Perfect 13-III | Anniversary Bonus


Happy birthday to you / happy birthday to you / happy birthday dear Outliers / happy birthday to you!

Yes, as of today, Outliers is one year old! I dunno about you, but from this end, that's a pretty weird feeling. Technically, it's older than that: I wrote the very first draft of Sympathy 1-I in August 2014, but it didn't really become itself until I started serialising it. So here's to one year down, and hopefully many more to come!

(And yes, there will still be a normal update tomorrow).

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My Dreams Are Ever So Tempting.

Talie leaned back in her chair, eyes wide. “Wow. I thought you were exaggerating, but you really screwed the pooch on this one.”

I scowled. “Please point to exactly where in this situation it started being my fault. Please, find that. It’ll make me feel a whole lot better.”

“I didn’t say it was your fault.”

“Yes, you did! That’s what ‘screwed the pooch’ means!”

“Okay, fine, it’s your fault.”

“And whose fault is it that I was in charge in the first place?”

She pointedly avoided meeting my eyes.

“Yeah, I thought so.”

The light filtering through the windows had acquired a grey tinge, with the faintest hints of peach: it was still early afternoon, but the sun had already begun to set. Not my favorite thing about winter, I’ll admit. I do like the snow, though. Cheap electric lights hung above us, ready to be flicked on as soon as necessary, though Lis was always hounding us about not using them too often. “Ya have no idea how much it’s costing me to get this,” she’d say, to which I’d reply that of course we didn’t, because she refuses to tell us. At that point, the conversation generally devolves into insults and name-calling. Most of our conversations do, actually.

For the second time in a week, the Outliers were all together again. Before this, it was rare to see more than two or three of each other at a time, but now almost everyone was here. I say almost everyone because Adib still wasn’t picking up his phone. If I’d had my way, Sanjay also ‘wouldn’t have been picking up his phone’. Talie, though, had apparently let him know, because there he was, sitting there in his peacoat, paisley scarf, and beret.

Yep. In the hour, one whole hour, since we’d had our asses thoroughly kicked, either he’d headed home and changed, or his clothing stash here apparently consisted of… that. Either way, he was a prat.

We'd assembled around our boardroom table, Talie at the head. I was on her right (and don’t think I don’t see the symbolism there), with Jess opposite me. She looked as haggard as ever, and she’d replaced the bandage on her hand. It didn’t look any more professional, but it was cleaner and neater than it was. Lis was to my right, fingers absentmindedly drumming the gun she’d laid on the table. She hadn’t changed, and her tactical vest hung loosely from her chest, one strap severed roughly. Shauna and Nat were both hunched over the table, looking at something on one of their phones and trying to hide their obvious exhaustion. They both looked up to Talie, so the charade was pretty obviously for her sake. Ivan was asleep: he’d stumbled in, bruises on his knuckles and bags under his eyes, mumbled a ‘hey’ to Talie, and was snoring within five seconds of sitting down. George was currently sitting next to him, holding a permanent marker and looking conflicted. With the exception of Ivan, all of them had peppered Talie with questions when they’d arrived, but she’d waved them all down until everyone was together.

“Wasn’t Flint's fault,” said Jess tersely. Her eyes were sunken and dark, but a certain amount of fire burned there.

I rolled my eyes. “Jess, I appreciate the support, but we already had this conversation. This wasn’t your fault.” I grinned. “Hell, if you’d screwed up better, we probably wouldn’t even be in this mess!”

Surprisingly, she didn’t seem cheered up by that. “Didn’t say it was. But wasn’t yours either.”

“Oh, I don’t know,” George interjected lightly. “I like to think that everything’s at least a little bit Flint's fault.”

“Does that include you obviously being dropped on your head as a child?” I shot back.

“Ooh,” Lis said, “snap. Flint 1.”

Talie held up a hand. “Children, please.”

“Sorry,” the three of us chorused, completely insincere.

She sighed, rubbing the back of her head. “Alright, so maybe it wasn’t your fault, Flint.”

Thank you.”

“But regardless of who did it, a pooch has already been screwed. And we desperately need to un-screw it.”

“Thank you, Captain Obvious.” Unlike… pretty much everything he normally said, there was no bite to Sanjay's words. For reasons I couldn’t fathom, he and Talie actually got on.

“Hmm. Catchy, but I’ll stick with Void, I think.” They both grinned, and I rolled my eyes. “Still, it being obvious doesn’t make it any less true.”

“I actually have an idea on that front,” George said, as he doodled a caricature of a penis on Ivan's temple.

“Oh?”

“Yeah,” I confirmed. “It’s… well, I like it. A lot. But that doesn’t mean it’s necessarily a good plan.”

“What Flint's tryin' ta say is it's nuttier than a barrel of peanuts in a loony bin,” Lis interjected.

“It is a bit… ballsy,” George admitted. “Heh. Balls.” He added a pair to the drawing.

Talie frowned, considering it. “I trust your judgement, Flint,” she said at last. “It’s generally in at least the right zip code. Let’s hear it.”

George outlined the plan to her. He’d added a few details since I’d first heard it, probably based on the new information we’d received, but the premise was still the same.

“Holy shit,” Nat breathed out as soon as he finished. “That’s… holy shit.” Next to her, Shauna looked like someone had kicked her in the nads, white as a sheet and eyes like saucers. Oh right. I’d forgotten that this was the first time they’d heard it too.

