Skip

Ready 11-06 (Summus Proelium)

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We met up with Skip and Broadway shortly after that, so I promised Pack and That-A-Way that I would talk to them about the whole mall thing later. I was tired, sore, mentally exhausted, and really just wanted to crawl into my bed and sleep for about a million years. But I was also terrified about what was going to happen when I got home. It was late, and my phones completely didn’t work so I had no idea if my parents had noticed me being gone for so long. If they’d been trying to get hold of me, if they’d panicked and called the cops… this could get complicated. And I was so done with everything right then, I was afraid of what I might say. 

The car that Skip showed up in was actually a van. Apparently she’d damaged the Scions’ car enough to leave it undriveable and then abandoned them. Given his immunity to practically anything, there was no way that she could keep Pencil contained long enough to try to call in the authorities. Especially with Cup there and the possibility that they had called in other Scion reinforcements at some point in all of that. The best thing to do was to get out of there while we could. None of us wanted to take the risk of Pencil getting the upper hand again. He’d almost managed it even with all of us there and Skip’s own selective immunities. 

Besides, I was just… again, exhausted. Falling into my seat in the van, I let my head rest against the window while listening to That-A-Way telling Skip what road to take to get out of there, and to Broadway saying something about how she would watch for anyone behind us. 

The next thing I knew, the side door of the van was being slid open and we were in a brightly lit area. I jerked awake, heart thudding its way through a Lars Ulrich drum solo while I looked around wildly, instant panic making me imagine any number of horrible scenarios just then. 

That-A-Way was right there, hand on my arm while she quickly assured me, “It’s okay. It’s alright, Paintball. Hey.” Moving a bit, she gestured to show me that we were just in some kind of illuminated parking garage. “We’re back in Detroit, it’s okay. You’re safe.” Pausing to look at me, the other girl looked for a moment like she was going to say something important. In the end, however, she just carefully asked, “Are you okay? You were… you were shifting around a lot.”

Flinching at the thought of what I could have mumbled, considering the state I was in, I gave a short nod. It took a second to come down off my panic-high, but I finally found my voice. “Y-yeah, I’m good. I’m fine. I mean I’m not fine, but I’ll get over it. You…” Biting my lip, I looked to her. “You guys really saved me. I would’ve been dead without you. I would have died.” Just saying that out loud, even now that I was safe and totally out of that situation, made my heart beat faster while my throat went dry. The memory of Pencil pointing that weapon at me… I shook a bit, shoving the thought down into the basement of my mind before locking the door.

That-A-Way gave me what I knew was a practiced reassuring smile, the kind she used for making civilians feel better about a situation without scaring them. “I’m just glad we were there,” she informed me, before her eyes narrowed. “And as soon as you feel better, I’m hitting you again. Don’t you ever do that, got it? I will not be used as an excuse to let you go off on your own and get yourself killed. If you do, I’ll find a way to bring you back just to kick your ass.” 

Quickly, I held up both hands in surrender. “I know, I know. It was stupid. In my defense, I had no idea that the Scions were involved at all. I wouldn’t have–yeah, I know. It was still stupid. I’m sorry. I just didn’t want anyone else to get hurt because of me. I didn’t want to be–ow.” The last bit was because That-A-Way put her hand out to flick my forehead with one finger. It hurt. 

“Just don’t do it again,” she flatly insisted. “You need help, ask for it. That’s why I gave you my number in the first place.” Pausing briefly, the girl added in a slightly more subdued voice. “Seriously, Paintball, I’m glad you’re okay. I don’t know what…” She shook her head. “Just don’t be that stupid anymore. I really don’t want to find out you got yourself killed after all this. Especially if that thing you were talking about…” Stopping herself, she gestured. “Come on, let’s go.” 

Sliding out of the van after her, I looked around. We were, sure enough, in one of the parking garages downtown. I could see Skip off in the distance, wearing a backpack over one shoulder and talking to what looked like a security guard while Pack and Broadway stood off the other way next to the former’s cage full of lizards. As soon as Pack saw me get out of the van, she approached, leaving her teammate with the cage. “Good,” she started, “you’re awake. So what are we gonna do about everything you said?” Lowering her voice to being barely audible, she added, “Cuz I don’t know about Compass-Power here, but I really wanna know more. Especially if it involves my team.”

“And my team,” That-A-Way agreed, arms folded. “But we can’t really talk about it right now.” 

“Yeah, there’s not time,” I pointed out after stifling a yawn. “My parents are already–” Cutting that off quickly, I blanched before settling on, “I’ll meet both of you later this week, I promise. Just let me recover from all this and we’ll talk about what I know. We’ll figure something out. Especially about that… thing I mentioned with the mall.” Saying those last few words mostly under my breath, I gestured. “But seriously, like I said, don’t tell anyone.” I looked to That-A-Way. “No one on your team, none of the adult heroes. Not even the leaders. Not Caishen, not Brumal, and especially not Silversmith.” 

That-A-Way was squinting at me. “What do you mean, ‘especially not Silversmith?’ He’s not… no.” 

I met her gaze intently. “I’ll explain more later, I swear. Just… just don’t do anything you can’t take back. Telling anyone about this is gonna open a box that none of us can close again. The more people who know about it, the worse it’ll be. Later we can figure out who to trust, but right now, just…. don’t.” 

“And especially not Silversmith,” That-A-Way repeated pointedly, her gaze still locked on me. 

“Yeah,” I murmured, “especially not Silversmith. Like I said, I’ll tell you more later. I just can’t deal with this right now. Don’t talk to anyone about it. Please. This is just a lot to put out there right now.” Looking to Pack, I added, “Check on Eits for me? Make sure he’s still getting better. And I’m sorry about… about everything.” 

Pack promised to do so, before Skip approached. The Ten Towers Touched spoke in that same eerily calm voice of hers that actually helped calm me down, all things considered. “Steven won’t tell anyone we were here. I trust him to be discreet, he has been very helpful before.” Looking to me, she added, “How are your injuries? Will you be able to make it home?” 

Everything hurt, that was for sure. But the fact that I was alive and in one piece right then after everything that happened was honestly such a freaking miracle that it felt like I could’ve danced home. Okay, not really. Ow. Still, I’d get home. I didn’t really have much of a choice, even if the idea of trying to explain to my parents where I’d been was terrifying. “I’ll make it,” I confirmed. 

We said a few more things. I thanked all of them for going the extra however-many-miles to save my stupid life from Pencil. Then I left them. We all separated, and I headed out of the parking garage and out onto the street. Honestly, right then the last thing that I wanted to do was start jumping and running around. But I had to get back home, and first I needed to get to the place I’d stored my clothes on the way over to see Pack and Eits in the first place. 

Despite what I’d said about being okay, I was limping as I left the garage. Fuck. Shit. That hurt. Everything hurt. Getting knocked out by whatever that dart had been was bad enough, but the chase through the woods, getting hit with whatever that gun had been? That was rough. If I hadn’t had my orange paint on when that gun hit me the first time, what kind of shape would I be in now? Would I even be alive? I definitely wouldn’t be walking like this. 

Then again, the only reason I was even still here at all was because of Pack and the others. The four of them had gone out of their way to save my life. The fact that Pack and That-A-Way had put aside any differences they had to save me was enough on its own, but I barely knew Skip. I’d exchanged a few words with her, that was it. And I didn’t know Broadway at all. She was there because of Pack, of course. But still. The four of them had totally saved my ass. Without them, I wouldn’t be alive. I’d be dead. Dead. The thought kept reverberating throughout my mind while I used a bit of red paint to yank myself up to a roof so I could get out of sight. 

