Tuesday

Ready 11-05 (Summus Proelium)

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To their credit, Pack and That-A-Way didn’t expect me to start talking immediately. They even waited when I asked them to while I went inside and grabbed those toys that I’d seen before. I wasn’t sure why they gave me such a strong emotional reaction, but I did know that I wanted them. So I put the toys in my pocket, then started out of the cabin before pausing. Turning my eyes away from the broken doorway, through which I could see the others waiting, I looked back over the room. Given everything I’d heard and figured out about Robert–Bobby, I had to assume he wasn’t stupid enough to leave clues about where he could be going when he clearly knew there were some really nasty people after him. When he’d cleared out of this place, even as quick as it had to have been, he wouldn’t have left anything behind that could point to where he was going. Still, just taking off like this without looking closer felt wrong. But we didn’t have a choice. Skip was only going to keep Pencil busy for so long, and if he and his equally psycho sister came back while we were still here, we’d be in the same position we’d been in before. It was time to get the hell out of here. 

So, I headed out, telling the others I was ready to go. Broadway was already gone, apparently making her way through the woods first to give us a little privacy and also to make sure their rendezvous point was clear of any problems. If she ran into trouble, she’d make enough noise to let us know. 

And with that, we started moving quickly through the forest. Pack’s lizard animals were all around us for potential protection and warning, Riddles keeping an eye on things from up above just in case. It was dark enough that the other two were using flashlights they had apparently brought with them.

After a few minutes of walking, Pack was the first to break the silence, her voice pointed and clearly angry. “So, now that you’re safe and all that, which I’m really glad about, for the record, I’m going to go ahead and call you a stupid fucking jackass, okay? And if you ever pull something stupid like that again, I swear I’ll kick your ass myself. You and me, we’ll throw down and I’ll beat your ass cuz I fight dirty. Never, ever fucking do anything like that again, you got it?” 

I cringed through her words. Because she had every right to be angry. Going off by myself had probably been stupid. But what other choice did I really have? I couldn’t tell them everything. I just couldn’t. My family was… it was too complicated, and involving them that directly would just be dangerous. They didn’t deserve to have the weight of all this on their shoulders. At least until I knew more about how my family’s business worked, until I had some idea of how to stop them, I couldn’t offload that responsibility onto other people. And I definitely couldn’t tell them the whole story. That would involve letting them know who I really was, and that… was a bad idea.

But maybe I could tell them some of it. They deserved to know some, at the very least. Hell, they deserved to know all of it, the whole thing. But I just… couldn’t. That was a box I would never be able to close again once I opened it, a Pandora’s Box that was full of all sorts of dangerous evils that would escape if I wasn’t careful to keep the thing shut absolutely tight. 

Some of it, however… I could explain some of it, the bits that might lead them in the right direction. Exhaling, I started with, “I–thank you. Thanks, guys. Both of you, and Broadway. And Skip too. I don’t know how she got involved, but if it wasn’t for you, I’d be dead. I–I’d be dead. No question. You saved my life. I owe you guys. I owe you–” The words stopped as I choked a little before getting myself under control. “I owe you everything. Definitely more than I can give you right now.

“But… but I can tell you something. First, I want… I need you to trust me. I need you guys to promise to keep this all secret. All of it. You can’t tell your teammates.” I looked to Pack, then That-A-Way. “You can’t tell Blackjack, and you can’t tell the heroes you work with. No one. You can’t tell anyone. Not a single person.” 

I saw the way both of them exchanged looks, That-A-Way speaking first. “Excuse me? Okay, I know doing this job can make anyone really paranoid, but seriously? Why wouldn’t you want me to tell the Star-Touched about any of this? I mean, sure, Pack works for bad guys. I can see that, but–” Cutting herself off, she looked over to see the girl in question clearly squinting at her through her featureless black mask. “Oh, stop, you know what I mean. You work with a lot of bad people. Sure, Blackjack has his reputation for keeping his word or whatever, but that doesn’t make him a good person.” 

“Yeah,” Pack retorted, “and a lot of psychopathic jackasses who get off on legally stomping on people who can’t fight back join up with law enforcement to get their kicks. Having a badge, or whatever equivalent you people get doesn’t automatically make you a moral paragon.” 

“It’s not about any of that!” I blurted, trying to stop this whole thing from being totally derailed. “I just–it’s personal and I’m hoping you’ll be able to know the whole thing soon enough. But for now, just promise me you’ll keep everything about this secret, please.” I tried to stress just how important it was both in my voice (as much as the changer still attached to my ear would convey it) and my stare.  

Again, the two of them exchanged looks. I couldn’t tell what either of them were thinking, or what they were communicating to each other in those looks. But whatever it was, they both seemed to come to the same decision, turning to me with the lights aimed roughly toward one another so I could see them better. 

“Okay,” Pack started. “I won’t talk to Blackjack or the others about it. Unless it turns into something I have to talk about. If this starts affecting my people, I’m not gonna lie to them.” 

That-A-Way nodded. “I don’t like it, but if it means helping you when you’ve got someone like Pencil pissed off at you? Yeah, fine. Unless it turns into something that we need help with, or like… people are going to die if we don’t call in the big guns, I’ll keep it between us.” Her voice softened then. “Come on, Paintball, you almost died back there. You need help. Stop being so stubborn and stupid about this.” 

“Ah, little tip, superhero?” Pack put in. “People rarely react well to being called stupid.” 

“It’s okay,” I quickly interrupted. “I know what she meant. And she’s right, running off on my own like that after I… well, implied to you that I was going to ask for help was really stupid. I didn’t know the Scions were involved, but it was still stupid.” 

“And that’s another thing,” That-A-Way pointed out. “If the Scions are involved, do you really think we can keep this quiet? More to the point, do you really think it’s not just as stupid to keep it quiet? If they kill more people just because we didn’t say anything…” 

“You can definitely tell people then,” I immediately agreed. “The second we see Pencil or the other Scions again and they get involved, you can absolutely call in all the help you guys have to stop them. No question. Just… I…” 

Pack stopped walking then. Stepping in front of me, she turned the flashlight so that it was aimed up between us. “What?” the girl demanded. “Damn it, Paintball, you ask Eits for some kind of favor that makes some guys beat the living shit out of him. Those guys turn out to be working for Pencil. Then you lie to me–and don’t you fucking hedge about what you specifically said, you lied and you know it. You lied to me about getting help from Minority-girl over there just so I’d let you run off on your own, got yourself captured and nearly killed by that fucking psycho, and you’re still fucking holding off on us? If we’d caught up with you a minute later, a minute fucking later, you’d be dead! You would be dead, Paintball. So knock it off. Yeah, if we can keep this secret, we will. If it’s the best way. But you need to start talking. You need to explain what the hell is going on, what that cabin was, why the Scions are involved, what that fucking address was supposed to be for, and everything else you can possibly fucking explain about this situation. Because I, for one, am tired of being left in the dark about all this.” 

“What she said,” That-A-Way put in immediately, “only pretend I said it a little more eloquently and nicely. Right now I’m too mad at you for nearly getting yourself killed to think that straight.” 

“I know you guys are upset. You deserve to be,” I admitted a bit weakly. “I just… this is harder than you know. I can’t…” Biting my lip under the mask, I thought about it briefly. “I’ll tell you some of it. I can’t… tell you all of it. I just can’t. Not yet. But I’ll tell you as much as I can.” 

“I still can’t believe you want to keep secrets after…” Trailing off as she clearly realized just how little headway she was going to make, That-A-Way settled on simply waving a hand vaguely. “Yeah, yeah. If it’s so important that you can’t talk about everything even after all that… I guess we’ll have to take your word for it. So what can you tell us? How did you get involved in something that involved the Scions, exactly? Can you explain enough about that, at least?” 

“I’ll try,” I muttered. The truth. They deserved at least as much of the truth as I could manage, as much as I could give them. To that end, I slowly announced, “It started the night I got my powers. When it happened, I was… I saw these guys… execute a couple people in a motel.” 

Both of the other girls (and Holiday, who was pacing around us) gave a short doubletake. “I’m sorry,” That-A-Way started in disbelief, “you saw what happen? Are you… you’re serious now.”

“Super serious,” I confirmed before gesturing. “Come on, we should keep walking. Anyway, the guys saw me, sort of. They didn’t get a good look before I ran away. While I was hiding from them, I got my powers. Then I was… hiding while I heard them talking. I found out they worked for something called the Ministry.” I was mixing around the details of when I found out what to leave out my family’s direct connection. I had to do that, for now at least. As I said the name, my gaze snapped from one girl to the other, looking for a hint of recognition in either of them. I saw none. Neither That-A-Way nor Pack seemed to have the slightest clue what that was.

“What, like some kind of cult thing?” the lizard girl demanded while her hand went out to rub along Twinkletoes’s side. The lizard-gorilla seemed fine now after shrinking down and then being returned to his large size once more. The same went for Mars Bar. Something about Pack using her power on them again healed the damage that had been done. Which was a relief. 

Shaking my head, I kept walking in silence for a few seconds before forcing the next words out. This was one of the hardest things I’d ever had to do, just getting myself to say what I needed to say. Pack and That-A-Way may have both been on opposite sides of the law, but they’d put that aside to come and save me. They deserved to know about this. “Look, I know you’re both going to think I’m crazy. I know. But I need you to listen. What I’ve heard about this Ministry, it’s… they’ve got their fingers in both sides. Star-Touched and Fell-Touched. It’s like they work behind the scenes. They’ve got people working for villain groups and people on the heroes’ side too.” 

Pack looked at me like she was about to say something, but That-A-Way spoke first, blurting a quick and very baffled, “Bad guys working for the heroes? How hard did Pencil hit you, again?”  

“Oh, yeah,” Pack put in, “that’s bound to make the poor guy want to keep talking about something that he was clearly reluctant to even start on in the first place. Act like he’s crazy.” 

“That’s not what I–” That-A-Way snapped defensively before catching herself. “Damn it, I wasn’t…” She trailed off, sighing. “Sorry. I guess we should at least hear you out.” Even as she said it, however, the girl still sounded reluctant and defensive. Which I couldn’t blame her for. 

“I know, I get it,” I quickly assured both of them. “It’s a lot to throw on you guys and expect you to believe any of it instead of just thinking I’m a raving lunatic. Why do you think I didn’t want to actually tell you? Because I know it sounds like crazy bullshit. But seriously. The way they were talking, and other things I’ve heard since then… that’s why I didn’t want to join the Minority.” 

“Because you thought we worked for these… Ministry people?” That-A-Way was staring at me, almost walking into a tree before Pack reached out, caught her arm, and tugged her away from it. She gave the other girl a quick look, a nod of thanks, then stared at me once more. “Really?” 

“I didn’t know any of you,” I pointed out. “And I still don’t know most of you. I mean, look at it this way. Pretend the Ministry is real and you don’t have any doubts. Just for sake of argument. Pretend there really is this secret organization that has agents on all sides, people who report to them. Do you really think they’d put people on the heroes’ side who couldn’t blend in well?” 

That-A-Way briefly looked like she wanted to argue with that, but stopped herself. Instead, she was quiet for a minute, walking through the woods with us like she was lost in thought. Finally, I saw her head give a tiny nod. “Okay, I’ll… pretend and go with that, I guess. If this Ministry thing worked like you said, they’d be good at putting people in under cover. Maybe even people who really thought they were doing the right thing by reporting stuff to this secret group. Hell, they might not even know that this Ministry works for both sides. Maybe they think they’re reporting to a secret group of Star-Touched people, you know? Like Internal Affairs or something.” 

“You mean an even more secret group of heroes inside the group of heroes.” Pack snorted. “Yeah, that sounds about right. If a group like Paintball’s talking about existed, they could totally make some do-gooders think they were part of the super-special secret club like that.” 

I nodded slowly. “Yeah, that’s kinda what I mean. Anyway, like I said, this Ministry has people on both sides. From what I can tell, they run some kind of protection racket or something. You know, letting bad guys operate in the city in exchange for part of the money they take in from jobs. I heard them talking about getting the patrol routes for different Star-Touched teams for a higher percentage take, and direct intervention, whatever that entails, in exchange for even more. I’m pretty sure they have at least one person on every hero team to give out patrol routes, hero’s schedules, other things like that. And more on the police force, the court system, all those things. They’ve been around for a long time, you guys. Like I said, they’ve got their fingers in everything. They run things behind the scenes, and they’re really not happy that I know anything about them at all. Except they’re not sure how much I know, if anything.”

“So if what you’re saying–” Pack corrected herself, “If you’re right about what you think, then Blackjack’s gotta know about this, right?” 

“Sure, it sounds like all the big Fell-Touched players in the city know about it,” I confirmed. “They work within the system the Ministry created. I’d be fall down shocked if Blackjack wasn’t totally aware of the whole thing. But he’s not gonna tell a brand new member of his group that kind of secret.” 

“I’m still not sure about this,” That-A-Way admitted. “But I’ll keep going along the hypothetical ‘this is all true’ route for now. That said, what does that have to do with Pencil and the Scions? Or that cabin?” 

This was the big one. Even bigger than getting them to believe the bit about the Ministry. I had to be careful how I explained this. “I followed some of those Ministry guys the other day when they kidnapped a girl and tried to kill her. Apparently she had some kind of secret information or proof about the Ministry or something. Anyway, I saved her and she ran away. Then I found her later and listened to her talking to… umm… someone on the phone. She called him her dad, but…” I shook that off. “Anyway, the point is, there was something about the girl and her dad wanting revenge against the Ministry for someone named Anthony Tate. I looked into it. He’s a kid who used to live here, then moved to Texas and died in a car crash. Supposedly.” Ohhh this was getting so close to secrets I really shouldn’t talk about. The thought made me cringe inwardly. 

That-A-Way spoke up into the brief silence. “Okay, wait, wait. Who’s this girl? And that Anthony Tate, who’s that?” 

“LIke I said, a kid who used to live here before he supposedly died in a car crash with his parents in Texas.” I offered a shrug. “I don’t know how he was connected to that girl… umm, Paige Banners.” 

That-A-Way dropped her flashlight and tripped over a rock, cursing as she almost fell. It took her a moment to scramble across the ground to find the light. “What–who?” 

“Paige Banners,” I repeated. “She’s the girl I saved, I found out her name later. That’s one of the names I had Eits look into,” I admitted to Pack. “I thought her dad lived here, but apparently she’s like… adopted or something? I don’t know. Point is, she was on the phone with someone she called her father, and they were talking about getting revenge for that kid dying or… something. Anyway, Eits looked into it, found out this guy Robert Parson was a bodyguard or something. He was in the car with the Tates too, but he survived. So we were looking for his address. That’s the address you got from him, the one those assholes wanted. I guess Pencil and his people got the address from Eits’ phone, cuz they got to that place too.” 

“But what did they want with this guy?” That-A-Way demanded. She sounded like she really needed to sit down. Which was another thing I could definitely sympathize with. 

“I guess he pissed Pencil off somehow,” I replied, shrugging once more. “I really don’t know the details. All I know is Pencil wants this guy dead, so he’s in hiding. Which means I can’t get answers out of him about this Ministry, or Anthony Tate, or this Paige girl.” 

That-A-Way was silent for a few long seconds, staring ahead as though deep in thought. Finally, she exhaled long and loud. “This is a lot to take in, dude. I don’t–” She cut herself off from whatever she had been about to say, correcting it to, “I’m not sure what to… say, you know? If I’ve got this right, you’re claiming that there’s a secret underground group that manipulates heroes and villains everywhere in the city, and that this random schoolgirl, whatever her name–” 

“Paige Banners,” I reminded her. 

“Right, Paige Banners,” she nodded. “This Paige Banners and her dad, who isn’t the dad who lives here in town with her because she’s adopted or something, are coming up with some secret plan to attack and hurt the Ministry as payback for this Anthony Tate dying. You looked into Anthony Tate, found this Robert Parson guy, went to his address, and got jumped by Pencil, who is also after him?” 

