Archive for September, 2015

Eric’s eyes opened slowly. He felt the olive-colored silk sheets beneath his fingers, replacing the death grip his nightmare had on him. He grabbed for the comforter, which he’d kicked off some time in the night, and instead touched the arm of the woman sleeping beside him. He relaxed instantly. Desperate to shake off the fear of his memories colliding with his dreams, he rolled over and wrapped Charity in his arms. Her soft skin and perfect form didn’t still his pounding heart; but it beat at a fast pace for a different reason. With a deep breath, he took in the scent of her hair.

She reached around, and her delicate fingers brushed across the stubble on his cheeks. “It goes away eventually, love. I promise. Never completely, but enough.”

Eric closed his eyes and held her close. At this point, he was just glad to be able to move. When the Fae had surrounded him, broken him, he had truly thought he’d never again see Charity’s face staring at him so full of love. With so many bones broken, consciousness had been excruciating. He’d woken once or twice while they were healing him, and he remembered feeling all the more terrified. Aliens were hovering over him, every nerve ending flared with pain so intense he could no longer tell that the creatures he saw were only trying to help. He clung to his girlfriend and shuddered. Hot tears burned his eyes.

By the time he’d woken again in the Delta Division infirmary, the battle was over. Sam was defeated, and Drake was back in his own lab fixing Eric’s suit. Eric had taken the long way down to the lab. Medically, there was nothing wrong with his body, but his mind still remembered the agony of shattered bones. The walk helped to catch his mind up to the reality that the Elves’ magic had knitted his flesh back together. Being with the woman he loved helped too.

Charity rolled over and slipped her arms around his waist and looked into his eyes, letting silence ride for a moment. “So the execution is today.”

“I heard.” He wrapped his arms around Charity and pulled her closer to him, wrapping her in the down comforter. He’d felt smothered deep in his dreams. Now he just felt cold. “I feel like I should be sorry, but I’m not.”

Charity was quiet for a moment. “She killed my best friend’s brother. She made me relive the worst moment of my life. She jeopardized so many people, all for the sake of her need to control.” She rested her hand on his cheek. “She hurt you. You know, capital punishment is never something I’d made my mind up one way or the other, but…dammit, if I’m not glad she can’t ever hurt anyone else again.”

Eric nodded. “I feel the same way.” He stroked her hair. “I’m so glad to have you back.” His mouth twitched. “Because this would be super awkward if you still thought you were twelve.”

Charity laughed and punched him in the side.

“Ow, hey! The doctor told me to take it easy, just to make sure the magic actually healed everything properly.”

“Aw, you’re fine.”

“Is that so? Well, I’m going to have to test that.” He gave a loud grunt as he sat up in bed as if it was a heroic effort, then swiftly grabbed one of Charity’s feet. “Also, I’ll need to get you back, of course.” He tickled her on her archway, and Charity gave a little squeal. She twisted her lithe form and grappled him around the waist, and they both tumbled in a mess of bedclothes to the floor. Eric chuckled as he rolled Charity onto her back and planted a kiss on her lips. He lingered.

Then he sighed. “So, are we going?”

There was no response for a moment, but then Charity nodded. “Yeah. Because if I don’t see it happen, I will be forever looking over my shoulder to see if she’s watching me behind designer sunglasses.”

Eric agreed.

* * * *

For the first time since their second arrival, and the last time in a very long while, Atlantis opened their doors to all-comers. Political leaders from all over the world attended, and the hall filled with United Nations representatives. It had been the UN’s decision to turn Samantha Clive over to the Elves for trial. The powers that be had no illusions that the proceedings would end any differently; though some feigned ignorance, they were aware that their decision effectively sentenced Sam to death. Still, the decision had been made in hopes that it would garner some goodwill between the people of Earth and the trapped visitors from another world.

For the time being, it seemed as if Sam’s dream of world peace might indeed be a reality. Quarrels were set aside at the marble passageway into the Atlantian amphitheater; men and women from feuding countries forgot their differences in the presence of the bastion of knowledge and its people. It seemed fitting that it was her death that brought about even a temporary truce.

Many Delta Heroes were there. Drake sat apart. He’d abandoned his Hawaiian shirt for a black business suit; it fit well with his somber brooding. Meryl was silent as Charity greeted them with a hug, then also embraced an equally stone-faced Jayson. Mitch Roberts made an appearance, wearing a disturbingly gleeful expression. “This is not something to be happy about,” Liam scolded him, but that just started an argument about how he didn’t get to vanish for over a decade then decide to be a father.

Charity moved on, and Meryl tuned out, not wanting to get involved in their family matter. She watched Charity make her way to Geoff Davis and put a hand on his shoulder. Guilt lined his face, and Charity knew that guilt was not something that went away. Meryl took a deep breath. The therapist in her wanted to help, to heal their souls from the lancing wounds Sam had left on them both, but she stayed rooted to the ground until Jayson made her sit. She could not muster the will. After everything, Meryl was so, so tired.

At that moment, the Elven Chancellor took the podium at the center of the arena. A hush fell over the crowd. It occurred to Meryl that she could mimic an Elf’s language and thereby understand everything, but she hadn’t the energy. Through magic Meryl didn’t quite understand, Rio’kir’s words were broadcasted, translated by the pearl-shaped ear plugs the Elves had provided so that each person in the crowd understood in his or her native tongue. “Bring in the prisoner.”

Great doors opened, elaborate runes etched in gold catching the light that effused from the marble surface of the grand stage. Sam was brought in. She looked bedraggled and tired, her hair falling out of its usual pristine condition. Her hands were bound behind her back. Six Elvin guards guided her down the long, carpeted aisle and fastened her to a tall pole of onyx. The six guards stood before her in a linear formation.

“Samantha Clive.” Rio’kir spoke her name without emotion. “Through the knowledge of the All, the Judge of Truth, you have been found guilty of consorting with those who would seek corruption of our people. Worse, you perverted knowledge, the sacred pursuit of perfection that each of us are called to emulate.” He looked up, and his gaze rested on the area where Meryl and the rest of Delta’s heroes sat. “Those are just the crimes against the Elven people. Against yours, they are worse.”

