Archive for July, 2015

Tom Carter was an opportunist. Some months ago, Jacob Wilson, self-styled patriarch of the Montreal metahuman mafia had hired him as muscle in a deal with an ambitious, rapidly growing gang of metas. The bartering collateral in question was a piece of technology that would revolutionize meta warfare. Powers were always an interesting element in a meta mob war, especially since no one really wanted the general population to know who had powers and who didn’t. Tom wasn’t a meta. He had no investment in the meta community’s continued existence, except that some of them happened to pay his exorbitant fees.

Some tinkerer from this new meta gang had invented a small device the size of one’s thumb that would instantly nullify a target’s powers. There was some risk involved–one wrong move, and both parties would find themselves temporarily without their special abilities. Still, a number of these devices in the right hands could change the outcome of the war.

And it was something Solstice would pay dearly for.

The Jacob Wilson had no intention of such a thing falling into Solstice hands, and of course he had no love for his opposition. With metas inexplicably on the rise in the last decade, a few had joined forces with more than one rival mob family. The man didn’t have powers himself, but his boys and his precious little princess had been born with meta abilities. Jacob didn’t want to see his family put in harms way.

Tom, on the other hand, would sell his own grandmother if it would make him a buck.

He appeared to be a nice enough fellow, if not a bit gruff. He was ugly and snarling, but the heart of gold underneath all that was a double bluff. He gave exactly zero fucks about anyone but himself. With the old Jacob dead, Tom  was the only person who knew the technology existed, save for leadership of the splinter group. A bit of money in the right hands, and that gang was eliminated, narrowing even further the list of people aware of the tech.

With the death of Jacob Wilson, it was time to make some real money. Solstice had unbelievable connections, and they were willing to do anything to get them a leg up in what they considered to be a crucial war for the sake of mankind. Metas, as far as they were concerned, were a diseased form of humanity that had to be purged before they plunged the whole world into entropy. It was all a bit high-minded, but as far as he was concerned, they could believe in a goddamned fish Jesus if it meant they’d pay him for bait and tackle.

Lyndria’s club was busy. Tom threaded his way through partiers gyrating to the music under a canopy of smoke and light shows. Lyndria was wasted. A man of greater conscience would be troubled by stealing from her a device that threatened her very existence when the girl was dealing with the death of her whole family, but it was this death that gave Tom the opportunity. He wasn’t about to pass it off.

Once in the old man’s study, he opened the safe with the combination that he’d long since memorized. He might have been surprised that Lyndria hadn’t changed it, but the girl didn’t have two brain cells to rub together. Prototype acquired, he walked downstairs with his small cargo centered in the palm of his hand. He looked across the crowded room and gave a subtle nod to a man dressed in khaki pants and a fitted, long-sleeve black shirt. He had a close-shaved beard, with the rest of his face shrouded by the fedora he wore. A subtle tip of the hat was the non-verbal agreement Tom was looking for.

Lyndria deserved to be stolen from. She was so far gone now, Tom was certain she had no capabilities of noticing this deal going down under her own nose in her own club. Tom allowed himself a small smirk.

Something made him glance over to the door. For a reason he couldn’t adequately explain, his attention was arrested by three people that joined the undulating crowd. One was a kid, barely of age, with brown hair and a leather jacket over a red t-shirt and jeans. Two were older men; one of them Asian, the other with a shock of flaming red hair. Tom shook his head. They were inconsequential. As he glanced away, he vaguely beheld them make their way to Lyndria. Maybe the kid was looking to lose his virginity. He wouldn’t be the first dumb cluck to hit up the easiest chick in the country.

Whatever their reason, it had nothing to do with him. Tom made his way to the man at the bar.

* * * *

Allen’s heart sat in his throat. He was so nervous, he couldn’t rightly tell if his palms were sweaty from the humidity or the fact that even his paragon endurance was put to the test with his excessive heart rate. He wiped them on his jeans. That didn’t help.

He spotted Lindsay the second they walked in. She hadn’t changed a lot, though she’d traded her simple trendy outfit to something that involved more leather and buckles. For some reason he half expected an emo makeup on her, though she didn’t seem given to that cliche. He took a breath and walked forward. The plan was for the older men to engage this Lyndria person with questions about her family, but that wasn’t Allen’s main concern. Their conversation would free him up to talk to Lindsay. Donald was sure that the Wilson’s family’s disappearance was somehow connected to the shit that had been going on with Delta, and Allen couldn’t come up with a reason for why that wasn’t so; still he was singular-minded in his objective. Lindsay was the one person in this situation who mattered to him.

