The 2nd Amendment’s crappy old beater of a sedan waits by the dirt road at the edge of Taylor Jade’s property. When they see us pull up, they drive a bit into the woods, off the road. We follow for a few hundred feet until they stop. Saw Off practically bursts from the passenger side, Mil-dot steps calmly out from the driver’s seat, and Lugs and Vaquero emerge from the back. A stiff breeze shakes the trees, and the forest dances like spirits move the bark and branches. The wind sighs and the leaves whisper. The woods are alive on the Jade estate, snickering at our approach.

Saw Off stretches and yawns. “God, you took forever, I was about to doze off. Can I go ahead and load up?”

“Yeah, it’s time,” Flashfire says, the first out of the van.

I pat Maisa on the shoulder once we’re all out. “Ready?”

“I’m ready.” She is deadly serious. “I will see him burn.”

Saw Off is unnerved by Maisa’s declaration. “Easy there, Dresden.” She pulls a handful of shotgun shells from her pocket, tilts her head back, and swallows them, one after another. One, two, three, four, five. She cocks her head to the side, fiddles with her ear, and says, “All good.”

Vaquero chuckles and shakes his head, still as non-plussed as ever.

“How in the world did you ever figure out that was your power?” I ask.

“Well, you know how kids swallow shit a lot, right?”

“Never mind.”

Saw Off reaches into her jacket and pulls her middle finger out of her pocket at me. When she does this, an old-school grenade falls out of a hidden pouch.

“Is that…?” Flashfire asks.

“Tha’s a fookin’ grenade!” Remise says, her natural accent bubbling up thanks to being flabbergasted by Saw Off’s general existence.

Saw Off shrugs. “You said we needed to make a distraction and grenades are very distracting. It might come in handy! Lugs gave it to me for my birthday.”

I facepalm. “Fine, fine, whatever. Don’t you dare use it inside the house, though.”

“Spoilsports.” Saw Off sticks her tongue out at all of us. The 2nd Amendment piles into their car, along with Drone and Maisa, who will accompany Mil-dot to her position. Saw Off waves at us. “We’ll start the party when we see that EMS crew.”

“Stay on the comms, and wait for my signal,” Flashfire tells her.

Saw Off throws a peace sign and rolls up the window, and their little clunker bumps off into the woods to their position. Drone follows them with one of the Hummingbird cameras.

We hike it through the woods in silence. My brain is on a million different trains chugging out into unknown Gabe-land. Bedevil is on my mind, Maisa, Megajoule. I need to be clearheaded but my head is full of the dust of a thousand thoughts.

Drone’s Hummingbird guides us to the edge of the lawn, where we wait behind trees. The house sits on a slight slope up from the woods, the field behind the house is cleared of forest, and there’s no fence. The house puts Epione’s McMansion to shame, a legit rich person’s estate. Warm light radiates from the windows, a pool splashes, and laughter creeps over bushes obscuring the men laughing. I can’t see inside very well, but there are two armed guards on the balcony above the pool.

Saw Off’s voice comes in over the comms. “We’re where we’re supposed to be.”

“In position,” Mil-dot says. “I count about twenty-something kids all over the place. I’ve got clean shots on the balcony men.”

Twenty kids. They’re the reason we’re here. I have to stay focused on that. Get them out.

“Hummingbirds ready,” Drone says.

“We’re ready, too,” Flashfire says.

My heart is pounding, my chest is squeezing me alive. Deep breaths.

“Making the call.” Drone’s voice drops off the comms. We wait in tense silence. My heart won’t settle down until a hand touches my back, and a calm fills my mind. Epione.

“Sorry, I could hear how stressed you were from here.”

I shake my head. “You’re right. I’m letting emotions get the better of me.”

Sirens pierce the sounds of the forest. An EMS car rips down the road through the property. It pulls up to the front of the mansion, out of my line of sight. Drone keeps us updated: “EMS workers are getting out, I told them someone was having a heart attack.

“They’re at the door. Someone’s answering. They’re shaking their heads? I think the guy’s turning them away.”

“Phase two, put that car in the lawn,” Flashfire says.

“On it,” Lugs says over the comms.

Drone laughs. That’s a very scary sound: I don’t think I’ve ever heard her laugh before. “Here it comes!”

Trees crunch and the EMS workers scream.

“What the fuck, did you set it on fire?” Drone asks.

“Yep!” Saw Off says. “Thought it would get more attention.”

“Yeah, the EMS guys are freaking out. One’s going to investigate,” Drone tells us. “The other is going back to the van.”

“We need to make sure they call the police,” I say.

“I can take out one of the guys on the balcony,” Mil-dot says. “The people inside are a little confused, everyone seems to have stopped moving. I think… wait, the armed guys are moving. Guys on balcony holding.”

