Uncle Friendly

New Deals 13-07 (Summus Proelium)

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It wasn’t a mistake, apparently. My name was written out and everything. Paige was inviting me to her birthday party. Or her (adopted) parents were making her. Or this was some kind of elaborate trap. Actually, the fact that I genuinely wasn’t sure if it was a standard mean girl school teenage bullshit trap or something more nefarious involving her supervillain father (not that I had any room to judge as far as that went) kind of said something about how my life was. 

So which was it? Assuming this whole thing was intentional, was Paige playing her bitchy shtick again, waiting for me to either come so she could pull something or not come so she could tell everyone what a snob I was? Or was it something worse she and her father had cooked up?

Complicating everything, of course, was the fact that I’d found out we used to be friends. Which was still something that I couldn’t wrap my head around, no matter how many times I thought about it. Paige Banners and I were friends at some point? The same girl who had been… who had made so much of my school life… who had… how were we friends? Why was she apparently so different now? It couldn’t just be memory loss, right? What was going on? 

In any case, two days (really a day and a half) after getting the invitation, I still didn’t know exactly what that was all about. Unfortunately, I didn’t have much of a choice about going. Apparently Paige’s family (or the people who had apparently adopted her?) had also sent the invitation to my parents, making it an official sort of thing, and my mother had said that I needed to put in an appearance to avoid upsetting the Banners. It was a rich people thing. My family was rich, the Banners were rich, we had to play nice in some respects. I didn’t have to stay for long, but I had to at least show up. 

In any case, now it was Friday, which meant two things. First, we were supposed to have dinner with that reporter guy who was up from Los Angeles. And second, I was going out that night to meet with those two from before, Murphy and Roald. I actually had a plan for that bit, at least. I’d talked with Wren and she said she could use their help putting some stuff together. Extra hands and all that. 

So, that at least was something I could start them on. Honestly, I was just glad I’d come up with an answer to one of the questions I’d been thinking about the past couple days, even if it was the simplest one. As for the whole birthday thing and the wider Paige situation… yeah, I had nothing. My brain kept saying that at least I could use this chance to find out more. It was the best opportunity I’d been offered to get close to Paige (a thought that would have made me dry heave not long ago) without it being obvious that I was investigating her. She’d invited me, after all, whatever the reason. I could use that, maybe. 

To distract myself from all those confusing thoughts (as well as the fact that I had every reason to be suspicious about this party), I was taking a trip through the city as Paintball about an hour after school. Not really looking for anything in particular, just running and skating through the rooftops and across buildings to clear my head. I was going to have to head home for dinner eventually, but that wouldn’t be for another couple hours. We weren’t eating until seven, which gave me plenty of time to take a good run and hopefully get my brain on straight before it twisted itself into knots. 

Yeah, clearing my mind was obviously going super-well, given how much I was still thinking about that whole thing. Urgh. Giving my head a hard shake, I focused on where I actually was. The answer, in that case, was ‘skating along the very edge of a roof, using green paint for speed as I raced toward the far end.’ The building was a good twenty stories high, leaving the view immediately to my left fairly… precarious, to say the least. I ignored that, staring straight ahead as the wheels of my skates glided easily along the roof. The green paint meant I was ‘gliding’ at about forty miles an hour, so the far end was coming up pretty fast. That steep drop loomed. 

Spraying blue paint at the very edge of the roof just in time, I activated it, crouching at the last second before I was launched up and forward with a loud scream of adrenaline. Fuck, fuck! Say whatever about the stress of my whole situation, but I loved this part of my powers. It was so incredibly freeing. I literally hurled myself out into open air twenty stories up. If I fell, if I fucked up, if my powers dropped for whatever reason, if I made any real mistake, the consequences would have been catastrophic. It was terrifying but also so… so amazing. I loved it. I loved my powers, and how I could use them. 

Flipping over high in the air, I twisted my body until my feet were pointed sideways toward the side of the building I was flying at. The momentum from my launch carried me clear across the street that was so far below, until I hit that wall. Instantly, the pace-skates that Wren had put together shifted gravity so that being sideways against that building was the same as being right-side up for me. I didn’t even slow down, ‘landing’ hard against the wall before immediately continuing to skate, that time along the wall. My skates made clickety-clack sounds as they passed through the grooves of the bricks, almost calming in a way. Especially if you didn’t think about how high up you were. It helped. All of this was helping me feel better. 

Before reaching the edge of that wall, I retracted my skates with a quick command and simply ran the last few steps while focusing on the purple stars I’d previously set up along my legs. Activating them for the strength boost, I threw myself sideways off the wall. At the same time, I turned my entire arm and hand bright pink and heaved it out as hard as I could while activating that paint as well. My arm, suddenly rubberized, actually stretched a good ten feet out to catch hold of the ledge of another building. Between the purple and pink paint, I was able to grab the ledge and swing myself over that way, letting out another loud whoop of joy at the rush. 

Releasing the ledge as I managed to swing myself over, I cancelled the pink paint so my arm snapped back to normal. Now I was diving through the air feet-first, at an angle toward the side of a much lower building, only a few stories tall. 

Pointing my hands that way, I shot a spray of pink paint, activating both that and the orange sun image I already had on my back. The instant before I would have hit the pink paint, I deactivated it, shifting the pink to its secondary effect of making the target very springy for those brief few seconds. Which was all the time I needed before my feet collided with the wall, visibly denting it inward a bit before it snapped back to the way it had been to launch me back up and toward the opposite side of the street. 

Flipping over through that, I hit the wall of another building a couple stories up and glanced down to see a few people taking pictures from below, or even waving. A few called, asking for autographs, or even for a ‘ride’ through the city.   

I waved back, crouching a bit to slap my hand against the wall. The logo I’d made up for ‘signing’ things back at the Ten Towers headquarters appeared. Black oval with ‘Paintball’ written in white cursive letters, along with a rainbow spray of all the other colors from one side to the other. I made the logo large enough to see before throwing myself back into a run once more. I’d let the people down there have some time to take pictures of the logo before dismissing it so some poor guy didn’t have to scrub it clean. 

Yeah, that stuff seemed pretty silly and even arrogant if I thought about it too much, but I’d heard about how important it was to keep a good public image. I really didn’t have it in me to drop down there and talk to people while I was still trying to clear my head. But I could, at least, give them that little logo thing to show I wasn’t ignoring them. Besides, playing things up like that was fun. And I had to admit, the cheers as I ran along the wall before using blue paint to launch myself up and away were pretty amazing to hear. 

Just as I landed on the edge of another roof, the Touched-business phone buzzed in my pocket. Glancing down to see the people gathering up under the logo I’d painted to take pictures, I pulled the phone out and glanced down. It was the number That-A-Way had given me. 

“Hey, you busy?!” she immediately blurted the second that I answered. It sounded like she was out of breath. “Cuz we could use a little help over here!” 

Well, that got my attention. Quickly straightening, I asked, “Help over where, with what?” Tempting as it was to add a snarky comment about how she better not be asking me to help her move, I restrained the impulse. This sounded serious. She was definitely in the middle of something big, given the shouts and other sounds I could vaguely hear in the background. 

There was a brief pause while That-A-Way clearly dealt with something else, before she responded. “Fox Theatre on Woodward! Near downtown. You know where–what the fuck am I saying–the baseball stadium! We’re at the baseball stadium! There’s some big fight going on between the–Rain, get down! Some big fight going on between the Niners and the Eights. They’ve got the big guns a couple blocks north, but we’re catching the edge of it and could use a little–” There was a sudden loud pair of gunshots that cut off her words, and my heart leapt into my stomach until her voice came back midway through a sentence, “–of shit! Paintball?” 

“I’m on my way!” I blurted quickly, wanting the other girl to focus on what she was doing. “I’ll be right there, I’m just–I’m coming, just a few minutes out!” With that, I dismissed the logo on the building nearby before running to the edge of the roof I was on, launching myself upward. Fox Theatre on Woodward. That was the same street where the library that I’d eavesdropped on Paige’s conversation with her father was on, but a couple miles further south. And That-A-Way was right, it was also directly next to Whitaker-Trammell Field, the massive domed baseball stadium (for the Detroit Tigers) my father had helped fund the creation of to replace the former Comerica Park about ten years earlier.

In any case, I really was only a few minutes away. At least the way I traveled. Staying atop the buildings, I raced toward the theater as quickly as possible. My skates seemed to barely touch down before I launched myself again, urging myself to fucking move already. It didn’t matter how fast I was going. It didn’t matter that I was hurtling myself recklessly through the air while barely paying attention to my surroundings. It felt too slow. Go, go, I had to get there. If something happened to That-A-Way, or any of the others, because I was too slow to help… I couldn’t let that happen. I had to get there right god damn now. 

Actually, I really wasn’t paying that much actual attention to my surroundings. I was running along the side of buildings, jumping across billboards, popping my skates out to glide across the very edge of roofs, all while going way too fast to be judging all of this manually. It was like when I was navigating through those trees in the middle of the night. I just… knew where to go. 

Not something to worry about right then. Another example of my weird extra sense or whatever, but I didn’t have time to focus on it. The Minority. That-A-Way. I had to get there to help. Any other weirdness could wait until later. 

On the plus side, it didn’t actually take that long for me to get where I was going. And it took an even shorter amount of time for me to hear some of what was going on. There was gunfire, blaring horns and squealing tires from cars still trying to get away from being in the middle of it, screaming, and more. So much more. I was heading straight into a storm of chaos and violence. And, from the sound of what That-A-Way had said, this was just the edge of things. Just how bad was it further north, where the so-called ‘big guns’ were fighting? 

Pretty bad, clearly. But I had to focus on helping these guys. First, however, I had to see what was going on. My eyes scanned the street below frantically as I came to a stop at the edge of an office building across the street from the theater itself. Below me was the spot where the smaller Columbia street crossed Woodward. Columbia led straight through a couple large parking lots directly in front of the stadium. 

But baseball wasn’t the point. The real point were those two parking lots and the theater across Columbia street. There were people down there, spread all through the street, partially in the theater itself from the look of things, and in those parking lots. It was a mix of police, Prev gang members, Touched gang members, and the Minority. Not to mention a handful of civilians who were cowering on the ground, unable to get out of the line of fire. 

Judging from my quick look, what Way had said made sense. There were definitely two different gangs down there, a mix of Ninety-Niners and Easy Eights. It looked like some kind of massive fight had broken out, the cops intervened and were quickly outgunned, and now the Minority were trying to help. But they too were outnumbered. Luckily, the two gangs seemed more interested in fighting each other than in actually causing damage to the Star-Touched or police.