He weaved his way through the crowd until he stood by her. She didn’t notice until he spoke. “Hey, Lindsay.”

She nearly hit the roof. “Allen! What the hell? What are you doing here?”

Allen shrugged and stuffed his hands into his pockets. “Looking for you.” It sounded cliche, like wooden dialog from a movie he and Tracy would watch together in a bad movie marathon.

Lindsay wasn’t helping. She crossed her arms and looked away. “Well, you found me. Now you can turn around and just walk away.”

Allen sighed. “Lindsay…don’t be like that. Look, do you know what you left behind?”

She said nothing, refusing to make eye contact.

“Marcus is–”

“Don’t. Okay? I don’t…I don’t want to know.”

“Why not? Lindsay, he loves you!”

“Don’t you think I know that? God, he–” She glanced at Allen, and her eyes glistened with tears in the flashing purple and blue lights. “Just go. Okay? I just…I need some space.”

“A whole country of space? God damn it, Lindsay! This isn’t–”

“This isn’t what? What a hero is supposed to do?”

“No, it’s not. It’s not what a hero would do.”

She looked at him, and her eyes seemed sad. “That’s fine then. Allen…I’m not a hero.”

“Yes, Lindsay, you are. Okay, I know we never really got along that well, but you’re a hero because Stryker said–”

“Don’t you dare speak his name!”

Allen stepped back, startled by the vehemence with which she spat the words at him. For a moment, he was angry. He took a deep breath as the anger welled inside him, choking him like someone had just shoved a fist down his throat. “Linsday, I have had enough of your shit! You have no right to tell me what I should and shouldn’t feel, and right now I am hurting because I lost someone I care about, and you can’t say I’m not allowed to feel broken. Furthermore, I’ve got a best friend who’s in pieces because his girlfriend abandoned him. I can’t fix the first one, but I am not going to stand by and let the second one slide. I will do everything I can to help him because that’s what friends do!”

Lindsay opened her mouth and shut it again, which was just as well, because Allen wasn’t done talking.

“Do you honestly have any idea what you’ve gotten yourself into? Stryker trained you to be a hero, but you’re not acting like it. I know you’re in pain. I know that sometimes you just gotta do stupid things, but this? Do you even know?”

He glanced around. The girl Lindsay had been with had now vanished. For the life of him, Allen couldn’t remember what she looked like, and he certainly couldn’t pick her out of a crowd this size. But she wasn’t there, and that was the important thing to drop this bombshell. “Your boss, the girl you’ve been guarding? Do you actually know who she is? She’s Lyndria Wilson. Of the mafia family.”

Lindsay’s eyes went wide. Then it was her turn to get angry. “You know what? Fuck you. You come in here being all high and mighty, fucking mister perfect telling me how to live my life–”

“I’m not–”

“No! You’re not! You’re not perfect so stop fucking acting like it! You tell me that I have no right to tell you how to feel, well how about taking some of your own goddamn advice. You don’t have the right either to tell me how to live my life.”

“So you’re just going to throw away everything you’ve been taught? Lindsay, don’t you see? When you’re with her–maybe you’re right. When you’re with her you’re not a hero, or at least not acting like it. You’re acting like a villain.”

The words leaped from his mouth before he could stop them. Her eyes widened, and he wanted more than anything to stuff them back into his mouth. She looked at him with narrowed eyes. “Well, maybe I am.”

Allen sighed. “No, Lindsay, you’re not, forget I said that. I’m sorry. But that doesn’t change one simple fact. This?” He waved his arm across the floor. “This is not what Stryker would have wanted.”

Nothing prepared him for the fist that flew in his face. With a loud crack, Lindsay’s fist sailed across his face. His neck jerked back, and he stumbled. The copper taste of blood coated his teeth. “Now I’ve had enough,” she snarled. “Who the fuck do you think you are?”

Allen’s fists clenched at his side. “I’m a hero. I’m Stryker’s protege, and though I always believe that title could be shared by both of us, clearly I was wrong!” He smirked. “I guess if you’re going to throw the first punch, that means there’s only one thing left to do.” He rose into the air. “I’m going to show you how a hero fights. How Stryker showed me to fight!”