“And the Scions also beat the shit out of Eits to get that address,” Pack quickly put in. 

“Yeah, and Eits got hurt,” That-A-Way acknowledged, turning to shine her light at me. “Is that about it?” Her voice was a bit dull from the shock of taking all of this in. 

“Ummm…” I winced. “Did I mention that it sounded like that girl’s real dad is in Breakwater?” 

“Breakwater,” That-A-Way echoed. “The inescapable supervillain prison. He’s just… calling out of that.” She stopped walking, putting one hand against her face with a long, heavy sigh. 

“This is kinda why I didn’t want to dump all this on you guys,” I managed a bit weakly. 

“I get that,” she murmured, finally moving her hand to look at me. “Look, I don’t know how much of this is true–okay, hold on. What I mean is, I believe you believe what you’re saying, but I don’t know how much power this Ministry actually has. But, I’ll keep quiet about it for now. I want to… investigate it for myself, okay? I’ll do it quietly, I swear. I won’t bring up the actual name or anything. I just want to find out more.” 

“Same,” Pack agreed. “I’m morbidly curious about these people. Especially if part of my money is going to them.” 

After a moment of hesitation, I slowly offered, “Well, if you guys really want to find out more about this group for yourselves…

“I know a pretty interesting secret about the mall.” 

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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.”

Previous Chapter                             Next Chapter

Interlude 7A – Pack and That-A-Way

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With a flash of light and a pair of yelps, two figures appeared in the air in the middle of a large corridor and fell to the floor in a heap. They were tangled up there for a moment, lying on that hard stone floor. Each of them was equally disoriented and confused, almost violently pulling away from each other and scrambling backwards with their guards up as they stared wide-eyed at one another. 

“Pack?!” That-A-Way blurted out loud, her voice high-pitched and clearly completely lost in that moment. 

Pack’s own voice was just as baffled. “Way? What… what the fuck is— where the hell are we?!” Even as she said it, the girl was scrambling to her feet, looking up and down the hall. “Is… is this a fucking prison?”

It was. The hall they were in was lined with cells on each side. They were small, simple affairs with iron bars covering the front of a tiny room that had the metal frame of a cot bolted to the floor and a sink next to a toilet. Dozens of visible cells, visible as they looked up and down the hall, were the same. Heavy and clearly reinforced metal doors lay at either end. 

“Well fuck this,” Pack announced, already heading for one of the doors. “I don’t know what the fuck this is, but I’m leaving. You coming, Minority chick?”

After a brief moment of confused staring, That-A-Way jolted a bit, eyes widening. “Wait, I know what this is. I’ve heard of this guy, he’s newish.” She shot a look to the other girl, who had stopped to look at her. “Jailtime. He calls himself Jailtime. This whole prison, it’s… it’s in some isolated place… or completely created by his power or… or something. Anyway, he touches you and brings you here and you have to find your way to the exit. Then you get teleported back to where you were.”

Pack stared at her for a moment. “Are you serious? The hell kind of power is that? Just teleport people to one location and wait for them to leave?”

That-A-Way shrugged. “I think there’s more to it, but I can’t remember. Like I said, he’s really new. The Ninety-Niners pretty much just picked him up.”

Cursing under her breath, Pack tilted her head back to stare at the ceiling before muttering, “What’s with those guys and Touched who take you somewhere against your will like that? They’ve got Ringside too. And I’m counting Longhaul.”

Distractedly shaking her head, the other girl replied, “Maybe they put out a really specific want ad. All I know is we have to get out of here and back to help the others. So come on.” Even as she said it, the girl was heading past Pack to the nearby door. She was trying not to think about everything that could have already gone wrong back there while they were talking.

Pack exhaled, glancing around once more before following. “Can you just teleport us out the quick way?”

That-A-Way’s head shook. “I have no idea where we are, what this place looks like, what might be around, or anything. I need to have some vague idea of where I’m going if we don’t want to end up inside a wall or something. If it even works at all.” With that, she reached out to put her hand on the other girl’s arm. “But this way is south, so we can just walk right through…” While saying it, she turned herself and Pack intangible and went right through the door. 

Or she tried to. Despite the fact that the two of them were definitely intangible, the door held firm and they walked right into it with a pair of surprised grunts. 

Laughter erupted from behind them, and both reeled back while turning to find the guy who had brought them here. Jailtime, wearing his cliché black and white striped prison uniform with the number placard and simple mask, was doubled over laughing to himself. “Oh man, that was amazing! That was totally worth being quiet and letting you stupid bitches ramble for so long. Can you do that again, because I didn’t have my camera ready and you two really owe me for putting up with listening to you. Come on, maybe if you run at it really fast, you can get through! Give it the old college try! I mean, I know you’re both too dumb to ever go to college, but let’s just pretend. It’ll be great. I promise to clap.”

Glancing to each other silently, both girls suddenly threw themselves that way. It was north, so That-A-Way teleported past the guy to appear behind him, turning to grab him. At the same time, Pack launched herself into a tackle. 

Jailtime turned to smoke, floating into the nearby wall and disappearing just in time for the two girls to collide with one another. They went to the floor in a heap again, while his laughter filled the hall.

Pulling away from the other girl, Pack angrily lashed out with a foot, kicking the wall where the smoke had gone. “Get out here and fight, you fucking coward!”

His disembodied voice failed the hall. “Now why would I do that when we’re having so much fun this way? Well, I’m having fun anyway, and that’s what really matters, isn’t it? But if you bimbos really want someone to fight, never say I’m not accommodating to guests.”

Both girls stood up warily then, just as the heavy doors to either end of the prison hall opened and several large figures stepped through. They looked like prisoners, only featureless ones. They were men with no faces, only the vague shape on their bald heads where a face would be. No noses, no eyes, no mouth. They clearly weren’t real people. But their fists were real, as were the chains and knives that several clutched as they approached. Or, they were at least real enough to hurt, and neither Pack nor That-A-Way had any desire to see just how real they could be. 

Without missing a beat, Way grabbed the girl beside her, teleporting both of them behind the group to the north. As they arrived, Pack already had her shotgun out, and pumped a heavy beanbag round right into one of their backs, before turning the barrel slightly to shoot again into the next one. Both hit the floor from the force of the impact at such close range. 

That-A-Way, meanwhile, shoved her taser into the neck of a third one. It did nothing, the being just turning to smack the weapon from her hand before punching at her face. But she was facing south, so the girl went intangible to let the fist pass through her. Then she pivoted around him, facing east to activate her invulnerability while lashing out with as hard of a punch as she could manage. She didn’t have superstrength, but the invulnerability meant she could hit a lot harder without hurting herself. Her fist slammed into that featureless face, staggering the figure. 

Before it could recover, she slipped around the opposite side of him, activating her super speed as she grabbed the simulacrum by the arm and waist. With a grunt, she spun, using her speed to hurl the figure to the ground near the door. “Pack!” She blurted out loud, even as the figure was starting to pick itself up, barely dazed. If it was even possible to actually daze these obvious automatons. 

Pack didn’t need an explanation. Hopping over the outstretched arms of one of the figures she put on the floor, the girl raised her shotgun once more. A pull of the trigger sent the next heavy round right into the non-face of the figure Way had tossed. The shot completely caved in the front of the head, and the figure reeled backwards and fell. His body prevented the door from closing. Both girls lunged that way, throwing themselves through it just as the body disappeared and the door slammed shut behind them with a heavy clang. 

Out of that first hallway, the girls were now in a narrower one with no cells. It curved out and around, the corridor continuing out of sight. Behind them, the door was starting to open again as the sound of rapidly approaching footsteps from those things grew louder. 

Grabbing Pack’s hand, That-A-Way teleported to the end of the curve, as far ahead as she could see. The hall continued that way, a wide curve arcing away from the place they had just left. It was still generally north, so she teleported a couple more times, each as far as she could see. It would give them a little bit of a head start, assuming their captor didn’t just create new ones or teleport the ones he had around or something. 

At the end of the widely curved hall was a large set of bars, a heavy gate. Beyond that was a fairly small area followed by another barred gate that blocked an equally small room with a door. 

“Like an airlock,” Pack realized. “They open the gate on one side, make sure only the people that are supposed to go through get into that small area, close the gate on that side, then open the other gate.”

“Yeah,” the other girl agreed before heading that way. “Well, good thing we’re not waiting for anyone to let us through.”

The steady sound of many approaching footsteps from the direction they had come propelled That-A-Way to take Pack by the hand once more and teleport through both sets of gates to reach the room on the far side. Just as they arrived, however, that entire space was flooded with arcs of electricity. Both girls jerked away from each other with pained yelps before falling. They lay on the floor for a moment, dazed and out of it. Both knew they had to move, but the brief shock of electricity left them unable to focus even as the footsteps drew nearer. The by-then familiar sound of mocking laughter accompanied the footsteps. 

The gates opened, letting the faceless figures move through toward the prone girls. However, just as the nearest one extended its hand toward Pack’s masked face, there was a squeal of fury from above. All of the figures turned that way, as a grate on the ceiling came popping open and a small, scaled figure dropped through to land on the head of the automaton that had been reaching out. 

It was Tuesday. The monkey-lizard wasn’t that big, but was quite strong for his size and was currently motivated by the blinding rage he felt on behalf of his owner. Making his paws into fists and putting them together, he brought them down in a sledge hammer blow against the top of the automaton’s head.  It caved in, and the figure collapsed just as Tuesday ripped the arms from its sockets and use them to bash in the heads of the next two while dropping to the ground. They staggered back, and the others hesitated while the monkey lizard bared his teeth and chest, swinging both of the broken automaton’s arms menacingly. 

That-A-Way, by that point, had recovered enough to sit up and grab one of the arms from Tuesday. He hissed in surprise, but stopped upon seeing who it was, even as the girl stumbled to her feet and turned intangible while lunging toward a metal coil sticking out from the wall that was already starting to spark with electricity. She shoved the intangible arm through the coil and released it, hopping back as the arm solidified, destroying the coil and stopping that electricity. 

“Tuesday?!” Pack blurted. “How are—never mind.” Even as she dismissed it, the girl was snapping her shotgun up to pull the trigger twice more, knocking a couple automatons away to fall against their companions as she scrambled up. “We’ve gotta go!” Even as she said it, the girl lunged at the gate and shoved it closed, trying to hold it in place while not letting the automatons grab hold of her.

“Love to,” Way retorted while yanking fruitlessly at the heavy door. “But I can’t teleport through this without knowing what’s on the other side, and—”

“Through the vent!” Pack interrupted, still struggling to keep the gate shut while the automatons pushed against it. “Go up!” 

Tuesday went first, leaping straight back up through the open grate he had appeared from. That-A-Way, meanwhile, grabbed Pack by the arm and turned to put herself behind the girl, hands on her shoulders as the two instantly crouched together, dropping almost prone in order to fit within the space they were about to occupy. Behind them, the gate banged open as the automatons barged through. But both girls disappeared, teleporting up into the shaft through the tiny opening that Way could see.

There was almost no room up there, but the girls scrambled quickly along with Tuesday, moving through the shaft even as the metal under their hands and knees grew warmer by the second. Jailtime was retaliating against their narrow escape by heating up the shaft. It was already painful, making all three of them yelp a bit while scrambling toward the nearest next grate. 

Tuesday was in the lead, making pained yipping noises as he banged his fist down hard against the grate to slam it open before dropping through into the room below. The two girls were right behind him, cursing and yelping the whole way as they all fell into an undignified, but at least survivable pile. 

Now they were in a cafeteria of some kind, simple metal tables filling the room. At one end was the line of counters where food was handed out with a doorway into the kitchen. The other end of the room was the exit. An exit which was already open, as automaton figures pushed their way in.

“These motherfuckers don’t give up, do they?” Pack demanded while quickly reloading her shotgun with shells pulled from within her costume. Tuesday had climbed up to hang from her back while hissing at the intruders angrily. 

Just as the three braced themselves to deal with yet another attack from their relentless pursuers, there was a loud roar. A figure on all fours leapt over the kitchen counter, raced past the trio, and threw itself at the automatons. The initial collision completely broke one apart, before a hard swipe of one large paw took the head off another that had stumbled. 

“Holiday!” Pack blurted happily, already running that way to fire a shot at one of the automatons who was trying to grab the lizard-panther. Tuesday leapt off her shoulders to collide with another one. 

“I am so glad I saved that beautiful freaking lizard,” Way announced while using her super speed to dash that way, colliding bodily with one of the automatons with enough force to send it flying back against the wall. 

Together, with a lot of help from the vicious Holiday, the group demolished the automatons to the point where they could no longer function. Pieces of the things lay around them while they all slumped a bit and panted. 

Unfortunately, only a few seconds passed before Jailtime’s annoyed voice filled the cafeteria. “Fine, you wanna play rough? Let’s play rough.”

With those words, the sound of twisting, grinding metal filled the room. The girls looked that way to see the tables contorting and twisting themselves, reshaping into metal figures, each with four long bladed arms and six legs. On top of that, the figures began to glow bright red from the waist up, including those arms and blades. They were clearly incredibly hot, and were rapidly approaching, skittering spider-like on their half-dozen legs. On the way, faces appeared on the half-formed heads, just enough for mouths to gape open, revealing lines of jagged metal teeth. 

“Nope, nope, nope!” Pack announced, already pivoting to run for the exit. “Fuck that, not doing it, let’s go!”

The door slammed shut on them, but almost immediately collapsed inward as another figure burst through from the other side and loomed in front of them with a roar. 

“Mars Bar!” That-A-Way blurted. In that moment, she was as happy to see the enormous bear-lizard as she had been to see Holiday. “Pack, how are your—”

“Hell if I know!” the other girl interrupted. “But I’m not gonna fucking question it, let’s just get the hell out of here. I’m done playing this bastard‘s game. Go!”

Mars Bar stepped back, while the group joined him in the hall. There, they ran as Pack called, “You guys know where the others are?” Because if this many of her creatures were in the prison, the remaining two would be.

Her question was seemingly answered by a loud screech just as they reached a four-way corridor. That-A-Way pointed left, toward the sight of sunlight and freedom. “Exit!”

“Riddles!” Pack had already turned the opposite way, toward the direction of the screech. “Go, I’m not leaving my friends!” She and the rest of her creatures ran toward the screeching sound, leaving the other girl standing there for a moment. 

After only the slightest hesitation, That-A-Way launched herself after the others, racing to catch up. Together, they burst into an obvious visitation room, where Riddles was flying back-and-forth over the tables, avoiding dozens of pens, knives, balls, plates, and any number of other small objects that were being flung through the air at her by an invisible force. 

“Riddles, let’s go!” Holding the door open as she called to the bird lizard, Pack watched as the flying creature dove between several more flying objects before reaching the entrance. She slammed the door shut just as a handful of knives collided with it, before turning. Riddles had landed on Mars Bar’s head. “Okay, now–”

A sudden, incredibly violent and powerful force slammed into all of them. They were flung down the hallway and collided with the far wall before falling forward to the ground. As Pack looked up, she saw that Riddles, Mars Bar, Tuesday, and Holiday were all back in their regular lizard forms, having apparently been hit hard enough to knock them right back to normal. They all squeaked and scrambled over to her, climbing up the girl’s arms. She and That-A-Way picked themselves up, just as Jailtime appeared in front of them. 

“Okay,” the guy snarled, “that’s just about enough of that! Apparently it’s time to really scare you bitches. Maybe if…” He trailed off at the sound of Pack chuckling. “Why are you laughing?”

“Why?” she echoed. “Because when we were running through that hall back there, I found another friend. One that you missed.”