Dead. Without them, I would have been dead. Pencil would have killed me. Everything I’d done, and absolutely none of it would have mattered anymore because I’d just be… gone forever. I was only alive because other people had come to save me. People who I still didn’t trust with all my secrets. Or even most of them. 

Was I resisting telling anyone the truth about myself and my family to protect them, or to protect myself? Or worse, to protect my family. Was I so against letting anyone know what my family was because I was still keeping their secrets? What I somehow instinctively still siding with my family even as I outwardly sided against them?

Those thoughts bothered me as I walked across the roof. My hand was rubbing my chest where I had been hit. One of my ribs felt really bad, making me flinch and wince when I touched that spot. It did, at least, distract me from all those troubling thoughts about my motivations. 

Taking a breath, I used blue paint to launch myself out toward the next building. And I instantly regretted it. A shooting rush of pain went through my side and leg, and I basically ended up falling in a heap on the next roof, sprawling out gracelessly before curling into a ball with a groan of pain. Owwww.  

Right, this might have been worse than I thought. I really needed to get home, but running and jumping just wasn’t going to cut it. So, instead, I just used red paint to pull myself from roof to roof and orange paint to ensure that I didn’t land too roughly. Even simple landings that I never would have used the orange paint for any other time needed it. I was basically limping from roof to roof just to get to the spot where I had hidden my clothes. That was all I needed. I would change clothes and then call for an Uber. 

Wait. Call. My phones were both busted as far as getting a signal went. Sighing hard when that thought popped into my head as I hit another roof, I stumbled and half bent over. Nausea welled up in me and I had to fight the urge to throw up or pass out. Or both. After catching my breath, I took out both phones to check them again. Sure enough, still no signal. I was in the middle of town and yet there was no signal. Pencil had definitely not been exaggerating about what his little toy had done. 

Okay, still not the end of the world. I would change clothes and then use the phone at a gas station or something. I’d get a ride home and come up with some kind of excuse for how late I was if it came down to it. Considering it was about four in the morning at that point, I was relatively terrified about how my parents would react if they actually knew I wasn’t in bed. 

At least I had a couple people to help me with the mall problem. I’d had no idea how I was going to get into that secret underground place to find anything else out by myself. But with That-A-Way and Pack, maybe we could actually pull it off. And maybe I would actually manage to think of how much I could tell them. I’d already taken several huge risks with all that and they had come through every time. Pack had come to save me even when she was mad about Eits. She risked her life and the lives of her beloved lizards to save me. That-A-Way had willingly worked with villains to come help me. At what point was I just going to trust them with all of this, with the whole story? What was wrong with me? Part of it, of course, was genuinely wanting to protect them from the things my family could do. But by this point, how much of that was just an excuse? And who was I protecting more, them or my family? I was kind of afraid of what the answer to that actually was. 

Finally, I reached my hidden bag and looked around to make sure things looked clear before starting to change. And damn was that just the worst clothes changing experience of my life. Everything hurt so much. Just lifting my leg to put it into the hole of my jeans made me practically whimper. It felt like I was contorting myself into a pretzel simply by pushing my arms through the sleeves of my shirt and jacket. And I had to do it quickly, because the absolute cherry on the top of this shit day would have been someone spotting me standing on the roof in my underwear and bra. 

Hiding the bag with my costume once more, because I sure as hell wasn’t going to risk taking it home when I didn’t know what the situation there was, I got myself to the ground. After managing that without dying somehow, I did one thing with my personal phone to help sell any story I came up with before walking out to look for a phone to use. Thankfully, the guy in the nearby gas station didn’t raise too much of a fuss, and I was able to call a taxi. Then, while waiting for it, I noticed a guy skating past. An idea popped into my head, so I quickly flagged him down before offering him a hundred bucks for the board and another fifty for his helmet. He took it and, once he was gone, I stepped into the alley and slammed the board against the wall a couple times until I managed to almost snap one set of wheels off. I hit the helmet a few times too. 

Giving the driver instructions to an address a short distance away from my house, I slumped into the seat and exhaled while trying to think of a story I could tell that might actually help. 

Once again, I fell asleep almost immediately. The next thing I knew, the driver in front was clearing his throat and trying to politely wake me up. When my eyes opened, he nodded. “All set.” Pausing then, he added, “You sure you’re okay, kid? You look like someone threw you into a blender.”

Somehow, I managed a slight smile while paying him. “Just need to sleep.”

He gave me a thumbs up while I was getting out. “Well, you get on home and take a nap, son.”

Son. Yeah. Because that was really what I needed right then. Mumbling something but I didn’t even follow myself, I shut the door and shoved my hands into the jacket pockets before walking off. Son. Boy. God dammit. Yes, I had much worse problems than that. That was basically a pebble in my shoe compared to everything else. And yet, it hit me at just the wrong time. I was tired and sore and so much else had happened. Dropping my head as I shuffled along, I forced back the tears. No, they weren’t tears from what he had said. I’d been mistaken for a boy plenty of times. So many people thought I was a rather pretty thirteen or fourteen-year-old boy instead of a sixteen-year-old girl that it should not even have registered anymore.  

No, the tears were mostly about everything. Getting captured, nearly dying, seeing that picture and realizing that the dead boy had obviously been a friend of mine, all of it. Even the fact that I’d clearly missed Bobby by just minutes and now had no idea where else he could be contributed. All of it contributed, until I could barely keep the tears shoved down where they belong. God dammit, I was a girl, but I wasn’t some little baby. I was not going to start sobbing again. Not now. I was going to suck it the fuck up and keep going. 

On the plus side, I was very quickly distracted from any thought of crying. On the negative side, that distraction came because I turned the corner and saw both of my parents standing out on the front walk past the security gate. There was a uniformed police officer and several people in suits standing with them. All of them were in the midst of a really intense conversation.

A brief thought popped into my head that I should try to eavesdrop. But I just stood there, too tired and sore to do anything else by that point aside from dropping the skateboard and helmet off to the side on the grass. Spying could come later. 

Mom was the first to see me. She glanced away from the man she was clearly giving orders to, spotted me, and let out a loud, startled gasp. I saw the men turn, hands going quickly to what were obviously their weapons, while my dad looked up as well.

Then they moved, and just like that, both of my parents were right in front of me. Dad had me wrapped in a tight embrace that he immediately released when I yelped. Mom, who looked as though she was about to pull me to her, came up short at that, her eyes widening. “Cassidy?” As she said my name, her hand went out to gently touch my face with trembling fingers. It was like she was convincing herself I was really there. Dad had one hand on the side of my head, I could see his chin quivering a little before he got himself under control. It was clear that both of them were barely holding themselves in any sort of order. And the only reason they hadn’t already crushed me was that quick yelp when Dad had tried the first time. 

“Cassie,” Dad started then, his voice cracking a bit. Are you okay? What happened? Where have you been? You never came home after dinner, and… and you didn’t answer your phone.”

“Yes, Cassidy,” Mom agreed, looking as though she was torn between hugging me until I couldn’t breathe or choking me to achieve the latter effect immediately.

“What happened to you?”

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Ready 11-04 (Summus Proelium)

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Laying on the floor of Bobby’s cabin, still paralyzed by whatever that thing was that Pencil hit me with, all I could do was watch helplessly as the man looked at That-A-Way, standing over me, and Pack at the door with Mars Bar towering behind her. Holiday the panther-lizard was there too, somewhat between all of us with the paralyzing gun held in her teeth as she snarled angrily. 

