Postscript

So, uh…

Yeah!

That's Outliers. As someone who's never completed a major project before, it's hard to describe the feelings I'm experiencing.

I started writing this story when I was fifteen years old. A high school sophomore, kind of an idiot. Now, I’m eighteen; graduated from high school, still an idiot but hopefully less so. Putting it like that, though, really doesn’t do justice to just how much my life has changed in that period of time. How much I’ve changed, actually, but most of that is quite personal. The point is, Outliers has been a constant during some of the most formative years of my life so far, and it’s meant a lot to me in a lot of weird ways. That’s not to say it’s perfect, or great, or even good; again, written by a fifteen-year-old. I don’t think anyone would argue that there were some flaws kind of hard-baked into the story, ones that it was basically impossible to fix as it went on and got better, as I got better. And I also think anyone would agree I’ve gotten better; not that it was a high bar, but looking back I can’t but feel a little proud of how far I’ve come. Outliers was weird and messy and strange, but ultimately, it was fun, for me at least, and honestly I’ll take that over a higher level of technical proficiency.

Of course, if you’re reading this now, I’d like to think you’d agree. More importantly, I’d like to thank you from the bottom of my heart for reading this strange, off-kilter story by some weirdo on the internet. Every single comment, every view and typo correction meant so much to me, and inspired me to keep going when I was dealing with some personal issues. It’s honestly been a blessing, and I feel privileged to have had it.

So… what’s next?

Well, in the short term, Silversmith! If you’ve been around for a bit you probably know about it already, but if you don’t, here’s the blurb:

On a mildly chilly winter’s night in the city of Brisbane, a teenage girl suddenly bursts into flames. This wouldn’t be out of ordinary, except for the part where they then burn her to death, leaving behind a single word in the ashes. Officially, the police think it’s spontaneous combustion. Certain people think otherwise.
June Young is trying not to think about it at all. She’s much too busy trying to keep her wardlaying business afloat to get involved in any mysteries, despite her best friend’s efforts to the contrary. She’s not a private eye, or a detective, or a sleuth, so there shouldn’t be any reason for her to get caught up in it all.
Right?

Silversmith is an urban fantasy story, and I’m really excited to get to try something different (after all, I’ve been near-exclusively writing the same story for over two years). The first episode is already complete, and the second one begins on Monday! That’s right, we’re diving right in, and in my humble opinion, it’s gonna be a fun one.

Longer term, Outliers is not finished. Not even close! It was probably pretty obvious from all the dangling plot threads and whatnot, but I felt it was safer just to say so. However, when it returns, it’ll probably be a little… different. Like I said, it’s got its flaws, and I have a few ideas for how to fix that. I’m keeping my hands close to my chest for now, but keep an ear to the ground in the near(ish) future. I’ll be revamping my Patreon in the next few days to be more generally about my writing, but if you don’t want to follow that, you can also keep up with what’s going on by following me on Twitter.

Once again, thank you all so much for reading. It’s been a delight, and I’m glad I got to share this weird story with you all.

For now, though, I’m gonna go and comfort eat.

END OF BOOK ONE

New 25-Vignette | 2


Brand New Day.

1 year and five months ago, or thereabouts.

“Really?” Flint asked, scepticism dripping from his tone.

“Aw, come on,” Natalie replied with a slight grin. “It’s not that bad, is it?”

“It’s literally,” he pointed, “literally falling apart.” As if to illustrate, a wooden board fell from where it had been blocking a window and clattered to the ground in front of them.

The last time Flint had been to the warehouse they currently stood in front of, it had been night, and the dim lighting had given it an air of menace. Now, though, in the light of day, he could see it for what it was. A deathtrap.

“Well,” Natalie countered him, “no-one will think to look here, then, will they?”

He scowled. “They won’t have a reason to look, because it’ll have already collapsed inwards and killed us all. I didn’t agree to join your little bookclub just to get crushed to death by some architect’s fever dream.”

She laughed, walking forwards and opening the door. “I promise, it’s not as bad as it looks.” She held the door open, inclining her head slightly, and, with a sigh, he followed her in.

“I’ve taken a look around,” she explained as they walked through the dusty offices. “None of the damage is so deep that we can’t repair it.”

He raised an eyebrow. “Last time I checked, one of the structural pillars had collapsed.”

“Like I said,” she replied with a wink. Sure enough, when they entered the large warehouse space a moment later, he was surprised to find the rubble had been cleared out, and the hole in the roof repaired. A ratty old couch had been placed on one side of the room, and sitting on it was-

“Lisette?” he blurted before he could help himself.

She waved at him with the bottle of beer she was drinking. “Hey, kid. Sorry fer not tellin’ ya last time, but ya seemed kinda down.”

He stared at her in confusion as Natalie chuckled. “You’ve already met everyone one way or another,” she said, gesturing to the other figures scattered around the room, and indeed he managed to match them all to his memories of their first meeting in this building. “But we can do a proper meet-and-greet later. First, I’d like to welcome everyone to the very first meeting of…” she paused dramatically, as everyone looked at her, “the Outliers!”

“...really?” Flint asked after a moment. “That’s what you’re going with?”

She deflated slightly. “You... don’t like it?”

“Are you kidding me?” he asked. “It’s fuckin’ awful!”

“Oh, come on,” she said with a pout. “I’m sure it’ll grow on you.”

Despite himself, he laughed, for what felt like the first time in years. “I guarantee you it will not.”

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New 25-Vignette


Treating The Symptom.

“How many?” the man known as Ulster asked as she entered the room. He stood with his arms folded behind his back, staring at the six pods sitting in front of him, and there was no way he could have seen her enter. This was not unusual for him, though, so she merely pulled out a lightweight tablet and began assembling the relevant briefs.

“Two, sir,” she answered curtly, doing her best to keep her voice level and neutral.

“Only two?” he asked, sounding mildly surprised. Or, as surprised as he ever did.

“Yes, sir. Jane McClellan, from the Tower, and Miranda Callas, one of the criminal proxies the Americans were deploying.”

“The knight and the teleporter. Both dead?”

“McClellan is, sir. Callas displayed a previously-unobserved reaction to the catalyst. At the time, it appeared to kill her, but her body disappeared soon after. We are assuming she is still alive, until proven otherwise.”