“What are y—” That was as far as the guy got before the nearby door was suddenly ripped off its hinges, seemed to hoist itself through the air, and slammed into the guy so hard he was knocked into the opposite wall with a squeal. He turned into smoke and dissolved back into that wall, just has the slightly bent door dropped to the floor and Twinkletoes appeared. 

All around them, the prison seemed to shake with rage, the walls and floor grew hot, and more automatons emerged from various rooms, all of them bent on vengeance.

“Twinkletoes,” That-A-Way blurted, “Jump on your mama with the others!”

The gorillizard understood, jumping that way while shrinking back into his normal lizard form to land in Pack’s outstretched hands. In the next second, while the floor under their feet grew too hot to stand on, That-A-Way wrapped her arms around the other girl and focused on the exit she had seen when they first got to that four-way intersection. The exit to the north. 

They teleported. Suddenly, That-A-Way and Pack, with the lizards clinging all over the latter, were right in front of the door. Sunlight and blue sky were in front of them. The two girls looked to one another briefly as an outraged bellow filled the burning hot prison behind them. 

Without wasting another second, they lunged for the doors and burst through together. The sweet sensation of open air washed over them for a moment. 

Then they were gone, leaving the prison, wherever it really was, behind. 

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Showdown 7-05 (Summus Proelium)

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Apparently the Minority communications worked despite the jammer. Probably because they were all within the same area the jammer was affecting or something. Either way, the Syndicate with us was able to talk with the rest of his team outside, including his other selves. They coordinated what was about to happen, doing so with what amounted to a thirty second explanation. And given that we were about to have Cuélebre and Sandon dropped on our heads, even that felt like too long. We needed to get the hell out of here right freaking now.

First, I had to go grab Ashton. Vaguely tempting as it might’ve been to leave him here, I wasn’t going to do that. Instead, I moved up to where I’d left him in the ice cream aisle. He was… uhh, yeah, definitely losing his mind. When he saw me, his wild eyes focused and he shouted something that was muffled by the currently transparent visor. 

“Let me guess,” I dryly replied, “you need to scratch your nose like a son of a bitch.” Even as I said it, my hand was pulling the remote out and I quickly hit a couple buttons on it that Wren had told me about. “There, you can move now. But before you try running away, there’s a couple things you should know. First, there’s a whole bunch of guys out there from two different gangs who would love to torture you if you can’t convince them that you don’t have what they want. Or just for fun, because you wasted their time. Not to mention the fact that one of those gangs is the one whose people you used to piss off La Casa in the first place. And second, you definitely can’t get that suit off without Wren’s help, which means that anytime I hit the recall button, you’ll come marching right back to me anyway. I’m not going to unmute you, because we really don’t have time for any more bullshit. But I’m not leaving you here either, so come on.”

There was the briefest of hesitations, before he seemed to deflate a little bit and moved to follow me. I led him to the back of the store quickly, while giving him a brief explanation of what we were going to do. If he had any input on the plan, his facial expression and body language didn’t really depict it. Not to mention the fact that after all the times that he had said he was fine with a little girl dying for his revenge, I wasn’t really interested in his strategy ideas anyway. 

The two of us reached the back storeroom, passing a bunch of heavily-laden shelves before finding the others. As soon as we came into view, Pack put a hand on Mars Bar and pointed to Ashton. “See him? He stays with you. If he tries to go anywhere else besides with you until I say otherwise, rip one of his arms off and try beating him with it.”

While the bearguana growled, Syndicate cleared his throat. “Can we avoid openly discussing criminal acts like torture for a little while? I know I said we’d catch you guys another time, but you really shouldn’t go out of your way to make me regret that. And who are you anyway?”

“He’s on vocal timeout,” I replied. “But this is Ashton Austin, the guy behind that bank robbery that you guys have all been looking for. When this is over, you can have him. So, you see? You’re not getting out of this totally empty-handed after all.”

He looked back-and-forth between us briefly before simply noting, “If we get out of it. And if we do, we’re gonna have a lot more questions for you.”

“If we do, I’ll see about answering them.” With that, I looked over to the nearby closed loading dock doors. “So, are we doing this, or what?”

Syndicate nodded. “Remember the plan. All we need to do is get everyone to That-A-Way and she’ll teleport us out of here. We don’t need to stay and fight. We don’t need to win anything. We just need to get out. And we need them to know we’re gone so they leave everyone in the store alone. We make a break for it, go through any forces we need to, and teleport away. That’s it.”

Eits gave him a thumbs up. “Yeah, trust me chief, some of us aren’t interested in fighting at all. Running away sounds pretty good.”

For a second, it looked as though Syndicate was going to say something about that, before he just shook his head and asked, “Anything else?”

I quickly spoke up. “Yeah, this.” Raising my hands, I shot some orange paint at everyone in turn, including the lizard creatures. Two at a time (one with each hand), I hit everyone with a circle of the paint. “There, as soon as I activate this, which I will once we get out there, you’ll be tougher for about ten seconds. Bulletproof tough. And here.” For good measure, I added a spot of green paint to everyone as well. “Now you’ll all be faster too. Again, just for ten seconds. You’ll be faster and tougher than they expect. Just use it to get to That-A-Way.”

“Dude,” Eits intoned in what sounded embarrassingly like awe. “Support classes kick ass.”

Flushing under the helmet, I shook my head. “It’s no big deal, really. If we had more time, I’d do more, but we’re sort of pressed right now.”

Syndicate looked like he might say something to that, but in the end he just snorted and used his com. “We good out there? Okay. Other me going on three, the rest of us hold until he’s got their attention at the front. One, two, three.”

Even knowing it was coming, I didn’t hear anything at first. I was listening for the reaction and there was nothing. Which made sense, we wouldn’t get anything overt until he made them think he was—

Aaaand the gunfire started. Suddenly we could hear all those guns coming from outfront. It was like someone had unleashed a swarm of monsters from hell. And those monsters were really pissed off. 

“Wait,” Syndicate cautioned, holding up a hand. “Wait for it. Wait for them to really commit to it. He’s in the store. Now they’re trying to break through that security shield. They’re breaking it, and… and they’re in! They’re moving through the front! Go, go!” 

We went. Eits had control of the security system, and he instantly opened the sealed doors. As planned, he opened all of them, the big rolling doors on all of the loading docks, and the regular-sized doors as well. They all opened as one, and we booked it through the loading door furthest to the left. We weren’t going to take the time to go through one of the regular doors. This way, we could all flood out and run for it. Hopefully, that way this would be less of a shooting gallery for the guys facing us. 

The second the doors were up and we were moving, I hung back just enough to let the others get ahead of me, and activated the orange and green paint I had to put over everyone. Suddenly, we were all moving even faster than our fear and adrenaline had been managing to make us move already. Which, honestly, was saying something. 

It was safe to say that the guys out back were pretty surprised by our appearance. They had been looking around toward the sides at the sound of gunfire from the front, when we suddenly came pouring out of the now open door right in front of them. Only a few of the many who were there managed to start firing immediately. And for that, the orange paint did its job. I saw several of the others take a couple hits that did little more than sting them thanks to the paint. Mars Bar by himself, probably thanks to his size and sheer intimidation factor, was hit a good six or seven times in those first couple seconds. He barely reacted, aside from opening his mouth to give a loud, pants-wetting roar while slamming into three guys at once. They went flying like bowling pins, while a fourth guy tried to open up on the bear with a shotgun. But Mars simply snatched it out of his hand, crumbling the gun like it was made of tissue paper with one paw, before grabbing him in the other and sending the man flying a good twenty or thirty feet with a dispassionate shove that way. 

Holiday grabbed a guy’s leg and ran off with him, dragging the poor bastard along with her as he screamed. Two other guys tried to shoot at her, but Tuesday and Twinkletoes wrecked them pretty thoroughly on their way past. One was walloped in the back of the head by a nearly invisible gorilla-lizard, while the other took a small, yet really dangerous monkey-lizard fist to the privates. The former was left completely unconscious, while the latter just really wished that he was. 

The first thing I did upon emerging and taking all this in was shoot a spray of blue paint as wide as I could make it around the feet of the group in front of us. Activating it sent them flying in every direction with a collection of screams. Which worked nicely to clear the path of the guys that Mars hadn’t already trampled through. 

Ashton was just behind the bear, apparently having taken Pack’s warning to heart. Or maybe he really didn’t want to be left to deal with all the angry Ninety-Niners after he’d used them in his revenge scheme and figured being behind the giant beast was his best shot. Either way, he was sticking really close to Mars Bar. 

Two guys with guns popped up toward the right. Both were taken down by Syndicate with a quick flurry of motion that I couldn’t even follow that left them on the ground, disarmed. On the opposite side, a guy who popped up with a rifle raised was literally run over by a car that came screaming through the lot, accompanied by the familiar sound of one of Eits’ mites cackling. The car proceeded to spin around, hitting another guy with its tail end during the skid. 

Just ahead, on the far side of the small rear lot where they had been able to crouch out of sight, That-A-Way appeared with another Syndicate, Whamline, Wobble, and Carousel. Not Raindrop though. Maybe she had the night off. Those five, however, were right there, and the path to them was clear for the moment, thanks in large part to the blue paint flinging the vast majority of people out of the way. Unfortunately, just as they came into view and I had a second to think this might be easy after all, there was a blinding flash of light. It faded quickly, but what didn’t fade was the new group of combined Oscuro and Ninety-Niner troops that had suddenly appeared. Long Haul. That had to be Long Haul, the Ninety-Niner Touched teleporter. He’d just dumped a bunch more problems right in front of us. 

Get to That-A-Way. Get everyone to That-A-Way. That’s all we had to do. Two guys who had recovered from their paint-assisted trip were picking themselves and their guns up and turning our way. I sprayed blue again, this time at my own feet, to launch myself up and forward. Twisting in the air just as the pair finished rising and turning, I passed by over their heads. One arm pointed down and one pointed up and back, I sprayed red paint from both. The first hit both men, while the other hit the back of the store we’d just left. Activating it sent them flying up and toward it with a couple screams, just as I landed in a crouch behind where they had been. 

Only then did the green paint run out. And we were almost there. Eits was just reaching the spot where I was, while his mite-controlled car ran down yet another guy that was coming around the corner of the building. I hit him with another bit of green to help him keep moving. “Go, go!” I blurted, hitting as many of our side as I could with orange paint to keep them safe while scanning the lot. Ashton was right there with Mars Bar. The Syndicates who were out here were fine, working together to disable a couple more guys who didn’t even know what hit them. More people were shooting, but the orange paint was doing its job. It meant we could focus on moving instead of fighting. Move instead of fight, that was the entire point.

Most of the people Long Haul had sent in after us were dealing with the Minority. There was a rush of motion and fighting I couldn’t even follow. One of the new arrivals took deliberate aim at me, but I dropped to the ground just before he fired, throwing my hand out to send a shot of white paint onto his arm. Activating it to blind the guy, I used blue paint to launch myself that way, shifting purple onto my arms as I slammed into him to take the guy to the ground. A quick smack to the face knocked him out of the fight. 

But that was just one guy. What had started as a quick run to That-A-Way was quickly devolving into total chaos. I could see the girl herself, trying to help Wobble, Whamline, and Carousel.

Another flash of white announced the arrival of more bad guys. One was directly behind me, and I spun that way just in time to duck the bat he was swinging at my head. A quick shot of yellow at his chest, accompanied by activating part of the green I’d already prepared on the portrait across my uniform meant that he was suddenly a lot slower, while I was a lot faster. And, thanks to a bit of purple that I also activated, stronger. My hand snatched the bat from his grip in mid-swing, tearing it away from him while my foot lashed out to kick his leg. It was enough to make him start to stumble, before I drove the bat into his stomach and put him fully on the ground. 

Damn it, damn it, just get to That-A-Way! This shouldn’t be that hard, right? We’d cleared the way, we had the advantage of surprise and a distraction up front. All we had to do was get everyone across the parking lot to meet up with her and she could teleport us the hell away. And it was close. Pack and her animals were all-but there, crashing right into the back of the group of newcomers with Ashton on their heels. Eits was using his borrowed car as his own bodyguard to clear a path. We were almost there. Almost there! 

Which, of course, was the moment that something dropped from above. A lithe figure with great eagle-like wings slammed down behind That-A-Way. Yahui, the Oscuro woman who mixed and matched various animal parts. Apparently she’d decided to throw herself into the fight instead of just watching. 

In addition to the eagle wings, she also had a scorpion tail, which lashed out toward That-A-Way. But it went straight through the Minority girl, who was moving south and was therefore intangible. Unfortunately, that didn’t help Wobble, who was smacked by the tail moving sideways and thrown to the ground. And given he stood six and a half feet tall, that tail had to be pretty damn strong to knock him down that easily. Yahui tried to follow up by driving the blade of the tail down into him, but Wobble snapped his hand up and I saw a distortion in the air as he sent a wave of vibrations into the tail that knocked it out of the way. That was followed by two of Whamline’s energy ropes, which wrapped around her arms, flinging her into the air before exploding with a burst of kinetic energy that flung her senseless to the ground somewhere off on the other side of the lot. She was down. 

Carousel, meanwhile, had managed to disarm basically all the guys in our path, yanking the guns from their hands as she passed close to them. She also had two cars (miniaturized by her power) floating in orbit around her, which she sent flying at them. The cars regained their full size just in time to crash into the group, scattering everyone that remained. 

Clear, we were clear! 

“Go!” I blurted, sending a wide spray of red paint at all the bad guys I could see, before activating it so they were all slammed into one another, crashing into one big heap. Long Haul? Where was Long Haul? I hadn’t seen him at all, aside from the troops he kept sending in. But whatever, he didn’t matter, we just had to get the hell out of here. That’s all, we just had to go!

“Grab on!” That-A-Way was blurting. There, we were there. Everyone was there. We’d made it. The bad guys behind us were still picking themselves up, and we… everyone… yes, everyone was here, even Pack’s creatures. We all grabbed any part of each other we could, my left hand finding Eits’, while my right was grabbed by Ashton. The latter looked at me sharply, fear and relief in his eyes. I knew the feeling. But at least we were…

Nothing happened. That-A-Way was there, we were all holding onto each other and her, but… nothing happened. She frowned. “Wait, hold on. I–” 

“Did you truly think it would be that easy?” The voice. It was familiar. It was terrifyingly familiar. Cuélebre. He came floating down out of the air on his wings, gliding in to land with disconcerting grace considering his enormous fifteen-foot size. “Did you think I wouldn’t have prepared for a teleportation escape after the way you insulted and embarrassed me last time?” He made a tutting sound, while more of the Ninety-Niners and Oscuro troops, both of the Prev and Touched varieties, appeared on all sides of our suddenly surrounded group. 

Before I could move, before any of us could move, that bladed tail lashed out. I had time to yelp, just before it cut straight through my pocket. The vial and my phone fell out. I grabbed the latter, but the vial was caught on Cuélebre’s tail and smacked right into his waiting hand.

“No, no, no,” the giant demon taunted with the vial held gingerly between two massive fingers.  “You’re not leaving this time. We have too much to talk about.” 

“Talk about?” another voice echoed, and everyone spun in place to find Blackjack, surrounded by an assortment of his own people (Touched and Prevs alike). 

“I think we’re pretty much done talking.” 

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Alliances 6-08 (Summus Proelium)

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Please note, if you read Heretical Edge, there was a special commissioned chapter posted yesterday. If you have not seen that and would like to, go ahead and click right here

A riddle almost killed me. And, ironically, a riddle also saved me. Or rather, Riddles. 

Yeah, the lizard-bird came flying out of nowhere, slamming right into Cup’s face and clawing at her with a deafening screech. The impact knocked backwards, throwing off her aim just enough so that the bullet, as she pulled the trigger, went flying a few inches to the right of my head. It passed through the wall, leaving a neat hole there. Which was a hell of a lot better than the neat hole it would’ve left in my head. 