There. Janus (Uncle Friendly and Mister Harmful) were standing at the edge of the nearest parking lot. They’d made their hands and arms massive, and were currently using them to lash out at the nearby Whamline. But the Minority guy kept launching energy coils that exploded to knock the incoming hands out of the way. He couldn’t do more than that, fighting a defensive battle, because there were two civilians huddled on the ground right behind him. Whamline was covering them, repeatedly knocking Janus’ hands out of the way. But with every grasp, the conjoined men kept getting closer to getting hold of him. They were using the fact that Whamline had to protect the prone civilians against him, almost like they were playing a game. Like a cat with a mouse. They were wearing him down. 

Using one shot of blue paint to launch myself that way, then another on top of the traffic light in the middle of the intersection, I flipped over in the air before shooting a spray of pink toward the tall lamp post about ten feet away from Janus, coating it as much as possible. Just before crashing into that same post (activating a bit of orange on one arm to avoid knocking the wind out of myself), I cancelled the pink paint while blurting, “I know you’re into this villain thing, but–” My full body hit the post, bending it all the way over in half before I threw myself off it to the side. “–I really think you should see the light!” As I said those last words, the lamp post snapped all the way upright and then continued over in the opposite direction, like flicking one of those springy doorstop things. The top of the lamp literally slammed into the top of their joined heads. “Up close and personal-like,” I finished from my crouched position, watching the men reel backward. Or forward, in Uncle Friendly’s case. Not that he looked all that friendly right then. They both seemed fairly annoyed with me, even as the lamp post snapped back to its normal position. But hey, at least I had their attention. 

Green paint, green paint, green paint! Activating the wide emerald wings I’d put on my back, I used the enhanced speed to barely avoid the truck-sized fist that Janus basically launched at me. Hurling myself upward and over, I landed on his extended wrist as that hand shot by right under me, shooting yellow down at that to slow them just a little. At the same time, I threw myself in a sideways flip, hitting the underside of their other arm, which was raised slightly higher, running along that with my gravity-defying boots.  

A few steps in and Janus clearly knew where I was, as the arm lifted up before abruptly slamming toward the ground. They were trying to squish me like a fly. And they might’ve managed it, if I hadn’t used that shot of yellow to slow them slightly. As it was, I barely managed to toss myself at the ground and away from the descending arm, tucking into a forward roll that carried me just out of the way as it slammed into the ground so hard I nearly lost my balance. 

Fortunately, the fact that I’d managed to get their attention so well wasn’t all bad news. It also meant that Whamline was able to regroup. Mister Harmful shouted a cursed warning, but it was too late, as the Minority Touched sent out four quick energy coils, which wrapped around Janus by all four limbs before quickly hurling him out of the way and across to the far side of the lot. 

“Go help Way and Rain!” he blurted at me, pointing to the theater across the street. “They’re inside, with hostages! I’ve got these guys!” 

My head snapped that way. I could see where the doors of the theater had been broken down entirely. That-A-Way and Raindrop were in there with bad guys and innocent civilians, apparently. Without pausing to think at all, I threw myself into a sprint that way, ignoring the screamed threat from Mister Harmful. He didn’t matter. Neither did his conjoined partner. The only thing that mattered was getting to That-A-Way and Raindrop. 

And hoping I wasn’t too late. 

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Alliances 6-01 (Summus Proelium)

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Something flicked hard against my helmet, snapping me awake with a gasp. I tried to sit up to take stock, but a hand was holding me down. A very big hand. 

My eyes opened, only to see the smiling face of Uncle Friendly staring down at me. He had enlarged his hand to take up most of my torso, easily holding me in place. “There we are,” the man announced. “You’re awake now.” 

“Good!” The snarled word came from the back of his head, where Mister Harmful’s face was. “If he’s awake, let’s get on to the fun part. We owe this little bastard.”

Oh… okay, this was bad. This was really bad. I couldn’t even tell where I was, aside from the fact that it was some room somewhere. I’d been knocked out long enough that we were no longer out on the street. We could have been anywhere. I… what was I supposed to do now? 

Besides be afraid, because I was acing that part. 

I started to shift a bit, but Uncle Friendly tightened his grip painfully, drawing a gasp from me. His voice was still polite and calm. “I see one bit of paint and I’m afraid I’ll just have to snap every rib you have. Then I’ll take those ribs and start jamming them through random bits of your body. And we really don’t want that, do we?”

“We don’t?” his other self retorted. “I thought that was the Plan A.”

Uncle Friendly gave a soft chuckle. “Forgive my eager counterpart. He finds it difficult to forgive and forget. I’m afraid you very much annoyed him, and he’s quite looking forward to hurting you. Let’s try not to let it come to that. You and I, we can work this out peacefully, I believe.”

For a moment, I was silent, mind swimming as I thought to think of anything. That, and I needed a few seconds to collect myself so my voice would do more than whimper. Finally, all I could do was manage a weak, “So, is talking allowed?”

That smile of his brightened. “Of course it is! We can talk about a lot of things. But there’s one thing I’d rather focus on first. I think you know.”

Despite everything, a dozen potential smartass retorts popped into my head. But honestly, I… I was afraid. Yeah, maybe it was stupid and a real hero would’ve been cool and collected. But me? I was just scared, even if I didn’t want to show it. Could I put blue paint on myself to knock the man away for me? Probably. But could I do it fast enough that he couldn’t do a hell of a lot of damage to me first? I didn’t know. And this really wasn’t the best time to test it. I wasn’t even sure I could activate orange paint quickly enough to protect me from his retaliation. Except maybe I could put it on my back. If I put it on my back, I could hide it from him and—

“Now, now.” Friendly whacked a finger in front of my face. “You’re thinking. This isn’t something you need to think about. You know exactly what we need from you, don’t you?”

Face hidden behind my helmet and mask, I hesitated for just a second before replying, “You think I can tell you where Ashton Austin is.”

“You see?” Friendly gave a cheerful laugh. “We’re doing so well. You’re great at this. Except for one thing. We know you can tell us where the guy is. And the inventor girl. Both of them. You can tell us where they are, and we’ll all be civilized about this.”

They wanted Wren too? That made me focus more than anything else had. Slowly, I nodded. “Yeah. I guess. There’s just one problem. See, you keep insinuating about all the bad things you’re going to do to me if I don’t do what you want. Which could be a great motivator, don’t get me wrong. But like you said, there’s a little girl involved. Two, actually. And if I tell you what I know, I’ll be sentencing one to death, and the other to whatever painful things you already have in mind for me. If you think I’d be okay with that, that I’d help kill one girl and condemn another to being your slave so you can torture her into building you weapons to kill even more people… then you’re even dumber than that two-headed freak show act makes you look.”

A sudden pain filled my chest, as the man clamped down. It only lasted for a second, before he released me to spend his torso around so I was facing Mister Harmful. There was a sadistic grin on the second man’s face, and he raised his free hand while clamping down once more with the other. “Oh, I am so glad you said that. You’re mine now, you little cocksucker. I’ll show you just what a mistake you made.”

This was it. I had to get out of here right now, while I still had the—

“Stop.” The simple, yet commanding voice came from someone beyond Janus. Harmful sighed, making a face at me, while Friendly spoke. “At ease, Cav. We’re just getting a few answers. As long as the boy cooperates, he won’t suffer any permanent damage. But I’m afraid he needs to be convinced of the seriousness of the situation and our… enthusiasm.”

The voice, which I now recognized as female, spoke again. “Your boss wants to see him now. You know, upright and walking? As opposed to whatever condition he’d be in when you two finished up.”

Keeping their hand on my chest warningly, the conjoined pair slowly moved out of the way so I could see who they were speaking to. It was a rather voluptuous woman a couple inches under six feet. She wore a dark red bodysuit with black swirly lines randomly patterned across it, with black gloves and boots. Her face was covered by a large, oversized set of red goggles with some kind of breathing apparatus attached over her mouth and nose, like a gas mask. 

The woman saw me looking and chuckled briefly. “Good morning, little boy. Like what you see?”

With that, she was suddenly kneeling in front of me. Along with about five other versions of herself all lined up behind her all the way back to where she had started. A couple seconds later, all of them aside from the one kneeling in front of me disappeared, starting with the one furthest back and quickly making its way all the way up to her as they each in turn popped out of existence. 

I knew her. Or of her. This was Cavalcade. Her power was essentially a mixture of superspeed and duplication. Basically, she moved really fast in any direction by creating a duplicate of herself, then that version created another duplicate, and so on. She did this so quickly that it seemed to be super speed. Each duplicate only lasted a couple seconds before disappearing, so when she was running around, you’d see a trail of about twenty or thirty versions of her. I’d seen videos of her using it to surround a target and attack them from all sides at once. It was… pretty cool. 

And she also wasn’t a member of the Easy Eights. At least, not the last I’d heard. Cavalcade was a Sell-Touched, a mercenary, sometimes working for the bad guys, sometimes for the good guys. She went where the money was, like Lastword and Two-Step. 

Apparently the Easy Eights were currently paying her, because here she was, patting my arm reassuringly. “Don’t you worry. I’ll take you away from the big bad freakshow. But first…” She held up something I knew quite well. It was a pair of the stay-down cuffs. Which I really shouldn’t have been surprised that they had access to, yet made me wince inwardly nonetheless. 

She chuckled softly. “Yeah, he knows what they are. Come, turn over, let’s get you ready to see the lady throwing buckets of cash at me.”

The woman who was paying her. Deicide. She wanted to take me to see Deicide. Oh, this was bad. This was really bad. What was I supposed to do? I had to get out of here, but how? I still didn’t know where I was, aside from the fact that I could now see we were in a cement room that was probably intended to be a holding cell of some kind. That’s what they were using it for, anyway. A large metal door was over in the direction she had come from. But how could I get past Janus and Cavalcade? And even if I did manage that, I had no idea where that door led. Nor did I know how many threats might lay beyond it. I could maybe take them by surprise and get out to the hall, but then what? There could be anyone there. And this woman had super speed, of a sort. What in the living hell was I supposed to do now?

My musings were interrupted by a growl from Harmful. “She told you to do something, you little brat. Don’t make me—”

The woman held up a hand to stop him. “It’s okay, he’s just making sure there’s not an easy way to escape.” Her attention turned back to me then, tone curious. “So, are you satisfied or do we have to do this the hard way?” She didn’t sound threatening at all, more genuinely interested in what I was going to do. And totally casual, of course. It’s not like she really saw me as a threat given the situation. 