“Maybe we should wake Ivan?” I suggested. “He should probably hear this.”

“’m awake,” came a mumbled voice from his partially-obstructed mouth. George froze halfway through writing the word ‘wanker’ on his forehead. “I heard the plan. It's certainly ambitious.” Very, very slowly, he drew back the hand with the marker in it. “It does seem like it will draw undue attention. Hatcher,” he added without changing tone or volume at all, “do that again and I’ll punch a hole straight through your sternum.”

Lis whistled. “Flint 1, Ivan 1, George 0.”

Talie ignored her. “I agree about the attention. We may end up winning the battle and loosing the war.”

“Look,” I said, leaning forward, “sooner or later, we’re going to get that attention. We’ve been lucky so far: we were named as potential suspects and no-one's tried to track us down or anything. But sooner or later, they're going to figure it out, and we’re going to have to deal with that. So why not do it on our terms? If we get it right, it could go a long way towards alleviating the negativity too.”

Talie nodded, obviously receptive to my arguments. Shauna, not so much. “It is recklessly stupid,” she said suddenly. “Just… so, so stupid.”

“Aww, come on,” Nat said to her, putting a hand on her shoulder. “It could be fun!”

She shook her head. “Absolutely not. There’s no possible situation where that's fun.”

“What about if it all goes wrong and we have to blast our way out?”

She bit her lip, obviously considering it, but then shook her head. “Nope, nope, still a bad idea.”

“I’ll win her over,” said Nat to the rest of us.

“You will not.”

“Don’t like it either,” said Jess. Her hands were clutched together, not tightly, but the injured one on the inside. “Risky. Plus, puts us in the public eye.”

“Yes,” I countered, “but in a good way.”

“No such thing.”

“Well, that’s just a highly subjective matter right there.” She smirked slightly at that, but didn’t respond.

“Both sides are making good points here,” Talie said, sterling her fingers in front of her thoughtfully. “But we’re in too much shit right now to play it safe. I say we do it-”

“I knew you’d come round,” I crowed happily.

“-right now.”

I froze halfway through a fist pump. “I’m sorry, what?”

“You heard me. Get your gear together, people. We’re doing this now.”

“Whoa whoa whoa,” I said, holding up my hands. “Back up. We can’t do it now! We’re fucking beaten to shit! And we shouldn’t do it now either! We just basically spat in the Tower's face, and now you want to kick them in the nuts too?! We’ll be squashed!”

“But you were just 100% behind it.”

“That was when it was in the indeterminate future, not the next few hours!”

“They’re on the back foot right now,” she said in response. “Off-balance and off their game. The top figures are licking their wounds, and the Guardians are basically just symbols anyway. Now is the best time to do it, before they recover. And while we still have the chance.”

I shook my head. “Talie, I know we’ve taken a lot of risks, but this is one too far. If do this now, it’ll be the end. We'll be done.”

“Now you’re just being fatalistic. If it works now, it'll work even better than it would otherwise. Because the Tower will see it as a hostile move, but nobody else will. They’ll see it as a goodwill gesture. People will like us.”

“You don’t know that.”

“And you don’t know that it’ll fail.” She met my gaze. “Flint, we’re doing this.”

I stood, pushing my chair back. “Not with me, you're not.” And I turned and walked out of the room. Behind me, I heard Talie sigh.

“I’ll go after him,” she said. “You guys start getting ready.”

“Ya sure?” Lis asked, muffling as I turned a corner. “He’s not gonna react well.”

I couldn’t make out her response properly, but I got the gist.

“I’ll be fine. What can he even to do to me, anyway?”

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Perfect 13-II

Until Things Get Too Hot.

It felt like molten metal had been dumped over every part of my body simultaneously. I jerked up, a raw scream catching in my throat. Daniel's hands and my body were both engulfed in an ugly red glow, undulating and pulsating, seemingly brighter over the more damaged parts of my body. Then, as quickly as the sensation came, it was gone again. The light turned from red to white in a slow wash, and Daniel let out a heavy breath. Sweat was trickling down his forehead, and his cheeks were flushed with exertion. Made him look like an overripe tomato.

My body had been gearing up to deal with a giant amount of pain, but had found nothing there. Metaphorically speaking, it was like it had been halfway through shoulder-charging someone, only for the person to suddenly disappear. A rush of adrenaline and dopamine hit me like a speeding truck, and I leaned back as my heartrate spiked and my vision swam “Hey Daniel,” I said weakly, “if I hit you, you can just heal it, right?”

“…what?”

“Because I really want to hit something right now.”

“Flint, don’t hit Daniel,” Talie said, sounding amused.

“Well, now you’re just volunteering yourself.”

“Flint,” she repeated in the exact same tone and intonation, “don’t hit me. If you want to burn off some adrenaline, do some jumping jacks.”

I scowled. “I’m not doing jumping jacks. Do I look like I’m five?”

“You’re acting like you are. But if you really need to feel manly, do some shadow boxing.”

“Talie, you know how I feel about boxing.”

“Ugh,” she groaned melodramatically, “don’t remind me.”

“Boxing,” I continued over her stridently, “is good for two things-”

“Flint, if you say it again I’ll have Daniel un-heal you.”

I glanced at him. “Can you actually do that?”

“Er, no.”

“Hah, knew it! Sorry, Dan, but if you could do that you’d be rotting in some DoM lab already.”

He visibly paled. “W-what?”