There was a murmur from the Elven population. Meryl got the impression that Rio’kir’s decision to acknowledge Sam’s crimes against humanity was an unpopular one.

“Your actions have ended the lives of at least two good men and great heroes.” Meryl gave a barely audible gasp at the reminder of her brother’s assassination. A wave of nausea washed over her, though it wasn’t just due to the words that Rio’kir spoke. With all of her drained willpower, she fought down the bile in her throat. The air grew just a little heavier; despite his stoic expression, Drake was not unaffected by his father’s death.

“In addition to the suffering you have inflicted on your own kind, you have deprived your world of the knowledge and legacy that those men could have brought to your people.” Tears pricked Meryl’s eyes. Most Elves wouldn’t care; Rio’kir’s words were kind.

“That is a crime unforgivable by both Elf and Earthborn,” he continued. Therefore, as our judgment is insufficient to fully castigate your lack of respect for knowledge, I decree that your soul will be given over to the All for his chastisement.” He turned to the guards. “Execute her.”

At the sharp command, they notched an arrow and drew their bows. Sam looked up, eyes glazed over, and smiled. The Elves fired. Six arrows hit her chest, and her head slumped over.

Meryl clutched Jayson’s hand. This part, at least, was over.

* * * *

After the solemn execution, those that attended gathered in the common room at Delta. They were met by those who had chosen to stay away. Allen perched stiffly on one of the brown leather couches, clinging to Tracy’s hand. He knew very well where the others had been, and he wasn’t happy about it. He hated Sam. Hated her with every fiber of his being, but he could not condone the taking of another life.

Marcus and Lindsay sat opposite them. Marcus had his arm around Lindsay, and her head rested on his shoulder. She looked defeated. Allen had heard Marcus ask her if she wanted to go, but all she said was, “I don’t care,” so they remained at the headquarters. None of them had been much for conversation.

“You’re already here,” Mitch groused at his dad as Jayson teleported them in. “You might as well stay for the afterparty.”

Lindsay made a face at him. “That’s morbid.”

None of the others seemed to want to talk either. An awkward silence stretched, the atmosphere very much like a wake, instead of there being a funeral, it had been preceded by an execution. Allen swallowed. How did one celebrate someone’s life when it had ended like that? Or when it had been filled with such evil?

“She truly thought she was saving the world,” Geoff finally said to break the silence.

“She’s a control freak,” snapped Charity.

“Was,” Eric reminded her firmly. “It’s over.”

Charity nodded in agreement.

“So the Fae…” Mitch began.

“Will scatter. They’ll stop hounding anyone to the extent they have.”

Mitch breathed a sigh of relief.

“Russia’s going to war with China,” Charity said. “A pre-emptive strike. I think they’re hoping Trevor’s designs will give them a weapon. They’ve even withdrawn their request to be part of Delta. The Elves have retreated back into Atlantis. They’re not going to have anything to do with Earthborn wars—though what the UN is going to do with that statement, I don’t even want to guess.””

“And us?” Lindsay asked.

“Us as in Americans? Probably wait to see which side will win and launch a decisive strike to win the war, if history serves. Us, as in Delta? Well, if we’re not careful, we’re going to be that decisive strike.” She sighed and ran her hands through her hair. “I wish Jones were here.”

Jayson just looked at her. “You know what he’d say if he were?”

Charity just looked at him and shook her head. A small smile appeared on her face. “The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree, Jayson. You tell me.”

Jay cleared his throat and attempted his best British accent. “He’d say ‘this is your world now. What are you going to do about it, Miss London?’”

That was when they all, at last, smiled. Because it was a spot-on impression. Because he was right.

“At the end of the day, we all have to make the world our better place,” Jayson continued. “That’s what you always said, right Charity? For us…and for our kids.” And then he gave a knowing grin and wrapped his arm around Meryl’s waist.

Charity nodded. Then stopped. She looked at the two of them, wide-eyed. “You’re not…”

Meryl grinned too.

“We’re going to have a baby,” Jayson said, positively bursting.

Charity squealed. Excited congratulations and hugging and back-slapping ensued. “I didn’t even know you could have kids, with the whole…you know.” That Meryl was technically not of this world.

“Neither did we,” Meryl responded. “But it seems that is true. How many is the question.”

“Well, are you having a whole damn litter at once, like a puppy or something?” Lindsay asked.

Meryl laughed. “No, no. Arlethaen have two children—twins, a boy and a girl. I understand that is not a pattern for humans, so I am uncertain how it will work when there is a bond between human and Arlethaen.”

Jayson wrapped his arms around his wife. “But anyway, my point still stands. It’s what Jones would say, but that’s because it’s true. This is our world. What are we going to do about it?”

* * * *

Hours later, Mitch returned to his empty house alone.  Some adolescent part of him had almost asked Liam to come back with him, but then a surge of seething anger had bubbled within him for some unfathomable reason, and it was all he could do not to tell the fucker to get out of his life forever. Halfway through a bag of chips, he realized that he had no idea where that anger came from—in fact, he wasn’t even inclined to wonder where it had come from. It was curious, but the concept wandered out of his head in favor of the gruesome documentary on the television.

He glanced at the clock. It was nearly time for the local elementary school to be out. He was halfway out the door before he began to wonder why that was at all his concern. With an annoyed grimace he stalked back in, slamming the door behind him so hard it rattled the house.

Guilt leaped into his heart. That was loud enough to wake somebody if they happened to be sleeping in the middle of the day after coming off the night shift. Though why anybody would be doing that, Mitch had no idea. Driven by impulse, he made his way to the upper level of the small house he’d lived in since working at the Delta Division. He counted three bedrooms. He wandered into his, and suddenly tired, flopped onto the bed.

He stared at the ceiling plastered in metal band posters with a frown so deep that a nagging, motherly voice told him that it would stay that way. That thought wandered out of his head as well. It was replaced with another, much more insistent thought.

Why did he have the distinct feeling that he’d forgotten something important?