He dashed toward her, but she slipped to the side. Allen noticed just in time to correct his course, though his countering punch lost a lot of its force. His fist slammed into her shoulder, and she rolled with it, unharmed. She brought her leg up to knee him in the kidneys, and he jerked his arm downward to block her with his elbow. His funny bone tingled as he slammed into her kneecap, following through with a right cross to her face. It landed with a smack. Color leaped to her cheek.

She pushed him away and picked up a lamp stand. With a feral scream, she broke it against his back as he turned to grab the nearby couch.

People screamed and scattered, which was just as well. They were going to have it out, that much was certain. The only question was, how much collateral damage was there going to be?

Allen didn’t care. So long as there were no people inside, he would level the whole goddamn club if it meant he could convince Lindsay to come home. To come to terms with the loss they shared. Donald and Liam cleared the area, though a few stayed to watch. This was the most exciting thing to happen in their lives, and they weren’t going to miss it.

It occurred to Allen that he was giving them a show. Every person that stayed behind had their phones out, and this was going to go up on the Internet right beside the video of his table throw in his high school cafeteria. That should have made him uncomfortable, but he was so far past caring. He flung the couch. “I will win this fight, Lindsay. Then we’ll see who’s really ready to carry on Stryker’s legacy!”

Advertisements

Bel’kethel was having the time of his life. Up until now, Earth had rarely been spoken of above hushed tones, a mere step away from Forbidden knowledge. It had not been written out of the annals of Elven history only because it would have been ignorance indeed to ignore the Earthborn population of about three million on Myrathelle. Ignorance was the only thing more uncomfortable than the knowledge that they had once had contact with the ancient people of Earth many centuries ago.

The existence of Earth, of course, was empirical. As a child, it had fascinated the young Elf; he’d even imagined a version of his name that the average Earthborn tongue would be able to pronounce. It had caused his father great consternation when he’d gone through a brief period of only answering to ‘Keth’. It had been a disappointing time indeed after Keth was told repeatedly under no uncertain terms that Elves did not concern themselves with Earthborn. Atlantis held itself aloof from the affairs of the rest of Myrathelle.

But now at last his fixation on Earth would bear fruit. Sadly, his knowledge of the Common language of Myrathelle’s Earthborn was useless. It was a dialect of a dead language that few on Earth actually spoke. He’d have been better off learning English, but those that spoke it on Myrathelle numbered in the hundreds. Nonetheless, Keth expended great effort making up for lost time. He was a savant, even by Elven standards, having mastered four out of the six schools of elemental magic, where most struggled to master two. A charmingly idiosyncratic language like English was a refreshing change from the rigid specificity of spellcasting.

The Elven leaders were reluctant to work with the Earthborn. It was a hotly debated issue discussed at great length within the senate; a conclusion had yet to be reached. Even with all the knowledge of the Elves, few had yet found the courage to state the obvious: the Elves must find peace with the Earthborn because Earth would be their home for the foreseeable future. Not one of them could state with certainty that they would ever again be home.

Keth was one of three Elves sent to explore the chilly tundra that was the new resting place of their fair city. They weren’t all spellcasters. Magic was not the only form of knowledge the pursuit of which brought glory to the All. Ken’hir was a warrior. His knowledge of combat was surpassed only by his mentor, the woman in charge of the Elven army. Myran had not mastered any forms of magic, but observed and recorded its effects and the functions of the natural world. Keth frequently felt the woman’s increased frustration with him. Myran believed in the practical over the theoretical, and delighted in pointing out the importance of her work, implying that it was greater than Keth’s academics. For his part, Keth found their discussions stimulating.

The group skimmed over the snow and ice in an air bubble, insulated against the biting cold with a combination of Air and Fire spells. Myran wasn’t speaking to him, and Ken’hir maintained his stoic affect, so that left Keth to carry the conversation all by himself. It was dreadfully one-sided and only exacerbated Myran’s aggravation. “Will you cease your endless prattle, Bel’kethel!” she commanded about halfway through a lengthy description of a particular television show the Earthborn called a “sit-com” that he’d been watching in his effort to learn English.