Talie sighed. “Flint, don’t lie to Daniel. Also, stop doing things that make me act like your mom.”

“Oh, please, my mom would’ve shamed me into silence by now.”

Daniel looked between the two of us. “So… you two are…” he made an indistinct gesture with hands, “…then?”

There was a beat, and then Talie started laughing, stuffing her fist in her mouth to stifle the giggles. I looked at him, confused. “Generally,” I said, “we use words to communicate.”

“Um,” he hesitated, “you know… together?”

I stared at him for a second. Then I began laughing too. It didn’t hurt anymore, which was nice.

“I… don’t see how that was funny?”

Talie had mostly recovered. “It’s not really,” she said, grinning as she wiped a tear from her eye. “It’s just a little… absurd, I guess.”

I snorted at that, which set off another round of giggles. He was looking at me like I was crazy, which was probably a fair reaction. “So that’s.. a no?”

“What- pfft. What gave it away?” I choked out.

“The… hysterical laughter?”

“Rhetorical question, Daniel.”

“Oh. Sorry. It’s just that…”

“No, no, I get it,” Talie laughed. “I can sort of see where you’re coming from, actually.”

“Well, I can’t,” I said emphatically, “and as…” I glanced at Daniel, “yeah, the only one here who's been in a relationship, I think my words carry a little more sway.”

Talie scoffed lightly. “It was barely a relationship. Did you even make it to first base?”

I made a face. “Bleh. No. Why is that a benchmark for relationships anyway?”

She raised an eyebrow. “Seriously?”

“Yeah, seriously. Don’t mock me on this.”

“You’re making that a bit hard. Do you really not get it? It’s a physical expression of intimacy.”

“No, it isn’t. Hugging, hand-holding, cuddling; those are all ‘physical expressions of intimacy' or whatever. Kissing is just mashing mouths together, and it’s weird that everyone thinks it’s normal.”

She opened her mouth to reply, but Daniel cut her off. “Uh, I really don’t want to interrupt, but… I have classes and stuff? And you guys can’t really be having a discussion about human sexuality in my bathroom while I do that?”

“Oh. Right.” I rubbed my neck a little awkwardly. “Sorry, man. Got carried away.”

“S’okay.” He stood up, and offered me a hand. I took it and hauled myself to my feet, hopping a little at the end.

“Whoo,” I breathed, stretching out and testing the edges of my range of motion. “I think you might be a miracle worker, Daniel. That’s really frickin' impressive. I can’t feel a thing.

He actually blushed a little. “And your head?” he asked.

“Today is the [REDACTED] of [REDACTED], the current president is [REDACTED], and my mother's maiden name is Locke.”

“What’s 21 times 32?”

“I have no idea, but that’s normal for me.” He looked at Talie, and she nodded.

“He couldn’t count his toes with his fingers,” she said.

“And your ribs? No trouble breathing or anything?”

“Only from the stench of that awful attempt at an insult.”

“So… no?”

“No,” I confirmed, “breathing’s fine.”

“Okay. Well, I’m no doctor, not yet, but I think I can reasonably pronounce you in good health.”

“It’s a weird feeling,” I admitted. “I keep expecting pain and finding nothing.”

“Better than the opposite,” Talie pointed out.

“True that.” I offered Daniel my hand, and he stared at for a moment before realization crossed his face and he grasped it. His grip was surprisingly firm. “Thanks for the healing. I’m too busy to be injured right now.”

“No problem,” he stammered, “anytime.” He seemed reluctant to let go of the handshake, but followed suit when I did.

“Well, don’t worry: even though I now know you exist, I promise not to show up on your doorstep unless I’m bleeding to death.”

“Flint, what did I say about making me play mother?”

I rolled my eyes. “Fine, ignore that. Let’s just say it was nice to meet you, and I hope that next time it’s under better circumstances.”

“L-likewise.”

I took a step towards the door, and froze as my leg armor jangled a little. “Actually, one more thing. Could I possibly borrow some sweatpants?”

-----

I waited until Daniel was out of earshot and we’d begun walking down the road before I spun on Talie. “A healer?!” I hissed. “A fucking healer?!”

She sighed. “Flint-” she began, but I cut her off.

“How many times have we all been injured? How many times? What about that time Shauna had two broken legs? What about that time Adib had fractured ribs for three months? Hell, just early this week Nat got beaten so bad she looked like an expired piece of cheese! And all this time, literally the entire time you’ve known us, you’ve had a healer up your sleeve!”

“I didn’t have him ‘up my sleeve',” she replied. She sounded a little irritated, which was unusual for her. Eternal cheeriness was kind of her thing. “Daniel’s his own person. I don’t get to just pull him out whenever I need him and then out him away again. Besides, if something really serious had happened, I would have brought you here.”

“More serious than having two broken legs? More serious than ending up looking like the recipient of domestic abuse: deluxe edition?”

Yes,” she snapped, “more serious than that.”

“Then why did you bring me here now?!”

“Because you were fighting the heroes. Not just the heroes, Valiant themselves. Something big was obviously happening.”

I shook my head. “You’ve got no idea. It’s bad, Talie.”

“How bad?”

“Let’s get back to the base first. Then I’ve got a hell of a story to tell you…”

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Perfect 13-I

FLINT

Perfectly Perfect.

The door opened before Talie could knock, leaving her hand hanging in the air. It swung open for a few inches before clanking against a chain, and a bespectacled eye appeared in the gap. It widened almost as soon as it saw us. “Natalie?” a muffled voice asked.