It almost would’ve been worth it to punch her, just to see how she reacted. But on the other hand, I really didn’t want to be left here with Janus. Plus, even with the cuffs on, if I got out of here, I could see what lay beyond this cell. There could be an opening. 

So, with an inward sigh, I turned over to present my wrists behind my back. Boy, did this ever suck. I was definitely not going to talk about this in any potential memoirs. 

Did people still write memoirs? 

The cuffs secured my hands behind my back, and the woman stood up with a gesture. “Come on, let’s go. You know how these things work, so stay right with me. You try to run off and you’ll regret it, I promise. And not just because of the cuffs.”

Friendly gave me a little wave, promising that we’d see each other soon. Then the woman led me out of the door. Beyond lay a slightly larger room that looked pretty similar. There were a couple armed thugs there, sitting at a table playing cards. They looked up as we came in, one of them coming to some form of attention. The other leaned back to get a better look at Cavalcade’s backside as we passed through. She ignored them entirely, taking me to the opposite door. There, we were met by a guy who at first glance looked like any other gangbanger. Really, he had baggy jeans with a chain hanging from them, a couple layers of shirts, and a leather jacket, all with nasty sayings on them. The only thing that gave him away as being Touched was the green helmet he wore. It was a full head and face covering thing, made of some kind of metal with clasps on either side. The front of the helmet was an engraved face of a laughing man, and the eyes were covered by sunglasses. 

This, I knew, was Sockinit. Yeah. Unlike my escort, he was one of the official Easy Eight Touched, one of their eight lieutenants, like Skadi and Janus. His power allowed him to dampen or cancel any number of things. He could mute voices or other sounds, stop chemical reactions from occurring, disable electricity, even slow or stop someone’s powers from functioning properly for awhile if he focused long enough on them. 

“Yo, Cav,” Sockinit drawled as we approached the door, “I was thinking–” 

“Don’t,” the woman interrupted. “Because every time you think, you say something stupid that makes me kick your ass, and it turns into a whole thing.” 

She brushed past him, pulling me with her while the man was still reacting to her words. We exited into what was obviously a warehouse. There were people moving crates around, a forklift nearby being loaded up, and a supervisor with a tablet, directing everyone about where to go. I could see the boxes were labeled with both serial numbers and the names of the eight lieutenants in the gang, including the guy we had just passed. 

My escort led me through the maze of shelves and crates. I glanced up as subtly as possible a couple times, looking for a skylight or something. But it was just a blank metal ceiling. Of course, it wouldn’t be that easy. What was I thinking? 

I was thinking that I desperately needed to get out of here, before the situation got even worse than it already had. Unfortunately, I seriously had no idea how to do that. It wasn’t like I could do anything useful like teleport.

Unless the pink paint did that. But I wasn’t going to count myself as that lucky. Plus it hadn’t done anything like that before, so why would it start now? 

Cavalcade led me to a back office. A couple guards there looked up as we approached. These were more alert than the other ones had been, and one turned to open the door behind them while the other gave a nod of greeting. 

“Go on then,” my escort prompted while giving me a little push. “She wants to see you, and the cuffs are keyed to her too. And don’t embarrass me, kid, I kinda like this job. Pays pretty well.”

Right, okay. This is it. Did I have any ideas about how to get out of here without seeing the Easy Eight leader? Did I have a way to escape without walking into that room, with these guards in front of me, Cavalcade behind, and a warehouse full of enemies, while wearing these handcuffs that would slam me to the ground as soon as I tried to leave?

No. No, I did not. So I had no choice. Closing my eyes briefly, I exhaled before walking through the door. 

Entering the office, I saw Deicide immediately. As usual, she looked like a tall, paper-covered female knight. Or like a statue made of paper. Either way, she stood in the corner of the room, near a large wall-mounted television that was currently dark. As I came in, her head turned toward me, and a handful of books floated off the nearby desk. One of them opened up, pages turning rapidly until it stopped, as a disembodied voice read a word on the page. “Hello—” A second book had already been flipping through its pages, stopping at another point to add, “Paintball.”

Yeah, that was really freaky. And, speaking objectively, pretty cool. As far as I knew, no one understood why she didn’t just speak for herself. There were rumors that she was actually mute, or that she just did it for intimidation. Either way, this was how she communicated. 

We faced each other for a moment before I nodded. “I’d wave, but…” I shrugged my shoulders pointedly to indicate the handcuffs. “Of course, you could always take them off. Then I’ll do all the waving you like.”

The floating books flipped through pages rapidly, words coming basically as quickly as a single person talking normally. “On your way out the door, I suppose? You’re fun, kid. I hope nobody has to hurt you too much.”

It was a reminder that made me swallow a little, lifting my chin. “Like I told your pit bull in the other room, I’m not sentencing one kid to being tortured by you people until she builds whatever you want, and another one to die from some disease just so you can take her medicine and—”

In mid-sentence, I was interrupted as the figure in front of me held up a small, familiar object. The books flipped through pages before announcing, “This medicine?”

That was it. It was a vial, just like the one  I had gotten from Ashton. They were basically identical. my mouth fell open, and I just stared for a moment. “You… you have the—”

“Just one,” the floating books informed me while Deicide tucked the vial away somewhere on herself while continuing to speak through her books. “Let’s just say, Cuélebre’s men found it. As I understand, the Ashton boy hid it somewhere in the inventor girl’s shop. They turned the place upside down, but this was the only one. And I ensured that it made its way here.”

There was a brief pause then, while I continued to stare and shock, before she mused, “He didn’t tell you about that yet, did he? So he’s still being cagey about where the rest of them are.”

I started to say something, but she held up a hand, her books continuing. “Let’s settle a few things right now. First, if I wanted to take the location of your friend, I could. Along with any other secret you might have.” 

Before I could object, she made a gesture toward the corner of the room, where someone I hadn’t noticed before was sitting. As my gaze moved that way, the man stood up, coming more into view. He wore a sleek red suit over a black silk shirt, with red leather boots and a full face-covering devil mask that was a mix of black and gold. 

“Hi there,” he spoke in a silky-smooth voice. “Would you mind telling me what you had for dinner last night?” 

Oh. Well, I could do that. Dinner? That didn’t give anything away. “Lamb chops with garlic-rosemary sauce and roasted potatoes.” 

“Oooh, must’ve been a special occasion,” the devil-faced man replied. “How about telling me the first letter of the name of the street your house is on, then walk over to that table over there, pick up that knife, and cut off your left index finger?” 

Hey, that was totally reasonable. He wasn’t asking about Wren or Ashton. “N,” I promptly answered, while moving to the table. Putting my back to it, I fumbled a bit before finding the knife, then somewhat awkwardly tried to line it up with my other hand. . 

“Okay, stop right there,” the man ordered. “That’s enough.” 

I stopped, wondering what I’d done wrong. Did he want me to take off a different finger? I’d heard him right, hadn’t I? It was–

Fuck! Jerking backward, I dropped the knife. It clattered to the table, then to the floor while I stumbled and cursed in shock. What–how was–that guy had…

“You see?” Deicide announced through her books after giving a dismissive wave of her hand for the man to leave, which he did with a salute toward me. “He may dislike direct confrontation, but Devil’s Due is still quite useful. It would be a very simple matter for me to extract all the information you’re trying to hide, if I really wanted to. Given five minutes, I would know all of your secrets. And that’s not counting the… less easy methods a few of my people would like to use.” 

She let that sink in for a moment, before continuing. “Despite what you may think of me, I don’t want Blackjack’s daughter to die. Nor do I want to torture your little friend. Oddly enough, hurting a genius inventor and then depending on her to build something I would subsequently use feels like a bad idea. 

“So no, I don’t want to hurt either girl. Nor do I want to hurt you. I want favors. Three, actually. One from you, for ensuring you get out of this place without further… damage. One from that girl for letting her brand new friend go. And one from Blackjack, in exchange for the vial that I have. Three favors, three wishes. Think of yourselves as a three-headed Genie.”

I hesitated for a second before asking, “How do you know we’ll actually do anything for you after this?

There was a slight chuckle from the actual figure rather than from any book, but it sounded kind of weird. Almost more high-pitched than it should? Before I could dwell on that too much, her books replied, “Blackjack is a man of his word, to a fault. If he swears he will do something for me, within reason, he will. As for you and the girl, well, let’s just say I doubt this will be the last time that the two of us are face-to-face. And I assume you would rather not be on my very bad side. After all, even enemies can be cordial and owe one another. That’s the way the world works.”

“I won’t hurt anyone,” I informed her. “That would kind of defeat the purpose of this deal.”

Her head bowed a bit. “Of course it would. And if I wanted people hurt, I have no shortage of people willing to do that. You’re impressive, kid, but I have enough leg-breakers. No, I promise you any favor I ask will not knowingly kill anyone at all, nor will it hurt anyone who doesn’t have it coming by your own moral standard, and within the bounds of the same. There, are you happy now?”

I hesitated again, thinking quickly. “I can’t speak for Wren. I’m not in charge of her.”

“Just ensure that she knows exactly why you were freed,” came the response. “And make it clear that the same deal applies. Whatever I ask her to build will not directly kill anyone. I am asking for favors, not trying to convert either of you to the dark side of the Force.”

“I can’t make any promises except for myself,” I replied, “but on my part, you have a deal.” What else could I do? By some miracle, maybe I could get out of here. But I doubted it. And I certainly couldn’t get that vial off of her first. No, despite myself, this was the best solution. Owing a favor to any bad guy seemed really wrong. But then, I was already working to save the daughter of one. So this situation was weird to begin with. And she had promised that it wouldn’t be killing anyone or anything like that. I still felt like I was going to regret this somehow, but didn’t have another choice. 

“Excellent,” the books replied for her. “Then I will have Cavalcade take you somewhere, remove the cuffs, and drop you off. She’ll also exchange phone numbers with you. When that number calls, answer. Give it to the others as well. And tell Blackjack the sooner he calls me, the sooner we can work out a deal for him getting this vial back. Which, as I understand, will give him another full month with his daughter. 

“It’s been nice talking to you, Paintball. I hope this is the beginning of a long and mutually beneficial relationship.

“Or at the very least, that I don’t have to have you killed the next time we meet.”

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Interlude 3B – Deicide (Summus Proelium)

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Three Years Ago

Her name was Austen. Not her last name. Her last name was Deleon. Austen Deleon. Yeah.