But something had already caused Keth’s monologue to come to a screeching halt. “What is that?” He pointed at half a dozen prone figures frozen so fast they were nearly part of the landscape. Snow had blown up around the bumps in the ice, but Keth could still make out four limbs and a face for each. “They look like humans!”

“Dead,” commented the taciturn Ken’hir.

“The best kind,” Myran muttered.

Keth cast her a dark look. With a word, he directed the air bubble over to the frigid corpses. “The Earthborn send expeditions to explore this area,” he supplied, though the others didn’t ask. “Though they tend to be better prepared than this. These men are scarcely dressed for temperate weather, let alone an environment such as this.”

“It is not our concern,” Myran said, but Keth ignored her.

“There’s a mystery here,” he stated. “Six men dead in the middle of the Antarctic for no apparent reason.”

“The only mystery is why you care, Bel’kethel.”

“We must go back! Inform the Earthborn that men of their kind have perished here.” He touched his thumb and forefinger to his forehead in a gesture of mourning. Myran rolled her eyes.

Let her be disinterested. An Earthborn mystery! What could be better?

Sadly, it was resolved too quickly for Keth’s taste. The thrill of discovery came to an end when the appropriate authorities arrived to remove the bodies. Keth never did find out who they were.

* * * *

Lyndria was pleasantly buzzed. The night had barely begun, and she was looking forward to the wildly intoxicated stage. She grinned in anticipation. Good thing she had a bodyguard capable of lifting her bodily into bed. Idly the thought wandered across her mind to bring Lindsay into the bed with her. The petite paragon was well on the path to corruption, and that would make a most pleasant point in progression. Lyndria had a preference for cock, and the bigger the better, but that was a bit like picking a favorite food. One might say they preferred pizza, but tacos were equally as satisfying. She would quite enjoy eating out Lindsay.

Through somewhat foggy vision she saw two men in business suits approaching, bearing the exact definition of dull and uninteresting. Her lovely brow furrowed for a brief moment before her face cleared. She didn’t want her skin getting any ridiculous ideas about frown lines. Where have I seen them before?

Lindsay started turning them away before they could get to Lyndria and destroy her buzz, but that exact second Lyndria remembered where she’d seen them. “Hey,” she slurred and waved them forward. “You’re Daddy’s lawyers, right? You find a way I can get my money?”

They exchanged a look that she was sure meant something, but she was far too inebriated to interpret. “Miss Wilson, we have a private business matter to discuss. Is there a place we can talk?”

“Here’s fine. Anything you can tell me you can tell Lindsay too.” She was just drunk enough that her suggestion seemed like a good idea.  Besides, she wasn’t positive she’d make it across the room right this second.

She nodded through the series of “Are you sure” until they got to the point. “Miss Wilson…your father and brothers have been found. I’m afraid…I’m afraid all six of them are dead.”

Lyndria had never sobered so quickly in her life. She sat up so quickly the room spun. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw Lindsay move closer, heard her soft, sympathetic gasp. It annoyed Lyndria. “I see.”

“An Elf uncovered their bodies in Antarctica. As you can imagine, authorities are looking into the unusual set of circumstances.”

She nodded as if that made sense. Elves were always finding things, right?

“There’s a number of legal hoops you’ll have to jump through in order to take control of the estate,” the one man continued. Lyndria couldn’t remember his name, and couldn’t be bothered to dig it out of her memory at this moment.

“Of course,” she said with curious calm. She was calmly curious about how serene she was being. “I believe that can be taken care of in the morning.”

“Of course, Miss Wilson. Uh—on behalf of—”

“Sir. This is a business transaction. Sympathy is misplaced, and false empathy is distasteful. I’d appreciate a display of neither.”

“Of course, miss.”

“Tomorrow, then.”

They nodded and scuttled off.

Lyndria must have been more intoxicated than she estimated, because she was across the threshold of her bedroom before she realized how she got there.

Lindsay followed her. “Lyndria, I…look, if there’s anything I can—”

“There’s an object behind you called a door, Lindsay. I’m sure you understand its function. See to it you’re on the other side.”

Lindsay opened her mouth and closed it several times like a gaping fish. “All right,” she said finally with a nod. “Call if you need anything.”

The door clicked shut.

It’s customary to cry right now, Lyndria told herself. She evidently didn’t listen. Her eyes remained dry.

It’s all mine now. The words meant nothing. Her brain tried and failed to attach some sort of reason to care about them.

