” the man ordered. “I’m not interested in you.” 

“You’re lying,” Zeal declared, stretching out to make a point of her considerable bust and athletic figure. “Everyone’s interested in me. Unless you’re gay, and you’re definitely not gay. You talked about having a kid the other day. I heard you.” 

Quell ‘spoke’ then, the words coming from a dozen different sources all put together to form the sentence he wanted. “She’s right. You did mention having a child. Or children. Sometimes you say child, sometimes you say children. Which is it?” 

Instead of answering the question directly, the man replied, “You’re right, I’ve been here for awhile. Long enough that I’m almost ready to put my plan into action. My… daughter, she’s just about old enough. Three more weeks.” 

“Old enough for what?” Rupture asked. “And I’ll thank you all to note how much I resisted making my own suggestions.” 

“You don’t get credit when you point it out,” Pinprick informed him before focusing on the standing man. “Seriously though, what’re you talking about? What’s your daughter almost old enough for?” 

“Almost old enough to be sent here,” was the response. “And when she is, Paige will make certain they put her on an express plane to this island.” 

The response to his claim was a flat, silent stare from all of his companions for several long seconds. Finally, Diesel gently pointed out, “Ah, honey, we don’t see how that actually helps anything here. Why would you want your child to be sent to this place, let alone plan for it?” 

“Yeah,” Watchdog put in, “and how the living fuck does your crotchspawn being tossed in this fucking hellhole with the rest of us actually help? I think you’ve lost your goddamn mind.” 

Stepping away from the waterfall finally, the man moved over to take his seat next to the fire. He didn’t answer the question at first, choosing instead to stare into the flames. Eventually, after the others had exchanged confused glances, he spoke. “Because when she gets here, this entire island will stop being a prison. Everyone on it, everyone, will be able to leave. We will all escape.” 

The response to his claim was mostly incredulous chuckling and outright laughter, yet he remained resolute. Finally, Pinprick managed, “Okay, okay, let me get this straight. Your kid is just waiting to be old enough that they’ll bring her here. That’s, what, seventeen at a minimum if the offense is bad enough to try her as an adult? And you think that, just because she gets here, this whole prison is gonna shut down? All the defenses they’ve got are just gonna turn off or whatever and we’ll all be free? Just like that?” 

“Something like that,” the man replied simply. “The point is, we’ll all be able to leave. You all can do what you want when it happens. Cause chaos, keep all the heroes busy and occupied. That’s why I’m here. That’s what all this has been about. A long-term plan. When it comes, when she gets here… unleashing every monster on this island into the rest of the world will give me the opening I need.”

There was another brief exchange of looks then before Diesel gently asked, “The opening you need to do what, dear?” 

Staring into the flames, the man answered in a voice that was so quiet, his companions had to lean in to hear him properly. “The opening I need to destroy the Detroit Ministry.” 

“Those fucks who run everything over there?” Watchdog blurted. “The hell makes you think you can pull off what no one else has? I mean, besides the fact that you’re crazy enough to think bringing your kid here is gonna somehow free everyone on this island. How are you gonna take down the Ministry? They’re always ready for anything people try to pull.” 

“They won’t be ready for this,” the other man murmured. “They’ll be too busy grieving.” 

With a curious look, Diesel asked, “Why will they be grieving?” 

He offered the group a casual shrug. “Because in three weeks, when my Paige turns seventeen, she’s going to kill the person she’s spent years establishing a history of hatred and abuse toward, the one person the Ministry’s leaders can’t live without. 

“Their daughter.”

 

******

 

Patreon Snippets 13B 

 

Aaron Jessup and Silversmith

 

“She really asked what you thought of the city after taking you prisoner in your own truck?” 

Hearing that question, Aaron Jessup exhaled slowly. He had been staring down at his own dirt-encrusted work boots, thinking about the last time he’d bought a new pair. They looked old and grungy against the pleasant light blue carpeting of the interview room in this Conservator outpost in downtown Detroit. The room itself was clearly meant to put people at ease, with comfortable seating, soft lightning, rounded edges on all the tables, and several windows looking out into the main lobby along with two large, open doors at either end. The doors and windows could be closed for a more private discussion, or for those who might be afraid of being seen. But when set like this, the intention was obviously to make people not feel trapped. With the wide windows and two large doors, they wouldn’t feel quite so penned in. 

It definitely wasn’t an interrogation room, that was for sure. As a truck driver who had driven routes all over the states for a good sixteen years, Aaron had been in both kinds. He preferred this version. 

Finally, he looked over to the man who had asked the question. He was Silversmith, man of gleaming metal armor and a sterling reputation. The leader of the local Conservator (or Federal-level Star-Touched) group was one of the most well-known Touched not only in the state, but the entire country. Jessup had never met the man before, but he knew plenty about him. The guy was one of the good ones. He could be trusted. 

“Yeah,” Aaron confirmed with a nod. “Asked me what I thought of your city while she had her big lizard gorilla thing ready to smack me into next week if I didn’t behave.” 

Eyeing Aaron briefly, as though judging how he was feeling, Silversmith gave a light chuckle while shaking his head. “That girl’s still pretty new around here, but she’s already something else.” 

“You almost sound like you admire her,” Aaron pointed out. Part of him felt… almost offended by that, but not quite. He’d been robbed before, by people who were a hell of a lot more nasty about it than that girl had been. Lizard monsters or not, it paid to have some perspective. And when you still had a scar on your left shoulder and your right hip from jumpy assholes with guns who thought you weren’t giving them what they wanted fast enough, you tended to appreciate the more professional thieves. Not that he wouldn’t like to see her behind bars for that shit. 

“Admire her?” the silver-armored hero echoed before shaking his head. “No, I wouldn’t say admire. But given some of the monsters that come scurrying out of the shadows to terrorize the people of this city, this lizard girl’s a damned peach in comparison.” 

“Like that Pencil guy,” Aaron murmured. He knew about the Scions of Typhon. Who didn’t? They, and those like them, were psychopaths beyond all description. The stories that made it into the national news about that son of a bitch…

“Like Pencil,” Silversmith agreed with a heavy sigh, glancing toward the other man. “Or any of his freaks. Believe me, as much as I wish you could have made it through our city without a problem like this, it could’ve been worse. Your cargo’s all CIF insured, right?” He pronounced it ‘kif.’ It stood for Cooperative International Funding, a pool put together by most of the first world countries drawn mostly from taxes on Tech-Touched devices and manufacturing, as well as merchandise sales for Star-Touched teams and similar things. Everything went into that pool and was used to rebuild after Collision Points and other very damaging Touched Events. Companies and even individuals who paid to be CIF insured sent funds into the pool as well, in order to be covered if and when they themselves were victims of Touched crimes. 

“Yeah, that’s all covered,” Jessup confirmed. Getting robbed wouldn’t be on his neck, at least. 

“Good.” With a brief pause, Silversmith looked to him. “I wanted to ask you something else. In your report to the first officers on the scene, you said that the Minority member That-A-Way ‘sort of’ fought your attacker. Why do you say ‘sort of?’” 

“Ehhhh…” Grimacing, Aaron shook his head. “Look, I don’t want to get the girl in trouble or anything. She did her job, a job she shouldn’t have to have at her age. She’s a good one in my book.” 

“She is a good one,” Silversmith agreed, his tone easy and casual. “I’m not asking you to tattle on her, Mr. Jessup. I think That-A-Way is one of our finest young Star-Touched and an incredible young woman in her own right. But given the age situation of the Minority and how careful we need to be with protecting and guiding them, if there is an issue, it’s better for me to know about it now before it becomes a problem. We need to know if our teenagers need a break for their own mental health, or if they need to be kept away from certain threats for their own safety.” 

After a long pause, Aaron gave a long, heavy sigh. “Well, best as I could see from where I was… she and that Pack girl did seem to be… uhh… maybe… flirting a little bit? Don’t get me wrong, she still fought her, but it was like… neither of ‘em were really up for hurting each other. And they were just… yeah, flirting a bit.” He grimaced once more. “Just don’t give the kid a hard time about it?” 

He could hear the easy smile in Silversmith’s voice. “Trust me, Mr. Jessup, this isn’t the first time we’ve had an issue of young, still-maturing Touched developing feelings for people on the other side. You were right to tell me about this. And don’t you worry, we know how to handle it. 

“Everything will be just fine.”

****** 

 

Pack and Broadway 

 

An unlabeled white van pulled up to the mouth of an alley, idling there as the window rolled down. 

“Hey, sweet thing!” called a voice from within the van. “You need a lift?”

Rolling her eyes behind her mask, Pack abandoned the shadows and moved to the van. Holiday, Twinkletoes, and Mars Bar followed suit. As she approached, the side-door of the van slid open, held by Tuesday, the lizard-monkey chittering at them in a voice that seemed to be an order to hurry up. Their traveling cage sat next to him. 

One by one, Pack reached out, touched one of her menagerie to shrink them back into their normal lizard forms, and placed them in the cage. Riddles flew down from where she had been playing lookout and returned to being a bearded dragon. Tuesday was last, and she tickled under his chin before putting him back to his ordinary gecko shape. Setting him in the cage, she closed it up, then slid the back door shut and moved around to get into the front passenger door.  

KD was in the driver’s seat. Or rather, Broadway as she was known in the field. She wore what amounted to a power-suit, metal armor that boosted her height by a few inches (useful for disguising her identity) and enhanced her strength and speed to the point of lifting about six hundred pounds and running forty miles per hour. The suit was dark purple to the point of being almost black, with what looked like narrow white vents all along both arms, down both legs, and in the chest and back. They weren’t vents, however. They were speaker-systems that could blast sound at ear-splitting decibels all on their own, even before KD’s own power to manipulate and enhance sound itself came into play. Without the suit, she could clap her hands, then magnify and direct the result until it punched through a concrete block. She could do that to any sound in her vicinity. She could also disperse herself into soundwaves in order to avoid attacks. And if she used her power to focus sound toward one area (similar to what she would do when narrowing it for a sonic attack), then turned herself into sound and jumped into the wave she had just created while it was moving, she could reappear at the target. Basically, she teleported along her own manipulated and directed blasts of sound. And there were other tricks she could do with sound beyond straight up damage or teleporting. 

She could do all that without the suit. With it, her power was enhanced to incredible levels. Instead of punching through concrete, she could magnify the sound that came from the suit’s speakers to the point of being able to damage or even destroy a military tank or other armored vehicle. 

The helmet of the suit was also dark purple, with three white vertical speaker-vents along either side. They were positioned where her ears would be and angled toward the front. Over the face part was a wide V-shaped visor. Whenever Broadway spoke, bright multi-colored lines bounced across the surface of the visor roughly in rhythm with her words. Like a speaker system with the lights in front that pulsed along with the music it played. 

Once Pack was inside, she shut the door and Broadway pulled away from the curb. The van made it through the maze of side-streets before approaching the freeway. Only once they were heading up the ramp did KD remove the helmet and set it aside, exposing her pale skin and bright blue-dyed hair fashioned into pigtails. Dani took her own hood down and pulled the black, featureless mask off her face to reveal her dark skin with short, spiky hair that was mostly black aside from the bright white-dyed tips. 

Both girls grinned at one another before fist-bumping as the van joined the rest of the traffic on the freeway.  “Could’ve gone worse,” KD chirped. “Got half the stuff.” 

“Could’ve gone better too,” Dani retorted, leaning back in the seat a little to watch the cars around them thoughtfully. “We could’ve gotten all of it.” 

“Yeah, true,” KD agreed easily, drumming her fingers along the steering wheel to some tune in her head. “Still, half isn’t bad considering that Touched girl showed up.” Trailing off meaningfully, she added, “Speeeeaaaking of which…” 

“Nothing to speaking of which about,” Dani insisted, feeling a slight flush cross her face as she turned to look out the passenger window. Boy, those lights in the city sure were interesting. 

There was a slight giggle from behind her, before KD spoke again. “That was the girl you were trapped in Jailtime’s funhouse with, right?” 

After a brief pause, Dani nodded. “Uhh, yeah, That-A-Way, that’s right.” 

“And the girl who helped at the hospital,” KD pressed. “The one who saved Holiday.” 

There was another brief pause from Dani, then a slightly more quiet, “Yup.” 

“Ah,” KD murmured. Her voice sounded totally noncommittal and barely interested. “Kay.” 

Several long moments of nothing further happened, while the van traveled down the freeway. When she was met with so much silence, Dani very hesitantly turned to peek over her shoulder at her companion. 

KD was grinning brightly, staring that way. As soon as Dani turned to glance at her, she blurted cheerfully, “You like her!”

Blush deepening, Dani flailed a little. “What–nooo, no, come on, don’t be stupid. She’s one of the good guys, she’s a hero and stuff. She wants to arrest me, remember? What do you think that whole fight back there was about?” 

“Oh yeah,” KD deadpanned, “she really looked like she was totally dead set on locking you up forever and throwing away the key. However will you survive the dreadful wounds she inflicted?” 

Making a face at her friend, Dani retorted, “The point is, she’s Star-Touched. I’m Fell-Touched. Good guy, bad guy. Not really conducive to a relationship. Even if I did like her.” 

“People can change sides, you know,” KD pointed out. “This stuff isn’t set in stone.” 

Dani gave her a sharp look. “I’m not joining the Team Good Samaritan just because I think That-A-Way is hot. I mean, don’t get me wrong, she totally is. But I’m not changing my whole life over it. I made my choice about being who I am.” 

“Who said anything about you joining them?” KD replied. “It can work the other way too.” 

“Something tells me that girl is not interested in joining our side any more than I am in joining her side,” Dani muttered.  

KD nodded in agreement, her tone thoughtful. “Maybe not yet. But you know what? 

“I’m pretty sure whatever’s going on between you two is just getting started.”

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Showdown 7-08 and Patreon Snippet – Izzy (Summus Proelium)

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There was a buzzing of panic in the back of my head that wouldn’t go away. My mouth opened and closed a couple times as I stood there, face still covered by the mask while the broken helmet was held tightly in one hand. The buzzing turned audible as I managed a low, “Uhhhhh…. n-no, I—”

And that was when my panicking brain had the incredibly genius idea to make Eits stop talking by shooting black paint at him. I didn’t even know what that was supposed to accomplish other than keeping him silent for a few seconds. What was I going to do, follow him around forever constantly shooting black paint at him so he couldn’t tell anybody? What was my endgame there?

From the look on what I could see of his face after he tried and failed to say something, Eits was just as dubious as to the long term validity of this plan as I was. He stared at me, arms spreading apart in a ‘really?’ gesture that made me blush. 

Finally, I canceled the paint and stammered, “Look, you can’t— I mean, don’t… I’m not… you—”

His hands raised while he shook his head quickly. “Stop, just stop. I’m not telling anybody. Are you kidding me? After you helped me get my ball back and all that? You saved my ass. I’m not gonna throw you under the bus, geez. I was just surprised, that’s all. I just…” Trailing off, his head tilted to the side. “Blackjack’s coming. Gimme your phone. That’s what you’re using to change your voice, right? Let me see, quick.”

I didn’t have much of a choice, so I passed the phone that way. He took a quick glance at the damaged device while pulling another phone from his pocket. I saw one of his mites jump into my phone, then slip over to the other one. Then Eits past the new phone to me. “Plug it into your mic, hurry.”

Without wasting time asking questions, I paired the new phone with my microphone (that was what was actually changing my voice, it just needed the phone for the software part to work properly) and tried talking. “Hello, hello. Good?” It worked. My voice sounded like it should have again. My mic had kept the same settings. 

And just in time, because a nondescript blue car screeched to a halt a short distance away. Blackjack and a couple of his armed people stepped out. The man himself looked around briefly before his eyes centered on the two of us. And you know what? I had to give him credit, because despite how terrified for his daughter the man had to be, the first words out of his mouth were, “Are you two okay?” Belatedly, he ordered his men to spread out and watch for trouble. 

Eits was quiet, so I spoke up. “Cuélebre’s gone. I… um, lost him, I guess. But I got this back.” Holding my hand up, I showed the man the vial held tightly in it. 

As soon as it appeared, I saw a load of tension, though not nearly all of it, slip from his shoulders. He exhaled and stepped that way, reaching out for the vial. I let him take it, and only once it was secure in his own pocket did the man speak. “The others?” 