The girl’s mother had named her in honor of Jane Austen, her favorite author. When asked why she hadn’t simply named her daughter Jane in that case, or Jane Austen Deleon, she had simply replied that Jane was such a common name, it wouldn’t draw any attention. A girl named Austen, however, that would grab people’s interest. No one would forget a girl named Austen.

The then-infant’s opinion on the subject of such attention was not consulted.

There was also no input on a name from the father, as he had been some guy who made a lot of promises, got her mother pregnant, and then took off. He’d abandoned them before she was even born.

Growing up in the streets of Detroit, Austen had split most of her time between holing up in the library where she could lose herself in the worlds of her favorite authors (of whom Jane Austen was decidedly not one), and running scam and con games on unsuspecting tourists and people new to the city. Very few suspected that the brown-eyed, dark-haired, innocent-looking little angel child was going to take the money they handed her for a tour or photograph and take off with it. Fewer suspected any of her more involved and complicated cons.

Indeed, from the age of six to eleven, Austen had racked up both quite a reputation as a con artist, thief, pickpocket, etcetera, and quite the haul of loot to go with it. She hardly ever spent any of the money she managed to get out of people, preferring to hide it in her ‘safe place.’ It was intended as a college fund, because Austen had every intention of going to university, even if she had to save up enough money to flat-out pay her way in.

Unfortunately, it was when she was eleven that Austen’s mother found Jesus. Literally, in her case, as a man who called himself Jesus The Saint managed to hook Laia and many other poor, desperate people from the Detroit streets, convincing them that he was truly the man himself reborn. Laia had taken her daughter with her as they joined Jesus and the rest of the ‘flock’ in his compound almost fifty miles away from the city where Austen had grown up.

For two years, Austen had lived in that hellhole. The Church of the Lamb, as ‘Jesus’ called his cult, did not allow any contact with the outside world, or nearly any technology in general. Even so much as a flashlight or digital watch was forbidden. Punishments were plentiful, in the name of ‘making the flock worthy’, and multiple hours per day were devoted toward studying both the scriptures as well as Jesus’s own (often rambling and barely coherent) writings on subjects ranging from the uncountable sins of the world all the way down to his opinion of various sports teams. Included, of course, were the list of celebrities and historical figures who were going to hell, though the list might as well have simply said ‘all of them.’

It was, in short, a thoroughly exhausting and demoralizing place to spend any time at all, let alone two years of one’s life in the midst of being a teenager.

Now, at the age of thirteen, Austen sat in what was called the ‘Cusp of Hell.’ It was, in short, a box about six feet high, and three feet in every other direction that in the middle of the courtyard of the compound. Heat lamps were arranged around the box to raise the temperature to near-unlivable conditions, and those who were being punished were left inside, often long enough to nearly kill them.

Authorities had come to check on the conditions here a number of times. None ever amounted to anything good, either because they were straight-up paid off (she had seen that happen with her own eyes), or, in some cases, because they were ‘gifted’ with an evening of entertainment by one of the flock. Her mother had been used that way several times, always rambling on about what a gift and pleasure it was to serve her divine purpose for the Lord. Even Austen herself had been eyed, young as she was. But Jesus held off, saying that she would not be ‘ripe’ until the age of fourteen. One more year.

She didn’t plan on being here at that point.

Austen had spent more time in the Cusp of Hell than anyone else in the flock, a fact that brought her mother untold shame. Not that the girl herself cared. Well, not that much. Seeing the way her mother looked at her did hurt, but she had long since given up any hope of snapping the woman out of the absurd spell that Jesus had cast over her. She loved her mother, but she had not liked her in a very long time.

This current stint in the box was a result of being caught listening to music. Austen had found an old MP3 player and headphones, and had been listening to it while pulling weeds in the garden. For such horror as deliberately subjecting the ears of her immortal soul to the devil’s tongue (as Jesus called all music that was not religious hymns), she had been thoroughly flogged and then tossed here into the box where she was left for hours. Once in awhile, a small cup of water was brought by one of the ‘holy sisters.’ It was just enough to keep her alive.

Lying on her side, curled up as she couldn’t lie flat out within the three foot space, Austen stared at the dirt ground in front of her. The box had glass windows in it that could be opened or closed, but at the moment they were shut. She was left in blistering hot darkness, with no idea of what time it was or how long she had been here. The ache in her body from the crack of Jesus’ rod had finally dulled somewhat, only flaring up if she moved too quickly. Which wasn’t a problem inside the box, small and unintended mercy though that may have been.

She was hungry. She had been hungry for quite awhile, and now it was almost excruciating. Her stomach hurt, as she clutched it with one hand, mind drifting back to better times. Times before her mother had met this psycho and fallen under his sway. She had long-since stopped asking herself how her mother could allow this to happen. Any answer that came was never satisfying.

Light appeared. Which, given the fact that the box was still very much closed, was rather unexpected. With a gasp of confusion, the girl’s eyes opened as she snapped upright, staring at the source of the sudden illumination.

It was a glowing orb, slightly bigger than a softball. The orb, and the light it cast, was blue with white hieroglyphic-like symbols alternately appearing and disappearing across its surface.

For a moment, the girl simply sat there, staring in rapt fascination at the orb. It drew her like a moth to flame, as her hand very slowly rose toward it. She hesitated briefly like that, with her hand right near the thing. Then she moved it the last inch or so, settling her palm against the warm surface.

She saw the empty, featureless world that lay within or beyond the orb. She walked through the deep, foreboding fog and saw the images drawn from her own life within it. She saw her mother, the people she had conned, the other cultists, and Jesus himself, his long black beard and heavily tanned skin filling the last fog-born image as his hand with the cane lashed out one last time to send a jolt of pain across her back before she had been thrown into the box.

“Summus Proelium.”

She heard the phrase in a soft, feminine voice. Those two simple words filled her mind, seeming to echo through it even as the fog world vanished, and Austen found herself back in the box.

~~~233-044-2121~~~