No, no, no. What was going to happen now? Why were they here? How did they find us? I knew I should have been grateful to see them, and a big part of me was. Okay, most of me was. But another part was terrified that something bad would happen to the two of them. Paralyzed as I was, I was helpless to do anything to help, which was beyond terrifying. And it wasn’t like Pencil was just some bad guy. He was one of the nastiest Fell-Touched I’d ever heard of. He was immune to basically anything anyone could do. What the hell was going to happen here? How would they actually stop him, considering that entire experienced hero teams had set out to do that and failed, some dying in the attempt?   

That was what scared me the most. It wasn’t suffering and dying right here with Pencil enacting his revenge for hurting his sister. It was being forced to see him do that exact same thing to Pack and That-A-Way. Because they were only here to help me. If they died, it would be because of me. Because I couldn’t handle my own problems. Because I was weak. 

For his part, Pencil didn’t exactly look all that concerned. His gaze took in the panther-lizard  who had stolen his weapon, before moving to look at the others. I could practically see the thoughtful expression on the face behind the mask. When he spoke, his voice was curious. “Now, what exactly could have made the three of you such close friends that you’d come all the way out here like this?” He raised a fist to his chin, contemplating. “Oh, was it really that bit at the hospital? Was it? I’m really gonna blush if it turns out I’ve inspired the brand new besties bond you’ve all got.” After a second, the man added in a conspiratorial tone, “Really, don’t tell me you two see your pal here as a little brother. Because trust me, we all know where that goes. Him in love with both of you and you not seeing him that way because you’re just such good friends. And no one wants to live through that kind of cliche. It’s 2020, let’s try to move past triangles, people.” 

As Pencil said those words, the rage that had been clear in his voice when he had come after me a moment earlier for hurting Cup had been replaced by what sounded like genuine amusement at this new situation. It was like being hit with something this unexpected, instead of pissing him off, actually intrigued him. Apparently he just enjoyed being surprised that much. So much that he forgot about that whole being pissed at me for Cup thing. In any case, whatever was going through his mind right then, I was pretty sure that none of us wanted to know about it. 

“Here’s what’s gonna happen,” Pack informed him. Her words were punctuated by matching growls from Mars Bar and Holiday. “I’m going to step out of the way to that side of the door. My big buddy here is gonna step the other way.  Then you are going to walk out of this building and get the hell out of here before this gets any worse. Everyone walks away to fight another day.” 

“Or,” That-A-Way put in, “you can push it and see if being immune to damage helps you very much when it comes to a giant grizzly-lizard sitting on your psychotic fucking ass until the authorities get here. After all,” she added, shifting her weight a little, “We don’t actually have to hurt you. We just have to stop you from leaving. I’m pretty sure you don’t have super-strength.”  

For a moment, the monster in the mask said nothing. He simply glanced back and forth at all of us, adopting a thoughtful posture before eventually speaking up. “That is a very fine point you raise, young lady. A very fine point indeed. You’re probably right, I’d be… hard-pressed to budge your personal Yogi over there, if push came to shove.” He gave a tip of an imaginary hat toward Mars Bar. “And yet, I find myself with one very important question. While your bear is sitting on in this hypothetical scenario, what… precisely would your invisible gorilla-lizard be doing?” Even as he said that, the man was abruptly pivoting on one foot with a snapped, “Let’s ask him.” 

With those words, Pencil’s hand snapped out. A knife leapt from his sleeve before being driven into what looked like thin air. Thin air that drew a thick line of blood and a squeal of pain. 

“Twinkletoes!” Blurting that name, Pack threw herself that way while the formerly invisible figure appeared, a deep gash through his side as he collapsed to the floor, moaning. How had Pencil known he was there? Was it just a guess? How had he known exactly where to aim the knife? 

As Pack lunged to the fallen Twinkletoes’ side, Mars Bar and Holiday leapt to the defense of their partner. With a cabin-shaking roar, the bear went after Pencil like a runaway freight train, while Holiday tossed the gun aside and added her own roar while lunging from the other side.  

Far from being intimidated however, Pencil simply pivoted once more. His foot lashed out in what looked like an awkward, gangly kick. Seriously, I thought he was about to fall over. It was like a clown kicking someone, all wild flailing and no coordination. But despite that, there must have been decent force and skill hidden behind the deceptive appearance, because Holiday was immediately sent crashing to the floor with a yelp from the impact against her nose. 

At the same time, his hand, with the already-bloodied knife held tightly, lashed out and backward. It cut through part of Mars Bar’s descending arm and drew even more blood than the first swipe had drawn from Twinkletoes. Wherever he had hit the lizard-bear must have been important, because the roar turned to a pained squeal and that massive arm fell uselessly against the power-mutated animal’s side, as if the limb was as paralyzed as I actually was. 

The bear’s arm being out of the way gave Pencil room to duck and twist, throwing himself behind the suddenly-stumbling creature. His every motion looked goofy and awkward. It looked like he should fall flat on his face any moment. But I was already certain all of it was an act. He was like a clown or something, his motions purposefully intended to look goofy and uncoordinated while actually being very precise. He clearly had an incredible amount of athletic and combat skill. He was just hiding it behind what looked like bumbling actions. 

Just as that thought came to me, That-A-Way sprang to the aid of the others. Or, she tried to. Suddenly teleporting almost directly behind him and to one side, she produced her stun baton and swung it. Pencil, however, was not taken by surprise. He doubled over backward, almost like he was going through an extreme limbo contest. Laughter, mocking and derisive, erupted from the man as the baton passed just over his head. At the same time, he pressed some kind of hidden button on the knife. Instantly, a cloud of dark red gas shot from a hole at the edge of the knife hilt, right next to the blade itself. The gas went straight into That-A-Way’s face, and she stumbled, squealing and coughing while the baton fell from her grip. Pencil, still bent over backward, caught the falling baton in his free hand, hurling it with what looked like contemptuous ease toward Pack, who was just looking up from Twinkletoes. She took the baton to her chest, yelping and collapsing on top of her gorilla-lizard from the burst of electricity. 

No, no, no! This was exactly what I’d been terrified of. Everything was going wrong. Pack was twitching and yelping on top of the already-injured Twinkletoes. Mars Bar was stumbling, one arm useless. Holiday was still picking herself off the floor. That-A-Way was down, coughing and sputtering while flailing blindly from whatever that gas had done. Everything was going wrong and it was all my fault. They were here because of me, here to help me, and I was too paralyzed to actually do anything to help them. Move, I ordered myself. Move right fucking now!

It didn’t help. Straining as hard as I could, I still couldn’t push past the effect of that stupid weapon. They were going to die, they were going to die and it would be my fault. Damn it, damn it! 

Then, just as my panic and terror hit the breaking point, something totally unexpected happened. The sudden blaring of a car horn from outside filled the air, stopping Pencil in mid-step. At the same time, bright headlights abruptly flared to life, shining in through the window.  

As the sound of the horn was fading, a familiar figure in a black-blue bodysuit with an attached short-sleeved white robe and hood appeared in the doorway. Skip. She stood there, regarding the whole situation seemingly impassively for a moment before addressing Pencil flatly. “By all reports, you are protective of the one called Cup. If so, there is a situation outside that you will be interested in resolving. Unless those reports are wrong, in which case…” Trailing off, she looked to us, then to Pencil before simply turning her back to him to walk out of the doorway and away from the cabin. 