“Take the shot,” Flashfire says.

A single clear shot rings out over the lawn.

Mil-dot hisses over the comms. “Fuck!” She takes another shot. “Got him. Missed that first one. The other one is retreating into the house.”

“Oh, that got them,” Drone says. “EMS scrambling back to their car. They’re shouting to call the police.”

“Fantastic,” I say. “What’s the situation inside?”

“Guys moving all around,” Mil-dot says. “They’re gathering in the middle of the building, looks like on some stairs. The kids… they’re moving them, herding them toward the second level, to the front of the building. Into one room. They’re turning off the lights in the house.”

“He’s turtling,” Flashfire says.

“Time to make our move,” I say. “We’ve got to get him out when the police arrive. They aren’t equipped to handle this kind of thing. We need to wrap him up with a neat bow before FIS gets here.”

“Let’s go then!” Remise charges forward, sprinting up the lawn. Flashfire runs after her.

“Epione, mount up!” I shout.

Epione piggybacks on my shoulders and I vault us forward out of the woods.

“They’re watching the back like hawks,” Mil-dot says.

“Your best way in is toward the front, there’s another balcony. Only one guard posted there now,” Drone says. “He’s watching for you.”

“One of the guards is coming out of the back balcony!” Mil-dot says.

Sure enough, one of the guards steps out of the house. We’re headed right into his range of fire.

Another sniper bullet pops his helmet open, and he crumbles to the ground before he can get a shot off. “He’s done,” Mil-dot says. “The kids are in the front right of the building. Pandahead is giving spare guns to some of the clients.”

He’s smart. He’s responding to an uncertain enemy by hunkering down in a strong position and arming as many bodies as he can. That’s good strategy.

“Jesus,” Remise says. “Fuckin’ bastard.”

“They’ll fold if we throw a flash grenade in there,” Flashfire says. “You said they’re on the second floor?”

“Two hanging out on the stairs, watching the back,” Mil-dot says. “If you go in that way, you’ve got two trained on you.”

“We’ll take their attention off you,” Lugs says. “Hang on!”

Metal groans and shrieks. Wood and glass crack, shatter, scream out of the lawn. “What the fuck!” Drone shouts. “He put the car through the dining room!”

“Well, those two guys aren’t watching the back anymore,” Mil-dot says.

The tell-tale sound of Saw Off’s shotgun sneeze blares over the comms. “We’ll keep them off you!” There’s another shotgun blast, deeper, and the pkew of a small revolver.

“2nd Amendment’s distracted the guys in the front, you’ve got an opening. Pandahead’s wrapped himself with about six dudes up top, though, plus the clients.” Mil-dot growls. “Using civilians. Disgusting.”

“We’ll go around the side,” I say. “Hold on, Epione!”

Epione wraps her arms around me.

“If my girlfriend dies,” Flashfire says, “I’m killing you myself.”

No time for chuckles. I vault up using kinetic energy, kicking off the side of the mansion. I still have to restrain myself so I don’t burn Epione, but after the fight with Krater, it feels like less of a strain to do so, like I was under a lot of pressure that got relieved.

The tip of the guard’s gun is pointed out over the balcony, he’s waiting for something to shoot at. I’ll give him something to shoot at, alright.

I blast in front of him and use heat to change direction mid-air. My stomach turns as I shift, Epione squeals, and the guard freaks. He gets a few rounds off but his gun’s aimed low. I sail past him, meaning to kick him, but he ducks out of the way.

Epione reaches out and grabs his head as we pass. He screams in agony.

The guard in front of Epione and me reaches for his gun. I blast over and rip his helmet off. Epione grabs his cheek.

The guard, a gruff dude in his early thirties, the very epitome of military lumberjack man, shrieks at the top of his lungs. He screams, recoils from Epione, and performs a tactical retreat. By tactical retreat, I mean that he clambers over the balcony railing and jumps off into the bushes below.

Epione titters.

“Remind me never to cross you,” I say. Below us, the EMS wails its sirens, a desperate plea for help. I can hear police cars in the way distance. The balcony has two windows looking into dark rooms, and a single door in between them.

“The right room is clear,” Drone says. “The kids are in the left.”

I don’t want to go in through the room the kids are hiding in, and endanger them. “Come on. In through this window here.” I wait for another burst of gunfire downstairs, and I punch my arm through the window to the right room. My leather jacket guards my arm against the broken edges. I pull the latch.

There’s more gunfire below us and another one of Saw Off’s distinctive shotgun sneezes.

Shit. Stay on task. No plan survives contact with the enemy, so the only thing I can do right now is concentrate. Epione grips my arm. I open the window.

