Scene 6 – November 6th
Exterior Training Grounds, Early Afternoon
“Alright, gather round!” Canaveral called, gesturing for everyone to circle up. Today was the annual paintball game – the New Champions vs the Journeymen. It was the most heroes I had ever seen in one place – all but two of the professional heroes in New Venice were present. Zookeeper was on patrol, as there had to be at least one person on patrol at all times – although for today, the console was being covered by a regular MLED agent, rather than a hero on standby – and Referee was out of town again. Apparently, Canaveral had sources – one source in particular, I was guessing – that told him this weekend would be a good time for almost every hero to be busy.
We circled together, and Canaveral smiled at us. “Most of you know how this works,” he began, “but we’ve changed the rules a little since last year, and Newton has never taken part in our little tradition. So here’s the short version.
“A lot of MLED teams hold some sort of tournament as a teambuilding exercise. Back in Vegas it was gambling – we liked to lean into the stereotypes – but here it’s paintball! Well, sort of.
“We’ve added a new element this year,” he explained. “Instead of just trying to defeat the other team with paint, there’s an alternative win condition – you can also steal their flag. The Champions will have a white flag with a black MLED logo on it, the Journeymen get a black flag with a white logo. Get your hands on the opposing team’s flag and escape any pursuit, and you win regardless of how many players are left on either team. If one of your enemies can recover your flag before you get to safety, however, the game continues. If everyone on a team gets knocked out, that team also loses. Clear?”
We all nodded, and he continued. “Now, because I like these tournaments to serve as training as well as fun, it’s not just paintball, it’s paintblade. We’ve had foam bats made and soaked with paint, to roughly simulate the capabilities of your powers.” He broke away from the huddle to take one long bat and a shorter, dagger-sized bat, both stained a deep red, from a nearby table that was full of colorful weaponry. “Very roughly,” he admitted. “You can use your powers, but nothing that could endanger anyone – that’s what the paint is for.”
“Do we get to pick our weapons?” I asked.
He shook his head. “No, they’re assigned to you based on your powers. The bats are particularly powerful abilities, which can take out myself, Vulcan, or Sequoia with enough hits, or others with just one. The daggers are abilities of more average strength, which can take out non combatants with enough hits, or the three of us with lots of hits.” He held up a hand to forestall complaints. “Vulcan, Sequoia and I are all either physically tough or capable of negating damage, so it takes more to take us out.”
“I was actually going to ask how it’s judged if someone is out or not.”
“We get a few agents to watch and keep score for us,” he told me. “They judge when someone is out and will be judging if someone has escaped pursuit with the flag. The should be on the loadspeakers already – say hello, guys!”
“Hello!” A cheerful, high-pitched voice. “I’m Sam!”
“Hey there. Delilah here.” A more measured alto.
“‘sup.” A deep, rumbling voice. “John.”
“They’ll make a localized announcement whenever someone gets knocked out,” Canaveral explained. “If you’re close enough that you would have seen the battle, you’ll know who was disqualified and by who. If you’re too far away, though… well, I’ll pass out the bats in a moment, but first let me go over the other stuff you’re getting.”
He clipped his bats to his belt, then took two boxes from the table and handed one to Loki. “These are the earpieces that we use in the field. Each box has five. Register your name with it when you put it in, then speaking the name of a teammate will let you speak to them, or say ‘broadcast’ to speak to everyone on your team. Whoever is designated team leader can listen in to everything, if they choose to. Use them to keep your team updated on your status. Any questions about them?” We all shook our heads. “Right.”
Canaveral began passing out the bats. Anima took a large paintbrush bat in light red and a sponge, which confused me for a moment until I remembered that she could both heal and animate powerful golems to fight for her, as well as drain people of energy with a mere touch. Starling was given a pair of shorter bats in dark green, seeming resigned at the reminder of his lower power. Vulcan received two massive bats in dark blue.
“Color-coded, so it’s easy to tell who did what,” Loki explained to me as Canaveral reached the Journeymen’s side of the circle.
I, like Starling, got a pair of dagger-sized bats – mine were light blue. Journey, in bright yellow. Hypnos stared dejectedly at his single paint dagger in gray. Sequoia tried to comfort him, but the two large bats he had been given in light green weren’t helping. Finally, Loki received a single dagger in black, and…
“You get an actual paintball gun?” I asked.
He shrugged. “I’m the only one here who has ranged attacks that don’t involve flinging things,” he pointed out.
“I guess…” I had been a little worried by how little firepower – paintpower? – our side of the game had in comparison to the New Champions, but seeing that Loki had what was probably the best weapon in the game, I felt better.