In that moment, I was pretty sure Pencil completely forgot the rest of us even existed. He went through the door an instant after Skip disappeared, fairly sprinting that way. Because Skip was right. For all his murderous psychotic evil bullshit, he actually genuinely cared about Cup. His sister… his lover… whatever she was, he cared about her. I knew that first-hand. 

I also knew that if he had the chance, he would skin every single one of us alive and watch us spend hours screaming for even insinuating that she could be in danger. This could blow up in all of our faces really easily. 

Pack was back on her feet, hand already outstretched to grab That-A-Way and pull her up. She had Twinkletoes and Mars Bar (newly returned to their normal, uninjured lizard forms) on either shoulder, while Holiday stood guard at the door. Both of the girls were looking at me with obvious worry written through their body language. 

And then, then my constant attempts to start moving finally paid off. My fingers twitched, and a sharp gasp of air escaped me as I jerked upright with a suddenly violent cough. The paralyzing effect was gone. I could move again. 

Just in time for That-A-Way to kick me none-too-gently in the leg with a muttered, “Idiot.” Then she turned to run for the broken doorway. 

Pack, meanwhile, grabbed my hand to haul me up. “What she said. But I’ll wait and kick you after we get out of this.” 

Quickly, I joined them and the three of us ran out to the porch in time to see Pencil standing about thirty feet away. The man was brightly illuminated by the headlights of a car. Standing next to the car was a figure in dark purple body armor with speakers along the sides and a helmet with a wide V-shaped visor that had multi-colored lines flickering across it. 

Broadway. It was Broadway, another one of Pack and Eits’ teammates.

Just as we made it to the porch, the headlights turned off and the light inside the car flipped on. That revealed Skip, sitting in the driver’s seat. More important was the figure sitting next to her in the passenger seat, bound and gagged. Cup. 

As soon as he saw her, Pencil took a step that way. But he stopped at a sudden blaring of the car horn when Skip used her free hand to hit it while simultaneously extending a hand through the open window with some kind of large container. She gave it a toss, and it came tumbling across the dirt to land near Pencil. Immediately, I recognized both the look and the smell. Gasoline. It was a mostly-empty gasoline can. 

Broadway gave a kick then, sending another can tumbling over to join the first. “Heya, Fuckface. You see Cup there? The eeeentire inside of that car is totally drenched in that gasoline. You give her any reason to, any reason at all, and Skip is gonna use that lighter she’s got to flame on. Then she’ll drive away. Cuz, you know, the fire won’t affect her. But it’ll sure as hell affect Cup. So she’ll light her on fire and then she’ll drive away. We’ll see how far she gets down the road before the car explodes. Are you a fast runner? Maybe you can get to her before she suffers too much. Maybe you could even do something about the flames. But here’s the thing. Even if you do save her, your lady friend there still gets to suffer horrifically first. Maybe she dies, maybe she doesn’t. But she definitely suffers. And the longer it takes you to get to her, the longer she suffers, the more likely she dies.” 

She bent, picking up the end of a rope that was lying there before tossing it over to the man. “So here’s what’s gonna happen. The other end of that rope is tied to the back of the car. Skip’s gonna pull out and start driving slowly down the road. You’re gonna hold the rope and follow until you’re all past the gate. Then she’ll teleport back up here and you can get the lady out of the car. You try to come after any of us first, Cup goes fwoom. You try to get closer to the car than the length of that rope, Cup goes fwoom. You pull anything, Cup goes fwoom. And maybe you can take all of us down. You are magically immune to everything, after all. Maybe we can’t take you. But what you’ve gotta ask yourself is, just how much would Cup suffer in the meantime? Would she even survive? What kinda shape would she be in? Take the rope, follow the car all the way down to the gate. Or push things right now and see how the girl there likes being a superhero for once. Specifically, the Human Torch.”

For a moment, Pencil didn’t say anything or move. He seemed to be studying Broadway as though gauging how serious she was, how likely it was that she and Skip would actually follow through on that threat. I was staring at them too. Jesus Christ, that was hardcore. Not that it was exactly surprising, given the kind of people Pencil and Cup were. If you were going to threaten them, you had to go for the gold. And I was pretty sure the threat being specifically against Cup was the only thing that made the man take it at all seriously. He cared about her. She might be the only thing in the world he did care about. But still. I had to ask myself if they’d really do it. Which, I supposed, was the exact same thing Pencil was asking himself at that point. 

Finally, he turned to look straight at me. His hand rose, giving what looked like a casual wave. But I knew there was far more behind it. He would never let this go, not for any of us. I’d directly pissed him off more than once now. I’d hurt his sister. And now the others had threatened her life, had threatened to kill her in a gruesome, horrific way. All of us had made this personal to him, and he was not going to forget or forgive that. This might be put on pause now, but it wasn’t over. 

“So long, kid,” Pencil announced while the eyes behind that mask practically bore a hole straight through me. “I’ll catch you later.” And boy did those words have a hell of a lot more meaning behind them than that phrase normally did. 

With that, the man stooped, grabbing the rope. Immediately, the car started up and Skip pulled it around slowly to point it back toward the road before heading out just high enough speed that Pencil had to lightly jog to keep up. While we all watched in silence, the car and attached psychopath both gradually vanished down the road out of sight. 

Finally, once the car and Pencil were gone, Broadway exhaled audibly and slumped over. “Hoooly shit, dude. Tell you one thing, I am super-fucking glad that didn’t go wrong. I mean, yeah, it still could. But I think we might actually pull this off. Thanks for playing distraction in there while we set things up.” She turned to me then, waving. “Hey there, nice to finally meet you, Paintball.” 

“I–” I started to say something, before blanching. Pivoting away from them, I sprinted several feet before collapsing to my knees by some bushes. My hand pried up the mask enough to let me throw up. It all came out in a rush, while Broadway made disconcerted sounds in the background. To their credit, the others all stayed away while my mask was up. All they saw was my back. 

Finally, it was done. My whole body was sore and I was still a bit woozy. Plus my throat hurt from hurling. But there was nothing left for me in my stomach. Awkwardly, I tugged the mask down with one hand, making sure the hidden mic was still in place before pushing myself up and turning. 

That-A-Way and Pack were standing there, arms folded as they looked at me. Broadway was on the other side of the clearing, watching the road. 

“Are you okay?” That-A-Way asked a bit pensively. “Seriously, are you…” 

“I’m okay,” I managed, biting my lip. “I mean, I… they didn’t do anything that bad. He was saving it for later.” 

“Good,” Pack put in, sounding relieved, like a sudden weight had lifted from her shoulders. Then she added, “I’d say a lot more, but it’s time to get out of here. We’re supposed to meet Skip on a little service road down the other side of the forest, that way.” She pointed off behind the cabin. “There’s another car parked there waiting for us.” 

“It’s a bit of a hike,” That-A-Way noted. “But it shouldn’t be hard. 

“And on the way, you can explain just what the hell is going on.” 

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Interlude 10A – That-A-Way (Summus Proelium)

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Please note, for those who read Heretical Edge, there was a commissioned interlude posted yesterday. If you haven’t read that, you might want to do so by clicking here.