“Do. She might provide valuable data. How did the knight die?”

“Ah, on that count, I have some good news.” She swiped through a few files until she reached a video file, then held up the tablet as it played.

Ulster turned, taking it gently from her hands, and staring intently at the screen. “The Theta sample.”

“Yes, sir. As you can see, it's bonded. I've already deployed Four, but this is the only piece of information they have to work from, so we can't expect immediate results.”

“Do you know,” Ulster said, handing the tablet back to her, “what the original purpose of the Theta sample was?”

“Sir?” she asked, confused.

“Ah,” he rumbled, “I suppose not, then. It’s irrelevant now, anyway. Tell Four to proceed with the utmost caution. Judging from the video, it is still in the initial stages, but the possibility exists of advancement.”

She made a note to do so. “Understood.”

“This is the last of them,” he asked, switching topics abruptly, “correct?”

She flailed for a moment, before realizing he was referring to pods in front of them. “The last six, yes.”

“Any commonality in the storage units?”

“No, as specified. Two from New Chicago, but there’s no other point of connection.”

He nodded, then walked forward to the pod on the very left. “Good. It’s time to begin Phase Two.”

She almost dropped her tablet. “Sir-”

“The leak of a catalyst sample proves that we no longer have time to dally and study.” He reached up, wiping away the condensation from the pod’s translucent front. Inside was a young girl, lean, black hair with a skunk stripe of blonde.

“It’s time for this world to see what their powers truly are.”

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New 25-VIII

FLINT
How I Hesitated.

Once again, I ran through flames.

Somewhere in the back of my mind, I knew it was a dream, but that part of me was sectioned off, disconnected from the me that ran screaming through corridors filled with fire. Or, they were made of fire. It was a dream, they’re not exactly consistent in their imagery.

Limbs of flame grabbed at me as I ran, burning through my clothes. Screams deafened me, a mix of familiar voices and those of strangers. In every door I passed, I could see my dad standing there, fire spreading behind him, but each one was slightly different; different clothes, different parts of him burnt.

You know, the standard stuff.

The dream changed, and I was standing back in the parking garage, watching an array of Talies get impaled through the chest. All of them but one disappeared, and the arm inside her exploded outwards. Her head landed in front of me, but instead of her face, it was mine.

And suddenly I was falling, plummeting rapidly towards the ruins of our old base, which quickly collapsed inwards on themselves and formed a deep pit, piled high with bodies. My stomach clenched as I grew close, and I knew I’d wake up just before I hit-

But I didn’t.

Instead, I stopped, floating, frozen, just above the top of the pile. Wait, that small part of me that was properly conscious thought, that’s not right.

I was back in the corridor again, still running, but now all the doors were empty. I reached a dead end, and turned around, but the corridor behind me had disappeared and I stood in a small room made of flame. One by one, corpses fell out the walls, blackened and burnt, bearing the faces of my family and friends as they collapsed to the floor.

“It's not a dream.”

The words cut right through me. Like they'd broken the barrier between the different parts of my brain, conscious control came flooding back, and suddenly I was lucid.

I spun around, to find a man standing there. He was about my height, but the light and shadow obscured his features.

“Oh, okay,” I said to no-one in particular. “My nightmares are getting meta now. Wonderful.”

“It’s not a dream,” he repeated. Was his voice familiar?

“Yeah, yeah.” I waved a hand absently. “Whatever. Can I wake up now?”

The man chuckled. “Ah, I’ve missed that.”

I frowned. Something was off. “Okay, jokes aside, subconscious, I’d like to wake up now.”

“Flint,” the man said, “it’s not a dream. I’m really here.” He stepped forward and-

“W-what?” I stammered, falling backwards onto my ass.

“Hey, Flint,” my dad said with a rueful smile. “Missed you.”

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New 25-VII

HANNAH
Why’d She Have To Talk To Me Now?

I stared at the TV. “...every channel?” I whispered in horror.

“Well, not every,” Sabah replied with a grimace. “But pretty much all the ones that matter.”

Covering my mouth, I watched as the screen displayed an image of me, leaping off the train station platform. The quality was good enough that I could see the tears and scratches on me. “I’m dead,” I moaned out loud, flopping backwards onto my bed. “I’m so dead.”

“If it's any consolation?” Sabah slowly lowered herself down to sit next to me, the bed creaking slightly under her weight. “They don’t really know what you look like. It’s too dark, and too far away.”

“Doesn’t matter,” I groaned, staring at the ceiling. “Someone’s going to figure it out. You know what the internet is like. I’m going to have to move away. I’ve always wanted to live in San Francisco.”

“...national channels, Hannah.”

I squeezed my eyes shut. “Of course.”

Sabah patted me on the shoulder. “It’ll be okay, Hannah. And besides, you’re famous! Who doesn’t want to be famous?”

Silently, eyes still closed, I pointed both thumbs at myself.
“...yeah, that’s fair.” She flopped back beside me. “You know, there's an obvious solution to this.”

“What, become a hermit?” I paused, reconsidering. “Honestly, that's not a terrible idea.”

She laughed. “Not that, dingus. You could-” There was a sharp intake of breath.

“Sabah?” I asked, opening my eyes and sitting up. “What's-”

She grabbed the remote from where it sat next to me, and hammered the off switch, but not before-











“...I’m okay,” I managed to say at last. “I’m okay.”

“Hannah, I’m so sorry,” Sabah said, kneeling in front of me and holding my hands. “I didn’t think-”

“It’s not your fault.” I reached up and wiped the tears away from my eyes, sniffling a little. “What were you saying before?”

“Oh, um.” She took a moment to collect herself. “You should go to the Tower. Get yourself registered. They’ll help you ride this wave out.”

“Comet offered,” I admitted, “but… I can’t.”

“What? Why not?”

I looked down at the carpet. “They’re gone, Sabah.”

It took her a second to grasp what I was saying, but as soon as she did, her eyes shot wide.

“What do you mean, gone?”

I held up a hand and waved it around. “Gone gone. I’ve got nothing, just like before.”

She gaped at me. “That’s… that’s not how- what?”

I shrugged limply. “I don’t know how any of this works, so don’t look at me.”

She grabbed my hand, squeezing it urgently. “Hannah, you don’t understand. That doesn’t happen. Ever. Once you have powers, you have them for your entire life. Are you absolutely sure?”