“Pack has one with her, and my… my friend has the other in the car,” I replied, hesitantly looking toward Eits. “Which is…” 

“I lost track of it,” he admitted. “But so did everyone else. I was kind of focused on leading all the others away, and on finding you after that whole lightning thing. I’m pretty sure they got the car out of sight.”

I had no idea what he was thinking, what his opinion was about what he had just found out about me. And there wasn’t exactly time to ask at the moment. Instead, I said, “I’ll find out. Just…” Then I paused, realizing a problem. I couldn’t call Wren without the number in my phone. But the real phone was broken.

“You should call them,” Eits urged,  giving me a brief, yet significant look. Clearly, that mite of his had copied all the number data out of the old phone. So it was probably a good thing that I wasn’t keeping deeply personal information in it. That phone was intended as my Touched thing, so I kept my personal stuff off it.

Sure enough, when I opened the phone, I found the right number in the contacts. Giving Eits a slight nod, I hit it and brought the phone to my ear. I could see Blackjack standing there, watching me like a hawk with tension still visible in him. It was clear that he would not relax until he had every vial. And after seeing how far his rivals were willing to go to get the things for themselves, I really couldn’t blame him. 

The phone rang a couple times before Wren answered. “Hello? Who—”

“It’s Paintball,” I cut her off. “I’m okay. I got one of the vials back from Cuélebre, but there’s one still on the car. Please tell me you still have the car.”

There was a burst of noise from the other side, as the younger girl clearly turned to tell someone else, no doubt Fred, that I was the one on the phone. Then she was back. “Paintball! Why are you— never mind. Yes, we’ve got the car! There were a bunch of bad guys, and then there were a bunch of other red cars and I think they were trying to help. But there were still lots of bad guys trying to stop us— I mean the car— so I hid it behind a building and I don’t think anybody knows where it is. But they keep driving past looking for it and I don’t know who’s bad or good anymore. Where’s Pack? She’s not answering her phone either. What—”

Wincing, I quickly interrupted. “I’m working on it. Just keep it there and I’ll come get them. And hey, thanks. That was some really good driving. Just hang on a second.”

With that, I muted the phone and looked over to Blackjack. “We’ve got it. The next vial’s in the car and I can go get it. But what about Pack and That-A-Way? They were both taken by that weird prisoner guy, and Pack’s got the last vial. Plus, I mean… I know the Minority aren’t exactly on your Christmas card list, but—”

It was my turn to be interrupted, as the man spoke. “I owe the girl no particular ill will. Particularly given the current situation. Intentional or not, she’s helped me secure these vials. And as far as that goes…” He exhaled. “The boy calls himself Jailtime. From what I understand, there are two aspects to his power. The first allows him to selectively cancel movement-based powers, such as teleportation, within an area.” 

“Which is why That-A-Way couldn’t teleport,” I murmured. 

“Correct,” he confirmed. “The second use of his power allows him to take anyone he’s touching to some kind of abandoned prison somewhere. The boy has some kind of power over the prison to create simulacrum beings and to control things within the prison itself, everything except the people he brings in. If you can get to the exit, you get transported back to where you left from. Other than that, we have no idea where this prison is. Or if it’s even a true physical place that can be reached.”

“So we just have to wait until they manage to get out of there by themselves?” I winced after saying it. “I mean, at least Pack has her animals and… I… I guess we just… oh God, I hope they’re okay.”

“As do I,” the man agreed quietly, and I knew it wasn’t just because he wanted that last vial, even if that was a big part of it. Hell, I knew it had to be taking everything he had not to scream at me to just get the vial in the car, but Blackjack controlled himself. His voice was mostly calm. “But in the meantime…”

“I’ll go get the next vial right now,” I assured him before pausing. “But uhh, maybe I shouldn’t go the fun way with Cuélebre still pretty pissed off out there.”

Eits promptly took the hint, speaking up. “I’ll drive him over to grab the vials. Then we’ll come right back.”

I could see the objection in Blackjack’s body language. He didn’t want to let me out of his sight until he had all the vials, particularly if I was about to go grab one. But he relented with a slight nod. “Go. I need to check in with my people, but I’m not leaving this spot. Get them and come back.” His words did not invite discussion or disagreement, only obedience. 

I let it go. The guy was stressed. I mean, he was also a supervillain with a horde of minions at his beck and call who was clearly accustomed to giving any orders he wanted. But in this case, he was also understandably stressed. The fact that he hadn’t snapped at me and was even willing to let me leave his sight to get the next vial for him said a lot more about his patience and control than anything else. I wasn’t going to childishly demand he say please or anything stupid like that. 

Instead, I just looked over to Eits. “Car?”

No sooner had I said it, than a station wagon pulled up to the curb. The boy gestured to it before looking to his boss. “We’ll be right back. What about the other attacks?”

“Distractions,” Blackjack replied. “Hit and run techniques meant to keep us busy. They did the same thing across the city to occupy the Star-Touched. I’m checking in on our other people now, just to be sure. You grab those vials, then we’ll secure them and all of this will be over.” His gaze flicked over to me as he added, “And I will owe you more than I can ever repay.”

Rather than respond to that, I stepped down into the station wagon. Only when Eits had gotten in the other side and pulled away from the curb did it occur to me to weakly ask, “Oh God, this is stolen, isn’t it?” 

“Borrowed for the emergency,” he corrected. “As soon as we’re done, I’ll fill it with gas and put it right back where we found it. Scout’s honor.”

I probably should’ve said something else to that, but all I could think about was what he now knew. I fell silent, chancing a glance that way. He was looking at me rather than the road. Then again, he wasn’t actually physically driving anyway. One of his mites was, so Eits didn’t need to watch the road. 

The two of us stared at each other for a minute, as I rested the broken helmet in my lap. It was obvious that neither of us really knew what to say. But we had to say something.

In a minute, anyway. Right then, I remembered Wren and quickly unmuted the phone. “Okay, heading for the car. Where is it, exactly?”

She gave directions, and I passed them to Eits before letting the girl know that we would be showing up in a station wagon so she wouldn’t freak out when she saw it on the car’s cameras. I stayed on the line with her the whole way just in case something happened. And, of course, because it gave me an excuse not to get into the inevitable awkward conversation with Eits. 

It also gave me a chance to explain what was going on with Pack. Wren, of course, wasn’t exactly happy about the fact that we couldn’t do anything but wait. I couldn’t blame her for that, considering how annoyed I was by it. Yet there was nothing else for it. We just had to be patient and hope the two of them (plus the lizard buddies) could get out of that prison without our help. 

Finally, we pulled up around the back of the building in question. The car was waiting there, and I had Eits wait while I went over, opened the door, and reached in. There it was, the vial. We had the vial, meaning there was only one more out there. The one Pack had. Please, let her and That-A-Way get away from that Jailtime guy.

Clutching the vial from the car, I looked up to the sky and murmured a silent prayer before  bringing the phone back to my ear. “Got it. Pack’s got the last one, as soon as she… Wren, you… you did great. Seriously, this wouldn’t have happened without you. That girl survives all this, it’s totally because of you.”

Promising to let her know the second I found out anything else, I disconnected, reaching the car just as something else occurred to me. Eyes widening behind my mask, I grabbed the door and got in while blurting, “Wait, what about Ashton? I just left him back there when we took off after Cuélebre.”

“I guess Blackjack’s probably got him,” the boy replied before physically wincing. “I really don’t see that ending well for him after what he did.”

And I would have to do something about that. Going silent for a moment, I waited before glancing to Eits. “I guess you probably have a lot of questions, huh?”

He hesitated before shrugging. “It’s pretty self-explanatory, actually. Maybe not specifics or anything, but posing as the gender you’re not makes it harder to identify you later. It’s a pretty good—” In mid-sentence, he suddenly stopped, making a kind of adorable horrified noise. “Errr, did I just do to you what people kept doing to me? I mean, are we both… are you…”

My head shook as I quickly assured him, “No, no, I’m not trying to transition or anything. It’s really just a disguise.” Belatedly, I hit the button to deactivate the voice thing and spoke normally. “I guess you could probably take offense to that, huh?”

His response was another shrug. “Not really. It’s a disguise, you’re not mocking anything. Context kinda matters. I just… I mean… I guess I’m still just a little surprised. Okay, a lot surprised. It’s a pretty good way of hiding your identity though, if you’re the kind of girl with a body type that can pass for a boy and oh my God I just realized I said that out loud.” The last bit came all in a rush as he lowered his head to bang it against the steering wheel, making me glad again that he wasn’t driving the normal way. 

My face flushed under the mask, but it wasn’t as bad as it could have been. There were a lot of people who could have said something like that and basically ruined my night. Or, they could have a while ago before my priorities got pretty reorganized. Still, the reminder that at best I looked like a girl who had not made it very far through puberty sent an embarrassed twinge through me. At least it could be worse. 

“Sorry,” Eits was saying. “I’m really not trying to pry into your identity or anything, I swear. But how long are you going to be able to pull this charade off? I mean, once you get a little older, people might notice… changes.”

It was worse! It was worse, definitely worse. Oh God!

My face went bright red, feeling warm under the mask as I dropped my head into my hands and groaned. “I’m not a kid.”

“Oh,” Eits started, “I wasn’t trying to say you—”

“I’m not a kid,” I interrupted. “Let’s just say I’m closer to college than middle school. The puberty fairy’s already made it pretty clear that her ideal look for me is ‘vampire turned when she was thirteen.’ At my sixteenth birthday party, we celebrated that I finally crossed five feet. I—” Then I stopped myself, realizing that for all he’d talked about not prying into my identity, I probably still shouldn’t hand him so much information like that. I probably should have stopped talking sooner, but I was just so flustered. And it had been a long night. 

Eits was looking my way, waiting for me to fall silent before he spoke. “Sorry. That was a really dumb assumption and a stupid thing for me to say. I was trying to help things and… well, yeah. You see how that turned out. Look, it doesn’t matter if you’re a boy or a girl under that costume. what matters is who you are, right? And who you are is the guy—sorry, girl who really helped me out of a jam, and accepted who I am pretty much instantly. You’re the girl who risked her life to save the daughter of a supervillain, and who is going back there right now to talk to said supervillain about not hurting the guy who almost killed his daughter, about letting the guy go without taking his revenge. So personally, I think you’re pretty brave, cool, funny, and accepting. Those are the things you can change. Anyone gives you shit about the things you can’t, fuck ‘em.”

Before I could stop myself, the words blurted their way out of my mouth. “I’m not entirely sure ‘fuck ‘em’ is really the best way to handle my body image issues.”

Before Eits could really recover from his reaction to that, the car stopped right back where we had started. As promised, Blackjack was there. He’d been joined by more of his troops, including Cardsharp. When I got out of the car (taking a second to make sure my voice changer was on again), the La Casa leader’s gaze snapped to me, and everyone seemed to freeze. 

At first, I didn’t say anything. I simply steeled myself and looked to him. “Pack’s got the last vial.” I held up the one that I had retrieved. “As soon as she gets away from Jailtime, you’ll have everything you need to save your daughter.” 

A bit of weight seemed to slip from the man’s shoulders, as he murmured, “Pack…” Looking to one of his men, he ordered, “Make absolutely sure that spot is clear and safe when they show up. And–” He glanced to me before adding, “Let That-A-Way go unharmed, along with the rest of her team. The truce stays so long as they don’t attack any of our people.” 

His man acknowledged that and moved away while speaking into a phone, and I started again. “You have Ashton. You also said that if I got you the vials, you’d owe me a favor.” Stepping over, I extended the one I had to him before adding, “I’ve helped you find them. Assuming Pack gets out of there okay, I want two favors.”

Only once he had the vial in his hand and confirmed it looked right did the man speak. “Two favors?” 

From the way his voice cracked, he would have granted fifty. But I wasn’t going to get greedy. Instead, I nodded once. “Yeah, two. First, I want you to let me take Ashton to the cops, and then you leave him alone. He’s grieving for his friend and he did stupid things. He was wrong and he was psycho, no matter what his reasoning was. No tragic backstory gives him the right to do what he tried to do. But let him go to prison for it.”

Without giving any indication of how he felt about that, Blackjack simply asked, “The second?”

“You put up a bounty of three million dollars,” I reminded him. “I decided I want you to follow through. Only send it to the children’s hospital that was just attacked by the Scions. All of it except one hundred thousand. I’m going to use that to help people in another way.” Namely as seed money to dump into Wren without my parents noticing any large sums disappearing. 

“Three million to the children’s hospital,” Blackjack echoed, his voice clearly carefully even. “One hundred thousand to you. And let you take Mr. Austin to the authorities. Is that all?” 

“That’s it,” I confirmed. “I know with Pack having the last vial, that means you already have what you want, but everyone says you’re a man of your word, so–” 

“Done,” the man interrupted. “The hospital will receive the full reward, with a small compensation of a hundred thousand going to your… efforts. And you… may take Mr. Austin.” The last bit was clearly the hardest for him to say, anger still turning his words brittle. “But should he remind me of his existence again…” 

“I know.” It was the best I could have hoped for. Hell, for all I knew, he’d just wait for Ashton to be in prison and then have him killed. But I’d try to make sure the authorities knew how much danger he was in. Other than that… well, it could’ve been worse. 

Blackjack interrupted my thoughts. “Now, we need to go and wait for the missing girls to return.”

I nodded quickly. Because I was going to be there when Pack and That-A-Way got out of that weird prison thing Jailtime had apparently sent them to. Not to mention check on the rest of the Minority who had shown up to help, if they were still around. And I was pretty sure Eits and I weren’t done talking about… about what he had found out. We’d managed a lot. Blackjack’s daughter was… well, almost safe. But I wasn’t going to celebrate just yet. Not until I knew for sure that Pack and That-A-Way had made it back with that last vial. Then the girl would be okay. She’d have all her medicine. Once that was assured, I’d have to actually take Ashton to the authorities, let them know what was going on and… and… everything. All of that, of course, assumed that Pack returned with the vial. After all this, it was down to her and That-A-Way to bring that last one back. 

Yeah, as long as this night had already been and as much as we’d accomplished, this night still wasn’t over yet. 

 

*******

 

Patreon Snippet – Izzy

 

The tiny, somewhat huddled figure ran through the dark alley before reaching a heavy green dumpster. There, she looked around quickly, while the sound of approaching footsteps grew louder. The young girl looked over her shoulder, seeing bouncing lights draw nearer to the mouth of the alley. Then she turned back, eyes settling on something in particular before she gave a small nod of decision. 

A few seconds later, two flashlight beams lit up the area where the girl had just been, revealing empty space. The source of the lights, two men holding them next to their pistols, grew brighter as the pair advanced into the alley. Their voices were hushed. “You see anything?” one man asked. 

“Nothing,” the next murmured, slowly panning his light over the collection of garbage around the dumpster, across a few old wooden pallets, and onto a moldy mattress against the opposite wall. “You sure the kid came this way?” 

“That’s what they said,” came the response, as the first man advanced cautiously closer to the dumpster. “Paola saw her in the rearview, crossing the street over on Beckards, but they couldn’t turn around in time to catch up. She was heading this way.” 

The second man kicked the mattress, leaning over to check in the space between it and the wall before shaking his head. “We gotta grab this maldita puta before she gets her powers back, or before she finds a working phone and fucks all of us over. You know how screwed we are if that kid gets away and tells anyone?”

Advancing toward the dumpster, the first man peeked around it to the spot where the girl had ducked earlier. His gun was raised and ready, but he found nothing but a smell from abandoned rotten food on the ground that made him gag a bit. “Uuuuggghh, tell me about it,” he muttered under his breath while leaning back and turning his head a little to press his nose against his shoulder for relief. 

After recovering a bit, the man took a step back to be out of easy reach before taking a knee to peer under the dumpster. His light illuminated the small space there, and he saw… nothing. Rising, he cast his light across the tall wooden fence at the back of the alley. “Shit, man, there’s nothing here. Maybe she got over that somehow?” 

“Or maybe she never came down here,” his partner replied with a shrug. “Whatever, let’s check in. Maybe someone else picked up the trail.” He gave one last look around with his light before turning to leave the alley. “Come on, smells like shit back here.” 