All his money, all his business. Hey! I’m in charge! Something about that made her laugh out loud. The idea that she was in charge of anything was amusing. She could barely keep gerbils alive.

The thought was exciting, though. The most exciting thing that had ever happened to her. She had actual real live responsibility. People actually thought she was responsible. It was hilarious. She laughed again. “Oh my god,” she told the empty room. “That’s a laugh. I’ve gotta tell—”

Alex. The youngest of her six older brothers, they were closest in age and almost passed for actual friends. He’s dead.

“Oh my god,” she whispered. Her voice echoed loudly, like it bounced off the walls of the empty house.

That was when she began to cry.

While Liam polled his network of informants for information on Lyndria, Allen found himself curled up on an easy chair in the high school teacher’s condo. The small living space wasn’t meant for entertaining—Liam avoided people. With the three of them gathered there, the space was well beyond occupied. Donald was theoretically crashing on the couch, though Allen had yet to see the man sleep, which left Allen the floor space. He was more than happy with that, and would probably end up falling asleep on the chair anyway. If he slept at all. The day’s events kept racing through his mind. He tried to focus on the plans Liam and Donald were discussing, but every time he blinked he could feel the soul-crushing darkness of Freakazoid’s mental attacks.

He felt suffocated. The room was too small, there were too many people in an apartment meant for one, and why did his shirt collar suddenly seem so tight? He pulled at the cotton, but that just made it worse. Iron claws couldn’t scratch his skin, but somehow the simple material felt like the roughest sandpaper.

He couldn’t breathe here. It was too hot. He pushed himself off the chair, floating because he trusted his flight to bear him better than his legs. “I need to get some air,” he muttered. If the two men tried to stop him, he didn’t notice.

The door clicked softly behind him as he stepped out onto the blue-carpeted hallway that smelled of cleaner and middle-aged living. He didn’t remember making his way to the rooftops, and he could not honestly say if he’d climbed the stairs or opened a window and flew. One way or the other, he found himself pacing the gravel by an ancient air conditioner in its death throes, phone in hand.

“Hello?”

His heart thudded faster at the sound of Tracy’s voice, though it was somehow a more comforting, natural rhythm. “Hey.” He wondered if he could fully communicate the scope of his relief into the single syllable.

“Hey yourself. How are things in Montreal?”

“Oh. You know.” I almost died today.

I almost died. How in the world am I supposed to tell her that?

“Well not really, silly, that’s why I asked.” He could hear her smile. “How’s the hunt? Find anything yet?”

“Not yet. Been kind of an interesting experience, meeting all kinds of different people and stuff.”

“Man, you must be hating your life right now.” She laughed.

“Well, there are worst things.” Like having a freaky psionic metacriminal making scrambled eggs out of your brains.

“I suppose. Well, it’s good to know my little hero boy is surviving his first solo mission.”

“Yeah, about that. I think I accidentally teamed up with Mitch’s dad. Him and this weird old guy who were apparently looking out for Lindsay too.”

“Wow, small world.”

Allen nodded in agreement. “Yeah,” he blurted, after realizing that she couldn’t see his head movement. The silence fell. Allen felt like he could hear the stars screaming at him from the night sky.

“Allen? Are you okay?”

“Huh?” No. “Why?”

“I dunno, I just…I’d say you seem quiet, but that’s normal behavior for you. I just have this feeling that something’s up.”

Allen breathed into the phone. “I, ah…” No secrets, Allen. You promised. “I almost died today.” He put his hand to his forehead and his back to the dying air conditioner. “Oh God…” He slid to the ground, neither his flight nor his strength enough to hold him up anymore. “I almost died today.”

More silence.

“I’d ask you how you’re feeling about that, but I think the answer’s self-evident. Allen, do you need to come home?”

Allen took a breath and looked up at the sky. The moon was waning; it had been full a week ago. He closed his eyes and imagined Tracy’s arms around him, the scent of her hair embracing him. “No.” His hands shook, and he felt a tear itch down the side of his face. He took a deep, determined breath. “Tracy, if I come home now, I’m not going to be able to come back out here again. I have to find Lindsay. I have to. I made a promise to Marcus, and I’m going to keep it.”

“Allen…you know I’m proud of you?”

Tears pooled in his eyes now, cooled by the breeze that stirred. Despite himself, he smiled.

