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.”