Even then, it took a couple seconds for the question she’d asked to stop commanding all of my attention. I finally physically jerked as my mind came back to the actual situation in time to see Riddles beating her wings against Cup’s face just as her beak bit down hard on the girl’s hand, drawing a shriek of surprise and pain from her. 

Realizing just how close I’d come to death in that instant, I almost fell to my knees and sobbed. Actually, pretty much the only thing that stopped me from doing just that (and probably curling up into a ball for awhile) was the sight of Cup’s other hand reaching up to grab the lizard-bird by the neck. Quickly, I shot a bit of red paint out to Riddles’ back, yanking her to my raised arm, where she clung tightly. “Hey buddy,” I started while taking two steps forward, painting my arm purple.”Thanks for the–” My fist lashed out, punching Cup in the face while she was still recovering. “–assist!” 

It may have looked like cloth, but that mask around the bottom half of Cup’s face had to be armored in some way, because it didn’t give nearly as much as it should have considering the force I was punching her with. It felt like kicking a pretty solid wall. Which made sense, considering how many people probably tried shooting her in the face for everything she was responsible for. Still, she was knocked to the floor with a new cry of pain, and I saw blood. Two bits of blood, actually. One from her nose and another on her hand where Riddles bit her. Even better, the gun went sliding across the floor away from her, ending up under a pile of overturned chairs. 

On the far side of the room, I could see Pack and the rest of her menagerie (apart from Holiday, who was still upstairs) busy trying to deal with Box and the remaining Scion troops who weren’t already down. Pack was favoring one arm, holding it cradled to her side while directing Mars Bar and Twinkletoes, who were doing the majority of the damage. Tuesday kept popping in from the sides to hit the troops while they were trying to focus on the obvious threats. Even as I glanced that way, I could see him rip a good chunk of flesh out of one man’s arm with his teeth, sending him to the ground with a scream of agony. Good. He tried to blow up sick little kids. 

Cup had scrambled up to her knees by then, and was starting to say something. She was cut off, however, as my quick shot of black paint hit the psycho bitch right in her chest, instantly muting any sound. “Yeah,” I snapped, “I think I’ve heard just about enough out of you, thanks.” 

Then there was a new problem. The gun that Cup had been holding was gone, yes. It was still somewhere under that pile of chairs. Unfortunately, as it turned out, that wasn’t the only gun she was carrying. I know, right? Psycho evil cult supervillains, who expects them to carry two guns? 

Yeah, I might still need some experience with this. Either way, she produced that second gun. And while she couldn’t actually talk, her eyes, burning with hatred as she brought it into line with me, screamed everything that needed to be said. She was going to kill me, and enjoy doing it. 

Or, well, try. Because even as she pulled that trigger, I had already activated the orange circles along the sides of my torso that I’d put there before we came in this room. The first bullet simply bounced off my chest. It stung pretty bad, and would definitely leave a bit of a welt. But that was all. The subsequent two shots that she fired off quickly also stung, drawing a gasp from me. Then I was there, painting my arm purple once more as I tore the pistol from her grip. My other hand caught hold of her arm, and jerked her up and over. With a grunt, I deliberately twisted that arm until I felt something break. Just like when I’d kicked her mask, it took a lot more force than it should’ve. Her costume was definitely armored. But not enough to stop me from snapping at least something, before I threw her face-first into the nearby wall. She collided hard with it and fell, sprawling out on the floor where she lay still, visibly breathing but not doing much else. 

Just to be on the safe side, I shot another bit of black paint to keep her silent. Gliding over my head, Riddles made a screeching noise at her fallen form.

By the time it was clear that she was staying down, I was already spinning to run and help Pack. Unfortunately, as I did so, my feet went out from under me, and I ended up sprawling across the ground with a yelp. 

“Hey, asshole,” a new voice snapped, and I looked that way from my fallen position to see another figure approaching. He wore a parody of a superhero costume. It was basically red footie pajamas (which was a real bold fashion choice) with a white, hand-drawn image of a tiny fish on the chest. A blue blanket of some kind was attached to the shoulders like a child’s idea of a cape, and he wore a simple black domino mask over his face. His hair was red and spiky. 

This was Anchovy. And as absurd as he looked, his power, as I understood it, was still a pain in the ass. Despite making himself look like some goofy, toddler parody of a hero like Superman, his gift wasn’t exactly superstrength and flight. No, he ruined things. Or actions. Basically, if he focused on a person, things they did tended to go wrong. They might choke on a bit of food they were eating, sprain their ankle kicking someone, accidentally jerk the wheel when driving and run someone over, or whatever. The list went on. The point was, he focused on someone and actions they took had negative results. Meanwhile, physical objects he focused on would fall apart or break or whatever. Guns jammed, walls simply crumbled as if they were much older than they were, computers broke down, so on and so forth. He focused on people or items and bad things happened. Such as me falling flat on my face just from turning around. Jackass.

“Boss is gonna be pretty pissed with you for hurting Cup,” Anchovy informed me while taking a pistol of his own from the belt around his one-piece pajamas (Fuck, how could I take him seriously like that, even with a gun? This wasn’t fair.), which he pointed my way. “But when I tell him I put a bullet in your brain, maybe he’ll get over it.” 

Quickly throwing myself to the side, I snapped my hand up to shoot a wad of red paint that hit his gun. Unfortunately, his power must’ve kicked in then, because when I yanked the gun away from him, it missed my hand entirely and smacked me right in the visor of my helmet. At least it didn’t hit my face, thanks to said helmet, but I was still very briefly stunned, jerking backward reflexively. Which was enough time for Anchovy to cross the distance between us and tackle me. I landed hard on my back with the man on me. He’d produced a knife from somewhere, which he was trying to shove into my ribs while holding me down with his other hand. 

But Riddles was there, diving in to grab the knife out of the man’s grasp before he could shiv me (was it still called shiving even with a normal knife?) and carrying it away with a hard flap of her wings. Of course, that brought Anchovy’s attention to her, and the lizard-bird abruptly flew straight into an overturned chair before falling to the floor. Which left Anchovy free to produce a second knife, preparing to shove it as deep into my gut as he wanted. 

I, however, didn’t really like that plan. At all. And he’d taken his focus off me for that brief moment, so I used it by painting my legs purple and kicking out hard. The guy was sent into the air and backward to slam high up into the wall with a loud blurted curse. As he started to fall, I hit him in the face with a wad of white paint, triggering it instantly to leave him blinded just before he hit the floor hard enough to make him yelp. 

Hoping that not being able to see me would mean he couldn’t use his power on me, I lunged that way. Throwing myself onto the man, I used refreshed purple paint to rip the blanket-cape from his shoulders, then tore it half before wrapping the first bit tightly around his head while he was still recovering. He cursed and spat at me, but I managed to shove the man over onto his stomach, using the other half of the cape to tie his hands behind his back. 

Okay, okay, he was down. He was secure, for the moment at least. Jerking myself up from him, I stumbled a little in my rush. Gaze snapping over toward Cup just in case, I found her still lying motionless. Totally out of it and in no position to fight, thank God. 

Right, Cup was down. Anchovy was down. Box… my gaze snapped that way in time to see the man himself lying very still on the floor. Twinkletoes had his arms held out above his head, while Mars Bar was crouched over him, mouth open to growl very dangerously directly into his face, those enormous teeth like rows of daggers. Yeah, the guy wasn’t interested in moving. 

Correction, he was very interested in moving. He just wasn’t stupid enough to try it.

The rest of the thugs seemed to be down for the count too, or just staying very still to avoid attracting attention. Looking around the room, I didn’t see any more threats. They were down. They were done. We… we actually pulled it off. Holy shit, we actually pulled it off! 

“Riddles, watch these guys,” Pack ordered her bird-lizard, who had recovered by then. “If anyone tries to move, rip their eyes out with your beak.” She waited for a confirming squawk before turning to me, panting heavily. Her shotgun lay nearby, bent at an angle that told me she’d used it to hit something pretty hard. “This hero shit is for the birds,” she informed me, still cradling her arm with a wince. “Fuck.” 

Before I could say anything to that, That-A-Way came through the door. “Aww, and here I was hoping you’d enjoy this so much that you’d switch sides. Cooome on, being celebrated and cheered instead of hated and run from is a lot more fun.” She came up, glancing around the room while adding, “Plus there’s the whole ‘not being arrested’ perk. Here.” With that, the girl tossed a couple pairs of stay-down cuffs to me. “Let’s make sure the Touched assholes don’t get ideas.’ 

Catching the cuffs, I moved to where Cup was still laying sprawled out. “Cover me?” I asked Pack. “Pretty sure she can only affect one person at a time with that power of hers.” 

She came, producing a small pistol in place of that broken shotgun with her uninjured hand. Tuesday came with, growling low and baring his teeth. As we neared the fallen woman, she shifted a bit, then yelped out loud as the monkey-lizard literally jumped on her back. 

“Yeah,” I muttered, “that’s what I thought, faker.” Reaching down, I quickly cuffed the woman, making sure they were tight. “We should probably gag her or something, just in case.” 

“Let’s go with ‘or something’, Pack announced. “Tuesday, if she makes a peep, punch her in the back of the head until she stops moving. Riddles, if she says anything to Tuesday, rip her throat out.” To me, she added, “Her power’s good at distracting, but shit at doing actual damage.” 

From the way Cup lifted her head and glowered at that, she wasn’t happy with the assessment. Too bad. I looked away from her in time to see That-A-Way finish cuffing Box while Mars Bar and Twinkletoes reluctantly moved out of the way. Anchovy was still bound and blinded by his own blanket cape. 

“Wow, I… I think we actually pulled it off,” I murmured incredulously, looking around the room one more time. “What about the hostages?” 

“Safe and sound,” That-A-Way replied easily. Her mouth opened to say something else, but she was interrupted. 

“Oooh, what kinda sound?” The voice came from the nearby doorway, and we all spun that way to find a figure coming into view. A figure who wore a tweed suit and a sackcloth mask with a long blond wig attached to it. 

“Was it sorta like… ‘garrggggnnnlllurggull?’” Pencil asked. “Cuz that’s basically the sound they were making a few seconds ago when I left ‘em. It was pretty hilarious.” 

Wait… Oh no. Oh no, no, no…

“Wha-what?” That-A-Way blurted, her eyes widening as she snapped her taser up to point at him. “No, we… I… I left them somewhere safe.” 

There was a brief inhale from the masked psychopath as he rocked his head back and forth as though debating before shaking it. “Yeeeeeah, not so much, Cupcake. I mean, don’t get me wrong, I didn’t kill the kids because… well, nature’s already doing that for me and how am I supposed to compete with something that makes ‘em that miserable for so long and then kills ‘em anyway? Actually, that’s a bad question, I could totally do it better, but I was in a bit of a hurry. And that whole hurrying thing is why I didn’t kill all of the adults. Just cut a throat or two, disemboweled a couple more, and basically left the survivors up to their ears in blood, entrails, and psychological trauma. Oh, and the fact that I got to do that right after you told them they were safe and then left? That was probably my favorite part. Thank you for that, really. I’ll send you a fruit basket or so–” 

In mid-sentence, he was suddenly interrupted as That-A-Way appeared beside him, shoving the taser in his stomach with a scream while lashing out with her other hand to punch him. At the same time, Pack snapped that pistol of hers up and fired off several shots, and Mars Bar hurled himself that way with a roar. 

The taser did nothing. Nor did the punch. Or the bullets from the gun. Even as I was telling myself to move, trying to lunge in to help, Pencil snatched the taser from the other girl while driving his knee into her stomach. She doubled over, and he pivoted, catching hold of her neck to throw her into the incoming Mars Bar, who plowed into the girl while struggling to slow himself. That-A-Way hit the ground and rolled with a cry of pain. Mars, meanwhile, was suddenly hit with some kind of green cloud that exploded in his face. The big bear roared in agony and dove to the floor, rubbing his snout on the tile to get whatever it was off. 

Still pivoting to come all the way back around, Pencil threw that taser at Pack. It hit her with a sharp, visible jolt of electricity, and she hit the floor as well. 

Covering my legs with green paint for speed, I threw a puddle of blue at the floor by Pencil’s feet just as he focused on me. It launched him upward, and I had the satisfaction of hearing a surprised yelp from the man. Then I hit him with red paint while he was still flailing in the air, while also hitting the furthest wall with the same color. Activating both sent him flying across the room to slam hard into that wall. 

It did nothing. He fell to the floor, and that seemed to do nothing as well, of course. Nor was he actually hurt when the invisible Twinkletoes yanked him off the ground and spun to slam him into that same wall again

Nothing hurt him. Nothing. We could do this all day and it wouldn’t matter. But trap him? Contain him? Maybe we could do that.

“Hold him!” I blurted at Twinkletoes while scrambling that way. I still had one of those sets of cuffs. “Just hold onto him!” 

The gorilla-lizard tried. He really did. But Pencil managed to get a hand into his pocket, throwing some kind of pellet up and back. It exploded in the animal’s face, creating a another small cloud of green smoke similar to the one that had hit Mars Bar. This one that left Twinkletoes staggering and moaning in pain, releasing the man. 

I was there, painting my arms purple for strength as I tried to grab onto him. I couldn’t hurt him, but I could hold him long enough to cuff him. 

Or not. He smoothly evaded as I tried to grab him. Worse, he laughed at me. Spinning on one heel like we were dancing as I lunged that way, he also ducked under the shot of red paint I sent at his face. The next thing I knew, his hand was on my shoulder, his foot hit my ankle, and the floor came rushing up to smack me in the visor. 

“Probably a good idea to wear a helmet in this line of work,” he commended. Before I could move, his foot came down on my wrist, pushing against it enough to send a sharp shock of pain all the way up my arm, making it really hard to focus on anything else. “Too bad y–” 

It had taken me a second, but I managed to concentrate enough to paint my wrist blue. Pencil was launched away from me, and I quickly rolled over on my back as he came down by a pile of chairs. My arm (the one that wasn’t currently throbbing) snapped up to shoot red at him, but he threw one of those chairs in the way, making it catch that instead. 

“Hey, Dingaling!” a female voice blurted, and my gaze reflexively snapped that way in time to see Cup, standing up and no longer cuffed (how the hell had she managed that?!) as she called, “Is a dragonfly a dragon to a fly or a fly to a dragon?” 

Is… wait, no hold on. I was fine, I could totally answer this. I could. This was easy. It was a dragon that… hold on. Wait…

In the background, I vaguely noticed Cup and Pencil both heading for the exit. Fork had gotten back to his feet to join them, but they’d had to leave Box and Anchovy behind. Still, they wouldn’t get away. I could catch up. I just had to finish this question. It was…

“Paintball!” A hand smacked me across the helmet, as Pack popped up into my field of view. “What are you doing?! What–are you–” 

Snapping out of it, I waved both hands frantically, ignoring the burst of pain. “Stop them, stop them!” 

That-A-Way was already back on her feet, and we, along with the lizard-beasts (Twinkletoes and Mars Bar had recovered) went running after the pair. We crashed through the exit of the hospital and out onto the front walkway to find… nothing. They were gone. 

“Yooo hooo!” 

Or not. We spun, stumbling a bit in our rush before looking up toward the roof of a low, one-story building at the edge of the lot straight ahead. Pencil, Fork, and Cup were there, the first waving a cell phone in one hand. 

“You know, fucking with my bomb upstairs was really rude!” Pencil called down. “Made it so much weaker than it should’ve been. Now I can’t knock the whole building down and teach those kids about the fleeting futility of life. Though I did get to slit their doctors’ throats right in front of them, so maybe they’ll work it out on their own!” 

“Teleport?” I quickly asked That-A-Way. 