“You’ve taken on this task that’s so completely out of your element in ways I only know of because I’ve been your best friend for forever. And despite the difficulty, despite all the dangers and the fear you’re feeling right now, you’re not giving up. I can’t even tell you how enormously proud of you that makes me. Now, I can’t actually be there, so you’re going to have to imagine me hugging you. Will that be enough?”

He nodded again.

“Did you just nod?” she asked.

He laughed, his voice shaking a little. “How’d you know?”

“Knowing you is my super power. I’m sending you hugs in my mind, so hopefully that’ll be enough to tide you over for now. I’ll give you, like, a million when you get home. Deal?”

“Deal.”

“So…do you want to talk about it? You don’t have to if you don’t want to.”

“To be honest, not really. I want to hear your voice right now. How are things back home?”

“Oh! I had an interview yesterday with the people from Mapleview Long Term Care Facility. I think I might be able to get a job there this summer.”

“Tracy, that’s amazing!”

“I know! I mean, it’s not my preferred demographic. I’ve always wanted to work with teenagers. But this is going to look great on a resume, and I talked to some of the residents there, and they seem like really nice people.” She laughed. “This one old guy asked my name, so I gave it and asked him his, and he took my hand and said, ‘I’m your knight in shining armor. You can hate me, break me, shake me, but baby, you cannot forsake me.’ And then he kissed me hand. It was adorable.”

Allen laughed. “Do I have a challenger for your affections?”

“Oh, I think you can take him. He’s a frail man. Blink too hard in his direction and he’ll fall over.”

“I’ll be really careful with my eyelids if I ever meet him then.”

“Your eyelids are very powerful, sweetheart.”

Allen laughed out loud at that one. By the time he stopped laughing, his heart felt lighter. Pushing off into the sky, he sat cross-legged, leaning his elbows on his knees. He smiled.

“You’re smiling now, aren’t you?”

That made him grin wider. “You know I love you, Tracy?”

“Yeah. I love you too.”

“I kinda want to kiss you right now.”

“Me too. Guess I’ll have to pack a few of those in with the hugs, huh?”

“Guess so. Oh God, what time is it? Man, I totally called you in the middle of the night, didn’t I?”

“Allen, relax, it’s okay. I was up with a good book anyway.”

“Aw man, now I feel really bad for interrupting you.”

“Don’t be silly.” She yawned. “I should sleep anyway. You sure you’re feeling better, though? Because I will literally stay up all night if you need me to.”

“No, it’s fine.” He smiled. “I am feeling better. Much better. Hey, Tracy?”

“Yeah?”

“Thanks.”

“Anytime, sweetheart. I mean that. I don’t care if it’s the middle of the night.”

“Not just that. For saying yes.”

“I’m glad I did, Allen. I love you. So very much.”

“And I love you. Now get some sleep.”

Allen’s vision cleared in time to see the whole alleyway bathed in fire. Two men emerged. One was untouched like a messianic figure in an ancient story. The other was wreathed in the flames as if he was born of them. In his hand was a charred lump, and he tossed it against the pavement. It shattered. A piece of the object looked up at him with half an eye socket, empty and starring, and Allen jumped, scrambling onto his ass. The world tilted and he threw up.

Raptor charged. He took two long steps before his animalistic body was thrown back by an unseen force much like a child would toss a cheap plastic action figure. He dug his claws in and came skidding to a stop just before his thick tail came in contact with the wall of fire that surrounded them.

“You son of a bitch!” Corrosion looked beyond terrified. The words were probably supposed to sound threatening and angry, but his voice shook. “Freakazoid! Waste these guys! Freak!”

There was no answer, and it dawned on Allen with increasing horror that the shattered, burnt skull on the ground belonged to the guy who’d been trying to turn his brain inside out. His mind refused to connect that knowledge with any form of reality.

Raptor let out a low whimper of fear, cowering where his great body had landed. Corrosion was equally frozen in place. “You’re not supposed to be here,” he said, as if declaring it would bend reality to his will. “You’re not supposed to be here!” The frantic tone in his voice increased with every word. “Y-you’re retired. Everyone said Inferno was retired!”

Inferno? It nagged in the back of his head, trying to make him remember where he’d heard it before, but Allen’s entire world had become focused on the blackened skull fragment. Why is it so familiar?