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A crack of thunder shattered the battlefield. The air shivered with the cloying scent of an oncoming storm, and Marcus was thrown backward against Mitch, and they both toppled onto a group of Fae that let out a chorus of cackling screams and grabbed at them with tendrils of shadow that sent shivers through Marcus’ spine.

“Watch it, London!” Mitch snapped.

Marcus ignored him. “Charity!” He took a couple steps toward his sister, jerking back as the ionized air kicked up shards of marble into his face.

“Marcus!” Jayson’s commanding voice arrested Marcus’ attention, and his head jerked toward the teleporter. He saw Drake hand Jay a device that looked like a mess of runic stones cobbled together into some sort of firing apparatus. “I’ll back up Inferno. Help your sister!”

Marcus nodded. “Yes, sir!” He kicked his rocket boots into gear and took off into the sky.

It wasn’t the first time Marcus had seen his sister shift into her energy form, but never had he seen her like this. She was a goddess, leaving destruction in her wake, and just at a glance he could see that the sentient electricity she had become could not discern between friend and foe. Her burst of charged particles had decimated the Fae that had gathered around Eric. With a moment of panic, Marcus realized he couldn’t see his sister’s boyfriend. Charity would never forgive herself if she’d incinerated him to nothing. However, a flurry of motion in the corner of his eye made him turn to see that Meryl had gotten Eric the hell out of dodge.

“Marcus!” Lindsay screamed for him as she struggled to her feet. She and Allen were deep inside the blast radius, and they looked worse for wear. Both of them were tough enough to take a tank to the face and keep walking, but unlike him, neither of them were immune to electricity. Charity’s energy filled the air, and the longer they stayed within her area of effect, the worse off they’d be.

His heart twisted, but they had bigger problems than his wayward sister. “Behind you!” Sam was also getting to her feet, and she wasn’t going to sit patiently while he got the giant ball of energy under control. Lindsay hesitated, and glanced at Charity with uncertainty. “Don’t worry about me. I got this.”

At least he hoped he did.

He cracked his neck and licked his lips, tasting the nitrogen in the air. “Charity!” She paid him no mind. His hands went to his head, clawing through his hair. How the ever loving fuck was he supposed to get through to her? His hands shook. Why me? My sister’s going crazy, my girlfriend abandoned me, I’m having to be this hero, and I’m not ready! His frustration boiled in him. “Fucking goddamn it!” he bellowed. Nothing happened.

“Fuck! Come on, Charity! What the fucking hell is wrong with you! You’re my fucking sister! No. Fuck that. You—I told you so many times that you’re not my mother, but god damn it, you were right. You’re all I’ve got. Where’s your self-righteous rage at my trucker mouth? Huh? ‘Swearing makes you sound ignorant,’ well fuck that! You want me to sound intelligent? Then stop this bullshit and make me!”

He wiped his hand over his face and blinked back hot tears. “Damn it, Charity! This—this isn’t you! You don’t lose your shit like this! Whatever happens, you always keep your cool, always make sure I know what to do. I don’t know what to do!” He bit back a sob. “Fuck. You’re always telling me to pick up my laundry, nag me constantly about making sure the dishwasher’s empty, drag me over to your high school so you can make sure I don’t fuck up.” He laughed, an edge to his voice. “You’re always making me be better. There. You happy now? You make me better. You’re the most stubborn-ass, obsessive control freak, and I don’t know why, but that’s important to you. I’m not going to let you lose control.”

He swallowed. His jaw clenched. He repeated the words, calmer now, with a sense of surety. “I am not going to let you lose control.” His hand extended, and he almost expected it to be shaking, but a stillness had settled inside him, spreading through his limbs and the tips of his fingers, even as they tingled with static and anticipation.

The upper limits of Charity’s electric energy could not be safely tested, so she always kept an iron grip on how much she used for any given situation. The more energy she used, the harder it was to control it, she’d say. And if she lost control, people could get hurt. It was a lesson every energy controller had to be aware of.

Marcus, on the other hand, had never found out exactly how much electric energy he could absorb. Half the reason he resented working as Charity’s sidekick was that he felt there was a constant set of training wheels, a steady source of electricity present so he didn’t have to worry about resource management. He hated the implication that he was powerless without her—weak. It had never occurred to him until right that moment that Charity felt the same way—that her lack of control was her weakness. She projected it onto him, onto any energy controller she taught.

But she also taught that the purpose of a team was to help each other where they were weak so they could maximize their strengths.

Marcus smiled and moved closer to her, hand still extended. He could feel the energy coursing through his veins, and he wondered if this was what it was like to stand next to the sun. “So, that’s it. That’s why you have to control everything. I understand. But you can’t right now. So I will control it for you.”

Before him was a nuclear reactor, and somewhere in the center of it, his sister. He’d find her, even if it meant absorbing every wayward particle. It had taken months to learn how to absorb energy on purpose, and Charity had walked him through it, been with him every step of the way. She even made him read a dozen books on how to open oneself up to the energy of the universe, as if that was remotely the same thing. Weirdly, though, it was. After about the twentieth self-help book, it clicked in his head. He understood that a current ran through everything, and opening himself up, observing his place in the universe, allowed him to channel the flow of energy into his body—his core—his very self.

His muscles clenched in protest. His chest tightened like it was going to burst, and he forgot how to breathe. His teachers—Charity included—had all gone to great lengths to explain the relationship between matter, energy, mass, and volume. Right this second, however, he figured that physics could go fuck itself. He’d just breathed in a vortex of basically infinite electrons, and it felt like the doorway to another universe was doing its damnedest to collapse inside his esophagus.

“Relax, Marcus. Breathe. You’re okay.”

Marcus whirled around. At least, he thought he did. He still wasn’t positive what plane of existence his body had chosen to settle in. Charity was gone. The energy was gone. No, more accurately, he’d succeeded in absorbing all the energy, and it clawed at his insides, begging to let it unleash holy hell on the mob of Fae that scrambled all over the shattered marble halls. Several pairs of eyes stared at him. Allen and Lindsay regarded him with stunned expressions, and even Sam took pause. Jay, Meryl, and the Elf leader gaped at him. Drake ignored them all and continued do his business at the console. “Yes, yes, wonderboy absorbed his sister, can we focus, people!”