The two of them left the alley, muttering to each other. A few seconds after they were gone, the moldy mattress shifted, jerked against the ground, and then a hand emerged from the far side of it. Izzy Amor hauled herself out of the mattress. She had spotted a hole in one side of it and had managed to tear it open enough to shove herself inside. It wasn’t that hard, given how much of the interior of it was missing. There, she had curled into a tight ball in a space barely large enough to hold her small form, using her hands to keep the hole in the mattress closed while the men talked. She’d thought she had been caught when the man kicked the mattress, but all he’d done was shift it a bit to look behind it. 

Kicking her way free of the dirty, disgusting mattress, Izzy crouched there. Her arms folded tightly around herself as she stared toward the mouth of the alley. The girl’s face was still stained wet from tears, but she forced them back while slowly rising to her feet. There were people yelling back and forth to each other, beams of light occasionally flicking past the alley. They were out there, looking for her. She had no phone, no communicator, no costume, and she couldn’t use her powers without horrific pain. Not yet, anyway. That Handler guy’s power hadn’t worn off. 

Six more blocks. The nearest entrance to the Minority base, using one of the dozen or so spread across the city (entrances which all accessed the same building thanks to the Ten Towers Tech-Touched known as Switchshift), was six blocks away. Six blocks. She could get there. She… she could…

Mom. The thought wormed its way into Izzy’s mind, and she cringed as those same tears threatened to overwhelm her once more. Mom. Mama. Her mother… her mother had sold her, had literally sold her to the bad guys to be tortured and trained into… into…

Covering her mouth with a hand, Izzy restrained the horrified sob of anguish and grief. Bottling up those feelings, she pushed herself to her feet and carefully made her way to the wooden fence. With actual time now, she climbed up and over it, dropping into the alley on the opposite side before quickly crouching in the corner as an Oscuro car drove slowly past, more men leaning out the windows, scanning the streets for her. 

Six blocks. She could make it six more blocks. Taking a breath, the temporarily powerless girl made her way swiftly to the end of the alley and looked around. The Oscuro car was turning the corner, while two men at the opposite end of the street walked around the other way. She had an opening, and took it, darting out and running to the next alley over. 

Six more blocks. Stay low, stay quiet, keep moving. 

And don’t think about Mama. Push it down. Shove it down. Focus. 

She almost made it. Almost. Just as Izzy was crossing the last street, eyes centered on the building she needed to get to, there was a sudden screech of tires as a dark sedan came screaming up to block her path. Several Oscuro troops were inside, pointing their guns at her as the driver (whose side she was facing) snarled, “Hey kid, going somewhere?” 

Stumbling back, her eyes darted around, but there was nowhere to go. She was out in the open. They were pointing guns at her, she… she… had to use her power. The very idea made her nauseous. Not just because of the pain, which had… probably worn off by now, but because she was exhausted. She’d used it so much all night long to put out the fires at the hospital. She was tired, she was sore, she’d been up for too long, had used her power too much, and now… now she had to use it again. She had to, even if the thought of even trying to summon up more of it made her want to curl into a ball and throw up. 

“Aww,” the driver with his sawed-off shotgun pointed at her taunted, “what’s the matter? Is the little bitch gonna cry cuz we–” 

In mid-sentence, a giant silver hand, bigger than the sedan itself, burst out of the ground at the front of the car. A second appeared at the back. The two hands took the front and rear of the vehicle between giant fingers and ripped it apart with a scream of tearing metal. The inhabitants were dumped to the ground, crying out and cursing. One man tried to shoot at Izzy, but the two hands had already broken apart, reforming into a single wall between the girl and her attackers. 

A figure dropped from the building above before landing lightly on his feet. He straightened up, and Silversmith stood there, just beside the wall he had created. “Gentlemen,” he started flatly, “throw down your guns, and–” 

Several of the men opened fire. The bullets did nothing to the Conservator leader’s gleaming metal armor. They didn’t penetrate, but nor did they ricochet away. Ricochets would have potentially endangered other people. Instead, as the bullets struck the strange, Touched-summoned metal, it rippled slightly, almost like water. Tiny tendrils of liquid-metal encompassed each bullet where it struck, holding onto it to arrest its momentum before letting it go so the bullet would fall harmlessly to the ground. It all happened in a millisecond, impossible to see with the naked eye. Each bullet would start to penetrate the liquid-like spot of armor, get caught by the miniscule tendrils, and was then pushed out to fall onto the pavement in a shower of metal. To the naked eye, it looked like the bullets were hitting the man and simply falling to his feet. 

“Okay,” Silversmith said simply as the men interrupted his attempt to offer them a chance to surrender. His hand gave a dismissive wave, instantly sending a dozen small balls of liquid metal at them. The first six orbs reshaped into blades, solidifying just in time to cut through the weapons the half-dozen men were holding. Their guns were sliced in half, falling uselessly to the ground. Just behind those, the remaining six metal balls of metallic liquid formed into handcuffs. They snapped around each man’s wrists at once before hoisting them off the ground. With a collection of screams, the six Oscuro troops were hurled backward by the cuffs and suspended ten feet off the ground by their wrists against the wall of the nearby building. 

He turned to Izzy then, his voice softening. “Are you–” 

Izzy threw herself at him. Her arms went around his waist, and she clung to the man, unable to hold back the blinding, inescapable tears that poured from her eyes as she openly sobbed. Her body shook violently, while she tightened her grip. She was awash in an ocean of grief, and the man was her only life preserver. 

“Shhh,” Silversmith murmured, sinking to one knee before taking the girl into his arms. “It’s okay. You’re safe. 

“I’ve got you.”

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Showdown 7-07 (Summus Proelium)

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Coming down on the roof of the next building, I stumbled and almost fell. It was actually Eits, recovering a bit from his surprise, who caught me. “Paintball, why’d you bring me wi–” 

“Sedans!” I blurted. “Red sedans! Take over every red sedan you can find that doesn’t have anyone in it and bring them with us!” Even as I said it, my hand caught his and I started running, painting my legs green while using my other hand to shoot more green at the boy himself to speed both of us up. We ran together, racing to the other side of the roof. “Cuélebre and his people are after a red sedan, send in more to confuse them! Catch up with the right one and mix them up. Shell game, make them lose track of which is the right one! And keep running!”

We hit the edge of that roof, and I used blue paint to launch both of us upward. I could see Cuélebre in the distance. He wasn’t that far away yet. Faster. I had to be faster. We had to be faster. Because if we didn’t stop this, not only would Cuélebre get the vial in that car in addition to the one he already had, he’d also find out where Wren was hiding. 

I had to get his attention. I had to get him focused on me. And I knew just how to do that. But we had to get close enough. As Eits and I landed on the next roof over and kept running, I held my free arm out and shot a line of red paint ahead of us. A second later, I took my other hand from the boy’s, wrapped my arm around his waist, and let the paint yank us forward. 

We repeated that several times, the motions coming so rapidly I could barely think about them. Activating green paint that was already on my costume to keep moving as fast as possible, blue paint for jumps, red paint to yank us forward, repeat. Repeat, repeat. Everything was a blur, as I raced toward Cuélebre. He may have been literally flying, but we might as well have been. For that short time, I don’t think we spent more than a handful of seconds actually on the ground. Errr, roofs. And to his credit, Eits didn’t barf. I was pretty sure that was mostly because the majority of his attention was on sending his mites out to grab various nearby cars as we passed them, but still. 

There, there! Cuélebre was just ahead of us and slightly above. His attention was focused ahead and down, scanning the street as he hovered there for the moment, clearly intent on spotting the car. Any second now, he was going to dive, grab the sedan, and be out of there. No, no, no, I had to do something! 

Too late, his form started to invert as prepared himself to dive. The car was in sight. He was going for it. He was going to have it. We couldn’t stop him. We couldn’t–

Then I saw it. A sudden freezing in his body language. I couldn’t see his face, but I knew there would be a look of confusion. And in the distance, I saw cars. Sedans. Red sedans. They were coming in from every other street. Eits had captured them, was bringing them along and sending the cars in to distract and disorient Cuélebre. Soon, the real car was surrounded by other, similar-looking cars. The whole street was flooded with over a dozen red sedans. 

It was enough to make Cuélebre freeze in confusion for a second. And that was all I needed. “Keep going!” I blurted to Eits, painting him orange for protection before running forward with him. I leapt, dropping Eits down to land sprawled out on the roof of one of his cars. He’d be fine.

As for me, I hurled myself upward, shooting a line of red paint right at the small vial still clutched in Cuélebre’s massive hand. The paint struck the vial, yanking it out of his grip as he made a sound of surprise. It flew into my waiting grasp, while I flew by just underneath the giant demon-man. 

“Yoink!” I shouted at him, my terror mixing with my glee. Clutching the vial, I hit the next roof over, rolling and spinning to come up on one knee and one foot, facing back the way I had come. 

Cuélebre was there, staring at me in flat disbelief mixed with clearly mounting rage. 

“Hey, buddy,” I blurted, “don’t you know it’s rude to take things that don’t belong to you? I think you need a time-out!” With that, I sent a wave of white paint that hit his face before he could react, activating it for a blinding flash of light that left him reeling with a deafening roar of fury that shook the air and left me wishing I could call a timeout to piss my pants. 

Instead, I used the brief moment that gave me to spin away and run. Escape. I had to lead Cuélebre away and escape. Pissed as he was right now, he’d be right on my tail. And I was pretty sure he wouldn’t stop at exchanging a few ugly words. 

I ran, fleeing as fast as I could while activating paint on myself to keep going. All I could think about was the next step, the next jump, the next second of flying wildly through the air. Part of me expected to feel a lightning bolt go through me any instant. But no, he wanted the vial. He needed the vial, and wouldn’t risk destroying it, no matter how angry he was about me taking it from him. 

At least, that’s what I hoped. 

Sure enough, there was another roar, and chancing a quick glance back showed Cuélebre already hurling himself my way. He was closing the distance terrifyingly quickly, and I launched myself off the edge of the roof with a reflexive yelp of fear. 

That time, instead of aiming for the next roof, I saw an open window partway up on an apartment building. There was a man standing there smoking and leaning out. He looked up at the last second, saw me flying toward him, and jerked backward, dropping the cigarette. 

I went right through the open window hands first in a diving position, rolling as I hit the floor. “Stay down, stay down!” I blurted, already back up on my feet and running. Through the kitchen, the living room, a short hallway, I hit the front door, practically crashed through it while taking barely enough time to twist the knob, and found myself in the main hall of the building, apartment doors lining the walls along both sides. Without thinking about it, I spun to the right, toward the tall window at the end of the corridor. My hand snapped down, grabbing hold of a fire extinguisher, and I activated a spot of purple on what remained of my formerly intricate painted image. With a grunt, I hurled the extinguisher at the window, sending it through with a crash. 

Cuélebre would hear it. He would know where I was. But I wanted him to. The last thing I wanted was to be responsible for was him tearing his way through these people’s apartments trying to get me. I wanted him to know that I wasn’t in the building anymore. 

Sure enough, even as I threw myself out the broken window and used a shot of red paint to yank myself toward a billboard in the distance, I could hear a rush of motion overhead. Cuélebre. He was diving toward me, so at the last second I cancelled the paint, spinning over on my back in mid-dive. Falling through the open air toward the hard street below, I forced myself to ignore just how very dead I would be if I hit it. Instead, I focused on the giant demon man coming after me. A shot of green, yes green, paint hit him while I activated yellow paint on myself. 

My fall slowed, even as Cuélebre’s descent dramatically sped up. He shot past just barely ahead of me, his grasping hand missing while he blurted a violent curse. An instant later, he crashed into the street, sending up a huge spray of dirt, rocks, and concrete and knocking over a couple lamp posts. 

Meanwhile, I used a new shot of red paint to yank my (now much slower-falling) body over to that billboard from before. Landing on it, I had time to glance down, seeing Cuélebre dragging himself out of the rather substantial crater he’d made in the middle of the street. Water was spraying from a broken hydrant, and I could see people fleeing down the sidewalks. But he wasn’t paying them any mind. Not that he was calm or collected. If anything, he was even more pissed off than before. But he didn’t care about the people running away from him. No, he was looking right up at me, eyes smoldering with hatred and promised retribution. 

Right, time to leave. Really, really time to leave. 

Spinning to throw myself off the billboard, I hit the next roof over already running. A new shot of green paint at my feet pushed my speed back up, as I sprinted flat-out for the edge of the building with Cuélebre’s angry bellow filling the air behind me. One step after another, vial clutched tightly in one hand while my ears listened intently to the rushing wind sound of the giant monster flapping his wings and launching himself upward after me with another shouted threat. 

And here we went again. Me being chased through the city by a monster who could easily rip me apart if he managed to get hold of me. Was this getting repetitive yet? Because my heart didn’t think so, considering the way it was beating so hard it felt like it might jump out of my chest and take off without me. 

Cuélebre dove. I leapt off the edge of the building, spiraling into a dive just as he landed right where I had just been. His massive hand lashed out, narrowly missing me as I plummeted toward the ground. Activating a bit of orange paint on my back, I forced myself to keep falling. Cuélebre had hurled himself down after me, but I was pretty sure he wouldn’t fall for the same trick twice. That was okay, I had a different trick in mind. 

The ground rushed up at me. Every instinct I had said to bail out. But I let myself keep falling, arms extended as if I was diving into water. Above and behind me was Cuélebre, just waiting for me to try to yank myself in any direction. He knew I’d have to, or I’d hit the ground. I had about five seconds from the time I leapt off the roof until… well, until it would be too late. With three seconds left, I pointed with my hand and fired off a spray of red paint. Just as Cuélebre expected. Only I wasn’t pulling myself anywhere. Instead, I shot the paint at a parked car. A thought brought the car off the ground, making the literal car come flying up toward me. Toward my red glove.

Two seconds left. I cut the connection with the car, but it kept coming, its momentum bringing it upward. The car was spinning end over end as it came, and I timed a shot of blue paint to hit the roof. It made one more full revolution just before impact. My outstretched hands hit the blue spot I’d made (the orange paint I’d activated earlier protecting me from breaking every bone in them as well as my arms), and I was instantly rocketed backwards and up. 

Flying backwards, I shot right between Cuélebre’s arms as the man made a noise of surprise. An instant later, the car completed its next revolution and slammed into him. The sound of crunching metal and exploding glass filled the air, as well as an actual yelp of pain from the man. Apparently flying what amounted to face-first into a car didn’t do him any favors. Particularly after having flown face-first into the ground just before that. 

But he wasn’t anywhere near down. A fact he made abundantly clear by lashing his tail up and back at me just as I was passing. I managed to snap my free hand out, catching hold of the tail while activating a spot of purple on my arm. My momentum made me spin around the tail like it was a pole in gymnastics, and I very nearly lost my grip. But I managed to hang on, spinning myself all the way around before releasing the tail to drop onto the flailing man’s back. Bending my knees like I was a surfer riding a very large, very unstable board, I found words blurting their way out of my mouth. “We keep meeting like this. Maybe we should schedule a nice dinner instead. It sounds less painful for you.” 

Recovering from the brief second of being stunned by taking a car to the face, Cuélebre snarled a dark, “I’ll bring you dinner in the hospital, boy.” He said the last word like it was an insult, his tail already lashing in from the side in a clear attempt to knock me off his back (and likely into his waiting hand). But before it could hit, I flipped up and over, shooting a bit of yellow paint down to slow him while speeding myself up once more with green. That way, he didn’t completely leave me behind. His tail had barely cleared the spot just under me as I came down, landing on his back once more. A shot of red paint at the blade of the tail and another toward the man’s own back just as I cancelled the yellow jerked the tail that way and made the man literally stab himself. 

“Chess game in the park, maybe?!” I blurted over the sound of his enraged bellow. While he was still recovering, yanking the blade of his tail free, I shot three more lines of red paint at the ground, and one at the man’s back. Then I hurled myself off him while shouting over my shoulder, “Call me, we’ll set something up!” 

With that, I activated the paint. The man was yanked downward partway before stopping. Landing on the edge of a window balcony, I could see his enormous muscles straining, the man spitting curses and threats. He was managing to keep himself in the air against the pull of the paint, but only just. 

Ten seconds, I had ten seconds where he’d be held or at least slowed down. I had to use them. One more shot of red paint took me to the next roof, and I activated my skates, landing easily on the wheels before pushing off. Green paint, green paint, green paint! I used it, launching myself across that roof as fast as I could go. Cuélebre’s pants-browning scream did a lot to make me forget about how tired I was, as I clutched the vial in my hand and pushed myself to keep moving.