An appropriate name for a fire controller, to be sure. It sufficiently described the intense heat that licked at Allen’s hands and danced across the side of his face. He moved instinctively away. The fire wouldn’t burn him—Corrosion’s touch was the first time he’d felt anything of the sort since he was thirteen—but he didn’t want his jacket to burn. For some reason his custom-made leather jacket became of the utmost importance. It defined him as a hero. With the Delta Division symbol emblazoned in its full-colored glory across his back, it broadcasted him as one of the good guys. One of those people that believed in justice and the good of all mankind. This encounter—he didn’t even know what that was. This was not how heroes were supposed to act.

“Why are you here?” Corrosion’s tone had become pitiful now. He was so paralyzed his knees wouldn’t even bend to drop him to the ground in fear.

“I have a better question.” Inferno stepped forward and grasped Corrosion about the wrist. Corrosion screamed and his flesh began to blush around a prominent tattoo of a red dragon with black eyes. “Why’s the Scarlet Dragon gang beating up on a kid? A meta, too. Not your style.”

Now Corroision’s knees buckled. He screamed. “He-he was asking around after the Wilson bitch’s new bodyguard!” His eyes went wide. “Fuck! I shouldn’t—I shouldn’t have said that!”

Bodyguard?

“Maybe not. But keep talking anyway. If you’re lucky, you’ll end up in prison for the rest of your life. If not…well, how do you feel about cremation?”

Another scream came out of Corrosion’s mouth. “S-stop!” Allen heard himself say. “Y-you can’t do this!” This is so wrong! “Please just stop!”

Inferno glanced his way. Was it his imagination, or did the fire controller’s eyes grow soft? He released the thug. “Let’s make one thing clear. You and your gang are going to stop terrorizing this neighborhood. Retired life is boring. Never know when I’m going to show up again, and if I see your face again, I will turn it into a flesh mask of pustulating blisters. Got it?”

Corrosion nodded. The fire vanished. “Go.” Inferno pointed a single finger down the alley and away from them. Both Corrosion and Raptor took off like a shot.

“The skull was a nice touch,” the other man commented. Allen regarded him with a stunned expression. What kind psychopaths were they?

“I thought so. Though I’m going to have a terrible time explaining to the rest of the science department where the hell their prop went.”

What? “W-wait, th-that wasn’t—”

“Really the mind freak gangbanger that was about to explode your brain?” The other man smirked. “Naw, Liam only burns people to a crisp on accident. Your friendly neighborhood mind murderer is quite unconscious at the moment.”

“Oh.”

“Allen Gray, if I’m not mistaken,” the man said. “I’m Donald Kazuki. This is Liam Roberts.”

“Oh!” Relief, reason, and realization struck Allen all at once. Inferno was the name Mitch used. This man was Mitch’s father. He was a scary son of a bitch with a wicked temper, but he wasn’t a murderer. The apple didn’t fall very far from the tree, apparently. “Oh.”

Liam chuckled. “I think we need to work on your vocabulary, kid.”

Allen shot him an unimpressed look. Like he hadn’t heard that one his entire life.

“So, you were looking for Lindsay White?” Donald asked.

Allen nodded.

Liam frowned. “Who is apparently working as a bodyguard for a mafia princess. Fantastic.”

Allen blinked at him. “Wait, what?”

Liam smirked. “Well, there’s a couple more words.” Allen’s nonplussed look returned. “The Wilson family is the unofficially and intrinsically involved in a disturbing amount of crime in this city. They’re in a bit of an upheaval right now. The patriarch of the family and every single one of his older boys has inexplicably vanished, leaving Lyndria as heir apparent. Makes sense that she’d want somebody like Spryte working for her.”

Allen shook his head. “Lindsay’s a hero. She might be a little…” He trailed off. ‘Unstable’ was the word that immediately came to mind. “She’s a hero,” he repeated. “She was trained by Stryker, just like I was.”

Donald raised his eyebrow. “Right. Because two people training side by side under the same mentor never end up at odds or anything.”

Allen had nothing to say to that.

Liam frowned. “I’m concerned that Delta would send a kid to look for one of their lost sheep. Especially someone who’s not exactly trained in the art of a manhunt. Not very surprised, mind you. The way Delta forces kids into fighting their battles makes me throw up in my mouth a little.”