~~~Eggs, butter, ramen, bread~~~

~~~Let all who live in the land tremble, for the day of the Lord is coming. It is close at hand— a day of darkness and gloom, a day of clouds and blackness. Like dawn spreading across the mountains, a large and mighty army comes,such as never was in ancient times nor ever will be in ages to come. And in these words, we may look for what will descend upon this people: For as surely as the men who dwell upon it shall suffer for the sins of those who~~~

More and more words filled the girl’s mind. She didn’t hear them or see them. She simply knew them. Those words and more came flooding into her as if she had always known them, as if she was remembering them. Those and more kept coming. Hymns, bible verses, scrawled speeches with words crossed out, phone numbers, lists, more and more. It was almost too much, and she put both hands to her head, crying out, “Stop!”

It stopped. The flood of words halted. But something else remained. It was a… sense. She could feel… something. Some things. She could feel things beyond her sight. Things where the words were. She could feel them, could sense the shape of them. Lots of them. One actually quite close, right outside the–

With a loud clang, the lock on the box was released, and the door was opened. One of the holy sisters stood there, bible in hand while staring at Austen with a look of severe disapproval. Her tone was sharp. “The savior will see you now, young sinner. Come, and pray to him.”

Austen didn’t move. Her attention remained riveted to the book in the woman’s hand. She could… feel it. She could sense the shape of it even if she closed her eyes. It was almost, though not quite, like having it in her hands. At a thought, the words within the bible sprang to mind, almost-but-not-quite like remembering them. She could have remembered a lot of it anyway, after the past couple of years. But this wasn’t that. The words written within the book were filling her mind, and she would have known them even if she had never read it before.

“Ah,” the woman smirked while holding the bible. “You see the good book, yes? To stare upon it with such reverence, perhaps your time within the Cusp of Hell has awakened your spirit. You thirst for–”

With a thought, Austen lifted her chin. The book abruptly tore itself from the woman’s grasp, flying up to smack her in the chin hard enough to snap her mouth shut in mid-sentence. Even as the woman reeled backward from that, Austen gave a sharp gesture with one hand, and the book obeyed her unspoken wish, smacking the woman across the face hard enough to crack her jaw and send her to the floor with a loud cry of pain.

Two more sisters and a brother came running at the sound of the cry. They came into the main courtyard, the women empty-handed while the man held a rake from the work he had been doing. First, they stared at the woman on the ground, and at Austen standing over her. Then, their gazes moved up to take in the bible floating in the air. Seeing that, the two women immediately began to pray aloud. The man, meanwhile, blurted something about the devil and raced straight for Austen, swinging the rake like a club.

A thought, an urge, an impulse filled the girl’s mind. In response, the floating bible tore itself apart. Hundreds of separate pages flooded the air, glowing slightly before a handful went flying at the charging man. Six pages, glowing brightly, sliced straight through various parts of the rake that he was swinging, making it fall apart into useless pieces.

Still, he kept coming, swinging his fist rather than his abandoned bits of wood. With a scream that was half-meaningless word and half-prayer, he swung hard for the girl’s face.

A single piece of paper, a single page torn from the bible, flew into his path. It stopped there, and as his fist collided with it, the man might as well have been punching a solid steel wall. The bones of his hand shattered, and he screamed in pain while collapsing to his knees.

Seeing the women fall to their knees and pray while the man simply cradled his ruined hand and sobbed, Austen slowly stepped past them all. The pages of the bible flew behind her, then arranged themselves on all sides of the girl as if forming an honor guard as she walked from the courtyard to the door of the main building.

It was locked, as part of Jesus’s rules were that all buildings were to be locked at all times. That way, only people allowed keys of each building could freely go in and out, while others would have to ask permission. It was part of his standard power play, and a way of reminding his flock that they were dependent on those above them. Only he held all of the keys, of course.

Austen didn’t ask permission. Instead, she focused. Beyond the doors, she could feel paper, loose pages, entire books spread throughout the building. With a single thought, she could not only feel every piece of paper in the place, she knew everything that was written on it. Passwords, little notes, lists, the entire plot of books flooded into her mind. Now that she knew it was coming, she could sort through it, could let the flow of information simply cascade past her into a pool at her feet. If she wanted, the girl could reach down to take from the pool, lifting out any information she needed. Otherwise, it was simply memories in the background of her mind.

Instead, she focused on the papers and books themselves. At a thought, she could feel hundreds of them leap from the shelves, desks, even ripping their way from the pockets they were held in. They flew through the air, colliding with one another. She could feel them crash through no-doubt confused onlookers, jerking free of any attempts to hold them as they soared through the halls toward the front of the building where she stood.

Stepping out of the way at the last second, Austen allowed the tornado of books and papers to slam into the doors from the other side. The doors didn’t simply slam open, they were literally torn from their hinges and sent flying as the glowing bibles, hymnals, novels, notebooks, and even loose bits of paper crashed in and through them. Beyond, Austen could see the main foyer of the ‘church’, where people had gathered to stare in shock and fear. As a collection of prayers against evil filled the air, she crossed the threshold, stepping into the front area with the books and papers still fluttering around her.

“De-demon! Devil’s whore!” one of the men shouted at the thirteen-year-old girl who stood there. He brandished a metal fireplace poker he had grabbed from somewhere and ran for her, blurting a prayer and a curse almost simultaneously.

Thousands of pieces of paper tore their way free of the dozens of books, flying to join up with more loose pages. In an instant, the papers formed into what looked like a six foot long origami tiger. It collided with the man in mid-lunge, taking him to the ground.

At the same time, more bits of paper cut and folded themselves into the shape of a single word, each letter roughly a foot and a half in height. The single word was, in all capital letters, ‘ROAR.’ And it did. The word glowed brightly as the sound of a terrifying roar actually filled the entire front area, echoing throughout the building.

With the man who had tried to attack her pinned to the ground and currently sobbing, Austen turned her attention to the rest of the group who were (most unknowingly as they were simply staring in shock and confusion) blocking her way forward. The ‘ROAR’’ tore itself apart, more papers flying in to join those ones as they formed the word ‘MOVE.’ Once again, at a thought, the sound of a booming voice saying that single word filled the front area. It was the voice of thunder, and all obeyed, scrambling out of her path as Austen continued on. The paper tiger gave one last dirty look toward the man it had taken to the ground before trotting after her.

On through the church the girl marched. Most who moved to intercede were scared off by the tiger. Others were knocked aside by flying books, pinned to the wall or literally bludgeoned into unconsciousness. A general alarm had been raised, but no one seemed to know exactly what was happening, aside from the cries of ‘demon’ and such.

Finally, she reached the doors that led into the office of the man who called himself Jesus. Taking a breath, Austen pointed. Obediently, six different books slammed into each door, knocking them open and allowing her to step through.

He was there. Standing behind his desk with a pistol pointed at her head, the cult leader demanded in a booming voice of his own, “Stand down, demonspawn! Release your hold on this child and begone from this realm. You are so commanded by the Father and the Son, the God of this world in mortal flesh come once again. Flee to the hells from whence ye came!”

Without waiting for a response, he pulled the trigger, shooting at the girl who stood in his doorway. But Austen was expecting that. She knew him. A piece of paper had already moved to intercede, glowing in the process. That single sheet, torn from a notebook, floated between them as the bullet rebounded. The ricochet narrowly missed the man himself, embedding itself in the nearby wall.

“Hi, Jesus,” Austen started, almost conversationally. “That wasn’t very Good Samaritan of you.”

The man fired again, lower this time. But again, papers had already moved between them. That ricochet did hit him, glancing off his shoulder and drawing a cry of shocked pain from the man as he stumbled backward while rambling about how she had given herself to the devil.

“This is your book?” As she spoke, Austen made one of the bibles float up into the air in front of herself. At a thought, all of the pages tore themselves free. Over a thousand bits of paper filled the air. With a flurry of tearing and folding sounds each joined with several others to shape themselves into small daggers. In the end, over a hundred of those paper knives floated there.

“If this is your book,” the girl continued, while the psycho cult leader who called himself Jesus fired several more desperate shots, all of which were blocked, “you should take it back.”

With those words, and a single urge, she sent every paper dagger, more than a hundred, flying at the man. He screamed, threw the gun, tried to dodge, all to no avail. From his head to his feet, the man was struck through by glowing paper knives. In the end, he fell, his body filled with the very pages of the book he delusionally claimed to have been such a key part of.

It should have been harder. It should have hit her more. He was dead. He was dead… because of her. She murdered someone. It should have made her cry, shouldn’t it? Even as bad as he was, it should have meant… more.

It didn’t. Seeing his body there, thinking about what he had done to her mother’s mind and to the minds of everyone here, thinking about how he used them and would have used her, about how she had been struck, imprisoned, enslaved over these past two years, Austen felt nothing for the man.

Was she a sociopath too?

Turning on her heel, the thirteen-year old girl stepped from the room. Her mother was there, staring open-mouthed. “Austen…” she whispered in a barely audible voice full of despair and horror. “What… what did you do?”

Lifting her chin, the girl replied simply, “What did I do, Mom?

“I killed God.”

*******

Three months later.

 

The street gangs were meeting. Well, those who hadn’t already been destroyed to the point of nonexistence, absorbed by one of the larger gangs, or, in the case of Latinos, taken in by Oscuro. Their new leader, Cuélebre, had made a point of expanding the formerly small group exponentially, exploding its growth and power faster than anyone could react. And now, the smaller gangs were left scrambling, struggling to even survive, let alone thrive, against the might of Cuélebre.

So, they were meeting here in this abandoned warehouse on the outskirts of town in a desperate, probably pointless attempt to come to terms with an alliance. For two hours, the leaders of the eight gangs who had survived to this point bickered about who would lead them, what the terms would be, who would own what territory, and how they would stand against Oscuro.

It was in the midst of these loud, shouted arguments that Austen strode. But not as herself. Over the past month, she had grown to understand more of her power. Currently, her body was literally covered by thousands upon thousands of bits of paper. Pages torn from novels, from journals, from phone and text books, and more surrounded her. They had formed into the shape of a suit of feminine armor, complete with a bust that the thirteen-year-old could only wish she would someday have. Beyond that, the armor also made her look taller than she actually was. Her actual feet ended somewhere above the armor’s knees, while her hands fell much short of the supposed gloves. Her head was covered by more paper in the shape of a stylized medieval helmet, and she carried an enormous paper sword across her back.

The much smaller young girl essentially piloted the suit of paper armor shaped in the form of an adult female knight.

As she came into view, the eight gang leaders and their assorted entourage spun toward her. Mr. Harmful, leader of the Fifth Street Broodwalkers alongside his sort-of conjoined twin Uncle Friendly, snapped his hand out her way. It grew to the size of a large dresser to slap her out of the way while the man snapped, “Who’re you supposed to be, Captain Library?” Around him, the other leaders were readying their own gifts, while others produced guns. Lots of guns.

Seeing the attacks coming, Austen simply braced herself. The blow from Mr. Harmful’s giant fist struck her side… and stopped. Her paper armor glowed, as she focused simply on not moving. The paper went exactly where she wanted it to, and did not go when she didn’t want it to. It stayed in place, taking the blow as if it was a gentle tap.

A glowing energy harpoon, along with a dozen bullets, a simple laser, and two concussive bolts of force, struck her. None penetrated her paper armor. None so much as left a single mark.

Still not speaking a single word, Austen drew the giant sword from her back. Sweeping it across the room in a sharp gesture. In reality, she was simply commanding all the bits of paper to move to make it look as though she had drawn and swung the weapon. As she did so, dozens of pages flew from the sword.