“Hi, Daniel,” she said. “How are you doing?”

“Um, good, I guess?” He glanced down at me, and I waved a little with my free hand. “Uh… how are you?”

“You know, Daniel, I’m doing pretty well. She sounded far too casual for someone supporting the entire weight of an adult male. “My friend here, though, isn’t doing so great.” He glanced down at me again.

“Hi,” I said.

“…hi,” he replied warily. “Do you… want to come in?”

Talie glanced left and right, down the corridors of the college dorm corridor we were standing in. “I think that’d be good.”
“Right.” The eye disappeared, and there was the sound of jingling chains. The door swung open fully, revealing a room that looked pretty much exactly what I’d imagined a college dorm looking like. The blinds were drawn, only letting in a small amount of the afternoon light in little slits that cast unevenly throughout the room. There was a bed/desk combination on either side of the room, and cabinets beyond them. On the right, they were further back, leaving a gap that was filled by a half-open doorway into a bathroom. One side of the room was slightly tidier than the other, but both bore the trademark mess and scatter that signified a busy life and an unwillingness to spend any extra energy keeping tidy. I should know, it’s pretty much exactly what my room looks like. The desk lamp on the left hand side was on, and the right side was empty, so it was a safe bet that his roommate was out.

Daniel stepped out from behind the door, gesturing for us to move into the room. He was pale and portly, round face and round thin-framed glasses. His hair, wispy and sandy brown, was already receding up his forehead, and I reckoned he’d be bald within a decade. With that, the glasses and the pocket protector he had, he looked more like a middle-aged engineer than a college student.

We moved in through the doorway, my arm slung over Talie's shoulder as she took most of my weight. My feet were theoretically touching the ground, but they may as well not have been: we’d figured out pretty quickly that walking put too much strain on my ribs. She’d been basically carrying me for more than a few blocks, and yet she showed no sign of tiring, or even getting slightly out of breath. And it’s not like she’s a giant uber-athlete or anything: she’s barely taller than me, and she’s fit, but not muscled.

Daniel closed the door behind us, doing up multiple locks. “Put him down in the bathroom,” he directed, and she did so, lowering me down gently onto the tiles.

“Whoo,” she exhaled, stretching up and arching her back. “Damn, Flint, you need to diet.”

“I am in peak physical condition,” I muttered. “Your jibes cannot reach me.”

Daniel entered the room, pushing his glasses up onto his forehead. “Right,” he said a little awkwardly. “So what happened to him?”

“Third-degree concussion, 15 fractured bones, mostly ribs, and mild internal bleeding,” Talie rattled off almost immediately. He looked at her in surprise. “One of the heroes scanned him, and I have a good memory.”

“…okay, then.” He knelt down near me. “How’d you get him here?”

“Flew most of the way, walked the last few blocks.” As soon as she’d confirmed the heroes were gone, she’d taken me from Ribbon and told the rest of them to go home. Then she’d lifted off in a roaring gale, and flown halfway across town to the university campus. Stopping on the edge of the campus, she’d ducked into an alleyway and come out in civvies that I know she hadn’t been carrying. I couldn’t really remove my costume in my current condition, so I’d managed to slip into a coat that covered the most conspicuous parts of my costume. Hopefully, it wasn’t too weird to wear white pants with grey boots. And armor plates.  We were just lucky most people were at lectures.

“How long has it been since he got the concussion?” he asked Talie.

“Hey,” I said irritably, clicking my fingers without moving my hand off the floor. “I’m right here.”

“You have a third-degree concussion.”

“Well, I’m feeling better now.”

He looked desperately at Talie, and she laughed. “Daniel, this is Flint. He’s… unique. Flint, this is Daniel. He’s a medical student, and he helps me out sometimes.”

“Charmed,” I said dryly.

“…likewise. Are you sure he had a concussion?” he asked her.

“Trust me, if you’d seen him half an hour ago, you wouldn’t have to ask.”

“I’m not as confused as before,” I interjected, “but I still can’t really… concentrate on anything. Plus, it feels like a rock concert being played inside my skull.”

“Still, you’re remarkably cogent. Do you have any powers that grant you increased resistance to harm?”

I glanced up at Talie questioningly, and she nodded. Apparently, she trusted this guy. “Not as far as I’m aware, no.”

“Anything that could’ve reduced the impact?”

“Apart from thick skin? Nope.”

He seemed to brighten up. “Oh? Thick skin? How does that work?”

“Not like that, Daniel,” Talie laughed. “He means metaphorically.”

“Oh. Right. I knew that.”

I snorted, the movement causing a brief spike of pain. “Where’d you find this one, Talie?”

“He volunteers at a hospital. I ended up there in a bit of a bad spot, and Daniel helped me out. I repaid the favor, and now we have a working relationship.”

“Oh!” He smacked his forehead. “I completely forgot. Is she-”
“Yeah, she’s fine. I checked in on her a few weeks ago.”

“A few weeks, huh?” I narrowed my eyes. “Is that where you disappeared to?”

“No, Flint, this was something else.” We’d had conversations like this before, and she was obviously pretty over it. Well, too bad. I was going to keep hammering on this until something cracked.

“Disappeared,” Daniel asked, obviously confused.

“Don’t worry about it. I think we’re getting off topic anyway.”