Scene 7 – November 6th
Exterior Training Grounds, Continuous
With the weapons passed out, we grabbed our respective flags – each hung on a large pole, currently being carried by Sequoia – and an earpiece each, then split off to head to opposite ends of the elaborate arena. It looked a great deal like a few blocks of the city, although bare and undecorated – as we walked, Simone told me that it could be reconfigured into a ton of different layouts. We would get ten minutes to plan and to find a place for our flag before the game started.
“Anyone object to me taking charge?” Loki asked when we reached our starting point. “No? Good.” He held out the box that had contained earpieces. “First off, put these back, they’re a trap as usual.”
“How so?” I asked. Everyone else seemed to know what he meant, though, so I pulled mine out of my ear and returned it.
“Starling is a tech hero,” Hypnos explained. “He hacks the system every year so they can listen in on us.”
“In the past, we’ve had three options. I can manually operate a magical comm system, which then takes up so much of my attention that I can’t do much leading – we can forget the comms entirely and operate without coordination, which never goes well – or we can use them, and accept that we’ll be listened to when we do.”
“We won last year with them listening in,” Simone said. “But… the year before, my first year, we lost with you coordinating instead of leading, Loki. Why go back to a losing strategy? I assume that’s what you’re doing.”
“Because last year’s strategy isn’t going to work again,” Loki explained. “We had Referee with us then, and no one else had realized quite how much of an equalizer she is. And Vulcan was on our side too, and…” he sighed. “Blue Phoenix as well. This year, however, we’re on our own, and we have a distinct lack of firepower.”
“How so?” I asked. “We’re losing out on bats, yes, but you’ve got the best weapon out there.”
He shook his head. “In theory, sure. In practice? Lasers are a lot easier to aim than guns, and shockwaves I can flat out control even as I aim them. I’ve never been good with guns – it’s not going to be helpful at anything but close range.”
“So what’s the strategy, then?” Hypnos asked. “We’re losing on power, after all.”
“We do have four advantages,” Loki reassured us. “Number one is that we’ve got Newton with us now. That means that even without Referee, we outnumber them five to four.
“Number two is that the flag system benefits us, not them. We have Journey,” he said, gesturing to the buff woman, who flexed. “Who can instantly take any of us to the flag if it needs to be defended – even Sequoia.
“Number three is… Sequoia, bring that flag down here for me.”
The currently-wooden man tilted the flagpole so Loki could reach the flag. He pulled it off and handed it to Journey, then produced an illusion of the flag and hung that on the pole instead.
“Number three,” he said with a smirk, “is that we can obscure our flag much better than they can. In fact…” He created five more illusions of the flag and handed one to each of us – the actual flag, he tapped and turned invisible. “This way, they’ll have no idea where the flag is. Journey, I’ll have you hide the real one somewhere after the game starts.”
“This seems like cheating,” Sequoia observed.
“Nothing in the rules against it!” Loki said cheerfully. “If Canaveral didn’t want me exploiting the rules, he shouldn’t have added them.
“Then… why did Canaveral add in a flag at all?” I asked. “Seems like it really tilts the odds in our favor.”
He shook his head. “I’m sure he has a plan to protect it. Keeping it on his person, for example – getting it away from him, or from Vulcan for that matter, wouldn’t be easy. But we have a much better chance of being able to steal a flag than taking out four of the New Champions – honestly, I think we’d be lucky to take out half of them.”
“Can we go back to the earpieces thing?” Hypnos asked. “Are we going without coordination, or we going with you as our tactical lead?”
Loki grinned. “Neither!” he said. “I’ve been working on this spell for two and a half years, and it’s advantage number four…” He brought his hands together and they blurred as he began making complicated signs. His brow furrowed in concentration – this was by far the longest illusion I’d seen him create. About half a minute later, he had produced a faintly pulsing orb of green light. He then somehow divided it into five and handed us each one of the orbs, each about the size of a grape. It felt very odd to be holding something with no physical presence – there was only a faint vibration for physical feedback.
“What are these?” Journey asked, curiously.
“These are magical earpieces,” Loki told us all proudly. “They’re probably the single most complicated spell construct I’ve ever created – not visually, they’re invisible once applied…” He demonstrated by pressing the orb he still held to his jawline just below the ear, and it sank into his skin. “…but in terms of behavior.”
“How do they work?” I asked.
“Exactly like the standard technological ones, down to the speaking codes. ‘Broadcast’ at the start of a sentence sends your next words to everyone, or the name of a person – speaking of that, ‘Designate Self: Loki’ is how you set your name for the network – sends to that person. I finished that about six months ago, so I also had time to add a few extras features before I used them for the first time in this game – along with broadcasting to everyone or directly to one person, you can create smaller groups to communicate with, they’ll blur out your speech to anyone without one while you’re broadcasting… I even added a speaker function!” He pressed two fingers to his jawline below the ear and spoke. “It controls your volume according to the position of your pinky finger. Point it down and you’ll be quieter, point it up and you’ll get louder.” He waggled his pinky as he spoke to demonstrate.