Boring, boring, boring. The night was so freaking boring. Amber had been on patrol for what felt like half a day by that point (it was only two hours), and literally nothing of any note had happened. She was strolling along the sidewalk, making herself visible for people so they knew there was a Star-Touched in the area (according to Silversmith, that was a big part of the entire job), and generally just associating with the civilians. Which was fine. It was totally fine. It was part of the job. But… but she was so bored. She wanted to cut through the next alley and just see what she could find somewhere off her assigned patrol pattern. But that was a bad idea. Silversmith tended to get a bit annoyed if you deviated off a path when he specifically gave you one. He didn’t always, of course. A lot of the time you could simply patrol a given section of the city however you wanted. But when he did assign a full path, you had better stay on it. 

And here she was, walking the path that Silversmith had assigned, with nothing happening. Seriously, she was about to fall asleep on her feet. Not from exhaustion, but from sheer boredom. The most exciting thing that had happened was a few people wanting to take pictures with her, and even that wasn’t often because the authorities tried to make it clear that official Star-Touched on patrols were to be left alone to do their jobs. So mostly people just took pictures of her from afar, which was fucking creepy as all hell, seriously what the living fuck. 

Creeps aside, Amber was about ready to call in and ask if there was literally anything going on that she could help with. Even if it was as simple as getting an old lady’s cat out of a tree. She was that desperate for something to do beyond walking down the street while studiously ignoring people with cell phones out filming her. Because if she didn’t find something to do, she was seriously going to consider chucking a rock or two at a few of the creepiest ones. Actually, she might do that anyway. It sounded like a good idea. 

Then she saw it. Up and to the left, on the roof of a dry cleaners, stood a figure in dark-purple armor with speaker system vents all over it. Broadway. That was Broadway, from La Casa. Amber had never met her in person (even if she’d come close during that… thing with Pack the other day), but she did recognize her from the briefings they’d gotten. She was pretty distinctive.

In any case, fuck yeah, something to do! And she was even standing to the north, which was just perfect. Grinning at the fact that she was finally being freed from her mind-numbing boredom, Amber instantly teleported herself right up to the side of the other girl, hand lashing out to catch hold of her arm as she positioned herself facing east to activate her invulnerability. 

Broadway was already gone. She’d used her own teleportation power to esca–no, she was right there at the other end of the roof! Before the girl could counter-attack, That-A-Way threw herself that way in a superfast sprint. Broadway’s fault for setting herself up to the west.  

A sudden blast of deafening sound focused solely on her made the girl stumble, falling to one knee as her hands covered her ears. Oh shit, that was loud! She could barely think through it. Focus, focus! She’d teleport out of the way, circle around and come up behind–

The sound stopped. Blearly, Amber blinked up to see Broadway holding both hands out. Just as she started to dive out of the way of whatever was about to hit her, however, the sound of the other girl’s voice reached her. “–not here to fight, dude! Just hold up a second, jeez!” 

Okay, it was true that Amber hadn’t seen Broadway actually do anything wrong. But still, she was a wanted criminal and all that. And… and she was friends with Pack. Yeah. Amber knew the two were teammates. She knew from Pack’s rambling back when they had… um… fought that Broadway had been the one driving that van. So maybe she sort of… overreacted. Maybe her own boredom wasn’t the only reason she’d lunged to attack. It was slightly possible that seeing Broadway there had reminded her of that whole thing with Pack and her guilt over… 

Over what? She hadn’t let Pack escape. She hadn’t. She’d tried to bring her in, had even fought her. So why did she feel guilty about it? Why did she feel so guilty that seeing Broadway here had made her feel like she had to prove she hadn’t let Pack go on purpose by grabbing her teammate? How did that even make sense? And why the fuck was this so complicated anyway? 

Pushing herself up, Way watched the Fell-Touched warily, ready for any kind of trick. This had to be a trick, right? Her eyes narrowed, glancing around briefly just in case something was coming at her from another direction. Nothing. They were alone on the roof. “What do you want?” 

“Me?” Broadway shrugged elaborately, clearly overly-emphasizing the motion so that it would carry through the armor she wore. “I don’t want anything really. I was just looking for the bastards who attacked… never mind. Point is, I saw you on patrol and thought my buddy might want to know you were around. Turns out she wants to talk to you pretty bad though.” With that, she held up a flip phone, offering it that way. “She said to tell you it’s about Paintball.” 

The reflexive denial that had been on Amber’s lips, the immediate refusal to talk to Pack and risk everything that would come with that, died. Paintball. Fuck. “What did you people do to him?” she demanded, ignoring just how little sense that made. They were the bad guys, the bad guys. She had to force herself to keep thinking of them that way, no matter what. Which, again, might have resulted in a little overcompensation. 

“Seriously?” Broadway was clearly just as aware of the ridiculousness of that assumption. “Here, dude.” She underhand tossed the phone without arguing further about that. “Talk to her.” 

Amber considered tossing the phone away. Damn it, she was Star-Touched and they were Fell-Touched! If anyone found out she was having some kind of casual conversation with them, let alone that when she and Pack had fought she had… that she might have… that…

Fuck. Snapping the phone open, she brought it to her ear and demanded, “What’s going on with Paintball?” 

Pack’s answer came immediately. “You tell me. What the hell are you doing? Why didn’t you go help him? You can’t be done already. Don’t tell me you left him out there on his own.”

Okay, now Amber was even more confused. She blinked over at Broadway, who stood still, watching her with what seemed like curiosity even though it was hard to read through the armor. “Uhh… what? I haven’t talked to Paintball lately. What are you going on about?” 

There was a brief silent pause, followed by a full litany of cursing. Amber was pretty sure there were some bad words in there from several other languages. It went on for a few long seconds before Pack finally snapped, “–fucking idiot!” 

“Excuse me?” Way demanded reflexively. 

“Not you!” the voice on the phone blurted. “Paintball! He’s a fucking god damn idiot! He fucking lied to me just to–who the fuck knows why! He lied to me! He said he was going to call you for help! That’s the only reason I let him go by himself, because he wasn’t–god damn it!” 

“Calm down,” That-A-Way ordered, her mind swimming. “Okay, just wait a minute. What was he going to call me about? You let him go where by himself? And why did you have anything to say about it anyway? He doesn’t work for you. He–” 

“Never mind that!” Pack interrupted. “Look, we–I don’t know what the hell is going on, not exactly. But Paintball asked Eits to do some research for him. Yeah, I don’t know why. Eits found some address and got jumped for it. Someone beat the shit out of him. I got Paintball here and gave him the address. He said he was going to call you for back-up to check it out! Now he’s been gone for over an hour and I find out he never even called you!” 

Taking in all that, Amber felt a rush of nausea and confusion wash over her. What the hell was Paintball having a bad guy look up for him? And why had he gone off on his own after telling Pack he would ask for help? And why hadn’t he checked in again? 

“Where is he?” she finally demanded. “Where did you send him? I’ll check it out myself.” 

“Not by yourself you won’t,” came the retort. “Broadway has the address. Follow her, I’ll meet you there. We’ll find out what the fuck is going on, even if I have to smack Paintball until he stops being so secretive.” 

Amber considered arguing. But Pack had already hung up. So that conversation was over. With a sigh, she looked at Broadway. Several options bounced back and forth through her mind, but there was really only one possibility. She couldn’t just abandon Paintball. And it would take too long to try to explain the situation to her own people. “Fine,” she muttered. 

“Lead the way.” 

*******

It was some small, ordinary house in the middle of an ordinary neighborhood. Well, maybe not actually that small. But still, it was just a house. Given that the state it was in, Amber would have said it was empty, but a dog was sitting in the fenced-off and heavily overgrown front yard and didn’t seem to be starving or anything. It was just sitting there, watching people pass by.  