Before the men knew what was happening, the papers had wrapped around their necks, around their wrists, and around their ankles. Each of the men, leaders and lackeys alike, were ripped from the ground and suspended above it while their airways were constricted by the glowing pages surrounding and constricting their throats.

This was the best way to open. Making a big show. Demonstrating her strength. Austen had spent the past several months planning her entrance, practicing with her power, and most of all, absorbing books. She walked through libraries, through colleges, through military surplus stores, law schools, everywhere there were books. She had absorbed knowledge of strategy, tactics, diplomacy, laws, and every bit of detail of the past near-twenty years of Touched activity. Later, she would prove to these people that she could guide them.

Right now, she had to prove that she could crush them. Or they would never listen long enough to get to the part that was good for them.

And they would obviously never listen to a child. Hence this disguise. Which was also why she didn’t speak. Instead, several books flew up along either side of her. Each book opened to a different page, as words on that page glowed, and were read aloud by a booming feminine voice.

“This meeting was to determine how you would survive against the one who calls himself Cuélebre.” She had prepared for that one, bringing along a book of mythology to have the name ready.

More pages flipped, more words were highlighted, as the voice continued. “You want to know which of you stands a chance against him. The answer is none of you. If you try to stand against him and his people, they will crush you.”

She loosened the grip of the paper around their throats enough for one of the gang leaders to demand, “And what, you think you can do better so you’re just gonna march in here and demand we all kiss the ring? We don’t even know you, bitch.”

“You’re right,” Austen made the books say, “You don’t know me. But no. I don’t expect you to put me in charge. I expect you to allow me to help you.”

With that, she let all of them go, bringing the dozens of pages back to float at her side. “Give me one month to prove that I can help you outmaneuver Oscuro and stop Cuélebre from killing you all.” Her head turned toward one of the other gang leaders, the electricity manipulator and super-strong man known as Juice. “Your territory is on the front lines of this war. Give me one month with your men to prove I can help you. When I do, you will sponsor my leadership of this alliance. And then you can all stop arguing about which of you should be in charge.”

Juice, a heavy-set black man, lifted his chin. “Oh, you think so, huh? Well, tell you what. How about we just go ahead and throw you out there to fight Oscuro, then laugh when your paper-ass gets lit up?” He lifted his chin. “Whatchoo call yourself anyway?”

“If I fail,” Austen replied through her collection of books, “it will be of no great loss to you. As for my name, what can kill a god but knowledge? What is knowledge but words? And what is the word for the death of a god?”

“Deicide,” one of the assembled group slowly answered, looking dubious.

“Yes,” her assortment of papers confirmed, “that is the word. But you need not use it until I have proven that it’s apt. For the moment, simply calling me Papercut will do. I will earn the name, as I will earn your loyalty and trust. But now, I believe the time for discussion is over. Oscuro knows of your meeting here. Your territory, Juice, is about to be under assault. If you’d like to stop it, we and your men should go now.”

“Wait,” Juice demanded, “how the hell do you know that?”

“Perhaps you’ll know in time,” she replied. “But for now, the clock is ticking. Would you rather discuss it, or protect what is yours?”

The man only hesitated slightly before turning on his heel, whistling for his men to follow as he made for the exit.

There was, of course, no way that Austen would even tell the men the truth about how she knew the attack was coming. There was no way she would tell them what she had also spent the past three months doing, just as there was no way she could reveal her actual self to them. Because seeing her, they would see that she was Latina. They would see that she could have been taken by Oscuro herself.

And she had been. For the past two months, Austen had worked for the Oscuro gang as a simple street runner, pick pocket, con artist, thief, and anything else she could do. She had made herself useful, though she kept her powers completely secret. As far as everyone in Oscuro knew, she was nothing more than a helpful little kid. It allowed her to see and hear things she shouldn’t, such as what was going to happen tonight.

Two months spent doing that. The first of the past three had been spent searching for her father, for the man who had conned her mother into loving him, got her pregnant, then abandoned them. She had a general idea of the kind of trouble he’d gotten back then, including one specific vandalism incident. Absorbing police files, personal notes, information from the college her mother had been attending at the time, and more, and she had actually accomplished her goal. She had found the one responsible for her birth and for putting the first crack in her mother’s soul that eventually led to what she became.  

And in time, the man who now called himself Cuélebre would pay for all of it.

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Becoming 2-09 (Summus Proelium)

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The array of armed men seemed to hesitate slightly when the three Minority people showed up. Apparently they were okay with chasing down one Touched (particularly when they didn’t know anything about them), but having three more of the known variety appear gave them pause.

Or, more likely, they didn’t know shit about me and had no reason to really be nervous or afraid. But they did know these guys. Kids or not, the Minority knew how to deal with armed thugs.

With a sing-song, melodic voice, Carousel was the first to break the silence, her jester mask facing me. “Whoever you are, you’ve set a high bar. These guys are no joke. They’re such dangerous folk. We’ll help and give you a hand, then see about joining the band.”

Joining the band? Was she talking about– my thoughts were interrupted then, as one guy (or two, rather) who didn’t hesitate at all was Janus. With his Mister Harmful side facing us, the man cracked his neck before lashing out with both hands. His fists each grew to the size of a small car, while his arms stretched clear across the parking lot. In an instant, those massive fists were coming straight for us.

From the corner of my eye, I saw Whamline catch hold of Carousel before three glowing metal coil things shoved down against the ground to throw the two of them to the right. At the same time, an arm wrapped around my waist and the world briefly blurred around me, my stomach lurching.

It was That-A-Way. She’d grabbed me and supersped both of us out of the way just as those giant fists passed through the space where we had been. Now she let me go, before suddenly disappearing, only to reappear a few feet away from Janus. Her hand produced a small, handheld device of some kind, and she took a step that way.

But the rest of those armed thugs had snapped out of their brief indecision by then. Several of them snapped their guns up and started shooting, even as I blurted out a warning.

It wasn’t needed. That-A-Way was moving east. She was invulnerable. The bullets ricocheted off of her, just before several of the men were caught by metal coils that Whamline sent at them. The coils exploded a second later, the concussive force knocking the men to the ground, their weapons flying.

Carousel, meanwhile, used her own power to yank those guns into her orbit. They shrank down, spinning around the girl rapidly before she released them to fly one by one at other thugs, using them as projectiles. Except somehow she made the magazines stay behind, sending the guns back without ammo.  

By that point, That-A-Way had reached Janus. His Uncle Friendly side was facing her, apologizing politely even as he caught hold of her with hands that were as big as she was. The device she’d been holding was shoved up against his hand and she triggered some kind of electric shock. Taser. She was holding a taser. And a pretty powerful one, apparently, since as tough as he was, Janus still staggered a bit and released her. Only for a second though, before his hand caught her side once more and he sent her flying, hurling the girl toward the nearby building. In mid-air, she teleported further ahead, landing on the roof of the building.

Wait a second, why the hell was I just standing here?! I was supposed to be helping! I wasn’t supposed to be some random rubbernecking civilian, damn it, I could actually contribute! I just had to get my thumb out of my butt and actually do something.

Snapping myself out of that bit of open-mouthed gawking, I quickly spoke the code to make my skates pop out. Then I painted my legs green to boost my speed and launched myself forward.

The guys who were still armed reacted quickly to my sudden movement, snapping their weapons my way. But my hands were already raised as I skated past them, sending a spray of blue paint at them. The paint covered their arms, guns, chests, even some of their legs, and the men were sent hurtling away from each other, their weapons flying. The blue paint even sent some of them into the air as it struck the ground by their feet.

As I skidded to a stop somewhere to the side of Janus, I was able to take a quick look at what else was going on. The guys I had painted were all still picking themselves up from the ground, while Carousel caught all their guns in her power, disarming them. Meanwhile, Whamline had moved to help That-A-Way try to deal with Janus. He was facing Mister Harmful while the girl was on the opposite side, handling Uncle Friendly. The two-faced man had each arm extended in opposite directions, fighting off two Minority Touched with fists as large as his torso.

Okay, okay, I had to help. But should I keep dealing with all the random mooks with Carousel, or help Whamline and That-A-Way? The guys had already been disarmed, and were still picking themselves up. But even without their guns, they could still be a threat. Meanwhile, Whamline and That-A-Way had Janus outnumbered (in number of arms and legs involved, at least, even if there was an asterisk), but he was still the bigger threat.

Standing there, briefly frozen, my thoughts were interrupted by Carousel. “Go help them!” she blurted while catching two of the tiny floating guns that were revolving around her, using them to point at the recovering thugs. “This tide I’ll stem!”

Right, she had this. Pushing off with my skates, I focused on Janus. They were in the midst of trying to backhand That-A-Way, but apparently she was moving… whichever direction it was that let her turn intangible, because the massive hand went right through her. At the same time, Whamline had wrapped several of his cords around the men’s other arm, only for that to grow so large it snapped the cords. Before the boy could recover, that same massive fist collided with him, sending Whamline to the ground.

Skating full-on straight at the men’s exposed side while they were each focused on their respective opponents, I covered myself in purple paint and powered it up before launching myself at him.

For guys who had literal eyes in the back of their head, being taken by surprise probably didn’t happen much. They certainly weren’t expecting it as I slammed into their side with enough force to knock the bastard(s) flying. They went back a good dozen or so feet before crashing to the ground, bouncing twice along the pavement as they ended up sprawled head over heels.

“Holy shit, dude!” That was That-A-Way, staring at me. “Just how strong are you?” Something about her voice struck me as… familiar, but that was probably just my paranoid imagination after everything I’d found out about my family.

“Uh,” I so eloquently started, before being interrupted as a foot bigger than my entire body nearly slammed into me. That-A-Way grabbed my arm, and we teleported closer to the building. North. She could only teleport north. Unfortunately, that took us further away from Janus, who had turned their full attention to Whamline. The guy was in trouble.

Quickly looking to That-A-Way, I blurted, “I can make you really fast, really strong, and really tough for about ten seconds at a time.”

I saw her eyes widen behind the mask. “Wait, that’s what the different colors you’re doing mea–and it works on othe-duuuude! I’d kiss you, but it’d get weird.” With that, the girl grinned. “Can you get me back over there?”

Nodding, I spun that way, extending both arms to spray her down with green, purple, and orange. Then I added a blue circle onto the ground. “Trampoline!”

To her credit, she understood immediately. Maybe she’d seen what happened when I sprayed those other guys with it. Either way, the girl lunged onto the blue paint, even as I activated all of that paint.

She hit it, bouncing off it and forward to propel herself through the air with a loud whoop. Between the blue paint bouncing her and the purple strength-boost, she went fast enough to collide with Janus before they could even think about reacting. They stumbled sideways, falling to one knee when the girl drove her knee into Uncle Friendly’s stomach, then onto his back (Mister Harmful’s front) when she swung both arms hard into his face.

By that point, Whamline had recovered enough to send several metal coils to latch onto the fallen man’s arms, holding him down. It would only last for a second. But a second was long enough, given the speed boost I’d given her, for That-A-Way to produce that taser thing in her hand again. Without hesitation, she jammed it into Uncle Friendly’s chest and triggered it while both he and Mister Harmful (the latter muffled by being against the pavement) bellowed out loud and spasmed violently.

Unfortunately, while that was enough to hurt them, it wasn’t enough to take them down. Their arms snapped out of the coils that Whamline was using, before they planted their palms against the ground and extended their arms to shove themselves upright. That-A-Way was dumped onto the ground just before one of those massive hands caught hold of her and threw the girl straight at Whamline. He caught her with a couple of his coils, stumbling backward a step.