Allen shook his head. “No! It’s not like that. And they don’t. I’m not.”

“Those shit disturbers came close to killing you, kid.” Liam’s eyes darkened. “Delta’s like every other branch of the government. They strip the people they should be protecting of basic human rights, using fear-mongering tactics to justify it.”

A million arguments against that welled in Allen’s mind, but they refused to congeal into words. He stammered for a moment until he shut his mouth and forced himself to calm down. “Lindsay’s important, okay? Or at least she is to my friend. I don’t know what she’s doing here, or why she’s gotten involved with the mob, but I know that my friend is hurting and he needs her. I promised I’d bring her back. I’m not going to give that up.”

“And what if she doesn’t want to come back?”

“Well, I won’t know until I try.”

“No, no, by all means,” Donald interjected. “Let’s keep arguing about whether or not Allen should pack Lindsay in his bags on the way back to America. I mean, it’ll be hell in customs, sure.”

Allen blinked at him. “I-I…what? We can both fly, I don’t—”

“That’s the joke, kid. Try to keep up.”

Liam flashed him an annoyed look. “You have a point buried under there, I can tell. Why don’t you just get to it instead of telling jokes that only make sense inside your own head?”

“Two points, actually. Much like two prongs on a fork. Actually, that would be a terrible fork. Unless it’s for pickles, then it’s fine.”

Liam slapped his large palm against his forehead. “For the love of crap, will you just—”

“Isn’t anyone going to ask the obvious? What the bloody hell happened to the don and his family? And why are both students of a martyred hero here in Montreal, getting involved one way or another with crime syndicate drama?” His face took on a distant look as his mind appeared to wander off once again. “Ooh, that’d be a hell of a show. Your typical family drama, but they’re the mafia in a big city. But you still end up loving the characters, because even if they’re all criminals, they’re still human.”

Allen was beginning to consider that this man has long since lost his marbles. “Well, I don’t really know why Lindsay left. She just told Marcus…” He trailed off and frowned. She’d told him she couldn’t be a hero anymore. But would she really go against everything that Stryker had taught her and start working for the mob? “But I’m here looking for her. So it kinda makes sense that we’re both in the same place. I doubt it’s some kind of big conspiracy.”

Donald leaned over and hissed in his ear. “That’s what they want you to think.”

Liam cast him a scathing look. “Well, that was about as helpful as an Internet forum. You gonna start spouting out cat GIFs as well, or are you just gonna stick to nonsensical and overworked arguments?”

Allen thought that was a bit like the pot calling the kettle black, but he said nothing.

“See, the thing about nonsensical and overworked arguments is that they’re used so many times that just by sheer probability they’re going to be right at some point. Only problem is that, by the time they get around to being right, nobody believes them anymore. But someday the sky will fall and Chicken Little will be vindicated.”

Liam pressed his lips together. “Okay, you know what? While you’re getting around to making sense, let’s actually do something productive. Lyndria’s been making headlines since she was born, so she’s going to be dead easy to track. I’ve still got some contacts left over from my vigilante days. I’ll see if I can get some eyes around the city to find out which club she’s hitting up tonight. We’ll be able to find Lindsay by proxy. C’mon. Let’s head over to my place in the mean time.” He turned and began walking away.

Finally. A plan. A smile spread over Allen’s face. It felt good to be making progress after endless days of asking random people and getting nowhere except in deep shit. “Oh!” he exclaimed before he could stop himself from using the same interjection that Liam had teased him about. “I wanted to say. I think I know your son. Mitch. Mitch Roberts. He controls fire too.”

Liam stopped, but he didn’t turn around. There was something about the set of his shoulders that made Allen regret saying anything.

“Yeah, we don’t say anything about his kid,” Donald said.

“Oh.”

Donald continued as if the uncomfortable incident hadn’t happened. “Let’s not forget ask Lyndria where she put her family,” Donald interjected. “I remember the last time I couldn’t find something, I’d accidentally put it in the cupboard.”

By Liam’s face, Allen could tell that he was so done. “We’re not going to find them in the cupboard. They’re not a set of dishes, Donald, will you please shut the fuck up.”

“The freezer, then. People accidentally put things in the freezer all the time. Though that raises the question, would they hypothetically be dead before or after?”

“Well, that got dark quickly.”

“Says the guy who chucked a severed head that looked like a giant lump of charcoal.”