At the moment, Amber was standing at the end of the street in a clump of trees just above a drainage ditch. Broadway and Pack (who had the cage with her lizards sitting nearby) were standing a few feet away, all three of them watching that house as they had been for the past minute. 

“So, I don’t get it,” Broadway finally piped up. “Why’re we standing around like this? Are we going to go bust in there and check this place out, or what? Paintball’s like, a friend to you guys, right? If he’s in trouble, that’s the first place to start. He could be hurt or something in there.”  

Way gave the Fell-Touched a brief squint. “We–” she amended belatedly. “I don’t just go breaking into people’s homes like that. We don’t know if he’s in there at all. We don’t even know if he made it or not. Anything could have happened. We don’t have a warrant or probable cause or anything to justify busting in someone’s private home just because we’re worried. Especially since I’m off my patrol route and haven’t reported in about this. You know, for obvious reasons.” 

“Oh,” Pack replied casually, “well that’s easy to deal with. Just close your eyes for a minute.” As she said it, the girl was already starting to move that way, stopping to pick up the cage on the way. “Luckily, I brought my universal lockpick. Didn’t I, Marsy? You wanna smash a door in?” 

Quickly, Amber moved and grabbed the other girl by the arm. “Stop! You can’t just break in there either. It’s broad daylight and anyone could be watching. Do you have any idea what you could-”  

Pack snatched her arm free, somehow managing to scowl at That-A-Way despite the completely blank mask that covered her face. “No, do you have any idea what could be happening to Paintball in there while we just stand here? Did you hear the part about how some assholes practically beat Eits into a coma just for looking for this place and not telling them the address? Whatever’s going on here, whatever it is, it’s really fucking important. Don’t you care about what could’ve happened to Paintball and why he just completely disappeared?”

Wincing at that, Amber nodded. “Of course I care! I’m here, aren’t I? I mean, I really shouldn’t be, but…” She sighed, shaking that off. She made her choice and would deal with the consequences if it came to it. That said, she wasn’t going to be stupid about the whole thing and just burst right in. “But we have to do this right. Not only because we–I could get in trouble, but because if there are bad guys in there, waltzing right in could be just as bad as doing nothing.” 

“Moving girl’s got a point,” Broadway put in, giving That-A-Way a thumbs up. “Bad guys or good guys, we’re all pretty screwed if we walk into the same trap that caught Paintball. I mean, not that we know he walked into a trap. But let’s be real, he probably walked into a trap.” 

Finally relenting, Pack glanced to the cage at her feet. “Fine, Riddles and Twinkletoes can scout the place out from above and close in. They can check what the place looks like up close, see if anyone’s in there through the windows. But we do this fast.” 

Amber agreed, stepping back and watching as Pack brought the two lizards to their larger forms and sent them off to do their job. As they took off, one flying and one invisible, she asked, “How many times have you tried calling him?” Even then, Amber was taking the phone from her own pocket and hitting the option to try calling Paintball himself for about the fifth time since she’d heard about this. As with the first four, it went straight to the generic voicemail. 

“Half a dozen,” Pack replied flatly. “After that, there didn’t seem to be a point. We know something’s wrong. Either something in that place attacked him, or he got jumped on the way here.” She looked over to Way, adding pointedly, “Either way, I’m getting in that house to find out what the fuck is going on.” 

There was something in her voice, a… guilt? Amber wasn’t sure, but it sounded like the other girl was blaming herself for the whole situation. She found herself pointing out, “Look, Pack, you know Paintball isn’t your responsibility or anything. He’s not on your team or–” 

Pack quickly interrupted. “Fuck that. I should have known that he was going to feel guilty about the whole thing with Eits. I should have figured out that he was lying and that he’d go off by himself to try to make sure no one else got hurt or some shit. I should’ve known, but I was just…” She was clearly scowling, arms folded across her stomach as she looked away. “I was upset. I was mad that he got Eits involved, even though it wasn’t his…” A long sigh came. “I was mad. I was stupid. He was stupid. We were all stupid. And now Paintball’s in trouble.”

By that point, Riddles was swooping in to land on a nearby tree. Pack looked that way, and Amber resisted the urge to demand to know if they were actually communicating. 

Finally, the other girl looked to her and Broadway. “The house seems empty. And it looks like no one’s lived there for months. There’s cobwebs, dust everywhere, the lot.”  

“That… doesn’t make sense,” Broadway pointed out, bouncing a bit as if impatient and tired of standing still. “What about the pupper out front?” 

“Yeah…” Amber squinted that way, forgetting who she was with in that moment as she pushed off to walk to the house. Something really weird was going on. “I think we need to check out that dog.” Now the whole thing was even more suspicious. What the hell was going on? 

The neighborhood was pretty quiet, so the three reached the gate of the house without running into anyone. As they stood there, the dog perked its head up and panted while looking at them. 

“Hey, boy… or girl,” Amber coaxed, hoping the animal wouldn’t be too put off by their costumes (especially Broadway’s heavy armor). “Who’s a good whatever-sex-you-are? You are. You are. C’mere…” She put her hand through the gate and the dog gave a happy little wag while getting up to move that way. 

Suddenly, there was a sharp whistling sound as something shot past Amber and the others. It was a small stone, which rebounded off the dog’s snout, making it jerk back with a reflexive snarl. 

Spinning that way, her guard up as she snatched the taser-baton from her side, That-A-Way stared at… “Skip?” It was the girl from Ten Towers, standing there in the white short-sleeved robe and hood that covered a blue-black bodysuit, her lower face covered by a black cloth mask. She had just hurled the stone past the three Touched to hit the animal.

“Not a dog,” she said simply, in that matter-of-fact, eerily calm way she had. Amber had seen and fought alongside the girl several times and she’d never seen her raise her voice or seem emotional in any way. “Get back now.” Her tone was about as urgent as it ever got.  

Even as Skip said that, Amber felt movement behind her. She spun, activating her power to teleport to the north while grabbing Pack. Broadway teleported backward at the same time. 

They barely avoided the mouth of the dog. A mouth that was now a hell of a lot bigger than it had been. Large enough to have swallowed Amber whole if given a chance. 

“The fuck?!” the girl blurted, stumbling a little. Even as she said that, the dog’s head (because that was the only part of it that had grown) resumed its normal size. It snarled at them before abruptly spitting some kind of nasty-looking greenish-brown mucus stuff at the ground. The mucus spread out to cover a space about two feet wide, before the dog… dove… into the mucus. Literally, it dove into the gooey, gross stuff, disappearing as if it was jumping into a pool of water. A moment later, the mucus faded into the ground, leaving them staring at nothing. 

“I’m sorry,” Amber managed while scrambling to the fence. “But what the fuckity fucking fuck?!” 

“Uhh, what she said,” Broadway agreed, sounding like she was about to be sick. “What the hell was that?” 

“I don’t know,” Skip calmly informed them. “But it was playing lookout for the people who abducted Paintball.” 

“What?!” Pack snapped, suddenly moving that way. “You saw something happen? Who–what–where?” 

Without responding to the girl directly, Skip turned her head slightly, looking at That-A-Way. “You work with villains?” She didn’t sound judgmental. She barely sounded curious. 

“It’s a long story,” Way informed her. “Really long. But we’re looking for Paintball, if you–” 

“He said a friend of his was hurt and needed help,” Skip replied flatly. “I saw him after that and thought he might be in trouble. I was busy, but after I was done, I looked for him. That brought me here. I don’t come out here very often, so my closest marker was a few streets over and I had to come look for him. I got here in time to see people put him in a car, but I was too far away to see who they were. They wore long coats.” 