“Wait! Gabe!” Epione shouts.

Aspect rips through the window and tackles me. He aims a gun at Epione’s head, but I reach up and catch the muzzle of the gun with my palm before it fires. He shoots one off directly into my hand. I kick his knee with a huge burst of kinetic energy, but it still doesn’t break.

I wrestle him back through the window he just came out of, into an empty room with lots of sleeping bags. My heat sense tells me more men are just outside and are about to open the door.

I will my heat into my hands, well over the amount of heat it takes to melt steel, and grab Aspect’s arm. He screams as it sloughs and bends out of shape. The guards rushing toward us take a few shots, but I twist Aspect in front of me, using him as cover. I twist his melted arm and throw him into the mooks, back where they came from. I slam the door shut behind them, and melt the handle with my hands.

A sniper rifle cracks. “Another one down,” Mil-dot says.

“Thanks for that,” Remise says. “He got me good.”

“I’m in the house, but the fighting’s too thick to get close to the stairs,” Flashfire says.

“Are the kids okay?” I ask.

“Seem to be fine,” Mil-dot says. “They’re the next window down from you on the balcony.”

Epione and I crawl over to the kid’s room where I use my thermal sense to feel out the room inside. Mil-dot was right. Twenty plus kids are packed into this room like sardines in a tin can, cowering in the dark. My thermal sense tells me there are older men cowering behind the children, hunkering against the wall. Cowards, evil vultures. They look like politicians, high powered executives, the wealthy elite.

I can’t risk bashing this open, I might freak the kids and the clients, and alert Pandahead. Who knows what he’ll do if the kids are at risk.

“I can’t get close enough to throw a flashbang,” Flashfire says. “He’s got the clients watching the downstairs. I’ll let you know when I have an opening, and when I do, I’ll throw a flash bomb in. You get Pandahead.”

“How about this for an opening!” Saw Off shouts.

A huge blast goes off in the house. The kids screech, the men inside the house shout.

“Was that the fuckin’ birthday grenade?” Remise shouts.

“Now!” Saw Off screams. There’s a hail of bullets inside.

“Gabe, get ready, you can get Pandahead,” Flashfire says. “Three! Two! One!”

A bright light fills the house. Epione hops onto my back and I open the door.

There’s two guards there, guns aimed right down the hall. They open fire. I blast out of the way, but one of the bullets pings off my arm.

“Saw Off’s been hit!” Lugs shouts.

I slam the door closed. “I can’t get to him!”

“There’s somebody listenin’ in on us,” Remise says. She hisses in pain. “There’s another mic open.”

A chill runs down my spine. Through our comms, I can hear sirens wailing and Remise’s pained gasps. I listen close, and there’s another sound. Someone breathing heavy through a voice modulator. “Clever plan, calling emergency services. Capes and police will follow. Are you not worried they’re on my payroll?”

“FIS might be,” I say, hoping he’ll take the bait. He seems like one of those guys that love explaining their evil plan.

“It’s just good business. FIS helps me, I help them. We have a symbiotic relationship. Like those fish that cling to that one shark.” Pandahead laughs at his own analogy. “They’ll come now that they know I’m under attack. I’m too valuable.”

That’s exactly what I wanted. As clear as a confession we’ll ever get.

A pair of police cars emerges from the tangle of forest, booking it down the road toward the estate. “They’re not the ones coming. The police are.”

“If you think I’m going to be done in by Conroe PD, you are mistaken. My friends will take care of them.”

I really want to say some things, but not until he’s safely cuffed, or until we have the kids. Epione’s taps on the window, trying to coax one of them into opening the latch from the inside, but they slink back from us.

Something in the air shifts, like gravity lurches inward toward the house as if I’m on the edge of a cliff, leaning over into the abyss. A hint of sulfur accompanies the twisting feeling. A finger scratches the back of my head. I look over my shoulder, but nothing’s there.

“What the hell is that?” Flashfire says.

A massive cold spot materializes in the house, lurking at the edge of my thermal sense. Like a hole poked into the fabric of the universe. “I think that’s his power.”

Epione nods. “I felt that, too.”

Screams echo inside the house, throaty and deep, belonging to men.

Pandahead’s voice seems to come from the very air around us. “Actually, you know what. How about you stay right there, and I’ll come meet you on the balcony.”

Remise shrieks over the comms. “We have to get out!”

“What the fuck is that?” Mil-dot shouts. “Oh my god, oh my god, oh my god, please, oh god, what is that?”

The screaming inside reaches a crescendo, the hair on the back of my neck stands up. There’s gunfire inside. “The clients and the guards…” Drone says. “They’re shooting each other!”

An aircraft roars over the trees, FIS enameled in white on the side of the cockpit.


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