Hitting the edge of the roof, I heard another bellow from Cuélebre. And then the first lightning bolt struck. It came from the sky, slamming into the roof about a dozen feet away from me. The power of it was enough to almost throw me forward, even as the resulting boom deafened me. 

But Cuélebre wasn’t done. A second strike came an instant later, followed by a third. Each one progressively closer. The man couldn’t even see me yet, he was just hurling lightning in the direction he’d seen me go. He had completely lost his goddamn mind

With a yelp, I threw myself off the roof. There wasn’t even time to make any blue paint or anything. I just had to leap, an instant before the next lightning strike hit the spot right where I had just been. It was an almost perfect shot from a guy who couldn’t even see me! 

I was falling through the air, windmilling and screaming. A quick thought, almost entirely reflex, brought my hand up to point across the street. From the corner of my eye, I could see the fire escape in an alley between the two buildings. Red paint, please, please…

It went off, and I was yanked that way. Yanked that way… just as yet another bolt of lightning struck. This one came so close all I saw was a blinding light. Pain engulfed my body, as a scream tore its way out of my throat. At some point, I had instinctively activated every bit of orange left on my costume. But it still hurt. Oh God, did it ever hurt. 

Everything came in a bit of a blurry, dazed rush then. I felt the air rushing past me. I felt myself hit the fire escape, slip off it, fall to land on top of the dumpster below, then roll off it to land on the ground. Barely conscious, I rolled over. It took absolutely everything I had, but the sound of Cuélebre approaching spurred me to move through the pain, through the desperate need to fall unconscious. I pushed myself and rolled under that dumpster. My helmet fell off in the process.

The demon man landed a moment later, hitting the street beyond before a chuckle escaped him. “No more wisecracks, little boy?” he demanded. “Why don’t you come out and invite me to dinner again?” 

He didn’t know where I was. But he did know that I was somewhere in the area, and hurt. It wouldn’t take him long to narrow down the possibilities. I had to do something. I had to… to move… to… think. But my vision kept fading in and out, and the thought of moving made me whimper mostly silently. Everything hurt. 

Then I heard it. Not Cuélebre. Another voice. 

“I think you’ve done enough damage for one night.” 

Silversmith. It was Silversmith. My dad. His voice was different from how I knew him, of course. But it was him. Turning my head a little, I could see the silver-armored man appear right in front of the giant demon, facing him down. 

A month earlier, I would have been elated. That was Silversmith, my favorite hero in the whole world. And he was, knowingly or not, saving my life. Saving me. It would have been one of the most amazing moments in my life. 

Now… now I knew the truth. I knew Silversmith was my father, and that he killed people. So mostly… mostly I was just confused about how I was supposed to feel right now. Confused, tired, sore, and trying very hard to stay conscious. 

“I am not in the mood, Hero-Man,” Cuélebre growled in a dismissive voice. Even as he said it, I saw the slight spark on his tail appear. Then a bolt of lightning, aimed straight at my father, tore down from the sky. 

It was intercepted by a large silver shield that appeared in the air. A similar (though smaller) shield appeared on my dad’s arm, along with a sword in his other hand as he calmly informed the Oscuro leader, “You’re about to be in a worse one.”

Cuélebre struck, lunging forward to swipe at my father. But just as he moved (thus negating his own invulnerability power that kicked in when he stood still), something slammed into him from behind. It was a truck. No, it was one of Silversmith’s constructs made to look like a truck. Either way, the shiny metal thing crashed into Cuélebre, just as Dad ducked and turned in one smooth motion. The giant demon man bellowed as he was hurled over Silversmith’s head and sent flying down the street and out of my line of sight. 

The form of the truck broke apart an instant after impact, turning back into its default liquid metal form. Like a big ball of floating mercury, or the T1000 Terminator.  

Silversmith, my dad, was already throwing himself up and backward. He crashed into his own liquid metal ball before stopping there as the stuff hardened and shaped itself around him. Soon, it didn’t look like a floating ball of liquid or a truck anymore. It had turned into what amounted to a battlesuit, armor as large as Cuélebre was. Silversmith was inside it. 

Another bolt of lightning came, but the large shield that had blocked it the first time had already spun through the air to catch against Dad’s new armor’s arm, and he caught the bolt easily. Then he pushed off, disappearing from sight as he chased after his giant opponent. 

They were gone. They were both gone. I was… I was safe? Safe, right. Sure. Safe here in my hiding place.  

I was hiding again. Just as I had on that first night, back when I had found out about my brother, about my family. After everything that had happened, there I was, lying under a dumpster and hiding again. 

It was too much. With the immediate danger gone, all I could do was lay there listening to the fighting between Cuélebre and my father as it faded into the distance. My eyes blinked a few times, straining to keep myself awake. I had to keep going, I had to… to use this chance to get out of here before something happened. Stay awake… Stay awake, damn it, stay…

I passed out.

****** 

“Paintball!” 

The voice dragged me back to consciousness. As my eyes blinked blearily open, I felt every muscle in my body protest even that movement. Groaning, I turned my head, reaching down to pull the helmet up with one hand before shoving it onto my head. Unfortunately, the view was… distorted, cracked. 

The visor of the helmet. It was shattered in a couple places. As I pushed myself out from under the dumpster with another groan, my hand moved to push the helmet off once more. Something was in my other hand. I looked down. The vial. It was still there, still intact by some miracle. I’d held onto it through all of that. 

“Paintball!” It was Eits, frantically calling my name as he came around the corner. When he saw me, he made a noise of relief. “Oh God, there you are! Are you okay? I was following in one of the cars. I saw you go down somewhere over here but I couldn’t get close until Silversmith chased the big guy off. He–he’s gone now. They’re gone. But you… are you…” 

“I’m okay,” I muttered, shaking off the lingering daze as much as I could. It hurt, everything hurt. And my ears were still ringing. But I was alive. “I’m okay, and I’ve got the vial. It’s–” Blinking up at the boy to find him staring at me in what looked like total shock, I hesitated. “What… what’s wrong? I–” 

Wait. Wait. What was wrong with my voice? It was– wait. My free hand found my phone. It was heavily damaged, the screen partially crushed, with random lines and colors across the cracked screen. Which meant my voice changer was gone. Which meant–

“Oh my God,” Eits stammered. 

“You’re a girl!”

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Alliances 6-04 (Summus Proelium)

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Oh boy, was this whole Reformation Ball thing a big deal. I’d always known that, of course. Even from the time that I was a little kid, I’d known the Ball was basically one of the most important events of the year in Detroit. But somehow, actually being there instead of sitting at home while my parents were out for the evening made it so much more obvious just how huge and important the whole thing was. I’d known it was a big deal before. But now I really knew. 

The location for the event bounced around a little from year to year, as each of the three biggest and most amazing hotels in the city took turns hosting it. This year, it was being held at the Cloud Regal, a twenty-five story hotel that was shaped like the letter C. In the middle of the curve was the main grounds of the hotel, an elaborate garden area with twin fountains on either side of the main path. The water from the fountains shot high into the air in a complicated series of patterns that included shooting back and forth to one another in an arch-shape over the path. 

There were technically three separate parties. The biggest one was out on those grounds, where tables of food and drink had been set up, along with a stage for a live band and other entertainers. There was an entrance fee, but it was minimal. To buy a ticket cost about twenty dollars, which got you into the grounds, allowed you to see the entertainment, and provided access to all the food and most drinks, though the higher shelf stuff was still charged for. 

The next step over being on the grounds was being inside one of the three separate banquet rooms within the hotel. It was apparently a few hundred per seat to be in there, which got you much better quality food (not that the food outside wasn’t great, but the more rare and expensive stuff was inside), and even more entertainment. It was a quieter dinner there, while outside was slightly more of a rambunctious, energetic party. 

Then there was the roof party. All the way at the top of the twenty-five story hotel was the roof garden where the true power in the city held their own dinner. The mayor, the chief of police, the governor of Michigan, the leadership of various hero organizations, business owners, community organizers, everyone who could afford a ticket or was sponsored by someone who could. Being on the roof required a minimum five thousand dollars per head. 

That was the general cost of each area. Twenty bucks to be outside, a couple hundred to be inside, five thousand to be on the roof. And every single ticket had been sold weeks ago. As happened every year, the event was completely sold out. And as always, one hundred percent of the proceeds from tonight would go to a charity. It was a different one each time. This year, all the money would go to the Gold Horizons Children’s Hospital located just across the street from the hotel. Apparently the guy who owned this hotel had built the hospital because of his own son passing away from cancer, and when some rich guy tried to have the hospital closed down because it made him feel bad, the owner had had him banned not only from this place, but from every hotel, resort, and business he owned. Which, apparently, was a lot. 

My family, of course, was on the roof. I was there, in my ungodly expensive and beautiful dress that made me feel like a mutt that had crawled into Cinderella’s gown and run off with it. The thing was so amazing and beautiful, all teal and shiny and… and… I was just… not… that. I wasn’t right for it. This dress belonged on a tall, beautiful blonde prom queen, not on a little tomboy who barely topped five feet, with black hair that just would not stay tamed and was long on one side but short on the other. 

My mother’s hand gently brushed my shoulder, and I turned a bit to see her smiling down at me. Her voice was soft against the light sound of quiet music in the background. “You are radiant this evening, my beautiful Principessa. Thank you for coming, I’m certain you could have found any number of other things to do. But having you here makes me so very proud.” 

I was still trying to work out how to respond to that, when her hand very gently brushed my face. Apparently she could still see dark circles there. “Are you alright? You look so tired.” 

Well, Mom, I haven’t been sleeping very well lately. First I found out that you and Dad are running some massive evil supervillain conspiracy. Then I became basically responsible for making sure an innocent little girl doesn’t die or the city itself doesn’t descend into war. And on top of all that, I was just recently knocked unconscious and abducted by a two-faced monster who really, really wants to torture me. Did I forget anything? Oh, right, and I owe a favor to that two-faced monster’s boss for letting me get out of there with my blood still inside my body. 

Forcing a smile, I shook my head. “I’m okay, Mom. It’s just been a long day. Thanks for letting me come tonight. This is…” My eyes glanced around the roof, at all the beautiful candles that lit various pathways through the glass sculptures, the rich and beautiful chatting amicably, and the ungodly famous musician with his funny glasses playing his Candle in the Wind song on the piano. “This is really great.” I looked back to her then. “And kind of crazy.” 

Her beautiful smile returned, and she gently touched two fingers to her lips before brushing my cheek with them. “You get used to it,” she murmured softly before glancing over my shoulder. “I have to speak to Grant for a minute. Enjoy yourself, my beautiful girl. Make yourself known here, let people see you. I will make sure Simon or someone else is available to take you home in an hour or so if you’re ready to leave then. There is no need for you to stay for the whole evening.”

Promising to mingle, I watched my mother head over to chat with ‘Grant’. Also known as one of Michigan’s senators. They started talking, and I heard Mom ask him about his son’s football scholarship. It made me shake my head, turning away. How weird was it to be a part of all this? Because I’d grown up with it, so I didn’t really have the right perspective. Even then, however, this felt pretty weird. I stepped away from the spot where I’d been talking to my mother, carefully making my way through the crowd. Here and there, I smiled to someone who recognized me (there weren’t that many), greeting them and exchanging a few words. One of the passing waitresses handed me a wine glass with ginger ale in it, which I took a sip from while standing at the edge of the roof to look down at the main party. It was in full swing, and looked like they were having a lot of fun. There was an open space on the grass where people were dancing.   

The sound of someone clearing their throat made me glance back to see Tomas standing there. He gave me a smile that made my stomach start a boxing match with my heart, before moving up beside me. His voice was casual. “Hey, Cassidy. Ahh, how are you doing?” 

I swallowed a bit. The past week had been complicated. I hadn’t avoided Tomas at all. We hung out a few times, even got lunch together once. But it was just… so… yeah, complicated. I felt like even more of an idiot every time I thought about how him being bisexual had made me feel. 

I knew he cared about me. I knew he liked me. This changed nothing. He liked me for being me, regardless of whether I was a boy or a girl. That was a good thing, right? Yes. Yes, it was. It was indisputably a good thing. Logically, I knew that. I told myself that. I even thought I’d convinced myself of it multiple times. Yet, every time I saw him, my brain whispered things like, ‘Are you sure he doesn’t just like you because you look like a cute little boy?’

Feelings were annoying, why did they have to be so complicated? I should just be able to tell my heart something and make it accept the plain stupid truth. Stupid emotions. Stupid, stupid emotions.

Quickly, I forced myself to reply dryly, “Oh, you know. Just another day.” Biting my lip, I looked at him. “I didn’t know you’d be here.” Pausing, I added, “But I really should’ve.” 

He chuckled lightly, waving vaguely over his shoulder. “Yeah, Mum and Dad are over there somewhere. I’m supposed to be here, look presentable, and not embarrass them.” 

“Sounds like we have similar jobs,” I replied. “You wanna share? Maybe it’ll be easier.”

He smiled again, and my heart did a little spin at the way it made his dimples show. “That sounds like a pretty good idea to me. We can look presentable together. My parents love you enough anyway. My dad kept asking if I talked to you yet. I think they want to have you over for dinner at some point.”

Oh. My… my ex’s parents wanted to have me over for dinner. That wasn’t as weird as it could be considering we’d only broken up because of distance, right? Wait, if he was back, did that mean that he expected… or that they expected… wait, was this—

Tomas’s hand found my arm, gently squeezing. “Hey, hey, it’s all right. None of us are dumb enough to think we’re just going to go right back to the way we were, okay? And if Dad or Mum think otherwise, they’ve got another thing coming. A year is a long time. I’m sure we’ve both changed a lot. I mean… you know about my… yeah. Maybe something else will come of it, maybe it won’t. But you’ve always been important, Cassidy. Whether we’re just friends or end up being more than that, I want to get to know you again. So, I’d love it if you came over for dinner at some point. No pressure, and if my parents start turning that on, I swear we’ll go get one of your American pizza concoctions.” 

Squinting at him, I pointed. “You can’t fool me anymore, buster. I know for a fact you guys have plenty of pizza over in the UK.”

Meeting my gaze, he gave a sage nod. “Of course, we just call it open stromboli. Or opomboli.”

He had me for just a second. I blinked, head tilting as I watched his expression. Then I frowned, punching him in the arm as subtly as possible, not wanting to cause a scene. “You do not, jerk.” 

He laughed, looking charming again before turning to look out at the people below once more. For a moment, he was quiet before speaking again. “I did miss you, Cassidy Evans. Even if you are not nearly as gullible as you were.” His gaze moved back to me with a wink. “You’ve changed too.” 

Swallowing back all the thoughts that brought up, I managed a shrug. “I guess that’s just a thing that happens. And I haven’t changed all that much.” Boy, if he only knew. “But I… umm…” Shaking off the feelings, I gestured. “We should probably go see about mingling a little bit more, huh? Pretty sure my parents–or my mom mostly, would prefer I be seen instead of hanging out in the background.” 

“We could dance, if you like,” he pointed out mildly, knowing full well that no one else was dancing. Not up here, anyway.

“I said ‘be seen’, not ‘make a complete ass of myself,’” I retorted before pulling him by the arm. “Come on, we’ll just walk and talk.” 

He obliged, and the two of us meandered our way through the crowd, making a couple circuits of the roof. We stopped now and then, chatting with various people. I tried to be as polite as possible, wanting, for some reason, to make a good impression for my supervillain parents. Weird. 

I also saw my dad twice. He was standing over with a few other rich guys, and Silversmith was right across the roof, talking to Flea and Caishen, leader of the Ten Towers corporate sponsored hero team. Other Star-Touched, including all the Minority members, were mingling with people too.  But I still had no idea how my parents were managing to make it look like Silversmith and my dad were both here. Maybe Dad had a body double? He could certainly afford one. 

In any case, it was eventually time for us to separate and rejoin our own families for dinner. I made my way over to the round table that had been set aside for us and found Simon and my parents already there. Dad took a moment to tell me how wonderful I looked, teasing me about being around Tomas again. Then he held Mom’s chair out, Simon held mine, and we sat down before they joined us. 

“Dad’s right, you actually look like you belong here, Booster,” my brother teased. “You haven’t tripped over anything or started talking about Power Rangers or Ninja Turtles yet.” 