Her head shook, voice cracking a bit. “They’re south of us, I… I can be intangible at him, but… but…” 

Reaching out to grab her arm so I could launch at least the two of us that way, if not Pack and her animals, I stopped abruptly as Pencil held that phone up. 

“Oh well,” he announced, “if I can’t take down a whole hospital, at least I can take out one floor.” 

“No!” That-A-Way shouted, suddenly disappearing from my side just as Pencil hit the button on his phone. There was a second delay, before…

BOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOM!!!

With a terrifying, deafening crash that blew out all the windows of the floor high above, the bomb went off. The force of it set off dozens of car alarms, and shards of glass and other debris rained down on us from above. I caught a brief glimpse of the Scions disappearing from the roof, while Pack and I both staggered, along with her animals. 

Her animals, that was, except for…

“Holiday!!!” Pack screamed in horror and panic, her head tilted back to stare up at the burning, totally destroyed hospital floor in shock and horror. The flames were spreading rapidly. Maybe the rest of the hospital could be saved if the firefighters got there quick enough, but anything on that floor would have been completely annihilated by the blast. 

Screaming Holiday’s name again, Pack went to run back into the hospital. Quickly, I grabbed her wrist. She spun, screaming in my face about getting the hell away from her while lashing out with a kick that took me in the stomach. I staggered, and she shoved me away from her before spinning back that way, intent on running into the hospital. 

Then she stopped, as two figures emerged from the smoke. One human and one very much not. 

“Hey,” That-A-Way managed after coughing a few times. Her hand came down on Holiday’s head. “Sorry, managed to teleport up and then out with her, but we had to walk back. You guys o–” 

She was stopped then, as Pack threw herself that way. “Thank you!” the girl blurted, embracing That-A-Way tightly while basically outright sobbing. “Thank you, thank you, thank you. You saved her. You saved Holiday. Thank you. Thank you.” She just kept repeating that, clearly openly crying before releasing the Minority girl so she could fall to her knees and hug Holiday just as tightly. If anything, she was crying even more. 

Sirens. I looked to the street and saw fire trucks, police cars, SWAT vans, ambulances, and more. They were all screaming their way up to both the hotel and this hospital. There were Touched flying around in the air above, and appearing on the streets. 

“Go,” That-A-Way snapped quickly toward Pack. “Get your animals and go, before you get arrested in all of this.” Then she looked to me, voice cracking. “H-he really did it. He killed four of the people I left with those kids. T-two doctors, a n-nurse, and an orderly. I don’t… I don’t know what–I was trying to… I… I…” 

“I’m sorry,” I managed weakly, knowing it was inadequate. Pathetically so. What was I supposed to say? What could I say? People were dead. We hadn’t saved all of them, not from that… that piece of shit. It wasn’t our fault. It was his. Pencil’s. That psycho fuck. He killed them, just because he couldn’t stand to let us save all of them. He killed them for no reason. Murdered them just… just to murder them. Just to make sure we didn’t save everyone. 

“Hey.” Pack spoke instead, standing there surrounded by her animals even as the fire trucks reached the edge of the hospital lot. “I… I’m sorry about what happened to those guys. But don’t umm… don’t blame yourself.” She sniffed, hand clutching Holiday’s neck. “You got them out, you got those kids out, and a lot more of ‘em would’ve died if you hadn’t done that. You… did the right thing. You did the best you could.” 

It looked like she wanted to say something more, just from the girl’s body language. But in the end, she turned and fled with her lizard-creatures, while the fire fighters were approaching with their hoses. 

“I–I’m going back to the kids,” That-A-Way stammered. “There’s people there with them already, but… but I… I have to…” She shook her head then, looking to me. “Are you…”

“I’m fine,” I replied. “I’m good, but do you want some he–” 

She was gone, teleporting away. Which left me standing there on the front grass of the hospital while firefighters raced past me to focus on the flames burning high above, trying to stop them from spreading. I saw a small figure in a blue bodysuit with silver panels floating above them. Raindrop, the youngest of the Minority. She was sending water through the shattered windows as well, clearly directing it through the building to the worst of the fire. Even as I watched for those few seconds, she had doused most of the flames almost by herself, directing thousands of gallons of water through the place with just a wave of her hand. 

Good. Good. They had this handled. And with Pencil gone, the situation back over at the hotel was definitely under control. Things were–

Wait. Oh. Oh shit. Things were under control. The hostage situation was over. 

My family would be looking for me.

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Alliances 6-07 (Summus Proelium)

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That-A-Way spoke without looking at me, her focus and her taser pointed toward Pack. “Paints, why is this bad guy talking to you like you guys are friends?”

Pack, for her part, put a hand on Twinkletoes’ arm. “Paintball, how about you tell Captain Hero that we have bigger problems to deal with right now?”

Quickly, I spoke up while stepping between them, flinching a bit as the slight pain from the part of my leg where the quill had hit me made itself known. “Stop it, both of you. Way, she’s right, there’s higher priorities right now, like saving those kids. She might be a criminal, but there’s a difference between her kind of criminal and the Scions’ kind. She steals shit, she doesn’t kill kids. Keep it in perspective.”

There was a brief pause before That-A-Way gave a short nod and lowered her weapon. “Right, I guess you’ve got a point. Big difference between her and those guys. But I still have a lot of questions… which can wait until this is over, except for one. Why are you here?”

Pack’s head turned fractionally as though she was glancing to me before answering. “Short version, my friends and I were watching the party from another roof. We saw what went down and then saw your boy over there heading out. Took us a while to catch up without bringing down World War Three on our heads. Had to be all sneaky like, but figured wherever he was going, there’d be trouble and he might need help. You know, because he has a tendency to find trouble.”

The other girl glanced toward me while I was trying to decide if I should be offended or not. Her head gave a short nod. “I guess he does. I don’t know if we can really trust you that far or not, but he’s right about there being a difference between La Casa and the Scions. And we’re really short on help right now, so… truce until this is over?”

Pack gave a short nod. “Sure, truce until this is over.”

Exhaling in a bit of relief, though I knew I’d have a lot to talk about if we made it through this, I asked, “I’m guessing you couldn’t contact anybody either?“ 

“Nope,” she confirmed. “Phone and radio are both out. Looks like we’re on our own, for the time being.” Her chin lifted it to indicate the guys we had taken down. “Not that that seems to be slowing you too much.”

That-A-Way still looked like she was uncomfortable and uncertain about this whole situation, but pushed past it. Tersely and quickly, she explained everything we knew, ending with, “So these guys weren’t able to finish setting up the bomb, but the ones downstairs are gonna be expecting them back any minute to… deal with the hostages. And if they think for a second that something happened…”

Pack’s body kind of recoiled a little. “They’ll do the job themselves to make sure it gets done. Yeah, that’d be bad. So, we’ve got to go down and deal with them before they decide to start shooting. Got it.”

While they were talking, I had walked around a bit to work out the pain in my leg. It wasn’t too bad to begin with, but still. Pacing a bit, I’d gone over to the area those guys had been dragging the electrical cords to. Following it around a corner, I looked in a small nearby room before gulping at what I saw. “Guys… I found the bomb.”

It was a huge, complicated looking thing, taking up most of the room with half a dozen barrels of something or another all attached via cords to a laptop-looking device set into an open briefcase. The screen on the computer was asking for two different passwords, along with some technical jargon I couldn’t follow. 

Boy, I wished Eits was here. Even if this thing was protected the way he said Tech-Touched stuff tended to be, he’d still have a better chance of doing something with it than any of us did. 

The other two had joined me by then, both making noises that clearly indicated they didn’t like it anymore than I did. Pack shook her head. “I don’t even want to go in the room with that thing, let alone touch it. That’s some bad juju.”

The three of us collectively backed away from the room, and I asked, “What if someone comes to find it and we miss them? Can we do anything to make sure they don’t set it off?”

That-A-Way grimaced, shaking her head. “I’m okay with computers, but nothing like that. I wouldn’t know what wire to pull, whether it would do any good, or just make it blow up right now.”

Pack muttered, “We’ve covered some basic bomb defusal stuff in the La Casa school of villainy, but nothing like this.” She turned then, adding, “On the other hand, we can at least leave someone to watch over it. Holiday!”

Around the corner came her panther-lizard, stopping in front of the suddenly very still That-A-Way to lean up and purr while rubbing against her briefly. There was a slight, tense pause before the girl reached down to gingerly pat the top of the animal’s head. 

“See that?” Pack announced, “we’re all friends. Holiday, stay right here. See that room? No one goes in there but us, got it? You don’t let anybody go in there unless I say.”

Holiday seemed to get the idea, making a loud growling sound before moving to curl up in front of the door where she could watch the approaches from both sides. 

“We–um, are you sure she…” That-A-Way started, sounding hesitant. 

“She gets it,” Pack informed her. “Trust–okay, maybe trust me is the wrong thing to say. But I’m telling you, she’ll stay here and do her job.” 

The other girl fidgeted briefly, glancing to the animal. But there wasn’t much else to be said, considering we didn’t have a choice. It was leave Holiday here or leave one of us here, and that just couldn’t happen. There weren’t enough of us. So, in the end, she just nodded, with a quiet, “Okay.”  

That done, the three of us moved back to the main nurses station. Twinkletoes was still waiting there, and had been joined by Mars Bar the bear and Tuesday the monkey. Riddles glided in as we approached, landing on the desk before giving a soft squawk. 

That-A-Way took a moment to look around at this menagerie. I could tell she was really thinking about the situation she had gotten into. But if she had any doubts, she shoved them down, clearing her throat. “Okay, so between… us, we’ve got to save those hostages downstairs before the Scions start getting nasty. Err, even more nasty. And we have no idea how many are down there, or exactly where they are, does that about sum it up?”

Pack raised a hand. “I dunno how many might be wandering around, but there’s twelve guys in the room with your hostages, and they’re in the main cafeteria on the first floor.” As we stared at her, she explained, “I had Twinkles check it out before we made it up here, and he tapped out the numbers for me. Figured it might be useful.”

That-A-Way looked genuinely impressed, quickly nodding with a smile before she clamped down on it. “Hey, that’s pretty coo–I mean… right, okay, thanks. Well, twelve guys. Not sure how many are Prevs and how many are Touched, but still useful.” To me, she added, “Think we can handle twelve guys without ending up with a bunch of dead people?” 

“Between the…” I glanced over toward Riddles, Mars Bar, Tuesday, and Twinkletoes. “… seven of us, I hope so.” 

Pack put out her arm, letting Tuesday clamber up to hang off her shoulders. “We just need a plan. Preferably a quick and brilliant one.” 

“Yeah,” I agreed. “A plan that won’t end up getting everyone killed or the hospital blown up. And it might not be brilliant or anything, but… I think I have something. We just need Fork’s help.”

They both stared at me for a moment. Actually, I was pretty sure the lizard-creatures were staring at me too. That-A-Way found her voice first. “In what possible reality would that psychopath ever actually help us stop his friends from killing everyone here?” 

Behind the mask and helmet, I smiled despite the situation. “Oh, we just need to find the right things to say to him. 

“Or rather, the right things to make him say.” 

*******

Two guys stood guard by the doorway leading into the cafeteria. Both were armed with submachine guns, and were very much on alert. So much so, that they jerked upright and pointed their weapons toward the figure who came into view around the distant corner, only easing up slightly when they recognized him as Fork. 

“Hey, cocksuckers!” the porcupine-like figure called out while raising a hand to beckon them. “Get over here!” 

The two looked to each other, shrugged, and then came at a trot. One of them asked, “The hell’s going on? Erica have trouble hooking up the big boom?” He laughed darkly then. “Told the boss we should’ve brought Bass in for this. He was always better at the–what the fuck?” 

Yeah, by that point, the two men had gotten close enough to see that Fork wasn’t exactly there of his own volition. His eyes were closed, his unconscious body held in place by the mostly-invisible figure of Twinkletoes, who had also been the one to puppet his arm, making it wave for them. Meanwhile, his voice had actually come from my phone, taped to his chest after I had recorded him upstairs ranting at us for awhile until we had the words we wanted him to say. It actually hadn’t been that hard, given how much he’d ranted without much prompting before we finally knocked him out. Or rather, Tuesday had. Turned out, that little monkey-lizard packed a pretty good right hook. 

Before the men could react to what they saw, I stepped out and hit both of them with a sound-muting shot of black paint. Their mouths opened to shout, even as they brought those guns of theirs up. But I wasn’t alone. That-A-Way appeared behind them, shoving her taser into the man on the left. The one on the right had his weapon torn away by a diving Riddles, just before Pack put herself in front of him with that sawed-off shotgun pointed into his face. 

He surrendered, and we quickly taped up both of those guys up. 

Then the others shoved them into a side-room while I stood watch, making sure none of the guys in the cafeteria came to see what was going on. 

Right, two down, ten to go. Ten that we knew of, anyway. Unfortunately, they probably wouldn’t be nearly as easy, considering the whole hostage thing. We were going to have to be really careful about this. 

So it was a good thing that we had a plan. The first part of which was to see what was going on in there. To that end, I quickly and quietly made my way across the open lobby, looking around with mounting paranoia as I went before finally stopping by the doors. Carefully, I chanced a quick peek inside, through the crack in the doors. No one was in immediate view, just circular tables with chairs stacked on top of them. Taking another breath, I slowly opened the door just enough to see better. 

There they were. Dozens of children and early teens of various ages, some lying motionless on gurneys while others were on chairs, the floor, or simply standing. There were half a dozen nurses and a couple doctors as well, all of them together in the far corner of the cafeteria. Spread through the room were about eight normal Scion thugs, all of them armed similarly to the guys we had just taken down. 

And there was a Fell-Touched. Near the hostages stood a somewhat short man, just five-foot seven or so. He was fairly thin too, a wiry build. His ‘costume’ consisted of gray jeans quite thoroughly splattered with blood stains, a dark green sweatshirt with the hood up, and a black cloth mask that covered the bottom half of his face, with what looked like sunglasses over his eyes. 

He was called Box. Basically, he could create these small orbs in his hands. When he threw them, the orbs would break apart upon impact with something, only to be replaced by earth, fire, air, or water in a shape and size (from smaller than the orb had been all the way up to something the size of a car) determined when he made the orbs. So he could throw an orb and have it break apart to create a ten-foot long boulder, or a wading-pool sized rush of water, or… whatever. 

I didn’t see anyone else as I crouched there and watched for a few seconds. By then, the others were approaching. They had found what we needed, an empty gurney. Quickly, I took one last look to make sure things looked as calm as they could be in there, then climbed onto it. I laid down, tucking my legs up under me to leave room for That-A-Way, who put herself right there, her head resting against my legs. 

Pack put the sheet over us, arranging it a bit before whispering, “Okay, you’re good. Ready?” 

That-A-Way and I murmured agreement, and the next thing I knew, we were moving. I lifted the sheet a bit to peek out, seeing Fork there. But like before, he was still unconscious, with the mostly-invisible Twinkletoes holding onto his arms to keep his hands apparently on the gurney so that it would look like he was pushing it. The doors opened, and I carefully held my phone (which I had taken back) out so I could see the screen, listening intently.

“Yo!” someone’s voice called out. “Whatcha got there? Found a straggler?” 

Quickly, my finger tapped one of the recordings on the screen. From the phone came Fork’s voice. “Gonna be sorry–” Then I stopped it before he could finish saying ‘you fucked with us.’ My finger hit a different recording, making his voice add, “Stupid cocksucker.” 

Twinkletoes, holding Fork, pushed us all the way over to where the hostages were, trying to not-so-obviously steer away from anyone who might be close enough to see that their teammate was unconscious. On the way, one of the other guys called out, “What’s going on with the bomb? We good?” 

I’d been expecting someone to ask something like that, so my finger was already poised to hit another button. I did so quickly, and Fork’s voice replied, “Fucking fantastic, bitch.” 