I did what?

There was a sound, a laugh that seemed to echo around him. He spun again. No, it was in him.

“So, that’s a thing. I’ve always wondered if that would happen. It’s not super ideal to arrange circumstances that would allow for experimentation.”

He knew that voice. “Charity?”

“Okay, just so you know, when you talk out loud, you will look like you’re talking to yourself like a crazy person.”

“You…you’re…”

He couldn’t help the words bursting from his mouth. “You’re inside my head!”

Marcus clenched his fists and twitched his shoulders with annoyance. “Okay. This is beyond an invasion of privacy. It’s like—like you’re going through my bedroom and finding—well, never mind.”

“Marcus, I already found your box of porn. Very old-school. I didn’t even know they sold magazine format anymore. Though if you’re computer’s going to short out during—”

“Charity!” His whole face turned red, and his ears felt like they were on fire. Was it possible for one’s whole body to blush?

“Oh, don’t worry. I’m not mad. It’s a perfectly natural part of your maturation.”

“Please stop. We are so not doing this.”

“Having a discussion about your teenage habits while I’m stuck inside your head?”

“Or ever, preferably.”

She laughed again. She almost seemed to enjoy his discomfort, very much the big sister that liked to troll the hell out of her baby brother. But as much as Marcus could hear her voice, he could also sense her thoughts. The love and pride she had for him was inescapable. She would do anything for him. It should have been self-evident, even without a mind-meld, but it made Marcus smile a little to see that undeniable truth. And he could tell that she knew he felt the same way. She was his sister, and there was no way in hell he’d stand by while she was in trouble.

But with a wordless agreement, they both decided it was time to put aside the mushy stuff. Asses needed to be kicked.

So, that short burst of energy thinned the Fae ranks a bit. Infernos one and two can handle the rest for now. The main threat is Sam. Marcus could honestly no longer tell whose thought that was. Meryl’s assault was more effective than it appeared, and she was holding back out of fear of hurting everyone else. We have more power together. Eric was the biggest threat. He may be neutralized, but his effort was not in vain. It’s costing Sam to push the shield out again, and she may in fact buckle under the paragons’ attacks. Still, best to end this quickly before she and the Fae have a chance to rally.

Marcus dashed toward the fight. It took him a second to realize he was flying under his own power—his boots were shorted out. It was an odd sensation, and not one he dwelled on for long.

With a loud crack of thunder that rattled the marble pillars that still stood, a bolt of lightning struck Sam’s shield. It was followed swiftly by Allen’s full-powered fists that slammed into the psionic bubble. Lindsay followed through with a bicycle kick. Sam pushed them back, but both Allen and Lindsay dug into the ground and refused to budge. Marcus was unaffected. Sam’s psionic force could not dissuade him. Lightning struck again. Rinse, repeat, the three teens poured every last bit of their effort into putting the bitch down, and finally the shield cracked. Allen’s fist sailed through and landed on the woman’s jaw, and she flew backward, head making a loud smack sound on the mother-of-pearl. Allen dashed forward.

“Stop.” Jayson’s command put the breaks on Allen’s charge. “She’s down. We’ve won.”

Marcus raised his gaze to the battlefield. The Fae had scattered. All that was left was the broken remains of the great foyer of the City of Atlantis. Mitch and Liam rested with their hands on their knees in uncanny symmetry. Lindsay was still in shock, and Allen remained aloft, uncertain as to what to do next. Eric’s broken body lay nearby, and Marcus—no, Charity—felt a twinge of panic. A Light Mage worked his magic, and Eric’s bruises began to heal. Drake collapsed, and Meryl caught him.

So, this was winning. Watching his friends get the shit beaten out of them, tearing up a city that had probably stood for centuries, and knowing that, even after all that effort, it wasn’t bringing Stryker back.

Marcus literally had another person sharing his body. And never had he felt so empty.

Lindsay was the first to reach Sam. She lead with a roundhouse kick, then twisted into a follow-up knee to the face. Without Lindsay’s speed, Sam couldn’t dodge the attacks, but every time they almost connected, the air shimmered inches from the surface, making the effort looked like a badly choreographed action movie. Sam dug her feet into the ground, the marble cracking beneath her, giving her traction against Lindsay’s onslaught. She didn’t budge.

Allen slammed his fist into the ground right beside Sam. It quaked and split in all directions, causing Sam’s anchor to crumble. From his crouched position, he shot into the sky. His fist connected with Sam’s jaw, and the kinetic force drove her up and backward. She did an aerial twist and landed on her feet, unharmed.

Her arms thrust forward. She may have been unable to affect their minds due to the Elves’ spellcasting, but her telekinetic blast packed a force that matched the paragons’ strength. Lindsay lost control and spun into the air. Allen’s heels dug furrows in the marble, now dull without its iridescent light, before he tripped and fell prone.

Marcus took a deep breath as he focused his energy gathering abilities. He raised his hands and orbs of electricity shot from his palms like bullets from a gatling gun. They bounced off Sam, but she ignored him in favor of a bigger threat.

Eric had had enough. His suit was built to fight the super powered, to neutralize them and even kill them. Though the specific sound frequency that nullified Gifted powers had been purged from the system, he nonetheless remained a force to be reckoned with.

“Power rerouted to weapons systems, armed and online. Targeting. Psionic shield detected. Calculating frequency required to counter shield. Calculations complete.”

Eric fired. The sound rippled through the air, but shadows sprung forth and coalesced around him. Everything went dark.

“Warning. Interference detected. Sensors compromised.”

“I admit, Mr. Herrington, I was rather surprised when you took lead on the investigation,” Sam said smoothly. “It was a contingency I had not prepared for. I needn’t have been concerned. You lack the request intellect to challenge me.” Twin thumps sounded on her shield, still holding strong. Eric couldn’t see anything, but he presumed Lindsay and Allen were attempting to battle her again.

“And believe me,” Sam continued. “It is only intellect that could challenge me. Your physical prowess, even combined, means nothing without a mind behind it.”