I closed my eyes, reaching down into my core like I always did. For a second, I almost thought I felt something, some faint echo of the thrumming power that had been there, but if I did, it was gone a moment later. “There’s nothing.”

She shook her head, standing and starting to pace. “No, no,no, that's not right. Maybe it's just dormant.”

“I pushed it pretty far past what it was supposed to,” I offered. “Maybe I… burned it out?”

“Even if you did that to the most extreme degree possible, they’d just be dormant. And getting to that point would require…” She trailed off. “Well, anyway. If they’re acting up, that’s all the more reason to join up-”

“They’re not acting up, they’re gone. They’re not going to like that, they’re not going to be helpful. Without the powers I’m just a liability.”

“They wouldn’t… the Tower’s not…” She didn’t seem very convinced in herself. “What are you going to do then?”

“I…” I shook my head.

“I don’t know.”

Once she had left, with assurances that I was fine, I sat back down on the bed and stared at my hand. I closed my eyes, concentrated as hard as I could, and when I opened them again, it was just in time to see the tiniest wisp of lavender smoke curling up into the air.

I watched it dissipate away, then turned off the lights, crawled under the covers, and cried myself to sleep. 

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New 25-VI

FLINT
The Future’s So Bright.

“Yeah, there’s no way we’re gonna be able to fix this.”

Talie glanced up at the open sky above us, and then at the massive piles of rubble all around. “Gee, do you think so?”

The fires that those mercenaries had set had continued to burn after we’d left. Only a small portion of the building was actually flammable, so it shouldn’t have done that much damage on its own. Unfortunately, during the chaos, it had apparently managed to get down to Lis’s munitions stores, and some time between Void and Ribbon leaving and this morning, something had caught and blown the building to smithereens. Ordinarily, I’m pretty sure it would’ve brought a whole lot of prying eyes our way, but with all the chaos going on at the same time, it had apparently slipped by relatively unnoticed.

I kicked a small chunk of rubble aimlessly with my undamaged leg. Most of my torso was wrapped tightly with bandages and I had to walk with a crutch until my ankle healed, so with my current hand deficit, I was effectively useless. It was grating on me, but Talie was keeping me company. “How did they even find us, anyway?” I asked.

She shrugged, sitting down on a large piece of the roof. “Honestly, it’s not like this place was super secret. We were just always under the radar enough that no-one cared enough to put in the effort.”

I grunted in acknowledgment, lowering myself down next to her. “Thought that might have changed after the bank, but I guess we’ve been overshadowed a little.”

She laughed. “You think she knows?”

“I don’t even know if she’s alive,” I admitted honestly. “If she is, though, I don’t think she’s going to be very happy with it. Didn’t exactly seem like the kind of person that’s comfortable with attention.”

Talie chuckled in acknowledgment, wincing slightly.

“Hey, motherfuckers!” In front of us, a large slab lifted up from the pile, revealing Nat and Lis underneath. Nat had multiple large fabric arms holding it up, and Lis’s arms were full of guns and explosives. A large, clunky brace was attached to her left knee, and the joint was wrapped in bandages. “Some the stuff in my safe survived!” She ducked out from underneath the slab, and Nat followed, lowering it back down after them.

Talie and I exchanged a glance. “That’s, uh, great, Lis,” Talie said diplomatically.

She beamed back. “I know, right?! I’m gonna go blow somethin’ up to celebrate.”

She dashed off. “Are one of you going to stop her?” Nat asked us critically.

“I’ve already lost one hand,” I replied, “I’m not gonna risk the other.”

“Speaking of which,” Talie said as Nat stormed off after Lis. “I know you’re gonna ask, and no, Daniel can’t heal that. It’s all cauterised already.”

“Yeah,” I sighed, “I figured it’d be something like that. I don’t think I’m going to be very effective with only one hand, though.”

“Well… I might have some ideas on that front.” She held up her hands as I spun towards her. “Just preliminary ideas,” she qualified. “I’ll have to follow up some leads, hunt some folks down, so don’t get too excited.”

“...are you gonna get me a cyber-hand?”

She grinned. “Like I said, preliminary.”

A loud boom came from behind us, and a shower of tiny pieces of rubble rained down on us. “Booyah!” I distantly heard Lis yell, followed by a whole bunch of incoherent screaming from Nat.
“So,” I asked, looking out at the rubble. “What’s next?”

“Well,” Talie answered, “first things first, we’re gonna have to find a new base. But, after that…” she shrugged a little. “What’s actually changed? Way I see it is, we all survived, and now we get to keep on doing as we did as a reward.”

“That’s a pretty crappy reward,” I noted.

“Better than nothing. But, trust me, give everything a bit of time, and everything will be back to normal.”

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New 25-V

HANNAH
See You In The Aftermath.

Green Cloak’s body had disappeared.

“We realized shortly after you and Thrust set off,” Comet explained. She stood with obvious stiffness, one arm in a sling, and her costume still bore obvious patches where it had taken damage. She was upright and mobile, though, which was either impressive or worrying. I hadn’t decided which.

“Could the others have taken her body?” I asked. We were standing on a rooftop, the next evening. I’d received the location in a text from a blocked number, and had to sneak out once my parents were asleep so they didn’t see me breaking my enforced bedrest. Considering how walking up the stairs to get there had been a half-hour’s effort with frequent breaks, they may have been onto something.

“Possibly,” Comet conceded, “but… it does not exactly seem characteristic of either of the groups she was associated with, does it?”

“No,” I agreed with a sigh, “I guess it doesn’t.” I leant back against a wall. “Is it wrong that I kind of just wish she’d died?”

“Yes, it is. But… I understand what you mean. It would certainly make things easier.”

We were both silent for a moment as we looked out at the lake. “So,” I asked hesitantly after a moment. “What… what happens now?”

It took Comet a few moments to answer. “To tell the truth, I am not entirely sure. The entire Tower is in chaos with the loss of Paladin. Everyone is scrambling, and I’m being told very little about anything. Most are desperately trying to find out more about that datapad, to little avail.”

“What happened to it?”

“A recovery team found the remnants of it on the roof of an office building that had suffered heavy structural damage, along with a pile of decaying meat that they are fairly certain is the remains of… that man.” I didn’t have to ask who she was talking about.