“Oh! Right, yes.” He turned back to me, and I ground my teeth. “Do you know anything else about the injuries?”

“I know that they bloody hurt,” I snapped.

“Where?”

“Ribs, left forearm, left shoulder. Ribs when I breath, the others just generally.”

“Mm-hmm. And because you’re not already dead, I’m assuming the internal bleeding isn’t too bad. What happened to you?”

“Got thrown through a wall.”

His eyes widened. “Thrown?”

“Oh, good point. Blown through a wall.”

“How?!”

“Do you really want to know?”

“You don’t,” Talie interjected. “Trust me. Can you fix him?”

“Wait.” My head snapped towards her. “Fix me? He’s a fucking healer?!” Remember what I said about teleporters being rare? Take that, and multiply it by ten and square it, and you have the sheer uncommonness of healers. “Jesus H. flipping Christ, what the hell are you doing at college?! You could be rich!”

He shrugged. “I don’t really want to be, honestly. I just want to help people, so I’m volunteering at hospitals, and trying to get my medical license. Helping people like you is just a side thing I do for Natalie.” Yep, that’s Talie for you. I’ve never met anyone who knew her and didn’t feel like they owed her in some way. It’s not sinister, she just has a habit of fixing people’s problems. “And in answer to your question, Natalie, yes, I should be able to.” He turned towards me, and rested a hand on mine. “But fair warning: this is probably going to hurt a lot.”

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Paranoid 12-Vignette


And the votes are now closed! The winner: an extra regular update. Thanks to everyone who made their vote known!
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An Invisible Demon.

Last night, or thereabouts.

In the deepest, darkest depths of Lake Michigan, a small metal sphere began shaking. Softly at first, then more violently, steadily increasing. The metal began shearing, tiny fractures spreading across its surface and widening, revealing hints of something dark crimson. At last, the metal fell away, drifting slowly down to sink into the mud and silt. Left in its place was a small piece of flesh, no larger than a penny. It began drifting upwards, initially at a natural pace, but it quickly gained speed until it was shooting through the water like a bullet. When it burst from the surface, it brought a spray of water with it, splashing over the surprised people in the tiny fishing that was right next to it.

“What the hell was that?!” one of them cried as the flesh came to a rest about a meter above the water. It spun around, orienting itself, until it was facing towards the bright lights of New Chicago in the distance.

“Forget about that: what about them?!” If the flesh could see, or observe the world around it in any way, it would be able to see the hundreds of other tiny specks that had risen from the water at exactly the same time and were all hovering at the same height. But it couldn’t, because it was just a strand of muscle fiber, and muscle fiber couldn’t see.

Guided by an invisible force, it shot out across the water, leaving the gaping and fearful occupants of the boat behind as it headed towards the shore. Other specks began falling in behind it, shards of bone and pieces of fat and organs, and even tiny specks of vitreous jelly. Together, they formed a swarm of human body material in the shape of a comet, smaller pieces at the front, larger ones trailing behind. The piece of flesh was the smallest of all, so it was at the very front, and if it could think, it would be happy and excited to be important. But it didn’t, because it was a strand of muscle fiber, and muscle fiber couldn’t think. It left the water behind, crossing onto land and zooming through the street. It was a dark, cloudy night; in places without good lighting, it would’ve perhaps seemed like a mirage, a brief flicker of movement in the darkness. Where it could be seen, though, it left a trail of surprised shrieks and swerving cars behind it. In a few places, people didn’t get out of the way in time, and were left bleeding and battered in its wake. They had, comparatively speaking, gotten off lucky.

The building looked like it had been the subject of an artillery bombing. In a way, it had. Blood and body parts were still painting a macabre image across dirty wood and debris: the Tower wouldn’t arrive and begin cordoning the scene off for another few hours. One particular stain occupied a prominent position, and it was to this that the swarm congregated. It swirled around the spot until the trailing pieces had arrived, then collapsed inwards with a sound like a live pig being fed into a wheat thresher, only in reverse.

In the span of a second, a shape formed. Bones assembled and melted together, flesh and organs twisted into shape, and over them, skin brought itself together out of the hundreds of thousands of tiny particles that had, unseen, accompanied the swarm.  When the motion ceased, a man was standing there, naked, chest rising and falling slowly, with a rasp and a wince on each movement. He was far taller than was naturally possible, and his muscle-bound frame suggested (falsely) a life dedicated to barbells and protein shakes, while the wild, thick hair that covered most of his body implied that said implements were in the midst of a deep forest, or perhaps a post-apocalyptic situation. His teeth were jagged and dirty, and his were deep-set and pitch black, but lined with barely-concealed pain.

He glanced around the shattered remains of the room. Despite the complete lack of light outside of the feeble flickers of a dying, broken bulb above the bar, he had no trouble moving through the wreckage. He pushed aside a piece of rebar and wood to reveal a corpse, a young man in a jacket with lightning bolts on it. Chunks of his torso were missing, gouged away in what looked like high velocity impacts, and his blank eyes stared down at the dirty wooden floor, unseeing. The man crouched over the corpse, stiff and strained, and then exploded. The swarm descended upon the corpse, and in seconds, it had been stripped away to nothing. When the man reformed, the pain in his posture had disappeared, and he seemed ever so slightly larger. He straightened up, smiling a slightly creepy smile, and stepped away, moving towards the next nearest corpse.