Eric grit his teeth. He could hear Marcus firing at her, but that wouldn’t do any good either, not unless he had the time to gather the energy.

“However, even a mindless monkey with a weapon can be dangerous. I cannot allow you to live.”

Eric’s heart thumped as the sound of the threat hit his ears. Wait. Sound! “Vorg, visual targeting may be down, but audio sensors still work. Use echolocation to track Sam and translate that into a mind map so I can blow the ever loving shit out of her.”

“Excellent idea, Eric. Calculating. Calculations complete.”

A grainy image flickered before Eric’s eyes—no, in his mind. He couldn’t see well—it was like finding a shadowed outline in a black, empty void.

“Quickly, Eric! Zzzx—zouter defenses comprimizzxtz—”

He could feel the icy fingers of the Shadow Fae digging into his suit. It was a self-contained life-support system, and given the opportunity, could keep him alive in space, but the tiny, persistent assault of the Fae burrowed in like acid. He had to clear his mind and destroy Sam’s suit. There! He targeted what he was sure would be Sam. “Load in that shield-destroying frequency and give her hell!”

The sound blasted into his target, and it flung back, bouncing off a wall, and into a heap on the ground. He could only hope to God it really was Sam.

He only had a moment to think that before his vision went dark again. Fear struck his heart. “Vorg? Vorg!” There was no response from his suit.

Piercing light struck his eyes, and cool air tingled on his skin an instant before fiery pain lanced into his arms, legs, and stomach, followed by the spreading warmth of open wounds. He might have screamed, but he couldn’t hear his own voice past the sharp agony of every joint in his body dislocating at once. Darkness swallowed him once again, and he couldn’t breathe. White light flashed in his eyes, but he knew that, this time, it was just his brain shutting down. He no longer cared. He just wanted it all to stop.

* * * *

“Eric!” Charity scream shredded her throat as it closed up in fear. She was supposed to be targeting the Fae. You idiot! You let them past you. This is all your fault!

Reason didn’t even have time to tell her that the damned creatures could teleport before she bolted toward Eric—the man she loved. Her feet couldn’t carry her fast enough. Charity could barely see him through the horde of shadow creatures, but what she did see turned her stomach. Two grabbed each leg and twisted, while three others snapped an elbow. Three more twisted his other arm behind his back until a sickening, bloody snap broke a compound fracture through the skin. Shadows snaked all round him, slicing red ribbons through his loose t-shirt and dress pants.

I’ve got to stop them! She shot bolt after bolt at them, but where one fell, another Fae took its place.

Sam was down, for the moment, but struggling to her feet. Allen gave up on her in favor of lending Eric a hand. His mighty strength tore the creatures from the fallen businessman, but even he would soon be overwhelmed.

“Allen!” Lindsay screamed. “Leave him! We’ve got to get Sam!” She bolted into a running attack.

It was too late. Samantha Clive returned to her feet, and the air shimmered as her shield returned. Lindsay bounced off the shield, and Sam caught her in a telekinetic grasp, slamming her repeatedly into the ground. Lindsay clawed at the nothing that held her. It would take a while to strangle a paragon, but in time, even Sprite would succumb to such an assault.

“Shit!” Jayson shouted. “Meryl, back them—”

His command came too late. A single Fae popped out from nowhere and clobbered the girl on the head before she could mimic any invulnerability.

“They’re all over the place,” Charity sobbed to no one but herself. She scanned the battlefield. An army of unmatched strength ruled. The Elves defended their homeland well, but they were surprised and uncoordinated. The Fae fought with unparalleled valor, a single mind delivering a relentless onslaught. Mitch and Liam peppered them with fire blasts, and Marcus followed Allen’s lead in defending the fallen hero, but it wasn’t enough. He didn’t have enough power.

You can stop this. Something calm whispered from her center.

I can’t! I can’t! Another sob escaped her lips, tears blinding her to the carnage.

You can. And you will. Eric will die if you don’t. You remember Eric, don’t you?

She didn’t. She couldn’t. Try as she might, she couldn’t recall a single moment that happened outside of the last few weeks since she woke up.

You said you’d find a way back. You remember that? You promised. Why? Why, in your heart of hearts would you have promised to find a way back to him? Think, Charity! Your brain may not remember, but the heart doesn’t forget! Trust that feeling!

“I can’t.” This time she said it out loud, muttering to herself. “I don’t know how.”

You’ve done this before. Marcus said I turned into this big ball of electricity, do that again!

But how? How do I do that?

Let go.

It seemed so simple. In all the stories Charity had ever read—and there were so many of them—the way to gain true power, true control, was to let go. She clenched and unclenched her fists, but her stomach tightened when Eric cried out again and lay still in the Fae’s stranglehold. Let go.

Electricity sparked at her fingertips and arched over her back. Her hair stood on end. Power welled up inside her. She imagined it like a big ball in her chest, and with a groan, she pushed it out. Agony pierced her, like someone had driven a javelin through her heart. She couldn’t breathe. Terror gripped her. Oh God! Oh God, it hurts! Every fiber of her being screamed at her to stop, that she was going to die, that this was the end. It felt like her head was sitting at the edge of an explosion.

You can make this stop. Just relax. Stop pushing. Get yourself under control. Who cares if they’re all going to die?

I care!

With a terrible scream, Charity pushed her power out further. Wave after wave of unimaginable torment gripped her, spasming through her body. She felt as if she was being torn apart, each atom separating from itself—and in a way, it was.

And it unleashed the storm within.

She understood it, suddenly. The biochemical process that had wormed her way through her brain, blocking off the memories that were so dear to her. A nefarious parasite. It gripped her mind—controlled her.

No more.

The energy being vaporized the foreign substance, atomized it, turned it into even more power. Then that being turned her attention on the battlefield.

She had a purpose, that much she knew. As she beheld the chaos dispassionately, she found herself curious as to what it was. To destroy…something. Everything. That must be it.

She must destroy everything.

Meryl hadn’t known what to expect when she looked into the eyes of the one who killed her brother—the one who sentenced him to die. Even after Donald Kazuki’s video said it was Sam—even after Meryl knew the truth—she could not equate the evil of the mastermind’s conspiracy to the poise and grace of Samantha Clive.