“The Outliers?”

She nodded. “Most likely. Given the rest of the circumstances, we have just let them be for now. Bigger fish to fry.”

“And… me?”

She took a long, slow breath, and turned to face me. “In case it needs to be said, we owe you a great debt. You did what needed to be done, and saved a lot of lives by doing so.” I felt the flush in my cheeks, and turned my head away, pretending to cough to hide it. “However, you are still an unregistered super, who violated multiple laws.”

I froze. “Are you going to arrest me?”

“No. Again, though, it would make things much simpler. It just places me in an uncomfortable situation. I believe I have a solution, though. If you were to join the Guardians-”

“No!” The word shot out before I could stop myself, and I clapped a hand over my mouth in shock. “I mean- I’m honoured, really. But I just… I’m not… I…” I gritted my teeth. “It’s complicated,” I landed on at last. “I’m sorry.”

“To be honest,” Comet replied, slightly wryly, “I suppose I should’ve seen this coming. Then perhaps, for now, a continuation of our current relationship? You help us when we need it, and in return, certain wheels get… greased.”

I opened my mouth to- No, she doesn’t need to know. “I think that might be for the best,” I said instead. “I’ve got to admit, I wouldn’t have expected this much… rule-bending from you.”

“Neither would I,” she admitted. “One of the uncomfortable realities of authority.”

We lapsed into silence again. An unspoken question hung in the air between us.

“...it was quick,” I said at last, softly. “I don’t think she...”

“Thank you,” Comet replied, equally soft. “I’m… I’m glad to hear that."

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New 25-IV

FLINT
Listen, Honestly, I’ll Live.

I stopped just outside the parking garage, leaning against the wall and panting heavily. The walk over had been exhausting and painful, limping slowly with hands clutched around my ribs. The few people I'd passed on the way had averted their eyes, or even crossed to the other side of the road. Honestly, I was so covered in dust that they probably couldn't tell I was costumed, but I’m black, so. I was telling myself that stopping was just to recover before heading inside, but truth be told, I was scared of what I'd find in there.

Images bubbled up before I could stop them. The spray of blood as Lis collapsed, Talie impaled through the chest, my dad, in the instant before he slammed the door closed, fire roiling behind him-

I squashed them with a growl, no longer panting entirely from exhaustion. No wallowing, Flint. You're gonna go in there, and face up to whatever happened like a-

“Man, you really did it, didn't you?” My head snapped up, to find Void standing there. Her helmet was off, and her cape was wrapped around her midsection like a bandage, blood seeping through in a few places.  “That's a barely-victorious Flint pose if I've ever seen one.”

I leant back slowly against the wall, covering my eyes with one hand. “Great. I'm going crazy now. I knew it'd happen sooner or later, but I hoped I'd have a little more-”

A hand fell on my shoulder, and I froze. Slowly, I uncovered my eyes to find her standing in front of me, a tired smile on her face. “You're not crazy, Flint,” she said, voice full of good humor. “It's me.”

I slapped her hand away, shoving her back. “No,” I growled. “Void is dead. You're dead!”

She raised an eyebrow. “Flint. On the rooftop, before the first meeting, you told me not to condescend you, and I said you looked like you escaped from the Karate Kid reboot.”

I froze. “...Talie?” I asked, voice wavering.

She gave a thumbs up. “Got it in one… sort of.”

“I saw you die,” I said flatly. “A corpse with a great big hole in its chest.”

She laughed, looking a little confused. “Well, obviously not. Are you sure?”

“I didn't imagine it,” I snapped, without much conviction. Had I really… no, I was sure I’d seen it. I hadn’t been addled at all. But here she was, standing in front of me. “I didn’t.”

“Look, I don’t know what to tell you, Flint. He hit me pretty bad, knocked me down.” She gestured at the makeshift cape-bandage. “I’d take this thing off and show you, but I’m pretty sure it’s the only thing keeping me in one piece right now.”

“Yeah,” I muttered, “I know that feeling.” I made a decision. “I’m still sure of what I saw. But… that’s not the most important thing right now. I… I’m glad you’re okay, Talie.”

“Likewise.” She limped over and leant against the wall next to me. “As is everyone else, mostly. Lis’s knee is torn up pretty bad, and Jess was bleeding pretty badly for a bit there, but everyone’s stable and alive.”

It was like a weight had been lifted from my shoulders. I sagged into the wall. “Thank god,” I said quietly.

“Let’s be real, though, he could’ve killed all of us. Did you figure out why?”

“Honestly, I ended the whole thing more confused about him than I started out. Guess it’ll just be one of those things we never know.”

She shrugged. “Eh. I’m not too shaken up.”

“Yeah, me neither. Fuck that guy, and fuck his cryptic bullshit.”

I raised my stump, and Talie bumped it gently.

“You are gonna have to explain that, though," she said, glancing down at it.

"Trust me; you should see the other guy."

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New 25-III

HANNAH
Crazy Random Happenstance.

In the end, Kai ended up carrying me all the way home. I would’ve protested, but I really didn’t have any other options. Besides, I figured it wouldn't be too bad. Mom usually ended up working Saturday nights, and Dad had said he had a meeting.

So it came as no small surprise when we rounded the corner and found my house lit up like a christmas tree.

“D*mn,” Kai said, either not noticing or ignoring my sudden reticence. “This is a nice neighbourhood.”

“Uh, yeah,” I stammered. “Listen, I can make it from here. Thanks so much for all your help-” I disentangled myself from her, took one step and immediately fell flat on my face.

“Sure you can,” Kai said dryly as she hauled me back onto my feet. “Which one’s yours?”

I groaned, half in pain and half in defeat. “Fourth on the right.”

The door opened almost immediately after the bell, to reveal my dad standing there. He froze, eyes darting between Kai and I. I opened my mouth to say something, but before I could, he enveloped me in a crushing hug.

“dad,” i choked out. “Air.”

“Sorry, sorry.” He released me, stepping back. “We were just so worried-”

“David, who’s- HANNAH!”

“No!” I cried before I could stop myself. “No hugging,” I repeated, calmer. “Please. I’m very sore.”

Mom stopped halfway to me, slowly lowering her outstretched arms. “Oh. Of course.” I couldn’t quite read her expression.