“God damn it!” Pack blurted. “I knew that idiot was in trouble! And now we have no fucking idea where he is!” 

“You would have an idea,” Skip calmly informed her without a trace of recrimination in her voice, “if you allowed me to finish speaking.” 

“What?” Pack demanded. “You said you didn’t see who they were and you weren’t close enough to do anything about it.” 

Skip gave a simple nod. “True. But I did see the license plate before they left and sent it to Ten Towers support. I waited, and was on the phone with them when you arrived. I witnessed the so-called dog shift itself into a larger form in an attempt to ambush the invisible figure you sent to investigate the house, but you approached first and interrupted, forcing the creature to resume its passive form in an attempt to shift the ambush to you instead. Thus, I thought it prudent to interrupt.” 

“You said you were on the phone with your support team?” Amber managed, pushing her way past all that. 

“Yes,” Skip confirmed. “They have traced the car through several street cameras to a warehouse on the far side of town. If you would like, I can take you there.” 

“Oh, we definitely like,” Pack retorted. 

“Take us to this warehouse. Because whoever abducted Paintball is about to get a really goddamn rude awakening.” 

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Fault 10-05 (Summus Proelium)

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No, no, no, please no. Oh God, please, no, no. 

That single word of denial, repeated and mixed with other words of emphasis, played through my head in a nonstop loop the entire time I was retrieving my costume and setting out to get to the address that Pack had sent me. As I raced through the city in what amounted to a blind panic, barely paying attention to where I was going, the word ‘no’ echoed in my mind over and over again. 

He was hurt. Eits was hurt really bad. I didn’t know how. I didn’t know who hurt him or what exactly they’d done. But I did know one horrible thing for sure. It was my fault. He was working for me. He was trying to help me, and someone found out. Eits was hurt because of me. According to Pack, it was really bad. Because of me. It was my fault. 

Unfortunately, paint-running through the city like that without paying attention was a bad idea. Which I could’ve already guessed, but was driven even more firmly into me about halfway into my run. Landing on a rooftop the wrong way, I stumbled, slipped, and rolled hard. I nearly went off the edge before two hands suddenly caught my wrist and halted my momentum. 

A sharp gasp came as the person who had caught me was nearly yanked off the roof herself. But she managed to stop us both, and I was left with just one leg and a foot dangling over the edge as I lay mostly on my back staring up at the sky and panting as the panicked rush of the last couple of seconds since I’d landed washed over me. Oh God, I needed to throw up. Not that I hadn’t kind of needed to since the moment Pack let me know what was going on, but still. 

In that position, my arm was fully extended as it was held in the grasp of the person who had caught me. First, I saw her hands. They were covered by dark blue, almost black gloves with intricate, almost runic lines that ran up through both sides of the arms and across the palms and back of the gloves themselves. My eyes moved further up, seeing a figure who was probably around my age. The blue-black bodysuit she wore was partially covered by a white short-sleeved robe with an attached hood that mostly hid her dark hair. The bottom half of her face was concealed by a black cloth mask, but I could see enough of the top half to know she was Asian. Her eyes were dark, and in that moment, had widened dramatically. 

I also knew exactly who she was at that first glance, reflexively blurting, “Skip?!” 

Yeah, it was definitely her. I hadn’t had any direct run-ins with the girl until now, but I did know two members of her family. Caishen was her older sister, which made Lightning Bug her niece. Despite being a teenager, she wasn’t part of the Minority, instead sticking with her sister’s Ten Towers team. Which was somewhat rare, but not unheard of. And given what I knew about how much control Silversmith, aka my father, had over the Minority, it was definitely a good thing. 

As soon as I said her name, she released my arm and stepped back. Her voice, when she spoke, was an eerily calm murmur. “You should be careful.” The words were almost, but not quite, emotionless. It was more like she was noting that the weather would be rainy the next day than an actual reprimand. She was stating a simple fact. “You could have been hurt.” 

“I…” The terrible rush of fear about what was happening with Eits came back full force in that moment, along with brand new guilt to layer on top of what was already there. “Right, sorry. I was distracted. I… I’ll be careful. But I ahh, I’ve really gotta go.” Weakly, I gestured. “I’ve got a… umm, a friend, sort of. He’s hurt, and I need to get there just in ca–I need to be there to help.” 

Again, Skip spoke in a simple, emotionless and matter-of-fact voice. “Why are you telling me then? If it’s important, you should go.” Just like before, despite the actual words, I had the sense that she didn’t intend any kind of admonishment. She was simply stating the blatant fact that if I had an important place to be like that, I should already be going there instead of talking to her. 

“Right, uhh, yeah.” Quickly pushing myself up, I swallowed back the tidal rush of feelings that came with the thought of Eits being hurt. “Thanks for your help, I… I’ve gotta go.” 

It felt awkward, but I turned, using red paint to yank myself away from that roof while resolving to be more careful. Upset as I was, it wouldn’t exactly do any good if I managed to put myself into a coma by falling off a building because I wasn’t paying attention to where I was going. 

Continuing on my way, I let myself think briefly about the girl I’d just met. Skip. From what I’d read about her and seen online, her whole deal was… well, skipping things. This came out in two main ways. First, she could ‘skip’ any effect on herself she wanted to. That included everything from skipping the effects of a poison she drank, to skipping the effect of being shot in the head, or even skipping the need to sleep and being instantly rejuvenated. The only thing that was required was that she be aware of the effect and actively use her power on it. Other than that, anything that directly affected her in some way, she could skip. 

The other way her power (and source of her name) manifested was in movement. Whenever the girl wanted, she could instantly appear anywhere she’d been at any point in the previous twenty-four hours. Basically, she could rewind herself, ‘skipping’ backwards and forwards along the history of her own movement. She used it long-range in order to effectively teleport anywhere in the city (and, as I understood it, into other cities across the state), and short-range by constantly changing her exact location in the middle of a fight. Bad guys facing her didn’t just have to deal with a crazy-good fighter (which she was), but also one who could literally instantly disappear and reappear in any location she’d been in at any point throughout that fight.  Between that and being able to make herself immune to any effect she was aware of… yeah, I could see how Fell-Touched would see fighting her as a pain in the ass. And why her sister wanted her right where she was, as part of Ten Towers. 

The plus side of being distracted thinking about Skip instead of obsessing over Eits for the next few minutes was that I was able to reach the address I’d been given without any more issues. I stopped on top of a bakery roof, half-hiding behind the chimney there as I looked down at the place I was supposed to go. It looked like an ordinary house, with nothing special to make it stand out. The driveway had a couple cars in it, with a van parked along the curb. There was a man smoking out front, watching the street with an air like he’d been there for awhile. 

According to Pack’s message, they were expecting me. So, I hesitated just for a moment before taking a running start, and blue painting myself into the air so I could land in front of the man. I made sure to give him some space so that he wouldn’t freak out too much. Even then, he reached for something in his jacket. Probably a gun. But he stopped partway, squinting at me for a moment before stepping aside from the door. His voice was flat, and carried an air of resignation. “You can go inside. Third door on the left. But just so you know, we move all the time. So there’s no point to bringing your hero friends here to start shit later. Cuz we’ll be gone.” 

Yeah, call me crazy, but I had the feeling this guy didn’t much like having a Star-Touched hanging around what was apparently a secret underground field hospital thing for Fell-Touched. I also didn’t want to argue with him or try to reassure the guy. All I wanted was to see what was going on with Eits. So, I nodded and walked past him. Moving through the front door and into what turned out to be the living room of the house, I was greeted by a new man sitting on the nearby couch, who pointed through the room to the same door that the man outside had mentioned. Following both instructions, I walked across the room, heading for that door. 