Until now.

Arlethaens had legends of demons, creatures with twisted horns on their heads and spikes on their bodies meant to lacerate their prey. Some were large and grotesque; others possessed a terrible beauty. Regardless, they had one thing in common—evil radiated off them like the toxic fumes from a river of industrial waste.

Sam had neither horns nor spikes, and her beauty was that of a classic European; but how had Meryl missed the unrelenting evil that spilled from her eyes, the set of her jaw and body posture? From childhood, Meryl could recognize the evil of those who wished her and her family harm. It was a matter of survival as the Gifted hid from the Old Order. It translated to her talents both as an artist and a therapist.

How had she missed an evil so vile?

This woman had sat across from Meryl in countless sessions, both mandated by Delta policy, and voluntarily as Sam had insisted she wanted to maintain a mental competency to run the most powerful agency in the country. Meryl had judged her to be motivated, cerebral, and surprisingly balanced. She’d never once questioned the woman’s mental stability. Somehow, in some gross lack of judgment, Meryl had missed the glaring psychopathy.

In an effort to determine the mastermind’s identity, Meryl had crafted a psych profile: highly intelligent, adept in social situations, charismatic. Sam used public appearance as a strategy—and evidently reputation as a weapon. Meryl’s small hands shook at her sides, and her stomach flopped. Why had she not seen it?

Because she’d never wanted to. In retrospect, that was likely at least in part to Sam’s mental influence. Even now, Meryl tried to consider the idea of mimicking Sam’s powers, and then she’d know. She’d know for sure that Samantha Clive was as powerful as Donald said, powerful enough to attract the Fae. The Fae had mind powers. They were ideal partners in crime. Like drew toward like. Of course the Fae would follow Sam. She was one of them. Rage boiled in her. You’re such an idiot. How could anyone be so stupid? This is your fault, you know. Joleon is dead because of you, because you couldn’t lift your eyes and see the truth that stared you in the face.

And you’re still not mimicking her powers.

It was with shock that she realized her mind had wandered away from the concept.

“Sam,” Jayson said with a deadly calm. “We’d like to have some words with you.”

His arm shifted. In his hand was the vial of nullifier. With a snap it shattered. Jay cried out and shook his hand, blood dripping onto the iridescent mother-of-pearl floor. “Shit.” He held out his hand, the blue formula mingling with the scarlet blood on his skin.

“Certainly, Mr. Allison,” Sam replied with a small smile born of the knowledge that she’d just caused Jayson’s power play to backfire. Meryl’s heart pounded. Instead of taking out her powers, Sam had taken out his, removing from play their most powerful teleporter. If this went badly, they had no quick exit.

There was a shout, and a blinding light flashed all around them. Fae had invaded the Elves’ territory and they reacted accordingly. The fuzziness in Meryl’s mind vanished—the Elves’ magic, no doubt. Instantly, Meryl copied Sam’s powers. All of them.

It took her breath away. Never had she felt so much knowledge and power compacted into one pocket of consciousness. She understood in that moment that reality hinged on a shared perception of every living being in existence. It was a collection of mental power that was innate in every creature that could observe the world around them. In most, it was so latent that they were unaware, content with a mundane life of their own. Mankind’s very awareness held reality together, each mind a single molecule of water in a sea awash with power; but each thought they were alone, each so far away from the particles around them that they were unaware of the bonds that held them all together.

But for those who could recognize the metaphysics of that reality, who could seize control of that collective consciousness—the power that it granted! It was the power of a god.

Sam looked at her. “You understand, don’t you? Mankind is a collective, and that must be protected at any cost. The organism of humanity is a being that must survive—but we are cancerous to ourselves. That cancer must be destroyed.

“I truly am sorry for what you suffered. It is a tragedy that, with the bad, one must cut into the good. Power such as this must come with benevolence, with mercy, but also with purpose. Your brother believed that—believes it still, for mankind’s power extends beyond this mortal coil. Don’t let the greater purpose of his sacrifice go unfulfilled.”

Meryl took a step back. Her resolve faltered.

“Our world and yours are capitulating inevitably to entropy. Our world will end. My actions will not stay that forever. But perhaps it will buy a few years. There will be peace, and in that peace, who knows how many lives will be saved? A billion? A hundred billion?”

No more than a heartbeat of time had passed, but with their minds connected, Meryl felt she knew more about Samantha than what would come in a hundred hour-long conversations.

“Tell them, Merelise. They no longer trust me, and that’s fine. ‘Hero’ and ‘villain’, they’re just titles, a means to accomplish my goal. You are their counselor and friend. Tell them the truth.”

“Wait,” Meryl heard herself say. She looked around. Electricity arched over both Charity and Marcus London. Eric Herrington had fully suited up, and his sound blasters whined with their charge. Liam and Mitch Roberts were twin flames, ready to engulf Samantha Clive. Allen Gray’s fist was clenched, ready to fly with rage at the woman who’d murdered his mentor, and Lindsay White wasn’t far behind him. She stopped them all with that single word, and they looked to her for guidance. Sam was right. They would listen. They trusted her.

“Meryl.” Drake called her name. Her head swiveled in his direction.

Drake was the most closed off person she knew. He showed up—late—for his mandatory psychiatric evaluation, but spent the entire time talking about his pet goldfish, which she was almost certain never existed. He hated the Fae. In the last few years, he’d gone out of his way to make sure that nothing was able to get in his head, and she wasn’t sure that even the mind powers of Mythos—Sam—would have gotten through the mental barriers he’d trained in his mind. Yet, she slipped easily into his thoughts. He let her in.

“I see your hesitation. I understand. Sam’s good, she doesn’t need powers to persuade others to come around to her point of view. What’s she telling you—that if we beat her, your brother’s death has no purpose? But you can’t let her win. Meryl, we don’t do what’s right because it makes the world a better place, we do it because doing the right thing is what separates us from the evil we face every day. She killed your brother. It’s not on you to make that death mean something. It’s on you to avenge it.”

“Well, we gonna kick her ass or what?” Mitch snarled.