Forcing myself to smile, I retorted, “Well, I didn’t want to take away your most educational topics, dear brother. That would be terrible. What on Earth would you talk about then?” 

Mom cleared her throat pointedly, but I could see her smothering a small smile as she looked to us. “Let’s be nice,” she murmured softly before looking up to thank the waiter who brought our drinks. Wine for the three of them and apple cider for me. Dad had said it would be okay if I had one glass with them, but that didn’t sound like a great idea to me, so I declined. Cider would be fine. 

We took our food a few minutes later, and watched as the mayor, followed by the governor, got up to give their speeches through the meal. ‘Grant’ the senator would be next, apparently. They would be going down to mingle with the other two party groups shortly, playing for future votes, of course. But first they would make nice with the rich people, like my parents. As part of that, Mayor Carter Bens would be accepting gifts on behalf of the city. It was another tradition born over the past couple decades, where the mayor would be given various presents of expensive things that would be put on display in City Hall for a few months before being donated and the proceeds given toward the city’s emergency services like police, fire, and hospitals. 

Once that started, Dad made a small noise in the back of his throat while looking to Mom. “You know, I think–” 

“We forgot our gift in the room,” she finished for him, sighing a little. She glanced around as though to flag down a waiter, but they were all busy. Finally looking to me, she added, “Cassidy, would you mind running—I mean… walking very carefully and discreetly… down to the suite we borrowed for the evening and picking up the gift. It should be in the living room beside the television.” 

I agreed quickly, taking the room key and heading to the elevator. From there, I headed for the penthouse suite that my parents had rented out to grab the gold-wrapped gift. 

Carefully managing the present with one hand, I went to open the door and began to step out when movement from the corner of my eye made me look that way. Men. There were men walking down the hall ahead of me, having just passed the room a few seconds earlier. Which wouldn’t really be a big deal, except for the assault rifles they held. Yeah. Guns. 

There were armed guards at this event, of course. To say nothing of all the Star-Touched hanging around. But the armed guards weren’t that obvious. They looked like Secret Service type people, not men in army camo carrying giant-ass automatic guns. 

No, this was obviously something different. Something bad. I quickly ducked back in the room and closed the door most of the way before they could spot me. Peeking out, I saw them heading for the elevator. They were met by a few more guys that were coming out of other rooms, and all of them headed up to the roof. 

Oh boy. Oh God, what was I supposed to do now? Quickly, I took my phone from my pocket, only to find it had no signal. That had to be purposeful, some kind of jammer or something. A check of the room phone produced no dial tone. Great. Just great. This was absolutely, definitely something bad. But what? What kind of crazy idiot would try to attack the place swarming with armed guards and heroes from every team in the city?

Maybe it was just a stunt or something. Maybe I was overreacting. But the lack of a cell signal and dial tone told me I wasn’t. I had to find out more, without getting caught. 

To that end, I headed for the closet where I had dropped my stuff when changing into my dress here. Digging deep in the backpack under the layer of other stuff I’d use to cover it, I came out with the bag that had my costume in it. I’d put it under some unmentionables, just in case. 

Taking a moment to slip the costume on after changing out of my dress, I made my way to the balcony, peeking out and around to make sure the coast was clear. Seeing nothing, I stepped out there before red painting myself up to the edge of the roof, clinging to the bottom edge of the  balcony as I listened. 

A male voice was speaking. “I’d say let’s not have anyone playing hero, but I think that’s a moot point by now with the kind of company we’ve got up here tonight, don’t you?”

Painting myself black, I hesitantly peeked up over the edge. Everyone was seated aside from the man who was speaking, and a dozen or so of those camo-dressed men with guns. 

As for the guy who was talking, I knew who he was. The sackcloth mask gave it away. Pencil. It was Pencil. 

That answered my question about who would be crazy enough to attack this place, at least. Seeing him made me shrink back a bit under the edge of the roof while he continued. “But still, let’s be smart here. No one wants a massacre, after all.” He paused before amending, “Well, none of you want a massacre. Personally, I think we’re kind of due.”

Silversmith, or rather, whoever was posing as him, spoke up. “You can’t possibly think you’re going to get away with anything here. What’s your game?”

I could hear the smile in Pencil’s voice as he looked that way. “My game? I’m so glad you asked. The game, ladies and gentlemen, is very simple. Everyone here pretends they care oh so much about all the poor sick children in that hospital across the street that you’re all donating to tonight. But let’s see how much you actually care. See, they’re being visited by a bunch of my friends right now as we speak. And unless you rich motherfuckers start giving until it literally hurts, well, let’s just say there won’t be any more kids to donate to. Which, for the record, is also what will happen if anyone here tries anything. So let’s just keep it all in our pants. 

“As for how much we need, we’re trying to break records here tonight for most stolen in one event. And I hear there’s some stiff competition, so dig deep people. Or don’t. Personally, I’m kind of curious to see if you can hear a few hundred sick kids being mowed down by machine guns all the way up here. 

“Aren’t experiments fun?”

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Alliances 6-02 (Summus Proelium)

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So, on the plus side, I now knew where one of the missing vials was. And to get it, all I had to do was promise a favor to one of the biggest supervillains in the city. 

Well, that’s what I had to do. There was also the matter of the favors from Wren and Blackjack. The former had agreed basically as soon as she learned what the deal was. She wanted to help anyway she could, after her stuff had been used to steal the vials in the first place. I had caught the guilty look on Fred’s face at that point. Good, he should feel guilty, even if he didn’t know how badly this whole thing would go. 

As far as people who didn’t feel guilty went, I had a thought briefly about informing Ashton that the vial he’d left in the shop had been found and accounted for, but decided against it. There was a chance that, for whatever reason, holding that information back might pay off in the long run. And telling him wouldn’t accomplish anything aside from letting me feel smug for a few seconds. So, just in case, I said nothing about it to him and asked the others to do the same. He was probably counting on us not being able to get the vial away from Cuélebre, and I preferred he just go on thinking that. 

Blackjack, for his part, had barely paused when the offer was brought to his attention. He agreed basically immediately, simply saying that he would rather negotiate with Deicide than Cuélebre, which… yeah. I was basically totally with him on that. She seemed infinitely more reasonable than the demon-dragon guy who had almost killed me. Even if I couldn’t shake the feeling that there was something off about her. I wasn’t sure what it was, but I was sure that she was at least a better person to have this kind of deal with than Cuélebre, as far as incredibly powerful and dangerous super villains went. 

And geez, how many of those was I going to come face-to-face with in a short time anyway? I was basically working my way through the list of the who’s who of the Detroit Fell-Touched underworld. 

In any case, after everything that had happened, once I finished letting Wren and Blackjack know what was going on, I was beat. It had been a very long couple of hours, and the ‘rest’ I’d gotten while knocked unconscious hadn’t exactly been all that restful. So, even though it was still fairly early in the evening, I had gone home to crash, basically passing out immediately.

That lasted for all of about four hours. Then I was wide-awake in what amounted to the middle of the night. Seriously, this whole hero thing wasn’t going to kill me through violence, it was going to do it through fucking with my sleep cycle. 

After the scare I’d had with getting captured and very nearly tortured, maybe I should have stayed home. Hell, that was the main reason I couldn’t go back to sleep. Tired as I had been, I’d jolted awake from some nightmare that vanished the second my eyes opened. But I knew if I closed them again, it would be back. I’d tried to watch a movie for a while, but I couldn’t focus on it. I just ended up looking around my enormous room with all my stuff and thinking about how it had come to be. That made me feel guilty. There were people out there on the streets who needed help. Who was I to sit here in my gigantic bed watching my enormous television? Was being scared because I’d gotten knocked out and almost really hurt that much of an excuse? No.

So, I’d gotten up and snuck out of the house. Now, I was back in costume, working my way through the city. There wasn’t actually much real crime going on that I could see. But I found another way to help. Or at least assuage my guilt a little bit, depending on how cynical one wanted to be. 

Basically, I took a couple hundred dollars or so into an all-night grocery store and bought a bunch of sandwiches, chips, and other things. Boy had that been an interesting time, seeing the few people in there staring at me in costume as I made my way through the aisles.  To say nothing of the look on the clerk’s face when I checked out. He kept asking if I was going to some kind of party or cosplay thing. I tried to keep things vague while still being polite, and he seemed to understand. Though I could tell he still had a lot of questions. 

Taking the supplies in a few large bags, I made my way through the streets, handing them out to the homeless people I saw. Everyone got a sandwich, a bag of chips, a bottle of water, some basic toiletries like soap, toothpaste/brush, deodorant, and disposable razors. That kind of thing. 

It wasn’t much. I wasn’t going to solve homelessness in an evening with a couple hundred dollars. I knew that. But it might help a few people, or at least make them feel a little better about themselves for a bit. Maybe I could do more later. Maybe I’d think of something else that wouldn’t attract too much attention. For now, this was all I could think of, and it kept me busy.

Not everyone was all that openly appreciative, of course. I did receive plenty of gratitude, probably more than I deserved. But there were also others who simply snatched what I gave to them and cursed me for looking down on them. A couple even refused, one man spitting at me. It wasn’t that many, and far from any kind of representative sample. But they existed, and I didn’t really hold it against them too much. Being cursed out even as my gifts were being accepted wasn’t that bad. I had no real idea about the kind of things these people went through, so I wasn’t going to judge them for being a bit nasty.

No, the ones who really bothered me were those who were very clearly not able to take care of themselves. The ones who were not all there in the head, who needed to be in some kind of care facility. Those were the ones who messed me up. I wanted to do more for them. I wanted to take them into a hospital, or something. I wanted to scream at passersby that these people were their fellow human beings who needed help, and why the hell were they just walking past the guy laying in the gutter muttering to himself? 

But I couldn’t do any of that. It wouldn’t have accomplished anything. I just gave them what I could, told myself I would find a way to do more, and kept going.

Blankets. Coats. That’s what I needed to get. Blankets and coats. Jackets. Pillows. Things that could make them a little more comfortable. 

Then I saw it, police cars and crime scene tape all around some convenience store. There were people watching from the sidelines as a lot of body bags started to be carried out to waiting vans. From the looks of it, there were over a dozen bodies. Through the glass windows of the store, I could see a couple uniformed cops standing by Dynamic and RePete, of the Conservators. Dynamic was a speedster who could temporarily drain superpowers from people she ran near and use the energy she gained from that to form lasers, shields, or weapons. As for RePete, people thought he was some kind of short-term precog for awhile. But apparently, his actual power had something to do with going back in time just a couple of seconds. There were some kind of limitations to it, but they weren’t exactly open about advertising exactly how it worked. All I knew was that from an outside point of view, he seemed to simply know when something was going to happen right before it did. 

From the corner of my eye, I saw a man in a jogging suit step over to me. He was frowning, head shaking as he gestured toward the building. “Hey, when the fuck are you Star-Touched types gonna do something about this shit, huh?”

“What happened?“ I asked quietly, afraid of what kind of answer I’d get considering how many bodies were being taken out. 

“The Scions,” another man answered. “Mostly Pencil, but somebody said there might have been a couple others around.”

Pencil. Of all the Fell-Touched in the city, he was the one who freaked people out the most. Others might have been more out right powerful or able to do more widespread damage, but Pencil was just… wrong. As far as anyone could tell, his only motivation, and by extension, the motivation of his Scions, was to worship the Abyssal named Typhon, and cause as much chaos and misery as possible. Sometimes they stole things from their crime scenes, while other times stuff that was incredibly valuable and just sitting there would be left alone. Sometimes they targeted big events full of rich people and other times they would attack a single house or even some random person on the street for no apparent reason. Sometimes they would go weeks or even a month or so without doing anything, and other times their attacks would come several times in the same day. Their creed apparently was to make everyone know that anyone could be a victim. They spread chaos, that was it. 

They were all monsters, and Pencil was the worst. I had no trouble believing he was responsible for all the dead bodies in that store. He wasn’t the worst or most dangerous Fell-Touched in the world. The ‘honor’ of both those titles went to a woman called Casura. 

But still, Casura wasn’t here in Detroit. Pencil was (when he wasn’t somewhere else in the general area). And he had to be stopped, these guys were right about that. But the problem was, nobody knew how to do that. The guy had been shot dozens if not hundreds of times, set on fire, hit with God only knew how many different kinds of Touched attacks, stabbed, left in an exploding building, dropped off several other tall buildings, and more I was definitely forgetting about. Nothing stuck. The guy was invincible, or something.  He been captured a couple times and restrained, but that never got very far before his minions set upon the person who caught them. They were always there in the background, pretending to be part of the crowd. Any time you dealt with Pencil, you had to assume that some of the people in the crowd of onlookers that he was playing up to would actually be members of the Scions. 

Realizing that the men who had approached me were still waiting for an answer, I hesitated before shaking my head. “I… I’m sorry. I wish I knew how we could stop him. He can’t just keep getting away with this.”

“Yeah,” the guy in the jogging suit snapped, “he can’t. So I say again, what are you people going to do about it? Stand here with your thumbs up your ass not doing a damn thing while that guy goes around and—”

“I’m very sorry that we got here too late.”

The words came from behind me, and all three of us turned. I was pretty sure we all had matching looks of astonishment, though for very different reasons. 

It was my dad. Well, it was Silversmith, all gleaming metal as he continued. “Let’s not blame the kid here for not being able to magically do the thing we adults should have been able to take care of. I understand your frustration, sir, I truly do. I promise you, we are not going to let this or any of his other crimes stand. We will bring him in and he will face justice. True justice. ”

Neither of the men who had approached me seemed to want to argue with him. I could see the frustration on their faces, but they said nothing while backing off. As they moved away, my father’s head turned until he was looking right at me. “You okay?”

In my short career as a superhero, I had already had a few chances to be glad that I wore a helmet. Never more so than right then. It meant that he couldn’t see my expression at all. Not even the little bit he might’ve been able to make out with just the normal mask. He couldn’t see anything. 

Staring at him for a moment, my mind remained totally blank. Luckily, I was pretty sure he was accustomed to that kind of reaction from people who first met him. It would definitely make sense that I seemed starstruck, right? 

A sudden thought occurred to me, and I made a motion up toward my helmet. I was trying to make it look as though I was reflexively moving to adjust glasses on my face before the helmet got in the way.  Hopefully, my father would add the idea that the person under the helmet wore glasses to his mental image of them. Of me. Making it look as casual as possible, I stopped when my fingers hit the visor before giving a quick, nervous nod. That part I didn’t have to fake.

“Y-yes, sir.” Oh God, I very nearly called him Dad. Seriously, it was right on the tip of my tongue. How bad would that have been? Even with my voice changer, that probably would have given the game away. How stupid did I have to be to—

“Don’t let them bother you,” Dad advised, with a nod toward the guys who had backed off. “They’re just… afraid and frustrated. They want all this to stop. They think we should be able to take this guy down, and frankly, they’re right. We should have brought him in by now. Everyone he kills is…” His voice cracked a little there, before he seemed to realize where he was, letting out a breath. “Sorry, it gets to everyone sometimes, so you don’t have to feel like there’s something wrong with you or anything.”

He extended a hand to me. “Anyway, I’ve heard a lot about you, but it’s nice to finally formally meet. Pretty sure you know the name’s Silversmith, but a lot of people just call me Smith, and that’s fine. Ahh…”

He trailed off, and I realized what he was waiting for. He was still holding his hand out. With a start, I took it and squeezed. I was shaking my father’s hand. Would he somehow suddenly realize the truth? Did he know me well enough to know what my hand felt like even through a glove? Some paranoid part of me thought he did. I was expecting him to suddenly say my name, expecting him to figure it out any second. 

“Paintball,” I abruptly blurted, as if to introduce myself. Part of it was me wanting to shove that name into his head instead of my real name, just in case some psychic part of him was building up. 

“Paintball,” my father echoed as though testing the name. He released my hand with a nod. “Like I said, I’ve already heard a lot of good things about you. You’re making a name for yourself pretty quick. It’s impressive. Especially that showing against Cuélebre. You even saved those civilian onlookers. Nice job.”

My throat went dry, and I had to swallow hard. “I’m just trying to help people.” And figure out exactly how your criminal empire operates in the process, so I can do something about it

“Well,” Dad replied, “You’re certainly doing that. But nobody can fix everything, especially by themselves.” With those words, he looked over toward the convenience store all the bodies had been brought out of. “Everyone needs help, even if they are some kind of prodigy.”