The door opened as I approached, and Pack appeared. She stared at me through her featureless mask for a moment before beckoning as she stepped inside. I followed, and found myself in what was obviously a converted bedroom. Now it looked like a hospital room. 

Eits was… there. He was there on the bed, and just as promised, he… he looked bad. He wasn’t wearing his mask, But I wouldn’t have recognized him anyway through all the bruising. Pack had not been exaggerating. Whoever attacked Eits had… they hurt him really bad. His nose was broken, his lips were all puffy and bloodied, there was a large bruise along one full side of his face. His eyes were closed, showing signs of being bruised as well, and the rest of his body hadn’t fared much better. It was all… bad. No matter where I looked, some part of him was hurt. It was so bad. My stomach seized up in worse knots just looking at him. 

Pack was speaking quietly behind me. “The doctor’ll be back in a few minutes. He’s stabilized for now and they’ve got him drugged up to sleep. Soon as the doc says he’s good enough to move, they’ll take him to one of Blackjack’s own places. But I thought you’d like to know. I thought you’d like to–” She stopped herself from saying whatever it was she’d been about to say, voice cracking a bit before looking over to me. “He called for help. Broadway and me, we got there and the guys attacking him took off. We didn’t… get a good look, cuz we couldn’t leave him. He was pretty delirious, pretty…” Again, she choked a little, arms folding tightly over her stomach before forcing out, “He was pretty out of it.” 

Hearing her words, I barely processed them. All I could do was stare at Eits in that condition and think about the fact that him being there was my fault. I’d involved him, and now he was hurt because of me. There was a dull roaring in the back of my mind.  

Pack was continuing. “He wanted me to give you this.” In one hand, she held up a folded piece of paper. “It’s an address. He said… he said it’s something you needed, but that those guys who attacked him wanted it. The guys who attacked him, the guys who did that, were trying to get the same address out of him that you wanted. Paintball, what the fuck was Eits doing for you that made a bunch of guys beat him up this badly? They almost killed him! Doc Tanns is pretty sure he’ll be okay now that he’s through the worst of it, but–but… what the fuck is going on?!” Her voice was a fierce stage-whisper, as she clearly stared intently at me. “Don’t you dare fucking blow me off. Do you see him right there? Do you care?” 

Eyes widening, I blurted, “Of course I care!” Quickly lowering my voice, I hissed, “I didn’t know it would–I thought he’d–” My mouth shut and I shook my head. “Pack, I didn’t know he’d be in that much danger. He was just looking up some information for me, I didn’t know it’d–” Cutting myself off once more, I swallowed hard and tried to steady myself. My fault. The whole way over here, I’d repeated it to myself and now that voice was even louder. This was all my fault. All of it. Eits being hurt, lying there in that hospital bed like that was my fault. If he… if he died, that would be my fault too. All of it was my fault. Because I tried to let someone else help me. Because I passed the responsibility of this to someone else. Now he was hurt. Because of me. My fault. 

It took me a few moments to find my voice. Finally, I looked up to the other girl. “I’m sorry. I should have handled this myself. I never should’ve–I was wrong. I shouldn’t have asked Eits to help me. I won’t… I won’t do that again, I swear. Tell him I’m sorry. Please. Just tell him I’m sorry. I’ll take the address. Please. He wanted me to have it. I’ll deal with it. I’ll handle it.” 

She didn’t answer at first. Instead, she looked at the paper in her hand, then turned back to me. Her voice was pained. “That’s not what I meant, Paintball. I didn’t want to make you go–I was just… Look what they did to him. You can’t handle this all on your own!” 

“I don’t have to,” I pointed out. “You know I have an in with the Minority. And if they’re involved, you can’t be. They won’t work with you, Pack. You can stay here with Eits. Someone should be here with him if he wakes up. I’ll take care of the address, and I’ll tell you what happens. I swear, I’ll make them pay for what they did.” 

Pack was staring at me, her fist tight. “You really think you and the Minority people can handle this?” Her voice shook a little. “Paintball, what the hell did you get involved with?” 

“I’ll handle it,” I promised her, swallowing hard. “Stay here with Eits. Please. Just tell him I’m sorry, and that I never should have gotten him involved.” 

“Do you have any idea how pissed Eits would be if I just let you go without help?” Pack demanded. “After what happened…” 

“After what happened, you need to be here with him,” I reiterated. “And like I said, I know That-A-Way. I have her number. I can contact the Minority for help. Stay here. I’ll take care of it.” 

For a few seconds, it looked like Pack wouldn’t agree. She sighed, looking over to a nearby cage where her lizards were all watching us. Finally, she opened her hand and held out the paper. “If you’re going with the Minority, fine. But only because I know it’s not where those cocksuckers who attacked him are. They were looking for the same address, so they’re obviously not there now. But still, they’re involved. They’re connected to whatever this is. So Paintball, whatever happens, if you get to the point of actually fighting those guys… Look right there. Look what they did to Eits. I want to help. Call me, Paintball. You call me and tell me when you find the guys that did this. I don’t know if you’ll find out who they are at that address, or what’s going on. But when you find them, you let me know, got it?” 

“I got it,” I replied quietly, taking the paper. “Be here for Eits. He needs you more than I do right now. I’ll handle this.” 

“You and the Minority,” she reminded me. 

I nodded once. “Like I said, I’ve got the number. And yours. I’ll find out what the address leads to, then let you know if I find the guys responsible for… for that.” I didn’t–couldn’t look at the room where Eits was. “You’ll get your turn with them.” 

With that, I gave one last look toward the injured Eits before pivoting on my heel to leave the house. Clutching the paper in my hand, I moved quickly past the guy in front. He repeated his earlier remark that they’d be gone before I could bring heroes over, and I just muttered something about having more important things to worry about than helping a Star-Touched shut down a private hospital. I wasn’t even sure what I said exactly. The words just came before I thought about them. My focus was elsewhere. Without thinking about it, I used red paint to yank myself up to another building, already running as I landed. My eyes finally glanced down at the address, taking it in.

I knew where this was. Not the exact building, but the neighborhood. It was a place on the north side of town, near the zoo. A pretty nice neighborhood, if I remembered right. Either way, I knew where I was going now. 

For a moment, I slowed near the edge of the roof. My hand felt my phone in my pocket. The Minority. I’d told Pack that I’d be okay because I could contact them for help. 

And I could. But I wouldn’t. I’d never actually promised that I would contact them, only that I could do it. But after what I saw with Eits, and everything I already knew about my family… no. I couldn’t involve them. I couldn’t–wouldn’t let anyone else get hurt because of me. This was my responsibility. Eits getting hurt was my fault, because I tried to let him help. That was a mistake, and I refuse to repeat it. Whatever happened next, I wouldn’t let anyone else suffer because of me. Every time I thought about doing so, I pictured Eits on that hospital bed. Then I pictured it being Pack, or That-A-Way, or one of the other Minority. Or Wren. No. No, I couldn’t… I couldn’t do that. I couldn’t let that happen again. I could never let that happen again. 

So, I wasn’t calling the Minority. I wasn’t calling Wren. I wasn’t calling anyone. Leaving the phone in my pocket, I took a running start and jumped, heading for the address. I would handle this the way I should have in the first place. 

By myself. 

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