Mister Harmful was glaring at me. Just as I realized that, my gaze meeting his, they twisted their legs around so that their feet were facing my way. Then they were running at me. Those long, enormous arms were incoming, and they extended their legs with each step to cover a lot more ground than they should have. Suddenly I had two giant hands, bigger than I was, about to slam into me from either side. It was like a guy clapping his hands around a fly.

With what was probably a pretty undignified yelp, I covered my entire costume from head to toe in blue and orange stripes, then put my arms over my head. I would’ve prayed, but there wasn’t time. Those giant hands clapped against me from either side, slamming into my body with enough force that I felt it even with the orange paint. Without it, I probably would’ve ended up with at least a half-dozen broken bones. As it was, it just hurt enough for me to collapse to one knee.

But Janus paid for it too. Because that blue paint I’d also covered myself with made their giant hands instantly snap backward away from me. Suddenly, their arms were flailing back behind themselves just as their charge brought them right in front of me.

Mister Harmful’s face was right there. His shared arms had no chance of getting back in to block anything. One of their legs was extended (quite a ways in fact) behind him, while the other had just come down. They would recover quickly, but for that one single instant, the conjoined-man was completely open.

So I did what any rational, totally normal person would do in that moment. I painted my entire costume purple and hurled myself into the hardest leaping uppercut I could manage, right into the man’s chin. While, of course, screaming, “Shoryuken!

The blow was right on target, knocking Mister Harmful’s head back, his eyes briefly crossing. They stumbled, almost falling. Teeth and blood went flying, and his jaw looked wrong, like it was broken. When his head snapped back upright, his eyes were closed. They stayed that way, and I realized that he had actually fallen unconscious.

Unfortunately, apparently knocking out one of Janus’s halves didn’t knock them both out. I wasn’t… sure how that worked. But then again, I wasn’t sure how any of their stuff worked. Either way, Uncle Friendly was still awake. His head snapped around to look at me, pausing very briefly. But Whamline and That-A-Way were already coming, and it looked like the troops that Carousel had been dealing with had all made a break for it. They were scattering, leaving Uncle Friendly as only one half of Janus left to deal with the rest of us.

He clearly didn’t like those odds, because the man suddenly lunged past me. His legs extended up like stilts, allowing him to quickly reach the roof of the motel. From there he jumped, extending both his legs and his arms to grab the roof of another building before hauling himself up there as well. Then he was gone.

“Okay,” Whamline finally spoke while looking my way. “I’d say we should go after him, but maybe finding out what’s going on is–”

Eyes widening behind my mask and helmet, I remembered the entire reason I’d done any of this. My mouth started to blurt out Adrian’s name. But then I realized that saying his name would probably be a bad idea as far as keeping my identity secret. Every little clue helped, after all. So, I managed to keep myself to a simple, “They had a hostage!” Then I was running back to the strip club. Behind me, I heard a few muttered words before the sound of the other three following.

Making my way quickly back to the room in question, I found Adrian still there. Which made sense, considering he was chained against that wall. Where else was he going to go?

He was also very confused about what was going on, visibly jumping as I came through the door. His eyes widened, and he blurted, “You won?!”

“Thanks for the vote of confidence,” I muttered before added, “I had help.”

The three Minority members made it then, all of them doing a brief double-take at what they saw. Carousel was the first to find her voice. “This thing we’re observing… is somewhat unnerving.”

“Okay, no idea what’s going on here,” That-A-Way announced, “but I’m pretty sure we should get this guy out of those chains.”

Whamline did just that, by creating two of his own coils, wrapping them tightly around the chains, and making a contained explosion that broke the chains off the wall. They were still attached to the man’s wrists, but at least he could move.

“No, no, no! Not me!” Adrian was suddenly stammering, his eyes wild. “My family, they’ve got my little brothers back at the apartment! They’ll hurt them! They’ll–”

“They’re safe,” I quickly interrupted. “They’re staying with a neighbor. I sent them there before coming this way. I promise, I already made sure they were okay and, um, dealt with the bad guys there. That’s why they couldn’t call back.”

“You… you saved my…” That was as far as Adrian got before he was just grabbing me off the ground. His arms wrapped around me tightly and I was hauled up to be crushed against his chest. “Oh God. Thank you. Thank you, thank you. What–who the hell… who… how did you…”

Wanting to head off any of that line of questioning, I quickly squirmed free and dropped to the floor, looking over to the Minority people, who looked utterly baffled. “That bank robbery the other day, the one at the La Casa place. One of the guys who worked there, Ashton Austin, set the whole thing up. He tricked those Easy Eight guys into robbing the place as a distraction so he could take something out of a safe deposit box. Now he’s on the run and everyone’s after him to get whatever it was. There’s a million dollar bounty on him. Some other guys were after his brother, Josh, and this guy gave Josh a ride out of town. That’s why these guys took him, because they think he knows where Josh is, and they think Josh knows where his brother is.”

Wow, spelling it all out like that, this was a really complicated situation. And that was before you added in any of my personal stuff. But apparently I did a good enough job of explaining, because Whamline immediately nodded after giving the other two a quick look. “Okay, come on. We’ll get you back to your apartment, make sure your siblings are okay, then get your family into protective custody. It’ll be okay.”

Letting those guys take over, I slipped back. That was enough. I could leave now. I had to get back to school anyway, before I ended up getting in trouble. Taking a deep breath, I allowed myself to smile a little at the look of intense relief and joy on Adrian’s face as the fact that he and his family were safe sank in. Then I turned, slipping out of the room as quietly as possible.

I made it just out of the building before That-A-Way caught up. “Hey, hold on!” she blurted, catching my attention. As I pivoted, she stopped, both of us standing there in the parking lot. “Um, what do you call yourself?”

Hesitating just for a second, I swallowed before replying, “Um, Paintball?”

“Paintball,” the other girl echoed, head tilting a little. “That’s cool, man. And hey, you did really good back there. I mean, really good for someone that’s new to all this. You… are new to it, right? When we saw you running across the city back there, you looked awesome. Whammy thought you just moved here from somewhere else. But I think you’re new.”

Resisting the urge to keep silent or be more secretive, I gave a tiny nod. “I’m… new.” That was safe enough to say, right? They couldn’t get anything about who I really was from that.

“Well, you look really cool,” That-A-Way informed me. “So if you ever want to… you know… join…”

She said something else after that, but all I could think about was how much I really hated the fact that my dad was both a bad guy and Silversmith. Because there was basically nothing I wanted more than to say yes. Working with the Minority? How cool would that be?! Seriously. I wanted to. But I couldn’t. It was too risky. The Minority worked under the authority of the adult heroes of the Spartans and the Conservators. And Silversmith, my evil dad, was leader of the Conservators. There was way too big of a chance that he would find out who I was, no matter how careful I might’ve been.

Something in my body language must’ve given me away, because That-A-Way stopped talking. She paused, biting her lip before adding, “But if you don’t want to do that, you should still take this.” She was holding something out to me. It was a simple white business card, entirely blank aside from a single phone number. “If you change your mind, or you need help with something, or you just want to train, or… or whatever. Call that. One of us will answer. We can help, I promise. You know, with… whatever you need.” It looked like she wanted to say something else, but left it at that.

Help with whatever I needed. God, I wished that was true. I wished I could just tell her everything I knew about Silversmith, about all of it. But that was too risky. I didn’t know if she would believe me, or if she was part of Dad’s whole corrupt crew, or if anyone she would talk to was. I just… didn’t know. And that made it too risky.  

Swallowing hard, I took the offered card while trying not to react too much. “Thanks,” I murmured, not knowing what else to say.

For another few seconds, the two of us stood there, staring at each other. Then I popped my skates out, pivoted, and took off with the business card clutched tight in one hand.

Maybe I couldn’t tell the Minority everything just yet. But things were still pretty good. I’d helped save Adrian, after rescuing his little brothers. I’d made a few possible new friends from the Minority, people who might actually be able to help at some point.

But, I realized upon remembering the look in Uncle Friendly’s face after I’d knocked out Mister Harmful, I’d also made enemies. Powerful ones.

And on top of everything else, I was late for sixth period, and I never got any lunch.

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Becoming 2-08 (Summus Proelium)

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Three’s Paradise, the motel and strip club. That’s where I needed to go. Somehow, even just putting that name in my phone to look for directions made me feel dirty. I kind of wanted to wipe down my phone screen with cleanser.

But at least I got the address. The place was only about six blocks away, which I just had to hope was close enough for me to get there before they realized something was wrong with those guys back at the apartment and ended up doing something horrible.

Thankfully, I now had a little edge in that regard. My little trip through the city earlier had already taught me how to use my power to get around faster using the rooftops and walls of the buildings. And I used that now, throwing myself off the apartment with a blue puddle that sent me flying into the air before yanking myself toward a high billboard with some red paint, running along the side of it, then leaping off to land on the roof of the next building over. Dropping into a roll before popping back to my feet while blurting the command to bring out the wheels of my skates, I took off again. Six blocks. I could get there in time. I would get there in time.

At least it wasn’t hard to find the place. Skidding to a stop on the roof of the last building, I looked straight at the billboard ahead of me. Given the risque image of two women fawning over a shirtless guy, I was going to guess it wasn’t advertising McDonalds.

Sure enough, peeking over the edge of the roof and looking down, I saw the building in question. It was far below me, almost eight stories down. There were three buildings arranged in a rough triangular formation, with a pool in the middle. One of those buildings had a bunch of neon signs on it, which probably made it the strip club. The other was longer than the other two, which made it the motel. The last one I was going to guess was the office, laundry, and whatever. The parking lot for the whole place stretched around all three buildings and looked almost completely empty aside from a half dozen cars.

Right. This was definitely the place. But what building were they holding Adrian in? I could see a couple guys standing around outside, probably keeping watch. Nothing, however, gave me any idea of where the rest of the guys were. I was leaning toward the main office, but they might be holding him in the strip club too. And it was broad daylight. I couldn’t exactly sneak around there very easily without being seen. Especially with those guards outside. Hell, I couldn’t even get down there to look. Unless…

Waiting until the view of both guys was blocked by one of the buildings as they patrolled, I took a few steps back, breathed out, and then ran forward while shooting a bit of blue paint down. I turned my legs purple to get more force while jumping straight onto the blue blob. It sent me careening into the sky and out over the lot, as I barely restrained myself from crying out. Windmilling my arms through the air, I looked down, waiting until my arc took me over the nearest building. Then I pointed down, shooting a bit of red while also painting my gloves and boots to match. Abruptly, as the red paint struck the roof, I was yanked straight down into a directed fall. On the way, I sent a shot of black paint down as well.

Just before I landing, I painted my legs orange to absorb the impact and put a black silhouette of a hand holding up two fingers in a peace sign on my chest. Between the black on my suit and the black that I’d shot onto the roof, my landing was completely silent. It wasn’t exactly the best looking, since I crashed and rolled halfway across the roof, yelping along the way before finally sprawling out in a heap. But hey, at least I didn’t make any actual noise. I got points for that, right?

Grunting silently as I rolled over onto my back. I breathed for a moment before pushing myself up to my hands and knees. Listening for a moment just in case one of the men had spotted me, I heard nothing. So I cautiously crawled to the edge of the roof and peeked over.

I was on top of the motel building. It was a small place, only two stories high, with doors that opened right into the lot. The two guards were walking together on the far side of the next building over, the strip club part of this whole glorious place. I saw them pass just into view for a moment, ducking back to hide in case they glanced my way.