Seriously, when he said that, despite everything, I felt a sudden, strong rush of pride. My father was a supervillain, but he was still my father, and he called me a prodigy.

How fucked up were my priorities?

“I’ve heard,” Dad pressed on, “that you’re not interested in joining the Minority. I… I do wish you might reconsider that. As well as you’ve been doing, it’s like I said, everyone needs help sometimes. You could really get in trouble out there without backup, without a team. And I’d hate to see anything happen to you, kid. With monsters like Pencil out there…” He sighed low and regretfully, shaking his head. “Just give it a little more thought, okay? I know the team would love to have you around. Especially That-A-Way. She thinks you’d really fit in.”

What was I supposed to say to that? It would look super suspicious if I just flat out denied him again. He might start looking into why I didn’t want to be part of their team. So, I forced myself to give a very short nod. “I’ll think about it, sir. I just… need to do this on my own for now.”

He seemed to watch me for a few long seconds then, before giving a short nod. “I can respect that, just so long as you think about it. Anytime you change your mind, or just want some advice, you know where to go. You’ve got that number, right?” When I nodded, he gestured. “I’ve got to head back in there and see if there’s anything else we can do. You should probably head on out of here. The bad guy’s gone, for now anyway.”

“I… yeah.” Trying not to let myself sound as freaked out as I actually was about being so close to my father while he was about to go back into a scene like the one that had to be in that store, I waved vaguely. “I’ll ummm, I’ll get out of your way.”

Stepping back, I watched for another moment as my dad turned and headed back into the shop. Glancing around, I closed my eyes and slumped a little, trembling despite myself before forcing my feet to turn and carry me away from that place, away from all of that death and misery. 

I had made it. I’d gotten through my first face-to-face, of sorts, meeting with my father in costume. And, as far as I could tell, he didn’t suspect anything like the truth. That was a good thing, right? My supervillain father didn’t know that I knew who he was. That was absolutely, definitely a good thing. 

So why did I feel so bad?

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Interlude 2B – That-A-Way (Summus Proelium)

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“Paint powers, seriously?”

The somewhat dubious question came from Laki Sefo, the tall boy that most in the city knew better as Wobble. Though they wouldn’t have recognized him as he was now, lounging in a recliner in the Minority’s headquarters without his iconic emerald battle armor. They might recognize him as the boy who had led his public high school basketball team to become state champions as a junior the year before. He’d quit the team this year, earning as much enmity from the people who had cheered him on through three previous years as they had given him praise before. His fans were decidedly not happy about Laki’s decision to stop playing.

But it wasn’t as though he could tell them that he didn’t have time to play basketball with all the superheroing he was doing. Even if Amber would have liked to see the looks on their faces.

As for the dark-haired girl herself, she was sprawled over the couch on her stomach, with her chin resting on one end and her feet propped up at the other. Her eyes were fixed on the television several feet away that was facing the end of the couch rather than the front of it. A game controller was held tightly in her hands, while she focused on the screen. “Uh huh,” she replied to Laki, squinting a little in concentration, tongue poking its way out of her mouth briefly.

Amber and Laki were the only two current occupants of the Minority base as it was their night to be on duty. At the moment, being ‘on duty’ wasn’t so bad, since they were spending it in the lounge part of the base. The lounge amounted to a large room filled with several couches and chairs surrounded by televisions and game systems, with a pool table on one end and a foosball table at the other. A couple well-stocked refrigerators and a microwave were along one wall. They may constantly put their lives on the line, but at least they had entertainment and snacks.

Besides, it may have been only the two of them officially on duty, but if anything important happened, the others would be called in.

Anything, that was, beyond Amber’s seventh straight attempt at a particularly difficult fight in her game. Her fingers moved quickly over the controls, as she struggled to pull it out that time. “Come on… come on…” The music abruptly turned dour, and she cursed. “Oh, fuck you! Really? What kind of cheating bullshit is that?!” Muttering a few choice words under her breath, she looked over to the boy, who was waiting patiently with one eyebrow raised.

“Maybe,” Laki offered, “you need some more advice from Izzy?” He was referring, of course, to Isabel Amor/Raindrop, the youngest member of their team.

“I do not need advice from Izzy,” Amber retorted while pushing herself up from the couch. “I can totally beat that guy. I just need to clear my head first.”

“And you don’t want to admit that a twelve-year-old is better than you at a game,” Laki lightly teased while remaining in his relaxed position, one leg up over the arm of the chair.

Amber squinted at him, but ended up dutifully echoing, “And I don’t want to admit that a twelve-year-old is better than me at a game.” She stuck her tongue out at him then while tossing the controller back onto the couch, her expression quickly changing to one of eagerness. “But yeah, dude! Apparently he calls himself Paintball. Which is cool. We couldn’t really see much with that helmet and all, but I’m pretty sure he’s like… fourteen? Probably a freshman. Hey, maybe he goes to your school. You should keep an eye out for people that changed a lot, or keep skipping, or… you know, whatever. Just keep an eye out.”

Shrugging, Laki straightened in his seat finally. “Why? If he doesn’t want to join, he doesn’t want to join. We can’t force him. That’d be a bad idea anyway.”

“I know that,” Amber informed him. “I’m not saying force him to do anything. I’m not even saying go out of our way to figure out who he is. I’m just saying keep your eyes open. You know, cuz new Touched tend to not exactly be great at hiding their identities. And this kid really pissed off Janus. So he’s probably gonna piss off other people too. And if he’s not good at hiding, he might just get in more trouble than he can handle. We keep our eyes open and if we figure out who it is, we can help him if he gets in trouble. Right?”

“Right,” Laki confirmed, giving her a thumbs up. “That’s a lot of ifs, but sure.” Pausing briefly, he added, “You already went through everything in the debriefing, right?”

She nodded. “Yeah, this afternoon. Had to sit down with ‘Smith, Brumal, and Caishen and give them all the details we could remember.” Smith was the Conservator leader Silversmith, while Brumal and Caishen were the leaders of the state-level team of Spartans and the corporate-sponsored team of Ten Towers, respectively. All three adult teams took responsibility for training and preparing the Minority teens in exchange for having first dibs of recruiting them later, once they were eighteen. Laki had once joked that he couldn’t play basketball because he was already going to go through one draft once he graduated high school, and he didn’t want to do that twice.

“What’d they say about this new guy?” Laki asked while moving to the other side of the lounge area, opening the fridge there to root around inside.

“We said,” Silversmith (fully dressed in his metal armor and helmet, as always) abruptly announced while stepping into the room from one of the doors, “that everyone should keep an eye out for him. If he’s this new to everything, he’s bound to piss off the wrong people. Which would be bad. So if you see him, try to convince him to at least come in and talk to us. Even if he doesn’t want to join, we can offer a lot of advice for rookies.”

Both teens quickly turned to face the man, Laki offering something resembling a salute. “Evening, sir. Is something going on?”

“Actually, yeah,” Silversmith confirmed. “We’ve got Adrian Perez and his siblings in a safehouse. Kriegspiel and a couple of the Spartans are keeping an eye on them. Flea and RePete are trying to track down where this Josh guy went from the bus station Perez dropped him off at. And Bokor’s got some of his zombies looking through the guy’s home since we cleared the gangs off it earlier. Dynamic’s still patrolling the street, but even with the other teams out there–”

“Things are getting nasty, aren’t they?” Amber quickly put in. “From the bounty.”

Silversmith nodded. “Yes. Whatever this thing is that got stolen, it’s got everyone going nuts. Especially La Casa. They want it back, bad. And they’re tearing up the streets to get it. Everyone’s tense out there. We’ve already dealt with half a dozen brawls just in the past couple days. And it’s getting worse. Frankly, I hate to involve any of you with this…”

“Anything we can do, sir,” Laki quickly assured the man. “You know that.”  

Offering the taller boy a clearly grateful nod, Silversmith looked to Amber. “Any time you need to leave, you just speak up. And we don’t want you working past eleven. It’s still a school day tomorrow. That said, thank you for the help. We’re going to call the others in. Except for Raindrop. She’s still young enough, I don’t… want her involved right now. Unless things get really desperate.” He sighed at the thought before pressing on. “Anyway, we’ll get the others to meet you both. We’ve got an area we need you to patrol. It shouldn’t be too bad, but things are tense and it’s a good idea to have some visible Touched presence out there. Hopefully that’ll be enough to calm things down. If not, try to control them as much as possible and call in backup.”

The two teens agreed before splitting up to head for their respective locker rooms in order to change into their costumes. Amber found her own labeled locker, barely sparing a glance for the picture of Gluegirl she had taped up there. She’d always had the hots for that chick. Not only was Gluegirl really hot, she was also constantly mocking and taunting her enemies. She treated the whole superhero thing like a game, refusing to grant the villains the respect they wanted by taking it seriously. It also helped that her dark blue and white costume looked like it was painted on. Which, considering it seemed to be made of the same adhesive stuff that she used with the rest of her powers, was probably pretty much the truth.

Actually, she seemed to have a decent amount in common with this new guy, though they were from totally opposite sides of the country. Gluegirl had started out with the Minority in Florida before eventually being taken in by the New York Conservators a couple years earlier. Either way, the powers were vaguely similar enough (Gluegirl created and manipulated purely different types and colors of adhesive rather than paints that provided different effects, but still) that Amber briefly wondered in that glance at the poster if there was any connection.

Probably not. After all, there were a lot of people with strength-based powers and nobody thought all of them were related. It wasn’t like this guy was her brother or anything. Even if getting to meet Gluegirl through her brother if he was would pretty much be the coolest thing ever, and– Focus, Amber.

Hurriedly changing into her purple costume before grabbing the mask that would change her hair from black to blonde when she put it on, as well as adjusting her facial features slightly, the girl headed back out to the lounge. Laki was already there, in his armor, helmet in hand. He and Silversmith were talking quietly.

“Hey, guys,” she quickly spoke up, drawing their attention. “Did I miss anything?”

“Nope.” Shaking his head, Silversmith gestured to the door. “The lift’s prepped to take you to the patrol area. Syndicate, Carousel, and Whamline should meet you there as soon as they get checked in. Remember what I said, just be a visible presence so people know you’re around. Anything happens, call it in and then try to defuse it. If it gets bad, withdraw and wait for reinforcements. No unnecessary risks, okay?”

Saluting along with Laki (though hers was slightly more sarcastic), Amber headed for the hall, and from there to the transport lift that could instantly take them to various prepared spots around the city. On the way, she affixed the mask to her face, grimacing through the shifting of her nose and cheeks. It didn’t exactly hurt so much as it… mostly tingled. But it still felt funny either way. She’d never get used to it.

“So,” she started once the two of them were in the lift and waiting for the room to shift, “you think we’ll run into trouble out there?”

“Hope not,” Laki replied easily while putting his helmet on and fastening it into place. “I could do with a quiet night. Especially if it’s such a powderkeg. Any chance people might’ve gotten it out of their systems?” He barely paused before adding, “Yeah, I didn’t think so either.”

The doors opened once more, revealing an alleyway behind a local fast food diner. Stepping out of the unmarked building that would look, to any outside observer, like a random shed, the two glanced around for a moment to get their bearings.

“Right,” Amber (That-A-Way, she reminded herself. She had to think of herself as That-A-Way in costume) started, “Let’s just step out here and take a look around until the others show up. I mean, Smith did say to be a visible presence.”

The two costumed teens took a short walk to the nearby sidewalk, keeping the transport shed in view so the others would know where they were. There, they looked around. The street was still busy enough, even though it was almost nine o’clock at night, that they had a couple dozen people looking at them. A few waved, but no one approached. Civilians had long-since been conditioned not to immediately mob costumed Touched on patrol. It was too easy to end up in the line of fire, or be mistaken for a threat.

Not that being approached sometimes would be all bad, That-A-Way thought to herself while her eyes followed a couple of very attractive women who were walking past in clubbing clothes. She could totally enjoy a conversation with–

The women stepped out of the way, and That-A-Way found herself looking at the car idling at the nearby traffic light. A dark green Ford sedan. The same kind of car that had hit and killed her father.

It wasn’t the same car. She knew that. That car was long gone, the owner having it dismantled for parts because he couldn’t stand to keep it around after what it had been part of.

Greg Fardspar. That was the name of the man who owned the car that had killed her father. Amber knew that, because she had tracked the man down back when it happened. Grieving and lost after her father’s death, she had thrown herself into, as she called it, doing the cop’s jobs for them. She had interviewed people who had either seen the accident or lived and worked in the area (some would have called it stalking, threatening, and interrogating), had taken pictures, had run down leads. She worked for weeks, ignoring basically everything else to the point of breaking up with her girlfriend at the time.  

Then she had found him. She found the car in question in his driveway. It even had the damage to the front end. It had been all the girl could do not to… not to take matters into her own hands even more than she already had.

Justice. Her father would finally have justice. She’d called the police. They took her seriously eventually, and came to check out the house and the damage to the car there in the driveway. Then they had gone in to first interview, then arrest Greg Fardspar.

But then they released him. Because Greg wasn’t involved. His car had been stolen that night, and it was that person, whoever they were, who had caused the damage. Greg had an airtight alibi, plus a police report about the theft. The cops had even brought his car back a couple days later when it was found in an old parking lot.

She’d had nothing. Everything she had done to get justice for her father had meant nothing. There was no way of knowing who stole Fardspar’s car and took it for a joyride. A joyride in which they had killed a man, then driven off. They would get away with it. They would get away with it.

It was while she had been dealing (or not dealing) with that realization that Amber’s Touched-sphere had shown up. Then that she had heard the words ‘Summus Proelium’, and had gained her powers. And now… well, now she was still grieving for her father, even over a year later. But she was getting there. Except for times like this, when she was unexpectedly reminded in a way that struck her like a physical blow.

“Way?” Wobble’s voice finally penetrated the thick cloud that had surrounded her mind as she stared at the car, and she realized that he’d been trying to get her attention for a minute.

Her head quickly shook, just as the light changed at the sedan pulled away. “I–sorry, what?”  

Wobble was looking at her, and though she couldn’t see his face, she could tell he was concerned. “Are you sure you’re okay?”

“I’m fine,” she insisted, flushing a little bit from embarrassment. “Sorry, I just… zoned out.” Leaving it at that, she looked around. “Did I miss anything?”

There was a brief pause before Wobble replied, “No, no. I just wanted to make sure you were all right. You looked really freaked out there for a second.”

Swallowing, That-A-Way forced herself to smile. “Trust me, I’m cool. Or I’ll be cool, anyway.” Admitting that much, she offered her fist to the boy. “All good.”

“All good,” Wobble echoed, touching his fist to hers. The two of them continued to look up and down the street, watching for anything suspicious. There were a few things that stood out (it was a Detroit street at night, after all), but nothing that demanded immediate attention.

They were only waiting for about five minutes before the shed opened up again, letting their three teammates out. Well, six counting the three ghostly duplicates that accompanied their leader.

“Hey guys,” Syndicate greeted as he, Carousel, and Whamline approached. “Looks like you didn’t start the party without us.”

“Technically, they did,” Whamline pointed out with a snicker in his voice. “You know, cuz a party is a group of people, and since they were already-ow.” He stopped, rubbing his leg where one of the ghostly Syndicates had briefly become the solid one just long enough to kick him.

“Ahem,” the first Syndicate, returning to his solid form once more, continued, “things look pretty calm so far.”

“Calm things may appear,” Carousel chimed in, “but very tense, I fear. Everyone around here is very upset. Many would grab that bounty in a net.”

That-A-Way nodded. “She’s right. Things are calm enough right now, but there’s a whole lot of gasoline on this pile of wood. If something sets it off…”

“So let’s see what we can do about making sure no one throws any matches,” Syndicate announced. “You know what Silversmith said, be a visible deterrent. How about we split up. Two groups. Two of me will go with That-A-Way and Wobble since you guys were supposed to be on patrol to start, and the other two can go with Carousel and Whamline. We’ll take a long walk in opposite directions and then circle in to meet a few blocks over. Then go from there.”

They agreed, before heading out. As she walked with the two insubstantial versions of Syndicate and Wobble, That-A-Way thought one more time about the paint-based Touched they’d met earlier. It sure would be nice if he ended up joining the team after all.

Though it would’ve been even better if he’d been a girl instead of another guy.