We were hustled inside and into the kitchen. Kai tried to protest, but we were still entangled, and it got lost in the rush. She ended up sitting next to me on one of the kitchen stools, holding a steaming mug of tea and looking slightly bemused.

“What happened?” Mom demanded immediately. “Why weren’t you answering your phone?”

“We’re so glad you’re safe,” Dad added.

“We were so worried! How did you get hurt?!”

“We're so glad you're safe,” Dad repeated, glancing at Mom.

She backed off slightly. “Yes, of course. So glad.” Her glare still said how dare you, though.

“We, uh. Uh.” I glanced down at my own mug, trying to hide my face. I’d been too out of it to think of coming up with a story. “I was, er. It was-”

“We at the station,” Kai interjected smoothly, “when that… when it happened.” She sounded perfectly convincing as she lied. “Hannah got hurt in rush, but the whole area was in chaos. We thought it would be safer to get away rather than try and get to the hospital.”

My dad nodded, a bit teary. Mom looked less convinced. “And what were you doing at the station? And why didn’t we know you were there?”

I couldn’t muster up the energy to try and respond. “Sorry,” I muttered, head down.

“We’re just glad you’re okay,” Dad reassured me.

“And who are you?” Mom turned on Kai, who seemed a bit surprised by the sudden attention. “I don’t believe we’ve met.”

“Uh, my name’s Kai, ma’am.” Good call with the ma’am. “I’m, uh. I’m Hannah’s… friend.”

“That’s odd,” Mom replied suspiciously, “I don’t remember Hannah ever mentioning you be-”

Dad cut her off, laying a hand on her shoulder. “She’s Hannah’s friend, Sam,” he said with a slight grin. Oh no. “It’s very nice to meet you, Kai. Thank you for bringing our daughter home safe.”

“Uh,” she muttered, shrinking in her seat like she was trying to melt into it. “No problem.”

-----

“You didn’t have to do that,” I said quietly. Kai had made up an excuse about needing to go, and we stood on the front porch. “You didn’t have to do… any of this, I guess.”

She shrugged, a little awkwardly, hands in pockets. “Yeah, I guess I didn’t.”

“Well, uh. Thanks.”

Was she intentionally avoiding eye contact? “No problem.”

“Also,” I added, wincing slightly, “I think my parents think we were, uh. You know.”

She was definitely doing it deliberately. “What?”

I coughed. “You know.”

“This?” And then she kissed me.

It was… it was…

Well, it was private.

She drew back, leaving me standing there, gaping slightly. “I’ll, uh, call you.”

All I could do as she walked off into the night was mumble agreement. 

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New 25-II

FLINT
All The Times That You Beat Me Unconscious.

I clawed my way back up out of the darkness, and shot upright with a gasp.

I spun around frantically, heart pounding as adrenaline rushed through my system. Where was he, I needed to-

I froze, then sucked in a deep, slow breath. Calm, Flint. It’s over.

It’s over.

“Holy shit, I survived,” I said out loud. On some level, I honestly hadn’t expected to. Which was… worrying.

I hadn’t been out for more than a few minutes, I was pretty sure. The moon overhead was in pretty much the same place, and the all the blood had only just begun to congeal. That was good; if I’d been unconscious for longer than that it was probably a pretty good sign of lasting brain damage.

I let myself flop back onto the ground, and immediately regretted it as the motion made my ribs flare with pain. Oh right, I’m seriously injured. As if the thought had flicked a switch, awareness of all the places my body was fucked up came rushing back, including some I hadn’t been aware of before then. For example, my legs ached like a bitch, probably from the fall, and… I flicked my tongue around a bit inside my mouth experimentally. Yep, one of my teeth was wiggling around. Fuck me, that was gonna be hard to explain away.

I sighed, staring up at the stars. I really should get up and destroy the datapad, I thought tiredly. I should do that right now.

I continued to lie there.

Until, that is, the corpse next to me began to move.

“NO!” I yelled at the top of my lungs, shooting awkwardly to my feet. It was shaking and shivering, jolting around, and the fragments of head lying on the ground were too. “NO! YOU CAN NOT! I AM SO FUCKING DONE WITH ALL YOUR GODDAMN BULLSHIT-”

With a wet, gristly noise, the body came apart. The fragments that had previously spun in a vortex fell limply onto the ground, forming a bizarre pile of skin, meat and bone. I stared at it for a second, then sagged. Okay, so. Weird and gross, but better than the alternative. I resolved to come back with Lis and set fire to the pile, just in case.

I was about to turn towards the datapad, when a glimmer in the pile caught my eye. I frowned, turning back. Was that-

White crystals rose slowly out of the meat, streaming together, and then Edith reformed from them and dropped down to the ground.

I stared at her, frozen in shock. “H- you- how?!” I stammered.

She ignored me, straightening up and looking around. She must have shifted just before getting… absorbed, I guessed. It couldn’t have been pleasant or easy; she was so emaciated now that I was pretty sure I could actually see the white of her bones through her skin.

“Where is it?” she said flatly.

I glanced around, and spotted it in the corner of my eye, almost directly behind me. My body must’ve been blocking it from her. “Edith,” I said slowly. “It’s not going to help.”

“Where,” she repeated, “Is. It.”

“E,” I said softly. She froze. “It’s too dangerous. You know that. You can’t even look at the fucking thing without turning into an M.C. Escher painting.”

“You seemed to have managed.”

“Exceptional circumstances.” Ones that I was still pretty fuzzy on. “And trust me, you really don’t want to try and replicate them.”

“So what do you want me to do, then? Just… give up?

Yes. “No. But, just. Drop this one. Find another lead.”

“I have spent a year and a half looking, and this has been the only one. But sure, I’ll just find another one under a rock.”

“Edith, it’s not a lead, it’s a weapon.” I clenched my fists. “I want her to be found too, you know that, right? But this… no-one can have it. It’s too dangerous.”

“I won’t use it.”

“You don’t have to. Someone else just has to hear you have it, and come and take it. Like we did when we set this whole mess off in the first place.”

“It would be worth it.”

“...would Eve agree?” I asked softly.

It was like I’d punched her in the gut. For a second, I almost thought she was going to collapse. Then the moment passed, and she recovered. She growled wordlessly at me, then disintegrated into a stream of salt and disappeared over the edge of the building.