“I said ‘wait’, Mitchell,” Meryl snapped. “Get in line.”

She let Drake’s power wash over her. He may have been dampened past the point of using them, but she could still mimic them fully. Her long blonde hair twisted around her, and her body levitated into the humming air. Her fists clenched and her eyes flashed gold. She may have been using others’ powers, but she would beat this woman as an Arlethaen, as Gifted. She would not mimic another’s appearance. “Thanks, Drake. I needed that. This one’s for you.”

She thrust her hands forward and blasted a wave of magnetic energy at Sam. It whooshed past her, an invisible attack against Sam’s invisible defense. The woman took a step back, but otherwise remained unperturbed. The marble around Sam’s psionic shield cracked, leaving a shallow, crescent shaped crater in the floor. The wall behind her began to crumble.

Meryl clenched her fists. To her magnetic senses, she could feel lines of power begin to form. They’d be gone in no time once she released her power over the magnetism in the air, but she only needed a moment. She switched powers. Her whole being became engulfed in electric energy. “This is for screwing with my best friend!” With a loud crack, a powerful lightning bolt snapped at Sam. It wrapped around her shield, but under the electric assault, it began to shrink.

The energy faded to a deafening silence. Meryl didn’t let it ride for long. She dashed forward with blinding speed. Her hand punctured what was left of the psionic shield and grabbed Sam’s neck. With powerful, strengthened arms, she flew her captive into the air. In a loud voice, she screamed, “And this is for my brother!” She flung Sam down at the ground, obliterating the crescent crevasse, and decimating the marble wall.

As the dust settled, Samantha Clive stood to her feet. She brushed the powdered marble from her business suit and shook out the pieces of her broken hair clip, letting her brown hair fall in waves. “That was surprisingly aggressive, Mrs. Allison. I was hoping we’d resolve this peacefully. You’re no fighter, Meryl.”

Meryl smiled as she landed beside her husband and put a hand on his shoulder. “It’s a good thing the rest of them are.”

Jayson smirked. “Mitch, Liam, Charity, back the Elves up and thin the Fae’s ranks. Drake, support Rio’kir in getting the city’s defenses back online. The rest of you…let’s all give her a piece of our mind.”

Marcus flashed a grin at his girlfriend, then at his best friend. All three smiled, but it was the smiles of pent-up aggression and rage. “This is what we’ve been waiting for. Let’s do it!”

Charity’s heart pounded so hard that it hurt. Marcus reached for her hand, and she jerked away, all too aware of the static electricity that built up in her fingers. He may not have been the brother she remembered, but he was her brother nonetheless, and they’d grown so close. With him around, she felt much less like she was going to fall apart. The last thing she wanted was him to fall over from a heart attack caused by a surge of electricity, especially now when they were about to head into the most terrifying encounter of her young life.

That’s not true, a voice in her head whispered. That’s right. She was a hero, and an adult. She must have had worse experiences, even if she couldn’t remember them. Bile rose in her throat. If those experiences were worse than waking up in a hospital bed after a nightmare-inducing, near-death experience, then she didn’t want to remember. If they were worse than knowing that the only family you had left was a halfway grown-up teenage brother that was only five the last time you saw him, she’d rather they stay buried in the past.

He’s got the electricity power too, she reminded herself. With relief, she held onto his hand. “Sorry, I forgot—I didn’t want to hurt you.”

“It’s all right.” Marcus smiled at her, but she could see his attention was on Jayson Allison, who was trying to contact Atlantis via his phone. A communication relay had been set up between Delta and the ancient magical city when the Elves had first arrived, but that did little to dispel the political red tape and language barrier.

Charity clutched Marcus’ hand even harder. Maybe it would be better if I could remember going through something worse. Then I’d at least know I got through it.

“Just find me someone who speaks English!” Jayson yelled into the phone. Jay had more patience than anyone Charity had ever seen, but even he was at the end of it. She was reminded of her mother every time Anna London had to deal with an overseas customer service representative.

Don’t cry, don’t cry, don’t cry. Charity knew that if she started, the tears would never stop. She couldn’t afford to break down and cry right now, not when she was supposed to be saving the world.

Why am I the one who’s supposed to be a hero? I’m just a kid!

Except that wasn’t entirely true. She was an adult, and people depended on her. She looked herself up on the Internet one time, and nearly lost a whole day researching Thundra. The woman was an icon. The work she did, the people that she saved, the little girls who wanted to grow up and be heroes just like her—was she really that person? Charity couldn’t reconcile the helplessness she felt with the hero that the blogs and social media referred to as “the heart of Delta”. Yet, there was that face, sans mask, looking back at her every time she glanced in a mirror.

“Finally! Thank God, Rio’kir, I was worried that all of man and elf-kind would be lost to the power of stonewalling. Look, long story short, Samantha Clive’s behind all this. You want proof, then I’ve got it, but you need to let your anti-teleportation fields down so I can port my party in. I’ve got a handful of people that I trust, and you know you can trust me. We’ll put our heads together and figure this out.”

Charity’s heart sank, and then she instantly felt guilty. Part of her had been hoping that Jay wouldn’t make contact, that this horrible  battle ahead wouldn’t happen, that she wouldn’t have to fight. No, Sam needs to be fought. She’s evil.

But you don’t have to fight her. You can walk away. You’re just a kid, you don’t have to fight. Just say ‘no’. Let go of Marcus’ hand, say you’re staying. No one would blame you.

I would blame me.

She clenched her fist that was unoccupied with holding onto her brother, her lifeline. Images of this strong, powerful woman flashed in her mind, short, wavy hair and a silver cape tossed in the breeze. I am an icon. An inspiration. I make girls around the world believe in their own strength, make them want to stand up and fight for what’s right. People believe in heroes—believe in me. I have to believe in me too.

“The shields will be powered as soon as the Elves’ Dark Mages temporarily dispel them,” Jayson said. “About ten minutes.”

“Good,” Charity said. Everyone turned to look at her. “That gives me enough time.”