Okay, I was down. Bully for me. Now what, exactly? I still couldn’t just wander randomly through the buildings, or just ask one of those guys where they were keeping their prisoner.

I could, however, make the guys inside show me where they were. To that end, I looked over the edge of the roof for the parking lot where a couple of the cars were. Whispering an apology if they actually didn’t belong to bad guys, I shot two bursts of red paint, one at either car. Then I activated it, sending both vehicles colliding violently into one another. With a spray of glass, the parking lot was suddenly filled with the sound of two horribly blaring car alarms.

Yup, it got their attention. Both guys outside went running that way. They were joined by several others that came rushing very quickly out of the strip joint part. All of them were very obviously armed, as they rushed to where the cars were, shouting and looking around.

Right, so the strip club was where I needed to be. Thanks for answering that, guys. You’re super-helpful.

Now I just had to get in there without being seen by them. Which meant it was time for another distraction. Looking down to the lot again at the guys who were all milling around the smashed-together cars as they tried to figure out what the hell just happened, I smiled to myself behind the helmet and mask. Then I looked to the other side of the lot, at a lone sedan parked there. Carefully, making sure no one was looking close enough to see my paint flying through the air, I shot a bit of red at top of the car. Then I shot another bit further off into the lot.

“Okay, boys,” I whispered under my breath. “Go fetch.”

With that, I powered up the paint. The sedan was yanked over onto its hood and went skidding that way. Shouts and curses went up from all the guys, as they sprinted after the car. That was the opening I needed. Painting myself green for the speed boost, with a little black to silence any sound I might’ve made, I leapt from the roof of this building. A shot of red paint to the roof of the opposite one yanked me over to it, allowing me to land on the roof of the strip club.

From there, I made my way along the roof quickly and quietly, moving away from the front where the guys were. On the way, I was leaning over the edge and looking down, watching for a window.

There. I spotted a window about halfway down the building. Crouching there, I counted to ten, trying to calm myself down. I had to pace myself, had to make sure I had paint to deal with whatever was inside. That meant slowing down a bit and being careful. With that in mind, I waited another moment before painting my hands and knees red. With a bit of red on the wall, I crawled down along it until I was just above the window. Then I leaned very carefully to peek through.

It was an office of some kind. An empty office, which was good for me. Trying the window, I found it unlocked. Another bonus. Before my paint could run out, I opened it, reached in to get a handhold, and hauled myself down inside, dropping into a crouch on the floor.

Kneeling there, in the office, I looked around. There was a simple, mostly bare wooden desk with a nearby leather chair, a couple filing cabinets in the corner, two metal folding chairs in front of the desk, and an incredibly explicit calendar on the wall. Seriously, the bare gazungas on the blonde bombshell on that picture looked like they came straight off of the Hindenburg.

Shaking myself away from that distraction, I focused on listening carefully. Voices. There were voices coming from somewhat nearby. Slowly, I crept closer to the door before listening again.

Yup, definite voices. I couldn’t make out what they were saying, but from the sound of it, they weren’t very happy. Carefully, I opened the door, cracking it just a little at first. The voices still weren’t clear, but I could tell that they were coming from a room nearby. Taking a breath, I peeked out, looking both ways down the short corridor. To the left was a hallway with a couple closed doors. At the end was an emergency exit that was labeled as being alarmed. To the right was another hall that seemed to open up at the end into a much larger room. Probably the dance floor. There were a couple other doors as well. And through one of those I heard the voices. One was raised, letting me hear a few angry curses, while the other was more muted.

Before the guys outside could give up and come back in, I silently hurried to that door. Crouching there, I pressed my ear to it and listened.

“I’ll tell you what you need,” the louder voice all-but shouted. “You need to answer the goddamn question! What else did he say? Where was he going?!” The words were punctuated by a loud slam, as if the man had kicked something over.

That was followed by a quieter voice. “I apologize for him. You must understand, my brother gets a little… emotional when he feels like people are lying to him. Are you lying?”

“No.” I knew that voice. It was Adrian. He sounded weak, his voice cracking a little. “I’m not… lying. I don’t know… I don’t know where he went. I told you, I just… dropped him off.”

“Oh, I hope you’re right,” the softer voice murmured. “I really wouldn’t want to find out that–”

“You’re lying!” the violent, furious voice cut in. There was the sound of a hard slap or punch or something, and Adrian cried out. The angry voice continued. “I’m done. You’ve had enough chances. You’ve got four little brothers? Well maybe it’s time you lose one of them.”

As Adrian protested, he was cut off, his words dropping into a pained wheeze as he was apparently punched hard in the stomach.

“Maybe we’ll just cut something off right here, hmm?” the angry voice snarled. “Lose something off your body for every sibling you lose? Let’s make it an arm for each of the older kids and a leg for each of the younger ones. Right at the elbows and knees. That’s fitting, isn’t it? You don’t tell us the truth, and you’ll come out of here without any brothers and without any limbs. They can call you Stubby. Stubby the only-child. Has a nice ring to it, doesn’t it? Let’s see… older or younger, older or younger… let’s go with… left arm.”

There was a panicked shout from Adrian, and I couldn’t wait any longer. Putting the purple outline of an arm showing off a bicep on my chest, I used the strength to kick the door as hard as I could, while blurting, “Hey, assholes!”

My entrance definitely got everyone’s attention. As I shoved my way into the room, my eyes quickly scanned to look for where all three men were. I saw two right away. Adrian was chained up against the wall opposite the door, almost straight across from me. Another figure was standing right next to him. But that was it. I could only see two guys. Two. Where was the third?

And then I focused on the figure next to Adrian, and understood. Fuck me, I understood.

The figure wore a blue suit, with a red shirt and blue tie. His entire head was covered by a silver metal helmet. On the front of that was a glowing smiley face made out of soft blue lights, its grin wide and distorted.

His hands were covered in gloves that were white on the first three fingers and black on the last three. Yeah, each hand had six fingers. Two of those were thumbs, one on each side.

But having two thumbs on each hand was far from the creepiest thing about this guy. Because even as I stood there, staring, the figure turned around. Or rather… his torso did. His legs stayed firmly planted, while the man’s torso pivoted one hundred and eighty degrees to face me.

I wasn’t looking at the man’s back. I was looking at his other front. His suit had a frontside here too. Instead of blue like the… other front, this side was red, with a blue shirt and red tie. His side of the silver metal helmet showed a frowning, angry face made out of glowing red lights.

Janus. That’s what this… guy… these two… whatever. That’s what he–they called themselves. He… or they… or… however it worked was actually two men fused into one. Like conjoined twins or whatever. Apparently they’d been two different people before both had touched the same Summus Proelium orb. And now, they were one joined being that didn’t have a back. They had two fronts fused together, each facing the opposite direction. Their head had two faces on it, one on either side. Their bottom half rotated independently of the top half, while each leg could twist a full three-hundred and sixty degrees. The same went for their arms, which seemed to have no limit to their rotation, able to function forward or… their other forward as needed, while each hand had six fingers with a thumb on each side.

They called themselves Janus together, but each was also separate. The smiling half was known as Uncle Friendly, while the angry half was called Mister Harmful. Mister Harmful and Uncle Friendly, Janus. Together (as they always were), the conjoined pair were one (two?) of the leaders of the Easy Eights. Not the leader. That honor went to the woman who called herself Deicide. Rather, Janus was/were one of the leaders of the eight individual gangs that had joined up together to form the Easy Eights in order to combat Oscuro. Now he/they were considered lieutenants or captains or whatever. I didn’t really know much about Fell-Touched politics.

But I did know, in that second, that I was in trouble. Caught flat-footed, I stared for a second while Mister Harmful glared at me with that glowing light angry face of his.

Then his arm snapped up and extended. Extended all the way across the room, that was. Even though I was standing about nine feet away, the man’s (Men’s? This was confusing) arm grew and stretched all the way to reach me. At the same time, the hand itself grew to several times its normal size, until it was as large as my torso. It slammed into my chest, knocking me hard against the wall.

Yeah, because just having two bodies fused together with incredibly fucking creepy range of motion wasn’t bad enough. Janus could also grow and extend any of their limbs to absurd lengths and sizes. I’d seen news footage of the guy(s) stretching their arm the length of a city block, their fist blown up as large as the SUV that they were punching. Because of course they had super strength too. They were incredibly strong and tough in addition to everything else.

Basically, I was in a little bit of trouble. Oops.

Mind racing as I yelped from the force of being shoved hard against the wall, I found myself completely at a loss. I was basically panicking, as Mister Harmful stepped toward me. Their torso rotated all the way around, hand briefly leaving me before they spun far enough for the opposite one to catch on and shove me even harder back. Then I was looking at Uncle Friendly.

“Why, hello,” the man almost cheerfully announced, his smiling-light face focused on me. “I don’t think we know you, do we?” He looked me up and down briefly. “And what do you call yourself?”

His hand jerked back as his torso rotated to make me face Mister Harmful once more. “Who cares what the hell he calls himself? He’s a trespasser. He’s–” He spun back, showing me Uncle Friendly briefly while he looked at Adrian. “He’s with him. He came to rescue him.”

“Is that right?” Uncle Friendly asked, his voice sympathetic and gentle. “Did you come to save this poor guy?”

“F-forget me!” Adrian blurted. “My brothers! Just go, they’re at–” He was silenced then, as Mister Harmful shoved a hand across the length of the room to cover his mouth.

“Nuh uh,” the angry man snarled. “We didn’t ask you to talk yet. Don’t interrupt.”

The worst part of this whole thing was that I couldn’t even take advantage of his distraction as he focused on Adrian. Because his other half was looking right at me. The man literally had eyes (and a nose, and mouth, and everything else) in the back of his head.  

Then I remembered a very important point. I had powers too. In the shock of the moment, I had actually forgotten that. Oops.

“My name?” I finally spoke up, finding my voice after those few seconds of blind panic. “It’s Paintball. And you know what? I don’t like you touching me.”

With that, I covered my torso in blue paint. It activated, sending the enormous hand that was holding me against the wall reeling backward with enough force to make the conjoined men stumble.

Before they could recover, I sent a spray of yellow onto Uncle Friendly’s chest, slowing him down. At the same time, I painted myself green to move even faster. Dropping from the wall to my feet, I threw myself into a forward roll that took me under their oh-so-slowly moving arms, before popping up behind Friendly and in front of the already-bellowing Harmful. Spinning that way, pivoting on one foot, I painted my arm purple while slamming my fist as hard as I could into his chest.

They went flying, crashing into the same wall that I’d been shoved against. Which gave me a second to focus on Adrian.

He was chained. How the hell was I supposed to–

An enormous hand, almost as big as my entire body, closed around me. With a yelp, I was yanked back, then thrown to the side. I put orange dots across my body just in time to collide with the window that I was hurled at. With a loud crash of shattering glass, I went flying through that window, hit the asphalt of the parking lot beyond, and rolled with a series of yelps.

Lifting my head a second later, I saw Janus lifting themselves through that same window. Mister Harmful was facing me, his glowing expression seeming even more furious than normal. Worse, there were guards already running to surround me, guns raised and pointed my way.

This… this was bad.

“Hey!” That unexpected voice came from just behind me, as a figure abruptly appeared. I caught a glimpse of a skintight purple costume, with white arrows drawn in every direction all over it.

That-A-Way. One of the members of the Minority, the youth hero team. And she wasn’t alone. Even as Janus and the rest of their troops reacted to her sudden appearance, she was joined by the jester-like Carousel and Whamline, a guy in a black and brown army suit and ski mask with big metal gauntlets. More Minority team members. They were here. I didn’t have to face these guys by myself.

Was it weird that in that moment, with everything else that was going on, I still kind of wanted to ask for their autographs?

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