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Interlude 1 – The Minority (Summus Proelium)

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“Would someone here mind telling me who would be stupid enough to try robbing a bank that belongs to La Casa?”

The man asking the question was Lieutenant Harold Dabber, of the Detroit police department. He was a short, somewhat heavyset man with a gray walrus mustache, long stringy hair, and the face of someone who had been in a lot of fist fights. He looked more like a bum off the street than a thirty-year veteran of the police force, particularly with his beat-up brown raincoat and checkered shirt. The people he was addressing were the roughly thirty-odd officers who were helping to secure the main entrance of the bank in question.

The bank, named Prime International Enterprise, didn’t advertise that it was owned by what amounted to a Touched version of the mafia, of course. But it was understood. Blackjack, the leader of La Casa, controlled several banks in the city, even if the authorities lacked the ability to prove that fact. It was an open secret.

The point was that trying to rob the place was tantamount to suicide. And yet, that was apparently what had just happened. There was a group that had gone into the bank to actually steal from La Casa. Which had led to the bank’s own security, backed up by at least one of the La Casa Fell-Touched, attempting to deal with the situation on their own, to send a message. The first group had fought back just effectively enough to gain a foothold on one side of the bank’s massive lobby. Now there were hostages on both sides, caught between the rival gangs.

One of the uniformed officers responded, ”Witnesses said it looked like a few of the Ninety-Niners, sir. No sign of any Touched on their side. Just rank and file troops. Might be new guys trying to make a name for themselves and move up.”

Dabber grunted, muttering a curse. “They’re gonna make a grave for themselves. Which I might not even complain about too much if they’re that fucking stupid, except that they’re going to drag a lot more people into those graves with them.”

“Don’t worry Lieutenant,” a new voice announced, “we won’t let that happen.”

Turning, the man saw exactly who he knew it would be. Standing before him and the other cops was a group of teenagers. Touched teenagers, in full costume.

They were called The Minority, the official team throughout the country for Star-Touched who were under eighteen. Teens who were training to be heroes. Some would be taken on by the Conservators, while others would be picked up by groups like Ten Towers or the Spartans. Once they were old enough, each group who was interested would extend an offer of membership and benefits.

The boy who was talking was called Syndicate. He was their current leader, who had held that position for under six months at this point. Syndicate was a tall black boy, fairly thin in a wiry way. The lower three quarters of his face, aside from his temple and hair, was covered by a hard shell red mask of some kind. It look like a full head-covering helmet that the top had been cut off of. His black hair stuck up through the opening in random spikes. Most of the base of his costume was red as well, with gold accents and armor pieces. It seemed to tread a middle ground between protection and sleekness.

To his left was a muscular boy in what looked like an army camo suit save for the fact that it was black and brown, with a ski mask and heavy gauntlets, and a much smaller girl who looked as though she was barely twelve, wearing a dark blue bodysuit with silver armor panels and a white cloak, the hood up over her head. Her identity was concealed by a mirrored faceplate that reflected her surroundings.

Whamline and Raindrop, respectively.

The other three members of the teenaged team were to Syndicate’s right. There was a Caucasian girl in a dark purple bodysuit with white arrows drawn randomly all over it that pointed in every direction, and a domino mask, her blonde hair fashioned into a ponytail. There was also another girl whose ethnicity was impossible to determine, as she wore a jester’s mask and full robes and hood that completely covered her. All were made in a gold, silver, and purple color scheme. And there was another boy, this one the tallest of all. Actually, he was even taller than any of the police officers, standing at over six and a half feet. His suit made him look like a medieval knight, though the armor and helmet were emerald green.

The two girls were That-A-Way and Carousel, and the armored boy was called Wobble.

Syndicate, Whamline, Raindrop, That-A-Way, Carousel, and Wobble. The Detroit team of the Minority.

“No offense, kid,” Dabber replied after taking in the side of the group. “But I was kind of hoping we’d get one of the varsity teams out here for this.”

There had been a time, not so very long ago, when he would have objected to teenagers having any involvement in this whatsoever. This was a hostile situation. Any time before the previous decade or so, he would have raised holy hell. He had done so, in fact. But in these recent years, he had seen teenagers with powers be thrown into far more dangerous situations than this one. And he had also seen what happened when those teenagers weren’t properly experienced. This may have been something that would have been utterly unthinkable more than twenty years earlier. But things had changed in those past couple of decades. The threats in the world required solutions that he didn’t have. People with powers had to be stopped by people with powers. Especially when an Abyssal got going. And the only way they were going to get the training they needed to face those threats was by facing smaller ones. Real field experience, like this situation.

Still, as he’d said, he really would have preferred having one of the adult groups here, with the teens running cleanup.

Syndicate shook his head. “Sorry, there’s a brawl going on uptown between Oscuro and Braintrust. It’s all hands on deck right now. They’re going to be busy for a while. But don’t worry, we can get the hostages out of there and calm this whole thing down.”

Beside him, Carousel gave a quick nod that sent the bells on her jester’s mask ringing. “That’s a fact. We’ll make it a pact, to set things right, and call it a night.”

Yeah, Dabber had no idea why the girl made everything rhyme all the time. It was just kind of her schtick, along with the whole jokester motif.  

After a brief back-and-forth to establish the situation, the team of teens focused on the occupied bank. Syndicate turned to the side, where three blue-gray ghostly and transparent duplicates of himself stood. Two of those ghost-copies ran off to either corner of the building. Then the main boy looked to the youngest member of their team. “Raindrop, there’s a skylight in the roof. If the rest of us play distraction, can you get the hostages up and out that way?”

There was a brief hesitation, as the little girl seemed afraid to answer. Finally, however, her head bobbed up-and-down in a quick nod as she set herself. “Uh huh. I um, I’ll do it.” She sounded nervous, but determined.

With that, Raindrop pointed above her head, creating a small cloud that poured water over top of herself. Once she had been soaked down (her cloak acting like a raincoat), the girl quickly floated up off the ground, heading for the roof. She was more than simply a powerful hydrokinetic. The kid could also manipulate how gravity affected anything that was wet.

Syndicate pointed then. “That-A-Way, Wobble,  take the far left window there, where that me is. That should put you right by the loan offices where the Ninety-Niners are holed up. Carousel, Whamline, you guys are with the me on that other side, where the La Casa and security guys are based. As soon as I go in the front door and draw attention of everyone in there, the groups on both sides go in and hit them from behind. While they’re distracted, Raindrop pulls the hostages out through the ceiling. Any questions? You got that, Drop?” For the last bit, the boy’s head turned a bit as though he was listening to something in his ear before nodding and satisfaction. “Good, let’s do it then.” He looked to Dabber. “Sir, if you’d like to send your men over and have them wait at either side, as soon as the hostages are clear, they can head in and mop things up. We’d sure appreciate it.”

Dabber agreed, sending several officers with both groups, along with orders to wait until the hostages were out of danger before moving in. Then he took his own pistol from its holster and looked to the leader of the Minority. “I’m going in with you.”

Syndicate nodded, before he, his remaining ghost-duplicate, and Dabber himself headed carefully up toward the front entrance. There was a man there with a rifle. He wore the uniform of bank security and gave them a hard glare, shaking his head to warn them off. This was a situation that the bank wanted to deal with themselves.

The main Syndicate stopped right alongside Dabber. But his ghost kept moving, walking straight through the locked door. As the man reacted to that, the Syndicate on the inside suddenly turned solid, while the one standing beside Dabber became insubstantial. That was the boy’s power. He existed in four places at once, four separate bodies. But only one of those bodies could be solid at a time, while the remaining three were basically ghosts. They switched which of them was solid at any point.

The newly solid Syndicate took the man by the door down in short order before unlocking the door to let his other self and Dabber inside.

As soon as they were through, a voice called out from behind one of the desks. “Lieutenant, Touched kid, you’re gonna want to leave. This doesn’t concern you. It’s an internal matter, and the bank won’t be pressing charges.”

Dabber looked that way, catching sight of a man in a dark chauffeur’s uniform and a white facemask. Spades, one of the La Casa Touched. His power made him quicker, faster, and stronger than any normal person. It also gave him a nearly unmatched reaction speed, and the ability to heal quickly.

“Sorry,” Dabber called back. “I’m gonna need you and everyone else in here to stand down. And while we’re at it, why don’t you stick around and answer a few questions about some other problems you’ve been involved with?”

His answer came in the form of a gunshot from the direction of the loan offices, where the Ninety-Niner thugs were holed up. The shot was either fired by someone who had no intention of hitting him, or an intentional warning. Either way, it hit one of the nearby pillars, before a voice from that direction shouted, “You heard him, get the fuck out, pig! This ain’t your business!”

Syndicate’s two nearby selves looked to one another before the one who was solid spoke up loudly. “Okay, guys. If you’re not going to surrender quietly, we’ll just have to now.”

Though the boy seemed to interrupt himself with that single last word while not changing his tone at all, it was clearly a signal. Because a lot started happening all at once. The solid boy grabbed Dabber by the arm and yanked him to the floor, while several more gunshots rang out from both sides.

At the same time, That-A-Way and Wobble appeared by the offices, the former teleporting the two of them right into the middle of the group that had set up there. The men spun to fire, but achieved little. Wobble sent a wave of vibrations through the air that knocked several of them into the ground, while others were simply left dazed and nauseous from the effect. A couple more shot at That-A-Way, but the girl had switched from moving north to moving east, which meant that her power had changed from teleportation to being invulnerable and unstoppable, allowing her to simply run straight at the men without being affected, crashing into them and knocking them to the ground.

One of the other thugs managed to roll over and aim his gun at the girl’s teammate. But he was now to the west of her, which allowed That-A-Way to use her superspeed to reach the man, taking the gun out of his hand before he could fire. He swung at her wildly. Unfortunately for him, his new position made it so that he was to the south of her. Which meant that taking a simple step toward him made the girl intangible so that his fist went through her.

It was weird. Dabber had no idea why someone’s powers would be dependent on the compass direction they were moving. But that was how hers apparently worked. She had superspeed, teleportation, invulnerability, or intangibility based entirely around whether she was moving west, north, east, or south, respectively.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the room, Whamline had smashed a hole through the wall using his own power, which allowed him to create and mentally manipulate energy rope/tentacle things that were incredibly strong and could explode in a burst of kinetic force.

Several of the boy’s floating energy ropes quickly moved to wrap around Spades, trying to catch the quick man, who was having none of it, somehow managing to dart between all of them before one exploded close enough to knock him down.

At the same time, Carousel was focusing on the rest of the men there. A couple tried to shoot at her. But their bullets were caught by her power, which pulled them in to spin in orbit around her. And it was more than just the bullets. The nearby chair and desk, a picture, a few chunks of random debris, and a fire extinguisher were all yanked into orbit around the girl. What’s more, every object that was pulled in by her power immediately shrank down to about the size of a matchbook. Shrank, that was, until the girl sent the object flying away from her. Then, it regained its full size the instant that it left her orbit. Such as the desk that she sent flying into three of the men.

While all that was going on and the teen Touched were dealing with the bad guys from each side, Dabber looked toward the center of the lobby, where a dozen bank employees and customers were huddled. They were all looking up as water fell on them. Water from a cloud that had appeared near the ceiling. Raindrop was up there, her small figure barely visible floating near the now open skylight. As soon as all of the hostages were thoroughly soaked, they suddenly floated up off the floor, some yelping. But there was nothing that either gang  could do about it even if they had noticed, busy as they were with the other Minority members.

The instant that the hostages were being floated up through the open skylight, Dabber hit his radio and sent the order for the rest of the troops to come in. There were no more civilians in the way, so it was time to end this.

*******

“Dude, how cool were we? No, seriously, how fucking cool was all that? We went in there all, ‘bam, we gonna rock you!’ And they were like ‘what’, and we were like, ‘yeah, what do you think of this?’” That-A-Way bounced ahead of the rest of the group of teen Touched as the six of them walked (or skipped in her case) through the alley between the police station downtown and the attached parking garage where the cruisers and other vehicles were kept.

“Jeez, calm down, Amber,” Whamline replied. “How many energy drinks did you guzzle before we got there?”

Nudging the boy firmly in the side, Syndicate reminded him, “We’re in costume and outside. Don’t use real names.” Even as he said the words, the currently solid version of the boy sent a thought to his other three selves in their ghost-forms. Everything okay?

All good, Armadillo, Puma reported from the corner of the police lot. No one followed us.

Rabbit and Colt reported the same. Armadillo, Puma, Rabbit, and Colt. When the four had been trying to decide how to differentiate themselves amongst each other, since they were far more than just duplicates, they had settled on using animal names. Or rather, Armadillo, Puma, and Rabbit had. For the first six months or so of doing this, since he’d become a Touched, there had been only three of him. He’d called himself Trilogy. Then a fourth one had appeared, and Trilogy no longer made sense. He’d thought about Quad, but if a fifth version of himself showed up, he’d have to change again, and it would get old. So he’d gone with Syndicate.

That had been a year and a half earlier, and no other versions of himself had appeared. Two years of this, four months as leader of the team. He was seventeen, about ready to graduate high school. And then he’d have to see what adult teams were interested in recruiting him.

Meanwhile, That-A-Way/Amber was spinning in a circle while replying to Whamline breezily, “I’m just happy. I can be happy, right? Because we got all those hostages out, and caught all those bad guys. With help from the cops, o’course.” In mid-spin, the girl gave a bow toward the police station. She even tipped an imaginary hat before spinning back to the others. “Oh! And there were cameras there. So we’re probably going to be on the news. I hope they got my good side.” She held up for the second before clapping her hands once and laughing out loud. “Isn’t this awesome!?”

“You’ve gotta admit,” Carousel put in, “her cheering’s infectious. Given time, they’ll even respect us.”

“Barely counted as a rhyme,” Wobble informed her. “I give it a four out of ten.”

Whamline’s head shook. “No way, man. You’ve got to factor in difficulty, and she just rhymed something with infectious. That’s gotta bump it up to at least six or seven.”

By that point, the group had reached a blue metal door at the far end of the alley. It looked utterly unremarkable, save for the fact that there was no handle on it, and only a single stenciled word reading utility. Pausing with his hand halfway to the door, Syndicate looked back at the others with a soft sigh. “You guys know we’re trying to get her to stop rhyming all the time, right? You scoring her work doesn’t really help with that.”

“I don’t mind the score,” Carousel replied, “but you should open the door. I could verbally soar, yet it becomes a chore and I find I can never ignore a call for encore, so please I’ve got rhymes here galore but I must ever implore, if we go to war, let’s keep our rapport as we stand in the gore to show them what for, til peace we restore.”

A solid four or five seconds of silence followed that, before Wobble looked at Syndicate. “Just open the damn door before she starts in again.”

Pressing his hand it to the seemingly blank brick wall beside the door, Syndicate activated the button there that made a hidden pinhole camera scan his eyes. A moment later, there was a click, and the door slid open. He gestured. “After you guys.”

They stepped through the door, into a small, featureless room that was just large enough to hold them and maybe a few more people (including the three ghost-like Syndicates who had followed the others in). The door closed, and the group waited together. As they stood there, That-A-Way reached up to her domino mask, unlatching the secure hook in the back before pulling the thing off. Instantly, her supposedly blonde hair turned to its real shade of black, and there was a very faint, subtle shifting of her cheekbones and nose. Just enough to make her look sufficiently different with her eyes uncovered. The mask was the work of a Star-Touched from Texas named Facade, whose invention-based powers focused around disguises and illusions. He sold his work to Touched throughout the country to help them maintain their secrets.

Without the mask, That-A-Way’s real name was Amber O’Connell.

Whamline took off his own ski mask before tucking it into his black-and-brown camo suit, revealing a freckle-faced boy with curly, dark red hair. Next to him, the enormous Wobble cracked open his emerald helmet, pulling it off to expose a clearly Samoan ethnicity, his skin darkly tanned and handsome. Just past the six and a half foot mark despite being only sixteen years old, the boy was often mistaken for an adult.

As civilians, Whamline and Wobble were Jerry Meuster and Laki Sefo, respectively.