Charity had never changed so fast in her life, but at the end, the face of Thundra stared back at her. It was hidden behind a sky-blue masquerade mask with gold and silver filigree edging. Her black leather gloves edged in the same blue protected her hands, while the metal rivets conducted her electricity. Black pants were tucked into black, lace-up, heeled leather boots; her waist was encircled by a black leather belt with the symbol of the Delta Division functioning as a buckle. Her silver cape was fastened to the inch-wide straps of her electric blue, sleeveless shirt.

Her breath caught as she saw the hero in the mirror and realized it was her—but she didn’t have time to gaze. She dashed back out to meet with everyone.

She wasn’t the only one who’d taken the time to suit up. Allen was already dressed—he rarely took off his leather jacket with Delta’s symbol emblazoned on the back—and the rest of his costume consisted of a pair of blue jeans and a red t-shirt. Eric’s chitinous suit hugged him, leaving his face exposed for the moment. Meryl had donned her brother’s golden flak jacket. It didn’t suit her—the shoulders didn’t quite fit her narrow frame, and the way the bulky jacket sat around her petite shoulders made her head look much smaller than it was. Nothing could hide the fierce anger in her eyes. The assassinated hero’s jacket may not have fit her, but she bore it well and with pride as they left to face her brother’s killer.

Jayson put a hand on her shoulder, and Charity almost jumped until she saw the smile and the tears in his eyes. “You know, there’s something John told me before…before he was…you know. You’d gone to fight PSO, and I was worried about you.”

Charity swallowed. “Not entirely unfounded, as it turns out.”

Jay chuckled. “Well, no, but he was right too. He said that when we see horrible, terrible things, we have two choices.” He looked up to include the group. “One is to buckle under the weight of the horror we have witnessed, to take a knee to evil. The other is to stand and fight.” He looked back at her. “He also said that when it came time for you to make that choice, you would stand. Again and again. That you were a hero.”

Tears itched under Charity’s mask.

Jay turned to the rest of them. “That goes for all of you too. We’ve lost a mentor. A brother. A friend. We’ve been toyed with and manipulated and broken, but we will stand.

“We walk into this battle, and our head is going to be filled with so many lies. I know what that’s like, to face an enemy so incomprehensively powerful—”

“Incomprehensibly,” Charity interrupted, then quailed at the look of astonishment that Jay gave her. “I-I’m sorry, I—”

Jayson grinned. Marcus laughed, under his breath at first, then when Eric snickered, it seemed he couldn’t help himself anymore. His low chuckle turned into a belly laugh, and he wrapped his arms around Charity. “God, sis. I’m so glad you’re still in there somewhere.”

Jay laughed. “Aw, to hell with the inspirational speech. Just remember this. We’re heroes. Don’t forget that, and we’ll win for sure.”

Tracy piped up with a smile. “Well, if anyone can do it, I know it’s my hero boy.” She kissed Allen on the cheek, and he blushed.

“Actually, I have a job for you,” Jayson responded. “You and Geoff.” He handed the girl the tablet with Donald’s video. “I’ve already sent a copy to the Elf leader so he can watch it while we waited. Make sure this one stays safe. With or without powers, you’re one of us. Combat capabilities or no, you can still protect the world.” He glanced at Geoff. “Stick together. Hold onto this and get as far away from here until the dust settles. You’re our backup plan in case anything happens. It’s up to you two to safeguard the truth. Understood?”

Geoff nodded. “Yes, Sir.”

Tracy also moved her head up and down, blue eyes wide. Then she turned to embrace Allen. “Promise you’ll come back to me,” Charity heard her say in a quiet voice that made her heart break. She stole a glance at Eric. Was it true that he loved her just as much? She had no memory of him beyond the last few weeks, but something inside her stirred every time she looked at him. Was that love? Eric was looking at her, and for the first time since she woke up, she didn’t shy away from his gaze.

“I promise,” Allen said, and Charity smiled at Eric. She would find a way back to him too.

The world around them shifted and resolved into a marble city, the glory of which took Charity’s breath away. It was huge. They stood in the city square, around an oval metal framework. Its purpose was unclear. Elven art? It made Charity think of a gateway.

Every surface glowed with an iridescent light, making Charity’s eyes cross. It was almost like a world made of LED screens, except with the brightness and contrast turned down low. The light was comforting and warm, but Charity also noticed something beyond the convenience of having the world illuminated. Their shadows were non-existent.

Jayson shook the Elf leader’s hand, and Charity couldn’t stop staring. Oh. My god. An actual Elf. Her hands shook. Somewhere a science fiction and a fantasy story had intersected and sucked her in. I’m a super hero standing in an ancient futuristic city watching one of my friends shake hands with an Elf—an actual real-life alien from another dimension. Giddiness welled inside her. She had to bite the inside of her cheek from laughing out loud and hugging herself with excitement.

“I’m going to assume you watched the video,” Jayson stated flatly. Charity’s excitement dampened a little. She’d almost forgotten the terrible reason why they were here.

The Elf leader—what was his name again? Jayson had said it, but Charity couldn’t remember. Rio-something? The Elf gave a curt nod. “Enough to release your companion,” he intoned.

Across the way, two Elven guards half-dragged a man across the glowing cobblestones. “Drake,” Jayson breathed. He gave a small smile of relief. “Glad to see you’re all right.”

“Took ya long enough, ya rat bastard,” Drake slurred.

“Drake, we found out who the mastermind was. It’s—”

“Sam, I know.”

Jay made a face. “I thought the Elves’ prisons were supposed to make you slow.”

“They did. And I still figured it out before you did.”

Jayson rolled his eyes.

The shadowless place grew dim. Dark tendrils wisped across the floor, cutting off Jay’s cheeky reply, then resolved into small creatures about two feet tall. Hundreds—thousands—of them scrambled through the city and converged on the group. Charity bit back a strangled cry. What are those things! She wanted to scream the words, but they stuck in her throat. All she knew was that one look in their beady, soulless eyes, and she was afraid—no, terrified.

“I was hoping to do this without a show of force,” a woman’s voice said. Charity jerked around with the rest of them to see Samantha Clive. “I would much rather not leave a mess.” She smiled. “But I’m nothing if not adaptable.”