We reached the spot where the hostages were. I felt That-A-Way’s hand squeeze my leg once, a question. I put my hand down against hers and squeezed once in return, telling her to wait. We were good so far. Just had to hold on a few more seconds without…

“Hey,” a suddenly close voice blurted, “what the hell is going on?” 

Shit. The next thing I knew, the man was crying out as Twinkletoes grabbed and threw him across the room. So much for taking our time. The jig was up. 

Throwing myself off the gurney along with the sheet, I hit the floor in a crouch, taking in what was happening. All those guys were looking at us incredulously, including the hostages. As the two nearest men reacted by snapping their guns up, I shot a wave of red paint to them and to the ceiling, hauling them up toward it with a pair of screams. 

“Now, boys,” I blurted reflexively, “I know healthcare costs suck, but is taking a bunch of pediatricians hostages until they fix your ouchie really the answer?” 

They were all focused on me. Well, me and Twinkletoes, who had just grabbed the now-empty gurney (That-A-Way had slipped off of it) to throw at Box, who hit it with an orb that turned to stone in order to stop the thing in mid-flight. Their attention on the two of us meant they were taken by surprise yet again when Pack stepped through the doorway on the other side of the room, opening up with two quick blasts from her shotgun (she’d assured That-A-Way and me that it was filled with beanbag rounds) that took the two guys nearest to her in the chests, putting them on the ground with a series of wheezing coughs. 

Mars Bar, Tuesday, and Riddles were right there with her, all of the lizard-creatures spreading out to attack the Scion creeps, who were suddenly caught on both sides. I saw Box wind up to throw another orb, just before the bearguana slammed into him. Unfortunately, he managed to break the orb, summoning a short, powerful gust of wind that threw Mars Bar to the side. 

Quickly using more shots of red paint against the tables and a few of the other guys, I sent those tables colliding into them just before they could open fire. But there were still more, and Box was getting up. 

“You got ‘em?!” I called over my shoulder, not wanting to throw myself fully into what was turning into a tornado of violence just yet. Not until I knew the hostages were safe. 

“Good!” That-A-Way’s voice snapped back. “Everyone hold on!” 

When I chanced a quick look that way, she was standing right in the middle of the hostages. In those few seconds, she’d gotten all the conscious and mobile staff and kids to gather around her, grabbing some part of her body or one another. Others were holding the various bed-bound patients, forming one large group.

“Okay, guys,” That-A-Way started with a grimace as she glanced toward the nearby window. The north-facing window. “If I pass out, someone catch me.” 

Then they were gone. That-A-Way and all the hostages. They disappeared, as she teleported them out of the building. They were safe… well, safer than they had been in here anyway. Which meant we could actually fight without worrying about getting them caught in the crossfire. 

Unfortunately, just as I spun back to the chaos to do that, I found myself almost face-to-face with another Fell-Touched. She wore a white cloak, bodysuit, and mask covering the bottom half of her face. Her gaze met mine, and I knew her. 

Cup. I knew her, and I knew I had to–

“What would a genie do if you said, ‘I wish you wouldn’t grant this wish?’” 

What… would a genie do… what… why would… but if you wished for them not to grant a wish… why wouldn’t… could they… what if…

Standing there, I frowned, trying to work my way through the question. I knew this. I could answer this. I just needed a second. I didn’t care about the fight going on. I didn’t care that we had just rescued the hostages, or that there was still a bomb in the building. 

And I didn’t care that Cup was raising a pistol, taking careful aim.

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Collectors 5-05 (Summus Proelium)

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“You sure this plan of yours is gonna work?” 

It was the next morning. I had gone to school for the first couple periods before taking off. With a call from ‘my dad’, of course, thanks to my voice changer. As far as the school was concerned, I had a doctor’s appointment and would be back to school as soon as it was over. Which gave me time to (hopefully) get this component that Wren needed away from the delivery truck so she could finish that little project. 

Looking over to where Pack was leaning against the wall in the alley we were hiding out in, I shrugged. “If I was sure it was going to work, it’d be a memory, not a plan. But it’s the best we’ve got. Unless you’ve had any better ideas about how to get that thing off the truck?” As I spoke, my eyes glanced to the side, where Mars Bar the iguana-bear and Holiday the panther-skink were waiting as well. Tuesday, the gecko-monkey, was sitting on top of a nearby dumpster, playing with… I didn’t know what he was playing with. Nor did I want to know.  

Expression hidden behind her full face mask, Pack shrugged. “I’ve been thinking about it, but nope. You’re right, this pretty much seems like our best shot. If you’re absolutely positive that you don’t want to just call in Blackjack to deal with it. I’m pretty sure he could get that thing.” 

“And I’m pretty sure he wouldn’t really care all that much about who got hurt in the process,” I reminded her pointedly. “We can do this without help, and without sending in an army of thugs to stampede over that poor driver. Scaring him just a little bit maybe, but not hurting him.” 

Once again, she shrugged. “If you say so. Still think you’re overcomplicating this, but I guess it’s your show.” As she said that, the girl glanced up to the roof of the building where the lizard-bird Riddles was perched and had just made a soft cawing noise. “Right then, that truck’s on its way. Just turned onto our street, so we’ve got about twenty seconds. You ready for this?” 

“Guess I better be,” I replied before cracking my neck from one side, then the other. Bouncing up and down on my heels a couple times, I breathed out. “Okay, let’s do it. Just… you know.” 

She nodded once. “Yup. Okay, Mars, carefully, just like we practiced.” Giving a quick glance up to her bird for the exact timing, the girl finally made a gesture with her hand. “Now!” 

And just like that, the enormous bear-lizard picked me up from behind. I tried to brace myself, but even knowing it was coming, it was still terrifying. Holding me up above his head, the grizzard gave a deafening, pants-wetting roar before hurling me out of the alley. 

With a yelp, I went flying end over end through the air. From the corner of my eye, I could see the Tauros truck almost directly under me. The driver was even leaning forward, craning his neck while already slamming on the brakes. The squeal of the tires on the street filled the air, and I shot a bit of red paint down to yank myself straight at the hood of the truck before landing in a crouch on it. The paint held me in place even as the truck jerked to a sudden, wild halt. 

“What the hell!?” I heard the driver shouting, even as he started to open the door, standing up and leaning out to stare at me with wide eyes. “What do you think you’re–” 

His words were cut off then, as he caught a glimpse of movement from the alley I had just been thrown out of. Looking that way, he very clearly saw Mars Bar and Holiday charging, because he made a noise of shock and started to sit back down so he could close his door. But I was faster, throwing myself off the hood to ground just past the driver before shooting red paint at him to yank him toward my suddenly red gloves with a shouted, “Get down!” 

The man collided with me and we went tumbling, just before Riddles swooped through the open door of his truck with a loud screech. At the same time, Mars Bar shouldered his way past the truck, bumping it hard with another roar. Boy was he hamming this whole thing up.

At least, I hoped he was hamming it up. Pack had insisted the grizzard completely understood that this was all fake, and I was praying she was right about that. This would suck otherwise. 

Coming to a stop, I made sure to end up on top of the poor driver. He grunted under the impact, and I blurted a quick, “Sorry, sorry! Stay down!” Patting his side, I rolled off the man before shooting off a wide spray of red paint toward the charging Holiday and Mars Bar. Activating it yanked the two into one another. It wasn’t all that hard, and definitely less than they could actually take. But the two animals still gave loud howls of pain and surprise before falling in opposite directions. Apparently they thought this was the time for their Oscar reels. 

“Hey!” The shout came from Pack herself, as the girl came running with a bat in her hand. Seeing her, I reached down to wrap an arm around the driver, coloring part of myself purple before using a shot of red paint to yank us up to the roof of a nearby fast food joint. There I carefully set him down. “You okay?” I quickly asked, glancing between him and the others. 

The man’s eyes were wide as he stared at me from his seated position. “I–I don’t know! What–” 

“Hold that thought,” I blurted. “One sec, gotta deal with this.” With that, I leapt off the building, throwing myself into a lunge aided by a bit of blue paint that sent me flying at Pack. The two of us collided, sprawling end over end. Her bat fell away, and she swung at me with her right fist, actually connecting, though not that hard. I still made a point of staggering before grabbing onto her and giving a sharp whistle toward Mars Bar, Riddles, and Holiday. “Hey, you guys like your owner? Well, come get her then!” That said, I used more red paint to yank myself toward the same alley we had emerged from, with the trio of lizard-animals charging after us. 

Landing in the alley, I checked to make sure no one was watching. We’d already planned out exactly where to leave the driver so that he wouldn’t have line of sight either to the back of the truck or the inside of the alley here. And I’d moved the dumpster from the side of the building itself so that he couldn’t easily climb down. For a moment at least, he was stuck up there.

“We good?” I quickly asked Pack after setting her down. My three ‘pursuers’ came lumbering into the alley as well, slowing as soon as they were out of sight of the street. 

In response, she glanced to the side. “Twinkletoes?” 

At her words, the gorilla-chameleon appeared, complete with a little metal collar around his neck that had a cell phone hooked into it. He grunted, reaching down to the side of the dumpster before picking up a crate with the Seraph Hills logo on it. It looked pretty similar to the one Eits and I had taken from the Tauros building the night before, though maybe slightly larger. 

I hoped it was the right one. Eits had given Pack that collar to put on Twinkletoes. The  cell phone in the collar had a little camera on the front that was supposed to have scanned the serial numbers attached to the crates on the truck and chime when it scanned the right one. Supposedly, Twinkletoes would have made his way invisibly onto the truck, moved around until the thing gave him a pleasant chime, then took the box that prompted it, leaving all the other ones. That was the idea, anyway. Like with the others and our play-fighting, Pack insisted he understood the explanation, and the few test runs we’d done with other boxes had seemed to work out. So… here was hoping. 

Pack was already stepping that way. She picked up the crate, checked the serial number against a piece of paper that she’d written it on, then gave me a thumbs up. “We’re good.” 

Exhaling the breath I hadn’t even been aware that I was holding, I returned the gesture before starting to move. “Keep Riddles out of sight,” I reminded her, not wanting the driver to see the bird-lizard that had ‘almost gotten him’ hanging around. That’d probably be suspicious. 

I took off then, not out of the mouth of the alley we’d just come through, but past Twinkletoes and Pack, to the opposite street. There, I used red paint to pull myself up to the next building over, right on the corner, took a running start, and launched myself with blue paint out over the street with the parked truck. There were cars backed up there, and a few that were pulling around. This wasn’t a busy street (we’d intentionally chosen it that way), but it had been parked there for a couple minutes by that point.

Coming down on the roof of the fast food place, I startled the driver, who jerked reflexively from where he’d been talking on his phone. Apparently he’d called for help. When he saw me, the man settled. “Yeah, yeah the paint kid’s right here. Guess you don’t need the ladder after all.” 

He disconnected, and I offered a weak, “Sorry about that. Are you… are you okay?” 

“Fine, I guess,” the man replied in a voice that was still just a little shaky. Thankfully, he seemed unhurt. “What happened to–uhh…” 

“Pack,” I replied. “One of La Casa. And she got away. I didn’t want to leave you here too long. Should’ve figured you had a phone.” Kicking the roof, I injected embarrassment into my voice while squirming with feigned self-consciousness. “Guess I should’ve kept chasing her.”

“Shit,” the man muttered. “I hope she didn’t take off with any of my shipment. God damn it, you have any idea what kind of paperwork is inv–” He stopped then, wincing. “I mean, sorry. Sorry, kid, you were great out there. Didn’t mean to sound ungrateful. Thanks for your work.” 

Oh boy, did I ever feel guilty right then. It would’ve been easier if he was a jerk, or at least dismissive. Swallowing, I nodded and reached out to him. “Here, I’ll help you get down, then make sure no one bothers you while you look through your shipment. I didn’t see her get near it, so it’s probably fine. But ahh, I’ll wait until you look through it. That’s the least I can do.” 

After all, I didn’t add, I kinda have to stick around to make sure our little ruse really worked. 

Helping the man down, I walked with him back to his truck. There was a uniformed cop there, already writing out a ticket. When he saw us approaching, the officer stopped. “You the driver?” 

We explained the situation, and the cop agreed not to ticket the guy (another potential problem off my conscience), and stuck around while he went into the back of the truck to check his load. 

Meanwhile, the cop and I stood outside the truck and waited. His name was Officer Lensroy, and because I so needed another reason to feel guilty about this, he was really nice. He asked me questions about being chased by Cuélebre, and seemed genuinely interested. He even made a few jokes. All of which made it harder and harder to stand there and lie to both him and the driver. But I had to. For Blackjack’s daughter, I had to. I’d make sure everything worked out. 

I hoped. 

Finally, the driver stepped down. “Looks good,” he announced with a voice of relief. “Never saw that girl go anywhere near the truck, and neither did ahh, Paintball was it?” When I nodded, he continued. “Neither did Paintball. And my handy little scanner here says every box is accounted for.” He waved the small device in his hand. 

I suppressed the urge to openly sigh in relief. It had worked. Twinkletoes managed to switch our box with the one that was already on the truck, and Eits’ little delayed magic with the computer system set the serial number on our box as the one that was supposed to be on the truck. Perfect. 

Congratulating the man on his truck being safe, I made my farewells. As I started to leave, Officer Lensroy called out, “Hey, one second!” 

A million things went through my mind just then, as I slowly turned my gaze back to him, waiting. No way was I going to say something potentially incriminating in that moment. 

The cop smiled at me. “Whoever you are, you run back to school now, you hear? Ain’t no emergency going on, and that lizard girl, wherever she is, ain’t causing trouble at the moment. Get on back to your classes. Hero or not, don’t you go making me call the truant officer.” 

Flushing a little, I saluted the man. “Yes, sir.” And I meant it. I would be going back to class. 

Just as soon as I made sure Wren had everything she needed to start building that suit. 

*******

It was the right piece. With that and what I picked up from the junkyard guy, Wren had what she needed. So now she was busy working. Pack and Fred were going to be running any physical errands she needed done over the day, and I would check in later. Hopefully, there wouldn’t be any unexpected problems. 

It was only after I’d left that I realized I hadn’t actually asked Pack what her school situation was like. Which probably made me worse at this whole hero thing than Officer Lensroy. 

In any case, for the moment, I was back in class. Or rather, lunch. As we had fairly often over the past little while, Jae, Amber, and I were eating while talking about our project. 

That was the idea, anyway. Mostly we gossiped, joked, and basically just hung out. We did work on the project too, of course. It was just… not as much time or effort as we spent talking. 

“So Cass,” Amber was saying as she stirred her pasta salad idly, “you must be happy about Tomas, right?” 

I blinked at her blankly, idly doodling with a colored pencil in my notebook. “Happy about Tomas?” 

“You know, Tomas Jackson?” she prompted. “That diplomat’s kid from–” 

“From London,” I finished for her, nodding as I absently picked up a different colored pencil and sketched a bit more. “Yeah, I know who you mean. But why would I be happy about him? He went home last year.” 

“You mean you don’t–” Stopping, Amber blinked toward the silent Jae, then back to me. “He’s back, Cassidy. He was in my first class this morning. You didn’t know that? I–” Realizing what she’d said then, the girl flushed. “I mean–sorry, I guess he just hasn’t had a chance to–” 

“It’s fine,” I assured her. “I–we broke it off when he went back to London anyway. I haven’t even exchanged more than a couple e-mails and texts since then. And I was at the doctor’s earlier. Maybe I would’ve run into him then.” I shrugged, thinking about that. “He really moved back here?” 

She nodded. “Something about his dad getting another assignment, right, Jae?” 

“That’s what he said,” the Albino girl confirmed quietly. She was watching me with a thoughtful, somewhat curious expression. About what, I couldn’t say. 