The hum of cars and city ambience in the background hit a brief lull, and for a second, a quiet whimper could be heard. The man, halfway to his next meal, paused mid-step, then pivoted towards the sound. “Oh,” he rumbled, “this is unexpected. “A survivor. Hah. How novel.”

He strode over to the bar and tore it out of the ground with his bare hands, tossing it to one side. Huddled behind it was a woman, curled into a fetal position, with blood-splattered black clothes and a simple cloth domino mask pulled up over her hair. Both of her legs ended in stumps, one just below the knee, the other almost up to her torso. Despite the fact that she should’ve bled to death from wounds like that, she was still conscious, if pale and strained. Both wounds looked like they had scabbed over a good while ago, even though the wounds had been inflicted less than two hours ago.

She whimpered again, and shrunk even further as the man towered over her. “Do you know,” he said conversationally, “that I can taste them? It’s not quite the same, but it’s similar. And it always tastes so much better when they’re still warm.” He leaned down, and his skin began shaking, breaking apart and floating off to hover like an aura around him.

Golden light flooded the room, and the woman on the ground flinched, covering her eyes. An angelic figure, garbed in robes the same color as the light, appeared between the man and his would-be victim.

Not this one, the angel said. Let her go.

The man laughed sardonically. “You can’t be serious.”

Let her go, the angel repeated, something like annoyance passing over its blank face. She will spread the word.

“The word will spread regardless. They will see what I have wrought, and it will bring them fear.”

The Tower of Babel will hide it. They will keep the people placid like sheep.

“A slaughter of this size?” He laughed again. “They couldn’t hide a needle in a haystack.”

They have done it before. They will do it again. But if she lives, the word will spread.

The woman on the ground didn’t know why the man had stopped, or why he was now arguing with thin air, but she wasn’t one to look gift horses in their mouths. She began dragging herself away as fast as her arms would carry her, ignoring the pain from the stumps that used to be her legs as best she could. The man watched her go, but made no move to stop her.

“A waste,” he said, shaking his head.

It serves a greater cause, replied the angel. Now, you have work to do. The Pharisees shall soon be arriving in this city. Their representative seeks to correct the course of the pawns that have gone astray, and bring in their knights and rooks.

“You’re talking about this as if it’s a game.”

It is, to them. They seek to hide the light, scurry it away in some dark, forgotten vault. That cannot be allowed to happen.

“Mm,” the man said noncommittally. “And the children?”

Their part has been played. They interfered with the pawns and the Tower both, and set them moving down their appropriate paths. If you encounter them again, feel free to remove them from the board.

“Again with the game.”

It is an appropriate metaphor. For this, and for most things.

“Mm,” he repeated. “I suppose it is. So what is next?”

For now, wait. You’ll know when the situation changes. Stay away from the Pharisees especially. There is a new player associated with them, one that is muddling the path.

“Do I at least get to feed?”

The angel sighed. As long as it is unobtrusive.

“Unobtrusive,” the eight-foot tall mountain man said as he burst into a swirling storm of flesh, blood and bone. “I believe I can manage that.”

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Paranoid 12-V


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A Crusade Against Stupid.

It had taken less than five seconds. Stump had barely time to react, and he briefly flexed the branches that had until a second ago contained Metalface. “What… the f***… just happened?!” He spun on me. “What just happened?!” The flailing of his branches barely seemed to be under his control: they were leaving thin gashes in the concrete where they hit, and a few were getting dangerously close to me.

I took a step back, cautiously raising my hands. “T-this wasn’t me, Stump. Surely that’s obvious.”

“Well, I’m at a bit of a loss for who else it could be!”

Despite myself, I found I was getting a little pissed. “Oh, so I suddenly have shadow-teleportation now? Which is totally in-line with the rest of my powers, and I kept completely hidden up until now, just to disappear some criminals after we beat them up?! Yeah, that makes sense!”

“Aaaghh! You al-” he stilled, cutting himself off. There was an audible deep breath, and then the branches sagged and began retracting. They twisted and writhed, pulling back in, until it was the eight-foot tall human figure standing there instead. Apart from the lack of genitalia and the blank mask of a face, it was remarkably accurate: it didn’t look like a man made it of wood so much as a person with incredibly realistic body paint. A very tall, very muscular, person.

One word out of you and I will not be able to be held responsible for my actions. One. Word.

Wisely, my inner voice decided to stay silent.

Stump sighed, resting his head on one hand. “Look, I’m sorry. I was still worked up from the fight. But you obviously know something about this that I don’t, and you need to tell me, right now.”

I pursed my lips. “Fine,” I said at last, “apology accepted. And I can do better than tell you. I can show you.” I pulled out my phone and loaded up the video I’d taken. “Here.” He came to stand behind my shoulder, peering down at the phone, and I tried to ignore how close he was standing.

The video started a few seconds after the man had appeared, and took another second to stabilize. As soon as it did, Stump leaned down further, and I had to move out of the way. “I know that man,” he said slowly. “I don’t know from where, but I’ve definitely seen him before.” I glanced over at him, but he seemed too engrossed in the video to notice. Could the man have been working for the Tower? Were they… playing both sides of this conflict? And if so, did Stump know about it, or was he just as clueless as me?

I’d filmed up to the point that Stump had come barreling in, including the man’s disappearance. When it ended, he stared at the blank screen for a moment. “He knew I was coming,” he said. “Did you know I was coming?”

“Not until just before you showed up.”