All four Syndicates reached up to unlatch their helmets and pull it off, though only the solid one really needed to. Beyond the animal names that the four versions of himself referred to each other as, their shared real name was Damarko Myers. Each thought of themselves as the ‘real’ Damarko, and they took turns living the normal part of his life while the others either ‘slept’ (during which time they would fade entirely away until they woke up) or wandered around doing what they could as a ghost. They could appear in that blue-gray ghost form, or become almost entirely invisible aside from a distortion in the air when they moved. They were also able to communicate mentally with one another, and whoever was solid could summon any or all of the other three to themselves.

Holding his helmet under one arm, the black boy rubbed a hand over his cheek while looking over to Raindrop.

She had pulled down her own hood, and was taking off the mirrored mask. Beneath it was Isabel/Izzy Amor, a small Hispanic girl with wide eyes and a trembling lip, who always looked as though everyone around her was one mistake away from kicking her down a flight of stairs. She was jumpy and constantly apologizing for the smallest thing. But she also tried hard, and was wickedly powerful. Her issue was self-esteem.

Then there was the last member of their group. Carousel stood still for a moment before reaching up, tugging her hood down, then pulled off the jester mask. Doing so revealed the reason her own identity was so thoroughly covered. She was, for one thing, albino. Which would have stood out anyway, with her very pale skin, pink eyes, and almost white hair. But she was also Asian. An Asian albino in Detroit. Covering her entire face, head, and hair was important if she was going to maintain anything resembling a secret identity. Her jester mask even contained dark lenses.

Her real name was Jae Baek, and the moment her mask was off, the girl’s entire posture and demeanor changed. She seemed to shrink in on herself, holding the mask against her chest while looking at the floor. As Carousel, she was loud, outgoing, and constantly rhymed everything thanks to an incredible vocabulary. As Jae, she was quiet, shy, barely spoke (and didn’t do so in rhymes), and rarely initiated eye contact.

It was… probably a bit worrying just how different she acted as Jae and as Carousel, like they were two entirely separate people. She even tended to talk about each side of herself as if she were a different person.

By the time all of them had taken their masks and helmets off, there was a soft ding. The door they had just come through a moment earlier opened. This time, however, it revealed a much larger room rather than the alley they had just come through. Their base, clubhouse, training quarters, whatever else it could be called. The room they had entered was one of about a dozen spread over the city. A dozen they knew about, anyway. They were designed and built by one of the Ten Towers Touched, another technology-based superhero called Switchshift, whose gifts revolved around creations that could transform, change position, or in the case of these rooms, switch places. It allowed people to enter a room in one location and instantly appear somewhere else as the room changed places with its counterpart elsewhere.

A man was standing there, waiting just inside the lobby of their base as the group filed out. Silversmith, the leader of the Detroit branch of Conservators. His face, as always, was hidden behind his helmet. As far as any of the teens were aware, no one knew who Silversmith really was. He kept his identity secret even from his own team. Not that he was the only one. There were other Star-Touched who did the same, though none on this Minority team.

“Heard you did well at the bank,” Silversmith announced, his tone proud and impressed. “Good job. Come on, I’m sure you’re hungry, so I had pizza sent over. You can eat, and tell me everything from your point of view.”

“Are you going to eat, sir?” Amber asked, a not-very-subtle attempt to see something of the man’s face, even if it was only enough to tell his ethnicity. It would still be more than was publicly known.

For a moment, Silversmith didn’t say anything. His head cocked a little, giving the impression despite the featureless helmet that he was smiling at them. “Maybe another time,” he finally replied, his tone lightly amused. “For now, I’ll let you guys have the pizza to yourselves.

“Because if I spoil my appetite, my wife will kill me.”

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Discovery 1-06 (Summus Proelium)

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In that moment, I acted faster than I ever had in my life. Apparently fear was one hell of a motivator. Even as Simon started to say something, my hands moved. One I pointed above my head and behind me at the two Easy Eight thugs. The other I pointed down and forward past my stomach toward the two guys who stood with my brother. Red paint shot from both of my hands to cover the guns that they all held. An instant later, the guns were torn from all four of their grasps as I activated the power in the paint.

The guns flew to meet each other in the middle, right where Two-Step was standing. He had to jerk and duck out of the way as they collided in the air right above me before starting to fall. They would have fallen on top of me, but I snapped my hand out to the side, shot another bit of red paint out to hit a car nearby, and made my glove red as well. The power yanked me off the ground and sent me flying to the car. I collided with it hand first hard enough to send a shock through me. Ow. I should have used orange paint too. Dammit.

Apparently I also should have used green paint to speed myself up. Because before I could get my bearings, Two-Step was already there. One of his hands caught my neck and shoved me down over the car hood while the other found its way to the middle of my back to keep me there.

He started to say something, but I quickly shifted my whole costume to blue and activated it. The paint sent the man flying backward away from me with a cry of surprise.

Unfortunately, at the same time, the car I was leaning over slid away as well, leaving me to fall onto my hands and knees with a grunt. Shit, I should have just made my back blue, which would have used less paint too.

The guys were recovering, and Simon was spinning toward me. Lastword had also appeared and was moving to involve himself. Shit, shit, shit. I had to get out of there. I had to get the hell out. Shoving myself over to face the guys coming after me, I threw my arms out into a wide wave, sending a bunch of yellow paint flying. Most of it struck randomly everywhere, but a bit got on almost everyone, slowing them down considerably. Almost everyone, that was, aside from Lastword, who created some kind of force field in front of himself that the paint got stuck on.

I was already running, using that time to scramble back to my feet and take off. Unfortunately, Simon and all those guys were between me and the exit. I had to run deeper into the car lot, toward the auto shop garage. I could get out the other side, I just had to run all the way through.

Then something invisible struck me hard in the back, and I went sprawling. What a grunt of pain, I rolled over just in time to see Lastword creating another force field with one hand, which he sent flying at me with a quick push. That was what had struck me. He could do more than just make force fields, he could also send them flying around. Great.

Was it wrong that if I had just been watching, I would have thought this whole thing was really cool? I was being attacked by superpowers. I was using superpowers! This whole thing should have been awesome.

It was terrifying.

Shifting the front of my costume to orange, I threw my hands up in front of my face just as the forcefield struck home. It did almost nothing, dissipating against me. I felt the impact, of course, but it was akin to a light shove.

Then I was on my feet. As my costume shifted back to its base white, I made a little bit of green paint appear on my chest. It was shaped like a hand with an upraised middle finger, pointed right at Lastword.

Juvenile? Yeah. Worth it? Definitely.

Besides, it served a purpose. At that point, it was probably all the paint I could manage, and I used it to speed myself up, spinning around to run away again with Lastword, Two-Step, Simon, and the rest of the bad guys right on my heels. They were taller than me, and had longer legs. But I ran track, and had my ten second speed boost for a head start.

It was going to be close. I had to do something to give myself more of an edge. Then I remembered what I was wearing. Glancing down, I smacked my heels together to bring the wheels out on my pace-skates.

A gun shot rang out. Then another. They were shooting at me! The shots weren’t coming anywhere close, but they were still shooting at me! And I didn’t know if I could make any more paint for the moment. Go! I had to go!

More importantly, I had to get out of sight before they actually hit me. Adjusting my course as I skated across the lot, I ducked low, rolling under the partially open door of the auto shop. I could hear a couple more shots pinging off the wall, and a sob of terror escaped me before I could stop it.

I fell forward onto my hands once in the garage, before shoving myself back up. They were still coming, but I wasn’t trapped in here. There were doors at either end. My hand snapped out to hit the button that closed the door behind me, and I skated to the other side.

Thankfully, this side was open too. Behind me, I heard shouting to go around, even as something heavy and powerful slammed into the door I had closed, denting it inward. It hit the door again, almost taking it right off the frame. Lastword. He was either hitting the door with his forcefield thing, or using some other power. Either way, in about one more hit, it was going to be down.

I kept skating, throwing myself out through the open garage door and across the lot toward the far side of the lot. Behind me, I heard the pounding footsteps of guys coming around the side of the garage, as well as the loud clanging of the door being knocked in. They were all coming.

I skated faster. It felt as though ten minutes had passed since I last used my paint, but it was probably more like ten seconds. I had to wait. I had to keep moving. I had to get the hell out of there!

What the hell was I thinking? I should just tell Simon who I was. He wouldn’t kill me, or let them do so. Right?

It was a mixture of my own fear and my revulsion at the thought of looking Simon in the face while knowing everything I did that drove me onward. I heard shouting behind me as they all met up on the side of the garage and kept after me. They weren’t just going to let me escape. Especially now that they knew I had powers. Thankfully, I was pretty sure they didn’t know exactly how they worked, or how low I was running.

Nearing the fence, I skated between two vehicles and prayed to God that I’d waited long enough to use more paint. My hands stretched out, shooting a puddle of beautiful, beautiful blue right in front of myself. It worked! It fucking worked! With a loud, half-crazed whoop that probably accidentally sounded more taunting than relieved, I hit the paint and sent myself flying up and over the fence.

Awkwardly, I sprawled across the ground on the other side, remembering at the last instant to make a little bit of orange so I didn’t sprain or even break anything. Still, it was anything but graceful. But I was over the fence, and I could hear angry shouting even as I push myself up to keep going.

Behind me, Two-Step hit the fence with that red bat of his, instantly knocking a hole in it somehow. I could hear the metal sizzling.

Oh, right. This wasn’t a game. There was no rule that said they had to stop at the fence. I had to keep going, had to fling myself across the empty street while they kept chasing me.

God, oh God, I had to get the hell out of there. I had to get away before they caught up again. Before they started shooting again. I looked frantically for something to do, a way to escape. There was nothing. Just an empty street and silent, imposingly tall buildings. I was trapped. They’d catch up with me and then… and then…

My eyes snaps to the building directly in front of me, and I swallowed the sudden fear that I felt at the thought that came. Forcing that down, I ran for the building, retracting my skates on the way. Behind me, the guys were catching up. I heard Simon blurt not to kill me. They needed to know who I was and what the hell I was doing. And how much I knew.

That was something, at least. But I wasn’t planning on being killed or captured. Reaching the building, I created a quick blue puddle in front of myself and jumped on it. The paint shot me upward a good ten or twelve feet, and I snapped my hands out, my gloves turning red while I made more red marks on the wall itself.

It worked. My hands caught against the wall and I stayed there, kicking my feet inward while making the boots red too. Red paint shot from my feet as well, giving them something to cling to. For about ten seconds, I would be able to cling there without falling. Of course, after about ten seconds, I would be screwed. Because Simon and the others were right there. Lastword was already getting ready to do something, and Simon shouted something at me about coming down.

Instead, I pushed up with my feet, throwing myself further up the wall just like in rock climbing class at gym. But instead of having to find places to stand, I made my own, creating more red marks on the wall for my gloves and boots to stick to. Just like that, I scrambled up the wall, partly climbing, partly jumping, and partly crawling. It was disorienting and confusing, but I kept going even as they shouted behind me. I heard guns being readied, and quickly made an orange frowny face appear on my back.

They fired, and I felt a bullet hit my leg. I felt a bullet hit my leg. Thanks to the orange paint, it didn’t actually penetrate, but it still hurt. It was like being hit with a paintball, and I would have fallen if staying against that wall wasn’t an automatic thing. As it was, I nearly stayed there too long. Just as the power in the paint faded, I jumped again, while Simon shouted below me for them to get me down already.

Two-Step was coming after me. He was using his ghost somehow to keep boosting himself up, making pushing motions with his hands as he went up the wall that his ghost duplicated behind him to keep him climbing against the smooth surface. He was catching up quickly. I had to go.

Just like earlier, the terror was an excellent motivator, and I scrambled my way up the rest of the building like that, making spots of red paint to climb that faded behind me until I finally reached the top and scrambled over onto the roof. My leg hurt. I was limping, even as I tried to ignore the pain. I didn’t have time to think about it, aside from being glad I was only hit once and with my paint active.

Two-Step was just a little bit behind me, and I caught a glimpse of Lastword rising off the ground, having apparently worked his way into a flight power of some kind.

But for the moment, I was out of sight. And I used that, racing toward the roof access door that would lead into the building. There, I tried the door knob. It was locked. With a grunt, I turned my arm purple, quickly using the strength that it provided to punch the door open. It slammed inward, revealing a stairwell beyond.

I ran in, but didn’t go down the stairs. That would have just led to more chasing. Instead, I quickly turned, using the lingering strength that my purple paint provided to throw myself up into the space just above the door. Turning one of my arms and one of my feet red, I shoved both arms and feet against the walls to hold myself there. I was basically bunched up into the corner above the doorway, my arms bracing myself against one side while my feet braced against the other to stay in place. With the help of my red paint, of course. Sitting like this, I could wait until the paint almost ran out, then shift to making the opposite foot and arm red to keep myself there, alternating back and forth a time or two.

Luckily, I didn’t have to wait long before my two pursuers were there. They came charging through the doorway at a sprint, never even looking up as they passed me and began racing down the stairs, Two-Step blurting something about the others cutting me off at the bottom.

I let them go, listening to their footsteps descending the stairs before I dropped from my perch, making a bit of black paint on my feet to silence my landing. Dropping to a crouch, I carefully leaned over to peer down at their descending forms. My throat was dry, and it felt like I needed to throw up.

They were gone, but I had to get out of there in case they doubled back when they found out I wasn’t at the bottom. Quickly, I scrambled back to my feet, still silent, and ran back out to the roof.

I needed a way out of here. Moving to the edge of the roof nearest the other building, I leaned over and looked down. It was a long drop, and I didn’t know if my orange paint could take it. Instead, I looked over to the next roof. I could make that jump, with a little help.

Moving back a few steps, I put out my hands to make another blue puddle. Then I took a breath, psyching myself up for a couple seconds before running forward. As my feet hit the blue paint, I jumped, launching myself through the air while barely repressing the urge to let out a cry that would have been half-terror and half-excitement. Remembering to make my legs orange just before landing on the other side, I still sprawled out across that next roof before rolling onto my back. I barely had the wherewithal to pull myself behind the nearest air-conditioning unit on that roof so that I couldn’t be seen from the first one. Then I just stared at the sky and tried not to whimper. I was safe. I made it out out there. I could breathe again.

I had to stop breathing then, as I heard my brother’s voice from the first roof. He was speaking loudly. “Yeah, like I said, he’s not here! He fucking disappeared!”

Quickly painting myself completely black and using the silencing power, I waited a second before chancing a peek around the air conditioning unit. There. I could see my brother’s back as he spoke to someone out of sight. He looked nervous somehow, even from behind. It definitely didn’t seem like he was giving orders like he had been earlier and last night.

“I told you,” Simon was saying, “I don’t think he saw you last night. He didn’t go that far in.”

The person he was speaking to came forward, moving beside Simon. It was our dad. The sight of him made me want to disappear even more. He gave my brother a dark look, his voice firm. “Then why did he play dress-up and come here tonight? How did he even know about this?”

Simon’s head shook. “Hell if I know.”

Dad’s hand snapped out, catching hold of Simon’s collar to pull him close. His voice was dangerous. “Find out.” Then he gave him a slight push back, his tone softening. “Come on, son. You can do this. You’re ready for the responsibility. Track this kid down and find out what he knows. Bring him in, and we’ll talk. If he doesn’t know anything damaging, we’ll find a use for him, whichever side he leans toward. If he does know too much… well,  there’s more room in Lake St. Clair than there is in the city for new Touched. Okay? I trust you. Prove me right. Show me that I can hand some of this off to you.”

Simon muttered some kind of agreement, and Dad nodded before starting to look around. I ducked back, but he wasn’t looking in my direction. He was scanning the sky. I frowned, tilting my head up to look as well before returning my attention to him, confused. What was he looking for?

A moment later, all of my thoughts about what my father could have been looking for vanished, along with every other thought I had or possibly would ever have. Because in that moment, he stepped up on the edge of the roof while a featureless metal helmet expanded and grew up and over his head. It matched the sleek silvery armor that he wore. Then he simply floated off the roof and turned to look at Simon before saying something I didn’t catch. In the next second, he was flying away. My father was flying away. He was flying. He was a Touched.

And not just any Touched. Because as I crouched there, hidden behind the air conditioner, I knew who he was. There was no mistaking it. The suit was very distinctive. And I had a lot of history in looking at pictures of him.

Silversmith. He was Silversmith, the leader of the local Conservators. My favorite hero, by some twisted sense of irony. I’d always love to follow his stories. I’d looked up to him for years. And now…

My father wasn’t a villain working for villains. He was a villain… leading heroes.

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