I sighed, limped over to where the datapad lay, and carefully and methodically smashed it into a thousand tiny pieces.

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New 25-I

HANNAH
Not A Good Sound.

In the space between losing one body and ending up back in the other, I saw something. Only for a moment, only just the briefest flicker, but I still comprehended what it was.

It was me.

Or, not. Not quite. It looked like me, almost, but it- she, was made entirely up of strands of light, twisted together to form the shape of a person, like a hologram. The strands were every color I could imagine, and some I couldn’t, of varying thicknesses and opacities. The other me hung in a void of white, one hand reached out towards me, an expression of worry on her face. Instinctively, I reached out to grasp her hand-

And I woke up.

It wasn't as violent as before, when I'd been forced. I didn't slam back into the body so much as I was dropped. My senses returned, wind and exhaust and cold and blood, and then the pain came a second later. My head throbbed incessantly, and when I tried opening my eyes, my vision was almost entirely white, and swimming around the edges. There was still some blood in my mouth, and my lungs and stomach were as raw and painful. I coughed weakly, which only made the pain worse, and another splash of blood flew up into my mouth, making me gag. Some of it dribbled out of the corner of my mouth, and I tried to reach up and wipe it away.

My arm twitched slightly from where it lay at my side, but that was it. I frowned, and tried again. This time it jerked up a little further, but it was like the energy I was using away was bleeding away before it got to my arm. I tried moving my other limbs in turn, and got the same result. Even moving my head forward took a monumental amount of effort. Standing up, or even sitting up, was out of the question. I guess the internal beating wasn't the only consequence, I thought, too drained to be anything but wry.

I wasn't breathing properly either, I realized, which might explain why my vision was so faded. I concentrated on my lungs, putting as much effort as I could into every inhalation and exhalation, and slowly my brain started to come back into focus. I hadn't even realized the effect it had been having on me until it went away. What would've happened if I hadn't? Would I have continued to lie there, slowly asphyxiating without knowing? What a way to go, especially after everything I'd already-

The memories I'd temporarily managed to forget about came rushing back, and I squeezed my eyes shut, trying to banish the gory images from my mind, and failing miserably. Visions of blood, of body parts scattered across the pavement, filled my mind, and i lost control of my breathing again, devolving into short, panicked-

“Holy sh*t!”

I jerked my head up, which in my current state translated to raising it slightly. A second attempt managed to lift it far enough to see a pair of legs in front of me.

“Wisp?” a familiar voice asked. “Uh… Hannah? Are you…?”

After a couple of goes, I got my mouth moving in vaguely the right manner. “Hey Kai,” I slurred tiredly.

“Jesus,” she muttered, hunkering down into my field of view. Her face was covered in scratches, and a bruise was beginning to form on her cheekbone. One of the lenses on her sunglasses was cracked, and I could see a little bit of her eye through it. “What happened? To you, and, uh, in general.”

“Long story,” I murmured. “Really long, really awful story.”

“I’ll bet.” She rocked back a little. “Can you stand?”

I tried to laugh, but just sort of coughed instead. A little more blood trickled out of the corner of my mouth.

“...I’ll take that as a no.” She moved beside me and slipped one arm under mine and around my torso. I could barely feel it. “Come on, up.” She hauled me onto my feet, sending my head spinning, and she held me up as I recovered. “Let’s get you to a hospital.”

“No!” The force of the words surprised me as much as it did. “No,” I repeated, more calmly. “I don’t… it’s not a good idea.”

She looked me up and down, the implicit message obvious. But, thankfully, she didn’t protest. “Let’s get you to a train station, then."

"Er," I said as we began to limp off into the night. "About that."

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Speak 24-Vignette


I Am Sick.

One year and eight months ago, or thereabouts.

“Edith?” Flint asked hesitantly. He went to place a hand on her shoulder, but paused as she flinched away.

“...sorry,” she said after a moment.

“It’s okay,” he replied carefully. “Are you…”

She stared off into nothing, and didn’t reply.

“If you two are done with yer little cry-fest, I could use some help over here,” Lisette called irritatedly from the other side of the room. She was currently dragging the corpse on of the twins over to one corner of the room, where she’d already moved the halves of other one and Schism.

Flint ignored her, turning back to Edith. “E, I…” he trailed off, words failing him. His mind was still reeling; he’d gone from never seeing anyone die to four within the space of a minute. And that wasn’t even getting into who’d done the killing. And to whom it had been done. “Edith,” he repeated after a second. “I… what’s next? What happens now?”

For a second, he wasn’t sure she’d even heard her. Then, slowly, she let out a long breath, and seemed to… return to her body, he supposed. He wasn’t sure where she’d been, but he doubted it was pleasant. “I don’t know,” she said hoarsely, almost too quiet for him to hear. “I really don’t know.”

He put his hand on her shoulder again, and this time she didn’t jerk away.

“I’m… this was supposed to be it, you know?” she said quietly. He opened his mouth to reply, then realized it wasn’t really a question, and closed it again. “I was supposed to… she was supposed to…” she choked on the words for a second. “...she was supposed to be here. Everything that happened, everything I went through - everything I did. It was going to be worth it. For her. But now…” She made a vague gesture with one hand, and Flint tried not to flinch at the blood staining her skin. “I’m lost.”

“Sometimes…” he tried hesitantly, “life doesn’t work like that.”

He realized even before finishing that it was the wrong thing to say.

She spun on him, knocking his hand away. “Why not?!” she demanded, and he realized she was crying, eyes swollen and red. “Why can’t it?! Why should I have to go through all this, why should I have to suffer? Why should I have to kill and lie and fight my own mother, and then find out the whole reason I’ve been doing it is completely useless!” She was yelling by the end of it, and she shoved him violently back.

“Edith-” he began to say, but she cut him off.

She’s gone!” she screamed. “My. Sister. Is. Gone. She’s probably being… sold for parts in some third-world country, or- or-” her fists clenched, and blood started dripping from them. “...and I failed,” she finished, all the anger draining out of her as quickly as it had come. “I failed, Flint. It’s my fault she’s gone.”

“Edith, that’s not-”

“YO!” They both jumped, and turned to see Lisette waving at them, looking irritated. “Can I please get a hand here?”