“But he knew a full ten seconds before…” A thought seemed to hit him. “If he was gone, how did he know when to pull them out? That must not have been shadow teleportation: it had to have been a shifter power. He was there the whole time!”

“Or,” I suggested, “he could’ve bugged the room. Or just teleported to just outside. Don’t go jumping to hasty conclusions, or you’ll give my high school science teacher a heart attack.” Not likely: Mr. Blakely was in his twenties and-
He snorted. “Not likely.” Wait, what? “But fine, you have a point.” He leant back, and I let out the breath I didn’t know I’d been holding. “So this… White Tie, he’s behind the Dresden Three- no, I guess it's Four now?”

“Who?”

“What we call those guys.  But he talked like he was representing a larger organization. And what was the datapad he was talking about?”

I shrugged. “Do you think I know any more about this than you do? Can you at least remember where you’d seen him before?”

“I think it might have been at some sort of administrative meeting, maybe?”

“So he works for the Tower, then?” My tone was accusatory, and he actually took a half-step back.

“I don’t… think so, no. I’m having trouble remembering: I think I was asleep for most of it.”

“Really?”

“I’m made of wood and have no face. You try and tell if I’m paying attention.”

“I dunno, I feel like body language would…” I shook my head. “Bleh. Getting off topic. So.” I spun around to inspect the room. Crates were strewn everywhere, there were scars and gashes in the concrete, as well as the eroded effect where Metalface's beam had hit, and there was actually a little dent where I think the blurry woman had hit the ground. “What happens now?”

“Well, first of all, I’m going to have to report that I managed to lose those four, which'll be fun. But, it should soften that blow if I can show them that video.” He held out a hand. “Gimme.”

I clenched my hand around it. “Umm, no. Definitely not. This is… you know, my phone. I’m not just going to give it to you. It’s got all my phone stuff on it.”

“And you brought it along with you out in costume?”

“Look,” I said irritably, “if I was good at thinking things through, I wouldn’t be here. Sorry, but this stays with me.”

“You know I could just take it, right?” His hand began unravelling slightly.

Instinctively, I ghosted. “Try it. I dare you.”

We stared each other down. Then he relaxed, his hand returning to its normal state. He didn’t have any way of telling, though, so I stayed intangible. Better safe than sorry.

“Fine. But my bosses really need to see that video. It’s important. So… could you maybe come and show it to them?”

I scoffed. “And have Fog try to freeze me to death again? I don’t think so.”

“I can get her to back off,” he assured. “Please just consider it. This is really important.”

My knee-jerk, gut reaction was to say no, and just poof right out of there. But I had to stop, and think it through. Going with my gut hadn’t exactly proven to be a sound idea these last few days. And this whole situation did seem like it really was a big deal. Me helping could be the difference that got the… Dresden Four arrested before they hurt anyone else. Besides, it’s not like I was really going to be there. If something went wrong, I could just poof out.

“Alright,” I decided, “I'll come. Take me to your leaders.”

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Paranoid 12-IV


Vote's still open! One week to go, and regular update is in the lead. It's a bit boring, but I can appreciate the sentiment.
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About To Eat Your Face.

I sighed, then stood up and moved round the corner. At the very least, he could’ve given me a warning. He was blocking the entire doorway, so I just ghosted (oh, that’s a way better name for it, I’m using that from now on) and started moving through the branches.

“Oh yeah?” Green Cloak snorted. “You and what army, you rip-off Whomping Willow?” Well, that was as good a moment as any. I passed through the last few and stepped into the room, staring silently at the teleporter.

“And who the h*ll are you supposed to be?” she scoffed. I said nothing, just continued staring, fists clenched by my side. “Ooh, very scary. You going to glare us to death?”

“Callas,” snapped the blurry woman. “Enough. Look,” she said, turning to face us, “we've got the numbers advantage here. If you make us, we'll fight our way out of here. But right now, all we want to do is leave. Let us go, and we’ll disappear, and you’ll never hear from us again. It’s the easiest solution for all of us.”

“That’s very practical of you.” The voice sounded angry, and a little hoarse, and I realized it was mine. “Very sensible. So maybe you should have thought of it before your ‘friends' decided to escalate from thieving to holding a school hostage.”

“Look, that wasn’t my idea, and it was a really terrible one. I’m trying to be reasonable here: we can fight, or we can not, and the result's going to be the same. So, and I hate doing this, we can either do this the easy way or the hard way.”

“It’s amusing that you think that,” Stump replied, “because you’re right: there is an easy way and a hard way, you just don’t have the details right. The easy way is you lie down, put your hands on your head, and allow me to take you in. The hard way is I drag your unconscious bodies all the way back through that sewage and throw you in a cell.”

“Are you that arrogant that you think the two of you can just walk over us?”

Stump scoffed darkly. “Two? I could do this on my own.”

She sighed, sounding exasperated. “F***in' heroes… every time,” she muttered. “Fine. You want to-” Without warning, she threw herself to the side, the blue-grey light emanating from her hand disappearing. The room was plunged into darkness for a moment, then the angry glow of Metalface's power lit it up again as he fired it towards us. I was still ghosted, but I remember how it had chewed through Black Armor's (Stonewall, Skew had called him) shields: I wasn’t taking any chances. Letting my legs drop out from underneath me, I fell to the ground, the beam shooting overhead. Stump merely shifted slightly, opening a hole in his form and letting the beam pass through harmlessly.