“Yeah,” Amber decided, nodding. “I’m sure he’ll come find you, he probably just has the other lunch period. So, you know, be ready for that.” She gave me an easy smile, eyes glancing down before widening. “Holy crap, dude.” 

“What?” Blinking the way she was staring, I found myself looking at the doodle in my notebook. 

It wasn’t a doodle. Somehow, while not really paying attention, I had used my colored pencils to draw and color a pretty damn good image of a knight fighting a dragon. 

“What, yourself,” Amber retorted, clearly thinking that I was just being falsely modest. “Can I see?” She waited until I moved my arm before tugging the notebook over. “Holy shit. That’s–when did you learn how to draw like this? That’s really good. That’s like… professional quality.” 

“I…” I hadn’t. I’d never drawn like that in my life. I’d taken no lessons for it or anything. I hadn’t even really been paying attention. So… how? How had I just done that? Was it part of my power? It had to do with like… colors and stuff, was it related? It had to be, right? But… but…

Realizing both the girls were staring at me, I felt the heat rise to my cheeks as I mumbled, “It’s not that big of a deal.” 

“Dude, trust me, this is a big deal.” Amber waved the notebook, sliding it to Jae for her to see better. “Like I said, that’s totally professional quality. Seriously good professional. You could be a comic book artist or–or something. And you did that just sitting here talking? That’s awesome. You’ve gotta show me some other stuff.” 

“I…” Swallowing back my total confusion, I nodded. “I’ll see what I can do.” 

Jae slid the notebook back to me, offering a smile and a quiet, “It’s really good.” 

I stared at the drawing briefly. They were right. It was good. My hand pressed down against it, as I felt that rush of confusion and uncertainty come back. How did I draw like that without even thinking about it? Was ‘super-artist’ really a side effect of my power? Why? 

Between that and the news that Tomas had apparently come back, I had a lot to think about that lunch period. 

And here I’d thought that I was going to be bored for the rest of the day. 

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Pursuit 4-07 (Summus Proelium)

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My orange paint could stand up to a good bit of damage. Unfortunately, I was pretty sure it wouldn’t stand up to eight guys all shooting me at the same time. That seemed slightly out of its range. And I for sure didn’t want to chance it right now. 

On the other hand, I also couldn’t let these guys take Ashton. If I did, it would basically be handing a death sentence to Blackjack’s daughter and probably him as well. Or giving the Ninety-Niners the ability to force La Casa to do anything they said in order to save her life. Either one was unacceptable. 

To buy myself time to think, I did the only thing that came to mind. I snarked. 

“Hey, guys! Good job following the scavenger hunt so far. But, you know, I kinda already claimed this ‘guy named Ashton’ so you’re kind of going to have to go find your own. I’m pretty sure there’s a country club like five blocks that way, and there should be like five of them there.”

The guy who had spoken before raised his pistol a bit to point at my head, making me gulp slightly. “I’ve got a better idea, how about you bounce on out of here and we take our prize?” 

So much for buying time to think. I had to do something, and I had to do it right now. But what? How was I supposed to—

Without warning, two of the guys were suddenly yanked off the ground. They yelped, as a figure became partially visible behind them, holding both up by their necks. The thing holding them wasn’t easy to make out. It seemed to blend in pretty well with the area around it, like some kind of super camouflage. But from what I could see, it didn’t look human. 

With a roar that pretty well cemented the not human bit, the strange figure hurled the two men in opposite directions to collide with either wall of the alley. They fell and didn’t get up again.

Meanwhile, the other six guys all rounded toward the almost invisible figure, their weapons going up. Before they could shoot, however, something dove out of the sky with a loud, terrifying screech. I barely caught a glimpse of the thing as it crashed into one of the men and yanked his gun away. It looked like some kind of lizard with feathered wings. 

Then something rushed past me, I just had time to jerk aside reflexively, my eyes snapping down to see another terrifying shape. This one stood about three feet tall at the shoulder, and looked like a sort of hairless, scaled cat. Or, more to the point, like a tiger with scales instead of fur. 

The men were still reacting to the sudden appearance of the half invisible tall figure and the bird. So they were taken completely by surprise as the hairless cat thing leapt at them from behind, knocking the leader to the ground with a petrifying roar. 

Then it all stopped. The six men who were still conscious were all clumped up in a circle, while the lizard-cat and the half-invisible thing still at on either side of them. The ‘bird’ was perched up on the end of a fire escape, giving a sharp screech while the thugs all looked in every direction in a panic, clearly unsure if they should start shooting or not. 

“You know,” a voice drawled, as a figure (this one actually human) stepped into view from around the corner, “I think they want you to drop your weapons.” She stopped then, giving me a good look at the newcomer. She wore a leather jacket that was black at the bottom, gradually shifting into green toward the top. The jacket had a hood attached to it, which was up, covering her hair, while her face was hidden behind some kind of black full mask that left no apparent holes for her eyes or mouth, making me wonder how well she could see through it. The effect almost made it look like there was nothing but a black void within the hood. The sleeves of the jacket were almost entirely black with a tiny bit of green at the ends to go with the green gloves she wore. Beyond that, she wore black cargo pants and combat boots. A sawed-off shotgun was in her hands. 

“I suggest you do what they want,” the masked and hooded girl informed the group while pointing that sawed-off at the men. “Before they get mad.” 

As if to add emphasis to her words, a much larger figure suddenly loomed up behind her. It looked like… well, like a goddamn enormous grizzly bear. Only, just like the other creatures, it scales instead of fur, and a sort-of… mohawk. Like an iguana, I realized. It looked like a bear crossed with an iguana. A Bearguana. 

If the men hadn’t already been freaked out, seeing the enormous fuck-off grizzly lizard (Grizzlizard?) rising into view from behind the girl with the shotgun did the trick. There was a sudden clattering of weapons as they quickly put them down, hands rising into the air. 

“Yeah, that’s what I thought,” the new girl noted. I couldn’t see her expression through the dark void that was her blank black mask, but I could hear the smirk in her voice. “Tell you what, you start running and don’t stop until you’ve gone ten blocks, and my friends here won’t eat you. Riddles, keep ‘em honest.” 

In response to her words, the bird-lizard thing leapt from its perch with a loud screech. That was echoed by a roar from the bear-lizard, which sent the men scrambling in a blind panic to pick up their unconscious companions before they fled out of the alley and down the street. In a second, they were out of sight, while the bird-lizard flew after them. 

Slowly, I turned my gaze (and my own thankfully hidden open mouth) to the girl. She stood there, watching me before giving a wave as my eyes found her. “Hiya. Name’s Pack. That the guy?” She nodded past me, to where Ashton was still thankfully trapped by the stay-down cuffs.

Shit. Quickly, I moved to stand between the girl and the prone man. As I stepped that way, the bear-lizard growled. It was joined by another bipedal creature that seemed to come out of nowhere. Belatedly, I realized it was the thing that had been semi-cloaked before. This new creature looked more like a gorilla. One which, as with all the others, had been crossed with a lizard. 

“I–I–thanks,” I somehow managed to stammer past all my confusion. “Thanks for chasing them off. But you still can’t take this guy. I…” Thinking quickly, I offered, “There’s a reward for him. I’ll let you have it if you help me get the stuff he stole back t–” 

“To Blackjack?” Pack cut me off. “Dude, he’s my boss. I work for him.” 

Of all the things she could have said right then (and given how utterly random and strange her sudden appearance had been to begin with, my bar was set pretty high), that was probably the most surprising. I stopped short, head tilting. “You… do? But Pack isn’t– err… wait, you mean Pack as in–”

“As in pack of cards,” she confirmed. “Or pack of animals. See how it works both ways? Seriously, do you? Because it was really hard to come up with a name that actually fit La Casa’s whole gambling term shtick, and I seriously hope it wasn’t too much of a stretch.” 

“Hey, bitch,” Ashton called from where he was trapped, “anyone ever tell you your boss is a murdering bag of jizz?!” 

Rather than respond to the man directly, Pack looked to me. “So yes, that is him.” 

“How… how did you… I mean…” I was trying to come up with the right way to ask the most important question that sprang to mind. 

“Find you?” she finished for me. “I mean, you weren’t exactly subtle. We’ve been searching the city, and Blackjack said that if you looked like you were onto something, we should give you a hand. I saw you, ahh, jump over my head, so I tried to catch up. You’re really fast, you know.”

She nodded past me, to Ashton once more. “If that’s him, we need to get the guy to Blackjack.” 

Unthinkingly, I blurted, “No!” Which was enough to make the tiger-lizard take a step toward me before Pack put a hand up to stop it. “Wait, Holiday.” To me, she spoke more carefully. “Excuse me? Hey, look, if this is about not sharing the reward–” 

It was my turn to interrupt her. “It’s not about that,” I put in quickly. “It’s about…” Sighing, I lowered my voice a bit. “If Blackjack gets him, he’s going to kill him for endangering his daughter. I can’t do that. I can’t just sentence a man to death. Not even that guy. He’s trying to avenge his dead friend.” As she made a noise as though to object, I pushed on quickly. “I’m not saying Blackjack won’t get the medicine. But that’s all he’s getting. I told him that when we… when we spoke. He’ll get the medicine, but not the man.” 

As the girl quietly considered that, another lizard poked his head out from where it had apparently been hiding inside her jacket. This one was a regular-looking gecko, head tilting curiously at me before scrambling up onto her shoulder with a quiet little chirp. 

“You’re right, Tuesday,” Pack murmured before focusing on me. “You get the vials out of that cocksucker and you can mail him to Siberia for all we care. Not like the boss couldn’t get to him wherever he gets sent anyway.” 

“That’s basically what he said,” I muttered under my breath before turning on my heel. Walking over, I picked up the first vial from where it had fallen. Turning the thing over in my hand to make sure it was intact, I stepped over to Ashton and checked through his pockets carefully. Nothing. Well, no vials. He had money, a wallet, a few keys, and some other assorted odds and ends. No more vials. 

“Right,” I started, “you heard the nice lady. Where’s the rest of them? You know, if you want to go to the nice comfy jail cell instead of being taken by the guy whose daughter you put in danger.” 

With a snarl, the guy retorted, “You mean the guy who’s gonna kill me anyway? Him or one of his lackeys. Her maybe, or one of the others. Nah, I’m not important enough to waste a Touched on. He’ll just tell one of his normal old thugs to put a bullet in me, just like they put a bullet in Carlos. That’s what’ll happen, and I’ll be just as dead as he is.”

“Dude,” I snapped, “I’m sorry about your friend. Seriously. But you can’t just let an innocent little girl die because you’re grieving. She didn’t do anything to you. You know what’s going to happen if you let her die? You’ll hurt Blackjack, yeah. But then he’ll take it out on the city, and a hell of a lot more people will die. Do you really want that? Come on. What happened to Carlos was a tragedy. It was. It’s horrible. Don’t make a bunch of other people die in some doomed attempt to settle some kind of vendetta. It won’t help. You won’t feel better. And all the people that die in the war you start will be worse.” 

After saying all that, I crouched there by the man. “So come on. Let’s just be done with all this. You don’t want to let all those people die. You’re better than that. I’m sure Carlos would want you to be better than that. He wouldn’t want you to do this, Ashton. Let’s stop this war before it starts and before a lot of people die. What do you say?” 

Swallowing visibly, the man met my gaze, softly echoing, “What do I say?” For a moment, he was quiet, before lifting his chin, gaze hardening. 

“I say fuck ‘em.” 

His words made my mouth fall open, as I stared at him. “What… you can’t–” 

“Holiday,” Pack started, “why don’t you bite his leg off. See what he thinks then.” 

Immediately, the large lizard-cat thing stalked toward the man while giving a low growl. As it came, Ashton’s gaze shot back to me. “You see? That’s the kind of people he works with.” 

“Dude,” I snapped, “you just said ‘fuck ‘em’ about both a little girl and an entire city full of innocent people. The moral high ground is pretty much Mount Everest to you right now.” 

I did, however, hold up my hand to the nearby girl. “But wait, just wait a second, please.” 

Her face was still entirely hidden, of course. There was nothing visible under that hood save for that black void. But she finally exhaled and spoke a single word of, “Wait.” At that, the lizard-cat stopped just a foot or so from the man, letting out a low, dangerous growl. 

“We have one vial,” I started, once it was clear that Ashton wasn’t about to have his leg gnawed on just yet. “How many are left?” 

“Five,” Pack replied. “There were six in that box. The girl needs all of them.” 

“How long can she last with one of these?” I asked then while holding up the vial. 

There was a brief pause before the girl slowly answered, “A month.” She was clearly looking straight at me. “You’re going to suggest we take the vial and use the month to convince Cheerful here to give up the other five.” Before I could say anything to that, she pointed out, “You know Blackjack could get it out of him a lot faster than you or the cops could.” 

My head shook. “Could he, though? He hates your boss enough that knowing how much it hurts him, he could probably stand a lot.” And I don’t want to think about just what Blackjack would put him through in the process, I thought to myself silently, with a little shudder. 

Flatly, Pack asked, “Do you have a better idea?” She was very clearly staring intently at me, even from behind that featureless mask. Not only that, but all her lizard-creature things were staring at me too, including Riddle, who had returned after making sure the other guys kept running. 

Heaving a long sigh, I looked at the prone, captured man for a moment. “We have the first vial. That… that buys time. What we need is…” I paused before smiling. “What we need is something that can make him tell the truth.” 

I could practically hear her raised eyebrow. “Do you have something like that?” 

“No,” I replied, “but I know a certain inventor that might be able to whip something up, given a little time. And… I’m also pretty sure they can help me keep him contained for awhile.” 

“You mean away from Blackjack,” the girl pointed out. 

I sighed. “And away from the cops.” There was no choice. Not only did I have serious concerns about the actual state of the authorities themselves with my father posing as one of the biggest heroes in the city, but even if they weren’t compromised, I couldn’t see them just handing over that medicine to Blackjack without trying to get something out of him. Like, say, his surrender. As much as I hated to think it, I didn’t trust them not to play games with the girl’s life. Even if they thought it was for the greater good. 

Shaking that off, I continued. “Like I said, he can have the first vial. I’ll tell him… I’ll tell him to give me two weeks to get the rest of the vials out of this guy. Two weeks. That’s half the time this single vial buys us.” Looking over to Pack, I added, “I found the guy in just a couple days, and one of the vials. Your boss can give me two weeks with him to get the rest of them.” 

She didn’t offer an opinion on that. Instead, the girl held a hand out. “I’ll take it to him.” 

I started to hand it over, then stopped. “You know, I don’t actually have any proof that you really work for Blackjack, do I? Not to call you a liar or anything, but you’ve gotta admit, it would be pretty dumb of me to hand this over when I’ve never seen you do anything with La Casa. I’ve never even heard of you before.” 

She coughed, offering a shrug and a muttered, “I’m pretty new.” 

“All the same,” I replied, “I think I’ll give the vial to Blackjack myself, after we get this guy somewhere safe and out of the way.” 

“Fine.” Pack took a step toward me, while both the big bear-lizard and gorilla-lizard things flanked her. With those two on either side of the girl and the predatory cat-thing in front of her, I really didn’t want to piss her off. She stopped there, looking my way while repeating, “Fine. But I’m going with you. I want to see this inventor so I can tell my boss myself that they can pull off this whole ‘getting the truth out of him’ thing. That’s the deal. I go with you, we see this inventor, and then we take that vial to Blackjack. Then I can tell my boss that I did my… you know, due diligence, or… whatever.” 

I couldn’t really argue with that too much, so I instead offered a shrug. “They might have something to say about all that, but let’s find out.” 

Wren had told me before I left her earlier that she wanted to do anything she could to help save that little girl, and that I should call the number she gave me if I needed anything. Praying that she really meant all that (while wondering just how bad this whole ‘illegal imprisonment’ thing was going to look if it got out), I took the phone from my pocket and hit the contact number on it. As it rang, I glanced over to Pack. “Oh, and uhhh… just for the record…

“It’s your turn to wear a bag over your head.”