“Give us a minute!” he replied. “Edith,” he continued, turning back, “this isn’t your-” But she was already moving, brushing past him and stalking over to where the other girl stood. Sighing, he followed.

Lisette had finished moving the corpses into their corner, where they lay in a limp pile on top of one another. A pool of blood had started to form underneath them, and a nauseating smell was beginning to drift over to them. Flint gagged involuntarily, but apart from a grimace on the latter’s part, neither Lisette nor Edith seemed particularly effective. Lisette was standing with her foot on the chest of Crusade, casually pointing a pistol at his head like it was the most natural thing in the world. Flint had seen people more tense while waiting for a bus, and, not for the first time, worried about the woman he’d gotten mixed up with.

“There’s no bounty on this one,” she said to Edith as they arrived, “so I personally don’ give a rat’s arse what happens to him. I can shoot him if ya want, but I’ll be wanting the fifty cents for the bullet.”

“We can’t kill him!” Flint protested. “Look at him!” The man in question was still unconscious, head lolled to one side and a string of drool stretching to the ground. “I can’t believe you’d-”

“Off,” Edith said quietly, waving a hand. Lisette shrugged, but acquiesced, stepping away, but keeping the gun drawn.

“Thank you,” Flint said, obviously relieved. “Can we-”

Edith stomped on Crusade’s stomach, hard. The Cabalist jerked upwards, choking, eyes slamming open.

“The fuck?!” Flint yelled involuntarily.

Ignoring him, she kept her foot on his stomach, and leant down close. One of her hands wrapped around his throat, not squeezing, but definitely considering it.

“Randall,” she said. Her voice was… empty. Like a robot. “You saw what happened to my mother. Either you give me a better answer, or the same thing happens to you. But this time, I won’t make it quick. You’ll probably bleed out before I finish cutting, to be honest. I’m not too concerned. The end result is the same.”

“Edith,” Flint said, staring at her in horror, “what the fuck.”

“So,” she continued, ignoring him. “What happened to Eve. Who did my mother sell her to. And how can I find them.” She drew back the hand around his throat, and it suddenly turned into a whirling blade of salt. “Think fast.”

“I don’t know!” he blurted out immediately, eyes wide and shaking. “I never met them, it was all-”

The salt blade grew closer, and he cried out as blood flew from his neck. “Wrong answer,” Edith said dispassionately.

“...they never gave a name,” he said hurriedly. “A man just… appeared in here. Said they’d been watching us, that they could offer us power, if we gave them… people.”

“Any people?”

“N-no. They had to have powers, or be closely related to someone who did. That’s why-”

“When was the last time he was here.”

“A-a few months ago.”

“Did he say how he found you.”

“N-no.”

“What did he look like.”

“L-large. Tall, white. Had a beard, bald, wore a suit.”

She nodded. “Thank you, Randall,” she said, and cut his head off.

Flint stared at her in muted shock as she stood up, dusting her hands off. “E-edith, wh-”

She spun on him. “You know what kind of person he was! What kind of things he did! He didn’t deserve to be alive any more.”

Lisette nodded, seeming impressed. “Checks out fer me.”

“What was the point!” he yelled. “So many people had already died, why did there have to be one more?!”

“So that there were no witnesses,” she said grimly.

“W-what?” he stammered, caught off-balance.

“This person thought the Cabal could work for them. Serve their purpose. My mother is gone, but the Cabal doesn’t have to be.”

Realization dawned on him. “Edith, no. No no no no no, you can’t.”

“It’s the only way, Flint.” The words sounded like she was pleading, but as she met his eyes, he found them completely empty. “It’s the only lead I have.”

“Edith, you’d have to- you just said, everything you’ve done-”

“Will be worth nothing if I don’t find her,” she shot back. “If I stop here, everything I’ve done will be for nothing.” Something, some unreadable expression, shone through on her face for a moment, only to disappear again. “...I can’t do that, Flint.”

“So, what,” he demanded, “you’re going to become your mother? Take over? You’re sixteen, Edith. And half the Cabal are dead, anyway!”

“I’ll make it work,” she snapped. “By any means necessary.”

Flint looked down at the corpse of Crusade, and then at the pile in the corner, and a shiver ran down his spine. “Edith,” he tried again, “please. This isn’t right. This isn’t going to solve anything. Let’s just… let’s just go. Let’s leave this fucking building and never come back, let’s go home and get all the blood off and put this entire thing behind us. Please.

She stared at him. “...no,” she said at least, so impossibly tired. “I can’t. I’m sorry, Flint. I need to do this. This blood,” she raised her stained hands, “isn’t ever coming off. I might as well get some use out of it.”

She turned and began walking away. “Edith!” he called after her. “I’ll… I’ll report you! To the Tower, I’ll tell them about-”

“No,” she said sadly, without turning around. “You won’t.”

He watched her leave, and wished she was wrong.

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Speak 24-VII

Face The Flame.

Hanging there, almost floating above the buildings, time seemed to slow.

I hadn't had a chance to look away, or close my eyes. And once I'd even glanced at the symbols on the screen of the datapad, it became impossible to look away. Literally: I was trying as hard as I could, but I couldn't even make my eyeballs twitch.

And they were just symbols, just like Tali had said. Strange, whirling shapes that swelled and shrank, jagged in places, curved in others. I couldn't tell where any of them started or ended, but that didn't stop my eyes from trying, following the paths until it felt like I was falling into them.

However they worked, they were definitely working. I could feel it, a growing, swelling pain that felt like it was somehow coming from two feet behind my skull. It grew and grew and grew, in an instant that felt like an eternity, until I couldn't even think. My stomach began spiking with pain too-

No. Not my stomach. My core.

As soon as I realized that, I could see it clearly. The well of cold power inside me wasn't placid anymore. It roiled, boiling and spiking outwards, feeling like it was tearing my insides apart. It had never even flickered without me directing it before this, and now it felt like it was trying to fight me, destroy me.

Or… take over.

Fuck that. I reached down into the well, grabbing at the power like I always did. This time, it resisted, burning and stabbing me, but I ignored the pain and took hold of it.

That hurt even more.