I sprang back onto my feet, and found the blurry woman bearing down on me, light coming from her hand once more. She swung, and I let it pass through me as I stepped forward through her. I wasn’t there to fight her: I was there for Green Cloak. She stumbled as she overbalanced, and there was a crack as Stump whipped a tendril forward to snap against her arm. He was still twisting and changing, dodging each blast as they came with ease. He was attempting to hit Metalface, but every time he tried, it was met with a beam.

Green Cloak was standing there, darting her head around rapidly like she couldn’t see. I charged towards her, went solid, and dived forward, trying to bowl her over. Just before I hit, though, she disappeared with a pop and a rush of wind. She'd been baiting me, and I’d fallen for it. I hit the ground with a heavy impact that knocked the breath out of me, and groaned. Teleporter. Right. How do you fight a teleporter? I could feel her vacuum after effect tugging at my clothes, but it disappeared when I went intangible again. You cut down their mobility advantage? Or maybe predict where they’re going to appear again. I don’t think I can do that, though. I mean, she’s probably gotten into the habit of appearing behind people, right? That’s the classic teleporter move. Only one way to find out, I guess.

The whistling of the wind disappeared, and as it did I went solid again and kicked out one leg behind me. I’d banked on her waiting until the vortex disappeared to pop back in, and while my conjecture was spot on, my aim wasn’t so close. The outside edge of my boot nicked her leg, but didn’t manage to connect, and in the next moment I found myself driven back into the ground as a foot slammed into my lower back. I growled, a guttural sound in the back of my throat, and jumped back up into a wild swing, but she was gone again, and my fist connected with nothing but thin air. I spun around again, expecting to find her behind me now, but she wasn’t there either: she was over by the wall, leaning against with her arms folded.

I panted heavily, as the adrenaline coursed through my veins. It was always the same when I got hit: a surge of rage and the almost primal desire to strike back or lash out. Although, this was the first time I’d been hit intentionally, so it was nice for those instincts to be valid. I wanted to rush over and hit her, but I reined myself in. I needed to be smart about this, I couldn’t let her goad me again. But how?

“It's real simple, Hannah. If you can’t go to her, make her come to you.”

I smiled, then spun on my heel and ran back towards Metalface. Wait for it… There was the pop-whoosh, and I stopped in my tracks. Green Cloak appeared a step in front of me and to the right, arm already swinging as she ported in. Overbalanced by the lack of resistance, she stumbled forward, and I managed to hit her with a knee before she disappeared again. Judging by the way she was bent over in her new location, I’d hit something important.

“Now, capitalize while she’s weak.”

But I still have the same problem. She’ll just teleport away before I get close.

“Then don’t get close, dummy.” There was a box sitting nearby, lid still firmly sealed, and as I leant down to pick it up, I increased my mass slightly and gradually until it was barely noticeable. Then, channeling every game of softball I’d been forced to participate in, I flung it at Green Cloak.

It was too dark to get a good look at her expression, but I’m betting, before the heavy crate crashed into her and sent her flying, it was pretty darn shocked.
I took a deep breath, and found it surprisingly hard. In fact, my whole body was burning, like I’d just done a whole bunch of exercise. But I’d done far more strenuous things than just that on a regular basis: I shouldn’t have been feeling it this hard. It must be the power, I realized; I hadn’t used them for this long before, and it was wearing me out. Well, that was something else to take into consideration. I’d have to do some tests, figure out if it made a difference how often I switched, that sort of thing. Later, that is.

I’d seen at the school how slippery she could be, so I wasn’t taking any chances. I ran over to her limp form, and kicked it in the gut. That’s for my hand, jerkhole. Then I grabbed her by the arm, and started dragging her across the room back to Stump. If she tried teleporting, I was coming with.

The blurry woman was still down, surprisingly. That noise when Stump hit her must’ve been a bone breaking. She saw me coming, and I felt… something. Like… grabbing a bar of soap, but from the other side, if that makes sense. Like something had tried to grab me, but just slipped right off. She reeled back, clutching at her head, and collapsed down into a ball, moaning in pain. I don’t know what happened there, but I wasn’t going to complain. Now all that was left was Metalface. He and Stump were still holding to the same pattern, him firing and the hero dodging, but his blasts had grown smaller and less frequent, and his posture was sagging slightly. I saw a flicker of movement by his feet, and then one of his legs was yanked to the side, a tendril that Stump had snuck by him wrapped around it. He toppled like a great tree, landing awkwardly on one arm. Branches quickly swarmed out from the hero and encircled him, binding his arms to his side and holding him against the ground. “Arrogant, huh?” he said, sounding smug through a layer of exhaustion.

We’d done it. We’d actually done it. I took a moment as it sunk in. I’d achieved something: I’d all this worth the ef-

“I know you're still listening, you creepy f***!” It was the indistinct woman, still lying on the ground and still in obvious pain. “We accept your goddamn deal, okay?”

Stump looked at me, a head forming out of a few disparate pieces. “What is she talking about? What deal?”

“I don’t know,” I replied slowly. “I think…” I got it just too late. “Light!” I yelled at him. “We need light, now!” The shadows swirled as I desperately pulled out my phone, flicking on the flashlight and turning it up as far as it would go.

It wasn’t enough. The darkness rolled over the three figures, ignoring the light projecting from my device in defiance of all logic. When it washed away again, it took them with it, leaving us holding nothing but fistfuls of empty air.

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