“Loki, that’s very cool,” Journey said, applying her magical earpiece, “but we have a limited time here. What’s the gameplan? Designate Self: Journey,” she added.
“Journey, you’ll be transport,” Loki began. “Don’t worry about fighting, just stick with me except when I tell you to take someone somewhere. Hypnos, come here a sec.” Loki tapped Hypnos – who was still the only member of the Journeymen not to share his identity with me – and the young man faded from view, except for the still pulsing green light in his hand. A moment later it moved up to were his head must have been, and it too vanished. “I want to have you be our stealth. Get to the flag if you can, and slip away with it.”
“I can fight,” he promised. “I’ve been working on my martial skills a lot since last year, and there’s the new trick you helped me with…”
“I know you can, Hypnos,” Loki promised, “but I want to keep that as a last resort, just in case. Your stealth skills are great too, remember?
“Now then, Sequoia, Newton,” he said to me and the redheaded dryad, “you two are floating hunters. We’ll need to distract them from Hypnos, so Journey will be ferrying you around, dropping you into and pulling you out of battles at my direction. Take them out if you think you can, but the goal is to keep them occupied more than to actually beat them. Don’t take risks when you can keep drawing out the battle instead. Got it?”
“Got it,” I said, hesitantly. “I wish I had had time to train before this, though…”
“You’ll do fine,” Loki said, putting a comforting hand on my shoulder. “Just focus on the task in front of you.”
“What will you be doing?” I asked him.
“Me? I’m on overwatch. My powers will give me a picture of everything that’s going on, and I’ll direct you guys. Are we ready?”
Scene 8 – November 6th
Exterior Training Grounds, Simultaneous
“Alright everyone,” I said as we arrived at our starting area. “Not a ton has changed for us since last year – our capabilities are the same – but we now have an objective to protect. I want you, Vulcan, to be protecting our flag, and you, Starling, to seek theirs.”
“What about us?” Anima asked.
“You’re hunting, as usual,” I told her. She wasn’t often thought of as a combat type, her healing skills by far the most prominent to the public, but Anima was one of the best combatants on the team. Not only did she have the most experience out of any of us, her magical power was far more versatile than most thought. People saw her healing, or creating golems, and thought that that left her weak personally – but in fact, she could burn her store of lifeforce to temporarily enhance her physical capabilities to an incredible degree. “I’ll be floating around to try and keep an eye on everything, and assist as needed.
“Ben,” I asked, turning to Starling, who had started tapping away on his tech staff the moment we arrived, “how are you doing on the usual hack?”
“I should be in,” he said with a frown, “but none of their earpieces have been activated yet.”
“Hmm.” If they weren’t using the earpieces, that left them with only two options – either Holly was going to use her power over sound to keep the other Journeymen connected, or they were going without coordination at all. Which seemed incredibly unlikely, to me. The only way that could possibly go well was if they all stayed close together, perhaps playing a defensive game to try and knock a couple of us out when we went for the flag. But that seemed more likely to go badly – if we in turn joined forces against them, they would lose – particularly without an equalizer like Referee available to them.
“Holly is going to be coordinating them with her power,” I said aloud. “Miriam, you’re her magical tutor – how’s her multitasking? Could she be directing them as well as providing a comm network?”
“He,” Anima said sternly. “Loki’s in costume, that means it’s ‘he.’”
I blinked, then swore. I had known that kid for years, and still I fucked up on occasion. “Right, he. Sorry.”
“Don’t apologize to me, I’m not the one you misgendered.”
I sighed. “Point is, could he be doing that and still be an effective leader? He couldn’t, the year before last.”
She thought about it. “Not very well,” she said after a moment. “Keeping control of a system with five moving parts is complicated, and he’s mentioned to me before that connecting people like that really complex – at least as much as my golems, and even I struggle with controlling five at once. I think… I think he could keep them all connected,” she decided, “but nothing more. No leading, no other personally-guided illusions while he did that – only static ones.”
“Good news for us, then,” I said with a nod, “because without Holly as a leader, they don’t have any good tacticians – he’s by far their best.”
“You don’t see this going well for them, then?” Vulcan asked. “The Journeyman did win last year, you know.”
I waved a hand dismissively. “Not only did they have you on their side last year, but they also had Referee and Blue Phoenix. Their combat strength has gone down massively since then, and ours has gone up since you replaced the Warden. They can’t turtle up and fight us like that again.”
“If you say so,” he said, dubiously.
“It’ll be fine,” I promised. “And just to make sure… ice over that flag, will you?”
He raised an eyebrow. “That seems like cheating,” he pointed out, but he did reach up to snag the flag and began sucking the heat from it, ice quickly forming over the cloth and extending down the flagpole.
“Nothing in the rules against it!” I said cheerfully, as Vulcan continued to layer thick ice over the flag.
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