As soon as I did, though, the world fell away. Oh, now I can do it again?! But… no. It was different this time. Before, I’d seen the lines of motion in ethereal silver and powers in their respective colors, overlaid on a faded, monochrome world. Now, though, it was like I was seeing… underneath. Peeking behind the curtain, maybe.

The world was gone. It just wasn’t. No light, no dark, nothing. We hung in a void of absolute emptiness, two glowing figures made of light. That was another change; I wasn’t seeing out of my own eyes. It was like I was a few feet behind my own head, looking at myself and the other guy, suspended in…

Wait, no. That wasn’t me, or him. They were in the same positions as us, and about the same size, but aside from that… The one in my position was mostly made of yellow light, streaked with other colors in places, and it didn’t have a head, its neck ending in strange, jagged white shards. It did have seven limbs; two extra arms, stunted and malformed, and an extra leg that split off its left just above the knee. The additional limbs looked almost like they’d been grafted on; the joins had the same white shards as the neck. The weirdest thing, though, was that it was broken, like a porcelain statue that had been hit with a hammer. Fragmentation lines ran across it like an earthquake, and pieces and shards hung and angled away from gaps in its form.

The other one was mostly the same, except unbroken, mostly purple (specked with green), no extra limbs, and significantly larger. Its head was the only part of it that was a different color, glowing a bright mix of yellow and red. Those weird white shards joined it to the body, and it was completely featureless.

I had, frankly, no idea what I was looking at, and I didn’t have the time to ponder it, because it was gone a nanosecond later and I was back in my own head. And then it was back. Gone, back, gone, back… the two images flickered back and forth until it looked like they were overlayed.

Which, okay, great, fancy colors. I’m trying not to die here, thanks very much. I did my best to ignore the colors, and slowly began dragging power out of my core-

And as I did, the yellow silhouette began to move.

Ohhhhh.

Alright then.

I pulled every last drop of power I could out of the well, draining it dry. It felt like dragging a cat made out of flaming knives, but I managed to get it, and send it lashing out, in the same unfocused manner that had made the roof shatter.

Not at the big guy, though.

At the red silhouette that was his power.

Time resumed, and a couple of things happened at once.

One, both the silhouettes disappeared. My one, the yellow one, almost looked like it was siphoned away, tearing forward and vanishing. The red on, though, shattered. And back in the real world, the big guy screamed in agony and let go of me.

I wasn't really paying attention, though, because I was kind of going through the same thing, although less violent. I hoped. The plan had made a simple sort of sense in the microseconds I’d had. If my power was turning against me, all I had to do was give it nothing to work with; the tank can’t explode if it’s empty. Problem was, normally I leave a sliver of power left untouched no matter what, because as long as there’s even the tiniest bit left, it keeps filling back up at the normal rate. Going to completely empty, though, that basically knocked it out for a little while, and when it did eventually start trickling back in, it’d be much slower for a while.

All that was a bit secondary, though, to how much it fucking hurt.

I’m not gonna bother with some clever metaphor or whatever. It just fucking hurt. I spun through the air, clutching my head with both hands, eyes scrunched shut. They stung pretty badly, and I felt liquid streaming through my fingers.

Bleeding eyes. That was new.

We hit the rooftop at the same time, even though in his emaciated state I probably weighed twice what he did. I tumbled and rolled, something in my torso crunching painfully, and came to a stop against something large and uncomfortable. I groaned, still clutching my head, and waited for the spinning and the pain to stop. The former did after a few seconds, but the latter seemed to be sticking around, so I gritted my teeth and raised my head, to find the big guy looking at me. He looked about as beat-up as me, covered in grazes and scrapes, and in about as much pain. We locked gazes for a second, and then, in synch, our eyes darted downwards to the datapad on the ground in between us.

I was in a better position, but he was faster. We both got there at the same time, hands grasping at the pad’s smooth surface. He yanked it away, but I punched him in the chin, knocking him backwards. I jumped on him, reaching for the pad, but he hit me in the gut and we both went down. I landed on top, driving my weight into the arm that held the pad. It shot out of his grasp, skittering across the concrete, and I dived for it, but just before my hand closed around it, a shadow rolled over me.

I managed to spin around just in time to catch one of his hands. I tried to get the other one, but, no hand. It pinned me to the ground, while the other strained against my grip, fingers strained like he was trying to tear my eyes out from a foot away.

“WHAT DID YOU DO?!” he roared in my face, spittle flying everywhere. “WHAT DID YOU DO TO ME?!” I was in a bad position, I couldn’t keep up the same level of force, and his hand slowly began descending towards my face.

“Aww,” I said, straining and sweating, “don’t you like… being brought down to normal?” I couldn’t fight him, so I stopped resisting and instead redirected his hand so it slammed into the ground next to my head. It sent shards of concrete flying out, and I used the moment to drive a knee up into his torso. He winced, but didn’t give me an inch, and he slammed me back down into the floor.

My head spun, and before I could react, he grabbed my neck with both hands and started squeezing. “BRING IT BACK!” he yelled as he choked me. “GIVE IT BACK TO ME!”

My vision started to cloud and go grey. I opened my mouth, gasping for breath, but nothing came. Slowly, my head sank towards my chest.

“HOW?!” he roared, shaking me back and forth as he leaned in close. “YOU ARE NOTHING! YOU ARE A USELESS, BROKEN PEST! HOW HAVE YOU-”

I whipped my head forward, slamming it into his. He reeled back, grip broken, and I surged upwards as glorious air returned to my lungs, hand reaching for his head. Still dizzy, I managed to clap it over his ear, and dug my thumb into his eye as hard as I could.

He screamed in pain, slamming a fist into my core and breaking something, but I grit my teeth and kept grinding it away until I felt a pop and fluid ran down his cheek. I let go as he continued to roar, took the next punch on my handless arm, fracturing it, and grabbed his genitals and squeezed as hard as I could.

The screams shot up in pitch, and I let him drop to the ground. “You wanna know why?” I spat as he writhed on the ground. “You wanna know how?”

I met his eyes, and bared a bloodstained grin. “I have no fucking idea.”

I raised my less-injured leg, and stomped on his head until he stopped moving.

I stared down at the bloody mess on the ground, all the energy draining out of me. “That,” I slurred, my tongue not functioning properly any more, “was for Edith.”

And then my eyes rolled back in my head, and I collapsed unconscious.

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