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Interlude 3A – The Girl With The Lizards (Summus Proelium)

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Three months ago

Wearing a dark green ski mask and a black leather jacket with the logo of an alligator on the back, the girl entered the jewelry store shortly before closing time. As she passed through the metal detector, the old security guard sitting at a chair nearby came to his feet, his hand already reaching for his holstered pistol at the sight of the mask.

“Ma’am, I’m going to need you to—”

“Gently,” the masked girl interrupted without looking that way. “He’s an old man, we don’t want to hurt him.”

The elderly guard’s mouth opened to ask what that meant, but before more than a couple sounds had escaped him, something almost but not quite invisible reached out to catch hold of him. The thing blended in with the wall behind the man, the floor under their feet, and the very air itself to the point of being all but impossible to truly see at a glance. One had to look very close to even hope to make out its vague, ill-defined shape.

Whatever it was, the thing behind the guard pulled him back and squeezed just tight enough to make him collapse, lowering the old man gently to the ground, as ordered.

By that point, the handful of customers and staff still in the store had noticed what was going on, and were staring that way. One of the sales people behind the counter began to edge toward what was obviously an alarm button. Before she could get close to it, however, the masked girl called, “Tuesday!”

At that single, unexpected word (particularly considering it was actually Friday), a small shape leapt up from behind the girl. It landed on her shoulder just long enough to launch itself across the room to land on the counter in front of the saleswoman.

It landed there, giving the woman, and everyone else, a good look at it. The thing was shaped mostly like a monkey, a Capuchin monkey, to be exact. It was the right shape, the right size, had a tail, and so forth. However, the similarities ended there. The thing had no fur. It had scales instead, like a lizard. Its face and tail were decidedly lizard-like as well, though the latter retained the monkey tail’s prehensile nature.

The thing opened its mouth to reveal a large collection of sharp teeth, screeching in the woman’s face as she cried out and stumbled backward.

“Good boy, Tuesday,” The girl praised while coming closer. “Now, let’s see how much fun shiny stuff you people can put in a bag for me in the next ninety seconds, huh? Don’t worry, I’m not that picky. Just throw it all in a bag and I’ll be on my way.”

Racing a shaking hand to point at the creature on the counter, the saleswoman whimpered out, “W-what is that thing? Who are you?”

“Damn it!” the masked girl cursed, snapping her fingers. “I knew you were going to ask that! But I still don’t have a good name yet. It’s surprisingly hard to come up with a good name, you know? One that hasn’t been taken, one that isn’t stupid, one that isn’t going to get a bunch of lawyers sicced on me… it’s hard.”

Shaking her head dismissively then, the girl added, “And that’s Tuesday. He’s going to be keeping an eye on you. Just to make sure you’re not tempted to do anything stupid. Just fill the bag with shinies and we’ll be leaving. Nobody has to get hurt, and it’s all insured anyway.”

Spinning on her heel then, back toward the doorway where a man had been slowly edging, the girl raised a hand. “And you don’t wanna go that way! Twinkletoes? Show him why.”

The almost invisible shape moved away from the wall. As it did so, the thing became visible, shedding its camouflage. Like Tuesday, it looked like a cross between a lizard and something much furrier. In this case, the combination appeared to be a chameleon and a gorilla. It had the same massive size and general shape of the latter, and the basic appearance, scales, and face of the former.

The man who had been trying to leave stumbled back, cursing at the sight of it.

“Yup,” the unnamed girl chirped. “As you can see, Twinkletoes is a pretty good bouncer. But he’ll be nice as long as nobody makes a move for the door. Fair enough? Good, now about that bag of shinies…”

******

A few minutes later, the masked girl ran through a nearby alley, laughing giddily with each step. “Oh my God, how fun was that?!” She shook the bag full of jewelry and beamed while reaching up to take off the mask. Doing so revealed a dark-skinned, somewhat busty girl with short hair that had been spiked up. Most of the hair was black, save for the tips, which had been dyed shocking white.

Turning to Tuesday and Twinkletoes, who had been following her (the former riding on the latter), she grinned to them. “Come on, boys, let’s get your sister off lookout duty and—”

In mid-sentence, she was interrupted by a loud screech. The girl snapped her gaze up in time to see something fly down out of the sky, screeching once more before it landed on the edge of the nearby dumpster.

It was another reptile combination. In this case, the thing looked like a bearded dragon lizard that had been crossed with a large golden eagle. The thing really shouldn’t have been able to fly (particularly given the fact that only its wings seemed to have feathers), but managed to somehow. It landed on the dumpster and tilted its head curiously at the girl.

“Oh, there you are.” Smiling, the newly-unmasked thief reached out to rub the eagle-lizard’s face. “Hey there, Riddles. You ready to go home too?”

“Nice friends you’ve got there,” an unexpected voice announced, causing both the girl and all three of her companions to whirl that way.

The woman who stood there at the mouth of the alley was quite obviously Touched. Her costume consisted of sleek white pants with matching boots, a black turtleneck with a purple leather jacket over it, and a full head-covering white mask with dark purple lenses covering the eyes that matched the jacket. A silver briefcase sat beside her.

“Cardsharp?!” the girl blurted while Twinkletoes stepped in front of her with a growl at the woman. “You’re Cardsharp, from the… like… La Casa? What’re you doing here?” Defensively, she added, “You better not be trying to steal my haul.”  By that point, Tuesday had hopped onto Twinkletoes’ shoulder and was adding his own growl, while Riddles spread her wings to make herself bigger and gave a loud screech at the woman from where she was perched on the dumpster.

“Easy there,” Cardsharp murmured, spreading both hands with her palms out. “I didn’t come to fight or cause trouble. But ahhh, that store you just robbed back there? Yeah, it belongs to us. It’s in our territory, and the owners pay a decent amount for protection from… well…” She coughed and gestured to the bag from the store in question.

Blinking down, then back up again, the girl narrowed her eyes. “What, so you came to fight me for it? Came to teach me a lesson?”

“What?” The woman stared at her briefly before shaking her head. “You’ve been reading too many comic books. No. Like I said, I’m not here to fight. First of all, here.” Reaching down, she picked up the briefcase that had been at her side. Unlatching it, she showed her the contents. Cash. It was full of cash. “There should be the exact amount in here as what you would have gotten by selling that stuff, plus a couple thousand. You give back that bag and I’ll give you this case.”

The girl blinked again. “So I rob places you’re trying to protect and you just give me money to give it back?“

Cardsharp chuckled. “That wouldn’t really be a sustainable business model, would it? No, this is a one time deal. If it purposefully happens again, then we’ll have to take other, more unpleasant measures. But hopefully, that won’t be an issue. Because I’m not just offering you a cash payment. I am also offering you a place with our group, with La Casa. See, the boss believes in recruiting and nurturing new talent. And you… well, you look uniquely talented. So take the case. With the cash, you’ll find a card with a phone number on it. You decide to take me up on the offer, call that number and they’ll talk you through coming in for an evaluation and training. But first…” She held her free hand out, gesturing for the bag to be thrown to her.

The girl considered briefly. Actually fighting sounded bad, considering what she knew about the woman in front of her. Basically, Cardsharp’s powers allowed her to temporarily alter the physical properties of both herself and anything she was touching or had been touching within the past few seconds. She could make herself weigh almost nothing, or make herself weigh up to about a ton. She could also do the same for an object in her hands, reducing the weight of something by a huge amount, or increasing it. She could make herself extremely bouncy, or could throw a knife and give it the properties of a rubber ball so that it rebounded around a corner before returning its sharpness. Sticky, bouncy, sharp, heavy, light, she did absurd things to her own physical properties and that of the things she held.

No one seemed to know if her unerring, perfect aim with anything she threw was a power, or just skill. Either way, it just added to how dangerous she was. Especially as she had a habit of making something incredibly light so she could throw it easily, then making it incredibly heavy right before impact.

Yeah, she was a great big cheater, and while she seemed to only be able to alter the properties of one thing at a time (including herself), she was still a great pain in the ass for anyone who tried to fight her.

So, after a brief hesitation, the girl tossed the bag that way before noting, “This all sounds pretty official and stuff for some gang of thugs.”

Cardsharp smiled easily. “What can I say?

“That’s just the kind of guy the boss is.”

*******

One week later

 

“The boss is kind of a weird freak,” the girl with the lizard creatures announced. She was wearing the same get-up, with the mask stuffed into a pocket. She was once more addressing Cardsharp, as the two of them stood in a long hallway in front of an unlabeled door. The girl held a cage that had been covered with a blanket in front of her self with both hands.

“Not that he really minds people thinking so,” her sponsor into this whole thing replied, “but what makes you say that?”

“This,” the girl retorted, gesturing at the door in front of them. “You seriously want me to go to some kind of school thing? I thought you saw what kind of badass I was and wanted me to jump on your team.”

With a soft chuckle, Cardsharp shook her head. “You’ve got an intriguing power, one with a lot of potential. You’ve got a lot of potential. But you also have no fucking clue what you’re doing. That’s not an insult. Most people don’t have a fucking clue what they’re doing when they start with all this. The boss knows that. It’s why he set this place up. Everybody goes through training. Everybody. Doesn’t matter if you’re Touched or Prev.”

Prev. That was short for Prevalent, the generally accepted word for ‘normal humans without powers’ or ‘non-Touched.’ It wasn’t exactly insulting, and encompassed the idea that they were the majority while not calling them ‘normal’ as if there was something wrong with people who did have powers (a problem that just calling them human would also have had) The shortened form of ‘Prevs’ was also often seen as another way of saying ‘Previouslies’, as in ‘humans before they had super powers.’

Cardsharp was continuing. “There’s different kinds of training depending on what you are, but everyone gets training of some kind. Think of it as a combination school and boot camp. You’ll go through three months of this before you hit the field.”

For a moment, the girl stared at her as though she had to be joking. “Are you serious? Three months of training before I do anything on the streets?”

The woman nodded once. “That’s the rules. It’s what Blackjack insists on, and it works. Trust me, there’s a reason our people are better than the other guys out there. We are better trained, we’re better armed and equipped, and we know how to work together. Our squads train together, live together, and work together. everyone matters, and that means no one is cannon fodder. Which means we’re not going to send you out on those streets until you actually know what you’re doing.

“So yes, three months of training. Take my word for it, it’s worth it. You’ll never have to go out there alone again. You’ll be part of La Casa, The House. And we take care of our own. Or you can turn around and walk right back out of here, no hard feelings. But this is your only chance, there’s no do-overs. You leave now, you’ll never be invited again. And believe me, you’ll make a hell of a lot more with us than out on your own.”

For a second or two, the girl looked indecisive. She lowered her gaze to the covered cage in her hands, biting her lip before finally looking up. “Okay, we’re in.”

Cardsharp gave her a thumbs up. “Good choice. Now before we go in and meet your classmates, may I assume that you have your friends there? That means they can shrink down again?”

The girl nodded. “They go back and forth. All I have to do is think about it and they’ll change back.”

“Excellent,” Cardsharp replied with a thumbs up. “Now I know their names are Tuesday, Riddles, and Twinkletoes, and that you haven’t chosen a Touched name. But what should we call you?”

There was one more brief pause before she answered. “Danielle Kalvers.

“Call me Dani.”

******

Present Day

“Dani!”

The blurted cry came from Dani’s left as the black girl stepped out of the building that had been her home for the past three months. Turning there on the sidewalk, she barely had time to open her mouth before she was suddenly caught up in a tight hug by a girl several inches shorter than her own five foot five.

It was KD. The super enthusiastic girl was barely over five feet, with pale skin and bright blue hair fashioned into pigtails. She wore sunglasses with little yellow smiley faces on the lenses.

“Oof,” Dani muttered, “hey, KD.”

Bouncing up and down a little, the other girl finally stepped back, grinning broadly. “Can you believe it? We’re graduating! We’re gonna be real supervillains!” She gave an excited squeal then, spinning all the way around on one foot.

Dryly, Dani replied, “I think you might have a little further to go on the whole villain thing.”

KD stuck her tongue out while retorting something incomprehensible. Then she tried again, this time without her tongue out. “Don’t be a grump. It’s time to celebrate! And hey, I even…” As she spoke, the girl pulled off the backpack she was wearing and reached inside. “…got you a present!”

With that announcement, she pulled out a smaller cage with a wide-eyed little lizard in it. “Ta da! It’s a crocodile skink. I wanted to get you a real crocodile, but, you know, not allowed to go do villain things like rob the zoo until after graduation. Do you like her?”

Staring open mouthed, Dani slowly reached out to take the cage, lifting it up so she could see the skink better. “Oh my God, KD, you didn’t have to do that.”

“You’re my friend,” KD replied. “Besides, I haven’t gotten to see you do it with a new one yet. I wasn’t here when you got Mars Bar. Can I see you do it this time? Huh, huh?”

Smirking despite herself at her friend’s excitement, Dani nodded while turning to walk back behind the building. “Sure, come on.”

The complex they were staying at was miles outside of Detroit proper. To the outside world, it was some kind of religious camp or whatever. Dani wasn’t sure. The point was, it was walled off and required about a half hour drive along a rocky dirt road to reach. There were a handful of buildings out here and a garage full of vehicles. The place really was like a whole university or something.

Together, she and KD walked past a group of people training to be La Casa foot soldiers, moving to a more private spot behind the academics building they had just left.

As Dani reached into the cage to take out the skink, KD asked, “So how does it work? I mean, I know you can only choose one other animal to combine them with, and that’s the only other form they get, but how do you choose?”

Clearing her throat, Dani started, “First, she needs a name.” Holding the skink carefully, she considered for a moment before pronouncing, “Holiday. Her name is Holiday.”

“Cuz she’s a present!” KD blurted with a wide smile. “I get it. Okay, so…”

“So now,” Dani finished for her, “I focus on thinking really hard about the animal I want to combine her with.”

“Well,” KD recited, “Twinkletoes is a chameleon combined with a gorilla. Tuesday is a gecko combined with a monkey. Riddles is a bearded dragon combined with an eagle. And Mars Bar is an iguana crossed with a grizzly bear. Which is really freaking scary, for the record. What do you need next?”

Dani considered that. Monkey, gorilla, eagle, and bear. What did she need? “Something big enough to take care of itself, but faster than Twinkletoes or Mars Bar. Like a wolf. Or…” Her smile brightened. “Or a panther.”

Kneeling down on the ground, she set the newly dubbed Holiday in front of herself before putting two fingers on the lizard’s back. As she focused, the skink suddenly went very still, eyes closing as both girl and lizard fell into a kind of trance.

Almost ten minutes passed that way before Dani opened her eyes. As she did so, the girl found herself facing a much different skink.

As she’d wanted, the skink was now combined with a panther. It looked like a cross between the two animals, a reptilian hunting cat without any fur. To many it probably would have looked horrifying and dangerous. But Dani immediately hugged her new friend. “Holiday!”

KD came in for a hug with both of them as well, proclaiming, “That was awesome! I mean, not much happened at first, but then she started growing, and you were all whispering stuff, and then she was growing some more, and then you were both making noises, and then poof! Here she is.”

Rubbing the top of Holiday’s head for a moment, Dani smiled. “Come on, girl.” With a thought, she shifted the creature back into her small lizard form. It took about ten seconds for the panther-reptile to fully shift and shrink back down into her ordinary skink form. Once she had, Dani reach down and picked her up. “Let’s go meet your brothers and sister.”

Before they could go anywhere, however, a figure stepped into view. It was Elarc Sorn, one of their combat instructors.

“Girls,” he announced, “Time to pack your things. It’s all hands on deck.

“La Casa’s about to go to war.”

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